Saturday, May 30, 2009

Tropic Thunder

(Movie Review)

I'd heard a lot about this movie, so when it recently hit the shelves of my video store here in Japan, I thought I'd check it out.
Before I watched it, I asked a co-worker what he thought of it. "I don't know man," he said. "With all the big name comics they had in that film, I expected it to be a lot funnier than it actually was. I mean it's okay. It's worth watching. But it's not near as funny as it should have been."

For my money though, I thought it was alright. Sure, there were a few slow points, but it had more than enough good laughs to get a thumbs up from me. (A comedy where you're laughing non-stop through the whole thing is pretty rare anyway).

It does indeed, as my co-worker pointed out, have a very impressive star studded cast: Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Nick Nolte, Tom Cruise, Matthew McConaughey, and Steve Coogan all have major roles. And that's not even counting all the people they got to make cameo appearances.

I had heard about the "retard controversy" (W) even out here in Japan. (It was mentioned in the Daily Yomiuri review--link here). Personally I didn't think it was a big deal. Maybe I'm not as sensitive to this issue as I could be, and maybe I would feel different if someone in my family was affected by it, but I thought the movie was making fun of Hollywood's portrayal of the mentally impaired (and the related conversation about how to, and how not to, get Oscars for this portrayal).

What bothered me more than the "retard controversy" was the fact that most of the movie was an extended joke about the traumatic experience of US soldiers during the Vietnam War. And to be honest, I'm a bit surprised that the media dust-up appears to be less disturbed by this than about the "retard" jokes.

The film opens up with a sequence which is very obviously a spoof of "Platoon".

I was reminded of a high school paper I wrote for a film studies class. I had chosen to watch "Platoon" and "The Bridge over the River Kwai" and then write a compare and contrast paper. I commented in the paper somewhere that, "I found both movies interesting and amusing."

I didn't really mean any offense by this line. I felt like I needed to have two adjectives to make it sound complete. I was trying to avoid using the word "interesting" twice, and I guess I must not have had a good thesaurus handy.
But when I gave the paper to my parents to proofread, I got really chewed out for that word "amusing".
"Under no circumstances is the movie 'Platoon' supposed to be amusing. Maybe you're not old enough to handle these kind of movies yet."

I also remember my high school film teacher saying when he first saw "Platoon" in the theaters in the 1980s, after the credits finished and the lights came on there were veterans in the theater just sitting there weeping.

And now, we're invited to laugh at all that pain.

I know the film is supposed to be making fun of Vietnam War movies, and not Vietnam veterans, but that's a fine line to walk. The movies were, after all, an attempt to portray what the veterans had really been through. And could you make a parody of "Schindler's List" using the same logic?

But should the subject be off limits? Is any subject off limits in this day and age?
After watching "South Park", "Family Guy" and "Robot Chicken", I've laughed at (or at least sat through) comedy routines on just about every taboo imaginable. Our generation has completed the task the baby boomers started of smashing every sacred cow in sight. For better or for worse, there's just nothing left to be offended by anymore.

From this parody of "Platoon", we move into a scene where Ben Stiller is playing a character who has both his arms blown off. He's trying to cry in the scene, but Robert Downey Jr. starts crying first, and Ben Stiller is so upset by this he can't bring himself to cry. Which leads to an argument between them and the hapless director Steve Coogan, which ends with Robert Downey Jr. walking off and ruining an expensive special effects scene.
With apologies to my co-worker, you can't tell me that's not pretty funny.

...Although, to be honest I didn't really appreciate the scene until I re-watched the movie. The rivalry between Ben Stiller and Robert Downey Jr, and the way Ben Stiller's character feels intimidated by Robert Downey Jr.'s acting skills, is not established until later in the movie. This is one example where the movie could have done with some better editing.

Although it might be tempting to think, as my co-worker did, that the more stars that are crammed into the movie the bigger the laughs should be, in reality the more actors you have working in the movie, the more character arcs you have to cram into a short movie, and the more difficult it becomes to force jokes out of it. (This was something mentioned in the DVD commentaries as well).

But, as I said above, there were enough funny points in this movie to make up for an over-stuffed cast and a convoluted script.

Link of the Day
Interesting Chomsky interview here following up years afterwards on the documentary "Manufacturing Consent". It's subtitled for a Japanese audience, but the audio is in English. Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Lots of good stuff in here, but I was particularly interested in his comments about the dangers of the internet to activism. People can spend all their time blogging about social issues instead of doing the hard work of actually organizing in their community.
Obviously I'm a bit sensitive to this because it strikes a chord with me.
(Although in my defense, in the Japanese countryside it's a bit harder to be involved in social issues than it is in a major city back home. I like to think that when I was in the States, I was reasonably involved in stuff).

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Iron Man

(Movie Review)

And so I sheepishly admit that, once again, I'm wasting time watching dumb comic book movies.

Every time I review a Marvel movie on this blog (and there have been an awful lot of Marvel movies recently), I always have to say that I was really more of a DC Comics fan in my youth. But I would dabble in the other side from time to time.

My first exposure to Iron Man was, ironically enough, in Japan a few years back. There was a free book exchange going on in the bar I used to frequent up in Gifu. Someone had left the "The Essential Iron Man Volume 1" (A) and I picked it up and read through it. (By the way, these "Essential" book series of Marvel are a fantastic idea.)

The "Essential Iron Man" book reprints the first 34 Iron Man stories all the way back from 1963, starting with the very first issue where Tony Stark is captured by the evil North Vietnamese. He transforms into Iron Man, and goes on to fight the evil Soviets, and the evil Red Chinese (including a revamped version of the Fu-Manchu yellow peril--The Mandarin (W).)

On one hand, these stories are kind of cute as time pieces of cheesy cold war cliches. The evil Russians that Iron Man is fighting are almost exact copies of Boris and Natasha from the Bullwinkle cartoons.
At the same time though, it is a bit disturbing to think of how much of children's entertainment is geared at making sure they start hating the right people from an early age. One need not be an apologist for Kruschev era Soviet Union to be disturbed at how all of the Russians in this series were portrayed in terms of pure evil.

And that was my first and last exposure to Iron Man. I imagine these stories must have softened somewhat as the anti-war movement gained momentum in the later 60s, but I never followed up on it.

(The wikipedia article on Iron Man's early days quotes Stan Lee as saying "I think I gave myself a dare. It was the height of the Cold War. The readers, the young readers, if there was one thing they hated, it was war, it was the military ... So I got a hero who represented that to the hundredth degree. He was a weapons manufacturer, he was providing weapons for the Army, he was rich, he was an industrialist ... I thought it would be fun to take the kind of character that nobody would like, none of our readers would like, and shove him down their throats and make them like him ... And he became very popular."
I wonder if this isn't slightly mis-remembered history. My own reading is that in 1963 the anti-war movement was non-existent, and that it was still a very safe bet to create a super-patriotic anti-communist American hero. But if anyone out there in blog land knows more about history or comic books than I do, feel free to correct me in the comments space.)

Anyway, back when the "Iron Man" movie first came out, I was talking to a friend about how right wing the early Iron Man comic books were. And my friend responded, "Oh yes, but they've taken that and worked it into the movie in a really cool way. Tony Stark starts out as this right wing jerk, just like in the comics, but then he evolves a little bit along the way."

My own remembrances of the comic book (and it has been a few years since I've read it now) is that it wasn't so much Iron Man's character that was right wing, as just the whole tenor of the stories about evil North Vietnamese communists and evil Soviet communists and evil Chinese communists (et cetera). But the movie does build in a bit of a character development as Tony Stark, amoral weapons manufacturer and distributor, learns the error of his ways once he sees that the enemy can also use his weapons against US troops. It's not exactly a deep political critique, but it's a comic book movie after all.

