Sunday, August 31, 2008

Shikoku Day 4: Kochi Castle

Along the way to Kochi, we had to switch trains. Watching our next train pull up to the platform, we were amused to see that it was entirely decked out in Anpanman cartoons.

Anpanman is a very old and much loved cartoon character here. He's kind of like the Mickey Mouse of Japan. Anpan is bread filled with bean jam. So Anpanman's head is a bun. Cute, huh?

The creator of Anpan Man came from a town near Kochi. It's now famous for its Anpanman Museum.

So we enjoyed our ride to Kochi on the Anpanman Express, yippee! No complimentary anpan, though. Bummer.

Upon arrival, we got set up in a business hotel for 6,000 yen a night and set out to see Kochi Castle.

Along the way, we ran into a bunch of roosters. They were roaming around the grounds of a shrine next to the road. Some of them were caged, but many others were just out loose. I have no idea what was stopping them from wandering out into traffic.

This area is kind of known for roosters, actually, though I don't know what the significance of this little shrine is. In Nankoku city near Kochi, there is the Onagadori Center, which houses a rare long-tailed rooster whose tail is 33 feet long. This kind of rooster has been bred in the area for hundreds of years and is considered a national treasure.

We didn't see any of these birds on our trip, unfortunately. Maybe next time.

Continuing on, we came to Kochi Castle.

The castle is 400 years old. Inside there was a miniature model set of the castle grounds, which was neat. Otherwise the main attraction was the view of the city from the top.

I always think the rooftops on these castles look cool.

After this, we decided to try to make an excursion to a well-known beautiful beach for the rest of the afternoon. Joe managed to read the bus schedule, which was entirely in kanji, and we got on a bus that appeared to be going to the beach. However, half-way there, the bus stopped and the driver ordered us and one other occupant off the bus. The other guy was retarded (literally). He seemed as confused as us. There was a lot of jabbering in Japanese and then the driver apologized and seemed to indicate that we should follow the other guy. So... we did. We figured he knew more than us. We had no idea where we were. The whole situation seems so absurd to me now. Gail and Joe on an adventure in Japan, following a retarded guy who knows where!

The guy walked to another nearby bus stop and we got on another bus with him. Joe read the kanji on the side of the bus and it appeared to be heading where we wanted to go. Well, at one point the retarded dude hopped up and scurried off the bus. We hadn't been paying attention (well... Joe hadn't. I was clueless anyway), and so Joe made a split second decision to jump up and follow him off.

Bad idea. We hadn't reached the beach yet. We weren't sure where we were. A clerk at a nearby convenience store informed us the beach was several kilometers away. And then (of course!) it suddenly started to rain. We got soaked.

We had to find another bus stop that would actually take us back to the vicinity of our hotel. Luckily, Joe could read enough kanji and speak enough to a pedestrian that we were able to figure out where to go, but we were worried (and quite wet) for a while.

We were just happy to make it back downtown. With our daylight effectively shot, we went back to the local tourism desk to arrange a whale watching trip for the next day, grabbed some dinner and called it a night.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Shikoku Day 3: Naruto

Day 3: Joe and I woke up early to have breakfast with the hostel managers and several other guests in the common area. It was a hearty breakfast of salad, omelets, toast and miso soup well worth the cost of about 600 yen ($6) a piece.

After that we blew some time skipping rocks on the beach before catching the bus back into Tokushima, where we went to the local international center to recruit an English speaker into finding us somewhere else to stay the next night. We managed to get a room at a local minshuku, lodging run by a private family. It amounted to an old building with several small private tatami bedrooms (meaning you sleep on a futon mat) and a shared bathroom (with Asian squat toilet, of course). Very Japanese. It was a two-minute walk from downtown and only ran us 6,000 yen ($60) for the night, less than we paid at the crappy hostel half an hour away. And with free air conditioning, bonus! We were quite pleased to get that lined up.

After a little exploring and shopping, we took a bus to the city of Naruto. This was yet another hour-long ride — as you've gathered by now, many of the sights in Shikoku are a bit spread out. Naruto is located at the eastern edge of Shikoku. A long suspension bridge connects the city to a nearby peninsula jutting out from Honshu, the main island of Japan. When the tide changes, the sea rushes through the channel with such force that it creates lots of large whirlpools. It's the sort of thing you'd expect to see in a cartoon, not in real life.

