So this is the beginning... 

...of what may end up being a 3 part blog entry on my trip to Japan and Seoul. In it I hope to make some sense of my experiences as they were almost innumerable and difficult to comprehend at times...as it still feels as though I'm waking from a dream, and can't tell if it was real or not. 

PART 1

So my trip began as like any other, with a virtually sleepless night. Satish and Abhijeet had come into town the day before, it was my brother's birthday, and the Chiang's had their big record release party, as the old adage goes: when it rains it pours. So after a few very brief hours of sleep Satish was kind enough to take me to the airport, where I boarded my flight to Tokyo on Air Canada without a hitch. We popped up to Vancouver BC where I spent my brief layover navigating the plethora of duty free shops and the menagerie of people inside them. Let me tell you from experience...Asian people take their duty free shopping SERIOUSLY. 

My new Eagle Creek travel pack ready to rock!

My new Eagle Creek travel pack ready to rock!

Continuing on, once again without any bumps in the road I hop on my flight to Tokyo. I even had an emergency row seat which granted me plenty of leg room. Also the entirety of my giant backpack fit in the overhead bin, so I was free and clear to enjoy myself and relax. 

I began watching the second Avengers Movie, which if you haven't seen yet, spare yourself the time and anguish. It was tripe. That said, I peered out the window after and I was very confused to see that we were still above land. I had anticipated we would be in the middle of the ocean after a good 2 hours, but I was left baffled. And yet here we were:

And I realized after watching the land and the endless mountains and river basins fade away, that this was in fact Alaska or even farther north, and I was flying past the edge of the world! I will never forget this sight. Perhaps the pictures don't do the vastness of this spectacle justice. I had never seen a more indomitable and barren landscape in all my life. It reminded me of the incredible sights I saw on the flight to Costa Rica, with lightning cracking down through the sky all around the plane. Spectacular. 

A few movies later, 2 "meals", and the first half of the Bram Stoker's Dracula audio book (all available on the Air Canada entertainment console) I found myself flying into Tokyo. It should be noted I suppose, that midway through the flight I felt a terrible terrible trepidation about my trip that sort of shook me to my core. I really couldn't fathom how or why I was doing this, or for what reason, and it scared me quite a bit. All feelings of confusion and fear vanished however when I first caught site of Japan. 

I was immediately astounded by the beauty of the land beneath me. And was surprised that the incredible futuristic sprawl of Tokyo did not begin with lights and sounds and skyscrapers, but with farms, bamboo forests, and rivers. Amazing.  

The plane touched down at Narita International and I began weaving my way through security and immigration, then onto networks of shuttles and busses arriving finally to the Densha station below Narita. Densha is the Japanese word for "subway". From there I get on a densha called the "Skyliner" to Nippori station I believe, although I could be wrong. It is at Nippori station I wait to be intercepted by Merrick Mosst, the man who gifted me the tickets to come over. While I was waiting I availed myself to some onigiri - essentially little seaweed wrapped rice balls stuffed with a variety of things. These would come very much in handy to a hungry traveler like myself as the trip went on. 

Although I knew to be expecting him, I didn't necessarily know where to look, and as I was sort of advancing around staring at everything in wonderment, Merrick and I literally bumped into each other by accident. I hollered quite loudly drawing stares from busy commuters and we began promptly celebrating through a series of hugs and exclamations, and then voraciously eating the onigiri I had just bought. This was the first of many dreamlike moments in which I simply could not believe what was happening. It was one thing to see Merrick - a relatively commonplace experience - but an entirely different thing to see him in Tokyo! It is still hard to believe it. 

We hopped on the train to his neighborhood of Yoyogi and my adventure began in earnest. Merrick gave me a "suica" card, which is essentially a cash card that can be used for train tickets and frequently food and vending machines in or around stations. This was very useful because you essentially ride the densha all day everyday, and with this little suica card in your wallet you can just tap your wallet against the sensor and away you go. No waiting. We emerge via the west exit of Yoyogi station onto the cold streets of Tokyo. The intersection here is the union of 4 or 5 different roads, around which buildings of various sizes and vintages tower. Pedestrians, cyclists, cars, restaurants, arcades, convenience stores and more all blur together and I can barely wrap my head around it. And this was just Yoyogi...a very quiet and chilled out neighborhood. We continue down the street on the brief walk to Merrick's apartment and the frenetic energy of Yoyogi station fades into the background. The streets are dark and slicked with rain, mothers with sometimes 2 children strapped onto bicycles zip down the sidewalk, a vinyl record store, then several hole in the wall restaurants, a bridge, a grocery store, a secret stone staircase that leads into a quiet series of homes and apartment buildings. Everything in one sense is crammed together, and in another, everything is cozy, and well placed, and just so. I became very accustomed to this walk over the coming days so much so it sort of felt like home.  

