Monday, March 21, 2016

Orvieto, Civita di Bagnoregio

Originally published on: Sep 28, 2008
My travels to Orvieto took longer than expected, with slow running trains that made me miss my connections, so I was traveling or waiting in train stations for nearly 6 hours. Since the town is high on a hill, 1000 feet above the valley floor, you take a funicular, or cable railway from the train station to the town. From there, I caught a bus to the main piazza where stands the magnificent Duomo, one of the largest cathedrals in the world.

The Duomo in Orvieto
Orvieto is a hill town in Umbria, with about 22,000 residents. It sits on a platform of tufa, or volcanic rock, and has Etruscan roots. There are several museums with Etruscan artifacts dating from the 3rd to the 6th centuries B.C. Most of the items were discovered in the nearby necropoli, or "cities of the dead" that lie at the foot of the hill.

A ristorante in Piazza del Popolo
It was raining when I arrived, and the town was closed for siesta...roughly three hours from 1- 4pm, and I wandered around trying to find my hotel. I finally asked someone with a map for help in locating the street it was on, which was just around the corner from where we stood. I have a comfy room in the hotel, with a lovely view of one of the bell towers and a bathtub, not common in Italian hotels. No other frills, like tv, which is fine with me. Also, there is no wireless access in the town, and only one internet cafe, which charges 3.50 euros for a half hour, the most expensive so far, which limits my interest in spending much time on the internet.  But I'm hoping to get a lot of writing done on my laptop during my five-day stay here.

Street scene in Orvieto.
Speaking of writing, the author Marlena de Blasi lives around the corner from my hotel. I'm a big fan of the books she's written about her life in Italy....A Thousand Days in Venice and others. I located her address easily and am even hoping I might spot her in one of the local bars or markets. She's an American who moved to Italy to marry a Venetian man, and has made Italy her home since the early 90's. Today is my third day in Orvieto and I've grown to enjoy the rhythm of the village, from the early morning market in Piazza del Popolo to the evening passeggiata, when everyone strolls Via del Duomo and Corso Cavour for several hours.

A wedding in the Duomo. 
Last night I got dressed up and went to a concert of music with the theme "Two centuries of music to listen to before sunset", in honor of the Fall Equinox, which occurred today.  Tonight I had a bowl of minestrone soup with a glass of Orvieto's famous wine, Orvieto Classico, and watched the passeggiata from the caffe while listening to American jazz. Later on I'll have a warm bath and savor memories of the unusual day I spent.

One of many ceramics stores in Orvieto.
I was up early to catch a bus to Bagnoregio, which is only about 25 miles away, but takes an hour on the bus to reach. A friendly bus driver made sure that I got on the right bus, telephoning another driver on the other side of town to wait for me until I could make my connection. There were only three people on the bus, which surprised me, as early buses are usually filled with children on their way to school.

Civita di Bagnoregio
When I arrived in Bagnoregio, a young woman got off with me, and I asked her if she was going to Civita, my real destination. She responded that she was, and I asked her where she was from, since she looked Asian. Sure enough, she is from Japan, but has been living in Cremona, Italy for the past three years, learning to make and restore violins at the Stradivarius workshop in Cremona. She will return to a small town near Hiroshima in October to work in her husband's business of restoring musical instruments.

Introducing herself as Miwa, she apologized for not being able to speak English, but we were able to converse in Italian quite easily. We had a twenty minute walk to reach the pedestrian path leading to Civita, often referred to as the ultimate Italian hill town. Like Orvieto, it is perched on a tufa platform high above the valley below, but it is much smaller and has only 20 residents. The view of Civita is quite amazing and impossible to describe accurately, so I encourage you to check out the view from this website:

Hiking outside Civita.
While in Civita, we stopped to visit the garden of a woman named Maria, who urged people walking by to view her garden, then asked for a donation of a euro. We viewed an ancient olive press and had freshly grilled bruschetta from an open fire.

A garden scene in Civita.
It only took us a few hours to see the entire village and take in the panoramic views from all directions, and then we walked back to Bagnoregio to catch the bus to Orvieto. Miwa had a few hours to enjoy Orvieto before catching a train back to Cremona, so I had the pleasure of showing her around the town, since I was already familiar with its streets and monuments. She was especially interested in buying Classico wine to take home with her.

