Wednesday, March 13, 2013

"I'm big in Japan"

After finding out I had some extra vacation time that I wasn't expecting, I asked my friend Zach if he wanted to go to Japan. This may seem like an off-the-cuff kind of suggestion; it's not often we get to go to another country when we have a little extra vacation. However, Japan is so close to Korea that, on clear days, it is visible from Busan (not in the way that China was visible from San Francisco, according to my Dad when I was 8 years old); before living and teaching in Korea, Zach lived and taught in Japan albeit not in Kyushu (the southern island to which we visited). Though he claimed it rusty, Zach's command of Japanese is incredible. Proximity, as well as having a seasoned translator/tour guide made Japan an ideal destination for a four and a half day outing. For those of you who don't know, Zach has been a close friend since his arrival in the winter of 2011, just six months after I came to Korea.

We had to take a train to Busan the evening before our morning ferry to Fukuoka and we were met by a mutual friend of ours whom we met through my girlfriend, Hayoung (Haley). Sang-Geon lived in NYC, studying English and buying limited edition Nike shoes for six months and we've managed to meet up with him a couple times since his return to Korea last summer. He met us downtown for dinner and a few drinks and to help us get a motel sorted. To save some money, Zach and I wanted to split a room; just watching Sang-Geon's face as he tried to explain that two dudes wanted to share a room at a motel to the proprietors of motels in the area was priceless. More so, we insisted on having a room that didn't have glass (see-through) walls dividing the room from the bathroom (that is more common in Korea that one might assume. Traveling heterosexual males are not quite their target clientele). After the motel was sorted, Sang-Geun brought a couple friends of his out and we had a great time together. After some darts, teaching his friends the finer points of beer pong and the sharing of many smiles, lewd hand gestures and bar food, Zach and I decided to turn in. We did, after all, have an appointment with the Land of the Rising Sun.

After a relatively quick two and a half hour ferry to Fukuoka, we made a b-line for the train station and took a two hour train to Nagasaki. Nagasaki may sound familiar, as it very well should. It was the target of "Fat Man", one of the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan, ending the U.S.'s involvement in the Pacific and, for all intents and purposes, World War II. Nagasaki was a beautiful coastal town with lots to offer the intrepid pedestrian. Here is Nagasaki in pictures. Click on the pictures for a bigger image; hit escape when you're finished.

It was important for us to go to Nagasaki though not just because it is a beautiful city and home to many friendly people. Personally, as an American, I felt I needed to pay my respects to the place and the spirit that my country had devastated. I feel conflicted about the bomb. Historically speaking, it represents an ethical conundrum, one that doesn't have an easy answer.

The thinking goes: if we drop the bomb, we can end the war and prevent the deaths of many more soldiers and civilians alike though taking out a whole city in the process. Or, we continue fighting without end in sight, resulting in countless more deaths and destruction at an unimaginable scale. Either way, everyone loses. That said, as a species we lost some innocence when the bombs were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. 

Below, in its own slideshow, are pictures from the Nagasaki Peace Park, a memorial dedicated to the perseverance of peace and the elimination of atomic weapons around the globe. As a side note, I greatly respect and admire the spirit of the Peace Park. I have been to the Holocaust museums in Washington D.C., Berlin and Jerusalem and while powerful, the essence was to focus on the past and the tragedy. It is obviously at the discretion of the victims how to preserve the horror so future generations won't forget. While I found the Holocaust museums oppressing and spiritually suffocating, I found the Nagasaki Peace Park and museum emboldening. Instead of focusing on themselves as a victim, they focus on the future, that all peoples abandon atomic weaponry. The Peace Park, as I experienced it, projected, 'let all learn from the misery experienced here'. The question of justice was not posed. There was no proclamation of injustice nor was there the brooding guilt like I saw in Berlin (over The War alone, not the Holocaust). The past is past, the future is sacred, agency exists in the seconds we let slip  though the fingers of humanity. Here are my images from the Peace Park and the hypocenter where the bomb exploded above the city. Click on the pictures for a bigger image; hit escape when you're finished.

The trip was really fun but the fact that both Zach and I have both recently delved into photography made the trip somewhat of a photo shoot. Between the two of us we carried two Canon 450D's, two f/18-50's, an f/40 and an f/50-250 telephoto. We spent a lot of the trip composing shots, talking about settings and experimenting with different lens, setting and sun light combinations. I was also shooting with my iPhone 4 but that's neither here nor there.

After Nagasaki, we went to Saga, halfway between Nagasaki and Fukuoka. Zach wanted to take me to Saga specifically to stay in a capsule hotel. He guessed, and rightly so, that I would get a huge kick out of staying at one. Capsule hotels are usually occupied by business men, traveling overnight for a day or two. They look like the sleeping quarters on the space ship in 2001: A Space Odyssey, a 1960's version of the future. Each white plastic-shelled capsule had a built-in TV with two channels: golf and porn, a clock radio, a reading light and they came with a pillow and a blanket. While out in Saga, we told people we were staying at a capsule hotel, which was met with a look of confusion. I guess people only stay in them as a cheap alternative to a hotel and tourists rarely go out of their way to stay in one. But Zach hit the bulls-eye and I was thrilled to stay there. It was a great experience.

