Not all those who wander are lost.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Bummin'it South, Part II

I've noticed that there are two types of Japanese spoken by foreigners in Japan; the Difficult kind and the Easy kind. The Difficult kind involves remembering a specific counter for every new noun and tough sentence structures that always end in a verb. So instead of saying, 'there're TWO rabbits eating ONE of your college diplomas' (it's a common phrase, true story) you have to say, 'rabbit 2counter for small animals (nihiki) your diploma 1counter for flat objects (ichi mae) they are eating.'

The second less complicated kind of Japanese merely requires the speaker to 1) know English and 2) be able to scream it. The rising decibel levels are always a sure-fire indication. It's as though we gaijin think that anyone born outside of our own boarders has been tragically afflicted by hearing loss, rather than than facing the fact that only about 5% of the world's population speaks English as a first language.

There are, of course, variations. Sometimes I'll hear foreigners make an honest, yet still very half-assed, attempt at speaking English words in what they perceive to be a Japanese accent. This almost always ends in failure. "One more plate" becomes "uon moa pureto." Uncomprehending clerks hear "something something  Plato (Greek philosopher)" and wonder if they're being asked to join a conversation on epistemology. They then try to speak back in Katakana English but the communication lines have already broken down. "Sorry Sarge, that last bombing took out the com-tower, perhaps if we shout..." Quite often I get the impression that this is exactly the same language you'd hear Americans use when instructing Javier on the finer points of lawn maintenance. "No, no, no, Javier. Put-o la baby Anchilla hedges around-o el perimeter.....o." Although the content is often different, it sometimes gives me a sense of nostalgia and for a moment I'll find myself searching for an El Torritos.

Even after spending 2 years immersed in the language (and trying to learn the Difficult kind of Japanese) I still imagine my everyday speech to sound like I should be callin the youngins in for possum pie, or making sure the back yard whiskey distillery hasn't caught fire. "Yall know them best place t'buy shaver's cream?" and "ts'gon rain the'morrow if I warsh muh clothes" were among some of the gems I uttered this week. But I get by, and I rarely find myself shouting, an action that's sure to prematurely shorten your ride if you're hitchin...

"Once there was a way.
To get back homeward."
                                   -Golden Slumbers, The Beatles

There's always a way, and I was certainly on a non-conventional route, but I highly doubt Sir Paul was thinking about trying to solicit this journey in a strange East Asian language. Optimism however, was playing for my team that day. You'd be surprised at how far a smile will take you. So, after a small piffle (an elderly man on a bicycle, chuckling at my sign, informed me I was standing on the wrong side of the road), I was once again in an air conditioned car heading south. As Kanazawa and Ishikawa prefecture faded in the rear-view, I began focusing on the places ahead; more specifically Nara.

Register yourself for a heavyweight Japanese history bout and your bound to get everyone and their mother's opinion about the ancient capital of Nara. Here are my two yen worth, it's name is derived from the Japanese verb 均す (narasu meaning to flatten/level) likely because of all the landscaping work that was put into congruently blending it's many temples with the surrounding hills. Although it could also be the action your breath is subjected to when viewing it's prize belt (Todaiji temple, the largest wooden building in the world.) 

The grounds are extensive, covering nearly half the city in open meadows and tree-lined walkways. In 2010, the city celebrated the 1,300th anniversary of it's assent to power. That's more than a millennium longer than my country has existed! No wonder America's youth run amok so furiously, our mother country has only just graduated from relative adolescence. Although it only housed the seat of government for 74 years, Nara's rich history and well preserved temples draw spectacular crowds at all times of the year, a fact that I probably should have paid more attention to... 

With all this in mind, or out of mind, I arrived in Nara bright eyed and bushy tailed, ready to drink in the mystic oriental wooden architecture and the peaceful atmosphere of the many parks. But first, I had to sort out some accommodation. From the tourist information office I recieved a list of the 79 hotels, minshuku, ryokan, youth hostels, etc. in the Nara area. After calling a few of the cheaper options, I began to see a pattern arise; it doesn't take a mathematical genius to understand the complexities of the number "full." No space, at capacity, ippai, manpai, lleno, no matter how you say it it still means no place for mattyboy to sleep that night. Golden Week Vacation had seen such an influx of visitors to Nara, that there weren't even any spaces left at the all night internet cafe. After calling each of the 79 residences, I'd exhausted all my choices. So I fell back into my meditative stance, beer in one hand, the other scratching the hair under my chin, my eyes catching the late afternoon light reflected off the temple roofs. Like a modern day homage to Rodin, but without the rigidity of bronze bracing.

