28 October, 2006

therightofway (or, thehonda)

it's long past time that i should have put a serious post up about our new motorcycle. but before i get into the specifics, it's worth establishing the context in which riding is done in Japan. first of all, the road system is a lot more orderly than Taiwan's: people actually stop for red lights here. having said that, those lights (and red ones in particular) are so numerous that a person couldn't easily be blamed for running them. coming to America from England one is surprised at the prevalence of traffic lights as a control device; roundabouts and other such complicated inventions don't seem to have made the transatlantic trip. nevertheless, let me assure you that Japan has one-upped the United States in this critical measure of infrastructure--traffic lights are absolutely everywhere, sometimes several sets per couple of hundred meters.

further to that, they can be somewhat confusing, to say the least. as the picture below shows, not only are the lights set on their side, but often they consist of more than the typical three lights, several of which can be lit at the same time, including conflicting signals. for example, the top red light may be lit and the straight arrow on the bottom row, meaning you can go straight ahead but may turn neither right nor left, to name one of many possible combinations.

i like traffic lights, but only when they're green...

and left, of course, would be akin to turning right in America, given that we drive on the left here. growing up, i had always people say that only England and Japan drove on the left, but having done a little research into the matter i have found that there are many more who favor right-hand-drive. from our travels in Southeast Asia last year i had learned this by personal experience, with all of the countries we visited (Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Macau) taking the left-side approach. Indeed, there are more still, some 74 countries in all, though as you will see they make up just a small portion of the Earth's surface area:

the leftist world of driving.

so getting used to driving on the left was a bit of a challenge at first, but now it's hard to contemplate how things would be the other way around. the biggest problem here is figuring out the real, unspoken rules of the road. visitors to America from England are often bemused by more than the number of traffic lights; the deference paid pedestrians by drivers is often well over the top. as a child i remember being taught road safety at playschool, and we three-year-olds were left with no doubt that it was the responsibility of the pedestrian to watch out for himself. it makes sense, i think, given that a car would probably do the most damage in an altercation. anyway here, once again, Japan has upped the stakes and presented new absurdities to the world of transportation. when we were insuring our motorcycle a few months ago, we were assured that collision insurance was generally unnecessary, since the practice is typically to assign blame to the larger vehicle in the event of a collision. which works out well for us driving a fairly small bike, but i do have to carry tens of millions of yen worth of liability insurance in case i hit anything smaller than me. including bicycles, which are the true kings of the road in Japan. as the scooter was to Taiwan, so the bicycle is to Japan; they are everywhere, and with their little bells they control the flow of all movement from the sidewalks to the large city streets. it really is something to see. as is our new motorcycle, shown below:

thehonda, and a collage showing (clockwise from top left): another view; the old Yamaha of Taiwan; the Japanese license plate (with a few numbers erased); and the engine, showing a displacement of 249 mighty ccs.

in Taiwan i had a 150cc Yamaha, but here i went for a slightly bigger 250cc Honda. i had wanted a 400cc Honda, but you have to pay a pretty large shaken fee for anything over 250. anyway the VTR, as it's called, has been quite honorable, being quite a bit faster than the Yamaha and having taken us all the way to Kyoto and back in July. it's a nice ride, though a bit dirty in terms of emissions (as are, surprisingly, most of the vehicles in Japan) and we're glad we bought it. then again, the Yamaha had distinct pluses: it cost the equivalent of about $320, and i sold it for the same after six months of riding. the Honda followed Japanese custom by being about six times more expensive. needless to say, i'm hoping the resale value will be more in the Japanese style, too.

