Stories from a Tour of Asia IV: Japan Wrap Up

The last two weeks in Japan flew quickly and with the exception of a final paper that I have to e-mail, I just about have an MBA. It really has been a wonderful experience but I’ll just share a few of my latest weekend adventures in my typically longwinded fashion.

I took the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto on a Saturday morning over two weeks ago and was there by 11:30am. I had heard much about Kyoto since it’s considered the cultural capital of Japan. First I visited several temples and a castle in the city and then I picked one of Lonely Planet’s less touristy walking tours and headed for the subway station where it started. As soon as I came above ground I was lost and there were no street names—I’m never traveling again in a place where I don’t speak the language without a small pocket compass to figure out directions. At any rate, I used my few Japanese phases and got myself pointed in the right direction. Several blocks later I found a temple on a hillside and started climbing. After going through a Buddhist temple that was a couple hundred years old. I ascended the steps until I came to a cemetery. After about a half hour walk up through the cemetery, I came to a view point from which I could see much of Kyoto. The view was spectacular with lots of skyscrapers and mountains all surrounding the city. In typical Japanese fashion, a red construction crane smack was in the middle of the view.

When I came down the hill, I took a different trail and ended up going through another temple and a huge public garden. At the end of the day I had covered most of what Lonely Planet recommended to see just by happenstance. The other notable sight of the day was a traditional Japanese neighborhood with two and three-story buildings of wood, bamboo fences and shutters, paper lanterns hanging from awnings and stone block cobble stone streets. It is just about the last neighborhood in Japan that serves as a geisha stronghold. Reputedly, you can sometimes catch sight of a geisha in the evening but since there are only about 1000 left in all of Japan and several hundred in this particular neighborhood, it’s even a big deal for Japanese to see one and I didn’t.

That night I stayed in a Ryokan (Japanese Inn) where there was a tatami mat (three inch thick straw mat) on the floor and a thin mattress covering it. My room in this case was five feet by seven feet but at $40 was priced right. Just about the best thing about traveling in Japan and staying in cheap hotels is that they have public baths with hot tubs in the basement. I could get very used to starting and ending the day with hot tubs. Indeed, I decided after my second cheap hotel that since I couldn’t find natural beauty in too many places, I was going to go out of my way to find a hot tub whenever I could.

The next day, I hopped a train to Nara. I had seen enough Temples and didn’t much feel like seeing any more so I avoided all but one. I instead rented a bike for three dollars and biked around the city for five hours. The city has a huge park with lots of temples which I blissfully ignored. There are also 1200 sacred deer in the city park that were quite beautiful and families and kids fed them biscuits along various trails. The highlight of my trip, however, occurred when at the end of the day I was about to hop on a train back to Tokyo and asked paused to ask where I could find an Onsen (hot spa) or Sento (Public Bath). There were none of the latter within a reasonable distance but the tourist office recommended one of the former. Basically, I just wanted to sit in the hot tub but there is a whole ritual. I was somewhat intimidated (about getting in the buff with a bunch of old Japanese guys) but one guy invited me in and showed me the ropes.

Basically, you have to wash and then get in the hot tub, cold tub and sauna in a particular order. After I followed proper protocol twice as I was told to do though the men started signaling that I had done my round and it was time to leave. They were leaving too. I of course, being the contrary American, wanted to jump in the hot tub one more time so I waited until they left the bathing room and hopped back in the hot tub for another 15 minutes.

After another week of corporate visits, I wanted to get out of town one last time before leaving Japan so I went north to Sendai. It was two hours on the bullet train. I think potentially saved a thousand dollars with my three week Japanese rail pass. Upon arriving in Sendai, I asked at the rail station hotel reservation desk if I could get a spot at an Onsen out of town. Alas, they laughed at my proposed price of $30 bucks and told me that the cheapest rooms were $130 but even these were all sold out since Japanese vacations had just started. I ended up staying in Sendai over night. Japanese cities are like American suburbs. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Sendai was no exception with plenty of neon and concrete. At any rate, the next morning I caught a bus 1 and a half hours north to hike to a 55 meter waterfall. It was somewhat out of the way but not far enough as I shared my time at the waterfall with about 200 fellow Japanese tourists. I did manage to find a peaceful garden off in a corner above the waterfall along the river where I grabbed some lunch.

