In the second week of May 2017 our small group of habitual fellow travellers Craig and Sonia; Wendy and I; took a package introductory tour: Discover Japan 2017 visiting: Narita; Tokyo; Yokohama; Atami; Toyohashi; Kyoto; and Osaka.
As I have remarked several times elsewhere, the down-side of organised tours is that one is first labelled and then shipped about like a package - thus the term 'package tours'. The up-side is that tours are largely hassle free; the cost is fully defined; everything is prearranged, including visits to the acknowledged 'tourist highlights' and on days when they are actually open; there is no hiring cars or driving and worrying about hiring cabs or catching trains is minimised, except at 'free times', when out and about alone. One simply goes with the flow and can even 'catch a nap' on the bus.
Our first overnight stay in Japan was at Narita. The main airport servicing Tokyo is here but its 60 kilometres away, over an hour by bus. So we had a free afternoon as our group assembled. Options for dinner were the hotel (boring) or to catch the shuttle-bus to a shopping and eating district (Aeon). I did my usual trick of getting us off the bus too soon - at the railway station - so we had our first experience of a surprisingly decrepit Japanese black taxi cab - not impressive. Where was Uber when we needed it? The shoppers went off and Craig and I found a bar. Later we all ate a pleasant meal in a local restaurant, more Chinese than local.
That afternoon, at the Excel Tokyo Hotel in Narita, we had our fist experience of the Japanese enthusiasm for 'all singing all dancing' toilets. We soon discovered, at the shopping mall, that even those in public places are high-tech, with various function buttons on the wall. Those in hotel bathrooms are even higher-tech with additional functionality, like heated seats; hot and cold running sprays; and air blowers. While sitting in contemplation I was reminded of the words of the Limerick about the engineer from Racine who invented a similar machine: 'concave or convex it suits either sex, with attachments for those in-between'.
Throughout the trip, breakfasts were included as were several lunches and dinners. So after an early breakfast we were bussed off to Tokyo. This was our first experience of a Japanese expressway and we agreed that it was not unlike travelling on a highway in Australia or the UK, as the Japanese drive on the correct side of the road and there are lots of Japanese cars on the road. Modern highway engineering is much the same the world over.
A typical Japanese Highway
The most remarkable difference in Japan is a class of smaller cars and little vans that have different numberplates and seem to be second class citizens, frequently overtaken. We learned that these pay lower registration fees due to smaller more efficient engines.
First stop in Tokyo was to drop off our bags at the hotel and to my surprise the bus was unable to approach the hotel, due to the time of day, so we had to walk a couple of blocks with our luggage. Just as well I was pretty well recovered from my recent open-heart surgery. Then it was off to explore Tokyo.
I'm sure there's a lot more to see in Tokyo than one can see in a day and a bit. It's a big place. First we we stopped off briefly at the Imperial Palace, on the site of the old Edo Castle that no longer exists.
It no longer exists because early in March 1945 the single most destructive bombing raid in human history annihilated 16 square miles in central Tokyo in a fire-storm. Estimates vary but the death toll exceeded 80,000. US firebombing raids continued on the remainder of the city and on the night of 25 May, most structures of the old Imperial Palace (Edo Castle) were destroyed in a raid rendering it henceforth uninflammable. So in a special mission on July 29, what remained of the Palace was targeted with 2000-pound bombs, in a presumed effort to kill Emperor Hirohito. This should stand as a warning to those wanting to do this to Kim Jong-un, because, like a dozen CIA attempts to kill Fidel Castro, it was obviously to no avail. Thus it was on this same site, in a bomb-proof underground bunker, known as 'His Majesty's Library', that the Emperor met with his Privy Council, to consider the the US dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the 6th and 9th of August. It was here that they decided to surrender. The Emperor's intention to surrender leaked and led to an attempted coup by officers who wanted to fight on. They unsuccessfully attacked the Palace intending to depose Hirohito but were repulsed by loyal defenders. Had those ill-advised assassin bombs succeeded the war may have continued for months more.