This new Iron Man movie is also updated for the 21st century. So, instead of Tony Stark being taken prisoner by the North Vietnamese, he is taken prisoner by Afghan terrorists, the new current enemy. Although the film makers do make some attempts to keep current political issues at arms length. The terrorist in the movie aren't the Taliban or Al-Qaeda, but simply the usual "generic Arab bad guys".

Politics aside, as with any comic book movie, there are a number of details that seem perfectly believable in the world of comic books that strain my credulity a bit in a live action film. What is this device that keeps the shrapnel from entering Tony Stark's heart? And really, how does he design this huge armor suit right under the nose of his captors?

That is of course more or less the story line this movie inherited from the original comic. And I think this movie did as good a job with the Iron Man story as could have been expected.

Much of the movie is saved just by Robert Downey Jr., who is as charismatic and fun actor as you could hope for in this role.
I was worried he would get lost beneath the Iron mask, but the film makers did a good job of avoiding that.

The cameo appearance of Samuel Jackson as Nick Fury and the Shield subplot was a nice bone to comic book fans.

The main villain of this movie is a about what you would expect from a comic book movie. He is given only the flimsiest of motivations, and for the most part is pure evil just for the sake of being evil. (And by the way, I don't know if it was supposed to be a surprise that he was the bad guy, but I suspect everyone could see this coming from a mile away.)

If you don't mind turning your brain off for portions of the film, it can be pretty fun to watch.

Link of the Day
Interview with Professor Noam Chomsky

This Calvin and Hobbes Cartoon has been making the rounds. My brother e-mailed me a copy a few weeks back. Funny stuff

And Via This Modern World:
War supporter and professional radio irritant Mancow has waterboarded himself to prove it’s not torture — and immediately bailed, desperately, admitting that it’s torture.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Power and Terror: Noam Chomsky in our Times

(Movie Review)

I remember reading about this movie in "The Japan Times" when it first came out back in 2002. I wanted to see it then, but I never had the opportunity. There were no movie theaters in my town, and this film only played in independent theaters even in the bigger cities.

One of the reasons this film got reviewed in "The Japan Times" (link to review here) is that the film-maker, John Junkerman (IMDB), is based out of Tokyo. Although with a name like Junkerman, I'm guessing he isn't a native Japanese, but probably a foreigner who, like me, came to Japan years ago and then just kind of got stuck here.

(Incidentally, speaking of "The Japan Times" and Noam Chomsky, they did an interesting interview with him back in 2002 which you can read here. I also remember reading in the Japan Times once about a Japanese film which had taken the rather odd step of combining the tomes of Noam Chomsky with soft porn--that review here.)

After this film finished it's short theatrical release, it dropped into obscurity. Despite being made in Japan, I never saw it at any of my local video stores. And I just kind of forgot about it.

But of course that was before the days of Google video and youtube. Everything Chomsky is available on-line these days, and this movie is no exception. I watched this version here, but a quick search reveals multiple copies.

Media of Chomsky seems to be growing exponentially all the time. I remember when I first heard about Noam Chomsky back in 1999, when a Calvin professor recommended him to me. I was writing a paper about Nicaragua , and the professor told me, "If you want to learn about how issues in the 3rd world get reported, you have to read Noam Chomsky". (Because Chomsky never gets mentioned in the mainstream media, this is how people learn about him--by word of mouth).
I got a few books out of the library, but my main introduction to Chomsky's life and work, as for many people was the bio-documentary "Manufacturing Consent", which I checked out of the public library. (And which, by the way, is also available on-line here).

"Manufacturing Consent" was released in 1992, and was for a long time the only video footage of Chomsky many of us ever saw, back in the days before streaming videos became widely available on the internet.
And, although there are now more Chomsky documentaries appearing all the time, according to the filmography in wikipedia, "Power and Terror" was the first film length documentary on Chomsky to break the 10 year gap after "Manufacturing Consent".

And considering people had waited so long for another Chomsky film, this is a bit of an odd follow up. All the filming was done in the US, but the editing was apparently done in Japan. The subtitles that announce times and places are in both English and Japanese, and the ending credits are bilingual as well.
Japanese singer Imawano Kiyoshiro provides the sound track to this movie, so Japanese folk music works as the transition between scenes of Chomsky's lectures.
And although Chomsky usual focuses primarily on the US, during the interview portions of this film he makes several references to Japan, presumably in answer to off camera questions by Tokyo based John Junkerman.

(By the way, although I consider myself a fan of Japanese folk music, if I was in the editing room I would have picked a different musician. To me Imawano Kiyoshiro's music and voice comes off as sounding whiny. But that's just my two cents. )

Unlike "Manufacturing Consent" this film is not meant to cover all of Chomsky's life and work. It stays firmly focused in the year 2002. It is made up entirely of interviews with Chomsky inter-mixed with Chomsky lectures.

The film is somewhat dated in the sense that it is from back in the good old days when we were fighting only one (unfunded) war in the middle east. But the examples Chomsky uses to illustrate his points move back and forth through history so much that it doesn't seem to matter. Much of what he has to say about power and the way it is used is timeless anyway.

Since I'm a bit of a Chomsky nut, a fair amount of what he said I had heard or read before. (He does tend to repeat some of the same examples over and over again). But I did learn a couple new things. It was interesting, for example, to hear Chomsky talk about the complete media black out on the US selling military helicopters to Israel.
Chomsky also had an interesting anecdote about conservative icon Winston Churchill that I had not heard before. It turns out Churchill was strongly in favor of using poisonous gas against the Arabs in 1919,and got frustrated when his colleagues had moral concerns about it.
"I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas.... I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes." (full quote here). Now there's something that they don't teach you in school.
(Although to be perfectly fair, if you follow the link and read the whole quote, Churchill was talking about using a mild form of nausea inducing gas as the humane alternative to bombing the Arabs to smithereens. Perhaps Chomsky should have qualified this).

One of Chomsky's most vicious critics, David Horowitz, once summed up Chomsky's place in American society fairly well. "No one in mainstream America has ever heard of him, but if you go to college campuses he's treated with cult like worship." (All misquoted here because I can't find the link).

I've never been to a Chomsky speech myself. The closest I ever got to him was at the protest against the FTAA in Windsor Canada in 2000. He was speaking at an event there, but I didn't go because tickets were $100 each (or something ridiculously expensive like that) and if memory serves they were all sold out anyway.
It was interesting, therefore, to see some of the footage of what goes on at a Chomsky lecture, such as vendors outside selling Chomsky memorabilia and Chomsky T-shirts. Can you imagine any other intellectual receiving this kind of rock-star treatment?

Also you've got to feel for poor Chomsky. There is some footage of him after the lecture getting mobbed by people wanting to ask him questions, get his autograph, and take pictures with him. The man was already in his 70s when this film was made. (He's over 80 now). At one point, after signing several autographs his hand becomes so tired he can't even write the letters of his name, and has to return the last book unsigned.
I also found interesting all the people in this documentary who try and ask Chomsky for advice about their lives. "Nobody can answer that question but you," he tells a young man who asks if he should go into activism full time or get a real job.
"She knows 100 times more about the situation than me, so I can't give her advice," Chomsky says when asked if a young Afghanistan woman should go back home to be a teacher, or stay in the United States.

Still, through it all Chomsky seems to have maintained a surprising level of humility. He looks and sounds just like everyone's kindly old grandfather, and is continually flashing his sheepish, self-deprecating smile in front of the crowds.

