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Monthly Archives: August 2008

Look gang, some posts together in a reasonably timely manner, however did this happen.

Well I’ll let you in on a little secret. Blogger now has a feature that lets you date stamp a post so it won’t appear until the relevant desired date, this, combined with my complete lack of anything to do at work recently, means I’ve been able to build up a kind of buffer of posts. Sorry for the gap in posting but heading into August and September we should be back on track again.

In fact due to the magic of technology this post is going up as I am actually in Tokyo! Control yourselves people, I know you’re excited but you can’t possibly be more excited than I. After all, I’m the one off there.

I intend to travel in style, yes that’s right, not the proletarian delights of the shinkansen for me, oh no, I shall be traveling by the night bus; a 7 hour overnight journey in cramped environs. Fortunately I have with me all the entertainment I could possibly need in the form of “Final Fantasy Tactics Advance 2”. A computer game that is in part responsible for the lack of posting last month. Damn catchy games.

In Tokyo I’ll be hitting up such sights as the Tokyo Tower, Asakusa Shrine, The National Museum, Tsukiji Fish Market and Hea-jinja and exploring such diverse districts as Shibuya, Akihabara, Ginza, Odaiba and even a jaunt to Yokohama.

So expect many, many photos and stuff from Tokyo in the coming weeks.

Until then here is some random filler.

This is an enormous whale hanging inside a building in Umeda. Underneath it is a baby whale. Its true purpose is mysterious and possibly sinister.

I could really go for some pudding right now.

And following up from last week’s Tenjin no Matsuri we have more pictures of fireworks.

These were let off in Kobe for, really no apparent reason, other than it being summer and really do you need any more excuse than that to light up the sky.

I have seen more spectacular fireworks in Osaka (not at the Tenjin matsuri but rather at a dedicated fireworks event) but these come a very close second. I watched them with friends from Port Island, an artificial island in Kobe Harbour which overlooks Harborland. The combination of the bright lights of Kobe, the spectacularly lit up Port Tower and Ferris wheel in Harborland and the fireworks was especially lovely.

Finally here is some weird stuff I found in my local combini.

Japan loves seasonal food and no food better embodies this than the kit-kat. Summer is upon us and so the summer kit-kat flavour has arrived and this year it is.

Watermelon and Salt.

As weird as Watermelon chocolate sounds in the first place (not weird in a bad way just a hard to imagine way) it is the addition of salt that really pushes this into the truly bizarre.

As for the taste test? Well it’s nice actually; in fact it’s one of my favourite Japanese specialty flavours. The salt is actually quite a nice touch cutting the sweetness of the rest of it which is much, much sweeter than a regular kit-kat for some reason. The watermelon flavour is subtle but nice. I don’t really associate chocolate with summer so I doubt I shall be stocking up on this but this is a really, really nice kit-kat.

At the same combini I also spotted this, the coffee history of Kobe. This is another thing you find a lot of in Japan. Non-local products marketed as if they are local. There is no coffee grown in Kobe and as far as I know no real link to coffee in the city’s history. Although it was one of the first ports that was allowed to train with the outside world so I’m sure most coffee in Japan did pass through Kobe at some point. This product joins Kobe wine, Kobe cheesecake and Kobe pudding as an odd kind of but not quite foreign product that people who visit Kobe can give to relatives.

It is not bad coffee.

For some reason great things in Japan come in threes.

For example, any guidebook on Japan will tell you about the three most famous views in all of Japan. The floating torii in Miyajima, the Amanohashidate sand spit in Kyoto and the Matsushima valley in Miyagi.

Similarly there’s also a set of three most famous night views, three best onsen, three best gardens, three best castles etc, etc.

The set relevant to today is the three greatest festivals/matsuri in Japan. Number 1 is the Gion festival in Kyoto, number 2 is the Kanda and Sannoo Matsuri in Tokyo and number 3 is the Tenjin matsuri in Osaka.

I sadly had to be at work for the Gion festival this year* and Tokyo is a long trek to look at floats but I was not going to miss the one in Osaka. Thus last Friday I set off to Osaka along with my girlfriend Fran and three of her friends.

* However my girlfriend did attend Gion matsuri and she is hopefully going to do a guest post telling you all about it.

Unfortunately I only knew three things about this festival.

1. There is a float incorporating a shrine to a god.
2. At some stage it is put on a boat and traverses the river.
3. There are fireworks.

