This is the beginning of the Japan Trip Narrative - Tokyo bound!...

Click on the dates in the left column to see pictures...
Oct 29 2010Friday was my last day at work.  I think I got everything wrapped up.  I believe I can leave for a month with a clear conscious.  I am really looking forward to this break.  It will be the first real vacation (e.g. more than 4 days) that I have had since moving to DC more than 3 years ago. 

I took my workstation off the office network and stowed it safely in one of the other offices so that I could be assured that nothing would happen to it and it would be in the same state when I get back as it was when I left it.  I am really gone! Yipppeee!  I am not going off grid however, I will be taking my iPad, iPhone and Netbook with me.  P and I will be taking lots of photos.  I will post the ones I think worth looking at.  The dates to the left will hyper link to the photos.
Nov 6  2010Bye Bye DC.  (click on the dates to the left to see photos.  On the photo page, you can click on each photo to see a larger version).

Trip plan:  DC to Tokyo.  Spend 4 days in Tokyo
                Train to Nakatsugawa, spend night.  Then take train to Nojiri and begin 1st day of Nakasendo hike to Tsumago
                Spend night in Tsumago and hike to Magome
                Spend night in Magome and take train to Kyoto in the morning
                Spend 3 days in Kyoto, 1/2 day in Osaka and then take train to Hiroshima
                Spend night in Hiroshima, take train to Kumamoto in the morning
                Spend night in Kumamoto, take train to Asagiri in the morning
                Spend 2 nights in Asagirin and take train to Kagashima, then jet boat to Yakashima
                Spend 2 nights in Yakashima, then take train to Asagiri
                Spend 2 nights in Asagiri and take train to Tokyo
                Spend 3 nights in Tokyo and fly back to USA

Nov 7  2010 click on date at left to view photos.

Arrive Tokyo 3:25PM   Well,  the trip over was very boring, thankfully.  And very very long.  We made it through immigration and customs relatively quickly without any problems, though the lines were long.  We had no trouble finding our baggage claim area.  We waited about half and hour for our luggage to come out, but it did not appear.  We noticed an airport worker pulling bags that went around the carousel.  Dimly, through the haze in our nearly totally shut down brains, it occurred to us to check the bags that had been pulled off the carrousel and stacked aside. And of course, there they were.  We collected the bags and headed out of the airport.  P's brother and 86 year old mother were there to meet us.  We took the Skyliner, a beautiful and astonishingly clean train into Tokyo where we meet up with P's sister in law and we drove to dinner.  Had a nice visit with the family.  I cannot remember what much of the meeting since I was in nearly total shut down.  After dinner, we dropped P's mom off at the train statiion where she took a 45 min train ride back to her home in Tokyo.  She is bright, cheerful and in great shape.  We should all be so lucky, though luck has less to do with it than the healthy life style she maintains.  After dinner, we turned in.  We are staying in the apartment above P's brother's clinic.  Very nice and very comfortable.

You all know me.  You know that I am not the type of person to talk about much less write about private and personal bodily functions.  However, the toilet in our apartment is THE MOST unusual one I have ever seen much less used.   Suffice to say, it is an educated proposition.  Familiarity with computers is desirable as well as prior experience with automation.  One more thing... in Japan when you ask for a bathroom or ladies room when in need, they will think you nuts.  Bathrooms are for bathing.  Toilets are for, well you know...  Makes sense doesn't it.  Why didn't we think of that.  Anyway, when in need, ask for a toilet, not a bathroom etc. 

The one in the our apartment in Tokyo was the most automated one I saw.  However, even the ones in the train station have a control panel and all the machines here talk!  Back to our toilet...  in the apartment, the toilet is in a small room by itself.  Remember, bathroom are for bathing.  When entering the toilet, you need only prepare yourself, not it.  When you enter, the lid opens automatically,  it begins to play soothing classical music, and it lights up (so when you stumble in during the night, no need to blind yourself turning on lights or thinking about much else.  I did not experiment with the control panel...  too scary for me.  However, there are controls for male functions and female functions.  I have only been here one day.  Maybe late in the trip I will be able to explore further and tell you more.

I have never been to a more densely populated place than Tokyo.  Manhattan is wide open space compared to here.  Yet, THERE ARE NO TRAFFIC JAMS ON THE ROADS.  I repeat   NO TRAFFIC JAMS ON THE ROADS.  Trains go everywhere, they are frequent and on time.  Furthermore, they are CLEAN.  The NYC and DC Metro are simply filthy compared to the metro here and they do not see even a fraction of the traffic Tokyo trains experience.   We American should be ashamed. 
Nov 8  2010

More Nov 8 Pictures
Another encounter with the toilet!  The front of the control panel flips down to reveal about another half a dozen controls.  Can't discuss what the controls do in polite company what they do mostly because they are in Japanese and I have no idea what they do.  Then, the piece de resistance...  the whole thing comes off the wall!  It is remote controlled!

