Tag Archives: World War II

On to Nara

Nara was the capitol of Japan before Kyoto, which was the capitol before Tokyo.

Over a tasty Japanese breakfast at Shijo Station, we discussed whether to make a detour to the iconic shrine, Fushimi Inari-taisha. It’s in all the guides.  It really is iconic.

But it would not be empty.  “I hate to say it, but I’m inclined to save it for next time,” I said.  “I’m kind of shrined out.”

“Shrined out” was a term I’d seen frequently in reference to Japan.  Now I was living it.

There comes a point where you just cannot appreciate one more dragon fountain or anything that is the Largest, Oldest, or contains The Most gates, bodhisattvas, or peony carvings.

“But I’ve been here a week longer than you, and I’ve been to Nikko, where I saw I-don’t-know-how-many shrines.”

Lynn was fine with skipping it. She’s spent a lot of time working in Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, and China. She’s been to Bhutan and India, many times. She knows from shrines.

“I don’t remember things anyway,” she reminded me.  I think she does, but I know what she means. The brain can only store so many memories.

Nara is ninety minutes from Kyoto by local train.  The seats faced in, for maximum people watching.  A tough-looking young woman sat across from me.  I guessed she was American, and when we made eye contact I asked where she was from.  “Pittsburgh,” she grunted, then stared at her screen for the rest of the journey.

A Japanese man with boils the size of ping-pong balls covering his arms boarded and sat diagonally from me.  Despite the sweltering heat he was wearing a scarf to cover his neck and half his face.  More boils, I thought.  What a terrible condition, whatever it was.  He fell asleep.

A Japanese girl of around 17 boarded, sat next to the man with the boils, and recoiled almost imperceptibly when she glanced down at his arm next to hers.  Would she get up and move somewhere else?  No.  She sat ramrod stiff and stared straight ahead.  She was wearing a sailor outfit with a skirt so short I had to avert my eyes.

“Did you see that guy with the giant boils?” I asked Lynn when we got off in Nara.  “And the girl with the cutesy sailor’s outfit, and that tough broad across from us?  She was from Pittsburgh.”

“No,” Lynn replied.  Did she think I was making up these characters?  “I must have dozed off.”  I envy her ability to sleep anywhere.

A friendly man at Nara Station Information Desk told us we could catch a free shuttle to Nara Hotel.  I had booked the room and they hadn’t sent any information about this.  We stood where he pointed although there was no sign.  After 20 minutes we gave up and hailed a cab.

At the hotel we were handed a shuttle schedule; it ran every half hour.  I suggested that they send this information to guests ahead of time.  It could have saved us ten bucks.  The desk clerk smiled and nodded but clearly nothing was going to change.

The Nara Hotel is a grand old dame celebrating her 100th anniversary this year.

After two weeks in cramped, basic rooms, I had thought it would be nice to splash out.  The photo montage on their webpage was extraordinary.  They’d hosted many famous guests—there was even a photo of Albert Einstein playing the piano in their lounge.

“The old part of hotel is closed for earthquake proofing,” the clerk said.  “We put you in modern wing.”

Rats. I hoped it wasn’t too sterile or modern.  We couldn’t get into the room for a couple hours so we had a nose around the lobby.  There was a timeline of famous visitors.  Charlie Chaplan!  Helen Keller.  Richard Nixon, the Dalai Lama, Marlon Brando, Joe DiMaggio (his wife Marilyn Monroe cancelled; things must not have been going well).  Multple visits by Japanese, British, and European royals.

Then there was this.

“1941: The Pacific War Broke Out.”

I really, really wanted to peel off that strip of paper and see if it said, “Japanese starts Pacific War by attacking Pearl Harbor” underneath.

Selective Whiskey, Selective Memory

Back at the hotel, Lynn revealed the reason for her bag being so heavy.  In addition to half a dozen guidebooks and books for reading pleasure, she had schlepped this all the way from Scotland.

Here are the notes Richard provided to explain its provenance.

We would have to figure out how I could reimburse them for it; Richard had paid for it in pounds sterling, I operate in dollars, and here we were in Japan.

We walked over to Ueno Park, and I—the old hand—showed Lynn the hydrangeas and the shrine.  We had a long, late pizza lunch at an Italian restaurant, which was the only place we could find that was open.  As usual we had months of updates to download.

Heading back to the hotel at dusk, we accidentally walked down an alley lined with Pachinko parlors.  It was dazzling, blinding—thousands (millions?) of blinking lights and beeping noises—with people streaming in and out to try their luck.

“What is pachinko?” Lynn wondered.

“I think you hit a lever … and balls fall down … there are pegs or some such, and … somehow you gamble with it?” was my authoritative reply.

Neither of us is a gambler, but we enjoyed the garish street display.

“This isn’t the Tokyo I’ve experienced so far,” I observed.  “I’ve been pleasantly surprised so far by how sedate the place is.”

“This seems like ‘typical Tokyo’ according to everything you see in guidebooks,” Lynn replied.

We were in bed, reading, by nine.

“If you see a ghostly figure pacing the room at 3am, that’s just me with my RLS,” I warned her.

“Oh, nothing stops me from sleeping,” Lynn assured me.

