Japan – Ju Ichi

August 29, 2007

When: August 28th
Where: World Peace Museum, Hiroshima

If you’ve spent time with me, you’ve probably noticed that I habitually fold paper cranes out of brochures, napkins, bus tickets, and pretty much anything foldable in my hands when I have time to kill.

When I was six years old, I met a guy named Floyd Schmoe.  I remember him shuffling around his apartment when we visited him in Seattle, smiling and patiently telling me about the little carvings, photos, and trinkets I found on his bookshelves and tables.  At the end of the visit, he told me the story of Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, and showed me how to fold one.

I saw him a few more times while I was growing up, the last time shortly after he turned 100.  I was 15 or 16, and again he was telling me stories about the little carvings, photos, and trinkets he had around his apartment.  One in particular jumped out at me: a small red and gold medal, which, he explained, meant that he was recognized as a sacred treasure and honorary citizen of Japan.  It had something to do with his work in Hiroshima after the bomb was dropped, but we didn’t get into the details.

Today, I visited the World Peace Park in Hiroshima.  We listened to a hibakusha, a survivor of the bomb, recount his story of the detonation, the aftermath, and his dedication to bringing peace to the world.  We visited the statue of Sadako, flocked by hundreds of thousands of paper cranes.  We walked around the A-bomb dome, and the peach torch, and through the museum.

It’s difficult to quantify the experience of walking through the museum.  It is a no-holds-barred history and exhibition of the city, and of the horrors of atomic warfare.  The rooms are filled with glass cases, containing the shredded uniforms of school children; photographs of men and women dying in makeshift hospitals, skin charred black and hanging from their arms; shadows of people, burnt into granite facades; blobs of pottery and roof tiles, fused together; victims stricken with radiation poisoning, cancers, and leukemia; walls stained black from the poisonous rain that followed the explosion.

At the end of the exhibition there was a chance to record your thoughts in the museum’s permanent collection.  They also displayed photographs and messages from notable people, like Mother Theresa, Mikhial Gorbachev, Jimmy Carter .. and Floyd Schmoe.  There he was, with his own photograph and everything, the funny old guy who showed a little kid how to fold paper cranes twenty years ago, but this time wearing a tragic expression, standing straight in a suit, and carrying a wreath to an unseen memorial.

We closed the day with a visit to a special exhibition about foreigners who came to help rebuild Hiroshima.  When we entered the hall, we were greeted by a two meter photo of a smiling man building a house — it was Floyd.  There was a wall covered in photos, letters, and descriptions of the work he did, designing and building homes for the survivors.  A movie he shot was was playing in a continuous loop.  A modeled floor plan of one of the homes he built was set up in the corner.

Every time I’ve folded a crane I’ve thought of Floyd, and of Sadako.  Over the last twenty years I’ve folded thousands of cranes, leaving them around the house, at the office, with my tip at restaurants, on bus seats, in bars, and on my travels all over the world.  Little messages of peace and thanks, for anyone who happens to pick them up.

Thanks, Floyd.

Japan – Ju

August 29, 2007

When:  August 27th
Where:  Nara / Hiroshima

Oh my, okonomiyaki.

Yoshie went back to their other home in Kobe today, while we toured more temples.  Kenji took us grocery shopping, and when we returned to the house, he busted out the most awesome bachelor food I’ve ever had: okonomiyaki.  Basically, a fist sized pile of cabbage and sprouts doused in pancake batter, cooked at the table on a hot plate, and topped with pork, ginger, mayonnaise, and mysterious brown “sauce.”  Wow.  Super easy to prepare, delicious, and filling.

Generally speaking, the food here is awesome.  I love Japanese cuisine, in all of it’s weirdness (and, sometimes, because of it’s weirdness).  For example, they pickle everything, and it’s delicious.  We visited a store that was famous for pickling, and browsed the cases of glossy carrots, wrinkly radishes, bloated mushrooms, and diced … well … something yummy.  Each meal is served with some pickled vegis of some sort.  Cucumber here, eggplant there, and of course the ubiquitous sliced ginger.

I also experienced the joys of nato — fermented soy beans.  When you’re done mixing in a little soy sauce and mustard, it has the consistency of chunky brown snot, and sticks to absolutely everything.  It’s impossible to eat without getting sticky little stringers all of your chin and shirt.  Eating nato is an exercise in patience and dexterity, and that’s if you can stand the smell of it.  The taste is supposedly 100% revolting for pretty much anyone who wasn’t raised on it, but I didn’t think it was too bad.  I’m not exactly eager to wolf down a big serving, but it’s not as terrible as everyone warned me.

One of the most surprising dishes on this trip was had while trying to beat the heat in a little cafe.  Kenji ordered a dish for me, knowing that I get pretty excited about unusual food.  It came in a bowl, filled with a sweet brown sauce, semi-opaque blobs of something resembling a jellyfish, and topped with a considerable amount of tan powder.  Texture and presentation aside, it tasted almost exactly like a bowl of raisin bran, but a little sweeter, a little lighter, and perhaps a little malty.  Really nice, on a blisteringly hot day.  If anyone can help me identify this delicious dish, I’ll buy you a beer.

Anyhow.  Okonomiyaki, with an ice cold Kirin beer, is the definitive meal of the trip, so I’m pretty darned sure we’re going to be hosting some okonomiyaki parties in the near future.

