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Sunday, December 9, 2018

Tragically Hip Travel

Artwork on the walls at the National Go Center in Washington, D.C. My daughter took part in the Winter Warmer Tournament held there on Saturday (yesterday). 

Regular readers of this blog (all two or three of you) will know that I occasionally post rants trenchant observations related to Taiwan (or to be more specific, a certain type of Western expat living there). On the other hand, as an admitted Japanophile, I don't usually carp on matters related to Nippon. However, this time I will. I often peruse the Japan (and Taiwan) threads on Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree forum, dishing out unsolicited advice as needed culled from decades of experience and wisdom. In recent months I've noticed more and more commenters using the pejorative adjective "touristy", without ever defining what the word means. The city of Takayama 高山, in particular, seems to have been singled out with this dreaded hipster condemnation. Granted, it's been a while since I've been there (circa winter 2004), but I don't recall anything out of the ordinary from any other locale in Japan that is popular with sightseers. But on Thorn Tree it isn't uncommon to read of complaints that tourists outnumber visitors there, for example, even though I'm hard pressed to think of any well-known city, town or village in Japan where that isn't the case - Kyōto 京都 gets a whopping 50 million visitors a year, yet posters on Thorn Tree are never advised to give the city a miss because, you know, it's too "touristy". But maybe Japan's imperial capital is the exception.

The Cherry Hill Farmhouse, which I checked out six years ago

To me, the word "touristy" conjures up an image of a place or attraction created solely for the purposes of attracting tourist cash. Takayama, for example, has a long history as a castle town, with one section of the city containing a number of well-preserved old buildings. In addition, the city is also host to a couple of famous annual festivals. So it's understandable why many people want to visit there. On the other hand, there is Mojikō Retro 門司港レトロ in Kitakyūshū 北九州. While there are some historic buildings from the Meiji 明治時代 and Taishō 大正時代 periods, it only became a tourist destination from the mid-1990's, when the waterfront was redeveloped to include a hotel (where we stayed last December), a cute drawbridge and lots of shops. That isn't to say you shouldn't visit Mojiko Retro (we liked it), but it isn't as authentically historic as, say, poor old Takayama. Hearing "touristy" used so derisively also suggests a place where people go mainly to eat, shop or buy souvenirs, with some artificial "sights" created to give them something to see while spending their hard-earned yen, dollars, euros, NT etc. Again, Takayama doesn't really fit that definition.

Halloween casualties

But after reading a lot of these comments on the Thorn Tree pages (with Nikkō 日光, Nara 奈良 and other well-known spots being similarly labeled), it became clear that "touristy" really means "too many tourists from Western countries". Many people don't seem to mind if a spot is crowded with locals - "Ise's 伊勢 very touristy, but mostly with Japanese tourists, giving it a different feel from somewhere like (you guessed it) Takayama" was one comment that stood out for its honesty. The corollary is "off the beaten path", as in "very few visitors from Western countries", even though places such as Hagi 萩 or Matsue 松江, to give but two examples, are hardly unknown to Japanese vacationers (or your humble scribe - see my blog entries from January of this year and June 2008, respectively, for example).

The Gage House, built in 1909

So would-be travelers to Japan from Western countries seek advice on avoiding places in Japan where they might see too many people like themselves, and hope to visit areas where there aren't many people who look like them. But what should they expect? Tourism to Japan has boomed in recent years (almost 27 million visitors in 2017), meaning these folks are just wanting to jump on a bandwagon that shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. They want to go to Japan, too, but at the same time avoid places where too many Western-looking faces will interfere with their Instagram photo ops of the fantasy Japanese world that they've conjured up from too many anime アニメ episodes, coffee table books, tourist brochures and YouTube videos. Never mind the fact that, depending on where they go, many of the Asian tourists they will see there are likely not to be Japanese - after all, Japan is also very popular with visitors from China, South Korea, Taiwan and southeast Asia. But, hey, as long as they're not white, so what, right? We live in the era of the hipster, where every experience has to be an "authentic" one.

