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I’ve been reading through old emails this morning, looking for some details from my time in Japan back in 2012. I came across the following email, describing a meeting I had earlier in the day. While in Japan, my job was to actually meet with people all day long, whereas here in the states I typically only see their paperwork. During that temporary job assignment, I was reminded that I have a gift of being able to connect to people. I can put them at ease even when they have to talk about something difficult. That gift was finally put to use during my 2012 tour. This story is an example of why it is an honor to be able to serve my customers.

 

“Sometimes my job socks me in the gut. It’s the side effect of working with military people. There are some real, live, fucking heroes out there, and never an adequate way to say thanks. In this case, acknowledging the Sergeant Major would have been the worst possible thing to do. So I nodded, and said, “Uh huh. Ok.” and scribbled on my pad of paper. And I told myself to hold it together. Hold it together. Stop thinking. Turn your head to what you need to help this man. Facts. Law. Explanation of procedure. Acknowledgement. Respect. Confirmation and affirmation for him. Total brutal coldness and move on…

 

I had asked a question I always ask when I see in their medical records a Pre- or Post-Deployment health assessment. I asked the intentionally vague question, “Did anything happen during your deployment?” It’s in the context of making a list of health problems. I have all kinds of tricks to get people to remember stuff that’s bothering them. Sit somebody in a room, say “List all your health concerns,” and they’ll come up with about half of them. So I help. Deployments are a good one, because they’ll go “Oh, yeah, there was that time I banged my head on the turret without a helmet on,” or whatever.

 

He stutters just a little. “Well, a lot happened.” I can tell he’s answering me in a totally different way than I expected him to answer. He’s answering me literally. “I lost a lot of people. There were so many of my guys… I mean, you don’t want to hear this probably,” he looks at me to see if I want to shut him down, and I keep my face completely blank. He looks at the floor, “Well. It was bad.”

 

Sergeant Major was in Afghanistan and lost or sent home injured 70 men. Seventy. He said he wrote it all in a journal, to help himself deal with it. He told me he wrote their names in his journal, and wrote what happened, and what it meant to him at the time. He downplayed himself as though he wasn’t even there. Brought up his Combat Action Ribbon (major award) as though he was forced to mention it in order to explain something else. What he was explaining was this one time he was in a convoy and one of his kids – he stops to explain, “My kids. I call them my boys…the Marines under me, not my own kid.” – stepped on an IED. But he was lucky,” he tells me. “He only lost his leg. He was lucky.” I ask casually, “how far away were you from the blast?” “8 meters.” (fucking close) “And, did you have any loss of consciousness? Bang your head or anything?” He laughs, “Oh no, I’m fine. I was fine. Good body armor. I felt the concussion waves. Everyone did. But there was no damage. Yeah. It’s not like I earned the Combat Action Ribbon. The paperwork was done, and I had so much going on, I just accepted it.”

 

Fuck. I am reeling as he’s telling me this. Eight meters from an IED blast. He watches his own guy get his leg blown off. He loves them so much he calls them his kids.

 

The meeting goes on as we discuss other health concerns. He doesn’t sleep at night. Can’t explain it. “I get around 4 hours of sleep a night, but it’s not all together. It’s ok. It’s been going on so long I’m used to it now. I think the Marine Corps teaches a man how to live on less sleep. It’s not like anything’s wrong.” And his wife tells him he’s lost his interest in things he used to like. “Japan‘s a really safe country, as you know,” he says. “But even though I know that, I can’t help it but get uncomfortable in a narrow alley. I know it’s safe, but there are windows sliding open, with rifles coming through. It’s just not safe.” He lapsed seamlessly from Japan to Afghanistan as he was talking.

 

“When you’re over there, you’ve got to turn it off,” he tells me. “It’s the only way to survive. It’s the only way you can do it. Turn it all off. Then when you come back to the states, and …well, normal things aren’t normal anymore. Nothing makes sense. Does that make sense? A guy here on base steps off a curb wrong, hurts his ankle, and there are 7 different documents written up on him, the incident, and I’m like, ‘Really? We’re spending our time worrying about stuff that small? Stuff that doesn’t even matter?’ It’s also a factor of coming from Camp Lejeune, say, it’s a ground base, where everybody is on the ground. The ‘real Marines.’ And now I’m here at an airbase, and it isn’t the same. The people here don’t… Their mindset isn’t… This is not Afghanistan.”

 

He isn’t being eloquent, though this is a very intelligent and eloquent man. And yet, I feel as though I know exactly what he’s saying to me. I tell him he is describing classic PTSD to me. He blinks and looks away. “I’ve made peace with that. I’ve made peace with the idea that it’s probably PTSD. I’m not asking for anything.”

 

The way I deal with it is I flip through the pages of his medical records, I bring up something else, “Here it says there was an abrasion to your eye?” and distract the conversation. Let it cool down, then I pull it back later for an important detail. “So you did receive a Combat Action Ribbon? That will be reflected on your DD-214?” I pull out more details from Afghanistan, talk about something else for awhile, then pull it back to the repercussions of the desert. What’s going on now that he is not quite linking to his heinous deployment yet.

