Thursday, June 18, 2009

Who says 13 is unlucky?

Happy 13th 17th (yesterday)!!

The hotel I'm staying in (at a conference*) actually has a 13th floor - maybe only the 2nd or so time that I've seen that.

*My excuse for being a day late? Giving a talk tomorrow at this conference in Minneapolis, trying not to spontaneously combust before then!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

A Fortnight in Japan - Day 9 in Hiroshima

May 10 - After breakfast at the hotel, we started out for the train station to make our train reservations. About halfway there, I felt for the camera (which I had been keeping on the strap to my shoulder bag). To my horror, there was no familiar chunk of metal, no strap hanging out of the zipper pocket; the bag was empty. Panicking a little (so many pictures on there! So many left to take!) I gaped at Brian and blubbered unintelligibly. I quickly unstrapped my pack and left him on the sidewalk, running the route back to the hotel and scanning the sidewalk for any sign of the camera. I was also a bit worried about missing the train (not really a huge deal, since we were now on the railpass and could catch any one but you know, when it rains...). At the hotel, I searched the breakfast area (no luck), and then I got the key for the room we'd checked out of. After a few seconds of frenzied searching, I flipped the sheets onto the bed and found it, our beloved camera, lying on the ground. Phew. Sprinting back to Brian, we resumed the trip to the train station and made it in plenty of time. Can you imagine, having to finish the trip with disposable cameras?! (Or more likely, we would have wasted some time buying a new digital camera, but still.)

On the platform at the train station, finally, sweaty and gross. Yuk. At least Operation: Camera Recovery was successful.

After about 2 hours on the shinkansen, we arrived at Hiroshima Station and dropped our bags off at our hotel, which was only a few minutes away. Though the area around the station was nothing special, I loved how convenient it was. Since most visitors to the city go for the sites related to the atomic bomb clustered in Peace Park, there is a convenient streetcar that runs from the train station to the park. We rode the streetcar to the end, and alit right outside of the A-bomb dome. This is one of the buildings that wasn't completely demolished when the bomb exploded (at 8:15am, Aug 6, 1945. Yes, I have that memorized - by the end of the day, we had heard or read the time/date a million times!) It was pretty moving, since they preserved all the debris and twisted metal of the building.

The ruins of the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, the A-Bomb dome

View along the Motoyasu river. The A-bomb dome now resides alongside a beautifully rebuilt city.

We walked around the monuments in the park, and spent a long time at the Peace Memorial Museum. Here are some of the sights.

The Memorial Cenotaph, under which lies a stone coffin that holds the names of all victims of the bomb. In the background you can see the A-bomb dome, and between the two is the Peace flame, which will be put out when all nuclear weapons are gone (unfortunately, this won't be for a long time ).

The Children's Memorial, erected by Japanese elementary school children. On top is an image of Sadako Sasaki, the little girl behind the story of the 1000 origami cranes. She was dying of leukemia after the bomb, but thought that if she could fold 1000 cranes before her death, she would be granted one wish. There are conflicting reports about whether she actually finished them, but nevertheless she died and became yet another child victim of the bomb.

Near the Children's Memorial are a few small rooms where cranes from people all over the world are displayed. There must be a million of them, it is quite touching.

Some of the cranes folded by Sadako, in the Peace Museum

The Gates of Peace, a series of ten 9ft high gates that are inscribed in49 languages. 18 alphabets are used, but they all spell the same word: Peace.

The museum is highly recommended - there is a lot of information about what brought about the bomb, what residents of Hiroshima were doing when it went off, and what happened after. There are lots of haunting images and artifacts, like watches that stopped at exactly 8:15, and remnants of children's clothing collected by their grieving parents. We watched a couple of movies about survivors in English, and there is an area where you can watch videos of survivor interviews. One thing I found quite poignant was a wall of copies of letters sent by Hiroshima mayors to every city where nuclear weapons tests have been conducted. There are far too many of these up there (there have been over 2000 tests conducted since 1945 - most recently, N. Korea conducted tests just a couple of weeks ago.) Not knowing much about it, I was surprised to learn that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty basically prevented countries from starting up nuclear weapons programs (good) but allowed those that already had them at the time to keep them (stupid, stupid). Obviously an overly-simplistic summary, but that's the gist. Kind of ridiculous.

