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Thursday, July 06, 2006

Around Japan: The Sun, the Rain and the War

Around Japan: The Sun, the Rain and the War
Sunny Hokkaido;
Clear streams, pretty mountains, flowers;
Homewards, rain caught up.
Greetings from Hakodate, Hokkaido, Japan. In one of the worlds most densely populated countries, Hokkaido is comparatively a land of wilderness, natural beauty and promise. It is the Great Wild North for Japan, only colonized systematically and in a major manner half a century after the US conquered its own West.
I flew to Wakkanai in the far northern tip of Hokkaido from Tokyo, and to my surprise found myself in a land of bright sunshine, colourful wild flowers and snowcapped Alpine mountains. I went to Cape Soya, where Japanese tourists went snapping away at the northernmost toilet, convenience store and vending machine of their nation, while catching a glimpse of the shoreline of Sakhalin Island of Russia. In Wakkanai, Russian, not English, is the alternatively foreign language on road signs and shop fronts. I went on to Sapporo, capital of Hokkaido, where I found a little Tokyo, complete with mega-malls, 100-yen shops and wild night clubs, transplanted in Nippon;s own Texas. Rain and past karma caught up with me as I moved southwards towards Tokyo. Now in Hakodate, the old Treaty port where rain destroyed my umbrella, and its replacement - all within 2 hours. For this, I was consoled with wonderful fresh seafood ¨C sea urchins, gigantic Hokkaido crabs and salmon roe on rice.
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Since I last wrote, I have visited Hiroshima, where the first atom bomb exploded, and witnessed great sunset at Miyajima, a temple island whose gate floats on the shallows of the Seto Inland Sea, forming what is an idyllic magical image of a Japan long gone, long lost.
The legendary Shinkansen brought me to Kyushu, the third largest of the Japanese isles. At Kagoshima at the southern tip of Kyushu, the summer rains were so heavy that I could not see the famous smoking active volcanoes of Sakurajima. But I managed to visit the local museum and learned a fair bit on the distinctive Satsuma culture and the role of Kagoshima in the creation of modern Japan; plus trying the overpriced fried black pork the region is also famous for. On to Fukuoka, the metropolis of Kyushu and its commercial minded inhabitants who have always traded with their closer neighbours in Korea and China.
I took the bullet train to Osaka, Japan;s second largest city, but not before a brief stop in Kobe, solely to try the famous Kobe beef. Having paid a princely sum for it, I have to say it tasted extraordinary, although I might not have noted a major difference if you have used Aussie beef, or Paraguayan for that matter.
After learning about warlord politics in historical pre-Edo Japan at Osaka Castle - bombed to bits by the Americans during WWII and then rebuilt into a museum - went on to Tokyo, the world;s second largest city after Mexico City, which I visited two years ago. I am hosted by Alvin, my ex-colleague in PW, now the swinging expat in@Tokyo. I visited the Imperial Palace – or rather its exterior as the Emperor didnft open the gates for me; Shibuya and its malls – also the worlds most crowded subway station; Harajuku and its amazing punks, Victorian maids, Gothic gals or whatever you call these overbored suburban school girls dressed in the most outrageous fashion; and the bright neon-lit district of Shinjuku.
For me, Tokyo;s highlight was a visit to the infamous Yasukuni Shrine, where 2.4 million Japanese war dead, including a dozen Class A war criminals, are honoured as Gods. This is not just any crazy right wing shrine. The museum next to the shrine is huge, well-stocked and almost certainly well-funded. Through multimedia display and good old story-telling, it attempts to tell the rightwing Japanese story – the basic message is that Japan was a normal country forced by circumstances to fight WWII. Putting aside the fascist message it attempts to portray, one has to admire how well-thought out the museum planners were. Obvious omissions aside, they have done a good job in trying to appeal to someone rationally and logically through careful use of words and selected facts. The simple-minded would not have known from Yasukuni that more people were killed by the Japanese in Nanking than by the Atom bomb in Hiroshima. Propagandists of communists in China, North Korea and the like have hardly come close to this level of sophistication, and have continued to rely on superfluous and meaningless slogans that put thinking people off. The Yasukuni would well have been a first class war history museum if not for the fact that history is being distorted there!
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Here I am in Hakodate – tomorrow I will take the train to Tokyo, and then back to Singapore. On Monday, alas, a business trip to China. Ok, more from me when I have time!
Cheers and Happy Travels To All!
Wee Cheng

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