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Messages for Betsy
In Japan 3/26-4/3/06

March 26, 2006 Narita Airport to Sakura-shi

Ueno Park Cherry blossom viewing, Tokyo

As our airplane descended the first thing I noticed about urban Japan was…rice fields. Narita isn't exactly a rural place as it is part of the long urban area that extends for much of the east coast of Honshu, the biggest of the four main islands of Japan. But even with flat land at a premium, the Japanese choose to keep some land reserved for agriculture. The fields, surrounded by the tile roofs of packed-together homes, were neatly terraced and still brown in the early spring. It seems the best way to make the Tokyo area seem pastoral is to arrive after spending a few days in Singapore.

Even the Narita Airport seemed quaint after the glamour of Singapore International. After customs we wheeled our bike boxes and luggage out into a small lobby with plastic chairs and the ubiquitous Japanese vending machines I remember from twenty-three years ago when we were first in Japan. The machines sell everything from cans of hot coffee to "Pocari Sweat" (a sports drink) and cold green tea. Other machines sell cigarettes, ice cream and chewing gum.

Our friend Margaret Otake met us at the airport and we stuffed both bike boxes into the back of her mini-van. Our bicycles are wonderful transportation when they are on the road but when they're in boxes they're terrible to lug around. We met Margaret fourteen years ago when we DID ride our bicycles from the Narita airport. We rode on sidewalks and side roads to the Otake's home in Sakura, a residential area east of Tokyo. Margaret and her husband Yuichi still run an English teaching school and their three children are all teenagers now.

As we drove along I couldn't help comparing everything to Singapore, our last port of call. Here, the air was cool and refreshing, not tropical and muggy. Here, most people here lived in houses not huge high-rise estates, and here, the spring flowers were blooming-- daffodils and forsythia--not orchids and palms.

After we stashed the bikes behind the house, Margaret suggested we go out for lunch, as she hadn't been shopping and didn't have much food around. Tom and I glanced at each other. Out for lunch? What kind of place? Would we be able to afford it? We knew Japan was going to be expensive and right away we'd be finding out just how expensive a meal out would be.

We walked along quiet streets, past potted flowers in tiny yards and curious little dogs peering through fences. At a bigger road the population density greatly increased with a set of high-rise apartments, not on the scale of Singapore, but big nonetheless. From there we passed small shops and businesses, all closed on Sunday. I struggled to read what I could. I know the syllabic alphabet used for foreign words so I sounded out ka-to and pa-ma (cut and perm) at a beauty parlor and bi-zu-ne-su ho-te-ru (business hotel). I can't read many kanji, Chinese characters, and even to read a basic newspaper article I would need to know 3,000 of them. I began my life as an illiterate, a confusing condition indeed. (What does that sign say? Is that the direction to the train station?)

Margaret took us to a fa-ma-ri re-su-to-ran (family restaurant) where the large menu had photos of the food, making it easier for us to order. The prices were more reasonable than we'd expected, a set meal costing between 600 and 800yen ($5.00 to $7.00US) for miso soup, green tea, rice, pickles, vegetables and fish or meat. The food arrived on beautiful red lacquer trays in heavy bowls, each bit of food arranged on its own little plate. Japanese food is always exquisitely exhibited, even the plastic bento boxes (lunch trays) usually have a piece of plastic grass in them for the proper decoration.

After lunch we walked to a nearby park to see if the cherry blossoms were out yet. Lots of other Sunday walkers were there enjoying the sunshine and the earliest pink cherry blooms. The full hanami (cherry blossom viewing) was about a week away. The Japanese are very serious about hanami and national TV gives a daily update each spring on how far north the cherry blossoms have reached. During hanami it is traditional to have a picnic under the flowers, a special welcome to spring.

March 27, 2006 Sakura-shi

Even though it was only a one hour time difference from Singapore to Japan we needed a day to rest up before we took the train into the mad rush of Tokyo. After Margaret left to pick up her youngest son from boarding school (for Yuuya's two week April vacation), we walked to a discount food store to buy a picnic lunch to bring to the park. At the checkout we felt awkward with our pidgin Japanese, but the sales people kept smiling and it wasn't that difficult to figure out what to do in a grocery store. We spent a couple of hours in the park sitting on a bench reading, with Jay doing schoolwork and watching kids play baseball, a sport taken very seriously here.

