Kumano Kodo pt 1: Dawn in Osaka, Sunset in Takahara

We got the aforementioned overnight bus at Shinjuku Station.

It looked very much like a regular bus. I don’t know what I was expecting with the “dream liner” seats we purchased (not first class, but not economy), but I thought perhaps more than regular bus seats that flattened a bit more. Perks included: bus slippers (Liam immediately put his foot through the paper top), blankets and pillows.  We left the station at 10:30pm, which made sleeping easier (as did the bottle of Caol Ila Liam brought with him). Comfort or not, it was still a ten hour bus trip from Tokyo to Osaka. I woke up early with bus pains.

Sunrise in Osaka was an interesting experience. It’s a busy city, but like many big cities it was quiet at sunrise.  Groggy, we hopped off the train, grabbed our backpacks, and immediately searched for coffee.  Our train to Tanabe was not until 11am, which gave us roughly three hours to enjoy this incredibly popular Japanese city.

We chose Osaka castle and Dotonbori as our tourist spots.

I thought Osaka castle was lovely. We didn’t have time to go in, but the grounds were beautiful and not too crowded. Liam and I pondered how they moved the large stones for the walls. The stones were gifts from other warlords in the area – did they push the rocks on trees, perhaps? As always, early morning is the best way to beat the tourist crowds. As we were leaving, no less than four large tourist parties pushed forward, flags and mascot sticks held high.

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This is the largest stone in the wall. It’s so big, it gets its own photo spot (no mosaic setup)!

Dotonbori as a big shopping street/district, and perhaps one of the most iconic sights in Osaka. I did not take advantage of the shopping; I was in a hiking mentality. The only thing I bought was sunblock. Still, I saw the giant crab statue! I bet seeing it at night would really be something. I love eccentric capitalism. I was still feeling fried from the bus trip, so it was also mildly overwhelming.

Osaka made a great first impression and I felt a little sad to leave it after only a few hours. Still, it was exciting to head south, watching the grey cityscape turn to beaches and the smaller towns of Wakayama. I slept on the train – about two hours from Tennoji to Kiitanabe. Once in Kiitanabe, I used the information in our Kumano Kodo travel pack that I prepaid for. We had to take a bus to the start of the trail. Luckily, the bus stop is literally next to the station.

(If you are interested, you can also visit the Kumano Tourist office, which is located on the first block across from the station. Walk through the small plaza and you’ll see it on the right. It’s a small, welcoming space that sells some branded items, as well as maps and camping/hiking gear) – on a Google Map near Kiitanabe station, it’s labeled クマノトラベル . Munching on cold sausage and spaghetti sandwiches, we caught the bus heading to Takijiri-oji (one of the last stops on the bus, so be advised that you’re going to ride for farther than you might think). We stamped our Kumano Kodo stamp books at the community center there, grabbed some iced umesh to refresh ourselves, and started the official hike.

Yes, be advised: If you aren’t staying in Tanabe or somewhere beforehand, getting from Osaka to the start of the Kumano Kodo is going to take a few hours. Plan your trip accordingly.

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I’m always a little surprised by how little fanfare actually follows that first step. Much is made of starting a journey, or so I thought, yet every time I start a big trip I find that the start is a little less momentous than I thought it would seem. As I passed the giant boulder announcing the start of the pilgrimage, I did not feel a great presence. I searched for a connection to history, or a stirring in my soul, and I didn’t feel much. I felt a little apprehensive, a little travel-weary, and a little hot. You can’t force it, I admonished myself mentally. If you get a moment of grace, it won’t be because you’re demanding it.

Second note: the start of the Kumano Kodo is a steep uphill climb. It’s series of stone and root stairs, with not a lot of flat space or saddles to relax your muscles. Stretch. Stretch before you climb! I did not, and I started to struggle with the constant incline. From Takijiri-oji to our first stop at Takahara it was just over 4km. We paused to climb through the cave that was said to symbolize giving birth, and paused for our stamp books at the small designated shrine boxes.

