December 31, 2012

Minami-aizu, Fukushima

Located in the mountains of Fukushima is a small town called Minami-aizu, with a population of just over 20,000. It is a place like no other I have ever been to in Japan. Blanketed with a metre of fresh snow that had fallen overnight, the streets looked as though they had gingerbread houses lining them, and you could almost be tricked into thinking you were somewhere in Europe... if it weren't for the incongruous presence of torii gates and pachinko parlours.
A torii gate in the middle of Minami-aizu town
The snowfall is so heavy residents need special pop-up garages for their cars
A pachinko parlour lights up the snowy darkness
Minami-aizu is surrounded by ski slopes, and we spent three nights staying at a ski resort called Resort Inn Daikura. It has essentially been out of action since March 2011. Although the town is located more than 100km from the condemned Fukushima Daiichi plant, after the nuclear accident, visitors stopped coming. Harmful rumours created by media sensationalism and hearsay painted the entire area as unsafe. The owner of the resort told us that there have been 22,000 cancellations since the disaster. As the ski season approaches this year, they hope that the fears have diminished, and there will be more visitors.
Ski slopes at Resort Inn Daikura
The Aizu region is known for its produce, in particular, rice, persimmons and tomatoes. Since the disaster, it has taken numerous campaigns and efforts to convince the Japanese public that these products are still safe to consume. This year, the Japanese government made radiation inspection of all rice in the region compulsory, using expensive machines that check the contamination levels of each bag of rice. Minami-aizu town has seven of these machines, which we got to witness in action. Each bag of rice gets fed through the machine, and if levels of contamination are over 50 becquerel, it must be inspected closely - 100 becquerel is the standard for contamination. So far no bags of Minami-aizu rice have exceeded the contamination limit, and sales figures are returning to pre-March 11 levels.

Watching radiation inspection machine in action
Bag of Fukushima rice: customers can scan the barcode with cellphones for more information on radiation levels
Minami-aizu is a beautiful, but difficult place to live. It endures hardship every year: the winters are long and harsh. The people must work themselves to the bone, tending to the land. And now, in the face of the nuclear disaster, they have had to completely rebuild the town's economy, following the effects of harmful rumours on tourism and agriculture. It is fitting that a symbol of the region is a traditional toy called okiagari-koboshi, a little doll that is so resilient that no matter how many times you push it over, it will always return to an upright position.
Okiagari-koboshi doll, a symbol of the Aizu region

December 27, 2012

10 Facts and Figures From the 3.11 Disaster

As part of the Kizuna Project we attended a lecture held by the Research Center for Crisis and Contingency Management at Meiji University. We learned about the 3.11 Earthquake, Tsunami and Nuclear Disaster, and the recovery progress. There is so much information out there that I found it quite overwhelming trying to piece it all together to attempt to understand what happened. This lecture gave a really useful overview.

1. The Great East Japan Earthquake occurred at 2.46pm on Friday 11 March 2011. The epicentre was off the Sanriku coast, northeastern Japan. While the majority of earthquakes last for only a few seconds, this earthquake was unusual in that it lasted for minutes.

2. The earthquake was a magnitude 9.0, making it the 4th largest in modern history. Using the Japanese Shindo (震度) or seismic intensity scale, it reached a 7 - the highest level - in Kurihara City; 6 in the rest of the Tohoku region; and upper 5 in Tokyo.

3. 15,871 dead, 2778 missing, and 6114 injured. 65% of victims were aged over 60.

4. 92.4% died from drowning, compared to relatively low 4.4% from crushing. This shows that Japanese building standards were effective against earthquake, but tsunami caused greatest loss of life.

5. 64% of victims were rescued by their own neighbours, while only 28% were rescued by firefighters and the Self Defense Force. Shows the importance of self-sufficiency during a disaster.

6. Damage from earthquake and tsunami amounted to an estimated ¥16.9 trillion. This does not include nuclear disaster.

7. By May 2012, 53,916 temporary houses were needed to accommodate those made homeless.

8. 22 million tons of tsunami debris left in affected areas - this is half the amount of annual waste in Japan.

9. 930,400 people have volunteered in affected region, and Japan has received more than ¥350 Billion in donations.

10. After the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant explosion, all of Japan's 54 nuclear reactors were shut down. Two have since been reactivated, a decision which led to widespread protest among Japanese people. Before the disaster 30% of Japan's power was derived from nuclear reactors.

(Source: Tatsuya Nogami, "The Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami Disaster" lecture notes, Meiji University Research Center for Crisis and Contingency Management.)

December 26, 2012

Ikebukuro Life Safety Learning Centre (Ikebukuro Bosaikan)

On our first day in Tokyo we went to the Ikebukuro Life Safety Learning Centre (池袋防災館) to learn about earthquakes and prepare ourselves in case a disaster should occur while we were in Japan. It sounds dramatic, but an earthquake measuring 5 on the seismic intensity scale had struck Tohoku a few nights before, and we were warned that before the Great East Japan Earthquake there had been an earthquake of a similar size. There were concerns that this earthquake would also trigger something larger (luckily, it didn't).

Run by the Tokyo Fire Department, the Life Safety Learning Centre offers a range of disaster preparation activities, including first aid, fire fighting, rescue and escape, and earthquake simulation. 

Despite being a place that deals with disasters, there is no shortage of Japanese cuteness and commercialism. Upon entering the Centre you are greeted with a friendly-looking statue of an elephant. A souvenir stall in the reception area contains an impressive array of products featuring firefighter Hello Kitty (who knew she was so multi-talented)?
The ever-optimistic disaster elephant at the Life Safety Learning Centre
We started out in the earthquake simulation room, which was set up with a table and chairs to represent an apartment, complete with a backdrop of the Tokyo skyline. We were given five different earthquakes in Japan's history (including 3.11), so that we could experience what different types and magnitudes feel like, and had to take cover when an earthquake siren sounded. While it started out as a laugh, once the shaking began there were a few white knuckles gripping the table legs.