P's brother James, his English name, is a doctor and today is his day off.  We spent the day learning how to take the trains to get around.  We went to Ginza, did a little shopping.  I had to buy some pearls because I totally forgot to bring any jewelry.  I am without even an ear ring.  We also went to the largest electronics and everything remotely related store I have ever been to.  Found the iPhone case J wants.  We visited the famous Thunder/Lightning Gate Buddhist Shrine, Asakusa.  I got my fortune.  It was the very best one.  According to Buddha, I will have all my wishes.  I think Buddhism is the way to go.  No more fortunes for me since it can not get any better.

We happened by the Nissan dealer in Ginza and went in to look at the new Leaf.  Very cool car and not that small.  We don't have them yet in the US.  They are totally electric.  No gas tank.  Just a very big plug.

Nov 09 2010We were on our own today.  We took a tour of Tokyo with an english speaking guide that included lunch and a boat tour of Tokyo Harbor.  It is beautiful at night.  The tour was interesting.  We would not have been able to see all the things we did on our own in a week.  I would not describe Tokyo as a beautiful city like Paris, but it is incredibly clean, especially when you consider that there are NO public trash cans.  In the US trash cans are everywhere but somehow we can't seem to get stuff in them.  So, in Tokyo you have to plan what to do with wrappings, which usually means that you carry it along with you.  Given the general absence of trash receptacles, and the enormous number of places to buy food, beverages and other stuff to consume or carry along as you go, it is simply unbelievable how clean this place is.  Even in high traffic areas like the train station... no litter.  The bus drivers and taxi drivers wear white gloves. Also, one very last comment about the toilets... most of the public ones have no paper in then and, of course, no place to throw trash or paper.  So, it is best to be prepared and carry your own tp with you.

We visited the Meiji Shrine dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shoken.  The shrine is Shinto and located in Shibuya.  Construction was begun in 1915 after the Emperor's death in 1912 and completed in 1926.  It commemorates his role in the Meiji Restoration, a series of events resulting in the overthrow in 1867 of the Tokugawa shogunate and the restoration of direct imperial rule and the end of the feudal system in Japan. 

After the tour we joined James & his wife for dinner and we went to a "converyor belt" sushi restaurant.  Very interesting and the sushi was good.  You simply plucked the plate from the conveyor if you wanted what was on it.  If you want to order something you dont see on the conveyor, you press a button and they send it fast down the upper track on the conveyor, on a fast plate holder that is shaped like the Shinkansen.  Very funny.

I will post some pictures for the tour when I get them organized.
Nov 10  2010
We took the train to Yokahama today to spend the day with P's brother, C, and his wife N.  We had tea at their beautiful home, high up over Yokohama.  I asked how it felt during an earthquake.  N says the building really sways and it is scary.  C said the building is built on rubber rollers to allow for the movement.  No earthquakes while we were there.  C and N have the most amazing massage chair I have seen yet.  It is almost as good as the shiatsu massages I occasionally get back home.  I am going to have to check this out and try to get one for home. We went to lunch and had shabu shabu, all we could eat which was a lot.  C had to go to work for a while, so we went to a beautiful park/museum with N.  This is not the best time of year for parks, but care and planning of the landscaping was still very evident.  There were some antique homes and other buildings preserved, somewhat like Williamsburg VA.  We viewed the judges picks for a chrysanthemum competition.  A few photos of some of the winners are included here.  Afterwards, we went to dinner at a Chinese restaurant in China Town. Had lots of good things to eat that I cannot describe but I didn't ask, I just ate.  One thing we ate that I did ask about was the duck tongue.  It is a large Y shaped fried lightly battered piece of bone.  Not sure why they bother with this.  I could find no meat whatsoever.  The batter was tasty, however.  Maybe that is it.  Walking back from dinner, C's brother said hello to a very beautiful and young Chinese girl, working in one of the stores we walked by.  She looked barely 15, but C's brother explained that she is married to a wealthy Chinese man twice her age.  Prior to marriage she was a well known Chinese film star and played a supporting role in a movie that won an academy award in the US.  She is a mother of 3 now and probably in her 30 or so.  I wish I knew her secret for looking so young.  
Nov 11 2010We left for Nakatsugawa this morning on the bullet train. (I have traveled in Europe a fair amount and taken many TGV fast trains.  Japanese trains provide the best service I have ever experienced).  We arrived in late afternoon about an hour before dark (it gets dark early here- not daylight saving).  Nakatsugawa is a very small town.  Our hotel, the Silk Hotel, was supposed to be very near the train station.  We picked it because we plan to take the train in the morning to Nojiri where we will begin our two day hike on the Nakasendo trail to Magome, about 20 miles counting all the wrong turns we made along the way.  Anyway, there were absolutely no romaji signs.  Everything was written in Japanese characters.  P can read most of the characters but that does not mean he can translate into something meaningful.  For example, when we looked for our ryokan in Tsumago, the map indicated that we should go right at the big black door, in P's translation.  Well, turns out, the big black door was actually a big restaurant without a black door.  So we walked around the square several times, could find nothing that looked like it might be the Silk Hotel.  Finally, I started asking questions, enunciating SILK HOTEL in my very best diction to reduce misunderstanding.  P is trying to remember the character for silk.  We about to be worried about where we were going to sleep when I found a lady who spoke a few words of english.  She pointed our hotel (that might be overstating it a little... anyway it was a place to sleep and it was clean like everything else here).  It was across the street.  We had walked right by it about half a dozen times.  Turns out the Japanese pronouce "silk" something like "surrulko".  My careful pronunciation only made matters worse.

