Saturday, February 21, 2009

Japan Day 7 [transcribed from journal]

Free morning and early afternoon for us as the students enjoy some time with their homestay families.  We walked through a riverfront park near our hotel, with Lauren noticing that even the storm drains are beautifully decorated here.
In general, Japan has been just startlingly clean and well-kept.  My guess is a combination of:
  • Our travels sticking to nice areas.
  • Low crime rate generally(?)
  • Harsh penalties for littering, vandalism, etc.(?)
  • Dearth of paper products (no napkins at restaurants, for example)
  • Cultural differences
  • Who knows?
We soon hopped a streetcar to the Atomic Bomb Museum.  Very powerful place, with the dual purpose of chronicling the story of the bomb at Nagasaki, and of promoting peace and de-nuclearization throughout the world.

The museum was incredibly well done, and very moving.  Major focus was on the direct effects of the bomb on Nagasaki, though there were also exhibits detailing the construction of hte bomb, the timeline of the Pacific war, the buildup of nuclear arms post-WWII, etc.  Many, many staggering artifacts on display, one of which I'll always remember: the bones of a human hand, inextricably fused with a lump of glass.  Maps on the wall detailed precisely how shockwave, fire, and radiation had hit the streets I'd just been walking.  Our volunteer "peace guide" was a marvelous woman who had just returned from a citizen's mission to Korea, to apologize for Japanese atrocities there during the war ("Since the government does nothing, we citizens must go.")  A really remarkable person.

We walked from the museum to the simple pillar nearby, marking the blast's epicenter...
...and then on to Peace Park, where we took in the statuary and fountains donated by countries around the world.

Grabbed a cheap lunch to-go from a convenience store (chicken with rice for me).  Then, changed pace and rode a streetcar up to Glover Gardens.  Gardens would have been Mom's first stop in Japaan for sure: an old house full of old things.  Glover was a Scotch shipping magnate (read: gun-runner) who came to Japan at age 21, made his fortune, and built a large compound overlooking the bay.  Some really great views of the city, and beautiful koi ponds.

A bit odd to visit these original, old buildings just after the Atomic Bomb Museum.  Our many minutes on the streetcar between the locations gave a very concrete and immediate measure of the distance that saved these structures from the blast.

After Glover Gardens, we grabbed our bags from the hotel and then took a taxi to the train station.  Three chaperones enjoyed some overpriced but charmingly-presented tea and pie in a neighboring department store, as students and hosts slowly trickled in.  We had some (literally) tearful goodbyes before hopping on the train, where I write this now.

We'll spend most of our remaining Japan time in transit: tonight, the 5-hour train trip back to Osaka and our trusty hostel, then tomorrow a series of trains and planes that eventually end with us back at the San Francisco airport.


Final note: last night ended with a mad dash to Mos Burger, which the kids have been begging for all trip.
Basically a home-grown take on Western fast food.  When I asked one of the students why she was so excited about Mos Burger, she rolled her eyes, looked at me like I was an alien, and squeaked: "It's an Asian burger!"  I suppose that especially for the kids, but for me as well, many things in Japan are cool simply because they're in Japan.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Japan Day 6 [transcribed from journal]

Have you ever had every girl in an all-girls high school giggle at you at once?  In Japan?  Wearing identical sailor-suit uniforms?  Well, I've been there, and it's a hoot.

Breakfasted at the hotel before taxiing back to Kwassui HIgh School.  As local students trickled past me at the main gate, I got lots of shocked looks, a few embarrassed murmurs of "Ohaiyo Gozaimas" [good morning], and a smattering of truly bold "hello"'s and "good morning"'s.

Kwassui High is the only protestant high school in Nagasaki, and our first stop was a short, whole-school chapel service.  The Wilcox contingent sat in two rows of pews near the back, and stood when the headmaster introduced us.  Hundreds of bobs of black hair swiveled as one, to become hundreds of faces -- giiggling faces.

We enjoyed the wonderful hospitality of Kwassui High from 8 'til 4, during which time the students shadowed through a more-or-less normal schoolday, with us trailing silently.

There were a few occasions to do some free-form language exchange, when we got right in there.  Students were very bubbly, and were especially taken with my height.

Choice English phrases thrown my way throughout the day included "you are cool" and "you are so very handsome."  Presumably my beiung twice their age made me a safe target for their admiration.  Still, Lauren now stands ready with a sharp pin to deflate my ego if necessary.

Courses included English, math, singing, social studies, and even some origami-folding with the junior high-schoolers (just for fun).  School lunch was piping hot udon noodle bowl (no fish cake for me).

Class ended around 3:15, and all our students were with their homestays by 4.  Took a taxi back to the hotel, where we're now (5:15pm) enjoying the longest stretch of true downtime we've had on this trip by far.


