These entries will be short, and may be incoherent, given that Japanese keyboards are just different enough to make me crazy.
I`m in Kobe, Japan, having spent two days there, and one in Himeji at an onsen (natural hot spring) Ryokan. I should probably put some links here, and if I get a chance, I will, later. In the meantime, both cities are intriguing.
Kobe`s recent history is forever colored by the huge earthquake that devastated the city and killed nearly 6000 people in 1995. Thirteen years later, the city is almost entirely rebuilt, but the earthquake is certainly not forgotten.
This is where my traveling companion`s relatives live. An aunt and two cousins died in the earthquake. The relatives that are showing us around have very strong memories of the quake.
We visited the quaintly named Disaster Reduction and Human Renovation Museum which is staffed by quake survivors who are anxious to tell their stories. There is also a highly effective movie, complete with special sound and motion effects to convey the chaos that the city endured.
Almost as good was another earthquake museum on the nearby island, Awagi, which is actually built over the faultline, which is covered with glass, so that one can follow it over the course of a hundred feet or more.
Using Kobe as a base, we visited Himeji Castle, which you may have seen if you watched Tom Cruise chew up the scenery in The Last Samurai. The six-story wooden castle was very impressive, even without Mr. Cruise.
In terms of money, I`ve spent fairly little so far, given that my friend`s relatives have been taking us everywhere. I should also mention that when it comes to food, the cliched Jewish mother has nothing on a Japanese housewife determined to make sure her international guests don`t starve.
I am now in Kyoto, having spent the previous day in Nara. I saw no women in kimonos in Kobe or Himejii except for employees of the Ryokan who wore Yukatas (cotton bathrobes) everywhere, as did we while staying there. But in Kyoto, there were a surprising number of women of all ages, wearing kimonos. And carrying, and using cell phones. Quite the ambiguous image!
The emperor was in Nara the same day we were but we were too busy trekking to various temples to see him. It is difficult to describe the combined effect of the temples in Nara and Kyoto. I expected to get templed-out at some point but it never happened. The spareness, the size, the sense of foreignness was impressive and awe-inspiring.
My Japanese language skills (dusted off after 30 years of non-use) have been laughable but I have yet to meet one rude person in Japan. Everyone has been kind and several strangers have gone out of their way to keep two middle-aged ladies on track.
This part of the trip, my friend and I have been on our own, so I`m spending more money. The exchange rate has not been in our favor. But I am still well within my original budget. I could, if I have to, use my Bank of America debit card, but with a five dollar fee plus a three percent foreign transaction fee, that`s one card I`ll avoid.
Next stops: Kamakura, Nikko and Tokyo.