Tag Archives: Japan

January, 2024: Japan’s Cities of Fire (Part Three)

By Corey Sandler

Japan sits perched on the edge of the Pacific’s Ring of Fire, which gives it earthquakes, fumaroles, hot springs, and more than a few active volcanos.

And it also holds the unhappy distinction of being the site of the only two atomic bomb wartime attacks: two days in August 1945 which all but destroyed a pair of cities.

A few months ago we returned to Japan for several weeks, and among the places we visited were Beppu, Kagoshima, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki.

Each of these cities, in different ways, made us feel very small when measured against natural and manmade extremes.


We went to hell in Beppu.

The town on the southern island of Kyushu doesn’t have a heck of a lot going for it, with the exception of its numerous steaming gas vents and eight geothermal hotspots.

In Japanese they are called joguku, which can be roughly translated from Buddhist beliefs as hells. I’m pretty sure that Western visitors and modern residents have seized on a hot topic to lure tourists.

Japanese Buddhism includes the concept of hot and cold regions below the surface of the earth, ruled over by Emma-ō, the lord of death. He judges the dead by consulting a register that lists all of their sins.

Residency is not necessarily permanent; the dead can move out after they serve their sentence or reduce their time by responding to the prayers of the living.

There are turquoise and chalky white and green hells, but the one that grabbed my attention was Chinoike Jigoku, which means “blood hell” or “bloody hell.” Either way, it is more like a hot bowl of rust, which makes sense since its color comes from iron oxide bubbling up to the surface.

Blood Hell in Beppu. Photo by Corey Sandler, all rights reserved.

The ponds were somewhat threatening. Much worse were the souvenir stands which you had to pass through to get to them. Commercial hell, they were, filled with trinkets and candies and bath salts. And lots of kittens.


A few days later we visited Kagoshima, another relatively obscure port that features an impossible-to-overlook geologic formation.

The local tourism folk would have you call the place the “Naples of the Eastern World.” Not for its architecture or for the invention of that essential food, pizza. What Kagoshima shares with Naples is the fact that it is a city with a hyper-active volcano in very close proximity to just about everything.

Sakurajima is Japan’s most active volcano.

Sakura is the Japanese word for cherry blossom. Jima means island. So, cherry blossom island.

Only it is no longer an island. In 1914, the last major eruption connected it to the mainland with a narrow spit of land.

Sakurajima is almost constantly erupting, sending plumes of fine ash and smoke into the sky. It was active all day when we were there, but luckily the wind was blowing away from downtown and the port where our ship was tied up.

Residents of the city, population about 680,000, regularly participate in shelter drills; schoolchildren wear hard hats. Scientists says the stratovolcano could produce a major event at almost any time.

We took a 15-minute ferry from town to Sakurajima to look around; we scuttled back to the ship for lunch with a view.

On June 17, 1945 about half the city was destroyed by incendiary and cluster bombs dropped by American aircraft, part of the preparation for the expected land invasion of Japan.

Sakurajima in the morning from Kagoshima port. Photo by Corey Sandler, all rights reserved.
Later in the day, the setting sun illuminated a more active Sakurajima. It was impossible not to think of an atomic mushroom cloud. Photo by Corey Sandler, all rights reserved.


The last two Japanese cities in this month’s blog are forever etched into world history: Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

On August 6, 1945 the first use of an atomic bomb killed about 90,000 people in Hiroshima; the final death toll, including those who died later of injuries and radiation sickness was about 160,000.

Modern Hiroshima is a prosperous city, and it is almost possible to forget what happened there. That is until you come to the park near its center. There are a few monuments, a large bronze bell, and along a river bank the Genbaku Dome, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial.

The people of Hiroshima chose to leave standing the shell of the former Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall. The city has been rebuilt all around, but the dome is intended to be forever a ruin.

After the visit to the dome, I spent the afternoon re-reading one of the great works of American non-fiction, John Hersey’s book “Hiroshima,” first published in 1946 just after the one-year anniversary of the blast.

The piece occupied all of the editorial pages of a single issue of the New Yorker magazine, telling of the aftermath of the blast through the stories of a handful of survivors. Not that I needed the lesson, but it was especially sobering to read the book while at the dock a few miles from the hypocenter of the first atomic bomb.

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial, forever in ruins. Photo by Corey Sandler, all rights reserved.
The A-Bomb detonated at 8:15 in the morning on August 6, 1945. I took this photo 78 years later as the morning sun breached the skeleton of the hall. Photo by Corey Sandler, all rights reserved.