We were in charge of dinner and later Tom and I walked to the suppa (supermarket) to buy ingredients. I had no idea what some of the food items were--the jiggle-y squares of grey-flecked-with-black, were they some kind of fish product? I recognized some of the items, like fish hotdogs and pink and white flower-shaped fish paste. Passing through the fish aisle, I decided to buy potatoes and garlic for roasted potatoes and a selection of vegetables and tofu for a stir-fry. For Japanese cooking, I would rely on friends and restaurants.

March 28, 2006 Tokyo

Where to start? Tokyo is an enormous city and we could chose to see anything from temples to ultra-modern shopping districts. Margaret suggested Asakusa, an old part of the city with a famous temple (Buddhist) and shrine (Shinto). We figured out the train system, walked out onto the streets of Asakusa and joined a throng headed to the temple to see the cherry blossoms.

Here was a lesson for us about sightseeing in Japan-expect crowds. And especially expect crowds during hanami. When we could see the trees it was lovely, a shimmer of pink against the weathered wood of the old buildings. We also had the chance to buy all kinds of souvenirs and food from little stalls around the temple-freshly baked sembei (rice crackers), bean paste sweets, cotton yukata (informal kimono), and so on.

It was a bit overwhelming, so after a look around we left the crowds and walked along a back street heading toward Ueno Park, another hanami destination, this one with several national museums also. On the way, we passed the normal life of the city-postmen wearing coats and ties and riding on little motorcycles from mailbox to mailbox, a woman sweeping her miniscule front yard with a broom made of stiff grasses and dark little noodle restaurants where customers ducked in to sit at counters and slurp up bowls of ramen or soba (buckwheat noodles).

Ueno Park was also mobbed with cherry blossom viewers. Fortunately the park had wide avenues to disperse the crowd. We stopped to watch a jester/juggler who kept up a continuous patter as he rode on a unicycle, jumped through hoops and almost ran over a plastic doll. Jay said he could tell what the man was saying, without actually knowing any of the words, the beauty of slapstick.

After wandering around looking for the travel agency inside the Ueno Station (we needed to get our Japan Rail Passes verified), we stepped onto the busy streets of Ueno looking for a department store with a basement food court. This turned into a wild goose chase and hungry, tired Jay said three things always happen when we go to a city. 1) We get lost. 2) We walk a long way trying to get un-lost. 3) We get really hungry because in the process of getting lost we have missed a meal. All of these statements are, I admit, true.

We gave up on the department store idea and headed back to the station where we bought bento from a convenience store. The Japanese definitely know how to make a portable lunch. These range from simple rice-with-something-on-top to elaborate trays filled with pickles, rice, vegetables, and pieces of meat and fish. We went for the economy bento, vinegared rice rolled up in sheets of nori (seaweed) with bits of omelette and vegetables inside. This is much more delicious that it sounds, and of course, the boxes were beautifully arranged with a little mound of pickled ginger and the obligatory piece of plastic grass.

Now another walk, back to Ueno Park to find a place to eat our picnic. We sat on a small wall near the entrance to the Tokyo Modern Art Museum and I witnessed a wonderful example of a Japanese goodbye. A meeting in the museum had ended and lots of men in suits and a few women walked outside and chatted a bit to each other before the ritual bowing goodbye began. I could tell which men were the most important by the long low bows they received, especially from a woman who practically wiped her head on the ground as she bowed and stepped backwards away from the honorable gentlemen. She smiled the whole time and made her bows look very elegant, something a foreigner could do only after years of practice.

Next stop, the Emperor's Palace, where we were all stunned by the amount of open space in the center of Tokyo. The palace is surrounded by a moat and a giant wall made of huge pieces of cut stone. Outside of that is an actual pine forest, a very manicured one, but a pine forest. Each tree was carefully pruned and a sign language sign said No Camping. This might have seemed obvious, but part of Ueno Park is a tent city of homeless people. I guess tolerance of the homeless does not extend to the park around the Emperor's Palace.

We couldn't actually get onto the palace grounds, but a wide walking avenue lead up to a bridge over the moat and a huge ornate iron gate tended by two still-as-statues guards. Across the moat we could see a house in the old Japanese style of upturned tile roof and white plaster walls. It must have been a little summer cottage, or a guest house. The only bit of the inside palace we could see was a shimmer of pink cherry blossoms through a crack between the wide doors of the gate. I imagined the emperor strolling around the well-tended gardens enjoying his own private hanami.

