Exploring Honshu by Japan Rail

(Note: Like many other popular visitor centers around the world, Japan has been impacted severely in 2020 by the Covid-19 pandemic. Travel to and within Japan may be challenging and difficult with varied local restrictions. Lodging, restaurants, and attractions may be closed, restricted or otherwise unavailable. Check with online travel resources and others to get the latest updates and information on travel to Japan in general.)

by John Penisten

Perhaps the most relaxing and stress free way to travel through Japan is by rail.  Japan Rail trains are very dependable, fast, convenient and on time.  With a Japan Rail pass you can say goodbye to airport check-in hassles, long security lines, delays and uncertain departures.  Traveling by train through the heart of Honshu Island, Japan’s main island, is the smart way to see and experience Japan, whether you’re a first-time Japan traveler or experienced trekker.  Japan Rail Pass vouchers are purchased in the US before your trip for about US$445-604 (depending on the exchange rate and whether first or second class pass) for two weeks of unlimited rail travel.  See: www.jrpass.net

Bullet Train Japan

From the market town of Kurashiki to the vibrant city of Hiroshima and its solemn Peace Memorial Park and museum, to Japan’s three most scenic places of  Amanohashidate, Miyajima and Matsushima, to Hakone in the shadow of Mt. Fuji and the shogun’s tomb at Nikko, to the castle town of Hirosaki, these special places give a close up view of old and new Japan.  And Japan Rail can take you there or wherever you want to explore and discover in Japan.

Kurashiki-Country Market Town

Depending upon your arrival point in Japan, most destinations on Honshu Island are mere hours away by connecting trains from the airports.  With an arrival at Kansai Airport in Osaka, take the airport train to Osaka station.  From Osaka, take an express train to the market town of Kurashiki, about two hours west near the seacoast.   

Kurashiki Warehouse Shops and Canal

Kurashiki provides a good introduction to Japan with a small town experience as it is a fun place to explore on foot.  Old granary and warehouse buildings along the backlanes and canal (actually the Kurashiki River) have been transformed into trendy shops, stores and eateries.  The shops turn out mochi, manju and all manner of Japanese goodies making for fascinating discovery.

Kurashiki Shop

Kurashiki’s historic old town area has many narrow lanes providing a close look at everyday life in a typical market town.  And there are textile, arts and crafts, and specialty shops to explore as well.  The residential neighborhoods with their rows of historic Edo-period houses invite exploration.   The numerous shrines, temples, museums, gardens and other historic sites are also worth exploring. 

For information on Kurashiki, see: 

www.japan-guide.com/e/e5750.html

Hiroshima-Peace City

A few hours further west by train is the bustling metropolis of Hiroshima, the opposite of Kurashiki.  Hiroshima was, of course, totally destroyed by the atomic bomb dropped on it which hastened the end of World War II in 1945.  A visit to the Peace Memorial Park and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial is a must see.  The park and museum  are centrally located at the confluence of the Honkawa and Motoyasu Rivers and within walking distance of central downtown. 

Peace Memorial, Hiroshima

The park marks “ground zero” of the atomic bomb explosion.  The museum, (entry fee of about US$1 per person, US$3 for recorded narrated tour) features detailed and stark displays, exhibits and photos of the atomic bomb tragedy.  The museum is a very solemn memorial to those who perished and provides a sobering look at the impact of nuclear weapons.  Regardless of one’s views, a visit here provides a healthy dose of realism on the horrors of  nuclear war. 

Atomic Bomb Dome Building, Hiroshima

Near mid-town, the towering Hiroshima Castle was rebuilt after the war.  Also known as the “Carp Castle,” it is completely surrounded by a moat and houses an interesting museum of early Japanese life and samurai culture and art.  There are panoramic city views from the top level of the multi-tiered structure.  It is interesting to note that most of the central core metro area of Hiroshima has been totally reconstructed since 1945.  Only a handful of buildings remained after the war. The most famous is the ‘A-Bomb Dome,” the old prefecture industrial promotion hall on the bank of the Motoyasu River that somehow escaped destruction.    

Hiroshima City

For information on visiting Hiroshima, see:

www.japan-guide.com/e/e2160.html

Miyajima-Shrine Island

One of Japan’s three most scenic sites is Miyajima Island located just offshore of Hiroshima.  It’s a  30-minute train ride from Hiroshima station to Miyajimaguchi and then a 10-minute ferryboat ride (about US$2 per person one way).  Miyajima means “shrine island” in recognition of the 1400-year old Itsukushima Shrine (about US$5 per person entry fee).  The temple was built over the seashore where the tide ebbs and flows.  The towering vermilion torii gateway that stands at the temple’s entrance is Miyajima’s symbol.  Miyajima has long been a cultural and scenic icon of Japan and was designated a UN World Heritage site in 1996.

Torii Gate, Miyajima Island

Itsukushima Shrine is a ten minute walk from the ferry pier.  However, be prepared for a heavy dose of commercialized tourism as you walk through the town area near the shrine.  The Omotesando Street shopping arcade is a tourist trap with numerous souvenir shops and such in addition to many restaurants and eateries as well.  With Miyajima promoted as a special sacred and historical site of Japanese culture, it is a bit of a surprise to find it a typically gaudy tourist center.  Miyajima also has several other shrines and temples and a challenging nature walk climb to the summit of Mt. Misen at 1755 ft. above sea level.  The Miyajima History and Folklore Museum (about US$5.00 per person entry fee) has an extensive collection of cultural artifacts dating from the Edo Period, 1603-1867, and is well worth a look. 

For information on visiting Miyajima, see:

www.japan-guide.com/e/e3401.html

Kyoto-Old Capital

The old imperial capital of Kyoto was the cultural, economic and political center of Japan for over a thousand years. Today the bustling city is still recognized as “The Heart of Japan.”

Golden Pavilion Temple, Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto

The city attracts many with its numerous significant Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, traditional Japanese villas and homes, serene gardens, craft shops, old style Japanese inns, and narrow lanes and alleys waiting to be discovered.

