Deer, Monkeys, Floating Torii, and Conger Eel — oh my!

(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.

Service Advisory

I’ll be leaving for Miyajima in the morning, beginning the third-to-last leg of my trip before turning around in Nagasaki and coming back to Tokyo on Thursday next week. Unfortunately, this also marks the end of my guaranteed Internet access — while I’m sure I’ll be able to find access, I cannot make any promises as to my ability to update on a regular basis. Given how hard typing on Japanese keyboards has proven for me I’m likely to shy away from that, so unless I can stick a flash drive into a USB port and upload entries that way, you may not hear from me until I hit my hotel in Narita four days from now. Think happy thoughts for me, OK?

Meanwhile, if there’s anything that’s really pressing — like, say, requests for stuff to be brought back, or messages, or whatever — you’d better phone. (080-3451-3828, for those of you who aren’t writing things down, figure out how to dial it on your own, ok?)


An Oregonian, Two Russians, Three Parts

Part I: About Last Night

It was my fault, really. Just shy of two weeks in-country, and I still haven’t gotten the hang of crossing the street. The best advice is PJ O’Rourke’s tip for driving in England — think of yourself as a well-dressed socialist: “Keep left, look right.” For the first couple of days I repeated this mantra to myself, and even felt comfortable enough with the traffic and pedestrian patterns here that I was happy to try jaywalking (some intersections that are signal-controlled here would barely qualify as a driveway back home, and I’ve been sorrily tempted to try jumping across rather than walking). But from time to time I’d get to an intersection where traffic would be coming from an unexpected direction, i.e., it was coming the wrong way. You step off the curb, as a North American, and you instinctively look left. It’s a kind of operant conditioning at work.

How it happened would be funny if not for the potential for serious injury. The Japanese drive like maniacs in the city; it’s a total miracle there aren’t more traffic fatalities here. (I say this knowing nothing about the incidence of road mayhem on Japanese highways.) I was crossing Aioi-dori, standing at one of the trolley platforms in the middle of the street, on the wrong side of the road as far as I’m concerned, and waiting for the light to change. It turns out I was standing just a little too close to the edge for safety’s sake, because a Hiroshima municipal bus came through the intersection at about 10 km/h. The mirror, sticking out from the side, caught me in the left shoulder.

I should stress I wasn’t hurt. The impact, however, spun me around and knocked me to the ground, to much gasping by the assembled knot of pedestrians. The bus stopped immediately, the driver hopped out, and much apologizing ensued from both me and him. Within minutes the police had arrived, summoned by.. I don’t know who, actually, but their response time — on foot! — puts Victoria PD’s to shame (that’s assuming there’s actually a member from the traffic section on, and they’re not too busy handling calls, and there aren’t injuries, and they actually feel like attending). Nobody spoke English, which made the whole thing hilarious; my biggest concern, and the thing I wanted to make clear to everyone, was that I was perfectly fine and didn’t need an ambulance or a trip to the hospital. I made the international sign for “OK” (note: not actually international; don’t try this in some parts of the middle east or you’re liable to get shot), waved my arm around, did some range-of-motion checks that were partly to demonstrate that I was fine and partly to establish to my own satisfaction that I was fine. I got a stern lecture from the senior police officer in what I’m sure was the importance of looking the correct (i.e., right) way before crossing the street. Like I said, it could have been a lot worse.

Part II: After The Fire

Here’s a good way to spend a day in Peace Memorial Park while the sun is out: Wake up. Realize feet do not want to move and that your body feels the way your 84 year-old patients who’ve broken their hips probably feel. Marvel at how if you were home you’d seriously think about spending the day on the couch watching football (or coercing other people into giving you backrubs). Spend too long in the shower with the water cranked up hot enough to make you look like a scalded and angry lobster while the 800 mg of ibuprofen you swallowed works its magic. Get dressed, pull your photo gear together, and leave the hotel. Walk the two kilometers or so to Peace Memorial Park (only about 1,000 meters as the crow flies but you can’t walk that way). Finish off two rolls of film by playing with deliberate underexposure and trying to punch the contrast on some B&W pictures way, way up there. (Here’s a hint: You’ll need to dial in at least one more stop overexposure than the TTL metering thinks you need when you’re working with a 25 filter to get its full effect — your camera’s meter gets confused because of spectral sensitivity. So set ISO 250 with 400 film and fire away.) Run into two Russian girls from St. Petersburg who want you to take their pictures, then spend an hour wandering around the park with them, chatting in Brokenglish and Frussian.

I thought about how strange it was to be in Peace Memorial Park, in this city once deestroyed by a nuclear weapon, wandering around with Russians. I couldn’t help think that twenty years ago their government would probably have been happy to blow my country up on general principles. (Anyone who thought Canada would have gotten out of that war unscathed was an idiot.) This was Lena and Natalia’s first trip to Asia, and they were having fun, even if their Japanese was worse than my Russian — which they were surprised to hear pop out of my mouth. It’s always fun to spot the tourists babbling to each other in another language, and then go up and say a few words.

(Here’s a mean trick I’ve started to play: Young Japanese kids figure out very quickly that you’re not from around here, and so every time I’ve sat down to watch them play, or walk through a park, I inevitably get yelled at in English. “How’s it goin’?!” is usually what they say. For a while I replied in English and gave a thumbs-up, but lately I’ve taken to replying either in Japanese or — better yet — Spanish. They have no idea what’s going on. I’d say the Spanish is more fun, but what do I know?)

My new Russian friends were, like every Russian I’ve ever known, fatalistic about their world. I asked Lena about Chechnya, Beslan, terrorism, and what she thought of Putin. “Putin’s a thug,” she said. “But what else are we going to do? It will either work or it will get us all killed.” Natalia piped up. “What good is a government that can’t protect you?” I opened my mouth to offer the standard libertarian reply to that comment, then closed it because I didn’t see how it could have made any difference. I can make that argument precisely because it is based on a history that these women didn’t share — Russians, Lena pointed out (in case I didn’t know), don’t have a tradition of democracy or freedom. Natalia was almost ready to write the whole democracy experiment off, but Lena was trying to stay optimistic.

“I worry,” Lena said. “But I don’t want to die, and I don’t want other people to die, either. The communists kept this sort of thing under control; it’s not hard to think they might be better.” I said I couldn’t really comment one way or another. “The only thing I know is what has worked for my country, and we’ve managed to do OK for ourselves by it — we’ve never had a terrorist attack, and aside from border skirmishes with the Americans, we don’t get attacked by other countries.” The women were surprised to hear about that, so I told them about the series of small wars British and American forces fought over Canada during the 19th century. I couldn’t tell whether it impressed them or not.

“Perhaps the reason no one attacks you,” Natalia said when I had finished, “is because you’re just not that important.” I couldn’t tell if she was joking or not, but she probably had a point.

Lena got hungry so I aimed the girls in the direction of the Sogo department store (“go up to the seventh floor”) and walked over to the Cenotaph, a saddle-shaped arch over a coffin that contains the names of all confirmed victims of the bombing, as well as an inscription I found oddly moving: “Let all souls here rest in peace, for we shall not repeat the evil.” Many of the smaller memorials in the park were about allowing souls to make the transition from this world into the next; I found the Korean Worker’s Monument especially telling in that regard, talking about the need of “the souls of our compatriots, brought to misery through force, [being] able to rest in peace.” How true, I thought. I shot some pictures and thought that perhaps my presence and incessant moving around was somehow a distraction from the solemnity of the place, but every time it came to mind I was confronted by Japanese tourists snapping pictures with their cameraphones or posing and waving in front of the arch, and promptly felt better about it.

Tracy saw me changing lenses and film on the steps in front of the Cenotaph and came over to talk. She was 24, from Eugene, and lonely. “I haven’t been able to talk to anyone in almost a week!” she complained. I commiserated and told her about my ecstasy on arriving in Kyoto to find other Canadians to talk to. “I flew into Kyoto on Monday, and I’m still not used to this place.” How long was she here for? “A month,” she said. “I’m starting to think that was a mistake. It gets better, right?” She was confused by the culture shock — after having spent her 19th summer backpacking around Europe, she expected Japan to be a breeze, and was surprised to discover how much harder it was to survive here. “At least in Europe it’s basically the same alphabet, and if all else fails most people there at least understand English.” Tracy more or less repeated every complaint I had when I got to Tokyo, and I assured her that things do, in fact, get easier as time goes on.

We walked over to the Children’s Memorial. Tracy had some origami paper and she showed me how to fold a crane (I’ve never been able to do it, and promptly forgot five minutes later), which we left at the base of the memorial itself. Like most kids of the nuclear age, Tracy had been exposed to Sadako Sasaki’s story at an early age — in elementary school — and she and her classmates had at the time spent a week folding cranes to be sent to Hiroshima. So many cranes arrive, apparently, that the city has erected bus shelter-type booths to hold them all, and maintains a registry of donations. I pawed through them, looking for cards and tags to give clues to their origins but gave up after I realized I didn’t really care — the fact that so many people thought it was important was enough for me.

Tracy suggested we head over to the museum; we split the cost of an audio guide and wandered around for two hours looking at the exhibits. My guide book — well, all the guide books — will talk about how powerful the museum is, and how moving the displays are, and it’s true, but for me the saddest moments were the ones involving the personal effects of the victims. In the same way that the most moving part of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington are the small offerings left by friends and family at the wall (because they so clearly mean something to everyone involved even though the connection may not be obvious to the rest of us), the preserved possessions of those who died tell a different, more personal story than the physics or the chronology do. I was OK with it all until I came across Shinichi Tetsutani’s tricycle. He was almost four that morning, and had been riding his favorite toy in front of his house when the bomb fell. He died two days later, and his father felt that he was too young to be buried alone in a grave far from home, so Nobou buried his son in the backyard with his tricycle and helmet. Forty years later, in 1985, Shinichi’s remains were moved to the Tetsutani family grave, and Nobou donated the trike and helmet to the museum, where, in 2004, they managed to seriously screw me up for about ten minutes. Tracy caught up to me in this state and we stood there for a while, looking at the tricycle. I couldn’t explain it. She squeezed my arm and nodded, once.

You need a hug when you’re finished with the place.

The museum does a good job of showing what life was like that morning, and what it’s been like since. The parts about the reconstruction of Hiroshima are nothing short of remarkable — the speed with which the city was rebuilt, the heroism of those who rushed to help, the horrors of what they saw. (A part of me wonders what sort of stories are told about, say, the aftermath of the firestorms in Dresden or Tokyo, whether they are significantly different from the ones told here or not.) Especially well-done — well, ok, from a layman’s perspective — is the section on the physical and medical effects of the bomb. A very cool display explains radioactivity by letting you play with a G-M counter and a 37 kBq strontium-90 source. “Is this safe?” Tracy wanted to know. I pointed at the sign on the display that said it had been carefully designed to make it perfectly safe. “Yeah, but how do you know for sure,” she said, not really trusting anything with the word “radioactive” attached to it.

