Thursday, July 30, 2009


First, let me apologize for not keeping you posted with my travels. I will update my travels through NW India and China upon my return to the states as I don't have the time at the moment. I do have an excuse for not updating the blog in China...government censorship of blogger, facebook, and other social networking sites. Oddly enough, the Chinese facebook knockoff (with identical user interface) is reportedly not censored.

I flew from Beijing to Tokyo on the morning of the 22nd of July. This was the day of the much-anticipated longest total solar eclipse ever, which passed through certain parts of Asia. I was very much hoping to get above the clouds in time to see the eclipse from my window seat, but either Beijing was too far north to view much, or more likely, we just did not get above the cloud layer in time to see it due to delays at the airport.

My first expedition was getting down to Fukuoka on Kyushu Island to meet my friend, Clement, who had a conference the next week in Korea and was able to join me for some travel in Japan. I had been unable to get the Japan Rail pass available to foreigners only outside of Japan while I was in Beijing. This made Japan suddenly quite expensive. Thus, I decided to try to save money on accomodation by sleeping outside in an urban park (which are apparently very safe), since Clement's colleague said he only had space for Clement. Fortunately, upon hearing this plan, Clement's friend changed his mind... In the morning, I woke up to the sound of heavy rains outside the appartment, and was quite relieved at my change of fortune. Fukuoka has great sushi as it is a port city. With a local guiding us around the city, Clement and I sampled red bean pastries and some interesting noodle dishes as well. The highlight was seeing an exhibit about a local festival (which occurred aobut a week before our arrival). The Hakata Gion Yamagasa, is a summer festival in which takes place from July 1 to 15, held at Kuahida Shrine.  During the festival, large floats called Kazariyama decorate Fukuoka's streets, and early in the morning of the 15th the Oiyama is held. Men race through the street carrying one-ton "portable shrines.  The spectacle is made more amusing by the sumo-like attire of the participants. The Oyama is extremely heavy and the racers hold it on their shoulders, while a crowd of people push them to increase speed. Not surprisingly, people die in this festival, and in my mind it is somethign akin to the running of the bulls in Pamplona (perhaps without the stupidity of tourists involved).

Nagasaki was the next day's venture. I think you can probably imagine the experience, which is difficult to relate in words. The museum did provide some very interesting history on nuclear proliferation, that I had not expected to find. The number of nuclear accidents is really quite scary and I have to say that I came away from the museum with a slightly new perspective.

Already nearly templed-out after Hakata and Nagasaki, Clement and I took the Shin-Kansen bullet train to Kyoto--the home of 1,800 temples and former government seat during two consecutive Japanese time-periods. The temples were quite impressive, but we lacked the perspective to really appreciate the historical context and by extention to avoid the the mental and physical fatigue that comes along with a temple marathon. Kyoto on a Saturday night is something to behold as the Japanese dress up in their finest and Geisha and Meiko (young geisha) walk from one gig to another. Japan also has a bizarre habit of making the shopping areas either covered or underground, probably because they like to keep everything very controlled (such as climatic conditions). One of the covered walkways had a wonderful selection of pickles, yakisoba (balls of potato in a teriyaki style sauce), and fish (of the fresh and dried variety). Many items were also available to sample, which I enjoyed liberally.

Clement headed south and I headed north for a trip up Mt. Fuji with one of my hosts, named Ken. He is 62 and training for a marathon in November, but has never before climbed a real mountain. Thus, he took the opportunity to climb Fuji while I was here to accompany him. He had arranged a bus tour combined with a guided tour up the peak. I was skeptical upon hearing this and upon hearing the itinerary, which sounded more like a train schedule than a hike up a mountain. We started at 5th station (a little over 50% elevation up the mountain) and during the group stretching excersizes, we experienced a brutal downpoor. We lost the group at this point (quite fortunately, in my opinion). Two hours after arriving at our lodging (between the 8th and 9th stations, 85% up the mountain), our guide and company arrived. I vowed not to join the group on summit day. The guide started arguing fiercely with me when I said that I had no intention of joining. She pulled the usual "the crater rim is dangerous" but I was still insisting that I did not want to be part of the Japanese tour group. She changed her tact with the line, "Robert-san, I love you; come with me; come with us." I did not fall for this bait either, but was eventually forced to succumb because Ken was persuaded by her words of caution. In the morning, after a night of shoulder-to-shoulder hostel-style sleeping, the weather was attrocious, so the sunrise hike was canceled and we slept in. The group was going to descend, but I refused when the weather suddenly changed for the better. This turned out to be a temporary change, but Ken and I made it to the summit, an hour later, to enjoy the heavy mist and strong winds at the summit shrine and souvenir shop. Quite the Japanese experience.

