Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Japan 2 of 2. Northbound

In front of mighty Himeji, one of Japan's most beautiful (and preserved) castles

After I left Chiiori, the small organic farm in Shikoku, I headed for Kyoto. On the way, I stopped at Himeji for a couple hours just to see its famous castle (see above). Most of Japan's castles have long since been destroyed (as they are made out of wood, they don't last long), but Himeji prevails. I didn't stay long. Once I arrived in Kyoto, I didn't stay long either, I hopped on a train, to another train, to a tram, to a bus, to finally arrive at my destination for the day, Koya-san.

Koyasan, Kyoto, Tokyo

Before re-entering the more frequently traveled tourist destinations of central Honshu (the mainland of Japan), I decided to explore one of the holiest and secluded areas of all of Japan. Koyasan is a small mountain where Kobo Daishi (remember from last update? the guy who made his pilgrimage around the island of Shikoku, the founder of Shingon Buddhism) is buried (actually, not buried, supposedly he's simply meditating - since the year 835 AD - and is expected to return from his retreat sometime soon). Kobo Daishi had established mount Koya as a "retreat from worldly affairs", and almost 100 temples were created there. A few of these temples accept guests for a small nightly contribution, and I was lucky enough to spend two days there.

(Panorama) The beginning of the enormous cemetery where Kobo Daishi is resting

The cemetery on Koyasan is awesome. Not 'duuuude, that wave was totally awesome!!!' awesome, but rather it truly inspired awe in me. I entered it just before dusk, not concerned with it getting dark because it never closes, and I had my headlamp with me. The light seemed to go from plentiful to absolute black in only a few minutes, and before I knew it I was wandering in one of the most humbling, creepy, fantastic graveyards I could have imagined.

Instead of graves, there were Buddhas, pillars, and human-sized chunks of stone that looked like enlarged pawns, rooks, and bishops from a chess table. On more than one occasion I ventured off the main path and quickly found myself among hundreds of smaller, completely neglected stone figures that had become half covered in moss and seemed to melt into the gentle hills and tall trees. The creeks and cracks of the swaying trees, the wind through the leaves, and the presence of an army of life-size chess pieces made for an extraordinary experience. Not scary per se, but certainly intimidating and humbling, and the occasional bat flying overhead gave me some serious goosebumps.

For about an hour I didn't see any other people, but on my way back, I saw six or seven figures walking slowly in a line coming in my direction. It was nice to know I was probably in one of the safest places in the entire world, because otherwise I would have been terrified. I stopped for a second to listen to them, and heard the distinct sound of jingling monk bells. I broke the silence and said good evening (in Japanese) to them, and they all immediately stopped, faced me, bowed, and returned the greeting simultaneously in an almost harmonic tune, and then continued on their way. It was one of those subtle and brief memories that somehow managed to have a profound impact on my entire trip. As I mentioned in my last post, many of my memories of my exciting and/or exotic adventures have begun to atrophy a bit, but this encounter left me with such an impression that I remember every millisecond of it.

My room at the temple on Koyasan

I found my way back to my temple, enjoyed a delicious vegetarian dinner in my room, and got to sleep early so that I could awake at 4:30 to observe the daily morning prayer. The prayer was interesting, almost hypnotic, but not as engaging as my wandering the previous day. Afterward, I made my way back to Kyoto.

Kyoto train station (panorama)

I spent only a couple days in Kyoto and was able to fit in a bunch of sightseeing. Unfortunately, I was exhausted and wasn't able to get in the swing of things. I saw some of the must-see's, but didn't venture out much more than that.

Kiyomizu-dera, the water temple overlooking Kyoto

The Philosopher's path - my favorite bit of Kyoto. So named for a Kyoto University professor that walked it every day for meditation. It's a relaxing stroll along one of the canals.

I left Kyoto to head back to Tokyo, but my world of Japan had completely changed. Somehow cities take on personalities, and when I first met Tokyo, I just had the first-impression of her. Now that I had seen more of Japan and learned more about her history and context, I returned to Tokyo as if I heard dozens of rumors, some good and some bad, about her that made me suspicious, excited, confused, and curious. Regardless of it all though, it was nice to get back to familiar ground. It was to be a shorter stopover, but I had timed it just right to catch some SUMO!

Early in the tournament, the less experienced wrestlers had their matches. Most spectators don't come until the real pros come on later in the day, which leaves front-row seats vacant. They allow these seats to be filled by anyone until their real owner shows up, which let me see things up close.

It was the last day of the two-week long tournament, and it was completely sold out. However, with a little research I had done before my return, I knew there were a few same-day tickets available on a first-come first-served basis. So, I was up early again before dawn to get in line, and I was lucky enough to get one of them.