Me, I don’t worry about this stuff. “Strontium’s a beta-emitter,” I said. “You can shield against beta quite nicely with a few milimeters of Plexiglass. Which is what this is.” Tap tap tap. She was unconvinced. The display, though, was fun; you could move the sensing tube closer or further away from the source, and watch the count go up and down (a very good demonstration of the inverse square law, maybe the best one I’ve ever seen — actually, come to think of it, it’s the only one I’ve ever seen, since I’ve only ever been taught the inverse square law mathematically). Next to that was a description of how fogged x-ray film in the vault at Red Cross Hospital was instrumental in proving that the blast had been nuclear in origin.

(A very good book could be written about the work of Japanese scientists in the wake of the bombing who tried to figure out exactly what had happened. There’s a story I once heard about how they analyzed the fallout soon after the blast and determined, correctly, that it was impossible for the United States to produce enough U-235 to make more than one bomb every six months or so. It was just their bad luck that the Nagasaki bomb used Pu-239 instead. I have no idea whether this story is true or not, but it’s interesting nonetheless.)

A chunk of part of the museum (not a large enough part, in my opinion) is given over to the medical effects of radiation, including a lengthy explanation of the keloid problem in bomb survivors and what happens when a fetus is exposed to a lot of radiation (microcephaly with developmental disabilities, primarily). Cross-sections of keloids are on display, much as they would be in a pathology collection; the most frightening thing was the anterior section of what looked like T10 to L5 or so (I couldn’t tell exactly). Sliced down the middle it’s supposed to show what depressed bone marrow looks like. I doubt 99% of the people visiting the exhibit would be able to tell you the difference — but I could. Normal bone marrow looks like jelly. This thing looked like a sponge, the result of the hematapoietic cells having been destroyed. The micro slides were even worse — I’e seen some really depleted marrow samples, but this was something else. We’re talking about nearly complete suppression. Spooky.

One part that I would have liked to explore more (but coulding, owing to a language barrier) was the narratives told by the survivors. What stories do they tell? How is this event depicted in art? There were Japanese-language videos and animations available, but no English translations. Which is too bad, because the small fragments I did see made me think there were fascinating stories inside.

The museum’s message, over and over again, is that nuclear weapons are bad, and that we’ll all be better off without them. It’s an overly simple message, but one that’s hard to disagree with anyway. I was thankful that the museum wasn’t a lengthy denunciation of nuclear energy as a whole (though there were people on the bridge leading to the park who were happy to add place names like “Chornobyl” and “Tokaimura” to “Hiroshima” and “Nagasaki” in an all-encompassing complaint about nuclear). I mentioned this to Tracy, who seemed surprised that otherwise seemingly sensible people could be enthusiastic about nuclear energy. “Even if you set the power generating issue aside,” I said, “I’m willing to bet you that nuclear has saved more lives than it has cost.”

“How do you figure?”

“Think about all the applications nuclear has in medicine — everything from cardiac stress testing to thyroid scanning to cancer therapy to the simple x-ray is derived from the same science that made what happened here possible. It’s just technology.”

She conceded the point. “I never thought about it in those terms before.”

“Most people don’t,” I said. “Nuclear medicine is one of those jokes — two words that should never go together. But there are some very smart and very talented people who are making thousands of lives better because we figured out how to use the power of the atom. It’s not all weapons and power reactors, even though that’s what gets the press. But ask anyone who has had their cancer sent into remission by radiation therapy what they think of it!”

We walked over to the National Peace Memorial Hall, just northeast of the museum. Weirdly, I liked this place better — it wasn’t so interested in telling the overreaching story of the bomb as it was in telling the individual stories of the bomb. A beautifully designed hall of remembrance is your first introduction to the hall, with an exit leading to a 3×4 bank of video monitors. Each monitor shows nine pictures, nine victims, and the images change constantly. It’s brilliantly done. You get a pamphlet when you walk in, and there are scanners attached to terminals where you can scan the bar code and find out about “your” victim; mine was a 30 year-old woman who was caught out in the open 1,500 meters from the hypocenter and who died three days later. You can search the database of victims, and I learned that 12 Sugimotos perished that day (this doesn’t necessarily mean anything, since it’s not exactly an uncommon surname here). Upstairs, more terminals tell more stories; I thought, again, that the most remarkable stories were the ones of the people who survived the blast by being far away, and who then streamed into the city to render aid — the soldier who found a crying four year-old and reunited her with her mother after a week of carrying her around on his back, the weatherman for the Japanese Navy who was pressed into service tending to the wounded and who developed problems later in life and concealed the fact that he had been at the bombing, the doctors and nurses who worked frantically in the face of futility to save those who could be saved, and to ease the pain of those who could not. Strangely, many of these stories are told in a voice that almost suggests embarassement — the equivalent of “you’re welcome” in Japanese is do itashimashite, which literally translates to “what have I done to deserve your thanks?” Many of these stories are told with that kind of phrasing in mind — they don’t seem to think they did anything heroic or amazing in the face of that kind of suffering.

Tracy was getting tired so we parted company at this point. I wished her luck on her travels northward; she thanked me for an enjoyable afternoon. I walked back past the A-Bomb Dome, past the hypocenter, and thought about what I had seen. This entire area had been completely destroyed, knocked flat and the rubble burned, killing thousands. How do I reconcile what I’ve seen with what I’m experiencing right now?

Part III: Ceremonies of Light and Dark

I disappeared underground to Sogo with this stuff on my mind, wondering about what it meant, and thinking about how strange it was to be in one of only two cities destroyed by a nuclear weapon. The abstract lessons of the Cold War, the clinically detached nature of physics, the mechanical precision of the engineering seemed to stand in stark contrast to what I had seen, and to the reality of being here. I bought dinner, walked underground and emerged into the night on Aioi-dori again. The sun sets fast here; I had gone underground with the sun low on the horizon, and twenty minutes later it was gone. I thought about how this spot, 500 meters from the hypocenter, would not have been a good place to be (although perhaps being underground might have offered some measure of protection — then again, maybe not). And I thought about how everything around me was very, very new.

And then it hit me: Everything around me was new. Atomic bomb or no atomic bomb, if you didn’t know you were standing in Hiroshima you’d never be able to tell. Sixty years is not all that long; it’s well within living memory, and the re-emergence of Hiroshima into a modern Japanese city, with all the bright lights and enthusiasm that implies, is not something that happened recently — it’s been in progress for a while. This city was flattened by a terrible, terrible thing.. and it has been reborn into something bigger, better, brighter. The people who live here do not seem to dwell on what happened, because the past is the past and it cannot be changed anymore. Life for them moved on long ago; Hiroshima residents worry about the future and the mayor complains at lengths every time a new nuclear test is conducted because the memory will exist forever.. but while the past seems to inform their approach to the present, and their outlook for the future, it does not define either.

Things change, it’s true. But we change too. We adapt, we learn, and we cope; life goes on, inexorably, unavoidably. We feel pain, but that pain fades; we suffer wounds, but the wounds heal, and we are able to talk about them, examine the circumstances that lead to them, work to prevent them in the future. The bombing was considered to be a knockout punch: It was said, in 1945, that nothing would grow in Hiroshima for 75 years. Some thought the city itself would never recover.

The 1.1 million people who live here would beg to differ on the latter.
And as to the former.. the hypocenter — this city’s Ground Zero — is surrounded by some of the lushest urban greenery I’ve ever seen anywhere.

They said the world changed forever in New York on 11 September, 2001. But the world changed forever here in Hiroshima on 6 August, 1945, too. I have a hard time believing the world that emerged from that event is worse than what had come before.

Lena and Natalia were right: This is a damn scary time to be alive. But we’re going to get through it. We’ve been through worse.

We’ll be OK.

In The Shadow of an Icon

You know what this is, of course. It’s impossible to be alive in 2004 and not know what happened 160 meters from the Industrial Promotion Hall of Hiroshima Prefecture on 6 August, 1945. This is, arguably, the seminal image of the first half of the 20th century; the starkness of what it represents meant that we spent the second half of that century trying to prevent it from happening again somewhere else. I walked down to the river tonight, sat in the park around the A-Bomb Dome, took pictures, and drank my Coke. I thought about what had happened here, and how strange it seems — how distant it is. Hiroshima is a modern, bustling Japanese city — neon, cars, sleek hotels with hardwood floors, funky fashions and hundreds of restaurants. 59 years ago standing in this spot might not have been such a good idea. Yet here we are. That light standard just off from the middle of the picture? It’s left field at Hiroshima Municipal Stadium.

I walked around thinking about tragedy and its effect on a city, on a nation, on a culture. I thought about 9/11, arguably one of the defining moments of my generation. (I would not be one of the people who would argue it, but work with me here.) There are those who would suggest we cannot forget what happened that day, but I think what they really mean is that they want us to dwell on it, pick at the scab, refuse to let it heal. They have motives behind these arguments, agendas that require pain to advance without complaint. For those who lost loved ones in the catastrophe life will never be the same, of course, but we move on, as Tennyson said, as the world darkens around us. What we choose to do, and how we choose to honor the dead, is entirely up to us.

Hiroshima might not be a bad place to find inspiration. You’d think that with all this tragedy — a couple orders of magnitude more dead than 9/11 — Hiroshima might be a sad place to visit. (There will undoubtedly be someone who thinks I’m trivializing one incident or the other by tying them together. The point isn’t what happened, the point is how we deal with grief. Loss is loss, no matter how it occurred.) I’d be lying if I said the Dome and Peace Memorial Park weren’t moving in the dark, thought-provoking in their own ways. But here’s something I’m willing to bet $10 you didn’t know: On a Friday night in early fall, in 2004, these two places are the make-out spots for Hiroshima teenagers.

Little cats roam the park. (J., one of them looked like a small version of Hilti, and about as affectionate.) Couples spoke softly in the dark alcoves, away from the light standards, in the shadow of this most iconographic of buildings. From the Heiwa-Ohashi Bridge came folk music, guitars and taiko drums and harmonicas (you’d think this combination wouldn’t work, but amazingly it does). I heard kids laughing and racing around, I saw men and women walking together, enjoying maybe the finest evening since I got to Japan. And I realized I was watching the re-born Hiroshima — mindful of the past, aware of the past, but beyond it at the same time. So far as I could tell, I was the only person whose purpose in visiting the Park and the Dome was.. visiting the Park and the Dome. Everyone else — I mean everyone else — was either crossing through the park on their way somewhere else, or walking with someone and laughing, or engaged in the intricate exploration of another person’s tonsils, or doing the things that have brought joy to humankind from the beginning of our understanding of joy.

I wondered if I’d see couples flocking to Freedom Park (or whatever they’re going to name it) to make out within my lifetime.