As with any Chomsky film, I can't recommend this enough. After being exposed to the mainstream media all day long Chomsky is a breath of fresh air.
If you, like me, are one of those people who use your computer as a TV, you can watch the film online by following the links above. Otherwise this film is also avaliable on DVD (A).

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky on Pornography

Also: My favorite Brit Pop group in Japan--Nanbanjin's Website. I haven't given them a shout out in a while, and I don't think I've linked yet to their new webpage. So here it is guys, and sorry for not giving you shout outs more often.

and for all those recovering Dutch Reformists--I thought it was neat hearing Christopher Hitchens quoting Peter Devries in this video (I know some of you are big Peter Devries fans).

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Napoleon by Felix Markham

(Book Review)

I found this in the used book section of my local bookstore the last time I was back in the States. And, as you do with used books, I bought it primarily just because it was so cheap. (I paid only $2 for this).

It's a very small little book, running at just 270 pages, and that on small pocket sized pages.

As a result, I learned very little new information from it. It was mostly a review of some- of the other - Napoleon - books I had been reading this year. But there were some interesting bits here and there.

This book was published in 1966, and there are some cases where it shows its age. For example it doesn't have the advantage of recent studies on whether or not Napoleon was poisoned at Saint Helena (w). Felix Markham has a short appendix on the cause of Napoleon's death, but the research only goes up to 1962.

From a readability standpoint, I found this book a bit dry. Furthermore there's so much information packed into a small area that it can be a bit difficult to absorb.

Link of the Day
Globalization and its Discontents

Also, thank goodness for the daily show. Their little bit on right wing hypocritical attitudes towards protest and criticism saved me having to write a post ranting about it. Watch here and here. (I might do a post on right wing hypocrisy later, but for now these video links will tide me over.)

and Mr. Vice President, should Americans be worried about the swine flu?

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Watchmen

(Movie Review)

There's been so much written about this movie already, I'm not sure where to start.

Well, first of all, in reply to all the fanboy whining perhaps I should start at the basics (at the risk of being patronizing).

I believe that in the world of artistic endeavors, there should be no sacred cows. Great art is created by removing all the limits, and allowing the artists to try and fail on their own. Great art is created by attempting the impossible, and being willing to risk falling flat on your face.
The world never suffered because someone created a work of art that failed. But it might suffer if we create restrictions on what can and can't be attempted.
No one needs to feel threatened by this movie. You'll still have the original comic book. The movie won't take anything away from the comic, nor will one bad film adaptation spoil re-reading it for you.
And if you think the film could have been done better, there's nothing to prevent someone from giving it another try with a remake in 20 years.

But of course all of that is not to ignore the simple fact that when you do attempt the impossible, 99.9% of the time you fail. Nor should you be spared taking your lumps when you do fall flat on your face. And this movie, in many regards, falls flat on its face.

"The Watchmen" is a difficult story to adapt for a movie. Like "Lord of the Rings" and "Harry Potter", it has a rabid fan base which demands the film adaptation stay loyal to the original comic book. But the original comic book series does not lend itself to a movie.
A normal Hollywood movie usually builds up in tension until you reach a big climax at the end. For that matter, a lot of novels do as well. But a comic book is a story told in installments. A comic book is a series of small climaxes and mini-cliff hangers designed to keep the reader coming back for the next issue.
It's also not uncommon, as in "The Watchmen" to have several different sub-plots going, as each character has their own character thread.

The first 40 minutes of "The Watchmen", I was really loving it. The second 40 minutes I thought to myself, "strange, I wonder when this movie is going to pick up". The final 40 minutes I was beginning to feel a little bit bored.

And I had actually read the original graphic novel, so I should have known what to expect. But when you sit down for a nice long movie, your brain switches into "movie mode" and you subconsciously expect more climatic action.

The second problem is one that is dealt with by many movie adaptations of books. Namely, because of the time restrictions on the movie, they are able to do little more than just skim the surface of the original story.
Part of what made Alan Moore's original comic book so appealing is that although his story made use of brand new superheros, he built in a backstory that went all the way back to the 1930s and 40s. The superheroes in the main storyline were the second generation heroes. The "B" storyline (all in flashbacks) told what had happened to the first generation of superheroes.

This is hinted at in the movie, but it never gets fully fleshed out as in the book. So you never get the opportunity to finally immerse yourself in the new superhero mythology Alan Moore creates out of wholecloth.

And when you remove all those layers from the story, all you're left with is this plot about the dangers of nuclear war. Which may be a really deep commentary on modern society, or it may be just using nuclear weapons as an easy way to sound deep (as in hundreds of B-grade cold war era science fiction stories).

There are, however, a number of things that the movie does get right.

The script, for example, does a pretty good job of striping the storyline down to its essentials, while still keeping the punches in. A lesser director might have been tempted to cut out parts like shooting the pregnant woman in Vietnam, or "God exists, and he is an American", or the scenes in the war room when Kissinger, Nixon, and Halderman decide that losing the entire East Coast is an acceptable loss in exchange for winning a nuclear war against the Soviet Union.
(Although personally I would have cut out all the gore myself. I think you can make your point without grossing the audience out. But that's just me, I'm a bit squeamish.)

The big problem with this movie is (not to get too technical) the bad acting and the bad directing. Oh yeah, and the bad editing.

There's a lot of juicy material in this script, but the actors aren't quite up to it, and most of the material is under-acted.
The directing is also a bit off. I'm no expert myself, but I thought the slow motion thing was overdone. Not only was there was too much slow motion going on in general, but exactly the scenes where the adrenaline should have been up and the action should have been moving faster, the director chose to slow things down.
Conversely, there are a few scenes that I thought got rushed through so the audience didn't realize the significance of them. I wouldn't necessarily have used slow motion here (I'm not a big slo-mo fan) but there were a couple places where the camera could have lingered for a while longer and let the significance set in without rushing off to the next scene.
In summary, I would have slowed down where the director speeded up, and speeded up where he slowed down.

As for the editing: there are some good songs in this movie, but none of them ever really seem to match the scene they're in, and feel pasted overtop.

The ending, even in the graphic novel, was designed to be somewhat anti-climatic, but it didn't have to be as completely wet as it was in the movie. With some more dramatic acting the movie could have hammered home the significance of what had happened a little bit more. As it was, all the actors just gave complete non-reactions to what should have been a very shocking moment.
However, I'm inclined to agree with Time Magazine's review of "The Watchmen" (link here). For all the wrong notes and missed opportunities, there are some good moments in this movie. And those few moments alone probably make it worth sitting through the whole movie.
For example I found myself actually being touched by Dr. Manhattan's story as he sat on Mars and mourned his lost loves.

Since the release of more Nixon tapes a few years ago, and the revelation that Nixon had wanted to use nuclear bombs on North Vietnam, the scenes with Nixon and his advisers calmly planning nuclear war as if they're at a chess game now seem even more believable than when this comic was first written.

Nuclear weapons are perhaps an easy target for prententious science fiction writers. And, what's more, it's social relevancy is somewhat dated. The original comic was written in the mid 80s during the height of the cold war, but with the collapse of the Soviet Union very few of us stay up at night worrying about nuclear war between two super-powers. Instead, it seems far more likely these days that global warming and an environmental apocolypse will be how we destroy the world instead.

Most of us have the idea (which we've absorbed from the media and the education system) that although nuclear weapons have frightening capabilities, our leaders in Washington are wise enough never to use them. But if you actually examine the historical record, it's frightening how many times we've come close to nuclear war over the past 60 years. In the Hiroshima museum, there is a list of all the times since World War II the US government considered using nuclear weapons, and it's pretty shocking: everything from China going communist to the Suez Canal Crisis. (Unfortunately I can't find that list on line, but the wikipedia article on nuclear Warfare gives a number of near misses).

