<i>Unzari shimashita</i>: The aftermath

When I get home, and people ask me what Japan was like, I’m going to tell them that I had a blast. I’m going to tell them the country is deeply cool, once you get the hang of doing things, and that everyone should go. I will, however, mention that the weather sucked, and that I’m trying to figure out who I offended in a previous life to be so cursed.

I woke up this morning to the sound of howling wind. I didn’t really think anything of it, because it seemed so familiar — exactly what I was used to hearing on the prairies in a windstorm. Then I realized where I was, and what the wind meant. Looking out my window I saw rain whipped into small vortices in the alley below; judging from the trees, this was a Force 10 storm that is bearing down on Nagasaki. After yesterday’s adventures in the rain, including the six inches of water on the road I had to cross to get back to the streetcar station, I wasn’t really looking forward to going out but figured since the odds were good I wouldn’t be coming back here anytime soon I owed it to myself to at least go do something. So I got dressed and waited for the elevator.

That was when I saw a 4×4′ chunk of aluminum siding go flying off my building.

“Umm.. yeah.. Maybe I won’t go out today..”

I did go out, however — for about ten minutes. Long enough to walk around the covered shopping arcade across the street and confirm that the majority of Nagasaki residents had decided to punt and go home, shuttering their shops at 11:00 in the morning, and abandoning Nagasaki’s largest shopping district to the wind, which tore up and down the urban canyon walls, tugging at my clothes and blowing grit in my eyes. Back at the hotel, I decided to make arrangements for a taxi to the station very early in the morning (my train goes at 06:30). Half-jokingly, I said, “So where’s the nearest liquor store?” If I can’t go outside, and I’m stuck here all day, I might as well have fun while I’m at it…

“Oh, I think the weather will get better after lunch,” the girl at the desk said. “Please wait; if you’re patient, you might be surprised.” Yeah, right, I thought, but what the hell, I’ve already written this day off, so anything I get to do is a bonus at this point. I went back upstairs and joined the Red Sox-Yankees game already in progress on NHK. Impressed that the Sox were winning, I settled in for 45 minutes of MLB, during which time I watched Schilling cough up a run, Arroyo cough up another, and saw the most blatant example of interference on a play I’ve ever been witness to. How A-Rod got ruled safe in the first place is a total mystery to me, but the umpires at least got the call right eventually. This was one instance where I would have really liked to be able to hear the inanities of the Fox announcing crew, if only so I could have figured out what the hell was going on. NHK showed a bunch of replays, and like I said, it was pretty clearly interference, but the specifics were.. elusive. That was about it for me and the ball game, since the housekeeping staff kicked me out of my room.

But that was OK. The front desk staff was right: The weather did get better. Sort of. The rain stopped, but the wind picked up. I made my way over to the Siebold Memorial Museum, a monument, of sorts, to Philipp Franz von Siebold, the Danish physician who more or less singlehandedly introduced western medicine to Japan during the 19th century. Siebold came to Japan in 1823 and assumed responsibility for the health of the Dutch population on Dejima, in Nagasaki harbor, the single European enclave in Japan at the time. He also began to collect information about Japan through his dealings with the Dutch traders and interpreters from the city; soon, Japanese physicians began to show up in Dejima to hear his lectures, and eventually he was given permission to enter the city, treat Japanese patients, and train Japanese physicians. He opened a clinic and school in 1824; in 1828, he was suspected of smuggling after trying to leave the country with a map, and kicked out of Japan. He spent three decades in Europe writing about his experiences, and in the process became the west’s foremost expert on Japan at the time. Siebold’s Japanese daughter, Ine (who was left behind when he got kicked out) was taught by Siebold’s students and became an obstetrician, the first female practitioner of western medicine in Japan. She later became court physician, and assisted in the birth of Emperor Meiji’s child.

It’s a small museum, housed in an elegant brick building on the side of a hill near the site of Siebold’s former home and clinic. The upstairs gallery was closed, so I could only see about half of the exhibits — not that this took long, since there’s very little by way of English signage and you need to follow along with a four-page handout you can pick up at the admissions counter. I think I liked the collection of medical research on display — an intricate (for 1825) drawing of the left side of the arterial circulatory system, for instance, would look really good on my wall, though I suspect I would have been even more impressed had I been able to read Japanese. Siebold’s collection of surgical instruments are also on display, which makes one realize that, um, the basic tools of surgery haven’t changed all that much since the 1820s.

