Day Nineteen (and Twenty?, No Just a Long Nineteen) – The End

I woke up, yet again, to Chinese tourists screaming in the hallway.  I’m not sure why they felt compelled to yell down the hallways to each other, but they did.  Anyway, I needed to get up and get myself to the airport, so I suppose it was okay.


(At Narita Airport. I hope to see you again too.)

The plane departed at 4:00 pm on Monday.  It arrived at 9:00 am on Monday.  There’s the magic of the International Date Line. I finally got back that day I’d lost heading to Beijing.

What a long plane ride!  I tried to sleep.  I took melatonin. I was exhausted after staying out for ageHa.  To no avail. I’m not sure I slept at all.  Of course, by the time I got home, I was just happy to be off the plane.


(My tea acquisitions.  A pretty good haul.)

And that ends the trip.  I had a great time, I learned a lot about tea, and I got to see places both new and old.  And I’m still sipping my tea acquisitions.

Day Eighteen – Gay Day

I started out Sunday by having a bowl of the delicious veggie abura soba.  It was good enough to have first thing in the morning.

From there, I went off to Meiji Shrine. The shrine commemorates the Emperor Meiji, who was instrumental in Japan opening to the west. And then engaging in colonialism throughout Asia.


(A priest at Meiji Shrine.)


(A wedding ceremony at Meiji Shrine.  Such pretty outfits!)


(Trees representing the emperor and empress, tied with Shinto ceremonial rope.)


(This is why Japan is so clean.  People work hard at it.  Like, really hard.)

Because I have little self-control when it comes to tea, there was Meiji-era style processed bancha. I bought some. Of course. I justified it by saying that this is not for export, and I hadn’t seen it anywhere else.  It’s delicious.


From Meiji Shrine, I went to Tokyo Rainbow Pride in Yoyogi Park.  I had originally planned on flying home on Saturday, so that I could have Sunday to relax before getting back to work, but when I realized that Pride was going to be the weekend I was in town, I had to stay.

Pride was smaller than San Francisco (not surprisingly) but very similar in that there was a parade, booths for local advocacy groups, booths selling things, and food vendors everywhere. There were speeches by local politicians, a member of the national Diet, and from the embassies of 8 countries. I was particularly happy that I could understand the Japanese politicians.

The UK ambassador spoke, as did officials from the US embassy and the US consulate in Osaka.  The Osaka Consul General is gay, and brought his husband.  He spoke candidly about the Defense of Marriage Act. It was touching, especially in light of the fact that as a binational couple, even the chief officer of a consulate cannot sponsor his spouse for a visa.  (Political rant – that Congress just essentially killed LGBT inclusive immigration reform is maddening.)

There was singing and dancing too – all emceed by drag queens.  Pride is similar everywhere you go.




(This is Tobe, the Pride mascot.  First off, Japan loves mascots. Second, Tobe means both “to be” in English, and “command form – fly” in Japanese, which was great double use of the name.)


(Obligatory self-pic at Pride.)


(This costume was more than I usually see from a drag queen.)


(I’m not sure what this costume was supposed to be either.)




(I love these outfits! Old samurai style gear.  The banner translates as “the love between men is also true.”)

After Pride, I then went to a macrobiotic restaurant near Shinjuku. It was great to have lots of veggies again.


As part of my “I may never pass this way again” kick, later that night I went to AgeHa, one of the biggest nightclubs in Tokyo.  Every couple of months, it has a gay night. It was easily the biggest gay party I’ve been to. Five main rooms, one of them was a huge dance floor and gogo boys, another an outdoor pool area.  Saying it held over a thousand people isn’t an overstatement.  By the time I was done, the trains had stopped so I got a cab.  It ended up being an $80 cab ride. Wow.  That’s the expensive Japan I’d been dreading. It was a fun day though.

Day Seventeen – Souvenirs in Tokyo

Realizing that I was not up to speed on my Japanese souvenir shopping, I went off to Asakusa and Nakamise-dori.

The temple itself is cool.  It is a Buddhist temple dedicated to Kannon.  Really, though, it’s dedicated to the shops of Nakamise.  Tons of souvenir places.


(Lightning Gate at Asakusa Temple.)