 

It’s worse because he’s in charge here. The Colonel’s right hand man. Sergeant Major is in control here, and I’m listening to him tell me what a mess he is inside. And I know he’s going to suffer from it his whole life. He’s young, handsome, has been married a good long time and his youngest is a senior in high school. He should be looking forward to retirement, and I won’t tell him his retirement could very well undo him. At least…from what I’ve seen in other people’s medical records.

 

Then I get reassurance that being cold was the right move, when he tells me once he went to talk to a doctor here on base about his symptoms of anxiety and trouble sleeping. He started to tell her about Afghanistan, “And she just got all upset, and started crying, and she left the room! She just left. I’m thinking, ‘you’re supposed to be my rock, and you leave.’ So then I found this other doctor over here. He was in Vietnam. He knows. I guess he’s the kind of guy who tells it like it is. I don’t think everybody tells the truth. This doctor said, ‘It’s never going to go away. You’ll always have those memories. What we have to do is figure out a way for you to live with it.’ All the other people tell me ‘It’s gonna get better. It’ll all be ok.’ But I think… I think I’ll have to believe the doctor. He was in Vietnam.”

 

I think about what he said for several seconds, trying to decide where to go with that. “I have no medical training,” I start with. “All I can say is what I see in the medical records I read. And when people are young like you, it’s easier to manage. But when you’re 65, or 72, you are at a higher risk for having a harder time dealing with these symptoms. I don’t know why, but it seems to be harder for older people.” “Funny you should mention that,” he says. And tells me what his step-father told him just a little while ago. Another Vietnam vet. Never had a problem at all till he turned 55 when suddenly his Vietnam memories start bothering him. I try to give Sergeant Major hope instead of despair, “Well, look. I also see the opposite. I see guys who find themselves a distraction. A hobby. For example, a guy takes up fly fishing and he can stay happy.” “Well, I took up drinking,” he says. “That was my hobby. But I had to stop. My wife begged me.” I let out some air, disguised as a laugh, “Yeah, that’s the wrong hobby. Pick a different one.”

 

Anyway. He takes off. I address some email. Pack up my gear. At 4:30 I head home, and halfway back to my room I started crying. I knew immediately what it was. When those guys are in the desert, they have to turn it off 24 hours a day. They have to turn it off till they come home. But me, when I get to my room, I’m safe. So I only need to turn it off during business hours.

 

I’m sad. I’m aching for him. I want so badly to talk for six hours and give him hope, give him tools, tell him how grateful I am that people like him are out there having their lives ruined on my behalf. I want to talk to his wife, and tell her some things to help her understand, to help her have patience and to be strong. And tell the kids too. He’s a powerful, self-confident, fucking baddass war hero, and he was in my office scared. Scared of the future. Of what his mind is going to do to him. That sucks.

 

I’m still crying. Sometimes my days are like this in the VA. I am glad it’s so real for me. The war is never far away from me because of this. I’m just more used to seeing it in typed records and handwritten letters, not looking into a man’s eyes as he tells me how he wrote the names of his kids in his journal when they died.”

I collect snapshots in my “Pictures” folder on my laptop. They are images that caught my fancy at one time. I’m going to drop the latest into this post for you.

Ant with reservoir full, heads back home.

Ant with reservoir full, heads back home.

Here I managed to catch both an empty ant and a full ant

Here I managed to catch both an empty ant and a full ant

I had a very hard time photographing the ants, and will have to set up my tripod to do it properly one of these days. Sadly, the photos above are blurry because I was holding the camera in my hands. So here’s the deal: at the end of the branch of this fruit tree hangs the hummingbird feeder. The ants come from somewhere in the yard, up the trunk, aaaaalll the way out to the end of the branch, and down to the red plastic flowers with syrup in the center. They load up with juice, and haul the load back to the rest of the ants. I have stood, I can’t tell you how many hours, gazing in fascination at this never-ending train of ants. There are small black ants speeding out toward the end of the branch, and fat copper ants carefully placing their feet and methodically heading back toward the trunk of the tree. If the sun is setting, it shines right through their abdomen and lights it like a tiny amber bulb.

What else would a kid do while waiting for dad to show up after class?

What else would a kid do while waiting for dad to show up after class?

I captured this one from the window of the bus as I headed home one evening. I love the scene of the little flexible guy in his Taekwondo clothes.

Tara and carpet

Tara and carpet

We heard recently that the carpet is going to be replaced at the Portland airport. The local airport is a place packed full of memories for us, but the sense of place seems to be more striking for her. She exclaimed that it will be a loss not to walk into the airport from some plane, after having been in multiple airports, and knowing she’s home by the pattern of the carpet. My girl finds comfort in the Portland airport carpet; what a thought. Well, it makes sense for this traveling child. She has been flying around the country and around the world since she was an infant, and this has been HER airport for 10 years now, which is more than half her life. So we got a photo of Miss T and her comforting carpet.

