Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto:  Jody’s Birthday at the Robot Restaurant of Tokyo


“An ounce of performance is worth pounds of promises.”  ~Mae West

Jody takes leave every year for her birthday, and this year was no different.  Planning a trip to mainland Japan in celebration, I set our trip’s itinerary to be in Tokyo for her actual birthday after a short stay in Kobe.  I must admit, in hindsight, it’s hard to image a better way to rejoice in such a momentous occasion than a visit to Robot Restaurant, what Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown proclaimed as the “the greatest show on earth!”

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Well, no quite, but perhaps one of the greatest shows in all of Japan….

Street-Side Advertising

Street-Side Advertising

tokyo-2016-robot-rest-arriving-at-the-robot-showtokyo-2016-robot-rest-jody-robot-masterThe Robot Restaurant, or Robot Cafe, is a short walk from Shinjuku metro station.  It should be, however, more accurately branded as a “robot cabaret” because of the music, costumes and dance, although it is TAME by any standard.  While bento boxes can be ordered to eat during the show, I (and almost everyone else) recommend a pass and instead purchase a large popcorn and canned “Strong” alcoholic drinks to satiate you in the short-term.  In other words, eat dinner in any of the nearby plethora of real, non-robotically-staffed restaurants.  Believe it or not, this is one of the most visited entertainment venues in Tokyo – check it out on Trip Advisor to see for yourself!

Free Pictures Outside!

Free Pictures Outside!

tokyo-2016-robot-rest-jody-on-the-way-to-the-showIt’s almost impossible to even begin to describe the show which awaits hundreds of eager visitors and tourists every night in the Shinjuku Kabukicho entertainment district of urban Tokyo.  It’s been said that over 1 BILLION yen has gone into the establishment’s development and design.  And yes, that’s billion with a Capital “B,” equivalent to roughly $10 million USD, no small sum by any stretch of the imagination.  I spare no expense for Jody’s birthday.

Lounge View - I think there is where Liberace's soul resides.

Lounge View – I think there is where Liberace’s soul resides.

tokyo-2016-robot-rest-robot-bouncer-at-the-entranceWhile I may not “buy” the validity of this legendary sum (pun intended), there certainly has been a Liberace-inspired sum spent on floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall décor, the pre-show lounge, costumes for the various and multiple performers, and for, of course, the robots themselves.

Another view of the Lounge

Another view of the Lounge

tokyo-2016-robot-rest-american-military-mighttokyo-2016-robot-rest-costumed-paradeThe show starts in the very corridors of the labyrinth which leads up to the lounge, then down to the basement, then back up to the show’s exit.  Seriously, every square inch of each of the narrow passages is covered with paint, decals, and 3-D models of everything ranging from geckos to heavily armed American army women in patriotic bikinis to skulls pierced with what else but unicorn horns….  And what may not be covered with what only an interior decorator on acid would devise is plastered with LED lights and video screens of every type.  Being herded tightly through these narrow halls is not for the claustrophobic!

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tokyo-2016-robot-rest-waiting-area-3tokyo-2016-robot-rest-pre-show-drinks-and-gaudy-seatingThe lounge is, well, one of the gaudiest places I have ever seen.  Two levels down from the street, it is equivalent to perhaps the absolutely worst cruise ship bar from the 1980s….combined with transformer-inspired overboard robotic lighting and displays from some dystopic future.  The place is decked out with gold swivel chairs shaped like gigantic underwater shells, over-the-top crystal chandeliers, wall-to-wall mirrors with Asian animal motifs of every kind, neon sparkle in every overhead recess, and huge seamless video screens playing snippets of the most ludicrous Japanese video montages that one can conjure.

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In a Word: Creepy

tokyo-2016-robot-rest-crazy-interior-decorationstokyo-2016-robot-rest-evil-chic-and-her-heavily-armed-robotHanging out in the pre-show of the lounge is akin, I would think, to a mild trip on hallucinogenic mescaline.  No doubt it’s even more sensory overload when jet-lagged or new to Japan.  It’s really hard to believe or describe.  I imagine the owners providing a small army of 8-year old girls with unlimited crayons, glue sticks, glitter, bedazzles and all the chocolate and caffeine they could consume and let them loose to go absolutely crazy for 48 hours without sleep!  The overall theme seems to be “metallic & mirrored,” and the palette is from a migraine-inducing neon rainbow, if there was such a thing!  There’s live music played by costumed creatures, while two metallic bikini-clad vocalists were doing their best to sing soft ballads to spectators that should have been decked out in polyester leisure suits….  A drink – one cheap one – comes with your ticket.  It’s a dive-bar, longue-lizard vibe that probably can be created most anywhere…but sustain only in Japan.

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By the way, according to some accounts, one of the largest collections of Westerners in Tokyo can be found nightly at the Robot Show.  Be ready for many more gaijin than locals, but of many different tongues.  The place seems to be MUCH more popular with tourists rather than locals, or even visiting Japanese.

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tokyo-2016-robot-rest-costumed-dancerstokyo-2016-robot-rest-armed-robot-and-evil-princessOnce the show floor is ready for seating, it seems like you go up three or four levels.  Entering a very long and narrow show floor that is much smaller than you expect, visitors are directed to squeeze into assigned but well-designed seating, complete with tabletop and cup holders to safely hold drinks and snacks to enjoy during the show.  Popcorn, booze and other munchies are sold prior to the performance’s start and during interludes in the action.  Oh, and take advantage of the complimentary coat check and lockers at the reception counter located across the street from the show-building itself.  The seating is TIGHT, as is most everything else in Tokyo.

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There is Barley Enough Clearance, Clarence!

