Saturday, January 28, 2012

Taiwan's High Speed Railway (THSR)

A refreshing November morning at 6 AM, after an overnight stay at Taoyuan, the gateway city of Taiwan with two million people, I took a bus to the new THSR (Gaodi) Taoyuan Station, following advice from my Lao Taoyuan friend, TM Alex Hsiao (in a telephone message awaiting for my arrival at the hotel).

The bus journeyed through the dawning hustle and bustle of downtown, picking up THSR passengers at key spots and corners, gradually filling and almost fully loaded by the time I reached my destination. This was a special bus, exclusive for THSR passengers, (gratis) free.

I was at the newly built Gaodi Station by 7 AM, bought my seat ticket and waited for the train to have a rendezvous with two special friends, my Tokyo friend Shimada and Janifer Quo of Taipei (see January 2010 Riosloggers post). Kazunobu Shimada, President of IQM, an ISO-9000 auditing company, was born in Taipei and studied at Nanmen Grade School. He had to return to Japan at the end of World War II before graduating. I had introduced Shimada to Janifer, asking for her assistance, should Shimada make a return visit to Nanmen, Nanmen and Ximen are two different grade schools in Taipei, but under one Taipei City Government.

Janifer, now retired, but an ex-teacher of Ximen Elementary School, talked to the principal of Nanmen Grade School and arranged to have Shimada awarded with his dream Nanmen diploma after 60 years. They were heading for Taichung together to serve as judges at the Taiwan Toastmasters Conference and a Japanese language contest, and I was joining them.

While I was congratulating Shimada on his diploma, Janifer handed us her homemade breakfasts, consisting of cut wax apples, star fruits, dragon fruits, pineapples, grapes, custard apples, etc. along with youtiao, a roasted rice cake. The care packages were prepared by Janifer so the two of us could try tasting Taiwan fruits and we really appreciated her thoughtfulness. Shimada told me he had eaten some of them in his childhood but not all. Custard apple is shaped like the Buddha’s head, called "Shijia" in Chinese. It was new to both Shimada and me. We scooped up white flesh grain with a spoon, totally enjoying the delicious, sweet taste. I was told many Japanese expatriates leave Taiwan without being baptized of the taste. The fruit, from Pintong area, needs 20 weeks or so to become ripe. Australians call it "Bull's heart".

Our train reached the brand new Gaodi Wurih Station in an hour, just as we finished our breakfast. It was so quick. Luckily, the Conference venue was close to the station and we did not experience any confusion in changing trains from Gaodi to Taidi, on the old Taiwan Railroad.

I was back to Gaodi Wurih Station alone by taxi to return to Taipei at 5 PM the following Sunday. The station was packed like a can of sardines and had many long lines at the ticketing stations. I waited for about 30 minutes to get my ticket. The waiting lines were orderly and even prioritized people with disabilities. I had to present my passport to the ticket counter service. I got a senior discount (65 and above), half the fare of an adult. No wonder I saw a good number of senior passengers. I didn't see empty seats so the THSR promotions must be working. I noticed that the green car passengers got free coffee and a pack of snacks.

I observed that all THSR workers, including those serving foods and drinks, were quite enthusiastic. Their morale was high. The THSR's BOT (Build/Operate/Transfer) prerogative formula seems to be finally paying off after the initial disappointing years of low passenger levels. In 2011, monthly users hit 3 million, recording over 100,000 daily passengers.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

My 10th Visit to Taiwan (Part 3)

Frog Play

While circling Ittekisui Garden, a stone frog statue caught my eye and curiosity. First, I thought of Taoism as a luck bringing mascot. This frog, however, was from writer Tsutomu Minakami's work. Named Bunna (shortened from Bunnaga, the name of Budda's disciple) by Minakami, the frog appears in his book "Come down, Bunna from the tree", one of the young readers' stories Minakami wrote in 1972, as requested by publishers.

