Friday, June 08, 2007

Golden Week part 3: Hiroshima

When the opportunity to have a long weekend in March first presented itself, Joe and I had planned to travel to Hiroshima. It has always been a place that I knew I had to visit but I worried that seeing it alone might wreck me. As it turned out, I couldn't get the extra day off and plans to Hiroshima were replaced with Joe's visit to Tokyo... but anyway, Hiroshima! My well traveled friend Yuri always said that it was, without a doubt, her favorite city in Japan because it was, in part because of it's past, so peaceful. As modern Japan and modern Japanese culture interests me much more than traditional Japan, seeing a city that had literally been rebuilt and become a symbol of Japan's current pacifistic ways, it was definitely a "must see" destination.

And so we headed off. The bus dropped us off at the Atomic Bomb Dome. The iconic remains of the building, stood against the sky. Twisted rebar and melted cement figured prominently in the remains. I'd just stepped off the bus and I was already gasping.

Though the Atomic Bomb Dome is indeed striking in a grotesque way, it is also surrounded by blooming flowers and stands along a beautiful river, across from the Peace Park. In fact, after tearing my eyes away from the skeletal building, I could begin to see why people said Hiroshima was so beautiful. Perhaps because of more thought out public planning, perhaps because of a more persistent desire for tranquility, Hiroshima is a very green city, by Japanese standards. While tourists gaped at the monstrosity of the Dome, locals held hands and walked along the river. Hiroshima did not feel like a place that was dead, but rather a place that had been purposefully reborn.

We walked to the Peace Park, past a monument dedicated to the children who died in the factories, most likely many of them child slaves. Most likely many were Korean slaves at that. We saw the thousands and thousands of folded paper cranes, many arranged to form pictures or words. The kanji they formed were usually "World Peace." I ran the bell and felt a strong belief that many people believe in this "World Peace" thing. Not just crazy liberals or hippies. But most everyone really.

We walked past the eternally burning flame, that was not captured in my pictures well, other than perhaps a little heat distortion, on to the Peace Museum. They say the flame will burn until the last nuclear weapon is destroyed.
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We then proceeded to the Peace Museum, entry costing only 50 yen or about 42 cents.

The Peace Museum is a history museum in a lot of ways and, especially compared to the rest of Japan's history, is remarkably even handed. It doesn't gloss over Japan's invasion of China and Korea. Nor does it gloss over how America felt the need to justify the expense of the bomb or how figuring how much power communist Russia would have post war, played into dropping the bomb.

But more than anything, I was most struck by the roles that the scientists played in creating the bomb. Many of the scientists including Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, Albert Einstein, and even Leo Szilard, credited with the original inspiration of the bomb were demoralized, sickened and shocked at the tragedy that resulted from dropping the atom bomb. Many were pacifists, if not menially before the bomb, voraciously after. Lise Meitner, acclaimed by some as the "Mother of the Atomic Bomb" because of her work on nuclear fission, in fact abhorred war.

These scientists created something horrible, at least to the extent that it was, with out fully intending to. Somehow, their brilliant minds and ideas were naively playing into hand of someone with a different agenda. This agenda led to the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I was struck by how many of the brilliant scientists, such as Meitner and Einstein, geniuses of their time, had no real concept of how their discoveries would be used or misused. The pursuit of knowledge, pure knowledge, the lust of discovery, the thrill of the chase of science was so consuming that they were blinded by what it was all leading to. Yet the military minds, who would never have had the painstaking analytical brilliance to create such a thing on their own, knew how to use it once it was created. Those with the big picture in mind knew how to lead those with the small vital pieces of the project. Those with patient fastidious genius were so seduced by the pursuit of knowledge they didn't look up.

[Katie, I know this is your area of expertise so if I have mistakes, please let me know and I'll fix them pronto]

As a former scientist, I can fully understand how we lose sight of the big picture. Weeks can be spent tweaking buffer conditions to optimize a minor step of you minute little corner of science. The details are fun-- they have to be fun-- because otherwise the job is hardly worth it. When every answer just leads to 6 more questions, the goal of the project can't be what motivates you entirely. The details motivate you, the perfection of the tiniest experiment must be what motivates you. The goal is so incredibly far off that thinking about reaching it feels almost like despair because you know of all the details in between. So you don't think about it much except for writing grants and convincing those "big picture" people that you are worth your salary.

