Saturday, July 6, 2013

Nikko and the Wise Monkeys

As great as Tokyo is, Japan has much more to offer.  Hokkaido to the north offers abundant natural wonders and world class skiing in the winter time.  Okinawa to the south offers a tropical climate with sun soaked beaches.  And in between you have bustling Osaka, historic Kyoto, and much more, each worth a visit in its own right.

For this particular trip to Japan, I made a quick overnight trip to Nikko, which is about two hours north of Tokyo.  I had never been to Nikko, an area with many hot springs as well as historic shrines dating back to A.D. 800.  I had previously been to several other areas with springs and onsens around Tokyo, such as Hakone and Kinugawa.  I had enjoyed them, and my friends encouraged me to give Nikko a try before I flew out of Japan once more.  So with two days free before my flight, I headed north.

The weather was quite cloudy and a little chilly, with occasional sprinkles.  Normally, this would dampen my mood, but I was first headed to the Toshogu shrine, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Japan also categorizes it as one of its official National Treasures.  Somehow, the cloudy, somber weather fit my visit.  The shrine dates back to the Tokugawa era and I struggled to remember what I could of the history of these times. I vaguely remembered snippets from a couple of classes in college, but probably more from reading James Clavell’s Shogun novel when I was on a beach somewhere in my younger days.  I have no idea how factual his novel was, but the book sure was entertaining reading.

I was unsure what to expect from the Toshogu shrine, but I wandered around until I found the famous “hear no evil” monkeys.  I have no idea why they are called the “Three Wise Monkeys”, because they certainly don’t look particularly smart to me.  Perhaps this is another example of a cultural gap.  I stared at them for awhile, trying to figure them out, and them moved on.

The shrine was quite crowded despite the wet weather.  Not surprisingly, a large percentage of the tourists were mainland Chinese.  It seems everywhere I go now, I run into Chinese tour groups, which is very different than ten years ago.  It just reminded me how much I stunk at foreign languages.  Those Pimsleur tapes aren't working yet! Speaking Mandarin certainly would be a great asset these days, but realistically I have a better chance at mastering nuclear physics than speaking Mandarin.

As I roamed around, I eventually noticed a long queue snaking up a hill.  I didn’t have a guidebook with me, so I had no real idea what I was looking at.  But I am in Japan; if there is a line, I will go stand in it.

When I reached the top, I found that the summit was a simple place to offer prayers.  Well, OK I guess.  I don’t recall exactly what I prayed for, but I bowed my head for a moment or two and then headed back down.  I stumbled around for a little longer, admiring the buildings but admittedly kind of ignorant as to what exactly I was looking at (other than knowing that the place was a Tokugawa era UNESCO heritage site).  Everything was certainly pretty enough regardless.

Eventually, I came across a building where a monk gave a short bilingual history of the shrine.  Now I was able to make a little sense out of the areas that I had been wandering around aimlessly.  Argh, I wish I had come to this building first.  I walked around for a bit more, and by this time the weather was clearing up just a little bit.

Eventually, I tired, so decided to head over to my inn, which was in a nearby village facing a pretty lake.  I found it easily and checked in, eager for a hot Japanese bath.  The baths in the inn are fed by thermal spring water, and soaking in the hot spa goodness felt oh so nice.  Better yet, the views from the tub were amazing.  I would normally have been worried about people on the outside being able to look into my bath and see me in my natural wonder, but the entire village was pretty much deserted.  So I soaked feeling quite content, until my body got eventually got too warm to stay in any longer.

Feeling refreshed, I decided to explore the village. I must have arrived during off season, because everything was empty.  Lots of evidence suggested that this village was a resort destination during the summer, but this time of year many of the places were closed and boarded up.  That was fine by me, because the emptiness added to the tranquility of the lake.  Even the cloudy skies seemed appropriate.

After my walk, I returned back to inn for a simple traditional Japanese dinner.  It was exquisite.  I don’t know exactly what I ate, but the meal was delicious and a perfect ending to the day.  I spent the rest of the evening just looking out my window.  As cynical as I can be at times, I really felt at peace, even if was fleeting.  Was I getting my zen on? Without really trying, I fell asleep sometime that evening, and I awoke fairly refreshed.

The following morning was still cloudy.  I had time for another hike around the lake, so I decided to go in the opposite direction from the prior afternoon.  I came across various camp sites and trails, and took my time enjoying the walk and the views.

All too soon, it was time for me to leave Nikko (and Japan), and head to Narita Airport.  

My only thought was that I didn’t want to wait another two years before returning to this very special country.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Tokyo, Tsukiji and Pretty Maids All In a Row

Tokyo remains one of my favorite cities in the world.  I lived there for several years (an eon ago), and have visited the city innumerable times since.  Unfortunately, like many familiar places, I never really thought to take photos since I never thought of Tokyo as a “destination” per se. While not quite home any more, it's always a place where I would be drawn back, so I never felt the need (or an urgency) to capture those memories on film (or an SD card as the case may be).

