Kyoto, Nagoya, Osaka and Hiroshima, Japan
10.07.2006 - 13.07.2006 28 °C
With only a 7 day unlimited Japan rail pass, and 4 days already gone, in the past 3 days I visited 3 new cities from Kyoto, and finally circled back to Tokyo. I originally only wanted to go to one city, but events just kept coming up that were too good to pass up, and plus it makes me feel like I got a really decent deal on the JR pass.
Kyoto Dining Out
Before getting on the train, however, there is some closure required on Kyoto. I continue to have some interesting dining experiences in Kyoto. For lunch, I had conveyor belt sushi, where every dish costs yen 126 ($US 1.25, approximately). You sit and wait from something to come around that you want. You take it, and at the end of the meal, they add up the bill by counting the number of empty plates. The food isn't great, but the experience is strangely alien, so worth it in that sense. Plus, it would be a good place to take an unobservant friend. You could keep slipping your empty plates onto their pile. At the end of the meal, you would say, "well, it looks like I had two plates so I owe 252 Yen, and you had 20 plates, so you owe 2,520 Yen."
For dinner one night, I went to "Tonkatsu Yamanka", which is billed by one of the local English papers as the best pork restaurant in all of Kyoto . The meal was good, but the décor is bizarre. The walls have posters of pigs on them, from a movie poster for Babe to a painting of pyscadealically painted pigs with the tag line "a pigment of your imagination" to a poster of Kermit and Miss Piggy dressed as the couple from American Gothic, billed as being from the Kermitage collection. The owner speaks a little English, and upon seeing me reading the press clipping about the restaurant, grabs me by the arm. "Om-age," he says, pulling on me towards the door. Outside, again he repeats "om-age" and points at a neon sign on the exterior. www.tonkatsu-yamanaka.com reads the sign, and I understand. "Home page," he was saying. Finally, the owner pulls me over and shows me another picture adorning the outside of the restaurant. It's a pig with a beard and a stove pipe hat. "Abra-HAM Lincoln," he says, and starts laughing uproarishly. I suppose he thought I was American.
One of the most interesting experiences, though, was at a seafood place called Iori. It was just by my hotel, and I had popped in for post-dinner drinks one night. The owner spoke a little English and was quite friendly, so I promised him I would return for dinner the next night. I entered the restaurant the next night, and took a seat at the counter. I asked the owner for whatever he suggested to eat, and he presented me with a salad with rare looking pieces of meat on it, kind of like a tartar or a ceviche. “Whale,” the owner said. Now, some of you may question the ethics of eating whale meat. I know I did. But I ate it anyway, and then later another dish of deep fried whale. It was meaty and alright, but tasted like pork, and I figure it’s probably a lot easy to kill a pig than a whale. One of the people at the restaurant (you’ll meet them all in a minute) asked him if I had any reservations about eating whale, as some North Americans who have come to Japan have. I told him that in my country, we club baby seals for fun, so who am I to judge the Japanese whale hunt. I imagine this paragraph will be enough for Heather Mills and Sir Paul to get back together to rail against their new common enemy, me.
But what was most interesting about the night was not the whale meat (as I said, it tasted like pork to me), but the company. After the first dish, the two dinners sitting at the counter beside me started talking to me. Yasou and Koichi, both architects who live in the suburbs of Kyoto were having after work drinks and dinner, and after a few brief words, ordered a dish for me. It was a greenish paste, and tasted salty and smelled of the sea. It was, they explained after, crab roe. After proving to be a good sport about eating this dish, they continued to order food and beer and sake, and we talked about Kyoto and Japan’s imperial history and Canada and where Niagara Falls was in relation to Toronto. They seemed impressed with my map of Canada that I drew to explain the geography, and asked if I could sign it and they could keep it. I imagine that it might be framed right now, hanging on the wall of their architectural firm in Kyoto. Yasou and Koichi had quite a head start on me with the sake, though, and soon they were red-faced and glassy eyed and needed to catch a train to go home.
