Japan Trip: Days Five and Six

Day Five—Ashikaga School and Bannaji Temple

Hiroka was back to work for the day, but Satomi, Yuuka, Okaa-san and I took her car to do our running-around for the day. Our plan was to visit the Ashikaga School, the oldest school in the world. We set out in the late morning for the drive, which provided me with my first real experience to get a clear look at plenty of Japanese scenery. The houses are all topped with sturdy clay roofs, because apparently clay is so much more readily available in Japan. Many of the yards are decorated with intricate and well-groomed trees. It all makes for beautiful scenery as we drove through the towns and countryside. As I often do, I snapped plenty of pictures from the moving car, trying to capture the nice homes and the mountains on the horizon. The mountains ahead of us as we drove west were a solid dark color, like they were nothing but rock. I followed the range to the north with my eyes, and on the north end, surrounded by clouds, I thought I could see another mountain. “Is that a mountain?” I asked Yuuka. The clouds made it difficult to tell for sure. She told me it was Nantai-san. It hid in the clouds well because it was snow-capped, unlike the range it sat in. I guessed it must be volcanic to stand that much higher than the rest of the range. As I tried to snap a picture, Satomi and Okaa-san, who sat up front, began to yell. “What is it?” They pointed to the south end of the range, off in the distance. I looked to the edge, and just to the left of the range, there was a shimmering white triangle sitting on the horizon. “Fuji-san,” they whispered reverently. I didn’t breathe for a moment. The monster appeared twice as tall as the other mountains on the horizon which were all at least twenty times closer. We stopped the car and snapped a couple of pictures, and I continued to take more pictures as we headed down the road. I was awestruck. I could see why Japanese artists devoted so much time and energy to painting him from all over the country. Unfortunately, at some point prior to this trip I set my six-megapixel Fuji camera to take three-megapixel pictures in an effort to save disk space. I didn’t realize that until later in the evening, when I cropped the extraneous background out of the picture. When I realized that I could retain more clarity with the higher settings, I changed the settings and decided that I would have to try to get some better shots of Fuji-san before leaving the country. I asked Yuuka if they let people ski down that thing, but apparently they don’t. I’ll have to settle for just climbing it one of these days.

From there we went to the Ashikaga school, the oldest school in the world. Apparently the school began to reach regional recognition as early as the beginning of the fifteenth century, some six hundred years ago. The school had been through a lot as the samurais, shoguns, and empire continually changed the landscape of politics and culture in Japan. In the last fifty years or so, the school was restored to its original conditions and established as a historical site for tourism. They still offer some adult continuing education classes in the facilities, though, and maintain an extensive library. I made the fatal mistake of giving voice to a passing curiosity by asking Yuuka if she knew what the hats were made of that some of the emperor’s soldiers wore. She mentioned the question to her mother, who asked one of the women who was on duty as a museum guard. She didn’t know, so she called over to the library, where a team of six librarians got busy poring over reference books to find an answer. We walked to the library and were shown a handful of open reference books with articles about the soldiers, their hats, the silk and felt they were made of, and the trees whose sap was used to coat the felt and preserve its shape. When we left the library twenty minutes later, the librarians pointed out to us that the tree just outside was very closely related to the tree whose sap we’d learned about. I decided to be more careful about the questions I asked in coming days.

We walked from the Ashikaga school down the street to Bannaji shrine, whose name closely resembles Yuuka’s last name. We took a few pictures of the shrine, along with a Confucius statue just down the street. The walk through the neighborhood was nice and scenic. We passed a rice cracker shop where they cooked fresh rice crackers while we waited. Okaa-san bought some for us, and the owner of the shop was amused when I thanked him in Japanese. He offered us samples of black-pepper flavored rice crackers, which were quite tasty. We picked up some postcards and made our way back home. When we stopped at a gas station—all of which are full-service in Japan—I hopped out of the car to try to get a couple of night shots of dark Fuji against the red sky. The shots weren’t that great against the horizon cluttered by buildings.