Bunna is a young and stout "Tonosama (my lord) Gaeru" in Japanese, a black spotted pond frog, good at tree climbing. He lives in a pond inside the temple. One day, he challenged a tall pasania tree (Formosan oak), disobeying old frogs' advice not to climb this tree. He thought he could climb to heaven, but found instead a temporary prey repository of eagles, the veriest hell of captured animals such as from a shriek bird, sparrow, thrush to rat, snake, etc. to be eaten upon the eagles' return. Bunna narrowly escaped, hiding under cover between clay. Bunna secretly heard their painful cries and whimpers facing death, with mixed emotions, as they are all natural enemies of frogs. A rat advises Bunna that he would kill himself since he knows eagles won't eat dead animals. Bunna survived eating worms and flies out of the dead rat body, and with enough energy, climbed down the tree after one winter hibernation. Through this tree climbing experience, Bunna learns all the living things survive by eating each other and the life of each animal should equally be invaluable. In this world of survival of the fittest, this book teaches and enlightens young readers with the question and meaning of "what is life".

As I mentioned earlier, Minakami wrote this book in 1972. In the early 1970s, I was planning to return to the U.S. and work toward that very same goal with my heart and soul. I had not thought of anything else but myself up to that point.

The sale of the book wasn't favorable at first. But, in 1978, when the theatrical group Seinenza (Youth Group) adapted it for the stage, sales zoomed. The stage version has remained popular throughout Japan ever since among children. Then Amon Miyamoto brought it to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC as a musical in 2008. The title of the musical was "Up in the Air." Seinenza performed it in Beijing in 2007 and in New York in 2010. Recently there was a milestone production performed jointly by Japanese and Chinese children. Minakami reportedly confided before his death that Bunna may be the work that will be remembered by future generations.

Up in the Air

In Taiwan, as well as in Japan, stone lion dog statues guard places such as the National Palace Museum, Tao's Zhi Nan Temple, Hobe Battery Park, etc. Stone frogs similarly may appeal to the Taiwanese as the Japanese word "kaeru" for frog means return or recovery from illness, rejuvenate or revitalize. Frog stone of Ittekisui may attract Taiwanese visitors.

I was told that Ogori, in Fukuoka Prefecture, has a unique temple dedicated to frogs.

Note of Credit:
Photo of the frog stone statue was a Taiwanese blogger whose name is Hsieh Shu-Fen. The writer obtained permission to use it from her and I thank her.

Monday, January 9, 2012

My 10th Visit to Taiwan (Part 2)

Can Ittekisui House be a new attraction in Tamsui?

In just 45 minutes, Taipei Metro Tamsui Line will take you north from Taipei Station to Tamsui, the end of the line. A great expanse of water awaits you as you exit the station. That is Tamsui River - Tamsui meaning freshwater. Rising above the shore of the river is Mt. Kuanyin. The wooden river walkway is different and pleasant. I've been to Tamsui before. I took a bus from Tamsui to Chinshan.

In Tamsui, I walked through downtown Tamsui to Hong Mao Cheng (castle of the red haired barbarians), or San Domingo Fort and Mission built by the Spaniards 350 years ago.

I dropped into Tamsui Tourist Bureau to pick up a brochure of the new attraction. It was not available yet as I expected. (Upon returning home, I found that Tamsui Peace Park/Ittekisui House was already introduced on Facebook by the Tamsui Government. The official opening was March 2011).

Peace Park was a little further north of Hong Mao Cheng and down below the Hobe Battery Park built during the Qing Dynasty days. The Peace Park is also contiguous to the Taiwan Golf Course through a cluster of trees.

I took a taxi this time. The taxi turned right in less than one kilometer after Hong Mao Cheng. The taxi driver pointed at the Peace Park signboard.

The Google site map I looked up on my PC seemed accurate and I was afraid of a long walk. Actually, the park was not that large. I had an inclination to compare it to the Japanese Garden in San Diego, California, which I was deeply involved with while living there in the 1980s. I figured 5 acres and my estimate was just about correct. I found the land measured 19,580 square meters.

The garden project has just started with a small dry garden, stone lanterns, young trees and some greens. It may easily take 10 to 15 years for it to develop into a full scale Japanese Garden with the help of garden architects and gardeners. I noted many Taiwan photographers have already visited and been blogging about it, including those who had shot newlyweds there. I saw a plethora of wedding photographers at Hong Mao Cheng site. Ittekisui will need to try real hard to catch up with Hong Mao if they intend to compete.