(Another gate at Asakusa.)


(The ceiling inside the main hall.)


(A giant sandal. Why not?)

To get a good view of Tokyo, I went to the Metropolitan Government Building, which has a free viewing area.  Wow! Tokyo stretches out for ever.



Day Sixteen – Tokyo

On to Tokyo.

As the bullet train zoomed through Shizuoka Prefecture, I noticed groomed tea bushes all over.  Shizuoka is the biggest tea producing region in Japan, and it definitely gave that impression from the bullet train.  Tea bushes were everywhere.  I’d probably seen these bushes before but just didn’t realize what they were.


(Blurry picture of tea bushes from the bullet train.)

Tokyo is as crowded as I remember.  All of the major stations were just crawling with people.  Orderly people, but still massive amounts of them.

In searching for my hotel I came across a place selling abura soba (oil noodles), which is like ramen but with much less soup.  Essentially, it’s flavored oil, vinegar, and other sauces tossed with cooked ramen noodles.  This place had a completely veggie one!  It was the best Japanese meal I had on my trip (the Italian ones don’t count as Japanese). I need to figure out how to make this at home.


I stayed near Shinjuku, which is the largest station on the western side of the main metropolitan area.


(Tokyo Municipal Government Building.)

I went exploring Tokyo, including Harajuku and Akihabara.  Contrary to my assumptions, there were more cos-players in Akihabara than Harajuku.  What struck me most about Akihabara (a dense collection of electronics stores) was that there was so much Chinese.   Every store had signage in Chinese, and more Mandarin-speaking staff than English-speaking staff.  According to people in the stores, Akihabara is a trendy place for Chinese tourists to visit because they can often get better deals on electronics here than in China.  That was certainly unexpected.

 That night I wandered around Shinjuku Ni Chome, Tokyo’s gay district. It is filled with tiny bars, often on different floors in the same buildings.  I saw several buildings with at 5 bars each.  I have no idea how they stay competitive with that sort  of density.

Day Fifteen – Kyoto and Minami

This morning I headed to Kyoto. First stop was the Fushimi Inari Shrine (伏見稲荷大社). This is famous for its 千本鳥居 or thousand torii gates.  The shrine complex covers the hills outside of downtown, and it’s beautiful.  There’s a 4k hike through most of it, which leads to some great views of Kyoto.


(Inari is the God of Harvest, and foxes are his/her/its messengers.)


(I love the work on roofs.)


(The sacred stage.)


(This is where two paths diverge.)


(There are lots, and lots, and lots, of these torii gates.)


(It takes work to maintain all of these gates.)


(There are many smaller shrines within the complex.)


(A view of downtown Kyoto!)


(A dragon.  This is interesting to see in a Japanese shrine, because dragons are an import from China. I’m not sure why this guy is in a Japanese shrine.)

From there I went to Uji. I wanted to see Byodoin, but like Himeji Castle, it was undergoing repairs. The gardens were beautiful though.

Uji is a great tea town. The smell of tea filled the air, and most shops carried many tea related goods. I’m not sure how they all do it, because the prices seemed similar, so I don’t get the competitive advantages.

In my walk around Uji, I happened in a cute little tofu shop. Tasty food. I would have bought more, but wasn’t sure how I would use it.


(Tofu in the making.)

I also went to the small Genji Monogatari museum. It was interesting to see the images of Heian era Japan.


(Genji museum.)


(A front-on image of the bullet train. I took one from Kyoto to Osaka, just because I could.)

After returning to Osaka, I made my way to Namba and Dotonbori. It’s a fun river walk. It would have been great to get food, but of course, everything had meat.




(A famous crab shack.)


(Lots of people – at Shinsaibashi.)


(The Glico Man. A famous image of Osaka.)

I found a DOC Vera Pizza Napolitano certified pizza place. Delicious. Great salad, one of the best 5 Margarita pizzas I’ve ever had. Yum.

Day Fourteen – Nostalgia (Natsukashii ichinichi)

When I lived in Japan 15 years ago (wow, so long!) it was in Osaka and Kobe, so this part of the country feels very comfortable to me.  (Like, the woman yesterday speaking the local dialect).  I wanted today to be all about that nostalgia.

