Monday, May 29, 2006

Kyushu Part 2- Nagasaki in the Daytime

Nagasaki's past as a city of great importance to Japan has been overshadowed by the Atomic bombing at the end of World War II.

It was in Kyushu that Japan first made contact with the western world. Some shipwrecked Portugese washed ashore, and quickly set up trading links all over the island. Worried about increasing foreign activity and the influence of Catholicism, all foreign trade was soon restricted to Nagasaiki. Soon after the Portugese were confined on a small artifical island in the bay, Dejima.

Interior of the Dutch Factory on Dejima

Soon thereafter the Portugese and their meddling Jesuit friends were expelled, and an exclusive trade agreement was struck with the Protestant Dutch, who were seen as interested only in trade, and not in conversion. They took over Dejima, and it became the sole avenue for Western trade, philosophy, and science for over two hundred years, from 1641 to 1854 when Perry forcibly opened Japan to the West.

A Model of the Leifde, the first Dutch ship to reach Japan

Well to a history buff like me, a visit to Dejima was mandatory! The actual island had long since been enveloped by harbor reclaimation, but is rapidly being restored to its early 19th century form. The faithfully rebuilt structures had some fascinating displays on the history of Japan and its contact with the west. Included in the displays were a series of ship models showcasing the nations and time periods involved in the Dejima trade. One of them, pictured above, is the ship that brought William Adams, the English sailor whose life was fictionalized in Shogun, to Japan. The displays were all quite good, and almost everything was bilingual too, which is always a plus. Of course the rumbling honking trams going by every five minutes did tend to pull you out of the whole 1800's "vibe."

The Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum

Our next stop was the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum in the northern suburb of Urakami. It was a sobering yet interesting stop. I will admit though that I liked the Hiroshima museum better as it seemed a bit more even handed, presenting the why of the bombing and the military reasons for targeting the city. The Nagasaki Museum pretty much just featured photo after photo of devestated schools and burned children. Which given that there were hundreds of high school kids walking around us made me fear a bit for my safety! Well not really, actually to them we were like rockstars, with lots of pointing and giggling.

Hypocenter Park. Notice the school groups and the love hotel in the background

Next stop was a conbini lunch in Hypocenter Park, the exact place above which 'Fat Man' exploded. It was a nice park, with statues and memorials, and a section of the blasted wall of Urakami Cathedral. Ironically enough, overlooking the park is a couple of love hotels, which is rather strange to say the least. I suppose its the ultimate "make love not war" statement.

After dropping off a tired Liz at the Holiday Inn, I treked towards China Town and the Glover Slope. Nagasaki was the point of contact for ALL (legitimate) foreign trade, and that includes Chinese trade. While the Chinese merchents were less restricted than the Dutch, they did have their own quarter and were technically not allowed outside. This lead to a nice little modern China Town, packed with dim sum restaurants and interesting shops.

The view from Glover Garden

On towards the South end of town is the Glover Garden, an area that is also tied into Nagasaki's history of foreign trade. After the Meiji restoration and the opening of Japan fully to western trade, Nagasaki of course became one of the major port cities. This lead to a thriving ex-pat community, and some of the nicer houses and landmarks from that have been assembled along the pleasant landscapes of the Glover Garden. The area is named after one of the more important personages of Meiji Era Japan, one Thomas Blake Glover. Ironically this is another link to James Clavell, as Glover started his career working in Nagasaki for Jardine Matheson, the trading company fictionalized as Struans in Tai-pan and Noble House. Glover eventually started his own company, and had a profound effect in Japan doing things like bringing the first steam engine and dry dock to Japan. And so the houses of him and his collegues form a great little tourist attraction! The houses were interesting enough, but the view of Nagasaki and the harbor were what really justified the price of admission.

An amazing dragon housed in one of the buildings in Glover Garden

After a quick dinner at MOS Burger with Liz, I headed out for a date with the sunset. I had seen a photo taken from the top of a nearby mountain, and I just had to get my tripod and camera up there for some low light photography...

To Be Continued!

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Kyushu Part 1- Fukuoka

So Monday morning bright and early Liz and I, after a false start, walked down to Kanazawa station to begin our epic train ride. It is 3 hours by JR Express to Osaka, then another 3 hours by Shinkansen from Osaka to Fukuoka (Hakata) in Northern Kyushu.

Temple Cat

For those whose geography is a little suspect, Kyushu is the furthest south of the four Home Islands. It is the third largest in size, and second largest in population, after Honshu, of course.