Random Japanese things keep appearing and surprising me

Random Japanese things keep appearing and surprising me

It has been a year and four months since I returned from Japan. Sometimes I can’t believe it was so long ago, and sometimes it seems like it was only yesterday and I’m looking forward to talking with Norm, Kaori, Phil or Yasmeen, next time I’m in Sasebo. Then I shake my head and remind myself that I’m long gone.  On the days when Japan has almost vanished from my thoughts, I come across some random Japanese thing that is instantly both familiar and foreign. In my pantry I still have the powdered sugar bag that Tara and I found at a grocery store in Iwakuni, and in my filing cabinet is one of the many flat rounded fans that everyone carried, with a map of the west shore of Honshu on it. The other day, bored with tea and coffee, I spotted this packet and added it to hot water. A delicious orange drink with orange peel in it.

take care

take care

My boy- friend Arno is raising two teenage boys. Can I state the obvious? Boys are different than girls. At their house I must get used to the implements of battle in every circumstance and conversation. We discuss the value of fabrics in German military uniforms vs. Russian uniforms. I am entreated to admire the latest model airplane, or ship, or helicopter, or tank, or sub. Once I was treated to an entire Vietnam jungle scene with palm trees and soldiers dressed in green, made out of Legos for a high school project. There are the latest and greatest airsoft rifles (plastic beebees ALL over their house), homemade handgun replicas, and target practice in the backyard with bow and arrows. And always, always there is the excitement over the latest eBay acquisition: throwing stars, knives, goggles, helmets, leather ammo pouches, oxygen masks for high altitude pilots. It’s hard for me to absorb. I’m getting better. I can’t help but sometimes wish the oldest would actually enlist and experience the military, and see that it’s not as romantic and heroic as he is convinced it is. Where does this war-worship come from? It’s not a particular thing to the teens in my life: it’s common to boys for time immemorial. I just don’t get it. But then…on an anthropological level, I do get it. Being warlike has kept the human race alive. Our pre-historic ancestors had to perfect this characteristic, and a couple thousand years of advanced civilization is definitely not enough to wipe it out. (A concept perfectly elucidated in Charles L. Mee’s play Big Love)

Too beautiful to eat!

Too beautiful to eat!

Tara burst into the house Friday night overflowing with emotion and relieved anxiety and a fried brain. She announced to me, frowning and fierce, “I am going to take over the kitchen, make cupcakes and then eat them! I am not going to do anything else and you can’t make me!” It had been the last day of final exams, and she was exhausted mentally, which is so grueling after two weeks of hardcore schoolwork. Arno whined, “How come my boys don’t make cupcakes when they need to let off steam?” After leaving her alone for awhile, she called out to me, “Mom? How do you make fondant?” Heck, I didn’t even know what fondant was, so I was no help. Still banned from the kitchen, I left her alone to figure it out. By dinnertime, there were cupcakes with fondant roses. I am in awe.

A Graphic Design class project

A Graphic Design class project

She’s in two art classes this year, which balances out her other classes, like Pre-Calc and AP Environmental Science. She made the poster above for me, which is now hanging in my home office. Hil-air-ious.  We both love the Hitchhiker’s Guide books. Too bad she couldn’t have used large, friendly letters.

Taking her own advice, not panicking, in her new TARDIS blanket

Taking her own advice, not panicking, in her new TARDIS blanket

Our tastes are similar, which has been fun. We’re both crazy about Disney and Pixar, and now Disney/Pixar, and studio Ghibli. And we like the same TV shows, which we discover on the Internet, because we have no TV signal to our house. She introduced me to Sherlock, with Benedict Cumberbatch, which is so great. I suppose that means I’ll have to check out Dr. Who eventually, because it’s another of her loves that I know nothing about. The previously mentioned teenage boys got her this TARDIS blanket for Christmas, and she is usually not found in the house without it. She’d take it to school with her if she thought she could make that work.

The last shots are not my own, but sent to me from a very dear and longtime friend, who is charting unexplored territory in virtual space. Vlad gets absorbed in his roleplaying games and is particularly impressed with the artistry of it. I don’t blame him: the scenes are amazing. These are from the most recent set emailed to me. I love digital artwork; for example was just awed beyond belief when I tried to play Myst. And failed to make any sense of it. I love the puzzles: Tetris, Flow, Minesweeper, Mahjong, and solitaire. I did waste a gazillion hours playing Age of Empires II, but in general, I haven’t got the right mindset for computer games. So in closing, please enjoy the snapshots from Vlad’s computer screen.

Aldrovanda

Aldrovanda

Mission Defera

Mission Defera

I turned, gazing about me, spotted this scene and thought instantly of Hayao Miyazaki

I turned, gazing about me, spotted this scene and thought instantly of Hayao Miyazaki

Hello, and yes, I’m still working on the Japan photobook I talked about in my last post.

I wanted to highlight this photo I took the very first time I went to Iwakuni castle. It’s on the top of the mountain ridge above Niziki River and looks far beyond the city of Iwakuni and off to the sea. This tree could very well be the highest thing around, except for the castle.

Though my 5-month job turned out to be in Japan purely by chance, I felt grateful to have a fledgling background in things Japanese through my daughter. Miss T introduced me to Japanese anime and taught herself two dozen words in the language simply by watching so many subtitled shows and listening to the native speakers and singing along with the theme songs.

She would insist sometimes that I watch with her. Sometimes I did.

She introduced me to Studio Ghibli and the incredible stories woven by Hayao Miyazaki, who directs many of the movies from that studio.  One of the things that drops my jaw in wonder during his films is the use of landscape in animation. It had never occurred to me, before I became better educated, how animation can be an art form for actual art. Not just some crude figures scrawled onto a page to help tell a story, but – for example – that an animated film could pan across a wide field while wind rustles the grass in waves (this blew me away in the movie Spirited Away). I began to pay much better attention.