We learned nothing of this from our guide. Throughout the trip nobody within my hearing mentioned the war. Although Craig and I did privately discuss how much of the present city had been built after the fire bombings. It was like that Faulty Towers episode when Germans came to stay in Torquay: "...and what ever you do - don't mention the War". Thinking back, this was extraordinary in a busload of Australians of a certain age. Politeness all round. Fukushima seemed to be another topic that was off the agenda until the very last day. No discussing possible radiation hazards and scaring the tourists.
Casual tourists to the Imperial Palace can only gaze in from the gravel road outside, at a few remaining remnants of the old palace and a glimpse of the grounds across the moat. The gravel is a traditional Samurai defence, designed to give an audible warning of ninja attack. The main buildings appeared to be very utilitarian 1950's style structures with little or no tourism potential. But as we stood there a ripple of excitement ran through the assembled tourists. Unspecified members of the royal family had returned in a pair of black horse drawn coaches, accompanied by a handful of horsemen, perhaps household cavalry; crunching their way across the gravel; followed by a black security car.
At the Imperial Palace - security gravel
A bus tour around the city to lunch on the Bay and to visit the Ginza shopping precinct gave us a further on-the-ground impression. Then to see more of the city we ascended to the lookout levels of the Tokyo Tower, which provides panoramic views in every direction, including Mt Fuji, when the air is clear, which it wasn't.
Later we spent some time at the Asakusa Kannon (Sensoji) Temple, originally built in the 7th century but burnt down and rebuilt since.
Like the Taiwanese, the Japanese like to have a bet each way on religion and Shinto shrines are typically found adjacent to Buddhist temples or is it vice versa. With fortunes told, soothsaying and praying for a change of fortune also plays a big part. The future thus forecast or prayed for is apparently unchanged by the expectations and changed behaviour engendered by these fortune tellings; or are they reliable because they're self-fulfilling? In one case useless and in the other insidious. Thus the Jewish and Christian Bible warns against soothsayers and suggests stoning them to death. But the gravel here was too small.
In the vicinity there is another shrine, to consumerism, in the form of a long shopping street selling stuff on the way to the tip, that proved an irresistible and, as it turned out, unnavigable magnet to certain members of our party.
Asakusa Kannon (Sensoji) Temple and surrounds
The Sunshine Prince Hotel Tokyo was within walking distance of the Nakamisen shopping street - and the Disney shop - essential Wendy visiting for grandchild gifts.
Some in our tour eschewed shopping and continued on to the area where sometimes geisha (female courtesans) can be seen in traditional garb. They came back very excited to have caught a glimpse of a hooker, well no, they are actually a very sophisticated and talented woman, as we learned from one and all.
I was reminded of driving my, then six year old daughter, home one evening along William Street when, previously contemplative Emily, remarked: "little ladies of the night," quoting from Les Misérables. She was not mistaken, except the Sydney geisha, just as popular with Japanese businessmen, wear shorter skirts. My enthusiasm for eulogising Japanese men's exotic sexual proclivities masquerading as high culture, had also been somewhat dampened by the 'comfort women' controversy that was in the news during our recent trip to Korea (read more...).
What with shopping and walking a long way already, coffee seemed a better idea. So we had to be content with a kimono fashion show later in the trip, featuring models. The real geisha being otherwise engaged with their wealthy businessmen benefactors.
As it happened our guide on the bus was Chinese who has lived with her partner in Japan for many years and is fully integrated. Nevertheless her commentary on Japanese family life was amusingly feminist. She had fun representing a typical Japanese marriage as one in which the woman is little more than a painted slave to her husband's illusions: getting up early each morning to put on her makeup before he sees the real woman beneath the mask, then biding her time until the late evening, when she again does a paint touch-up before her man comes home after a night 'on the town' with his colleagues, essential to securing his position in the corporate hierarchy. During his long absences she socialises with the other corporate wives, comparing the relative brilliance of their children and homes and brags of his long hours at work, basking in his reflected glory or being shamed by the lack thereof. Thus when a husband eventually retires the wife typically wonders who this stranger is and promptly files for divorce. And this accounts for the very high rate of mature age divorce in Japan. She had the bus in stiches.