There was also a smoke maze, which was designed to resemble a hotel to prepare you should a fire occur when you are in an unfamiliar environment. We were put in a dark corridor with numerous doors, and had to crawl our way to the correct exit, as 'smoke' poured in. It was a claustrophobic experience, and if you didn't crouch low enough, a buzzer would go off, signalling death by smoke inhalation.

The Life Safety Learning Centre is a strange, perhaps even slightly morbid attraction you would probably never think of going to. It's definitely a unique experience though, and probably a useful one if you live in Japan, where earthquakes are common. Unfortunately, the one thing that seems to be missing is information on how to escape a tsunami (we were simply advised to 'follow the Japanese people around you to higher ground')... considering the majority of casualties on 3.11 were caused by the tsunami, it seems more education is needed in this area.

In New Zealand, we have a similar exhibit at Te Papa Museum, where you can experience the 1931 Napier Earthquake, and there is talk of creating a simulation of the September 2011 and February 2012 Christchurch quakes.

Visit the website here (Japanese).
Address: 2-37-8, Nishiikebukuro, Toshima-ku, 171-0021 Tokyo.

December 23, 2012

Kizuna Project: An Overview

Kizuna Project group at Tsuruga Castle, Aizuwakamatsu, Fukushima prefecture
Despite an unexpected tornado (Auckland), earthquake and tsunami (Japan), I made it safely to Japan and back, and had ten of the most action-packed days of my life, along with 105 students from Australia and New Zealand.

First we spent two nights in Tokyo for orientation. We visited the Ikebukuro Life Safety Learning Centre and used their earthquake simulator room to experience what different types of earthquakes actually feel like. Next up was a lecture at Meiji University, detailing the March 11 disaster and reconstruction efforts.

We then rode the Tohoku shinkansen to Shin-Shirakawa station in Fukushima prefecture, watching the landscape slowly change from urban high rises to a snowy countryside. From the station, we got on a bus and headed to Minamiaizu, a town nestled in the mountains, buried under a metre of fresh snow. We spent the next 3 nights at a ski resort there, called Resort Inn Daikura.

At Minamiaizu we visited the mayor's office and learned about the effects of the disaster on the town. We were taken to a rice production hut, and witnessed the inspection of local rice for radiation levels. Following this was a lecture on the safety management of agricultural products in Fukushima prefecture. The mood was lightened with a trip to Tajima Junior High School, where we spent an afternoon doing origami and calligraphy with the students.

The next day we took a scenic train to nearby Aizuwakamatsu city. At Aizuwakamatsu, we visited temporary housing for residents of Okuma town, which is uninhabitable because of the nuclear disaster. An evacuee shared her story of the accident, and her experience in evacuation shelters and temporary accommodation. That afternoon we visited two of the city's tourist attractions, Tsuruga Castle and the Aizu Sake Brewery Museum.

We got back on the shinkansen in the morning and headed to Nagoya, to participate in a homestay programme for 2 nights. My homestay family were located in Gifu prefecture, and they took me to a place to make soba noodles, the Agigawa Dam, a museum and art gallery.

At the conclusion of the homestay programme we went to Nagoya University of Foreign Studies, and spent a morning doing disaster preparation activities with students there. Then it was back to Tokyo, where we went to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to give a final presentation about our findings from the project. Finally it was time to head to Narita airport and fly home.

During the Kizuna Project I learned so much about the earthquake and nuclear disaster. In Aizu, while the physical damage caused by the disaster was minimal, economic damage has crippled the region. While reconstructing buildings and cities is relatively straightforward, rebuilding a reputation is not so easy: it's difficult to shake the link between 'Fukushima' and 'radiation'.

I'm going to write some more detailed posts about my experiences in Fukushima, but hopefully this gives some idea of what I've been up to over the past couple of weeks. The Aizu region is truly beautiful, and I hope I get the chance to go back and explore Fukushima.

December 07, 2012

Night Before Trip, 7.3 Earthquake Strikes Northeastern Japan

Tomorrow I leave for Japan, and I was excited to do this post saying how I'm all packed and ready to go... and suddenly breaking news tweets start appearing in my newsfeed, saying there has been another major earthquake near Sendai, Japan, and tsunami warnings have been issued for Miyagi prefecture.

I have been going through as many news sites as I can, English and Japanese, as well as Twitter and Facebook, and am slowly getting little bits of information. It was a 7.3, seems to have been felt quite strongly in Tokyo, and a metre-high tsunami has been recorded in Ishinomaki city in Miyagi. There have not yet been any reports of damage or injuries.

I'm not sure yet how this will affect my trip to Japan, especially the planned activities for the disaster area. I guess we will be briefed on how this latest earthquake has impacted our schedule at our meeting in Auckland tomorrow. We will be in Tokyo until Tuesday, then are scheduled to move to Minamiaizu in Fukushima prefecture and stay there for 3 nights.

I need to go to sleep as I have to be up at 5am to catch my flight to Christchurch, but I have to say that this news makes things feel very frighteningly real. I hope everyone in Japan is ok.

All going well, you'll be able to read about my experiences when I return on December 21st. For now, a somewhat cautious 行ってきます!

December 06, 2012

KFC for Christmas: A Japanese Tradition

December is here, which means that most of Japan will be enthusiastically unfurling the fairy lights, erecting lavishly decorated trees, and advertising all the expensive, flashy gifts you are expected to purchase for your significant others. Then December 25th will arrive, and everyone will go to work and school like any other day. Christmas in Japan. It has all the build up of a national holiday, but hasn't quite been put into practice.

