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Arlene's 1992 Japan Trip - the Particularly Long Version

photograph of red torii gates, Nara, Japan, 1992 by A.E. Graves
2008 introduction: in 1992, I took my first ever trip out of the United States, to visit a country I had become obsessed with: Japan. I had high hopes for the visit: I planned to teach English in Japan, learn Japanese, and live there for a year or more.

In 1992, the American economy was dismal, and I had been forced to drop out of college for lack of funds. In Japan, I hoped to set a new course, learn more about the culture my architecture teachers insisted my design work was sympathetic with (or outright influenced by), and return with enough money to have a brighter near-term future.

I went alone. I had taught myself to read hiragana and katakana (two of the alphabets, often used in subtitles for children for the complex kanji - characters borrowed from China which each represented one word/concept - a convenient workaround for a foreigner like me), learned how to apologize profusely in Japanese, sent letters to many English-teaching schools, and received at least one encouraging response. I left my temp job at a law firm (the job that was the beginning of my accidental career in law), bought a Japan Rail Pass and plane tickets, and flew to Japan in the fall, right before the autumn color-viewing season peaked.

The trip didn't turn out the way I had planned.

This travelogue was written while I was still seriously ill from the trip, and disappointed that my main goal - staying there to teach - had been foiled. Sightseeing, now matter how impressive the sights were, had been inadequate consolation. I was glad I went, but my disappointment comes out in the text and in the other notes I kept from the trip.

This travelogue takes up about 18 printed pages, and exists in the form of a letter I sent to my pals upon my return. I'm transcribing a copy of the letter I saved. I'll make some additional contemporary comments afterward.

Navigation: Prologue | Arrival/Tokyo | Sendai | Nikko | Hakone | Osaka | Kawachi Nagano | Kobe | Kyoto | Nara | Kyoto, again | Tokyo and Departure | Afterward, 1992 edition | Afterward, 2008 retrospective


It's got the niiiiiice bright colors
It gives the gree-EE-eens of summer
Makes you think aaaaaaaaaaall the world's
A sunny DAY
I've got a Niiiiiiii-kon camera
I love to take phooooooo-oo-to-graphs
Why mama, don't taaaaaake my Kodachrome awaaaaaaay!

Q. #1: Are you old enough to remember this song?

I spent a lot of time singing it mentally while I was in Japan - largely trying to block out the music they were playing. You go into a Japanese restaurant, you order some traditional food. Not a single English word has been spoken. And then you hear it.

Young and tan
and tall and handsome
the boy from Ipanema
goes walking
and when he passes
each girl he passes
says, "aaaaah."

Aaggghhh! Or "Bridge Over Troubled Water," or... Well, you get the idea. I should have known that I was in trouble musically before I even left SFO [San Francisco International Airport]. As we were listening to the boarding calls, they had Muzak of Culture Club's "Karma Chameleon" in the background. Am I really so old that groups whose records I own are features of airport waiting areas? "Records" - there's the tipoff. I'm old.

Anyway, this is about my trip to Japan. It's been weeks since I typed up the first draft of this summary, and if I don't get it done soon, I never will, so... Here goes!


The price of a plane ticket to Japan is painful. But the flight itself is much worse. Perhaps even evil. No one was meant to sit in a plane for that length of time. The staff tried to make everything right, but it just wasn't possible. Shortly after we took off, they figured out that the reading lights didn't work, and despite some rewiring efforts up front, nothing could be done. ('Just a gesture so we'd have faith in their maintenance procedures, I'm sure.) They apologized a lot about this, then made everyone close the window blinds so that everyone could see the movies. So I couldn't finish reading Dave Barry Does Japan. The movies were The Player and Batman Returns. The former had an evil premise. The latter was not worth standing in lines for, maybe only barely worth watching while sitting in the dark in an airplane, unable to see the pages of your much-more-interesting book. I watched it, but I had a bad headphone plug, and it made the movie screechy, which gave me a headache that lasted the rest of the flight. Despite flying in steerage - oh, sorry, - coach class, I had all 4 center seats to myself, since the man at the other end of my row was off socializing during the entire flight. So I got to stretch out and enjoy my headache horizontally.

We landed at Narita Airport, which serves Tokyo, a mere hour away by express train. Great. I went through immigration, where I was politely informed that I had to be out in 90 days, NOT three months as I had inaccurately stated. I was fascinated by the number of uniforms in the customs area. In particular, a lot of small Japanese women were running around with grey militaristic uniforms, including lots of belt attachments, colored arm bands, white gloves, and berets. Oh, - and high heels. And the customs guards had really short hair and wore hats that made them look like the U.S. Marines. (Our Customs Officers look like UPS men, at their most formal. I really didn't understand.)

I decided to cash in [activate] my rail pass, so I wouldn't have to pay an extra $35 to get into town. At which point I consulted the map of Narita airport in my Japan Rail Pass promotional guide. The airport, it claimed, was sort of V-shaped: I should go to the sharp inner part of the V, and head out into the space in the center, where a clearly labelled Tourist Information Center was allegedly located.

I traipsed boldly into the inside of the V and found... a large number of taxis. I looked at the map again. A man dressed like a policeman (as nearly everyone in Japan is) came over and offered me help. So I showed him the map, while asking him where the Tourist Information Center was. But he was so fascinated by the map, that he called over a taxi driver to look at it with him. (The map was in English, of course.) The taxi driver, however, was disinterested in the map, and instead wanted me to get into his taxi. Which distracted my map-fascinated acquaintance into offering to help me get into the taxi. Which got me nowhere, though I thanked them both profusely.

Of course, the simple map does not imply that there are more than four levels of the Narita airport. Okay, fine. I'd thought I'd done a good job of finding two. I got directions. I got my rail pass from a remarkably relaxed-looking young Japanese woman who seemed very much at peace with the idea of working with frazzled Japanese businessmen, of which there appeared to be several. I made my train reservation to get into Tokyo.

The Narita Express ride was smooth and comfortable. We travelled through a lot of fields. It started to get really dark. I realized that I had no maps of Tokyo, since I had no intentions of spending more than one night there. I sat across from a Japanese woman who works in New York, and we had a long and amiable conversation about nothing in particular. And about visiting relatives when you're not entirely prepared to. And Okinawa. I don't know how many times she said the word, "Paradise," but apparently she likes it a lot.

