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Japan, May 2013

Š 2013 Steve Solomon More information about Japanese culture:

Asakusa Sanja Matsuri: Mikoshi Bearers

These photos are from a trip back to Japan, in May 2013, to visit friends and to see what people were doing two years after the disastrous earthquake and tsunami on the East Coast. Even more rewarding than any of the sights and scenes in traveling to Japan are the daily personal interactions with so many kind, curious and helpful people. If you visit Japan, please don’t worry about getting a lot done; just relax and accept life as it happens.

Edo-Tokyo Museum: Nihonbashi Bridge


Prayer tablets in front of a shrine at Shinobuyama

The word on the flag, “Ganbare,” is a word of encouragement that has become a slogan since March 11.

Hang in There! The sign by our hotel elevator read: Lobby 0.07 microsieverts per hour Rooms 0.06 microsieverts per hour to reassure the patrons that the background radiation in the hotel was now down to only about five times that of New York City. Fukushima City, the capital of the large prefecture with the same name, has come a long way since the famous nuclear plant 40 miles away on the coast exploded and a cloud of radioactive cesium was blown northwest, dumping its load on the capital. This was happening at the same time as a major earthquake and massive tsunami ravaged almost the entire coast of northeastern Japan.

The world media quickly forgot about the awful tidal wave to focus on the nuclear disaster, and the Japanese government seemed to lack the resources to effectively deal with both at the same time. Minimal efforts were expended to clean radioactive fallout embedded in roofs and streets in and around the capital, and many families fled the area for other parts of Japan in fear of dangers to their children’s health.

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Do-it-Yourself Decontamination But most couldn’t leave, and after a period of numbness mixed with despair, they began to take charge of the situation themselves. A Buddhist priest from a nearby Zen temple suggested that they calmly look at the situation in front of them and work to deal with that. So they put on raincoats, gloves, masks, and snow boots, and with scrub brushes and high pressure hoses neighborhood groups went out each day to clean up the cesium from school yards and children’s pathways to school. They filled canisters with the radioactive mud and took it up to the temple for storage.

When I arrived, Fukushima residents were going about their business with the courage, hopefullness, persistence and good cheer that have always been part of the Japanese personality. Although for longtime residents it is still a concern, for tourists visiting Fukushima I think the radiation is not so much of a problem, and the city and prefecture are interesting and beautiful places to see and experience.

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         Shinkansen Ticket Gate Fukushima City is a lively place, with large department stores, upscale shopping, and lots of food choices. It is surrounded by a countryside which is one of the major producers in Japan of delicious fruit, especially peaches. Since the disaster, farmers and fruit growers have taken such pains to insure the lack of contamination of their produce that consumers in the city trust their products more than food from anywhere else. The area is also famous for its many hot spring resorts, which are doing a

thriving business nowadays to relax the stressed-out locals as well as to benefit tourists to the region. The capital city is right on the major Shinkansen Bullet train’s Tohoku Line, and is reachable from Tokyo in about an hour and a half, and from there it’s only another twenty minutes to Sendai. The Tohoku region has raised some famous racehorses, and the large, modern track in Fukushima City hosts major races several times a year.

Statue in front of Fukushima Station near the bus terminal: Yuji Koseki, Fukushima native and composer of music for films, including the famous “Mothra’s song” for the original 1961 movie

Local Buses and Trains It’s fairly easy to get around the city by bus or local train line. Buses board at the back, where you take a little ticket, then exit at the front where you pay based on the distance traveled. Prepaid bus cards and electronic card readers at the back and front make it even easier.

Local train lines are a clean and pleasant ride. Remember to hold onto your ticket to give to the conductor when you get off.

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Shinobuyama Park A short bus ride from the train station to the edge of town can take you to a large mountain area, with famous shrines and a nice hike through the woods. Besides religious artworks, in Japan even manhole covers are a medium appreciated for beautiful design, and examples of both can be found on the mountain.

