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|| SportsShooter.com: News Item: Posted 2009-03-10

Sports Shooter Destination: Welcome to Japan!
By Darrell Miho

Photo by Darrell Miho

Photo by Darrell Miho

Miyajima, Japan: Otorii gate and Japanese stone lantern shortly after sunset. Miyajima is one of Japan's three most beautiful sights to see.
If there is one place where people will go out of their way to make you feel welcome, Japan is the place. "Irasshaimase!" (Ee-rah-SHY-mah-se) Everywhere you go you'll hear this phrase. It means 'welcome' in Japanese. Department stores have official greeters, similar to Wal-Mart, except in Japan, they bow and they're 25 years old, not 75. When you walk in the door at a restaurant, the entire staff will bow and say in unison Irasshaimase!

Japan is a country entrenched in culture and respect. The bus attendants that load your luggage bow as the bus leaves the terminal. The agent who checks your ticket on the train bows as he/she enters and exits each train car. Bowing is one of the curious yet fascinating cultural mannerisms you'll observe.

This was my third trip to Japan, but my first that would take me outside of the Tokyo area. While Tokyo is an amazing city with so many things to do and see, I was anxious to get out into the countryside to experience other parts of Japan.

If you plan to visit several cities, then a Japan Railways (JR) Rail Pass is a must. Whoever thought of this is a genius! The JR Rail Pass allows you to travel on any JR train, ferry or bus and certain shinkansen (bullet) trains for a flat fee. There are several different kinds, some are region specific, but the most common ones are the 7, 14 or 21-day pass. The passes are only available to visitors and must be purchased before you arrive in Japan. Once you arrive, you'll need to go to a JR office and tell them what day you would like to start using your rail pass. (http://www.japanrail.com/JR_railpass.html)

While traveling by rail, you should try and minimize your luggage. This can be difficult for us photographers. With the exception of the Narita Express train that runs from the airport to Tokyo Station, there is very limited space for stowing luggage and there is no such thing as checked-baggage. Most trains have unsecured overhead racks (not bins) and a small space at the back of each car, but that's it. Trying to navigate crowded train stations with excess luggage is not going to be easy so the basic rule is if you can't carry it, you shouldn't bring it.

My first stop was Obama, Japan, to do a couple of stories on the city and the inauguration celebration the city was hosting. Located in the southwest portion of Fukui Prefecture, this small city of 33,000 can easily be navigated on foot. Covering less than a square mile, you can walk from one end to the other at a leisurely pace in about an hour. If time is short, you can rent a bike at the tourist information center for 300 to 800 yen for two to eight hours.

There are several cities in Japan named Obama, but this particular one has capitalized on sharing the same name with President Barack Obama. During the presidential race, the city of began an "Obama for Obama" campaign to attract tourists to this former fishing village. There is a gift shop in town, Wakasaya, complete with a bust of President Obama outside, that has the largest selection of omiyage (Oh-mee-YAH-ge: souvenirs) honoring our 44th president. There are the usual "I heart Obama" t-shirts and stickers with the likeness of President Obama printed on them, but there are also hachimakis (headbands), senbei (rice cookie), manju (rice cakes) and hashi (chopsticks). They even have bread-in-a-can, which I'm still trying to figure out what the connection is, if there is one.

In ancient times, Obama was known for it's seafood and served as the starting point of what was known as the Saba Kaido (Mackerel Road) that served as the fishermen's gateway to Kyoto, Japan's former capital before it was moved to Edo (now Tokyo) in 1868. Today, it is known for its laquerware, hashi and clay tiles.

Many of the hashi manufacturer's are small family shops located in the Nishizu area, a short 30-minute walk north from the Obama station. At Hashi Minomoto, the Honmura family has been making hashi by hand for 30 years. Inside their shop, you'll find over 70 different styles on display with prices ranging from 370 yen to 2000 yen ($4.00 - $22.00 at current exchange rate). They estimate they make over 10,000 pairs of hashi a month, some take as long as 30 days to make.

There are also over 130 temples and shrines located in Obama. Several of the larger ones, Hachiman Shrine, Kuinji Temple, Jokoji Temple and Hosshinji Temple, are a short 10-minute walk southwest of Obama station. Several other well-known temples are located in neighboring Wakasa. Guided bus tours in Japanese depart twice a day from the Obama station between March and November. Check with the tourist information center for times. (http://www1.city.obama.fukui.jp/english/)

Photo by Darrell Miho

Photo by Darrell Miho

Hiroshima, Japan: Scale models at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum show Hiroshima before and after the bombing.
After a 27 hour non-stop whirlwind tour of Obama, it was off to Nagasaki and Hiroshima for some heart-wrenching research.

One thing I have to say about the Japanese train system is that it runs like clockwork. It is so efficient you can set your watch to it. Practically every train is on time and the gate agents know the schedules and train platforms without blinking. Which was good news for me since I only had four minutes to transfer to the last train from Hakata to Nagasaki.

Both Hiroshima and Nagasaki were a big change from Obama. It's hard to believe that 63 years ago each of these cities was obliterated by an atomic bomb. Back then, it was believed that nothing would grow for 75 years and the people would have to move elsewhere if they wanted to survive. But time has proven that theory wrong and the Japanese people have persevered through the adversity. Today, Hiroshima and Nagasaki have grown to be as large as Dallas, Texas and Cleveland, Ohio respectively.

