Japan trip report

Itinerary:  Narita-Nikko-Sendai-Northeast Coast (Matsuhima-Shizugawa-Taro-Kuji-Mutsu)-ferry from Oma to Hakodate-Toyako-Sapporo-Asahikawa-Sounkyo-Ikeda-Kushiro-Akanko-Mashuko-Otaru-Niseko-ferry from Hakodate to Aomori-Hirosaki-Morioka-Hiraizumi-Ichinoseki-Utsunomiya-Tokyo Akasaka

Favorite roadside attractions:

  • 70m-high statue of the Buddhist bosatsu Kannon in Kamaishi on the NE coast of Honshu
  • Snow Museum, which could easily have been designed by Liberace, in Asahikawa (Hokkaido)
  • two enormous Japanese Cranes having a late lunch in a farmer’s field on the SE coast of Hokkaido then taking off, circling, and landing in another corner of the farm; there are only about 800 of these birds on the planet
  • underground public aquarium in Kuji, the Mogurampia, built into a coastal oil storage facility

And now onto some themes that recurred in my mind…

This trip impressed upon me how deep is the Japanese love affair with concrete.  They’ve really become the poets of this most modern of building materials where a guy such as Tadao Ando can find many peers.  Some of the most beautiful minimalist artworks were the concrete mesh nets that stabilize hillsides.  These comform to the waves and bumps of the hill and are anchored by enormous pins of steel or concrete.  The mesh size is about 6′.  My favorite concrete building was the Iwate Museum of Art in Morioka.

The overall security of Japan presents a startling contrast to the U.S.  I didn’t notice it that much on previous trips, all of which were before September 11, 2001.  Except in Tokyo and on the Shinkansen (bullet train) there doesn’t seem to be any thought given to terrorism or even crime.  There are hardly any foreigners in Japan to begin with so a group of 19 Saudis wouldn’t have been able to go anywhere without being watched.  There are no ID checks even on the Shinkansen.  You can park your car at the airport curb, even Narita, and walk away for 10-15 minutes without anyone complaining.  You don’t see gun-toting thugs near public buildings.  People carry $1000+ in cash in their wallets without a second thought.  Every car has a $2000 navi system ripe to be stolen and yet there aren’t car alarms.  Luxury hotels don’t bother with electronic key cards.  You can eat in almost any restaurant (except the ones listed in Lonely Planet) and not get food poisoning.  The Japanese can even enjoy the rich social life described by Paul Theroux in Africa without worrying about dying as the AIDS infection rate here is around 0.02% (source).

America really is the land of luxury when it comes to space and consumerism.  From my house in Harvard Square I can drive 20 minutes and get to miles of trails through semi-rural woods, lakes, and farms in Lincoln, MA.  To get similarly away from it all in Japan would require flying to Hokkaido, renting a car, and heading into a national park.  Real estate prices here remain savage, a good warning perhaps to Americans as we head for a population of 420 million in the year 2050, nearly all of which will be concentrated on the coasts.  A CD is $22, a DVD is $35+.  For a tourist here only a few weeks it isn’t so bad.  Your wallet suffers death by paper cuts ($4 for parking at a temple, $8 to go in, $40 in expressway tolls to get to the next temple) but you know that you’ll be heading home soon to your spacious apartment and nearby Walmart.  The Japanese just have to resign themselves to being bled for the rest of their lives.

The Japanese are able to overcome almost all of their natural limitations with hard work and competitive drive.  The Olympics are going on right now and the Japanese are currently in third place for the number of gold medals, which is remarkable when you consider the lack of genetic diversity in the population.  Craftsmen in various small towns could get by selling average-quality goods to average tourists but instead work late nights to win competitions.  Shamisen players compete and at concerts the people sitting next to me would periodically whisper “Grand Champion” when a certain artist came on stage.  A chef in the tiny provincial town of Ichinoseki could have had a nice little rice dumpling restaurant but instead worked like a demon until he became famous throughout Japan for making the best rice dumplings (he spoke pretty good English too but I learned of his fame only from other tourists).

Economically this is a country that should be nowhere.  Japan is famously lacking in natural resources and space.  The nation was closed to the West and modern technology until the mid-19th century.  Japan lost more than 3 million people and nearly all of its physical assets during World War II.  Yet by dint of nearly every worker trying his or her hardest the country is almost as rich as the U.S.  An American engineer working for a Japanese automaker has been over here for a year.  The mechanical engineers working for his company back in the U.S. are among the best, brightest, and hardest working American engineers.  “I hate to admit it,” he said, “but the guys here in Japan are even better.  They’re older and they know more and I thought they they would slack off but they work even harder and are more dedicated to getting it right.”

Most disturbing part of the trip:  watching an old movie of an Ainu (the native people of Hokkaido, related to Mongolians) community event in which a bear was chained to a pole and then shot with arrows.  The bear would roll around trying to get the arrows out and then would be shot some more.  Maybe not that different from the bullfights beloved by Spaniards but just horrible to see.

Best hotel room:  Akasaka Prince Hotel, 18th floor, sweeping corner windows, comfy sofa underneath the windows, huge bathtub, architecture by Kenzo Tange, across the street from the 400-year-old Japanese garden in the New Otani Hotel, adjacent to a public park with koi pond, and 2 blocks from the Suntory Museum of Art (fantastic Daimyo show right now).  All for $115/night thanks to (a) being on my own (double rooms are often simply 2X the price of a single), and (b) orbitz.com.

Best hotel surprise:  Hotel-onsen Kanyo in Shizugawa on the NE coast of Tohoku.  Stopped the rental car at sunset to tank up and asked the gas station manager where to find a hotel.  He said “just one kilometer farther up” and an enormous concrete hotel appeared.  The staff spoke not a word of English, the room was Japanese style, the hot spring bath was outdoors, and the pool was big enough to swim laps.

Memorable scenic views:

  • Mashu-ko, a crater lake in eastern Hokkaido.  In general the Japanese have heavily developed their seacoast (“the sea is where you go to get dinner”) but left lakeshores alone.  This lake is a lot like Oregon’s Crater Lake but not nearly so high in elevation.
  • the city of Hakodate (Sapporo) from the top of the ropeway (cable car) and also the surrounding mountains and coastline at sunset
  • cliffs and rocks of Rikuchu-kagan National Park, a not-very-developed coastline in NE Tohoku
  • cliffs in the Geibikei Gorge (near Hiraizumi) viewed from the flat-bottomed boat while beautiful koi swam alongside and begged for food from the tourists
  • various spots along the highway in Daisetsuzan National Park (Hokkaido)

Places in Japan that I’d like to visit next time:  Nara, Shikoku, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Okinawa (plus repeats to Tokyo and Kyoto to see friends and familiar sights–see http://www.photo.net/travel/japan/ for some snapshots from earlier trips)

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