After two and a half months in Southeast Asia's heat and humidity, it was incredibly refreshing to arrive in Japan on December 1st...we were now far enough into the northern hemisphere so that we were no longer straddling the sweaty equator. When Keith and I arrived at Tokyo's Narita Airport early in the morning, we had to deplane onto the tarmac and take a short stroll to the terminal. As we disembarked from the plane into the outdoors, we were suddenly hit with our first blast of cold air in months, which triggered memories of the holiday weather we'd experienced growing up in New York and Eastern Canada.
Our dormant holiday spirit immediately awoke. Now we were going to finally appreciate why we had been dragging around our winter layers in 80-100 degree Fahrenheit weather. We welcomed the idea of being bundled up with a scarf, hat, gloves, and layers under our windbreaker jackets for the next three weeks instead of continuous excessive perspiring we had grown accustomed to.
Prior to our arrival in Tokyo, we had arranged to Couchsurf with a Japanese/New Zealand couple, Chooch-san and Simon-san. We were lucky to connect with such special hosts, especially since many Couchsurfing hosts can't offer their space during the holiday season due to their hectic schedules and travel. Our connecting flight into Tokyo was delayed that morning, but again we were lucky since thankfully Simon was able to wait for us to arrive at their apartment before he left for work. After meeting Simon we quickly dropped our bags and set out to explore their surrounding neighborhoods of Tokyo. Their apartment is located on the edge of Roppongi district, which is known for its shopping scene and slick night life. We also discovered later that evening that their apartment boasts an awesome rooftop view of the city and Tokyo Tower- which to me looks like the Japanese version of the Eiffel Tower. Tokyo Tower is almost 1,100 feet high (about 40 feet taller than the Eiffel Tower), and was built in 1958 as a broadcasting tower. During the great week that we stayed with them, Chooch spoiled us with some amazing vegetarian dishes, sharing with me her secret maitake/shitake mushroom recipe. (Psssst...it's all about the mirin sauce and kombu seaweed stock powder!) Chooch and I also had opportunity to spin poi on her roof top- which was incredibly cool with the city skyline and Tokyo Tower backdrop- and I happily picked up some new poi tricks. (In case you're wondering what the heck are poi...A set of poi is two balls that are each connected to string or chain and one is held in each hand. They originate from the Maori people of New Zealand, but has grown into a worldwide form of exercise, hobby, or performance art, and you may even see poi that glow-in-the-dark or are on fire.)
On our first day of exploring Tokyo, we got a little lost (and cold and tired) while attempting to walk to the city center. Up until that point in our travels, we had been almost solely relying upon our own two feet (well, four feet) for inner-city transportation, but we soon realized that in Tokyo we were going to have to supplement with something else. The sheer scale of Tokyo would require us using the city transit systems if we were to get anywhere "locally".
Tokyo has metro, subway, and private company lines that are separate but somewhat overlapping systems, and between all of them, we found that we could thoroughly explore Tokyo. While we were in Thailand we had already pre-purchased our Japan Rail Passes (which allow access to the famous Japanese bullet train "Shinkansen"), but we were waiting to activate those passes for travel once we left Tokyo city because it doesn't pay to use the pass for inner-Tokyo travel. The Japan Rail Pass is available only to foreigners (you must show your passport upon purchase) and they must be obtained outside of Japan, within a month before you enter the country. There are 7, 14, or 21 day options at two different levels- "green" (AKA superior class) and "ordinary" (AKA normal people class). The trains in Japan are so clean and well maintained that the quality of the "ordinary" pass is more than sufficient. Since we were in Japan for 20 days, and planned to stay in Tokyo for the first 6 days, we opted for the "ordinary" 14 day pass. It is definitely worth investing in a JR Pass if you plan on leaving Tokyo to see any other part of Japan because city to city train travel, especially on the bullet train, is very expensive. Since we were in Thailand right before Japan, we purchased our passes in Bangkok from an authorized travel agent that was on the JR online list of approved brokers. At first we were quoted some higher prices, but as it goes in Thailand, all prices are negotiable, and we were able to negotiate them down 515 Thai Baht for each ticket (1500 Japanese yen) from the 45,100 yen that is quoted online for this type of pass on japanrailpass.net, which is about $16 US dollars lower than the online price. (Trust me, we had our calculators out in Thailand for all of this currency conversion during our ticket purchase negotiations!)
