June 2011 – Land of the rising radioactivity and sense of crisis

So, like, there was an earthquake in Japan in March. And, like, I had bought tickets to go there in June the week before. And, like, it seemed like too much trouble to cancel these tickets. And, like, there was this nuclear risk thing. So, like it or not, we went. A little fearful, a little wary and with a compass pointed firmly west. Well, some of the time.

A is for “All Well”: All immediate family members are safe and well and all but one of our friends are accounted for. To those of you who sent messages of support, our heartfelt thanks. We met up with as many family members as we could on this trip. It was a great relief to see them.

B is for ‘but for…..’: But for the earthquake and tsunami and the risk of nuclear radiation, things would have been massively different. The original plan involved a relatively relaxing tour of places previously unseen near Sendai and Yamagata including the temples (including the golden Konjiki-do) and parks around Hiraizumi (which has just been granted UNESCO World Heritage status) and the mountain temple at Yamadera. As a recent FT article said, even people who have lived in Japan for some time and many Japanese themselves would not have known about these places and I was very much in the same boat – when a relative asked me whether I had been to these places, I had to admit completely ignorance. Upon doing some urgent research, I was amazed to learn about these places which served as important cultural and religious (Buddhist) centres since about the 12th Century when the powerful Fujiwara clan made Hiraizumi their northern base. Ironically, the closest we got to them was a television programme featuring both sites – part of a plan to restore and increase internal tourism on one of the tv networks. I will go and visit them one day but now is not a good time given the fear of aftershocks and their relatively remote location.

C is for Comparative Pricing: We get around a bit when we go back ‘home’ so we get to know what’s what price-wise and taste wise when it comes to food in particular. Starting the trip as we did in Osaka, we were pleasantly surprised by the prices of most everything we wanted to try. And then, as we moved on and around and through to Tokyo got a bit of a shock as we saw the difference – same sort of product, significantly higher prices. Cue gnashing of teeth. The reasons for this differential are a bit harder to fathom but perhaps the old saying of ‘dress in kimonos until you drop in Kyoto, eat until you drop in Osaka’ might be truer than people think. So if you want to chow down in Japan, head to Osaka. No contest. The Umeda area around Osaka Station City is probably where you want to be.

D is for Digital TV: In just over a fortnight’s time, all analogue television will be switched off and everything will need to be digital. And this has conveniently come at a good time for would-be purchasers of tv sets. A 32 inch LED will cost you roughly Y33,000 with the equivalent LCD tv likely to cost less. New Zealand will go through the same thing in a couple of years time. But we say hurray for digital television and the data feature that comes with it – you can tell the weather, you can find out the latest news, all sorts of other important and necessary information which is a few clicks away. Interestingly, Freeview has some of that functionality now but it could be significantly better. I want something like the Japanese system, please.

E is for Electricity Savings: or ‘setsuden’ in Japanese. Evidenced everywhere – lights turned off, lifts shutdown daily reminders about peak power usage and would you please use all best efforts to minimise power use, politicians in open necked shirts, air conditioning given the heave-ho for now, and electric fans being the most popular electric gadget this season. I nearly bought a USB-powered mini-fan for my desk myself. Bearing in mind the situation immediately after the earthquake which was a lot worse for those with suitcases like double basses, this was tolerable but just wait a bit – train services on key Tokyo lines are about to reduced by 10% (which will make for an even more sardine-like experience at rush hour) and if the summer is hot, watch out for outages as the mercury rises and the cooling systems can’t cope. In a country which prides itself as sitting on the cutting edge of technology, this is quite mind-boggling. Still, there is a precedent in relatively recent memory being the cuts made during the 1970s oil shocks – thanks to a national conservation scheme (amidst the grumbles), Japan took the lessons to heart and made more efficient devices and systems. It’s started already – LED lights are not exactly compulsory but in some cases they might as well be, Toshiba has just released a TV with a backup battery system that can run for about four hours or so without main power and NEC is working on some other devices that use hardly anything at all.

