Trip to Hamamatsu

We recently took a short family vacation to Hamamatsu, a small city of around 800,000 residents in neighbouring Shizuoka Prefecture.

A visitor to Japan will soon realise that every Japanese prefecture and every Japanese town is ‘famous’ for something. Nagasaki is ‘famous’ for deep fried noodles. Aomori is ‘famous’ for apples. The fact the locals are required to tell you that, for example, the tiny town of Azai is ‘famous’ for weaving, is an irony that seems lost on most of them.

Bucking the trend however, Hamamatsu has some actual fame in the area of musical instruments. Yamaha, Kawai and Roland are all headquartered here, and just so as to remind you that you are in the “City of Music” the only skyscraper in the city is shaped like a giant harmonica. Subtle Japanese pride.

One of the city’s prime attractions is the Museum of Musical Instruments. I particularly enjoyed their selection of pianos, harpsichords and clavichords, although understandably almost all of them were not able to be played by museum visitors. Some of the more unusual items on display included a traditional grand piano with dual (upper and lower) keyboards, and a double-headed piano that could be simultaneously played by two people – one at each end.

small piano
Our small man standing next to an appropriately small piano.

We stayed at a motel situated on the shores of Lake Hamana. It was new, comfortable, clean and relatively cheap. Only one other room was occupied while we were there. Why would such a new, clean, comfortable and relatively cheap motel be so unpopular, we wondered? That was before we opened the curtains to find ourselves face-to-face with a carriage-load of train commuters. The outside track of the JR Tokaido Line passed literally a few metres from the window. Freight trains ran all night at 10 minute intervals which unfortunately made sleeping nearly impossible. But this is Japan, the land of both trains and stoics. The second night we slept better – either because we were becoming more stoical or, more likely, we were really, really, really tired!

We spend one afternoon relaxing at an onsen, and on the way also tried out a public foot bath.

footbath
A free public foot bath at Lake Hamana

One of the most interesting places we visited was the Hamamatsu Air Park, a museum and, I suspect, a recruiting station for the Japan Air Self Defence Force (JASDF). Given that the latter is probably the primary purpose of this place, entry is free!

I can confirm that JASDF personnel are overwhelmingly female, young and beautiful. These lovely young ladies will help you sign away your life, after which point you will be permitted to enter the actual JASDF base to discover that your real colleagues are overwhelmingly male, balding and uncouth.

Anyway – back to the museum… it rocked! It was all Top Gun and I was Tom Cruise before he became a prick. I tried out a couple of flight simulators and managed to crash just about everything they had. The boys dressed up in JASDF uniforms and practiced waiting for a war to come to them.

pilots
What, you thought this country with its famously pacifist constitution didn’t have a military? Think again.
2-year-old pilot
Son, your ego is writing cheques your body can’t cash.

Banzai!

Small Boy Arrested In Front of Bullet Train

Small Boy and Bullet Train
Source: Nagoya Police Department

If you can read a Japanese date you’ll realise that this photo was taken back in February, when we spent a very enjoyable and appropriately geeky day at the Linear Railway Park – a new railway museum in Nagoya. If you’re visiting this part of Japan and have even a passing interest in trains (heh heh) I definitely recommend paying a visit. At ¥1000 a ticket it isn’t the cheapest day out, but you get plenty of trains for your money. If you’re lucky you might even get to try out the bullet train driving simulator.

Watch out for hardcore train geeks with huge cameras. They have little patience for mere mortals who obstruct the view of their precious trains!

The Japanese Schindler

sugihara memorial
Illuminated Pipe Organ at Sugihara Commemorative Museum, Yaotsu, Gifu Prefecture

The story of Oskar Schindler is fairly well known. He is credited for saving the lives of over 1,000 Jews during the Holocaust by employing them in his enamelware factory, and his story is retold in the famous film Schindler’s List. The State of Israel honoured Schindler as “Righteous Among the Nations” – a status it endows on Gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews from the Holocaust.

In a town called Yaotsu about 60km from here was born another of whom Israel has deemed “Righteous Among the Nations”. Despite his relative obscurity, at least compared to Oskar Schindler, Chiune Sugihara is credited with saving thousands of Jews during this terrible time in history. Last weekend we visited a commemorative museum dedicated to this man and his story.

Sugihara was a Japanese diplomat posted to Lithuania in 1939. In July and August 1940 and he used his position as a representative of the Foreign Ministry to write transit visas to allow European Jews to pass through the Soviet Union and Japan to claim asylum in countries of refuge.

He contacted the Japanese Foreign Ministry in Tokyo to request permission to grant transit visas to fleeing Jews despite them not meeting the requirements for issue of a visa. Tokyo responded that without a visa to a destination country a Japanese transit visa could not be granted. Realising that the Jews coming to his office would be in grave danger from the Nazis if they could not escape, he began to issue visas by his own hand, without authorisation from Tokyo and in defiance of direct orders to the contrary. Given his low position in the Foreign Ministry,  cultural pressure to follow orders, and the Japanese alliance with Nazi Germany, this was an incredible act of bravery.

Sugihara hand-wrote visas for up to 20 hours per day. As news spread of his actions, more and more refugee Jews lined up outside the consulate in order to get a transit visa through Japan. This continued for only a couple of weeks after which the Japanese consulate was closed in September and Sugihara was ordered to leave.

Sugihara died in Japan in 1986. His story is not well known in Japan. His humility was such that it was only when a large Jewish delegation (including dignitaries) attended his funeral that his neighbours and friends found out what he had achieved.

The little commemorative museum in Yaotsu does quite a good job at recounting Sugihara’s story despite its paucity of related artefacts. (For example, the only visas on display were replicas.) However, as is typical of most Japanese recounts of World War II, the broader Japanese Imperial context in which these events took place is missing. Despite this shortcoming the museum does a good job at bringing visitors to uncomfortably face the extent of human evil (it includes photos from the Nazi death camps), as well as the joy of redemption brought through a man that chose to do good.