Kyushu Trip, Day 3 – Shimabara & Kumamoto

Kyushu Trip – Day 2 is here.

Today was mostly a traveling day – train, bus and ferry.

I left Nagasaki in the morning to go to Kumamoto. First I took the train to Shimabara, east of Nagasaki and on the shore of the inner Ariake sea. You take the JR Kamome Line to Isahaya (20 minutes) and transfer to the local Shimabara Tetsudo Line (1 hour), a quaint yellow local train that ambles around the Shimabara peninsula stopping at many deserted stations along the way.

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Tetsudo Shimabara Line

Shimabara Castle

I stopped at Shimabara to visit the local castle, a 10-minute walk from the station. This castle was built in the early 17th century, along with the surrounding village. In 1637 it suffered a massive attack during the Shimabara Rebellion, led by Christians tired of being persecuted. Then, in 1792, a powerful earthquake followed by a giant tsunami wave, as well as a volcano eruption (the so-called Shimabara Catastrophe, 15,000 dead), hit the castle. During the Meiji Restoration the castle was deserted and only in the 1960s was the castle was reconstructed and it now dominates the sleepy town of Shimabara.

A visit to the castle is similar to visits to any castle in Japan: a few floors of the typical exhibits: swords, samurai armor, paintings, written scrolls, pottery, etc. And then the requisite observation deck at the top. To the west rises Mount Unzen, an active volcano, ominously shrouded by clouds, that last erupted in 1991. To the east is the inner Ariake sea, which I am about to cross with a ferry to get to Kumamoto. On the castle grounds is an exhibition of statues by a local sculptor, Seibo Kitamura, some of them rather disconcerting.

Admission to the castle is 520 Yen, and it takes 30-40 minutes to visit it.

Shimabara-Kumamoto Ferry

There are a couple of companies operating ferries between Shimabara and Kumamoto. The port (Shimabara Gaikou) is 3 stops away from Shimabara Station.I took the Ocean Arrow ferry, which runs six times daily. It takes 30 minutes and costs 1,300 Yen, including the bus ticket from Kumamoto port to the city (another 20 minutes).

Kumamoto Castle / Katou Shrine

Most of the sightseeing spots in Kumamoto are now closed to the public, following the two strong earthquakes that hit here last April (50 dead, 3,000 injured). Kumamoto Castle was heavily damaged, so it is fenced off, including the other sites within the castle grounds, such as the samurai Hosokawa Mansion. I took a walk around the castle grounds, and into the adjoining Katou Shrine – with its beautiful white Torii gate – which provided views of some of the castle buildings.

It seemed like many Japanese heeded the call to come to Kumamoto to support the local economy after the earthquake, because there were thousands of tourists on the castle grounds. Many food stalls, as well as the customary shrine stalls, were erected to help raise money. Kumamon, the local mascot, is everywhere you look. For those of you not familiar with Japan’s fascination with mascots, suffice it to say that after the earthquake the first reaction of many Japanese was: “Is Kumamon OK?”.

I’m staying at a business hotel near Kumamoto Station. Convenient for leaving with the Shinkansen, but if you plan to stay longer than one night in Kumamoto, a better location would be downtown, in the Shimotori area, where the alleged “longest shopping arcade in Japan” is located.

 

Kyushu Trip – Days 4&5 is here.

Kyushu Trip, Day 2 – Nagasaki

Kyushu Trip – Day 1 is here.

Day 2 in Nagasaki, exploring the sights south of Nagasaki Station. I did a lot of walking today…

Glover Garden

The morning was planned for a cruise tour of Gunkanjima (see below), but as I arrived early at the cruise ship terminal, I decided to do Glover Garden first.