I privately asked her about the apocryphal antipathy of the Japanese towards the Chinese and she denied any personal experience of this. On the other hand when in China one can't help noticing the number of TV programmes remembering the war revisiting the Japanese and their atrocities like the 'Rape of Nanking' and showing Japanese officers cutting off Chinese heads for practice and 'blooding' their samurai swords. One such documentary was very interesting, describing how the Chinese dismantled entire factories and fired the buildings ahead of the Japanese advance. I don't think there is an hour in the day on Chinese TV when the Chinese can't be seen victorious or the Japanese vicious. Even in Hong Kong, in the naval museum, the Japanese are depicted as a vicious enemy during the last war and earlier, during the initial Chinese trade with Europe, as troublesome pirates, known as 'Sea Dwarves'.
Today the most notable thing about the Japanese people is how solicitous and polite they are and how apparently happy people are, with many smiling Japanese faces everywhere one goes. There are also lots of Chinese tourists who behave like Chinese tourists.
The following day the tour organisers had promised a ride on a Shinkansen (bullet train) to Yokohama. I was looking forward to this. I'd see a partial train or mock-up in various museums, most recently in the Rail Museum in York in England. Here was the real thing. But somehow it was an anti-climax.
Shinkansen - bullet train
It's famously capable of 300km/hr but nowadays lots of trains we've been on in both Europe and China approach this speed and on this occasion we were only going two stops, at nowhere near top speed. As if to rub that in, the bus dropped us off at the station and then the same bus, with our luggage and other left possessions on board, met us at Yokohama station. The driver had his feet up waiting for us. To be fair, there was a lot of messing about before the train departed. I, for one, kept our guide on her toes when I and one other got seduced into briefly following 'Group A' who were on their way to an earlier train (we were Group B). But despite some time consuming and obviously futile searching of toilets we still didn't miss our famously punctual train.
It appears that one of the main tourist attractions in Yokohama is the Cupnoodles (Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen) Museum that celebrates the invention of this particularly synthetic fast snack beloved by those who want something high in carbohydrates and quick to eat as when skiing and those who are lazy and/or have no concern for their children's health. Japan is a great place to have invented a fastfood. If you aren't using a vending machine simply to order a meal in a food hall you can get almost any snack or drink you can think of directly from a vending machine. In some places these form vast walls of choice - from not too bad to atrocious.
Back in 1958 Japan was still reeling from its defeat in World War Two. There was a shortage of rice, the traditional staple, but plenty of wheat had been provided as foreign aid from places like Australia and the US. Momofuku Ando started experimenting with wheat based, ramen, noodles in his back shed. He found that deep frying them made them acceptable to the Japanese pallet and when dried the noodles could be restored by boiling. His ramen noodle business was born. Later, on a trip to America he saw instant (freeze dried) soup in a paper cup and realised that if extruded finely enough and tangled into a nest to provide enough space around them his already cooked noodles could be made instantly edible, just by adding hot or even lukewarm water. So why not combine a nest of them with instant soup to create a meal in a cup. The museum goes to some lengths to explain that the inverted method of packing them into the cup was his next great invention. Eureka! - or whatever that is in Japanese. Thus the Cupnoodles Museum takes us on this journey of hardship; discovery and innovation. And you can even make your own cup-a-noodles in the workshop. In the process, Ando San is raised to the status of a demigod, as are the founders of most large corporations in Japan.
I wasn't a great fan but then what else is there to do in Yokohama?