Though we think of Japan as one of the bad guys in World War II (and certainly my [Chinese] relatives have some strong opinions), in truth, atrocities are committed on all sides in times of war. Regardless of whose side you're on, seeing the consequences of such an act of total devastation, the effects of which are still felt today, was incredibly moving. Especially since so many who were affected were civilians, innocent children. There were many stories of kids who were helping to build firelanes that day, and were terribly injured in the blast, but somehow dragged themselves back to their houses. How awful for their parents. Or to have to go out and search the streets for your child/brother/mother, and find a part of them strewn among the rubble and ash and fire. Or to think that your child survived unscathed, only to have them develop purple spots on their skin and die slowly from "A-bomb disease" within a year. Tragic.

We left the museum somber and starving, and decided to go on a hunt for the real-deal okonomiyaki. There is a building called Okonomi-mura which has several floors entirely devoted to this dish. Literally, when you get off the elevator on any of its floors, you are greeted by 5 or 6 identical stalls with a cook tending a hot griddle. We picked one and sat down. There was a baseball game on that day, so many of the chefs were glued to small TVs in their stalls. The local team is called the Hiroshima Carp - how cute is that?!

The menu was the basic pancake, with optional additions of thick or thin noodles, cheese, squid, or shrimp. I had one with noodles and cheese, and Brian had one with squid.

Our chef expertlytends to our mounds of cabbage and pork

The chef ladles out some batter and smooths it into a crepe, cooks some cabbage, pork and the add-ins, piles that on the crepe and tops it all with a thin disk of scrambled egg. He paints the egg with some of the ubiquitous dark, tangy sauce, sprinkles it with flakes of seaweed, drops a small pile of pink gari (picked ginger) on top, and shovels it over to you. We were given small metal spatulas to eat with, straight off of the hot griddle. Pretty tasty, and very filling. Different from the one we had in Kyoto, where all the ingredients were mixed with the batter, and pan fried together.

Part stirfry, part pancake, part pizza. All delicious.

In the plaza right outside of Okonomi-mura, we stopped to watch a dance 'show'. I hesitate to even call it a show, because it consisted of a handful of guys and girls dressed in sock-hop type outfits dancing to music from the same era, but in no organized fashion. We kept waiting for a routine or something (hey, their outfits matched, we figured their moves would too), but nope. It was just a bunch of people twisting around randomly. A couple of the guys really liked taking their shirts off. Apparently no one else was entertained either, because there was no clapping when the music finished. (Not very) Interesting.

Random dancing. I forget what the names on their jackets were... "Cool Kidz" or something like that.

After that we walked through some of the shopping area around there, and headed back to Peace Park to finish up some of the monuments in the North end of the park that we had missed earlier. As night fell, we took the streetcar back to the train station. There we had dinner at a restaurant that had really tasty Tsukemen, a noodle dish native to Hiroshima where the noodles and other toppings come separately from the broth/sauce. We had one with cold sauce (probably mostly soy sauce, but with a sweet, oniony base) and one with warm miso sauce. You could specify the amount of spice (on a scale from 1 to over 20) - we went with level 2, the recommended 'starter' heat. Because of the potential splash-and-spray that could come with dipping and slurping, there were paper bibs on the table and we were implored to don them when the food came. It was all very delicious and refreshing, and I wish we had eaten there again! I later looked up the restaurant, and was pleasantly surprised to see that it is a branch of Bakudanya, the restaurant that is thought to have invented this style of Tsukemen. Yay culinary serendipity!

All bibbed up and ready to go. Actually, these bibs were more like aprons - with a tie at the waist, too!

Mmmmm, cold refreshing and actually pretty healthy. The eggs in Japan were always this vibrant orange color, and seemed tastier than eggs at home

And off we went back to the hotel to bed...but first, more evidence of the cuteness that is Japan:

You might guess that this is the storefront of a comic
shop, or toy store... nope, it's a real estate office!

