We are starting the final weekend of our Olympic pre-trip in northern Japan. This is rice country. 27 years ago, Inakadate Village found a way to promote its 2,100 year history of rice growing. Create paintings in rice fields. Designers come up with an image on a computer and then map out how the picture should look on an empty field. In 2003, they created Mona Lisa. But the designers didn’t understand how to make sure the rice art had the proper perspective when viewed from a tower. So, Mona Lisa looked fat. Designers went back to work and have now perfected the craft. They’ve created amazing works of rice art including Star Wars, Godzilla and Gone with the Wind. They plant seven different kinds of rice in the field. Each type of rice is a different color. They tape off the shape in the field and then do a “color by number” method. It’s similar to a child working with a coloring book - but doing it with rice! Tourists love it!
It’s one of the stories we’re bringing back for our coverage during the Summer Olympics in 2020.
Sushi gets most of the food attention in Japan. But in the northern Japanese city of Morioka, it’s all about noodles. Soba noddles. At the Azumaya Soba Shop, they serve noodles in small bowls, hence the name “Wanko Soba”. Servers want you to eat a lot of noodles. So, they keep bringing bowls and bowls and bowls of noodles until you can’t eat anymore. In a busy day, they will serve 50,000 bowls to customers. A woman set the restaurant record by eating 570 bowls in one hour. Think about that. Five hundred and seventy bowls of noodles!
The restaurant provides a few side dishes like sashimi to eat in between bowls so your tastebuds change. But, it’s all about the noodles. A server will stand at your table and continuously fill your bowl with a small scoop of noodles, counting how many bowls you’ve consumed. She will continue refilling until you put the lid on your bowl. But, if there’s any trace of noodle left in your bowl, they put another small scoop of soba noodles in for you to eat. Morioka has found that the soba noodles are a boom for tourism. The restaurant owner says people will take the two hour bullet train from Tokyo just to experience Wanko Soba. If you eat 100 bowls, you receive a certificate. I could only eat 53. Pretty disappointing by this restaurant’s measurement. The owner, Akihiko Baba, ate 151. His personal record is 222. My tour guide, Atsushi Hatayama, ate a career best 112 bowls. Photographer Steve Rhodes ate 62. Our hosts were so kind, they created a special certificate for my “53”. So, if you visit Japan, make your way north on an empty stomach. Because Morioka has dozens of bowls of noodles with your name on it.
“It felt like I walked into hell”. That’s what Kiyomi Kono told me it was like when she saw what the atomic bomb did to Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Kiyomi was 14 years old when the bomb exploded and killed an estimated 140,000. “I remember the flash.” Her descriptions of stepping over bombing victims was sobering. Kiyomi remembers an adult begging for water but didn’t immediately know if it was a man or woman because the person was unrecognizable. Kiyomi says two cousins died from injuries and had many friends killed in the blast. She coped with the horrors of war by doing one thing. Paint. Kiyomi, now 88, has put together a power point presentation at the Hiroshima Peace Museum where she shows me her artwork. It was painful to paint, she tells me, because the images are embedded in her memory. But she paints for one reason. To educate others. Kiyomi wanted her children and grandchildren to see what she saw firsthand. And, even though she no longer paints, she wanted a reporter from Indiana to see what she experienced. She told me she no longer harbors ill will against the United States. Kiyomi visited Pearl Harbor and blames Japan’s aggression for prompting the Hiroshima attack. Kiyomi survived. Others did not. Her memories don’t fade 74 years later. They live in her mind and in her paintings.
Hiroshima. The Japanese city is forever linked to August 6, 1945 when the U.S. dropped the first atomic bomb. An estimated 140,000 people died by the end of 1945. We had to come here during our Olympic pre-trip. We knew that 2020 would be the 75th anniversary of the bombing. The city of Hiroshima wants the world to see the horrors of nuclear weapons and promote peace. “No more Hiroshimas” is a familiar refrain here. We saw the building now known as the “Atomic Bomb Dome”. The A-bomb exploded above and approximately 500 feet away, killing everyone inside. Residents debated what to do with the damaged building and ultimately decided to keep it this way. There are other points of interest throughout Peace Park including a clock that chimes at 8:15am every day, representing the time of the bombing. The Peace Museum is reflective and sobering. Many pictures of A-bomb victims are too graphic to show you. As we walked around to see the exhibits, it was incredibly quiet with the exception of a baby who was crying. I found myself imagining the cries of victims after the bombing. On Wednesday, we are interviewing two Hiroshima survivors. The museum arranged those interviews for me. I don’t know any details about who they are or what they’ve been through. I can only imagine. I’ll post more pictures after our interviews. And, you’ll see this story next July during our coverage of the Summer Olympics. Praying for peace.
Before we hop on a bullet train for Hiroshima, I want to share photos from my favorite place in Kyoto. This is the Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine.
You’ve probably seen the torri gates on Instagram or Japanese tour books. Or, perhaps my journey to Japan is the first time you’ve heard about this place. It. Is. Amazing. An estimated 5,000 torri gates wind up the side of a mountain. The hike is a challenge, particular on a hot day. My wife and I went to the summit. And, photographer Steve Rhodes and I have been back on different occasions to try different ways of filming this iconic photo op. You’ll see our story next July during our coverage of the Summer Olympics.
I thoroughly enjoyed spending Monday afternoon with Junko Kakizaki. She’s considered a master of Japanese traditions like tea ceremony, flower arrangements and kimonos. Junko and her American husband live in a 150 year old Japanese home in Kyoto. Her lineage dates back to one of the Japanese emperors. Today, Junko performed a traditional Japanese tea ceremony for me and explained why the details of each movement are so important. She also showed me three of her 120 kimonos that have been handed down from previous generations. These lovely kimonos are made of silk. But she says the “obi”, which looks like a large belt, is actually more important than the kimono. These important cultural traditions are kept alive, in part because of people like Junko. You’ll see her story next July during our coverage of the Summer Olympics.