Miwa and I enjoying our adventure in Umbria.
Meeting people like Miwa is one of the perks of traveling alone...and it seemed like an answer to a prayer. If other people had been around to talk to, I wouldn't have made the effort to forge a connection with a stranger. Just yesterday I had been wishing I had someone to talk to and share some of what I was seeing. After having plenty of company in Firenze and Lucca, and with limited use of the internet, I was getting a bit lonely. Being able to converse with someone in Italian made it even more special.

Lucca, Pisa

Originally published on: Sep 28, 2008 

I was in Lucca for six days and the time seemed to fly by. Staying at the hostel, I met many interesting women who had their own adventures to share. One woman, who had lived in Paris for 15 years, now lives on a small island near Seattle. She had just come from a week in Venice, where she'd been working as a personal assistant to an architect. Another woman, who works as a chef in Santa Barbara,  once lived in Africa for 12 years. She'd rented a villa with several friends for a week in the countryside outside of Lucca, but had to wait a few days for it to be free, so was staying at the hostel during the interim. A lively Moroccan woman gave me tips about the best hostels in Italy from her many travels. And a young woman from New York, who had been living with her Italian boyfriend on the island of Ischia, was returning to the States, after finding out that island life was not to her liking.

One of the portals into the walled city of Lucca.
I also got chummy with the albergatore, Samuele, who ran the hostel. It's hard not to be charmed by a sweet, attentive, attractive Italian who calls you cara and touches your arm or takes your hand every time he sees you. Lucca seems to have an abundance of attractive Italians...more than I've seen in one place, including Rome or Milan. I did more people watching than usual, simply because there were so many beautiful people everywhere you looked. Though I had brought some nice clothes to wear, I felt frumpy in comparison to the stylish Italians in Lucca.

Celebrating Puccini
Lucca is renowned as the birthplace of Giacomo Puccini, who wrote many famous operas, including La Boheme and Madame Butterfly. 2008 is the 150th anniversary of his birth, so there were quite a few events in Lucca with a Puccini theme. Each night during the year an hour long presentation of famous arias is performed by professional opera singers in one of the churches. I went to one of these performances, which combined arias by Mozart and Puccini, sung by two accomplished sopranos. ,I wish I had gone to them every night, as it was quite beautiful and moving. While at the performance, I met an architect from Portland who was also spending 5 weeks in Italy, and we strolled around Lucca after the concert, sharing our adventures.

A view of Torre Guinigi, with its iconic trees on top.
I climbed two towers in Lucca, both with great panoramic views, and the taller one, Torre Guinigi, has oak trees growing on top of it. One night I rented a bike and rode for an hour along the top of the wall that surrounds the city. The weather was perfect most of the time I was there, and many people made good use of the wall for running, walking, skating and biking.

A view of Torre Guinigi from the street. 
I took two side trips during my stay in Lucca, one to Pisa and the other to Florence. I had been to Pisa for a few hours on my first trip to Italy, but didn't get to see the Duomo or Baptistery the first time.

The Battistero and Cattedrale in Pisa. 
Besides the Leaning Tower, these three monuments are about all there is of interest in Pisa. But they are definitely worth seeing. The Baptistery is the largest in the world, and the huge Duomo sits across from it, giving one perspective on what a thriving region Pisa once was. However, the town was so crowded with tourists that I longed to be back in Lucca, so I only spent a few hours there again this time.

The Battistero in Pisa.

The trip to Florence was due to an errand I had to run. I needed to have a form for one of my jobs notarized and returned within two weeks, so I made an appointment online at the American Consulate in Florence to get that taken care of. I was surprised how easy it turned out to be. Since I learned that taking the bus was easier and faster than the train, I took an early bus and arrrived by 9 am. I found the Consulate and they allowed me in right away, even though I was two hours early for my appointment. It only took about 15 minutes to get the form notarized, then I found a place to fax it, bought an envelope at an office supply store, then mailed the form at the post office. I decided to make it into an adventure, figuring out how to take care something that would be quite simple if I were home. Then, after my errand was done, Haruko and I met for lunch and gelato, then strolled around a bit before I returned to Lucca. It was a beautiful day, and it was nice to share it with Haruko, but I wanted to enjoy my last evening in Lucca before getting ready to move on.

Enjoying the walking/bike path atop the city wall in Lucca.
If I had to choose now, Lucca would easily be where I'd want to live in Italy. But I still have a few more places to check out. Next, I'm off to Umbria, and the hill town of Orvieto.

