Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Big Saka 8/08

Here's a blog entry I was working on last year, but didn't finish. The blog seems to be eroding, with pictures disappearing or turning into red x es. You can click on the red exes and link to the photos, or look in the folder on Picasa, by linking to the "Full Size Photos" link in this blog. This is from August, 2008, when we went to an art education conference in Osaka.

So we went to Okinawa, the big Nawa, then Osaka, the big Saka. The big sack a what? So many things in Japan have the name big attached to it, as if the country has an inferiority complex and constantly needs to assert how big it is.
We met up with Masami and the Americans who visited us in Amami for the International Society for Education in Art world conference in Osaka. It was mostly presentations that Theo and I didn't go to, but we did do this art workshop, where we made things out of these corn puff cylinders, which were like cheezless cheetos that stuck together when wetted.

Masami's mother and youngest brother came for a talk she was giving. She also got an award for something. She gave her mother the flowers. I don't know if she knew what was going on.

The conference hotel had this salad bar and dessert buffet, with a chocolate fountain. I had no idea chocolate went with so many different kinds of food. Chocolate does make an excellent salad dressing, in case you were wondering.
There was a welcome party for the conference, which people had to pay for, all-you-can drink and all the hors d'oerves you can eat in 10 minutes before they're all gone. The room was packed with starving teachers, and all the meat, cheese and crackers were gone instantaneously, followed by the vegetables. All that was left were huge platters piled high with kaki peas (a Japanese spicy cracker), potato chips, dried fish, and chocolate chips. Dried fish is not excellent with chocolate chips, in case you were wondering. Masami gave a speech, a soprano sang an aria, and there were some other speeches. The attendees were so loud we honestly couldn't hear anything. I couldn't believe we were in a room full of teachers. I guess teachers can be the worst listeners.
We had a banquet later in the week in the same packed room, with the same setup, except with real food this time (no trays of chocolate chips). Everybody was anxious to fill their plates quickly after the feeding frenzy of the other night, but there was plenty of food this time. There was, however, no place to sit down, so everybody ate their dinner standing up, like we were at a cheap ramen lunch counter without the counter. There was a jazz band, but I couldn't hear anything. There may have been some speeches, too.

I took a break from the conference and took Theo and Max, the son of one of the American students to the Osaka Aquarium. Osaka is the second largest urban area in Japan, and I think everyone went to the aquarium that day. The place was built to move crowds, with its one-way spiral structure. You took an elevator to the top, then spiraled down through the exhibits.

It as crowded as a rush hour bus. We went through this fish tunnel, where all we could see were the fish above us. There were women doing crowd control, screeching directions in high pitched voices through amplified bullhorns. This woman's voice is what all female announcers sound like in Japan. They actually go to school to learn how to talk in this annoying way.

We had to wait in line to see anything and were constantly getting jostled. Theo was seriously bummed and didn't want to see anything. He just wanted to go home. Max, the wild child, just jostled his way into whatever he wanted to see. The second half thinned out a little, so we could breathe.

The kids had fun after, playing in the fountain, until we got busted by the cops and had to leave. Max was actually swimming in the fountain. It was a long, drippy ride home in the subway.

I took the kids to Universal Studios a couple of days later. At $100 for me and Theo, I wanted to get our money's worth and do all the rides. At 45-90 minutes wait for everything, it looked as if it were going to be a challenge. They sold pass booklets that got you to the front of the line for $50. It seemed very un-Japanese. We hit a few rides, the Hollywood Dream rollercoaster with its organ rearranging drops, the Shrek 3-D show translated into Japanese, a water ride. We had lunch at Mosburger outside the park, which doesn't have actual moss in the burgers, but I would ahve preferred moss to whatever was in those disgusting meatloaf type burgers. Thunder started to rumble in the distance and they started closing the rollercoasters down. Ok, I thought, they don't want the rollercoaster to turn into a big lightning rod, so that may be reasonable. But as we raced around from attraction to attraction, it became apparent that all the rides, all the shows, outdoor or indoor, were closed. I couldn't believe that they could shut the whole place down due to the threat of imminent sprinkles and not cause a riot. This could only happen in Japan. Actually, everything wasn't closed. I had to admire the Japanese "can do" spirit in keeping all of the shops and restaurants open in the face of disaster. Not even the threat of dampness can stop the Japanese entrepreneurial spirit.

