Where are we now? Travels to Kyoto and Hiroshima

Andy losing at cribbageOn the cribbage front Andy and I are in an even 6 win tie. I got off to a slow start and lost 5 in a row! Can’t believe I’m even telling you this. Well, we finally had some time to kick back and relax and catch up on the blog. Traveling from place to place every 3 or 4 days is work, but we have enjoyed seeing the sights of Kyoto and visiting the City of Peace, Hiroshima. Right at this instant we are on a ferry to Hokkaido, the north island of Japan and I am anticipating the nice cold weather. The ferry has been a treat as we have enjoyed napping and bathing in the public bath that they have onboard (see picture its Andy’s favorite so far). Public bath on the ferry

The garden city of Kyoto struck us as a quiet place for being as big as it is. The train station took us half a day to explore in itself, but as soon as we got on a side street we were greeted with a calming silence. While staying in hostels we met Path through Torii Gatesmany travelers from a variety of places including Italy, Taiwan, London, the U.S. and Canada. Kyoto is a touristy place and we did our fair share of shrine hopping. Bicycle DayA highlight for me was renting bikes for a day. We rode along the path of philosophy, saw the gold pavilion of Kinkakuji, stopped by the Imperial Palace, enjoyed beers by the canal and went for a night walk in the garden shrines near Gion. Strolling through the orange tori gates at Fushimi Inari Taisha I realized I would hate to be the painter who has to upkeep some 30,000 gates that line the trail. We took a side trip to the town of NaraFeeding the Nara deer where deer are revered to the point that deer The Golden Pavilion - Kinkaku-jicookies can be purchased and you can feed the deer! Can you imagine if elk cookies were fed to elk in Estes Park? We visited the giant Buddha and were not sure if we were more impressed with the building that held the giant Buddha or the statue itself. Long, full days encompassed us in Kyoto and I’m glad we saw the sights and we were ready to move on to Hiroshima.

The Great Buddha

August 6, 1945 was promising to be a nice day when the sun rose on the city of Hiroshima. People worked diligently to make fire breaks in the city and perform other duties in anticipation for U.S. air bombings. Nothing could prepare them though for what was about to happen. At 8:15 in tHiroshima Memorialhe morning the Enola Gay flew over the city, fixed its sites on a T-shaped bridge in the middle of the city and dropped the first atomic bomb in history. Instantly the city was set afire, buildings obliterated and thousands of people perished, others suffered from life threatening wounds and more yet would develop diseases in the coming years that would ultimately take their lives. More than 140,000 people were lost from one single bomb. This is the story we learned as we toured around Peace Park and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, which was stands at the epicenter of where the bomb was dropped. It was surreal for us to stand on the new T-shaped bridgeHiroshima A-Bomb Dome, adjacent to the atomic dome building that still remains as a tribute and imagine the bomb going off and a mushroom cloud enveloping the city. Many people believed the area would be a wasteland and nothing would grow in the area again for 75 years. This prediction was wrong because now Hiroshima is alive and jumping and is a flag of peace. The city has not forgotten it’s past and promotes itself as a city of peace and adamantly opposes any development or use of nuclear weapons. In fact, every Hiroshima Castlemayor since 1968 has written letters of protest to any country developing, testing or possessing nuclear weapons. All the letters were on display at the museum and sadly the last 10-15 were to Obama for the “Z-Machine” and 1 to North Korea. The museum educated us on the events, but did not cast blame on any side. The main purposes were to inform about the harm and use of nuclear weapons and to fight against them at the same time. In the center of Peace Park a flame burns that they say will not be extinguished until all nuclear weapons are dismantled. Let’s hope we see that day.

Our next destination is a town near Bifuka in northern Hoakkaido, where we will Wwoof on a dairy farm for a week or so. Exciting news! We are headed to Nepal on October 15th! We fly from Sapporo (don’t worry we will enjoy the beer before we go) to Kathmandu.