Fukuoka is the population and industrial center of Kyushu, but it is not much of a tourist destination. That fact, combined with our arriving pretty late in the day, conspired to prevent any serious attempts at sight seeing. We did check out Canal City, which could well be the worlds coolest mall. I mean heck, it has a canal in the middle! We also ate dinner there, at an excellent Indian restaurant.

I awoke early the next morning, but Lizzie wasn't about to budge before 8, so I headed out into a misty wet morning to explore the area and check out a few temples that were nearby. I had a pleasent time, it was a warm morning, but not too warm. Pretty muggy though, but not to the point of discomfort. Wandering the backstreets for an hour or so was interesting, but I was eager to get moving to more fascinating places.

A rainy morning

So once we devoured a continental breakfast at the hotel we crossed the street to the rail station and bought tickets for a much more interesting and photogenic city, Nagasaki.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Southward we go.

Well my dear sister has been here a week now! Her pace of sightseeing is not quite as grueling as Moms, but she is still getting it done. The other day we went to the two big museums that Mom and I didn't see, the History Museum, and the Castle Museum. The Prefectural History Musuem was pretty cool, despite a distinct lack of English on any of the displays. But honestly, awsome samurai armour is pretty universal in scope. Of course some of the more text heavy areas were a bit lost on us!

The rebuilt section of Kanazawa castle was amazing though. For one thing, it was rebuild using tradtional methods, and is not one of the concrete and steel monstrosities that litter the landscape. Well thats a bit hars on the ferroconcrete restorations, but it was nice to be in a wooden castle again! They also had detailed descriptions, in English, of what they did to rebuild the building. The towers also presented some pretty amazing views of the Japan Alps, but of course I didn't have my camera with me!

Well tomorrow, or so, Liz and I head down south to distant and exotic Kyushu! This will be my first trip off of Honshu, so I am pretty excited. I don't know if I'll be able to maintain the update schedule, though I will try. We are taking her laptop so if we get some internet access I'll keep everybody clued in to our adventures in the land of volcanos and raw horse.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Concrete Roads, Take Me Home...

I just finished watching a film this evening. Let's see if this sounds familiar to you...

A young girl on the verge of going into high school wonders about life, purpose and love. She tries to juggle school, a profound desire to Do Something with her life, and a search for elusive first love.

Only seen this movie about 50 or so times right?

Sure, but not as a Studio Ghibli film.

Actually, we have alreay seen it as Ghibli film, Miyazaki's glorious Kiki's Delivery Service, but that was about a crisis of confidence of a cute witch in a psudo-European town with all the attendent fantastical elements you get with Miyazaki.

The film in question today is Whisper of the Heart, a more recent Ghibli production. Miyazaki wrote the script but did not direct, those duties fell to Yoshifumi Kondo, Miyazaki's picked successor. (Sadly Kondo died shortly after completing the film.)

Like all Ghibli films, Whisper has an engaging and wonderfully characterized heroine and a glorious artistic style. But it is also a major departure from the Ghibli norm, taking place in modern day Tokyo, not some fantastic otherworldy realm. While there is still magic in the air, it is the magic that the young see all around them and the magic of one's own imagination.

I suppose I'm beating around the bush a bit, but I really want people to discover the film on their own. While the plot never strays far from the conventions outlined in my synopsis, it still vaulted onto my list of favorite movies. The characters, despite being animated, are real, far moreso than in any Hollywood tripe. We all know these people, and in some cases we ARE these people. Their lives are normal, the stuff of our everyday existence.

As is par for the course with Ghibli, the animation is spectacular. The environments are insanely real and detailed. It IS Japan, up there on the screen, from the trains to the roads to the stores to the signs, all of it perfect to the last detail. The character designs are, of course, simply perfect. They even have Country Roads as a bit of theme, including the parody tribute to Tokyo, Concrete Roads.

I know, I just keep singing praises to the high heavens, but I'll admit that the film really touched me. It hit home in more ways than one for me, and I am man enough to say that I did indeed shed a tear. Either that makes me an enormously cheesy person, or it means that the film makers really knew what they were doing. I daresay it is the second choice myself. Whisper brims over with real emotion, and in modern film, that is one thing to treasure.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Lights, Camera, Action!

Alright, so my third (and final, for a while) visitor arrived on Saturday. My dearest sister Liz flew complication free into Nagoya airport for a nice two and a half week vacation.

She was pretty fried from the trip over, so we grabbed a quick bite to eat at Yoshinoya and then toured a bit of Sakae really quickly. Exhaustion rapidly set in though, so I dropped her off at the hotel and then went to the pub with Jared and Andy to watch the first half of a big, big football game, Liverpool vs Westham United. Or something like that. The pub was absolutly jammed with every pasty faced British ex-pat in Nagoya, or so it seemed. They were certainly doing a landmark business in rather pricy pints. For the record, Liverpool (Red Team!) won.

