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Golden Week adventure to Kyoto, Himeiji, and Hiroshima.

Prayer blocks at Kinkaku-ji temple in Kyoto, Japan.

Prayer blocks at Kinkaku-ji temple in Kyoto, Japan.

Prayer blocks at Kinkaku-ji temple in Kyoto, Japan. Sean and me with Shinji-san and his friends in Amagasaki, Japan. Himeiji-jo in Himeiji, Japan. A diorama of the atomic bomb exploding over Hiroshima at the Peace Museum in Hiroshima, Japan.

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  • Image © 2010 Zach Feinberg

It’s been nearly a year since my travels took me to Japan. Unquestionably, my experiences in Japan are among the most rewarding, and I will always fondly carry them with me. I suppose in particular, my favorite experience was my travels throughout the island of Honshu with my friend Sean for our Golden Week vacation.

Our journey started at Shin Yokohama station, a major train station just west of the city of Yokohama. I met with my good friend Sean, a fellow student in my study abroad program at Obirin University. We decided to travel to southern Honshu to broaden our experience of Japan.  Sean and I boarded the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) bound for Kyoto just after arriving and purchasing our tickets. I don’t think I need to give much of an introduction for the bullet train, but needless to say, its reputation was not exaggerated. It was as fast, smooth and convenient as I had heard and hoped it would be. We probably covered 450 kilometers in less than 2 to 3 hours. On the train, I watched some of the famous sights pass by such as Mt. Fuji, as well as cities like Odawara and Nagoya.

Upon arriving to Kyoto, Sean and I quickly realized the frustration of being in an unfamiliar city on our own for the first time, hundreds of kilometers from what we had grown accustom to. Thankfully, I remembered my friend Andrew from Sydney was vacationing in Kyoto so I called him up and we went to meet with him. After dumping our luggage in a coin locker, we met up with Andrew via the Kyoto subway which was immaculately clean and efficient.

Our first stop took us to Nijo-jo, the Tokugawa Shogunate’s Kyoto branch castle. Built in the 17th century it served as a 2nd base of command for the Tokugawa bakufu when not in the capital of Edo (Tokyo). It was quite an impressive sight, with the sweet smell of fresh timber aged several hundred years, scenic portraits and creaking floors, the castle was saturated with history. We then traversed the grounds outside, climbing to watchtowers and lookouts that overlooked the city. For those who don’t know, Kyoto was the capital of Japan for over 1,100 years before moving to Edo (Tokyo) in 1603.

Afterwards, we went to Kinkaku-ji temple which is a Buddhist temple covered in lavish gold coating in Northern Kyoto. This temple was perhaps the mascot symbol of Kyoto in my eyes and I had always wanted to see ever since beginning to study Japanese history. It was here that I bought my first Goshuin (A book in which you can have temple monks and priests sign your book; a kind of autograph of temples and shrines to collect). It is a very special item to me, cataloging my journey through the various religious channels in Japan. From there we made our way back to Kyoto station where we parted ways with Andrew. I had wanted to see more, but unfortunately we only had one day set aside due to last minute planning.

Sean and I made our way from Kyoto through Osaka and Kobe to Amagasaki, a town where our host lived. Our host was Sean’s host mother’s ex-husband; Shinji-san, who was an amazingly nice man and an awesome cook. We met his girlfriend and were soon joined by his friends who stopped by for a visit and a chance to meet some traveling foreigners. There was Saiyo-san, who was a rather animate and outgoing woman, both pre and post alcohol consumption. Her son, Akito who was the cutest and most well behaved baby I have ever met. Next was her husband Hiroshi who was a kind, mellow guy; the stereotypical Japanese gentleman. Lastly there was Katsuhito, a laid back easy going guy who was very curious about Sean and my travels. We all ate and then drank, socializing and having fun into the night.

The next day, Shinji-san, who preferred us to call him Shin-chan, took us to Amagasaki station where we met up with Saiyo-san and baby Akito. From there we disembarked to Himeji to see the famous Himeji castle. Himeji castle is one of the largest castles in Japan, a 6 story structure dating back well into the warring states period. The lines at Himeji were unbelievably long, but regardless we eventually made our way to the top which proved a very spectacular view of the city. That castle took a lot out of us, but our stomachs overruled our fatigue, so we stopped to get some food. I had Tempura udon which is basically fried jumbo shrimp with thick noodles in a soy sauce broth. YUM! We then returned back to Amagasaki and prepared our dinner which was an interesting mix of Curry rice, vegetables, salads and other assorted foods. Shin-chan invited more friends over, this time two women, Yuko and Yuki. They were pretty nice and interested in hearing about our travels and our studies. A good night was had by all, but we called it an early night.

