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Monday, March 18, 2019

Exploring Japan Vol. 20 - Miyajima

This week we'll wrap up the part of our trip that took us south of Tokyo.  When I lived in Iwakuni, there were two places easily accessible by train.  The best was Hiroshima, with its modern ginza and professional baseball team.  The other was no slouch though.  It was the island of Itsukushima and the small town of Miyajima.

Funny enough, Miyajima technically doesn't exist anymore.  It was annexed by the city of Hatsukaichi in 2005, however people still refer to it by the old name.  It sits 20 minutes outside of Hiroshima by train, however that only gets you to the ferry station.  A ten minute ferry ride puts you at the dock and immediately you're beset by roving deer.

At first, you'll think they're fantastic but if you sit back and watch them awhile, you'll see their mercenary tactics at work.  They travel in packs of two or three and while one distracts people by acting cute, the others start eating anything they can get hold of. In this case, even Karen's shirt.

One of my favorite things about this trip was watching a woman get ambushed from behind by a deer who walked away with most of an ice cream cone.  She had her attention on the one in front of her and before she knew it, the one in back of her had bitten the top off her cone.

The town of Miyajima is known for a few things beside aggressive deer.  First, and most impressive, is their giant torii.  

It sits in the water at high tide, but when the water moves out, you can walk right down to the base.  In fact, you'll find locals digging for clams, crabs and other fresh seafood.  

It's a truly amazing structure and once you get close to it, the sheer size of the trees the builders used will floor you.  


The second awesome sight is the floating Buddhist temple.  It doesn't really float, however when the tide is in, it sits directly over the water.  

The third thing they're known for is not a sight at all.  It's a taste.  Miyajima is the place to get the best bean cakes in all of Japan (in my humble opinion).  These are fresh sponge cakes that are filled with sweet red bean paste. 

If you don't like red bean paste, don't worry.  There are at least ten different flavors that range from chocolate and vanilla to banana and berry flavors.  There are multiple stores along the route that all make these fresh and many have their own proprietary flavors so be sure to shop around.  They are well worth your yen.  You can even pick up special Kit Kat flavors that are specific to Miyajima.

If you follow the main path through town, you'll find yourself walking in a beautiful wooded area.  It will take you over bridges and by Shinto shrines that are nestled back among the trees.  

It makes for a gorgeous hike but if you're not in the mood, you can catch a bus up to the cable car at the end of the path. 

For a small fee, you can take that up to a point on Mt. Misen where you'll get fabulous views of the inland sea and the small islands that dot it.  

It's from this point you can also find the trail up to the temple that houses the eternal flame I wrote about in the second post of this series.  If you're really ambitious, you can continue on from there and hike all the way to the top of the mountain.  

The only thing you need to be aware of is that the ferry does stop running relatively early, so if you're not off the mountain on time, you'll be finding a place to stay on the island.

Karen and Lil had a mixed response to visiting Miyajima.  While they liked the town and the deer, they didn't like hiking in the heat and humidity.  The selfie above was taken to show me just how much they hated trying to get to the eternal fire temple.  They turned back about a quarter mile from the temple itself and snapped this about ten minutes after they left me.  They snapped another that included a hand gesture but I'm trying to keep this blog semi-PC.  

Still, I can't help but recommend visiting the island AND making the hike.  It's one of my favorite places in all of Japan and ranks a solid number two in my top three most beautiful and peaceful places to visit. Number one would be the mountain trail I wrote about in the Iwakuni post and number three would be Meiji Shrine in Tokyo.

Next week, we'll finally talk about sumo, because I feel obligated and a few people have asked about it.  

See you then!

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Forgotten Horror Gems Vol. 7 - I Drink Your Blood (1971)

We are seven films into a list of movies that I have somehow managed to miss over my 50 years on this planet.  We've seen some okay ones and some terrible ones, but I have to tell you that nothing prepared me for the absolute awesomeness of this one.

