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Monthly Archives: June 2009

This isn’t entirely what I intended to do today, particularly just after another food review, but the planned post is proving to be tougher and more complicated than expected so here is a quickie for you.

For the past few years Pepsi has been producing a special limited edition drink each summer. When I arrived they released a cucumber soda that I sadly didn’t get the chance to try. Last year they brought out a bright blue “Blue Hawaiian” flavour that tasted almost entirely of chemicals.

This year they have something completely different, Shiso Soda.

Shiso (also known as perilla) is a kind of Japanese leaf that is related to mint. It has a really unique flavour, sort of a cross between basil, mint and sprouts with something wholly unique thrown in. Said flavour is really incredibly strong and Shiso tends to be one of those herbs that completely overwhelm a dish. Consequently I do not use it much (although I do know a nice pasta recipe using it). It is not, however, in the slightest bit sweet. Furthermore it has a texture pretty much identical to a stinging nettle and stings your mouth a little when you eat it.

An odd choice for a bottle of pop, wouldn’t you say.

But what really makes the Shiso soda worthy of a blog entry is that this year Coca Cola have seen fit to try and directly compete in the weird summer drink market with their own entry. Green Tea Diet Coke plus catechin (and no, I’m as in the dark as to what a catechin is as you are).

So how do they stack up?

Well being the slightly more normal entry I thought I’d try the coke first.

It smells pretty much exactly how you’d expect. It smells of Diet Coke and faintly of green tea.

But it tastes just like Diet Coke. Now, in fairness I haven’t drunk diet coke in a while no do I have a bottle here to compare and contrast but from memory this is just Diet Coke. If there is a green tea flavour then it is subtle in the extreme.

What about the Shiso Pepsi?

Well first strike against it, it is a violent green colour. That never bodes well and puts me in mind of that Final Fantasy Potion I had last year.

The packaging is much nicer than the coke bottle though. In fact for a soft drink it is almost understated. Look at the sheer amount of text Coca Cola has to cram onto the bottle. That is astonishingly ugly even before the design, horrible clashing colours and clashing styles are factored in. I count at least five different fonts on that bottle which is simply unforgivable.

The Shiso bottle is much simpler in design. All laid out in a simple line format and with less fonts and a nice design that complements rather than clashes with the font.

Can you tell that I am trying to put off drinking it?

It smells unmistakeably of Shiso too. To try and convey that imagine some nettles, cucumbers and plums left to sit in a box together. Shiso is almost like that.

And it tastes, entirely of Shiso. The flavour is pure Shiso to the extent that it isn’t even sweet. It even makes the roof of your mouth tingle in the same way Shiso does.

I’m not certain that is a good ambition for a soft drink to aim for though. The flavour is nice enough but it distinctly savoury and the notion of a savoury drink is more than a little bit off putting. Even most beers are sweeter than this.

Ultimately I don’t think it works. The taste isn’t bad as such but it is so odd that is pretty much impossible to drink a whole bottle of the stuff.

No, I think I shall be sticking with my Pocari Sweat thank you very much.

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Everyone that has commented on this site, sent me e-mail or spoken to me about in person likes one feature of Mummy boon above all the others.

Well never let it be said that I am above a little bit of pandering to my audience so here is more of what you people apparently like.

Kit-Kat Reviews

First up is a selection of mini Kit-Kats comprised of ordinary ones (and yes, I have forgotten what they taste like) and some rose flavoured entries. Just in time for, oh wait, Mother’s Day was a while ago wasn’t it?

Oh well I guess June is the time roses bloom in Japan so that must be the connection. Unless I’m making the mistake of trying to understand Japan again.

The packaging on the bag itself is brilliantly, wonderfully girly. Not only are there 3 pink roses and a pink rose petal motif there is also swirly writing and a faux decorative label trying to make it look like a hand made present.

It also features a really baffling note proclaiming it to be a “Kit Kat Limited Edition.”
I have been doing this for a while now and I can reliably inform you that all the Kit-Kats I review on this site are limited editions. And usually they are not only released for a limited time but they are only released in limited areas/stores to boot. So what on earth is so special about these rose ones? The mind boggles at what incredible treasure Kit-Kat must have produced here to warrant such a label.

The packaging on the individual Kat (I have decided from now on this is how we’re going to refer to the singular, okay!) doesn’t disappoint either. It is bright pink and has a rose motif. Frankly if it had been anything else I would have felt betrayed.

