I’ll be honest, I was nervous about our trip to Hiroshima in the days leading up to it. The city’s name seems to be underlined with sadness whenever it’s said, regardless of the context. No one I’ve heard talks about the city the way they do with Tokyo or New York or London, even though they’ve also been subjected to attacks in the past. When people hear “Hiroshima,” they think “atomic bomb” and not much else. So planning an overnight trip there made me anxious.
In preparation, I tried to remember the first time I learned about Hiroshima and the atomic bomb. I read a story in elementary school about Sadako and the thousand paper cranes she wanted to fold. I’ve watched Jaws about a couple dozen times, and Robert Shaw’s infamous monologue ends with “Anyway, we delivered the bomb.” But it’s hard for anyone to conceptualize a single event which left over 100,000 people dead and an entire city flattened. It’s harder still to grow up and learn that your own national leaders ordered such an incomprehensible attack, the same men who have been touted as heroes for “winning” World War II. My grandfather was a WWII vet who fought in the Pacific during those years – what was he fighting for? What did “we” win? As an American, what should my relationship with this city look like?
The trip was also clouded by a memory I have from 2015: Ethan and I went to New York City (my first time there) and made a point to visit Ground Zero and the World Trade Center memorial. After getting lost in the surrounding buildings numerous times, we finally found the site – and it was packed with tourists and selfie sticks. Malls were under construction around virtually the whole area. We ended up leaving after fifteen minutes, because it didn’t feel like a place with history anymore. It felt like a local attraction.
I didn’t want Hiroshima to be a kitschy place, but I also didn’t want it to be a place without history. There lies the problem – I was trying to predict what this place might be like now, and what I wanted from it. I wasn’t thinking about what Hiroshima is.
During the ferry trip from Matsuyama to Hiroshima, I read John Hersey’s article for the New Yorker. Published in August 1946 (exactly one year later), it was one of the first articles many Americans read about the bombing. And he pulled few punches – the fear, the chaos, the violence, and the destruction caused are all there in his essay. I followed that up with Wikipedia research on the bombing, the Manhattan Project, and the city landmarks that mark important sites. When we arrived in Hiroshima, I nearly expected a flattened city still in ruins, since my head was swimming with all of those horrific words and images.
But traveling from the ferry to our hostel proved different. A fully functioning, dense, and populous city spread out before me, full of nail salons and banks and vending machines. The people waiting for pedestrian lights and walking out of restaurants didn’t seem to be unbearably sad or burdened with the memory of their longitude and latitude. They seemed to be… regular people.
That night, Ethan and I watched Hiroshima Mon Amour, a film with one of my favorite screenplays (written by the indefatigable Marguerite Duras). Made in 1959, the film focuses on an affair between a French actress and a Japanese architect, but it quickly devolves into an exploration of the trauma of war (just super uplifting stuff, you know?) The first ten minutes are essentially stock footage videos of post-bomb Hiroshima, the burned victims and the fallen buildings and the immense suffering. But the rest of the movie was filmed in Hiroshima in 1958, giving its audience an idea of how quickly the city began to rebuild. A museum had already been built to memorialize the bombing, tour guides are shown bringing groups around the city, hotels are fully furnished, and modern cafes are bustling with crowds and booze (it’s a half-French movie, after all).
The next morning, we woke up early and prepared for our daunting walk through the city. On the way to our first stop, Ethan suddenly pointed at the roof of our covered walkway – “It’s the same one from the movie, we’re on the same street.” Fifty years after the film debuted, some parts of Hiroshima were still recognizable. And I began to see it differently.
We went to a small museum in an elementary school, one of the few buildings left standing when the bomb hit. Walking through the exhibits talking about the number of lives lost, I could hear students playing at recess outside. It was almost hard to concentrate on the pain, when positivity was so immediately present. While looking at the paper cranes made by today’s students for the museum, the docent approached me and handed me two small ones. “Gifts for visitors.” He asked me where I was from, smiled, and thanked me for visiting.
Our next stop was the official Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, a huge building with incredibly detailed and well-curated exhibits. Hundreds of people, from every corner of the world, were there together – learning and talking and bumping into each other while swarming the interactive tables. If that sounds a bit cliché, well, I suppose it was. But the museum was living up to its goal – promoting history and peace between all peoples. I saw a few tears, but mostly the smiles of children who were visiting with their parents. The heavy stuff went over their head, but the diversity of the group around them kept them engaged. It’s not every day you hear twenty different languages spoken in one room.
