My Japan Travels 2007

by Marc H. Mehlman

written 20 August 2007

17 June: Tokyo

Friends and Family-san,

One of the first things I noticed getting off the Boeing 777 in Narita Airport is that there are a lot of Asians here. Somehow Laura did not think this a particularly profound observation, but it certainly is true. First there are a lot of people and second they are almost all Japanese ethnically. The Japanese are certainly one of the most homogeneous societies in the world. One wonders how they manage to accomplish anything without diversity. I think they need to import some Italians. I love both countries, but if ever there were opposites ...

Tokyo is impeccable. There are no squeaks in the subways, no rust on the bridges, no potholes in the streets, no graffiti on the walls, no litter and no trash cans (we have not figured out the last one). It is twice the size of NYC, but it feels like a large number of neighborhoods rather than a downtown and suburbs.

The Japanese value cleanliness greatly. For example, visiting the bathroom at the Tokyo National Museum was an adventure. First the toilet had twelve electronic buttons, a dial and a sophisticated LCD screen. And, of course, all the instructions were in Japanese (as a result I burned my ass with a blast of superheated air). The sink was pretty sophisticated too. One puts one's hands to the left and soap is squirted on them and to the right for an automatic water rinse. By moving your hands to the back of the sink, you are exposed to a drying typhoon of hot air. One clockwise movement of your hands without touching anything is the entire cycle.

Due to jet lag, we were able to get up early (4:30AM) and visit the Tsukui fish market. It is by far the largest fish market in the world -- hundreds of tons of fish are auctioned and sold every morning except Sunday. The place was simultaneously chaotic and very efficient. The workers were all working incredibly fast and hard. Thousands of huge carts of tuna and other fish were in constant motion. Laura and I had our first whale meat. It was her idea. Actually we were told it was a "big fish" and only learned the truth after it was too late. It was not anything special and it certainly did not taste like a fish.

To our surprise, Tokyo is actually fairly inexpensive. We are staying in a very nice place, at a great location, for about ninety dollars a day. We are staying "Japanese style" which means we sleep on the floor and take our shoes off at the door. Very civilized. Food here is fantastic (even if we don't always know what we are eating) and also very cheap. There are no taxes on the total or tips, so the cost is the cost. The only exception to finding reasonable prices was my attempt to buy a pair of pants. I don't know why, but the Japanese don't tend to wear shorts and I brought only one pair of long pants so I am in the market. I haven't found anything (even jeans) for under 150 dollars yet.

We went into the Ginza (named after a silver coin mint that used to be there). The department stores there are huge. A single store can have 10 floors, fifty entrances and its own subway stop!

We are off to Nikko tomorrow. This is where the shogun is buried. More later,


18 June: Nikko

Family and friends-sans,

It is good to be king. It is even better to be shogun.

Today we traveled to Nikko, where James Clavell's Shogun's has his mausoleum is (Clavell's book is great). Tokugawa Ieyasu (family names come first, then given names) became the first shogun of the Edo Period (1603-1867). He was not elected. His detractors did not dispute the outcome to the Battle of Sekigahera which helped put an end to over 250 years of civil war. Ieyausa did not tolerate social critics of the nature of Michael Moore and George Soros well. Modern Japanese historians tend to agree that the head and body of Jay Leno would have separated sometime in the first 6 to 48 seconds of his first monologue of the Shogun's "term of office". In fact, the Shogun's detractors were never heard of again and for some reason no new ones appeared for several hundred years.

The trip to Nikko involved Laura's and my first experience with the Shinkansen, the Japanese bullet train. The train is to the Metro North and Amtrak as what traveling in a VW bug with 5 people is to traveling first class on Singapore Airlines. One races through the countryside (Japan actually feels like one big city) at close to 200MPH in perfect comfort and quiet. The train attendants are super polite and eager to please. When you get on they greet you with a bow and they thank you when you get off. The train is built solid -- the ride is super smooth. The stations are beautiful, modern and are built to be efficient. They are as nice as any American airport terminal. The trains literally run to the minute. If you have a 11:10 train and one arrives at 11:06 it probably is not yours. And they are cheaper to ride than American trains. I am so jealous. Why can't we have Shinkansen trains from Portland, Maine to Miami, Florida? I can only wonder what my condo would be worth if it was only 35 cheap, comfortable minutes from downtown NYC.

Nikko means "sunlight" and is a resort town in the mountains north of Tokyo. It resides in a cedar forest with many streams. Many of the streams consist of naturally heated mineral water that flow beneath the sidewalks of the town. One constantly hears rushing water wherever one walks. The water is used for drinking, heating and cooling homes and, of course, for Japanese baths. It has been this way for many centuries.

Laura and I were warned not to sleep with the window open because we might have a visit from a monkey or two. I wanted to leave the window open but Laura was afraid that the monkeys could be sexual perverts.

Nikko Sannai, the sight of the Tokugawa shrine, was originally a Buddhist retreat for hundreds of years. Tokugawa Iemitsu, the third Tokugawa Shogun and Ieyasu's grandson added the shrine, other buildings, pagodas and gardens in honor of his grandfather. Iemitsu also has his own impressive shrine here. It took 15,000 artisans and craftsmen two years to build the complex. Labor costs were considerably cheaper then, but then again there is also the six acres of gold leaf used in the construction. Everything is elaborately carved with cats, monkeys, elephants, snakes and mystical beings using bright colors. It is very peaceful with only the sound of the wind in the cedars and the water flowing about you -- no social critics or comedians. When my time comes I would like my mausoleum modeled on these two.

Tomorrow is Hakone -- a Japanese resort inside a volcano! More later,


19 June: Hakone

Friends and Family-san,

It turns out that one has to return to Tokyo to get to Hakone so we saved no time by sleeping over in Nikko. We could have done Nikko as a day trip. As a result our trip to Hakone was somewhat rushed.

Hakone is south of Tokyo, along the coast and within eyesight of Mount Fuji (though we did not catch a glimpse of Fuji). The Japanese don't describe Hakone as such, but what it really is a mountain resort inside the caldera of an active volcano. The way I know this is that there was a 3D model of the area in our hotel lobby. Later I was assured that the volcano has not erupted for about 200 years (i.e., recently in Japanese history), though there are frequent tremors.

Transportation is by local train, buses, mountain two-car trams, cable cars, gondolas hanging from ropeways and by a replica of a man-of-war pirate boat (why a man-of-war pirate boat -- I don't know) that plies the waters of Lake Ashinko.

One of our major objectives was Hakone Open Art Museum, one tram stop further up the mountain (the volcanic plug in the caldera) from our hotel. This museum features over 400 sculptures displayed in an outdoor mountainside setting. It is simply the finest museum of its type I have ever seen. Henry Moore, Picasso, William deKooning, Joan Miro, Manzu Giacomo -- you name the artist -- their work is here. We had only two hours -- enough, but barely enough, to see everything. Unfortunately, not enough time to soak our feet in the Foot Onsen, a sculpture with a stream flowing through it made for soaking one's feet in.