A creepy bit of local history I was unaware of until I walked by this afternoon

Now if anyone has a right to complain about sites being too "touristy", and to yearn to get "off the beaten path", it's me. After all, I have nearly 30 years of living, visiting and/or working in Japan under my belt, along with a solid background in Japanese art, culture and history appreciation, plus a working proficiency in the language (I'm also humble, modest and unassuming). There are certainly a lot more gaijin 外人 (Asian, Australian, European and North American) in the country than there used to be, especially in those areas that are "off the beaten path" (though there were still times in recent years when I would go days without seeing another Westerner), so it would be understandable for an old geezer like myself to gripe about the "foreigners" overrunning the sights I want to have to myself see. But I don't mind. In the same way that a Japanese tourist can put the blinders on and ignore the factory smokestack just to the side of the historic pagoda, I can overlook the excitable American or Chinese tourist who can't get enough of the temples or old wooden houses. They have just as much right to travel to Japan and spend their tourist yen as I have. And as long as people are courteous and respectful (no pulling flowers in full bloom off of cherry trees or harassing the geisha 芸者 in Kyoto's Pontochō 先斗町 district, for example), what is the problem?

Felt kinda Okinawan for dinner on Sunday evening - Okinawa Soba and Orion Beer オリオンビール at Maneki Neko 

So my advice to the posters on Thorn Tree is simple - do some research, decide on places that look interesting to you, and then go. Don't worry about things being "touristy" or whether or not you are on or off "the beaten path". After all, Japan was "discovered" a long time ago, long before there were maid cafes in Akihabara 秋葉原. Even way back in January 1989, when I first arrived in Japan (three weeks after the death of Emperor Hirohito 昭和天皇), I was considered a later arrival to the party. So remember this before you go: should you succeed in getting "off the beaten path", the locals aren't likely to get too excited about your presence there because there's a good chance that a lot of foreigners (including myself!) were there well before you (perhaps before you were even born). Have a good trip!

Broad Street getting into the festive seasonal mood

Sunday, December 2, 2018

From American Presidents to Tibetan Buddhists: A Soggy Saturday in D.C.

Shimomura Crossing the Delaware, in which artist Roger Shimomura presents himself as George Washington, and replaces Washington's colonial soldiers with samurai warriors. At the National Portrait Gallery 

This rant comes a bit late, as Taiwan's "nine-in-one" elections took place last weekend, but at that time I was more interested in posting about our Thanksgiving break trip to Philadelphia than in venting about things Taiwanese. Last Saturday's vote tallies showed the Kuomintang 中國國民黨 beating up on the Democratic Progressive Party 民主進步黨, capturing 15 of the 22 mayoral contests, in a reversal of the DPP's sweep in the 2016 contest. I don't live in Taiwan these days and so no longer have my finger on the Taiwanese pulse (who am I kidding? I never did!), but it's tiring to read the almost-knee jerk responses in the Western media that the KMT's strong showing reflected the desire of the Taiwanese public for more peaceful relations with China. There's no doubt such considerations do, in fact, play a role in voting booth decisions, but not everything in Taiwan has to do with China. I imagine for most voters it was a desire to send to signal to the DPP that expectations raised back in 2016 have yet to be met; or that it's the economy, stupid; or that all politics, in the end, are local (which candidate will bring home more pork?). Yet from what I've read from the BBC, Reuters, New York Times et al, the only thing that really mattered last Saturday was cross-strait relations.

My daughter enjoying the bright lights of Broad Street in Falls Church

Many of these reports also frequently cast the election as a contest between the "liberal" DPP and the "conservative" KMT, but that's a false dichotomy in Taiwan. The DPP supposedly tilts to the left, but much of its support comes from rural voters in the southern Taiwanese heartland, who aren't exactly known for their progressive ideals. More about that in a moment.

