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Monthly Archives: March 2009

I’ve written about Sumadera before. It’s a local temple near the beach in Kobe. Although it is apparently historically important I have never seen it in any kind of write-up or guidebook before. This is a shame because it’s one of my all time favourite temples. It’s really quirky and full of unusual little things that I have never seen at another temple. It’s big too and thus it&s very easy to spend an entire afternoon wandering around and marvelling at all the cool things.

Since I’ve already posted some stuff about it this post is mostly just to show off some pictures that I didn’t show last time. So enjoy the wholly unique Sumadera.

Even statues get cold.

Is that a Buddha with…balloons???

This wall was very cool. It was entirely composed of these plates featuring sculpted images of Buddha.

And here we have a rock.

A big holy rock.

And some kind of mace.

No idea.

One thing I missed when I went to the temple the last time was all the intricate carvings on the roofs and ceilings of the temple. Some of these are amazingly detailed.

The eyes are made of glass.

Sumadera was the scene of a famous battle between two Samurai clans. These statues depict a famous moment in that battle. Suma, the beach, has been the subject of more than a few great pieces of Japanese literature, including “The Tale of Genji.” Genji is probably the most famous and important piece of literature in Japan (as well as being the world’s first novel) so one of these days I should probably read it. I particularly like the waves and sand created by painting gravel.

There was lots of plum blossom in the temple garden which is always welcome.

Very cool pagoda. Quite newish I’m guessing.

An actual lion. Not a lion dog but an honest to god lion.

Bizarre!

Ah, a lion-dog. Back to normal then.

Ah I remember him. The most phallic head I have ever seen.


More lion-dogs and this time a really bizarre one. I’m getting a distinctly Indian vibe from it.

These two bears are grave markers for a kid’s grave. Whenever anyone walked past them they played a song.

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Let me just preface this entry by saying that I have finally, after months and months, got around to fixing my laptop. Now, almost half of the problems are gone (I still need a new battery) and no more will it interfere with my attempts to blog. And yes, computer problems are to blame for my inability to blog on Thursday and Friday.

So on that happy mood lets talk about Nagahama, the town.

Nagahama, as I mentioned in the last post, is on the shores of lake Biwa, Japan’s biggest lake. From the perspective of the shore side it may as well be the sea because the waters completely envelop the horizon. Even the mountains on the other side are dim and hazy. Were it not for the lack of waves and the plentiful ducks it would be just like the seaside.

Being British, and at the seaside, my urge was to have a picnic and so lunch was sushi, eaten in a park overlooking the lake and accompanied by local beers from the Roman microbrewery. And it was practically perfect.
For those beer fans amongst you I can’t wholly recommend the Roman brewery. All their options were quite nice but a bit tart with a strong fermenting taste left over to them; A flavor that I associate more with my Dad’s homebrew than a professional outfit. The white beer was very nice though, crisp and refreshing with a complex palate.

The park itself was the reclaimed grounds of the old castle.

I was stunned that such a tiny little town had a castle! Although it was only a small one I guess. But still an honest to god castle, although sadly a replica. Apparently the lakeside towns were involved in many minor disputes since it was such a good fishing site so all these small towns in Biwako have castles.
More surprising than the castle though was the architecture of the town. Nagahama apparently used to be a major centre for glass production in Japan and a lot of foreigners came here during the Meiji-restoration period to teach glass blowing skills to the Japanese.

Because of this the town has a really unusual architectural style that has really clear Victorian influences. I’ve already mentioned the train station, the oldest continually operating one in Japan, which seems to have been transplanted wholesale from a small town just outside Leeds and dumped in the middle of the Japanese countryside. It’s startlingly incongruous even in a country that thrives on incongruous images.

This approach extends to the whole town and it produces some really weird effects. The main shopping area is known as “Black Square” (Kurokabe) and it contains all the glass production centres along with many other touristy and crafty shops. Kurokabe is every inch the Victorian arcade. It wouldn’t look out of place in Leeds. Yet there is Japanese art hung everywhere and at one end of it there is an ancient and enormous Buddhist temple.

There were also ancient “storehouses” dating back to the pre-restoration period dotted around the town. These are a rare sight anywhere in Japan since space is at a premium and dedicating it to useless wooden structures seems a waste. But these storehouse were very cool looking. Essentially imagine a siege tower but built into the corner of a wall. It’s wooden and thin but much taller than all the surrounding buildings. Again, the incongruous nature of these ancient buildings sitting next to what looked like Victorian streets was utterly strange.

