May 28, 2007

Osaka, Encore

So, this blog is in danger of becoming a "Log of Places I Went With Kori," given that that's basically what this post, the last post, and the Tokyo post are. And given that we're doing Kyoto again this weekend, that's probably what the next post will also be about. I do feel vaguely odd about this- as this particular installment of Diesel Sweeties points out, it is a little weird to blog about one's girlfriend on a regular basis. But, given that she's done the same thing to me, I think it's all good.
Also, I feel compelled to point out to ya'll that yes, I have a girlfriend, it's awesome, I'm in love, everything's nifty, and the world is full of awesome. Everything is kickass with Kori, and I might as well just go out and say it rather than being all coy about it.
We checked out Osaka last weekend, which was quite nice for me, since my only experience of the city was via a work trip that was colored by a drunked haze brought on by my superior. So, it was nice to go back and actually see the city.
In Osaka, we made our way to Amerika-Mura, or America Town. It's a nice area, full of various types of nifty shops, hip places, young people, graffiti, etc. Walking around Amerika-Mura is a nice reminder (at least for me, who lives in Okayama) that Japan does, indeed, have some really cool, hip, weird, people in it. For quite a while, Kori and I just sat in a public square people watching whilst eating tako-yaki, Osaka's regional specialty. There were groups of girls in matching wigs, kids dressed up in hip-hop regalia, punk and goth types, and various other wandering fashion plates. It was Sunday, and we wondered how all of these people looked during the work week. For instance, there's this one guy who works behind the counter at the Circle K by my apartment, who has this bizzare quasi-shaved head-it's shaved around most of it, but still long in the back with this sort of dyed crest-thing coming up in the back. But, I've only ever seen him in his orange and blue Circle K uniform, selling me onigiri and bad bento. I thought of that weird-haired guy, briefly, whilst we watched various other weird-haired people parade around us. We wandered around a bit and eventually found Osaka's Umeda Sky Tower, a rather impressive glass-and-metal structure that offered a nice panoramic view of the city- the pictures from the top of a skyscraper are from the Umeda Sky Tower. Tres nifty.
But, what I really want to talk about is Osaka Castle.
Osaka-Jo is sort of funny- it's been burnt and rebuilt a bunch of times, which is sort of admirable in a Pheonix-style way. It's also just sort of comical- the place seems cursed, almost, to get destroyed every so often. I wouldn't be surprised if a freak earthquake or metor took out parts of the main tower in the next couple of years.
Anyway, the place is pretty neat. From the outside, Osaka-Jo sort of resembles Okayama-Jo with its black-and-gold casement. A very nice and helpful tour guide on the approach mentioned to us that when Tokugawa rebuit the castle, he didn't really build it for war. He built it, as the guide put it, as "a symbol of his authority."
That's putting it mildly. With the black casing, the gold ornamentation, the gilt tigers rampant on the uppermost part of the tower, the gleaming fish on the roof, all say "I'm Tokugawa, bitches!" I imagine the shogun basking in SnoopDogg-ian splendor, surrounded by scantily-clad attendants and wearing enormous, gaudy, gold chains in some sort of sumtuously decadent chambers. Tokugawa- medieval gangster warlord, showing off his bling to his opponents and underlings.
Upon entrance the castle lost any appearnce of gold-clad history, and instead revealed itself to be an entirely modern museum style building. Sure there were lots of maps, dioramas, historical videos, timelines, etc. All sorts of educational, PBS style stuff. Stuff that probably was really, really edifying. But none of that stuff, no matter how wonderfully educational, was not nearly as cool as the displays of samurai armor.
Now, I'm 26 years old, and I like to think of myself as what is generally known as an "adult." I can do adult things like pay bills and use credit cards. I've got a job and wear a tie on a regular basis. I'm pretty freakin' grown up.
But damn are swords cool. I know, I know. War is bad, etc. But, whatever. There's still a part of me that's an adolescent who thinks swords and armor are awesome. In fact, I have this sneaking suspicion that I've actually become more adolescent in the last few years. Being secure in one's adulthood allows for a sort of revelling in kiddy stuff. It's sort of like guys who are secure enough in their masculinity and not hung up on macho bullshit that they're man enough to hold their girlfriend's purse. That kind of stuff- being assured enough of something that you don't have to prove it all the time. Am I making sense? No, probably not. But, anyway...
And helmets and armor and spears and bows and cannons and gauntlets and more swords! It was pretty frikken' cool. (Regrettably, there was a prohibition on taking pictures inside. Sorry, guys.) The various suits of armor did look pretty outlandish, and a lot of it pretty impractical. I thought that such things as giant sets of antlers jutting from a helmet was purely the province of fantasy illustration, but apparently there really were people who were batshit insane enough to go into battle with deer parts on their head. There were also a remarkable number of masks on the helmets, all of which probably made the wearer look all the more frightening to his opponents.
I thought about this looking at the armor, and imagined that the average foot soldier was probably just some guy conscripted from rice fields and given a sharpened stick or something. But the samurai, the guys wearing this crazy armor, were trained, well-equipped, usually mounted dudes who, as Kori put it, "looked like gods." There were probably all kinds of guys who dropped their spear, ran in terror, and then got mowed down by a guy on a horse wearing scary animal parts as a hat.
The top of Osaka-Jo offered a nice view of the surrounding greenspace and the city, as well as a close up of some of the blinged-out fish things that are all over the castle's roof. We climbed down, and found a pleasant plum grove near the castle, and sat by the moat for a while.
Travelling is of course wonderful. I'm constantly intoxicated by the fact that there's a plethora of things and places here that I've never seen before. But travelling with someone is far better. I'm glad that now when I venture out into Japan, Kori's there and we can bounce our various opinions and ideas off of each other. We made our way back to Amerika-Mura, and found a fashionable Italian/Chinese (?!) restaurant.
Sitting there, I was reminded that Japan is indeed a rather hip country. Okayama isn't exactly the epicenter of coolness, so it was quite the breath of proverbial fresh air to eat in a place that had a small amount of coolness to it.
I had to say goodbye to Kori so we could catch our respective last trains to Okayama and Tokyo, but fortunately we're seeing each other again soon. I mean, this country isn't too huge. The prefectures are about the size of American counties, and the whole thing is filled with supertrains that zap you anywhere quite quickly.
So, it's back to Kyoto soon. It'll rock.

