Monday, June 22, 2009

Back Home

Final Thoughts

As we arrived back in Phoenix I couldn't help but replay a bit of what I had just absorbed in the past couple of weeks.

First off, Japan and its people, even in June (Japan's most "off" month) was/were beautiful.

Random Thoughts (Rant Warning!):

Japan is a country that is really trying to go green. The usage of mass transit was impressive from urban to rural. I saw one hummer. Traffic snarls in Tokyo were uncommon because people use effective mass transit. Anyone that says it won't work in the US is living a lie.

Tokyo is one of the most spread out urban city's in the world (like hundreds of square miles - it is common for workers in Tokyo to commute more than an hour to and from work each day), so the "American cities are too spread out for effective mass transit" excuse only goes so far.

The simple fact is this: America's perpetuation of our inept car based zoning / land use policies, and having gas so cheap for so long, has left us in a stupor. We live with the illusion that fixing freeways is the way to fix our commute and mass transit cannot work here.

When you leave a hotel room in Japan you hit a kill switch that shuts everything in the room off. Domestic Marriott / Hilton / Starwood / Hyatt take note, why do you do it there and neglect to incorporate such a simple feature in your hotels in the US?

Escalators have infra-red sensors that turn them off between uses.

There are no garbage cans except at fast food restaurants and where they do exist, they ask you to separate combustibles and recyclables. The combustibles go straight to waste to energy plants. Oh and there is no litter. People carry their empties for blocks until they find a can.

American's pride ourselves on our individuality. Japanese tolerate individuality, but also seem to respect each others space. I'm starting to think our embracing of individuality may be coming with a high price. I think a lot of the time we mistake rudeness as individuality.

In Japan every time a conductor or food vendor entered or exited a train car they turned and bowed to their passengers. That simple act of respect to their customer was indicative of Japanese customer service at every level.

At the boarding lounge for our flight home I saw a single mom with a baby and all the gear. If we did not have so much stuff ourselves, I would have been there asking if she needed help. When the flight started to preboard, three ANA reps appeared from nowhere and took everything from her except the baby. They escorted her all the way to her seat.

When we got to LA and we went to check in for our flight a customer at the counter next to us asked the clerk if she would mind throwing something away for her. The counter agent did not even acknowledge she heard the request. I heard it and I was a lot further away. So the traveller stepped away from the counter to toss her litter in a nearby trash can while the agent was hammering away on her computer. When the agent looked up and saw her customer had walked off she screamed like a maniac "would you like your boarding passes, and your baggage tags, and your card back? You, yeah I'm talking to you". The customer who had already turned to come back to the counter was rewarded with the agent's big eye roll and sigh. Then when the customer had finally left, she looked at me and said "can you believe that?" I just looked at her. I said "no, I really can't". Of course I wasn't thinking what she was thinking. I was thinking "that would never have happened in Japan".

We then went through LAX Terminal 1 security. We counted about 40 TSA staffers. There were so many of them they actually were in each others (and our) way. They were cracking jokes and generally just distracting each other. The bins on the exit end of the x-rays had to be picked up and stacked by the travelers in order for the belt to move. The excess screeners essentially were just wasting our time and tax dollars. Of course my son's bag of fluids, which he always forgets to take out of his bag, went right past our government paid - with benefits TSA screener - no questions asked. That happened both domestic directions. It did not get through at Narita.

I saw actually saw TSA send a 6 year old boy straight to secondary where a screener wanded him. I realize bad guys might be twisted enough to use a kid as a mule to carry bad stuff, but somehow I think having him empty his pockets again, and re-screening him through the halo would have been more prudent.

At Narita I counted about 12 efficient screeners. They were checking in passengers for dozens of jumbo jets. The process was fast and it was exceedingly thorough.

When we arrived in Japan, before we could even get out of our seats, three health specialists boarded our flight and screened everyone. If anyone on that flight had been reported sneezing, or demonstrating visible signs of illness, we would have been held and tested for swine flu.

Returning to LAX, well of course, we all just got off and went to customs.