The garden – a collection of western houses set on the Minami-Yamate hill overlooking Nagasaki Harbor – is named after Thomas Glover, a Scotsman who came here in the mid-19th century, aged only 21, and proceeded to build a fortune in coal mining, shipbuilding and tea trade. He is known as “the father of Japanese beer”, and myth has it that the creature on the logo of Kirin beer sports a mustache in his honor… Glover married a Japanese woman, and the family is buried in a special plot in the Sakamoto International Cemetery, which I visited yesterday. The Glover house is apparently reminiscent of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, and a statue of the opera master is on display.

Glover’s is not the only western residence in Minami-Yamate. Other colonial-looking houses belonged to foreigners, mainly Brits, who also lived here. These residences were restored in the 1970s and are surrounded by beautiful, immaculately maintained, gardens. The views of Nagasaki from the hilltop are also beautiful.

Admission is 610 Yen, and it takes 40-50 minutes to properly see the entire compound.

Oura Cathedral

Adjacent to Glover Garden is Nagasaki’s most imposing Catholic Church – the Oura Cathedral. Last year it celebrated its 150th anniversary. The church was dedicated to the 26 martyrs who were crucified in Nagasaki in 1597 (I visited their memorial site yesterday). It is not allowed to take pictures inside the church, but it is exquisite. It lacks the grandeur (and the height) of the big European cathedrals, and it’s more wood than brick, which in my mind makes it less awe-inspiring but more welcoming. Next to the church is the former school of divinity, itself an impressive building.

Admission to the church is 600 Yen.

Gunkanjima (Battleship Island)

It was time to head back to the wharf to catch the cruise to Gunkanjima, also known as Hashima Island. Coal was discovered here in the early 19th century, and after Mitsubishi bought the island, a full-scale coal mining operation began. In the 1950s the island was home to more than 5,000 people. It had a school, a hospital, a post office, a shrine… everything required to support the families that called Hashima their home.

When the last mine closed, in 1974, the island was abandoned. Left to the forces of nature – the sea, the winds and, most devastatingly, the typhoons – the buildings on the island were slowly destroyed. Its eerie silhouette earned it the nickname “battleship island”. It became famous worldwide after the 2012 James Bond movie “Skyfall” was shot here.

There are several companies operating cruises to the island; I used Concierge. They have two tours daily, each about 3 hours long, costing 4,300 Yen. The journey to the island takes almost an hour (faster on the way back), and the guides constantly bombard the passengers with information about the island and its history (audio guides in English are available, but do not provide much information). On the island itself there are 3 observation posts; wandering around the island is forbidden due to danger of collapse. This cruise is an interesting, and very different, aspect of visiting Nagasaki. I realize it’s not for everyone, especially as the tour is all in Japanese.

Holland Slope / Misaki Road

Getting off the cruise I headed to Oranda-zaka (Holland Slope), which is nearby Glover Garden. This is a steep, stone-paved road that was the center street of the foreign settlement in Nagasaki. It is named so because many of the residents along it were Dutch.

Frankly, this famous road is somewhat of a disappointment. It’s OK, but after Glover Garden it’s an anti-climax. It’s no big deal to walk it so no harm done as it’s on the way to the center of Nagasaki anyway.

While in the neighborhood I looked for the Nagasaki Synagogue. I didn’t have much information and none was available at the tourist office (and very little online). I knew it was in the Umegasaki-Machi neighborhood, so I walked there from Oranda-zaka. This unplanned walk led me to one of the most charming areas of Nagasaki: Misaki Road, which is basically a slope of stairs leading down from Orandazaka to Chinatown. The tiny alleys and old houses along this quiet street were quite the unexpected gem of the day.

The Nagasaki Synagogue, the first in Japan, was called Bet Shalom (House of Peace), and was established in 1894. I didn’t find it because it’s no longer there. After the Jews left Nagasaki (most of them following the Russo-Japanese war, and others after World War 1),  the building was sold and later demolished to make way for houses. I found a signpost with some information on the street that the synagogue used to be.

Chinatown

Nagasaki’s Chinatown is one of the largest in Japan, and the oldest one, as the city was open to Chinese trade even during the period of isolation. It still retains a strong Chinese influence, but looks like most other Chinatowns: many restaurants, campon and udon sellers, and many tacky toy shops. It is packed with tourists, so I left it in an hurry and walked to the nearby old Chinese quarter.

