Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Japan Trip - Day 03

Perhaps I should take some time to introduce the Hikidas.

Xi Min was intent on a homestay somewhere in Japan, and the agency he liased with settled on the Hikidas. Hikida-san is a Buddhist priest, and his wife Aiko-san is a popular opera singer in Hiroshima. His daughter, Yumiko-san, works at a university giving teaching instruction, and is also a ballet dancer. His two sons, Aki-san and Ren-san, both followed in their father's footsteps, going through rigorous and demanding training to become priests.

At first I wasn't too keen on staying at a temple. I had the presumption that priests were all stiff, stuffy, the not-a-toe-out-of-line kind of people, and I expected to have to be consciously polite all the time, eating modest food and sleeping in a modest bed, and watching my every move in case I insulted someone's religion and started a holy war. Or something.

It's wonderful when you lower your expectations, because after that you can only be pleasantly surprised.

In this case I was more fantastically stunned. The Hikidas were extremely friendly, pulling out all the stops to make us feel welcome, and were as stuck up as confident police officers in a bank full of ineffective robbers - that is to say, not at all. I thought there was things you couldn't do as a priest: abstain from alcohol, for example. The Hikida brothers were downing it like water. I guess it's a Japanese culture thing. They were also chatting about pop culture and telling jokes and calling themselves Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp.

Day 3 was exciting and disorienting at the same time, because I remember being woken first by Bryan's obnoxious alarm which set off ten minutes before mine was supposed to; then by JX (who generally wakes up earliest) who said that Hikida-san was making breakfast for us in the kitchen. I was like, "Wha-?" (Actually I was more like, "Go away, five more minutes..." but you get the picture.)

When I finish washing up I sit down at the dining table in front of this massive spread of food which was doing its best to rival the dinner of the previous night. Rice and seaweed (nori) and steamed bamboo shoots and a beef stew called nikujaga and raw egg and milk and orange juice and onigiri rolls and natto, if I remember correctly. We ate as much as we could (and felt really guilty about the stuff we couldn't finish).

In the morning Yumiko-san gave us a lift to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. She was extremely nice; she had taken the day off to bring us around wherever we wanted to go, and dropped us off there. We spent the morning wandering around the park and taking pictures and looking at the architecture and monuments. The A-Bomb dome was particularly interesting, as it shows the extent of damage an atomic bomb can cause to structures. (The graphic image didn't really hit home until we went the museum, however.) The Memorial for the Mobilised Students was decked out with garlands of folded paper cranes, which I am told are a symbol of peace.

"I survived a nuke and lived to tell the tale."

We wandered around the park quite a bit before stopping at the nearby Rest House. I remember remarking upon the gigantic crows which seem to be native to Japan. They're huge, the size on a small chicken, twice as big as the average Singaporean mynah. You read about how crows and ravens are supposed to be intelligent, and you can't help but wonder what the effect of the increased background radiation must have had on the previous generations.

Overlooking the river running through the park.

I also remember passing an American tour group which was made up of students, and trying to stand nonchalantly nearby to eavesdrop on what their teacher was telling them. We were unsuccessful though.

The Memorial for Mobilised Students. If it's symbolic of anything, I can't see it.

We waited near the Memorial to Mobilised Students for Yumiko-san to pick us up, and as we passed the busker we noticed what seemed to be Yumiko-san's car passing by. And we deduced that she'd been circling the block for a while, hoping to pick us up in case we were early but not being able to stop and wait at the pick up point. Once again I felt guilty for causing extra trouble to our hosts.

"Quick, get in the car. No time to explain!"
For lunch Yumiko-san brought us to a small restaurant to sample the cuisine known as okonomiyaki, which is a bunch of ingredients fried together with batter. (My description doesn't do it justice.) Specifically this was done the Hiroshima style, which meant that the ingredients weren't mixed with the batter but fried separately, then put on the fried batter and the whole thing put on fried noodles. It was delicious. I've had similar yakisoba in Singapore at Takashimaya's basement, but it cannot compare to the exquisite meal I had that day. Yumiko-san offered to pay, of course.

A culinary master at work.

After lunch she dropped us off at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. That was a highly informative yet depressing place. I'm in two minds about it, really. I mean, on one hand, if it wasn't for the atomic bombs Japan might not have surrendered and Singapore might still be under the bootheel of cruel and sadistic tyrants, but, on the other hand, well, nobody deserves to be nuked. I was walking through the exhibits and reading all the little captions next to charred clothes and battered furniture and they all said something along the lines of, "So-and-so was a junior high student mobilised to clear debris from the streets. She was badly burnt by the blast and stumbled through the city for days looking for her family. They eventually found her two days later and sought treatment, but she succumbed to her injuries the next day." And they're all like that, or very similar. So many normal people, going about their own lives, children just clearing rubble off streets, and then a nuclear bomb drops on your head and the explosion has the cruelty not to kill you instantly, but just cook you from the inside and leave you conscious enough to feel pain and wander around practically dead on your feet, enough for you to find your family and fill them with hope and dread at the same time because they know you're going to die but you're not dead yet.

