Japan. No problem.
Many people in Hawaii have been to Japan many times, know their way around. This story is not for them.
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The street was filled with people, both ascending and descending, and was lined with souvenir shops and places selling soft-whip ice cream in green tea and vanilla flavors. Among the other things I didn’t know: It was Health Sports Day, a national holiday.
I braved the crowds and, that day and the next, saw the major temples: the Silver Pavilion, the even more stunning Golden Pavilion, two stories of which are actually covered with gold, and the famous Zen garden at Ryoanji. These are national treasures—religious, cultural and historical places. The Japanese visit them like Americans might visit the Statue of Liberty or the Washington Monument.
However, the best moment came my first afternoon. To be honest, I was by that time hot and tired. I’d walked down the Philosopher’s Walk, a lane without cars along a stream, made famous by a Japanese sage who walked there every day.
That day, it was not conducive to deep thought. It was crowded with pedestrians, lined with souvenir shops, tea rooms and rickshaw drivers who offered short rides and pictures, a deliberate archaism like the horse-drawn carriage rides available to tourists in American cities. My only philosophical reflection was that tourists were tourists, the world over.
From Philosopher’s Walk, I negotiated a tangle of streets, thinking maybe I better knock off for the day. Then I stumbled upon Nanzenji, a once important Zen temple, and still a functioning temple complex. It was vast, lined with trees, cooler and far less crowded than anywhere I’d been in days.
There was a massive wooden emperor’s gate, perhaps 30 feet high, up on a stone platform. There, a few people bowed in reverence. But there was also a holiday spirit: Small children ran playing, young couples took each other’s pictures with their cell phones, a pair of women ate some packaged noodles, a few people seemed lost in contemplation or fatigue.
I wandered past the ancient brick aqueduct, a beautiful structure that seemed to blend in with the trees, and found the historic hojo, or abbot’s residence.
There, I took off my shoes, dropped off my superfluous coat and carry bag in a coin locker, and paid the nominal fee to enter. It was quiet. You walked along a dark corridor, and then suddenly found yourself on a narrow wooden porch, fronting a rock garden.
It’s not a large garden compared to its more famous cousin at Ryoanji. There’s a bed of gravel carefully raked in arcs and circles, a few strategically placed rocks and boulders, a handful of trees and shrubs and, above it, as a kind of borrowed scenery, the trees of the mountain that rises behind the wall.
The rocks of the garden are said by some to represent young tigers crossing a stream. I was unable to visualize that. But the rocks seemed to have a strange dynamism. They seem to move or at least quiver with suppressed life.
It was hushed here, a few people sat quietly. A gong resonated in the distance. It would take hours to deconstruct the cultural significance of this place, which is surrounded by rooms full of remarkable, historically and artistically significant paintings on shoji screens.
But too many words are not necessary. You can simply sit and feel the powerful aesthetic at work. A refined artwork like a Zen garden is, after all, meant to be experienced, not merely explained.
Nanzenji, as much as the narrow, crowded streets of Akasaka where I met Haruhiko, seemed like the place I came to Japan to see.
I stayed for hours, and then reluctantly tried to find my way to a subway station that my map showed was somewhere in the area. A young man hopped off a bicycle, said he was going home, but he would lead me there. No problem.
Getting to Japan:
There are six airlines who fly daily, or at least, weekly from Honolulu to Japan. All Nippon Airway’s (ANA) daily flight was the most comfortable airplane I’d been on in decades, reminding me of the way U.S. airlines used to be in the early ’60s. The seats, especially in business class, were spacious and comfortable. There was actual service. The flight attendants even gave little kids wings to pin on their shirts. The food was not just good for airline food; it was actually good, especially the Japanese meals. ANA offers some economy roundtrips as low as $540. (800) 235-9262, www.anaskyweb.com/us/e/
JR, the Japan Rail Group, has a train which leaves directly from Narita Airport to Tokyo Station. Of course, that means getting on and off a train with your luggage, then taking a taxi or subway to your hotel. Easier is AirportLimousine, which, for about $30, will take you to the door of most major hotels, www.limousinebus.co.jp/e/
Japan’s biggest bargain is reserved for temporary visitors to Japan. You can buy one-, two- or three-week passes good for unlimited travel on most trains, including bullet trains, and some buses and ferries. You must buy the pass before you go to Japan. You get a voucher here, exchange it for the pass at many JR stations, including the one in Narita Airport. Vouchers can be purchased from JTB Hawaii, 715 S. King St., 548-2001. For information: japanrailpass.net
In Japan, as a little nod toward home, I stayed at Prince Hotels—which in the Islands own the Hawaii, Maui and Hapuna Beach Prince Hotels and the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel. For information: www.princehotelsjapan.com
I cannot say enough about the Akasaka Prince in Tokyo, a stunning, 40-story, crescent-shaped hotel rising above one of Tokyo’s most enjoyable districts. The rooms are larger than those in many American business hotels and all enjoy a wall of plate glass windows overlooking the city. This is an excellent first stop for someone unfamiliar with Japan. The English-speaking staff will help you find your way anywhere.
The Hakone Prince offers an onsen, an open-air natural hot spring, and in good weather, a view of Mt. Fuji. The Kyoto Prince sits north of city, at the end of the subway line, next to an international conference center. It offers all sorts of services, including a welcome desk in the Kyoto train station. The hotel will transport your luggage between the station and hotel.
All of these Prince Hotels offer package deals that include an abundant Japanese and American breakfast buffet.
Akasaka Prince Hotel
1-2, Kioi-cho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 102-8585
Hakone Prince Hotel
144 Moto-hakone Hakone-machi Ashigarashimo-gun,
Kanagawa Japan 250-0592
Kyoto Takaragaike Prince Hotel
Takaragaike Sakyo-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto 606-8505