Thursday, August 2, 2007

Japan Part 2

We start this blog with a very special announcement: the birth on July 25 of Issei Hudson Kim, our second grandchild, to Lisa and Ray. “Beam,” as he has been officially nicknamed, was more of a steel beam than a moonbeam, at 8 pounds 10 ounces. We expect to say much more about Beam and his delightful sister Hanachan when we arrive in Ithaca in September, and begin a four month stay there to help out with the babysitting and to join many other members of the family in getting to know Cornell. For now, all we have is photos and reports that all are doing well.

The rest of this blog will discuss our 7-day trip via Japan Rail. We had so many extraordinary experiences, we cannot really mention more than a few. Here goes:

The key words for the first two days were “engineering” and “war.” First, the Shinkansen (“new trunk line”), or “Bullet Train” to most non-Japanese. It is extremely fast, and got us from Tokyo to Hiroshima in 9 hours, including a 4-hour stopover in Himeji. It is an entirely new train line built sometimes next to the existing main line down the southeast coastline of Honshu, sometimes as much as a few kilometers away. There is not a grade crossing on the whole line, unlike the rest of Japan, which must have more grade crossings than the rest of the world. It is one of the engineering wonders of the world.

Himeji, our stopover, is another engineering and architectural wonder, but one built in the service of war. Or, more precisely, in defense. The guidebook and signs there were unclear, but it appears it was never seriously attacked, and no wonder. It is an imposing and fearsome castle, considered the finest surviving one in Japan in original condition. Osaka Castle was destroyed with 17th century methods in the early 1600s, and most of the rest were damaged or destroyed by WW II.
And what a wonder Himeji Castle is. It is as impressive as anything the Europeans, or Walt Disney for that matter, ever devised. It was particularly interesting to note how many nasty methods of war that European castles used were independently devised in Japan as well, like little trap doors that you could drop rocks out of, and places to pour boiling water or oil down on unwanted guests. It was also interesting to see how much of the medieval GNP must have been needed to keep a place like this in readiness, for castles don’t protect terribly well unless you have a good number of folks up top with a good supply of rocks, or boiling water, or bows and arrows. We’d also like to know if it was truly the strong physical defenses of Himeji that kept it from attack, or better diplomacy than the folks in Osaka practiced prior to the sacking of their castle.

The end of day one and most of day 2 were in Hiroshima, where engineering and war joined in a ghastly alliance. The city is most interesting, one that will never let what happened on August 6, 1945 be forgotten, but one that is also

determined to not let that awful event keep it from being a great city. It is now a city of over a million, three times its size in the 1940s, and perhaps the most attractive large city we saw. It is built on several islands in the delta of a large river, so has numerous bridges and many walks along the rivers. Out of the near-total destruction of its downtown, it created 100-meter-wide Peace Boulevard and a park at the tip of one of the deltas called Peace Park, near ground zero (or the hypocenter, as it is referred to here).

We both read John Hersey’s moving book Hiroshima, written originally in 1946 and rewritten in 1985 to trace what became of its main characters, real people Hersey got to know who survived, some not well, what happened.

All war is inherently ugly, but there are not monuments to other horrific events like the firebombing of Tokyo or of Dresden, perhaps because there is a particular amazement at the power of this one single bomb, and a recognition that it poses such dangers for the world. The scientists very accurately anticipated the bomb’s concussive power, and it was awesome, destroying almost every structure within a km or two, and almost every wooden structure (meaning virtually every home there in 1945) within 4 or 5 km. The thermal power of the bomb was also well anticipated by its designers, and the Peace Museum has exhibits such as glass bottles fused together in a pharmacy a km away. Together, these knocked down thousands of buildings and started fires that consumed what wasn’t already destroyed, so that the city was largely leveled in a circle about 2.5 mi. in radius from the hypocenter.

The best estimate is that 70,000 or so died in the first 24 hours. What the scientists had not fully anticipated was the radioactive effect of the bomb. Perhaps half of those first casualties died hours after the bomb when their bodies were overwhelmed by the invisible damage done by the radiation. Another 50,000 or so died 1 to 3 months later, often after their hair first came out in clumps, again as the delayed reaction to unseen damage done by the radiation. Many fetuses who were born in the months after the bomb had deformities, including microcephaly. Youngsters who seemed to have survived and done well for a decade then started having a high rate of cancer, particularly leukemia, such as Sadako, a girl whose unsuccessful attempt to fold 1000 origami cranes to bring good luck in her fight with leukemia was widely publicized. Even today, health issues for the Hibakusha, as A-bomb survivors are known, are the subject of court cases as they fight the government for health coverage (one such case was decided by the Japanese Supreme Court a few days ago, in favor of the Hibakusha).

We had a moving visit to the Peace Museum, but also a nice walk along some of the rivers and some nice meals, and we picked up tourist information about other things to do in the area, and may well return some day to do things that do not bring tears to the eyes.

