Two weeks in Japan

Back from a whirlwind two-week rail jaunt through Japan, both of us sick as dogs with the mother of all head colds as I write this. We’d packed face masks, Vitamin C, Cold FX and echinacea. All it did was delay the onslaught. We ditched the face masks on the flight back, so there’s no telling where we caught it.

Hiroshima, John Hersey.JPG

Wednesday, Feb. 22: Montreal to Chicago O’Hare on Air Canada, then Chicago to Tokyo Narita on All Nippon Airways. Re-read John Hersey’s 1946 Hiroshima. Hersey was an American journalist, the first writer to tell the story of what it was like to be among the survivors of the world’s first atomic bomb. It’s a little book, 118 pages, and widely considered to be the first example of what came to be called New Journalism, a terse factual writing style stripped of the writer’s point of view.

This trip is a pilgrimage. Hersey’s book was one of a handful my father bought as a young reporter and kept through a dozen moves. I was 14 when I first read it. It convinced me to become a journalist like Hersey, like my father. I have to see Hiroshima, to stand at Ground Zero, to visit the museum describing the horror in clinical detail and the memorials dedicated to the dead.

Another reason we want to visit Japan while we can: we’re convinced Donald Trump is clinically insane, incapable of rational judgment. We see the Republicans playing along, riding Trump’s bandwagon on a mission to hijack America. During our stay the Americans station THAAD missile launchers in Tokyo after three North Korean ICBMs splash into Japanese waters. Meanwhile, Russia’s Putin talks about the use of tactical nukes. How many nuclear weapons does it take to guarantee no more Hiroshimas?

Before leaving I drop a message to Sed Chapman, an American contributor to Quora, a site devoted to quirky questions and answers. Chapman has lived in Japan for years and I’ve come to appreciate his insight. Specifically, I ask him what the weather would be like and what first-time visitors to Japan should expect.

Chapman’s reply: “Draw a line due west from Tokyo. Everything above the line will be cold and rainy or snowy. The Pacific side will be warmer and maybe a little drier. I don’t think you need to worry about reservations as it is off season. You can always get hotel reservations in the larger train stations. Bring fleece, a rain parka, gloves and a hat. Get an umbrella here. Change money here. Bring card for cash at 7-11 and post offices. Download maps before you come.”

We plan our trip like we always do — I buy the Lonely Planet for Japan and Louise begins marking it up with a highlighter and sticky notes. We agree on musts and maybes. Eventually we will spend four days in and around Tokyo and two in Hakone, a popular tourist destination in the mountains west of Tokyo. Kyoto and environs get three days. We budget two nights for Hiroshima and leave the remainder of our two weeks open. We book Airbnbs in those four cities because as we discovered in Portugal, there’s no better way to experience a country.

We bring one IPhone to navigate, text, book lodging and stay in touch. For $10 a day, Telus offers a voice/data travel option. We end up never using the Telus plan because Japanese Airbnb hosts supply portable hotspot devices and WiFi can be found almost anywhere on our itinerary. Mindful of Chapman’s advice, we download everything from the Tokyo subway map to a universal booking app. We print out all Airbnb directions in Japanese as well as in English. We talk to people who have visited Japan. There are many ways to get around the main islands – by plane, bus, rental vehicle. Everyone advises us against driving ourselves. Japan drives on the left, Romance alphabet signage is spotty and it’s unlikely you’ll find an English speaker at a gas station. So we opt for a pair of Japan Rail’s 14-day unlimited passes.

Shinkansen 400.JPG
Skinkansens have become an essential component of modern Japan, both as a symbol of national pride and as the backbone of the nation’s public transit infrastructure. (All photos by Louise Craig unless otherwise noted.)

Japan isn’t the only nation with fast trains, but Japan’s Shinkansen bullet trains are so advanced technologically and such a civilized mode of transportation, no other mode of intercity transit compares. To reach cities not on Shinkansen lines, narrow-gauge Azura and other Limited Express trains are slower and not as luxurious, but they’re as good as anything you’ll find in North America. Finally, suburban commuter trains open up infinite local possibilities to curious day-trippers, like the amazing bamboo groves outside Kyoto.

Travelling by rail in Japan is a snap. With the JR pass you reserve your seats at a JR office, which are everywhere. You show up at the station with enough time to browse through the kiosks selling bentos, beautifully presented box lunches with combinations of every conceivable edible — sushi, sashimi, maki rolls, rice balls, tofu, you name it. Everywhere, you’ll find hot and cold tea, delicious canned coffee, excellent Japanese beer. Sustenance in hand, you ask the ticket agent for the platform number and make your way to the pictograph showing you exactly where to stand to board your car. The train pulls in on time, you take your seat and relax. Sleep is not only possible, but widely practiced by the chronically sleep-deprived Japanese.

