One hundred and ten degrees of longitude separate St. Petersburg, Russia, and Tokyo, Japan. For eight weeks in 2005, I'll be crossing this large chunk of the world solo. I've set up this blog so that family and friends can keep track of my whereabouts, my activities, and my well-being. It might also be useful for someone planning a similar trip. Please bookmark this page so you can check up on me at your leisure.

Sunday, October 02, 2005


Public internet facilities are hard to find in Japan, and when you do find them, they're expensive! I purchased an hour of time here in a tourist information centre on the 9th floor of Kyoto Station, and it cost me 400 yen (about $4 Canadian). After the low, low prices of Russia, Mongolia, and China, it's an unpleasant feeling to bounce up to prices reminiscent of home.

I've been in Kyoto since yesterday afternoon, and am staying at Ryokan Rikiya -- a beautiful and peaceful inn with an amazing location in Higashiyama-ku, one of the best places for viewing temples, shrines, and the occasional geisha. My room has paper screens, and I can see a little temple on a hillside from the window of my sitting area.

Lonely Planet seems to suggest that it's rare and special to spot geishas, but I've seen four or five groups of them in various places around Higashiyama. How they look: white make-up on the face and neck; brightly coloured kimonos; wooden sandals; and parasols, usually. They walk gracefully up and down the narrow alleys. The problem with seeing them is that you don't know whether you're seeing genuine geishas or regular Japanese women, tourists, who have paid to be made up and dressed up like geishas. It's a thing you can do here.

Today was overcast, very grey, but oh -- the heat. I poured with sweat from the minute I left the ryokan until, well, I'm still pouring with sweat. Now, I sweat at the drop of a hat, but all the Japanese people around me in the streets and at the temples were feeling it, too. The fans were out, waving enthusiastically. Much green tea ice cream was being consumed. There's no way I could live in this country -- except maybe in the northern part, on the island of Hokkaido.

I visited a few important cultural sites today: Kiyomizu-dera, Kodai-ji, Chion-in, Murayama Park, and Yasaka Shrine. All were within a ten-minute walk of my ryokan, The first three on that list are Buddhist temples. Yasaka Shrine belongs to the Shinto tradition, but I've learned that in Japan, most people are happy following the teachings and practices of both religions. Over the centuries, the two have mixed together to a considerable degree.

Murayama Park was a real delight because at one of the ponds I saw ducks, turtles, carp, and a beautiful, dignified crane. I think I got good photos of all those creatures, but I'm especially hopeful about the photos of the crane. Small boys with nets were catching the turtles and then letting them go. A little girl walked up to the water's edge, next to me, to look at the turtles. I was leaning down, trying to focus my camera, but I could see her out of the corner of my eye. When she realized she was standing right next to a gaijin, she gasped in surprise and bolted back to her parents, where she stared at me from behind their legs. The parents were laughing.

The craft shops here are amazing. My mother would have a fit.

I thought I was being very clever last night by going to a convenience store and buying food for today's breakfast and lunch. I bought two pizza buns and two plastic containers with pear sections. I discovered this morning that the pizza bread tastes just wrong, wrong, wrong, and the pear pieces are not packed in water like you'd get in a can back in North America, but rather are suspended in a clear gel. The gel just tastes like pears, but it's still weird and unsettling.

I took a Kyoto city bus to get down here to the station and do some banking. I'm a bit proud of myself for managing it!

>Tomorrow, I'm going to do a four-hour guided walking tour with some local character named "Johnny Hillwalker." Afterward, I'll try to find out if it's possible to see any traditional Japanese theatre while I'm here. That includes, of course, bunraku -- puppet theatre. It's a serious art form here in Japan.

I'd like to say a few things about the A-Bomb Museum in Hiroshima. First, I was horrified by the displays on the health effects of radiation experienced by those who survived the initial blast. There are still many thousands of people all over Japan and other countries who are living with serious medical problems because of the A-Bomb detonation on August 6, 1945. The Japanese word for these survivors is "hibakushi." Second, I was deeply moved by the drawings and paintings that survivors have made, showing their experience on that day and the days that followed. In many cases, the artist was a small child on the day of the blast and only drew or painted the picture decades later. Third, I was impressed by the sensitive and tactful language that the museum materials used when discussing Japan's imperial ambitions, culpability for the war, and atrocities like the infamous "Rape of Nanking." I got no sense of white-washing for the domestic audience. Unfailingly, the materials called for all countries to be as objective and truthful as possible about their own behaviour during the war. Finally, I was interested to get the museum's take on America's reasons for using the A-Bomb: to defeat Japan without needing to invade the Japanese home islands, obviously; to defeat Japan without real assistance from the Soviets, in order to achieve a more favourable balance of power in the Pacific after the war; and to justify the enormous expense of the Manhattan Project to the American people. I'm not sure if this list represents the conventional wisdom in the West as well, but I'm curious to find out. Normally, in casual conversation with lay people, you just hear the first reason -- to end the war quickly without further loss of Allied soldiers.

Okay, I'm running out of time. I'll write again as soon as I can!


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