(Panorama) The very back row. Or as I like to call it, the penthouse! If you want to see more,
follow the link at the top of the post to Japan 1 pictures.

After only about 36 hours in Tokyo, I was on my way north again, leaving Honshu, and entering Hokkaido, the northernmost island.

Beautiful Hokkaido

I arrived at what would be my home-base for Hokkaido, Sapporo, and checked into my hostel. I noticed very quickly how different the overall vibe of the area was compared to the rest of Japan. I did a bit of reading and chatting with the hostel owners about Hokkaido, and learned it had a much stronger Western influence due to Japan seeking consultation from the United States on how to secure it before the Russians took it. In addition, I also learned that just as we have Native Americans, Australia has Aborigines, and New Zealand has Mauri, so Japan has the Ainu, who have been discriminated against brutally. The number of people that currently have Ainu ancestry in them is not known, because most people have completely hidden or erased it from their record due to the discrimination.

As negative as Hokkaido's history may seem at first glance, the island is also by far the most beautiful, and it takes pride in its national parks and sports which give it a festive atmosphere. After touring the Sapporo brewery and exploring the city, I rented some gear and decided it was time to finish the journey north and get to the island of Rebun, off the northern coast of Hokkaido.

On the ferry to Rebun, we passed its sister island Rishiri, which is
known for it's amazing figure and for its hiking and even ice climbing

(Panorama). I set up my tent here by the lake (my tent is the little green thing in the middle.
Note off to the right - the intimidating Rishiri stands tall.

No idea what this guy is for. Thought it looked funny though!

A pleasant walk to the northern point, seen here at the tip of the penninsula on the left

The somewhat underwhelming northern-most point of Japan!

Typical small fishing village on Rebun (I'd call it small-industrial rather than small-quaint)

And just like that, I started heading back south. I hungered for something a bit more adventurous before I called it quits on Japan though, so I got in touch with a New Zealander ex-pat who was free to take me on a three-day hike into the heart of Japan's biggest national park, Daisetzusan. The guide (coincidentally named Leon) was nice enough to let me stay in his guest-room at his house so we could get an early departure the next morning. After reviewing the map, itinerary and some equipment prep, we were on our way. Instead of walking you step-by-step through the hike, I'll let the pictures speak for themselves (well, along with my captions!):

Daisetzusan Hike

Day 1: Beautiful weather. Up a steady snowy climb to the top of the ridge of an
enormous bowl of an ancient volcano "Asahikawa" that had blown a long time ago

Panorama of a small bit of Daisetzusan

My guide Leon and I at the top of the ridge - behind us is the giant crater of Asahikawa
that we would hike around and descend down the opposite side

Our cabin for the first night, inside the bowl. We had to descend into it through the winter
entrance, since the front door was snowed in. We were the only ones there.

Day two: Long. Cold. Wet. Also apparently my lense cover didn't open all the way.

I was very relieved to finally see the rough outline of our cabin
for night two in the fog (you can barely see it here above my head). We encountered a group
of students along the way that also stayed at the cabin for that night.

Day three: a short climb out of the bowl and then a long descent down the other
side of it. Behind me you can see some of the still-active gas
spouts representing the underground activity.

After the hike, it was a long high-speed train back to Tokyo, and then before I knew it I was on a plane to Helsinki.

My six weeks in Japan were exhausting and incredible. I went into it knowing so little about the country, and left knowing so much more, but still felt bewildered. It's such a complicated place with such a complicated history and is so drastically different from what we're used to that as a tourist I couldn't help but feel overwhelmed. I entered the country with such a naive idolized view of the place that I was doomed to be disappointed by what I discovered, but even after it all I still love it and though I would no longer consider living there for a long period of time, I can't wait to go back.

Next update will cover my brief stint in Finland, a week in Sweden, and my solo bike trip from Vienna to Prague.

Until next week,


Monday, January 11, 2010

Happy New Year! Exploring Japan, post 1/2.

With my return to Japan, I am greeted by the familiar sights and scents of Tokyo at night

To say this update is overdue is an extreme understatement. I've been busy. I've been lazy. Maybe deep down there's a tiny bit of fear that making the 'final update' will admit that it's all finally over. Well, even if that's true of this specific RTW trip, I am certain I have a lot of travel left in me. I've learned a lot about travel style and rhythm, and am confident that next time I hit the skies/roads/ocean, I'll be better prepared, and will have an even better time.

There's a lot of ground to cover, so I'll be brief. I'll admit my memory has atrophied a bit, even only a few months after I've returned. Despite feeling touristy and superficial during some of my picture-taking, I'm very glad I did so, because reviewing my photos brings it all surging back.

I've tried to limit the pictures I've posted in the blog itself for space considerations. If you like what you see, I recommend you check out my online galleries that are a quick browse, and you'll probably get just as much out of them as you do reading this blog.