I Drink Your Blood (1971) is exploitation horror at its finest.  We'll get to that in a moment.  First, I have to tell you that Lilith sat this one out.  To be perfectly frank, I know she's not a fan of gore so Karen and I watched it while she was out of the house.  That said, the first scene alone was almost enough for us to wait for her to get back.  There is nothing I'd love to hear more than a 16-year-old making snarky comments about a bunch of naked hippy devil worshipers reciting dialogue so pretentious that suppressing giggles was nigh impossible.

That said, I took the responsible adult route and Karen and I soldiered on alone.

So, what makes this movie so good?  Let me count the ways!

The story involves a bunch of Satan worshipers who descend on a small town.  First, they brutalize a local teen girl.  When her grandfather goes to get revenge, they beat him up and force feed him acid.  Now, here's where you expect some Billy Jack character to come in and kick ass, right? 

Wrong!  Instead, a twelve-year-old boy, the grandson of the man who got dosed, decides to take  revenge.  He kills a rabid dog and then extracts blood from the animal and puts it in the Satan worshipers' food.  

They, of course, go insane and start killing each other and anyone else they come across.  Body parts are lopped off, blood flies everywhere, organs fall out of wounds... it's just awesome!  Soon the sickness begins to spread beyond the devil cult and into the people of the surrounding area.

Why is this "exploitation"?  Well, this movie rode into theaters as the Manson murder trial had captured American imaginations.  Nothing was scarier than hippies.  Sure they'd smile to your face and talk about peace and love, but then they'd take those mind altering drugs and who knows what they'd do.  Right?  Seen through the eyes of the time, this movie is definitely frightening.

Now, the acting isn't the best.  I'd say everyone is trying hard but only about half of them are really pulling it off.  Lucky for us, those who do pull their acting weight include most of the devil worshipers, the boy, his grandfather and his sister.  

Acting aside, there's one huge thing I have to complain about.

The soundtrack.

It is almost entirely made up of obnoxious, irritating noises.  Karen described it as taking a recording of a battery operated toy ray gun, looping that on itself and cranking it higher and higher depending on the amount of tension they were trying to portray.

It's pretty wretched.  Still, it's not worth skipping this one over.  You could do a lot worse than spending an hour and a half watching a bunch of rabid hippies lay waste to a small town.

I highly recommend this one and consider it the first movie of this whole experiment that is a clear-cut winner!  It's gross and low budget, but still... a winner.  You can actually find the entire movie for free on YouTube:

Next week, we'll delve into something a bit more classy... not a lot more though.  We have an image to keep around here.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Exploring Japan Vol. 19 - Hiroshima

As I mentioned last week, our first trip to Japan as a family involved a four day excursion down to my old stomping grounds in Iwakuni.  Iwakuni itself is a small city and there’s not a lot there for tourists besides the Kikkou Park area. That’s one of the reasons we opted to stay in Hiroshima and branch out from there.

The other reason is that Hiroshima has, as you probably know, a remarkable and tragic history of its own.  If you are going to travel to this part of Japan, you owe it to yourself to visit even though it will be a sobering experience in some respects.  When I lived in Iwakuni, I would make the trip down to Hiroshima about twice a year. Once was always to attend a Hiroshima Carps game (especially when ex-Atlanta Brave Bob Horner would come to town with the Yakult Swallows) and again around Christmas time in order to shop at some of the stores in the local ginza.

The main draw for most visitors though is Peace Park.  This is ground zero for the first atomic bomb detonated in a wartime engagement. The park itself houses The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. It’s an amazing journey that takes you through pre-war Hiroshima, the dropping of the bomb, the aftermath and the eventual recovery.  This is the kind of place that puts everything into a perspective that you may not have heard before, while at the same time goes to great pains to be fair in the telling. You’ll see artifacts that will haunt you for the rest of your life, but I still say it’s important that you go.  It’s the kind of thing that puts an abstract idea like “atomic explosion” into a very real and tangible thing that you can easily wrap your mind around.

I did not take any photos inside the museum as it just didn’t feel right.  
After the visit, we walked around the park on a fittingly gray and rainy day.  There are markers showing exactly where ground zero was. There is the eternal flame which (if you recall from an earlier post) was lit from the fire that’s been burning for 1,200 years on Mt. Misen. There are memorials to the children who lost their lives here. These have large chains of paper cranes on display.

