Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Bishamonten Temple

Now that I've gotten the rant about trash out of my system, I thought I'd share some of the other sights from our hike up to Bishamonten Temple.

I really love the beauty and grace of the bamboo forests here.

After we passed through the torii gates, we came to this structure, home to the twin kami (gods) of thunder and lightning.

Here's a shot of the inside. Looks like he's got a case of the Mondays!

If you look through the doorway into the background you can see orange lamp posts. A hundred lanterns led us up a long series of stone stairs until we hit the main temple.

I wasn't able to find a heck of a lot online about the temple, but from what little I can gather, it seems that Bishamonten is the original god of war and warriors. This guy's claim to fame is bringing good luck, particularly luck with money, and the purification of evil. The tiger serves as a guardian god at the temple.

The inside of this place was ornate. The ceiling was covered with these golden lamps and tiles depicting tigers.

On our trek further up the mountain, we came to the three-story pagoda. This one was actually rather plain compared to some of the others I've seen.

We hoofed it all the way to the top and were rewarded with a sweeping view of the city. The pictures I took look just like the other pictures of the city I've posted before, so I won't put them up. I just wish the camera could photograph everything my eye sees, but it's impossible to fit the whole city in the viewfinder. I never cease to be awed by how massive it all looks.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

I'm an aunt!

Try this on for size: Aunt Gail.

Yep! I am officially now an aunt. My husband's youngest sister gave birth to my niece, Chloe, on January 25 (the 26th for me).

I am excited to spoil the little booger completely rotten. Before long, I hope to see pictures of her with the bib we sent with Hello Kitty and the words "Do you like my ribbon? It's a gift from my mother. Itty bitty kind and pretty!"

Classic Japan in its syrupy cuteness.

This is one of those times when I really wish I was home. I hate missing an event like this.

The good news: come March, Joe and I will be home to visit, Japanese baby toys in hand. The quest for a Hello Kitty pacifier now begins!

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Let's talk trash

It's time.

Time to talk about a subject that rather twists my stomach up in knots of rage:

The trash.

Yes, I recently worked myself up into a real froth about the trash. I am officially lame.

No, but really. The trash is unquestionably the one thing I dislike most about Japan. I don't just dislike the trash here — I hate it. Loath it. When the subject of trash comes up, I want to kick and scream and thrash like a cranky two-year-old whose evil mother just snatched away her lollipop. I never thought that trash removal would become such a major source of stress in my life in Japan.

Back home, one of the copy editors at the newspaper had on his desk an enormous button reading "The more you complain, the longer God lets you live." I say "Amen!" to that!

In that spirit, I shall proceed.

This is the poster hanging on our refrigerator. This poster explains how we're supposed to sort our trash.

In Japan, you are not allowed to just throw all your trash into one big bag and haul it to the curb once a week. Japan just doesn't have the space for lots of big landfills like America. You are supposed to sort every little scrap of trash you produce and remember to take out the proper category of trash on the proper day. "Taking out" the trash involves tossing it onto a small triangular patch of concrete next to our apartment building. It is not an actual Dumpster, just a piece of sidewalk designated as the trash area. So you must discard your rubbish each morning before pick-up at 8:30 AM. Putting the trash out the night before is apparently unacceptable as stray animals (which I have never seen in our neighborhood) might get into it. If you put out your trash too late, or if you forget to put out the trash one day, you are shit out of luck. It must remain stinking up your house until the next pick-up date.

Here in Hiroshima, we are lucky. We have only EIGHT different categories of trash! Lucky for us, this poster uses a handful of poorly drawn illustrations to guide you through categorizing each and every piece of trash you produce in a day. Yea!

So this is how the system works! Are you ready?

Every Monday and Thursday, we can take out "burnable" trash, which is food garbage and anything paper or cloth. This trash must be contained in a paper bag. All other trash categories are placed in clear plastic bags.

Every Wednesday, we can pitch "PET" plastic, like plastic water bottles. But we have to remove the plastic labels and the caps from the bottles, because those go in a different bag for "recyclable plastic," which also is picked up on Wednesday. Recyclable plastic includes stuff like potato chip bags and plastic wrap and Styrofoam.