I was weighing the various options for cheap transport back to Tokyo on my mental scales when a middle aged French couple asked if they could share my sunny bit of grass and imbibe the combini drinkables they'd also purchased. At about 3 sips in the English barrier began to grind along, and quickly feeling the approach of a sweaty classroom in Tokyo I was going out of my way to avoid thinking about, I tried switching to Spanish. Success! The man spoke it pretty well and after a bit of banter they revealed they'd been camping in the park for the last 5 days. "You just take down your tent around 5 am and no one bothers you" he said. Light bulb, quick search of the map I kept in my head, and I thanked them, finished my beer, and headed to the nearest 100 yen shop. A picnic tarp and a large bottle of water later, and I was staking out a grassy bit of tree-covered turf away from anything that might draw night visitors. I, however, didn't account for the shika!

According to legend, when the God Takemikazuchi arrived in Nara to help guard the new capital, he came on a white deer. Ever since this tale began to spread the deer of Nara have been regarded as heavenly, and are protected in the city as well as the prefecture. As a result, Nara koen (the city's park) is teeming with tame, gloopy-eyed Shika (deer) who have been known to get pushy, especially with small children, when there are rice crackers to be had. Apparently, to these animals, the end of the day does not necessarily mean the end of the begging session, and oh my have they learned how to nuzzle! Match this with the light from a super-full moon and you've got an interesting, though not very sleep filled night in the park. But hey, I've slept in worse places, and having the park to myself that night allowed me to get shots like this.

 The next morning I hit the road early, and despite my bearing a slight musk of deer spit, I had no trouble hitching it back to Nagoya, where as luck would have it, I met a trucker headed all the way to Tokyo. I know it sounds like the start of a movie, but I may have missed my cue peacefully slumbering in the large comfortable seat. Overall, the few hiccups I'd had along the way did next to nothing to diminish the shine of the spectacular adventure I'd just completed. Full of great food, amazing places, interesting people, and never a need to shout out in English. Yoshi!     

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Thumbin'it South, Part I

I'll admit, the expression used in Japan to show surprise takes some time to get used to. When you first arrive  it's all you hear, it's ubiquitous and if you're not keyed into it you perpetually feel like you're missing the punchline. Actually now that I think about it, it's not really an expression, more of a drawn out sound. It's something like a three-way bastardization between the Canadian standard 'eh', a motorcycle slowly revving up, and a series of question marks. Well, thankfully (due to a prolonged exposure to this linguistic phenomenon)  I've had a bit of the old sensory adaptation and am not so easily taken off guard these days. For alas, (or was it for a lass, I never can be entirely sure of my motivations) in the weeks leading up to the Golden Week holiday I was exposed to this dramatic vocal torsion in nearly lethal doses.
The almost mandatory facial expression accompanying that sound

The catalyst drawing out that awkward sound was what hippies and homeless people alike know to be fishing for rides with your thumb. Apparently hitching in Japan is a long forgotten art practiced only in the remote regions of the mountainous northern island of Hokkaido. Everywhere else is so spectacularly connected by trains and buses that it makes the neural network of the brain blanch a goofy-green in envy. This much was told to me.....several times a young and old alike....following that sound. Thousands of years of writing have given modern society various descriptions of the intricicies of Hell, but add this one to that list; imagine a sound, innicially not too irritating, perhaps even a novelty at first, but altogether completely foreign. For example , the first time you sit on a vinyl chair and it makes that farting noise. Follow this with an over-used expression/reference, Mom saying, "you'll break your neck" or if you're a child of the 90's lets say Alanis Morissette's "Ironic." Shake this combination well and pour over ice. Check yourself for a pulse, if you find one repeat steps one through seven.

