World Clock

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

"Nothing will grow for 75 years"

These were the words echoed around the world after the Enola Gay, a US Army Air Forces B-29 Superfortress bomber (B-29-45-MO, serial number 44-86292, victor number 82), named rather unfortunately after the pilot's mother, dropped the first atomic bomb to be used against humans on Hiroshima at 8:15am on Monday August 6, 1945. The Hiroshima mission was described by US forces as "tactically flawless." About 80,000 people died on that fateful day, many thousands more every year since - about 5,000 hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors) have died every year over the past 10 years.
Only a few buildings survived the enormous blast equivalent to around 14 to 16 kilotons of TNT caused by the detonation of the bomb, codenamed Little Boy. Amazingly, all of this death and destruction was produced by a mere 600 milligrams of Uranium-235.. Less than a gram!
The A-Bomb dome, situated on the bank of the Motoyasu-gawa river, is considered to be the symbol of the destruction of Hiroshima as nearly directly above (about 160m to the southeast of) what was then the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall is where the bomb detonated. The blast created shockwaves that eminated from this point 600m above the ground, crushing almost everything within a few kilometres. Because the shockwaves came from above, however, the walls of this building were spared and the original dome, although obviously damaged, remains still intact today.
Today the city is back to full speed, new buildings, new lifestyles, but the memories live on. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, where children send thousands of folded paper cranes every year in memory of the children that died as a result of the A-bomb, is extremely touching. The monument here was originally inspired by the death of Sadako Sasaki, a 12 year old school girl who died of leukemia after being exposed to the bomb's radiation at the age of 2. She decided to start folding 1000 paper cranes - an ancient Japanese custom through which it is believed that one's wishes will come true - at the age of 10 when she developed the illness with the wish that she would recover. Her efforts failed and she died before reaching her goal. Her classmates folded the rest. The Memorial Mound within the park, a hill created from the ashes of tens of thousands of victims, also invokes dark emotions.
The Peace Memorial Museum has a wonderfully detailed (or not so wonderful, really) account of the events of the 6th of August, along with documents from US military personnel explaining the methods and decisions that lead to the bombing - there is even a letter or two from top scientists of the time, including one urging the US to develop the weapon, signed by Mr. Einstein. Stories and photos of both survivors and victims line the walls.
Also nearby Hiroshima, and a little more light-hearted in nature, is the island of Miyajima. It is home to one of the most photographed attractions in Japan, the famous 'floating' torii - a huge gate situated in the harbour, which at high tide appears as if it is floating on water. We spent a couple of hours on this mountainous and thickly forested island, following the shoreline and meeting some of the locals: there are friendly deer here who seem to have been desensitised to humans and so are happy to lounge about on the paths while people walk by or get a few quick photos with them.
In the afternoon of the 11th of April, we took the fastest bullet train (shinkansen in Japanese) from Hiroshima to Osaka. I had been excited about taking a bullet train for ages, however it wasn't as interesting as I had anticipated. It did go fast, around 300km/h, but about half of that time was spent in tunnels, blind to the environment around us, and so we felt as though we weren't really getting the full experience and that we in fact enjoyed the local trains much more. It's definitely something you have to do if you come to Japan though..


one of the many watches that have remained still since the bomb fell

the A-bomb dome

the devastation, with the A-bomb dome centre-right

on Miyajima

Manga cafes - so comfortable

Paper cranes

is it a bullet?

