Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Spontaneous Perfection: An Overnight Trip to Nagasaki

Heiwa (peace)
Chains of 1,000 paper cranes (senbazuru) behind are a
prayer for peace
Image: CJN

A friend I worked with in Japan recently mentioned her regrets for not keeping a blog while she was there. I told her she could always update in retrospect. These adventures would already be in the past tense, even if written about immediately after completed; they do not expire. I have been meaning to pick my Japan blog back up for ages. So many of my favorite moments are still unrecorded. Perhaps I can take my own advice... Let's go back to October of 2009.

A few months into working in Japan, I got a couple of unexpected days off, at the last minute. I decided to make the most of them and take a quick trip. I now recall it as one of the best vacations I have ever taken. Looking back at my journal, I said "it was a mini-vacation, but I did so much, it felt like a maxi-vacation!" (And that, kids, was before they were saying 'maxi-skirts').

I decided to go to Nagasaki. Of course, there was the obvious (the Atomic Bomb Museum and Peace Park), but I was unaware of what one should do in the area. (Except for eating champon). This lack of prior knowledge might have kept me from going, but the spontaneity made for adventure. 

I packed a change of clothes in an oversized purse, and went off to work on Monday, as usual. With Tuesday and Wednesday off, I refused to waste time. After not finding a hotel during my lunch break, I decided to uncharacteristically get one upon arrival. (I know, I sound like a real adrenaline-junkie, but this was the first time I ever traveled by myself without having a reservation.)

From start to finish, the trip was perfect. I left work, and went straight to Nagasaki. It only took about two hours. The view of the sun setting on the Ariake Sea from the train was beautiful.

As soon as I de-boarded the train, I saw a tourism bureau. As I looked at hotel brochures, they offered to help me find one. The service was available in a few different languages. They found one in my price range, gave me directions and I was off.

Unfortunately, after settling into my hotel, it was late. I would have plenty of time for sightseeing the next day. Regrettably, it was too late to do anything the evening of my arrival–or was it?

As I left the tourism bureau earlier that day, I grabbed a brochure of city highlights. I found the few that were still open and headed out. I walked around Megane-bashi (Spectacles Bridge). It acquired the moniker because it looks like a pair of eye glasses. If you are able to do so, it is nicer (at least for photo ops) to look at during the day, but it was beautiful at night. There were no crowds, and I could walk around at my own pace.

Sasebo Burger Drops
Image: CJN
Next, I went to Chinatown for dinner; just a 10 minute walk from the bridge. I had an amazing plate of cashew chicken, one of my favorite meals from home. It was the first time I had Chinese food since I left Michigan.

 I wandered around a few of the shops. Amidst the usual tourist doodads, were some more unusual fare. For example, there was Sasebo Hamburger Drops Candy. Mmmm, nothing tastes like Sasebo. Actually, I never tried the candy, but I did take pictures of the packages, amused by the concept. Sasebo is a nearby city which is notable for its beef, hence the hamburger candies. I passed on experiencing the flavor for myself, but the tins of beefy sugar drops made for great gifts.

After a fun night in Chinatown, I went back to my room. I was hoping to kick back with some TV, but assumed there would be nothing on. While channel surfing, I did a double take "Hey! Isn't that Walter Matthau?"
The end to an already great evening, 'Charade,'  was playing on TV. I had never seen it, and it would become one of my favorite movies.

All of that was just between 7-12.

The next morning, a full day of sightseeing awaited. My first stop was the Christian Martyr's Shrine, simply because it was right by my hotel. It was a bit of a sad start to my day, but, then again, I am talking about an itinerary which included the Atomic Bomb Museum...

Glover Gardens was my second goal, but I found a lot of interesting things on the way. I passed Oura Church, the oldest church in Japan, and first western building to be declared a national treasure. If you enjoy architecture, I suggest checking out the beautiful building.

As I continued walking around Nagasaki's pedestrian-friendly tourist areas, I found a children's book museum (sorry, no English site). The whimsical museum was filled with items from books I read as a child. A quick trip through left me in a wonderful mood. I purchased The Jolly Postman (one of my favorite childhood books) in Japanese.
The Jolly Postman in Japanese
Image: Amazon.co.jp

Inori-oka Picture Book Museum, Nagasaki
Image: CJN


Finally, I found the glorious Glover Garden, where the oldest surviving western-style house in Japan stands. It was built for Scottish merchant Thomas Blake Glover who was a key figure in the industrialization of Japan. Sadly, despite the legend, it seems unlikely that events from his life inspired Puccini's Madame Butterfly. If you are an opera fan, you can enjoy the statues of Puccini and Tamaki Miura, regardless. 

