Falling in love with Japan, one prefecture at a time

Springtime in Kyoto, the City of Ten Thousand Shrines and former imperial capital of Japan. Warm weather breaks a week ahead of forecast and cherry blossoms fill the canals along the sakura-lined Philosopher’s Walk.  Photos by Tanya Lara
At Osaka Castle. Angela Ureta, author Tanya Lara, Stephanie Asuncion, Giselle Kasilag, Ivy Lisa Mendoza and Susan de Guzman.  Photo by Ivy Lisa Mendoza

It’s so easy to fall in love with Japan on the first date. It’s like meeting a smart, handsome guy that takes you out to a great dinner, some dancing and drinking, is extremely polite and then he takes you home safely even when you’re drunk and kissing everybody in the pub.

I first went to Japan in 2001 on a whirlwind tour of three prefectures (provinces): Tokyo, Hiroshima and Kyoto. Then I didn’t go back for 13 years except for quick work trips to Tokyo last year and Yokohama in between.

Coming back to Japan in April this year on a holiday, it felt like the first time all over again.

To everyone else, Japan is an enigma and I’ve a feeling the Japanese prefer it that way. Everything is so confusing at first and no other thing symbolizes this better than Tokyo’s train system. Its subway route map looks like someone dropped a plate of spaghetti on the floor and everybody stood around to look — and only the Japanese could make any sense of it.

It’s amazing how, in only a couple of generations, Japan has reverted back to its reputation before its atrocious aggression in the Second World War — of being a polite, disciplined and helpful society.

Osaka Castle is surrounded by a moat and sits on 5.2 hectares (13 acres).

And for decades, it has surpassed its Asian neighbors in every industry even as it continues to remain homogenous and, incredibly, despite being in recession for years.

I’ve never met a person who has been to Japan and didn’t like it. I’ve met lots of people who don’t like Manila, Hong Kong, Singapore, New York, or even Paris. But I’ve never met anyone who said Tokyo sucks ass. Or Kyoto. Or Hiroshima. Or Arashiyama.

I have friends who are so in love with Japan that they keep coming back, like my Singaporean friend Bibiana who has been to Japan more than 30 times! Or they want to live there, like my Hong Kong-based British friend James, who lived in Tokyo on and off for 15 years, and can speak and write the very complicated language.

I’ve known James for three years and he still puzzles me. With two degrees from Oxford University and the London School of Economics, he’s chosen to teach in Asia instead of working in some high-paying job in the UK or US.

When we go out to the bars in Hong Kong and talk endlessly, he says that unlike Tokyo which is alive every night, nothing ever happens in this city. Who says this in the middle of Lan Kwai Fong or Tsim Sha Tsui?

There is something about Japanese women wearing kimonos that captivates visitors. The ones we meet and talk to are tourists from China who had rented yukatas for the day and are doing hanami in Kyoto’s Maruyama Park (left) and walking around in Gion, Old Kyoto (right) — happy to be mistaken for Japanese women.
A quiet street in Gion, Kyoto.

Still, I can feel his perpetual homesickness for Japan.

I try to think of a city that has me pining for it and chipping away at my gut every night, and I can only come up with Paris, for which I’ve had this love for the past 17 years. And yet my homesickness for Paris is nothing compared to his for Japan.

Coming back to Japan this year with friends for the Easter break, I begin to understand his longing. Or maybe I feel like this because I am with my friends.

We have our itinerary all planned out. Manila to Osaka on a budget airline booked seven months before, Kyoto, Nara, Inari, Arashiyama, Harry Potter at Universal Studios, and lots of cherry blossoms and ramen in between — and Don Quixote, that crazy department store/supermarket that offers every flavor of KitKat found only in Japan and Japanese cuteness.

Two months before the trip, we find out just how hard it is to book a hotel for sakura week. The forecast is different from city to city and all the hotels in Kyoto are full, so we decide to base ourselves in Osaka and even then we couldn’t find ryokans (traditional inns) or Airbnb flats that could accommodate the five of us.

Finally, we find a hotel in Osaka’s Higobashi area with its last five single rooms available. APA Hotel is short for “Always Pleasant Amenity,” which is just one of the quirky examples of what is often a very confounding Japanese English.

