Okayama to Fukuoka, Japan

November 23-December 2, 2009

Promote social harmony! No cell phones, no food, no loud music! Poster art by local school kids, displayed at the Fukuoka subway station.



After three weeks in Japan, our first view of the ocean is on a ferry ride across the Seto Inland Sea to the island of Naoshima, a former fishing colony that now hosts world class museums, outdoor sculptures, and other works by artists from around the globe.

My favorite, the Chichu Art Museum with its clean, simple spaces designed by architect Tadao Ando, who considers "the relationship between people and nature, where one's physical experience is stimulated intellectually and emotionally." The museum's three levels are entirely underground,only skylights are visible on the grassy promontory. It showcases conceptual art works by James Turrell and Walter de Maria, and interestingly, five of Claude Monet's water lily canvases. Each of these artists utilizes light and space in their creations. Turrell presents light as art, and plays with the viewer's perceptions of space, color and shape. Time/Timeless/No Time, de Maria's creation, is a cavernous concrete space aligned east to west, so the light changes throughout the day. Inside the room is a 2.2m diameter reflective sphere and 27 geometric sculptures, and as we walk through the space, our footsteps echo and reverberate, creating an amazing aural sensation. Monet's paintings -- studies of water lily reflections on a pond -- are thoughtfully displayed in a room designed "to unite the paintings and the space" and are illuminated only by natural light filtering through windows high above the gallery's white walls, and reflecting off an immaculate, white tiled floor (no shoes are allowed.)

For me, Turrell's Open Field, 2000 was the most exciting and inspiring experience. A group of six of us are asked to take off our shoes and wait in a neat line, while the museum staff (clad entirely in white) makes some calls to arrange our visit on her mobile phone. A few minutes later, we are ushered into an all white room and, following the instructions of our guide (also clad entirely in white), the six of us walk side-by-side up a set of polished black steps, then enter a dimly lit room that glows an ultra violet blue, a heavenly, ethereal tone. Our guide motions us to walk forward a few steps, stop in a line, and wait a moment or two. At his signal, we turn simultaneously and see that the back wall, the white wall behind us as we entered, is now glowing orange, a hue exactly opposite that of the room. We are mesmerized by this phenomenon, then realize that what we are seeing is not real: The glowing orange color is created in our minds. After a few moments, we start wandering around the room and, as our eyes adjust to the dim light, realize that the floor is sloping down to a precipitous drop off, where neon blue light emanates from several feet below (that's why the guide stopped us...we could have easily walked off the edge!) This is a quintessential Japanese experience: Everyone is obedient, interested, and eager, respectful of the space, the process, the group. Turrell has not only designed a compelling, fascinating, and beautiful work of art, but in designing this piece for Chichu Art Museum, has captured and capitalized on the essence of Japanese culture.

Since we had to check our cameras at the entrance, click on this image of Walter de Maria's to see the Chichu Art Museum's website.






Go'o Shrine, Hiroshima Sugimoto, 2002. A respectful artwork, the glass stairs continue down into an underground cavern. A kind fellow on duty motions to us to follow him, and leads us down the hill to the cavern entrance. By the light of a flashlight we squeeze through a dark, narrow tunnel, emerging at the bottom of the stairs where light filters through the glass. Beautiful, subtle, thought-provoking...


Kadoya, Tatsuo Miyajima, 1998. At one of Naoshima's "Art House" projects, the traditional tatami mat room has been flooded with a pool of water. Submerged LED's are arranged like lily pads, and flash numerals in a choreographed sequence. Very unusual.


From our base in Okayama, we head for the day to Bizen, another famous ceramics center where they've been firing pottery since the twelfth century. Wood firing is the thing here, and there are over thirty big noborigama kilns scattered throughout the town. We see many of the sloping kilns with their great stacks of firewood, but none seem to be firing when we visit. We peruse a few of the many ceramics galleries as well as a nice museum showcasing the long history of ceramics in the area. We learn that Bizen clay is dug from the bottom of ancient rice paddies in the area, and its heavy iron content gives bizen-yaki its distinctive warm hue.

