Himeji Castle: Top Secret Ninja School??


“There are no rules of architecture for a castle in the clouds.” ~Gilbert K. Ches

A Castle in the Clouds

A Castle in the Clouds

James Bond:  “Do you have any commandos here?”  Tiger Tanaka:  “I have much, much better. Ninjas. Top-secret, Bond-san.  This [Himejijo] is my ninja training school.” ~You Only Live Twice

kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-armored-door-and-internal-passageway-wmNinja training school or not, Jody and I recently made our way south from our stay in Kobe, Japan, to visit one of Japan’s most iconic castles:  Himeji.  Compared with Nijo castle in Kyoto (see The Last Samurai’s Castle for more), this is much more like castles with which most Westerners would be familiar.  Thick walls full of loop-holes for shooting.  Narrow passages and numerous gates armed with watch-towers and reinforced locking doors.  And a tall, hill-top Keep, full of weapons racks and murder holes through which heavy rocks and boiling oil could be dropped on invaders….

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kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-couples-selfie-with-the-white-castle-in-the-skyHimeji Castle (姫路城 Himeji-jō) is a hilltop Japanese castle located in the city of Himeji, Japan.  Regarded as the finest surviving example of historic Japanese castle architecture, it is comprised of a tight defensive network of 83 buildings dating from Japan’s feudal period.  The castle is often locally referred to as Hakuro-jō (“White Egret Castle”) or Shirasagi-jō  (“White Heron Castle”), because of its brilliant white finish and resemblance to a bird taking flight – a somewhat vague analogy in my opinion.

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kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-castle-rooflines-wmHimeji Castle started as a small hilltop fort in 1333.  Replacing the fort was first a castle called Himeyama  in 1346, which was then remodeled into Himeji Castle in the 16th Century.  In 1600, Tokugawa Ieyasu, the same Samurai that built Nijo Castle in Kyoto, awarded the castle to another feudal Lord, who happened to be his son-in-law.  He, in turn, completely rebuilt the castle in the early 1600s to what we see today.  For over 400 years, Himeji Castle has remained largely intact and well-maintained, even throughout the extensive bombing of World War II and the 1995 “Great Hanshin” earthquake, both which seriously damaged nearby Kobe and the surrounding area.

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kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-climbing-steep-stairs-wmIn fact, the city of Himeji was specifically targeted for bombing in World War II because an important rail terminal and line was located there.  On July 3, 1945, 107 B-29 bombers took off from airfields on captured Guam, Tinian, and Saipan to bomb Himeji.  During the raid, 767 tons of incendiary bombs were dropped on Himeji, destroying almost 65% of its urban area.  Himeji Castle, however, remained remarkably unscathed, even after one firebomb, which failed to ignite, was dropped directly on its roof.  As word of this seeming miracle spread, the castle became to be known as divinely protected.

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kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-jody-on-the-way-to-visit-the-castleHimeji Castle is the largest and most visited castle in Japan, and is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It is a masterpiece of construction in wood, combining martial function with aesthetic appeal, both in its elegant appearance of white plastered walls, and in the subtlety of the relationships between building dimensions and the multiple layers of rooflines.  In 2015, over 2.8 million people visited, so the castle can be quite crowded.  Our recommendation is stay away during Japanese National holidays and the New Year, and arrive early before tour buses start to que for the afternoon.  On busy days, numbered tickets are issued to control access based on scheduled admission times.  At times, the castle will run out of tickets.

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kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-jody-under-an-internal-gate-wmHimeji Castle was abandoned during the Meiji Period in 1871 and some of the castle corridors and gates were destroyed to make room for Japanese army barracks in the ensuing decades.  The castle was next auctioned to a private citizen who wanted it destroyed in order to redevelop the land.  Demolition proved much too expensive, and Himeji was spared.  However, it’s fate still unsecured since Japanese castles had become obsolete and their preservation costly and not a priority during post-WWII recovery.

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kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-jody-smiles-at-the-castleThe 6-story main Keep has two massive supporting pillars, one standing in the east and another in the west, each originally single trees of fir and cypress with diameters over three feet.  The inside walls of the Keep are literally covered with weapon racks (武具掛け bugukake), originally for holding matchlocks (17th firearms in Japan) and spears.  Numerous openings below windows can be found in the Keep called “stone-throwing platforms” (石打棚 ishiuchidana) strategically situated over the winding pathway up the hill.   Similarly, angled chutes called “stone drop windows” (石落窓 ishiotoshimado) are found here too, enabling stones or boiling oil to be rained down upon the heads of attackers below.  Within the Keep are small enclosed rooms called “warrior hiding places” (武者隠し mushakakushi), allowing defenders to hide and attack by surprise.

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kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-shinto-shrine-on-the-top-floor-wmOne of the castle’s foremost defensive strategies is found in the design of the confusing maze of narrow pathways leading uphill to the castle’s Keep, as much a psychological barrier as a physical one.  Unable to scale up or penetrate through the steep and tall castle walls, attackers are necessarily funneled into a long, spiral pattern around the keep, an approach covered by loopholes and murder holes the entire way.  Originally there were 84 gates to slow intruders, but today only 21 remain.  Roughly 1,000 loopholes (狭間 sama) in the shape of circles, triangles, squares, and rectangles are still found throughout the castle today.  Partly due to this focus on strong defense, Himeji Castle was never even attacked.

