15 May, 2010

The Penultimate Post: Kyoto

Writing this a couple of weeks after returning to Texas, but wanted to wrap it up.  So here goes:

Friday dawned cool and drizzly in Osaka.  It was our last day in the area, and Kathleen, Kasey and I decided we would like to spend it in Kyoto.  Kathleen called her "host sister" Kyoko, who met us at our hotel.  
We took the shuttle bus to Osaka station, and hopped on an express train to Kyoto.  Our first destination was Fushimi-Inari Taisha, a major shrine to Inari, the god of rice, sake and prosperity.  We hopped in a cab from Kyoto Station to make our way there. 

The shrine is known for its 10,000+ torii (gates), donated by supporters of the shrine.  The orange-lacquered torii wind their way up the mountain, attended by stone and bronze fox statues (foxes are considered to be the messengers of kami, or deities).  

We didn't make it all the way to the top of the mountain, since we were running out of time and wanted to reach Ryoan-ji before it closed. 

Ryoan-ji is perhaps the most famous Zen garden in the world.  It consists of a white gravel field, in which are set fifteen rocks.  The arrangement is intended to provide a setting for contemplative thought.  

At any one time, only fourteen of the rocks can be seen from any vantage point.  I was glad to have the opportunity to visit the garden, but was a bit surprised that it is smaller than I imagined.  Quite beautiful though. 

We left Ryoan-ji and took a cab to a bookstore Kasey wanted to see.  Then we walked around a bit, and found a small restaurant.  Once inside, we sat at the counter and waited for the rice to cook.  The restaurant specialized in rice, and cooked each batch to order (which took about 30 minutes).  

The food was good, and the restaurant had great atmosphere.  We finally made it back to our hotel around 10pm and commenced packing for our early morning departure. 

Post-trip Haiku #1:

rainy april day
warm inside, where steaming rice
veils the street beyond

03 May, 2010

Last Week in Osaka

On Sunday we returned to Osaka from a brief "free" weekend in Nishinomiya at Okuda-san's house.  I was picked up by Tomofuji-san, my new host.  On the way back into Osaka, he explained that there would be a family dinner party at his house that night, and that his niece and her Australian husband would be there.  Though I was tired, it was a very nice dinner, and I enjoyed meeting everyone.  Seamus was on the Australian Olympic fencing team; his wife Maki speaks great English and they have a cute 2-year-old daughter, Ami-chan.

The next morning was the last vocational day.  I met a large group of people at the "Dai Biru" (big building) in Nakanoshima, the central business district located between two rivers. 
The Dai Biru is an impressive building of 35 stories, with over 80,000 square meters of floor area.  It uses river water for heating and cooling, and has operable vents in the floor plates to allow fresh air into the building. 
After a presentation we made our way to the helipad on the roof.  No railing, just a metal grating at the perimeter and then a 400-foot drop to the street below!

After a nice lunch at an Italian restaurant in the building, we continued on to Nanba to view some show houses.  In Japan, custom residential design is even less common than it is in the United States. 

Typically, a family wanting to build a house will look through a home builder's catalog, pick a house, and it will be completed within four or five months.  I was impressed with the show houses-- a lot of good design had gone into them, and there were some nice features.  Many of them had green roofs and courtyard spaces, a nice luxury in such a densely populated country.

That evening we had "chorus practice"-- yes, you read that correctly.  District Governor Otani had translated the words to a song he wanted everyone to sing at the farewell dinner, so we practiced it for an hour or so, then went next door to an Okinawan restaurant owned by one of the Rotary Club members.  Amazing food, and a good time.  Okinawa is sort of the Hawaii of Japan, a laid-back tropical island that embraces a slower pace of life.

Tuesday we had a lunch meeting at the largest Rotary Club in Osaka, where I sat across from Mr. Mizuno (president of... Mizuno).  It was our last presentation and didn't go off as smoothly as we had hoped, but it was fine.  That afternoon we visited Douguya-suji (kitchen town) for some souvenir shopping, and saw a really nice little temple in the middle of the city. 

Here's an image of the moss-covered statue that people throw water onto as they make an offering.  We walked around a bit more, then headed back to our host families.

The next day we had a demonstration of bunraku, the classical Japanese art of puppetry.  It takes three puppeteers to operate each puppet-- the head puppeteer generally must work for 35 years to make it to that point. 

The novice puppeteer operates only the feet, and apprentices for 10-20 years.  While the puppeteers operate the puppets, the chanters and shamisen players narrate the story on an adjacent revolving platform.

Our lunch was a final kaiseki extravaganza, though it was increasingly hard for us to eat all of the fish put in front of us... especially when it was a lobster wagon. 

After lunch we walked around the Tsutenkaku area, where "moxibustion" (a sort of flaming acupuncture) was on offer.  I passed, not having any particular ailments that I felt warranted being set aflame...

