13 October 2007

All Your Japan are Belong to Us

We returned last night from a four day tour to the southern part of Honshu (Japan's main island). The first two days we were in Kyoto (half of it spent lost in the Kyoto train station) and the second two days we went further south to Hiroshima, Kurashiki and Okayama.

I would highly recommend anyone visiting Japan to get out of Tokyo and make this loop. We all agreed that ancient Kyoto and laid-back Hiroshima provided a nice balance to frenetic Tokyo. Plus, you get to ride the Shinkansen (bullet train).


Kyoto is about 230 miles from Tokyo (about the distance from Salem to Seattle - CA readers: Bakersfield to San Diego). The bullet train gets you there in two and a half hours. It ain't cheap though: $135 one-way. Round-trip may be cheaper, I don't know.

Kyoto is the fourth-largest city in Tokyo and the ancient capitol. Lucky for us, Kyoto was protected from fire-bombing during WWII. Not sure how the deal went down, but, thank God the US and Japan were able to make this deal. That said, if all you know about Japan in WWII is Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima and Iwo Jima, I encourage you to read Flyboys, rent Fog of War, or at the very least look over this comparison of US and Japanese cities in relation to the US firebombing of Japan. Anyway, I digress . . .

Kyoto is home to many Shinto and Buddhist shrines. The beautiful cherry blossoms scenes from the film Lost in Translation were filmed here (at Heian Shrine, I think). Our guide said, "You may think it strange that a Japanese person can be baptized at a Shinto Shrine, get married at a Christian church and have a Buddhist funeral, but at least we understand them all and do not fight."

We used Sunrise Tours for our adventures. We did a Kyoto "free plan" (train tickets and lodging only). Then we added on the Kyoto full-day tour. If I were to do this again I'd opt for the Kyoto afternoon tour only. In the morning they take you to four sites in as many hours. It's jammed with people and there's little time for the guide to explain what everything is. The afternoon sites are much more scenic and many of the people have left for an afternoon tour of Nara.

Okay, one last thing about Kyoto: the train station is insane. It's hugongous. It's the jumping off point for the bullet train, local train and subway. There's a nine-story shopping mall, a hotel, an underground shopping arcade, a performance hall, and probably some other things as well. The problem is, unless you have a train ticket, you can't go through the middle of the damn thing. So once you're out, there's no way to get from one side to the other (so far as we could tell). Nutty.

I've observed this train station / shopping center phenomena throughout Japan. Their train and subway stations are the nicest you've ever seen. They say shopping is a hobby in Japan and, judging by the train stations, it's true. It's a nice idea though, you can pick up a new dress or fancy dessert on your way home.


Hiroshima and the island of Miyajima were universally enjoyed by everyone. The seventh=largest city in Japan (pop. 1.6 million), Hiroshima had a San Diego vibe to it (in a Japanese way). The city sits on the Inland Sea which is similar to the Mediterranean in color and climate (the Italians on our tour agreed). There is a cable car that runs throughout the downtown area, and a small district in the central city with bars and international restaurants. The people seemed more laid-back than the folks we saw in Tokyo and Kyoto. People rode bikes, lingered to enjoy the scenery, and drove with the windows down.

The first half of the day we explored the island of Miyajima. We saw the famous torii gate and watched deer harass the other tourists. After a leisurely lunch, we caught the ferry back to the mainland and headed over to the A-Bomb Dome and Peace Park.

The A-Bomb Dome, a World Heritage site, was left untouched after the bombing. What's even more remarkable was that it was left standing period. Photos show nearly everything around it was destroyed for a few miles. Next we went to the Peace Park and Museum. There is a 30 minute introductory video explaining what happened the weeks before and after the bombing. I was disappointed that several Americans walked out. Grrrrrrrr. The documentary shows a few photos that are kind of graphic, but that's it. The entire presentation of the US attack on Hiroshima is addressed with classic Japanese reserve. The only quasi-political message is, "Bombs are Bad, MmKay?"

The next day we travelled to Kurashiki. About one hour from Hiroshima, Kurashiki is a small artistic community and farm town that survived WWII mostly intact. We were able to see what a traditional Japanese village looked like - with original buildings! The original buildings part is really important because, almost everywhere you go in Japan the historical building is a "faithful reproduction." Between the earthquakes and WWII, a lot of ancient Japan has been destroyed. Well, that's not exactly true, it's more like it's a patchwork. You can't tell of course, it all looks beautiful, but you'll be looking at, say, an ancient temple and the guide will say, "the pillars are original from the 12th century, but the roof was rebuilt in 1850."

After Kurashiki we went to Okayama. Most foreigners will remember Okayama for its beautiful garden (est. 1687, burned down 1945, re-opened 1952). For Mom and I, it was an important place and the reason for our trip south. In 1914, Mom's grandparents (on her Mom's side) left Okayama-ken for the United States. Our guide said many families left the region around that time, but the only reason she gave was, "to look for better opportunity." The grandparents last name, Iwata, is fairly common in Japan. The other set of grandparents have a less-common name and we don't know where in Japan they came from, when or why they left.

After Okayama we got back on the bullet train for home. There was a nice couple from Genoa, Italy on our tour and we stayed with them for the first leg of our train trip. The gal (Olivia) spoke English well. She explained that, for Italians, visiting Japan was, in some ways, cheaper than staying home because the Euro is so strong abroad. She was right most of the Caucasians we saw were from Spain, Italy, Australia, or New Zealand. From other races we saw a lot of Indians and Chinese.

Now we're back in Tokyo for a few more days. I'm looking forward to not living out of a backpack and plan to visit Shibuya (Tokyo's Times Square) and Kappabashi-dori (where the plastic food comes from).

No comments: