The Other Side

:

peace dome

“Mmmmmmmy God this is so good,” I mumbled, chewing the sushi in slow motion, savoring every molecule of texture and flavor. “Mmm-mmmmmm… good lord.”

“Excuse me.” Steve–my friend and colleague–waved to the sushi chef, who was busily chopping ginger on the other side of the counter.

“Ah… yes-uh?” The chef stopped his work.

Steve proceeded very slowly: “What-kind-of-fish-is-this?” He pointed to the silver slice perched atop the ball of molded rice in front of him.

Aji,” the man replied.

Aji?” repeated Steve.

Aji. Hai,” confirmed the kind-eyed chef. “How do you say in Eng-uh-rish-uh?”

peace dome

“Mmmmmmmy God this is so good,” I mumbled, chewing the sushi in slow motion, savoring every molecule of texture and flavor. “Mmm-mmmmmm… good lord.”

“Excuse me.” Steve–my friend and colleague–waved to the sushi chef, who was busily chopping ginger on the other side of the counter.

“Ah… yes-uh?” The chef stopped his work.

Steve proceeded very slowly: “What-kind-of-fish-is-this?” He pointed to the silver slice perched atop the ball of molded rice in front of him.

Aji,” the man replied.

Aji?” repeated Steve.

Aji. Hai,” confirmed the kind-eyed chef. “How do you say in Eng-uh-rish-uh?”

He looked to his partner—a grey-haired man of about seventy–who stood just feet away, putting the final touches on a shrimp roll. He rattled lighting Japanese his way. The old man glanced up, smiled, and just shook his head. The younger chef then furrowed his brow, gripped his shining knife with his right hand and drummed on his apron with left. He whispered to himself, lost in contemplation, until his eyes suddenly came alive: “Oh, yes. Aji in English! Spah-nish-a mah-kuh-rel.”

“Spanish mackerel. Of course,” nodded Steve.

Hai. Aji.”

Aji is better,” Steve said. “Much easier to pronounce.”

“You need to seriously get down on that, Steve. It’s literally one of the most delicious things I’ve ever had.”

“No time like the present.”

I stopped to watch Steve eat this chef’s masterpiece. He gingerly gripped the sushi between two wooden chopsticks and lifted it off the plate. He slowly lowered it towards the ceramic bowl containing the soy sauce mixed with atomic, bright green wasabi. He carefully let just the bottom of the rice absorb the sauce before elevating the now ready-to-eat sushi away from the counter and into his awaiting mouth.

“Go on,” I said. Take it down. The whole thing.”

The sushi disappeared behind his lips. Steve slowly chewed. His eyes gave away the intense pleasure brought forth by this particular little piece. Hints of tears welled up in the corners, visible through the round glasses that partially reflected the florescent lights above. He lowly groaned and ever-so-slightly shook his head in deep approval as he swallowed the piece of art.

“Ahhh…”

Steve set down his chopsticks and finished off the moment with a deep gulp from his ice-cold, foamy-headed mug of Sapporo. He set it down with a heavy clunk on the counter and sighed.

“These are some damned good eats. Was I right about this place or what?”

“This restaurant? Or Japan?”

“Both.”

“Yes, you were. Can we move here?”

The two chefs went back about their business, slicing fish, molding rice, and placing their creations on white plates with the skill and precision of masters. Each took his time, working deliberately and with confidence, in the manner of one who has been at it for ages. Their restaurant was a very small affair marked with a simple sign outside and a sliding black door. The interior consisted of a tiny counter that seated just four or five, as well as two very small tables. There was a second-floor space as well—probably reserved for groups of businessmen—with one tired-looking bob-headed waitress who ran orders up the stairs and empty dishes down. The place was ordinary, as far as sushi joints in Japan go, but the food transcended the unremarkable surroundings. Having just eaten one of the most fantastic meals of my life, I was pulsing in culinary ecstasy.

“I found this place last time I came here,” said Steve. “I was walking around in the rain, looking for somewhere to eat. I can’t read Japanese, so I was shit out of luck, as this isn’t the most English-friendly country, especially with regards to signage. I wandered the streets, obviously clueless, until a voice, in English, called out to me. Across the road I saw a young, dark-skinned, non-Japanese guy selling hand-made jewelry at a little table. So I went over to talk with him. It turns out the he was mixed race–Indian-Israeli-Japanese—and spoke something like five languages. I told him I was looking for good eats, so he had a friend watch his wares while he led me up the street, and voila! Here we are: The best sushi in Fukuoka.”

“You enjoy aji?” The younger chef asked, knowing our answers.

“Incredibly delicious. No, more than that: Exquisite.” I struggled, not finding adequate words.

Arigato gozaimasu.” He punctuated his thanks with a quick bow.

“We are visiting from Korea,” said Steve.

“Oh, Korea? Hai.”

“We live in Busan.” I added. “Do you know Busan?”

“Busan?” He pointed in the direction of the sea, as if to say: Just over there.

“Yes. We took the ferry here today.

“Oh. Busan. Hai.” He nodded in understanding.

“Actually, we’re from America.”

“Ah-mae-ri-kuh? U-S-A?”

“Yes, sir.”

The chef’s eyes lit up. “Oh… America. I live in USA three years. With father.” He nodded to the old man silently working next to him.

“Wow. That’s your father?” said Steve.

Hai.

“Oh, really? You lived in America? Where?” I asked.

“I live in… Mo-suh-suh Lake-uh”

“Moses Lake???” I blurted, not sure if I heard him right.

Hai. Moses Lake. Washington State.”

“I’m from Washington State! Olympia. Do you know Olympia?”

“Olympia. Hai!”

“Wow. What on earth were you doing in Moses Lake?” I gasped.

“Where’s Moses Lake?” Steve chimed in.

“It’s an unremarkable town in central Washington—the last place you’d expect this guy to be holed up.”

“I work for JAL. Japan Air. With father. We make the sushi for JAL workers.”

“Oh, that’s right! They have a big airport out there. It used to be an air force base, I think. They must use it for training.”

“Yes. Tuh-raining.”

“I heard that it’s one of the alternate landing strips for the Space Shuttle.”

“Space Shuttle. Hai,” the chef enthusiastically confirmed.

“Small world,” shrugged Steve.

The man translated for his father, who stopped his work, looked our way, and grinned. The father then turned to his son and appeared to give him some sort of orders. The son bowed and immediately grabbed a white plastic container, a small net, and walked from behind the counter and out the front door. He returned a moment later with something in the container, most likely from the saltwater tank that we’d seen outside. After just two minutes, he produced a final dish and set it down on the counter: on it were two abalones, cut free from their shells. They were as fresh as it gets: still moving.

Awabi,” he said.“My father’s treat. No pay.” He quickly shook his head and made a small waving gesture with his hand, as if to say: Don’t even think about it.

The old man smiled and bowed.

“Wow. Thanks,” said an impressed Steve. “They didn’t do this last time I came,” he whispered.

Next to the shellfish sat two narrow slices of lemon.

“Use lemon. Good taste.”

“Well thank you. Uh… ari-gato go-zai-masu!” I struggled, and then, just as awkwardly, attempted a bow.

“This is a first for me,” remarked Steve, raising his eyebrows. “But I must say it looks damn good.”

“Uh-huh.”

We grabbed the lemon slices and squeezed away with excitement, only to watch the poor creatures convulse in agony as the lemon juice seared their flesh.

“Oh, my…” I muttered.

The two of us looked on in pity.

“This is just sadistic,” confessed a bemused Steve.

Both abalones continued to squirm and writhe, spending their last few moments of life in what had to be unimaginable pain.

“I’m not sure whether to thank our hosts or condemn them,” I remarked.

“I hear you. Whatever the case, it’s time to put these guys out of their misery.”

“Sure thing,” I said, horrified. “I’d expect them to do the same for us.”

The abalones contracted and released in a spasmodic ballet.

“Ready?”

“Ready.”

“Down the hatch!”

I popped the twitching mollusk into my mouth and chomped down. The flesh was a bit tough and I had to work at chewing, unleashing an explosion of sea salt and deep sweetness. The lemon juice only served to amplify the bright, fresh flavor, and for a moment, my whole mouth came alive.

 

Fukuoka is a city on Japan’s southern Kyushu Island and just a three-hour high-speed ferry ride across the water from our home of Busan, Korea. For much of the world, the aquatic mass that separates the two countries is known as the Sea of Japan, though Koreans universally balk at such a Nippon-centric label: They insist on calling it the East Sea, which, seeing as it’s only “east” of them, doesn’t really make it any less territorial. Perhaps a third, neutral name needs to be dreamed up by a committee in the United Nations, made up only of representatives of countries who have no horse in this particular race But whatever you choose to call it, Steve and I crossed it. It was mid-April, and we had few days off from the university, so we decided to jump on a boat and see how the folks on the other side of the water did things.

It was my first trip to Japan, and though I did have certain expectations, I was shocked at how truly different it was from Korea. Koreans and Japanese look a bit similar and do share some cultural traits, but it really stops there. To visit both nations in the course of a day is an exercise in contrasts and woke me up as to how dissimilar they actually are.