Lovely footnote to the evening!  Lauren and I stepped across the street to the Eight Flags Tea House.
Turned out to be a gorgeous British-style tea room capable of seating six or so (we were the only patrons).  Owner eventually told us that everything in the shop was from England (large wooden model ship, wallpaper, light fixtures, etc. etc.).  We ordered our favorite teas and split a chocolate waffle.  Pricey, but totally worth it.  As we told the proprietor, the tea shop proved to be the single most delightful experience we've had in Japan thus far.  What a happy accident!

After tea, we met up with Rushton, Sergio, and his wife Itsuko, also an English teacher at Kwassui college.  Rushton wanted to take them out for dinner, and their location of choice was a restaurant in nearby Chinatown.  So, more tasty Chinese food and two additional voices joining the lively dinner conversation.

Musings on the reasons for and reaction to the bomb as we walked back to the hotel, and then a nice, early bedtime with the option to actually sleep in (a bit) for the first time in the entire trip.

Japan Day 5 (cont'd) [transcribed from journal]

Today was mostly filled with train rides. After arriving at Nagasaki station, we met Sergio, who is Rushton's contact at Kwassui College, the oldest women's university in Japan.

Rain also greeted us at the station, and accompanied us through the rest of the day. After a dash through the rain, we squeezed students and luggage onto a tiny bus bound for Kwassui.

At the university, Sergio gave us a brief campus tour. School was founded by determined woman missionary from the U.S., back in the 1870s. In contraste to the typical, cost-svaing, concrete-cube construction of many Japanese colleges, Kwassui has a stately and coherent architectural style, looking vaguely Federal to my untrained eye. The tour included a small chapel that Rushton calls "The Hogwarts Room" for reasons that are obvious on sight.

After the tour, we met up with Sergio's 2nd-year English class for some casual mixing and chatting.

Think a dry cocktail party with way more women than men and an impressive language barrier to boot. Kids handled it very well, with students from both countries finding ways to communicate and talking about common interests. At one point early on, Rushton sent me to break up a clump of guys and get them chatting with the Kwassui students. This proved fairly easy. "In a few years when you look back on this trip," I said, "and you think about the time you visited the women's college in Japan, if all you remember is standing around talking to some dudes, you will hate yourselves. I promise." That worked.

After our time was up, we bussed 15 minutes over to Kwassui Senior High School. This school is connected to Kwassui University, and it's the host school for our students' homestays for the first time this year. Homestay families picked up our students one by one, after which we headed to the Monterey Hotel to get our rooms (that is, Rushton, Lauren, and me).

Hotel was ultra-European in a very Japanese way: "Europe as it was meant to be" was how I tried to express it, a sentiment Rushton agreed with.
Lots of large oil portraits of anonymous Dead White Guys. Mozart and Bach softly piped in to every hallway and common space. A good smattering of brass. All quite tastefully done actually, not tacky or overbearing. Just jarring to walk into such an environment straight off the Nagasaki street.

After freshening up, we set off on foot toward Chinatown, about four or five blocks away. (I bought an umbrella ASAP). Dinner was at the first likely-looking restaurant we saw, where Lauren, Rushton, and I ordered tofu, chicken, and pork dishes, respectively. Decent. Just about exactly like Chinese food stateside. Then back to the hotel and nice warm bed.

A word about Nagasaki before I get to today. Like many Americans, the only thing I know about Nagasaki is that it's the second place we nuked. I've found it to be an eye-opening experience to stand here, for two reasons. First, to get a sense of the place separate from the bomb (a beautiful bayside city, like Tampa or San Francisco, with a healthy Chinatown stretching back generations, etc. etc.). Second, to get a sense of what the bomb does mean here. In all discussions of history, there's a discontinuity so omnipresent as to become almost implicit at times. "This was theonly guilding on campus to survive the bomb blast, so it's the only original building remaining in the college. The building survived by random chance." Or, "Kwassui High School was the closest school to ground zero, so the campus was of course completely destroyed." And meeting anyone with hair gray enough, I can't shake the thought that either they remember the bomb itself (they'd have to be at least 80 or so), or else they grew up in houses where the memory of this event was the defining element of the national character.

The people of Nagasaki have been uniformly welcoming, friendly, and curious about us. And I expected nothing less. But even after this many years, such a great disturbance in the Force is still very present in my mind at least.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Japan Day 5 [transcribed from journal]

Another morning rush.  Another box breakfast of rice, pork, and egg bought quickly at the convenience store (delicious, actually!)  Another 20 minutes spent herding students into a train station and onto a train, where I write this now.  Today is a big travel day, with a 3-hour bullet from Osaka to Fukuoka, followed by a 2-hour leg from Fukuoka to Nagasaki.  Kids excited and apprehensive about meeting their homestay families this afternoon.  Chaperones looking forward to some down-time!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Japan Day 4 [transcribed from journal]

Another astoundingly full day.  Trained ~20 minutes from Osaka to Kyoto, which is home to many of Japan's most famous landmarks and national treasures.