On Tuesday — not every Tuesday now, only every second and fourth Tuesday — we can throw out "hard" plastic. Video tapes, CDs, sneakers, toys, and apparently sponges (not sure how that's "hard" plastic, but whatever).

There are two different categories that go out on the first and third Tuesday of each month. One is newspapers, books, cardboard (corrugated cardboard as well as cardboard milk and juice cartons) and some other unknown crap, which must all be separated and tied up in neat stacks. Coats and curtains can also go out, as well as metal and glass. The other category looks like batteries, thermometers, aerosol cans and fluorescent light bulbs.

OK. Now on every second and fourth Friday, we can pitch a mishmash of other crap, including pottery, ice packs, perfume bottles, irons, hair dryers, more pills (weren't those in category one?), umbrellas, thermoses, regular light bulbs, lighters, boots and cupcake wrappers (don't ask me why those aren't considered paper... maybe they're waxed paper, which DUH, isn't regular paper?)

And for the last category, you have to schedule a special pick up and pay a $30 fee. It includes any furniture, bicycles, gas cans, futon mats, appliances, televisions or vacuum cleaners.

WHEW!! Got that?

So right now in our tiny little apartment, Joe and I have five different trash bins, as well as an extra bag of trash that sits on the floor next to the trash bins.

It's difficult to comprehend what a colossal pain in the ass separating trash is until you have to do it. Sometimes I have trash that I just don't know how to categorize. Where do I throw away the Pringles containers? When the symbol printed on the back of my pack of disposable razors says recyclable, does that mean just the packaging, or the razors too?

What really annoys me is all the needless packaging used in Japan. You buy a package of cookies only to find that every cookie inside is individually wrapped. I once saw a big bag of cheesy poofs that, when opened, actually contained three smaller bags of cheesy poofs. The amount of plastic wrap produced in this country is unreal. You'd think this wouldn't be the case in a country so obsessed with recycling. Not so.

It also is highly annoying that we are regularly inundated with large volumes of newspaper advertisements. Newspaper can only be thrown out once every two weeks. We don't get the newspaper here, since we can't read Japanese. So I'm supposed to start a new pile of trash because of all this junk mail.

And you don't think about how many different categories some of your trash fits into. For example, when Joe and I moved in, we inherited some household items from our predecessors as well as a bunch of possessions that we didn't want. One of these items was a sort-of beat-up unopened Pez dispenser package with candy. In order to throw this away, I had to open the package and throw the clear plastic packaging into recyclable plastic and the other part into cardboard. The Pez dispenser itself went into hard plastic. I had to unwrap each candy packet and pitch the wrapping into recyclable plastic and the actual candy into burnable garbage.

We also inherited a TV stand. After getting it home, we discovered the bottom of the stand was covered in mold, which I just couldn't seem to completely clean off. I couldn't exactly carry it the couple miles back to school, and we weren't about to pay $30 to throw it away, either. So it's been sitting on our back porch ever since, along with a giant broken plastic bin we inherited and the cardboard we can never seem to remember to throw away on the right day.

At my school, there are separate bins for all the trash in the teachers' office. However, there is nowhere to throw food garbage. The "burnable" bin is only for paper. Only after I brought a grapefruit to school one day did I discover I was not allowed to throw it away anywhere. I had to put it in a plastic bag and carry it home to throw it away there. Students have it even worse. They are prohibited from producing any kind of trash. So they must take all their papers, wrappers and everything else home to throw them away.

You may read this and think, "Well this sounds like a giant pain in the ass, I'd just throw it all away in one bag anyway." Or maybe, you think you'd just chuck all your garbage into the nearest business dumpster.


Public trash receptacles are, of course, virtually non-existent. Sometimes you do find bottle recycling bins next to vending machines, but otherwise you are forced to carry trash home with you. I remember one scorching hot day last summer when Joe and I bought ice cream treats out of a vending machine at the bus station. After enjoying the treats, we realized there was nowhere to throw the wrappers. I wasn't about to put a wrapper covered in melty ice cream into my purse to drip all over everything. So I actually ducked into the ladies bathroom and secretly pitched it in the little bin they put in each stall for disposal of "feminine products." There was no where else to throw it! That's right, even the bathrooms don't have real trash cans, or paper towels for that matter. You have to carry your own rag if you don't want to dry your hands on your pants.

