To Fortuna for a one day tour to Nicaragua

Needing to use vouchers with NatureAir before they expired, Bill decided he would like to spend his birthday on a one day tour to Nicaragua which involved a boat ride out to some islands.  We flew from SJO to FON, less than a half hour north, which would take a few hours by car.  A taxi arranged by the Arenal Volcan Inn picked us up for for a “mere” thirty dollars for the six kilometer ride to where we were staying.

Gosh, is it hot and muggy there with the lower elevation!  At least we had a fantastic view of the volcano and seemed to be right at it’s base.  Often it was hidden with the rainy season clouds, but we did enjoy some towering vistas.

The villa we stayed in was listed under AirBnB and seemed to be part of the personal deal of the inn’s manager.  With fees we paid $65 a night, including breakfast.  There was a refrigerator in the room which came in handy for the box breakfast they provided the first morning as our tour began before the dining room opened.  The AC was welcome relief from the oppressing outdoors.

After a light lunch and despite the climatic conditions we did roam around the colorful landscaped grounds on the intertwining paths leading to various duplex villas and pool.  The workers certainly must be kept busy maintaining all the flowers, shrubs, and trees as well as lawn.  In the back of the property are two large solar panels to heat the water.  It was from there we had the best volcano views when the skies were clear.

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Since it was too hot to walk several minutes to try other restaurants we remained at our digs for dinner.  A large pizza contented Bill while I was very pleased with the delicious cheese ravioli in pesto.  So yummy!

Ecoterra came as planned at 5:50 AM to begin our excursion across the border.  Our hotel breakfast provided fresh fruit and mostly tasteless bread so even though the tour boxed version was not what we normally would eat, processed meat and plastic cheese sandwiches, it did taste pretty good!  There was also very sweet yogurt with hard to eat granola, cookie sandwiches, and a strange lightweight granola bar.  Ah, but there was lots and lots of bottled water and some flavored tea and the van had AC.

About an hour and a half later we arrived at the border.  First we had to exit Costa Rica by going through immigration and then walk down the road to enter Nicaragua.  The process seemed overly cautious.  After we were stamped out of Costa Rica and were at the actual border, our passports were checked by another local agent.  As soon as we entered Nicaragua a formidable young woman reviewed our passports.  She seemed displeased at all our recent travels and I fully expected her to state some problem.  Begrudgingly, she handed them back to us.  Then it was on to the official processing where our picture was taken and the facts that we are retired and married were duly entered into the computer.  The long wait was then for the van to be fumigated and paperwork checked and recorded.  Ecoterra used to have Nicaraguan vans take the tours on their side of the border, but they were rather unkempt and not up to standard.

Finally, we were on our way.  But wait!  Just to be sure all was well agents down the road wanted to see our paperwork and ask about our purpose.  Ok, now we are done.  Oh, think again!  A few minutes further down the road is a friendship bridge donated by Japan.  Agents there needed to look inside the van and our passports!!  Good grief!  Four checks on the Nicaraguan side of the border!!

A half hour or so later we entered San Carlos, a rather dirty town of a few thousand people.  There we met a local young woman who speaks English pretty well who was to guide us around the area and out to the islands where she lives.  The town used to house a castle where there were skirmishes.  Costa Rica and Nicaragua have never gotten along.  When there were concerns about William Walker, Costa Rica invaded Nicaragua unannounced to get rid of him.  That did not go over well and eventually the Ticos had to withdraw.  There have been issues regarding the border between the two countries for decades with each country taking over boats from the other country.   In 1977 the Sandistas, who Costa Rica supported to get rid of Somoza as he wanted to invade Costa Rica, attacked the National Guard along the San Juan River there in San Carlos and who were able to push them back.  During this, Nicaragua strafed three Costa Rican boats inside their own territory, which did not help relations.  Costa Rica granted asylum to almost a dozen Sandinistas.  Many Ticos were ambivalent about the guerillas, not being sure they were actually of communist persuasion.  They certainly did not want communism in their own country, though.

