I probably should be working on my novel, but I can't think about a lot else with all the images and stories coming out of Japan after the horrible earthquake - and resulting tsunamis - off the coast of Sendai Thursday evening (US Pacific time). Normally the stories don't grab me too much, but Japan? Japan has a special place in my heart.
It didn't necessarily start out that way. I signed up to take Japanese my freshman year in high school because none of Spanish, French, or German excited me. I ended up taking it all four years and then another four in college, earning my B.A. in the language. Then I fell for a beautiful American Japanese girl, brought home a couple Japanese dogs, and finally took a trip there with my wife and her mother (who was born and raised in Japan before moving to the U.S. when she got married) a few years back. It was a pilgrimage of sorts for me, a culmination of something I spent many, many hours of my life studying.
In the wake of the horrible news in Japan, I went back and looked through our pictures and realized I never wrote about our trip. That was before I had a blog and these pics have never been published anywhere, so I decided why not now? They are of a happier time in Japan for sure and aren't necessarily meant to draw any specific emotion, but if it happens, it happens. They bring me happy memories. (And if you would like to donate to the Red Cross to help support the relief effort, I'll offer you a link to make it easier.)
It's a safe bet you have never heard of the town of Gobo. This is where Wifey's uncle lives, about 45 minutes south of Osaka. It's on the west side of Honshu (the main island of the chain, also home to Osaka and Tokyo), but protected a bit from the open ocean. Her uncle's home is about two miles (very rough guess) from the shore, with only rice fields in between, which means it's very, very flat.
This first picture is from the Gobo coastline, looking south. That's a desalinization plant. Around that point is much less protected from what could be a tsunami coming south from Sendai. This region seems to have escaped the tsunami's wrath; there was a surge in this very spot, but only about one meter.
This second picture is an example of the rice fields that stand between the main part of Gobo and the coast. Houses are grouped together in stands of five or six, bordering fields. Her uncle is retired (not from farming), but (I assume) his neighbors handle these fields. As you can see it was not rice-growing season; we were there in late April and even then it was quite muggy.
We flew into Kansai Airport, a structure actually built on land placed out in the ocean, just off the coast of Osaka. Yes, I said placed - trucked out and built up, then stabilized to support the needs of a major international airport. Which, to us, sounds crazy, but it seems to work. If you go there try not to think about it too much.
Osaka is a crazy busy city, like a New York, but it's also a stop for one of the coolest things on the planet: Shinkansen, the bullet train. We rode the train from Osaka to Hiroshima and back (more on Hiroshima in a bit). It was super damn fast, but other than that not overly exciting.
We also had one of the most unexpectedly awesome meals of our lives in Osaka. A multi-course meal, at least 10 courses, maybe more - all rooted in crab. Here is a pic of the restaurant - if you have seen food travel shows in Japan, you may have seen this before:
The food was phenomenal. I don't even know what all we wait, but it was super damn good - and I'm not even a big fan of crab. The total bill for five I think was over $200. Not sure because I tried to grab the check and our hosts wouldn't let me. We also had Japanese curry from a place in Osaka - not a chance in hell I could find it again.
We also checked out Osaka-jo - Osaka Castle. Wifey and I made the trek up to the top, eight levels. The surrounding moat and grounds are just as impressive as the castle, and the views from the top are amazing.
Koyasan is a cemetery on Mt. Koya (Mt. Koya is also referred to as Koyasan, just for reference). I hear it's one of the most picturesque and well-known cemeteries in Japan. The markers are all quite impressive and most are very, very well cared for. Here is an example of a family plot.
The grounds of the cemetery are just as impressive. Check out these trees. It was a nice place to wander around in for a bit.
We went to Kudoyama with Wifey's cousin's family because their daughter was going to be in a traditional parade for, well, I honestly can't remember what the event was, but it's done every year. Here is a group of apprentice Buddhist monks, on the steps of the grounds leading into a temple.
This is at the top of those steps. To me, as an American, every time I saw something like this I had to stop and stare, but in Japan the amazingness of this architecture sometimes fades into the background because it's literally everywhere. Yes, I stopped and stared a lot. The vast majority of this pieces - gates, temples, etc. - are remarkably well maintained.
Wifey's cousin also took us to this fantastic traditional restaurant on the edge of town. She knew the owner and they opened just for our group for lunch, which was very nice of them considering they normally would have been closed for the festival. I can't remember what we ordered, but I had exactly zero bad meals in Japan. Everything was fantastic. Have I used that word enough?