So, as I stood beside the castle, and turned and gazed and tried to soak up Japan, my eyes framed this animated shot and I recognized it. Not really, of course, but I recognized that the landscapes Miyazaki brings to me are not fanciful as they seemed to me before, having never seen this gorgeous country. Rather, through his work I have seen real landscapes drawn from real Japan. He (and obviously the vastly talented artists with him), can see the art in real life and make it come to life on screen. So watching his work was teaching me about Japan all along. It’s nice to know that.

This is me, just below the summit of Mt. Fuji, though I don't really know how close yet. (The smile is part relief and part hope.)

This is me, just below the summit of Mt. Fuji, though I don’t really know how close yet because of the fog. (The smile is part relief and part hope.)

My Fuji stick!

My Fuji stick! Which I lost at the train station in Sasebo and had returned to me because the people in Japan are wonderful.

Have you been wondering where I am? My blog posts have been fewer and farther apart and I have a reason: in my very little free time, I’ve been doing things other than blogging. I know. I miss you too.

My one-year anniversary of leaving Japan is almost here, and the knowledge of that has lit a fire under me to work on my photobook. Have you seen those yet? Photobooks are hardbound, full-colour, glossy books that contain your vacation photos. Or wedding photos. Or birthday party photos. Whatever you like. The software accepts as much text as you like, so you can narrate the photos. (You know I can’t resist talking about my photos.) Send all the edited software to the company on a disc, and they mail you a book in less than a week. It’s amazing.

Anyway, I did my very first photobook after our trip to Egypt, and I loved it so much I decided to do another for Japan. I started the next book while I was still in Japan, and worked diligently when I got back, around a year ago next week. I sorted and edited photos, designed and narrated page after page. I had completed about 50 pages when my computer died.

Like, totally and completely fried. I lost, not only all my photobook work, but all my photos since the last backup, which had been in July. In other words, I lost a little over two months’ worth of photos from Japan, during one of the most amazing adventures of my whole life. Can you believe the rotten luck?

I was so devastated, it took me a loooong time to mentally recover.

But I’m getting my spark back, and I have the heart to begin again, and sort through Japan photos, and edit, and begin designing pages once more. I even have a few of the photos I lost, since for some crazy reason, those are some of the only photos I decided to share on facebook.

Looking up at the endless switchback on red and black pumice gravel, and all the little huts offering to brand my stick so I can rest for two minutes.

Looking up at the endless switchbacks on red and black pumice gravel, and all the little huts offering to brand my stick so I can rest for two minutes.

I have not been posting much in September because I have been working on my Japan photobook. I’m up to 60 pages already! (Just the photos, not the words, which will take a long time I am sure) In case you’re thinking that 60 pages sounds like enough, well, it isn’t. I took over 2,000 photos in Japan. It’s going to take a lot more pages crammed with photos to get to all of it, even though I’m discarding most of them. (Considering this, should I be grateful that so many photos were lost then? ah, nope.)

Today I worked on my Fuji climb. You can read my blog post here if you’re interested, but if you aren’t, I’ve decided to post a couple of the photos that will go into the book.

Sign in one of the few actual toilets on Fuji. Most are pits, but this one used precious water, and cautioned me to use it sparingly.

Sign in one of the few actual toilets on Fuji. Most are pits, but this one used precious water, and cautioned me to use it sparingly.

The water is so still it looks as though the boats are floating in the air.

The water is so still it looks as though the boats are floating in the air.

No story today. I am beginning to go through my photos to select those to be included in my Japan photobook. I took this shot near the beginning of my time in Japan, and it remained one of my favourites all year. I just thought I’d share it with you.

This is right next to the famous Kintai Bridge in Iwakuni. With this photo, you get no sense of the press of people or of what a tourist destination it is. The river is spectacularly clear, and filled with fish. There are locals fishing all day long every day. Many with a fishing pole, many with boats like these in the photo, and a few also employ an ancient fishing method using cormorants. Yes, the birds. Cormorants have a loop around their necks and are tethered to boats. When they catch a fish, they return to the boat, where fishermen tighten the loop and the bird gives up the fish. Every so often, the birds get to keep a fish, to maintain their cooperation.

A lush valley of rice fields surrounded by browning bamboo forests

In 17 weeks I have not hit every tourist attraction, but one thing I have seen more than the average visitor sees, is scene after scene after scene of Japanese countryside, cities and towns. This post is dedicated to the indisputable beauty of the country of Japan. I am going to take this opportunity to display only train-related images. I took all these shots. Please click any photo for a larger version.

Glimpse of the sea as the Shinkansen passes north between the islands of Kyushu and Honshu

Murals at the Shin-Iwakuni station

Rice fields and green hills

Rocky cliffs exposed

Since June I have been riding trains in this country. The small ones I call the “clickety clack” trains. And then there are express trains. There are subways. There is the deservedly world-famous Shinkansen! I’ve been on all of them. Sometimes I’m crammed in and forced to stand; sometimes I’m practically alone; sometimes I find myself on the wrong one! Often I am the only non-Japanese person around.