Ethan and I walked through most of the park, full of monuments dedicated to victims and peacemakers alike. Friendly locals stopped to say hello, and even our trek to the hypocenter – the direct spot beneath the location in the sky where the bomb went off – was with a tour group of elementary school students (inadvertently). One of the boys was very keen to impress Ethan with his knowledge of the site, and I couldn’t help but smile.
Walking through Hiroshima, I began to feel less afraid and more encouraged. One of the worst tragedies in human history had befallen this place, and yet all around me were tall buildings and families and hundred-year old trees. Not even a nuclear bomb could defeat the spirit of the people of Japan (and Hiroshima in particular), and the evidence is plain as day. The people here know their history, and what’s more, they know all of it: the centuries before, the hot day in August 1945, and the decades spent rebuilding and doggedly pursuing a new goal – peace.
Let me remain on my soapbox for just one more paragraph – it wasn’t until visiting Hiroshima that I realized just how “little” a bomb can do. I’m not trying to minimize the lives lost, the trauma of survivors, or the evils of war. But before this trip, the words “nuclear bomb” sounded to me like an ending. As we hear more and more about countries developing nuclear weapons, and we’re told the end is near, it’s easy to be totally pessimistic and anticipate the end of the world. But Hiroshima is proof that even the most unfathomable attack can’t break the human spirit. Even if World War 3 starts tomorrow, there will be those who survive, stand up, and rebuild.
As we packed up and headed to the train station, I remarked to Ethan that I’d like to travel to Hiroshima again. I saw a few neighborhoods and museums I wanted to revisit, and the overall vibe felt relaxed but engaging. He was visibly taken aback, and pointed out that that was the first time I said that about a city (that’s normally “his line”) during our trip. That may be so, but Hiroshima is a special enough place to keep watching it grow.
Howdy, folks! Ethan here again with another exciting installment of AirE&E, AKA Bad Idea 2k17, AKA Ethan and Emily’s Team-Building Exercise 2k17, AKA “If I have to see one more goddamn temple… – Emily Cardoza” 2k17.
After 10 days of vacuuming and laundry folding and so much social activity in Osaka, Emily and I set out on July 4 for Ehime Prefecture on the island of Shikoku. Our final destination was Kumakōgen Furusato Ryokō Mura, a “tourist village” nestled in a valley an hour outside the prefecture’s largest city of Matsuyama.
I’ve been trying to come up with a coherent post about my experiences with language on this trip, but I consistently come up short. There are so many different aspects to this topic that it’s hard to find a thread to string them together – hence my title, “On Language.” Still, I’m going to attempt writing this, in no small part because I’m interested to see what my friends and family have to offer from their own perspectives – please comment!
I’ll begin at the beginning, I guess.
I studied Spanish for a semester in sixth grade, then a semester about a year ago after college. I studied French for three years in high school and three and a half years in college. I took a semester of German on top of that, and have been using the occasional language-learning apps to practice my skills and attempt new languages sporadically. But still, I consider myself an English-only speaker, with a minor French proficiency.
And boy, am I lucky.
In every hostel I’ve stayed in – six so far in Japan – the default language used has been English. Germans, Portuguese, Thai, Turkish, Mexican travelers all introduce themselves to one another with “Hello, my name is…” Many of these individuals are in their twenties and thirties, and all use English with a comfort and skill-level I’ve never reached in my own language pursuits. Quite frankly, because of this phenomenon, I’ll never really “have to” learn another language. The world around me has evolved towards catering to my culture, which causes me both extreme relief and acute discomfort.
On the one hand, it’s normally easier for all participants in a conversation to immediately switch to English than to watch an English speaker struggle through foreign verb conjugation. Because our (speaking for Americans here) education system doesn’t prioritize language-learning, many of us weren’t even given the option to expand our speech until high school or college, quite a few years after the “ideal” developmental period of pre-K. Other nations begin language-learning much earlier, and for a variety of socio-political-economic reasons, English has been a very common second language to teach.
I’m certainly benefiting from these phenomena – less formal schooling AND other people cater to me?? Hell yeah!! – but I’m aware of the problems implicit within them. For instance, should the world suddenly stop catering to Americans, I’d be screwed. And from a more progressive standpoint, I’m part of a system that’s hindering my own mental growth. Dozens of studies show the benefits of learning multiple languages – they broaden your mind measurably, allowing you to look at problems and situations from a myriad of perspectives in ways that single-language speakers can’t grasp. Looking at the current political situation in the US, I think it’s fairly clear that many of us have certain stunted narrow-minded attitudes that are manifesting themselves in racism, violence, and willful ignorance (not to say that a lack of language-learning is the only influence at play here, but it absolutely doesn’t help).