We left the quiet grounds of the palace and plunged back into the crowded subway system. Fortunately we were just ahead of Rush Hour when people are actually jammed into the train by neatly uniformed subway employees (they were getting into position when we traveled through). We emerged from Ebitsu Station to meet our friend Haruyoshi Udagawa. Yoshi was a student at St. Lawrence University in the 1970's and my parents often had him to our house for dinner or outings. Now he is an English professor at Toyo University and we caught up on his news-his younger daughter is getting married soon and both daughters, in their mid-twenties, still live at home. This is much cheaper than paying rent for an apartment in the middle of Tokyo though Yoshi admitted he didn't have much space for himself anymore in his small house.

Yoshi took us to a sushi restaurant and ordered the "sushi combo". It arrived on an elegant wooden tray, each piece carefully arranged. Jay looked scared, but he did try the tempura that Yoshi also ordered and he managed to down one piece of sushi that only had a bit of raw fish on it. I was very proud of him for being so polite. Tom and I are actually very fond of namazushi, raw fish sushi, and enjoyed the treat, though even for us some of the selections are a bit hard to swallow. Tom ate the salmon egg piece, bright orange eggs the size of peas resting on top of a square of rice and I ate the one with small orange eggs, another kind of fish roe. We finished off the meal with green tea ice cream, a flavor that probably won't make it into the North Country Stewart's ice cream line soon, even with its beautiful deep green color.

March 29, 2006 Kamakura

Kamakura temple cemetery walkway

We had a Japanese guide for this adventure, thirteen-year-old Yuuya. Margaret thought it would be good for Yuuya to speak English all day and we certainly enjoyed his company and his translator skills.

After a two-hour train ride, including a transfer onto a different line and a brief scurry trying to find the new station, we arrived in the small village of Kita-Kamakura. Here we walked up a path to Engaku-ji, a Rinzai Zen temple dating from 1282 AD. The grounds were lovely, with cherry trees in bloom and paths winding through gardens and past the many buildings of the temple.

Before continuing on with our sightseeing we stopped at a ramenya, a noodle shop, for lunch. Yuuya helped us order as the menu was entirely in kanji, Chinese characters. We had three choices of soup base-soy sauce, salt, or miso-and after that decision, we told the cook what we wanted with our noodles. Yuuya chose pork slices, Tom and I asked for vegetables and Jay wanted "plain" , a bowl that arrived with ramen noodles and one tiny piece of pork on top. Yuuya slurped up his bowl in the proper Japanese manner and was finished in a couple of minutes. The rest of us didn't have his speed or polite, noisy slurping.

We decided to look at one more temple before taking the hiking path to the Great Buddha, Kamakura's main attraction for tourists. Tokei temple had beautiful gardens and caves carved out of the steep hillside behind it. Much of the grounds were dedicated to a cemetery. After hundreds of years as an active temple there are many families who need space for their family memorial.

The hiking trail began as a little road then climbed to a wooded ridge. We said hello to a squirrel that seemed almost tame, perhaps from contact with human handouts, though Yuuya told us a sign said not to feed the squirrels. For us it was very relaxing to be in the woods, but Yuuya said his feet hurt. We assured him it wouldn't be much farther to the Great Buddha and when we said that I noticed Jay rolling his eyes. Not much farther, right…. Jay's been on too many long walking adventures with us to believe that.

The Great Buddha of Kamakura

It wasn't more than an hour until we descended to a road in Kamakura and followed signs to the Daibutsu, the Great Buddha. This bronze statue was cast in 1252AD and it is huge, about the height of a four-story building. More than its size, I was impressed by its beauty-the face was peaceful and it sat in a graceful lotus position with relaxed upturned palms. Originally it rested inside a wooden building but that was washed away in a tsunami in 1495. Once again, it was difficult to get my mind around how long Japanese civilization has been around.

We'd all had enough sightseeing for the day so headed off in the direction we thought the train station would be. Of course, we were wrong but we did find a 100 yen store where we all purchased different forms of cheap junk food to keep us going until we did find the train. Somehow we ended up at the ocean and all of us enjoyed a walk along the short beach, where we watched surfers in wetsuits look for waves.

Eventually we found the station and Yuuya fell asleep on the way back to his house.