F is for Fukushima Nuclear Plant: Constantly in the news (as it should be). Some of the papers publish daily radiation readings which allow you to sort of calculate your exposure in millisieverts. Unfortunately, Fukushima City is on the route of the Tohoku Shinkansen through to Sendai and beyond. That’s not to say that you get a blast of radioactive fallout every time you head up north but it makes you just a little more conscious of the risk. By my reckoning, we are fine but it is a bit unnerving particularly when the authorities announced a change in the monitoring methodology to address concerns from parents of young children and the elderly. The change allowed for more close to ground readings rather than the ‘rooftop’ measurements being conducted up to that point. Naturally, this combined with the risk of aftershocks made us want to get out of the affected areas as quickly as possible which we were able to do. In that regard, we are lucky. Not so lucky are some of the local and regional businesses such as farming, horticulture, aquaculture and even the tea growers in Shizuoka which some distance away have reported abnormal levels of cesium in some of their produce which has already triggered import / export bans. Not surprisingly, people are up in arms and Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO)’s annual stockholders meeting went on for six hours (three times the usual, they say) as a result. And to think that this is only the beginning, as it were !

G is for Gareki: The Japanese word for debris. While you might miss a lot of what was there in the main cities, get a bit further out and you cannot avoid it. Mountains of stuff, organic, inorganic, trees where they shouldn’t be, cars stuck in rice paddies, bits of houses, vehicles, metal, woods, plastic and much, much more just everywhere. They pile them in mountains for now for sorting out later – heaven knows how long that will take. Near one of the areas we had a look at, there was a sign that said ‘Heart Quake’. Very poignant.

H is for Hotels: An interesting mish-mash of properties all belonging to the Japan Rail group in some shape or form.

Hotel Granvia Osaka: Stayed here last in 2008 and fortunately it has undergone a soft refurbishment since then. But they still give you a key that looks like the one Harry Potter needs to access his bank account at Gringolts. They make the beds in a rather creepy fashion which, if you are not used to it, might make you think that you have a dead body in your bed. However, this rapidly becomes more annoyance than creepy if you stay for more than two days. It’s proximity to Daimaru and Hanshin Department stores with their wealth of food in their glorious ‘depa-chika’ (the basement floors) as well as the brand new Osaka Station City, makes eating out at a restaurant or bar a bit of a waste of time. Given the gourmet goodies on offer, self catering is a lot cheaper and more fun.

JR Kyushu Hotel Kagoshima: Located within the station (Kagoshima Chuo) as the name might suggest. Clean, modern enough and functional. Only criticism is that the lifts are small and the layout for the restaurant is a bit confusing but I’d stay there again if I was in Kagoshima. They had free internet access which was a major plus. Breakfast was included in the rate and was interesting – the only ‘western’ thing was the selection of toast / bread rolls.

Hotel Granvia Okayama: Very old-style rooms and case goods. But very big rooms. The bathrooms look and feel like a better version of the Copthorne Harbourcity base product but everything is clean and works and that’s really all that matters. Again, a hop, skip and a jump from the station.

Hotel Mets Urawa: Closest digs to some of the family. The rooms are small (as the Mets brand is essentially a small business hotel, definitely not luxurious) but is well priced and generally functional. Breakfast is provided at the Denny’s restaurant below – the best option is the Japanese breakfast which includes a cold tofu salad, grilled salmon, rice and miso soup. You can have the western option but you get less.

Hotel Mets Shibuya: Tokyo is expensive at the best of times. Good hotel deals are as rare as hens teeth. So although it was a painful chore to walk approximately 1.2 kilometres from the hotel to the main train platforms every time, the Hotel Mets Shibuya is pretty good – again, there are two computers for complimentary next access, if you know Shibuya at all, it is within about 15 minutes of some major department stores and the Public House (which serves as a breakfast restaurant in the morning and a funky bar in the evening) is actually pretty good.

Mitsui Garden Hotel Ueno: Stayed here last year and while it was a bit of a mission to get our bags from the hotel through to the Keisei Skyliner station, the hotel itself was very comfortable. Given its proximity to Ameyoko and surrounds, I like it.

I is for “is there a good time to take a holiday right now ?!”: Arguably not – when the first Canterbury Earthquake happened, I was in Brisbane. Just before the February quake, I had gone to Sydney. There’s a whole lot of everything going on left, right and centre. Not good. While I was away, things were rather busy at the office resulting in a number of txt messages, faxes and telephone calls. Obviously some of that work related to Christchurch which is still suffering since the two major quakes of September 2010 and February 2011. And of course my mother was in Tokyo when the Tohoku Earthquake struck (we need to get her a commemorative t-shirt, I think). Add to that the nuisance caused by the Chilean volcano as well as the rain storms in Japan during the break and you sort of think that Mother Nature is telling you not to go anywhere.