The next day, Shin-chan saw us off at the station where Sean and I made our way to Hiroshima. Upon arriving, we were greeted by Papa Jiro, an interesting character who agreed to host us in his home. He was Sean’s host-mother’s friend. Papa Jiro was a nisei (2nd Generation) survivor of the atomic blast when America dropped the bomb on Hiroshima on August 4, 1945. Suffering from Polio, he is crippled in one leg and walked with a crutch, but it didn’t damper his spirits in the slightest. He drove us promptly from Hiroshima station to Miyajima Jinjya (Miyajima Shrine). A shrine on an island just off the coast of Hiroshima, it holds some of the most famous temples and shrines in southern Honshu. Home to a small island community of people, monkeys and deer, the island was certainly a new experience for Sean and me. The Torii gate just off shore in the water marked the gateway to the spiritual realm of the kami that dwelled there.

We returned to Jiro-san’s house later that evening, which was more than a little dusty to say the least. Sadly, my allergies to such kept me up most of my stay there. Dust aside though; it was a cozy, 70 year old home; one of the few to survive the atomic blast. We got acquainted properly over sake and talked about our travels. I had asked to use his computer to email my parents back in New York, and to my surprise, I discovered that his computer ran on Windows 98, a testament to the variety of places I was traveling to. I found myself beginning to suffer from the effects of internet withdrawal, which is comparable to any substance withdrawal, let me tell you!

The next day, Sean and I set out bright and early to visit the A-bomb dome and Peace Memorial Museum. Before that however, we decided that we needed a shower, and seeing as how Jiro-san’s home had no bathtub or shower to speak of, we went to a public bathhouse, something that was quite an unusual experience for me. I got more than a few glances, being a 6’3” tall white guy in a Japanese bathhouse. But all that aside, it was really fun actually. After bathing quickly, we got to soak in the hot tubs and mock-onsens (Hot springs). The hot tubs had more jets than you can imagine, and after a tingling, tickling sensation coursed through my body, I discovered that the hot tubs were equipped with denki stimulators (Electrical stimulators that send low level electrical currents into the water.) The mock-onsens felt and looked like we were swashing in a broth of miso soup.

Afterwards, we made our way to the museum where we discovered that there was a festival there. Little did we know it was in fact Friendship Day in Japan. We were eventually approached by a few interesting characters, some wishing to practice English with us, others asking us to sign and draw prayer characters for the peace festival. One man, whose name escapes me, kept asking us about American rock music as we drew a kanji drawing for him. After saying goodbye we went to the museum which was morbidly educational. I believe places like this must be visited to really allow your soul to absorb the magnitude of what happened there. To think, one hundred meters from where I stood, over 80,000 lives vanished in the blink of an eye. Over almost 140,000 people died in Hiroshima as result of the atomic bomb. The scenic reproductions graphically illustrated what the effects of such a weapon have on the human body. The figures and pictures of survivors emerging from the wreckage resembled charred, melting wax statues, and stepping out into a scene of utter hell. The following days, the sky rained black rain on the smoldering city as people staggered and died in the streets. I feel it is necessary to describe the images to enforce just how powerful an impact this had on me, and to show the sheer scale of what transpired. The only comparison I can think of for us Americans is September 11th, though that pales in comparison. Two buildings and 3000 lives weighted against an entire city and over 140,000 lives.

After leaving the museum, Sean and I walked towards the A-bomb dome, one of the only buildings to partially stand following the attack. It remains as the A-bomb left it, as an eternal reminder of the atrocities that war brings. It was in front of this building that Sean and I were approached by some Japanese Jehovah’s Witness; kind of an out of left field experience for us. After leaving us with pamphlets we went to meet our friend Robin. Robin is one of my good friends who goes to the University of Hawaii with me. She had been studying in Hiroshima for about nine months and I was anxious to catch up with her. We all decided to go strolling through the city which led us to a shopping mall. We decided to stay indoors as the weather turned wet on us quickly. Shopping around for a little while, we caught up after nine months.

After parting ways we made our way back to Jiro-san’s house, where Sean and I talked with Jiro-san about a variety of topics, ranging from Japanese linguistics, the Beatles, Jiro-san’s family in America, to Sino-Japanese relations. Shortly afterwards, we decided to call it a night and went to sleep.

The next day, Sean and I met with Robin again, and went to a local Japanese Garden that was founded in the 17th Century, and later rebuilt following WWII. There, we walked and talked, enjoying the weather and scenery. From there, we made our way back to another mall to finish buying some omiyage (presents) for friends back in Tokyo. We went shopping and got some lunch and then some matcha ice cream, which was one of the best ice cream flavors I have had in my life!

Later that evening I had to return early to Tokyo to finish some school work, but I thanked Papa Jiro over some delicious Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki (A kind of pancake containing a variety of delicious ingredients). All and all it was one of the most memorable experiences of my life…

Published on 8/1/10

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