Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Japan - Definitely Blogworthy

Emily and I flew from LAX to Haneda Airport on a direct flight.  If you've been to Tokyo, you know that Narita Airport is quite far from the city.  Haneda is much closer and has a beautiful new international terminal.  A big improvement.

My bed in Yudanaka

After taking 4 trains, we arrived in Yudanaka in anticipation of visiting the snow monkeys the next day.  Yudanaka was a lovely, peaceful town, and we stayed in a traditional Japanese hotel, Hotel Tsubakino.  The rooms were nice, the food was great and the people were so very nice to us, apologizing that their English was not so good, when we should have been apologizing that our Japanese was so much worse.  The wifi didn't work there but that was my only complaint, and it actually was nice to be unplugged.

Jigokudani Monkey Park is quite something.  The monkeys are so used to people that they totally ignore humans or often appear to be posing for photos.  You can get within inches of the monkeys, and they're fine with this.  They are busy monkeys and seem happy in their surroundings, which are beautiful.

Icy path to snow monkeys
The trek to get to the monkeys was somewhat of a surprise.  We took a 10 minute bus ride from Yudanaka to Monkey Park.  Then we walked on packed snow and ice for at least 30 minutes to reach the monkeys.  It is not a shoveled path;  it is not a path that has been de-iced;  it is not a path that has a railing to protect you from the ravine on one side.  The lawyer in me kept thinking that this would never happen in the liability-loving USA.  There would be all sorts of warnings, railings, etc. to protect whoever owns Monkey Park from lawsuits.  But, in Japan, there we were slipping and sliding our way up to the monkeys.  I only fell once, bruising my knee and ego, but considering the treachery of the path, that wasn't bad at all.  I certainly wasn't the only one - we saw a number of people fall.

Back at the hotel, I enjoyed a private dip in the hot springs at sunset.  Lovely.  Of course, there are numerous public baths to enjoy the hot springs in this area of Japan, but I just couldn't picture bathing with a bunch of naked Japanese women.  Maybe it's just me.  Our hotel had some private baths (outside but covered from view), and that was perfect.

We had a wonderful traditional Japanese dinner and breakfast at the hotel in a private room.   We weren't sure if they were trying to hide the Americans from view or if this was standard.

Kenrokuen Garden
The next day, there were 5 more trains to get to Kanazawa, which is a much bigger city of about 500,000.  Again, some amazing Japanese meals.  One of the highlights of Kanazawa is the Kenrokuen Garden, known as one of the most beautiful gardens in all of Japan.  Emily seemed disappointed with the photographic opportunities at the garden, since the snow had mostly melted but the spring blooms were not quite there yet.  I thought it was an enchanting place and understood why it was designated a "National Site of Special Scenic Beauty."

Exhibit called "Made in Japan"
Near the garden, we visited the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art.  One of the most beautiful museum buildings I've ever been to.  The exhibits were interesting and unusual.  Lunch at the museum restaurant was an event in itself.

Wedding in Higashi Chaya District
Later, we explored the Higashi Chaya District of Kanazawa, a beautiful traditional Japanese neighborhood, where we happened upon a wedding parade.

Tojinbo Cliffs
Our last day in Japan, as I mentioned in an earlier post, we went to Tojinbo on the Sea of Japan.  Another great site and interesting day.

Although we've both been to Japan a number of times (Emily far more times than me), we agreed that we had the best Japanese food ever on this trip.  We were willing to eat whatever was put in front of us, and this definitely was not tourist fare - it was the real deal, delicious and always beautifully presented.  Most of the time, we didn't know what we were eating but were happy to do so.

As always, Japan is fascinating in its modernity on one hand and its traditionalism on the other.  While it might not be the most politically correct metaphor to use, the Japanese bathrooms are a perfect example of this dichotomy.

The Toto Toilet

The more rugged approach

At the modern extreme is the Toto toilet, which, since my first visit to Japan about 20 years ago, has been a source of amazement to me.  Why these have not become standard fare in all U.S. households is beyond me.   It has a heated seat, will rinse off your derriere as well as your front and blow you dry down there.  I almost expect it to provide a pat of baby powder to complete the experience.  Yet, often, in public restrooms, there are old style toilets that are really no more than a hole in the ground where you have to balance and squat to do your business.

This post is way too long already, so I need to wrap it up.  A very interesting trip - I'm glad I went and I'm glad I'm home.

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