Monday, June 1, 2015



Japan is a congested country.  Our ship docked in Kobe, a city of 1.6 million.  We signed up for a tour of Kyoto a city of 1.3 million, 41 miles away.  In between is Osaka, an even larger city of 2.6 million, only 19 miles from Kobe.  The cities are linked by expressways.  Unlike China, the Japanese drive on the left side of the road.  The Keihanshin metropolitan area is the second largest in Japan, with 19 million people in 3 different prefectures, all within 41 miles.  There is no countryside.  The large cities are all linked by the bullet train.

We arrived in Japan for Golden Week with 4 holidays in a 7 day period.  There are only 9 official holidays on the Japanese calendar.  Most Japanese just take the whole week off and leave town.  The day we arrived in Kobe, April 29th was Emperor Hirohito's birthday.  Hirohito was the Emperor before, during and after World War II.  The Japanese treated him like a god.  If we were ever going to make peace with Japan, Hirohito was the man.  He died several years ago, and his son Akihito is the current Emperor.  His duties are largely ceremonial.  The country is actually run by the current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, or as I would call him, Honest Abe. 

The other holidays of Golden Week are Constitution Memorial Day on May 3 and Greenery Day on May 4.  The last holiday, May 5th is Children's Day, formerly called the Boy's Festival.  The Americans also celebrate that day as Cinco de Mayo.  The traditional purpose of Boy's Festival was to celebrate the birth of boys (but not girls)  to be accepted by Samurai society. Actually there was a Girls Day also, but it was not a major holiday.   Boys Day was a Samurai holiday for hundreds of years.  The custom was to display armor and war helmets to express the wish that the boy would grow to be a strong and great man to serve the Shogun. 

Kyoto was the capital of Japan until 1867.  It was the home of the Shogun, who was the hereditary military governor in Japan until the Meiji Restoration in 1868.  The Shogun was the de facto ruler of the country although he was officially appointed by the Emperor.  One could compare that government to a feudal military dictatorship--or the Mob in some ways.  Under the Shogun system, the lesser lords, the samurai and their subordinates, were rewarded for their loyalty to the Shogun by collecting taxes from the peasants.

The major tourist attractions in Japan are either Buddhist Temples or Shinto Shrines.  Each city has both.    Buddhism and Shinto are not mutually exclusive religions, and many Japanese practice both.  Touring Japan, you get exposed to them, whether you practice them or not. 

We learned that Buddhism has 5 precepts, or commandments:

1. No killing.
2. No stealing.
3. No lying.
4. No sexual misconduct or adultery.
5. No misuse of alcohol or drugs.

They left out the one about coveting your neighbor's car.  Buddhism is a moral code and a way of life.  It is holy to endure suffering--an important part of the religion.  Unlike other religions it has no creation story and no dogma.  if you are an ascetic and want to apply to be a monk or nun, you have some additional precepts to deal with:

6. No eating after Noon.
7. No singing, dancing, music or entertainment.
8. No perfume or cosmetics.
9. No comfort, i.e. no sleeping on soft beds.
10. No accepting money.

I learned all I needed to know and I'm not converting. 

We visited the Kyomizu Buddhist Temple, built in 1633.  Like all Buddhist temples, this is an impressive structure.  It is built on a hillside overlooking Kyoto.  People burn incense at the entrance.  The temple has some interesting traditions.  The Japanese have an expression, "To jump off the stage at Kyomizu" which we would compare to "taking the plunge".  During the Edo period (pre-1868), pilgrims would jump from the stage, a 13 meter (over 40 foot) plunge.  There were 234 jumpers on record of which about 200 survived.  In percentage terms, that's like going over Niagara Falls in a barrel.   The authorities don't allow the jumping anymore.

Beneath the main hall is the beautiful Otowa waterfall with three channels of water.  Visitors catch and drink the water which is believed to have wish-granting powers.

Kyoto is also proud of the Kinkakujo, or Golden Pavilion, a Zen temple.  It is traditional Japanese architecture, on which the top two floors are covered with gold leaf.  It is a shariden, a Buddhist hall containing relics of Buddha.   It overlooks a large pond full of hungry koi fish (carp) as long as your arm, some of which can live to be 200 years old.  In sunny weather the reflection is eagerly photographed by throngs of tourists.  Kinkakujo has had a turbulent history.  It burned down several times, most recently by a fanatic monk in 1950.  It was rebuilt in 1955 as we see it today.  We were not allowed inside.  They have an Open Door Ritual twice a year, in early February and on August 16 when the public is admitted.