Lucca: Luminaria festival, the Procession of the Holy Cross

Originally published on: Sep 16, 2008

(I'm having a hard time getting wi-fi in Lucca, so am writing these posts offline and posting them when I can find a few minutes of wi-fi use. To get it, I have to sit outside the tourist building and wait until it connects...but it often only lasts for a few minutes. Still, this is my favorite town, so I'm willing to deal with it. )

I always like to get my train ticket ahead of time, just in case, which is always a good idea in Italy. In fact, I usually do it the day before my trip, but just didn't bother this time. If I had, I would have known a train stike was in effect for all regional trains, from 9pm on Friday night to 9pm on Saturday night. Yep, folks, strikes are planned in advance and publicized here in Italy. Since I didn't know of the strike, when I arrived at the train station at 9 am, I wondered about the long lines in front of la biglietteria, where vendors sell tickets. Instead, I bought a ticket from a machine, but if I had just stopped to read the notice of the strike, I would have learned that my train to Lucca was cancelled, even though the machine sold me the ticket. So...I ended up standing in line for more than 40 minutes to ask if there was an alternate train I could take, as some trains were still Rome, Milan and Naples. No such luck for Lucca. My only hope was to wait until 9 pm that evening.

Since I had 10 hours to figure something else out, I stashed my luggage at the station, and walked across the street to the Lazzi bus station. The proprietor of the hotel I'd stayed at had mentioned I could get a bus to Lucca if the trains weren't running. Sure enough, there were plenty of buses running that day, so I got a ticket, for almost the same price as the train, 5.10 euros. Train/bus travel is cheap in Italy, though obviously not dependable. Then I went back to the train station and stood in line for an hour to get my money back for the train ticket. It's best not to wait on these things, and I wouldn't be back to Florence for a month.

I returned to the bus station just as one was leaving for Lucca, but people were so frantic and pushy (mostly tourists), I decided to wait for the next bus in 30 minutes rather than wrangle for one of the few seats left. When the next bus arrived, I was one of the first ones on, but after we were seated, the driver announced we needed to change to another bus. Ah, life in Italy! As it turns out, the second bus was larger, with more room for luggage and many seats that were empty, so I had two seats to myself. On the ride to Lucca, I programmed my new cellphone with all my friends' phone numbers, and was surprised when we arrived less than an hour later at our destination...the train takes nearly 30 minutes longer!

I visited Lucca two years ago on my first trip to Italy, and vowed to come back. It's a town of about 100,000, but seems much smaller within the city walls. As soon as I got off the bus, I felt a sense of calm come over me. Quiet. Tranquil. Beautiful. Sigh....I knew at once I'd come to the right place.

Ostello San Frediano
I'm staying at Ostello San Frediano, a hostel where I stayed the last time and really enjoyed myself . Besides, it's cheap, at less than 20 euros/night. It's a huge marbled affair....which had its beginnings as a monastery, then a university, then a technical school from 1985-1995. After '95, it was turned into a hostel that has some 600 beds.

In the hostel with one of my roommates.
When I arrived in my room, I found an unfriendly young American woman who seemed annoyed that I was there. There were 8 bunk beds, and she informed me that all the lower beds were taken. I also noticed that the bathroom was down the hall, when I had reserved a room with an internal bathroom. I went down to the desk to inquire about it, and discovered they had made a mistake, but since the hostel was full for the night, I couldn't have a room with a bath until the next day. She told me to try the room next to mine to see if I could find a lower bed available, and I did, so I moved my luggage and claimed one of the lower beds.
Then I went out for a quick tour of my end of town. I was curious to learn why so many people were in Lucca, and why so many people from Florence had seemed so intent on getting there that day. It quickly became obvious: that night, September 13 was the night that Lucca celebrates its most important and solemn annual event, La Processione di Santa Croce, the Procession of the Holy Cross.

Getting the luminaria ready for lighting.
People come from all over the region and the world to participate and watch the procession, which lasts for several hours. Not only that, but all the buildings along the processional route are lit with luminaria, candles in glass containers that frame windows and doors and create a flickering glow.