We got off the bus in front of a little souvenir shop. Joe went in to ask the shop clerk if she had a map so we could figure out how to walk to the place giving boat tours during the tide change. After a lot of wrangling in Japanese, we thought we understood that the lady was asking us to sit and wait five minutes. She made a phone call and seemed to say that someone would pick us up. So we bought some local caramels and sat on a bench in front of her shop. Showing the characteristic Japanese hospitality that we've come to appreciate, she brought us water and fans to combat the suffocating heat. Quite a while later no one had come by to pick us up, so I started talking to her again, only to figure out she'd actually said 50 minutes, not five. Oops. A little more waiting and finally a van came and picked us up. To our dismay, it shuttled us just a minute away, a distance we very easily could have walked ourselves. Oh well. We've become accustomed to miscommunications such as this by now.

Fifteen or 20 adults and kids trooped onto the boat with us at 2 o'clock and we motored out into the channel, passing a giant old fashioned ship like the kind you'd see in Pirates of the Caribbean or Goonies. Kinda neat.

The sea was quite rough around the bridge. It was as if the water was flowing in two opposing directions at once. The strange thing was looking out and seeing calm waters further away. It was like there was an invisible dividing line where the calm waters dissolved into the violent choppy waters that our boat was now traversing.

The whirlpools just sort of appeared from nowhere and developed into very distinct swirls, dipping down in the middle just like the water draining down your bathtub. It's an uneasy feeling to be riding the boat right next to these things. You feel as though the thing could just suck the boat in, even though you know that's silly. It was a gas. I really enjoyed it.

After motoring around for an hour or so, the boat returned to the dock. We hiked around a bit and admired the views over the sea before catching the bus back to Tokushima.

Then we were off for the second boat ride of the day. You can take free boat rides on a river through the city, so we figured why not. It's free!

On the way to the boats, we waged a narrow escape from King Kong:

I thought of you, Andy.

Though there really wasn't anything extraordinary to see from the river, it was a relaxing boat ride. When we weren't ducking our heads under the very low bridges, that is — yet another dangerous Japanese thing that wouldn't be allowed back in the U.S. I really love the Japanese for not being too uptight.

Our plan for that evening was to go to a short demonstration of the Awa-Odori dance that Tokushima is famous for.  Every year in mid-August, Tokushima hosts the Awa-Odori Folk Dance Festival. Thousands of people visit the city to watch the lively dancing of locals parading through the streets wearing distinctive straw hats and colorful yukata. If we hadn't been required to be in training sessions for work at that time, we might've timed our trip to see the festival, but as it was we were looking forward to seeing the dance demonstration at the Awa-Odori Museum. Unfortunately, it seemed inexplicably closed when we got there.

Disappointed, we figured we'd move on with other plans to ride the rope way that takes people from the museum to the top of the mountain behind the museum. We'd seen several advertisements for the rope way that pictured people gazing out over the sparkling city at night. But when we arrived at the rope way entrance, it too was closed. It wasn't even dark yet. We left pretty disappointed and confused.

It was a nice night, so we walked around town a bit. Drawn to the steady pounding of drums, we found several groups of townspeople practicing the Awa-Odori dance on the streets. So although we didn't get to see the dance with everyone in traditional dress, we did at least get a taste of it.

Eventually we went back to the minshuku for the night. Our misadventures were not done yet.

The old woman running the minshuku greeted us sweetly and laid out our futons for us. Joe was happy to hear that we were allowed to use the washing machine in the shower room. Both of us brought only a backpack with a few days worth of clothes on the trip, figuring we'd do a load of wash along the way.

The only problem was this washing machine was not like any washing machine we'd seen before. It had one compartment for washing and a separate, much smaller compartment apparently for spin drying the clothes.

