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Uncle Stewart

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He arrived on the 20th, but I was already at the airport by the 19th. Goof, and the first and last goof of our tour hopefully, I read his itinerary wrong; I though he’d arrive on the 19th, no he departed Chicago on the 19th.

My Uncle is 52 and hails from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he has made comfortable living designing and taking photos for industrial corporations, while investing in houses that he remodels. In his spare time he dedicates himself to his true passions: gardening, sailing, and golf. And, as our conversations with locals return us to, he is actually Japanese.

Slamming away at the hundred odd pound granite mortar with his wooden hammer, steam rises from the mochi as the monks keep saying “so strong, such a natural”. “It’s my quantum mechanics, they work here” Uncle Stew describes it as. And what we both agree, these past few days have been indescribable. The sheer quantity of concidence and fortune is immeasurable. To be simple about it, it has been fun.

But we are only halfway done! Every train ride to the next stop, we tell each other, Sapporo in hand, we’ll write it down. With each successive uttering of the words becoming lax in our standards: “I gotta write it all down”, “We’ll write it down”, “I’ve been taking notes”, “Just give me the names of the things and I’ll remember”, “When I start getting these packages back home, it’ll remind me”.

Once we get into it, however, the feelings complicate the details which inevitably bring us to the thought, “just keep dancing”, our own advice, which simply means, well, keep dancing.

The first night into town, we were brought back by the Narita Express to Shinjuku station. Since I spent the day before worrying it away, hours passing by, passengers arriving, and intercoms calling “Will Mr. Stewarto OOf, please come to Terminal 1, South Arrival Station”, only later to find out how idiotic I am, and loathe myself as my body soaked in the Shinjuku Park Hotel, I knew where to take him.

Our accommodations were next door to Times Square, one of those mega-mall 20 story buildings that populate Japan. We brought ourselves to the top floor on a whim and enjoyed the spectacular skyline. Actually, as I recount this, we sit inside the same place.

He and I have only five more days left together in Japan, so unfortunately- I don’t plan to do a massive update about our travels until he leaves and I am left with my excess of time.

Every moment has been spent, “as the lotus blossoms” as Uncle Rat returns to. Our travels have been a moveable feast (moochable feast, as we’ve joked), crossing the width of this continent again and again on the shear generosity of friends and the convenience of green car rail passes.

I do want to a wish a Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year to everyone. Until I see all you lovely people again, my gift can only be these words and photos. As immeasurable my experience has been here in Japan, I hope to share the joy with you all soon enough.

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Written by Daniel

December 30, 2008 at 2:35 pm

Posted in wandering

The Cutest Friendships

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Getting sick away from home is a difficult thing. Really it has been over a week now of this simple cold. It has worn off on me though. Though, I still wake up around noon to two in the afternoon to begin my now regular day. So today, on the twelfth day of the twelfth month I wake up at 12:12 (it was 12:32 actually) to continue my blogging journey.

First let’s talk about where I live. I am in a surprisingly quite neighborhood only twenty minutes from Shibuya (one of the most busiest pop-markets there are). Here in Soshigaya-ookura, students come in to the next door university (Nihon University) trading places with the commuting population boarding the trains in bound to the Yamanote-pack. Around 6 PM they change places once again. Students now head out for the standing bars, the furugi (used clothes) stores, or maybe the nearest Starbucks to grind away at homework.

Soshigaya-ookura is really known for one thing: Ultraman. Perhaps we iconically know Japan by Godzilla (close second would be Pokemon). However, Ultraman vastly outclasses Godzilla in the salaryman conversation circle. It is well known that in a battle to the death, Ultraman would reign supreme. No problem.

To this end, Ultraman can be seen soaring around Soshigaya. I have found five statues of him so far, and continue to find new ones each day. The latest discovery would be Ultraman-Cafe, which plays Ultraman-movie as long as they are open on their 60 inch plasma-flat-screen-what-not-what-not.

Little tid-bit for you, Ultraman’s creator said inspiration came from staring at Miroku-bosatsu, otherwise known as Maitreya, or the future Buddha foretold to save this world. Since hearing this, I make sure to clap my hands twice and bow whenever passing under the Ultraman-tori’s of Soshigaya.