Tokyo Proper

When I arrived in Tokyo, the sun had set, and it was dark. And Tokyo station is absolutely huge. And I had a lot of luggage. I was nearly exhausted just carrying it across the station. I wanted to check it into one of the lockers, but... I didn't have any change. Which sounds stupid. But all I could get from AmEx was the equivalent of $100 bills (well, more like $80; same difference). And I was too dysfunctional to wait in line at one of the kiosks to buy something for a dollar and watch them try to make change, which I feared my be traumatic for them as well as me. So I lugged my luggage into the commuter train network, miraculously made a transfer at another station, and wound up at Iidabashi Station, my goal. How I made it there with the single line of directions in my Youth Hostel book, I do not know. But there I was at the station, looking at the little map in the book.

I should say something about this book, the Guide to Budget Accommodations. It was my lifeline: a list of names, addresses, and phone numbers to the youth hostels of Japan and maybe seventeen other countries. In addition to the name and address, there would be something like this: "Get off at San Francisco train station. Take bus. Then walk 15 minutes." No particular bus name or number was mentioned. Nor particular bus stop. Nor was there any indication of which direction to walk in. But in one or two cases there were maps. This was one of them, and my first try using the book. I hadn't been warned.

The map in the book showed the station sitting next to a moat. Check. In the moat on the map were two islands: the second island had the International Youth Hostel symbol on it. Problem: no islands in the moat. None. Zip. Null. I walked in the opposite direction for a while, and discovered that the Japanese put elevated highways over moats, 'cause they're the only real estate that's not built up. Zip. I walked back.

I decided to ask directions. In Japanese, youth hostel is "yuso hosoteru" most of the time. Everyone I asked for directions looked positively frightened, and as I spoke to them, I had the distinct impression that they were asking their gods why I had chosen them to interrogate. No one had any idea where it was. After about ten minutes of this, I figured out that I had been standing next door to it. I just couldn't see the sign, because it was hanging on the wall indoors on the 19th floor.

Tokyo International Youth Hostel was very nice. There's a Big TV in the immaculate lobby. There are several people behind the desk, and you could tell that standing behind the desk was their only purpose (they weren't also the cooks and the housekeepers). The man who helped me had excellent English. The Hostel occupied the 18th and 19th floors of the high rise. There weren't any other high rises around. The views were beautiful. (Tokyo always looks better at night. That's because it's harder to see at night. Trust me on this.)

The door to my room was unlocked: two Swiss girls and an Australian were there. The Swiss girls were speaking German in the way that the Swiss do (so no one else who speaks German can understand them. They like it that way.). They introduced themselves. They went out to go sightseeing. The Australian girl answered all of my dumb questions, and was generally friendly. She'd been in Japan for six months working as a hairdresser. Yes, as a hairdresser. I didn't entirely understand either. She was here on a home-stay, a wildly easy thing to arrange if you're Canadian or Australian (their governments made deals). Before she headed home, she was doing some sightseeing. She was going to Nikko next. She told me where the bathroom was, and my socializing was pretty much over for the evening.

I was exhausted. I was bruised from the luggage. My arms ached. My feet hurt. My body know that back in "real time" it was 2:30 a.m. I felt, more or less, like I'd been hit by a truck. All I wanted to do was wash off the sweat an get into bed. But even walking down the hall was an effort, because the huge slippers they'd given me at the door wouldn't stay on my feet. Each step launched one five feet ahead of me. I spent more time catching up with them than walking in them.

The bathroom was beautiful. I'm not talking about the one with the toilets and sinks in it: that was well-lit and roomy, and had western toilets (something I didn't fully appreciate until later). No, I mean the room with the real bath in it. It had a black granite floor, about 10 shower heads/faucets, and The Tub. A black granite tub, 7 meters long by 3 wide. On the inside. It was beautiful.

An older Japanese woman was sitting on the floor, scrubbing herself. She greeted me in a friendly way, I answered in Japanese and smiled warmly back, and then walked over to another spot on the floor and sat down.

That lovely floor was heated from below. Ahhh.

I should mention at this point, that the older woman smiling at me was naked. As was I. As goes proper communal bathing etiquette. So our brief conversation marked the First Official Nude Conversation with a Japanese Person. Why say Person? Woman. I must now admit, all of the later Official Nude Conversations will be with Women. Sorry, all you thrill seekers out there. I didn't go out into the country. (Dave Barry does a great bit about that. So does the guy who wrote Max Danger: the Adventures of an Expat in Tokyo. Don't miss either of those.)

As I soaped up, she asked me where I was from, said she'd been to S.F. and the Grand Canyon. Then there was a lot more smiling and bowing and she left. And I sat on the heated, black granite floor until I found the little six-inch plastic stool to sit on, which didn't last for long because I was covered with soap and it was very smooth. The shower water was gloriously hot. I got really clean. And then I got into the steaming water.

I immediately reached a level of contentment normally thought impossible. There was a sort of bench/step on the inside, but on the real floor of it, I could sit down and be covered up to the neck. It was HOT. Not as hot as the baths I take at home, which make my ankles feel like the have no skin on them and I'm dipping them in vinegar. This was a more positive sort of hot. An all over, this is good-for-you, your-day-couldn't-have-been-that-bad sort of heat. I glided back and forth down the length of the tub for a while. I got really relaxed. I got too relaxed. It took some effort to lift myself out to dry off, dress, and drag myself back down the hall and into bed.

(Oh god, I'm on page five and I still am only talking about the first night! I think this means that the descriptions will get much shorter at the end when I tire.)

I was the first one up in our room in the morning. And I had to exercise great self-restraint not to make fascinated noises about the view. The sun was rising in the wrong place. But that's okay, Because, off in the distance, you could see Fuji-san. And a good portion of metropolitan Tokyo.

In the lobby, the woman from the bathroom the previous night found me. She wanted me to pose for pictures. Which I did, embarrassed. We exchanged addresses, and wound up eating breakfast together, though our conversational abilities in each others' languages were pretty much exhausted. So it was my first Official Breakfast as the sole Non-Japanese Speaker at the Table. Though not my last.


After some more joy-with-trains, I rode the Tohoku Shinkansen (Bullet Train) up to Sendai. It took 3 hours or so. I picked Sendai because it's supposed to have some cool shrines and tombs, and because it's near Matsushima, a bay-side city looking out on dozens of tiny islands, - 'one of the three most beautiful views in Japan.' Yes, there are three they like best. They're very quantitive over there: one of the five most pleasant hikes, one of the six most important cemeteries, one of the three most beautiful waterfalls, etc. They've named 'em. It's not subjective: you just don't claim that the lists have been incorrectly made, you don't say there's a fall more beautiful than the three most beautiful falls as specified. Nope. It's not done.

Sendai was pleasant. I don't just say that because I found a camera shop that sold me the battery I needed to use the light meter on my Nikon. Oh, no. Not that. Well, maybe. No, the place was also very stroll-able. After hitting the tourist office, I walked all the way across town. I walked down tree-lined streets and into parks. I walked through a temple [complex] or two, through a historic site, past museums and peace institutes, up into the ruins of a castle, and to a scenic view spot and tourist destination. I took a picture for a man traveling alone, which was darned rare. There were bleachers in front of various scenic spots, left there for group photos. I looked at the view. I got nervous about going into a temple, and didn't. I amazed many passers-by by being the only obvious foreigner there. I walked all the way back to the center of town, to a restaurant district. I tried to find a place to eat. Ha ha ha!

I'd read too many warnings about $1000 dinners not to be careful in choosing a restaurant. I wanted to see menus and glimpse the clientele before stepping in anywhere. But Japanese restaurants and nightclubs are often on the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th floors of buildings, and you can't see the menu until you're inside and seated. So my search was frustrating for the first half hour, despite a huge number of restaurants concentrated into one area. I wound up choosing a classy-looking restaurant because I'd been looking for a very long time without any luck, and figured I deserved a break. A sign outside said, "English Menu Available." A promotional picture showed several kinds of tempura. They accepted AmEx. I went in.

All the waitresses were wearing little French maid costumes. There was quiet music. There was a bar. There was a lot of wood paneling. I began to fear for my wallet.

There was no English menu available. Which shouldn't have been a problem, because there were photos on the menu, and I knew not only what I wanted, but how to order it in Japanese. I ordered it. The waitress kindly explained something to me in Japanese. She shook her head no.

So, I ordered another tempura dish. She looked at me funny, and said no, not that one either. I asked if there was any tempura dish available. The answer was no.

At which point, I became mildly alarmed. Because I'd flipped past some of the other pages in the menu, and they all had very complicated dishes on them. Few of which cost less than $150, by my calculations. Some of which cost twice that. The waitress looked at me with some regret. She made a recommendation for a complicated plate [dinner combination] that had something to do with crab. I accepted her recommendation. She looked mildly satisfied.

I'm a vegetarian, but I eat fish now and then, sometimes as often as once a month. [This was an accommodation to unfortunate circumstances at the time: I developed enough assertiveness by the mid-90s to avoid this.] The only form of fish I've eaten in the past three years has been tempura prawns ([Aside:] I don't know if Filet O Fish sandwiches count as real fish). But that night I had sashimi, squid salad, marinated crab, deep fried crab, and three unidentified fish side dishes which were more or less raw. I was valiant. I tried very hard. The crab was good. The sashimi was strange. It's texture was so... I mean... The squid actively bothered my stomach, which I didn't figure out until I'd eaten most of it. Every so often, the waitresses would look over to see whether or not I'd impaled myself on the chopsticks yet. I think they were rather surprised that I had not.

Aside from my First Raw Fish Experience, I also had my first Significant Japanese Experience (now I'm getting quantitive, too!) in Sendai. I used a Japanese toilet. The first one was a public one. By looking at it, you could tell why the Japanese wear special shoes in the bathroom, that never leave the bathroom. I'll talk about the second one instead. Its name was Toto. It was pink. It was shaped like a bassinet, but a set-into-the-floor ceramic one. It was about two feet long, with a sort of bassinet-shaped cover at one end. In the corner was a tank of water with a flush handle that swung two ways: big or little.

That's all I'm going to tell you about it. I'm sure you're relieved. [Ba dum pum.]

The youth hostel in Sendai was difficult to find, or at least, the one I'd chosen was. I decided, despite having a set of English directions on how to get to it, to take a taxi. Which turned out to be a bad idea, because he wound up taking my map, and doing an impression of the map-fascinated guy at the airport. (Bi-lingual maps would have solved so many of my problems!) Eventually, he called in to the dispatcher, who luckily knew exactly what was going on, and gave explicit directions on getting there.

Which didn't go exactly as planned. I paid him and got out of the cab when I saw the sign, which occupied most of one side of a building. There was an arrow pointing down, presumably to an entrance just out of view behind the cars in its parking lot. The cab sped away. I walked into the parking lot and found... a fence. And no way through. And no more signs. None of the places next to the lot seemed to be it. I walked around the block, and determined pretty quickly that the sign was mounted on a completely irrelevant building. And after several moments of wandering around idly, it turned out that if I'd only walked around the block the other way, I would have seen the little sign that marked the building, tucked away a building or two up the street and across from the building with the sign painted on its back, if that makes any sense.

It was a Japanese-style hostel. Tatami mats. You unfolded your own futons. It had a much smaller bath. It had the pink Toto the Toilet I'd mentioned earlier. It had a soda machine, which marked the beginning of my valiant, fact-finding research project to review a wide range of Japanese soft drinks and determine if the names on the labels had anything to do with anything. (In the case of Pocari Sweat and Post Water, I hoped not.) [See Delicious soft drinks I consumed in Japan in 1992, posted May 10, 2008.]

I slept well, and thoroughly confused my roommate, who spoke even less English than I speak Japanese. I didn't go to Matsushima, nor to the cool tomb I'd planned to go to: I wanted to head to Nikko, and I knew it would take a long time to get there.

Going to Nikko, which was about half an hour north of Tokyo by Shinkansen, involved transferring at Utsunomiya Station. Transferring to what? I didn't know either. The only map I had was for a youth hostel in Tokyo, and another [in] Sendai. I didn't know where Utsunomiya was, either, so once I got there, I couldn't even make a really good guess.

And for some reason, my limited, self-taught Japanese fell apart, and I asked the guy in the information office which telephone to take to Nikko. But he helped me anyway.


photograph of Kegon Falls, Japan, 1992 by A.E. Graves

So, I was standing in a rainstorm, under an umbrella which was becoming water soluble, next to two women from Vancouver who planned to say at the same hostel that I did. And I, somehow or other, managed to sort of become group leader, and got us directions, and we walked there. Which was sort of a trick, because the hostel overlooked a river, and when you finally reached the right block you sort of had to walk down this little muddy path between houses, and then down some steps, and then around a corner, and there was the entrance. Over the next two days I also found us places to eat, found out which bus to take to a neighboring lake, etc. etc. They were okay to hang out with. They lived together, and they had matching toothbrushes and towels. Which wasn't something you could do if you didn't get along with your roommate, I supposed. [Being from S.F., I didn't to make assumptions about their relationship that otherwise seemed likely.]

After dinner, which we ate in a little yakisoba shop with three tables (I said little!), we sat around the heater in the hostel to keep from freezing our butts off. The hostel mother rushed around, trying to dry our shoes, keep us in tea and hot water, and welcome newcomers to the dark little building. All the other hostelers turned up after a while. Including the hairdresser from Australia, and two Other American world travelers. Gratuitous conversation ensued.

This was a pleasant part. They told us where to go and what to see. The Australian girl was in Japan to help train some Japanese hairdressers to work in Australia - and to be a neighborhood novelty to attract business. She told us the extremes of gift giving required for a successful hairdressing business here: a trip her host family took [to Australia] resulted in more than 100 koala bear dolls and related items, which they not only gave to friends and neighbors, but to clients, suppliers and their families, potential clients, potential suppliers, potential suppliers' families...

She'd tried to buy her host family a gift once. She saw a great paper lantern in a shop. It was really gorgeous, and she loved it immediately. For some reason, the man was reluctant to shell it to her, but she insisted. The salesman's wife gave her a lot of gifts, presumably for buying this expensive lantern.

The next day, she presented it. When her host family stopped laughing, they explained that it as a funeral lantern, and that it would be improper to keep one in the house. She was rather embarrassed to take it back. Especially since she couldn't exchange it for anything else, 'cause the entire shop sold only funerary things. Ooops.

Mr. World Traveler (who probably works for AT&T) told stories about how helpful everyone is in Japan. He went to a youth hostel in Sendai, but no one was there, so he went to a shop nearby to ask for help in finding another one. The shopkeeper not only made several phone calls to get information and set up a reservation, he also drove the guy all the way across town to the hostel, to make sure he got there okay. In the morning, when Mr. Traveller asked for directions back to the train station, the hostel warden/parent insisted on driving him there personally.

There was a lot more. I'll spare you.

Nikko is a strange little town full of turning streets and gift shops. It is also a town filled with tour busses, which head out to see the Toshugo Shrine. Which is a big deal. And was kind of pleasant to see for the first few hours. You walk up carefully paved stone paths, crossing streams, passing large homes and stands of woods, and then you reach the Shrine complex. Everything is really large, elaborately carved, and covered with gold leaf. It's really staggering for a long time. Until the novelty wore off, I shot about four rolls of film. Everything was wet from the rainstorm, and all the buildings were in the shadows of tall, wet trees in the forest surrounding the temples. The trees were planted manually [by hand] when the temple was first built by a local warlord-type who went broke paying for part of the shrine, and THEN found out he was supposed to also present a major gift upon its completion. Oooops. Good thing he owned land with a lot of baby samplings on it... and good thinking, really.

"Aro" means hello in the language of Japanese schoolchildren. The appropriate response is to say hello back, smile and wave. This thrills entire crowds of schoolchildren to no end. In fact, it's such a novelty, that each and every schoolchild in a group may say "aro" to you and expect you to respond to each one. If you do, they make a lot of excited noises. If you jut smile and wave, they look quite disappointed. If you change the tone of your voice over the course of the day, you can elicit all sorts of different responses. The best was "ooooooooOOOOOOOoooo!" from a whole class. I must have sounded particularly friendly, but I'm not quite sure what aspect made them get all high in the middle. [I used one of my lower-range, husky alto tones, actually.]

I was aroed literally more than a hundred times in one day in Nikko. I began to feel like a novelty, maybe even a minor celebrity. There was a lot more of that to come.

More things worth seeing in the mountains around Nikko were Lake Chuzenji and Mount Nantai. They're in the mountains above Nikko, and you have to take a local bus or tour bus to get up there. This wound up being the Single Most Expensive bus ride I took in Japan.

Here in the U.S., you either pay a flat fee to ride a bus, or you pay a fixed fee to go a fixed distance along the route, usually in advance. In Japan, you take a ticket that notes which stop you boarded [at], and then you anxiously watch a lit board at the front of the bus, which lists the fare that each person must pay to be allowed off. The fare rises every so many stops or kilometers.

Well, at first the rates went up slowly. We were still in the main town. And then we got up into the mountains. And it started making these rather dramatic jumps. Like, it went up about $6 halfway through the trip in one jump and we were still nowhere near the end of the line - nor near a stop to get off at, if the trip was getting a little expensive.

The road was full of hairpin turns, bigger than the famous ones on Lombard Street, but still quite tight and with cliffs on either side. We drove up into the clouds, and would only occasionally get a glimpse of how far up we really were. The weather got worse. We could only barely see the next turn. The clouds were very thick. If it was like this at the lake, the trip would be pointless.

And then we made this one turn, and came completely out of the clouds. And in the same second, Mount Nantai, a sacred and very large mountain, rose dramatically to our right, with clouds clinging to one side, and the other reflecting sunlight in a dazzling manner. And at that moment, everyone in the bus made this incredible noise. It was like a noise a little baby makes when you first play peek-a-boo with it, or when a kid is happy to see Mickey Mouse and makes an excited squeal. Maybe some combination of those things. But it was being made by all these adults on the bus simultaneously. And then there was laughing and clapping for several seconds while everyone recovered from the surprise.

