This is part of a series of posts about the places we visited during Japan’s “Golden Week” in Spring 2007. I profiled the four places we visited: Yakushima, Tanegashima, the Fukiage Beach Sand Festival, and Kagoshima City. I also wrote a post like this one about another misadventure here.
Our vacation started yesterday, and it began smoothly. We took a nice ride on the Tokyo Monorail to Haneda airport, and then had a pleasant flight from there to Kagoshima airport (if you read my post about Sapporo and our flight there, you’ll know why I liked it). From there it was a 1 hour bus ride into town, and then we found our way on foot to Nakazono Ryokan, where we planned to stay for just one night. The place is a bit shabby by Japanese standards (i.e. not at all bad by US standards), as it’s one of the few inexpensive places to stay in Kagoshima City. But the guy who runs the place is very nice. Maria was chatting with him about our plans, and he immediately got on the phone and reserved seats for all 3 of the ferry rides we had planned (to Yakushima island, Tanegashima island, and then back). He also offered to give us a ride to the ferry the next day.
We had a great dinner at a sushi restaurant in the Dolphin Port outdoor mall: the kind where the maguro (tuna) just melts in your mouth. For me that kind of maguro is like a drug – all my muscles relax and it’s all I can do to not slump in a heap on the floor, with my eyes rolling back in my head. After that Kai and Maria enjoyed the mall’s free public outdoor foot bath (yes, you have to wash your feet before you use it). It’s fed by a sulfurous natural hot spring, so it smelled like rotten eggs, but Maria said it felt wonderful.
The rest of the early evening went just as smoothly. It even took less than an hour for me to get Eidan to sleep – a remarkable achievement when staying in a new place (he spent the time squeezing my nose and rubbing his arms against the stubble on my face until he drifted off). I indulged in the ryokan’s hot bath, and then – this being a Japanese style room with a tatami floor – I climbed on top of a pile of soft fluffy futons and feel asleep.
Then I woke up at midnight to what sounded like a small herd of mechanical elephants, grazing near our window. I wanted to get up to take a look out the window, and realized I couldn’t move. A moment later I discovered I could move, but it required inducing a great deal of pain in my back. I have a lower back injury from about 15 years ago, but it hasn’t bothered me much for the past 8 years. Unfortunately, the hot bath and the soft futons (which offered no back support) proved to be a deadly combination. It felt like I’d pulled every muscle in my lower back.
I managed to pull myself up to look out the window, to see a trio of construction vehicles and a half dozen workers, tearing up the main road, about 100 ft. away. Eidan slowly woke up over the next 20 minutes, crying “no, no,” against the strange sounds from outside, until he was fully awake. Then he indulged in some full-throttled screaming. The walls in this place were really thin, so I got up and managed to carry him outside, hoping it would snap him out of it before he woke up everyone. It worked, and I carried him closer to the workmen, so he could see where the strange noises were coming from. In my aggravated state it crossed my mind to yell at them in my pidgin Japanese “kazoku wa nemasen!” (my family’s not sleeping!) but I realized that no conversation started that way was likely to end well, so I thought better of it and headed back to the room.
Miraculously, Eidan managed to get back to sleep despite the noise, and it didn’t seem to bother Maria or Kai, but between that and my back pain, I was up for hours, until they finally stopped tearing up the road, and some aspirin took the edge of the pain.
The real bummer is that we’re spending the next three days on Yakushima island, a mountainous island, home to some of the best hiking on the planet. I just bought some hiking gear before we left so I could do an all day hike to Jomon-sugi, the world’s oldest cedar tree (Maria had kindly volunteered to watch the boys for one of our days here). But right now it’s all I can do to stand up and shuffle around. I can’t bend at all – to put on my socks this morning, I had to lie on my back and bend my knees to my chest so I could reach my feet.
The beaches here look to be quite nice. So shuffling down the beach and flopping on the sand sounds good too. If I had to pick a place to recover from a back injury, this isn’t such a bad choice .
On Thursday we leave for an 8 day vacation in Kagoshima, which is the southernmost prefecture in Kyushu, which is the most southern of Japan’s four main islands. Next week is Golden Week in Japan, which is like spring break, except it’s for everybody, not just students. The whole country practically shuts down, as everyone is on vacation.
I may not post much over the next week or two, depending on our internet access while we’re away.