A Fortnight in Japan - Eating in Tokyo and Kyoto

You may have noticed that the posts so far have really been more about the sights than tastes. You might be asking yourself, what happened to them? Were they too busy running around shrines and temples to enjoy the culinary wonderland that is Japan? Never fear, a significant portion of the trip was devoted to seeking out, consuming, and documenting the deliciousness that is everywhere there. I had written out a list of things that we wanted to eat, and we struck off every single item. We took pictures of almost all of it, and put them in a separate photo album on Picasa, all 196 photos. Definitely check them out if you want to build up an appetite quick! In this post, I just want to highlight some of the meals and snacks we had in Tokyo, Kyoto and Nara.

Kara-age (fried chicken) buns at a bakery in a train station.
Japanese fried chicken is amazing, wherever you have it. Always
garlicky, flavorful, and crisp, even cold.

A typical vending machine at the entrance of a fast-food restaurant.
Put in your money, pick your poison, press the button and it spits out
a ticket that you give to your server. Genius!

Tasty, refreshing cold noodles in a lightly vinegary, sweet sesame oil and shoyu sauce.

Co-Co curry, a fast food curry restaurant found all over the place.
Huge portions of tasty, hearty curry and rice, with whatever you want
(here - fried chicken, and tonkatsu. We later had it with clams too.)

A huge bucket of fish roe for sale in a foodhall (sampling allowed).

Yesssss... Takoyaki... little balls of custardy batter with octopus
chunks. It starts out all liquidy, covering the whole grill, and then
the cook expertly pokes and flips it into these ball forms. you can
have it topped with mayo, seaweed flakes, bonito (dried fish) flakes,
cheese, and/or tonkatsu sauce. Beautiful.

Sushi at the Y100 restaurant on Pontocho Alley, Kyoto.
Scallops, mantis shrimp, and crab tomalley, all for about $6!

A bruleed egg tart in the shopping arcade in kyoto. It wasn't cheap,
but it was definitely creamy, sweet, and delicious.

Shabu shabu set up in Nara with a subtle, milky broth.

Beef and veggies cooking in nothing but buttah (in Nara).

Is your mouth watering yet?!

A Fortnight in Japan - Day 8 in Nara (from Kyoto)

**New photos will be posted to our Picasa site in the morning, a Kyoto/Nara sights album as well as the food album, with (almost) everything we ate on the whole trip. A little intriguing, no? That's a lot of food!**

Though you could easily spend 3 days (weeks, years) in Kyoto, we decided that we wanted to make the trip out to Nara on our 3rd day in Kyoto. The biggest attraction there (literally) is the Daibutsu (big buddha) housed in the Todai-ji temple, but there are also other temples and gardens around (plus, lots of deer, if you like that sort of thing!)

Figuring we could make a half-day trip out of it, we took the train to Nara station and headed straight into Nara-goen, to the Kofuku-ji temple complex (some of the buildings date from 669 AD). There we saw a beautiful, tall pagoda and paid a few hundred yen to see a pretty large collection of buddhist statues in the Tokon-do hall.

5-storey pagoda at Kofuku-ji

Walking through the garden, we saw lots of deer wandering around and, more annoyingly, lots of deer crackers for sale. I had the same feeling as when I was in the Piazza di San Marco in Venice, watching the other tourists feeding pigeons. Ew. Don't people worry about rabies, or fleas, or other gross things that wild animals carry?

Fine. Here you go. Deer in Nara-goen.

We made our way to Todai-ji, where a bunch of other gaijin (foreigners) were milling about and taking photos. On the approach to the big buddha is, you go through the Great Southern Gate and immediately catch sight of the big wooden building (Daibutsu-den), the largest wooden structure in the world. In and of itself, pretty impressive. Throughout our trip, we kept marvelling at how difficult it must have been to build these massive structures without modern technology. Of course, having thousands of forced labourers... probably helps.

The Great Southern Gate, with Daibutsu-den beyond.

Big buddha lives here!

