Hanoi Rock City

Hoan Kiem Lake - Old Quarter Hanoi

Just before I left Seattle for Tokyo I found out that I needed to have an onward or return ticket from Japan, otherwise I wouldn't be allowed to board the plane without a different visa. I had been planning to go with the flow and decide how long I wanted to stay in Japan when I got there, but instead I had to weigh out the rest of my travel options in a hurry and I ended up with a ticket to Hanoi, Vietnam. After three weeks cruising around on fast and slow trains in east and west Japan, coming close to missing my departure flight from Osaka, and hours sitting on planes at gates in two different airports in China, I arrived in Hanoi.

The day after getting there I met up with a CIDA friend on posting who told me that Hanoi isn't really a city for sight-seeing, it's a city you live in. It's chaotic and crowded and not at all organized like Japan, but despite all that I felt like I hit my stride early on – I started off taking it slow and kept on going for the nine days I stayed there. I met a great bunch of guys through a couchsurfing event my first night and spent most of the next week hanging out in cafes talking and eating.

Che - Vietnamese dessert - with some new friends

Through a birdwatching website for travellers I connected with Paul, the first formerly Amish person I have ever met, who told me about living in and leaving his community at age 19 to start out on his own, when he didn't even know how to use a phone, much less a computer. He's only in his mid-thirties now, so this was recent history. I had my first experience braving the traffic on the back of a motorbike with Paul, who took me to an island outside of Hanoi where we drove around little dirt trails through banana plantations and farms and looked for birds.

Birding down by the river

We saw Pied and Common Kingfishers, Yellow-bellied and Plain Prinias, a hovering Black-shouldered Kite, Black Drongos, a Brown Shrike and some Little Ringed Plovers, among others.

Big bananas

I embraced staying in the same place for more than a couple nights in a row by taking life drawing classes – one at Hanoi Rock City and another at the Hanoi Social Club, the latter where I became enough of a regular to get my own membership, which comes with a 10% discount!

About the Traffic

I braved the traffic daily. This means I left my hotel room and crossed streets on my own every day, multiple times. The traffic is one of the main features of Hanoi, especially the Old Quarter, the most touristy part, and where I stayed. The streets are clogged with people on motorbikes, bicycles, in taxis, with small women balancing heavy baskets from a pole over one shoulder, and hardy or nervous pedestrians who are either trying to cross the tide or trying to hug the sides of the street near the sidewalk. The sidewalks are mostly filled with parked motorbikes, which drastically limits the space available to walk. Everyone with a horn is using it and the streets are loud. Many streets are also crowded with cafes on the sidewalk, with people sitting on little plastic children's stools to eat dinner.

One of the things that surprised me about the traffic is that even Vietnamese people are afraid to cross the street. On my second night I saw a group of 4 tall young Vietnamese guys crossing the street together in a row, possibly holding hands. I met Fit, a young Vietnamese couchsurfer from Hanoi who told me she is too scared to walk across the street – she can do it on a motorbike or a bicycle, but not on foot. A few days later I was stopped at an intersection waiting for a break in the traffic when I noticed an old Vietnamese woman with a cane who was standing hesitantly by the sidewalk. I reached out my hand and she took it, and we crossed the street together. I felt borderline heroic after that, and like a certified local.

Here's a bumpy video filmed by me from the back of my new friend Simon's motorbike on our last ride before he sold the bike and left for Singapore. It was a holiday in Vietnam so the streets are much less crowded than normal, but the busy parts give you a bit of an idea.





Arigato and Until Next Time, Japan

Japan is lovely, Japan is fine, I even like the sake wine.

No, it's not a haiku, but who cares? It rhymes, and it's a simple, if not poignant, expression of thanks for my wonderful visit.

Cherry blossoms, Takayama's beautiful spring festival, Japanese karaoke!

The magic of Kyoto's Niko castle lit at night

The temples, and tranquility of Koyasan

100 yen shops where I found (and did not buy) a plastic screen cover for my ipad (only 1 dollar

Manicured park in Nara

The 711s that are everywhere, and have healthy fresh snack and meals, for cheap

The excellent train system

Beautiful aesthetic and designs

Shimmering sesame tofu

Where Harry Potter buys his chopsticks

Polite and incredibly helpful Japanese people

Clean! Everything is so clean! No need to worry about things like bedbugs. In the words of my tour guide friend Charles, “The whole country is like a hospital.”