After settling in at the Silk Hotel, we walked around a little to see what was in Nakatsugawa.  Nothing much.  We happened by a small shopping center and decided to go in so that I could get some milk for my coffee in the morning.   Of course, we understand nothing.  Can't tell where the container contains unless it has a picture, and then could not tell the difference between milk or yoghurt etc.  It was interesting to see what sort of groceries the local folks buy.  It is very different from an American grocery store like Safeway or Whole Foods.  The diet here is very different from ours.  Fruit is extremely expensive but perfect looking.  Cantaloupes go for over $20.00.  It was the same size as on in the US, but still had the stem attached and neatly trimmed and it had not bumps or blemishes on the outside.  Apples also expensive at about $3.50 each but they look like wax fruit because they are so perfect.
Nov 12  2010We took the local train to Nojiri to begin our two day hike of the Nakasendo from Nojiri to Magome.  As soon as we started, it began to rain pretty steadily.  Fortunately we were prepared for that with good rain wear.  Thank you REI.  Since we could find no signs and could understand nothing we read, we asked the train station master which way to head to hike to Tsumago, our next stop.  He seemed to understand what we wanted and pointed in a direction.  We set out.  A few seconds later, the train master was running out after us.  Apparently, we were heading the wrong way.  So we changed directions.  Everything here is in kanji.  And I mean everything.  Peter found a sign that he thought might indicate a street we should take to continue on the trail.  We took it and hiked up a mountain about 1km.  The trail was one of the two way one lane roads.  That was not problem because we saw no vehicles or any other travelers.  It was raining harder now.  By the compass, we also seemed to be heading in the wrong direction.  So, after much deliberation, since we had already invested a lot in this course, we turned around and went back down the mountain.  We intended to go back to where we started. Needless to say, we did not end up where we started, but at least we were now down and by the river.  The trail is supposed to mostly follow the river so we headed off again.   We found another sign in kanji that had a little cartoon on it that seemed to represent a trail.  This sign, as it turns out, was the first real Nakasendo sign we had encountered.  So we walked on, and on, trying to follow the Nakasendo signs.  That turned out to be a little tricky.  They dont always put signs where you expect them.  Sometimes they are behind the bridge rail and not visible.  Sometimes they are behind other signs and not visible and other times they are behind vegetation and not visible.  We continued down a road that followed the river until we came to some kind of construction site where the road was closed.  A construction worker told us to go back.  Now mind you, this was a one lane two way road as well.  Some regular sized dump trucks and cement trucks went down this road while we were walking out making it necessary for us to plaster ourselves against the wall of the mountain to avoid being squished.   So we back track again.  Walk more and start going up hill.  We decide to stop at a small restaurant and ask for directions again.  We were on the right track, however, she said we had 5km up and 3km down before we would arrive at Tsumago, our destination for the day.  That did not sound too bad, so off we went.  And up we trudged, and up some more and more.  I dont think it was 5 up.  I think it was more like 8 up.  Anyway, we continued and climed through the Keijo Pass and began our descent.  The pass was very wet and somewhat treacherous, especially the log foot "bridges".  The pass was beautiful however,  I am glad we did it.  However, the rest of the hike was not.  Either we stayed lost the rest of the way and missed the trail, or we were on the trail, regardless it was not worth the effort.  The hike was long, mostly on narrow highways and not very pleasant.  We got to Tsumago, found the train station, only to discover that were were still about an hour's hike from our ryokan.  We gave up and took a taxi to the ryokan, which was fortuitous because we would never have found it by ourselves.  We took pictures.  I will post some of them when I get them organized.

The ryokan was what I hoped it would be.  I was looking for a Japanese experience.  This ryokan has be in operation for several hundred years by the same family.  We were shown to our room, informed about dinner.  We were tired, sore and cold.  We warmed up at the table in our room, a short Japanese table covered with several comforters and a heater under the table.  It was simple and extremely comfortable.  I did not want to move but we had time for a Japanese hot soak before dinner.  If you haven't tried one of the those you should.  They are incredibly relaxing.  Afterwards, we go downstairs to our private dining room in our Japanese robes for dinner.  After a very nice dinner of about 10 courses of various veggies and fish, we turned in.  We slept on futons, which for me are not as comfortable as a bed.  Tomorrow we will finish our hike in tomorrow in Magome and then on to Kyoto.

