Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Himeji and Hiroshima

Enroute to Hiroshima, we made a brief stop at Himeji. Himeji is known for its Himeji Castle, proclaimed as the most beautiful castle in Japan. It is one of Japan's national treasure and UNESCO's World Heritage Site.

The intricate roof tiles of the Himeji castle bears the seal of the old feudal system in Japan.

This is Japan's most beautiful castle, the Himeji Castle. Because Himeji has only one thing to see and is a small city, we did not see the need to stay over night, so we left for Hiroshima on the same day.

Hiroshima is about 900km away from Tokyo, or 1240km from Niigata. The bullet train (shinkansen) cuts short the travel time by more than half. Instead of 13 hours on the road, it takes only 6 hours with the shinkansen. I have heard so much about Hiroshima before going there or even before coming to Japan. Most of us (of my age) have learnt about Japan's involvement in the World War 2 and specifically about Hiroshima in the Standard 4 Alam & Manusia textbook, up to the Form 5 SPM Sejarah textbook. How could anyone not heard about Hiroshima and its destruction by one of the world's first two atom bombs. My expectation of this place was somewhat high and I just could not wait to see and feel the historical past of the place.

When we finally reached, I did not see remains of the wartime historical past nor broken buildings abandoned in between new ones, like how I would have expected. All I saw was a modern city, with two rivers confluencing at a point near the hotel which we stayed and a city run by the tram systems (Hiroshima Dentetsu). Reminded me alot about Melbourne and it's trams.

After checking into the hotel, we hopped on to the tram lines and headed for the "Genbaku Domu-Mae" station (which literally means A-bomb Dome Front St.)

This is the A-Bomb Dome aerial view which I took from a bigger picture in display. It is one of the few buildings around the explosion's epicenter that partially survived the blast, and the city's only remaining bomb damaged building. The picture above showed the magnitude of the destruction, a city wiped clean of any building structures. Standing in front of the real structure was emotionally devastating. You could see in detail how the steel structures were ripped apart and how the edges of the beams were melted from the high intensity of the heat.

This was the original building. It was once the Industrial Promotion Hall of Hiroshima, a new building that once stood proudly along the riverbanks, and then, after 8.15am on 6th August 1945, all that was left was it's skeleton frame.

Remember the paper crane origami that we often see in Malaysia, it is the peace symbol at the Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Park. Here, there are hundreds of thousands of these cranes in display and formed into different patterns.

The designated area to hang the paper crane origamis. There are so many contributors each month that one has to sign up for a place before they are allowed to hang their cranes at the display area.

An interesting writing which I spotted....

Visit by Mom

Two weeks ago, mom came here for a visit. We covered alot of places. It was a very productive 14-day tour around Japan. We went to Tokyo, Yokohama, Kamakura, Osaka, Himeji, Hiroshima, Miyajima Island, Kyoto, Nara, Kobe and of course, Niigata. These places would not have been covered by travel agencies in Malaysia or even if they could, it would have cost a bomb! Besides, some of these places are only known to local people (and I was recommended to these places) and not much of a tourist place.

Mom trying out her first bowl of Ramen upon arrival in Niigata, recommended by yours truly. Look at the size of the bowl,; the diameter of the bowl is almost the same as my mom's body. I ordered the big size (omori) for her to experience what I actually ate alone previously and that paying alot in Japan is not about high cost of living, it is also paying for quality and quantity.

Next, it was also logical to have her try the authentic sushi in Japan. I know what I wanted when I first arrived. So, I'd want her to have the same thing too. The shop I brought her serves fresh sushi and sashimi, just as Niigata is known for. We enjoyed the sushi so much, one plate was never enough, We ended up with 18 plates! The green tea is also worth mentioning as the aroma from the roasted green tea leaves were so fragrant we nearly finished the sachet dispenser.

This is Yokohama, Japan's 2nd largest city after Tokyo. We took the bullet train from Niigata to Tokyo and then to Yokohama with the subway. We stopped at Minato Mirai area because it is the financial hub of Yokohama . Minato Mirai literally translated, means "Port of Futuristic". Yokohama is a big port city and houses Japan's tallest building.

This is the the tallest building in Japan called the Landmark Tower, with a height of 296m. Our KLCC could easily dwarf this little giant, but considering Japan is an earthquake active country, having buildings with such height is somewhat scary.

The Yokohama Hard Rock Cafe (HRC), themed as Port of Rock. This is one of the 7 HRCs in Japan with the 8th coming soon in Narita. I have managed to collect all of their T-shirts after this trip. Once the Narita one is opened, I hope to get that too, especially with the inaugural Narita HRC design.