Where Harry Potter buys his paintbrushes

The heated toilet seats

So much to treasure

I heart Japan





The Japanese Toilet

Any talk on a first visit to Japan – to other travellers, to the Japanese and to people at home, must inevitably include the toilets. Because if there is one thing possibly above all others to marvel at in Japan, for Western tourists at least, it must be the heated toilet seat.

We have winter and heated car seats. Why don't we have these at home?

Perfection on a cold spring morning, even more sublime I am sure on a frosty winter's eve, the heated toilet seat is a revolution in personal sanitation. The first time I tried it was a surprise and a delight, and I just kept on revelling in it, while sitting on them.

Think of the warmth and comfort of a heated car seat. Now transfer that relaxed sense of ease to your routine lavatory visits. Magical? Yes. If you were in Japan in this warm and cozy personal space, you might also find a variety of options for sanitizing the seat – this is taken seriously, as toilets in Japan are among the cleanest you will find anywhere.

Next, if your comfort might be slightly diminished by a feeling of lack of privacy, you need only to touch a button helpfully labelled “flushing sound” to obscure any unwanted sounds from the seat.

Also in braille!

It just keeps getting better from there – when you are ready, the toilet can also serve as a bidet. You can get a cleansing spray straight up, which depending on where you're seated may travel up your back, or there is the 'woman' figure spray which hits other regions in the zone. When you're all done, you can wash your hands in the faucet above the toilet tank, and leave the slippers labelled 'toilet' at the door.

The toilet seat will be there, comfortably warm for next time.

Helpful instructions for Japanese and Western style loos



Koyasan – Mountain top Meditation

Vertical Cable Car (Bus) to Koyasan

A lucky thing happened on the way to Koyasan – I met a Japanese-American writer studying spiritual practices in Japan on the bus into town, who turned about to be a wonderful guide to the history of the place and some of the basics of Buddhism.

Entrance to Okuno-in cemetery

Koyasan is a secluded mountain top religious complex of temples, founded in 815 by Kobo Daishi, who brought Shingon Buddhism from China to Japan, and who is now resting in eternal meditation in Okuno-in, the cemetery in Koyasan. He gets fed twice a day by the priests and is given a daily change of clothes. There was a moment as I walked through the dark lantern-lit cemetery with Marie and a lovely couple from the Ukraine, when we all thought we were about to see him, as he is rumoured to walk the cemetery at night. But it turned out to be a lone tourist. The walk was atmospheric nonetheless – we saw enormous moss-covered tombstones, monuments to the samurai and their modern replacements – corporations.

Gorinto - five rings of earth, water, fire, air, ether

Marie answered some of my deep questions about Buddhism like “why are the Buddhas holding so many things?” “Because your problems are different than mine, and so the tools they need to help will be different for you then for me.”

I had followed Marie from the bus to the Shosoji-in temple, one of the oldest in Koyasan. Visitors can do temple stays in Koyasan, which include a room, two Buddhist vegetarian meals, and morning prayer services. My dinner was a revelation – so many dishes served in a variety of tiny pottery bowls. Ginger soup with chewy rice dumplings in the bottom, spiced seasonal vegetables, and the most incredible of all, a shimmering cube of the creamiest most delicious tofu I've ever eaten, lying in soy sauce with a dollop of wasabi. I was amazed by the amount of preparation that must have gone into this one meal, which also meant it was an experience not to be repeated in my kitchen.

Very yummy, and yes I ate it all

I've since learned that the Buddhist vegetarian (vegan) cuisine served is based on the concepts of five flavours, five cooking methods and five colours. A meal should include a grilled dish, a deep-fried dish, a pickled dish, a tofu dish and a soup dish. Originally for monks, meals have been developed into something more elaborate to be served to guests at temples. Namely, to tourists – none of the other guests at Shoshoji-in were Japanese, or likely Buddhist. While pilgrims come to stay at the temples at significant times of the year, I left wondering how much temple life in Koyasan is now kept alive by the less than devote tourist industry.