Nov 13 2010We began our hike expecting a fairly easy well-marked path to Magome.  We were not totally disappointed.  However, seemingly in defiance of Newton's law, we hiked up about 2 steps for every step we hiked down.  After the long hike yesterday, I was having some trouble with my knee.  I think my back pack was too heavy for my knee and caused some soreness.  The hike was also a bit longer than expected.  We ended up walking about 10 km but without any rain.  We passed through much beautiful autumn scenery and found our ryokan without too much trouble.  We had a map of Magome and Peter was able to ID the kanji for the alley we must turn onto to get to our ryokan.   This ryokan was much like the first one, except not quite as elegant.  Also, no back supports when sitting on the floor for dinner or at the heated table in our room.  The same cedar tub for hot soak before dinner.  Very civilized and highly recommended.  I would do the hike from Tsumago to Magome again.  Tip:  most Japanese walk the trail from Magome to Tsumago and not the other way around like we did.  The reason is that they know that the trip from Tsumago to Magome is about 75% up hill and 25% downhill.  They take the mostly downhill route by taking the train (about 20 min) to Magome and then hiking back.   
Nov 14 2010We had a Japanese breakfast at our ryokan and then headed to the bus stop for the trip to the train station in Nakasugawa and on to Kyoto.  The train trip took about 2 1/2 hours.  It is kind of funny...  All along the Nakasendo that we hiked, the Japanese people we met seemed (I say seemed because we were never totally sure what was being said) to think we were slightly nuts for doing the hike, especially the part from Nojiri to Tsumago.  When we asked for directions concerning the trail, we always seemed to be directed to the bus stop. There is a highway that roughly tracks the Nakasendo Trail called, oddly, the Nakasendo Highway.   
Nov 15 2010Fushimi Inari Shrine is a must see.  It is the head shrine for over 40,000 Inari shrines in Japan and one of the oldest in Kyoto.  Inari is the patron saint of good harvests and good business.  Fushimi is Shinto.  It is remarkable for many things but the most noticeable to a westerner are the Tory Gates.  There must be thousands of them.  They line the paths forming "tunnels" throughout the Shrine.  The shrine property goes up the side of a mountain and at the top there is a spectacular view of Kyoto.  When we were there, it was a clear day and I think we could also see Osaka in the distance.  The paths covered by the vermillion Tory Gates are most than a mile in length.  The gates are "sponsored" by individuals and businesses wishing good auspices of Inari.  We hiked up all the paths.  While on one path, we were passed by 3 Shinto priests and several followers.  A little further down the path, we came upon them again and stopped to witnessed a ceremony they performed for several of their followers.  When they were finished, we all continued on in separate directions.  A little later, we came upon a larger group of people and the same 3 priests.  This time they were preparing a small bonfire.  The priests and the followers started chanting and one of the priests added straw to the file to build it up.  We got in line to get a better view of the process.  Several other priests began to pass out a paper with the chants written in Kanji.  Since we don't read Kanji, we could only look at the paper.  Then another priest began to pass out sticks of wood with Kanji writing and people began to throw the sticks in the fire.  A priest handed P and I some sticks so we followed everyone else and threw ours in the fire too.  Written on the sticks were requests people wished performed by Inari.  The requests are delivered to Inari by burning.  I sure hope that my ignorance won't prevent the requests P and I tossed in the fire from being delivered.  I was really grateful that they included us, however.  It was a special experience.

When we left Fushimi Inari Shrine on foot, we thought we could find our way back to the ryokan.  Well, we got lost.  Many streets do not have signs or names and often those that did we could not read (kanji).  I discovered that the street signs at a major intersection had writing only on one side, so often, it was necessary to walk around the intersection to figure out the street names.  We were in the process of doing all that, when a group of about 6 middle schools passed by on bicycles.  They stopped and one asked me if he could help me.  I communicated best I could where we were trying to go.  They said we needed to take the bus, then walked with us over to the bus stop and hung around until the bus came to make sure we got on the right one.  We had many experiences like this.  The children there are extremely helpful and polite.  What a pleasure.  What a difference from the US, sadly.

One thing I wanted to do while in Japan was have some Kobe beef.  I had some in a restaurant in NYC and was not impressed.  So, we looked up a highly rated place on the internet for Kyoto and settled on Miyata and made a reservation.  The place is owned and operated by an 81 year old native of Kyoto.  He spoke pretty good English, took our orders and sent his staff scurrying.  We order beef, of course, medium rare. It was his birthday and he talked at length about Japan and his travels.  We asked about Kobe beef and he laughed.  He said Kobe beef is beef from Kobe Japan.  His beef is black angus beef from Kobe.  But, and he said this, any beef from Kobe is Kobe beef.  Japan does not have the labeling stringency that we do.  We also found out that any one can sell liquor.  No liquor license required.  He went on to talk about the changes he has seen in Japan.  He was a teenager during WWII.  Prior to the war, the Japanese farmer was no more than a slave.  After the was, the US imposed constitution provided for land ownership, universal suffrage and other benefits that paved the way to present day modern Japan.  He was proud to point out that during the occupation, no American soldiers were killed, compared to the current situation in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The US really needs some successes to point at in our efforts against terrorism and we have precious few to point out right now.  We can look back at Japan.  Japan be any measure is a huge success story both for them and us.  Unfortunately we did not take any pictures since it was rather dark in the restaurant. 
Nov 16 2010We went to the Golden Pavilion (Rokuon-ji Temple) today.  Built in 1397, it really is completely covered in real gold.  The gardens around it are exquisite, even in the fall when the flowers are not in bloom.  The pavilion looks magical.  Pictures do not do it justice.  (some pictures also included with Nov 14)

