First Trip to Japan

The following text, lightly edited, is excerpted from a letter I wrote to William J. Higginson and Penny Harter on 1 March 2001, nearly two months after my first trip to Japan, taken in December of 2000 and January of 2001. I should have said a lot more about all the wonderful sights we saw in Kyoto (Kiyomizu-dera, the silver and gold pavilions, the Heian Palace, Nijo-jo Castle, and much more), but left that off because I knew Bill and Penny would be familiar with them. Previously unpublished. See also “The Mended Shōji,” “Myōrenji,” and “Different Ways to Visit Japan.”

Japan was a great experience! My girlfriend Hiromi and I mostly stayed with her parents in Minokamo, a small town a little east of Gifu (where I was also able to meet with Ikuyo Yoshimura as a guest of her university). We stayed at a ryokan in Kyoto for a few days and visited many shrines and temples there,
all arranged by Hiromi’s parents. We also visited Nara for a day, including the Great Buddha, on another prearranged tour, and then went to stay at Fuji City with a cousin of Hiromi’s. Visiting Fuji was one of the highlights of the entire trip, and while there we were able to visit two of the five lakes on the northeast side of the mountain, and also a temple in Fuji City itself, all with a beautiful backdrop of the mountain in nearly clear skies. Visiting Fuji was probably more enjoyable because we weren’t on a tour-bus schedule. Next time I visit Kyoto and Nara, I’ll try to set my own schedules and arrange independent transportation.
        We then went to Tokyo (via bullet train—we had a cheap Japan Rail pass) and stayed there for two nights. The first evening we had dinner with Emiko Miyashita, Ryu Yotsuda, and Ryu’s wife Niji. Do you know Ryu and Niji, and have you ever met them? Ryu and Niji edit a somewhat avant-garde Japanese haiku journal—I can’t recall its name at the moment, but it starts with an M [Mushimegane (Loupe)], and Ryu contributed an essay to Andre Duhaime’s Haikü sans frontieres book (a greatly underappreciated and monumental work, in my opinion). We had a wonderful dinner together, and it was a pleasure to meet Ryu and his wife. The next day we visited Asakusa and Akihabara and a few other tourist sites. I also enjoyed looking at English haiku books in many of the bookstores. Emiko had managed to get the Masajo love haiku book placed everywhere. I saw it at various Maruzen and Yaesu and Kinokuniya bookstores, plus at the Tuttle bookshop. That evening we were scheduled to have dinner with a friend of Hiromi’s, so we weren’t able to meet with any other haiku or tanka people in Tokyo. This was disappointing, to not meet more haiku/tanka poets, but much of my time was prearranged for me, mostly by Hiromi and her relatives (not that I minded—I was really well looked after). On our third day in Tokyo we went out to Ueno and walked through some of the Bashō sites. The Bashō museum was being renovated (won’t open again till May, apparently), so we didn’t really get to see much that I had hoped to see, and not having a guide probably meant we didn’t know what we were missing. I did have a map to Bashō sites in the Ueno area, which someone gave me a few years previously, and Hiromi helped translate some of it for me so we could find our way around. Next time I hope we have someone with us who really knows all the Bashō sites and can guide us around.
        That evening we left for Nagoya to go back to Gifu and Minokamo, where we spent New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. It was a treat to visit a local shrine at midnight, where I was fourth in line to ring the shrine’s large bell at midnight (got to ring it four times). On New Year’s Day we visited several local shrines and temples with Hiromi’s parents, and got to ring more bells. It was truly wonderful to experience the New Year in Japan, and I now have a much greater understanding of how the new year can be its own season—it really is a special time of year.
        Almost all of the rest of our trip was spent visiting Hiromi’s relatives. First we went up to Kanazawa for a couple of days (ever been there?), where we went with uncles and aunts and cousins (and with Hiromi’s parents) to Kenrokuen Garden—a wonderful place, and also to a few other temples and tourist sites (saw a couple of Bashō haiku stones, too). One of Hiromi’s uncles is a master calligrapher near Kanazawa, and while staying with him and his wife, he gave me some wonderful calligraphy brushes, did one of my poems (translated into Japanese) on a shikishi, and also did some Bashō poems on shikishi for me, and even gave me two carved marble chops, a large and elaborate “book” for holding shikishi, and other gifts. He was very kind and generous, as were so many other people we met.
        On January 6th I went from Minokamo to Gifu (just a 30-minute trip, but a little more of a challenge as I went without Hiromi) to visit Ikuyo Yoshimura and to join the monthly meeting of the Evergreen English-language haiku group she runs (with about 15 to 20 people). We had a nice kukai together (despite a small earthquake that made everyone jump in the middle of considering all the poems), a tasty lunch together, and then an enjoyable trip to the small Bashō museum at Ogaki (where Ikuyo told me she had recently taken Jim Kacian and Ion Codrescu). We also went to Ogaki castle, where Ikuyo and some of the Evergreen group members delighted in taking pictures of me posing like one of the warlord statues in front of the castle. [We actually arrived at the castle just as it was about to close, but Ikuyo persuaded the ticket-taker to let us in so this visiting gaijin could see the local sites, and enjoy the view from the top.]
        In the evening we had a sumptuous French dinner at a hotel—and here was the only embarrassing moment of the trip. Weeks before, Ikuyo had told me we were going to a restaurant, so I figured I could order my own vegetarian dishes. But it turned out that this was a pretty elaborate restaurant (seventeen pieces of silverware per person!—Western style) with a fixed menu. When the first course of some sort of fried seafood was served, I had to whisper to Ikuyo that I was a vegetarian. She was very gracious and made me feel as unembarrassed as possible, but I’m sure it was embarrassing for her also—though she hid that (of course), and I wouldn’t have guessed it. She summoned the waiter, who summoned a chef, and through a quick bit of translating, they decided to make me a salad (it was fabulous) and an omelette. I missed out on few of the courses (I lost count of how many there were), but was able to enjoy several of them, and had a couple of special dishes of my own. Normally I tell people long beforehand that I’m vegetarian if they might be cooking for me, but I didn’t think it was necessary at a restaurant (I can usually find something that’s vegetarian), but obviously it was necessary. I’m making this sound like a bigger problem than it really was, mind you.
