Saturday, May 03, 2008

Japan

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”
-Marcel Proust


Strolling through Japan I couldn’t help but think “Japan is perfect.” Toilets have more buttons than a computer. Commuter trains have three times as many “Watch your step” signs than the United States and Europe. Japan is the only industrialized country without a widespread drug problem. No one crosses the street until all traffic has completely stopped. Employees often work without late pay. Seventy-five percent of Japanese students go to school voluntarily on Saturdays. Teachers are the highest-paid civil servants in Japan. Almost the entire nation can read. There are no slums. The cities are clean. Cars are energy efficient. Crime is low. People are nice. Streets are labeled. Respect for elders is prevalent. Why not live in Japan? Well, maybe I will….

My travel mates for Japan were Andy and Adam: two friends who, though in-depth conversations have bonded us together, I’ve had very little interaction with outside of the ship. They’re both from the deep South and rely heavily on their Christian faiths—two really interesting people I was excited to get to know. Adam’s father had previously done business with a Japanese man so Adam e-mailed the man and told him we would be in his country, hoping he would be able to help us out. As a result, we departed the ship to find a woman named Yoshiko waiting for us. She held a sign in between her hands. Adam’s last name was scribbled across. The Japanese man, whom Adam had never met, was in California doing business but hired us a personal guide for the entire day. We would be taken to Kyoto free of charge and including meals. This was all compliments of someone none of us had ever met. The offer was indicative of not only the high regard for respect but also the value of business in Japanese culture.

After the hour train ride to Kyoto, the four of us were taken to a Japanese restaurant. The restaurant was buffet style so we had the leisure of experimenting with new foods while having the option to dispose of the weird and unusual. While we ate, Yoshiko taught us some Japanese and allowed us to answer all of our questions. Like most places we’ve been this semester, most locals only know “white people” from Hollywood movies and celebrity magazines. As Yoshiko told us, to the Japanese, we are like movie stars. With that said, two giggling Japanese girls our age, who spoke no English, insisted on escorting us to our next destination. So, with giggling girls at our sides, we arrived at the Kiyomizu Temple, a temple built in 798 at the foot of Mt. Otawa. The Kiyomizu Temple was surrounded by beautiful rocks, ponds and a carpet of cherry blossoms. I took off my shoes to explore the interior of one of the worship areas. When I came back, my shoes were gone. Instead, another pair of New Balance sneakers, similar to mine, were present. I stopped, looked around, and scratched my head. Did someone steal my shoes? Yes. Instinctively, I ran around the temple property to scan everyone’s shoes in search of my own. After I had scanned every Japanese person’s shoes in a 1-mile radius, I gave up and strapped on my new kicks. I’ve always wanted to spend a day in another man’s shoes, somehow I got a week.

We continued walking around the Kyoto area where small, quaint streets were lined with small shops and houses. The Japanese people are very small and because of that everything is miniature—homes, doors, windows. Like a New England log cabin in the dead of winter, the Japanese homes possess a feeling of warmth and old-world charm. Eager to see the rest of the city, Yoshiko took us by cab to the downtown area. Here, the youth of Japan walk the streets to shop and dine—over 50 universities are in Kyoto. After orientating us a bit to our surroundings, we departed Yoshiko and went on our own search for dining. Stuck in a world of Japanese characters and armed with only the words “koneecheewa” and “domo adigato” engraved into our heads, simply trying to get a bowl of rice in this city was going to be a disaster. An hour later we finally found a menu with pictures and we filled our bellies.

After, we checked into our Japanese hotel—a simple and cozy alternative to the commercialized hotels of the West. We removed our shoes, put on the ruby-red slippers provided, and preceded up the stairs. The floor of our square room on the second floor of a small building was simply a straw mat from wall to wall—there were no beds. In the corner sat a pile of floor-pillows and a traditional tea set. In the closet were our beds: flimsy floor-pillow mattresses to be placed on the floor. We set-up our beds on the straw mat, laid on the floor, and smiled contently to an informal yet surprisingly pleasant resting place. The rice-paper windows on the wall allowed the city lights to shine brilliantly onto our tired faces. That night’s sleep would be preparation for the four trains we would need to take to get to our obscure and outlying destination tomorrow.

The next morning, armed with our regional rail passes, the three of us hopped from one train to another, and finally got to our fourth. We looked out the window. The city skyscrapers were gone, cars were few and far between, people were scarce, and cherry blossoms lined the train tracks. We pressed our noses up to the glass of the window looking in awe at the height we were achieving up over the mountains. Running through my head was the childhood story of the “Little Engine That Could”—I think I can! I think I can!—as we slowly chugged around and around the edge of a cliff overlooking the vast countryside of Japan. We made it. We were in a place so distant and remote that Buddhist monks who sought a lifetime of refuge from the modern world would come to this place to spend the rest of their lives. Koya-San, as its called, is essentially a Monk village on the top of a mountain. The three of us wanted to get away from the city, do some adventure traveling, and sleep in a corner of the world where no one would find us—this certainly fit the bill.

