In Japan, a respite from nation’s disasters


City skyline with Toji temple glowing in the evening Kyoto, Japan. (ALAMY)
November 11, 2011

I’m standing on the expansive balcony of a seventh-floor restaurant in Kyoto, watching the sun slowly set over the ancient Japanese city. Below, waterside restaurants along the river flicker to life in the twilight, neon glowing bright against the darkening sky. Egrets and herons swoop over the water, and the city traffic hums, a less congested-sounding cousin of Tokyo’s cacophony of bikes, cars and buses.

Standing to my right is my friend Dan, his white suit jacket flapping slightly in the wind. Dan won’t be buttoning that jacket tonight. It fits him like a holdover from high school, which is where we met more than 20 years ago. Actually, it was made in Thailand a few years back, right after Dan had completed a week-long fast. To describe the current fit as snug would be generous.

Okinawa and Kyoto, Japan: How to get there, where to stay, what to do


Next to Dan is his bride, Yukiko, dressed in a flowing white Western wedding dress. Behind us, a crowd of 50 of their closest friends and family have gathered to celebrate their wedding.

Thankfully, the weather has been perfect. Cool and bright, with streaks of light cumulus clouds that seem to snag on the rooftops of the more than 2,000 temples and shrines scattered throughout Kyoto.

The conditions this mid-September evening are a stark contrast to the days leading up to the wedding, when fallout from a tropical storm covered the Kyoto prefecture with nearly constant rain. Then, Dan and I were in Okinawa, and forecasters were predicting that the storm would evolve into a typhoon that would hit the island the day we were to fly back to Kyoto. I’d already risked the affections of my friend’s fiancee by asking Dan to join me for some diving in Okinawa just before his big day.

If the typhoon had hit and the airport had been closed, a cartoonishly tight suit jacket would have been the least of our worries.

Missing a wedding, of course, doesn’t register when you consider what Japan endured in March, when an earthquake and the resulting tsunami devastated much of the northeastern coast and triggered the nuclear reactor meltdown in Fukushima. In addition to the more than 18,000 lives lost and the devastating environmental and public health-related effects still playing out across the country, Japan’s economy has been gutted. According to Japan’s National Police Agency, more than 45,500 buildings were destroyed and 144,300 were damaged; the total economic impact could reach more than $300 billion.

And tourism, which had been on the rise, plummeted; in April, it was down 60 percent from pre-disaster levels. Six months later, the picture has only modestly improved: Tourism is still down more than 30 percent.

But when Dan told me that he was getting married, I knew that I would go. He has lived in Japan for 12 years, teaching university-level English in Kyoto. And I knew that although parts of the country are still suffering greatly, both Okinawa, which lies far off Japan’s southern coast, and Kyoto, in the center of the main island of Honshu, are far removed from the site and effects of the twin tragedies.

Our plan: a modest two-man bachelor party in Okinawa, diving at Yonaguni, an 80-foot-deep site believed by some to be the ruins of an ancient city, with massive stone pyramids, stone pedestals and other structures. Academics, however, don’t all agree that Yonaguni was man-made. We wanted to see for ourselves.

We met in Naha, Okinawa’s sprawling capital, and took a taxi to Chatan City, a small town with a distinctive tropical vibe. Most of the island dive shops are here, as are three U.S. military bases whose near-constant air traffic shatters any illusions of this being a quiet oceanside paradise. It’s arguably the most Westernized part of Japan. English is spoken widely, and Mihama American Village, a cluster of restaurants and shops modeled after a Western shopping mall, is within walking distance of most hotels.

After dropping our gear at our seaside hotel, we met up with Doug Bennett, owner of the dive shop Reef Encounters and our dive master for our five-day stay.

“It ain’t looking promising,” Doug told us when we asked about Yonagoni. The same storm that would wash over Kyoto sat south of the Okinawa archipelago, and the short flight to the dive site would be grounded when the storm hit land. The conditions had even transformed the Visine-clear waters of the Kerama Islands — an hour by boat, with reefs boasting healthy hard coral and macro-life such as green sea turtles and reef sharks — into a snow globe.

“We get about eight typhoons a season,” Doug explained. “And when one hits, we just hunker down and wait it out.”

Doug first came to Okinawa as a Marine and has lived there for 20 years. After working with the military for five years after being decommissioned, he started hosting diving groups, going full time in 1996.

After the tsunami and Fukushima, he saw nearly 100 percent cancellations. Six months later, he was still down 50 percent. And Japanese tourism to Okinawa remains largely nonexistent. If it weren’t for the U.S. military presence on the island — 35,000, plus expats such as Doug — the economic impacts in this tourist town would be even more severe.

Thankfully, Chatan City has spectacular diving right off the shore. Take a few steps off the sea wall and you’re floating over a massive reef where playful angelfish swim up to greet snorkelers and the purple mouths of coral clams flutter as you pass above them.

We geared up on the seawall, checked our air and dropped down, following Doug along a patch of sand lining a fissure in the reef. Dense soft coral undulated in the current like an overgrown shag carpet: brilliant purples, oranges and yellows. As we went deeper — 20, 25, 30 feet — we reached a reef wall, which dropped an additional 20 feet to the sandy sea floor.

Here the character of the reef revealed itself, a series of honeycombed rocks covered in a metropolis of soft coral. Shimmering silver barracudas sliced through the water over Dali-esque vermilion flower coral and clusters of bubble coral that grew off overhangs like translucent, overripe grapes. The 45-minute dive passed in one exhilarating blur of color and texture.