Osaka’s main shopping and entertainment district Dotonburi. (Clockwise) Ichiran, inarguably the best ramen chain in Japan, beside a takoyaki shop (octopus); giant crab; giant gyoza (dumpling); and a cow for yakiniku (grilled meat). No need for translation, just look at the giant food above the restaurants.
Dotonburi bridge and canal are flanked by illuminated signboards. Glico Man, which is a guy crossing the finish line, is both a symbol of Osaka and the confectionery company founded there. Photo from wikipedia.com

If you’re used to small hotel rooms in Europe, Japan will shock you even further for the same amount of money you pay. Our rooms are 12 square meters each, which is the size of a nice bathroom or a walk-in closet. From the bed you can reach out and grab the TV remote control on the dresser without ever getting up.

Which matters little once you hit the streets of Osaka.

* * *

I should introduce the friends I am with.

Three of them were classmates in journ school at the University of the Philippines in Diliman five years ahead of me; one is younger than me; and another was an executive producer for a major TV network. What we have in common is that straight out of university we all went on to become career journalists.

Today, of the six of us, only Stephanie and I are working for newspapers; Susan and Gik quit their newspapers and took up their master’s degree in museum studies and are now curators putting up exhibits in Manila, Hong Kong and last year in Madrid; Ivy quit to work full time in her own PR company and recently began teaching; and Angie became a full-time fangirl of the Korean girl band 2NE1 and part-time producer of TV documentaries.

Kyoto’s Zen Buddhist temple Kinakaku-ji or Temple of the Golden Pavilion, which I visited on my first trip to Japan. People like to say that once you’ve seen the Golden Pavilion,  you don’t need to see any other temple in Japan — but that’s not true. Photo by Keith Pomakis/wikipedia.com.
The Silver Pavilion was built by a shogun (general) who wanted to emulate the Golden Pavilion.

Except for Angie and Gik, we are all from UP Diliman, which means that our training was a mix of idealism, protests, a ton of left-leaning social and political studies, and only a little bit of reality to prepare us for the newsroom. But to be fair, nothing ever really prepares you for the realities of working as a journalist.

Tanya Lara at Deer Park in Nara prefecture, which hosts over 1,200 deer. They are extremely friendly when you feed them. If you don’t have biscuits, they just ignore you.

We arrive at our hotel at midnight after a four-and-a-half-hour flight from Manila. Angie, who by coincidence is also going on the same week as us to see her Japanese friends, is staying in another hotel.

At ours, we get our first taste of the rhythm of Osaka. When five girls arrive at the same time, the hotel’s front desk guy looks like he’s going to have a mini heart attack, and with all the bowing and politeness the check-in takes a long time.

We had come from Osaka’s main train station, which is as big as an airport, and like many major train stations in Japan, you can live here for a month and never really master it.

Every few years, you get news of a crime being discovered in a train station — a severed finger left in a locker in Tokyo near the Shinkansen platforms (bullet train), or maybe even a whole hand, ostensibly left by the Japanese mafia Yakuza; a few weeks after our trip, an abandoned suitcase was discovered in a locker in Osaka and was found to contain the rotting corpse of a woman.

Apart from these, the stations are like cities that run efficiently. They are never overwhelmed by the millions of passengers or by the many different lines that come and go every second. Even when the queues are long, the Japanese wait patiently, never cutting in line (if someone does, it’s probably a foreign tourist).

This is our commute every morning for the next five days as we travel between three prefectures — Osaka, Kyoto and Nara.

But first, we discover that Osaka has a mind of its own. It looked at the calendar for 2015 and said, “Fuck this forecast!” Kyoto did the same damn rebellious thing. Warm weather broke a week ahead of schedule and so when we arrive, the cherry blossoms are prematurely falling and floating on the canals and castle grounds in both cities.

The thousands of torii gates at Fushimi Inari Shrine are dedicated to the rice god Inari. Lots of visitors here recreate the scene from the movie Memoirs of a Geisha where the heroine runs through the gates.

And perhaps this is the reason why sakura season is so revered in Japan: it lasts only a week. Despite the forecast, the flowers come out only when they want to, clinging to their stems through wind, sun and spring rains, and when the week is over, they begin to fall — never to be seen again until the following year.

Isn’t that so poignant?

Osaka Castle’s grounds are filled with cherry blossoms that you lose count of the places where you can take pictures and, even under the rain, people are doing hanami or picnic under sakura trees. They are seated on woven mats and holding up umbrellas and drinking sake.

Kyoto is the same, except here, the walk to the Silver Castle is paved with pink flowers. The canals are pink, the Philosopher’s Walk is pink. The only other color is macha green — in ice cream, crepes and pastries.