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May 8, 2007

Kyoto-Okayama-Kurashiki-Takamatsu-Miyajima-Onomichi-Innoshima: Trekking Through Kansai and the Inland Sea

We found the brontosaurus...
Admittedly, there's no such thing as a brotosaurus. It's a collasal mistake. But, it's become oh so iconic, and the statue was made with the same iconic incorrect sauropod back and tail posture. Oddly enough, the statue also looked weirdly albino and rather pissed off. But, we found the brontosaurus. It was like a prize, a treasure in the woods.
We won.
We totally won.

At the end of April and start of May there are a series of national holidays known as Golden Week. Along with the New Year's Holidays it's one of the major vacation periods in Japan. This past Golden Week Kori and I both had time off, and kriss-krossed Kansai and the Inland Sea area. There were deer, a brontosaurus, various temples, rain, cable cars, a lack of monkeys, telegrams, and rainy paths.
It rocked, and I do so like things that rock.

Kyoto: Oh My God! It's Full of History!
I felt a slight twinge of (eventually unwarrented) disappointment when I stepped into Kyoto.
Kyoto carries all sorts of expectations- it was spared the fires of WWII, and retains all manner stuff culturally important to Japan. It was the old capital prior to the Tokugawa Shogunate, houses the old Imperial Palace, and has more temples than you can swing a either a proverbial cat or stick at.
That being said, there is a certain rather silly part of the brain the expects to find some idyllic old-style city when one gets off the train. With all the hype about temples and shrines, one half-expects to see warriors in full samurai regalia walking wooden streets. One thinks of all manner of Japanese cultural signifiers/stereotypes- geta-wearing monks, silent, still geisha, Shinto priests in rather tall hats. One thinks of all those iconic/sterotypical images, and can't help but expect them, just a little, when one steps into the streets of Kyoto.
But kyoto has none of that.
Kyoto is a perfectly modern city. It has taxis, streetlamps, and everything. There are cars, convenience stores, and even pavement. All of the infrastructure and bustle one finds in the commercial/industrial cornocopia that is modern Japan.
One cannot help but be, every so slightly, disappointed that there is not some katana-wielding samurai warrior patrolling the streets when one disembarks into the urban landscape. Even though I knew very well that modern Kyoto is, well, modern, some irrepressable part of my brain still expected to find something like that here. I was both right and wrong in this feeling.
Wrong because of Kyoto's obvious modernity, but absolutely correct in that there is no shortage of connections to the past in Kyoto. I have every intention of going back, for I do not think that we adequately took in very much of it.
Kori and disembarked, made our way to our hostel, and then proceeded to get lost on the (entirely modern) bus system. However, such a turn was not entirely disappointing. Having a vague idea of where we were, we got off and looked for this one hill that, according to Kori, had nifty stuff on it.
We didn't find it.
We didn't find it because we got distracted by some random shrine by the side of the road. I don't remember which one of us said "What's that?" but we eventually found ourselves exploring some random, dark Shinto shrine in the middle of a wooded area. We climbed about, poking around the various altars and monuments, maybe trespassing. In the dark the altars and the statues of the gods took on an invitingly ominous quality, and I saw that there was an altar to kitsune, Shinto fox spirits.
"Tricksters," I said, "shapeshifters."
"They bring you money," replied Kori.
I wondered for a moment how one could get in good with such financially beneficient animistic entities. But, I was soon distracted by more important matters. Important matters that I will not describe to you, and that you will have to use your twisted imagination to envision.
We eventually made our way down the hill and into Kyoto's nighttime downtown. The streets of Kyoto are a bustling, bright grid at night- checkerboard city blocks and straight streets, all lit up. It's oddly beautiful, all those various people walking about at night as if it were day. We found a basement restaurant, ate pork and shrimp, and made flexible plans for the next day.
The next day, we made our way to the Kiyomizu-dera, one of Kyoto's more well known wonders. One thing that was quite nifty about Kyoto, is that it seems to be a city of lots of little wonders rather than just a few big ones. As we made our way to the Kiyomizu-dera (quite the big wonder) we were distracted by a temple, a cemetary, steps up a hillside, and an old pagoda in the woods. Kyoto seems to have all sorts of little things to tempt you away from the path, socketed away within it.
We continued to make our way to the massive Buddhist temple through the greenspace surrounding it, eventually coming to a fountainlike stream where several people were engaged in the watery purification ritual that one does prior to entering a Japanese holy place. We made our way up the pathway, and approached the main entrance sideways. The towering orange/red and white buildings were suitably impressive against the sky.
The Kiyomizudera is a wood structure on the side of a cliff, and during the holidays it was packed with tourists. I briefly wondered how the old wood building was doing, if all of these people walking about on this old Buddhist temple would strain its timbers. One can't help but think stuff like that. I've included several pictures of the Kiyomizudera- I think they offer a better description that I can give right now.
After the Kiyomizudera we walked around several narrow streets, found several small temples and shrines, saw people in kimonos and makeup who may or may not have been real geisha, and I know that I must go back to Kyoto, because I didn't see nearly enough of it.

