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 Weekend of Cultural Woofs

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Sakura season is coming to an end – by the time this goes to print I think all but the sturdiest cherry blossoms will have been stripped by the powerful winds that have been blowing through Yokohama/Tokyo the past few days. I have a sort of philosophy about Sakura and why it’s so popular here in Japan, but I will save that for another post.

Taking advantage of the beautiful weather, I took a weekend to enjoy some cultural events in the Tokyo area.

First, I headed to Naka-Meguro after getting a Facebook suggested post. It said, “Go to the Danish Royal Embassy and see the floral arrangements!” So off I went. I’ve never been around Naka-Meguro that much. It reminded me of Chicago’s North side a little bit, full of boutiques and a multinational collection of restaurants. Just outside the Embassy a giant tree was losing its leaves, so I got the strangest conflict of impressions, as the street, temperature, and scents made me think of autumn, even though spring was all around

The cost of the Danish exhibit “YELL” is 500 yen. And let me say, it’s worth it if you have the time to spare (it runs till April 27).

On the eternal debate between flowers and chocolate, I fall firmly in the flowers camp. There’s more variety with flowers, better smells, and as neither chocolate nor flowers last forever I’d prefer to have the colors and variety. Looking at master arrangements can be just as thought-provoking as more traditional artwork, and Mr. Bergmann’s arrangements evoke a range of emotions, from austere wheat spheres to loud and brash collections of stems and blooms. I was impressed with the sheer variety of plants on display.

I also enjoyed the temporary structure of the gallery – pine and canvas that suggested camping and emphasized the fleeting nature of the installments. I love it when space and purpose meet. I bet I’m not alone in this thought…

There are other pieces as well, as there appears to be an upcoming celebration of Danish-Japanese relations in May (I would link to the websites, but they are all coming up as “suspicious” by my virus software. I don’t want to post bad links). When I get more information, I will try to post it here.

After the Danish exhibit, I headed further into Tokyo to attend the second of my cultural events – the 10th annual Tokyo Wan-Wan Festival in Yoyogi Park! What’s a Wan-Wan?

Why this is!

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It’s the Japanese interpretation of a dog’s bark. I think it’s fun to compare how something as “universal” as a dog’s bark gets translated across the globe. I believe I read somewhere that dogs bark in different languages (*Google search* yep, here is an example). And the Japanese take almost too good care of their dogs. Clothes, strollers, custom grooming – these are the fanciest of dogs.

I miss my own dogs. It’s one of the hardest things about living abroad; leaving all my animals behind. So this was my opportunity to shamelessly pet some fluffy doges, doggos, and puppers. The festival was far larger than I anticipated, with rows of dog-related stalls selling custom treats, leashes, and clothing. There was a space for showing off the well-groomed dogs, a space for demonstrating tricks, and at least two or three other spaces the purposes of which I did not figure out.

This is obviously my shameless attempt to lure readers with pictures of dogs. Here you go:

 

After this, I went to Shibuya to meet up with some coworkers. I took a final photo of another, more famous dog, and went out for a night of carousing. Nomihodai (all you can drink), combini beers, and some mucking about in the famous crowded crossing of Shibuya square. I met some of my former students, and was luckily not so drunk as to agree to go clubbing with them. I also met an “avant-garde” jazz musician who was photographing his cover art along one of the avenues.

All in all, this was a fine day.  Sometimes I fear that I get so caught up in the day-to-day of working in Japan that I forget that I’m actually living in Japan. When I was in China, there were not many means of getting out of my city, but everything was so utterly different that my daily life did not have a recognizable routine. Here it’s different. I have co-workers, a full day of classes, and a pattern that repeats itself. My company enjoys and promotes this sort of unchanging repetition I believe, and that’s alright. Nevertheless, it’s important to take the opportunity to go out into the world, especially when the world offers such wonderful sights.

Red Rock Canyon: Hiatus, then Hiking

I took an unexpected and rather abrupt hiatus from this blog, as you might have noticed.

Perhaps it was the election. Perhaps it was my sudden bout with sore throats and abdominal pain. Perhaps it was the conclusion of my Japanese contract. Perhaps it was all of this that crippled my desire to write.

If it makes you feel any better, dear reader, I didn’t write anywhere else either. I didn’t work on my book. I wrote no poetry. I kept no dream journal. I barely touched my actual personal journal. By all measurements, my ability to write simply dried up like a desert streambed in summer.

