Friday, November 4, 2011

Osaka - March-April 2011

My Japanese neighbours helped me plan my travel route from Sendai to Osaka. The airport had been shut down after the tsunami, so flying from Sendai was out of the question. The standard land route would have been to go south along the east coast of Honshu by bus and train. But that would have taken me through Fukushima and Tokyo, two places I felt better avoiding. Instead, we worked out the following route: a bus west from Sendai to Yamagata; another bus from Yamagata to Niigata, on the west coast; and then a train down the western side of Japan to Osaka. It would have been cheaper to fly from Yamagata straight to Osaka, but I preferred to save money, and was in no particular hurry.

Although I had this broad plan set in my head, I hadn’t worked out any of the details. I had reserved my hostel room for Monday night, but I hadn’t reserved any transportation or layovers along the way. I wasn’t even sure how long the trip would take; I gave myself two days to get there, and hoped that I’d be able to find hotels along the way.

On Saturday I took a bus to downtown Sendai and got the coach to Yamagata. It was only a one-hour journey, and I got there in the early afternoon. I’d intended to press on, but when I got there I was told that I couldn’t get a bus to Niigata until 8:00 the following morning. I bought a ticket, then went searching for somewhere I could spend the night. Fortunately there was a hotel right across from the bus station advertising cheap rooms, so I went in, asked about vacancies, and reserved a room for the night. So that was easy.

In fact, now might be as good a time as any to say that the whole trip went a lot better than I had hoped for. Considering I had no knowledge of that part of the country, and almost no language skills, I found it surprisingly easy to get around. Everywhere I went I muddled through as best I could with my limited Japanese. When people spoke a little English they would use as much as they could to communicate, but when they didn’t, they were usually patient with me until I could make myself understood.

I spent the afternoon walking around downtown Yamagata City, which was pleasant enough, but not very exciting. The next morning I got up early and got my bus to Niigata, then a train to Toyama. I got to Toyama in the middle of the afternoon. I could have pressed on all the way to Osaka, but as it was still Sunday, and my room was reserved for Monday, I thought I’d be better off spending the night. I went to the information centre at the station and they pointed me towards a reasonable hotel within walking distance. The hotel was supposed to cost around $45 per night, but when I was registering I filled in my address as Sendai. In response to that (or, at least, I think it was in response to that) the clerk pointed to a sign that I couldn’t read, said something about “jishin” (earthquake), and told me my room would only be $30. Although I can’t be sure, it seemed that the hotel had implemented a reduced rate for people from the earthquake-affected area, which I thought was really nice.

It might have been nice to explore Toyama, but by the time I got checked in it was getting dark and had also started to rain. So I went out to dinner, walked around the block a couple of times, and then turned in.

It had been about four hours from Niigata to Toyama, and was roughly another four to get from Toyama to Osaka. As soon as I got there, I could see the difference being in a big city made. Signs everywhere were not only in English, but also in Korean and Chinese. I approached the information centre expecting one again to have to ask for what I wanted in Japanese, but they answered me in tolerable English and gave me an English map of the city. I took the subway down to the south end of the city, found my hostel, and checked in. It was only early afternoon, so I went for a walk to see what was in the area. I was quite close to Shitennoji Temple, an (apparently) famous temple in the southern part of the city, so I walked around there for a while. Then I went to a stall and bought some takoyaki (fried octopus balls), an Osaka specialty, for dinner.

I didn’t have any particular plans for my stay in Osaka. I figured if I needed to I could get a flight out of the city, but I preferred to stay in Japan and save my money. I tried to get in contact with the other ALTs who had come to the city, but they didn’t get back to me, so I spent the entire week exploring on my own. Every day I went through my guide book, chose a different set of tourist attractions to aim for, and then tried to hit as many as I could.

On Tuesday I visited Osaka Castle Park. Osaka Castle is quite pretty, and the museum inside is relatively interesting. The park looked like it would have been nice at a better time of year, but at the end of March the trees were only just starting to blossom, and things still looked dull and grey. I also went to the Peace Center while I was there, a museum that deals with the effects of World War II on Osaka, and with international conflict in general.

I tried to visit some other museums, but they were all closed. In the end I wound up at Shin-Umeda City’s Floating Garden Observatory, which was not at all worth seeing. You pay $7.00 for a great view of the city, but the city is nothing to look at, and there was too much smog to see very far anyway. When I was done on the top floor, I went down to the food court in the basement. The food court is actually pretty interesting. It’s designed to look like an old-fashioned Japanese street where you can choose from various public houses to eat in. I went to an Okonomiyaki place, since that is the specialty of Osaka. I was able to choose my own ingredients, so I got to have a vegetarian meal.