It was with this solid spot of hellish pre-departure exposure that I set out the first day of Golden Week hoping to make it 630km by sundown. Immediately I experienced a half-forgotten sensation like a line of gunpowder taking its time to assuredly burn through my veins. Though that powder keg had fiery confidence, I was feeling the rush of uncertainty, that cold sweat on an 80 degree day of not knowing where you'll be sleeping that night, not a step but a leap, a bound outside of the circle of comfort, or possibly just the satisfying crunch of routine being dashed to bits by a million car motorcade on an exodus from the city. Back to adventure... I got off to a good start thumbing down a ride after only 6 minutes of waiting (it must have been the hope wrangling emoticon gleefully gracing my sign!)
This is what I started out with

A Chinese graduate student on her way to Hachioji, hell getting out of the city is half the battle! Next were two Japanese women who dropped me just outside of the on-ramp to the 中央高速 (Chuo Kousoku, one of the main expressways) but before departing they insisted I change my sign. "It has too much writing on it for drivers to read, they can't see it all" she said to me in Japanese. In retrospect, the principles of this idea were good but what she said next would eventually lead me to trouble. "We'll write you a new kanji on the way to your destination." And after conferring with her friend, "Nagano should work!" I now realize that I should have stepped in at this point. Having been prepped with the notion that the vast majority of Japanese people know about as much about hitch-hiking as an ant knows about astronomy (regardless of what Disney would have you believe), I should have kindly exited the vehicle and politely thanked them for the ride. Insert gambler's logic here: you don't walk away from the table when the dice are hot! I was on a roll, two rides and so far a total wait time of around 10 minutes. That's better than most of the major train lines. And to boil it down to reality I'm lazy as hell when it comes to something as focus-demanding as writing kanji.

Flash forward 2 hours, dehydration and the beginings of a sunburn are weighing heavily on my now sagging resolve. WTF? Did I miss the morning rush? Should I have shaved off my beard after all? Retiring to the shade of a nearby tree an idea strikes me, "baby steps." I'm in a country full of hitching virgins, it's only logical this'll have to be taken slow! I erase the sign and start afresh, carefully copying the complicated characters from the map I have. A service area/rest stop about 30 km from here should do it. Wouldn't you know it, not 10 minutes pass before a retired man in a BMW pulls over. Back at it! So it was in this way that I slowly proceeded across 4 of Chubu's (middle Honshu) 9 prefectures. However, by the time the fat old sun in the sky was yawning it's last of the day's red rays, I was still quite a ways from my intended destination (Kanazawa). There was nothing to do but call it a day. Thankfully I was in a town, so I began inquiring if there was any cheap accommodation about. Just my luck, there was a youth hostel, whereupon after checking in I ran into a girl I'd met last October in Kyoto. It beats the hell out of having diner alone. Small country...

Apparently, the place I was in was renown for it's Edo era wooden streets preserved both because of the superb aptitude of the carpenters of the region and because of the town's geographical location. Technically it was part of the territory of the Tokugawa Shogunate, but because it was relatively inaccessible, it remained isolated and was able to develop it's own culture. I'd just stumbled into Takayama (高山市) meaning 'High/Tall Mountain' which is indeed, as you might have guessed, high up in the mountains. This last fact was of particular delight as it meant that the cherry blossom season was later in the year than the low-lying major cities in Kanto and Kansai. Bring on another round of Hanami! Also, I was more than a little surprised when the woman at the tourist information office told me Takayama is a sister city of Denver, Colorado.

The next day, after checking out a local morning market, I hit the road again, this time, like a seed cast into the wind, side-tracking to a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The village of Shirakawa-gō (白川郷, "White River Old-District"), located even further up in the mountains than Takayama, is well know for houses constructed in the style of  gasshō-zukuri (合掌造り meaning prayer-hands construction). In the west we'd call it an 'A-frame' house although these are made with thatched roof that slant so steeply they conjure up images of two hands clasped in prayer. The unique design originated because of the amount of snow the region gets in the wintertime. The steep roofs are able to shed snow like a ship's rudder slipping through the water.
Here's me with the child of one of families that picked me up

Finally, after 2 more rides, I arrived in Kanazawa (金沢 meaning Golden Marsh). The name of this city is said to come from the legend of a peasant-farmer who was digging for potatoes one day and found gold flakes instead. Regardless of whether or not this is true, the city is responsible for producing 99% of Japan's high-quality gold leaf, including the gold leaf that covers the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto.

Kanazawa somehow managed to stay off the radar of the American Air-force fire bombing campaign during WWII and the vast majority of its architectural heritage remains intact. This means that while wandering in the city it's not uncommon to find yourself peacefully canal-side one moment and trekking through Edo period Samurai or Geisha districts the next. Overall I found the city to rich in historical wealth as well as boasting some outstanding seafood. Here are some photos from around the town. 