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Fukushima Prefectural Art Museum Only two stops on the local train line from Fukushima Station is a great art museum with a large associated library. The current exhibits are always fascinating, but the permanent exhibits hold a surprising variety of Western masterworks. On my first visit I stood laughing for many minutes at the wonderful wild scene on the Coney Island swings in a painting of Steeplechase Park by Reginald Marsh. On the adjoining wall were three scenes of realism and beauty by Andrew Wyeth, and on the next wall,

Ben Shahn’s playful pictures. In May these had been replaced by Chagall and several more American masters, as well as three or four by great French impressionists like Monet. My favorite room often features wonderful works of early twentieth century Japanese artists like Sakai Sanryo, whose long scrolls and hanging scrolls depict scenes of country life in China and Japan.

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Konbini [Convenience Stores] Sometimes it seems like every few blocks there’s another konbini, and visitors to Japan inevitably find themselves relying on them for all sorts of items. There are bento lunches and suppers as well as a hundred varieties of canned coffee and bottled tea, shelves of manga, newpapers and magazines, toothpaste, bandages and batteries, postage stamps, and many baked goods.

Rather than heading out tired to a restaurant, I often asked them to microwave one of the dinners for me and took it up to my hotel room. They are also an excellent resource when you are running around the city and suddenly need a restroom. And like everywhere else in Japan people behind the counters are friendly and helpful.

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Shinkansen It’s always a pleasure to ride the Shinkansen. Be sure to arrive at the platform early, because there are so many cars and the platform is so long that you may need to

walk quite a distance to stand where you car will stop, and the train usually only stops for a very brief time.


        Recent Events In the far Northeast Coast of the main island of Japan live a kind and generous people with courage and strong spirit, and in March 2011 they were called upon to prove it. Most of their homes, schools, and businesses were located in Kamaishi’s valleys, around which steep mountain cliffs rose on two or three sides, leaving a path for the sea to move into land over six miles in a giant wall of water. The March 11th Earthquake and tsunami took many lives, too many whose bodies were never found, and it displaced people from their homes and livelihoods.

Some survivors left entirely, but many of the displaced residents have found shelter in temporary housing units which look similar to long, wide construction trailers, each housing five or more family units. There has been a push to move to higher ground, and large stone tablets have been erected to warn future generations of the extent to which the waters came. Still, they have traditionally made a living from fishing, and their boats are back out on the water again.

Mountain Railroad In December we left blizzards behind as the local line down to the seacoast passed through little villages growing in small gaps in the mountains. Topiary gardens in the yards along the way enlivened the scene even in midwinter and as we approached the sea the snow disappeared. I had seen a video on Japanese Public Television about a group of newspaper people who had lost their homes, families, and their newspaper building all in the course of one day. During that time of their own confusion and pain, they began to hear pleas from the displaced for some way to keep in touch with one another and to know what was happening in the area. Especially for elderly residents of widely scattered temporary housing clusters, the situation had become very isolating and lonely. So the editor gathered about a dozen of the paper’s former employees, who put together their funds and began to publish a small newspaper called the Recovery Kamaishi Newspaper.

When first created, it was a helpful medium to publish lists of the missing and other important information. It is now quite lively, with interesting color photos, stories of local events, notices from residents and advertising. Although the newspaper goes out to 18,500 households, the staff stuffs in advertising sections by hand and delivers it all personally to readers twice weekly. Being a graphic artist with some free time, I had decided to head up north to volunteer as an illustrator for the paper, if they needed one.

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        Kamaishi Shinbun Newspaper Expecting a large building, I asked officers at the police station for directions and they drew me a quick map to the newspaper, but I got lost, and finding my path by the side of the tracks ending at the bottom of a sheer cliff, almost gave up finding them on that frigid day. But after crossing the tracks to ask at a gas station, and then looking back to where I had been, I saw on a hill a little house with the name of the newspaper in the window! The staff, seeing me cold and tired, had me remove my shoes, sit and have a nice cup of hot green tea. Having lost their building, they now worked upstairs in the editor’s home.