That night was my last with the Tomofuji family, and we went out for some yakisoba and okonomiyaki.  In the morning I said goodbye to Momo the poodle and headed to the Hyatt Regency to prepare for the farewell banquet.  I joined Bryan, Kathleen and Kasey in the restaurant, where I had my first cheeseburger and fries in a month.  My stomach was completely unprepared...

The banquet was a lot of fun, and we got to see all of the families and other people who were so hospitable during our stay.  Unfortunately we had audio-visual difficulties and weren't able to play our slide show, but I think everyone enjoyed the speeches.  Next stop... Tokyo (with a brief visit to Kyoto)!

20 April, 2010

Too much sake man

On Thursday we met at Temmangu Shrine, commemorating Lord Michizane Sugahara, an ancient patriot.  Shinto shrines can commemorate events, honor (enshrine) individuals, or pay respect to natural forces.  It is not uncommon for the Japanese to practice both Shinto and Buddhism.  As Ohno-san, one of our GSE advisors explained to me today, "Usually we have Shinto rites for birth, sometimes a Christian wedding, and Buddhist ceremonies at death."
Temmangu was built 1070 years ago, and is famous for the Tenjin Festival, one of the three largest annual festivals in Japan.  The symbol of the shrine is the plum, seen in an icon on the glass in the adjacent photo.  Plum carvings also decorate the rafters, and we received a gift of plum sake from Terai-san, the head priest (#3 priest in all of Japan).
We participated in an offering ceremony, then got to listen to the temple priests play gagaku.  Gagaku (literally "elegant music") is  Japanese classical music which was introduced from China around the 6th century, and consists of wind, string and percussion instruments.  Makoto later told me that we know more about Japanese culture than he does now-- most Japanese never get to enter the temple interior where we were, or hear gagaku.

In the afternoon we visited the Sakai power plant of Kansai Electric Power Company.  
Our hosts were very excited to see us, and gave us the best tour they could give.  I left my camera on the bus though, so just got a few phone pics...

That night I joined Ohmichi-san and a few of his friends at an izakaya where we had "salt rock" beef and fish-- a flat salt rock was heated at the table, and we cooked the food on the spot.  It was delicious, but I ate way too much and made the mistake of telling them "Nandemo ii desu" ("Anything is good") when they asked me what I could drink. 
After way too much beer, cold sake, warm sake and whiskey, we went next door to a karaoke bar.  I acquitted myself on the mike, but this is what the world looked like as I sang "Fly Me to the Moon"...

Needless to say, I was not feeling too well the next day.  We had a nice visit to a Noh theater in the morning though.  The theater is owned by Akihiro Yamamoto, and has been in the family for 80 years.  Noh is a classical Japanese musical drama that has been performed for over 600 years.  It is highly stylized, with costumes and masks playing a large part in telling the story.  Male actors play both male and female roles.  
Most of the masks are very subtly different-- the two in this photo depict a young girl on the right, and a woman in her 20s on the left.  Michelle got to play dress-up and put on the whole ensemble, which took about ten minutes. Yamamoto-san invited us to a play on Saturday night, but we were scheduled to have a "free" weekend outside of town so we had to decline.  

After a lunch meeting, the group split up-- Bryan, Kasey and Chris went on the scheduled boat cruise while Michelle, Kathleen and I opted for some rare free time.  We were left at Osaka Station, which is literally the first time we have been left alone in public.  After some brief confusion, we found our way to a coffee shop to relax...  
The next day was my last day with the Ohmichi family.  Ohmichi-san and I walked around the neighborhood for a while, and I suddenly realized we were less than a block from the Hamatani residence.  
We walked down the street and saw Emiko-san out front-- she was surprised to see me, but it was great to chat briefly.  We took the chin-chin densha to Sumiyoshi Shrine, then headed home to pick up Sachi-san and Makoto for lunch.  
After a delicious bowl of tempura udon, the Ohmichis dropped me off at the hotel.  From there it was onward to Okuda-san's house in Nishinomiya, Texas bar night with the Stampede band, and a bit of relaxation...

Haiku # 13
lotus flower floats
in a bowl of steaming broth
colored red with shrimp

Sharp swords and Mt. Koya-san

Last week the group met with the Osaka Prefectural Governor's office, and also with Kunio Hiramatsu, Mayor of Osaka, who graciously spent about an hour with us in his office.  One of his staff, Asuka Shinagawa, will be traveling to Austin in a few days on the opposite side of the Group Study Exchange-- hopefully we'll have a chance to meet up with her back home.

After a lunch meeting, we went to a dojo adjacent to Osaka Castle, where we were treated to an iai-do demonstration.  Iai-do is the art of the "quick draw," though here it's a katana (sword) rather than a six-shooter.  Iai is considered to be a defensive art, and is only employed when under attack.  The samurai trained to parry a blow and counterattack while seated, standing or walking.  
The counterattack involves an upward- or downward-sweeping motion (or a thrust of the sword if in close quarters) designed to cut through the shoulder and spine of the attacker.  Upon completion of the lethal blow, the samurai would quickly draw the blade free in a sweeping motion to shake the blood off, before wiping the sword and returning it to the sheath.