our time in Kyoto comes to an end

First of all, I would like to apologise for the lack of blogging lately, at the moment I'm about 3 1/2 weeks behind! It has been quite difficult to get enough time in any one spot on the internet to be able to get some posts flowing. I'm going to try my hardest to get up-to-date (or close to) over the next couple of weeks - it has become somewhat of a burden on me and is definitely making it difficult to express accurately the true emotions and experiences that I have had. Oh well, them's are the breaks.
The last 3 days of our time in Kyoto was spent roaming around, looking at the sites and just generally basking in the wonderfully cultural atmosphere this city possesses. It was also time for a bit of shopping, splurging on a few small items to keep as souvenirs. Most of the knickknacks we picked up were found in one the many large covered high-roofed shopping promenades, lined with small stores and stalls, which can be found all over the country.
One of the highlights of our last days is the odd shrine called Fushimi-Inari Taisha, the head shrine of the Inari mythology and dedicated to the gods of rice and sake (yes, His Holiness, the god of sake). Unlike most shrines, usually bearing one or two orange torii, this one has a 4km meandering path ascending the mountain, lined with the religious gateways. Hundreds of them. A seemingly never-ending hallway of orange.
We also managed to see a Geisha performance while we were in town. Geisha, and their trainees, Maiko, are required to know many traditional forms of entertainment arts such as music, dance and song for their clients, and these were all on exhibition that afternoon. The tea ceremony, in which two Geiko served us tea and red bean sweets, was neat but way too short and rushed, we felt. We would have liked more of an opportunity for photos of, and even with, the Geisha but alas, it was not to be and we were hearded into the main auditorium for the entertainment portion of our visit. A dozen or so Geisha held the responsibility of music-maker whilst many more danced and acted out a short play depicting the apparent submission of themselves to a samurai master. The performance was slow at first and the music relaxing enough to help us both nod off to sleep for a bit (shhh, don't tell anyone..), but nearing the end the energy of the music and play increased and the audience was wowed by the lighting, stage sets and, of course, the Geisha and Maiko in the mastery and elegance of their skills.
The final highlight was a place called Himeji, 90 minutes west of Kyoto by train, the famous white castle there, Himeji-jo, considered to be Japan's most splendid still standing. The town itself, although we only spent a couple of hours there, seems to be very lovely with a wide and sunny main strip. Himeji-jo would have to be one of the most impressive castles I've seen, although it's appearance reminded me much more of an extravagant mansion than a castle fortress in the traditional sense.
Our last night on Kyoto was spent with a bunch of guys from our hostel and we headed out to get some more purikura done before grabbing a coffee and having to walk back in the pouring rain. We managed to stay awake with Melissa and Christopher (another brother and sister pair) for the entire night at the hostel, sipping tea, chatting about anything and everything and arranging our photos using Melissa's computer (thanks for that M.), before packing up and heading for the train station in the morning. We had such a lovely night, and those guys are great..
Next stop: Hiroshima!

So many temples...

Tea ceremony

the birthplace of Astroboy - Japan's first manga character to gain worldwide success