From the new shin side of Tokyo Station, viewing the old Marunouchi side. The red building you see is Tokyo Station as it was constructed in 1914.

castle

Every train is a potential adventure, and many trips turn out to be an actual adventure. All trains provide a seat and a window. I provide the camera.

Because they are my medium of travel, my portal to another world, the trains themselves fascinate me. The tracks that carry them. The stations where they stop.

I hope the trains and tracks and stations are not boring to you. They hold such electricity for me when I look at them; I simply can’t help myself but take more photos. My external hard drive here in my room is bursting at the seams with train photos.

Station stop for the Iwakuni Shinkansen station.

I know the routes so well that once I realized I was on the wrong train because I heard the announcement in Japanese for the next stop of Tokuyama, and realized I was heading south instead of north. I know the sights so well that I noticed a photo incorrectly placed in my digital folder for Misawa. It was a photo of Hakata station, which is not on the way to Misawa.

I know there are more pines in the north of Honshu, not only because I have seen them, but I can smell them up there. There are more tunnels for the tracks in the south. From the train in southern Kyushu, I can spot fields growing grains other than rice. There are more snow-capped peaks in the north.

With a quick glance, I can see easily that this is Hakata Station

So that’s it for today. Just photos. I’ve been spending the weekend catching up on very late blog posts, and publishing them with the correct dates, so if you’re interested, you can scroll back the last few months and find some new gems tucked in there.

I love this photo. Little sweetheart tired girl, waiting with the bags while her mom is taking care of something. It’s rare to see a child alone, but this is an example of how SAFE Japan is, even if a child must be alone for a few minutes.

An example of a clickety-clack train from up in Aomori Prefecture. When I ride this one, it’s typically two cars long, has no announcements, and no signs in English.

Express train for Huis Ten Bosh theme park on Kyushu. These trains are smooth and pretty fast, like a step between clickety-clack and shinkansen.

Nose of the shinkansen glides in slick like the head of a snake. These trains are thrilling to watch as well as ride. Cameras always come out when one shows up. The ride is smooth as silk, quiet, luxurious, and perfectly precisely on time. Like…to the second…

…except on September 17, 2012. These are the signs at Hakata station during Typhoon Sanba. The only time I have ever seen the shinkansen late. It apparently takes a typhoon to put a glitch in the schedule.

Tokyo station at night. Yes, most Japanese men do typically wear white shirts and black pants.

 

Seats inside the express train to Sasebo. Roomy, but not as nice as the shin.

Spring fields and a tractor preparing the soil for the year’s crops. In most of Japan, the season only allows one harvest of rice.

You can barely see the rice plants, set by hand, and now flooded to begin the growing season. Notice the houses set a few feet up on retaining walls, to keep the foundations dry.

A little later in the season, this is in northern Honshu, as you can see snow on the mountains. Rice is coming up in rows.

One field harvested; the others still maturing.

Wheat fields on Kyushu

Industrial center at Tokuyama seaport.

People waiting for the train at Yokogawa Station, south of Hiroshima

Beautiful Gothic style cathedral

yellow door

Ships and islands visible in the Seto Inland Sea

Going through Sendai made me just a little nervous so soon after the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

Gazing out across the tracks.

Very typical view of densely populated valleys swelling into the foothills when the space becomes needed.

Maybe it looks boring to you, but I love this view from Hiroshima station! There is a cacophony here, even when I stand still and silent. Look at the men waiting at this small local station – it’s a peaceful scene in reality. But to me: this sight is ferociously loud.

View of Nagasaki at night from the observatory

Friday afternoon, Ian and I shook off the somber mood of the Atomic Bomb Museum, and went out into Nagasaki to see what else there was. First of all, we were starving, so we had to find a place to eat. We rode the streetcar back toward the center of town. We wandered through streets for awhile, taking the time to poke into curious areas in our search for food. We found an underground market, but it turned out to sell mostly raw seafood, and we had no way of cooking it.

The underground market had many stalls displaying fresh fish

The eyeball of this huge fish was nearly 3 inches across!

After eating, we went to a landmark in Nagasaki called Spectacles Bridge, because the reflections of the two arches in the water look like round spectacles. There are several beautiful stone bridges along the river in that part of town. Spectacles Bridge was built by Zen master Mokusu Nyojo, and is the oldest stone bridge in Japan.

At one point in the river, rainbows of koi fish were hovering, as if waiting to be fed by people on the shore. A few people appeared on the stone ledge beside the river, and the fish moved to them in a group, sloppy carp mouths gaping above the surface.

Meganabashi, Spectacles Bridge, the oldest Chinese-style stone bridge in Japan

People cross on the stepping stones, and fish wait hopefully for food

We saw signs pointing up a hill, so we walked along narrow streets till we saw red painted beams of a temple above rooftops, and were able to find our way to it. We had discovered Kofuku-ji, the first Obaku Zen temple in Japan, its origins dating to around 1620. Interestingly, Mokusu Nyojo was one of the masters at this temple. This was the first of a series of temples built by Chinese immigrants determined to make a grand display of their loyalty to Buddhism, so that people would be less inclined to suspect that they were Christians (since Christianity was outlawed).

