Saturday, May 30, 2015

Earthquake in the Beer Garden

The Hakodate Beer Garden, Hakodate, Hokkaido, Japan.  We
were on the 2nd floor when the earthquake came rolling through.

Our itinerary includes pretty much everything - including, apparently,  an earthquake.  There we were at 8:23 PM local time,  quietly (!) drinking beer and conducting our farewell dinner - actually saying goodbye to Frank and Joy Souza as they are leaving the group early in the morning.  Frank was up at the microphone explaining how the group might be able to up-load photos for sharing when Kaori and I felt the earth begin to roll beneath our feet -- we immediately looked up and the chandeliers in the beer parlor were rotating slowly -- and for a long time, it seemed.  Being a group of blasé Californians who experience earthquakes fairly frequently, most paid no attention and continued to drink beer.  Frank continued his explanation, and the chandeliers continued to rotate lazily for another couple of minutes.     We later learned that it was a 7.8 (!) earthquake centered 540 miles south of Tokyo in the Pacific -- and deep enough that the tsunami folks issued no warning. 
    Here's a video that Annie shot of the chandeliers that she started about a minute after the main impact of the quake.  Sorry it isn't better, but you can get the idea. 

Friday, May 29, 2015

Volcanoes on our Minds

The Mount Usu eruption, March 2000.  One of the risks of
all that hot water to bathe in.  Fortunately, Mt. Usu telegraphs
its eruptions allowing residents to evacuate.

Heat, Hot Water and Pyroclastics - Hokkaido
My mental image of Hokkaido had always been dominated by wide open spaces (true) and cows (true), but the landscape is dominated by volcanoes -- everywhere one turns there's another one against the horizon, and some are labeled "active" while others "dormant."  The tenuous meaning of dormant came alive yesterday off the southern island of Kyushu when a volcano blew "without warning" sending the 100+ residents off their island home.

The Japanese are painfully but realistically aware that their perch atop these achingly beautiful islands is precarious.  The Four Feared Things that they learn as growing up are Fire, Thunder, Earthquake and Father.  But, they've incorporated the seismic element into their culture with their obsession about sitting in hot water. The onsen - the hot water bath that is a main part of their daily lives - is one of the gifts of the hot, molten earth lurking just below their feet.

Noboribetsu - Our first overnight stop was in a lovely cluster of hotels tucked into the bottom of a gorge that is famous for its hotsprings.  The smell of sulphur announces your arrival long before you see the place, and hotels cluster around the springs that provide visitors with an impossible variety of hot water experiences.  Inside, open-air, you name it -- there's even a public one in a nearby national park that is dedicated to just your feet.  About a half mile from the hotel was the entrance to Jigokudani ("Hell Valley") a part of the Shikotsu-Toya National Park.

One of the many vents spewing hot water and noxious stuff along the trail
through Hell Valley.

"Hell Valley" - There's a sarcastic saying within the group that "A day without stairs isn't a day on this tour..."  "More Stairs Pleeeeease" - We've been doing a lot of stairs, and "Hell Valley" provided yet some more.  The trails in Japan's National Parks are remarkably developed - handrails, interpretive signs - many with an English section - overlooks -- and stairs.  We hiked about a mile or so to get to an overlook -- and then out to a lake before returning to the bus gathering area.

The busses from the cruise ship.

The Sounds of Mandarin - When we returned to the bus parking area we were astonished to see that the bus or two that had been there when we left had multiplied into dozens of busses -- and the quiet entryway turned into a blizzard of color -- bright reds and blues -- and people.  We learned that a cruise ship with 3,000 Chinese visitors had docked at the port city of Muroran, and 80 tours buses -- that's right - 80 -- had charged into the Hokkaido countryside, many of them to Noboribetsu for off-boat day trips.  The number of Chinese visitors to Japan has increased exponentially, and they soon will be the most numerous of foreign visitors to Japan.  As they already are in the US.  And, oh my goodness do they buy stuff!  We saw few of them on the trails in the outer part of the park -- they were in the visitor center buying stuff -- the sunglasses kiosk was being turned so fast it might have started smoking -- the vending machines were emptied out almost instantly.  Sadly, they fulfill all the negative stereotypes of Chinese tourists -- aggressive and loud.  But, in their defense, this is the first generation of Chinese tourists, and they will settle down once they learn the mores of their host countries.  (Don't forget our own first-generation travelers - the Ugly Americans...)  Plus, day-trippers off cruise ships tend to be single-minded and aggressive no matter their country of origin.

