Thursday, November 30, 2006

Peace Park, Hiroshima

It was a cold dreary wet day. The night before, we had seen the A-bomb Dome dramatically lit up, but it was even more powerful in the daylight. It is one of the few remaining buildings which survived the blast after the atomic bomb was dropped on that fateful day, August 6, 1945. Seeing the destruction of such a massive building- the twisted steel beams and the crumbling bricks, the cracked concrete and the distorted skeleton of the dome, I can only imagine how thousands of innocent fragile human beings endured being burned alive or suffered a long painful cancerous death... The feeling of disbelief that such a massacre occurred reminded me of walking through Anne Frank's house in Amsterdam many years ago. The raindrops and the leaves of the weeping willows along the river looked like teardrops from the sky.
I was so emotional in the Peace Museum that I couldn't bring myself to take any pictures. I drew long deep breaths and felt tears welling up exhibit after exhibit, from the before / after photos of Hiroshima to the impressive wall of telegrams sent to the leaders of nations pleading them to discontinue the use of nuclear weapons, from the photos of burned victims to the drawings by school children of the aftermath. The second half of the museum housed the sacred remains of victims: blood stained school uniforms, a scorched tricycle, a single tattered slipper, the charred hair of a young girl, a burnt, beatup lunchbox.... I won't get into some of the more gory details... It was definitely a humbling experience... Was I proud to be an American at that point? Not so much... Leaving the museum, we solemnly walked past the Flame of Peace and Cenotaph, disappearing underground to the chapel-like Hall of Remembrance in the Peace Memorial Hall.

As a child, I had been deeply moved by the book "Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes". The pages of my book are yellow and wrinkled from all the tears that fell onto them as I read the book over and over. So when I saw the Children's Peace Monument with a statue of Sadako at the top, I expected to break down in tears. Instead, it was uplifting to see the thousands of colorful cranes hanging in the display cases nearby, as symbols of Sadako's determination to live. Let no more children fall victim to an atomic bombing.

 This is our cry.
 This is our prayer.
 For building peace in the world.

Thanksgiving weekend in Hiroshima

Despite its depressing history, Hiroshima is a very alive modern, bustling city.
I don't think I had any Japanese food (or even used chopsticks) the whole time I was there!
I met up with Jason who shinkansened (yes, I just made that up) from Kyoto and we were really excited to go to a Spanish restaurant that we had read about, but were totally misled and disappointed when it didn't actually exist. Boo!!! Instead, we ended having Indian food and then going to an Irish pub with some of his friends. Had a variety of Saturday breakfast/lunch options and finally opted on a Spanish / Mexican / Argentinian restaurant that we read about, but this time, gastronomically misled. I was really excited at the prospect of having plantains and black beans or a burrito or something, but these were not on the menu. I ordered a very delicious looking "Argentinian Stew over rice" which was in fact a very dry piece of tonkatsu (fried pork) with a side of rice. Very unimpressed.
Most of Saturday was spent walking around Hiroshima castle, several parks, and finding coffeeshops, which were all closed. Hiroshima was surprisingly very walkable, very much like San Francisco, except that it was completely flat. Tom and Steve came in on Saturday night, which was the highlight of the weekend- not only was it Tom's birthday, it was the Thanksgiving Feast at Kemby's, a local bar!

For 1500 yen (about $12), we would be able to have a huge Thanksgiving feast of turkey, stuffing, potatoes, mac and cheese, salad, corn, cranberry sauce (canned), candied yams, pumpkin pie, brownies, and cornbread.... it was AWESOME and it was even more awesome that the dinner was made by Japanese chefs who had pored over recipes and gone through a few dry runs before they got everything perfect... The fact that I was with good friends and making new friends and having good food reminded me of how happy the holidays are for me, and of course, how thankful I am for having everything I have...
Tom's friend Brian, a JET from San Francisco who lives in Hiroshima, served as our fantastic, energetic, spastic, hilarious guide the rest of the night. I knew it would be a good night when he met us on a bridge with a bag of beers, and forced us to chug them down in less than 2 minutes. We bought shots and drinks and snacks and candy for eachother all night as our group grew to about 8 or 9 people, trolling the streets from bar to bar, ending at this several story entertainment venue. For a flat fee of .... well, I actually don't remember now, we got unlimited access to karaoke, ping pong, billiards, batting cages, and my favorite part.... massage chairs!!! And that was just on the floor we were on. I have no idea what they offered on the other floors, but I didn't want to leave those amazing chairs.

