Monday, September 10, 2018

More in the Middle

Well, certainly taking a 14-month break is not the ideal way to finish one's travel blog...

But I think it can be done.  Because there is still so much, it seems useful to summarize up to this point:  I've left off about halfway through the three weeks, in the city of Matsumoto.  Since Matsumoto is on the other side of the Japanese Alps from Tokyo (north side), I continued my loop north and west to Kanazawa.  After a couple days there, I headed south to Kyoto for a few days (including a half-day in Himeji) and then closing the loop with a day and a half in Tokyo.

That's the quick version.

Kanazawa, almost on the Sea of Japan on the central north coast, was the capital one of the most productive (thus richest) regions of Japan.  The Maeda clan ruled here for centuries, as a reward for their support of Hideyoshi, and then the Tokugawa (who ruled from 1600ish-1870ish as shogun).  Now with about the same population of Portland, Kanazawa has maintained many of its historic districts, including the Samurai District, the Geisha District, and the huge Kenroku-en Garden.  The Garden was built in the 1630s, probably in several phases, and at least partly as way of storing water for firefighting.  It was the Outer Garden for the now-completely reconstructed Kanazawa Castle, itself worth a wander for the range of views of the city, as well as a really detailed explanation of 'how you build a castle wall in Japan.'  I took careful notes.

Unfortunately, this was about the point of the trip where the backpack, the constant changing of cities, and the summer weather caught up with me.  I was disappointed in myself, having lived in North Carolina for years, but 90 degrees with 80% humidity turned out to be my undoing.  And then the rains, for which Kanazawa is also famous (I mentioned their agricultural success here....?).

So, the second day in Kanazawa, I didn't do that much.  The fish market was probably the highlight.  Earlier that week, I had seen forklifts in Hachinohe loading large stacks of styrofoam boxes, which struck me as odd.  Styrofoam being, you know, pretty light.  OF COURSE....they were full of fish and ice.  And now, here's a bunch of styro boxes, stacked up in this market.  Also, some boxes full of water, with air bubblers running into them for flounder.  Just lying there at the bottom, hoping no one would notice them.  Blink.  Blink.

Having looked at some of the fantastic little streets in and around the Geisha District the day before (funny, no one seemed to be around in the morning....), my Day Two exploration was along a winding canal/stream, thoroughly walled in rock but surrounded by all manner of restaurants and boutiques and little houses.  This was just a block or two off The Main Drag.  Impressive contrast.  But it also rained like crazy that day, so hunkering down in the hotel wasn't so bad.  A related note: umbrellas are generally considered public property in Japan.  If it's in the umbrella rack, dripping, you can apparently walk off with it.  Which inspired a couple of after-dinner "&*$#!" moments...

I didn't get to everything I'd hoped to in Kanazawa, mostly notably the Sea of Japan, less than a mile away.  I guess the compromise was:  given the rain, the Sea of Japan had, instead, come to me.  This region of Japan, is also well-known for its onsen (including one where they soft-boil eggs in the water (yum?)).  Missed those, too.  Whenever I go back, I expect I'll spend a bunch of time poking around here more carefully.

Although we'll see about the eggs...

On Onsen

Dawn, who I work with, has been to Japan many times to visit her husband's family.  "There are two things you must not miss in Japan," she told me before I left.  "Trains and onsen."  'Trains' I get, am easily pumped up for, and have mentioned/will mention often in this blog.  'Hot springs' are...fine, but I haven't really gone out of my way for them.

But Dawn was right.  And I was wrong: apparently, I AM going to wax poetical about onsen.

'Onsen' (I understand there are no plural forms in Japanese grammar) are a kind of hot springs bathhouse.  Depending on where you are, the water may contain some kind of minerals, that have some kind of healing property and some of them (like Asama Onsen) have been around for centuries.  You can find bathhouses with heated water, but, to be an onsen, the water has to be geo-thermally heated (as I understand it), not a water-heater.  Surprising NO ONE, the Japanese have a national agency that certifies which places are 'onsen,' and which are merely 'sento.'