Wise words.
It was drastic, yes; and it worked, yes; but there are some depths you should not stoop to when waging war against evil. Never again. There's a thing about not doing something for a good reason, because once you do it for a good reason you'd do it as well for a bad one. No reason would justify it. Bryan was sure that if the bombs didn't work the Allies, all the way from Truman to Einstein, would be tried for henious war crimes on the part of Japan. History is written by the winners, after all.

The other thing that struck me was the scientific rigour of the analysis of the explosion. I'm surprised that they could determine exactly where the bomb detonated, how high up in the atmosphere, and how far away from the only surviving structure, the A-Bomb Dome, and they had models of pre-explosion and post-explosion to depict the extent of the damage. And the statues with one side in shadow because the radiation decoloured the rock facing the blast.

See that red ball? That's the point of the explosion.

I scribbled a small line in the visitor's book as we left the museum. It was the age-old adage: "War does not determine who is right. War only determines who is left."

After the museum and its peripherals (the Memorial Cenotaph, the Peace Flame, the Pond of Peace and the Peace Bell) we went to visit the Hiroshima Castle (Hiroshima-jo). On our way there was a Japanese busker busking halfway across the bridge. He was playing what I believe (after performing research) to be something similar to a yamagoto, like a zither crossed with a xylophone crossed with a pipe organ, and he had bells strapped to one foot and jingles strapped to the other, so he was being a literal One Man Band. His music was nice, and XM bought a CD.

I remember thinking, with a name like Houribe Lou, you're going to need a lot of work.

Hiroshima Castle was quite empty and very peaceful. There isn't really much actual castle left, but there are a lot of ruined foundations and old stone stairs. We walked up a small hill to the pagoda and just sat there for a while.
It's an actual moat! Wow!
I remember the reflection of the sunlight off the nearby moat was blinding, but it added to the overall effect of serenity. There was a balloon floating above the city, to mark the spot of the atomic bomb detonation.

Depending on the day's prevailing wind, the could have bomb blew up anywhere around a city block.

Yumiko-san picked us up nearby at the naked lady nature flower fountain thing, and it was kind of a mix up as we didn't know which street she was waiting at (it was at a junction), but we managed okay in the end. She had invited some of her friends to join us for dinner, and we were introduced to Hiro-san and Kanae-san. Hiro-san was from Tottori, and he was working in Hiroshima now, and had studied in Canada for a year, which is why he had some English. I confess I don't know much about Kanae-san because I couldn't talk to her much on the account of the language barrier. Dinner was take-out sashimi, which apparently involved some preparation.

The spread before we devoured it all.

Dinner was a delightful affair. We were invited to another building, which apparently houses their practice room on the first floor and a large dining and entertainment area on the second. We sat on the floor and there was a large karaoke machine nearby. We were joined for dinner by Kanae-san's husband (whom we didn't know was her husband until much later on in the night), Satoru-san. We spent the evening eating and talking and showing around our pictures which Xi Min had brought, and generally making friends all around. I do want to recount the story, though, when Satoru-san told us that Kanae-san was his (second) wife. I remember looking at Xi Min and I started to laugh discreetly, because he was sitting right in the middle of them, and at the start of dinner he was confused as to where to sit down and eventually settled on that seat. I dunno why I found it so hilarious, but I did.

After most of the food was gone, I shamelessly asked if we could try out their karaoke machine. Being the courteous and hospitable Japanese hosts they were, they agreed, and we spent the rest of the night singing it away. I attempted some English songs which I thought even Japanese people know, but apparently we are of different age categories and do not follow all the same famous songs. Xi Min and Bryan were gung-ho about trying some classic anime theme songs though, and Hiro-san was belting out those like a professional. Satoru-san was the enka singer, which is a modern traditional genre, much like our "oldies". We had great fun but were tired out at the end of the day.

Hiro-san and I trying to find a song.

Oh yeah I forgot; Yumiko-san and her friends gave us a present of cream puffs and another of Hiroshima's specialities: momiji manju, which is manju, a type of sweet cake bun thing, shaped like a maple leaf, which is not only Canada's national symbol but Hiroshima's as well.

I think I should probably not end each day with a "we went to bed" line, so I'm considering doing a sort of wrap-up at the end of each day, with a couple more impressions or thoughs I had throughout the day but at no specific time. I remember this was the day that I started appreciating the separated lanes for pedestrians and cyclists, and the divider was raised to assist blind people. It seems to be on all sidewalks in Japan, and goes all the way down into the underpasses and train stations. I thought it was a very good idea.

Well, that's Day 3. Day 4 is when I started writing things down proper.

*All photos in this post are courtesy of Bryan.

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