This area, known as Taijin-Yashiki, is a rundown area of Nagasaki. There are several buildings and shrines from the time when it was a bustling quarter of Chinese merchants and vendors, but even these look somewhat shabby and under-maintained compared to other sights in Nagasaki.

Central Nagasaki

The central area of Nagasaki is composed of several neighborhoods, predominantly Hamano-Machi (long shopping street), Shian-Bashi (nightlife area) and the surrounding area. There is not much to see here besides window-shopping and people-watching.

One of the attractions in the area is Megane-Bashi (Spectacles Bridge), which stands out from the other bridges because of its two arches. When reflected in the water they make perfect circles resembling spectacles. Many Japanese couples come here to tread carefully on the stepping stones to the middle of the river and take a selfie with the bridge in the background.

Sofukuji Temple and Kofukuji Temple

These two temples are a little off the beaten track, but well worth a visit.

Sofukuji Temple is an impressive Shinto shrine, southeast of central Nagasaki. It has imposing red gates framing the steep staircase leading up to the temple. As this was January 2nd, there were many Japanese there for their Hatsumode (first shrine visit of the year).

Kofukuji Temple is north of the central area, and is a Chinese Buddhist temple. It dates back to the 17th century and is Nagasaki’s oldest temple and the first Zen temple in Japan. Built by merchants from China’s Ming dynasty, it was home to famous Zen masters and many monks flocked here for their training. It was different, in appearance and even in smell, from the the many Shinto temples around the city.

That’s it for Nagasaki. I’m off to Kumamoto tomorrow morning.

Kyushu Trip – Day 3 is here.

Kyushu Trip, Day 1 – Nagasaki

I took a morning flight from Kobe to Nagasaki, a 1-hour flight on Skymark Airlines (a Japanese LCC), arriving in Nagasaki just after 10:30am. A limousine bus (900 Yen) takes you from Nagasaki Airport to Nagasaki Station, with several stops in central Nagasaki on the way. After checking in to the hotel (JR Kyushu Hotel, inside Nagasaki Station; it doesn’t get more convenient than this), I set out – on my first day here – to explore the sights north of Nagasaki Station.

Nagasaki Trams

Getting around in Nagasaki is easy, as most tourist sights are covered by trams (120 Yen per ride, you pay upon exiting, exact change only; or a 500 Yen day ticket). The central area of Nagasaki is not very big, so walking – my favorite mode of transportation when exploring a new place – is also an option. The Nagasaki trams take you back in time several decades, if not longer. Apparently the city collects trams from other cities in Japan that have moved on to more modern forms of transportation (i.e. subways), so the eclectic mix of these single-carriage trams are a unique feature of the city. Old but functioning. Even the 1950s speakers announcing the stations, and playing background music in between, still work!

 

Peace Park

Most people know Nagasaki as the second – and, to date, last – city to have been obliterated with an atomic bomb. Nagasaki was not the first target of the Americans on that fateful day, August 9, 1945. Captain Charles Sweeney’s mission was to bomb Kokura, a city in northern Kyushu, but smoke prevented him from visually confirming the target so he headed south for the secondary target: Nagasaki. (By the way, Kokura was lucky twice, as the city was itself the secondary target on August 6, 1945, after Hiroshima).

The Nagasaki Peace Park is reachable by the trams traveling north from Nagasaki Station (lines 1, 2 and 3), and the closest stop is Matsuyama-Machi. The park consists of two main areas: one is the park itself, with the famous Peace Statue and other memorials; the other is the epicenter memorial and the Atomic Bomb Museum.

If you’ve seen the museum in Hiroshima, the Nagasaki one might be somewhat underwheming. For me, because I recently read Susan Southard’s excellent book on the Nagasaki bombing, many of the exhibits (and the names of the Hibakusha, atomic bomb survivors) were familiar, making it a moving experience. I was also touched by the minimalistic, yet powerful, epicenter memorial: a black pillar surrounded by wide circular steps, a symbol of the bomb’s outward-radiating power.

