Monday, December 1, 2008

Japan Trip

Tougudou hall, on the grounds of Ginkakuji (the Silver Pavilion) in Kyoto: my current desktop image.

People occasionally somehow get the idea that I’m an enthusiastic and frequent traveler, but that’s pretty far from the truth. I stick close to home most of the time, though every once in a long while I scrape together enough money and enthusiasm to do something big, like my vacation in Japan this October.

I went over with a couple of friends from Connecticut, which was great for defraying costs and providing moral support. We planned out our own itinerary, which also cut expenses, in addition to providing the freedom to go where we wanted at our own pace. It worked out well, though it certainly helped that we all knew some Japanese, and had some friends over there.

I traveled in the southern part of the main island of Japan, in the Tokyo and Kyoto regions. This area has a humid subtropical climate, somewhat similar to the coastal Carolinas and Georgia, and October is considered a good time to visit: not stifling, but not frosty, either. Apparently, this October was unusually hot and hazy, and the weather was more summer-like than I had expected. It wasn’t unpleasant, but I quickly went through my supply of short-sleeved shirts.
Tokyo’s “electric town,” Akihabara. Across the street are a crane-game arcade, and infamous amateur comic shop Tora no Ana (The Tiger's Den).

Tokyo is a little overwhelming. It’s one of the largest cities in the world, with close to 13 million residents, and the urban landscape stretches out to the horizon in every direction when viewed from the top of the skyscrapers in Shinjuku (you can take the elevator up the Tokyo Metropolitan Building for free). But it isn’t too hard to get around; the train system is user friendly, and important signs usually give English translations.
Echeverias and a Peanut Cactus (Chamaecereus silvestrii) along a street in Tokyo.

Home base was a traditional inn (or ryokan) called Homeikan, close to the University of Tokyo, in a quiet residential neighborhood. I quickly felt comfortable in the area, which wasn’t nearly as hectic as the central parts of the city. There wasn’t much space for horticulture, but the inn had a small but immaculately maintained traditional garden. Around the neighborhood, people had collections of potted plants wherever they could find space, and I even spotted some aloes, echeverias and mesembs. The climate is warm enough that what would be houseplants in Connecticut stay outside year round. On plots of open ground around street trees near the inn someone had even planted Brugmansia (Angel’s Trumpet), which I usually think of as a true tropical plant.
Matt at Nandaimon, a gate near Todaiji, Nara Park

I also visited Kyoto and Nara, both former capitals of Japan that are famous for their ancient shrines, temples and gardens. Some of the most beautiful scenery, I thought, was at Ginkakuji, the Silver Pavilion, at the base of the mountains on the eastern side of Kyoto. Moss gardening is a specialty at the Silver Pavilion, and there was even a display showing which mosses were considered weeds, and which were carefully nurtured. Nara was wonderful as well, with a central park that includes numerous historic sites, including Todaiji, a Buddhist temple that is the largest wooden structure in the world. Nara Park is also home to a large number of more or less tame deer, which have the run of the place and will follow visitors around looking for handouts.
Hill east of Ginkakuji, mid-October, with maple foliage (Acer palmatum) starting to change color.

All in all, I had a fantastic time during my two weeks in Nippon. I would love to go back sometime to explore more in Tokyo, Kyoto and Nara, and maybe try to get further afield. Until then, I'm slowly putting together a longer and nerdier chronicle of the trip at my Japanese 2-D culture blog, Moetic Justice.