Day Trip to Mt Fuji

Our Yokohama hosts generously offered to take us on a trip around Mt. Fuji. Although our visit to Japan lasted a whole month, we still ran tight on time. Although we would have liked to have spent more time exploring and climbing Mt. Fuji, we had only enough time for a single day trip … and it was wonderful!

We started out from Yokohama bright and early at 6:30 because the drive was about two hours each way. On the way we did something that’s very unusual in Japan, though common here in the U.S.: We ate in the car.

We stopped at a convenience store (a 7-11, Lawson Store, or something similar) and picked up boxed lunches. 7-11 stores, sometimes with signs that read “SEVEN & i HOLDINGS” are all over Japan, but the food quality and selection is amazing. Fresh, good-quality boxed sushi, sake, wines (often from Chile and elsewhere), and more are available.

So we picked up some sushi lunches and bottled water and headed off down the road. You don’t see people eating while they’re walking or driving in Japan. You will see folks eat lunches on the Shinkansen, but that is about it. Mostly people will take the time to sit down and enjoy their meal with company.

As we got outside the endless parade of cities and towns and climbed in altitude, the road got steeper and more curvy. Clouds obscured the mountain most of the time during our approach, but we caught glimpses of it when we arrived along the shore of Lake Yamanaka. Openings in the clouds drifted by and gave us momentary views of Mt. Fuji’s snow-capped peak.

Our next stop was Oshino Hakkai Springs. Although there were busloads of tourists strolling through the grounds, the crystal-clear and surprisingly deep eight ponds of Oshino Hakkai were picturesque. There were many shops selling food and souvenirs, and one could peer through the windows to watch buckwheat being ground and milled to make soba noodles. Soba actually means buckwheat, but is also used as the name for the thin noodles made from buckwheat.

Our next stop was the Narusawa Ice Cave. An eruption of Mt. Fuji about 1100 years ago caused a lava flow that cooled and formed lava tubes that became the Narusawa Ice Cave. My octogenarian mother and I made it through the cave by navigating steep steps and low areas where the ceiling was less than four feet tall.

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As we continued around to the eastern side of Mt. Fuji, the clouds dissipated and revealed a less snowy summit. I asked my hosts if they have seen a reduction in snow cover on the mountain over the years. They answered that yes, there has been a slow but steady decline.

Our next stop were the Shiraito no Taki and Otodome no Taki waterfalls. The first, the Otodome no Taki falls, means “Stop the Sound” falls. It has varying stories behind the name, with the recurring theme of plotting a revenge murder. The two Soga brothers wanted to murder a rival, Kudo Suketsune, who had killed their father. One story is that the brothers used the roaring sound of the waterfall to avoid being overheard while they made their deadly plans. Another is that they could not hear each other over the roaring falls as they plotted. One finally cried out in frustration that the spirit of the waterfall was torturing them by preventing them from carrying out their revenge. The waterfall’s roaring sound stopped, so they were able to complete their plans and take their revenge.

After descending a number of stairs and walking about five minutes beyond the Otodome falls, one comes across the breathtaking Shiraito no Taki falls. The name means “white thread” waterfall. One long look at the panoramic view of delicate threads of falling water requires no further explanation.

Our final stop was the Kachoen Flower and Bird park. I have written previously about these unusual and colorful flower and bird amusement parks here.

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We finally headed back and made it home in the evening. Our host, who drove the entire trip for us, really outdid himself. We had an amazing day trip around Mt. Fuji and got to see a lot in one day!

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Black Market History

One fascinating and colorful story involves my grandfather helping relatives in Japan after the war through the postwar black market. The family of one of mom’s cousins in Japan had owned a thriving bathhouse business. They lost their business, their home, and pretty much everything during the horrendous fire-bombing. They were lucky to escape with their lives, and just the clothes on their backs.

My mom’s cousin, who was probably not even 20 years old yet, wrote to my grandfather to ask for help. The cousin specifically asked for antibiotics that could be sold on the black market to raise sufficient funds to start a legitimate business. My grandfather turned to his eldest son (my uncle) and told him to obtain the drugs.