Ancient Trail: The Kumano Kodo

Beginning of the trailImagine hiking an ancient trail in search of enlightenment. All you have are the provisions on your back and the sandals on your feet. You pack light (you bring with you several pairs of sandals for when they wear out), because of the steep up and down trail and you will rely on help from locals for food along your journey. You are on this pilgrimage to pray and visit ancient shrines, statues and burial mounds that represent rituals and offer the traveler spiritual strength along the way. You may have to stay near the many shrines and drink from the fresh river streams. You find your faith strengthened at each shrine that has its own god and story to tell. At the end of your long journey you have traversed mountains, and you arrive at the small, spiritual town of Hongu and soak your weary bones in the cleansing and revitalizing water of the Yunomine hot spring.

This is essentially what Andy and I experienced while hiking the Kumano Kodo (Ancient Road). For over 1000 years men and women from all levels of society have made pilgrimage in the Kumano using a series of routes to 3 One of the first shrinessignificant shrines of the Kumano religion which is based on the worship of nature and the acceptance of all believers. We hiked a 25 miles section of the Kodo in 3 days and camped along the way. This pilgrimage was full of many challenges and rewards. The sweet triumph of reaching the Hongu Taisha shrine at our journeys end, soaking in the natural river hot springs, and seeing the landscape and views of a winding trail brought us a bit closer to enlightenment. We definitely had time to think and reflect at each shrine along the way. Parts of this magnificent, and at times frustrating trail, are mountain roads, main streets through villages, cobblestone paths, climbing stone steps, or zig-zagging switch backs that are deep in the mountains safe from progress. One stretch we were met with groups of smiling Japanese saying “sugoi! (Awesome! Great!)” as we passed with our packs, most people we saw were day hikers. The next stretch we would see no one until the next shrine where we would collect a shrine stamp and head on. At one point the trail led us right to a vending machine! Another point it led us to a 4 km detour in the middle of a forest that had been leveled by a logging company. I never could predict what the Kumano Kodo was going to give me next, but there was always and maybe too often a sign pointing the way.

Rice field through one of the villages on the trailOf the many tribulations and unforgettable experiences was the second night we camped, when something quite odd happened. All day my feet hit the trail, my toes hit my boots and my new blisters reminded me with every step that my pack was a bit too heavy. Near the evening I told Andy that we should start looking for a place to camp. At the Jizo shrine (the god that takes care of travelers and children) I found a second wind and not thinking I could do it, made it to the top of Mikoshi pass.Campsite at Mikoshi Pass What a day. We had not seen any other hikers all day and felt pretty remote. At a small shelter with running water, bathrooms and a small pull off next to a couple mountain roads with no cars we decided to camp. We both fell asleep and woke up to the sound of 2 cars pulling into the dirt parking lot around 1am. 3 men were opening and closing car doors and eventually they fell asleep in the shelter. A bit scared we silently listened and wondered what the hell they were doing here at night… of course we thought the worst… drug exchange, Japanese mafia busineThe Kumano Kodoss. I kept telling myself, “you are in Japan, awful things don’t happen in Japan… but you are on top of a remote mountain pass… Japanese people are too nice to harm Kodo hikers.” We could hear their snoring and then one of them got up and was talking into a walkie talkie. Then we heard voices and soon saw a line of headlamps coming from the trail! 20 men were night hiking and this was their pit stop! The 3 men were handing out food to the night hikers who kept their voices down and occasionally flashed their lights in our direction. Relieved but still a bit rattled we watched and listened for a while and then we both fell asleep. When we woke up again in an hour they were all gone. At the visitors center the next day I asked about the night hikers and got some crazy looks and I think they thought they didn’t understand me even though both people spoke pretty good English. I explained it to them again and the only explanation they could give me was it could have been a training exercise for serious hikers. The woman also mentioned to me that camping is not allowed along the Kumano Kodo. Oops.