While Hiroshima chose the stark reality of a ruined building at the hypocenter of the first atomic bomb blast, the people of Nagasaki took a different approach. There is also a gaping hole in that city, but they chose to build a park of monuments contributed by countries around the world, speaking to the hope for peace.

Nagasaki was bombed on August 9, 1945. It was not the original target for the second atomic bomb; the intent had been to strike Kokura but that city was obscured by clouds.

At the center of the bomb’s destruction today is the Nagasaki Peace Park. At one end is the Peace Statue, about 10 meters or 33 feet tall.

The statue mixes eastern and western art, religion, and symbology.

The right hand points to the sky, to where the bomb was dropped. The left arm extends outward to symbolize peace. One leg is folded in a meditative stance, the other extended as if to stand up and offer solace and help.

The Peace Memorial in Nagasaki. Photos by Corey Sandler, all rights reserved.

At the end of the trip, in late October, we began the long trip home to Boston. The first leg was a flight from Hong Kong to Tokyo.

As we reached the bottom of the home islands of Japan I noticed a city with a mountain and a plume of smoke rising up toward us. I checked our location on the airplane’s seatback video map: it was Sakurajima in Kagoshima.

Sakurajima from 35,000 feet aboard our airplane heading home. Photo by Corey Sandler, all rights reserved.

Next month I will conclude my observations on our Asian trip with notes and photos from two places that are betwixt and between modern powers: Taiwan and Hong Kong.

All text and photos copyright 2024 by Corey Sandler. If you would like to use an image for personal or commercial use, please contact me.

December, 2023: Old Japan Hidden in Plain Sight (Part Two)

By Corey Sandler

We came to Tokyo five days ahead of our cruise to allow us some extra time to explore some of the less-visited sections of the city. It also didn’t hurt to have a few extra days to acclimate to the 13-hour time zone change.

We stayed in a modern hotel in Tokyo’s Odaiba district, a very modern very strange place that includes several vertical malls, a replica of the Statue of Liberty, a massive model of Unicorn Gundam (look it up and feel free to explain it to me), and half a dozen or so stations on the driverless Yurikamome system that connects to Tokyo’s 11 other more conventional subway lines.

The guideway for the automated Yurikamome line as it crosses the Rainbow Bridge from the artificial island Odaiba to Tokyo. Photo by Corey Sandler, all rights reserved.

On our first day we went to the Asakusa Sensoji Temple, the oldest Buddhist temple in Tokyo, dating in its original form to the year 645. The shrine at the site is much younger, built in 1649. Both were severely damaged in World War II when much of Tokyo was fire-bombed, but have been rebuilt as they were.

The approach to the temple presents a religious site of a different sort, an outdoor market of several blocks called Nakamise. It’s the place to go for essentials like ornate fans or simple summer kimonos called yakuta. On the day of our visit, a Saturday leading up to a holiday, the stretch of stores was probably the most crowded place I’ve visited since the onset of the pandemic.

The entrance to Asakusa Sensoji Temple in Tokyo. The painted lantern-like signs carry the names of messages of merchants and individuals who have made contributions to the temple. Photo by Corey Sandler, all rights reserved.

Another expedition took us through the spaghetti bowl of subway lines to a much quieter part of Tokyo, the Koisikawa Kōrakuen park in the Bunkyō district, a formal Japanese garden that dates from the early Edo period of Japan. The garden was established in 1629 and has been mostly left untouched as modern Tokyo grew around it.

It’s very easy to time travel within Koisikawa Kōrakuen, and the thick greenery helps isolate the ancient park from modern intrusions nearby, including the Tokyo Dome baseball stadium and an amusement park. Photos by Corey Sandler, all rights reserved.

A few days later we were in Osaka, Japan’s third most populous city (after Tokyo and its close neighbor Yokohama.)

This is the nation’s financial center, and also the home of a few of its largest electronics makers Panasonic, Sharp, and Sanyo.

There are some spectacular pieces of modern architecture in the city, but that’s not what we were looking for on this visit. Instead, we went to a very impressive piece of very old construction.

Sumiyoshi-taisha is a Shinto grand shrine, first established in 211 and modestly updated over the years. It was at first closely connected to imperial trade with China.

Sumiyoshi-taisha shrine in Osaka. Photo by Corey Sandler, all rights reserved.
Colorful banners at the shrine reference donations by individuals and companies. Photo by Corey Sandler, all rights reserved.
The Taiko-bashi bridge stands at one of the approaches to the main shrine. Photo by Corey Sandler, all rights reserved.
A wedding ceremony at the shrine, taken at a respectful distance with a long telephoto lens. Photo by Corey Sandler, all rights reserved.

Next month I’ll post some photos from places where Japan’s ring of fire comes to the surface, the southern towns of Beppu and Kagoshima and also scenes from our visit to the atomic bomb cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

All photos and text copyright Corey Sandler, 2023. If you would like to use a photo for personal or commercial use please contact me.

November, 2023: Back to Japan (Part One)

By Corey Sandler

When you imagine Japan, do you conjure Samurai warriors?

Stealthy, lethal Ninjas?

Fierce soldiers who held out against overwhelming forces throughout World War II, including against overwhelming force in the final months?

Or…do you think of modern Japan as something very different?

Pokémon and Sailor Moon? Furry mascots for sports teams, corporations, and municipal governments?

And above all, kittens.

We’ve just returned from another trip to Japan. That marks twice in six months we have ventured to the far extremes of jet lag, a 13-hour flight and 13 time zones. Being there was great; getting there and back was grueling.

This time we met up with Viking Orion, sailing from Tokyo to central and southern Japan and then on to Taiwan and Hong Kong.

To me, one of the great joys of travel is to go where life and culture are different.

When I am away, I do not want to feel at home. I want to go down the rabbit hole with Alice to a place where the more you explore the curiouser and curiouser things become.

I was born just after the end of World War II and that makes me of the age that knew of fierce Japan, ruined Japan, and resurgent Japan. The country, most of its cities and ports reduced to rubble, literally rose from those ashes to become an economic powerhouse.

And though Japan was greatly changed by the war and by the mostly positive efforts of American occupation led by the intriguing General Douglas MacArthur, it rebuilt itself with a culture that took many things Western and turned them toward the East.

An arcade in a huge shopping mall in Tokyo’s Odaiba district topped by a massive model of Unicorn Gundam, a Japanese novel turned manga turned anime about space-traveling Transformer-like machines…or something like that. Photo by Corey Sandler, all rights reserved.

The first time I visited Japan, in the 1980s, I was bewildered by the unfamiliar colors of familiar objects like refrigerators and cars: lime green, tangerine, pink. Today, the color scheme has moved more toward neutral Western white, silver, and black.

But there are still some very perplexing examples of things that seem somehow lost in translation.

Consider the humble KitKat chocolate bar, a British invention now owned by the Swiss confectionary maker Nestlé, except for an American offshoot produced by Hershey. KitKat arrived in Japan in the 1970s when rights were acquired by Fujiya, which makes and sells brands including Look, Heart, and Milky chocolates and jellies.

In Japan, you can still buy the traditional chocolate bars, but why go for the familiar when you can also find KitKats in Dark Matcha (chocolate and green tea), Chestnut, Sweet Potato, Caramel Pudding, or Melon?

Alas, some of the 70 or so varieties are produced in small batches and only sold for short periods of time.

We stopped at several dozen convenience stores and other shops in search of our holy grail: KitKat Wasabi. Never found it, but there’s always next time.

KitKat in Japan, shown here in dark chocolate, strawberry, and traditional varieties. We hunted far and wide for the elusive wasabi flavor. Photo by Corey Sandler, all rights reserved.

But for me the greatest source of wonderment in Japan is kawaii: the national fixation on cuteness.

I will not pretend to be a sociologist here.

I will observe that in many places around the world young girls seem to be engaged in a race to dress like, act like, and otherwise seek a very early entry into womanhood. In Japan many instead seem to be holding fast to childhood.

Kawaii girls pose for a selfie at Asakusa in Tokyo. Photo by Corey Sandler, all rights reserved.

I say young girls, because that seems to be the heart of kawaii, but there are also a sizeable contingent of young boys who do not easily put away childish things. Think Nintendo and anime comics and Japanese Boy Bands.

Kawaii (可愛い) means adorable or cute. There are cute girls and cute boys, and also kittens, lots of kittens.

Kittens everywhere. Photo by Corey Sandler, all rights reserved.

The hyperactive Japanese game and music and merchandising industries have extended that concept to cute categories within manga (comics or graphic novels) and anime (animated cartoons.)

Say hello to Super Mario Bros., Hello Kitty, and Pokémon.

Pokémon Center in Hiroshima, not far from the hypocenter of the world’s first atomic bomb. Photo by Corey Sandler, all rights reserved.