Chinese visitors working the sunglasses kiosk.

     For Ramon De la Cruz and others of us who have spent time in China, it was like old home week. The jostling was almost fun.    And this was the first exposure we had to any competing visitors on this entire trip.  As comforting as the sounds of Chinese may have been, I must admit that it was a relief to drive down the road to the more peaceful shores of Lake Toya - this time a crater lake.

Mount Usu and the Gift of Predictability -- Those of us who live in earthquake country and try to keep the memories of such events alive so that we might mobilize our neighbors into being prepared always wrestle with the issue of predictability.  It's difficult to organize people when the events that threaten them are random and unpredictable - and long passages of time - usually decades - allow memories to fade.  I've often wondered about the issues of forecasting earthquakes -- and would the populace respond any better if they KNEW an earthquake was coming?
    The tragedy of the Great Tohoku Tsunami noted below was that they had a warning - 40 minutes -- yet thousands died.  Why had so many died in the tsunami when no one --no one -- died in the huge eruptions of Mt. Usu in 1977 or 2000?  The answer seems to lie in the certainty of earthquake precursors in the area of Mt. Usu and the uncertainty of the tsunami.   In recorded history, earthquakes have ALWAYS been followed by an eruption of Mt. Usu.  No false alarms.  No crying "wolf."
    And even better, there's no way of knowing where the eruption will occur in the Mt. Usu area.  So, you know it's coming, but you're not sure where.  So you leave without hesitation.  You get the hell out of there.  Simple.  And no one dies.  Evacuation routes are indicated, refugee centers established. 
   No surprises.   I'm not wishing such disasters on Santa Cruz County in exchange for certainty.  But..wouldn't it be nice to know when St. Andrew was going to twitch?  Or would it?

The March 2000 eruption of Mt. Usu.  Despite being in a
densely populated area, no one was killed.  Photo taken from
a brochure produced by the Volcano Science Museum.


Thursday, May 28, 2015

Parting ways with the Poet Basho

Heading north - If you look at our map, you'll see where we leave Sendai by ferry and head north to Hokkaido.  In his famous Road to the Deep North journey, Basho turned left and headed across Honshu and then traveled down the western coast and back to Edo (Tokyo).  Our last direct connection with Basho's route came at a place where several threads of Japanese history came together in a stunning mountainous area called Hiraimizu.  We drove due north of Sendai for about an hour and entered one of Japan's most famous historical and beautiful spots.

The Temple Complex at Motsu-ji

Hiraizumi - In a lovely valley jammed with "sites" - World Heritage and Japan Cultural Treasures - there are two major temple locations - Motsu-ji which is one of the last large Heian-era gardens representing the power and glory of the Fujiwara's whose demise happened here, and the Chosu-ji the location of the pavilion-within-a-pavilion -- a glittering cultural treasure.  It's surprising that way up here in the far north we find the first designated Japanese cultural treasure in spite of the grandeur of Kyoto far to the south. 

Kaori wisely provided a copy of Basho's description of this spot
and I read it and the famous haiku.

The View of the Koromo River as described by Basho

The Basho Spot - We've flitted along Basho's route and visited the "kind of near here" locations of some of his stops and poems.  But here on a ridge overlooking the Koromo River, we stand on the very spot where he composed one of his most famous haiku -- a lament to the fleeting world of warrior's such as Minomoto Yoshitsune, who died near here and to whom there is a lovely building dedicated nearby.

Minamoto Yoshitsune, one of Japan's
favorite tragic figures.

Paul Skenazy and his buddy Matsuo Basho had to say goodbye.