When we returned home, Okaa-san went for dinner with a social group she belongs to and the rest of put together gyoza—Japanese dumplings, very similar to what are sold in some US restaurants as “pot stickers.” Once again, we finished the evening with some relaxing conversation around the dinner table, some veggie juice for Oto-san and myself, and a photo slideshow from the day. After dinner, Satomi headed home. The Bannai children wandered to bed one-by-one, which left me downstairs alone with the parents. Oto-san sat in front of the computer typing out his year-end letter for the New Year’s family gathering, and Okaa-san folded the day’s laundry. On a side note, I felt awkward about having someone else do my laundry for the first time in nearly a decade, especially because we’re not related (yet). I began to think that maybe I should take advantage of the opportunity to read them my letter of request, asking them for permission to ask their daughter to marry me. My heart began to pound as I began to look for the words to ask them to come have a seat at the table with me. I stood up and pulled the folded sheet of paper from my pocket, but then hesitated. Had it really been long enough? Probably not, I decided. I was pretty comfortable with Okaa-san, but I didn’t feel that I’d had enough time to get to know Oto-san. I should wait. A bit relieved, I headed up to get some sleep.

Day Six—Kamakura (Part One)

The morning of day six, I had my first chance to ride the train. The only other time I’d really been on a train had been the el in Chicago. This wasn’t terribly different, with the exception of the fact that the trains seem to go everywhere in Japan, and do it often. Especially being that close to Tokyo, I suppose, because so many people commute from all of the outlying communities to work and school on a daily basis. I got the impression that lots of families in Japan own cars, but that they tend only to use them for traveling relatively short distances. In the remote location where we first boarded the train, there weren’t many people aboard. I had my first hot canned coffee from a vending machine as our ride got underway, and it wasn’t too bad! Yuuka decided to get a little extra sleep as I wrote in my little black book, and after just a few stops the train became somewhat crowded. Most of the people who were able to get seats quickly fell asleep, and when the seats were all taken, even some of the people who stood holding the rings for stability let themselves fall into a half-sleep. Soon there was a young woman standing directly in front of me, perhaps six or eight inches from me. I had to fight back the urge to give her my seat, but Yuuka had warned me that if I did, I’d spend the entire two-hour ride standing. The young woman positioned her feet strategically to be ready for changes in direction and speed and proceeded to apply her makeup for the day as the train flew down the tracks. I did my best to remain prepared, as I wrote in my little book, to catch her if she should suddenly fall in my direction. After a stop or two, after she finished her makeup, a seat opened up on the other side of the train and she snatched it up. Now that she’d put her face on, she was free to sleep the rest for the rest of her trip.

After passing Yuuka’s hometown—Higashiwashinomiya—and Tokyo, we had to change trains once to finish the trip to Kamakura. We arrived sometime around eleven in the morning. Our first stop was a shrine set on a rather large campus with lots of vegetation, a nice creek, and a pond with a small island. We went into the shrine and followed the traditional method of prayer: we tossed a five yen piece in the offertory because “five yen” in Japanese equates to the word for their theory that roughly equates to karma, then we bowed twice, clapped twice, bowed again, and prayed. We toured the rest of the grounds before heading down the main strip of the old capital in search of something to eat.

Our next destination was the big Buddha, and on the way we located a nice little noodle shop with traditional floor seating. I had the cold noodles and some tempura, and it was all quite tasty. We continued our trek across town, walking through tunnels in the sides of mountains and past all sorts of tourist-trap shops on the busy streets. We stopped at one of the shops for some swirled soft-serve cones combining sweet potato and green tea flavors. It was actually quite tasty (Japanese sweet potatoes, like so many other things, aren’t the same as those in the US). We also found a shop with some nice little unisex bracelets for 100 yen, so we got one for each of us.