In order to prevent the heavy winter snows from damaging this ancient pine, they've reinforced the branches with sturdy stilts.  

The above series was taken at Kanazawa's star attraction; Kenrokuen. It is considered to be one of the top three gardens in all of Japan. It's a sprawling expanse of  nearly 9,000 trees on around 25 acres in the middle of the city. It also plays host to Japan's oldest fountain, driven by natural water pressure

In the city there's also a hands-on (the best kind) 21st century modern art museum. Unfortunately, no cannonballs allowed at this exhibit.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Once More into the Out(side World)

As prefaced in my last post; the days leading up to the velvety release of those spring breezes are some of the toughest to endure all year, but when you finally catch that first hint of a year's forgotten season it very nearly reanimates the soul. 

Standing at the forefront of symbolism in this island nation, the Japanese Sakura 桜 (cherry blossom) is without a doubt the most iconic embodiment of spring. For many Japanese the word itself is a even suitable replacement for "flower." This is because every year, from the most southern tip of Okinawa to the mountainous northern regions of Hokkaido cherry trees explode into bloom. It seems almost everywhere you look, elegant, subtle shades of pink abound, sometimes floating and twisting dreamily on the warming breezes. It's quite an enchanting sight, and for a nation that loves to be enchanted, the pink poof of spring's starting gun brings a blossom viewing frenzy.

For as long as there has been art, there have been flowers to inspire it, but it wasn't until about the 10th century that cherry blossoms became a prominent motif of spring. They began to appear on anything from lacquered bowls to elaborate kimonos, brightly suggesting youth, vigor, and the warmth of change. They even formed the central tenet of much of the poetry of that time. One such famous poem from the period reads;

"It's because the cherry blossoms fall
That they're beautiful in the eyes of all.
Nothing is eternal in the world we live in."

As alluded to in the above poem, the attraction of these vibrant blossoms runs deeper than just their austere beauty. Lasting only about a week in total, it makes it easy to draw parallels with our own mortality; from the colorful, bursting birth out of the darkness of winter, to the withering fall in all too short a time.

Here a man regales fellow party-goers using his laminated (and therefore beer proofed) manga
The tradition of Hanami 花見 (cherry blossom viewing parties) didn't catch on until the start of the Edo period around 400 years ago. Townspeople would gather under the blooming trees with food and drink and have rambunctious parties as a way of blowing off steam. Not much has changed over the course of these last 4 centuries, in fact, it seems even more apparent these days that Hanami is less about viewing the flowers, and more about cutting loose. Cue the salary man in a business suit drunkenly crashing his bicycle into the pond (yes that did actually happen). Now that the season has come to a close and everyone's liver is breathing a sigh of relief, 128,000 East Asian island dwellers and myself will once again begin the arduous task of keeping a count for how long it is until the next time this wonderful burst of color passes our way again. 

Boisterous revelers maximizing participation using a single jump rope 

Unfortunately rain plays a major role in stripping the delicate blossoms off their trees

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Trying to Stay Hinged in the Wait for Spring

Waiting for an old friend to arrive has to be one of life’s most maddening tasks, and if it doesn’t actually hold the top spot, it’s at least in the top 3. Picture someone you haven’t seen in 11 months, someone close, someone who always picks you up when you’re feeling down. You get the phone call, they’re coming to visit sometime in the next couple of weeks, details later man. For nights on end you’re awake for longer than you should be, mind racing through hundreds of memories. And every time it seems you ask yourself the same questions; will it be like it was before? Have they changed? Have I?

Well this year my old bosom buddy, bringer of chlorophyll-infused motivation spikes, has hit a delay somewhere. Spring’s been held up, what gives?!?! It's as if even Father Time's been affected by a grease ration and the inhabitants of Eastern Asia will simply have to endure a roughly gnashing transition this year. A little perspective; as of this week Tokyo's averaging 6 degrees below the normal temperature from years past (that's in Fahrenheit, but for all you logically-minded metricites out there it's about 4 degrees of difference at the current temperatures).   

Almost religiously the end of February finds me sitting eagerly stooped, like a 6 year old on Christmas Eve thinking the morrow’s morning couldn’t possibly come soon enough. I wait, and I wait, and I wait some more, and just when I’m about to give up on it all the warm light seeps in and hits me like a thimble full of adrenaline drowned in a bottle of champagne.

