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Some things in life are just meant to happen. Paddle Japan was one such thing. From an idle comment over a cup of tea with `Hadas’ came a whole Japanese Odyssey. It all started at a kayak Dealers Meet in September `03, “Where would you most like to paddle, Hadas?” was the idle comment. “Hokkaido” was her reply. That was it. Some kind of karmic agreement had been settled upon, and after very little planning `Hadas’ and I found ourselves meeting up in Narita airport and beginning a six-month journey by kayak around the four main Islands of Japan.

 

Legend has it than when God was designing the surface of our planet He came to Japan and, after painting the four main islands, He accidentally knocked his brush, thereby showering over two thousand tiny droplets in and around the coast. It looked so pretty, God decided to leave the droplets as they lay. This became “Yamato”, “A Place of Mountains,” the traditional name for Japan. The Chinese call Japan. `Nihon’ – “Land of the Rising Sun”. I had always dreamed of visiting Japan. Studying Karate as a young lad, I spent my late night reading stories of noble Samurai and beautiful Geisha; these filled the fertile imagination of my young boy’s mind. To me, Japan was a place of mystery. It is also very much a land of extremes. Earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons and volcanoes have affected this land and its people, moulding both shape and character over thousands of years.

 

We left from a small Marina called Casa Zima. When we arrived in Japan we had no contacts or local support. This was soon to change when we had the good fortune to meet with a man called Otake-San. Hearing of our plans he took it upon himself to become our guardian angel and asked a chap called Edo-San to act as our Japanese contact, calling us daily, giving us information on the coastline ahead, as well as providing us with regular weather reports. Together they followed our progress from start to finish, Edo-San also set up a web site for the expedition, monitoring our progress throughout the journey.
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For the first couple of weeks we paddled within the gaze of Mount Fuji, Japan’s largest Mountain, across Sagami Bay, rounding Izu Hanto and across Suruga Bay to Omae Zaki. Here we were caught out by some very strong winds that threatened to blow us well off shore. We had over an hour of head down, grit your teeth, forward paddling. We had been warned about the sudden change in weather that can occur in the winter months, when, before we left Casa Zima the Coastguard had requested an interview with us. `Are you mad? Allen-San’ was the coastguard’s response when I told him of our plans, “you cannot paddle on the sea in the winter months!” These words rang out in my ears now. We knew we had a hard task ahead of us. The first half of our journey was a constant battle against head wind after head wind.

 

From Omae Zaki we paddled down the coast towards Atsemi Point and across Nagoya Bay to Toba. Here we were to meet up with a man called Kawaterou San, alias `Kappa’.

 

The `Kappa is’ a Japanese creature that has the body of a tortoise, the head of a monkey and limbs that are lined with scales. Some believe of Ainu origin, others that it is descended from the monkey messenger of the river God.
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It was early the following morning that Kawaterou-San arrived to take us into Nagoya. I had first made contact with Kawaterou-San back in England, whilst researching for the trip. I had emailed the Japanese National Tourist Organization asking for information on Kayakers that had paddled around Japan. They forwarded to me Kappa-San’s web site address, so I contacted him to let him know what I was planning. Kappa doesn’t speak very good English (although 100% better than my Japanese) but the man who had set up his web site did, and he told me to get in touch when I arrived in Japan. In all the activity surrounding our departure I had forgotten but just before we had left from Casazima I had given Edo-San the contact details, so between them it was arranged for us to meet up when we were near to Nagoya. I say near, it was still a three hour drive away for Kappa-San and to get the whole day with us he had left home at about 3 a.m. that morning.

 

On meeting I asked him how he would like to be called, assuming that he had a first name he might prefer. `Kappa’ was his reply. I asked him if this was his knick-name to which he replied that he was a `Kappa’, going on to say that he had transformed himself several years previously from a human being into this creature of myth. He then proceeded to give up his job and his girlfriend and started to build himself a twenty-one foot kayak out of plywood, after which he started to paddle around Japan. You need to bear in mind at this stage that he had never paddled before and although he had some experience of sailing on the sea he couldn’t roll and even if he could, the kayak probably wouldn’t, as it weighed so much. Kappa had all sorts of equipment on board such as a generator and a folding bicycle. Whenever he came to areas that proved to be too difficult or dangerous he would get out and portage. On his journey around he made many contacts and he was now offering to give us any support that he could. His journey came to an end in the North of Hokkaido when an earthquake struck, creating a one metre tidal surge, so he returned home and put his kayak into storage, hoping to complete the journey at a later stage.
Kappa wished to take us sight seeing for the day so took us to the Jingu in Ise. This was considered to be the spiritual home for the Shinto religion of Japan. Since ancient times the Japanese people had lived in accordance with nature and throughout Japan there are consecrated rocks and evergreen trees in which reside `Kami’ (powerful spirits). Believing that all things have a spirit; Shinto now walks hand in hand with Buddhism in Japan. We spent most of the day wandering through the grounds. These shrines receive more than six million pilgrims a year and we felt very honoured to be having `Kappa-san’ as our very own personal guide. Seeing that we were taking a genuine interest he talked us through the purification ceremony before we entered, and also explained how, when passing through the Torii gateway (Shinto arch), you stand to the side, allowing God to walk freely through the centre. Every twenty years the Jingu is dismantled and rebuilt from new, marking the renewal or rebirth in life. The dismantled buildings are then distributed to other shrines around the country.

