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Japan: Yokohama, Kamakura, Kobe, Himeji, Kyoto

sunny 55 °F

As I began my early morning workout on the elliptical machine, I could scarcely believe my eyes. Sailing into Yokohama, our first of two ports of call in Japan, we had a crystalline view of Mount Fuji.

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Everything I'd read about Mount Fuji had me believing we probably wouldn't be able to glimpse the notoriously shy volcano. But there it was, a snow-capped 12,388 foot cone majestically looming behind Yokohama's skyline.

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All those paintings by Hokusai, all those photos and stamps, all those reproductions--they probably magnified my sense that we were seeing something awesome. Still, the volcano's cone seemed even more broad and expansive, its slopes more perfectly sculptural and solemn than I'd imagined.

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Once we docked and woke up the boys, Fuji could still be glimpsed behind the buildings at the upper front reaches of the ship. In case we were in any doubt, it seemed to say, welcome to Japan.

As soon as we could get off the ship, we made our way through the streets of Yokohama to extract a wad of yen from an ATM and hop on a bus. The buildings gleamed with cleanliness. Not a bit of trash marred the streets, not a hint of soot smudged the air. The contrast with Shanghai could hardly have been starker.

Everyone on the streets and buses, subways, and trains seemed well coiffed, well dressed, elegant, whether silver-haired old ladies out for a stroll through the temple complexes or salarymen scurrying to their appointments or even adolescents who, as Caroline noticed, all seemed to rebel in the same muted ways, usually a hint of light brown hair coloring or an elegantly shaggy haircut.

Our first days in Japan coincided with a three-day weekend for Japanese Labor Day, and throngs of people from Yokohama and nearby Tokyo squeezed into the same tourist destinations as ours. There were few foreigners on those crowded sidewalks and streets, and it was a new experience for me to tower over the locals. So that's how it feels to be tall? Not bad for sightlines in a crowd, but still, kinda overrated.

Japan feels more crowded than anywhere we've been. If you jam 127 million people--nearly half the U.S. population--into a space the size of California, and if most of the land is uninhabitably steep mountain slopes, then you get these unbelievably crowded cities, where, even so, unfailing politeness and courtesy, low voices and self-containment seem to lubricate the meeting of human edges.

The concrete and skyscrapers sent us, like a lot of Japanese locals, in search of natural beauty, a beauty enhanced by Japan's restrained and unfailingly elegant architectural styles. Most of our first day in Yokohama (pop. 3.6 million) was spent at the Sankeien Garden, about a half hour's bus-ride from the town center. Laid out by a wealthy entrepreneur in silk, the garden had become a collection site for old pagodas and shrines and homes moved from Kyoto, Kamakura, Tokyo, and elsewhere, and then reassembled piece by piece. As soon as you walk in, you see a three-story wooden pagoda from the 1400s cresting a hill. It had been transported from Kyoto.

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Other buildings nestled in the stream-curling valleys of the inner garden included a seventeenth-century villa called Rinshunkaku.

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It was exciting to gaze inside and imagine the lives once lived amid those fusuma doors with ink paintings and tatame mats, beautifully austere spaces open to the surrounding light and rocks and water.

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The poignancy was heightened by the thought that such wood-and-paper structures had ignited by the millions in the firebombings of World II, leaving few such structures anywhere in Japan.

We followed meandering paths by lovely bridges and streams and wooden gates, tea rooms and temples, stone pagodas and little Buddhas, moss-covered stones and tinkling little waterfalls.

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One of the old buildings is famous for its asymmetry, and though we kept seeing parallels with Chinese architecture, we realized everything there had been strictly four-square.

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The main attraction for the boys was the large pond, with its ducks and enormous carp.

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We'd never seen such huge fresh-water fish, massing for the bread the kids offered them. Their mouths poked out of the water and gaped.

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Here's a chaotic bit of video on the subject of those fish.

We posed for a few photos by the pond before making our way back by bus to central Yokohama.

