Japan Holiday

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” Henry Miller

After a pretty intense year and a half of being consumed by my career, I started to become aware of a creeping apathy that had begun to take a bit of the color and spice out of a comfortable life in Edinburgh. This was making it more difficult to summon the energy to do much outside of the normal routine.

This is the herald of burnout – and has to be taken seriously.

The culprit here is a lack of alignment between what I really care about and what I am actually spending time doing. 

I know there is a lot of thinking to do and that over-familiar regular haunts are too associated with the everyday grind.

A change is in order! 

Luckily, a good friend of mine, Bjorn Bakker, is traveling the world at the moment (follow him at http://www.thedutchbroad.com) and has pretty much made the decision for me. As of the 3rd of December Bjorn will be in Japan, a country I have always found interesting largely because it is a unique culture, alien certainly to British life. After some wrangling I have managed to secure three weeks to soak in as much as possible of the country.

Japan Day 1: Konnichiwa Nihon

  • Plane from Edinburgh to Schiphol, Schiphol to Tokyo Narita Airport.
  • Narita Airport to Shinjuku, where we spent the night (found via Airbnb).

I’ve spent so long waiting for this trip, and it very nearly didn’t happen due to illness and difficulty getting time off work, so actually being here seems surreal.

I got to use a Japanese vending machine! I’d read about how vending machines (or jihanki in Japanese) are everywhere in Japan – selling everything from hot meals and bicycle parts to used underwear. There are over 5.5 million machines in Japan in total! One of the interesting reasons given for this is Japan’s relatively low crime rate, meaning there is little risk of vandalism (see here: http://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/indepth/cultural/hj/vendingmachines.html). I wonder how many of Japan’s innovations we sadly can’t bring back to the West for this reason. Anyway, actually getting to use one of these machines, which are so quintessentially Japanese, was great.

I met Bjorn at Ueno station on the way back to our hotel. Seeing his ridiculously oversized grin was a warm welcome to the country!

After we cleaned up at the flat we were staying in, we headed out to Shinjuku Gyoen Park (http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3034_001.html) – which was beautiful in an excitingly different sort of way. I read about this a bit later, and it turns out that there is much more to gardens than I originally thought – especially here in Japan, where the different religious influences have directly affected their styles. In addition to simply being there for pleasure, they are used as part of religious practices in the form of mediation.

From Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_garden):

Japanese garden styles include karesansui, Japanese rock gardens or Zen gardens, which are meditation gardens where white sand replaces water; roji, simple, rustic gardens with tea houses where the Japanese tea ceremony is conducted; kaiyū-shiki-teien, promenade or stroll gardens where the visitor follows a path around the garden to see carefully composed landscapes; and tsubo-niwa, small courtyard gardens.

Japanese gardens were developed under the influences of the Chinese gardens,[2] but gradually Japanese garden designers began to develop their own aesthetics, based on Japanese materials and culture. By the Edo period, the Japanese garden had its own distinct appearance.[3] Since the end of the 19th century, Japanese gardens have also been adapted to Western settings.

Japanese gardens have their roots in the Japanese religion of Shinto, with its story of the creation of eight perfect islands and of the shinchi, the lakes of the gods. Prehistoric Shinto shrines to the kami, the gods and spirits, are found on beaches and in forests all over the island. Sometimes they took the form of unusual rocks or trees, which were marked with cords of rice fibre (shimenawa), and surrounded with white stones or pebbles, a symbol of purity.[5] The white gravel courtyard became a distinctive feature of Shinto shrines, Imperial Palaces, Buddhist temples, and zen gardens.[6]

Japanese gardens were also strongly influenced by the Chinese philosophy of Daoism and Amida Buddhism, imported from China in or around 552 AD. Daoist legends spoke of five mountainous islands inhabited by the Eight Immortals, who lived in perfect harmony with nature. Each Immortal flew from his mountain home on the back of a crane. The islands themselves were located on the back of an enormous sea turtle. In Japan, the five islands of the Chinese legend became one island, called Horai-zen, or Mount Horai. Replicas of this legendary mountain, the symbol of a perfect world, are a common feature of Japanese gardens, as are rocks representing turtles and cranes.

We noticed that many of the desserts on offer had this curious Red Bean paste—including ice cream! Unfortunately, it does not taste great.

From Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_bean_paste):

“Red bean paste or adzuki bean paste is a dark red, sweet bean paste. It is used in Japanese confectionery, Chinese cuisine, and Korean cuisine. It is prepared by boiling and mashing adzuki beans and then sweetening the paste with sugar or honey.”

We also went on a long walk to Roppongi Hills.

From Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roppongi_Hills):

“Roppongi Hills (六本木ヒルズ Roppongi Hiruzu?) is a New Urban Centre and one of Japan’s largest integrated property developments, located in the Roppongi district of Minato, Tokyo

Constructed by building tycoon Minoru Mori, the mega-complex incorporates office space, apartments, shops, restaurants, cafés, movie theatres, a museum, a hotel, a major TV studio, an outdoor amphitheater, and a few parks. The centerpiece is the 54-story Mori Tower. Mori’s stated vision was to build an integrated development where high-rise inner-urban communities allow people to live, work, play, and shop in proximity to eliminate commuting time. He argued that this would increase leisure time and quality of life and benefit Japan’s national competitiveness.”

We finished the night with a fun pub crawl with a bunch of other foreigners (http://www.tokyopubcrawl.com/).

Japan Day 2

Japan Day 3

Japan Day 4

Train from Tokyo to Nikko

At Nikko, I saw the following:

  • Toshogu Shrine (http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3801.html)
    • The final resting place is Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate, who ruled Japan for over 250 years, from 1603 CE to 1868 CE. “Shogun” is translated literally as “military commander”, who operated as the de facto ruler of Japan, although these were nominally appointed by the emperor.  The Tokugawa Shogunate, also known as the Edo period as the Tokugawas ruled from Edo castle, was a period of sustained economic growth and stability in contrast to the proceeding “Sengoku” or “warring states” period – (1467 CE – 1603 CE).
  • Taiyuinbyo (http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3802.html)
    • Final resting place of grandson of Ieyasu.
  • We walked by Rinnoji Temple but didn’t go in due to ongoing reconstruction.
    • While this is the most important Buddhist temple in Nikko, I knew I would be seeing many more during my stay.

Bus to Okunikko

  • Kegon Waterfall
  • Lake Chuzenji

Bus back to Nikko, then the train to Tokyo

Had an amazing dinner in Asakusa

While the monuments we went and saw were certainly impressive, the biggest highlight of this day was the friendly Japanese men we met on the train to Nikko. We did our best in extremely basic Japanese (assisted by Google Translate) to talk to them about where we were from and some details about our trip. They helped break the ice by sharing some sake and nuts with us.  In return, we shared some chocolate cake, which they seemed to enjoy. There really is something special about the act of giving food to someone.

The Togushu shrine included the famous “Three Wise Monkeys”, a carving depicting three monkeys, which popularized the proverb “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”. Interestingly, there are differing explanations of this saying; while in the west, it refers to a lack of moral responsibility (“I didn’t see anything bad, I didn’t hear anything bad, and I’m not going to talk about anything bad”), in Buddhist tradition, the message behind this proverb is said to be about not dwelling on evil thoughts. The Buddhist interpretation of “speak no evil” seems to have equivalents in the Torah with”hotzaat shem ra” (unsubstantiated defamation), and “leshon hara” (gossiping about things which may be true but with a non constructive purpose).  Random trivia fact: Mahatma Gandhi used to carry around a small statue of the three monkeys – the exception to his lifestyle of non-possession.

Kegon waterfall was beautiful, but “over accessible”. The path to the viewing platform (including an elevator ride) made the whole experience feel a little artificial – like watching something on television.  We chatted about this for a while, including how different the experience was from the likes of Gulfoss in Iceland – where there was an element of danger and struggle that seemed to make everything more vivid. I found an interesting background article on motivation (http://blog.idonethis.com/the-science-of-motivation-your-brain-on-dopamine/), which seems to validate this idea – if you want a dopamine hit, it helps to feel like you have achieved something – which it is difficult to do if no struggle was necessary.

While wandering around Lake Chuzenji, we had an interesting conversation about the importance of intention – and how to have positive experiences with people. It helps so much to really feel positive. I remember the marked difference it made when I was practicing compassion meditation (http://ggia.berkeley.edu/practice/compassion_meditation) – a habit I need to resume.