 

We spent the afternoon looking around the nearby tourist shops and eating houses There are all kinds of seafood shops selling fresh fish, dried fish, and live fish which, in fact, are the staple diet in Japan. With the highest life expectancy on the planet, they must be eating something right.
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On the way back to the kayaks we visited a local sea kayak guide to get some information on Shiono Misaki, which was the next prominent headland we needed to paddle around. Here the Kuroshio Current would still be running in close to shore. The guide also had information on some dangerous currents along this next stretch of coastline. As he had paddled extensively in both Shikoku and Kyushu and shared time with us going over charts and pointing out possible hazards that we may encounter on the way. We were really looking forward to the next couple of hundred kilometres. NameIse National Park is famous for its female pearl divers. I remembered seeing the James Bond film with these maidens of the deep and I couldn’t wait to meet some. We returned to the grounds of the hotel and said goodbye to `Kappa-San’. He left us with some road-type maps that we would be able to use for the next few weeks, and then he was gone.

 

We decided to paddle along the Pacific coast of Shikoku, and it wasn’t long before we were crossing over to Kyushu. We had seen no other sea kayakers since leaving the Tokyo area, but now things were to change. In Kochi we met up with members of the Sealion club, and in Nagasaki we spent a day paddling with the Sazanami Rangers and had the good fortune to meet with `Jogo San’, who was the Japanese surf kayak champion and a very keen sea paddler. Just as we were about to leave Kyushu to cross back over to Honshu we found ourselves being entertained by the Mombassa sea kayak club. All of the paddlers we met were great people, and we were treated like honoured guests. Ichimaru San, the club’s Captain, had received a request from the local coast guard asking us to get the ferry back over to the mainland due to the heavy shipping in the area. However, we were committed to paddling across as we had been making numerous open crossings on almost a daily basis. Japan has almost thirty thousand kilometres of coast, and, although we estimated our journey would only take in about seven thousand kilometres, it gives you an indication of just how many headlands and bays we would be passing. We were about to cross the Straits of Shimonoseki, only ten miles or so wide at its narrowest point, but here the current runs at around ten knots at its maximum rate. It is also a no-go area as far as sea kayakers are concerned, as there are approximately 6-700 ships a day passing through this narrow stretch of water as well as numerous smaller commercial vessels, so we decided to cross further out. Although a much bigger crossing, it gave us time to react to the numerous number of ships which threatened to run us down. We felt like a couple of mice playing chicken with a herd of elephants, and by the time we landed back on Honshu it was dark and we were shattered. The nervous tension of passing so many ships and trying to judge all their headings at once had taken its toll.

 

 

Typhoons

We were now in the Typhoon season. The Cherry Blossom or Sakura had passed, blown away by the heavy tropical winds which generated up from the Philippines. 2004 was to prove to be the worst year on record for typhoon activity. Niigata, Kodomari, Shakatan, Kushiro, Muroran and Sanriku were all destinations where we were to meet and feel the effects of this amazing wind. Shakatan was the most memorable. It was whilst standing in the local post office waiting to mail letters home that I watched as the wind quickly picked up from a force four to full storm force in a matter of minutes. Taken by surprise at the sudden violence a lady across the street was struggling with the shutters of her small shop front, the wind was threatening to tear them away. I ran across and helped to get them under control. Behind me I heard a massive ripping sound, and when I looked over my shoulder as I wrestled with the shutters the street resembled a war zone. Whole buildings were gradually being torn apart, roofs were peeling off, sirens were wailing and bits of debris went hurtling past, threatening to annihilate anyone in its path. After several hours of complete mayhem the winds gradually died down and Shakatan was left to lick its wounds.

 

 

Hokkaido Wa Dekaido’

Hokkaido is to the Japanese, what Alaska is to Americans. The Ainu are the indigenous people of Hokkaido and much of their artwork resembles that of Native American Indians. The waters around Hokkaido are rich in Salmon and the mountains full of wildlife with many bears, both black and brown, especially along the Shirotoko Peninsular. Shirotoko is an Ainu word that translates to `The end of the Earth’, and it has scenery to match this bold statement, a seventy kilometre stretch of land, topped by a string of five volcanoes. This was the area we had both looked forward to paddling most and we slowed our pace to take in the amazing scenery and to watch the bears taking Salmon from the river mouths whilst eagles flew overhead. This area is under ice during the winter months. The seas freeze over and the area is almost totally uninhabited. Now, however, it was busy with Salmon fishermen on the sea and Grizzly’s on the land. At almost every river mouth we passed we saw Bears or signs of Bear, so we wouldn’t be able to just camp on the beach as we had been used to. Eventually we found a small fishing station where the captain allowed us to put up our tent in the barn. Waking early the next morning we had a visit from a large Grizzly. Sniffing our kayaks he ambled on, just pausing occasionally to sniff the air. We all stood in silence, avoiding a direct gaze but trying to film him at the same time. Because there had been so many typhoons this season, a lot of bears had been forced down from the mountains in search of food and this had bought about quite a number of bear attacks.