With bright sunshine and a cool breeze, my stroll through the gorgeous Glover Garden was immensely enjoyable. The atmosphere, with the view of Nagasaki Harbor, the colorful blooms and charming period homes made for a relaxing and invigorating afternoon. I have seen guidebooks suggest setting aside an hour, but I spent two and a half hours there. Continuing to enjoy the beautiful walking weather, I then went to Oranda Saka (or Hollander's Slope), the former Dutch section of Nagasaki. 

Of course, what followed was the Atomic Bomb Museum. Considering my lighthearted morning, it would have made sense to go the other way, but I did not know Nagasaki in terms of direction. I simply followed the most logical directional path that suited my needs.

I had already been to Hiroshima a few years before. People have asked me "How was Hiroshima?" and for both there and Nagasaki, I have had trouble coming up with an adjective. I have known that when people ask that, they have typically been asking about the atomic bomb museums. There are not really any words to describe them, just a heavy feeling upon exit. Going to those museums are like going to Holocaust museums. It's important to do so. You should do go–you should go more than once–but you will not leave feeling like you left some tourist attraction.  

Senbazuru at the Hypocenter
Image: CJN

I left, feeling as I had suspected. Things picked up, however. The Peace Park was uplifting in and of itself. Then something beautiful happened. A young man, perhaps 10 years old, saw me, and bowed, deeply at the waist. I was so moved by his gesture. His parents and I smiled at and bowed to one another. 

Peace Statue at Peace Park, Nagasaki
Image: CJN

By the time I finished, I had a couple of hours left. I bought thank you gifts for some locals who had shown me the ropes since reaching Ogi. Then, there was merely one activity left to make my Nagasaki trip complete: champon hunting. To the victor went the spoils. 

My entire trip was just 26 hours and 25 minutes. 

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

My Favorite Songs of 2012

I'm breaking topic for a bit here, but I had nowhere else to put this. I kept it to 15 because it had to end somewhere. I am most-likely forgetting one, if not several songs, but so it goes. The list is a little more male-dominated than I would expect, but many of my favorite artists had releases between 2009-2011, so it makes sense. And off we go.

In no particular order: 


I Won't Give Up-Jason Mraz

I'm Getting Ready-Michael Kiwanuka

Little Black Submarine-The Black Keys

Heavyweight-Our Lady Peace

I'm not making a lot of comments about the songs here, but 'Heavyweight' was an extremely exciting release.  It made it seem like it was 1996 again in the absolute best possible way. I felt like a kid in a record store. I've liked OLP's music of the last decade, but I love this return to their roots.

Little Talks-Of Monsters and Men

Too Close-Alex Clare

My Oh My-Tristan Prettyman


Stars-Grace Potter and the Nocturnals

Live and Die-The Avett Brothers

Love Interruption-Jack White

The A-team-Ed Sheeran

Somebody That I Used to Know-Gotye feat. Kimbra

Gloom and Doom-The Rolling Stones

Just the fact that these guys are still at it–and still have it–after 50 years, is amazing. Oh, to be the Rolling Stones. 

As an aside, I discovered 'Cut Me Some Slack' by Paul McCartney, Dave Grohl, Novoselic and Smear the day before 2013. I didn't really get to enjoy it in 2012, having heard only half. I can safely assume that a Sir Paul/Grohl collaboration is amazing and one of those things which is so good, it's unfair to other musicians. I look forward to listening to it again. 

Saturday, December 22, 2012

One Year

As of December 21, I have been back in the United States for one year. One year–this is something that seems impossible. For the longest time my return home has seemed such a recent affair. “A few months” has seemed the best descriptor. How could so much time have passed? 

I meant to write about my return last year, but I was jet lagged. Then, I was busy. There was always something that seemed to come up. I found myself not recording this monumental event in my life, and regretting it. So, here is how my return went.