J is for “Japan, let’s join together”: Despite the infuriating inaction on the part of central government and some of the bureaucrats, there is a sense of deep unity and a spirit to help out. For now. There are posters and stickers and signs everywhere with ‘Gambare Nippon, Gambare Tohoku’ (“hang in there / don’t give up Japan, hang in there / don’t give up Tohoku [the term for the North-East part of Japan]”. The bullet trains have “Tsunageyo Nippon” (Let’s join together, Japan) on nearly every train. It is remarkable and touching at the same time and the sentiment is definitely genuine for the most part. It’s getting tough, though. As the country comes to grip with the new post-quake reality which basically means that any hope of economic recovery in the short term is more or less extinguished. Everyone will be doing it tough for the foreseeable future. There are, however, sadly, some notable exceptions, the latest and greatest being the now-ex-Minister for Reconstruction Ryu Matsumoto who went on the record in a meeting as saying ‘I’m from Kyushu, I don’t know which Tohoku city belongs to which prefecture‘. So much for that one.

K is for Kagoshima: Which just happens to be the southernmost point which is served by the Shinkansen Super Express network (see ‘S’ below). And a city / area replete with revolutionary and innovative history. The first Christians to arrive in Japan landed here and samurai from here broke the overseas travel ban imposed by the shoguns – they went to England to learn about western science and technology. One does not necessarily want to stay around Kagoshima too long – not too far away, in fact only a few kilometres away, is the active volcano (technically a ‘stratovolcano’) of Sakurajima. It has a tendency to spew a ash and debris from time to time although there hasn’t been a major eruption for almost a hundred years. Some comfort can be taken from the fact that it is intensely monitored. Ironically, it is a huge tourist attraction with several ferry crossings and overnight accommodation. Noting the extent of the natural calamities to date, I was not keen to indulge. Grabbing a local bus instead for a quick tour of the major places, we encountered several monuments to the Satsuma Rebellion and the proud samurai history in the region. Why the statues and the monuments ? Kagoshima and the role of the Satsuma Domain in the success of the Meiji Restoration against the Tokugawa Shogunate was crucial. For those not aware of Japanese history, the Meiji Restoration in 1868 saw the overthrow of the shoguns and the restoration of imperial rule. It marked the start of a modern, capitalist Japan. However, things did not proceed smoothly after that and by 1876 clans within the Satsuma Domain (i.e. the powerful samurai families of Kyushu, especially around Kagoshima) were unhappy with the direction the government was taking and effectively looked to secede from the main government. The leader of the main Satsuma clan and distinguished general Takamori Saigo was coaxed out of semi-retirement to lead what has become known as the Satsuma Rebellion in 1877. The rebellion did not last very long – critical defeats at Kumamoto and then at Shiroyama spelled the end of the samurai troops and the better armed and equipped army drove the samurai back through to Kagoshima and to ultimate defeat. Saigo died during the course of the battles but the exact circumstances of his death remain a bit of a mystery. Some say he committed suicide, others insist that he died as a result of a bullet wound. And what happened to his body after that also was the subject of unresolved debate – he was beheaded apparently by a loyal aide as part of the warrior suicide ritual. Depending on who you believe, Saigo’s staff then hid it and it was never found. But the army insist they found it and reunited it with the body some days later. All very mysterious, if you ask me !

L is for Learnings: Unusually high this trip. In no particular order: –A small laptop for travelling is a damn fine idea. I should get one.

–A slightly larger suitcase is a very good idea, particularly one with the four-wheels and rotatable (if you know what I mean – there doesn’t seem to be a technical term of the design).

–June in Japan is humid, wet but the fields and rice paddies are very green – not having come back at this time of year for over twenty years, I had forgotten. But I think I prefer late autumn – the colours are spectacular and you can make a good start on pre-Christmas / Christmas shopping.

–Sometimes the ‘latest’ model of a gadget in Japan has in fact passed through New Zealand and no-one has expressed any interest – this is immensely frustrating !