 

Before leaving my home in Cornwall I had been emailing `Paul Caffin’, who had first circumnavigated Japan some 15 years previously. He had suggested that, whilst in Hokkaido if I had the chance, to try and meet up with a man called `Akio Shinya’. `Shinya san’ is a well-known sea kayak guide and used to be one of Japan’s top mountaineers. We had just arrived in a town called Muroran, where we had been told to take shelter from a Super Typhoon that was heading our way. `Shinya San’ knew we were in the area and had made contact, offering us shelter at his home in the Niseko Mountains. It came at a welcome time, and it was a magical few days. Nicknamed `The Bear’, after an argument he had had with a Grizzly over camping rights on a stretch of beach, he had become somewhat of a legend in his home country. He was a very warm and friendly man and we enjoyed immensely our time spent with him and his lovely family.
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Time was running out for us and we couldn’t stay. We needed to be moving on. Our crossing over to Hokkaido, across the infamous Tsugaru Kaiko had been sandwiched between two typhoons. We had a very large sea to paddle, as well as having to contend with the very strong placeTsushima current.
This time, however, the crossing back was in perfect conditions, and before we knew it we were speeding back down the Honshu coastline towards home. Another typhoon struck in Sanriku, where, in 1898 they had the largest tidal wave or tsunami ever recorded. Then shortly afterwards, in Niigata, an earthquake struck. Although on the other side of the Japanese Mainland, the typhoon was still only a short distance away and the effects were felt across the countryside. We were paddling at the time and experienced some very weird wave action, as well as some exceptionally strong winds, so we chose to land on a remote headland and call it a day.

 

These obstacles delayed us for a few days but then quite suddenly we were into Chiba Prefecture. These last few days were a lesson in frustration. First of all we had a very strong gale come through from the North which left behind an extremely large swell, followed by thick fog. We were navigating with a very large-scale tourist map, which had little detail of the coastline ahead, and we had to contend with some extremely large surf on the land side of us and some very fast fishing boats flying past us on the outside, (regardless of the visibility). It was like paddling on a tight rope, with the possibility of disaster lying on either side of us.

 

The penultimate days’ paddling still saw us over 80 kilometres away from our finish point ,and we decided the best way to avoid the fog was to paddle at night. A couple of hours of rest and we launched the kayaks for the last time. It was two in the morning, but an electrical storm miles out to sea kept the skies illuminated until dawn. We rounded our last headland and set out across Tokyo Bay towards Casa Zima, where we were met half way across by `Edo San’ and `Jogo San’. After handing us a couple of bottles of Guinness to celebrate, they left, and together Hadas and I closed the gap on a journey which had taken six months to the day to complete. We had battled with strong monsoon-driven head winds during the winter months and hidden from raging typhoons in the summer, but none of the hardships we had endured to complete this venture could outweigh our greatest gift – the hospitality and friendship we received from the Japanese people we had met along the way and without whom the journey may not have been possible.
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Koji Kobayashi is a Hiroshima bombing survivor. He was nine years old when he was knocked down right after he entered his school house, which was about two kilometers away from the epicenter. He could see only blinding light at the northern side windows. He had no time to hear any sound before he was knocked down because winds from the nuclear weapon were instantaneous. He fainted when his school house was blown up, and he was rescued after several hours from the heap of rubble and ruins of the school by his mother and a neighbor man.

Koji’s most vivid memory is that of so many people coming to him, and while he watched, their skin and flesh fell off in front of him as they all ran to refuge in the mountainside. The experience of losing his home, many of his extended family members and friends, and of his town becoming a molten horror, all in a few hours’ time, is an experience few people can even imagine.

Now, over sixty years later, delayed effects of the extreme radiation he experienced in the bombing have made Koji spend the past several years battling cancer in many parts of his body. He has suffered great pain and grief, many surgeries, radiation treatments, and hospitalizations. The horrors of war and devastations of a bomb’s blast are far-reaching and never-ending. Yet Koji has overcome the natural inclinations to hate those who hurt him and his loved ones and took so much from him when he was but an innocent child. Instead, Koji launched a bold peace campaign to reach around the world with a message of peace through music and the urgent cry to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

Koji declared, “As a first nuclear weapon survivor, for the rest of my life I shall devote myself to Peace in order that every human being could appreciate Peace in every way. I know there are many people even in Hiroshima saying ‘You are not realistic, but a Dreamer of Peace! like the song Imagine.’ But, actually, I am not alone. Today, you join us to wage and promote Peace. And in the world we live in now, we can be as One, I do believe. So, I walk my way of the belief as the mission God has given to me. My laryngeal cancer was found one September, followed by esophagus cancer in November. Since then, treatments of radiation, anti-cancer drug dripping, operation and surgeries are as if endless. More truly, I experienced stomach cancer, followed by tongue, left lung, thyroid, and so forth. Some doctors insist that I suffer continued fear and anxiety of lasting danger from uranium radiation, the evil of nuclear weapon. So, just as President Jimmy Carter declared in his Inaugural Address: “The ultimate goal is to eliminate all nuclear weapons from this world, for success can mean life instead of death!” This is my goal too.