Nishiki Market Kyoto

The major attractions include the Kyoto Imperial Palace, Nijo Castle, the Golden Pavilion at Kinkakuji, the Zen garden at Ryoanji Temple and Kiyomizudera Temple with its panoramic views of the city and numerous shopping streets and food market arcades.

Torii Gateway Tunnels, Kyoto

For information on visiting Kyoto, see:

www.japan-guide.com/e/e2158.html

Takayama

The old mountain town snuggles amid the rugged Hida district of west central Honshu.  It’s a bit off the beaten track but easily accessible via Nagoya or Kanazawa. It is a modern town but retains much of its traditional culture and architecture. Some refer to it as “little Kyoto.”  The old town area between Sannomachi and Ninomachi has many well maintained inns, tea and coffee shops, local crafts workshops and typical houses and buildings reflecting the Edo period. 

Old Town Takayama Street

The town is easy to explore on foot as it is well laid out, mostly flat and easy to find your way around.  Some of the more noted attractions of Takayama include the Hida Folklore Village which has many old thatched Hida farmhouses, workshops, and related buildings from an earlier era in Japan.  There is also a daily Morning Market along the east bank of the Miyagawa River and fronting the Takayama Jinya, the old provincial government office buildings.  A bit further afield from Takayama is the village of Shirakawago which features numerous steep roofed thatched farmhouses and buildings in the fassho-zukuri style, meaning “hands held in prayer.” The steep roofs help prevent the buildup of heavy snow in winter.  Takayama’s famous festivals, the Spring Sanno Matsuri (April) and Autumn Yahata Matsuri (October) feature numerous beautiful and colorful floats (yatai) that are pulled through the streets to thrill the thousands in attendance.

For information on visiting Takayama, see:

www.japan-guide.com/e/e5900.html

Amanohashidate and the Bridge to Heaven

Amanohashidate , another of Japan’s three most scenic sites,  hugs the western coast of central Honshu Island on the Sea of Japan.  The quiet fishing village is a relaxing two-hour train ride from Kyoto.  Noted for its quiet atmosphere, the village is well away from the hustle and bustle of urbanized Japan. 

Amanohashidate Peninsula

Amanohashidate means “bridge in the heaven,” for the two-mile long pine tree covered sand spit which majestically dissects Miyazu Bay.  The sand spit makes for a pleasant walk to the other side of the bay and the Fuchu district.  For an unconventional view of the scene, take the cable car or chairlift (about US$5 per person) at either the Fuchu or Monju (Amanohashidate) end to the lookout areas, bend over and view the scene from between your legs.  It’s said that the view looks like “a floating bridge to the heavens.”

The Amanohashidate area also has several temples and historic sites to visit  plus some interesting shops to pick up local style mochi and other goodies.  There are also fish markets with local seafood products and numerous noodle shops and other eateries. 

For information on Amanohashidate, see: 

www.japan-guide.com/e/e3990.html

Mt. Fuji and More

A couple of hours by train southwest of Tokyo is the popular hot springs resort town of Hakone which lies near Mount Fuji in the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park.  It’s a popular day trip destination from Tokyo but definitely worth staying for a night or two.  Hakone is an area of high mountains and features the beautiful Lake Ashi with winding roads and railways that connect the towns and villages of the region.   On clear days from various vantage points, Mount Fuji can be seen.

Mt. Fuji and Lake Kawaguchi-ko

 The area’s volcanic origins account for the numerous hot springs and the area’s hotels/inns feature soothing onsen baths.  Visitors can also enjoy ferry boat rides across the lake and then a ropeway (cable car lift) ride across the still steaming spectacular Owakudani Gorge.    Hakone, the main town, is small and compact and situated in a deep valley surrounded by high peaks. 

For information on Hakone, see: 

www.japan-guide.com/e/e5200.html

Matsushima-Bay of Islands

Sendai is one of northern Honshu’s largest cities, located near the eastern seacoast.  It’s about 3-4 hours by train from Tokyo.  Sendai is important as a base for visitors to nearby Matsushima, another of Japan’s three most scenic sights.  Matsushima is on a sheltered bay that has some 200 pine-covered islets and is considered, at least in former days, one of Japan’s most scenic attractions.   Modern growth, development and mass tourism have affected the once pristine attraction but it’s still worthwhile.

Seafood Market Display

From Sendai station, take the short train ride to either Shiogama or all the way to Matsushima.  Then catch a ferry boat at either place and take a one-hour scenic cruise through the maze of islets in Matshshima Bay.  The town of Matsushima is a bit overly commercialized with numerous tourist shops and seafood eateries.  You can enjoy fresh grilled oysters, scallops, crab and more from street side vendors.  Craft shops specialize in the kokeshi, Japanese wooden dolls that make a good souvenir.  It’s popular with the locals, so expect some crowds.   But by late afternoon, the crowds are gone and the waterfront is quiet, making Matsushima a pleasant village to explore and discover.  The Zuigan-ji Temple is one of Japan’s great Zen temples with a history dating back several hundred years. 

For information on Matsushima, see: 

www.japan-guide.com/e/e5100.html

Nikko-A Shogun’s Shrine

Nikko is about two hours by bullet train north of Tokyo.  The town is located next to Nikko National Park, amidst a panorama of forest, mountains, lakes and gushing streams.  Nikko is famed for the lavish Toshogu Shrine complex built in 1636 that serves as the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1603.  Visiting Toshogu Shrine is a solemn and spiritual experience as one strolls through the complex of colorful and intricately constructed temples and buildings.  Visitors can also take in the attractions and nature of the national park, lakes, nature trails, fishing, hiking and more.

 For information on Nikko, see:

www.japan-guide.com/e/e3800.html

Hirosaki – Castle Town

In the far north of Honshu, near Aomori, is the historic castle town of Hirosaki.   Hirosaki is easily reached in a few hours by express train from most areas of Honshu to the south.  From the early feudal days, Hirosaki flourished as a cultural center.  Most of the town’s streets lead to Hirosaki Park, where the original castle stood.  It was destroyed by lightening in the early 19th. Century.  Several of the castle’s gates, moats and other structures remain along with a three-story replica of the main castle dating from 1810. 

