Tuesday, April 25, 2006

A building behind Osaka station with an astonishingly futuristic and in my opinion beautiful architecture

At one of the tops near the vulcano Aso, in the middle of Kyushu

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Small road to the South

It's already been already more than two weeks since I came back from my trip to the south, but since classes started I've been quite occupied with getting everything right. But before I tell about the new semester, let me tell about the trip I made. It became quite a long story, but to give you at least a little bit an idea of how many places I've visited and also to convey the variaty of things I've seen during my trip, this is really the shortest description I can give.
Quite some friends of me are studying in Kyushyu now, the island south of Honshu, the biggest island of Japan (where cities like Kyoto and Tokyo are located). In Nagasaki ten fellow students of Leiden university are studying and in Oita a friend from highschool is doing an exchange program. So I thought visiting them would be a good occasion for me to explore some more distant parts of Japan. Because I still had the time during the spring break, I decided to go on a trip for twelve days to visit Kyushyu and some cities of Honshu south of Tokyo. Japan Railways has some kind of pass that allows you to travel five days for as much as you like by local train, so I bought two of those and tried to make the most of it.
First, I took an airplane to Fukuoka, a big city in the north of Kyushyu. From there I went to Nagasaki, of which the most impressive experience was probably to go to Dejima. Dejima was an artificial island in the harbor of Nagasaki where Dutch merchants were stationed in the 17th and 18th century when only the Netherlands as western country could trade with Japan. Because that is were Japan-Dutch relationships started and where Japan gathered information about the West while Dutch officials learned more and more about Japan, it can rightly be regarded as the cradle of Japanese studies in the Netherlands, and particular in Leiden. So I was standing there at the historical origin of my present studies. Even though Dejima is now completely integrated in the city that has been expanding into what once was the harbor and all original buildings are now replaced by replica's (remember that Nagasaki was the second city to be destroyed by an atom bomb), just to be at that exact spot where Dutch trade-officials had lived was indeed something amazing.
Apart from that, I visited places like Chinatown, the peace-park and the memorial museum about the atom bomb (which I will write about when I get to Hiroshima) and Glover garden. First I wondered why I would have to go to that last tourist spot - just because it boasts the oldest western style house of Japan? But when I got there, it appeared that that house had belonged to one Thomas Blake Glover (1838-1911). You might still wonder what's so interesting about that, but when I got there I was utterly impressed by the contributions of this Englishman (or Scot to be exact) to the Japanese modernisation. He arrived in Nagasaki in 1859 and established Gover & Co. there. He apparently earned lots of money, because subsequently he supported rebellions against the shogunate, resulting in the Meiji Restauration of 1868. He also helped establishing Japan Brewery Co., still existing as Kirin Beer, and financed the first modern ship-dock. Apart from that, he pioneered in railroad construction and made the first telephone line (from his office to his house) in Japan. To topp it all of, he influenced and supported other businessmen and his sons to expand Japanese industries, thus contributing greatly to earlyJapanese economic development. Just this one man!
After enjoying those kind of sweet surprising discoveries and the tranquillity of Nagasaki, I went back to Fukuoka to meet the family of my girlfriend. First we spend a big part of her birthday in Fukuoka, visiting some temples, a museum for modern Asian art and the workshop of an old man who was still weaving textile by hand. A time consuming job, but one with a history of at least a few hundred years. We spend some time talking with him about maintaining traditions, competition in the textile industry for kimono's and the future of hand-woven textile. Actually, there are some young students who want to learn the skills, so it seems that the craftmanship will still continue for at least one more generation.
Then we finally went to the house of Eriko's family in Yahata. When I got there, I was warmly welcomed. We had a very nice Japanese dinner and a cake to celebrate Eriko's birthday. I would stay there for two nights, so I had some time to get to know everybody a little bit. Especially Eriko's sisters were very excited about my visit and made me feel like I was some important guest. It was really fun to talk and hang out with them. All of us went to Kokura to visit the castle, Japanese garden and futuristically designed shopping-centre there. We also went to the harbor of Kita-Kyushu, the most northern part of the island Kyushu where a bridge leads to Honshu. It was quite interesting to see the big harbor and the industry that had made Kita-Kyushu one of the industrial centers in Japan (next to Osaka, Nagoya and Tokyo).