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The castle has been featured extensively in foreign and Japanese films, including the James Bond movie You Only Live Twice (1967), and Ran (1985).  In the television miniseries Shōgun (1980) it served as a stand-in for the fictitious feudal-era Osaka castle featured in the series.

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kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-wooded-view-of-the-castle-wmWhile the castle is exquisite from a distance, and impressive from the outside, touring the Keep’s innards is an exercising in climbing up and down steep staircases.  While a visit here is in no way something that should be skipped, just don’t expect much in the way of explanation…or interesting things to see.  In other words, from an architectural and design perspective, seeing a 400-year-old original structure is amazing.  However, the castle is culturally void, having been stripped bare…which is how it is presented today after an extensive rehabilitation earlier this decade.

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That said, Himeji Castle still remains the most spectacular example of an original Japanese castle still in existence.  Even for someone who is not particularly interested in castles or history, a day-trip from Osaka or Kobe to Himeji-jo can be fascinating and well worth the expense and effort.

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Even if there really isn’t a Bond-san ninja training school located there….

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Hemiji-jo

Hours:  Winter 0900–1700, Summer 0900-1800 (April 27–August 31)

Closed December 29-30

Address:  68 Honmachi, Himeji City

Phone:  079-285-1146 (Himeji Castle Management Office)

http://www.himejicastle.jp/en/

Access:  Himeji Castle stands about one kilometer down the broad Otemae-dori Street from Himeji Station.  The castle can be reached from the station’s north exit via a 15-20 minute walk, or five minute ride by bus (100 yen one-way) or taxi (about 650 yen one-way).

The Last Samurai’s Castle: Nijojo


“I’ll tell you how he lived.”  ~Nathan Algren, The Last Samurai

A young Japanese Emperor Meiji is featured in The Last Samurai, surrounded by his court in an immense and minimally-appointed tatami-floored hall.  The palace is unquestionably Japanese, with sliding door panels adorned with gilded scenes of cranes in flight and tigers crouched for an attack never to come.  But his is no movie set; these scenes were filmed in the historic 400-year-old castle of Nijo, located in the heart of the ancient Japanese capital city of Kyoto.

The Last Samurai as filmed at Nijojo

The Last Samurai as filmed at Nijojo

Nijō Castle (二条城 Nijō-jō) is a low-profile castle built on the flatlands of Kyoto, Japan.  Although nothing like a castle in the Western classic sense of tall turreted guard towers and heavy drawbridges, it does boast two concentric rings of fortifications and thick stone walls, substantial palaces and several gardens.  The complex is sizeable covering about 70 acres, but with only about 85,000sqf of buildings to explore.  It is one of the seventeen Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto, all which have been designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Guard Tower Overlooking a Moat

Guard Tower Overlooking a Moat

In 1601, Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first of the Tokugawa Shogunates, ordered all the feudal lords in Western Japan to contribute to Nijō’s construction, which was completed in 1626 by his Grandson after the former’s death.  Although Edo (modern-day Tokyo) was considered the country’s capital, this castle served as the Kyoto residence and Court of the Tokugawa Shoguns (basically military dictators).  It continued in this role for 260 years until the Shoguns surrendered power to the Meiji Emperor in 1867, and today it remains an eloquent testimony to a bygone era of Shogun power and prestige.

Tokugawa Ieyasu, Founder of Nijojo

Tokugawa Ieyasu, Founder of Nijojo

Jody and I really enjoyed the expansive, well-kept grounds and gardens, and spent much of our timeat the castle wandering slowly through their various paths.  Groves of plum and cherry trees are found here among peaceful ponds and carefully-placed ornamental stones, and the castle serves as a prime blossom viewing spot in the spring when the time is right in late March and all of April.

Beautiful Japanese Gardens

Beautiful Japanese Gardens

Building as the Japanese did primarily out of wood and paper, though, has its drawbacks, as evidenced by a sad history of destructive fire at most old Japanese heritage sites.  Nijō’s original 5-story central Keep was struck by lightning and burned to the ground in 1750; the foundations can still be explored around the inner ring’s southwest corner.  In 1788, the “Inner Ward,” the area encompassed by the inner moat, was destroyed by a city-wide fire and remained empty, more or less, for the next 100 years.  After the fall of the Shogunate to Imperial rule, an Imperial residence was moved there where it remains today as the Honmaru Palace.

Chinese Kamon Gate

Chinese Kamon Gate

After entering the castle grounds from the outer east gate, visitors will soon find the Chinese style Karamon Gate, the entrance to the Ninomaru outer ward secondary circle of defense.  The castle’s main attraction, the Ninomaru Palace, is located here.  This Palace served as the residence and office of the Shogun.

