Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Pongashi Man

From August, 1973, to June, 1974, I lived in the Eba neighborhood of Hiroshima. Since I generally worked only half-days, I often spent time in the afternoons just walking or biking around the neighborhood, usually with camera in hand. Most of the adults were shy around me, but the kids were, well, kids. Sometimes shy, sometimes rude, sometimes goofy and usually curious about something.

One winter afternoon I heard a commotion and followed the noise around the corner where I came upon a most curious sight. A wizened old man bundled up with a coat, scarf, hat with furry earflaps, and facemask stood next to a peculiar machine on a pushcart surrounded by the neighborhood kids. I had never seen such a contraption before and had no idea what it was all about. The kids were all excited and very attentive, jostling for positions close to the machine.

I didn't want to distract the man or the kids, but I had to find out what was going on. One of the older children told me it was the pongashi man and that it was very good. That wasn't much help since the word pongashi  [ポン菓子] was not familar, so I proceeded to watch. The soot-covered contraption began to spew smoke and steam and, before long, a loud POP, loud enough to scare at least one little girl.

Pretty soon the kids were handing small coins to the man in return for little containers of popped rice. Yes, pongashi is kind of like Rice Krispies or popcorn, only instead of salt and butter, it is coated with a sweet goo, more like kettle corn.  On second look, the contraption did look something like a popcorn machine, only mounted on a wheeled cart and looking like it never got cleaned.

The kids obviously loved the pongashi. I could barely remember being so excited over something so simple. Now I assume the Pongashi Man has gone the way of the Fuller Brush Man. What a loss.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Traveling Japan 1973-74

Sunset and Reeds

In 1973-74 while living in Hiroshima, I traveled widely throughout the four main islands of Japan: Kyushu, Honshu, Shikoku and Hokkaido. The following images are mostly landscapes and beauty spots, ranging from formal Japanese gardens to seaside hamlets on the Japan Sea coast. Other posts will focus on people and places of specific interest.

Shukkei-en Garden, Hiroshima

Feeding Koi at Shukkei-en

Shukkei-en is a beautiful stroll garden, originally built by Lord Asano in the 17th century in what is now central Hiroshima, very near the reconstructed Hiroshima Castle and ground zero. The garden, too, had to be reconstructed after the atomic bombing. Nearby Miyajima is best known for the large torii gate situated in the water before Itsukushima Shrine, but it has a number of other beautiful spots. I have visited the island on many occasions and especially enjoyed its quieter, less visited locations.

Perched above Miyajima
View of a misty Miyajima

Akiyoshidai Cavern is located in Yamaguchi Prefecture, not too far from Hiroshima. Inside it was dark, as you might imagine, but the entrance/exit is quite spectacular.

A fellow former student in one of my Japanese language classes was a Catholic priest in Tokushima on the island of Shikoku. On a visit with him, we toured one of the great daimyo stroll gardens of Japan: Ritsurin Park in Takamatsu. It dates back to the 18th century when it was the private garden of the Matsudaira family. Now it is a 130-acre public park enjoyed by thousands of people on a beautiful day.

Kikugetsu-tei Summer Pavilion, Ritsurin Park

Young couple, Ritsurin

a modern day hermit, Ritsurin

Lotus Pond

As I made my way south and west along the Japan Sea Coast, I spent a day hiking by myself on the Noto Peninsula in Ishikawa Prefecture where I came upon this isolated hamlet, gorgeous rocky coastline, and seaside rice field.

Noto Peninsula coast

Seaside rice field, spring, Noto Peninsula

Mt. Aso in Kumamoto Prefecture on the island of Kyushu, while little known outside Japan, is actually one of the world's largest volcanoes with a rim some 75 miles in diameter. The central active peak, Nakadake, continues to spew steam and smoke.

Overlooking Mt. Aso

Volcanic rock, Mt. Aso
Nakadake, Mt. Aso

Nakadake, Mt. Aso

The northern island of Hokkaido has wide open spaces. Although most of my photos from Hokkaido have disappeared, I love this long row of larch trees.

Among the most beautiful sights to seen in a Japanese autumn is a field of susuki, or miscanthus, in the late afternoon sun.

Rice fields take on vastly different appearances depending on the time of year. Flooded in the spring, with seedlings beginning to develop in early summer, full and ready for harvest in the fall or, as below, after the harvest.

What would a series of travel photos of Japan be without Mt. Fuji?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A Japanese Slum, Hiroshima 1973

While living and working in Hiroshima, Japan, in 1973-74, I had the opportunity to explore the city, often by bicycle. I was fascinated by a slum neighborhood that no one would talk about with me. Located just across the Aioi Bridge to the north of the so-called "Atomic Bomb Dome," it stretched out along the banks of the Ota River in the Motomachi district right in the center of the city. Prior to the atomic bombing, it had been government property, including a military base. Postwar it became a squatters' village. Today the slum has been replaced by a variety of civic buildings and park areas. I do not know what became of the people who once lived there. 

