(In theory I was going to post this Sunday night. In theory. My ryokan allegedly had wireless connectivity in the lobby and, sure enough, hallie could find a wireless network. Unfortunately, hallie was unable to route packets over the local network destined for anywhere outside the local network. Also, a DNS server seemed to be missing. So while we could ping the gateway we couldn’t get out over the gateway, which meant that a planned update fell by the wayside. Oh well.)
(And can I just say, in a move that will probably cost me what is left of my h4x0r credibility, that I really do like LiveJournal, enough to pay for it? Sorry, gang.)
One could argue, convincingly, that I came to Japan to take this picture — and that now that I have taken this picture, I can go home. One might even be right in making that argument: Miyajima was set to be the high point of my trip, the thing I was looking forward to most, and visually it did not disappoint.
Miyajima is a lot like Banff. It’s pretty, it has some spectacular natural attractions, and it is overrun with tourists and deer. In particular, the tourists seem to enjoy pestering the wildlife, something that I again question the wisdom of. Canadians know better. There’s a reason it’s called wildlife, after all; teasing deer and foxes does not strike me as a particularly safe thing to do, but I suppose you can’t really argue with the locals, who seem to think that taunting deer is perfectly OK. The deer here are just as bad as they were in Nara, only without the benefit of cute cartoon iconography to ensure you don’t make them angry or jealous.
When I say that Miyajima is overrun by tourists, I mean that in the most literal sense of the term. There were thousands of tourists on the island today, thanks to it being a Sunday and a particularly nice Sunday at that. Most everything on the island is geared towards day trippers, which has some interesting side-effects: Everything shuts down at 17:00. I mean everything. There are no restaurants open on a Sunday night here. The vending machines stop working. I foolishly turned down dinner at my ryokan, thinking that I’d be able to find a meal more cheaply and conveniently somewhere else. Hah! Not so much. It’s now too late to do anything about this, so I guess I’ll just have to cope. Good thing I had a reasonably late lunch.
The local culinary specialty, as befitting a small island in the Seto Sea, is anago: Grilled conger eel. This has a texture and a taste that reminded me a lot of trout. J., you would have really liked this, although the hundreds of tiny bones make it almost impossible for you to forget what you’re eating. You are, apparently, supposed to just eat the bones. They don’t hurt the way fish bones do. I figure that, if nothing else, I got a little extra calcium today. (Anago, for those of you keeping track at home, is way better than unagi. I don’t particularly like unagi; I could eat anago.. well, maybe twice a month, tops.) Miyajima restaurants also do a brisk business in grilled oysters (of all things), and these too are very, very good (if very pricey). I sat next to a quartet of Frenchmen (and women) at lunch, all of whom ordered shrimp tempura — we call this “wussing out” — and all of whom ate it with tartar sauce. I don’t get it.
Something I’m coming to learn about domestic Japanese tourism: The Japanese apparently believe that if something is worth doing, it is worth doing in very large numbers. Tour groups with hundreds of members flooded the island early in the afternoon, and i was left thinking, “Jesus, don’t they ever do anything alone?” I realized the answer was “no, probably not”; this is, after all, a society in which individualism is not exactly considered an especially positive trait. I knew this ahead of time, but had no idea that it would apply to sightseeing. I think the best part of mass tourism is the number of services that have been established to service this demographic — the thing that stands out in my mind is the point on the walkway with benches and a platform for a locally-supplied photographer to take group pictures in front of the floating torii. It seems kind of stupid, but at the same time, I guess it’s a really efficient way to see whatever it is the conventional wisdom says you should see.
Something else I’m coming to learn about domestic tourism in Japan: The Japanese have fabulously good taste, at least in their clothes and architecture and building design. That said, however, they have one glaring blind spot. The inside of those buildings, however, particularly those intended for use as residences, must be full of junk. There is an appallingly large selection of total crap for sale to tourists everywhere I’ve been. At Todai-ji, in the shadow of the giant Daibutsuden, you can buy bottle openers — bottle openers! — with a picture of the Buddha on them. The shops in Miyajima are full of this kind of crap — cheap plastic trinkets to commemorate your visit to one of the three most scenic places in Japan according to whoever). I got some e-mail wondering about what I might be buying for myself, souvenir-wise, and the answer is “very little,” since I’m bringing home all my film and pixels, and that’s more than enough of a souvenir for me. (I notice I’m buying more stuff as time goes on, though, on the theory that perhaps I’ll realize at a later date I didn’t get something for someone I should have, and will then have the ability to fix that problem. If not, hey, I get some cool swag for myself.) Real Japanese, however, don’t seem to have that problem. The kitchier the better. I realize this is probably a horribly unfair generalization, but what can I say? It feels true. Someone has to buying this stuff, and I can’t imagine that many old people from the South come to Miyajima. Plastic katana. Rubber nunchucks. Cheap snow globes. It goes on and on and on.