The program opens with a huge robot-driven float, topped with bikini-clad troupes of taiko drummers alongside monster-masked characters beating on those iconic traditional Japanese drums.  The robot floats are so large and translate so close to floor-side seating that at times we had to duck to allow various robotic appendages to swing safely over our heads.  The rhythmic music, costumed characters and robotics result in loud, fun-filled, AWESOME sensory overload!

Gigantic Snake Robot Defeating Evil? The Symbology may be Reversed....

Gigantic Snake Robot Defeating Evil? The Symbology may be Reversed….

tokyo-2016-robot-rest-dancer-likes-big-buttstokyo-2016-robot-rest-transformer-inspired-robot-in-the-showAnd then the robots come out to play.  Robots of every kind.  Some shaped like huge curvaceous women.  Others akin to something out of the Transformer movies.  Then there are robotic sharks and snakes that battle robotic dinosaurs and futuristic tanks.  Some are commanded by fearsome masked male creatures, while others are ridden by Japanese women adorned in risqué fishnets and showgirl glitter, all flashing brightly colored LEDs and lasers.  Tron-inspired characters dash about in glowing Tron-like single-wheeled motorized bikes, between robots which seem to groove to the constantly beating drums, while Amazonian war princesses from the future vie for power and control.

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In other words, the show descends quickly into utter insanity of a kind to which only pictures can really testify in any believable fashion.  There is no linear story-line; don’t waste your limited time trying to understand, and instead just shake your head in amazement.

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They Really Should Invest in a Godzilla!

While the wildly-costumed performers scream and dance and pound on drums mere feet away, you become overwhelmed and confused.  Really, there is so much going on, seemingly deconstructed and without continuity that you have to ask yourself:  “what the hell is happening here?!”  It all seems ridiculously hilarious in true Japanese style, but also impressively pointless.  It’s what I would simply call “Tokyo Madness,” and it is deliciously enticing.

Birthday Girl!!

Birthday Girl!!

tokyo-2016-robot-show-jody-birthday-presents-from-the-robot-resturanttokyo-2016-robot-show-jody-birthday-robot-resturant-chips-presentAt one point a nameplate was brought out to mark “special guests,” and one was put directly in front of Jody.  She looked at me and went panicked and pale, I’m sure after instantaneously considering the measurable probability of having to do something “robotic” for her birthday in front of the gathered crowd.  But instead, a call-out was made to the birthdays in the crowd, and robot presents were delivered in a metallically colored gift bag.  Not wanting to miss a beat of the show, and being somewhat suspect (and even scared) of what we would find inside, we saved opening the bag for later.

Mr. Roboto, Tron called and they want their Ideas Back!

Mr. Roboto, Tron called and they want their Ideas Back!

Part sci-fi movie and part campy Saturday matinée creature feature, it is one of the wildest but weirdest live shows I have seen.  Baffling yet entertaining, this onslaught of stimulation overkill can be one of the more outlandish Far East experiences to have while visiting Japan.

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tokyo-2016-robot-rest-jodys-frontrow-seats-for-the-showNear the end of the show, colored flashlights are handed out to turn the already confused, drug-induced performance into something resembling an ecstasy-infused rave.  While you might be a little dazed at first to know what to do, by the end of the cabaret you’ll be waving your colored stick in encouragement for more!

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tokyo-2016-robot-rest-swingin-guitaristIn the end, the show not so much “works” as it is just “awesome,” in a way that just has to been seen to be truly understood.  This sounds like a cop-out, but it is the truth.  The interaction of the show with the audience, the performing robots, the epic battles of good versus evil (still not sure who won), combined with the background fantasy fairyland videos and graphics and how good the popcorn actually is makes this comprehensively awesome.  Even the over-top-top bathrooms lend to the entirety of the show.

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tokyo-2016-robot-rest-drums-and-robotsWhile the tickets weren’t cheap at 6800 yen per person (roughly $65pp), the laughter than Jody and I shared on her birthday due to this show was and will remain priceless.  We will be talking about this incredibly fun evening for quite some time to come.  Remember, however, to correctly enjoy this bizarrely corny show, one has to be relatively lighthearted.  Don’t expect a cohesive story, or story at all.  Just expect the unexpected, accept the premise, and engage your sense of humor!

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It certainly made for an unforgettable birthday celebration for Jody, one of many we had during our latest Far East Fling (stay tuned for more!).

Robot Birthday Presents, Oh My!

Robot Birthday Presents, Oh My!

Happy birthday Jody!  I’m already looking for an Amazonian bikini and taiko drum for you for Christmas for use in the production of my very own birthday cabaret in January!  You can use Roomba as your robot….

Show Closing....I Think....

Show Closing….I Think….

Mt. Koya:  A Pilgrimage of “Eat, Pray, Bathe”


“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” ~Lao Tzu, ancient Chinese philosopher

Pilgrim on their Journey

Pilgrim on their Journey

Jody and I have only just arrived at Koyasan atop Mount Koya and we already feel like we’ve cheated on the pilgrimage…that we knew so little about.  It’s not long before we spot Japanese pilgrims dressed in mostly white, sporting walking sticks and topped with conical hats….  Although it’s much more common for a non-believing tourist to make the journey to this mountain retreat temple complex, the truly faithful pilgrims are still a source of great inspiration.  And 2016, the 1,200th anniversary of monastic settlement in the area, has increased numbers of both tourists and pilgrims alike.