Hirosaki Castle through the cherry blossoms

Hirosaki Castle is perhaps most noted for the 5,000 or so sakura, cherry trees, that burst into glorious pink and white blossoms  each spring on the castle grounds.  The annual cherry blossom festival brings some two million visitors to Hirosaki each April-May.  It is one of Japan’s premier cherry blossom festivals, complete with an amusement park, arts and crafts vendors, food booths and more. 

For information on Hirosaki, see: 

www.japan-guide.com/e/e3701.html

Sergeant Major Savenaca Does His Duty

by John Penisten, U.S. Peace Corps, Fiji I Group, 1968-69

(Adapted from Green Hills and Blue Lagoons: A Peace Corps Memoir. The book is available from Amazon.com or Kindle eBooks.)

Savenaca Koroinivalu was the Field Officer/Buca Bay for the Fiji Department of Agriculture.  He was middle-aged, stood 5’9”, weighed about 175 lbs.  He was a native of Kadavu Island, a fact of which he was quite proud, as most Fijians are of their home island.

I came to know Savenaca in 1968-69 when, as a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer, I was assigned to the Buca Bay Agriculture Station in Cakaudrove Province, Vanua Levu Island to conduct the first agriculture census of the Province.  As the Field Officer/Buca Bay, Savenaca was more than just my departmental colleague. As it turned out, I was adopted by Savenaca and his family and was well looked after during my time there.

Save (Sa’vay) for short, was an ex-Sergeant Major in the Fiji Military Forces.  He carried the military bearing and strong will and discipline into his daily life.  He was however a true Fijian with a typical love of life, a joke, and a good time.  Save became my friend, co-worker, confidant, and is some ways, a father.  He taught me much about the agriculture department to which we were both responsible, the country, customs, and the language.  Because Save spoke very good English however, we often used that as our communication mode, especially during work situations.

There was so much that I shared with Save:  many a tanoa of grog in my bure, a night of cards, good times in travelling throughout our area of Buca Bay, and many a cigarette break.

There were many interesting things that we did together.  One time while visiting new development blocks on Kioa Island, the boat that brought us to Kioa failed to wait for us to return and left without us.  There we were, stranded on Kioa, a couple of miles across Buca Bay from Tukavesi, our station and home, with no way to get back.  Hearing that there was a motor boat down the coast that could take us back across the bay, we decided to try to catch that boat.  To get there, we borrowed another boat, a bulky old fishing skiff about 20 feet long.  I sat on the bow deck and with the short paddle tried to keep the boat heading in the right direction as we followed the coastline.  Save used his paddle at the stern. 

On a very hot afternoon such as it was, it was a real effort for the two of us to move that boat the three miles or so to where we had to go.  Due to the island’s coastal terrain, there was no foot trail to follow to where we needed to go, so we had no choice.  Fortunately it was a calm day and we followed the shoreline, mangrove swamps, and reefs.  We laughed and joked about it later but always remembered the day we paddled the boat around Kioa.

Another example of Save’s interest and devotion to duty, Fijian style, was the time just the two of us killed a whole bottle of scotch whiskey in one sitting.  Among the many times we shared a grog session or a bottle, this instance stands out above all others.

Fijians, of course, drink to get drunk.  Pure and simple.  And Save being the strong willed person he is, disliked leaving a task incomplete.  We had a bottle one night and got together in my bure for some drinking.  I had in mind a couple of friendly social drinks before dinner but Save thought differently.

One drink led to another and another.  Part way through the bottle, I began to feel pretty high.  I meekly suggested that we finish our glasses and save the rest of the bottle for the next time.  Save, astounded by the mere thought responded, “But John, we must finish the bottle.  It is our duty!” 

There was no arguing with that man when it came to fulfilling one’s duty.  For Sergeant Major Savenaca, duty called and there was only one way to answer: finish that bottle.  We proceeded to get fantastically smashed.  Sitting in my bure, which served as a sort of recreation room as well as sleeping quarters for me, we were oblivious to the rest of the world.

Old Sergeant Major Savenaca would not shirk his duty to God, to Queen, to Country, or to Bottle!

At the Edge of the Abyss: Hawai’i’s Drive In Volcano

(Note: Like many other popular visitor centers around the world, Hawai’i has been impacted severely in 2020 by the Covid-19 pandemic. Travel to and within Hawai’i may be challenging and difficult with varied local restrictions. Lodging, restaurants, and attractions such as national parks may be closed, restricted or otherwise unavailable. Check with online travel resources and others to get the latest updates and information on travel to Hawai’i in general. Previous versions of this story have appeared in various print and online media outlets. )

by John Penisten

Volcano, Hawai`i

The  eerie scene conjures  up images  of a Neanderthal world of cavemen and roaring  dinosaurs. Heat and smells of sulfur, scorched earth, and burning vegetation fill the air.  Acrid smoke from the melted  asphalt of a lava‑covered ‘highway wafts away on gentle seabreezes.  It gives the illusion  of being present at the beginning of life on this Earth.

The heat and stench of the lava chokes and  makes breathing  difficult.  It brings to mind the words of that intrepid early traveler to the islands,  Mark Twain, on his visit to the volcano in 1866, “…the smell of sulfur is strong, but not unpleasant to a sinner.” 

Sinner or not, when one comes right up to Hawai`i’s lava flows and peers into the abyss of  surreal beauty and incredible power, one is duly humbled by Mother Nature’s machinations.

The awesome display of Mother Nature’s fireworks, or in this case, of Madame Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess, has attracted thousands of visitors over time to Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park.  The Big Island of Hawai`i is one of the few places in the world where an erupting volcano can be viewed in relative safety close up.   