Stylized Paintings in Nijojo

Stylized Paintings in Nijojo

Surviving in its original form, the architecture and artwork found at Nijojo are arguably among the best surviving examples of Japan’s feudal era.  The palace consists of a series of separate buildings that are connected by an interestingly clever defensive design, the castle’s famed “nightingale floors,” corridors with flooring specifically designed to squeak aloud when stepped upon, alerting guards and occupants to potential intruders.  The rooms are floored with tatami mats and feature elegantly decorated ceilings, elaborate wood carvings, and beautifully painted screens on sliding wooden-framed doors (fusuma), all intended to impress visitors with the power and wealth of the Shoguns.

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These fusuma paintings, dating to 1626, include some of the most well-known masterpieces of original Japanese art, most notably the painted screens of the main chamber (as featured in The Last Samurai).  These depictions were painted by artists of the Kano tradition, which employed rich colors and large amounts of golden gilt to depict flowers, trees, birds and tigers.  The look and feel of this particular palace is routinely reproduced on Japanese movie and TV sets when there is a necessity to depict a wealthy Samurai, and were also replicated for our own Western-produced mini-series Shogun.

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But there is some fact to The Last Samurai’s fiction.  In 1867, Ninomaru Palace, located in the castle’s “Outer Ward,” served as the site of handover of power in Japan from Shogun to the authority of the Imperial Court in early January 1868.  That year also saw the installation of the Imperial Cabinet at Nijojo, and the castle was declared a “detached” palace for the Emperor.  Honmaru Palace served as the location for the enthronement banquet of the Showa Emperor (Emperor Hirohito) in 1928, and is not normally open to the public.  A scamper up the stone foundation of the former castle keep located nearby provides fantastic views of the castle grounds.

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In 1939, the palace was donated to the city of Kyoto and opened to the public the following year.

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There is a reason why The Last Samurai was shot on location.  Visiting Nijojo, one is transported back to a different time and place, one when powerful Shoguns and revered Emperors ruled Japan in opulence.  One can imagine, indeed, “how one lived…”.

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Nijojo

Address:  541 Nijo-jo-cho, Horikawa-nishi-iru, Nijo-dori, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto City

Phone: 075-841-0096

Access:  JR Kyoto Station/Hankyu Railway Karasuma Station, or Tozai Subway Line Nijo-jo-mae Station

Hours:  08:45-16:00 closing at 17:00

Closed:  12/26-1/4 and Tuesdays in July-August & December-January

Fees:  600 yen, discounts for school children

Dinner at Ar’s of Shiodome, Tokyo


“All four elements were happening in equal measure – the cuisine, the wine, the service, and the overall ambiance. It taught me that dining could happen at a spiritual level.” ~Charlie Trotter, American chef and restaurateur

Modern Shiodome City District

Modern Shiodome City District

Shiodome (汐留) is a district in Tokyo recently developed at the turn of this century, redeveloped and remade into an attractive, somewhat upscale area full of shops, eateries, and businesses.  Its spectacular skyscrapers are the home of the headquarters of Nippon Television, but more importantly for tourists to the city, a large variety of cafes, theaters, hotels and the subject of this blog – “Sky-View” restaurants.

Shiodome (pronounced shee-oh-dome-eh, meaning “halt the tides”) was originally a tidal marsh sitting between the Imperial Palace and Tokyo Bay.  During the Edo Period in Japan (1603-1867), the marshes were dried up and reclaimed as land for the then many feudal lords hungry for space.

Redevelopment and Revitalization of Shiodome

Redevelopment and Revitalization of Shiodome

In 1872, Shiodome was chosen as the site of the Shimbashi rail station, originally the Tokyo terminal of Japan’s first railway line.  When the modern site of Tokyo station was developed as Tokyo and rail in Japan grew, Shiodome was basically converted into a train freight yard, a state and function in which it remained well into the 1980s.  Today the district is unrecognizable, featuring all the modern aspects of city planning with motorized pedestrian traffic, elevated walkways, and underground passages that connect most of the densely packed buildings in the area.

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Ar’s Italian Cuisine, one of the Sky View restaurants located in Shiodome, was recommended to us by our hotel’s very helpful concierge.  A short but cold walk away, our journey was made easier by the pedestrian ways connecting all the buildings in the area.

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tokyo-2016-dinner-at-ars-dinner-with-jody-and-a-viewshiodome-sky-viewAr’s is located in a modern skyscraper above the 40th floor, providing amazing views of Tokyo and the famed Tokyo Tower from a warm and tastefully decorated space.  But there is a much richer experience to be had here than just enjoying the view.  Ar’s is an upscale eatery, and although there were only a couple of other groups there upon our arrival at about 2000, everyone was dressed in business formal, all men wearing coat and tie and ladies in dresses and heels.

Jody with Our Sky View

Jody with Our Sky View

tokyo-2016-dinner-at-ars-dinner-with-a-viewtokyo-2016-dinner-at-ars-delicious-kobe-beef-with-a-fancy-knifeOur wait staff was headed by a man who spoke actually very good English.  Tatsuhiko Tochimoto, the establishment’s Assistant Manager and true professional in terms of service, acted as our interface to the rest of the facility, providing detailed explanations of our menu in terms of ingredients and preparation.  We had reserved a table by the windows, not realizing that almost every table had a fabulous view.  Jody and I both ordered full course meals (see their menu for more) and a bottle of wine, and while the food was absolutely delicious and presented as creative works of art, what will stay with us for the rest of our lives is not the food but the way we were treated.