When we researched our Olympic pre-trip a year ago, we wanted to do a story on Japanese swords. We worked for months to set up interviews and go “behind the scenes” to see one of Japan’s “master swordsmiths” at work. Today was that day. We ventured into Japan’s countryside to talk with a man who continues his family’s 800 year sword-making tradition. We saw swords that have been passed down for generations and the ancient techniques still used today. The swords aren’t just weapons. They are exquisite works of art. We also went into his workshop to see how the “master”, his son and their apprentices work to create these dazzling blades. It was the hottest day on our Olympic pre-trip (93 degrees) and we were filming outside the furnace which is 1,200 degrees. So, that explains the sweat on my shirt. Another 12 hour work day is coming to an end. I’m writing this as we ride a train back to our hotel in Kyoto. Good night from Japan!
I met Japan’s most famous dog! Shinjiro Ono says Marusan was the last shiba dog in the pet store. So, he bought the puppy as a Christmas gift 11 years ago. He started posting pictures and the world embraced “Maru” with 2.5 million followers on Instagram. Most fans live outside Japan. Now, the last dog in the pet store is the focus of his own store with his image featured on glasses, calendars and keychains. Proceeds now help rescue animals. “Maru” has helped a shy Japanese man open up. You’ll see this story in July of 2020 during our coverage of the Summer Olympics. #Tokyo2020#OlympicPreTrip#WTHR #marusan#Japan#explorejapan
We’ve had another amazing experience during our Olympic pre-trip. We traveled to Fukagawa, the oldest geisha district in Japan. We arranged a rare, behind-the-scenes tour with Sayuki, the first white woman approved to be a geisha in 400 years. Sayuki is a native of Australia who moved to Japan when she was 15. When she got older, she wanted to produce a TV documentary about living in a geisha house. But her dream eventually changed. She loved the culture so much, she became a Japanese citizen. 12 years ago, she studied to become a geisha. Now, Sayuki is the “geisha mother” for three young geisha. They live together in a small home. Sayuki says there are less than 2,000 geisha left in Japan. The word geisha means artist. Geishas are musicians and dancers and were not allowed to sell their bodies. Sayuki says it is a misconception that geishas are prostitutes. Sayuki teaches her young geishas about the history, manners and talents they will need to succeed. They take part in music lessons at the geisha house. Sayuki offers opportunities for tourists to come inside the geisha house to watch the geisha put on their makeup and dress in their kimono. The geisha’s clothing is very expensive. Sayuki says when they are fully dressed for the banquet, the geisha could be wearing $10,000 worth of clothing. Geisha perform at banquets in exclusive Japanese restaurants. Sayuki says it’s similar to hiring a ballerina or opera singer for a private dinner. Sayuki’s goal is for her customers to be “immersed in the moment”. She and her geisha have performed for one person and as many as 1,000 people. During our visit, we met Tazusa. She is in her mid-20’s. In Tokyo, Tazusa is referred to as a Yangyoku (young geisha). Her name means “transparent crane”. And, her kimono features images of the bird. Eventually, Sayuki wants to participate in a traveling Geisha show in the United States. She hopes to one day complete the TV documentary. www.sayuki.net
Today, we are getting a rare “behind the scenes” look at the life of a geisha in Japan. This young geisha is having a traditional Japanese breakfast inside a geisha house near Tokyo. We are spending most of Wednesday documenting what happens during her day. #geisha#wthr#explorejapan#olympicpretrip
Epic day for our Godzilla story! Toho Studio granted us permission to become the first TV station to ever photograph inside their secret warehouse containing Godzilla costumes, props and sets from the movies. And, they suggested I try on one of the Godzilla heads. It’s very hot inside and you can’t see anything. Our story airs in July 2020 during our summer Olympics coverage! #wthr#preolympictrip#godzilla#godzillakingofthemonsters#toho
WTHR becomes the first TV station ever allowed to photograph inside the secret warehouse containing Godzilla costumes, props and sets from the movies. Thanks to the talented team at Toho Studio for giving us extraordinary access. Our story airs in July 2020 during our Summer Olympics coverage. #wthr#godzilla#godzillakingofthemonsters#olympicpretrip
You must climb 398 steps to reach Mount Fuji’s most picturesque spot. It was a little cloudy for our interview with Takashi, a talented photographer who takes 20,000 pics of Fuji every year including the cover for National Geographic. Wait until I show you his favorite pictures of Japan’s most famous mountain. You’ll see that story in July 2020 during our Summer Olympic coverage from Tokyo. #wthr#explorejapan#preolympictrip#japan#mountfuji#mtfuji
Happy Friday morning from Japan! The hotel restaurant encourages guests to wear their kimono robes to meals. My wife convinced me to wear it at breakfast. I’d say 90% of the other people are wearing normal clothing. dōmo arigatō Janae’! (Thanks a lot Janae' Addy Swan)
We traveled to Nara Park, Japan today where 1,200 wild deer roam around freely. They are so tame, you can feed them. Japanese legend says a god in the 8th century came to Nara riding on a white deer. So, the deer are considered “divine messengers” by local people. They’ve also been taught to bow to you. For $1.50 you can buy Shika Senbei (deer crackers) and feed them. They are hungry and will nibble at you. Believe me, I’ve got a few bite marks on my backside. It’s one of the human interest stories we are gathering during this “pre Olympic trip” to Japan. #tokyo2020#wthr#nara#explorejapan#narapark#dontfearthedeer