If there is ongoing eruptive activity, visitors can usually drive to the end of Chain‑of‑Craters Road  in the national park and hike to the eruption site on the southeast coast of the Big Island.  Here, depending on the location of the activity, the creeping lava flows into the ocean creating huge billowing  steam clouds of volcanic haze, known as vog, over a stark landscape of raw new land. 

Hawai`i’s   Kilauea   Volcano has been in an on-again off-again active eruption phase for the last several years.  According to volcano scientists, this eruptive phase began in 1983 and is the  longest phase in the volcano’s down slope rift zone in more than 600 years.

Scientists at Hawai`i Volcano Observatory also note that the  eruptive activity has slowed down recently in comparison  to earlier  stages.  Activity changes almost daily and is unpredictable at   Kilauea Volcano, one of the most active in the world.

The most recent eruptive activity in 2018 began with cracks in  the earth’s surface creating lava flows that increased in time.  The lava  ran several miles down slope in vast surface flows,  and  at other  times it reached the sea through underground lava tubes. 

Since the eruption began, millions of cubic meters of lava have  been ejected.  Lava flows several feet deep have covered many square miles of rain forest and desert land.  The eruption has also  created  hundreds of acres of new  land  along  Hawai`i’s southeast coast.

The eruption has claimed no lives but has had a serious impact on area residents.  It has devastated the quiet seaside village of Kalapana and other nearby residential subdivisions,  wiping out hundreds of  homes and other buildings while disrupting many lives. The 2018 eruption was particulary devastating for the residential subdivisions of Leilani Estates, Lanipuna Gardens and Vacationland Hawaii near the town of Pahoa. Some 13 square miles of land were covered by lava flows and 875 acres of new land were created on the ocean shoreline. In addition, 700 homes were destroyed by lava. Flows have covered beach parks, several miles of  roads  and  power  lines, archaeological and historical  sites,  a national park visitor’s  center, and destroyed rare plant and animal habitats.

Despite all the destruction, the  volcano  is  an amazing display.  No wonder thousands  of  visitors continue to  find their way to Hawai`i Volcanoes  National  Park, hoping for a glimpse of Mother Nature at her most spectacular.

Visitors will find the 20‑mile drive down the Chain of Craters  Road to the eruption site visually stunning.  The  fern  and ohia lehua forest open to vast stretches of lava  flows reaching  several miles down to the distant coastline.

Roadside markers note the various eruptions, lava flows and still‑steaming cinder cones bearing melodious Hawaiian names.  The strong  winds carry  wisps  of  clouds down slope and out to  sea  as  your  car carefully  winds  down  the  steep  pali  (cliff). Marked  trails across the lava fields lead to ancient  Hawaiian  petroglyphs, early rock etchings that record important events in the lives of people who  held this land sacred.

Arriving  at  the end of the road, visitors hike to the viewing site where the lava is entering the ocean.  Depending on the activity, this can be a short hike or a longer, more difficult hike of a couple of hours or more one way, over rough terrain.  Looking upslope,  the eye takes in the vast lava flows that have cleared wide swaths through the pristine Hawaiian forest on the way to the sea.

Visitors along the roadside are awestruck at  the  vast lava flows.  Others stand on the edge of what used to be a lovely black sand beach, now covered by cooling  but still  crackling and steaming lava. Clouds of  volcanic haze fill  the air. 

Some  visitors get as close as they can to the creeping tongues  of lava. The smooth pahoehoe lava flows like fresh  cake batter dumped from a bowl.  Some use sticks to poke in the  lava puddles in  an  effort  to snare a blob of  molten  rock  for  a souvenir.

On the beach, others are gathered near  the  spot where  the red‑orange lava is flowing into  the  crashing  surf.  As the cool seawater hits the flow, the lava splatters and hisses creating  great vents of steam.  Chunks of lava rock and  pumice, still sizzling, break off and float into the water, to be carried by  winds, tides and currents and deposited somewhere  along  the coast to begin building yet another black sand beach.

And  so  it goes, in an unending cycle.   The  volcano  both creates  and  destroys.  Visitors come away feeling fortunate to be among  those  who have  seen  one  of Mother Nature’s most  powerful and  colorful spectacles, an eruption in Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park.

If You Go

Nighttime is best to view the lava but you need to be prepared.  Each person needs good hiking shoes, hat, jacket, water, food and a flashlight.  Check with park rangers on hiking hazards, stay on marked trails, and obey all posted signs. 

For lodging at Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park, check out the rustic Volcano House Hotel {www.hawaiivolcanohouse.com} or 808-967-7321; Email: frontdesk@hawaiivolcanohouse.com. Backpackers can opt for simple A-frame cabins at Namakani Paio Campground in the national park.  Campground reservations are also made through Volcano House Hotel.

Another good choice is the upscale bed & breakfast Kilauea Lodge, 19-3948 Old Volcano Road,  Volcano Village, HI 96785;  {www.KilaueaLodge.com} or 808-967-7366; Email: KilaueaLodge@HighwayWestVacations.com.  For more information on other accommodations in the national park area, check the Big Island Visitors Bureau: {https://www.bigisland.org}.

While  visiting the national park, also take in  Crater  Rim Drive and Halemaumau Crater, Bird Park nature walk, Thurston Lava Tube  and  be  on the lookout for the endangered Hawaiian  nene  goose, the state bird.

For   more  information on the national park,  contact:  Superintendent,   Hawai`i Volcanoes  National  Park, P.O. Box 52, Volcano, Hawai`i  96718, Visitors Information telephone 808/985-6101, daily eruption update information 808/985-6000; {https://www.nps.gov/havo/}.

The End

                                                                       

Green Hills and Blue Lagoons: A Peace Corps Memoir

The book Green Hills and Blue Lagoons: A Peace Corps Memoir by John Penisten, published October, 2020, is now available through Amazon.com and Kindle eBooks. Check either of those sites online to order a paperback or electronic print version. Proceeds from the sales of the book go to support ongoing community service projects in Fiji sponsored by the Friends of Fiji organization which is composed of returned Peace Corps Volunteers to Fiji.

