Posts Tagged ‘Japan’

Entertained, Appalled and Enthralled by ‘The Cove’

I just went to a screening of The Cove tonight and was absolutely blown away.

Following a group of activists who go to Japan to record the annual dolphin slaughter in Taiji, the story is part documentary, part thriller. The team schemes and plans, disguising cameras as rocks, trespassing in a dangerous areas and using military technology they had to sneak into the country all while having to evade the local police and hostile fishermen.

The Cove is at once disturbing and inspiring, exposing the horrific dolphin slaughter while showing how far passionate people will really go for their cause. And though I went into the film thinking it would be difficult to watch, it keeps you engaged with the Ocean’s Eleven-like plot and informed with the back story, and it doesn’t feel exploitative when the more gruesome scenes come up.

The facts revealed are also shocking. In Taiji, after they herd the dolphins to the cove and let various dolphin trainers have their pick — purchasing animals at about $150,000 apiece — they then slaughter the rest. Though these fishermen claim dolphin hunting is a tradition in Japan, most Japanese people don’t know this is going on and don’t want to eat dolphin, so the meat is often labeled as other types of whale. The most mind-boggling part of the whole story is that dolphin meat has toxic levels of mercury, well beyond international safety standards, yet it’s still being sold.

The film hits both animal lovers and pragmatists, balancing the outrage at the 23,000 dolphins killed each year with facts about Mercury poisoning. Dolphin captivity is also on the agenda. Ric O’Barry, the former Flipper trainer turned dolphin activist and one of the ringleaders of this project, forces you to look critically at dolphin shows and attractions — and where those dolphins are coming from.

The Cove is a powerful film that will make you want to take action and I highly recommend it. It comes out on July 31 in New York and LA. Check here to see if it’s coming to a theater near you.

P.S. Stay until the end to see what happens with the blimp

The COVE OPS Team and some of their rather conspicuous looking spy equipment

The Cove OPS Team and some of their rather conspicuous looking spy equipment

Touring Tokyo

On August 14, we took the Shinkansen to Tokyo. We had reserved seats, but they turned out to be in a smoking car — and at the very front of the train. We decided to look for new seats, but all the unreserved calls are at the back of the train. I walked from car 16 to car 4, where there were lots of open seats, then went back to get Evan and our bags. It took until we got to the first stop to get everything settled.

We got in to Tokyo in the early afternoon and made our way to the fancy Keio Plaza in Shinjuku. We stayed a night, then spent the rest of our stay at the brand new Shinjuku Best Western, which was nice and cozy and had decent prices for Tokyo.

In Shinjuku, we went into plenty of fancy department stores and movie theaters and had a nice and filling Indian lunch at Pina Maharajah.

August 15, 2008

Our second day, we set off for Ginza to see the Sony showroom, where we played with cameras, TVs, phones and music players. It was fun, but less interactive than I’d hoped. The we went off to find the Godzilla statue that was marked on the map in our guidebook. We nearly missed it is was so small! It was quite a let-down, though it’s possible that was the original size of the claymation Godzilla. After taking a quick photo, we went to see the parks around the Imperial Palace, which were very pretty, though much of the area is gated off.


Godzilla: smaller than he appears

After strolling around a bit, we used our Passmo cards to take the subway to Roppongi Hills to check out a giant shopping mall. Like Kanyon in Istanbul, it was modern, clean and a nice place to spend an afternoon.

August 16, 2008

The next day, we spent the afternoon at the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno Park, looking at old Japanese paintings, armor, ceramics, sculpture and clothing. It was a nice, concise collection that gave a good overview of Japanese art and culture. The park was also very pretty.

August 17, 2008

We took another museum excursion, this time farther out of the city, to the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka. We bought tickets months earlier, when we were still in London, because it was recommended to us, and we were not disappointed. The museum was fanciful and fun, with beautiful Zoetrope exhibits, sketches and painting. The building itself was also fun, with lots of small doorways, staircases, elevators and walkways. There was rarely a direct way to get anywhere. We also went to the cafe, where we had a great lunch, topped off by a giant piece of strawberry shortcake.


The robot on the roof of the Ghibli Museum

We went to a great macrobiotic place in Harajuku for dinner and had a lot of fun walking around the area. There are lots of funky little shops, and people make a real effort to look different, with candy-colored hair, Little Bo Peep-style costumes and neon clothing.

August 18, 2008

It was surprisingly hard to find vegetarian food in Japan, especially at standard restaurants. It was even harder to find menus in English. I learned to say “I’m a vegetarian” — “Watashi wa bejitarian desu,” but that didn’t always mean I’d get a vegetarian meal.

