Japan – 2019 January


2019 January 29:

Wayne and I are on a 14:55-hour China Eastern Airlines flight home from Shanghai, China, to New York.  Midway through a ~ 30-hour trek.  I had a conference in Kobe, Japan, and Wayne came with me to tour.  We visited Kyoto for a few days following the conference.  Now we are going home.  Thank god.

Well, there were some sweet highlights.  Their food makes me feel like I’m five years old again and just learning what exotic things like hamburgers and pizza are.  And their shrines and temples are delightfully graceful and complex in their intricacy.  The shrines and temples are actually mini-cities, composed of many individual structures, and visitors can interact with them in a number of ways.  But to zeroth order, I felt that these cities are as close to Northeastern U.S. cities as I have found outside of Northeastern U.S. cities, in terms of the way people behave and function within a culture, in the way the society works, and in the general feeling you have walking down the street.  They have our same rigidity of structure and attention to detail, which I imagine grew up for the sake of utility but now also exists in part for pretense/arrogance.  Pretense as in: “We’re doing great; we have everything under control.”  In contrast, I find equatorial Africa refreshing and humbling, as they make no pretense that anyone has or will ever have anything under control.  Russia too.  In Africa they’re happy (and in my opinion wise) knowing that uncertainty is the way of the Universe; in Russia it feels more like resignation.  I take either of those attitudes above our Western (and apparently Japanese) self-congratulatory self-righteousness.

These Japanese cities have our same basic rhythm, only set to a slightly different tune.  It feels like home, just tweaked.

As far as human interactions go, unfortunately I didn’t get the chance to really get to know anyone.  Just brief interchanges at check-out counters and shops.  And I asked a few times for directions.  This all felt basically like being in New York; closer to New York than Philly is to New York – Philly is friendlier.  People are busy but cordial, and they are quick to help when they realize help is needed.  (N.b. This impression comes from someone living in the body of a white Western woman, which obviously filters responses from strangers.)

Now, there are several first-order differences.  First, these cities are extremely clean.  I daresay spotless.  (Meanwhile, there is a vexing sparsity of garbage cans!)  Second, various practices – including orderly lines in the subway – are more efficient.  Then, in part as a coupling of of 1 and 2 above: while the pace is just as fast, it is smoother and seems to work better.  Finally, the cities are profoundly hideous.  There is a light sprinkling of oases – i.e. shrines and temples – that offer relief to the eyes.  Otherwise, the extent and breadth of the industrialization, and the unsightliness of the buildings, is staggering.  And psychologically painful when it greets you after a 30-hour trek to get there!

It doesn’t take long to see beauty, however, when you wander up into the mountains from Kobe proper.  So I do wonder what I did not sample of Japan.  I think that from now on, I need to target non-urban areas of any new place.  In addition, note that we visited in January.  I imagine that foliage during the warmer weather does wonders for the cities’ appearances.

It was interesting.  But this is the first trip I have taken from which I don’t feel that I gleaned new insights or interesting lessons.  Of course, I was tired most of the time.

Our arrival

After a 27-hour journey from 664 West 163rd Street, we arrived at Kansai International Airport.  From there we had about two more hours to go to get to the hotel in Kobe near my conference.  We found a bus that snaked through the Kansai region for about an hour before dropping us at a train station.  And when I say “snaked”, I’m talking about a snake who is abusing some kind of prescription stimulant.  The roads zipped over and under and past each other, with some intersections best described as entwined vines.

The first thing I noticed was the water.  Ocean.  And boats.  Big for-work boats.  Japan is a cluster of islands, and we were right on Osaka Bay, which I quickly realized is an industrial region.  The region is basically one gigantic harbor, so no crashing surf.  And strange: no smell of salt or fish.  Still, ocean.  Nice.

The second thing I noticed was the overcast sky.  It had just been raining.  A steep gradient spanned light grey on the horizon to murderous grey overhead.  And below the sky, the landscape was: buildings.  Buildings as far as the eye could see.  Each one a probably-brownish utilitarian box, each uglier than the next.  I say “probably” brownish because the sky painted this landscape, so all you saw were shades of grey.  And a faint outline of (grey) mountains was silhouetted in the distance.  Thankfully I’d gotten decent sleep on the plane and a workout in on the layover, so I was now in a relatively-stable psychological state.  Otherwise I can imagine growing depressed looking at this landscape.