The gondola took us for a thirty minute ride over the volcanic plug in the middle of the volcano to Lake Ashinoko. The gondola crossed Owakudani which means "Great Boiling Valley" which is an accurate name. Half the valley was denuded of vegetation and was stained with yellow sulfur. The valley was spouting steaming, boiling water and emitting noxious fumes which we had the pleasure of breathing above in the gondola. Hot mineral water is collected and piped to the hotels and public baths below. Laura and I swam, in the evening, in a pool of this hot mineral water back at the hotel.

The Fujiya Hotel is a grand old hotel with large gardens, expensive restaurants, swimming pools and tea rooms. People like Albert Einstein and Ike Eisenhower (along with other American Presidents) along with Laura and I have stayed overnight here. The only reason why Laura and I could afford to stay here was because the hotel had a special anniversary rate -- and it was still our most expensive hotel night. Our room was quite stately, but showed its 100 plus years of service. Laura and I decided we prefer Japanese styled ryokan(ish) inns, not because they are cheaper (they are) or that we are lower class (we are), but because we appreciate the timeless style, the eloquence and the good taste of ryokan style hotels.

When checking into the Fujiya we befriended a young desk clerk named Patrick from Minnesota. He had been stationed in Japan in the Navy for two years. One week before returning to the States he met a local girl to whom he is now married to and has a two-year-old with. He claims the Japanese accept him and once they learn he speaks their language they are happy to include him in their society. We asked him why there are so few public trash cans. It is impossible to rid oneself of garbage during the day. The Japanese tend to eat their on- the-go food only in front of the stores and vending machines where they buy their fast food from (these places tend to have trash cans). They also seem content to carry their garbage with them for the day. One thing they don't ever do is liter. Patrick told us that a decade or so ago, religious terrorists hid nerve gas bombs in public subway trash cans and killed several commuters. Since then most trash cans have been removed from public places and the few that remain are mostly made out of clear plastic.

Tomorrow we are off to the Buddhist stronghold of Mount Koyasan. More from there,


20 June: Mount Koyasan

Friends and Family-sans,

Last night was our overnight at Shojoshinin, a Buddhist temple in Mount Koyasan. Mount Koyasan is reached by a local train that leaves Osaka and winds up and through some gorgeous green mountain scenery before coming to the end of the line in the middle of nowhere. One then transfers to a cable car that is pulled quite a distance up the mountain before transferring to a bus that goes into town.

Mount Koyasan, at 3,000 feet elevation, is a collection of over 115 large wooden temples nestled in a cedar forest. It is a stronghold of the Shingon Esteric sect of Buddhism, filled with large troupes of chanting and wholesome-living monks (though they like to drink). Kobo Daishi, affectionately called Kubai, studied Buddhism in China for two years before the Japanese Imperial Court granted him permission to found Mount Koyasan in 816AD. Kubai was known for his teachings, his kindness and his handwriting calligraphy. Kubai is still alive, thought he has been in a deep meditative state for the last 1,100 years in Okunoin, a temple where he is now resting.

In my opinion, one of the downsides of Shingon Buddhism is that it is vegetarian, as are all the various sects of Buddhism (Shin Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, etc.). I expected to see big signs from the train saying "Last Hamburger before Mount Koyasan", but since I can not read Japanese, I did not recognize any such signs. My disciple, Laura, and I are starting a new Buddhist sect -- Carn Buddhism. Our basic tenets:

  • Killing mosquitoes is good.
  • It is OK to eat meat as long as one does not kill it oneself and if it is not liver.
  • Just wars are OK as long as one uses overwhelming force and one has an exit strategy. We wanted to let the monks know of our plans for Mount Mehlmansan on an adjoining mountain, but unfortunately they were all too busy chanting.

    Despite the fact that our stay cost almost twice what Hotel Fujiya did, we were warned that accommodations at the Temple would be austere. This had me thinking of the harsh conditions of Western monasteries. I need not have worried. The guiding principles of Shingon Buddhism seems to be hard work, mediation and a heighten sense of aesthetics. In general, the Japanese put a great value on aesthetics, but here it is taken to another level. Our room was gorgeous and it looked out on a wonderful garden. Everything was handmade of wood with great effort, skill and forethought. The gardens surrounding our temple extended far up the mountain and were other worldly beautiful.

    We were the only ones staying in the temple that night (besides the monks). The vegetarian dinner (included in the price) was one of the best meals of my life. It must have taken hours to prepare. So was the breakfast. We woke early to attend the 6AM meditative chanting of the monks. It was fully the equal of any Gregorian chants and very moving.

    In the evening of our arrival, after dark, we took off on a foot path through the cypress forest and a giant necropolis of over 200,000 dead. Luckily for Laura, since 1872 the tombs are allowed to be defiled by the presence of women. Over the ages, many of Japan's elite have been buried here so they can be close to Kubai when he awakens. It was really dark and spooky -- we were all alone (if one excludes 200,000 dead people) with giant ravens squawking and occasionally gliding overhead between the trees. One could hear water flowing nearby and feel a mist rising from the ground. Lanterns marked the way -- we followed them for a mile until we came to Tolodo, a huge temple with 21,000 large lanterns inside -- an impressive sight at night!

    The next morning we retraced our steps -- only this time we were not alone. There were large platoons of monks, in their wooden shoes, marching and chanting as if they were in the army. There were also throngs of enthusiastic worshipers. We witnessed what we took as a funeral (or was it a Buddhist Kol Nidre), complete with chanting, burning of special woods, incense and amazing ikebona (flower arranging).

    I asked several people about Buddhism, but I never got satisfactory answers. On the surface there are many Gods and semi-Gods, each with interesting personal histories and each with specialties like guarding places, helping women with childbirth or helping students with their college entrance exams. And, of course, Buddha is in the center of all this. The religion originated in India and traveled from there to China and then to Korea and Japan (the Northern route) and to Southern Asia (the Southern route). Buddhism in Japan is now distinctly Japanese. Buddhism also has its own holy book -- the Sutra. But it is not like Western religions which tend to revolve around doctrine such has "one can only be redeemed by the son of God" or "thou should treat others as you want to be treated while standing on one foot". Buddhism is not as much about doctrine but about a mental state. In particular a mental state of acceptance of this world, peace with one's self and a feeling of oneness with the world. Rather than fret over wafers or can you flush the toilet on Sabbath, the Buddhist uses mediation and chanting to cleanse the mind as a musician uses a tuning fork to tune his instrument.