The first thing that hit me was the tranquility. The place was quiet. Granted, Fukuoka is less than a third of the size of Busan, population-wise, but the moment I walked off that ferry I could hear it or—more accurately—not hear it. I took a deep breath and felt my muscles immediately relax. Ah, calm. Urban Korea is a loud, often chaotic place: There’s really no end to the din. The constant growl of cars, busses, trucks, and motorbikes, combines with the clamor of loudspeakers from vehicles selling produce, to K-pop pumping and blaring from the fronts of phone shops, cafes, bars, and stores. And then there are the people themselves, who cackle and joke and argue and cajole at generous decibels. Koreans often like to think of themselves as quiet, when in reality they’re often just the opposite.

The Japanese, on the other hand, are truly quiet, and this became absolutely evident laid-back Fukuoka. Steve and I decided to walk from the ferry terminal to our hotel, which was located in the city center. The outlying streets were almost empty of cars, and I noticed right away that many people got around on bicycles, easy to do on the flat surface of the town. Bikes are a much rarer sight in Busan, which is a city carved into the valleys and ravines of many mountains, making pumping pedals a lot more difficult.

Steve and I strolled under overcast skies along the peaceful streets of Fukuoka, listening to the calls of seagulls while taking in the eye-catching architecture of the city’s most basic houses and apartment buildings. The Japanese have a flair for design, and this struck me hard as we made our way toward the downtown. Instead of blocky apartments, we saw small square sections pushing out from the sides of the buildings, breaking up the lines and grabbing the eye; outdoor staircases wrapped around structures in rounded, gently ascending bands, rather than the obvious forty-five degree diagonal slopes found throughout much of the world. Daring colors were employed as well, with bright greens, reds and oranges splashing out and adding some verve to what could otherwise be a dreary urban landscape. And the angles used in the building design were often unexpected and even exciting. That’s not to say that the architecture was flashy or trying to impress; like many things Japanese, it was mostly understated, something small that just changes the whole way a building is perceived–a tiny detail that makes you say think: Wow. That is cool. Korea, on the other hand—while definitely improving on their design aesthetic of late—is still all-too-often the land of the unimaginative shoebox apartment block, where the drab and literal reign. And sometimes, perhaps in reaction to this, they take things too far in the other direction, with modern buildings adopting the science-fiction strip mall look–all overdone cheap plastic and aluminum with some nifty colored lights added for effect.

Our hotel rooms were twice the price and half the size of anything we’d get back in Busan: Glorified broom closets, really. A narrow, single bed abutted the wall, with just a few feet of space to maneuver around it. A slim counter stretched out at the foot of the bed, on which was a tiny television, lamp, notepad, pen, and radio alarm clock. A chair was pushed in underneath in case you wanted to use the structure as a desk. The bathroom was an even tinier affair, with a toilet and sink crammed in with only inches between, and just a few feet from the wall to the shower/tub. This was cramped space, to be sure. It struck me just how difficult a place to maneuver this country must be truly large people.

Yes, the rooms were minute, but they were tidy, clean, well-located, and the best bargain for the buck. If you don’t count the city state of Singapore, Japan is the most expensive country in Asia, and it didn’t take long for sticker shock to set in. Almost nothing is cheap. Combine an unfavorable exchange rate with already high prices, and cash hemorrhaged.

Cash, yes, it was a concern. I had brought plenty, but knew that it could go quickly in Japan. So you can imagine my elation that night when, at the sushi joint—after taking down the tortured abalones and finishing our draft Sapporos–Steve graciously produced his card and picked up the sizable bill. Styled. As we walked away I thanked him profusely, but he just waved his hand and said, in an exaggerated Boston accent:

“Fahgitabouttit, Mr. Thahp. Just buy me a bee-ah and some wicked re-tah-ded gah-lic bread.”

Fukuoka is a town made for walking, with flat streets, conscientious drivers, and polite people. Steve and I wandered through the business entertainment district that also housed our sushi paradise. There were plenty of massage joints and karaoke rooms, advertising their wares with pictures of busty, dyed-haired girls with large, brown eyes. Clusters of suit and tie clad men wandered the sidewalks, chatted and smoked (upon discovery, cigarettes were one of the few things that could be called “cheap” in Japan). We passed by a number of pachinko parlors and even went in one to try our luck. The ringing and buzzing of the machines joined together in one massive hum that seduced and tempted, reminding me of a Vegas casino. We sat next to each other and fed coins into the hi-tech units, but were both totally baffled as to how to operate the things, and received no help from the indifferent staff. I quickly picked up on the vibe that we weren’t really wanted in the gambling den anyway, and we made for the exit.

