matt 120pxAfter a long nap following our early morning at Tsukiji, we got ready to go watch some sumo. We waited with Yumi for Yusuke to come home from school, snacked, and then the four of us left. From my understanding, there are five 15-day tournaments a year; 3 in Tokyo, one in Osaka, and one in Fukuoka. So we’re lucky that we’re  both in Tokyo during a tournament and that Yumi wanted to take us. Although each day of the tournament goes from 8:30am to 6pm, the top wrestler only fight in the final hour. We got there at around 4, so I had some time to look around the arena as well as observe and learn from a few matches before the main events. As far as the tournament structure, each wrestler only has one match per day. I think there’s different divisions too, so there are rankings within each division. The matches are incredibly quick, lasting only a few seconds. Basically, you lose if you step outside of the circle or are pushed/thrown/tripped to the floor.


Although the match itself is quick, the preparation takes several minutes. First, the dirt floor is swept by men (women aren’t allowed on the floor, because they’re considered impure). Then the two wrestlers come up, grab some salt out of a big sack on the floor and then toss it on the floor (to purify the floor). Then they go to the parallel chalk lines, face each other, squat down like a lineman, lift and stretch each leg, then they both retreat and do it all over again starting with the salt. This is done three times and on the fourth time, they repeat the same process, but instead of walking away they put their fists to the floor. Once both wrestlers have touched the floor, the match starts, so essentially the last one to touch the floor has control when to go. There are 82 official winning moves, but most of the matches we saw were won by using their opponents momentum against them, but most went straight for each other, grabbed their opponents’ belts, and either got their opponent off-balance or just straight muscled them out of the circle. It was really exciting to see all the rituals of the match and how quickly each match was decided.





            After the all the matches had finished, we headed out to dinner. But not to just any dinner, but a meal at a sumo stable. All sumo wrestlers live at “sumo stables,” sort of residence/training compounds run by yokozunas (sumo champion). You could probably think of the wrestlers in a stable like an Olympic team, in that they train together but could potentially compete against one another. Anyways, the Tosu’s were invited becasue Yusuke goes to school with the daughter of Asahifuji Seiya, the yokozuna that ran the stable we visited. The stable was in quiet Tokyo neighborhood and just looked like a really big house. We rang the bell and a young beefy guy wearing only shorts welcomed us in. Immediately beyond the foyer was a large room with a sumo ring in it, the training room. We took an elevator up to the dining room, a large room with a long floor table surrounded by cushions.


guests eating and sumos cooking in background


me and sumos

A few people were sitting and eating already, while there were also several shirtless sumos milling around. At the head of the table was the famous Asahifuji Seiya, who was introduced to us (and referred to throughout the evening) simply as “master.” I guess how it works is that since the lesser-skilled wrestlers have earlier matches, they return straight home right away and begin cooking for the top couple wrestlers, master, and his family and guests. So we sat and ate, as these guys shuffled around serving us food and drinks. They could not begin eating until we had finished. Besides the few simple questions in English, I didn’t really understand any of the conversation, but it was a fun night. Below are photos of us with the master, Ama (he ended up coming in second in the whole tournament!), and Aminishki (another top wrestler).


us and yokozuna master Asahifuji Seiya


us and Ama


us and Aminishki

Tsukiji Fish Market


matt 120pxThere’s not too many things I’ll wake up before 5am for, so you know I had high expectations for this morning. At five am, Yumi, Joylani, and I took a cab to the Tsukiji Fish Market. By 5:30, we had met up with Yumi’s friend, Keiko, and were heading into an area of the market closed to the public. Luckily for us, Keiko had a friend who worked inside the market and got us visitor passes. Inside the complex were dozens of warehouses and inside the first we entered were hundreds of fresh tunas lined up on pallets. Huge ones ranging from 75 to 200 kilos- that’s like almost 500 pounds! Buyers were finishing up taking notes and completing their “homework” as we arrived. Soon enough, a bell rang which signaled the start of the auction. The process went quickly, with each fish being sold within just a few seconds. The auctioneer spoke so fast, almost dancing to the rhythm of  his own words.  It sounded like singing more than talking or yelling, and reminded Joylani of watching an animated pastor preach. Hands shot up from the mass of men intermittently, as bids increased. As they were sold, workers stuck paper tags on the damp scales of the tunas to identify the new owner, and the tunas were dragged away by men wielding sharp pole-hook-thingies. It was a dangerous place to be, with hooks swinging about, giant tunas sliding across the floor, and motorized carts zipping around to transport the fish.


