Son of a Bakufu!

Trip Start Aug 04, 2009
Trip End Aug 30, 2010

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Flag of Japan  , Kyushu-Okinawa,
Monday, April 12, 2010

In high school, shortly after I discovered 99 cent Kung Fu rentals at Odyssey Video down the street, I started watching some of their anime collection as well.  Not a lot, maybe half a dozen of the bigger named movies: Akira (good, but still overrated), Ghost in the Shell (The Matrix before there was The Matrix), Vampire Hunder D (meh), Fist of the North Star (utter, utter crap), etc.

Apart from the few shows I'd come across on TV when I was little - Robotech, Mazinger Z, both pretty sweet in their own way - I didn't really like anime TV series.  They just tended to sprawl for too long with interminable dialogue and lower animation quality (I despised Dragonball as the exemplar of this cynically profit-maximizing strategy).

The one exception to the rule was Speed Racer, whose mindless formulaic episodes, dispensing with even the pretense of a serial narrative structure, were perfectly suited for mindlessly bored midnight MTV channel surfing.

Anyway, all that changed my freshman year at Brown when Lawrence and I came across the Anime club showing Rurouni Kenshin, which simply featured enough ass-kicking fight sequences to make up for the occasional lapses into cringe-inducing dialogue and narrative foot-dragging.  Telling the story of a ronin (masterless, landless swordsman) who fights with a sakabatou (sword with sharp edge on reverse side to avoid killing) in wake of the Bakumatsuu (overthrow of the Tokugawa Shogunate).  The show pretty much accounted for everything I knew about the Meiji Revolution (which was basically ... that it happened).

My original idea for Japan was framed by meeting the wanting to be in Tokyo early in the month to catch up with Sundeep, Chiemi and Akiko, and at the end of the month to have a big party for my birthday with all my other friends out there right before heading out for Korea (where I'd have yet another celebration with my mom and relatives).

That left a gap of nearly 2 weeks in the middle, which I initially intended to plug with a visit to Hokkaido to meet my old flatmate Marika.  But given how cold Tokyo was - I was spending ridiculous amounts of time at Attila's blogging huddled under a blanket - I figured anywhere that the snow was still melting was out of the question.  Then I considered Okinawa, where maybe I could train at Master Nagayama's old dojo.  That plan received a body blow when I got an email back that they didn't know the address, and was totally KO'd when the so-called discount airline to Okinawa charged twice as much as expected because all flights stop in one of 4 airports in Kyushu (the southernmost main island of Japan).

Fortunately, a Plan C presented itself when I spoke with Colin about my predicament, who had ample suggestions on things to do in Kyushu - starting in Kagoshima and then looping around to Ibaraki, Beppu, Aso, and so on - to fill in my time before heading back to Tokyo.

So packing my bag and switching back into backpacker mode, I hopped a quick flight from Tokyo Haneda to Kagoshima, where I settled into Little Asia guesthouse (pro: good, inexpensive home-cooked dinners; con: no air circulation in the crowded dorm room).  There I met Kim and Tan, who were halfway through a 3 month trip through Japan before starting university this summer back home in Singapore.

Having spent 6 weeks already traversing what may be the most expensive country I've visited yet (and without the benefit of friends to crash wiith), they had some handy tips to offer, from god, cheap eats (Sukiya: tops Yoshinoya hands down) to crashing (internet cafes: most have packages for cubes with comfy seats that recline all the way and offer free drinks, sometimes even food for under $20 a night).

Aside from being generally cool to hang out with, it was fun to hear their Singaporean accent which was so reminiscent of Wei Ling and Benety from my freshman year dorm.

Anyway, we spent a day exploring Kagoshima in the drizzly rain, first on the tour bus that offered a great view of clouds where the Sakurajima mountain allegedly looms over the city from across the water, followed by a wander through the covered arcade, alternating between eating, videogame gawking (I won a game of 2-handed air hockey), more eating, and checking out a hobbyist shop that was stacked floor to ceiling full of model sets of planes and anime mecha (and one Chocobo).

Our last stop was to the museum of the Meiji Revolution, which would have plugged the gaps in my knowledge were 90% of the exhibitions not entirely Japanese.  There were some cool big-assed coats we tried on, and the animatronic show at the centerpiece of the museum had an English audio track, but I was too distracted by its eerie reminiscence to the old America Sings ride at Disneyland to actually absorb much.

Several hours of obsessive Wikipedia scouring later, I was caught up on my Meiji history.  Apparently Kagoshima was instrumental in the overthrow of the Bakufu, contributing 2 of the 3 men who led the revolution and ruled in the aftermath (for reasons that elude me, Saigo Takamori got the lion's share of the attention from the exhibition, perhaps because he was built like a brick shithouse while Okubo Toshimichi had this poofy forest-faced moustache/beard thing going on).  The prefecture, known then as Satsuma (thus being the original Orange Revolution), allied with its neighbor Choshu at the tip of the main Honshu island, which contributed the third revolutionary leader, whose name I don't remember but did recognize from the Kenshin OVA, at which point a whole lot of expository dialogue that had previously gone over my head made a lot more sense.

Anyway, one little nugget that stuck out was the fact that Saigo eventually got kicked out of triumvirate for insisting on launching an invasion of Korea in order to accelerate the modernization and militarization of Japanese society.  Mind you, the Shimazu clan which had traditionally dominated Satsuma politics were the same ones who invaded and still ruled over Okinawa at the time.

So I'll have an interesting conversation with Master Nagayama about what a prick that Saigo and his clan were next time I see him.

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