We soon came across a regular video game arcade, which was everything I had expected to find in Japan. The place contained at least ten different versions of the crane game, with alarm clocks and stuffed animals and anime figurines and cute puppy pillows up for grabs by the mechanical claw; groups of teenage girls stood around live-action dancing games and watched their agile classmates try to match the moves demonstrated by the lit-up digital board in front of them; boys played drumming and guitar games, along with soccer, baseball, basketball, first-person-shooters and fighters. This place–along with the pachinko parlor, was the very opposite of quiet Fukuoka–with a mélange of sounds drifting and combining and clashing: Revving engines, machine gun fire, punches, techno music, screeching brakes, whirring helicopter rotors, thumping drums, screaming, laughing, along with beeps, blips and modulating tones from the eighties and beyond. In fact, it was eighties games that I was most after, and soon we came upon a huge section of nothing but vintage arcade games from the decade of my teens. I binged on Galaga, Pac-Man, Frogger, Donkey Kong, Asteroids, and was overwhelmed with giddiness when I came across a machine containing Scramble, a spaceship shooter that I loved as a kid but hadn’t seen for over twenty-five years. There I was, transported back to 1983, sitting the tiny arcade cluster of the Lacey Cinemas, killing time before a Friday night film.

After our video game orgy, Steve and I ended up at a bar popular with expats, where I freely spent the money I’d saved from dinner on beer for the both of us. Japanese beer is easily the best in Asia: It’s clean, fresh, and full of flavor, and lacking the formaldehyde and cat urine that seems to be present in so many of the continent’s lesser brews. Whether it’s cars or electronics or beer, the Japanese just do things right. They don’t cut corners and pay strict attention to the detail, and it shows everywhere. Things in Japan are just nice. Almost nothing looks shitty. My first few hours in Fukuoka made me seriously question what I was doing in Korea.

Steve and I ended up joining a group of Japanese ska heads who occupied a couple of tables. One of them was celebrating a birthday and they were freely pouring from a large bottle of Jose Cuervo. They were in full punk regalia—leather, Doc Martins, bleached Mohawks, safety pins, checkered trousers, bowler hats, tattoos—and drank with savage ferocity. I immediately liked them and joined in their madness, slamming shots and slurring in one guy’s ear about the beautiful power of punk rock.

“You like punk rock?” He said in good English. His name was Koji.

“Yeahhhhhh, man… I love punk rock.”

“Cool man,” Koji nodded. “Punk rock changed the fucking world.”

“Hell yeah!”

“To punk rock!”

“Punk rock!”

We slammed our beer glasses together and drank.

“I wanna hear punk rock now!” I yelled. His friend, a tiny girl in huge boots and black dreadlocks, handed me a shot of tequila.

“You want to listen punk rock?”

“Yeahhhhhh!!!” I yelled, downing it.

“Ok. You go to my friend’s bar. Tonight there is punk rock music.”

Koji wrote down some quick directions for me. I slapped him on the back, shook his hand, and Steve and I were off in search of the punk palace.

“How cool is this, dude,” I said. “We’re gonna see a punk show in Japan.”

“Yeah man. I can handle it.”

We hiked down the street as per the directions, until we came to the lobby of the building that housed the bar.

“This is it,” I said.

We boarded the elevator and rode it up to the sixth floor. As we exited the elevator, we stood in front of a door. Loud punk music blared out from behind. A skinny dude in black leather stood there, collecting the cover. He smoked Marlboro Reds and laughed with two his buddies, who were also fully done up in the Japanese punk rock uniform. As we approached he politely pointed to the sign, which read: 1500 Yen (about 16 or 17 dollars at the time).

“It’s a bit pricey… but screw it… we’re in Japan, what do can we do?” I slapped down the notes, got my stamp, and walked in, followed by Steve.

Like most of the places we’d been to that night, the joint was small, with a DJ spinning standard, vintage punk fare (Ramones, Buzzcocks) from a table up on a platform. We sauntered up to the bar and ordered a couple more beers, taking stock of our surroundings. A few Japanese punks were hanging out drinking, but otherwise it appeared to be empty.

We got our beers and walked around the black box of a room.

“Where’s the stage?” asked Steve.

“That is a good question.”

As we looked around more, we quickly discovered that there wasn’t one.

“I think we just paid thirty bucks to listen to a punk rock DJ,” muttered Steve.

“A punk rock DJ? Are you kidding me? There’s no such thing. DJ’s are the least punk rock people in the world.”

I angrily gulped down my beer and glared at the guy in the studded leather jacket standing on the DJ platform. He fiddled with his laptop and bobbed his head. I fought the urge to jump up there, grab his headphones, snap them in two, and force them down his gullet.

Steve continued, “Well, that’s what the cover was evidently for. I don’t’ see any band.”

“Nah, nah, nah.” I felt the tequila-stoked fire burn in my belly. “Let’s ask the bartender.”

“If he speaks English.”

“He’ll speak enough.”

We went back to the bar and got the man’s attention.

“Hey,” I yelled, over the blare of Black Flag’s TV Party. “Tonight… band?” I mimed playing the guitar. “Punk rock show?”