One who met Koji said to him, “Your mission is successful far beyond what you have imagined. Many organizations are now trying to help eliminate nuclear weapons. A very informative videoclip with b.b.’s representing hidden nuclear weapons was made available to the many millions who click to www.TruemajorityACTION.org , a powerful grass-roots movement for changes that better our world.” To see the unforgetable short clip click here:
Ms. SuZen, co-director of the Universal Peace Initiative NY said, ‘Thank you so very much for your speaking at Universal Peace Day at the Bandshell of Central Park and The Riverside Church. Your talk was very informative and inspirational. You helped creating a very memorable event, and transforming the day from one of a remembrance of horror into a rededication to life’.”

This year the Peace Concert group traveled again to the United States to give two Concerts for Peace in New York City: at Central Park Bandshell and at the Riverside Church. These concerts were very well received and inspired peace on a grassroots, person-to-person level in such a moving way that everyone who heard the concert, or even heard about the concert, felt inspired to learn how to do whatever possible in their own lives to inspire and promote peace, which begins with consciousness of giving peaceful response inwardly and outwardly every time one feels wronged. The concerts were well-received.

As Chairman of The Hiroshima Initiative, Koji conceived of the Concerts for Peace and worked diligently to raise the money to organize a Japanese youth group of singers and performers to teach these young people that hatred and war accomplish nothing but pain and that true healing comes through forgiveness and peace on a daily basis. Their mission is to spread Peace through Song. The first concert was in Hiroshima in the summer of 2005, on the 62 anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One year ago, the musicians and I moved to New York to join the events of 62nd anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which was held on August 5th. Special thanks to Delta Airlines for helping continuously.

These concerts and the travel involved were extremely difficult for Koji, who was in his weakest state physically from his cancer surgeries and treatments. Although his doctors advised against his attempting such a long and arduous trip when his condition was so weakened, Koji was determined to work for peace until his dying day. To those who met him, Koji is a great inspiration and the example of one man working so hard to fulfill what he considers his life purpose. His message of Peace is astonishing and profound. This legacy will do far more for his family and the world than a legacy of hatred and retribution, which many war survivors hand down to their children.

Immediately after the concerts Koji returned to Japan to face more surgeries. He had almost given up hope for his own survival when his health took a positive turn, and he has received good news of cancer remission. We honor Koji as a very special person who works so hard to try to make the world a better place by spreading Peace through Music, the universal language, and inspiring thousands of people to create other ways of working for peace.

Koji reminds everyone of the words of the co-pilot of Enola Gay, the B29 plane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima in 1945: “Oh my God. What have we done! In front of my eyes the city of Hiroshima disappeared!”

Tests have proven the bombs today to be over 1,000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima Atomic Bomb. If a nuclear war started, our Planet Earth might disappear. And human beings frequently make mistakes by chance. Take time to ponder the fear people of the USA and the world experienced during the Bay of Pigs Crisis in 1962 and in all these months and years following 9/11. The world community lives in fear that a Nuclear War might start at any moment. Buried within the USA and other nations’ places of defense are enough nuclear warheads to destroy our entire planet thousands of times over. And since The Iron Curtain Wall fell, other countries and terrorists have rushed to obtain and perfect nuclear power to destroy.

What are we thinking? It is time we each work to entice companies who make weapons of war for big profits to turn those industries to making “weapons” of Peace. The profits of a Peace industry can be monetarily vast and even greater in other areas in the larger scope of our lives. We each owe this work of peace to ourselves, our children and grandchildren, and the survival of the earth. We must be aware of our actions and choices daily. Check your stock portfolio. Are your choices of investments making you one who profits from war? Take a stand by changing your investment portfolio. If we each extend our efforts in some tiny way, like Koji, who has given his ALL, we CAN achieve Peace on Earth. But we must not be silent.

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The Japanese are an ingenious and industrious people – worthy of admiration. We can’t help but recognize their accomplishments in auto manufacturing and electronics, in which they currently appear to have outdistanced the rest of the world. But, TRAVEL is where the Japanese are truly in a league of their own – they have no equal! Each mega tour group company in Japan duels with the other to uncover the Best of Europe. Every inch of Western Europe, in particular, has been scoured and dissected. And don’t think that the Japanese tour buses are parked only at the most touristy and tackiest of places. If the Japanese are looking for the genuine article, they will find it – guaranteed.

If you happen to be touring a sight and the all too familiar buses pull up, any possibility of tranquility will be lost. But, don’t be annoyed. Recall that the mere presence of Japanese tourists indicates that you are at a sight worth seeing. Your travel planning expertise has been instantly confirmed.

Not surprisingly, Japanese society and predispositions come along for the ride. The Japanese are conspicuously different from the rest of us as evidenced by their intensely inquisitive nature, more formalized dress, and proliferation of cameras.

Japanese tourists are incredibly curious about Western civilization. In museums, palaces and the other great structures of Europe, Japanese tour groups move about like tightly-knit squadrons, with children and grandparents in tow, always led by a lecturer. They mean business and are eager to learn. Quite dissimilar from most non-Japanese visitors who quickly shuffle from room to room, content in many cases to be without an audio guide, let alone a lecturer, only faintly aware of what they are seeing, mouth open with a blank stare. Yes, we can learn a thing or two from these Japanese!
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The Japanese are never purposefully rude but are almost always wholly indifferent to everyone else. This can lead to some frustration. Take note that if you are hoping to view the same object in a museum or enjoy the identical spectacular outside scene, it’s best to steer a clear path away.

