Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Nagasaki Lantern Festival

February 11, 2006

On February 11, I joined a bus full of Navy folks for a trip to the Lantern Festival in Nagasaki, celebrating the Chinese New Year. Nagasaki is about an hour's drive away, and I ended up meeting a couple of very nice Navy wives on the bus, and enjoyed talking to them about their experiences in Japan. Other friends I'd made during the Indoc class were on the bus as well, so I was much less "alone" than I thought I'd be. Our "tour guide" proceeded to tell us what to see and do while we were at the festival, and handed out little maps. Unfortunately, she was at the front of the bus, and my assigned seat was at the back of the bus, and none of us in the back could hear her. We got her to come back to tell us what had been said, and got the short version ("There may be a parade with the emperor if the weather is good enough. There will be a dragon dance. Don't miss the bus going home.") Unfortunately, she ran out of the maps before she got to my seat. We arrived in Nagasaki at about 3:30pm, and were let off the bus at a Shell gas station, with the admonition to be back at the station by 9pm--otherwise, the trip home would be a $50+ taxi ride! My friends from the Indoc class insisted that I join their group, so off we went, five adults, two 11-year-old boys and one 5-year-old boy.

The weather was cold and grey, with threatening rain, and we huddled together as we dashed across the busy street and made our way over the bridge across the river. The first tourist spot was a recreation of a Dutch port and factory that had once stood there along the river, but no one in our group was particularly interested, so we didn't stay. Then we saw the lanterns. And by lanterns, I don't mean a few, or twenty, or even a hundred. There were lanterns everywhere! And unbelievable crowds--wall to wall people--a sea of dark hair everywhere I looked. The "festival" seemed to encompass three or four long pedestrian shopping arcades, normally open to the sky, but now almost roofed over with strings of glowing red lanterns. The kind of lantern changed slightly at interesections, from round, red pumpkin shapes to long, fat zucchini shapes to little pagoda boxes with curved eaves--but they were everywhere. It was amazing!

Our little group pushed through the crowds, carried along sometimes, separated, then tossed back together by the waves of people. The 5-year-old was less than amused, as his view was entirely bellies and bottoms, most pushed against his little face with the press of the crowd. We squeezed into a few shops thick with customers (yes, I bought a fat red pumpkin of a lamp, with gold characters and a phoenix and flowers painted on it. It's cheap, but I love it!) but mostly we just tried to take it all in. There were food vendors everywhere, mostly selling the fat steamed buns I've described in a previous e-mail, but some selling white, squishy steamed bun bread that was split, with a dripping, mahogany slab of meat stuck into it like a hamburger into a bun. There were yakitori stands with fragrant skewers of meat, and gyoza (dumpling) stands of every possible variety.

One beaming lady was selling good luck sesame balls--little balls of rice paste wrapped around a center of sweet red bean paste, the whole thing coated in sesame seeds and formed into a perfect little sphere. I asked if I could take her photo, and she almost split her face smiling, as she primped and touched up her hair and pinched her cheeks to make them pink for the photo.

There were several people selling good luck trinkets--bits of carved jade, special pieces of silk cord tied in intricate knots--all of them looked a little like bookmarks to me, and I am not quite sure what people actually do with these good luck bits once they buy them. I don't think there is a New Year's tree to decorate, and I don't see these things dangling from handbags or jacket zippers or bicycle handlebars...so I'm curious!

The crowds were so intense, I felt as if I could have drawn up my feet, and been carried along by the press of the people all around me! I had some great smiling moments though...my favorite was hearing a child giggle in my ear, and turning my head to see a young father walking backwards, his toddler safe in the circle of his arms. Mom was pressed against Dad's front, sandwiching the child between the chests of the two parents, both parents completely focused on the child, both faces totally besotted with love..and behind the little knot of family walked Grandma, with her arms stretched wide, forming a barrier against the crowds so the little family unit could walk relatively unmolested, a little moat of space around them, Dad's back pushing through the crowds like the prow of a ship. I couldn't help but grin at the sight, and Grandma giggled with a sound very similar to the toddler's laugh, winked, and nodded at me--a moment of communication and happiness beyond any language barrier.