March of 2012 started no different; there were ups and downs, cold toes, winter apathy, late lazy mornings under impossibly cozy blankets, an excuse for tea at all hours, and maybe under some forgotten piece of free time a drink to warm the soul. However, this is the month where everyone knows the weather’s gotta give at some point, you can practically hear the birds gossiping about it. Weekend plans are colored by that uplifting anticipation where even the crankiest of old winter Scrooges carries their head a little higher. The elation shared during the onset of this season affects everyone a little differently. Some start going to the gym in preparation of that first bikini day. Others clean their houses, but for me the one constant I can find is that it invariably drives me outside. So when an early afternoon jaunt offered up the slightest chance at short sleeves, I began prepping my beach shorts in anticipation. Sadly, the next day I awoke to a massive dump of snow nostalgic of my days back in Colorado, and although I miss the winter shenanigans of that place, I can honestly say (without even a hint of hesitation) I'll be happy when the outdoors become available again at all hours of the day. We here in Tokyo will just have to wait a little longer…  Here are a few of the photos I’ve occasioned to take while NOT freezing my toes off recently. 

Oh you Japanese! Leather boots, umbrella, bicycle, and a blizzard, having fun yet?
Here's the bamboo forest near my house weathering the storm in an almost surreal way.
The plaque next to these two tells a story about an old monk who has gathered mushrooms all his life. The younger monk (the standing one) offers to help the aging man but the elder simply replies that this is his job and without it what would he do with his time? I'll bet he's rethinking his proclamation today though, 6 inches of fresh snow is hardly ideal mushroom gathering conditions...

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

No Cure for the Common Sidestep

You know that awkward moment when you and a perfect stranger happen to meet on the street, the two of you heading in opposite directions, and you both step the same way to go past? Then, invariably it turns out that each of you, thinking you’ll take control of the situation, go the opposite way, again in unison. Frustratingly, this Zoidberg scuttle sometimes continues til those proverbial cows (or is it lobsters?)come home. If this were the first act to be observed by visiting alien dignitaries I imagine they’d think one of two things; either 1) that it’s an elaborate mating dance/challenge, like bucks locking antlers to win the eyes of that prized white-rumped female.
Bambi's mom, such a, deer.
Or 2) that humans are too stupid to find an answer to this issue. Seriously, it’s 2012 how have we not sorted this out yet?!?! We’re (by our own standards) highly intelligent mammals, so why can two dogs go past each other without looking like a they’re “sharing a moment” while we’re stuck awkwardly dancing like middle school kids at their first function? Perhaps the answer to this question will never be known, however, if you’re looking for a place to do research into this matter, I have just the place in mind; my current stomping grounds, Tokyo.

Arguably the world largest city, its metropolitan area plays host to more inhabitants than the entirety of the country of Australia. Likewise, within this complicated weave of concrete and plaster lies the busiest train station the world has ever known; Shinjuku station sees over 3 million commuters a day. When you consider the trains run from 5am to around 1 in the morning, that’s nearly 17,000 people a second, all heading to different places, following slightly different paths. This means there’s a lot of interaction and accordingly, a lot of synchronized shuffling. However, the final result of this shuck and jive is often little more than an embarrassed smile and an apology, after all Japanese people frequently list outward politeness on their cultural resume. But what happens when there’s a little stress added to the situation?

I have some students that frequently work until their last trains, but usually the rush for that final public transport of the night comes just after a social function. Time is put under even more duress by the drawn out formality of saying “good bye.” Is it just under 5 bows to show respect when departing from a group that’s older than you? One can never be sure, better make it six. Regardless, it’s not uncommon to see people making a dramatic dash for the last train’s doors, leaping discarded beer cans and onigiri wrappers in a single bound (which, I might add, is no small feat considering the scarcity of blood in many of their alcohol systems). Did I mention that every so often you glance upon one who looks like he’s putting his heart and soul into the impersonation of a dragon? Their faces are the color of new bricks, their gait is the unpracticed wobble of an inner ear shochu (local potato/rice hooch) typhoon, and their breath if only given the chance at flame, could illuminate worlds. About 2 weeks ago, coming home after a particularly late shift, I got the rare opportunity to observe not one, but two of these magnificently inebriated specimens just as their sidestepping shuffle began.

