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On The Other Side

Six down, one to go.  That’s the disposition of my quest to cross the seven seas:  The Atlantic, the Indian, the Mediterranean, the Gulf of Mexico, the Pacific, the Caribbean and the Arctic. Just having crossed the Pacific, only the Artic is left.  This particular seafaring adventure, undertaken to visit long-distance friends, landed me on the other side. The other side of the world- Japan.


In route, ten days straight before embarking again on land, I eventually lost track of the time of day or night, after readjusting the clock continuously to accommodate new time zones.  That didn’t really bother me much, being ship-bound so, I just let it happen and it felt good! Heading westerly, and crossing the International Dateline, the vessel vaulted over a full day in a blink.  Through some rocky sea days, cold, rainy weather, reports of a typhoon and a possible cyclone at my far-off destination, I remained undaunted. 


Engrossed in everything along this Pacific oceanic route, there were sightings of humpback whales, sea otters, shark groups, and bottleneck dolphins. Sailing within a section of the most seismically active areas on earth, “The Ring of Fire,” one volcano that I couldn’t identify was expelling an impressive tower of smoke, leaving me to wonder just what it would take for it to erupt. Still getting closer, to the first seaport, at Hokkaido Island, passengers sighted the cataclysmic Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant, now eight years after a disastrous earthquake and tsunami precipitated the meltdown of three out of six plant reactors within the period of three days.  Frightfully, it continues to leak radioactive water slowly into the Pacific Ocean and the question remains:  What can safely be done with in excess of 850,000 tons of the radioactive water currently being reserved in over 850 tanks on site? My friends were among those evacuated from the surrounding area and relocated elsewhere.  


Presently, they live on Hokkaido Island and, by chance, it was the first place where I disembarked. Everything was consuming:  The language, lettering, dwellings and way of life, shops and product offerings- even the vending machines!  My initial day in Japan in Otaru, Hokkaido, was my introduction to a culture very different from my own yet, still, remarkable. 


“Old Aoyama Villa (Kyu Aoyama bettei), Otaru Kihinkan, constructed in 1917 by Masakichi Aoyama, one of three affluent herring magnates, was the first curiosity.  With its silvered, opalescent sides and glistening blue back, the herring, known as the “fish of spring,” bolstered the fortunes of prosperous Japanese tycoons.  Herring mansions were constructed as residences but, for the purpose of processing fish, as well.  A “Designated Historical Residence” known for sophistication and elegance, Masakichi’s mansion is appointed with the finest of art, paintings, calligraphy and superb objects of refinement. The luxurious rooms of this “golden age of herring” fishing villa were designed in rosewood (shitan), blackwood (kokutan), Bombay blackwood (tagayasan), and appointed with paintings and calligraphy on screens and sliding doors.  My favorite room was the “Peony Room,” where the exquisite flowers of the peony tree “expressed the cycle of life- from blossoming buds to scattering petals.”


Twenty-five minutes from the island’s economic hub- Sapporo, Otaru is situated on the Ishikari Bay, and has long functioned as Hokkaido’s main port. A noted city landscape, Otaru Canal, is still a popular tourist destination due to its charm, though its original functionality has changed from a support for growing shipping activity due to the fishing industry’s success to a tourist attraction. A walk along the canal and the main promenade took me past craft shops, converted warehouses, restaurants, and pulled rickshaws, parked in anticipation of the next passengers.   


By my second day, I had accumulated a number of questions like, “Which active volcano did I likely see at a distance from south of Fukushima on the way to Hokkaido- Sakurajima, Bandai, Azumayama?  Could we see the morning seafood market? Will we be in the vicinity of any temples worth visiting? However, as my friend, Kumi and her husband, collected me from the Hakodate Harbor, we were more captivated by our emotional reunion after so many years of living at a nearly insurmountable distance- tightly embracing and assessing each other’s well-being. Finally, we resolved that our steadfast bond of friendship was undiminished, even after nearly 19 years. Kindred spirits had never deviated from the spiritual connection.  


