Thursday, February 24, 2011

Japan Part 5: Tokyo

The red circle is us.

To be honest, Tokyo, the current capital of Japan and one of the biggest cities in the world, was not high on my list of places I wanted to see in Japan. Big cities are big cities, right?

Honestly, though, I am glad now that I got to have a look at it. Tokyo is definitely a glamorous place – like New York in that I don’t think I’d ever want to live there, but it was cool to visit. Actually, I find myself wishing that I had had more than a single day to check it out.

Our first stop was at Sensouji Temple in Asakusa. This temple is famous for its huge red paper lantern hanging over its huge red gate, also known as the “Thunder Gate.” The path to the temple is lined with stalls and shops selling everything imaginable to the “pilgrims” who have trekked their long way there.

Afterwards, we headed to the Meiji Shrine, which was built to commemorate the Meiji Restoration of 1868. That’s when the rule of the emperor was restored to Japan, which triggered great changes for the country, including modernization of both industry and education. The shrine itself was a simple, elegant structure, surrounded by acres of woodland. A number of people were there, offering up prayers. We didn’t stay long enough to disturb them.

Tokyo skyline

Following a rather disappointing visit to the Imperial Palace (they wouldn’t let us in!), we decided to take in some of the city’s more modern side, and visit some of Tokyo’s famous districts, such as:

  • Harajuku. An extremely colorful place, even on a Monday. Everywhere bright colors called out to us and delicious smells tempted us (I wound up with some delicious Indian food and a crepe for dessert).
  • Akihabara. A Mecca for lovers of all things electronic – computers, cameras, you name it. It’s also a place for diehard gamers to meet for conventions.
  • Shinjuku. Kind of like the Times Square of Tokyo – it’s where things are happening. Specifically shopping and fashion things. There were a ton of high-end clothing boutiques.

The problem was that we only really got to glimpse this stuff. Tokyo is just such a big place, I could have used a week seeing everything I wanted to see, like the Rainbow Bridge or the gardens in Shinjuku.

One other thing I got a peek at: Mt. Fuji, yes the Mt. Fuji, was visible through the train window on the way there. That alone made the trip to Tokyo worthwhile, at least for me. A fun story you may not know about Mt. Fuji: in one of Japan’s very old legends, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, the emperor falls in love with a woman who turns out to be from the moon. Eventually, she has to return to her home there, but offers him an elixir of immortality as a parting gift. Since he doesn’t want to live forever without her, he climbs the highest mountain (the mountain closest to the sky, and thus, her) and burns it. From that day on, the mountain was called by the name “immortality”, becoming Mt. Fuji.

Actually, to be honest, my camera died near the end of the day in Osaka, and for the last couple of days in Japan I was unable to take any pictures. Thus I have to be indebted to Katie and Soo-min for lending me their photos from Tokyo – thanks so much, guys! Those pictures can be seen here.

The next (and last! finally!) part will be about Hiroshima. Also coming soon: the Beobdong Area Children’s Center has a concert tomorrow!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Japan Part 4: Osaka

The red circle is us.

The day after the Kyoto trip, we hopped on the train again – this time for only about 20 minutes – to visit Kobe’s neighbor, Osaka. Believe it or not, Osaka was also the capital once, a heck of a long time ago, even before Kyoto was. We’re talking around the 7th century here. At that time, it was called “Naniwa-kyo,” and was considered a vital seaport for trade, especially with Korea and China.

Yes, as you may be able to tell, we had a very historical day in Osaka, starting with a visit to the infamous Osaka Castle. It was the home of Mr. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, warrior and lord, who unified Japan in the sixteenth century. This is also the crazy guy who had the solid-gold portable tea room built, so that he could have tea in style, anywhere, anytime. Umm, and he might have invaded Korea a couple of times. And killed those Twenty-Six Martyrs in Nagasaki (Christian missionaries and laypeople of various origins) that I didn’t mention when I wrote part 2.

Since the castle got burned down once (or twice), the present-day Osaka Castle is a careful reconstruction of the original. Osaka CastleHowever, we were unable to enjoy the gorgeous insides, unlike we could in Kyoto’s Nijo Castle. The inside has been reborn as a museum, which explains the history of the castle in (excruciating) detail. We followed that up with a trip to the Osaka Museum of History, where we strolled through the eras of Japanese history and glimpsed the many different faces that Osaka wore over the years. And we got to role-play a little, putting on the traditional Japanese kimono, before relaxing downtown and getting some ice cream.