–Just as it was around here in the 1980s and 1990s, tourist signs are increasingly multi-lingual and include Korean and Chinese. Japan is a tourist destination all right, but definitely an Asian one.

–Not all electronic stores are created equal – thinking that I might be able to buy some new, improved whizz-bang rechargeable batteries at another (larger) competitor store was not a clever move. They didn’t have them. At any of their other stores ! Which is frustratingly weird. And disappointing. And frustrating (did I say that already?)

–It is worth extending your travel insurance for an extra day after your return, just in case you encounter any delays.

M is for Motomachi / Sannomiya / Kobe : If you want to go to Kobe, you should get off at either Sannomiya and Motomachi stations. Not Kobe itself. This is what we found out when we went there, again to escape the heavy rain we feared we might encounter at our original intended destination. Ok, if you want to see Presley Square and Harborland, by all means but the real city action is definitely around Sannomiya and Meriken Park is best accessed from there. Near Motomachi Station is Nankinmachi which serves as the city’s Chinatown. It’s compact and packed with restaurants and street vendors who sell all sorts of good food (sadly, time did not allow us to try much besides some gyoza). And there is a very cool Coca Cola vending machine there (see ‘X’). No time for the Kobe Earthquake Museum, although to be fair, we have been a bit earthquaked out given what has happened of late. 

N is for Nagoya: Haven’t been back here for about thirty years ! We went there for lunch to beat a rain storm in the Osaka / Kyoto area and it was worth the trip even though we didn’t really leave the station complex. The station buildings form part of the JR (Japan Rail) Towers which are the headquarters for JR in the area. As is common in Japan, there is a major department store, this one being Takashimaya and there are plenty of excellent restaurants in the Towers Plaza including a branch of Paul Bocuse’s “La Maison” as well as a swish Marriott hotel. Actually, the most remarkable thing we saw just outside the station were the giant models of a yellow Labrador, a St. Bernard and a white Akita dog perched on a training institution building (we had to investigate). The dogs are very eye-catching.

O is for Okayama: To me, Okayama was a connection point on the map – the Sanyo (i.e. originating from Shin-Osaka) Shinkansen passed through here and if you wanted to get to the island of Shikoku, you had to get here. Okayama is also the setting for the fable of ‘Momotaro’, the boy who apparently descended to Earth in a giant peach (red or white, depending on who tells you the story). Or maybe it was a box. Regardless, the story is as well known as Little Red Riding Hood or Goldilocks and the Three Bears and there’s even a statue of him outside Okayama Station. But there are, in fact, better reasons to visit here. Okayama Castle is worth a look and the showpiece of the city are the Korakuen Gardens. The castle, notable for being predominantly black as opposed to the more usual black and white, is one of Japan’s oldest and was originally completed in 1597 by the warlord Hideie Ukita. Unfortunately for him, he sided against the armies of the Tokugawa Shogunate and lost the castle about three years later. Over time, the castle was kept in fairly good repair until about the time of the Meiji Restoration at which point the government decided to fill in the moats and the old castle walls. The original building was then bombed by the US Air Force during World War 2 and was destroyed by fire. Reconstruction work began in 1964 and was completed in 1966 and the castle is pretty much a very modern structure and serves as a museum. Korakuen is basically next door and widely considered to be one of the Three Great Gardens in Japan (the others being Kenrokuen in Kanazawa and Kairakuen in Mito City). Created in 1700 by the then-ruling warlord Tsunamasa Ikeda, remarkably it is pretty much (bar some minor changes made by subsequent warlords) as it was. The grounds were used to entertain important guests and also served as a resort and spa for the nobility. On some occasions, the general public were able to access it. Designed in the Kaiyu (scenic promenade) style, one can get different views from each corner and it is very serene to walk around. Irises were in bloom in some areas of the grounds and this made for a very picturesque atmosphere as well as being very photogenic. I particularly like the tea field which is a rather rare sight in gardens. Definitely worth a look if you are in the area.

