Friday, February 20, 2009

Hypocenter


"Hiroshima has the advantage of being such a size and with possible focusing from nearby mountains that a large fraction of the city may be destroyed." --Minutes of the second meeting of the Target Committee, Los Alamos, May 10-11, 1945


When the Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, the city essentially came to an end. That one fact represented almost everything I knew about our next Japanese destination. I'd of course seen the pictures of the
Atomic Bomb Dome, but very little else, so I was left with the impression of a ruined city with some surviving suburbs, guidebook information to the contrary. When we actually got to Hiroshima on the shinkansen, what we actually encountered was almost completely opposite my preconceptions. We left the station and found a modern, vibrant city in front of us. We'd decided to stay in a hotel rather than an apartment in Hiroshima, and our choice, the Hotel Active! (inexpensive, ultra-modern, and ideal location), was only a short distance away. We wanted to take a streetcar, but due to a slight traffic obstruction on the track had to taxi instead.

We hadn't really done any research on restaurants for the evening, but needed something to eat, so after checking we went across the street to the start of the city's entertainment district. After wandering for less than half a block, we found a fun little seafood place that was obviously a favorite of the local hard-drinking sarariman. A beer or two later and we were ready for bed!

I wandered around a bit the next morning through the entertainment district to get my bearings (and locate martini makings) while the girls slept in. Eventually Wendy and I walked over to the center of the city for lunch and found a highly-recommended stall for okonomiyaki on the 5th floor of a building completely full of similar food stalls. The counter was tiny -- I was growing used to that -- but we loved watching our meal made layer by layer in front of us.


Our friend Matthieu came in by train from Osaka (where he'd just arrived from Paris) to join us for the rest of the trip. When he made his way to the hotel, the four of us headed back out to visit the Peace Memorial Park and Musuem, including the A-Bomb dome.

There are only a few places I've visited that have similar impact. The Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. is one, though that was abstracted from where those atrocities took place, and certainly Dachau, though I was fairly young when I visited there so have only half-remembered impressions. The A-Bomb Dome, Peace Park and associated Museum were every bit as well done, and right next to the hypocenter of the actual event, so were hugely moving.

The most impressive part of our entire stay in Hiroshima was that, as Americans (all but Matt) we never once felt any sort of resentment, and were welcome everywhere. Maybe it's because the city was so completely de-populated by the blast that most current residents never felt any direct effects to themselves or their families. Maybe it's the effect of time. Or maybe the Japanese have a great ability to look forward and not back.

After spending a couple of hours at the memorial, we needed some dinner. Only a half block from the A-Bomb done, the hustle and bustle of the entertainment district took back over. We wandered through the covered street malls until we found a likely-looking hibachi joint, and settled in for Matt's first real meal in Japan and our first where we'd had to prepare our own food. Wow, fantastic meat! Some of the beef was so fatty it looked like tuna.


We did a little bar-hopping in Hiroshima as well. Bars were everywhere, but not all were gaijin-friendly. Still, without too much effort we found an underground (not in the "covert" sense, but literally underground) bar to finish up the evening.

The following day dawned bright and sunny again, which was fortunate since we'd decided to take a boat out to the island of Miyajima where, among other things, was one of the most-photographed scenes in all of Japan, a floating torii (shrine gate). The island also happnes to be the home of largely domesticated deer that will steal food right from your packets, as well as some fantastic shrines, pagodas, parks, and the attendant tourist infrastructure and trinket shops. Still, all of us enjoyed the island and the views.



A quick ferry ride and train transfer later, and we were ready to head off to Kyoto!

Our complete set of Hiroshima photos can be found here.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Merii Kurisumasu!!!



Merry Christmas Japanese style! We woke up snug in our pods in Tokyo and set about catching our first bullet train out to the country. The train was very fast and very clean. An attendant came through each car selling snacks and drinks off a cart and before leaving each car she would turn and face us all while giving a little bow. This happened on every train we would take in the country and without fail- charming!

We were headed to Hakone, a mountainous area southwest of Tokyo famous for onsen (hotsprings), views of Mt. Fuji, Lake Ashinoko and ryokans (traditional Japanese inns). We had reservations at Senkyoro, a ryokan over 100 years old.

Upon arriving I was excited to do the Hakone Round Trip tour where you travel on 5 different forms of transportation around the area. We boarded the bus and headed up and around the mountain getting off at Moto- Hakone. From here we walked thru the Ancient Cedar Avenue and also the Checkpoint Museum.

We finally got to Lake Ashi and were excited to board the pirate ships which would take us to the other side but the weather had turned from gorgeous, bright and sunny to windy, dark and stormy looking so the ships were cancelled for the afternoon. grrrrrr! We grabbed a bus and headed back to the train station to collect our bags we had stored in lockers. We then took a cab to the ryokan (ok so only 3 forms of transportation this day!)

As noted previously we had sent our luggage ahead of us via a courier found at 7-11. I can't recommend this more highly! Our luggage was waiting for us in our room while we were able to travel for a day with just a little carry on bag each. This was so nice since we were figuring out the trains and multiple stations for the first time.

A woman dressed in traditional clothing showed us to our room and then proceeded to make tea for us while we sat on the floor around our table on tatami mats. This was our first experience with the low traditional table and zabuton cushion. Once we had tea she gave us each a yukata (robe), obi (tie) and tabi socks. Can you imagine the giggles? Yes, we are very mature and had to do many many poses in our robes while having martini's made by Dayne-san.


Our room was great! A large living room with tatami mat floors where our table was and where we would sleep later. A small sitting room with a balcony. A nice bathroom seperated by toilet, shower/bath and sink areas. And a mini bar filled with One Cup sake!

We had our own little Christmas present party complete with Forest in her Santa hat. It was fun thinking of the past Christmas' we've spent together- on safari last year with about 105F tempatures, in Paris a few years back and handling an unfortunate incident with some power failures...

We booked a private onsen before dinner and enjoyed a VERY hot soak in the mineral springs. Our bath was in a room that had an open wall to the forests. it was very pretty and HOT! The water is so thick with minerals that you can't see into it. And it's HOT!! Forest and Dayne were super troopers since the baths are taken nude and we had only had one martini each at this point!


We made our way back to our room just in time for our room host to arrive and let us know that she was going to start serving us dinner. The 12 course meal was beautiful and artistic, we had brought our own champagne to go along with everything and had a really good time!



After dinner they set up our futons and gave us different yakatas to sleep in. More giggling and posing and picture taking. We had quite a little party that night with champagne, japanese whiskey and sake while doing our own style of karaoke and dancing! Merii Kurisumasu!!!

The next morning Forest and I headed to the women's bath to soak a bit, it was a large beautiful bath with a wall of windows looking out to the mountains. We were the only one's using it so we didn't have to worry about committing some major onsen faux pas!

We met Dayne for breakfast in the large cafateria like room, lit with my favorite flourescent lights. ugh. They served us so many dishes for breakfast that even after we asked multiple times what went with what we had no clue! I mean look at all this, it is for ONE person!!

We did get to pick back up out tour around Hakone that day. It was sunny and clear as we boarded the cable car and got amazing views of Mt. Fuji while heading up to see the volcanic activity in the crater of Mt. Hakone.

And we finally got to ride on the pirate ship too!
Official mode of transportation count while in Hakone...6! train, bus, foot, taxi, cable car and pirate ship! Hakone photo set is here.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Electric Town!

"The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel."
-- William Gibson,
Neuromancer

My images of Japan prior to our visit were
murky at best, overly influenced by bits and pieces of Shogun, Black Rain, Blade Runner (yes, OK, technically that was in LA), and Lost in Translation. By far the most most enduring vision, though, was from the opening scenes of Gibson's 1984 masterpiece. I was a bit disappointed on our initial evening train ride into the city from Narita, knowing we were passing by the streets of Chiba with no way to see what they looked like. (I understand there's nothing really compelling in Chiba, but still...)

But I knew that eventually we'd get to Akihabara Electric Town, the Tokyo district that's the electronics geek capital of the world and probably the one place -- with the possible exception of Osaka, where we unfortunately weren't visiting -- that could live up to the mental images I'd developed. The chance came a bit earlier than I'd thought; I'd left our camera charger back in the States by mistake, and in the quest to find a new one I took a train to Akihabara one evening while Forest and Wendy napped. The place was surreal: more neon than I'd ever seen in one place; tiny booths selling circuit boards, transformers, individual chips and just about every other part you could imagine; multi-level electronics-and-manga megastores; and pachinko parlors everywhere.
Since our camera was more than a year old, and therefore ancient by Japanese standards, I didn't end up finding a compatible charger and was "forced" to buy a brand new camera. I unfortunately had to head back to our apartment near the Nishi-Okikubo station, way across town, sooner than I would have liked. At least I knew we'd be able to take pictures for the rest of the trip!

Flash forward a couple of days to Christmas Eve, the morning after our Tapas Molecular Bar experience. We packed up all of our things, sent the bulk of our luggage on to our next major destination outside of Tokyo [Hakone] courtesy of a courier service in the nearby 7-Eleven, and took the train back to Akihabara, where we were going to be spending the night in a pod hotel. I wasn't thrilled at the thought, but Forest and Wendy had really wanted to try it, so I got out-voted.

The hotel itself, "Capsule Inn Akihabara" (the white building in the center of
this view) didn't look very promising from the outside, but actually was well-maintained and seemingly well-run once we checked in. For some reason, they are completely closed from 10am (when the previous night's tenants have to leave) until 5pm, when they let people back in for the next night's stay. The floors are segregated, so Wendy and Forest headed up to one of the women's floors to put their overnight bags in a locker, while I did the same on a men's-only floor. We walked the couple of blocks over to the main Akihabara streets to explore a bit and find some lunch. With the possible exception of the Harajuku area, "Akiba" probably highlighted the most unusual aspects of Japanese city life and culture. One of the stranger aspects were the "cosplay cafes", where the waitresses dress up as French maids or manga characters. We picked a decidedly more tame destination, a small noodle shop. Even there, though, nothing was quite what would be expected in any other part of the world. We had to purchase our meal by using a ticket-vending machine at the entrance that [thankfully] had pictures of all of our choices. Rather than the fast-food ambiance that suggests, though, we were then treated to an excellently-prepared (and welcomely warming) sit-down meal at the counter. The rest of Akihabara was a bit overwhelming (especially our brief attempt at playing pachinko.) Forest had left her phone charger in France -- we must have been on the same wavelength -- so we stopped into several shops looking for a replacement, only to be told that nothing like what she needed existed in Japan, despite the fact that her phone was made by Sony-Eriksson. Seems that if something isn't the latest and greatest, the Japanese don't want anything to do with it!

By the time we wandered back to the Capsule Inn for the 5pm check-in, we were pretty beat, so we each went to our separate pods for a short pre-dinner nap. It was at that point that I discovered that the pods were approximately 196cm long (I'm 197cm tall). When laying out straight, I was just barely too long. Fortunately the capsules were fairly wide, so I was able to fit in diagonally.

Since we didn't have rooms per se, this was to be our only night where we couldn't have apéros before going out. We couldn't let Christmas Eve go without some celebration; we'd decided to go to the New York Bar in the Park Hyatt Tokyo hotel, on the 52nd floor of the Shinjuku Park Tower. The bar was made famous by the movie Lost In Translation, although sadly a certain someone was not anywhere to be found on the night we visited.
We hadn't realized that the bar didn't open until 8pm, so we had a small wait, but the place was absolutely stunning, with unsurpassed views of the Tokyo cityscape. They had a lounge band and singer, but as an added bonus we were serenaded with Christmas Carols by a visiting group of Harlem gospel singers. The Hyatts in Japan seem to run top-tier bar programs, and the New York bar was no exception. Unfortunately for me, though I wasn't paying attention to the tabletop snack mix and inadvertently ate a peanut, to which I have an allergy. Almost immediately, I lost all my appetite and wasn't able to even enjoy my martini, which considering the 2,000 JPY cover charge was especially annoying.

Since I was feeling pretty miserable and just wanted to crawl into my pod, Wendy and Forest went on to eat near
Shibuya Crossing (which I was sorry to miss) and I took a train back to Akiba. Upon arriving, I was surprised to find that the seemingly near-empty hotel was now packed; all but one or two of the pods on my floor were occupied. The next morning, after meeting up with the girls again, we boarded a train for Hakone.

Our complete Tokyo album can be found here.