Which brings me to the point of cultural differences, culture shock, and sticker shock. After two and a half months, we had grown accustomed to being expected to bargain for almost everything in Indonesia/Malaysia/Thailand/Cambodia, having to constantly pay attention so as to not be overcharged or shorted money in a transaction, and continuously focus to not being taken advantage of. Above all, we were vigilant about taking defensive action to thwart being robbed, and so when we arrived in Japan, we found it weird that we suddenly didn't have to stuff our hidden travel wallets down our pants any more. Now we were constantly observing "CrAzY" behaviors displayed by the Japanese- like leaving their wallets and cell phones on a table in a public place while they would go use the bathroom, and fully expect their belongings to actually be there when they get back. The word on the street in Japan is that crime is rarer than a red Kobe Beef Steak. Not to say that if you REALLY tried hard you couldn't find SOME kind of trouble to get into in Japan, but it is just not that common.
But as it is with "give and take" in life...with that refreshing change, we were hit with some serious sticker shock. Where we had previously been surviving on a couple of dollars for a nice meal and beverages for both of us, suddenly we couldn't get a "Japanese size" cup of coffee/tea for less than $5. (In case what I implied is misunderstood, packaging- as in portions/serving sizes- in Japan are extra small in comparison to the US). Suddenly, Keith and I were almost exclusively eating supermarket meals on the road. Which made things quite interesting and amusing for us, especially eating outside in Japan's winter weather, while taking into account how it is socially frowned upon to eat or drink on the streets there. (This is in total contrast to what I am used to in NYC- walk down the street at any given moment and you'll see several people scarfing down a slice of pizza and slamming their Starbucks in the "New York Minute" they have to grab a meal. Tokyo's gastronomic scene is foreign to me.) And to complicate matters even further, there are practically NO public garbage pails in Tokyo. You can't throw away anything anywhere, but paradoxically there is no litter on the streets. Tokyo is so clean it's the kind of city where you could eat off the subway floor. It is just an expected standard to take your garbage home with you. You might get lucky and see the rare recycling garbage pail next to a beverage vending machine, but don't dare ask a store employee to take your empty water bottle- they will very nicely say no.
With that, a couple of further observations I must share: Japanese people must be just about the most polite and helpful group of people on planet Earth. Travel in Japan definitely had its challenging moments for us, especially since we don't speak or read the local language. But just like in Cambodia and Thailand, where the local languages also don't use the Romanized characters of our English alphabet, many signs would thankfully have an English translation as well. Additionally, where there wasn't an English translation, we were consistently impressed with how people were always willing to help. There were many times when Keith and I would have our noses buried in a map and a Japanese person would take the time to walk up to us and ask if we needed any assistance. And then most of the time after they offered their assistance they would actually go so far as to escort us to where we were trying to go.
Tokyo in many ways reminded me of the concrete jungle of NYC. It had that same big city vibe, energetic pace, and visually had the same modern architecture and Times Square-esque lights. And boy was Tokyo lit up for Christmas! We learned while we were there that Christmas in Japan is different than how we celebrate back at home. Let's face it, Christmas has evolved into a major marketing opportunity for financial gain and economic stimulus all around the world. But Santa's "problem" in Japan is that there are not that many practicing Christians living there. But much to the credit of the "big business" creative thinking power, Christmas has been morphed into a type of Valentine's Day. So even in Japan, capitalism has succeeded in promoting the practice of frantic gift giving for Christmas to Japanese consumers. We were informed that Christmas is basically an excuse to take your sweetheart out to a nice dinner and exchange gifts.
We stumbled across so many great things while we were roaming Tokyo. I think one of Keith's favorite was the Sony building, where they had showrooms boasting the latest and greatest in technological gadgets that you never knew you needed to survive. Keith fell in love with a picture tracking devise that logs when and where in the world you take a picture and then posts that onto a web page where you can track someone's journey. (Maybe that fancy technological advancement will make a showing on our next blogging adventure LOL). They also had some amazing Lego sculptures of Angkor Wat, the Roman Coliseum, and a traditional Japanese palace. (Legos are very geek sheek).