The sun was setting as we reached Takahara. The rough path turned to a road, and suddenly we were up above the trees and looking down into a glorious valley of green. The beauty of late spring was everywhere, the hills stretching out into the distance. We paused, soaking in the sun and the view. I found a bench near the small community center, and sat under the giant carp flags flapping lazily overhead. A large chorus of frogs sang in the small ravines below me, and farmers worked in rice flats and vegetable patches.

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We were so lucky, I thought, to get to stay in such an idyllic spot. Little did I know that our accommodations for the night would be some of the best I have ever used. We stayed in a small cabin called Suzushiro, rented by a lovely family in the small hamlet. Our host, Kashiwagi-san, walked us over and gave us a tour of the tiny home. He said he would return to bring us our boxed dinner we had ordered. As Liam and I oohed and aahed over how well everything fit together in the small space, I went out onto the patio and immediately decided I could live at Suzushiro forever.  The views, the fragrant tea fields, the singing frogs – everything was picture perfect.

I had assumed when I bought the additional meal option with our tour that we would be eating simple bento boxes – rice balls, dried fish, mushrooms, etc. I did not anticipate a luxury bento filled with tempura, udon, and our our individual sukiyaki pots! It was more than I could have hoped for. Liam and I ate like monarchs and reveled in our food, which tasted like ambrosia after bus sandwiches, black 7-11 coffee, and steep hiking.

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As I fell asleep, I was aware of my own contentment. It’s a rare feeling, contentment. I knew that the real hiking would begin at dawn the next day, but as I drifted off to the sounds of frogs and the sensation of being held in the night I paused and allowed myself to be fully present and happy in the moment. Small victories.

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A One Time Event

“Let’s try it once, so we can say we’ve done it. And then let’s never do it again.”

“Agreed.”

I’ve been curious, so very, very curious.

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I have a lot of angry feelings about how Japan harvests from the sea – the tuna population is in collapse, changes to yearlong trawling practices are going slowly and against a hungry market that demands cheap fish. Then there is the whaling. Japanese whaling has faced a lot of criticism because Japanese ships sail well into the ocean to harvest whales, and does so by exploiting (a strong word, but an accurate one) loopholes in the global ban on commercial whaling.

It’s a part of Japanese history. It’s also on the menu at the sushi restaurant Liam and I found at Yokohama. I’ve been looking for a replacement conveyor belt sushi restaurant ever since my favorite shut down. We found this friendly, smelly restaurant tucked in behind a pachinko parlor and across the street from a trendy new pizzeria bar. The waiter provided us a flashcard menu with pictures accompanied by Japanese, Korean, and English names.

I have avoided whale since coming to Japan on moral grounds, but I have also been curious about the taste. What could be so alluring about whale that it continues to be hunted for food, despite not accounting for any significant portion of the Japanese diet?

One portion, one piece for each of us.

The meat was a dark – almost purple like the skin of an eggplant, except it was also red. Full of mild, moral trepidation, I ate the whale. I would like to say it tasted horrible, or had a bad mouth feel like a chunk of squid. It did not.

I don’t know if it’s ok to tell you, my reader, what the whale tasted like. I do not want to encourage you to try it and see for yourself. While I did not find the taste repulsive, I didn’t find it delicious enough to condone the practice of getting it.

That is perhaps what you should take away from my experience – whale tastes fine, but it doesn’t taste good enough to warrant killing the whale for it. Don’t go out and see for yourself. Take my word for it.

…And into the Incinerator

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I got a letter from Japan Post, after failing to get that package.

I felt convinced it was going to tell me that I needed to go to Kawasaki to get this mysterious package. After asking and acting like a hopeless dope, I finally confirmed that the package was not my government ID card (my MyCard), which would have also required a signature. Turns out I got that weeks ago and filed it away so quickly I didn’t even realize I had gotten it.

Here is the essence of the letter:

“Someone is sending you bacon. You can’t import bacon into Japan. Do you want to return the bacon, or incinerate it?”

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…….

…….

…….