First stop was Sanjusangen-do temple, one of many formally recognized "national treasures," as well as a world heritage site.  Temple is home to 1,000 nearly-identical statues of a Buddhist guardian goddess, carved by dozens of artists over a 15-year span, hundreds of years ago.  Centerpiece is a large statue of the same deity, flanked by many other figures from Buddhist and Hindu mythology.

Temple was also historical site of a famous annual archery contest: shoot arrows the length of the 110-meter temple, below an overhang, and see how many times you can hit a target in 24 hours.  All-time record-holder hit the target more than 8,000 times, shooting an average of 6 arrows a minute for a solid day.

Next stop was the Kyomizudera temple on top of a large hill.  Temple is a famous and popular tourist destination for Japanese and gaijin alike.  Includes a shrine dedicated to finding/keeping love that was especially popular with the students.

One surprisingly frequent sight in historic Kyoto is the splash of color from an ornate, traditional kimono.

Small clumps of kimono-clad women would periodically stroll by, in all other ways indistinguishable from the surrounding tourists.  A Japanese friend of Rushton's explained that the kimono companies are all based in Kyoto, where they rent out kimonos for the day.  Ladies wearing kimono receive discounts in all kinds of shops.  They also play a huge role in creating the tourist-delighting, historic atmosphere that the area wants.  And finally, they're basically walking billboards for the kimono companies.  Cool!

Lunch was at Rushton's favorite udon spot, right on the temple grounds.  We then wound our way through more temples and gardens -- Kyoto has temples like DC has monuments.

We made it back to the modern grid of busy city streets...

...and then embarked on an ill-fated, multi-mile walk to the International Manga Museum -- Mecca to most of the students, but closed on Wednesdays at it turns out.

Switched gears and went shopping in a long, covered, outdoor shopping street for a couple of hours.  Kids went in search of only-in-Japan Pokemon accessories while Rushton finally found a Mister Donut that stocked the coveted Fudge Chocolate Freeze.
Also found a few spare minutes to find and purchase my big souvenir: a woodcut print of the Kyomizudera temple where I'd stood earlier that day.

Also had time to mug for the camera:

We then went back to the Kyoto train station, a striking, ultra-modern building, and one of Rushton's favorites.  Dinner for Rushton and me was curry rice, apparently one of the most popular dishes with Japanese youth.  Tasty.  Not too spicy.  Served with an eggnog-like soup.

Also, some of our students are ninjas:
(Sign behind them apparently says "bento for sale."  They're some kind of bento ninjas.)

Finally, home and a welcome bed.  Will need new shoes after this trip, I think.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Japan Day 3 [transcribed from journal]

Awoke early for morning chanting at the temple at 6am.  Inner temple looked just as you'd hope: dimly-lit reds and golds, with ornate lanterns hanging from the ceiling.  Our noses filled with incense while our ears filled with the priests' sonorous, regular chanting.  I wish I could start each day with such stillness and peace.

After 30 minutes' chanting, the head priest gave a 30-minute sermon of sorts.  I could get behind the overall message, which was to treat people and the world with kindness and respect.  But his motivating examples were really unfortunate, pseudo-scientific claptrap, specifically pictures of snowflakes from the book The Message From Water.

After the sermon came my single favorite moment so far in Japan.  We opened the main temple doors, and our eyes -- loose from an hour of incense and darkness -- filled instantly with the brilliant white of snow falling on the sand mandala outside.  The sun had risen during the chanting.  Snow dusted the trees and the temple roof.  And the flakes continued to lazily meander their way to the ground.  For many students, it was their first time ever seeing snow.  A fantastic way to start.

Polished off another great vegetarian breakfast before leaving the temple.

And now I realized that I never really explained about the tiny shoes.  When first entering the temple grounds, we all placed our shoes in cubbie holes just inside the gate.  We then slipped on one-size-"fits"-all, unisex, left-right-interchangeable slippers.

The Japanese foot has historically been a small foot.  These slippers stopped just before the peak of my heel. And we wore them everywhere, except for the bathroom where we switched to "TOILET" slippers just for the purpose.  If this is our biggest discomfort in Japan, I will count myself lucky.  But still, next time I need to make a prisoner talk, I know exactly what to do...