When I emerged from the shower, Joe was busy pulling wet clothes out of the washer, which was still full of water, and wringing them out and setting them aside. The washer stopped without draining or rinsing the clothes, and he couldn't figure out how to make it proceed. He could've asked for help, except for one problem: he'd accidentally put the clothes he meant to put on after his shower in with the wash. So he had no clothes to wear out of the bathroom, and the towels provided to us were way to small to actually wrap around your body (everything Japanese is smaller). Rather than wait for me to retrieve him a pair of shorts and summon the lady for help, he just started trying to take care of it himself.

After I'd gone back to the room to get him his shorts and we were in the bathroom puzzling over the washer, the sweet old woman came to check on us. Joe stood there awkwardly without a shirt. The lady looked positively befuddled when she saw what was going on. I am sure she must have been thinking these gaijin were complete morons for managing to screw up something as simple as a load of laundry. After failed attempts at trying to communicate in Japanese, she finally told us to leave and said she'd take care of it (that much I understood). I'm pretty sure she was annoyed at having to deal with such nonsense. We both felt pretty bad.

After that I kept returning to the bathroom to check on the laundry. She placed half of it in the dryer once the load was finished and stuffed the other half into a plastic bag. Apparently the dryer wasn't large enough to dry an entire load (or maybe Joe overloaded the washer? Who knows.). That first half took an unusually long time to dry. At some point between my checks, she pulled it out and folded it and put in the second half to dry. It was still tumbling round and round after midnight, so we guiltily went to sleep and retrieved it very early in the morning before she could fold the rest of it.

I meekly presented her with a couple little boxes of Naruto caramels the next morning before we left in an attempt to smooth any ruffled feathers. I think that might have helped, though Joe and I still both felt like a couple of tools.

After breakfast at the Mr. Donut, we headed back to the train station.

From here, I'd originally hoped to move on to a little town called Minami-machi to see Nakabayashi Beach, a beautiful beach where sea turtles come ashore every year in late July and early August to lay their eggs. However, the town was an expensive two-hour train ride away and from what we could gather, there wasn't much else to see besides the beach and a turtle museum. We were told that the turtles only lay their eggs at night, but flashlights are prohibited at the beach, so it's very rare to actually catch a glimpse of the turtles. Knowing this, we decided to skip Minami-machi and just visit the sea turtles in the aquarium at the next destination on our itinerary.

So we boarded the train again and happily bid Tokushima farewell as we looked forward to our next stop: Kochi, home to beautiful beaches along the Pacific coastline.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Shikoku Day 2: The Iya Valley

On Day 2 of our great Shikoku adventure, Joe and I rose bright and early to devour a hearty breakfast of salad, omelets and goats milk in Ueda-san's kitchen with the six French girls. Then she drove us back to the train station and bid us farewell before we boarded a bus for an hour ride to the Iyano Kasurabashi (Iya Vine Bridge).

Japan designates this bridge as "An Important National Tangible Cultural Asset." In ancient times, local people used vines growing wild in the mountains to build bridges across the river for daily travel. Only three of these bridges remain today and this particular bridge over the Iya River is the largest and most famous. It is 5 feet wide and almost 50 yards long — not quite the perilous Indiana Jones-style bridge from my imagination, but impressive nonetheless.

There are several legends about when and why this bridge was built. According to one of these legends, the bridge was built during civil war in 1185. The clan that built the bridge made it out of vine so the bridge could be easily cut in the event of a pursuit.

500 yen ($5) buys you the privilege of crossing the bridge. This would indeed be a feat for those with the fearlessness of Indiana Jones  — if this bridge were actually the one originally built in 1185. Alas, it is not. The bridge itself has been reinforced with steel cables. Every three years, the vines are replaced and the bridge is built anew. The sign at the entrance to the bridge says this is to preserve the bridge and ensure that the skills of working with natural vine and building such structures are passed on to future generations. And of course to make sure that tourists paying five bucks don't cripple themselves with a fall to the jagged rocks below. Might be bad for business.

Still, crossing the bridge isn't for the faint of heart. The planks are set far enough apart that your entire leg could very easily fall through if you aren't careful. And the thing does bounce and wobble a good bit while other people are walking on it. Especially people Joe's size.