Appetizers

Appetizers

tokyo-2016-dinner-at-ars-conger-eel-souptokyo-2016-dinner-at-ars-baked-fishThe service at Ar’s was outstanding and very attentive.  It seems that there was a staff to customer ratio of about 1 to 1, which meant that we never asked for anything.  Water and wine was poured as if on que, and Tochimoto-san stopped by often between courses to chat, and with each course to explain our food in great detail.  While at time I would find this overbearing, especially being during date-night with my lovely wife, Tochimoto-san made us feel warmly welcome, much like family would.

Fabulous Friends & Food

Fabulous Friends & Food

tokyo-2016-dinner-at-ars-seafood-pastatokyo-2016-dinner-at-ars-picture-souvenior-with-dessertAt one point he came up with a camera, and asked if he could take our photo.  “Sure,” we said, somewhat confused.  What does he want with our photo?  He mentioned something about taking pictures of their special guests….  An hour later, delivered with our courses of sweets and dessert, was a small framed photo of me and Jody there at dinner; the staff had printed and framed the photo as part of our dinner!  Such a uniquely fabulous touch to an already first-rate dinner.

Our Framed Keep-Sake with Dinner

Our Framed Keep-Sake with Dinner

tokyo-2016-dinner-at-ars-kiss-in-the-wedding-chapeltokyo-2016-dinner-at-ars-fancy-dessertsThen, after we finished dinner, Tochimoto-san asked if we had a few moments.  Again, “sure” we said, this time with some eager expectation.  He brought us to an area down the hall from the restaurant, into a wedding chapel that they work in combination with.  This chapel is “special” we were told, because it overlooks both the Tokyo Tower AND the newer, taller landmark, Tokyo’s SkyTree.  He offered to take photos of our quickie wedding ceremony over the city lights of Tokyo.  His business card states “A to Z Dining,” and that is no exaggeration.  Such a fabulous night in Tokyo for us both!

Wedding Chapel with a View

Wedding Chapel with a View

Full disclosure:  this level of service and quality of food does not come cheap in Japan.  And while we spent a relatively enormous sum eating dinner at Ar’s, both Jody and I will tell you, without hesitation, that our experience there was worth every single dollar.  And email Tochimoto-san directly at “tochi0905@gmail.com” to reserve your own unforgettable spiritual dining experience.

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Ar’s Italian Cuisine & Sky Bar SPADE

Lunch starting @ 3,000 JPY, Dinner @ 10,000 JPY

03-5537-6431 (+81-3-5537-6431)

Dinner 17:30-23:30 (last order 22:30) and Lunch 11:30-15:30 (last order 14:30)

Rail:  Toei Oedo Line to Shiodome Station, take Exit 4-minute walk

Address:  41F, 1-5-2, Higashishinbashi, Minato-ku, Tokyo, 105-7102

http://ars-dining.com/

Losing their Hearts in San Francisco:  The San Francisco Maru of Truk Lagoon


“Come back.  Even as a shadow, even as a dream.”  ~Euripides, Greek classical tragedian playwright

Built in Japan in 1919 by the Kawasaki Dockyard, The SS (Steam Ship) San Francisco Maru was a medium-sized freighter of the time specifically designed for the Japanese Yamashista Kisen Line.   She was a 385ft, 27ft beam, 5,800+ ton passenger-cargo ship that served as part of Japan’s wider commercial fleet involved in world-wide trade.  The word “Maru,” meaning “circle” in Japanese, has been used to designate a Japanese merchant vessel since the 16th century.  Although the exact reasoning of this particular ship-naming convention is lost to time, the idea of a safe circular journey for ships and their crews is probably not far from the mark.  As to the city-name?  The Japanese at the time often named ships to reflect their primary destinations.

The San Francisco Maru

The San Francisco Maru

During World War II the Japanese were in desperate need to meet the logistical needs of their new Pacific empire, suddenly stretched far, wide, and thin.  Many commercial vessels were thus taken into service of the Emperor, a fate no different for the San Francisco.  Following her requisition by the Imperial Japanese Navy, the ship was detailed to transport military cargoes between the Japanese homeland and far-flung Pacific destinations.  Like most of the other Japanese merchants during WWII, the San Francisco was armed, in this case with a single 75mm/3” deck gun forward to both defend against surface submarine attack, and to provide an opportunity to attack and capture other unsuspecting merchants she happened to meet along the way.

