My Road Trip Through Japan

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It’s  called the Land of the Rising Sun

Honshu, the main island of Japan, is the place where the land shakes. It’s the cold wet you feel on your skin as you drive through a mountain cloud. It’s the vast expanse of the volcanic plateau stretching into gold and beige haze that seems to stretch into eternity.  The past is what I felt when I circled Honshu looking for the ghosts of samurais and the red lantern paths of certainty.

          I haven’t mentioned that this was a road trip. It all began when we picked up a car in Tokyo. I snicker when I say it was a Toyota. (Little did I know that later on I would drive over a bridge with endless amounts of little Toyotas ready to be loaded as shipments to be sent all over the world; an interesting reminder of globalism and interdependence).

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This raccoon dog road sign represents just what a different world for driving this was.

  Let’s just say that you haven’t really lived until you’ve driven on the wrong, wrong side of the road while fighting a  G.P.S. that is speaking and writing in Japanese. Can you imagine what this would even sound like? What I’m really describing is hurling into oncoming traffic. You see, trying to break your American habits can be summed up by the squeak of the windshield wiper waving instead of the blinker signal . . . the two of us breathing heavily, part sneer, part amusement on our faces. YES, driving on the left side of the road was unusual, but only hard for the first day or so. And I actually mistakenly reached for the door handle on the opposite side of the car even several times even after I returned state side.

 

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Here’s a rough  map of the drive. Thanks Google! Did you know that Japan has over 2,000 islands?

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The perfect introduction to the island was Nikko. Nikko translates directly to beautiful. It’s the center of Shinto and Buddhist mountain worship. As luck were to have it, we happened to visit at the most splendid time of year, autumn, when the reds of the leaves really left an impression.

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The luck of visiting in Autumn on a crisp morning walk alone

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The Shinkyo Bridge is a part of the Futarasan Shrine. According to legend, a priest climbed a mountain in the 700s to pray for prosperity. However, he could not cross the river. Two serpents appeared to carry him across the river. The priest then turned the snakes into the bridge. At one point, the Shogun’s messenger was the only person allowed to cross the bridge. This kept the mountain region isolated. 

          The feeling of true wonder is something that is harder and harder to find these days.

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Fascinating that something so old can be so ornate 

One of the slight cons I’ve discovered recently about going far and wide is that it desensitizes you. You become harder to impress.

Toshogu is a mausoleum  build in the 1600s to honor the shoguns that ruled Japan for 250 years. The details in the architecture were incredible.  It’s the original location of the “see no, hear no, say no evil” monkeys . . . an appropriate prelude to my real goal of this journey: photographing wild snow monkeys.

 

Walking behind the monks I marveled at the height and magnificence of the towering trees. I wondered what all they had seen over the years.

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An interesting sight on the first morning in Japan, Buddhist monks walking in slippers.

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This 5 story pagoda represents the elements: earth, water, fire, wind, then void (heaven?).

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The complex allows you to roll over the mountain side, giving a very strange feeling that you aren’t even a visitor there, but one flying over the rooftops from above.
I lost myself in the carvings, felt different amongst the Japanese school children as they scuffled by on a field trip, and felt as if I shouldn’t even be allowed to be there.  European explorers hadn’t even visited this part of the world in it’s heyday.  Japan was basically unknown, and foreign. Strangely enough, I could relate to what it might have seemed like stepping foot onto the island as a sailor centuries ago.

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Gate in Nikko, Toshogu Shrine

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Paper Prayers Tied to String

 

 

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Washing Ladles to Purify

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Lion Dogs guarded the complex from evil spirits 

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I made some friends admiring the leaves. 

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Kyoto was founded as Japan’s capital of peace and tranquility. It now sits as the capital of culture. I was surprised at how traditional it appears even though it is a large city. I won’t sit here and pretend to understand everything about zen gardens. There’s lots of different types of them. They’re insanely old. Some date from before the 12th century. I learned quite more about the Japanese values of simplicity, ornateness, and perfectionism while admiring the plants and tranquil sounds of water. The gardens are designed to look their best in each of the four seasons. I did feel at peace here, and close to nature.

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The colors came together for me best at the Daigoji Temple

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It sounded like total silence in the Ryoan-ji’s Zen Garden but I imagined the scraping sound of gravel. As I sat trying to understand it, there was a brief moment when I imagined myself looking out at the ocean with little islands. The perfect imagery of Japan.

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Art on the screens of a temple tea room

 

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A very “Land Before Time-esq” type of tree star that monopolized most of the sky space overhead.

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Fushimi Inari Shrine

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Geishas in Kyoto at the Fushimi Inari Shrine. Geishas are women accompaniment for the arts: singing and instruments, sometimes even love. These were the only ones we saw on the trip.

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Octopus: Fushimi Inari Shrine, Fukakusa Kaidocho Street

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It’s overwhelming to think about my favorite things to eat in Japan. It sounds strange but I fell in love with stir fry cabbage (what?). The green tea inspired me so much that I bought a hand made tea set (and that’s coming from the girl who doesn’t do souvenirs). I ate enough fresh sushi to get mercury poisoning. I ordered food from everywhere, including bento boxes, truck stops, back alleys, mom and pop hole-in-the-walls, chains, raamen noodle places, a daily dose of beef soba. . . the list goes on. My best advice is to just eat as often as possible.

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Modern Side of Kyoto

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Found the Lanterns

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The Largest City in the Word From Atop the SkyTree

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A Parting Shot of Mt. Fuji

 

     Japan was the place where the number of countries that I’ve visited became greater than the number of years in my life. Needless to say, I was highly reflective while there. It’s  the first place that I’ve ever been where I was totally submersed in a culture that wasn’t a single.thing.like.mine. And it’s the type of place where I wouldn’t be sad to disappear into for 30 years or so to make a life for myself in a 200 year old house, or a tiny apartment in the city.

 

 

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