Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Japan part 2


OK, so after a helluva weekend partying it up in Tokyo, in need of
rest and reprieve, I head for Kyoto, Japans cultural capital.

Kyoto: This city is what you think when you think "Japan"; temples and
pagodas and ancient wooden buildings,
as well as geishas and maikos (apprentice geishas) hobbling down the
streets somehow looking demure and
elegant despite the humidity and heat. Their makeup must make a good
sunblock. There are great shopping areas
and restaurants along picturesque canals, stone bridges and rivers,
where couples would walk or sit with at night.

One thing that is annoying about Japan is "Table Charges" which could
be $3 to $6 upwards. This means they will provide you with some sort
of small side dish, and water, which isn't really much. So it sucks
when you're looking for a meal thats around that price range alone.

They say its not that easy to see geishas walking around as they tend
to come out in the evening around small alleyways walking to their
homes or in fancy restaurants behind the scenes in private functions
for the excessively rich. However I was lucky enough to get lost
wandering the city at night to see one walk past me. Was tempted to
ask for a photo but thought that would be disrespectful. On the other
hand, continuing the walk home I had two mischevious looking maiko's
giggling past me, and then one of them blew me a kiss! Too stunned and
embarrassed to respond, I walked quickly away. Not sure if that was
unusual or they are trained to play with men's minds. Oh well.

A few days in Kyoto, then I head off to Hiroshima.

Hiroshima: I think that if I was to compile a list of cities that
people must visit in the world, Hiroshima would be one of them. It's
amazing to visit a city that was destroyed only over 60 years ago by
the first Atom bomb used in war (out of two) and changed the world
forever. It was so sad when you think it was unneccesary (Japan was
pretty much defeated anyway, especially with the Soviets planning a
secret pact with the Allies against them to take place a few months
later anyway. But the US wanted to win the war without the Soviets to
have some advantage over them. They choose Hiroshima out of several
other cities (including Kyoto and Tokyo), because of its military
function and because there were no Americian POW held there compared
with the other choices. And also because it would be easier to measure
the power of their new weapon there. In the end, mostly civilians died
as well as many Koreans and Chinese who were forced labour. Seeing
photos of the aftermath, stories and exhibits of people burning, skin
melting, people jumping in the river and drowning, is truely
horrifying and moving to see. A perfect example of the horrors of war
and how evil we can be.

Peace Park has the iconic A-Dome building, which is the only building
left in the ruined condition it was after the bombing (others were
destroyed and cleared). It is a clear testament to what occured in the
city, which is now a fairly modern city, set out in grid format (since
they could plan the whole city from scratch), with the usual shops,
malls and drinking places. It's hard to imagine anything so horrific
happened there as life goes on as normal here. So it's good they kept
this to remind people.

The children's memorial is also quite moving. Many of you know the
story of the girl who was diagnosed with leukemia 10 years after the
bombing, and believing that folding 1000 paper cranes will grant her
the wish to get better, set off on that task. She completed it but
still died soon after. Today, children all over Japan who visit come
to pay respects to her and others who suffered like her, bringing with
them thousands of colorful paper cranes, some chained, some arranged
as a mosaic poster about peace.

I was a little surprised how little attention was paid to the
epicentre, the exact place where the A-bomb detonated 600m above.
Looking up, it was a perfectly clear sunny day, the exact same
conditions that the bombing took place. Today, what was once a place
for the hospital is now an ordinary car park building; the only sign
is a small plaque mentioning it as the epicenter. Perhaps the people
don't want to really remember it?

Anyway, I head back to Kyoto for one more day before heading to Osaka
for my last night before flying home. It has been an awesome
allrounded trip, from the vibrant life, fashion and energy in Osaka
and Tokyo, to the historic ancient temples, shrines and traditions of
Kyoto and Nara, and the horrors of how it could all be destroyed in

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Japan part 1


Here lies the tale of my first week in my two week trip in Japan..

I arrive in Osaka after a long flight on Jetstar (budget flight) late
at night. The culture shock wasnt that great because alot of Japan
reminds me of Korea but with few differences. Anyway as usual, my
first few hours in a new country always goes awry and I find myself
lost running around dark alleyways filled with bikes (Japanese seem to
use them alot here) until eventually a convenience store worker left
his post and walked me to the hostel I was looking for. Not before he
got lost himself though.

Anyway, Osaka is a nice place to go shopping (they have the longest
street mall in the world, at 2.5km long). Theres a nice castle and
several department stores, and a famous riverside area of shops and
restaurants called dotonbori, which is extravagently lit up with neon
lights, massive advertising and models of all manner of sea creatures,
some mechanical, stuck above restaurants serving the live real version
of it below. And some famous mechanical clown banging a drum. (but
they dont serve him).