Tohmeizan Kofukuji

fabulous flower

Behind the temple was a cemetery that stretched far up the hill behind it. Ian and I climbed between the gravestones, through a maze of stone steps, trying to get a higher vantage point and possibly see the end of the cemetery. Hundreds of rectangular family plots are carved into the mountainside, each with its own hand-built, narrow, concrete and crumbling steps. But it truly was a maze! I would follow steps up to a dead-end, back track, try different steps to another dead end. I would spot a different path from there which seemed to lead higher, so I would go back down, try the new route, only to be stopped at another dead end. Ian was doing the same thing in a different part of the cemetery. He came down to where I stood and pointed to another section, “It looks like you have to start over there,” he said. I followed his hand, and saw that we would have to find the beginning of the trail from the other side of the temple grounds. So we hopped down all the little steps and walked through the temple grounds and buildings again, with an eye out for a way to get behind them to the path we sought. We made it all the way to the other side, but every path to the back was blocked.

Cemetery stretches up and out of sight on the hill behind the temple

Kofuku-ji closes at 5:00 pm. We discovered this when worried caretakers began stealing glances our way, and closing doors to areas we were no longer visiting. We were also feeling a little self-conscious about trying to get into a different part of the cemetery only in order to climb higher into it, and not for mourning someone’s passing or paying respect to the dead.

Farther along the Nakashima River are more stone bridges

We wandered back toward the river, and back to the streetcar line. Ian wanted to find the observatory at Nagasaki before nightfall, so we would be able to watch the sunset from the summit.

A shrine beside the river. The symbol of a swastika (called manji) in Japan, is the infinity character, and signifies a Buddhist temple.

For 1200 yen each (about $15) we purchased tickets for the tram that would take us to the observatory. We waited with a growing group of other sunset-seekers, and found vending machines to quench our thirst while we explored the shrines there. Our timing was good, and we arrived at the top while the sky was still light enough to illuminate the scene below us. A three-story circular building perches at the top of the hill, allowing viewers on the observation deck on the roof to have a clear view above the trees. We could see in every direction.

View of homes below the tram as we sailed through the air

People atop the building, looking out across Nagasaki city

The observation tower, with a restaurant and resting area inside, and an observation deck on top.

We remained at the observatory till it was completely dark, watching as lights below grew brighter. Then we rode the streetcar back to the train station, and made the long journey back to Sasebo.

Path down to the torii entrance to the shrine and tram boarding station

Stray cats waiting for the train with us

A sunset view

Ian, beside the river

Nagasaki City Peace Hall viewed across the reflecting pool of the Nagasaki National Peace Memorial

My brother Ian and I agreed that Nagasaki was on our list of things to do. Friday I was free to spend the whole day out touring with Ian, so we made plans to take the train south along the western edge of Kyushu and see the famous city.

Rain crashes onto the train that will take us to Nagasaki

We were up early (Ian assisted by vestiges of jet lag), but we lagged in preparations because it was raining pretty hard outside. We went across the parking lot to the Harbor View Club for breakfast, but the rain continued. After some discussion, we agreed that rain or no, today was the best day to see Nagasaki.

Boy howdy, did it rain! We stopped first at the NEX (Navy Exchange) to buy umbrellas (I think I own six umbrellas now, since I kept getting caught without one). We slogged through the downpour to the train station. We bought tickets and climbed aboard absolutely soaked through.

Part of the Huis Ten Bosh European theme park

Japanese houses in the rain

Rice fields mature beside the tracks on our way to Nagasaki

The small train went slowly to Nagasaki. After an hour and a half we had arrived, and the weather had improved dramatically by the time we arrived. What a relief. Ian proved resourceful, and while I was still trying to think through how we should begin getting around, he found information on how to get an inexpensive day pass for the streetcars. We found maps of the city in English at the Information shop where we purchased the pass.

entrance of the train station

one of the streetcars that took us around the city

First stop was the atomic bomb museum. I was eager to compare this one to the one I had seen in Hiroshima. (Please see my blog post from my first visit to Hiroshima Peace Park.) Many people had told me they preferred the Nagasaki peace park/ museum complex. It is less polished than the one in Hiroshima, and for some that makes it more real.

twisted metal {click to enlarge}

from the church

I found myself less distraught at the complex in Nagasaki. Perhaps because I was with my brother and made an effort not to let myself get too emotional, whereas in Hiroshima I was with Tara, and we are comfortable crying together.

ruined bowl

What struck me the most in Nagasaki was seeing how much of their Christian community had been destroyed. Of course, Nagasaki was a wonderfully diverse city at that time, and contained worshippers of multiple faiths, but before this summer I would never have guessed how many Catholics were there. I wonder how many Americans knew about this after the bomb: we hadn’t vaporized alien beings, but Christians, and sacred Catholic churches and artifacts. This realization was consistent with the little bit of Japanese history I learned this summer when I read Shusaku Endo’s compelling book, Silence, about Jesuit priests that snuck into Japan in the 17th century to minister to the faithful who had to worship in secret under penalty of death if discovered.

melted rosary {click to enlarge}

Information board at the museum:

The Urakami district of Nagasaki was the site of Christian missionary work from the latter part of the 16th century. The people of Urakami suffered persecution constantly from 1587 when Christianity was outlawed until 1873 when the ban was finally lifted. Over the course of 20 years, these faithful people built a church, laying one brick upon another. Their labors were rewarded in 1914 with the completion of the grandest church in East Asia. The church’s twin 26 meter high spires were completed in 1925. But the explosion of the atomic bomb blew the spires down and reduced the church to a hollow shell of rubble.

inside the atomic bomb museum

Another very compelling sight was the famous image of the man and ladder “burned” into the side of a building at the instant of the deathly bright flash of the bomb burst, and also the image similarly captured by vines on a wall. These things make it very real: the tragedy, the instantaneous destruction, the power of the bomb.

