The Witless Clunkery of a Third-Rate Mind

Tuesday, May 30, 2006


I have a week off this week. There are no classes at the University, and officially we are supposed to stay close to Beppu because we are "on call" but we know and our employers know that there is no chance that we will get called in. So although they can't officially tell us to go on vacation, they have been kind of like "Enjoy your home study week!" Wink Wink.

I went back to Hirado to visit some friends. First stop was to drop in on my old calligraphy teacher, Mr. Tateishi. He's a very funny old guy who chain smokes, drinks about 50 cups of green tea a day, dabbles in all kinds of fine art (but is a master potter and calligrapher) and speaks his mind with a distinct country charm. He's always been really kind to me and always gives me some kind of present when I go and visit him. Of course I enjoy getting stuff (doesn't everybody?) but I always worry that he thinks I only visit him because of his consistent gift-giving. On the other hand, it's easy for him to take a couple minutes and make me a calligraphy plaque like the one he's making in the picture. For him, it's two minutes, but for me, it's something I'll treasure for a long time.

That night, I stayed at my friend Jeroen's place. He's a Dutch guy who speaks fluent Dutch (obviously), English, and Japanese. Now he's married to a Japanese lady and has two incredibly cute little kids. He's very into Japanese cultural stuff, particularly tea and iaido (which is how I know him). He had a big tea event in Hirado so we went to it together.

It was an annual remembrance ceremony for William Adams, a British pilot who came to Japan just after 1600. He became a trusted advisor of the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, and established a trading house in Hirado. His story was fictionalized as the novel "Shogun" by James Clavell. Here's a shot of Jeroen by Adams' grave stone, which has a Christian cross and his Japanese name, Miura Anjin.

At the ceremony, there were a number of speeches followed by a special tea ceremony performed by the headmaster of the ChinShin style of tea, Lord Matsura Akira. He is the 39th (?) lord of Hirado and a direct descendent of the local daimyo who used to rule this area in feudal times. He currently lives near Tokyo and if Japan were England, he might be described as an Earl or perhaps a Baron. (Does England have Barons?) I spoke to him at some length and he is a very cool guy who speaks fluent English.

After the ceremony, we went back to the tea house on what used to be the Matsura family's mansion, and is now the local historical museum. I and a number of other guests received tea from the masters of ChinShin tea style. It was a very cool experience.

The next day, I met my friend Kazuko and we went to Nagasaki and Glover Gardens. It's quite a romantic place (when you're with the right person!) and the view was great. It was a beautiful sunny day, with a nice breeze off the bay. We wandered around Nagasaki for a while together ... it was a very nice, relaxing, laid back kind of day.

The next day, Kazuko had to work, so we said goodbye and I decided to head off to Kumamoto. I really like Kumamoto because it has a strong samurai tradition, with a great castle and a legacy of a lot of Miyamoto Musashi stuff. I have seen it all before, but I wanted to see it again and take a load of pictures.

Unfortunately, my Kumamoto trip was basically a disaster from start to finish. The bus from Sasebo takes 2.5 hours, so I arrived around noon, called some friends and met them for lunch. On my way to meet them, I took one picture out in front of the castle, of the castle's builder, the famous general Kato Kiyomasa.

I met my friends and over lunch, we checked some tourist pamphlets. I discovered that the museum I had come to see was closed until October of 2007! So there was half my itinerary gone. After lunch, I went off to the bus center to find out about going to the famous cave where Miyamoto Musashi wrote the Book of Five Rings. It was only 2:00 in the afternoon, but I was informed that, if I took the next bus to the caves, I wouldn't be able to come back because the last bus returning from the caves would have already left. Great system! So, the second half of my itinerary was gone, too. I asked them when I could catch a bus back to Beppu, and the lady informed me the last bus was leaving in 15 minutes. So I couldn't even go and take pictures of the castle! In the end, I think I was in Kumamoto for something like 2 hours, and I took one picture.

So in conclusion, Kyushu's a nice place, BUT YOU NEED A CAR!

I'd kind of like to go back (learning from my mistakes and all) but the memory of my recent failure is just too fresh. Maybe in the fall.

It's Wednesday today, and I have absolutely no idea what I'm going to do with the rest of my week. On one hand, I won't be too sad if I end up doing nothing much, but I know that I'll feel a bit jealous when I hear everything the other teachers got up to. Must make a plan ...

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Date To Hell

Last weekend, I had a date. (I can barely believe it myself!) I won't go into too much detail but suffice it to say it's someone that I first met when I was living in Nagasaki. I've known her for something like 5 years, but I haven't been living anywhere near her until lately, so we finally had a chance to meet again on Saturday.

We had a great time! First, we went up to see the most famous of Beppu's "Hells". These are places where thermal vents open directly in the ground, and produce some bizarre and various effects. There are 8 famous Hells (some of them bubbling mud pools, for example) and others have different colours depending on the chemicals in the surrounding rocks, and so on. The Hell we went to was called "The Sea Hell" because of its blue colour. It was really impressive, with massive amounts of stinky, sulfurous steam hissing out of the ground. Apparently, the water in the pool itself is something like 98 degrees Celsius. You wouldn't want to fall in.

