Monday, March 25, 2019

Tokyo [Part 2]

Our last full day in Tokyo was probably the best time we spent in Japan. Jenny started the morning with a pilgrimage to the LDS temple, which she learned has been closed for renovation. But she still found time to enjoy the morning spirit at a quiet garden. When she returned, we charted a path to Ueno Park for some hanami (cherry blossom appreciation). While the sakura were blooming early this year, they had not yet reached their zenith. Even so, we loved the chance to walk around a lake filled with paddle boats and join the crowds drawn to trees bursting with white and pink petals that shimmied in the breeze.

Throughout the park, folks had laid out blue tarps to gather with friends for food and (plentiful) drink. After grabbing some regrettable street food, we found seats for a park performance with a monkey doing leaps and other tricks. [Yes, it was an impressive display. But I still felt guilty all the same.] A surprising highlight was the discovery of one of those ubiquitous gachapon dispensers that sold, of all things, miniature gachapon dispensers. And only for 200 Yen each. I would have cheerfully paid twice as much, so I bought six of the danged things! Later on, we wandered the stalls and shops of Ameyoko Shopping Street, snarfing up souvenirs and finding the perfect brand of matcha tea to bring home.

That evening we had dinner at Ninja Akasaka, a place that is pricey, cheesy, and surprisingly good. So, what’s the concept? Turns out, your server is a ninja who guides you through a mysterious network of passageways, past darkened rooms, across broken bridges, and through secret portals. Then when your meal arrives, your ninja performs illusions and tells goofy jokes. I’d long looked forward to this evening, and was disappointed the night before when we went through the whole opening bit - only to be dropped off in the bar. Yeah, you really do need reservations for this place. So we paid for our drinks and opted out of the festivities, arranging a reservation for today (and triple-checking that we’d snagged one of those coveted private rooms). It was worth the wait.

To be sure, neither Jenny nor I would ever be confused for “foodies.” So I have little experience for comparison. But I’d say that this was the best meal we’ve ever had: shuriken star-blades grissini, white fish and tomato ceviche, turban shell bomb with garlic butter, stone-boiled soup, Wagyu beef, sushi with akadashi dark-miso soup, and plenty of palate cleansers and tasty desserts.

Afterward we seriously considered calling it a night, but Jenny was still up for adventure. So we returned to the subway for a visit to Starbucks Reserve Roastery. I know, I know… But, really, this is a remarkable place - and at four stories and 32,000-square-feet is the largest Starbucks on the planet. We showed up at around 9:30 p.m. and found a line stretching down the road. And the display on one fellow’s clipboard read 120 minutes. Nope! So we walked about along the river, savoring the sight of cherry blossoms illuminated by lights.

Then I figured, let’s see just how bad the line really is. As it turns out, we only needed to wait about 20 minutes. Inside, we immersed ourselves in the kind of “coffee theater” we never experience in our local Starbucks: steampunk fixtures and open flame and personal tastings. Oh, and pour-over coffee and whiskey for me (and chocolate torte and water for Jenny). It was our last night in Japan. The next day we packed and took the Narita Express for the airport. Already I’m dreaming of our return to this remarkable country.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Fukushima Dai-ichi

We awoke well before sunrise to catch the Shinkansen to Sendai and then board a slower regional train to Odaka. As usual, I insisted on taking a much earlier option, though we could have chosen an itinerary that would get us to our destination with three minutes to spare. In the U.S., it makes much more sense to presume some delay in mass transit. In Japan, though, I’m coming to understand that when they say the train will arrive at 11:57, they generally mean 11:57. Anyway, we arrived two hours early, which afforded a chance to find a nearby ramen house. And I mean house. The owners ushered us into a back room with other folks who ceased their chatting and looked at us like we’d flown in from Mars. But once we joined them on the Tatami mats and gamely pointed at one of the written options on the low table, our neighbors went back to their conversations. A couple folks spotted us slurping our noodles with suitable joy and encouraged us to pronounce the food as “ichiban,” which it indeed proved to be.

At noon we joined a small group of fellow tourists (two from Argentina and one from Malaysia) gathered to visit the Red Zone. On this site in 2011, a magnitude-9 earthquake located on the Pacific side of Honshu generated a tsunami that partially engulfed the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, causing three of its six reactors to melt down. The tsunami killed about 16,000 people and forced an estimated 150,000 people from their homes. While plant workers struggled valiantly to manage the nuclear crisis, the worst since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, the physical and psychological impacts of radiation exposure remain difficult to quantify. Today, the Fukushima region continues to suffer the social and economic impacts of population loss, even though background radiation has returned to relatively healthy limits. Some local boosters are hoping that tourism can play a positive role in regional revitalization.

Of course, a fair question arises: Why would anyone want to holiday in Fukushima? Some might find it ghoulish to visit a field of broken tombstones laid flat by a torrent of water, to pass by lots of demolished homes where only family shrines remain, to drive through empty villages whose abandoned shops once buzzed with commerce. Some surely would think it odd to mount a hill overlooking the panorama of the plant nestled near the water’s edge, now the site of mammoth decommissioning and cleanup efforts that will take decades and cost somewhere near 200 billion dollars. Tour organizers know all too well that many visitors come in hopes of reliving episodes of Dark Tourist, or maybe even attempting illegal “urban exploration.” Yet they hope that they can resist that sort of “ruin porn,” seeking instead to send visitors back with stories of the region’s resilience.

Our guide was a prefectural manager named Shuzo Sasaki who arranged the permits for our small group to enter the exclusion zone. Driving down roads lined by weeds and debris, we passed empty fields and rice paddies now increasingly used as solar farms. We also saw vast collections of black bags filled with contaminated soil. How many bags? Current estimates total around 16 million. Occasionally we’d pass a digital readout of radiation levels. And everywhere are abandoned houses and vacant lots. 

At one point we stopped at the farm of Masami Yoshizawa, an activist who cannot sell his cows but has opted not to slaughter them. While over 5,000 cows were left to starve after the tsunami, Yoshizawa stayed behind to care for his. There is, of course, is no market for Fukushima milk, which leaves him struggling to survive. To dramatize his plight, Yoshizawa built a “Cow Godzilla,” a performance-art piece that he often drives to Japan’s parliament to raise awareness of the struggle that Fukushima fisherfolk, farmers, and ranchers still endure.

Advancing closer to Fukushima Dai-ichi, we cruise down National Route 6, stopping occasionally along the tour’s dismal stations. At Ukedo Elementary School we see the waterline etched below the roofs and imagine the destruction caused by deluges that roared up to ten kilometers inland. At Kumamachi Elementary School we peer into classrooms filled with scattered books and bags. At a fish nursery we survey the destruction wrought by the tsunami, and we photograph the sarcasm directed at Tokyo Electric Power Company: “TEPCO will last for 1,000 years.”

And in towns like Ōkuma and Futaba, with their rows of empty houses and shattered-glass businesses, I flash back to The Last Picture Show and imagine the haunting of ghosts. I think about those farmers and plant workers who managed to live but still left, and those school children who fled along forest paths to the tops of hills, barely escaping the waves that crashed below. From time to time we stop and shoot our typical photos, asking our banal questions. And then as afternoon falls, we begin our exit, checking out with masked police officers dressed in blue and white. Our final checkpoint involves us sticking out the soles of our feet for radiometer inspection.

As it turns out, we visited Japan during its cherry blossom season, a brief period when petals open and bloom, only to fall a week or so later. So during the tour, and afterward, I reflected on the concept of mono-no-aware, sometimes translated as the sadness or “ahhness” of things. That evening, Jenny and I joined Karin Taira, owner of the Lantern House (where we stayed for the evening), and compared our thoughts on the concept. She agreed that one may certainly discern sadness from mono-no-aware, but one also contemplates acceptance and even appreciation for the passing of things.

Related both to Shinto and Buddhist teachings, mono-no-aware reminds us that we ought not hold too fast to material things. Doing so only invites suffering. Instead we are wise to study the changing of things, the passing away of appearances. In such meditation, one comes closer to wisdom. I suspect it will be a long time, if ever, before I can claim any kind of understanding about Fukushima. Even writing these few paragraphs has been harder than I expected. But I start here, knowing I have a long way to go. 

Friday, March 22, 2019

Tokyo [Part 1]

We traveled from Kyoto to Tokyo via the Shinkansen. All along the way I found myself wondering what Japanese tourists must think when they travel to the U.S. and find our antiquated mass transit system. The bullet train isn’t cheap, of course, and even regional trains can be expensive in this country. But, barring thoroughly unforeseen circumstances, you get where you want to go with near-split-second efficiency. So after a pleasant ride we arrived in bustling, complicated Tokyo Station. Here I must thank goodness for Google maps, which offers detailed explanations of transit, down to the correct exit number. And given the mammoth size of many urban train stations in this country, choosing the correct exit is no trifling matter.