Once safely on the other side, Joe's repressed survival instincts came rushing back and he went on the hunt to fill his growling stomach. Luckily this little old Japanese lady was conveniently selling fish on a stick by the side of the road.

Like a savage, Joe devours the very dead-looking fish!

This grilled amego is a specialty of the Iya Valley. Joe said it was tasty, but there were some funky looking guts near the tail end that kind of ruined it for him. I skipped this treat, so the pleasure was all his. I did, however, try some soba (buckwheat) noodles, which is another specialty of this place. Those actually were better than the standard soba noodles I've had elsewhere.

Next it was on to a nearby waterfall, which was very pretty.

Then we waded around in the river for a while and picked up cool-looking rocks. Once we were properly cooled off we struck out in search of a fertility shrine that Joe thought was nearby. All we found was a mysterious fenced-off cave with a weird statue and a ticket window that was closed. Aside from some cool multi-colored lizards we saw darting across the road on the way, that was a fruitless excursion.

At this point, looking at the maps and sweating and realizing how far away various points of interest were, we realized we weren't going to see much else without a car. That was a bit disappointing, but we did find a nice campground, so maybe if one of us decides to get a Japanese driver's license we can come back someday and camp and see a bit more of the area.

We walked back to the bridge and took a bus recommended by Ueda-san for its scenic route back to the train station. Little did we know that this would probably be the scariest bus ride of our life. We were the only ones on the bus. Peering out the windows as the bus barrelled around the mountain terrain on a winding one-lane road, our mouths hung at the sight of the tiny guard rail separating us from a precipitous drops down the side of a mountain. Twice, cars zipping around curves in the road came head to head with the bus and had to jam their brakes and back up until they hit a spot where the bus could creep by.

Luckily, the breathtaking views of the deep river canyon kept our eyes off the road most of the time.

At one point, we caught a fleeting glance of the famous peeing boy statue situated near the top of one of these slopes, but it went by too fast to take a photo, unfortunately.

Back at the train station, we boarded the train to Tokushima, an hour and a half ride away.

Tokushima struck me as a pleasant and clean city. The area around the train station was quite built up with shops and restaurants. We got busy hunting down the tourist information desk to gather brochures, find bus and train schedules and make arrangements to stay at the Tokushima Youth Hostel. The hostel turned out to be located on a beach in a park a half-hour bus ride away, with the last bus leaving early in the evening. So we didn't go exploring that evening as we had to make it to the hostel.

This place turned out to be quite a disappointment to us. It was located in what looked to be a run-down old school building. They charged us 3500 yen ($35) a piece to stay in a room with four bunk beds (though we didn't have to share with anyone else). The (rather shoddy) air conditioner in the room came at a cost as well. You had to feed it 100 yen ($1) for every two hours of a/c. And of course we had the bus fare to get us to this place and back downtown, a 600 yen ($6) round trip cost per person. The rooms were dingy and the bathrooms were thoroughly disgusting. I had to stop breathing through my nose in there to keep from tripping my gag reflex. And the beach turned out to be a disappointment as well with lots of rocks and trash. To top the whole thing off, I discovered before bed that I'd forgotten my glasses back at Ueda-san's guest house. And we realized after looking through our new brochures that we could have taken an actual tour bus through the Iya Valley that would have stopped at the sights we couldn't reach on foot (including the peeing boy statue), leaving from the same station we'd been at. But we had not seen any mention of the tour bus while we were actually at the station. Needless to say, I was not a happy camper at bed time. At least the bunk beds in the hostel were reasonably comfortable, though.

But, things started to look up the next morning on Day 3 of our journey once we got the heck outta there and hopped on the bus yet again to see another wonder of nature: the Naruto whirlpools.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Shikoku Trip Day 1: Kotohira

At the end of July, Joe and I took a six-day tour of Shikoku, the smallest of Japan's four main islands. We saw quite a bit, so I'm going to break up each day of the trip into separate entries.

No doubt the Japanese questioned our sanity visiting a place with streets lined with palm trees during the hottest time of year, but there were a couple factors influencing the timing of the trip. The first factor is that I wanted to see one specific beach that sea turtles visit in late July and early August to lay their eggs.