* * *

It’s so long ago now when I first made a trip to Japan.

I was part of a tour group that went from Tokyo to the old capital Kyoto where we were introduced to geishas and their trainees or geikos. We were in a restaurant where the geishas served food kneeling on tatami mats, and they laughed a certain way, moved a certain way — it was practiced and measured for many years, and even then you thought it was all sincere.

Every morning we would walk to Osaka’s main train station and take the express to Kyoto where we would transfer to another city like Inari.

There was a kimono to be tried on and a geisha asked for a volunteer. I raised my hand. They dressed me in it over my clothes in front of everybody.

The kimono felt so heavy as I was wrapped up in meters of vintage silk with amazing embroidery, and they explained it was a wedding kimono, not the usual cotton yukata or summer kimono. I thought then, well that explains the feeling of restriction.

That trip also took me to the island of Miyajima (Itsukushima) in Hiroshima prefecture, and Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park in the center of the city.

In the Pacific side of World War 2, when Japan stupidly refused to surrender after the war in Europe had concluded, Hiroshima was the first city on which the US dropped an atomic bomb and Nagasaki was second, the bombs instantly wiping out both cities and killing nearly 150,000 people.

Hiroshima Peace Park was designed by Kenzo Tange, a Pritzker Prize-winning architect who was influenced by Swiss architect Le Corbusier. Tange was a pioneer of what would essentially become the template for Japanese modernism, a style that combines traditional Japanese with modern, western architecture.

I went to Hiroshima Peace Park on my first trip to Japan around 2001. The most moving monument here is “Sadako and a Thousand Paper Cranes,” dedicated to the girl who was but two years old when atomic bombs were dropped on Japan. To this day, people leave paper cranes for her.  Photo from club.quizkerala.com.

The Peace Park is located in an area that was leveled by the bomb. To me, the most moving monument here is “Sadako and a Thousand Paper Cranes,” a statue of a young girl named Sadako Sasaki who is holding up a crane.

Sadako was only two years old when Hiroshima was bombed. When she was 12 and suffering from leukemia, she began making origami birds with the goal of making a thousand. One story says she had reached 600-plus when she became too weak to fold and died, and her classmates completed the rest; another story says she completed the thousand cranes.

The Bamboo Forest of Arashiyama, a favorite of day trippers. If you’re going to Kyoto, spend a night in Arashiyama — there’s so much more to this little town than the forest.
The wonderful town of Arashiyama in Kyoto prefecture has a Kimono Forest exhibit at its tram station (Randen Line) — an installation of 600  acrylic poles featuring textile dyed in the traditional manner and curated by artist Yasumichi Morita.

I don’t remember anymore what month it was when I was in Hiroshima, but it must have been not too long after Obon Day, when the Japanese Buddhist traditionally honor their dead. The term “Obon” implies “great suffering,” and in Hiroshima Peace Park, people left thousands of colorful paper cranes to remember that young girl and perhaps to ease her suffering if only symbolically.

* * *

Back to my Easter holiday this year with friends.

No other town captivates us more than Arashiyama on the outskirts of Kyoto. We loathe to leave it in the evening to go back to Osaka, all of us wishing we had booked a night here.

Arashiyama is famous for its bamboo forest but little is said of the town itself. What a charming little town it is!

We get lost in its streets and in trying to find our way back to the train station, so many surprises await us, like stores that sell only one thing and one thing only! — from socks to chopsticks, umbrellas whose designs come out only when they get wet, purses and noodle bowls — restaurants, rickshaws, minimalist Japanese houses.

Some of the glorious street food in Japan are grilled corn, yakitori, green tea ice cream and eclairs, takoyaki, and sweet bread with cream filling. Photos by Tanya Lara, Susan de Guzman and Giselle Kasilag.

We also accidentally discover a spectacular exhibit at a tram station when trying to find a toilet.

Created by artist Yasumichi Morita, “Kimono Forest” is an installation of 600  acrylic poles at the Randen station in Arashimaya.

They are clustered together just as the bamboo trees of the town, except they are printed textiles traditionally used for kimonos and lighted from within the  poles.

You can walk up and down this station for hours and just enjoy looking at the blue twilight skies and designs on the fabrics that are dyed in the traditional style. They are produced by Kamedatomi, a textile factory dating back to more than a hundred years ago — to the Taisho period, the 123rd emperor of Japan.