mmmm….tasty…that’s also what a few hundred thousand dollars of tuna looks like…


auctioning the tuna


you gotta move the tuna once you buy it

After the fresh auction had ended, we headed to another warehouse where frozen tunas were being auctioned. The frozen ones had come from greater distances, anywhere from the far-reaches of Japan, the South Pacific, and even the Atlantic. The auction process seemed to be the same, but the buyers seemed to do a lot more research. Perhaps because they were frozen or perhaps because they were bigger. Keiko’s friend told us even fish of the same size could fetch wildly different prices, depending on the quality. (Apparently the best tuna tends to be fished from off the coast of Japan.) And when the fish are selling for tens of thousands of dollars, it pays to do your homework. The bidders would cut a tiny bit of meat from the tail, pop it in their mouth to thaw it, and then rub in their hands to feel the texture and see the color. They also used flashlights and look at the meat at different angles. It was all to try to estimate the fat content of the fish, which determined the price. After watching that auction, we walked back through a warehouse of stalls where the wholesalers sold their new purchases to buyers. It was cool to see so many different kinds of seafood in various stages of preparation. We stopped by Keiko’s friend’s stall and watched an 80-kg tuna get turned into four huge steaks, using what looked like a sword and then a saw.


tunas from Asia, America, and even Africa


bidders doing their due diligence


unbelievably big tunas


cut off the head, the tail, and then cut twice lengthwise and you got four huge tuna steaks

After the market, we ducked into one of the small sushi shops within the market. It was just a small single-counter place, but photos and signs indicated it had been open for over a hundred years. The sushi was awesome, probably the best I’ve ever had. Yumi and Keiko kindly guided us through the assortment of goodies coming our way as part of the sushi-set. The usual sashimi and nigiri was the most tender I had ever had. Then we had a lot of unique things like eel, sea urchin, and other live shellfish. It was fresh and unbelievable good. It was definitely worth waking up before 5am.

joylani 130pxIt sounds like the fun ends here, but it didn’t. Much to my delight our hosts led us out of the main market area, and we headed to another area full of all kinds of wonderful things from cooking utensils and hardware, dried goods, and fresh veggies. Note: this is the point where Matt’s [food] market abilities poop out and he is, and I quote, “going to die.” (Yes, even in Japan where the groceries are incredible. After he finishes with the seafood section and a quick pass through the cereal isle, he’s a goner.) However, today Matt was outnumbered 3-1 and I contentedly followed Yumi and Keiko through the market without a little voice outside my head reminding me of his imminent demise. Apparently this was also Yumi’s first time in this part of the market, but Keiko was pretty familiar with the place, and led us around to some of her favorite stalls.  We sampled pickles, and tried some tasty dried beans that somehow reminded me of raisins in their sweetness (thought the texture was much different).  We learned about the seasonal mushrooms, and i saw what wasabi (horseradish) looks like before it is served on your plate. The worst part about walking around this market was knowing that we have nothing even close as great at home.


pickle time!

Tokyo Tour Day


matt 120pxThe Tosu’s lined up a city tour for us and since today is the equinox, which is a holiday in Japan, Eisuke had the day off from school and went with us. It was mutually beneficial as we got a personal guide to our tour, if you will, and we helped him with his English in preparation for his TOEFL test and some admission interviews coming up.

Our first stop of the day was at Hama-Rikyu Gardens, a large park and garden in the south of the city. I forget the details, but it was a pretty old place built and owned by the Japanese imperial family. It was a nice quiet place, despite its downtown location. It had a view of the bay, ponds with bridges, a teahouse, and a ton of plants and birds. It was a nice place to begin our tour of Tokyo. Afterwards, we headed just across the street and took an elevator to the 52nd floor of a building with an observation deck. We could look straight down onto Hama-Rikyu, where we had just been, as well as look out at most of Tokyo. It was pretty hazy out, but it helped me realize that Tokyo is unlike any city we’ve been to on this trip so far. Most major cities we visit have a couple blocks of skyscrapers (or anything above 20 stories for that matter). But Tokyo is an entire city of skyscrapers and tall buildings.