My uncle, who had served in the U.S. armed forces in the South Pacific island-hopping campaigns was hesitant. He knew it would be illegal, wasn’t sure how to obtain the drugs, and, even if he could get them, wasn’t sure how they would make it all the way into our Japanese cousins’ hands without getting intercepted and confiscated.

My grandfather allegedly ordered my uncle to carry out his orders. No one is sure how, but he did. The drugs were obtained, shipped to Japan, made it to the cousins there, and were sold on the black market.

How I wish I had known this story before my uncle died! I wish I could have asked him how he did it and how he felt about it. How I wish, too, I could have asked my Japanese second-cousin, the one who made the original plea to my grandfather. He was alive 19 years ago when I visited Japan the first time, but he passed away about nine years later. What stories they would have to tell!

I did ask his son about it. He was vaguely aware that his father, uncle, and maybe another family relative were involved in some shady dealings during the rough postwar years, but it was little more than rumor and innuendo. It wasn’t something he would have talked with his father directly about. His sister was totally unaware of the story until we talked about it on this trip. The family prospered, and built and owned several large and successful (legitimate) businesses, in the following decades.

I often encourage people to sit down and interview their older relatives about family history. People put it off, and elders, when asked, will often beg off, stating that “it’s not that interesting,” or “it’s not that special.” I encourage people to be persistent. Use a digital recorder or a video camera. Even a recording of your relatives’ voices after they are gone is really a wonderful thing to have. You will not regret being persistent, and after your elders open up, both of you will likely enjoy the process.

Takayama

Takayama is a beautiful city due north of Nagoya. It’s name 高山 means “tall mountain,” and it is situated in the Gifu prefecture in mountains due west of Nagano prefecture, where the 1998 Winter Olympics took place.

My mother has traveled to Japan many times over the years, but had never seen Takayama, and it was highly recommended by relatives and friends who have. I’m glad we went!

Getting to Takayama is easy. A direct train north from Nagoya takes about 2.5 to 3 hours. There is no Shinkansen, but the Takayama Main Line is a beautiful rail trip winding along the Kiso River (木曽川) which is sometimes called the “Japan Rhine” because its scenic beauty sometimes recalls the Rhine River in Europe.

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Because of Takayama’s altitude, the temperatures there were much cooler than on the rest of our trip. Consequently, spring comes later: although the cherry blossom season was already peaking in Kyoto and Yokohama, the spring blossoms had not yet opened in Takayama. Indeed, it got cold enough that it snowed the morning we left Takayama. The one time I wore a coat the entire month of April was there. Plan and pack accordingly!

It’s a popular city for foreign travelers. I overheard many languages and saw more non-Japanese folks on the train to and from Takayama. I got to try out my German several times with various tourists I overheard speaking it on this leg of the trip.

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Takayama has many attractions to offer. There are hot springs, a shrine and temple walk, the ruins of an old castle, and many shops with food and local wares, particularly lacquer, pottery, and carved wood objects.

We stayed in a Ryokan in Takayama. A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn. You will typically have a single tatami-mat room. During the day, a table and mats or chairs are set up for tea and meals, and in the evening they are removed and replaced with futon for sleeping.

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Also, ryokan typically have bathing areas. These can be private ofuro, or they may be larger communal baths. Yukata robes are offered to guests, and it is common to take a bath before dinner, and don your yukata for dinner. I am told in Takayama, when the weather is warm, you may see people wearing their yukata outdoors, too. It was much too cold for that during our stay, however.
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When you reserve a ryokan, it is common to choose between a reservation with meals or without. Typically the former includes breakfast and dinner. That leaves you free to go sightseeing and eat lunch while exploring, then return to the ryokan, take your bath, and enjoy dinner.

When I was searching for a ryokan, I couldn’t find any online with openings for a party of five. So I ventured further and contacted ryokan that had no online reservations. The one I found, which I can highly recommend, was Sumiyoshi Ryokan, aka Antique Inn Sumiyoshi. The rates were reasonable, the food fantastic, and the accommodations very comfortable. It was a fair hike from the train station (about 1 km), so if you’re not up to the hike, particularly if you have heavy baggage, you might want to catch a taxi.