About 20 minutes into the drive, we began passing industrialization as I have never seen it.  Smoke stacks.  Buildings with pipes twisting out and about like vines that only know 90-degree angles.  Structures whose shapes I don’t even have the patience to figure out how to describe.  All spewing gas into the air.  Gas the same color as those murderous clouds above.  Hills and hills of metal garbage along the waterfront.  For a good 15 minutes we drove by this.  I was so awe-struck by the extent of it that I had to take pictures.  The magnitude and scope of the hideousness was fascinating.  That a seaside landscape could give one thoughts of suicide.  I felt that I was driving through some miserable dystopian future that I had read about in a book, never having imagined that such a place could be real.

Our first view of Japan: riding through Kobe from Osaka airport.  We passed ~ ten minutes of just-this.  Industrialization as I have never seen it.  Not even in New Jersey.

And every now and then: a ferris wheel.  Not inside an amusement park.  Just a ferris wheel.  Building, building, building, ferris wheel, building, building …

The industrialization is lightly peppered with ferris wheels.

And palm trees here and there.

All grey.

Suddenly I had a panicked thought: Can the sun penetrate here?  Were those “clouds” above really clouds, or was I just seeing a sky that was constructed entirely of pollution?  In my journal I wrote: “Will I get through 10 days without killing myself?”

Then a couple minutes later one facade of one of the grey buildings was white.  A few solar photons had penetrated.  Looking up I saw a patch of blue.  Thank god.  The sky can be blue here.

For the rest of our stay, the weather was beautiful, and I was grateful for it.  I don’t know how I would have done psychologically otherwise.  It hurt to look at this landscape.

Efficiency and cleanliness

In Kobe, Wayne noted that there were clearly-designated taped lines on the floors of subway platforms, for standing in line, and that people followed these rules rigidly.  He noted this as an obsession with following rules.  I agreed that that is one way to look at it: a culture obsessed with rules.  But following rules isn’t just an end in itself: it can be utilitarian.  In this case, it made the flow of crowds on the subway significantly smoother than it is here.

Lines for the subway in Kobe are clearly marked and obeyed … and things run much smoother than they do here.

Their use of space is efficient.  This is one reason why the landscape I described above looked so depressing.  It seemed that not one square foot was left unused.  There were small areas here and there designated as “parks”, two square feet for a tree.  All area was designated.  No stray flower, no impromptu blade of grass sticking up between two sidewalk squares.

They put a lot of work into cleanliness.  On our third night in the Kobe hotel, someone had stuck a note under my door informing us that the window washers would be at work the following day from 9 to 5.  Sure enough, they came, and as far as I could tell, did the entire ~ 30-storey building.  I saw a few other window washers that day, working other buildings in the neighborhood.  Something about the way my notice had been written suggested to me that this occurred often – perhaps once weekly.

Shoes-off is a rule in many places.  This went for our hotel in Kyoto: you had to remove your shoes before getting on the elevator.  This really helps cut down on dirt.

The no-shoes policy stated outside our hotel elevator in Kyoto.  No-shoes is big in Japan and helps keep things as impressively clean as they are.

The architecture

In Kobe, before getting to Kyoto, I took a day off from the conference to wander the city.  I had seen some shrines on the map, and they interested me.  But I was more keen on wandering directionless, so I set out just sort-of hoping I’d bump into one of them.  I figured that a shrine would be majestically set away from the rest of the city, bubble-wrapped with trees and flowering bushes that someone had managed to coerce into producing flowers in January.  Nope.  The shrines dot the city like churches do here: apartment building, apartment building, restaurant, shrine, apartment building, parking lot, …  In six hours, I inadvertently found three shrines.