Regardless of the place being visited, Japanese tourists never venture far from their tour bus. Always wearing stylish clothes, looking as if planning to attend a concert or other public event, and without proper footwear for a good hike, they appear particularly ill-equipped in the mountains or any place which is both outdoors and outside of the city. Nevertheless, the Japanese present a refreshing contrast to the Western informality of gaudy tee shirts and thread-worn jeans.
Cameras are, of course, always present and their use by each and every Japanese tourist is agonizingly predictable. The normally famous and recognizable European sight is forever in the background of the photograph, decidedly less important than the foreground where the Japanese place themselves. Cameras are traded with each other in a ritualistic fashion so that each individual has a personal digital memory of the visit. Every traveler must return to Japan with photograph after photograph proving that “I was there”.
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Don’t be concerned about being in the way when photographs are taken. Proceed ahead because your polite waiting will not be acknowledged. You see, the typical Japanese tourist is so used to the presence of crowds that from their perspective a photograph is unlikely to be ruined merely because an unknown person appears in view.

Why then do the Japanese segregate themselves from the European population by insisting upon group tour sightseeing? The answer lies undoubtedly in the fact that the islands of Japan were for centuries remarkably isolated from the rest of the world – geographically and culturally. Consider also that the rather obscure Japanese language contains fundamental differences from its Western counterparts.

English is the world’s “second” language. Tourists who are able to speak rudimentary English can confidently travel throughout Europe, knowing that English will be spoken by those who serve and greet them in almost every public place and circumstance. This is not so with the Japanese, where English is spoken by only a small fraction of the population. Those of us whose native language just happens to be Englishare are fortunate, not because we are more clever, but for the simple reason that we can be more lazy about trying to communicate.

And here is where these very formidable Japanese tourists stumble. Because they are unable to speak either English, or the language of the country being visited, they are forced to travel Europe shackled together and secluded from everyone else. So it appears that regardless of all their incredible skills in determining where to travel, the Japanese haven’t developed skills of how to travel. Collectively imprisoned in a rolling metal box, they are doomed to experience Europe and other continents solely by group tour.
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If only more Japanese could speak English, certainly they would abandon their tour groups, travel independently in Europe , and not only communicate with the indigenous population but free themselves to visit places and do things chosen by themselves, rather than through the consensus of mega tour promoters.

The Chinese are said to be energetically learning English. English is the common language of India. Is it possible that the two most populous countries in the world will soon be able to value travel as much as the Japanese do? If so, you had better plan a trip to Europe soon – while there’s still room.

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Last spring we set out on our first trip to an Asian country. We had traveled extensively in Europe, visited Central and South America, spent some time in Western Africa, and even gotten to New Zealand and Australia, but we had never ventured past Hawaii to Asia. Many travelers had impressed us with their enthusiasm about Japan and urged us to go there. Once we set our sights on Japan, we decided that instead of traveling in a tour or staying in the more Western Hotels we would attempt the journey on our own, staying in the Japanese Inns or Ryokans and travel by train, bus, and subway just as a majority of the Japanese people do. Our one draw-back was not knowing any Japanese beyond the word “arigato” or “thank you”. In other countries we had never experienced any real problems when we did not know the language, even in places that we drove on our own from one end of the country to the other, like Hungary and Finland with the strange spellings and almost no vowels in excessively long words. We could usually find someone with a little knowledge of English and the maps and signs used letters that we could make out and match up.

However, in Japan from our arrival at Narita Airport to our departure several weeks later, we were language challenged. If we had been a part of an English-speaking tour group or stayed in Western Hotels in the center of Tokyo or Kyoto, we would have not experienced any problem finding our way around or communicating our needs, but we would have missed experiencing a great deal of the spirit and uniqueness of Japan and the kind Japanese people.

We booked our rooms on the internet, picking a ryokan in the Northern Asakusa section of Tokyo, which was one of the older areas and near Ueno Park with its museums and gardens as well as Senso-ji Temple area. Our small ryokan was only a few blocks from a Metro stop on the Ginza line, which could take us to Ueno Station next to the Park and then on downtown to the Central part of Tokyo. Our room was ten feet by ten (the size of a monk’s room in a Buddhist monastery) with a futon , a small table, and a small storage area for bags and hanging clothes. Our private bath consisted of one room for bathing with a stool and shower nozzle beside a tub, which was nearly four feet deep. A separate smaller room was a water closet with the traditional Japanese squat toilet and slippers to wear only in that toilet area. We learned that Japanese soap and shower off outside the tub while the tub filled with steamy, hot water and then get into the tub for a delightful soak. Our accommodations were more than adequate since we were so busy sight-seeing that we were only there to sleep or relax, and best of all, the cost was about one-thrird of the more central Western Hotels. From this location we spent a few days exploring various parts of Tokyo.
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The Metro and JR train systems were great, but the map of the lines under and around Tokyo looks like a mess of multi-colored spaghetti and was very confusing, with words only in the Konji characters. We got lost a few times, but kind Japanese citizens would come to our aid and look at our map and either direct us with gestures and hand motions or guide us to where we needed to go inspite of the language problem. At the Asakusa tourist bureau, which is near the Senso-ji Temple area, we were encouraged to take at least a day trip by train up to the town of Nikko, which is a World Heritage Site to preserve the ancient Buddhist and Shinto Shrines and Temples. We had not planned to go to Nikko as we had not heard a lot about it from the different people and publications we had referred to in making our trip plans, but the helpers at the tourist bureau convinced us to give it a visit. We found that going to Nikko was one of the best days we spent in Japan and a place that we wished we had had a few more days to explore.