It started off in innocence, as it always does, but I could see with each successive attempt the participants growing more and more irritated. Lucky for me, I wasn’t in a rush (my last train leaves the station pretty late comparatively). So, I paused for a bit to watch the commotion unfold. It couldn’t have lasted more than 10 seconds in total, these missteps, but eventually one the men decided to drop the etiquette and just power through, shoving the other one aside. This is when the real fun started! The one who was pushed, probably in an alcoholic haze, momentarily forgot about the urgency of making it to his last train. He spun around on his heel and with two quick steps grabbed a handful of Pushy-san’s jacket collar. There was a struggle, a bout of intense eye contact, and half a dozen angry words levied, 90 percent of which I won’t even pretend to have understood. Picture a German exchange student trying to spot-translate a bar fight between two soccer hooligans. “Wat iz dis ‘poofter’ mean?” Yeah that was me, but if I had to dub the internet sensation the video surely would have become, there’s no doubt it’d include, “You’re mother probably has a face like a (埴輪顔) Haniwa clay figurine! Ha Ha!” In the end it didn’t come to blows but likely only because each realized the fight would cost 5,000 yen (taxi ride) and a few hours sleep if a police report had to be filed. Reality seeps back in, not even aspiring dragons are immune…

This guy's had his reality booster though.

Oysters on a half-shell! 
Flower's wilt, the Buddha waits. 
Shijuku at night.
Oh salmon nigiri, there's not enough of you in this world.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Exchanging Fright for Flight

High places, do they drive you to sweat or to feelings of freedom?
"What makes you nervous?" Wow, tough question. It's made even more difficult by the contractual limitations placed on my honesty. Am I handcuffed in talking about my private little neurosis of walking through the metal detector at an airport? Even when I know I have nothing to hide, the seconds leading up to the breach of that well-guarded empty doorway are excruciating. It always seems like it's ten degrees too hot, and my brain's running in ghost mode, focusing all available attention on appearing like I'm not "trying to remain calm." And predictably, when I'm waved on through cleanly, the "safe" side of airport security finds me felling like that prisoner emerging outside the wall to the sound of alarm. I suppose my students wouldn't understand that, either for grammatical reasons or for cultural ones. Police in this country tend to have an attitude that's more, oh what's the word I'm looking for..........relaxed. Here I'm spoken to as if I'm an actual person, with a soul, not just a crime waiting to happen. And while the metaphysical side of it is debatable, it certainly makes them less imposing. More like a mild irritation that you're willing to put up with, a mere 20 extra yen ($0.26) surcharge on that beer for buying it at the combini instead of the market.

How about meeting a girlfriend's parents? Safe topic? It's not sex or World War II, so I suppose it's alright. Everyone has to do it at some point, right? I cringe at the thought of having to do it in Japanese though. My level's easily conversational, but the problem with gleaning an education through your (youthful) Japanese friends is that you never really learn the politeness level required for meeting 'her' father. It'd be like trying to court Kate Middleton and speaking to her relatives in ghetto slang. You'd have a better shot of just feigning inability. A closed mouth gathers no foot...

Superstition? Who among the western readers can honestly say they don't feel even a moment's hesitation when presented with a ladder to walk under, or when the salt spills, or when that last birthday candle has yet to be extinguished. And let us not forget that this month saw a Friday the 13th, unlucky indeed! Though for me that day, luck decided to take it's January vacation in Tokyo.

Excitement! The body's biochemical response usually starts with the movement of information; your favorite sports team wins, a messenger runs from your eyes to big brain boss man's office, the cranial factories start producing joy juice, and joyous fist-pumping ensues. Well much in the same way, I received a text on Friday morning reading, "dress in conservative business attire today, you're doing interviews." I won't admit to fist-pumping (I was in the middle of a crowded market at the time), but by god after that there was a noticeable skip in my step.

A little background: In Japan the social esteem held for flight attendants is somewhere on par with doctors, lawyers, or firemen. It's seen as a very good job, but like all good jobs there are prerequisites that must be met before attempting an application for this position. Some of these are practical rules like English ability or height requirements (tall enough to reach the overhead compartments and NO, you can't be measured wearing those ridiculous high heels). Others are unwritten for things such as beauty or appearance, but it's unanimous, no one in this country scoffs at person citing flight attendant as their occupation. With this in mind you can understand why competition is stiff. So accordingly, my company offers a class coaching women on how to put your best foot forward during the interview. At the conclusion of the course, these young hopefuls are given the chance to show what they've learned in a simulated interview with real, honest-to-god, (yep you guessed it that's me!) foreigner.