Sadly the chocolate itself is a normal colour and not pink in the slightest. Still that tends to bode well as far as the flavour is concerned; all of the better flavours have been in the standard colours.

So how does the flavour stack up?

Well, whilst it definitely tastes differently to a normal Kit-Kat sadly I can’t really detect flavour other than chocolate. The rose element is so slight that all it really serves to do is put a slightly different edge on the chocolate. Less blandly sweet and just a bit more complicated. It works and it does taste nice but the majority of the roses in the product seem to have wound up on the packaging rather than in the biscuit.

Next up we have some Lemon Vinegar.

Hold up, vinegar?

On a biscuit!
……for the first time ever I am having second thoughts about actually eating one of these. Chocolate and vinegar is not an obvious match and surely the lemon is only going to make it even more sour and confused.

Ah I get it. Apparently lemon vinegar is some kind of delicious refreshing soft drink, at least that’s what the packaging seems to suggest. Hold on let me Google that for a moment.

Most of the results appear to be home making websites advocating how you can use lemon vinegar as a substitute cleaning substance.

Well that is very reassuring. New Kit-Kat substitute bleach flavour! Yum, it’s poison-licious.

The packet doesn’t help either. It is white and yellow. Those are the colours of bottles of bleach!

Oh thank god it is a normal chocolate colour.

And it tastes really very lemony. In fact as chocolate goes this is easily the lemoniest I have ever had. And it isn’t an after taste or a suggestion it is a big lemon hit. In fact it may be a little bit too lemony actually. The taste does tend to linger somewhat. In fact quite a lot. Wow, maybe a bit less lemony next time Nestle.

I am very glad to report that it also tastes not in the slightest bit like vinegar. Or bleach.

Usually I question what the purpose of these really strongly flavoured Kit-Kats is but this time nestle has seen fit to give me some idea. See that little chef’s hat in the top right corner. That is promising that these Kit-Kats are perfect for use in cooking, specifically for spicing up a kind of yoghurty/pudding thing. There is more info at http://cookpad.com/kitkat for anyone who is interested.

Since the lemon vinegar ones were not so bad I was a bit more comfortable trying out some of the apple vinegar ones. Particularly when after a Google search I discovered that apple vinegar is really a kind of traditional cider. I like cider and more Kit-Kats flavoured after booze would suit me down to a tee.

The packet was nice and friendly too, particularly the individual wrapper which is in pleasingly retro colours that are also the colour of apples. Offset with lovely retro typography it was all very welcoming and wholesome. I was, dare I say it, excited to try my new Kit-Kat.

Oh hell the chocolate is cream coloured. That is never a good sign.

Before I even bit into it I was overpowered by apples. This thing smells really, really strongly of apples. In fact the scent is the strongest fruit scent of any Kit-Kat since the watermelon ones. I don’t have any watermelon Kit-Kats to hand right now but I suspect the apple vinegar Kit-Kats smell more strongly of apples than the watermelon Kit-Kats smell of watermelons.

….

Do you ever write something that causes you to consider what exactly it is that you’re doing with your life?

Anyway, how do they taste?
Bloody marvellous!

There is very little recognisably Kit-Kat here. It is less sweet than Nestlé’s usual offerings and the chocolate seems creamier and not quite as cheap. IT is also really, really powerfully appley. The lemon vinegar Kit-Kats have nothing on the apple vinegar for fruity taste. These things are kings of fruity tastes. The high lords of apple flavour.

Nestle have produced a few apple Kit-Kats before now but this one wins hand down. They simply haven’t made anything that tastes this much like an apple before. And the whole line should switch to this kind of chocolate. I have no idea what they changed but it just seems slightly creamier and has a much better mouth feel.

Absolutely delicious.

There is a recipe included with these too, for a kind of apple cinnamon topping for ice-cream. I may jut have to try that and let you know how it fares.

I can now also report that the after taste is very similar to a milkshake. Not a real milkshake but a McDonalds or Burger King milkshake. Since I swore off fast food these are the things I crave most in the entire world that I cannot have. I may be trying to manufacture my apple vinegar Kit-Kats into some kind of apple vinegar Kit-Kat milkshake.

And then I can die happy.

Moving on, we have cherry “through the break”. First a note about the packaging; which is bloody horrible.

Look at the individual Kat’s wrapper! That is boring as hell, a pink wrapper with some men and “through the break” written on it.