The galleries relevant to this post:
All my pictures: http://picasaweb.google.com/rohrer.n
Return to Tokyo, time with Leon: http://picasaweb.google.com/rohrer.n/JapanTokyo2
More Tokyo, also Okinawa and Yakushima: http://picasaweb.google.com/rohrer.n/JapanTokyoOkinawaYakushima
Riding the rail from the south to the north: http://picasaweb.google.com/rohrer.n/JapanTipToTip

I returned to Tokyo just as Leon was leaving. We had a few days of overlap, so we explored the city together, and he gave me his impressions of the country, and tips for how to fit in (including how to eat sushi properly). He had mixed feelings about Japan which surprised me. I had been so excited to explore it that I was dubious at first of his seemingly-pessimistic perspective, but I decided to withhold judgment for the time being, and try to explore the country without any preconceptions.

After Leon left, I connected up with an English couch-surfer Keval, and we explored some of the local festivities.

Keval and I pose with the local youth

The hustle and bustle of Shibuya. Note the rooftop soccer field also.

Tuna for sale at the busiest fish market in the world, Tsukiji

Tokyo has years (lifetimes, actually) of exploring to be done. It's absolutely beautiful in some areas, and hideously ugly in others. To call it a city doesn't even do it justice. It's more like a small country in and of itself. It seems never to end - there is no high point from which you can see a city limit. It just goes on, and on, and on.

Not sure if this will work, but here is a google map of my route:

I had allotted about 6 weeks for my exploration of Japan. I had already used one of them in Tokyo, so I knew I had to get moving. First stop: the southern islands of Okinawa

Two other divers and I after a long day submerged

I had a week to enjoy Okinawa, and what a bizarre place it is. It certainly earns its title of 'The Hawaii of Japan' because of its climate and beautiful crystal clear water. In addition, it practically feels like it's a part of the USA, because, well, part of it is. The American military base there shapes the downtown culture of the biggest city in Okinawa, Naha. This isn't necessarily a bad thing - the Americans spend a lot of money there and create a lot of opportunity in terms of jobs - but something felt very wrong seeing a Walmart in the middle of 'America Town' on the beautiful island of Okinawa. The Japanese sentiment about this is very mixed, as I quickly realized when I landed. I spoke briefly with a clearly very nervous (and very young) American recruit with a thick southern accent. He said he had requested to be transferred here from his domestic base after he saw the pictures, but at the time I spoke with him, only five minutes after we landed, he said he had been getting only dirty looks from the locals.

The dive company I signed up with was run by an American ex-pat who used to be stationed in the military base there. He was a very funny, but very intense guy, who had some stories from the military that, on more than one occasion, left me completely at a loss for words from shock and horror.

The diving was absolutely spectacular. No sharks like in Australia, but lots of big and exotic fish, and I really was able to take my diving to the next level by participating in some seriously challenging dives (as opposed to the normal float around and look). After the 5 days of diving, I rented a car for the one spare day I had to explore the island.

The exterior and interior of one of a seemingly infinite number of limestone
caves used as a last-stand home base during WWII.

The Battle of Okinawa was a horrific siege in the middle of 1945, towards the end of World War Two. The Japanese generals had a goal during this battle: even if the allied forces won it, they would have to endure such a brutal, long fight, that an invasion of the mainland would seem nightmarish. They achieved this goal. Over 100,000 Japanese troops were killed in Okinawa, and over 50,000 allied troops were killed. All these troops dead on an island only about 450 square miles large, and over almost three months. I am very much against Nuclear warfare - the idea of it is repulsive and terrifying - but I can begin to understand why the allies felt it necessary to use it when confronted with the prospect of several (maybe even hundreds) more Battles of Okinawa on the mainland.

After Okinawa, I hopped on a plane bound for Kagoshima, the southern-most city of the Japanese mainland. However, once I landed, I didn't even leave the airport - I got on a puddle jumper headed back south, to the small, green, wet island of Yakushima.

Yakushima is one of the rainiest places in the world. Because of this, it is overgrown with vegetation and is spectacularly green. I chose to go out of my way to visit this place because I wanted to see Jomon-Sugi.

Jomon-Sugi is a tree. But it's not any ordinary tree. It's a giant, old cedar, that along with its buddies (several other ancient cedars), rallied a movement to stop logging there and had the island declared a UNESCO world heritage site. Jomon-Sugi is estimated to be between 2,500 and 7,200 years old, and the only way to reach it is by a full day hike into the jungle.