Thousands of candles are placed along the parade route.
I walked along the route to take photos of the workers lighting the thousands of candles that would soon light up the night. The procession was to start at 8 pm at the church in the piazza near the hostel, and make its way across town to the Cathedral of Saint Martin. Around 6pm, I claimed a space on one of the few benches in the piazza near the Basilica of San Frediano in order to have a comfortable seat while waiting for the event to begin. An Italian woman sat down next to me, and I asked her if she was a Lucchese, a native of Lucca, and she answered, “Si.” For the next two hours we conversed in Italian, and she explained many things to me about the procession. She also shared with me one of Lucca's snack foods...croccante tenera, which tastes just like peanut brittle, only it has more peanuts than candy, and is formed into a rectangular bar.

Basilica di San Frediano.
I learned that the cross that leads the procession is always made in Viareggio, a nearby town, and is completely covered with flowers...a solid red cross with a circlular burst of small sunflowers in the middle. The procession consisted of people from various parishes in the region, the clergy from the churches, people from various community and volunteer organizations, people who have emigrated from Lucca to other parts of the world and who come back with their children and grandchildren for the procession, and finally, a historical parade of people dressed in medieval costumes. Everyone carried a lit candle, and the procession was punctuated by a variety of marching bands and drum corps. Each group had its own banner, and the procession lasted for 2½ hours, with those watching staying attentive for the entire time. I find this kind of ritual and tradition very moving, something I've not witnessed often in my own culture.

Basilica di San Frediano lit up for la festa.
I learned later that the procession dates back to 742 when the Holy Cross was moved from the church of San Frediano to the church of San Martino. Initially, only the Lucchesi and the clergy participated in the procession, but it has grown to include many others over the years, though the parade route and the meaning behind the event remains the same.

A view of the crowd watching the parade.
I feel as if I really lucked out to have been a part of this special event. And there's even more: after the procession, there was a fireworks display. About an hour after the parade, people gathered on the west side of the wall that surrounds Lucca. (The wall has a surface wide enough for a road, with ramparts that form small parks at 10 points around the wall. ) And then the fireworks began, and we stood and watched them for nearly an volley after another of beautiful colors exploding across the sky.
This my friend, is magic!

If I had waited to take the train, I would have missed out on all this magic, and beauty, and fun. The only thing that got in the way of it being perfect magic is that at some point during the evening, someone sliced the shoulder bag I was carrying with a knife, and my camera bag was either lost or stolen. I'm still not sure what happened. At one point, I remember feeling as if someone was standing too close to me, and I pulled my bag closer to me....perhaps it saved me from losing everything.

My camera, my coin purse (with my debit card and 200 euros) and my cell phone remained in the ripped bag, but my camera bag was gone. Luckily, my passport was safe at the hostel. The camera bag only cost me $3, and I found a nice leather one the next day at a market for 1 euro, so I'm not really bummed about losing it. But the bag is I'd bought just for this trip, something more elegant than my backpack.

The main feeling I have about the incident is disappointment. Previously, I've always felt safe while traveling in Italy, and made a point of carrying my passport and money on my body, or in an inside pocket in my jacket instead of in my backpack or a purse. Perhaps I needed this reminder to be a little more cautious.

Enjoying a snack in the hostel.
When I got back to the hostel, I was welcomed by four friendly women in my room ... two sisters from Poland on their 10th trip to Italy, a woman from Canada backpacking with her 19-year-old son, and a young woman from Washington state studying art for a semester in Florence. Two other women came in later, but I didn't get a chance to talk with them before every one settled down to sleep. In the morning, everyone departed for other destinations, and I moved to a room with a better view, a bathroom in the room, and the place to myself for the day. I'll be here for 4 more days, so there's more to come in my blog about Lucca and nearby towns. I'm taking lots of photos, but probably won't post them until I get home.

Firenze: A Period of Adjustment

Originally published on: Sep 16, 2008

After arriving in Florence, it took me a few days to get accustomed to life in Italy. For one thing, I arrived to a blast furnace of 90-degree weather, a city crowded with tourists and noise. Honestly, it made me wonder why I had come. I stayed at a familiar hotel near the train station, but there was no air conditioning, and the other guests were a group of couples from Seattle traveling together and they monopolized the terrace in the evenings. (I have noticed before when traveling that couples are often sufficient unto themselves, and do not often invite conversation with me: it's usually other single women or women traveling together that do so. On the other hand, I don't really try to join them, so perhaps we're equally at fault.)