It is common convention in Japan that if you are invite to dine with someone, that they will pay. And such it was with Koichi and Yasou. They paid their bill and my bill, and wandered out into the night, and all I had to do was draw a map of Canada. I was still thirsty and hadn’t yet spent any money, so I ordered another beer. I was almost done my beer, and debating about heading back to the hotel when a table nearby called me over. Kaisura, an attorney and Matsuda, and importer of Disney goods invited me over. Again the beer started flowing, and dishes started arriving.
“How old are you?” asked Kaisura. I replied I was thirty-five. “How old do you think I am?” he asked me. I hate this question, so I lied and guessed 18, though I figured they were probably in their early 40s. “No,” Kaisura and Matsuda laughed, “we are both 51. Same age as Bill Gates!”
Kaisura then asked why I was not married at 35. I stumbled over a reply about not finding the right girl. “You should marry nice Japanese girl,” he said. I told him, in brief detail, about my experiences with Japanese women ignoring me so far. “Oh no,” he corrected me, “many Japanese girl want to marry nice Canadian boys and live in Canada. It is very popular. So popular, there is a song about it.”
Kaisura and Matsuda then treated me to a few verses of the song “Canadian Boy,” which they said was about a Japanese girl and a Canadian boy who had fallen in love, but were kept apart by the ocean between them. “Very popular song,” said Matsuda.
“Really!” I was surprised. Very few countries I have been to have music about Canada. “Is this song out now.”
“No. It was out in 1973,” Matsuda replied. So perhaps that explained my experience. Back in 1973, Canadian boys were all the rage. A lot can happen in over 30 years.
I played Pachinko, which is a version of Japanese slot machines.
I put in my 1000 Yen ($US 10), and sat there while nothing happened. I tried pressing buttons, but still nothing happened. Finally, a nice Japanese girl who worked their came by and showed me what to do. You turn a little silver knob, and that shoots BBs out of the top of the machine. If you turn the knob too far to the right, the BBs run all the way down and out the one side. If you don't turn far enough, the BBs don't make it to the center of the machine, and fall down the other. If you hold the knob just right, though, the BBs will bounce off some nails, and if you are lucky, fall into a small slot where you will win 5 more BBs.
Maybe there is a trick to it that I just don't get, or maybe I'm just unlucky, but I was done in 5 minutes.
If, however, I had won, I could then apparently take my BBs and exchange them for money. But not in the Pachinko hall, apparently you have to do it outside. Some bizzare Japanese rule about gambling halls, apparently.
World Cup in Kyoto
And now, in a short flashback moment, we’ll see me, not in Japan but across the Pacific in Toronto, back in time over a month ago when I spent 5 minutes randomly making picks for a World Cup 2006 pool. When I checked my email on Friday of last week, I discovered that I was narrowly in first place, with only France and Zidane (a French player) left. The guy in second had Germany and Klose, the German player, both of whom could still get points in the third place game. And further down the list, someone had Italy (who was playing France in the final) and a number of Italian and French players left, so with an Italy win and a few goals he could make up a lot of ground.
So Sunday’s final held some interest for me. However, in Kyoto, the final would not be Sunday night, but rather 3:00am on Monday morning. I looked around, though, and found a few places that would be open and serving beer at that time, so on Sunday night I went to bed early and set my alarm for 2:45am.
I headed to a bar called The Hub, an English pub with large screen TVs. I arrived and the game was already about 10 minutes in, with France already up 1 to nil. The bar was packed, with both Japanese and foreigners. The front part of the bar was filled with Italian supporters, the back half with French supporters. For the first half of the game, I stayed in the front area, but felt uncomfortable being the only French supporter in the area, so I moved to the back. I found a spot by 3 brits, who were lively with their taunts of the Italians, and their bemoaning of the French play. But soon I noticed their were dead eyed drunk, and their taunts became ugly (“damn f##kin French b##tards”), so I moved again, finding a spot in the middle (neutral ground, perhaps), where I could watch the game in peace and be close to the bar.