Okayama, Kurashiki and Takamatsu: "Perfectly Reconstructed"
So, a lot of Japanese castles were destroyed in WWII. And, a lot of them have been rebuilt. I think this is a good thing. Better to rebuild something beautiful than let it be forgotten. Okayama Castle, known as U-Jo, or "Crow Castle" was one of these. Now, the outside of U-Jo is actually quite cool looking. Like its avian namesake, the castle is black, starkly different from most white Japanese castles. The roofs are also set with these golden dragon-fish things, which are somewhere between tasteful and gaudy. Outside the main entrance there was a nice little blurb about the history of Okayama Castle, the end bit being about how it was destroyed in WWII and then "perfectly reconstructed" in the sixties.
Now, every single person who's been inside has told me that as badass looking as U-Jo is from the outside, the inside is quite boring. But, Kori and I decided to see for ourselves.
Guess what? It is boring. While every other Japanese castle might seem slightly wimpy after seeing the massive construct that is Himeji-Jo, Okayama-Jo disappoints a bit, what with having an elevator and souvenir shop inside. I suppose the elevator is helpful for elderly people and those with disabilities, but it does somewhat compromise the "perfectly reconstructed" feel.
In any case, the inside of Okayama castle is a little cheesy. Everyone whom I've talked to has said that it's not really worth it, and they are all absolutely right. The outside is still fairly cool looking, though.
I showed Kori around Kurashiki and we made a jaunt over to Takamatsu as well. In Takamatsu, we did nothing, simply walked around near the water, looking at boats on the shoreline. Doing nothing, though, was quite the good use of a day.