So, I hopped on the train and headed toward Kobe.


(Conductor! I love this view. This was en route to Kobe.)

While en route, I decided to just stay on and go to Himeji.


(From the train, a view of the Akashi-Kaikyou Bridge. This is the longest suspension bridge in the world.)

The castle ended up being closed for repairs, but they had cool exhibits on how they were doing it. Lots of pictures of interior walls and the placement. For about an hour and a half, not a bad way to spend the day. Well, except for the rain. So much rain.

1998.07.31 Himeji Castle 01

(In addition to closing the castle itself, they had the exterior covered as well. On rainy days like this, I understand why.  Since I couldn’t get a real photo, I’m using this one from when my parents came to Japan those many years ago. Hi Dad!)


(A view of the castle walls.)


(Another of the castle walls.)


(This is a shot of the structure of the walls, underneath the plaster.  Like I said, it was cool to see how they were repairing such a famous building.) 20130424_125713

(Further along the path to the white plaster exterior.)


(Another view of Himeji Castle.)

 After exploring the castle, I hopped on the train and got to Kobe.  While it was quite rainy, it was nostalgic to be there in the rain. It was changed but still very much the same. I walked from Sannomiya to Shin Kobe, and then back. I hopped on Hankyu – a local train line not covered by my Rail Pass – just because I’d used it more when I lived here.

1997.04.08 Kobe, from Shinkobe station 02

(Me, 15 years ago.)


(It may be hard to see through the rain, but up there is the mountain range seen in the previous picture.)


(I love the mountains in Kobe.)


(And I love the ocean in Kobe too.  Again, possibly hard to see, but the river flows to the Port of Kobe.)

I went back to the hotel to dry off and then went to Takatsuki for dinner with Sugimoto san and Nishiyama san. They were sweet and took me to an Italian place, so I could have vegetarian food.


(I like the idea, but don’t think it would really work in the States.  Different concepts of equal protection and all.)

Day Thirteen – Japanese Tea in Kyoto

I think I’ve mentioned it already, but bullet trains are fast! Leaving Hakata for Kyoto, the bullet train tracks (wider gauge than regular) run alongside the regular tracks for a while.  You can definitely see how much faster you’re going when both trains leave the stations at roughly the same time.

Another thing I noticed about Fukuoka was how many suits there were. Compared with the United States, there were lots of suits on the train leaving Hakata.  Fukuoka was generally a very well-dressed city.

I got off the bullet train at Shin-Osaka and transferred to a local train to Kyoto.  I know I could have gone on another bullet train, but this is where I’m most familiar with Japan, and I wanted to see it more slowly.   At Kyoto station, I transferred to the Nara line and headed off to Wazuka, which is part of the Uji tea growing district.

At the San Francisco International Tea Festival last year, I met a Japanese tea master from Obubu Tea.  He mentioned then that they did tours, so I made arrangements to go on a tour.  I also made arrangements for my friends Nishiyama Yoshiko and Sugimoto Miyuki (Japanese-style, so family name first) to join me.  We were to meet at Kamo Station and go together. The tour was scheduled at 2:00, so I’d arranged to meet Sugimoto san and Nishiyama san at 1:00.  They were considerably delayed, and didn’t get to Kamo station until around 2:20.  Luckily, I had their cell numbers and was able to contact them from the station.  Nishiyama san found the company’s phone number and called them from the train to explain we were running late.  While waiting, I found a good restaurant, and had another round of tomato spaghetti.  Because, of course, it was the only vegetarian option.

By the time we were united (it was so much fun seeing them – totally remembered what they looked like), we grabbed a taxi to the tea plantation.  Or we thought we did. The company had moved recently, and the taxi dropped us off at the old location.  After wandering around, we called them and they came to pick us up.  My favorite part of this was while we were waiting, I went off to find directions.  I met a local lady who didn’t know the directions, but was happy to chat. She had such rolling Kansai ben (dialect) that it made me all nostalgic.