Yes, my father had sent me pre-cooked, microwaveable bacon. Japan found out, and Japan sent me all the friendly documents about what is ok and not ok to send to Japan. Shouldn’t they have sent this to my family? Also the meat wasn’t raw, or alive. It’s like sending someone jerky – I wonder if it’s illegal to import jerky into Japan…The brochure doesn’t say. It’s full of friendly looking officers and lists of “cloven hoofed” animals that can’t enter Japan, not to mention fish. Also “foul broods” of honeybees.

But here was the kicker – it was up to me to decide what to do with this illegal bacon.

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I do like bacon a lot. I’m not a bacon fanatic, though I do know a few. I felt a certain…internet pressure not to harm the bacon in any way (unless it was to eat it – that’s ok). However, as some of my friends here pointed out, if I sent it back my family would probably have to pay the cost of return.

The choice weighed heavy on me. It looks so final, doesn’t it? Return it, or INCINERATE IT. I pictured this gentle, unassuming package of pre-cooked bacon being thrown into an Orwellian furnace, wondering what it had done to deserve such treatment.

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I bet you can, you little snitch.

(I keep saying “pre-cooked” because it’s important that you understand that my family does not send me raw meat. I’m not a huge fan of  pre-cooked bacon myself, but in terms of practicality it’s one of the few bacon products that doesn’t require refrigeration, aside from bacon jerky and bacon bits, one of which I do like.)

I gave myself two whole days to decide what to do with the bacon. I asked co-workers their opinions, which varied once they stopped laughing at me. I considered what else was in the package that I would eventually get after I told them what to do with the meat.

Then, with heavy finality, I sent the bacon to the fires. What would you have done? Launch a daring raid on the Kawasaki Customs building in an effort to rescue the bacon? How many lives would you be willing to risk? HOW MANY – for BACON?!

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A Few Hours in Atlanta

I’ve been in Atlanta the past weekend, attending the A-Town Throwdown Stage Combat workshop. There, I learned to crack a bullwhip, throw a knife, and renewed my proficiencies in knife and single sword combat (neither a recommended pass, to my great, irksome chagrin. Turns out I still have a bruise-able ego.).

As the vast majority of my time – 8am-7pm each day – was spent on the Georgia Tech campus studying fabricated violence, I had only one afternoon to enjoy being a tourist in Atlanta. Here is what I did with that time.

I asked my hotel registration desk what was worth doing at 4pm on a Thursday. I heard there was an underground mall, the Civil Rights Museum, a giant aquarium – too much to do in a single afternoon that was already heading towards evening. The friendly woman at the Courtyard suggested I go see The World of Coke, as that was the most “touristy” thing I could do.

So I did!

There used to be a World of Coca-Cola in Las Vegas, which my family visited regularly. Riding up the glass Coca-Cola bottle elevator, one could go through a lovely museum, followed by a “Coke fountain” that had sensor and would fling soda into your glass like magic. There was a tasting room with Coca-Cola products from around the world. Many years ago they shut down the museum/tasting part of the Coca-Cola experience. Now it’s just a two-story store full of paraphernalia, accompanied by a single soda fountain. It’s lost it’s warmth. It’s nice for fans of gear, but it’s pure capitalism. The museum is now an Outback Steakhouse. (Should you find yourself near that area of the Strip, opt for the M&M store instead. It smells like children, but it’s far more entertaining.)

Note: The World of Coke closes at 5pm, but you can still get into the World of Coke up to that point. The museum itself is open until 6:30. I showed up at 4:55pm, and they let me in. To be fair, I was very enthusiastic and sweet/hopeful. The cost of an adult ticket is around $18.

 

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The World of Coke is a glorious contradiction. It’s Disney-level gizmo and delight, sound effects and bright colors and a complete sense of “We aren’t in it for the money!” when they clearly are. I found it charming, like being around a good flirt who knows exactly what he’s doing but is pretending like he doesn’t. There are rooms simply packed with antiques and famous Coca-Cola products. There are happy, crisp employees who are always smiling and welcoming, despite the fact that I was part of the last group and they’ve clearly said the same dialogue a hundred times before I showed up.