The first time you see a temple-or-shrine, you wander through for two hours and take 400 pictures.  Now, these places are much more than that f*&$ing awesome roof that you’ve no-doubt seen pictures of: that sturdy metallic structure reminiscent of the graceful silhouette of a bird flying at a distance.  Each temple/shrine is a large area encompassing one main building with, say, twenty smaller structures.  All with that same roof.  Each structure is itself a place of worship, although some are too small for a human to fit in.  Each is decorated elaborately and seemingly painstakingly.  Two statue guards greet you upon your approach.  These guards are always some variation of a menacing cat-like creature.  They are built at such a height and angle that the cats’ eyes really do appear to meet yours as you approach.  They seem to say: “You can pray, but you better not pull any other funny business.”  Paper balls, and three-dimensional shapes cut out of paper, hang from the roofs of the structures.  This paper is pure white – they must have all been cut and hung just that morning.  I was impressed by the sheer upkeep devoted to these places.

Ikuta, the first of three shrines I bumped into in Kobe.
Each shrine structure is guarded by cat-like creatures.



At that first shrine I found in Kobe, there were elements that I did not understand.  There were plaques of wood – hundreds of them – hanging from a wooden structure, all with messages and drawings on them.  On another wooden structure, there were hundreds, maybe thousands, of tiny pieces of paper tied around little wooden sticks that protruded from the structure.  Other small ornaments, like tiny fans, dangled amongst the papers.  As I left, puzzled, I noted that you could purchase these papers and plaques and ornaments near the main building of the shrine.  (You could also purchase charms.  Keychain-like things designed to bestow good luck.  Each charm was specific: one read that it was for: “good luck for the examination”.  Others were: “good luck for safe driving” and “good luck for healthy legs”.  I bought my two little nephews: “Good luck for school”; they were in the shapes of miniature backpacks.)

Messages written on wooden pieces, left by visitors to the shrine.
Paper messages left by visitors.
A good luck charm for healthy legs, purchasable at Kyoto’s Kiyomizu-Dera temple.
Another charm, for good luck with safe driving.

At the second Kobe shrine I stumbled across, I saw another long stand covered with these wooden messages, papers, etcetera.  And I saw a woman buy a plaque, write something on it, and add it to the mix.  Ah: They are contributing/participating!

More on how visitors can “interact” there: As one enters the shrine, there is a large stone container of water, and wooden spoons with which to wash your hands.  Directions on a wall explain how to cleanse yourself properly before entering the shrine.  Then, on each building, there are bells attached to long thick ropes.  There are instructions on how to pray properly, which involve multiple bows and ringings of the bells.

Girls cleanse themselves before entering the Kiyomizu-Dera Temple in Kyoto.
A rope to ring a bell for prayer, at Kobe’s Ikuta shrine.

Now, I wasn’t raised with any religion, and I found this all fascinating.  I don’t know whether there are Christian (etc.) equivalents of this, but from the little I have experienced in this country, the shrines seem much more interactive than any church I have visited.

Well, by the time I’d ambled through the the third shrine – same architecture, same ornaments – I felt that I had pretty much figured out the basics.  And by then the novelty had begun to fade.  After a six-hour wander through the city, it seemed that – speaking only for this city, of course – this gentle, graceful roof was the one noteworthy piece of architecture.  I was disappointed, but remembered that we still had Kyoto.  And we had chosen Kyoto because it had been recommended to us as the most beautiful city in Japan, having preserved culture that has vanished and/or been destroyed elsewhere.  But when we got to Kyoto, same thing: many shrines and temples, much grander than those in Kobe, but with the same architecture and themes.  Pretty.  But nothing like the majestic cathedrals of Moscow and St. Petersburgh, which made me marvel that such a feat could have been completed by human hands within a human lifetime.  Or as thrilling as the ancient castles of Britain and Scotland.  Nothing that made me gasp audibly.

But I wonder what detail my untrained eye is missing.  I wonder whether the Japanese would look at the architecture of Russia or you-name-it, and think it all the same.  And, of course, I have no idea how much of Japanese history has been erased by war.