P is for Politics: You’d think that at a time of national crisis, the government would want to show a bit of resolve and bring the country together and show some leadership. In a normal country, that might be the way but politics in Japan is anything but normal. Prime Minister Naoto Kan whose Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) administration came to power in a ‘kick the bastards out’ election a few years ago is deeply unpopular and a lack of spin since the Tohoku Earthquake has not helped his cause one iota. So, when the country understandably looked to their politicians for leadership, he implied that he would resign early and said so publicly. Naturally, this led to all sorts of speculation as to when – after a lot of silence and comment from his colleagues and the opposition as to whether he should depart sooner rather than later, Kan then demanded that he stay on until some key legislation (including a bill on renewable energy) as well as a second supplementary budget was passed as well as extending the term of the current parliamentary session to boot. Even DPJ Secretary General Katsuya Okada seems powerless to make Kan go before the DPJ get the inevitable mauling at the next election (whether it be lower hour or upper house). While Kan might have avoided a no-confidence vote by implying he would go, surely he has let the country down badly by showing a lack of critical leadership just when it is needed. Luckily, a few people on the ground have got the issues by the balls, are making themselves heard and are getting things done. But the tensions between central government, the prefectures and the cities are quite evident – the public are siding the with local administrations as they seem to be doing most of the work. But with local money running out and futures continuing to look bleak and uncertain, there are strong calls for the administration and bureaucrats in Tokyo to pull fingers and act decisively, particularly with regard to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant. Postscript: The resignation of the Reconstruction Minister Ryu Matsumoto after just a week in the job on July 5 probably reflects the tenor of the situation currently. The week prior, the ex-Minister went up to the Tohoku Region, met with the Prefectural officials including Miyagi Prefecture Governor Yoshihiro Murai, gave them a (totally unwarranted) dressing-down about how lacking their response to the tsunami and earthquake was, then told the media filming the meeting that there would be consequences if the footage was broadcast. In a hastily arranged news conference announcing his resignation, the ex-Minister cited, amongst other things, his blood type for his blunt and forthright nature. Someone should nominate him for a Darwin Award, methinks.

Q is for Qantas: Why is it never straightforward with these guys ? Part of the reason was the earthquake, part of the reason was the volcanic ash cloud. But even though we could see we were waitlisted for an upgrade, it never came through. So that didn’t exactly lift the mood. Ok, we did get put in the forward business class section from Sydney to Tokyo but it wasn’t technically an upgrade (although we managed to get a few hours of sleep in the nearly flat bed seats). Then they cancelled the flight from Sydney to Auckland and while they did put us up at the Mercure Hotel Sydney Airport for a couple of nights gratis, had my brother not txtd me the announcement that they were flying on Monday, we likely would not have known. Given Air New Zealand and Emirates and others were flying across the Tasman, it was a bit more than infuriating. The Australian papers also reported that QF CEO Alan Joyce had sent an email to all its frequent fliers giving them an update of the situation. Really ? Where’s mine ?

R is for Ritsurin Koen (Takamatsu): In planning for this trip, one wanted to make the most of a day in Takamatsu, Shikoku. My mother had explored the area surrounding the station and a lovely park very near there. But I had heard of a superb Japanese landscape garden there – Ritsurin Park. Created by the then warlord Takatoshi Ikoma in 1642, the garden centred around the south pond and the backdrop of Mount Shuin. When Lord Ikoma lost his domain, the gardens were completed by successive warlords and finally completed in 1745. Despite the rain, it is a lovely place and lives up to its reputation as one of the finest historical gardens in Japan. Definitely worth a visit here as it is beautiful, even in pouring rain – allow about an hour or so to explore the grounds and take it all in. And I would like to revisit in autumn to see whether it is even more spectacular then than now.

S is for Shinkansen – What’s long, emerald green with a pink stripe down it and can go as fast as 300km per hour ? It’s known as the Hayabusa, the latest, fastest Shinkansen bullet train operated by East Japan Railway Company (JR East) on the Tohoku lines. Revenue Service only started a couple of weeks prior to the Tohoku Earthquake so what was to be a showpiece of modern rail technology has, due to unforseen events, turned out to be a bit of a damp squib – it only runs three-times a day in both directions from Tokyo to Shin-Aomori. Luckily we were able to get on it for a return journey and it is comfortable, although being supremely popular, reservations for seats are essential. If you can get them at all ! More useful to us, however, was the new Kyushu Shinkansen which one can get directly from Shin-Osaka. Using the highly advanced N700 trainset of the Tokaido / Sanyo Shinkansen, this service really makes Kyushu accessible from the mainland and we thought it was brilliant. Again seat reservations are essential as the service is very popular for the time being – perhaps they will expand the service a bit more if demand warrants it. Still, this is highly recommended if you wish to visit Fukuoka, Matsumoto and Kagoshima from Osaka or west of there in particular.