And in Hiroshima you see the results of reveling in details and the pursuit of pure knowledge. You see what happens when knowledge slips into the 'wrong' or at least different hands. You see an entire city flattened and flesh dripping off of live people as they ran away because of the naive pursuit of pure knowledge.

More than the military aspects, more than the historical significance, and in the end, more than beautiful rebirth of the city of Hiroshima, the roles of the pacifist scientists impressed me the most.

We exited the museum quietly. The sun was setting and we sat along the river. A crane wandered along the bank as the tide came in. We looked at the Atom Bomb Dome as the flood lights came on and as it was lit up against the night sky. Hiroshima is indeed a beautiful city today, as troubling as the lessons that it has to teach us.

(next: Miyajima and comic relief)

Golden Week part 2: Okayama/ Kurashiki

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I love places like Okayama, places where people live and work, places with only a few touristy spots that are mostly frequented by locals. Not to say that Okayama is nondescript or boring. It has a beautiful dramatic castle that looks down a beautiful river. It has one of the three most beautiful parks in Japan (another is actually where I'm teaching now in Mito but I haven't had time to check it out yet). It has great little small city things like a pretty canal that runs down the middle of town and a cool fountain outside the sizable station. It is most certainly not "countryside" as students say or "rural" as people who don't obsess over "r"s and "l"s say.

Kurashiki is a stones throw away from Okayama and is picturesque and in some ways "darling." It had a cool hillside cemetery to explore (I know, I'm down right obsessed with hanging out in cemeteries these days but it's just so fascinating and peaceful all at once...) and the view of the hamlet was lovely.

and on to the commentary:

So, Japan loves to travel. They so do love to be tourists. Both domestic and international travel is advertised exhaustively. I've heard that one of the mid summer three day weekends was added primarily to stimulate the economy by encouraging domestic travel that weekend. JR--Japan Railways-- picks a destination and runs shiny poster advertising it's cultural or natural beauty on all the trains. This year, Okayama and Kurashiki were picked as a top tourist destination. Men in old fashioned three piece suits drink green tea with middle aged smiling women and inspect local pottery. They have picnics in the Korakoen park and pose respectably along the Kurashiki water way. I wonder who picks this years tourist destination and how bitter the competition is. Last year they advertised parts of Hokkaido, in part inspiring last years trip up there, so their campaigns definitely work. I wonder if Okayama is indeed getting an influx of tourism this year. I wonder how much the local economy really is stimulated by the ad campaign.

Regardless, it was a relaxed and beautiful day wandering among the local sites.
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Thursday, June 07, 2007

Kyoto (part 1) Golden Week (part 1)

I used to feel down right embarrassed that I had never been to Kyoto. I mean, I was here a year as an exchanger and had lived here as a teacher a year and a half and hadn't made it down. Kyoto called to me as the ultimate tourist experience, one that I must do, but almost dreaded. I had planned to go before, by myself in the fall for a 3 day weekend but got one of the most horrible portentous feelings of dread. so I didn't go, and told everyone it was because I had caught a cold.

but here it was, 9 days of traveling around with Joe, waiting to be planned, and I couldn't really bear to skip Kyoto, the centerpiece of Kansai. However, we were traveling during
Golden Week which meant that everyone else in Japan (with the exception of the poor NOVA teachers) would be on vacation and everything would be packed to the teeth. So, we compromised and decided to spend one, and only one, night in Kyoto. It was an excellent choice and a great start to the trip.

As many people will witness, when you get off the train in Kyoto, it does not feel particularly "special." There are no kimono clad beauties waiting for you with green tea or beautiful orange torii gates at each train station. In fact, much of Kyoto is, indeed like the rest of Japan, concrete.

