Saturday, 28 November 2009

Land of the Rising Sun '09

Though the beauty of vernal cherry blossom season in Japan is globally regarded, the country is equally gorgeous in autumn, when the leaves turn vivid shades of gold, orange and red. The Japanese themselves have a name for the practice of viewing autumnal splendor: momiji-gari, literally "red-leaf hunting". It was for momiji-gari that I fulfilled a lifelong ambition to visit the Island Empire in November of 2009.

I grew up on anime and Godzilla movies, being of a vintage to have seen Robotech on television the first time around. Longtime readers of this weblog are well aware that this love of Japanese media has inflated in volume and overflowed to a broader interest in its culture and history. Certainly there were attractions specific to my anime loves, such as the magnificent Studio Ghibli Museum and the Galaxy Express 999 roller coaster in the Shinagawa Prince Hotel's Aqua Stadium in the midst of Tokyo's hustle and bustle. In Kyoto I had the chance to visit the shrine to the "God of Manga", Osamu Tezuka, and back in the capital I came full-circle by seeing the Macross Frontier feature film (Macross being one of the series imported to North America as Robotech).

Godzilla for mayor.

Mighty Atom.

The Galaxy Express 999 waits to lift off.

The Studio Ghibli Museum and your dutiful weblogger with friend.

I also took advantage of the opportunity to add to my collection of Disneylands visited by checking into the Tokyo Disney Resort. The main attraction here was the Tokyo Disneysea theme park, companion to Tokyo Disneyland proper. In particular, Disneysea enjoys - besides truly splendid attractions and theming - a whole area devoted to Disney's version of Jules Verne's immortal tales. The Mysterious Island is Captain Nemo's hidden volcanic base, from which he surveys 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and the Journey to the Center of the Earth. It is no mean, or unexpected, thing to say that these are my new favorite rides in my new favorite land of any Disney park.

Mount Prometheus, Mysterious Island and a Nemo-designed submarine pod.

My trip was not entirely focused on media franchises. Though I will make the observation that when it comes to central Tokyo, once one has combed a handful of museums, temples, shrines, gardens and the Imperial Palace, there really isn't much left to do but wander around and shop. As a consequence of multiple visits to the otaku centre of Akihabara, I now have amongst other things a Japanese Sega Saturn and a set of Sakura Wars video games. Finally, after more than a decade of considering myself a fan but wondering how the story actually ends!

Sunset on Odaiba, the most amazing I've seen since Arizona.

Shrines, temples and pagodas.

Nijubashi and the Imperial Palace.

But with me being myself, museums and heritage sites were rapidly sought out. One of the most spectacular was the National Museum of Nature and Science. The foremost building contained a thorough set of galleries dedicated to the geology, palaeontology, natural history, and prehistory of Japan. The latter building enjoyed a more global scale but was not without its oriental content, including an exhibit on Edo-era technology.

Entrance to the museum's galleries.

Futubasaurus, a national pride of a plesiosaur.

A tea-serving Karakuri automaton.

The electricity generating Elekiter.

In proximity to the National Museum of Nature and Science in Ueno Park is the Tokyo National Museum, specializing in antiquities, the National Museum of Western Art, the Ueno Zoo and the Shitamachi Museum. Immediately off the famous Sensoji Temple in Asakusa is the brand new Amuse Museum, opened only on November 1st of this year, a mere week and some before I found refuge there from the overwhelming crowds. Like the Shitamachi Museum, the Amuse Museum looks to preserve working and rural class history. They also feature performances, craft demonstrations and personal tea ceremonies. It is well worth a visit if you're in Tokyo. In the suburban areas nearing the Tama Hills lay the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum, a heritage village collecting and preserving historic structures from across Japan.

The trip did take me further afield than central Tokyo. Further in the outskirts I hiked the ruins of Hachioji Castle, regarded as one of the Japan's best 100 castles. One day brought me to Nikko and Lake Chuzenji, a mountain resort town renowned for scenic wonders and the UNESCO World Heritage complex of shrines dedicated to the Tokugawa Shoguns. Yet another had me interacting with the semi-wild deer of Nara, just outside Kyoto. Besides the famous, voraciously hungry deer, Nara is also home to the world's largest Buddha statue housed in the world's largest wooden structure. While certainly large, I found more solace in the back precincts of the temple, which seemed wonderously unchanged since the Edo period.


Nikko and Lake Chuzenji.


Kyoto loomed at the end of the bullet train tracks, and brought me not only within range of numerous temples and mountain vistas, but also a number of steam trains and scenic railways. I was well aware of the Sagano Romantic Train when planning my trip, but was pleasantly suprised by the Umekoji Steam Locomotive Museum, the only one of its kind in Japan. Offering steam train rides itself (which, sadly, I missed), it and the Romantic Train make Kyoto a destination for rail fans as well as geisha-spotters. For the record, I did see one maiko on her way to an appointment: an event lasting all of 10 glorious seconds.

Scenic Kyoto.

Umekoji Steam Locomotive Museum.

The Sagano Romantic Train travels to the north of Kyoto alongside the Hozugawa river, lending itself to one of the tourboats floating back down to the city. Upon arrival in the verdant Arashiyama district, one might wish to get close and personal with more wildlife at the Arashiyama Monkey Park. While there, I had a baby snow monkey cling to my arm for a short spell, just to say hello.

Sagano Romantic Train, Hozugawa, Arashiyama and monkeys!

Unfortunately my time in Kyoto was all too short. I actually saw very little, including missing most of the grand, UNESCO-approved historic temples. It was a study in what you do being more important than what you see... Zen meditation and temple stays, traditional arts performances, craft workshops, brilliant tempura dinners. I do know, however, that should I chance to return to Japan, more of Kyoto and its environs is a priority.

If real content seems slight in this travelogue, it is simply because there was too much fodder for more thorough articles into the new year. Look forward to those! For now, it was momiji-gari that brought me to Japan and momiji-gari that I leave you with.