T is for Tohoku post-earthquake: If you arrive into Sendai on the bullet train having passed through Fukushima City and parts of the surrounding region, you could be forgiven for thinking that a lot of the damage and debris had been cleared away and things were back to normal (in as much as you can call a recovery position normal). Walking around Sendai Station which I knew had been badly damaged inside and out and you would not have thought it had been affected by the earthquake. People mull around going about their business just like always or so it seems. Initially, there were a lot of volunteers and other organisations including the US Armed Forces and the Japanese Self Defence Forces that came in and got things cleared away to get major roads back on track. Sendai Airport was reopened only nine weeks after the earthquake in a remarkable clear up operation led by the US Marine Corps. The differences are starkly apparent once you go off the main roads and bigger populated areas and then the remaining damage is there for all to see. As soon as we got back ‘home’ you could see markings in the road as the cracks had been marked to identify where they were and also whether they were getting any bigger as a result of the multiple aftershocks. Roof after roof had blue tarpaulins weighted down by sandbags – there are not enough people to repair them and the queue is way long. We drove about ten minutes towards Natori City and what were fields and rice paddies and forests are now nothing but home to debris (see ‘G’ above). You can’t find words to describe it, really. And this was three months on. It was far, far worse at the time. And of course the situation is no better if not slightly worse in the key cities and towns severely affected like Kesennuma, Ishinomaki and Minami Sanriku. So, what do you do ? Many people are asking that question. But it might be a bit early yet. The focus is still on getting by and getting back to some sort of normality and routine. Temporary housing has been erected quickly – the reality for many is that this will be their home for the next two years or so. It’s going to take a long time.

U is for Umeda (Osaka): When I stayed here the last time in 2006, I was absolutely blown away by the Umeda area – the hub for the JR, Hanshin (private) and Hankyu (another private) train networks and their department stores, home to a huge Yodobashi Camera store, numerous small restaurants and lot more. But I didn’t have time to discover it properly. Now with the new Osaka Station City, it really is a major shopping / retail / dining hub with the addition of a Isetan Department store in the new North Wing. The Daimaru in the South Wing has been improved and refurbished and is excellent, matched only by the excellent Hanshin Department store with its ‘depa chika’ (see “H” and “C” above). A shopper’s / gourmand’s paradise is Umeda.

V is the Roman Numeral for 5 – The Five Weirdest Things on this trip were: 1) The most popular electronic device for sale in Japan this year is not a Wii console, iPad, computer, a flat screen 3D tv or something remotely complicated. It is an electric fan. And the reason why this is so is because of the national campaign (or rather obsession) to save electricity (setsuden). Suddenly, air conditioning is not fashionable and is kept to a minimum and fans and LED lights are hot sellers.

2) Girl who has the same orange Benetton suitcase and got on the same train and in the same car – after the mix up a few years ago, that was the last straw for me. The Great Orange Traveller has therefore been retired with full military honours and its place will be taken by a new Spalding wheely-case which is fluro-raspberry jelly

3) You can make a QR (Quick Response) code by lining up people with umbrellas in the pattern of the thing and it will work ! Incredible.

4) People transporting their cats on the bullet train. I’m amazed by this, but I guess the smoothness of the ride doesn’t really upset the kitty that much. Either that or they are used to it, I don’t know. Still, I thought it worthy of mention. No, they didn’t escape which I thought was remarkable.

5) Yamasaki Bread Company’s “Lunch Pack” has got to be mentioned – essentially it’s a white bread sandwich, but that description doesn’t do it any justice. No crusts, of course but perfectly soft bread, the fillings range from tuna mayo, to peanut butter and jelly, to roast pork cutlet and (one of my favourites), fried noodles (yep, a fried noodle sandwich). No lumpy spots, no leakage, all perfectly presented.

W is for Weather: In short, it was pretty bad. It forced changes to our plans and We only scored a couple of really fine days. For the first week, we battled to avoid downpours that were severely affecting Kyushu and other parts of the country. We literally missed a major rainstorm that affected Kumamoto and Kagoshima and dumped about 200 mm of rain in less than a day. Not good.