I'd never heard joy expressed quite that way. It was really moving, and made me much more excited to see the sun than I already was.

The lake was beautiful, sparkling with sunshine, reflecting the blue sky. The mountain was rather dramatic, especially with the clouds clinging to just one side of it, like cotton that had become tangled in the trees. Because the mountain is sacred, there are several temples devoted to it, which were kind of interesting. There were almost no tourists at these. In fact, maybe only two or three people that weren't working there [were present]. You'd pass through three or four huge red gates, into a silent courtyard, and then you'd come to a small altar and another gate. Across the gate was a low wooden barrier, and behind the barrier was a narrow, stone staircase leading up the mountain, surrounded by the forest. Only priests go up the mountain. It was a surprising way to end such a dramatic procession [way], but really lovely in its simplicity. Just gray steps fading off into the distance. It was much more graceful than some of the more obvious and gaudy stuff at Nikko.

The lake flowed out through Kegon Falls, one of the Three Most Beautiful Falls in Japan, - or is it one of the four? I forget. Nice, but small. Most things in Japan are.


After two days in Nikko, I headed south again, and wound up in an area near Hakone, a major tourist destination for the Japanese. Here my trip started to become unpleasant. After riding on two separate Shinkansen to get to Odawara, I transferred to a tiny little two car train, which was literally so crowded [that] they had trouble closing the doors. I had seen little old women mercilessly squished by people determined to shove their way into the previous train. I had heard the noise people make while being compressed into the train. I had waited [for] the next train, and managed to get a seat. But I almost wished I hadn't.

I wound up spending the entire day traveling, which isn't what I wanted; transferring from that packed train, which zig-zagged its way up the mountain, to a cable car set on a hill of a 45 degree angle, with the interior of the car terraced accordingly. I wound up at the Youth Hostel, but hadn't ordered dinner, and only found out by walking around that there were no restaurants anywhere near the hostel, and I mean for miles. So I was exhausted, had been squished, was one of only three non-Japanese within miles (and I hadn't met the others yet), hadn't eaten, and could find nothing to eat...

But the youth hostel had its own hot spring. Directly from the mountain it was perched on gushed milky, sulfurous, steaming water. It came out of a small metal pipe, and fell into a deep, 4' square tub in a small, steamy room. It made me feel much better. Not totally, but enough.

I shared my room the first night with an English teacher from Tokyo, who obviously didn't think much of that city, and a computer programmer from Singapore. The English teacher was fighting off a cold that may have already won the fight. She persuaded me to extend my stay for another night, so I could get some rest. Which I needed to help fight off her cold, though that was never said.

In the morning, I had a pretty wretched attitude. I'd found out that the lake that was the feature of this area was quite a ways away, and that the ropeway leading to it was quite expensive. Much more expensive than even the bus to Lake Chuzenji had been. And the high price I'd heard was only for a one way ticket to one point along the ropeway. And that, for some reason, it was much more expensive to come back the same distance on the same ropeway. Possibly because there was no other way to come back down.

I also figured out that I was low on cash, and that there weren't any international sort of banks around. Which pretty much hobbled me. After much hemming and hawing, I decided to go hiking. I hiked up [a] muddy, slippery trail for several minutes, and changed my mind. I walked back down. I walked back up, seeing nothing else that I wanted to do. I found a sunny spot and sat down, knowing that in just six or seven more hours, the hostel would open for dinner, and I could go back. Leaves fell on me. The sun shone. I considered hiking, but wondered what would happen to me if I slid and injured myself. The only person who knew I was hiking was the teacher who'd left a few hours earlier. That was a rather annoying thought.

Eventually, a red-headed guy with glasses walked up the trail. That completely stunned me. I said so. Which he took as an invitation to sit with me. His name was Eric (?), he was from Austria, he worked for Phillips, and came here to negotiate deals to buy electronic components from Asian manufacturers. I said I was an American student sightseeing, but mostly just sitting and watching the leaves. He didn't go away. More time passed, and he still didn't go away. [God, this sounds like some of my other, longer-term relationships with men...] So when I eventually said I was going to continue the hike and stood up, he stood up with me. And I wound up with a hiking partner. Which kept me from worrying about getting injured and going "missing" in the mountains. He was also good conversation and, though he wouldn't admit it, tired at about the same rate as I did. So we spent some of our time hinting that we could stop if the other one of us was tired, and then hiking longer than we wanted to show that we weren't tired at all. Though, of course, we were. (He was one of three German speakers I met during my trip who claimed not to understand the alleged German spoken by the Swiss.)

The climb was almost entirely vertical. But it was so peaceful, I didn't really care. No crowded trains, no tour buses, no megaphones, no girls with flags leading tour groups... It was really nice. And invigorating. We passed a group of Japanese businessmen, one of whom was wearing a full suit and tie!! I couldn't believe it. Another one was lacking the tie. But they were wearing dress shoes. And struggling royally to get up the mountain. They spoke loudly, and it wasn't long before their voices faded into the distance. When we stopped near the summit, they caught up with us, and greeted us just as warmly as they had the first time we'd met them. We knew we were near the summit, because we could hear their relief-filled hollering when they made it up ahead of us.

The descent [down the other side] was a very different experience from the woods we'd passed through: this side was more obviously volcanic, and was gushing steam and strange mud. It smelled awful. The trees obviously couldn't hack it, because there were only weeds and shrubs on this side. But the first view was not immediately of the lake that everyone was so eager to go to, nor of the volcanic openings in the mountain. It was of the parking lot that served the official viewing area attached to the ropeway's first, expensive stop.


photograph of Osaka Castle, Japan, 1992 by A.E. Graves

I spent three days in Osaka, and two days in a suburb called Kawachi Nagano, a town that produces 95% of Japan's toothpicks. I'm not kidding. Kawachi Nagano was much more interesting than Osaka. So I'll talk about it instead. But first I'll say that I went to Osaka castle, but it was a national holiday ("Culture Day," - though for me, every day of the trip had been culture day), and I didn't want to deal with the crowds. I took some photos of the castle. I tried some Okonomiyaki, which had all sorts of shredded fish and meat products in it, and was covered in an awful-tasting barbecue sauce. The next day I had a job interview, which went okay. I went to the post office several times.