The Cuban missile crisis, cliche though it is, is undoubtably the stupidest moment in human history. Contrary to what you learn in schools, this was not a case of a rational US President standing up to the irrational Soviet Union, but a deadly game of brinksmanship on both sides.
The Russians had already agreed to remove the missiles in Cuba if the US would remove their missiles in Turkey first (which were just as close to the Soviets as the Cuban missiles were to us). Kennedy wanted the Soviets to remove their missiles first, so that he didn't look like he was giving into the Soviets, and would agree to remove the missiles in Cuba only afterwards.
How close did this stupid game come to destroying the whole world? With newly released information, we now know that it came even closer than we thought. Check out this video here to see how the world came to only one countermanded order away from complete destruction.

One more example before I drop the subject: go to PBS website and watch the documentary on Robert Oppenheimer (link here). One hydrogen bomb by itself (more powerful than the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki) would be enough to entirely wipe out New York City. The nuclear fall out from that same one hydrogen bomb would take out the entire East coast.
How many of these weapons would you think any sane society would need? Well, the U.S. government has stockpiled 70,000 hydrogen bombs.

And lest we forget, just a few short years ago Bush and Cheney were re-asserting the right of the US government to a nuclear first strike against a potentially hostile country.

...Sorry, I'm getting a little side tracked here.
I believe the concerns about nuclear weapons are still valid. And I think the nuclear war scenario that played out in "The Watchmen" is, unfortunately, entirely realistic. But whether we need films like "The Watchmen" to dramatize it for us, or if the reality is horrible enough on the face of it, is an open question. You'd probably learn a lot more by watching the 50 minute PBS documentary than by sitting through the 2 hours plus of "Watchmen".

Updated October, 2009
Initially I watched this movie off of an illegal internet copy. Upon renting the actual DVD several months later, my first thoughts are unchanged.
The script does a very good job of taking a very convoluted story with several character arcs, and bringing it down to movie length while still keeping in all the punches.
But in most of the scenes, the rhythm is off. The actors move too quickly, or they don't move quickly enough.
The few scenes where they get it right though are absolutely brilliant.

Link of the Day
Rogue States
and Ten Things You Can Do to Oppose the War in Afghanistan
and Glenn Beck and the mystery of the White House fascists.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Kokonoe / 九重

(Better Know a City)

Monday, May 11th, 2009
Not all Cities on this project are created equal. The previous city, Musashi I felt like I was really struggling to spin out the clock and make it to the end of the day. Kokonoe, by contrast, was one of those cities that was overflowing with things to see, and I felt like I had just gotten started when the day finished. I probably could have used another whole day in the Kokonoe to feel like I did the place justice, but for now this entry will have to do.

This was not my first encounter with Kokonoe. I had spent a few afternoons there back in my JET (W) days.

On afternoon in particular sticks out in my mind. Way back in spring 2003 I was doing an Earth Day clean up at mount Kuju with the Oita Earthman club.
The mountainside was absolutely beautiful in the spring. In fact, as we drove through the winding mountain roads of Kokonoe it was all green mountains covered with grass and wild flowers, interspersed with rivers and occasional waterfalls. I remember thinking it was one of the most beautiful places I had ever been to.

On a less laudatory note, Kokonoe is also home to Shinrin Ski park, where I went with a group to go skiing back in winter 2003.
Kyushu is far enough south that it isn't famous for it's snow, and the skiing here is limited. Shinrin Ski Park is the only ski area in Oita prefecture, and one of only 3 ski areas in all of Kyushu. So, on one hand you do have to give them credit for trying. But it was the worst day of skiing I ever paid money for.
After paying about $50 for a half day (4 hour ticket), we discovered that the place was so crowded it took an hour just wait through the lines for the chairlift to get to the top of the mountain. And once we were at the top, it took us only about 30 seconds to ski down. By the end we discovered we could make better time hiking up the mountain.

Both of those trips were (how time flies) over 6 years ago now.
Since my last trip to Kokonoe, they've built a new suspension bridge there, which has become the talk of the prefecture. A couple years ago many of my students began telling me excited stories about how they had gone to Kokonoe to see the bridge. I didn't understand why this was such a big deal, but apparently it was.

So, this past Monday I set off to re-visit the beautiful mountains of Kokonoe, and to try and see if I could find out why this bridge was such a big deal.

From Nakatsu, it took me about 2 hours to drive down to Kokonoe, so it was shortly after 9 by the time I arrived.
My first stop was the town hall, where I picked up some maps and pamphlets.

Even though I thought that this new bridge was probably just a glorified tourist trap, I decided to make it my first stop and get it out of the way.

20 minutes and a few wrong turns later, I was headed to the bridge. (There were several signs pointing the way to the bridge, but they tended to be mostly on the side of the road and easy to miss. The bridge is apparently still recent enough that they haven't incorporated it into the official overhead road signs, which is what I usually rely on.)

The road wound back and forth as it led me through a valley (what is known as Kyusuikei Gorge) and then up the side of the mountain.
On the way up the side of the mountain, there was a tea house with a big waterwheel next to it, and a large parking lot for a scenic overview. It looked familiar, and I recognized it as a place I had stopped before 6 years ago with the Earthmen club, so I decided to stop here again.

The view from the scenic overview was absolutely astounding. As always my pictures don't do it justice.
Behind the waterwheel was a waterfall called (I hope I'm reading the Kanji right here) "Tengu waterfall". And it was also beautiful. There was so much mist shooting up from the waterfall I had trouble getting a decent picture, but hopefully this gives you an idea. (There were also two giant sandals next to the waterfall that people could pose next to. I have no idea why).

Inside the tea house was a balcony where you could get another view.

After walking around this area and trying to soak in the view, I continued on to the bridge: the famous Konokonoe "Yume" Otsurihashi.

You could tell this was a main tourist attraction. The whole area was run like an amusement park. As soon as you turned into the parking lot a series of uniformed parking attendants in white gloves directed you to exactly the parking space they wanted you to take. There was a big booth selling tickets, and a several restaurants and shops nearby.
And the entrance to the bridge was walled off by a huge fence and guards outside to make sure no one could get in without a ticket. (I don't know if fence hopping is a problem at a suspension bridge.)

I thought I would avoid the crowds by coming on a weekday, but there were still plenty of people there. I can only imagine what this place must be like on a weekend or holiday. (Thank goodness I avoided this place during Golden - Week).

I bought my ticket for 500 yen ($5) and went across.
Before coming to this bridge, I had heard stories from my students like, "It was so scary. It was so high up and you could see down through the grating, which made you feel like you could fall down through it. And the bridge swayed back and forth in the wind."
Reports like these had made me imagine a sort of open jungle bridge like you might see in the "Temple of Doom" movie. But reports of this bridge's scariness were greatly exaggerated.

There was a small metal grating in the middle, but on both sides of this was a concrete walkway. The bridge did sway a bit when you walked on it (I thought it was more from people's steps than the wind, but it probably sways with the wind too on blustery days) but it was nothing at all scary. And as bridges go, it wasn't even exceptionally high up. I've walked over a lot higher in my time. I'm usually very sensitive to heights, but this bridge didn't bother me in the least. I can only conclude that all my students were wimps.

There were enough people crossing the bridge in both directions that you walked through at a snail's pace. From the bridge, you had a great view of the Kyusui Ravine down below, as well as the two Shindo waterfalls (what are called the O-daki and Me-daki, which means man and woman waterfalls respectively).

Before getting on the bridge there were a couple scenic overlooks to take pictures of the bridge. And, on the other side of the bridge, there were signs for several different scenic overlooks. I walked up to all of these, and got various pictures of the bridge from different angles.