And on the last day of our trip (if I may be allowed to skip ahead a little here), we visited a significant mission site of the P.C. (USA) – the Yodogawa Christian Hospital. We were welcomed to the hospital by some very nice people (they put up “Welcome YAVs” signs in all the hospital hallways!) and got to tour their facilities. Afterwards, we had our own private worship in one of their chapels, with our own private minister, Rev. Choi, presiding. This before being treated to a lovely sushi box lunch (obentou in Japanese; some of you may be familiar with it).

At the Museum of History This hospital focuses on “whole-person healing” and the idea that both the body and soul of a sick person need care and nourishment. They are currently ranked number one in the nation out of all private hospitals. Because they are a Christian organization, a large percentage of the staff (13%) is Christian, although the patients are 99% not Christian (a reflection of the general populace). Nonetheless, patients give an overwhelmingly positive response to the hospital chaplains who visit them to pray with/for them. Every morning, they hold worship, which is available on TVs in every patient room. They also have a lunch-hour broadcast for those interested in tuning in. In fact, they just have so much going on and my descriptions really can’t do it justice, so if you want to know more, you can look at their website here.

Click here for more pictures of Osaka. Part 5 to come soon; the topic: Tokyo.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Japan Part 3: Kyoto

The red circle is us.

The city of Kyoto is one of the most famous in Japan. Its name literally means “capital city,” as it was the capital of Japan during its golden age, the Heian-kyo period, before the unified rule of the emperor was replaced with many warring feudal lords. In addition to being the seat of the government, it was also the birthplace of such literary masterpieces as The Tale of Genji and the Pillow Book, and it is still the home of many Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. During the war, Kyoto was considered as a target for bombing, but was ultimately passed over because of the city’s great beauty and cultural heritage. Naturally, with my background in Japanese language and literature, I was very excited to visit here – it was the number one place on my list, actually – and see the legends that I had so far only imagined come to life for me. So I was glad that we had, more or less, a “free day” to take in as much as we could of the city.

Nijo Castle

It turns out that Kyoto is a city of fusion, thousand-year-old temples rubbing elbows with very modern skyscrapers and high-end fashion stores.  My favorite place that we visited was Nijo Castle, which was built to house shogunate troops and visiting (i.e., hostage) lords and their families. Everything was lavishly decorated, but in an understated, subtle way. The dark wood was overlaid with gold and green carvings, mainly of animals – tigers, cranes, hawks. The floors were, of course, covered by the traditional tatami (bamboo mats), but the floors in the sleeping rooms had an extra feature: they were designed to squeak obnoxiously whenever someone walked on them, so that it was impossible (well, very difficult) to sneak up and assassinate the castle’s inhabitants. They call these the “nightingale” floors. We also saw the secret doors built into the walls of the meeting rooms. These doors were for the bodyguards to hide behind, and kept the meeting private while still allowing quick and easy access to the lord’s private army should things get ugly, politically speaking.

Another highlight was Kiyomizu Temple, up on a cliff overlooking the city. The temple was founded in the eighth century, when a certain monk had a vision that told him to climb the mountain, bring down a log he found there, and carve it into the likeness of one of the Bodhisattvas. This he did (apparently), and founded a temple on the site. The temple’s chief feature is the water that comes down from the mountain. It is said that this water is holy water, and that drinking it will give you wisdom, good health, and long life. Of course we had to try it for ourselves. I don’t know about wisdom or good health, but as for long life, well . . . After drinking the water, I noticed that my camera (whose battery had been on the verge of dying) found the mysterious strength to carry on – the display showed the battery completely full again. Coincidence? I think not!! (Hey, no one said it had to be long life for humans!)

To see photos of this stuff and more, head here. Stay tuned for Part 4: Osaka (featuring the Yodogawa Christian Hospital)!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Japan Part 2: Nagasaki

The red circle is us.After our forum at Kansei University, it was time to head to our next destination: Kassui University in the city of Nagasaki. Now, this name is probably familiar to many of you as the site of a certain memorable WWII event. More on this later.