We also visited the Imperial Palace, home of the emperor before he moved to Tokyo a few hundred years ago,  and the Shogun's palace (Nijo Castle).  Nijo was constructed in 1603.  The floor in one of the corridors in the main building was constructed so that it squeaked like a nightingale when walked on, providing a warning to Shogun of anyone approaching.   The Shogun had the more opulent residence. In feudal Japan, the Shogun had the power and control of wealth.  The Shogun supported the emperor (who was thought to be a god) financially who in return, gave legitimacy to the Shogun's power.  The Shoguns could be somewhat stingy in their financial support and that is evident in comparing the two residences.   The Shogun obviously had the money.  So much for being a god.

We went to a lot of places in Kyoto and did not see it all.  On of my favorite spots was the 13th century Sanjusangen-da Temple (Buddhist) which is famous for its 1001 wooden statues of Kannon, goddess of mercy.   Each one is different and many are signed by the person who created the statue.  They are lined up in the temple, stadium style.  It is simply amazing that they have been there since around 1200.  That makes those statues almost as old as the Notre Dame in Paris.  No photography was allowed so I have no pictures.  

We visited the Sanjusangen-do temple with the 1001 statues of the Buddhist diety, Juichimen-senjusengen Kanzeon, also called Kanzeon, and one giant seated statue.  Each statue is unique and made of Japanese cypress.  124 of the statues were made in the 12th century when the temple was founded and remainder were made in the 13th century.  During the Edo period , 1603 to 1868, archery contests were held, with the target being the long hall housing the statues.  This practice caused a lot of wear and tear on the temple.  There are still archery exhibitions but they no longer shot at the temple.

In the evening, we went to Gion Corner, a theater in the Gion (Geisha) district that presents a professionally produced show introducing tea ceremony, koto (Japanese harp) playing, flower arrangement, gagaku (ancient court music and dance), kyogen comedy, kyomai dance performed by maiko geisha and bunraku puppetry.  An interesting show well worth seeing.  Afterwards, we walked around the Gion district which is full of bars and restaurants hoping to catch sight of a geisha.  No luck.  Then back to our ryokan after a very busy day. 

Nov 17 2010We left Kyoto and headed to Osaka, where we planned to spend a few hours visiting Osaka Castle.  We found our way to the Kyoto train station without any problem and boarded the train to Osaka.  The trip took about 30 minutes.  As you move further out from Tokyo, fewer signs are in Romaji.  So when we got to Osaka, we could not figure out which train to take to Osaka Castle.  P thought it best to ask a young girl, thinking she would be more likely to know a few words of english.  (after our Nakasendo hike I made him promise not to confuse any more Japanese people by trying to speak to them in the few words he knows).  So the job fell to me.  I walked up to two young girls in the station and asked if they spoke English.  One said she could manage a few works.  So I said Osaka Castle and shrugged to try to indicate that I was looking for it.  She did not know how to get there so she started walking up to other Japanese people asking them how to get to the castle.  She was so cute.  She had this way of walking with a little hop.  Anyway, she found the information we needed and showed us how to find the right train.

The grounds around Osaka Castle are beautifully landscaped even in fall.  It must really be spectacular in the spring when the flowers are in bloom.  The castle was built early 1600's on a temple site by Hideyoshi Toyotomi.  After his death, the castle fell to the Tokugawas and reconstruction was lasting 10 years was begun by order of the 2nd shogun.  The main tower was destroyed by lightning in  1665.  After the Meiji period, the site was used by the army and in 1931, the main tower was reconstructed.  It houses a museum now. 

Fire and earthquake were an ever present dangers in Japan.  So many times that it became almost a running "joke", information about the site were were at indicated that the buildings we were viewing were destroyed and rebuilt in using period materials and methods to the original specifications.  Add the effects of wars to the natural disasters they have experienced and one can understand why they built their houses the way they did.  It made it easier to put them back up after they were knocked down or destroyed.

After touring Osaka Castle and the museum, we took the train to Hiroshima where we spent the night.  As we get further and further from Tokyo, we see less and less romaji and fewer people who can speak english.  When we got to Hiroshima it was dark.  We had pictures of the street and hotel, but they were not useful in the dark.  Furthermore, we did not know which side of the train station we had exited.  So we spied a young Japanese man, figuring the younger the more likely to speak a little english.  We approached and I asked for directions.  He was very friendly and eager to help but he spoke almost no english beyond hello.  So Peter took over and he was not able to communicate our problem.  If we could have figured out which side of the train station we were on, we would have been able to figure out how to get to the hotel.  Well, we finally thanked the young man and told him we would seek help elsewhere.  He walked off.  We stood there for a few minutes to decide the next move and the Japanese man comes running up.  He had gone off to ask someone else for help and came back to tell us we were on the wrong side of the train station.  Problem solved, right?  Wrong!  I think he had the right answer to the wrong question.  What that question was he answered, I do not know but I was charmed and impressed that he made so much effort to help.  Anyway he seemed to indicate that we were on the wrong side of the train station.  So we trudge to the other side.  We had no better luck on the other side.  So we went back in the train station and found information.  A lady with a few words of english was able to send us in the right direction.  Turns out we were on the right side the first time.  So much gets lost in translation here.
Nov 18 2010I am behind with this travel log.  I am writing up the Hiroshima visit out of order because of the effect it had on me.  I will back fill the rest later.

