Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Nagasaki Day 4

On the 4th day, Banshee and I mostly stumbled around Nagasaki looking for sites. Nagasaki is a very accessible city. Everything seems to be within walking distance. If it’s not, then Nagasaki has a wonderful tram system all around the city. Luckily for us, there were a few temples near our hostel so we began our journey there.

Honestly, there was nothing spectacular about the temples close to our hostel. Unless the temple has something special to claim, most look the exact same. Each temple has a different history though, so sometimes that can be interesting.

Close to the temples, Banshee and I found a cemetery that lined the side of a large hill. For no reason at all, we started climbing the stairs up the hill to find out what was on the top.

It seemed to go on forever. We had not adequately prepared for a climb. By the time I had figured this out, we were about halfway up, so we kept truckin’.

Once we reached the top, we drank some Aquarius (grapefruit-flavored sports drink) and looked over the distance we just climbed. Quite remarkable. The view of Nagasaki was beautiful. We saw a small grass hill at the top so we pushed a little further.

It turns out, this was a famous mountain (who’s name I can’t seem to find) with a statue of Sakamoto Ryoma. We were happy to stumble upon such a cool site!

What made the top EVEN cooler were the sakura blossoms. Families were having their spring picnics among the Sakura (called a Hanami). Japan really is gorgeous in the springtime.

On the way down the other side of the mountain, we found an Inari shrine. You can tell that it’s an Inari shrine because of the fox statues and use of the color, orange. Compare Fushimi Inari and this shrine and you’ll notice the relationship.

Our last place to visit was Sofukuji Temple. “Founded by the Buddhist priest Chonen in 1629, Sofukuji remains a rare example of Ming architecture with its vermillion lacquer panels, belonging to one of Japan’s oldest Zen sects, the Obaku sect.” It was very pretty.

Our train left from Nagasaki Station at 3PM, so we ate some lunch and said goodbye to Kyushu soon after!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Nagasaki Day 3

On day 3, Banshee and I toured the foreign entities in Nagasaki. Our first stop was Deijima wharf.

Deijima Wharf is an artificial island built to contain the Portuguese and Dutch merchants that imported goods into Japan.

Because it is an island, it is sectioned off from the rest of the city. Deijima Wharf’s most active period coincided with the height of Japan’s heavy isolationist policies. The city of Nagasaki has recreated Deijima Wharf and it has become a popular tourist attraction in Japan.

The next stop on our tour of foreign influence in Nagasaki was Glover Garden. Here is a nice description of Glover Garden from its official site:

“Thomas Blake Glover, who travelled across the sea from distant Scotland, built his home here on Minami-Yamate hill in 1863. At that time, the town of Nagasaki was brimming with the enthusiasm of those dreaming of a new dawn for Japan.
 The merchants of the foreign country who have embraced the dream from other side of the sea, the patriots at the end of the Edo period who fervently aspired to overthrow the Shogunate, and the young men of Japan who aimed to learn the study of the West.
 More than a century later, mementoes of when the Glover family lived here survive unchanged, along with the residences of the traders who loved Nagasaki and made their homes here.”

Glover garden is a VERY LARGE garden built to enshrine the memory of Blake Glover. His various real estate lodgings are all well preserved. Inside these houses, they were pictures of several foreign families and recreations of their living and bedrooms. Lovely gardens and fountains surround the park as well.

There is even a museum dedicated to “Madame Butterfly” presumably because the opera takes place in Nagasaki. Everything in this museum is in Japanese, so we moved through it quickly.

The bottom of Glover Garden has an exhibit dedicated to a famous festival in Nagasaki called “Nagasaki Kunchi” that takes place every year in October. These parade floats are stunning. The exhibit displayed videos of the floats and wild dances that are associated. I would love go to this festival!

It took a few hours to move through Glover Garden, so afterwards we rested at the hostel. For dinner, I ate more toruko rice. Yum.

Funny picture time:

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Nagasaki: Day 2

My second day in Nagasaki was spent touring what Nagasaki is REALLY famous for, the second Atomic bomb.

Our day started by taking the tram to the Peace Park. This was a very somber experience. The park stands as a memorial to the victims of the atomic bomb and as a reminder for the necessity of world peace. It was said that nothing would grow in the damaged areas for 75 years because of lasting radiation. The peace park also stands as a testament to the will of the Japanese people to rebuild and “blossom” once again. Cherry blossoms have flourished in the park.

On the left side of the park, there is a statue to mark the hypocenter of the blast. It is a large black stone with stone rings rippling out. Again, this is a tragic place to visit. Even if you believe the bomb was justified, it’s still very sad.

Towards the center of the park, there is a statue dedicated to the children who died. Most of the bomb’s casualties were women, children, and the elderly.