We also saw the Prada building which is famous for its unique architectural design that utilizes glass and light to draw your eyes into the fashion store.
As we were roaming Tokyo attempting to find our way to the Japanese Imperial Palace, we met another traveler waiting to cross at a traffic light who shared with us his fortuitous discovery of a statue of Godzilla. (BTW, in Tokyo, we noticed people almost never cross against the light, or jaywalk.) He said that it was amazing and that we MUST make a small detour and check out this larger-than-life famous statue. Well, we had great anticipation to see the great Godzilla. Finally, we found it...stunned that it was the same size as us! We took our obligatory picture of this infamous Japanese character, and then set off to the Imperial Palace. Unfortunately, we couldn't actually get into the royal grounds (no one could as it was closed off to commoners, peons, pleebs, peasants, serfs, gophers, pigeons, subordinates, and obviously Americans and Canadians), but as commoners we were allowed to try to peek in from the periphery. Ahhh, but it was unfortunately too far away to be impressed even with 20/20 vision. Trying to not take it personally that the royal family was remiss in mailing us our personal invitations, we circled the outer ground's Imperial gardens and attempted to take some photos of the palace from over the moat. We learned that visitors are only allowed to enter the inner palace grounds to catch a glimpse of the royal family for two days a year- January 2 for New Years, and December 23 for the Emperor's birthday.
Another rainy day we went to the Tokyo National Museum museum, the largest and oldest museum in Japan. They had an extensive collection of artifacts from both Japan and all of Asia. My personal favorite was the royal "pillow" which looked more like a royal pain in the neck to me. The hardened raised surface looked quite uncomfortable, but the lacquered design was quite pretty. The museum has several buildings on its campus and takes a greater part of a day to really get to see most of it.
Another morning we set out to see the famous Tsukiji fish market. This place is something not to be missed in life. It is the biggest wholesale seafood and fish market in the world. We heard from some people you can get there as early as possible in hopes to see the fish auction that takes place in the wee hours of the morning (by 5 am). Needless to say, Keith and I missed that particular part. But you can still see a tremendous amount of activity happening if you sleep in and get there by 9am. I was amazed at all the unique shapes, sizes, and colors of the sea creatures we saw- most appearing very different from our version back home, and others I have never seen before in all my life. We also saw how they prepared frozen fish as big as me by using band saws to cut through the huge blocks of ice-hard fish to prepare them for packaging and shipping all around the world.
As we were roaming the Asakusa district of Tokyo, we stumbled upon the showroom of the famous Japanese toy company Bandai. It was strictly forbidden to take pictures inside the building (hey you never know, we may return to the US and sell some trade secrets to Hasbro or something)...but we did have our "Tom Hanks" moment and enjoyed being Big kids playing with their floor samples toys.
We continued onward through the Asakusa neighborhood towards the Thunder Gate, or "kaminar-mon", at the Sensoji Temple. This temple is also known as the Asakusa Kannon Temple in honor of Kannon the Goddess of Mercy. This is reputedly Tokyo's most well known and oldest Buddhist temple, having been founded in 628 AD. At the gated entrance is an impressive big red and black paper lantern, representing thunderclouds and lightening. There are two deities protecting both sides of the gate- on the left is Raijin the God of Thunder, and on the right is Fujin the God of Wind.
From the Thunder Gate leading to the temple itself is a crowded shopping street called Nakamise-dori which is crammed with little shops and stalls selling various souvenirs and Edo-style crafts. In front of the temple, is a large cauldron of incense from which the smoke is believed to bestow good health...Keith and I were sure to douse ourselves in a thundercloud's worth before continuing on our way.
Now that we had satiated our desire for eternal good health, our stomachs were growling for some attention too. So while in Asakusa, we had one of our several sushi boat experiences in Japan. I think sushi boat can be dangerous, because you are basically shopping for food while hungry. Sushi boat is a conveyor belt of various sushi rotating around past you, and you grab whatever plate(s) your stomach commands. Every plate is a unique color that is assigned a specific price so at the end of your meal the waiter knows how much to charge you by counting the empty plates in front of you to calculate your bill.