Because onsen are important to the Japanese, as Dawn suggests.  They're not merely hot springs, although I can only speculate why not.  Part of it is probably the ritual:  everyone soaps off before, swimsuits are not allowed, no tattoos (it's a family place...Japanese gangsters [yakuza] are known for tattoos), and you're not allowed to put your face in the water, so you keep your little face cloth on top of your head.  Obviously, they're divided into men's and women's, and I didn't see a lot of socializing.  Then again, as a gaijin (foreigner), it's entirely possible people didn't want to talk around me.

And soak.  Mostly it's in the hot pool, but there's also a cold pool, and typically a bench or two out in a walled garden.  In one hotel, the whole onsen was on the 15th floor, so the bench was out on the balcony behind a 5-foot wall.  The whole experience, taken over 30-40 minutes, is surprisingly soothing, but also invigorating....and very Japanese.

We talked with a local owner in Ishinomaki.  If I recall, his onsen was completely slammed after the tsunami, and a pump failure nearly created a crisis.  Sure, folks wanted to clean off, but it was clearly a much needed comfort.  I'd be interested to know what percent of the population uses an onsen, and how often.  I'M certainly a fan...

Friday, February 2, 2018

Most of Japan is South of Hachinohe...

Alright.  Time to start wrapping this up.  Here's a post I wrote on 7/5/17 about the previous week (6/28)....

"I'm realizing that my blogging is a little heavy on detail, so I'm going to do less travelog and more story-telling [ha! MB 2/2/18].  Let me know if that's working....

Hachinohe was a pleasant enough place.  It appears to be a port city in decline, and probably for 15 years or more.  The entire Tohoku region has been losing youth to the bigger cities forever; Tohoku and everywhere else in the world.  So, I didn't hang out long, and took off Tuesday for Matsumoto, tucked in amidst the Japanese Alps.

The usual hash of reroutes and adjusted expectations didn't keep from getting there by mid-afternoon.  I did some laundry and shopping and came across, of all things, a Big Boy.  This is a Midwestern restaurant chain that has no earthly business in the valley cities of mid-Japan.  Yet, there it was.  Obviously, I had to see what that's all about.

It was okay, and...pretty different.  The full meal deal included salad, soup (miso), rice and a beef curry.  Hmm.  And the hamburgers ALL failed to have buns.  "Hamburg steaks" is how they're billed.    Most curious.  [as it happens, Big Boy has mostly disappeared from the US {79 stores}; almost all the remaining Big Boys are IN Japan {279 stores!} 2/2/18]

Wednesday was full.  Matsumoto Castle, across the street from my hostel, was great.  Virtually every castle or palace I've visited in Japan has been rebuilt to some degree and at some more recent time.  This speaks to the enormous fire risks Japan is subject to;  I assume that's a response to primarily woodframe construction. That and, you know, some wars.

But Matsumoto Castle is intact, going back to the late 1500s and the rise of the Edo period.  Somehow that feels important, even though the shuffling crowds and lack of any furniture make the insides of all of these castles...hard to grasp.  Still, there was enough interpretation to get it, plus, like, it's a friggin' 7-story building made of wood.  Standing in the middle of this ring of mountains with a full view of the valley.  Gives some insight on how these feudal estates formed.  If you think about that kind of thing...

And, of course, Matsumoto Castle ("the Crow Castle" from all the black siding) is totally photogenic:  it already graces the cover of my FaceBorg account.  No idea how I'm going to decide which photos to keep...

So, a full morning.  I took advantage of one local specialty for lunch:  soba, or buckwheat, noodles.  Pretty tasty, and, yes, everyone else WAS slurping.  The other specialty for the mid-mountain region (Nagano/Matsumoto-ish) I did not try:  basashi, or horsemeat sushi.  Yeah, raw.  Outside my current culinary capacity.

The afternoon was dedicated to getting to, and soaking in, the Asama Onsen, or natural hot spring baths.  I'm not going to wax too poetical about onsen....but they're pretty relaxing.  Getting there and back, somewhat less so.

Ah, and there I go into travelog mode.  Time for a break.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Kasagi no O-kuki

"The torii crosspieces from Okuki"

Trying to pick up the blog thread...this post is the Monday after the rest of the group headed south to Tokyo, and I headed north to Hachinohe, not too far from the northern end of "the big island." And it's mostly the tale of the torii.