After hiking to the waterfall, I wanted to visit a hot spa since that’s what Japanese normally do for vacation. I caught a bus half an hour away to a hot spa town and hiked along a beautiful river gorge for about a mile. I was disappointed to learn from my hike that all the hot spas were basically five star hotels and that none seemed to be out in the open when I could jump in a hot spa for a couple of hours. Nonetheless, I decided to go find myself a hot tub. I walked along until a point on my map where there was supposed to be a hot spa. What I found was a huge compound with a parking lot. I walked inside to a gorgeous hotel reception room but there was no one around so I decided to see if I could find anyone. I walked through some long ornate hallways and up and down several flights of stairs with oriental rugs and hopped on a moving floor for fifty feet and saw no one! After moving through an automatic door, however, I spotted several families and kids standing by a carp pool through the atrium on the second floor and went down to check it out. The carp were the biggest I have ever seen, including one that was well over three feet long.

From the pool, I could see the entrance to the public bath and tried to find some employees to ask about using the spa. None were readily available but a guy stocking the soda machine so I asked if I could go in the spa but all he could tell me was that the men’s spa was off to one side. I decided that there was sufficient permission to enter and check things out. In the locker room, there was only one employee and I asked him about the policy for the spa and he said that it was free. I put all my stuff in a locker and went and luxuriated for an hour and a half, using the sauna, the three hot tubs including two that were outside and the cold pool as well as the sit down showers. It was awesome although as a skinny white naked bald guy, I’m sure I was quite a spectacle.

Actually, I forgot to tell you that right before I left for Sendai, we went out for my classmate Phil’s birthday and ended up staying at a club where the Japanese women were just beautiful until three in the morning. By the time I got home I was so hot that I decided to shave my head. And no, I wasn’t drunk since I didn’t miss any spots. I had been looking for a haircut for two weeks but the average price for a guy’s hair in Tokyo is $30 although you can find them for $20 if you look really hard. Apparently there is this deal to get a cut for $10 but if they don’t finish in 10 minutes, you get kicked out with whatever they’ve done and I figured I could do at least as good a job with my electric and safety razors and that it would grow back before I got home. So yeah, I was bald. And yeah, Tokyo had been really hot. This summer was reputedly the hottest in more than 30 years and we had several days of 40 degree centigrade heat, about 100 Fahrenheit.

At any rate, after my nice visit to the spa, I decided to leave by the way that I had come in. Unfortunately, the automatic sliding door didn’t open for me. After inspection I figured out that you needed a hotel card key to open the door and that I was trapped in the compound! Well, I found an exit sign and followed them around for several minutes. Eventually, I came to what must have been the front entrance lobby since there were 500 Japanese and about twenty staff working the front desk. I walked out the front door thinking I was scot-free. Immediately, I realized had no idea where I was. I conversed with one of the door staff who didn’t speak English but who got another staff to help and eventually they dug me out a map. One of them walked inside saying they were going to get someone who spoke English. Before I know it, ten hotel staff walked out a form a semicircle in front of me. I was thinking, oh my, the jig is really up now. Their expressions didn’t show it but I’m pretty sure they were wondering what the hell I was doing there. I’m not sure whether my adventure downstairs at the spa had made its way upstairs but since I was not a guest, they couldn’t charged me for anything and the Japanese are adverse to confrontations. I therefore acted like everything was perfectly okay, got my directions, completely taking advantage of their lack of forthrightness and high tailed it out of there, across the highway and back to my trail to the bus stop feeling great after my 1 and half hour visit to what was probably a 500 dollar a night Japanese hot spa.

After the bus back to Sendai, I caught the train for Noibu, a beach town with a cheap youth hostel. I made some friends and played cards and the next morning hit Matshima, one of the three most beautiful sights in Japan according to one of the country’s poets. Well, it was somewhat touristy but there was this one island with a wooded garden that I walked around on for a couple hours that was just beautiful. I would say that the visit to the Island and its vistas of the sea and other nearby islands was the highlight of my trip to Japan.

To be continued…with other adventures in Japan and a week in Shanghai,

Mike

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~ by Admin on July 29, 2004.

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