And then there are the mascots. Nearly every sports team, major corporation, store, city, and prefecture has a kawaii character.

The official mascots of the port of Shimizu, in the shadow of Mount Fuji. Shimizu is also the home of the S-Pulse football team, and S-Pulse mascots and characters are everywhere. Very cute. Photo by Corey Sandler, all rights reserved.
The S-Pulse amusement park, with cute characters, in Shimizu. Somewhat incongruously, the yellow sign at the left points out tsunami escape routes. Photo by Corey Sandler, all rights reserved.

KitKat’s maker, Fujiya, is represented by Peko-chan, a girl in pigtails licking her lips. Peko-chan, to me, looks like a somewhat updated version of Anne of Green Gables, the fictional heroine of books by the Canadian author Lucy Maude Montgomery.

Anne, sometimes called Anne of Red Hair, took hold in the postwar years when American occupation forces imported the book as part of an effort to liberate Japanese girls from traditional gender roles. And very kawaii, too.

Certainly not every Japanese female has gone kawaii. But a stroll through Tokyo, especially on the weekend, leaves you almost surrounded by Lolita fashion, ribbons, bows, and parasols. Makeup styles aim to accentuate large, round doll-like eyes.

In the United States, many young girls play-act adult roles with Barbie dolls. Barbie is not a big factor in Japan, but instead there is Licca, a doll modeled after an 11-year-old girl.

So why kawaii? It could be seen as a way to seek a return to innocence in a country that was ravaged by war, including the horrors of two atomic bombs. In the 1950s, kawaii came into being…at the same time as Godzilla and his competitors. Curiouser and curiouser.

One of General MacArthur’s legacies is a constitution that renounced the right to wage war, at least in theory.

Or perhaps, sociology-wise, a broader move away from the strictures of the samurai, ninjas, and geishas.

Tokyo itself, the capital of the island nation and home to many things old and revered in Japan, has several conflicting personalities. Modern architecture ranges from emulation of things western like the expensive shops on the Ginza and the Eiffel Tower-like Tokyo Tower to inscrutable oddities like cartoon characters surrounding office buildings and very unusual decor at major corporations.

Guardians of the universe outside an office block in Tokyo. Photo by Corey Sandler, all rights reserved.
A sorta-cute representation of a golden frothy head atop the headquarters of Asahi Breweries on the banks of the Sumida River in Tokyo. Locals have other, scatalogical, nicknames for the sculpture. Photo by Corey Sandler, all rights reserved.

I’ll be back next month with photos and observations from other stops on this cruise, including the heavily freighted worlds of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a visit to the neighborhood erupting volcano in Kagoshima, a drop-in in Taipei, Taiwan and a steamy time in schizophrenic Hong Kong.

All photos and text copyright 2023 by Corey Sandler, all rights reserved. If you would like a copy of a photo for personal or commercial use please contact me for permission.

June 2023: Who Knows Where the Time Goes? (Part Two)

By Corey Sandler

If you were to ask a (talented) child to draw a picture of a volcano, what you’d get would likely look very much like Mount Fuji in Japan.

To put it another way, Mount Fuji is a near-perfect volcanic cone, the tallest mountain in Japan with its summit at 12,389 feet or 3,774 meters. It stands on its own, covered or sprinkled with snow for about half the year.

In April, I was sailing on a ship into Shimizu, south of Tokyo, ready to head out on an expedition to fulfill my mind’s-eye plan for a photo of Mount Fuji. As the sun rose on a gray and cloudy, while the ship was still maneuvering through the harbor, Mount Fuji came to me.

Mount Fuji comes to me, like a magic hat above the countryside. Photo by Corey Sandler, all rights reserved.

I chose to make this image a study in rich black and white.

We had traveled from Tokyo to the southern islands of Japan and back to Yokohama aboard Regent Seven Seas Explorer, and on the last full day of the cruise we called at Shimizu, a bustling city south of Tokyo also known as Shizuoka. The weather forecast for the day called for heavy clouds and that’s what greeted us as we sailed into the harbor.

Mount Fuji was right there, off the starboard side…or so the GPS map on my phone told us. But all we saw was a wall of cloud from sea level to the skies.

But I don’t give up that easily. I kept a weather eye on the sky, and saw it begin to brighten slightly and then a half-volcano-sized hole opened. I took the first of many photos from the veranda of our suite before our ship came to the dock.

For centuries, Japanese artists, poets, and spiritual leaders have made Fuji the object of rhapsodic study.