Merrick's apartment is just a 5 minute walk from Yoyogi station and though I had no idea what to expect, I was still very relieved when I saw the outside of the building. A very clean structure with modern design...I was immediately comforted I wouldn't be staying in some big city dump the like we've all grown so accustomed to from movies and what not. As a matter of fact...I never saw anything in Tokyo that looked dirty or cheap or poorly maintained. Everything was well kept and taken care of. 

The outside of Merrick's apartment building...the "Seven Arches"

The outside of Merrick's apartment building...the "Seven Arches"

I put my things down and we turn and head out into the evening cold for dinner. My first glimpse of Tokyo was of course, a mega mall. 

Takashimaya is many many floors of shops...although we went straight for the top floor to a katsu joint (katsu is effectively the Japanese style of fried food. Though to compare it to American fried chicken would be apples and oranges). I'm not sure what the story is behind the clock tower but I thought it was very beautiful...especially at night. I must confess my first legit meal in Japan was underwhelming. The katsu was not very flavorful, or it was a flavor I found unappealing, and the sides were equally bland. The katsu I'm used to eating in Los Angeles is accompanied by very spicy curry. This was unfortunate because it sort of colored my culinary interpretations of Japan for several days, with me thinking or believing that either Japanese food wasn't as good as everyone says it is, or that LA has pretty decent Japanese food, and the difference just wasn't that different after all. Sadly for me, as I learned as the trip went on, the food in LA holds only the smallest of candles to the average meal I had in Japan. All that said...the katsu still wasn't very good. 

After dinner we walked back to Yoyogi and the Seven Arches and I nestled into Merrick's super cozy apartment. Its a 1 bedroom with a mini kitchen that's part of the living room. The bathroom has a very skinny hallway with a sink and a compact washer, a room for the toilet, and a room for the shower.  Japanese bathrooms are wonderful, and though I've known about them for many years, I've obviously never been in one. So to begin with...the toilet...

I should've taken a picture, although I'm sure Jay can send us all a picture of his ToTo but whatever you think you know about toilets...think again. After a long journey and a katsu dinner I don't think it would be that surprising nor in poor taste to say I needed to use the toilet. And the first thing I notice when I sat down is a very welcoming heat emanating from the seat itself. That's right...heated seat. Amaze. From there it operates very similarly to a regular toilet from anywhere else in the world...that is to say, you do your business and flush. But, for those of you interested in the more wondrous aspects of this machine read on...if you're a bit squeamish, skip to the next paragraph. It took me a few days to work up the courage to explore some of the other functions of the toilet, and Merrick even confessed to me that after 3 years he hadn't even tried them out himself. There's essentially 4 buttons on the side of the potty...a "red" button...a button with a butt icon...a button with a lady icon...and a button with a "wind" icon. It doesn't take a great imagination to figure out what these pictographs indicate. Red stands for STOP. Whatever is happening, pressing the red button ends the function. Pressing the butt icon button sends a spray of water (in customizable degrees of pressure) so expertly aimed at your poo poo maker I almost leapt off the toilet the first time. Once again, this laser beam of H2O will not cease until you press stop. The lady icon as best as I can guess is designed for more feminine needs. I pressed it anyway and it basically serves the same function, but over a wider area...you can guess what I mean. Lastly the wind icon, just sort of shoots air at the area, presumably to dry it off, but I didn't have much success with that part of the process...meaning, as awesome as it may have been, I was left with a very wet behind when all was said and done. I'm glad I did. 

The shower room is really amazing.  Essentially the whole room is the shower. There's a shower head attached to a long hose, a very tiny tub, and a drain in the floor. And that's it. For some reason this bathing experience feels entirely new and refreshing to a regular shower in the states. If I had one of these in my own house I don't think I would leave the room. 