He shook his head no.

“No band???”

“No,” he said, turning away.

“Fuck this shit.” I moaned to Steve. “We’re gettin’ our money back. Come on.”

Steve followed me to the door. I was now loaded on beer and tequila and on a punk-fueled tear. I exited I turned to the guys collecting cover.

“Tonight, no band? Again I mimed the guitar.

“No, no,” he waved me away.

“Then we want our money back.”

He looked at me, not fully understanding.

“Money back. Yen.” I slapped my palm. “We came for band. No band. No money.”

“No. You pay.”

“No. Money back.” Slap slap.

“No no. You pay! No money back!” Vehement head shaking.

“Give us our money back! You call yourselves punks? Charging money for a fucking DJ?”

“Uh, Chris, let’s just get out of here.”

“These little assholes have the nerve to call themselves punk rock? You cocksuckers don’t know shit about punk rock! Sure you got the uniform on but that doesn’t mean anything you poser motherfuckers!”

The guy at the door had enough, and lunged at me, screaming in Japanese. His friends grabbed him before he could land a punch, and Steve pushed me into the elevator which opened up just in time. As the door closed, we heard a loud “THUNK” of the skinny dude’s boot against the metal.

“Holy shit, dude, you’re going to get us killed.”

“Sorry,” I gasped. “Punk rock my ass…”

“You’re crazy, Tharp.”

“Fuck it.” My rage now turned from hot to ticklish, and I unleashed the chaos in a series of deep belly-laughs, which echoed around the confines of the elevator.

We were both hungry now, and hoped to grab a bite on our way back to the hotel. Japan isn’t as rife with late-night choices as many other Asian countries, but they still know how to rock some after-hour street grub. We soon came upon a tent lit by a single bulb. It was empty, except for the man sitting behind several metal pans of steaming water, in which was floating an array of oteng–a kind of compressed fish paste. I had eaten the Korean version, odeng, on countless occasions; it was one of my favorite street snacks, but the way they served it up on the peninsula was no match for the sight before me.

“Oh my God! Do you see that? Is that odeng?” I drunkenly moaned.

Korean odeng comes in just one color: beige, and is almost always a square cut from a ribbon and stuck on to a wooden skewer. This authentic oteng came in a variety of shapes, colors and sizes: There were squares and triangles and orbs, made up of various shades of yellow, brown, and even red. Unlike their Korean cousin, none of them were skewered, but floated independently in the broth.

I had to have some.

“Wow. I’ve never seen anything like it.” I hovered over the hot vats of oteng in absolute fascination. “Where do you start? I want some.”

“Knock yourself out.”

“Hey, sssir!” I looked through blurry eyes to the man, who glared back wearily.

Oteng. How much?”

He looked on, unmoved.

“Hey Tharp, I don’t think he speaks English.”

“That’s okay! I’ll just point to what I want! Don’t these look fucking awesome?”

“Never been a big fan.”

“Okay, sir! I want… lemme have… let’s see…” I tottered on my feet as I attempted to make up my mind. “Lemme have the… the big round red one.” I pointed, “…and THAT one… and… and… OH YEAH! The triangle one looks great!”

The man looked down and vigorously shook his head side-to-side.

“I don’t think he’s having it,” said Steve.

“What?”

“I think he’s through with you.”

“What? No way. Excuse me, sir? I’d like–”

He looked back up and shook his head again—this time more forcefully. He accompanied this with a dramatic waving of his arms, letting me know–in no uncertain terms–that my drunk ass wasn’t going to get served.

“Ah man! Come on! I just want some odeng!”

He muttered something in Japanese and further waved me away. Steve pulled me back out onto the sidewalk and we stumbled toward our hotel.

“This sucks. Motherfucker!” I shouted back.

“You were denied. You were refused odeng,” Steve said, laughing. “I’m not sure if that’s ever happened before, to anyone, anywhere.”

We ended the night in a noodle tent. Steve made me promise to ratchet it down a few notches before entering, to which I gladly obliged, having learned my lesson from the recalcitrant oteng seller. We both ordered bowls of ramen, which went down nicely after an evening of sushi and booze. When some Westerners hear the word ramen, they may picture dirt cheap Top Ramen, with its packets of MSG flavoring. That style of ramen is mainly eaten by the truly poor and broke students back home; it bears little resemblance to a real bowl of ramen sold in the tents of Fukuoka, or any Japanese city, for that matter. Proper Japanese ramen is tender to the tooth, served in a savory, rich, milky broth, and topped off with a couple of thin slices of sweet, fatty pork. It’s a glorious thing to behold and even holier to ingest, and after an evening of non-stop talking, Steve and I were left with no words–just slurping sounds—as we took down some serious noodles.