One of the most fascinating, and again sobering, things in Peace Park is the A-Bomb Dome.

It's the remains of what used to be a government building and is the only structure still left standing from the time of the atomic blast. At the time, it was one of the few buildings in the area with a metal framework and it sat very close to the center of the blast.

It was kept intact as a memorial to the 70,000 people who lost their lives in the detonation as well as the tens of thousands who died from radiation related illnesses after.

After touring the museum and spending a couple of hours wandering the area, we were ready to lighten things up a bit. Here’s where I decided to try to find my way back to the ginza I used to frequent thirty years ago. To my wife and daughter’s surprise, I led us right to it.  

To be honest, I was kind of surprised myself. There wasn’t much to point out here, other than it’s a fine place to grab a quick meal.  There is also a department store on one end that has a Tower Records at the top if you’re into that sort of thing.  I am but I'm more inclined to hit up the second hand stores than a Tower.

The locals absolutely love their baseball team, and I used to love watching them also, so I was happy to see that Vans has struck a deal with the Hiroshima Carps to provide Carps branded shoes. Of course, even their largest size wouldn't fit my giant feet.  

I also passed on buying the Carps branded katsu mix.

I just grabbed a hat instead.

For the next two days, we found ourselves coming back to the ginza each night to eat after our day excursions.  We searched every nook and cranny of it for things to do, but to be honest, there wasn’t a lot except for people watching.  

If you’re into that sort of thing, then head to the McDonald’s, get something small (to justify your seat) and go upstairs to the window. There you’ll get a view of everyone wandering the ginza and your daughter can start obsessing over strange Japanese boys who seem to be cosplaying.

Next week, I’ll wrap up the southern jaunt by showing you a little more of Miyajima.  

See you then!

Thursday, March 7, 2019


For those of you who don’t know me personally or are newcomers to the blog,
this will be the first time you’re hearing about the mysterious thing
called Fest.  For those who have heard of it, bear with me while I recap
some things. Approximately 28 years ago, a group of friends in Boston
got together on a cold winter day to watch some movies.  It wasn’t just
any get together though. Two members of the group, Mike Carvalho and
Lynn Mason were (and are) movie hounds. They love seeking out the old,
the strange, the foreign and sometimes the forgotten when it comes to
cinema and they curated a list of films to show that would stretch an
entire 24 hours.

I’m not sure of the size of the first crowd but I have heard at least five
people say they were there. By all accounts it was interesting, but didn’t
go exactly the way they wanted it to go. In fact, that would have been
the only time they held it if not for Lynn bugging the absolute shit out
of Mike two years later saying that they HAD to try it again.  This time
they made some rule changes. The starting time was moved to early evening
on Friday. They scheduled breaks a little better and figured out ideal
running times for the movies they showed.

That was the beginning of the yearly tradition that is the 24 Hour Film
Fest.  I’ve had the pleasure of attending nine of them and when I say
pleasure, that’s not me being sarcastic.  I absolutely love “Fest”.

Last weekend, I attended number Fest 27.  It was one of (if not the) best
I’ve attended.  This year’s line up included an early talkie, an Indian
horror/fantasy film, a Japanese zombie film/comedy that was one of the
most creative things I’ve ever seen and nine more that I would recommend
to almost anyone.  Since we tend to talk about movies on this blog a bit,
I thought I’d run down some of my favorites from this year’s lineup. You
could do a lot worse than to seek these out!

First up, the crowd favorite, was the Japanese produced One Cut For The
Dead.  This one is going to be a bit hard to find due to a screwup by
Amazon who illegally listed it as a streaming title for a short period
before pulling it down.  This brought up massive piracy issues and a true
authorized U.S. release is not currently in the works. However, you can
find a UK release and it’s well worth getting.  The premise is a director
is tasked with shooting a livestream zombie film in one take. I don’t
want to explain things further because half the fun of this film is seeing
exactly what they’ve done.  Let’s just say that the zombie parts are scary
and the comedy parts are laugh out loud funny.