Though the hotel has wi-fi, it didn't always work, so that was frustrating at times, but no real biggie. I found an internet cafe down the street that only charged 1.50 euros per hour, and can use that as a backup when needed. Then, when I tried to buy a cell phone to use while in Italy, I was told they could not sell me one unless I had an Italian I.D. Hmmmmm. Bummer. I had really counted on that. Things started to perk up as I rode the bus across town to visit my friend Paola, a native of Florence who writes books on teaching English for specific purposes.

Paola could not pick me up, as my hotel was near the town center, an area typically congested with tourists: most cars are not allowed in centro, downtown, until late evening. What I enjoyed about the bus ride was that when I asked the bus driver if he stopped at Piazza Nobili, a woman near me mentioned that she was going there and would show me which stop to get off at. (All spoken in Italian!) She moved over to let me sit near her and we had a pleasant conversation, still in Italian, on the 20-minute ride across town. I held my own during our talk, and that felt good. I started to feel that magic was once again on the horizon. Paola took me to dinner at a trattoria near her house, and we had a good long chat. She drove me back to the hotel and we made plans to meet again when I return to Florence at the end of my trip.

The next day, Friday, was set aside to hang out with Haruko, who had also just arrived in Florence. We had last met in Tokyo last March, and before that, in Bologna last October. I was hoping she could help me find a store that would sell me a cell phone, since she had bought one like it last year. The phone I was looking for was a cheap model that can only be used in Italy, but it uses prepaid phone cards that I can buy whenever I need more minutes while traveling in Italy. I figure I can even rent it to friends who might need a cell phone while in Italy. On previous trips it was no problem buying prepaid phone cards for public phones, but it was always a pain to find a public phone, not to mention one that worked and was not in a noisy area.

I woke up early that day, and headed out at 8 am to get to Giotto's Campanile by 8:30 and climb to the top. I was the first one to show up that morning, and it only took about 20 minutes to climb the 414 steps to the top. Though not as tall as the nearby Duomo (with 464 steps), the views were pretty spectacular. It seemed an easier climb than the Duomo, which I managed to do 2 years ago, not just because I'm much lighter than I was then, but the ascent was also more straightforward. The Duomo has a series of winding staircases that seem neverending.

Haruko and I arranged to meet in Piazza San Marco, not far from my hotel. Earlier in the day I had located a store where I could buy a phone, and so we went there first and bought it. We went back to my hotel to get it charged, and realized we needed some help to figure out some necessary things, like changing the language from Italian to English, and how to activate the prepaid phone card. Once that was done, we decided to walk across town to Piazzale Michelangelo, which boasts wonderful views of the city. I'd been there once before, on my first trip, when my friend Marco had given me my first tour of Florence, and wanted to see it again.

On the way, we stopped at Piazza San Ambrogio, where there is an open market every day, and had lunch at a famous cafe inside. It is one of those places where mostly Italians come to eat, sitting together and chatting up a storm. We sat at a table between two young women and two older men, trying our best to converse in Italian like everyone else around us. The men who cooked and served the food were some of the hardest workers I have ever seen, literally running back and forth with food and drinks to keep up with the lunchtime crowd, inevitably stopping to have a chat along the way. I had melanzane parmagiana (eggplant parmesan), quite superb, and only 4 euros (less than $6.)

By the time we got to Piazzale Michelangelo, we were too hot to really enjoy the view. I suggested we look for the nearby gardens that Marco and I had visited, but found they had closed at 1 pm. Instead,we decided it was time for a gelato treat, so Haruko led the way to her favorite gelateria, near the briege Ponte di San Trinita.

Once refreshed by gelato, we crossed il fiume Arno, the river, looking for a quiet spot to sit. One of the things I enjoy most about Haruko is that we can spend hours together, not really doing anything or talking all the time, but just hanging out. I do not have many friends I can do that with, but it seems to be easy with Haruko. It probably helps that we hang out together in cities like Florence, Bologna and Tokyo, where there is a lot to take in.
We couldn’t find a quiet spot, but to get out of the sun, we decided to sit along the cement steps on the back wall of the Loggia Lancia in Piazza Signoria, one of our favorite places in Florence. This is where everyone seems to congregate, the very same piazza where the mad Savonarola was burned at the stake in the 1500's, and where giant statues of David, and Neptune dominate the square.