Enough of a complicated history…after a stop at a mirador for a look out over the river we headed on down to the dock and boarded our boat for the hour ride out to the volcanic Solentiname Islands.  The refreshing breeze as we sped across the Lake Nicaragua was very welcome!  We paused along the way to view thousands of cormorants, storks, ahningas, and a few tiger herons and whistling ducks which littered the trees and shore.  Our destination was the largest of the four inhabited islands of the thirty-six in the archipelago, Mancarrón.  No electricity or roads with minimal running water make the humid conditions very uncomfortable for those not acclimated to it.

Many of the islands’ 900 or so inhabitants combine farming and fishing with painting and balsa woodcarving. Yet we saw just a few people.  Almost 50 years ago, they began to produce primitive art inspired by their daily struggle and dreams as well as the islands’ verdant landscape.   Politician, poet and priest, Ernesto Cardenal has been instrumental in guiding the residents, and he is there part-time, to help them find justice in their lives. During the revolution that brought the Sandinistas to power in 1979, it was a hotbed of political activity. We visited Cardenal’s cabin and church, with its pre-Colombian style altar and whitewashed walls decorated with the locals’ paintings.  Many were done by children representing their dreams.  I loved this humble dirt floor simple church with its primary colored moveable benches.  This is how churches should be, not gaudy showcases.  There were chickens and rooster roaming about, oropendolas calling above near their nests, and five peacocks also take up residence there.  A pre-Colombian museum displays several clay pieces found there on the island.

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We then followed the sidewalk up a slope towards a hotel, formerly a university, and through humble abodes.  One man was carving the balsa wood and a young woman was painting his creations; toucans, parrots, flowers, etc.  They were for sale but we weren’t in the mode to purchase anything.  The sidewalk meandered through the residential area where high school students go to school twice a month and spend the rest of the time doing a lot of homework.  The younger kids attend about five hours a day.  Spiny palm trees were pointed, ha ha, out to us.  Some are cut down and pieces are carved out and filled with water.  After a few days fermentation has created a rather strong alcohol.

We returned to the boat for a quick ride around to another hotel for a delicious and simple chicken lunch.  The orange flavored meat was very salty so the cabbage salad, very thin fried plantain chips in strips, beans, and rice balanced that.  Dessert was a winter type squash boiled with tapa dulce, a brown sugar formed during part of the sugar cane processing.  Very sweet!  Lemonade made with “good water” was also served though none of us drank it.  Our guide had informed us of the questionable water in the area.  While waiting for the boat to return we relaxed and admired the oropendola nests hanging way overhead from the trees.  At times the babies hidden inside were chattering away when Mama came to feed them.  Boa constrictors are on the island, though we didn’t see any.  One of our guide’s kittens was eaten by one of the serpents, surmised when it was missing and the other two were being threatened by one.  The baby birds are also at risk of being eaten by a boa.

During the shorter boat ride back to San Carlos a bit of rain finally fell.  We were given a long piece of folded plastic to cover ourselves.  By the time we reached shore it had ended.  We really were very lucky that with the threat of rain all day that was all we had to endure.

Passage through immigration was much faster and leaving Nicaragua was clearly less concerning to them as there were fewer checks.  Costa Rica didn’t care about fumigating the car after being in Nicaragua and being a local car made the re-entry quick.  Shortly before arriving at the hotel our very observant guide spotted some howler monkeys up in a tree and had the driver stop so we could observe them.  They were a bit far away but with binoculars I got a pretty good view.  Always cool!

For Bill’s birthday dinner he decided upon sopa Azteca so he could enjoy his coffee flan for dessert.  Whatever I had was mediocre but the strawberry gelatto was yummy.

After a quiet morning we left by taxi to return to the airport, and this time the cost was only $20 as all he had to do was drop was off, no waiting.  Turns out he is from the same town where we now live and knows well the Toucan Rescue Ranch where we have been volunteering most of the past year.  We had to wait a bit for our very casually dressed NatureAir agent, sporting a new tattoo under plastic, to check us in.  He had the audacity to set out a bowl for tips.  That was a new one.  Guess he needed to pay for the newest ink.  The flight back was via Quepos where the landing strip is among a palm tree plantation.  It was pretty fun descending into that.  Deboarding was at Tobias Bolano Airport in Pavas, which is further from home but the only option.