And I’ll own up to the following right away, I missed nearly every event that was happening during the festival. Apparently at a shrine in Osaka the god is paraded around up and down the street on an enormous float. There are more floats, dancing, chanting, music, etc, etc. My friends and I saw almost none of this because we were wandering about near the river where we assumed everything was happening.

In fairness considering the only things we knew were happening involved boats this wasn’t entirely wrong of us, and the riverbanks were lined with tents.

Yup, tents selling food. This is the defining feature of Japanese festivals. I may have explained the principle of Japanese festivals to you all before but allow me to reiterate.

What one does at a Japanese festival.

Firstly one dresses up in Yukata. Particularly if one is a lady.
Secondly, one goes to a tent and buys enormous quantities of festival food, a kind of food that is quite unlike most other Japanese food.
Thirdly, one sits down and watches whatever spectacle the festival is in aid of.

Lacking a yukata yet (although you just wait) I skipped straight to stage two and wandered about looking at all the bizarre food. 

Highlights included;

These enormous takoyaki, the size of my fist. Takoyaki are octopus dumplings and usually they only contain part of one octopus tentacle. These takoyaki contained a whole octopus each. They were absolutely enormous.

Delicious pineapple slices on a stick and even more bizarrely watermelon on a stick. There really is nothing that the Japanese won’t put on a stick.

These awesome looking barbequed fish. Not pictured, the barbequed sea snails that seem daring for even the bravest culinary adventurer.

Some strange snack thing consisting of a giant prawn rice cracker coated with takoyaki sauce, sprinkled with something crispy I couldn’t identify and topped with a fried egg shaped like a heart. Nice but an odd combination of elements.

We also made a brief alteration to stage 2 to pause and play some of the traditional festival games.

This game involves using a paper scoop to try and capture goldfish before the paper disintegrates. You can then pay extra to keep the fish. I didn’t try it as scaring fish for amusement is not really my cup of tea but Fran had a go and captured an impressive 18 fish! Considering I’ve watched people fail to capture one that is a sterling performance.

There was also a variant of this involving some turtles which turned all the girls I was with very kawaii. Fran had a long and very intense argument with herself as to whether or not to get a turtle.

Finally, refreshed and having completed stage 2 we moved onto stage 3, in this case watching things happen in the river.

Japan wins at fireworks by the way guys. The rest of the world can just give up now because Japan has won. The firework displays in this country are immense stunning things. The entire sky is constantly illuminated from one end to the other. I lack the words really to convey quite how superior the fireworks here are to those in Britain. There simply isn’t a shared frame of reference that can be used to compare them. In fact, even mentioning such inferior fireworks as the kind we have in Britain devalues the spectacle a little bit.

And spectacle is definitely the right word, particularly when later into the night the fireworks were joined by hundreds of brightly lit barges (many sporting music and giant illuminated advertising mascots) and a small boat, containing the shiny golden casket that the god the festival celebrates resides in, zipping about. Fireworks, Noh dance, barges and golden casket all combined to create a visual effect that completely overwhelms your ability to take it all in at once.

Sadly my videos failed entirely to capture the scale of what was going on. Especially the fireworks.

The only thing more sensory overloading than the visuals is the absolute crush of people all around you. There were a lot of people lining the riverbanks, an awful lot. As I have mentioned before it is easy to forget quite how many people there are living in Japan until they all try and occupy the same space. I have been more crushed in my time (Arcade Fire at Leeds Festival springs to mind) but that was in a small tent. This was a perfectly open environment and it was already swelteringly hot. The combination of heat, sweat, physical bodies and smell was the only thing that could potentially rival the visual feast for my sensory attention.

Fireworks dispensed with we descended upon the festival tents to eat something (barbequed corn and yakitori for me) and tried to leave at around roughly the same time as several million other people.

I love Japanese festivals unreservedly. There are perhaps more exciting ways to have fun but nothing makes me feel more like I’m making the most of my time here than going to a festival.

My prefectural education centre recently came up with an interesting scheme to improve the use of English language in Japanese schools. They produced a book of descriptions of places of local interest in Kobe in Japanese with accompanying English translations. Additionally they’re planning on producing a website and CD to accompany it with photos of the various sites and recordings of native English speakers reading the descriptions.

I volunteered thinking I would get some time off work to go see some of the cool things in my local area such as Taisanji Temple, Kande Shrine, the Winery or the sweets factory.

Unfortunately one of my so called friends went out one week and took photos of everything in our ward meaning all the people who work in Nishi ward were randomly assigned to photograph whatever was left.

