Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Sacred Waters of Nachi

One of the advantages of going on a trip that someone else has planned is that your expectations can be tremendously off-base when it comes to what you were planning to do on any given day. This is what happened to my on our trip to Nachi Falls - my excitement turned into amazement, which transitioned into overwhelming wonder as we hiked along the Sacred Kii Mountain Range pilgrimage route and explored increasingly impressive and wondrous monuments.

We began our hike at what looked like any other trail head. My expectation for the day was that we would hike up a little valley and see a cool little waterfall. This is what the "waterfall" near my house growing up in San Diego looked like:

We were all in good spirits and the trail head had hiking sticks we could borrow!

We walked up a pleasantly constructed stone path through a hilly neighborhood  and past fields of flowers until we reached a red bridge. Our guide Misako stopped us and told us that after crossing this bridge, it was said that we were entering the spiritual world.

This was because we were entering the Sacred Kii Mountain Range pilgrimage route, where devotees had walked for to see sacred temples and natural wonders imbued with spiritual qualities for 1200 years.

Like the many pilgrims before us, we were pretty short of breath before reaching the top.

At the top, I was astounded to find two beautiful temples, one Shinto and one Buddhist. The Shinto temple had this wondrous tree cavern that we could enter and leave wishes. Did I use the word wondrous multiple times in the same blog post? You betcha.

Walking down the other side of the hill from the temples we caught our first glance of the falls. Wow.

We were told that drinking water from the falls would prolong our lives. One sip was ten years, two sips was twenty years, but three sips was just being greedy. Such is the logic of the spiritual world.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Ryokan

In Katsuura, we stayed in the Katsuura Gyoen Ryokan, a traditional hotel built above one of the many hot springs in this region of Japan and overlooking Nachi Bay.

Now, I've only been to one ryokan in my life, but I'm going to go ahead and generalize by saying that all ryokans are awesome for the following reasons:

1. You get wear these badass ukatas. Don't wrap them the wrong way, unless you're dressing a corpse.

2. These rooms. What?

3. Sitting in a relaxing onsen (hot spring) on a peaceful night admiring the stars and meditating to the sound of the ocean waves crashing down below. Some Americans are weirded out by the nakedness, but if you can get over it, there is nothing more relaxing.

4. The fish. This is probably unique to this region, which is known for its tuna, so maybe I can't generalize.

At one point, the restaurant people had me chomp down on a giant chunk of tuna (which I'm sure would got for about $70 in the United States) for their amusement.

5. What, those four reasons don't have you convinced of the awesomeness of ryokans?

The Vinegar Factory

Right down the street from our family drug store was a vinegar factory. On our way back from to the Ryokan someone had the bright idea to ask for a tour of it. Not everyone thought touring a vinegar factory was the best use of our time, but oh, were we wrong.

Introducing Marushi Brewing Nachi-Katsuura, a magical place where vinegar is created from the holy water of Nachi Falls, citrus, and a convoluted ritual involving conch shells, drumming and praying to Shinto gods. They sell this stuff in the United States.

We were shown around the vinegar factory by a charming older man and he went through his daily ritual as he explained the complicated steps it took to make their special brand of vinegar. At this point I should note that he spoke a very thick regional dialect and our interpreter could only kind of understand him. None of us really knew what was going on and it was glorious.

The vinegar man first showed us a small shrine in a tiny garden in the back where (we think) he told us he prayed every day for good vinegar or something.

He then had us taste the water which ran into the town from Nachi Falls, was holy, and was used to make the vinegar. It came out of a random hose and we unhygienically and inappropriately drank it by slurping it out of big wooden ladles.

At the entrance to the storage room where the vinegar was held in giant wooden barrels, the man stopped, bowed and then picked up a conch shell and just started wailing away.

We then followed him into the storage room, where we were dwarfed by the humongous vats of vinegar.

 After exiting the storage area, he pulled out two drum sticks and began beating on his large taiko drum. It is his ritual that he does every day at closing and opening, although we didn't catch why. Why convinced our cousin Jaime to take a few swings, as she was quite the taiko master in her day.