It’s also been suggested that, on a cold day, one can find Ultraman sweeping up the yellow leaves and loose trash gathered around the Soshigaya-Ookura station. True story.

As for my homestay family, I couldn’t have lucked out any more. They are fantastic. Noe is hard at work on her first gallery opening. After returning from teaching classes and managing the studio space at her work, she comes back and tirelessly scans proof after proof onto her computer. She has not yet begun the arduous process of picking her favorite shot of each of the 200 babies. She has thousands of photos to go through yet. This doesn’t stop her goofing off with me while I cook, or come out with Yuki and I to visit the locals.

Yuki, her husband, is by all accounts brilliant. One of those guys who can talk endlessly about any topic if you pressed him, but humbly adds to conversation rather than dominating it. He met Noe at the same photography school (Noe was a teacher’s aid at the time), and after graduating, chose to continue work for the Tokyo fire department, rather than climb the salaryman ladder. Because of this he works every other day, and when he works he takes on a 30 hour shift. His return home is that like a soldier’s. Hugs fly around, lots of love.

Probably what I appreciate most about this homestay, is the love. Noe and Yuki are still a reasonably young couple. They chase each other down the hallway occassionally. They share smoke breaks. They cook for each other, Yuki typically making dinner, Noe usually making sweet little rice cakes for lunch.

This is the kind of place I have been living in, and it is fantastic.

Generally I have been catching up on other writing projects: one, a series of shorts on imaginations on Japanese life from the perspective of a homeless NOVA-er (an ex-english teaching company that attracted and then stranded many ex-pats here); two, an essay on Ramen culture here, heavy on the field research. I have also been plowing through my Japanese textbook in order to catch-up with my classmates state-side (this is actually harder than it sounds… forcing yourself to memorize kanji especially is difficult when your cellphone will intelligently predict the sentence you want to write). I have also found companionship in “Moby Dick”. There is no better novel to read cruising along the endless subway lines of Tokyo, than this Melville tome.

So that forms the basic skeleton of my day. I usually hop coffee shop to coffee shop lugging these essentials around with me. Now don’t for a second imagine some tasteful, coffee cove in some back alley. Usually, I find the most obnoxiously chain of chained spots- right by the train station, and watch commuters swipe their Suica rail cards while I dare foreigners to look me in the eye. (Side note: not sure if this sort of tourism-culture exists in other countries, but rarely can I talk to foreigners here on account that they like to suspend themselves in the “Lost in Translation” dream world- that they are alone among a viciously homogenous population. Not the case really, each subway car, I guarentee you has their fair share of Murrays and Johanssons. Actually, I picked up a “10 Ten Places in Tokyo” book the other day, and it has a special section on how one can retrace their fictional steps. True story.)

As for the special occasions that have popped and propped up in my life lately, let’s start with last Sunday.

The afternoon was spent with Marie and Yuki at the “Visions of America” photography exhibit at the Yebisu Garden Place. A mix of famous American and Japanese photographers alike, the gallery was a meditation on American culture, the road, the protests and the wars.

Afterwards we took the subway the local girl’s college to see my friend Takahiro Momoeda’s male choir “The Wagner Society” sing Classical, in Japanese and Latin, then finish up with tribute to Porgy and Bess. Unfortunately I only could stay for the Japanese portion, though I was hoping to catch a little of “Bess you is my woman”.

I had to leave early because my roommate from this summer’s Keio CCC program, Ryo Kakinuma, got some of the student’s together for a “Welcoming Party” on my behalf. We met up in Shibuya, yelled our “久しぶり”s, and made our way over to “Doma Doma” a famous Izakaya chain. Izakayas, if we remember, sport a beautiful array of typical Japanese-style tapas, and, most importantly, cheap drinks.

Picture montage time:

Maybe an hour into our festivities, myself, well versed in how insufficient I am in Japanese, a certain on going internal monologue at this point of “wow, their speaking Japanese”, Toshi sensei, Ph.D. in American Literature, rolls in sporting his beauty and equal brilliance. We spend a good portion of the dinner chatting about the whale (what he wrote his Thesis on, actually) while he’d return back to the students making them laugh with his, I can only imagine, fantastic Japanese witticisms.