Our original plan was to go even further south, to Okinawa, but then we started reading about Kagoshima, and it sounded like a lot of fun, so we changed our plans. We’ll spend a few days in the Kagoshima City area, with a side-trip to Kaseda for their annual Sand Festival (check out the pictures at that link – I think it will be a nice complement to our visit to the Snow Festival). Then we’ll visit the islands Yakushima and Tanegashima – both are supposed to have beautiful beaches. Yakushima is a rain forest island – check out this guy’s amazing pictures. Tanegashima is home to Japan’s largest space center. Maybe if we’re lucky we’ll get to see a satellite launching.
We’ll briefly return to Tokyo, to pick up Maria’s friend Andrea, who is flying in from the US, and then we’ll head to Hida for a few days. Hida is a mostly rural area in mid-Western Japan. Maria and Andrea will be tourists with the boys. I’m being released on my own recognizance to go hiking around Mt. Tateyama with Paul, a former student of Maria’s from Villanova, who is currently living in Hida and kindly agreed to take me hiking.
The only thing I’m worried about is Eidan – for the past 6 weeks he’s been getting up 4 or 5 times every night. Maria and I are exhausted. We probably could have improved his sleep if we were at home in Philly. But here, with neighbors on every side and 4 of us in a 1 bedroom apartment, the best we can really do is try quieting him down as quickly as possible when he wakes up. All the moving around we’ll do on this trip will be a major disruption for him, which means his sleeping will get even worse, …or if we’re lucky it’ll get better. Who knows – wish us luck
Check out this video I shot from our balcony (click the first thumbnail on the left) – it offers a real glimpse into Tokyo political campaigns. For the past week or so there has been an almost non-stop cacophony from the blaring PA systems mounted on politicians’ campaign cars, buzzing around our neighborhood like mosquitoes around the head of an Alaskan moose. I picked that particular analogy because a friend of mine told me once that persistent swarms of mosquitoes can drive a moose so crazy that, in desperation, it will charge headlong into a tree, sometimes killing itself. That’s about where I’m at.
In the video, there’s one candidate (or possibly one of his surrogates) who has pulled over on the left side of our apartment building, to give a speech to the buildings. Well, OK, to the people in the buildings, whether they want to listen or not. The PA systems the candidates have are loud – closing your windows and doors does absolutely no good. They usually just keep driving while they talk, so stopping like this is uncommon. One of the several other candidates driving around has noticed he’s stopped, and – not wanting to let the other guy have the full attention of the local residents – he stops only half a block away, on the right side of our apartment, and starts his own speech. This makes it impossible to understand what either one is saying, but I imagine that’s the point: the candidate who pulled up to drown out the other guy is mainly concerned about blocking his message, not necessarily getting heard himself.
About a month ago I wrote a post on the Tokyo race for governor, which is over now (Ishihara won). I mentioned that politicians aren’t allowed to advertise on TV here. If you combine that with the fact that door-to-door campaigning is impossible, since the vast majority of people here live in secured high rise apartment buildings (the Japanese actually call them “mansions”), then this aggressive, blaring, drive-by campaigning is the unfortunate result. It’s actually created a real problem for us: Eidan has been sick for the past few days with the stomach flu, and the poor kid keeps getting woken up from his naps by these massively amplified voices that are so loud that I don’t have a prayer of shielding his room from the noise. Political ads on American TV may be annoying, but at least you can control the volume (or even change the channel, or turn it off!). Eidan is napping as I’m writing this, and I can hear at least 3 different campaign vans driving around the neighborhood right now – if one of them comes down our street, that may be the end of Eidan’s nap.
The election is tomorrow, April 22 – I can’t wait for this to be over. The election that was on April 8 was the first part of the “national unified elections,” and now we’re in part two. The FPCJ has a good explanation of how the process works:
The unified local elections are held once every four years to select the heads and assembly members of regional governments. These will be the 16th unified local elections since 1947. The local elections are held at the same time to cut costs, improve efficiency, and stimulate interest in regional autonomy. There will be a total of 1,120 elections within a single month with voting taking place in two parts, first on April 8 and later, April 22. Because of the so-called Great Heisei Mergers of local cities, towns and villages, the number of local municipalities has been greatly diminished with 60 percent fewer mayoral elections and roughly half of the assembly seat elections compared with the number of elections that were held in 2003.
