Silence, by Shusako Endo

Earlier this week I read the novel “Silence”, by Shusako Endo, and yesterday I watched the eponymous newly-released movie based on this novel.

Endo’s 1966 novel tells the story of a Portuguese Jesuit priest, Sebastiao Rodrigues, who travels to Japan together with a fellow priest, to find out what happened to their mentor, Father Ferreira, with whom the church had lost contact. This is 17th century Japan, when Christianity is outlawed and Christians are being persecuted by the ruling Shogunate.

Guided by a drunkard and unreliable Japanese Christian, Rodrigues and his partner land on an island off the coast of Kyushu and find refuge in a remote village of hidden Japanese Christians. They witness the hardships these peasants need to endure, suffering torture and death and yet refusing to renounce their faith and apostatize. The Jesuit priests flee from the authorities but are eventually captured and tortured by the local inquisitor. Rodrigues meets Ferreira and finds out what happened to him.

“Silence” here refers to the silence of God. Rodrigues’ faith is tested when he witnesses, again and again, the unbelievable sufferings of these humble Japanese peasants. He cries out for God to intervene but is answered with silence. This silence shakes him to the core and leads to internal struggles and to interesting theological exchanges with his Japanese inquisitors.

The novel is very engaging and the movie, directed by Martin Scorsese, is a faithful representation of the novel. At almost 3 hours long, and given its content, it is not an easy movie to watch. But reading the novel first helped, because knowing the story ahead of time allowed me to focus on the acting and the filmography. At times I felt as if I was watching a painting rather than a movie.

Earlier this month I visited Kyushu for the first time, and witnessed firsthand the Christian legacy in Japan. I was introduced to this painful time in history through the memorial for the 26 martyrs on Nishizaka hill in Nagasaki, and the artifacts from the Shimabara Rebellion at the local castle (an event which triggered the brutal repression of Japanese Christians depicted in the novel). Endo’s book and Scorsese’s movie both resonated strongly with me after this visit.

Restored Sumo Glory

The big news in Japan today is the promotion of sumo wrestler Kisenosato to Yokozuna, the highest rank in the sport.

kisenosato

Why is this big news? Because Kisenosato is the first Japanese to be awarded this rank in 19 years (the last one was Wakanohana, in 1998). This many sound strange to some, as sumo is a uniquely Japanese sport, but in the past couple of decades foreign wrestlers have dominated the sport. The first foreigner to attain the coveted Yokozuna rank was Akebono, back in 1993. But he was an American-born Japanese from Hawaii, so that was not considered a big disruption.

The real shock came in 1999, when another Hawaiian claimed the title: Musashimaru. He was born in American Samoa and had no Japanese background. Following him, it looked like sumo had become a Mongolian sport, as no less than four Mongolians took the top spot one after the other: Asashoryu, Hakuo, Harumafuji and Kakuryu. The last three are still active.

This is why many Japanese, especially the older generation, are elated by today’s news. For some it seemed like sumo was going down the route of many other Japanese traditions, losing its uniqueness. For many, Kisenosato is a symbol or restored Japanese sumo glory.

By the way, the sumo wrestlers’ names are not their real names. They adopt a “wresting name”, often given to them by their trainers. Kisenosato’s birth name is Yutaka Hagiwara.

Oversized Garbage

I took these photos on one of my morning walks in Kobe last week:

 

In Japan, garbage that doesn’t fit into the standard 45-liter garbage bags is defined as oversized garbage (sodai gomi).

In most places, to dispose of this garbage you need to call a special number and get a specific pick-up date. In busy times, such as after the new-year cleaning, there can be a 2-3 weeks wait… After the date is fixed, you need to go to a government office or an authorized shop (usually a convenience store) and buy a sticker in the amount appropriate for the garbage you are throwing away. In the photos above, the disposal cost for the piece of furniture is 900 Yen (about $7.5) and for the suitcase 300 Yen (about $2.5). The sticker goes on the garbage, which is taken out on the morning of the appointed date (and not earlier).

Now, while this may seem a little burdensome (and it is), the end result has two main benefits: the streets are free of garbage people just throw away, and most of this garbage gets recycled.

An interesting twist to this policy is that nowadays most prefectures do not allow people to simply take this garbage from the street if they like it, unless they get permission from the person who threw it away. Rest assured that the one of the ever-watchful old ladies of the neighborhood will catch you trying and reprimand you. In the bubble days of the 1980s this policy did not exist, and many people furnished their houses by picking up sodai gomi furniture and appliances from the street…

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

Kyushu Trip, Days 4&5 – Beppu & Yufuin

Kyushu Trip – Day 3 is here.