Outside the park was a whole museum dedicated to the Japanese institution of eating octopus balls on a stick. The one on the sign has legs, which the kind you eat don't usually have. We didn't go in, but I can't imagine what they have there- fossilized takoyaki?

We got free tickets from the conference to an "art" museum (value $10), which consisted of an exhibit on the art of Miffy, the cute bunny. I guess the author of the books is Dutch, but the Japanese love Miffy and have adopted him/her? as their own. You see the lovable fluffball everywhere, on clothing, backpacks, pencil cases, towels, etc. It's like Hello Kitty for people who are allergic to cats.

We changed hotels to join up with a Kyoto bus tour that Masami was on. This hotel had toilets with remote controls. Of all the things you would need a remote control for, I can't imagine this being one. What would happen if you lost it? Just a disaster waiting to happen.

We took the "bus tour" the next day, the one that conference attendees payed $240 each for (including a night at the hotel and meals). It mostly consisted of the bus dropping us off somewhere and the tour "guides" pointing in the direction of museums and points of interest. The bus couldn't even fit onto the street the hotel was on, so we had to parade a few blocks with our luggage to the bus.

We were supposed to meet Masami at the Manga Museum, where she was giving a talk. Her brother drove two hours from Nagoya with his family to see her. By the time we got there, she had gone for drinks. We tried calling her, but couldn't get a hold of her. So we ended up waiting for another 3 hours. Her brother had taken the two hour ride back to Nagoya by then.

(I removed the picture of the family by request of Takashi's wife, who hides her face when anyone tries to photograph her anymore. She looks fine, and probably won't get any better looking, but anyway, I deleted it for her.)

Masami had some more work to do later, so Theo and I went to see the 7,000 fireworks display at Uji, a nearby town. We told some Japanese people that we were going, and they told us that there would be a lot of people there and we would be crazy to attempt it. So of course we hopped on the next train. The fireworks were starting as we got off the train, and the crowd was pressed together like penguins in a breeding colony. I've never seen so many people in one place before. Theo couldn't see anything and was getting seriously freaked out. If it had been anywhere else in the world, people would have been trampled. That's if you could find some space to fall down. Some emergency vehicles did show up later to help people who had passed out, but I don't think anyone died. I thought maybe we could find a nice place along the riverbank to watch the fireworks, but we were stuck in the crowd shuffling wherever the mass of humanity was going. We could half see the fireworks behind us, but we couldn't see where we were going. After about 15 minutes of barely moving, I could see we were still in the street in front of the train station where there was a street festival and people as far as I could see in all directions. We finally found a place behind a fence next to a tree, where we had an obscured view of the fireworks, but at least could breathe. We waited for awhile after for the crowds to disperse, but they never really did. It still took us a half hour to get on the train, although they were running every 4 minutes. The nightlife on the strip in Kyoto seemed like a graveyard after that. I think that we got enough of the Japanese urban experience to last us a lifetime.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Kyoto Aug 1-4,2008

