Saturday, January 24, 2009

Shinkansen, Hiroshima, Miyajima

First, a little translation.

Shinkansen = Bullet Train.

Hiroshima = "wide island" - or one of two cities that got A-Bombed in WWII.

Miyajima = Shrine Island.

My aunt and I started off the day on Saturday with an early rise to catch the Shinkansen to Hiroshima. They named the train very accurately - and as cliche as it sounds, we were flying along at mind-blowing speed with no sensory information other than sight to indicate how fast we were moving. A few times I tried to get a better look at things that caught my eye, only to see them zip out of view by the time I turned my head. I did manage to get some shots that gave me a sense of what Japan was like in terms of geography and urbanization.

Japan is much more flat than I had imagined. But, like Hong Kong, they still find it easier to build out into open water than up the side of a mountain. People here also like to live in standardized situations. There are no expensive "Ocean view condos" or Beverly Hills-style houses on the hill. People here seem to be somewhat reserved and shy - happy to live in a nice neighborhood like everyone else.

Unfortunately, given the absurd speed of the Shinkansen, I often ended up with photos of...wall...wall...blur...wall...blur...etc.

I never expected that Japan's rail system would be so complicated. The entire system seems to be comprised of a whole bunch of little private companies each with its own agenda, name, trains, and operating methods. I'm very glad I had a guide (Thanks a bundle Carolyn!) There is also no "whole system" fare solution as there is in Hong Kong with the Octopus Card. Japan is alone in my perception of the world in the sense that it is made up of cities with what seems like almost no space between. The railways all blend together in a way that I didn't expect and cannot compare with any other place in the world. The DC Metro is only meant for the DC Metropolitan Area, and the Hong Kong railway doesn't really connect to anything but longer distance trains that go to the border with China. Japan is really something different - as you can see below. Keep in mind that this is only a representation of Osaka, Kansai, Himeji, Kobe, and a few other towns/cities. This area is similar to the regions of Northern VA, Washington, Silver Spring, and Baltimore etc. in the sense of distances and urbanization. However, the blurring between city lines and time/distance ratios made this whole region seem much smaller.

I was able to catch a fairly nice example of graphic design, a-la DC metro Map. I mean that things are not drawn to scale or using the correct proportions, but the message is no less clear. The recognizable aspects of the trains, their "faces" as it were are each a little bit different, but different enough for Japanese to know the difference. Also, the train cars are not nearly as stumpy as they appear here, but the number of cars is much more important to travelers than their shape on a sign. It is also made clear which stairway to use to get oneself closest to the correct car on any specific train.

This is not a Shinkansen, but rather a more local train. Shinkansens operate like Amtrak in the US: only a few stops in each state - mostly for going really far without having to fly or drive. They stop at each major city, and cut travel times dramatically. The middle grade trains, like the one above are like Greyhound buses. They go from urban center to urban center, but you will probably need to figure out a way to get to the final destination yourself. This is where the local trains, light rails, and public buses come in. By using some combination of the three, one can get from within a few blocks of "Point A" to within a few blocks of "Point B".

The street cars are also really interesting here. You enter the vehicle for free and pay your fare when you "disembark" or as we Americans say "get off". Buses are the same way. I'm used to paying when boarding - entry fee style.

Upon arriving in Hiroshima, which would have likely blown away any preconceptions I had been foolish enough to hold , we hopped on a streetcar and made our way to the "A-Bomb Dome" one of the few buildings to survive the attack the marked the beginning of the end of the war with Japan. This was essentially a city center building that was used as an information center for businesses, an office for some of the city's services, and various other things over the years. Its dome was blown away in the blast, but its strong, solid walls and iron reinforcement for the dome were able to survive. Most experts attribute its survival to the fact that the blast's force was directed mostly downward and not across the structure.

Interestingly, this symbol of tragedy and devastation has had its image reinvented to that of a monument to peace. In this way, it has drawn in enough funds from wealthy donors to ensure that it will never fall down.

It's hard to believe that the A-Bomb Dome (left side of frame) is now among the shortest and smallest buildings in the city. People were rebuilding Hiroshima almost as soon as they stopped looking for wounded and dying.

Unfortunately, I visited the peace memorial park (below) before I entered the A-Bomb museum, so it didn't have quite the same impact that it should have had, but from an aesthetic standpoint, it is stunning. It is a very wide, flat, open, and uncluttered space - unheard of in most Japanese cities. The intense quiet that dominates this park is also surprisingly spooky.

