13 August 2004

Sayonara Japan.

The fifth day, Justin and I took a train to Nara, Japan's first capital and one of the cultural centers of the country. We visited the 3- and 5-storied pagodas, which were beautiful Shinto shrines, and the famous deer park, where semi-tame deer will eat straight from your hand. We fed them the "deer cookies" sold by the vendors around the park, and discovered that they enjoy Rice Krispies, which we'd brought from the ship as a snack. They were pretty feisty little guys- chasing us around after we ran out of food, poking us with their antlers. They were cute though, and let us pet them and take pictures (as long as we kept feeding them, of course). It was a lot of fun!

We had dinner at another noodle shop, which was equally delicious and cheap compared to the one in Kobe. Nara was an interesting change from the big cities we've seen so far. It is much smaller, and more laidback and easygoing than Kobe, Hiroshima, and Osaka. The people were exceptionally friendly here, as well. During dinner, Justin wanted curry with soba noodles instead of udon, which wasn't on the menu, but the chef was nice enough to make it for him. Later, we were waiting in the pouring rain under an overhang for the light to change so we could cross the street, and a random Japanese man on a bike stopped to give us an umbrella! When we returned to Kobe, we stopped at McDonalds for 100 Yen (~$1) milkshakes for dessert before going back to the ship- one of the few things cheaper in Japan than back home!

On our last day in Japan (and on dry land for almost 2 weeks), I went to Himeiji castle, on the advice of our Modern China professor. The castle is beautiful, considered one of the best relics from feudal Japan. It looks nothing like a western castle- more like a shrine or temple with the pagoda-like roof and other details. Himeiji castle is especially interesting to see because many of the artifacts found there have been preserved inside in different exhibits on each of the six floors, instead of being moved to museums. There were scrolls of paintings and calligraphy, weapons, samurai armor, and other leftovers from the last days of feudal Japan. On the top floor is a Shinto shrine, and a beautiful view of the city of Himeiji. On our way out, we visited a building on the castle grounds where the samurai's ritual suicide used to be performed.

Back in the city, while looking for a place to eat lunch, we again ran into the food anthropologist and his family, and they directed us to a noodle shop where a noodle master (a new career aspiration for me, perhaps?) makes homemade udon noodles right there in the shop. They were the best noodles in Asia, and trust me, I tried plenty! We watched the master make noodles for a while before walking back to the train station. We stopped at Baskin Robbins for ice cream before going back to Kobe, where we went to an area in the big department store near the port, which we dubbed "Pastry Heaven." It was filled with shop after shop selling beautiful homemade pastries, cakes, candy, breads, and other gourmet foods. And the best part of all- samples!

We walked all around the area, trying candies, breads, and some other delicious things we couldn't name. I tried some fresh made vegetable pot stickers, which were some of the best I'd ever eaten. We even had to break the Japanese tradition of not eating and walking at the same time, since we were in a rush to get back to the ship in time for dinner, and wanted to finish the pot stickers while they were hot! On the pier, we kissed Asia (and dry land!) good-bye before getting on the ship for our two weeklong trip home. I’ve had an absolutely amazing, and unforgettable time over here, and I can't wait to come back here one day, and see even more!

Updates from the ship: I emerged victorious from the Scrabble tournament, taking down Neil, the 84-year-old passenger (oldest on the ship) for the victory! My team came in second overall, but the prize was first off the ship in Seattle, which was a disappointment to most, since those with an early flight are also getting off first. Oh well- we had fun! Tonight is Crew Appreciation Talent Night, which should be entertaining- the dining staff is always singing and dancing during meals! On the 12th was our Charity Auction, which, as the accountant, I put a lot of time into. We raised over $10,000 for charities in the countries we've visited, and the memorial fund in memory of Janet, the girl who passed away in Beijing! Tomorrow’s our Ambassador's Ball, our big formal dinner/dance event, which should be fun. Lots of events to keep us amused on the long trip home, and break up the monotony of nine consecutive days of class, coupled with a lost hour each day as we adjust to the time changes. I’m still digesting this entire experience – I can’t believe I just visited six countries (eight counting the US and Hong Kong) in two months! All I know is I want to keep traveling as long as I can!

11 August 2004

Homestay.