Guidelines? "Pretty much anything goes. See if you can't make them a little uncomfortable, a little nervous to simulate the real thing" my Japanese co-interviewer tells me just before we begin. I'm still in the throes of a braingasm, the words "paid to make these women nervous" echoing off the attic walls, when there's a knock at the door. It's gonna be a good day...

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Pockets of Peace

In the early morning hours of August 6th, 1945, an industrial Southwestern Japanese port city was unknowingly prepping itself to bleed its way into the history books. Actually, back up a step, if I'm going to be accurate with my language I suppose "vaporize" is a better operating word. The bomb, dropped by the Enola Gay an American B-29 Bomber, was the first atomic device ever to be used as a weapon. It exploded about 600 meters above the city instantly killing around 80,000 people. That number, according to the Cooperative Japan-US Research Foundation on Radiation Effects, would effectively double by December of the same year. As many as 250,000 people (survivors) were exposed to significant levels of radiation during the atomic bombing of Japan, and every year, subsequent to explosion, some die of a radiation-related cancer.

Sixty six years, four months, and twenty one days after that atomic shit-storm rained from above, at about the same time in the morning, I arrived in Hiroshima. After a quick cup of coffee (night buses aren't the most comfortable place to sleep, especially if your twice the size of the Japanese standard) I headed for the Peace Memorial Park. The park was designed around the Genbaku Dome (原爆ドーム meaning Atomic dome) which was one of the only buildings left standing after the devastation of the bomb. This fact moves from "remarkable" to "oh, I understand....that's kinda shitty" when you find out that this building was pretty much ground zero for where bomb struck. Instead of experiencing the immensely destructive horizontal shock-wave that toppled the rest of the town, the former concert hall was sheltered in an impact shadow. Though the occupiers of the structure didn't fare so well against the heat, almost instantly sublimating into gas.

Hiroshima's Genbaku Dome is a gruesome reminder of the day the sky fell.
All along the river, and throughout the park are many independently financed tributes to those who lost their lives in devastation.
Here two siblings prepare to release the symbolic dove. On Aug 6th every year doves are released in commemoration. 

The Children's Peace Monument features a girl holding a giant origami crane, a symbol of health and longevity.
At the base of this monument are thousands upon thousands of origami cranes. The tradition was started by a young girl, Sasaki Sadako, who fell ill with radiation related leukemia in 1955. After her diagnosis, the 12 year old began folding these cranes in the hopes that if she reached 1000 she'd be cured. She died before reaching her goal but her classmates took it upon themselves to finish the job. Now it's become a tradition and every year school children from all over Japan lay their colorful creations at the foot of this monument. 

Strings of paper cranes at the Children's Peace Monument

Right in the middle of this clever alignment is the eternal Flame of Peace, which will be extinguished on the day the last nuclear weapon on Earth has been destroyed.
Primed with all of the somber information above, I expected this to be one of those "educational excursions" with glaring (and possibly shocking) reminders on every street corner. What I found instead was that Hiroshima (outside of the Peace Park) is a bustling modern city, full of spectacular cuisine, friendly people, a network of canals much akin to a Dutch city, and hardly any trace of being atomically panini-ed in the last 70 years.   
The local baseball team, the Toyo Carps, are the six-time champions of Japan's Central League.

Hiroshima's close proximity to the Inland Sea means the local food is loaded with fresh seafood. Sardines and oysters are the specialty. 
Nothing like 焼き牡蠣 (yaki kaki, grilled oysters) for breakfast!

Just outside Hiroshima, Iwakuni sports this famous bridge which was built without using a single nail.

Hiroshima also plays host to a castle. Although historically is didn't last long- being destroyed only 11 years after it's 1589 construction.

This 5-story pagoda towers proudly over Miyajima's Itsukushima shrine.

In the right light, at sunset Itsukushima is in the running for one of Japan's most beautiful views. Located on an island in Hiroshima bay, high tide here means it's welcoming torii gate is partially submerged below the water-line.