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Some SAS faculty and students showed up on an organized trip through Yokohama and Tokyo, including Gabriel's wonderful French tutor, Barbara.

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Thankfully, that gave the college kids' imprimatur of cool to the garden, which it had sorely lacked. You see, at this late stage of our sadly dwindling journey, when we take the boys to what we suppose will be a kid-friendly experience like the Sankeien Garden, it often has a whiff of the imposed-parental-enrichment-program, making them scoff and drag. It didn't help that lunch was a nightmare for Cyrus. In the garden's pricey restaurant (and the prices in Japan are unlike anything we've seen anywhere else on this voyage), the simplest dish, which we thought surely would appeal to kids, was big bowls of udon noodles in broth. But Cyrus hated them, and unfortunately the well-intentioned grandparents at our table chuckled at the faces and mess he was making as he gagged on his introduction to Japanese cuisine, which, despite our jollying efforts, only increased the misery.

Finally released from the forced-march-of-cultural-enrichment, the boys were happy to scamper around the massive baseball stadium, home of the Yokohama Bay Stars, right at the town center. Alas, it was closed, baseball season being over. But Gabriel and the other boys took a few imaginary swings.

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The boys and I played football for an hour in the shadow of the stadium, finally doing something deemed "kids' stuff." Eli and Cyrus trounced me and Gabriel.

Our next day we'd planned a trip of our own to the lovely medieval town of Kamakura, capital of Japan from 1185 to 1333. There are more Zen Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines packed into this little town than you can possibly visit in a day. We went with three other kindly members of the shipboard community, including the man who must be the most beloved figure of all on the ship, aka Dr. Dave. His upbeat avuncular manner and boundless curiosity made him and his no less friendly niece and sister-in-law delightful travel companions. It wasn't easy making the right selections for tickets and train lines when most of the text in the vending machines was exclusively in Japanese, but with their help, we muddled our way onto a subway and then a train.

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Unfortunately, we were so exhausted by mid-afternoon that the boys and most everyone else wanted to leave without seeing the town's main sight, especially since it was several stops away on a crowded train. I found myself both unable to give it up and unable to persuade anyone else to go with me, so I was released to go on my own to see the Great Buddha, or Daibutsu, the second largest Buddha in Japan. Constructed in 1252 and originally housed in a great hall that got carried off by a tsunami, this Buddha is a mountainlike figure of serenity and grace. He's as tall as a five or six story building and is said to weigh 850 tons.

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But he's not only colossal. He's also gorgeous, thanks to his perfect proportions, his beautifully curved lips and long-dangling earlobes, the seemingly liquid folds of the clothing draped down his front.

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Out of the blue, a friendly Japanese girl offered to take my picture with a colossus that will be one of my treasured memories from the trip, if sadly a solo one.

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We travelled to Kamakura on a brilliantly beautiful, warm day, as good a day as we could have hoped for in late November. Once our large party managed the ticket complications, we found ourselves on a most civilized and efficient little train line through suburban Yokohama, passing apartment buildings and houses tightly crammed together on both sides. We got off at the melodiously named Kita-Kamakura stop (or North Kamakura), and began a stroll down narrow sidewalks on either side of the tracks, to visit the lovely Buddhist and Shinto shrines set back on wooded hills from the main road.

As the day went on, we were part of an ever-larger pilgrimage, many hundreds of people engaged in an autumn Saturday ritual. Whereas the day before, at the Sankeien Gardens, the crowd was made up mostly of older, retired people, today the crowd was surprisingly young, though just as well dressed, in a different mode. I saw more beautifully, interestingly cut women's jackets in one day than in a few years in our dear home town. We could not think of an American analogue for this parade, a place where hip, courting couples in boots and high heels, leggings, leather jackets, angular haircuts, and so on, would come to stroll among religious buildings.

The natural setting was as much the attraction as the religious buildings at the first temple we visited, Engakuji.

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We imagined that for the crowded Japanese, visiting such places is as much an excuse to wander in open, natural spaces as it is a religious matter.