 

The Shinkansen rocketed at a velocity that seemed impossible. Steve and I relaxed, worked a crossword together, and watched the Japanese countryside warp by in a blur as we headed north towards the main island of Honshu, enjoying this truly remarkable mode of transport. The bullet train lived up to its reputation, reaching speeds of nearly three hundred kilometers an hour. Often, when traveling by car or even airplane, you have no sense of how quickly you are actually travelling. The Shinkansen, however, shattered all such ignorance. One glance out of the window towards the rice fields and houses flickering by, and we had no trouble fully comprehending the intensity of our trajectory.

Hiroshima sits on a wide river delta and has all the features of a modern, lovely Japanese city. The wide, tree-lined streets play host to light-rail trams; the air is clean with a taste of ocean salt; like everywhere in Japan, the sidewalks are immaculate and the shops and restaurants give off the warm glow of prosperity. Hiroshima looked like a terrific place to call home, nothing like scene of destruction that I’d come to associate it with. For most of us, it is synonymous with misery and horror. To gaze at the present day city was pleasantly jarring, however, since it looked nothing like the black and white photos of flattened and charred buildings, skeletons of vehicles, and the maimed, hopeless inhabitants that I had come to equate with the city. I knew the place had been rebuilt, of course, but I had no idea just how completely they had achieved the goal. Like Fukuoka, Hiroshima was nice. While its history may have been tragic, its present seemed nothing of the sort.

But we didn’t come to Hiroshima to marvel at its modernity: We came for the past. We wanted to pay witness to this venue of unimaginable carnage and attempt to understand—not with our minds, but with our guts—what exactly had gone down there at 8:15 in morning of August 6th, 1945. We wished to examine the scene of the crime, to pay our respect, and perhaps give penance. Most overriding, though, was the urge to reach out as humans and attempt to make sense of what can only be described as the height of inhumanity.

So Steve and I disembarked from the Shinkansen and set out for the city’s Peace Park—a memorial to the atomic attack that lies along the banks of the slow-flowing Ota River near the city center. Steve consulted the map in his guidebook, and we were immediately on our way, forcing ourselves towards the objective at a fevered pace. This wasn’t easy. Now that I was actually in Hiroshima, I fought the urge to turn around and jump back on the bullet train. Did I really want to spend my afternoon thinking of such death, along with my country’s bloody hand in its creation? But this was more a pilgrimage than a pleasure trip, and we grimly pressed     on, knowing our quest to be one of necessity.

The Peace Park is aptly named, for it was quiet, even by Japanese standards. The only sound was that of the breeze, some squawking seagulls, and the weird little pink sightseeing boats chugging up the river. Steve and I strolled along in contemplation, observing this unwritten rule of silence, hyper-aware of the fact that we trod upon hallowed ground. It was early spring and the cherry blossoms were just beginning to bloom, giving the surroundings a taste of life. But all I could think about was death. I tried to imagine the feeling of going about your business on a Sunday morning, only to be blinded by a flash, feel the air ripped from your lungs, and get hit with and incinerating blast of hellish heat. Multiply this feeling by tens of thousands of people, and the enormity becomes too much to bear. As I morbidly obsessed on these details—the melted flesh, the crisped skin, the people who were vaporized with their shadows burned into the sides of buildings—I was not overtaken with emotion. I felt no tears, or horror, or guilt even. I was strangely detached, bowing my head, walking in silence, but feeling little. I was reminded of attending mass with my family in my late teens, with the kneeling and genuflecting and mumbling of prayers. The process was supposed to infuse me with grace, but instead I was left feeling hollow and false in the knowledge that I was just going through the motions.

The most iconic structure in Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park is the Hiroshima Prefecture Industrial Promotion Hall, which is the closest surviving building to the epicenter of the bomb’s detonation. It has since been renamed the Genbako Dome, or “A-bomb Dome”, and serves as a testament to the blast. The roof of the dome was sheared off by the explosion, but the frame remains, giving the building the look of a clean-eaten carcass, a warning to other prey. It’s the one remaining relic of that terrible morning, and sends home the reality of what happened to anyone viewing it. After snapping some photographs, I just stood and looked. The emptiness inside me was now replaced with a warm, sad understanding.

Eventually Steve and I wandered up to the Peace Park’s museum, where my earlier mental speculation as to the effects of the bombing and subsequent radiation on human beings was confirmed by many graphic photographs. These pictures served as exhibits—close up shots of burned, poisoned, and misshapen people—all civilians, many of them children. I hadn’t eaten since the morning, but my hunger turned to nausea as I took in the photographic evidence of the crime. They were hard to look at but I forced myself, and I challenge anyone to do the same and not be sickened.