Hence me spending a HOT Tuesday up a mountain looking at sheep.

Woot, sheep.

My assigned tourist destinations were Rokkosan Pasture, the Hall of Halls and Mt Rokko itself; all of them up a very tall mountain that overlooks Kobe and which, by all accounts, are a right bugger to get to. In fact, when I tried to find out how to get to Rokkosan pasture everyone I asked told me to “drive.” Not really an option for me, as I can’t.

Still I persisted and eventually got a hold of a map produced by the sisters that promised me several buses running to Rokkosan pasture that I could catch from the base of the mountain.

And so, sweltering under the heat of an extremely hot day, map, camera, towel and guts in hand I set off to go look at some sheep.

I started at Rokko station with the intent of catching a bus to the cable car station, riding the cable car up the mountain and then getting a further bus to Rokkosan. This was where I made my first mistake. Imagine the route as a clock face with Rokko station at 6, Rokkosan pasture at 10 and the cable car at 8. I expected when I caught the bus to the cable car station that it would go clockwise and take me to the cable car station. Oh foolish naiveté of me to think that the Japanese public transport system could be as logical as that. Instead the bus went anti-clockwise, climbing the mountain on long, twisty, thin and heart-in-mouth-oh-my-god-I’m-going-to-die fear causingly dangerous roads. Thos that know me know that I am not exactly terrified by heights but I am unbelievably scared of being in a car on mountain roads so this was a lot of fun for me as you can imagine.

Eventually I was deposited at the pasture and after a moment to kiss the ground and thank various deities that I had make it in one piece I headed off for lunch (tonkatsu, yum) and then to the farm.

So how was the farm, um, well. Pretty rubbish really. Granted I am not really the audience for these kind of city farm things. I grew up surrounded by horses and sheep. They do not excite me. In fact I can say without hyperbole that sheep are probably the least exciting organisms to walk the earth. There are single celled life forms that inspire more euphoria than sheep. In fact compared to sheep the common cold is positively scintillating. The target audience for these kind of city farms are kids that don’t ever see the farm animals that are so important to human existence. I understand that growing up in Japan, with its miles of uninterrupted urban sprawl; a sheep might be quite a novelty. But even though I am far from the target audience I can state with conviction that Rokkosan pasture is not an especially good example of a city farm. For starters it eschews the lovable and cute ducks of the common duck pond for geese, which are the most disagreeable creatures I have ever had the misfortune to meet. Furthermore all the animals are fundamentally depressing. They didn’t look particularly mistreated (although one horse looked dangerously underfed to me), nor did they seem to be penned in much (in fact the sheep can wander anywhere they like) but all the animals just seemed kind of, well sad. Especially the horses; they really depressed me for some intangible reason.

So was it all bad? Pretty much yeah. I had an ice cream made from milk farmed fresh on the pasture and it tasted awful. If you can’t even get ice cream right then you should start again really.

Its one redeeming feature was its location. High up on the mountainside with wonderful views of the surrounding mountains and Kobe/Osaka sprawled out below. The open pastures on the hills were really idyllic (if decidedly un-Japanese) and the sheep actually made the fields and hills looked prettier. Which is about the only aesthetic achievement sheep have ever been responsible for that didn’t in some way involve knitting.

One would think that the attached “cheese castle” would be a day in paradise for me but sadly whatever cheesy attractions it offered were solely for those that could speak and read Japanese and had an interest in camembert (which seems to be the only cheese anybody in this country eats).

Spending just long enough there to sit out the hottest part of the day in shade with an (admittedly poor) ice cream I swiftly made my way to the “Hall of Halls.”

The “Halls of Halls” is a museum of music boxes, a prospect that thrilled me not one iota. However, duty called and off I went.

This time the bus ride was much more pleasant (proper roads and no edges) and I was surprised to discover just how much of a community is on Mt Rokko. My map had indicated a whole host of spectacularly naff sounding tourist attractions but I was surprised to see so many homes, even apartment buildings and small general stores, spaced in amongst the endless green of forest. Some of these buildings seemed to be perched on the most incredible slopes. Constructed at angles so steep that cars parked in driveways seemed in serious danger of falling backwards onto their roofs.

I was so lost in my revelry that I missed my bus stop and had to walk back down the mountain to get to the “Hall of Halls.” This wasn’t so bad though as it meant I got to amble through the Hall’s garden, full of exotic flowers, ponds, dragonflies and butterflies before making my way inside.