So here I am, a witless American touring a country whose official language I can’t begin to comprehend. Sure, I have the basics covered – “Please,” “Sorry,” “Thank you,” “Where is the plum wine?” – but putting together a sentence is like pulling my own teeth. Invariably I’ve been rescued by a kindly shopkeeper with some English, or by Ethan (who adores learning languages) eager to practice his Japanese. Most Japanese citizens respond to him with a combination of surprise and delight, totally floored that this pasty-white blue-eyed foreigner is asking them questions in (mostly) grammatically-correct Japanese. Quite often, they compliment him on his language skills if he says anything beyond “Konnichiwa” or “Arigatou gozaimasu.” As his girlfriend, I love watching him astound other people. But as his travel partner, I wonder if I’m depending too much on him in situations that could advance my own language-learning, for fear of the anxiety and embarrassment that comes with language practice.
It’s not as if all of Japan speaks perfect English – one of our favorite travel pastimes has been pointing out billboards, shirts, and storefronts with odd English-inspired phrases on them. Things like “I Hate’ Mondays,” “Wel Come,” or “It is strong in time, and it is gently to time tough at time” (which I still haven’t figured out) have us nudging each other and giggling. But when I flip the situation, in which I were a store owner trying to cater to Japanese clients, I certainly would do much worse in trying to diagram a phrase in Japanese. This fear of speaking less-than-perfectly is part of the reason I gave up on learning Japanese after memorizing hiragana (the phonetic Japanese alphabet) and beginning katakana.
But then again, this journey isn’t about doing anything perfectly. It’s about getting outside of my comfort zone long enough to learn something, to see something new, to talk to a person (or ten) I’ve never met before. Perhaps this whole essay “On Language” is really about the difficulty in leaving comfortable situations behind, and embracing the unknown.
Or maybe, I’m just procrastinating studying Mandarin before we arrive in China.
Howdy folks! Ethan here.
Eleven days ago, Emily wrote a wonderful post about one of our adventures in Nagano before leaving for Tokyo. Ironically, this was sent out over our middle-of-nowhere hostel’s WiFi network. We haven’t had a stable WiFi connection in Tokyo since.
I retract previous statements about this being a country of the future. *fumes*
I’m not a very patient person (understatement of the year). This character flaw manifests itself in a number of ways, from my habit of interrupting people to naturally walking quickly to trying to “see” the future and plan for it. In anticipation of this adventure, I actively tried to imagine every possible best and worst-case scenario that could arise and made sure I was prepared. But what I wasn’t prepared for is the patience I’m already learning three weeks in.
Two days ago, Ethan proposed a hike through a nearby town up to a temple at the top of a hill. About 2 pm, we bid our friends Marco and Nick goodbye after a delicious lunch of katsudon and began the trek upwards. While playing my version of “Are we there yet?” – in which I ask Ethan the questions “Do you know where we’re going?” “What does the map say?” and “Are you sure?” every thirty seconds – we wound through narrow lanes and footpaths, stopping to take pictures of nice views and odd street signs. Eventually we reached Koryuji, a Buddhist temple in Yamanouchi. It’s a small complex, with only a few buildings surrounded by an extensive cemetery. I spied a few cats on the premises, but they didn’t take too kindly to a strange woman whispering “NEKO” loudly at them.
We admired a bronze statue in the middle of the temple grounds, and hiked even higher above the cemetery to the edge of the woods. At that point, I felt that I had seen everything that needed to be seen, and began mentally planning the route back to our hostel. However, Ethan insisted on sitting on a fallen log at the edge of the woods for a few minutes, so I followed in exasperation.
Sitting quietly at the forest’s edge, I tried to be “mindful” – a buzzword if there ever was one – and take in the world around me. A few realizations did sink in: everywhere I looked was green. The hillsides are covered in grasses, flowers, and trees, with creeks and hot springs bubbling up all over. It was incredibly quiet as well – just the wind through the trees, the occasional sound of cars on nearby roads, the buzzing of insects. It was actually… kind of… nice.
A few minutes into our pause, a small white truck drove up about 50 yards down the road. The driver stopped and stared at us, very blatantly, and Ethan and I laughed at this not-uncommon occurrence – we certainly don’t look like locals. He continued driving up the road, and stopped to get out of the car and say hello. This man was in his 80’s or so, and seemed to work on the temple grounds. He asked where we were from, and talked a bit about the temple and the woods (from what I gleaned between Ethan’s quick translations and my own burgeoning Japanese vocabulary). Then he drove away, and we continued to sit and chat about what it must be like to live in Yamanouchi. Within ten minutes, the man drove back down the hill, stopped his truck, and tapped his watch.