The other factor is that school let out for summer vacation July 25, so with no classes until school resumes in late August, it was easy to get approval for vacation. Yes, in Japan, unlike in America, teachers are expected to come to work during summer vacation and other school breaks. As JETs, our contract gives us three days of "special summer leave" that we can take in July, August or September. Regular Japanese teachers get five days of summer leave, though many take additional time off since they also get 40 days of paid vacation per year (Joe and I get 15). Few, if any, Japanese teachers use all this vacation, however, and many work at summer camps and lead other student activities during school breaks.

Anyway, Joe and I planned to tour Shikoku, a very mountainous area of Japan known for its natural beauty. We'd heard before that traveling in Shikoku is best done by car since many sites can be hard to reach by bus and train. Though we could have rented a car with our international driver's licenses (which now have expired), we were reluctant to go that route. Not only do the Japanese drive on the left side of the road, but the roads in Shikoku are often very narrow, hilly and winding — not a prospect that set our hearts at ease. So we decided to see what we could see using public transportation and set out by bus on Sunday, July 27.

It was a 3-hour-15 minute ride to our first stop, Takamatsu city in Kagawa-ken. We swung by the train station to pick up some maps and brochures from the tourist information desk and then stopped for lunch at a restaurant serving udon, thick Japanese noodles. Every town in Japan has some local specialty, and udon is the specialty in Takamatsu. The noodles there were a bit firmer, chewier. Good as far as noodles go, I suppose. But... they're still just noodles.

After lunch we hopped on the train for the hour ride to the small town of Kotohira, home of the Kompira-san shrine, one of Shikoku's major attractions. The shrine is located high up on the mountainside, despite being a shrine dedicated to the maritime. We knew visitors must climb around 800 stone steps to reach the top, so we were preparing for a brutal climb roasting in the sun. As it turns out, the climb wasn't so steep or strenuous, and most of the path was shaded by an an awning stretched between the souvenir shops that lined both sides of the walkway all the way up. Don't get me wrong, it was still a sweaty climb, but it didn't make me feel like dying. And, bonus, since we went on a Sunday afternoon in the middle of summer, there weren't many other tourists to contend with, which made the trek much more pleasant.

Along the way, I stopped to give this guy some change so I wouldn't feel guilty about taking his picture. I'm not sure if he's a monk or a pilgrim or just a bum in a traditional get-up.

This guy kinda fits the bill so I'm assuming he's a pilgrim, though I don't really know. Shikoku is famous for its 88-temple pilgrimage. Traditionally, pilgrims walk the 750 miles around the island to visit all the temples, though nowadays a lot of them cheat and take public transportation to reach various places. Often you'll see the pilgrims wearing straw hats and carrying a walking stick and a big backpack. This temple is not actually on the 88-temple circuit, though, as far as I know.

Continuing up the stairs, we passed through the Omon, an ancient looking stone torii that was erected in 1649.

The Omon was flanked on both sides by two samurais.

After more climbing we finally came to Asahino Yashiro, the Shrine of the Rising Sun. It was really an impressive sight set among some very large old trees.

I was particularly impressed by the intricate carving on some of the eaves.

Up yet another set of stairs and we came to Gohon Hall and Ema Pavillion, which were filled with all sorts of neat pictures of ships and other sea relics.

There also was this boat covered in solar panels. My Lonely Planet guide says this sailboat hull was donated to the shrine after its around-the-world navigation.

This stuff was cool, but nothing prepared me for the awesome sight that came next. The views from here took my breath away. You can see the entire green valley sweeping out before you, bordered by mountains. From here we were even able to see the Seto Ohashi, the really big bridge we crossed to get to Shikoku. The camera really could not do it justice since it could capture just a piece of the whole valley. The view made the climb well worth it.

From here we began our descent, reaching the bottom rather quickly. Then, to my surprise, Joe suggested we stop in the tent advertising "doctor fish." We'd recently read about this new alternative type of pedicure in the U.S. and thought it sounded Japanese, so we weren't entirely surprised to find it here. This lady had set up a kiddie-size pool between a couple of bench seats and the pool was full of a bunch of minnows and a thing making lots of tiny bubbles. You put your feet in the pool and the fish flock to your feet to eat off the dead skin. Weird... yet intriguing. We figured what the hell.