The obvious must stops are the peace museums and peace parks that each city has created to remember the tragic events that ended World War II. They serve as reminders of the pain and horrors that nuclear weapons caused and why they should never be used again. The photos, displays, monuments and wealth of information are an eye-opening experience. Textbooks don't even come close to describing the living hell these two cities became after the bombings.
(http://www.pcf.city.hiroshima.jp/index_e2.html)
(http://www1.city.nagasaki.nagasaki.jp/na-bomb/museum/museume01.html)

Another must stop is Miyajima, a small island south of Hiroshima where deer and monkeys roam freely. It is designated as one of Japan's three most beautiful sights, and I must concur. As the ferry approaches the dock, you'll be greeted by the most well known landmark - a giant 60-foot red otorii (grand gate) that marks the entrance to this sacred place.

You can walk through Itsukushima Shrine, peruse the shops in the Omotesando area or you can take the ropeway (aerial tram) up the mountain to see the monkeys and hike to the top of Mt. Misen to get a panoramic view of the Inland Sea. If you're really adventurous, you can hike down and see several more shrines along the way. Before you leave the island, pick up a box (or two) of momiji manju, a Japanese pastry filled with red bean paste, custard or chocolate. Yum!
(http://www.miyajima-wch.jp/index_e.html)

Back in Hiroshima, they are known for oysters and okonomiyaki. I found a small café, the Oyster Conclave, along the bank of the Kyobashigawa River. The oysters were extremely flavorful, much better than any I have tasted here in the US. The best way I can describe okonomiyaki is it looks like a Japanese tostada. Different restaurants will have different ingredients, so you just have to try one to decide if you like it or not. In some places, you can sit at the counter and they will cook your meal before your eyes.

After finishing my research, I headed back to Tokyo via an overnight train with sleeping cars. Basically bunk beds on a train. There was an extra fee ($100), so if you're traveling on a budget, leave earlier. It will be faster anyways. From Hiroshima to Tokyo, the overnight train takes 9 hours, while the shinkansen takes 4 hours.

Tokyo is by all means the definition of urban sprawl. A concrete jungle that makes Los Angeles look like a deserted island. A Manhattan on steroids, without the honking horns. The ironic thing is that as much as I hate LA for being a concrete jungle, I love Tokyo for the very same reason!

Photo by Darrell Miho

Photo by Darrell Miho

Hiroshima, Japan: (L) Oyster dish at the Oyster Conclave. (R) Okonomiyaki
Perhaps it's the newness of it all. There is so much to do and see that I would need months to explore the whole city. Perhaps it's the cleanliness. I have yet to see a dirty bathroom. There are no unflushed, pee-sprinkled toilets. Sorry about the graphic description, but I think all the men know what I'm talking about. Perhaps it's the politeness they all seem to possess. Even during rush hour when the subways are packed like sardines, everyone is still polite. If they are sick, they wear a doctor's masks to keep from spreading their germs to other people. One elderly lady even apologized to me before I sat down next to her because she was sick.

I know one thing for sure, I love the subway system. I don't have to drive and I can be just about anywhere in the city in 30 - 40 minutes regardless of the time of day. There are electronic pass cards (Suica and Pasmo) to make the subway even more convenient and takes the guess work out of which ticket to buy (fares are based on distance).

I'm not even sure where to begin when it comes to what to do or see in Tokyo. Tsukiji Fish market is an unbelievable sight to see when it is running at full steam at 6 in the morning. Motorized carts zipping around, tuna auctions and warehouses full of every seafood imaginable make for great pictures. Akihibara is where anything electronic can be found. Sensoji Temple is the largest temple in Tokyo where locals and visitors alike flock to pray and make offerings. For late night outings, Roppongi is the place to be. With plenty of bars, clubs and restaurants open until the wee hours of the morning, it is the party center of Tokyo.

For people watching, nothing beats Harajuku, the anime center of Tokyo where people come dressed in full costume of their favorite characters. For just sheer mass of people, Shibuya Crossing is where you'll find the young and hip at one of the busiest intersections in the world.

For the artsy-fartsy, the Edo Tokyo Museum has a myriad of remarkably detailed scale models depicting Tokyo during ancient times when it was known as Edo. On the ground floor of the Yebisu Garden Tower in Ebisu is the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography. Ueno Park is home to the Tokyo National Museum, National Museum of Western Art and the National Science Museum. The Tokyo Museum of Modern Art, near Roppongi, is one of the newest museums and the undulating glass facade is a work of art in itself.

I could go on and on with things to do in Tokyo. This is just the tip of the iceberg. Whatever you do, make sure you pack a good pair of walking shoes. The public transportation system is great and will get you within walking distance to most of your destinations. I had no desire to test my driving skills on the opposite side of the road while navigating narrow streets with signs I can't read. If you don't feel like walking, taxis are prevalent throughout Japan.

There are a few other great things about traveling in Japan. One is they have single rates for hotels. Double occupancy is not required. Woo hoo! While the rooms are smaller than a standard room, your wallet will be bigger. Another interesting thing is there is no tipping. This goes back to the foundation of respect. It is their honor to serve you and it is understood that excellent service will be provided at all times and should be expected and not rewarded.

Tokyo is a vast city covering over 600 square miles, twice the area of New York City, and a population of nearly 13 million people. There is plenty to do for everyone. They even have the happiest place on Earth, Tokyo Disneyland.

So pack your bags and experience Japan. Irasshaimase!


(Darrell Miho is a Southern California-based freelance photographer. He is also the director of the Garrett Miho Foundation http://www.thegarrettmihofoundation.org/index.html. To read more about Darrell's trip to Japan, check out his blog at: http://darrellmiho.blogspot.com.)

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