Miyajima and the Shinkansen

The rest of our trip to western Honshu was much cheerier. Last Sunday we went to the island of Miyajima, just off the coast of Hiroshima, in the Inland Sea. The whole island is sacred. No one is allowed to die or be born there. I think that this kind of restriction could only work in Japan, where mass transportation is so reliable. The ferries to Miyajima and back are frequent, punctual, and comfortable (though perhaps less so if one were in labor or the last throes).

Miyajima is famous for the torii gate of the Itsukushima Shrine, which is set way out in the water. Torii gates are set outside all the Shinto shrines in Japan, and mark the boundary between material and spiritual space. This gate in the sea is considered one of the three most scenic views of Japan, as determined by someone. (It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage site, something a preservationist likes to collect.) There’s been a gate like this at Miyajima since the 12th century, but this one dates to 1875. We arrived at high tide, when the gate appears to float. By the way, the people you see in the boat are not picturesque peasants heading out to fish with handmade nets. They are tourists on a boat ride that forces you to wear the rice paddy coolie hat to enhance other tourists’ pictures.

We stuck around long enough to be able to walk out to the gate at low tide. Up close, one can see that the posts of the gate are gigantic tree trunks. I read that they are from camphor trees, which sound terribly exotic.

The shrine itself is also set over the water. The day was beautiful, and the light off of the water reflected on the ceiling of the shrine, making the whole building shimmer.

Miyajima is also famous for its brazenly fearless dear. I was warned by my friend and Japan veteran Anastasia that they can open zipped backpacks and eat the contents. They certainly were merciless in pursuit of Chip’s crackers and juice. Chip didn’t seemed fazed by them at all.

The view from the top of the island can only be reached by an arduous hike or a cable-car ride. Although such conveyance induces white-knuckled terror in me, it beat hiking. The view from the top was astounding, and looked not unlike the Caribbean. At the top, Chip and I ate noodles at the cafe and Rob hiked around.

The mountain itself is full of very unique sites like a monkey sanctuary, “scabies rock,”  an always-wet cherry tree (now destroyed but still advertised), and phantom tengu. You can read about it all yourself.

Back in Hiroshima on Monday, we had some time before our train left so we went to Hiroshima Castle. As you can imagine, it is a reconstruction, built in 1958. At Hiroshima Castle I fulfilled a lifelong dream of becoming a samurai. It was surprisingly easy.

Goodbye, darling. Mama has to go and fight for family honor

Ah, the shinkansen. It was so lovely. So smooth, so fast, so quiet, so clean. Chip slept, Rob and I had cocktails, and the sun set over Japan outside our window. Six hundred miles and three-and-a-half hours later, we were home.

The ride is that smooth.


At least it didn’t take the baby

I’ve read in guidebooks and been told in my “Area Orientation Brief” that one shouldn’t eat on the street in Japan. This was vaguely in the back of my mind yesterday when, while walking home from a nice hike and a stop at the Hayama Bonjour bakery (delicious) for some lunch fixings, my hiking companion Lauren handed me a chunk of her nice-looking bread to try. Lauren has been here longer than me, so when she handed me the bread I figure it was okay to eat on the street just this once and took at. No sooner had I taken a bite than a shadow passed overhead, and before I knew what had happened the bread was snatched out of my hands with surgical precision. Japanese Street-Eating police? No. Bird of prey? Yes.

Looking for Street Eaters

The weird thing was I wasn’t even startled by it and Chip, who was on my back in his carrier, didn’t make a peep. The bird was that silent. And he touched no part of me–his aim was that good. This is actually the second time I have been a kite victim. The first time we were all at the beach enjoying a picnic before Rob left and one swooped down upon me, but he didn’t get anything that time. This was of course not two minutes after I had gushed about how great Japanese beaches are because they don’t have sea gulls. Sea gulls have also not been kind to me. Besides being general nuisances, one, um, relieved himself on me while I was sitting on the dock one beautiful summer’s afternoon at Rob’s parents’ place on the Eastern Shore. I protested vocally, and Rob’s father simply raised his eyes from the book he was reading and remarked, “You know Alden, for some people they sing.”

The thing is, I am a friend of the birds. I love them. I put feeders out, and I mark in my bird books when and where I see a particular species (that’s how I know this is a kite, from the excellent Birds of East Asia book Rob got me for Christmas). Why are they out to get me?

And now I know why one doesn’t eat on the street.

Bay Stars vs. Carps

Home of the Bay Stars

One of Rob’s birthday presents was tickets to a Yokohoma Bay Stars baseball game, which we went to on Saturday. It was a beautiful day, and the Bay Stars were playing the Hiroshima Carps. (Rob and I were debating as to whether or not we really pluralize carp in English. Do we? Does one say, “I caught three carps in Hiroshima?” or “I caught three carp in Hiroshima?”) I was interested to see what the Japanese have done with a totally American tradition, like the teriyaki burger at the Japanese McDonalds. Have you ever had a dream where you knew you were somewhere you’ve been before only in the dream it wasn’t really the same place? The game was like that. It was just like a Nats game, but:

