Traipsing through Tokyo and central Honshū, Japan

November 14-23, 2009

Tokyo skyline from the north tower of the Metropolitan Government Offices observatory (free!)

Shibuya crossing, where a four way light releases mobs of young shoppers into the intersection.

Tokyo subway system map.

After all the other Asian cities on our tour, Tokyo is surprisingly clean and orderly. Where is the pollution, the garbage, the graffiti? Drivers actually stay within their lanes, and even stop for pedestrians! And pedestrians wait dutifully at the curb for the green man signal before crossing. The subway system (although somewhat complicated) goes everywhere and we never wait more than a few minutes for the next train. When we hesitate in the underground, trying to decipher the maps (sometimes only in Japanese), invariably someone stops to ask if we need help.

It's mighty crowded here, but everything runs like clockwork, and we traipse about the city with ease. We're not big on cities in general, and are happy to find Tokyo is a breath of fresh air.



The Sakura hostel wins the smallest-room contest, but a great (and affordable!) base from which to explore Tokyo.

Ahhh, the food! Thanks to Marianne and Peter, we discover conveyer belt sushi which is unexpectedly affordable and tasty.
It's a crisp autumn Sunday in Tokyo. We stroll around Yoyogi Park and find Elvis impersonators, teens practicing a 1950's swing dance, adorable girls dressed in their finest kimonos, celebrating their third and seventh birthdays at their local shrine.
It is 6 am and Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market (the world's largest) is a bustling place. We dodge motorized freight carts zipping by in all directions as we walk through a series of cavernous warehouses, headed for the daily auction where tuna and other big sea creatures are sold. Enormous frosty white tuna -- frozen at sea in factory ships that trawl the world's oceans -- are lined up on pallets in the clean, climate-controlled warehouse, then carefully inspected by professional buyers. A bell rings, the bidding starts, and one-by-one, the fish are sold in a fast and furious frenzy. We wander about another giant warehouse, admiring an amazing collection of fish that are carefully presented for sale: A bin of squirming eels, live oysters and crabs, frozen parrotfish, squid, and fish we can't identify. Each and every fish is in absolutely perfect condition, and we're sure several will be offered up at our local sushi bar tonight.

Lightening fast, sleek and shiny Shinkansen trains transport us from one end of Japan to the next. We purchased a three week Japan Railways pass in Bangkok, and trigger it on our ride from Nara to Tokyo. We are determined to make the most of our 'free' unlimited travel for the rest of our stay in Japan, so we start scrutinizing the maps...


Hamada's beautiful cottage.



Noborigama kiln, used by the in-house ceramics studio.

Photograph of Shoji Hamada at work.

Mashiko, a historic pottery town a couple of hours from Tokyo can be reached by a JR train and connecting bus ride, so we take an afternoon field trip. The town is flourishing, with lots of kilns, galleries, and a fabulous ceramics museum, which happened to have a retrospective show of Kawai Kanjiro's work (celebrating the 120th anniversary of his birth). The museum is located on a rolling hillside where we walk in the moody afternoon light, finding interesting sculptures, a vibrant ceramics workshop, a beautiful noborigama kiln in regular use, and the country home of Shoji Hamada (another famous folk art ceramist), which was moved from its original location and carefully reconstructed here. We enter his home and walk barefoot on gleaming, glowing wood plank floors and across clean tatami mats, admiring the austere spaces, which evoke similar feelings as did our tour of Kanjiro's home in Kyoto. We find experiencing the environment where these artists lived and worked as inspiring as seeing their finished pieces, and in Japan, this concept seems to be understood and honored ...fascinating.

An elegant Kawai Kanjiro bottle.


One of the temples at Tōshō-gū.

One hour north of Tokyo by Shinkansen and another hour on the local train takes us Nikko, a mountain town famed for its spectacular Edo period (17th century) temple complex. These impressive structures are set deep in an old growth cedar forest, which in November is spiced up with glowing red maple leaves.

The original "Hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil" wood carving at Tōshō-gū.

Woodwork detail of a nearby small Shintō shrine.



Worshippers pass through torii gates, then dip a hishaku (long-handled ladle) into a sculpted chōzuya (stone water fountain) and rinse their mouth and hands, a simple ritual to purify themselves before entering any shrine. In Nikko, we find some of the most beautiful chōzuya we have ever seen.

We notice a trail heading up one of the hills on the outskirts of town. Following the path through the cedar forest, under several stone torii, and up to the top of an old volcanic cone, we arrive under gathering clouds at a small shrine. We meet an very fit, elderly hiker who is startled to see gaijin (foreigners) here. Again, we are welcomed to Japan and with broken English he explains that this is his morning constitutional and he walks up here whenever the weather allows. Together we celebrate the last of the autumn color clinging to the trees and admire the views of the mountains surrounding Nikko. He motions that rain is approaching, and we all agree it's time to head down.

At the bottom of the hill we find a family run noodle shop and warm up over a steaming bowl of udon served with mountain vegetables.




It's a cool and damp fall day as we follow another trail from Nikko town that takes us along the Daiya River to the Gamman-Ga-Fuchi Abyss. Here is a long series of jizo statues (the Buddhist protector of travelers and children) covered in moss and mysteriously, sporting crocheted red hats and cloth bibs.





From Nikko, we ride trains through the mountains west to Nagano (home to the 1998 winter olympics) where we meet up with our friends' son Noah, and his Japanese host father Tsunehiro. The four of us take a day trip by car to Yudanaka (Thanks,Tsunehiro!) so we can see the famed "snow monkeys". This troop of some 200 Japanese Macaques inhabit an area of geothermal springs in the forested hills above town. The monkeys like to hang out in the warm pools, and when we arrive they are happily lounging in their own monkey spa, with the occasional outburst of fighting or splashing about as one of the big males comes onto the scene.

What a great opportunity to see these fascinating animals at close range!


At Ise-jingu, the "most honored place" among all Shintō shrines, I finally find the Japan of my imagination. It's an austere place, a magnificent cedar forest where the natural world -- the sun, trees, rocks, and the River Izuzu are worshipped. Many trees are adorned with a simple strand of rope, which signifies they contain kami (spirits) and are considered shrines. Other deities are housed within simple wooden shrines, the largest houses the most celebrated Shintō deity, the goddess of the sun (and ancestor of the Emperor). Almost all Japanese follow both Shintō and Buddhism, believing that Shintō is the religion of this world and this life, while Buddhism is for matters of the soul and the next world. To me, the perfect mix.

Ise-jingu was established in 4 BC and was moved to its present location in 7 AD. Every twenty years, each sanctuary is torn down and an exact copy rebuilt, the old timbers carefully transported and used in other shrines around Japan. Deities are hidden within locked chambers, set behind a series of fences, nothing can be seen. The shrines are conceptual and thought-provoking, completely unlike the gaudy temples and shrines we've seen at so many other places on our journey. The woodworking is superb, the timbers carefully planed to a mirror finish, each joint fitted perfectly without nails.

All is left to the imagination. We don't see the deities, but we feel the power of the natural world, and watch as it is celebrated with respect and restraint. Worshippers quietly walk along the paths, stopping to stroke the largest trees, tossing coins onto silk sheets in front of the shrines. It is a moving experience, and strikes a chord deep inside me.