Month one: 
After a hectic exit,  a 15 hour flight and a 15 hour wait at Chicago O’Hare airport, I am off to a hotel. My flight was cancelled twice. One more night away from home. 

I arrive at the hotel a half hour before my parents are due to pick me up in Detroit. I have no cell phone, no US currency, and the hotel is charging for wifi–in other words, I have no way to call home, since I cannot pay for an internet connection. I explain my situation and get the fee waived. (Thank you, Crowne Plaza!) Then, a beautiful night’s sleep before flying home the next day.

On December 22, 2011 I finally reach home. Driving through the hometown I have not seen in 2 and a half years is surreal. Things I did not expect to change have, others have not. Most things are exactly the same. After a long absence, it is almost more jarring to find things as you left them than not. Things went on exactly the same without you. It is humbling. 

Month three: Adjusting is hard. I am still accidentally speaking Japanese to people on occasion. It probably sounds put on, but it just happens sometimes. I still bow occasionally, too. There is just something that feels right about bowing. It's embarrassing, but I did live in Japan for a long time. This is probably more normal than I realize–at least, I hope so. 

Month six: I still cannot get over 20 ounce bottles of pop. The bottles in Japan are 500 milliliters (about 16 ounces). No judgement; but my own transformation is shocking. I used to be a Diet Coke fiend–now, I do a double-take when I see a regular, US-sized cola. 

Month nine: Where did the summer go? It still feels like I just returned.  Yet, at the same time, my life there feels like a distant dream or some parallel life lived.  Pictures of Japan have this pull on me. Sometimes I ache to return. 

Now: I knew this day was  coming up for some time, but it did not feel real. My  life in Japan was certainly not perfect, but I had some priceless memories. A piece of my heart will always be there. 

I miss Japan's entrancing backdrop. I miss the mountains. I wish I could ride my bike along the Kamo River in Kyoto again, or go soak in an onsen. I so look forward to going to Japan again. 

Monday, May 2, 2011

Free Breakfast with Coffee

Japan has been home for nearly two years. Though I am unable to claim familiarity with every custom, by now, there are scenarios where surprise is unexpected. For example, ordering a beverage at a coffee shop.

Last year I took my first trip to Nagoya, Japan's 4th largest city. Just before going, friends told me something pleasantly unusual about the area coffee shops; upon ordering a cup of java, breakfast was free.

Inconceivable–a free drink, with purchase of a meal, might be expected anywhere, but in Nagoya, the reverse occurs? On my first trip there, I saw signs advertising the free-breakfast-with-coffee phenomenon, but was unable to partake of it, due to time constraints.

Recently, I had occasion to go to Nagoya again. It sounds silly–and it was not at all the focus of my journey–but, I was looking forward to getting something for nothing in breakfast-form.

Finally, I had my chance. I went to Komeda's Coffee in Nagoya Station. Holy mackerel–the legends were true–and it was better than I ever imagined. The meal came free with the purchase of any beverage–a pleasant surprise to this coffee-hater. There was a wide array of choices available including teas, shakes and soups.

For my beverage, I ordered corn soup. I was delighted at the wonderful taste, especially as it initially looked lackluster. They also brought a hard-boiled egg, still in the shell, and a half piece of toast. In Japan, bread is cut quite thick. The portion may not sound generous, but it was equivalent to about 1 slice of bread in the US, making the meal perfectly sized for breakfast. It was delicious, and indeed, all for the ordinary price of a drink at a coffee shop.

WHY is there free breakfast with coffee? I wondered the same. Apparently, there was stiff competition between cafés. Komeda's Coffee, the very chain where I experienced bargain-lover's bliss, started offering free breakfast. Other shops followed suit.

I could not find out why it localized mostly in the Nagoya Metro area. (Although, there are Komeda's locations nationwide; you may be able to experience breakfast, the Nagoya way, in a prefecture near you). Free breakfast should catch on everywhere. Indeed, Japanese out-of-towners were in line with me, excited to try the famed special. For now, its geographic exclusivity remains a mystery. If you find yourself in Nagoya, wander into a coffee shop and see what surprise comes with your drink.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Oh, How Embarrassing...