Making your own at the Cupnoodles Museum and ubiquitous vending machines
Well actually, Yokohama is interesting historically, so there must be quite a bit more to it than noodles and cherry blossoms.
During the 17th century there were persistent attempts by the Spanish and Portuguese missionaries to convert the Japanese to Christianity. The missionaries' message proved to be at odds with their countrymen's tendency to enslave or murder local people and to engage in unscrupulous trading practices. This apparent contradiction caused the Japanese distress and they resolved to limit trade access to Dutch and Chinese ships issued with special charters. During this period of isolation, that lasted for almost two centuries, Japan was under the control of the Tokugawa Shogunate, a series of hereditary warlords who held the Emperor as a figurehead providing an imprimatur to their authority, asserting that he was not of the people but descended from God. A sort of ethereal Pope descended from Jesus.
Politically it was as if King John's problems with his earls had been resolved by them locking him up and ruling in his name, instead of forcing him to sign the Magna Carta. Thus, unlike England, Japan remained an intensely feudal society until relatively modern times, with the warrior class or Samurai at the top of the class structure, enforcing the Shogunate, and ensuring that Japan remained largely closed to foreigners. A bit like North Korea today?
Meanwhile, in the 'New World', the United States had been getting into its stride and Japan seemed to offer rich pickings not yet worked over by the Europeans. So in 1853, under the doctrine of 'Manifest Destiny', American commodore Matthew Perry took a modern navel squadron into Tokyo harbour. He was more than a match for their antiquated technology yet was initially unsuccessful. But after a second visit, with an even greater force, trade with the outside world was re-established. This is the background to Puccini's tragic opera Madama Butterfly, based on the short story Madame Butterfly by the American lawyer John Luther Long, first published in 1898. Appropriately, the story was remade as the musical: Miss Saigon (1989) after the Vietnam War.
Yokohama was one of the limited number of Japanese ports thus opened to American and British trade in 1859. The once strictly limited trade with China also blossomed, increasing the numbers of Chinese traders who settled in the city. Thus today Yokohama still has Japan's largest China Town.
The new trade soon became the catalyst for dynastic change. Just fourteen years after trade with the outside world began the Shogunate fell to forces backing the Emperor in the Meiji Restoration. With Japan 'under new management' came a determination to modernise. Technical ambassadors and engineering students were sent around the world to gather the most advanced technologies. European experts were hired as consultants. Japan rapidly adopted foreign methods and technology. Among these was the newly invented jacquard loom that allowed the mechanisation of traditional silk weaving; and modern warfare. Japanese officers trained with the British Navy and with the Prussian Army. France and Britain provided their first war ships.
In Europe and America, Japan became the fashion of the age. The upper classes loved Japanese designs in black lacquer and silks. In Britain, the Empire and the United States, Gilbert and Sullivan had a huge hit with the satirical operetta: The Mikado, that opened in 1885.
To a now outward looking Japan their giant neighbour, China, was of immediate military concern. A Prussian advisor, Major Klemens Meckel, identified the nearby Chinese tributary state of Korea as 'a dagger pointed at the heart of Japan'. Japan first opened Korea to trade and then fermented local unrest, resulting in military confrontation with the Chinese. Thus in August 1894 war broke out and in less than nine months Japan's mighty opponent, China, had ignominiously conceded defeat. Both Korea and Formosa (now called Taiwan) henceforth (until 1945) came under Japanese hegemony.
China's defeat in this First Sino-Japanese War was a major contributor to the fall of the Qing dynasty in the Xinhai (1911- year of the metal pig) Revolution and the rise to leadership of Sun Yat-sen - today revered in both mainland China and Taiwan (see more details elsewhere on this website).