At the exit of the park lies a piece of Urakami Cathedral. Burns scar the brick wall, and you can even see where the heat blast bubbled the surface of the concrete. According to some of the plaques that lie scattered throughout the park, the a-bomb exploded 500 meters above this Catholic Church. How ANY of this church survived the blast is a miracle. Ironic, no?

The 2nd part of the Peace Park has some shrines in memorial of the victims of the a-bomb. It has the “peace statue.” It is GIGANTIC. Check it out:

It was near one of the shrines where I met an a-bomb survivor! I was in shock. He had a paper with his story written on it. I had thought that it was just some random story of a victim. Then he told us that it was HIS STORY. Apparently, he was working for the Mitsubishi arms factory when his supervisor told him to go fetch some supplies. That was when the bomb exploded. A nearby bridge had taken most of the blast and he escaped with minor injuries. His left arm was broken in many places and his eardrums had burst. He told us that he couldn’t re-grow his hair for 3 years following the blast. It was absolutely surreal to meet a survivor.

After the Peace Park, Banshee and I visited Nyoko-do. Nyoko-do was the name given to the small bungalow of Dr. Nagai. Dr. Nagai was a pioneer of x-ray technology and a survivor of the atomic bomb. He is remembered in Nagasaki because, even after suffering a brain aneurism following the blast, he still rushed to the hospital to treat other victims.

From his years of working with primitive x-ray machines and his refusal to “get out of Dodge,” Dr. Nagai developed Leukemia. He gave himself 3 years to live, but miraculously lived another 6. Though he was bed-ridden for most of his remaining years, he managed to write many books detailing the effects of the atomic bomb, both physically and morally. Dr. Nagai was a devout Catholic and truly a remarkable man. This is a quote from one of his books:

For lunch, I ate one of Nagasaki’s famed dishes, Toruko Rice (literally: Turkish rice). It is tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet) over a bed of yellow rice and spaghetti. It really is an eclectic dish, but oh so delicious!

I needed to eat a lot to regain my strength. Next up was the atomic bomb museum…

I rented the audio tour to supplement my journey through the museum. Everything is provided in English as well anyway, but the audio tour still helped.

The a-bomb museum is built like a timeline. The opening exhibit is a display of what Nagasaki looked like before the bomb. There were pictures of daily life and small explanations describing the pictures. The next exhibit was a video of the bomb detonating. This was the segue into the REAL museum.

After the video, we were guided into a room that looked like a scene immediately following the bomb. There were electric poles bent and wires spraying light. The walls were painted with colors like red and orange. The room was meant to simulate the look of Nagasaki. This room highlighted the major damage from the blast including heat scars, crumbled buildings, and other deformed infrastructure. The next room highlighted the aftereffects of the bomb. Artifacts had been collected and their story was told on small plaques. For example, burnt lunch boxes, jewelry, and clothing were on display. They even had a life size model of the bomb.

Because I moved through the museum faster than my travel buddy, I took some time out to watch video testimonials of survivors available in the next exhibit. It was heartbreaking. I watched about 4 of them before moving on to the final exhibit. The last part of the museum is an infographic about the need for nuclear arms to be abolished. It highlighted how many nuclear weapons exist in the world and what organizations are working towards halting nuclear proliferation.

To cheer up after the long, emotional day, I ate ice cream. Phew…

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Nagasaki: Day 1

During spring vacation, I left for Nagasaki for a few days. I woke up Tuesday morning and boarded the Shinkansen (bullet train) from Shin-Osaka station. I took my seat next to my travel buddy, Banshee. Seats on the bullet train are surprisingly comfortable. There is plenty of legroom and the chairs lean back A LOT. The train from Osaka was full, but as we made our way down to Kyushu (the Southern Island of Japan), it slowly emptied. By the time we reached Hakata, the train was almost empty. From Hakata, we took a Limited Express Train bound for Nagasaki. The Shinkansen to Hakata was 3 hours. The ltd. Ex. Train to Nagasaki was 2 hours. I mostly played games on my iphone and read my book to pass the time.

Our first task, at Nagasaki station, was to purchase the unlimited tram passes. For 500 yen (about $5), we could ride the trams around Nagasaki as much as we wanted.

We then took the tram to our hostel. The hostel was in an excellent location. Nagasaki is a wonderfully constructed town. Everything seems to be within walking distance. The tram passes were almost completely unnecessary, but they were cheap enough.

After settling into the hostel, we decided to walk around the city a bit. Our first stop (literally 5 minutes away) was Spectacles Bridge. It is the oldest stone bridge in Japan. I know, it’s not THAT cool, but it was really close.