Eventually it was time for sleep. Merrick's couch converted into a bed, and I laid out my new sleeping bag and fell into a deep, deep slumber the like I haven't had in as long as I can remember. It was the last decent night's sleep I had in 10 days. 


MEIJI SHRINE PART 1

The gate to Meiji Shrine

The next morning Merrick and I both awoke quite leisurely and had a nice long conversation over breakfast. That said, he still had to work most days, and he worked from home, so it was time for me to head out into the wide world of Tokyo on my own. And the first stop on the docket was Meiji shrine, a massive and overwhelmingly beautiful monument in the heart of Tokyo, and only 2 stops away! So I put my warm clothes on and headed out, through the alley, down the secret staircase, back under the bridge, past the super market, and into Yoyogi station once again, slapped my suica card down on the sensor, and feeling like a local, headed to my first solo trip on the densha! 

Harajuku was my stop. Harajuku is a massive shopping district. Its basically the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica on steroids. Exiting the train I was immediately buffeted by waves and waves of people. Everyone from salary men (the classic black suit and tie Japanese worker) to fashionistas and beyond. Gaijin (foreigners) galore, strange anime girls dressed up in lolita costumes, goth kids, grunge kids, hip-hop kids, hustlers, moms and dads and children...everyone. One turn to the left would send me careening into the Harajuku shops and madness, and one turn to the right took me to Meiji shrine...an incredible contrast by any standard. Hard to imagine that behind me was a massive consumer sprawl and in front of me was one of the most serene and peaceful places I've ever been. 

I could very easily spend the next hour or more writing about the Meiji shrine. So with this in mind I will let some pictures do most of the talking. 

As you can see, this place is incredibly gorgeous. The first picture is of the walkway just past the main gate. Even in the heart of winter the colors were vivid green and just beautiful. The peaceful aura of the entire area was palpable...like you could reach out and touch it. Eventually I came across rows and rows of festive sake barrels lining the path, and just beyond that, a second gate. I don't remember much about the details of these gates, but they are from 1771 I remember that much. Nearly 300 years old. At the end of the path beyond the gate is the entrance to Meiji shrine. Meiji shrine is very culturally significant because it is home to the souls of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken, who to the best of my understanding, were the first rulers of Meiji era Japan. That is to say, the beginning of modern Japan as we know it today. Also significant: the Meiji era marked the end of not just feudalism in Japan, but the end of the samurai and ronin way of life. 

Approaching the main shrine I discovered a water fountain (pictured above). You are supposed to rinse your hands with the water first, and then drink from the cups to purify your mouth if not your mind and body. I saw people drink the water, as well as rinse and spit it out. Admittedly I didn't try it that day, but on my return to the Meiji shrine I did, and it was the best tasting water I've ever had. 

Crossing the threshold into the shrine I found myself in a large open courtyard. It was around this time that I started feeling very strange, and a rather unusual feeling took hold of me. I couldn't quite tell what it was and I walked on. I continued to the main shrine (not pictured here as there were signs that said no photography and I wanted to respect that) and found myself at the foot of the structure. In front of me was a large wooden box with slats along the top. Incense was burning nearby tho I could not see from where. I noticed people praying here and it suddenly dawned on me that this was in fact a spiritual and religious place, not just some palace. You were supposed to make a donation to the box, bow your head, clap twice, and say your prayers. I also didn't participate in this ritual as it felt a little superficial, me being a gaijin (foreigner) and all. However, it was around this time that strange feeling from earlier started getting stronger and I noticed it was a very tangible sadness. I stepped off to the side and was reading some information in English and I found the feeling did not stop welling up inside of me and it soon ballooned into grief. A very terrible grief. I know this may sound very strange and I'm a little embarrassed to confess this at all, but it happened and I won't ever forget it. 

I thought if I didn't remove myself from the premises, I may lose it completely. I turned away from the shrine and hurriedly walked out the side gate. By this time my heart was aching and all sorts of memories and images started flashing before my eyes, smells and sounds and feelings from years gone by and I thought I was having some sort of mental episode. I was choking back sobs and tears were openly rolling down my face. My rational mind could only attribute these feelings as a sort of metaphysical reaction to the shrine itself (strange and superstitious as it may be) and sure enough, with each step I took away from the main building, the feeling subsided bit by bit, step by step, and by the time I reached the main gate overlooking Harajuku, the feeling had nearly gone completely. I decided that before I left Japan, I would need to return to Meiji shrine and try to understand what had happened to me there. 