Hikari 367 left Himeji this afternoon at 15:30, on the nose, as you would expect. I started the day up on Mt. Shosha, home to Engyoji, a collection of Buddhist temples and sub-temples up in the hills of Hyogo-ken northwest of Himeji. It was a nice way to start the day, albeit somewhat inauspiciously — my bus managed to hit a small car on the way out of town. There was little damage, and no injuries (and I felt perfectly happy staying where I was — out of the way), and it only delayed our arrival at the Mt. Shosha ropeway by about 20 minutes. Searching the depths of my memory I’m reasonably sure there was some kind of Buddhist rite I could have performed that would have canceled out the effects of the minor MVA this morning — it would have saved me some considerable pain later in the day.

I know I said I was going to try taking it easy for a couple of days but the trip up to Engyoji made that kind of impossible: While a bus is provided for wusses, I declined to wait and started walking. Up the steep 800 meter path up the side of the mountain to the main offices of the temple. It turns out this was (a) stupid and (b) the wrong way to go, though it was very scenic. My leg started bothering me almost immediately. Many breaks were necessary. Also, I need to get in shape before climbing mountains. Ugh.

Maniden was the focal point of my visit to Engyoji. There are a number of other world historical sites within the temple complex but by the time I made it up the east path I was too spent to consider hiking anywhere else. Like Kiyomizu in Kyoto, it was built without nails; unlike Kiyomizu, it dates from the last century since the thing burned down in the early 1900s. The cablecar attendant told me that Tom Cruise had come to Engyoji to film part of The Last Samurai though I’ll be damned if I can figure out where he did it, or what part was filmed there. There were some truly neat moments, such as the arrival of a dozen pilgrims, faces flushed with the exertion of climbing up the mountain, who then climbed up to Maniden and soon thereafter began chanting so loudly you could almost hear it echo across the valley.

Worth a visit, but don’t bring your broken body.

Koko-en, the gardens I wanted to visit yesterday while the light was good: I’m really torqued that they closed when they did, because it would have been so good then. In the middle of the day they were still beautiful, but would have been a thousand times better with the liquid gold pouring down. There isn’t too much to say about the gardens itself, except that Koko-en is unique in that the nursery is included on the walking tour and is housed in the former samurai quarters of Himeji-jo.

I got to Hiroshima in the late afternoon after about an hour on the train. While waiting for my train in Himeji, a northbound 500 series Nozomi saw fit to rocket through the station, creating its own weather patterns in its wake. You have no idea. Not only are these things fast, they’re loud, too; the sneak up on Himeji station and then blast through at full speed — if you’re looking in the wrong direction, as I was, you miss their approach. Suddenly there’s this thunderclap, and a silver arrow goes flying across your field of vision, and is gone even before you realize it. My one sorrow about the Japan Rail Pass is that it isn’t valid on Nozomi services, so I don’t get to experience this from the inside out. Those 500 series trains look sweet.

My hotel is housed in a bare concrete building on the banks of the Kyobashi-gawa river, where it meets up with the Enko-gawa. I have a very nice view of both from my window. The hotel’s Web site describes it as having high-speed Internet in all rooms, which had me fired up. Upon arrival I searched high and low for an RJ45 jack and couldn’t find one. I was ready to be pissed, until hallie poked me and said, “Hey, I’ve found a wireless network: FLEX-4F. Do you want to connect?” Behold! The hotel has configured floor-by-floor WiFi.


Things That Bug Me About Japan:

  1. Garbage. You would not believe how much packaging you get with everything here. I bought some gyoza at Isetan the other day. The plastic tray was wrapped in paper, as you would wrap a Christmas present. The box was then put into a paper bag, which was sealed. The paper bag was then put into a plastic bag. I’m shocked the clerk didn’t put my hashi into their own little envelope (I guess the fact that they’re hermetically sealed kind of precludes that).
  2. Everything talks to you. Everything. The escalator. The elevator. The ATM. The subway. The bus. The shinkansen. The truck backing up in the street. In theory, this is great. In practice, not so much. Why? Because you tune it out. Granted I’d never understand what it was saying anyway (though I’ve gotten to the point where I can pick out the important gist of an announcement; anything that sounds like, “suniwa blah blah blah” is warning you of an upcoming stop and if you want to get off, get ready), but the fact that it’s incessant and everywhere means I don’t notice anything. Frankly I wouldn’t be surprised to discover a talking toiler by the time I leave. (“Thank you for using me as a waste receptacle,” maybe.) At the same time, I wish I could speak Japanese so I could figure what the hell the escalator is telling me — it’s warning me about something, but what I don’t know. (“Abunai desu kara” == it’s dangerous. Great! Thanks! What’s dangerous?!)
  3. If you smoke, Japan is the country for you. Since I don’t, it drives me bananas. My hotel in Tokyo was awful for this — the hallways, poorly ventilated, reeked of cigarette smoke. They were too warm, too, which really didn’t help matters at all.
  4. Vertical space. It’s no surprise that contemporary Japan designs for small spaces, horizontally speaking, but what baffles me is the need to compress vertically, too. I’ve lost count of the number of doors I have nearly hit my head on; this morning, in the shower in my hotel in Himeji, I discovered I barely had room to work the shampoo through my hair. WTF?

Things I Will Miss About Japan

  1. Neon and concrete. We really don’t have enough of this back home.
  2. Austere aestheticism. My hotel in Hiroshima is sleek in that bare concrete and strong primary colors way that looks so good on film. Though small, my room has — get this — hardwood floors. You get this all over the place, just with varying degrees of modernity.
  3. Ridiculously convenient public transport. Okay, maybe just in Tokyo.
  4. Edible food at the Kwik-E-Mart. I’m not joking: I had a perfectly servicable donburi at the FamilyMart this evening (this is what happens when you stay out past the closing time of most restaurants). Try that at 7-11.

There’s probably more I will think up as time goes on, for both lists, but it’s like midnight and I want to go to bed.

Mike and Kumar Go To White Castle: A Story In Three Parts

Part I: First Impressions

You first see it from the train as you’re coming in from Nishi-Akashi. It sort of pops out of nowhere, on the right side, peeking from behind the hills. It disappears behind the buildings as the 300-series Shinkansen slides into Himeji station; you don’t see it again until you’re about halfway up Otemae street. On especially fine days, it stands out in sharp relief against a blue sky, the white walls brilliant with reflected light, the black tile roof cutting an edge in the air. Himeji-jo is probably the one castle you need to see if you go to Japan — it is the “canonical” castle, the one that everyone points to as an example of Japanese castle construction. And it a damned impressive example it is.

There have been fortifications in Himeji since 1333. Norimura Akamatsu built the first fort; his son, Sadanori built up the surrounding area. The original castle was built sometime in the middle of the 16th century (no one is precisely sure when), and the first of the three moat systems was dug in 1601. (The outer moat, for those who are interested, would have been about where the train station is today. It’s roughly a 1,200m walk from the train station to the castle. You figure it out.) The castle, as it stands today, was completed in 1618 and survived fire, earthquakes, World War II bombings, and UN oversight.

As you walk through the buildings and the courtyards you see the defensive systems of the castle stone-throwing holes and weapons racks everywhere, hidden rooms from which soldiers could launch ambushes on unsuspecting invaders, sluiceways for boiling water and oil), you’re struck by a powerful sense of connection with the past. Even before you reach the castle itself, you’re reminded of it — the massive earthworks that formed some of the outer walls sit next to shops, penned in by sidewalks and bounded by streets. You don’t really think of it until the sign you’re standing next to draws your attention to it: Lots of cities use rock formations as decorations on street corners. And then you realize you’re staring at what was a wall.

I spent a good chunk of the afternoon thinking about how humanity communicates with itself through time. The castle is a good example — some of the basic fortifications that Akamastu built in 1333 are still here, albeit in highly modified forms. I wonder what he would have thought, had he known that nearly 700 years later people would look back on his accomplishments in awe. My guess is that he probably wouldn’t have thought anything — because it wouldn’t have even been a consideration. Humans have a habit of building things because they serve some useful purpose other than telling a story; that they survive well into the future, and tell a story along the way, is beside the point. Call it a side effect. I’m a little fuzzy on the specifics right now but ours might be the first era where we build monuments for the sake of building monuments — for purely secular reasons, if you will. Every other major civilization built monuments for some other purpose.

This has been something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about over the past two years or so. We build monuments that last hundreds of years but with a few notable exceptions they are not designed to communicate a specific message; we don’t worry about telling future generations stories through the things that we build. Instead we hope that any message we have is passed down through oral traditions and mythology (like religion). I thought about the Waste Isolation Pilot Project marker problem — humanity’s first conscious effort to communicate with itself, for ten thousand years into the future, my generation’s enduring monument to itself.

Himeji-jo, maybe more than the shrines and temples, harkens back to something that doesn’t really exist anymore. You can practice Shinto or Buddhism today, and so the shrines and temples have a reason to exist today. But you can’t be a feudal lord in Japan anymore. 1868 changed all that, when the whole Shogunate system went up in smoke with the Meiji restoration. All that’s left now are places like Himeji-jo — that generation’s enduring monument to itself, for the future. An accidental monument.

Part II: Not Just A Burget Joint In New Jersey

I decided that with my banged-up body I needed to take it easy today. No more long hikes through the city, no whirlwind attempts to make it to every site I wanted to see. Instead, I woke up in my own time, checked out of my hotel, and wandered around the Kyoto station area for about an hour while I waited for my train, Hikari 307 (incidentally, the very same train I came to Kyoto on).

We arrived in Himeji under threatening skies. There were dark clouds on the western horizon and I thought, “Hey, wouldn’t it be funny if I lost another day on this trip because of crappy weather?” By the time I walked the 450 linear meters from the shinkansen platform to the front of the station it was pouring rain. Thank god my hotel was within rock-throwing distance and a good portion of the walk was covered; I checked in, dropped my bags, and contemplated my next move. The idea of spending the afternoon in the hotel was not hugely appealing, though I have to confess I was OK with it if that’s what was going to happen. It seemed strange to me to think that when I left Kyoto it had been warm, a little windy, and sunny, and now, after an hour’s train ride, it looked like it wanted to hurl lightning bolts — but then I realized that an hour’s train ride on a shinkansen gets you about 270 kilometers away from where you started. Did I mention that those suckers are fast? They’re fast.

I kept poking my head out the window every 10 minutes to see what the weather was doing. By 14:45 the rain had stopped and the clouds had parted, giving rise to what turned out to be.. well, I’m getting ahead of myself here.

It was the weather that I had packed for. Cool enough that the fleece jacket I packed didn’t seem like such a stupid idea; warm enough that when it came time to do some serious hiking it was OK to take the jacket off. If you could find a sunny spot out of the wind, it was very warm. Just right for the middle of October, if you ask me. Scattered clouds remained after the departure of the rainstorm, and I decided that I’d walk up towards the castle. The good bits closed at 16:30, and it takes about 90 minutes to do the whole thing, so I figured I’d try my luck.