As less than 1% of Japanese are Christian, there's really no spiritual basis for celebrating Christmas, so the emphasis is more on the commercial aspects of the holiday. This has resulted in some quirky traditions... such as eating Kentucky Fried Chicken for Christmas dinner.
You have to reserve this party barrel for Christmas (Image source)
 I first encountered the tradition during my home stay in Hiroshima in 2007, when I got to experience Christmas in Japan courtesy of my well-meaning host mother. This is what I wrote in my blog back then:
Christmas just isn't a big deal here. They do have some Christmas customs though - apparently eating KFC is one of these. On Christmas Eve, we drove past a KFC takeout place, and there was a line so long that it went out of the shop and all the way onto the street. So I wasn't completely surprised when, for tea tonight, there was a familiar looking red and white box containing pieces of 'original recipe' chicken on the table. After tea we had a very beautifully decorated German Christmas cake, which, before eating, we all said 'itadakimasu!' Talk about a multi-cultural Christmas - American takeout, German cake, and Japanese set phrases. Weird...
Where did the Kentucky Fried Christmas come from? Legend has it that foreigners in Japan took to having KFC for Christmas, as it was difficult to get turkey. The company bigwigs soon caught wind of this, and were inspired to launch a massive marketing campaign in the 1970s - クリスマスにはケンタッキー (Kentucky for Christmas)! It has remained a popular tradition ever since, with people ordering their buckets of chicken months in advance.

It's also just been announced that Japan Airlines has collaborated with KFC to serve the chicken as an onboard meal this Christmas, so passengers can have a finger-lickingly festive flight.
JAL/KFC collaborate for Christmas (Image source)

November 14, 2012

Eat Until You Drop, Swim Until You Drown at Dotonbori?

I'm behind the times, but I was catching up on news at Kansai Scene and just read there are plans to turn Dotonbori canal into a swimming pool. Whaaaaat?

The 'glittering' waters of Dotonbori...
...Transformed into 'Pool Dotonbori' (Image source)
Apparently Osaka's plan is to transform the canal into the world's longest swimming pool, to be called Pool Dotonbori. They hope to have it completed in time for the area's 400th anniversary in 2015.

The idea, while pretty epic, perplexes me. For one thing, Dotonbori canal is filthy. It has traditionally been somewhat of a headache for the Osaka City Council thanks to the legendary activity known as the 'Dotonbori Dive', in which drunk Osakans challenge each other to leap into the murky waters, especially after baseball games. Participants have been repeatedly warned of the toxic nature of the canal - according to the Council, there are 28 sewer outlets dotted along the river. Breathe it in, kids.

And why are they trying to transform Dotonbori - historically an area of shenanigans, vice, and self-indulgence - into a wonderland for watersports? It goes against everything Dotonbori represents. The catchphrase for Dotonbori is kuidaore, or eat until you drop. It is Japan's foodie destination. It is home to takoyaki and okonomiyaki. You're not supposed to swim after you eat at the best of times, so why would you put a swimming pool in the middle of a place where you are supposed to EAT until you DROP?

Glico Man, you athletic bastard. I bet this was all your idea.

Anime and Studio Ghibli Museum in Tokyo

Last weekend, Rialto Cinemas held the Reel Anime Film Festival, screening four recently released Japanese animation films. I went with Ryman on Film to watch two of the anime, Wolf Children Ame and Yuki (Ōkami Kodomo no Ame to Yuki), and Studio Ghibli's latest masterpiece, From Up on Poppy Hill (Kokuriko-zaka Kara). Both were beautiful and relaxing to watch, but Wolf Children was my favourite, because the story was just so adorable.

Admittedly, it took me a while to appreciate anime. I was brought up on a steady diet of Disney and didn't understand the point of an animated film that didn't have blonde princesses or song and dance routines. Like many in the west, my introduction to the style came with Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away, which I found strangely enchanting. Then I discovered My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service, and Grave of the Fireflies. To this day, Grave of the Fireflies remains one of the most powerful films - animated or not - I have ever seen.

Studio Ghibli is the leader of Japanese animation, and when we were in Tokyo, we visited the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka. We got off at Mitaka station, and walked along the tree-lined streets, admiring the traditional houses and enjoying the crisp air away from inner-city Tokyo. Every few metres was a post topped off with a little smiling Totoro, pointing out landmarks along the bus route to the museum. 

Totoro Bus Stop
After a 15 minute walk, we arrived at the museum, a fairytale-like yellow building surrounded by greenery, complete with a spiral staircase and tower. Totoro presides over the window of the entrance, watching you approach the museum. 

Totoro at the entrance to Ghibli Museum
Inside the museum are a series of rooms displaying the artwork and animation process of Ghibli films, with many recognizable characters decorating the walls. There is a Cat Bus for children to play on, and a movie theatre where you get to watch a special short film exclusive to the museum. On the rooftop is the giant robot from Laputa: Castle in the Sky. There is also a gift shop, and Ghibli-themed cafe.
The robot from Laputa (his head got chopped in the picture, sorry)
The Ghibli Museum was a magical place to spend an afternoon in, and I can't believe I'm saying this, but I even preferred it to Tokyo Disneyland. It's the only one of its kind, and you learn a lot about the studio and how their films are made. Tickets are 1000 yen, and must be purchased in advance. You can do this from an affiliated travel agency in your home country, or if you're resident in Japan, they can be purchased from Lawson. For more information see the Official Ghibli Museum Wesbite.
Studio Ghibli Shop in Kyoto

October 31, 2012

Halloween Post: Kyary Pamyu Pamyu

Halloween is always a non-event here, but if I ever had the opportunity to dress up, there is no doubt in my mind that I would choose to be a Harajuku girl. I have been obsessed with the idea ever since I was a high school student in Japan, buying glossy fashion magazines each week with bubblegum titles like 'POPTEEN' and 'Cawaii'. I couldn't understand the articles very well, but I loved looking at the street style pictures, all of which revolved around this mythical place - Harajuku.