Speaking of…

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Before my recent re-relocation to Japan (having gone home briefly), I visited one of my favorite places in the United States: Red Rock Canyon just outside of Las Vegas, Nevada. I don’t know if Red Rock Canyon is my favorite spot – I love the Sequoias in California, the Hudson River Valley, and the tumult of Chicago – but it certainly ranks. If I had to give it a number one rank, it would be “Favorite place to go in the winter.” The desert in winter is something alien and unexpected. There is snow in the mountains, and in the late winter the melt swells the streams.

I’ve been going to Red Rock Canyon since I was a child. We’d always go in the late summer or mid-spring, coinciding with spring breaks and the end of summer vacations. I remember finding the small spherical stones that had fallen off the sandstone like pimples (I learned later they were vaguely magnetic, attracting particles around them). It’s not a national park, but it is protected under the BLM’s National Conservation Areas, specifically for the tortoises. When I was young, there was nothing leading to the park – a sparse collection of old gas stations and parched houses. Now, Summerlin abuts the park almost to the inch of the protected space.

When I visited in February, it was with the intention of seeing the sunrise. Unfortunately, it was a rainy day in the desert, so there was no sunrise to watch. The sign at the gate warned against climbing on the sandstone (already a slick stone). Though I didn’t get the sunrise, I got a bounty of other sensations. Desert plants must act fast, and the aromas getting out of my car hit me like a wall of spices. Mesquite, yucca, agave sage – these are the plants that opened up to welcome the brief morning rain, and the scent was cleansing.

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Looking out over the vast living landscape, full of cacti that would dry out in a few months, pools of water that wouldn’t last, I felt free again. There is something so…fragile about the desert. I find it almost unbearable to be in Red Rock in the heat of the summer, when everything is bleached and dry and desperately holding on. But in the winter, the colors deepen and the whole place comes brilliantly alive (the desert is always alive, mind you, but its much more practical about it in the summer).

So I hiked around Calico Hills, the patchwork sandstone mounds near the entrance of the park. I kept a lookout for animals, but saw only hummingbirds and a hawk. I met a nice Naval man on the trails, who proved good company and thankful hiking buddy (I kept my distance from him for awhile at first, uneasy at being alone). From Calico Hills, I went back to my car and started the long scenic drive through the park.

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Note: Make sure you get gas before you arrive at the Park. There is no access point out of the park once you start the scenic drive – it’s a big loop.

I’ve hiked part of Pine Creek Canyon, about three-quarters of the way through the 13 mile scenic drive, but I’ve yet to hike the whole thing. I get too interested at the beginning, where they did a controlled fire. There are Ponderosa pines there, and I’ve seen the wild burros once as well. It’s a forest that doesn’t belong in the desert, which is why it’s so fascinating. Much like the geological face of the mountains, which feature old rock pushed on top of younger rock (due to the fault lines), it’s sort of out of place. I love it.

Sitting on a rock, I watched the stream/almost river flow across the road, and felt the tuggings of inspirations again. I can’t tell you how relieved I was to feel the desire to write and describe. I had been feeling isolated and numb. Much like the riverbed, I felt the great need to open up again, and let the life in.

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Addendum: I worry, as I have been worrying for months now, about how Trump’s environmental lethargy is going to hurt places like Red Rock Canyon. I’ve watched Summerlin’s cookie cutter homes encroach more and more on the space, and I’m genuinely worried that in this new administration that does not care about protecting anything except their own wealth, spaces like these will fall victim.

So go buy this shirt from Cotton Bureau, or one similar to it. Maybe some good will come of a “gentle” visual reproach…

Kyoto: Nara and Inari

Oh, my feet are bleeding tonight. I have a blister on my heel that makes me want to weep a little.

It’s all Inari-sama’s fault, but I’ll get to that.

We left early in the morning to go to Nara. As I mentioned, I was in Japan because I wanted to help a friend complete a lifelong dream. I didn’t know very much about Japan, but after some research I determined there was one thing that I really wanted to see – the sacred deer at the Nara temple. I wanted to see Kyoto, as I am fascinated by religions and spirituality, but as someone who grew up visiting Deer Forest every year, I knew that I simply had to see these sacred creatures.

Getting to Nara required using the trains, which was fine by me, as with the Rail Pass they were free via the JR Nara line. It’s a fair distance to Nara from Kyoto, so it’s better to leave earlier in the morning. The cold crept around my edges, and I lamented how inaccurate all the weather prediction services were about Kyoto temperatures. It got down into the low forties, and took most the day to warm up.

At Nara, we are greeted by a giant screen of an animated dancing deer. In fact, the whole walk up to the temple (maybe half a mile) is full of dancing deer, animated deer, stuffed deer, bobble-headed deer. The holy deer apparently have cornered the market on tourist goods, as they are on everything from socks to sake sets. After a uphill sloping climb, we reached the first series of pagodas and temples, and the first set of deer.