Smoking / Drug Use
Japan just does not seem to be getting over their love affair with the cigarette. Thank goodness I think, we are.

Conversely drug use is uncommon in Japan. Here, the misuse of drugs is so far out Pandora's box we should weep as it continues to tear our families, our economy, and our society apart seam by seam.

So What?
I love my country, but I also want it to survive and for true democracy to thrive for generations to come.

But, I learned from our trip that if we want to sell our products to the world we have to treat our clients with respect. We also have to give them, to the best extent possible, what THEY want, not expect them to take what we deem fit to sell them.

We have to go metric. Being the last major country in the world to adhere to measurements based on a kings foot, is well, stupid. It is costing us billions in global sales opportunities.

In sum. While the customer may not always be right, sometimes they actually do know what they want, and they always deserve respect.

And kindness, well that should be free.

Roadboy's Travels © 2009

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Messenger's of the Gods

A Place of Magic - Nara

Day 11

When I was a child (maybe 6 or 7) my parents took me to a deer park in Southern California. I loved it. I remember it said it was loosely based on a deer park in Nara Japan.

Well the Japanese Deer Park in Southern California is long gone, but the deer in Nara still thrive, and one of my life long goals was realized when I finally got to go see Nara's Deer Park.

To get there from Kyoto takes about 45 minutes by train. It is a lovely trip with picturesque Japanese countryside and farms (which was a very pleasant change from the industrial dreck we had seen on the other train trips here so far).

Nara proved to be a very friendly place. Residents are justifiably proud of their city. One elderly man and came up to me while I was admiring the main pagoda and (in pretty good english) pointed out the special features and fine points of its construction (he knew what he was talking about). In the US I'd have expected such an approach to be followed by a request for a hand out. Here, he was just proud of his city and wanted to make sure we came to love it too.

And aside from the fact that we found that every school age child in Japan was also visiting Nara, it seemed pretty laid back.

Nara has a pretty expansive history serving as Japan's capital in the 700's. It is Japan's second UNESCO World Heritage site due to its many amazing temples, pagoda's, and shrines.

After leaving the train station we walked about 5 minutes and the City street peeled back and the main city park started to emerge. So did the deer. The story of the deer is that the mythological god Takemikazuchi arrived in Nara on a white deer to guard the newly built capital. So the deer in Nara are regarded as heavenly animals sent to protect the city and country. Hence, there are thousands of tame deer in Nara.

The Deer are Friendly and Seemingly Everywhere

You Can Approach and Sit Down Next to Them

Close-up Photographs?
No Worries

All in all it is pretty magical. But....if you break down and buy the "deer cookies" they sell, well then the deer become much more attentive. The locals say the deer will bow for a cookie. None was willing to bow for me.

The Deer Especially Like Maps
(Right Out of Your Pocket)

Scratching Behind Their Ears is a Hit

They Apparently Do Have Their Bad Days
(We Loved the "I'm Pissed" Heat Rays on the Sign)

Making our way into the park we came to the first of many temples and the Kofuku-ji Pagoda. It is a five level Pagoda that has survived Nara's many earthquakes.

Kofuku-ji Temple

Like all the pagoda's we encountered in Japan, it was not open to visitors. We then made our way to the Todai-ji Temple to see its giant Buddha. The Todai-ji we see today is the third temple to be rebuilt after various fires. This temple is the world's largest wooden building and it is actually 1/3 smaller than the temple it replaced.

Kids and Deer Everywhere on the Way to Todai-ji

First Whole View of Todai-ji

The World's Largest Wooden Structure

You Have to Stand Back a football Field
to Fit it in a Photograph

Inside the Great Buddha is also Overwhelming in Size

(Cast in Bronze - At One Time it Was Clad in Gold!)

One of the main Column in the rear of the Temple has a hole in its base. School kids climb through it for good luck.

Squeezing Through The Hole in the Column

Meticulously maintained grounds are indicative of this temples on-going place in the Buddhist world.