They were warm and friendly and asked to know where I had come from and what I was doing in Japan. Although apparently they didn’t really need my illustrations in such a small publication, we chatted for quite a while and enjoyed one another’s company. Soon it was about time to walk back to the station, but my new friend suggested he drive me on his way to delivering papers. On the way he wanted to show me what had happened in the major port area of town. While much of the rubble had been cleared, buildings stood like skeletons, the contents having been completely gutted by the wave.

        Reunion The following spring I returned to Kamaishi to see how they were doing. Next to the station was a lunch room with a large complex model train set featuring major Kamaishi sights. This town depends more on cars and buses for local transportation than Tokyo, with its multiple subway lines and hundreds of stations. Still, the love of railroads thoroughly permeates Japanese culture, and entire floors of bookstores are devoted to books and videos about each type of engine and rail car, as well as toys, pins, labels, and other railroad-related items.

Fearing they would have no time to see me, I called and asked permission to walk to the house to simply say hello. Instead, my friend came out to meet me at the station, and we had a great time chatting with the editor, comparing cameras and looking at photos of a previous trip to Japan. Having the afternoon off, my friend and I began to drive farther around town than we had in December.

The Valleys That previous winter I had also stood with a friend at a shrine on a high cliff overlooking the bay at Fukuoka. Below us the fleets of Genghis Khan had tried unsuccessfully to conquer twice, but giant tidal waves had been more successful in their invasions. My friend said that this is one of the purposes for shrines on high hills and mountains, as a refuge for the people below. Kamaishi also had little mountain shrines, reached by stairways on the steep mountain sides, and had constructed multi-story shelters in the valleys for escape should a wave breach the thick, high tsunami barriers built along the coast. Nothing in their own lifetimes had prepared them, however, for the height of the sea which would result from the

major earthquake of March 11. People who made it to the shelter did not survive, and the entire valley around it remained only as flat foundations. A famous photo by a Kamaishi Shinbun photographer who lived closeby shows the miraculous escape of school children to higher ground as a wall of water swells up behind them. My friend had survived by swimming a long distance to safety through the inky dark churning water. As we drove through each valley the horrific scene remained the same, and the thick tidal barriers lay scattered and broken into pieces. I didn’t take any photos of the scene. There were already many, and it was almost too heart-breaking to witness.

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Dai Kannon On a hill above the bay is an enormous and beautiful structure in the shape of Kannon, the feminine compassionate aspect of God, who is thought of in the West as the Goddess of Mercy. Here in her arms she holds a fish. Fishermen at sea focus their prayers toward her for safe return, and those of us on the land can climb steps up to the fish and gaze out over the bay. On the way up, circling a large landing are representations of Kannon from different parts of the Buddhist world, each with an astonishingly different personality.

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        Buddha’s Relics Next to the Dai Kannon is a stupa holding some of Buddha’s ashes donated by a sister temple in Sri Lanka. On the first floor are beautifully carved Sri Lanka style statues, but the big surprise is downstairs. In a circle sit stone images of founders and leaders of each of the major Buddhist sects, all coexisting in harmony. We find this sort of thing in the West too. American religious institutions frequently have beautiful inter-faith services in which religious leaders of different faiths and denominations lead us in sermon, prayer, and song. These gatherings are very inspiring; I think that perhaps we could try some of Kamaishi’s ideas to remind us of these experiences.


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Edo-Tokyo Museum The huge Edo-Tokyo Museum covers Tokyo’s history from its beginning in the sixteenth century as Edo, on through its natural disasters, destruction during bombing in the Second World War, and reconstruction. Most of its exhibits concentrate on the city’s early history, into which visitors walk by crossing a full-scale replica of the Nihonbashi Bridge, made famous by countless Japanese prints. Carefully crafted models of Edo neighborhoods feature several thousand individually

designed figures representing people from every corner of society, involved in their daily lives. There is so much detail that binoculars are available at the sides of the large tables. Helpful volunteer guides speaking many languages can walk with you and explain the cultural context of the objects large and small. It’s possible to spend several fascinating hours in the museum and still have more to see.