We smiled and nodded, but the man motioned us to follow him. Incredulously, Ethan confirmed that the man was inviting us to tea with him, and we followed his truck back to the temple. He pointed at the statue we had admired earlier, and told us that this was the temple’s first Zen master – and his great-great-grandfather (the statue, weirdly enough, looked a lot like him). Then he climbed up the steps to the closed temple, opened the doors, and we followed him in, eyes wide and whispering excitedly to each other.
Inside the first room was a huge altar, with a Buddha statue at the back, which our new friend explained was about 900 years old. He pointed out more of the art, decor, and religious items in the temple (none of which I have the proper vocabulary for), most of which was already a few hundred years old. Then we followed him into a back room, and sat at a small table on the tatami-mat floor. A woman came out – we later pieced together that this was his daughter – and served us matcha tea and tasty cookies.
The four of us talked for about an hour – and by “us,” I mean Ethan, Koni Yamamoto (our new friend) and Junko Yamamoto (his daughter) talked in Japanese while I alternated between staring at Ethan in anxiety, smiling apologetically at our hosts, and guzzling tea. This trip has certainly opened my eyes to new forms of communication, especially since I’ve been depending on Ethan and other friends for translation, and trying to use my ten Japanese words otherwise. Ethan explained our story and previous travels, and we listened to the Yamamotos’ stories.
It turns out that Koni is actually the current Zen master of Koryuji, in addition to having studied Japanese history and culture at a university in Tokyo for awhile. We were dumbstruck and I felt completely unworthy to be having tea with an ACTUAL ZEN MASTER when I can’t sit still for five minutes, let alone meditate. Koni was very nonchalant about it all, even when he could see our awed expressions upon learning his profession.
As we continued chatting, I summoned up the courage to ask Koni and Junko a question – well, I summoned up the courage to ask Ethan to ask them a question (I’m a real peach to travel with). He resigned himself, and translated into Japanese: “What are the names of the cats that live around the temple?”
This question surprised them, and after staring at each other blankly, Junko laughed and answered, “They don’t have names!” But she agreed with me that they were very cute.
After tea, Koni and Junko continued our tour, this time pulling out huge paintings pasted on folding screens. The first was at least 500 years old, the second, about 200. They explained the background of the paintings’ meanings and influence, then mentioned that there were some like them in the Boston Museum (behind glass!!! while these paintings!!! were literally!!! right in front of us!!!) My inner art history nerd was thrilled, and Ethan was near tears (don’t tell him I told you).
Before leaving, we asked to take a picture with them – our new friends, the Yamamoto family. They bid us goodbye and good luck with our adventure, and we tripped all over ourselves repeating “Arigato gozaimasu” over and over. While walking away, we basked in the unexpected excitement of the afternoon, seeing the temple grounds with new eyes.
If I had given in to my impatience and insisted on leaving, we’d never have met Koni, or Junko, or seen the temple interior, or had delicious tea and cookies, or gotten this close to a Japanese Important Cultural Property. Either way, the cats wouldn’t have names. But being patient and stopping for just a moment allowed me the chance to ask.
Howdy folks! Ethan here. After our last photo post, we decided the WordPress photo upload feature was…kinda bad. So! We’ve changed formats – here is a link to a Google Photos-based album for you to browse to your heart’s content. Below is a short description of what it is we were doing each day. Enjoy!
(Emily wrote this!)
This morning, Ethan, Kit, and I ducked into Tokyo’s Traditional Crafts Museum, a small cultural center located in the neighborhood of Asakusa. Only two rooms, this museum offers a quick overview of all kinds of Japanese traditional art forms, from woodworking to doll-making to metallurgy. While admiring a rocking horse necklace, I was approached by a young Japanese student, who I’m guessing was in middle school (based on his uniform and height).
“Will you please give interview?”
I acquiesced, and answered his questions best I could – with my almost nonexistent Japanese and his careful beginner’s English, we had a bit of stumbling. But he and his friends (about six of whom gathered around once he had bravely selected an interviewee) were very sweet and kind, and I’m pretty sure I helped them complete a school assignment.
Still, I’ve been thinking about his questions, many of which had already been asked of me by other Japanese people I’ve met this week. Though very basic, they bring to mind a lot of thoughts and feelings I’ve had since arriving in the country.
