By Haven Tobias
For The Transcript
When a traveler first encounters Japan, there appear to be two Japans: there is a Japan that exists now, not just modern, but post-modern, already shaping the 22nd century; there is a traditional Japan, the Japan of the flowering of Zen Buddhism, the arts and of the samurai warrior and the Shoguns.
Is the same Japan both modern and traditional -- yin/yang? I think so. Nonetheless, there will be two articles about my recent trip to Japan and this one will emphasize the amazing modernity and the next, the idyllic legacy, as if they were distinct, even though they blend.
I began my sojourn this past fall on Japan's northernmost island, Hokkaido. This is an unusual place to start, for Americans. There are Russian and Korean tourists on Hokkaido and a lot of Japanese tourists too, but few Americans. The standard tour for Americans is four or five days in Tokyo and three or four days in Kyoto and then back to the states. It takes a lot of energy -- both the world's resources and one's own -- to get to Japan. Furthermore, Tokyo and Kyoto are particularly expensive. I suggest that if you expand your itinerary and include some of the less trafficked areas, you will not regret it.
Not that Tokyo and Kyoto are not worth one's time. But I am glad I did not miss the scenic drives on trains and buses from Hokkaido south to northern Honshu island. Specifically, I am glad I did not miss spending the night on Lake Toya in the Shikotsu-Toya National Park, in southern Hokkaido, where the G8 summit will meet in 2008.
I enjoyed the stopovers in Hakodate, the "gate city" on southernmost Hokkaido and then Aomori, the "gate city" on northernmost Honshu. And I am particularly glad I traveled through the exquisite Towada Hachimantai National Park, with its dozens of waterfalls, wide ones and tall ones and cruised Lake Towada, in northern Honshu. I enjoyed the northern Honshu city of Sendai very much and even though the shores of nearby Matsushima Bay are becoming crowded with less than scenic buildings, still, one can understand why the poet Basho, famous for his haiku, was captivated by the area.
I also would not want to have missed western central Honshu and specifically, the cities of Takayama and Kanazawa. Indeed, if there were one city in Japan where I could pick to live, it would be Kanazawa. I spent part of two days on Mount Koya, also known as Koya-san in south central Honshu. There are no hotels on Koya-san. I spent the night in a Buddhist monastery and while I have stayed in Buddhist monasteries before, for weeks at a time, my one night in this mountain-top, Japanese Buddhist monastery was an unforgettable experience.
Full speed ahead
But tranquility is the subject of the next article. Post-modern Japan is high-speed. In the early 20th century, militarization and modernity came fast to Japan and now everything is fast. For example, the bullet train is fast and faster still is getting on or off the bullet train, if you are not at a terminal station. If you pick up or get off the bullet train at some intermediate stop, you have a matter of seconds to get on, or off, as the case may be. If the arrival is scheduled for 10:08:20 and the departure is scheduled for 10:09:02, they aren't kidding. The doors close at 10:09:02. If you meant to get off, but didn't make it fast enough, the doors won't open again and you'll have to get off at the next station. If you wanted to get on, but didn't make it fast enough, the doors won't open again and you'll have to await the next train.
Many trains and vehicles go through mountains, because that's faster than going over. Since there are many mountains, between where you are and where you're going, particularly on Honshu, travel is sometimes not very scenic. (As an aside, I'll note that there are still scenic trains. The train ride from Nagoya to Takayama through the Japanese "Alps" is a delight. Go soon, tunnels are probably on the horizon.)
What is scenic about train travel in Japan is the train stations. The most architecturally stunning train stations in the world are in Japan. I haven't been everywhere, but I boldly state that there isn't a more amazing train station anywhere than the train station in Kyoto, opened in 1997 to commemorate Kyoto's 1,200th anniversary. (Yes, it is yin/yang that this futuristic marriage of plate glass and steel designed by Hiroshi Hara was created in Kyoto, the premier classical city of Japan.)
The Kyoto station goes up, and up, and keeps on going. On one side is a many-storied hotel; on the other, a department store with many floors. The roof of the station, where there is a roof, is a garden. But mostly the roof is cantilevered architecture. There are elevators and there are stairs, but the way to get where you want to go is the escalators. They seem to go on forever and they are a great viewing platform for the main floor of the station, the varying perspective of the architecture and the interplay of roof-no roof.