A decade later Japan proposed a deal to acknowledge Russian sovereignty over Manchuria in return for Russia recognising complete Japanese hegemony over the Korean peninsula. Russia refused - who were these Asian upstarts? The resulting war resulted in Japan's comprehensive victory over a major European power. This included the Japanese destruction of the Russian Navy at the Battle of Tsushima in 1905, as a result of superior ships and tactics. The world was amazed and this unexpected defeat was a major contributor to the downfall of the Tsar and the Russian Revolutions. Japan soon joined the First World War on the victorious side, allied with the Americans and the British.
Already at the beginning of the century Japan was empire building. As I have remarked elsewhere their colonial buildings in both Taiwan and Korea closely resemble contemporary buildings built by the British in India and Burma. If the small island group off the coast of Europe could command the world's greatest Empire why not Japan? After all, it was they, not the Germans, who were the master race, led by a God Emperor. A worldwide empire was their 'manifest destiny' and they were about to prove it.
In 1931 the Kwantung Army of the newly hailed Empire of Japan invaded Manchuria, the buffer country to the north of Korea, bounded by both China and the Soviet Union (Russia). The new League of Nations condemned the invasion but proved powerless to stop it. The Japanese war flag became known worldwide as 'the rising sun'.
The present day Japanese Naval Ensign still resembles the War flag of the Imperial Japanese Army
with the sun moved a bit off-centre
In Germany, Hitler took careful note. Six years later Japan manufactured reasons to invade China. Full scale war broke out. Germany became an ally of Japan. Both the US and Russia gave support to the Chinese (to rival factions - see our visit to Taiwan on this website). And in 1940 the US and the British allies, already at war with Germany, imposed severe trade sanctions against Japan, said to be in an effort to stop Japanese air attacks on civilians in China. So in December 1941, in the midst of a bungled attempt to properly declare war, the Japanese attacked the American Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbour. The Pacific, 'American', war had begun.
Initially the Japanese succeeded brilliantly. Their superior aircraft and fighting techniques made short work of the British stronghold of Singapore and they promptly sank the two remaining British capital ships in the Pacific (Prince of Wales and Repulse). America was soon defeated in the Philippines, with McArthur pledging to return, and the Dutch were defeated in Indonesia. The Japanese began bombing Darwin, their aircraft and experienced pilots proved to be superior to to those defending the city, as well as overwhelmingly more numerous (31 to 242). Defenceless Darwin was evacuated. Perhaps the invasion of Australia had begun. Wendy's dad immediately volunteered to stop them and found himself machine gunning and grenading young Japanese men in New Britain (see A Digger's Tale on this website). At 92 he still recalls his young mates getting killed.
He recalls that the Ozzies kicked 'the Japs' out of New Guinea but he wonders if strategically it was worth the deaths of his mates, particularly in New Britain. The tide had begun to turn at sea, and on the Subcontinent, and soon Japanese defeats outnumbered their victories. Then suddenly there came a technology they had not yet acquired and mastered. Two of their cities disappeared in mushroom clouds. The war was over. Now it was time to rebuild.
Tapping the world for technology remained central to the Japanese corporate psyche. Companies soon learned to allow Japanese engineers into their research labs at their peril. As mentioned in more detail in my family's history on this website (read the final two paragraphs of the chapter here...), my father was an Anglo/Australian engineering consultant to two very large Japanese appliance manufacturers during the 1960's, at a time when Australia still exported more cars to Japan than they to us. The American, William Edwards Deming, the acknowledged father of the 'Toyota Method' of just-in-time manufacturing and quality assurance, also contributed directly to Japan's export-led growth in cars, steel, shipbuilding and electronics. In 1960, the Emperor of Japan bestowed on him the Second Order Medal of the Sacred Treasure. He didn't get a similar Presidential medal at home. It's not clear that the US economy can thank him to the same extent.
Japan's new constitution, drafted under the supervision of the allied victors states that: "Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes." but elsewhere the constitution permits military defence. Thus Japan has the eighth largest defence budget in the world, over twice that of Australia. In 2014 this self-defence power was reinterpreted to mean that Japan can now use military force to defend other allies. You can drive a tank through that - want to attack North Korea someone - anyone?