Another favorite of mine was the 1930 production of Moby Dick starring
John Barrymore. Now, if you are an author or just a well read lover of the
classics, I feel you need to see this one.  The writers and director had
no intention of making a true adaptation of Moby Dick. Instead, they made
a love story where Captain Ahab is a loveable drunk who falls in love with
a woman in port and does his best to clean up and woo her.  Sure, there’s
a white whale (well, a black whale with a white patch on its back).
There’s also Ahab himself and Queequeg. Other than that though, there’s
not another reference from the source material that I could spot. It’s
well made for the time, but just hilarious to watch for the way they
butchered the novel. There isn't any YouTube link to this one. Sorry.

If you want to see a majestic, insanely cool fantasy story, then check
out Tumbaad.  This is streaming on Amazon Prime and tells the story of a
cursed treasure in the heart of a castle in India and the young boy who
figures out the secret of how to get it.  The film then follows him through
his life as he exploits the source of the treasure again and again with
semi-disastrous consequences. It’s got old witches, demons, adventure
and lots and lots of rain.  I highly, highly recommend this one.

Speaking of witches and demons and foreign films, you should definitely
check out Livid.  It’s a beautifully creepy French film that tells the
story of a young hospice nurse who is learning her new route. She finds
that a wealthy old woman on her deathbed is on her route, she and her
boyfriend decide to rip off the mansion.  Obviously, things don’t go as
planned. It’s a fantastic film and will be one of the first that I watch
a second time.

The last one that I want to recommend was one I didn’t expect to love as
much as I do.  It’s a comedy from the 1980’s called Nice Girls Don’t
Explode. It’s about a young girl who’s special fire starting powers seem
to come forward only when she’s excited.  This becomes a problem as she’s
hit puberty and wants to start dating. There are some great laugh out
loud moments throughout and it’s a shame this didn’t get a bigger
following at the time.  

The full lineup is below and to be honest, except for Rock and Roll
Nightmare which is fun to watch with a crowd just so you can make fun of
it, all of the rest I would recommend in a heartbeat.  

Rock and Roll Nightmare
One Cut for the Dead
Moby Dick
Deadly Eyes
Dark House
Tourist Trap
Would You Rather?
The Evil Within
Race With The Devil
Nice Girls Don't Explode

Fest is truly one of the highlights to my year and it’s because everyone
who attends is just so damn fun to watch movies with.  Thanks again to
Mike and Lynn for putting this on every year and special thanks to Karen
Mike’s longsuffering wife) for allowing this insanity to go on.  She
leaves for the weekend each year, but is sure to call us midway through to
loudly call us all “idiots” via speaker phone.

Next week, we’ll get back to the Forgotten Gems columns on Thursdays and
you can look forward to some book updates coming soon.  I can promise you
now, 2019 is going to be a fun, fun year!

Monday, March 4, 2019

Exploring Japan Vol. 18 - Return to Iwakuni

For those of you reading this who are a little older, I have a question. Was there ever a place you lived that you feel helped form the person you became?  If so, was it someplace far from home and family?

If you said yes to both of those questions, then you’ll probably appreciate this post.  There is nowhere I’ve lived that changed me more as a human being than my three years spent in Iwakuni, Japan.  I made friends there I still keep in touch with to this day. I also learned a lot of valuable lessons and made a lot of mistakes.  It was a time that I will never forget but which the years have blurred to the point of romanticizing things a bit.

I’d always told my wife that if given the chance, I’d love to take her to Iwakuni just so she could see where I lived and what life is like there. That said, I never truly thought I’d ever get that chance, so imagine my surprise when we realized that we could make it happen. On our first trip to Japan as a family, we carved out five days for a jaunt via Shinkansen to the Hiroshima area.  

Iwakuni sits about 45 minutes away right up against the inland sea and while we were only in Iwakuni itself for a single day, it was enough. As a family, when we think back on that first trip, every single one of us ranks that day as one of the best we had.

In an earlier post, I mentioned visiting the tea region of Japan.  The day after that trip, we boarded the Shinkansen to Hiroshima. If you’ve never ridden on a bullet train, the best I can describe it is to say it’s like the world’s smoothest flight.  