The Sea Hell has a very nice park around it, as well as a greenhouse which I imagine is heated geothermally in the winter. There were some beautiful flowers in there of all inscrutable varieties, but I liked these lillies the best. Supposedly, they have a variety of lilly-pad that grows so large that a small child can stand on it. (There were some that looked like they were already two feet in diameter.) So, in August, they have some event where you bring your kids and get their pictures taken standing on the lilly-pads.

After visiting Hell, we went to the local aquarium. Beppu is a cool place because it's a tourist town. It's quite small, population-wise, but it has a disproportionate number of tourist attractions, including a safari park, an amusement park with roller coasters and rides, two viewing towers, a ropeway to the mountain-top, and the aforementioned aquarium. So far, I've only seen the aquarium.

I really can't remember the last time I went to an aquarium, so this was actually a pretty cool trip for me. I felt like a kid again, especially seeing the large mammals. You can't really appreciate just how enormous a walrus is until one is swimming two inches away on the other side of a piece of glass.

Or a huge, 300-pound grouper.

Or an enormous sea-lion. I was reminded of the fact that they mostly used sea-lion noises for Chewbacca in Star Wars when I saw this guy. Apparently, sea-lions spend most of their time trying to intimidate each other.

What visit to the aquarium would be complete without leaping dolphins?

Anyway, it was a great day. The only downside was that I got a bald-head sunburn. I have to get used to the fact that I am going bald, and start wearing a hat whenever I go outside. Sigh. Somebody should make a special spray-on sunscreen specifically for people who have some hair on the heads, but not enough... Or better yet, a pill that safely and reliably grows hair.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Nagasaki Trip!

A couple of the other teachers and I were talking and we decided to rent a car and take a road trip. I had been thinking out loud about how I'd like to visit Nagasaki again, as I hadn't been back there for 4 years or so. They had never been to Nagasaki and thought that was a splendid idea. Before long, all 6 of us were in for the trip.

We booked a hotel that was right on the water of the harbour, and rented a minivan. As I was the only person with a valid driver's licence (my international permit) I was to be the driver, which was fine with me; it guaranteed that I would have a good seat for the entire ride. We set out early Saturday morning. The weather forecast had called for rain, but as is often the case in Japan especially, it was completely wrong. The weather for the whole weekend was nice and sunny.

It took about 3 hours to get to Nagasaki, done at a brisk but reasonable pace. We settled into our hotel and found out that, as luck would have it, we were in town the same weekend as an international tall ships festival. Good timing! First, we had some lunch in a pizza restaurant overlooking the harbour. Then it was off to the Peace Park and Atomic Bomb Museum. These are very sobering places to go, but they are a must-see for every visitor to Nagasaki. I have been there 3 times, and I have cried every single time. (The same for the one time I've been to Hiroshima.) I think because I have taught Japanese children, I can't help but imagine what happened to the children of Nagasaki when the bomb was dropped. No matter what you think about the war, and the possibility that the atomic bomb hastened the end of the war, it was a horrible, inhumane, and unforgivable thing to drop it on a civilian target. We now have evidence that the Americans chose the targets they did because those cities had up to that point in the war been spared conventional bombing, and would be "fresh" as a way of measuring the effects of the new bomb.

Anyway, the main feature of the Peace Park is a rather striking figure of Peace ... he holds one hand up to the sky to warn of the ongoing danger of nuclear weapons, and holds the other out in a gesture of peace. A lot of people think this statue is ugly, but I kind of like it.

The other striking thing is the corner of Urakami Cathedral, which was left standing after the blast. It was a few hundred meters away from the center of the blast, and has since been moved to right beside ground zero.

After the sobering experience of the Peace Park and bomb museum, we headed back to the hotel for a nap (all pretty tired from the ride over) and then went to dinner in Chinatown. Nagasaki has a pretty nice little Chinatown; it's a bit touristy but not so bad. And the food was good.

Then we headed over to Dejima wharf, where the tall ships were moored and where they were having a fireworks display. This picture isn't the greatest, sorry.

The next day, we went to Megane Bashi (Spectacles Bridge) which someone said was the oldest bridge in Japan; I'm not sure how that is possible since it was destroyed by a flood in the 1970's. Maybe at THAT time, it was the oldest bridge in Japan. Anyhow, when the water is just the right height, the arches are perfectly round and it really does look like a pair of glasses. We got there a bit late (or perhaps a bit early).

Finally, we went off to Glover Gardens, the home of a wealthy British industrialist who settled in Nagasaki and lived there during some very interesting times in the late 1800's and early 1900's. His estate commands a particularly nice view of the city and the harbour.

Nagasaki really is special somehow; there is something different in the air there. I hesitate to use the words "romantic" or "exotic" but perhaps those aren't so bad. It's just a really unique place where Japan allowed itself to mingle with the rest of the world, if only for a little while and on its own terms. It was a great weekend; one of those rare trips where you really can't think of anything at all that went wrong. Let's hope our next trip is just as good.