Miyajima (near Hiroshima)

Due to my working a Saturday to judge the junior high recitation contest, I was able to get a 3 1/2 day weekend that coincided nicely with the Thanksgiving Holidays. So, I decided to go somewhere "far"- Hiroshima and Miyajima, which involved taking the speedy Shinkansen (bullet train)!

First stop- Miyajima. It's considered one of Japan's 3 Most Beautiful Places- along with Amanohashidate (near me) and Matsushima (in the Sendai area). Definitely beautiful, but I think the spectacular cliffs of Shirahama still blow them all away. Ehh.... I guess you can't argue with Japanese tradition. Anyway, it's a small island near Hiroshima. Deer wander the streets and from the warning signs everywhere, they have eaten tourists' food, tickets, passports, etc. The island is known for the famous Itsukushima Shrine - it was so sacred that people were supposed to arrive by boat through the giant orange Otorii (Grand Gate) that stood in the middle of the sea. The sprawling shrine itself is also built in the sea, but it has stood the test of time for more than 800 years! Depending on the tide, the shrine is either surrounded by water, making it look like an impressive floating Heian Period houseboat, or surrounded by mud- where you can inspect the foundation posts and structure.

Beyond the shrine, there are countless other beautiful shrines and temples. The colors surrounding me were intense, from the bright vermillion shrines to the crystal clear greenblue sea, the deep red of the maple leaves to the green mountains beyond. I climbed the hills and steps to the Daishoin Buddhist Temple complex and then wanderd around Maple Valley, admiring the leaves and natural beauty of the crisp fall weather.

It's amazing how much the MAPLE LEAF has become a symbol of autumn in Japan. They are everywhere- printed on scarves, t-shirts, stationery, and there are even these amazingly delicious smelling maple-shaped pastries with red bean filling that are cooked on streetcorners. I can already imagine cherry blossom season!

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Roadtrippin' with the Yoshidas- Maple viewing in Hikone

The ever-awesome Yoshidas asked me and fellow JET, British Simon, to join them on a daytrip driving "maple (momiji) viewing" as well as all the other "koyo" (colorful leaves), culminating at Hikone, a castle town several hours away. Of course, we went!
A bunch of us had celebrated Becky's birthday with a big potluck dinner party at Leigh's the night before. Since Leigh lives about 5 minutes from the Yoshida's, I ended up just sleeping over at the Yoshida's sprawling house, which was an experience in itself. Getting back at 1 or 2am and then having to be up at 6am totally sucked, but Simon and I settled nicely in the backseat of the car with a loaf of warm, fresh-baked bread as well as several full baskets of fresh sushi, vegetables, coffee, cookies, oranges, etc. (do these people ever sleep???)
Anyway, the mountains and leaves were spectacular. We stopped a few times on the way to Hikone to enjoy the shrines and a little village at the base of a mountain. Seems like we weren't the only people to have the same idea though. It rained most of the day but I can't imagine how many more people would've been out if the weather was nice!!
It took about five hours to get to Hikone- Simon and I exchanged stories about everything from dream houses to monkeys to traumatic childhood memories... with that much time in the car, you end up knowing a lot about the people you're traveling with! (Thank goodness he is so awesome and chill).
The castle was actually not as exciting as I thought it was going to be- it was really bare and pretty "small". I guess it looked more like a "tower" to me. Unlike European castles, there wasn't any furniture or any sort of context. Instead of showcasing weapons, suits of armor, period costumes and tapestries, there were cases and descriptions of ancient roof tiles and maps. It was also a risky, litigious experience- we had to carry our dirty wet shoes and umbrellas in separate plastic bags while traversing the extremely steep "stairs"- more like ladders with really really low handrails- defiinitely not ADA) throughout the four story structure. Not sure how the 80 year old obachans were doing it because I was ready to have a heart attack. Then again, I'm the one with the arthritis and back pains.
The nearby Chinese-inspired garden was much more beautiful, despite the rain. We enjoyed a brief Japanese tea ceremony in the teahouse overlooking the pond and wandered around the grounds. Despite the cold weather, there were some uplifting "winter-blooming" cherry trees. Then we got back in the car and drove back. I think it was like a total of 8 or 9 hours in the car in one day!! The Yoshidas rock.