Joe's self-portrait of his feet. What's next?

It felt tingly, kind of like your feet are going to sleep. I didn't notice a real difference in the smoothness of my skin, but it was a bizarre new experience nonetheless, which made it worth it. I do think this lady must be laughing all the way to the bank,though, charging tourists $15 a pop to have her pet fish nibble on their feet.

After that little diversion we caught some dinner (more udon — it seemed every restaurant was an udon joint) and rode the train to Awa-Ikeda city in the Iya Valley, about an hour away. There we were picked up by a sweet old Japanese woman named Ueda-san who spoke no English whatsoever. She drove us in her minivan out into the pitch dark countryside to her little farm. Along the way, we cobbled together enough of a conversation in Japanese to learn that she'd once visited her sister living in Texas. Back at her house, she showed us our bedroom, a tatami room with futon mats. The bathroom had a shower and a large communal tub. The entire shower/tub room was made entirely out of stone. There were several windows open to the outside with no screens. Very rustic.

Then she motioned for us to come sit in the kitchen with her husband, who was sitting at the table and watching a TV. The kitchen, like the rest of the house, was old and a bit cluttered, definitely lived-in but cozy. She asked if we'd had dinner and I told her in Japanese that we'd already eaten udon. She started pulling huge jars of homemade jam out of the refrigerator and then presented us with a large loaf of bread baked in the shape of crab with little raisin eyes. Joe and I just looked at one another — neither one of us was hungry at all. But she insisted, so we dug in while she poured us glasses of goat milk from the goats in her barn out back. The milk had an unusual taste, but not bad. And my stomach, which usually punishes me for drinking milk anymore, didn't protest the goat's milk. I was filled with relief when the bread was finally gone. I was so full.

That's when the toaster dinged and the husband pulled out two very thick pieces of toast and plopped them before us and urged us to eat. Again, Joe and I exchanged looks. But what could we do? It seemed rude to turn the food away. I stuffed in half a piece and Joe, trooper that he is, polished off the rest.

After that we showered and got ready for bed. By the time we got out, a group of half a dozen young French girls had arrived at the house and were carrying on in the tatami room neighboring ours. When Ueda-san summoned us back to the kitchen, they were in their room doing vigorous calisthenics together. (Oo-lala! This is the part where Joe wishes he were still single. Haha!)

Back in the kitchen, Ueda-san told us she'd make us breakfast in the morning at 7:15 and shuttle us back to the train station. I was feeling pretty good about the very generous treatment we were getting considering a night here was only running us 5000 yen ($50). In between pointing out various things to see on a map, she stepped out for a minute and returned with homemade green-tea Popsicles. I still wasn't hungry, but took it anyway. It was delicious.

Ueda-san apparently decided she wanted to place us in a room away from the French girls. (Who knows why, but I can think of probably a dozen different reasons why that might have been, more than one of them involving the fact that there would be seven women and one gigantic, strong gaijin man.) Leading us to a large log cabin behind the house, she showed us up some stairs to a loft area. It was hotter upstairs — no air conditioning (though there hadn't been any in the original room, either) — but the futons looked more comfortable and it was quiet, far away from the giggling, stretching French girls.

It looked like Ueda-san and her husband were building the cabin themselves. It was mostly finished, but not quite. All the windows in the cabin were open, but none had screens. In a way it felt like we were camping, sort of half outside.

We bedded down for the night. I didn't know it, but while I was downstairs brushing my teeth, Joe was on a mission to destroy a two-inch long black beetle with a large set of pincers that he saw fly in the window. Knowing that if I saw the bug I'd never fall asleep, he smashed it and never mentioned it. We both laid there for a long time trying to sleep in this strange place. I'd finally drifted off when another ominous beetle invaded our sleeping area. Again, the valiant Joe dispatched it from this earth. But he got little sleep that night as his paranoid mind worried about the creepy crawlies that could be coming to visit us in the night.