From Tokyo’s Asakusa station, which lies at the final stop at the North end of the Ginza line, we left on the earliest morning train to Nikko. The train trip was very comfortable, with the passengers having a large selection of foods, snacks and beverages to purchase from the attending hostess. After leaving the city, the wall-to-wall housing began to fall away to houses with gardens and small rice paddies and then to small country villages surrounded by farming fields. Very large rice paddies came all the way to the doors of the homes and were tended by farmers navigating along the raised dikes on bicycles. The closer we came to Nikko the more mountainous the terrain became.
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Nikko has two train stations. The JR station is the oldest in Eastern Japan and was designed by the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright in 1915. The main street of the town runs from the train stations and is lined with shops, restaurants, and inns. If you are just on a day trip, it is best to get one of the buses that take you up to the temple areas. There is a bus pass the visitor can purchase that will allow a number of stops to the sights in the area, even up the sacred Mount Nantai to Lake Chuzen-ji in Nikko National Park that lies to the Northwest of Nikko. We bought our passes and got a bus schedule and boarded a bus that took us up to the temple area and the gates of Rinno-ji Temple. Along the road to the temple area we passed the marvelous Shinkyo Bridge over the Daiya River, which we would later return to and cross back into town on foot. The Tourism Office had said we could walk to the temple area, but we were glad we took the bus once we saw the uphill walk just to get to the temple gates, not to mention that you are continually climbing stairs upward from one temple building to the next. The precincts of the temples are not built to accommodate wheelchairs or people that have problems climbing stairs. We watched a few wheelchairs being pushed by two people up steep inclines paved with cobble stones that were anything but smooth, and the pushers had to keep stopping to catch their breath.
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Rinno-ji Temple is the first temple to be founded at Nikko in the year 766 AD. We ascended the stairs under the Granite Torii or gate and were taken in by the feeling of tranquil beauty of the colorful buildings and gardens spaced up the hill and surrounded by tall conifers. The central attraction or focus of Rinno-ji is Sanbutsu-do hall. This is the largest hall at Nikko and contains the gilt images of Amida Buddha, the Senju (thousand-armed) Kannon, and Bato (horse-headed) Kannon. Within the complex is the Sorinto, which has 1,000 volumes of Buddhist scriptures and is a major symbol of world peace. There is also a stroll garden with the traditional pond with stone arching bridges and stone lanterns. Even with the large number of people moving around, a sense of peace and sanctity prevailed.
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Farther uphill we entered the Granite Torii to the Tosho-gu Shrine. The complex is a series of levels that move the visitor up and up until reaching the final courtyard of the Honden, or inner sanctuary building. The whole Shrine is an amazing and somewhat overwhelming site. Over 15,000 artisans worked for two years in creating this architectural feat of intricate paintings, carvings, gold leaf, stone work, and lacquering. After entering the main entrance, our eyes were pulled skyward by the Five-Storied Pagoda with each story representing an element—earth, water, fire, wind, and heaven. Stairs then lead out of this level up to the first inner gate that is guarded by two Nio figures. The courtyard of this level contains the sacred stable building on which is carved and painted an animal series that contains the three wise monkeys (hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil). The Sacred Fountain is in this area, covered by an ornately styled roof. Climbing more stairs we moved between the drum tower and the bell tower and on to the incredible gilt Yomeimon Gate with its 12 carved columns, the entrance to the courtyard of the inner sanctuary or Honden.
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The craftsmanship and artistry of the walls and roofs of this courtyard create a feeling of awe and veneration. One last flight of stairs and we reached a final small gate entered before reaching the sanctuary called the Haiden, which stands in front of the Honden, or inner sanctuary. Engulfed by the work of ancient artists and craftsmen and surrounded by the natural beauty of the mountains and huge, centuries old trees deeply inspired us and brought new meaning to why this was a place of pilgrimage.
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The final Shrine that we visited was an even steeper and longer climb. The Taiyunin-byo Shrine was finished in 1653 and is the mausoleum of the powerful third Shogun who closed Japan to foreign commerce and isolated it for over 200 years. The entrance is marked with lines of stone lanterns donated by feudal lords over the years and is the beginning of two long flights of stairs up to the courtyards that encircle the inner sanctuary. The Shrine has the feeling of a castle and is much less ornate than Tosho-gu Shrine. The setting is much more of a fortification in a mountain forest and awed us with the stone work and the size of the Japanese cedar trees that surround the complex. The Shogun’s ashes are in a tomb beyond the sixth and final gate and after more stairs than we cared to count. (On return we counted over 1,800 stairs!) Even though out of breath and running out of time before having to catch the bus that would take us into Nikko National Park and up Mount Nantai to Lake Chuzen-ji, we were exhilarated by the experience of our ascent through this Buddhist sanctuary.
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We returned to a bus stop in time to catch the bus that took us up Mount Nantai’s curving road through Nikko National Park and stayed on the look out for the monkeys that the tourist office had said we might see. Unfortunately, we did not encounter any but found the ride up the mountain beautifully scenic. The day had turned windy and colder by the time we reached Lake Chuzen-ji, so we opted to head for the viewing area for Kegon Falls, the highest in Japan, cascading some 315 feet into a gorge. At the shops nearby we sipped hot tea as we took in the lovely view of the falls and surrounding mountains.
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On our return to Nikko we got off the bus near the Shinkyo Bridge and for Good Luck we walked across, taking in the beauty of the rapids in the Daiya River as it flowed toward town. The main street, restaurants and shops were only a short walk from the bridge, and we spent the last hour before boarding our train back to Tokyo enjoying a late lunch and shopping. Nikko is a wonderful place to visit but we needed more than one day to really take it all in. We had missed Futara-san Shrine, Takinoo Shrine, the Nikko Botanical Gardens, the Urushi (lacquer) Museum, the Ganman-ga-fuchi Pools, just to mention a few of the other sites to see. Hiking in the Nikko National Park would also have been a wonderful experience.
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My wife and I have always thought we would like to visit Japan but had heard stories about high prices and difficulties geting around in congested cities. These perceptions led us to put off a Japanese trip. But time came last spring when we decided to spend four days in the Tokyo/Kyoto area after disembarking from an Orient cruise. We would”get our feet wet,” as they say, with this short stay. As it turned out, all our pre-conceived notions contrasted with we what we found.