Painting Himeji-jo

our last night in Kyoto

us with Melissa and Christopher

Thursday, 17 April 2008

getting amongst it all

When you've got some time to kill, the best thing to do is get yourself a bike and cycle around in a foreign city.. Found that out on Saturday when the three of us (Kevin, Lee and I) hired bicycles from our respective hostels and went on a temple hunting mission.. Lee and I were fashionably late (as usual) to our meeting place at the Kyoto Imperial Palace and we had a little trouble locating Kevin at first, but after all the kerfuffle we were on our way..
The first temple we intended on visiting was a place known as the Silver Pavilion (more commonly, Ginkaku-ji). Leading up to this temple is a river lined with cherry blossoms and rows of shops selling miscellaneous items and foods (including Sakura icecream, which is basically icecream with musk flavouring.. mmm). Unfortunately, the Silver Pavilion itself was undergoing renovations and so we weren't able to see it. From here begins a lovely 2km stretch of sakura-lined road known as the Philosopher's Walk, which follows the river as it meanders southward; the name derived from the philosopher Kitaro Nishida, who would walk this path to meditate. We walked this road (not realising this was actually the path until later that night) in order to reach the next temple, Honen-in. This temple was built over 300 years ago to honour Honen, the founder of the Jodo school of Buddhism.
After a bit of lunch we made a move onto the next temple, across the other side of town and one of my favourites of the day, Kamigamo-jinja. This very orange temple is one of Japan's oldest and even predates the founding of Kyoto. It was built in dedication to Raijin, the god of thunder, and is approached via a long path with a large orange torii at each end.
The last temple on this apparent religious pilgrimage was the mother of all of them. Kinkaku-ji, or the Golden Pavilion, is one of Japan's most well known sites; the main attraction being the three-storey pagoda finished in gold leaf. Although the original building - initially built in 1397 as a retirement villa but later converted to a temple - burnt to the ground, the accurate 1955 reconstruction is still very impressive.
All of that temple hopping could easily have been construed as stressful and so we decided to join Kevin for a dip at the Funaoka Sento. A sento is a Japanese public bath, the etiquette being that you get completely naked and wash yourself sitting on a stool in front of everyone before hopping into the water with the other naked men (in my case) - the baths are segregated based on gender. It actually wasn't as unnerving as I had expected so I had a really relaxing time.
Dinner in the Gion district (the geiko and maiko area) was the final stop and Kevin took us to an Izakaya restaurant, basically a Japanese pub where you order small dishes and drinks as you go. Kevin chose a whole bunch of delicious dishes and we ordered umeshu (plum wine - more like a strong sweet spirit) with ginger ale. Yum!
The whole of the following afternoon and evening - a Sunday if my memory serves me correctly - was spent with Kevin and his mates, along with two of the guys from our hostel, Melissa and Christopher, in a park called Kiyomizu-dera for a marathon hanami party.
Everywhere you look there are cherry blossoms and people sitting on tarps, food stalls and game stands.. A lot of sake was drank that day! Kevin was definitely quite happy, even by the time we arrived (he had been there since 8am to reserve a prime spot in the park!) and when he and Mark, his Aussie mate, donned their manga character costumes and started schmoozing with the Japanese people also enjoying the delightful weather, it only got worse haha! There were definitely some crazy people out that day, and a lot of kids too!
While a few of us - you know who you are - were stumbling back to the hostel, at around 2200hr, we were amazed when we noticed a couple of Geisha (in full costume) pushing their children on a playground swing. It was such a lovely sight and a perfect end to a day filled with Japanese tradition..
1. Prayer blocks and rope
2. Sakura at the hanami party
3. Prayers
4. Formal outing
5. The Golden Temple
6. Lunch under the sakura
7. Enjoying the atmosphere..
8. Mark and Kevin - Peppy Kids!
9. Entrance to kiyomizu
10. traditional musical performance
11. Sakura shower!
12. cute kid :)
13. Melissa having fun with the kids
14. a Geisha