Hiroshima and Miyajima: "...And Then We Went On A Cable Car!"
When I was a kid, I was afraid of nukes.
I have this very clear memory of watching the news with my dad, and there was some stock image of an ICBM on the news. It was some Cold War report all about American-Russian relations, probably nothing too unique or special. But, I asked my dad what it was, and he told me all about it. He told me about nuclear weapons, he got out the atlas and showed me the Soviet Union, gave me a little history lesson about the Cold War, and then told me that a single warhead could probably destroy the entire city of Portland.
He scared the shit out of me.
I remember being filled with apocolyptic fear, and was convinced that there was a Soviet missile with the words "PORTLAND, OR" written on the side of it. I was also convinced that one of my sister's dolls came alive at night and killed people, but that's another more Chucky-flavored neurosis.
Anyway, when the Berlin Wall came down when I was in elementary school, the first thing that popped into my mind was relief. "Well," I thought, "that means they're going to get rid of all the nukes, right?" Hahahahaha! What a silly little-child mind I had!
I'm older now, and less paranoid, but still a little frightened of nuclear weapons. Granted, I'm frightened of them in a more abstract, adult way- for instance I'm worried that North Korea might sell nukes as an act of economic desperation. Or that some India and Pakistan could launch a nuclear exchange. Or that someone could get their hands on one of the old, unaccounted for, Soviet nukes. I'm not paralyzed with fear or anything, but the political scientist in me still thinks about it. And that political scientist in me, I know, was born while watching a news report and seeing stock footage of and ICBM and cringing in fear at a father's explanation.
Which brings me to Hiroshima.
Hiroshima is actually a wonderful city, and I was impressed with a fair amount of its urban planning and engineering. But, you can't really talk about it without talking about how it was destroyed over half a century ago. The Atomic Bomb Dome is the city's iconic image, and even the word "Hiroshima" has become a synonym for the potential horrors of modern war.
Now, this does need to be put in context- more people died in both the Tokyo firebombing and the battle of Okinowa than in the Hiroshima blast. And, the Japanese atrocities in Asia and the Pacific firmly put Japan in the "agressor" rather than "victim" category when it comes to WWII.
To call the atomic bomb "unique" is a bit of an understatement. Obviously, the world changed then. It changed to the extent that forty odd years later, some random kid in Portland would be afraid of the exact same thing happening later. Moreover, the bombing is a symbol that war, in and of itself, is an evil thing. I'm hardly a pacifist, and I think that at times in history war has been a necessary evil. But, in the final analysis, it is simply humans killing humans writ large. Hiroshima is a reminder of that.
But I digress. A lot.
We got off one of Hirshima's many eminently pleasant streetcars and right there in front of us was the hollow shell of the Atomic Bomb Dome. The Dome itself sits on a river and is surrounded by various trees, which swayed in the wind that particular day. We snapped some pictures of the Dome, and also looked at the other people who were also snapping pictures of the dome. We walked around the Peace Park, seeing the various monuments and whatnot displayed about it.
Of course there was the Peace Arch, but I was also intrigued by two other memorials. One was a memorial to Sasaki Sadako, the world's most famous victim of the atomic bomb. Around the monument were variuos cases filled with folded paper cranes of various colors and sizes in glass cases that had been sent by children all over the world. I was struck by this because I remember reading the book Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes when I was in elementary school. I also remember that my school actually folded one thousand cranes as part of a history unit about nuclear weapons, and, as I went to a Catholic school, a gesture of peace. We made one thousand cranes, and put them up in a gigantic mobile in the school's main staircase. The cranes were arranged in colorful bands, green over blue over purple. At the top was a single gold crane that our pricipal, a nun, had folded herself. I wondered if the cranes that my school had folded were ever sent here to join the other children's folded gestures. Kori and I both took turns to ring the crane-shaped bell at Sadako's memorial, and I thought for a moment how many less famous children suffered the same fate as her.