Japan Walk II

(Note: Like many other popular visitor centers around the world, Japan has been impacted severely in 2020 by the Covid-19 pandemic. Travel to and within Japan may be challenging and difficult with varied local restrictions. Lodging, restaurants, and attractions may be closed, restricted or otherwise unavailable. Check with online travel resources and others to get the latest updates and information on travel to Japan in general.)

The best way to see and experience Japan closeup, like most destinations, is to use your feet and walk through whatever area you are visiting and immerse yourself in the culture. Walking will provide closeup glimpses of the adventure and excitement, color and diversity, of the people and culture that are otherwise missed. This photo essay covers various areas of Japan providing a walking look at Japan’s countryside, cities, towns and people.

Photography by John Penisten

Japan Walk I

(Note: Like many other popular visitor centers around the world, Japan has been impacted severely in 2020 by the Covid-19 pandemic. Travel to and within Japan may be challenging and difficult with varied local restrictions. Lodging, restaurants, and attractions may be closed, restricted or otherwise unavailable. Check with online travel resources and others to get the latest updates and information on travel to Japan in general.)

The best way to see and experience Japan closeup, like most destinations, is to use your feet and walk through whatever area you are visiting. Walking will provide closeup glimpses of the adventure and excitement, color and diversity, of the people and culture that are otherwise missed. This photo essay covers various areas of Japan providing a walking look at Japan’s countryside, cities, towns and people.

Photography by John Penisten

Keukenhof Gardens II

(Note: Like many other popular visitor centers around the world, The Netherlands has been impacted severely in 2020 by the Covid-19 pandemic. Travel to and within The Netherlands may be challenging and difficult with varied local restrictions. Lodging, restaurants, and attractions may be closed, restricted or otherwise unavailable. Check with online travel resources and others to get the latest updates and information on travel to The Netherlands in general.)

Keukenhof Gardens, located a few miles south of Amsterdam, The Netherlands, in the town of Lisse, is a floral garden that explodes with color for a few weeks each spring from March to May. The main show is the incredible variety of tulips, some 800 varieties or so, plus hyacinths, narcissus-daffodils, lilies and more. There are few other places that can match the sheer number and variety of tulips and other spring flowers of Keukenhof. No wonder that it is one of Europe’s most popular floral gardens attracting huge crowds of visitors annually. For more information on Keukenhof Gardens, see: https://keukenhof.nl/en

Photos by John Penisten

Keukenhof Gardens I

(Note: Like many other popular visitor centers around the world, The Netherlands has been impacted severely in 2020 by the Covid-19 pandemic. Travel to and within The Netherlands may be challenging and difficult with varied local restrictions. Lodging, restaurants, and attractions may be closed, restricted or otherwise unavailable. Check with online travel resources and others to get the latest updates and information on travel to The Netherlands in general.)

Keukenhof Gardens, located a few miles south of Amsterdam, The Netherlands, in the town of Lisse, is a floral garden that explodes with color for a few weeks each spring from March to May. The main show is the incredible variety of tulips, some 800 varieties or so, plus hyacinths, narcissus-daffodils, lilies and more. There are few other places that can match the sheer number and variety of tulips and other spring flowers of Keukenhof. No wonder that it is one of Europe’s most popular floral gardens attracting huge crowds of visitors annually. For more information on Keukenhof Gardens, see: https://keukenhof.nl/en

Photos by John Penisten

Onsen and Sakura: Experiencing Japan’s Cultural Icons

(Note: Like many other popular visitor centers around the world, Japan has been impacted severely in 2020 by the Covid-19 pandemic. Travel to and within Japan may be challenging and difficult with varied local restrictions. Lodging, restaurants, and attractions may be closed, restricted or otherwise unavailable. Check with online travel resources and others to get the latest updates and information on travel to Japan in general. Previous versions of this story have appeared in various print and online media outlets. )

By John Penisten

Open air onsen bath, Hokkaido, Japan

Perhaps none of Japan’s numerous cultural icons are more endearing or significant to the Japanese people than the famed onsen (hot springs resorts/hotels and spas) and springtime sakura (cherry blossoms).

Visitors will find much of Japanese culture in spring tied into the sakura season, signifiying the renewal and celebration of life.  Throughout Japan, parks and streets are lined with row upon row of bright, colorful trees sprouting pink, white or light yellow cherry blossoms.

A big part of Japan’s lifestyle is enjoying the numerous onsen, or hot springs resorts, located throughout the country.  For local folks, relaxing in the invigorating thermal baths while enjoying traditional onsen cuisine and related activities is part of their natural lifestyle.  Like the reemergence of the cherry blossoms in spring, a dip in a hot spring bath contributes to the renewal and rejuvenation of body and soul.

Hotel onsen soaking bath, Japan

Japan’s Hot Springs – A National Obsession

To say that the onsen are Japan’s national obsession is something of an understatement.  Japan probably has more natural hot springs baths per capita than any other country in the world.  An onsen stay will add a relaxing and adventurous dimension to any Japan visit.

Heart of Honshu

A good place to begin your onsen tour of Japan is the main island of Honshu.  Nikko, about two hours north of Tokyo via highspeed train is in Nikko National Park, amidst a panorama of forest, mountains, lakes and gushing streams.  Nikko is famed for the lavish Toshogu Shrine complex built in 1636 that serves as the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1603.  Visiting Toshogu Shrine is a solemn and spiritual experience as one strolls through the temples and buildings of the complex.  While Nikko boasts several onsen, Senhime Monogatari Inn is one of the best.  Senhime features comfortable Japanese-style rooms and traditional cuisine served in intimate private dining rooms.  The cuisine emphasizes the freshest of local produce, seafood and more.  The onsen baths are inviting and invigorating with separate facilities for both men and women.  For details, see:  http://www.japaneseguesthouses.com/db/nikko/senhime.htm  For information on Nikko, see:  http://www.nikko-jp.org/english/index.html