For this part of the trip we opted for the Shinjuku district, an easy subway ride from the main station. An odd highlight of our first evening was a visit to a Maid Café, which features young women who perform pop songs while wearing frilly outfits. After paying a cover charge, guests order overpriced drinks and woeful meals with the expectation that the “maids” will flirt, chat, and play silly games. Jenny and I both found the experience to be both unbearably cute but also somewhat disturbing. Having no special insight on the fixation (among some, not all, folks in Japan) with schoolgirls, a fetish that manifests itself in cafes like this - along with anime, manga, and other media - I’ll defer from offering any further sweeping judgment. Let’s just say that we didn’t need to stay for the entire allotted time.

Thursday began with a trip to Puk Pupa Theatre, a 90-year-old performance space dedicated to puppetry. The show was geared for really young folks, with artists transforming their puppets into a pair of goofy brothers who shared adventures with aliens, elephants, and dinosaurs. The show was a delight for the entire audience, with the exception of one little guy who wailed for his mom when things got a bit overly intense. In the afternoon, we wandered among Shinjuku’s “love hotel hill,” a popular spot for folks searching for privacy (and a little luxury) away from the thin walls of their cramped quarters. 

That night we lined up for seats at Robot Restaurant. How to describe this place? Well, the venue is designed to appeal to foreigners searching for some quintessentially wacky mash-up of Japanese pop culture. So you can count on an explosion of sword-flights, light-cycles, flame-belching monsters, and laser-armed tanks (and snippets from Mama Mia for some reason). Oh, and near constant pitches for drinks, snacks, and souvenirs. The show is expensive, loud, and entirely bonkers. We loved it.

The next day we slept in before catching the subway to Akihabara, a district famed for its towers filled with floor after floor of electronics - but mostly appealing to tourists for its overwhelmingly grand collection of trinkets, comics, figurines, trading cards, and other collectables. Our favorite stop was a visit to Mandarake Complex, known as perhaps the biggest anime shop on the planet. I wouldn’t have a clue, but when I asked about whether they had any old copies of Kachō Kōsaku Shima, it took only a few seconds for a dude to point me in the right direction. I’d never heard of this character - a salaryman who moves up the ranks of a giant corporation while playing by his own rules! But I’ve become hooked on the idea since seeing him sold as a Gatchapon toy.

Hmm… how to describe Gachapon. Let’s start with the name. “Pon” is a transliterated word for “toy capsule,” and “Gatcha” is the sound the machine makes when you insert 100 Yen coins and turn the crank. And what pops out? A plastic bubble filled with some variant of whatever that machine sells: school girl figurines that sit on your coffee cup, little boys with butts for faces, cats that resemble figures from Ukiyo-e paintings, plastic heads that contain tiny parasites that drive their victims like cars… I could go on and on. You can find row after row of Gachapon machines, and lots of coin-changers, at arcades across the country. You plunk in your coins and hope that you’ll get the toy you want - and not a duplicate of what you’ve already got. But if you’re looking for the perfect Gachapon, make tracks for Akihabara.

So we went on a spree, turning those cranks, and stuffing our bags with those toys, only occasionally to wonder: Did we just spend fifty bucks on a bunch of cheap plastic junk? Yes. Yes, we did. For Jenny, Gachapon are all about Jin & gudetama: a little boy with a little egg-friend. For me, it was all about Kachō Kōsaku Shima. I really dig the idea of a manga character based on the dreams of salarymen who yearn for corporate adventures that exceed their droning days. I should add that Jenny and I are also entranced by Kuniyoshi Cats - and merely hope that our real kitties don’t knock them from the shelf. Soon enough our dogs were barking, so we headed back to Shinjuku for some rest and ramen.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Kyoto - Sunday through Wednesday

Sunday began with a visit to Tō-ji Temple, famed for its five-story pagoda, which, according to Wikipedia, is the tallest wooden tower in Japan. I recall the dark wood and dreamy hint of incense wafting through the air. During our ambles we stopped by a pond, dipped our fingers in the windswept water, and attracted the ravenous attention of fat orange koi. Then we spotted a marker sitting atop a stone turtle. A couple of nice ladies used gestures to demonstrate how we should touch parts of the turtle associated with our bodies to enjoy the benefits of improved health. If only I hadn’t forgotten to focus attention on my right knee, which sometimes reminds me when I’ve been hiking too far.