Masami had some business to do for a few days in some less interesting parts of Japan, so Theo and I went on our own little adventure, spending 3 days in Kyoto. Kyoto is really the epitome of traditional Japan. All of those rock and moss gardens, temples and so on that one thinks of when they think of Japan are in Kyoto. It's also a big city, so it was a kind of a shock to us. Foreigners (gaijin) are nothing special there, and some people really don't like them, probably having bad experiences with the foreign horde that is always present there. It felt odd just seeing all the gaijin after 6 weeks of hardly seeing any, surprisingly even in Okinawa. So we were back to being just a couple of schmos in a big city. I had a hard time finding our guest house, again, one of those places where you have to stand in front of it to see it. I was in a good location, with a little shrine across the street and the imperial park a couple of blocks away. Although Kyoto can be as big and ugly as any Japanese city, there are still all these little pockets of beauty everywhere, which you can see just by wandering around. For example, there are some 2,000 shrines and temples in Kyoto, some pretty small and run down, some major sights. Our guest house was another funky gaijin house, but cheap, with free AC. We decided the people who invented AC should get the Nobel Prize, since we couldn't have survived without it. It was even hotter than in Okinawa, which didn't seem possible.
Not really wanting to deal with the city just yet, Theo and I escaped to the hills the next day, to hike along the Kiyotaki river gorge and go swimming. We had to wait 45 minutes for a bus connection, and after a long winding bus ride to the end of the line, we were in Takao, a tiny village nestled in the green hills. There was a major shrine there, Jingoji, which was a long walk down stairs to the river, then a longer climb up many steps (we didn't even count this time) to the shrine.

There wasn't much to see there, as most of the buildings were closed to the public. We hiked to the top of the hill to someone famous's grave, I guess, but we had no idea who it was, since there was no English info. The big tourist attraction was tossing clay disks off a steep cliff into the gorge below. Kind of like littering for good luck.

We were soaked with sweat and ready for some river time after that. Once we got past the touristy tea houses, the river bed was unusually natural for Japan, with very little cement. We would hike along until we found a promising swimming hole, one with water trickling down a mossy rock wall or one with good rocks for jumping off of into deep pools. We would hike in our swimsuits until we got hot, then stop to sample another swimming hole.

We didn't see many people until we got to the little town of Kiyotaki. It was packed with people barbecuing, seemingly camped out with tons of stuff. there were some remains of abandoned barbecues, too, piles of garbage on the bank. Restaurants were built up to the cliff edge. One was abandoned, the windows falling off, into the river it seemed, as there was nowhere else for it to go.

After that one little inhabited spot, it was a natural walk through a beautiful river gorge, with nice rocks and trees and moss.

The hike ended at a train station, and it was only one stop to my favorite part of Kyoto, Arashiyama. This is the Kyoto that I long for, walks along stone streets, through bamboo forests, past traditional buildings, shrines, and temples, bordered by a river that winds through the green hills.

I decided to brave the city the next day. Our guest house had bicycles for rent for $5 a day, so we did a bike tour of the city. Things seem so far away when you go from train station to train station, walking up and down endless flights of stairs, or are always waiting for a bus to come, so it was great to have wheels. We toured some of the major temples, some of which were major disappointments, like Ginkakuji, the silver pavilion, which charged $8 a person to look at a construction site. The pavilion isn't even silver, unlike the golden pavilion, which is actually gold. They did have a nice collection of moss, however. I didn't realize there were so many different kinds of moss, including "Moss the interrupter." With the bikes, we were able to get a little off the beaten track without all the walking up the long entrances that shrines and temples usually have, so we got to enjoy some of the quieter places without the hordes of tourists. The expanses of gravel at the big shrines were too much to take in the heat. I felt like I could see with my eyes closed, the reflection from the white gravel was so bright. The path of philosophy, a shady lane along a canal, lost some of its charm in comparison to the river of the day before.

Finally, the heat got the best of us, and we headed to the river. It was decidedly urban, but the locals were hanging out, so we figured it couldn't be that bad. It was kind of depressing, a shallow, weed choked trickle. Still, it was a great relief from the heat. The Shimogamo shrine was nearby, which encompasses a small patch of old growth forest in the middle of the city. That's really the great thing about these old shrines, since many of them preserve the landscape much as it was when the shrines were founded, some 1500 years ago. Later we found our favorite restaurant, Raju, an Indian restaurant with great set meals with mango lassis for $14. Best Japanese food I had all trip.

I wasn't in any hurry to get to Osaka, so we spent the next day seeing a couple of sights before we went to the conference hotel. We lugged our luggage to Nijojo, the most beautiful castle in Japan. Most of Japan's castles were bombed out in WWII and are cement reconstructions. Even the original castles look impressive on the outside, but there's really nothing to see on the inside. They are basically museums shaped like castles. But Nijojo has preserved (or recreated) the original decorations and artwork. The details are impressive, from the squeaky "nightingale floor" that warned of intruders, to the painted and carved ceilings. It also has one of the best water and rock gardens that I've seen.