Tokyo subway.JPG
Tokyo’s subway map becomes comprehensible once you decide where you want to go.

Our introduction – finding our way from Tokyo’s Narita Airport to Shinjuku, a western suburb of Tokyo. Shinjuku, with three million passengers transiting per day, is the busiest transmodal station in the world. It has 200 separate entrances and exits to two train lines and four subway lines operated by half a dozen different carriers. JR passes don’t work here; the Japanese use a rechargeable cash card, either Pasmo or Suica, akin to Visa and MasterCard. Because passengers pay on the basis of distance, the turnstile will occasionally spit out one’s card because there’s not enough credit to cover the trip travelled. When that happens, the passenger goes to a bank of fare adjustment ATMs to pay the difference or refresh his/her cash card.

In Shinjuku we search for the entrance to the Marunouchi Line, which we will ride west for two stops to Nishi-Shinjuku. In vain we scan the hundreds of signs. Then, as we experience countless times throughout our trip, a sympathetic soul takes time from their own journey to see us to the right platform on the Marunouchi line four levels down.

Airbnbs unwelcome.jpg
Our Airbnb in Shinjuku. Fantastic location, chilly neighbours.

Once at Nishi-Marunouchi, another dilemma. Which exit? We emerge onto the street and head for a Seven Eleven convenience store (more on these later) where we’re supposed to meet up with our host. Except that at 6:30, the appointed hour, Masa doesn’t materialize. I wait with the bags while Louise finds a WiFi connection and reaches Masa. Wrong Seven Eleven; the right one is a 10-minute walk. Masa walks to escort us to his Airbnb apartment.

On the way, he cautions us against getting into conversations with anyone in the building. “I may have to shut down my Airbnb,” he confesses. Great. First night in Japan and we may be tossed out. Masa stops us on the sidewalk before we get to the building. “Wait here,” he says. “I want to check for the building superintendent.” As fate would have it, the woman herself sweeps out of the building and past us without a glance. Masa beckons us to the door and hands us the key. Just inside the door is a sign in Japanese and English. The English reads “Airbnb is not allowed in this building.”

The story has a happy ending. The apartment is modern, well-equipped and bigger than most Japanese hotel rooms. We don’t run into a soul for the next three days and the location is fantastic, within walking and subway distance of everything. That evening we walk toward Shinjuku’s bright lights and find ourselves in the beating heart of Tokyo and its 14 million inhabitants.

Tokyo old and new.JPG
Old and new Tokyo

Three days of sightseeing follow, beginning with Shinjuku’s skyscraper district and an elevator to the top of Tokyo’s Metropolitan Government offices. From the observation deck one gets a sense of the sheer size of Japan’s largest city and the location of landmarks like the Imperial Palace. It’s a great city for walking — clean, safe at any hour and with spotless public bathrooms everywhere. But there’s a catch. Public trash receptacles are rare, so don’t expect to dump those sandwich wrappers or coffee cups just anywhere. (It’s considered gauche to eat while walking.) We quickly discover few bathrooms provide paper towels or blow dryers. You’re expected to carry your own package of all-purpose tissue and dispose of it in the toilet.

An aside on Japanese toilets. Occasionally, you’ll find old-school public bathrooms of the footsteps-on-either-side-of-a-hole variety, but everywhere we stay, the sanitary facilities are technological marvels, with heated seats that lower automatically, warm-water bidets and infinitely variable flush.

By the third day, we gain a working knowledge of the Tokyo subway system and feel confident venturing further afield. We take in the Imperial Palace, spectacular Japanese gardens with the cherry trees just beginning to bloom. We visit Shinto and Buddhist temples and watch security preparations for the 2017 Tokyo Marathon in Hibaya Park. We rubberneck our way around upscale Ginza with its luxury-goods shops for the 1% and six-figure playthings like a gold and bronze Bugatti Peyron.

All things French.JPG
Japan’s love affair with all things French results in architectural anomalies like this one.

An article in a tourist guide leads us to Kagurazaka, a hilly district known as Petite Montmartre, with cobbled streets and narrow alleys filled with little shops and stalls and an overwhelmingly French theme. There’s French music playing on loudspeakers, shops with French names. In one patisserie, we run into a gaggle of young women dressed up as geishas, something we are to see a lot of in Tokyo and Kyoto. They’re beside themselves when they discover that we speak French.

The Japanese are wild about all things French, and that appears to extend to Quebec. One loses count of buildings with French names, of cosmetics and lingerie advertising campaigns in French. Quebec maple syrup is a huge culinary hit. We spot $40 litre jugs of Quebec maple syrup, boxes of Leclerc maple cookies for $5.