Here are Wifey's cousin's daughters, Miho (pronounced like Me-ho) is on the right, and Rino (pronounced like Reno the city), the younger one, dressed in traditional garb. I'm not much for kids, but even I have to admit she's pretty dang cute.
The city of Nara was the capital of Japan before Tokyo, way back when, the home of many Emperors. We visited one day because Wifey's mom's cousin lived there, and she showed us some of the sacred grounds of Todai-ji. Inside this building is a giant statue of Buddha. I did take pictures of it, but none of them turned out.
This next picture is a simple city park, but oh so picturesque. The water had koi and cute little turtles in it.
In Nara we also had some real ramen. Yum. Need more ramen...
When we planned this trip to Japan, I was asked what I wanted to see. Since "everything" wasn't an acceptable answer for a 10-day trip - and the choice was left to me since Wifey had been there before - I chose Hiroshima, namely the peace museum. Wifey's uncle then put together a trip for us with a travel agent, part of which was this beautiful traditional garden in the middle of the city. See those birds? Those are honest-to-goodness tsuru - or, as we say in English, cranes. These are the birds the origami good luck cranes are based on. Just kidding, those are fake. If you click on the picture you will see they have no knees and their legs go straight into the ground. Oh well, if there were real cranes here that would have been cool.
And here it is, Ground Zero. This is one of those places where when it comes into view you stop in your tracks, barely able to take in the entire site and the meaning behind it. It's a symbol of one of man's greatest evils and also a memorial so we never forget. Words don't do it justice.
This next picture is looking through the Memorial Cenotaph, over the Pond of Peace where the Peace Flame burns. Directly behind us is the Peace Museum itself, an emotionally draining experience that is at the same time engrossing and disturbing.
And while the crab meal was awesome, our favorite meal of the trip may have been in Hiroshima. And we didn't bring the camera. Wifey's uncle found a place where well over 20 different okonomiyaki stalls offered yummy food. Presumably they all had different specialties, I have no idea. The food was amazing, the preparation was entertaining, and I wanted to try them all. Too bad we were only there for one night. So now we make it at home fairly often.
This side trip from Hiroshima to Miyajima was a fantastic bonus. Never heard of it? It's a small island housing a shrine on a small island just off the coast of Hiroshima called Itsukushima. This might generate some recognition:
This is a gate, called a torii. There are many, many beautiful pictures of this all over the net, but the day we were there it was overcast and the tide was on it's way out.
Here is another part of the shrine.
The contrast between the orange and white is breathtaking, and very painstakingly kept looking nice. This is a UNESCO World Heritage site, so I'm sure that plays a part.
I don't know the story being told by this performer below, but it probably has something to do with the sun deity, Amaterasu. There was also a wedding going on here when we visited, which we heard is quite common. Given the setting, I'm not surprised.
Another view of the torii, looking out to the water from the shrine. The wedding was in this room the picture is looking through.
As I mentioned, both of our dogs were/are Japanese. Ruby, our Akita we lost last year, was a half and half, meaning her mother was of traditional Japanese Akita blood while her father was American Akita. The American ones seem to be huskier, bigger. This is our Ruby during one of the few snowstorms we had during her lifetime here.
And of course, this is Misaki the Shiba. She is actually more Japanese than anyone else in this house, having actually been born a Japanese citizen in Kumamoto before being naturalized to the U.S. as a puppy. Thankfully for us she picked up English. I think. Not sure since she only responds occasionally.
SHIBAS IN JAPAN
So how about some more Japanese Shibas?! These are pictures of Shibas we took on our trip.
A white Shiba, hanging out at Osaka Castle while, presumably, their owners were inside.
This Shiba was with the white one - you can see their leashes somewhat match.
This Shiba was with an older man in Kudoyama at the festival. We got to pet her - see her cute pink rosebud? She was the most docile dog I have ever met - not like Misaki, who has to be in control.
And then there was the statue of Gon, a Shiba who was immortalized at the shrine in Kudoyama for his work leading pilgrims through the mountains to the Daimon Gate. At least, that's the story. Here is one hilarious version of it, told by a monk from the shrine.
Whether or not it's true, who knows? Like with all stories, it probably has some elements of truth and fiction. I swear when we were told the story the dog had not died just a few years ago. And if he had, could someone please tell me why he would be shepherding pilgrims in the 1990s? Does that make any sense at all?
Wifey and I had a great time in Japan and we can't wait to go back. The tragedy that has befallen the country is horrible, and like many of you we will be doing our part to help.