The park is free; admission to the museum is 200 Yen. It takes a couple of hours to walk through the park and visit the museum.

 

Jewish Cemetery

Nagasaki was home to the first Jewish community in Japan. After Commodore Perry forced Japan to end its isolation and open up for trade, the port cities in Japan saw an influx of foreign merchants – chiefly among them them Nagasaki, which already had a long history of foreign settlement (mainly Dutch and Portuguese). Among these were Jews, mainly Russians, who established a community here in the late 19th century, numbering at around a 100 families. The first synagogue in Japan, Bet Shalom, was built in Nagasaki.

Unlike the Jewish cemetery in Kobe (which I wrote about here), the Jewish one in the Sakamoto International Cemetery – called Bet Olam (“eternal home”) – is a very small one; I counted about 30-40 tombstones. Most of the dates on the tombstones are around 1900, and a large number of them died very young (in their 40s, some in their 20s). On several of the tombstones the inscriptions are illegible. I said a few psalms of Tehilim in memory of the dead buried there, and regretted there was no minyan to be able to say kaddish.

The Sakamoto International Cemetery is about halfway between the Peace Park and Nagasaki Station. The closest tram stations are Urakami-Eki-Mae or Mori-Machi. The cemetery is a short walk up a steep hill, and the Jewish plot is right at the entrance (to the right).

 

Nishizaka Hill

Another first for Nagasaki: Christianity made its debut in Japan here, in the middle of the 16th century. Portuguese Catholic missionaries landed here and initially were free to practice their faith and convert Japanese to Christianity. But things changed when the Tokugawa Shogunate took over, and Christians suffered from repeated persecutions and murder.

The most famous incident was the crucifixion of 26 Roman Catholics – 6 of them foreign Franciscan missionaries, and the rest Japanese converts, including 3 young boys – on Nishizaka Hill. The story reverberated throughout the Christian world and eventually the victims were martyred and canonized by the Roman Catholic Church (in the mid-19th century). On the site of the crucifixion stands an impressive memorial with life-like statues of the 26. Behind the memorial is a small museum. Also on this hill is the San Filippo Church, with turrets reminiscent of the famous Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

 

Fuchi Shrine / Nagasaki Ropeway / Mount Inasa

Across the Urakami-Gawa river is Mount Inasa, with the famous Nagasaki Ropeway leading to the observatory at the top. Before taking the ropeway, the adjacent Fuchi Shrine is well worth a visit. I was lucky to be here on January 1st, when many Japanese make their Hatsumode, the first visit to the shrine in the new year.

Fuchi Shrine is neatly tucked into the mountain side, with several secondary “mini shrines” a short climb up the mountain path. The main shrine is in typical Shinto style, complete with the purifying water, the hanging Ema (wooden plaques) and the mandatory bell, faithfully jingled by every visitor.

The cable car ride up the mountain takes less than 5 minutes, during which the Japanese attendant explains about the ropeway and the observatory (with English recordings following her explanations). The observatory at the top is a circular one, giving a 360-degree view of Nagasaki city to the east and the Sumo-Nada sea to the west. I timed it so I would get to the top a little before sunset, to watch both the sunset on one side and then the city night view on the other.

The night view of Nagasaki from Mount Inasa is labeled as one of the “top three night views in the world” (along with Hong Kong and Monaco). I don’t know who rates these night views and how Nagasaki made it to the top three, but it is certainly a most impressive view. I spent more than an hour on the top, watching the day turn into night, and it was a majestic spectacle of nature. Luckily, it was a clear day so visibility was good.

A round-trip ticket on the ropeway is 1,23o Yen. One can also climb up (or walk down) using the “promenade”, convenient stairs carved into the mountain.

 

Kyushu Trip – Day 2 is here.