Shinkansen 700.JPG
N700 looks like it’s going 300 km/h when it’s stopped.

Tokyo behind us, we head for Odawara, a small city 40 minutes Shinkansen ride west of Shinjuku. It’s our first time on a bullet train so we’re like kids. We’re aboard an N700, the more modern of the two most widely used types. We loaf along at between 180 and 220 km/h, although the bullet trains exceed 300 km/h on the longer intercity runs. It’s like travelling on an extremely comfortable aircraft, with big reclining seats and all the legroom you’d ever want. An attendant passes with a refreshment cart. I go walkabout to explore the amenities and discover men’s and women’s toilets, big, comfy restrooms, powder rooms, Wi-Fi facilities and public telephones. A most civilized form of public transportation. Why can’t Canada build and operate trains like these?

Shinkansen Green car.jpg
Reservations in a Green car. First class, Shinkansen style.

Our Odawara Airbnb is steps from the station, upstairs from a bar and grill and across the street from a Lawson convenience store. Japan’s convenience stores are open 24/7. The two biggest chains are Lawson and Seven Eleven, American transplants now headquartered in Japan and spreading throughout Southeast Asia. They’re where you go to get cash from a Cirrus-enabled bank ATM. They offer an incredible range of reasonably healthy fast foods: nori-wrapped seafood rice cakes, hot skewers of beef, pork and chicken, meat or veggie-filled steamed buns and a decent cup of coffee or tea to take out. You can also pick up a mickey of single-malt scotch, several brands of excellent Japanese beer or sake and a decent bottle of red or white.

We had planned to use the Airbnb in Odawara as our base to hike and explore onsen (hot bath) country around Hakone, a popular weekend destination for exhausted Tokyo residents. We’d packed our bathing suits after seeing photos of ancient stone pools fed by volcanically heated spring water. It was a letdown to discover most onsens in that part of Japan are modern spas and swimming pools fed by a system of pipes from volcanic springs. Neither of us enjoys public hot tubs so we pass on the experience.

Hakone onsens.JPG
Wall-to-wall Hakone onsen resorts use volcanically heated spring water to fill commercial hot tubs and pools.

With two-day passes on the local train/bus system, we hike a few badly maintained trails and ride the cog railway to the volcanic formations above Hakone. Bad news. The first section of the Hakone Ropeway, an aerial tram crossing the mountain to Lake Ashi, is closed. They propose to bus us to the far end, where we can continue down to the lake. Except that they don’t mention that the other section closes at 4 p.m. So we ‘re ordered off the bus at the summit and forced to line up with everyone else for the trip back to the top of the cog railway. Why not just tell us before you piss us off?

This reluctance to volunteer information or deviate from established protocols is what irked us most about Japan. We experienced it more than once and found ourselves wondering how the country proposes to deal with the 2020 Summer Games and the huge influx of foreigners with no comprehension of Japanese. (Japan hosted the successful 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics but the numbers are nowhere near the same.) Eventually we were directed to a notice in Japanese and English to the effect the tram was closed for maintenance, but the onus was on us to ask.

Apart from the universal surgical face mask, custom masks abound. It’s not just about stopping germs. (Google)

To judge from the number of hacking, sneezing cold sufferers on the trains, we arrived in the midst of the high grippe season. Is this why so many Japanese wear face masks? There’s no gender or age pattern among mask wearers. Everyone from students to seniors wears them, serving behind counters, operating or taking public transit, biking and walking. Train conductors and bus drivers wear them. Subway packers wear them. Most are of the disposable surgical variety but we saw plenty of non-disposable masks in designer shapes and colours.

The wearing of face masks in Japan dates back to the 1917 Spanish influenza that killed millions worldwide. Since then, medical science has concluded that while it may prevent someone with a contagion from infecting others, the wearing of a surgical mask is no guarantee against catching something. Like the vaccination threshold to achieve herd immunity, over 90% of the population would have to wear masks to protect itself from contracting airborne illness. By my own rough estimate, the mask-wearing level in Japan is somewhere between a quarter and a third of the population. I’ve concluded mask-wearing is as much about signalling disengagement and laying claim to one’s private space as it is about hygiene. With a good shot of superstition.

