I visited Japan a few days ahead of the Honda Grand Prix Hot Air Balloon Race in Tochigi Prefecture. The extra days helped me to get over jet lag, see a bit of the country and to keep up with some other obligations via the internet. I planned a day in Tokyo. I wanted to finally make it to Tsukiji, the world’s largest fish market, but when I got there I stayed in the most public of places at the market and didn’t really get to see much. Tourists learned about it. They were not being attentive and getting in the way, so now the documentation asks that you stay away during those times when there is something happening to see, leaving nothing to draw me in when I am allowed to be there, and, unfortunately, that will remain an opportunity forever lost, since it has now moved. Shopping on the outskirts was nice and I did visit the nearby public garden, Hama-Rikyu, the only garden with tidal pools that remains in the city, and I took a boat ride up to Asakusa Temple. These few days, as it turned out became about finding the unexpected treasure.
Tokyo is such a mix. Miles and miles of similar buildings, one after another. Some have a simple understated Zen beauty with a mix of natural colors that highlights the elegance in simplicity to absolute perfection. Then, there is the contrast of the bright lights and showmanship in places like the Ginza where Mikimoto and other luxury retailers have flagship stores. One jewelry shop had an opulent fresh orchid display outside the store to greet customers. The whole strip sparkles, with Swarovski crystals, prices, and electricity. It is well enough lit to see and distinguish from space at night, a photographers dream from any angle or distance. Between the islands sophisticated beauty in Zen inspired design and the glitz and glamor of the Ginza lie mile after mile of undistinguished functional buildings. Concrete and high-rises cover the landscape in a banal blanket. As I left Tokyo on Shinkansen, the sky was dark and the train rushed by leaving sheets of rain and rows of buildings. The cloudy cold added to the drab. Tokyo has its appeal, but later, while I was far from this mega-city, was when all of the good memories from my trip of two years ago came flooding back. My day, like Tokyo, was filled with the occasional pearl.
When I got to the train station in Morioka, the rain was heavy. I would usually walk, but rented a taxi to take me a block so I could keep my suitcase out of the rain. I sat in the hotel and caught up on internet communications while I waited for the rain to quit. My room wasn’t ready and my emergency rain poncho was hiding in plain sight. I thought it wasn’t accessible. After watching through the window, I decided that the store that sold an umbrella couldn’t be too far away and I took off. While walking, a friendly gentleman put his umbrella over us both and came along with me as I made my way to an umbrella of my own. We couldn’t actually talk to each other, but it wasn’t hard for him to tell what my goal was, and kindness is the best of universal languages. The kindness of strangers is the reason travel heartens the soul. That was the first gem of my day.
Shortly after I got my umbrella, the rain stopped. It happened just as I reached the ruins of the local castle, and there was the next gem. The fall color was past peak, but those leaves that remained were in glorious color, the occasional bright yellow Ginko accenting the garden landscape as the Ginza accents the cityscape. The rain had knocked a bright carpet of fresh leaves on the ground. I took out the camera and finally started acting like a tourist. I could even see the mountains, or at least part of them in the distance, a classic cinder cone shape peeking out from behind clouds.
There were open air markets in covered areas where I bought crisp mountain apples and tangerines. The market had a variety of items that would be unusual in most US markets, edible flowers and ferns, a purple cauliflower. All in all it was a pretty good day. Sometimes it is the unexpected gem, the one sparkling in the darkness that shines brightest.