The second day in Koyasan was even more enriching than the first. We listened to the priests chanting sutras in the morning prayers after which, thanks to Marie, I was able to follow her and one of the priests on a private tour of some of the more sacred temple rooms. We went to the “true hondo” or real temple, where Kobo Daishi was when he was alive, and we saw a beautiful Buddha carved by Japan's Michelangelo – Ishikawa Uncho.

In the Cemetery - Marie and Me

Later in the morning I participated with Marie in Jukai, a formal and ancient Buddhist ceremony for receiving Buddhist lay precepts, guides to living a wholesome and virtuous life. The ceremony was entirely in Japanese and in the dark, so I couldn't read along with my English translation. While I wished I had more knowledge of Buddhism to fully appreciate the ceremony, it was personal and intimate in the darkness.

Daito (Great Pagoda)

It was a tour and a temple experience that I would not have had without a Japanese-speaking researcher by my side. I'm looking forward to Marie's book on Japan's response to death and disaster.

Up the hill to Koyasan – elevation 867m

Train to Koyasan: 92m to 535m in 19.8km

Cable Car: 535m to 867m in 0.8km




Kyoto – Karaoke, Geishas, and a Temple of Gold

Kyoto was a lot of fun. I was lucky to be able to visit Noriko, a friend of my friend Andrea, who lives in Shiga prefecture, just outside of Kyoto. I stayed with Noriko in her home with her elderly mother for two nights. The first day we went to Hikone castle, one of four castles designated as national treasures.

Hikone Castle

We had a lovely Japanese tea with sweets after lunch, and then a delicious dinner – followed by… Japanese karaoke! I had wanted to try it out since it's so popular in Japan, but I didn't expect it to be so much fun. I started warbling and kept on going, eighties classic after classic for hours in a room with Noriko, Chiruzu and Yugi, who obliged with some Japanese beach boy songs in between. And who were kind enough to put up with my off-key vocals. A new passion was unleashed – I want to sing!

Karaoke good times

I toured around Kyoto with Chiruzu and Noriko on the next two days – I saw the Golden Pavilion, which I was even more impressed by when I found out the gold shimmer was not from paint, but real gold leaf. Hence the name. Other highlights were the Fushimi Inari Shrine with 1000 orange toris all the way up the mountain.

Real Gold - The Golden Pavilion

Noriko and the Orange Toris - Fushimi Inari Shrine

Kyoto at nighttime was even more beautiful and more magical than the daytime. I visited Niko castle, illuminated with bamboo and paper lanterns lining the walkways and spotlights highlighting the cherry and plum orchard.

Niko Castle at Night

I also visited Gion, the old part of Tokyo where Maiko-san, apprentice Geishas, scurry about in the streets, dressed in traditional kimonos, with elaborate hairstyles and white painted faces and necks, learning the centuries-old craft of the Geisha. They were a contrast to the women I saw in kimonos in the streets of Kyoto – I didn’t want to believe it when Chiruzu assured me they were Japanese tourists dressing up. I learned this is a thing to do in Kyoto, with its history as the cultural centre and former capital of Japan, the city offers discounts on attractions to people wearing traditional clothes.

Japanese tourists in rented kimonos



Miyajima Island

Famous Floating Orange Tori

Miyajima Island is a short boat ride from Hiroshima, but the day I was there it had such a warm tropical feel that it seemed light years away from the terrible history detailed in the Peace Museum.

Picture-taking day, with deer

Snap happy

There are deer roaming everywhere, and mountains to climb.

No deer allowed

I climbed up to Daisho-in temple and visited the variety of buildings and little statues. It was a beautiful day and I spent much longer than planned before leaving to make my way to Kyoto.

On the Mountain - Daisho-in Temple

5-story pagoda



Remains of the A-bomb Dome

Perhaps I shouldn't admit this, but I was not fully aware of the circumstances and the devastation that happened with the dropping of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima at 8:15am on August 6, 1945.

“A dragonfly flitted in front of me and stopped on a fence. I stood up, took my cap in my hands, and was about to catch the dragonfly when … “








When I stood looking at the skeletal remains of the A-bomb Dome, listening to a volunteer guide whose mother was in the 3km range of the epicentre when the bomb dropped, I was shocked. Shocked to learn that people had no warning before they were blasted with incredibly powerful radiation, what could be called a test study carried out by the US Government. People in the hypocentre were vapourised, or deformed beyond recognition – children out clearing the streets as part of Japan's war effort, innocent civilians in a busy urban area. Others still being counted have suffered the slow and insidious onset of radiation disease – suddenly arising cancers that are often lethal. The official numbers are now close to 200,000 dead, as a result of one bomb.