A panorama of the interior of the island (this is pretty much the entire island)

Moss covers everything, and streams are everywhere

These were jumbo-sized trees

I planned the hike speaking with a woman at the only information booth on the island. Well, speaking was actually not involved at all except for 'Hi (yes)' and 'Ie (no)'. It was more like an elaborate game of charades where I actually physically demonstrated 'Ok so I'll book this inn for tonight with provided breakfast at 6 AM please, get supplies at that supermarket tonight for my hike, take the bus to the hiking trail, hike to Jomon-Sugi, sleep at the cement hut near the tree, wake up at 3:30 AM and hike back down in the dark in time to catch the first ferry back to Kagoshima!'. It took about an hour to figure that all out.

The only hiccup in the plan was when, at about 3:45 AM on my return-descent from Jomon-Sugi in the pitch black, I rounded a corner to see four eyes straight ahead of me reflect my headlamp at about waist-height. To say that it got my adrenaline flowing is about as much as an understatement as it was to say that this blog update is a bit late. My brilliant plan when confronted with the unknown beasts (there were many baboons on the island, these were probably a couple of them, but I didn't know what else lurked)? Grab a rock, back up, and make noise. After a couple minutes of waiting, I looked around the corner again and saw the eyes slowly shuffling off the path. I waited another minute, prayed they weren't setting up some sort of ambush a-la velociraptors in Jurrasic Park 1, and walked onwards. I made the ferry on time.

Kagoshima was unremarkable except for its neighbor - the active volcano Sakurajima. I found it amusing their fuming, deadly (no joke, next time this baby goes all of Kagoshima is toast), lava-prone giant is named 'Spring flower volcano'. I decided to go for a closer look, and stayed my one night in the area in a hostel located at the base of it.

My Hostel in front of Sakurajima

I connected up with an English teacher along the way and went to the most beautiful onsen (natural hot-water bath) I stayed at my entire time in Japan (not my picture, I forgot my camera, but this was it http://www.worldreviewer.com/_images/ae/00/ae00ded509776e8453638568af83a739/450x288.jpg).

After Kagoshima, I hopped on what would be my ride for most of Japan:

And went to my first stop, Nagasaki. I don't have too much to say specifically. I loved the city (small, manageable, good trams take you everywhere). People were extremely friendly. Food was delicious. Museums were powerful and had strong nuclear disarmament sentiments.

Panorama of the busy ship-making harbor (why it was on the list of potential targets for the bomb)

The hypocenter. Sobering.

I continued on to Hiroshima afterwards. Hiroshima is a bigger city, and naturally comes with the pros and cons of one. I also took a quick ferry ride to the nearby island of Miyajima, famous for its shrine in the water, and enjoyed the shrine and a day hike providing great views of Japan's inland sea.

This picture of the immediate destruction of the blast, taken from the A-bomb museum, still amazes me. I can't even comprehend the destructive potential of the newer nuclear bombs that are far more powerful than the one used here.

The water shrine Itsukushima, looking towards Hiroshima in the background

After Hiroshima, I hopped on a series of trains and buses to head to Chiiori (http://www.chiiori.org/), a small (very small) organic farm in the region of Shikoku. Shikoku is a seriously underrated area of Japan that's nearly saturated with sanctuaries of spirituality. It was here that Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism, made his famous pilgrimage that many Japanese followers recreate.

Nestled in the hills of the Iya Valley, Chiiori greeted me and was an ideal place to get some R&R for a couple days.


Chiiori was a highlight of Japan for me. It was looked after by an American ex-pat Paul, and a Japanese student Toru, but was started by American Alex Kerr in an attempt to preserve a small piece of Japanese tradition in an area wrought with rampant development and pointless construction (makes the 'Bridge to Nowhere' and the 'Big Dig' look brilliant). It was here I started to learn of the fraud and ugliness of the Japanese construction market. I began to understand why Leon had been disappointed with what he had learned of Japan. What I learned and began to see, was that what I had naively interpreted as the incorporation of nature into its cities, was really the taming of nature. This was done by cementing rivers and hillsides (creating a cement bed for rivers with walls, and literally covering hills in cement), and building seawalls around the entire country. Despite it being a bit of a rude awakening, Chiiori was eye-opening, and I enjoyed every minute I spent there.

At dinner on my second night at Chiiori, a new Japanese student, about my age, had just arrived to stay the night. We had a brief conversation that I found somewhat symbolic of Japanese culture in an extremely oversimplified way. I started talking with him (he spoke broken English), and asked him if he had traveled outside of Japan. He said he had, around Asia and some of Europe. I asked him what was his favorite place he had ever traveled to, and he responded "Ah...I think...Okinawa". I said "Ok, well what about outside Japan?". He responded "Ah...that is a...difficult question...", as if he was going to finish his thought, but eventually we just settled into the silence.

This post is getting long enough. I'll post the conclusion of Japan next week, and then give two more updates, one each week, summarizing the end of my trip (I'm getting organized now. Honest! I'll post them on each Sunday coming up. You don't have reason to doubt me, do you?).