That was good, since I was up almost all night.  The more I tried to be quiet, the more noise I made, so I spent most of the night in the can, doing the RLS cancan.

The next day was packed.  We would have one day in Tokyo, then leave for Kyoto the following morning.

Fred and Hiromi had strongly recommended we prioritize the Edo Museum over the two art museums in nearby Ueno Park.

I was glad for their advice.  The Edo was just a quick one-stop on the train, and easy to find thanks to much signage involving large red arrows even I couldn’t miss.

As we walked, a flock of little kids in cute school uniforms passed us and called out, “Hah-loh, hah-loh!” practicing their English on us.  It was delightful.

“Edo” is the old name for Tokyo; the museum was all about the history of Tokyo.  The building itself is worth a look.  It is modeled after an old storehouse, but to us it appeared like a samurai helmet.

It is basically built on stilts, and you take a very long escalator to the sixth floor of museum, then work your way down.  Lynn and I had never seen an escalator that turned into a people mover (a moving walkway), back into an escalator, and so on.  It was marvelous.

I could write an encyclopedic post on this museum, since it covered everything from prehistoric cave dwellers to the post World War II period.  There were a lot of model recreations of typical homes and shops and schools from different periods.  This was a post war kitchen.

This was a typical school lunch in 1960, when Japan was still rebuilding.  Pretty grim.

This was 1970:

The 1980s:


And the 2000s, looking pale and starchy, like American lunches, in my opinion.

I stood in front of this for a long time, wondering.

I know it’s too small for you to read.  It’s about the US bombing of Tokyo during WWII. There’s no context as to why America might be doing such a thing.

No mention of 1941 and Pearl Harbor, when Japan attacked America—a neutral country at the time—without provocation and killed 2,400 Americans.

I may sound like a five-year-old, pointing a finger and shouting, “He started it!”  There were plenty of atrocities and needless destructive actions committed by all parties.  But here, only America is mentioned as the aggressor.

To lighten things up, here is a gratuitous photo of a goat from the taxidermy exhibit!

A Hole in History

I walked around Canary Wharf after my meeting.  Every single person appeared to be under 40 and was dressed like this.

Yes, there were women too and they were also attired in blue.  Blue was The Colour.

I still felt schlumpy but what did I care?  Now I was a tourist and I intended to wear down my heels even more.  I would take the rest of the day off and wander around.  A sign directed me to the Museum of London Docklands.  The Docklands was, I thought, exactly where I had stayed 30 years before.  The area was unrecognizable, with market vendors’ stalls replaced by food trucks selling “gourmet” macaroni and cheese.  Just as in the US, there was a queue 50 people deep waiting for the privilege of paying £8 for what you could make at home for £1.

I passed a sign pointing to Poplar, an area popularized (that was unavoidable) in the popular (sorry!) TV show Call the Midwife.  The street signage was good and I found the museum easily.  It was free, which was a bonus.

If I had been in the mood to learn about the sugar and slave trades, I could have spent all day there.  Instead, I focused on three exhibits and breezed through the rest of it.  The first exhibit was a recreation of a seedy dockside from maybe the 18th Century, complete with pirates in pubs, houses of ill repute, and the obligatory dental surgery with giant pliers prominently displayed.  This area was undoubtedly for kids, but it was my favorite so what does that say about me?

The second section I perused was about World War II specific to the Docklands, featuring bomb shelters for families and singles or couples.

This is the damage the German bombs wreaked:

Imagine, coming across one of these while hoeing potatoes in your garden, five years after the war.

I’m fascinated that people were expected to discern German from British bombers. Can you imagine teaching your kid, “Now Jimmy, study this carefully.  The ones on the left are the bad planes.  When we see them we run for the bomb shelter so we don’t get blown to smithereens like the Evans family.”

I don’t know about you, but I could study this poster all day—even have it in my hands while looking up at the sky—and I would never be able to tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys.  In the dark, under stress?  No way. I imagine all this well-intentioned poster did was make people more anxious.

They had their version of the American icon Rosie the Riveter; recruitment campaigns to bring women into the workforce to take the place of the men who were off to war:

Of course as soon as the war ended, the women were told to go back home and have babies, which set the stage for women’s lib.

There was a bonus exhibit at the end that displayed items found in the construction of Crossrail, the new Elizabeth train line being built in London.  Imagine, tunneling 26 miles under London, with all the other tube lines down there.  It being London, they had to stop every five feet to make sure they weren’t grinding up a significant archaeological site.  Here’s my favorite artifact, a chamber pot:

There were skeletons recovered from plague cemeteries.  People died in such numbers they had to be dumped into mass graves—before the grave diggers caught the Black Death and followed their customers into the ground.

I had my eye out for something about the story of how Pakistanis came to work the docks in the 50s and 60s after Indian independence and partition.  It was hoped they would work for cheap, then go home.  But they stayed and brought their families.  This had been the whole learning topic during my Volunteers for Peace week long “work camp” in the east end in 1988.  Now Sadiq Khan, a British Pakistani, is Mayor of London.

There was nothing.  Nothing!  I just went to the museum website and searched for “Pakistani” and found nothing either.  Did I imagine this big historical story, or get it wrong?