Another adventure under our belts!

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Observations of Japan

Walking through a main train station in Tokyo as locals made their way to work it struck me that they all wear coats of drab color – black, brown, beige.  Youth will sport a flash of color, though.

Toilets have sprays to clean the butt.  Some have heated seats.  Japanese and Western style toilets are in most public bathrooms.  If you need a Western style and there isn’t one in the main bathroom then use the handicapped stall which may be separate so any sex can use it.

Restaurants hand out warm moist cloth towels when customers first sit down.  One hotel greeted us with them and packaged disposable ones were given out in the first class section of high speed trains.

Everyone waits in line quietly with plenty of space between themselves in the indicated areas while waiting for public transportation, ascending the stairs and escalators, hotel reception, stores, crosswalks, etc.  No pushing or rushing past someone.  They stay to the left on escalators usually, and leave the right side for those who need to keep moving at a faster rate.

Japanese people are humble, helpful, and always pleasant.

Hotel bathrooms provide toothbrushes with a tiny tube of toothpaste, razors, foldable plastic hairbrushes, and dispensers with soap and shampoo.

Most hotels offer eco-cleaning.  In exchange for no linen change they gift a bottle of water.  They may or may not swap,out towels.

Priority seating on trains is rarely left or given up to those for whom it is intended without asking.

Any litter is something dropped unknowingly yet trash cans are impossible to find. An exception is Hiroshima which also had park benches.  Tokyo and Kyoto did not have any resting spots.

Food is expensive.  A cup of tea is about four dollars.

Japan, for its own share of unfortunate history, has created amazingly respectful people. The respect for everyone is truly something we Americans need to embrace.  They are quiet in public which meant peaceful train rides and eating out.  Pointing at people and things is rude so it is always with a formal open palm, fingers together, that they indicate location.  The bowing when we approached and left hotel reception was amazing. When we were waiting for the Delta counter to open so we could drop off our bags the personnel all stood in front of their podiums, a greeting was made over the PA, and they bowed in unison.  After purchasing a gift for the neighbor girls who entertained Jack, the two clerks carried our package and escorted us to the door and then bowed and bowed as they said thank you.  Even the train conductors and food vendors will turn and bow before leaving the train car.
Everyone has appropriate weight, except the sumo wrestler we saw in a train station going up the escalator as we descended, which really made the obesity in the US smack me in the face when we returned to LAX.  They just don’t overeat.  Salad and fish for breakfast help! Yet they don’t seem to eat many vegetables or fruits for lunch and dinner.  Not being one who has a history of loving veggies, I sure missed them on this trip.  At breakfast in Sendai I was so excited the breakfast buffet at the hotel had steamed broccoli, cauliflower, and carrots I made a small pile on my plate both mornings.  The only people we saw arguing were an American couple in a convenience store.  Not until the end of three weeks did we hear any fussy kids, and they were pretty young.  The adults just spoke with them quietly.
video of our travels

Nikko

Our last stop before returning to Tokyo and onward, we spent only one afternoon and night here.  It is a very popular locale as there is a slew of temples here, including the most ornate in Japan, a UNESCO site.

Two kilometers of walking through the outers streets of Nikko brought us to the edge of the park housing the temples where there is a red bridge.  For a few dollars one can cross it to gain prosperity.  We chose to keep our money as we would likely be ahead financially…

As we were maxxed out on temples by that point in the trip and the entry to the most famous was costly and crowded we opted out.  Gaudy is not of much interest.  The stroll through the park was refreshing with so many pine trees and cool air.

To return to the hotel we took the main street.  Along the way Bill noticed a gentleman with a curious gaze across the street.  Yikes!  A very furry snow monkey was on the ground between some buildings!  It quickly scaled the downspout and two stories up took off across the roof.  I headed back up the block to the next alley and back a ways saw him and two smaller ones on a roof.  They scampered away so we went around the buildings to the next alley.  There the three of them were sitting, two of them in a tree eating what was likely from a trash can.  They didn’t seem to mind us but suddenly took off and disappeared.  For me, it was the highlight of Nikko!