Just off one corner lay an open area with a collection of craft shops. These were selling some of the most bizarre things, from girl’s festival dolls, to home made hello kitty chairs, to telescopes and even small home made toys. But most surprising and inviting of all was this.

A giant outdoor kaleidoscope. Basically it was a big tent with a stained glass window at the top, a mirror and a handle to turn the glass. It wasn’t the most impressive sight I’ve ever seen but it was free and just randomly here for enjoyment.
The whole town seemed full of quirky little surprises everywhere we looked. There was the anglophile tearoom called “London Antiques” complete with real antiques that came from practically everywhere in Europe except London it seems. There was the gorgeous and picturesque river running through the square. There was this frankly bizarre looking samurai and so many more surprises like this.

Frankly the most surprising thing was this;

a museum dedicated to the toy manufacturer Kaiyodo. Kaiyodo will be most famous to American nerds for producing the revoltech line of figures. Now I have to stress here, Nagahama is a small place and hard to get to. It has a historic glassmaking area and some wonderful plum trees but it is hardly the ideal tourist spot. So why put a toy museum here? Kaiyodo is neither from Nagahama nor based there so what was this mysterious museum doing here? Maybe, like me, the owners of Kaiyodo had just been swayed by the sheer strangeness of the place.

Sadly time did not permit me to explore the museum, but I did get a photo of a dinosaur made of dinosaurs.

Finally we hit up the historic glass making part of town to watch someone blow glass (which is always amazing to watch but I have seen it before) and then into a glass shop to look at sculptures. Again the strange European vibe continued as Fran and I met another Gaijin, a foreigner, living in this small town…who didn’t speak English. She was Italian and working in the glass shop.

The shop was amazing of course showing off many styles, colours and products including stuff made there and stuff imported from Italy. Including real Venetian masks.

Of particular interest were the specialty pieces such as this amazing violin.

Being Japan of course artistic representations of fish were common.

Sadly, due to the long journey we had to make home we had to leave Nagahama before I really felt I had explored it. But even the small time I spent there caused me to fall utterly in love with the place. It is so bizarre and so unlike anywhere else in Japan. A tiny town, seemingly dominated by art and beauty over any real business or farming, smack dab in the centre of the countryside miles from the coast and yet with one of the most palpable European feels of any city in Japan.

I think I loved it more because I discovered it. Nagahama is listed in the guidebook I use, but only briefly. And whilst they did mention the storehouses, the castle and the kaleidoscope; the Hello Kitty chair, the toy museum and the weird samurai were all discoveries I made on my own. I feel weirdly protective of the place. I loved that everything there surprised me so much and that I went there expecting so little and came back with so much.

I think it may just be my favourite place in Japan.

