Friday, October 30, 2015

CAN'T WE ALL JUST GET ALONG?: Kurashiki (and Onimichi and Himeji) Oct16-20, 2015

This blog features food, fun and festivals. Well in Japan that's many days.
But our Couchsurfing Host Aki's pretty extraordinary. We can tell you he's overly generous, humble, non-confrontational, etc to a fault (more later). But he's on a mission to spread Couchsurfing across Japan. He's got a blog going and a book deal about CS lined up.  Couchsurfing  is just so un-Japanese. There aren't many hosts, and the idea of letting strangers, smelly foreigners at that, into your home, when you wouldn't even entertain your own friends...well that's just so American.
As adverse as the Japanese are to uncomfortable truths, Aki admits there is a mutual disdain between the Japanese, Chinese and the Koreans.

The Japanese colonized Korea, invaded China and did lots of nasty stuff. My mom reeeeeally didn't want me going to Japan and remembers the war like the Japanese are still down the street ( so you better eat all you can, and as fast as you can)

And of course China for its part are ostentatious bullies with the manners of village rats.
The Koreans inflicted thundersticks on the world and has the unfortunate bad luck of being caught between China, Russia, Japan and North Korea.
We don't historically get along and Aki wants to be part of changing that. So far he's done his part.

He schooled us on good local eats.
Like this udon place. Dude on left rolls out dough and cuts noodles. Dude up front cooks the noodle, the ladies do the tempura and handle the cash. Three bowls of in house made noodles with tempura fish, veggies, some shrimp.... $20. Gotta love going local.

The 2nd night we hit an izakabaya...devouring, whole baby shrimp, fatty tuna, mackerel, yakitori, fish cake and loads of stuff we happily destroyed.

He also took us to another off the gringo track a country tea house for 'brunch', overlooking a stream. 

But we schooled him on Couchsurfing etiquette and he even posted our rules on his blog (amen He'd hosted probably a hundred people, going out of his way, spending wads of dough and time. No no no ...we explained how some people were exploiting his generosity and being disrespectful. He's so Japanese in that common courtesy and absolute consideration for others is a given, so it's difficult to acknowledge and see that others might take advantage of such dignity and respect towards others. But he has now learned to say no and doesn't feel obliged to feed everybody he takes in.

Kurashiki isn't on the gringo trail, but the Chinese (who are everywhere) and the locals are here en masse. Why not? It's got a compact historical area on a willow lined canal that's drop dead gorgeous.

While in Venice, we cheaped out and skipped on the 100 euro gondola ride. Here it was 11 bucks for 20 minutes, hat included.

Another reason to come to Kurashiki was several fall festivals.
Here ppl go around bopping others on the head, symbolizing the importance of education.

Every fall merchants and prominent homes display family screen doors and paintings.

In the evening free folk performances with historical themes, took place at one of the temples.
We think all this dancing is part of Shinto, the natural indigenous religion. It has no fixed dogma or book, no holiest place, no person or kami regarded as the holiest, and no defined set of prayers. Instead, Shinto is a collection of rituals and methods meant to regulate the relations between living people and the spirits.

The main theme in the Shinto religion is love and reverence for nature and tradition, so rituals rule.

It all started well--colourful costumes, authentic music....but it went on and on and on, and on. Most of it repetitive and endless.

 Except for the tiger dances with an athleticism and precision absent in many Chinese lion dances.

And then there was one of the highlights of our trip...Taiko Drummers. We've heard troupes from Toronto and Ottawa but nothing prepared us for the thunderous precision of these cats. Even Aki had never heard anything so good.

This was a highly anticipated day on bikes, island hopping from the main island and Honshu to Shikoku, the latter was too far and quite frankly, much of the landscape was heavily pockmarked with shipyards, heavy industry and industrial blight. Other adventurous souls ( you listening, Marc?) can do the 65km one way on rented 10'speeds, good luck with that. I got halfway and took the sardine ferry back to the mainland.

We did however find small pleasures in scarecrows and the spectacular bridges connecting the islands.

Just reopened after five years of restorations to the main keep, Himeji Castle is THE castle of castles in Japan. 
Modern in construction because of the stone and rifle slits, it's walls are framed with bamboo, then slathered with thick layers of dried mud before plastering of up to 45cm in places, making it rain and fire proof. Its supposed to resemble a white egret, and the gleaming white is an in your face to all the wannabes below.

The crowds were among the thickest in Japan, making this a possible miss destination, unless you're crazy about castles.

Meal of the day:
We're always in search of the ultimate ramen, and have it about every third day.  This was decent, 4 stars.
Trish had her soya base ramen with roast pork, I go for the heavier miso based bowl...both made by Jerry Lewis, as the Geisha Boy.

Not all toilets come with a heated seat and warm water sprays, some are just down home refined holes in the ground...with instructions.


Monday, October 26, 2015

Hiroshima and Miyajima Island Oct 14-16, 2015

We open this blog the only way we can, with the tragedy of Hiroshima, which has since become a miracle through its rebirth and renaissance.

Not the warmest pict, but perhaps the most poignant.
This bike belonged to a boy just a month shy of his fourth birthday. He was incinerated by the blast. His father didn't want his son to be alone in his death, so he buried him in the backyard with his bicycle and helmet. In 1985, foury years later, the father dug his son and bike up, donating the bike and helmet to the Peace Memorial Museum.

We hadn't realized Hiroshima was such a big city. Yet it's tranquil, well laid out and even more orderly than other places we've gone. Its got some great cultural sites and because of five rivers and hills on three sides, geographically it's quite attractive. 

The Atomic Bomb Dome, venerable symbol of the first bomb's devastation.

After and before, when it was considered a modern marvel.