Although damaged by aerial bombing in 1943 while delivering supplies in New Guinea, the San Francisco suffered her fatal blows after arriving at Truk Lagoon (current day Chuuk, part of the Federated States of Micronesia) in February 1944.  Packed with war materials, including cargo holds full of bombs, mines and torpedoes, she arrived just days before a massive American attack on this Japanese stronghold.  During Operation “Hailstone” (ラック島空襲 Torakku-tō Kūshū, lit. “the airstrike on Truk Island”) between 17-18 February 1944, waves upon waves of US Navy carrier-based planes were launched against shipping found at Truk, as well as the significant military presence Japan had built up there since the end of World War I.  After the first day’s attacks, the San Francisco was observed and reported by US forces as being on fire with smoke belching amidships.  The next day, she was reportedly hit by at least six 500-lb bombs, and was left burning furiously and sinking stern first.  At least five crew members were killed.  Operation Hailstone is often referred to as the “Japanese Pearl Harbor” due to the massive damage inflicted on the Japanese fleet.

Basic Orientation of the Wreck Today

Basic Orientation of the Wreck Today

It’s position lost to the fog of war made even more obscure by the passage of time, the wreck was “discovered” in 1969 by Cousteau (no doubt with the help of locals who all but knew her location), but was not dived again until 1973 when the ship’s bell was recovered and her identity confirmed.

Bow Gun of the San Francisco

Bow Gun of the San Francisco

The San Francisco lies very deep, and rests on an even keel with the superstructure beginning at ~140fsw, weather deck at ~165fsw, and the sea bottom around 210fsw.  Upon descent, her wreck remains invisible, and only passing about 50’fsw do her twin masts first come into view, themselves reaching up only to 105’fsw.  Heading from the forward mast to the bow, you cross over the open access to cargo hold 1 and finally reach the vessel’s most impressive and picturesque deck gun at ~150fsw.  Most deck guns of the wrecks in Truk are covered with an immense amount of growth, but due to the depths of the San Francisco, this is not that case of her wreck.

Hemispherical Mines of the Forward Cargo Hold

Hemispherical Mines of the Forward Cargo Hold

After touring the gun – a must on this shipwreck in Truk – one should immediately descend down into hold 1 forward, where you will find a cargo space packed with hemispherical landmines, at one time destined to help defend the beaches and shallow waters of Truk Lagoon against potential Allied invasion.  Watch the depth here though; the hold descends down to almost 200fsw!  Exiting up and aft out of hold , immediately proceed aft and around the forward mast to hold 2, where divers will find a plethora of scattered aerial bombs, complete with tail fins and the remains of their original wooden packing crates, along with the remains of Japanese trucks in the hold’s ‘tween decks.  Still deeper, drums of fuel can be seen.

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Perhaps the highlight of visiting the San Francisco, however, are the three iconic Japanese tanks still found resting on the ship’s main deck.  These tanks, built by Mitsubishi, are Japanese Light Type 95 HA-Go tanks covered in with ½” armor.  They appear toyishly small in appearance, but would have been manned by a crew of three and could make up to 30mph on a six-cylinder, air-cooled 120hp diesel engine.  Weighing ~7.5 tons, the tanks were armed with three weapons:  a 37mm main battery turreted gun, and two 7.7mm machine guns, one forward (non-coaxial) and one rear-facing.  The tank was only mildly effective against infantry and was never designed for armored battles, and with an extremely cramped interior, only the lightest armor, and a hand-operated turret, the tank suffered enormously in battle as more modern battlefield weapons came into play.  Two tanks are found on the starboard side of the ship, with one to port.  This is perhaps the most photogenic part of the wreck, and if your bottom time is already limited (as it is on this wreck), make sure to reserve at least a few minutes for these infamous tanks.

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From here, our planned dive run time required us to start our long ascent to the surface, where we completed our accelerated decompression profiles as we went.  It’s hard to leave the wreck, especially seeing the cratered remains of the superstructure (severely damaged from bombing), and knowing that the rear cargo holds contain a mixture of trucks, crates of ammunition, more mines, some depth charges, and scattered torpedoes….  How this wreck failed to detonate under such intense bombing is hard to imagine.  Equally as befuddling is the lack of other visible damage from the other reported bomb hits of the 2nd day’s attacks.

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But exploring the 2nd half of this ship, where those five unfortunate souls who lost their hearts in San Francisco can be remembered as a shadowy dream, will have to wait for my return to Truk Lagoon.  Until then, stayed tuned for more “Traces of War” from this year’s adventures exploring this iconic battle site.

Japan Time: If You’re Early, You’re Late!


“What time is it? Four thirty. It’s not late, naw, naw; just early, early, EARLY!” ~What Time is it, the Spin Doctors

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The Micro Japanese Sense of Time

We have taken a number of tours during our Far East Fling, some of them with Japanese companies, many American-run ones here on Okinawa, and a few during our trip to Cambodia. And from these experiences I can distill the primary difference between them to just one word: TIME.

“Our tours run on ‘Japan time’. This means that we leave promptly at the published departure time. If you are late, the tour will leave without you and your reservation will be forfeited without refund. Please make your greatest effort to show up on time.” ~From Fuji Mount Guides tour description

Tours around the world usually request that you show up early in an effort to avoid leaving late. The tours here on Okinawa run by the Air Force or Marine Corps recreation teams do just that – “showtime” is 15 minutes prior to the scheduled departure. And yes, Jody and I arrive at the appointed time, but every time I end up asking myself, “Why?!?” Because almost every time someone is late – and I don’t mean like only, say, six minutes early instead of 15. No, they are past the published departure time, yet the American tours wait…. Frustrating.