Joylani and Eisuke walking in Hama-Rikyu

Our second stop was the Tsukiji Fish Market. This is the place where all the big tuna auctions go down. Today it was closed due to the holiday, but Yumi is taking us there tomorrow and we will get a chance to see it in its busy state. It was interesting to see this big market deserted and set the stage for the action tomorrow when all the fish auctioners, buyers, and shopkeepers come back to work. Although the market itself was closed, many of the nearby restaurants were still open. Our tour group split up for lunch and Eisuke helped us find a delicious little place, specializing in tuna donburi (the Japanese name escapes me). Picture a bowl of sushi rice topped with raw tuna, egg, roe, and a few other goodies. If you are thinking delicious, then you’ve got the picture. I’ve never had it or even heard of it, but it may be one of my favorites now. After lunch, we headed to the Edo-Tokyo Museum (Edo was the pre-1867 name for Tokyo). It was an extremely interesting and thorough museum, even though it was just a city museum. But since so much of Japan’s history has been centered on Tokyo, we learned a lot about Japanese history too. From the shogunates to the Meiji Restoration to WWII and the Japanese Miracle, we learned how Tokyo and Japan had evolved. The museum covered a wide range of topics within history, and was refreshingly not just focused on the usual political stuff.  Sections covered daily life, the war, and art (the display on the emergence of literature, sort of the first manga, was really interesting). Exhibits included very informational commentary to go along with an excellent collectin of artifacts ranging from block prints, dioramas, clothes, etc.

After the tour, we headed back home until dinner. Once again, Sadako and Yumi had spent much of the day preparing for another feast. Again, it was delicious and we got to try a lot of new things. Joylani’s Uncle Mike and the Tosu’s have really shown me that even though I’ve eaten Japanese food throughout my life, there’s still a ton of things I’ve never heard of or tried before. One of my favorite discoveries of the night was makeral that Sadako’s sister had brought. In short, the fish is cooked for a while in a sho-yu based sauce til it has soaked up the flavor and become stiffer, tough not dry.  It was similar in texture to smoked fish and made for an excellent “beer snack” at the men’s end of the table. But tasty makeral wasn’t the only good thing at dinner. We ate the best tempura that I never thought was possible: deep-fried yet light and crispy, and not heavy in the stomach afterwards.  This mother-daughter pair are truely amazing cooks. To round out the good meal was a table full of good company, and we continued to have a good time getting to know everyone better as well as learn more about Japan. The tour was good and dinner better, making today a fantastic first day in Tokyo.

Arriving at Tokyo


matt 120pxTonight we rolled into Tokyo, our final stop in Japan (and all of Asia, for that matter). Not only were we going to see Tokyo, but we were staying with some old family friends. My grandparents have been friends with a woman named Sadako since my dad was a kid. She lives in Tokyo and so do her two children. Her daughter, Yumi, graciously invited us to stay with her family while we were in Tokyo. Disembarking from our train, Yumi met us on the platform and took us to her home in central Tokyo.

We were welcomed with a huge, delicious, homemade dinner. Since we’ll be here for a week and the same names will undoubtedly keep coming up, I’ll give a rundown of everyone at dinner. Sadako, my grandparents’ long time friend was there. And then Yumi and her husband, Akio. Then they have two kids, Eisuke, 15, and Yusuke, 7. And there’s Dr. Kojima, a very close friend of the family. The dinner was closer to a banquet than anything else. Sadako and Yumi had been preparing and cooking all day.  The food was amazing, and a description of it wouldn’t live up to all that goodness.  It was like Thanksgiving but with Japanese food.  Not only did we try a lot of good food, but Akio’s a wine guy and uncorked a bottle of 1989 Bordeaux. After dinner, we were stuffed and tired from a day of traveling, so we went to bed early. But I know it’s a going to a fun week in Tokyo.



matt 120pxIt is only three and a half hours by shinkansen from Himeji to Tokyo, but today was a full day since we decided to stop in Kyoto en route. It definitely was not enough time to see such a city, but we got a nice taste of it. After picking up some lunch and storing our bags at the enormous train station, we headed over to the Imperial Palace. It was closed, we assumed because it was Monday, but now that I think about it, I wonder if it’s still in use and ever open to the public. Nonetheless, we enjoyed strolling around and sitting in the huge park surrounding the palace. Despite being in the center of Kyoto, the park was quiet and peaceful.