First settled in 816 by the monk Kukai as a retreat far away from the more less faithful courtly intrigues of Kyoto (then Japan’s capital and center of power), Mt. Koya is located some 2,500 feet up in the mountains amid eight surrounding peaks.  The original quaint monastery complex has grown over the last millennial into the modern but still old-world religious town of Koya, featuring a university dedicated to religious studies and over 100 temples, many of which offer lodging to pilgrims and visitors alike.  In 2004, Mt. Koya and the surrounding area was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Scenic Temples

Scenic Temples

The revered monk and scholar Kukai, now better known by his posthumous formal title Kobo Daishi, brought the tantric teachings of Esoteric Buddhism from China and developing it into the uniquely Japanese Shingon sect, and in the process founded the sect’s headquarters on Mount Koya.

While most modern-day pilgrims, upwards of some 100,000 annually, travel by tour-bus, a small minority still set out the old-fashioned way on foot.  This journey of ~725 miles linking 88 temples is a favorite of pilgrims, known as o-henro-san (formally).  Henro can be spotted in the temples and along roadsides and throughout the trails of the pilgrimage clad in a white jacket emblazoned with the characters Dogyo Ninin, meaning “two traveling together,” as all pilgrims travel with the spirit of Kobo Daishi.

Contemplation

Contemplation

While I refuse to associate with any given religion (I can’t speak for Jody), I find that Buddhism is, by in large, one of the most accepting, open, and non-judgmental of the major organized religions of the world.  However, quite irrespective of a specific faith or denomination, I find the idea of a cleansing journey of catharsis very intriguing.  And apparently so do many others, all around the world.

The “88 Temple Pilgrimage” (hachijuhakkasho-meguri) is Japan’s most famous pilgrimage, one that loops around the island of Shikoku.  Completing the course traditionally on foot is a serious undertaking that demands several weeks up to many months of rather strenuous travel.  Good physical fitness and stamina – and more than a little faith – are required to endure the stress of constant walking over the uneven terrain of Shikoku, in every type of weather.

Larger-than-Life Staffs

Larger-than-Life Kongozue!

Many pilgrims choose to dress in traditional attire, which can include a byakue (pilgrims’ white coat), wagesa (scarf-like accoutrement worn around the neck, usually purple, indicating a religious pilgrimage), sugegasa (iconic Asian conical straw hat), and kongotsue (uniquely pilgrimage-specific walking stick, also spelled as kongo-zue).  In addition, most pilgrims carry a book called nokyocho or shuincho where red ink stamps called shu-in are collected as each temple is visited.  All of these items can be purchased at Mount Koya or at Ryozenji, traditionally the first temples of the trek.

Pilgrims' Staffs

Pilgrims’ Staffs

The Brocade Cover We Selected

The Brocade Cover We Selected

Jody and I wanted a meaningful souvenir of our spiritual visit to and temple stay within Koya, and the wooden staffs pilgrims were spied walking with caught our eye, and imagination.  The kongo-zue or kongo-jo is the wooden staff carried by henro (“pilgrim,” informal) on the Shikoku Pilgrimage in Japan, and is full of symbolism.  It is said to represent the body of Kukai/Kobo Daishi, who metaphorically and physically supports the henro along the way.  In this sense, it is to be treated with great reverence and respect, having its “foot” washed at the end of the day’s journey, and brought inside to rest for the night.  They are inscribed with the chant Namu-Daishi-Henjo-Kongo and Dogyo-Ninin:  “We Two Pilgrims Together.”  The staff is also traditionally carried aloft when crossing a bridge; Kobo Daishi was known to sleep under bridges, and pilgrims should take care to not disturb his sleeping spirit found in such locales even today.  A bell is usually affixed, which jingles during the journey to warn and avoid accidental harm of other sentient living beings, a critical element of the more orthodox Buddhists.  Further, the bell also acts as an o-mamori, or protective amulet, to help safeguard the pilgrim while on their path.  Many pilgrims use a colorfully designer brocade cover to protect the top of the staff, but this doesn’t seem to be obligatory.

Jody on a Pilgrim's Trail

Jody on a Pilgrim’s Trail

Our Rosary / Prayer Beads

Our Rosary / Prayer Beads

Nenju, also called juzu, are the Buddhist version of prayer beads (rosaries), found in so many religions.  A standard nenju has 108 beads, one for each of the “afflicting passions” that Buddhists recognize.  The number is determined based on our six senses (sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch and mind/conceptualization), our six reactions (desirable, undesirable, neither, painful, pleasurable, neither), and the temporal aspect of those reactions (past, present or future).  In other words, 6 x 6 x 3 = 108.  These “afflictions” are what bind humans to Samsara, the world of suffering.  Other larger beads may be present (“parent beads), but this are not counted as above, and beads are also used to assist in counting recitations of various mantras.  Many different styles of nenju can be found, from round to flat beads, some topped with metal rings and others without, while still others are adorned with decorative tassels.  When traveling, the nenju should always be held in one’s left hand, which symbolizes Samsara, while the right hand represents Nirvana.  It is only through handling the nenju that these two worlds come together into “Oneness.”

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Prayers near a Daishi Hall

Jody and I had made up our minds.  Being adamantly rebuked after trying to get pilgrimage stamps affixed in our own booklets, we started to look to put together our own kongo-zue.

Wooden Grave Tablets

Wooden Grave Tablets

Stupa Top with Elemental Divisions

Our Staff’s Stupa Top with Elemental Divisions

Sometimes extensive calligraphy can found on the staff.  The top usually has four sets of notches, dividing it into five sections. Each section has a character, and from the top to bottom, they represent Ka or khah (space), Ra or Rah (air), Ha or Hah (fire), Va or Vah (water), and A or Ah (earth).  In this way the kongotsue symbolizes a Buddhist stupa, originally a reliquary for housing a relic of the Buddha or other revered monk/teacher.  These stupas form the basis of the Japanese pagoda.  Pagodas in Japan have taken the form of five-storied structures, each story representing the same elements as scribed on the walking staffs.  There are the elements to which the body returns upon death.  Considering the staff as a representative pagoda, combined with its pyramidal top, also represents a sotoba, or wooden grave tablet.  In this function, the kongo-zue was historically used as a gravestone if a pilgrim were to die upon the trail.  In fact, some pilgrims still write their kaimyo, their posthumous name by which they will be known in the next realm after death, just as it would be on an actual gravestone.