In his spare time from teaching nine classes, he enjoys writing for a popular music magazine here in Japan. Soon he’ll be spending his sabatical in the states, teaching.

After the meal was finished, Toshi dropped two mon-en (220 bucks) like nothing, and declined to join the second party of Karaoke.

Karaoke, a treat, as always, astonished me once again. My past experiences with the craft has only been with businessmen, typically more than twice my age. Their voices cracking as they croon away at Bob Dylan and Rolling Stones hits of their youth.

Now I was surrounded by pros. A generation that’s grown up never knowing a time without the inebriated past-time. Really born and raised to cover songs. And, damn, when Daisuke and the bunch started J-Rapping, I was really too embarassed to try my hands at Paul Simon covers. Though I did, sick voice and all.

The couple hours of singing cost fifteen bucks around, and we all said our “お疲れ様”s this time at Shibuya station, while everyone checked last train times with their Yahoo equipped cellular devices.

This night out was enjoyed after a rough three or four days in bed (futon) coughing and sneezing. It was the shining light that life in all it’s rhythms was picking up again. A reminder that time is too short to wonder what to do.

So the next day, I sat in the skyline cafe, Muriwui, sipping on ginger tea, eating fried potatoes, occasionally talking to the burger chef owner- who had lived 30 years in San Francisco. When I got up to pay the bill, I noticed the two girls who had been taking an English lesson in the corner of the room got up too. Wrapping up my red plaid scarf, walking down the stairs, I decided to pick up a few veggies for dinner. I turned around to grab some garlic, when I noticed the girls had followed me into the grocery store. I tried my tired joke “久しぶり” (long time no see), and we chatted while we picked up food. Little did I know at the time, that we were really shopping for the next nights dinner.

Rie, a local musician with her husband Daisuke, invited me over for dinner. The 25 and 24 year old couple (respectively) have a ballad duet with Hawaiiain influences called かのんぷ (Kanonpu). Daisuke sports a classical guitar or ukelele, while Rie is the lead singer and plays piano.

Here they are on a morning t.v. show actually.

Their apartment is unassailably cute, decorations reminiscent of their honeymoon abroad in Hawaii together.

We stuffed ourselves, bowl and bowl, trading back and forth between Japanese and English- correcting each other as we went along. There is no doubt, that I am slightly “cooler” simply on the merit of being a native English speaker. But that simply comes with the territory of being in Japan. After throwing sweet mochi cakes, green tea cookies, every which kind of shochu and nihonshu (sake), and a sample cd my way, we promised on another dinner date; the next time I would cook.

A 15 minute walk later back to my homestay, I realized I had neighborhood friends again. Since their income is solely off the dozens of concerts they have a year, we’re sole mates in our excessively freetime. Here’s their website if you wanna check them out, http://kanonpu.eek.jp/index.html

The next day, I visited Marie at her part-time job at the daycare, where I’ve essentially taken up a volunteer position. There I sold candy, watched the drama that is elementary school romance, played with a dog, and heard my first imitation of my American-accent-Japanese, by a lovely little boy.

Photos:

Around 6, we all parted ways and Marie pointed me in the direction of a standing-space-only Ramen shop, for which I am incredibly grateful.

I then took a train out to Yokohama where Rie and Daisuke were waiting with a free ticket to see Hawaiiain pop at this American bar called “Thumbs Up”. Because of their sweet connections, I met two former Yokozunas (god-like Sumo wrestlers), and listened to set after set of much needed soulfull music.

Photos:

Like giddy children we texted each other throughout the next day and decided to have a Salmon-Burger night. This time I invited my homestay parents over. The Salmon-Burgers would be my treat this time, the delicious Nabe- theirs.

Yuki and I made the feast together, which would be: 12 Salmon Burgers with cilantro on wheat bread, Mashed caramalized acorn squash and grilled asparagus.

All of us garlic lovers, we pretty much made garlic burgers with Salmon for flavor. About 10 salmon cuts, one garlic, a few pieces of white bread, fried mushrooms, half an onion, black pepper, 3 eggs later, Yuki, Noe and I went over to Rie and Daisuke’s place (of course picking up refreshments along the way).

Needless to say I was as giggly as a cub scout on his first marshmellow bonfire. I could think of nothing cuter than a union of my host family and Kanonpu.