We returned to Ken and Sato's house in Fujisawa and headed straight for the local, public onsen(♨) or Japanese Spa is the best deal in Japan at $5 per session. This is a truly Japanese experience and I have been told that "all Japanese love onsen." It reminded me a little of the bathing houses in Iceland in the way it has become a part of the culture. The Japanese have the most comprehensive spas I can possibly imagine, however, in contrast to the basic pool in Iceland. When you arrive at the onsen, you strip all your clothes (guys and girls use separate facilities). Then you pour some hot water from Japanese style wooden buckets onto your body to clean off (rather than shower first). A few of the wonderful options I will mention. 1) A traditional, stone-carved and barrel-shaped vat withthe top end open and filled with water. This is a favorite for kids (who squeeze two or three inside) and adults as well, who can submerge however much or little of their body as they want in it. It is outside and next to it is a tatami mat, where people can do Zen, lay down and relax, or stretch. Also outside is another pool which is surrounded by a simple rock design and a half-covered pool with small bubbles of air, which is said to replenish energy. Inside, there are pools of varying temperature, one as high as 42C, a saline pool that resembles the dead see (although I still cannot figure out how I was sinking in this water so I might have to question the degree of salinity), one where you lay on your back and receive jets of water at your sides and feet, a cold water plunge (18C) which feels like Antarctica after some time in the hot pools, and the most interesting pool being one with an extremely strong jet in one part of the pool and an anode-diode pair that sends electric current through your hips. After the Fuji climb, I tried this for the first time and experienced some discomfort at first (more on one side than the other), but this subsided and I have to say it might have done some good. The electricity did not stop at the hips and I could see my fingers trembling slightly, but was glad that I didn't lose my memory (think, electro-shock therapy)! The steam bath room is quite interesting because you can lather yourself in salt (I think to extract sweat) and then as is customary in Japan, you rinse the area you use to keep it clean for the next person. By the end, if you don't take some serious cold pool plunges, you end up putting on your clothes and drenching them in sweat.

The following day, we made a trip to Enoshima Island and Ken showed me his caligraphy teacher`s house. His caligraphy teacher is highly regarded and his work is on the title of a major motion picture to be released. The picture is about the once glorious Azuchi which burned just before its completion (I will visit this tomorrow). Since it was hot in Fujisawa, we headed to the beach (Japan's most popular), filled with high-school aged boys and girls, the latter typically thickly laiden with eye make-up. Well, shortly after stepping into the cool water, a siren sounded, and an announcement was being made in Japanese. My reaction was a good one...this is tsunami territory!! So, I made some haste to get out of the water, but most people seemed to be ambling out of the water. It turns out that this was the first stage in the annual tsunami evacuation drill...first, get everyone out of the water. We did not wait around, but instead headed for higher ground (unrelated to this drill) on the island. Ken showed me the traditional method of worship in a shrine (two bows; then two claps). We found some tidepools and noticed a group of men eagerly crowded around a shell-fish that one had found. Ken overheard one of them say that the shellfish would retail in the store for about $40, but Ken thinks that this catch was illegal since we do not suspect they were licensed fishermen.

After an overnight bus, Ken and I explored Nara, the emperor`s seat for several hundred years after Kyoto. Many domesticated deer keep the lawns finely manicured. As I was walking around, I noticed just how softly and politely the people working at the temples in Nara speak. "Ohio gazaimas-ka" was said as if people were singing. Speaking of music, it turns out that in Japan, concerts do not need human performers. In September, people near Lake Biwa (the largest lake in Japan) enjoy a quiet gathering outside to enjoy the sweet melody of crickets. Aparently in August, the crickets are louder, but in September the more melodious ones are active.

The Lake Biwa region (Shiga Prefecture) is where Ken's brother resides and we are visiting him now. He took us to a tea ceremony where manners are very important: first, the tea ceremony attendee should enter the door by pushing themselves forward with shins on the grond. Then, one admires the caligraphy on the ground, placing one's fan, while observing specific parts of the detail and bordering before looking at the writing. Then one sits and awaits the tea service. First, a Japanese pastry: in our case, mochi with grean tea powder sprinkled on top and Azuki (red bean) filling. Next, the server very graciously presents the tea, bowing as she does so. The attendee returns the bow, picking up the bowl with the right hand first, carefully rotating the bowl to the appropriate place, drinking the strong green tea in 3 sips and then one final one (getting all the bubbles). Then the drinker sets down the bowl and admires it, before rotating it and setting it out for the server to take. Finally, some words of formality and thanks are offered and the tea drinkers retire.

Ken's brother, Kei-ichi, is a retired director of the Lake Biwa Fisheries research station and Trout Hatchery. We visited both. Interestingly, the lake has 12 endemic species and now has 50 total species of fish. Two are causing problems with the ecosystem...bluegill and black bass. The research station was hosting a public exposition and we had the chance to rainbow trout and black bass and both were tasty. The interesting thing about the trout hatchery is that the color and texture of the meat of the rainbow trout here is different than it is in Lake Biwa because of the food they feed the fish...anchovies from Peru and Cod from the North Atlantic. I was amazed that they are feeding the fish food from this far away, but I would imagine that the trout and char command a much higher price than their food. I finally asked Ken and his brother my biggest question about fisheries in Japan: Do consumers consider the sustainability of the fish, fishing locations, and fishing techniques used for fish they purchase? The answer is that only 3-4% of people give this consideration. As a result, the sellers are not forced to announce much about the fishing techniques, etc. Apparently, Tuna has been virtually fished out around Japan, so Japanese and Chinese fisherman are heading to the Indian Ocean, where fishing treaties have not been established. Kei-ichi thinks that the Japanese fishing techniques emphasize sustainability while the Chinese techniques do not.