At the outer edge of the Asakusa neighborhood we could see off in the distance a curious-looking giant golden "flame" fixed atop a huge black marble pedestal. At first, we thought it looked either like an ugly Olympic flame or an obnoxious golden sperm. We asked a rickshaw driver who was just standing around if he knew what we were looking at, and he "confirmed" that the golden sculpture was indeed a symbol of the Olympic flame. But we later learned that this story is a tall tale for tourists that seems to have no end. It is actually called the La Flamme d'Or, located at the Asashi Super Dry Beer building, and it is supposed to represent "the burning spirit of the company and its workers". But amongst the locals, this unique work of art raises eyebrows, and its architectural form has earned it the popular nickname "The Golden Poo" (O Gon No Unko). This big piece of Golden Poo is an impressive 360 tons and is 43 meters long.
After about a week of exploring Tokyo, we said "Sayonara" to our incredibly generous hosts (and now new friends) Chooch and Simon, and took the famous "Shinkansen" bullet train down to Kobe to see our good friend Hiro who relocated there from San Francisco. The bullet train is such an amazing experience...you feel like you are flying, except when you look out the window you realize that you are still on the ground. The biggest awe-inspiring moment is when you are on one Shinkansen going nearly 200 mph that is passing another Shinkansen going in the opposite direction at nearly 200 mph...within inches of each other. You feel like the sound barrier is being broken when that happens! Since you can't see the oncoming train from the traincar window before it is actually passing, it took a little luck and patience, but we were able to record a short video clip.
When we got to Kobe, Hiro met us at the train station. It was so great to see an old friend and a familiar face! We taxied back to his apartment, and learned that in Japan you should not attempt to slam shut your own taxi door. The white-glove-wearing driver has special controls up front that gently shut the door for you. We didn't use taxis too often in Japan, as they were really expensive. But for the handful of times we did use a taxi, as stupid as it sounds, up until we left Japan, I still found slamming shut your own car door to be an incredibly hard habit to break.
Hiro was incredibly good to us, was the most generous host-with-the-most, and took us around Kobe to show us the sights. Kobe is a great bustling city that had a layout and steep streets that in some ways visually reminded us of San Francisco.
One night in Kobe, Hiro took us to see the Luminarie display that is an annual light show that honors those that passed away in the devastating Hanshin 1995 earthquake. It took us a couple of hours to work our way with the crowds to the actual start point of the display...tens of thousands of people line up in the streets to walk through this magnificent illuminated tunnel. Later we also saw a large clock overlooking the main street that was stopped by the earthquake when it struck at 5:46am, and is now kept as a memorial of that moment that changed so many lives in Kobe.
Hiro's apartment building is set in a hillside and has some great views overlooking Kobe city. When we were there, it was just the end of the foliage change, so we were surrounded by some spectacular scenery. One day we took a hike into the hills behind his house. The trail brought us past the Futabi shrine where people come to pray for a healthy baby and a safe delivery. There were hundreds of small statues that had been wrapped in various color cloths and prayer flags.
That same weekend we trained with Hiro to the city of Osaka to go out on the town. Hiro insisted that we try Osaka's classic Kansai street food called takoyaki- their famous octopus balls. Well, locals know best....they were sooooo delicious!
We polished off several rounds of these tasty morsals, and personally thanked the chef. Then we got to experience one of Hiro's favorite hot spots, a tiny little bar called Cauliflower hidden in the basement of a building...if it weren't for Hiro, we would have never known that it was there. The owner of the Cauliflower collected posters from the Fillmore (a famous concert venue in San Francisco that was a favorite of Keith and I), and had them framed on his walls. The trains from Osaka back to Kobe stop running for a couple of hours in the middle of the night, so we found ourselves having to push through and catch the first train home early the next morning...that was tough. (Thank you Red Bull for your support those couple of extra hours...) That train ride home made for some funny people watching...it was a mixture of post-party people slumped down in their seats passed out, while sitting upright next to them was the first wave of morning commute people in their freshly pressed suits.
Hiro had to work, so Keith and I trained to the city of Kyoto for a couple of days, famous for its many ancient temples that are UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Sites . When a place or thing qualifies by UNESCO to be on the world heritage list (like the many historic monuments of ancient Kyoto) it is internationally recognized as a place of exceptional and universal value; "a cultural heritage site worthy of preservation for the benefit for all mankind". The best way to see Kyoto is to go by foot on a self-guided walking tour to truly appreciate the atmosphere and amazing architecture of the city and temples.