  • Put the Nats back in RFK Stadium.
  • Now cut RFK in half, crosswise, only cram in just as many people. Cut the seats in half, too, to accommodate them all.
  • Replace all of the apathetic fans with unbelievably enthusiastic ones. Put each team’s fans on opposite sides of the stadiums (this presented a challenge when we were buying tickets–we accidentally got in the Hiroshima Carps line and again presented a major threat to Japanese order.) Teach all of the fans cheers, which they will sing continuously while their team is at bat, with the aid of trumpet players scattered throughout the stands and a white-gloved man displaying cue cards in case they forget the words. (Alarmingly, I think that one of the cheers featured a chorus of “BANZAI, BANZAI!” but I might have misheard.) When the other team is at bat, the fans will sit politely and listen to that team’s cheers.
  • Replace the hot dogs with delicious Japanese cuisine, like my bento box:

For those of you who are interested, I think that this was mostly gluten-free.
  • Replace the beer men with cute Japanese beer girls:

  • Add cheerleaders. Choreograph them wholesome dance routines that would not have been out-of-place in a central Kansas high school football game halftime, and make the mascots dance with them:

Why doesn't American baseball have cheerleaders?

Very much like the Nats, however, the Bay Stars blew an early three-run lead to lose to the Carp(s), 7-3. It was still a fabulous experience.

After the game we walked around Yokohama, which has a lovely waterfront. I was surprised to see some nice 19th-century buildings that somehow escaped the bombing and bulldozing that have seemed to destroy so much of older urban Japan. Chip got his cheeks pinched and his picture taken and ate cherry-blossom ice cream.

Converted warehouses and nice gardens on the Yokohama waterfront

And, where else but Japan could we have seen a whippet in jorts and a Winnie-the-Pooh hoodie?

Also, being the Luddite that I am, I just realized that you all have been leaving me comments about the posts I’ve written! Thank you so much–I didn’t realize that I have to “approve” them before they get posted (oh, the power). It’s so nice to hear from you all.

A Nice Week in Japan

Chip looks so happy because we’ve had such a nice week in Japan. Rob has been home all week, so he jumped through the last of the forty or so hoops it took to get the car legally drivable. What’s more, the trash has been picked up every day (more on that later), we have met our neighbors, I have managed to cook supper in a skillet every night this week, we saw Mt. Fuji twice, and we have internet at home! Yesterday a very polite and quiet man from NTT (Nippon Telegraph & Telephone Corporation) came and magically connected us back to the world. To print up our bill for the service, he pulled a little  printer about the size of a pencil case from his briefcase and fed a sheet of paper through it. Hello from the future, I tell you.

So, the trash. I used to get a nagging feeling the night before trash went out in the States. Here in Japan I have that feeling every morning. The trash gets picked up every day, but before it does I have to separate it 13 ways, and figure out what will be picked up that day. Is it “Burnable Refuse” day? “Dry Cell” day? “PET Bottles” day? “Miscellaneous Paper” day? The “How to Sort and Take Out Your Refuse” instruction sheet I received from the Hayama Environmental Office listed the days incorrectly, so I have scurried out every morning in my pajamas at about 6:30 to see what the neighbors put out. I have been a little stressed about it, but the little garbage truck that comes by every day (inexplicably playing “Fur Elise”) has taken all of my trash away. By far the highest percentage of our trash is “Plastics Wraps and Containers.” I read somewhere that Japan incinerates 75% of its waste and recycles most of the rest, since it doesn’t have much room for landfills. I think this is great, but now I feel a little bit guilty that the smoke from Chip’s burning diapers might be why we can’t see Mt. Fuji every day.

On Wednesday we decided that enough of our errands were done that we could go faire du tourisme. So to Enoshima we went. Enoshima is a charming seaside town not far from here with a nice aquarium. The real reason Rob wanted to go to Enoshima, though, was the trains to get there. First we took the Shonan Monorail, which was like the Disneyland monorail except that it was suspended from a track above it. It felt like you were taking a train through the air, or like you were on a very tame, very comfortable roller coaster. The monorail was built in 1970, so it had that kind of nostalgically futuristic charm about it, like the Concorde.

The Shonan Monorail pulls into the station. All aboard for Futureland.

I’ve read that there’s a preservation debate going on back in D.C. now about streetcars, that their wires might block historic views. D.C. should consider a very high monorail.

Here is Chip at the Enoshima Aquarium. He actually seemed pretty captivated by the fish. Then again, he also seemed captivated by the bits of dirt in the carpet.

And here’s a picture of Chip at lunch. Like his mother, he loves his noodles.

This was just after Chip actually fell under the table–he slipped right out of the seat. No harm was done, but I think we single-handedly ruined the reputation of American parents in Enoshima.

On the way home we got to ride another train, a 100-year-old electric streetcar called the Enoden Line–kind of the anti-monorail. The train went (very slowly) right through the old neighborhoods of Enoshima and Kamakura, so close to the houses that one could have touched them from the train. It was very old Japan. 

I guess I should stop teasing Rob about taking pictures of trains, if I end up using them.

It was also a momentous week because Thursday was one of the two days a year the sun actually sets directly behind Mount Fuji when viewed from around Hayama. Lots of Japanese, being the nature- and camera-loving people that they are, flocked to our little Morito Beach to document the sight.

Say cheese, Fuji-san.

Great week!