Cemetery Path Leading to the Daishi Hall

Cemetery Path Leading to the Daishi Hall

We found a shop in Koyasan, not far from Okunoin, the famous cemetery found there.  The staffs themselves were all very similar, but there was a huge array of accessories that made choosing very difficult.  Prayer beads of every sort, brocade covers, and decorative tassels.  In another store we found just the perfect bell to adorn our walking staff.

Our Staff

Our Staff

Written in the middle area of the staff are passages from the Gohogo Mantra, whos central message is roughly, “Homage to the Savior Daishi, the Illuminating and Imperishable One.”  This Mantra is chanted by pilgrims three times in front of the Daishi Halls found at each temple visited during their journey.

Jody at Koya's Main Gate, a landmark for Pilgrimage Beginning or End

Jody at Koya’s Main Gate, a landmark for Pilgrimage Beginning or End

Most pilgrims leave their kongo-zue at Okubo-ji, the 88th and final temple of the pilgrimage.  Interestingly, a funerary practice can still be found in Shikoku and some other parts of Japan whereby the decedent is dressed as a pilgrim (unlike the West, in Asian white is the color of death), complete with a staff and pilgrim’s stamp book, preparing them for their final journey.  Finally, there are two different colored staffs.  Novice pilgrims use bare wooden ones, while those experienced who serve as leaders or guides utilize scarlet-colored staffs denoting their elevated status.

Buddhist Texts on the Staff

Buddhist Texts on the Staff

And even when you reach the 88th temple, you’re still not technically finished!  The formal trek requires a return back to your 1st temple starting point.  Many select Mount Koya, the site of Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum, for the end and beginning, where thanks can be given directly to the monk for his spiritual companionship along the way.  The journey is a rather lengthy and difficult ordeal for those who attempt it, but then again, that’s rather the point.

The mountain is accessible primarily by the Nankai Electric Railway from Namba Station in Osaka, which connects to Gokurakubashi at the base of the mountain, with journey times of 80-90 minutes.  The final half of the trip is a slow twisting train climb up into the heavily wooded mountains and can be beautifully scenic in the right weather.  The train fare includes the final and steep 10 minute funicular train ascent from Gokurakubashi to the town of Koyasan.  Once off the funicular you’ll have to take a short bus or taxi ride into town.  Like elsewhere throughout Japan, the train, funicular and bus schedules are all synchronized like clockwork, with very little time to spare.  We barely had even five minutes between train, cable car, and bus.

Funicular Connection Train Service to Koyasan's Bus Terminal

Funicular Connection Train Service to Koyasan’s Bus Terminal

A good value if planning a visit is to purchase the Koyasan World Heritage Ticket available from any Nankai ticket counter.  This ticket includes roundtrip train, funicular, and an all-day Koyasan bus pass, for either a day-trip, or overnight stay, and also includes coupons and discounts to the area’s most popular destinations.

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Most pilgrims ending their journey at Mount Koya would claim they do so in order to give thanks for a successful pilgrimage.  While Jody and I visited for very different reasons and with knowing very little of the sacredness of the area, I think we ended our own little journey still as a culmination of something much bigger.  Koyasan spoke to our souls, and we to this day proudly and respectfully display our kongo-zue in our home.

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“Faith is not the clinging to a shrine but an endless pilgrimage of the heart.”  ~Abraham Joshua Heschel, Polish-born American Rabbi

Explosive Find:  The Special Attack Tunnels of Miyakojima


“With back hunched, pushing forward the control stick, now comes an end to many countless hopes.”  ~Japanese Suicide Pilot’s last words

I’ve learned while exploring the world to stop and check out all those “historic markers” that most people blow past as they go haphazardly barreling through their lives and down the road.  Driving around Miyakojima, a Ryukyu island in the Okinawa Prefecture of Japan, Jody and I passed just such a monument.  Of course we stopped, and found a more remote but significant trace of war in jungled-covered coral mounds of the Far East.

Roadside Historic Marker

Roadside Historic Marker

After their defeats of 1943, Japan knew they were losing the war.  Looking to the hurried and desperate defense of their homeland, and in attempts to slow the steady but American advance, in March of 1944, Japan began the Shinyo (震洋 Shin’yō, “Sea Quake”) manned Explosive Motor-Boat (EMB) program.  The first models of these kamikaze craft were copied from existing Japanese 18-meter motor torpedo boats, themselves copies of American hulls from the late 1930s.  Initially built of steel and constructed at Yokosuka Naval Base, wood was ultimately selected because of availability of materials.  These boats were just one component of the wider Japanese “Special Attack Units: program which incorporated aircraft, divers, boats and torpedoes in suicide attacks.  Nothing much “special” about that.

Shinyo Suicide Boats

Shinyo Suicide Boats

In August of 1944, the first 400 future boat captains started training near Yokosuka.  The students, all would-be aircraft pilots with an average age of 17, were diverted from flight schools because of the lack of aircraft production throughout Japan, given the strangling American maritime blockade of that island-nation and the ongoing strategic fire-bombing campaign of their cities and industrial centers.

Braving the Banana Spiders at the Tunnel Entrance

Braving the Banana Spiders at the Tunnel Entrance

Initially there was a planned 3-month training period focusing on small-boat handling, mechanics and attack techniques, but the pressing needs to defend the Philippines, Okinawa, Formosa and Hainan Island required hasty deployments starting almost immediately.  In September 1944, the first Shinyo Squadrons were sent to the Bonin and Haha (islands about 600 miles south of Tokyo), and the Philippines.