I really enjoyed "zenning out" as there were many examples of zen temples and gardens in Kyoto, some demonstrating the "dry landscape" style rock gardens that had developed in Japan around 1300-1600 AD. We read about how elements within these small gardens can represent the natural contours of the larger surrounding landscape, such as rock formations within the garden demonstrating mountains. We learned these gardens can become quite sophisticated sometimes being built around a pond including rock groupings forming waterfalls, stone bridges, or rock islands.
A famous landmark we saw in Kyoto was the old wooden Togetsukyo "Crossing Moon" Bridge crossing the Katsura river in the Arashiyama area, where there happened to be a crew filming for a t.v. show or movie. We saw a dizzying number of temples, but in particular the Tenryuji Temple and the Chionin Temple stood out for us due to their beauty and architecture. My favorite part of our natural surroundings in Kyoto was walking through the serene Bamboo forest. It was truly remarkable to see.
Kyoto had some other notable moments...one being our most expensive dinner to date...a hamburger and a pizza at an English Pub. (Japan is very expensive!) Another was our quest to see a real live Geisha in the Gion district of Kyoto. Geisha are the traditional Japanese female entertainers that are known to wear white make-up, ornate kimonos and elaborate hairstyles. Nowadays Geishas are fading in numbers, and it is thought that there are currently as few as 1,000-2,000 Geishas in Japan. After two nights of walking up and down the streets of the Gion district in search of a glimpse of an elusive Geisha, I am convinced that they are like unicorns, mystical magical creatures that everyone has heard of, but no one can actually find.
Part of our amazing experience in Kyoto must be credited to one of our most unique Couchsurfing experiences to date. We had the great fortune to Couchsurf for three nights at the famous CS house owned by a Japanese man named Shoji. This house was 100% dedicated to hosting couchsurfers, Shoji did not actually live in this house but would visit it at night after work. When we got to meet Shoji face to face and ask him what was his motivation for such an incredible donation to the CS world travelers' community, his explanation (in broken English) was quite simple...during the day he worked with troubled people so his heart became small, but at night he would come to the CS house to meet travelers and his heart would become big again. This immaculate house was built in a traditional Japanese style with "tatami" mat floors and "shoji" sliding panel doors. Shoji had scattered permanent markers all over the house so that backpackers could "graffiti" the wall to create a record of who they were and where they were from, murals, thank you notes to Shoji, and messages for future travelers and the couchsurfing community. To walk through Shoji's house and read all these wonderful messages to him from people all around the world was truly inspiring.
Another day trip that we took from Hiro's apartment was to Himeji Castle, declared by UNESCO to be a Japanese world heritage site. Himeji Castle is considered to be very special in that it has never been attacked since it was built it the mid-1300's, so its intricate defense design including insulating moats, high stone walls, and strategically placed openings for shooting weapons have never actually been tested. The city of Himeji was bombed twice at the end of World War II and most of the area was burned to the ground, although Himeji Castle itself has never been damaged by warfare. Himeji Castle miraculously escaped unscathed because the one bomb that dropped on top of it failed to explode. As a result Himeji Castle has been well preserved in its original form, and is said to be an excellent example of castle architecture representative of typical Japanese design. The dark wooden frame with whitewashed walls is built upon on a tall stone foundation on top of a mountain, which allowed us to survey the surrounding city for miles and miles from the castle.
Another weekend we trained down to Fukuoka with Hiro. We stayed at the Smile Hotel, which had small but very clean rooms at a decent price. That night we sampled some of the food from Fukuoka's famous "yatai", which are street stalls lining the riverfront that serve delicious raman noodles in beef broth (delicious according to Hiro and Keith). Needless to say, there were not that many vegetarian options for me (which I was surprised to discover when we got to Japan that this difficulty would actually be the norm), but I finally found a yatai that was "Beth-friendly". After we filled our bellies, we went to bar owned by Hiro's friend frequented by expatriates, where we met people from all around the world who were now living in Japan.