We got to Hiroshima last night after dark, checked into our hotel had dinner and turned in.  In the morning, we had a western style (egg omelet with bread rolls and coffee/tea).  Our table over looked a small river.  A construction project was underway on the bridge over the river.  As we were eating, we noticed the construction workers reporting in for work, form up and begin calisthenics.  When finished, they started working.  Something you would never see but probably should in the US.

After breakfast we headed for the Peace Memorial.  We took the "street train" (street car or trolley) over to the dome and then began our tour of the memorial grounds and the museum.  We walked over the "T" bridge, which was the target for ground zero.  We took in as much detail from the museum as we could.  The horror those people experienced is unimaginable.  Yet, they had the trains running 3 days afterwards.  They got help from NO ONE except themselves.  Forget for a moment, the governments  and national interests involved, and think about the families and friends either destroyed instantly or over the next several months.  That is the tragedy.  We stood on the T bridge, the target.  Here are a few of my take aways from a profoundly moving experience...
- I make no apology for what my country did, but I am sorry it had to happen.  We, the USA, (and I believe this), was fighting for its survival.  We got the bomb because we won the arms race with Germany, not because we wanted to develop the ultimate weapon.  If we had not won that arms race, Hitler would have won WWII.  We used it in the belief that it would save American lives by forcing Japan to surrender.  Without the surrender of Japan, the USA would have invaded Japan.  We believed that if invaded, Japan would fight to the last man, woman and child, killing many more people on both sides.  We had see evidence of this in the battles for Okinawa, Iwo Jima and the Kamikaze.  Some of the exhibits in the museum seemed to say that we dropped the bomb to end the war early in order to force surrender under the terms of the Yalta conference and keep the Russians out of  Japan.  I do not deny that it might have been a consideration, but it was not the reason we did it.  It was done to spare us and them the costs of invasion.
- I have a deep respect for the Japanese people and their strength and resilience in the way they responded to this most incredible and devastating catastrophy.
- I have a fervent wish that we figure out a way to resolve conflict without inflicting such ruin and devastation on each other.  No sane person or government can ever want to do this to anyone or anything.

While there, we watched a group of Japanese school children hang their oragami cranes at the Children's Memorial.  This memorial was created to honor the memory of all the children who died and also one in particular, Sasaki Sadako. She was 2 years old when the bomb was dropped Aug 6 1945.  Due to radiation exposure from the bomb, she developed leukemia and died when she was 12.  There is a Japanese story that one who folds 1000 orgami paper cranes will be granted a wish.  Sasaki did not live to finish the cranes she was folding.  Today, Japanese children fold paper cranes and present them to be hung near the memorial in memory of Sasaki.

After the visit to the Peace Memorial, we took the train to Kumamoto and spent the night there.  We rode the bullet train to Akata and then switched to local trains.  Total train time was about 2.5 hours.
Nov 19 2010We met R after breakfast and toured the Kumamoto Castle, one of the few black castles still standing.  

The castle's history dates back to 1497 and was in use until 1874.  In 1877 during the Satsuma Rebellion, the castle and many of the outer buildings were burned to the ground.  It was rebuilt in 1960.  From 1998 to 2008, most of the 17th century structures underwent restoration and rebuilt.  The castle complex is designated an important Cultural Property. 

We then took local trains to Asagiri, where P's daughter, R, is working as an english teacher in the JET program for the local school district.  Train and taxi time about 2 hrs.
Nov 20 2010This morning the middle school where R teaches had an assembly/program.  Their schools are organized similarity to ours (elementary grades k-6, middle grades 7-9 and high school grades 10-12) but that is where the similarity ends!  The children are like well adjusted, happy children anywhere.  They are energetic, enthusiastic, friendly and sometimes a little shy, curious and engaged.  All this in class rooms with no central heat!  We were there in Nov and it was in the mid to low 40's.  The school buildings did not have any insulation that I could see and the windows were single pane and usually opened.  A few of the classrooms had a space heater in the back of the room, but believe me, it did not make the room anything close to not being cold, much less warm.  And yet, these children learn and do not seem to mind.  They generally score much higher and US children on education assessment tests.  The teachers have the respect of all their students and I could see no class room problems, which is a stark difference from US schools.  The teachers spend the whole day with their students, even eating lunch in the classrooms with their students.  Their only times the teachers are not with students are recess when they play out in the school yard.  The lunches are prepared in the school and delivered and served by the students.  Students are also responsible for cleaning their class rooms and common areas.  They sweep, pickup and even wash the floors!  All this fosters a sense of responsibility in the students and close ties to their school.  They do not seem to pour money into fancy facilities.  Rather they spend their money on teachers and supporting teaching equipment and supplies.  All the students from middle school up wear uniforms and everywhere we went we saw kids on school trips.  The teachers are in charge in the schools and responsible for results.  Teaching is are very highly regarded and well paid profession in Japan.  The teachers I met loved their jobs and they work long hours at it.  We should pay attention here.  Their schools are working well and ours are not!