 

 

Sendai

From the northernmost point on the main island we headed back south and stopped for two nights at this clean modern city.  Fortunately the modern clean hotel was only a few blocks away as Bill was still the pack mule carrying our one very heavy backpack.

As the forecast for the next day indicated rain and we had to wait to check into the hotel, we dropped off our luggage and continued by train to Marashuma on the coast.  The village had been recommended to us for the boat ride through the maze of islands, all of which seem to have a name, covered with pine trees!  We paid half again of the fare to utilize the upper deck where we could walk outside.  Even though the excursion was not as beautiful as we had been led to believe, being on the ocean for a while was a good change of pace.  Afterwards we walked across a long red bridge to stroll on a paved path around an island.  Forest bathing renourished the soul a bit.  An amusing bit was seeing two seagulls resting on the seat of a boat as though they owned the place.

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Back in Sendai we spent the next day roaming another fresh market, a long covered walkway lined with shops and restaurants, taking in an aerial view from the thirty-first floor of an office building, and a park a short train ride way where we walked a couple of kilometers through the woods.  A surprise in all of that was a huge white Buddha in the far distance from the observation deck.  It is a 100 m tall making it one of the top ten in height in the world.  Inside are 108 buddhas and an elevator which one can take to the top for a panoramic view.  It was quite a bus ride away so didn’t make the effort to get there.

 

Aomori

The train ride here from Kanazawa was about 1100 km and it seemed we spent the majority of them in tunnels.  This prevented us from seeing much of the mountainous region.  The second high-speed train we took to arrive flew along at about 200 mph.

Aomori is a much less developed city seeming more tired.  It is right on the bay between the Sea of Japan and the Pacific Ocean.  It provided a break from temples, shrines, kimonos, and cherry blossoms with its own developing tourism.  The A building is a thirteen story triangle with an observation floor spanning 360 degrees.  A multitude of shops on the first floor along with a musical performance on a historical instrument similar to a guitar provided refuge from the wind.  A combination ticket included the observation floor and panoramic movie of Aomori culture and traditions.  Oddly, the seating was stationary yet the screens surround the floor.  We ended up standing to enjoy the complete show.  We were given audio phones to hear the explanation in English with the Japanese version was blaring away as well.  Nearby is the A Factory, an expensive place to buy specialty foods, enjoy apple cider as apples is the region’s cash crop, and feast on expensive burgers, including aged beef ones for almost thirty dollars, and pastries.  The first day we snacked on decadent rich apple pastries and the second day lunched on burgers and fries.  For free we walked out on the long pier to the short conical lighthouse though the wind about blew me away.

The second day we toured the local fish market, Furukawa, whose highlight, if you eat raw fish, is to buy tickets and trade them for a bowl of rice and whatever bits of fish you choose from any vendor.  It seemed intriguing but we left it for those who enjoy such delicacies.  The Nebuta Warasse Museum houses huge brightly lit colorful floats from past festivals.  The displays change every year.  Included are a few incomplete pieces so viewers can see the construction, which we saw happening in another building the day before, and some we could touch.  To make the interaction even more inclusive three women gave an explanation of the festival and invited guests to learn a dance while a flute and enormous drums were played.  Then there was an opportunity to beat they drums in unison and play some cymbal type things.  Bill and I joined in on the drums which involved holding the sticks in such a way that most of them hit the hide on the drum heads which are parallel to our heads.  Fun!