A friend of ours from California had connected us with her cousin who lived in the area. So the next day, our friend Masako's cousin Hammi drove to Fukuoka meet up with us. Hammi had lived in the United States so her English was excellent (we soon discovered that she was now an English teacher in Japan), and she was hilarious. She had very quick sharp wit, and we were so happy she decided to join us. Hammi invited all of us back to her town Kurumi where her English school was throwing a Christmas party that night. Furthermore she generously invited Keith and I to stay at her place. This is an appropriate moment to recognize again how helpful and generous people have been that we have met on our travels. Hammi who had only briefly met Keith once at her cousin Masako's wedding invited us to her house as if we were members of her family. We were floored by how generous Hammi's family was to us. Hammi's parents opened their home to us, and even gifting us a bottle of Japan's famous potato sake "shochu".
We crashed Hammi's English school's Christmas party, where we all had a turn at deejaying the party. Afterward Hammi insisted that since Keith enjoyed his taste test of Fukuoka's famous raman noodles, he would now have to try her town's famous raman noodles. Of course, Keith loved Kurume's version just as much as Fukuoka's.
The next day Hammi decided to join Keith and I and go visit her cousins (Masako's sister and mom), so she drove with us to Sasebo. Sasebo is known for it beautiful landscape and harbour. It was so great to see Masako's sister and mom whom we knew from all the times they had visited Masako in the states. Masako's sister Akiko took us on a hike up a small mountain so that we could see the view of the port filled with the Ninety-nine Islands and boats.
We also got to see Masako's mom who generously insisted on taking us to lunch, although she was not able to actually join us herself. We went to the best sushi bar in town, and it was absolutely amazing. Keith decided to tell the chef that his last piece of sushi would be "chef's choice". Talk about a surprise ending...the smiling chef presented Keith with a delicately prepared slab of _blowfish sushi_ (or fugu)...so fresh that it was actually still twitching on his plate. FYI for those sushi-curious epicureans: Sushi chefs must undergo years of training in order to obtain a special license allowing them to prepare and serve fugu because one blowfish contains enough neurotoxin to kill everyone in the cafeteria. Needless to say, this specialized preparation necessary to keep the poison from being consumed by unsuspecting diners has made fugu one of the most celebrated and notorious delicacies in Japanese cuisine. Since everyone else at our lunch was also participating in consuming this dicey dish, I chose to pass on playing this culinary game of Japanese Roulette since I figured that someone had to be designated driver to the hospital in case things went rapidly downstream without a paddle. I was relieved to see that 15 minutes post consumption, everyone still seemed quite alive and not showing signs of respiratory distress.
We walked the town of Sasebo, checking out the cute shops and the Christmas lights display. We also had the great honor of being happy patrons at the best eatery in town...Akiko's restaurant!
Located just off the main shopping street, this immaculate restaurant is intimately designed, and serves "kushikatsu" which are morsels of food on a BBQ stick covered in a special batter and then deep fried. We were stuffed with delicious food once again. We said our goodbyes and thank yous to everyone, and hopped in the car with Hammi and headed back to Kurume.
The next morning Keith wanted to show me where our friends Masako and John had gotten married, so Hammi's father joined us as well and we all had breakfast courtesy of Masako's Uncle Yasu at the Kurume Suikoyen Hotel. Keith and I met just after he returned from John and Masako's wedding in Japan, so I had missed attending their wedding in person, but I have seen many pictures. It must have been a grand celebration, as the facilities were beautiful.
After our amazing breakfast, we hopped on the next train to Nagasaki. There we saw the Nagasaki National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims, and the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum. The atomic bomb exploded over Nagasaki at 11:02 am on August 9, 1945 instantaneously reducing the city to ruins. Many of the people who did manage to survive suffered from horrible diseases due to the radiation. The Peace Memorial Hall and Atomic Bomb Museum both served a common purpose: to communicate the reality of the atrocities suffered by these people, and to document their experiences so that future generations can learn from history. These places were clearly conveying an intention to move forward from those events and they both presented a strong case to create a world free from nuclear weapons. Within the Memorial Hall there are facilities for mourning victims of the bombing, portraits of the deceased and moving personal accounts from survivors; many of the memoirs donated by survivors' families. The architectural design of the Memorial Hall in of itself is a commemoration to the details of what happened; the upper level is a memorial basin holding water which the atomic bomb victims so desperately desired as an effect of the radiation exposure, the two walls within the basin strategically placed so that when you looked between them your eyes gaze to the horizon point of the bomb's epicenter. Within the Museum were haunting pictures and artifacts of the Nagasaki residents. It was a somber day in Nagasaki for Keith and I as the stark reality of the devastation of war hit us hard. Looking at the casualties of war, it doesn't matter who is declared the "winner"- the reality is both sides suffer great loss in such endeavors. After such a heavy day, we trained back to Hiro's, deep in thought, decompressing, and reflecting upon what we had just saw.
