Monday, September 23, 2013

A Cyclone of Sightseeing

I knew before coming to Japan that I had to make a trip to Kyoto. Everyone I talked to said visiting the old capital was a definite must. However, I got settled in Tokyo and my schedule started to really fill up. As I looked at my calendar a few weeks ago, I realized I had to get moving on this trip or it wasn't going to happen!

Pre-trip planning was entirely overwhelming. I almost just gave up because it was so much work to figure out all the logistics and to make sure I was doing everything as cheaply as possible. Perhaps I was a bit over-ambitious to do Kyoto, Osaka, and Hiroshima in about 4.5 days. And maybe I should have started planning for this over-ambitious trip across Japan more than one week before embarking... things to tuck away as lessons learned.

Anyway, I got everything (mostly) figured out before I left, but then things started to get interesting. I planned to take an overnight bus from Tokyo to Kyoto because it was super cheap. However, on the night I was supposed to leave, there were typhoon warnings all over the city. I heard rumors that trains might stop running because the typhoons mess with the electrical systems. I was legitimately worried that I would be stuck at the bus stop, with a canceled bus, and no trains running back to where I live. But I went forward as planned and headed to the bus stop with my little backpack and an umbrella.

The bus left as scheduled and it hadn't started to rain yet, but shortly after departure, I began to hear the sounds of a major storm outside. Now, since it was an overnight bus, the windows were completely covered with curtains so that everyone can sleep. I couldn't see anything, but I could sure hear the wind blowing and rain pounding. After a while, I realized the bus was stopping and the driver made some announcement, of which the only word I recognized was "typhoon". The lady next to me was able to explain we were at a rest stop for a bathroom break after she saw the confused (and probably concerned/worried) looks on my face. Sure enough though, I stepped out of the bus into horizontal rain and crazy wind. It was wild! Suffice it to say, I prayed pretty fervently that the bus driver would be alert and cautious and get us to Kyoto safely! Thankfully, the bus made it to Kyoto, 4 hours late, but safe and sound. And the weather was beautiful upon arrival, never once during the rest of my trip did I need my umbrella.

Those that know me well, know I can be a bit uptight at times. And when things don't go as planned, it can be pretty disappointing. (My parents are probably nodding wholeheartedly in agreement as they read this.) Well, this year of travel is teaching me A LOT about going with flow and making the best of every situation even if I don't know what to expect or things don't go as planned. So, because the weather was still unpredictable, nearly all the trains out of Kyoto station were canceled which made my original plans for the day impossible. But I went with the flow, rearranged my plans, and I had a marvelous day!

Day 1:
Went by bus to the Kiyomizudera Temple on the east side of Kyoto. It is up on a hill, so there were beautiful views of the city of Kyoto and the lush green hills around it.

Then went to Kinkakuji, also known as the Golden Pavilion. I had heard and read mixed reviews about this one, some saying it wasn't that great. I went anyway and it was spectacular.

Day 2:
The trains were up and running again! I traveled to the Fushimi Inari Shrine nearby. Inari is the god of rice in Japan. This shrine has a 4km loop around a mountain with hundreds of torii gates straddling the path. I ended up doing the whole loop and since I got there pretty early in the morning, there weren't too many people. It was definitely one of the most unique hikes I've ever done.

At the beginning of the path, so many gates!

Next, I went to Arashiyama, a quaint touristy town near Kyoto. It is famous for the Togetsukyo Bridge spanning the Hozu River, or the Katsura River, depending on what side of the bridge you're on. I was super excited to ride on the scenic railway they have along the river, but Arashiyama was hit hard by the typhoon and the city faced major flood damage. I was humbled. Here I was, Hannah the tourist, disappointed because the scenic railway wasn't operating and people along the streets were working on getting their very livelihoods back in order. I quickly checked my attitude and was just grateful again to be there safely and experience it all.

The river is not usually this color or this full...

Another highlight of my afternoon in Arashiyama included a visit to the monkey park. You heard right, a monkey park! I'm not a big animal person, but the voice of my animal loving friends won out and I decided to give it a try. There are about 130 Japanese macaque in the park. Visitors walk about 20 min. up a mountain and then there is a place to see a bunch of monkeys and feed them. Truthfully, I am not afraid of much, but I was seriously afraid being attacked by a monkey. It's a bit pathetic, here I am traveling the world for a year and the one thing I'm afraid of is a monkey. I didn't have anything to worry about though, the monkey are quite tame and pretty cute!

This guy was taking in the view.
I finished off the visit with an ice cream cone and a walk through a bamboo grove. It was beautiful. My new favorite sound is the sound of bamboo trees swaying in the wind. The sound of the swishing leaves and the closely-packed bamboo trunks hitting each other is unlike anything I've heard before.