Engakuji was described in a guide book as the most satisfying of Zen temples, and that sounded about right to us. We walked along paths from shrine to shrine, admiring the swooping roof lines, the playful carvings, and the lovely arrangements of natural and human-made elements.

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The temple was built in the aftermath of Mongol attacks, as a place of prayer for the souls of the dead, and as a place to seek enlightenment. In one shrine we stood before a barred gate and heard the sound of many monks chanting, in an unseen temple.

Up a long, steep, stairway we encountered an enormous 13th-century temple bell. From that height, we were thrilled to see the faint shape of Mount Fuji again.

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Descending, we crossed the tracks and the burgeoning automobile traffic to visit the temple of Tokeiji, once a nunnery, and famous as a shelter for women fleeing abusive marriages. At a time when women could not obtain divorce by other means, this temple took in those lucky enough to reach it, allowing them to stay for three years, after which time their divorces were granted. This temple's grounds were especially tranquil. We ascended the hill toward the nun's cemetery, where natural stone shapes and moss marked each grave along the rocky ridges; some visitors left flowers and lit sweet-smelling incense.

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Once again joining the stream of visitors walking single file on the sidewalks, we decided we needed a lunch break, and spent some time searching for a place where we could eat delicious Japanese food without completely emptying our wallets. In the lovely, wood-panelled and pillared restaurant we chose, one tiny, squeaky-voiced, harried waitress literally ran back and forth among the tables to keep up with the demand, and couldn't begin to make sense of what we were trying to order. This was understandable, as we knew among the eight of us only three phrases: good morning, hello, and thank you. A helpful Japanese patron stood up and offered to translate, and though we tried to order very sensibly--two lunches for each four people--someone in the kitchen must have decided we were confused, and piled the plates, landing us with a whopping bill. Oh well, the tempura was delicious, even if we weren't crazy about the cold soba noodles. Cyrus did much better this time: rice and fried shrimp he can deal with!

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The final temple we visited is the one that all Japanese seem to agree is the "Number One" Zen temple in the area, Kencho-ji. This temple has a huge, impressive main gate, under the high wooden beams of which some of us sat to rest. Further along the path, we encountered impressively massive trees, 700-year old cypruses planted from seeds brought from China.

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We encountered interesting details at each turn--lamps, gates, lolling boys.

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At this and the first temple, we saw monks walking amidst the crowds, dressed in robes and sandals, sometimes bowing profusely. We ended this visit at a zazen (zen meditation) temple. In the smooth wood-floored entry we removed our shoes and placed them on shelves, then filed quietly by a nearly empty meditation room, doors open to the air, where among the blue cushions we saw one woman sitting erect in total stillness, and we saw her in exactly that position fifteen minutes later when we left. A sign outside had invited foreigners to a once-a-month introduction in English to Zen meditation, taught by the monks; it was tempting to imagine accepting the offer. At the back of this temple was a Zen garden, half-moon shaped and sculpted into small undulating hills, around a pond shaped, we learned, like the character for "mind." Mind/nature was the meditation subject for the dozens of Japanese visitors who sat silently on a bench alongside us, contemplating the garden. This was a form of tourism we had never encountered in all the turning world: quiet, still, contented, respectful, totally camera-free, a merger of self with scene, an exchange with nature. We had come round the world to encounter the mind.

Leaving this temple we entered into nearly overwhelming pedestrian traffic--yet it moved more quickly than the automobile traffic, which we were pleased to speed past, as we tromped downhill to the supposedly charming, old town of Kamakura. We cannot actually say much about Kamakura, because it was so utterly dense with human beings that we could not take in the spaces, buildings, or anything else except the need not to lose one another in the crush. Walking on the main shopping street, I could not imagine the possibility of shopping--just keeping with the flow of the crowd was challenge enough! Half of us did lose the other half for a while, and I held up hope that Cyrus in his bright red fleece was still in Jahan's sights, if not in mine. All ended happily, though Jahan was the only one not too pooped to go see the big Buddha.