The main wrapper doesn’t fare much better. It is overly crowded with tiny text in a horrible font and far too busy. That tiny space has to cram in the Kit-Kat logo, some headphones, the “through the break” logo, a picture of some guys, a visualisation of the Kit-Kat inside and a picture of a cherry in addition to tons of text. It is all horribly composed and far too busy. Epic fail Kit-Kat.

All the text is because it is some kind of tie-in/competition running in conjunction with a DJ and a record label. There is a code inside that one can enter to possibly win…something. Sadly my Japanese skills don’t stretch to finding out if I have won anything.

And the chocolate is pink, not a good sign.

Ahhh this is more like it Kit-Kat. The first taste is waxy and bland. There is only a very slight cherry flavour detectable. The mouth feel is horrible due to sub-par chocolate. That is the Kit-Kat we have all come to know and love here.

So we’re on firmer ground but overall this isn’t actually that bad. If you roll the Kit-Kat around your mouth then cherry notes come through really strongly at the back of the mouth. Nice sour cherry notes too. Overall though it is much more like cherry yoghurt, in that it is kind of bland and creamy with subtle cherry notes, than it is like a proper cherry. Still, I imagine that will pair quite nicely with a cup of tea. Overall then a not bad but dragged down by some simply horrible design.

Finally I have saved the best for last.

Feast your eyes on…

Ramune Kit-Kats!

I have talked briefly about ramune before on this site. For those not in the know, briefly, it is a kind of Japanese lemonade that tastes a lot like sprite. However it comes in a special bottle with a marble in the top. In Japan it has strong associations with summers, festivals, childhood and also the post-war period when it was invented.

The important thing to take away from all that is that basically Nestle have made sprite flavoured Kit-Kats!

I invited you to feast your eyes and feast is the right word because just look at that packaging. That is lovely. The lovely retro colours, the retro dot-matrix printing style and even a retro font just all scream post-war at me. The dots also serve to evoke bubbles and fizziness as much as they do a retro aesthetic. It is really eye-catching, really novel and really, well retro. I know I am abusing the word but I really do like this bag. How can one company produce something so spot on for a product and also something as fantastically ugly as the cherry wrapper.

The Kat’s individual wrapper is a nice touch too with little fizzy bubbles.

Hold on, you don’t think they actually are fizzy do you?

I mean it is ramune flavour, all bets are off here. Fruit yes, cakes or sweets yes, even soy sauce but a fizzy drink? This is new territory for Kit-Kat and I am both a little bit excited and a lot scared.

Oh god! The chocolate is blue. Not a good sign.

I don’t believe it.

I really don’t believe it.

They actually are fizzy!

And it works!

The first thing that hits you is the smell. The smell, sadly, is not of ramune at all but of “bubblegum.” By which I mean bubblegum the flavour, the mysterious flavour drinks were sometimes given when you were a kid which always prompted the existential debate of how something could be bubblegum flavoured when bubblegum has many flavours. Well it smells like that.

But it tastes exactly like ramune. Exactly, to a scary degree. I just tested it with some ramune and there is no difference in flavour.

And they’re fizzy! I suspect this is due to the presence of sherbet in the chocolate. They’re only mildly fizzy but all the same they are fizzy Kit-Kats.

This is going to be my baby cousins’ Christmas present this year. No kid can possibly resist fizzy Kit-Kats.

I can’t really objectively rate these because the novelty is so great that it becomes impossible to get past it. Everyone needs to try these because they are that damn strange.

They are also surprisingly more-ish. And that is coming from a man who just ate 5 Kit-Kats.

Fushimi Inari in Kyoto is one of the shrines I have most wanted to visit since I arrived in Japan.

You may know it from its appearance in the film “Memoirs of a Geisha,” where it played the part of a shrine with thousands of torii gates snaking up and down a mountainside. Also it had a cameo role in Seven Samurai as a villager and I think it might be showing up in the re-make of Duel.

Seriously though; it is a breathtakingly beautiful place.

Fushimi Inari is famous for two things. Torii gates and foxes. In fact this is where the name “inari” comes from. Inari is a kind of fried tofu which apparently is beloved of Japanese foxes. I’m not sure why as foxes are carnivores but I’m chalking that one up to the “don’t attempt to understand the Japanese” pile.

The Fushimi part of the name is in dedication to a Japanese goddess of grain. Consequently not only is the shrine complex dotted with thousands upon thousands of torii gates but also thousands of foxes, mostly in pairs with one holding some grain in his mouth and the other holding the key to the granary.