    Tomorrow it is on to Kyoto. Should be neat,


    23 June: Koyto

    Family and Friends-san,

    Kyoto in many ways is the quintessential Japanese city. It was the official capital from 794AD until the Meiji Restoration in 1868 (though shoguns sometime ruled from other locations, the emperors were here). It is home to over 20% of Japan's national treasures (shrines, temples, gardens, etc.). Because of Kyoto's unique place in the historical, cultural and emotional hearts of the Japanese, it was the only major Japanese city America spared from its bombing campaign in World War II. If this was Italy, Kyoto would be Florence plus (it even has a major river flowing through it).

    Nowadays, Kyoto is a modern, bustling city of 1.5 million residents, but Kyoto has not parted ways with its historical past. It's numerous shrines, temples, gardens, palaces, castles and villas are a living part of the city. One is never more than a few blocks from something historical. In the Gion (Kyoto's entertainment district) Geisha can still be seen tending their business (they are not prostitutes). The arts (both performing and traditional) are still going strong.

    Unlike most Japanese cities which are basically mazes, Kyoto was built on the Chinese model of a grid. Like other Japanese cities, it enjoys superb public transportation. Each block of Kyoto has its own personality with so many alley ways and restaurants (all great) that it would take over a year to fully explore the city.

    Our ryokan-Japanese-styled hotel was in a perfect location in north central Kyoto. When we arrived, the three women attendants in the lobby were so ever happy to see us. They whisked our bags up to our wonderful room without us even noticing. Each time we went out they wished us well and upon our return they seemed so excited to see us that you would think we were beloved relatives they had not seen for a long time. Later we met one of them on the street -- she was not working at that moment. She sadly told us that she would not be at the hotel the next morning to greet us, but she was reassured when we told her we would still be there in the evening. This attitude was not atypical of the Japanese we have had contact with.

    The temples here are very impressive. They often impress with their tremendous beauty and their gardens.

    Kinkakuji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion) is a three storied pavilion covered in gold leaf, surrounded by ponds and a moss garden. It served as a home for a retired shogun.

    Ryoanji Temple is known (deservedly) for its Zen rock garden. One takes off one's shoes, climbs on the veranda and then one can appreciate the rock garden for hours. This temple is surrounded by moss gardens too.

    Kiyomizu Temple, built on the side of a mountain is one of the most famous in Japan for its spectacular views from its verandas.

    Sanjusangendo Hall (originally Rengeoin Temple) is the longest wooden building in Japan. Inside are 1,001 life size wooden statues of Kannon -- Buddhist Gods with 40 arms. Each arm has the power to save 25 worlds. Accompanying the Kannons are about 30 intricate and large statues of guardian Gods -- each with an interesting history. Stunning.

    It rained on two of the three and half days we spent in Kyoto -- often hard (it is monsoon season). One just ignored soggy feet and noticed that the gardens were even more beautiful in the rain. To say the most spectacular garden in Kyoto is Shinen Garden on the grounds of Heian Shrine is to say a lot -- but it is true. The Canadians, the Brits and the French have their plots of dirt and vegetation, but I like Japanese gardens the best.

    The Tokugawa shogun's place of residence in Kyoto was Nijo Castle -- a castle whose security and beauty was worthy of a shogun. The castle has nightingale floors -- floors with various moving parts under them that are designed to ensure the floor squeaks when someone walks on them. That way no one can sneak up on the shogun and his guards. (I have some of the same technology on the second floor of my condo.) Much of the architecture emphasized the importance and absolute power of the shogun. It is good to be shogun.

    There are tons of great restaurants here -- many found in small walking alleyways. The most famous walking alleyway is Pontocho, a narrow lane adjoining the Kamo River. Many of the restaurants serve foreign food. We tried an Indian restaurant for lunch. The decor was Indian and the chef and waitresses dressed in Indian clothes, but they were ethnically Japanese. The food however was authentically Indian and quite good. Arriving at Kyoto we ate in a Chinese restaurant. Same thing. Great food and Chinese decor served by ethnic Japanese.

    The city becomes crowded Friday and Saturday nights with a huge number of young people. They hang out and socialize in the streets and along the river. And, of course, they (like Japanese of all ages) are constantly on their cell phones.

    The world of cell phones is different here. First, they are bigger. Second, the Japanese seem to use them only rarely for talking. Instead they are always staring at their screens to check out their email, or they are taking photos and sending them to their friends. Or they are checking the web. They even use them to check traffic (one woman at a bus stop showed us a map on her screen with a blinking dot where our bus was). They even watch TV on their cell phones. Perhaps this is where we will be in ten years.

    We spent one night at Gion Corner -- a theatre devoted to introducing foreigners (us) to Japanese culture. We witnessed some ikebana (the flower arranging on Mount Koyasan was better), listened to some koto (not bad for harp music), watched some gagaku (primitive ancient Japanese theatre), part of a Noh play (good Japanese slapstick) and kyomai (Kyoto style dancing). All this was well and good until the bunraku (Japanese puppetry). The so-called puppet was of a young girl (supposedly 3/4's life size) and supposedly controlled by three puppeteers dressed completely in black (including hoods) who followed the puppet about. One was suppose to be amazed how lifelike the puppet was -- and that it was. In the entire theatre I was the only one who figured out the puppet was really a young girl and the puppeteers were frauds. Laura completely disagreed with me, would not even entertain the possibility I was right and thought I gone crazy. She begged me not to expose the charlatans to the rest of the audience. I relented.

    Afterwards we attended a tea ceremony where we were taught good Japanese manners. The ceremony is quite elaborate and well thought out. I am sure social class standing can be discerned from how well one performs the ceremony (which pretty much all Japanese do or know how to do). My tea ceremony manners have now been elevated to intermediate barbarian.

    There is a lot more to see here in Kyoto but the rest of Japan beckons. Tomorrow is Nara,


    25 June: Nara

    Friends and Family-san,

    In 710 AD Nara became Japan's first permanent capital and remained the capital for 74 years. After that the capital was moved to Nagaoka and then, shortly later, to Kyoto. But what a 74 years! These years saw the beginning of Japanese written history, its Buddhist tradition and its literature. Many of the important buildings of this time are now enclosed in a 1,300 acre park (along with about 1,000 docile deer).

    We had two nights and one day in Nara. The morning of our first day we used our JR Rail pass to head out to Horyuji Temple, founded by Prince Shotoku in 607. From this temple Buddhism spread to the rest of Japan. Prince Shotoku is much loved by the Japanese to this day. The 45 buildings that remain of this complex include the oldest wooden structures in the world.

    Upon our arrival at the Horyuji rail station, a railroad representative volunteered to walk us over to the temple. On arrival to the temple, another railroad employee, named Kondo, who was more skilled in English, volunteered to give us a half day tour of the temple. All for free (there is no tipping in Japan -- the Japanese refuse to accept tips). Kondo would not even let us buy him a drink. Laura offered and Kondo gladly accepted a key chain with a picture of a famous Japanese baseball player (Laura thoughtfully brought a number of the key chains with her). Kondo, like many Japanese, are baseball fans (besides their own teams they tend to prefer the New York Yankees). Kondo was a retired worker for the steel industry. He certainly made our temple visit much more enjoyable and educational. I wonder if Metro North in Connecticut offers a similar service for travelers.