Mostly refreshed the next morning we took advantage of the wonderful weather and went to check out Inuyama castle and the environs. Liz got a kick out of the tour of the oldest original castle in Japan, but was a bit worried about the combo of steep stairs, slippery wood flooring, and slick one size fits all slippers. It sure seems like a recipe for disaster, but we made it without mishap. Phew! We also caught sight of the worlds largest bull frog. You could have used him for a barge anchor, as long as he didn't swim away!

Back in Kanazawa today we (of course) went to... *drum roll please*... Kenroku-en! I can't even count how many times I have been there now, but honestly I seem to find something new and interesting each time. The changing seasons, and even changing weeks in the same season, offer a new view each time. The Iris were just starting to poke there heads up, and there are some really dense fields of them, I may have to go back later this week when they are really in full bloom.

Notice the wise old Samurai, talking on his cell phone!

In addition to flowers and trees and such, we also caught sight of a film production. Yup, the famous bridge and lantern was taken over by a shooting crew with actors all dressed up in Edo period finery. I have no idea what the movie is, but I want to see it when it comes out! We were not the only ones interested in the shoot, the usual horde of people looking at the lantern became a slightly larger horde looking at the film crew and actors. Certainly a pretty unique experience, I have seen lots of DVD documentaries, but this is the first time I've ever seen a period piece shoot. The girls were cute in their costumes too. ;-)

Thursday, May 11, 2006

A highly anticipated announcement of unparalleled suspense.

Each year around this time there is E3, the Electronics Entertainment Expo. Held in Southern California it is a whirlwind of lights, sound and hype as the major video game companies announce their new products to the world. Systems like the upcoming Playstation 3, or big games like the next Halo are unveiled amid spectacle and pagentry.

Well in the grand tradition of E3, I too have an announcemnt to make..

I'm getting Married.

Oh wait, no its PAUL thats getting married.. hmm..

well here goes,

I have officially renewed my contract for another year.

Yup, while it was a pretty tough decision to make, eventually I figured that I just wasn't quite finished with Japan yet. I still have things to do. Plus, it didn't make sense to leave just as I was getting the hang of things. I must also admit that I didn't feel like moving again so soon. I mean, I've moved 4 times in 12 months, and I don't want to do it again so soon. So while I do miss my family and friends, and Mexican food and those wide Colorado Skies and the Rocky Mountains and... *sigh*, I'll be gone a bit longer.

Mom left Kanazawa on Monday morning. In the afternoon a new houseguest arrived. One Elizabeth (of no relation to me) from Okazaki. A couch-surfer. Couch surfing ( ) is a dirt cheap way to travel the world in style. Go to the website, make a profile, and ask people to crash on their couchs. Or their spare futon, in my case. Since I had it all ready to go from when Mom was here, and wasn't going to fold it up before deares Liz (of some relation to me) arrived this weekend, I hosted my first surfer. I had a fun time playing host and tour guide, and am totally sold on the concept. I found a guy in Hong Kong who lets people surf with him a lot, and I think I may ask to crash on his couch when I get around to visiting that particular erstwhile British colony. Surfs Up!

Also because I have to have some photos to display, here are a few interesting Before/Afters of things I have modified in photoshop a touch.

Both Images are of Kyoto from the top of the mountain at Fushimi Inari. Notice how much difference a quick modification of Contrast and Color Levels can make. The picture that led off the post was so dark as to be almost black, but some tweaking and it looks quite nice!

Monday, May 08, 2006

Where was that festival again?

Ok, I'm sorry I've been away for so long! It has been a busy busy week, I've seen parts of Kanazawa I never knew existed, and had plenty of fun walking all over creation with my poor limping mother. (She hurt her knee last Friday, and has been operating with a cane and knee brace since.)

On Thursday I thought it would be a good idea to get out of Kanazawa a bit, so on a whim we went up into the Noto peninsula, Wakura Onsen. Our goal was to see the coastline up there, which is supposed to be very beautiful, but after a fair piece of walking we discovered that the whole beach was closed off in that area. Feeling disgruntled we started walking back towards the station and ran into the most statistically unlike person ever.

A Mexican.

Yup! Now, when you break down people living in Japan by nationality, it starts with well over half being Korean, Chinese, or Phillipino. Very small percentages of Brits, Americans, Aussies and the like. A smattering of Nigerians and such. Mexico doesn't even rate an entry. They get other. Now this is one of the things that really really makes me cry about Japan. No Mexicans, no Mexican food. But here, deep in the wilds of Ishikawa there was a really cool guy who made a living as a Mariachi singer in the local ritzy hotels! How cool is that?