Like many visitors to Tokyo, this year I was overwhelmed by the culture, colours and citizens of the real life Harajuku neighborhood. We went on a Sunday, hoping to catch a glimpse of the infamous fashion scene on display at Jingu Bridge - but were disappointed, as it was raining, and none of the Harajuku kids came out to play. The Harajuku girl remains as elusive as ever in my mind; a pastel, lolita dream.
Takeshita-dori, Harajuku's famous shopping street
The quintessential Harajuku girl can be embodied in one young Tokyoite, a 19-year-old who goes by the stage name of Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. She started out as a fashion blogger, and became a model after being scouted outside a convenience store in Harajuku. She went on to have her own range of fake eyelashes, and eventually started a singing career, with a string of infectiously catchy hits - including a song describing the benefits of wearing fake eyelashes - contained within her debut album titled 'Moshi moshi Harajuku' (Hello Harajuku).

Her music videos are, to put it bluntly, batshit wacky. One minute she is dancing cutely, brandishing a lollipop, the next she is vomiting eyeballs. In another scene, she runs gracefully down a street in pink platform boots, with a piece of toast stuffed in her mouth. It's all a visual tribute to the Harajuku she hails from, in the most extreme, expressive way possible.
Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. Image credit:
Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is the perfect Halloween style icon. It's fitting that she has released a new music video in time for the holiday, aptly titled 'Fashion Monster.' I love her. I hope you do, too.

October 29, 2012

Japan's War and Peace Museums and Monuments

As a history student, I'm fascinated by Japan's role in World War II. The atrocities committed by the Japanese army, as well as the suffering of Japanese themselves, have not easily faded from public memory. Even today, broaching the subject of Japan's wartime history has the power to create diplomatic incidents throughout Asia. 

During my time in Japan so far, I've visited quite a few monuments, memorials, and museums to do with the war. While most aim to promote peace, some controversially celebrate and commemorate Japan's participants in the war, including notorious war leaders and criminals. In this post, I share my impressions of some of these places.  

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and Park

One of the most important museums in the world, the Hiroshima Peace Park Memorial Museum is often the main point of interest on tourists' Hiroshima itineraries. It's located near the exact spot where the atomic bomb exploded on August 6, 1945, and with the stark Genbaku Dome visible in the background, you are immediately confronted by the city's tragic history. Within the museum is a chronological background of the events leading up to the atomic bombing, with carefully included - albeit brief - mentions of Japan's own atrocities in Asia. This is followed by the aftermath of the bombing, right up until the present, focusing on the global effort to promote peace and anti-nuclear values. The final exhibit displays the human cost of the atomic bomb. It is here that you come across photographs and objects that are hard to forget - the shadow of a dead man, the charred remains of a child's tricycle and school lunch. Human hair, skin and nails, and the tiny paper cranes that a young victim, Sadako, folded before dying of cancer. It's an intense, hard-hitting place. It takes a couple of hours to go through the museum, but you'll want the rest of the day free for some quiet reflection in the park. 

Kure Yamato Museum
Less than an hour's drive from Hiroshima city is the Kure Yamato Museum, a museum about Japan's maritime history. The main attraction here is a one-tenth scale model of the famous battleship Yamato, which was actually built in the city of Kure. There is also a large objects room, with examples of fighter planes and human torpedoes. It all looks very gung-ho militaristic - but the museum maintains that, rather than promoting militarism, it is more of a tribute to the scientific and technological community, and engineering excellence of the Yamato. To reflect this, on one floor is an interactive room, where you can play with ship-handling simulators and take part in science demonstrations. All exhibits are in Japanese, but you can rent English headsets that provide a simple explanation of each display. 

Osaka International Peace Center (Peace Osaka)

Peace Osaka is one of the more expressly anti-war of Japan's war-themed museums. It provides insight into the air raids on Japan: while most people know about the atomic bombings, many don't realise that more people died as a result of the firebombing attacks that devastated Japan's major cities. The museum has a diorama of Osaka, showing what it looked like in the aftermath of the air raids - it's scary to see the burnt ruins of familiar landmarks. It also has a special exhibition of atrocities committed by the Japanese in China, Korea, and Southeast Asia. While this may be seen as an attempt to move away from the 'victim' narrative that has typically dominated Japan's wartime history, for some reason this exhibit, unlike the others, has not been completely translated into English - which is interesting in itself. For a museum that claims to be 'international', you have to wonder if there are some historical narratives they are trying to hide. There is also an Auschwitz exhibit, which seems strangely out of place in a museum that otherwise focuses exclusively on Japan's role in the war. Located near Osaka Castle, the museum has seen better days - it's no Hiroshima Peace Park, but still worth a visit because the subject matter is really quite unique. 

Yasukuni Shrine and Yushukan Museum

Yasukuni Shrine is an infamous shrine in Tokyo that is dedicated to all those who died serving Japan in war. As the shrine is said to hold the spirits of several war criminals, Yasukuni has attracted considerable controversy. The shrine makes international news whenever Japanese politicians visit, as the visits are seen as the government's support for Japan's wartime atrocities. As a shrine, it's beautiful, and you might not even pick up on its wartime connections on first sight. But walk around the main shrine building, and you'll find some interesting statues - including a kamikaze pilot, and a monument dedicated to Justice Radha Binod Pal, the only member of the Tokyo Trials to judge Japan's leaders as not guilty of war crimes. Yasukuni Shrine also houses the Yushukan museum, a military museum that tries to show the glory of Japan's wartime actions. There is even a gift shop that sells all sort of nationalistic souvenirs, such as rice crackers with the Rising Sun ensign imprinted on them.  