Regarding their same-ness: places of worship in any one region do tend to have a similar appearance.  Also, with a couple exceptions, we weren’t allowed inside these structures.  So I have no idea what details were hidden from us.  One of the temples – Toji – we could pay to *look* inside, and we saw some quite fascinating works of art: mainly Buddhist statues (which you couldn’t photograph).

Still, the places of worship appear to be the only buildings in those cities to which any thought has been given to artistry.  A few exceptions: In Kyoto I did see some residential sections that were quite attractive.  In particular, some aesthetically-pleasing uses of bamboo, including window shades, brooms, and street traffic cones.  And the Gion district was attractive.  And again, to be fair: I should not expect that metropolitan areas are going to represent what Japan contains.


They are big on bike transportation.  Pretty bikes.  With curvy handlebars and baskets.  Metal frames painted pretty colors.  Charmingly rusty.  During rain in Kyoto, I saw many riders holding umbrellas in one hand.

Light rain in Kyoto.
After light snow near the Toji temple in Kyoto.


The front yard of a residence in Kyoto.

Talented toilet seats

In the wealthier spots, including my conference location and the hotel we stayed in during the conference, the toilet seats have a remote control handle.  Various buttons perform various functions, including: heat the seat, spray water up, and choose what sound you hear when the toilet flushes.  I don’t really have a comment for this observation.

The toilet at the RIKEN Center for Computational Science, which hosted my conference.  The menu pad is common on toilets in upscale locations.
You can heat the seat, spray water up, spray water up in a different manner, and/or choose what you’d like to hear upon flushing.

New smells and weather

I always try to characterize the smell of a new place.  Here I couldn’t really do it.  I didn’t smell anything in Kobe.  In Kyoto, I stuck my nose out of the hotel window shortly after dawn, and smelled crisp cool air that was anticipating snow.  The sky was clear.  But sure enough, about 10 minutes later it clouded over and light snow began to fall.  This was interesting weather, which happened throughout our three days in Kyoto.  A snowstorm – a delightfully friendly and fresh snowstorm – would move in within ten minutes and vanish just as quickly.

The Toji temple, right outside our hotel in Kyoto, during a 15-minute storm.  15-minute storms are common, and – since they’re short – refreshing.
Women taking pictures of the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine in Kyoto, during a different 15-minute storm.
Outside Fushimi Inari.


The food is fascinating and a ton of fun.  In our first grocery store, I felt like a child in a museum.  I ate the strangest things I saw.  In Nikishi Market in Kyoto, I ate a baby octopus on a stick.  By the final day, I was feeling a bit shaky.  I think I overdid the total-immersion diet.

I did get tired of white rice.



Noisy cartoons

The Japanese place cartoons everywhere, especially on signs.  Silly cartoons that – at least for Wayne and me – didn’t enhance the message being conveyed, but rather felt like visual noise.  That’s one thing that made this place feel like home: noisy visuals.

At some instances these cartoons actually undermined the written message.  The cartoons were all cute/fun, and meanwhile some messages were danger warnings.  For example, one warned you not to get too close to the subway car door lest you hit your head.  Accompanying this message was a cartoon white bunny rabbit rubbing his nose.  Another we saw on the railing near a waterfall that we hiked to in the mountains to the North of Kobe.  A cute monkey told you not to jump over the railing to your death.

Now, if they insist upon cartoons, might they at least make them human beings?  A monkey jumping over that railing would probably make out just fine.

In Kobe, a bunny rabbit gets hurt if he steps too close to the subway doors.
On our hike in Kobe, a monkey warns of death if you jump down into the waterfall.


Hiking in Kobe

In Kobe, it doesn’t take long to get to Beautiful once you leave Kobe.  We took a hike up into the mountains to an herb garden.  As you walk toward the edge of the city, the streets get tiny and snake up the mountain.  Residences and shops, small by our standards, grow even smaller – and quainter and more attractive – as you follow the labrynth up the slope.  Then farther up there are hiking trails.  Both the foliage and the manmade stone walkways are beautiful.  The railings are designed to look like real tree branches, and they really fool you until you touch them.