The Taiheiyo Ferry - You'll see on the above map that we leave land aboard a ferry -- this is a huge ship -- no small ferry -- and we settle in to enjoy good food, karaoke, and other shipboard amenities and rumble northward in a very soft swell.  Great way to make the trip to Hokkaido -- overnight.  Hokkaido appears through the fog the next morning. 

The Taiheiyo Ferry that we boarded for our trip to Hokkaido.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Legacy of the Great Tohoku Earthquake March 11, 2011 - 4 years later

The Power of the March 11, 2011 tsunami in Ishinomaki, several
days afterwards.
The Horror of March 11, 2011 - Who can forget the riveting video of the huge, special-effects-like wave sweeping into coastal Japan, and cars, people, and entire towns being swept away?  They estimate that upwards of 20,000 people died in the earthquake and tsunami, not to mention entire towns.

A shrine dedicated to those lost.

Stand Up Ishinomaki!  We had a chance to visit the city of Ishinomaki, one of the  hardest-hit on the coast north of Sendai and had a briefing by city officials on their progress to date and plans for the future.  We sat in a briefing room in city hall and heard the numbers and saw the aerial photos and maps, but they are numbing.  There's no real way to grasp the magnitude of this event.  The evidence is everywhere: damaged empty buildings, hundreds of empty lots, buildings standing isolated in the middle of what was once a neighborhood, shrines on empty street corners, and sign exhorting themselves to Stand Up! 

Stand Up!

Stand up and Sing!  Kaori made arrangements for the visit, and we brought a donation to the city that we were told would go to assisting those many residents still homeless.  We have been rehearsing a song that became the anthem in Japan for the tsunami, so Kaori thought it would be appropriate if we sang the song to the city officials after we made the donation.  We stood, and holding the words, we sang the song.  The officials later told us that they were surprised that a group of Americans would make such a gesture and they were touched.  It was difficult singing the song and trying to read the words through the tears.   It's particularly difficult for those of us who live in earthquake country and who are joined at the hip through our seismicity with our Japanese neighbors.

The Greatest Tragedy -- 40 minutes - Perhaps I missed it back in 2011, but we learned from our disaster tour guide (more about that in a minute) that there had been a warning issued to the citizens along the coast and those in Ishinomaki.  40 minutes before the tsunami hit.  All those school children and citizens could have been saved had they gone to higher ground like they had been taught to do over the years.  They didn't take it seriously.  They didn't have to die.

I remember very clearly as that very same wave raced across the ocean toward the Monterey Bay coastline, and the dozens (hundreds) of people who rushed TOWARD the coast to see the wave, depending/gambling on the information that scientists were predicting that the wave wouldn't amount to much. 

Tsunami Tours - they have volunteers who
give tours of the tsunami area to keep the
memory alive.

Learning and Planning - The city of Ishinomaki and all the cities along the coast are working hard to try and see that the tragedy is never repeated.  Japan is riding through time atop volcanoes and nobody knows better the threat and reality of it.  But now, with the tsunami fresh in their minds, they intend to keep that reality alive.  Those blue plaques indicating evacuation routes are fresh and everywhere.  The marks indicating the height of the wave adorn the sides of newly-built buildings. 

But, even in this place where the reality of natural disaster is always present, they have to work at keeping the residents mobilized.  They have to WORK at it.  Barely 4 years have passed and the empty lots stretch for miles, and they still have to exhort the citizens to be prepared. 

We should never forget the Tsunami - We should keep the memories of this event alive not only to honor those who perished -- unnecessarily it would seem -- but to use them to help us be vigilant as we too ride through time on that same seismic roller coaster.

Baseball to Basho

Following (sort of) in Matsuo Basho's footsteps (sort of) -
   Kaoiri Mizoguchi and I built this itinerary around several themes, one of which was the travel narrative written by Matsuo Basho describing his journey to the north of Japan.  He departed in May of 1689, took 150 days and traveled 1500 miles.  We're only interested in the part of the journey that covered from Tokyo to the north of Honshu where he turned west.  We'll continue on to Hokkaido for the last days of our trip.
    Japan has changed a bit since the Tokugawa Period, so we'll not be able to follow his route except when he stopped and wrote about some of the famous Basho places.  Basho is Japan's favorite poet, and also very popular in the United States, so we've got several Basho-followers in the group, and most of the group members have read a bit of his work, if not just the famous of his haikus, such as the "Frog Poem", or the "Cicada Poem" or the "Matsushima account." 
   Setting up an itinerary like this was inspired by Kaori bringing a group to our area who had read "Cannery Row."  We then took them Steinbeck-hopping.  We're now going "Basho-hopping" if you'll pardon the irreverence.

