"Whether you take the doughnut hole as a blank space or as an entity unto itself is a purely metaphysical question and does not affect the taste of the doughnut one bit." -- Haruki Murakami, A Wild Sheep Chase
"The taste of the doughnut" indeed ... Mr. Murakami makes a very astute observation. As Ritsuko and I were viewing and discussing pictures from our 2019 Japan trip, I was also working on the code for adding a tooltip feature on Japan-Days.info. Somehow, the conversation morphed into one involving the PHP function that I had been coding, and I must have been overly philosophical about the difference between a variable that is empty as opposed to one that is null, i.e. nothing vs something that is nothing. Ritsuko, sensing that I was in eminent danger of entering a zen coder meditative state, reminded me that perhaps instead of pondering some logical conundrum, I should just tell the story of our trip. So, I will attempt to do just that.
Every one of our visits to Japan subsequent to our moving to the U.S. has been in either the winter or spring. Don't get me wrong, I really enjoy those seasons, with spring being perhaps my favorite of all, but we had not originally planned to visit in the spring of 2019. We had planned to go in the autumn of 2018, with a stay in Shibuya during Halloween. But, on the morning of the day that we were to leave for Chicago, a family emergency caused us to cancel our plans, and instead drive to Texas. On several levels, this was a sad and tragic event, a shock, etc, but when all is said and done, we just do what we must and move on. I am glad that we were able to get to Texas immediately, and that we didn't need to make an emergency return after arriving in Japan, so it all worked out. As a result of that cancellation, and after enduring a particularly brutal winter, we seriously needed a Japan fix, therefore this was to be the make-up trip.
Some videos from our 2019 trip
Ritsuko shot this video of the Sakurajima Ferry departing Kagoshima City.
Our flight from Kagoshima to Tokyo on approach to Haneda Airport over Tokyo Bay
The completely automated unmanned monorail, Yurikamome Line, entering the Rainbow Bridge over upper Tokyo Bay
The basic plan for this trip was to be two phases, or rather two locations ... an eight night stay in Kagoshima and then seven nights in Tokyo. Since in country travel was to be the basic here to there and back to here scenario, travel by air would be the most efficient, and it was also the least expensive. Hence the aforementioned basic plan: drive to Chicago -> fly to Tokyo -> upon arrival, bus to Haneda -> fly to Kagoshima -> stay 8 nights -> fly to Tokyo -> stay 7 nights -> fly to Chicago -> drive home. Beyond that basic plan, we had a wish list of things to do that was pretty simple. A couple of days during our Kagoshima stay, we planned to meet with some of Ritsuko's family members. Aside from family activities, I wanted to re-visit the Reimeikan Museum in Kagoshima City, to take a picture of Sakurajima from the lookout on Shiroyama, and buy some high quality katsuobushi. Everything else would be spur of the moment. While in Tokyo, items on our wishlist included visit the Yasukuni Shrine museum, visit the Togo Shrine in Harajuku, and we planned to travel to Yokosuka to tour the Battleship Mikasa. The rest of the agenda was no agenda; hmmm... is that a blank space or an entity?
First meal after arrival - soba at Haneda Airport
Sakurajima and Kagoshima City viewed from the Shiroyama scenic lookout.
Doing something touristy in Tokyo: Ritsuko at the Hachiko statue, Shibuya Station.
After enduring the 13 hour non-stop, fully booked flight from Chicago O'Hare, we arrived at Tokyo Narita Airport in the mid afternoon, tired but only part way there. Our final destination that day was to be the Hotel Solaria Nishitetsu in Kagoshima City. So, dazed but fortunately not too confused to be functional, we proceeded immediately to the bus ticket counter, and purchased tickets to Haneda Airport. We could have traveled by train to Haneda, but, regardless of route, that would have required at least one train change, so for a couple who were substantially less than 100% coherent and bearing luggage, the bus seemed to be our best option.
The bus ride from Narita to Haneda is rather interesting; the route takes you through part of rural Chiba Prefecture and then, via the Wangan Doro toll road, to the north end of the bay, going past that garish looking Disney resort, then past Tokyo Sea Life Park, and passing through the Odaiba area before descending into a short tunnel under the bay, and finally emerging in an area north of Haneda Airport. At least, that is what I saw the last time we did this when we made an emergency trip to Japan in Dec 2017. On this trip, I was asleep during the majority of the bus ride. Did all of that I described above really happen? I'll never know.