Masks and smartphones. It seemed like almost everyone riding Tokyo’s incredibly complex subway and commuter train network is clutching their phone, many wearing earbuds. That or asleep and sometimes both. More than once we watch someone nodding off and dropping their phone.  I can understand why they fall asleep. The Japanese work incredibly long hours, beginning in preschool. Jet lag meant we were up at 3 a.m. In the Airbnbs and hotels where we stayed, we’d hear people up and at it at all hours. Schools start at 8:30 and finish at 5:30 or 6; many seem to have adopted the British system of a daily break after lunch for physical activities before resuming classes. Most wear school uniforms, which extend to jogging outfits and backpacks. Daycare and juku (after-school tutoring), seems to be universal. There’s a critical public daycare shortage because accredited, regulated early childhood educators are underpaid. At the same time there’s an ongoing national scandal over unregulated private daycare and ‘baby hotels’ where overworked parents are forced to pay extortionate rates to park their infants with providers who don’t have to undergo background checks.

It’s common to see an exhausted mother on the metro, holding her sleeping toddler as they make their way home well after dark. My mind’s eye retains images of women bicycling through the rain, carrying two or more kids in bike seats with clear plastic covers.

There’s no promise of better to come. Japan has the oldest population of any major nation. In 2016, a United Nations estimate placed half its 127 million citizens over 46.9 years of age. Germany, with a median age of 46.8, is close behind. (China is 37.1, the U.S. is 37.9, the UK is 40.5, Canada 42. Japan, with an average life expectancy of 83, is the world’s highest, making it the planet’s canary in the demographic coal mine. Without significant immigration, its population hasn’t changed significantly in a decade. By 2030 it’s estimated there won’t be enough people in the workforce to cover the cost of entitlements. Already, universal free health care has given way to universal co-pay, with the individual responsible for 30 per cent of the bill up to a monthly co-pay cap.

Japanese IPA.jpg
An excellent Japanese craft IPA. Ageing in cedar casks mellows the hops and imparts a unique nose. Japanese microbreweries are springing up all over the country.

Not once during our stay do we smell marijuana being consumed in public; Japan’s draconian drug laws are a powerful dissuader. Japan’s drug of choice, alcohol, plays an essential role as a coping mechanism and release valve. Every major railway station features a Tully’s or or other franchise outlet where businessmen will drop by for a few belts and a light supper of drinking man’s food before continuing home. Later in the trip, we duck into a local bar to try shodju, a spirit distilled from barley, rice or almost anything else. Two of those disengage one’s brain from life’s ordeal. The exception to Japan’s obsession with public hygiene: pools of vomit outside the blocks of drinking establishments. Overconsumption is a way of life among Japan’s salarymen. Social activists blame the insatiable demands of the nation’s corporate overlords and greedy shareholders. Alcohol remains king.

Conversations with those we met throughout our visit reveal the deep concern for Japan’s future. Exploring the grounds of Onshi Hakone Park, built as a lakeside estate in Motohakone by a German doctor prior to WW1, we get to chatting with an elderly couple. Like the majority of Japanese who lived through U.S. General Douglas MacArthur’s army of occupation, they both speak good English. They have doubts about a world with Trump  and worry about what will happen to Japan, with a falling birthrate, an aging population and almost no immigration to offset the demographic shift. Outside a grocery store in Odawara, we run into a woman who lived in the U.S. for four years. She wonders what will happen to Japan’s post-Boomer generations. They sign on to a life of hard work on the premise that they will enjoy the same quality of life when they retire. What they don’t know, she says, is they’re doomed to pay for the benefits of their elders while leaving none to look forward to themselves. What will happen when they find out they’ve been lied to?

Tuesday, Feb. 28: 5 a.m. wakeup call to catch the Shinkansen for Kyoto. Fitful sleep our last night in Odawara, punctuated by rowdy outbursts and the cigarette smoke from the bar downstairs. A lot of people smoke, but smoking in public is tightly controlled or banned in many places, so smokers restore their nicotine levels with a vengeance in local bars. If you don’t like smoke, don’t go in.

Louise and geishas.JPG
Louise and would-be geishas (Jim Duff photo)

In Kyoto we head to our Airbnb with a series of photos showing where to turn. We walk miles before I realize our host has started us off with a photo of a reflection. We’re headed exactly the wrong way. We retrace our steps and find our cozy apartment less than five minutes from the railway station. As soon as we figure out the essentials, like how to turn on the heating, we strike out for the commuter train that runs to Arashiyama, the site of an amazing bamboo grove that gives us new insight into the Japanese relationship with tradition. All around us, young men and women are dressed in traditional Japanese samurai robes, intricately brocaded kimonos and wooden sandals. Giggling girls hire rickshaws, not to be pulled through the narrow paved paths through the magical green glade but to pose for photos with the handsome young drivers. It seems to be a Japan-wide nostalgia among the young for a simpler, more formal life they attempt to recapture by dressing up. We find it indescribably touching.

Kyoto station.JPG
Kyoto’s main railway station has become a tourist destination in its own right.