Basho's hut - our point of beginning
  The location of the hut where Basho began his journey is an unassuming little spot down a Tokyo sidestreet -- a place you have to know about to find it.  Kaori knew about it.

The group hovering around Basho's hallowed ground.

The group then walked a couple of blocks to one of many Basho
museums scattered around Japan.
Nikko   The following day we drove north to one of Japan's most popular sites, but our intent was more literary than historical.  We walked down the avenue of the trees -- 400 year old cedars, and then went on to the Nikko ground.  It is huge and wonderful and has a bazillion sets of stairs.
Basho spent some important days here
writing some famous poems.

The Avenue of the Cedars.


The lower temple complex at Yamadera.

The group preparing to hike the 1,000 steps to the top of the mountain just like Basho did.  For the life of me I don't know what Jack Stevens is doing in the lower left.  You should have seen them all when they got back.


Matsushima islands - the most spectacular islands that remind
of the Big Sur California coastline.  Stunning.

We also visited the Sendai and Ishnomaki 2011 tsunami sites today.  More to come.
Everyone's fine and eating more than they should.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

More Yokohama Bay Stars and Raining Condoms

More Baseball Photos - The group continues to graze across the Japanese landscape, though much of what we ate at the ballpark doesn't qualify as true foodie fare.

Rob and Nancy Ley.  Compare his level of commitment to the Japanese
fans below.

Yes, Virginia, that's exactly what it seems -- Paul Skenazy
eating the Colonel's own.  Amazing what Santa Cruzans
will do when they're out of sight of the food police.

Beer Girl at work.  The Japanese have their priorities right,
you don't see any cotton candy vendors, but there's beer girls
with several gallons of beer strapped to their backs.  The price
is 700 yen -- about $7 -- and delivered to your seat.  Totally cool.

The Condoms part - OK, it's kind of a metaphorical thing -- At the place we call the 7th inning stretch, where the fans of each time stand and stretch - literally - at US ballgames, in Japan they have a different twist on it.  Don't know where and/or how it started, but the fans for each team arm themselves with long, thin balloons, and as the 7th inning approaches, they begin blowing them up.  Then, on their half of the 7th, they sing the team anthem, with the balloons poised, and then at the end of the song, they release them and the balloons fly into the air, falling to earth spent, looking like, in this case, giant yellow condoms.  Dunno how else to explain it.  It is absolutely hysterical.

Fans - In the row behind us there were two young men who might quality as the penultimate Japanese  baseball fans.  After the Bay Stars won the game in a delightful walk-off 9th inning victory, they stood and shredded their vocal chords.  If you are ever in Japan during  baseball season, make arrangement to go to a game. 

Friday, May 22, 2015

Flying Condoms and Japanese Baseball

Yokohama stadium -- there's nothing like walking up the concourse
ramp in a baseball park, no matter where.  This looks the same, but oh, my is it
Take us out to the ballgame, Japanese style - A couple of weeks before we left, Paul Skenazy suggested that we explore attending a Japanese baseball game.  You know, as a cultural experience, which it is.  So Kaori got a block of tickets - over in the visiting team's section along third base, and almost the entire group charged off into the subway and train system to race out to Yokohama to immerse ourselves in beer, hot dogs, and baseball Japanese style.  Here's some pictures, with some more to come as I have time to upload.

Getting there -- rush hour on the subway.
Rosie King, upper left, Diana Rothman, Ric De La Cruz, Jack Stevens (in the hat),
and buried, literally, Susie Elder.  Rush Hour Crush.

Howard Nelson, hanging on for dear life.