We spent about an hour at the museum, which included not just documentation about the victims of the blast, but information on the physics of the Hiroshima explosion, as well as extensive data on nuclear weapons in general. There were charts displaying which countries possessed the bomb, as well the estimated size of their arsenals. Unsurprisingly, the USA topped the list. The museum strove to be more than a memorial, however. It attempted to inform people about the reality of nuclear weapons and at the same time advocated for their total eradication.

As we left the museum we came upon a guestbook, which was an intriguing read. Messages from people around the world attempted to articulate the un-expressible. Most were short lines of sorrow and regret, with plenty of pleas for peace. Some of my fellow Americans left personal notes of apology, trying to put their shame and sense of guilt into words. One Canadian commenter did the opposite: She attempted to wash away culpability by reminding the world—through underlining, exclamation points, and all caps–that she was from Canada, NOT the USA, and that her nation had no hand in the bombing. The guestbook acted as part mirror, part Rorschach Test. After reading comments for ten minutes, it was time to leave my own. I picked up the pen and put it to the white paper, but paused. I attempted to form opening words, but they felt cheap and inadequate. Defeated, I set the pen down and walked away.

Stunned and somewhat shaken, we left the Peace Memorial Park and headed back into town. Though two hours of revisiting one of the greatest atrocities of the 20th century had tamped down our hunger, our appetites now returned with a vengeance. It was time to eat, and soon we found ourselves in the huge, covered, Hondori Shopping Arcade, because nothing takes your mind of atomic catastrophes like the bright colors and strange flash of happy, Japanese consumerism.

For lunch we went local, sampling Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, a kind of fritter layered with egg, cabbage, bean sprouts, sliced pork, and octopus, cooked on a hot plate as we looked on. It was hearty, filling and delicious. This was some proper, regional fare and made us feel more connected to the older, non-nuclear Hiroshima.

Bellies full, we left the little restaurant and joined the shoppers in the Hondori Arcade. We had an over an hour until our train back to Fukuoka, so this market looked to be the perfect place to kill some time. Steve was looking to pick up some souvenirs, but Japan had already sapped my wallet plenty, so I was more than content to just window shop and return to Korea empty handed.

“I’m gonna check out that shop over there. Maybe pick up something for my students,” Steve said.

“Cool. I’m going to look on my own. Why don’t we meet back here in thirty minutes?”

I proceeded to walk down the arcade a couple of hundred meters until something caught my eye. It was a comic book store. While not a collector or even a huge fan of comics, I love the stores that contain them. In America I’ve spent many hours browsing through store selections–from superhero stuff to alternative to erotica—I like to check it all out, and the more obscure the title, the better. I had never been to a comic store in Japan, though. I was familiar with manga (Japanese comics) style and dabbled in reading some years before, but here I was, in Hiroshima, facing the entrance of what was the Manga Mothership. So I slipped through the threshold and proceeded to get lost.

It must be said that the Japanese are notorious perverts. They even outdo their old allies Germany in this regard. Some of the strangest sexual stuff on the internet emanates from Japan–whether it’s bukkake (a ring of men masturbating onto a woman), puke videos, or “tub girls,” with arcing shots of brown liquid from the subject’s assholes. The Japanese just seem to have an obsession with bizarre and forbidden, or at the very least, relaxed attitudes towards those who do. There’s a pervy, sexual vein running through Japanese society which they embrace openly. This was evidenced on the streets as well, with so many of the women wearing short skirts and stockings or knee-high heeled boots. So much of the fashion had a fetishistic sensibility. There’s just a sense of really kinky sexuality that pervades the country as a whole, and nowhere does this manifest itself more clearly than in manga.
This comic shop took things to a whole new level. I thought I was prepared for what I was about to see, but, in reality, I was not. And bear in mind that this was no seedy shop near the train station or off of some forlorn exit off the freeway: It was in the most famous and busiest shopping arcade in the city.

The bottom floor was made up of your run-of-the-mill manga, most all of which featured cover illustrations of young teenage girls drawn in the form’s signature style—long limbs, slim bodies, full breasts, and unrealistically huge eyes. As I walked down the aisle and eyed the covers, I saw that the comics spanned countless subjects: high school romance, baseball, basketball, idol groups, fantasy, magic, martial arts, supernatural, horror, and many more. Like most manga, eroticism was inherent in even the most innocent of titles, though I only took in a few that featured swimsuit poses and camel-toed panty shots. They were in the collection, but in the minority, and as suggestive as they were, everyone kept their clothes on, even if it was just their underclothes.

I then took the stairs up to the second floor, which was similar in tone to that of the first, though a couple degrees hotter in content. Again, I just looked at the covers:  More panties and bras, bikinis, as well as some exhibitionist and “upskirt” stuff, but still open to all ages.