I’ll admit it – I like Coca-Cola, and I am susceptible to sentimentality. This place has both in full force. Coca-Cola: reuniting families! Coca-Cola: inspiring adventure! Coca-Cola: racially progressive! Coca-Cola: started at 5 cents a bottle, went to 6 cents after several generations, and yet somehow now costs over a dollar (i.e. the price seems to be rising steeply as of late.) But then there are actually interesting, helpful things that Coca-Cola does. They’re recycling plastic bottles into t-shirts, and composting their own waste in the park outside. It’s a genuinely nice thing to see.

I was lucky to be there at closing time. Judging from the turnstiles and the roped off sections, the place seems like it could get really packed. I imagine the shiny, happy, vibe dissipates in the presence of hundreds of people. If crowds are not your thing, early morning/near closing is my recommendation.

Lonely Coca-Cola Bear aimlessly pushing the directions sign.

Lonely Coca-Cola Bear aimlessly pushing a sign around as the lower level begins to close.

While there is no dancing fountain of Coke (which I was assured did exist at one point), there is the tasting area, with the global sodas. Turns out I love BonBon Anglais from Madagascar, which made me think of bananas. I also enjoyed Greece’s Pineapple Fanta. Italy’s Beverly soda was the worst, just the worst. It tasted like old boiled leather baked with expired cotton candy. I don’t know why they were pushing everyone to try it, unless it was to prove to the creators that they had made a mistake.

Then you get a complimentary bottle of Coca-Cola before you hit the gift store – I mean, it was a great way to spend an hour and a half. It is a happy place – there is a sense that Coca-Cola just might be a key to fixing the human condition. I highly recommend it. From there, if you were to have a whole day instead of an afternoon, you could easily visit the Georgia Aquarium which is just across the small park. By then it was around 6:30 and the aquarium was closed. While waiting for my shuttle, I walked across the street to the Olympic Park, and noted the number of businesses I recognized. The CNN building is there, and the American Cancer Society. It was an impressive skyline.

Can't go wrong with a classic Coke

Can’t go wrong with a classic Coke

BonBob c'est très bien!

BonBob c’est très bien!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For dinner, I was pointed toward the South City Kitchen in Midtown. My shuttle driver, Tim, said it was a great place for soul food that wouldn’t break the bank. When I called there was an hour and change wait time, but when I arrived there was one seat left at the bar. I claimed it, and proceeded to gorge on food. Tim was correct – it was delicious. I had my first mint julep (pass – mint and whiskey and sugar did not work as I had hoped). The buttermilk fried chicken was excellent. I’m a sucker for rhubarb, and they had strawberry rhubarb hand pies.

Mint Julep!

Mint Julep!

Buttermilk fried chicken, collard greens, and mashed potatoes. This kept me fed for two dinners!

Buttermilk fried chicken, collard greens, and mashed potatoes. This kept me fed for two dinners!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Waddling back to my hotel, I couldn’t help but feel as though I had done well for four hours in Atlanta. Enough, in fact, to write a post in my travel blog about how you can do the same! (Aside: I stayed at the Courtyard Midtown, and they were lovely. Except for the lack of free breakfast, they were wonderful people, and the scenery in the actual courtyard was inviting and appealing)

 

 

Olympic Park

Olympic Park

Mussels at Montmatre, Macaroons at Midnight

Winding up Paris, I went to Montmatre. An elevated section of Paris, Montmatre’s largest monument is Sacre-Cœur Cathedral.

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I think it manages the feat of being imposing no matter the weather or background. Boring gray skies or bright fluffy clouds, the cathedral on a hill always looks solemn and secure. The interior holds a glorious mosaic dome and some stunning masonry. You can’t take pictures inside Sacre-Cœur, but I am comfortable with that. It helps the place keep some mystery. While I believe that no cathedral can match the Gothic soulfulness of Notre Dame in terms of spiritual design, I have to give credit to the Montmatre Cathedral for being a working spiritual site. I’m not sure if that’s very clear, so I’ll try to explain.

When I enter Notre Dame, I can feel the work that went in to trying to reach God. There’s a sense of effort and toil in the dark archways, the vault straining to reach heaven, to allow for prayers to find the Almighty. I like to imagine I can feel the millions of souls who came to witness its building over the years, the pilgrims on their long marches. However, Notre Dame is now one of the most famous tourist sites in all of Paris. People walk through the halls in a continuous circle, many to photograph the windows or that same vaulted ceiling. They are not there to pray – they’re there to see. This is fine, and as a Catholic I can take a certain measure of pride that my holy buildings can attract so much attention.