Once in Koya-San, I asked Adam and Andy to stop. “Listen,” I told them. It was silent, absolutely silent. We had given up Kyoto, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Osaka, even Tokyo—all the places we could have gone—for silence. “I haven’t heard silence in months,” I told them, thinking of the 735 college students I live with, the commotion of India, Vietnam, Hong Kong, everywhere. Indeed, Koya-San is a village literally at the top of a mountain and home to over 50 temples of Buddhist Monks. We checked into a small hostel run by an old man and his wife. Again, we were given an empty room, with rice-paper walls, a straw mat, and floor cushions. After eating lunch in the Japanese style of kneeling on the floor, Adam, Andy and I decided to take the afternoon to explore on our own and away from each other. Adam went one way, Andy went another, and I too went another.

I stumbled upon a huge Buddhist cemetery set in the middle of a huge forest. The evening sun shone through the hovering trees as I wandered by the 200,000 moss-covered grave tombs that rested within. Lining the paths were statues of Buddha, most of which were dressed in small aprons for good fortune. The paths led far into the depths of the forest where the Torodo (Lantern Temple) was situated—a hall of sublime quietude, adorned with thousands of hanging lanterns illuminating in the obscurity of the evening light. Inside, monks sat behind large desks creating wood prayer-panels for Buddhist visitors. I was by myself so I took it all in. I chatted with two men from Osaka as I walked back to the village center and met Andy and Adam again for a Japanese-style floor dinner back at the hostel. After talking with other European travelers also staying in the hostel, we shut off the lights and fell asleep on the floor.

The next morning I took Andy and Adam back to the Buddhist cemetery after they heard my raving reviews. I told them if we stayed long enough we would see a unicorn—if you’ve seen the place, you too would believe me. After, we found a path that seemed to lead up to the mountain. Eager for adventure and with peanut butter, jelly and bread in my backpack, we headed up the path into the forest. We hiked up the path, passing bamboo trees and small Buddhist shrines resting among the dirt along the way. Up and up we went, halting for moments at a time to rest our legs. All the while the three of us talked about ourselves, our lives and about our experiences this semester—silencing ourselves only to listen to the birds. We rested at the top of a mountain peak to climb trees and make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, occasionally making nonsensical conversation with passing hikers who spoke little of our language. Four hours later we exited the forest to a small residential neighborhood where, with the help of a local, we found our way back to the center of town.

As we walked around for a restaurant, an elderly Australian woman who we had passed earlier that morning stopped to make small talk. After chatting for a bit on the sidewalk, Adam extended the offer to come and join us for a cup of tea and rice. We found an empty restaurant and ate with her as we learned about her life in Australia and her vacation in Japan. We departed her for our bus, which took us to a cable car, which took us down the mountain, to a train further down a mountain, to three more trains back to civilization, and a taxi cab back to the ship. Along the way we read English newspapers, snacked on delicious Japanese pastries, and befriended three Canadian girls visiting the area. Although exhausted from a long day, I joined a crew to go out to a Kobe bar which offered open-bar for SAS students and then called it a night. Open-bar is never a good idea.

On our last day in Japan I ate lunch on the ship then headed out by myself to find new sneakers to replace my accidentally-acquired ones. Craving a random adventure, a nap, and noticing that my 3-day rail pass was only used for two days, I hopped on a train headed for Osaka. I don’t remember why I did it; in fact, it was really strange. A forty-five minute nap later my train pulled into Osaka leaving me lost in another new city—story of my life. In Japan, however, cities are so clean, efficient, and perfect that there really is no getting lost. I walked around for about an hour and took some pictures, then headed back on the train to Kobe, and then another train back to the ship. Sayonara Japan.

This voyage started out with the Bahamas….Puerto Rico…Brazil…South Africa…then Mauritius. It was nice and spaced out. Now we just experienced Indiamalaysiavietnamchinajapan. Whew. Now the end of the journey was coming close with only short stays in Hawaii and Costa Rica left on our itinerary. But in reality the journey was far from over—we still had a month to go with twenty-two days on the ship and three-days in-port. Although that meant more homework, tests and papers—it also meant late-night conversations with friends, catching up on sleep and time for reflection. Ship life only happens once in life and twenty-two days at sea seemed more appealing than ever. If you’re going to feel claustrophobic and sea sick, you might as well be surrounded by friends.

3 comments:

Gretchen said...

you seem to have found the paradise in Japan...have heard of it before but never ventured that far and sorry we had not done so.

Gretchen

Anonymous said...

Kevin,

I just wanted to tell you how much I've enjoyed your blogging. Your writing style is terrific. Thanks so much for taking the time to keep it up.

Margy Bauman-parent of a spring-08 voyager

Anonymous said...

I didn't read the entire post but just wanted to say your Traveling adventures sound awesome. I wish I myself could do it but don't have the means