The Children's Peace Memorial

Ten year old Sadako was dying of cancer resulting from the bomb. But he believed that if he could make 1000 origami cranes, he would survive. He achieved the 1000 cranes, but no miracle cure happened. Since then children from around the world in an act of peace, make and send origami cranes to the memorial.

There's no sugar coating what happened to Hiroshima. The American deliberately chose a city that was pristine, unbombed and knowing there were tens of thousands of women and children, as well as American POWs and Korean slave labourers. They came in with 3 planes. One loaded with the bomb, 2 others to observe and gather scientific data. The body count was 80,000 immediate deaths, another 60,000 within days, and 1000s more over time. Why they didn't choose a military installation to send the same message remains incomprehensible to us.

The Peace Park and Museum are sobering, incredibly moving with indelible impressions...more so than the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin or the War Museum in Hanoi. But the 1000s of children who go everyday is a national exercise in remembrance. The awe in their faces and nervous giggles as they see such things as statues of children with skin burnt off and fat dripping off is .
wondrous to see.

Of note is how the museum's English translation acknowledged Japan's aggression and initiation of the war. We wonder if the Japanese version is similar.

Meal time in Hiroshima:
Trish went 13 days before she had to have a non- Japanese meal, breaking down during a 2 day western bed break in Kyoto on way to Hiroshima. Eggs Benny, which she gave thumbs up. I had a Japanese curry in a curry house. Won't be doing that again. It's like going to remote China and ordering spaghetti bolognese. Stick with what you do best.

Every region has variations on dishes. Here in Hiroshima there's a fiery sauce that you dip your dry ramen into. Think I look funny, you should've seen the salaryman doing this.

The Yuka family:
We did a homestay with a 3 generation family in the burbs of Hiroshima, near the ferry to Miyajima Island.
Yuka lived in Oz and Thailand before she married a man from Kryzkstan, eventually returning to her roots in Hiroshima. Raise your hand if you've ever spent an evening with someone from Kryzkstan. Together they have an energetic 5yr old, and Yuka's 70 year old mom pops over often (there she is below). Feeling bored but energetic Grandma learned to make bags. Trish gave her loads of advice about design and marketing for tourists (which granny has taken) though she already has the skills and personality to be successful, having already sold hundreds of bags at the local market. 

We asked Yuka about the war. It's not addressed in the same way that Germany made atonement a national movement. Yuka's grandmother knew little about how and what the blast was. State and then American control of information limited awareness. Which seems to suit the current  and past Japanese mantra of non-confrontation, keep your head down, and ask no questions.
The interesting thing about interracial marriages in Japan is that they are almost always to a white guy. Japanese men don't go for the white meat and Japanese women like English speaking boyfriends. Kinda stereotypical, especially when one sees Yuka as a stay at home mom with a white dude going off to the office. But I sense she's no meek, submissive wife as we're sure she would take no guff from her opinionated husband, whom I really liked. 
Yuka is a wonderful woman. Kind, gentle, non confrontational, accomodating. Very Japanese in other words.
Her mom was born months after the bomb. But because her mother lived in the hills outside the blast zone, serious developmental delay didn't happen. Awareness, education about the war continue to be at a surface level.

Located ten minutes by ferry from suburban Hiroshima, it inspires awe and venerance to those who go or want to go.

To approach it, you come upon one of the most photographed objects in Japan, the Torii Gate. Here it guards the UNESSCO site of the Itsukushima Shrine, originally incanted in the 6th century. The shrine was designed and built on pier-like structures over the bay so that it would appear to be floating on the water, separate from the sacred island, which could be approached by the devout.

As seen from the descent of Mt Misen

Itsukushima Shrine, it's really old. And that's about all we remember. We've seen so many beautiful temples and shrines with so much history, belonging this sect, Buddhist or Shinto, influenced by that dude, patronized by that big wig...that we can't remember anything anymore except that they are all old and stunning. 

It seemed like wherever we went there was a traditional festival going on. Here the dragon dance is probably pilfered from the Chinese lion dance... But it's also way more athletic.

We forget the name of this Noh performance. But it's supposed to act out key events in Shinto lore...we think. It got pretty intolerable and repetitive.

Atop Mt Misen looking out over Hiroshima Bay...if you squint you may see slivers in the were that are oyster farms.

The approach to Daisoin Temple, which we had all to ourselves as we arrived late in the day...our absolute fav on an island liberally doted with temples and shrines.

 Multi-storied pagodas are more Chinese-like in origin as its more typical for Temples and shrines here to have perhaps 1 or 2 stories.

This holy fire, which Kobo Daishi (big Buddha dude) used as part of his religious training, is burning now after 1,200 years in the Kiezu-no-Reikado Hall. It is said that holy water boiled with this fire works for all sorts of diseases. It was also used as the pilot light for the Flame of Peace in Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park.

White privilege?
In a country so steeped in tradition and binding social institutions, an unrequited love of the white western world would seem to be the ultimate contradiction.
About one in 3 women dye their hair brown. White skin is desireable. Western celebrities are treated like rock stars. Ok some of them are. Manga and anime (animation) which all kids grow up obsessing, are adorned with characters with Caucasian features and massive boobs for the femmes.

However the Japanese throughout history have been masters at integrating foreign ideas, concepts, technology and even food into their islands, then making it their own, and often improving them. Buddhism, calligraphy and  architecture from China and Korea are easy examples. Oh yeah, Karaoke is Korean, too. And of course technology and auto making from the west. Remember when we scoffed at anything made in Japan?

Speaking of white privilege, Trish gets a free pass when it comes to looking clueless and breaking the many rules. For example, she gets to eat and drink on the bus, she gets to jaywalk, and she gets to hold my hand. Me? I get to hold her bags.


For Wayne Ng's latest travel adventures and book " Finding the Way: A Novel of Lao Tzu ," please go to his website and blog at...