The only thing that I knew for certain was that by the time that we arrived at Haneda, I was hungry ... really hungry, and so was Ritsuko. We wanted soba, real soba from a fast service soba shop aka たちぐい そば (tachigui soba) , the kind that you can only find in Japan. After checking in for our flight to Kagoshima, and ridding ourselves of our luggage, we found the nearest soba shop inside the airport. Ahhhhh ... gastronomic bliss as each slurp of perfectly seasoned noodles and broth sought to fill the void in our aching empty stomachs. Hmmm... was my stomach really empty, or was it something else that felt like empty, some entity, perhaps a memory from an earlier decade beckoning me to reconnect to a place I love by filling an emptiness with something familiar.
Empty was the status of my overall energy level when we landed at the Kagoshima airport. The airport is about 20 miles from Kagoshima city. There is no train service, however the bus service to and from there is excellent. Our flight was the last one into Kagoshima for the evening, and we were able to board one of the last busses to Kagoshima-chuo. One of the many convenient features of staying at Solaria Nishitetsu Hotel in Kagoshima is that the highway bus station is in the same building. So, after arriving, the hotel front desk is only an elevator ride away. We finally got to our room at about 10:30 that night ... roughly 25 hours since we had checked in for our flight at Chicago O'Hare. Needless to say, we were very tired, but we were also very happy to have arrived at our destination safely. We opened the curtains and the blinds of our window, and let the night time lights of Kagoshima city and Sakurajima fill the room with a mellow glow as we drifted into a peaceful night's sleep.
The beach near Shimoda where my friends and I went on holiday during the summer of 1974
The next morning, as we entered the breakfast buffet, a decades old memory drifted into my mind. In the summer of 1974, I was a single 24 year old Air Force Staff Sergeant stationed at Yokota Air Base, living in a barracks with many other young Airmen and NCO's. Based on information handed down from others who had ventured out into the country, one of my friends had been told of a minshuku near a small beach outside Shimoda that was open to taking in young American service men. So, with some very sketchy information, and with no reservations, four of us ventured out for a beach holiday on the southern tip of the Izu Peninsula. Fortunately for us, we didn't have to sleep on the beach, because the information was good, and the minshuku owners welcomed us into their inn.
Breakfast from the morning buffet at Hotel Solaria Nishitetsu, Kagoshima
Included in the price of our lodging were two daily meals, breakfast and dinner. The first morning there was a hajimete moment for all of us, as we sat down to a Japanese breakfast graciously served by our host family. A Japanese breakfast typically consists of rice, miso soup, fish or perhaps a small portion of meat, pickled radishes, and some combination of fresh or steamed vegetables. We stared, momentarily at what was put before us, and without any verbal communcation between the four of us, we proceeded to eat everything that was served. It was delicious, better than any of us had even imagined. Also, what we ate in the mornings sustained us throughout the day until dinner. It had to ... we had no money for food outside the minshuku.
The Solaria Nishtetsu Hotel in Kagoshima serves a superb breakfast buffet. The majority of the clientèle of the hotel are Japanese, therefore it stands to reason that most of the food items on the buffet would be those from which one could assemble a proper Japanese breakfast. There are some western items available, but not in abundant variety. When we stay there, I seldom see foreign guests partaking in the local breakfast fare, and instead choose some pastry, fruit, omelette, etc. I usually hear westerners describe a Japanese breakfast as an acquired taste. When I hear that, I have to wonder if they have ever actually taken the steps, or rather the step, necessary to acquire the taste. That step would be to actually eat a proper Japanese breakfast. If they have not, then I would call that a missed opportunity.
Whenever I get into such a discussion, it always brings back memories from my afore described 1974 trip to Shimoda, when I and three other young American men instantly, even if perhaps driven by necessity, acquired the taste. I will be forever glad that I did.
That morning, sitting in the casually elegant hotel dining room while looking out the window at Kagoshima Chuo station and Amu Plaza, and eating a magnificent breakfast, all of the accumulated tension and anxiety from our travels the day before seemed to have melted away. Well rested and well fed, I now felt as though we had truly arrived. Any feeling of blankness or emptiness, whether real or symbolic had disappeared, and we were now prepared to embark upon the rest of our journey.