Posts Tagged ‘Japan’

The bus to Kamikochi breezes along the narrow road with only a short guard rail separating us from the precipitous drop off to the canyon below. The rocks, the rushing river, the cascading greenery heighten my expectations as we near our destination. Kamikochi in the Japan Alps—an amazing place!

The Azusa River—flowing gently in places, rushing over rocks in others, clear and fresh water straight from mountain glaciers

Myojin Bridge


Takezawa Marsh—dark and mysterious, haunting birdsong echoing through the trees

Takezawa Marsh

The forest—bright greens springing to life on the ground and in the trees; Nirinsou Anemones lifting their clean white flowers, filling the woods with green and white.

Nirinsou Anemones

“Snow monkeys”—the native Macaque monkeys peacefully munching on new greenery, doing acrobatics in the trees to reach the tender buds

Macaque “snow monkeys”

Northern Japan Alps in Chubu Sangaku National Park—looming over us in snow-covered majesty, lit by the sunshine, or hiding in the mists of a rainy day, pure beauty.



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My husband and I returned recently from a two week trip to Japan, where we visited our son and saw some new places. I will have to do a post on Kamikochi soon; it was an amazingly beautiful place! However, today I want to talk about some of the people we met over there and the kindness shown to a couple of sometimes-confused Americans.

Police let children sit on their motocycles at the Karuizawa Half-Marathon

While my husband has been studying Japanese and can speak a bit, I know little beyond “Konnichiwa” and a sentence asking the location of a certain necessary room. However, everywhere we went, people were overwhelming gracious and helpful. I will mention just a few of those encounters here.

Matsumoto Castle

When we visited Matsumoto Castle, we noticed a group advertising free English-speaking tours. Our volunteer guide, Horoshi, led us on a wonderful tour, explaining the history and purpose of the castle and its various parts. He used our camera to take pictures of the two of us at different points in the tour. At the end, it was lunchtime, so we asked if he could recommend a nearby restaurant. Instead of giving directions, Horoshi led us several blocks to his favorite soba noodle café. When we offered to donate some money to his organization, he refused, although he did laughingly suggest that if we had a million dollars, we could donate that!

Bus Travel

Another time we needed to take a bus to the hotel near Kamikochi where we had reservations. We apparently looked confused at the station, as two different workers came out to tell us where to wait and which bus to take. When it arrived, they put our luggage aboard and talked to the driver. Later we realized that they had told the driver our destination—and that we had luggage to unload. The driver looked back and smiled at us when we arrived at our stop, as well as making sure we got our bags. The worker at the stop pointed out our hotel to us. And always, whether or not they spoke English, they offered help with a smile.

Tokyo train station

There were many other instances of kindness: Toshiro, an associate professor of civil engineering whom I met on the train, who offered to give us a ride from his stop to our destination a few miles away; the restaurant workers who patiently explained the menu to us as best they could, given their lack of English; those who pointed out where to wait for a train or where to find an elevator before we even asked; the friendly elderly couple who tried to talk with us as we all waited for the bus; the three giggly junior high girls who thought it was exciting—and apparently funny—to talk with visitors from America.

Power rangers at Karuizawa Half-Marathon

All of these people helped to make our trip to Japan a very pleasant memory.

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The earthquake hit first, swaying buildings, cracking roads, shaking towns hundreds of miles away. Then the tsunami. I watched the television in horror as it happened—water rolling into Sendai, over fields and buildings, roaring on and on across the flat landscape like it would never stop. It smashed homes, carried cars and ships as if they were made of balsa wood. I saw cars on the highway trying to escape, knowing some of them would not make it. I imagined what it would be like to see that wall of water bearing down and realize there was no escape.

 I have watched other disasters—although never in real time—and have ached for the suffering people. However, this time the pain went deeper. I have a son in Japan. And, while I have never visited other countries touched by disaster, such as Chile or Indonesia, last May I traveled to Japan for the first time. Those images are still bright in my mind. We didn’t journey north, so I haven’t seen Sendai or other now-broken towns of the northeast. But I have seen rice field stretching across the countryside. I have smelled the last of the cherry blossoms and learned to enjoy miso soup. I have experienced the rush of Tokyo train stations and the quiet hospitality of small towns. Japan has become real to me, and so I grieve the more deeply.