Kawachi Nagano

Yes, the toothpick capital of Japan was much more pleasant. There was an immaculate new youth hostel there, of which I was one of three guests the first night, and the sole guest the second night. It had a bilingual tv, a staff of about 5, and facilities to serve up to 90 guests at one time. It was almost all mine. It was off in the countryside, miles from the nearest pachinko parlor, surrounded by hillside vineyards and forest. The hostel father and mother were wonderfully nice, and gave me a ride to the train station on my first morning there, when they gave their son a ride to school. (He sat stony and silent for the whole ride, and literally jumped out of the car when they reached his school.) My second evening, the kitchen staff, who had no one to serve dinner to (I ate in Osaka) brought tea and candy to my room. Luxury!! And, as always, there was a nice bathtub.

If I had liked Osaka more, I would have stayed there, found an apartment, done more job interviewing, etc. But I didn't like Osaka much at all. Part of the reason was the humidity, caused by a typhoon coming in from the west. Also, like nearly all low-lying areas in Japan, the air was filthy. There were agricultural regions around the city, and they burned debris regularly. Everyone in the city of Osaka must have been required to smoke a certain number of cartons of cigarettes each month, because there was smoke everywhere indoors. And empty cars with their motors running were more common than occupied cars.

Additionally, it had no charm.

My mother had sent a packet of resumes to me c/o my AmEx office in Osaka at great expense. They hadn't arrived, and I didn't want to leave without them. So I tried to stay in the area. I made a lot of phone calls about jobs and visas, none of which sounded promising. My original interviewer had sort of offered me a job which would start in December, but he wasn't sure when in December, which didn't sound too promising. So, I was waiting for these resumes so I could leave Osaka, which I didn't like. I've been frustrated waiting for the mail before. This was worse.

But it turned out okay, because I decided to go to Kobe.


So I escaped to Kobe, a port city responsible for construction of the world's largest artificial islands. Kobe looks like Hong Kong, but with fewer tall buildings. Mountains, a thin strip of city, then sea. I liked it immediately. I went to a fun maritime museum that had displays in English (!!!) that actually said something. I went up into the Port of Kobe Tower. I went to more museums, like the Takenaka Tools Museum, which had displays with 40 lines of Japanese text, and then a summary line in English. So a huge wall was covered with Japanese text in large print, and a line at the bottom said something like, "These are tools of the Heian Period." Just one line. I had the feeling I was missing something. I went to a few gardens, visited the "exotic" European buildings left by the original foreign traders who landed in Kobe after the port was forced open, and I found the Mosque (a popular guidebook challenge). I went to a temple with computerized palm reading, an ice cream stand, and an American Rock Station blasting out of truck speakers. Not what you'd call a sacred atmosphere.

I got tired. I got homesick. I got sick of seeing everyone wearing the same suits and dresses everywhere. I decided to leave Japan.

But I hadn't actually contacted my pen friend yet. My Japanese pen pal, Terue, has been writing on and off for several years - mostly off. Two letters a year is a wild year for us. I wasn't quite sure what our meeting would be like, since our communication was so thin, and I wasn't really sure what she was like. She had sent her phone number to me after I left the U.S. I got it from my Mom, but I'd wanted to wait until I had a job, or an apartment, or something. But now I wanted out. And I definitely had to see her before I left the country, if not for fun, because I may never come to Japan again, and she would certainly never forgive me for coming so close and not getting in touch.

But I couldn't get a hold of her for several days.

So, I wound up going to Kyoto, too.


photograph of Golden Temple, Kyoto, Japan, 1992 by A.E. Graves

A young British woman in the youth hostel taught me about NAFT Syndrome. "Not Another F***ing Temple Syndrome" is the long name. I had recovered from Nikko, and thought I knew what she meant... But after two days, I knew for sure. I was spending so much time walking around Kyoto, and walking around barefoot in Kyoto's temples, I literally limped in the evenings. If it weren't for the baths, I don't think I would have been able to get out of bed every morning.

Kyoto was an okay place. 'Much nicer than Osaka,' I kept telling everyone. It had Japanese things in it. Don't sound surprised: I had a helluva time finding Japanese things in Osaka. Or in Kobe. I mean, in Kobe I found Oakland A's baseball clothing. The Oakland A's!!! I found French perfume, German bakeries, American jeans... Nothing Japanese except for food. But Kyoto had real Japanese things in it! Some of which were even old.

Kyoto. Temples temples temples temples temples... Some of them were really spectacular. Some were vast, and they were all rather dark. The straw mats smelled fresh and sweet. Incense wafted through the air. I would sit on the tatami floors, staring at the forest of black columns that seemed to fade into the deep darkness in the back of the vast room. In the center, the [Shinto] altars glowed with golden light from carefully placed spots. The altars themselves were magnificent, volumes of layer upon layers of drapes, revealing polished, dark cabinets with reflective metal handles, supporting the round mirror representing the divine powers. Carefully wrapped offerings, arranged methodically on spotlessly clean shelves , flanked some of the altars. At the little-visited temples, those that weren't considered tourist attractions, there was a great sense of peace and mystery in those rooms.

But the popular temples had a totally different atmosphere. The tourists' idea of appropriate behavior for a holy place is dramatically different from mine. There were adults jostling for photos inside temples. There were teenage boys shoving each other while praying to Buddha in the Hall of a Thousand Buddhas. There was laughing and gossip and shouting and pointing and... I was amazed. It ruined the spirituality of those places.

In Kyoto, I became wildly popular. After the school kids in Nikko, the adult tourists waving heartily from their ropeway car to me in Hakone, and the drunken businessmen shouting greetings and giving me the thumbs-up in Osaka, I had thought I was being noticed. I had started having dreams about being chased by photographers and tabloid journalists after appearing on stage at a James Brown concert. But Kyoto was... was... I don't think I posed for less than six pictures a day in Kyoto. Vietnamese businessmen. Hokkaido high school students. Kyoto high school students. Groups of middle school girls. Groups of high school boys. It was just mind blowing. I 'd take a picture, I'd turn around, and someone would have worked up the nerve to ask me. A group photo was followed by individual photos with each student. It was wild. I started worrying about my hair style. I started having more celebrity dreams.

