I was going to write my Japan entry, but instead I’ve been packing all night, figuring out my receipts and forms for customs (I’m only taking back $392 worth of new stuff, almost none for myself… I spent a lot less money than I thought I did), writing goodbye notes and getting everyone’s contact information before we leave. I’m doing a blog break to procrastinate a little more before going to watch the sunrise. I just don’t want to pack.
Tonight they gave us a few suggestions upon returning. First, to say our goodbyes tomorrow because we won’t get much of a chance to do so on the 7th. Second, not to make any drastic decisions until we’re settled back in to make sure we’re not reacting to our change in environment. Third, they told us to go outside tomorrow to take in the ocean one last time, making sure to appreciate the 360 degree view without land, because it’ll probably be a while before anyone of us experiences the open ocean again. I made sure to get out on the deck tonight, to see the stars one last time, listed to the ship cut through the wave, see the wake of the ship disappear into the pitch black darkness of the Pacific. I also saw my first moonset of the voyage tonight, with a beautifully red moon, and I’m wondering why I didn’t do that more often. I’m going to try to see the moonset again tomorrow.
Quick summary of Japan since I won’t want to do it tomorrow:
We hit Japan at exactly the best time of the year, in that little window where all the leaves are as red as they possibly can be before falling off. The country was stunningly beautiful, slightly chilly, but you wouldn’t want it any other way. We arrived to much fanfare, with fireboats spewing water alongside the ship, and the city of Kobe hosting welcome ceremonies on the ship, complete with a marching band, samurai swords, and Taiko drums. I love Taiko. Oh, to have more time here.
We had bought bullet train passes, which saved us because it allowed us to enjoy every second of the country and sleep on the train on the way to your next destination. The first day Jason, Amy, and I headed down to Hiroshima, and it wasn’t long until we were completely lost in translation (except for Jason, who researches these things methodically before we go anywhere).
I thought I knew a lot about Japan. I’ve had Japanese coaches throughout my Stanford gymnastics career, watched Japanese superhero shows as a child in Brazil and have a few friends who were Japadaphiles. But I didn’t – and got lost over and over in the process.
The reason is simple: Japan doesn’t need the US. They are financially independent, and since they didn’t weren’t colonized by the west like most of the other Asian countries, there is little by way of English there. So our ATM cards don’t work, and few places accept the credit cards. And signs are all in Kanji, making sure that you will get lost once you’re there. Not that there is anything wrong with that.
Our first mistake was putting money into a machine thinking we were paying for a streetcar. It wasn’t until we were yelled at in Japanese by the driver that we realized we had put our money into the change machine and hadn’t paid for the ride yet. Whoops.
Everyone had similar stories. My favorite was of these girls who thought they had gone into an empty dance club with techno music, started dancing, were chased out only to find out they had gone into a strip club. I would have paid to make that mistake.
Anyway, we head to ground zero of Hiroshima, the Memorial Peace Park, which is solemnly beautiful in the park, complete with the thousands of paper cranes that come in every year. The museum is incredibly informative (I heard they changed a few years ago when people protested that there wasn’t much information related to why the bomb was dropped in the first place). The bomb was devastating, though I wondered why there wasn’t a Tokyo firebombing museum (which was much worse) until the museum transformed itself into a peace museum calling for the disarmament of nuclear arms around the world.
(By the way, after studying this on and off the ship, I’m pretty convinced now that the primary reason for using the bomb had more to do with scaring the Russians in the post-war world… but that discussion is for another time).
After a few hours in Hiroshima (a bustling city nowadays), we eat some delicious Chinese food with a little sushi and get back on the bullet train to Kobe to hang out all night with the students. Jason hinted at what happened to him that night in the previous blog, and I’ll leave it at that. It was a bonding moment for all.
Chris and I left the next morning for Kyoto, the cultural center of Japan. As usual, he was looking for his National Geographic moment, with me happily tagging along, and Kyoto in the fall is a pretty good place to find one. There were so many Shinto, Buddhist, and other temples to choose from, and I was so surprised to see how much of the Japanese population is involved in this religious aspect of the society, most notably ancestral worship. There were men in business suit who would just bow near a statue, pay their respects, and be on their way.