Inside the cool hall, the daibutsu is really a sight to see. Apparently, when it's time to dust him off, you might see 4 or 5 monks standing in his upturned palm. He has been through plenty of fire and earthquake damage and rebuilding, which makes him all the more impressive. It's worth making the circle around the the Daibutsu-den to see the other statues and things around, including a small hole in one pillar that little kids try to squeeze through. Apparently this reserves them a place in eternal paradise. No, we didn't try it. Our North American-sized bodies just wouldn't allow it.

Daibutsu, the big buddha. This picture doesn't really show the scale...

This side view is a bit better, compare the size of the man's
head at the bottom to the buddha's head!

Leaving the giant buddha behind, we went uphill to Nigatsu-do, a sub-temple with pretty good views of Nara. From there we walked south to Kasuga Taisha, Nara's holiest shrine laden with lanterns made of stone and bronze. Must be beautiful when they're all lit up!

Lovely patina on bronze lanterns hanging in Kasuga Taisha shrine.

Coming back downhill from the shrine, we stopped at the Shin-en garden, known for its wisteria blooms. Though it was a bit early in the season, there were a lot of the beautiful hanging tendrils in the well-kept garden.

Wisteria blossoms in Kasuga Taisha's Shin-En garden.
No desperate housewives to speak of.

Hoping to still do a few things in Kyoto, we ate lunch and got on the next train back. When we arrived, we decided it was time to check out the train station. Most stations are pretty utilitarian, but stunning Kyoto station is known for being pretty controversial. Sleek, modern and dark, the locals were not pleased when it was first built in the 90s because it contrasted so much with its more traditional surroundings. But people have come to appreciate its angles and open-air design, you don't really realize that it's not an enclosed space until you're standing in it. I was excited to check out the Astro-boy statues, garden terrace views, and especially the 10th floor, which was seductively named the "Ramen restaurants floor." (We were a bit disappointed that it was not, in fact, a whole floor devoted to ramen and only ramen - what the heck is an ice cream stand doing there?! Nevertheless, there were about 7 stalls selling ramen... guess that's ok). Not actually hungry, we just had a snack of takoyaki (with cheese... silly Brian was pleasantly surprised at the tastiness of it, but I knew it would be good all along).

The surprisingly airy interior of Kyoto station

Astro boy!

Our next stop was Nishiki (the market this time, not the restaurant!) an arcade of food stalls. Mostly pickles (a local specialty), fish and candies. Some were shutting down for the evening, but it was still pretty cool.

Pretty little candies

Big barrels of tsukemono (pickled vegetables) in rice bran

Nishiki leads to a regular shopping arcade, which we spun through and then exited to head over to Pontocho Alley. This is one of the two areas in Kyoto famous for geishas and red lanterns. There were lots of people sliding down the narrow alley, and every few feet to the right or left was a mysterious walkway that just begged to be explored. We stood at a restaurant window watching a chef spend ages rolling out noodle dough, but got impatient and never actually saw him cut the noodles.

Pontocho alley, maybe better back before it went all neon-y

We spent too long watching this guy roll and re-roll out the noodle dough.

For dinner, we stumbled upon a sushi restaurant that promised sushi for Y100 (about $1US) each, which sounded pretty darn good. Of course there was a bit of a catch, a Y350 surcharge (which got you a seat and an appetizer, and, to their credit, was pointed out to us for our approval on our way into the restaurant), as well as a minimum of 2 pieces per order. Not too shabby (scallops in Japan are delicious!).

After dinner we crossed the Kamo-gawa river to the Gion district, the other geisha area. I think we only saw a few geisha that night, though we saw many over the course of the trip. The buildings in Gion are of interest because they are old and wooden, but otherwise it was pretty quiet.

Gion district

Red paper lanterns all over Gion

Back in the direction of our hotel, we walked through the shopping arcades and streets in search of some shaved ice for dessert (something we had been talking about all day in the hot sun), but came up emptyhanded. Other snacks took its place, and soon our sore feet dragged us back to the hotel. In the morning, we would be on the move again, this time to Hiroshima!

Here's a fuzzy self-portrait of us in the pajamas provided by
the hotel (all the hotels we stayed at had either nightgowns like
these or a top-and-pants set for our use)