Onsen hot spring bath, open air, Japan

South of Tokyo is the popular hot springs resort town of Hakone which lies near Mount Fuji in the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park.  Hakone is an area of high mountains and features the beautiful Lake Ashi with winding roads and railways that connect the towns and villages of the region.  The area’s volcanic origins account for the numerous onsen.  Visitors enjoy ferry boat rides across the lake and then a ropeway (cable car lift) ride across the still steaming spectacular Owakudani Gorge.  On clear days, Mount Fuji appears through the clouds.  Hakone, the main town, is small and compact and situated in a deep valley surrounded by high peaks.  Hotellerie Maille Coeur Shougetsu is a boutique-style hotel with comforting onsen baths to soothe away a hard day’s travel.  The baths switch genders each day so everyone can enjoy the variety of each.  A full-service restaurant provides creative Japanese inspired cuisine with a set dinner menu and traditional buffet breakfast.  For details, see:  http://www.shougetsu.com  For information on Hakone, see:  http://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/location/regional/kanagawa/hakone.html

Snuggled along the Sea of Japan coast northwest of Kyoto is one of Japan’s top scenic spots, the quiet fishing village of Amanohashidate.  The “Bridge to Heaven,” a narrow 2.2 mile sand spit reaching across Miyazu Bay is the main attraction.  Japanese mythology has it that Amanohashidate is where the gods conceived the islands of Japan.  View the “Bridge” from a lookout atop Kasamatsu Park across the bay (accessible by ferry boat-or walk across the sand spit) by bending over and looking upside down between your legs, making the sand spit appear to be floating in air.  The Taikyourou Inn is centrally located near the sand spit bridge and offers traditional onsen rooms, soothing baths, and cuisine with the emphasis on fresh local seafood.  For details, see:  http://www.japanican.com/hotels/shisetsudetail.aspx?st=6310008&ref=JNTO 

For information on Amanohashidate, see:  http://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/location/regional/kyoto/amanohashidate.html

Hotel in room onsen spa, rotenburo, Japan

The venerable old samurai town of Kakunodate is in north central Honshu.  Known as “Little Kyoto,” Kakunodate was founded as a castle town in 1620, and is noted for its collection of original samurai houses, some of which are living museums of Japan’s feudal era.  Kakunodate’s other attraction is the numerous weeping cherry trees that originated in Kyoto.  The sakura are the main attraction of the town’s springtime cherry blossom festival.  Just a couple of miles outside of town is Kukunodate Onsen Kayokan, a superb modern low-rise hotel that features spacious traditional rooms, buffest breakfast and dinner, and both indoor and outdoor baths with separate gender facilities.  For details, see:  http://www.japanican.com/hotels/shisetsudetail.aspx?ar=05&st=2221003 

For information on Kakunodate, see:  http://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/location/regional/akita/kakunodate.html

Pink Sakura blossoms, Japan

Hokkaido-North Island

Hokkaido, Japan’s northern island, is predominately rural and boasts several national parks and geothermal hot springs areas and the ubiquitous onsen.  Situated in the middle of Hokkaido is the resort town of Sounkyo.   The resort is of part of Daisetsuzan National Park, Japan’s largest, and sits in the spectacular Sounkyo Gorge.  The park offers year around outdoor activities from hiking and backpacking to biking and cable car lifts.  Scenic nature abounds with beautiful valleys, rock formations, and plunging waterfalls.  The small resort town provides shops, coffee houses, restaurants and several onsen as well.  Sounkaku Grand Hotel is a full-service hotel that pampers guests with traditional Japanese guest rooms, a large buffet dining room combining western and Japanese dishes, and a large complex of indoor and outdoor hot springs baths.  After a day of hiking or exploring the park, a soak in the onsen baths will quickly relieve the day’s stress and strain.  For details, see:  http://www.sounkaku.co.jp/index_e.html  For information on Sounkyo, see:  http://www.sounkyo.net/english/

Located in eastern Hokkaido is Akan National Park, a preserve of dense forest, clearwater streams and lakes, and volcanic mountains with hot springs areas.  Lake Akan-ko is a major attraction in all seasons with outdoor activities to match.  The lakeside town of Akan Kohan is a visitor center with several onsen lodgings, restaurants, shops, activity vendors and more.  This region of Hokkaido is noted for the indigenous Ainu people and culture.  Ainu arts and crafts shops provide fine woodcrafts, artworks, jewelry and more produced by local artisans.  The Akan Tsuruga Besso Hinanoza Resort in Akan Kohan features fine Hokkaido-style cuisine creatively prepared using fresh local seafood and produce.  Some rooms feature a private inroom rotenburo, hot tub.  The hotel has separate gender indoor/outdoor baths and a rooftop outdoor bath provides nice lake views while soaking up the ambiance.  For details, see:  http://www.tsuruga-g.com/english/02hinanoza/index.html 

For information on Lake Akan, see:  http://www.lake-akan.com/en/index.html

Sakura Blossoms

Japan’s sakura (cherry blossoms) herald the arrival of spring and the Japanese people revel in the colorful blossoms throughout the country.  Beginning as early as mid-March in the country’s south then proceeding up through the main island of Honshu and the far north of Hokkaido into mid-May, the sakura are welcomed with eager anticipation.  Folks visit the areas where cherry trees line streets and parks, river banks, temple and castle grounds, and wherever the delicate blossoms burst out.  People stroll through the trees, take photos, have a picnic under the blossoms, and just bask in the simple beauty of Nature’s colorful showtime.

Sakura blooms, Japan

For visitors, there are literally dozens of sakura viewing spots throughout the country.  And of course, timing is everything with the short-lived blooms.  Check the “japan-guide.com” site for the latest information on best places and times to see the sakura:  http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2011.html  Some of the more popular sites to view the sakura follow.

Kyoto

The grounds and surrounding parklands of the Imperial Palace feature numerous varieties of cherry trees as do the grounds of Nijo Castle.  Sakura are also found in abundance on the grounds of the temples at Kiyomizudera, Kinkakuji and at Tenryuji as well as others throughout the city.