I inevitably find myself missing this cosmopolitan city if I am away too long.  To me, Tokyo is on one hand the most “foreign” city in the world, and on the other hand a very comfortable and comforting city as well, which kind of makes sense since Tokyo itself is a constant juxtaposition of contradictions.  Every Japanese here studies English, but no one claims to speak it.  Everyone loves foreign culture, even K-pop and K-dramas, but almost everyone is incredibly xenophobic.  Tokyo is a very interesting place to visit for a few days, but these seemingly puzzling nuances make the city an unbelievably rewarding place to stay to linger for awhile and discover its charms.  There is no other place in the world quite like Tokyo.  Like I said, it is a foreign planet.

I found myself back in this Lost in Translation city after a two year hiatus.  Many things were the same, and some things were different, but the Grand Hyatt in Roppongi remains the same hip and serene (again “contradictions") place to stay for me.  I found a welcome back invitation in my room for a manager’s reception, which was nice and thoughtful.  Entering the Hyatt’s French Kitchen brought back a comfortable sense of déjà vu, and getting an update on the city from the hotel manager over cocktails and appetizers was a great way to settle in.

I would spend much of this trip seeing old friends, renewing business acquaintances, and of course, visiting my favorite haunts.  Some things had changed, but the things I loved about this city remain essentially the same: the people, the culture, the food, and the aura.  And of course, the Bauhaus is still the Bauhaus, with Kay-chan still belting out the classic rock and roll tunes as he has done on most nights for decades.

There was one thing I had never done in Tokyo.  The Tsukiji Fish Market is world famous and one of Tokyo’s top tourist destinations.  I had never bothered because one needs to visit very early in the morning, which is difficult if nursing a Roppongi hangover.  Besides, I always figured I could go some other time.  However, Tokyo will soon replace this aging 1935 mecca, so I decided I should finally haul myself out of bed early enough to check it out, even with that all-too-familiar Roppongi hangover.

Heading into the always-clean Tokyo subway, I might have stood out a bit in my slightly disheveled state, earning a glance here and there from the vigilant subway attendants.

I got off at the right metro stop, but then puzzled over which way to go.  I don’t read or speak Japanese, other than taxi-cab survival words, so I decided just to follow the crowd.  One problem, of course, is that there are crowds everywhere in Tokyo going in every which direction, even early in the morning!

Along the way, I passed many stalls selling all sorts of seafood, so I figured I was going in the right direction.

Soon I saw it, the famous Tsukiji Fish Market!  Hmm, wait.  It doesn't look THAT impressive.

Perhaps it was better inside?  I had actually arrived a little late and thus missed the all important tuna auction, but I decided to enter and wander around and see what I could see anyway.

The market stalls were still open, with customers and tourists browsing around.  Much of the business, however, appears to be wholesale, as expected, so big forklifts often blocked the cramped walk ways.

Some vendors cut the frozen tuna by machine, while others preferred the tried-and-true axe method.

The market was big and bustling, but it was so far a little bit of a disappointment.  Then I saw Japan Elvis!  Now that was a pleasant surprise.  He even winked at me.

Seeing the inevitable leftover fish carcasses, and almost stepping into it because someone left it on the walkway...well, that was a less pleasant surprise.

Still, it was hard not to admire how laboriously everyone was going about their business.

I left the market wondering what the big fuss was about.  Tsukiji is big and old, but I think I would have preferred to have slept in.  Maybe I hadn't missed much all these years.  Or perhaps I would feel differently had I witnessed the actual tuna auction, but I doubt it.  One thing for sure, however, is the sight of all that fresh fish made me hungry.  There were many vendors along the street back to the metro, and I stopped at one.  Needless to say, the sushi was fresh and delicious.  Yummy.

I made a slight detour to Akihabara on the way back.  Akihabara is the electronic goods center of the city, where supposedly you can find anything electronics oriented, as well as some items that are supposedly not yet on the market.  It's basically a place that any geek or nerd would love.  Some people think I might fall into that category, but the jury is still out.

Akihabara also is the home for another “only in Japan” phenomenon…the “maid café.”  I have never been in one, but they are everywhere.  My friend explained to me that basically these are normal cafes except the servers are dressed (somewhat skimpily) as maids.  Their job is to make conversation with the customer (presumably the male nerd who has been shopping for the next must-have Nintendo accessory) and to tell him specifically how handsome and manly he is.  Apparently there is no hanky-panky, only ego boosting conversation.  I don’t really understand it, but again, this is Japan.

I did notice, however, that if one was not entirely happy with the available maids, one could buy a costume and perhaps recruit your own.

I ended up buying neither any electronic goods nor the maid costume, and just returned to my hotel empty handed (though my stomach was thankful for the delicious sushi).  I needed to rest up for the rest of my Tokyo stay.  I would spend the rest of my Tokyo trip sticking to the tried and true that I had grown to love over the years.  And while some things had changed, I left the city feeling great to have returned once more.