March 30, 2006 Tokyo to Kyoto

Shinkansen (bullet train)

We thanked the Otake's for hosting us and hoisted our heavy daypacks, ready to begin a train journey in western Japan. Our three-week Japan Rail Passes gave us access to most of the JR trains and buses, including the Shinkansen, or Bullet Trains. We took the Shinkansen more than twenty years ago when we were here but they still seem light years ahead of any other trains I've ever been on. The schedule is exact-we set our watches to it-and the train only stops long enough in each station for a brief transfer of passengers before it is back up to speed, a dizzying velocity where it is actually hard to look out the window as the scenery whizzes by too quickly.

The route to Kyoto is urban, but as in Sakura-shi, areas of land are zoned for agriculture and the flat rice fields relieve the crowdedness of the rest of the land. The day was clear and we saw Mt. Fuji rising in the distance, its flanks covered in snow.

When we got off the train in the Kyoto train station I was very thankful that I knew at least a bit of Japanese. We were heading down the stairs, away from the train platform when I realized my luggage seemed very light. "Wasuremono!" I yelled and ran back toward the Bullet Train. I could hear Tom and Jay racing along beside me. The conductor looked worried as I ducked back into the train but he understand my one-word panic attack. A wasuremono is a "forgotten thing" and I'd left my briefcase in the luggage rack.

The Shinkansen run on a precise schedule and as I sprinted back to my seat I knew I risked being whisked away from Kyoto at a speed as fast as a small airplane. Fortunately I saw my bag, pulled it off the rack and raced out the door just before the warning whistle sounded. Tom and Jay stood on the track next to the conductor and the relief on their faces didn't need any language.

The new Kyoto Station is a huge airy building with layers and layers of shops and restaurants. We found the Kyoto Information office and asked about a cheap place to stay. The woman behind the counter was too polite to laugh, but she knew that Kyoto during hanami was not the place to find cheap lodging, or any lodging at all. She pulled out a list and began calling around. The third phone call yielded an inexpensive Japanese-style tatami room in a hotel quite a distance from the station. She began telling us a complicated bus route but we said we'd walk. She looked astonished, but then again gaijin (foreigners) do crazy things.

Walking was a great way to get our first glimpse of Kyoto, where almost every corner has a temple or a shrine. Kyoto was the capital of Japan for hundreds of years and it escaped most of the bombing that destroyed many Japanese cities during WWII. The city has an old feeling, with ancient wooden gates and walls and narrow streets that were never designed for automobiles.

Our hotel was in downtown, an area of the city that does NOT feel old. We moved along slowly, hemmed in by crowds of shoppers and new, brightly-lit stores and restaurants. One eating establishment had a life-size statue of Elvis in the entryway and his music blaring out onto the street. Behind the glass front of a bakery, fresh white bread sat on clean shelves, filled with everything from sweet bean paste to chicken and mayonnaise.

I had a good map of the city but we still couldn't find our hotel. We stopped at a huge hotel to ask directions and were lead outside and courteously told to look across the street. Hotel Alpha hid amongst the bigger buildings all around it. Its street-side ground floor was occupied by a convenience store. A small sign, in Japanese, instructed us to go down a side street for the entrance.

When we finally found the lobby the clerk was helpful and gave us a key to a second floor room at the back of the building. Our tatami room was clean, if a bit worn, with a low table for writing or eating and very quiet neighbors-our window looked out onto a Buddhist cemetery. Our futon and quilts waited behind sliding paper doors. It was the perfect place to stay during a visit to Kyoto.

March 31, 2006 Kyoto

Kyoto Zen garden, Nanzenji

Our guidebook suggested spending a week in Kyoto, to have time to see a good sampling of the temples and shrines the city contains. But our guidebook wasn't designed for eleven-year-old boys who have limited patience for old wooden buildings, even when there are dragons and tigers painted on the ceilings. We decided to concentrate on one area of the city, the northeast, and take our time looking at just a few of the sights.

From our hotel we walked on a wide bridge across a confined river. School kids in dark uniforms and business people in dark suits pedaled along on upright bicycles that looked to be a design from fifty years ago, though they are new. We stopped at a small grocery store to buy fruit and bread and, a rare find, peanut butter, for lunch. I was getting used to buying apples one at a time, for almost a dollar each. At least the apples were very large and very tasty.

Tom wanted to see Nanzengi, a Buddhist temple set on a hillside on the edge of the city. In an effort to pace ourselves we didn't stop at any of the shrines and temples on the way to it, though we glimpsed many ornate buildings through beautiful tori, entranceways of curved wood.