Nearby was another memorial that I found less inspiring. Less inspiring because of its presentation, not its subject matter. It was a memorial to child laborers who had died in Hiroshima when the bomb exploded. I found it troubling because the recorded message that blared through the air at the monument talked about how they "gave their lives and their youths for their country," a hedging phrase that rankled me a bit. "So basically they were child slaves," said Kori. "Yeah," I said. Back in the States, I do get annoyed when people try to sanitize history- leaving out or moving too fast past the unpleasant bits, or the bits that shows our contries have blood on their hands, is merely an excercise in nationalistic dishonesty. When people say that the American Civil War wasn't about slavery, or try to apologize or rationalize stuff like Japanese-American internment, I cringe. And I cringe when it happens here in Japan, too, both at hedging, tentative monuments such as this, and whenever Abe Shinzo tries to pander to conservatives by denying atrocities in WWII.
I'm digressing again! My god there's lots of stuff about WWII in this post.
Fortunately, the inside of the actual museum didn't engage in such troublesome, hedging language. If anything, I was actually pleasantly surprised by the museum. I was surprised both by the fact that it didn't ignore Japanese militarism during the war, and was also very explicitly anti-nuclear. I suppose it makes sense that a museum in a city that's been nuked would take such an explcit stance, but given the apolitical stance that historical exhibits in the U.S. ususally take, I was surprised nonetheless.
There were all manner of war artifacts in the museum, but what I found most interesting was a wall of telegrams. Apparently, various mayors of Hiroshima have made it a tradition that every time there is a public nuclear test, the mayor sends a telegram of protest to that country's ambassador calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons. The wall was covered in messages written in Japanese and English addressed to various ambassadors of the U.S., Soviet Union, Britain, and France. I looked for, but couldn't find, the telegrams to the Indian and Pakistani ambassadors, and wondered what sort of tone the telegram to the North Korean ambassador took.
The next day, by train and then ferry, we were soon in Miyajima. I expected Miyajima to be a tourist trap, to have a few interesting sites, to maybe have a nice seaside path. And it did indeed have all of those things. But I was not expecting the deer.
Lots of deer. Tame deer. Deer for whome a guy with a cart sold stuff labeled "deer food." They were all over the place, right in the seaside walkways, when we got off the ferry. Chasing children, begging, lounging under trees.
Miyajima itself has that sort of stagey, tourist-friendly feel that many destinations in Japan seem to have. A friend of Kori's rather cynically described it as "having no soul." I don't really dislike this feeling per se- it didn't really detract from my enjoyment of taking the ferry, seeing the Otorii, or looking admiring the shrine. There is, however, this inescapable feeling that you're doing something prescribed, recommended, and safe. Perhaps it was the business of the Golden Week holiday that contributed to this feeling. In any case, it was neither a positive nor negative feeling, and I liked the sites just the same.
Walking about the Itsukushima Shrine, I sort of wondered about the place's particular status as both a religious place and a tourist attraction. Certainly most of the people there seemed to be tourists, out travelling during the holidays and seeing what famous sites Japan has to offer. But, the place was still recognizable as a religious area. There were still monks and such walking around.
I'm not a religious person- I like to call myself a "devout agnostic" and as much as the label "humanist" rankles me I think that it sometimes applies. Nevertheless, I can understand how people would find religion philosophically or psychologically useful, and, filthy non-believer that I am, I try to respect that. So, it was sort of a weird thinking about how this place (and also the Kiyomizu-dera before it) was a holy place, and I was wandering about it with a camera. Sure, there were also hordes of Japanese people wandering about with cameras, but I couldn't help but think about the weird juxtaposition at the time.
After the shrine we made our way up a hill to a cable car station which took us to the top of the island. Cable cars, I think, are much more like a carnival ride or something than a real means of conveyance. At least it seems that way. Getting on them you think "Woo-hoo! I'm on a cable car!" It was nifty. Anyway, got to near the top, hiked to the summit, and didn't see any monkeys. Which was a bit too bad, as Miyajima is known for having wild monkeys. But, it's not a zoo. They're animals that can come and go as they please, and if they don't feel like being out in full view of people, that's their own monkey perogative. Anyway, there were no monkeys. But there was an awesome view of the Inland Sea.
And we got to go on a cable car.