But before we dove into the motion of the crowd, there was one moment in a plaza adjacent to the town's main intersection, when by common consent, every person on the street stopped to stare at a lovely sight: a wedding party in traditional costume, formally posing for a gaggle of photographers. As with everything else we did that day, we joined right in with the Japanese, and snapped our own shots.

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I'll take up Caroline's narrative from now, saying a bit about our last days in Japan. We sailed into Kobe, a city beautifully massed against the mountains.

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We'd hoped to spend our first day here on a visit with a family that had volunteered to spend the day with us, but they had a son who came down with the flu, and our own Gabriel had also come down with a fever. Caroline and I suddenly had to cook up a new plan for the day, and the most highly recommended day trip was to the spectacularly well-preserved Himeji Castle, 40 minutes away by train. We were unhappy to leave Gabriel, but once we saw he was going to be ok, we decided we could leave him in bed for half a day, given all the people and medical resources on the ship.

You first catch glimpses of Himeji Castle from the train, its gleaming white seven stories projecting well up into the sky. Though completed in 1618, it's still here for E and Cy and their escorts to enjoy its wedding cake exterior.

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Inside one of the buildings flanking its side, you walk through long wooden corridors.

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Outside the surrounding city buildings seem almost to flow like rivers between the mountains. As Caroline remarked, if this were California, those mountains would be covered with buildings, but here they're left relatively pristine.

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The layered rooflines create a wonderfully storied effect, though as you approach the castle, you feel like you're going through a maze. Indeed, part of the reason the castle held up so well was its hidden entrance. As an enemy approached, it would have been impossible to figure out where the main entrance once. Meanwhile, stones and hot oil and arrows were pouring out hundreds of small openings in the massive stone walls.

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Outside I was delighted to see more camellia in bloom, seemingly the same variety I planted some years ago on one side of the house, but here seemingly everywhere spreading its lovely soft pink.

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On the way to and from the castle, we grabbed some sushi and various blob-shaped unidentifiable but generally tasty treats. Having spent a great deal of time with the boys in public bathrooms over the last several months, I and they found this mistranslation particularly funny.

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Back at the ship, we were happy to find Gabriel safe and sound, though still sick. We were glad to bring him a little of the experimental food from our daytrip.

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Our last day of travel abroad--boohoo!--was spent in Kyoto, a city about two hours by bus from Kobe that sprawls with some 2,000 temples, of which 400 are Shinto and 1,600 Buddhist. Frankly, for Japan's reputedly most beautiful city, much of it looks drab, with block-like concrete buildings and a bricked-in river. But views of the mountains on three sides (in accordance with feng shui) and patches of swooping Buddhist roofs recalled the lovely older Japan we were there to enjoy. Our SAS guide was a kindly and sprightly former-English-teacher named Miyo, whose English was impressively idiomatic and accurate, amazingly so for someone who'd never lived in an English-speaking country.

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Once Miyo took all 44 of us to Nijo Castle, residence of the Tokugawa Shogun from 1603, we immediately felt what it meant to be in Japan's former glorious capital--the capital for nearly a 1,000 years. She explained that "Kyo-to" means "capital city" or "capital capital," while latecomer "To-kyo" means "eastern capital." As we made our way through the first gate at the Nijo Castle, the wooden carvings of insects and flowers impressed us with their exquisite intricacy and detail.

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Speaking of elegance, we were delighted that Farzaneh was with us on this last foreign trip, taking the place on the bus of still-sick Gabriel, who had opted to stay home with books and computer once more.

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The castle's interiors harmonized muted golds and greens in the natural scenes with beasts, birds, and pines painted on the walls, sights that competed with the loud squeaks set off by our footsteps on pre-modern alert-system "nightingale" floors. But it was probably the natural scene outside--the lovely garden--that drew the most oohs and ahhs. The gardeners had completely mastered the art of seeming artless in their selection and arrangement of every rock and island and waterfall.