And I was really afraid that all the staring and gawking would carry over into the more private aspects of my life: especially bathing. I hadn't had a problem with gawkers before Kyoto, but I wasn't sure I could handle this new celebrity while naked. But I didn't have to worry. Apparently, Japanese women and girls don't like bathing with foreigners. When the British girl and I would sit in the tub, other bathers would open the door, spot us, and leave. We were both tall, but we didn't take up the whole tub!! I do wonder. At least they were always polite: no uncomfortable staring in the bathroom. Ever! It must have been a conscious effort, considering how jaws dropped in the outside world...

The hostel was a great place to recover every evening. Though it was primarily full of Japanese tourists, as almost all the hostels had been, a large number of English-speaking foreigners gathered regularly for English conversation. It was so GOOD to hear English! I missed it so much!! Mr. Traveller from Nikko was there, and in addition to a number of Canadian English teachers, there was a therapist from New York, a German woman with a round-the-world ticket who was also traveling alone, and the British girl, whose accent affected my speech immediately. We talked a lot - at the dinner table (the kitchen staff liked to sit those of us with a potential lack of Japanese language skills together - namely, all of us who weren't Japanese), in the bath, and in our 6-bunk bedrooms. We talked about our jobs, where we should sightsee next, how exotic we felt with everyone staring all the time, and how nice the hostels were. We talked about anything, and we were glad to understand fully what was being said. The British girl commented that these conversations were a link to everything we missed from home, but because of the constant turnover of people at the hostel, it was more small talk than real companionship.

I finally got a hold of my pen friend. I was really tired and my feet hurt more frequently now. But she wouldn't be free for four more days. And she wanted to meet me in Kyoto. Which I as growing tired of seeing. And where I couldn't get any more youth hostel reservations. So I went to Nara to kill time.


Explain this to me: it cost me more money to take a dull, local train which stopped at every stop and had regular trolley seating (around $5) to Nara than it did to take a posh, padded express train where they handed out heating washcloths and had lunch service available ($3). Two different companies operated these routes, I know, but I really don't understand.

Nara is the home of the world's largest wooden building, a temple to a darned big Buddha, which doesn't feel so much like a temple as a circus because of all the shouting between the various tour groups that rush through it. I had my picture taken just standing to look at it through a gate. Three photos, in fact. I laughed: one guy was having trouble with his camera, kept adjusting it, and I wasn't sure whether I should stay there, peering through this fence, or leave like I wanted to. I had to wonder what the deer do. This temple is kept in this park full of sacred deer (which means they can't kill them, even though they're multiplying out of control). All the souvenir shops sell "deer cookies," which are made for deer, not of deer. The deer can spot them from quite a ways away. And rush to eat. And get quite pushy if you only offer them one. I saw a lot of children running and screaming, clinging to cookies and being chased by deer. I saw women scream and men jump with fear, unsuccessfully raising their arms to save their precious cookies from the long-necked deer. I saw smart little kids throw the cookies as far away as possible a soon as those beady little deer eyes focused in on them.

I had my picture taken a lot.

My pen pal had to move her date to visit me back another day. I changed my plane ticket to November 18th (from January 25th). I returned to Kyoto.

Kyoto, again

group photo, Kyoto, Japan, 1992 by A.E. Graves

My pen friend had a car!! And brought three friends with her, because she was afraid that one-on-one conversation would be tough. One of her friends was a German major with the best English skills of the group. She asked me to only speak to her, because I was confusing the others too often. And speaking too quickly. I made several tests for the right speed. None of them were it: I was just talking about the wrong sorts of things. Things they don't teach vocabulary for in school.

We went to Arashiyama, an area in northwestern Kyoto popular for viewing the maples (momoji). They weren't kidding when they said it as popular: we were stuck in a line of tour buses, and police had to direct traffic at the intersections near that region. Terue's friends had little dictionaries with them, and spent a lot of time explaining where we were going for sightseeing, using translations like, "temple of the patron deity for the protection of small children." We went to several temples, where two of the girls got quite excited and brought a lot of charms (I knew what they meant, but they looked up "charms" with flourish anyway), a tunnel of bamboo (a path through a bamboo forest), and the temple to the patron deity for the protection of small children (I made a lot of jokes about it, since it was a long definition, and they laughed). The temple for children had a really solemn atmosphere at the four shrines within it. One was dedicated to the souls of children who had died; it was a small shed filled with toys for the children to play with in heaven. The priests there tried to close it for the evening, but had to contend with about 10 people trying to make offerings. The German major (Terue never actually introduced her friends, and called them "my associates") explained the symbolism of various things, what to do when you get a bad fortune from the temple, [etc.]. We prayed at some Buddhist shrines. We poured water on some sacred statues. We burned incense. We took lots of pictures of each other. And they took me out for the best meal I had in Japan: steaming tofu served with a dipping sauce of... various unidentified things, with lots of vegetarian side dishes. It was GREAT!!!

Tokyo & Departure

The very next morning, I headed for Tokyo by Shinkansen. I made it there, put my luggage into a locker, and immediately wondered if I'd ever see it again, or even be able to find that area of the train station again. I found an information booth, and made reservations for the Narita Express back to Narita [international airport] for the following day, more than 3 hours in advance of my flight's scheduled departure.

I found out that all the Tokyo youth hostels were either closed for cleaning or full. I had the best ramen I'd had in all of Japan (I was probably just really hungry). I had ice cream. I found the Tourist Information Center, and asked them where I could stay. This particular TIC was pretty cool: they called up ryokan (Japanese style inns) for me, made me a reservation, filled out the needed forms, and gave me maps on how to get there. For the first time in three and a half weeks, I had an 8 mat room to myself, along with my own bathroom and my own tub! And tea, and snacks, and a tv. I felt very wealthy, and spent some amount of time jumping up and down, and changing channels on the tv for no reason. It was great!!