I was pleasantly surprised by the museum. This is possibly because my expectations for a museum devoted to music boxes were so low that anything even mildly diverting would have seemed like a blockbuster movie by comparison but I don’t think that would be fair to it. The Hall of Hall’s has limited ambitions but it matches them and is a well run and maintained informative and diverting museum. Partly this is because their definition of a music box is much broader than I had anticipated. I was expecting a collection of girl’s playthings displayed mostly for the craftsmanship and aesthetic qualities of the box but what I got was a potted history of the development of the gramophone and modern record player. I was particularly impressed with some of the Kalliopes which looked like enormous records, the size of a person’s entire upper body, made of metal and with numerous holes and dents bashed into them to trigger the bells. There also working pianolas, organs (as in the organ grinder and his monkey) that you could turn yourself, strange pianola variants using banjos, 8 violins strapped together in groups of four and one absolutely enormous music box that occupied the entire back wall of the hall. This thing was incredible! Looking like it had stepped out of some turn of the last century circus and incorporating drums, violins, dolls that danced, pianos, trumpets and trombones and all manner of complicated instruments. If it actually had once ever played it must have been one of the most fantastic feats of mechanical engineering ever witnessed.

It was also impressive that so many of the exhibits actually played still. In fact twice whilst I was there, there was a little concert. Unfortunately the gigantic construction didn’t play and even more unfortunately the big failing of these beautiful machines was made clear to me rather swiftly. Of all the instruments to attach the complex mechanism to why a bell? Sure, you can play a lot of notes and make a tune easily enough but it sounds horrible, tinny and weak and pathetic.

The concerts also had a very impressive performance from a custom built music box based on an organ (the church kind) and one of the loudest organs I have ever heard. They had gotten a modern musician to recreate one of the old pianola formats, basically a book as thick as Lord of the Rings that was in fact one long piece of paper folded up and with cuts of various width and length made into it. However they had recreated the old format with a modern tune and the music box played the theme to “My Neighbour Totoro.”

The museum also sells music boxes, makes custom made ones, gives you tools to produce your own and even has a Kalliope for sale, complete with records.

Anyway, swiftly tiring of the music box museum I caught the bus back to a different cable car station to admire the view of Kobe/Osaka and head home.

This view, apparently, is the third greatest night time view in the whole of Japan. Unfortunately I had gone in the day (whoops) and with nowhere to eat in sight and the time fast approaching 5 o’clock I didn’t fancy waiting until 8 without eating to get a photo and then 9 to get home and have some food. I do intend to return before the summer ends though and get that night view.

Anyway, even in the day the view is absolutely spectacular, taking in the whole of Kobe and a good portion of Osaka to the left and Akashi to the right. It really does hammer home quite how huge the urban sprawl along Japan’s Southern Coast is. As far as the eye can see is city with nary a gap in sight. In some ways it’s quite beautiful and in others it’s completely terrifying but it is nonetheless a compelling sight.

See that odd wave/dome/pyramid shaped building there? Well look to the right of it, see the red line? That is Harborland and the symbol of Kobe City, Port Tower.

It doesn’t quite match the view from the top of Miyajima but, well what could really.

Eventually I headed into the station to get the cable car down. Now I may have confused some of yeah with the name cable car depending on what country you come from so let me clarify. What in Britain we would call a cable car i.e. a car suspended underneath a cable and going up a mountain is in Japan called a ropeway. What the Japanese call a cable car is more like a tram. Only this cable car was more bizarre than that. Although the actual chassis of the tram was angled to go up and down the mountain the floor inside was flat and lay out in steps. It had the disconcerting effect of riding a flight of stairs down a mountain.

Despite this though it was a really, pretty and terribly cute little example of a model railway. The cable car has been running on this line since 1937 and it still looks like it stepped off the set of an affair to remember. All gleaming brass, bright colours, smartly dressed drivers and conductors and mock steam sound effects. They even play some classical music as you descend the mountain at a pleasurably sedate pace, letting one take in the sights and the general cheery ambiance. I love the cable car; I guess there’s just something very English about liking old fashioned trains. Another thing we share with the Japanese.

So that was Mt Rokko. If you ever have cause to visit Kobe I wouldn’t bother, except possibly to take in the view. Yet for all that not a bad way to spend a day. And hey, day off work to do it too.

Oh and by the way, here is a picture of Adam Halls in the Hall of Halls.

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