Hiroshima was another somber day, but we felt it was important for us to see this place in addition to Nagasaki. The atomic bomb was dropped over Hiroshima at 8:15 am on August 6, 1945. The closest surviving building to the bomb's epicenter is known as the "Atomic Bomb Dome"; its skeleton frame and some walls survived because the bomb detonated almost directly over it. It is now considered the most recognizable symbol of the Hiroshima atomic bombing, and sits at the edge of what is now Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. Within this park we saw thousands and thousands of colorful folded paper cranes, which we learned are a symbol for peace and prayer for a girl named Sadako Sasaki. Only two years old, she survived the atomic bomb that detonated over Hiroshima, just to be diagnosed with leukemia ten years later like many other immediate survivors. She believed that if she could fold 1,000 paper cranes that she would be granted just one wish...the wish to live. The crane is an Oriental symbol for good fortune and longevity. But her story inspired people all around the world to start folding paper cranes as a symbol for peace, and hope for the future.
We also saw The Flame for Peace, which is supposed to remain lit until the last nuclear weapon is eradicated from our planet. Hiroshima, like Nagasaki, has a National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims where you can pray, and read memoirs from the survivors. We also saw the Peace Memorial Museum which has scale models of Hiroshima before and after the bombing, and other artifacts depicting the tragedy of war. Another heavy day, in a somber mood, we trained back to Hiro's for the end of our visit.
Saying goodbye to Hiro was sad for us...we had such a great visit with him. One of our last nights with him, he threw on the movie Motorcycle Diaries, which made us start to get excited about our future adventures to South America.
The first night we arrived back in Tokyo we got to meet up with our new friends Chooch and Simon who we had met through couchsurfing, although it actually felt to us like we were meeting up with old friends. It was really good to see them, even though it was brief since they were leaving Tokyo for the weekend. Since we were not couchsurfing with them, we decided to stay at the Khao San hostel for $50 per night for the two of us. This hostel came highly recommended in our Lonely Planet "bible" travel guide, and was very clean...except for this indescribable funky smell in our room that would just not quit. The smell inspired us to get the heck out of the room and take in the sight and other smells of Tokyo that Saturday for one last full day.
Following recommendations from various sources, we hit the streets in the Harajuku neighborhood's fashion district to catch a glimpse of the famous Harajuku girls. Young people gather in Harajuku to socialize dressed in expressive elaborate non-conformist styles, such as goth and baby doll. We were told that the best time to find them was on the weekends in the middle of the day hanging out on the Jingu Bridge. After an unsuccessful and disappointing search, I was convinced that Harajuku girls are like unicorns (just like the elusive Geisha we searched for in Kyoto)...mystical magical creatures that everyone has heard of, but no one can actually find. Later we found out that Harajuku people typically gather there exclusively on Sundays...not Saturdays.
Our final adventure in Japan was our mission to find a volunteer project. The most challenging part of volunteer work in Japan was to actually find volunteer work! We had just about exhausted all resources looking for someone, somewhere, that had something that we could help out with. Finally, couchsurfing came through for us once again- a member recommended volunteering at the Mickey House Conversation Cafe in the Takadanobaba neighborhood of Tokyo. This conversation cafe has a language exchange program for Japanese people interested in learning English and other languages from native speakers. Keith and I discovered this forum facilitates an immediate connection with local people and culture, since everyone goes to the conversation cafe with the intention of actually striking up a conversation with someone new...which can be a very different experience from trying to strike up a conversation with someone at a hostel, hotel, bar or restaurant.
Our final day in Tokyo was upon us. We returned to Narita airport and hopped on our next flight..."Sayonara" Japan, "G'day Mate" Australia!!!