        We had another day in Minokamo after that, visiting with a number of Hiromi’s school friends, some of whom I’d already met when they visited California. I wish I could have met with many more haiku and tanka folks (for example, Kōko Katō was not too far away in Nagoya), but there simply wasn’t time, and such meetings would have been very taxing on Hiromi’s patience, who does not have poetic leanings. She’s also ten years younger than me, and thinks all my haiku and tanka friends are “old folks”—and she’s basically right! [She has mentioned several times that “Haiku is something that old people do.”] I did try to contact a few other haiku friends in Tokyo and Kyoto beforehand (that is, before our schedule got set by Hiromi and her family), but many of them were away for Christmas or New Year’s, or otherwise very busy. Even the Museum of Haiku Literature in Tokyo was closed during that time, which was disappointing (but at least I knew beforehand that it was closed, so I didn’t waste a trip across the city to try visiting). There’s certainly much more that I must do in Tokyo next time, mostly to do with visiting people and Bashō/haiku sites. Other than that, I didn’t find [what little I saw of] Tokyo to be very interesting—certainly not compared to the wonderful history of Kyoto, which we went to first [and which I’ve hardly described at all]. And I definitely have to go back to Kyoto in the spring or autumn. Winter was a nice season, but I can’t wait to go again in another season, and to see many more of the shrines and temples—and to go again to spend more time at the places we did visit. Same for Nara. We did visit the huge castle at Nagoya in a spare afternoon while passing through, but that needs another visit, too. I also must get down to Matsuyama, as well, to meet haiku people there. But almost everywhere was wonderful! Even the little town of Minokamo had wonderful shrines and temples.
        Most things in Japan weren’t a great surprise to me, thanks to much knowledge of the culture (it was all less surprising and less different than I had expected it to be), but I found the richness of the history truly stimulating, and much more like Europe in that respect—much more history and cultural richness than one can usually find anywhere in North America. One thing that did surprise me, though, is how many of the historical buildings were recreations in the wake of destruction in World War II (such as Ogaki and Nagoya castles, just for starters). This was sad, and something I hadn’t thought about, or known the extent of. In any event, visiting Japan was one of the best vacations I’ve had in more than a decade, and I can’t wait to go back for frequent visits.
        I was able to write quite a few haiku and some tanka while in Japan—although not as much as I had hoped. Some more poems have followed since I returned to California, and more will probably still come. I’ve been wrestling with the typical problem of “tourist” haiku, and I’ve been trying to sift through the genuine experiences and those attempts that are merely responses to stimuli, “borrowed” experiences, and mere records rather than insights. Soon I hope to put together a little flyer containing a handful of the poems I wrote on the trip—lots of New Year’s Eve poems among them [this flyer never happened, but see “The Mended Shōji,” which collects many haiku from this trip]. I also took fourteen rolls of film (mostly in Kyoto, Nara, and Tokyo), and am putting together a slide show of my trip for the next HPNC meeting in April.
        In all, visiting Japan was a wonderful experience, and I only regret that I wasn’t able to meet more haiku and tanka people while I was there. Next time I hope to make that a priority, and attending an international haiku event would be great, too. Actually, I had one other regret. I used to be a ski patroller and ski instructor, and still ski a lot. I had hoped to go skiing while in Japan, but we decided not to try, as it would have been a pain to lug ski equipment and all the ski clothing along with us. But I wish I had gone at least once. Renting ski boots to fit me (size 11½) would have been difficult (so I had been told), but I still would have liked to have tried skiing there at least once. Perhaps another time! I had emailed with Dhugal Lindsay, whose wife if quite a skier, apparently. He was gone to Australia while I was in Tokyo, but maybe next time we can go skiing together if I get there at the right time of the year. (Speaking of skiing, I just got back from nearly a week in Vail, Colorado, staying with a friend who has a home there—that was a great trip too.)
        This is probably more information than you wanted to hear about my trip to Japan. Thanks for your tips before I left—they were a great help. Except I confess I didn’t try the jet lag remedies/herbs after all. I was going to, but then I thought I wanted to just wing it and see how the jet lag would affect me naturally. I ended up having almost NO jet lag in going to Japan. Coming home was worse, though. We got up at 5:00 a.m. to catch a 9:00 a.m. flight from Nagoya to Tokyo, had a painful eight-hour layover in Tokyo (won’t do that again), and then flew to San Francisco. We arrived at around 9:50 a.m., the same day we left, of course, and I went straight to work after dropping suitcases off at home. I had planned on doing this—glutton for punishment, I guess, especially since I only managed a couple of hours of sleep on the plane. That afternoon I was pretty sleepy (as were the next couple of afternoons), but I got through them and didn’t have jet lag too badly. Next time, though, I’m going to force myself to get more sleep on the flight home. Arriving in the morning in California is not a good plan, either. Definitely better to arrive back from Japan in the afternoon or evening!
        Warm regards,

        Michael