As a matter of interest the two largest military forces, by expenditure, are the US and China, with the US over twice as large. Russia is way behind, at less than Saudi Arabia. But then Russia still has ICBMs and nuclear warheads that may be aimed at the US; and vice versa. In 2011 the US and Russia signed the New START treaty limiting these to 700 ICBM's and 1,550 nuclear warheads each, down from four times that number during the 'Cold War'. Yet President Trump recently told President Putin that this is one of the 'bad deals negotiated by Obama' that he wants to scrap. So the number could easily jump back up to boost defence company profits on both sides. Such a smart man!
Recycling and servicing and modernising these weapons is a significant on going business yet since Hiroshima and Nagasaki no nuclear power has dared to use one in anger. But once this seal is broken, perhaps in North Korea, what then?
Cherry blossom time is the most popular season for tourists in Japan. We had hoped to catch the last of it but had to be content with the other blossoms in Yamashita Park along the foreshores of Yokohama harbour, where someone flying a drone over the few ships still moored there provided a non-floral interest for several in our group.
That afternoon we headed for Atami, according to our itinerary: "one of Japan’s most famous Onsen (Hot Spring) cities", and the New Fujiya Resort & Spa Hotel. On the way we got perhaps our best view of the so far elusive Mt Fuji in the far distance. We could see its snow-caped top but clouds obscured the lower slopes.
The top of Mount Fuji - through the mist - left lower centre of image
At the hotel we lined up, military style, to be issued with our kukata or onsen kimono, a robe worn over underwear, or not, and to receive wearing instructions - left over right for those identifying as men, right over left for those who identity as women. These are to facilitate using the onsen (hot baths) that are essentially hot pools for naked bathing. Upon disrobing one is expected to have a shower and be fresh and shiny before getting into the hot tub. The hotel had a number of these and I checked out a couple. But the idea of sharing a bath with a naked stranger of the same sex didn't appeal. Yet I quite liked the yukata. It was pleasantly breezy and made dining in the huge restaurant with its many self-service bars, featuring different Japanese dishes, a bit like a picnic on a beach. I made several return visits to the sushi, to accompany my warm saké, as the serving sizes of some higher value dishes required several plates to make a meal.
After breakfast I reluctantly surrendered my yukata and we boarded the bus for a trip to Owakudani a volcano at which sulphur is harvested and from which Mt Fuji can again be seen, if lucky. As I discovered as a schoolboy, hydrogen sulphide and sulphur dioxide soon overwhelm the sense of smell so that being poisoned by them becomes unnoticeable. This is one suggested solution to the Bogle-Chandler mystery (mentioned briefly elsewhere on this website).
Owakudani Volcano - Sulphurous emissions and Mt Fuji very faintly in the distance.
We had a nice break there, and descended via a scenic cable car, before heading off to taste green tea with partially H2S aestheticised taste buds.
The cable car through a pretty forest
Near the bottom of the cable (rope) way is the Hakone Peace Park, a nice place, with an emphasis on beauty and calm. Except for a couple of bells. We couldn't ring the big one but the small one got a good hammering by one and all. The park also features an Indian style stupa, housing the Buddha’s relics, that are defended by seven pairs of different styles of stone lions from seven allegedly Buddhist countries, some of which might be surprised to find themselves included and others distressed to be omitted. These are: India; Thailand; Korea; Malaysia; Hong Kong; Taiwan; and Japan.
Hakone Peace Park
A little known fact, that I discovered here, is that the game of 'tennis racquets' that is said to have developed from handball in England and France in Tudor times actually comes from Japan where it had been invented by a Buddhist monk. But I might have been still recovering from the sulphur. It was definitely time for tea.
The tea plantation was aptly named: Maki No Hara, because, unlike the fabled wombat, our guide was maky no hara to leaf. I'm still blaming the sulphur.