Flawless Green Lawns

Rickshaw Rides Were a Hit for Visitors

Proud Mama and Her Little One

A storm was rolling in and we were really hungry, so we made our way to the station and had a very nice lunch. It was now time to return to Kyoto.

When we actually got back to Kyoto Miss M took a side trip to the Isetan Department Store basement to load up on "dinner".

All Neatly Packaged and Priced Right
Dinner from the Food Stalls at the Isetan Department Store

It was a great visit to Nara and a very special day in Japan.

It is a nice way to conclude my posts from Japan.

We start our long journey home on Saturday. Then its back to work for me on Monday.

Can you say "jet lag"?

Roadboy's Travels © 2009

Thursday, June 18, 2009

History Embraced in a Vibrant City

Japan's Treasure - Kyoto

Day 10

When friends come back from foreign lands I always want to see their photos and hear about the trip.

Sometimes I regret it. After the fifteenth picture of "oh looks like another picture of my finger in front of the lens" or "I don't really remember what this shot is, but I liked it", I want to run screaming from the room.

So, at great risk of boring you all to death, I am posting a lot of photos today. I think I have two great reasons: Kyoto is worth it, and, as I've reminded everyone before, it's my blog.

This is the perfect city for a first time visitor to Japan. It is bi-lingual enough to enable anyone to get around easily. Its streets are reasonably straight and in many ways it is very modern. It has subways, lots of higher education, and a sophisticated tourist infrastructure. Yet, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with an amazing temple or shrine seemingly on every other block.

Kyoto is a city that is beautiful by day and plays hard at night. When you are busy looking at one interesting thing, a cab full of geisha goes zipping by so fast you can't get a photo.

Kyoto was spared allied bombing in WWII and its treasures are intact. It is where the Japanese send their children to learn about their history, much like we send our kids to Washington DC. I could not figure the best way to present Kyoto, so I decided to just do it in the same chronological order as we explored it. And our visit merely scratched the surface of Kyoto's treasures.

We arrived into Kyoto's stunning new railway station. It was built after a design competition where many of the entries tried to balance the history Kyoto with the modern needs of rail travel. The winner was an architectural professor from Tokyo who came in with a design that was unabashedly modern. While it fails to reflect the essence of such a history rich city, it is, nonetheless, a stunning gateway to Kyoto, and it works.

After a lot of research I had re-booked us into the Hotel Granvia (which is actually in the new train station). I am so glad I did. It freed us from having to hail a cab from the train station to the hotel. Its staff is friendly and totally bilingual, the rooms are spacious, modern, and lovely. And the location is perfect for initiating visits anywhere in Kyoto.

The Great Hall of Kyoto's Train Station

To the right of the great hall are the tracks of the Shinkannsen and all local (JR and Kintetsu) rail lines. Below it are two levels of shopping malls. To the left are all the local city buses and one of the two Kyoto subway lines. Above it, on one side, (believe it or not) is a huge rooftop outdoor amphitheater.

After marveling at the train station we walked about three blocks to the Higashi Honganji Temple complex. The main temple is Kyoto's largest wooden building. The complex has two main temples and a series of ceremonial gates and related service structures. The original temples were built in 1591. They have experienced repeated destruction (fires) over time and were rebuilt to their current condition in 1859.

The main temple is presently undergoing a painstaking renovation and seismic upgrade. The renovations to the smaller of the two temples were completed in 2008. This temple is more than a historical edifice, it is home to one of the largest and most active Buddhist congregations in Japan.

I was glad to be able to see the restoration process. Watching the technical sophistication of the construction work was wonderful. They still have the main temple covered in a temporary enclosure (which itself is one of the largest buildings in Kyoto). There are three cranes to move the incredibly heavy roof tiles and load the roof. Inside they have built a series of internal structures to raise and underpin the existing structure to allow them to literally weave in a new steel seismic structure.

The Smaller of the Two Temples Is Huge
(Yet it is Dwarfed by the Main Temple)

The Temporary Protective Construction Structure

Since the original temples are built of a series of shims and wedges (which is why they tend to perform so well in earthquakes), they have to be carefully underpinned to allow for renovation.