On Wednesday I went to the Osaka Aquarium, or “Kaiyukan”. Like all aquaria, it was swarming with elementary-school aged children, but apart from that it was relatively enjoyable, and almost worth the $20 admission. This one had capybaras, a whale shark, and a finless porpoise (a kind of dolphin with no dorsal fin). My favourite was the manta ray. At least, I think it was a manta ray. Whatever it was, it was breathtaking!

After the aquarium I went to the Maritime Museum for a lesson on shipping and Japanese history. The museum building itself is actually kind of interesting. It’s a geodesic dome sitting in Osaka bay. The entrance is on the mainland, and you reach the museum by going downstairs and walking down an under-water tunnel to get to the main building. Inside is a collection of boats, models, and diagrams on the subject of Japanese seafaring. There’s even a life-size ship you can go and walk around. I thought it was pretty cool.

On Thursday I went back to the museums I couldn’t get into on Tuesday. The Museum of History was pretty cool, with lots of interesting displays, dioramas, and even a reconstruction of an early twentieth-century street. It was rather discouragingly lacking in English signage, though. After that I went to the Museum of Housing and Living, which was awesome. It contains a reproduction of an Edo-era neighbourhood, where you can investigate different shops and dwellings, and even try on a kimono. My final stop of the day was at the Human Rights Museum, where I was able to amuse myself for half an hour or so learning about Japan’s attempts to integrate minorities into its society. There were no English signs there, but the people working there were almost painfully eager to help and explain things to me.

On Friday I took my one excursion out of the city, to Himeji Castle. This castle looks quite beautiful in the pictures. Unfortunately, they are doing renovations on the main keep until 2015, so the whole building was shrouded in a great tent. We were still allowed to see the inside though, and as it was my first time seeing the genuine insides of a Japanese castle, I quite enjoyed it. We were also free to walk around the other buildings in the complex. At only $4.00 admission, it was a very worth-while visit – though I suppose I should factor in $30.00 for the return train ticket as well.

On Saturday I visited the last two museums on my sight-seeing list: the Art Museum and the Science Museum. The Art Museum barely held my attention for half an hour, but the Science Museum was – well, come on, are science museums ever not interesting?! Admittedly it would have been more so if I could read more of the signs inside, but fortunately science is fairly universal, so I was able to understand most of it fairly easily.

Having exhausted my list of potential tourist destinations, I spent Sunday taking it easy and enjoying the lack of aftershocks. As I hadn’t heard any word about Sendai being less safe than when I left it, I prepared to head home.

My return trip was a bit better planned than my trip there. On my way from Toyama to Osaka, I’d passed through Kanazawa, one of the cities I’d bookmarked in my travel guide months ago. As it was on my way home, I decided this would be the perfect opportunity to visit, so I got an early train there, then started looking around for a place I could spend the night. Once again, I found the people at the information counter very helpful. They suggested a cheap guest house just down the street, so I went there and checked in.

As it was still late morning, I left my bag at the guest house and went out to explore the city. Kanazawa was lovely! The weather was great, for a start: a clear, sunny day. There was also a distinct absence of the smog that had hung over Osaka. As I walked down the street towards the sight-seeing district, I was struck by how many old-fashioned buildings there were. They gave the city a sense of character I hadn’t found in either Sendai or Osaka. Apparently the reason is that Kanazawa was spared most of the bombings that razed the other big cities during the war.

I spent the first part of the afternoon wandering around Kanazawa Castle Park. The castle itself was only mildly interesting, given that I’d already been inside a couple of castles recently, but I wasn’t too concerned about doing anything exciting. Having been on power-tourist mode for the last week, it was nice just to be able to walk around enjoying the sunshine and clean air. When I was done there I went across the street to Kenrokuen Garden, and then to Oyama Jinja Shrine.

For dinner I went to the Omi-cho Market area. Someone at the guest house had recommended sushi, so I went to a sushi place. Then I popped into a foreign food store, intending only to have a look around, but ending up loading up on stuff: powdered milk, cornmeal, vegetable stock, cookies. I wasn’t sure if the trains would be running again by the time I got back to Sendai, meaning that getting down town to the foreign food stores might be difficult, so I figured I should stock up.