From the palace grounds, we headed over to Nijo Castle, which covered the area of several city blocks and had a scenic moat surrounding it. Inside we checked out the main palace. It was a pretty interesting place with lots of original stuff inside. Perhaps most interesting were so-called nightingale floors, designed to squeak when walked on so residents would be aware of the comings and goings of visitors (they really “chirp” rather than “creak”). Though the original 16th century paintings adorning the interior screens are housed in the neighboring museum, the reproductions were still stunning. We also walked in one of the several gardens surrounding the castle, before heading back to Kyoto Station to catch our train. Reading back over this, I realize that my writing is incredibly brief and lacking the depth that comes with details. But perhaps that’s most appropriate for our brief look at Kyoto.

Mt. Shosha

mt shosha (8)

joylani 130pxDespite the dark clouds looming overhead and the thunder in the distance, we decided to take the cable car up the mountain.  We swiftly glided over the treetops while gazing at the sweeping view of the city below.  There were wide swaths of rice paddies, eventually overtaken by clusters of buildings with smaller hills poking out of the architecture like little turtles.  In the distance, fading into the cloudy sky, was the sea.

mt shosha (1)

As we stepped out of the transport, we each opened an umbrella to fend-off the steady drizzle.   Except for the weather, it was quiet.  The mountain was uncharacteristically deserted for a Sunday afternoon, but we appreciated the absence of crowds.  In fact, I think we passed by more statues than people on our way up the trail.  Sturdy but dainty looking Buddha statues lined the path, each chilling peacefully in its assigned space on the mountain.  Trees swayed gracefully overhead and we walked along the path up the mountain.

mt shosha (2)

mt shosha (3)

There were many Japanese maples.  Most were still full and green from the peak of summer.  However a few displayed warm bursts of color, marking the changing of the season into an autumnal glow.  We came to a large temple made of beautiful wood.  I think it was painted once but it had all faded away to reveal the beautiful color and texture of the wood beneath.  The beams and planks were smooth from age and there was an enduring softness about the building.  I watched as a family worshiped.  The light from a few candles danced in the dimly lit room.  The space, though plain, did not need the assistance of any other adornments to make it appear beautiful.  A grandparent helped a little boy to light his incense before putting it at the altar.  And the rain fell steadily outside.

We slipped our shoes back on and walked on a path that began behind the building.  None of us knew where it led, but despite the now somewhat heavy rain we continued moving forward along the muddy path.

mt shosha (5)

There was an element of “real” in the experience, like the velveteen rabbit.  I felt cool drops of rain slipping off my small umbrella and cooling my skin through the thin layer of raincoat keeping me dry.  The smell of the earth was strong and mixed with the scent of the pine trees in a friendly and inviting way—the way the aroma of freshly baked cookies draws one into a home.  It felt like wandering in the forest of a fairy tale, and I waited for something enchanting to happen.  Then it did.

The path ended at a clearing with three large buildings.  Just as we arrived the rain started to pound down and we rushed into the shelter of the one that was open.  This place was an old school of sorts.  Monks had studied here, and plays had been performed in the adjacent building.  It had been used for a scene in “The Last Samurai,” but we had not seen a signpost bragging about this connection, just a simple piece of paper with a few pictures showing Watanabe and Cruise in scenes from the film.  Now the hall had been converted into a small museum.  But not a pretentious museum.  Just a simple one with piles of old tiles and carvings laid out on blankets on the floor, and some old prints displayed behind glass cases.  There were a few fancy statues and the like mixed in the collection.  But it felt more like perusing the contents of a forgotten attic than artifacts in a stiffly cataloged museum.  In this way, each item we viewed was a special discovery.