The Japanese like to put on a show.  In Kobe, and also in Shimazu, hundreds of people came down to the pier to greet the ship and watch it depart.  In both cities, we were entertained by marching bands with drummers and percussionists.  The Japanese have a peculiar style of music with no instruments other than drumsticks.  To our delight, the performers would tap out the different staccato beats in unison. 


We had no beef with Kobe except for what we were served.  Although the Kobe Beef Association spends big money to protect its trademarks, other countries like the U.S. don't recognize them.  The beef for which you pay a huge premium in the U.S. isn't really Kobe beef but "Kobe-style" beef.  In the U.S., they imported Wagyu cattle from Japan and bred them with Angus cattle.  

The beef we ate in the hotel restaurant in Japan was the Wagyu beef rather than the Kobe beef (a small segment of Wagyu beef), and it had more gristle than it should have.  Genuine Kobe beef is evenly marbled, and the fat literally melts in your mouth--it has a lower melting point than common beef fat.  The real stuff costs over $200 per pound.

The deal is that to qualify as Kobe beef, it must come from the Tajima strain of virgin (!) Wagyu cattle (there are other strains) which is raised only in Hyogo Prefecture (Kobe) with a certain marbling ratio and must be processed in one of 5 slaughterhouses there.  The price is high because there are only about 3900 head of cattle that qualify and only 10% of those are exported, mostly to Macao and Hong Kong.   The U.S. imported none until 2013 because the USDA had to first inspect the slaughterhouses. 

There are tens of thousands of Wagyu cattle in the U.S., raised on 150 ranches that although the meat is tasty, it's not the real thing.  Essentially American beef producers charge huge premiums for "Kobe" beef because consumers think it is the Japanese stuff, and it is, in a way.  Genuine Kobe beef is stamped by the Japanese government and each carcass has a 10 digit identification number to trace it to a particular animal throughout the process.  If a restaurant serves it to you, it should be able to produce the documentation--which is written in Japanese.


Our second stop in Japan was the port of Shimazu.  The beautiful Mt. Fuji lurks in the background.  Most of the time it is obscured by clouds, but despite that, you can often see the enshrouded peak in the distance.  When the clouds clear, the perfect, snow covered cone of this volcanic peak is revealed in its full glory.  It is the highest mountain in Japan, at 12,389 feet.  Although it is one of Japan's three holy mountains, it is very popular to climb.  In 2009, over 300,000 people climbed it.  It is dangerous, especially in winter because it gets really, really cold there.  In January and February, the average high temperature is about 4F, and the low is -7F. 

Mt. Fuji is cone shaped and very beautiful.  It attracts artists from all over the world.  There is a darker side also.  The base of the mountain is the world's second most popular suicide location.  (In case you wanted to know, the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco is first--but only from the side facing the city lights.)  The suicide problem got the attention of the Japanese government and they have erected signs to call the suicide hotline which has sometimes proven effective. 

The mountains in Japan are volcanic.  Mt. Fuji last erupted in 1707.  Our tour bus drove us up to the Owakudani Valley in Hakone National Park, much closer to Mt. Fuji.  Owakudani means "great boiling valley" in Japanese.    This valley is an ancient crater and it is still hot.  Sulfurous steam rises from crevasses.  You don't want to get too close.  I rested my foot on a vent cover and instantly got a hot foot.  I quickly moved it--my foot, that is.  This area resembles the hot springs area in Yellowstone Park in the U.S. 

The Japanese are resourceful--they boil eggs in the hot springs.  The hot springs are several hundred feet up the mountain--I hiked it.  They bring up a metal crate of eggs up the mountain on a pulley system and dip the eggs in the water.  The eggs turn black from the iron and the hydrogen sulfide but the taste is not affected.  They bring the hard boiled eggs down to the stand and sell them.  According to legend, eating them increases your longevity.   One such egg adds seven years to your life.  I ordered a dozen. 

I wanted my picture taken by the hot springs but couldn't find anyone from the tour bus.  I approached a non-Japanese man and asked him if he spoke English.   He apparently didn't like Americans and began swearing at me in Serbo-Croatian.  I understood enough to recognize the Serbo-Croatian word for sh*t.  I schmoozed with him, and he finally did agree to take my picture. 

We rode the Hakone Ropeway, a 13 passenger aerial tram gondola down the mountain to Lake Ashi, a beautiful Alpine lake in a volcanic crater.  There we took a 30 minute sightseeing cruise on a Japanese Viking style boat.  There are 3 boats, fashioned as replicas of pirate boats dating to the 17th Century. The boat had three decks, the top two were open to the elements.  Cold mountain blasts blew through the decks.  We were not dressed properly.  We finally retreated to the indoor deck. 