In order to get from Kobe to Nagasaki, we took the Shinkansen (perhaps better known to some of my readers as the bullet train). The Shinkansen doesn’t go quite all the way there, down to the very western coast of Japan, but it does go most of the way. To me, it’s just amazing how quiet and clean these Japanese trains are. They’re so much nicer to travel in than airplanes. Also interesting: the staff members passing through the car all bow to the passengers (who mostly aren’t paying any attention). All in all, they’re pretty good places to sleep.

After checking in at our hotel in Nagasaki (we had to take a trolley to get there!), we headed out again, walking to Kassui for our discussion on discrimination in different cultures. This time around, we actually had a fourth perspective: in addition to the American, Korean, and Japanese youth, Chinese exchange students also asked to participate, and of course we were happy to have them.

This was an especially enlightening afternoon for me; the presenters brought up many issues that I had no real awareness of. Deogil spoke about the challenges faced by multi-national families in modern Korea. Many Korean men import foreign brides from other Asian nations, women who then face discrimination because they don’t fit in to Korean culture or speak the Korean language well.

Japanese student presents The Japanese student spoke about a couple of different groups that Japanese society discriminates against. First, the hidden Christians of the past. For many years, especially while Japan was run by the shogunate and was closed to the outside world, Christianity was considered an unacceptable religion, and people caught practicing it were executed. Suspected believers were ordered to defile Christian images known as humie, the logic being that a faithful Christian would be unable to do it. Second, the hibakusha, or atomic bomb survivors. The 1945 attack on Nagasaki claimed over 100,000 lives, but there were those who lived through the experience, scarred both physically and emotionally. More often than not, these survivors were shunned by mainstream society, which found in them a frightening reminder of the horrors of war.

The Chinese presenter told us that there is a lot of discrimination in China against carriers of hepatitis B. About ten percent of the population has this blood-borne disease, and for those who carry it, it is pretty much impossible to get a job or to climb the social ladder. In fact, physical traits seem to be a pretty big deal generally. We were shown one sample advertisement put out by a company looking to fill a secretary/office worker-type position. The ad lists desired height and blood type, among other things. There is also quite a bit of regional discrimination. As you are aware, China is a huge country, and it encompasses many cultures and different ethnic groups – just like the U.S. has its own regional subcultures. Thus, stereotypes often arise about the people from this city or that province: “Oh, they’re all thieves,” “They’re dirty people,” etc. 057

That evening and the next day we had free time to take in the city and visit whatever we wanted to. So we took the trolley across town to Peace Park and the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum. Places like this should be required viewing for anyone with the power to make policy. It is impossible to visit here without being strongly moved by our common human condition. Those of us who name ourselves Christians are, I believe, called to look hard at the past – at this event and other acts of violence – and ask ourselves if we really live in a country modeled on Christian values. (Keeping in mind that the U.S. tested a nuclear device as recently as September 15 of last year?) And if the answer is no, what are we first? Americans or Christians?

I took a lot of great photos in Nagasaki, which can be seen here. Part 3 will be about Kyoto!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

New Year’s Day, Korean style

So this past week (Thursday, to be precise) marked the beginning of the lunar new year, which Korea, like China, celebrates. Young people usually go to their grandparents’ house, bow, and receive an envelope of money. Not having a Korean family, this didn’t apply to me, but I still managed to get in on the action by cooking with my center.


One of the many delicious things we made was buchimge. It’s a great invention where you mix kimchi into pancake batter and then fry it up on the griddle. It has an awesome eye-popping orange color! Now (and this is a secret – don’t tell) I am not really the world’s biggest kimchi fan. It’s OK, I just don’t love it or anything. But when you cook it or fry it – like in a dumpling, or in your fried rice, or in a buchimge – it takes on a whole new dimension and becomes so savory and scrumptious. In fact, this is maybe my favorite Korean food so far. We also fried hobakja (a squash with a buttery texture), made mandu (dumplings), and pretty much ate until we were sick. Good times, good times.


The next day we made snacks. We boiled water, sugar, and rice syrup together, and then used the resulting sticky goodness to make little cakes out of seeds, nuts, and bran flakes. Absolutely delicious (although chewing too many of them gives you something of a sore jaw).