Afterward, we wandered into Nagasaki’s Chinatown. Nagasaki has a very large Chinese population. We were disappointed to find that most of the stores were closed. We found out later that everything is open on the weekends. Weekdays are a dead time for them. We still managed to find a Chinese restaurant. I ate shredded beef and green peppers. It was yummy! I really miss American Chinese food.

After dinner, we walked through the shopping arcade back to the hostel. I ate some “Easter Party” flavored ice cream (tastes like cake), then we slept. We had a long day of remorse and sorrow ahead of us.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

What's shaking?

During the month of March, there is very little for me to do at school. The school seems to look the other way (or just not care) about what I do during these vacation months. Students are around doing clubs and things really slow down in the office.

As I was watching one of the most intense movies I’ve ever seen (The Hurt Locker), I suddenly found myself swaying a little bit. I thought at first that maybe the movie was just THAT good; that it was so tense, I was actually feeling dizzy. It wasn’t until I took off my headphones that I heard we were in the middle of a small earthquake!

All the teachers were smiling and giggling. It was, after all, a REALLY small one. Even I was smiling and giggling. It was my first earthquake. I couldn’t help being excited. Nothing was broken. Nothing shifted. Everything continued as normal. When one of the teachers turned on the television to check the news, we learned of the true devastation. We watched as the news slowly trickled in. What we felt in my office was an aftershock of the large earthquake in northern Japan.

The outpour of support from the Japanese people is inspiring. People dramatically cut down on their electricity to save energy. There were volunteers EVERYWHERE collecting money for the Red Cross and other organizations. People were organizing deliveries of rice and other supplies to the north. There were no reports of looting (until 3 days ago).

On television, advertisers pulled their commercials. Apparently, Japanese companies have no intention of cashing in on a disaster. Someone told me that they pull their ads because this isn’t a time to sell people luxuries when so many are suffering. To fill in the missing time slots, cable stations have been playing Japanese government public service announcements…non-stop. I’m sick of seeing the same 3 commercials.

Luckily, the Kansai area of Japan has been minimally affected by the earthquake and tsunami. My life hasn’t really changed, by some are no so lucky. I’ve heard Canada has cancelled the contracts of JETs living in parts of the Tohoku area. One JET is confirmed dead. Several others have no school or town left. I was very lucky to be placed in Nara.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


I recently attended my first Japanese High School graduation. It is definitely done differently than American High School, but there are also a lot of similarities.

I put on my ill-fitting suit (lost weight, clothes don’t fit ^_^) and headed into the gym for the ceremony. All the teachers dressed nice, except for a few. The senior class homeroom teachers dressed especially formal. The male homeroom teachers wore a suit with a white tie and corsage. Some of the female homeroom teachers wore BEAUTIFUL kimonos.

I took my seat next to the other teachers on the side of the gym. The music teacher played the piano. The seniors entered the gym from the back and sat by homeroom at the front, near the stage. The students wore their normal school uniforms, but with corsages as well. Once everyone took their seat, the speeches began.

I sat through roughly 1 ½ hours of Japanese speeches. I’ll admit, I was pretty bored. Before, during, and after speeches there was A LOT of bowing. I had to look to the other teachers and students for the bowing cue. It was not just any bow. Every bow was a deep one. Each one lasted at least 3 seconds. High School Graduation is a 2 hour long Squats exercise and I was getting my work out.

The principal called out each student’s name by homeroom. When students heard their name, they would stand up and shout “Hai!” When all the students of that homeroom had been announced, a class representative would approach the principal, bow, and receive the diplomas (or some kind of document).

When the ceremony had completed, the students (well, I guess they are no longer students), moved towards the back of the gym, turned, and walked by the teachers on the way to the side exit. This was a nice moment for us. All the students walked by the teachers. I got to see all my students as they made their way to the exit. I did not feel much at this moment. I only taught these kids for 3 months, so I had only developed a relationship with a few. Next year will be much more emotional for me.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Hadaka Matsuri

Most people haven’t noticed, but I’ve been training ever since I arrived in Japan. Not physical training, mind you, but social training. Being a gaijin (foreigner) in Japan is sometimes like having two heads. Adults stare you in confusion. Children hide behind their parents. Students are oddly fascinated. All this “standing out” has given me this incredible layer of social apathy. I am no longer fazed when people stare. I no longer die a little inside when children run from me. I relish the times when people don’t sit next to me on the train, even when the train is CRAMMED with people. All this “training” has prepared me for what happened on February 19th, the Hadaka Matsuri (better known as the Naked Man Festival).

The Hadaka Matsuri is a fertility festival held all across Japan, but the largest one is in Ookayama Prefecture. When I say largest, I mean it. There are 9,000 participants, all male. Allow me to tell you a tale of manliness, testosterone, and true grit.