Innoshima: The Dinosaur at the End of the Journey
The second to last day before the end of Golden Week Kori and I headed out to a town called Onomichi, between Okayama and Hiroshima. Onomichi is notable in that there is a highway that extends out between it and Imabari, a town on Shikoku. This highway winds through several small islands in the middle of the Inland Sea, crossing all manner of bridges water.
There were no famous monuments here, no tourist attractions. There were almost no people as well. But, I loved being there still, for different reasons. It had been a long time since I'd wandered through rainy woods, and looking out from the top of the island and then descending the tree-covered slope in the rain with Kori reminded me of Oregon. My jeans and shoes were soaked, my hat and hoodie drenched, and I was covered in sweat from walking uphill. It was exhilarating. I didn't realize how much I missed hiking.
We made our way up to the top of the central mountain, found a curious shrine there. It was simply a stone tablet carved with some kind of image that I couldn't decipher. Standing on the rocks above everything else we saw boats and farmland, several greenhouses, and swathes of grey water dotted with boats. And islands. All around us in the grey mists were other islands, islands that looked so close we could have thrown stones at them. I wondered what this are would have been like years ago, the Inland Sea dotted with wooden fishing boats. We slid, jumped and walked down, going through dense trails and wet undergrowth. The final descent was a steep slope that let us out amidst a farm, curiously empty. Orange and lemon trees hung in rows in the greyness, and Kori pilfered some cumquats, which I'd never eaten before. We found the shoreline to be a still, sandy shore. Maybe it was the holidays, or maybe it was normal, but Innoshima seemed oddly bereft of other people. We saw the odd car and a single old man by the surf, but for the most part we were alone in the stillness.
We walked along the shore, hungry now, and suddenly from the foliage was the white neck of the dinosaur. Kori had mentioned that she'd heard about this dinosaur- that someone had told her that one of the islands in the Inland Sea had a giant statue of a brontosaurus on it. We'd mentioned this bit of trivia earlier in the morning, and had forgotten it as we hiked through the greenery. But there it was, neck rising upwards and glaring through the moist sky across the grey water.
"We found the dinosaur!" one of us said. It was quite rewarding finding this random bit on a random island that we'd talked about earlier. What were the chances that Innoshima would have had it? By complete dumb luck we found it.
Like I said, it was as if we'd won something.
We won.
We went back to Onomichi and ate yakinikku for dinner, the meat crackling inside a table-mounted fire. I was sad to see her go the next day, and it was odd returning to the work routine.
Now, I'm sitting here in my apartment typing and I can't wait to get out of Okayama again. We're meeting to Osaka this weekend. It'll rock- and I do so like things that rock.

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