The game went to penalty kicks, and Italy won. I was depressed, seeing my fortune in pool winnings slip away. But cheer up, for I learned later that in fact the low scoring final and Zidane goal was enough to keep me atop the pool. I will be using my winnings to pay down the accommodation costs on this trip. Japan can be an expensive place to travel.
After a few hours of sleep, I wandered down to the train station, somewhat hung over but perhaps still half drunk, and went to Nagoya. I was only spending a night in Nagoya, and during the day had one task in mind - the Nagoya Basho Sumo Tournament at the Aichi Prefecture Gymnasium. The stadium was a pretty typical stadium, with rows of seats around a center area. But for the sumo, most of the seats had been folded down, and boards with purple pillows were laid on top of the seats, allowing the fans to sit cross legged on the floor while watching the action.
The ring itself is a square raised a few feet off the floor. On the ring is a dirt covering with a circular field created using a rope. It is in this circular part that the wrestlers do their thing. Outside the ring, on the floor, sit 5 judges in black robes. Two wrestlers sit on either side of two of the 5 judges (the next two bouts).
First, a guy comes out, opens a small fan, and sings to both the wrestlers, turning from one side to the other side half way through his short song.
The wrestlers then stand and enter the ring, where they proceed to slap themselves and raise and lower their legs.
The wrestlers than stand in the middle of the ring, where they face each other. The guy who was singing picks up a broom and starts sweeping around the edge of the ring, removing dirt from the rope. A referee addresses both the wrestlers by yelling at them. Then the match starts. I think it starts when both wrestlers place their hands on the floor, getting into a 3 point stance, but I’m not certain on that point.
The wrestling consists of two large men slapping each other, occasionally pulling the hair of the other guy and attempting to grab their opponent by his underwear. At some point, one guy manages to throw the other guy down or push him out of the ring. At that point both wrestlers return to the ring, stand facing each other, and then the referee yells at one of them, declaring him the winner. The whole thing takes maybe 5 minutes from start to finish, with the bout itself taking maybe 1 minute total. It starts all over again then.
I watched the sumo for about 3 hours, but never really “got” it. I think, much like ice hockey to a person from Mississippi, unless you’ve grown up with it, you probably won’t understand it.
In Nagoya I stayed at a capsule hotel. For \4100 ($US 40), one gets a small place to sleep for the night. The capsule is about 2 meters deep and 1 meter by 1 meter high and wide, just enough to get into and roll around comfortably. The capsule contains a small TV, a radio, an alarm clock and a lamp, all built into the surrounding walls and coated in plastic, making it feel like it could all just be hosed down for cleaning. Basically, the capsule hotel is like a hostel dorm, but for business men in Japan.
Staying at the capsule hotel, of course, re-introduced me to the dreaded public bath. But I was much better with it this time. For starters, I had just spent the day watching the sumo, and felt that perhaps large, hairy backed men might be viewed as athletes in Japan. It is conceivable that someone even mistook me for some foreign, C-class sumo wrestler. But more importantly, I figured out that one could use the public bath without having to actually soak in the hot water. Instead if you just went in, showered, shaved and brushed your teeth, it was almost like being at the gym back in North America, except with a small stool to squat on. When cleaning, I’m focused on the tasks at hand, and not worrying too much about what others are doing or thinking about me. It’s only in the idleness of the soaking that I am aware of my nakedness. As long as I keep busy, I’m fine.
Afterwards, I lounged in the room outside the bath and watched Japanese game shows. The whole thing had a feel, really, of being at the gym with guys padding around in robes after a sauna, perhaps getting a massage or grabbing a bite to eat in the attached (and very inexpensive) restaurant. That’s exactly what the capsule hotel is, a hostel dorm with a privacy screen mixed with a gym without the actual work out area.
Let’s Play Ball
Next up was a trip to Osaka, to see a baseball game. I got tickets out in left field to watch the Osaka Hanshin Tigers play the visiting Hiroshima Toyo Carp at Koshien Stadium.
Koshien Stadium is the oldest baseball park in Japan, built in 1924 to be host for the high school baseball championships, it has been home to the Tigers since 1936. The stadium has a very old time feel, with ivy climbing the walls outside and a real grass field inside (most ball parks in Japan have astro-turf). It seats 53,000 people, and the field itself is circular, giving a huge foul area.