Gostop gameMyung-ju onni also taught me to play go-stop, a Korean card game that is traditional on Chuseok and the lunar new year. There are a lot of rules (and that’s before you get into betting!), but the basic concept is to collect cards fast, by matching the ones in your hand to the ones on the mat, and win control of the game, at which point you can either stop while you’re ahead, or keeping going and take a risk in an attempt to collect more money. Also apparently you can overturn the blanket if things aren’t going well for you. That’s me playing over there on the left – Salgu (onni’s cat) is being the referee and making sure I don’t cheat.

Also, the Chief gave me some really nice socks as a present! Score! (I desperately needed some new ones…)

Look for a Japan update tomorrow!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Japan Part 1: Kobe

The red circle is us. So, as promised, here’s the first part of my Japan trip.

On Tuesday the 18th, we flew out of Seoul and, about an hour and a half later, landed at the Osaka Kansai airport. From there, we took the bus to Kobe (yes, the place famous for its beef), where we had the use of a pretty spacious house that would act as our “base” during the time we spent in Japan. Most of us were there, anyway. Simon and Haejung were using an apartment on loan from the church, but the other seven of us were borrowing the house of a (currently absent) family.

Speaking of which, maybe it’s time for a little dramatis personae. Joining me on this journey were not only Simon, Haejung, Katie, and Jenny, but also three Korean volunteers from Hannam University and their chaplain. Soo-min works with me on the Hannam blog project, as she has excellent English (she spent a year in the U.S., at Warren Wilson). Okdeuk (also known as OK) taught with me on Fridays when I was still working at the Youngrak Church. Deogil (a guy) has been working with Jenny at her children’s center, specifically helping out with the soccer class she teaches on Wednesdays. Then there’s Hannam’s chaplain, Rev. Choi, who’s shown us three Americans a lot of kindness since we arrived in Korea in September. He’s in charge of the Korean YAVs who work with us, and has listened to our feedback about the program and taken it very seriously.

When we arrived on Tuesday, it was already getting late, so the day’s agenda consisted mostly of a delicious dinner with Bill and Ann Moore, P.C.(USA) missionaries to Japan for more than 20 years. They live in Kobe now, and as our gracious hosts for the evening, provided us with a scrumptious spread as well as the pleasure of their company.

Then we headed to our home-away-from-home(-away-from-home) to fight over who got which room, and what order people were going to shower in. Our house was an interesting mix of Japanese and western styles: some people got beds, but others (including me) bunked down on the tatami mat floors.

Kansei University

The next morning, we hopped on the local train and headed out to Kansei University in the city. This was to be the site of the first of three international youth forums. Kansei was founded by missionaries and identifies itself as a Christian school; however, only around 1% of the student body is actually Christian. (This is an accurate reflection of the Japanese population generally – 0.8% of Japanese people are practicing Christians.) We were warmly received there by the staff, and treated to both a campus tour and lunch. The campus itself was very interesting, its architecture having been based off of the Spanish mission-style buildings of southern California. And the lunch was amazing! We ate with the university chancellor in very high style indeed – it was the sort of meal where you need to know which fork to use when (I admit, I didn’t know what the heck I was doing; I ended up mistaking my spoon for a butter knife [What? it was totally a weird, angular spoon!]). We enjoyed some very fancy food while being waited on hand and foot, so absolutely no complaints there.

In the afternoon, we moved into the actual purpose of our visit: a discussion of environmental issues. I represented the U.S., Guess which one is the American? giving a brief overview of the current policies we have and the challenges we face. I was followed by Soo-min, who told us about the programs the exist in Korea to try and protect the environment, and one of Kansei’s own students, who talked about Japan’s policies. I have to admit, I was very impressed (although not really surprised) that Korea and Japan both have so many environmentally-friendly policies in place. For example, both countries have programs that award consumers “eco-points” for buying green products. These eco-points can later be exchanged for free stuff. They also do much better at sorting their garbage and recycling. Case in point: you eat at an American McDonald’s, you throw all your trash into one big can afterwards. You eat at a Korean McDonald’s, you throw your food waste here, your leftover drink and ice here, your paper stuff here. It’s like a puzzle, trying to figure out where everything goes! And don’t even get me started on the whole public transportation issue.

Afterwards there was general discussion, and while we hardly came up with a solution to global warming or any such thing, many interesting ideas were shared and there were a lot of opportunities for the us to talk with the Japanese students and bond. Not bad, for our first attempt at this kind of thing!

More pictures of Kobe can be seen here. Next time: We go to Nagasaki!