I took a long, sunset walk along the canal that finally took me back to the guest house, where I stayed the rest of the evening. The guest house was an old wooden kimono shop that had been renovated quite comfortably. The place reeked of atmosphere, rather like the city itself, and the owner, who spoke relatively good English, was friendly. I spent a long time talking to him about this and that. It was nice to have someone to talk to for a change, although it wasn’t until afterwards that it occurred to me that it was my first conversation with anyone in a week and a half.

My stay in Kanazawa was the best part of my trip, and over much too soon. I left early on Tuesday morning and took the train back to Niigata. If I’d wanted to retrace my steps exactly, I would have gone from there to Yamagata and thence back to Sendai, but once I got there I realised I could much more easily get a coach directly home. The trip was just over four hours, and got me back to Sendai Station in the early evening. And I had a nice surprise waiting for me: the trains were running again!

Things definitely look better in Sendai. The restaurants in my neighbourhood are open again, and the grocery stores are running more or less normally. After I arrived back, I unpacked my bag and put it away, and prepared to return to something like a normal routine. But we had at least one big aftershock still to come.

On Thursday night, the last night of my holiday, I was lying in bed at 11:30, just drifting off into dreamland, when my apartment started rattling, and then rocking. It was the worst earthquake I’d experienced in almost four weeks, and while it didn’t last as long as the Big One, it felt every bit as strong. I didn’t move: of all the options available at that moment, I honestly thought the best one was to stay put, so I did. When the earthquake was over, I found that I’d lost electricity again, and also that my apartment was once again in a mess.

As soon as it was over I jumped out of bed, grabbed a flashlight, and assessed the situation. I tried using my phone, but it didn’t seem to be working. With no power I had no internet access, and no way of getting information on the quake. I prepared for the worst. I refilled my bathtub with water. I pulled out my knapsack again, and started re-packing.

That was the worst. Seriously. Of all the seismic events I’d had to endure in my stay in Japan, that one was the most traumatising. When the Big One struck, I hadn’t really known what was going on, and only came to understand over time the scale of the damage caused. But now, with the benefit of experience to feed it, my imagination immediately started conjuring up worst-case scenarios. In the middle of packing, I suddenly stopped and thought:

“I bet there’s been another tsunami. More people are probably dead.”

I told myself not to think about it, and went on with my work.

Evidently the phone network wasn’t that badly damaged, because I eventually got through to one of the other ALTs. She was the one who had gone home to Singapore, and she had only returned that day to the city. “Welcome home,” I thought. We both agreed that this recent shake had done nothing to improve our morale, or make us feel better about being in Sendai. At least we were able to console each other a bit.

I went to bed around 2:00 and was up three hours later to finish my packing. If the situation was as bad as I feared, then I was going back to school and I was jolly well going to stay there! I packed everything I thought I might possibly want, and lugged my bag up to the bus stop with me. If the bus came, I supposed it would be a sign that things really weren’t that bad, but I cared more about being safe than anything.

The bus did come, and when I got to the school I found that it still had electricity and that everything was running normally. Apparently some places had lost electricity, but there hadn’t been much serious damage. There had been no second tsunami, and only a couple of people had died. It was business as usual. I felt a bit silly showing up there with a 70 L bag on my back. But not that silly.

I spent a perfectly miserable day sitting at my desk, reading the news, and otherwise killing time. I was bored and sleep-deprived and fed up to my teeth with seismic events. At no point in the last month had I more ardently wished to be home. Not to go home; the idea of going home filled me with dread. Bus to Tokyo, wait in a foreign airport, thirteen-hour flight, transfer in Toronto, another hour to Ottawa, and then customs? And then to do it all again when I wanted to come back? It would have been excruciating! But if there was a way I could have been home, instantaneously, hugged my friends, enjoyed some home-cooking, and gone to bed knowing there would be no aftershocks to interrupt my sleep, I would have taken it in a heartbeat.

As it was, I toughed it out and went home early. When I got there I found that my apartment had electricity again, so things were back to normal there too. I didn’t unpack my bag though, or drain my bathtub, and I left my shoes by my bed that night. We may have seen the last of the big earthquakes, but just in case we haven’t I’m going to stay prepared. I sure hope we have seen the last of them, though; I don’t know how many more I can handle.

Books I've read this week:

Shiokari Pass by Miura Ayako – English translation of a Japanese novel. It was odd, for a change, to see Christians portrayed as the despised minority, but then Christianity has had a much different history in Japan than in North America. This book felt like it was really two stories put together. I liked the first part, but I found it difficult to reconcile the awkward young man we’re originally introduced to with the deeply spiritual character he turns into in the later chapters.

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