The third floor was both a literal and figurative level up: only eighteen and over allowed. Gone were the innocent high school crush narratives. Everything here was about primal sexual urges: the clothes came off and the characters went at it. All the titles featured naked girls with big eyes fucking, getting fucked, being objectified, humiliated, and defiled. Orifices featured prominently. Close-up detailed drawings of juicy penetration. This was some straight-up nasty, porny stuff—explicitly portrayed right on the covers–but nothing scarring.

Then there was the fourth floor. Like the third, it had an attendant checking anyone who appeared to be of questionable age. It was on this floor where I discovered that almost anything goes in Japan, as long as it’s drawn in a semi-cute way. At first it wasn’t so bad, relatively–mainly gay comics featuring high school girls and boys. But things quickly took a turn for the vile. I spied various kinds of rape, erotic pissing, and a few books featuring very pretty girls shitting. But it didn’t stop there. This was Japan, and as I was finding out, they really like to mine the depths. As stomach churning as some of the comic covers were, they inadequately prepared me what I was to regard next: a whole aisle featuring pre-pubescent girls and pre-pubescent boys in obvious sexual situations: Illustrated kiddie porn. My first impulse was to look away, but a sinister curiosity took hold and kept my eyeballs glued to the covers: I had stumbled into dark, bizarre territory and wanted to take it all in, if only this once. I had never seen anything so manifestly taboo, and there was loads of it. A few of these titles showed shockingly young kids, some so young that they wore diapers. And it got worse as I peered on. I could feel my pulse quicken and breath grow shallower. Was this stuff for real? As my eyes scanned this gallery of finely drawn covers, I felt like I was rubbernecking a gory car crash; I was compelled to look, even though I knew the sight may make me sick. I was witnessing the unthinkable and it just got more extreme as I burrowed deeper. I had come too far to turn back and was now committed to seeing the very worst that this store could throw at me. And I got it, in the form of what can only be described as hermaphrodite toddler covered-in-come comic porn. I felt like I had just been kicked in the head. I’d had enough. I’d seen my fill and no longer felt pressed on by some invisible hand. I was dizzy and wanted to puke. I ducked my head down and locked my eyes on the exit, not looking as I got the hell out of there.

As I burst from the first floor entrance I swallowed a lungful of air in an attempt to quell the hot wind whipping forth inside of me. I wanted to smash the windows and set fire to the store. I was wrong, I thought. I was wrong about this culture, about these people, about this nation. I was momentarily convinced that Japan, for all of her beauty, cleanliness, and seeming civility, was an evil place. I told myself that something dark and terrible boiled underneath the surface, something not even concentrated fire could scour away. For a second I pondered whether the destruction wrought upon her so many years ago was such a bad thing, and then immediately felt like a heel. How could I even contemplate such a thing? I was an American in Hiroshima, the site of the darkest and most awful act in the whole history of human warfare. This atrocity had been executed just decades before by my government. Attempting to justify such a crime because I was bothered by some comic books was beyond sacrilegious. I was frightened that I could even think such a thing.

My blood was percolating, but my anger quickly began to subside and saner thoughts crept back in. Perhaps the abominations I had just observed weren’t so terrible after all, when put into a certain context. For all the sickening stuff one finds below the surface, Japan is a very safe, civilized place. Maybe they had something figured out. Maybe it’s better to recognize such taboo subjects and create a space to contain them, rather than suppress them to the point to where they burst out in more harmful ways. Maybe the Japanese are just more honest about our dark sexual impulses, and their seemingly lax attitudes reflect a more realistic approach to the problem–a kind of societal harm reduction–like experiments in drug decriminalization.

I stood there, scanning the crowd for Steve. As I gazed out at the clusters of people shuffling past the shops and restaurants under the market’s arched arcade, I thought of our sushi feast from two nights before. How sweet it had been. Japan had been good to me. I’d immediately encountered kindness, generosity, and mastery. I repaid it by getting drunk and starting a fight at the punk club. Japan responded by denying me oteng. Japan seemed like such a bright, twinkling pace, full of beauty and magic, quality and wonder. The country at times seemed to approach perfection. But putting up such an immaculate façade must be taxing. Is it any wonder things get ugly behind the mask? Should I have been so surprised that Japan had such a dark vein flowing so shallow beneath the skin?

Whatever my judgments, Japan didn’t need my approval. As I watched the citizens of Hiroshima shuffle by, they seemed relaxed and content and totally unconcerned with my petty judgments. They were pleased to be living in this exquisite house they had built, and weren’t seeking my input in the matter. Japan was kind, Japan was brutal; Japan was lovely, Japan was disturbing. Japan was anything I wanted to call it, but it wasn’t mine. So when I finally caught sight of Steve’s spectacled face, I held up my hand and waved. He walked my way and soon we were off, rocketing back towards Fukuoka and then sailing on to Busan, our home on the other side of the sea.



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