After walking around and taking pictures all day, Chris and I head by taxi to the one place we were told we HAD to go, the Golden Temple. We thought we had enough time to make it there at sunset, but traffic is a little slow in Kyoto. After 40 minutes inside a taxi with self-opening doors and drivers in suits and white gloves, we missed the sunset by some ten minutes, which made Chris’s pictures a little flat. But the pondside temple covered in gold leaf is a must-see, especially when it is overwhelmed by the red trees surrounding it.
We headed back to Kobe after yet another bonding day for the both of us, and I got ready for another night out in town. The next morning I set out for Tokyo since I had gotten a hold of Yoshi Hatakeda, two-time Japanese Olympian and one of my former coaches at Stanford and we would be having dinner in Yokohama. I was planning on going by myself, but I was pleasantly surprised to see Jason taking the same train as myself, where he told me he had slept until the afternoon the previous day. We caught up in the happenings and were off on our three-hour train ride, taking us alongside the magnificent Mt. Fuji. We made some basic plans arriving in Tokyo, heading to the grounds of the Imperial Palace before going to the Tokyo Times Square. I had thought this was area the famous intersection showcased in Lost in Translation, which is the iconic representation of Japan in my mind, but it wasn’t. It was, though a very, very high-tech, trendy, busy shopping district. Something about Gwen Stefani shopping there?… I don’t know...
(By the way, I always loved Lost in Translation, but it catapulted into being one of my favorite movies after going to Japan. No only did I think Sophia Coppola nailed the details I noticed about Japan, but the feeling of the and pace of the movie matched a lot of my experience of my last day in Japan.)
Jason and I parted ways so I could meet my coach, and I try following Yoshi’s directions and get completely lost in Tokyo, which was the best thing that could have possibly happened. Because in between trying to figure out subway signs and where I was, I waltz out of the Shibura train station to find myself exactly at the famous intersection at sunset. The place is as cool as advertised, with screens that fill the entire sides of buildings. I had never been so happy to be lost, but then again, I wasn’t sad in the first place. I just thought there was a chance I’d miss dinner with Yoshi if I was to make it back to Kobe to save a little money on hotel rooms.
But a clue here, a sign there, and I figure out my way and made it to Yokohama an hour and a half late. Yoshi hadn’t changed much in these last three years – said I got very skinny since the last time he saw me – but his daughter Hitomi was 5 now and he had a new girl that I’d never met before. He was coaching a the University of Yokohama and helping the National Team some. It was great to see him, getting a ride in his 3-D GPS-equipped car, which seemed pretty common there. The meal was some spicy Japanese food that I don’t think I’ll ever again outside of Japan, but I’ll email Yoshi to get it again.
We have dinner as late as possible, and run out to make it to the Shintansen bullet train. Luckily, those trains seem to be accurate to the second, because that’s how much I had before I missed the last train last to Kobe. I got to sleep soundly before going on an all-night Karaoke session with the students, and we all know how much I love Karaoke. This was supposed to be the last night in port (we were given an extra night in Hawaii later), and the trip was supposed to culminate with a karaoke all-nighter in Japan, so I’m glad it did.
The next morning, I took a bullet train back to Hiroshima on my way to the island of Miyajima, which Yoshi said he wouldn’t allow me to leave Japan without visiting it (and my friend Matt Traverso had just sent me an email with the words “Miyajima is the bomb” in there somewhere). I decided to go by myself, because I had enjoyed a day by myself in just about every port end realized that it is pretty good to sit back and take time to yourself once in a while. This is something I don’t think I’ve ever really done before.
I’m out of server space, so I can’t upload pictures, but please Google “Miyajima”. It has the famous red gate shrine in the water, and I hit it perfectly at high tide. The temples strewn the island, some going in the water, and it was completely red from the trees. I rented a bicycle and hit my state of zen. It was absolutely the perfect way to end the trip.
I headed back at the end of the day, meeting up with friends to find out all of the great stories and all of the other things I had missed. Four days in Japan is a crime, but I enjoyed it to the fullest and it will probably be the easiest country for me to go back, Brazil excepted. We all left the port exhausted, with heavy heart, on our way to our long Pacific crossing. It was time to start reflecting on the last few months.
Back to packing. Tomorrow will be the my last entry on the Cobosce.