And how.

A word about Himeji: My guidebooks describe this as a drab town of about 480,000. I can’t really disagree. Himeji lacks the punch even of towns I’ve seen from the train. Pulling in I thought, “I planned to stay here overnight why, again?” But then I went and walked around, and the place has a definite charm to it. For starters, it’s not maddeningly big, and we’ve already established I don’t like maddeningly big. It exists on a scale that is immediately understandable — what you see is essentially what you get. Weirdly enough, my thought, walking up Otemae, was that it reminded me of Lethbridge. Not in terms of size, of course, but in terms of feel — the wide, spacious sidewalks, the low-rise buildings, the small shops with the faded signage. It’s not Japan’s classiest place, but it is a functional one, and it may well be more representative of average life in this country than Tokyo. (Did somebody call for a sweeping generalization?)

I like it here, even if I can’t quite put my finger on why.

I have a theory, though. At 16:15, while I was wandering around Himeji castle, something magical happened. I had come damn close to praying for this, since it had been fricking hard to come by during this trip. I’ve had haze, I’ve had overcast skies, I’ve had pouring rain. Until this happened, I was beginning to give up hope.

What happened was this: I poked my head out of a window in the main tower of Himeji-jo and my breath caught in my throat. It was the light — the absolute best kind of light for a photographer that doesn’t involve getting up at sunrise or breaking out the tripod. I have come to know this light well. It is the fall light of Victoria, the kind we get maybe two or three times a month from September through to early December, a golden, pure, radiant light that makes everything glow. Light, so muted for me on this trip, so uncooperative and harsh, had decided to cooperate for one beautiful hour. I couldn’t have been happier. I would have been happier had Koko-en, the park next to the castle, been open; the fact that it closed its gates at 16:30, just as the light was getting good, kinda honked me off. But that was OK. I got the pictures I wanted of the castle, in the light that I had been craving. It was awesome. Thinking about it now, I’m smiling. For the first time on this trip I could include as much of the sky as I wanted in a frame without worrying about it being washed or wrecking my metering. For the first time I wasn’t afraid to go super-wide, minimizing close features in order to put the castle in perspective, show it in its entire grandeur, punch it up to the level it deserves. Himeji-jo loomed large in my mind, and I wanted to show it as best I could. Today, I got exactly the light I needed to do that, and I couldn’t be happier.

(I’m really reluctant to say this, because I’m worried I’ll jinx something, but: If I can have one more day with light like today’s, I will call this trip a smashing success. If that day happens to be Sunday, while I’m on Miyajima, I think I’ll be so overjoyed I might break down and cry.)

Part III: It Worked So Well Yesterday

  • Now that I’ve been to Japan, SimTower makes a whole lot more sense. If you never played the game (you’re missing out on something great) it allowed you to put all kinds of spaces — restaurants, offices, hotel rooms, whatever — more or less wherever you wanted in a building. This was deeply confusing to me, because I had never encountered a building that was designed like that in person. You wanted hotel rooms in a high-rise, you built a high-rise hotel. Oh, sure, I knew that some of the ritzier addresses in major US cities were condos high up in office towers, but I thought of those as statistically insignificant — outliers.

    Now that I’m here, though, I understand perfectly why Yoot Saito built the game the way he did. This is the way high-rises are constructed in Japan: Multi-use high-rise structures, with significant underground development. The Shinjuku Park Tower is maybe an extreme example, in that the hotel lobby is above 42 floors worth of office space, but it’s instructive, and even here in Himeji, my hotel’s lobby is on the fourth floor, the bottom floor of this building having been taken over almost entirely by NTT DoCoMo.

  • More shinkansen fun: We stopped for a while at Nishi-Akashi for reasons I wasn’t too clear on. While sitting at the platform, several other shinkansen passed us at road speeds, perhaps four feet away. Wham! Those suckers create a lot of wind when they pass. My train rocked back and forth, quite violently for something anchored to the ground, to be honest. Also.. how to put this delicately? Shinkansen front sections have a bug problem. You know how your car’s hood looks after a long drive? Yeah, it’s like that, only about a hundred times worse. I saw a Kodama train today that had a big ugly red splotch running down the side of its nose: Bird strike.

    The air travel comparisons continue: I didn’t mention this, but the seating configuration on 300-series trains is vaguely DC-9ish — 3+2, but with a much nicer seat pitch. I’m actually a little amazed at how much leg room you have. You don’t get this much in business class on most major airlines. Here’s a fun fact I bet you didn’t know — the nose section of the original 0-series shinkansen, and in fact a lot of the body itself, was based on design work that was done for the DC-8, at the time the fastest plane in the world. The aerodynamics of the shape were apparently well-understood, and I guess Japanese engineers didn’t particularly feel like re-inventing the wheel any more than they absolutely had to.

    I’m going to pack it in now and head off to bed. My train to Hiroshima doesn’t leave until after 15:00 but I’d like to be able to get up to a Buddhist temple in the hills outside of Himeji in the morning before coming back and seeing Kokoen park and heading off on the third-to-last leg of this trip.

    Seriously, though: Killer day today. Thrilled to death. Mo ichido, onegaishimasu!

  • Just Like The Movies

    There’s a scene in Lost in Translation where Bob, sitting in a sauna, is initially pleased to see two white people arrive. Hooray! Someone to talk to! His reaction shifts almost immediately when the newcomers begin conversing in German.

    This is more or less how it feels here. There are a lot of white people in Kyoto — maybe not numerically more than in Tokyo, but the city is smaller and so you are more likely to run into them. And every time I try to talk to them — every single time — they turn out to be Germans, Norwegians, Finnish, Spanish, or French. Which is OK — I know a few words in each of those languages, and a number of words in two of them — but it’s still very strange. To come halfway around the world and run into a couple from Toulouse who seem overjoyed that someone speaks French (albeit with a wacky faded Quebecois accent).

    Now, when other people approach me, they’re pretty sure that I speak English. But not always. I’ve had white people come up to me and ask me something in Japanglish. A pair of Norwegians got in the middle of my shot today in Nara and apologized to me — in Japanese.

    You know how you’ve arrived in Japan? When you start orienting and providing advice to other foreigners. In Isetan last night a woman, who was fresh off a flight into KIX, was trying to buy an orange. Isetan (like other department stores with a food floor) has a supermarket section but if you haven’t done a lot of walking around down there it might not be obvious. The orange-stand woman couldn’t figure out what was happening, so I pushed myself into the conversation. “It’s like a supermarket,” I said. “You pick up your food and pay for it over there.” The woman thanked me and asked me how long I’d been here. “About a week,” I said. “On second thought, it’s not like a supermarket. It is a supermarket.”

    Speaking of food.. I have discovered the most wonderful form of Japanese cuisine: Kushikatsu. If you can put it on a stick, you can eat it after it has been battered and deep-fried. Oh, wow, is it ever bad for you! I felt my arteries constrict just staring at the menu. Of course, I had to try some. I don’t have a clue what I ate, though I’m pretty sure there was an onion in there somewhere, but it was good.

    Went to a fancy tempura restaurant tonight. You think you’ve had tempura in North America — no, you haven’t. This place was a lot more like.. well, it’s like a sushi bar, but for tempura instead of sushi. The stuff was so light, so fluffy, so fresh it just about knocked my socks off. Great fun to sit at the bar and watch the chefs with the big wok full of oil chat it up with Japanese businessmen who are either drunk or getting that way very quickly. My dinner came with a very interesting miso — ako miso, not the usual shiro stuff we’re used to back home. At the bottom of the bowl, a surprise: Tiny clams! Mmm, mmm, good.

    The rice is.. different. I don’t know what’s different about it — maybe it’s not as moist as it is at home — but I like it.

    Bullet Point Wednesday

    Baseball Prospectus authors sometimes resort to what they call “Bullet Point Day” when they’ve got lots ot talk about but no way to link everything together. Today is one of those days — a good day, a productive day, but I’m really spent, and I don’t have the patience I need to weave a coherent narrative together (to the extent that other postings have been coherent narratives, I mean). So, as Will Carroll says, powered by Pocari Sweat, on to today’s update…

  • Potter Stewart redux. I’m not an architecture critic so what I’m about to say next may sound horribly uniformed, but when it comes to building design I know what I like, even if I can’t define it. I think, more than anything else, what I’m looking for is architects who take chances, and planners who go along with the wacky plans of these risqué designers. They may not succeed, but the failures are at least interesting; if nothing else, they’re distinctive. I think about Seattle’s new public library and the amount of flack that it has taken for being audacious — which is strange, because more than anything, that’s what I like about it. Kyoto station is sort of the same way: I’ve read that when it first opened many people were non-too-impressed, but I really like it. It’s distinctive. It has a soaring roof that fires the imagination, and lifts the spirit, and it takes chances in its layout and design. Also, while it has a roof, the station itself is entirely open-air — it reminds me of Safeco Field, actually. The architect(s) built lots of neat little places into the structure, and so it has become a kind of focal point for Kyotonians, especially the younger ones, who find places up high in the station to sit, look out over the city, and neck with their significant others.
  • Like Northern Exposure, only, you know, without the moose. And Alaska. And the weird people. Nara’s a neat place. Beyond the fact that it was Japan’s first real capital city (previously, the capital changed every time the emporer died) and saw the birth of Japan’s organic culture and is home to a giant freakin’ statute of Buddha in the biggest wooden structure in the world, what Nara is known for is its deer. There are thousands of deer that roam Nara park, and they’re incredibly tame. Which is to say they’re pushy. You can buy “deer cookies” for Y150 from vendors all over the park, and the deer will come and eat them out of your hand. The deer are very cute, especially the baby deer, and I had lots of fun taking pictures of cute children and cute deer this afternoon. (At right: “Do not anger the cartoon deer!”)

    Unfortunately, once you feed one deer, they all figure out you have food, and you’re screwed. They are very, very pushy. They’re like certain dogs I know (I’m not naming names, you understand, but she has opposable paws), only worse, because they don’t understand “down” and “no.” They might understand the local variants, but I don’t know “down” in Japanese and shouting “Iie!” at them didn’t seem to work. Several of them thought I might have more deer cookies in my pockets, and took to nibbling at my pants. Many people seemed to be wary of deer (as they damn well should be) and, once they discovered how pushy they can be, simply threw the cookies at the deer and ran. Which is, as I’m sure you know, stupid — because a deer can outrun you without really breaking a sweat. This is, as you might expect, more or less what happened, and thus I had the highly enjoyable time of watching young Japanese girls being chased by deer in search of treats. (At left: “Do not make the cartoon deer jealous!”)

    The deer in Nara Park are an interesting study in wildlife control. Because deer are considered sacred in Shinto (they’re supposed to be messengers of the gods) they have to be protected. Canadians, by contrast, see a pest problem that is best solved with ammunition and guns. Paul, I don’t know if you’re reading this, but I thought of you often today while wandering around and pushing the pesky buggers away. (No antlers on these guys, though.)