Of course, to get back to my car I had to cross the bridge in the other direction. (There were signs warning you to hang onto your ticket so you could get back across).

And then I got back into the crowd and plodded back very slowly across the bridge again.

There was an information office by the ticket booth. Before going across the bridge, I had ducked in there to see if I could find some more English pamphlets and some advice about sight-seeing in Kokonoe. To my surprise, when I walked in the door I saw a young Japanese woman and a Caucasian man behind the desk. Both of them were busy at the moment, so I had left. But now that I was back across the bridge, I thought I would pop in a second time and take advantage of the fact that they had a foreigner working there to get some sight seeing hints in English.

The gentlemen turned out to be a fellow American, and he was very friendly and helpful. I asked him what else there was to see in Kokonoe, and he showed me the map. "There are a lot of really beautiful hot springs up near Kuju mountain," he said. He pointed several of them out to me, and we also chatted briefly about what we were each doing in Japan.
Then he said, "Hey, I get off for lunch in 5 minutes if you want to stick around and catch lunch."

"Sure," I said. "Although I didn't bring anything with me."

"It's okay, they make really good burgers at the place next door. I'll met you over there."

The hamburger was quite good. (I think it was a Kokonoe speciality). Although, and this is unusual in Japan, it was one of those burgers that was so big you couldn't possibly get your mouth around it. So you just had to cram it in your face as best you could and bit off some of it, and then wipe off the barbecue sauce that was dripping down your chin. Not a very dignified burger, but a tasty one.

My new friend joined me shortly, and I quizzed him about the bridge.
"Now be honest," I said. "This place is pretty much just a tourist trap."

"Oh yeah," he said. "It's totally a tourist trap. But you know how the Japanese are, they love tourist traps.
"It's funny," he continued, "when foreigners come here they always ask, 'But what is this bridge for?' And I tell them, 'just for tourism'. But it's been enormously successful. The city took out a 20 year loan to build the bridge, and they were able to repay it back in just 2 years."

The conversation went onto other topics. We talked about our respective life stories, and what we were doing in Japan. He told me the series of events that had led to him having the rather unusual job of being the only foreigner working at the Otsurihashi bridge information center. I recounted my experiences working through various - jobs - in Japan over the years. Eventually we even began talking about our faith in God and our respective religious journeys.

One of the nice things about Japan is that you make friends quick. Sure, I've been snubbed a few times, but on the whole most other expatriates you met are really friendly people.
If we were both back in America, I would have walked past this guy without thinking twice. But since we were both expatriates here in Japan, we immediately have something in common and end up eating lunch together. And I'll probably never see this guy again in my life, but it was a good conversation for the hour it lasted and I was happy to have met him.

He had an hour off for lunch, and it went fast. We talked all the way through it, and before I knew it he was saying he had to return to work.

He gave me one final piece of advice to turn left on the road leaving the parking lot, and continue on to the Handa plateau where he said there was lots of beautiful scenery. So I did.

And he was absolutely right.
Although as I drove down the road, several of the mountains looked familiar and I realized I had been here before in the past, but I had forgotten about it.

What can I say? The Handa plateau is absolutely amazing. Green fields surrounded on all sides by a rolling green mountain range, including Mount Kuju, the highest mountain in all of Kyushu (I think).

The view is so amazing that I stopped the car several times to try and capture it on film, but I'm afraid I couldn't do it justice.

There was a small park I stopped to by the side of the road that had a shrine built there. The sign indicated this park was somehow related to famous Japanese novelist Yasunari Kawabata (W), but unfortunately my limited Japanese prohibited me from reading much further. Even if I didn't understand the significance of the shrine it was, nonetheless, an amazing view from all four sides.

I continued down the Handa plateau to the foot of Mount Kuju.
Near the base of Mount Kuju there were several parking areas, visitor centers, and restaurants.

There were also a couple of grassy fields on which you can walk through on a raised wooden platform: the Chojabaru and Tadewara marshland. (They're called marshlands, but they seemed just like green grassy fields to me. Maybe if I had been there during rainy season it would have been different).

But, I always enjoy a good walk over some wooden planks, so I walked the loop over both marshlands.

The hiking entrance to Mount Kuju was also in this area.

It was tempting, but it was already getting close to 3. I knew if I started the hike now, that would be the rest of my day right there. And I had the sense that there was so much in Kokonoe left to explore.

(I had already done the Kuju hike before anyway, way back during my JET days. It had been so foggy that day that the higher up we got, the less we could see. One friend and I ended up coming down the wrong side of the mountain and ending up in a different town than everyone else. Fortunately we all had cell phones so we called them and had them pick us up.
The sky was crystal clear today and it would have been the perfect day to do the hike if I had had the time. Alas. Since Mount Kuju actually boarders several towns, maybe I'll catch it on another day.)

In order to scratch my hiking itch I decided to take some smaller trails instead. I started out on the Amagaikegoe trail, which after a while changed over to the Bougatsuru trail.
The trail was 4 kilometers and was supposed to take one hour. I wasn't sure I wanted to spend a whole hour on it, so I just walked it for a ways until I got sick of it (about 2 kilometers in) and then I turned around and headed back.

I headed back in my car and went down the Yamanami highway--not really a highway in the American sense, but a beautiful road that has some great views driving down it.

As my American friend had indicated, this area was filled with Onsens--Japanese hot springs for public baths. There were tons of signs for Onsens everywhere, and more than once I followed signs down a road thinking it was leading to a sight seeing area only to end up at a onsen.
I'm sure most of these outdoor onsens had very scenic views. (The Kokonoe pamphlets made sure to emphasize as much). But again I didn't to waste time spending an hour soaking in the tub when there was so much yet to be seen.

Instead I began stopping at all the little tourists spots along the way. For instance I stopped at Yamanami tourism farm, a little touristy area where you could walk around and see the various farm animals and feed them.
As you would expect, there were a lot of families there. It also appeared to be a bit of a couples spot as well. It was a little boring by myself, but since it was free I did a walk around once through the path. I went around the little pond they have there, past their blueberry hill (a blueberry orchard on a hill), and I said hello to all the sheep, rabbits, dogs, goats, ducks, and horses.

A little further up the road was the Kuju Natural Zoo.
Unlike the farm, this unfortunately was not free. As I drove up to the gate I was asked to pay 1,000 yen ($10), which I thought was a bit of a rip-off, but what can you do.

I parked my car and went through the gate.
At this zoo many of the animals are allowed to roam freely, and I was immediately surrounded by about 4 llamas who looked at me expectantly.
I wasn't sure if I was supposed to pet them, feed them, talk to them, or ignore them.
It turned out that there was animal feed you could buy at the front gate. The animals know this, and so they cluster around every new visitor expectantly.
I, in my usual oblivion, had somehow managed to walk past right past the animal feed without even noticing it.

Not to worry though. There were various vending machines throughout the park at which you could buy more animal food.
The animals in the zoo were for the most part extremely ordinary animals and not that different from the farm I had just come from: horses, sheep, goats, pigs, et cetera.
There were a few non-farm animals mixed in, such as the aforementioned llamas, deer, Emus, American Buffalo, and others.

Most of these animals were in their cages, but some of them were roaming the park free. (I'm guessing they must be on some sort of rotation).

The zoo was pretty deserted. I was the only customer there at the time. (Granted it was a weekday afternoon).