The person who came to get us was the co-founder of the company.  He hadn’t realized that 2 of the 3 of us were Japanese (despite my saying so in the contact form).  Apparently, they normally have their foreign interns (there were 4 at the time we were there) do the tours in English, and don’t do tours for Japanese people – rather, they have open field days every now and then.  Since I’d paid for the tours though, and since we agreed it would be unusual to have me interpret the intern’s English into Japanese, while describing Japanese tea production, he agreed to do the tour himself.  So cool!

Off we drove into the fields.  This is a different experience than China.  The bushes – and they totally qualify as bushes – are grown in rows and then trimmed uniformly. The bushes are sculpted so you can trim it with a machine that blows the leaves into a bag.  Our guide described it as a buzzer.  Leaves designed for the highest grades (gyokuro, tamaryokucha, matcha) are covered for the last few weeks before picking.  Historically the covering was made from grasses, but nowadays it’s a black plastic mesh.  The fields had both covered and uncovered bushes, so you definitely get a sense that the covering makes a difference – they are otherwise identical bushes.


(So organized!)


(The tea covers the hills.


(Covering the leaves.)

Once we got to the fields, we got to pick.  These are the yabukita cultivar, which comprises about 70% of the Japanese production.  The leaves are still a little small, and not yet ready for the buzzer, but fun to pick.  No fingernails, and you just snap them by bending.  Like other places, you want to go for 2 leaves and 1 bud. The new leaves are softer than the Chinese teas I experienced.  Raw, the leaves are more astringent and less citrus than the Chinese teas.


(You can see the covered versus uncovered leaves.)


(More of the rolling hills of Uji.)


(You can see how the leaves are cut at the same height.  While this does make harvesting faster, it does require more work on the other end to remove stems.)


(For size comparison purposes.)


(Happy workers.)


(Such soft little leaves.)


(Sugimoto san, me, Nishiyama san.)

Like China, Japan grows its tea in slopes for drainage. The local custom is to grow tea on the slopes and rice in the flat areas.  Temperature is important. A frost can kill the entire harvest.  From planting to harvest, the bushes take about 5 years, then go about 30 to 40 years.  They get about 3 harvests of sencha and 3 of bancha each year: spring, summer, and fall.  Japanese tea is a 5 to 1 ratio raw to processed.  Unlike Chinese green teas (which are fired)  Japanese green teas are steamed for 20 to 30 seconds, then rolled multiple times.  It breaks down into needles. Then it is dried for about 40 minutes. In total, it’s about 6 hours total of processing. There is a union of workers who still do the  hand massaging process, but otherwise it’s all machine.

We went back to the office and had a tea tasting.  They showed us some interesting brewing methods,  including an ice brew where you put the leaves in a pot with ice, and just let the ice melt.  This lead to some super concentrated, but delicious tea.

We also rolled the leaves in our hands until they felt crumbled, then steeped it.  The smell and taste were grassy, but better tasting that the straight leaves we tried with the Taiping Houkui. This was a good indication of how important it is to expose the juices inside the leaves for the flavor to develop.


We also ground our own matcha (powdered tea).  The grinder is two large granite blocks that are slightly offset, so the powder falls to the side.


(Hand ground matcha.)


(From the top.)

After the tea tasting (and purchasing), we took a very slow train back to Kyoto, where we had dinner.  I had some good Japanese food – including bamboo tempura and yuba/okara skewers.  And very good conversation.  I’m happy to have gone with friends.

Day Twelve – Nagasaki

The express train from Hakata to Nagasaki is beautiful – hardwood floors, great colors.   Breakfast was on the train.  Cheese bread and raisin bread. Again. There are so few vegetarian options here.

The countryside here is beautiful. Mountains covered in green are everywhere, and everything is so tidy. I keep thinking I could live here again. (It would be easier to keep vegetarian cooking on my own).


(En route to Nagasaki.)

Nagasaki is beautiful. I grabbed an unlimited street car ticket and headed off.

I first went to the Peace Park. I thought I was emotionally prepared for it. I was not.