Evan wanted to get some good sushi while we were in Japan, so we tried to go for a nice sushi lunch. The nice place recommended by our guidebook was closed, so we found a small place with a good lunch special nearby. I told them I was a vegetarian, hoping to get a selection of vegetable rolls, but it apparently translated to “Don’t serve me anything.” I ended up picking some veggie rolls off Evan’s place while he enjoyed the fish, soup and other small dishes.

For the afternoon, we took the elevated train on what felt like a fancy urban monorail ride to Odaiba, in Tokyo Bay to go to Toyota Mega Web in Palette City. We checked out cars, rode in simulators, and went to an arcade to play some air hockey. We also did a reaction-time race car driver test, where we had to press buttons as they lit up on a big board. I did a bit better than Evan (sweet!). The elevated train back to Ginza was fun again on the ride home since it was dusk and the city’s lights were coming on and the towering glass buildings were becoming even more transparent.


Ginza by night

We went to Harajuku for dinner again and spent time in an English pub before getting a fantastic feast at Fujimama’s, where I had a pink Hello Kitty cocktail and Evan had an orange Crouching Tiger one. We shared a grilled vegetable salad and Evan had something meaty while I had some really delicious handmade noodles with mushroom and truffle sauce. Of course, we had dessert, too, though our Oreo mousse was my least favorite course.

August 19, 2008

For our last day in Japan, we visited the Toto Super Space to check out — and test out — some fancy toilets and other homewares. The Japanese sure have a monopoly on fancy toilets, they have ones with auto-up seats, adjustable sprays and bidets that can move around and change temperature and intensity, and they have toilet sound cloaking noises you can turn on.

We stopped briefly at the Nikon showroom, which is just a couple of floors up from Toto, then we picked up a picnic lunch to take to the park. Unfortunately, since it was our last day and the ATMs would only let us take out a minimum of 10,000 yen (about $100), we were back to where we started in Japan — with no cash. We had just enough to buy lunch, but we couldn’t scrounge up 400 yen ($4) to get into the park. Instead, we ate on some benches by the visitor’s area, then went shopping in the department stores.

Late in the afternoon, we hopped on to the Narita Express from Shinjuku station to go to the airport for our flight to Hawaii.

Check out our Tokyo photos in Evan’s Facebook Gallery.

6 Days in Kyoto

Getting to Kyoto from Bangkok involved a very long day of traveling, which seems to be a recurring theme on this trip. First we took a 5-hour flight to Tokyo, then had to hop on an hour-long train to get to the 3-hour-long Shinkansen — where we had to stand in the unreserved smoking car for about 45 minutes before getting seats. We also had a bit of a failure in planning here — we had no baht left to exchange for yen, so we didn’t get any in Bangkok. Then we missed the exchange counter at the Tokyo airport, leaving us with 0 yen, and thus no food or drink possibilities. We thought we’d be able to find an ATM at one of the train stations, but that didn’t happen, and when we finally got to Yamashina, where we just needed to take a Kyoto subway 4 stops to Daigo, we got stuck. Our Japan Rail passes wouldn’t cover the trip, the ATMs we found wouldn’t take foreign cards and at 10:30 p.m., we didn’t have any exchange options we could see. We were also caught in a thunderstorm. Thankfully, we were able to call the person we were staying with, Ted, to come pick us up. He even had dinner ready for us when we got to his house.

The front gate at Kiyomizudera

We spent our first few days in Kyoto exploring the city — going shopping, eating at vegetarian restaurants and checking out the temples. Kiyomizudera was my favorite, with its pretty trails, beautiful views and quaint wooden shrines. The complex also has a waterfall that people drink from to gain luck and knowledge — we made sure to drink up! We also spent some time in Gion, where we saw a Geisha in her full get-up, with white face makeup and all. Tons of people were snapping photos of her just crossing the road. There were many other women in traditional kimonos, but not many were fully made up.

We visited some other temples in the hills that form the city’s border, like Nanzen-Ji, where we walked through an enormous gateway and under a red-brick aqueducts and up into the woods to visit a small shrine by a waterfall. And we walked down the Philosopher’s Path, a quiet walkway by a canal, until we found Honsen-In, another temple, which was closed for the day.


A temple garden in Kyoto

We were able to scramble over to the Ginkaku-Ji, the Silver Pavilion, shortly before closing time, but were disappointed to find the structure undergoing a complete restoration — it was basically a shell of a building covered in tarps. The gardens, however, were well worth the visit, with clear ponds, stone steps leading up to a view point, sunny and shady areas, plenty of moss groundcover, and a sand garden shaped to represent Mount Fuji and the sea. We took a second loop around the grounds because we liked it so much.

The rest of the time we were based in Kyoto, we took day trips to nearby cities. Also, we were surprised by how hot Kyoto, and Japan in general, was — the heat and humidity made Thailand feel temperate, and we had to buy little towels to wipe the sweat from our faces. Who knew?

