Thursday, October 29, 2009

Takamatsu and Tokushima

The ride from Tokyo to Takamatsu city in Shikoku was 12 hours. Luckily, I slept through most of it. It would have probably been wise to stay up and see the amazing bridges which connect the islands of Honshu and Shikoku but I was too exhausted from my initial introduction of Tokyo.

I was staying in Takamatsu for a few days during which I walked the beautiful Ritsurin Park, took an hour train ride to climb over 700 stairs to see a famous shrine on top of Kompira-San (Mt. Kompira), visited the oldest surviving kabuki theater in Japan, partied and sang karaoke with a bunch of fun JETs and ate a famous Kagawa Udon. (Kagawa is the name of the prefecture where Takamatsu is located and udon is a thick wheat-flour noodle soup.  Supposedly udon originates in Kagawa and its residents alone eat more udon than all the residents of Japan).

Moving sooner than later, I was soon hitching a ride to Tokushima, a city on the eastern cost of Shikoku. A 30 year old “sarariman” and his 24 year old girlfriend pulled over as soon as they saw my sign. They were on their way to Kobe (on Honshu) to a punk rock concert and were happy to give me a ride. Being true to their Japanese nature, they were very kind and thoughtful. Tokushima was only an hour away from Takamatsu and I was at the Takamatsu Station by 11am.

Leaving my bag in the locker I set off to explore the city.

Before coming to Tokushima, I asked a few people what they would recommend to see in the area and heard a very definite, “There is nothing. Don’t go there”. However, my gut feeling was telling to ignore recommendations to avoid the “empty” prefecture and visit it anyway. Soon I knew my instincts were right.

Tokushima is a relatively small city but abundant with smiling residents, laughing kids, beautiful temples, amazing river and mountain views, strange and wondrous architecture, quaint and cozy bakery shops, thrilling overview of the city atop of Mt. Bizan, and so much more. Next to Sapporo and Hakodate, Tokushima is my favorite city so far. I can barely believe that I almost didn’t come here.

In the afternoon, I went to visit a very famous dance performance: Awa Odori. Awa Odori dates back several centuries when common folk used to dance it on the street. The dancers’ moves reflect their feelings about and relationships with the nature and more specifically with sun, flowers and birds. When it gained popularity, it was adopted for stage performances and after World War II, its fame really took off. During the Bon Festival, on August 12-15, over 1.3 million people come to Tokushima (a city of 300,000 residents) to watch and participate in the dance.

The performance, which I went to watch in the Awa Odori Center, also invited people from the audience to participate. Overcoming my shyness I went on stage. Moving hands and feet in unison with dancers’, I couldn’t stop smiling. It was a liberating feeling. Knowing that this dance was meant to learn the wonders of nature, I moved with the beat and inner feelings.

Within several minutes, the host of the performance placed a lai on my neck. Having no idea what that meant, I continued dancing. When the dance was over, the host asked everyone participating in the dance to stay on stage (there were about 20 of us). Turned out, he gave out 3 white lays and 1 red lai. I had the red lai. Thanking heavens for the girl who volunteered to be my translator during performance, I soon found out that I got the 1st place for dancing. (Something tells me I received it not because I was good but because I was the only gaijin in the whole auditorium). The host then proceeded to question me in front of the audience about my travels. It was an embarrassing affair (since I didn’t speak Japanese) but I finally won their hearts over when I finished my tirade with, “Nihon ga daisuki desu”, which means “I love Japan”. They all clapped and even bowed slightly to thank me for such wonderful comment. Yes, every Japanese person takes it personal when one confesses their love for Japan. Japan and Japanese people are one.

I ended the evening having Tokushima Ramen with a Japanese girl I met earlier during the day. And since I wasn’t able to find a couchsurfing host in Tokushima, I spend the night in an internet café.

Now, Japanese internet cafés are a work of art. I got a separate cubicle, equipped with a computer, DVD, table lamp, huge armchair and foot rest. The cafes are dark and quiet. There are a shower and bathrooms on premises. A huge selection of DVDs and manga for every taste. An abundance of coffee and tea. And a 24 hour convenient store on the first floor. Many people find internet cafés as a good source of alternative lodging. It was my first time and I found the experience thrilling. Finally tucking myself in for the night in the huge armchair, I was thinking of how wonderful the world is.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Fukushima and Tokyo

My hosts in Fukushima were an American man Kevin, his Japanese wife Mayumi and their 2 year old son Yamato. It was a very short but wonderful stay. Yamato and I bonded within few hours; Mayumi cooked delicious dinner and gave numerous recommendations for my trip; Kevin captivated with tales of his world travels and his kind heart when he helped me find my bus at 12:30 at night.