 My son is fine; the earthquake shook his little town—and kept shaking it off and on throughout the day and night—but left it much the same as before. Yet my thoughts and prayers still turn toward Japan. Perhaps I should ache this way whenever people anywhere are hit by disaster. We are all brothers and sisters, after all. And yet I don’t think I could handle that kind of pain, for tragedy happens on a daily basis somewhere in the world. We all need a little numbness to get through the day, to be able to find joy even amidst sadness. I am glad for a hope that helps me see beyond the pain, to see the beauty of a sunset even when I am hurting. So I pray for the people of Japan comfort and strength and a touch of beauty to light their way.

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Japanese Crows

Jungle Crows

When I was preparing to visit my son in Japan, I asked him what birds he saw in his town. “Mostly crows and sparrows,” he said. Not being a bird watcher, that was about all he could tell me. “Crows are everywhere,” he added.

Jungles Crows in Kamakura

When I arrived, I quickly discovered the accuracy of his statement. Crows were, indeed, everywhere. We saw–and more often heard–crows in the big city of Tokyo, as well as the small town of Obuse, and many places in-between. They serenaded us on our walks in the city, and the harsh caw of a crow was the first sign of dawn in the small town. The first crow I identified was the Jungle Crow–also know as the Large-billed Crow. Several roamed the beach at Kamakura, watching for food left by visitors. One Jungle Crow tried to steal a bag of potato chips from a woman sitting on the sand, but she grabbed it back just in time.

In other areas, we found the Carrion Crow, similar to the Jungle Crow, but with a lower profile. I first met these crows in a park in Kyoto, again most likely looking for food left by passersby. In Obuse, a small town near Nagano, I watched a Carrion Crow grooming itself in a chestnut orchard–taking a bit of a dust bath and preening, before striding confidently across the road into another orchard. Crows were almost as common as the ubiquitious Tree Sparrow–although not quite as friendly.

Carrion Crow

For more information on Japanese crows, check out Large-billed Crow.  Apparently crows are quite intelligent; those in Tokyo have learned to crack nuts in an unusual way, by dropping nuts in pedestrian crosswalks and waiting for cars to break them open. We enjoyed the crows we saw, even if their cawing did get a bit annoying at times.

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If there is anything that better symbolizes the peaceful coexistence of the new and the old than Japanese toilets, I have yet to see it.

High-tech toilet

I first experienced this phenomenon in a train station in Japan, not long after I arrived for our two week visit. Needing to use the facilities, I entered the stall labeled “Western style” and was treated to the ultimate in toilet technology. The first thing I noticed was how warm the seat felt. That would be nice on a cold winter day, I supposed. Then I saw the controls. The control pad on the right offered three different bidet options and an air dryer, along with other buttons whose purpose escaped me. I wasn’t surprised when it automatically flushed at the end; toilets in America sometimes do that. However, I was caught off guard to see the lid close itself as I left the stall. Never had I seen such an amazing toilet!

Upon leaving, I glanced into the next stall, which held a traditional Japanese toilet, little more than a long hole in the ground with a bar in front, which I assumed the user could hold to keep her balance while squatting. (For some reason, I didn’t think to take a picture of the old style, but you can find one with a quick Google search.) What a contrast in level of technology! Yet here they were, side by side, new and old on an equal footing.

Perhaps there’s a lesson for us in that.

Something to get your mind off the toilet...

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As the shinkansen (bullet train) shot along the rails from Nagano to Nagoya, I watched the towns rush by outside—houses with ceramic tiled roofs, rice fields flooded with water, little family gardens stuck in wherever they would fit. As we moved into the countryside, I was struck by the greenness. I thought I knew green and its many shades, but here were shades I couldn’t recall seeing before—the tannish green of bamboo, the yellow-topped green of some kind of flowers rising like feathers above the trees. Here and there white or pink or lavender blossoms added their accents to the riot of green.

Chion-in Temple, Kyoto

 Japan is a wondrous country of old traditions and new technology. Living in Oregon, where a building built in the 1800’s is considered old, I was amazed by temples and shrines over a thousand years old. They were solid, dark brown, smelling like the earth touched with incense. And all around them were grasses, bushes, and trees with a bright greenness that dazzled me—descendants of the trees that builders of the shrines hauled up steep slopes to create places of worship reaching the sky. Did they feel the awe I felt as I looked out over the valleys far below and thought of the God who created such living beauty?

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