I went to Japan a while ago. As ever, if you're reading this and have information you want to share or correct me on something I've mis-identified or mis-explained, my thanks in advance for your comments. I liked Japan a lot but wouldn't want to live there. It gives me the same sense of social claustrophobia that England does. If you're English or Japanese reading this, you should probably take it as a compliment that a New World barbarian finds your culture overwhelming.
Today it's a thriving city, and I joked darkly that if this is the effect of an atom bomb then some cities in America's Rust Belt might benefit. The domed building was a gift from the Czech Republic in the 1920s and was at ground zero, 1500 feet below the bomb, and that it survived this intact is a testament to its construction, although it has been left in its damaged state as a reminder. (Credit to Japanese perseverance: they had the power back on 2 days after the bomb, and the trains running the day after that.) The fact that it was such a nice day, and I had some delicious okonomiyaki (Japanese pizza from Hiroshima) and watched some goofy college kids swim in the cold river for some ceremony, almost made me forget what happened here. I remain of the firm opinion that Truman made the right decision and saved both American and Japanese lives, though I hate that war puts great civilizations in such a position, where the only decisions are about how to kill each other.
An island across from Hiroshima famous for its floating torii gate, its tame deer, and nice hiking to the top of the island with good views.
I liked Kobe which is typical for foreigners. It was one of the cities open to foreigners first in the 1800s and still has a lot of expats. That saxophone guy had statues in a couple places but I forget the significance. I also stumbled across a mosque. Last few photos are Himeji Castle near Kobe, and finally Okiku's Well - a servant girl was accused of losing dishes and killed by being thrown down the well, and she supposedly haunts it.
Kyoto - Kinkakuji
A really remarkable golden temple decorated with actual gold in Kyoto. Of anything I saw on this trip, this seemed to reflect Japanese taste the most strongly. If you think of the idea of a building covered with gold, it automatically seems tacky (a certain president whose name rhymes with dump comes to mind) but somehow even that doesn't come across here - just calm reflection, moss and greenery.
Kyoto - the old Imperial Palace Grounds
At the end of the Heian period in the 11th century, the institution of emperor underwent a long period of eclipse in terms of real political power. The de facto caudillos who controlled the government for a couple centuries at a time invariably allowed the emperor to live for the appearance legitimacy and continuity, but he was a puppet, kept busy in these grounds with concubines and poetry, and far from any decisions about running Japan. The Meiji "restoration" was even more clever, and while the emperor did get more real authority than he'd had under the Tokugawas, he still was no absolute ruler. Taking over the government and then letting the nominal leadership continue is very counter-intuitive for people outside Japan, except that after WWII the U.S. used exactly the same strategy. As with the park around the Tokugawa fortress in Tokyo I was fairly unimpressed. As you can tell it rains a lot in Japan which is why it's so green, and maybe why in ancient history they started eating raw fish. ("Aw DAMmit Kenji I just cannot get this fire going with this wet wood and I'm hungry. How bad can it hurt us. Let's just eat it raw.")
Nara was the capital of Japan until the eighth century, when emperor Kammu moved it to Kyoto. (Kammu is one of those rulers who has just a bit too much credited to him to believe he really did it all. I do credit him with at least having good documentarians.) Buddhists were infiltrating the government under his predecessor, one of the few empresses in Japanese history, and in response Kammu picked up the government and moved it out of Nara to get away from their influence. (Important lesson for those of us who like to say "But Buddhism isn't like the other religions, it's different!" If you don't believe me, Google "Rohingya" right now.) Today it is famous for having the tallest wooden tower in the world, preserved from that era; giant Buddha statues; and deer that are unafraid of humans to point of being annoying (and allowing extreme closeups.) At one point I saw a poor salaryman in a suit running for his life across the park from a deer that wanted a treat dammit. Boy do I wish I had that on video! The last picture is an old granary (off the ground to keep rice from rotting and keep rodents out) and the foundations of old buildings.
It was on this trip that I developed the odd photographic tic of taking pictures of textures
; here are some of them from Japan.
Even in this mid-sized city in Shikoku where I stayed for part of the trip, every last square meter of flat ground is used productively. (Look at a satellite map of Japan sometime and it's pretty obvious where the flat areas are, because they're urbanized. Grayer and more obvious than the light green of crops marking flat vs. mountainous in less densely populated countries.) Of course there's a local volcano, Iino-yama (old name, Sanuki Fuji) with a small temple on top, and a local well-preserved castle. This was actually the last place (not including northern Japan) that resisted unification under the Tokugawas.
The Shinto temple nearest to where I was staying is a large wooden one. It's famous in Shikoku but not well-known in the rest of Japan. The darkness and the wood made it feel very Pacific Northwest. Point of comparative religion interest: some (including myself) would argue that Japanese is an Altaic language, as is Mongolian. Shintoism is the indigenous Japanese religion. The name of Shinto wind spirits is Tengu, and the Mongolian sky god was Tengri. (More on this here
.) There's also the massive bell and the place where you pray by clapping twice and bowing and then collect your fortune on a strip of paper. It turns out you can't just throw a bad fortune away. It was in the woods, just off the main path down the hill, there was a tree branch literally covered with strips of paper - the literal tree of bad fortunes.