As always happens when you get to see real animals up close, you discover they're not quite as cute as they are on TV. In fact if I had to choose one word to describe most of these animals, it would be "mangy". Their fur was spotchy and missing in patches, and they also had dirt and straw matted into their fur coats. Many of them were surrounded by a small swarm of insects, and after touching one of them my first thought was that I couldn't wait for an opportunity to wash my hands. (I know, I'm a spoiled suburbanite who doesn't have a lot of experience with farm animals).

After the zoo, got back in my car and drove down the road until I got to Asahidai, another scenic overlook.

It was after 5 by this time, but there was still daylight so I decided to see what else I could see. I drove back and forth on the roads some more. I stopped at Lavender Park.
It didn't look very Lavender to me, but I probably hit it in the off season.
Nonetheless I went up on top to get a view of the park below, and, as with every place in Kokonoe, the mountain ranges surrounding it really made the spot.

Although there was no sign posted about a closing time, it was clear Lavender park was gearing down. I was the only one walking through the flower garden, and besides mine there was only one other car in the parking lot.
Alongside the garden was a small restaurant. A little old lady walked out of the restaurant, glanced at me up on the hill, looked at my car, and then drove out and closed the chain fence behind her.

There was a moment of panic, when I thought I'd been locked in for the night. (More so than in the US, Japanese parking lots are notorious for locking up the entrance after closing time. I had the unpleasant experience once of having my car locked up in a city that wasn't my home, and was only able to get back because a friend generously loaned me his car. After that I've always tried to be careful).
Fortunately, however, in this case the chain fence was closed only by a hook, and not a lock. I was able to let myself out, and then, because I'm such a responsible person, I even stopped my car and came back to re-close the chain.

When I sat back down in the car, I heard a ripping sound. I had managed to split my shorts.
This is either a sign that I've been eating too many chocolate donuts lately, or that my shorts were getting too old. Either way it was a bit of a blow as these were the shorts I always wear when I'm out hiking, and the only pair I have with enough pockets to accomodate all my stuff. Ah...such is life.

The splitting of my pants was probably a good sign that I should call it quits, but I wanted to get in one more stop.
Unfortunately I never found it. I got lost on the roads for a while. I followed signs towards what I thought was a waterfall, but never found it. I drove North, I drove South, I ended up in Yufuin, and then drove back across Kokonoe back into Kusu. By now it was dark.
It was a bit of an anti-climatic ending, but all in all a great day of sight seeing.

Addendum: After consulting several maps, it turns out that Ryumon Waterfall is in fact inside the boundaries of Kokonoe. I had mistakenly included it in my entry on Kusu. In fact I had thought it was part of Kusu for years now. My mistake.
In case anyone forgot, below are the photos and video I took of Ryumon Waterfall last summer. For the entry from which these pictures were taken, and a description of the waterfall see my entry on Kusu here.

Video 1

Video 2

Kokonoe Links
Again, by comparison with Musashi city, in which I couldn't find a single link, I'm a bit spoiled for material on Kokonoe. I can't link to everything, but for starters:
Pictures of Kokonoe of Wikicommons--includes a view of what you see driving down Yamanami highway, something I wasn't able to capture on film because I was driving at the time, but this picture reproduces it pretty well
Kokonoe Town: A Chilling Experience,
Hosenji Hot Spring,
and Kyusui Ravine

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky: Obama recycles George W. Bushs plans,
and House Approves War Funding Bill

Friday, May 15, 2009

Wagner: A Documentary Study edited by Herbert Barth, Dietrich Mack, Egon Voss

(Book Review)

I'm not still sure whether I'll ever go to grad school in 19th Century European history, or if I'll only just talk about it on this blog. But either way, I'm having fun making a reading project out of the idea.

The nice thing about carving out an area like "19th Century Europe" is it gives you an excuse to explore all of the interesting people within that period. And Wagner seemed to me an interesting person.

For example, Wagner was one of the leading figures in the Dresden 1848 Revolution in which he shared the spotlight with none other than Bakunin.

But of course contrasted with the "liberal-progressive-Wagner" is the "reactionary-Jew-hating-Wagner" who was appropriated by the Nazis.
Which is the real Wagner?

But politics aside, I think most people are primarily interested in Wagner because of his work with German mythology. (Arguable Wagner, along with Tolkien, is responsible for creating the modern fantasy genre).
I've been interested in fantasy and mythology all my life, and the idea of Wagner's "Ring Cycle" fascinates me.

I say, "the idea" fascinates me, because although I'm interested in the concept in general terms, I can't see myself sitting through 15 hours of German opera. A nice summary of the plot and maybe a short description of Wagner's influences will be fine, thank you.

To this end, I've been looking for a nice readable biography of Wagner.
And as far as I can tell, no such thing exists.
I've looked in bookstores here in Japan. I've looked in bookstores back in the US. And I searched Amazon. I can find several books on Wagner's music, and a few polemics about his political views (A) but not a straight forward biography.

If someone out there knows of a good biography, please recommend it to me. In the mean time, this is the best I've found so far. I found it at Oita library during my last trip into Oita City.

This book consists entirely of various documentary evidence about Wagner's life. For example it contains newspaper articles Wagner wrote, letters Wagner wrote to his friends, letters his friends wrote back, letters about Wagner that friends wrote to 3rd parties, and diary entries.

It sounds pretty cool, and I admit there are a few highlights here. The section on the 1848 Revolution contain a reprint of Wagner's newspaper editorial "Revolution" as well as Wagner's own account of what happened during the Dresden uprising, and Bakunin's appraisal of Wagner.

And I did learn interesting bits and pieces about Wagner's life from this book, but it was a poor substitute for a biography. It was just a series of fragments, and the reader had to guess at the gaps.

Moreover, most of Wagner's letters have to do with the techniques of music, which were unappreciated and uninteresting to an unmusical person like me.

I didn't find this book at all enjoyable actually. It was one of those books where I couldn't even get through a single page without my mind wandering off at some point.

I stuck through the entire book simply out of determination. (If I do go back to school someday, I'll probably have to read lots of boring things, so it's probably good to train my mind).

Still, I wouldn't recommend this book to anyone for pleasure reading.
(It was published back in 1975, so you probably won't find it at your local bookstore. But you never know, it might be in your library).

Link of the Day
Zack De La Rocha Interviews Noam Chomsky I linked to an audio file of this ages ago, but youtube has the visual as well.

Also, speaking of wasting time on Youtube, I've really been loving the Mark Steel lecture series. What a funny and entertaining way to learn about historical figures from Beethoven to Oliver Cromwell to Karl Marx.
I love having this on in the background when I'm puttering around the apartment.
Check out some of them on this playlist here. You won't be able to get through all of them in one sitting, but if you listen to it in snippets you won't be sorry.

...Also, remember when I wrote in this post comparing the George Bush administration to "1984"? Newly released information on torture methods reveals I spoke way way too soon.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Musashi / 武蔵

(Better Know a City)

Monday, May 4th, 2009

This is my 3rd Golden - Week (W) entry (see also Oyama and Kunimi). And, as with the previous two posts, the name of the game during - Golden - Week is to try and beat the crowds.

So, I thought I would go out to Musashi, a tiny little town out on the Kunisaki Peninsula.

The day before I got a call from a Japanese friend wanting to go with me. "Well, if you want to," I said. "But I'm planning on going out to the middle of nowhere for the whole day."

She was a remarkably good sport about it. "It's no problem. You always sound like you have fun out on your expeditions, so I want to see what it's like."

We met up early in the morning, and drove out to Musashi town together. There was a light rain falling that morning, but according to my new rules we set out anyway to explore Musashi rain or shine.

Musashi was absorbed into Kunisaki city during the town mergers a few years ago, but the old town lay between Kunisaki town to the north and Aki to the South. Oita Airport is located right on the boarder between the two towns, and, although I included the airport in my entry on Aki, it seems to belong to both towns almost equally.

