Friday, August 23, 2019
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Saturday, December 30, 2017
Japan is clean, civilized, and safe, making it ideal for the solo female traveler. The language is less of an impediment than you'd expect — a lot of signs are in English, and you don't need Japanese to get the food you want thanks to food models and picture menus, which aren't exclusive to tourist restaurants but are widely used everywhere. Google maps will keep you from getting lost — the location feature doesn't need wi-fi or data to show you where you are on the map. All in all, it's one of the easiest places on earth to visit, and among the most pleasant. It probably won't shake up your values or change your life, but it's a fun place to explore nonetheless. Train service is excellent, and any trip to Japan has to include a ride on the Shinkansen — I'd recommend paying extra for the super-fast Tokkaido, which is currently the world's fastest train in regular operation. It's simply a magnificent way to get around, and it will make you wish we had rapid rail service in the United States. Contrary to expectations, Japan can be an inexpensive place to visit. It's easy to find cheap but clean and convenient lodging, and even food can be cheaper than in major US cities. I probably ate more ramen than I should have, but I eat a lot of it at home, too. At about $5 a bowl, it's hard to beat. And when you're on the go, convenience stores like 7-11 and Lawson Station have a lot of good, fresh food available on the cheap. I never felt like I got enough vegetables, however — I came home craving leafy greens, which aren't abundant in the Japanese diet.
30 minutes north of Kyoto via an electric rail line, the quiet village of Kurama feels a world apart from the city. Set amid a cedar forest, it's famous for its Buddhist temple, Kurama-dera, which is reached by a 1.2-km uphill hike that justifies a long soak in the onsen afterward. This is essential Japan, in my mind, the kind of can't-miss experience that makes coming to Japan worthwhile. But as with most things here, it's a solitary sort of thing unless you seek out human interaction. People are friendly enough, and they'll certainly acknowledge your presence with a smile and a nod, but they're not going to engage with you unless you start the conversation. I did, and I enjoyed it every time...even when we had little language in common.
The island of Naoshima on the Seto Inland Sea is hardly a secret, but it almost feels like one. It's not easy to get to: the Shinkansen gets you to Okayama, then it's two trains and a boat before you finally reach the island. Once there, however, you get it almost immediately: This is basically the Marfa, Texas of Japan, but instead of Donald Judd it's a testimony to the genius of architect Tadao Ando. Photos are prohibited inside the buildings, but suffice to say that they're some of the most incredible works in concrete you'll ever see, gravity-defying and utterly mesmerizing. And inside, they show off the works of James Turrell, Lee Ufan and Claude Monet to spectacular effect.
When the president of the United States is threatening to use nuclear weapons against North Korea, a visit to Hiroshima feels essential. Peace is such a fragile thing, and violence can seem like the default setting for humankind. The people who live in Hiroshima are reminded of that constantly, whether through plaques, memorials, or the few buildings that remain standing from 1945. What must that be like, this constant confrontation with the human capacity for destruction? Does it prompt anger, or sober reflection? I've read that few Japanese really understand the role their own nation played in World War II, and I can't help but wonder whether we Americans are engaged in a similar blindness today, willfully ignorant of what is being done worldwide in our name.
Nara is famous for the wild deer that roam its parks and temple grounds. They're quite tame, having become accustomed to being fed by visitors, and you can even pet them. Not all of the local wildlife are friendly, however...let's hope the venomous snakes know to stay on their side of the barrier.
A short train ride from Kyoto takes you to Nara, Japan's first imperial capital and a smaller city that feels a world apart from Kyoto. It's far less touristy, for one thing, and much better preserved, architecturally. It's also a lot cheaper in every respect, but particularly where food and lodging are concerned. A city of temples, it's also full of the kind of quiet spaces that drew me to Japan in the first place.
Not far from the bamboo grove in Arashiyama is a house built by the actor Okochi Denjiro. The fairly steep admission fee means it's sparsely attended, and that enables you to get a sense of what it must have been like to live here while it was still a private house surrounded by a splendid and quite large garden.
Persistence and patience pay off at Fushimi Inari, as well, as does a willingness to go to the very top of the mountain to escape the crowds that tend to congregate at the bottom. As you near the summit, especially on a rainy day, the place takes on an almost supernatural quality, the vermillion gates contrasting with the grey stone and mossy greens on either side of the path. This is animist Japan at its most mystical, one of the few places that feels truly ancient in this otherwise modern city.
Few destinations are as welcoming as Japan to the solo female traveler. It's safe, easy to get to, and easy to negotiate once you're there. Unlike Ethiopia, Japan won't force you to confront any great moral dilemmas. It's actually relaxing to be there...you can wander around at will and no one will bother you. That said, no one will really speak to you, either. You have to work for human contact in Japan, whereas in Ethiopia you have to work to avoid it. Time in Japan tends toward the solitary, but that doesn't necessarily equate with contemplative. In Kyoto, where my last trip to Japan ended, finding a space to ponder the aesthetics of the bamboo grove at Arashiyama, for instance, meant seeking out quiet corners away from the tourist traffic, and then being patient enough to wait for the rare moment when I had it all to myself.