Japanese foxes, or kitsune, are said to have a number of magical powers. As they get older their tail splits into two, three, and eventually nine separate tails. A 9 tailed fox is a powerful demon indeed (as any fan of Naruto knows) but even a regular fox is fond of disguising herself as a human woman, marrying a human man, carrying his child to term and then buggering off again to go be a fox and leave him holding the baby.

Yet they are simultaneously venerated as guardian spirits. Another one for the “I don’t really understand Japan” pile.

My parents and I arrived in Fushimi early of the morning of my birthday! Straight away I got a little birthday treat as the shrine was in the midst of performing a ceremony.

There was much drumming chanting and playing of instruments and a complicated dance involving ribbons and sticks. It was all very professionally done with smooth confident movements but, well, it wasn’t really my cup of tea. It is always nice to see a shrine actually do something though. Far too often they are simply interesting buildings with very tacky shops attached. I like my ancient religions to have a bit of ceremony to them you know; particularly if they feature ridiculous costumes and very ridiculous hats.

Our morning dancing completed we set off up the mountain to begin our hike.

And what a hike!

Seriously, Fushimi is a simply amazing place to go for a walk. The forest alone is a perfect setting for a stroll. Tall, imposing, old trees grow very close to each other so very quickly you seem cut off from the world and wander into somewhere that feels more natural, more ancient, more dangerous and even a little bit magical.  

The thousands of torii doubtless help in creating this impression too. The contrast between these shiny bright orange gates and the greens and browns of the forest could not be more striking. Yet, they seem to fit perfectly into the setting. Maybe it is a feature of the architecture but rather than sticking out like a sore thumb the gates seem like they are naturally suited to the forest. They enhance the feeling of wandering backwards in time, of venturing into historical Japan.

They also seem to evoke an otherworldly, mystical feeling. Glimpsing patches of bright orange in the trees up ahead can cause your breath to catch. Perhaps it is because they are gates that they suggest this dreamlike quality, for gates suggest entering somewhere different and if you wander under a thousand gates you must be wandering through a thousand different tiny worlds.

On a more practical level they also make it really easy to plot a path through the mountain trails, and although the sun was beating down very hard for an April day they also provided a lot of shade for the weary traveller.

I have no idea what impulse caused the priests of Fushimi to erect so many torii gates but I thank them for it because it has helped to construct one of the most pleasant walks I have ever done.

The gates are all donations from people. On the right hand side of the gate the date it was installed is written in Kanji. On the left hand side is the name of the donor and sometimes a small dedication. Most of these names are in Kanji so I couldn’t tell you what kinds of people donate the torii gates but a few were in Katakana (mostly foreign names) and even some Romaji.

Some of the smaller temples in the complex also had cool things to donate. A common feature of Japanese shrines are wooden panels that you can buy, write a wish or an inscription on and then tie to a gate to make your wish come true. At Fushimi they had small replica torii gates for the same purpose.

They also had wooden panels shaped like foxes and people seemed to have taken the opportunity to draw a picture rather than make a wish. Amongst some of the offerings were:

a creepy eye fox

a hairy monster fox

a too cool for school fox

a dorae-fox

and my favourite, a Gundam fox.

Fushimi is more of a shrine complex than one dedicated shrine with many smaller ones dotted all around the mountain. One of the more diverting ones offered a chance to lift one of the holy stones. Apparently they weigh as much as your sins. I can report that may rock was not too heavy to lift but heavy enough that I wouldn’t want to carry it back from the supermarket.

Although I’ve done much worse hikes in Japan it was pretty hard going for my Dad as he had recently injured his knee. Stairs were a particular problem for him and Fushimi had an endless supply of them. Worse, they didn’t just go up and up but tried to trick us by going up until to plunge down for a bit and suddenly go up again. Consequently it took us the whole morning to reach the top where we stopped for a lunch in one of only about two options for food on the entire mountain.

This was unheard of! It is nigh on impossible to go more than 30 yards in Japan without being offered food, what was a touristy place like Fushimi playing at.

Regardless we were grateful for our pretty terrible soba noodles but more grateful for the restaurants wonderful view which took in pretty much the whole of Kyoto.

Once you reach the top there is a circular walk around the top of the mountain before you have to trek back down again. This was more of the same but since same in this instance meant a really enjoyable beautiful trek we weren’t complaining.