The principal of one of the schools where R teaches invited us all over for dinner this evening.  He picked us up in his car because R does not have a car and we did not rent one here.  He drove us around the valley a little on the way to his home and showed us some of the rice farms in the area and one of the schools.  The town sits in a wide valley, surrounded by mountains.  Very beautiful and peaceful setting.  We arrived at his home and met his his wife.  His children are grown and in their own careers.  We were in for another interesting evening.  Our host was going to show us how to make soba noodles, which we would then eat as part of our dinner.  Soba are noodles made from buckwheat and are very popular.  They are higher in the B vitamin, thiamine, than rice and also higher in protein.  Making the noodles from scratch was an enjoyable learning experience and she was a master noodle chef.  We had fun making and eating them.  Afterwards, we sat down to a dinner of sashimi and Japanese meatloaf.  The meatloaf was not very different from that which I make.  I think it had less tomato sauce, however, very good.  It was such a pleasure to meet them and spend the evening in their home.  It was helped greatly by R who got stuck translating for P and I.  R really made things a lot easier and more fun for us.
Nov 21-23 2010This morning we took the train from Asagiri to Kagoshima and then the jet boat to Yakushima. 

The train we took down to Kagoshima seemed to be mostly for tourists.  It made two stops, one at a "festival" held at a whistle stop and the other at another whistle stop that had a steam engine on display.  The train was immaculate and older with beautiful dark wood seats and trim.  I took a picture of a vending machine that indicated it had french fries and other cooked items.  I wanted to try the french fries but did not have time to figure out the money.  I wish I had.  I can't imagine how a crispy french fry could be sold in a vending machine and be anything but mush.

Kagoshima is on the island of Kyushu and is know for its active volcano.  It also has a really good aquarium that hosts a whale shark.  We had a little over an hour before boarding the boat so we only walked around the water front before leaving.  I noted that there was very find ash or pumice on the streets but here again, no litter and no trash cans.  The Japanese believe that this volcano is ready to blow any day.  It last erupted in 1914 an covered the city in deep ash.  Up to that time, the volcano was an island.  The lava flows from the 1914 eruption filled in the strait between the island and the mainland.  Since 1955 the volcano has become more active and been erupting almost constantly since then.  The clouds over the top of the mountain in the pictures are not clouds but steam rising from the caldera.
Picture from Wikipedia of March 2009 erruption.
 File:Sakurajima at Sunset.jpg
The volcano (Sakurajima) is actually a composite volcano consisting of three peaks:  Kitadake (northern peak), Nakadake (central peak) and Minamidake (southern peak which is now active).  The clouds in the pictures we took are not clouds but the steam arising from the southern peak. The area is also well known for its hot springs.

Some Kagoshima facts:  more pachinko parlors per capita than anywhere else, Iron Chef Hiroyuki Sakai is from Kagoshima, the world's smallest orange (Sakurajim mikan orange) is grown here, the world's heaviest radish (Sakurajima diakon certified by Guiness).

We took the jet boat to Yakushima.  Closest thing to an airplane on the water.  Very fast.  We arrived about 3 hrs later on Yakushima and began the process of figuring out what to do next.  We rented a car because we wanted to explore the island.  It is possible to do it by bus, but we did not have time to figure out buses.  We found a guy at the boat dock who took us to a car rental place and then headed in search of our ryokan.   We had no luck and finally asked a young man on the street if he knew where we should go.  He was getting ready to get in his car and he offered to show us the way.  Even he made a few wrong turns before finding it.  He really went out of his way for us and we greatly appreciated his help.  I do not think we would have found the place by outselves. 

We checked into our ryokan.  It was not as nice as the ones on the Nakasendo trail.  It also did not cost as much.  We had dinner in the ryokan which consisted of several fish dishes and some pickled veggies.  The sashimi was good.  I did not like the tempura'd flying fish.  I found the meat rather dry and not worth the effort to remove it from the body, especially with chop sticks.  However, the fins were very tasty and crunchy.  A dish of just fins would have been preferred.  We slept that evening on futons. 

Breakfast the next morning was not scrambled eggs and bacon.  All kidding aside, the soba noodles and tea were good.  The rest I had to give to P.  One of the dishes was a type of fermented soy bean sprout concoction that a raw egg was added to and mixed.  I tasted the bean sprouts without the egg and did not like it.  I know all Japanese food is so much cleaner than ours, but I could not bring myself to eat those sprouts with a raw egg.  Visions of salmonella danced in my head.  P and R did, however, and they did not get sick.

