Week 2 started in Takayama, where we stayed 3 nights at the Zenko-ji Temple, enjoying morning markets along the river, centuries-old homes converted to shops and cafes, and terrific soba (buckwheat) noodles, a regional specialty.
We toured the ancient shogun's headquarters, and day-tripped up into the mountains to Shirakawago, a village of traditional thatch-roofed farmhouses interspersed with rice paddies. The tunnels through the mountains were a feat – how is it that Japan can build car tunnels dozens of miles long while Seattle breaks and loses boring machines for its basic sewage lines?... perhaps we need to consider outsourcing the viaduct replacement to Japan. ;-)
Finally slowing the pace a little was very nice. We couldn't resist all the crafts and goodies in the morning markets and picked up a few gifts and keepsakes before moving on....
The train through the foothills and rice valleys took us to Nagoya – a major transit hub and urban center mid-way between Tokyo and Kyoto. Id never heard of Nagoya before arriving in Japan, but it proved to be an impressive city, with the ultra-modern architecture Japan is famous for, and skyscraper malls with restaurants, bars and bowling alleys reaching dozens of floors above the street. Our only reason for stopping in Nagoya was to indulge Colin's request for spending a night in a Manga Kissa – a 24-hour internet/manga comic book cafe, with individual cubicles (choice of couch or futon), unlimited free soft drinks, cheap vending machine meals, and even showers. They are intended to be used to pass the night if you miss your last train out (trains stop running around midnight), but have become the budget inn of choice for the hard-core backpacker set.
The manga kissa was on the basement level of a 6 story mall, but when we finally arrived – after a very fun night out at an izakaya (informal bar/food joint) – we learned that children need to be out by 11 p.m. Oh, was Colin pissed!! His hopes for an all-nighter of internet gaming and manga comics books dashed in an instant! The rest of the night was a bust, as we searched in the rain for a cheap hotel to get us through 'till our morning train to Kyoto. An emergency Skype call to Tom for a bedtime story about Shoguns and warriors somewhat saved the day/night, but it wasn't quite the same...
As Japanese cities go, my favorite yet! Kyoto is Japan's cultural capital, and we had the benefit of staying at a private home, owned by couchsurfing host extraordinaire Shoji Ishizu. Shoji lives a short distance away, but keeps this house just for couchsurfers – sometimes 8-10 at once. During our stay, we just shared the house with one other couple – New Yorkers teaching English in Korea – or had it to ourselves. Shoji himself was amazing – a farmer by day, he volunteers as both a suicide hotline counselor and mentor for children/teens released from juvenile detention.
We spent our days touring palaces, wandering the open air markets and small streets of the geiko (geisha) district or strolling along the river, and of course, making the requisite daily visit to the International Manga Museum. :-)
We were also there for the full moon – the Harvest Moon (most important of the year) - and joined several hundred people at the Harvest Moon Festival at a shrine in the north of the city – amazing.
We delayed our departure from Kyoto for a day, but tore ourselves away to get in a visit to nearby Nara – home of an immense temple/shrine complex and more than a dozen UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The temple grounds in Nara are also home to a herd of 1200 deer, believed to be messengers of the gods in pre-Buddist times, and now designated as a Japanese National Treasure.
They are beyond tame.... some are very docile and friendly and will eat out of your hands, while others (the males especially) behave like mobsters – if they've got you in their sights, watch out! Colin got head-butted by one and nipped by another demanding payment (deer biscuits are on sale at every shrine).
Once again, we stayed a night longer than planned, in order to have time to visit the main temple of Toji-ji to view the 40-foot high buddha and try to crawl through the hole the size of the Buddha's nostril at the base of one of the support beams. If you can fit through, you are guaranteed enlightenment - Colin made it; I wasn't about to try (my hips are MUCH wider than your average Japanese woman). ;-)
We arrived in Hiroshima under threat of a typhoon. After settling into a guest room at the World Friendship Center – a local non-profit that runs peace and disarmament programs internationally – we headed out to tour the Peace Park in hopes of seeing the highlights before the storm arrived.
Despite mounting winds and dark gray clouds, the rains held off until after we'd seen most of the park, including the Peace Monument and Peace Flame (intended to burn until the last nuclear weapon on earth is eliminated), the Children's International Peace Monument (inspired by Sadako Sasaki, a young girl diagnosed with leukemia after the bomb, who strove to fold 1,000 paper cranes in hopes of averting her own death, but died before she could complete them – every year, thousands of paper cranes folded by children around the world are brought to the monument), the Peace Mound, where the ashes of unidentified cremated victims of the bombing are buried, the A-bomb Dome – the preserved ruins of the prefecture administration building nearly at ground zero – and dozens of other statues and memorials to the many, many groups of people who perished at Hiroshima – teachers, students, conscripted laborers, etc., etc. That evening, Colin set out to learn how to fold paper cranes, and the next day we delivered a group of paper cranes of our own to the children's monument after visiting the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.
Next stop: Fukuoka.... & Tom!