    Upon our return to Nara we headed for Nara Park. By far the most impressive sight in the park is Todaiji Temple. Emperor Shomu built the temple in the mid 700's to serve as the headquarters for all other Buddhist temples in Japan. The wooden building, called Daibutsuden, burned to the ground twice during wars, the last time in 1672. The current building was rebuilt to only 2/3's the original size in 1709 (budget problems), yet it is still the largest wooden structure in the world (161 feet tall, 187 feet long and 164 feet wide). It is extraordinarily impressive -- breath taking. It must have taken every other tree in Japan to build. The building consists of one room with a 50 foot tall bronze statue of Buddha, called Daibutsu (437 tons of bronze, 286 pounds of pure gold, 165 pounds of mercury and 7 tons of vegetable wax). In 855 the Daibutsu lost his head in a large earthquake. In 861 it was repaired, but the head melted when the Daibutsuden burned. The current head dates from 1692. Daibutsu is flanked on both sides by giant and quite fierce guardians (huge wooden statues). One can walk completely around the guardians and the Great Buddha. This temple alone was worth the trip to Nara.

    The park also includes Kofukuji Temple (with a five story pagoda also built by Emperor Shomu to help heal his ailing wife), Nara National Museum and a Shinto Shrine (Kasuga Grand Shrine). The park is full of trees, ponds and the ever present and hungry deer (though they looked well fed). One of these large rodents took a few bites out of my Fromer travel guide -- they eat paper too!

    We stayed in a ryokan in downtown Nara. Nara is a small town by Japanese standards -- about 150,000 residents. One of the pleasures of a ryokan is Japanese baths. These are large baths (some can hold hundreds of people -- though in a ryokan they are usually big enough for only four to ten people. One first sits on a stool and soaps up and then rinses off. One does not enter the bath until one is squeaky clean. The baths are hot -- like a California hot tub. Since there is no soap or dirt in the bath, the water is not drained, but shared with next bathers. The Japanese (and I) love these baths. At larger bath houses a great deal of socializing goes on in the baths. One bathes nude so the baths are usually segregated by gender, but there are some family baths (swimming suits are worn) and private baths (for couples and families).

    We ate in a French restaurant in Nara. For about $20 a person we had an incredible meal. A French woman staying in our ryokan raved about this restaurant, despite her claim that Japanese cuisine was even better than French (quite a compliment coming form a French woman). This small restaurant is a one man show -- the chef, waiter and dishwasher are all the same. The small kitchen was a marvel of organization and efficiency. The chef lived for two years in Paris and fell in love with French food. Yes there is excellent brie in Japan!

    Tomorrow we are off to Kurashiki with a few stops along the way. More later.


    27 June: Kurashiki, the road to Kurashiki

    Friends and Family-san,

    We left Nara early so we could take some sightseeing stops on the way to Kurashiki. Even though we were carrying everything we had, this is not so hard to do -- there are plenty of lockers at Shinkansen train stations.

    The very existence of these lockers contradicts the reason I gave earlier for why there are so few trashcans in liter-free Japan -- namely security. We talked to a Japanese-American we ran into about this. His explanation: there are so many people in Japan that any public trashcan is overflowing within an hour or two and thus quickly becomes non-functioning and an eyesore. This explanation does not leave me totally convinced, but the facts remains -- not many public trashcans.

    The Japanese like to rank the top three of every category of their country. Himeji Castle is one of the top three Japanese castles (often rated the best castle in Japan) and Korakuen Garden is one of the top three Japanese gardens. We bagged both of these along with Koko--en garden, next to Himeji Castle on the way to Kurashiki.

    Historically Himeji is a castle town -- the present town and Shinkansen station are centered along the outer moat of the castle. Himeji castle is often referred to as the "White Heron Castle" because of its white, graceful shape. The castle was originally constructed as a fort in 1300's and was not completed to its present form until 1618. At one point it served as the residence of the son-in-law and daughter of Tokugawa Ieyasu (James Clavell's Shogun). When, one of the original daimyos (feudal lords) was having trouble procuring enough stones for construction, a poor miller woman denoted her only milestone to the lord. Of course the daimyo accepted, without compensation, the old woman's milestone, which is currently part of one of the stone flanks to the castle. (This inspiring story of sacrifice is often recalled by college administrators for the benefit of their faculty.) In a successful effort to end the centuries- old feudal system, during the Meiji Restoration most of the castles in Japan were destroyed, but the White Heron was spared (perhaps because of its exceptional construction and beauty). The castle was sold at auction in 1871 for 23.5 yen. The castle even survived the World War II bombings that leveled the town of Himeji.

    Despite the incredible beauty of the castle, it was built for military function, not style. In this role, it served admirably. The moats and gates form a virtual maze and at many points potential invaders would be exposed to arrows, musket fire, burning oil and annoying taunts. Quite impressive.

    The castle had a number of moats. In the inner most parts of the castle was the daimyo, his family and his retainers. Then came an area for samurai. The outside moat retained the merchants, who were at the bottom of the social ladder. Where the samurai used to live is now Koko-en garden, constructed in 1992. Koko-en is really nine separate gardens and like most Japanese gardens this one is worth seeing.

    Our next Shinkansen stop was Okayama. Our destination -- the Korakuen gardens. Korakuen means "garden for taking pleasure later". Originally built between 1687 and 1700 on an island in the middle of the Asahi River by a daimyo, it has been maintained much as it was back then despite floods and World War II bombs. Atypical of Japanese gardens, the 28 acres contains large expanses of grassy areas. There were many incredible parts of the garden. Laura and I particularly liked the lotus plants in one of the ponds. We were too late for the cherry blossoms and too early to see the Japanese maples in their full glory, but there was plenty to appreciate.

    That evening we finally arrived in Kurashiki. We stayed in a Toyoko Inn -- a chain of very inexpensive hotels (most cost in the neighborhood of $65 a night -- half what other places charge). Toyoko Inns are ten to fifteen storied buildings usually found in prime locations in Japanese cities. The rooms are only slightly bigger than the double beds they contain and the bathroom, despite its tiny size (or because of it), is a marvel of efficiency. The rooms are always incredibly clean, and the staff always cheerful and helpful. Each stay includes free internet access, a free breakfast and a choice of several free gifts. The truth be told, the experience does not compare with staying in a ryokan, but they are cheap and convenient. I wish the USA had this chain in its major cities. Manhattan alone could use about twenty-five of these hotels.