Then, though I felt completely drained, I headed into the wilderness of Harajuku. 


There's not much to say about Harajuku that I haven't mentioned already. Sadly I didn't get many pictures. Writing this travel blog makes me regret not documenting every last detail. But, suffice it to say, it was an eclectic blend of little pop-up shops of small businesses and major retailers. It felt like a giant permanent bazaar. Very festive and cozy and full of energy...though beyond crowded.  I will mention, that Tokyo was rather (disappointingly) graffiti free, and Harajuku was the only place I found any, though it was obviously commissioned. I really liked them though. 

I especially love the "Now is Forever" wall...there is something about that sentiment that rings true. Sort of like Young Beautiful in a Hurry. I made my way back to Yoyogi, and this time stopped at the grocery store and grabbed myself some salmon roe (raw fish eggs, which I tossed onto some rice at Merricks. It looked a little something like this:

Salmon roe from the grocery store...not very nummy...but very nourishing to a hungry boy. 

Salmon roe from the grocery store...not very nummy...but very nourishing to a hungry boy. 

After that Merrick and I dilly dallied at home and then headed out to dinner at a spanish restaurant (of all places) where we were to meet up with none other then our good friend Kevin Hensel, who also happens to be living in Japan as well. Dinner was pretty damn good I must confess. A tiny tiny joint reminiscent to Casa Nelson in Spain (a delicious 1 man restaurant). Our waitress Mio-chan was old friends with Merrick from a few years ago and she spent a majority of her night hanging out with us and even got us free drinks. It was a great evening. After that the three of us took to the streets and I got my first glimpse of Shibuya...Shibuya is the equivalent of New York's Times Square. The difference being is that every other intersection in Tokyo looks just like Shibuya in some form or another. The immensity of Tokyo simultaneously never really set in, nor did it seem to be overly daunting. Too much fun to be had I suppose. 

It should be noted here that one of the things that struck me about Japan almost immediately (and this is only the musings of a foreigner, so I could be completely wrong), is music seems to be really important to them still. And though it may be slowly changing, it certainly has not gone down hill as quickly as the rest of the world. First of all, they still have record stores. Like...places that sell CDs. Tower records is alive and well, and in Harajuku I saw an independent record store...and I saw several vinyl record shops throughout the city as well. All this aside, getting off the train in Shinjuku on the way to dinner I saw, in the heart of this immensely busy district, what appeared to be a 5 story building dedicated entirely to the retail of musical instruments. Across the intersection from there, a giant neon guitar! It gave me goosebumps honestly. Merrick told me that businesses like those are struggling to survive but even still...its a testament to how many people are interested in not just listening to it, but playing it. Perhaps its naive, but I loved that so much about Japan.   


KAMAKURA - The City of Shrines

The next day Merrick and I set out for Kamakura. Under the circumstances it was difficult to get too far outside the city; nevertheless one of my goals while in Japan was to get out of town, and Kamakura is the closest place that qualifies, and qualify it did. Kamakura is famous because it probably has more shrines in it per capita then Christian churches in Ferndale and Lynden Washington combined. I suppose the trip on the densha was the greater part of an hour and a half. We left without breakfast and at one of the major stations we popped into a bakery (bakeries are hugely popular over there) and we got what ended up being my favorite food item in Japan, Kare Pan...aka curry bread. This little bundle of flavor is essentially a deep fried donut (more or less) filled to the brim with delicious Japanese curry, and thinking about it now (at 5:32am) makes my stomach growl with longing. Damn it was delicious. We also ordered a hot dog pastry which was also delicious (for some reason Asian hot dogs are amazing, as they were also delicious in Korea - more on that later). 

The train ride to Kamakura alone was worth the cost of the whole trip. It was just gorgeous watching the skyscrapers fade into suburbs and suburbs fade into trees, and trees fade into valleys. We passed through Yokohama, a large port city, home apparently to a street exclusively populated by ramen shops. I didn't get to go. Next time I suppose. Kamakura arrived with a whisper, the whole trip reminded me very much of Chihiro's trip on the train in Spirited Away towards the end of the film. We got off the train, and it was cold, and green, and beautiful. Unlike in the city there's no high-tech gadget to prevent you from leaving without paying, just an open gate and the honor system. As a side note, no one has any fear of theft in Japan, I was shocked and amazed...people for the most part seem to be extremely respectful of the law and of doing unto others as they would unto themselves I suppose. We paid for our train all the same. 