One area attraction I highly recommend is the Hida Minzoku Mura Folk Village (飛騨民俗村). This village is a collection of old buildings, some up to 500 years old. After WWII, old buildings that were undamaged were collected and moved here from the surrounding prefecture to preserve the history of life in older times. There are many buildings with exhibits on making silk, thatching roofs (some thatches are more than 3 feet thick), growing rice, grinding flour, and more. You can easily spend a few hours walking through the buildings and examining the artifacts and exhibits.

While there we saw a man doing woodcarving. He and other woodcarvers had amassed quite a collection of masks, statues, netsuke, and more out of yew. I wrote a bit about this on a previous blog entry.

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If you have time, I recommend a couple days in Takayama. You should definitely experience a ryokan in Japan as well!

Sushi

It should come as no surprise that we consumed our fair share of sushi during our month in Japan, and it was consistently excellent. We mostly ate in the homes of our hosts, which was my preference, but we did go out a few times. I noticed a couple of changes and innovations in sushi restaurants compared to my last visit 19 years ago.

Last time I was in Japan, I remember getting sushi delivered to the door quite the way we get pizza delivered here in the U.S. The sushi was fresh and served in beautiful lacquered serving dishes. I didn’t see any of that this time, and when I asked, my hosts told me that kind of sushi delivery is not as popular anymore.

We went to two conveyor-belt sushi bars and there were several cool elements I hadn’t seen in such establishments before.

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First, at the entrance was a little touch-screen kiosk where you could enter the number of people in your party. The machine would give you a number and you waited your turn. As soon as our table was ready, a hostess showed us to ours. I may have seen this computerized waiting list kiosk in other restaurants, but my memory is not clear on that.

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Next, each table had an instant-hot water dispenser. There was no need for a waiter or waitress to refill your teapot. On the other hand, whoever sat nearest the instant-hot was pressed into tea service duty for the entire table for the duration of the meal.

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The really cool thing, though, was the special-delivery conveyor. Instead of waiting, watching, then finally grabbing a plate off the moving conveyor, you could place a specific order for a plate of sushi, and within a minute or two it was made fresh and delivered via a special automatic car to your table. You would hear a beeping sound, and you’d look up and there was your order. You’d remove the plate(s) from the car, press the button, and the car would zoom along its track back into the kitchen ready to receive its next order.

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One sushi restaurant we went to in Nagoya had an additional cool feature. At the end of the table was a slot to insert your finished plates. It would count the plates and after seven had been returned, a little animated cartoon would play on the touch screen, usually involving a ninja or superhero trying to battle bad guys. Most of the time, he was defeated. Once in a while, though, he would win, and a little prize ball would roll out of the machine. The ball would open up to reveal simple prizes (stickers, temporary tattoos, etc.), but it was entertaining to watch the short little animations and root for the hero. At the end of the meal, all our plates had been counted, so our check was generated very fast.

Although our hosts never allowed us to pay for anything, I did spy the bill for our sushi dinner. I expected it to be very expensive, but in fact it was rather close to what we might pay in the U.S.

Flower and Bird Amusement Parks

On two separate occasions during our trip we were taken to bird and flower amusement parks. I don’t know if such parks exist in other countries, but this was the first time I’d seen anything like them. One was near Mt. Fuji the other in Kakegawa, and they were remarkably similar in layout and presentation. I got a sense that these exist all over Japan, and I wonder if they are part of a chain. Here is what we experienced.

After paying our admission, we were first presented with a row of cages containing many different species of owls. I have never seen so many different kinds of owls, many from various regions of Asia. The variety of size and markings was striking. Several were the largest owls I’ve ever seen.

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After marveling at the owl display, we went through double doors and were assaulted by an explosion of color. Hundreds of flowering plants hanging from the ceilings, climbing walls in terraced planters, blanketing tables and edging walkways, engulfed and surrounded us in bright color and fragrance.

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Turn one way and there was a lengthy, above-ground pond with fish, lilies and lotus in full bloom, and water fowl walking deftly across the lily pads. Turn another way and large, walk-in aviaries hosted brightly colored and raucous tropical parrots, lovebirds, parakeets, and more.

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Warning signs at the aviaries recommended visitors remove their earrings because the birds are prone to bite and steal them. I wear stud earrings and foolishly assumed they wouldn’t pose sufficiently attractive targets.