Mass Transit run by Stop Watches

Mass Transit run by Stop Watches

This doesn’t happen in Japan. We were taking a bus from Hiroshima station to the airport, and of course we arrived a few minutes early. Sitting on the bus I noticed the bus driver closing the exterior luggage doors at about five minutes prior to his scheduled departure time. At one minute prior he released the air brakes and closed the cabin door. As the bus’s clock clicked over, the bus was already moving, leaving the station exactly on time. So, here in Japan, if you are late, you lose. An astounding concept if you ask me. Now, I can just hear all you time-shifting westerners complain that sometimes “shtick happens.” Well, yes it does. And that’s why you are supposed to be early. Really, seriously, and without doubt, there are very few valid reasons for tardiness, particularly when others are relying or depending on your prompt arrival.

Timing by Conductor

Timing by Conductor

In the (American) military there’s an axiom that goes something like, “if you’re on time, you’re late.” Because in the military, some times the essence of life and death itself relies on precise timing. But besides that, I personally hate being tardy. I will almost always choose to be overly early than just a little bit overdue. I, along with a whole slew of others, consider it insulting when someone else doesn’t show due regard and respect for my or a group’s time.

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In American, especially given the digitally connected generation(s) that makes plans on the fly, punctuality is not sacrosanct. In America’s defense, however, we as a nation are not nearly as bad as some places in the world, but being 10-15 minutes late is often accepted as par for the course. It seems that even in the capitalistically-driven United States that the age-old adage of “time is money” doesn’t always apply, unless, perhaps, tardiness actually costs money, e.g., you miss a tour, you miss the tour.

Even These Guys Run Around on the Clock

Even These Guys Run Around on the Clock

Everyone has those friends, and most have had a girlfriend (or perhaps even a boyfriend) who have wantonly taken advantage of this generally accepted lax attitude toward punctuality. Me? I decided long ago to take a stand and not be such a conformist pushover for such sluggishness. There is nothing wrong with expecting others to respect you as you respect them, and there’s nothing neurotic or compulsive with expecting others to have at least a similar sense of timing. There were and are people in my various circles of family and friends that I openly refuse to make plans with, and there were and are times where I literally would leave…but then only after 10-15 minutes have elapsed since the mutually agreed upon time.

Ferries Also Run to the Minute

Ferries Also Run to the Minute

But when you come to Japan you realize that it’s not just you or most of your military coworkers that are the only ones who care about being on time. Almost the entire country of Japan (less the foreign tourists) is amazingly punctual; it is claimed that Japan is the most punctual nation in the world! And it really is one of the top ten Things Done Right in Japan.

Matters of Time

Matters of Time

The trains here are the stuff of legend, so punctual that one can set a watch by their arrival and departure times. They are (almost) never late. But even the very concept of “late” takes a whole different spin in Japan. If a train is running late by as little as two minutes, the staff will make public apologies. Over five minutes and the staff will issue “delay certificates” (遅延証明書) that will offer an excuse for tardiness at school or work. Why do the Japanese go to such great lengths? Because even such minor delays are quite unthinkable and intolerable.

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A train may run every nine minutes, but it still will have a precise, published timetable, one that would never claim something as ambiguous as “runs every nine minutes.” One reason why the timing of trains is so crucial is the very tight timelines in switching lines to which a strict timetable is indispensable. Some connections are only two minutes, but when timing is downs to seconds, that’s plenty of time to jump from one track to another. Train conductors here literally use stopwatches, and the famed Japanese bullet trains are timed to arrive and depart within 15 seconds of their published time. Not one or two minutes either side mind you; fifteen seconds. The average delay on these trains during FY2012 was only 0.6 minutes – that’s 36 seconds. Only trains with less than a minute’s delay are considered to be “on time” in Japan.

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But it’s just not their mass transit. Make an appointment for your car, or to have something repaired in your home, or for a delivery, and it will, 95% of the time, go down exactly at the appointed time. In the 20+ transactions I’ve had with our building’s handyman, he has only once been late, and that was less than probably 7-8 minutes. I swear that most of the time he arrives early but stays outside the door, only to ring the bell at exactly the appointed time. Really, it’s uncanny.

Ferries are not just Punctual, they are Happy and Fun!

Ferries are not just Punctual, they are Happy and Fun!

I’ve watched the Japanese build, outfit, finish, furnish, stock and open stores in as little as eight weeks. We had to have two walls in our bedroom replaced due to water intrusion. Originally the work was slated, not for the 2 weeks which would be quoted back home, but for two days. At the appointed hour, a team of four workers was waiting outside, gear, tools, and materials in hand and ready to go. Starting at 0830, and taking an hour lunch break, they finished before 5 pm. Initially we thought they were done just for the day. But no, they finished. What they did in less than eight hours – remove an air conditioner, tear out old drywall, apply water sealant and thermal insulation to the inside external wall, remount and finish new drywall, move a duplex electrical outlet, move and remount the air conditioner, paste-up new wall paper, replace baseboard and crown molding, put furniture back, and remove all the debris – never would happen in America. We were astounded; we had counted on multiple days camping out in our living room, or possibly even moving our bed, because of our American-skewed sense of time. But here in Japan, we hardly missed an afternoon.