Spitting distance from the train was our first stop, the Engakuji shrine. I'm not sure why Merrick thought to go there as there were so many options but I'm extremely glad we did. Entry was 300 yen (3 bucks essentially) and in we went. Now I know I mentioned that Meiji shrine was one of the most peaceful places I've ever been, but this took the cake. Engakuji was hands down the most beautiful place I've ever seen, as far as man made structures are concerned. Unlike some of the other shrines I've been to since (including Meiji) whose buildings are large and space is vast, Engakuji was small and populated by many many small shrines. Peppering the walkways were early plum blossom blooms, which were just as gorgeous as their more famous counterparts - the sakura (cherry blossom). It became apparent very quickly (though not from outside the shrine) that the deeper in we went, we were actually in the middle of a valley, with steep steep mountainous and densely forested walls ballooning up in a cascade of trees and ending in a huge barrel of overcast sky. I couldn't believe my eyes at how quickly the terrain began surrounding the shrine, and looking up would just take your breath away. The best way to visualize this for yourself would be to watch Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke, a film that takes place in forests and landscapes just like this. I'm afraid the Miyazaki references will be numerous in this portion of the blog.

Lastly, it should be noted that at one point, the smell of burning incense filled my nostrils and I was overcome with such an incredible sense of peace. Ordinarily I find incense a bit heavy handed if not overwhelming, but having grown quite acquainted with Satish's incense at the Namjoshi house, it has opened my palate to these types of things. But this smell was quite special, in that, never before in my entire life had a smell, especially a brand new one stopped me in my tracks. Perhaps it was because there was no point of reference, the way a certain smell will take me right back to England or Italy when I was a teeny, or zip you back to your mother's kitchen. This smell was entirely new, and filled me with such an incredible feeling I just had to stop and breathe it in as deeply as possible, for fear I may never smell it again. I spent a few minutes searching the gift shop for the incense but found none. Something tells me it wouldn't smell the same here in Los Angeles.

 

I think it wouldn't surprise anyone to know that the pictures just don't do it justice. We stopped at the gift shop on the way out and I purchased a large cloth banner with an old shinto proverb written on it. Something to remember that place by. I will be hanging it in my studio soon.

One of the other main goals for the day was to go on a hike, and Merrick knew of a hike that led to a giant buddha, but we knew it was going to take some time so we had to head out. We started strolling down the street when almost immediately popped up a museum. The images beckoning us in from the street were too interesting to resist and we had to go see. The name of the museum escapes me, but it was a fascinating place. It was separated into two sections...one in which photography was not allowed, and one in which it was. Obviously the no photography section was the extremely amazing stuff, that you'd actually want to take pictures of, and the other not so much. But I will describe to the best of my ability. As a side note, I've just spent the last 10 minutes or so researching the name of this place and eventually found it on google maps. That said, the last photo taken of this place (at least on google) was taken in 2014, and it was called at that time, the Kamakura House Museum. Now it was the Kamakura Doll Museum. Featuring the work of a particular and seemingly renowned artisan whose name also escapes me. But she makes vividly realistic dolls of pre-modernized life in Japan. So all of the scenes and characters she's created are from pre World War II life and it was truly magnificent. The dolls were vaguely cartoonish in their presentation, but this only seemed to help illustrate their profound true to life realism, as the dolls themselves were set up not in a tableau, but in a scene from daily life. Children playing, fighting, crying, learning to read from their grandparents, a mother breastfeeding her youngest while the rest squabble on the floor. Dolls of people harvesting rice and various other seemingly mundane daily tasks brought to life in this woman's work. The dolls had an incredible amount of energy and at one point I thought I saw one move out of the corner of my eye. Perhaps it was a "makkurokurosuke"? As I was witnessing these beautiful works of art it occurred to me there must be a photo book in the gift shop. It then occurred to me also that the photography of these dolls would pale in comparison to actually seeing them for myself, and that certainly was the case. I bought a magnet as a keepsake and left the photo book there...next time. Below you can see some photos from the other side of the museum. Some of these dolls are hundreds of years old no doubt. The hanging dioramas are decorations for a Japanese holiday called, "Girl's Day". 