Nijojo had refreshed me to do some more sight seeing, so I decided to check out a shrine that I had never been to, Fushimi Inari taisha. Inari is a popular god, the god of the harvest, or in modern terms- money. This shrine is the headquarters for countless other shrines all over Japan. It takes up a whole mountainside, with many little shrines dotting the hillside.

The pathways are lined with torii, the red gates that are entrances to all shrines. But here, the pathways are lined with these tightly packed torii donated by people who wanted the god to help them out with their finances. There are tens or even hundreds of thousands of them. Some are rotting out at the base, and some have been removed. I don't think anyone really knows how many there are. We imagined one of them falling and knocking down hundreds of thousands more in the world's biggest domino effect. Walking through these tunnels of torii was a hallucinatory adventure, sort of like being lost in a maze, which I find an appropriate metaphor for Japan. These tunnels of vermillion wind though the hills for miles. You become disoriented after a while; even though there are maps every so often (in Japanese), it seems like you're going around in circles. They could be a grand entrance to something, but really they just lead to tiny altars here and there with their fox messengers and donations of small torii stacked by lesser endowed wealth seekers.

The real point of going there is to take the journey through the torii tunnels. We spent hours there, and it was dusk by the time we left. It's really the best time to visit shrines, when almost everybody has left and you can enjoy the forest and the quiet, an experience that takes you out of time.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Big Nawa 6/28-7/1/08

We had a nice ferry ride to Okinawa. I didn't get sick, which I was really worried about, since I remember one awful endless night on a ferry from Amami to the mainland, heaving over the railing all night. But I took a pill this time and was perfectly fine, slept well with the boat rocking me to sleep. The sleep was short lived however, as the harsh cabin lights came on at 4:30 am to awaken us for disembarking. We had planned to wait around in a coffee shop until our guest house opened at 9am, but there was nothing open in the deserted ferry terminal and nothing around that area. (It was the new ferry terminal, not the old one conveniently located near our guest house.) So after about an hour of waiting and realizing it was going to be a long, boring, 4 hour wait, we decided to take a taxi to our guest house to see if we could get in early. I had a map, and the taxi driver took us to the place where it should have been, but we still couldn't find it, which was not a good sign. We couldn't call until 9, so Theo and Masami just sat around on this abandoned city street while I walked around the streets looking for the place. We finally found a coffee shop that was open at 7, had breakfast and waited until 9. The guest house turned out to be where it should have been; they just took the sign in at night, to avoid people like us wandering in at 6 am, no doubt.

The Okinawa guest house was a funky gaijin house, cheap but serviceable. Our room was completely stuccoed with a big trowel, including all the walls, ceiling, sink, and bar. It gave the place a drippy, surrealist look. The important thing was that it had AC, as it was HOT.
We rented a car and drove around the south of the island to see the WWII monuments, of which there are a lot. There is a huge American military base on Okinawa (that covers 12 % of the island), and they have a checkered history with America, being invaded, then ruled by America until 1973. The battle of Okinawa is a pretty famous one, 82 days of slaughter as the Japanese military fought to the death or committed mass suicides. But the thing that struck me about the war monuments was the perspective that the Okinawans took of being victims not so much of the Americans, but of the Japanese military, who were brutal to the Okinawans. The people of Okinawa, as most of the smaller islanders, were seen as second class citizens, or worse, by Japanese mainlanders.

Paper cranes for the dead nurses.
We went to the cave hospital site where the military forced student nurses to work in terrible conditions taking care of the soldiers, then kicked them out of the cave into the line of fire when the Americans overtook them. There is a cave where thousands of soldiers committed suicide. And there's a large peace museum and park, where you can learn more about the atrocities and read first hand stories, like forced suicides of civilians and worse. It was all pretty gruesome, but Masami wanted to see it. I guess the lesson is the horrible things that militarization produces, but not really a lesson I needed. One day of all that and the heat were enough.