A little while later, I got a surprise. The crowd density had grown to a point that we were basically at a standstill. Suddenly, I felt two tiny hands--talons, almost--settle on my hips and begin to push with surprising strength. I felt like a snowplow, as I was shoved against the crowd, clearing a path. I finally was able to twist my head to look behind me--and there was a teeny, stooped old lady with iron grey hair and a very determined expression, shoving for all she was worth. We finally drew even with the shop I guess she wanted to visit, and she let go and went inside without a backward look or even a pat on the rump for her plow mule! It was very disconcerting, and very funny.

At the confluence of several lantern-filled walkways was the Main Event, a shrine of some sort fronting an outdoor square or park, with temporary walls built to enclose the arena inside. On top of the walls of this arena were fantastic animals made of fabric and lit from inside. It was gorgeous! Unfortunately, it was also packed, and there was absolutely no way our little group would be able to get inside. I got a shot of the shrine entrance, and a blurred photo of the crowded entrance to the square, but my pictures of the lit animals didn't come out at all, unfortunately.
We stopped at a yakitori stall to get a bite to eat, and to get out of the cold. In the entrance to a garage, two vendors had set up in partnership (one for yakitori, one for baked potatoes and drinks) and they'd set up some benches and a couple of kerosene heaters in the space behind their stalls. I thought "how kind!" but the true motivation was revealed when the skies opened up and it began to pour cold rain. The proprietors of both stalls welcomed people into their warm, dry area, until we were jammed in like sardines. Then, with big smiles, they rolled out rack upon rack of overpriced, cheap umbrellas...and sold them all in a matter of minutes! What great entrepreneurship!

The yakitori was very good...and the smell was sheer heaven. Sweet, salty, garlicky, all wrapped around the rich aroma of roasting meat. The others in my group played it safe and got either beef or chicken. Not me--I had to be different! So I pointed to skewers of what looked like it might be squid, which I adore. I got the hot, fragrant paper packet and took a bite. Yummmm...garlic, sweet, salty, savory....wait. What?? I hadn't ordered squid. I'd ordered a delicacy enjoyed by many of the elderly in Japan...a skewer composed completely of folded, flabby squares of chicken skin. Yes, chicken skin--not crispy, but flabby and fatty. As good as it smelled, as good as the sauce was, I just couldn't eat two skewers of chicken skin. Luckily, I was able to dispose of the evidence without anyone seeing me, or questioning what I'd purchased. I was so disappointed! But one bad experience among all the good won't stop me from continuing to try all the new and different and wonderful things here in Japan!

The rain slacked off a little, and our little group, now outfitted with umbrellas, wandered the streets for a while longer before ducking into a Starbucks for something hot to drink (NOT my choice, but I was outvoted) before meeting the bus. Yes, it was rainy and cold, and I ate chicken skin. Yes, my feet hurt, and I wished I hadn't allowed myself to be roped into joining a large group. But was I glad I'd gone? YES! It was a wonderful experience, and I can't wait for next year. I may go by myself, I may go with friends. But I'm definitely going again! (Hopefully, with FH!)

A Little About Life at Sea

March 2, 2006

Here is a little from FH...I asked him to tell me about the ship and about his life aboard, so he will be sending bits and pieces to add to my rambling posts.

Walk down the pway (known as a hall in ordinary English) of any ship and you'll see the following: Arcane numbers and letters in enigamatic arrangements on the bulkheads (walls), a wide panolopy of elecrical boxes used for a variety of things, brackets holding everything from a plain wrench to a 4x4 wooden beam to a strecher made out of metal and chicken wire, and clusters of pipes and wires running through the overhead (ceiling) to their destinations.

Every fifty feet or so a door blocks the hall which latches that easily com down to make a watertight seal. Each of the doorways is a oval that rises above the floor, guarenteed to bang the ankle of the unwary. Some lucky doorways known as kneeknockers come up a little higher. Every ten feet a smaller door leads into a space (room) to handle one of the many things needed to run a ship. These doors are also sealable and have locks. In fact the only ordinary doors on the ship are the head (oops I mean toilet) doors.

There is nothing pretty about the way Navy builds its passageways. Things need to be accessable at a moments notice. Instead of pretty, we go for clean. Clean is defined as a fresh coat of paint without any dirt or dust on it. The bulkheads are often painted white and blue, while the overheads are painted over with grey...and by that I mean everything is painted including the wires and pipes. Every day for an hour in the morning and a hour in the afternoon people are sent out to clean up, sweeping up the accumulation of dirt on the floor and wiping down every single horizontal surface, polishing the brass and sandpapering the steel.