The model built to illustrate the restoration was itself a masterpiece.

The Model Shows the Internal Underpinning Towers

Massive New Steel I-Beams Will Cross Under the Roof and Brace the Width of the Temple

After the new steel is in place the underpinning towers will be incrementally lowered (literally a shim at a time) and then eventually removed.

The photo below shows the incredible detail that is being taken in the applications of gold leaf, hardware, and roof tiles.

The Restored Temple is Emerging into View

The next stop was a return after twenty-five years to Nijo Castle (Nijo-jo). The castle was built from 1603 to 1623 to serve as the Kyoto home to the Tokugawa Shoguns. It is foremost a defensive, albeit lavish, structure. The grounds are surrounded by a moat and tall protective stone walls.

Integral to the whole site are its elaborate grounds. Much like the Imperial Palace in Tokyo (or most castle design in Europe), the entire perimeter of Nijo-jo was surrounded by a moat.

The Steep Stone Walls Surrounded by the Moat

The construction of the walls themselves was a thing of incredible beauty. Each major stone was somehow placed using a series of smaller stones for infill.

Detail of the Protective Stone Walls

The interior of the castle was adorned with incredible paintings which (remarkably) survived from the 17th century intact. Many have been removed for preservation and have been replaced by exact replicas.

What I love the most about Nijo-jo is it's "Nightingale" floors. All of the interior rooms are surrounded by wide wooden hallways. The wide cypress plank floors in the hallways have a slight amount of give. The floors are fastened using little metal rods that slide down gently when pressure is applied from a footstep. They scratch a concealed metal plate below the floor creating a chirping sound. Hence, at night it was impossible to sneak up on the Shogun.

Alas No Photography is Allowed inside the Castle

Rich Carvings Adorn the Entrances

I could have spent an entire day just admiring the grounds of the castle. The landscaping is beautifully composed and wonderfully maintained. Every turn brings a different vista.

Tranquil and Perfectly Composed Gardens

A New Vista at Every Turn

The Gardens Form a Complete Inner World

Visitors May Climb One Outer Wall

In 1867 the fifteenth shogun returned the castle and grounds to the Emperor. It was donated to the City of Kyoto on 1939.

After visiting Nijo we made the best of our all day bus pass and circled 1/2 of Kyoto getting off in the Gion. This is Kyoto's main historic shopping area. Its historic area showcases the work of Kyoto's famous artisans. Interspersed are restaurants and theaters. The chic Hankyu and Takashimaya department stores are located here as well.

The Edge of the Gion

Little (Edible) Fish Cookies Displayed in a Traditional Japanese Confectionary
(They Faked us Out With Icky Bean Paste all the TIme)

At night Kyoto's character changes completely. Aside from the Kabuki theater all of the businesses on the main street of the Gion close and the action is found in every 8' wide alley. There is a seemingly endless number of tame (or not so tame) nightclubs. Businessmen with an unlimited expense account can schedule an evening with a traditional geisha here.

A Theater in the Gion

Back near the train station the action moves to the Pachinko Parlors and more conventional nightclubs and restaurants. One of the things I had on my list was to go play Pachinko, but then I went into a few of the parlors. They are not merely loud, they are earsplitting, nuclear, mega, knock-you-on-your-butt loud. With generous cigarette smoke thrown in for good measure. Guess I'm just too much of a wimp these days.

At Night the Pachinko Parlors Fill Up

And with that we called it a day (and night). When we got back to our hotel room we found it perfectly framing Kyoto Tower. Kind of like the clunky Tokyo Tower, it is oddly proportioned, but beautifully illuminated at night.

Our View from the Granvia

Well, thanks for bearing with a really long post.

My next post will be about Nara. Nara is about an hour from Kyoto and is another UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is home to yet more amazing temples and pagodas.

But it has something else. It has about 1200 tame deer that live in its main park. I wanted to see that.

Alas our time in Japan will soon come to a close. Even before we leave I already miss it.

