In late October/early November of 2015, Marguerite and her travel buddies spent 17 days in Japan on an Overseas Adventure Tour (OAT). There were 16 people on the trip, eight of whom were part of "Gretchen's Group". This is the sixth tour Marguerite has taken with her college friend, Gretchen Turner.
Travelers included Gretchen's Group (*) and 8 others (left to right): Doreen Runge (Wisconsin), Marguerite (San Diego)*, June Gengler (Wisconsin), Gretchen Turner (Atlanta)*, Judith Weinstein (New York), Arnold Weinstein (New York), Carl Perlato (Atlanta)*, Howard Meyers (Los Angeles), Cheryl Perlato (Atlanta)*, Ronda Platt (Los Angeles), Mary Gallagher (New Jersey)*, Isaiah Seligman (New York), Renee Walter (Phoenix)*, Janet Seligman (New York), Judith Marks (New Jersey)*, Connie Chevalier (California)*, Keiko Takakura, our trip leader. This photo was taken by Munkhbat Batbekh (Muuggi) who was on the trip observing for the OAT central office. He is a tour guide in Mongolia.
After almost 20 hours of travel, Marguerite arrived in Tokyo where she was met by an OAT representative and instructed on how to take the shuttle bus to downtown Tokyo. Once there, she was met by Keiko Takakura, our tour guide, who got us to our hotel where we stayed for two days. The first day we took a bus tour to get an overview of Tokyo. Marguerite had been to Tokyo twice before. Once with George en route to Beijing at least 15 years ago and the second time in 2005 with Betsy when Marguerite was invited to present a lecture to the Japanese Nurses' Association. We enjoyed a welcome dinner at a local restaurant and the next day embarked on a long bus ride that included a stop at Mount Fuji.
Mount Fuji (Fujisan) is an active volcano which, at about 12,000 feet, is the highest peak in Japan. Once feared for its repeated eruptions, Fujisan has become an intimate part of the Japanese people. It is now recognized as a World Heritage Site. The mountain is divided into 10 stations. We could ride the bus up to station 5 (7562 feet about sea level) where we got off to take photos and do some shopping. It was very cold and we had been advised to bring warm jackets, gloves, and caps! There was snow on the peak and lots of people taking in the views. Quite breathtaking!
Mount Fuji to Hakone
After leaving Mount Fuji, we continued by bus to Hakone that is famous for having Japanese Onsen (hot springs for bathing). We checked into the hotel and shared a lovely traditional Japanese meal in a private dining room there. Then we returned to our room to sleep on traditional futons on the floor! (photo below left) With many aches and pains of getting up and down to our futons, Gretchen and Marguerite settled into a fairly comfortable night. Early the next morning we both tried out the Onsen on the lower hotel level, but first were required to take a full shower (including washing hair) to insure we were clean enough to share the experience! The women's and men's Onsen are entirely separate. Everyone was issued the traditional kimono, short jacket, and thong shoes to wear around the hotel. Of course, almost everywhere we went we were required to take off our shoes but socks were encouraged. A bit tricky on slick floors but nobody had any serious falls, thank goodness. Because we were leaving Hakone to go to the next city by bullet train, we were asked to use a small bag to take enough clothes, medicines, etc., for two days. Our large suitcases were shipped ahead to Kanazawa. It is very difficult to manage large luggage on the trains and to get it on and off in the minimum time the doors are open for egress and ingress!!
Hakone is a beautiful city and we spent a couple of hours at the Hakone Open Air Museum that has dozens of sculptures (photos below of Marguerite and Gretchen by one of them and also a view of the wonderful trees and foliage). There is also an excellent Picasso museum built in 1984. The gallery presents a wide range of works by Picasso as well as photographs revealing his vast imagination and personal life. We returned to the hotel for another Japanese style dinner.
Hakone to Kanazawa
This morning we had our first experience with a Japanese Bullet Train. Wow! It really goes fast (about 150 miles per hour). We had purchased some "bento boxes" for lunch and ate on the train as we watched the scenery zipping by. We then changed to a local train in Nogowa and arrived from the station to go to our hotel to meet our large suitcases and settle in for dinner. The next day was took a chartered coach to visit an Ochaya -- an establishment where Geisha entertain their patrons). We learned about the Geisha tradition from a lovely lady who helps run the establishment. We learned that the Geisha in Kanazawa are in a union, can be married, and entertain guests (mostly but not exclusively men) for 90 minute sessions each evening. A session includes dancing, dinner, and conversation. She assured us that Geisha do not provide sexual favors to guests! We also visited the Kenrokuen Garden that is quite lovely and frequently crossed paths with school children dressed in their uniforms and colored hats!