Hiroshima

Blossoming sakura are found at Hiroshima Peace Park and along the banks of the Motoyasu-gawa River near the famous A-bomb Dome Building and on the grounds of Hiroshima Castle.  At nearby Miyajima Island, hundreds of sakura surround the noted Itsukushima Shrine and along the island’s walking trails.

White Sakura blooms, Japan

Kakunodate

In north central Honshu along the banks of the Hinokinaigawa River at Kakunodate, a tunnel of sakura winds along the mile-long walking trail.  The heavily laden weeping sakura branches droop with their loads of bright blossoms.

Hirosaki

The grounds of Hirosaki Castle, in far north Honshu, explode with the blossoms of some 5,000 sakura.  Little wonder the city gets a couple of million visitors during its cherry blossom festival each spring.  The sakura line the castle moats and fill the park surrounding the castle.

Hokkaido

Goroyokaku Park, in Hakodate, the site of a star-shaped fort dating to the 1860s, puts on a colorful sakura show with some 1,500 cherry trees.  It’s one of Hokkaido’s more popular sakura viewing spots, along with the city’s Cherry Lane.

Sakura cherry blossoms, Japan

In Sapporo’s Maruyama Park,  visitors can enjoy the showy blossoms of over 1,500 trees as well as the 1,200 trees in Hiraoka Park and in central downtown at Odori Park.

(Sidebar)

For more information on visiting Japan, check the Japan-Guide.com site: http://www.japan-guide.com/ and the Japan National Tourist Office site: http://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/index.html

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Discovering Honolulu’s Chinatown

(Note: Like many other popular visitor centers around the world, Hawai’i has been impacted severely in 2020 by the Covid-19 pandemic. Travel to and within Hawai’i may be challenging and difficult with varied local restrictions. Lodging, restaurants, and attractions may be closed, restricted or otherwise unavailable. Check with online travel resources and others to get the latest updates and information on travel to Hawai’i in general. Previous versions of this story have appeared in various print and online media outlets. )

by John Penisten                                                       

Chinatown is one of the more ethnically and culturally diverse neighborhoods in cosmopolitan Honolulu.   No other area of the Hawaiian Islands provides as much of a cross-cultural experience as does Honolulu’s Chinatown.  And while a stroll down its streets reveals the influence of other peoples and cultures, from Japanese to Korean, Filipino, Thai, Vietnamese and Hawaiian, Chinatown is quintessentially Chinese at heart.  Visitors quickly learn that Chinatown is a microcosm of today’s Honolulu and certainly a must-stop on a visit to the city.

Located adjacent to central downtown Honolulu, Chinatown’s compact area is easy to explore on foot.  Chinatown is a 15-square block area bound by Nu`uanu Stream and River Street on the north, Bethel Street south, and by Beretania and King Streets east and west. You can’t get lost and you’ll be amazed at what you discover.  So, put on your walking shoes and come along, it’s time to discover Chinatown in Honolulu.

Butcher shop, Chinatown, Honolulu

Chinese Arrival in the Islands

The first recorded arrival of the Chinese in Hawai`i was in 1788.  But in 1852, the Chinese were the first immigrant group of contract laborers to arrive in the islands to work on the developing sugar cane plantations.  Upon completion of their labor contracts, many relocated to the growing Chinatown area of Honolulu to enter trade and commerce.  

The area has always been something of an exotic mix of cultures and peoples. And over the years, Chinatown gained a notorious reputation as an undesirable slum area noted for saloons, debauchery, drugs, and dens of ill repute. 

The Great Fire

The area’s most significant event took place over a century ago on January 20, 1900.  This was the Great Chinatown Fire, an effort by the Board of Health and Fire Department to control an outbreak of bubonic plague in the slums.  It was an attempt to do a controlled burning of certain rat-infested buildings.  However, the fires quickly got out of control and many of the numerous wooden structures were soon engulfed by flames.  The fires burned for seventeen days, destroying thirty-eight acres of property and leaving 4,000 residents homeless.  Somewhat ironically, the Board of Health declared the area plague-free four months later.

Today’s Chinatown doesn’t have to worry about things like bubonic plague and its former reputation for debauchery and worse has been toned down considerably.  For sure, there are still a couple of seedy taverns and bars along Hotel Street that are probably best avoided.  But that’s Chinatown.  It probably wouldn’t be the same without a couple of warts or blemishes. 

Chinatown Revives

During the 1980’s-90’s, Chinatown went through a revitalization program which resulted in a new look for the neighborhood.  Buildings were fixed up and made to conform to historical codes in structure and appearance.  It helped retain Chinatown’s old look while blending into the new.

The area sports a new look now, much cleaner and more appealing.  But Chinatown also retains its cultural essence with its Chinese herbal medicine shops, dim sum and noodle restaurants, manapua shops, art galleries, and the hustle and bustle of its open-air markets and vendor stalls.  It’s what makes Chinatown a unique and colorful attraction in urban Honolulu.

Chinatown isn’t the squalid slum it once was long ago.  In fact, today’s Chinatown is a fun place to visit, to stroll through, enjoy a market visit, eat some great dim sum, or just take in the cross-cultural diversity of Honolulu’s most colorful and historic neighborhood.  There are lots of great places to discover on a self-guided walk through the area.

Oahu Market, Chinatown, Honolulu

Exploring Chinatown

To start with, there are some colorful open-air markets including Oahu Market, at the corner of King and Kekaulike Street; the Kekaulike Market on the Kekaulike Street Mall between King and Hotel Streets; and Mauna Kea Market Place on Mauna Kea Street between Hotel and Pauahi Streets. 

The Oahu Market is the oldest, founded in 1904; the others are much newer.  But each has a number of vendor stalls selling everything from fresh fish and seafood, fresh cut meat, char siu pork and chicken, roast duck, plus tables piled high with colorful fresh vegetables, fruits and produce of all kinds.  The Chinatown markets provide a quick  course in the ethnic cuisines of Hawai`i. This is ethnic food at its best. Browse the seafood and meat counters and trays of hogs’ heads’, beef tongues, tripe, kidneys, and intestines, in addition to the usual steaks, chops, roasts, etc.  The markets make for an interesting shopping adventure!