Before we left the doll museum a rather jovial but nervous english speaking woman approached us and told us all about the places we needed to go and the things we needed to see while were in Kamakura and she urged us very passionately to go see Kenchoji, another shrine up the road. Along the way Merrick did some research and discovered that the giant buddha was unavailable to the public due to restoration that they do once every 50 years. So it was decided that we would still go on the hike, but perhaps we should check out another temple first. So we were Kenchoji bound, and many a picturesque street scene did we see! Specifically some very beautiful plum blossoms which were a very colorful counterpoint to the overcast skies. 

Kenchoji snuck up on us but not in a very magical way. It had its own parking lot, and from the entrance had a much more corporate vibe then the other temples I'd seen. There was a kiosk at the front with rules and regulations, and an entry way and ticket booth more similar to Universal Studios then what you'd expect a shrine to be. This left a sort of bitter flavor in my mouth from the get go, and the large number of tourists and student groups didn't help. Everyone there seemed to have very little if any reverence for the place, and they were loudly trimming trees with gas operated chain saws as well. The architecture was spectacular as one could assume, but the layout was very rigid and the greenery had been traded in for concrete and stone, the humble coziness for royal panache. It felt like the corporate strip mall version of a shrine, the Disney interpretation. Clearly tourists love this place, that's the only reason I could fathom that woman would so excitedly direct us here. I'm a more locals only man.

Looking at these pictures, this place is actually pretty astounding. But having just come from Engakuji, and combined with the loud touristy types, it was underwhelming. Nevertheless, I did feel compelled to explore the premises further and further, and found that the grounds did extend beyond where I would expect they would end. Approaching the back of the shrine, where Engakuji would have ended, Kenchoji continued on and I found a small unassuming road, that seemed to lead off premises, a prospect that excited me. Where would this road lead? The casual unknown of it enticed me enough to walk up the hill and follow the road into the woods. On the left were a few somewhat dilapidated homes one of which had a rather entertaining display of tanookis (a creature from Japanese folklore, a sort of anthropomorphized raccoon), frogs, a european style cherub, and several (presumably empty) bottles of sake. 

Bizarre to say the least...does that tanooki on the far right have breasts? There is a Studio Ghibli film called Pom Poko that's all about these little creatures. I've seen it once, it's not all that good, nor is it directed by Miyazaki, but perhaps I should watch it again. 

Not too much farther up the road things started to get very interesting. Statues started popping up on both sides, the forest became more dense and before we knew it, we were at the base of a great stone staircase ascending the mountain side. This was not on any map, nor did we know it was there. It was just one of life's little gifts that it dishes out occasionally. Stone lions and severe looking buddhas were everywhere, and colorful red and blue flags adorned the stone pathways. A crew of landscapers were there planting several trees and a murder of large raven-like bird's were cawing and it echoed through the valley. Ascending the staircase quickly reminded me that I'm a touch out of shape as it was very steep. A few zig-zags upwards and an amazing sight unfolded before our eyes. A fountain not unlike the one at Meiji shrine was ensconced amidst a small battalion of bird faced warrior statues. It called to mind all the famous statues from Europe, just incredibly different. I am unsure what significance these bird warriors have, or what their purpose was or is, but I do know they were magnificent. Continuing up the final flight of stairs rendered another view so awe-inspiring it took my breath away. From the top of the stairs the whole valley could be seen all the way out past the village and to the ocean. We paused here for a good long while not just to catch our breath but to soak it all in. The next few hours were spent hiking and views like this became so common place, we practically began ignoring them completely. An embarrassment of riches.

Along the way I had noticed signs for something called the Ten-En hiking trail. It occurred to me that this trail maybe the cure to our hiking quest, and a way out that didn't involve turning around and going back the way we had come. Something that I have at the very least an aversion to if not a strong dislike bordering on phobia of. That is to say...I HATE going back the same way I arrived. So we continued into the unknown, past another shrine at the crest of the valley, and over the hill onto the Ten-En hiking trail. Needless to say it was gorgeous. The first portion was incredibly steep, with several look out points more beautiful then the last. There was a fork in the trail at the top and we went right towards what we didn't know. We walked for at least an hour, probably 2 and in that time I saw more buddhas along this trail then anywhere else combined. But these were no ordinary buddhas. These stone figures were clearly centuries old, weather beaten and worn, right there on the side of a public trail. No caution tape, no entry fees, nothing official. Just history, ancient history. You could reach out and touch them, you could crawl into their homes, caves carved into large rock faces. Many of them had their heads removed. I imagine this happened many many ages ago, by pillagers and poachers, most likely foreign but who knows. Oddly enough, they didn't really need their heads to feel sacred or spiritually imbued. It was amazing. At one point I saw a large very climbable rock and the adventurer in me couldn't help but immediately scramble up the rock face in hopes of an incredible view at the top, but when I reached the peak, I realized I was standing on a mini buddhist shrine. There were several buddhas up there, and Japanese coin strewn about everywhere. I felt so awful having set foot up there I jumped down immediately, lowered my head and asked for forgiveness. I hope I'm in the clear. 