Yuki, Noe, working couple they are, had to unfortunately leave early. After they parted- Daisuke and Rie stopped everything. Daisuke looking at me seriously said, “Daniel, now is the time for a private concert. A concert only for you, and your memories”. They played me a new song, and one of my favorites “守りたい物” (Things I wanna protect).

We have the cutest friendship ever. No offense meant. We’re meeting up tomorrow night for an okonomiyaki party, Japanese style deliciousness.

That almost brings up to date. But actually, I met up with Sae Goizumi, my homestay-sister I hosted way back, 5 years ago.

We met up at Shinagawa station the next day, and it was just like old times- except our respective language skills grew, as well as our height. We rode to Yokohama, and spent a little less than three hours Karaok-ing together. “You can Karaoke at 3 in the afternoon?”, “You can Karoake whenever” she responded.

I’ll try and dig up a flashback photo, but really- Sae (for those who have ever met her) looks completely different, but she still has her goofy sense of humor.

We then met up with her friend, also an alumni of the Catonsville-homestay program (esteemed as that is), Saki. We ate dinner at T.G.I Fridays. Which is, exactly what you imagine it to be, except there is a dangerous amount of drunk touring Americans, or sweet-hearts reunited in the island’s navy port.

I grabbed the largest burger I could, while Saki and Sae got some shrimp and pasta dishes. With bottomless sodas and greasey plates, it was another giddy childhood moment. I could stop smiling. And then- they surprised me with an ice cream sundae.

Like I started, getting sick away from home, is a difficult thing. I am incredibly forturnate for the friends I sometimes feel I don’t deserve. As I come into my own here, it only reminds me of the times I am missing at home. This morning began calling up Olivia out of homesickness. What lasted to a forty-five minute call, ended with me reminded of all the open arms readily available, the easily found love of life. This may be Japan, but experience is inextricable from life. Hospitality is eternal.

At any rate, I just have a stuffy nose now. With my Uncle’s arrival this Friday, time in Japan is slipping away. But it couldn’t be any more polite in saying good-bye.

Written by Daniel

December 13, 2008 at 8:08 am

Posted in event, food, shopping, wandering

Thanksgiving in Tokyo (part 2)

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Part 3, the meal, coming soon.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Written by Daniel

November 28, 2008 at 1:08 am

Posted in wandering

Thanksgiving in Tokyo (part 1)

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Japan, rising sun and all, would of course make me a day ahead (in case you haven’t caught on yet). With that it’s the proud holiday of turkey giving already.

I’m writing from Wired 360, an internet cafe sitting on the top floor of the Au Design building. This sort of semi-spherical glass covered structure is at the intersection of “Harajuku St.” capital of high school girls, frost highlighted business men and the tired “bohemian” types looking to meet up with their friends at Starbucks.

From the 360 view you can see the cue for the new H&M of Harajuku. This is where I would make a facetious comment about H&M in the fashion trend-spot Japan, but I really can’t. I went in and bought a green sweater. It was eighteen bucks, and I am happy.

And on this Thanksgiving day, although I found some dozen turkey serving, American catering establishments, I am somehow in Harajuku, 15 stops from the hostel, getting text messages about working when I return to Kyoto and calls apologizing for not coming out tonight.

All is well, of course, Julian is still in the vicinity, and I am sure we’ll end up eating. It looks though to be a rather quiet night.

Last night was spent in the “Red Light” district of Shinjuku, which was relatively tame really. It was Wednesday after all. There were several chances meetings that perked up the night (Julian has been down that he missed out on the take over of Thailand’s airport… which happened 2 hours after he departed for Japan). 1, ran into a couple sales people for an Italian watch or eyeglass whatever whatever and enjoyed some Sho-Chu and Cow tongue and heart at a standing bar (a perfect marriage, remarked one of the guys). 2, looking for a club or bar or something that wasn’t dead, we got picked up by Sayo and her friend Harumi, she invited us to join them for drinks at a VIP bar, which was really this charming fourth floor suite with a professional-hipster clientele.

We all ended up hanging out, bar to bar until the morning trains started up. Julian and I got back to New Koyo at 6 or so in the morning.

