Friday, December 18, 2009

Yokohama and Kobe, Japan

Japan! There are vending machines *everywhere* and all the dogs are handsome and well-groomed.

Day 1: Tokyo

We arrived in Yokohama and immediately had to get off the ship. The Japanese authorities insisted on individually clearing every passenger, which meant that everyone had to get off the ship and get checked (a process of about 3-4 hours) before anybody could get back on. This process was a good first impression of Japan: everyone got put into perfect lines in near-absolute silence and were efficiently shuffled through the bureaucracy. Rather than wait for the whole process to end, my friends and I left for Tokyo as soon as we could. Getting the right subway and train tickets was tricky but manageable, and we got there comfortably, quickly, and cheaply (the train ride was about 40 minutes and $7).

Tokyo is like New York, except imagine that nobody else in earshot is making any noise. Nobody talked. The only sound was the drone of cars and machinery and the loud Americans like us. We wandered around for a long time looking for a place to eat and finding nothing simultaneously appealing and cheap. We spent some time in a park with some gorgeous buildings and foliage before remembering that we were hungry and carrying on. Eventually we found a strip with a bunch of little noodle places filled with Japanese salarymen on their lunch breaks, and we jumped into the nearest one. For $5 I got a bowl of rice topped with fried chicken and a plate of cold soba noodles. The chicken wasn't spectacular, but the soba was pretty good. It came with a thin sweet sauce to dip in. There were also a bunch of condiments on the bar we were sitting at, including a weird red pepper mix and wasabe (which is, I discovered, as hot as I had been told). The whole meal experience felt very authentic.

After that we walked across town to the Akihabara Electric Town, the famous high-tech shopping district of Tokyo. It was full of useless electric gadgets, laptops, computer parts, lightbulbs, and lots and lots of pornography. We had several instances where my roommate would say "Oh look, a DVD and book store!" and walk inside to discover that it was an 18+ years old only zone. We wandered around the more legitimate stores for several hours, following whatever were the brightest multicolored lights in sight. Lots of fun for nerds, but everything was too expensive for us to actually buy. After a while we walked back to the city center, grabbed a train back to Yokohama (*much* more crowded this time), got dinner at the Yokohama station, and went back to the ship for the night.

Day 2: Yokohama

We woke up and went a-wandering more locally this time. Yokohama is a much more pleasant-feeling city, with more of a small-city waterfront feel. There's an amusement park dominated by a massive Ferris wheel that's always in sight, so we started out in that direction under the assumption that we'd find something interesting. There turned out to be some pretty nice-looking roller coasters, but yet again we thought with our wallets and skipped it. We got lunch at a Japanese place selling American Mexican food, a true cross-cultural experience.

After lunch we followed the waterfront for a little while. There was a little fair with a bunch of food and craft stalls and some girls doing Hawaiian dances. We also passed a small outdoor clothes market (secondhand stuff, possibly) and a few performers doing juggling on unicycles and stuff like that in front of a huge crowd. Candy apples and fried dough completed the picture. It was really nice.

There was a big mall underneath the tallest building in the city (not *that* tall, thanks to earthquakes) that we checked out. They're already putting up Christmas decorations, since there's no Thanksgiving to distract from it this time of year. After that we took the subway to the other side of town in search of an extra-large dollar store (actually, 100-yen store) that we had been recommended to visit. We didn't find it, but we did find a long stretch of cheap and interesting stores, the city's Chinatown, and a pleasant little park on the coast. The last activity of the day was touring a big, old Pacific ocean liner. It was built in the 1930s, served as a hospital ship during WWII, briefly returned to passenger/cargo service, and has been a floating museum ever since. It was built to be comfortable for both US and Japanese passengers, so the whole setup was very accommodating.

Day 3: In transit. We sailed to Kobe

Day 4: Hiroshima

I was signed up for this S@S trip for my Warfare class. We took a long, long bus ride to Hiroshima and got a lot of factoids from a tour guide that said everything as if she were speaking to a cute puppy (e.g. "Did you enjoy lunch? Did you enjoy lunch?" with me expecting her to say "Yes you did! Yes you did! Good boy!!!").

Hiroshima turned out to be a well-planned and beautiful city. They could pretty much redraw the map however they wanted in 1945. We first visited the Peace Park, which has several monuments and memorials, including for the children that died (many were working on demolishing lines of buildings to create fire breaks in the city center) and the Korean victims (lots of forced laborers). There's one building that was purposefully not rebuilt. It was one of the few that remained standing near the explosion's center.

After that, we did a self-guided tour of the Hiroshima war museum. It's split into two sections. The first section shows examples of building damage, talks about the political and scientific background behind the dropping of the bomb and selection of targets, and includes a 1/1000th scale model of the city both before and after the bomb. The second section takes off the gloves. It starts with a series of remnants of clothing or possessions of various victims, along with the stories of their families and how these artifacts were found. It then includes graphic pictures and descriptions of the injuries caused by the heat and radiation of the bomb. Every display was gruesome in an entirely unique way.

The interesting thing about the museum is that it was remarkably even-sided. It didn't take an anti-American tone. It was anti-nuclear weapons and made several appeals for their wholesale removal and destruction, but it didn't at all dwell on the right or wrong of WWII. The comment that "if there were no war, this wouldn't have happened" came up several times; it seems to implicate the one who started the war more than all those who fought in it.

And then we watched sumo wrestling on the bus TVs on the way back, and we all felt better.

We had dinner at a rest stop on the highway. There was a food court with a bunch of Japanese restaurants. You'd go up to a vending machine (naturally) and pick a numbered menu item. The relevant restaurant would get the order and you'd get a numbered ticket. When your number was called, you picked up your tray. It worked out very nicely. I had sticky rice with curry and chicken, which was delectable, but made my stomach yell at me for the rest of the evening.

Day 5: Kyoto

I had planned to spend the day in Kobe, but most of my friends were gone on trips or had other plans, so I hopped on the S@S trip to Kyoto since I had heard so much about it. Kyoto is Japan's ancient capital and renowned for its temples and beautiful foliage. I got to see both, and they were both well worth it.

We made five stops. First was a palace/castle built during the Tokugawa Shogunate. The floors creaked on purpose so that eavesdroppers or infiltrators could be easily detected. Second was the Golden Pavilion, a villa that was donated to become a Zen Buddhist temple after the owner's death. It's essentially a pagoda of gold, surrounded by the "Mirror Pond" and a breathtaking garden. Third was a park where we could eat lunch and a nearby Shinto shrine, where our guide showed us how to pray properly. Fourth was a larger Shinto shrine and attached garden, where I saw an adorable baby turtle swimming around the pond and got to hop across a series of stepping stones. Fifth and last was a Buddhist temple. It includes a stage that stands 36ft above the ground. Apparently there used to be a myth that jumping from the stage would grant any wish; for obvious reasons, this myth is now discouraged. The temple was at the end of a long line of shops and restaurants, where we had some time to explore. I ended up buying a tiny samurai-sword letter opener. I figured that I couldn't get a real sword back on the ship, so this was the next best thing. Now I can open letters with great ferocity.

Kyoto was gorgeous in general, and the gardens especially so. I'd be happy to come back here or to Yokohama someday, as long as I could share the experience with someone.

One port left!

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