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,


1 comment:

rick said...


why is it that kobo daishi somehow reminds me of kaiser soze (phonetically at least: how perverse)

i hope you have elsewhere recorded your lost-in-the-snow-in-hokkaido experience