When we reached the big spot where the big Buddha was located, we paid our three hundred yen admissions and headed on in. The place is surrounded by trees, which makes it easy for them to avoid folks who just wander by and take pictures without paying. We wandered through the gate and around the walkway, and I wasn’t paying close attention as we turned the corner to see him. I stopped mid-sentence when I noticed; he was much bigger than I’d expected. The place was swamped with tourists, but we managed to get some good photos and even got to go inside the big old statue for just twenty yen. The statue was moved to Japan years ago, and was surrounded by a temple at one time, but the temple was torn away by a hurricane. In the last hundred years, they’ve added internal supports for the head and neck, and they took precautions to make sure that an earthquake won’t destroy the statue. As we left, we exchanged favors with another couple by taking each other’s pictures in front of the statue. When we finished there, we visited another temple with a great garden and a fabulous view of the ocean. We continued to take lots of pictures and then finally hopped the train to head back home.

I caught a few glimpses of Fuji-san from the train but had a hard time trying to snap pictures without train stations and telephone wires getting in the way. Yuuka used her sister’s cell phone to straighten out plans for the evening, as she’d talked to a couple of her friends as well as some people in Tokyo that I’d gotten in contact with through work. We ended up making plans to see her friends that evening and mine the next. We rode the train back through Tokyo and on up to Tochigi. We walked from the train station back to her house, where we met up with her best friend from high school and one of her childhood teachers.

The four of us went out for dinner together. First we tried an American-style family restaurant called Coco’s, which we also has locations in Los Angeles (and probably other places). They were too crowded, so our second shot was a Chinese restaurant. The evening was just a bit awkward, as her friends spoke very little English, and the conversation took place mostly between Yuuka and her friend. Occasionally the teacher and I had conversation in fits and spurts, with a bit of assistance from Yuuka. I was a bit surprised when he asked me what the purpose of my visit was. I wondered if he might suspect that I meant to be engaged by the time I left. I told him that I came to get out of the US for the first time, as well as to meet Yuuka’s family. “And friends,” he added with a laugh. It was a nice dinner, and it was the first time that I really spent any money since I’d arrived. I’d worried in the first day or two that maybe I hadn’t brought enough money, but eating most of our meals at home and having her parents buy all the train tickets seemed to be helping. We said our good-byes and doozo-yoorishkus (nice to meet you) back at the house, where Yuuka and I joined the rest of the family for a bit more to eat. It wasn’t that we hadn’t had enough at the Chinese restaurant; it was just that they were having hamburgs, so we didn’t want to miss out. Hamburgs are a bit like hamburger patties, but made with pork, and maybe some tofu. They cook the patties with shredded ginger, which makes for a very nice flavor. We also had a bit of miso soup and rice and of course some veggie juice to complete the meal. When we finished eating I hooked the camera up to the computer to begin downloading the records of the day’s adventures in preparation for our traditional end-of-day slideshow.

I use Google’s free Picasa program to manage my pictures, and the program has a file download utility for retrieving pictures from cameras. At the beginning of each download process, the utility offers a few choices of what to do with the files on the camera. You can do nothing—leave all the files intact, do a safe delete—remove only the files that were downloaded to the computer, or “wipe the card”—remove all files from the camera’s memory card. I generally opt for the last of the three choices because I tend to download all of the pictures every time I download, and it saves me the extra step of turning the camera back on after disconnecting to manually delete the pictures. After downloading the day’s 187 pictures, I closed out the utility to find that the pictures weren’t in the Picasa gallery. I flipped through the galleries from the days before and didn’t see the missing pictures, so I checked the “my pictures” folder on the computer. Nothing. Then I checked the folder on the camera’s memory card. Also empty. The pictures were nowhere to be found. I was overcome with disappointment as I began to realize that I wouldn’t be able to share all of the day’s memories with Yuuka’s family or anyone back at home. I passed the disappointment along to everyone else, who responded with shock before groaning and commiserating with me. Our plans for the next day were to go down to Tokyo, but Yuuka and her mother agreed that maybe we could head further south to try to get some pictures of Fuji-san and Odawara castle. Then we could stop in Kamakura again, if for nothing else, at least to get another picture with the big Buddha. It was a minor inconvenience, but the plan would work. We could try for Tokyo again on the thirty-first. We went to bed to rest up for another long day of tourism.

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