As for Thanksgiving, it would be fantastic to be home, with family or with any one friend from home, really. Holiday seasons have that tendency to make you want to love something. It’s hard to really get into the mindset of November and turkey however, while “Thank God it’s Christmas” blares out of technicolored aluminum trees.

To quote a good friend though, “hunger is the best chef”, and if anything, being away from everything creates an even greater sense of graciousness.

To everyone reading this, Happy Thanksgiving! Give someone a hug, eat some Tofurkey, drink some SoyNog, and pass out with family.

Written by Daniel

November 27, 2008 at 9:48 am

Posted in food, shopping, wandering

Just Melt

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It’s hard not to brag when it comes to Tokyo, the “wet dream of Americans”, as “What White People Like” describe it as.

Suffice it to say, I am relieved to relax in the hands of my friends and get paraded around the sites as a visitor, not obscurely guessing at what may be fun.

Truly I have gotten the royal treatment in this taste of Tokyo. A friend of mine, Momo-chan, that I met over the W&M CCC program this past summer, has been kind enough to host me at his house. Sitting on the roof top terrace of a 28 story building, this family has a terrific view of Tokyo University and the surrounding city skyline. His father, a Japanese George Clooney in terms of looks, runs every day (training for a marathon) in the odd hours not lecturing at Todai or practicing at the Maternity Ward of the same hospital; while his mother, an anesthesiologist, works on her upcoming Herbology book and practices plastic surgery in her family business clinic.

I was just treated to a dinner of Shabu Shabu (the sound effect of stirring). Shabu Shabu is a crock-pot family meal invented during the Meiji Period, as Japanese chefs reconciled the influx of livestock into their cooking. Pretty much, plate after plate of rare pork and beef are brought to the table as they are flash boiled in salt or soy-milk broth and dipped in a daikon radish or ground goma (sesame) base and enjoyed over rice, as you enjoy glass after glass of Asahi beer or Whiskey-sours.

Before that though, my friends Yuki and Marie (below), have been linked in arms with me as they’ve taken me through Ginza (Tokyo’s 5th avenue), Shibuya (the grundgy Tokyo, described as Bucha-Bucha the sound of chaos in Japanese), Shinjuku (Central Park feel), Harajuku (T’s Soho), Reppongi (T’s Greenich Village) and Asakusa (T’s Kyoto) in all less than two days.

Truly time is hyper-realized in Tokyo. Compared to the 5 AM- 12 AM days of Kyoto, Tokyo seems like 1 minute a day, yet somehow my waist size doubles with each second.

Meanwhile, this “taste” has only excited me for the more time to come in this city as December falls upon Japan, and the year of the OX materializes.

There is of course plenty more to be done. So far, as I said, I have been pointed in the right direction. Starting tomorrow however, with the return of Julian from Thailand, we shall really see if I have the feet to manage.

So far I have been averaging 8 hours of walking in Tokyo, but as Thanksgiving in Tokyo, a day of day care, and some modern art museum hopping approach, I think time on my feet will outlast any sleep I ever hope to have.

Tokyo will exhaust me for the rest of my life.

Written by Daniel

November 24, 2008 at 1:30 pm

Posted in shopping, wandering

Nagasaki, Fukuoaka, Kanazawa and Shirakawago

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Almost embarrassingly so, I listen to Regina Spektor’s Hotel Song as I connect to the world through Manten’s lan access. Many sites, few people, just a handful of places visited, but many beautiful sites they’ve been.

Thinking about my original plans before departing Kyoto, maybe I’ve let myself get taken by the travels than forcing them myself.

Nagasaki was more than I bargained for in terms of solitude.

Riding down on the limited express, the orange of Sanda vanished, the harbors opened up. Bamboo stalks, like cat tails fanned out against the horizon and I could see unrecognizable islands on the left and right. Often I had to push down the urge to hop out, a la Eternal Sunshine, at the next dilapidated train stop. Figure out the landscape, see every hidden place, eat everything in the process. These thoughts came to and out as I faded between reading “How to Cook Your Life”, napping, and pining after a rural life.

The suburb of Urakami appears fast. Suburb is a tough word to describe the Nagasaki area. Like most of Japan, the houses scale the edges of the mountain sides, however travel guides insist Urakami, the hippocenter of the Nagasaki Atomic bomb, is a serene suburb with even love hotels minutes from the Peace Park.