At last I can post what I’ve been trying to for the better part of three weeks. Welcome to the delightful little town of Nagahama. Today trees! Tomorrow toys! and things not beginning with a T. I ventured out there on Sunday the 15th of February and when I say ventured I want to stress just how much of an adventure this was. It required a 5 HOUR round trip! Including a 2 hour train ride over flat, dull plains out into the heart of the inaka. Our destination was Nagahama, a tiny town on the shores of Japan’s largest lake, Biwako. Our goal was an exhibition of plum trees, housed in the Japanese equivalent of a mansion, in large pots. The trees that is, not the mansion. Japanese houses aren’t contained in pots. Well except for the ones with the old school earthquake defences. Now, I really, really like plum trees. In fact I find them to be slightly more aesthetically pleasing than sakura. Sakura is beautiful of course and the combined effect when all the trees turn pink every April is breathtaking. Yet, there is something about the minimalism of plum trees that I really like. The sparseness of the branches that are lined with small clumps of delicate but gorgeous flowers is a perfect minimalist motif. Simple lines that provide a relief to a small area of focused complexity and simple colours spotted with bright sections that seem almost too colourful to be actual flowers are less overwhelming than sakura and equally pleasing to the eye. However. 2 HOURS! To go and look at trees, even really pretty trees seemed to be asking a lot. And so it was with a lot of trepidation and with very low expectations that I boarded the train and settled in for a looooooong ride. I started to get excited sometime after we had gone past Kyoto and all the surroundings were suddenly completely new to me. At first these views were pretty damn boring and brown but I started to spot snow covered mountains in the distance. Eventually the suburbs gave way to the countryside and I was treated to tiny Japanese villages with traditional roofs and the occasional glimpse of the great lake itself. The most mysterious stop on the route was when we had to sit in a train station for about 15 minutes whilst we changed trains. We sat on the train, idling on the rail and noticed a large group of families all waiting on the opposite platform but far too far down to actually board the train. There was a kind of fence on either side of them turning the platform into, well, some kind of viewing platform. I later found out that Nagahama is home to the oldest continually operating train station building in Japan, dating back to the Meiji-restoration era. And what’s more they still have a steam train that runs along the modern track. I had just seen a massive clutch of Japanese train spotters! The lovely scenery and the feeling of being somewhere uninhabited, strange and old fashioned started to get me really excited so that by the time we finally got to Nagahama I was actually quite giddy. The big question of course was, ‘were the plum trees worth the trip?’. They Were Amazing. Of course you could tell that just by looking at the beautiful photos I have dotted this post with. Not being one for flowers normally I don’t have the language to describe such gorgeous plants so I shall let you drink in the pictures yourself. Apparently this is a practice called “bonbai.” Bonbai is much like bonsai in terms of it’s techniques, the shape of the trees and how they are cultivated but unlike bonsai it doesn’t strive to create vistas in miniature. Rather the trees grow to a natural size and the shaping is purely done to give them a pleasing shape. And some of the shapes are incredible, especially the trees which seemed to be almost dead but were happily flowering. I mean just look how thin that tree is at the base. It looks like it should have snapped in half. But yet, still flowering. This particular tree was over 400 years old and many of those in the exhibition were about 200 years of age. We were so impressed that on a complete whim we bought our own tree. A bonsai. Sadly this entry is a bit late and our tree has already flowered and withered away before I could take a photo of it in bloom. I’ll try my very best to get photos next year (assuming Fran can keep it alive for one year.) Afterwards we had a walk in the Japanese garden of the mansion and it too was wonderful, full of elaborate rockeries and stone formations, all covered in a rich green moss. Oh and there was this guy too. The thinnest sumo wrestler I have ever seen. So, so much so good. The trees were really good but I was still dubious about the time spent. And then I had a wander around the town. Come back tomorrow to discover what it was like.

You know, I think this sight has been running long enough now that I should actually show you the Mummyboon T-shirt.

Sadly the shirt has shrunk a bit in the wash and has some major bobbling issues on the back, so I can’t really wear it anymore.

I’m going to keep it forever though. It is my first and still my favourite example of an Engrish t-shirt.

The slogan that inspired a site ladies and gentlemen.

I promised posts and here we are.

Still having problems uploading piccies though, grrrr.

So instead I have something special to share with you all.

She can do English too. This is her version of the ending theme to Final Fantasy VIII.

Gragh! Blogger isn’t letting me upload pictures from my P.C. tonight (although the problem appears to be with my internet connection rather than blogger) and my promised massive post requires a vast amount of pictures. So, sorry guys it’ll be delayed yet another week.

In place of that lets start a new feature.

Japan: The Good and the Bad (and the occasionally ugly)

The aim of this feature is for me to present two short essays, one bitching about some little irritating feature of life in Japan and the other offering ecstatic praise for something in Japan.

So lets see how this works.

The Bad Number 1: Oil Vans

Staying warm in Japan in winter can be a massive challenge. Homes in Japan have almost no insulation, there is no central heating at all and there are no carpets on the floors. This is not so bad in summer when all anyone wants to do is escape Japan’s tongue-drying heat for just one second, please is that so much to ask!!

Sorry, got a bit carried away there.

But anyway it gets cold in Japan. Not hugely cold but the winter temperatures are certainly comparable to winter in Britain. The lowest extremes in Britain are much lower than in the part of Japan I live in but nonetheless it is cold. In fact it feels even colder because going indoors offers no relief from the cold.

So most people have some kind of free-standing radiator, such as a space heater or an arger. I myself use the heating function on my air conditioner and it is wonderful thank you. Many of these heaters use gas or oil and so of course they need to buy gas or oil.

Enter the oil van.

The oil van sells all kinds of fuel for heaters and drives around residential districts to sell fuel and collect empty canisters.

So far so enterprising and useful.

And of course in the fine tradition of all Japanese mobile businesses the driver sings.

Theoretically.

It is wonderful and charming to be walking down the street at night and hear a man cycling past pushing an oven full of hot potatoes and singing a song about how great his potatoes are. It is like being transported into a bygone age, and it makes you really want a potato.

Such a technique is sued by pretty much every Japanese businessman that has some kind of motorised stall, including the oil van.