    It sure would suck if Lyme disease ever decided to pop up in Nara. Man, that would be a pain in the ass.

  • About those pictures. I’m sure you know about wacky Japanese pictograms. I have many, many, many more where those came from. Oh yes.
  • You mean it was bigger? The main reason to come to Nara, aside from the deer and the history, is Todai-ji, home to a giant huge Buddha. The Daibutsuden, home to the Buddha, went up for the first time in the 8th century (yes, you read that right) and burned down a couple of times, melting various parts of the big guy; the present structure dates from the mid-18th century. It is the largest wooden structure in the world. It is the smallest version of the Daibutsuden to have been constructed. In the past there were huge pagoda rising from either side of the main structure and, judging by the model behind the Buddha, it must have been one hell of a sight. The building itself took my breath away the first time I saw it — I mean, I’d seen pictures of it, but was wholly unprepared for its size and grandeur. Text is insufficient, you need pictures to understand. (I’m willing to do some cropping and uploading for humor, you understand, but not for this. Wait until I get home.)
  • Broken. A week of heavy traveling has finally caught up to me in the form of injuries. I pulled my right hamstring while climbing some very steep stairs in Nara this afternoon; about an hour later, probably a result of trying to compensate for that injury, I managed to seriously twist ankle distal. I’ve been hobbling around ever since. My left shoulder is pretty damn sore, my feet are killing me, and there’s an odd pain at the base of my spine that’s been there for a couple of days. Ibuprofen works, sort of, but I kind of wish I had a stronger NSAID (ketorolac would be great right about now, for instance). Unfortunately, short of icing both the knee and the ankle when they’re not in a hot hot bath, there isn’t much I can do — staying off my feet isn’t really an option, though I might try to take it easy for the next couple of days. I’m just not used to walking 10+ kilometers a day. Beyond that, my body’s getting pretty dinged up generally; I have a couple of scrapes I didn’t have last week, and a few new bruises to talk about (including one on my right forearm that people stare at because of its size and coloration).

    I need a day of rest, is what I need.

    On a more positive note, it was cooler today, the result of a very nice breeze blowing in from the northwest. It helped keep the temperatures down (and my fluid loss to a minimum, though I’m still not drinking enough).

  • We’re also gonna need a bigger boat. I brought 40 rolls of film with me to Japan, roughly half-and-half C41/E6. The problem was that a quarter of the C41 was black and white. As a result, following the past couple of highly photogenic days, I’m down to a single ProPack of Portra 400NC. Surprisingly, I haven’t been using a lot of 800 speed film (I think I’ve shot two rolls of it — indoors today at the Daibutsuden and yesterday during the +2 stupidity). 400 seems to be the right speed to work with here, though I’m being a snob and shooting stuff I think I might like to sell on E6. (If the stuff I took in front of the Daibutsuden today turns out anything like I think it will, you’ll see why.) But I ended up needing to buy more film; thank god for Media Planets (no, I didn’t make a typo) on Karamachi-dori in Kyoto. Also, I needed a new 2CR5 battery since mine seems to be on the verge of crapping out even though the battery meter says “full.” (EOS bodies — at least, every one I’ve ever worked with — have an annoying tendency to say, “full, full, full, full, toast” instead of accurately reporting the amount of electricity left. Which is fun when you’re precariously perched on a rock in the middle of a Meiji-era garden and the camera quits, requiring you to pop the battery door open, pull the battery out, and then turn the whole contraption on and off again before the film will advance. Whee.)

    The price was for two ProPacks was.. enh. It worked out to be almost exactly what you’d pay for the imported stuff from B&H in New York (cheaper than the USA-market stuff) when you work out the exchange rate but leave off the tax here. It was way better than what you’d pay in Victoria, but I’ve found that if you need a lot of something like film you can almost save your ferry fare simply by hopping on the boat to Vancouver, which suggests fleecing. The price for a 2CR5 was a lot better than what I’d pay back home. I haven’t done a lot of comparison shopping on this subject (and probably won’t) but my impression is that any advantage you used to get by buying in Japan instead of buying from New York is pretty much gone; the exchange rates more or less negate whatever is left over. I’m told that some brands of MF gear (Mamiya, Fuji) are cheaper here than back home and I have no reason to doubt that though I’m not in the market for new MF gear so I’m not looking.

    I’ve been working mostly with my 24-85 3.5-4.5 lens this trip. It’s light, reasonably cheap (so I’m not going to freak if it gets knocked around in a busy train or attacked by a deer). 3.5 at the wide end isn’t too bad, and that 24mm perspective kicks serious ass. But in low-light, it’s a bitch — inside the Daibutsuden, lit mostly by natural light, I was getting combinations of about 20/3.5. Which suck. After mounting my 100/2, however.. wow. Those three extra stops rule. I love that lens.

  • One place to live. Walking — well, limping — down Karamachi-dori tonight, around 17:30, I thought that Kyoto feels a lot like Vancouver. Big, but knowable; irritating, but lovable in its own way. Heck, if you look around and squint, you might be forgiven for thinking you’re in Richmond, right down to the Hondas tear-assing up and down the street blasting gansta rap. I don’t have a lot of reference material to go on, mind you, but if I had to live in Japan Kyoto might not be a bad place to settle. It’s large enough to afford you excellent exploration opportunities (I think it would probably take me a couple of months of continous tourism for me to visit all the neat little spots I’d like to see) but small enough not to leave you feeling overwhelmed. Rush hour on the Kyoto subway is agoraphobia-inducing, but it isn’t a whole lot different from rush hour at, say, Burrard Station. Kyoto is a ridiculously easy city to get around in, even if the buses are tiny by North American standards and crowded as a result.

    Speaking of sexy cars, I saw the funniest thing yesterday. It was what I’m guessing was an undercover police car doing a Code 3 run up Kawaramachi-dori. Which isn’t remarkable in and of itself; what floored me was the model: It was, no word of a lie, what we’d call an Infiniti G35 sedan in North America. From some Web research I’ve learned that this was very likely a Nissan Skyline V35 (the Japanese version of the G35). I dunno. A G35 might make a pretty sweet pursuit vehicle, if not exactly one I’d give to certain police officers I know..

  • Like the south. I knew Kansai had its own dialect of Japanese but didn’t really believe it until this afternoon when I realized I could hear it. The difference between Kansai and the rest of the country is a little bit like the difference in English spoken in the PNW and in the deep south; Kansai Japanese is supposed to be more lilting and dulcet. I don’t know if I’d describe it that way, but it’s certainly different and harder for me to understand. Close-mid back vowels get flattened and drawn out a bit, labials and nasals are softened, fricatives muted. I can’t really describe it any better than that without including sound files. Trust me.
  • Solid gold record. I get baseball coverage here. My first night in Tokyo I watched the Cardinals pound the snot out of the Dodgers. Why was the LAN-STL game on NHK? Kasuhisa Ishii, of course. A couple of days later I was reading the Japan Times and saw an article on a NYY-MIN game. Well, actually, the article was about Hideki Matsui and the Twins. A box score was included. A one-line box score. The first public figure I recognized when I got to Japan was Ichiro, on a giant billboard in eastern Shinjuku; since then, I’ve seen probably a half-dozen people wearing Mariners jerseys and about as many Ichiro posters (selling.. well, I don’t know what, exactly, but definitely selling something). I got here a bit more than a week after Ichiro’s record-setting game and the hoopla still hadn’t died down; Ichiro is everywhere.

    Not at the moment, though. The Seibu Lions edged the Daiei Hawks and will play the Chunichi Dragons in the Japan Series starting Saturday. I intend to be in my hotel room with beer in front of my TV when that happens. In the interm, however, the big news is that Seibu seems likely to post their star player, and arguably the best pitcher in Japan, Daisuke Matsuzaka. Matsuzaka had some international exposure at the Olympics and came back to Japan a national hero; he’s put up some gaudy numbers, throws NPB’s secret weapon, the shuto (made famous by Mr. Baseball‘s inability to hit it), and by all accounts would be a hell of a signing for any team in MLB. The Mariners, as you might expect, are rumored to be interested, if the rumors of Matsuzaka’s postings are true.

    So this is what I’m doing to sate my baseball appetite: I’m following MLB hot stove action involving a player I will actually be able to see later this week. (This is one of the reasons I’ll be watching the Japan Series — I want to see what Matsuzaka looks like in a game.)

  • Truth in advertising. I love, love, love the fact that nutritional information over here describes the energy content in food in kCal. For those of you who didn’t know, a calorie as we think of it is really actually 1,000 calories — a kilocalorie. Why we use the short-hand is a total mystery to me and I’m sure has been the source of more than one freshman chemistry student’s headaches. The Japanese talk about kCals, which is very nice.
  • The first rule of Nada Kenka Matsuri is, “You do not talk about Nada Kenka Matsuri.” Japan’s equivalent of Fight Club kicks off tomorrow in Himeji. Guess where I’m going to be tomorrow? Yep. How the sam hell did I get a hotel room?
  • Did you know? CNN morning program is almost intolerable when you’re getting ready to go to bed. Holy god, it’s vacant.
  • Required reading. Indulge the non-travel blogging nature of this post, but: Everyone has to run out right now and buy the October issue of Vanity Fair. Read the story about Florida’s elections nightmares. I’m on the other side of the planet, a citizen of a different country (never mind state), and I’m steaming mad about it.
  • A Walk In Eastern Kyoto

    There’s a famous path in Kyoto, on the eastern edge of the city, called the Philosopher’s Walk. It starts up north, around Ginkakuji, the Temple of the Silever Pavillion, and meanders along a canal until you reach Nanzen-ji in the south. It’s not a very long walk, though if you stop in at all the sights along the way it can be very long indeed. I have no idea who named it the Philosopher’s Walk (none of my books have any information as to the origins of that term, though I’m guessing it has something to do with, um, philosophers wandering around the canal), but, having done the southern half of the trip, it seems like a very nice walk indeed.

    I got up early this morning to change hotels and visit the Imperial Palace. You have to make reservations in advance to get there; mine were made last month, and are free. It was a painless procedure and I highly recommend it — you get a ticket you print out, with a bar code, and they scan it and away you go. Apparently it’s also possible to do walk-ups and get on tours, but given the number of people I saw on mine this is not an approach I recommend. English tours are given twice a day, at 10:00 and 14:00. The upshot of this is that you will meet lots and lots of English-speaking people here — whether this is a net positive or not is an open question in and of itself. I ran into a couple from DC, a landscape architect and his wife, who were over doing some occupational travel (he was looking at gardens and said he was bored stiff). Nice people; we wandered around the Palace grounds, dawdling behind the main body of the tour, though his questions of me and my camera (he got the idea in his head I was a professional photographer, on assignment, I guess because I was carrying three lenses and burned through three rolls of film in his presence) regarding him and his camera made me think that perhaps more people should read instruction manuals and/or take a basic photography class. The middle of Kyoto during a busy tour group isn’t really the best time or place to go into an intricate discussion of depth of field, aperature priority timing, shutter speeds, and the virtues of program-AE (if you’re a brain-dead slob like me). I guess if you know your system inside and out, and use lens hoods, people really do think you’re a professional photographer. (Note that this would come back to bite me later in the day in a particularly dramatic way.)