Miyajima claims (at least, according to a sign I saw) to be the birthplace of the modern rice scoop. If you’ve never been in a proper Japanese kitchen (or even just a kitchen belonging to someone that makes a lot of rice, mine, for instance) before you probably have no idea what this is, so I’ll describe it: It’s like a big spoon, but flat and wide, and used for scooping rice out of the rice cooker and serving it wherever. I honestly don’t think you can make rice without one, but I also don’t think you can make rice without a proper rice cooker, so my judgment may be clouded on this. Miyajima has what they brag is the largest rice scoop in the world — it’s, like, 20 feet long and comes with an informational display, explaining how some local resident once got the bright idea to take a spoon in the shape of a lute and use it to serve rice. I don’t know if I believe this or not — it seems a little wacky to be true — but that’s what they say. It’s like, I dunno, the big hockey stick in Duncan, or the giant easter egg in Vermillion. Why it’s here is a total mystery to me. Needless to say, you can buy commemorative rice scoops in shops all over the island; if I had to pick a souvenir from Miyajima that would describe its souvenir industry, it would be the rice scoop.
(There’s probably some kind of significance to this, but I have no idea what that is, if it is anything at all.)
You ride a two-stage cable car up Mt. Misen. The first stage consists of Rocky Mountain-like gondolas, with inscriptions that ask you to remain calm if the car stops, and emergency radios with severe penalties threatened for misuse. It’s a vertigo-inducing ten minute ride up to the halfway point, where you board a more conventional cable car system with about 30 people who will soon become your close, personal friends. If you’re larger and taller than the average Japanese.. you know where this is going, so I won’t even bother saying anything else.
Up on Mt. Misen I ran into a couple of Red Sox fans from Boston. “Sorry about what happened today, dude,” I said to the guy. Todd got a panicked look on his face. “What happened?” “Arroyo apparently couldn’t make it out of the second, and it was 19-8 for the bad guys in the bottom of the ninth the last time I saw anything, which was a couple of hours ago.” Kristine, his wife, had to talk him down from the cliff. “3-0 in the series. The Sox have got to get their act together.” The word schadenfreude popped into my head, unbidden. Why was I enjoying twisting the knife? Oh, I know why: “Cheer up. At least your team made it into the playoffs. My team never made it out of last place in the division.”
“Oh, are you a Montreal fan?” Kristine asked. Good guess, but wrong, since the ‘Spos did in fact make it out of last place in the NL East (and managed to stay out of the cellar for a while). “No, I’m a Mariners fan.” This ellicited a moan of sympathy; at least they had the grace to commiserate. I had to admit that upon learning the news of Boston’s whuppin’, I was crestfallen. I don’t really want another year of listening to Red Sox fans whine about curses and destiny and who deserves a World Series and who suffers more as a city (remember, sports fans, until the Storm won the WNBA championship last week Seattle hadn’t had a sports championship in anything since the 1970s), but. Boston fans like to pretend their suffering was sung by Homer; the Mariners, by contrast, are among a very select group of teams to have never actually made it to the World Series; the Sox, at least, have 1986 to look back on. Should they actually win it all, Red Sox fans will be totally insufferable. At the same time, as is required of all baseball fans not actually in New York, I hate the Yankees, and anything that causes them to lose will make me happy.
Mt. Misen has an amazing view of the Inland Sea and, off in the distance, of Shikoku, the forgotten fourth main island of the Japanese archipelago. It is home to a colony of monkeys who, unfortunately, were off feeding in the forest when I got there. However, you can look at the signs that ask you to not feed them (so they don’t become junk food addicts), to lock your personal effects up (because these monkeys are kleptos), and to not look them in the eyes (because these monkeys.. go monkey on you when you do something like that). The pictograms are, in true Japanese style, absolutely hilarious. Mary, an attractive single mother of 36 from the Bay Area, and her nine year-old daughter Kaitlyn were disappointed the monkeys were in the forest. “I thought they were supposed to hang out around the cable car station,” Mary said. “It’s too bad they’re not here.” Mary, Katilyn, and I walked along the meandering path up to the summit of Mt. Misen, a 30-minute hike for those with good legs, and much longer for those with bad legs and/or children in tow. We came around a corner, and there, lumbering along on the ground, was a red-faced monkey. Katlyn squealed with excitement. The monkey didn’t think much of this, and ambled right through our little group, disappearing into the woods. I got a couple of good pictures, sadly with the wrong lens attached; after changing for my 100/2 and setting Av mode at f/2.8 — perfect for capturing small primates, you’d think — we saw no more monkeys.