Torii are the large red gates that look like 'pi' to Westerners.  They're actually part of Shinto shrines, and at least two were washed away in the Great East Japan Earthquake in March of 2011 (and I hope someone will correct me where I've gone astray).  Somehow, they washed up on the Oregon coast two years later.  Through a remarkable chain of events, they ended up in the care of the Portland Japanese Garden, which spent two years discovering where they were from and getting them back.  These kasagi, or crosspieces, are considered sacred objects, and their return was kind of a big deal.  The whole story is here:

This became one of my quests not too long after deciding I was going to Japan.  Given that I've come to Japan to learn more about their experience with the tsunami, it seemed fitting to visit these torii.  And things seemed to fall into place:  the lady at the hotel tracked down all the train info, I failed to mess that up, and I got to the breakwater the shrine and torii now reside.  Ooooh, but there's a cyclone fence.  Okay, I'll check it out.  Oo, there's a gate, and it's unlocked.  Oh, but there are gulls.  And it's.....nesting season.  Actually, there are medium-aged chicks staggering around everywhere, not quite ready to fly.  That's right: it's fledge week.

Woo, and loud.  And there are a LOT of them.  Just strolling through seemed really unwise, with real risk for stepping on somebody.  Also, honestly, that many yelling birds raises the Hitchcock Factor for me.  Plus, I mean, freaking out a bunch of other critters just to get to a Shinto shrine rather seemed to miss the point of Shinto shrines.  So I shuffled along for, mm, a while, no doubt to the amusement of the fishermen who base their boats all up and down this cove, and made it about halfway to the torii.  Just close enough for a zoom photo of the words 'Portland Japanese Garden' now etched in them.

Phew.  Worth it, if a little roundabout.  I don't know how to do things any other way.

Wrapping Up the PSU Week

The last day of the program, (Saturday, 6/24), was a bit more of a blur than some other days, if maybe only because we spent less time on the bus!  In the morning, we heard from a couple of folks working on replacement housing.  Six years later, there are still 100,000 people in temporary housing!  And the social dynamics are real.  Throw a bunch of fishermen among the farmers, a crowd of folks on government assistance among the gets tense.  The big breakthrough was assigning housing by neighborhood, rather than by lottery, which helped keep some group cohesion.  Apparently that was an important factor, although I could imagine it going the other way, too.

After checking out the early construction phase of their new development (adding layers of dirt for a couple years, remember), we visited some of future residents at a local Shinto shrine.  Then, off to the oyster farm!  I gotta tell you, I'm not much of an oyster guy, myself, but getting out on the water, and watching these guys do their excellent way to wrap up the week.

Well, not totally wrap-up.  There was a group photo or TWELVE that had to happen first....but eventually we were, reluctantly, allowed to leave.  Our hosts were very sweet.

I'm looking forward to getting everyone's thoughts and revisiting with the group, who will be presenting our thoughts at PSU from 3-4:30pm on July 15th (Smith Student Union, #296/8), if you'd like to see the song and dance version ('Tohoku: the musical!').  RSVP here:

Flyer is here:

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Hurtling Toward the "Finish"

So, I left off in Rikuzentakata, where mostly we heard from folks talking about surviving or rebuilding from a tsunami.  The Japanese are pretty good at dealing with earthquakes; it was pointed out more than once that, without the tsunami, the damage and loss of life wouldn't have been nearly as severe.  The tsunami was much tougher.

This is one of those times of sorting out the overlap between what they had to offer and what we really need.  Tsunami strategy translates easily to the Oregon coast, but for Portland, it's not as clear.  What other surprise risks do we need to prepare for?  Uhh...if we knew....

We did hear from a firefighter, a cool guy we all said we wanted to go for a beer with.  He worked for 51 straight days because 25% of their staff died helping people.  We all kind of stared.  That's a conflict.  That's THE conflict for NET, but even more for the pros:  do your job fully and pay the price, or hold back and be around to help with the aftermath.  Cruel choices.

I think that's the place our afternoon exercise was coming from:  practice making cruel choices, to see how we react.  Unfortunately for the class, the exercise wasn't probably robust enough to get us to the level of panic.  Larry, who worked ambulances in the Bay Area during Loma Prieta, was completely unfazed, as was Barb, our FEMA reservist.  But even the rest of us were kind of waiting for the stuff to get really horrible.  Felt bad for the lady running it, 'cause her exercise had clearly unhinged previous groups.  She certainly gave us things to think about, especially given her time in the GEJE aftermath, but I think she also learned a bunch from us.

Friday morning we heard more from city planners about reconstruction, and then headed down the coast to Ishinomaki.  Ishinomaki is a city of about 100,000 people, and so more like Portland.  There, we heard from one of the city's disaster managers at the time, a practical man and (understandably) now retired.  He talked a bit about shelters (had identified 16, now 100, all reinforced concrete) where they store supplies, like meals (had 12,000; now 50,000, mostly at government expense).  Except, here's the thing.  If this happens again, they expect 70,000 displaced people, and assume 2 meals/day.  Uh, math concerns....

So, expectations #1 and #2 are that people are bringing food with them, and folks know to do this.  Expectation #3 is that food will arrive from outside by day 4, as it did in 2011.  I don't think any of these apply to Portland, so that's, uh, something to think about.

On a side note, Friday was one of my more memorable birthdays.  Never bused around the coast of Japan  before, plus, after hearing from Ishinomaki's planner, we headed over to the local onsen (natural hot springs bathhouse) for a proper Japanese soak.  Extremely cool, in a 115-degree way...

And to wrap up the day, there was already a barbecue planned, which was its own kind of mayhem.  Lots of sausages (without buns;  the Japanese don't seem to believe in them), eggplant and acorn squash for grilling, and, out of nowhere, a cheese pizza.  I've never been more surprised and thrilled to see a cheese pizza.

Finally, I had mostly kept the birthday thing quiet, but I mentioned it to one of the Japanese ukelele players (it was THAT kind of party), and within 10 seconds, everyone in the band (15 or 20?) was singing happy birthday.  With the expected pause near the end when folks realized they didn't really know who they were singing FOR, but, okay, whatever, and crashing through for the obligatory enthusiastic finish.  Awesome.  I'd recommend it to anyone.

A Boost in Rikuzen-takata

And we thought the seawall project in Usuiso was mammoth.  And it is.  $106 million is a lot of rolled quarters.  But compared to Rikuzen-takata, that's exactly what it is.  It's sofa change.  Steve estimated the dirt required to raise the downtown by 12 meters (38-40 feet) would cost about a billion dollars, assuming downtown was, what? a square mile?  Less?

When we arrived Wednesday evening, our planned tour of some key sites mostly got rained out.  But we did stop at a service area, unusual to our eyes in that it featured grandstand-style seating, looking out over the...I wasn't sure.  Here it is in the rain:
It's about a 4-story concrete structure, and way up on the top, even above those slit windows, on the tiny roof of this thing, two guys survived the tsunami.  Because the water wasn't QUITE that high.  It's one of the scarier things I can think of, suddenly being a mile "offshore" in the middle of the ocean, when the only thing you know you can do on your own behalf is 'stay put.'  And that might not be enough, either.

The other things on our tour would've been the Miracle Tree, the one surviving pine of an original 70,000.  You can see the new seawall in the background:
And we also would've seen the middle school where the teacher decided, given the duration of the earthquake, to lead students to higher ground beyond the designated meeting place.  The designated location was, in fact, overwhelmed, but all the students were safe somewhere else, thanks to someone not following the rules.  Mmm.

So, the leading advice from folks on the coast:  run like hell when the ground stops shaking.  Even after the new seawall, the new tidal gate, the newly-lifted downtown, that's still the takeaway: go outside and git.

Because around here, that's apparently easier said than done.  It didn't help that there had been a handful of false alarms, including just two days earlier.  It sounds like many people blew it off.  I wonder if the Oregon coast would have an equal but opposite reaction, of full-blown panicked dithering, that would amount to essentially the same result.  I'd like to think not, but with mid-summer tourists around?

Next up:  the value of NET training!