    The group was being lead by a small woman with a microphone — helpful, but kind of hard to hear. The tour, 50 minutes long by my watch, covers the main sights within the inner compound but unfortunately does not include the inside of any buildings. I’ve never been to Buckingham Palace so I don’t know how this tour compares, but I’d say it’s like being let inside the gates and told to stay on the path. But: You do get to visit the Emporer’s private garden, which was.. gorgeous isn’t the right word for it. This is one of the reasons why I burned through three rolls of film before 11:00 this morning. “Kawaii desu ne?” is a very useful phrase to remember when visiting gardens. I used it frequently today.

    Had lunch at a cafeteria in the outer palace grounds, which have a serious pidgeon problem. Fat, lazy, and brave pidgeons dot the park — so lazy, in fact, they look dead until you walk right up to them, at which point they sort of loll over, regard you casually, and, in a huff, fluff their wings up and shift their weight around. At no point did any bird I challenged actually get up to move out of my way. Like the crows in Ueno Park, they seem to belong, but I think Hermes said it best: “Shoo! Get away, ya filthy bird!” They’re pidgeons. They’re airborne rats.

    Kyoto is a very, very old city. The bits that are old are really old; my ryokan from Sunday night was located in what used to be the red light district — in the 17th century. (Alas, this sounds more interesting than it really is; there are markers that commemorate this fact and the events that occurred in and around the area, but they can be appreciated by an English-speaking person only in the abstract since the descriptions and explanations are only in Japanese.) Owing to its cultural significance Kyoto was spared from Allied (read: American) bombing in WWII and so the concrete ugliness you see around town developed organically instead of being the result of 1950s reconstruction projects. Whereas Tokyo’s concrete is sometimes interesting, Kyoto’s concrete is generally pretty blah. Kyoto makes up for it with roughly a zillion other things.

    One of the nicest old things in the city is the Heian Shrine (Heian-jingu), out towards the Philosopher’s Walk. From a distance you can see the huge orange torii looming over the street; up close, it’s even more impressive. The shrine itself is another 500 meters up the street, even though the torii itself is considered the entrance to the place. Brilliant shades of vermillion and green shine down on you from every structure; on super bright days (like today was, at times), these can combine with the shrine’s white gravel to create dizzying effects — one which requires good sunglasses to fully appreciate. You can walk around the shrine’s buildings for free, and, just like at Meiji-jingu in Tokyo, it is a real shrine that’s suitable for making offerings and prayers. The real treat to Heian-jingu, though, costs Y600 and is off to the side of the main building.

    Now, let me say first that I am not a garden person. I live in a city with an internationally famous garden but, much to the amusement of my out of town friends, have never been. Roughly half of the people I meet while traveling who find out I’m from Victoria ask me about Butchart, and I can almost always get a laugh out of them by saying that “I’m sure it must be nice, but I’ve never actually been.” On the basis of what I did today, wandering around Kyoto, perhaps I should open the wallet and fork out for the trip at some point in the not-too-distant future, ’cause that’s how I spent my afternoon. 90 minutes in Heian-jingu’s gardens flew by, along with another two rolls of film. I actually switched to black and white at one point because I wanted to save the color stuff for later in the day. You can read a bit more about Heian-jingu’s gardens over here; the text doesn’t really do it justice, I’m afraid, and you’ll just have to wait for my pictures.

    Toyo had said that Nanzen-ji was within walking distance of Heian-jingu. “Sure,” I had replied, somewhat snidely. “Everything’s within walking distance if you have lots of time.” But it turns out that Nanzen-ji really is within easy walking distance; Kyoto, for a city of 1.2 million people, is remarkably compact, without a lot of the obvious density that comes with packing that many people that tightly. This may be the result of Tokyo having inured me to crowds, and after yesterday’s madhouse I may be beyond caring at this point. But curiously this place feels about a million times smaller, and more intimate, than Tokyo. Which may just be a testament to Tokyo’s hugeness. I don’t know. Anyway, point being: If you want to see the interesting things in Okazaki (biologists and biochemists will think a street named Okazaki-dori is funny; the rest of you won’t care), or any other close region of Kyoto, it’s worth walking between sites. Trust me on this.

    Nanzen-ji is up on a hill, a little bit like Kiyomizu-dera, but not as high up, and not nearly as crowded at 15:00 on a Tuesday afternoon. It’s also not nearly as kitchy, either. Nanzen-ji is one of those really really old places in Kyoto; it started life in 1264 as a detached palace for Kameyama and in 1291 became a Zen temple. Several smaller sub-temples and gardens have sprung up around the place; I stopped in to Konchi-in, founded by one of Nanzen-ji’s priests sometime during the 1400s. During the 17th century (roughly 1620 to about 1637 or so, from what I can tell), Kobori Enshu designed an eight-window tea room that is considered the best in Kyoto, and an absolutely goregous garden with a hugely evocative name (“Crane and Turtle”). There’s apparently a lot about these gardens that I don’t understand; the sign outside talks about the representative nature of various elements, and I suppose if you squint just right you could sort of see where Kobori was going (don’t hold your breath). They can, however, be appreciated on a purely abstract level regardless of your aesthetic sensibilities, and, indeed, you should see them for that reason. Anyway, the Crane and Turtle garden is a very nice place, with a couple of spots to sit down and rest.

    As for the temple itself.. you have to lose your shoes at the entry way. Take a tip from me and don’t even try to put them on where you’ll have to walk on wood; you’ll get scolded. Nanzen-in is a middling garden off to the south of the main temple; I saw it for the sake of completeness, but thought Konchi-in was much nicer (not to mention larger). Not all parts of the temple are open on all days; today, when I visited, only the Abbot’s residence was open to the public (Y500 and this is where you lose your shoes). They do offer slippers, which, of course, didn’t fit my feet so the effect is less walking and more shuffling. As I said, Kyoto is an old, old city with old, old things in it, and you get a profound sense of history walking down darkened hallways, peering into rooms that look out onto gardens and the city below, and think about what it must have been like to live and work here.

    I stopped for a breather and to let my shirt dry out a bit. Refreshed with a bottle of Pocari Sweat (seriously: Best. Drink. Name. Ever.), I walked back down the hill and popped in to Muran-an, one of those blink-and-you’ll-miss-it places on the walk up towards Nanzen-ji. A hermitage built in 1894, the garden is (like the one at Heian-jingu) considered representative of gardens from the Meiji era. I’d call this a hidden jem; none of my guidebooks have anything to say about it though it is on one map.

    Somewhere during this time my exposure compensation dial got set to +2. I remember thinking it was kind of strange to be working with ISO 800 film in shade, in the middle of the afternoon, and getting shutter/aperture combinations that looked an awful lot like 60/5.6 and — at one point — 20/3.5. WTF? I’m blaming the dehydration for my not having caught this sooner; I cringed when I caught this, having wondered exactly how long that much compensation had been dialed in (probably some time after Heian-jingu, since I remember deliberately underexposing a couple of frames of people walking across a wooden bridge for dramatic effect) and how many pictures might be wrecked as a result. (The answer, in case you’re curious, is probably going to turn out to be “between a handful and none” — having spent almost the entire day working with color negative film, which is extremely tolerant of over- and under-exposure, coupled with my lab, will be the things that save me.)

    This problem fixed, I walked down to Shoren-in, my final stop for the day. I’d been on the go for six hours already and though I probably could have come back up this way on Thursday after presumably going back to Kiyomizu, (a) I didn’t know that for sure and (b) I’m not even certain I’ll make it back to Kiyomizu. Toyo seemed insistant that I go to Shoren-in if I wanted to see really good gardens, and I’m glad she did; I get the impression it’s a little off the beaten path, since most people in that area seem to head for Kodai-ji and Chion-in. Based on the near-total lack of English signage to explain anything, it would seem that it isn’t popular with the tourists. Which is fine with me. Shonen-in was originally the home of the chief Abbot of Tendai, back in 1895. Of course, looking at this now, I realize that I was five minutes from the aforementioned Chion-in, which is the home of my nominal school of Buddhism and so I probably should have kept going south. D’oh!

    But that was enough. Seven hours of sightseeing, with what will probably work out to be about ten kilometers walked over the course of the day, is enough to tax anyone. I hopped a bus heading back to Kyoto station and nearly fell asleep on the ride. My shirt was soaked through and sweat-stained (thank god for black shirts, where it’s hard to tell). Showered, rinsed out the shirt, hung it up to dry, and.. went back out. I needed food and I had to visit the post office.

    See, back on Sunday night, I managed to break one of my three pairs of pants. What happened was that I was in the bathroom, and I sat down, and something went “pop!” and the teeth of the zipper had pulled right out of the fabric. I was amazingly pissed about this, not only because these were $65 pants from MEC but also because they happened to be convertible pants that I was using as shorts to beat the unseasonable heat in Kyoto. Unwilling to abandon the pants in Japan over something so trivial, but equally unwilling to pack them around for the remainder of the trip (I really need the space), I elected instead to pack them up and send them home. Courier would have been nice, but FedEx wanted nearly $200 to send it back. So off to the post office I went, with a box, a long-sleeved t-shirt I never wear at home (never mind here), and a couple of pairs of socks I doubt I’ll need — things I can live with losing, but would rather not just throw out, if you know what I mean. They were accepted, and I waved bye-bye, wondering how long it would be before I would see them again (probably a month).

    On the way to the Imperial Palace was today’s Humor Moment. At Gojo station a gaggle — and I really do mean a gaggle, since there were at least 30 of them — of Japanese schoolkids got on, lead by a very harried looking teacher with a megaphone (who looks kind of like my old dentist did when he was younger). I have no idea where they were going, but they couldn’t have been much more than about seven or eight, and rambunctious in the way seven or eight year-olds on a field trip are (the moreso when those seven or eight year-olds are traveling on public transportation). I was sitting in the corner of the car when they noticed me, and, no word of a lie, I must have been the most interesting thing they’d seen.. well, definitely all day, and judging by the amount of high-pitched chattering I’m guessing in a long, long time. It’s entirely possible I was the first foreigner they’d ever seen up close and personal, and within moments of their arrival in the car I was surrounded by ten of them, all jabbering at me in high-pitched Japanese.