Kyoto is a stunning city straddling a river and surrounded by mountains. It contains a significant percentage of Japan’s oldest structures because it was largely spared by the B-29s and major earthquakes. From massive Buddhist temples and 300-year-old neighbourhoods to art-deco towers and the unforgettably beautiful Ponto-Cho and Gion quarters, Kyoto is an ideal walking city. Kyoto’s subway (use that Pasmo or Suica card) isn’t anywhere the size of Tokyo’s, but it makes it possible to see more in a day — and that includes a strolling lunch through the spectacular Nishiki market.

Fresh sashimi.JPG
Kyoto’s Nishiki Market is a seafood lover’s dream.

We begin at the downtown end, eating our way east. We start with seven-spice rice crackers and burdock soup, followed by pickled vegs and slices of barbecued rare breast of duck, smoked baby squid, marinated tuna sashimi, multi-flavoured peanuts, bean gelatine in powdered green tea, smoked shellfish and a Kyoto delicacy, a salad of tofu skin and baby setake mushrooms washed down with Kirin draft beer and black soybean tea. We marvel at $500 handmade knives and $100 titanium chopsticks.

Tuesday, March 2: Thus far we’ve been struck by the formal politeness of the Japanese. Best example so far: train conductors bowing upon entering and leaving each car. Today, the driver of the #59 bus gets out of his seat, walks around to the side door, pulls out a folding ramp, then helps a wheelchair-bound passenger into a wide central space served for handicapped passengers. Everywhere, ways are found to adapt. There is unfeigned compassion for the challenged and infinite patience for the elderly. Traffic lights are leisurely, with a chirp-and-echo system to guide the blind. Teens jump to give up their seats on public transit. People offer help to tourists buried in their maps.

Conferring on directions.JPG
Conferring on directions draws a crowd and usually requires two maps and two apps.

Kyoto’s Imperial Palace is 63 hectares of gardens, forests, shrines, temples and royal compounds dating back to the 12th century. Couldn’t get into the Sendo Palace grounds without lining up for four hours on the off chance of getting a pass. So we hike to the main palace compound and get in with a numbered tag. They keep crowds down because it’s more orderly. The compound provides an architectural explanation of how Japan’s hereditary monarchy is central to the nation’s sense of social stability, something we’ve witnessed in other southeast Asian nations. Japan’s Emperor is no longer considered as a deity (WWII and Emperor Hirohito’s backing of Japan’s hegemonist military-industrial complex ended that) but the Royals play a stabilizing role. The gardens are breathtakingly beautiful.

Imperial Palace grounds.JPG
Even if you’re not into formal Japanese gardens, one can appreciate the perfection of Kyoto’s Imperial Palace.

We head to a cafeteria on the palace grounds for lunch. Udon curry chicken noodles with ginger, mushrooms, salad and tofu sides. Simple, hot, filling and incredibly delicious for 400 yen each. Japan’s currency is easy for Canadians to figure out. Think of a thousand-yen bill as $10. Everything below that is in 500, 200, 100, 50, 10, 5 and one-yen coins. (Suggestion: keep 10,000 and 5,000-yen bills separate so as not to mix them up) This is a cash society, so forget credit or debit cards unless you’re at a cash machine or in a high-end shopping district. If you’re confused, a cashier will pick the right change out of your hand. You’ll get a receipt for everything because there’s a value-added tax on every transaction.

Golden Temple.JPG
Kyoto’s Golden Temple: Trump might get ideas for the White House.

Last stop in Kyoto : the Golden Temple, best reached via bus with a 500-yen one-day pass. It’s an impressive little building in a beautifully manicured setting. It’s fascinating because of the sheer volume of selfie-snapping, candle-lighting, incense-lighting visitors for whom the site is a pilgrimage to wishful thinking, like buying a spiritual lottery ticket.

Friday, March 3: We took the 8 a.m Shinkansen to Hiroshima.

I • A Noiseless Flash
“At exactly 15 minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk.”

That is how John Hersey begins his 1946 narrative on the effects of the world’s first atomic bomb used on a city. First published in the New Yorker’s Aug. 31 edition, it is quickly reprinted in book form as Americans come to realize the human toll of all-out nuclear war. More than 70 years later, there’s no official number of victims: 100,000 plus died in the blast or the days that followed, 140,000 by November, 200,000 by 1947, 250,000 dead by 1950. One’s survival depended on proximity to the blast and factors like the colour of one’s clothing, or whether someone suffered flash burns before he or she was exposed to fallout.