The boat sailed across the lake, stopped on the other side and came back.  They forgot to tell a Chicago couple (not us) from our tour not to get off at the other side.  They were stranded but fortunately they got someone to call the tour operator, and our bus picked them up at the other side. 


On our third full day in Japan, we docked in Yokohama, the port city for Tokyo.  Yokohama is the second largest city in Japan with a population of 3.3 million.  As big as it is, it is a suburb of Tokyo and is probably the largest suburb in the world.  Neighboring Tokyo is a city of 13 million, and the metro area has 32 million people, more than in all of Australia. 

Tokyo, of course, is a world class city and is considered one of the most expensive cities in the world.  For one thing, unlike almost everywhere else, you can't negotiate at the markets.  That's the price, take it or leave it!   The prices are not as bad as they used to be because of the now strong American dollar relative to the Japanese yen.

Tokyo was founded in 1457 by the Shogun and was originally called Edo.  In 1868, when Imperial rule was restored to Japan, the Emperor  moved the capital from Kyoto to Edo and renamed it Tokyo which means "Eastern Capital".  It has many tourist attractions which include the famous Ginza which is the commercial center; the Imperial Palace, and the obligatory Buddhist Temples and Shinto Shrines which we visited.

We arrived in Tokyo on May 1st, which, although part of Golden Week, is not a public holiday.  May First is Mayday, and traffic was tied up because of parades and demonstrations.  Mayday is a Communist holiday, and the Reds brought out their demonstrators to, well, demonstrate.  They carried large banners written in Japanese.  Different groups had different signs, but generally, they were leftist themes.  One group demonstrated for a higher minimum wage.  In another, the Pensioners Union demonstrated, I would assume, for larger pensions.  I didn't know pensioners had a union.  Maybe I should consider joining one. 

The Meiji Shrine was built in 1920 to commemorate the Emperor Meiji and his Empress Shoken.  Meiji was a national hero in Japan because he created modern Japan during his reign (1868-1912)--the Meiji Restoration of 1868.   He took on the Tokugawa Shogun and emerged victorious.  Essentially Meiji brought in young disaffected samurai who were hostile to the feudal society of the Tokugawa regime.  They were motivated by domestic problems and threats of foreign encroachment.  They didn't want European powers carving up Japan as they did China.

Meiji embraced Westernization mixed with traditional Japanese values, and that proved very popular.   Meiji wrote a Constitution, established important contacts in foreign policy, developed Japanese culture and in general presided over one of the most glorious and prosperous periods in 2000 years of Japanese history.

The shrine was destroyed during World War II (they didn't mention by whom) and rebuilt in recent years.  It covers 175 acres with beautiful gardens and museums. Many weddings are performed at the shrine, and we were privileged to observe a traditional wedding parade.  Every Shinto Shrine and many Buddhist Temples have Torii gates constructed in their unique Japanese style.  Torii means literally "bird abode", and one passes through the gates to move from the profane to the sacred.

The other interesting thing at the Shrine was the hundred or so barrels of sake (rice wine) which are offered each year by the Meiji Jingu Nationwide Sake Brewers Association to the enshrined deities out of respect to the Emperor Meiji. 

All of Japan's main cities have a Buddhist Temple, and Tokyo is famous for the enormous and beautiful Asakusa Buddhist Temple, built in the 7th Century.  The 40 foot Torii gates are extraordinary, believed to be 1700 years old.  We spent over an hour there, marveling at the size and beauty of the many structures.  A large market with probably hundreds of stalls is next door to the Temple complex.   I needed to exchange (Korean) money into Yen and found a 7-11 store to do so.  All over Asia, the 7-11's lucrative side business is exchanging foreign money. 


The Imperial Palace is built on the site of the original Edo Castle dating back to the 1400's.  Until the Meiji Restoration in 1868, samurai warriors lived there for several hundred years.  Today, the Emperor and his family lives there.  The public is not allowed past the gate except twice a year, on January 2 to celebrate New Year's and December 23, Emperor Akihito's birthday, when he addresses the public from the balcony.  The grounds cover 1.3 square miles, much of which is a public park with magnificent flower gardens, surrounded by a high stone wall.  It is especially popular in April when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom. 

In the 1980's real estate boom, the value of the Imperial Palace  and grounds was said to be greater than all the real estate in California, combined.   Despite the limited view, every tourist bus stops there and the tourists walk the quarter mile or so through the public park to the medieval stone bridge over the moat where one can snap photographs of the visible portion of the palace.  Most of the palace was destroyed by Allied bombers in 1945 but has been rebuilt. 



Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home