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

the Capital of the Capital

This first point of interest that stands out when you exit from Kyoto station's central exit is the impressive and enormous 15-storey open-plan station itself, built of glass and steel in 1997 and conflicting with the general theme of this ancient capital, and then immediately in front of you, the similarly modern Kyoto tower which is illuminated at night and makes for a great lighthouse in times of disorientation.
For the first new day in this new city, considering the long day had previously, we took a relatively relaxed approach and wandered slowly around the grid-style streets of central Kyoto, visiting the two large temples in the area, Higashi ('east') Hongan-ji and Nishi ('west') Hongan-ji. Both of these monumental temples, appearing oddly out of place amongst the modern city, were built as headquarters for the Jodo Shin-shu (True Pure Land) school of Buddhism which had significant prominence and power at the time. Nishi Hongan-ji (originally Hongan-ji) was founded in 1591 as the new Jodo Shin-shu headquarters, however the warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu felt threatened by the school's heightening power and so decided to weaken it by creating a breakaway faction as opposition for which he built Higashi Hongan-ji in 1602.
Each temple is made up of a number of individually impressive buildings; a main hall (Goe-do) connected with gardens, art halls and even no (classical Japanese dance-drama) stages.
On our way back to the hostel in the afternoon, we happened across as quaint cafe called Kitten Company, selling only tea and Chai - no coffee - and many fair-trade and local goods. As Lee mentions in her blog, it was a really neat place and something I think she should definitely take some ideas from whenever she decides to open her cafe. Perusing the selection of purchasables, I couldn't help but part with $23 for a cute little locally-made fold out book about a banana who is sad because her spaceman boyfriend cannot take her to the moon as she is too big to fit into his spaceship... Aww :(
Kevin, whom Lee met in Ghana and now lives just outside of Osaka, arrived by train the next day in the early afternoon. He was here for a mammoth hanami party on the Sunday.. More about that a little later on.
The morning before Kevin arrived was spent walking around the pristine Shosei-en garden, also central within the city. The cherry blossoms were in full bloom and the obvious attraction for the Japanese-only crowd there. The wooden bridge across the carp-filled pond is also a nice touch.
We met Kevin at the station and walked him to his hostel of choice, about 40 minutes away past the castle Nijo-jo with its lovely gardens. We got to see part of a traditional wedding cermony here which was interesting, especially the attire of the bride and groom.
Kevin took us out for a great okonomiyaki dinner and another extravagant icecream dish, and in-between courses we meandered around the downtown district. We found a few small, out-of-the-way, yet lively alleyways where we got to have our first (brief) glimpse of a Geisha in action. She was leading her gentleman companion into a restaurant. Doesn't sound very exciting, I know, but it certainly was great spotting Geisha (geiko in the Kyoto dialect) as there are estimated to be only around 100 in Kyoto plus about 80 maiko (apprentice geiko). It's a very peculiar subculture...

1. Kyoto station
2. Higashi Hongan-ji
3. the Goe-do of Higashi Hongan-ji
4. Amongst the city
5. Enjoying the serenity - Shosei-en
6. fountain in Nishi Hongan-ji
7. feeding the pigeons
8. Lee and Kevo in Nijo-jo
9. Sakura
10. The wedding
11. Geiko


For our last day in Tokyo we decided it best to just chill out and re-visit some of the places we had been, as well as hitting a few new spots.. you know, to mix it up a bit.. This place is so good (or bad, depending on how you look at it) for shopping - so much cool stuff such as little dangly figurines, lovely Japanese-y artifacts and knickknacks, fluffy toys, tapestries and neato superheroes (e.g. my guy at the moment, Anpanman, the bread-based superhero) - we just had to buy some!
Firstly, though, we wanted to see some Sumo action and so took the subway to an area called Ryogoku, where Sumo tournaments are held at various times throughout the year. Unfortunately for us, we are here at the wrong time of year, yet we did manage to check out a ring where the Grand Tournaments are held. The rest of the daylight hours were spent walking and shopping about Ueno (where we also got Purikura done - the fancy photos which you decorate) and Ginza. The evening hours were spent in our "home" area of Shinjuku and we managed to squeeze in an hour or so on some of the neat machines in a very colourful and loud game parlour.. We won 2 plush toys! Yay for us!
To top the rapidly cooling night, and our time in Tokyo off we each enjoyed an extravagant icecream from the biggest icecream chain in Japan, Baskin Robbins 31 (the 31 is the number of flavours they have on offer at any one point in time).
Sleep was quite important that evening as the majority of the next day was spent on local trains travelling from the new capital, Tokyo (meaning east capital), to the old capital, Kyoto (literally meaning the capital of the capital). Ten and a half hours, 9 train changes, a conflicting combination of much lovely undulating terrain and modern urban sprawl, awesome views of Mount Fuji (Fuji-san), and countless micro-sleeps later we arrived in Kyoto at around 2030hr.

1. Hello Kitty!
2. You don't say..?
3. Maybe they can't read Japanese?
4. Sumo ring
5. Purikura!
6. Taxi anyone?
7. Fuji-san!