So, you are forced to throw stuff away at home, unless you're clever like me and you hide your old ice cream wrappers in the tampon trash. And at home, you will face consequences for mis-sorting your trash.

Believe it or not, the trash collectors will actually rummage around in your trash to see if you've sorted it properly. If you screw it up, they refuse to take it. Then you, being the stupid resident gaijin, whom everyone knows is too ignorant to properly sort the trash, are forced to pick back up your rejected trash and slink back to your apartment with it to avoid embarrassment.

Some neighborhoods even have what I call the Trash Police. This is a local resident who volunteers to pick through people's garbage to see if it's properly sorted. If it's not, they may personally confront you and tell you that you are doing it wrong and that you need to fix it. We heard horror stories when we first got here about people being yelled at for messing it up, or about cranky neighbors who actually delivered the trash to a teacher's school to humiliate him into sorting it properly.

In one case, a couple in a city near Tokyo even got evicted for consistently ignoring the rules of sorting. You should really read that entire article. It's fascinating.

Thus, paralyzed with fear and unable to clearly understand the ambiguous drawings on our trash poster, Joe and I watched the trash pile higher and higher in our apartment our first couple weeks here until we could get it all figured out.

On the surface, you'd look at Japan and think they must truly care about conservation and the environment to be so anal about recycling rather than shipping everything off to the landfills. In reality, the system is so needlessly complex that a lot of people just say "screw it" and go about creating their own personal landfills in the mountains.

Joe and I saw this first hand last weekend when we headed to northern Hiroshima and hiked up Midorii Gongin mountain, home to the beautiful Bishamonten temple. Peering down the valley between the slopes, the sights made me boil with anger:

All down the mountainside, the ground was covered in a layer of garbage: bottles, cans, lamp shades, rusted bicycles, televisions, tires, air conditioners, plastic crap that will never, ever decompose. The sad part was seeing this rubbish strewn among what would otherwise be a very peaceful, picturesque forest of bamboo trees.

Signs were up all along the road warning people that littering could result in a $3,000 fine. That's working as a fine deterrent, obviously.

This kind of dumping is apparently a problem all over Japan. In fact, this article says that Mt. Fuji is so trashed that the government is too embarrassed to recommend it as a UNESCO Natural Heritage site. It states that, in December, "the Yamanashi and Shizuoka governments jointly conducted a survey to map out the most polluted spots. Yamanashi found 87 tons of illegally dumped garbage and Shizuoka found 41.5 tons on its side."

Wow. What a tragedy.

They're trying to clean it up now, and the government instead hopes to have Fuji designated as a Cultural Heritage site.

Wonderful, beautiful, fantastic. What I would like to see now is a nationwide clean-up to clean ALL the mountains that have been trashed this way. And some kind of simplification of the trash removal system. For my own sanity, if nothing else.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Exploring Iwakuni

Joe and I took an hour train ride on Sunday to the town of Iwakuni to see one of Japan's three most famous bridges. The Kintai Kyo (Kintai Bridge) is designated as a "cultural asset" and marked as "the only five span wooden bridge of its type in the world."

Iwakuni also is home to a United States Marine Corp. base, but unfortunately it — and more importantly, its Taco Bell — is off limits to the public.

There were plenty of other things to see.

This bridge looks a lot more impressive in person than my camera captured. It's really a graceful sight. If I hadn't been near crippled from an over-strenuous work out at the gym the day before (a real slave driver of a trainer forced me to do some killer squats and dead lifts), then crossing the bridge probably would have been a bit of a gas. As it was, my trip across looked more like an event in the Special Olympics. Poor Joe was a real trooper putting up with me as I hobbled and lurched up all the tiny steps on each hill.

See that little old man sitting on the beach in each of these pictures? He's painting the bridge. It was like a scene out of a movie, seeing him there on the beach, beige weathered hat shading his face from the sun, peacefully painting that charming old bridge. I fully intended to stagger down there and take an artsy photo of him and his painting in the foreground with the bridge extending into the background. But I got distracted and forgot until the moment after I'd paid for my ticket to cross the bridge and handed it over. And a few drizzles chased the man away before we returned. Sigh. Such is life.

The underside of the bridge was a pretty cool sight, as well. Kind of a stairway to heaven, sort of, ay?