Then I went to Oita to meet my friend Ignas, who's studying there for a year. Before arriving there, however, I stopped for a few hours in Beppu to visit some hell-pools (hot water sources reaching temperatures near 100 degrees Celcius) and relaxed in an onsen (a public bath-house using the water of such hot water sources). To fast forward a bit: with Ignas I climbed the vulcano Aso, some mountain next to Beppu and went to Yufuin, another onsen-town. Then I went back to Yahata and from there to Himeji with the oldest castle of Japan, to Hiroshima and to Miyashima (all in one day!). Now, Hiroshima is also mostly famous for the atomic bombing on 6 August 1945. Because the actual scale and suffering of such an event is just unimaginable, I'll just discuss some of the reasons why the US eventually decided to use those weapons of mass destruction. First of all, it was a quick way to force Japan to unconditional surrender, maybe taking more Japanese lives, but at least less American lives than an invasion of the country. Secondly, the US had spend large sums of money to develop nuclear weapons, so if they wouldn't use them they could be criticised by the public for unnecessary spending of tax-money. But why two cities? Japan would also have surrendered after the bombing of only Hiroshima. Because the US had developed two types of bombs (nuclear fission with uranium and nuclear fusion with hydrogen), so they wanted to 'test' both. That is also why they chose cities that hadn't been bombed at all during the war as potential targets. In the end, the weather conditions were the decisive factor to make Hiroshima and Nagasaki the actual targets. So next to a (maybe unnecessary) military operation, the dropping of the bombs was a unique opportunity to test the weapons in 'real live'. As you can imagine, visiting the peace parks and memorial museums in both cities wasn't exactly 'fun', but I thought it was the least I could do to make myself realise again how horrible war is. I also discovered that the memorial hall in Hiroshima was also quite open about Japanese atrocities during the Second World War, especially in China. While for example the War Museum at the controversial Yasukuni Shrine is mostly showing the suffering of the Japanese people and soldiers, in Hiroshima it was shown how Japanese had cruelly massacred civillians during the attack on Nanking.
From Hiroshima, I went on to Osaka. When I got there, I felt actually happy to be back in a big city. After living in Tokyo for some months, I was so used to the liveliness of the metropolis, that the smaller towns where I had been in Kyushu had made me miss that exciting athmosphere. However, later on I discovered on a rainy day that mainly the area around the station is interesting in Osaka, while the rest mainly consists of office buildings and further away houses and industries. But I liked the big harbor here aswell. I also visited Mount Koya, where Kobo Daishi had established the Shingon sect of buddhism in the 9th century and the Ise shrine, where Amaterasu Omikami is worshipped. Amaterasu Omikami is regarded as the ancestor of the Japanese imperial family and is thus the most important god, with Ise shrine being the most important place of worship. However, it is impossible to go to the actual shrine. The closest you can get is an opening in a wooden fence from where you can see the gate to the precincts of the shrine. From farther away, the roof of the shrine is visible, rising above the fence, but that's all. And the entire structure is just made out of wood, with some golden decorations, but nothing compared to for example the Vatican in Rome. So I was quite amazed by the simplicity of this most important sanctity of Japan. On the other hand, it is very impressive to see that for Japanese it is indeed the place (or in other words: nature) that is the most important, and not what human have added to it. And I must say, it was a very nice place. The shrine is surrounded by woods, and even though a wide path filled with tourists leads to the shrine, it's all immersed in a very nice (I want to avoid the cheezy terms 'peaceful' or 'sacred') athmosphere.
From Ise I went to my last destination, the city Nagoya. Even though it's the fourth biggest city in Japan (after Tokyo, Yokohama and Osaka), it mostly consists of industry and living quarters and is not known as a nice touristic destination. Nevertheless, I discovered quite some interesting places there, from the Nagoya castle to a Dutch windmill (memorating some international flower-exhibition), a very nice Asian Art Museum and a big Kannon-temple. But I had to go back to Tokyo the next day, so I couldn't spend that much time there.
When I came back to Tokyo I was quite tired from the whole trip. I had taken so many trains, visited so many places and travelled such a long distance that I still can't believe it myself. But I was very satisfied with the accomplishment and I was glad to be back home and stay at the same place for longer than two nights.