Saturday, December 30, 2017

Japan practicalities

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.

Kurama, Japan

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.

Naoshima, Japan

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.

Hiroshima, Japan

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, Japan

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.

Nara, Japan

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.

Kyoto, Japan

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.

Kyoto, Japan

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.

Kyoto, Japan

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 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.

Ethiopia: Practicalities

Ethiopia is an exceptional country -- the only African nation never to be colonized, its people have a strong sense of pride in their culture and their history. They're enthusiastic about sharing it with travelers, and their willingness to engage in conversation means you'll rarely feel lonely even if you're traveling solo. You might wish for more solitude than you get, but that's a good problem to have. The openness of the Ethiopian people seemed to me remarkable, and it made this trip more of a life-changing experience than I'd anticipated. Yes, you'll have to confront a great deal of poverty, and the vast gulf between the opportunities we enjoy and the much more limited options faced by the average Ethiopian, particularly women. That isn't always an easy thing to forces us to ask ourselves what are our obligations to the world, and to question how we live...but it's probably one of the essential questions we face in our moral lives. It's a challenging destination, but no more for the solo female traveler than for anyone else. I never felt unsafe, even though I was certainly visible, being one of only a few non-Ethiopian people around and usually the only one with yellow hair. I didn't get any unwanted advances from men -- the Ethiopians seem pretty modest -- but I'm also of an age where that's not all that likely to happen. And by Ethiopian standards, I'm pretty damn old. The life expectancy for women in Ethiopia is just 64.6 years -- think about that for a moment. I booked all my lodgings through, and didn't spend more than about $60 a night for any hotel room...None of the places I stayed could be described as squalid in any respect; in fact, they were quite nice, apart from the strange lack of electrical power after 9 pm in Gonder. Food is delicious and extraordinarily cheap: a nice meal is about $5 in a restaurant. I never got sick during my time in Ethiopia, but I was pretty careful. (I even brushed my teeth with bottled water.) It's easy to eat out without eating meat: just ask for what is ironically called "fasting food," which Ethiopians eat most of the time anyway. It will help if you like legumes, which are the basic protein in the Ethiopian diet. Getting around between cities requires either a lot of time or an airplane flight; I chose the latter. Ethiopian flies between all of the major cities, and the flights are reasonably priced. They're even cheaper if you book through Ethiopian, which I didn't. I still felt like the prices were reasonable. Traveling within cities means walking (it's hilly, no matter where you are) or taking a cab, but I'd suggest figuring out the public minivan/bus situation to get a better feel for local life. Ask your hotel desk clerk how it works, and how to find the "station" once you know where you want to go. People are super-helpful and kind, and taking public transport might just be the best part of your journey.

Yemrehane Kristos, near Bilbilla, Ethiopia

The cave church of Yemrehane the Axumite style of the 11th century, which means it predates the stone churches of Lalibela by a few centuries. I went there at Molla Kassaw's insistence, hiring a van and driver for the 2-hour drive from Lalibela. The destination was worth the drive, but so was the journey, which took us away from the relative prosperity of Lalibela to the more hardscrabble countryside between there and Balbilla. Most people live a very basic existence, farming or herding animals. Water is scarce, as is food. It makes the superabundance of American life feel frankly obscene.

Lalibela, Ethiopia

Lalibela, Ethiopia

Baye Alewu, my 11-year-old guide to Lalibela. You changed my life, Baye...I'll never forget you!

Lalibela, Ethiopia

More shots from the stone churches of Lalibela...