While in Saga, I wanted sushi, the real deal, sparing no expenses. Zach and I wandered the empty streets of Saga for about an hour until we found what we were looking for, something Zach considered an authentic sushi bar. By comparison, the sushi we get at home (The U.S.) is quite good but nothing I've ever had compared to the textures and explosive flavors of the fare enjoyed at this little sushi place in Saga. Below are some pictures of the meal. Apologies for the quality but I decided to leave my good camera at the hotel and opted to stick with my iPhone that night.

At the restaurant we met an older couple, vacationing pensioners. The man bought Zach and I some beers to enjoy with our sushi dinner. Zach made pleasant conversation with them on their way out, wishing them a good night. The man said something that really tickled our funny bones, "oh, we're not going to sleep!" They left us to our meal and we ate our fill.

As we left the restaurant, one of the staff members spoke to Zach, letting us know that she was charged to deliver us to a karaoke bar to spend more time with the pensioners. After walking for three minutes and a few twists and turns later, we were delivered to a one-room karaoke bar, the pensioners from the restaurant waiting for us. The older man, whom we nicknamed Grandpa Japan, asked us what we liked to drink. We said anything but he insisted on buying us some top-shelf whiskey...the whole bottle! We sat with them at a little table near the bar and one of women working at the bar sat at our table just to refill our glasses with ice, water and whiskey. As we sat there, Grandpa Japan was trying to convince Zach that he was rich. Zach pleasantly responded that he must be and he was very generous to be sharing his evening and his whiskey with us. Grandpa insisted and he took out the equivalent of a $100 bill out of his pocket, tore it in half and gave one half to each of us. He told us that if we could figure out how to put it back together it was ours.

We stayed at the karaoke bar for a good two hours, singing Beatles songs with some of the other older folks at the bar until our hosts decided that they had had enough and were ready to go home. After they left, Zach and I went for a walk back in the direction of our hotel. As we walked a younger guy, about our age, came up to us on a bicycle. He said that he studied in Australia and asked us if we wanted to go to a club. Thankfully he was up front with us that he was a promoter and his job was to get people to go to his friend's club. We told him that we were actually in the mood for a bar. He said he knew just the place.

He walked us to a second-floor bar and told us he would come back after he finished working. Zach, friendly and outgoing as usual, made friends with everyone in the bar, asked permission for me if I could go behind the bar and DJ for a while and got us an amazing deal on drinks: $30 for all we could drink. We stayed there a couple hours but realizing that it was getting late (or early) and that we had to get a train in the morning, we decided to call it a night. We walked back to the capsule hotel, crawled into our retro-futuristic sleeping pods and were out. I woke up in the wrong capsule. 

The next morning we took a train to Fukuoka where we would spend the last three evenings (two days) of our trip. The day we arrived in Fukuoka, we decided to lay low, spend a few hours at a mall, drank coffee and recuperated.

The next day, Zach took me to a Shinto shrine dedicated to the spirit of students and study. He said that before the national exams in Japan, the Dazaifu Shrine is flooded with hopefule students trying to make amends with the spirit. Pictures (sometimes) speak louder than words and I cannot do this place justice. It was absolutely beautiful and I hope my pictures convey just a fraction of the majesty of this shrine.

That same evening, we met up with one of Zach's co-workers from his glory days living in Shizuoka and Zach's friend's boyfriend. They are both English teachers and as nice as can be.

It's hard to say you've been to a place if you haven't actually hung out with any of the locals there and that was something our trip was sorely missing. They took us out for two meals, one at an Izakaya (like a Japanese tapas restaurant) and another at an authentic underground ramen bar. They were quite pleasant and it was fun hearing Zach and Chihiro recounting their past; I've known Zach a long time, about two years, but I forget sometimes I haven't known him his whole life. I got to see a side of Zach I had never seen before, back in his element, speaking a foreign tongue, slurping ramen with the best of 'em. I've seen him equally as happy but always in a different way. I'm fortunate, for so many reasons, that he was my tour guide and companion on this trip.

Our last day was spent taking it relatively easy. We scotch-taped our money from Grandpa Japan and for our final dinner, we went to a carousel sushi restaurant at the mall. The damage? About $89 worth of sushi.

I've never been gung-ho about going to Japan but I thought it would be foolhardy not to go with Zach, someone who has lived there, loved it there and was passionate about sharing his experience with a newbie; I think he got a lot out of taking me too, seeing a place familiar to him with a new set of eyes.  

After living in both the Philippines and Korea, two former colonies of the Japanese empire, I have been exposed to a lot of anger, resentment and yes, even hate towards the Japanese and their government (former and present). In the US we were taught that the evil Japanese were responsible for Pearl Harbor and they deserved to be bombed (though magically they became good guys around the 1980's when we started importing from them). I carried a lot of historical baggage when we went to Japan but I went with as open mind as I could manage. I was rewarded with smiles, warmness, kindness and hospitality beyond compare. I don't think it was because Zach spoke Japanese. I don't speak a lick of Japanese and I was treated the same exact way. Japan has a complicated history and remains a complicated society. I saw only a small part of the country and met only a fraction of the people who call it home. But like a Basho haiku, great complexity can be summed up into something small, simple and shared, like a smile or a bowl of miso ramen. That beauty and simplicity is how I choose to remember my time in Japan.