Inside the museum were stories, photos, artifacts, and videos that really hit me hard. I thought I knew the story of the A-Bomb but it was much more deep, touching, and disturbing than I thought. I felt very lucky to even be walking around Hiroshima as an American, considering that there are still people walking the same streets having survived the bombing or lost loved ones to it.

In the foreground are a couple of lumps of coins that were fused together from the intense heat generated by the blast. The coins that have holes in the center make for a conveniently threaded bunch of money.

A couple of glass bottles that were melted into distorted silhouettes of their former selves by heat.

This next story speaks for itself. I am just a messenger. (click for a bigger image)

Below is a small-scale model of what was left of Hiroshima's buildings after the bomb detonated. The few that survived were built of concrete reinforced with iron. But that was probably not enough, since there were other similar buildings around that were obliterated. It is probably due in part to the fact that these buildings were beneath the epicenter of the explosion meaning that the blast energy compressed them, as opposed to shearing or shoving them off of their foundations. Japan's main method of construction then was wood and paper - essentially kindling. Even if the buildings were able to withstand the force of the bomb, they were burned like everything else all within one day of the bombing.

The dark spot in the center is a shadow cast by a ball hanging above that represents how big and high the fireball would have been just after it detonated.

After we finished our tour of the museum, we walked to this bridge, shaped like a "T" that the American bomber used as a target to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. It detonated in the air only a few hundred meters to the southeast (I think).

After we wrapped up our tour of the A-Bomb Dome, The Museum and the park, we hopped a streetcar to the southwest side of the city to hop a ferry to Miyajima. After such a heavy-hitting morning, the general beauty and serenity of the island and the shrine were a welcome change.

At the end of the line we got out of the streetcar and looked around to find the ferry over to the island. It reminded me of Hong Kong and I realized how fortunate I was to be able to associate anything with the unique and incredible experiences I've had in Hong Kong.

The island has the kind of look of unspoiled beauty that I associate with things like "Jurassic Park, Lord of the Rings, Planet Earth and Braveheart" There was an air of beauty that transcended prettiness and nature. Maybe it was the fact that all of the vegetation was of a different variety than what I'm used to seeing in America and Hong Kong. The trees, grass, birds, and even the deer (below) are all just a little different, but enough to make me stand up and take notice.

On the ferry ride over, I caught a hint of English saying something about tame deer and taking care of passports and children so they are not harmed by the deer. It seemed like I was missing some information so I disregarded it but sure enough, there were cute little hungry deer wandering around the ferry terminal looking and sniffing for handouts. One even followed me for over a block before it came to the conclusion that I was not worth the trouble.

I thought that this was the perfect way to depict the modern impact on the old, classic beauty of the island. Even clouds look nice here, but ferries still do not.

The tide was about as low as it gets when we arrived at the island to walk through the shrine, which meant that the usual water lapping under the planks of the floor or rising up to meet the base of the torii, the thing above which looks like, and also literally means, a bird perch, were not present, but fortunately I was also able to get up close and see the bright colors and precise construction more clearly.

Pagodas come in all sorts of "flavors" around here. From basic old weathered wood to Day-Glo orange and white. I am sure that there is some reason for it, but I have yet to learn what that may be.

To the left of the neon orange pagoda is a shrine or temple (I do not yet know the difference) that is hundred of years old, if I remember correctly, and looks the part.

Sure the glass of the Bank of China Tower has a certain look, as does a sunset at the beach, but I personally feel that both pale in comparison to the way this majestic structure stands serenely on a hillside on a quiet island south of Hiroshima. It has withstood earthquakes, bombings, the A-Bomb, and probably countless other trials over its lifetime.

The wood looks very old in both its construction method and patina. I'd bet that all the nails used in this structure's completion would fit into one surprisingly small bucket. The Japanese are champions of precision engineering, and absurdly precise fitting in construction - both of which can eliminate the need for nails entirely.

The actual shrine is finished in the same colors as the neon pagoda, but there is enough raw wood to offset the intense orange a little and make it easier on the eyes.

The whole shrine is built on short stilts that allow it to stand a few inches above the surface of the water at high tide, creating what I imagine is a stunning reflection that dances with the colors and shapes of the shrine's columns, as well as the mountains surrounding the shrine grounds.

It is a non-issue for me to be unable to read the words, because I am sure that they are as impressive and beautiful as everything else that is associated with the shrine. The views, the sounds, the colors, the construction, and everything else that can't be put into words.