Japan – Ku

August 29, 2007

When:  August 26th
Where:  Nara

Oh, the deer.  Lots of deer.  Cute, big eyed, white speckled little deer, hell bent on taking food from tourists.  If you have a packet of special deer biscuits (or even if you don’t), be prepared to be mobbed by a small herd of nipping, butting, ravenous deer.   Rumor has it that the first emperor of Japan descended from heaven on the back of a deer, in the sacred city of Nara.  Since then, the deer in Nara have grown accustomed to a particularly relaxed lifestyle of lounging about and/or rolling tourists.

Other than the deer, Nara has a particularly high density of World Heritage sites.  For example, the largest wooden structure in the world is located here, a Buddhist temple housing the largest sitting buddha in the world.  It’s big.  Amazingly big.  I could lay down comfortably in the palm of his upheld hand.  An average sized Japanese woman could lodge herself in one of his serene nostrils — we know this for a fact, as one of the pillars has a hole of the appropriate size for (dainty) tourists squeeze through.

Our host in Nara was a gentleman named Kenji, and his wife, Yoshie.  They were energetic and gracious, patiently explaining to us how Japanese showers worked, introducing us to new foods, and guiding us through the history and highlights of Nara.

Japan – Hachi

August 29, 2007

When: August 25, 10:30 AM
Where: Righa Royal Hotel, Kyoto

The Japan Times has confirmed that I’m not just whining about the heat — I’m one of the lucky survivors of this year’s heat stroke season, which has claimed 62 lives this month alone.  It’s brutal out there.  We’ve spent our times taking longer subway rides then necessary, trying to ward off the heat.

I finally understand how Japan found inspiration for it’s rubber monster culture.  Giant cicadas, the size of small children, cling to trees and screech like jet engines.  They’re everywhere — trees, bushes, anything they can grab on to.  They also make a terrific THWAP on bus windows when hit at high speed.  Anyhow, I understand how the combination of gigantic bugs and heat stroke could inspire a national fascination for chitinous creatures of city destroying proportions.

Japan – Shichi

August 29, 2007

When:  August 24, Late
Where:  Somewhere in Kyoto

My buddies Poncho and Izzy came to Kyoto last year in December.  Somewhere in the heart of Kyoto they found a bar, and in that bar is a picture Izzy drew of the bar tender.  I was sent on a quest to find this bar, photograph that picture, and add a paper crane to the mix.  But, the instructions on how to get there were kind of fuzzy.  Route 113, near the Kyoto Tower and a big temple, a two story place with lots of visible bamboo.

After wandering around for a couple of hours (and somehow getting involved in a group portrait with a bunch of drunken salary men), I finally found a place that fit the description.  I slid open the door, ducked inside, and was ushered in to a seat next to the open kitchen.  It was a small place with ten seats on the bar and a small table tucked into the corner, decorated with bamboo and dark wood, and their specialty was … beef tongue.

This was a mixed result.  I’m pretty sure Poncho would have mentioned tongue if it were a fixture on the menu, and there was no picture to be seen.  However, I love tongue.  No doubt about it.  It’s very flavorful and tender, and prepared correctly, an amazing experience.  So, I sat, ate tongue, and drank beer.

Thirty minutes passed while I relaxed, watching the chefs prepare and serve food.  It’s pretty fascinating to watch a Japanese kitchen at work.  The basics are still the same, but the techniques and tools kept me thoroughly entertained … until a man walked over, and in broken english, invited me to sit with him and his friend.

Their english was good enough for us to have a lengthy conversation about traveling, beer, traveling, sake, traveling, soju, traveling, and whisky.  Apparently, words lost in translation are easily replaced with alcohol amongst friends.  I’ll have a place to stay next time I come to Kyoto, and they would always be welcome at our place if they came to Portland.  Friends in far away places are a great thing to have.

It was a good night, with good people.  These are the sorts of things that make travel worth while.

Japan – Roku

August 27, 2007

When: August 28, 11:40 AM (Japan Time)
Where: Hiroshima Memorial Visitor’s Center 

Sorry for the break in communication — we’ve been wandering around Nara and Hiroshima without a reasonable Internet connection … but you can expect a series of posts when I find the opportunity to upload photos and copy some of my scribbling from my laptop.  Other than connectivity issues, things have been going very well!   

Japan – Go

August 23, 2007

When: August 24, 8:30 AM (Japan Time)
Where: Righa Royal Hotel, Kyoto

We arrived at our hotel in Kyoto and immediately acquired an entourage. It took no less than six people to pick up our luggage, usher us through the lobby, guide us to our room, and thoroughly explain everything including a thirty second guide on how to (efficiently, politely) use a card key to unlock the door. What they didn’t explain was the toilet.

Toilets are peculiar here. There are the standard accessories you expect on a toilet, and then there’s the mysterious computer console. It has three knobs, four buttons, and two status indication lights, all perfectly labeled with squiggly lines that I can’t read. What I did understand is that there was a blue button, a pink button, a grey button, and it all had to do with water.

At this point, I should note that the entire reason I got into computers in the first place is that I have a nearly uncontrollable urge to push buttons.

The grey button is pretty straight forward. There’s a single character there, looking rather abrupt and grounded in it’s design, which seemed to communicate “push me, and I’ll stop whatever is happening, thank you, thank you.” The pink button has obvious feminine overtones, but only has two simple characters — reassuringly uncomplex. The blue button, with two complex characters and a frightening number of supporting squiggles, appears to do something quite masculine to one’s undercarriage.

So, having rationalized my fears and screwed up my courage, I accidentally pressed the pink button.

My view was obscured at this point, so I can only imagine what happened next. But, I clearly understood two things: it involves robots, and they were vaguely confused. I’ll spare the details, but I am happy to say that the grey button lived up to it’s promise.