Shortly after crossing into Musashi we saw a sign for Furuichi beach, which we stopped at.

We were extraordinarily lucky with the rain. It stopped raining almost as soon as we entered Musashi, and did not start raining again until we were in the car driving home. But the sun never came really came out. Consequently the whole day had a grey and cloudy feel to it. The wonderful colors that I was so enraptured by on my previous trip to Kunimi never came out in Musashi.

We walked the length of the beach, and went out on one of the piers.

My friend was amazed by the same thing I had noticed the previous day at Kunimi--how clear and beautiful the water was at the Kunisaki Peninsula. "The ocean looks nothing like this in Nakatsu," she commented.

There was a splashing sound, and we saw a fish jump through the air and go back into the water. "Ah, a jumping fish," my friend said excitedly. "Do you have those in America?"

"I don't know actually," I said. "I don't think we have any in Michigan, but maybe by the ocean."
The fish jumped several more times as we walked down the pier. I wonder what makes a fish do that.

I collected stones by the sea and practiced skipping them on the ocean. My friend complimented me on my stone skipping ability. "Where did you learn to skip so well?"

"I don't know. I guess my dad used to show me at lake Michigan when I was a kid. But I was always terrible at it. I'm still terrible at it."
And I am. But, apparently compared to the average Japanese person I've got a bit of an edge. I guess we Michiganders must have a natural stone-skipping advantage when we go abroad.

After walking the length of the beach twice, we decided we had exhausted the area and got back in the car to see what other diversions Musashi had to offer. We got back on the coast road. Almost immediately after leaving Furuichi beach, we saw signs for another beach.
"That's got to be pretty much the same beach we just left," I said. My friend agreed, and we decided there was no need to stop there.

And then almost immediately after that, we crossed the town boarder into Kunisaki.
We were both a little shocked at how small the town was. (Usually the town boarders are designed so that it takes at least a little bit of time to drive from one end of town to the other).
"Well, actually come to think of it, Musashi did look pretty small on the map," I said. "The town only has a small stretch of coastline, but the boarders widen out as you go back into the mountains."
But was there going to be anything to do in the mountains?

"So I guess we have to head back now?" my friend asked.
Yeah, sorry, I explained. That's kind of the system I've got going for this project.

So we turned the car around and drove back into Musashi. And then we went to the second beach after all. It was called Ryujin beach and Uchida campground. (Or was that Uchida beach and Ryujin campground?) It was just slightly down the coast from the previous beach, but we still walked the length of it, and I skipped stones across the ocean again.

There was a small trail which lead through a wooded area filled with pine trees which we walked through just because it was there.

There were also some pavillions, under which 3 motorcyclists were resting. "Konnichiwa (W)" one of them called out to us.
"Konnichiwa" we replied.
"Are you sight seeing?" he asked.

The conversation ended there. I wondered if we should ask them what there was to see in Musashi, but my friend said they didn't seem like locals. "During Golden Week, people often go touring on motorcycles," she explained. "They're probably just passing through the area."

We got back in the car and headed towards the city center.
Musashi had a very small city center: a town hall, a couple supermarkets, a cultural center, and that was about it.

I also saw what looked like a church's steeple with a cross on top of it. "Hey, I wonder if that's a real church or a wedding chapel," I asked.
"We might as well stop and have a look," my friend said. "We've got nothing else to do in this town."
And so we did.

Although I lost my faith a long time ago, I still have a fondness for churches in Japan. Since only 1% of Japan is Christian, I always think it's kind of neat whenever I find a church, especially out in the countryside.
In my circle growing up in Grand Rapids, everyone went to church. So, in my limited experience attending church- in Japan, it was interesting to meet people who went to church inspite of the surrounding culture, and not because of it. (And I've talked to other lapsed American Christians who have had similar experiences of feeling a fresh and new atmosphere at Japanese churches despite their own lost faith).
Japanese churches also remind me of home a little bit, especially since most Japanese rural churches are designed like they're straight out of 1950s America: a white church with a steeple and cross on top.

However just to confuse things there are also a lot of "wedding chapels" in Japan, which are buildings designed to look like churches for the sole sake of holding marriage ceremonies for young Japanese people who want a wedding that resembles what they see in Hollywood movies. Several times I've approached what I thought was a church, only to find out it was a wedding chapel.

This church didn't appear to have a parking lot, so we parked the car by the side of the road and tried to walk up to it. It appeared to be hidden behind a number of other buildings, so we walked around the block while we tried to find an access point.

There were some dandelions by the side of the road, and my friend picked one up and blew the seeds into the air. "I was reading a book recently," she said, "by a Japanese professor who lived in America. And he wrote that, in contrast to Japanese, Americans actually hate dandelions and will try and weed them out from their yards. Can that really be true? In Japan, children love dandelions."

"Well, yes and no," I said. And I tried to describe the complicated relationship we Americans have with dandelions: how children love them, but gardeners hate them. Eventually this turned into a recounting of every memory I ever had concerning dandelions.
My friend listened attentively all the way through it. Maybe she was just being polite. But in Japan, every ordinary American memory is changed into an exotic recollection of a far away land, and in the past I've made big productions out of retelling some of the most ordinary things. (Such as the American ritual of praying before meals, and all the unwritten rules that govern praying etiquette).
While I was telling these fascinating stories, we were still trying to find the church. We went around one way to the right, and then we went around to the left, and we couldn't seem to get past the big building in front of the church, until we realized that big building was part of the church. The traditional chapel and steeple that we were focused on were just the second story of the church.
This meant that, counting both stories, it was one of the biggest churches I had seen in Japan. (Usually they're very tiny). And, here it was, out here in the middle of nowhere.

"You know a lot about Christianity," my friend said. "Without looking at the sign, can you tell me if this is a protestant or a catholic church?"
"No," I answered. "Sorry."

With this little diversion over, we drove on. And followed signs to the Tsubacki Hachiman shrine.
My friend translated the sign for me, telling me that this temple was original built way back in 765 AD. "Of course I don't think that's referring to the actual wooden building," she said. "These old temples are often built and rebuilt several times over. But the actual site dates back to 765."

There was a big tree by the entrance to the temple with an enormous trunk. Someone had tied a wreath of woven straw around it. "This is a Kusonoki," my friend said. "The old Japanese believed that divine spirits lived within the tree, so we put this ceremonial wreath around it. I guess that must seem pretty strange to a Westerner."

"No, actually ancient Greek and German myths were the same," I answered.

At the parking lot for the Tsubaki Hachiman Shrine was a map of Musashi with all the other sites of interest highlighted. We were glad to find this, because it gave us something of a plan for the rest of the day. True, almost everything on the map was just more temples and shrines. But at least we knew what we were doing now.

The first temple on the list was walking distance from where we were at. In fact it was just right behind Tsubakihachiman shrine: Shon Temple. We walked through it briefly.

But I was more interested in the small stream besides Shon Temple than the temple itself, so we walked down this stream for a way.

Following the stream, we came to a a group of rice fields alongside the stream.

Although actually many of them were growing barley instead of rice--something I didn't even notice until my friend pointed it out to me. And then she laughed at me for not even knowing the difference between barley and rice. (It was early spring so instead of being golden brown like in the beer commercials the barley was a series of green stalks, and from a distance looked the same as rice fields).

The hanging wisteria flowers (W), fuji in Japanese, were also visible. We saw a couple different gardens in Musashi, but they were also growing wild in the wooded areas around the rice (um, I mean barley) fields.