Completing our 3 day trek was a good feeling and we rewarded ourselves by soaking in the natural hot springs in the Kawayu River. It is a free hot spring where you dig your own bath in the bank and can take a cold plunge in the middle of the river. We soaked our weary muscles and relaxed. We camped next to many other Japanese families along the river and woke up in the early morning with rain pouring down and puddle forming around our tent. Literally it felt like a waterbedBeginning of day 2, but luckily no water was leaking in our tent. In the daylight we saw the river was much higher than the previous day and the rain was still coming down. Later we learned that a typhoon was hitting the coast near Kyoto and we were getting the rain and wind. We packed up and hit the road in the torrential rain. Not 5 minutes passed on the road and we were soaked, but trying to get to the bus stop to head into town. Then a young couple stopped and pulled over into oncoming traffic and told us to get in their car. The man rearranged all there camping gear and would not Steep section of the detourtake no for an answer. We felt bad with our dripping wet humungous packs, but it was coming down, typhoon style. They spoke very little English, but pretty much asked us where we were going and took us there. About 15 minute drive and I think they were headed in the other direction. Japanese kindness at its best. We didn’t let the rain stop us, we made it to Yunomine hot springs which are said to be the oldest in Japan, the river was running straight through the spring so the main pool was closed but we soaked in a medicinal pool before catching a bus in the rain back to Tanabe. Eventually, due to delays caused by the typhoon we made it the following day to Kyoto where the sun was shining. Lessons learned were: be careful when picking a tent location, drainage is important and we need to keep an eye on the weather. I couldn’t imagine hiking and camping on the trial in such rainy conditions. Here’s to the Kumano Kodo! Thank you for such a wonderful, Japanese experience! Gate at our end destination

Yohey’s Farm

Yohey playing homemade drumsOur second farm stay was at Yohey’s farm in the Wakayama Prefecture, South of Osaka. We chose it because he looked to be about our age and working with other young farmers. His house was very communal because in addition to Yohey, his wife, child, mom and cat there were many other people living there. Ti-chan, Lumiko and Lumiko’s 4 year old daughter were permanent Japanese WWOOFers who hadn’t left in two years. Mami actually lived elsewhere but worked on the farm and was around quite often. Di-chan, another woofer who seemed really young (he was 23), didn’t seem like a farmer to us. Come to find out his mother made him stay and work at the farm for two months because he wasn’t doing anything productive with his life. I guess it’s somewhat common for parents to do here in Japan. Then there were other WWOOFers who came and went besides ourselves. Itai, an Israeli guy who we became friends with, was the only other person there who spoke fluent English. To add to that for whatever reason there were 6, giggling 11 year old school girls staying on the farm the first couple days for some sort of camp or something. We’re still not quite sure.

Eating moshi ballsNot everything was explained at first and the first few days were confusing as we tried to piece it all together. Luckily we befriended Mami and she helped clear some things up for us, but even then there were still some mysteries. Like one day Yohey’s wife and child were no longer there and then a few days later Ti-chan disappeared. He came back by the time we left and he told us his fiancé’s father was bitten by a poisonous snake and he had to go take care of him. So that cleared up one mystery, but at the same time we were surprised to hear he was engaged since his fiancé was never there or brought up in conversation. And eventually we learned that Yohey’s wife and kid left to go be with her brother who was having brain surgery. If this sounds confusing that’s because it was and it was further compounded by our lack of Japanese skills.

Indoor BBQ night with Yohey grillingOn the other hand though, the farm was a fun place to be with so many people. Someone always had plans or wanted to do something special and we were included in all of it. Like we visited a waterfall with Mami and Itai and went to some hot springs. One night Yohey wanted to BBQ so we all made fried potato balls and grilled out (or rather inside for some reason per Yohey, very bad idea). Another time Lumiko made Takoyaki (squid balls) with us and Ti-chan taught us how to make homemade Soba noodles. Okasan, Yohey’s mother arranged making traditional Japanese Moshi one afternoon, which involved using aMaking moshi rice balls giant hammer to beat rice into this popular dessert. Luca, the 4 year-old especially loved it. Yohey also showed us around and took us to quirky things in the area like a train station decorated in cats (it even had a live cat on display inside a glass enclosure). We visited his friend who is building an earth bag dome house (see picture). Plus Yohey loved to drum and took us along to many of his events in the evenings where he taught or was performing.

As for farm work we helped out where needed. A lot of the time was spent weeding fields, clearing the land to plant new crops, digging out ditches for rain water drainage, building planting mounds and of course planting seeds like potatoes and carrots. A couple of days we helped clear jungle from some land so that Yohey can one day build a community center where he can drum as much as he wants without disturbing his neighbors with the noise. Our Clearing the land for carrotsfavorite days to work were on the weekends because that’s when Yohey ran his pizzeria. We would usually work a few hours in the morning and then enjoy pizza for lunch before going back out.