As I mentioned, originally the trip to Nagasaki came from my friend. Since her grandparent’s own a sushi restaurant, and I was looking for food to eat, she pointed me towards the island of Kyushu. The Nagasaki Peace Park came as an afterthought, unfortunately. For, like most people, when I think of the bomb I think of Hiroshima and FatMan.

Sadly things with the restaurant didn’t quite work out. Aki’s grandmother is feeling ill and they’ve temporarily shut down the place.

So, as I passed Urakami station, I thought, “I should get off here, I shouldn’t be selfish, I deserve to lug my bags around the tragic sight” I did check into my accommodations though. On my way, I passed by the sight of the crucifixion of 26 Japanese-Christians from the 1600s. Back in the day, the days of isolation, Nagasaki was the only open port to foreigners. Foreigners at the time included, the Chinese, Koreans, Dutch traders, and Portuguese Christians.

With the Chinese came the Obaku Zen tradition and the first stone bridges of Japan.

Anyway, following the romanized signs of sites (thank you Japan), I found my way to the Peace Park. Now the Peace Park consists of three things, the Atomic Bomb Museum, the Nagasaki Bomb Victims Memorial, and the Park itself. I started with the Memorial.

This is a terrible picture. I put it up so you get an idea of how large it is. In Japanese fashion, you are to walk around this basin, collecting your thoughts, calming yourself. The water itself, that trickles over the edge represents the water the victims cried for, but could not drink. At night, at each corner of the tiles a small light shines. The 70,000 total represent those that died instantly when the bomb fell. Standing tall off center of the fountain are twelve pillars in two rows. When you look down the center of it, a sign tells you, you are facing the hippocenter.

Assuming this was the extent, feeling already drained from thoughts, a red arrow with “Suggested Route” written in Japanese, English, Korean and Chinese, pointed me down marble stairs. The walk down is flanked by the pressed-cedar walls. Following this route, you come into several darkened rooms, each with their own testimony of the bomb. There I tried to read the aged pages of journals. A long corridor separates each room.

In the sub-basement, you see the reach of the 12 pillars. A open rectangular room, with now the white of the twelve against the cedar, the memorial hall is a lexicon of those lost to the bomb. A growing tome, each volume is edited when another atomic bomb survivor passes away.

Laid against the plastic picnic tables are several branches of Thousand Paper cranes. At the end of this rainbow collection are name tags. They say different school names, elementary, junior and high school, each with own date, each date today.

Drained, I left thinking I would visit the Peace Park now and return to Nagasaki. Instead, I went inside the Atomic Bomb musuem. Though I was a little turned off from the mass of school children running around the outside of the museum, the interior was actually incredibly educating. Though most of it were relics from Urakami, a warped clock hands stuck on 11:02 the time of impact, glass bottles fused into meteorite jade, or burned money and laquerware, there was a great deal of history on the atomic bomb itself. As the museum is funded by the Nagasaki Peace committee, it is a living museum that continually sees renovations and updates on Nuclear Disarmament.

By a Mother Theresa quote “All world leaders must see these pictures” are lined photos, black and white, of charred remains, white teeth stark contrast against their blackened babies’ bodies, while families stand eyes lost.

In the following room is a time line of the bomb next to a globe that represents the amount of nuclear testing each country has done through baron craters of varying sizes. The United States has an enormous volcano jutting out of the Nevada area, while North Korea has a blemish and France has a black island.

I left the museum for the site of the hippocenter. A black prism stands with a table for incense and flowers. Like a drop of water, ripples of grassy and concrete in concentric circles radiate from this monument. Adjacent is the half standing church walls of the Urakami Cathedral. Even though the B-29 was searching for the Mitsubishi Arms Factory that day, the pilot had mistaken the spires of Japan’s first Catholic Church for the factory’s exhaust stacks.

Half of the entrance still remains. Behind that, an alcove filled with Thousand Paper cranes.

Although I had planned on visiting a few bars a tourist book had recommended, I spent the rest of the day to night walking. From about three to ten at night, I was walking. First I walked back to Nagasaki, then to the Dutch slopes by the harbor. Eventually I got tired of the circles I had been making and made a trip back to my room.