It's 634 feet long, which is about two football fields, though the hills add about 50 feet to the actual walking distance to make it across.

A sign informed visitors that originally, this bridge was built in 1673 after a flood "paralyzed local traffic." (I'm not sure what "traffic" looked like in 1673, are you?) It was destroyed by Typhoon Kezia in 1950 and an exact replica was reconstructed in 1953 at a cost of 120 million yen (about $1.2 million).

The sign says, "Surprisingly, the bridge as originally conceived is in complete accord with the most recent principles of civil engineering. It is a masterpiece of construction and functional form, although completed nearly 300 years ago."

On the other side of the bridge, we checked out several shrines and other Japanese structures.

There were a lot of stray cats wandering around. It's the same way in Peace Park in Hiroshima, too — feral cats everywhere.We never see stray animals anywhere else in the city except the parks, and I'm not sure why.

This little guy broke my heart. He was just one of many kitties in very sorry shape. I wish someone would do something to help these animals or put them out of their misery.

Next we caught a ride on the ropeway to the top of the mountain where Iwakuni Castle overlooks the city.

It's kind of spooky to look up into the mountains lining the city and see nothing but a sea of green until your eye lands on this structure overlooking it all. For some reason it reminds me of the Bates Motel.

I enjoyed the sign explaining the history of the castle, which read as follows:

"The Iwakuni Castle was planned and construction began in 1603 A.D. by the Feudal Lord Hiroie Kikkawa. He was sent to govern Iwakuni from his former post at Izumo in the Simane Prefecture, by the Tokugawa Shogunate in Edo (Tokyo). Upon his arrival, the first thing the Lord Kikkawa did was to build his own castle. He selected the present castle site at Yokoyama, overlooking the Kintai bridge, mainly for its strategic viewpoint. It took over five years to build the former castle, which was completed in 1608. However, since overgrowing power of local lords was always a menace to central government in Tokyo, Tokugawa Shogunate, in order to maintain his military superiority, established a policy allowing only one castle in each state. Since Iwakuni was part of the Suo state, the Iwakuni Castle was destroyed in 1615. On March 21, 1962, 347 years after the castle was destroyed, the present Iwakuni Castle was rebuilt and opened to the public."

Wow! Can you believe they spent five years building such an intricate, breathtaking architectural beauty and then just tore it down seven years later? Amazing.

The inside is now a museum for samurai swords and other weapons of war, which was neat.

The view from the mountaintop didn't disappoint. I zoomed in a bit to take this.

What I really like about it is that you can see how tightly crammed together all the buildings and houses are. It always amazes me that when I look out the windows on the Astram in Hiroshima, all I see is an endless landscape of rooftops and high rises. It's the same here. Concrete everywhere.

And beyond all of it, you see a sweeping view of the Inland Sea.

It's incredible how much beauty is woven into the ugliness of the cities here.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

A home remedy?

When you've got a hankering for some sweets, there's nothing like some...

MMMMmmmmm, delicious!

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Happy 2007... er, 8.

A belated Happy New Year's to all!

2008 is the Year of the Rat.


This is a little decoration given to me by a fellow teacher. It's actually soap.

New Year's (shogatsu) is the biggest holiday of the year in Japan. School was closed every day last week except Friday, which Joe and I happily took off to enjoy a full week of pure laziness.

Traditionally, the Japanese visit a shrine or temple on New Year's Eve so they can pray after the clock hits midnight. We got super excited to take another trip back to Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima, which commemorates the holiday with the Chinkasai (fire subduing) Festival. I wanted to see antics like this in person.

With my five layers of shirts and puffy green coat to guard against the fine snow that started blowing as night fell, it was a wonder I was able to put my arms down.

The announcement we'd seen for the festival didn't specify what time the festival started and the couple teachers we asked didn't know. But we assumed the action would ramp up around midnight, so we arrived around 8 p.m. to avoid fighting the crowds. To our surprise, the place was practically deserted when we got there, save for all the food vendors who were busily cooking up squid, octopus balls, and other delightful Japanese fair cuisine. We weren't sure what was up, but we couldn't exactly communicate to ask anyone.

We wandered around the five-story pagoda while we waited, and then walked down directly beneath the famous floating torii gate while the tide was out. People began trickling in as the hours passed. We waited. Ate a hot dog on a stick and a mini candied apple and waited some more. The crowds thickened. 11:00 — a long line formed in front of the shrine, snaking along past all the vendors.