The weather was still holding, so I headed over to Glover Gardens on the other side of town. If you’re lazy, Glover Gardens is the place for you: An escalator takes you from street level up to the admissions desk, and then rolling sidewalks take you all the way up the side of the hill, from which you have a fabulous vantage point to view Nagasaki’s waterfront. The official explanation is that elderly people might find the climb too tiring. I buy it, sort of, but given the state of the weather and the shape my body is in after two weeks of non-stop traveling, I’m also predisposed to be lazy.

(Glover Gardens gives you a much better understanding of the valley in which the city lies, something that probably didn’t help matters much when it came to the thermal pulse of the nuclear bombing.) I didn’t realize this, but Nagasaki has a very big shipbuilding industry — I don’t know why I didn’t realize this, since it was one of the main reasons why Nagasaki was selected as a target for the bombing, but the size of the Mitsubishi graving docks still surprised me. Geographically-speaking, Nagasaki is one of the world’s great natural shipbuilding harbors.)

Like the Siebold Museum, you can appreciate a lot of Glover Gardens on an aesthetic level, but don’t come here looking for a lot of detail; there’s precious little English signage on a lot of the artifacts and you sort of have to connect the dots based on your knowledge of 19th century European antiques. Which isn’t really hard; when you see a sign that says “Sitting Room” and then notice all the little Japanese labels on things like the chairs, the china hutch, the rug.. you can figure it out. Again, however, a lot of the interpretation is left up to you, and I suspect there’s something fundamentally missing from the experience as a result of the linguistic difficulties. Still, it’s the only place in Japan where you’ll see the first western-style wood home, the first western-style stone home, and a number of other houses belonging to Europeans living in Nagasaki during the 1800s, before Perry showed up to kick the door in. At the top of the gardens is a very interesting display in the Mitsubishi Number 2 Dock House, where sailors used to stay while their ships were in the dock — it is, presumably, a collection of ships (both in the model and painting forms) that the Mitsubishi yards had worked on over the years. No English signage, though, so this is just a guess on my part.

It’s a fun place to spend an hour or two, and the view is really good. The usual mob of kids was running all over the place; nine of them — 9 of them — wanted me to take their pictures standing on a viewpoint overlooking the harbor. Which meant that YT had to juggle nine disposable cameras in addition to my bag full of EOS gear and my jacket. Then I had to pose for pictures with all of them. Why, I’m not entirely sure, though it may have had something to do with the fact that a gaijin that’s a good two and a half feet taller than they are is something of a novelty in their world.

Something blew into my eye at Glover Gardens. Up on the hill we were getting the full force of the 95+ kph winds in the wake of the typhoon, and I thought for sure I was going to lose at least one of my contact lenses in the gardens. (It would have been my left lens, which is OK if not great, since my left eye is the “strong” one. Strong, in this sense, means “not totally useless, just mostly useless, compared to its twin on the other side of my head.”) Eyedrops found, eyedrops bought, eyedrops instilled, and everything was much better.

I walked along the waterfront towards Dejima, the artificial island built in Nagasaki harbor in the 17th century to contain foreign traders and really the only place in Japan you could run into foreigners during the isolationist period. It’s a tiny, tiny place; you can see why there were only ever 200 people here, at most, as part of the Dutch trading contingent — it just isn’t big enough. Even 200 might have been pushing it, but remember I’m afraid of crowds and need my space, so take that evaluation with a grain of salt. Dejima is in the process of being restored to its former glory (?) and only a handful of buildings are in the same state as they were, and even fewer are actually open. An new-old warehouse has a display on the reconstruction process and talks about how hard it was to apply modern construction techniques to old designs (and at the same time strengthening them against earthquakes and typhoons). The restorations are very well done; other than the brand new wood in the buildings (and that big blue Swedish store look as a result), I doubt you could tell they were built in the past decade.