My tour guides for a return visit to Kyoto were Ken and Kei-Ichi's daughter, Youko. Per Ken's recommendation, we visited three very different sights, Sanjusanjendo, a tremendously long hall with 33 statues of Gods (many of which are the same as Hindu gods) in front and then 1001 hand-made bronze statues of Bodditsavas (each one being quite similar, but slightly different and made by different artists). The centerpiece is a seated Buddha. The next selections were the silver and gold temples, which contrasted in the colors used (the former being traditional white and black, while the latter is the only golden temple in Japan), but the basic architectural form was quite similar.

The following day, we took a boat out to Kei-ichi's black bass and bluegill trap on a river that is a tributary to Lake Biwa. He is doing volunteer work to limit the number of these harmful invasives in Lake Biwa. He throws the indigenous and other non-harmful fish back into the river. The introduction of the bluegill is a particularly sad story. In 1960, when the current emporer of Japan was still a prince, he was invited to the U.S. to meet the Mayor of Chicago. This mayor presented the prince with a bluegill fish. The prince thought that this fish would provide a wonderful source of food for Japanese people and he introduced it to the fishery center at which the young research scientist, Kei-Ichi, was then working. Kei-Ichi's job was to increase the number of these fish in the lakes and was told "never kill the bluegill." Some 50 years after its introduction, the Emperor (formerly prince), realized the gravity of the problem with the invasive species he had introduced (a problem nobody had foreseen at the time). He made a public apology, the first apology ever made by an emperor. Ironically, this is the same fish that Kei-Ichi now dedicates significant amounts of free time to remove. The story of the black bass introduction was also interesting. It was introduced by a Japanese who took it from the U.S. However, it was during the U.S. occuptation of Japan that the U.S. soldiers, who enjoyed fishing their familiar variety of fish, spread the species to most of the Lakes in Japan. Two very sad stories.

Later that same day, we visited a sake factory. The factory gave us a free tour of the facilities. I was amazed at the hospitality and kindness of the manager, who also showed us one of the houses of Edo-period (18th-19th century construction) that he bought and is trying to preserve.

In the evening, we attended the first day of festivities at a temple festival. A procession of two light lanterns kicks off the event. Meiko (temple girls) performed traditional dance with the primary prop being gold and silver fans. They were accompanied by the Japanese flute (which I guess is very difficult to play) and light drumming. The festival had over 1000 lanters and sponsors fund the event.

Each time I returned from Tokyo to Fujisawa, I spent a day in Tokyo. The first time, I went straight to the Tsukiji fish market. It surprises Ken that foreigners like myself enjoy seeing this, but this kind of stuff goes on behind the scenes in Seattle. Fish are brought in, cleaned, and put in refrigerators for sale. I missed the morning rush, when most of the sales occur, but it was amazing to see the variety of fish available, and the size of many of the fish, particularly the Tuna. Little buggies cart the fish around in styrofoam boxes and the whole market is so large that you cannot see from end to end!

Yesterday, I had perhaps one of the most inspiring interacteractions of my entire trip. I accompanied Ken to his calligraphy course, which is taught by a young calligrapher named "Song" who has already become the most famous calligrapher in all of Japan. He has achieved his fame, like many great artists, through a sound ability in the classical form of this art, but also through innovation in the modern form of calligraphy. He is the one I mentioned who wrote the title of the upcoming movie about the burning of Azuchi Castle. Interestingly, he also has the ability to improvise calligraphy, creating new works inspired on the spot by listening to musical performances (not of his choosing), to the acclaim of his audience. Song warmly welcomed me to his class and told me how much he appreciates the freedom of expression that is highly valued in the US. He mentioned to me an idea of his, a World Appreciation Year, which he hopes to innovate for 2020. He is currently in the process of designing posters for this and consulted my opinion (which was to have the Kangi for appreciation faintly in the backgroiund, but English or whatever regional language in the foreground). The idea is to get everyone in the world to express their appreciation for the world in a way of their choosing. I told him that the challenge would be to reach the people for whom an appreciation of the earth's natural beauty is not apparent...for instance those living in slums and other high-density areas where nature has been brushed aside. The class assignment was to produce a work that expressed the emotion of the Kangi character (an expression with a repeated Kangi character). Ken helped me choose nervous. This was the emotion that he sensed I was experiencing upon entering the class. Since I don't yet have a very steady hand, this was a perfect project for me and I was able to embellish the characters in a way that was both pleasing to me and the instructor, who asked me to sign my work (a challenge in and of itself, and I invented an abbreviated form of the Kangi symbol for my name) and he kept requested to keep it, along with the works of the other members of the class, which were certainly more impressive.