Midnight came...Joe and I kissed...and...

Nothing happened!

No fire, no drums, no cheers, no singing, no fireworks. What the heck? People continued to stream into the shrine to pray, but no one seemed to acknowledge the moment at all.

It was quite anticlimactic.

We later found out that the fire festival began at 6 p.m. It ended and everyone who was there to see it emptied off the island before we arrived. *sigh* Everyone who came later was simply there to pray at the shrine.

Disappointed at the complete lack of flaming hysterics, Joe and I plodded across the snow-covered sand on the shore and headed back to the ferry.

Back at the train station, the ride home turned into an ordeal. After taking one train to a connecting station, we realized we'd misunderstood the special train schedule for the night and the next train wouldn't be by for a few more hours. This was followed by a long cold walk to the Astram train line, which also wasn't running. We finally flagged down a taxi and shelled out the 2200 yen ($22) for a ride home. It was 4 a.m. when we made it back.

The night definitely didn't turn out as we expected, but hey... It was still cool to ring in the new year at a World Heritage site. Beats sitting at home with a glass of Asti in one hand and the TV remote in the other, anyway.

Here's a picture of the mochi that Joe and I ate on New Year's Day. This is a traditional food that all the Japanese eat on New Year's Day for good luck. They're pounded rice balls with sweetened beans inside, and they're kind of sticky and chewy. It's growing on me.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008


Recently, while enjoying some delicious sweet and sour pork in a cozy Chinese restaurant near our house, Joe and I got a bit of a shock.

Out of the television mounted to the wall came a cheerful chorus of children's voices singing "Kanpaiiiiiiii!"

Kanpai? Cheers?!

My head whirled toward the screen to see children merrily clinking their mugs together and imbibing a frothy golden drink. My jaw hung.

It looked something like this.

Add this to the "WHAT the...?!" file!

I knew enough Japanese to understand that "Kodomo no nomimono" meant "Children's drink." With a little poking around on the Web, I found that this was indeed a commercial for Japanese "Kid's Beer," a non-alcoholic beverage marketed toward children ages 8 to 13.

The best part is the drink's slogan: "Even kids cannot stand life unless they have a drink."


At a couple of the work parties I've attended, I've seen the Japanese bend the elbow 'til they're quite jolly red in the face. So I wondered, did it just make sense to them to ease the kids into the real thing?

I asked a couple Japanese teachers if they would ever give Kid's Beer to their kids. Were parents around Japan going to be handing their little ones some brews to ring in the new year? Both of them laughed like I was some kind of circus clown. Oh, silly gaijin!

One teacher explained that she had in the past given her son sparkling grape juice when the adults were toasting a special occasion with champagne. She'd feel guilty, she said, if she didn't also give her child a special drink to include him in the celebration.

But beer is different, she said. That's something people drink every day, so it's not so special. You don't want to encourage your kid to drink beer. Fair enough. I'm sure the beverage giants are happy to hook youngsters on the idea of drinking beer as young as possible. There's a reason McDonald's uses a big goofy clown to market to young children. You develop habits young, you're likely to keep those habits when you're older.

Curious to see this stuff in person, I went on a quest to find it. The search ended quickly when I found it on a shelf at our local Ten Maya grocery store.

I was amused to see that they made "boy" bottles and "girl" bottles, as well as a special winter formula.

Now it may look like a duck, but it doesn't quack like a duck. These suds taste like guarana, a tropical berry that grows in the Amazon region.

Witness Joe and I taste test the Kid's Beer!

Yeah, that's one way to describe something that tastes like a cross between cream soda and apple juice.

And while we're on the subject of beer, I want to share the delightful variety we came across in the beer case. It wasn't so much the variety of selection that surprised me, but the variety of sizes.

Joe likes to refer to these puppies as Papa Bear, Mama Bear and Baby Bear.

The Papa Bear is about on par with a 40-ounce while the Mama Bear is like your typical 12-ounce can of beer. But, for people like Joe who get woozy just looking at alcohol ;), this Japanese beer maker conveniently offers you the Baby Bear size. At 135 ml, it's only around 4.5 ounces.

Maybe this is the kid's version?