We made it down the mountain much quicker than our ascent and went home to get all ready for my birthday party.

Which, sadly, dear reader is a secret from you. Suffice it to say it was very nice to see my family again after nearly two years apart and wonderful to spend my birthday with them.

Next time we’re going to take a break from all this touristy stuff to talk about the real meat and potatoes of this blog. Kit-Kat reviews.

 

Lonely Planet Guidebook 10th edition 2007 has a section in the very front of it giving a list of all the things that one should do in Japan.

Quite a lot of this is stuff that I have already covered on this blog (Tsukiji Fish Market, Sumo Wrestling, Eating vast quantities, staying in a Ryokan) whilst some of it is stuff you couldn’t pay me to do (hike the Japanese Alps, what am I a masochist?).

The very first thing, the number one thing listed in this section is see the temples, gardens and shrines of Kyoto.

And the picture they use is of the Golden Pavilion Kinkaku-Ji.

Which would be this.

I don’t know about the number one must see attraction in the whole of Japan but i7ll grant them this. It is very pretty.

You want background, nicked from Wikipedia? You got it.
Kinkaku-Ji (金閣寺, Kinkaku-Ji?) or “Golden Pavilion Temple” is the informal name of Rokuon-ji (鹿苑寺, Rokuon-ji?) or “Deer Garden Temple” in Kyoto, Japan. It was originally built in 1397 to serve as a retirement villa for Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, as part of his estate then known as Kitayama.[1] It was his son who converted the building into a Zen temple of the Rinzai school. The temple was burned down twice during the Ōnin War.

What’s more not only has it been burned down twice wartime it was also nearly burnt down a third time in the 50’s.
On July 2nd, 1950 at 2:30 am, the pavilion was burned down by a monk named Hayashi Yoken, who then attempted suicide on the Daimon-ji hill behind the building. He survived, and was subsequently taken into custody. During the investigation after the monk’s arrest, his mother was called in to talk with the police; on her way home, she committed suicide by jumping from her train into a river valley. The monk was sentenced to seven years in prison, but was released because of mental illness on September 29th, 1955; he died of other illnesses shortly after in 1956. At that time, the statue of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu was burned. A fictionalized version of these events is at the centre of Yukio Mishima’s 1956 book The Temple of the Golden Pavilion.

What is it about Kinkaku-Ji that seems to invite fire?

Ah, it might be the phoenix statue on the roof. Beautiful and renowned building keeps being burnt down only to rise again in golden colours. Yeah, that’s pretty thematically appropriate but it may tempt fate just a wee bit.

Kinkaku-Ji almost takes you by surprise the first time you see it. When approaching the temple from the bus stop you have to wander through a thoroughly modern Japanese city of concrete, buses and breezeblocks. Even once you reach the entrance and start walking through gardens the actual building itself is completely out of sight. So you start walking through the hedges when suddenly you turn a corner and…

…this greets you. A golden building. A building, covered from top to bottom in gold leaf. That can’t possibly be real right? Golden houses are for fairytales or cartoons. How can you possibly be looking at something covered in gold?! It is obscene in its opulence. It is surreal, it is otherworldly! It doesn’t belong here! How is it you have magically wandered into a fairytale?

And then you notice that there are really quite a lot of tourists here and the illusion is shattered. Obviously you are in modern Japan still. You haven’t stepped 600 years back in time and into some kind of fantasy world you are still in modern Japan. Overcrowded, cramped and hectic Japan.

And yet a Japan that, for all its problems with over crowding, with pushy tourists taking hundreds of photos, with the commercialisation of everything that can be seen, is still capable of preserving this piece of a magical otherworld for 600 years.

That there is a very pretty building.

Like all the finest examples of Japanese architecture it isn’t just the building itself that is so appealing (Though it is pretty impressive nonetheless. It’s covered in real gold!) but rather the way in which it harmonises with the natural world around it. From every viewpoint Kinkaku-Ji is offset by a background of green which compliments the golden colour. Though it is striking it isn’t gaudy, as something covered in gold leaf easily could be, instead it seems to enhance the natural setting behind it in the same way that the setting enhances it.

The reflecting pool is a particularly nice touch, giving a light source to brighten up the golden shine and giving you a reflection that provides two golden pavilions for the price of one.