We spent the next three days hopscotching around the various sites off the seawall, which offered variations on the same intoxicating theme: swimming over wavering strands of soft coral set in perpetual motion by the currents, spotting anemone, sea snakes, angelfish, striped damsels and the intricate tentacles of lion fish. Between dives, we’d lounge on the sea wall, letting our nitrogen levels return to normal. Then, back into the underwater world.

The impending storm turned each sunset into a collage of fast-moving clouds as dense as volcanic plumes, pocketed by blazing reds and oranges. The urban glow of Naha bled into the dark clouds, and the lights of U.S. military aircraft punched through the murky sky as they screamed in for a landing. We ate fresh yellowfin sashimi with jalapenos and olive oil and such traditional Okinawan fare as bitter melon, sweet potatoes and soba with thick strips of fatty pork, the island’s preferred protein. We drank too much awamori, a local alcoholic beverage distilled from rice and mixed with water and ice. And we watched the weather.

On our last morning, I went for a run on the sea wall. The glassy waves had become choppy three-foot rollers that brought out the local surfers. The skies opened up into a steady drizzle, soaking me through. The surfers retreated. I feared that the storm had arrived.

But the clouds broke, and Roku didn’t make landfall until 24 hours after we departed.

After a 11 / 2-hour flight from Naha to Kobe, we took a tram, two trains, a subway and a 10-minute walk to reach Dan’s house in Kyoto. Tucked into a narrow alley off a quiet street, the two-story traditional house boasts sliding paper doors in every room and easy access to the river and the Imperial Palace.

“We got it cheap,” Dan said, pointing out the window, “because of that.” It overlooks a graveyard, a feature most Japanese consider bad luck.

Yukiko served tofu stir fry, and the night disappeared into an exhausting recitation of wedding logistics: music, guest lists, transportation.

The next morning, Kyoto awaited me.

The city lies in the Yamashiro Basin, surrounded by mountains on three sides. From wildlife inhabiting its river to the profusion of Japanese maples that turn a fiery red each autumn to the spring explosion of cherry and plum blossoms, nature is an inseparable part of the city. And Kyoto’s cultural identity is just as vibrant. Once the imperial capital of Japan, the city boasts more than 1,600 Buddhist temples, 600 Shinto shrines and 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites, now seamlessly entwined with the ubiquitous neon, concrete and crowds that are the face of modern Japan.

To sample a more mellow part of the city, I headed for Shunkoin Temple. Established in 1590, the shrine lies within Myoshin-ji, a 46-temple complex in northwestern Kyoto. Shunkoin offers overnight accommodations in five simple double-bed rooms, with lessons in Zen meditation run by Takafumi Kawakami, the resident monk who studied religion at Arizona State.

Takafumi said his bookings dropped 60 percent after the tsunami. But he remains optimistic and plans to build new rooms, converting others into longer-term residences.

The next day, I braved the impending rain and biked to Ninna-ji, a 9th-century World Heritage-listed temple. I toured Goten, a series of graceful buildings modeled after the Imperial Palace, and marveled at the five-story pagoda.

Shunkoin is ideally positioned to cause temple fatigue; in addition to Ninna-ji, the rock garden of Ryoan-ji and the golden pagoda of Kinkaku-ji are all within a 20-minute bike ride. Each deserved hours of exploration.

But it was time for Dan’s wedding.

The day passes in a blur. First the traditional Shinto ceremony at Shimogamo, a sprawling shrine in northern Kyoto, the weather perfect and Yukiko radiant in a white kimono. Then the wedding party heads to Mankamero, a restaurant in continuous operation for more than 280 years. The food comes in waves — salmon and tuna sashimi, lightly cooked scallops with sweet potatoes. Each perfectly seasoned, everything served on blue and white ceramics that echo the color of the tatami mats on which we sit. Water trickles in the restaurant’s small garden, visible from where we sit through two open shoji paper doors. The sake and Asahi flow.

We stave off food coma with tea and reunite with Dan and Yukiko and a larger cadre of friends at the seventh-floor restaurant. Yukiko positively glows in her Western wedding dress, while Dan looks equal parts suave and hipster in the white suit whose jacket will not be buttoned.

Later we’ll retire to an Irish bar, where the rest of their friends will join us, dancing the night away to an expat reggae band and drinking overpriced Japanese microbrews. Tomorrow we’ll combat hangovers by taking a train to Kibune, a mountain village. We’ll traverse a steep road 30 feet above a gently flowing river that carves through the foliage. Restaurants bridge the water, tables arranged on platforms over the rocks and the riverbanks serving as the solitary walls. Paper lanterns dangle from the mat ceiling high above.

Eventually we’ll find the trail and ascend to the ridgeline via switchbacks. A maze of ancient tree roots will dominate the route that travelers have traversed for hundreds of years. We’ll pass temples and shrines, visit Kurama Temple high above the surrounding hillsides and take photos of the “alien rock,” where Mao-son (described as the “great king of the conquerors of evil and the spirit of the earth”) supposedly stood when he descended from Venus to save mankind. We’ll hike into Kurama and go to the onsen (public baths). We’ll sit outside in the wide pool, letting the hot water fed by natural springs soothe our legs.

Eventually, we’ll return to Kyoto and dine at Kushi Hachi, where everything is cooked on a stick, and vote the sweet sticky rice wrapped in bacon our favorite.

But now, as the sun sets and Dan and Yukiko address their friends and family, we are here in Kyoto, six months after Japan’s tragedies, celebrating something new.

The storm has finally passed.

Okinawa and Kyoto, Japan: How to get there, where to stay, what to do

Borchelt is a Washington-based travel writer and photographer.

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