 

Because of the few days we had, we figured we should pre-plan as much as possible. After all, with a population of 26 million, Tokyo is the largest city in the world, not a place in which to aimlessly wander. For help, we contacted the L.A. office of Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO) which helped us immeasurably in setting our agenda.
Finding reasonable accommodations:
The first thing we realized upon arriving in Tokyo is that we didn’t have to spend a lot of money and that it wasn’t hard to get around. First class hotels range from $250 to $450. But after reading JNTO’s “Your Guide to Japan” publication, we decided our best bet was to stay in a so-called business hotels at around $125 a night. These hotels appeal to commercial travelers and locals. Accommodations are strictly “no-frills,” but rooms are clean and comfortable. After all, we were going to spend our time sight-seeing and didn’t need a pool, spa or fancy restaurant to return to. New Otani, one of Japan’s top hotel chains owns the New Otani Inn which fits into the business category. Its location, adjacent to the Osaki station, was extremely convenient-a five minute walk to catch transportation . As well, the rate included a full breakfast, both American and Japanese.
Getting around Tokyo with ease: To travel is easy and inexpensive in Tokyo. Among the cleanest
cities in the world, it also has one of the most technologically efficient rail systems. If the schedule says 9:53, be on the station platform early, ready to board. Subways cost no more than any large city. (One-day passes are about $7.) Signs and maps are in English, and personnel selling tickets speak enough English to answer questions, particularly if you point to your destination on the map.
Looking for restaurants: Dining can also be very reasonable, especially if you are adventurous. We looked for restaurants which the locals frequent, particularly ones that served traditional Japanese dishes. For example, on our first day for lunch we found an eatery that specialized in noodle dishes, udon (made from wheat) and soba ( from buckwheat). It was crowded and no one spoke much English. We had trouble communicating but by gesturing and with help of a kindly lady who spoke a few words of English, we got our orders across. (By the way, everywhere we went people were eager to help us.) We thoroughly enjoyed slurping with our fellow diners the best of noodles, ever-hardy and delicious, filled with vegetables and pork. With beer and Coke, our bill came to $10. As we left, we gave the chef a “thumbs up” and shouted “ichiban.” Another day, we went to a restaurant that we heard specialized in a dish similar to egg foo yong, called okonomiyaki. Our server presented us with a bowl of shredded cabbage with bean sprouts and scallions, topped with a mayonnaise-type substance and an egg, adding meats or shrimp to our taste. We mixed it, spooned it onto a grill (built into each table) and when it began to harden like a pancake, we flipped it over, eating this tasty entree right from the grill. We enjoyed doing it ourselves while watching others eating variations of it. If you want the best sashimi or cooked seafood go to the Ameyoko Tsukiji fish market. Enjoy the spectacle of buyers and sellers bidding for the day’s catch, and then go to a nearby restaurant for fresh fish direct from the market. Also there are many popular-priced places for dining. Most have displayed in front windows colorful plastic models of food they serve, along with the price.

 

Sight-seeing in Tokyo:
During our two-day Tokyo stay, we left our room every morning with our destinations carefully planned. Following are among the sites we enjoyed:

 

Imperial Palace: Visitors can only get into the emperor’s residence a few times a year. But the gardens around the palace are well worth seeing. We shot from the prime photo spot on Nijubahi Bridge where a corner of the castle peeks from behind the moat and surrounding wall.

 

Asakusa Kannon Temple: This is the city’s most beloved Buddhist shrine. Founded in the Seventh Century to enshrine a gold statue of the goddess of mercy, brought up from the sea in a net by fishermen. As it turned out, we couldn’t get close enough to see it.
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The day of our visit marked the beginning of the annual spring Sandja Matsuri Festival. Hordes of worshipers descended on the shrine. Men, women and children, all dressed in traditional garb, carried gold-lacquered shrines from the temple through the streets. We wouldn’t have missed it, though, inching through side alleys, passing by traditional family shops and stalls selling a plethora of food and goods.