The third day in Japan started my overnight homestay with a Japanese family, which ended up being one of the most memorable aspects of this trip! I took a train to Osaka with a group of other students on homestays, and we met our families at their local community center in the afternoon. The whole group participated in some singing and dancing, including the Hokey Pokey and two Japanese songs, before departing with our families.

Lisa, the other SAS student I was paired with, and I went with Akiko, our host mother, and her two adorable kids, a 4 year old son and 1-year-old daughter. We drove into Osaka, where we parked the car and Akiko left the children with her mother while we met up with Akiko's friend, who was hosting another SAS student, Laura. We walked through an area of downtown Osaka popular with young people, including a famous bridge where Japanese guys go to pick up girls. We tried fried octopus balls from a street vendor, which were surprisingly good, considering the octopus! They showed us some of the other famous sites in the area, like a seafood restaurant with an enormous moving crab on their sign, and a drumming robotic man outside another store, before we parted ways and headed back to the car and kids.

We drove to Akiko's house on the edge of the city- the family is doing quite well for themselves! They own two cars, and a gorgeous two-story house. Their house was beautifully decorated, but also filled with children's toys, many of them with Disney characters, so it was quite homey! Lisa and I watched some English CNN and played with the kids while Akiko prepared dinner. Her husband, Hiro, came home from the lighting company where he works, and we all had dinner together.

Dinner was interesting- there was an electric hotplate on the table, where Akiko and Hiro made these interesting vegetable pancake-esque things with shrimp and bacon on top, and then stir-fried noodles in the pot when everyone was done eating the pancakes- it was a fun, social way to cook, and definitely cut down on the dishes! We also had some chicken wings, rice, and immature soybeans in the pod, which were especially tasty! Hiro took us down the street to the 7-11 for ice cream while Akiko cleaned up. We all sat around and chatted for a while about Japan and the US- Hiro had recently been to Atlanta, and showed us his pictures from CNN headquarters. They offered to take us to Kyoto the next day, which was a fabulous surprise, since neither Lisa nor I would have been able to make it there otherwise.

The next morning, Akiko made us breakfast (eggs and toast- no traditional Japanese!) before we left for the drive to Kyoto. We visited the famous Golden Pavilion temple, which, as the name suggests, has the top two floors of the temple covered with gold leaf and overlooks a beautiful lake and garden. We had traditional Japanese green tea (very strong!) and tea cakes (yummy!) in the garden before we left the temple for lunch. Kyoto is famous for ramen, so we went to a local ramen restaurant for lunch- delicious! It put the instant ramen noodles back home to shame.

Next, we visited the Gion area of Kyoto, where we were able to see a few Maiko girls walking around in kimonos and full make-up. Akiko and Hiro had a difficult time explaining in English what they were, but the best we could gather was that the Maiko are girls training to be geisha, in the future. After Gion, they drove us back to Kobe and the ship, where we said good-bye. Justin did a short home visit today day, and his family had college-age kids who go to SUNY Buffalo. Meg, one of the Japanese students, and her boyfriend invited us to see the firework show (part of summer festivals around Japan) with them, so we met up with them after dinner on the boat. The fireworks were great- over an hour long, and we had a great seat watching from the edge of the water.

After the show, we went into Kobe with Meg and went to a Japanese dining bar, where they serve drinks and light snacks. We tried sake and ate a bunch of snacks- edamame, fried chicken morsels, and a plethora of food on skewers, including octopus, chicken, mushrooms, and bacon, in varying combinations. Since Meg and her boyfriend were students in the US, they spoke perfect English, and it was great to hear about the differences between life in the US and in Japan from people who live in both places. Meg had to catch a train home, so we said good-bye and headed back to the ship for the night.

07 August 2004

Lost in Translation.

I am absolutely in love with Japan! Everything about this country is amazing- the people, the sights, the food-I love it all! The country is ridiculously clean, neat, and orderly- there is an incredible respect for the law here- no one jaywalks, or even crosses the street when the crosswalk light is red! It is also bad form to eat and walk at the same time- judging from the beautiful presentation on all foods, especially desserts, there is a deep respect for the art of food making. After eating the food for a week, I'm inclined to feel that it deserves all the respect we can give it. I think Japanese food wins the "best food in Asia" award, at least from what we've tried. The people were exceptionally nice- they'd always help us find our way, or point out the right train for us to take, even if they didn't speak any English. I'd love to come back here, and backpack through Japan the way you would Europe. Japan is expensive, however, especially after places like Vietnam.