In the museum you can see the dark shadow of a person seated on some concrete steps – that was what tremendous impact the bomb had – burning shadows into stone. There are iron shutters bent outwards from the blast, pieces of melted debris and tattered school uniforms, remnants like lunch boxes all that was found by parents out looking for their children. There is part of a white wall in the museum that is stained with long drips of black rain – radioactive precipitation that fell on those still alive that were reeling from the impact of the explosion. The before and after photos show a landscape utterly destroyed, with some burned and tattered people scrounging in the wreckage. It's hard to imagine how dramatically and completely things changed for people in this city, with an early death toll of about 140,000 of a population of 350,000.

There is the story of Sadako Sasaki who was diagnosed with leukaemia at age 12, and started folding paper cranes – if she folded 1,000 cranes she believed her wish to live would be granted. She died, but her classmates continued folding cranes in her honour and a children's peace memorial was established in the park near the A-bomb Dome. Today it is filled with ribbons and poster designs made of paper cranes by people from all over the world.

Paper crane poster

In the museum you can see official correspondence between US Government officials providing their rationale and justification for the dropping of the bomb. The dropping or 'testing' of the bomb was seen as necessary in order to justify to the American people the enormous expense incurred in developing the bomb. There was an urgency to test the bomb before Japan surrendered, as they were on the brink of giving in, and there would be no excuse left to use it. Nowhere did I see a mention of the impact of the bomb on human life in Japan – I think this toll was considered part of the cost of war.

The museum also houses a more recent raft of letters – from the mayors of Hiroshima to Governments across the world in response to any nuclear test that is carried out, asking them to abandon nuclear weaponry. Hiroshima has become a city with a goal to ensure that nuclear weapons will never again be used.

In talking about this visit since I have been reminded that the museum contains no acknowledgement of atrocities carried out during the war by Japan, of which there were many. A good reminder, yet it still defies reason that such a weapon could be used at all.

School Choir performing at the Children's Peace Memorial


Takayama – Take 2

Cherry blossoms

In addition to the fabulous spring festival, I stayed an extra night to enjoy the town. It is a beautiful and peaceful place, the old town and hillsides above it in particular.

The second morning I was there I walked through some of the hillside cemeteries, feeling cool breezes in amongst the damp cedars. Echoing from the Karakuri (marionette) performances in the town, I could hear some of the reedy Shinto music, which has an almost unearthly quality. Walking there brought to mind a poem that I have had posted on a board at home for years – a Japanese poem that had not come to mind in the lead up to my trip.

Morning and evening the clear air blows

Between heaven and earth my life exists

My lungs expand, my body functions at ease

If I think of other places nowhere attracts

If I think of this place, nowhere distracts

The moon waxes full, the pure winds blow

Soetsu Yanagi

Takayama in bloom





Takayama Matsuri – Spring Festival

Streets filled with Magic

Parade floats down the street

The two day Takayama Spring Festival was almost worth the ticket to Japan alone. It's rated as one of the three most beautiful festivals in Japan. According to the Internet, accommodation books up months in advance, and I couldn't find anything online. I was on the verge of skipping the festival, when thanks to a disorganised and odd gold-toothed monk responsible for bookings at the Tenshoji-in youth hostel, I was able to get my own room for both nights at the last minute.

There is a spring festival and an autumn festival, which have been taking place for at least several hundred years. Special yatai – elaborate parade floats – are brought out of storage for the festival. Eight of them were lined up in one street in the old town, with four others in the square. They are tall two tiered structures with black lacquer and gold plates, incredible wooden carvings of dragons, lions and fish jumping off the sides, with thick brocade embroidered fabric, mirrors, painted wood and tapestries – exquisite artistry on display.

Hanging on tight

To me they looked like they'd just time-travelled from the past, with a sparkle of magic still around them. Looking at them lined up together I could picture them in the Japan of days gone past – rolling down dirt streets without electricity, treasures unveiled to the awe of the peasants.