So this ends Day 1. Tomorrow we continue on our journey to see Shikoku's most famous vine bridge on Day 2.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Remembering the bomb

Last Wednesday, Joe and I took the day off work so we could go downtown to see the ceremonies commemorating the 63rd anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

Peace Park was already filled with thousands of people when we arrived around 7:15 a.m. and made our way over to the Memorial Cenotaph outside the Peace Memorial Museum.

Thousands of chairs had been set up to accommodate visitors, including one section specifically for foreigners. At first we tried to stake out a spot standing because we didn't want to get roped into the seated section where it would be difficult to take pictures. I couldn't find a good spot where I could see standing though, so I made it through the crowd to grab a seat after all. Oddly, when I sat down I looked up and saw that I had sat right next to my friend Katie. There were 45,000 people in the park and I managed to randomly sit next to a friend.

I noticed that Katie and a lot of other people had little hand held radios and ear pieces so they could hear translations of the speeches. Somehow I'd missed the place where they were handing these out. It was a bit too late to slog back through the crowd to get one, so I had to do without it, which was disappointing. But at least I had one of the programs being handed out by the Japanese boy scouts in the park, and it had English translations of some of the remarks that were scheduled.

Even before 8 a.m., the sun already was beating down harshly on sweating visitors. Many people hung towels over the right side of their heads to guard against the rays. Throughout the crowd, fans fluttered everywhere. The loud buzzing of cicadas surrounded us.

The mayor of Hiroshima, Tadatoshi Akima, called for the eradication of nuclear weapons around the world and singled out the U.S. as one of three countries that refused to sign Japan's UN resolution calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons. He expressed his hope that the next president elected in November would support the resolution. Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda and a UN ambassador from China offered flowers at the Cenotaph, which holds the names of all the people killed by the bomb.

At 8:15 AM, everyone stood. A heavy silence hung over the crowd, punctuated only by the cicadas and the distant drumming and shouting of some protesters (protesting what, who knows). A large bell began to sound slowly. It was the kind of loud, low bonging that you can feel in your chest, like it reverberates through the air. This was the exact moment, 63 years ago, when the bomb fell. This was the moment when 140,000 lives disappeared in an instant.

I could feel the weight of the moment. In my mind, I imagined the flash of devastation that swept across the very place where I now stood. I swallowed a lump in my throat and prayed.

After a minute, the bell fell silent and the crowd sat. The ceremony moved on. At one point everyone's eyes turned upward toward the flock of doves that had been released. There were more speeches, and then soaring voices filled the park as a 500-member choir began singing the Hiroshima Peace Song.

After the ceremony, Joe went home but I walked around the park and took in the scene. Thousands of people waited in line to pray at the Cenotaph. They lit incense and left flowers for the victims.

Near the statue of Sadako Sasaki at the Children's Peace Monument, a man played a cello next to others displaying posters telling the story of Sadako, a girl who died from radiation.

I stopped to check out a long row of copies of old newspapers from World War II that had been hung up.

Below the images of war were English translations of excerpts from these old newspaper stories. It was tough to read those headlines:

(March 1945) "Most of the Dead Had No Arms, No Legs: Major cities like Osaka, Kobe, Nagoya were totally burned"

(June 1945) "They Bombed around the City to Cut Off the Residents' Escape"

(July 1945) "They Attacked Even Ferry Boats Deliberately: U.S. warplanes machine-gunned civilians after having burned their houses"

And some of the accounts:

"The Americans targeted Nagano since the Imperial Headquarters was located there. I saw a mother drying the diapers of her baby hit to death by machine-gun fire."

"The air raid on Utsunomiya City was just as horrible. The Americans fired their machine guns. During the daytime, they aimed at even us, elementary school children. I ran to a shelter. A bomber flew so low that I could see the dark glasses of the people in it. My friend was hit by an incendiary bomb right on his head. He was burned black and died. A baby on a carriage was also fired upon and became handicapped. It was horrifying everday and I was shaking with fear. Even today, I still dream about it."

"Aomori City was firebombed. The Aomori Station and surrounding area were burned down. The Americans began the bombing in the periphery of the city to bring the citizens to the center of the city and then killed them all."

This was not exactly the stuff included in my high school history books.