The morning we arrived, the Port of Kobe held a welcome ceremony for us since it was our ship's first time docking there. There were Japanese harp players and drummers- both amazing! There was also a lengthy presenting of gifts- a Japanese doll for the dean, a plaque for the captain, and jugs of sake for the staff captains, and another student and I were selected to receive gifts on behalf of the students. We each received a happi, a traditional Japanese jacket with the Port of Kobe emblem in Japanese. I felt special, not going to lie.

After lunch, I went with some friends into the city, where we spent almost an hour deciphering the subway system so we could get to the Suma Aqualife Park, a mini version of Sea World, complete with a dolphin show. We spent a few hours exploring the indoor aquarium areas, where we saw an enormous Maine lobster, giant spider crabs, and a host of other creepy looking animals. Outside, there was a sea otter tank, and after seeing them from a distance in Alaska, it was especially cute to see them up close. During the dolphin show, a group of penguins made a guest appearance, and one of them went AWOL, jumping into the pool and swimming around for the rest of the show, then trying to escape down the steps into the crowd at the end. It was pretty amusing, especially since I come from the carefully orchestrated world of Orlando tourism.

On our way back to the subway, we stopped at the fabulous Mr. Donut shop, which, although more expensive, was also better than Krispy Kreme or Dunkin Donuts. (Or we just missed deep fried American goodness). We caught the train back to Kobe, and had dinner at a little noodle shop, where food is ordered by inserting money into a ticket machine, and then you give the ticket to the cook. The machine was entirely in Japanese, but fortunately, we ran into the ship's food anthropologist and his wife, who read Japanese, so they were able to give us recommendations. It was fabulous, and comparatively cheap for Japan. Fuji, the food anthropologist, wrote his dissertation on KFC in China – I’m considering going into the field myself. Stuffing my face to advance human knowledge? Count me in!

The second morning, I went to Hiroshima, via a five-hour bus ride. Hiroshima was a moving experience- we were there on August 5th, the day before the anniversary, so there were a lot of people setting up for the ceremony, arranging chairs and hooking up the electronics equipment. The old Prefecture building, the only building preserved when the city was rebuilt after the bombing, was a powerful sight- the only reminder of the bombing in a completely modern city. We saw a group of monks and other Japanese engaged in a Fast for a Nuclear Free World- they were incredibly generous, offering juice when we stopped to look at them.

I also saw the monument to the "A-Bomb Children," the one built in memory of the girl who folded over 1000 paper cranes in hopes of recovering from leukemia. All around the monument are small, enclosed buildings filled with chains of paper cranes, donated by people all over the world. It was quite a moving sight – seeing the visual representation of such tragedy really makes it hit home. Like the Vietnam Wall or the Holocaust memorial in Boston. Across the street was the Peace Memorial Flame monument, to be extinguished when all nuclear weapons have been eliminated from the earth. At the other end of a reflecting pool is the memorial cenotaph, with an arch framing the flame and prefecture building, and a chest containing the names of everyone who died in the bombing, with the inscription "Repose ye in peace, for the error shall never be repeated."

The entire area is just overwhelming- it was difficult to believe what we did to the Japanese people. The museum was another moving experience- we spent over two hours there, and I could have stayed even longer. It was filled with documents and pictures from the bombing, and a fascinating section on the American decision to drop the bomb. I was impressed with the fairness of the exhibit, especially after the Vietnam museums. With the shrine to Japan’s war dead causing constant tension on the continent, I never expected such a neutral portrayal of the Allies in WWII.

There was an entire section on the orphaned children, which was difficult to look at. We also watched a film about the destruction of the bombing, and the effects it had on people- like the children exhibit, it was also hard to watch at times. The section with the artifacts recovered from the bombing was incredible- melted clothing, toys, accessories, and the famous human shadow imprinted on the stone steps. There was also a display of the protest telegrams sent by the mayor of Hiroshima to world leaders following every nuclear test- I had never heard of this practice, but there were a disturbing number of them- two sides of a large wall in the middle of the first floor. There was also a copy of the Mayor's August 6 declaration from last year, calling for the leaders of all nuclear capable nations to visit Hiroshima and see firsthand the effects of nuclear weapons. Overall, Hiroshima was simply overwhelming- no words can do it justice. I can’t understand how anyone could see Hiroshima and not support complete disarmament.