Tunnel Entrance

Tunnel Entrance

The 41st Shinyo Squadron with 55 authorized EMBs and a compliment of over 100 men were deployed to Miyakojima in March 1945.  On this island, roughly halfway between Okinawa and Taiwan, the Japanese Imperial Navy 313 Construction Unit dug numerous tunnels to hide the unit’s Model 1 Shinyo EMBs at Karimata Inlet and various other locations.  The Squadron was there to defend the island from expected invasion because of the active airfields found there, but invasion never came.  The squadron never had a chance to engage in battle.

Shinyo Type 5

Shinyo Type 5

Type 1, one-man Shinyo EMBs were relatively slow and only capable of speeds up to about 18 knots when fully armed.  Typically, Navy EMBs were equipped with a bow-mounted explosive charge of 500-600 pounds that could either be fired by contact fuse (when ramming an enemy vessel), or manually from the craft’s cockpit.  Army EMBs carried depth charges at the stern and were not considered “true” suicide boats as the pilot was supposed to drop the depth charges, setting off a timed fuse, and run.  Very few pilots survived, however, given there was only 6-seconds to escape from an ensuing massive explosion.  Some boats were armed with anti-personnel rockets to help neutralize surface fires from the ships being attacked.

Type 1 and 5 Suicide Boats

Type 1 and 5 Suicide Boats

The slightly larger and faster two-man Type 5 Shinyo EMBs were powered by two Toyota 6-cylinder automobile engines, armed with a 13.2mm heavy machine gun (roughly equivalent to our 50 cal), and were designed to serve as command & control boats being equipped with radio.

Tunnel Interior Today

Tunnel Interior Today

Over 6,100 Shinyo EMBs were manufactured for the Imperial Japanese Navy, and roughly 3,000 somewhat similar Maru-ni EMBs were built for the Imperial Japanese Army.  Around 1,100 boats were transported to the Philippines, 400 to Okinawa and Formosa (modern-day Taiwan), and smaller numbers to Korea, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Hainan and Singapore.  The vast majority – some remaining 7,000 kamikaze boats – were stored along the shores of coastal Japan for defense against the expected invasion of the Home Islands.  The Naval General Staff expected a 10% success rate, or roughly ~900 successful attacks for the suicide boats.  This was not the case.

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EMBs scored very limited successes in the Philippines and Okinawa.  Heavy gunfire from Allied ships and PT-boats (patrol boats referred to as “fly-catchers”), along with relentless attack from the air given allied air supremacy stopped most of boats before they could even be utilized.  In the Philippines in 1944, six smaller landing and patrol craft were sunk, while a few others were damaged.  In the 88 day campaign for Okinawa in 1945, about 700 suicide boats, supported by about 7,000 personnel, were employed against the Americans, sinking only two ships and damaging the same in massive waste of the youth of a country;.  Luckily the boats at Miyakojima were never employed, although many kamikaze pilots flying from that island’s airfields suffered the ultimate sacrifice.

Tunnel Exit Today

Tunnel Exit Today

On Miyakojima, a monument to the 41st Shinyo Special Attack Squadron was erected in 2006.  Plaques there in multiple languages (Japanese, English, Chinese, and German) explain the site’s significance, and the unit’s historic tunnels can be accessed immediately behind the monument.  Three entrances/exits can be found, all connected far inside the complex (~300m), but upon exploration, no other artifacts can be found in this far-flung trace of war, except for welcoming light at the end of the tunnel.

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Sharknado!!!


Okay, so it’s more like a shark circus.  Or at least that is what it’s called  aboard the MV Orion, a scuba live-aboard in the Emperor’s fleet that we were guests on this past September.  Jody and I booked this scuba vacation (her first live-aboard) coincident with our 5th anniversary, to a far away, exotic location that many Americans have never heard of:  The Maldives.  Go ahead, look it up on a map…I’ll wait.

There will be a lot more written about this particular vacation, but this video is all I wish to share at this point.  Oh, and listen with the music turned all the way up.  I have something in excess of 1,500 scuba dives from all over the world, but this dive easily tops the list.  The video was shot from sunset going on to full night, with a large domed wide-angle lens, so the action was really much closer than it often appears.

What else can I say, except what Jessica said upon surfacing from this dive:

BEST … DIVE … EVER!

 

“Live Fish Bowl Prime:” Gourmet Food at a Japanese Ryokan


Miyajima 2015, Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto Hotel, live fish bowl prime WM

“Live Fish Bowl Prime.” Sure, it sounds like an obscure faddish cartoon shown on Adult Swim back in the 1990s. Or at least it should’ve been.  But it turned out to be a machine translation (Google Translate via iPhone) of an item on Jody’s Japanese menu during dinner our first night at a high-end ryokan on Miyajima.

This is What it Meant!

This is What it Meant!

“What on earth does that mean?!” I asked Jody, laughing at how much technology fails a simple translation. “Who knows!” she responded with an anticipating smile, staring at her phone.

Individualized Menus, for Him and Her

Individualized Menus, for Him and Her

Miyajima 2015, Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto Hotel, in-room dining, personalized menu 2 WMOur menu was personalized each night, it’s approval demonstrated by the han-stamp of the resident chef of the ryokan. The dinners were all served as 12-course meals, each choice indicated on the menu with a distinct line of Japanese. We attempted to translate each one, course by course. But as you might guess, something often gets lost in translation. Some of our favorite translations, besides “live fish bowl prime,” include “Hiroshima cow” and “fried bird”….  Or the one shown below.

Miyajima 2015, Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto Hotel, the problem with machine translation WM

Concrete Soup. Yummy. Luckily it was MUCH better than it sounded…at least in English.