It was the lens change. I know it.
At the bottom of Mt. Misen I ran into a group of US Navy sailors on leave. They were pestering the deer, Japanese style. The guy was trying to get the deer to come over and sniff his hand even though it was empty. “I don’t think that’s a very good idea,” I said to him. He shrugged. “It’ll be fine. C’mere, deer.” This worked, sort of, but then the deer realized what was happening, got pissed off, and tried to bite him. I don’t think teeth were involved, but the lips of deer are apparently very strong. A lengthy string of US Navy-grade profanity followed.
“I told you it wasn’t nice to tease,” I said. He looked unconvinced. Must have been a city boy.
Itsukushima shrine is open again! Remember how I was complaining it had been damaged in that typhoon (not the one I survived) and was under repair? Well, enough repairs have been done to allow visitors back in, though the scaffolding and tarps (a) made me think of leaky condo fix projects back home and (b) wrecked just about every really good scenic vantage point from a photographic perspective. It is easily the coolest shrine I’ve been to so far in Japan — Miyajima was, is, considered sacred and back in the Bad Old Days commoners were not allowed to set foot on the island, so in order to visit the shrine they had to alight from boats straight onto the shrine itself, which is built on pilings in a small harbor. The torii guards the sea approach. When the tide is up, the shrine really does look like it’s floating on the water, which is a very cool effect (albeit a damn hard one to capture on film; all the pictures I took make the shrine look like exactly what it is — a shrine built on pilings). The sacredness of Miyajima had some interesting historical effects. For a long time, no one was allowed to be born or to die on the island, so people in
danger of doing either were rushed back over to Miyajima-guchi where they could do their dying or birthing in a not-so-sacred place. Even today, there are no graveyards on Miyajima — which is strange, considering that 22,000 people make this tiny, 31-square kilometer island home. I found no evidence of a hospital, but I did see two local ambulances.
It’s a little like.. I dunno, Pender Island crossed with Banff and kitschified about 200%.
But it’s very, very pretty.
As I write this, the Seibu Lions are beating the Chunichi Dragons by a score of 6-3. Daisuke Matsuzaka is on the hill for the Lions. I’ll say this right now, even though my qualifications as a scout are suspect, at best: He’s the real deal. If he gets posted, the bidding for this guy is going to get stupid, and the team who wins the negotiating rights is going to be very happy with their investment (assuming he stays healthy; I don’t know enough about the mechanics of throwing the gyroball and Matsuzaka’s use patterns to say anything intelligent on the subject, not that anything else I’m saying on this subject is especially well-informed). The shuto is a vicious pitch, and Matsuzaka’s seems particularly nasty. You know how Barry Zito’s got that curve that comes in nice and high and then just rolls off the table? That’s what the shuto is like. Only worse, because it breaks away from a right-handed hitter so sharply
that they’re swinging at stuff that isn’t there anymore. There’s one strikeout I watched in super-slow-motion on the NHK replay and I swear to god the batter should have made contact. It was like that movie, It Happens Every Spring. Ball’s there, bat’s there, but suddenly the bat head is all the way around and the ball is in the catcher’s mitt, and you have no idea what the hell just happened.
Whoa. Nasty, boy, nasty.
Here’s something else: I haven’t watched a whole lot of TV since I got here. My hotel in Kyoto had CNN, which was nice, but it was CNN and thus prone to driving me nuts. (When I checked in I got Larry King interviewing what’s-her-pickle, the teacher who slept with her student. I don’t want to watch this! But it’s in English, so I did. Mary Kay Letourneau, that’s who it was.) But aside from that, there hasn’t been anything to watch. The Japan Series is the first time I’ve had the TV on in the same way I might have it on back home. Baseball is baseball, but I can’t understand the announcers or read the on-screen graphics. I have no idea what the consensus on this broadcast crew is, but if they’re as bad as, say, Rex Hudler and Tim McCarver, being unable to understand them might be a good thing.
(I should point out that even that isn’t as big a deal as it seems: When something looks like “[bunch of dead bugs] .320 [more dead bugs] 38 [more dead bugs] 64” it’s pretty obvious what you’re looking at,
and even if you can’t tell what the HR and RBIs are, this is still a player with a little pop.)
(Of course, in writing that, I jinxed him. He gave up back-to-back singles, the second of which advanced the lead runner to third. On a 2-0 pitch to the third batter, Matsuzaka surrendered a three-run home run to deep right, which tied the game at 6-6. Still, he looked good doing it.)
Fukuoka tomorrow. Nagasaki Tuesday. Home Friday. I almost can’t wait.