I most appreciated the building itself for offering us shelter in such an unassuming way.  The building was so accessible.  Despite the “elements,” the windows were open.  There was no glass, just a big spaces in the wall with a large shudders pulled up.  We watched the rain pour down the roof tiles and onto the courtyard where dozens of small streams from the hillside all seemed to be congregating in one big puddle in the middle before running off into the drainage ditches that ran alongside the buildings. 

mt shosha (6)

mt shosha (4)

It was really great to watch the rain falling down against such a beautiful backdrop, and even better that we were still dry.  And then the sky did the unexpected and began to reveal spots of blue.  And the rain slowed, and eventually stopped.

We traded out funny blue gnome slippers for our own shoes and set out back down the mountain, satisfied with our visit.

mt shosha

funny slippers

mt shosha (7)

I continue to be amazed at the natural beauty of Japan.  Most photos I’ve seen of Japan seemed to be of gardens or cityscapes (Tokyo).  The other images I’ve seen have been prints or paintings.  Sure, the landscape looked great, but I didn’t know how far from reality the artists had gone in their representations.  Honestly, I just never really thought about it much—much in the same way that I never thought too much about what Indonesia looks like.  Conversely, there are some places whose images are catalogued in our memory from repeated exposure—the plains of sub-Saharan Africa, a tropical beach in the Caribbean, autumn in New England.  We learn these from repeated exposure—books, documentaries, films, calendars even.  But some places are not as wholly or accurately depicted in one’s mental photo album of location as another.

For me, Japan was one of those places that lacked sufficient imagery.  Why, I don’t really know.  But now I’ve added to my cache of scenes (beautiful hills, sturdy mountains, happy forests, mellow beaches, calming gardens) and I like it.  What’s more is that no matter how many pictures you have seen of a place, nothing is as wonderful as experiencing it in person.  The light hits the leaves in a certain way as a cloud blows over, how nature unfolds fluidly around you, something that cannot be captured in a 4×6 photo.  When you are there, you experience of the passage of time in a location, and the changes in the weather.  How can you truly experience the temperature in a picture anyways?  Temperature almost always affects my mood, and my mood in turn influences how I experience a place.  You notice so much more.  I bet I could have seen pictures of Mt. Shosha and been amazingly impressed by its beauty.  But the magic of waiting inside an old hall for a heavy downpour to pass, the sounds of the thick raindrops pounding on the roof tiles and splattering on the dirt yard outside, the smell of wet earth and fresh rain—well, you have to be there for that.  And I am very glad I was.  You can’t always pick such a great day to go somewhere, and I feel lucky that the weather was so wonderful on the day that the three of us visited this little mountain.

mt shosha (9)

Himeji Castle

himeji (2)

joylani 130pxWe went to the Himeji Castle today with my uncle.  The castle strategically stands atop a hill, the base of which is verdant with a collection of trees.  Known as the “White Heron,” I thought the castle looked more like a Christmas tree topper, and the hill the tree, than a bird.

himeji courtesy umike

“it is so hot”

“why didn’t i bring sunglasses?”

Himeji Castle is one of the most famous castles in Japan, and I must say that with its strong clean lines and elegant simplicity it was indeed impressive. And about as opposite from Versailles as a royal residence could be.  There wasn’t any furniture or much of anything inside so it was hard to get a feel for what daily life inside the castle consisted of.  However, whatever lack of décor (maybe it was always like that?) there was on the inside, was made up for by the “furnishings” of the gardens around the exterior.  There were fully-dressed maple trees waiting to burst into the flames of fall, and happy little sakura (cherry blossom trees) that flock the hill in pink and white petals during the spring.  In addition there is a recently developed garden down the hill to the side of the castle, called Koko-en.  There are nine different styles of gardens within this park.  I really enjoyed walking around this garden and enjoying the miniature environments that had been created within.  Despite the hot temperature outside, it was still very peaceful to walk along the carefully planned paths amongst trees, moss, and ponds.


himeji (1)

Japanese gardens have a natural feel about them, and this one was quite unlike the rigidly formed flower beds and pruned topiaries at Versailles.  However, if you look closely you will notice in the shape of the perfect trees and placement of each stone that a Japanese garden is in fact the result of careful planning and pruning.  The difference between the two styles of gardening is not that one is necessarily more planned or more pruned than the other.  The difference lies in the result of all this work: opposite expressions.