It is customary to wash one's hands and mouth with the pure water at the Shrine's entrance before entering so as to be pure before the spirit(s?). That's all well and good but the water was probably covered in a thin sheet of ice that morning considering the amount of snow on the roof of the shrine.

I think these shots clearly depict my early understanding of the Japanese people's attention to and appreciation of detail (as I spend more time here, I find myself noticing details in more and more situations). Not only are the all the faces of the tiles done in a beautiful finish and pattern, but the crispness and clarity of the pattern and details really impressed me. (The quality of these shots is pretty poor, so look for more to be posted in the near future)

We then hopped the ferry to the mainland under a beautiful late-day sun, we went home, and relaxed. I know that I was emotionally and physically drained after such a long and interesting day. I imagine that my aunt was as well.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Arrival, Airport, Impressions

Well, it's been another long while, and I've been completely out of touch, but I promise I'll share all the great stuff that I've done since arriving in Japan.

I arrived at the Osaka/Kansai International Airport on Friday afternoon. It is a beautiful airport that looks like an enormous section of silver or chrome pipe. While the description doesn't sound like much, a picture is worth a thousand words. The interior is also quite distinctive and absolutely beautiful.

Kansai Int'l Airport is, like some other airports in Asia and around the world, is built on "reclaimed land" or basically manmade islands out in the middle of the water. This is essentially due to the fact that water and mountains conspire against airports by niot allowing much flat land for runways or tarmac.

While approaching the airport, I noticed that Japan is composed almost entirely of small islands and mountainous "mainland". With so many islands, it is clear that there would be a lot of bridges.

Japan is also well known as the land of the small car. In America, most of the issues that people have with mercedez' SMART car revolve around not having enough space for people or gear. So what do the Japanese do? Slap a trailer on it! This way, the cabin can be used for carrying as many as 2...people. Only 2, but still, quite efficient with space, gas, and size.

I arrived in Kobe - after an hour of driving and staring at how industrial and busy everything seemed to be. Smokestacks, electric transformers and trucks were absolutely everywhere in Osaka.

I spent the afternoon and evening catching up with family and adjusting to Japan. Many people, myself included, often consider Asia to be one place, but after living in Hong Kong for five months, I can tell that there are very distinct differences between Japan and Hong Kong, as well as between Japanese and Chinese.

I put down my bags and noticed something in the corner of my room (my cousin has graciously evacuated so that I can have my own place).

What is that you ask? It's my bed! Well, it's the futon that I sleep on, and it unfolds to cover enough of the floor for me to sleep as well as I have in any hotel. I am not used to sleeping on the floor, but I must admit that it is quite comfortable, and by day, the bed can fold up increasing floor space dramatically - not possible with a framed bed.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Well, as usual, I'll begin by apologizing for being so out of touch for such a long time. I've been incredibly busy lately with personal projects, my family and girlfriend came to visit me for Christmas and the New Year, and I've been trying to keep my head above the water at work. I know I have a few dedicated followers at home and I apologize for leaving you all hanging for such a long time. There is enough news that I can't put it all down here, but I will do my best to update a little bit over the weekend. Work's been great, but a little bit tedious. I have been doing the same thing for a couple of months now and it seems to be never-ending. I guess that's why they call it work. After passing the halfway mark in early December, the amount of time remaining in Hong Kong seems to be growing shorter at a ridiculous pace. With less than 2 months left, I am already thinking about how good it will feel to be home with my family, friends, and loved ones (especially my dog - miss you nutmeg!).

Here is a list of some of the things I didn't think I'd miss nearly as much as I do(this list does not include people because that's a whole different topic and I don't want anyone at home to feel inadequate)

1: paper money that's all the same size (and fits in my wallet while i'm at it)
2: Driving
3: Driving on the right (I actually had to think about that for a minute - scary huh?)
4: Chipotle Burritos
5: Real hamburgers
6: American soda - made with high-fructose corn syrup - not sugar from cane which is what i think they use here
7: the rest of my clothes
8: the rest of my shoes (never thought I'D be the one to miss shoes ;) )
9: Pandora Radio
10: Family guy
11: The most important presidential election of my lifetime (i suspect)
12: Rock Music
13: School
14: waking up late
15: The imperial measuring system
16: american skim milk
17: Kraft Macaroni and Cheese (i found Kraft spirals and cheese but without american milk - it's hopeless)
18: Cheddar cheese - cheese(other than processed) in general for that matter
19: American TV - I only get two english channels - and I miss discovery
20: real football - because the rest of the world logically calls soccer football or futbol

Hopefully I'll be in touch over the weekend.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Auditorium Game

I just found a super amazing game that combines beautiful music, attractive visuals, and captivating interaction. Just use the "bubble" to direct the music toward the volume meter. As you deliver more of the notes to the vloume meter, a symphony begins to build, with bass, midtones, and higher tones appearing in steady crescendos. Play it here.