Monday, November 27, 2006

The Last Kimono Festival of 2006

Kumi (Yoshida) took me to the fantastic blowout kimono festival at the fancy schmancy Royal Hotel in Miyau, overlooking Miyazu Bay. The view wasn't so great due to the giant freezing raindrops (i guess we call them hailstones!) that were pouring from the gray skies. I also only had a few hours of sleep due to a late night out the night before- I was at a taiko drumming performance an hour away with some fellow JETs after a day of judging the junior high school recitation contest and then shopping for fun home stuff like mirrors and lamps and down blankets. The AET band, "The Jets" (Tom, Dave, & Adam) played some lively covers onstage (never thought I'd hear clapping to "Country Roads" or such a welcome reception to "Hotel California")- the party kept on going at a huge house but I missed out on most of the craziness so I could come home "early".

Anyway- it was great- Kumi helped me get dressed in my other kimono- a vintage purple silk one with white flowers. I borrowed an obi and a purse from her extensive collection. "Getting dressed" in a kimono is actually a huge deal- there are layers and layers of undercoverings and ties and clips and padding and a specific order in which you put them on, how you tie them on. Apparently, you are supposed to be cylindrical when you wear a kimono, not showing any sort of waist or hips- this is so different from most Western cultures!

The festival was packed with hundreds of women, from about 5 years old to about 105, each one showing off a beautiful kimono. And Becky was there too! She was there with Shinobu, her private Japanese tutor, and we were even seated at the same table. Becky wore a gorgeous vintage green kimono and she even put on her obi herself! It was my first experience at a kimono festival- but this one I guess was really different from the others anyway. We sat down to a lavish Western-style six or seven course lunch in the grand ballroom of the hotel and were entertained for the next 3 hours- there were singers, dancers, an obi fashion show, an auction, more singing and dancing (the special guest was a former member of the weirdly fascinating Takarazuka Revue troupe. However, the garish looking emcee in her pink and gold sparkly dress did take advantage of the gaijin factor and interviewed Becky and me in front of these huge spotlights and cameras and made us stand up and show off our kimonos for the crowd. Actually, she interviewed Becky and the crowd ooh-ed and ahhh-ed at her ability to understand and speak Japanese. Then she moved onto me- "the gaijin's japanese friend", but of course, I had no idea what she was trying to say so I just looked at her blankly. I get this all the time, and I've been told that people actually think that I could be retarded. Becky had to whisper the translations to me under her breath and we finally got through the painful ordeal. Got home, peeled off the layers of kimono, and watched My Neighbor Totoro. (Yes, Chrissi, and any other curious folks- my city does look a lot like the movie!!!)

More wholesome Halloween shots

Chick-a-dee Kayla (my little niece) and friendly fireman Jack Hickey!

and a (VERY belated) congratulations to Lisa & John on the birth of their son, Sean!

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Halloween 2006

Boo! Halloween in Japan.
Wholesome, and not so wholesome.

Life in Miyazu

Photos of Miyazu...
Pretty damn beautiful. I can't complain. Except that it's getting colder and the flowers are almost all gone and my fingers are purple.

Most of these are within 20 feet of my apartment. I can't figure out how to put captions for each picture, so bear with the weird format.

1. Purple flowers- this is one of Paul's best photos. It's pretty much the view from my frontyard.

2. Persimmon tree- this is the view of my backyard from my kitchen window.

3. Green frog- another visitor to my house. This is right outside my bedroom window.

4 & 5. The spectacular waterfall and mossy rocks only a few minutes' bike ride behind my house.

6 & 7. Riding bikes to the waterfall

8. A creek

9. A night at Azitos w/ Jun, Hide (a Miyazu policeman!), and Eric

10. Some of my students.

11. The crazy huge spiders

I can't take credit for a lot of these photos- Paul is the better picture taker of the two of us. For more of his photos, click here.