Within a short time, we heard the roll of thunder and the crowd quickly began to disperse as raindrops fell. We started walking back towards my hotel, and ducked into a bookstore we both like just as it started to pour. Along with many other people, we were stranded in the bookstore for nearly an hour, while Florence was freshened by the rain. It cooled the air and cleaned the dusty streets in one fell swoop. By the time the rain ended, it was 6 pm and time for Haruko to head back to her friend's flat, so we said our ciaos, with plans to meet again in October, if not before, if she decides to visit me in one of the stops along my route.

I was beat by the time I got back to the hotel, and used the evening to read, catch up on email, and pack for the next day's trip to Lucca. Little did I know I would find my route blocked when Florence trains were frozen by un'altro sciopero, another train strike.

Il mio quarto viaggio in Italia

Originally published on: Aug 21, 2008

I'm getting ready for my fourth trip to Italy! I leave on September 9 and will be there for five weeks. For this adventure, I'm planning to travel to four regions of the country, visit many of my Italian friends and spend 5-7 days in each of the cities of Florence, Lucca (both in Tuscany), Orvieto (a hill town in Umbria), Ascoli Piceno (in Marche, near the Adriatic coast) and Parma (Emilia-Romagna). I've managed to arrange inexpensive lodging, which includes staying in a magificent marble hostel in Lucca, a palace in Parma and an apartment in Ascoli. Part of the fun in planning my adventures is finding these jewels, though the path to locating them can sometimes be arduous.

I will be staying at the Ducal Palace in Parma for a week! Can you imagine? 

My friend Paolo and his family live in the Palace, which is the headquarters for the Carabinieri (Italy's national military police force) in the province of Parma, of which Paolo is the commander. There are a few suites for guests in the palace, and I am quite fortunate to take advantage of the option. I am so looking forward to spending many hours in the massive Ducal Park (Parco Ducale) that surrounds il palazzzo. While there, I will also attend the opera Rigoletto at Teatro Regio, during the Verdi Festival that occurs in October every year. I was in Parma last year during the festival, but unable to attend any performances because the tickets were sold out months in advance. This time I planned ahead and ordered my box seat (palco) ahead of time.

I'll still have a few days to visit other cities along the way. I'll be scoping out a place I could stay for a longer period of time....maybe three months, on my next visit. And of course, I'll be writing about my adventures along the way. I'll be visiting many of my "old" Italian friends, meeting some new ones, and will also meet up with Haruko, who I recently saw in Tokyo while visiting my son. She and I met several years ago while studying Italian in Florence, and have managed to meet each year since then. Haruko is moving to Florence, so we'll continue our habit of seeing each other in different cities around the world. It's a great adventure! As it turns out, we both arrive in Italy on the same day, though she flies into Rome and I'll be flying into Florence. Non vedo l'ora che vederla! I can't wait to see her!

Some people wonder how I can afford these trips. Believe me, it's not because I have a lot of money. For many months I worked 60-hour weeks at three different jobs and saved, saved, saved, for this trip. Since I work out of my home, I don't have many car or gas expenses. I don't have cable or a cell phone. My son is grown, and I only have myself to take care of. I live simply and don't buy many "things," so my expenses are minimal, even when traveling. My savings will be depleted by this trip, but I know I can always build my savings again.
I can't tell you how many times I've heard people say, "You're so lucky!" I will admit that I am fortunate in many ways, but I don't think luck has as much to do with it as thought, effort and will. The willingness to risk also plays an essential role. Anyone can travel to Italy, or anywhere else in the world, for that matter, by buying a ticket and going. I faced that challenge for the first time just over two years ago, and a wealth of benefits have resulted, spurring me on to greater, more complicated challenges. So, please, don't envy me...if anything, my hope is to inspire others to go after their own dreams, one step at a time. That's all I've done. And you can, too. As the saying goes, "Just Do It!"

Friday, March 4, 2016

Parting shots of Japan

Originally Published on: Jul 11, 2008 

This is the last of some 16 posts about the trip I took to Japan in March. My son Jesse has been living in Tokyo for two years and he planned a great adventure for us during my stay.
You can read about the other areas of Japan that I visited, including Tokyo, Kyoto, Hakone and Himeji Castle in the posts below. It reads from the last day to the first.
I had one more full day in Japan after returning to Tokyo, so we spent it revisiting a few areas I really liked and checking out a few places I hadn't seen yet. One of my favorites of the latter was the "bookseller's district," where I found a cheap paperback in English at a used bookstore. (I read the entire book on the plane ride home.) We also went to a mega-bookstore where I found some clever children's books to take home as gifts. For myself, I bought a book of photographs of cherry trees in bloom in Kyoto...something I missed seeing in person by only a few days.