Trains are On Time and...Nice!

Trains are On Time and…Nice!

Meeting Japanese friends? They will be early…and expect you to be on time. In the off-chance the Japanese do run late, they will call/text right away and offer their explanations and apologies, and you will often see them running the last few meters to try and make up for lost time. Sure between friends or equals there is some leeway, but here being habitually late is regarded as a serious character flaw. The Japanese consider tardiness as an inconvenience to others. To those of higher rank at work or in social status, being late is unthinkable, and at times, unforgivable. Station and hierarchy is central to individual identity in Japan, and time serves as one way to establish and preserve one’s position.

Almost Time to Go

Almost Time to Go

The Japanese essence of time is much more complex, however, than just strict punctuality. The intent of precision timing here is not expected within a linear, Western approach, where speed and accuracy are treasured and tasks broken done in sequential order. Rather, the Japanese divide time into generalized blocks to sustain and respect courtesy and tradition over say, even efficiency. And having a society which is highly homogenous and carefully regulated, very strong pressures are exerted for one to conform in time.

Waiting on Time

Waiting on Time

Whatever you think about time and punctuality, I am in no rush to return back home only to endure house call arrival times being given as 4, 6, or even 8 hour blocks of time. Everyone knows the frustration of waiting an entire morning (“between 0800 and noon”) to get internet or cable TV in America, yet nothing changes because we choose to have no other expectation of timing. Just know that there is a different, better way of honoring time, and it is right here in our Far East Fling.

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Read More about the Japanese Sense of Time:

http://www.businessinsider.com/how-different-cultures-understand-time-2014-5#ixzz3jQUVqJFP

http://english.jr-central.co.jp/about/punctuality.html

The Fiery Passion of Mounting Mount Misen


“Our love is written in the stars and burns bright on Mount Misen.”  ~Our Ema left in the Lover’s Sanctuary, the Hall of the Eternal Flame

Miyajima 2015, Mount Misen, Kiezu-no-Reikado, writing our Ema WM

The interior of the diminutive Buddhist hall was dark and uninviting. The top half of the open entry was filled with thick, sooty smoke attempting to escape confinement within the enclosure. The imposing yet mysterious chamber was too much to pass up, and like a curious cat, I ducked below most of the effuse and entered, all senses alert….

Mount Misen Attractions

Miyajima 2015, Mount Misen, mountain creek and waterfall WMMiyajima 2015, Mount Misen, stone steps WMAt more than 535 meters (~1,800’) above sea level, Mount Misen (弥山) is the highest peak on Miyajima. It is considered a holy site situated within the World Heritage area of Itsukushima Shrine (the subject of a soon-to-be published blog). On clear days, it affords spectacular views of the dramatic Shikoku Mountains in the distance and the beautifully island-studded, oyster-farming waters of the Seto Inland Sea. A number of Buddhist structures, most of them near the summit, are found here, including the gloomy Reikado Kiezu-no-hi (“Hall of the Eternal Flame”), described above.

Reikado Kiezu-no-hi, The Hall of the Eternal Flame

Reikado Kiezu-no-hi, The Hall of the Eternal Flame

Miyajima 2015, Mount Misen, Kiezu-no-Reikado, leaving our lovers' ema in the shrine WMMy eyes quickly adjusted to the gloom, but not to the smoke of the smoldering fire. The effuse continued to sting my eyes, and the acidic vapor irritated my nostrils. But the scene that assaulted my very consciousness was something out of Tomb Raider meets Indiana Jones (see Tomb-Raiding Angkor for more adventuresome explorations). The ceiling of the space was covered in soot so thick that stalactites were forming, as if to reach down to the Eternal Flame from wince it came.

The Eternal Flame and Cauldron of Curative Waters

The Eternal Flame and Cauldron of Curative Waters

Floating Shrine

Floating Shrine

Buddhism was first practiced here by Kobo Daishi, founder of its Shingon sect and one of Japan’s holiest religious persons. The “Eternal Flame” is a holy fire said to be lit by he himself in 806 and continues to burn here, uninterrupted, even now. The temple structures near the summit all are satellites of the fabulously intriguing Daisho-in Temple found at the mountain’s base on the outskirts of town.

There's more smoke in there than this picture does justice. TRUST ME.

There’s more smoke in there than this picture does justice. TRUST ME.

Miyajima 2015, Mount Misen, sacred ground during our climb WMThere was no flame visible, only the red-hot embers of a number of logs meant to feed the fire for quite some time. Smoke filled the cavity, tainted the walls black and stained dark brown all the recently hung wooden ema (see Shinto Shrines and Snake Oil Sales for more on this intriguing way of praying). The far recesses of the chamber were home to a whole wall of various statues and figurines, whose meaning was lost on me. We were the only visitors, the silence broken only by the crackling of the fire pit. The full frontal blitz of sight, sound, touch, taste and smell created an ambiance that was transformative.