On day 4 I crossed the Kyushu island to the eastern side, to visit the hot springs areas of Beppu and Yufuin. Most of the rest of the trip, days 4 and 5, I spent immersed in hot onsen waters 🙂

Suizenji Garden

Before leaving Kumamoto, I took a morning stroll through Suizenji Garden. This oasis of calm in the middle of the city is a medium-sized Japanese landscape garden built in the 17th century by the Hosokawa family, the samurai who ruled Kumamoto at the time.

The route through the garden is a circular one. The features of the garden re-enact milestones on the Tokaido road, the road between Japan’s two historic capitals: Kyoto and Edo (Tokyo). This includes a mini Mount Fuji. Inside the garden is Izumi Shrine. This being the 4th of January, the first working day of the year in Japan, there were many groups of Japanese employees at the shrine. Traditional Japanese companies take their employees this week to shrines at the beginning of the year, to get a blessing for a successful business year.

Although Suizenji is not Japan’s most impressive garden (Konrokuen in Kanazawa comes to mind as a leading contender), it is definitely worth a visit. Admission is 400 Yen, and a leisurely stroll through the garden takes less than 1 hour.

 

From Kumamoto I headed eastwards to the other side of Kyushu island. I wanted to take the direct, and slower route, through the center of the island and Mount Aso, but the trains in that area are still not operating due to last year’s earthquake. So I took the Shinkansen to Kokura, and then the Sonic train down to Beppu.

Upon arriving in Beppu, I left my luggage at the train station and headed straight to hell.

Beppu “Hells”

Well, not literally hell, but rather “the Hells”, or Jigoku in Japanese. These are hot springs for viewing, not for soaking in. There are two groups of Hells: 5 in Kannawa and 2 in Shibaseki. I took a bus (no. 5) to the Kannawa district and visited all 5 Hells there. Admission is 400 Yen per Hell, or 2,000 Yen for a combo ticket to all 7.

The Hells (and much of Beppu and Yufuin, as I found out later) are very touristy. There are more shops and food stalls than actual Hells… But the natural phenomena are quite impressive to watch. Some are natural mud pools that constantly bubble; others are big ponds of boiling water, some blue some white; others are huge steam clouds billowing up from the ground. The air is permeated with a strong smell of sulfur. One of the Hells features statues of demons, presiding over the boiling ponds of water. Another is a small zoo, with an impressive collection of crocodiles.

With the bus ride there and back, a visit to the Hells takes 2-3 hours.

 

Takegawara Onsen

Back in Beppu city I checked into my hotel and then headed straight for the nearest onsen: Takegawara. This is one of the oldest onsens in the area, built in 1879, and it looks the part. I guess it’s kept this way in order to provide an authentic experience of the past. The attraction at this onsen is the sand bath. You lie down in dark sand and a lady uses a shovel to cover you in sand. It’s heavy, it’s hot, and frankly, it’s somewhat claustrophobic. I can now understand people who have a fear of being buried alive… After a few minutes, and some self-relaxing mind exercises, one can actually start to enjoy the experiend. Maybe. It’s all over in 10 minutes, after which you spend a while washing all the sand off and heading to the actual hot spring for a long soak.

If you go to any onsen in Beppu, don’t forget to bring a towel with you. Many of them do not supply towels, or do so for a fee.

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Takegawara Onsen in Beppu

 

Yufuin

On day 5 I headed westwards to Yufuin, another famous hot spring town. The ride there by bus (no. 36) from Beppu station takes 50 minutes, along a winding road up and down a mountain. But it’s well worth the ride, because Yufuin is a real gem.

Unlike Beppu, which has a rundown look to it, Yufuin is much better looking. Yes, it’s very touristy (it seemed like the town was invaded by Koreans overnight, as I saw thousands of them roaming the streets), but it’s not too “pushy-touristy”. It’s a very quaint town, with many shops offering local foods and products. In some parts it looks like a place out of a fairy tale, with small, immaculate houses and small museums. A leisurely walk from the train station westwards through the main street takes about 30-40 minutes, depending on how many shops you stop at to take a look.

 

And then of course, there’s the onsens. I soaked in two of them.

The first was Nurukawa Onsen. Here I decided to take a private bath. They have a big public and a few small private ones, which you can book for 1 hour (cost about 2,000 Yen). I bathed in the Sakura onsen, and almost fell asleep as it was so quiet and peaceful. The second was very different: Shitanyu Onsen. This is a basic, small public bath under a thatched roof, with two small pools (indoor and partially outdoor). Nobody’s there, so you put 200 Yen in a box at the entrance and go in. Apparently this is a mixed-bath, one of the few left in Japan.

 

At the end of the road in Yufuin is a pond-sized lake called Kinrin Lake. It’s very scenic, with a small shrine on the south shore, complete with a small Torii gate in the water. It is a fitting end to a visit to this serene town.

Back to Beppu I bid Kyushu goodbye by taking the bus to Oita Airport and catching a flight back to Osaka. Kyushu certainly is a place I intend to visit again when I get a chance.

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.