I saw two volunteers busily acting as visitor's guides inside the Ittekisui House. I asked how many volunteers are registered and the answer was 1300 so far.

With a volunteer visitor guide

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

My 10th Visit to Taiwan

Happy New Year! I start the New Year with a 3-part posting to commemorate my 10th visit to Taiwan.

"Nowadays not only humans, but houses cross international borders."

Meili Chen, Taichung Toastmaster opened a conversation in impeccable Japanese when her close friends sat together for a break at the conference forum in Taiwan.

Meili, in her maiden days, had studied at Kyoto University. "Sounds nice! Is it a Taiwan story? Can you tell me where?" I inquired. "A Japanese house of 100 years old came to Tamsui," Meili started her talk. I had one free day in Taipei on this trip and I was hoping to visit the house to commemorate my 10th visit to Taiwan." Here is Chen's story summarized. The house was originally located in Oicho, Fukui Prefecture along the Wakasa Bay facing the Japan Sea. The project was intended as an inland transplant to a community park in Kobe and any move outside of Japan was not even considered.

What happened was the bond that developed after two intense (above 7.0 on Richter scale) earthquakes that victimized Kobe (1995) and southern Taiwan (1999). Both countries struggled for a speedy recovery. As care packages and comfort goods were exchanged, rescue crews and volunteers mutually dispatched, the relationship evolved into a very close one and grass roots movement of joint cooperation on respective key projects was established.

I am a returnee from the U.S. after 30 cumulative years. It was in late 1994 that my wife and I came back to my Tokyo house. My sister-in-law from Kitakyushu helped us unpack during the New Year holidays. The Kobe earthquake hit hard and the Shinkansen (bullet train) service was halted. My sister-in-law had to return to Kitakyushu by air. In Sept 1999, Taiwan was struck. It was after I made my first few visits to Taiwan. I remember writing sympathy letters, sending donations, to my new Taiwanese friends.

More than 10 years has passed and I just finished my 10th visit this past November. I was reminded that a steady and vigorous relationship has developed between Taiwan and Japan. (On and after 3/11, Taiwan continues to assist in recovery efforts of the Tohoku Earthquake/Tsunami victims).

What kicked off the house transplant project was the disassembly and reassembly of a Fukui antique house for the Kobe Mikura North Park Community Center when Taiwan volunteers saw the beauty of the wooden house. They were so impressed that they expressed their wish to have such a house in Taiwan.

The Mikura nonprofit organization (NPO), called "Machi-Communication," is an organization of that has won awards from the Minister of Domestic General Affairs, as well as the Prime Minister, for efforts of caring for deceased victims and compassion toward recovery. A 100-year old house built by Master Carpenter Kakuji Minakami, father of writer Tsutomu Minakami, was secured for the project. The NPO "Machi-Comi" arranged to make it Minakami's Library with 200 books donated by Tsutomu's daughter. The NPO also arranged to make Chen Shun-Chen's Library, because Kobe is where Chen was born and spent his childhood. The house was christened with the name "Ittekisui", the Zen philosophy Tsutomu Minakami embraced, meaning "the infinite universe exists even in one drop of water".

Meanwhile, Taiwan searched vigorously for suitable land. First, Changhua County in the south volunteered. Plans fell through, however, when the soliciting County Mayor lost his election. It was in 2009 when Tamsui Mayor answered the call as Tamsui was where the writer Chen returned to live from Kobe after the war. It was reported that students from Tamkang University volunteered to complete the termite treatment of stored timbers before the Japanese carpenters were summoned in. The work started in June and was completed in December. It took a full 6 months to refinish, given the fact that the original design did not use any nails. The successful completion of the project was the result of the effort of 5,000 people.

Photos of the progress of the project reminded me of the Amish villagers constructing a new house with all hands.

The celebration of completion was attended by Tamsui Mayor and other key volunteers, including a Taiwanese called Lao-Tai as reported by writer Ryotaro Shiba of the NPO Machi-Communication News. His real name is Kun-Zhan Tsai. He is a Japanese fencing master, an entrepreneur of the semiconductor industry and he served as Taipei guide for Ryotaro Shiba. A Toast to the real hero: NPO "Machi-Comi," the salt of the earth!