    One brave boy sat down next to me and began to speak slowly, the way I would imagine Japanese people talk to retarded kids. I managed to pick out him asking me, “Nihon-jin desu ka?” I shook my head. “Iie. Canada kara kimashita.” Well. If the sight of a gaijin sitting on a train was something remarkable, the prospect of one that might speak a little Japanese was enough to send these kids into paroxysms of delight. The tone and pitch and speed of the rapid-fire Japanese increased, and I was forced to dig through my memory to find Nihongo sukoshi dekimasu, which really only made it worse. One of them figured out that my hair was spiky, and that if they poked at it they’d find it was stiff, so they took turns poking at it (spiky hair apparently being unknown to Japanese schoolkids who are lacking in older siblings with bad habits to imitate). The advice I got from relatives back home was right — pretend like you don’t speak any Japanese at all, because otherwise be prepared for the firehose of comprehension. Hah! You have no idea!

    The best part, though, was when I stood up to get off at my stop. “Sumimasen,” I said, slowly and clearly (this is, like, the most useful phrase for a tourist). I towered over them. The tallest kid came about 3/4 of the way up my leg. They stared up at me and then began to squeal with delight. My fan club realized what was happening, and began to wave; they seemed kind of disappointed. Their teacher caught me eye and smiled, mouthing, “Arigato gozaimasu“; this was the one time where do itashimashite is actually an appropriate response. There wasn’t much else I could have done; everyone is going to humor these kids, not kick them in the shins. Robert Young Pelton says you should travel in strange places with mementos from home to pass out to people, and a part of me really wishes I’d had something I could have passed out. Canadian flag stickers would have been awesome, but another part of me thinks that’s just condescending crap.

    This underscores an interesting point that I thought about today. One of the reasons I’ve felt kind of isolated is because I don’t trust my Japanese skills enough to get around. Sure, I can buy things, and order food (if I have pictures to look at, or something to point to) and I even managed to mail a parcel this evening in pantomime. And I can ask for directions and even sort of understand the reply I get. But that’s about it. Without pictures, or a writing surface, I’m screwed. I get happy when I find things in English that I can understand (or Engrish, as the case may be, where I can guess). But then I think about Japanese tourists that come to Canada — they don’t expect us to be conversant in their language. I suppose they get a little thrill when they discover the desk staff at the Banff Springs speaks Japanese, or when they find a Japanese menu in the restaurant there, but it’s not expected. I’m not saying I expect it here, either, but eigo no menyu ga arimasu ka? sounds like a pleading. Tourists in Canada don’t go around asking everyone they meet “Excuse me, do you speak Japanese?”; I start most conversations that I expect to be complicated with the local equivalent of that phrase. The bus system has announcements in Japanese and English, at least for the important stops; you would never, in a thousand years, expect the same kind of thing to happen in a Canadian city. Even during the Olympics, I distinctly remember the only multilingual concession made by the city was to put “Olympic Plaza – Place Olympique” on the glass at that stop. The announcements weren’t even in French, or any other language for that matter. I can’t be the only person who thinks this is strange.

    Yet I’m sure there’s more than a handful of tourists who come to Kyoto — as foreign-tourist friendly a city as you’re going to find in Japan — and who complains about the lack of English signage. Do the Japanese resent having to listen to announcements twice? Do restaurants resent having to print English menus? Do clerks resent being pestered to work in a language they’re not familiar with? I don’t know. I can’t tell. And it makes me a little uneasy.

    The Twenty-Seven Degree Holiday

    So how’d my first night in a ryokan go? Pretty well, all things considered, though if I had to describe it in a short-handed way it’s a lot like being at camp. (This was probably due to the low-budget nature of the place.) Without any furniture to clutter up a room you have much more space to spread out, and bare rooms are so much more idealy suited for tatami than, say, western-style furniture. The air conditioner was damn near nuclear powered, which was very nice, given the humidity problems I mentioned yesterday. There’s probably a trick to laying out the futon that I haven’t figured out yet, given that I think there was a crease in a particularly unpleasant spot last night. Pillows are hard, bead-filled things. Also, if you’re over six feet tall, you might want to give second thoughts to staying in a ryokan — the futon is not six feet long, and though it wasn’t a problem for me, most of the night, you might not like sleeping with your knees drawn up.

    I managed to wake up stiff and cramped, with a bad kink in my neck. Nothing a shower won’t fix, right? Wrong. Bathing at ryokan is a night affair, and I didn’t partake last night because of an unavailability of towels. (Sponge-style baths in the sink aren’t the same thing.) Talking to some people here, it turns out that bathing in the morning is considered a little.. well, odd. Anyway, thanks to my versatile hairstyle, you couldn’t tell. Hooray for intentionally messy hair! (See, nay-sayers? It has a purpose.)

    Toyo picked me up. Together we found my new hotel and dropped my bags off. She was unimpressed. “It’s really out of the way,” she said. Not significantly worse than Shinjuku, but not appreciably better, either, especially with the bus situation taken into consideration. “It doesn’t seem very nice.” She could tell I was decidedly non-plussed about the whole thing, too, so it took about ten minutes for me to decide that I was going to look for a new place to stay. As it turns out, my first choice in Kyoto — a hotel that is much nicer and much more convenient and comes with multiple positive recommendations — has room, starting tomorrow night, so I booked myself in. Hotels are tight everywhere right now; it’s Health and Sports Day today. Ostensibly it’s a statutory holiday, which is why I couldn’t do the Imperial Palace today, but that and the post office are about the only things that are closed; everything else is open, and with good reason — the Japanese seem to love traveling on their stat days. Nao made some kind of sarcastic comment last night about it being a “nonsensical” holiday and she’s probably got a point except that who am I to judge? Today’s Thanksgiving back in Canada — the second Monday of the month is a holiday at home, too — and I can sort of see how pointless a holiday that would seem to someone who wasn’t Canadian, too.

    (Still, you have to admire my timing. Earthquake, typhoon, statutory holiday.. I found out there’s a huge matsuri in Himeji while I’m there, which is both good news and bad. Good news, in the sense that there’ll be something interesting to go look at that night; bad, in the sense that there will be a lot of people in town.)

    As I said last night, Toyo is almost as bad as my grandmother. “You need to eat when you travel,” she told me after finding out that I hadn’t had breakfast. “You should know better.” She’s right; I do know better, but I also know that I rarely if ever eat breakfast at home and don’t see why this should be any different. Nao fed me leftover pancakes; Toyo brought fruit. “Itadakimasu.” Oh, all right, fine.. Heyyy! Mandarin oranges two months ahead of schedule! Score. (PS: They’re way better over here. The stuff we get back home.. there’s no contest.)

    Kiyomizu-dera is one of the most famous temples in all of Japan, and one of the places I really really wanted to see during my time in Kyoto. It was founded in 798 and rebuilt in 1633 by Tokugawa Iemitsu and sits on a stunningly beautiful spot on Mount Otowa. Nominally devoted to the goddess of mercy and compassion (good guidance for those of us in the healing arts) Kiyomizu attracts legions of tourists more because of its stunning views than because of its religious significance. Me, I wanted to see it because it’s famously photogenic.

    Toyo and I drove up about halfway. It was unbelievably crowded, probably too crowded to really enjoy it properly, thanks to the combination of the aforementioned stat holiday and the general popularity of the site: I’m coming to the conclusion that although I got very nice pictures of Kyoto below, and of some of the buildings, if I really want to photograph the temple properly, and if I want to experience the place the right way, I’m going to have to go back first thing in the morning one day this week. (The temple opens at 6:00 which makes it a perfect trip for anyone who flies into KIX, spends their first night in Kyoto, and is up that early with jet lag.) My guidebook notes, with barely concealed sorrow, that “some people” may be put off by the overly commercial feel of the place. I can’t really disagree — the temple’s surroundings have a very kitchy feel to them, with lots of souvenir shops and vendors hawking their wares. It’s a neat place, though, and I certainly do want to go back — maybe Thursday morning, before I leave for Himeji.

    It was while leaving Kiyomizu that the day’s most sickening event occurred. We were about to get into the car and I needed a free hand — my EOS was in my right hand, with the strap wrapped around my wrist a couple of times; my digital camera was in my left hand. I went to extract my hand from the EOS strap and.. clunk. The digital camera somehow had gone from “in left hand” to “hanging unsupported in mid-air.” I didn’t worry about the pictures; like most of you, I read that article about the durability of digital memory. But I worried about the optics and the CMOS sensor. Of course, I’d be remiss if I failed to point out the optics on most cheap digital cameras are actually made out of plastic, but whatever, it was a concern. I picked the camera up, shoved the batteries back in, and flipped it on.

    No damage.

    (I later discovered that one of the retaining clips that holds the battery compartment closed had broken off, so the little door is only held on one side. There’s a reason I brought a couple pieces of duct tape with me..)

    Nao, Peter, and Toyo were going to Osaka in the afternoon so I bummed a ride with them downtown. Toyo pointed me in the direction of Takashimaya’s food floor, and we said our goodbyes. As I said yesterday, I’m going to be forever grateful for her hospitality and help on my first day and a bit here in Kyoto. (I also suspect I made promises I’m later going to resent having to keep, relating to things like Web site development and hosting, but what the hell, it keeps me sharp.) They boarded the Hankyu train to Osaka, and I went the other way, into Takashimaya.

    Western department stores have nothing on their Japanese counterparts. I mean, seriously. Only a culture that was consumed with shopping in all of its myriad forms would have developed something as remarkable and as mind-blowing as the department stores here. The food floor, in the basement, is by far and away the best example of the mind-blowingness. I think the best way to describe it is to offer an analogy: Think of Eau Claire in Calgary, or Granville Island in Vancouver, or Fanieul Hall in Boston, or Pike Place in Seattle. Now compress it down into the size of a city block. Now double the amount and variety of food for sale. It’s a ridiculously cool place to hang out and wander around; you’ll see all kinds of strange things. It’s like.. Uwajimaya in Seattle, only better. Dozens of fish, out in the open, held up for the amusement of small children. Raw beef sliced so thin you can see through it (and priced so high you can’t afford it). Square citrus fruit. Fruit gift sets that cost in excess of $70. A hundred different kinds of boxed meals. A huge pile of fish roe with no sneeze guard. Back home, the sanitation requirements alone
    would preclude this kind of market but this was easily the most interesting consumeristic experience I’ve had in years, anywhere.

    Emeril’s been talking about “food of love” for years. I think he’s got it wrong — food is the language of love. Well, OK, a language of love. It’s universal. Maybe it’s because I’m a foodie that I reacted this way; I dunno. But it’s a blast. You must go.

    Takashimaya’s food floor deserves special recognition because of the phenomenal French bakery shoehorned in a corner. Notwithstanding the novelty of being able to read signs and labels again (even if they were frequently spelled wrong — I didn’t know there was such a thing as pain au mie) the smell will drive you berzerk. There are plenty of carbohydrates available in Japanese cuisine but it’s mainly rice and noodles; bread doesn’t factor into the diet here the way it does in North America. And standing in front of a beautiful brioche, I realized exactly how much I had missed it. Complex carbohydrates! Starch! Bread! (I promise, M., that I will never make fun of your bread-eating habits ever again, even if it means I have to surrender my diabetes jokes.) I bought a half-dozen small cheese buns (Y180); they lasted about five minutes. OH-so-good. You have no idea. Best. Bread. Ever.