X is the Roman Numeral for 10 – The Top Ten things on this trip had to be

1) Family – all safe and sound.

2) Seeing the damage around Natori City / Iwanuma – incredible both positively and negatively. The scale of the destruction caused by the tsunami (not the earthquake) is massive, almost unimaginable. The evidence still remains three months on and it will take years to finally sort out and restore damaged areas back to a reasonable semblance of what they once were.

3) The new Kyushu Shinkansen – fast, very comfortable in Green Class and an excellent way to travel.

4) Ritsurin Garden, Takamatsu – wonderfully verdant now, would expect it was a sight to behold in autumn. Definitely worth a visit if you are in the region.

5) Dinner at a great restaurant in Osaka (Hakkakuan) whose speciality was tofu – might sound odd to many of you but if you know what Kyoto-style food is like, this was almost but not quite like it. It was kaiseki-style in that you had many courses served during the dinner but it took all shapes and forms – fried, served just set (which is in fact like eating a savoury pannacotta, actually), in broth and so on. The flavours were delicate, never heavy and the quality was excellent. I’d happily go there again.

6) Korakuen Gardens, Okayama. A lovely area to walk around if you like the serenity of Japanese gardens. This one is flat and exceptionally well manicured on all levels.

7) Crossing the Seto-Ohashi bridge to Shikoku – first time for me. It’s a massive structure, 13.1 kilometres making it the largest two-tiered bridge in the world.

8) The Coca Cola vending machine in Chinatown, Motomachi, Kobe. It’s got a very cute panda on it. Vending machines are everywhere in Japan but this one stands out really well.

9) Bus tour around Kagoshima: for most of it, we were the only ones in the bus so the driver took it upon himself to add to the pre-recorded commentary with some very interesting details on both Kagoshima and the history associated with it, quite of bit of which is detailed above.

10) “Sendai to Sendai” – quite a laugh for us considering that the major city nearest home is Sendai and the last stop on the Kyushu Shinkansen is also Sendai although the Chinese Characters for the cities are completely different. Still, it’s the same when Anglicised so that’s what makes it brilliantly funny. At least to us.

Y is for Yoshin: Aftershocks. Of which there were several. The first day we were up in the Tohoku region, there was a series of aftershocks measuring 4.5, 5.0 and 4.0 in the space of about half an hour. Luckily we couldn’t feel any of them where we were. The day after we visited Sendai for the last time, the Iwate area was hit by a 6.5 magnitude aftershock. And you could feel it a bit in Tokyo as well for sure. Like in Christchurch, the locals have anaesthetised themselves to the smaller quakes but anything above about 4.5 causes alarm. Not pleasant.

Z is for Zuba !!: The name of a morning news show presented by Monta Mino on TBS. The reason for mentioning it was that he has been featuring a regular segment about people affected by the Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami and he went to look around Kesennuma and Minami Sanriku Town three months after the event as a follow-up to have a look at recovery efforts. The title, if translated literally would read “face forward and let’s walk”, but that would eliminate all sentiment. There is an element of ‘kia kaha’ in this and I would translate the title as ‘let’s stand tall, stay strong and march forward’. The people featured tell some very compelling stories and yet despite losing family members or their home or something else of value, they are taking each day as it comes, moving forward. The woman who had lost her only daughter to the tsunami who continues to work part-time at a highway stop, the man who lost his fishing boat and family members and who started up a small restaurant thanks to the help of tow school classmates, these are the sorts of stories being featured here and make one sad and glad at the same time.

While Christchurch is and should be first priority for us Kiwis, do take a second to give some thought to the victims of the Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami. The scale of the disaster is massive as is the task ahead. The resolve of the local people combined with the support of the rest of Japan will see them through eventually but it will take years. Any support you can give, be it financial, moral or otherwise, would be greatly appreciated. “Gambappe Tohoku” !


About TI

TI is based in Auckland, New Zealand. TI's somewhat eclectic interests include (but are certainly not limited to) legal humour (the law can be funny), good wine, the search for the best possible chocolate, alcoholic beverages, travel, commercial aircraft, photography, weird news stories and classical music.
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