The candles seem oddly redundant....

The candles seem oddly redundant….

Fire God

Fire God

Water boiled in a large iron cauldron over this fire is believed to provide curative powers over various ailments, and although we didn’t know it at the time, the water is always available for anyone to drink. The flame here also served as the source of the Flame of Peace in Hiroshima’s Peace Park (see Atomic Footprints in the Sands of Time for a blog about that moving place), a pilot light transferred in 1964.

The Rear Wall of the Hall.

The Rear Wall of the Hall.

Miyajima 2015, Mount Misen, Kiezu-no-Reikado, eternal flame under a temple cauldron WMThis holy fire, burning continuously for over the last 1,200 years, is designated a Lover’s Sanctuary by no less than Japan’s First Lady of Brides, Yumi Katsura. Seems a logical connection has been made of an eternal flame being akin to the burning passion of eternal love. Yumi, Born in Tokyo, spent time as a young woman studying haute couture while living in Paris. Returning to Japan in the 1960s, she realized there was no bridal industry of which to speak. Seeing an opportunity, Kumi opened her first bridal salon in 1964, and soon after presented the first bridal collection show ever held in Japan and published The bridal Book, the first Japanese book specializing in bridal fashion. Now one of the world’s most prolific wedding dress designers, she has expanded globally, her collections now found in some of the most exclusive stores, such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman, Henri Bendel and Neiman Marcus.

Ema Prayers and Wishes Hanging in the Hall.

Ema Prayers and Wishes Hanging in the Hall.

A Desperate Prayer

A Desperate Prayer

The Hall itself, however, is a relatively small building. Although the interior is completely unlit and filled with murky smoke, the lure of the eternal flame proves irresistible to most. If you enter, be forewarned: you will smell like delectable beef jerky for the rest of the day, until your clothes are changed and hair thoroughly washed! Of course those leaving locally purchased ema inside are said to be granted their loving wish(es). I, more cynically, believe it’s yet another way religion has found to keep itself – like the eternal flame, self-sustaining.

Miyajima 2015, Mount Misen, Kiezu-no-Reikado, Jody with our Ema in the darkened temple WM

A Sad Prayer

A Sad Prayer

Jody and I, of course, left our own personal ema within the hall. While more of a declarative statement than a prayer or wish, surely we would not tempt the gods without paying our respects. To them and to our shared Love, both of which hopefully remain eternal.

Miyajima 2015, Mount Misen, Kiezu-no-Reikado, Jody playing our couple's ema in the temple WM

Miyajima 2015, Mount Misen, approaching the Kuguri-iwa (Duck-under-rock) WMMiyajima 2015, Mount Misen, heading down the mountain WMWhile the hiking courses to the top advertise a 1½ to 2 hours climb, a more realistic number is probably actually closer to three. That is, if you stop to admire the scenery, check out the temples you might pass along the way, take a few photos, and rest to enjoy a swing of water every now and then. Even taking the ropeway roundtrip, we were still gone for easily 4 hours. Hiking the mountain up and down is clearly at least a full half day’s endeavor. But the true beauty of the area’s national forest, replete with rugged landscapes and giant rock formations, along with the dotted islands floating on the Seto Inland Sea below, are all probably at their most enchanting on foot. Thankfully, for those lacking the time or the willpower, a ropeway (cable car) leads up most of the mountain.

Miyajima 2015, Mount Misen, Miyajima Ropeway

Miyajima 2015, Mount Misen, Jody climbing the mountainMiyajima 2015, Mount Misen, Kiezu-no-Reikado, Lovers and their eternal flame 2But when the ropeway ends, don’t believe that you’re close to your goal! Getting to the summit and seeing the main attractions that the mountain has to offer will require a consider amount of further walking. The ropeway station near the summit sits more than 100 meters (~330’) lower than the peak, and situated across a small valley. The path climbs and drops and then climbs again. Besides the energy-draining up and down serpentine design of the course, the summit is about 1 km (~0.6 miles) in horizontal travel away.

Red Oriental Bridge Along the Way

Red Oriental Bridge Along the Way

When you’re in Miyajima, take the time to journey up Mount Misen, if not to the summit, than at least to enjoy Reikado Kiezu-no-hi, either with that special travel partner you might have in tow, or in the hopes of gaining one in the very near future.

Selfie at the Summit on a Hazy Day

Selfie at the Summit on a Hazy Day

Getting Around Mount Misen

The ropeway station is about a 15 minute uphill walk inland from Itsukushima Shrine or a 25 minute walk from the Miyajima ferry pier. The ropeway ride up the mountain takes about 20-40 minutes, the exact time depending on any delay in ropeway transfer that is required along the way. From the ropeway’s upper station at Shishi-iwa Observatory, it is still at least a 30 minute fairly strenuous walk to the summit. The Misen Hondo (main hall) and Reikado buildings are located along the trail, about five minutes before the summit.

Miyajima 2015, Mount Misen, temples and shrines along the way

Miyajima Ropeway

Hours: Daily 9:00 to 17:00 (hours of operation vary slightly by season)

Fees: 1000 yen (one way), 1800 yen (round trip)