The Konnichiwa Kid
Some boys are mad for soccer or skateboards. But writer Dorothy Kalins's son, Lincoln, has always been a sushi-rolling, Pokémon-watching kind of kid. At 13, he asked for Japanese language lessons. At 14, he spent two weeks at Japan camp in Minnesota. And at 15, he finally got to go to the country he'd always loved from afar.
Lincoln was a whiz at deciphering the complex fare diagrams in Tokyo subways. Yet we three tall foreigners were often so visibly confused as to attract attention. We'd be there still but for the kindness of strangers who, eager to practice their English, generously led us to the correct track or sometimes even exited the station to walk us to our destination.
We also had an official guide for a day. Through the Japanese National Tourist Organization (see "How-to Info" box), I had learned that it's possible to engage a regional volunteer guide in advance—you e-mail a query and then see who bites. Our Tokyo request was answered by a vivacious young illustrator named Nobuko Araki. Her student-guide group requests only that you pay the guide's subway and lunch expenses. Nobuko's first act of kindness was to escort us to the Japan Railways ticket office, where she helped us negotiate tickets we couldn't purchase in the States—a mind-boggling exercise that belies the trains' efficiency. (The Japan Rail Pass, which you must buy before leaving the U.S., offers unlimited travel, but you have to travel a lot for it to make sense.)
As Nobuko, map in hand, took us down the back alleys and up the winding stairways of Akihabara ("electric town"), Lincoln was wild-eyed throughout an assault of music and promotional advertising. Please do not make our mistake and take your child to Akihabara with no intention of buying one of the several million electronic devices that are sold there. Just buy the gadget: You'll pay one way or the other. As a refuge, I'd researched a lunch place, the 130-year-old Yabu Soba, on a corner only blocks away (though it felt like centuries). The restaurant was the perfect antidote, with bowls of pale green noodles and windows that open onto a garden. When the waitresses called out orders, it sounded like singsong poetry— which Nobuko attempted to translate for us. After lunch, she took us to Senso-ji, the Buddhist temple in Asakusa (photo); no one was surprised when the crowded shopping street leading up to Senso-ji engaged Lincoln more than the temple itself did. (photo)
In any event, we had already planned a pilgrimage to a different kind of temple. Lincoln grew up on the films of Hayao Miyazaki. My Neighbor Totoro was his Mickey Mouse; he still loves Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle, and Kiki's Delivery Service. (Roger and I do, too.) Visiting Ghibli Museum, the fun house of an animation museum, about a 20-minute train ride from central Tokyo, was a must. We thought we had to buy tickets in advance from the U.S., but we learned later that it's possible to purchase tickets at Lawson, a Japanese convenience store chain, too. Linc thought the museum—with its animation exhibits, films, and eccentric stairways and rooms, especially a re-creation of the master's book-and-drawing-packed studio—"was like being inside Miyazaki's head." Somehow, he resisted a $50 stuffed Totoro, round as a hug.
Sounder minds might have questioned the wisdom of dragging a 15-year-old on an almost three-hour bullet train trip to Osaka, then across town to another 90-minute train ride south into the mountains, and finally to a steep ride on a cable car, all for one night at Eko-in, a Buddhist temple on Mount Koya (Koyasan). A sacred place with more than 100 temples, Koyasan was founded in 816 A.D. And after Tokyo, Roger and I needed old. (photo)
Through the Wakayama prefecture volunteer-guide site that serves Koyasan, my detailed letter of request for someone knowledgeable was answered by a Koyasan aficionado. Kaori Kodama, who's spent 13 years studying and guiding tours there, led us inside the monumental temples of this World Heritage site; we watched in awe as a prayer service unfolded with the power of an opera. After our vegetarian dinner was brought to our temple room on low, lacquered trays, Lincoln ignored the TV in our tokonoma (most traditional Japanese rooms have this special viewing niche), preferring to wrap himself in his futon and watch Ratatouille on the laptop—my favorite image of him. In the morning, we entered the cemetery of Okunoin, a mysterious forest with wandering dark paths of moss-covered memorials. It was, fortunately, the first day of spring, when the annual procession of abbots from all of Koyasan's temples heads up to Lantern Hall, where 20,000 lights hang to commemorate ancestors and to bring good fortune. (photo)