Short Trips Around Small Countries: Japan

One could argue that Japan is not a small country, because it has a very large population for its actual size.  But, in this case I describe only a small portion of the country.  I have in fact visited Japan several times, but here I will describe some highlights only on the main island Honshu and off the beaten track.

One time I stayed in Tokyo in the busy Shinjuku district in a hotel that was a tall building consisting entirely of tiny rooms for businessmen.  The “room” was actually a plastic box, no bigger than an average bathroom, that included a bed, a toilet and a shower. Minimal. Most tourists are content to view Mt. Fuji, the amazing cone-like volcano that dominates central Honshu, from nearby Tokyo. But, with a Japanese friend I actually drove up the road that takes you about 2/3 of the way to the top.  At the base is a beautiful shrine where one gives prayers for the journey, and then at the end of the road there is a large wooden château, with a restaurant and other facilities.  We climbed a bit further, but it was misty, so we could not see the view and the ground is like cinder, treacherous.

I had an amazing unique experience when I visited one time, my former student’s pupils were getting married, and since he organized the wedding (that’s how they do it there, someone outside the families is responsible) he invited me. First the bride and groom wore sedate Japanese kimonos and everything was very Japanese.  Then after a break they reappeared thru a mist in Western dress, he in tuxedo and she in white bridal gown, to loud American-style pop music.  It was weird.  They gave out place maps, showing where everyone was to sit and in the middle in English it said “Prof. Jack S. Cohen.”  Since I was his teacher (the sensei of the sensei) I was given much honor.  I was asked to address the guests.  I gave my speech which was translated, I said that every country is famous for something, Germany for its cars, France for its wine, America for its movies, England for its literature, and Japan is famous for its brides!  This was tongue-in-cheek, but I suppose they took it literally.  Anyway it was a wonderful experience.

One of the most interesting cities in Japan is Nara, the old capital, that has many interesting historical wooden buildings, including the oldest in Japan dating to 768 ce. Unfortunately, most of them burnt down over time and were usually replaced by exact replicas.  There are few original castles in Japan, since most of them were destroyed on order of the Emperor during the Meiji restoration in 1868 ce, but Osaka Castle is one of the few original ones remaining and worth a visit.  Kyoto is the jewel of Japan, supposed to have 1,000 temples, and the old palace of the Emperor before he moved to Tokyo.  I remember that the wooden floors were made to deliberately creak so that no assassin could creep up on the Emperor or the Shogun, his military commander and the actual ruler of Japan until the Meiji period.

One time I went south to Hiroshima, and of course visited the Memorial Peace Park commemorating the dropping of the atomic bomb in 1945.  My host took me to the other side of the river and on the stony beach there were still ceramic roof tiles that had been melted by the atomic blast, one of which I kept.   From there I took a boat out in Hiroshima Bay to the tiny island of Miyajima.  This is one of the seven famous beauty spots in Japan that all Japanese are supposed to visit.  I was lucky to arrive when it was misty and I saw the large red wooden gate or Torii rising dramatically out of the mist.

Another time I went north to Sendai, a very attractive modern city about 200 miles from Tokyo (unfortunately it was badly damaged in the tsunami of 2004).  By the Shinkansen, the bullet train, this takes only about 1.5 hrs.  In the City museum there is a display devoted to the famous warrior, Date Masamune, who was one of the first to unify Japan in the 1600’s.  His suit of armor is exhibited, including his famous helmet surmounted by its distinctive inverted crescent.  Out in the bay is another famous beauty spot, Matsushima, with hundreds of small green islands. One night my host and his students took me out for a meal, up into the mountains to a special restaurant that served only sea creatures, snails and things you had to extract from their shells.  I think they wanted to see how far I would go.  When they put a long black thing on the plate before me, I stopped, I said no, I can’t eat that! Luckily I didn’t, it was a delicacy, porpoise penis.

Once I went as far east as you can go from Tokyo to Choshi, a major fishing port, where the Yamasa company makes soy sauce.  I visited their factory with a former student. They import most of the soy beans into the port, and and as far as I remember they then mash them and put them in layers between sea weed, then let it ferment in tanks and then squeeze the soy sauce out.  Here I stayed in a ryokan, a Japanese inn, where everything is done in traditional Japanese style.  I had a geisha (servant lady), who prepared my meals served in Japanese style, on the floor in small trays.  She offered to give me a bath, with hot water poured into a small tin bathtub (in which you have to bend you legs), which I politely declined.  I slept on a futon on the tatami flooring.  One distinct feature of this ryokan was that it was actually built on the rocks, and it was a wonderful experience to view the sunrise, with the waves splashing over the rocks and the fishing boats sailing out into the bay.

I am not a religious man, but that doesn’t prevent me from having spiritual experiences.  One of the most memorable of these was when I visited the large Hozen-ji Buddhist Temple in downtown Osaka.  A priest entered and started to tap a wooden stick at an ever-increasing rate.  Then a double line of monks entered slowly singing in deep voices and then chanting a service.  Although I could not understand anything, the atmosphere, the location and the deepening dusk made the whole experience ethereal.


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