The ball park of the Yokohama Bay Stars, the home team and one of this season's best teams.

The ballpark - looking toward the home team rooting section.  They
have rooting sections, team outfits, drums and songs.

I shoulda known.  It was really the ballpark food that Paul Skenazy
was after.  Selfie with Jeff Waldron lower right.

The hot dog stand girls.  They infusing the hotdogs with looks like
an adapted enema device -- really just catsup and mustard. 

Beer makes it glow -- left to right - Howard Nelson, standing is
Diana Rothman, and then front, Terry Eckhardt, Yoshie Morrissey, Annie Lydon,
self, and Jeff Waldron. 

Jeff Waldron, Jon and Alice Drier.

Stay tuned for the flying condoms!  More to come - gotta go and roam through Tokyo.
As you can see, we're doing just fine, thank you.


Thursday, May 21, 2015

Whales, Whaleman, and Whalemeat

The town of Wada, a fishing and whaling town on the Boso Peninsula where
shore-whaling continues. 
Monterey Bay Shore Whaling and Japan
One of the traditions we share with our counterparts on the Minamiboso Peninsula is shore-whaling.  We began shore-whaling in Monterey in 1853 and eventually ceased at Moss Landing in 1924.  The purpose at the outset was primarily whale oil, but in the early 20th century the industry shifted to using most of the whale, from oil to chicken feed to bonemeal. 

Whaling in Japan - The tradition of whaling on this coast of Japan is much more central to their culture as it was and still is a source of protein for human consumption. The difference between our commercial whaling and their is simple and yet profound.  Whaling evolved over centuries as part of Japanese culture, where in Central California the history was short-lived and the whaling industry never really became a part of the culture of the region, except for the Azoreans who practiced it. These days, whale-watching has become a much more important part of the local economies than whaling was in the 19th century when it was tied to the price of whale oil.
So, whatever you've been told about Japanese whaling for pet food or some such, here on the coast of Minamiboso, it is incorrect.  Whale meat and whale products and whaling itself are a major part of local cuisine and culture. 

Shoji on the ramp of the Gaibo Hogei Whaling Company explaining
modern shore-whaling to our group.

Shoji the whaler - I first met yoshinori Shoji in 1995 and over the years have listened to him explain his family's business and the place it has in the village of Wada where he grew up.  Shoji-san went to college overseas and he is, primarily, a businessman.  He was never a harpooner or a deck hand on the boat, but worked in the whale processing plant when a young man.  Now in his early 50s, with 20 year's experience attending International Whaling Commission meetings and following the politics of the business, he is still committed to continue whaling as long as it is legal along the Japan coast.
Shoji-san explaining the processing of whale meat.

Baired's Beaked Whales - Shoji's company hunts and processes the largest of what are called the bottle-nosed whales, the Baired's Beaked whale whose hunting and population are outside the control of the IWC and its treaties.  Shoji's company has a permit to hunt 26 whales a year, and the animals are processed at his station in the town of Wada.  We are visiting in the off-season, as the hunting, which is done from modern 50 foot boats equipped with harpoon canons, is carried on in the summer months.  Baird's Beaked whales can be up to 40 feet long and weigh as much as 15 ton. 

The Factory - Shoji-san greeted us at the location of the long wooden ramp up which the carcass is pulled by a winch.  It is here that the whale is dismembered, the blubber and meat separated from the bone, with the blubber and meat transported up the coast to a building with a huge walk-in freezer where it is stored and then thawed and processed throughout the year.  Some of the meat is sold and offered for sale fresh, while some is sliced and then sun-dried.
Susie Elder sampling dried whale meat.

At one point in our visit, Shoji laid out a line of blue bowls on a table and we were invited to taste dried whale meat.  They were not under any pressure to do so, of course, and I was not paying any attention to who did or didn't as it wasn't important.

What WAS important was that the group had listened intently and respectfully to what Shoji had to say.  Shoji is always prepared to do verbal battle with visitors bearing strong opinions about whaling, but he was pleasantly pleased that that was not necessary today.  He smiled and said, "Maybe they understand my point of view."  Yes, I said, "I hope so. They don't have to agree, but I hope they can seen another point of view."