About a week and a half ago we spent the day in Odaiba, and stumbled across the Nagisa Music Festival, which took place in an enormous parking lot across the street from the architecturally unique Fuji TV building. The festival lasted 2 days and featured about 50 artists on 6 different stages, with styles from House to Reggae to Rock. A goal of the festival was to raise environmental awareness (which you may or may not have figured out from the japlish on the flag) – all of the electricity used to power the festival’s equipment, lights, etc. came from biodiesel.
The area was overrun with Tokyo’s cool kids. I would have loved to have gone in and checked it out, but we had the boys with us and the admission was 4000 yen (about $35), so we had to pass it by.
If you happen to find yourself in Osaka on April 29, a 1 day version of the festival will be happening there.
Kawagoe is a modest size tourist town, located just 30 minutes north of Tokyo by train. We made a family day trip there on a rainy Sunday a few weeks ago, along with Maria’s friend Atsuko. We started with a walk along Chuo Dori, the main street. While it contained a typical mix of tourist shops and restaurants, what made it special were the many kurazukuri (fireproof storehouses), some of which date back to the 1700s. Most Japanese buildings prior to the 20th century were wooden, and they had a habit of burning down, so expensive kurazukuri were built by those who could afford them (they were also used for storing critical items such as rice). They looked like giant safes – the shutters, at least a foot thick, even looked like safe doors. The street was especially charming because even the newer buildings matched the Edo-period style of the kurazukuri. This is what earned Kawagoe it’s nickname “Little Edo.” Edo is the old name for Tokyo, but hardly any of Tokyo’s wooden buildings survived World War II. So visiting Chuo Dori in Kawagoe can give you a sense of what a Tokyo street might have looked like in pre-war Japan.
Another old fashioned part of town is the Kashiya yokocho – a small lane filled with small candy stores selling traditional Japanese sweets and snacks. Kai of course loved it, and three weeks later he’s still working through his bag of candy loot.
Kawagoe also attracts tourists with its unreasonably large number of temples and shrines. We visited half a dozen of them, and while they lacked the splendor of the temples and shrines you’ll find in other “temple towns” like Nikko and Kamakura, a couple of them are of particular interest. One is Hikawa shrine. It traces its history all the way back to 514, and it has Japan’s largest wooden shrine gate (15 meters high). Fenced off from public access, but still visible behind the main shrine building, is a much older shrine, with intricate wooden carvings all over it (I’d provide more specific information about it, but I haven’t been able to find any). Also, it is the shrine for the god of marriage, and we were lucky enough to witness a traditional marriage ceremony while we were there.
The other interesting historical site was Kitain temple. Its grounds are home to not only the temple itself, but also the Toshogu shrine (as far as I know, it’s odd to find a Buddhist temple and a Shinto shrine sharing the same grounds), the only surviving structures of Edo castle (portions of it were moved to Kawagoe before the castle was destroyed), the graves of Kawagoe’s Daimyo (feudal lords) from the 18th and 19th centuries, some nicely landscaped gardens, and – my favorite – the statues representing the 500 Rakan (disciples) of Buddha. Unfortunately, the statues were not open to the public while we were there, so I had to settle for taking pictures of them over a wall.
If you find yourself in the Tokyo area for a week or more, and you’ve already gone to Yokohama and Kamakura, then I’d recommend Kawagoe as a good day trip if you want a break from Tokyo’s hyperactivity. There are a number of different ways to get there by train. We took the Tobu Tojo line to Kawagoe-shi station, and then walked a counter-clockwise loop around the city: north up Chuo Dori, east to Hikawa shrine, south to Kitain temple, and then back west to Kawagoe-shi station. This takes you past Hon-Kawagoe station, which has a lot more going on around it than the much quieter Kawagoe-shi station, so it’s a good place to stop for dinner. And if you want a really full day, Kawagoe also has some museums near Hikawa shrine (we skipped them since we had the kids with us, so I can’t offer an opinion on the museums).
Maria recently met up with an acquaintance who was visiting Japan for the first time. He had only been here a few days, and he was swooning, with observations like “I just bought shoes, and it was the nicest shoe shopping experience I’ve ever had…I rode the train, and it was the nicest train ride I’ve ever had…” and so on. Tokyo’s dazzling modernity, startling cleanliness, and the ubiquitous politeness of the Japanese combine to make a powerful first impression. As an American living here for a while, I’ll say it is – like anything else – something you start to get used to, until you experience it in a new context, and then it hits you all over again.