They say the Xmas lights are bright on Broad Street

One "reassuring" reflection on Saturday's voting is that the Taiwanese electorate, just like its British and American counterparts, is capable of voting against its best interests, especially when voters get fired up over "important" issues like supposedly irradiated food from Fukushima 福島 or gay marriage. Because as we all know, allowing legal unions between homosexual couples will lead to widespread acts of bestiality and the destruction of the traditional family. To the shock, I tell you, the shock of many long-term expats in Taiwan, the voters decided by large margins that gay people should not be allowed to get married in the same sense that heterosexual couples are able to.

Once a month, our apartment complex allows a food truck to park by the tennis courts and peddle its wares for a few hours. This was the source of our dinner last Thursday

Personally, I was very disappointed but sadly not surprised by the outcome. After all, I lived more years than I care to admit in a semi-rural, semi-industrial township called Shengang 神岡 (now a part of greater Taichung city 台中市); and because my wife is from Xiluo 西螺, I've spent a lot of time in Yunlin County 雲林縣 as well. Being in the heart of Taiwan - with its betel nuts, blue trucks and gangsters - was an ongoing lesson in the inherent conservatism of Taiwanese society. But for the Bubble People© (who I've ranted about on numerous occasions on this forum - see here, here, here and here), the realization that Taiwan isn't as progressive as they thought appears to be difficult to deal with. Remember, the majority of these folks live in or near Taipei 台北, and assume that their relatively cosmopolitan burg is representative of Taiwan as a whole (it isn't, not by a long shot). They tend to associate with relatively cosmopolitan Taiwanese who appear to share the same beliefs (or at least claim to believe in order to avoid unpleasant arguments with foreigners who of course know Taiwan better than the locals), and assume these people are representative of Taiwanese society as a whole (they aren't). So it must've been a nasty surprise to discover that many Taiwanese people aren't quite ready yet to embrace the 21st century when it comes to certain 21st century ideals, and that Taiwan isn't quite yet the progressive island in an Asian sea that they imagined it to be.

A kalbi bibimbap lunch at Rice Bar on G Street in Washington 

But to give credit where it's due, Taiwan has been at the progressive forefront in Asia on this issue, as when the Council of Grand Justices 大法官會議 ruled in May 2017 that the Legislative Yuan 立法院 had two years in which to enact laws legally recognizing same sex marriage. Gay couples will eventually have their partnerships officially recognized in some capacity; the question is whether that recognition will take the form of marriages, or some other sort of legal union. And on the political front, there's still time for the DPP to learn from last weekend's debacle and not shoot itself in the foot (again) when the next elections come around in 2020. For the Taiwannabes® in Taipei, I'm sure the shock will soon wear off, and they will retreat back into their comfortable dens, at least until the next unpleasant experience threatens to shake up their world again (ROC citizenship, anyone?). It turns out some bubbles are surprisingly durable.

I was feeling sorry for this homeless person having to sleep out in the open on a cold, rainy December morning, before I realized it was a work of art called Homeless Jesus by Tim Schmalz

Yes, it was a cold (4°C/39°F), wet Saturday morning yesterday as Amber and I made our way into D.C. to the National Portrait Gallery:

 Vaquero by Luis Jiménez

We had previously visited back in the summer of 2012, but there's no reason not to to go to one of the Smithsonian museums again (and again). The impetus for this occasion was a guided tour of the presidential portraits on the second floor organized by the Foreign Service Youth Association. Before going into those rooms, the docent pointed out this painting by Nelson Shanks called The Four Justices. It features the four women who have served on the Supreme Court bench - beginning counterclockwise from the bottom Sandra Day O'Connor (retired), Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan:

Naturally, we began with the first President, George Washington, and the most famous portrait of the Father of Our Country, the Lansdowne portrait painted by Gilbert Stuart in 1796. The original was purchased by the National Portrait Gallery in 2001 for $2 million:

This rendition was done in 1795 by Rembrandt Peale:

The basis for this 1786 plaster was a life mask made by French sculptor Jean Antoine-Houdon:

John Adams, the second President:

Our third President, Thomas Jefferson, looks a lot better in other depictions than he does in this unflattering portrayal:

Washington may be the country's father, but James Madison (President number four) is rightly considered the Father of the Constitution:

Andrew Jackson, the seventh President, was once held in high regard for being the first "common man" in the White House, but his stock has fallen considerably in recent decades (as the docent pointed out, he's probably not the favorite president of Native Americans). Efforts are underway to have his image on the $20 bill replaced with that of Harriet Tubman:

The 11th President, James K. Polk, went to war with Mexico and came away with essentially what is today's American southwest:

The 13th President didn't accomplish much, but my daughter wondered why anyone would name their child Millard:

The famed cracked-glass photograph of Lincoln, taken by Alexander Gardner in February 1865, about two months before his assassination:

The mask of Lincoln second from the left is not a death mask but was actually done while the president was still alive, in February 1865. It shows the strain the Civil War had taken on Lincoln's appearance:

The 18th President Ulysses S. Grant. As a president, Grant was an excellent Civil War general. Regarding his alcoholism, when it was suggested to Lincoln that he fire Grant, the president replied that it would be better to learn what the general was drinking so that the other Union generals could fight the war as well as Grant was doing:

Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President, looking very bully. Amber commented that he was the only Roosevelt that she was aware of:

The 27th President, William Howard Taft. My daughter knew Taft for one reason: as the president who was so large that he once got stuck in a bathtub:

Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President. He "kept us out out of war", only to involve the United States in the First World War beginning in April 1917:

The docent explains the several pairs of hands in Douglas Chandor's 1945 portrait of the 32nd President, Franklin D. Roosevelt. It was done so that FDR could choose which pair would go into the portrait:

Elaine de Kooning's abstract expressionist portrayal of John F. Kennedy, our 35th President:

The 36th President, Lyndon B. Johnson:

Norman Rockwell apparently made this portrait of Richard Nixon, the 37th President, intentionally flattering because he found Nixon's appearance to be "troublesomely elusive":

The portrait of George H.W. Bush, the 41st President, was draped in black as he had died the previous day (there was also a condolence book for visitors to sign). Sadly, he appears to be the last of an era, as they don't seem to make Republicans like him anymore these days:

Chuck Close's 2006 portrayal of the 42nd President, Bill Clinton. Artist and subject share a history of sexual misconduct allegations:

Kehinde Wiley's 2018 portrait of Barack Obama, the 44th President, is the main reason why attendance at the National Portrait Gallery has doubled this year:

After finishing with the presidents, our docent took us upstairs to show us some other recent portraits of well-known Americans. This portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama by Amy Sherald certainly caught the attention of one little girl after its unveiling:

Amber poses with Melinda and Bill Gates:

The docent and my daughter have one thing in common: neither of them knew of LL Cool J:

This is for them:

Amber wasn't fond of the gallery's floor tiles:

Like other Foreign Service kids, my daughter's knowledge of American history is somewhat patchy (the result of attending international schools in other countries). Hopefully, Saturday's outing was one small step in filling in some of those gaps. Though I have a feeling she's more likely to remember the caramel charro she downed at the Downtown Holiday Market located outside the gallery on F Street:

Amber and I both agree: the Brutalist nightmare that is the FBI's headquarters has got to go:

The Smithsonian Castle in the drizzle:

After her dose of American history, I dragged my daughter over to the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery to force her to see to show her the Encountering the Buddha: Art and Practice Across Asia exhibit. I guess the Tibetan Shrine Room didn't hold her attention in the same manner as I was mesmerized when I visited a couple of weeks ago:

She's young, and there's still time for her to realize that her attachment to impermanent things such as her iPhone will be the cause of her future suffering. As for me, I'm still attached to getting that $60 book on the Tibetan Shrine Room, though I managed to fight off the urge yesterday in the gallery gift shop. One small step on the path to Nirvana...