The street lined with vendors outside the Fushimi Inari-Taisha shrine, Kyoto

A narrow wind-y street down the hill from the shrine was packed with a street fair.  Vendors sold mugwort buns, crabs on sticks, tofu on sticks, beef on sticks, steaming stuff from black pots, and green marshmallows on sticks.  (Lots of green stuff here – I think it’s green-tea-flavored).

Roasted marshmallows at a street fair in Kyoto, just outside Fushimi Inari shrine.




Nikishi Market, Kyoto

One long narrow indoor mall, open at each end.  Vendors selling teas, spices, trinkets, and food.  Most of the food was ingredients: you went home and prepared it yourself.  I was seeking something exotic but low-maintenance.  And I saw a vendor selling baby octopi on sticks.  The sign said: “okay to eat now”.

I bought one and ate the head whole.  As I eyed the tentacles, it registered to me how disgusting the head had been, and I threw the rest away.  I’m pretty impressed with myself for having eaten the head, now that I think about it.  I was caught up in the moment.











I had been told to expect extreme politeness.  I didn’t see that.  I mean, they’re a little more polite than New Yorkers, in that you don’t hear people cursing at each other.  And as you approach a subway’s final stop in Kobe, an announcement says: “Thank you for riding our train.  This the final stop.”  The NYC translation would be: “Get off this train, last stop.  Get off.”  But what does it really say to compare New Yorkers to any standard for politeness?

People complimented me on my Japanese: I was told that I said “sorry” and “thank you” perfectly.  I think I said “I do not understand Japanese” either horrendously OR so well that they didn’t believe me.  Because usually when I said that, they just kept right on speaking Japanese to me.

A few people assigned great significance to the fact that Wayne and I are white.  At the emperor’s palace in Kyoto, one Japanese woman – she didn’t work there; she was just another tourist – flagged us down to tell us that there was a tour going on in English.  We thanked her and expressed zero interest.  Then she ran – literally ran – ahead to the tour and asked them to wait for us, then ran back to us, breathless, imploring us to hurry and go join the tour because they were waiting for us.  We kept thanking her and saying no, but it took a while to get her to leave us alone.  Later that day I was running through a park when a man stopped me to point out that a group of white people was standing a ways off in the opposite direction from the direction in which I was running.  He figured I must be with them, and that I was running the wrong way.

On another run, I stopped at a map to orient myself.  The map was at a busy bus hub along the street.  There was a woman standing there assigned to help people get on the right bus.  She came up to help me, in Japanese.  I thanked her but said I did not need a bus, and mimed running motion.  And she had seen me approach running, and wearing athletic clothes.  But she continued to try to get me onto a bus.  I wonder whether she thought, “Oh, poor thing, she thinks she has to run everywhere.  But look, we have all these buses!”

Two Japanese people independently asked me whether I was English or German.  I thought that was an interesting choice to be given.

Oh, and talk about being home-away-from-home: in Kyoto there was a preacher yelling in the street one morning!  Some guy was at it for a good hour somewhere down outside our hotel room.  I thought Buddhists left you alone.  Well, for all I know, this guy was a Christian.  Maybe the one Christian in all of Kyoto, bellowing at everyone that they’ve got it all wrong.


Boy, are we native English speakers spoiled.  The languages offered here for signage are Japanese and English only (the English is not thorough, which made transportation a wacky adventure in certain parts).  It is just assumed that the world speaks English.


2019 Feb 1


Landed at JFK, began walking toward Immigration, and entered a wide white room with signs: “This is New York City!” surrounded by a colorful mural of the five boroughs, complete with the names of street corners and cartoon illustrations.  I cried.  I have never cried returning home.

Within seconds my relief turned to annoyance, as we entered an area designed to efficiently and automatically assess our travel documents and shepherd us in.  There were no real lines, and for about 15 minutes we stood in a mob waiting for a machine that wound up not functioning.  After the orderliness in Shanghai and Osaka, this chaos that we have grown used to in the United States was irritating.

Ditto riding the subway two days after our return.  I had the same reaction to it as I had had returning from Moscow and Saint Petersburg, where the subways show up every two minutes on a dime and coast smoothly.  The long waits on the platforms, and the halted grindiness of the rides, made me fleetingly ashamed of our dear old dirty town.