The grounds around Kinkaku-Ji are really nice as well, very leafy and providing some great shade from the horrible Japanese sun. There is a hill behind the pavilion which provides a nice view of Kinkaku-Ji from the top and some quite spectacular examples of trained trees.

This was a fun little touch too, a kind of early Buddhist skill game. Standing from the path people have to try and throw 5yen coins (which have a hole in them and so are lucky) so that they land in the bowl thus granting good luck and a wish fulfilled. I managed it with not too much effort but Fran had to use every coin she had in her purse before she finally got one in.

We spent much of the time there looking at a Kingfisher we had spotted flying around the rear of the reflecting pool. Kingfishers are one of my favourite birds because they have absolutely stunning plumage. I didn’t even know they had them in Japan but it seemed very fitting for one to live near such a spectacularly plumaged building.

One final thing to note about Kinkaku-Ji is that the gardens, like many other Japanese gardens, make good use of moss. Grass doesn’t really grow in Japan. It is here but it’s only here in scattered places (and of course as bamboo). Being British I am used to grass being EVERYWHERE. One cannot walk 15 feet in England without coming across of some sort in some place. It is the greenest country in the whole world.

Japan doesn’t have grass, so they use moss. This is also very handsome and has a wonderful smell too.

Gold and gardened out we set off for our next destination and on the way were waylaid by the sudden need for lunch.

We ended up eating in a kaitenzushi or “conveyor belt” sushi restaurant.

For those that don’t know how this works (although most of you should have some idea) this a restaurant which has a long conveyor belt wandering through it, usually in a big circle but sometimes in more elaborate shapes, on which small plates of sushi and other foods move by. Diners sit at tables next to the conveyor belt, pick the dishes they want to eat off the conveyor belt as they pass and pay at the end based on how many plates there are on the table.

There is a kaitenzushi place in Kobe that I go to fairly frequently which is typical of the style. Plates are different colours for various prices and things like drinks or special sushi have to be specially ordered from a waitress.

The place we went to in Kyoto though is the most automated restaurant I have ever seen. To begin with there is a machine that allows you to book (from your phone if you so choose) automatically and receive a table number without speaking to a waitress. Sadly we didn’t understand this so one of the staff had to help us out.

Then in addition to the standard conveyor belt set up our table also had a small computer on which special orders could be placed directly and charged to the table.

And there was more than just sushi going round too. You could order ramen, ice cream, fruit, bowls of rice, pretty much anything and it would soon come speeding towards you on a conveyor belt. The computer even set off an alarm when your order was starting to get near to you.

As for the drinks? Why that was the most joyous of all. It necessitated standing up but after that you walk over to a machine, insert 500yen and then, well, this happens.

A beer machine!

I want one!

The sushi was not the best quality in the world but it was dirt cheap and a huge amount of fun. In 30 years all food will be served this way. I guarantee it*

*please note I do not guarantee it.

Bellies full of fish and rice we set forth for Ryoan-Ji.

You want more background from Wikipedia? I am happy to oblige.
Ryoan-Ji (Shinjitai: 竜安寺, Kyūjitai: 龍安寺?, The Temple of the Peaceful Dragon) is a Zen temple located in northwest Kyoto, Japan. Belonging to the Myoshin-ji school of the Rinzai branch of Zen Buddhism, the temple is one of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The site of the temple was originally a Fujiwara family estate. It eventually came into the hands of the Hosokawa clan branch of the Fujiwaras. Hosokawa Katsumoto inherited the residence, and lived here before the Ōnin War. Katsumoto willed the war-ravaged property to be converted into a Zen sect temple complex after his death. Later Hosokawa emperors are grouped together in what are today known as the “Seven Imperial Tombs” at Ryoan-ji. The burial places of these emperors — Uda, Kazan, Ichijō, Go-Suzaku, Go-Reizei, Go-Sanjō, and Horikawa — would have been comparatively humble in the period after their deaths. These tombs reached their present state as a result of the 19th century restoration of imperial sepulchres (misasagi) which were ordered by Emperor Meiji.

Essentially the temple has one main draw and that was what we had come to see. The “Dry Landscape” or rock garden.

This is a garden consisting of 15 rocks surrounded by raked gravel. The rocks are positioned such that all 15 cannot be seen at any one time from any one angle. Popular tradition holds that only once enlightenment is attained will the 15th rock become clear.

Alternatively a tall man could stand at the far right back on tip toes and do it too but that is cheating a little bit.