So he told us that one stop down the line in Nanao was a big festival where they push huge 'boats' through the streets. So we took a bus down to Nanao and grabbed a quick bite to eat at Mr. Donut. We followed the herds of people down the street to a lane of food vendors and game booths. There were a fair number of people, and the day was gloriously warm, but there were no massive 'boats.' None whatsoever. MIA boats. We kicked around the port a bit, then saw on a tourist information map that Nanao had Orchid Land, a botanical garden devoted to orchids.

Mom LOVES orchids. Which is understandable, they are pretty cool flowers after all. So when she caught wind of it, it was Orchid Land or Bust! We had to take a taxi to the edge of town, but the driver actually knocked a dollar off the fare when we got there. I have no idea why, but we weren't complaining.

I got the chance to try my hand at a bit more flower photography, which is always fun, and mom got to stare in wonder at the flowers this hot wet climate can produce. She works miracles in her own collection, given the climate she has to work with, but nothing compared to the glories found here.

So the next day I did some checking on the web and saw that the nearby town of Uchinada was having their world famous kite flying festival on the beach. With the opportunity both for a real beach and another festival, we hopped a local line train and struck out for the beach.

Kites? What kites? When we got there we found enough wind for a as many kites as you could wish for, but no actual festival and no actual kites. I have no idea what time everything was set for though, so we may have been too early.

Kites or no, we had a blast at the beach. There were windsurfers all over the streach of beach we sat down on, and next door were.. I don't know what they are called. Para-surfers? Anyway, guys on short surfboards hooke into a big para-sail. They could get going pretty fast with the stiff wind, and hit a wave right they caught some serious air. It was great fun to watch them and just hang out at the beach. I got sun burned though. I also finally had a chance to wear shorts, so the blog title is no longer a slight white lie. The guy is back in shorts!

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Mom's Day in Kyoto

We have certainly been keeping busy. Despite all the activities we have yet to accomplish in Kanazawa, I decided Mom just had to see Kyoto. Since many people still had work and school on Monday and Tuesday, I picked Monday as the day for our Kyoto excursion.

The main stage at Kiyomizu Temple.

Kiyomizu-dera was our first destination, but before we could get there we had to stand in line to get on the bus. Then walk with hordes of people up the hill. Then stand in line to get tickets... Luckily few of the lines were all that long, but the crushing mass of humanity was still a bit much. I'd say it was pretty close to being as crowded as it was when I went for Fall leaves in November. The weather was amazing though, warm and not too muggy. Well, it was sort of muggy.

Drinking the Sacred Water at Kiyomizu Temple.

Our next destination was the zoo, but we made a brief detour to Heian Shrine. It was a bright sunny day (quite a contrast to Kanazawa!) and the white sand and brilliant ly painted vermillion buildings made me wish I had a set of super sunglasses on. I am sure the effect was just as dazzling as the builders intended.

Bright sand, bright buildings.

Much to our keening dismay, the zoo was closed for the day. We paused for a quick sitdown and a pow wow.

On the Kyoto Subway. Unaltered even.

Deprived of our animal companionship we skipped straight to the Tokugawa palace at Nijo castle. I had been before, but was eager to go again. The splendid paintings and delicate woodwork really enhance the subtle beauty of the palace. It is one of the few Royal Residence type of buildings that I could see myself living comfortably in.

The Palace at Nijo.

As things turned out, we were in Kyoto at the same time as Zach and Sanami, so we met up with them at Kyoto Station for a trip to my hands down favorite sight in Japan, Fushimi Inari. The endless twisting rows of bright red Torii are almost hypnotic, and are certainly magical and mystical, and plenty beautiful. The whole area is perfect for wandering around at dusk, the gloaming really adds a whole new layer to an already fantastical atmosphere.

Zach runs through the torii while I zoom in on a 1.6 second exposure.

We made it to the top, but there was such a strong haze that the sun actually disappeared far above the horizon! We the took our time wandering through the twisty paths and dodging mischievious fox (kitsune) spirits.

Sunset. Sort of.

Now that is a cool fountain.

Safely back in Kyoto station we hit up another conveyor belt sushi joint. A mere 120 yen a plate, anything goes. It was delicious, I rather gorged myself on Tuna and Salmon, with a piece of grilled corn sushi for good measure. Mom was rather more adventurous than I, leading to the quote, "I think I liked the raw horse better than the raw duck." The sheer insanity of Japan strikes again.

Waiting for the train at the end of a very busy day.