Bad move. One medium-sized bird landed on my wrist and quickly worked his way up to my shoulder. Before I knew it, he had reached forward with his beak and popped one of my stud earrings right out of my ear. I barely felt it. He then flew away and landed on a branch just beyond my reach. I watched in horror as I saw him bite and twirl the earring in his beak, trying to extract something edible out of it. I wasn’t as worried about losing an earring as I was by the thought of the bird swallowing a pointed metal object. I kept trying to coax him back onto my finger, but he danced just out of reach.

Finally I was able to reach close enough that he felt annoyed or intimidated, and he leaned forward to bite my outstretched finger. Out fell the earring, which I quickly retrieved from the floor. We searched in vain for the stud backing and finally gave up. Lesson learned.

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Another feature of both of the bird and flower amusement parks we visited was a raptor show. Benches were set up for people to watch as trainers brought out various owls, hawks, and eagles that would, on command, fly from their perch to the trainer. The trainer would return them to a perch, walk to another area of the arena, then call the bird to him. Much to the viewers’ delight, everyone got to see the birds fly from different angles, and a few lucky ones saw them fly within inches of their heads. After the show, people were invited to take pictures with the large raptors for a fee.

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As with everywhere else, the premises were kept remarkably clean. Given the constant traffic of birds flying and waddling every which way, the staff had to be on their toes to clean up the inevitable droppings. Also, the rows and rows of flowers required regular watering and trimming: They all were in beautiful bloom and I never saw a yellowed or dried-up leaf, stem, or bloom.

Climbing 800 Steps

One of the many temples and shrines we visited was the Tachikikannon in Ishiyama, Shiga prefecture. Ishiyama and Otsu are only a 15-minute train ride east from Kyoto next to the Seta River, which is the outlet from Lake Biwa (Biwako 琵琶湖 ).

Lake Biwa, the largest lake in Japan, is more than 230 km (143 miles) around, and at its southern tip it empties into the Seta River at the town of Otsu. The river flows through Shiga, Kyoto, and Osaka prefectures. It actually has three different names depending on the section of river: Seta River, Yodo River, and Uji River.

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That’s mom up ahead in the light blue rain jacket

About 10 or so minutes’ drive south of Ishiyama, you will find the entry to the beginning of the many stairs that lead up to Tachikikannon. These steps give the temple its nickname, “the 800-step temple.”

The day we visited was grey and drizzly, which in retrospect was probably fortuitous. Had the weather featured the warm and humid conditions we experienced most of the trip, we would have been soaked by the time we reached the top, but with perspiration rather than precipitation.

Although it was a healthy climb, my nearly 83-year-old mother, full of vim and vigor, set an ambitious pace which put members of our party, some of whom were only a third her age, to shame. Fortunately there were many landings where one could take a moment to catch one’s breath, observe the lush greenery, statues, and river valley sinking below us.
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Along the path we saw statues, including Ojizo-Sama (お地蔵様). You will see these statues throughout Japan and may recognize them from the red bibs or sometimes bonnets they wear. There are many beliefs and traditions relating to Ojizo-Sama (known as Ksitigarbha in Sanskrit). In Japan, Ojizo-Sama offer safe passage to travelers, protect firefighters, but most important, they protect and help infants and children who have passed away.
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Once we reached the top of the 800 steps, we explored several structures atop the mountain. We cleansed our hands at the traditional hand-washing station guarded by a dragon. We were served hot tea that is still made with water heated by wood fire. We prayed and rang the great bell, which can be heard miles away. We met with the kind wife of the priest, who came out to greet our friend and tour guide who had worked at the temple in years past.

Otsu, Biwako, and Ishiyama are a very short train ride from Kyoto and worth at least a day trip if you come to the area. Tachikikannon is a lovely place to visit, provided you have the stamina to make the climb.

Hiroshima

What follows are expanded excerpts from my journal entry on my visit to Hiroshima.

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…Finally in, we started getting glimpses of the Hiroshima Dome: the remains of the building that was under the hypocenter of the first atomic bomb dropped in wartime. We parked, and then walked a moderate distance in cloudy, drizzly weather until we arrived at the International Peace Museum. Tickets were purchased and we picked up audio guides in English. Up several flights of stairs and across a long enclosed skybridge, the tour began.