I mention the slippers now, since our post-breakfast temple leave-taking marked a welcome reunion with our own shoes. Of course, since they had been sitting outside all night and recently enjoying front-row seats at the  glorious snowfall, the shoes had now all transformed into little ice-boots.  Lots of loud grumbling from the kids and a few panicked questions about the mechanics of frostbite, before everyone's body warmth finally thawed the shoes in 10 minutes or so.

We put those shoes to good use for the rest of the morning, visiting a few temples including the large, orange "Great Stuppa" that contained a fragrant incense-rub for one's hands at the exit.

A one-man TV crew met us outside the temples, interviewing some of the students and quizzing us on our newfound knowledge of Kobo Daishi and esoteric Buddhism.

After the temples, we walked more than a mile through Japan's largest cemetary, where Kobo Daishi still supposedly sits in a cave, meditating and praying for the happiness and salvation of all beings.  Graves went on and on.  Trees everywhere prevented us from grasping the full scope of the place all at once, but we walked for a long time.

Among the plots were many that were hundreds of years old, as well as sparkling plots with modern company logos (Nissan, Panasonic, etc.) where I assume high-ranking execs enjoy their last, greatest business trips.

Lunch was hearty beef-egg-and-rice dish near bus stop.  Then buses and trains in reverse to get us back to Osaka in the afternoon.  Did I mention it was still quite cold?

We properly checked in to the wonderful Shin Osaka Youth Hostel.  Then, off to do some shopping and sightseeing.  Lauren and I took in Osaka from above in a giant ferris wheel atop an 8-story shopping tower.

We finally snagged a delicious mango-and-ice (just like in Taiwan!) before rejoining the group.

Lauren returned early to the hostel with one student while Rushton and I took the others to a street market.

Students bought dinner and knick-knacks, and Rushton introduced me to Okonomiyaki, often referred to as "Japanese pizza."  The pizza analogy is a stretch, but the dish is outstanding.  Noodles, meat, onion, cabbage, egg, etc., shaped into a sort of patty and fried on a hot plate until slightly crisp, then transferred to an on-table hot plate to keep it piping hot.  Includes a sweet, slightly salty sauce inside, with a drizzle of Japanese mayo on top.  You cut small pieces for yourself with a little spatula, and then wolf those down with chopsticks.  Wow!

Bellies full, and with many miles logged, it was easy for everyone to call it an early(ish) night at the hostel.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Japan Day 2 (cont'd) [transcribed from journal]

Tiny shoes.  Slippers, specifically.

It has been an absolutely packed day: trains of all description, high school classrooms, temples, a volleyball match, plenty of shy Japanese and English practice, and (of course) tiny slippers.

The train I wrote of this morning was another high-speed marvel whisking us from Nagoya to Osaka, where we dropped our bags in the sparkling Shin Osaka Youth Hostel (more on that in future entries, I'm sure).  We toted smaller overnight bags back to the Shin Osaka station.  Then it was a short succession of trains decreasing in size and ridership along with the increase in green space out the window.

The culmination was a one-car cable car running up the steep side of Mt. Koya.  Slope is so steep in fact that there are steps running up the length of the cable car.

Spent much of the day at the local high school, which has a normal academic track as well as a special track for those entering the priesthood in the Buddhist sect headquartered here.  (Kobo Daishi, founder, 812AD).  We began the afternoon with a long speech from the head priest / headmaster, followed by 30 minutes' silent meditation in the temple.  Back in the states, I'd been proud of my irregular and haphazard practice, centered mainly around breathing and generally lasting about 15 minutes.  Oh, and in a comfy chair.  Well, 30 minutes in a half-lotus pose on a tatami mat + cushion have shown just what a dilettante I've been.  (No real surprise there).

Lunch was delicious, and the anti-salt lobby apparently has not made it over to Japan.  Salted tempura and sauce, salty pickled cabbage, salty miso soup, and tofu with soy sauce.

The hosting students were very bubbly and positive, leading us through several afternoon activities:
  • English & hand-drawn telling of the story of Kobo Daishi, with dramatic voice parts to boot.
  • Calligraphy.
  • P.E. (basketball and volleyball -- I spiked a few for Anna).
  • Origami / magic / language practice.

Just a great group of kids, from both schools.
Bussed over to the associated temple, where we're staying the night(!).  Monks again gave us the rundown on Kobo Daishi.  Absolutely superb vegetarian dinner*.  "Bed" will be a thin pad atop a tatami mat floor.  The temple looks like a movie set.  Large sand and rock garden.  Rice paper doors and walls.  Manicured gardens along manicured ponds.  Hard to believe it's real!

* - Dinner included more tempura (no guilt if I don't ask for it), tofu, noodles&broth, miso soup, rice, beans, pickled radish, and tea.