I wandered the Ginza the next morning. The Ginza may be an incredibly high-rent area of Tokyo with outrageously expensive stores, but I really wasn't impressed. It was bigger than the Union Square shopping area, but... It didn't strike me as particularly glamorous. Though the street was unusually wide in that there were more than the usual 1.5 lanes for traffic. I sat around in Imperial Palace Park in the muted sunlight, and watched people walk by. I found my baggage. I was really glad I made train reservations in advance, because the Narita Express was completely sold out for every run that afternoon. (It was possible to rent out entire private compartments still, but...) There were long lines at the ticket counters, the immigration desk... I needed all that advance time.

Despite adding into the flight very late, I got my own row of three seats. I drank all the alcohol they offered me, stretched out, and slept most of the way home. I'd left at 5 PM on Wednesday. I arrived at 8 AM on Wednesday. With a really bad case of bronchitis.

Afterward, 1992 edition

photograph of various Kyoto buildings from above, Japan, 1992 by A.E. Graves

Is this really 15 pages long? Eek. [Editor's note: actually, it was 18, as printed out from my Osborne, which was an Apple II+ clone. Yes. Seriously.] I mean, I even left out the part about walking into Patio Pizza in Kobe, being greeted by the long-haired waiter, sitting next to the guys with the leather jackets and jeans, and hearing the jukebox playing Sweet Home Alabama for the entirely Japanese staff and clientele. (I think I did laugh out loud there.) Or standing in the backyard of the Kobe Youth Hostel with two guys from Chicago, watching the towers of the bridge under construction in the bay glowing red at sunset. Or taking with the Germans, the New Zealander, or the Australian mathematician-turned-coal miner. But obviously, this has gone on long enough.

I learned a lot of things on this trip. First off, we live like royalty here in the U.S. Since I've come back, even the most crowded morning commute to San Francisco's financial district seems spacious after riding at any time of day in Japan's commuter trains. The office buildings I work in seem absolutely luxurious. Even the most expensive clothes seem reasonable after seeing the $80 plain cotton sweaters in Osaka, the $50/dozen apples in Kobe, and the $250 dinner sets in Sendai. I haven't had a single Japanese dish since my return here, and don't yet miss it. I've had a lot of burritos here, appreciating them anew since I learned that they cost more than $12 apiece in Osaka (and are probably made with squid and corn there. Bleah!).

Just as I was bothered by the sea of remarkably alike caucasian agriculture students at Cal Poly, the uniformity of Japanese society made my hair try to stand on end. (It's far too long and heavy to stand on end, but it wanted to, trust me.) I'm a San Franciscan, so I think that a majority Asian population is a pretty normal thing, but this was different. Everyone there was dressed so alarmingly alike... The relief I felt the first time I saw a young woman in jeans and a knit sweater, so unlike the little business suits and high heels all around her, was matched only by the disappointment of seeing another girl in the same jeans and a matching sweater walking two or three steps behind the first girl. I have a completely new sympathy for radical non-conformists: the frustration of seeing everyone in virtual uniform everywhere...

At least on Halloween an office worker put on a witch suit and put brightly colored stripes through her hair. She was the only one I saw in costume. I would have kissed her, if that wouldn't have scared her terribly.

Japan was a great place to visit. And I think I'd like to live there for a few months, especially if I could study and work, both part-time. But a year would be too difficult as a full-time worker: most of the English teachers I met were only seeing Japan because they'd quit their jobs after two or three years of work and wanted to travel before leaving, since they'd received no time off during their contracts. And I'd definitely need a like-minded social base, someone to show me the ropes, take me to the bookstores, help me try to buy kitchenware, and show me a restaurant that isn't full of chain-smokers. Traveling alone was great, because I could change my plans whenever I changed my mind, but I would have had more fun with someone to say, "Isn't that {temple, garden, waterfall, tour busy convoy} incredible?" to other than myself.

Afterward, 2008 retrospective

I had sent this letter out to my pals while I was still ill, and only later learned that they were all certain I HATED my trip to Japan. Despite my litany of complaints, I didn't: I got to see many gorgeous things I wouldn't have been able to see right away if my plan had been successful, and wound up taking 24 rolls of film with my precious Nikon, which I hoped to later use for drawing or painting studies. But I understand why they thought that: I was very honest about how hard the trip was on me, and how frustrated I was that the sole purpose of my trip had been utterly foiled.

Aside from the one job that I was waiting to open up 2+ months away, I didn't appear to have any promising employment options. Everywhere I had gone in Japan, I spoke with other English teachers, and the stories they told me were always the same: there had been a rush of new teachers a few years earlier who had glutted the market, the tough competition had limited options for jobs and decreased pay, and the jobs involved long hours that prevented the teachers from really getting to know Japan. Each person I met had just left their job, and was thrilled to finally see the country. None of them really inspired me to want to follow through with my original plan... Though I wasn't sure I could make that work anyway: I couldn't really afford to stay in Japan to wait for the job, and then fly out to get a work visa, and then return... My extensive notes that I saved about the postcards I sent home suggest that I lost hope on a work visa fairly early, and was frustrated by the complex requirements of a culture visa, which I hoped would offer me a chance at a middle ground of study and work that may not have been possible at the time.

Timing is everything.

Even though this travelogue is extremely long, and my boyfriend of the time blamed me for inspiring a rash of similar writings from other members of my peer groups, I actually did leave a lot out. Obviously, there are things that my guy pals didn't need to know (anything in detail about the allure of the German boys I met who were so friendly toward me, for example), but that I wish I'd written down for myself. I keep different sorts of notes during my travels now, recording certain kinds of details that I didn't record on this trip. I take different sorts of photos. While my trip to Japan was very single-minded in purpose, and unique in that respect, it is safe to say I have different kinds of goals when traveling now: I like to take my time, to stay in one place I like for long periods and see that place in detail, I like to relax... I would rather have a fabulous dinner in the same city every night than eat out of a paper bag on a tour bus to see something famous. I am a different sort of traveler now. It also helps that I travel without seeking employment and housing in the places I visit now: it simplifies the trips enormously. :-)

Further afterward: This post was made in Spring of 2008, as my then-partner, soon to be ex-partner, had taken up Japanese-style gardening professionally, and planned to use a scholarship for independent study to travel to Japan to study certain gardens in Kyoto and its surrounding areas. I traveled with him as translator, even though we had broken up by then. It... did not go well, which is a story I may never write about. The photos are good, though!

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