Schoolchildren and tourists from across Japan and from around the world make their way to Ground Zero

But all that comes later, at the museum where the Japanese penchant for documented accuracy includes pieces of granite and concrete with human shadows seared into the stone as their owners were vaporized. There are fragments of clothing, lunchboxes, eyeglasses and anything else left to identify 40,000 schoolchildren brought in to the city core to help authorities clear fire lanes for an expected American incendiary attack. There is also a dispassionate layperson’s description of the differences between the U-235 device that incinerated Hiroshima and the plutonium bomb that levelled Nagasaki days later to force Japan’s capitulation and end WWII.

I thought I was prepared for the sight of Ground Zero. I wasn’t. You walk around a bustling city corner. Directly in front of you is the famous skeleton of the domed tower, the ruins of the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall. I realize now it was the juxtaposition of the ruins with the throb of life all around it, but for minutes I stood paralyzed by the blast of emotions.

The remains of tens of thousands of Hiroshima’s unidentified atomic bomb victims lie under this dome of bare soil.

Hiroshima is built on a river delta. Across one of the branches from the memorial is an eternal flame and cenotaph under which are listed the names of every known victim. On the far side of the plaza is a dome of bare earth, perhaps 10 metres in diameter. Under it lie entombed the ashes and remains of thousands who were never positively identified. A group of elementary students bow to the cenotaph while another class waits  its turn. They come from all over Japan and they never stop coming.

Schoolchildren from across the country pay their respects to the dead at the cenotaph and eternal flame.

At the far end of the exhibits is the Visitor’s Hall containing U.S. President Barack Obama’s hand-written message and the paper cranes he made. “We have known the agony of war. Let us now find the courage, together, to spread peace and pursue a world without nuclear weapons.” As of February 2017, the Mayors for Peace initiative has 7,219 member cities in 162 countries and regions. Their goal: a worldwide ban on nuclear weapons by 2020. Whether you’re a believer or not, pray.

The Children’s Peace Monument in memory of Sadako Sasaki, who was two when the bomb was dropped. When she was 11 she developed leukemia and became convinced that she would live if she folded 1,000 paper cranes, the Japanese symbol of longevity and happiness.  She died before completing her task but her story motivated her classmates to continue. The kiosks are filled with origami cranes from across Japan and around the world and they keep coming.

Publicly, anyway, the Japanese tend to rationalize America’s use of nuclear weapons to end a war their leaders were ready to fight to the death. Their own governments stop short of acknowledging the atrocities committed by Japan’s Imperial Army in unprovoked attacks on China and the brutal occupation of its southeast Asian neighbours. On the other hand, millions of Americans still believe the perfidy of Pearl Harbor and the loss of American blood in battles across the Pacific justified taking the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians whose only connection with the war effort was being told to support it or else. Weeks later, I’m still incapable of rationalizing anything connected with Hiroshima. As at Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem, it’s impossible to walk through the evidence of human suffering and not be overwhelmed by the horror and grief. Alone, I hike up a washed-out garbage-strewn forest trail to a Buddhist stupa overlooking a cliffside cemetery and stand dazed overlooking the city. I can’t remember the hotel where we spend the night, but I couldn’t sleep.

Saturday, March 4: We have to leave Hiroshima. We’ve booked nothing. So we pick Matsumoto, a small city in the middle of the Japanese Alps. It means a day spent travelling, first taking the Sakura 580 on the Shinkansen line to Shin-Kobe, the narrow-gauge Hikari to Nagoya and finally the Shinano 11 to Matsumoto. We grab a couple of steamed pork dumplings and donuts at a platform kiosk in Nagoya before heading into the hills, through tunnels and bamboo forests being harvested for construction scaffolding, past farm villages clad in solar arrays.

Our spirits lift the moment we step off the train. The movements of Japanese trains are punctuated with ringtones. You’ll hear snatches of Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven along with lesser composers. You may catch a synthesized Gershwin riff or a Beatles refrain. But this was the first time we’d heard anybody welcome a train’s arrival. As we pull into the station, a woman’s voice with a smile in it sings out “Matsu-mo-toe.” We can’t help smiling back.

We check into the new Hotel Richmond, where we are to spend three of our last four nights in Japan. Matsumoto is an old city. Although it has been extensively rebuilt over the centuries, the Black Castle, built in 1598, is one of just five Japanese wooden castles of original construction. The castle charges admission, but that includes an English-speaking guide who provides a blood-curdling history lesson on how the Portuguese taught the Japanese to use early firearms against one another.

Matsumoto’s Black Castle has witnessed 500 years of warlords, shoguns and samurai and has the weapons and illustrated accounts to prove it.