Fuji is an active stratovolcano, still bubbling within; its most recent significant eruption came in 1707 and across its known recent history it has erupted every few hundred years. You do the math…

It is hard to miss Fuji if you venture south of Tokyo; in fact, on a clear day the summit is visible from the capital city 62 miles away.

Many Japanese consider it a life’s goal to climb to the summit, typically a five-to-twelve-hour trek of about 12 miles on various trails that approach from nearly every direction. Climbing season runs from early July to mid-September, and the best experience is supposed to be a nighttime hike that culminates with sunrise from the summit.

A Japanese aphorism says that a wise person will ascend Mount Fuji once in a lifetime, but only a fool would climb it twice.

I’d consider the hike, although my visits to Japan have all been during the mountain-climbing off-season. That’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it.

A View from a Shrine

A few hours later, I went with a group of guests on a pilgrimage to the Fujisan Hongu Sengen Taisha Shrine, constructed in the 17th century at least partly to admire the volcano.

Our guide kept speaking of the beauties of the mountain and pointing vaguely in the direction of the huge volcano, but the clouds were once again completely blocking the view.

We toured the shrine, watched a very young couple dressed in traditional clothing make a pre-wedding visit (accompanied by a camera crew) and toured the gardens. We were just past the peak of cherry blossom trees, but wisteria was having its moment.

As I often do, I wandered a bit from the group and looked for non-traditional photos and angles. I turned a corner and suddenly was face-to-face with a volcano. The volcano. Fuji.

After I snapped a few safety photos, I ran back to alert the guide and guests. Here’s some of what we saw:

Fuji from Hongu Sengen Taisha Shrine

Fuji, ready for its closeup. Photos by Corey Sandler, all rights reserved.

And then, under the thesis that any worth doing is worth overdoing, we drove an hour back and then past Shimizu to visit Miho no Matsubara, a quiet seaside pine grove with a soft lava sand beach.

Once again, Fuji was elusive at first. But rounding a curve on the beach, we found the mountain once again.

Fuji from the Beach

Okinawa, A Place Apart

A few days earlier, we had called at Naha, the capital city of the prefecture of Okinawa. It includes more than 160 islands inhabited and uninhabited.

For most of its history, Okinawa had been an independent country, the capital of the Ryukyu Kingdom. It became part of Japan in 1879.

Most of the people of Okinawa speak a distinctive dialog not easily interchangeable with Japanese. Even today, many residents identify themselves not as Japanese, but as Okinawans.

When World War II, Naha and Okinawa Island were essentially invaded by the Japanese military who fortified the island and conscripted teenage boys into combat and teenage girls into nursing and other support roles.

As Allied forces advanced toward the mainlands of Japan, the outer islands became critical defensive positions. In April of 1945, four months before the end of the war, a force of mostly American Army and Marine Corps troops launched an invasion with 185,000 troops, the largest amphibious assault in the Pacific war.

The American intent was to use bases on Okinawa as staging areas for the planned invasion of Japan’s home islands about 340 miles away.

They faced fierce resistance including a retreat by many Japanese troops–and Okinawan civilians–into caves. The battle lasted 81 days.

Precise numbers are hard to come by, but one estimate says 12,500 Americans were killed or missing in action. On the Axis side, 77,166 Japanese soldiers and about 30,000 Okinawan conscripts died. And perhaps 100,000 to 150,000 Okinawan civilians were killed in the assault.

Okinawa remained under American occupation until 1972, and there are still a half dozen American military bases on the islands.

Himeyuri Peace Museum

One of the caves of Okinawa where civilians and troops died. Photo by Corey Sandler, all rights reserved.

Okinawan Naval Headquarters

In the weeks leading up to the assault, Japanese naval authorities ordered the construction of a massive network of underground tunnels and rooms in a limestone mountain near what would be the climactic battlesite.

After decades, the rooms and tunnels were opened to visitors, frozen in time and toured mostly in silence.

A command center of the Japanese Navy dug out of a mountainside in Okinawa. Photo by Corey Sandler, all rights reserved.

Cruise’s End

Two weeks after we started, Regent Explorer brought us to the bustling port of Yokohama on the Pacific Ocean. That day began about 6:30am and ended 27 hours later–on the same day–when our jumbo jet touched down in another great port, Boston on the Atlantic Ocean. Photo by Corey Sandler, all rights reserved.

Photos and text copyright Corey Sandler. To obtain copies or otherwise use images, please contact me through my website at www.coreysandler.com

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