05.21.2009 - 06.11.2009
View A Rough Outline of our Trip on daveliz's travel map.
After Tokyo we traveled around Japan by train for three weeks starting in Hiroshima and working our way back up to Tokyo. The train system in Japan is incredible. It covers most of the country, big cities and small. The bullet trains are so fast (more than 300 km/h) anything nearby is a blur as you go by, but it's still a great way to see the countryside.
The train system is a metaphor for Japanese culture. It moves lightning fast, is impeccably prompt, is user friendly, and is so smooth there is a peaceful zen about it. Throughout the country we heard only one taxi honk the horn and every car stopped for people at crosswalks. No one littered and not one train or bus ran late! If we looked lost, we were always helped by a passerby.
Our only minor complaint was from our train seat. Aside from some small mountain villages, Japanese cities are not very picturesque or inviting. Most skylines are full of buildings built in drab concrete. However, the true charm of each city is waiting in the little streets and back alleys.
Hiroshima is now a beautiful city in Japan, but will always be remembered as the site where the world entered the nuclear age. It fell victim to the first atomic bomb dropped in 1945, an attempt by the United States to force Japan to surrender in World War II.
The city's peace park was an incredibly emotional place. It was common to see visitors with tears. What I found the most powerful was how the people of Hiroshima, many of whom were alive when the A-bomb devastated the city, have turned the horrific experience into a quest for peace, rather than anger.
Hiroshima is another city that Elizabeth and I feel world leaders should be required to visit (especially from North Korea!) A little disturbing is that the United States didn't send a politician to pay formal respects at the site until recently. While other countries sent Prime Ministers and Presidents, the US, under President Bush, sent Nancy Pelosi.
In relatively neutral terms, the museum in the park explains why the bomb was developed and used. I was taught in High School that the bomb was dropped justifiably to end the war quickly, without risking our troops with an invasion, so this museum was a learning experience.
The Japanese take responsibility for their actions in the war, but feel the atomic bomb was not the right tool to end the war. They feel the US was eager to drop the bomb to establish its super power status and to limit Soviet influence.
Japan, who was already weakened, believes a surrender could have been achieved if the US gave a clear warning that a bomb of great magnitude would be dropped, or if the Potsdam Declaration was modified to assure them the emperor system would be maintained after the surrender. The emperor system still exists today.
Miyajima is a quaint island a short ferry ride from Hiroshima. It is famous for Buddhist temples and a local dessert called Momiji Manju, a pancake filled with sweet red beans.
SHIKOKU ISLAND: DOGO, UWAJIMA, KOCHI, OBOKE
Then we zoomed from Hiroshima to the mountainous island of Shikoku, one of Japan's biggest islands, on the Shinkasen train.
Elizabeth and I in Oboke with the vine bridge in the distance.
KYOTO (on Honshu Island)
Kyoto is a wonderful city with many temples, gardens, and streets lined with Machiya (traditional wooden townhouse) storefronts selling handicrafts and food. The city has a comfortable feel that we enjoyed immensely, especially with many small alleyways and off the road paths.
Kyoto is also known for having an active Geisha culture, which is a strange concept at first. Geisha are basically female socialites and entertainers dressed in traditional kimonos and white makeup who are hired to keep business men company with classical music or dance. At night we would see Geisha wandering around town from one appointment to the next.
MORE HONSHU ISLAND: HIMEJI, KOBE, KANAZAWA
From Kyoto we took a few day trips to Himeji to see the Himeji Castle, Kobe for a nice Kobe beef meal, and to Kanazawa to see one of the nicest gardens in Japan.
We stopped in Hakone, a town south of Mt. Fuji, to visit an amazing open air museum featuring many sculptures and a Picasso pavilion. We then did some hiking and biking around Mt. Fuji in the town of Kawaguchiko where the altitude is around 3000 feet. Mt. Fuji is 12,388 ft high and was covered with snow, making for spectacular views. Mt. Fuji itself was closed for hiking when we were there.
Before returning to Tokyo we decided to have lunch at an Izakaya (Japanese tavern) north of Tokyo known for it's special wait staff, highly trained monkeys who serve beer. As with most of our activities on our trip, we had to walk a few miles to reach the tavern from the train station. We arrived only to learn that it was closed on Tuesdays. As we sulked and began our trek back to the train station we ran into the tavern owners carrying a few baby monkeys in for training. They didn't speak any English, but after some charades, they invited us in for a drink and were incredibly kind. We ended up getting our own monkey show and had an amazing time!
Enjoy this video of our private monkey show! YouTube material?
We've met up with my mom and cousins Pat and Ellen in Beijing and are enjoying exploring China from the Great Wall to Hong Kong. It's a much different culture than Japan! More on that soon.