These days, a lot of my job is getting off the train somewhere I've never been and following a poorly hand copied map to my destination, trying to both get there on time and not break a sweat. Joe and I got off the train, I saw my concrete jungle, got out my poorly copied hand drawn map of to get to the hostel and slipped into my Must Get to Point B from this Point A in Record Time mode. As Joe gazed around, having not lost his sense of travel wonderment from constant Know English Will Travel mode, made me realize that I should slow down and look at the scenery, gray as it was. And such started the trip, as I renewed my sense of wonderment with my surroundings, I also got less proficient with point A to B efficiency. Luckily, although we got very lost the first night, we didn't mind at all.

In fact, the longer I'm in Japan, the more I realize that trying to find something specific often doesn't work and many of the most wonderful discoveries are the ones your curiosity leads you too. We ended up following a few flights of stone stairs up an inviting hillside to a quiet dark Shinto Shrine. somewhere short of Ginkakuji and Higashiyama our intended destination. It was lovely.

This album is powered by BubbleShare - Add to my blogNot daunted by my previous, "misinterpretation" or shall we say "failure" to make the busses take us to where we intended to go, we set out again in the morning. This time with success, we made it to the beginning of the day's walking route, starting at kiyomizudera and winding up into town.

Kiyomizudera is huge and was indeed crowded, however, used to the inhumane maddness of Tokyo, I didn't find the crowds so bad. In fact, it was much better than I expected. It's strange to imagine what this place must once have been, a huge complex on the hill, majestically and calmly looking over Kyoto city. There must have been a time when the smog didn't hinder the beautiful view. There must have been a time when the sound of the wind through the leaves could be more easily heard and no one needed to hang dozens of signs saying "please don't take leaves off the trees as souvenirs." I'm sure that time was not as idyllic as I'd like to imagine, but I bet it did have much less flash photography. for better or worse, I suppose.

Regardless, Kiyomizudera, apparently recently nominated for 7 Modern Wonders of the World , is indeed fabulous and beautiful. I don't resent the endless stream of tourists who want to see it and feel it's beauty. There are still gods here to pray to, including a rabbit god that brings you love. People write messages on placards wishing for love here, other shrines have wishes for success or happiness.

one of my favorites, free from the need to be lyrical or coy, simply read:

So, I keep messing this up... so my wish (es) is/are to either FINALLY truly fall in love or at least have another chance. OR I'd like a new dog in the near future. ~Lindsay.

and I hope Lindsay is happy today. There were many more, most in Japanese but some in English, French, Korean, Thai.... Amazing that we all assume these gods (who are more fallible than Western counterparts) can read our handwriting and know what our words in various languages really mean. Many plaques wishes for the person they loved to love them back (a common theme in Japanese love stories) or for second chances. Others wished for a joyful future with the one they loved.

These kind of placards are common in shrines and they always remind me a bit of confessional websites like Postsecret. There is certainly something in even the most shy of us that wants to bare our souls or shout our love from the roof tops, albeit with anonymous detachment. There is something, perhaps cathartic, about releasing shameful secrets or wishing pathetic wishes out loud. I'm not sure what this drive inside us is, but as an occasional blogger, I certainly must say I share it.

But back to Kyoto. After leaving Kiyomizudera, Joe and I walked through beautiful little side streets and explored other incredible, but less famous, temples and shrines. We stopped to eat when we were hungry. We wandered where our curiosities led. We took pictures of everything that fascinated us. which was most everything.

And such the adventure began...

Friday, June 01, 2007

and I present:

yes, as many of you know, I have a boy. His name is Joe. He is my boyfriend. (...even though I kind of don't like the term boyfriend because if seems like what 15year olds have and we are so much better than that nonsense, but partner sounds totally commitment phobia inducing, though much more appropriate, and I can't stand the euphemism of "friend" when he's really my lover, and way more than either of those words... suffice to say, he's wonderful and I'm totally in love) So yeah, nomenclature nonsense aside, he's really important to me and will show up in lots of posts. I thought y'all should be properly introduced.

now please, lets all get along and play nice together, ok?

and on to the adventures continue...