By Richard Green
From September 26th to October 7th, my wife, Gail, and I joined 19 other Americans on a tour of several Japanese cities and cultural and historic treasures. We traveled by public transportation to a new destination or two every day, finally totaling at least a dozen. More than half were day trips, so we stayed in only four hotels.
Our tour was sponsored by this newspaper and the nonprofit Hokubei Hochi Foundation. Our guides were Elaine Ikoma Ko and Shigeki Kajita, the latter whose fluent Japanese whose ability to knife unerringly through crowds greatly facilitated our travels.
We experienced many memorable moments, which we ritualistically recorded on our smart phones. I’m going to share a few of mine here, however, there were two personal experiences that were especially memorable and inspirational. They come last.
The first on my anecdotal list occurred in Takayama. From the train station, you can exit one of two ways, but since our party of six seeking dinner didn’t understand the signs in Japanese, we mistakenly headed not to the bright, bustling commercial district, but to a dark neighborhood that had a single restaurant where no one spoke Englis , and the menus distributed to us were exclusively in Japanese. Furthermore, unlike most restaurants I saw in Japan, this one had no pictures of the entrees in the front window or on the menus.
We sat there in frustration and befuddlement for a while until the server evidently remembered there was a menu that had some English translations. One of our companions recognized an entrée, said it should be good, so we ordered six. Then, I held up an index finger and very distinctly said, “Beer,” the one perhaps universally understood word.
We enjoyed the meal, a rice bowl with chicken, and felt good about our chopstick technique (no silverware was offered). The bill was indecipherable, of course, so we kept anteing up yen until the server bowed and smiled. After thanking her, we left. But within a minute she was tracking us down the dark street. We evidently had given her too much, and as we understood by then, there is no tipping in Japan.
As we also knew by then, Japan is a very orderly, disciplined society, and this relates more to a cultural imperative than punitive laws. The trains run on time. One minute late, you wait. Despite the dense population of the cities and the fact that most citizens stride purposely and briskly, I never saw anyone jaywalk or walk against red lights. I also didn’t hear any honking cars or witness displays of anger much less violence.
I didn’t see any obvious signs of poverty, homelessness or mental illness and only saw one man on the street asking for handouts. I’m not saying these problems don’t exist, only that they are not publicly visible as they are in U.S. cities.
I don’t recall that our tour was billed as cultural, but that’s how I’ve come to think of it. We toured the immense, ancient Himeji Castle that in my limited castle experience thought was more impressive than the Tower of London. We also visited historically and culturally important shrines and temples in Tokyo and Kyoto, the current and former capital of the nation.
In Tokyo we spent a morning in the world famous Edo Museum. Its main room, air-port hanger sized, contained large impressive replicas of the monuments built by forced labor for emperors in the manner of the pyramids of Egypt and the large earthen mounds of Native American chiefdoms in the southeastern U.S.
I preferred the afternoon venue, the Tokyo National Museum located within the Central Park-sized Ueno Park. As a prelude to the amazing art work we were about to see, I stopped in the park to listen to a cellist giving a free performance worthy of Yo-Yo Ma.
The next day we took a train from Tokyo, and then a bullet train from Nagoya to Takayama. The bullet train lived up to its impressive reviews. It glided almost noiselessly at 200 mph. Objects near the train sped by like images on a roll of film on fast forward.
It was overcast that day, but at one point the clouds cleared in the distance to reveal the cone of the 12,400 foot Mount Fuji. I took some pictures, (at 200 mph) and lamented, that I was not closer and slower. But at least I had gotten a peek at the volcanic mountain that symbolizes Japan.
Still, my two most indelible experiences were yet to come.
The first was achieved at the end of a two hour train ride through several long tunnels and gorgeous, heavily forested mountain ravines. It was a small village named Shirakawa-Go. Considering the 250-year-old thatched-roof houses and structures, small rice fields and garden patches, and the absence of traffic signals due to the absence of traffic, it was as if we had time-traveled backward to an isolated and remote tableaux of the past.
For me, it was love at first hike, as I walked through and around the village settled in the narrow river valley cut through the verdant mountains.
The steep-pitched roofs of thick thatch were built to resemble praying hands and allow for the development of silk worms on the upper floor. Each of these structures was nestled in sylvan, sometimes aquatic, artistic landscapes. I was so moved by some of the settings that I occasionally forgot (unlike me) to take a picture. It is designated as one of Japan’s World Heritage Sites by UNESCO and by me as unique and must see.
The second, Hiroshima, is known by most Americans, many of whom feel conflicted by its place in U.S. history. A few in our group elected not to go. But as I was visiting the city’s monuments and museum on October 4, I was distracted by the news of the mass shooting in Las Vegas.
What tied the two places together in my mind was the fact that guns had been outlawed in Japan with the support of the Japanese following World War II. As a result, Japan seldom experiences more than 10 gun deaths a year in a country of 127 million. But, to achieve this high degree of civilization, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were devastated by atomic bombs on August 6 and 8, 1945.
As I looked at the museum’s exhibits, such as the blood stained dress of a 24-year-old woman who died in agony on August 18in Hiroshima, I brooded. Would it take a similar cataclysm for the U.S. to achieve an enlightenment on gun control similar to Japan’s?
After I left the museum I was encountered by some Japanese elementary school students carrying out a class assignment. What did I think of the atomic bomb? They offered me a clipboard to write my answer.
After I wrote, “Horrible, Never again,” I wrote them a private message.
“I think your orderly society, which promotes honorable ancient traditions, civility and respect and has no place for guns, is a beacon to a troubled world. I’m very happy to be here.”