Since my time was limited to seven hours, we departed Nishi Wharf and headed to their home, detouring only to take in the stunning view of Mount Hakodate from the all-weather observatory 1,100 feet above ground.  Though I, initially, had the mind to visit several additional sites in Hakodate, my time was best spent understanding the trajectory of my friends’ lives since fleeing the Fukushima catastrophe. Smiling as she spoke, Kumi joked, I’m a farmer, now.” And, in fact, our lunch was prepared largely from her bountiful garden. All those years ago, we’d met at the North American Auto Charity Preview in Detroit, shortly after the couple’s arrival in Metro-Detroit and, she had gone from wife of Japanese auto executive to contented spouse, enjoying the quiet life, including gardening in retirement. Though retired, her husband retains the chairmanship of one of the most important Japanese automotive conferences. Plus, our kids are now all young adults. We had missed so much of each other’s lives that the Hakodate Morning Market, the Red Brick Warehouses, the Old British Consulate, with its tea house, and the Russian Orthodox Church, Haristo-Sei-kyokai could wait until my return. Nonetheless, the indirect circuit taken back to the ship routed us through Nanae, historically one of the first places in Japan to test American and European techniques for agriculture, and on to Onuma Quasi-National Park. Here, Lakes Onuma, Konuma and Junsainuma contribute to the breathtaking landscape, each at the foot of Mount Komagatake. 


Set to meet Kumi again in three days, I re-boarded the cruise liner and departed for Yokohama, the ship’s final destination, a day and a half away at a steady pace. Upon arrival, the first day was packed with activity from an early morning start until late at night, beginning with an eight hour comprehensive tour of Tokyo.  Once in Tokyo, I immediately had a sense of being overwhelmed. The streets were packed with people (population of Greater Tokyo- over 40M), shops, vehicles, rickshaws, and skyscrapers.  This cosmopolitan metropolis consisted of many superstructures and architectural marvels, seemingly constructed merely inches apart, several of them internationally renowned like, the Tokyo Tower, the Tokyo International Forum, the Rainbow Bridge and the Tokyo Skytree (second tallest self-supporting structure in the world, after Dubai’s Burj Khalifa).  Such a megacity, Tokyo was like a torpedo, vigorously advancing, possessing more dynamism and energy than I could have directed on my own.


All the way over there, I was delighted when I sighted a very familiar name- Garrett’s Popcorn, with a magnificently flashing marquee.   What’s more, a stroll through the Ginza shopping district unfolded into a promenade past recognizable haute couture shops; numerous luxury-branded boutiques; department stores, like Mitsukoshi, Matsuya, and Tokyu Plaza Ginza; art galleries; and ritzy restaurants, including a personal favorite- French owned concept, La Duree.  Accepting the fact that Tokyo ranks as one of the most expensive cities in the world, a $6 purchase for a cup of coffee came as no surprise.    


Wait, there was still more to marvel at:  The moats and gardens of the Imperial Palace sat on the original site of the Edo Castle.  As an introduction to classic Japan, a walk along a designated path through a portion of the 170 acre evergreen forest led to the Meiji Shrine, dedicated to Emperor Meiji and announced by two 40- foot Torii Gates. The Sensō-ji Kannon Buddhist Temple, Tokyo’s oldest and most important temple, adjoined the five-story pagoda, Asakusa Shinto Shrine, which honored the founders of Sensō-ji. The unique experience on neighboring Nakamise Dori Street, the oldest street in Tokyo, comprised of purchasing traditional goods, along with street food, like senbei crackers, meat croquettes and matcha ice cream. In a garden setting, chefs, who prepared Teppanyaki, a Japanese style barbeque, thrilled diners with adroit performances on the grills and served appetizing selections. 


Back in Yokohama, the second most populated Japanese city, I met my friend and former employee, Noriko, for dinner and rode over to the warehouse district of this port city.  Here we sat across from Tokyo Bay, awed by the 970 foot, illuminated Yokohama Landmark Tower, while catching-up on each other’s news. 