I did not complete my last entry. It was merely an incomplete first draft. When attempting to save my draft, I accidentally posted it. It's down for maintenance, but a few of you may have received it in error... Oy. I will have to be more careful from now on. ><()

Saturday, March 12, 2011

I Am So Lucky

You have all no doubt been made aware of the devastating earthquakes in northeast Japan, as well as the tsunamis along the Pacific coast. I am so lucky to be doing completely fine right now. Knock on wood. Sorry-I hate to reveal this, but I am not exactly unsuperstitious. I do not want to give myself an ahora. (The Yiddish word for the evil eye).

I might've been as surprised about the disaster as family and friends at home. Having sprained my ankle last week, I have only left my apartment as much as necessary. Hence, I have been much less aware of the world outside it than usual, of late.

On Friday, I was shocked to learn the news; I spent much of the day in disaster mode. Lacking a TV, I watched the coverage on NHK online. Simultaneously, friends and family worried about my safety via postings on Facebook. My wonderful friend in Northern Kansai called multiple times to let me know about the tsunami coming my way. I was so lucky to have close friends in Seattle and San Francisco call to check on me.

"I know you're not near the earthquakes up north," my friend said. "but what about the tsunamis?"

"Oh, those?" I replied mock-casually, letting my dark humor mask my genuine concern. "No... I'm not near the earthquakes... but the tsunamis...Yeah... I'm right in the warning area for those. The map is all lit up in red."

My parents in Metro Detroit called at 3:30 in the morning, Eastern Standard Time. I told my dad that the tsunami was supposed to be 3 meters or more.

"What is that again?" my dad asked.

"Let's see... I'm 152 centimeters (5 ft.), so, about two of me."

"That's pretty tall." he replied.

I couldn't have agreed more.

I was extremely worried about the tsunami. The (I assumed) tsunami warning announcements were not much help. The announcer mumbled as the megaphone ate half the syllables, rendering it like a Charles Schultz warning system. I'd hear "Shingu, tsunami, mwamwaaaa mwaaa mwaa mwaaa mwaaaa!" Not knowing what was being said, as a result, was more than a bit unnerving. I'm a huge fan of The Peanuts, but there's a time and a place.

The Metro Detroit area does not have much in the way of natural disasters. It has irritating, cold weather, but not much to worry about. The most difficult of that ilk is snow. Of course, tornadoes occur, but not very often. A friend and I consoled each other on how because we were from there, we had no idea how to deal with unwanted natural occurrences which were not snow; certainly not earthquakes or a tsunami. We have learned.

As for the tsunami, it did hit. I was only certain of that because my friend alerted me. There is no damage outside at all that I can see. I am beyond fine and beyond lucky. There have been a few tiny shakes, but nothing to be concerned about. I am so fortunate to have been here and to have had so many concerned for my well being.

While it seems completely fine here, aftershocks continue to happen in the north. I am quite worried for them. Buildings have completely disappeared, and people cannot find their loved ones. My heart goes out to them. If you want to help, there are many organizations giving donations. You've most likely seen these links, but here are some again anyway:

MSNBC's Technoblog with multiple organizations for donations to Japan

A video tutorial on making donations from ATMs within Japan

If you are looking for someone, please take a look at Google's people finder.

The photo at the top of today's blog was taken today at the supermarket. I chose this to show that it is business as usual in Shingu, Wakayama, Japan. Everyone here is fine, so please do not worry about us. If you would like to extend your concern, please do so for the north.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Giant Pineapples and the Kumano River

Yesterday, I went bike riding around town and into Mie Prefecture. (The next state/provence over). I would love to regale you with tales of my arduous journey, but alas, it only took about 20 minutes to get from my apartment to the other side.

I decided upon three directional options once I reached Mie. Judging by the scenery, I picked the wrong one. It's not that smoke stacks and a Circle K weren't fantastic, but I already had both in my own area. Fortunately, there is always next time.

After I returned to Wakayama, I continued riding around the Kumano River. I enjoyed the scenery, the pink clouds which softly glowed over the mountains as the sun set, then passed by a temple, and of course, a giant pineapple-shaped palm tree.

Wait; what?

Yes, that's right; a giant-pineapple-shaped palm tree. Although it seems such trees are sub-tropical, and, as such, make as much sense in Japan as the other types I've seen, I have never seen that kind before. It was so very whimsical. Just another of the wonderful things I am able to stumble upon as I live in Japan.