The Ookayama AJET chartered a bus for all the visiting JETs from across Japan. There were probably about 30 of us in all. On the bus, the Ookayama AJET president gave us the lowdown on what to expect at the festival. The main event didn’t start until 10, so they suggested that we “suit up” around 8:30. We had arrived at 6:30 so we had plenty of time to kill. That is, until one Nara JET suggested that we “suit up” now. Screw the whole 8:30 thing. Ok, I’m game. Let’s do it.

I bought my fundoshi (sumo diaper) and running slippers and went into the changing tent with 4 other Nara JETs. I had to fill out a personal form including name, address, and blood type (in case I get injured). That was….unnerving. There were some old men waiting for us in the tent. They were volunteer fundoshi wrappers. I got naked and let the old man have his way with me. He gave me the biggest wedgie of my life. He slapped my belly as he commanded I spin so the fundoshi wrapped tightly. High school bullies could learn a thing or two from this man. I heard that in other tents, there were also old ladies doing the fundoshi wrapping.

There we stood. 4 proud men, buttocks out, ready for the weirdest festival of our lives. By the way, it was cold…ahem. In this festival, groups of men (similarly dressed) run around the temple grounds in Saidaiji shouting “Washoi!” “Washoi” is a mantra meant to heat up the body. Remember, it’s f*cking cold. We waited for a group of men to come running by so we could join their ranks. We were so excited that we jumped into the first group that ran by. BIG mistake.

We were running with our new “pals” shouting the mantra and having a great time. Then we started to notice that there are young girls (fully clothed) running behind us, cheering us on (we were in the back of the group). Then we start to notice that this group is running AWAY from the temple. The route should only be about .5 km total. We had probably jogged 1.5 kms. Now we start to get worried. Then, our moment of clarity. The group runs through the gates of the local high school and our mouths drop. We had been running with a high school group. As we approached the gate, an old lady came out and blocked our entrance. We turned beat red (not from the cold) and apologized profusely.

When the group of kids disappeared into the school gymnasium, we, the Nara JETs, were left about 2 km from the festival. We did what any other gaijin would do: We ran back towards the festival, in our group of 4, shouting “Washoi” as we made our way through the public streets. Social apathy was running at maximum.

We finally found a “real” group of participants by listening to the deafening cries of “WASHOI!” We joined the pack and began our tour of Saidaiji Temple. The men linked arms with us and we made out way onto the temple grounds. The atmosphere was electrifying! I was having a blast!

After entering the temple, we ran through a bath of ritual holy water. The water was freezing. As soon as my legs were submerged, I lost my breath! The water is only waist-deep, however, in excitement, all the men splash each other as they run through. AHHHHH! After the holy water rinse, we go to the temple where the priests throw MORE water on us. We ring the traditional bell, then exit the temple grounds. During my first turn, we ended the run in front of barrels of hot water. Everyone splashed the water around throwing off my body’s equilibrium. I WAS becoming accustomed to the cold, until this point. After the hot water bath, we began the same run, all over again. By the end of this tradition, I had completed the run about 9 times. It was so much fun!!!!

Before the main event at 10, all the men began to gather around the temple. No more running. No more camaraderie. No more bonding. It was go time. The crowd packed tight at the temple plateau. So tight in fact, I could not move my arms. We were packed so tight, the crowd took on a life of its own. From the outside, the crowd seemed to breathe at the same time. One could see the crowd get bigger with inhalation and smaller with exhalation. The crowd swayed right and left. Steam was rising from our bodies. The priests overlooking the mass shined a red light on sections where they believed we were getting too rowdy. When someone got injured, a team of police officers and medics made a hole and pulled him out.

At 10 o’clock, the light went out…all of them. Darkness. 12 sticks were thrown into the crowd. 10 of them are fakes, just lucky sticks. 2 of them are worth $4,000. When the sticks were thrown, the crowd was whipped into a frenzy of fists and elbows. Soon after, I was ejected from the crowd and thrown down some stairs. Luckily people were there to catch me...so I didn’t die. The scramble for the sticks is quite an amazing sight. I had no interest in rejoining the fight, so I watched from the bottom of the stairs. The goal is to get a stick, then fight your way out of 4 exits to the temple. Corporations, mafias, and other local teams have been preparing strategies for this event for months. They practiced. We did not.

When the event concluded, we went to the changing tent and put our clothes back on. The Nara girls, who were watching, gave us hand warmers. Much appreciated. Our trial had ended. Will I do this again next year? Hell yes.

P.S. I am not posting pictures of myself wearing a fundoshi. The last thing I need is for future employers to see me basically naked.