Monday, 14 April 2008

a day in Nikko

We didn't get to bed until about 2am, after finishing up a rather unfruitful session in the Manga cafe, and then woke up at 6am to get ready for our day about 2 hours north of Tokyo in the beautiful, sacred town of Nikko. This town, like many of Japan's towns and cities, are steeped in history with sacred sites dating back to the middle of the 8th century. For many years Nikko was a famous training centre for Buddhist monks before these activities were moved elsewhere and the area became relatively unknown. Hundreds of years later, in 1617, a warlord by the name of Tokugawa Ieyasu was buried in the cedar forest here, a shrine dedicated to him beginning the site's climb back out of obscurity. Tokugawa was a notorious leader determined to take control of Japan and is attributed with having had his wife and eldest son executed because it was politically advantageous for him to do so at the time. Nice guy... Nevertheless, these days the area is lovely and dotted with colourful pagodas and shrines, many of them we managed to visit during our short time there.
Rinno-ji was the first stop, the main feature of which is the Sambutsu-do (Three Buddha Hall), where - you guessed it - three huge gold Buddhas reside, watching over you as you walk through their domain. Tosho-gu, one of the largest and, in my opinion, one of the most impressive shrines in the area is the shrine built for the lovely fellow I mentioned before, Tokugawa Ieyasu, and is entered by passing through a huge stone torii (a Shinto shrine entrance gate in the shape of the Greek letter π). This shrine is home to the original carving of the "Hear no evil, Speak no evil, See no evil" monkeys, which actually look a lot different to any other versions I have seen before. This prompted Lee and I to try our own version, which of course we executed perfectly :P
In this temple is also the other famous carving of elephants by an artist who had not previously ever seen the animal. Just past this carving, and through another torii, is an extremely busy and detailed gate which boasts paintings of flowers, girls dancing and mythical beasts all amongst gold leaf and red lacquer-work. Apparently the designers of this gate were worried that it was possibly too perfect and that this could anger the gods, and so they purposefully placed the final pillar in upside-down to maintain the peace.
Lunch was in a small restaurant where we were approached by a group of Japanese ladies from a World Peace group.
They gave us a whole bunch of cool little handmade items, paper foldings, etc. Not sure why, I suppose to spread the word.. but turns out one of them used to organise Japanese exchange students going to Adelaide - what a coincidence: we had a Japanese exchange student, Shiori, come stay with us many years ago.. I think it was a bit of a stretch to assume she had something to do with our particular case, but she couldn't confirm either way so it's always possible..
After all the temple fun, we had a bit of a walk about this quite aesthetically pleasing town, a little reminiscent of Austria's Salzburg I felt (possibly due to the mountainous terrain, or maybe I am just thinking of Salzburg for some reason..?). There is a red bridge, Shin-kyo, that is said to have been built on the spot where a local Buddhist monk from the 8th century was carried across the river on the back of two huge serpents - fact or fiction? You decide..
Our final stop before the 2 hour train trip back to the big smoke was Gamman-ga-fuchi Abyss, a quiet and out-of-the-way place at the end of a small alleyway which follows the winding river. Here there are many (some say an uncountable number of) statues of jizo, the Buddhist protector of travellers and children, set along a path. Halfway along is one statue known as Bake-jizo, who mocks any travellers foolish enough to try count all the statues - personally, I could have done it but chose not to.. Honestly..
That night we settled into a cozy restaurant in Ginza for some very tasty yakitori. Here another couple sitting next to us decided to give us some little gifts aswell.. Strange day, the day of giving..

1. on the train
2. Lucky dip!
3. the ladles used for ritual cleansing
4. Taiyuin-byo shrine
5. The stone torii
6. 5-storey pagoda
7. Hear no evil, Speak no evil, See no evil - the original monkeys in the background..
8. Elaborate carvings..
9. A bell house
10. Tosho-gu temple
11. the jizo statues.. spot the odd one out?
12. Awesome painting on the ceiling of a temple