Travel Log: Japan

Striving towards becoming borderless involves traveling the world. How else can one really experience a culture without visiting?

Tomorrow is my last day here and the heat and humidity was definitely my biggest surprise. I travelled throughout the country and everywhere it was over 90 degrees with 70 % humidity. Obviously good preparation for Cambodia where the heat index is forecast to be about 110-115 degrees next week. Happily, in Japan – which is very much a first class country — there is a vending machine selling water, juice, soda and even beer on every corner. The people are very helpful and polite which was great for me being on a “self guided tour” as I just had to get myself from city to city using one of the most efficient and amazing public transportation systems. The bullet trains travel at 178 mph; it is a fact that one can set one’s watch by the timetables. Additionally, all the subways stops are delineated in our (western) alphabet so usually I just had to figure out in which direction I was headed and catch the train going in the right direction.

Tokyo is similar to New York City; very spread out, people often commute 2 hours to work each way daily which explains its frenetic pace. Although there is no physical division, in practice the escalators are divided into left side for people in less of a hurry and right side for those in a super rush. The homes are very small and interestingly enough real estate never appreciates which I find odd given the incredibly hilly nature of the topography. I did get to a baseball game; each team is limited to 2 American players and the fans distribute themselves like they are at a wedding with the visitors on the 3rd base side and the home team on the 1st base side. You can find any fast food chain or Madison Avenue specialty shop and were it not for the Japanese signs you could be in any major international city. One bad habit the Japanese have adopted from the Australians is serving there hamburgers with bacon and a fried egg but wherever I went the menus were in English or the food was pictured so it was never difficult to eat what I wanted except on Miyajima Island where a traditional menu was served for dinner in one’s room. It is impossible to get scrambled eggs in anything but liquid form and the typical Japanese breakfast consists of rice, pickled vegetables, miso soup and the ubiquitous green tea. Fortunately coffee and bread are also breakfast staples and there is an ample selection of pricey European food available throughout the day in all the major cities.

Mount Fuji

A day at Mount Fuji was worthwhile if just for the cable car ride but the mountain itself was obscured from view which is common in summer. I also visited a small town about 3 hours away which is known for its buildings from the 1600s as well as its museum of floats which were and are used and paraded on festival days. This was the only place I had difficulty finding my way around as I learned too late that the english directions were etched into the sidewalks rather than on signs which when available  were so small as to render them illegible from across the street.

Shrine at Miyajima

There is a preponderance of shrines, temples, (of Buddhist and Shinto) and their museums all relating to the “EDO” period from 1603-1868.Apparently fires were a real factor in everyday living which partially explains why there is little predating 1603 on view. Frankly these all ran together for me after a while. During these 265  years Japan was isolated from the outside world by the shoguns and their samurai. In essence it was a feudal system akin to the Middle Ages in Europe but I came to understand how the Japanese culture became group rather than individually oriented as it still remains today. There does not appear to be any questioning of authority and though a democracy in name the media and other institutions are expected to perpetuate this mentality. (My shoot from the hip style would not be welcome.)

Religion was used as an explanation of circumstance and the idea of reincarnation served as a way of enforcing moral behavior. Those most favored were allowed to visit Mijajima Island (a ferry ride from Hiroshima)where temples were built in the middle of nowhere on top of mountains. To reach the summit I had to take 2 cable cars and walk another half mile up very steep inclines and how people managed this before electricity is unfathomable. Another charming thing is the fact that deer roam free throughout the island and it is quite common for them to block traffic and check out pedestrians in much the same way I imagine cows wander about the cities in India.

The city of Hiroshima was the highlight for me. Ironically, it was the center of militarism after the shoguns surrendered the power of ruling the country back to the emperor in 1868. Hiroshima Castle was the emperor’s headquarters. It has a much grander scale than others I visited and it was the unabated success of the Japanese army from 1894 forward that allowed them to reduce the emperor to a figurehead subservient to their goals. A few blocks away is the Hiroshima Peace Museum which I was surprised to find amazingly moving as it detailed August 6 1945 and its aftermath; the museum forms part of a peace complex with the A-bomb dome (left in its original condition after the blast), a park and an eternal flame. There is no acknowledgement that the bomb actually saved 100s of thousands of Allied and Japanese lives by negating the necessity to invade Japan which I found surprising and disappointing.

The past 2 days I have visited Kyoto; a place that has been very well marketed by the Japanese but I find completely overrated. Surprisingly it was the only place where there were some American tourists; apparently the bad economy has severely impacted tourism; I did not encounter more than 2 dozen total and of those almost all were from France, Britain and Germany with a smattering of Spanish speakers completing the picture. I was also amazed that I did not see any Black or Chinese people the entire time I have been visiting. Lastly, while the amount and selection of consumer goods is identical to the States I was amazed at what is sold as typical souvenir items. Most of it is junk and I would not want any of it if you gave it to me unless we are talking about historic pieces and other antiquities that far exceed my ability or desire to pay or them.

Next stop…Cambodia.

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Peter Jacob is a globe-hopper extraordinaire. He is an exemplary single father of a 23 year-old daughter and a  failed real estate professional in Park Slope, Brooklyn who nonetheless remains employed at the same firm for 26+ years and lives in the same non price controlled Park Slope apartment for 23 years. His psychiatrist has been treating his dysfunctions for 16+ years and has concluded he is resistant to change.