The train station in Kanazawa is also impressive, with a gateway like the gateway to a Shinto shrine, huge murals and a big clock. Not surprising to have a clock at a train station, you say. The clock is a water fountain. The clock is a water fountain that tells the accurate time, minute by minute. It is beautiful. And slightly mesmerizing. You could miss that train.
The Museum of the 21st Century is in Kanazawa. It is an amazing piece of architecture which at first one doesn't even see because its round outside glass walls are strung from ground to roof with morning glories. The Japanese love morning glories and plant them everywhere. A favorite of small shopowners who have no yard and not much room altogether is to treat them like potted plants. They seem to thrive, whether they are asked to be two feet tall or 22 feet tall. Because the center of the museum is a courtyard, there are almost no interior rooms. The morning glories cut the glare. The elevators are glass boxes. Everything seems to float in soft light in this museum, visit www.kanazawa21.jp/en/. In the basement is a wonderful exhibit of contemporary Japanese artists and many of the works are for sale. The exhibit changes, of course, as artists depart or come on the scene, but the museum policy is that the basement belongs to the currently working artist.
This article is about fast and future. And, of course, everyone's favorite topic, food. American fast food is everywhere. You can go to Japan and pretend you're not there at meal time, if that's your wish. In every Japanese city and town, Kentucky Fried Chicken, known as "Ken Chickie," McDonald's and Starbucks are ubiquitous and very popular. Japanese fast food also exists, in the form of noodle soup. They call "ramen" Japanese-Chinese, not very admiringly. The Japanese noodle soup is called either soba (thin buckwheat noodles in broth) or udon (thick wheat noodles in broth).
My favorite meal was breakfast and I ate every breakfast Japanese buffet style. I liked having miso soup for breakfast, just as I liked having pho for breakfast in Vietnam. Always there was rice and noodles. But best of all was the breakfast salad bars. Fruit in Japan is expensive and is a treat, generally considered a dessert at dinnertime. To get their nutrients, the Japanese eat salad for breakfast: greens, cabbages, seaweed in various guises, pickled and dried, fresh mushrooms, green beans, snap peas tomatoes and on Hokkaido, fresh corn kernels and cooked potatoes.
Our most unusual breakfast was at the Tokyo Tsukiji fish market, after experiencing the 6 a.m. tuna auction. One picture here shows my breakfast of sushi and sashimi at the Tsukiji market. From wholesaler to chef was about two and a half feet and from chef to me was about two and a half minutes.
Every day, 2,300 tons of marine product and 1,700 tons of fruit and vegetables are sold from the Tsukiji fish market. It's worth having to get up early to get to the market area, find a place to park and walk the considerable distance to get into the tuna auction area by 6 a.m. We were lucky. It is still possible for tourists to be right down on the floor with the sellers, the buyers and the tuna. Well, "lucky" if you don't mind the slop and the cold and the elbows from the buyers and sellers who wish you were not right down there in the pit. A viewers' gallery, which will be removed from the action, is planned. So go soon, because you want to be right there in the midst of a combination of a livestock auction and the stock market -- people flashing hand signals that "speak" volumes and people shouting words so clipped and fast that's it's not only another language, it's another language to the Japanese.
I cannot leave this article without elucidation regarding the toilets. Before you visit Japan, you might want to get an engineering degree, so that you can use the bathroom. True, many venues outside major cities still have the "eastern toilet" which most Americans call "the hole in the ground." But the Japanese are adopting the "western toilet" with bells and whistles. Almost literally with bells and whistles. There aren't instructions in English or any other language. You just have to learn experientially.
If you push one button that you think might flush, you discover it's the bidet button. If you then push another button you think might flush, you discover it warms the seat. Other buttons change the water temperature or flow of the bidet, but still no flush. The best thing to do before you go, which is to say, before you go to Japan, is to visit Web site http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_toilets.
This article has covered trains, tuna auctions and toilets. There are many places to visit in Japan that are shrines and temples of art and beauty, manmade and natural and you may prefer to spend your time in them. In the next article, we'll go to the gardens and you may think it's about time.
By Haven Tobias
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