Kyoto, here we come, Shinkansen (bullet train) and all, taking in Osaka and Mount Fuji, as we sped by! Armed with two words, “arigato” (thank you) and “kon’nichiwa” (hello), I told Kumi upon arrival, “I’m lost without you. Seriously!” Even buying the correct subway and train tickets and exiting the massive train station were truly tests to my vigilance.In spite of my tentativeness, we made our way.   In the Gion District, Kyoto’s most renowned geisha community, we discovered the Kyoto Yasaka-Hall Gion Corner.  Here, inaccessible from worries, we thoroughly appreciated several long-standing Japanese ceremonies performed by maiko (geisha apprentices):   Chado (Tea Ceremony) emphasized the beauty in simplicity and, demonstrated gracefulness, peace and harmony in the preparation and drinking of green tea.  Kado (Flower Arrangement), typical in a Japanese tea ceremony house, was creatively and expertly exhibited. Common in Kyoto, Kyo-mai was elegantly danced. Melodies from the Koto Zither (Japanese harp) charmed. Gagaku Court indigenous music, usually dramatized at the Imperial Court, shrines and temples, was enhanced by dance.  And, at last, the Kyogen Theatre performed a popular comedy, followed by the Bunraku Puppet Theatre’s presentation of the famous love story, “Datemusme Koi-no Higanoko.” 

A favorite visit was to the Nishijin District of Kamigyō-ku in Kyoto, where the Nishijin Textile Center and Museum are located.  Here, I learned of the history of Nishijin textiles, while observing exquisite and treasured fabrics and historical dresses.  When I was seated for the Kyoto Kimono Fashion Show, I was reminded of the magnificent kimonos of Madama Butterfly in performances of Pucinni’s opera back at home. Artisan demonstrations presented how punched cards were used to create patterned fabrics using a hand loom in a technique called “Nukinishiki” and how, using the oldest Nishijin process, weavers fabricated material with nails cut into “saw-like teeth”, in order to incorporate the threads into the fabric.

Let’s see…There’s a lot more to recount.  I’ll just have to prioritize:  A tour of the former Imperial Villa, Nijo-jo Castle, now a World Heritage Site, was an education in Japanese military history and politics. Built by Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first Shōgun of the Tokugawa Shogunate, Nijo-jo Castle served as the official Kyoto residence of the Shōgun, military director and de facto ruler for most of the Kamakura and Edo eras (between 1185 and 1868). This site is definitely an extraordinary representation of late Golden Age architecture and design, encompassing the Honmaru-goten Palace, with six buildings, 33 rooms, authoritative depictions of tigers and leopards, trees and flowers of the four seasons; watchtowers at the four corners of the castle, serving as lookouts and armories; the Kara-mon Gate, uniquely carved with cranes, lions and plum blossoms, allowing entry into the palace area; the Honmaru-goten, Seiyu-en, and Ninomaru Gardens, inclusive of extensive greenery, stones, teahouses, moats, and crane and turtle islands.   

You may know of the 1956 novel by Yukio Mishima, “The Temple of the Golden Pavilion,” in which Kinkakuji (The Golden Pavilion) is destroyed in 1950 by a young Buddhist apprentice, so possessed with religious vehemence that he burns down the temple- the object of his obsession. This true story was also recounted in Toshiro Mayazumi’s 1976 opera and, again, in the contemporary re-staging by Amon Miyamoto in 2018.  Looking at Kinkakuji from across Mirror Pond, I could attest to its wondrous construction and comprehend the fervor.  Rebuilt in 1955, the temple’s adornment consists of gold leaf cover entirely on the exterior of the second and third floors, yielding an enchanting image in the waters of the pond. 

As I strolled through the many gardens of the shrines and castles, I kept imagining the peril of disengaging from reality, lost in the magnificence and serenity of the grounds.  I truly understood how that could occur. While, I’m still committed to completing my quest, by crossing the Arctic Ocean in my lifetime, I’ll first come back to where my spirit was revitalized and a piece of my heart resides- on the other side. Japan.

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