First, we went shopping, and this display of tulips caught my eye outside the store.

Mosaics in a train station.

Jesse's favorite organic food store.

A pedicab in Asakusa.

A sign on the sidewalk. (It's also uncool to eat while walking in Japan.)

The white flight of stairs leads to Jesse's flat on the top floor.

A neighbor's yard down the street from Jesse.

Much like Italy, the Japanese hang their clothes out to dry (saves energy!).

Bicycles are everywhere, and put to good use.

The ever-present vending machine.

The bath in Jesse's flat.

Jesse in his pint-sized kitchen.

The ever-present orderly queue waiting for the train.

This brings me to the end of my time in Japan. It was an amazing adventure, and I hope to return in a few years to experience more of this fascinating country.
Jesse quit his teaching job the week before I went to Japan, and less than a month later he found several other jobs more suitable to his goal of working in the publishing industry. He works as a proofreader and translator for Kikkoman and does the same for a law firm. I'm proud of him for having the courage to not only go after his dream of living in Japan, but also for having the courage to quit a sure thing (a job he hated) for the unknown, risking his ability to stay in Tokyo. His new schedule allows him more time and energy to enjoy living in Tokyo and to have a social life with his friends. Bravo!

Arigato gozaimasu


Thanks for making my first trip to Japan so rich!

Himeji Castle

Originally Published on: Jul 11, 2008

On this day (March 16, 2008), we rode the train from Kyoto an hour south to Himeji Castle. It was a beautiful sunny day and we spent the afternoon visiting the castle, climbing centuries-old wooden stairs up six steep flights to the top. (This reminded me of climbing to the top of the Duomo in Florence....quite a challenge!) Visitors enter through the basement, and though it looks as if there are five levels from the exterior, there are actually 7 levels.The castle is built on a high bluff, the most spectacular of Japan's 12 remaining feudal castles. The origins of the castle began in 1333 with a fort. Some scholars say that the original castle was built in the mid-16th century. In 1601 three moats were dug around the castle, and the entire castle complex  was finished in 1609. Four hundred years later, it is still intact. Fortunately, it has escaped the ravages of war.

Himeji Castle is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is well-preserved and an excellent representation of all castles in Japan. The stone walls as well as the plaster walls have been well-maintained, and the traditional wooden structure is of particular interest and value.
(My thanks to the Eyewitness Travel Book on Japan for providing many of the details quoted in this article. I always depend on these books when planning my trips, as they provide wonderful photos along with detailed  historical and cultural insights.)
It's really difficult to convey in words the impressive stature and beauty of this castle, so I hope these photos will suffice.

1 himeji.jpg
Our first view, walking towards the castle from the train station.

2 map.jpg
A map of the complex.

5 a.jpg
Getting closer.

An outside view of one corridor.

An inside view of the corridor.

Even though it was Sunday, we arrived early enough in the day to avoid the crowds that came later. But there were never great crowds of people like we experienced in the other places we visited.


This is part of the "Vanity Tower" where Princess Sen lived (1597-1667): this scene depicts playing a shell game. Most of the rooms in the castle were empty: we were allowed to walk through them and view the outside landscape from the windows.


We were amused to see this couple had brought their pets along, and carried them throughout the castle!

A nice view of the gables.

8 b.jpg
Along the outside. The fan walls were notable not only for their attractive shape, but because they were difficult for enemies to climb.

A view of a courtyard.

An upward view.

10 b.jpg
An explanation of how the windows were used to defend the castle.

A view of the wooden architecture.

Some of the stairs were quite steep!

A view of the city and the roof's curves.


Before entering the castle, we had to take off our shoes, replace them with plastic slippers, and carry our shoes along in a plastic bag. This shows people where we deposited the borrowed slippers and plastic bags as we left the castle. Very orderly!

14 b.jpg
Outside the castle, this sign leads us to the "Harakiri-maru" or suicide quarter.

14 c.jpg
"Harakiri-maru "
Though this was built as a place where ritual suicide could be committed, it was most likely used only for its water supply.

Another view of the castle.

Some perspective of its size.

A scene at the nearby Koko-en Garden.

After our lengthy tour of the castle, we did some shopping, then bought some food and ate outside the train station: sushi for me, curry for Jesse. We rode the Shinkansen back to Tokyo, a 4-hour ride.