Three yatai in the main square featured Karakuri ningyo or marionette performances depicting Japanese fairy tales. The first shows a young boy who puts on the mask of an old man. The second and most thrilling was the story of a young boy who meets an old man and brings him home to take care of him. The old man drinks a lot and is bad-tempered – in a dream the boy realises that the old man is really a dragon spirit, so he puts the man in a box when he is drunk and carries him to an island to leave him there. When the old man awakes alone on the island his dragon spirit emerges. I'm not sure about the moral of this story (don't help old people?) but the third was so saucy it was banned for decades. A young girl is dancing a lion dance and suddenly a lion emerges from under her kimono. Powerful stuff!

Young boy marionette

Boy wearing the mask of an old man

Old man dragon!

Young girl lion dancer

In addition to the marionette performances there was a parade each day with lion dancers, towns people dressed in traditional costumes playing reed flutes and drums, carrying portable shrines – it was large and impressive. I saw this parade after following a small splinter parade group of 20 people who were about 15 minutes ahead of the rest, and who got lost up a side street while I and two other tourists were following them.

Lion Dancer

Pointy hats made of feathers and human hair

After this there was the night festival – when the all floats were strung with paper lanterns and wheeled through the streets of the old town, with small children seated on the floats playing flutes. Aside from the crowds of pushy Asian tourists – outnumbering the Westerners, it was a beautiful sight.






Matsumoto Castle and Delicatessen

Cherry Blossoms and Hanami Festivals at Last!

Hanami parties at Matsumoto Castle

Matsumoto was my original destination before I got derailed by promises of canoeing and cherry blossoms in Minakami. When I finally made it to Matsumoto it was with relief that I found the cherry blossoms still in full bloom, and a cherry blossom festival on at the castle the night I arrived. Unfortunately although the flowers were blooming, the weather was not suitably spring-like. It was freezing and started to snow again as my tour guide friend Charles and I tried to watch the concert of eerily beautiful Shinto music being played at the castle. Frozen hands won out over culture and we left the other few diehards to have dinner in the restaurant next to the castle, which had shark fin soup on the menu.

Matsumoto Castle, Japanese Alps in the distance

Charles left for his hostel and for Osaka, while I nervously made my way a bit later on to my hotel. It had been recommended by the tourist info centre – it was surprisingly cheap at $35 a night with a view of the castle and cherry trees, and the room looked relatively nice, if old-fashioned. But the hallways were permeated with an intense cloying incense smell and the landing on the stairs up to my room was lined with black and white photos from the 60's, with a carved wooden statue of lunging black bear. It seemed kind of ancient and eery, and moreso, it reminded me of the French movie Delicatessen, where the hotel owners eat the guests. The place gave me the creeps. On top of there being no other tourists visible, there was no wifi, meaning I had no easy connection to the outside world.

I was suspicious and reluctant, but I had nowhere else to go. I was half expecting to be drugged during the night by the waft of incense rendering me unable to breathe and then immobile. There was no defence I could think of to muster. So I crammed myself in the tiny tall tub in my miniature bathroom for a bath, and I fell asleep.

Frogs abound in Matsumoto

Waking up unharmed the next morning, I went downstairs to buy an entrance ticket to the castle from the hotel, the old manager came out offering me a ticket – “Present, present”. Instead of having me for dinner, he gave me a free ticket to the castle, and later a free bike to ride around the rest of the city for the day. It seems my instincts were a little off. I would highly recommend the place for anyone going to Matsumoto, just breathe deep before you get into the hallway.

The very kind manager of Hotel Sukhirokan

I was lucky to get to the castle early, it was a beautiful sunny day and there was a lineup stretching halfway through the grounds by the time I made it back out. Under the cherry trees surrounding the castle I saw my first live hanami parties – where Japanese people come out to picnic under the cherry blossoms. There were blue tarps laid out with families, friends, and one large group of old people with an ghetto blaster dancing tai chi style to some songs. It was lovely to watch.

Dancing under the cherry trees

Later in the day as I rode around some of the picturesque streets of the town, I saw a traditional wedding. I thought there was much more to see in Matsumoto than Nagano – I would have stayed longer but I was in a hurry to make it to Takayama for the spring festival starting the next day.