Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Earthquake!

The next day, we headed back to the train lines to head for Osaka. It was on these trains that the great earthquake hit: we felt nothing and had no idea that the disaster had happened. We arrived in Osaka a few hours later and started to explore. After Calvin received a couple texts and we found a television, we realized that an earthquake had occurred. However, it was just a street television, and we still did not glean the magnitude of the damage to the northern parts of Japan. As far as we could tell, everyone was calm and happy in Osaka. We finished up the day and spent the night in an internet café. I thought this experience was quite bizarre but very fun. You rent a little room with a computer for eight hours, and you can surf the ‘net, watch movies, or sleep. But, because we only had it for eight hours we had to wake up at 5 and head out of Osaka. On our way up we stopped at Nara for a quick peak at the infamous deer and giant Buddha.

We had planned on it taking all day to get to Tokyo on the trains due to the earthquake. But, we got to a point near Nagoya where we were informed that the JR trains would go no further north. We waited in a long line of anxious people for a bus only to be informed that buses to the Tokyo area had been filled up for the next two days. We felt very stuck. It seemed our options were taking a Shinkansen, a very expensive, fast train to Tokyo, or hitchhiking. Though we considered putting our thumbs out, we ultimately felt that this climate may not be the best time to embark on that adventure. We bit the bullet and took the speedy train into Tokyo.

Back at Calvin’s dorm, his friends were abuzz with stories of their adventures, and we got to hear about the rumbling and shaking that the buildings in Tokyo went through. To be clear, the damage in Tokyo and to the south was relatively minimal. Japan’s buildings were built very soundly and though objects were jumbled and some structural damage occurred, the citizens of this area, for the most part, stayed safe. The devastation occurred in an area north of Tokyo called Sendai. In this city and surrounding area, the tsunami waves proved once again humanity’s helplessness when faced with the raw power of nature. Calvin’s dorm mates, though safe, huddle around the television watching the news unfold about their country. We have felt a bit of rumbling and aftershocks. As we proceed forward cautiously, we pray for the families of the victims and the safety and recovery of Japan.

Miyajima and the Floating Arch

“Wow” is all that can be said about our trip to an island near Hiroshima called Miyajima. I have seen pictures of the orange Shinto arch out in the water, so I was very excited when I learned that we would be going to visit this location. In ancient times, this island was a sacred location of earthly paradise. I dare say it still is. There is an incredible temple built out on a dock on the beach that is completely above water or beach depending on the tide. This temple looks out on the arch built a hundred yards in the tide flat. The town has many more temples and shrines that contribute to the island’s sacred atmosphere. The village is situated at the foothills of Mt. Misen and several other peaks. The sharp, steep ridges covered with thick, exotic trees almost gave it the appearance of a tropical island, and Calvin and I couldn’t help ourselves from comparisons to Jurassic Park or the island from Lost. Needless to say, we were quite excited to start our hike.

Miyajima boasts to have one of the best views in all of Japan from the lookout at the top of Mt. Misen. The lookout can be reached by a gondola or by trails that lead through the forest. The hike up further revealed the religious character of the island. Amongst the beautiful trees and views, there were statues of gods and graves of ancestors. There was also a shrine deep in a rustic cave. The island being fairly small we were able to climb to the three highest peaks. From the tops, we could see a panoramic view of Hiroshima and the surrounding mainland and the several islands that scatter wonderfully across this southern bay. The ancients were not mistaken; there is something truly transcendent about this view. And we soaked it up for as long as we could until we had to make our way down to beat the sunset. Before leaving Miyajima, we watched the last sun fall behind the famous arch, now in the low tide. And, because the place was known for their culinary skills with oysters, we grabbed a couple of fried oysters before catching a ferry back.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Castle and Hiroshima

To break up the day of travel from Kyoto to Hiroshima, Calvin planned a little detour for a day hike. The destination was Bitchu Matsuyama castle, the highest castle in Japan. We arrived at the station and, after a quick lunch, headed toward the foothills at the edge of town. The hike was relatively short but quite steep. With all our gear in tow, it almost felt like we were backpacking. Though the colorful trees were not yet blooming radiant colors of pink and red, the forest was lush and had a very different texture and tone than any hike I have ever done. At the top, we were rewarded with a cup of tea that they provide. Exploring the castle did not take long, but this humble fortress was a priceless treasure for Western travelers wanting to re-imagine and relive the days that the samurai ruled these hills.

The next day was packed with walking around Hiroshima. We visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and the Peace Park which contained several monuments to the victims of the atomic bomb dropped on the city during World War II. The museum and park ooze with pain, despair, and shame, yet the beautiful and vibrant city is a testament to the resilience of these citizens and the hope that they have to rid the world of humanities destructive tendencies. After a brief stop at the hostel to switch Calvin’s contacts to glasses and to revive myself with some coffee, we walked to a park that was on the map but not mentioned in the tour guides. It turned out to be a forest park with lookouts, and we showed up just in time to watch the sunset over the city. The park was also filled with wild cats, so Calvin and I obviously had some fun with that. To end an amazing day, we ate a competitive okonomimura place that served and excellent meal.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Journey to Kyoto

The next leg of my journey was to the ancient city of Kyoto. Our travel down there in trains took most of the day, however, we arrived at our hostile with enough time to get some food and hit the public bath before bed. The bath was quite an interesting experience. The pools were very hot and I could not stay in them long. One pool shocked me, literally. It had a section that had a very weak electrical current pulsing through the water, which tingled and massaged the muscles.

