Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Japan 2016: In Summary

This spring, I had the opportunity to accompany my family on a magical trip to Japan.

I joined up with my parents, sisters, cousins, aunts and Hannah to tour the cities of Tokyo, Kii-Katsuura, Osaka, Kyoto, Hiroshima, and Fukuoka.

We visited beautiful, ancient sites like Mt. Fuji, Nachi Falls, Kinkaku-ji and Itsukushima Shrine.

We enjoyed the fruits of Japan's modernity, including modern art, video games, bullet trains, thrilling nightlife and karaoke.

We had unique cultural experiences like sitting naked in a hot spring, sleeping on tatami mats, wandering through a forest of giant vinegar vats, drinking life-prolonging water, and eating Kobe beef (kind of).

Far and away my favorite part was meeting my large family in Japan - brothers and sisters of my grandparents and all their descendants. I will never forget walking up the stairs to a Buddhist temple my family had attended for generations, touching the old wooden house where my grandfather spent his childhood, or offering incense at the grave of my great-grandmother.

I hope that one day I can return to this place, so full of difference and familiarity and humanity and history, but nothing will replace the wonderful memories I made here in the spring of 2016.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016


We didn't spend much time in Fukuoka, but we had another family reunion with more family from my grandfather's side,

we walked along the beautiful Fukuoka waterfront and found a pretty cool international food festival,

put in one last late night with sushi, beers,

and of course, karaoke.

One final image that is central to understanding our time in Fukuoka: Jen dancing in a Japanese convenience store.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Ancestors, Part Three: The Old House

This is a photo of a Japanese family standing in front of its house in 1940. By 1940, this family had already lived through hardship, discovered a new world and come back to tell the tale. Unbeknownst to anyone in this photograph, this family was about to be torn apart by an ocean, a war, love, and life.

Most of the people in this photo have passed away, but the descendants of these people returned to this exact house seventy-six years later. I am one of those descendants.

After visiting our family's traditional temple, we drive down the road to see the house where my grandfather had spent his Japanese childhood. We passed a stream where he had played with his brothers and gazed at the green hills he saw every day.

Our Aunt Kimiko, my grandfather's younger sister (and my sister's namesake), showed us her old home and posed in front of it - that lady is a hoot. I thought we were going to ask the current residents to look around, but it turned out that the house was abandoned, its garden overgrown.

My grandfather, who had been born in the United States, returned there in August of 1941 and was interned a few months later after Japan declared war on the United States. He never lived in this house again. His youngest brother Kiyoji, who walked the grounds with us, had not even been born when my grandfather left - they first met when Kiyoji was in his twenties.

This old house felt heavy with memory and history, sad and proud.

Ancestors, Part Two: Kozenji Temple

My great grandfather traveled with his family to the United States to seek his fortune and while he was there, my grandfather was born. After doing well as strawberry farmers, the family moved back to Japan and set up shop in a little town in Fukuoka prefecture. They were the first family in the village to have a tile roof and my grandfather donated a large wooden stand for the bell at the local Buddhist temple.

We drove out to Yame in Fukuoka Prefecture to visit that temple, Kozenji.

On arrival, we were met by our cousins - descendants of our grandfather's brothers and sisters.

From the bridge where our bus parked, we hiked up a steep hill, and then up a flight of stairs that led to the temple.

The temple itself was beautiful and old. Not too ornate, but rather simple and homey. In the back there was a majestic garden with raked pebbles and a koi pond.

After meeting everyone, we went into the Sangha hall for a service observing the seven-year anniversary of the death of my grandfather's brother Kazumi as well as to honor our grandfather. Being raised as a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist in San Diego, a lot of the aspects of the service were surprisingly familiar. It was a powerful experience to be there in the same temple that my family had gone to for decades.

After the service, we went back into the temple's entry hall for a large traditional lunch. We all sat on pillows in a giant square and ate, laughed and chatted awkwardly in terrible Japanese/English.

After dinner, the temple minister's husband performed on flute for us.

We finished the day with a family photo: four generations, thirty-two people making up just a part of what started with my great-grand parents and has become a huge multi-national family.

We also took a photo with the bellstand that our great grandfather had donated. If that isn't cool then I don't know what is.