Monday, November 17, 2008

New BMW Gina Concept

This is a video about a new way of thinking from the guys at BMW. It has inspired me to pay more attention to alternative materials and techniques in construction. The styling is controversial, but I think the message is pretty valid. Finally, a new way of thinking.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Cold, Boat, Election, Grill, Cake, and Friends

It seems I am always starting off my posts with an apology about being so out of touch. Well, this is no exception. Sorry.

It’s finally “cold” here in Hong Kong. (apparently, anything below 70 degrees warrants a coat and scarf, but I didn’t get the memo. I was perfectly happy to be out and about in a polo shirt and jeans today!)

A while ago, before “winter” started, I had the great pleasure of attending a birthday celebration for a colleague’s girlfriend. Her parents came all the way from Korea (“all the way” is relative when it’s only 3 hours away) for a week’s stay and rented a party boat for a day. I had agreed to go hiking with someone else that day, but the weather was so perfect and the invitation was on such short notice, that I felt somewhat obligated to attend a great day of swimming, eating, and laughing with friends. It’s easier to justify a hike in colder weather than swimming. I'm glad I went.

The day was absolutely prefect. We left from the pier in Tsim Sha Tsui at around 10:00 AM. It was a little gray, but that only meant that the haze would burn off a little later in the day and leave us perfectly comfortable al day long. We were asked to provide our own snacks and drinks, while the actual lunch food was provided. And it was great.

Korean sushi, kim chi pancakes, burritos, and sandwiches.

From left: Evan, birthday girl's sister, father, birthday girl Hyomi, mother, and boyfriend Carlos.

Jai was the photographer for the day.

Just as happy as can be.

Pretty easy to relax on such a beautiful day.

Most of the people in the office/on the boat didn’t really know how to swim. I don’t think they were in any danger of drowning, but I'm sure it still took a lot of guts to jump in the water with everyone else. Fortunately there were enough floats and strong swimmers for everyone to stay safe and happy. Some of the guys even gave swimming a shot - without floats, which probably wasn’t the best idea, considering that the wind was constantly blowing us away from the anchored boat. There were a few frantic calls for a rope to grab on to, but we didn’t lose anyone.

Ish was on the ropes. Nothing to worry about!
Apparently it is customary to jump from the top deck of these party boats.
Who was I to argue?

It was a lesson in perspective, because although the top deck is only about 8 or 9 feet above the main deck, that one is probably close to 6 feet off the water.

It was a spectacular experience. There was music, dancing, singing, smiling, and swimming. All-in-all, it was a perfect day.
There were a total of 3 birthday cakes. Split amongst a handful of people, this meant that everyone had plenty of cake to keep them full and happy. The third one never even emerged from the fridge.
Thanks to Hyomi's sister for the glamor shot.

Against all odds, I received my absentee ballot in the mail a full 3 weeks prior to the election. I was thrilled to have received it, considering that any glitch in the system would have required a frantic application for a second one that would have meant a down to the wire wait for a new ballot. Considering I have never voted for anything before, this was strangely easy to do….Not too many questions, and the instructions were clear. In fact, the hardest part of the entire process came up when I had to mail it in the Hong Kong post. Who the heck knows what postage zone the US is in?

Casting my ballot was a highlight, but the election itself was the focus of my life for at least a few days. It was very strange watching the news for the last few weeks before the official election because the race for the white house never warranted more than about 20 seconds of reporting. “obama is ahead in the polls, but McCain is closing the gap. People around the world are watching. And now here’s Susan with tomorrow’s weather.” Fortunately my friend and colleague from the US has cable in his house, and thus I was able to watch CNN International. I went to watch the election coverage with him the night it began, and was amazed that even the commercial breaks were shortened in honor of the US election. In addition to the numbers and predictions, there were a number of really interesting stories about Obama's incredible support from around the world. While my girlfriend relayed important statistical information - like how far ahead Obama was and how many more states he needed to win - I relayed silly stories to her about how the rest of the world was completely infected with Obamania. I thought it was a nice trade. I got all the necessary numbers related to the campaign and she got a laugh. Here are some of the stories I suggested she check out. You should look into them too.