Miyajima 2015, Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto Hotel, afternoon tea in our tatami room WMA ryokan (旅館) or “inn” is a type of traditional Japanese lodge that originated beginning back in the 17th century, maturing as today’s concept in the late 19th century. Originally serving travelers along Japan’s foot and horse paths, they now serve modern tourists at major sites throughout Japan. Typical features include tatami-matted rooms, communal hot spring baths, in-room personalized dining, and public areas where visitors may relax and socialize.

Miyajima 2015, Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto Hotel, welcome to Miyajima

Miyajima 2015, Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto Hotel, outdoor private onsen bath WMWe stayed in a ridiculously priced ryokan, the Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto in the resort location of Miyajima, a famous island retreat on the outskirts of Hiroshima. We were there celebrating, although at the time, we still didn’t know what we were celebrating. You can read more about that rather confusing situation is Commander, United States Navy, Arriving!  But in short, we booked one of the most expensive rooms in an already expensive lodge in honor of either Jody’s retirement, or her promotion.  Neither had happened yet.

Our Main Tatami Room, set for Tea

Our Main Tatami Room, set for Tea

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, flirting with the floating Torii WMRyokan are becoming more difficult to find within Japanese urban centers as mainstream and modern hotels are offering more at a much more affordable price-point. They have, however, have found their modern niche by catering to tourists with deep pockets, and are usually concentrated in scenic areas, exactly like Miyajima where we vacationed prior to moving on to Hiroshima proper.

View of the Setting Sun and Floating Torii from our Room

View of the Setting Sun and Floating Torii from our Room

Miyajima 2015, Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto Hotel, in-room dining, sunset from our room 4 WMMiyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine,_6894Ryokan guest rooms are styled in traditional Japanese: tatami floors, sliding wooden doors, and rice-paper accented privacy screens. Most ryokan feature common bathing areas segregated by gender, using the water from a nearby hot spring (onsen). Higher-end inns provide private bathing facilities. These Japanese inns also provide yukata for guests to wear, and geta (wooden sandals) are available at exits for strolls outside.

Our Private Outdoor Onsen-Fed Soaking Tub

Our Private Outdoor Onsen-Fed Soaking Tub

Miyajima 2015, Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto Hotel, Kevin playing the Japanese part 2Based on a number of reviews, we selected room 502 of the Arimoto Hotel, a very large corner room on the top floor of the ryokan, featuring sunset views of Miyajima’s famous “floating Torii,” as well as private outdoor hot-spring fed bathing and personalized in-room dining.  Check out the hotel’s website; our room is featured as the inn’s “Guest of Honor” billeting, and is also featured in a bridal shoot.  I must admit that it does serve as a fabulous setting to accent the beauty of a beaming bride, certainly more so than it does for my cheesy Japanese peace pose below.

Me Modeling (poorly) Japanese Yukata

Me Modeling (poorly) Japanese Yukata

Miyajima 2015, Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto Hotel, in-room dining, Jody's fish bowl WMYukata (浴衣 literal “bath clothes”), are casual Japanese garments, sometimes referred to as a summer kimono, worn by men and women. Designed for hot weather, they are unlined and often made of cotton. As with kimono, the general rule is that younger women (and kids) wear bright, vivid colors and bold patterns, while older people wear dark, matured colors and dull patterns. Men in general wear solid dark colors. Yukata are staple wear during a stay at ryokan, commonly seen throughout the establishments. I rather enjoyed my own interpretation of their wear!

Yukata Ready-to-Wear and Me Ready for Dinner

Yukata Ready-to-Wear and Me Ready for Dinner

Miyajima 2015, Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto Hotel, in-room dining, fresh fish WMI initially wore the yukata to and from our private balcony bath fed by the resort’s on-site hot-spring. The deep-soak tub was set to offer 180 degree views of the setting sun over Miyajima’s western shore. But since there was really no way for anyone to be a voyeur of our bathing habits, I quickly did away with any clothing at all. The yukata was, however, very comfortable to wear for dinner after a long afternoon soak to soothe achy muscles from the day’s adventures.

Our Dining Room

Our Dining Room

Miyajima 2015, Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto Hotel, Jody and her Live Fishbowl Prime!The main tatami room serves three important functions: dining, tea and for sleep. Breakfast and dinner are served there, with tea service in the afternoon. But at night, tables and floor chairs and hidden away and lush futon bedding is spread out directly on the tatami floor, where ample pillows, sheets and blankets are provided for a deep, restful sleep after a day of hiking around Miyajima.

Our Bedroom (yes it is the same room)

Our Bedroom (yes it is the same room)

Miyajima 2015, Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto Hotel, in-room dining, tabletop shabu-shabu WMMiyajima 2015, Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto Hotel, Japanese place setting WMRyokan stays include dinner and breakfast, and most guests take their meals in their room. Meals are central to a ryokan stay: the price and ratings of inns are heavily based on the quality of their food. Traditional Japanese cuisine called kaiseki, a meal consisting of a number of small, varied dishes, is featured, which includes seasonal and regional specialties. The meals are tailored and cooked to order, and service times are selected by the guests daily.

Can you Spot the Fried Lotus - YUMMY!

Can you Spot the Fried Lotus – YUMMY!