The bomb (Nagasaki was plutonium, Hiroshima was uranium) was dropped just 3 days after the one in Hiroshima. Nagasaki was chosen after the bomber couldn’t see Kokura (north of Fukuoka) through smoke. Just after 11:00, the bomb exploded north of downtown. The blast was terrible. Thousands died immediately, and thousands more died in the coming weeks and months. This museum doesn’t have all of the original US government documents that the one in Hiroshima did, but the effect is still haunting. The bomb heliocenter was close enough to knock down a prison and what was then the largest Catholic church in east Asia. And, of course, everything else nearby. A sign near the heliocenter shows how the ground was several feet higher before the bomb.


(At the Peace Park.  Also, some history  in the text.)


(Peace Park.)


(More statistics.)


(The main monument in the Peace Park and a collection of origami cranes – regularly replaced – for the victims.)


(A replica of the plutonium bomb dropped on Nagasaki.)


(You can see the heat damage to the exposed part versus the unexposed part.)20130422_112125

(A collection of coins and other materials melted in the blast.)


(More everyday items melted in the blast.)


(Scorched clothing.)


(Pictures of the immediate aftermath of the bomb.)


(A then-and-now photo of Nagasaki.)


(This is the character for “prayer,” made from hundreds of origami cranes folded by schoolchildren in Japan.)

The memorial for those who died is columns of water pouring over rocks, to answer the call of so many victims for water to soothe their scorched throats.  It was haunting.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki chartered a mayor’s plan for peace. I was happy to see both Salt Lake City and San Francisco as signatories. I signed their pledge for a global convention on nuclear weapons.  You can too, here.

After some time to gather myself, I hopped on the street car to Oura Catholic Church, the oldest Christian church in Japan. It has a great collection of artifacts related to the persecution on early Christians: it had fumie images, which were carved images of holy figures on which people suspected of Christianity had to walk, to show their disregard for Christianity; it had sculptures of Kannon with Marian imagery or a cross on the back; and it had a variety of everyday objects onto which Christians carved hidden messages.  It was really interesting to see these artifacts in person.  They figure prominently in Silence (沈黙), a novel by Endo Shusaku – and the first full length Japanese book I read in the original.


(The oldest Christian church in Japan.)


(Inside the church.)


(Check out the difference between the front and back.)


(Technically, this looks like Kannon/Guanyin/ Avalokiteśvara – but it’s really Mary.) 20130422_142540

(A fumie.)


The views from the church are of Nagasaki harbor, and are amazing.

From the church I wandered through the Chinatown, where Chinese laborers built a variety of temples that are still standing.  Nagasaki has long been an international city.

My next stop was Dejima (出島).  In the closed country period (鎖国時代) Dejima was the only port open to foreign trade. Originally it was for the Portuguese, but after the government moved to ban Christianity, the Dutch took over the facility. This was really quite cool. Tons of trade goods (including at some points millions of dollars worth of sugar) flowed through the island. And western medicine. Dejima was the first place where vaccination was performed in Japan.  Dejima was also fun because a bunch of Japanese girls on the street car kept talking amongst themselves about what it was, and no one knew.  Eventually, I explained that it was the only foreign port in Japan during the closed country period.  Their first shock was that I understood them, and their second was that I knew the answer. They went on about how they learned about Japanese history from a non-Japanese.  Hehe.


(Dutch merchant quarters.)


(More of the merchant quarters at Dejima.)


(A cool packing job!)

From Dejima, I went to the site of martyrdom of 26 Japanese saints (6 foreigners and 20 Japanese) who were collected from throughout Japan after Christianity was formally outlawed, and crucified on a hill overlooking Nagasaki bay.  This is now a pilgrimage site.


Next stop, the Nagasaki museum of history and culture. By this point, having been to Oura and Dejima, I’d seen most of it. But the artwork is great. There were fascinating fusion pieces, like katana guards with western people on them.

I went to the mall by the station for dinner. There was an Indian place. It was overpriced, but it actually had vegetarian food. After asking if there was anything veggie at 3 restaurants before this one, I was sort of willing to pay anything for vegetables.

Back to the station for the train to Hakata. I need to be up early tomorrow to get to Kyoto.

Day Eleven – Fukuoka

There were big delays on the Toikaido line (the main train line between Tokyo and the cities to the south and west), so they let us switch at Shin Osaka to a super fast bullet train. (Yes, there are different bullet trains, some faster than others).  Of course, they announced this about an hour early, which lead to even less sleep. In retrospect, I should have stayed on the sleeper car – at least I could have stayed lying down. But, I got to ride on the fastest bullet train, which normally would not be covered by my pass. That was cool.

