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Photo Journal Week 2 (Part 2)
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February 4th
Went to Nara, an ancient imperial capitol city located near Kyoto. The neat surprise to this day-trip was enjoying a free tour provided by a volunteer guide from the local YMCA. She was a woman, probably around 40-years-old, with two kids, who picked up this volunteer gig once a month to practice her English. She knew all about the temples we visited; she explained about the "fukusa" (see February 2nd) and about the "maneki neki," the "lucky cat" sculptures I'd been seeing all over Kyoto; and she even introduced me to a small local place for lunch. We visited Kofuku-ji temple, which has an impressive five-storied pagoda. Also Todai-ji, whose central hall is amazingly large-it's the world's biggest wooding building (despite being only 75% the size of the first version of the building, which burned down). Actually, the temple buildings burned down quite often. Todai-ji was originally accompanied by the world's tallest pagodas, but they burned down within a few years. I asked my guide about a theory, and she said yes, the problem was that they hadn't invented lightning rods for their big wooden buildings. At Todai-ji I was amused to see a big crowd of people all waiting to rub the lucky buddha's belly. I'd heard of that, but never seen it before. I also spotted a wooden statue that people rub for good health--this didn't seem like a very good deal for the statue. Then we visited another temple, where they annually hold the nationally televised fire ceremony, which involves carrying big torches into the extremely flammable wooden temple (huh?), and yes they set the temple on fire a few years ago and had to scramble to put it out. We then visited Kasuga-taishi, a huge shinto shrine decorated with hundreds (thousands?) of stone lanterns. I missed the lantern-lighting ceremony by one day. The temple's forested grounds would have been beautiful when illuminated by all of those lanterns.

Moi, posed in front of the tiniest pagoda of the day:

Daibutsuden hall at Todai-ji, the world's largest wooden building, 75% smaller than the original and no less impressive for it:

A large firm wanted to donate a massive metal pagoda (with an elevator to the observation deck), but the temple chose instead only to accept the big metal spire from the top. All pagoda spires represent nine umbrellas. Nine is the largest single number we have, and umbrellas represent protection, so the spire shields the pagoda from harm. (Especially these days since that's probably where they put the lightning rods.):

In the annual fire ceremony they carry the torches up that sheltered staircase on the left before waving them from the balcony of the main building:

A row of lanterns at Kasuga-taishi, an important shinto shrine. My guide explained to me that shinto is the preferred religion of the emperor (himself a shinto deity) and of the commercial classes. Buddhism appeals more to the "common people." For this reason the shinto shrines are much better funded than the buddhist shrines. At this temple each new lantern is donated by a company or a wealthy individual, and people pay to have devotional paper screens with selected prayers placed in the windows of the lanterns during the lantern-lighting ceremony. This is a very well-funded temple. That said, it used to be the rule that all shinto shrines were torn down and rebuilt every 20 years. As I mentioned before, purity is very important in Japan, and after 20 years of use the shrines were considered too dirty to attract the deities. However, even with all this funding, that practice has faded. It would be very expensive!

To purify yourself at Kasuga-taishi you can use the water from this fountain. Since it's pouring out of a straw in that deer's mouth, it doesn't look particularly pure to me, but...:

This must be a beautiful sight when those vines are in bloom! On the supporting structure you see strings with little white bits on them. The white bits are fortunes purchased at the shrine and discovered to have disappointing predictions. As I mentioned earlier, the custom is to tie these bad fortunes to a tree, or I guess to a bit of string, rather than carry them with you.

The restaurant my guide introduced me to for lunch was my first taste of okonomiyaki, a pancake with cabbage, pickled ginger, meat of your choice (mine was bacon), and topped with sweet sauce, powdered seaweed, and fish powder. You even get to cook your own okonomiyaki right at your table. Except that I didn't know what I was doing so the nice old lady cooked mine for me. It was very tasty.

February 5th
Went to Himeji to see the remarkable Himeji-jo castle. It's the most beautiful and well-preserved castle in Japan. Built about four hundred years ago, it was an important structure during the Shogun era. The Shogun who first united Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, was an early occupant in the late 1500s. I returned to Kyoto and bought four scroll paintings at the antique shop I found on Sanjo Dori. Also picked up three Maneki Neko statues.

I arrived at the Himeji train station and then just walked straight up main street to the castle, which continues to loom over the town even as it has turned into a big, grey industrial city.

The main castle gate:

From the inner courtyard the castle is still looming away, but it felt more appropriate inside the walls:

This is what the castle grounds used to look like:

Inside the castle walls I spotted this funny contraption. What's that?

Oh... that's a Stone Throwing Hole!

Later on I caught a glimpse of the business end of a Stone Throwing Hole:

And check out the pretty shapes on the business end of the arrow slits:

Each spine of the roofing tiles carried the family crest of the castle lord at the time that period of construction was completed. Here's a collection of all of the crests that appear on the castle, which served many families in its time. On the upper left is the crest of the Hideyoshi family. One crest that doesn't appear here is a Christian cross, which was chosen as a crest in the mid-1500s by a lord who had converted. This was so fascinating to a Japanese man I ran into that he waved me enthusiastically over to him, pointed up at the cross and said, "Jesus Christ!"

Closing in on the inner-most courtyard. The castle grounds had a very complicated series of courtyards and gates designed to confuse and expose any attacking forces.