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The welcoming deer did not make a good impression – they were fat, and their antlers were sawed down (an annual ritual done in the fall as I understand). Their winter coats were coming off in patches, reminding me of my German shepherd when he needs brushing. They looked, sadly, rather ratty. In the harsh morning light, I wondered if perhaps I had been misled about the deer, about the site in general. The gravel roads and paths didn’t seem all that impressive, and I saw no markers to the largest wooden structure in the world, Daibutsu-den/ Todaiji Temple.

It turns out, that when entering from the JR Nara station, walking up Sanjodori St., the entrance is a little more modern. In order to get to the actual Nara site, one must walk past the five story pagodas and the Nara National Museum. Things livened up there – more people, more sites, more deer. So if you find yourself in Nara, don’t get discouraged by the ragtag welcoming committee. There’s simply a little more walking ahead of you.

“Deer biscuits” (flat cookies) cost 150 yen – roughly $1.50, and you will want to buy more than one package, as the deer are tenacious. Some are gentle, but true to the warnings there were small herds that figured out that mobbing a person would force them to drop their biscuits faster. There are even signs that warn about these rogue deer. Watching all the people trying to pet the deer, feed the deer, and generally get pestered by the deer, it got me to wondering again about symbolism. Like the samurai teachers last night, I wondered if these sacred deer still held any significance to the people? Were they just touristy gimmicks now, relics to be photographed and fed? Or did they retain some of their spiritual weight?

Then a deer decided my plastic bag might have food in it, and we got into a tug-of-war. I’m rural, so I didn’t panic, though I did get some laughs. Later, I found a nice one that just wanted a chin scratch. We walked to Daibutsu-den together.

 

Daibutsu-den is massive – the world’s largest wooden structure, housing an immense bronze Buddha. I couldn’t do it justice in my pictures – the vast scope of the interior proved impossible to fit into my screen. I’ve burned enough incense across the width of China to no longer find Eastern architecture as new as I did before, but there was something graceful and yet sturdy in Daibutsu-den. B. commented as we left that if I had told him that structure was there, he wouldn’t have been so reluctant to come and see the Nara deer (which he fed all the same).

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I got a yam to eat. I know that sounds utterly simple of me, but I actually missed being able to buy street potatoes.

On the train heading back, I suggested we stop at the Inari shrine, which is supposedly the single best thing to see when in Kyoto. It was along the line, and would save us having to back track on our last day. Brendan agreed.

This is where things took a turn for the competitive. Inari Mountain has a series of red prayer gates, built to bless families and individuals. There was a short walk and a long walk. We opted, after the short walk, to climb. There were fewer people that way, and more options for photos. Then there was an overlook, and wouldn’t it be nice to see the city from the overlook? And of course, there was another landing after some more gates, and then we were so close to the top…you see where this is going. I had not worn my hiking shoes, and a mountain is a mountain, even if it’s decorated with beautiful red gates all the way to the top.

We inadvertently climbed Inari mountain. I don’t like giving up, and even though I’d been walking all day, I wasn’t going to say I almost climbed to the top. No guts, no glory. So up another landing, make an offering at another fox shrine, walk under gates, pause at next landing, pray at a fox shrine. Take a picture. Reflect on tourism and spirituality.

Towards the top, I started talking to the fox statues, started blaming them for teasing me up the mountain. “This is all your fault, Inari-sama!” “Curse you, Inari-sama!”

Inari = fox
Inari-sama = Sir Fox (I made this up, I think. I was very tired, but I liked it)

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Tee-hee!  Climb higher!

Sama is a term of respect, though by the time we reached the summit of the mountain my foot was blistering fiercely and I’d worn a hole in a sock. The view was beautiful, but it is not a climb for the timid. And standing at the top of Inari Mountain, watching the setting sun, I realized that I was only halfway done. I still had to descend. Thank goodness the Japanese put vending machines everywhere. Seriously, everywhere. And while there isn’t always water, there is usually a tea or juice. That saved my spirit.

The saddest part of the day was again at the close. The path down deposited us not at the main gate, but in a residential area strangely detached from everything. I worked out how to generally get back to the main site (and the train), and there were still food stalls out. Famished, I went to buy a custard fish (which is a cake shaped like a fish filled with custard). The man wouldn’t sell me the last one – he was closed. My face did nothing to persuade him.

So now I sit on my tatami mat, fishless. My foot is bleeding, and my legs hurt. According to my phone, I walked tens of thousands of steps, and climbed almost seventy flights of stairs. I might have overdone it on day three.