So, here are his questions, my answers, and my reconsidered answers.
“Where are you from?”
What I said: “California” (this generated some excitement among the group)
What I think now: I’ve been saying “California” mostly in answering this question, partially to avoid saying “America” and having to deal with the ensuing political questions, and partially because it’s true. I was born and raised in San Luis Obispo county, and spent my college and recent post-college years in Berkeley – I feel more “Californian” than “American.” It’s interesting to me that California is almost universally known, because I certainly couldn’t name the 47 prefectures in Japan. But that speaks more to Hollywood’s and San Francisco’s global reputation than anything else.
“What do you like about Japan?”
What I said: “Everyone is so nice here.”
What I think now: Everyone really is nice and polite and helpful. From train station agents to restaurant staff to casual acquaintances, Japanese people are the most hospitable citizens I’ve come across. Perhaps it’s overly simplified, but it’s been true so far. Other things I like about Japan include:
- The fashion! Women here dress impeccably (men too, but primarily in similar suits), and their hair and makeup are pretty much flawless. Current trends include culottes, flowy tops, stripes (EVERYWHERE STRIPES), neutral shades, and midi skirts – the last of which I’ve now purchased for myself. When in Tokyo…
- A sense of safety. Into the evenings, the feeling of security exists, even when navigating side streets and unfamiliar areas. Maybe it’s the gentle police presence, or the various guards and attendants around, or the well-lit roads, or the infrastructure (see below), but I’ve felt very safe in a completely new place.
- The infrastructure. Kind of an odd thing to comment on, but Tokyo has the cleanest and most comfortable public bathrooms I’ve ever seen. There seems to be a commitment to maintaining and improving all city functions, from clear signage to manicured public parks to a lack of litter anywhere.
“What do you not like about Japan?”
What I said: “Uhhh… I can’t think of anything.” (Hopefully this won’t impact his grade)
What I think now: I can think of things I miss that aren’t allowed here, like Diet Coke (my kingdom for a 12-pack) and certain “medications” (#yeswecannabis). But a few things do bother me – the extreme commitment to work over health (12 hour days are normal), the bombardment of advertising everywhere I look (but that might just be a Tokyo thing), and the (seeming) lack of animal rights laws – there are FAR too many owl/parrot/cat cafes in damp basements. Being that I don’t have all of the information about these phenomena, I’m hesitant to make further judgments. But as Ethan, Kit and I discussed later, every culture has its trade-offs, and it’s got me thinking about what I’m willing to give up in my world in order to get something else.
“What surprised you about Japan?”
What I said: “That vending machines are everywhere!”
What I think now: They really are!!! Anytime you feel thirsty, a cheap beverage is usually within sight. I don’t know who restocks these machines, but they are EVERYWHERE. The only issue is that my lack of familiarity with Japanese brands has me staring at the machines for longer than socially acceptable. Other things that surprise me include:
- Hard liquor is available at every convenience store. Why alcohol is so easily accessible in Japan while marijuana is verboten is beyond me. I bet a few of these salarymen could use some more relaxation in their life (and fewer hangovers).
- The cleanliness of the public bathrooms. I know I’ve mentioned this before, but they’re seriously cleaner than any apartment I’ve ever inhabited.
- Despite the fact that this is a huge city with 13 million people, we’ve only encountered graffiti in Tokyo twice.
- Shrines and temples are everywhere, both Buddhist and Shinto. They’re also well-kept, with beautiful structures and cemeteries and fountains.
“What have you bought in Japan?”
What I said: “Material…?” (I couldn’t think of the word, which is furoshiki, traditional Japanese wrapping cloth)
What I think now: I bought beautiful furoshiki (and a guide to wrapping styles) for myself, and a few gifts for others – chopsticks, postcards, and such. I also bought a midi skirt to try and imitate the lovely styles I see around me. But what I’ve mostly spent my money on is transit fare and food – SO. MUCH. FOOD. My favorite meal to date was lunch today, cold soba noodles with dipping sauce. Dinner wasn’t bad either, Kit and I found a Thai place with excellent pad se ew. Can you tell why I’m spending so much money on food?!
It was admittedly a very short interview, but it’s given me a frame of reference to start working out my feelings about this adventure. So, in conclusion, thank you, Japanese schoolboy, for asking me questions that require me to seek answers.
Though Ethan has been preparing the country of Japan for Emily’s arrival, the true adventures of AirEandE have only just begun! Check out our slideshow (aka photo dump) of our travels in and around Tokyo thus far.