“About 4.4 kilometers from the hypocenter. A lookout was exposed to the flash of the atomic bomb explosion after coming down from the roof of the Nagasaki Fortress Headquarters. The tar exposed directly to the flash burned and disappeared but that in the shadows remained.”

wood burned by flash of bomb, but protected where the vine grew

live vine

There are other things to see on location, so after the museum, we toured the Yataro Noguchi Art Museum. Works in the small museum were primarily by the named artist, but we found paintings by other artists that impressed us more than the impressionistic paintings of Noguchi.

mahjong

Then we walked through the Nagasaki Museum of History and Folklore.

Finally we found the entrance to the Nagasaki National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims. The hall is underground, and the entrance is through a water sculpture that creates a reflecting pond on the surface. Water only about an inch deep covers 70,000 tiny fiber optic lights representing the 73,884 deaths attributed to the atomic bomb and the nuclear fallout.

remembrance hall atrium

The underground peace memorial hall was cool, modern, peaceful. It is built for prayer and reflection and remembrance. Architect Akira Kuryu did an excellent job of creating the right kind of mood down there. In the main hall atrium, there are 12 lit green pillars that soar upwards to a skylight. At one end of the row of pillars is an equally tall column holding shelves with cards, each card containing the written name of a victim. There is a book for people to write in, on a table that also holds dedications. These often consisted of folded paper cranes for peace. The paper cranes are found all over the site here in Nagasaki, as well as in Hiroshima.

Our wanderings led us up and out of the complex after that, and we wandered back into the city to look for more sights to see and hopefully some food, as well. Sadly, we did not realize that the bomb hypocenter was very close to us, though hidden behind trees. Thus we did not make our way to that final sobering memorial.

Looking west from the observatory, a view of the Kujukushima

Looking west from the observatory, a view of the Kujukushima

My third and final visitor was my brother, Ian. He told me that of all the places in the world he wanted to visit, Japan topped the list. I was stymied by this statement of his, having never suspected such a love for Asia in my brother. I remained curious about his declaration only until he actually showed up and I discovered what it was all about. Cars! Ian loves vehicles with a passion, and has consistently loved them since he was old enough to say “car.” In Japan, two-thirds of his photos were of cars that he can’t see in the states.

I had to work during the weekdays, so our exploration was in the evening. Norm told us about a free shuttle bus that left from the train station and went to a hotel on the top of the hill looking out over Sasebo. The shuttle ran into the evening hours.

Yumihari no Oka Hotel, on Mt. Shokan-dake above Sasebo. You can also see the sharp point of the roof over the observatory, rising above the trees farther up the hill.

Yumihari no Oka Hotel, on Mt. Shokan-dake above Sasebo. You can also see the sharp point of the roof over the observatory, rising above the trees farther up the hill.

Sasebo ginza from the bus on our way to the hotel.

Ian and I walked from base to the train station, and were pleased to see Norm and his wife, Kiyomi, waiting for the same shuttle. They were having a business meeting over dinner at the Yumihari no Oka hotel restaurant. The shuttle stop is out on the street and marked only with a small metal sign, so their presence was reassuring to us that we had found the right place.

The bus took us on this fabulous narrow and winding road up the side of the mountain. I haven’t mentioned yet that in Japan, there are often two-way streets that are only wide enough to accommodate one vehicle. Motorists must always be ready for oncoming traffic, and be prepared to avoid a head on collision by pulling off to the side into a wide spot. The road up to the hotel was one such narrow road. The driver was obviously comfortable with his route, and powered up the steep slopes, zoomed around curves, turned the wheel to the left, the right, the left, braked, stepped on the gas and wound deftly between houses built right up to the edge of the paved road. The ride itself was part of the adventure!

The hotel pool from their balcony

The hotel pool from their balcony

At the hotel, Kiyomi explained to the extremely gracious attendants that we were there to take photos, and though we were not customers, they led us to a lovely balcony off the dining room. From there we had a stunning sunset view of the Sasebo Navy Base directly below us to the south, and of the 99 Islands (Kujukushima)  to the west.

When we were done taking advantage of our hosts’ incredible balcony, they told us there was an observatory at the top of the mountain. Observatory turns out to mean, in Japan, a viewpoint.

We walked a short distance up to Saikai National Park where we were treated to a stunning 270 degree view of the city and ocean below. There is a nicely developed area with paths, information signs, and a roof. Over the western ledge, a wooden walking bridge out to another observation platform, led us to a wide vista. From there we could see the Kujukushima Islands that stretch out into the sea into a postcard-perfect scene. My camera was kind enough to lighten up the shot for me, pulling most available light into its lens and making the islands easier to see in the photos than was possible with our eyes.

