Visiting Japan with Nathaniel

Last fall, our eleven year old son Nathaniel approached me with a proposition. He had been saving his allowance and gifts for several years and was willing to put all the money towards a visit to Asia. I chose Japan because I liked it when I had first visited several decades ago, because there would be much to see, and because it would be relatively easy to see it.

We planned a trip of three weeks, with stops in Tokyo, Mount Fuji, Kyoto, the castle town of Himeji, Hiroshima, and Matsuyama and Takamatsu on the southern island of Shikoku. Consulting Lonely Planet’s Guide to Japan, I booked hotel reservations online, and bought Japan rail passes. I took an introductory Japanese course, which would turn out to be helpful in asking directions and reading signage in hiragana (the Japanese alphabet) and katakana (the alphabet for foreign words). I also consulted, and received many helpful suggestions, from Prof. Masahori Horie of the Graduate School for Public Policy Studies in Tokyo, whom I had interviewed three decades ago; Dr. Kenneth Courtis, a Japan expert whom I’d also met at that time; Prof. Charles Macmillan, a former colleague at the Schulich School of Business, and also a Japan expert; Yasu Kajiwara, my Japanese teacher; and Joey Ning, a student of mine who had visited Japan a few weeks before.

Nathaniel is a great travel companion. He’s very energetic, and was willing to visit every site we had included on our ambitious itinerary and was eager to bicycle all over Kyoto. He’s adventuresome, and tried many new foods, such as regional cuisine, and new experiences, such as public baths. And he’s a good problem solver. We had a great time and we have memories that will last a lifetime. Thank you for taking the initiative, Nathaniel.

We have a long list of places we visited, so I’ll mention a few categories and one-offs. Temples and gardens, such as Daitokuji, Ryoanji, and Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto; the Imperial Palace and Meiji shrine in Tokyo; the floating temple and Torii Gate on Miyajima Island near Hiroshima; and the spacious Ritsurin Garden in Takamatsu. Castles in Himeji, Kyoto (Nijo), Hikone, and Matsuyama. The National Museum in Ueno Park, Tokyo; the museum depicting the heart-breaking suffering of those killed and maimed by the atomic bomb in Hiroshima; and the nationalistically-biased museum at the Yasakuni Shire in Tokyo. Hot baths in several hotels and a community bath near our ryokan in Kyoto with several tubs at differing temperatures including a cold one, and one with a different scent every day (I could read the sign for lavender and chamomile). Baseball games with cheerful and disciplined fans, including many elderly ladies, singing team songs for the Tokyo Giants and Hiroshima Carp, in stadiums that reminded us of Rogers Centre and Fenway Park, respectively. Mazda’s main factory in Hiroshima, with a glimpse of the main assembly line, which put together several different models, assisted by robots such as those gluing on the windshields. The venerable Ushite temple and decaying hiking trail on the outskirts of Matsuyama, part of the Shikoku temple pilgrimage trail instantly taking us back ten centuries. The kabukiza theater in Tokyo that also took us back several centuries, but in a brightly-lit and luxuriously-renovated setting. Mount Fuji seen at dawn from the lake below, and then visited later in the day, our bus taking us above the clouds to the fifth station, where we hiked and looked up to the peak.
I could channel Jack Kerouac and continue for several more pages to list things we saw, but I’ll stop. We have memories prompted by souvenirs we bought, entrance tickets we saved, the diary Nathaniel kept, and pictures stored on my phone.

One last thing I will mention is the Japanese commitment to intelligent design, which makes Japan so easy a place to visit. The Tokyo subway system is complicated, but the maps are clear and every station lists in English as well as Japanese the different sites or buildings at each of its many exits. Transit systems, including those in smaller cities such as Matsuyama and Takamatsu, sell stored-value cards (for instance Pasmo in Tokyo) that can be used on any part of the transit system, including purchasing drinks at machines on the platforms. Japan Rail marks where each car stops on its platforms. The announcements are all prefaced by musical introductions, and I challenged my musical memory identifying the themes (one from Orff’s Carmina Burina in Kyoto). Of assistance to tourists, there are clean washrooms at every subway station, park, and tourist site. Of particular help in the rainy season of June and early July, there are machines dispensing a huge variety of cold drinks are at every subway station, tourist site, and, so it seems, almost every street corner.

Nathaniel and I had a fantastic experience, and I’m happy to make this the first post on my new website.

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