What I liked the most about Osaka is the food, particulary the street
food (budget traveller that I am). Osaka is famous for takoyaki
(octopus pieces in a batter ball, covered with sauce and fishy flakes
from some animal), and okonomiyaki (which i:ve only just been able to
pronounce, its a type of flour pancake mixed with vegetables and
seafood, egg and or pork, cooked on a hotplate in front of you, and
good with beer).

I caught a train to Nara, former traditional capital of Japan, only an
hour away. Nara is mostly a parkland filled with temples, trees and
lots and lots of tame deer that would come up to you if you had food
and sleep around all day. The grandest thing here is the Todaiji
temple, which is apparently the largest wooden building in the world
(and its reconstructed form is currently 2/3rds of its original size
after the original burnt down in a fire). In any case it is still
massive, and a massive bronze buddha inside to match.

I took the express (shinkansen) train to Tokyo. It took 3 hours and
would have cost a fortune if I didn:t have my 7 day Japan Rail pass
(which also cost a fortune, but allows unlimited travel on Japan Rail
lines for 1 week). Anyway, I go to the Asakusa area, which is the old
area north east of Tokyo, to find the hostel and to check out the
largest temple in the city there and walk around the stores still
selling traditional wares as they did for centuries.

I met some people at the hostel and we went for sushi (and saw a large
cockcroach on the wall after finishing, yummy!), then visited Tokyo
tower at night which is exactly like the Eiffel tower. We then walked
down the Roppongi area, south west of Tokyo, which is a expat and
westerner hotspot for drinking and clubbing and being foreign.

Wanting something less westernised, we head to Ginza, in central
Tokyo, and find a bar selling cheap drinks and filled with Japanese
people. The Japanese people were quite happy to drink with us - at
one point we started a spontaneous arm wrestling match (we won in the
end). We ended up back in Asakusa where we joined another group of
Japanese for Karoake until 7am.

A few hours later (12pm), I wake up and, not wanting to waste my time
here, head for Akihabara, other wise known as Electric town, just
north of central Tokyo. Its a good place to play with new gadgets and
computers, and also check out the girls dressed as french maids
handing out brochures to their `maid cafes` where you get served
coffee and food from them, play games or conversation for a price, and
nothing more than that.

After taking some photos of them in a way that could be considered
stalker-ish, I head of to the youth culture area of Shibuya!

Shibuya (west of central Tokyo) is where young people come to see and
be seen. The latest trends and fashions begin and end here; the
streets are like a series of catwalks where girls parade their stuff.
It also happens to be the setting for a game on my Nintendo DS, so I
had to excitedly compare the real with the virtual. Yes im such a
nerd. Anyway, after taking more photos of shibuya and the fashion
trends that happened to be worn by very attractive girls, (cause
clearly i:m so into fashion, right?), I delve deeper into their
subconcious and find myself in Harajuku, north of Shibuya, a famous
area where youths disillusioned with life and filled with teenage
angst flock to dressed up in what can be described as mangaesque
gothic lolita style costumes, a way to escape reality and live a
fantasy life, and be photographed and admired, before heading back
home to the humdrums of normal teenage life.

Content with my camera full of photos of girls - i mean examples of
japanese youth and pop culture - i head back to the hostel, where i am
dragged out again for another night of mayhem - back to shibuya - into
one of the famous clubs in Tokyo. Unfortunetly named `womb`, this club
was 4 floors of awesome drum and bass, electronic trance, and oddly
enough, latin style rock.

Again, I got back to the hostel at 7:30am, and slept until 12pm. We
all went back to Harajuku to see the harajuku youths dressed in
costumes again, and into yoyogi park nearby to check out the
rockabilly boys - men of all ages dressed in leather with greased
slick hair and rebellious attitudes, dancing to Elvis style rock and
roll. They were kinda fearsome and yet also hilarious to watch.

Further in the park, was a multitude of rock and ballad bands and
buskers all playing within a few feet of each other - amazingly no one
drowned out or clashed with the other bands - it worked seamlessly.

I then dashed off to meet with an Aussie friend I met in Korea, who is
now teaching English in Tokyo. He met me in Shinjuku, north of
harajuku, and is an area known for business, entertainment, and
sleaze. He took me to a Japanese style bar and got me drunk enough to
try raw horse meat sashimi - which actually tastes pretty good, and
skewered organs, which doesnt.

To be continued...