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For me the highlight of the small city was dinner the first night.  We found a small restaurant that served only tempura and just a few minutes walk from the hotel.  Luckily we knew the location from the map on Trip Advisor as when we arrived we could easily have missed this small venue.  The owner/chef was seated at the counter, the only place to sit, waiting for customers.  The menu was only in Japanese but he did speak a few words of English.  First this serious looking man wanted to make sure we knew he only served tempura and then we asked for vegetables and seafood.  I noticed he had the selections behind a small glass case right at the counter so I pointed to items I couldn’t identify.  He was able to tell me in English what they were so we added chicken to the list. He deftly prepared a plate with his offerings and let us see it before cooking.  A thick scallop, two long shrimp, a bit of some kind of fish, chicken, asparagus, perhaps spring onion, and eggplant were put before us for approval.  Looked good!  He then proceeded to dip the first taste treat in the batter and place it in the oil.  Meanwhile he also served us green tea and Bill opted for miso soup.  A bowl of rice was delivered along with sake for Bill.  A dipping sauce was provided with a small dish of minced radish which he had to try to explain to me to add to the sauce.  He didn’t have the words to do so, so a bit of sign language helped out. The meats were prepared individually and served as they were ready.  In the middle of them he cooked the vegetables so we started and ended with shrimp.   As they became ready he placed them on a plate with paper set on a slightly higher counter.  We only had chopsticks and Bill asked for permission to drink his soup directly from the bowl.  This experience seemed so authentic and as though we had our own personal chef as there were no other customers.  He worked alone and did so efficiently.  The cost of this adventure was about forty dollars for the two of us.  It was totally worth it!  After we paid he bowed to each of us and finally smiled, seeming pleased we were so thrilled with his talent, and guidance  Allowing us to take photos just added to it all.  FullSizeRender 414

Kanazawa

I had been looking forward to the alps and thought Kanazawa was much smaller than it turned out to be.  With no mountains in sight we toured the city basking in the glory of cherry blossoms and two sunny days.

The long paved entry to the castle grounds were lined with several statues and the castle grounds were adorned with dozens of blooming cherry trees and a garden, with only one such tree and several inaccessible curved bridges.  Many fires over the centuries destroyed the buildings leaving only two storehouses and an impressive gate with restoration slowly beginning.

Kenrokuen Garden is one of Japan’s most celebrated, if not at the top.  Despite the numerous visitors, the height of the cherry blossoms  (have I mentioned them yet?) and the warm sunshine made it a great day to enjoy the landscaping.  We even took a break at a teahouse where we kneeled on a cover over the tatami mat, and were served tea and a sweet while a Japanese woman explained the history of the building.  Then in English she gave us the condensed version of the restoration.  The ceiling is cypress, very few nails were used, and those were covered with decorations.  She showed me how the shōji screens are carefully opened by holding the frame so as not to break the paper.  Then we were allowed to photograph the garden from the deck.  All this was only $3 each.  According to japan-guide.com, “the name Kenrokuen literally means ‘Garden of the Six Sublimities’, referring to spaciousness, seclusion, artificiality, antiquity, abundant water and broad views, which according to Chinese landscape theory are the six essential attributes that make up a perfect garden.”  We feel they succeeded admirably!

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Before leaving the area we rested and energized on a large skewer of pineapple.  After finishing we noticed an ice cream store selling cones with gold leaf over the scoop.  Using sign language and a few English words I asked the young couple buying some if they eat the gold.  They nodded and laughed as I said doubtfully, “ok”.

On the way home we stopped by Omicho Market with vendors preparing and selling seafood, vegetables, and fruit.  One woman was cleaning an octopus or squid and letting the ink wash away to the floor.  Crabs everywhere are very expensive.  A two-story crowded grocery store sells imported food upstairs.  Canadian maple syrup sells for about thirty dollars a liter.  Wine, though not seen much in restaurants, is not expensive.  More gold foil covered ice cream was for sale, but we still didn’t chance it.

The second day we spent visiting three preserved neighborhoods.  Higashi Chaya, where geishas perform in tea houses at night, has many shops, including those selling gold leaf items.  Cosmetics and foods dusted with gold are included!  Why would one want to eat gold?  One small room is covered both inside and outside with gold leaf.  An artist was in somewhat distant view working.  We entered another private residence, all of which require taking off one’s shoes before stepping onto the floors covered with tatami mats.

The next neighborhood’s main attraction for us was a former samurai residence. When the feudal system disintegrated many samurai residences were destroyed and this house was part of the ruins.  Any nails are hidden behind decorative wood.  The busy garden contains several stones lanterns, a waterfall, winding stream, cherry granite bridge, and tower.  Nearby were other remains of samurai residences but for those low on the totem pole.  They were just tiny rooms near the gate and stable.

There is also a restored storefront of a pharmacy showing the day book, abacus, herbs, etc. used in the feudal time.  The residence behind allows visitors to see various rooms.  The lounge has a fire pit in the floor with a pot hanging from a ceiling beam.  Only top class merchants had tea rooms, about a quarter of the size of a lounge.  Owners of traditional pharmacies had knowledge of flower arranging, tea ceremonies, incense burning, or practiced haiku poetry or calligraphy.  Upstairs are exhibitions of artisan tools and crafts, typical wedding gifts such as bridal curtains, desserts, and cords.  A display of elaborately wrapped gifts was intriguing.

The last neighborhood was really quite short and housed shops.  Nearby was a maze of temples, dozens of them, all crowded together.  We didn’t spend much time there as we were fatigued by then.

Nara and Imaicho

Nara is a smaller city with a vast park containing numerous temples.  Todaiji Temple, built in 752, became very powerful. The 15 m Buddha is in the main hall, the largest wooden building in the world.  This Buddha is said to be the image of the cosmic Buddha who gave rise to all worlds and their Buddhas.  It is thought to have been cast to ward off smallpox which had ravaged the country.  Over time it has been damaged by earthquakes and fires with replacement heads leaving a slight contrast in color from the body, though we didn’t notice that.  On either side are Bodhisattvas, those who have achieved enlightenment but who have returned to help those who are still seeking it.

Behind the statue is a wooden pillar with a hole at the base.  It is supposed to be the width of one of the Buddha statue’s nostrils and to bring enlightenment to anyone who can squeeze through.  Sure enough, even adults were attempting it, on their side to fit through, some being pulled out on the other side.  Needless to say, we didn’t attempt it.

Being a drippy day we slogged along visiting lesser temples, getting photos of people under umbrellas, drying and resting a bit in a museum, coming across a gentleman being paid to enter calligraphy in blank journals, visiting a small craft gallery, touring a hundred year old reformed private residence, and wandering through a pedestrian mall.  At one temple a couple of women were being shown how to pray at a temple.  Their patient male guide had them practice a few times. Later in Kanazawa I saw a sign explains the process.

In the Naramachi section of Nara there are many traditional merchant townhouses and other historic buildings.  A museum there exhibits various tools, signs, etc. used in the Edo and Meiji periods.  It is in part of the owner’s residence.  Further on one starts to see what to us resemble hanging sloths but are actually red cloth monkey dolls.  Called migawarizarau, they are considered to be messengers and are good-luck charms.  Thoughtfully, they take on the suffering of your ills and accidents.  We saw several hanging outside of houses, each one representing a person in that household or wishes of the family.

The next morning,  the sun gradually returned which made a better day to visit Imaicho, a well-preserved village from the Edo era with over five hundred houses and shops within a two kilometer grid.  An interesting tidbit about the train station there – no one staffs it!  A machine sells tickets.  I guess since they have to be surrendered at the arrival station any non-paying travelers will have to ante up at that point.

Narrow streets are quiet except when an occasional moto cuts through.  White plaster and dark brown wooden walls are brightened with spring flowers, especially pansies and cherry blossoms. Most buildings were closed until late morning but we did manage to visit a few private houses and see a few rooms of a sake brewery, though not the factory itself.  We were offered several stages of sake and chose the pasteurized one.  For me it was too much like a liqueur and not pleasant.  The soy factory just had an unmanned storefront.  A cemetery outside a temple had a few gravestones with gifts from loved ones, items the deceased enjoyed.  An open can of beer was one the base of one!  Later we came upon cute kindergarteners filing by in their matching outfits and huge packs.  One young one was having a bad day, not wanting to carry his.  The adult led him away and likely home.  On the way back to the train station we rested at Hackberry Cafe where I enjoyed a most yummy lemon matcha cheesecake and pot of tea.

Hiroshima

Such an emotionally thought-provoking city, site of the first atomic bomb detonation August 6, 1945 at 8:15 A.M. dropped from the Enola Gay.  In seventy years tremendous development has replaced the rubble.  Near the center of the impact there is a peace park, monuments, and museum to honor the those taken at that time or years later when cancer took their lives.  About 6,300 innocent children, who were helping clear damaged buildings to make a fire lane, perished.  It is estimated about 140,000 people died by the end of 1945.  Buildings within a 2 km radius were destroyed.  Often deaths were confirmed simply from personal effects as so many bodies were never found to be returned to their families.