Although Kozenji temple is beautiful - the memorable part of the day was getting to know my family members, making lateral connections in a family tree that until now had just been vertical. It was so amazing to talk to my grandfather's brother and sister, who were both characters in their own ways. Being in that temple with my family made my Japanese ancestry, always theoretical, feel so real and personal. Our visit to Kozenji will not be one I will easily forget.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Thoughts on Hiroshima

Hannah and I got to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial as dusk was turning to night. The domed building almost immediately under the site of the explosion of the first nuclear attack in history was saved by the physics of the blast, but everyone inside and in the surrounding areas were killed instantly. It is a beautiful and haunting monument to the horrors of war and the hope for future peace.

As a Japanese-American and history major, the spot has a special but problematic significance for me. The argument for the use of the bomb in the years following World War II was that it had saved millions of lives by forcing Japanese surrender and preventing a bloody invasion of the Japanese home islands. However, scholarship since then has questioned whether it was even the bombs that prompted the Japanese surrender, but rather the entrance of the Soviet Union into the war.

Justified or not, effective or not, the destruction of Hiroshima is a testament to the terribleness of war. When warmongers and politicians speak lightly of "taking them out" or "flexing our military muscle" it trivializes the incomprehensible loss that can be so easily delivered by human hands. Despite experiencing two significant wars in my generation, two wars which have killed and maimed thousands of American soldiers, destroyed two countries and ruined or ended countless lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, they have only affected the majority of Americans in a minor way. Total war, in which entire cities are wiped out, fire and death rain down not on a television screen but above our own homes, and where the existence of our very civilization is placed in doubt - this is still a very real risk.

The dome is surrounded by a beautiful park, and the lights of the new Hiroshima sparkle in the distance, easing some of the worry I have for humankind.

Itsukushima Island

Itsukushima is a magical island that floats among the clouds off the coast of Hiroshima.

It is home to Itsukushima shrine, which is a beautiful temple that appears to be floating on water at high tide as the sea rises up under its walkways.

It is also home to wild deer that have no fear of humans and even less fear of Hannah.

This Is Not How You Eat Kobe Beef

Hannah and I stopped in Kobe for lunch. Kobe is maybe most famous for its strain of Wagyu beef, a delicacy that can go for up to $150 a pound.

Kobe cattle have been bred over centuries to hold a tender, well-marbled texture in their meat.

Unfortunately, Hannah and I didn't have the time or the pocket cash to stop at a steakhouse so I bought a touristy burger made from Kobe beef. It was pretty good, but certainly not the right way to eat the world's best beef.

Western Honshu By Bullet Train

The distance between Kyoto and Fukuoka is 322 miles as the crow flies. According to Google Maps, you could make the drive in a little under 8 hours, or you can take the Shinkansen and get there in 3.5 hours. We decided on the high speed (200 mph top speed) futuristic train.

WIth all the time saved by riding a bullet train, we had a flexible day, so we stopped in Kobe for lunch and Hiroshima for dinner, making a quick trip to Itsukushima for World Heritage Sites and deer!

We arrived in Fukuoka that evening for the last leg of our trip.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

The Temples of Kyoto

Kyoto was the imperial capital of Japan for 1000 years. Just imagine the timelessness of that for a moment. One thousand years of being the political, economic and cultural center of one of the world's greatest and longest-lasting civilizations. This millennium of history has left Kyoto with spots of grandeur, beauty and gravity that I don't know if I can say I've ever experienced before.

I was lucky enough to see three beautiful sites in historic Kyoto.

The first was Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion. Kinkaku-ji sits on a tranquil lake surrounded by colorful blossoms and perfectly-coiffured trees. I imagine this is what my estate would look like if I were a wealthy daimyo in medieval Japan. I also imagine everyone's grandma has this scene on a 1000 piece puzzle.

And we ran into our cousin Greg and his family! They just happened to be vacationing in Japan when our family was!

Ok, back to our regular programming. Our second visit was to Ryoan-ji, the Temple of the Dragon at Peace. after a beautiful stroll through a serene garden, we entered the temple, whose inner courtyard contained one of the best examples of dry landscape (kare-sansui) in the world. We sat and contemplated.

Our third and final stop had us hike up a steep market street filled with Chinese tourists wearing traditional kimonos (apparently it's a gimmicky tourist thing one can pay for). The hike was worth it because at the top of the hill was the impressive Kiyomizu-dera, ordered built by the third Tokugawa shogun.

Being in Japan during the spring is breathtaking.