Nanzengi had a tour bus parking lot but we were early enough in the day to avoid the crowds. The gate was enormous, great beams of unpainted wood, and behind it the main building of the temple, with steps leading up to an almost empty wooden hall with a small alter. Often these old temples show a serene empty space, with no chairs or even cushions to fill the clean wooden floors. Around the buildings are gardens with bonsai (severely clipped and shaped trees) and mosses and rocks. Even with tourists, the temples seem remote and peaceful.

We followed a path up long steps to a small alter in the woods. A sign in English warned us that this was a sacred forest and we should be quiet and not run or joke around. It did feel special and when we found a trail that continued up the mountain we followed it. After a few minutes it intersected a more major trail and although, once again, we couldn't read the signs, it seemed to be going up mountain that we had seen from below. We followed the path, all of us feeling at home in the quiet woods. We stopped for our picnic and two hikers passed us, carrying daypacks and looking surprised to see a family of foreigners sitting on the side of the trail eating peanut butter sandwiches.

We didn't have time to get to the top so we headed back into the bustle of touristy Kyoto, this time to follow the Path of Philosophy, a "contemplative" walking path along an old canal. But the cherry trees' blossoms attracted many tourists and we didn't have much quiet space. We enjoyed the sunshine and the people-watching and peeked in at temples along the way. At the crowded approach to Gingakuji, the Silver Temple, we tasted samples of namayatsuhashi, the special sweet of Kyoto. ( It tasted like cookie dough with a bit of sweet bean paste wrapped inside). We also bought warm sembei, rice crackers, just baked on a little grill.

Next we angled back across the city streets to our hotel to retrieve our luggage and take a bus to the train station. With Friday afternoon traffic I wished that we had walked, as our bus barely moved in the jam of vehicles. Others on the bus sat patiently waiting, including a woman in a bright kimono--not worn much now in Japan except for weddings and other special occasions--and a mother with a young baby, the only one of us who cried out its impatience.

April 1, 2006 Hiroshima

Hiroshima Peace Park

I probably shouldn't have eaten breakfast before we walked from our Business Hotel (a very small room, but internet access and a private bath) to the Hiroshima Peace Park. I wasn't exactly looking forward to seeing the preserved skeleton of the Hiroshima Exhibition Hall, now called the A Dome, the only part of the city that hadn't been rebuilt after the atomic bomb hit on August 6, 1945. And I knew there would be grisly photos in the museum.

The atomic bomb hit Hiroshima with unbelievable force, incinerating thousands of people and buildings. (Even more unbelievable is the fact that the US now has atomic bombs much bigger than the bombs that hit Hiroshima and Nagasaki). In the Peace Park, photos and a museum outlined the history of Hiroshima before and after the bomb. Yes, there were graphic photos but not as many as I had feared, and the Peace aspects of the park were very moving. The A Dome and the statue to all the children who were killed in Hiroshima, surrounded by thousands of paper cranes, were highlights for me.

Next to the A Dome we were "interviewed" by a couple of ten-year-old Japanese kids who were doing a school project. Jay answered their questions, delivered in a faltering English. "How old are you?" "What is your favorite Japanese food?" At the end of the questions the kids read from their script, "Thank you and now we have a little present for you." They gave Jay a silver origami paper crane with paper and directions to make two more. Jay was pleased and it was such an example of what the Peace Park was trying to do--bring together the people of the world.

We didn't stop to explore much more of Hiroshima, a city known for its clean, wide streets, and, of course, completely new architecture. We had decided to take the Shinkonsen all the way west to the island of Kyushu and we needed to leave before noon if we were to make it to Aso-san, a National Park in central Kyushu with active volcanoes.

Mt. Aso Warning

April 2, 2006 Mt. Aso National Park

In the morning the view out our window at the Youth Hostel showed trees dripping from a warm rain. We put on all our raingear and headed out into the wet day to wait at the bus stop for a trip up to the top of the volcano. Tom wondered if a tourist bus would even be on the road on such a miserable morning but, right on the dot, the bus arrived, completely empty. We got on and tried to pay but the uniformed bus driver gestured for us to sit. After some confusion we realized we would pay when we got OFF the bus.