The next day I walked back into the downtown area and stopped at a few temples along Nagasaki’s Teramachi-dori. I definitely enjoyed the view from the riverside though. For each street there is a stone arch bridge that connects these two sides. They were made by the donations a Chinese Zen monk received while doing Takahatsu. The bridges are by no means large or extravagant. They are simple and practical. Later I would see the largest rice pot ever. This iron bowl was used during a famine in the 1600s to feed a few thousand Nagisakians. It’s housed at the Sofukuji temple, a temple built and shipped from China.

After lunch in their China-town, I got on the limited express to Fukuoka.

Fukuoka is by far one of the more glamorous cities I have been in before. From the station the streets fan out like spokes on a wheel. Surrounding Hakata-eki are massive business hotels, and luxury malls.

That night my accommodation was at the Hakata Riverside Hotel. It sits right next to this Pinocchio-esque island, that I could only wander around in for a good minute. Nakasu island is filled corner to corner with glitsy bars and strip clubs. It is inhabited by drunken salarymen who try to speak English to me. It’s a place beautiful in it’s marginal excess, and set customers. By far a place I will never really know.

Past the island, though, is the downtown area. It’s more or less concentrated around the two train stops and subway stops: Tenjin, and Tenjin-minami. Each business building has its own trademark designer architect, and have abstract metal Christmas trees lit in purple and baby-blue. There are Starbucks and Starbuck’s babies, Tully’s, Cafe Velloce and Seattle’s Best, around every corner. And in between are more Hermes, Fendi and Louis Vuitton stores you have ever seen.

But the true gem of Fukuoka are the yatai. Food carts, though more like the world’s tiniest bars. They sit askew on the main streets. You can see the silhouettes of their customers through the plastic curtains. Underneath they are eating the best Ramen of their lives.

Perhaps I’ve missed this about cities. Back home, a grundgy local spot is expected, it colors the town, chains and clean floors are the things of suburbs. Fukuoka excels though, giving the extremes fashion expenses next to the bargain bowls of street vendors.

Eventually I gathered enough courage to pull back the curtain and sit on a stool at this one yatai. Out of random I picked a 41 year old place and sat next to a doctor of cancer cell biology who received his Ph.D in America. We talked for a little bit. The owner’s son in law insisted on being translated by the doctor, while his wife asked me to translate some spam she received on her cell phone to her.

As soon as I ordered a bowl, it started pouring outside. Although I went to Kyushu to escape the cold of Honshu, it seemed I timed my arrival with a cold front. Drops of rain would occasionally make their way through the cardboard ceiling, while wind would blow up the curtains. This made for all the more enjoyable meal. The doctor poured me a glass of Kirin beer and I drank in the warm broth of the famous soup.

I got back a little after one and collapsed on my tiny bed.

My hundred yen breakfast woke me up. The owner of the place knocked on my door a little before eight thirty, and placed down a little basket with three potato sandwiches in it and some “Instant-French-Drip-Coffee”.

After eating, I took the next Shinkansen to Shin-Osaka and met up with Sachi, my co-worker, who would act as my travel buddy for the next few days in Kanazawa and Shirakawago.

Kanazawa is Boston with castles. The gingkos are a brilliant yellow at this point. I arrived just after a snow storm, so there was still a little remaining. With a little time before my bus ride to Shirakawago, I stopped by a nearby castle/garden to get a view of the city. Despite how beautifully sculpted the area was, bonsai outfitted, reflecting green ponds etc. it was no match for the end to end rainbow that spread over the downtown area.

At around one, I got aboard the bus to Shirakawago. About an hour away, Shirakawago of Toyoma prefecture is just west of the Japanese Alps. Just west doesn’t equate no snow, however. The area is famous for it’s “Gassho Zukuri” a type of mountain cabin known for it’s “gassho” (hands in prayer) shape.

Fortunate enough for me, the zukuris rent out rooms. With dinner and breakfast, a night stay comes out to 8,000 yen, or about 80 bucks. Not to bad, considering…

Fantastic. It made for a tough return to Kanazawa. Definitely a place to return to. I desperately wished I had hiking gear to explore, or perhaps cj to ice climb with. As neither were possible, yes return trip, in store.

The next day, I visited the acclaimed 21st Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa. This glorious, white circle is quickly gathering quite a collection. Currently they have a grassroots collection of 9 popular Kanazawan artists, including Nara Yoshitomo.

Most of the stuff was regrettably off limits for my camera, but free for me to purchase in the gift shop.

I did manage a shot of Leandro’s piece “Leandro’s Pool”

Specializing in installation art, Leandro Erlich deals with optical illusions, etc. etc.

After the trip to the museum, Sachi was kind enough to introduce me to Izumi, who has an 8 month old baby called Ko-chan (refer to the previous post for a video).

Before arriving, Sachi warned me of Izumi’s beauty, but I can’t for the life of me remember what she looks like. From the moment I entered her apartment, I was won over by Ko-chan.

The next morning, I started typing this entry and continued it on the double-decker bullet train to Tokyo.

Tokyo, yes finally Tokyo. I have slowly my approach to the city synonymous to Japan back home. I can’t even imagine the time it would take to learn a city like this. My KEIO friend Momo has been kind enough to put me up at his parent’s apartment that overlooks Tokyo from the top 27th floor of this gorgeous complex. Tokyo University at it’s feet and mountains in the horizon, I can’t fathom what people do here.

Hopefully over the next six days, I will experience the prelude to December and January here. For now I will play the dumb foreigner and touch, taste, smell everything I see.

Written by Daniel

November 22, 2008 at 3:02 pm

Posted in wandering

So Far

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As I have swapped bullet trains for beds, the constant access to the internet has been limited. Luckily I am in Fukuoka now, a town that doesn’t start-up until 9 or 10 PM. Home of the best Ramen, I have a tough night ahead of me.

Until the morning post, let’s have a photo re-cap of the past few days, while my rust colored bath (unintentional) fills up.

I was sleeping here for awhile, during the Marathon of Reading 2008. Will was lovely enough to let me apartment sit. He would have checked with his roomate if it was okay- however, he has never met him.

(note the pillow I made. Ingredients: 3 jackets, a snagged United Air blanket, and a cashmere scarf wrapped up in a black hoody.)

Ate this beauty in Uji. Afterward, my friend toured me around the sites.

The sites:

We then returned to Kyoto for Christmas decorations. Christmas starts with November, as there are no pilgrims to celebrate in a country full of decendents from the Sun Goddess.

Not to be confused with-

Fast forward, two days later, I am in Sanda eating delicious forever and ever. My host Midori-san (Buddhist name, Renshu) put me up for three nights. After eating my weight in tofu and Ginko nuts, I tagged out with Paul and Alex.

Like the maple leaf touch? I had more pictures, but as soon as I pulled out my camera, Okura-san ran from a hot pot to the table, throwing maple leafs from her stockpile on to each of the plates.

Her workspace:

After this, I hung out with her husband. He sat like the Buddha, as he took his time painting dozens of plates that he would only have to repaint again the next day.

Like I said, Paul and Alex joined me in Sanda. There we were filled with Sho-chu and Calorie saving cocktail drinks to our hearts content. I made a pretentious comment that I felt like Odysseus when he is on that one island, with all that food, and that beautiful woman. Sadly I left the next morning on the first train to Shin-Osaka (to transfer to a Bullet to Hakata, then an express to Nagasaki).

Paul in wedding gift futons.

My day in Nagasaki. From the moment I left the train, my guilt filled me. Of course! I mean, even if there are no residual hard feelings. Oh god, the guilt was tough. The few American tourists I ran into echoed similar feelings. This is part of it thought.

Naturally, I have photos of this experience. But, my photo uploading failed. So maybe I will knock out an explanation of Fukuoka and Nagasaki tomorrow morning. Is this okay with you?

Tomorrow afternoon, I take the bullet back to Shin-Osaka. There I meet up with Sachi to take another bullet to Kanazawa.

This is my room by the way. And it’s view. Not much. I like their yukata though. It is a going-commando’s dream.

Okay, more predictable river shots and random temple pictures to come later, it’s 9:30 and time to get my Ramen on.

Written by Daniel

November 18, 2008 at 12:24 pm

Posted in wandering