The game itself was very standard baseball fare, at least on the field. The Hanshin Tigers beat the Toyo Carp 2-1. What was very non-American in it’s feel were the fans, who acted more like a European soccer crowd than an American baseball crowd. There were chanting and singing throughout, noise makers and colorful costumes.
Interestingly about the above shot, is that in the foreground you see Hanshin Tigers fans, but then beyond the rail is a large group of Hiroshima Toyo Carp fans, who were pretty loud as well.
In the sixth inning, everyone blew up balloons, and then exactly as the last out came, everyone released them into the night air.
I will say, though very American, it's not all yankee doodle there. I could get beer, but no hot dogs. I settled, instead, for a skewer of grilled oyster and a skewer of grilled octopus. Despite the look on my face, it actually turned out to be quite tasty.
I had not originally intended to go to Hiroshima. Even as early as the day before, walking up to the ball park, my intent was to head from Osaka to Tokyo the next day, the last day of my rail pass.
But I realized, sitting there in Koshien stadium that prior to coming to Japan, I knew only one thing about Hiroshima. The A-bomb. Even once I bought the ball park tickets for Osaka, I knew only two things, the other being that there was a baseball team in Hiroshima.
But listening and watching the large groups of Hiroshima fans behind me at the ball park in Osaka, I was struck by how joyous they were. I was confused, how could a city that had suffered such a great disaster be so lively in cheering for a baseball team. I pictured Hiroshima, even today, as being a solemn place of reflection on the horrors of war, but never pictured that it was an actual city, with people going about their lives in it. I decided that I needed to see Hiroshima, not for the history, but for the present.
So I went to Hiroshima. I saw the A-bomb dome, the famous building at right under the blast, whose walls were spared from crumbling because the shock waves were directed straight down upon them, and not from the side. The A-bomb dome still stands today as a monument to the bomb blast, but I was struck not by the building itself (though it is moving), but how rising up behind it is the municipal ballpark (home to the Toyo Carp), and also the skyscrapers along Aloi Dori, the main business street.
I walked along Aloi Dori, noting the workers in and out of the offices of the major banks and Mazda (who have the world’s longest assembly line at 7km located in a factory the suburbs of Hiroshima), laughing and chatting as they headed out to lunch. One of Hiroshima’s trams rolled past down the middle of the street, packed with school children and shoppers. The heat was getting to me, though, so I ducked down into the underground mall, full of clothing stores and bakeries and bookstores. You can walk in the underground mall right up to the A-bomb dome, or if you turn the other direction, into the baseball stadium. I had lunch at Mos Burger, a chain of hamburger places in Japan, and watched as school girls giggled while ordering, and a table to pretty women in office attire talked softly, no doubt about the latest office gossip.
Hiroshima today speaks to the incredible ability we humans have to pick ourselves up after a tragedy, dust off and carry on. It made me realize how many of the cities I have been to have gone through something similar, and how vibrant and alive the people are today, whether it’s San Francisco’s earth quakes, or damage to Paris during the war, the streets of Chile where Pinochet ruled for so many years with an iron fist, the 30 million Russians killed in World War II or the cities of Japan, bombed during that same war.
It has been noted that visits to the A-bomb site have been decreasing over the years. Every year less and less school children visit, and the Japanese prime minister has stopped going every year on the date of August 6 in remembrance. The youngest of those who would have seen the blast are now in their sixties, and within another generation or two, there will likely not be a person left who saw the blast first hand. In some ways that’s all very sad, because it is important to remember what happened as a lesson as to why we should never take these decisions lightly, as our little friend in North Korea seems to be doing.
But the passing of the A-bomb into nothing but history is also a joyous thing. For some day perhaps people, when they think of Hiroshima, will think only about how the Toyo Carp are doing, talk glowingly about the Mazda factory tour, mention the beautiful and artful convention center, describe the clean and efficient tram system and speak of the happy, laughing, lively citizens of this port city.