Yohey’s was a fun and interesting place to be. It was great to be part of their community during our stay there. Cooking and sharing everything with a household of friends was a great experience and we saw how young, organic farmers are trying to make it in Japan and foster their beliefs to the rest of the country.

Monastery of the Lotus

IMG_4092Religion in Japan, from my viewpoint, is mixed heavily with culture and the complexities of Buddhism, stemming from India and Shintoism, a native folkloric religion. Temples in honor of Buddhas and shrines in honor of Shinto gods and goddesses are everywhere here and they represent all sects of both religions. We have paid our respects to many and honored the age, architecture, and peaceful surroundings of these places. On a truly soggy, rainy day we visited Koyasan, a mountain sanctuary and monastery established by Kukai a young priest who IMG_4094brought Buddhism to the area from China in 816. To get there we took a tram up to a peak that is surrounded by 8 other peaks. Kukai chose this spot for his school of esoteric Buddhism because the 8 peaks represent the 8 petals of a lotus flower (not to mention a black dog and white dog led him to the place). Today it is a thriving center of Buddhism with more than 100 temples and a Shingon school for monks. The coolest part of this place was not only seeing monks everywhere, walking and praying from temple to temple, driving, but also the path through the Okunoin cemetery. The cemetery is lined with old cedar trees and has over 200,000 graves. As we walked we saw tombs adorned with statues. Some wore bibs and hats, which are known as Jizo. It is said that theseIMG_4106 Jizo never enter in to eternal enlightenment so that they may remain here in our world to help children who die find their way to the afterlife. At the end of the cobblestone path we reached the Torodo or Lantern Hall that contains a lantern that has been burning for 1000 years. It also is where Kukai is believed to still be alive and in eternal mediation to this day. The sun never showed itself that day, but it made the path through this spiritual place more memorable and it was IMG_4078difficult not to feel the antiquity, the moss on the gravestones was also a reminder. At Koyasan we also visited Daito the great pagoda that burned to the ground several times like many temples have. It is rare to find one that has not burned at some point in history. Daito however, burned so many times, it is said that they painted it vermillion orange (the brightest orange ever) to keep the lightning away. So far it has worked and recently painted it’s hard to miss; so very colorful. This stupa is said to be the center of the lotus flower that is formed by the 8 surrounding peaks. We were moved by the ringing of the midday bell and the sheer height of this temple. After visiting the place, we feel like we know even less about Buddhism, but we respect the age and preservation of places like Koyasan for future generations and people of all beliefs.

You may be wondering what the hell else we are up to and we will get blogging about our trip to Hongu and exploring Kyoto next!

Itadakimasu

IMG_3989“Itadakimas!” is said before every meal here in Japan. It has no direct translation but means something like “I receive this” or “let’s eat!” Arriving almost a month ago I was unsure of what we would be eating … I heard either you like it or you don’t. Turns out we both like it! And we have developed some pretty good chop stick skills with frustrating determination. We both have been offered a fork and refused. In Tokyo we made some mistakes; Andy ordered dessert for dinner one night. A dish called anko and moshi are popular desserts and are very squishy and sweet.

onigiriWe have had some great noodles and one travel day we had a Japanese lunchbox that had noodles and traditional food for the person on the go. While traveling we have enjoyed delicacies from 7-11 which is more of a small grocery store here with beer, a variety of meals and all types of Japanese snack food. We enjoy Onigiri (Rice ball or triangle made with fish or a fermented plum inside- you never know what you are going to get if you can’t read kanji and we can’t). There has been only a couple rice balls that we could not choke down and many that provide decent taste and nourishment.