Whilst my father went to take photos Fran, myself and my brother sat down cross legged to observe the rocks and contemplate enlightenment. We had a great time coming up with possible meanings for the arrangement. Did they present a tiger crossing water? The futility of trying to know everything? A mother tending to a group of children? Obviously they were all these things and none.

And there is something genuinely peaceful about the sitting and contemplating. I’ve always quite liked Zen actually and the notion of concentrating your mind on a question to which there cannot be an answer. It is tremendously relaxing.

Sadly our inner peace was shattered by the absolute horde of tourists who had chosen to share this day with us to come visit the temple. One very tall German man who kept shoving me particularly sticks out in my memory. In fact it wasn’t too long before inner peace began to mutate into barely contained hostility. Possibly I need my own rocks and to do a bit more sitting and thinking.

We finished off this particular trip to Kyoto with some ramen and a trip to the top of the train station to admire the night view of the city.

For all these articles and posts about Kyoto I have barely scratched the surface of everything that there is to do there. Hell I haven’t even been to Arashiyama yet which is one of the more famous and popular areas.

In fact next time we shall also be heading back to Kyoto when we go to visit Fushimi Inari.

Rest assured panicked readers (hello Mum) I am not going to let my parent’s trip turn into another Tokyo, I do intend to eventually talk about all of it.

So let’s knock off a couple of quick ones now before we get into the real meat of the trip.

Eww, that didn’t sound nearly so dirty until I wrote it down.

Himeji Castle.

Hey look everybody its Himeji castle, a place I have written about several times before. Taking my family was fun but not as much fun as the first time I went. This is mostly because nothing about it had changed. Himeji castle was cool the first time and it is still a really amazing building offering a simply wonderful view but, well I’ve seen it now.

Also contributing to the slightly less fun-ness was the conflict between my Dad, who like me enjoys reading everything in a museum and my brother and mother who apparently like to whizz through it.

There was also the slight problem that it was absolutely packed to bursting with people! We went during what we thought was a regular day but Himeji-jo was absolutely rammed. The queue to get into the main keep was nearly 40 minutes! Every other time I have visited I practically walked straight in.

Even more strange but when we got to the top (having slowly trudged round for hours) no sooner were we at the top of the tower than a man made some kind of announcement in Japanese and everyone started to go downstairs again. My Japanese is improving but I had absolutely no idea what he had said, I just knew that there was simply no way I was going to go back down and leave the tower after spending such a long time waiting patiently to get to the top. So I did the only sensible thing in such a situation. I studiously avoided the man and feigned all ignorance of Japanese. Then when nearly everybody had left the tower he suddenly stopped directing people to leave. My initial thought had been that there was some kind of safety issue and a certain number of people had to leave for the floor to be safe. However, now he was no longer instructing me to go downstairs I was suddenly very curious about what the commotion was all about. In broken Japanese I discerned that we had elected to go Himeji on a very special day. For a limited period a room in the keep that is not normally open to the public was going to go on display.

And he had told everyone to go see it.

And we couldn’t go see it again for an hour.

Arse.

I can’t tell you what was in that room or if it is worth seeing because I never saw it. My family not wanting to wait an hour (rather sensibly I thought) we dithered at the top for a bit and then made tracks to the nearby Japanese garden.

Probably the highlight of that particular trip for me personally was introducing my brother to ramune. Ramune is a Japanese soft drink that is kind of lemon-lime flavoured but also has its own distinctive taste. The best thing about it though is the very strange bottle. Ramune is sealed with a marble and comes with a kind of plastic bottle stopper. To open the bottle you have to strike the bottle stopper very hard to dislodge the marble. The neck of the bottle is really thin so the marble rests just above the neck and rolls around making a noise when you drink it. It is entirely pointless. It obviously takes a lot of effort to make such a weird bottle and it is difficult to use and drink from. It has no benefits whatsoever except that…well, weird things are fun, aren’t they.

Actually it does have one cool use. With practise one can get the marble to sit into the seal again using your tongue. You can then carry the bottle around without it spilling or losing its fizz. My brother was fascinated by it, and brought a load home.

The main reason I wanted to talk about this trip to Himeji though was as an excuse to post a load of photos of Himeji castle when the cherry blossom is out.

I am totally and utterly infatuated with Himeji castle. I think it is the most handsome building in the whole of Japan, possibly one of the most handsome every constructed. It may not be the most ornate or striking; the architecture may not be the most original or unique but it is just striking enough, the architecture is composed just perfectly. Himeji castle harmonises its own aesthetics with the surrounding area like no other building I know of.