    Kurashiki means "warehouse village". It has picturesque willow lined canals that at one time floated barges that serviced rice warehouses and granaries along the banks. The warehouses are now all converted into shops, restaurants and ryokans. Among Kurashiki's attractions are the Ohare Museum of Art (an impressive, though not quite world class, collection of Western art), the Japan Rural Toy Museum (cute, but over-hyped) and a replica of Copenhagen's Tivoli Park (with a $35 admission fee, approximately). Overall, Kurashiki was a charming and restful stop, but perhaps not a vital place on a two week itinerary.

    The lunch we enjoyed in Kurashiki was special though. Eel is somewhat special to this region of Japan, but that wasn't it. It was the kakigori, a Japanese green tea shaved ice desert, Laura and I shared after the delicious eel. I still dream of kakigori at night. In addition to the normal ingredients, it had condensed milk and sweet bean paste. I have made a mental note to myself to work harder on being good so as to ensure my place in Heaven where I am sure there are kakigoris aplenty (and whatever harp music there maybe is most likely koro, Japanese harp music). Audi-got-toe Japan!

    Like any Japanese town of more than trivial size, Kurashiki had pachinko parlors. They are usually found in some large ugly, gaudy building with flashing neon signs. Gambling is illegal in Japan so people play pachinko. One buys what are essentially steel ball bearings, puts them in a loud and flashing pachinko machine and sometimes you get some ball bearings back. Pachinko machines are essentially pinball machines, but without the flappers. That is it. You can trade in ball bearings for stupid pens and dolls which an "independent" store outback will buy from you for cash. The parlors are huge, crowded, smoked filled, incredibly noisy and filled with drunken Japanese. I have no idea what the attraction is. Perhaps it is the love of shiny objects, or the total lack of skill in playing, or the chance to give one's brain a rest. Pachinko employs three times as many people as the entire Japanese steel industry. The pachinko industry use Nicholas Cage (I kid you not) or sexy jail- bait buxom cartoon characters in their ads to draw the Japanese into these sleazy joints.

    Tomorrow, Hiroshima's peace park and Miyajima.


    29 June: Miyajima, the Nuclear Abyss and of Torii and Tanuki

    Family-sans and Friends-sans,

    Leaving Kurashiki we left our luggage in a locker at the Hiroshima Shinkansen station, hopped on a tram and landed in the Peace Memorial Park, located at ground zero.

    An uranium gun-type atomic bomb, code-named "Little Boy" was dropped in the center of Hiroshima (three days later an plutonium implosion-type bomb code- named "Fat Man" was dropped on Nagasaki). The resulting hell that these bombs unleashed on the population of these two cities is sobering, as the excellent Peace Memorial Museum documents. It is scary to remember that these bombs were puny compared to modern hydrogen bombs. I remembered seeing a film of the first atomic bomb test at Trinity, New Mexico and thinking that the devil has been sprung from hell and now walks on the sands of New Mexico. He certainly spent some time in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.

    Many more people died in a single evening in firestorms in Tokyo, started by American incendiary bombs, than in Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Many times in World War II the number of dead and maimed in a single bombing, battle or siege surpassed human comprehension. What is new here is the long shadow that nuclear weapons cast over the human race.

    The message that the Peace Memorial Park (and Japan as a whole) explicitly seeks to give is that all existing nuclear weapons must be banned from existence everywhere and forever. This is a noble thought, but I think a little impossible. Just as we are cursed to live with the consequences of Prometheus' theft of the secret of fire, we are now eternally cursed with the knowledge of nuclear fire (or more precisely, how to create it). If we are to keep the devil buried in the bowels of the earth, never to walk on its surface again, we will have to come up with something better than this Wizard of Oz solution. I am not optimistic. As Shakespeare might have said (if he had my tongue); atomic evil lives in the hearts and minds of men, not in the radioactive cores of their spears.

    One of the more pleasant discoveries in the Peace Memorial Museum (designed by Kenzo Tange) was that Japan did not portray herself has an innocent victim of atomic aggression (or of World War II or America). It was made clear that Japan started the war and that Hiroshima was a legitimate military target. Hiroshima contained the Imperial Headquarters (the Japanese "Pentagon"), the fifth army division, naval facilities and it also served as a military supply center. "Let all the souls here rest in peace, for we shall not repeat the evil." This is a welcome contrast to the feelings still expressed in Dresden where despite the bombing of London and countless other cities, not to mention the mass murder of millions of Jews and others, many of the citizens of Dresden still believe that they alone should have been held immune from the consequences of the war they helped unleashed on the world.

    From Hiroshima, we picked up our luggage and took a local train to a ferry that brought us to Miyajima (the "shrine island"), located in the Japanese Inland Sea. The shrine is Itukushima Shrine, first established in 593AD and like all Shinto shrines, it is painted bright orange. The shrine is impressive enough, but it is a 53 foot red torii or shrine gate made out of camphor wood that leaves the greatest impression. Constructed in 1875, the torii lies out in a shallow bay facing the shrine. The base of the torii is underwater at high tide. The shear beauty of this gate standing in such gorgeous surroundings has ensured Miyajima a spot on one of the "three best scenic sites" in Japan. During the 24 hours we spent on the island, I returned to the torii repeatedly to appreciate it at different times of day and in different tides. I took about fifty photographs of it.

    Miyajima is a small island, only twelve square miles in all. It is also a sacred island. No one is allowed to give birth or die on it. Historically, the pregnant and ill were banished from the island (Laura and I decided to keep the fact that Laura was suffering from blisters on her feet to ourselves). However, if one excluded the shrine and its torii, one could conceive of Miyajima more as the Martha's Vineyard of Japan. It is a major tourist destination for the Japanese, lodging is expensive and the Island is wonderful. It is also something of a nature wonderland. Two thousand tame deer roam the island and the peak of Mount Misen harbors wild monkeys. When Laura and I were returning to our ryokan in the evening we spotted three possum. Instead of snarling at us, they completely ignored us. It was quite dark so the only way to identify them was to take flash photos of them -- which revealed them to be raccoons. However later inspection of the photos revealed they were not raccoons either. On showing the photos to some of the Japanese, we learned they were Tanuki -- a species I was not aware of. Tanuki are sometimes called "raccoon dogs" -- they are part of the dog family (though definitely not dogs). They will eat anything and the males have very large testicles.

    The next day Laura and I took a gondola up Mount Misen. The gondolas don't go all the way to the top and Laura's feet were suffering, so Laura stayed behind to appreciate the view and I took off to summit on Mount Misen's 1,750 foot high peak. Along the way I passed the Daisho-in Temple that commemorates Kobo Daishi's (Kubai's) 100 day retreat here in 806AD (this is the same Kobo Daishi that is currently in a deep trance at Mount Koyasan). Here Kubai lit the Eternal Fire which is still burning (this fire was used to light the Peace Flame in Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Park which will be extinguished with the destruction of mankind's last nuclear weapon -- i.e., not soon). The view from the peak was nothing less than spectacular. One the way down I got to know a 20 something year old guy from Tokyo whose English was pretty poor. Laura and I hanged with him for a while. The Japanese are very socializable and friendly. Age does not seem as much of a bearer in making new friends as it does back home.