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Edo-Tokyo Museum

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Exhibits for the Blind Maps inside train stations display important information, such as exits leading to different parts of town, restrooms and ticket gates. Sometimes for the benefit of the blind, these maps are molded out of thick metal for reading by hand. Museums also use tactile displays to explain exhibits which cannot be approached, such as the giant statue in the air by the Nihonbashi Bridge.

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Sumo Grand Tournament Around the block from the EdoTokyo Museum, excitement ran high at the hall where Japanese and foreign visitors of every age and nationality waited for tickets to the Grand Sumo Tournament, held for two weeks three times a year in Tokyo and for another two weeks each in Fukuoka and Osaka. Sumo is a Japanese wrestling sport with a long tradition and interesting Shinto rituals, but there are now high-ranking wrestlers from other countries, including a talented huge Egyptian of the Islamic faith.

The two top ranking men are from Mongolia and have worked their way up by training in Japanese “stables” in the usual manner. Sumo is a popular sport with children as well, and many serious young wrestlers look forward to professional careers. Although there are many women sumo wrestlers, they are not yet allowed into the professional venues.

Sumo! To win a match in sumo a wrestler must either push his opponent out of the circular ring or cause him to touch the floor with anything other than his feet.

a wrestler is pushed out of the ring and ends up splayed out on top of an unfortunate fan. This does not seem to discourage men and women from sitting in those rows.

Spectators on the ground floor sit in groups around the ring, on square cushions with their friends. One must be over eighteen (and somewhat courageous) to sit in the first row, because frequently

There are no weight classes like we have in Western wrestling, so small, wiry men are frequently challenging the big guys.

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Shitamachi Museum Shitamachi, meaning “lower town” and referring to the flatlands east of the Sumida River, has since Edo times been a center for shopping and entertainment, and the home of craftsmen and merchants. The Shitamachi Museum in Ueno Park contains full-size replicas of old merchant homes and even the entrance to a public bath donated by the bath’s owner. Other items from the early 20th century were donated by the public to furnish the rooms. A family’s candy shop is attached to their home, with the same Japanese sweets found in such shops today.

Absorbed in viewing the displays from those earlier times, I noticed a mother and her two young daughters examining a little room that had been decked out to represent a tiny living room from the 1950s. It had an oldfashioned black-and-white television on the floor, and as the girls touched the furnishings with great interest, it seemed to me that artifacts from that era might be as ancient and interesting to them as those from a hundred years ago were to me.

     Kamishibai Storytelling Storytelling with pictures was common in the days before widespread literacy, but revitalized in the first half of the twentieth century. At that time storytellers would park their bicycles in a neighborhood, and call the children around to listen to and watch a dramatic story presented on illustrated slide boards in a little stage on the back of the bikes. The boards were beautifully painted and told imaginative stories of heroes, ghosts, and monsters; and the storyteller would slide them in one after another while reciting the roles dramatically, sometimes with accompaniment of a drum. They would make money by selling the children delicious candies from a drawer beneath the stage.

In recent years some young people have apprenticed themselves to the few remaining kamishibai storytellers, and the Shitamachi Museum has invited one to do performances. It was very exciting, and affected us on a deeper level than cinema can normally reach, in part because the storyteller could respond to his audience in timing and intonation. Both children and parents were quite delighted.

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Asakusa Sanja Matsuri A large festival in May centering on Asakusa Shrine and Sensoji temple draws a thousand families for three days of prayer, religious celebration and energizing events. Three heavy one-ton portable shrines, known as mikoshi, are hoisted on the shoulders of over three dozen people and carried through the old Asakusa area of Tokyo.