The bullet trains really are slick. In some ways they represent Japan: organized, on-time, super clean. Passengers are organized and don’t go out of turn.   Unlike China, which was a lot more chaotic, with an every-man-for-himself feel.

By daylight I was in Fukuoka.  I’d never been to Kyushu, so this was exciting.


(Hakata Station, the main station in Fukuoka.)


(Wandering around I saw this post with Sister Cities. I immediately recognized Oakland.)


There is a cluster of temples in the Gion neighborhood, including the main shrine in Hakata.


(An omikoshi, or portable shrine.)


(Hakata Shrine.)


(I love these straw ropes.)


(At the main Shinto shrine.)

Next to the main shrine, there was  a farmers market stand from a local tea growing region (Yame).  Japanese green tea is so different than Chinese. It was on a great sale. They also had some homemade miso and other perishable items I didn’t think I could get home.

Nearby was a Buddhist temple.  The architecture is very Japanese. Chinese-influenced, but still very Japanese.


(Chinese influenced pagoda, Shinto influenced temple.)


(At the Buddhist temple, a pictorial exposition of jigoku, or hell.  As you can see, it’s remarkably similar to Christian imagery. It’s interesting how most religions struck on post-mortal punishment as a mortal motivator.)

I went to a nearby museum of local history.  Very interesting.  Fukuoka is quite close to Korea, so it’s long been a cosmopolitan and international city. This was an artisan making Hakata dolls, a local specialty.


I walked to the Tenjin area, which is the main shopping district of Fukuoka. Western brands and high-end Japanese ones all over the place. I got lunch here – cheese bread and tea – because finding anything without meat is proving really hard.

I took the subway to Ohori park, which is a beautiful lake in the middle of town. Nearby is the ruins of Fukuoka castle. Great views.


(Ohori Park Lake.)


(The castle foundation.)

Even better, nearby was an excavation site from the castle era. Historically, Fukuoka was one of 3 diplomatic entry points to Japan (along with Osaka and Kyoto), so it was a big stop in what was called the ceramic road.

For dinner I found a place that had a veggie spaghetti.  Not very Japanese, and certainly not the ramen for which Hakata is famous, but it was the only veggie option I could find (and I certainly know how to ask). Then off to bed for my first real sleep in a while.

Day Ten – Northern to Eastern Capital

In the morning, I wandered around the Beijing Central Business District. It was here that I struggled the hardest to remember that China is not a capitalist country. It could have been any major business district.  Major international brands, like Louis Vuitton and Emporio Armani, in massive overpriced malls. Major multinational corporations and banks. Lots of English.  Really, could be anywhere in the world.

The smog was worse today than when I was here earlier.  Like a bad day in Los Angeles. It apparently gets much worse.


(Just a funny statute in Beijing.)


(Fancy malls.)


(Cool architecture.)



After the mess with the roads, I opted for the subway to Beijing airport. That was easy.


(View of Beijing from the train.)

Again, there were delays leaving Beijing because air traffic control made us sit.  So my impression of Beijing Airport is that it’s super efficient for processing you once you’re inside it, but not good at getting you in and out of it.

I flew ANA, so all the announcements were in Japanese.  Hooray for being able to understand.  I even spent most of the flight reading the in-flight magazine, because it was in Japanese and I was excited to read and understand – instead of the read-and-guess thing I’d been doing in China.

Hooray for entry into Japan!


(I know the o-kaerinasai おかえりなさい is for Japanese nationals, but I was happy reading it.)

I spoke Japanese in customs, got my rail pass, and reserved a seat on the sleeper car to Okayama.


(Sleeper car.)


(Sleeping compartment.  Narrow is an understatement.)

It was a good idea – save money on a hotel, get a quick start on my journey to Kyushu, etc.  But I only got sleep like I do on airplanes: in snatches with most of the time just below awake but not yet asleep.

Lastly – a note on the title. Beijing is written as the Northern Capital (北京). Tokyo is Eastern Capital (東京).  So, the character for capital is the same.


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