Miyajima 2015, Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto Hotel, in-room dining, meat and veg WMMiyajima 2015, Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto Hotel, in-room dining, beautiful salad WMWhile we got off to a rough start with the ryokan staff, due mainly to some of our specific dietary requests and the lack of English-speaking staff, we came to thoroughly enjoy our in-room meal service. Dinner was unrushed and personal, served by a private waitress, course by course, and lasted anywhere from two to three hours. We had the opportunity to enjoy some local Hiroshima wine while Jody tried quite a few new fish dishes, as I focused my meals more and more on the local high-quality and perfectly delicious Hiroshima beef…with some pork and chicken thrown in as well.  Lucky for us, after the first night of only machine translation of our meal, a waitress called “Emmy” was placed with us, who having spent 8 years in England spoke quite good English, even if it was more aligned to the Queen’s.  She actually stayed an extra day to help us in our culinary adventures as she was moving on to a 9-monht contract job on an Italian cruise ship as a hairdresser.

Stone-Grilling Fresh Hiroshima Beef - the BEST!

Stone-Grilling Fresh Hiroshima Beef – the BEST!

Miyajima 2015, Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto Hotel, Hiroshima mussels on hot stones WMMiyajima 2015, Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto Hotel, in-room dining, appetizer Hiroshima beef mock sushi WMHiroshima specializes in farm-raised oysters, which were served fresh and in a multitude of ways. One of the more surprising items that Jody enjoyed was fresh stonefish, and not only was she served the delicate and sometimes poisonous meal (if prepared wrong), the fish itself took center stage in her dinner’s presentation! I can’t say it’s appearance is all that…appetizing.

Stonefish: it's a Good Thing we don't eat their Faces!

Stonefish: it’s a Good Thing we don’t eat their Faces!

Miyajima 2015, Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto Hotel, in-room dining, personal fish soup composite WMMiyajima 2015, Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto Hotel, in-room dining, Conger Eel and dipping sauces WMBut the most surprising course was a small covered dish of fresh seafood destined to be steamed tableside during dinner. Just after being placed on the table, the dish made a loud knocking sound, quite to our collective surprise. Our waitress, as curious as we were about the sound’s source, innocently lifted the dish’s top. And out flopped a large, live shrimp! We jumped back a bit as the crustacean made good attempt to escape, which our waitress was all too happy to block. Trapped back in its ceramic cell, the dish was placed on a flame for steaming, and no other sound was heard…until Jody’s coos upon eating the poor crustacean.

The Offending Prawn, Embarrassed about it's Behavior and Turned Red

The Offending Prawn, Embarrassed about it’s Behavior and Turned Red

But was it worth truly worth the expense? In terms of such an important celebration, sure it was! Spending money on treasured experiences is never a bad thing. Enjoying “live fish bowl prime,” the premium fresh seafood served to us during our ryokan stay:  priceless!

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, peaceful day on the waterfront WM

See Miyjima Grand Arimoto Ryokan for more photos of our stay!

 

Seeing Red: Khmer Rouge and The Killing Fields


 Well you’ll work harder | With a gun in your back | For a bowl of rice a day

Slave for soldiers | Till you starve | Then your head is skewered on a stake

Now you can go where people are one | Now you can go where they get things done

What you need, my son…

Is a holiday in Cambodia | Where people dress in black

A holiday in Cambodia | Where you’ll kiss ass or crack

Pol Pot, Pol Pot, Pol Pot, Pol Pot!

And it’s a holiday in Cambodia | Where you’ll do what you’re told

A holiday in Cambodia | Where the slums got so much soul

~ Holiday in Cambodia by the Dead Kennedys

Camboida 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), memorial stupa WM

Buddhist Memorial Stupa

The tall Buddhist memorial stood in relative silence, highlighted against the bright blue skies, appearing to lean in against the fast-moving puffy white clouds. The heat of the morning was coming on strong, keeping most people in close proximity to whatever shade could be had. But it is the chilling sight of the over 8,000 human skulls stacked tier after tier within the memorial stupa that stuns most into the deep, contemplative silence that permeates this place.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), skulls in the stupa WM

Over 8,000 Skulls are Interred within the Stupa

The skulls came from the shallow, sunken mass graves all found within 100 yards of this their final resting place. And all are eerily marked with colored dots to show age, sex, and the weapon which brought their previous owner’s demise.

Camboida 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), victim skulls at rest in the pagoda WM

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), map to the Choeung Ek filling fields WMThe Killing Fields (Khmer: វាលពិឃាត) are a number of sites spread all over Cambodia where collectively more than a million people were systemically murdered and secretly buried by the Khmer Rouge regime during its savage rule of the country from 1975 to 1979. The scale, scope and premeditated nature of these crimes is on a scale that only be rightfully recognized as state-sponsored auto-genocide. Cambodian journalist Dith Pran coined the term “killing fields” after his escape from the regime; the movie of the same name is set against his captivity and suffering under the brutal régime.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), mass grave at the Killing Fields (Nath painting

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), women and children mass grave by the killing tree WM

One of the many mass graves.

It is hard to wrap your head around these kinds of numbers. We experience tragedy in America measured normally in single digits (the recent church shootings in the south), or perhaps hundreds (say a plane crash), or in very rare instances, thousands (terrorist attacks of 9-11). However, what would happen in our country and how we would respond and attempt recovery if tragedy visited on a scale that was say 100 or even 1,000 times higher in order of magnitude?

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), victim bones WM

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), show your respect WMAnalysis of 20,000 mass grave sites across Cambodia indicate there are at least 1.3 million victims of summary execution. Estimates of the total number of deaths resulting from Khmer Rouge policies, including disease and starvation, range from an absolute minimum of 1.7 million dead, but all indications point to a number of somewhere between 2 and 3 million. Even the Khmer Rouge themselves acknowledged that 2 million had been killed—though they attributed those deaths to Vietnam’s subsequent invasion in 1979. Most accounts settle on a likely death toll which approaches 2.2 million. Given that in 1975 the population of Cambodia was somewhere south of 8 million, somewhere between 1 in 4 and 1 in 3 people alive in the late 1970s was methodically erased by the government. There is not a family in Cambodia that wasn’t personally touch by devastation.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), human remains (teeth) WM

Victims’ teeth we found scattered about.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), do not walk on the mass grave WMOutside, on the grounds of this memorial park, I was equally as stunned to find human teeth and other bone fragments scattered about as if just tossed there just yesterday. Our guide explained to us that there are still so many people buried here in shallow graves that their bones and clothes continue to be resurrected as the ground erodes away with heavy rains and tourists’ many feet. And those exhumations by the Vietnamese in the 1980s only collected skulls and large bones in order to try and assess the magnitude of the murder which occurred there. There are boxes spread across the park so that found bones can be placed for later collection; at other sites, posted signs plead for people not to walk on bones and the mass grave sites.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), don't step on bone WM

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), jaws and teeth WMThe best known of Cambodia’s many Killing Fields is located at once was the village of Choeung Ek. Today, the site has been almost subsumed by the creeping urban sprawl of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. Here visitors find a memorial park and Buddhist stupa (burial tower), built around the mass graves of over 14,000 victims, most of whom were executed after being tortured at the infamous S-21 Prison about 10 miles away in Phnom Penh. Many dozens of exhumed mass graves remain visible.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), rags of victims' clothes WM

Bone fragments are everywhere.

Bone fragments are everywhere.

The place is at once fascinatingly horrifying, and rightfully so. But to think that it is just one of the thousands of other such sites around the country where the Khmer Rouge practiced auto-genocide during the late 1970s is hard to comprehend.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), mass grave 450 victims WM

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), victims' stares WMThe Khmer Rouge eventually executed almost everyone suspected of even remote connections with the former or foreign governments, as well as almost every professional and anyone with any type of education…and even those with poor eyesight in a vain effort to genetically improve their mix. Ethnicities which were undesirable, like the Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese, and Cham, along with the religious such as Cambodian Christians and the local Buddhist monkhood were equally targeted and suffered almost wholesale destruction. What makes this genocide so abhorrent is that, unlike the Nazis who visited death upon others, the Cambodians did it to themselves.

Victim's clothes still litter the grounds.

Victim’s clothes still litter the grounds.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), killed by hand at the Killing FieldsR.J. Rummel, an acclaimed analyst of worldwide political killings, highlights the Khmer Rouge’s clear genocidal intent. He states that of the estimated 40,000-60,000 monks in 1975, only between 800 and 1,000 survived to carry on their religion. We know for a fact that of 2,680 monks documented living in eight specific monasteries in 1975, a mere 70 remained living as of 1979. The Khmer Rouge destroyed 95 percent of the country’s Buddhist temples, turning them instead into warehouses or using them for other mundane and degrading uses. But it’s much worse, argues Rummel. Within the very short span of a year or so, a small clique of Khmer Rouge criminals managed to effectively wipe out the center of Cambodian culture, along with its spiritual incarnation and its social and governmental institutions.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), the killing fields' killing tree WM

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), evidence of killing tools WMThe executed were buried in mass graves throughout the country, at night and with loudspeaker music playing in order to help escape detection and hide the crimes. Since ammunition was so prized, executions were most often carried out using farm tools, like spades, axes, iron rods, wagon axles, knives, or at times from simple sharpened bamboo. And in the case of the “killing tree,” small children and infants were swung so their heads were battered by the tree’s hard trunk, then thrown away like garbage into a pit alongside their dead parents. The régime took the approach that if one member of a family was sentenced to death, the whole familial line had to be destroyed to avoid any chance of future revenge; “…to cut the grass you have to remove all the roots.” Another guiding principle of that time was, “better to kill an innocent by mistake than let one enemy go…. To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss….”

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), killing tools WM

Items used in detainment and execution.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), memorial friendship bracelets WM

Friendship bracelets.

Vietnam invaded Democratic Kampuchea (as Cambodia was called under the Khmer Rouge) in 1979, ending this dark reign of terror. Late that year, when United Nations and Red Cross officials were able to physically take stock of the dire situation, a further 2.25 million Cambodians faced death by starvation due to the widespread destruction of Cambodian society under the regime of ousted Prime Minister Pol Pot. International aid saved a large portion of these Cambodians.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), inhuman humans

Small museum on the premises.

Small museum on the premises.

But for me there was a deeper realization during my visit. It’s not just sadness that I felt for the victims still buried or on display at The Killing Fields, but for Cambodia as a whole. The sadness became wider and deeper than I had expected, after realizing that everyone in Cambodia, then and now, was and in many ways, remain a victim. I believe that most everyone were left with nightmares. Even those child soldiers of the régime that were forced to join the revolution, who were then methodically brainwashed and turned to even kill their own parents. Almost every tourist that goes to Cambodia goes to see Angkor Wat; over 30% now go to visit The Killing Fields as well. In an odd congruity, both sites offer a profound sense of spirituality.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), mass grave missing heads WM

Bullet casings I found during our visit.

Bullet casings I found during our visit.

We ended up seeing The Killing Fields at Choeung Ek and its associated prison S-21 on the same day. Our guide, who was only a small child during the time of The Killing Fields but who suffered personal loss in her own family, called it our “sad-sad” day of visiting Cambodia. And she’s absolutely right: The Killing Fields is not a happy place. Nor is there a happy history or stimulating story to learn about. But like with the other truly horrific events of humanity, we don’t get to pick and choose what should and should not be shared, exactly because it is a shared history. In Cambodian, like most other countries which have suffered a dark, sad past, the view is that light must be allowed to shine in on the darkness, destroying shadows where such evil can continue to lurk.

Friendship Bracelets left in a Spirit House

Friendship Bracelets left in a Spirit House

And in the heat of our Cambodian holiday, the light shines brightly indeed.