The next day we had roughly nine hours to take advantage of the open hours of Kyoto, and we used every one of them. Calvin, in his master planning, mapped out a set of essential temples, shrines, and castles among the multitudes that they have there. The first thing I noticed about Kyoto is that it has a very different culture than Tokyo. Bright, loud signs are abandoned here for more traditional architecture and decoration. There are far less people, and the pace of the city seems slower and more relaxed. The city rests in beautiful foothills that paint its elemental tone. We visited a famous shrine at the base of the mountains that houses great views of the city. Next, we went to the castle built by the shogun in ancient times to show the power of the warrior class. To end the tour, Calvin took me to the gold temple. It is a gold painted temple that lies in incredible scenery of water and plants. The view of it was honestly breathtaking. We checked out another market and ate a much needed meal and headed back to our comfortable hostel room.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

...And wake up in Tokyo

On Friday, we started the day with a tour of the campus. There wasn't much activity in the morning, but it was a beautiful morning and a few trees even had some buds on them. We headed out to a famous market area on the East side of Tokyo and after a delicious lunch of ramen and pork we decided to head to Ueno Park. Like Seattlites, the people of Tokyo like to take advantage of the outdoors and have parks with shrines, gardens and museums. A walk around the lake gave me an even sharper feeling of a kinship between Tokyo and Seattle. Surrounding the lake are homeless men construction scavenged homes, elderly men playing a Japanese strategic game on a musty bench, joggers in the latest trend of running gear, and mothers giving their children much needed fresh air. We then headed to a museum of Asian artistic heritage. My favorite exhibit was the swords and the armor, artistic expressions of the ancient warrior class. To end the evening, we went to check out the electronics fervor in Akihabara. Stores and stores and floors and floors of every conceivable electronic gadget or part.

We woke up early the next day and zipped back to the water in order to catch the fish market in action. I saw enough fish goo and guts to make me think I would never eat another fish; but that was until I tasted the sushi. Calvin wasn't kidding when he told me that it is much better fresh from the Tokyo fish market. We then headed to Shibuya, a shopping district, where I got to see the energy for shopping that I have only witnessed on Christmas Eve and Black Fridays. Lights, music, piled merchandise all cater to the many patrons of these huge stores. We sought sanctuary from the buzz of the city in a lush walk to a temple in a green forest. We ended the day checking out the radiant and vibrant colors of the Shinjuku streets.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Well, I should have known I was in trouble when I got lost in the the States! LAX proved to be a little confusing as I had to leave security and the terminal building and walk outside to a new terminal and check in again and go through another security check (finally got a full body screening). My first new friend was a Korean woman on my flight who persisted in her broken English to tell me about her life, and she even gave me a "Korean" massage. Once landed I followed the directions and got to Shinjuku. However, once in Shinjuku I could not find the place to purchase tickets. I wandered around the busiest train station in the world wheeling an enormous suitcase and wearing a very confused, scared expression for about 30 minutes. I was finally able to communicate to employees what I was looking for and got on my train. By the time I got to Calvin's school I had been traveling for about 23 hours, so I was quite tired and went to sleep.

The next day, Calvin and I headed to the Imperial Palace where we hung out in the gardens. We then went to a famous war shrine and a museum that covered the war history of Japan. It was really interesting to walk through a museum that tells the story of World War II from the other point of view. We then went to a famous temple in Tokyo, and I got my first Japanese meal of noodles and fried pork. To end the evening, we headed to Kichijoji to meet up with some of Calvin's friends.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Blake and Black Swans

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the dark, new film Black Swan. The consensus seems to be that it is obviously artful but one wishes she had not watched it. Hmm… sounds like a Darren Aronofsky film all right. Last weekend I finally got a chance to see this much anticipated film. Be warned that, though I loved this movie, it contains very offensive sexual scenes. I do not believe that this movie is for everyone. Also, I spoil the ending ahead. At the beginning of the film, we immediately get a picture of innocence: a timid ballerina with devout discipline to the techniques of dance. From this point on I could not help but view the film through the lens of William Blake’s poetry (note: my Romantics professor never really agreed with my interpretation of Blake).

In the hot climate that this film has erupted, I am trying to find reasons that this film is valuable and significant outside of its artistic production. I believe that there is something spiritually significant in the film’s story. What we have here is Blake’s theme of innocence and its inevitable movement into experience, which ultimately leads to death. O.K. Too nerdy? Well, it is essentially the story of Eve. At the beginning of the story, the young dancer is a near perfect individual. She has a mastery of technique and a blameless personality that qualifies her to dance as the white swan. However, there is something missing that disqualifies her from embodying the black swan. The movie then chronicles her slow move into experience through sexual encounters, jealousy, and violence. She has eaten the apple, and it has changed her; this state of experience leads to her death. The movie asserts that while this transformation is inevitable, there is also something good, even perfect in it. Perfection is only achieved by first going through a state of experience. In my reading, Blake reaches this same conclusion. And this is what I believe most Christians will probably be offended by. Did we need to enter the state of sin or would it have been better to stay in Eden?