The a-bomb exploded about 600 meters above and 160 meters southeast of Hiroshima Prefectual Industrial Promotion Hall. It ripped through and ignited the building, killing everyone inside. Due to the explosion being almost directly overhead some of the center walls remained standing. It is now known as the A-bomb Dome.

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum exhibits brutal truths about the effects of the bomb.

The peace flame within Peace Park symbolizes the hope for a world free from nuclear weapons and will remain lit until all such weapons are banished from Earth.  The flame was first lit in 1964 by representatives from thirty-five temples, shrines, and churches in Japan as well as those from Japanese industries and religions.  Ten thousand observers prayed silently.

At the Children’s Peace Monument are thousands of paper cranes in memory of Sadako Sasaki and thousands of other children who lost their lives due to the bomb, either immediately or years later.  The monument  includes a golden metal crane bell people ring to honor them.

The multi-storied Hiroshima Castle was established in 1589.   About three hundred years later the dissolution of the feudal system gave way to prefectures.  Gradually, the Castle became more of a military facility.  In 1945 the atomic bomb demolished the castle, and reconstruction occurred in 1958.  It is now housing historic artifacts.

Despite the sad overture accompanied by drizzle, the height of the cherry blossom season created a more cheerful atmosphere.

A young couple we had met on a train in Kyoto recommended a restaurant near the Peace Park where the only food on the menu is an okonomiyaki (how you want it).  There were numerous variations available.  We chose to sit at the counter in order to watch the process in creating these delicious monstrosities.  First batter is poured on the grill and spread out using the ladle.  A batch of noodles are then grilled.  Enormous layers of  shredded cabbage and bean sprouts are added along with, in our case, bacon, fried egg, tempura scraps, scallions, etc. which are smooshed down as they cook.  At the end the top is brushed with a special sauce.  As we were seated at the counter right by the grill they set our finished creations at our end of it to keep them warm.  Using a metal spatula we served ourselves.  It was surprisingly good and way too much for me to eat, though I did, regrettably so.  The next day my stomach did not feel well and would seize from time to time.  Being a Sunday we had trouble finding a pharmacy that was open.  We had to go to the train station to reserve seats for the next leg of the journey and had to wait there for a half hour until one opened and I could get some medicine.  I was sold a box of packets of powder to dilute in water before eating three times a day.  Gosh, that was fast acting!  I took it for two days and then seemed to be okay.  As much as I enjoyed eating okonomiyaki, the thought of having another one wasn’t appealing even two weeks later!

Less than an hour away is Miyajima, a small island famous for its giant vermillion tori gate.  Due to a tummy issue we didn’t get there until mid-day during low tide.  Thus, we missed the effect of the tori and shrine floating on water.  Tourists and deer were everywhere.  Being low tide many locals were mucking about digging for what we think were oysters.  Deer stole food if given the least possibility and even picked pockets to eat whatever paper goody was packed away.  I hope no one lost their Japan Rail Passes or money to the vermin.  While perching on a rock wall with a plastic bag of rolls for a snack, two deer nosed their way in, one with a bloody horn stub, and took the last two rolls.  In exchange, I was given a large bloody spot on my jacket sleeve.  Not equitable!  On the opposite end of the spectrum, humans left their personal items on benches while well away oyster digging.  No thieves of any kind paid any attention!  Amazing.   I know some cultures who could do with following this model.  Bill even saw a very young boy toss a bit of trash towards a bag, and when he missed he went to pick it up and put it in the bag without anyone telling him to do so.  In fact, no adult was even nearby.

Himeji Castle and Koko-En Garden

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Himeji Castle is the most architecturally interesting castle I have ever viewed.  Some say the impressive Main Keep, covered with white plaster, resembles a white egret.  It is one of twelve original castles in Japan and completed over 400 years ago.  Seven floors, including a basement, provided many opportunities to defend the castle, yet it was never attacked.  Despite air raids during WWII which decimated the city of Himeji the castle survived.  It was deemed a UNESCO World Culural Heritage Site in 1993.