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We were conscious of missing Japan's famous cherry blossoms, but even so, we felt the timing of our visit was enormously lucky, since the Japanese maples--or, I guess in Japan they're probably just "maples"--glowed with autumnal reds and yellows.

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They reminded us of the similar maples at the homes of our parents, and we talked about trying to create a grove of Japanese maples someday at our house. More such foliage was on display at the Golden Pavilion, or Kinkaku-ji.

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The 40 pounds of gold cladding this three-story retirement villa, later converted into a temple, glimmer in the pond's reflection.

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Here and at the Maruyama Park and its nearby Shinto shrine, watching both women and kids festively clad in kimonos was as much fun as gazing at the architectural sites and foliage.

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At Heian Shrine, another Shinto shrine painted an orange that has somehow been mistranslated "vermillion," we saw another adorable girl being taken for her blessing as a three year old (Miyo told us girls have these blessings in November at ages 3 and 7, boys at 5).

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We also caught sight of a geisha, only to learn from Miyo that she was a fake, real geishas never appearing outdoors until evening.

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Instructed in the purifying ablutions outside the temple, Eli gave the ritual a try.

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Anything to get keep the boys clean! They almost plunged all the way in the water as they deliriously skipped over the stepping stones in another Japanese garden, this one even more meandering and extensive than the last.

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Cherry and other deciduous trees, even when bare, seemed stately and graceful at the water's edge, many of them with support beams lashed to the older limbs to keep them from breaking off.

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I never imagined I'd see so many shrubs in bloom in late November, but camellia was everywhere.

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Caroline and I posed for each other beside stately pavilions overlooking the water. We might not even have needed a translation of "Heian" as "peace and tranquility" to know that Heian Shrine was one of the most serene places we'd visited on our voyage.

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On the way out of this Shinto shrine's central courtyard, I caught a glimpse of a couple of priests.

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Our last stop of the day was at the Kiyomizu Temple, where both Buddhist temple and Shinto shrine enjoy stunning views of Kyoto and the surrounding mountains.

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For us, the best view of all, maybe because it matched the Japans we'd been carrying around in our imaginations, was of the pagoda perched high above the city and a steep drop into the valley.

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During our long busride home, our guide, Miyo, kindly instructed the boys in the arts of origami. Both Eli and Cyrus, who'd had some practice in this art at home, made perfect helmets and cranes. Is it different to do origami in its place of origin?, we asked, as we passed by the headquarters for another westward-traveling product, Nintendo.

As soon as we'd thanked our guide and got off the bus, we rushed back onto the ship to check on Gabriel, who had successfully mastered the timing of his medicines and by day's end was feeling better. Meanwhile, all day long, both Caroline and Cyrus could tell that they were being felled by the same virus but they valiantly forged ahead. It was crummy but somehow appropriate that most of us, near the end of our long and exhausting and exhilarating travels, should be falling prey to viral intruders.

And now, our cabins like sick wards with medicine bottles and thermometers cast about, boys crouched under covers with their coughs and computer games, we set off on the longest unrelieved stretch of ocean travel of our voyage, ten solid days at sea, from Kobe to Honolulu. Let's hope that by the time of our final excursion, a trip to Pearl Harbor as soon as we dock, we'll all have recovered our health and strength.

As Thanksgiving approaches, we're thinking especially of our dear families and hoping they know how much we miss them, look forward to seeing them, and give thanks for their nurturing and loving presence in our lives.

Posted by JR-CR 00:54 Archived in Japan Tagged family_travel

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Hey guys! You picked all the right spots for your 4-day whirlwind tour of Japan. Himeji is the most beautiful castle there, and Kamakura and Kyoto are "the" spots for Zen temples, gardens, etc. It's not easy finding "old Japan" but you managed to do it. Too bad you didn't have time for a hot spring or a shiatsu massage, so you could relax. (Next time?) I hope the Pacific lives up to its name during your crossing, and that the weather is nice in Honolulu, as usual.

by Ally Petro

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