Japan Day 5: Sometimes vending machines are better than people

  • Took the train from Tokyo to Nagoya

Because we left late, we decided not to rush on to Ise as was the plan – instead walked around the park and Nagoya Castle (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nagoya_Castle) with a huge moat. While it was beautiful to see from afar, it was too late to see it get some food.

Where we discovered an amazing restaurant specializing in Tonkatsu Ramen – Ichiran (https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Restaurant_Review-g298106-d1667803-Reviews-Ichiran_Nagoya_Sakae-Nagoya_Aichi_Prefecture_Chubu.html). It was a surreal experience – busy outside, vending machine, wait until some lights come in – ushered through to booth. Press the button, get a sheet to fill out with your exact specifications, and press the button – to take your tickets away with the first half. – see bowing through a little window. If you want more, get a refill by selecting the questionnaire. Clicking the button again. Try the eggs!

We also checked out ‘Shooters’, a friendly, US-style bar with table football, enthusiastic staff and English everywhere. Nice to be able to communicate, but definitely felt like cheating.

Japan Day 6

  • Traveled from Nagoya to Ise, then to Nara

Ise is famous for being the spiritual center of Shintoism where shrines are continually rebuilt. The attitude was much more serious than Tokyo – Bjorn got chastised for taking photos (which is forbidden). Nara is known for being Japan’s first permanent capital – established in the year 710 (https://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2165.html).

Japan Day 7

In Nara we ended up getting a great tour around some of the local sights by someone who refused to take any payment. We also go to feed some deers in Nara park (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ARrFkOCJtKY).

Japan Day 8

I traveled from Nara to Koyasan (https://www.japan-guide.com/e/e4900.html), including a fun stretch on a funicular railway.

We had a temple stay, meaning we had very traditional living quarters and got to experience cool monk food.

We also checked out the famous cemetery by Okunoin Temple (https://www.japan-guide.com/e/e4901.html).

Japan Day 9

We got up, meditated, experienced a Goma Fire Ritual (http://www.ekoin.jp/en/omairi/index.html), which are carried to honour ancestors.

Visited the Garan temple complex (https://www.japan-experience.com/city-koyasan/danjo-garan), where we saw monks.

We then went from Koyasan to Osaka. We ended up in ‘Space Station’ (https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Attraction_Review-g298566-d3727432-Reviews-Video_Game_Bar_Space_Station-Osaka_Osaka_Prefecture_Kinki.html), where it turned out that one of the bartenders knew a friend of mine back in Scotland.

From there we went on to a couple of bars including a reggae bar called ‘One Love Osaka’ where I spent most of my time chatting about marketing with the owner. We were also denied entry to one or two places: ‘Japanese only,’ we were told apologetically. Eventually, we connected with a bartender/snowboarder who was having his birthday and ended up taking us into one such bar where we drank huge amounts and sang Karaoke into the early hours.

Japan Day 10

I didn’t do a huge amount today – I am still recovering from the previous day.

However, we ended up checking out Dotonbori (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/D%C5%8Dtonbori).

Japan Day 11

Traveled from Osaka to Kobe

Had amazing Kobe Beef lunch at at Ishida (https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Restaurant_Review-g298562-d6181184-Reviews-Kobe_Beef_Steak_Ishida_Kitanozaka-Kobe_Hyogo_Prefecture_Kinki.html).

Visited the Hakutsuru Sake Brewery Museum (http://meheartseoul.blogspot.co.uk/2015/08/HakutsuruSakeBreweryMuseum.html)

Japan Day 12

Got into Kyoto

Dropped off bags

Got bikes

Went to Temple Toji (https://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3919.html)

Went to the Kyoto Manga Museum (https://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3946.html)

Went to Pontocho (https://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3921.html) via waterside path

Japan Day 13

Went to Arishiyama (https://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3912.html), where we checked out the bamboo forest

Saw garden

Went along the great path, waterfront, coffee

Went to see the monkeys

Japan Day 14

Extra day in Kyoto

More random exploration

Japan Day 15

Train from Kyoto to Hiroshima

Had another meal at Ichiran

Visited the Peace Park

Saw some people taking selfies, which seemed a little off.

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