At Kanda’s Natural Farm we were introduced to great traditional Japanese food. We enjoyed curry, baked fish, miso soup, noodles (of all types), and fresh veggies like cucumber, plenty of eggplant, tomatoes, corn, onion, garlic, and of course the star of the Japanese food extravaganza: Rice. Co-star: soy sauce. A dish I enjoyed very much was made with a Japanese vegetable called, gobo and carrots and the noodles…mmmmmmmmmm “oyshi!”… my favorite are soba. IMG_3275Pictured here is a traditional meal of soba noodles in the countryside and remember you have to slurp! Slurping shows that you are enjoying the taste of the noodles. After dipping each chopstick-full in soy sauce and wasabi mixture, the soba water that was used to boil the noodles is added to the soy sauce and then you drink it to finish off the meal. Fruit that we enjoyed at Kanda’s included grapes, plums and nashi (Japanese pear – the taste is a mix between a pear and an apple). We also experienced a Japanese BBQ where we sat around a grill on small benches around a grill and ate for about 3 hours straight. Meat included squid, chicken, beef, and hot dogs. Veggies were numerous and delicious. While we waited for the sizzling food to cook we sipped on Japanese beer which is usually light and high on the malty taste. On hour number 3, full and happy, they bring out the corn and then the ramen noodles!

At the second farm we have been eating a variety of dishes and there is a new cook each night. There are several people who live and work at Yohey’s farm, at any one time we can have 4 people eating or the most 20! We prepare and eat food together and then take turns cleaning up. The diet is pretty much all vegetarian and the tofu in all the ways that they prepare it is delicious! I wish it were that scrumptious in the states.

IMG_4120Like most things here you never know what to expect. One night we came home and there were boxes stacked on the kitchen table. Turns out it was a gift wrapped dinner of traditional Japanese food (see picture below). It was tasty, but a bit odd. We have also tried our share of fermented food like plums that are so sour and nato which is Japanese beans that are fermented and very, very sticky.

Tonight we ate a big dish full of cooked cabbage, chicken, bean sprouts, mushrooms, stretchy potato (I will get to that) and tofu. Then we were instructed to crack a raw egg into a bowl and mix with our chopsticks then take food from the dish put it in the egg and eat it. There has been nothing that we have refused and we weren’t going to start even if this was the first time we both ate a raw egg. We will see how tomorrow goes.

IMG_4161One of the most exciting food events that we have had here is about a rooster. One night a neighbor shows up at the front door that is always open with a white rooster in her arms. Yohey fashioned a crate cage for the handsome thing. Very early, too early the rooster woke us and the entire house up. Andy asked that morning if he had plans to kill the rooster. “Kill rooster?” said Yohey, “yes we kill rooster. You want to kill rooster?” Maybe a bit too eager Andy said he wanted to learn how. That afternoon the rooster was put to rest. Yohey did the hard part and then Andy and Saychan (another woofer) plucked the feathers and watched the gutting and preparation. That night we also made soba noodles from scratch and ate the chicken. Besides the tough skin it turned out really well and is one of the best chickens I have had. One morning it was the alarm clock and the next it was an amazing dinner.

IMG_3996We have been to gatherings where we sit for hours as plates of food keep coming, even when you think it has to be the end they bring out a burner and set it on the table and make takoyaki a popular baked ball of piping hot octopus and other ingredients. At this party the octopus was replaced with konnyaku. Konnyaku is made from a stretchy potato and is exactly what one foreigner wrote, “a cross between a rubber sole and Jell-O.” I have never seen this potato in its natural form. A friend that we met at the party looked up the direct translation of this mysterious food (she is pictured here with her tongue out). This is what she found: A gelatinous food made from the starch from the devil’s tongue. It does not have much taste, and is used as a substitute for fish and sometimes as noodles. Octopus and konnyaku definitely share the same texture. I do enjoy the translation and the first round takoyaki made me go back for seconds and thirds!

IMG_4201We have done some cooking, but we feel slow compared to our Japanese friends… they don’t even need recipes and they can combine food to make a tasty and filling meal. Yohey and company also run a pizza shop on the weekends and make standard pies with red sauce and a little bit of cheese. Cheese is few and far between here. We do miss cheese. Yohey makes a pizza with a potato sauce which is interesting and has become our favorite.

To say the least we have enjoyed the food here and look forward to meals. At the end of the meal we say “gochisosama deshita” “which means thanks for this food” or literally “a feast!” A place can really make an impression and the food experiences and flavors of Japan have been like none other. Unlike some (Lindseys!), I fail to take a picture of my every meal, but we have taken a few so please check out all the posted pics to get a better visual.

(As always, there are additional photos under the photo section titled Japan – Fifth Blog).