Later that afternoon we wandered the serene precincts of Koshoji Temple before ducking the rain drops on our way to a nap back at the hotel. That night we discovered the wisdom of lodging near Kyoto Station, surveying its wide assortment of restaurant options. We opted for sushi, the kind served on assorted plates that ride a conveyer belt. Believe it or not, this was my first experience with the real thing (not including “California Rolls” and the like). Yes, I stayed away from the really complex stuff, but I developed an appreciation for fresh salmon and tuna.

The next day we awoke much earlier than Jenny would prefer to catch the JR train to Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. What a lovely way to start the morning. Before the crowds arrive, it’s possible to have the wooden green tunnel almost entirely to yourself. Even the occasional fellow traveler becomes a companion because, hey, they too journeyed here for the quiet and peaceful feeling. Mist hangs over the hills that dot the horizon, and it’s almost as if you’ve entered some “floating world” piece of art. Then we saw the sign: monkeys! We had to check that out.

So our next stop was the Kyoto Monkey Park. Getting there requires a semi-arduous climb. But, wow, is the peak worth the sweat. That’s when you find yourself among a society of macaques and learn to take quite seriously their facial cues for fear or anger. This is, after all, their mountain. We made friends after buying some bananas and unshelled peanuts, observing only a little drama when larger primates would bully the smaller ones out of their treats.

After descending the mountain, we returned to the riverside and rented a row boat, which - amid a growing crowd of other watercraft - inspired me to wish that I learned a bit more about station-keeping in the Navy. Thus it was all the more fun when a sailor would nod and smile once I figured out how to avoid ramming into the bigger vessels. On our way out of the touristy part of town, we stopped once more, this time to pet the owls and Bengal cats at a café that charges by the half-hour. By this time we were thoroughly tired. So it was back to the hotel for a nap, followed by more sushi at our new favorite place.

Tuesday began with an odd visit to a truly surreal Starbucks near Yasaka Pagoda. Built in a Machiya, this place is organized around small rooms where espresso hounds can sip and chat on tatami mats. Even Jenny - who never drinks coffee and detests early mornings - agreed that this was worth the stop. I can’t even imagine showing up after 9:30 a.m. or so, though; the crowds get pretty intense. So anyone wanting to follow the footsteps of our trip, take my advice: arrive as close to 8 a.m. as possible. You’ll thank me. Thereafter we wandered the Gion District, hunted for souvenirs, grabbed a couple seats in a cramped but perfectly tasty ramen place, and then rested up for the night’s adventures: a hike through the 10,000 (or so) Torii gates at the Fushimi Inari shrine.

Again, at a place like this, the goal is to avoid the crowds. So we grabbed another JR train and arrived just before twilight. At first the place was packed, but once we began to climb those steps, the throngs mostly cleared out. After sunset we found ourselves gazing over Kyoto’s glorious panorama, and I foolishly believed that the hard part of the journey was over. Just a few more turns around the mountain, right? Not even close. As the moon rose over the stone foxes, shrine alcoves, and glowing red gates, we encountered the truly steep part of the climb. After two hours (including a couple unexpected detours) we arrived at the summit. What a lovely view! After some rest we began our descent, past closed shops and temple cats searching for prey. A perfect evening.

Our last day in Kyoto called for a quick pilgrimage to the gravesite of Lady Murasaki, author of the Tale of Genji, which his considered to be the world’s first novel. Genji’s richness of characterization and psychological insight, along with the depiction of courtly life in Japan’s Heian-era, compelled at least a brief stop at this site.

But of course the morning was really about a return to Menbakaichidai Fire Ramen! I half expected that the place would still be closed for renovation, but we arrived to find the shop packed with tourists (and a few locals) awaiting the theater of broth, noodles, oil, and flame. At first they instructed us to wait, but when they recognized us as the pitiful folks who showed up to closed doors five days ago, they ushered us into seats and poured on the greetings. The meal was wonderful. And the performance, anchored by detailed positioning of employees and training of guests how to join the fun without getting burned, was a delightful way to wrap up our visit to Kyoto. Soon, though, we had to head back, board the bullet train, and make our way north to Tokyo (passing by Mount Fuji under blue skies). Japan, we are exhausted, charmed, and increasingly broke. A wonderful trip so far.