Yokohama's Chinatown. It is the Chinatown for the Kanto region, just like how the Chinatown in Kobe works for the Kansai region.

This is Kamakura, the political center of Japan in 1192. Kamakura is also known as the Kyoto of the Kanto region, because of its rich history and enormous historical artefacts. Kamakura is known for its Great Buddha statue, Japan's 2nd largest bronze Buddha.

The Buddha statue in a meditating postion, gives viewers a very calm feeling.

Locals say that you have not experienced Tokyo if you have not been into one of the sardine-packed trains. I guess we were "lucky" to have such opportunity and get into the mad rush with the locals. This is the typical scene of the Tokyo trains during the peak hours. Yes, and it is really stressful! Once is enough, but somehow, we were always caught in the same situation when we arrived into Tokyo from Niigata.

The Ueno station, one of the main train stations in Tokyo. It is also a crowded station, as shown in the picture.

One of the reasons for stopping over in Ueno is also to pay a visit at the HRC.

This is Kaminarimon, which literally means Thunder Gate, located in Asakusa, Tokyo. The giant lantern hung on the gateway is the hallmark of the Sensoji Temple. This is the Sensoji Temple, Tokyo's oldest temple. The legend says that in the year 628 , two brothers fished a statue of Kannon, the goddess of mercy, out of the Sumida River (a river adjacent to the temple), and even though they put the statue back into the river, it always returned to them. Consequently, Sensoji was built there for the goddess of Kannon.

The pictures were taken at dusk. A very good photo opportunity at the Sensoji Temple.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Niigata Festival

The 8th of August, two days after our public presentation was a good enough reason to unwind and get into festive mood again with the prefectural festival called the Niigata Matsuri, or Niigata Festival. Like I wrote earlier about yukata, festivals and the Japanese, I signed up to join the bon-odori, donning a yukata and soak in the true Japanese environment. In fact most of my classmates did the same thing. The bon-odori dance was taught to us at the Niigata International Friendship Center 2 hours before the real thing. It was not a difficult dance to master and you could get hold of the steps within 20minutes. The rest of it was just repeating. First, it was dressing ourselves up in yukata and then gathering at the hall with other interested participants. It was a good opportunity to meet other people too; both international and local participants. So how do I look in a yukata??

Koketsu sensei with her daughter and grand-daughter

I was really surprised to have met Koketsu sensei at the Friendship Center. Apparently, she teaches nihongo there, on a voluntary basis...something I just knew too!

The moment of truth, whether or not we could put into use, what we have learnt for 20 minutes. It really does not matter, as dancing was one thing, but joining in the crowd was a bigger thing for me.

The crowded Bandai Bridge. This is the typical crowd at the Niigata Festival.

Met new friends along the way. The right most person in the photo is a new found friend from Azerbaijan.

Dancing into the night! The crowd remained strong even after 2 hours of non-stop dancing. Even though I could do marathons and all that, I gave up after an hour doing it. It was really tiring with the heat of summer and dehydration. Apparently, the Japanese are able to continue without any sign of exhaustion. Was really impressed.

Public Presentation in Japanese

The 6th of August was perhaps one of the freakiest days of my life. In Hiroshima, it was a day of remembrance for the atomic bomb victims. For me, it was the day of my public presentation in the Japanese language. The title of my presentation was Kimono (着物). I was supposed to talk about what I thought about kimono, what it truly is from my understanding and how it differs from the Malaysian traditional costumes, why do the Japanese wear them, how many types of kimono are there and the statistics of them owning one and which one. It was a wide topic and definitely an interesting one. Each student was given 5 minutes on the podium and another 5 minutes for Q&A from the public on the topic. So it was a total of 10minutes nightmare on the stage. We have to answer the Q&A on the spot without assistance from the lecturer or friends...regardless of language skills at the point of time. Scary, scary...scary!!! The moment of truth really boiled down to this one day. It was a make or break situation as some people called it but I'd say that it was more of making ourselves a fool or be fooled by us....hahaha

The reason I wore a Batik instead of a suit, was because I was presenting about Kimono and how different it was as compared to our Malaysian traditional costumes. So, it was wise to wear one and show the Japanese too. Well, Batik was an obvious choice as it fits the bill of how Malaysian costumes are in a tropical country. Perhaps it is also easier for the Japanese to understand since they are right in the middle of summer.