Following a trail up the hill above town, we stumble upon an interesting shrine in a wooded glade. Here we find a large collection of ceramic sculptures scattered about on the ground and in small alcoves -- foxes, monkeys, horses, cows, frogs, rats, chickens, and a host of other unusual figures. Again, we don't really know exactly what's going on, but obviously clay work plays an integral part in the local Shinto practices.




Photograph of Hiroshima after the bomb -- note the Gembakū Domu still standing.

Clock, stopped at 8:15, found in the rubble.

Hiroshima: To me, the name has always been synonymous with the destructive power of atomic weapons. I remember the emotional impact of seeing the Enola Gay airplane at Washington's Air and Space Museum a couple years ago, and now we are standing in Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Park at ground zero! I walk through the Peace Memorial Museum, full of exhibits that graphically demonstrate the horror this city went through a little over sixty years ago -- 8:15 am August 6, 1945, detonation of a nuclear weapon directly over a bustling city. I emerge from the museum quite shaken, but also feeling that everyone should see this place, so that just maybe, it won't happen again.

The Gembakū Domu building was almost directly under the blast, but somehow remained standing. Today, this structure, renamed the A-bomb dome, has become a symbol of the city's tragic past. Nearby is the Flame of Peace, which will only be extinguished when all nuclear weapons have been destroyed. There are many tourists from all over Japan and the world, here to connect with a unique moment in the evolution of humanity.

Hiroshima is a vibrant, cheerful and appealing city, and I think also a testament to the resiliency of the human spirit.

Panorama of downtown Hiroshima, with the A-bomb dome in the center and the Peace Memorial Park on the right.


Floating torii of Itsukushima-jinja.


A short train ride west of Hiroshima followed by the only ferry covered by our JR pass takes us to Miyajima, an island with an iconic temple and some nice walking trails. Here we find the most beautiful autumn colors we've seen yet in Japan as well as some very curious deer!

The current shrine dates back to the twelfth century, and its waterfront construction came about because commoners were not allowed to set foot on the island. They had to approach by boat, passing through the floating torii in the bay.



You can set your watch by the trains here, and the precision of the Japanese rail network gives Switzerland a run for its money. During our three weeks using the JR pass, we ride 28 different trains, and not one is late. To plan a trip, I just enter the start and end points into the website and ten options pop up (fastest first), complete with all the times and intermediate transfers needed. Getting reserved seats is a breeze -- fortunately, the man at the ticket counter always seems to speak just enough English to understand what we want, and then operates his touch screen ticket reservation computer with lightning speed. We make many connections with only six or eight minutes to navigate an unknown station and get from one track to another, but because trains always arrive on time, we don't miss a single one.

We ride high-speed shinkansen (bullet) trains that seem to fly along on elevated tracks as buildings and telephone poles pass by in a blur, semi-express trains that run on surface tracks and stop more frequently, and local trains that are crowded with commuters and uniformed school children.


The train stations are clean and modern, loaded with restaurants and shopping malls (oddly, playing cheery Christmas music by the end of November). We especially love the takeaway bento boxes that are universally available. We unwrap the brightly colored package to find a wonderful assortment of sushi, smoked fish, fresh and pickled vegetables, mochi, and a host of other tasty treats that we never did quite identify, all presented with stylish panache.

Food highlight from Hiroshima: Tukemen, a big bowl of noodles and various veggies served with a spicy sesame soy dipping sauce. Pick up a chopstick full of noodles, dip into the sauce, and eat. Scrumptious!


Another train station restaurant treat: Okonomiyaki. Sort of an eggy pancake, crispy fried on a griddle -- ours with bean sprouts, veggies, noodles, oysters, and calamari -- topped with a sweet thick soy sauce. Of course served with a cold Kirin beer...