The entrance to the wooden walkway to the west-facing observation deck

Sasebo Navy Base below the Yumihari Observatory

Sasebo streets at night

Tara reaches out to comfort the buck. This Nijonjika (Japanese deer) was the first one we saw. It soon became evident that something is terribly wrong with the deer on this island.

After visiting Maneki Neko, the Cat Café, Tara and I hopped back on the little local train to head south again. We got off at Miyajimaguchi Station, in hopes of finding our way to Miyajima Island. I had been told it was easy to find the ferry boat. That turned out to be true: we spotted the ferry while still inside the train station. So, we bought tickets for the ferry at a vending machine nearby. (All tickets can be purchased at a vending machine. Indeed, sometimes it’s the only option. Luckily, they are pretty easy to figure out. Luckier still, when I guess wrong, there is nearly always a forgiving official who can get it straightened out for  me.)

At the ferry dock by Miyajimaguchi station

The ferry ride was cool, breezy, relaxing. A welcome respite from the stifling July heat and humidity. Tara and I brought umbrellas for shade, but there is no way to escape the brutal weather of a Japanese summer.

Soon we spotted the huge red torii in the waters of Miyajima island, which is just offshore and a bit south of Hiroshima. The island is famous for its shrines, and the primary one is Itsukushima Shrine, for which this torii is the gate, or spiritual entrance. If you’ve only seen one photo of a giant red torii in Japan, it was probably this one. From the ferry, the famous torii of Itsukushima Shrine is quite noticeable, and drew my eye as we drew closer and closer.

Water-resistant camphor wood was used to build the torii, which can be approached on foot at low tide.

Looking past Itsukushima Shrine to the island of Honshu – Japan’s largest and most populated island.

Deer begs Tara for ice cream

This island is also famous for its deer. I had seen deer at the base of Mt. Fuji, but I don’t typically see wildlife here except birds, insects, crabs, frogs, fish, and lizards. These are a species of Sika deer, which do not lose their spots in adulthood. The deer were apparently sacred here at some point in the past, likely because a Shinto Buddhist belief is that deer are the messengers of the gods. However, they are currently considered a nuisance by local residents and Japanese officials.

After quick research, I cannot find when the ban on feeding went into effect, prohibiting people from feeding the deer. Until the ban, food for the deer was sold to visitors, and the large population of the deer was due to total dependence upon tourists. I found an unreliable resource that stated it was in 2007. I found a “please sign our save the deer petition” and the first signatures were dated 2002. PETA apparently became involved in 2008. Travel guides mention the issue in 2010.

The most official resource I could find is this publication from the Hatsukaichi City website with a city plan for fiscal years 2009-2013 (Heisei 21-25) to deal with the deer.  Disturbingly, one claim in this document is the intent to build a facility to “rescue unhealthy deer.” It’s disturbing because the city officials of Hatsukaichi are confessing that they should be responsible for detecting and treating unhealthy deer, but in 2012 I stood there on the island and witnessed many starving, deformed deer with skin diseases.

Patting a pregnant deer with patches of fur missing. This is just before another one snuck up behind me and tried to eat papers out of my bag.

Deer graze on what they can find at the creekside.

Before you make any assumptions, please know that I am no vegan tree-hugger. I grew up eating deer and learning how to shoot them. I’m merely pointing out some shockingly poor resource management. And I’m not bashing Japan. There are cases in the U.S. where local deer populations exploded when deer became reliant on food provided by people. It’s a terrible mix: people food and wild animals. And most tourists are too dumb to see the problem, as they gleefully feed cold french fries and paper ice cream wrappers to the deer, then post their videos on YouTube.

Deer and people mix in every open space. I think that one is trying to figure out how to get inside the restaurant.

I’m glad the Internet references to this issue become more common recently. Perhaps it means that local people will be pressured into coming up with a more effective plan. What that plan would be, I can’t guess. I saw no vegetation around for the deer to eat, but maybe there is some tucked away in the hills. I suspect if there was another option besides begging from tourists, the deer would choose to eat grass instead of starve to death.

Sorry about this depressing post. I intended to write about the beauty of the shrines, the photogenic torii (what’s plural for torii? toriii?), my lovely daughter sharing Japan with me, and of course, the agony of the abominable damp thickness of the furnace we had to endure day after day… oh. I mean, the weather.

But you know, as cool as the sights were, as impressive the shrines, as fun as the ferry rides were, the deer made it depressing. Tara and I didn’t really talk about it, but it was the elephant in the room. The deer themselves reminded us how unfortunate they were, every couple of minutes, as they hovered nearby and followed the movements of our hands hopefully, as though they might contain food.  I was so disappointed not to have been alerted to bring food ahead of time.

Deer with deformed leg eats food powder.

At one point, a woman showed up with some kind of food. It looked like rabbit pellets mixed with powdered chicken feed. She spread it all over the ground and deer showed up in herds to eat it. But a lot of the powder was wasted when it got mixed into the sand. I watched two rear up on hind legs and bash each other with their hooves, fighting over the powdered food in the sand.

Tara took this photo of me in front of the torii

I’m resting at the base of the five-tiered pagoda

Tara beneath a towering granite torii

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