In contrast, Sacre-Cœur is a newer cathedral. It does not carry so many centuries of faith on its shoulders. While it welcomes all visitors to see its beautiful interior, it does not allow for photography. When I walk through Sacre-Cœur I’m conscious of the people still praying in the pews. I’m aware of the role of the objects in the space, more than how I could be framing them in my camera phone. In a way, Sacre-Cœur makes me more mindful of the role of a church. Notre Dame makes me proud, and Sacre-Cœur makes me humble.

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It helps that to get to Sacre-Cœur you must climb the steps of Montmatre – nothing humbles like a steep climb. Get off at Metro stop Abbesses and turn left to start the gentle incline upward. You have three options at the base of the stairs – you can either climb the steep stairs straight up (roughly ten sets of fifteen), you can take the garden stairs with the gentler slope, or ride the funicular up the slope at the cost of one metro ticket. If you have bad knees or a wonky hip, there is no shame in taking the funiculaire. If you are my military brother who likes to emphasize his actions by singing the “Top Gun” soundtrack when doing anything, you might as well take the stairs.

Once the haven of artists, free thinkers, and prostitutes, Montmatre is now home to caricature artists, tourists shops, and cafes. When the weather is good one of the plazas is ringed with artists, all painting tiny oils of boulangeries, boring spray painted Parisian skylines, or pencil drawings of monuments which look very much like they did not actually make them. I bought a painting here when I was in high school, at the cost of 45 euros. I can only imagine what they’re charging now – this last trip it was evening and drizzling, so the plaza was bare save for a few brave caricaturists.

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Montmatre is, in my opinion, a good place to buy the cheap Paris trinkets for friends. They’re slightly cheaper than at Notre Dame or the Eifel Tower (I think because not as many people are willing to climb the hill) – so if you want a scarf or a keychain, this is where I recommend going. And don’t go to the large “tourist” store right off the funiculaire. Go to one of the small shops on the side streets leading away from Sacre-Cœur, closer to the artist’s square.

Would you like a keychain?

Would you like a keychain?

Ok, are you SURE you don't want a keychain?

Ok, are you SURE you don’t want a keychain?

If you go around a mealtime, I recommend eating at La Petaudiare, a piano bar located on the main stretch of shops. It’s roughly two blocks from the artist’s square, a corner. It deals primarily in Italian food – pizza and pasta. It is not fancy, and it is certainly not unique, but I eat there every time I go to Paris. Though it’s no longer on the menu, when I asked they said they still make moules-frites, which is my go to dish at La Petaudiare. They make them in a white wine broth that is creamy but not thick. They also make passable escargot, a dad’s favorite. The wine list is serviceable, the atmosphere dismissive in a Parisian way, save for the excellent piano player who is clearly enjoying his work. Tip him when you come in and he’ll play almost anything for you. I also like it because the prices are quite fair.

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There are other things to do around Montmatre. If you walk down the hill opposite from Abbesses you wind up in one of the more blue-collar markets, filled with knock off shoes and bags. There’s a large collection of fabric stores here as well, and at the end of the street you are not too far from the Moulin Rouge. This establishment is best viewed at night from the outside, as during the day it looks a little sad. Be on the lookout for pickpockets – this is a big area for them. That night, I make the last stop for treats to take back.

My splurge for friends back home are macaroons from La Duree. These tasty cake/cookie confections are pricey, to be sure, yet they are delicious all the same. There are also chocolates, pastries, tarts, coffee, and a cafe should you wish to do more than hit up the macaroon buffet.

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Though I will say, the buffet is worth it. I recommend buying the night before you fly out, since macaroons don’t keep. There are, of course, other places to buy macaroons, however I think La Duree wins for showmanship. Lovely cardboard boxes, tissue paper – they make it look like you are spending the money you are indeed spending.

Pricey, but worth it.

Pricey, but worth it.