Fukushima is a small town but it charmed me with picturesque mountain landscape; bountiful farm fields ranging from rice and cabbage to apples to peaches; and its hospitable residents. Kevin and I biked through town on his tandem bicycle in the morning and in the afternoon we took off for a mountain range which revealed a spellbinding scenic view of the autumn foliage.

At 12:30am I caught an overnight bus to Tokyo.

I arrived in Tokyo at 5:30am. Still sleepy, I walked over to the Tokyo Station rinsed my face, brushed my teeth, left my bag in a locker and set off for the city.

“Morning Tokyo” immediately reminded me of New York. I am not a morning person and the only good thing about my early commute to work was the experience of the “morning city”. I knew how crazy, busy and wonderful the city was during the day. But it was even more special during morning hours. The sleeping city was covered in a hazy veil of dreams. It was magnificently silent and empty. I loved hearing the birds’ chirping and sensing the whisper of the wind. In the summer, the mornings brought cool breeze of the night and in the winter, fresh crisp of the snow.

“Morning Tokyo” was just the same. I knew that the empty, silent and tranquil streets I was walking would soon be overtaken by hordes of crowds. The street vendors would be yelling from top of the lungs attracting customers to their shops; the “sararimen” would be rushing in black suites to and from while talking loudly on phones about business deals; the children would be running around chasing birds and making their parents worried; the school girls would be flaunting their long skinny legs and make “sararimen” forget about their business deals; the tourists will stare blankly into maps and snap photos of everything they’ll lay their eyes on. It would be a noisy, dirty, busy, full of life, wonderful city. But not just yet. Now I was bathing in its silence. Appreciating every tree, noticing every cigarette but, hearing every footstep, sensing every motion, feeling every breath of wind, smelling every flower.

My layover in Tokyo was only 15 hours but I spent it well. I explored the Tokyo Station with its abundance of shops and agencies; I walked the Gardens of the Imperial Palace, I roamed the streets of the famous Ginza neighborhood, I met a Japanese friend and took a confusing subway ride to visit an old museum outside the city.

This view reminded me of Central Park

I knew this was just a quick hello to the city. “I’ll be back soon enough”, I whispered to Tokyo that night as I was situating myself on a bus, which was taking me to Shikoku.

Friday, October 23, 2009


I arrived in Sendai late afternoon and was immediately immersed by fume, traffic, noise and people. Even more so than Sapporo, Sendai felt like a city with an attitude. But its saving oasis was the fact that it is a “City of Trees” and the greenest big city I’ve ever seen. Thousands of trees adorned long streets, hiding traffic lights, humming the noise and absorbing the fumes.

Sendai Eki (Sendai Station) is built up and down several floors packed with shopping galore catered to any needs. Arcades, boutiques, pachinkos, high-end restaurants, ramen shops, massage parlors and so much more. While waiting for my host to pick me up I sat down on the bench outside the station and let my thoughts wonder. Still unable to understand why I am so fascinated with Japan and its inhabitants I concentrate on watching people. Sararymen wearing black suites, suitcases in hands hurrying to and from station; young beautiful girls dressed in “sailor moon” uniforms and knee highs flirting with schoolmates; stylish young men with most wondrous hairdos clad in skinny jeans, tall boots and trendy shirts playing with each other; older ladies draped in kimonos trotting on zoris to local supermarkets. I could watch them for hours. Every move, word or smile made me wonder.

I got very lucky with the weather, it stayed above 20C (70F) for several days while I was in Sendai. So without much delay one morning I packed my shoulder bag and set off to Matsushima.

Matsushima is located half an hour north-east of Sendai and is considered one of three most scenic sights in all Japan. In 1689 a renowned Haiku poet Matsuo Basho wrote a legendary haiku about Matsushima:

Matsushima ah!
A-ah, Matsushima, ah!
Matsushima, ah!

Supposedly he was so in awe of its beauty that he had no other words to describe its splendor. Nowadays, Matsushima Bay is filled with souvenir shops, travel agents, taxis and tourists but all you need to get away is to walk across a bridge to a nearby island and get lost in its forest. Filled with clear scents of pine needles, fresh earth, tree roots and musty wood, the island is a harbor to all seeking solitude and peace.

I’ve encountered no adventures in Sendai, except for one man who confessed his love to me but I think something was lost in translation when he told me he loved me within 15 minutes of our encounter.

Thanking my Phillipino host John Paul for being kind and thoughtful, I set off to Fukushima.