    The rest of Takashimaya is mind-blowing, too, though perhaps not to the same degree. A stroll through the store revealed a half-dozen potential gifts for people back home. I found a giant DVD selection and thought about looking for certain people.. then realized it was a pointless exercise since, with notably few exceptions, these disks won’t play in North American players. Damn you, MPAA! (This evening, over dinner, I also realized that was likely a false problem, since the people for whom I would be buying DVDs are the same people who also happen to have de-region-encoded DVD players. But then there’s the issue of language..)

    Two facets of my consumeristic side were sated today: Fashion-Whore Mike realized his wardrobe, while fashionable by North American standards, has absolutely nothing on Japanese fashion, especially in the formal-wear department. Wow. Next to this stuff, my suits look old and dated (practically ready for inclusion on That 90’s Show). I talked to a shirt-maker; in Brokenglish he explained that Japanese men prefer custom-made clothes. I have no idea whether he was right or not, but I know what I want.

    Also, Pen-Whore Mike had a field day, though he limited himself to five new pens for himself, which were less than $5 all told, and far, far nicer than anything he’s seen back in Canada. He was going to buy a ceramic ball-point, but then realized how pointless that would be. (Ha ha! Ball-point pen technology joke.)

    An Entirely Ordinary Day

    In the absence of a desk my preferred method of typing on a laptop keyboard is flat on my stomach, balanced on my elbows. This is hard on my shoulders and given their current state is probably not the best idea, but for the first time in my life I’m in a room where the floor is solid enough for a laptop to rest and yet comfortable enough to lie on without worrying about ventilation problems. So I’m going to take advantage of a tatami floor and write this way tonight.

    Up early this morning and off to Tokyo station for the 9:36 train to Kyoto. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t been looking forward to this part of the trip; I’ve been interested in the shinkansen for about as long as I’ve known about them. Anything that goes that fast on the ground is damn cool, and to a little kid obsessed with big, fast things, what better than a bullet train? I had planned to get to Tokyo about 40 minutes early, allowing for flex in the schedule and the inevitable screwups that come with my travels, so I could sit and watch the trains come in and out. Yeah, not so much. There wasn’t much to see, and there was nowhere to sit. Also, some genius put the designated smoking area next to the entrance to the non-smoking cars (for reasons that totally escape me), so it’s not like my time hanging around the platform was much fun. My curiosity managed to earn me a scolding from the JR platform manager, which turned out to be a good
    thing in that it saved me from an inopportune encounter with a train coming from the other direction.

    Anyway. Here’s everything that’s worth telling about shinkansen travel.

    First off, they run on a hilariously rigorous schedule. For those of you with rail experience in Europe or eastern North America, this will come as a huge shock. The shinkansen network as a whole has an annual average lateness measured in seconds, and not that many seconds. When it says “the train will depart at 9:36,” the train leaves at 9:36 (according to the station clock; my watch is fast). When it says the train will arrive at 12:20, the train.. you know where this is going. So be on time, but not so on time you have time to kill.

    Second, it’s a lot more like traveling on a plane than on any other kind of train. I’ve done scheduled rail service out east before, and this experience is more like flying than that. From the announcements, the in-seat service, and the seats themselves to the “please wait while we service your train in a high-speed manner” requests of the cleaning crew, I thought more about flying, say, WestJet than I did about riding Amtrak.

    Third.. there is no third thing. It just seemed kind of pointless to write that way without having a third thing.

    Helpful hints:

  • Pack light. You knew this already, but trust me: There’s squat-all for baggage storage. If you have big or bulky bags they’ll have to go behind the last row of seats in the car; there’s space for four or five big suitcases on either side. The good news is that Japanese people tend to travel very lightly themselves and the odds of that space being occupied, especially if you’re getting on at a terminal rather than a mid-route station, are pretty slim.
  • Buy a lunch. JR is not known for its cuisine. Obento sold in the stations is a great thing. Cold yakitori chicken skewers are surprisingly good.
  • Speaking of WestJet, you will have approximately that much lateral room in your seat, but at least three times that much leg room. If you find this uncomfortable you’ll probably want to shell out for Green Car seating (but don’t quote me on that; I didn’t ride in the Green Car, and so I’m just guessing). If you don’t care, don’t bother.
  • Chew gum. For reasons I don’t fully understand — maybe it was my physiology today — my ears decided to pop at least a dozen times on the ~3 hour train ride. I don’t know whether the shinkansen trains are pressurized or what, but there was definitely some kind of pressure differential going on.

    The experience is probably unlike any rail experience you’ve ever had before. Shinkansen travel on continuously welded tracks so the ride is very smooth compared to other trains. The first time you pass another train at speed, there is a “whatthehellwasthat” reaction — it happens fast. Remember, the closing speed pushes 600 kph. The trains shake and buffet as they approach, and as you pass each other there’s a very loud whoosh-bang sound. The same thing happens when you enter a tunnel, only to a lesser degree. As you watch the countryside fly along out your window, you think to yourself, “When are we going to
    start to go faster?” Then you discover you’re traveling at 300 kph. “Oh.” (That scene from that episode of King of the Hill? It’s exactly like that.)

    Leaving Tokyo engendered mixed feelings. On the one hand I was just getting the hang of moving around without fighting too much, and there were a number of things that, thanks to the typhoon, I didn’t get a chance to see. On the other hand, I was anxious to get out of that super-crowded city and away from the incessant concrete. On the gripping hand, I knew the amount of English I encountered would decrease significantly once I left Tokyo, and, sure enough, it did. My initial exposure to Kyoto was much like my initial exposure to Tokyo: “I want to go home!” It took me the better part of 90 minutes to find my hotel, notwithstanding the fact that I had a better map and asked for directions three times. There were some advantages to this. First, I established that I am indeed prepared to pack my luggage over a four kilometer distance. Second, I ran into an emergency services display in Umekoji Park for more pictures of flashy things to make R. happy; it’s nice to see your colleagues, tangental though they really are, on display in another country. I was able to get a good look at some of their firefighting apparatus, and even had a pantomime-broken-English conversation with one of the buckets about his trip to Niagra Falls. (He also wanted to tell me he thinks the loonie is a funny-looking coin. This, from a guy whose country’s currency.. well, never mind.)

    The effort of finding my hotel, and the frustration it created, was startling. The goodwill I had managed to build up in Tokyo fell away pretty quickly and the sense of isolation and culture shock returned savagely. I dropped my bags in my tatami room and sat down on the floor, under the air conditioner, and tried to cool my depression away. Oh, yes, my shirt needed drying out, too. Something interesting about Japan: It is shockingly humid here. It is also, at least of this writing, ridiculously warm. I packed with the impression that Japan’s climate around this time of year would be a lot similar to Victoria’s. Yeah, not so much — the humidity is much worse, and the temperature is much higher. Where it was 15 or 16 degrees in Victoria when I left (if that), it has been at least ten degrees warmer here since I arrived. Owing to a combination of heat and humidity and stress I sweat a lot. Because of that sweat, I worry I’m running a
    little on the dry side. So, note to self: Stay hydrated.

    After finding the hotel and changing shirts I set off in search of Kawaramachi-dori and its similarly-named arcaded street. Kawaramachi arcade, I was to discover, is a very cool covered shopping district I would have enjoyed much more had I not been so hot and tired. An old friend of my father’s was having an art show at a gallery off Kawaramachi; today was her last day. Under threat of, well, threat, I promised dad I’d go see Toyo’s show, and I’m glad I did. She does relief painting — some fabulously interesting, beautiful stuff (I
    lust after some of it, and if I had a spare $3,000 sitting around I’d have bought one piece in particular on the spot), acrylic textured with sand, and whipped with wire brushes. Very, very cool. Toyo and I sat around talking for a few hours, and she invited me for dinner tonight. Grateful beyond words, I accepted, and hung around for the rest of the afternoon, helped take down the show, and drove with her daughter, Nao, and her brother to her parents’ old house.

    Nao is a radiology resident at Western, in the process of finishing up her fourth year on a part-time basis (the joys of maternity leave). As you might expect, our conversation soon turned to work, in that highly annoying way that conversations between two medical people seem to end up when they run into each other in non-work related contexts. I won’t bore you with the details of our talk, but it was very nice to be able to talk about this kind of stuff with someone for the first time in a week.. and in English, too! I enjoyed it but apologized later in the night: Two Canadians meeting in Kyoto and they end up talking shop. Yeesh.

    I spent the evening with Toyo and her family. It was absolutely great. Toyo is almost as bad as my grandmother in the sense that she was very concerned about my eating habits (or lack thereof) and the fact that I was apparently still kind of sick. (I’m still coughing, sort of. Nao being both an MD and fluent in Japanese, it might have been a good time to go and demand some drugs, but I figure this is residual and we’ll let the azirthomycin work for a few more days.) We ate sukiyaki, of sorts, with chicken instead of beer — it’s much, much lighter this way, though in truth I don’t really remember sukiyaki being a particularly heavy dish in the first place. Nao’s husband Peter is an engineer and a total geek, and naturally we hit it off right away. Their three year-old, Albert, is a cutie — even if his screams do periodically break 100dB. It was one of the best evenings I’ve had in a long time.

    I am so deeply greatful for Toyo’s hospitality I can’t really even put it into words. I got to see something I probably wouldn’t have seen otherwise — an actual Japanese family home, and an actual Japanese family meal, without the elaborate trappings prepared for foreign visitors — and, best of all, I got to have my first substantative conversation with anyone in almost a week. Yes, people have been phoning, but it’s not the same thing. You have no idea how good it was to be able to talk to people, face-to-face, without having to pick your words carefully to avoid idiomatic usage, or to worry about being understood. Four Canadians sitting around a kitchen table half a world away talking about anything was so comforting and so fabulous that I’m a little teary thinking about it.

    I said, “You guys have no idea how much I needed this. I had reached the point where I had taken to mumbling to myself, telling myself about the things I was seeing, so I could pretend I was having a conversation with someone.” The need to connect apparently being very strong with me — who would have thought? “Being able to talk to someone directly, in person, about the experience of being here with you guys.. you really have no clue what it’s like, or how much I needed this.”

    Normally I am quite reticent about imposing on other people. Even if they offer, I generally work hard to avoid invitations to dinner with families because I don’t want to be a burden. I leapt at this offer, though, and I cannot begin to express my gratitude for this degree of hospitality. It was quite possibly the most wonderful evening I’ve spent anywhere in the last couple of months. Toyo even asked me if I wanted to go with her to Osaka tomorrow (a very tempting proposition, which I will have to think over carefully tonight), and offered to take me up to Kiyomizu-dera in the morning. She and her brother are picking me up at 9:30 tomorrow, so I’m off to bed.