I am a completionist. It’s why I’ll never finish Skyrim.

Between the two, Inari was more beautiful, but those Nara deer were far easier to handle.

Shaking Dust

And so it was I shook the dust from my feet, took off, and crossed another ocean.

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I randomly agreed to be B’s bucket list travel buddy, as Japan is his 30th birthday present to himself. I’m paying it forward in a way. Just as I asked people to accompany me on my dream trip, I am now helping a friend. Japan, though beautiful from what I’ve seen, has never been on my list of countries I simply had to visit. It’s difficult to explain. On some level the memories from my family who’d fought in the Pacific Theater did not create a positive connotation. That history, though old and not directly related to me, does create an energy. Plus I’m only moderately interested in anime and manga. The biggest draw, when the trip was presented, was the opportunity to learn more about the shinto religion, of which I have a general affinity. (See, even my strongest interest is not enthralling.)

Alternatively, I’m being very self-centered and traveling again because the wanderlust has not left my blood. This trip provided me an ideal reason to leave my sweatshop job and reassess my goals.

The sheer magnitude of residual excitement from friends who’d been, however, had a strong effect. Those who’d been provided me pages of necessary stops, top sites, personal favorites, general guidelines, and food recommendations. Japan made a strong impression with them, so I’m hoping I’ll get to see what they mean during this trip.

I will say it’s nice to go somewhere and have no reason to be there, other than tourism. B speaks some Japanese, and is so excited to go that I plan on relying on him to be the leader (another rarity).

*LATER*

Fourteen hours is a long time to be on a plane. I don’t know if it’s the longest I’ve been on a plane in one go, but it’s certainly up there.

I arrived at Tokyo Narita Airport, and got through security and customs with minimal hassle. Finding the train station proved to be just a little convoluted, with signs pointing diagonal down and then up again after I’d gone down. Patience is the best thing to have in these situations. Patience, and a willingness to retrace one’s steps.

The longer wait was getting my JR rail pass validated. You must buy the pass before you arrive in Japan, and then they give you the actual pass at the JR counter at the airport. It turns out that you cannot get a rail pass if you are a Japanese citizen or have been a resident for any length of time. It’s a bit pricey – the most expensive thing I bought in preparation for the trip – but it allows for almost unlimited rail travel throughout the country, as well as major subway lines in the major cities. No brainer.

It was my idea not to start in Tokyo, since most advice from friends who’d been suggested that there was not that much to see in Tokyo in terms of shrines and temples. Our trip is as follows: Kyoto, Nagoya, Fuji, Tokyo. So I had to find B. at Tokyo Station. Though I had printed out a map, and had asked ahead of time for a recognizable landmark, it was crazy. The station was a sea of people, all moving independently and in concert somehow. I tried to make myself streamlined with my two small roller boards, and took cover behind pillars when I needed to reorient myself.

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The bell. I needed to find the Gin-no-suzu.  I knew not to leave floor B1. There are…5 or six levels total to this labyrinthian station, and my map was not quite to scale. Any scale. Everything is mochi stands and pastry shops.  Then B. texted me to say that he couldn’t find it, that he was going outside, then that he found it after all. He’d already been in Tokyo a day, and this defeatism did not sit well with jet-lagging me. I found the bell using the overhead signs, and saw B. first.

Aside: This is a game I play with most people I know. I love to try and find them before they find me. It’s like pretending to be a spy, except no hiding.

Gin-no-suzu is touted as a “popular meeting spot” in Tokyo station, but it was so small I wonder how it got that reputation.

So together we boarded a high speed train for Kyoto.
Reminder: I have to write a post about high speed trains.

This is the first trip where I have used AirBnB to secure our rooms. I’m used to hotels, or recognizable locations. This apartment is residential, and as we arrive in the dark proves very difficult to find. B.’s gps is not being friendly, and eventually I have to call our hostess, who instructs me to go to the Japanese 7-11 (kombini, I learn, is the word for convenience mart), whereupon she instructs me to give the phone to the cashier, who in turn walks us out to the building, which is next door. This is in flagrant violation of the gps map, which had us walking down alleyways.

Stereotype proven day 1: I did not feel unsafe wandering around Kyoto in the dark, save for the lack of sidewalks and the speedy cars.

It’s late when we arrive, and I write this in exhaustion. I am sleeping on a mat on a tatami floor, and there is a welcome basket of sweet crackers that I forgot I missed. The country has gone by in an evening blur of condensed buildings, stretches of green field, hints of water, and tile roofs that make me think of other places I have been.

Tomorrow brings dawn and tourism!

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