 

Ginza District: This is the Times Square of Japan, the place where East meets West. Exclusive shops and high-tech showrooms, restaurants and theaters abound in this section of wide avenues, elegant stores and gourmet restaurants.
Ueno Park: Tokyo’s largest park, in early April, it is one of the best places to see pink cherry blossoms. It’s also a center for art and culture with many and varied museums including the Tokyo National Museum. In a corner of the park, we were especially taken with an ancient statue of a Samurai and his dog, dedicated to the fact that his shogun had banned killing animals.
Edo-Tokyo Museum: Edo was the former name of Tokyo. Featuring large-scale models, this is the place to go to really appreciate Japanese history and lifestyles.
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Taking in Kabuki theater:
Kabuki-za Theater. We’re theater-lovers and had to see Kabuki, Japan’s traditional stylized form of theater, dating from the 17th Century. With all-male casts, it features vivid makeup, spectacular sets and costumes with musicians playing percussive drums and stringed instruments at the side. Playgoers get so involved with the action that they yell to actors on stage. This is Shakespeare to the Japanese. We rented headphones and were able to follow the story in English. It was a unique experience we wouldn’t have missed. Matinees and evening performances usually feature several plays and can last some five hours. However, it is possible to buy reduced price tickets to see only a portion of the program.
Traveling to Kyoto and Hiiragiya Ryokan:
After two days in Tokyo, it was time to go to Kyoto, and on this part of our stay we decided to splurge. First, we took the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto ($260 round trip). With its futuristic design, it looks right out of a science-fiction film. We caught a late-morning train and were at our destination before lunch. We hardly realized we were going 240 mph. It took us around 90 minutes to make the 313 mile journey.
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Our other splurge was to stay in a traditional historical ryokan inn, the Hiiragiya Ryokan. Doors in rooms are sliding shoji screens; floors are of rice straw matting. At night we slept on thick-cushioned futons, rolled out on the floor, as comfortable as our mattress at home.

 

Tired from our afternoon of sight-seeing, we took a soak in the cedar tub hot bath in our room. For families and groups there is the traditional communal tub. Relaxed and refreshed, we dried off and put on robes provided and were ready for a cocktail and dinner. As we were relaxing, looking out at the lovely garden outside, Keiko, the innkeeper, knocked on our door and invited us to meet a group of geishas who were in the lobby waiting to entertain a group of business men at a dinner party that night in the ryokan. We were invited to meet them and to take photos-indeed a serendipitous experience.

 

Promptly at 7, our kimono-clad attendant came to our room and invited us to sit at a low table as she served dinner. Called a “kaiseki” meal, which consisted of eight small courses, each featuring gorgeously presented dishes, alternating between meat, seafood and vegetables.

 

Hiiragiya is considered one of the best in Japan, and our stay here will remain one of our fondest memories. Rooms start around $280 per person which includes two meals, a kaiseki dinner and an equally fine breakfast.

 

Visiting hitorical sites in Kyoto:
There are so many wonderful places to visit in Kyoto we should have had stayed several days. With just two, we limited ourselves to visiting only the most popular sites, saving our final afternoon for a trip to Miyama.
Kinkakuji – Temple of the Golden Pavilion: Built in the 12th Century A.D., it is Kyoto’s most celebrated attraction. Its gilded three-storied pavilion is best appreciated viewed from across Kyokochi Pond. where it appears to shimmer as it merges with its reflection in the water. Nijo Castle. On display here is the lavish compound from which shoguns ruled beginning in the 15th Century. Especially interesting are the various meeting rooms, each gorgeously decorated with scenes from nature, along with the great hall where rulers received dignitaries on their raised throne.

 

Kiyomizu Temple: Built in 798 A.D., the temple complex, filled with fountains and streams, is located in a lush hillside forest. We were especially taken with the grand view of Kyoto from the platform of the main hall.
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Ryoanji Temple: It is famous for its serene 15th Century Zen rock garden, surely one of most photographed spots in the world. Fifteen rocks of various sizes are artfully arranged in sand. Sitting in a viewing area, visitors from around the world contemplate its meaning. Is it symbolic of the natural world or, as a popular interpretation puts it-a mother tiger and her cubs, swimming in a river of white sand toward a fearful dragon?

 

Kodaiji Temple: From a room, looking out on a garden, we took part in an ancient tea ceremony arranged for us alone. We felt privileged to get this insight into Japanese culture. On our final afternoon in Kyoto, we took a guided tour to Miyama, 45 minutes through the mountains outside Kyoto. We had seen the crowded cities. Now it was good to get out in the country. Miyama is a popular tourist area, with a wide stream rushing though a canyon and a lake nearby. A village of thatched-roofed homes has been set aside as an historical site. It was a treat to wander down lanes, greeting farmers planting rice in paddies or picking tea leaves, just as their ancestors have done for centuries. The time came, too soon, to return to Tokyo and take the flight home the next day. We would now tell our friends not to hesitate to visit this wonderful country.