16 October, 2006


as is usual, i am quite behind in blog posts (i still haven't put up anything from the Southeast Asia tour a year ago), so in a vain effort to catch up, i'm going all the way back to the end of July to post these pictures from our big trip to Kyoto. we had a week off but not much money, so instead of taking the shinkansen (bullet train), we decided to save ourselves several hundred dollars and ride the bike. it worked--that is to say, we still had money for food when we got there--but it took almost six hours in the saddle to go less than 150Km (about 90 miles). and Jill was carrying one of our huge backpacks loaded with stuff for both of us for the week, not a happy start to the trip.

anyway, we got there and the bike did very well on its first big outing, and then the fun began. it really seems that if you only go to one place in Japan, it should be Kyoto. back in the late eighth century, at right around the time Buddhism was becoming a great force and winning the minds of the emperors, Kyoto was the imperial capital and so was built up with all manner of very spectacular temples and shrines. there is one (that we somehow missed) that is entirely leafed in gold and is aptly named the "golden pavilion temple". we did make it to the silver temple, but how that one came about its name is still something of a mystery. Japan tends not to mix its religions quite as much Taiwan does, so temples, which are Buddhist, and shrines, which are Shinto, are quite different affairs, and all are somewhat less ornate and lively looking than Taiwanese offerings. Shinto shrines are quite easy to spot as they are almost always equipped with a number of o-torii, or very big gates, like those i'm pictured standing beneath here:

doing my best impression of Sayuri at the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine.

these ones are actually at the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine a short way south of Kyoto. if you have seen the movie Memoirs of a Geisha (which was released here as Sayuri), you will recognize this tunnel of o-torii as one of the ones the young main character runs through near the beginning. indeed, we understand that this part of the movie was actually filmed at Fushimi Inari; many of the gates do look fairly recently painted. though there are fewer of them, the o-torii at the impressive Heian shrine, pictured below, are much bigger. this shrine is well visited and well maintained, though i'm still not sure what all the sake barrels at this and every other shrine are for.

the imposing Heian-ji, and a small sampling of its liquor, which i can only assume is kept for when the Shinto priests feel like cutting loose on a weekend. or for the souls of departed ancestors or something.

the one thing i can say about Shinto is that they don't seem to charge you to see any of their stuff, which is to say that all to often the Buddhists here (as opposed to in Taiwan) are looking to make a quick yen--or several hundred of them. we went down to Nara, which was the capital from 710 to 794, just before Kyoto was. there sits the largest seated Buddha in Japan, housed in a quite special (and would have been very old, if it hadn't burned down several times) wooden building--for entrance to which you must pay ¥500. even though Jill and i have seen more Buddhas than you can shake a very large stick at, i guess we're suckers for claims of superiority (which, strangely, all the Buddhas seem to make in one area or another...) so we went in and saw... a very large Buddha:

the very big Daibutsuden in the very old city of Nara, and the extremely old buildings of Horyu-ji, just outside Nara.

at a site just South of Nara sits another large temple complex, which is said to have the oldest wood buildings in all Japan, dating to the early 700s. the temple is called Horyu-ji, and was probably not worth the drive, since it was really hot and they're a bunch of, well, buildings that look like many others. you can't tell they're old, and they want money to see the really good ones, but i guess they should be congratulated on having saved some structures from fire for so long.

we had hoped to see another great temple up on Mount Hiei, to the Northeast of town. Enryaku-ji, as it is called, is famed for being home to the "marathon monks", who train for spiritual enlightenment by running some absurd distance every day for so many years. we didn't see them, or the temple either, because after having paid about 30 bucks apiece to take the tram and cable car up the mountain, we found that there was a road that we could have ridden up and still another bus to take to the temple, so we somewhat angrily bagged the whole thing and went for pictures of the view instead. which was quite good, on an uncharacteristically somewhat clear day.

the view from the top of Hiei-san: Kyoto.

the large wooded area just visible in the centerish of town is the imperial palace, which we toured with mild interest at some point during the week. probably not visible at all is the Daitoku-ji temple complex, which is home to a small, but quite attractive zen-style garden, of which Jill surreptitiously took this and a couple more pictures:

a lone figure about to achieve zen at Daitoku-ji.

one of the other attractions of Kyoto is that it is home to the famous Gion district, noted for its Geisha. Jill had heard that you could be made up like one, so we found a studio and hey presto--two hours of me wandering around small alleyways later, they were done packing her in makeup and ninety layers of clothes and i got to take a brief walk with what may be the tallest Geisha Kyoto has ever known.

my very tall Geisha friend and i, and me waiting for Captain Kirk to beam me up.