Roadboy's Travels © 2009

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A Trip to Kamakura

Away from The Bustle

Day 8

After so many days in a big big big City, it takes its toll. It seemed like a good day to make a trip to a small seaside village. The Village of Kamakura is a favorite day trip for people from Tokyo and Yokohama. They can go the the beach, hike Kamakura's mountain trails, or visit the various shrines (including its Great Buddha).

It is easy to get there just an hour by rail. It is just like riding anywhere else by subway, only longer.

Along the way it is easy to see the industrial impact Tokyo and Yokohama have had on their adjoining suburbs. Along the way there is really no place where dense urbanization stops. It is just one housing block, school, and/or industrial plant after another. Maybe I'm jumping to conclusions, but It also seems like the industrial plants along the way are showing the first signs of post industrial decay. Signage was old, paint was peeling, staff parking lots were half full. It looks a lot like the US factory towns looked after our industrial jobs started to leave in the 70's and 80's to go (ironically) to Japan. Now the Japanese are clearly feeling the pinch of increasingly skilled, low cost labor in Korea, China, India, and Viet Nam.

OK back to my blog post....When we come to Kamakura and as you exit the train, time slips back thirty or forty years. The storefronts have an unmistakable feel that everything here is (kind of pleasantly) frozen in time.

We start our walk in the direction of the Great Buddha.

Along the way we came across this first sculpture. I'm not at all sure what the six figures symbolize, but I could not resist a photo. If anyone knows its symbolism please let me know.

Ready for Bar-B-Que?

As we walked further we heard the Beach Boys singing in one little shop. In the next Hawaiian crafts were showcased. Everywhere we went we found the strong link between Japan and Hawaii.

Further along we encountered this neat pot filled with water flowers. Mary pointed out to me it was also home to little tiny goldfish. Very neat idea.

Must Not be any Cats in This Neighborhood

Finally, a bit hot and pretty sweaty, we arrive at the Great Buddha sculpture / shrine. It is one of the two best examples of this type of Buddha in Japan. The Buddha has been here since the 1600's. It is cast bronze (go figure how they did that back then). It was made in layers over a ten year period and was orginally intended to be indoors but typhoons have twice destroyed its home.

The Great Buddha of Kamakura

While exploring the Buddha we found a little door on the side were anyone (not prone to claustrophobia) could enter and see it from the inside out. Mr. B and Miss M went inside and pronounced "not too bad".

There Was a Great Souvenir Shop Just Outside the Gates
(Mr. B in his new Rice Paddy Hat)

Walking back to the train station we passed a lot of small gardens with flowers in bloom and little florists with displays to die for.

Flowers Blooming Along the Way

A simple, but very enjoyable day.

Day 9 was spent on the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto so no post. Day 10 's post will be from history rich Kyoto!

Roadboy's Travels © 2009

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Best of Both Worlds

Yoyogi Park and Harajuku

Day 7

OK today has to be my favorite post so far. It chronicles all the delightful schizophrenia that makes up modern Tokyo. First off, anybody that knows Tokyo will confide that the best place to be on a sunny summer Sunday is Yoyogi Park (in the heart of Tokyo's hip, young, Harajuku district).

That struck a chord because when we visited Japan twenty five years ago we found the antics at Yoyogi Park on a Sunday to be total culture shock. Here, in this great and beautiful park was this bizarre phenomenon of a whole bunch of Japanese greasers doing Elvis impersonations with legions of girls in poodle skirts dancing to the vibe. It was almost a competitive thing.

Well, almost three decades later, I wondered: "are the Elvis boys still there?"

The answer, of course, follows below.

Herewith Team Roadboy's 2009 Sunday trip to Harajuku and Yoyogi Park.

To get to Yoyogi one takes the subway to Harajuku Station - which is sort of an Olde English Tudor Meets German Teutonic thing. You know next to a park (even a Japanese park), the aesthetic kind of says "park". So I'm good with that.

The Harajuku Subway Station

Then we venture into the park and through the largest Torii gate in Japan. The pillars are cut from a single Japanese Cypress (Hinoki) tree.