We were first able to experience the fields first hand. But definitely no picking the leaves - what me? Sulphur again. We learned that tea is a member of the camellia family, of which we have several in the garden at home, might be worth a try I thought, before being shown how the tea is processed after picking. In the ninth century tea was brought to Japan from China where the idea of drying camellia leaves to make a brew apparently originates. It was brought by monks and seems to have been associated with religious observances. Perhaps religion is the origin of the famous Japanese tea ceremony, although that might go back to William Street.
As prosperity and wages grew higher and higher after the war, Japanese tea production became more and more automated: first with hand held machines, resembling hedge trimmers, these giving way to mechanical harvesters. With mechanical harvesting the bushes became shaped by repeated trimming into long parallel tube-like rows of green. The tips are now protected from frost by numerous electric fans that circulate the air when the risk is high.
There was a small museum and it was quite interesting to see how these harvesters had evolved. Usually only the new tips are harvested but periodically the bushes are pruned back hard, to re-establish new growth. Processing consists of steaming and then drying and rolling to produce distinctively Japanese green tea. Some of this is still hand rolled by master tea makers and attracts very high prices. This method differs from Chinese green tea that is more often wok or machine roasted but some tea is produced specifically for Japan using these methods.
Hardly had our tour of the facility ended than we were shepherded into the very large gift and products shop. That was a surprise!
Maki No Hara tea plantation
Later I looked up tea production on Wikipedia. Indian and Ceylonese (Siri Lankan) and Chinese black teas, that most Australians are familiar with, are from the same plant but the leaves are oxidised or fermented, in a series of processes, before drying. The British, who found that tea drinking protected against cholera, dysentery and other water borne diseases, that turned out to be due to boiling the water, are largely responsible for the spread of tea growing and drinking to the Subcontinent and the colonies. They are also responsible for the popularity of the black tea style; and for the invention of the processes involved. The Americans for their part, when not dropping tea into Boston Harbour, are responsible for the popularity of tea bags. In the consumer society these turned out to be a good way of getting rid of once useless 'fannings' and dust that would ruin a good cup'a, when made properly, in a tea pot.
The Japanese like to put green tea in almost everything but as theirs is expensive - ranging up to very expensive indeed, most ground green tea for flavouring ice-cream, and so on, is imported - you guessed it - from China.
The evening was spent in Toyohashi a city that is an export hub for motor vehicles but seemed to have little else to recommend it. But the hotel was good with a panoramic view revealing the surprising presence of two large Christian churches. I was moved to look these up on Google and one turned out to be the Toyohashi Japanese Orthodox Church, St. Matthew the Evangelist.
St. Matthew the Evangelist - top center
There are over a dozen Christian churches in Toyohashi. So much for the Shogunate's attempts to outlaw the religion. Although, to the probable posthumous chagrin of the Pope's Iberian evangelists, should their unlikely belief in an afterlife be vindicated, most have turned out to be Protestant.
Toyohashi was one of those places that we needed to find our own place to eat. Most eateries in this largely industrial town looked a bit dismal but after a few approaches and retreats, usually due to a lack of a wine list, we eventually ended up at a very acceptable Korean style barbeque restaurant and felt very like being back in Korea.
The next morning it was off to Kyoto the former imperial capital of Japan. With all that history going back over three centuries we were to spend two days and nights here.
Our bus took us to the Kiyomizu Temple complex reached by walking through a street of shops. We learned that it was first built in the 7th century and rebuilt in 1633 during the Tokugawa Shogunate, also known as the Edo Period (1603-1867). It was surrounded by bamboo scaffolding and is under extensive restoration using traditional methods of interlocking timber and no nails. No doubt this renovation is just the last of many. So it's a bit like George Washington's axe that's had both its head and its handle replaced since he used it to chop down the cherry tree.