    One more day in Japan before taking the high speed hydrofoil to Busan, Korea. I will miss Japan a lot.


    30 June: Fukuoka, Sayonara Rising Sun

    Friends-san and Family-san,

    In the (somewhat mediocre) movie, "Battle of the Bulge", a German officer has a moment of truth after he discovers a cake in the contents of some parachuted American supplies that drifted over German lines. More precisely, a freshly baked chocolate cake made by an American mother and addressed to her son, a private in the American army. The German officer realizes that if the Americans have the resources as to afford to parachute freshly baked cakes from American mothers into the battlefield, the poorly supplied Germans stood no chance. "They [the Americans] have no conception of defeat!" Apparently it had not yet occurred to this German officer that the war was not going well for the Fatherland.

    I have a similar moment in the film script I have been writing, {\it Mel Marcman and Musa Lasante go Japanese\/}, starring Pierce Bronson and Heather Locklear. (I am still "shopping" the script, so the film is not yet in production). On leaving the Fukuoka Shinkansen train station Mel and Musa notice a large Henry Moore statue in the plaza facing the station (not on a pedestal, but at ground level). The statue, worth many millions of dollars, is not surrounded by a fence or any security system. Amazingly, there is no vandalism, no litter, no graffiti, no posted handbills and no indication it was ever mistaken for a public latrine. In an Oz-like moment, Mel realizes, "We're not in America anymore." Apparently Mel had not noticed the lack of bullet proof glass protectors in Japanese cabs or a thousand other tell-tale signs of a more civil society.

    We observed a kind, generous, outgoing and peaceful population, yet the Japanese have one of the most violent histories of any people. In their civil wars, there were battles where hundreds of thousands were hacked to death. In peacetime, a samurai might cut off a merchant's head for failing to bow low enough. As for relations with other nations -- their neighbors still harbor grudges and bitter memories. Yet their history also reveals moments of great enlightenment and cultural achievement. How does one reconcile this sometimes violent past with the peaceful, loving people that populate Japan today? For a definitive answer to this question, wait for the premier of my above mentioned movie. (Also answered -- why are Japanese children so well adjusted, cute and well behaved!)

    I found the present day Japanese an exceptionally gentle people. They are wholesome -- very few tattoos, piercing or drugs. They are also clean, clean- cut and only very rarely overweight (perhaps because of their diet). Contrary to commonly held American belief, they seem to have little fear of group pressure in expressing their individuality, though they often communicated with each other in much more subtle ways than Americans use in communication among themselves. I did not detect any worrisome nationalism or intolerance of others. One feels comfortable and safe in their mist. One of their greatest strengths is their ability to learn from other cultures while retaining what is valuable in their own. And, they appear to be quite a cheerful bunch.

    There are many wonderful things in Japan, but by far the best is the Japanese people. I truly loved our time in Japan. It wasn't even particularly expensive. We have only this one last evening in Japan -- early tomorrow Laura and I depart from our Toyoko Inn and will be hydrofoiling our way to Korea. After six weeks teaching in Seoul, I will return to Tokyo for four more days before flying back to California. I am sure I will be back to the land of the rising sun in the coming years.


    12 August: Tokyo

    Family-sans and Friends-san,

    I shared a taxi to Korea's Incheon airport and was back in Tokyo in the afternoon. Tokyo is huge, but it is more like a number of Cincinnati size towns, each with its own personality and history, all living side by side rather than integrated seamlessly into one entity. In particular, Tokyo is divided into 23 wards. Each ward is then divided into districts and each district is divided into chromes. The layout of the city is best described as maze-like. When looking for an address in particular ward/district/chrome, even when one finds the correct block, one's quest is not over. Buildings are numbered according to when they were built, not according to any geographical order.

    In the evening I went to the Kabukiza Theatre in the Ginza. Like most males, I was willing to endure a little unpleasantness in order to increase my cultural sophistication and snobbery, but who would have guessed that Kabuki is fun? Rather than pay a lot of money and commit myself to four hours of Kabuki, I paid a very reasonable amount to see one act from the fourth-level rows. Add an audio guide which explained what was going on in English, and I was all set. I ended up staying for several hours, but it was by choice.

    One can compare Kabuki to Western opera. The singing is great, the plot is melodramatic and lots of characters become emotional wrecks and die. However, there are important differences (besides the fact that sword wounds account for many deaths in Kabuki while in Western opera "broken hearts" take a terrible toll).

    Kabuki had its start in 1603, developed by Okuni, a young woman worker in a Shinto Shrine. It was immediately popular due to its dancing, but also because of its racy plots, sexual nature and the fact that many of the actresses were available for prostitution after a performance. In 1653, this last reason resulted in women being banned from acting in Kabuki by the Tokugawa Shogunate. Since then Kabuki has emphasized drama more than dance and all of the roles, including some apparently very convincing women, have been played by males. Another difference from Western opera.

    As a Japanese art form, Kabuki reflects Japanese mores. In the second act (I saw four acts) there was a woman (played by a famous male actor) whose job it was to safeguard the master of her household. She dearly loved her son (who was about six years old), but the son grabbed a sweet from a basket not knowing it was a gift from the shogun to the master of the house. Another woman in the household grabbed the kid and slowly, deliberately tortured the child to death with a dagger as he cried in pain, all in front of the mother, for "dishonoring the household." The righteous child torturer/killer asked the mother if she minded the pain and death she was inflicting on the son, knowing full well that "honor" had justified her cruel actions. The mother said no. Afterwards, no one suspected the mother might harbor some resentment over this incident -- but she did! Not exactly a Puccini plot (Madame Butterfly, included), but it worked and was quite engrossing. The plot was quite elaborate and even included some supernatural phenomenon. In the end the audience learns important lessons, such as children should not take sweets without permission.

    Another way Tokyo's Kabukiza Theatre differs from Milan's La Scala is that the audience frequently shouts to the stage the name of the actors, warnings, jeers and opinions. Since I neither understand nor speak Japanese, so I assume that was what was being shouted.

    Happy and greatly enriched culturally, I plan to spend tomorrow exploring Kamakura -- a day trip from Tokyo. More later,


    14 August: Kamakura

    Friends-sans and Family-sans,

    It is about an hour-long, inexpensive train ride from Tokyo to JR Kamakura Station. Upon arrival my first order of business was to stop by the station's tourist office and get a map and instructions on how to follow a network of footpaths that connect Kamakura's various attractions. Modern day Kamakura is a pleasant town of 150,000 residents and boasts 65 Buddhist temples and 19 Shinto Shrines. It is a mini Nara or Kyoto.