The Torii Gates into Yoyogi Park

Once into the park you immediately realize the place is a masterpiece of landscaping. The layer upon layer of trees and shrubs conceal and muffle the loud din of the pulsing city that surrounds them. It occurred to me as I walked here how essential landscape is to our lives. Architecture is supposed to bring order, but over time it frequently just results in layers of chaos. Conversely, the layers of landscape, over time, change and bring peace.

One Feels Immediately Transported to a Quieter Place

The park has been many things over the years. It was the site of the first successful powered aircraft flight in Japan in December of 1910. Ten years later in 1920 part of Yoyogi was set aside to build a shrine to Emperor Meiji who had loved it. The shrine is now home to a temple that hosts numerous weddings. In fact, in the short time we were in the shrine three very elaborate weddings took place.

The physical Meiji Shrine we see today was actually a replica rebuilt in 1958 to replace the original destroyed in WWII. The park was also a major venue for the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games.

Scouts are Everywhere in Tokyo

A Wedding Procession Enters the Shrine

I was so pleased to see weddings here. It is a perfect site for it. The first one began with a wedding procession entering the shrine forecourt from one of the side gates. Shinto weddings in Japan are elaborate and frequently cost $65,000 or more (which partially explains why so many modern Japanese opt for a western style wedding in Hawaii).

The Wedding Kimono's and Timeless Formality of a Shinto Wedding

The Procession

Another Couple Poses for Formal Photos

After watching the weddings we ran back into a knot of kids visiting the temple. They were having a first class field trip.

The Scouts Write and Post Prayers

The Posted Prayers

We finally made our way out of all that sublime peace and serenity back to the entry gates where Mary and Mr. B made a startling discovery. They found the one and only public trash can in Tokyo!

Yes, once you leave a restaurant or a subway station you can pretty much give up one finding one of these little gems. The philosophy in Tokyo seems to be the same as the national parks. "you pack it in - you pack it out". And reiterating my earlier post, despite the lack of trash cans, there is almost no litter in Tokyo.

Tokyo's One and ONLY Trash Can!

Moving to the edge of the park you can't miss Kenzo Tange's tour de force 1964 Tokyo Olympic stadium. It is still in continuous use and looks as cutting edge as ever. 

Tokyo's Olympic Stadium

And now the answer to my question do the Elvis Boys still groove in the park? Damn skippy they do! They are now a lot older (talk about it) and they now have to grind just outside the park (they got kicked out in the 90's), but they still pour themselves into leather pants, blow the hair skyward, and dance at Yoyogi.

Yes - The Elvis Boys Still Groove in Yoyogi

Of course Yoyogi's proximity to Harajuku means there is a whole lot of spillover of all the youthful energy found next door. Everything from the proliferation of "Schoolgirls" to the guy giving out free hugs.

Schoolgirls Straight From Manga

When Miss M told Mr. B that on her previous two trips there was always a guy on the bridge to Yoyogi offering "Free Hugs - All You Need", he balked. When he saw Mr. Free Hugs however, he decided he needed a hug.

Mr. B Gets A Big Hug from Mr Hugs

With Seeming Chaos All Around Maybe Mr. Hugs is on to Something?

Now This Guy, I Haven't Got a Clue!
Note Mr. Hugs Waiting for a New "Huggee" in the Background

It was time for dinner so we ventured into Harajuku and got immersed in the crowd for awhile. We had a beef bowl at a counter cafe and then made our way back to the station.

The Crowds at Harajuku's Shopping District

Waiting for the Train

A Crowded Ride Back to the Conrad

From garden's to weddings, to free hugs and trash cans; the memories we each made today will become wistful treasures that last forever.

I am running a day behind on posts, Monday (it is a day ahead here in Japan) we visited the lovely seaside town of Kamakura (home of one of Japan's two great Buddha's). Tuesday skimmed at about 200 mph aboard a Nozomi (Japan's newest and fastest Shinkansen or bullet) train to arguably its most historic city Kyoto. Sadly, this underscores that our time in Japan is starting to draw to a close.

Roadboy's Travels © 2009