Shodoshima (Monkey Island) in Seto Inland Sea
One day I went over to the island. I was warned repeatedly that if I made eye contact the monkeys would attack, but again the warnings were misguided, since you've never seen a monkey not care as much as these guys didn't. As an aside, someone from Japan once asked me why England didn't develop a seafaring culture the same way that Japan did. I thought about it -
the Norse did, but the English did not. This was actually investigated by economists and historians (in a paper I can't find at the moment) and the answer is you need a calm (and not even necessarily warm) inland sea, like Seto or the Baltic - but the North Sea is often quite choppy
and not amenable to navigation with small craft.
NORTHERN HONSHU, including Tohoku
The three holy mountains. As you can see it started snowing like a bastard the second I was on the bus, and they were about to close the routes for the day - but it would be nice to go back during the summer.
The site of a brief northern military fiefdom in the 1600s that survived separate from the Tokugawas, visited by Bashoo in the 1700s after their attempt at local empire building had gone to seed. He then wrote his famous line "Summer grass, all that remains of warrior dreams." (Brings to mind Ozymandias; I thought the same thing visiting Spissky Hrad in Slovakia
.) I actually collected a handful of grass, though it was winter; it's now mixed with grass from the end zone I got from Penn State's Beaver Stadium when we charged the field after a Michigan win, and that I gave to my dad (and rediscovered it after his death; it made me proud and sad that he'd actually put it an envelope and kept it.)
Matsushima (Pine Islands), one of the Three Views. The area is also famous for gyo-tan (beef tongue), which was pretty tasty. The sandstone at the coast was good for monks carving out meditation cells and statues. While the 2011 tsunami hit Sendai and this whole area pretty hard, these shrines were spared significant damage. A tanuki may make an appearance in these photos, as well as ice on the sand.
Naruko - an Onsen Town
Also in Tohoku I got to a hot spring town. I really liked Tohoku and this was a big part of the reason why. The hotel was somewhat old and almost deserted, which was fine by me. In the Japanese style, they are not co-ed, and you just walk around naked. I was warned that my tattoo would make people think I was Yakuza and I wouldn't be welcome, but a) it's not a dragon, it's the second law of thermodynamics and b) seriously? A random white dude is Yakuza? As it turned out, when I went out at dawn to sit in the hot spring in the snow at dawn one morning, the cahtting businessmen sharing the spring with me couldn't have cared less. The train on the way up went through the little town of Tsuruoka, where it obviously had snowed (the layover allowed me to walk around a bit) and it kept up, almost hiding the mountains around me from view. You will notice the box of cloudy water which is just one of the hot spring water outlets you see as you walk through the town. The next day the skies cleared and one of the local ski resorts were visible across the valley.
This is what I saw of Nagoya. Mr. Egyptian, this is all I WANT to see of that hell-hole. (Remember why you're the Egyptian?
Of the alpha cities I've been to, I find Tokyo one of the least accessible. That is to say, least able to approach someone, have a conversation, get involved in something you weren't planning on, that sort of thing (compared to New York, Mexico City, Paris or even London.) Believe it or not I actually learned basic spoken Japanese and could read hiragana and katakana by the time I came back, and I did have someone with me who spoke Japanese as a first language, so that wasn't it. It remains one of three times in my life that I was openly discriminated against because of my race/apparent class/etc., by a woman who refused to seat me in a restaurant with open tables (not a fancy bar, a little hole in the wall; although in fairness I should certainly mention the hostess was Chinese, not Japanese.)
The first three photos below are of the moat and area around the old Tokugawa shogun's palace in Tokyo. The construction was - unsentimental. This was not a government interested in anything besides staying in power and didn't care much for esthetics, signaling to their own population or to foreign dignitaries. When you're an absolute ruler, you don't even want your people to accumulate wealth, because then they can challenge you. (And frankly, the Tokugawas got reports about everyone around them getting colonized, and can you blame them for being suspicious of trade? Although here's a thought experiment about what might have happened had the Tokugawas NOT been so paranoid
.) This is more fortress than palace, and is all function and no fashion. I have to admit I'm often underwhelmed by the Mall in D.C. compared to the public monument areas in some other capitals, but I felt that way even more here. The fourth photo down is the massive torii gate at Yakusuni shrine; I was far from the only foreigner there.
There is one area where the sumo wrestlers train, with a strict apprenticeship hierarchy of junior wrestlers serving their seniors. They march back and forth between the buildings which is good for gawking tourists.
Above, a graveyard visible from the hotel, with each family having a plot and individual names like popsicle sticks. Below, a package of octopus in the grocery store, and then whale. Tsukiji fish market at bottom, where people really do run back and forth, although here they're mostly done for the day. On the way there I stopped to pee at a bathroom in a massive Buddhist temple while they were chanting, which is a thing you can do there.
And finally, above, the famous beer vending machines - and yes, it's legal to drink one and walk around in public because you know why, PEOPLE BEHAVE THEMSELVES.
Below, your blogger in a pachinko parlor featuring Space Battleship Yamato (Star Blazers.) NICE.