Asakusa Kannon (Sensoji) Temple and surrounds
Descending from the temple we went down the nearby street to the traditional village, which has undergone a similar process of continuous 'repair'. That is unless traditional Japanese building materials included ferro-concrete; pressed building board and large sheets of glass. Almost every 'cottage front' is now a retail establishment: "where souvenirs, Kyoto ceramics, Japanese Mochi and snacks can be purchased". Walt Disney's spirit is alive and well here. In the spirit of the place the tourist girls themselves pay to hire the kimonos and dress-up - providing free photo opportunities for other visitors. So there's no need to hire students to put on a cumbersome Mickey Mouse and Pluto costumes.
The traditional village
The next day, after breakfast at Hotel Mystays, it was off to Nijo Castle, the Kyoto residence of shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. It remained an imperial palace before being donated to the city in 1939 and opened up to the public as an historic site. Originally it was a large square fortification surrounded by a moat like many other palaces in Asia. Now most of the remaining area is taken up with the decorative gardens. The all timber palace building resembles a giant scout hall. It contains state rooms featuring some large murals and/or decorative silk wallpapers that we were forbidden to photograph, despite being told that they are reproductions.
Next came the afore mentioned traditional Kimono Show. Here they had an original jacquard loom, used for weaving elaborate patterns in silk, still in working condition. Fascinating.
I previously mentioned the Japanese enthusiasm for acquiring modern technology from the Meiji Restoration onwards. This display shows the Jacquard Loom based on a French design built by a craftsman in 1877. Interestingly the two men who acquired this early digital technology were sent to Lyon on the orders of the Kyoto Prefecture.
The working Jacquard Loom - to produce the elaborately patterned silk fabric and
below - elements of the 1877 machine showing the digital program on punched paper cards
After looking at some expensive silks in the factory-outlet it was off to the Golden Pavilion a gold leaf covered Zen temple in northern Kyoto.
Golden Pavilion; more tourists in kimono; Todaiji Temple; sacred deer; and the nearby Shinto shrine
The Todaiji Temple near Nara is said to feature the largest Buddha statue in the world. But I'm dubious. I'm sure we've seen a much bigger one in Myanmar - see our visit there. This may be the biggest bronze one. The large wooden roof support pillars replace whole tree trunks lost during the last fire. They are now composite with several beams strapped together to achieve the desired substantial diameter. This is so great that one of them has a small tunnel cut through so that, if slim and athletic enough, one can slide right through it. Some religious benefit is thus attained. It's quite good fun to watch. The surrounding park is home to over 1,000 holy deer, believed to be sacred messengers of the Shinto gods that inhabit the nearby Kasuga Taisha shrine. There may be something in this as they too like to eat paper, like the holy cows in India. Possibly this medium is the message.
Before leaving Japan we were to visit Osaka Castle at Dotobori. The fortifications that would discourage a conventional army even today were interesting. There was potential to get lost among the fortifications on the way out but we all made it back to the bus - eventually.
Osaka Castle and its defences - note the gun apertures - they had gunpowder when the the walls built in the 1620s
Later the bus dropped us at a shopping mall, that fortuitously for Craig and I, turned out to have a commodious coffee shop. We settled while the shoppers shopped.
Our final bus trip in Japan was to the Stargate Hotel at Kansai Airport. This turned out to be the best hotel of the entire trip and was a good place to end this very interesting introduction to Japan thanks to SNA Tours.
We then flew to Hong Kong for a few days where we parted company with Craig and Sonia and went into China for one of our favourite indulgences, the five star Hotel InterContinental Shenzhen for a couple of much more luxurious days and nights.
When we returned to OZ and people asked how we had enjoyed the experience I found that I had to reply that Japan was not nearly as 'foreign feeling' as many other countries. It is after all a first world country a status it quickly attained way back at the beginning of the last century. There was a bit of a setback in 1945 but by the sixties it was well on the way to being one of the most developed and for us one of the most comfortable countries to visit.
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