This happened to me the other night when Maria and I engaged in a strange and exotic ritual: we went to the movies. It’s something we haven’t done in probably a year (we are thrilled to have found a babysitter able to rise to the challenge of putting Eidan to bed). We headed to the Toyosu Theater, home of Tokyo’s largest movie screen and located in Japan’s largest mall, Lalaport. I have never seen such a pristine, elegant, and completely spotless movie theater. The same goes for the mall. I usually can’t stand malls, but this one has a very airy, open design, and the carpeted floor and many cloth seats gave it a comfortable and inviting feel. Also, the mall is on the waterfront, and the stores are organized into several buildings shaped like ships, so it’s not the typical mall collection of big, ugly box-like buildings.
The only disappointment was the movie, Dororo. I actually enjoyed it, but it was a much sillier movie than suggested by its massive marketing campaign back in January, which had led me to believe I was going to see something on par with Lord of the Rings. The conceit for the film is bizarre and intriguing – it’s based on the 1960s Dororo manga that’s well known in Japan:
The story takes place in Japan during the Sengoku period, or the Warring States period. Forty-eight major demons, known as majins (lit. demon gods), sense the impending birth of a powerful human, who will grow up to be the vanquisher of demonkind.
The forty-eight majins make a deal with the samurai Kagemitsu Daigo–who is the father of the yet-unborn child–wherein Daigo pledges forty-eight body parts of his unborn son to the majins, receiving in return the majins’ guarantee that Kagemitsu will be unbeatable in any warfare and become the lord protector of the entire Japan. Indeed, the boy is born without forty-eight body parts; Kagemitsu puts the neonate in a basket and floats him down a river.
Fortunately the infant is rescued by a physician named Jukai who, over the period of many years, devises many cunning prosthetics so that the boy–named Hyakkimaru (lit. One Hundred Ogre Boy) by Jukai–can function like a normal person. Also Hyakkimaru has many supernatural powers which allow him to see, talk, and hear, despite having no eyes, mouth, or ears.
Upon reaching adulthood, Hyakkimaru embarks on a journey to vanquish the forty-eight majins and reclaim his body parts; he is soon joined by Dororo, a precocious street urchin and self-styled “greatest thief in all of Japan.” Together, Hyakkimaru and Dororo travels the feudal Japan, helping the oppressed people and defeating the demons, in the hope that one day Hyakkimaru will win back all his body parts from the forty-eight majins.
Unfortunately, it’s a mediocre adaptation. It was made by Toho studios – the folks who brought us Godzilla – and while some of the cinematography and special effects are great, they also went for the guy-in-a-rubber-suit for some of the demons, which was just laughable. The main problem with the film is that it’s just all over the place: sometimes it seems goofy like a kids movie, other times the themes are for adults, and other times it’s fairly gruesome, but in a ridiculous way, like a horror movie for teenagers. At 2 hours and 20 minutes, it was also too long, with a number of tangential scenes that didn’t do much to advance the story.
It’s supposedly going to be released in the US at some point. If they edit it down by about 30 minutes and excise some of the blood n’ guts, it might do well as a PG-13 flick for early-teen boys (assuming they’re not turned off by subtitles).
Anyway, our enjoyment of the evening didn’t hinge on the quality of the movie. It was good to be out without the boys for a few hours, and to see yet another amazing aspect of Tokyo.
From an American’s perspective, Kai’s graduation from kindergarten was fairly typical… for a high school senior. From beginning to end the whole thing took about three hours. There were songs, slideshows, speeches, the ceremony itself, and multiple rounds of various group photos.
Most of the dads took at least part of the day off work to be there, and many local dignitaries were also in attendance. Several of the moms were there in formal kimonos, which is a big deal, as getting them put on just right, plus the requisite hair and make up work, is something of an undertaking. Many of the moms were also crying as the kids got their diplomas. I had to restrain myself from blurting out “it’s just kindergarten!” Actually, many of these kids are only children, and – generally speaking – the Japanese seem take the milestones of childhood development more seriously than Americans. So, with those things in mind, their feelings are understandable. I genuinely felt for one of the moms as she burst into tears when her son got his diploma: he’s both mentally and physically handicapped, and this graduation was probably one of the last experiences he’ll have where he can participate just like all the other kids his age (I imagine in first grade or soon thereafter he’ll be moved into a special program).