We stop at a sweet potato shop for a bag of fries and strike up a conversation with the Akiyama family – Masahiko, Chisato and their son Masaki. Masahiko, the production engineer for a medical equipment manufacturer, lived in the U.S. and visited Niagara Falls, while Chisato teaches English in a school and Masaki is getting a good basic grounding. The more we walk and talk, the more we get to like this young family. We trade business cards, which in Japan is a significant gesture, and talk about getting together before we leave. Then I head to a serious drinker’s bar where I sample shodju, a distilled liquor known for its anaesthetic qualities. They weren’t lying.

Mount Norikura Ski Centre, where spring skiing will continue long after the cherry blossoms are gone in Tokyo.

Sunday, March 4: Highland Express (it’s neither) to the delightfully named hamlet of Shin-Shin-Shima, then by bus to the foot of Mt. Norikura, one of the country’s most popular ski centres. Spring skiing is at its peak and here we are without any clothing or equipment. So we ask the Kanko Centre receptionist where the snowshoe trails begin. She looks down at our hiking boots. Her gestures suggest the snow is up to our knees. Hey, no harm in trying, right? Hiking map in hand, we set out on the main road into Norikura Park. The snow is well-travelled and hard underfoot. Plenty of snowshoe tracks and the recent passage of an experienced freestyle cross-country skier make us feel cocky.

Reminds us of the Aerobic Corridor

The main track is just like a wide, rolling Laurentian foothills valley, with birch and cedar groves and names like Whistling Track, because the downhill supposedly makes you feel like whistling. Except that we aren’t whistling. By now, the heat of the high-altitude spring sun had softened the snowpack sufficiently that we sink every dozen steps. We press on for a couple of kilometres just to say we have (and to catch a tan) before stopping for a picnic lunch at a summer campsite. We beetle our way back to the reception centre just in time to catch the Shin-Shin bus.

Back in Matsumoto, we realize we’ve made a one-day mistake in our plans, so we rejig our hotel and train reservations to allow for an overnight in Nagano, host city of the 1998 Winter Olympics, where we hope to see snow monkeys. After considerable deliberation we sup at the Everest, a Nepali restaurant for a $13.50 set menu of chicken curry, butter naan and a tray of other excellent samplings washed down with Nepalese Everest beer. I suspect business is slow; everyone from the owner on down is glad to see us.

Monday, March 6: Up before dawn to catch the Shinano to Nagano. Over breakfast we catch up on news from back home, dominated by stories of Trump stomping around in his bathrobe, supervising the wrapping of White House phones in aluminum foil and raving about Obama bugging the White House. It’s the perfect mindset with which to visit a valleyful of monkeys.

The monkeys busily check one another for lice as photographers go bananas.

They’re not cheap, these snow monkeys. A one-day pass is $35 per adult. That is until we learn this includes a 90-minute bus ride from the train station to the mountains and back and admission to the park filled with the hot springs where the monkeys spend the cold months. The entire back page of the pass is filled with terms, conditions, guidelines and disclaimers. Rest rooms are few and far between. No handicapped access, absolutely no swimming or bathing with the monkeys (Masahito told us he knew someone who had tried it and the monkeys beat the crap out of him). Don’t let kids wander. Monkey behaviour is unpredictable and they may have decided against a day at the pool. Watch out for other wild animals, poisonous plants and venomous snakes. It can snow a lot and get really cold and chilly. The path in and out is long, muddy and slippery. Crampons are available.

The place is jammed, both with monkeys and their human cousins. The monkeys hang out in the hot pool or nearby, picking lice off each other and eating them with enjoyment. The visitors get as close as they can with some of the most expensive camera equipment available, snapping thousands of photos. The monkeys totally, utterly ignore the humans except for one hopeful oldster hanging out on the bridge to the site, begging. It’s the best therapy for Trump poisoning.

Tuesday, March 7: We head back to Matsumoto via Nagoya, both bone-weary and drained from another cold day in the mountains. In the flurry to get off the train in Matsumoto, I leave my trusty canvas shoulder bag on the seat in front of us as I wrestle both carry-ons off the overhead rack. I always carry my passport, JR Pass, current ticket and wallet on my person but my asthma and heart meds are in the bag. So is my writer’s notebook.

We’re directed to JR’s Lost and Found, the last door in a dusty corridor where it appears that employees who have seriously screwed up are left to die of boredom. The office looks like a throwback to a ‘50s cop film with old phones, old desks and old guys with pocket protectors and vacuous expressions going through the motions as they wait for 6 p.m. and a few wets. None speaks English. Clearly, this won’t work. Brushcut, the guy with the unfortunate task of taking our complaint, finally picks up the phone to call a JR supervisor who speaks good English.

The train that dropped us in Matsumoto is a double-ender now heading back to Nagoya, then back to Matsumoto, she explains. But it wasn’t that simple even if the train crew finds my bag. Although these were all JR trains, they’re operated by partners, so each has its own lost-and-found protocol and the Nagoya lost and found department head would most likely not agree to place the bag back on the train because he would become responsible for it and the boys in Matsumoto would not likely take responsibility for it.