I am puzzled though looking back, as it is unclear which of these shrines I visited are Shinto, and which are Buddhist. Or do the two theologies mingle without borders? Meiji shrine was shinto with no effigies to speak of. Whereas Engakuji seemed like a buddha hang zone. 

The hike continued onward and eventually we ended up in a little secret neighborhood far away from where we had started. We were both pretty darn hungry at this point and the quest for food became more of a priority A1. We sauntered down the one lane road, avoiding the occasional car and found ourselves at a bus stop, which we correctly assumed would return us to the densha station, bringing my journey to Kamakura to a close. We grabbed some onigiri from the market, and got on the train, and returned to Tokyo for dinner with none other then my good friend, Trevor Matsudaira, in Japan, quite by coincidence on business. Life IS strange. 


It was decided we would get Tsukemen for dinner, and for those who don't know, Tsukemen is basically ramen, but with most if not all the ingredients separated from the broth. It's a "dipping noodle". I have been obsessed with Tsukemen for years and if I haven't mentioned it in the blog already, strap in because I will probably talk about it at length/ad nauseum...but I'll save that for a little later. 

We had arrived at the Tsukemen joint and rendezvoused with Merrick's current (though probably not final) girlfriend. Her name is Saori and she's a peach, though very quiet. No sign of Trevor until, just a few minutes later, an arm wraps around me from behind in an extremely awkward way, and I knew there was only one person in Tokyo capable of such an unfortunate greeting. I turn to see, that yes indeed, my old friend Trevor and I were in Tokyo together for reasons that only fate and or destiny could explain. It was all very surreal that my pal from Nihongo 2 back at USC and I would finally be here together, and it was made all the more sweet by the fact that it was completely unplanned, un-choreographed, and totally serendipitous. 

At the time I was reluctant to shower the Tsukemen with praise, but looking back on it, it was definitely good. Damn good. The second best I had in Japan. I will get to the first in my third blog installment. Trevor brought along his coworker, Bill, who was a fun hang as well and the night was off to a great start. After dinner we went to a strange intellectual collective. It was a sort of "Ted Talks" for anyone with warm blood. So you go to this sort of warehouse type joint, there's a stage and a projector screen, and each presenter gets 20 slides, and 20 seconds to talk about each slide respectively. The trouble is, these people could talk about anything...so you could get up there and talk to a room of several hundred young, hip, intellectual types about toilet paper, or vending machines, or whatever. What I'm trying to say is it was incredibly boring. We were in the back too, and the number of bodies in the room made it very hard to hear. We didn't stay long. I was bummed because it cost 1000 yen to get in...approximately 10 USD. Afterwards we went to hang with some of Saori's friends at some douchey corporate restaurant similar to...I dunno...El Torito or something. A more appropriate US equivalent isn't coming to mind. The restaurant appeared to be in a giant corporate complex either for business or retail or both. In the hallway on a series of benches there were several old men, slumped over asleep, sitting up. Were they homeless? If so, it was the first sign of vagrancy I'd seen in 3 days. 

We wrapped up there after a few drinks and headed back to the rainy street. Trevor and Saori had their own trains to catch and Merrick and I went our separate ways. I couldn't imagine letting a lady like Saori walk to the subway and go home all by herself, but in Japan, I must admit, I never felt the need to look over my shoulder, not once. It was very refreshing. 

On our way home from Yoyogi station it began to snow. A nice end to one of the most amazing days in my life. Kamakura was a life altering experience. We got back to the Seven Arches and I crawled into my sleeping bag and tried to grab a few precious hours sleep. Because in the morning I had to catch a plane...to Seoul Korea. 

END PART 1