The first video on the left is Kai getting his diploma. The second one is a portion of one of the songs the kids sang. They paused at various points during the song so the kids could shout out what their favorite activity was during the school year. Kai’s line is at the end of the clip. He memorized what to say in Japanese “Ken wo tsukutte asobu no tanoshikatta desu.” That roughly translates to “I enjoyed making swords for playing.” There’s actually a lot going in the grammar of that sentence, some of which is beyond my experience (like the katta suffix on the adjective tanoshii (enjoyable), which I just looked up – it makes it the past tense). For now it’s just something he memorized, but now that he’s starting first grade and getting some Japanese lessons, I imagine his Japanese will be better than mine by the end of June, when we head back to the US.
Kai had a great time in kindergarten. He made friends with the two other boys in the class who speak English. Even though Kai won’t be in the same school as them for 1st grade, he’ll still see them for playdates (the girl in the picture with Maria is Naname, the younger sister of Kai’s classmate and friend Kaito – their dad is American). I’m sure Kai will make new friends in first grade as well.
You can’t blog from Japan in the Spring and not have a post about cherry blossoms, so here you go. I took the first two pictures in Shimizudani Park last week. It’s across the street from the New Otani hotel, where my mother and step-father stayed while visiting us last week. It’s a small but nice park, a short walk from the Imperial Palace, in Chiyoda-ku. The last picture is from the waterfront in Asakusa. The first nice weekend after the blossoms appear is a traditional time for the Japanese to have a picnic and drink beer under the cherry trees.
On Thursdays when I pick up Kai from school, we always have to walk home instead of taking the bus. This is because we’re too loaded down with his bags of trash for me to carry them and manage Eidan and his stroller all at the same time on the bus.
Perhaps “trash” is too strong a word.
On a regular basis, the parents are expected to bring in all their paper recyclables to the school, as well as plastic bottle caps, cups, etc. Every day the teachers let the kids have at it – along with some tape, glue, and ribbons – to create whatever they want. Kai has made jet packs, guitars, cash registers, rockets, and myriad other items – too many for me to remember. Then every Thursday, they bring all their creations home.
As we take the 30 minute walk home, Kai gives me a very animated presentation on each of his creations. When we get home, we throw out everything from the prior week to make room for the new stuff, because 1. his creations aren’t built to last, so most of them are destroyed after a week, and 2. in our tiny apartment, we don’t have any space for accumulating Kai’s trash creations.
Kindergarten is over now, and Kai clearly misses working on these projects. We’ve been finding him furtively digging through our meager cans of recycling, and voicing frustration at not having nearly enough material to work with for whatever fantastic creation he has in mind.
Kai starts 1st grade next week, and I have a backlog of posts to write about his time in kindergarten. So brace yourself for my next few posts: they’re all about going to kindergarten in Tokyo.
Back in January, I attended one of many events at Kai’s school where a parent was expected to be there. This one was a fire drill. It’s not like the US where they just ring the fire alarm and then tell the kids to file out in an orderly fashion. I remember those fire drills from childhood, where they would also tell us about “stop, drop, and roll” and things like that. But now that I’ve experienced a Japanese fire drill, I have to say my childhood training probably wouldn’t have helped much if I were ever really in a building that was on fire. Just being told what to do when you’re in a burning building doesn’t really prepare you for the disorientation of actually being engulfed in dense smoke.
For fire drills in Tokyo, the local fire department brings a portable canvass “smoke room” to the school, as you can see in the pictures. Also, the school has fire proof hats for the kids that make them look like extras from a Dr. Who episode (but starting in 1st grade they’re expected to buy and bring their own hats). The smoke room isn’t that big, and all the kids had to do was go in one side and come out the other. No big deal, right? Well, after the kids were done, the parents were invited to try it as well. I put a hand towel over my mouth as I was instructed, and as soon as I stepped in I was completely blinded by the smoke. I figured all I had to do was walk straight, so I took a few steps, and a few more, and then a few more… and then I started to worry, as I thought I should have reached the exit by then… Maybe I didn’t quite go straight… maybe I’m actually headed to the corner, and I’ve missed the exit. So I started waving an arm in front of me as I took a few more steps so I could feel for the exit, and to my relief I found the exit flap and headed out.
So, a lesson learned: those action movies we’ve all seen with folks running around in burning buildings – it isn’t like that at all. You actually can’t see even two feet in front of you.