It is bloody gorgeous!

As such I will not pass up any opportunity to post photos of it. Enjoy!

Osaka Operations

I’ll spare you most of the description of my parent’s trip to Osaka because, well because I wasn’t there. I had to work that day and I showed up, very late, very frustrated with a phone charger I had bought, very tired and very wet at Osaka castle just in time for everybody to leave and meet me outside. I soon cheered up though.

I avoided some of the places in Osaka I usually frequent and instead directed everyone to head straight to the Umeda Sky Building for some fine dining and finer views. The Umeda Sky Building, as the name might imply, is in Umeda. Sadly this means that to get to it one has to walk through a long tunnel that goes under the river.

What’s so sad about that, you may very well ask. It is the smell. The foul stench of rotting eggs, presumably coming from the river, that hits you like an odorous brick the second you step into the tunnel and doesn’t let up until you well out the other side.

In fact it is worse than a brick. It isn’t just the initial shock but the persistent encroaching growth of the smell. It seems to enter into you and crawl all over you. Essentially it is a very smelly tunnel.

The destination is worth the discomfort though. The Umeda Sky Building is one of the many sightseeing towers that seem to spring up in every major Japanese city. Kobe has Port Tower seen in the above picture and Tokyo has Tokyo Tower and Tokyo View and is also in the process of building a new one, Tokyo Sky Tree. Apparently the thing to do in Japan is to go to a very high spot and look at it as these viewing towers are a major attraction in every big city.

Osaka has a few towers but the one offering the best view is the Umeda Sky Building. I mean, just see for yourselves.

The southern coast of Japan is basically one big metropolis, running all the way from Hiroshima on the Western tip to the North-eastern prefectures. It is the biggest single metropolis in the world. It is effectively the Mega City from Blade Runner in all but name (and flying cars dammit!). During the day and at ground level Japan seems very urban, complicated and built up but at night and from a high perspective it seems positively alien. Gazing out over the endless city is less like sight seeing and more like star gazing. The sky inverts so that the world you look upon seems to encompass a whole universe. It is astonishingly, unbelievably, uniquely beautiful. Romantic poets would be horrified at the lack of nature in all this but the metropolis possesses its own strange beauty all to itself.

My family and I wandered around for more than an hour just drinking this all in. It really is, in the real sense of the word, awesome.

And after the shock of the view had worn off there was still plenty of cool things at the top of the tower. There was this seat for example. Although we didn’t know it at the time this is actually a kind of love tester. Couples sit on the bench; hold each other’s hands and a metal pole. The harder you squeeze the bigger the heart gets. Sadly Fran and I didn’t work this out until after we saw the photo and so didn’t really try the game.

There was also a small dark room with couches and a screen on the floor. The screen made visualisations that reacted to how people moved on the couches. It is all too easy to imagine what three men got up to when presented with a toy that made colours and shapes in relation to how you bounced on a couch. Although the young Japanese couple in the room with us seemed positively embarrassed to play we were bouncing up and down like coke fuelled six year olds on a hotel bed. Joyous fun.

The building itself is an amazing piece of architecture too. It consists of two towers, joined at the top to create a kind of arch shape, but with a circular hole in the top section that makes the building look a little bit like a UFO. Going across the hole are two walkways which one has to cross to get to the viewing platform. This is great fun, even for someone with a minor fear of heights like me, as you can look through the glass bottom of the walkway to see the dizzying heights. Fran was less keen on it than I though.

This design, whilst cool, is hugely impractical. The building has a hug foot print consisting of both the towers and the viewing section at the top. But underneath the viewing section there is no more building. So the Umeda Sky Building wastes almost a good third of the potential space it could occupy. A third of the space wasted is simply atrociously bad architecture from a practical perspective. However, it does look cool. So sod the impracticality, I’m not paying for it.

Finally I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that underneath the Sky Building is a faux pre-war Japanese street complete with fake shop fronts, fake posters, fake lanterns, etc, etc all trying to evoke that “Suki Wong” 1920’s eastern glamour. These are surprisingly popular in Japan and crop up in a fair few places but particularly in Osaka. The specimen beneath the Sky Building is nothing special but it did have a nice Okonomiyaki restaurant where my family got to try their first taste of this Osakan speciality. Verdict? They liked it but struggled quite a bit to actually eat it.

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