Another phone rings as she’s explaining all this. Combover, the other guy, answers, listens and put it down, then relays the message to Brushcut who relays it to the woman on the phone, which he then hands back to me. “They found your bag,” she says.

“When does the train leave Nagoya?”

“Five o’clock. But there’s a later train to Nagoya so you can go there and pick it up.”

“Look, I understand nobody wants to be responsible for this but I’m flying back to Canada tomorrow and I don’t like travelling without meds. I’m not taking another train to Nagoya and back to pick it up when your people can put it on the train. I’ll buy a seat if that’s what it takes.”

In the midst of this, Louise walks out before she loses her shit. I recognize my situation is hopeless but there’s that devil in me that wants to see if I can make someone snap.

“You understand…nobody is willing to take responsibility for your bag,” says Miss Helpful. “Perhaps you have someone who could send it to you in Canada…”

“So let me understand this. None of your three employees in this room will lift a finger to help me because it means they would be responsible and might have to stay after hours. Is that official JR policy?”

“I…I can’t answer that.”

“Did you even ask them?”


“Did they offer their colleague in Nagoya that option?”


By now it’s too late. The train has left Nagoya for Matsumoto. Brushcut walks away, leaving me to Combover, who pulls out an IPad and finds the Google translate voice-to-message-to-voice app. He’s offering me to forward my bag from Nagoya to Matsumoto. Whoever picks it up will have to pay the cost.

I tell him via Google Lost in Translation I might have a name of someone but I would have to check with him first before imposing. My concern is JR will go after him for the cost of everything, including the time of the lost-and-found clowns and the interpreter.

He sighs and writes his name in Japanese, along with a phone number. “He call me, okay?”

I thank him and bow. Celebrate the little victories, like a break with protocol.

I’ve saved the best of our trip to Japan for last. While in Nagano, we receive an email from Masahito and Chisato inviting us to dinner our last evening in Matsumoto. Chisato and Masaki picked us up outside our hotel and whisks us through Matsumoto’s busy suburbs to their tidy home. We drink tea and talk on floor cushions around the heated table, one of the best inventions I’ve seen when it’s below freezing outside.

Supper with the Akiyama family: Masaki serves simmered watercress as Chisato looks up a translation while Masahito enjoys the moment.

Masaki, leads his class in math-obsessed Japan. He shows us how he uses an abacus to compute. So we challenge him to what a typical Grade 3 student in Canada would be learning. He looks confused, then reaches for his exercise book to show us what he has to master. It’s filled with multiplication and division problems involving 10-digit numbers and multiple decimal points. He did them in after-school and checked to ensure they were correct. They aren’t permitted calculators, not even in advanced math. No wonder he’s confused. I feel ashamed at what we’ve visited on our children. I would not be surprised if the Japanese government sees danger in teaching this nation’s youth English so they can seek their fortunes in a world they can excel in.

It’s a delightful supper of thin-sliced yellowtail and fresh watercress fast-cooked in a boiling nori-flavoured broth, then dipped in a variety of spicy sauces. The centrepiece is surrounded by delectable homemade dishes. Chisato pours Louise a glass of homemade yellow plum brandy while Masahito shows me how to pour a friend a glass of Asahi pilsener, then allow the friend to return the favour. We pour our own from there and dawdle over dessert.

Masaki, math whiz and class comedian.

Then it’s talent time. Masaki plucks out “Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head” on his new ukulele while we sing along. Then it’s his father’s turn, sharing “Country Road” on his guitar. Chisato uncovers the piano and plays a beautiful minuet I’ve never heard. By 8:30, it’s everybody’s bedtime and we begin the goodbyes.

There’s one more thing and I regret asking it. We tell them the story of the bag. Never mind the meds or the bag, but I would like to recover my notebook and my Bhutanese medicine pouch. Is there any way that you could send them to us? On the table I place what it would cost in yen to send something of that size and weight to Canada. Their only reaction? Trying to hand me back my money. I hand Masa the piece of paper with the name and telephone number of the JR guy.

Since our arrival, they’ve taken the time to update us on the bag’s journey, beginning with its arrival from JR. Masa tried to send me the medications but I told him it might cause more trouble than good. A week later, I got the Japanese equivalent of an ExpressPost envelope with my notebook in it.

In the end, it’s not the country you visit. It’s the people. Thank you, folks, for a wonderful visit.

Carp and red hat.JPG
Carp in a temple pool in Kyoto ponder the appearance of a new species in their midst.

One thought on “Two weeks in Japan

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s