Japan was nothing like I expected, but more than what I hoped for. It was expensive, tiring, and confusing at times. It was enlightening, humbling and thrilling as well. I was disappointed by the things I thought I would appreciate the most, and taken aback by things I expected to smile politely at. Tokyo was jarring. We arrived at night, well after dark, exhausted from a day of delayed flights, bad airline food, and a humidity that rivaled my first few days in Korea. The air was soupy, thick and wet. Yuck. Word to the wise, if at all possible, when traveling; try to NOT arrive at your destination after dark. It does nothing but confuse you of your surroundings and increases your sense of disorientation. We were up at dawn the following day, regardless, strolling through temples by 10am, breathing in the heady incense that permeated that air. We made our way to Shibuya crossing, and joined the oceans of people that swarm the street the second the lights allow. The fashion in Tokyo is a force to be reckoned with. I have yet to recover from the humiliation of slipping and falling in the doorway of the Tokyo flagship Louis Vitton store. The doorman could not have looked more amused, the customers and sales staff more disgusted. How very Sex and the City of me. I was fascinated and stared relentlessly at the passing crowds. Putting aside the fact that Japanese women are perhaps the most beautiful women on the planet, I began to recognize and notice the trends that were of the moment, the stereotypical elements we think of when we imagine Japanese culture and the personal styles that each individual, man or woman, brought to the street with them. There is complete gender equality when it comes to fashion in Japan, the men seemed just as concerned, if not more so, with their appearances and I couldn’t help but smile at the carefully constructed hairstyles and perfectly accessorized outfits that adorned these men. These guys would get their asses handed to them if they tried this shit at home, I thought, yet here, they were the crème de la crème, badass cool and they fucking knew it. We perused the streets of Harajuku where the rain and ensuing umbrellas kept me from catching glimpses of the Goth girls, Lolita wannabes and animae characters that usually swarm the streets on the weekends. My disappointment in this was deferred by our trip the following evening to Kabuki-cho, the red-light district of Tokyo. Countless love motels that rent by the hour, sleazy sex shops and porn palaces, strip clubs for both men and women, restaurants, arcades, bars and booking clubs, it was all there, in all it’s neon glory. It was both amusing and sad to see the commercialization of it all, how mainstream it has become and I looked at the faces of the girls on the posters and wondered what they thought of it all, what their stories were, why they were there, who they really were. We left Kabuki-cho and plunged back into the depths of Tokyo, and after wrapping up our stay at our capsule hotel (for $30 a night, you too can sleep in a coffin sized hole in the wall….literally……and shower naked surrounded by other women in the communal shower facility) we hopped a train and headed for Kyoto.
Kyoto, often referred to as the culture capital of Japan, and once upon a time a considered target for the US A-Bomb during WW II. Dave told me a Japanese-American government official finally broke his silence and begged them to drop somewhere, anywhere else, but not Kyoto. With over 2000 temples, gardens and historic monuments clumped together in an area roughly the size of Calgary, the cultural and artistic losses would have been catastrophic…even more so, if you can believe it and I couldn’t….until I visited Hiroshima. But lets not get ahead of ourselves….
The guesthouse we stayed in could not have been more charming, quainter. The capsule hotel had left me with a bad taste in my mouth and this place was just what I needed. It was traditional with a few modern conveniences and with the exception of a couple loud-mouthed Germans and a couple of equally loud and even more ignorant Americans, the place was perfect. It was on a quiet street in a quiet neighborhood and this born and bred city girl was surprised at how much she appreciated it after the cocktail that was Tokyo. The palaces we saw were magnificent, the temples inspired a quiet respect. We sat and listened to a monks daily prayer, we walked into a room filled with over 20 different statues of Buddha, each one representing a different aspect of the religion, each one beautiful in it’s own way. We walked the streets in Gion, sipping coffee, our eyes peeled for the geishas rushing to and from their various appointments. I watched patiently as a Japanese women folded me into a Yukata, noting the care she took ensuring that each piece was hung correctly, smiling as I selected the rob and belt that were to be my birthday gift, kissing the man who bought them for me.
One of the highlights of our whole trip was our sojourn to a Japanese Onsen, a traditional bathhouse and spa. Men and women go their separate ways and clothes are shed and modesty thrown to the wind. I sat in the dry sauna until my lungs burned and my vision blurred from the waves of heat coming off me. I was dripping with sweat as I plunged without thinking into a pool chilled to just over ten degrees Celsius. I crouched, shivering for as long as I could stand….about 15 seconds….before jumping into the warm pool, and then the hot one. I decided to try the opposite end of the place and found another sauna, this one wet and equipped with a huge urn in the centre filled with salt. The salt acts as an exfoliant as well as drawing impurities to the surface of the skin to be absorbed by the water the salt is soaking up. An older Japanese woman smiled at me before taking some salt into her hands and rubbing it into my back, arms and legs. I was the only foreigner there, and they seemed to regard me as some sort of mild curiosity, smiling and staring briefly before turning back to their conversations. I made my way to the open air section, relaxing in the mineral mud baths before laying down on a bed of heated stone, staring up at the starts and breathing in the night air. It was amazing.
And then. Hiroshima.
The burned out shell of the A-Bomb dome, a building just meters away from the detonation point. The Peace Park itself feels reverent and somber. Rainbows of paper cranes fan themselves over various monuments and statues. There are millions of them from all over the world. Millions. The Hall of Remembrance, dimly lit and silent. We spent over two hours in the museum. I remember staring at a blackened wristwatch behind a glass case, whose hands were stopped at 8:16, approx. one minute after detonation. I don’t know how long I stared at it for. I remember looking at pictures drawn by survivors, depicting people with the flesh falling off their bodies, running, crying, dying. I remember a woman telling us her mothers’ story, how she watched people throwing themselves into the river with their faces burned off and the stream becoming clogged with corpses. I stared at a while wall, drizzled with black rain. I remember crying. It was sobering and dizzying. It was hard. It was beautiful, and made more beautiful because……
The following day we visited a small island a short ferry ride away from the city. Miyujima, otherwise known as the floating Tory, a shrine and temple that appear to be floating on water when the tide is in, which it wasn’t when we were there, but it really didn’t matter. We cleansed ourselves at one of the many cleansing “stations” we found and watched people lining up to drink from a so-called “Fountain of Life” There were wild deer roaming fearlessly between tourists, tame enough for us to touch and they seemed almost bored with the children who smiled and squealed when they were permitted to touch them. There was something strange and beautiful about acknowledging the horror of what had taken place a mere 60 years ago and then turning around and leaving it behind, watching the waves slam against the side of the ferry that took us to a beautiful place where life had not only continued, but flourished and spread. Something that had been standing for hundreds of years was still standing, seeing and touching something that the bomb hadn’t taken away, watching friends, families, couples young and old, walking, talking, breathing, laughing. I was humbled, as I have been so many times on this journey.
And then the craziest thing happened. We got on a plane and it flew back to Korea. And when we got there, and walked off and out, I found myself relieved to be back in a country where everything seemed a little more familiar, normal.
Korea is now what is normal.
I sighed, smiled and shook my head. When I got home I grabbed the travel book Dave bought for Thailand, and curled up with it.
Ready for round……..what number are we on now?