Don’t miss a visit to one of Chinatown’s cultural icons, a Chinese herbal medicine shop..  Among these colorful and somewhat mysterious shops are Tak Wah Tong, 100 Beretania in the Chinese Cultural Plaza;  Fook Sau Tong,  112 N. King Street; and Chee Wo Tong, 938 Maunakea Street, these are among the better known herb shops. 

Herbal Medicine Shop, Chinatown, Honolulu

The century old Chee Wo Tong is the oldest Chinese herb shop in Hawai`i and is a family-run third generation business.  A Chinese herb shop window display might give you a look at dried seahorses, snake skins, bones, dried mushrooms and other unusual “medicines” and ingredients. It’s not unusual for an herb shop to have over a thousand different kinds of plants, bark, roots, leaves, twigs, dried flowers, mushrooms and fungi, and other mysterious plant and animal products filling its shelves. The Chinese doctors and herbalists concoct various potions, teas, remedies and “medicines” using these ingredients to treat all sorts of ailments and illnesses. 

There are some Chinese bakeries with Sing Cheong Yuan, 1027 Maunakea Street, among the best.  Try the traditional moon cakes, almond cookies, jin dui (a sweet bun filled with bean paste or coconut), peanut candy and, of course, that ever popular “cracked seed” in several varieties, li hing mui, sweet and sour plum, mango, lychee, etc.

Also check out the numerous small oriental import stores and shops and in the Chinese Cultural Plaza (Maunakea Street between Beretania and Kukui) carrying a wide selection of goods like clothing, jewelry, silks, teak furniture, porcelain and ceramic dishes, figurines, vases, brassware, canned and dried foods, spices, condiments, etc.  In addition, there are art galleries and antique shops throughout the neighborhood.    

Flower Lei Maker, Chinatown, Honolulu

Last but not least, don’t forget to pick up a bouquet or lei of fragrant Hawaiian flowers at any of Chinatown’s famous floral and lei shops. Among the better known are Cindy’s Lei Shoppe, 1034 Maunakea Street; Lin’s Lei Shop, 1017 Maunakea Street; or Maunakea Street Florist, 1189 Maunakea Street.

Dining in Chinatown

You say you’re hungry after all that walking and exploring of Chinatown?  Well, there’s good news.  From anywhere in Chinatown, you’re just steps away from a number of food stalls, diners, cafes, and restaurants, with everything from Thai to Vietnamese, Korean to Japanese, Filipino and, of course, Chinese cuisine.

Here’s a sampler of some trusted Chinatown eateries, although there are many more:

Char Hung Sut Manapua, 64 N. Pauahi Street, 538-3335, across street from Mei Sum Dim Sum; this is perhaps Chinatown’s most famous manapua maker; best noted for its boxes of take-away manapua, char siu, noodles, pork hash balls and more.  Call to place orders for pickup or go early, they sell out fast.  Open daily from early to mid-day.

Glowing Dragon Seafood Restaurant, 1023 Maunakea Street, 521-4492; this small cafe offers a long menu of almost 200 Chinese specials such as shredded cold jelly fish, Peking duck, beef stew with turnip casserole, duck web with black mushroom casserole, char siu foo yong, capital pork ribs, sliced beef with rum sauce and many more.  Open daily 10AM – 2AM.

Indigo, 1121 Nu`uanu Avenue, 521-2900; this is perhaps Chinatown’s most upscale restaurant with a menu of Euro-Asian cuisine; treat yourself to delicious dim sum and entrees such as Emperor Po’s ginger ham shanks, black mustard ahi steak, or Shanghai mahogany duck with bao buns; dessert includes many times rich goat cheesecake, seven sins chocolate meringue cake,  and the popular Madame Pele’s chocolate volcano.  Lunch Tues-Fri 11:30AM – 2PM, dinner Tues-Sat 6-9:30PM.

Produce vendor, Chinatown Market, Honolulu

Little Village Noodle House, 1113 Smith Street, 545-3008; this small hole-in-the-wall place has just a handful of tables and chairs but is big on a menu of creative local-Chinese cuisine.  Choices range from orange chicken, fresh akule, stir-fried clams, sizzling butterfish, duck noodles, spicy sour cold noodles, Shanghai mochi in soup, chow funn noodles, curry rice noodles, and much more.  Open 10AM to midnight daily.

Maunakea Market Place Food Court, 1120 Maunakea Street;  in this open market are a variety of food stalls, lunch counters and small restaurants with a variety of Asian cuisines available plus produce stands, butcher shops, seafood shops, bakeries and more.

Mei Sum Dim Sum, 1170 Nuuanu Avenue, 531-3268; this bright clean eatery offers a wide selection of Hong Kong-style dim sum such as shrimp dumpling, half moon,  lotus sugar bow, tripe, scallop dumpling, black bean sauce spareribs; menu entrees include seaweed tofu soup, Szechuan shrimp, drunken chicken, pork ong choy, chow funn, look funn and much more.  Open daily 8AM – 9PM.

New Empress Restaurant, 100 N. Beretania Street, Chinese Cultural Plaza, 521-5055; this busy restaurant features a menu of Hong Kong-style dim sum and traditional Chinese cuisine including entrees like beef with zesty orange sauce, shredded beef in taro nest, Peking duck, pot roast pork, lemon and ginger chicken, plus noodles, shark’s fin and bird nest soup and much more.  This is one of the largest Chinese restaurants in Honolulu with ample seating.  Open daily 8AM – 9PM.

Street vendors, Chinatown, Honolulu

Chinatown Information

The Hawaii Visitors Bureau has limited information online for visiting Chinatown. Check the  website: https://www.gohawaii.com/islands/oahu/regions/honolulu/Chinatown

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