Train Schedule

I took this photo at Shinagawa station in Tokyo. It shows the upcoming Shinkansen (bullet train) departures.

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At the bottom is a notice, in Japanese and in English, about a planned suspension of service. The trains will stop for 1 hour on Dec. 18, for safety checks.

The interesting part is that I took this photo on Nov. 29. Fully three weeks in advance (and probably longer) of the planned 1-hour suspension in service.

This is a great example of the almost impeccable train service in Japan, especially the Shinkansen lines. Punctuality is of utmost importance, so meticulous planning – such as this scheduled safety check – is de rigeur. Sometimes this fervor for punctuality can lead to tragic consequences, but mostly it leads to unparalleled predictability in train schedules. In fact, the average annual delay in Shinkansen trains, country-wide, is less than 1 minute (!). That’s on a network that transports more than 350 million passengers annually over almost 3,000 kilometers of lines.

(This is a post in the series “Why Japan is the Closest Place to Paradise“)

Tokyo Photography Exhibition

If you are in Tokyo between now and 29 January 2017, I recommend a visit to the “Tokyo, Tokyo and TOKYO” photography exhibition at TOP Museum (Tokyo Photographic Art Museum), located in Yebisu Garden Place. I went there yesterday and enjoyed it very much.

Actually, there are two exhibitions under the “Tokyo, Tokyo and TOKYO” name. The one on the 3rd floor is a collection of some of the best works in the museum’s archives. The one on the 2nd floor is a collection of contemporary works.

Combined, these two exhibitions provide an incredible experience of Tokyo-focused photographs over the last few decades, ranging from landscapes to people to close-ups, by different artists with different approaches.

Restaurant Seats

This is a photo I took at a Tokyo restaurant yesterday, Sunday lunch time:

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People line up to order their salad, pay, pick up their order and then, if they choose to eat in, they take a seat at one of several tables. So far so good.

Now note the two empty seats at the table, near the end of the line. The restaurant was full, and these were they only seats available. With about eight people standing in line, it is clear that those at the end of the line will likely not have a seat by the time they finish the ordering process.

What would typically happen in such cases? Those people at the end of the line, conveniently standing next to the empty seats, would try to first grab these seats, putting their coat or bag on the chairs, and only then proceed to order. Right?

Well, not in Japan. The people standing next to the two empty seats will (mostly) not grab them. Other people got there first, so it’s only right those people should have the seats. It’s called good manners.

(This is a post in the series “Why Japan is the Closest Place to Paradise“)

Candles

Tealight candles are just tealight candles, right?

When we moved to Japan, we brought lots of stuff with us from Israel, including tealight candles for using as Shabbat candles:

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When those ran out, we bought the ubiquitous GLIMMA tealight candles from the local Ikea store:

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Then, when the Ikea candles ran out I ordered tealight candles from Amazon Japan. This time from a local Japanese manufacturer called Kameyama:

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And that’s when I realized tealight candles are not all made the same.

Candle wicks are made of cotton, which catch light immediately but are sometimes hard to light up because they droop. (Those who bought cheap Hanukkah candles in Israel will know exactly what I mean). So many candle makers will pour a little hot wax on the wicks during the manufacturing process, so that when the wax dries the wick is straight and doesn’t droop. It makes it easier to apply a flame to the wick this way, but it also takes a second or so longer for the flame to melt through the wax and light the wick. Both the Israeli and Ikea tealight candles have waxed wicks.

But the Japanese manufacturer, Kameyama, characteristically took this a tiny step further. When they wax the wick, they leave a tiny portion on the top un-waxed. This results in a wick that is both straight but also lights up instantly, because the flame catches the unexposed cotton wick immediately.

Ahh… the small things in life.

(This is a post in the series “Why Japan is the Closest Place to Paradise“)

Going to the Doctor

Today I needed to see two doctors: a GP and a dermatologist. Nothing serious, just standard stuff.