My host family, the Nakata family, came in full support of me. I was really touched by their gestures. But that has also put some pressure on me to present well. The 10minutes felt like 10 hours and I was thrown many questions at the end of my presentation. I can't say I answered them all nicely but at least I felt that I did my best for the day and no repeat of questions were needed. It was a great achievement for everyone indeed, as it was only a 6-month training. In fact, many people could not believe we were only studying for 6 months. I don't know if that is a positive or a negative feedback....I'd like to see it positively...;)

As it was not a song performance, we obviously didn't get encores or a standing ovation. But we did receive lots of congratulations and well wishes as it was not only our final big task before we sit for the final exams, but also the last time we would meet our Japanese friends before we start a new chapter in Urasa...

Hanabi (Fireworks) Festival in Nagaoka

This is Nagaoka City, about 64km from Niigata. Nagaoka has always been known for its Hanabi Matsuri, or the Fireworks Festival from 2nd to 4th August every year. We went on the 4th. The Hanabi Festival is the time when people dress up in yukata (summer kimono) for the summer festival. The fireworks display goes on for 2 hours and for 3 consecutive days. Big companies sponsor the event and in return, their names get mentioned for every batch of fireworks that are fired up.

This picture was taken at the Nagaoka train station. We took the bullet train from Niigata to Nagaoka. The high-speed rail only took us 15 minutes to reach there. The city was trickling with people donning the yukata. One thing I like about Japan is that, culture and traditions are never dead and are as lively as before; people always don their best traditional costumes for whatever occasions and festivals. That is one thing that we Malaysians could learn from the Japanese. Try donning a Cheongsam (if you are Chinese) in KL, and you will get eyes from all directions!

Konan brought us to meet his Ivorian friends who brought us to a cool rooftop place to have a sitting tabehodai (which literally means eat-till-you-drop), with free flow of liquor, beer, sushi, sashimi, fruits and etc. Apparently, it is a secret place where only few Japanese know about the event at the rooftop and view the fireworks at vantage point, and the friends got to know about it because it was their part-time job place. The Japanese really know how to pamper themselves and I really hate it! hahaha....
There were plenty of food and fruits. I was so stuffed, I loathed thinking about sashimi after that!

The fireworks display was splendid! At first, I was hesitating whether to come because my final exam was only 2 days away, but I never regretted coming after that because I had such a wonderful experience with great companion, good food, drinks and a fantastic view of the fireworks.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

KOBE the Port City Part 1 of 2

Kobe at night
What I like about Kobe is that it gives me a swanky feel of living in a port city. The feeling brings me back to the time when I was in Sydney. On one side there is the water transportation hub and on the other side, a line of shopping malls overlooking a scenic backdrop of mountains. Kobe is smaller in size though, but much more high-tech. Probably people only know about Kobe because of its 1995 earthquake that nearly wiped the city clean of its infrastructure.

New highway infrastructure
The city was rebuilt on a clean slate and within a few years, all of these infrastructures were up and running again, as if the city has just gone out of a terrible nightmare. One may not know of its historical past if you see Kobe as it is today. Perhaps the only give away to its scar is its new-looking highways or the Earthquake Memorial, located at the port itself.

Chinatown/ Nankinmachi
Kobe is well known for its Chinatown (also referred to as Nankinmachi) for the Kansai region. Just like Yokohama functioning as the Chinatown for Tokyo, so is Kobe for Osaka.

Kobe Motomachi is one of the shopping districts in the city
Wai Cheong brought us through the Kobe Motomachi area where it is one of the shopping strip of downtown Kobe and where the Chinatown is located.

In Motomachi, I found a familiar fruit, the durian! For 3 durians, it was selling at 6500yen or about RM210...which was the craziest price I have seen in my life for durians.

Piggy serving hot and steamy pau

Wai Cheong, Angeline, Sarah and myself

In Chinatown, we had the eat-all-you-can Chinese food for lunch. I managed to meet up with fellow Malaysian Angeline Yap (also another Yap), who is studying at the Kobe University. It is a small world for Malaysians in Japan. Somehow people know each other no matter where in Japan and I was equally surprised that Wai Cheong, who is from Osaka, already knew Angeline before this.

Kobe Harborland

Then we went to Kobe's Harborland where they have the distinctive ferris wheel in display and where shopping haven is defined in Kobe. We stopped over at the Earthquake Memorial because that is one of the reasons for coming to Kobe too; to view the historical damage of the earthquake, something that we, Malaysians were fortunate to be able to live without.