At this point, I am about done with futon sleeping and becoming insistent on spending some time in a hot spring and getting a good shiatsu massage.  Apparently, most of the Japanese people I met have never had one!  Hard to believe, I know, but that is what I am told.  One of my must do's for this trip was to experience my favorite type of massage where it was invented.  So, at this point, when the trip is getting closer to being over, I am getting rather insistent because P simply does not understand why I would want to subject myself to such torture.  So, we scout out a hot springs that also offers massage.   After some confusion with the timing, we head over there.  I was a little worried about facilities after what I have heard about this type of bathing in Japan, however, all my fears were unfounded.  They had boys and girls in separate facilities.  So, to keep this short, P went to his side and R and I went to ours.  It was just about the most relaxing experience I have ever had.  Our facility had two pools from the spring, one indoors with a glass window looking out over the ocean and the second out doors with a similar view.  It was cold outside so the outdoor pool was really great!  We spent almost an hour warming in the pools, getting out to cool off and them repeating the cycle.  Afterward, the plan was for all of us to get a massage.  Unfortunately, there was only one masseuse.  (So much is lost in translation here.)  Time did not permit us to spend 3 hours getting worked over.  So, I got the massage.  The masseuse was a young Chinese lady.  When I saw her I was initially worried that she would not be strong enough to do it correctly.  I worried unnecessarily.  I could barely get up afterward, but of course, I felt great.  And even better as the evening wore on.  The aches from the futon were gone.  And no, they were not replaced by others.  I really wanted P and R to experience a good massage.  I guess that it will have to wait for the next trip.

They say that it rains 35 days a month in Yakushima.  I can attest that it rained most of the time we were there.  Most of Yakushima is temperate rainforest.  I grew up in a tropical rainforest and I can see the similarities.  It is soaking wet even when it is not actually raining.  We went up the Senpiro-no-taki water fall which was created by water carving a "V"  through a huge granite boulder.  I have included some pictures of it.  Yakushima is also a world heritage site for its cedar forests.  Some of the trees in the forest are believed to be between 3 and 7 thousand years old.  These old trees have grown into very interesting shapes.  I think the odd trees in Harry Potter must have been modeled after some of these trees. 

These cedar trees have a very high resin content so are very resistant to decay.  In the Edo era, 1600-1800, trees were felled for the bark, used in roofing.  The logs remain, un-decayed. The old cut logs and those felled by typhoon or landslide are the only wood from this island that can be used and it is called domaiboku. 

The next morning, we returned the car after scouting some coffee for me, and boarded the jet boat back to Kagoshima.  We had a little time before the train so we spent it at the aquarium visiting the whale shark, the largest living fish and a plankton eater.  He (she?) was impressive.  But there was much more to see as well.  I recommend the dolphin show and there are many, many interesting creatures in smaller tanks.

We arrived in Asagiri around 8pm.
Nov 24 2010Today was a real treat.  We visited another school were R teaches and then topped off the day with a pot luck dinner.  Several teachers R works with participate with her in a conversation group and they all brought delicious food and good company.  They help R with Japanese and I think she helps them practice English.  We were all able to converse.  It was a very pleasant and interesting evening. 
Nov 25 2010We left for Tokyo this morning.  We are going straight back by train.  The trip will take about 8 hours and we will have to change trains twice.  We will get to Tokyo in early evening and crash. 
Nov 26 2010Today we are on our own and will spend the time getting re organized for the trip back.   
Nov 27 2010This morning we toured Tsukiji Fish Market.  This is the largest fish market in the world.  It not only processes a staggering amount of fish, but also distributes fresh agricultural products.  By the end of the tour, I am of the opinion that there is absolutely nothing in the ocean that we do not harvest and eat.  The most remarkable thing I noticed, however, was the total lack of fish odor.  The "fresh fish" counters in the super markets here in the states smell much more than this enormous processer and wholesaler of fresh fish.  We concluded our tour with a sushi/sashimi lunch in a restaurant across the street from the fish market.  It will be hard to each sushi or sashimi when I get back to the states.  I think I am forever spoiled. 

This evening the Tsai family, except for C as he had to work, got together for a sashimi dinner in Tokyo to say farewell to P and I.  N and her two daughters drove up from Yokahama.  P's mom and sister, L, as well and J and K were there.  We had a sumptuous dinner, said our good byes and called it a night.  We had to be out early in the morning to get to the airport.  James picked us up and took us to the Skyliner train station.  That is the best way to get to or from Narita and Tokyo.  The train takes about an hour and driver takes upward of 2 hrs.  I am sorry this trip is at an end.  I hope we will get visitors from Japan now. 
Nov 28 2010Head for home.  We took the Skyliner train from Tokyo to Narita.  That is the way to go.  It takes about an hour vs 2 by taxi or bus and ends right in the airport.  We hung around the airport for a while and then boarded our flight for a very very very boring flight back to Dulles.  I guess I should be thankful for boring.  I heard a few people had some excitement on Quantas flight to Australia recently.  So, boring is good.  We will land the same day we took off, Sunday, about 1hr and 15 min before we took off from Narita.  Sweet.  I am an hour younger.  I have to do this more often.