The Future - Shoji is painfully aware that the price for his whale products and the demand are both in decline.  And he's already thinking about how difficult it might be to pass the business on when he decides to retire.   He has one daughter, and she doesn't seem to be in line to follow in her father's footsteps.  As the diets of young Japanese continue to shift away from the more traditional tastes, one can imagine that Japanese shore whaling might eventually quietly cease to be.  Shoji-san has admitted as much.  But for now he will continue to hunt the animals that have always provided a source of protein for this protein-deprived country.

And perhaps the members of this group of visitors from California will now begin to appreciate the wide diversity that exists between human industries, and that whalers come in a variety of sizes and shapes, as do lumbermen, farmers and fishermen.

A large replica of a blue whale skeleton
in front of the local community center.
Even the playground equipment at the
community center reflects the local
theme of whales and whalers.


Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Eating at the Hamazushi -- The Sushi Boat

Eating across Japan - Kaori Mizoguchi has arranged a wide variety of restaurants for the group, ranging from French cuisine, with too much silverware, a Korean-Japanese fusion restaurant, and a Sushi Boat restaurant in Tateyama.  I wasn't sure about the sushi-boat restaurant as it had a Chuckee Cheese flavor to it, but boy was I wrong.  The group had an outrageously good time and ate more than could have been imagined. 

The Sushi Boat Conveyor coming toward our table -- we were downstream.

A fully-laden belt moving right to left - before the upstream tables
began to pick off all the good stuff.

The Hamazushi - Sushi Boat -- The concept originated in high-end sushi bars where there was a channel of water and tiny boats would drift past and the customer would remove the sushi they wished and be charged at the end by the plates they had collected.  Reminiscent of dim suum restaurants.  But in the Hamazushi, it is mechanized and computerized with the plates of sushi, or other delicacies (French Fries!) parading past on a mechanized belt much like a luggage carousel in an airport.  Trouble was that our table was downstream from all the others, and we (Agnes and Howard Nelson, Alan Richards, Don Yamaguchi, Annie and I) were afraid that they upstreamers would grab all the good stuff before it got to us.

Don Yamaguchi hunting for goodies on
the far side of the belt.

Yamaguchi strikes!  He's so fast his hand
is a blur in this photograph.

Don Yamaguchi - Master Hunter - Fortunately, Don Yamaguchi was positioned closest to the belt, and he quickly figured out that he could reach through and snare some of the plates BEFORE they came around to our upstream colleagues - the perfect short-stop position.  So, we would spy something interesting going up the far side of the contraption, and we would suggest -- "get it Don!" and he would reach through and slide the dish to our table before it could get to the upstreamers.  Pretty soon the pile of empty plates rose higher and higher, and together with the empty beer mugs, were evidence of an evening well spent.  Our table had the tallest pile, of course, and we didn't have the nerve to tell them about Don Yamaguchi, the Hunter.

The Results of Don's dexterity and courage.
We won!  Burp....
Wendy Stevens photographs the results.


Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Peace and Tranquility - Day #5 - Tuesday, May 19 Tateyama

From the mayhem of the Sanja Matsuri to a Tea Ceremony atop Tateyama - It's almost surreal to switch from the confusion of the matsuri in Tokyo to a tea ceremony at a beautiful tea house named Gangetsu-an atop the mountain overlooking Tateyama.  Kaori arranged to have her sister, Akemi and mother, Kazu put on an abbreviated tea ceremony to demonstrate this classic Japanese art from for the group but also to give us a personal, heartfelt welcome from the Mizoguchi family.

The peace and quiet was enhanced by the garden visible just outside.

Kaori's sister, Akemi performing the tea ceremony ritual.

The special cup selected by Akemi for the ceremony.

The Mizoguchi girls.  Kaori left, Akemi, and Kazu, their mother.
Kazu is a tea ceremony teacher and has been practicing it all of her life.

The group, attentive and respectful.  Each of them shared a bowl of
tea with the Mizoguchis.  It was a magical morning.