After this, I headed back to the peace museum to hear stories I'd never heard in those high school history classes, either. In the basement of the museum, at 10 AM, survivors of the atomic bomb (called "hibakusha" in Japanese) were to tell their stories in English.

I got there and grabbed a seat in the front row. For the next two hours, I listened to two men and one woman recount their experiences from this day 63 years ago.

It was the woman whose story really shook me. Her name is Keiko Ogura. You can actually read a summary of her story here. I highly recommend reading it.

Ogura is 71 now. She was 8 years old when the bomb dropped. Following a gut instinct, her father kept her and her siblings home from school that morning. Their house was 1.5 miles from the hypocenter. She was outside when the bomb exploded, knocking her over.

She recounted the bright flash, the darkness that followed, the black rain, her astonishment at the flattened city she saw when she later climbed a hill by her house.

Long lines of people lined the streets with their arms outstretched, scorched skin hanging from their flesh. Victims had flocked to the rivers, desperate for water. Their bodies clogged the rivers — so many bodies that it was as though you could cross them to the opposite bank.

At one point, Ogura was walking along a street in her neighborhood. Suddenly, a hand grabbed her ankle, scaring her. The person begged for water. Many victims lining the street called out for water. She ran home and drew water from the well and brought them water, but soon after drinking the water some of them died. She was scared and wondered if she'd killed them. Later, her father implored her and her siblings not to give the victims water because some of the victims had died after drinking water.

She felt tremendous guilt. For 40 years, until her father passed away, she kept her actions a secret. Even as she told the story again, 63 years later, emotion strained her voice. She still feels guilty. I wondered what other torments she may still find unspeakable to this day.

Another one of the hibakusha who spoke at this event, Isao Aratani, was 13 years old when the bomb hit. He told his personal story and recounted the memories recorded by students in his Hiroshima Middle School class from that day. His class was pulling weeds from a sweet potato field 1.4 miles away from the hypocenter when the bomb went off.

Here's a 9-minute video clip from his talk, but it's only just a piece since he talked for around half an hour. Unfortunately, the TV cameraman decided to set his camera up right in front of me in the middle of his speech, so the video is a great shot of this guy's rear end, but you can still hear Aratani speaking, and that's the important thing.

You can read his whole story online. He translated an abstract from a book his class wrote about their experiences called "The Poplar Tree Will Transmit The Story From Generation To Generation."

It wasn't easy for these survivors to tell their stories, particularly considering the discrimination many hibakusha face from some other Japanese who believe that radiation sicknesses could be hereditary or contagious. Ogura described one woman she knew who had to break off a wedding engagement because her fiance's family repeatedly asked if their children would be deformed since her parents were bomb survivors. Ogura mentioned many times how scary it is for survivors to speak out and how worried they are about prejudice.

So it took courage for them to face those fears and relive that day for us. They deserve to be heard. That's why I urge you to follow the links to their stories. All of them described the experience as pure hell, but they said they feel compelled to share the horrors of that day to send the message that these cruel events should never happen again. When an audience member, an American teacher, asked what message the survivors would want her to share with her students back home, she was told that one of the reasons they share their stories is that American children are taught that the bomb was necessary, that it was the right thing to do. It wasn't the right thing to do, they said. That is the message that they wanted to share — their wish that nuclear bombs will never be used again.

After the story telling was over, I headed home for the afternoon. At nightfall, Joe and I went back downtown for the evening memorial. People made floating lanterns to represent the souls of the victims and released them into the river. There were also handmade lanterns displayed all around the Atomic Bomb Dome, which were really, really beautiful.

It was a touching sight to see those lanterns floating gently away. Joe snapped some good pictures.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Atomic bomb anniversary

This is the Atomic Bomb Dome, one of the few buildings downtown that survived the atomic bomb that obliterated Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. It was at the epicenter of the blast.

Yesterday was our one-year anniversary in Japan. Today is the 63rd anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

I took the day off work and spent most of the day downtown watching ceremonies, taking pictures and listening to survivors' stories. It was truly a moving and unforgettable experience.

I'm too drained to fully blog about it tonight, but I'll write more soon.