Sunday, December 12, 2010

Entry 12: A rest in Beijing, then onto Japan…

Right now I am writing from inside my tent, prone on my sleeping pad, the strong smell of sulfur laden air is intensified by our heightened senses that come with lack of food.

We are currently out of fresh water with which to cook, so went without dinner this evening. Ocean waves are crashing on the rocks beneath us so violently, they shake the tent. I’m afraid the roar may awaken the half-slumbering, steaming volcano looming just over our heads.
We are on Iou-Jima, a Japanese Island located a few hours ferry ride off the southern tip of the mainland.

We are camped on the edge of the nicest hot spring pools I’ve ever seen, which is saying much since it’s been my life ambition to soak in as many springs as possible before I check out. The view while sitting in the hot spring takes in a huge expanse of ocean dotted with islands, some with perfectly shaped cones with steam billowing from their peak. Hot spring pools, all with a surreal green translucent tint, two of them perfect soaking temperature are coated in rocks the colors of the rainbow. On one side of us a hot spring waterfall splashes directly into the ocean and on the other a troll-shaped, monolithic rock rises out of the ocean.

We even caught a tasty parrot fish, fishing right from the springs.

I can’t remember being at a nicer spot - a hundred people live on this island and the only policeman, a comical-looking one: wearing hard-soled, black boots, floundering on the rocks came by the other day to check on us and helped placed rocks on top of our tent stakes to prevent it from blowing away.

My previous entry was from Mongolia over 2 months ago. Since then, Sony & I took the Siberian Express train back to Beijing and dinned or should I say pigged out on spicy, Szechuan food for a few weeks with friends after suffering from food deprivation for over 5 months.

Now with the aftertaste of animal fat completely gone, we took a flight to Japan where we stayed in Tokyo for 3 weeks with our friend Reiko. Reiko’s dad owns an apartment building with a big view over the Tokyo skyline and our choice of 3 vacant apartments which we move about. Rooms are Ryokan-style separated by paper wall screens and floors are covered in Tatami mats, mats made of reed with their strong scent giving the impression of sleeping outdoors. If ever I am interested in a house enough to have one, I’ve always known I would want Tatami mat rooms.

In previous visits to Tokyo, I was a bit annoyed by the repetitive, uninteresting cycle of life here. It’s as if the men and women live in two separate worlds. The men work all day, the women shop all day. At night the roles switch, the men go out, dine amongst themselves and sex the girls afterwards. The girls are monetarily compensated which allows them to go shopping again, perpetuating the endless loop.

(love. by the hour.)

Instead of dwelling on the negative aspects of this behavior, I tried to see the positive ones. For instance, since this society works so well, maybe men and women should be in separate worlds. As long as we insist on living in male-dominated societies where women, aside from sex appeal aren’t very interesting, it may be best to give each other separate space.

Almost everyday Sony and I first selected potentially interesting sites, used Google Earth to get their GPS coordinates, plugged them into the GPS unit and bicycled to each site passing through the tiniest side streets we could find in route. Japanese attend to every detail in life and this aspect comes out in everything you see, even in the most, obscure, non-descript dead-end alleyway are interesting details.

One morning we went to Tsukiji Fish Market, historically the world’s most famous and bustling with as much activity today as in the past. We toured the market, learned about it’s secrete pricing language, were shown how to cruelly immobilize fish with a needle drawn through their spinal cord to keep them alive but immobilized making flapping out of the packaging impossible and witnessed a tuna auction. I was unimpressed with the fish the size and poor variety, but didn’t expect much considering oceans worldwide are on the brink of collapse.

For a few days we took a side trip to Izu, an area a day’s drive from Tokyo and known for its hot springs and beaches. Two of my former students picked us up and drove us to a Ryokan with its own private hot spring. We only stayed one night, but what an amazing treat to have natural hot spring water flowing 24/7 just outside you bedroom, set in a lush garden.

Next, we took a flight to Kyoto and Nara for a 2 week visit where we met our Seattle friend, Myrna (for the Kyoto section of our trip, please see her excellent blog at:

Our stay in these temple towns was magnificent, as the changing leaves peaked, bringing a surreal, euphoric feel to the temples. Ten years previous I came to Kyoto in October, much too early for the leaves. We set course on bicycle for as many sites as possible, but with an astonishing 1,600 Buddhist temples, plus 400 Shinto shrines, a trio of palaces, dozens of gardens and museums and boasting more World Heritage Sites per square inch than any other city we barely scratched the surface.

Seeing Kyoto temple gardens over 1,000 years old in peak foliage is a peak life experience.

The meditate state in which the monks work with nature can be felt by even the most passive, insensitive tourist with headphones playing rage against the machine, me for example.

It is the monk’s intent to recreate the entire Japanese country landscape to be taken into one view. The garden becomes a microcosm in and of itself. By Western values monks employ a non-sense-ical method or at best a contradiction in terms is at play; rocks are grown, sophisticated primitivity is admired and the goal of the controlled accident is the pinnacle of achievement. For a society bent on washing the dirt from the clean, separating the evil from the good, it may be impossible to approach the gardens as they were meant to in a contemplative, Japanese way, to experience feelings that we don’t even have concepts for or words. Although we heard peak leaves are best we may return at the beginning of April for peak cherry blossom with my mom.

Next, we flew to Kagoshima, the southern tip of the Japan mainland and ferry boat hopped to a few islands. Yakushima, the first of the islands we visited for a week had nice ocean view hot springs and hiking trails through forests that were the inspiration for Princess Mononoke and to the top of a volcanic peak.

We either hiked by foot or hitch-hiked all around the island taking in views of the beautifully, wooded forests with monkeys, sea-turtle beaches and stunted bamboo forests above the tree line. Takako, a Tokyo girl joined us for a multi-day hike.

It was raining and cold, perfect for hypothermia on the second day. Takako, with misplaced concerns and light pack set off ahead of us, got lost and almost didn’t make it to our rendezvous spot at a worker’s hut where 3 islanders were fixing a broken bridge. They saved her life with dry cloths and we all ate dinner together.

I’m about to put the pen down and fall asleep now. The thought of being right under this active volcano and amid the rocks formed of recently dried lava has me a bit nervous, but the pounding waves seem more of an immediate threat. In between hot spring soaks, Sony and I play Dungeons & Dragons and she managed to slay all 5 of our characters this evening that have been with us for almost one year, since we began our horse trek across Mongolia.

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