I think that the different styles of gardening speak for the popular generalizations we hold about the two places as well as for actual cultural differences between the two places—France vs. Japan, or, more broadly, West vs. East.  In France, the culture seeps outspokenness and the clearly evident—as can be deduced from the emphasis on fashion and art in the capital.  There the avant-garde and the celebration of bohemianism and individual expression.  In fashion, haute couture approximates the epitome of individuality.  People forwardly state: “This is what I think,” through their art and clothes.  The lines of the garden at Versailles are very deliberate; the statement made is about having the power to shape nature as man dictates.  This is what I want, so that’s how it will be.  There is no masquerading of thoughts.

In contrast, communication in Japan is often subtle, understated, and implied.  Even the fashion is like this—muted colors and earth tones dominate the safe color palette found in many Japanese wardrobes.   The fashion is by no means dull, but it is within these safe colors an individual finds flair.  Within safe words a roundabout way of expressing a personal preference may be implied.  It is still somewhat obvious, yet remains disguised in a cloak of the collective and community.  The gardening style is similar—trees forced to grow in a “natural” and pleasing way.  True, these trees look great, but how natural is it to trim and mold a tree to grow in a certain manner?   Several of the Japanese gardens I’ve seen display this “power” of creation, perhaps even more so than the French for a Japanese garden is a recreation of nature on a miniature scale.  It is audacious in its supposition that nature could be re-created.

Now, all that wasn’t what was going through my mind as I walked through the garden, but it is an interesting topic to ponder about, for a few minutes anyways.  Art and design is always categorized as a part of “culture” and sometimes it is easier to see how that all plays out when two different styles of design from two different places are compared and contrasted.

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a fun feature of the castle were the family crests depicted on the roof tiles

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himeji (4)

To make up for my lack of details about the castle, here’s an odd little article with a bit more of historical-type information along with strange facts like how much the castle weighs (do you suppose that is a frequently asked question?) and terms like “man-days”…whatever those are.  A day’s worth of a man’s work?  Or a day with the guys watching the big game?

Himeji: we finally made it

joylani 130pxEver since the last time I saw my uncle, a few months before Matt and I left on the trip, we’ve been saying, “We’re coming to see you in Himeji…but we just don’t know when.”  Japan is on the far east side of Asia, and we weren’t sure when we would finally make it out…that and we don’t usually plan specifics unless it involves a flight.  Well, happily, a few weeks ago we finally set the date and now we are here.  It’s nice to see my uncle again as I think I have only seen him once (and his family not at all) since he moved to Japan several years ago.  Not only has he done quite a bit of travelling of his own, but he is also a gifted artist and businessman, making him naturally much more interesting to hang out with than your average expat.  In addition he shares our affinity for Chinese dumplings, baozi, so if we weren’t already related, then we would kind of be like family anyways.  Needless to say, Matt and I are both looking forward to hanging out and spending some time in Himeji.

himeji courtesy umike (1)

trying to flash the peace sign, but i think our fingers are the same color as the castle’s foundation. we have no fingers.

The Big Typhoon

satsuma-sendai (2)

satsuma-sendai (1)

night takes over the sky

joylani 130pxWasn’t so big in Sendai.  We had heard it would hit earlier this week, then that it had passed, and then again that it would hit tonight.  Some of Josh’s friends said that the trains would probably stop for at least a couple hours during the worst of it due to the high winds.  Matt and I went out mid-day to buy food for dinner in case we couldn’t go out later.  After we got back it stopped raining and never started again.  Ironically, Matt and I had gone out during the worst part of the storm that we had been trying to avoid all day.  It wasn’t much of a storm in Sendai though.  Instead of a typhoon that night there was a spectacular sunset.  Even though it didn’t hit our area too hard, the potential prospect of getting stranded in Kagoshima city was enough to stop us from going anywhere today.  I was a little disappointed, but happy that at least it happened on a day when my brother had classes so he was able to work from home and hang out for much of the afternoon.  A high-light of the weather was the evening’s spectacular susnset, which Matt and I viewed from the roof of Josh’s apartment. (Josh was at work, inside. Sorry Joshie, hope you like the pics!)