Yokoamicho Park and Air Raid Monument
Located in a quiet suburb, Yokoamicho Park is easily overlooked, but I think it's one of the most poignant and peaceful places in Tokyo. This park was originally intended as a memorial to those who died in the Great Kanto Earthquake, but after World War II it also became a memorial to the victims of the Tokyo firebombings. The main feature of the park is the Dwelling of Remembrance, a striking floral monument dedicated to the air raid victims. There is also a small bronze statue depicting school children victims of the bombings, and a little outdoor museum, which shows everyday items warped into metal lumps as a result of the fires that destroyed much of Tokyo. Here, the monuments, statues and objects are simply left to speak for themselves.

October 19, 2012

"Tokyo Cheapo" and Japan on the Cheap

It's getting closer to graduation, and everyone I know seems to be planning elaborate travel adventures to celebrate their post-university lives. The details are all over Facebook like a rash. Music festivals in Europe. Road trips across America. Backpacking around Asia. As I will most likely be spending the majority of my summer in pyjamas watching my box set of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, I hate you all. What I don't understand is, how are you meant to afford all of this jet setting? It took me a whole year of working as a minimum wage slave to save up enough for 5 months studying in Japan, combined with scholarships and student living costs. How are you supposed to fund travel that is purely self-indulgent?

As a result of my travel-envy, I recently came across an excellent website, Tokyo Cheapo, which claims to be 'dedicated to giving the best advice for making your yen go further when visiting or living in Tokyo.' The guides cover an almost endless range of topics for enjoying Japan's notoriously expensive capital on the cheap, from where to eat the best ramen to where to have the cheapest sex, if that's what you're, uh, into.

One article that blew my mind was How to Spend 3 Nights in Tokyo All Included on 10,000 yen, or just over 150 NZ dollars. The author gives a complete itinerary of where to stay, eat, go and even what souvenirs you can buy on a budget of just 3000 yen per day. Obviously, a traveler following this itinerary needs to be prepared to 'rough it' a bit for 3 nights - the author's accommodation of choice is a 24 hour manga cafe - but what a cool experience, right?! And sometimes you can pick up grabaseat flights from Auckland to Tokyo for around $800... so following the Tokyo Cheapo guide would mean experiencing a few nights in Japan for LESS than $1000. This is now on my travel must-do list.

Thinking back to my time in Osaka, almost everything we did was with a budget in mind. To save money on food, we spent a lot of time at the Lawson 100 yen store, buying things like onigiri (rice balls), cup noodles, and breads for lunches. When we ate out for dinner, we often went to meal-ticket restaurants like Matsuya and Sukiya, where you can get a decent-sized bowl of gyudon or curry rice for under 500 yen. Instead of going to bars, a lot of the time we'd all go to convenience stores to buy alcohol and drink it on campus, with someone's iPod standing in for karaoke (naughty, but undeniably cheap). As for activities, sometimes the most interesting days were spent just walking around random neighborhoods, for a grand total of the 300 yen it cost for the train trip. Also, window shopping in crazy shops and fancy department stores (recommended for those with a certain degree of self control).
Trying on lobster hats will cost you nothing but your dignity!
I think it's great how Tokyo Cheapo are showing that it's possible to fully experience Japan no matter what your budget is. And, as the saying goes, travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer.

September 28, 2012

Some exciting news... Kizuna Project

I miss Japan so much. The other day it was cold, and I was wearing a jacket I haven't worn in months. I put my hands in the pockets, and what should I find? A map of the Tokyo subway. I remember exactly how it got there, too. First week in Japan, first time using the subway. We were stuck in some random station, trying to make sense of the Japanese map. A kind man came up to us and, with a wink, gave us this English-language version. It was our bible for the rest of the week, but would soon be replaced by maps of the Osaka subway. The Tokyo one has apparently lived in my pocket ever since.
Map of the Tokyo Subway... I'm keeping this forever.
I apologise for the lack of updates recently, I have been frantically working on my final papers so I can obtain my degree in Japanese at the end of the year. I'm also attempting to sort out my post-university life. I haven't really talked about what I do - except for visiting Sailor Moon cafes and eating far too much - but I want to be a journalist, and I'm currently in the process of applying for journalism school. I have an interview coming up next week, so cross your fingers for me, おねがいします。

Over the next few months I will have a lot more to write about, because... I'm going back to Japan! I've been selected along with 9 other students from my university (and about 100 other students from New Zealand and Australia), to travel to Japan to learn about the impact of the Great East Japan Earthquake, and the reconstruction efforts. From December 9-18, our group will spend time in the disaster areas in the Tohoku region, visiting local schools, taking part in volunteer activities, and staying with local families.

The programme is called the Kizuna (Bond) Project, and has been implemented by the Japan International Cooperation Centre. Over the next few years they expect more than 10,000 students from 41 countries to be involved in this programme - so if you're a high school or university student, check it out. Its goal is to promote global understanding about Japan's recovery efforts. Participants are to act as messengers to inform people about the state of post-quake Japan - which, as we know, has had a bit of a rough time in the global press.

It looks like I'm about to embark on a whole new adventure as The Only Blonde in Tohoku... stay posted!