Suicide cliff where Okinawans jumped at the encouragement of the Japanese military.

After all the death and brutality, we were ready for some beach time. Okinawa really surprised me. I had been expecting some kind of laid back beach community, and maybe it was, for Japan, but compared to Amami Oshima, it was really urban, with over a million people, and a third of that in the main city, Naha. We drove for an hour in heavy traffic from our lodging until we got out of town. We stopped at a beach that looked promising on the map, but turned out to be artificial, and what's more, closed. Coming from Amami, where you can't close the beach, this was a shock to us. We definitely weren't in Amami anymore.

The nice thing about staying in gaijin houses is that you meet a lot of other travelers and Japanese who want to meet other travelers. We invited a Japanese college student to go with us to the aquarium the next day. Masami had some work to do, so we didn't get started until 11am. It was a long 2 hour+ drive through traffic, past the American military base, then past megaresort after megaresort with their private beaches. Not only are there hardly any public beaches, but the few there are charge entrance fees and keep regular business hours.
It was blazing hot again as we arrived at the aquarium at about 1:30. We took in the outside dolphin and false killer whale show, then retreated to the safety of the air conditioning. It was an impressive aquarium, with the largest tank in the world, which housed 3 whale sharks, among other things. We got to see them feed these huge animals (krill), opening their massive gaping mouths to filter the shrimp from the water.
There was a park around the aquarium with an traditional Okinawan village, and a botanical garden along the ocean front. We walked through the gardens and watched the sun set. We saw two of the little Ryukyu Scops Owls, who just sat there looking at us. We also flushed some massive bats, which must have been Ryukyu Flying Foxes. They looked huge, but I looked them up and found that their fat bodies are only seven inches long. Still, pretty big bats.

Megalodon shark jaw.

On the way back to Naha, we stopped for dinner at a low key resort, which meant we finally had beach access! Theo and I went for a little swim in the dark.

Okinawa was the seat of a kingdom once upon a time, and they have a castle there called Shijo. We visited that on our last day, walking along the stone streets in the area. I have seen alot of castles in Japan, but this one was interesting as it was more Chinese influenced. I had the Okinawan champluzu with bitter melon, which I can't really recommend. The Amami dish using the same bitter warty cucumber is better, if still puzzling as a food item.

Since it was so hot, Theo and I decided to try out the nearby (free!) city beach. There was a homeless village in the adjoining park, with tatami mats, tarps and junk art made out of old tvs and furniture. The homeless in Japan are as polite and well organized as you'd expect. The beach is described in tourist brochures as a good place to watch the sunset. I don't know how that would be possible, as the swimming area was sandwiched between the beach and a bridge, so that you couldn't even see the ocean. They were actually building another bridge, so there was all this rusty scaffolding in the ocean next to the tiny roped off swimming area. It was pretty disgusting, the water not least.
On our last night we got a taste of the nightlife of the island, on Naha's main strip, Kokusai dori. It was a bright stretch of neon, souvenir shops and restaurants. Masami wanted to go back to a particular pottery shop that she had gone to 15 or so years earlier. She had tried to buy something, but they didn't take credit cards, so she tried to get some money form a cash machine, but wasn't able to. The woman who owned the shop ended up giving her a small piece for free. So Masami wanted to go back to thank her and buy something. We found the shop and the woman, and Masami told her story, which the woman remembered. She gave us tea and sweets. Masami bought some things, then the woman gave us a bag of sweets for free. That's what you get in Japan when you try to repay someone for a kindness, you become more indebted.

We walked along the bright, garish street, looking at all of the plastic souvenirs, Okinawan lions in every size and color, and deadly habu snakes in alcohol (they have them there, too). We had a good time in Okinawa, but it was a bit of a disappointment for me. Okinawa seemed a little like a pale imitation of other places in Japan. I could think of other places with better (or more interesting) food, beaches, castles, even war memorials. The heat didn't help either. Anyway, I can say I've been there, to Okinawa, which means, in Japanese, the big nawa.