First, they are ALWAYS on time. In fact, it’s to the minute most days, so don’t dare be late or you will be left. The seats are comfortable and roomy. There is a service that comes through offering beverages and meals.  You can get up and walk around whenever you feel like it and if you have Snapchat, you can take cool photos that use your location tracking on your phone to figure out how fast you’re going.

Yeah, that’s really freakin’ fast.  

The only bad thing is that the further south you go, the more tunnels there are on this route so instead of seeing more of the countryside, many times you only see cement walls or just blackness.  Still, it’s a pleasant ride overall and it’s easy to find yourself lulled to sleep.

Once in Hiroshima, we checked into our hotel and explored a bit.  I’ll go into that and our day trip to Miyajima in a separate post.  The third day there, we took the train down to Iwakuni. Now, when I lived there, it was courtesy of the U.S. Navy.  I was allowed to live off base with my friend Dave Adsit (a Marine) and we got a taste of what life was really like living in Japan.  I would have loved to have visited the base and then wandered outside the gates to find where I’d used to live, however we only had one day.  With time being such a factor, I wanted the girls to see my favorite place to visit in Iwakuni: Kintai Bridge and Iwakuni Castle.

Kintai bridge is a footbridge that crosses the Nishiki River.  It was originally built in 1673 and while parts of it have been washed away from time to time (the last one being 1950), it’s been rebuilt in its original fashion and is a true sight to behold.  

Five arches rise and fall across a line of stone bases. They lead you from a city street into a beautiful park (Kikkou Park) where you can spend an entire day exploring.

We crossed over and wandered through the area where the diving birds are kept.  These birds are used to catch fish and this area was known for this activity back in the days when the bridge was built.  

From there, we took the cable car up to Iwakuni Castle. What sits atop the mountain now is a recreation. The original castle fell centuries ago by an official order in 1615.  

The bridge used to lead to the main gate. The castle recreation houses a museum that shows off artifacts that have been uncovered in the area. You’ll find samurai swords, armor and even bits of the roof from the original castle.  If you go up to the top level, you’ll find telescopes and it was through one of these I was able to see the barracks I used to live in when I first moved to Iwakuni.

I was also able to see the television/radio station I used to work at while I lived there.

I need to give a special shout out to my wife for helping me manipulate the smartphone camera in the telescope lens in order to capture those pictures.

However, the real fun is in wandering the paths around the castle.  On the day we were there, it was windy and you could hear music in the thousands of leaves rustling around you.  

I took the girls to see the old well (which was one of my favorite places to see) and we wandered a little way down the paved mountain path.  It was here that I saw something I didn’t expect to find.

Years ago, I used to ride my bike to Kintai Bridge and then hike a steep path through the woods all the way up the mountain to the castle.  Every map I’d seen recently only showed a wide paved path that one could walk(or drive) up, but there was no sign of the trail I used to take.  

Yet here, right off that paved path, was an obvious trail. There was no sign marking it as the one down to the bottom, but I knew it was the same one.

I bid the girls goodbye and told them I’d meet them at the bottom.  They headed back to the cable car and I started down one of the steepest paths I’ve climbed in years.  However, I was completely alone. There wasn’t any sound around me but the wind in the trees and my own footsteps.  

Only once did I see any wildlife as a snake crossed the path in front of me. I was happy for that rather than catching one hanging from a branch like in this helpful sign tacked to a tree halfway down.

By the time I got to the bottom, I felt more peaceful than I’ve felt in ages.  

The last part of the path leveled out and led through this beautiful tunnel of green before opening up at the entrance to a Shinto Temple.  

I quickly paid my respects and then met the girls in the park. They’d discovered the wading pool and we all sat with our feet in the water and watched the local kids play around us.  

It was a magical day and one I’d love to repeat at some point.  For now, I’ll just feel lucky that I got the chance to do it again this time.

If you find yourself in the Hiroshima area, take a day to visit Iwakuni. Kikkou Park is a treasure and especially so during cherry blossom season.

Next week, we’ll talk a bit more about Hiroshima and how sometimes, my fifty-year-old memory is still sharp as a tack.

See you then!