September 20, 2012

Hanami - Flower Viewing

One of the strangest (and luckiest) things about being back in New Zealand is that when I arrived in Japan at the start of the year it was spring there, and now that I'm home it's spring again here! After what was apparently a warm winter, the cherry blossoms around Dunedin are in early bloom, bringing back memories of those first few weeks in Japan, drinking chu-hi at Osaka Castle and going on trips to Kyoto, making new friends and enjoying the hanami season. Last week, thanks to the Japanese Department, we had our very own hanami party at Otago University.
Clocktower and Cherry Blossoms
Otago University
We had rain, hail and snow earlier in the week, but luckily it was a beautiful day, and the sakura had survived the harsh weather. There were probably over a hundred people who gathered under the university's cherry blossom trees. We listened to the Koto and Taiko groups perform traditional Japanese music live, and enjoyed sushi... as well as chips, coke and muffins (proper Japanese food is slightly hard to find here). The party attracted quite a lot of attention from students walking to class, who seemed slightly bemused by all the people wearing yukata, dancing around, and worshipping the cherry blossoms. I was excited because I finally got an opportunity to wear a yukata my friends in Hiroshima had given me five years ago, which I forgot to take with me to Japan this time.
Yukata ladies... that's me on the left (ignore my shoes)!
It might not quite have had the glory or drunkenness of a hanami party in Japan, but the sakura were there, and that was all that mattered. It was awesome to be able to experience a little slice of Japanese culture right here in Dunedin.

September 10, 2012

Under the Osakan Sun by Hamish Beaton

Under the Osakan Sun: A Funny, Intimate, Wonderful Account of Three Years in Japan
Some books change your life. And some books confirm that your life is exactly what you want it to be. This is how I feel about Under the Osakan Sun (Awa Press, 2008) by Hamish Beaton, a New Zealander who spent three years teaching in a school on the outskirts of Osaka as part of the JET programme. I received this book as a prize for a Japanese speech competition when I was 17, and my copy is now thoroughly worn out. I've reached for this book when I've been frustrated with my Japanese study and wonder why I even bother. I've reached for it on the frantic nights before my trips to Japan, when I've been freaking out about leaving. And now that I'm back, I've reached for this book to ease my homesickness for Japan. Under the Osakan Sun never fails to remind me why I love Japan, and I think it would resonate with every foreigner who has ever lived there.

Hamish is a skilful storyteller, and paints a delightful portrait of his life in Kanan Town, and the people who become a part of it. He captures the spirit of the Japanese people - their overwhelming kindness and generosity, as well as some of their eccentricities. Particularly memorable are his lively colleagues at the Board of Education, who quickly enlist him as a popular drinking buddy, and the lovely group of middle aged women who regularly invite him to teach them English and, in return, they help him with his Japanese (with the result that his Japanese takes on a rather feminine vernacular). At the other end of the spectrum is the student's father who asks Hamish what sort of pornography he likes to watch, and the psycho girlfriend who forces him to wear clothes that match hers so they can be 'kawaii' together. Hamish has a great sense of humour, and most importantly, an ability to always make the best of things - which is so necessary when living in a foreign culture.

The fact that this book is set in the Osaka area made it all the more exciting when I went back and read it a couple of weeks ago. I recognised so many of the places that were referred to, and even went to some of the same events that Hamish talks about - Tenjin matsuri, and the PL fireworks event. I never quite made it to Kanan Town, where he lived, but I think I came close, on the night when we went to watch the PL fireworks out in the countryside. Another experience that was uncomfortably close to home was Hamish's introduction to that evil beverage, Chu-hi... but you'll have to read the book to see where that particular anecdote goes.

Hamish, good on ya mate. Under the Osakan Sun is a funny, gutsy piece of travel writing, and I haven't yet managed to find any book on Japan that has inspired me more. I always recommend it to people wanting to do JET, but anyone interested in Japan would love it. In fact, if there's anyone close by (Dunedin) who happens to be reading this and wants to borrow my copy, let me know!

What are some other good travel novels on Japan?

September 01, 2012

Final Night in Japan: Public Bathhouse (Sento)

It's almost 11pm on a Friday night here, and it's exactly one month since I left Japan. To mark this important date, and also sort of because I have nothing better to do this evening, I'm going to treat you all to a detailed account of what I did on my final night in Japan. I had a bath.

Now of course, in Japan, a bath is not just a bath. Bathing is a highly ritualized process in Japanese culture, and for this reason public bathhouses (sento) and hot springs (onsen) are as common as supermarkets. Like, it's completely normal for someone to say, 'I'm just popping off to the bathhouse, be back in a bit.' There is also a special etiquette surrounding baths in Japan, for example, while we use baths for cleaning ourselves in the west, in Japan you must scrub yourself practically raw before entering the bath, as the water needs to stay pure for all the patrons to soak in it. Another rule that is often enforced is no tattoos allowed, in order to keep the yakuza out.

I had managed to avoid going to a bathhouse throughout my stay in Japan, despite being told by many Japanese friends that it was an awesome experience and I should totally try it. But I was apprehensive about two things. First, the whole being-naked-in-public thing. And second (any relatives who may be reading this, promise not to tell Nana), I have a small tattoo. Ironically, of a Japanese peace crane. So it's probably unlikely that I would be mistaken for a participant in the Japanese criminal underworld. However, I still had this image of myself being kicked out of the bathhouse immediately, without being given the chance to retrieve my clothes, and then I would have to take the train home naked, all the while apologising to fellow passengers for displaying my tattoo in public.

Then, on our last night in Japan, our friend messaged us with the plan. A group of us were going to the PL Fireworks display near Tondabayashi - one of the largest fireworks shows in the world - and then we would visit a local sento, before going back to his house for the night. I had no escape. I was certain that my last night in Japan would be tainted by the embarrassment of being banished from a bathhouse.

We watched the fireworks display from a field in the middle of the countryside on the outskirts of Osaka, surrounded by peach trees and screeching cicadas. Halfway through the fireworks, it began pouring with rain, a freak summer storm. "Oh," I said brightly, as we all got drenched, "we won't be needing that bath!" Then the rain stopped, the cicadas resumed chirping conspiratorially, and I resigned myself to the fact that, like it or not, I was going to the bathhouse.

The sento was more like a spa resort than how I had imagined a public bathhouse to be (I was picturing something akin to a murky school swimming pool). It was also surprisingly busy for 11pm at night, and there were lots of families there, including little children. We were given a special bracelet with a locker key, and barcode on it which we could use to pay for things at the gift shop, juice bar and dining area, and charge to our account. We were also given a bag containing pyjamas, a large towel, and a facecloth. Then we split off into the girls and boys changing rooms.