Inside the inner courtyard! I actually climbed all the way to the top of the castle. There I caught a view of the very threatening carp gargoyles that decorate the points of the roof peaks. I also learned that several years ago the entire castle had been dismantled, piece-by-piece, and reassambled with repairs and a few structural modifications to make it earthquake-proof. The inside of the castle is now a museum containing examples of armor worn by the lords as well as examples of their poetry and calligraphy.

On the way out I checked out the "Hara-kiri Courtyard." In that recess on the lower floor of the far building there is a stage-like area with a platform behind it. It's thought that the unfortunate man committing suicide would disembowel himself on the stage while his second waited behind him on the platform and finished the job with a swift (snicker-snack) decapitation.

February 6th
Traveled to Hiroshima by bullet train. Got kicked out of the reserved section, which I didn't realized was reserved-sometimes it's confusing being the big dumb gaijin. "Gaijin" means "foreigner" in Japanese, and Chris's co-worker taught us how to say "big dumb gaijin" in Japanese: "dekai bakana gaijin". (My friend Akira later claimed to be a "chisai bakana nihonjin," which means "little dumb Japanese guy".) Actually, BDG (big dumb gaijin) is an important concept in Japan. The Japanese follow lots of rules for every part of their lives. It's quite important for them to follow those rules to remain in good standing with their co- workers, classmates, and heck-even with the other people on the subway. But if you're not from Japan, you're just a "big dumb gaijin"! Of course you don't know the rules, so the Japanese are really nice about it when you stumble around and screw everything up. The truth is that their willingness to put up with you goes too far. You can be a total bufoon in Japan, and they'll still be tolerant of you. So this means there are two big dangers for a gaijin living in Japan: danger 1) if you try to learn to be truly Japanese, studying the language and mastering the customs, you'll be shut out because their is no tradition of accepting foreigners into the Japan "club"; danger 2) since they tolerate you acting like a big bufoon, we saw some ex-pats who had made a habit of treating people less respectfully, and generally behaving worse, than they would ever have done in their home country. Although I really like and respect Japan and its people, this is one of a number of reasons why I would definitely not like to live or work there for an extended period of time.

My hotel in downtown Hiroshima looked right down on the Peace Park, the Peace Museum, and the A-Bomb Dome (lower right), which was located very close to the hypocenter of the explosion.

My first stop after my hotel was just across the bay to Miyajima island, which hosts the beautiful Itsukushima shinto shrine with its floating torii gate. While there I also visited the municipal history and folklore museum, which had many examples of local crafts and tools. After that I climbed to the top of the island, enjoying great views and quiet shrines in the forest. Unfortunately, I was pushing it on time as sunset closed in. I missed the last cable car down at dusk, and ended up racing down in the half-light to avoid being stuck in total darkness. Whoops!

The floating torii gate, with Hiroshima in the background across the water:

A view of the torii gate from inside Itsukushima shrine:

Itsukushima shrine:

A view of the shrine and the city from half-way up to the mountain top:

I call this: Self-Portrait with Eyelids. (Subtitle: the danger of using the camera timer to take your own picture.)

This was a slightly more succesful effort with the camera timer:

Then I spotted this beautiful mountain-side shrine:

Out of breath from my race to the top I grabbed this celebratory photo:

After missing the last cable car I had to run down in the half-light. But I was greeted with a beautiful view of the torii gate at dusk:

And this:

Had dinner at an okonomiyaki restaurant, where the Japanese wait staff / cooks thought it was pretty funny to meet an American. We had a great time chatting, using my survival Japanese skills and their survival English, and they even let me practice making okonomiyaki. In Kansai (Kyoto, Nara, Osaka)-style okonomiyaki, you cook your own okonmiyaki, but in Hiroshima-style the food is different, consisting of a crepe-like pancake, then soba noodles, then the cabbage/egg mixture, and they always cook them for you. So it was very fun. As a going-away present they gave me, with great ceremony, a pair of wooden chopsticks.

On my way home from dinner, passing through the Peace Park, I saw this eerie view of the A-Bomb Dome:

February 7th
I visited the Peace Museum. It was worth the visit, and it was truly shocking and disturbing in the displays of the bomb's effects on the suvivors as well as those killed in the blast. There's even a preserved collection of the many skin tumors that were removed from many survivors. One other item worth mentioning is a quote I read on one of the historical explanations. Before the bombing, when Japan's eventual defeat was expected but only after a US invasion of the home islands, a Japanese general called publicly for "100 million deaths with honor." That is, he thought it was acceptable to send every man, woman and child in Japan to their death before surrendering to avoid an inevitable defeat.

The last item to mention is a very poignant memorial clock in the lobby of the museum. The clock starts at the top of a four-foot column. There it moves a gear. The gear moves faster if there has been a nuclear test or a nuclear attack recently (and the days since each of those is displayed on the clock). That top gear turns a gear below it, at a ratio of about 10:1 or 20:1. That second gear turns a third, which turns a fourth, for a total of about ten gears (and I guess around a 10,000,000,000:1 ratio). The last gear is embedded in concrete. It cannot turn. So if the clock is kept moving, it will eventually grind the gears together completely against that last gear, which will literally tear the clock apart. And the more tests and attacks we see, the more the world is put at risk of nuclear armageddon, the sooner the clock will self-destruct as well.

That afternoon I caught the shinkansen back to Tokyo, and even managed to find the right car this time. After dinner we hit the town until moderately late.

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