Trail to Mt. Aso crater

The road wound up the mountain and the spectacular views were hidden by cloud, though I could see horse pastures. By the time we got to the top we were in a complete white-out, and could barely see a hand held in front of a face. But, as we were at the top of the mountain, we decided to make an attempt to walk to the summit, with an active crater below. It took a while to find the trail (no visibility combined with illiteracy) but we did and set off. There was something decidedly spooky about walking on an active volcano in pea-soup fog. What if we lost the trail and fell into the crater? It seemed unlikely, as the path was wide and paved.

Cinder cone near Mt. Aso

When we encountered a parking lot we figured we were near the top and followed a trail that seemed perched on an edge. We'll never know for sure because through the mist we saw a truck and its doors burst open and two Japanese men rushed out, gesturing wildly. It was obvious that we weren't supposed to be there, so we bowed and thanked them and turned around. It could have been high levels of toxic fumes, as the guide book had said the summit did close when the wind was in the wrong direction. We certainly didn't stop to argue.

Back at the bus stop, we found a trail heading down to the Volcano Museum. In addition to the fog it began to pour rain. By the time we made it to the museum our raingear was drenched. We put it in a soggy pile in the entranceway and ignored the stares of the tourists who had just stepped off their buses.

The museum was old and most of the signs were only in Japanese but it was a dry place to be and we had our picnic while sitting on an out-of-the-way bench on the second floor outside the volcano movie theatre. Disappointed tourists dragged around the museum until someone noticed the clouds lifting and we all made a rush for the windows.

It was worth the wait-- jagged edges of mountain and a wide basin below the steaming summit. We recovered our raingear and set out to climb a small peak. The sun was glorious but the wind was gloriously strong and we had to give up when it seemed that Jay might get blown off the mountain.

After some discussion we decided to walk down the road back to the Youth Hostel. Mt. Aso is on the edge of a huge caldera and as we walked we could see the ring of mountains that form its sides. Below, in the flat center of the caldera, were rice fields and old burial mounds from ancient Japanese people called the Jumon civilization.

It was almost dark by the time we stepped into the Youth Hostel, replacing our shoes with slippers. The two older women who ran the place welcomed us back and said the bath was hot.

April 3, 2006 Aso village to Hagi

Aso village was big enough for a post office and a convenience store and we spent our money in both. I liked the translations at the bento section of the convenience store-one type of rice ball had "shrimb" in the middle and another type had "sea tangle", a mix of pickled seaweed. I was grateful for any kind of translation as I had often thought I was buying an onigiri (rice ball) that I liked only to take a big bite and find something repulsive (to me) in the middle, like fish eggs or mayonnaise.

We spent most of the day on trains, slow locals that chugged along a bit faster than a walk. It gave us time to look out the windows at wild cherry trees blooming in the woods and terraced rice fields, some so tiny they seemed barely bigger than a backyard garden. No flat land is wasted in Japan.

Once we had a bit of time between trains and left the station in a medium-sized town where we climbed up steep twisty narrow streets that seemed unchanged from 200 years ago. The tile roofs and weathered wooden walls and sliding doors of each house hid small gardens, often big enough for a few potted flowers and a bonsai tree.

At the top of the hill we found a park bursting with the full bloom of hanami. We joined the leisurely crowd out enjoying the sight. In the distance we could see a busy port and the ugly commercial buildings that most Japanese towns have as a core.

Our slow train to Hagi took hours and we shared it with seniors in casual clothes-sweat pants and windbreakers-and high school kids in navy blue uniforms. We were a long way from the Tokyo trains filled with sarariman (salary-man) all dressed in neat black suits and shiny black shoes. The western side of Honshu is far off the beaten track, which became obvious to us when we saw how long it took to get anywhere. No shinkansen here, but lovely views of a rocky coastline as we chugged along.

Sea of Japan sunset, Hagi

In the last bit of daylight the train stopped at a small covered platform, the Hagi station. We disembarked and walked to the Youth Hostel where a talkative man chattered away in a mixture of Japanese and English, showed us to our room and gave us maps of the area. We had time for a short walk to the old castle ruins, where cherry trees were in full bloom and partygoers drank sake and beer under the pink blossoms.

Back in our room at the Youth Hostel we played charades and soaked in the big bath where the bottle of shampoo was a brand called "Rooty". To me, that name didn't exactly conjure up images of beautiful, shiny clean hair. But then again, there's a brand of coffee creamer in Japan called "Creap".

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2006 North Country Public Radio, St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York 13617-1475