We followed the river on the way back, and marveled at the clear water, and could even see lots of fish darting around in its shallow streams.
Then my friend said something which slightly took the romance off this small countryside stream. "This is probably the water where the houses' water drains to. All the soap from the shower and dish-washing liquid goes in here. But the fish still seem to be healthy." Out in the Japanese countryside, without the intricate plumbing system of the big city, most of the water from the sink drains does run directly into the streams outside.

We came back to the car and, after consulting the map, deciding to head out to the viewing area by Ogi Mountain. This was a beautiful mountain view of the city. But instead of hiking our way up here, we could drive the whole thing.

We followed the signs up winding mountain roads for a while until we got to the top, and enjoyed the wide view of all of Musashi city (and much of Aki and Kunisaki) laid out before us.
The sky was still grey and gloomy, and, although it colored everything with a shade of blah, fortunately it did not hamper the view at all.

We stayed up there for a while taking in the view, and trying to capture it through a camera lens (always a futile effort).

The nearby map indicated some hiking trails, so we decided to explore that.
Slightly down the mountain was a parking lot by what was called "Ogikanzen bosatsu".
This was a small temple with a little bit of a loop through the mountain behind it.

As you went through there were a bunch of small Buddhist statues that were numbered in order (I think about 35 maybe) although I thought I caught some gaps in their counting. "Hey, this is 31 already. What happened to numbers 27, 28, 29, and 30?"

My friend, as a dutiful Buddhist, stopped to offer up a small prayer at each one.

It was a pleasant little hike. At one point we thought it had started raining again, but it turned out it was just the wind blowing through the leaves and sending down some of the morning's rainwater. The ground was a bit wet and slippery, and my friend did take a bit of a spill. I was worried that might mean the end of the hiking trip, but she recovered herself quickly, and we continued. (She was only a bit concerned that her new camera had gotten scratched up, but despite the outside being a little less new and shiny it still worked perfectly fine.)
"I've heard a lot of the hiking trails in Japan are old training routes for priests," I said. "With all the Buddhist statues on this trail, do you think this was a training hike?"
"No, it's much too small and easy to be for training," she said. "Something like this is for people who are suffering a misfortune or need a miracle. If they make the loop and say little prayers to each of the statues, then their request will be granted."

At the end of the loop there was another trail branching off to go to the viewing area we had just come from. "We don't need to go there," my friend said. "It just leads to where we've already been, and then we'll have to walk all the way back to the car again."
If I had been by myself, I would have gone just for the hike. But I decided to yield to my friend's logic on this one.

Since we didn't have a portable map with us, we drove back to the Tsubaki Hachiman shrine (it was on our way back down the mountain anyway) and looked at their map to plan our next move. There was something on the map about a green tourist village just down the road, but despite driving back and forth through that area several times, we never found it. We did stop at a small Fuji park to admire the flowers.

We drove up a little down the road to visit Saikoji Temple. As we got out of the car, my friend said, "This is a Zen Buddhist temple. I've never been to a Zen Buddhist temple before. But Zen Buddhism is very popular in America, isn't it?"
"Yes, I've got a few friends who are into it," I answered.
"Well, they'll probably be quite impressed when they hear you've been to an actual Zen temple," she said.
"Um, I guess."

We walked through the temple garden and took a few pictures.

After having walked through the temple garden, I could not tell any difference between a Zen Buddhist temple and any of the other regular Buddhist temples.

My friend opened the temple doors (to her surprise the temple was just left unlocked) but we didn't go inside.

After this, we headed back down to the coast to catch a few more attractions that were listed on the map.

The first stop was Marine Pier. This was close to the airport on Musashi's side, and was mostly just a harbor for fishing ships, with a fancy walk out pier built on it.
The pier itself was quite nice. Or at least at one time when it was brand new it must have been quite nice. The paint was peeling off the railings, and it was a bit rusty. But impressive nonetheless.
The pier was a big sucker, with a nice brick walkway out to a statue of a girl on a dolphin. It made you feel like you were on a fancy beach walkway, like maybe downtown Grand Haven back home.

Only there was absolutely nothing around this pier. I commented that at least an ice cream stand might be nice, and my friend laughed and said no one would set up an ice cream stand out here in the middle of nowhere.
Which begs the question of why this huge pier was set up right in the middle of nowhere.

My friend lowered her voice slightly so that the surrounding fisherman couldn't hear us. "To tell the truth," she said, "I imagine this whole thing was built just because of some back room deal between the government and the concrete companies. That kind of thing happens all the time in Japan."
(This conversation reminded me once again of "Dogs and Demons" by Alexander Kerr (A) in which he tackles the same subject of corruption).

The water closer to the airport was slightly murkier than it had been down the coast. But we could still see plenty of fish swimming around from the pier, including some that were pretty huge.
There were a couple fisherman sitting on the pier. "Having any luck," my friend asked one of them.
In heavily accented dialect, he responded with something like, "Oh, it's still a bit early yet to catch any fish."
"Really, we've been seeing lots of them swimming," my friend said.
"Have you? Well, they haven't been biting."

We walked along the shore where we saw a kind of blowfish washed up by the waves.
In typical Japanese fashion, my friend immediately identified the fish as a kind of sushi delicacy.
We debated whether or not it was still alive. She claimed it was moving. I maintained the fish was only moving because it was being nudged by the waves. She poked it with a stick and claimed its stomach muscles were contracting as a result. I remained skeptical.

We left the marine pier and drove to the Musashi road station (rest area) right next to the airport on the Musashi side.
There was a small shop where fresh vegetables were being sold. My friend was much more interested in this than I was. "Look at these prices," she marveled. "You know, the cheapest prices for fresh vegetables are always at the road side stations. Look at how cheap these tomatoes are! Why you would pay almost 3 times this much in a supermarket."
I was still enough of a lazy bachelor that I never learned to pay attention to vegetable prices.

There was a small cafe as part of the road station, so we went in there. I had a cup of coffee and my friend had soft serve ice cream.

From the road station, it was just a small walk over to the "airport viewing park". I got my picture taken with a gorilla statue (neither of us could figure out why this statue was there) and we saw a couple planes land and take off.

It was about 4:30 now, so we figured we would get something to eat, and then call it a day. (We had deliberately skipped lunch so we could finish off the day by eating in a Musashi resturant). We drove to a place that said "Musashi Ramen" (something we had seen earlier in the day, and which seemed like an appropriate way to end the day.)
Turns out it was closed for the afternoon. A sign said it opened again at 5, but I knew even that wasn't guaranteed. (Many of these small town resturants are permantly closed).
"You know, I saw a place earlier when we were parked by the church," I said. "We can go there."

We drove back there, but when my friend saw the restuarant I was referring to, she said, "Oh, no, this place isn't for casual dining. This looks like a place that specializes in catering special dinners."

As we drove down the road, there was a sushi restaurant, but my friend said it also would most likely be very expensive.
There was another ramen resturant, but when we pulled into the parking lot we found that this was an old restuarant that had been closed down and abandoned.

"Well, we tried," I said. "We gave it our best shot, but we might as well just head out of town and get something to eat on the way back."

So, we left Musashi a little early at 4:45. It was just as well. We both felt like we had thoroughly exhausted the town's possibilities.
If I had been exploring by myself I probably would have done what I always do when visiting a small town with nothing in it: park the car and just walk along the river for a couple hours. But I adjusted my usual habits for my friend, and I was glad to have the company.

It started raining almost as soon as we left Musashi. And by the time we reached Bungo-Takeda (where we ended up eating dinner) it was pouring down. So we were thankful that at least the rain had held off during the day.

Musashi Links
...Um, I'm turning up a blank on my searches. If anyone comes across any let me know.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky - American (Media) Hypocrisy