We were able to examine and handle two katana and a tantou (short sword).  The tantou was typically worn by the samurai for two reasons only: for pride (decoration), and to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) upon failure.  
Seppuku involved self-disembowelment, with a fellow samurai completing the act by beheading the disgraced samurai.  The swords were amazing-- one katana was 400 years old and had been used numerous times in battle, as evidenced by some minor marks and the thinness of the blade from reworking it.

The next day was a vocational day.  Kasey, Bryan and I were taken to see the Umeda Sky Building,  a "super high-rise" that is formed by two connected skyscrapers with a "floating garden observatory" at the intersection 173 meters above the ground.  During construction, the sky garden was lifted up in between the two skyscrapers at a rate of 35cm per minute, reaching the top in around 7 hours.  
I took a photo of Bryan and Kasey on their prom date...

In the afternoon, we took a long bus ride to Mt. Koyasan, the site of the Okunoin temple, where Kobo Daishi (the founder of the Shingon Buddhist sect) is enshrined.  Okunoin is surrounded by Japan's largest graveyards, and is considered one of the most sacred sites in Japan.  Unfortunately, the bus ride was so long that we didn't have much time to visit the temple.  
The walk to the temple is lined with the grave markers of feudal lords, politicians, and corporate commemorative headstones (?!).

That evening I went to an izakaya with Ohmichi-san and Makoto to drink and dine with Ohmichi-san's office staff.  Izakaya are small Japanese bars, usually with room for no more than a dozen or so customers.  Cooking is generally done right behind the bar; the food is typically relatively inexpensive.  Izakaya are great neighborhood spots, and a lot of fun.  Makoto taught me some good Osaka-ben (Osaka dialect) and my exclamation of "Umai wa kore, yamerarehen!" got some good laughs. 
We mostly ate yakitori (grilled chicken on skewers) but most of it was parts that Americans wouldn't recognize: skin, gizzards, and other "expensive parts" (as Makoto put it).  A lot of fun...

Haiku #12

geta on white stone
clip-clop sound of walking monk
swish of saffron robes

17 April, 2010

Hiroshima and Miyajima

On an appropriately gloomy and rainy day, we traveled to Hiroshima to visit the A-bomb memorial museum.  The first part of the museum is heavy on facts and information about Hiroshima prior to the dropping of the bomb.  

The second part of the museum has photos, clothing remnants, and other graphic displays that really convey the horror of what happened.  The tricycle in the photo belonged to a three-year old boy, who was riding it in his backyard less than 500 meters from ground zero.  He died the next day, and his father buried him with the tricycle in the back yard so that he would be able to ride it in heaven.  One of the saddest things I've seen in a long time.   

The Hiroshima Dome building in the city center remains as a symbol of the pain and suffering that the people of Hiroshima endured.

From Hiroshima we traveled by train and ferry to the island of Miyajima.  Known as the "Island of God," Miyajima is home to a beautiful Shinto shrine on the water, Itsukushima, which was built in 593 (like most Japanese shrines, it has been rebuilt several times).  It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.

We had a relaxing evening in a seaside hotel with kaiseki, beer, sake and our first karaoke.  Hopefully those videos don't get posted to YouTube... 

We returned to Osaka on Monday, and I was picked up by Ohmichi-san, my host for the week.  After a brief visit to his office (he has a 6-person architecture firm) to pick up his son Makoto, we went to his fitness club.  

Wow, do I wish I had photos of that.  Since I don't, I'll just drop some random photos in and describe the experience.  The fitness club is in a fancy hotel (I don't remember which one) and we parked in the basement.  I asked Ohmichi-san if I should get my running shoes out of my bag, and he said "No, rental." 

So we got to the front desk, checked in, and were each issued a matching two-tone lavender-on-periwinkle outfit of acrylic shirt and shorts, along with a pair of light yellow socks.  Oh, and a speedo to put on underneath.  Placed shoes in a shoe locker, then proceeded to the locker room to gear up.  Walked down into the fitness area, where I was handed a pair of running shoes.  
There were three treadmills, three stair climbers, a handful of weight machines and two vibrating belt machines.  A small rack of chrome-plated dumbbells that topped out at 10 kilos.  A raft of pink exercise mats in the center of the room, where a uniform-clad trainer led group stretches.  After a 25-minute treadmill run, I followed Ohmichi-san to our next station, the sauna.  
I could only take about ten minutes of it, then entered the main bath area.  Short plastic stools in front of low mirrors with hand showers to rinse off, then one can enter the hot bath.  After the bath, on to the "hair combing room"-- two long counters with chairs and sterilized combs, razors, and various hair tonics.  

Then into the lounge area, for a choice of coffee, beer, milk, water, or soda.  Smoking section or non-smoking section, or one can recline in a lounger equipped with a television.  Then completed the circuit to the locker room to get dressed, retrieved shoes from shoe locker, and the experience was complete.

Haiku #11

sake sushi beer
karaoke bar next door
fly me to the moon