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:
Return to Tokyo, time with Leon:
More Tokyo, also Okinawa and Yakushima:
Riding the rail from the south to the north:

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

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 (, 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?).



rick said...

dude -

knowing that i was desperate for moss - how COULD you deny me a sample from yakushima?!


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