    The years 794AD to 1156AD marked a peaceful and prosperous period when the imperial court of the emperor ruled from Kyoto and turned Japan inward, i.e., away from Chinese influences. It was during this period that Bushido (the "Way of the Warrior"), the code of the samurai, was established and the ascendance of the samurai class began. "Samurai" means "one who serves". There are three classes of samurai. At top were the samurai that served the shogun. Then there were the samurai that served various daimyos (feudal lords) and finally there were the ronin -- samurai without lords or masters who were forced to become mercenaries or partake in crime. There were even famous female samurai -- sort of like modern day American feminists, only more male-friendly and less deadly.

    The end of this period was marked by a decline in the Emperor's power, due to excessive decadence in his court. Power came to reside in various warrior clans. After a brief civil war, the daimyo, Minamoto Yoritomo (last name first), destroyed his enemies and in 1192AD became Japan's first Shogun. He moved the capital from Kyoto to Kamakura to get away from the corrupt imperial court. After Minamoto Yoritomo died, his sons, each in succession, became shogun and were quickly assassinated. Minamoto Yoritomo's widow's family took over and ruled Japan until 1333AD, when the Emperor's troops defeated the Shogunate government's armies, at which time the Emperor moved the capital back to Kyoto. When the Emperor's victory became clear, over 800 samurai, loyal to the Shogunate, committed seppuku (ritual suicide by disembowelment).

    It was during the Kamakura period, in 1274AD and 1281AD that Kublai Khan (who Marko Polo met) attempted to invade the Japanese Islands from Korea (after first attempting, unsuccessfully, to negotiate a peaceful submission and payment of tribute from the Shogunate). The first invasion involved some 40,000 soldiers aboard 900 wooden ships. After wreaking incredible destruction, this force, for some unknown reason, left after two weeks and was destroyed on its way back home by a kamikaze ("divine wind", actually a typhoon). In the second invasion attempt, a fleet of 4,400 ships with 140,000 soldiers was destroyed by another kamikaze (leading to the loss of 3,000 ships and over 100,000 men). The suicide attacks by Japanese aviators in World War II were named after these divine winds that saved Japan.

    My first destination in Kamakura was Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine, built by Yoritomo Minamoto to Hachiman, the Shinto God of War and, apparently, a friend of the Yoritomo family. The real pleasure was in getting there. It is a ten minute walk from Kamakura station along a cherry tree lined pedestrian lane constructed by Yoritomo Minamoto for his oldest son's first visit to the family shrine. Along the way there are lily ponds and other distractions.

    My next destination was Zenlarai Benten Shrine (the Money-Washing Shrine), which is located in a cave with a mountain spring running through it. It is dedicated to the Goddess of good fortune. Here one washes one's money so that it will double or triple itself later on. I gave my American Express card a good soaking. Getting to the Shrine was no small task. I ended up hiking through a forest, on narrow and ill maintained foot trails past tombs, a park and finally through a pedestrian tunnel. I asked for directions several times along the way (when I wasn't alone in the woods) and finally hooked up with a young Japanese couple who helped me find my way.

    After another pleasant, but confusing hike through residential areas and woods I arrived at Kotokuin Temple. Kotokuin Temple is off limits to tourists and Kotokuin Temple Hall is missing, having been washed away by a tsunami in 1498. However the Great Buddha, or Daibutsu, that used to reign inside the Hall remains. At 93 tons, it was too big to be washed away. The Great Buddha was cast of bronze in 1252 and stands 32 feet high. It is Japan's second biggest Buddha statute (the biggest reigning in Todaiji Temple in Nara is over 40% bigger). It was built with the funds donated freely by the public. The Great Buddha has endured over six hundred years of sun, rain and snow quite well and while it has lost its gilt finish, it is still a very impressive sight. The expression on the Great Buddha suggests a level of contentment that transcends the troubles (and bad weather) of this world.

    My final destination for the day was Has Kannon Temple located on a hill overlooking the sea and an easy walk from Kotokuin Temple. This temple features a fantastic 11 headed, 30 foot tall, gilt statue of Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy. Eleven heads of mercy. It is the tallest wooden (camphor) statue in Japan. Supposedly, at one point it was tossed into the sea and wherever it washed up, it gave the locals terrible misfortune so it was tossed back into the sea repeatedly. Finally it washed up in Kamakura and caused the Kamakurans no problems. This indicated that the statue was content being in Kamakura. The Temple was then constructed for it. The temple also contains a statue of Amida, a protector from evil spirits, commissioned by Yoritomo Minamoto. The grounds includes Benten-kutsu cave with all sorts of Buddhist stuff in it.

    After hiking all over Kamakura I was plenty hot. The sight of Yuigahama Beach from Has Kannon Temple was just too tempting. Yuigahama Beach is a popular swimming and surfing beach. It was not the greatest (there was some litter in the water and the water was too warm), but it was just what I needed.

    The tram back to Kamakura Station and the train ride back to Tokyo were uneventful (or perhaps I was too tired and content to notice if it wasn't). It was a full day, but I am glad I made the trip. Now for the next few days I will attempt what has eluded Godzilla many a time -- the conquest of Tokyo.


    17 August: Tokyo

    Family-sans and Friends-san,

    The next morning I knocked off the Edo-Tokyo Museum. Edo ("mouth of the estuary") was the name of the village where Tokugawa Ieyasu established his Shogunate government in 1590 (the capital remained in Kyoto with the emperor). In 1868, when the Emperor Meiji was restored to power, he moved the capital to Edo which was renamed Tokyo (which means "Western Capital" -- Beijing and Nanjing in China mean "Northern Capital" and "Southern Capital"). The Edo-Tokyo Museum is a major museum and an interesting one too. It chronicles the political, cultural and civic history of Edo/Tokyo as well as what ordinary life was like at various times in the history of the city. The museum covers the city's two great twentieth century catastrophes; the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 (somewhere between 7.9 and 8.4 on the Richter scale and approximately 140,000 dead) and the World War II firebombing of the city (approximately 100,000 dead -- most of the city had already been evacuated). The quake essentially destroyed the city once and the firestorm destroyed the city again. I polished off the museum in record time (I was on a mission -- to see all of Tokyo).

    My next destination was a subway ride away, the Meiji Jingu Shrine in the Harajuku Ward. The Meiji Jingu Shrine, built in 1920 (and rebuilt after it was destroyed in World War II) within a wood preserve, was built by a workforce of 100,000 volunteers. It is dedicated to Emperor Meiji and his Empress Shoken who were responsible for opening Japan to the outside world and making way for the modern Japan of today. The entrance to the shrine is marked with giant, 1,700 year old torii (gate) made from cypress. After a quick look-look, I was off to the shopping parts of the ward.