From the October 24, 1973, entry in the journal I kept at the time:

From Peace Park I decided to head over to what I think is the only legitimate slum in Hiroshima.


Mr. Toda [in whose house I was living] explained that the area had been government land into which people moved after the war.  At the time no one could have begrudged anybody's converting unused land into badly-needed shelter.

 However, once established there it became impossible to evict people from their shacks and they remain to this day. 

I was a bit edgy riding my bicycle down the single rock-strewn path in the center of the settlement.


What I saw was an incredible maze of tightly packed, decaying hovels peppered with piles of uncollected trash, drying laundry, assorted bicycles, tricycles and beat-up cars.

There were surprisingly few people about, but no lack of signs of life, if few signs of amenities. Apparently there is no electricity and probably no running water or other such public services.
In one small clearing I spotted an old-fashioned wood-topped kama [pot for cooking rice] perched atop a rusted old can in which a wood fire was burning.

 All in all, the neighborhood is pretty squalid, but full of humanity and deserving of more interest and attention, not only from me, but from the more fortunate citizens of Hiroshima.

From Novice to Black Belt: Ikuei Gakuen Judo Club 1969

Students in Japanese high schools typically join one club which meets and holds activities year-round. I joined the Judo Club in January, 1969, and quickly realized that I would have a difficult time getting myself in shape to keep up with my teammates and an even more difficult time mastering the throws and other techniques. My single advantage was having wrestled in middle and high school. I spent a lot of time learning to fall and hit the mats without injuring myself. These are my journal entries and photos about that experience.

Jan. 23:  My first judo lesson is over and I’ve never felt more beat up in my life. I expected to be sore and tired, but on top of that my shoulders are sore and I’m sure I’ll have a dozen black and blue marks on me tomorrow. All I did was practice falls on the tatami – which is not as soft as a wrestling mat!

Jan. 24     Struggled through another judo practice today. The guys were really fantastic – helping me not only with the falls and throws, but stretching me out and taking care of my shoulders.

Jan. 25      Had a real rough time sleeping last night – every time I squirmed to get comfortable, some part of my body cried out in pain.

Jan. 29     I don’t believe it! Today we got in a little running out in the snow – BAREFOOT. My feet were numb and the others had it worse because they were having a regular practice in the snow while I just ran in place.

Feb. 5     Judo was very discouraging. I still can’t do that first [shoulder]throw (seoi-nage) right, first because I’m a klutz and second because everybody tells me to do it a different way. And the coach is a big help – he laughs at me.

Feb. 9     Got up much too early to go to Furukawa for the judo matches. Only 3 weight classes so only 3 Ikuei boys competed and none of them did real well. One lost to the eventual champion in the quarterfinals. I still don’t really understand how you win a judo match, but it was fun to watch for a while. Meanwhile, I caught a miserable cold sitting there in that freezing gym for five hours.

Feb. 21     At judo I felt like I was getting tough. I kept up with everybody on most of the exercises except pushups. Not too tough!

Mar. 29    Packed up and moved to Ikuei for the gasshuku (sleep-over training camp) and started practicing judo. Found I couldn’t even finish one serving of the meals while even the little guys had two. Sacked out after lunch until afternoon practice which was a killer, too. Had my first match – a short one with Akama - I won!! Couldn’t finish dinner again.

Mar. 30    Up at 6 a.m. for some running and exercises. Then breakfast of a can of mackerel and rice. Yummy! Another killer practice in the morning and another lunch I couldn’t finish, then another blissful rest before afternoon practice. I made it thru dinner tonight and again walked up to the public bath and scalded myself.

Mar. 31    6 a.m. again and some running, distance jogs, hill climbs, sprints, etc. It kind of felt good to do some regular running again. After breakfast I decided I definitely was through with the gasshuku, tho. To be honest, I couldn’t take it. I feel bad about being such a pussy, but I could hardly walk on my damn infected foot.

(Apparently, my foot became infected from a combination of running barefoot on snow and ice and repetitive kicking of hard objects to toughen up the foot.)

April 10   Wow! I’m a judo senpai (senior status) now! I feel pretty much at home with the judo guys and when the new kids come, I’ll probably feel like an old-timer. Got my name put up in the club room – now I’m legit.
(The Japanese school year begins in April and runs through March)

May 3   Took my big test for black belt in judo today and, wonder of wonders, I won both times! So I guess I’ll get the black belt.
(My wrestling experience helped a great deal, as I won both matches essentially by holding my opponent on the mats after countering his attempted throws.)

May 6   At judo I got my official initiation as a black belt – Suzuki choked me till I passed out. It wasn’t too bad and I felt tough after it.
(To this day, I get extremely uncomfortable when anyone puts hands on my throat.)