Day 3:
Traveled by train to Osaka. And I had a travel buddy! Gotta love hostels and the interesting people you meet! My new friend and I made it to the Osaka Castle. The huge moat around it was almost more impressive than the castle. Interestingly enough, even with two moats, the castle was invaded a number of times during its use.

And we ate Okonomiyaki! This is a savory pancake originated in Osaka. Thanks goes to my ultimate foodie friend, Kenny Huang, for telling me to eat this while I'm in Japan. It was absolutely delicious. You can get a bunch of different ingredients in it, but mine was pretty basic with cabbage, strips of pork, and a mouth-watering sauce on top.

After lunch we did a short hike to a small waterfall on the outskirts of the city. It was beautiful!

Day 4:
My day started by catching a bus at 6AM headed to Hiroshima. Of the next 24 hours, 14 of them were spent on a bus. For the 10 hours in the middle of two bus rides, I explored the beautiful city of Hiroshima. Again, I was tempted to just eliminate this part of the trip because it was a bit out of the way, but I am so glad I went. After arriving I went straight to the Peace Memorial Museum commemorating the atomic bombing of the city during WWII.

There is a lot I could say about the time I spent at the museum. But one thing hit me closer to home than I ever could have expected. The museum and the city of Hiroshima itself is a huge advocate for the abolition of nuclear weapons worldwide. As a part of this effort, since 1968 the mayor of the city has written protest letters to countries who conduct nuclear tests. I saw letters displayed from about 20 years ago so I asked one of the museum volunteers if the mayor is still writing these letters. He pointed me in the direction of the most recent ones, explaining that of the last 11 letters written, 10 have been to the United States (the 11th written to North Korea). Of these 10 letters, 6 of them were regarding testing done with the Z-machine at Sandia National Labs. During the very same time that some of these letters were written, I was working for Sandia National Labs on a Harvey Mudd clinic team, developing a cleaning device for the Z-machine. As a U.S. citizen and an engineer, I see the Z-machine as a incredible piece of technology used to promote national security. But to Hiroshima and perhaps the rest of the world, it is a signal that our country plans to "maintain our nuclear stockpile". This is incredibly thought-provoking.

As I left the museum I thought, "I could have gotten the facts and stories from the internet." However, it was really powerful to be in the actual place where the bomb dropped and to see the amazing restoration that has occurred in the city since. I'm glad I was able to visit. It was most definitely worth the effort.

The Atomic Bomb Dome. One of the only buildings recognizable after the bomb dropped.
Maintained to remember what happened on August 6, 1945.

In a somber and contemplative mood, I ended my day in Hiroshima by taking a ferry to Miyajima Island right at sunset. Perfection.

And finally, before catching another overnight bus back to Kyoto, I ate Okonomiyaki Hiroshima style. This variation has less pancake batter and features soba noodles and egg in the dish! I'm know I'm going to crave this when I get back to the U.S...

And yes, I was pretty sick of riding on buses at this point, but it was cheap so what can you do. However, I did splurge and rode the Shinkansen from Kyoto back to Tokyo. It was AWESOME! Talk about an incredibly convenient form of transportation. A trip that took me 11 hours on a bus (granted, that was during a typhoon) only took 2.5 hours on the Shinkansen. Amazing! We gotta get some bullet trains in the U.S.

And just like that, my whirlwind of a tourist trip was done. Looking back at how stressed I was planning this trip, I am so glad I went big and made it to all these places. It was a huge answer to prayer that everything went as smoothly as it did. I constantly see God's hand in my daily plans and this trip was no exception.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Five Days on a Farm

Stay with us and listen to the grapes grow.
~ Coco Farm and Winery

It all started in the 1950's when a man by the name of Noboru Kawata, a teacher of special needs individuals, purchased land in Ashikaga about two hours north of Tokyo. Over the next few decades, he and his students worked to clear the land on a big hillside and planted grapes. Then in 1969, Kawata established Kokoromi Gakuen, a residential facility for intellectually disabled individuals. Today Coco Farm and Winery produces wine, has a picturesque cafe with delicious food, and provides a place for over 100 special people to live and work. I had the extreme privilege of being a part of their lives for five days this past week. It was a truly amazing and unforgettable week.

First of all, the train ride north was absolutely beautiful. At a certain point, the scenery changes distinctly from city to countryside and in no time at all, the train was puttering easily through vibrant green rice fields and quaint country homes. As much as I love what I've been doing in Tokyo, I felt immediately refreshed to leave the big city, the crowded trains, and the seemingly endless consumerism. 

When I arrived I got to start working immediately with some of the residents helping out with the daily laundry. I was greeted with a huge hug from a sweet older lady named Junko who, like many of the residents, was enamored with the foreigner. As the week went on, it was hit or miss whether my new friends called me Hannah-san or Gaijin-san (foreigner in Japanese). I didn't mind too much because whatever they called me they did it with a big smile on their face, always happy to see me. I had to laugh though because oftentimes when I asked their name, they lifted up the hem of their shirt and showed me their name, written on their clothing as a means to identify what is theirs. Of course, the name is written in Japanese... a small, but endearing, dilemma. 

At dinner that night, I was shown to my assigned seat. All the residents have a particular spot in the cafeteria so I too got my own seat and met my delightful meal buddies. Junko, who greeted me so warmly when I first arrived sat at a table in front of me. At most meals, I caught her turning around to glance at me. I waved back and she would just grin from ear to ear. At one point, I started making funny faces whenever she turned around and she just cracked up! We had a fun time together. 

Typical Junko. I guess I'm pretty funny looking. :)

Her beautiful smile filled my heart everyday.

My second day on the farm was the longest, most grueling day of physical labor I have ever done in my life. Most of the vineyard is covered in big long nets to keep the birds out. These were taken down and then I worked with a group of residents to untangle the nets and roll them back up neatly. 

We utilized the big hill. The nets were really long...
The bird net crew!

Rolling the nets wasn't too taxing, but after lunch we were given gloves and a cutting tool and taken up into the vineyard to cut away the weeds and grass growing underneath the grape vines. Now, let me explain that this vineyard is on a hill, a huge mountainside really. Check it out:

We drove all the way to the top and started to work, in the hot sun, unable to stand upright at all because well... you're on a big hill! I don't think I have ever sweat so much in my life. Whew! It was hard work! Very different from the hard work I did at Mudd the last four years...

But two things made the work tolerable, even enjoyable. First, this was the view from our spot under the grape vines:

The picture doesn't even do it justice, it was breathtaking. No sign of tall buildings, crowds, or stores trying to sell me cute clothing that I can't buy. Just green hills, blue sky, white clouds, and rice fields. I loved it! 

My dear friend Yamada-san also made this day of hard manual labor pleasantly bearable. Yamada-san was incredibly friendly and from the beginning of the morning, when I was assigned to work in his group, he made sure I knew where I was going and encouraged me along the way. I should point out again that I don't speak Japanese... and the residents don't speak English... but Yamada-san and I got along splendidly with our limited vocabulary. No problem! As we worked he always asked me "Daijoubu?" meaning "Are you alright?" It was so sweet! Yamada-san is a very hard worker and it was fun for me to see the pride he has in his work and his ability to show me the ropes. My ineptness allowed him to be a leader and I was grateful for his help. 

Yamada-san at home amidst the grapes.

That night my muscles yelled at me with even the slightest movement. So, I was quite grateful that I got to work in the kitchen the following day. I'm not cut out for manual labor... it's a good thing I've got grad school lined up. Anyway, working in the kitchen was really interesting! It is an amazing feat to cook three meals a day for 150+ people. There is chopping for days in that kitchen. I think I chopped cucumbers for about two hours in the morning, it was A LOT of cucumbers. Again, I managed alright with my limited Japanese vocabulary. I was very grateful for the kitchen staff's kindness and patience. We had fun chopping, packing bento boxes, and cleaning together!

The kitchen crew! Lookin' good in our hats and aprons!

Oh! Funny story! So, one of the residents has the highly esteemed job of hanging out in the vineyard banging a wooden spoon on a tin can to scare away birds. I call him the ching ching man. You can hear the ching ching throughout the farm. Rain or shine, this dedicated man makes his way up the hillside for this important job. 

Well, one day during free time I decided to walk to the top of the mountain and take pictures of the beautiful view and do a little reading on the picnic tables they have up there. About half way up, the ching ching man let me take a couple pictures of him and I was allowed to proceed up the hill. Once at the top I got some great pictures and was enjoying some rest after a long day when I saw the ching ching man coming toward me. He was gesturing pretty emphatically and made it quite clear that he wanted me to head back down the hill. I tried to convince him that it was ok for me to stay a bit longer, but that wasn't going to happen. The mountain was his turf and I didn't belong. I know well not to push my luck, I had disturbed the routine enough. So I followed him back down the hill. He walked a bit faster than I did and I caught him turning around to make sure I was still headed down. The whole situation was really quite amusing. :) It illustrated for me again the ownership and significance that the residents have in their work and in the farm.

The last night I was there I said a brief parting message to the whole group that was kindly translated into Japanese. I tried to convey how grateful I was for the opportunity and how much I appreciated their bright and smiling faces every day. After we were dismissed from dinner I was literally mobbed with people wanting to say goodbye to me. I got so many hugs and handshakes. I felt like a celebrity, it was so sweet. 

Again, I feel so privileged that I got to be a part of these special individuals' lives. Truthfully, I didn't quite know what to expect before I arrived. What I found at Coco Farm was a place that runs incredibly smoothly and a place that has created a routine that works well for the residents. It is a place where they feel safe, comfortable, and significant. Coco Farm is home. 

In the end, it was really hard to say sayonara. But I am back in Tokyo now with a farmer's tan and a full and happy heart. :)