August 11, 2008

First, we took the Shinkansen to Hiroshima, where we visited the peace park. We saw the A-Bomb Dome, the ruins of a neoclassical building that was very close to the hypocenter of the blast, which was eerie — parts are still standing, other parts are totally mangled, and there are Japanese families taking photos giving the peace sign in front of it. From there, we walked on to the island where most of the park is, and saw all the paper cranes that comprise the children’s memorial, then went by the eternal flame and the cenotaph, which looks back on the A-Bomb Dome.


The A-Bomb Dome in Hiroshima

We also visited the museum, which gave a detailed history of Hiroshima and a good amount of insight as to why it was bombed. It also had a lot of information on nuclear weapons and really showcased the devastation of the city through photos, models and artifacts from the day it was bombed, like warped metal girders, burned clothed, melted roof tiles and some gruesome victim portraits. The museum isn’t only a memorial of what happened there, though — it is truly a call for peace and an end to nuclear proliferation. It was very powerful to see such a tragedy turned into a positive mission.

After taking in the museum, we also checked out the memorial hall, a large, echoing sunken space with a fountain at its center and the names of Hiroshima’s neighborhoods set around it. Also, we noticed that water played an important role at the peace park — many visitors were leaving water bottles at the memorials — and we learned that it’s because many of the bomb’s victims died begging for water.


The floating gate in Miyajima

Once we’d toured the park, we were ready for some lighter fare and headed to Miyajima to see the tori gate in the sea. We took a ferry over to the island and were surprised to find lots of deer to greet us. We walked down the coast to the shrine, which was closed because it was a bit late in the day, then watched the sun set pink behind the bright orange floating gate.

August 12, 2008

Our second day trip was to Himeji to see the castle. From the train station, we walked right up the main road until it stopped at the big, scenic moat. We walked across the bridge and onto the castle grounds and went to the main tower — a big, white, multistoried building on a tall stone foundation. There were lots of small spaces for people to throw rocks or boiling water down on invaders, and these came in square, circle, triangle and rectangle shapes. It was also a no-shoes building, so we climbed the stairs to the top barefoot, carrying our shoes in bags. I don’t know why they insist in putting metal caps on the ends of the stairs for people going barefoot — it’s quite an uncomfortable climb.


Himeji Castle

The view from the top wasn’t all that great — Himeji looks pretty industrial — but it was nice to see the castle.

When we returned to Kyoto station in the evening and took the escalators up to the roof garden on top top of the cool modern bulding to take in the nighttime view, then walked across its glass walkways.

August 13, 2008

Our day trips started feeling like doing suicide sprints backwards — we started with the longest, Hiroshima, and just kept on the same train lines, going shorter and shorter distances each day. We definitely made the most out of our JR passes. The bullet train was basically our daily transport, which really helped us get back and forth quickly, though we wish we could have ridden the super-speedy Nozomi trains, which had better, longer routes.

Osaka is only a short ride away from Tokyo, yet it feels quite different. It’s much more modern, and much more crowded. We first went to the aquarium, since it was highly recommended. Apparently it was highly recommended to all of Japan, though, since there were some really incredible crowds. There were people blocking every tank and sign and women on bullhorns yelling announcements every few feet. It made for a pretty stressful visit, though we did manage to at least get a glimpse of the dolphins, otters, penguins, rays and whale sharks. The best part was a smallish exhibit with baby otters, which was set apart from the main path and nowhere near as packed.


Looking up at the Osaka Sky Building

Next on our sightseeing tour was the Osaka Sky Building, a transformers-looking structure, with two tall buildings attached at the top, with long escalators running to the roof garden observation point and a thin bridge at the 22nd floor. We made it to the top just in time for sunset, when the clouds and sky turned a beautiful pink over the sprawling city. And riding up to the top in the glass elevator and then taking the glass escalator the last five stories was quite a thrill.

Check out more photos in Evan’s Facebook gallery.

Help Plan Our Summer Trip

After Evan and I are finished our stint in London at the end of June, we plan on traveling for a month or two, making our way back to LA heading east. Our tentative itinerary:

  • 1 week in Egypt 
  • 1 week in Jordan
  • 2 weeks in India
  • 2 weeks in Thailand and Cambodia
  • 1 week in Japan
  • 1 week in Maui (to join up with the Kizner family summer vacation)
  • Back to LA

We haven’t booked our ticket yet, but we met with a travel agent on Saturday about it and are going back in a couple of weeks to really sort things out. It looks like we’ll be getting some sort of around-the-world ticket, which is flexible on dates, though less flexible on destinations once we pick them.

So now we need help — we want to know what to see, where to stay, what and where to eat, which guide to get, and all your other travel tips for these destinations. Please post them in the comments or email them directly to me. And if you have friends and family who have been to these places, please ask them to share, too.

Thanks!