A hundred smaller such shrines are also carried around through the neighborhoods, stopping frequently to bestow their blessings on the shops; and the sound of flutes, taiko drums, chanting, and laughter fills the air.

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Mikoshi Like the giant mikoshi, hundreds of lighter ones are also carried by volunteers. It still requires endurance and skill, and often involves some fancy footwork, but people consider it an honor to take part. Each group has its own distinctive pattern of clothing and style of footstep. There are groups that even insist that going barefoot through the streets is better and more enjoyable. Shorter bearers lay blocks on their shoulders to reach the poles.

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Children’s Mikoshi Some mikoshi were made light enough for children to use, but the kids above were too small to actually lift it.

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Odaiba The children in the front car could pretend they were driving as our robot-controlled train on the Yurikamome Line passed above some of the Japan’s most unusual architecture. We were all heading to various stops on Odaiba. A man-made island in Tokyo Bay and only really built up in the last twenty years, it was able to avoid Tokyo’s centuries of haphazard planning and

construction and evolve in a rather futuristic way. Pedestrian walkways are well planned, and there are residences and fancy hotels; but the big attractions on the island are unusual museums, exhibitions halls, beaches, and family entertainment spots.

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National Museum of Emerging Science The Miraikan (Museum of the Future) aims to interactively teach the most up-to-date science ideas and new techniques. Biology, robotics, information sciences, space and deep sea exploration are all hands-on exhibits, and multilingual staff assist visitors. A giant earth globe is visible from several levels as well as from below, where visitors lie on couches enjoying a show that takes place across its entire surface of ten million pixels. Current global weather patterns flow around the world as night turns to day. Tsunami waves spread, ocean temperatures and chlorophyll patterns

are displayed. Earthquake fault lines and atmospheric oxygen and carbon dioxide conditions can be projected and explained. It is a sublime learning experience. In a related project that they call “Tsunagari” (Connections), tables containing large computer touch screens allow children and adults to interactively explore hundreds of types of data, such as pollution, city development, and fish migration patterns.

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Internet Machine A machine called “Terminal” is a simple model of the internet that helps children understand it in an enjoyable, physical way. They pick a sequence of five white and black balls to represent a package of data and send them rolling to one of five different terminals, from which they can be forwarded to the others.

Adults learn as much as the children, and most of the exhibits are fascinating for both.

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Museum of Maritime Science At the time of my visit the museum building, about the same size and shape of an ocean liner, was closed for renovation; but docked closeby are two facinating historical ships, which visitors are invited to tour. One is a ferry formerly employed to carry passengers from the largest of Japan’s four main islands to Hokkaido in the north. Instead, I boarded the smaller craft, christened “Soya” and used as an

antarctic research vessel. We were able to walk through the entire vessel and peer into each room, which has been kept in the original state as last used. Japanese love to create very lifelike images of people to inhabit such spaces, and here they included ship’s captain, doctor and patient, cook and dishwasher.

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Ship’s Medical Officer A complete x-ray–equipped clinic with doctor and pharmacy was a necessity on voyages to the South Pole.

Photo courtesy of Miraikan staff

Visitors to the Miraikan can climb into an actual-size model of the Shinkai 6500 submersible, in which researchers went to the ocean’s farthest depths.

     Yakushi Ike Koen Machida, set in rolling hills a half hour southwest of Tokyo, is one of the areas to which big-city folks can escape when seeking forests and fresh air. There are parks for children and picnics, and there is also a beautiful large botanical garden with no entrance fees, called Yakushi Pond Park.

I joined a watercolor class for a full day of painting and sketching. The students were all wonderful artists with a great sense of humor and comradeship. After separating to paint in different spots, we joined together again to admire each other’s work and listen to the instructor’s critiques.

Thank you for traveling along with me... Steve

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Japan, May 2013  
Japan, May 2013  

Photo journal from Fukushima, Kamaishi, and Tokyo, exploring the current conditions two years after the East Japan earthquake and tsunami;...