Our next two days were in Kyoto, the second-most visited city in Japan after Tokyo. It was the capital of Japan for over a thousand years, as well as a major religious center and, until very recently, the center of education as well. What most tourists focus on is the shrines and temples, and on day one we walked 15 miles seeing a ton of them. They are impressive, beautiful, incredibly old. The highlight of the day however was something called “The Philosopher’s Walk,” near the Silver Pavilion. This was a walk along an old, narrow irrigation canal under a canopy of trees, with a forest on one side and homes and tea shops on the side we walked along.

Having been templed-and-shrined out, we sought out something different for day two and found it. We took the train 25 km out of town and walked down to the Hozu River, where we boarded a narrow, flat-bottomed boat with another two dozen folks, none of them foreign tourists like us. The boat was pushed off and started down the swift-flowing river, aided by one fellow pushing us with a long bamboo pole, a second fellow with an oar he used both hands to pull, and a third in the back manning the tiller. Half-way down they switched positions, with the youngest one missing out on the easy tiller job because he is still learning the river. We went through numerous rapids, none overly scary but one rough enough to put a few buckets worth of river water in our boat. The river twisted and turned beneath towering green hills peppered with rock cliffs, and from time to time we would see a train running alongside the river and fifty to a hundred feet up, a locomotive and four open cars painted bright red, called the Romantic Train. Just before the end of our 1 ½ hour trip, a boat similar to ours but with an outboard motor pulled up alongside, latched onto our boat, and offered beer, sake, grilled squid and a treat that Jeff went for, grilled balls of omochi (a very chewy ball of pounded rice cake)on a stick, dipped in a mixture of soy sauce, sugar and corn starch. No redeeming nutritional qualities, but oh, so tasty!

The next day involved an hour’s train ride down to Nara, the capital before Kyoto began its millennial reign. The world’s largest Buddha is there, inside the world’s largest wooden building, as part of the Todaiji temple. He was consecrated in 752, but like so many of us, has needed orthopedic and plastic surgery from time to time, in his case due to fires and earthquakes. His hands and head are noticeably different in color as a result. Perhaps more interesting than Todaiji were the many smaller and less commercialized temples and shrines we walked past in the hills to the east and south, including one that had double rows of stone lanterns alongside the two stone staircases leading to it, back-to-back for a distance of maybe a quarter mile in each direction. We wondered if they ever have a festival when they light all the lanterns. We’d love to have the candle concession for that!

The last part of our trip was a magical walk down the Nakasendo, one of the two ancient “roads” that connect Kyoto and Tokyo. We spent the night in a high-rise hotel in downtown Nagoya and took a morning train to the small city of Nakatsugawa, on the Kiso River. From there we caught a bus to tiny Magome. This town and Tsumago, our destination, were bypassed by the railroad down the Kiso valley in the 19th century and by the highway builders in the 20th, and in the 1960’s began to realize their historical value. The tourists have followed, for good reason – this was old Japan at its finest. The Nakasendo climbs steeply through Magome past dozens of shops preserving 18th and 19th century buildings by selling 21st century doodads and food. It then leaves town and at times you are on the ancient stone path itself, at times on dirt or gravel pathways, at times on small roads that look more like driveways, they are so narrow. We hiked from 1600’ in Magome up to Magome Pass at 2500’ and enjoyed a snack at a teahouse right at the summit, next to the minor highway that shares the pass with the hiking route. On the way down the other side we passed one house with two pools of water with stream water flowing through, one with cucumbers floating in it, the other with fresh tomatoes, and a cutting board nearby holding a sharp knife and a jar of miso. A sign invited passersby to have a snack at 30 yen per cucumber (about 25 cents), 30 yen for a medium sized tomato, or three cherry tomatoes for 10 yen. We had a tasty cucumber-miso-tomato snack, of course.

Tsumago is even older-looking than Magome, an amazing trip back to the Edo period before the modernizing of Japan that began with the Meiji Restoration of 1868. We had a reservation at a ryokan that was marvelous, and the price included not only a spacious room with futon and the sound of a rushing river nearby, but also dinner and breakfast. They even served us something Louise had never encountered in her 25 years in Japan, roasted grasshoppers (crunchy, and very tasty with the marinade they had been dipped in) and a first for Jeff, horse-meat sashimi. Louise let Jeff think it was beef until later, although Jeff is so game about trying new food that he probably would have tried it regardless.

We are now back in Tokyo, having walked another section of Nakasendo from Tsumago down to the train line the next morning, then returned with a short visit en route to Karuizawa, a town in the Japanese Alps that Louise often visited during her years in Japan. We rented bikes, three-speed fat-tired clunkers with front baskets that nonetheless allowed us to see a lot of town in our few hours there. Louise was saddened to see how much it has become like Tokyo, now that the Shinkansen has reduced the trip from a few hours to a 70-minute hop, albeit an expensive one.

Two more days until the wedding, so our next post will be about that.

No comments: