Saturday, May 24, 2008

A Historical Sumo Weekend

Bulgarian wrestler Kotooshu (L) and opponent on May 18th

Today was a historical day for the Europeans and they probably don’t even realize it. Sumo has been dominated by Mongolian Asashoryu for years; you could say he is like Tiger Woods is to golf. But due to recent injuries and bad press for being caught playing soccer in his native Mongolia (totally against sumo rules, apparently), he hasn’t been up to par. This May tournament’s star has been Bulgarian Kotooshu.

Sumo legend Asashoryu performing ceremonial entrance
Kotooshu, whose real name is Kaloyan Mahlyanov, is like Beckham was to soccer. Girls swoon over this guy. He was doing so poorly the last tournaments that he was almost demoted in rank, but has since rebounded and won almost every bout this May (each sumo tournament lasts 3 weeks with each player doing one bout per day). Even though he is not Yokozuna, the highest ranked Makuuchi wrestler, he has done so well this year that he only needed to win either today or tomorrow’s match to win the whole tournament. That would make him the first European ever to win grand prize in a sumo tournament. And he did it just 15 minutes ago! Watch your TVs tomorrow for the ceremonies after the final bouts, should be interesting! He'll be given trophies and cash and a year's supply of meat or pickled plums or whatever the grand sponsors are awarding this time.

Sumo advertising and---oops, Kotooshu's white behind
I decided to surprise Ravioli and take him to sumo last Sunday. Tickets are freakin’ hard to get on Sundays and our seats were way back in never-never land, but we had a good time.
We had sumo lunches, each dedicated to a different champion wrestler. And of course we partook in plenty of beer and chu-hais (rice-alcohol cocktails) and plum wine in a can.

The most impressive thing about this tournament for me was found in the bathroom. The sumo toilets have the most technological control panels I have ever seen, look at this thing! If you didn’t read Japanese how would you flush!? I just had to take a picture.

The buttons read (from left to right) Stop, Butt powerful/Butt mild, Bidet, Fan (high, medium and low), Water Pressure Control. Then at the top you have buttons for positioning the water spray, a screen with water temperature and current settings, Massage on/off, and Turbo Stink Eradicator. Out of curiosity I tried the Turbo Stink Eradicator and air started blowing from inside the toilet bowl---EW!

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Back to Japan, Golden Week Adventures

Back home(?) in Japan! Recently recovered from my Indian stomach dilemma and absolutely ravenous, I cannot tell you how long I’d been looking forward to real Japanese food. I spent at least 5 hours of my 10 hour flight droolfully planning what I would be eating as soon as I arrived. I met my buddy Chieko in the airport and we headed straight to the nearest restaurant. I ordered tenzaru soba, cold soba noodles with a plate of veggie tempura at the side, oh yeess, yuuum yum yum---but wait---there was a slight problem, what was this? It was TASTELESS! My pallet had been burnt out from two months of spice laden Indian food! Luckily my subtler taste buds have since recovered and I can thoroughly enjoy my food.

I arrived to Japan on the first day of Ravioli’s week long holiday, and he was ready to get on the road. As soon as I got over my jet-lag we gathered up the tent and some road snacks, hopped in his little Jeep-like Pajero Mini and ventured south.

First stop: somewhere in the middle of Japan, somewhere
It was 3 am and neither of us could drive any longer. Sure, our island of Honshu is the mere size of California, but California is big! Exhausted, we parked in front of a convenience store at a rest stop that had high-tech heated toilet seats---tempting being warmer than the inside of the car---but no, that’s wrong, you can’t do that; we pulled the blankets from the back seat and slept in the car. zzzzzzz.

Second stop, and first real stop: Hiroshima
Arriving at dusk, we were just in time to wander about the Peace Memorial Park and eat some of Hiroshima’s famous okonomiyaki. If any of you have tried okonomiyaki (and I know many of you have since I have personally taken you all to okonomiyaki restaurants on visits) you might remember the Japanese pancakes made of flour and cabbage and fried there at your own table, correct? Well Hiroshima’s version is even better, with a slate of fried noodles underneath and they cook it for you! These things are so big, after one you will swear off food for the next week. Unless you are Ravioli, in which case you will also happily devour my leftovers.

Hiroshima okonomiyaki
We decided to stay in Hiroshima for the night and proceeded door to door in search of an available and cheap room. Believe me, it’s not easy finding a decently priced hotel room during Japanese “Golden Week” when everyone and their pet stag beetle is on holiday. The cheapest option in town was a “Love Hotel” near the park. Japanese love hotels are infamously glitzy, with a panel of pictures of the rooms at the entrance from which to select your nightly escapade. Love hotels are apparently a necessity in this country where everyone lives with their parents. And with karaoke machines in each room, mini vending machines full of interesting merchandise and huge fancy bathtubs, they are much more fun than ordinary hotels.

I wanted Ravioli to see the Peace Memorial Museum. It’s not a fun thing to do as the museum can be a little graphic, but it makes you think about things. On Aug. 6, 1945 the first atomic bomb was dropped just meters from what is now designated as the Peace Park (and from our Love Hotel), destroying everything and everyone for a radius of 2km. The museum is really good; it doesn’t accuse or make excuses, but shows the history, reasons for and effects of the bomb and the stories of its survivors, and makes a strong plea for world peace. On the park grounds is the Flame of Peace that Hiroshima vows to keep alit until all nuclear weapons are obliterated, and the A-Bomb Dome, a spooky skeleton of a concrete building that actually survived the bombing. We sniffled our way back into the car out of the city to our next destination.

The red ball shows where the bomb detonated, with the city in destruction below Hiroshima at night, the A-Bomb Dome is at the left

Next stop: Miyajima Island In its glory day the whole island of Miyajima was worshipped as a god by the Shintoists, and neither women nor common people were allowed to step afoot here. It’s torii, or red shrine gate, is one of Japan’s “Best Three Views” that everyone Japanese should supposedly see in their lifetime. I had only known Miyajima as the island Chieko and I tried to visit on New Year’s Day years ago and got stuck in impossible bumper-to-bumper temple traffic for hours until we gave up and turned around. This time there was no traffic, and Ravi and I were sailing on the ferry to the island in no time. The tide was low, so our lovely view of the shrine gate was in the mud, but I enjoyed having seen my second of Japan’s Best Three. (My first was in the north in Sendai of a rocky bay swarming with tourist boats and fishing nets, a place that Dad remembers only for what he calls the best pizza of his lifetime. I personally think Japan needs to reorganize its top three lists.)

Next stop: Aso volcano and Beppu Hot Springs resort area, Kyushu
Kyushu is the southernmost of Japan’s big four islands, and Ravioli was determined to make it here no matter how much highway tolls cost no matter what the price of gas was soaring at and no matter how many hours of “California” we had to sit through. With one of Japan’s most famous hot springs resort areas and biggest active volcanoes, I was not one to complain. The weather is warmer in the south and we discovered the joys of cheap accommodation in the campgrounds. I pampered myself in mud baths and took Ravioli to hell, Beppu’s hell, that is, a neighborhood of volcanic steam vents and belching mud that the Japanese call Jigokudani, or Hell Valley.

Shannen in hell Later we ventured to a really cool and well-hidden hot springs town called Kurokawa where you can bathe in natural caves.

Cave bath Do you remember when you were a kid having those nights before something so exciting you just couldn’t sleep from anticipation? That was Aso volcano for us. We woke at 6:30am, packed up the tent and started our ascent. Aso is pretty active now, but about 100,000 years ago it produced an eruption strong enough to create a caldera with a circumference of 128km (about 80 miles). Literature calls it the biggest caldera in the world (isn't Yellowstone supposed to be the biggest caldera in the world??), and there are farms, cities, and even JR train lines inside the caldera. We drove up to the currently active peak, Nakadake, only to find out----OH NOOOO!!!!!

Untouchable Aso-san volcano---toxic fumes, no entrance. Darn those toxic fumes.

This wall mural was our consolation.

***Side note: You are probably getting a little tired reading this big trip spiel, so to keep you from dropping out just yet I would like to hint that there are pornographic pictures coming up.

Next stop: Tawaragawa Onsen
I was flipping through my Lonely Planet to Japan (a few years old, but Japan’s tourist attractions don’t really change) and noticed a fertility temple in western Honshu with a festival where they parade giant stone phalluses through town---the next day!! We rushed out of Kyushu back into Honshu (aka California, if you like) and arrived to the temple at noon, just in time to see people packing chairs and stands into trucks and driving off. We missed it! As consolation an elderly woman gave us 20 pieces of mochi (rice cake) and a couple butter cookies shaped like male privates. We took a few pics of the temple and went on our way.

Pornographic statues at Mara Kannon temple Consolation cookies

Next stop: Hagi
After the fertility temple we hit the Japan Sea coast and planned to cruise slowly back until Kyoto. At the beginning of the coast we ran into Hagi, an old castle town with the samurai and other 400 year-old quarters preserved enough to feel like you were walking around the movie set for Shogun.

Samurai house kitchen Samurai toilet (with signs pleading with people not to utilize it)

Next stop: Matsue
I had been to Matsue briefly during Golden Week about 10 years ago on the way to Oki Island to visit a friend, and had always wanted to return to better check it out. We were delighted to find an original 400-year-old spooky black-colored castle, the homes of more samurai and of Lafcadio Hearn, a famous gaijin (foreign) writer who lived in Japan in the 1890’s. Hearn was born in Greece but was educated in France and the UK and wrote many novels in English, such as In Ghostly Japan and Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things. Being a fan of Japanese obake, or ghosts, I have read many of his books. It was fun reading and imagining what a foreigner would feel in those times and imagining my own flip-flops and umbrella and what-have-you on display for Japanese tourists in, say, the 23rd century. Some Matsue residents believe Hearn inadvertently saved the city from any bombing during WWII because Americans had read his books describing the city and its fascinating culture. The first picture in this blog entry is of the castle at Matsue.

We spent too much time in Matsue and had to book it back to Ashikaga (the city where Ravioli lives) to arrive before the horrific Japanese “U-turn” rush (worst traffic jams you will ever see in your life). One drove while the other slept, passing town after town---we even passed through the town of Obama!---taking turns until, EEK, 10 in the morning. We crashed.

It was a wonderful trip and I have been so happy to be back in Japan. It makes me wonder, why did I ever leave? Why did I leave three times?!? Maybe I could stay again. It’s safe here, people are so nice, it’s clean, the food is wonderful…

Japan decided to remind me why last night.
At 1:30 am the ground shook. I flew out of bed in terror and stood there panicking until it stopped (what else can you do?). A stronger tremor hit a half hour later, and a few more throughout the night shaking the bed, rattling the neighborhood and leaving little peace for sleep between adrenaline rushes. The earthquakes were big but the epicenter was about 30 miles into the ocean so no one was really hurt. But now I remember why I cannot stay. No matter how safe it is, clean, etc., I just cannot live knowing such calamity could happen at any time. Maybe I could move to Hokkaido or somewhere with fewer quakes??

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