But the oil van doesn’t sing. Instead it has enormous speakers mounted on it which blare out the song at roughly the same volume as your average death metal concert. I swear I have been to gigs with quieter speakers than this sodding van. Big gigs too, not ones in pubs, full blown concerts that makes less noise.

I have to turn my television up to almost its full volume to drown out the noise.

It wouldn’t be so bad if the van just used it to announce it’s presence and then got on with it. No, instead the speakers blare every time the van moves so I can be expected to be treated to a cheerful blast at any point for 2 to 3 hours.

Do you know that there are no laws limiting noise pollution in Japan?

What is the oil van man accomplishing with this sonic terrorism? He certainly isn’t attracting any new customers as I and everyone I know have sworn to boycott him. Maybe he is using the speakers in an attempt to oust all the rude gaijin that have moved into Gakuentoshi.

Regardless the oil van man is something BAD about living in Japan.

The Good Number 1: Safety and Honesty

Everyone knows that Japan is a very safe country. Violent crime levels are astonishingly low here. I know of people that have left the country for a holiday and left their front door open whilst they did so with no ill effect. Murder is very uncommon so that single murders still make the news in a way that they simply do not in America or Britain. Drug use is very low and so the associated dealing and gang culture is non-existent. Basically bar a few genuine nutters there just isn’t much crime.

However more important and more surprising than that is the honesty of the Japanese people. British people, on the whole, are not lawbreakers. Very few of the people I know would give serious consideration to breaking and entering, ram raiding or a spot of mugging. Yet, under certain circumstances nearly everyone I know has committed theft. Few would steal a video, but what about download it? What about nicking a pint glass from a pub, trying to use an expired coupon or dodging the fare on a train for a short journey? We’ve all done some kind of small crime like this.

Japanese people don’t though. It wouldn’t occur to them to. Rules are sacrosanct here. In fact in many aspects of life the Japanese positively adore having some extra rules. The more rules there are the less decisions have to be made and the more likely everyone is to act the same and reach a consensus.

In western nations the highest ideal is individual freedom and expression. Rules impose a barrier on this, a restriction on freedom. It is in our nature to enjoy breaking rules. Some of our most revered artists are appreciated because they broke rules (think of any popular punk band for example) and we’ve all broken the rules once or twice and enjoyed it.

In Japan the ideal is harmony. Everyone getting along fine and the whole functioning well. This is why there are so many rules, both official and unofficial. Whilst we have punk Japan has art forms with thousands of rules (such as the tea ceremony) and the finest exponents of it are those which can adhere must strictly and perfectly to the idealised method (or way) laid down in the rules.

So there is very little violent crime, there is an appreciation of rules and restrictions and there is also a tremendous generous impulse towards others.

Take the example of a wallet left on a train. Lose your wallet on a train in Britain and you will likely never get it back. Many people wouldn’t bother making the effort because they assume it to be futile. Either it has been nicked or nobody bothered to give it into lost property and it can now no longer be located.

But just last week a friend of mine lost his wallet and found it the same day. It had been turned in at a police box near the station he obviously dropped it in.

To give a quick comparison here are some things I have lost in Britain and never seen again.

A bag containing a collection of CDs I was using for DJ work.

A camera (pre-digital).

A model tank used for the wargame “warhammer” with a retail value of about £20.

In contrast stuff I have lost in Japan only to have it be returned to me the very same day.

A travellers backpack I was using to go on holiday containing probably about
£400 worth of stuff.

A replica air-soft assault rifle worth about £60.

I can say that living amongst such trusting and thoughtful people is definitely a GOOD thing.

Huge apologies for the lack of updates guys.

I’ve had several irons in the fire recently re: extra-curricular projects and it has reduced my ability to blog.
Ordinarily I’d squeeze out something small and insignificant but the problem is that I’ve been sitting on an absolutely massive blog post that will take a lot of work. It’s also something very original and special and I want to get it right.
I should get it posted tomorrow.
After that and starting from next week I’m going to set myself a target of doing a post 5 days a week. This will likely mean many shorter posts and I don’t expect I will hit this target but I am nonetheless going to try and see what happens. Hopefully I can get some more work out and re-establish a routine.
Until then please enjoy some more brilliant engrish from my students.

I was able to spend the winter break very enhanced.  It said to the New Year’s day visit to a shrine in the sinto shrine at the New Year, the sealed lucky bag was bought, it went to play, and it played with the cousin. It was very happy. I want you to come at the sprng vacation early.

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