Earlier that day, we were at Fushimi Shrine in Inari, also in Kyoto prefecture, which is famous for its torii gates. The shrines are located at the foot of the mountain but it is the two kilometers that lead to them — orange bamboo gates with Japanese markings — that people go to and recreate that scene from the movie Memoirs of a Geisha. Inari (rice god) is regarded as a business patron and so companies or individual business owners sponsor a gate to give thanks to Inari.

The price to dedicate a torii is 175,000 yen or US$1,500. Business is good here, judging by the thousands of toriis in the Fushimi complex.

Yep, we’re at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Hogwarts’ school motto is “Never Tickle a Sleeping Dragon.” Don’t even think about it!
(Clockwise) The wizarding village of Hogsmeade at Harry Potter park in Universal Studios Osaka, where we — Stephanie, Tanya, Susan and Ivy — eat lunch and drink butterbeer at the Great Hall, visit Olivander’s Wand Shop, and the Owl Post Office.

* * *

By the time we go to Nara prefecture, there are only four of us. Angie, who was with us for only one day, and Gik have left the night before.

Nara Deer Park, spread across 500 hectares (600 acres), is home to over a thousand deer. You can buy biscuits from kiosks for 150 yen — and they can smell it a mile away — to feed them.

Up to twenty deer will poke at you and gather around and then they lose interest when the plastic bag is empty.

On our last day, we deposit our luggage at Osaka station to be collected at the end of the day when we take the train to Kansai Airport for our night flight back to Manila.

From the station, Universal Studios Osaka, which opened the Wizarding World of Harry Potter  earlier this year, is less than thirty minutes away.

We tour Hogwarts, drink butterbeer, chase our favorite Sesame Street characters for pictures, and high-five Hello Kitty. It’s a great day to be at Universal, a great way to end a vacation because nothing makes you feel like a child again than visiting a theme park with friends.

Our fave Sesame Street character — Cookie Monster! Photo by Ivy Lisa Mendoza

I don’t know this yet as we are laughing and walking around the park — we would arrive in Manila early morning on Friday and I would go to work at my newspaper, and by the end of the night I would receive the devastating news that my grandmother who raised me had died. I spend the weekend at her wake with my family, two hours north of Manila, and leave again on Monday for a work assignment to Italy.

In a week, my gut is wrenched every which way. Crying on a bus in Milan, it feels that Osaka, Kyoto, Nara and the happy week before are a million miles and a lifetime away.

I realize that like Japan’s cherry blossoms, nothing ever really follows a schedule even when you desperately want it to. Yet there is always the following spring to look forward to.

It comes when it does — not a moment too soon or too late.

Sunny day sweeping the clouds away in Osaka. We feel like children again chasing so many characters in the park including Hello Kitty, Bert and Count Dracula. Photos by Tanya Lara and Ivy Lisa Mendoza.

Where I’ve been wandering

Some wanderings in 2014 and 2013: (upper photos) Rome, Provence, Barcelona; (middle) Vienna, Amsterdam; (bottom) Marseilles, Paris, Paros, Prague. (Photos by @iamtanyalara)

So, Macedonia makes it the 50th country I’ve visited in my lifetime. This post should really be titled “How I learned to make interactive maps” to remember where I’ve been.

A couple of years ago, an acquaintance mentioned to my colleagues that she had traveled to Guam with me on a coverage. I said I had never set foot in Guam. Ever. But she was so insistent that for a second I thought: did I really go to Guam and  forget all about it?

The answer is no. I had never been there, but it led me to think that there might be places that are slipping from my memory, though I loved being there at the time. (I forget where I put my car keys at least once a week, or is that twice?)

While I don’t keep a diary, working as a journalist all my life has taught me to mentally store details, atmosphere and conversations, to  take down notes even when I am not working. After I started my travel blog in January, I told my friend Cedric in Paris that I wanted to make maps of my wanderings to remind me of the stories I’ve been wanting to write for years, also because I’ve lost  thousands of pictures from some trips because I keep accidentally deleting them en masse.

He taught my how to do it over Skype, which was frustrating at first because I don’t know how to do shit on Google, then it got fun — and then obsessive. Each map can only have a maximum of 10 layers, and I’ve done mine per country. You can be as specific as per city and its sights or attractions if you have the time.

So here’s an example of how you can plot your travels. Trust me, don’t start until the weekend because if you’re anything like me, you’re not gonna stop till they are finished. Start mapping!