Photo highlights (N.b. These are not at all representative of either Kobe or Kyoto as a whole.  I forgot to take representative pics; focused on the fun parts.

Wayne all pumped up for our first leg out: 14 hours on China Eastern Airlines to Shanghai.  It is 30 minutes past midnight, and we are four hours into what will wind up being a 29-hour trip.  Woo-hoo.


A bridge from the mainland to the artificially-constructed Port Island in Kobe, where my conference was.
Boats in the harbor off Port Island, Kobe.
A piano with a transparent case, in the Kobe Portopia Hotel.  Dad, a pianist, says this would make it sound like crap.  But no matter: a sign clearly warns, “Do not play”.
Some kind of a heron, by a small marshland near my conference in Kobe.  Fish swim around his legs.
A man fixes up a paper balloon at the Ikuta Shrine in Kobe.  Given their unblemished white, I suspect that new balloons are put up each day.
If I didn’t tell you: Kobe, wouldn’t you guess Upper East Side?
A shrine during our hike in Kobe.  See the water cup at top right?  Most of the shrines during the hike had water left behind, and a small cup of fresh rice.  Their concern about the Universe’s thirst seemed unwarranted: there’s a waterfall about 50 feet off to the left.
See the rope-line car at the top?  That’s where we were hiking to.  Nice views over the herb garden at the top, and an expansive view of the city below.


On the train back from the Kobe herb garden to our hotel to lie down!  Some days, lying back down felt like the highlight of the day.
A girl posing at the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine in Kyoto, during a short snowstorm.
Fushimi Inari, Kyoto.
The orange tunnel goes on for a good half mile.  A different message is written on each pole.
The Toji Temple, across the street from our hotel in Kyoto.


More of the Toji Temple.
Our hotel street in Kyoto.  There are vending machines everywhere you look in these cities: standing alone in parks, in otherwise-empty/dark alleyways.
Taking a photo of the Toji Temple from our hotel room in Kyoto.
The street leading up to the Kiyomizu-Dera Shrine, Kyoto (you can see the orange structure in back, up the hill).
Dragons weaving together a statue at Kiyomizu-Dera Shrine, Kyoto.  Made me wish we had gotten to see more Japanese art.
Kiyomizu-Dera, Kyoto.
Kiyomizu-Dera, Kyoto.  It encompasses the structure from which I take the photo as well as that tiny orange structure off in the distance – and all the distance in between.
Instructions in the stall of a public toilet.  Instruction #1 looks particularly unnecessary, except that some toilets here are in-ground, and you actually do sit in the other direction.  So, what is funny about this sign is that it *is* necessary.
Wooden scaffolding holds up a tree outside the Emperor’s Palace in Kyoto.  We saw a lot of tree scaffolding in Japan.
Kinkaku-ji Temple, Kyoto.  The top two tiers are actually pure gold leaf.
The pond is so still that the reflection is a near mirror of reality.
The Gion district of Kyoto, known for its geishas and entertainment.  I went for a run through during early morning, before anything opened.  They have aesthetically-pleasing uses of bamboo in Japan.  Here you can see window shades and a broom handle.
Gion district.
Wayne showed me photos of a grey heron whom he’d spied four hours earlier, perched near the Toji Temple across the street from our Kyoto hotel.  I was taken with his beauty and  felt envious that I hadn’t seen him myself.  But soon afterward we went back out and he was still there.  I was afraid he’d balk at my approach, but he couldn’t have cared less.  Just like any pigeon in a big city.  But pigeons look designed for a city, while this guy looks like he wound up here by some unfortunate freakish accident.
There’s another one, lower left, by the moat.  See him?  They just pick a spot and stand there for hours.  Funny, I know that birds do this.  But these birds are so awesome-looking that, I don’t know, I guess I expected more.  Would that our pigeons appeared so regal.
The next morning as we were packing for the airport, Wayne started laughing, having spied another one perched on a street light outside our room.
He wound up being the last guy we talked to before heading home.