Shirakawa-go and Gokayama
We enjoyed several unique experiences on this day including a visit to a Folklore Park for "Mochitsuki" rice cake making experience and a Gassho-style house where we saw a traditional dance by a local man (see movie below) but had to leave because the smoke was so intense from the cooking pit in the middle of the floor! We also ate "Soba" or buckwheat noodles for lunch at a charming local restaurant. We spent the afternoon at a Paper Making Handicraft Workshop where we made Washi paper by hand. Etchu kokushi or Gokayama washi paper has been made for over 1200 years. It is made from a mixture of Kozo (paper mulberry) fibers and Tororo Aoi (hollyhock) that is cooked for many hours to release the fibers. There are many steps to the procedure. Traditionally this paper has been used to cover the holes in shoji screens used for inside windows and doors in Japanese homes. We also learned about wood inlay (marquetry) to create elaborate patterns by inlaying wood pieces of different colors and types.
Japan Dance Movie
Home Visit at Kanazawa and on to Kyoto
An important part of each OAT trip is a visit with a local family. Gretchen, Cheryl, Carl, and Marguerite visited with Fujio and Yoko Nakagawa who are both about 75 years old and were children when the Atomic Bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (August 1945). Mr Nakagawa was a business man for many years and is now retired; Mrs Nakagawa is an expert at flower arranging (Ikebana) and showed us a book of some arrangements that have won awards. They have one daughter who is a concert pianist and a delightful granddaughter who is about three years old. They babysit during the day. Their home has three levels, small and cluttered, but very homey. They have one room that is where Mrs Nakagawa teaches Ikabana and has tea ceremonies. This room was almost completely bare with tatami mats on the floor. Tatami mats were in many of the places we visited. They are made of straw tightly woven and create a flat, clean floor. Nobody ever walks on tatami mats with shoes on!! It is also where they sleep on futon mats that are folded up and hidden away in a large closet during the daytime. When we compared notes with the other 4 sets of home visitors, we found there was quite a bit of similarity in the homes and that the families had recovered long ago from the devastation of WWII and were leading productive and busy lives.
Kyoto is a large city that was the capital of Japan for more than a thousand years. We were scheduled to spend five days there. It rained when we arrived and our raincoats and umbrellas got quite a bit of use early in this part of the trip. We began by sightseeing on a chartered bus and went to several temples. We had lunch at a local French restaurant (LaTour) that is in a building of Kyoto University. Kyoto University is considered the best University in Japan by many of the students and people with whom we spoke. They claim ten Nobel Laureates and two Fields Medalists among its faculty and alumni. The food was excellent and served in a room much like a faculty club. During this day we also learned more about the famous Japanese toilets by Toto. These "western-style" toilets have heated seats and instructions for use! Most Japanese still prefer the squat toilets (hole in the floor type) that we were told work much better if the woman is in a kimono and cannot sit down. A special place we saw was the Golden Pavilion, a beautiful building covered with much gold leaf. Everywhere we went there were lines of vending machines -- many sponsored by the Coca Cola Company complete with drinks branded as "Georgia". Drinks cost $1.50-2.00 US. In the afternoon we visited Sanjusangendo Hall home of more than 1000 Buddha statues. each statue has many arms. There is much folklore associated with these statues that are held in high esteem by the Japanese people. We were not permitted to take photos so this photo is from Wikipedia!
Day Trip to Nara and Fushimi
The next day we visited the city of Nara which was the capital of Japan before Kyoto. We visited two UNESCO world heritage sites: Todaji Temple and Kasuga Shinto Shrine. Almost all of the people of Japan are Buddhist and there are many temples. This temple has the Daibutsu -- an impressive 52-foot Buddha statue. The photo of Marguerite below is of the base of the Buddha. Very large flower petals! In the park surrounding the temple are scores of tame, free-roving deer, which were traditionally regarded as the messengers of the Shinto god Kasuga. The deer want to be fed and we were told not to offer food or have papers in our hands as they would steal the paper to eat! The Shinto Shrine site is famous for having over 3000 stone lanterns. In the afternoon we visited the Fushimi-Inari shrine. Whenever we visited a shrine we saw families with children dressed in traditional Japanese kimono outfits. We were told this is because children have special blessings as infants, around 3 years old and around 6 years old. The children are very cute and reminded us of our grandkids!