We stayed at several ryokan, traditional local accommodation with tatami mat rooms, futons, central courtyard gardens, luxurious baths...and very particular rules.

Upon arrival, we slip off our street shoes in the genkan (foyer) and leave them on the shelves provided. Then step up out of the genkan and very, very carefully into one of the pairs of slippers provided. These slippers never, ever fit, and we shuffle about, trying desperately to keep them on our feet while navigating clean, slippery wooden floors, following our non-English speaking host up and down stairs as she/he shows us around the inn, and to our room. As we approach the sliding rice paper door, we slip off the slippers (bare feet or socks only on tatami mats!) and enter our room, then the three of us sit at a knee-banger table and sip hot, green tea while attempting to exchange greetings. Two futons (only single beds available) are folded on the side, with clean sheets and fluffy, warm comforters. A tokonoma (sacred alcove) graces one side of the room, with a magnificent scroll hanging above a wood carving or beautiful ceramic piece.

The toilets are down the hall, men and women have separate facilities. As one enters, 'indoor' slippers are left outside the door, and another pair (see photo) are waiting inside. Careful maneuvering is required to slip out of the indoor set and into the next -- feet never touching the floor -- and each pair of slippers must be left in the correct position for exiting and entering. Very tricky!

In the evenings, we change into our yukatas (lightweight cotton robes) and, since it's really cold these days, a padded silk jacket, then head for the bath. Some ryokans have a private bath which we share, others are segregated, with separate tubs for men and women. Connected to the tub room is a tiled bathing room where we sit on tiny stools facing a wall of spigots, mirrors and a long shelf. We thoroughly scrub down with soap, a pumice stone, and buckets of water, until we are squeaky clean. Finally, we enter the tub room, step into the deep tub and soak in the hottest, cleanest water imaginable. Ahhh.....


Our Japan volcano experience consisted of staying two nights at a brand new hostel in the small town of Aso (on the JR line), and a full day's hiking around the rim of Aso-san, "the world's largest active caldera" on the island of Kyūshū. The hostel was great, heated by wood stove and run by a super friendly couple from Hiroshima.

But our day on the mountain was somewhat cloudy, and although we heard hissing and rumbling and smelled the acrid sulfur fumes, the spectacular views of steaming cinder cones and expansive moonscapes will have to wait until our next visit. In the morning, as we rolled west on the Kyūshū Express, the mountain above us was gleaming in the full sun :-).


Pachinko parlor in Hiroshima.

Streetside big screen TV showing Mongolian wrestler Yokozuna Hakuho winning the Emperor's Cup at the Kyūshū Grand Sumo Tournament in Fukuoka.




There are 5 million vending machines in Tokyo.

As we leave, I reflect on other images of Japan -- not the austere, serene temples and gardens, the polite bows by gracious people murmuring "sumimasen, sumimasen," the constant striving for social harmony -- but images of its quirky, fun-loving, obsessive side. Pachinko gambling casinos are everywhere. We open the door to one casino in Nara filled with obsessive gamblers, and are quickly overwhelmed by the throbbing, clanging sounds and flashing lights (and are thrown out when we try to snap a photo!) Want a late night bottle of cold beer? Head to one of the vending machines sure to be just down the block. (In addition to beer, vending machines sell bottled water, coffee, batteries, and cigarettes.) Collecting knickknacks is a national obsession. In Fukuoka, we wander through a store showcasing collectibles from last few decades, and row upon row of manga comic books. At every shopping opportunity (prime on the list... temples!) uniformed schoolgirls swarm at counters selling cute little furry animals and other tiny items to dangle from their backpacks and mobile phones. Yes, the food is perfect...but guess what? The tasty looking hot dog sushi didn't even make one spin 'round the auto-sushi!

Manga comic books.

A classy police car on offer for more than $500.


At the port city of Fukuoka on the island of Kyūshū, we catch a flight to Colombo, Sri Lanka.