A day later, the factory gave us all gifts of vinegar. The translation Hannah got of the writing on the bottle summed up our trip to the vinegar factory:

"Shinawaridaidai Ponzu - Orange juice and old juice, brewed soy sauce (including soy ingredients wheat), kelp, fermented seasoning also bonito. How to save before and after: avoid the sunlight manufacturer's sure to save at the before and after a cool, dark place!"

Ancestors, Part One: Kii-Katsuura

From Tokyo, we took a beautiful seaside train ride south to Wakayama province.

We arrived in a small seaside town called Kii-Katsuura where we dropped our stuff off at a Ryokan. More about Ryokans later.

We were quickly met by some distant cousins Kuniyo and Naoko, who took us on a short hike across the beach. We looked across the bay to the northern part of the town where my grandmother had spent some years as a young child and imagined her playing on the same beach we were now walking on. Our hike ended at an old drugstore owned by our family. Inside the drugstore, we met Yoshie, my grandmother's first cousin, and made offerings in their family shrine.

From the drug store, we went to the town's graveyard and paid our respects to our many ancestors who had tombstones there. Some of the stones were so old that their weathered remains had been stacked together on a new platform to protect them. The deep sense of history we felt as we took turns offering incense was indescribable.

My maternal great grandmother's tombstone was here and seeing it drove home how personal and unique this trip was. I remember my great grandmother from when I was a child, always smiling, watching Japanese shows on TV, but not saying much to us because she didn't speak English. She passed away in 1993 and now she rests on this side of the Pacific, back in a familiar world.

Our visit to our family's drug store and graveyard sparked a strong connection that I have with this place - so unique and so far away from my world in both time and space.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Mt. Fuji / Hakone

For our first outing as a whole family, we all piled into a big tourist bus with our family name for a day trip to Mt. Fuji and Hakone.

Halfway up, we discovered that the top of Mt. Fuji was closed, so while our bus waited in a line of other buses to turn around, we got off, plated in the snow and generally made all the Chinese tourists uncomfortable. I have a great family.

From Mt. Fuji, we went to Hakone, which is a small town around Lake Ashi. For some reason, there are two pirate ships on the lake.

While crossing on one of the ships, one can get a breathtaking view of Mt. Fuji across the lake. It was also freezing cold, which was a weird sensation for someone who has spent the last year living 234 miles from the equator.

On the other side of the lake, I bought some tasty squid and some fishcakes. Kamaboko is my jam.

On the way back to Tokyo, we sopped off at the Hakone Open Air Museum (which reminded me a lot of Storm King) to explore. There were some pretty cool installations, but the crowd favorite was definitely the hot spring in the back of the museum where we dipped our bare feet among bobbing oranges.

We gave Isaac a hard time because he was late coming back from the museum.

Saturday, March 26, 2016


Tokyo is the largest conglomeration of human beings in the world. The population of the Tokyo metro area (36 million) is three times that of Burundi.

Instead of getting overwhelmed, Hannah and I (newly reunited after four months of separation) explored little corners of Tokyo, finding fun things to do, eat and see without the unrealistic expectation of trying to see it all, whatever that might mean. That still ended up being a lot. Tokyo for me was a cloud of wonderful experiences.

We toured Senso-ji Temple at night and it was beautiful.

We sat and had hand-poured coffee at a small cafe called Satei Hato.

It's Chīzukēki!

We ate the most delicious tonkatsu I have ever had in the history of Bryan eating Japanese food.

We toured a shop called Blue and White, where they sold things dyed indigo.

We woke up early and ate sushi at Sushi Bun in the Tsukiji fish market. This experience was so cool - we waited in line for 45 minutes before being ushered into a tiny room where eight people could fit around a bar and were treated to the freshest, tastiest cuts of fish one can find.

We learned how to properly do a tea ceremony, kind of.

We visited Akihabara, a district known for its video game culture and played games at Super Potato and were weirded out (and saddened) by skimpily dressed cosplay girls shivering on the street, inviting us into cafes. But the video games were fun.

We visited Ueno Park in the midst of the Cherry Blossom Festival as groups of drunken young people picnicked under the pink and white trees.

We had dinner at a sit-down (on the floor) restaurant, Kamagata Dojo, with Laurent and Coralie, two friends from Burundi.

And of once my family from California flew in, enjoyed a great reunion!