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Abalone shell with embedded dirt and a glass bottle deformed from the intense heat

It will be difficult to describe what I saw and how I felt. The first rooms showed photographs of the mushroom cloud taken from distances of one to five kilometers from the hypocenter. We saw remnant items including pieces of clothing, a lunch box, a pocket watch (hands frozen at the moment of the detonation), a helmet, etc., from people who experienced the blast, some who died instantly, some who survived the initial blast but died soon after.

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There was a 1:1000 scale model of Hiroshima showing the location of the hypocenter suspended hovering above a city laid waste by the initial blast and the subsequent firestorm and winds. It is estimated that 69% of Hiroshima’s buildings were destroyed, and more than 90% of doctors and nurses in Hiroshima killed or injured.

Although the bomb, nicknamed “Little Boy,” contained 64 kg (141 lbs.) of uranium-235, it was a judged to be a very inefficient detonation. Only 1.7% of its material underwent nuclear fission. I cannot imagine multiplying the magnitude of the horrors of Hiroshima, had the weapon been “efficient” (as I can only imagine modern weapons to be).

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It was difficult to read the poems and quotes of people who experienced the blast, but much worse were the quotes of parents whose children were lost, or who survived only to suffer terribly and die soon after. The anguish and pain expressed in the words of parents who had sent their children off to school, packed a special lunch, etc., never to see their children again, was nearly unbearable. But I could not turn away. I could not ignore and brush past this ghastly testament to the extremes of human-wrought destruction.

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There were roof tiles pocked and rough from the intense heat of the A-bomb side by side with smooth tile that had been shielded from the heat. There was a reconstructed stone entryway that showed the ghostly shadow of someone who had been sitting there at the moment of the explosion. No remains were found because that person was probably incinerated instantly.

There was a replica of the bomb and description of how it worked, the unfathomable temperatures achieved, and the intense winds generated first outwardly, then inwardly. All the narration on the portable audio guide was dictated by a native-English speaker spoken in neutral, unmodulated tones, which gave it a frank, unsensational tone … and only gave all the more impact to the horrific facts and figures as well as the heart-rending accounts.

There was a section devoted to the effects of radiation on the human body as well. It showed how various parts of the body are affected by exposure to nuclear radiation initially, as well the long-term impacts.

At the end of the tour were pictures of world leaders visiting Hiroshima and proclamations and resolutions to support the end of nuclear weapons. When was the last time a U.S. president visited Hiroshima? No sitting U.S. president has ever visited either Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Carter visited after leaving office, but I believe he was the last

[Update: John Kerry became the first US Secretary of State to visit in April, 2016, and President Barack Obama became the first sitting president to visit the following month in May, 2016]

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I was pretty devastated by the museum and didn’t want to talk. Inside the museum, despite a fairly steady crowd of people passing though, there was no noise, and no speaking save for the recorded voices narrating the exhibited items and newsreel clips. Faces, multi-lingual brochures, and the occasional dialog in a foreign tongue overheard whispering from a portable audio guide nearby indicated the broad spectrum of international visitors to this museum. Some cheeks were wet with tears, and handkerchiefs and facial tissues were held in sometimes clenched fists.

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We went outside and walked the grounds of the park between the museum and the Dome. We walked along the Ōta River, peaceful and smooth, and I could not but help imagine the hundreds who jumped in the river for relief, only to drown, adding their bodies to those that already filled the river. We walked to a children’s peace memorial where thousand-crane offerings from around the country and the world hung. Some were arranged into elaborate mosaics, to render their prayers for world peace and the complete banning of nuclear weapons.

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Mosaic pictures formed from thousands of tiny origami cranes

I have seen pictures and movies about the bombing of Hiroshima and have read the novel Hiroshima. Some of the items I viewed in the museum I had seen before in books and movies. But to actually be there, to be within inches of items crushed, burned, and irradiated by the atomic bomb carries a palpable, visceral wallop. A voice in my head wondered if any of the displayed items still were “hot” with radiation, until I saw a sign indicating that all the displayed items were safe. Then I kicked myself internally for having such a petty worry in comparison to the people who experienced it, those who died, those who survived, and those who live here today. It is not an easy visit to make, but it is a pilgrimage all of us as humans should make so long as nuclear weapons exist.

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