The white plaster walls are 3 cm thick which protects the buildings from fires, wind, rain, and snow.  There are 997 shooting holes in the keeps, towers, and walls from which arrows and guns were shot.  Oblong ones were for bows while round, triangular, and square ones were for guns.  Latticed windows were to prevent enemies, arrows, and rocks from entering.  Eight family crests adorn the ridge-end and eave-end roof tiles proving repairs by the various lords.

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Koko-en Garden is relatively new being constructed in 1992 on the archaeologically excavated site of samurai houses and roads.  With views of Hiemji Castle in the background and it’s own zen quality it really is worth visiting.  There are nine different gardens and many ponds.

Kyoto

Spring has sprung though the disparity of bloom times is evident.  Some trees are regaled in flowers or a bit past while others have the merest of buds.   The mornings are chilly while afternoons are getting quite warm.  Travel by train and bus works pretty well except for the availability of priority seats.  Young people tend to take them without regard for those who are eligible.  I hesitate to ask in sign language as perhaps they, too, have a disability which isn’t visible, though I tend to doubt it.  Standing on already weary legs and maintaining a vertical position can be a bit taxing on my body healing from recent major surgery.

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The bamboo forest of Arashiyama is popular for tourists as well as brides.  Without looking upward it is impossible to photograph sans people.  It wasn’t as long as I imagined it but still fun.  Some visitors arrived by rickshaw and even a taxi or two crept along.  Boats rides are available along the neighboring river which has the monkey reserve on the other side.  Since the ascent to view them is steep we decided not to attempt it given my condition.

FullSizeRender 396Nijo Castle required us to take off our shoes before walking around the single story building.  The empty rooms were vast and most had murals, copies of the originals as those were in an exhibition which has since closed.  The gardens were lacking imagination though the few blooming cherry trees were of interest.

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The Higashiyama district is a preserved area of the city and packed with a ton of tourists.  Many kimono clad women wander about, some with men in their traditional dress.  Pricey shop after shop line the streets with few opportunities to sit and rest.  I realized some of the women wearing kimonos are actually tourists who have rented the outfit for the day.  For the young I am sure it was fun, though walking in the those sandals and narrow outfit seemed stifling and a bit challenging.

On the way back to the hotel we stopped by a pharmacy to purchase nose drops for Bill which would gain us coins for bus fare.  The friendly older woman spoke a bit of English telling us of her sister who lives in Little Rock, Arkansas.  She said it’s pretty there with the nature and river.

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Fushimi Imari Shrine, which honors the god of rice, is an interesting display of supposedly 32,000 shrines where people can offer change, say a prayer, clap, and ring a bell.  No photos are allowed of any ceremonies.   The walk through the thousands of vermillion toris is cool with chances to veer off to more shrines along the way.  We didn’t even go quite halfway before turning around, and at that we walked about an hour.

Sanjusangen-do Temple threatens one’s life on signage about taking pictures yet no one was at the end, as claimed, to check cameras!  Inside, where one cannot wear shoes, are a thousand golden statues of Buddhist deity were made of cypress in the 12th and 13th centuries and one large seated statue placed in the center of the rows.  Kannon, the god of mercy, is the focus of this religious site. In front of the golden statues are twenty-eight others which are guardian deities with vivid facial expressions to protect Kannon as well as pious Bhuddists who believed in him.   Outside there were numerous flowering trees adding color to an otherwise drab building and uninspired gardens.

We had breakfast at the hotel about twenty minutes outside of the city and dined either there or in Kyoto.  Other than salads it seems vegetables are quite rare.  There is plenty of tender meat, pot stickers, soup, etc.

Shambasi Street turned out to be the place to go to see quaint old buildings, cherry blossoms, and couples in kimonos being professionally photographed.  Some are honeymooners.  The beautiful warm morning and the photos ops made this excursion worthwhile before heading to another city.

Nishiki Market turned out to be vast, a very long narrow covered area for vendors of fresh seafood, cooked samples, and various shops.  We did snack on small skewers of duck sausage and duck bits with small bites of vegetables in between them.  Pretty yummy!