First, Obama Japan, where a musical group called Anyone Brothers Band (or something like that) sang a song about Obama - the man, obama - the city, and the similarities between the names. Truly strange, and perfectly Japanese in that unfortunate cliche sort of way.

Then there was a story about sand arts in India.

And finally, an enormous tribute to the man the world loves in Barcelona Spain.

In progress at first...

and presumably completed.

It just isn’t a big deal to people here. It is at once strange and not strange at all. It is a bit weird considering that the HK dollar is tied directly to the US dollar, no matter what the market is doing at home. At the same time, Hong Kong’s economy seems strong and stable enough to stand on its own. But on the first hand, most of the products that my company produces are meant to be sold in the US. Who knows? All I can really say is that my coworkers were remarkably nonchalant about the whole thing. Thank goodness for the internet. I am very thankful to have had the opportunity to watch the very moment that the winner was announced – considering that this was my first election, and definitely my first one from Hong Kong. Between and, there was not much work being done by the Americans in the office on election “night”. (more like election day in HK being 12 hours off)

Recently, my friend and colleague officially felt settled enough in his apartment (more like a whole house…) to open it up for a house-warming party. The theme was International Kitchen. I made kebabs of marinated beef, chicken, and roasted vegetables – peppers, pineapple, and cherry tomatoes.

No need to grill! I had at least one whole kebab before the plate even left the kitchen.

The marinade, which was likely a little bit too complicated, got rave reviews. Maybe people weren't expecting so much flavor to come at the hands of an American. It consisted of red wine, olive oil, chili oil, ginger beer, raspberry jam, garlic, green onions, soy sauce, and - of course - Worcestershire sauce. Yup. After re-reading that, it was definitely too complicated.

They smelled sooooooo good on the grill. It also helped that each item on the grill had it own distinct, intoxicating perfume. My mouth is watering just writing about it. Korean BBQ pork, my kebabs, American style hot wings, Fish Balls. Mmmmm.

Nasty meat hands - a smal price to pay for a great evening of full stomachs and pleased guests. The only sharp knife at the house was passed around a number of times during the course of the evening.

I just want a taste!!!

I think my favorite part about kebabs (aside from the ridiculous ease with which they are prepared and cooked, and the handy handle they come with) is the incredibly vibrant colors that jump off the grill. My friend from the office helped put the kebabs together. He's very methodical. Can you tell? The last few are all identical!

I ate extremely well, with kim chi pancakes, bbq pork, guacamole, beans, adobo chicken, and hot dogs on the menu. It was a great night. And it helped that the weather is finally cooling off around here. I actually got a few chills. It was a grat night for everyone. People showed off their skills in a number of areas. There were a number of great cooks. A few were clearly champion drinkers.

Some (myself included) were incredible eaters (but it was soooo good).

There was a marathon of dancing...

Thanks to the fact that my boss was the DJ for the night!

My friend, the host had the misfortune of booking his flight to Hong Kong for a date only a few days before his birthday. So when he arrived, he had to find an apartment, recover from jetlag, and adjust to Hong Kong, instead of thinking of his birthday. He wasn’t comfortable enough with the people from the office to make a big deal about it when it happened, so he and I went out to a really cheap birthday dinner and pretty much forgot about it…until last night.

I asked one of my friends from work to pick up a birthday cake for him and stash it away for later in the night. It was a perfect little plan, because he never saw it coming, but he deserved and wanted it so much. He seemed very happy at the end of the evening.

There was drinking and dancing and all the expected frivolities of a weekend night. Everyone was overstuffed, but quite happy.

Finally, a friend of my best friend’s mother is coming to visit Hong Kong in a couple of weeks. Interestingly, she’s staying at the same hotel that my parents and girlfriend are planning to stay when they come to visit. Hopefully we’ll get a chance to grab a bit of dinner. I hope she’s aware of the intern budget I’m trying to stick to...

Hopefully it won't be so long before another post. It is exhausting to have to rack my brain for all the news in the last few weeks. In other news is up and running. The content is all there, but I need to work out the pretty stuff. I hope you get a chance to look at it and comment on it. I've put a lot of work into it.

Love you all back home!

Good luck with the house mom & dad!