One evening when we had "dinner on own" we visited a "conveyor-belt sushi place" (see movie below) that was lots of fun. Gretchen and Marguerite shared a dozen plates of sushi/sashimi/tempura. Charges were calculated from the number and color of plates -- we mostly had blue plates (least expensive) and a couple of red plates (more expensive). The entire meal for both of us was under $25!
Sushi Belt Movie
Arashiyama Neighborhood, More Temples, and Farewell Dinner
Arashiyama has beautiful gardens with large bamboo groves. We walked around for the morning and enjoyed the beautiful Fall colors that were on most hillsides and gardens. In the evening we enjoyed a Farewell Dinner with the ten travelers who were not going on to Hiroshima. Among them were the Parlatos (photo is of Carl and Marguerite with the bamboo) who needed to get home to Atlanta.
We have learned a lot about Japan in these 12 days including that there are serious population problems in Japan now as the fertility/replacement rate is less than 1.3 births per 1000 reproductive-age women (to maintain adequate "replacement" the fertility rate needs to be a bit above 2.0). Japan has the longest lived people in the world with both men and women commonly living into their 80s and 90s. There are many efforts being made to encourage young people to marry and have children; however, in speaking with our Tour Guide and other Japanese it seems that many young women want to concentrate on their careers and are not particularly interested in marrying. Many young men still live at home and want wives like their mothers! There seem to be many disconnects in career plans and family. We also noticed that the Japanese people are very modest. There were no advertisements for Viagra or Cialis or almost naked women in fancy lingerie like we see on TV and in magazines in the USA. All of the people (men and women), regardless of age, were "covered up" with little skin showing. Although Japanese children learn to read English in school, there are very few people (outside of the tourist industry) who speak English at all. The scores of school children we saw only knew a few English words.
Hiroshima and Peace Memorial Park
Six of us (Gretchen, Marguerite, Renee, Judy Marks, Mary, and Connie) continued on to Hiroshima for three days. We were asked to put clothes, medicine, etc., for 3 days into a small bag for the Hiroshima hotel as we will make the trip to Osaka Airport on a Bullet Train. The first afternoon in Hiroshima was spent at Peace Memorial Park. This was the highlight of the trip for Marguerite. We first went to "ground zero" where the atomic bomb was dropped on August 6, 1945. The bomb actually exploded some feet above the city and the damage extended out over several miles.
There was lots of symbolism at the Peace Memorial Park including scores of origami cranes in many sizes. The crane is a symbol of peace. The strings of cranes are hung to show the many tributes that are made continuously in the name of peace. The Park also includes an old building (the A-Bomb Dome) that was a federal building only partially destroyed. It has not been rebuilt and stands as a reminder of the devastation. There is also a monument containing all of the names of people lost in the bombing.
The A-bomb museum is very well done and pretty balanced about the USA, considering the devastation and the number of lives lost. There is a model of the blast area that includes the red ball above ground and the area demolished. There were scores of school children in the museum also. We each had a hand-held recorder so we could hear the narrative about the objects. They were also labeled in Japanese and English. At the end was a very poignant photo talking about recovery after the devastation.
Inland Sea Islands
The final day in Hiroshima we toured the Inland Sea Islands. We took several trains and a ferry to get to the Sakori Port. While there we visited both the Kosanji Temple and the Ikou Hiroyama Museum of Art. The art museum is dedicated to the art of a single, very prolific, Japanese artist named Hirayama Ikuo (1930-2009). During his life he painted several thousand pieces and was a distinguished professor at Tokyo University. Marguerite bought a copy of one of his paintings to have framed and hung somewhere at home.
Farewell Dinner and Home
Our farewell dinner in Hiroshima was lovely. We went to a traditional Japanese restaurant and had fancy bento boxes of many interesting items made from tofu. The restaurant was very lovely, quiet, and our dining room looked out over a beautiful Japanese garden.
The next morning we got on the bullet train to Osaka. At the airport, we retrieved our large suitcases and sat on the floor to reload them with dirty clothes and things from the small bag. We could only take one carry-on and a personal item (same as in the USA) so lots of stuff got stuffed into the big suitcases so they could be checked. At the airport we had time for a meal and went to a Western style restaurant for salad, steak, and fries. We were all ready for familiar American food!! The trip home was uneventful, about 24 hours total, and we were all very ready to get home.
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