as for me, i settle for simpler pleasures, like playing around under installation art at the ultra-modern Kyoto train station. oh and eating, of course. while in Kyoto i found some of the scariest food ever at a small festival market we stumbled across, but we also found our favorite restaurant yet in Japan, maybe the world! it's called Kushya and it specializes in yakitori, or small pieces of various food skewered and cooked over live coals. Kushya has a cool atmosphere, and is on a very hidden side street so the guys cooking were very entertained by our being there, especially the second time when we went back. the food was delicious, everything from chicken gizzards to bacon-wrapped asparagus, and even a new favorite: natto and fried cheese on a stick. even though natto, or partially fermented soybeans, is quite nasty and to be avoided (even by the Japanese, it having been about the only thing that was available to eat after the war), the combination was not at all bad, and we ordered them the second time we went. no doubt we will do so again if we go back to Kyoto, which was worth the ride, even on the way home.

festival food: scary, delicious, or both? Kushya food: definitely delicious.

05 October, 2006


a few weeks ago, doing our bit to promote the local economy, Jill and I visited one of the few bona fide tourist attractions in the fair city of Nagoya: its castle. well, supposedly bona fide: it's only been standing in its present form since 1959. the original castle dates from the Muromachi Era of the mid 1300s, however, and it is reputed to be among the great castles of Japan.

the main part of the castle, known as the donjon, was completed in 1612 on the orders of Ieyasu Tokugawa, the first and founding ruler of the Tokugawa Shogunate. the castle was also home not only to a branch of this Tokugawa family, but to the most prestigious branch. now though, the main donjon only houses an unattractive mass of concrete and steel, along with respectable quantities of shogun-era artifacts and replica artifacts; there's not a very historical feel to the place. except, of course, for the numerous signs bemoaning the fate of the original building which, like so many other of Japan's national treasures (and most of Nagoya), was destroyed by allied air raids towards the end of World War II. the signs convey more than a hint of pique at these cultural losses, but no sense of an understanding that national treasures might be part of what you risk losing when you begin a major campaign of military aggression against neighboring countries.

in any case, the important bits are at the top of the main donjon, on the sixth floor. there you find spectacular... lines for the cashiers at the bustling souvenir shop. oh, and pretty spectacular views of the city of Nagoya. and a bunch of snacks, and some more souvenirs. not that i'm one to be talking about the strange Eastern devotion to cheap trinkets: i bought a couple of them myself. one was a small golden "unko" (うんこ) sitting on a pillow of scarlet satin. we asked a Japanese friend what an unko is, this little wonder that looks like a swirl of soft-serve ice cream, and she replied, without hesitation, "crap". literally, unko would be the stool itself, which is why i'm still not sure why anyone besides a gastroenterologist would want to actually own such a thing. so I sent it to my mother. because I knew she would be wise enough to figure out its meaning, you understand. the best i've come up with is that if you're prosperous enough to gild your feces, you must be financially secure. which security is among the things i wish for my parents, and i hope that she will infer that sentiment from my gift.

thejayfather in front of Nagoya castle's main donjon, and then the typically overcast view of downtown from the top of that donjon.

along with that delightful little item, i also sent Mother a small golden "dolphin", which looks more like a Chinese dragon; a replica of the two that sit atop the castle's main donjon. known as "kinshachi", these golden dolphins have become a symbol of Nagoya and supposedly were first placed on the original castle back in the 14th century.

here we see the lengths the city has gone to to draw tourists: the castle "dolphins" are now rideable!

so a rather mixed review of this tourist sight, but contrary to what most guidebooks will tell you, there are some things to see in Nagoya. the castle, for one, sits on ample and attractive grounds just North of the city center, and when enough donations have been collected, the city plans to reconstruct the "Hommaru Palace" next to the main donjon. this structure was used to house visiting shoguns back in the day, and was considered among the two best examples of "Shoin" style palace architecture. it, of course, was destroyed by fire in WWII, as were a staggering number of Japan's important places. since much traditional building involved the extensive use of wood and paper, many of Japan's cities were like tinderboxes; perfect fodder for invading bombs. Nagoya castle was worth visiting, if not so much for the site itself as for the contemplation of what it represents. and now I've done my bit to boost Nagoya tourism, too.