east view, towards train station

The three of us ended the night with a stroll down to Family Mart for some mini mochi ice-creams. As we walked along a ledge above the river we heard strange splashing noises.  It was too dark to see what was causing the disturbance.  Then Josh felt something against his leg.  He thought it was just the cat that had been following us, begging for food.  But then Matt let out a yelp and fell to the ground.  Something was trying to pull him down the bank toward the river.  Josh and I froze for an instant in shock and horror before dropping our mochi and rushing to Matt’s aid.  We each held on tight to Matt’s arm and pulled while Matt, who was under quite a bit of duress at this point, kicked as hard as he could with his strong Japanese legs.

It was still too dark to see what we were fighting against, but then the Tsubami Express Shinkensen rushed over the nearby bridge.  The train’s headlights illuminated us for only an instant, but in the quick flash of light I saw it: big eyes, skinny little green arms, and stalky legs.  The creature wasn’t dressed like they are in cartoons, but he did have a little blue shell.  It looked up at me at the same moment I saw it and snapped its beak at me.  It was a kappa.

satsumai-sendai, kappa

We had been warned about them by Josh’s friends and public service signs around town.  (No thanks to the dancing kappa decorating the lampposts downtown.  Those are inaccurate portrayals; kappas aren’t that cute in real life.)  I screamed, and with one final tug Josh and I were able to pull Matt to safety as we head a splash of something going back into the river.

A lot of people have asked if Matt and I have ever felt in danger during our travels.  I can say that this one of those times…right up there with some long-distance bus rides.

St. Francis Xavier…Our Third Encounter


matt 120pxLongtime HomelessHapas readers may recall our previous encounters with St. Francis Xavier in Goa, India, and Melaka, Malaysia. Well, we met him again right here in Kagoshima. We had not known that the guy made it to Japan, much less right here to Kagoshima, so it was a pleasant surprise to see there was a park dedicated to him on our tourist map. We strolled over to the park, which is in downtown Kagoshima and sure enough, there were a few different statues of the legendary traveler monk that we’ve been following around Asia.

Apparently, a Japanese trader in Melaka invited St. Francis to Japan to do missionary work there. So he sailed to Kagoshima, which was the only port open to foreigners until the 19th century. He even went as far north as Kyoto, where he unsuccessfully attempted to gain an audience with the emperor. He traveled around Japan a bit before sailing to Goa. He then sent one of his Japanese disciples (whom he gave the Portuguese name Bernard) to Rome, where he met the pope. But this guy Bernard was the first Japanese to ever visit Europe- who thought the first Japanese to visit Europe would be named Bernard? He even stayed in Europe for four years, until his death in Portugal.

Besides the newest story I just recounted, I am amazed with this guy St. Francis Xavier. That guy got around. I mean he’s been nearly everywhere we have on this trip except he did it in the 16th century. From Europe to India to South East Asia to China and Japan, he seems to be the most prolific traveler of his era, falling chronologically between Ibn Battuta and Magellan. I have become quite an admirer of him and feel a somewhat strange connection knowing that he preceded us on the same itinerary 450 years ago. I would give anything to have travelled around with him and seen all the same places we’ve seen back then. It would be awful travel, but I feel the amazingness would more than make up for it all. Eh, dreams. I did some internet research and found out that besides being a well-traveled guy who’s preserved body sits in Goa, he is famous for some other good and bad reasons. If you’re a Christian, you may think it good that he’s credited with converting more people than anyone since Paul. On the other hand, he imported The Inquisition from the Iberian Peninsula and established the Goa Inquisition. And also, apparently, he had quite a condescending attitude towards non-Christian native peoples. So it seems that he was a pretty bad dude, but it still seems somewhat odd and amazing that we keep crossing paths with him.