There’s a museum here on Dejima, but — and you knew this was coming, didn’t you? — there’s precious little English signage. As with almost every museum I’ve been to in Japan, the displays have long blocks of Japanese text and about two lines worth of English. So while the Japanese may say something like, “This painting depicts the arrival of Pietr de van den Huevel in Dejima in 1826 bearing gifts from the Royal Dutch household to the shogun, and his preparation for his trip to Edo accompanied by sixteen porters, a cook, a doctor, the Dejima administrator, and twelve oxen,” the English version will say something along the lines of “Arrival of Dutch trading ship. Crew prepares to leave for Edo.” It’s.. informative, but not necessarily in the same way it is for the Japanese.

Also on Dejima is a very cheesy movie about Dutch life on the island — what they ate, what they did for fun, how they spent their time, who was allowed to come and go — which is largely redundant if you’ve been through the museum and can use your imagination a little and have done some pre-reading (which I had). Still, it features a Japanese actor in a bad wig in front of a green screen which was then spliced into old artwork depicting life on Dejima, and makes extensive use of the first person, singular, to describe events as he walks through the inanimate screens. It’s very strange. English isn’t a problem here; headsets are available in English, Chinese, Korean, and Dutch (which makes sense, even if it was weird to see diacritical marks over notionally English letters for the first time in a couple of weeks).

Typhoon TV: I’ve spent a chunk of the evening watching the NHK evening news, and, like CNN with hurricaine season in Florida, the coverage never stops. It’s about as informative, too, especially given
that it’s in another language.

(I can imagine it now:

“Tell me, Hiroshi, what’s it like out there in Okayama right now?”

“Windy, Megumi!”

“Hiroshi, have you spoken to any of the evacuees?”

“I have, Megumi! They say they’re tired of being evacuated and wish the typhoon would just go away! Many are concerned about the safety of their homes and the welfare of their shops. I spoke with one elderly man who told me this was the sixteenth typhoon he’s been through in the past 70 years, and I’m standing in water up to my ankles!”

“Good stuff. Thanks, Hiroshi. We now go live to the NHK weather center where weather specialist Akira Morioka is standing by to give us the latest on Typhoon 23’s current position..”)

Is Japanese TV news as insipid as American TV news? I can’t tell. But it’s fun to pretend.)

The big difference, of course, is that in a country as small as Japan a typhoon in Kyushu is a big deal for everywhere else. Whereas people in Massachusetts — never mind Washington — don’t need to
worry about Hurricaine Zelda (or whatever we’re up to now), high winds and a shitload of rain in Kagoshima is a serious concern for people in Tokyo, since chances are good that’s where the storm’s heading next. So NHK is forgiven for doing the wall-to-wall coverage thing with this story; save for the on-screen graphics and the language issue, you’d think you were watching CNN’s wall-to-wall hurricaine coverage: Lots of scary pictures from all over southern Japan of flooded roads, fallen power lines, flipped-over trucks, giant waves.. You watch TV. You know what this sort of thing looks like. I don’t need to spell it out for you.

Probably the most distressing part of the evening, from the perspective of someone who has a long rail journey ahead of him tomorrow, was the part when they started showing pictures of trains. This is where the language barrier stopped being annoying and started being truly aggravating. “JR blah blah blah blah, Hakata-eki blah blah blah, shinkansen wa blah blah blah deshita. Sanyo shinkansen no blah blah blah ikimashita blah blah no deshita; Tokaido shinkansen blah blah blah Shin-Osaka blah blah blah Tokyo-eki no blah blah blah deshita.” One could argue, fairly convincingly, that I know just enough Japanese to know I need to worry — too much to be blissfully ignorant and think, “oh, look at the pretty pictures of the wet trains”; too little to be able to make sense of what I’m seeing. The word for “cancelled” is torikeshimasu or kyanseru shimasu, neither of which I remember hearing, but I had to look it up after the newscast was over, so that doesn’t really help.

I think that’s enough for today. I have to be at the station by 06:1 tomorrow morning to catch my train back to Hakata, and that means I have to be up by.. way early. Yecch. Assuming, of course, the blasted things are running. Why is it that every time I have to travel there’s some kind of natural disaster? Alien attack up next.