One of my Japanese teachers had once told us that the great thing about Japanese sento and onsen was that, in such a hierarchical society, it was a place where everyone was equal, the rationale being that everyone is the same when they are naked. As a blonde, pale foreigner, I am not so sure about this theory. I certainly felt quite conspicuous. For obvious reasons there won't be any photos in this post, but I have put together an illustration to represent my bathhouse experience.
The only blonde in the bathhouse...
What happens is you go into the changing rooms, put your clothes and towel in your assigned locker, and then take your facecloth into the shower area with you. I sneakily used my facecloth to cover my tattoo the whole time, but I've gotta say, I would have preferred to be able to use it to cover other, ahem, parts... anyway. You then sit down at the little showers, which are set up in a row, and use the shampoo, soap and face wash provided to thoroughly clean yourself. After doing that, you're free to either soak in the baths and hot pools, or put your pyjamas on and roam around the bathhouse, which often have facilities other than just the baths themselves. The one we were at had a sauna area, so we decided to meet up with the boys in there.

The sauna area was amazing. It was full of different rooms ranging in temperature from about 50 to 80 degrees, and each room had different pebbles, rocks and minerals that you lay down on. There were also attendants with big leafy fans who would walk around the rooms and fan you if you needed it. It was clearly meant to be a place of silent meditation, but being the responsible young adults we are, we all kept getting the giggles and behaving inappropriately.

After a while we decided to go back into the girls/boys separate areas, and have a soak in the range of indoor and outdoor baths. To do this meant going through the lengthy showering procedure again, but funnily enough, by then I was strangely used to parading around the place in the nude. I got complacent. I confidently entered one of the baths, feeling quite satisfied with myself. Suddenly, a fully-clothed bathroom attendant came over to me, looking disapproving. Oh my god. The tattoo. It was all over.

"Please excuse me, but could you possibly tie your hair up while you are in the bath, miss?"
She smiled sweetly, and handed me a hair tie. I apologised, tied my hair up, and slid guiltily back under the water, like a slippery fish who had narrowly avoided being caught...

Just after midnight, we got out of the baths, got dressed, and went out into the dining area, where the Olympics was being shown on large screens. We drank bottled milk - in Japan it's traditional to drink milk after using the baths - and watched Japan win a gold medal in the gymnastics, staying until the sento closed at 1.30am. We were all in high spirits afterwards, and felt exceptionally clean, warm and relaxed. I felt like my muscles had been restored to their prime condition, and were ready for lugging suitcases all the way to the airport the next day. I would recommend it to anyone.

So, there you have it. I spent most of my last night in Japan in a bath. No regrets.

August 28, 2012

The Only Blonde in Osaka in the Otago Daily Times

Today an article I wrote about Osaka was published in the travel section of the Otago Daily Times. It talks about some of my favourite places in Osaka that have been featured in past blog posts, like DotomboriAmerika mura and Shinsekai.

You can read the article online here or after the jump...

August 23, 2012

Kit Kats in Japan: A Journey

As a chocoholic, one of my main goals in Japan was to collect as many Kit Kats as possible. In New Zealand, we just have the standard milk chocolate, caramel, and cookies 'n cream chocolate bars. But I had fond memories of enjoying green tea, apple and strawberry flavoured Kit Kats during my time as an exchange student in Hiroshima, and I knew there were many more out there, with new seasonal and regional varieties being added each year.

Kit Kats are especially popular in Japan because the name 'Kit Kat' pronounced in Japanese sounds like 'Kitto Katsu', which roughly translates to 'certain win'. In this sense, Kit Kats have become an unusual good luck charm in Japan, particularly among students sitting exams who need a little bit of the old Nestle sweetness to help them towards a 'certain win'.
Green tea and vanilla
'Adult Sweetness' Raspberry
Over the course of five months, the Kit Kat collection became quite impressive indeed. Each Kit Kat came to have a story behind it - a memory of where, when and how it was obtained. A rainy day in Kyoto saw the procurement of Yatsuhashi cinnamon and Houjicha roasted tea flavoured Kit Kats, where the lady at the souvenir shop laughed and said 'foreigners love Kit Kats, don't they?'

On our trip to Miyajima, we had been disappointed because the famous floating torii had been under construction. The disappointment was quickly replaced by delight upon discovering a pack of Hiroshima Golden Citrus Kit Kats.

On the first day of summer, a reluctant visit to 7-Eleven to pay the bills resulted in the triumphant discovery of a new vanilla ice cream flavoured Kit Kat. I bought three packs, then had to get extra money out to pay the bills.
Yatsuhashi cinnamon and Houjicha roasted tea
Golden Citrus Blend
Vanilla ice cream
News quickly spread of the Kit Kat collecting mission, and soon I was bombarded with advice by Japanese friends and fellow exchange students - where to go to buy them, what flavours to look out for. I remember on a group trip to Nara, a Japanese friend gallantly went into souvenir shops asking on my behalf if they stocked any special Nara Kit Kats. It had turned into a highly competitive treasure hunt, with everyone wanting to bask in the Kit Kat glory. No expense was too great: 1050 yen, or about $16, was recklessly spent on a box of Rilakkuma hotcake flavoured Kit Kats, which came in a big fancy box, but only contained 12 little chocolate bars...
Rilakkuma hot cake
Part of the final collection
I didn't eat any of my Kit Kats until a couple of weeks before I left Japan. They were too precious, like little edible relics of my life in Japan. Then I realised they weren't going to all fit in my luggage, so I thought, bugger it, and we ended up eating most of the five months worth of Kit Kats in one night. I thought I would never be able to eat another Kit Kat again. But alas, guess what my last purchase in Japan was - at Kansai International Airport, past immigration, in the Duty Free shopping area, using my last remaining yen. Yup. Kit Kats.
Sakura green tea and 'peace' strawberry, packed into hand luggage
Blueberry cheesecake... also packed into hand luggage