The GP’s office is 1 minute from my home by bicycle; the dermatologist’s 5 minutes. At both places I just walked in, no appointment. At the GP’s there was one person before me, so I waited 5 minutes; at the dermatologist’s there was nobody, so zero wait. At the GP’s I needed a general checkup, including an ECG, and it took 15 minutes. At the dermatologist I needed something looked at, and it took 5 minutes.

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So within less than 1 hour after deciding to go see these two doctors (a decision I made only this morning), I was done.

I paid 4,000 yen ($35) at the GP’s, more than usual because he had to fill out forms for my health insurer abroad. I paid 3,300 yen ($29) at the dermatologist’s, which included medicine. Japan’s national health system has a co-pay element, which is a bit higher than in other countries, but much less than in most countries.

(By the way, last time I visited Israel I wanted to see a dermatologist. There are no walk-ins and the earliest appointment I was offered was 3 months away. I would have gladly paid $30 for an immediate appointment…)

While I wouldn’t necessarily trust Japan’s medical system for complicated stuff, for the regular day-to-day medical needs it is a very convenient and efficient system.

(This is a post in the series “Why Japan is the Closest Place to Paradise“)

Sinkhole

A couple of weeks ago, a large sinkhole (30m x 30m, 15m deep) opened up in a major crossing in Fukuoka, the 8th largest city in Japan. Apparently this happened following work on an underground line nearby.

How long did it take to fix the sinkhole and re-open the road? One week.

 

Actually, it took only two days to fix the sinkhole, but authorities took another few days to conduct safety checks before authorizing the repair.

As the British newspaper The Guardian put it, this was “a typical demonstration of Japanese workmanship and efficiency”.

(This is a post in the series “Why Japan is the Closest Place to Paradise“)

VaYera – Avraham Who Loves Me

ויאמר אל תשלח ידך אל הנער ועל תעש לו מאומה, כי עתה ידעתי כי ירא אלהים אתה ולא חשכת את בנך את יחידך ממני

(בראשית כב, יב)

At the end of this week’s parasha we read about akedat Yitzchak, the incomprehensible test that God puts Avraham through, asking him to sacrifice his beloved son. When God stops Avraham at the last moment from slaughtering Yitzchak, he says to him:

And he said: lay not your hand upon the lad, neither do anything to him; for now I know that you are a God-fearing man, seeing that you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.

(Bereshit 22, 12)

Why does God refer to Avraham as “God-fearing” and how is this related to Avraham’s deeds?

Avraham suffered much in his life. Specifically, he embodies two sufferings that the prophet Yeshayahu referred to many years later: that of the ger (the convert, the stranger) and that of the saris (the eunuch). The converts fear that, despite them wanting to be part of the Jewish people, there will always be those who reject them or make them feel unwanted. The eunuchs fear that they will never be part of that greatest of human achievements: bearing children who serve as a continuation of ourselves after we die. The prophet consoles both groups of people, promising them that they have a place within the nation.

Avraham encountered both sufferings. He is commanded by God to leave his birthplace and his family and go to an unknown place, to be a stranger. He proclaims himself to be a ger when addressing the Hittite people about buying a burial plot for his wife. After being rewarded by a son at the age of 100, he faces the prospect of that son dying at his own hands, of becoming a saris in the sense of not leaving children behind when he dies.

How does Avraham bear up to these challenges (and many others that God put him through)? The answer is in the verse quoted above: being a God-fearing man. Despite the hardships, Avraham persisted in his love of God, believed in Him and trusted the covenants that God made with him. It is this unshakeable, indeed immutable, belief that earned him the title of avi ha-ma’aminim, father of all believers. Facing the prospects of eternal barren estrangement, Avraham perseveres by latching on to the truly eternal anchor in our lives: the belief in God.

The same prophet, Yeshayahu, calls our first forefather Avraham ohavi, “Avraham who loves me” (ch. 41, verse 8). Avraham’s love of God earns him a special recognition from God. May we all be so blessed.