Thursday, November 24, 2011

Japan Day 3: Tokyo with Risa Shirade

Blog Entry #52: Japan Day 3: Tokyo with Risa Shirade

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Mt. Fuji over rice fields and factories from bullet train
Fields & Mountains from Bullet Train
After our two days in Hiroshima, Pat and I caught the bullet train to Tokyo (400+ miles in under 5 hours!) for a long-awaited reunion with Risa Shirade, a former student of mine in Environmental Studies at the University of Montana.  On the way we were treated to some beautiful views of Mt. Fuji, Japan’s revered volcano and highest mountain – the only time in our 5 days she peered through the clouds.
Risa Shirade & Dan at Edo Castle
I first met Risa several years ago in my Nature and Society class at UM, when she shyly approached me early in the semester and asked if I could please speak a little more slowly in class!  [I did my best, but I’m afraid I still rattle away in class.] 
Risa & Pat picnic in the Imperial Park, Tokyo
Risa went on to become one of my advisees and took several more classes with me.  When she graduated in 2009, it was a delight to meet her mother who had traveled to Montana for the occasion.
At the Imperial Palace with Risa Shirade
Risa met us at the Tokyo Station, and we picked up sandwiches at a nearby shop and then walked several blocks to the enormous park and plaza adjacent to the Imperial Palace where we had a picnic and enjoyed the reemergence of the sun. 
Moat around the Imperial Palace
Tokyo skyline reflected in moat
The Imperial Palace grounds are home to Japan’s imperial family, the longest continuous family of emperors in the world.  From here Risa walked us through the government sector where many of the different national ministry buildings are located. 

With Nuclear Power Protesters
64 days of protesting...
In front of the Economics Ministry we encountered a group of protestors of nuclear power, a particularly sensitive topic in Japan now in the wake of the tsunami-induced disaster at the Fukushima Plant north of Tokyo.  This group had been set up in front of the Economics building for 64 days, petitioning an audience to push for Japan closing all its nuclear power plants.  Fukushima was on the front page of the news while we were in Tokyo, as for the first time the press were allowed to tour the plant, 8 months after the disaster.
Contemplating the Tokyo Subway System
We then had our first experience of the famous – and at times bewildering – Tokyo subway system, as Risa guided us out to the Asakusa neighborhood, home to the well-known Senso-ji Temple. 
The Kaminarimon gate at the Senso-ji Temple, Tokyo
Nakamise-dori street
Sampling the Rice Crackers!
We entered through the impressive Kaminarimon [Thunder] gate, and on to the Nakamise-dori, a long walkway covered with every imaginable trinket and food is available in a crowded row of market stalls – no quiet, reverential approach to this temple!  We lingered long enough to sample some rice crackers dipped in soy sauce – Yum!
Entrance to the Senso-ji Temple
The temple dates to 682 when legend has it that two local fishermen found a golden image of Kannon, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, in the nearby river, the Sumida-gawa. 
Purifying before entering the Senso-ji Temple
Boys tying their fortunes
We participated in several local customs, from waving smoke from a large incense cauldron over us, to shaking a box to extract a numbered stick that led to a box with your fortune in it (mine was #26, which Risa assured me was a good fortune.  It promised that “Thousands of soldiers will obey you without failure to the order and dignity of the General,” and “The guest you wait for will come soon… It is good to start a trip… Marriage and employment are all well.”  Reassuring words indeed!)

Altar inside the Senso-ji Temple
Rickshaws outside the Senso-ji Temple

Starbucks in Tokyo!
Following our time at the Temple, we stopped long enough at the local Starbucks to get rejuvenated with tea – and to notice the Christmas decorations already up in the stores!
Dinner Okinawan style, complete with SPAM
Soon it was time for supper, and Risa introduced us to a new ethnic food: Okinawan!  The dishes seemed a variation on Japanese styles with some excellent tempura and an intriguing tofu made from peanuts rather than soy.  The most curious element, however, were long slices of SPAM layered through several dishes – SPAM apparently now is an Okinawan staple since the occupation of the U.S. military introduced it following World War II.
Makosa-sama & Risa in their Tokyo apartment
Following dinner we made our way by subway and bus to Risa’s neighborhood where we would spend the night in the cozy apartment she shares with her mother, Makosa.  Sharing tea and talking with Risa’s mom was one of the highlights of our time in Japan. 
Risa grew up in Sendai with her mother and grandmother – the northern city and region that were devastated by the earthquake and tsunami last March.  That day while Risa experienced the quake on the 8th floor of her office building in Tokyo, her mother was visiting her grandmother at her grandmother’s house in Sendai.  Severely shaken by the strong quake, they knew they were at risk for a tsunami, and since the grandmother’s house had a 3rd floor, Risa’s mom quickly gathered several of the elderly neighbors from their homes and led them to the 3rd floor.  Her quick thinking saved many lives, and the tsunami did indeed come, inundating the house to the top of the 2nd floor, and destroying many of the surrounding lower homes. 
Makosa-sama, Dan & Risa
But that was only the beginning of their trials.  It was another 4 days until Risa’s mother and all the elderly people she had gathered were rescued, and the weather soon turned wintry, with snow falling.  They went 4 days without electricity, heat, food, or water, Risa’s mom working desperately to keep the elderly people trapped with her alive.  All this time Risa was in Tokyo, not knowing whether her family members had survived – in fact, it took a full week for her to reestablish contact with her mom. 
It was amazing and sobering to hear Risa’s mother recount this story – that ended with a successful rescue and her being interviewed by the BBC about the event.  While Risa’s mother and grandmother and neighbors survived, many in the area did not; over 20,000 people perished in the tsunami, including four of Risa’s relatives.  The library where Risa’s mother worked was destroyed, so she has relocated to Tokyo where she now lives with Risa and has found work in another library.
Risa's mother, Makosa-sama, serves Risa and Pat a Japanese breakfast
Risa’s mother spoke eloquently, if quietly, about how this experience has caused her to reevaluate her life, and what gives her meaning.  She tells of how she initially thought they would all die in the tsunami, but then she decided stubbornly that she would not die at this moment, and turned her attention to keeping the elderly people alive.  Pat and I just listened quietly as she told us this amazing story of courage and determination.
Traditional Japanese bedroom with futons on straw mat floor
And then it was time for bed – our first night in a traditional Japanese home!  Out came the floor futons and bedding and Pat and I had one of the two main rooms to ourselves.  We slept soundly that night, grateful for a reunion with Risa, and the survival of her mother and grandmother. 

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