    One of the weirdest sights one observes in Japan are teenagers dressed in very strange outfits. The guys dress as James Dean wannabes while the girls tend to favor "boo peep" or some other fairy tale type outfits. In the USA, one would guess these girls were trawling for perverts, but in Japan this is just innocent teenage fun. Nearby there is a crowded pedestrian street with boutiques that cater to this and other teenage tastes. Close to this pedestrian street there are other boutiques, more expensive, that will appeal to these teenagers ten or twenty years from now. Mingling into this grand shopping arena is the Ota Memorial Museum of Art (specializing in Japanese woodblock prints), a shrine to Admiral Togo (beloved by the Japanese, but not the Russians for some reason) and many other shops that specialize in such things as toys or condoms or souvenirs.

    Later that evening I headed to the Kabuki-cho district of Shinjuku ward. This is the most risqu{\' e} part of Tokyo. It has nude dancers and sex shops as well as some good restaurants and legitimate entertainment. And, of course, lots of Pachinko Palaces. Kabuki-cho draws an interesting crowd of people out to have a good time and, like the rest of Tokyo, is quite safe. I had to constantly explain to the barkers outside girlie establishments (often American Blacks) that I was only researching the area and was not interested in going in.

    Later that night, asleep in my hotel room, I was awakened from a pleasant dream (featuring a topless female samurai dancer) by an earthquake. I was on the fourth floor and it brought back scary memories from my California days. One of my first thoughts was to head off to the Akihabara ward that is filled with shops with all the latest electronic goods. That would be a choice location for a night of productive looting, but then I remembered that I was not in California, and remained in my room.

    Later, in the morning, the hotel manager told me the quake was only 3.2 on the Richter scale and was not a big deal. Seeing that the city looked reasonably intact, I jumped on a subway and made my way back to Shinjuku ward to experience a department store, Japanese style. Takashimaya Times Square has twelve floors, each the size of a city block. Only I wasn't interested in shopping. After trying to figure out how the devices in their ultra modern public restroom worked, I walked out into the heat, past a long line of people waiting to get into a Krispy Kreme and took off for city hall (also in Shinjuku).

    Shinjuku has many skyscrapers and lots and lots of people, cars and trains. Like elsewhere in Tokyo, it handles all this traffic by directing it to many different horizontal levels. There were pedestrian tunnels underground, pedestrian sidewalks at street level and elevated pedestrian walkways that spanned all the vehicle traffic below. Often there would be several levels of roads for busses and cars too. And, of course, below all this were several subway lines. Very impressive.

    City Hall is in the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office (TMG) building designed by Kenzo Tange. The building (actually a complex of three buildings) has 48 floors, the top being an observatory open free to the public. The views were spectacular.

    After stopping off in the Harajuku ward for some important souvenir shopping, I found myself in Roppongi Hills Tower in Roppongi ward. In the USA it seems like skyscrapers typically have commercial stores at street level and the rest of the building is devoted to either apartments or business offices. Roppongi Hills Tower, like many other skyscrapers in Asia, was different. It had restaurants, stores, bars, clubs and escalators on many of its floors. There were even marked walking trails that took you horizontally and vertically through the building. On the 52nd floor there was an observatory (fantastic views) and an impressive aquarium (with probably some of the highest swimming ocean fish anywhere). On the 53rd floor was the Mori Art Museum (with constantly changing exhibits -- the one I saw was so-so)

    The next day, my last day in Asia, like the previous ones, was hot. Some of the days I was in Tokyo were Tokyo's hottest days on record. I perspired, persevered and redirected my cash flow to the ever present vending machines filled with cool drinks. I headed out to Odaiba ward, a new part of Tokyo (literally) that is built on reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay. I took the Yurikamome Line's elevated monorail (it actually runs on rubber wheels) to Odaiba, observing the Rainbow Bridge out of the window as we traveled over the bay. The island has hotels, convention centers (ultramodern architecture), shopping centers, museums, exhibition halls, amusement parks and walking paths along the shore. The ultramodern Fuji TV broadcast building was designed by Kenzo Tange. I was headed for Oedo-Onsen Monogatari, a Japanese bath house.

    All Japanese towns and cities have public bath houses. Tokyo has more than 1,000 public baths (it used to have more). Oedo-Onsen Monogatari is one of the largest and is modeled on bath houses from the Edo era. I was pretty much the only non-Japanese person there, but as I tried to act Japanese I am not sure anyone noticed. There are no signs in English, so one has to be very careful -- especially since there are entire rooms of naked Japanese women with forbidden male entry (some whose ancestors might have been samurai). One is given a locker key with a bar code on it that is used to keep track of a tab that you can ring up once you are inside. After leaving my clothes in a locker and donning a colorful yukata (cotton kimono) with a pattern I had earlier selected, I stepped out into a "traditional Edo street". Since we were all wearing yukatas, it seemed as if I was in the Edo era (Edo era with cell phones, that is). The "traditional Edo street" consisted of food joints, carnival booths and some stores selling bath accessories. While there are some private baths for families or groups of good friends, the public baths are segregated by gender (with the exception of some foot soaking areas outside). From what I could tell, the female and male parts of the bath house were identical. Each consisted of another locker room where one left one's yukata, underwear and cell phone and then a large room with various baths of fresh mineral-rich hot spring waters tapped from 4,600 feet below the city, Jacuzzis, cold dips, saunas and an outdoor area with baths and a sunning deck too. Who would have guessed that one could be so relaxed in the presence of a hundred or so other completely naked Japanese men? Actually it wasn't all men, there were also children of both genders (without clothes) and female attendants (with clothes) looking for the next person on the sign up sheet for a massage or sand bath (I am not sure how these female attendants recognized the guy they were looking for -- they were not calling out names). Bath houses with adult males and children, both unclothed, would not be possible in the USA due to our modest ways and our worries about perverts -- the Japanese seem to have no such concerns.

    That afternoon, totally relaxed, I took a half an hour JR train trip to Yokohama, Japan's second largest city. Arriving in the late afternoon, I concentrated on Minato-Mirai, an amazingly ultramodern part of the city along the water. It contains the Landmark Tower which is Japan's tallest building with an observation room (the Sky Garden) on the 69th floor. The views of the harbor (Japan's busiest), the city and nearby Yokohama Cosmo World (an amusing amusement park) were simply stunning. I stayed in the Sky Garden until the sun had set just to get a night view too. Minato-Mirai consists of very large, modern and dramatic buildings containing hotels, offices huge shopping malls, an art museum and a convention center. Outside are modern sculptures, the amusement park, entertainers, a dry moat surrounding Landmark Tower, some very nice walkways along the water and pedestrian bridges to small islands in the harbor containing even more attractions and restaurants.

    I wished I had more time to explore (and not only Yokohama). Instead I had to jump on the moving sidewalk that took me to the JR train station. I had a flight back to the New World the next day.

    I love Japan and I know I will return to this land of the rising sun.


    Copyright 2007 Marc Mehlman
    Last revised: 1 October 2007

    Go back to Travel Page.
    Go back to Dr. Mehlman's homepage.