August 14, 2012

Hiroshima Survivors Speak: "Never Again!" at Otago University

I've been avoiding writing this... but I should probably let you know that my semester at Kansai University has come to an end, and just over a week ago I went home to New Zealand. More on that in a later post, but because the past week signaled the 67th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, this post will talk about a special public lecture held at my university, where Hiroshima survivors Shigeko Niimoto Sasamori and Michimasa Hirata shared their experiences of August 6, 1945.
Children's Peace Monument at Hiroshima Peace Park
The medium-sized classroom chosen as the venue wasn't enough to hold the public, as about 200 people piled in to hear the talk. Not many public lectures at Otago could draw a crowd like this, but Hiroshima is a part of history that equally horrifies and fascinates - and the fact that hibakusha, or atomic bomb survivors, are dwindling in number with each year that passes meant that this probably was, for most, one of the last chances to hear from a hibakusha firsthand.

Shigeko, a small woman with a strong voice, began, telling us 'because I am here, this is my mission.' She was a junior high school student, mobilised for labour on that sunny Hiroshima morning, when suddenly she saw a plane in the sky, which then dropped a 'white thing'. She was knocked out by the powerful forces of the blast, and spoke of spending five days at a school auditorium, before being taken home to recover. It was only mentioned later that she had actually suffered third degree burns to a quarter of her body. Rather than dwell on her suffering, Shigeko's message was simply one of peace - she was able to forgive the Americans (she eventually went to America for plastic surgery on her burns, and even lives in California now), and just wanted to make sure there would be 'no more Hiroshima, no more Nagasaki, and no more hibakusha' ever again.

Michimasa wore a neat grey blazer jacket, but underneath was a black t shirt with bright red writing - 'No more Hiroshimas', with a picture of a crossed out mushroom cloud. He was at home with his family when the bomb was dropped. Michimasa lives in Tokyo now, and urged the audience to think about the consequences of nuclear weapons and nuclear power.
Genbaku Dome, Hiroshima
Listening to Shigeko and Michimasa speak was a moving, thought-provoking experience. As Shigeko said, sharing their stories of that day in the hopes that it will one day put an end to the nuclear threat for good is their 'mission' - a mission forced upon them by a tragic event in history. What will happen when there are no hibakusha with that same sense of mission left? In an age of complacency regarding nuclear weapons and power, people like Shigeko and Michimasa really are living treasures. If only more people would listen.

August 11, 2012

Day Trips to Kobe

Kobe is a city that is perhaps underrated among tourists to Japan. People kept telling me it was a beautiful city, but all I knew about it was that it was famous for the 1995 earthquake, and beef... with the result that my image of Kobe was a mixture of rubble and cows.

After numerous day trips to Kobe, which is only a half hour train ride from Osaka, I can now say that it is one of my absolute favourite cities in Japan. This list is highly subject to change, depending on my mood, or who I'm talking to (tip: when talking to an Osakan, Osaka is without a doubt your favourite city). But Kobe is a city I could live in. It reminds me of New Zealand in many ways, and some areas and landscapes are so familiar that we would keep saying things like 'I feel like we're in Queenstown', or 'doesn't this remind you of Wellington?' Being able to see the mountains, as well as the gorgeous harbour, may be some reasons for these waves of sentimentalism for home.
Kobe harbour (complete with Kobe tower) on a sunny day
Ferris wheel at Kobe Harbourland 
It could just be that Kobe is something of a chameleon. During its history as a port and trade city, all sorts of foreign settlements were established in Kobe, leaving behind unique neighborhoods and architecture around the city. One example is Nankinmachi, Kobe's vibrant Chinatown. A walk down this street - marked by its golden Chinese lanterns, bright red restaurants and food stalls, and a distinct scent of dumplings - and it's easy to forget you're even in Japan.
Coke machine, Nankinmachi style 
The colours of Chinatown

For a European flavour, all you have to do is walk up the hill from Sannomiya Station, past an old-style Starbucks that looks like a home out of Anne of Green Gables, and you'll soon find yourself in Kitano-cho, a picturesque area that contains western-style houses, once the homes of foreign settlers. You can pay a fee to enter many of the houses, where they've restored some of the original interior designs. There are also a number of little cafes and restaurants. Best enjoyed on a sunny day, strolling lazily through the village with a purin (custard pudding) flavoured ice cream.
View of Kobe from Kitano-cho on the hill
The 'Austrian' house
Outside the Holland, Denmark and Austrian houses
A day trip to Kobe should be completed with a ride up the cable car to Mt. Rokko. Leave around 6pm, in order to catch the sunset, and one of the three best night views in the whole of Japan. Now, it should be mentioned here that the Rokko Cable Car has seen better days. I think they like to market it as 'nostalgic'... but better adjectives would be 'old, red, rickety little train of doom.' Somehow, we made it to the top, after ten minutes of the deadly incline. Through the cool evening mist (being on the top of a mountain somehow causes temperatures to plummet), the sprawling city lights of Osaka and Kobe provide a spectacular view, making the uphill trip worth it.
Inside the Rokko Cable Car
Dusk view of Kobe from Mt Rokko
So there we have Kobe, an exceptionally clean, glamorous and modern city. It's hard to believe that less than 20 years ago it was absolutely devastated by a 6.8 magnitude earthquake. I think that Christchurch can take hope from the Kobe example. A small tribute on the edge of the Harbour, in Meriken Park, where part of the damaged pier has been preserved, is now all that remains of the Kobe earthquake.
Tribute to the earthquake in Meriken park