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Monthly Archives: November 2009

Our day was started bright and early with a failed trip to find a famous coffee house. Which made me sad.

That failure aside though we set off towards teramachi or temple row to look at, what else, temples.

We started with a temple whose name I absolutely do not know. I didn’t note it down and it isn’t my guidebook so…whoops. But I do know that it is on teramachi and it is bright red and done in a largely Chinese style.

It also had a nice Chinese lady inside who was making beads and who seemed rather disappointed at the poor turnout. She explained that the temple doesn’t usually get a lot of foreign visitors but mostly Japanese and Chinese ones. When I suggested that the poor turn out was probably because the Japanese were all spending time with their families for Obon she told me the opposite was true. Usually Obon was their busiest time of year as families are supposed to visit shrines together. This was quite sad news for me. I have been hearing stories for years about how the Buddhist temples are struggling to keep their income high enough to maintain the temples. Although the big and famous places draw a lot of attention from tourists, if perfectly pleasant but small temples like this one are in danger of closing that is a real shame.

Continuing the theme of the trip our old lady was only too happy to show us around the temple and explain some of the features to us. The most striking of these was a male and female dolphin fish pictured above (male) and below (female). I see male dolphin fish very often in Japanese architecture but this is the first time I have ever seen a female version. Apparently the ball in the mouth of the male represents male desire whilst the female is supposed to bring fertility and easy pregnancy. Both examples shown here are actually drums used in ceremonies at the temple.

Can I just point out how weird it is that every source translates this animal’s name as a dolphin fish? It shares not one characteristic with a dolphin at all. Dolphins have no scales, their tails are horizontal not vertical, they have different heads and bodies and the dolphin fish lacks a dorsal fin. At least the female version looks a little bit like a malformed whale but the male one looks like nothing so much as a dragon fish. What on earth it has to do with dolphins I will never understand.

By far the finest feature of this particular temple was its lovely gardens a few pictures of which are shown here.

Moving on from our mystery temple we moved onto a separate street to have a look at the famous “Meganebashi” or “Spectacles Bridge;” so called because the reflections in the water make it look like a pair of glasses. Apparently it is one of the oldest examples of an arched stone bridge in Japan. Sadly it is nowhere near as impressive as that fact sounds.

Here is Fran, pointing at her spectacles on Spectacles Bridge.

Moving back onto teramachi our next location was Sofukji (not to be confused with Shofuku-ji) one of the more spectacular, unusual and famous temples in Nagasaki.

Shofuku-ji was another Chinese temple that adopted the official Japanese form of Buddhism but it still has many examples of its Chinese heritage left behind such as the Ming style gate in spectacular red colours.

The main attraction of this temple is this giant pot in the courtyard. Nagasaki was once ravaged by a great famine that left many of the poor citizenry starving. The head of the temple along with a pioneering female philanthropist (pictured below) collected donations every day to make a gigantic cauldron of porridge that they would distribute to the poor. During one particularly bad winter this food aid was feeding more than a 1000 people a day and helping them stay alive.

Again, with such history and such an important social role it really is a shame that Buddhist temples are beginning to die out in Japan.

One of the things I noticed about the temple which struck me as unusual was the decorative bats that I spotted in a few places. Apparently bats are something of a symbol of good luck in Nagasaki, and nowhere else in Japan, for reasons that were not explained to me.

Our next two temples were Yasakusa and Kiyomizu which aren’t interesting in the slightest except that they bare the names of two much more famous temples in Kyoto which are also close together. This was another theme of travelling in Kyushu. In Kansai it is very rare for a name to be duplicated for two or more places but on the island there were all kinds of places with names we recognized from Kobe, Kyoto or Tokyo.

Lunchtime and we moved off temple row and into a more city like part of the city.

But first a quick stop in Shian-bashi area. Shian-bashi was, and still is to a lesser extent the red light or “pleasure” district of Nagasaki. In former times it was separated from the main city by a bridge. This bridge, known as the bridge of pondering gave its name to the area. Why the bridge of pondering? Well apparently in days of old men would pause for a second on the bridge and debate whether to press on or return to their wives at home. Seized by the spirit of the ages I also decided to ponder for a moment before pressing on in search of food, drink and cake.

Cake! Yes, cake. In fact not just any cake but the infamous Castella at the even more infamous Fukusaya Castella cake shop. Castella is a kind of sweet sponge cake introduced to Japan by the Portuguese. The origins of the name are widely debated but are believe to come from an area of Portugal with the similar sounding name of Castile. However confusingly Castile was then a part of Spain and in Castile they don’t make Castella.

Fukusaya Castella has being making this cake and operating as a shop continuously since 1624! That is an astonishingly long time for any shop to operate, let alone in one location and in the same building (albeit heavily renovated inside). I would be interested to know if anything in the U.K. even comes close but I doubt it. To put that in perspective imagine a Tudor building being used for its original purposes continuously for nearly 400years!

The shop is somewhat small and Spartan inside but that is because it basically consists of a counter and three stools. All of the activity goes on in the bakery itself, all they need the shop for is to sell you their one and only product, cake.

And what a cake it is. Honestly it may be the most perfect cake I have ever eaten. This is the platonic ideal of cake. There is no decoration, no icing or butter or any messing around, it is just pure sponge. But it is the nicest sponge I have ever eaten and I suspect it is impossible to make a sponge cake taste any better. It was moist, fluffy, sweet but not too sweet, with a deliciously complex after taste. It was just perfect. Utterly perfect.

Oh and look, more bats. I wonder what they are all about.

Full of cake and properly rested we decided to climb to Suwa-jinja.

It was a long climb. If nothing else a trip to Nagasaki will help you keep fit as there is simply no way to avoid climbing hundreds and thousands of steps.

Suwa-jinja lacked the cool Chinese influenced architecture of most Nagasaki temples and shrines but made up for it with its own unique attraction. Komainu, or prayer dogs.

These dogs are features of pretty much any Asian temple. They always stand in pairs, one with his mouth closed and the other with his mouth open. One is taking a breath and the other is breathing out but this breathing is in sync, as if they are taking the same breath. This concept of harmony so perfect that one breathes in while the other breathes out is known as “wa” and is a central idea in Japanese culture.

Furthermore one dog is always female whilst the other is male. Usually the male breathes in, an act of life and the female breathes out, an act of death symbolising the cyclical nature of life due to resurrection.

Komainu are descended from Chinese foo dogs or lion dogs which had the same purpose and are also displayed at temples but do not have the associations with wa.

Suwa-jinja is covered in hundreds of these dogs all over the place with radically different artistic styles and designs.

Some of the dogs even have special features such as this one, the kappa komainu.

And barring a failed trip to a temple we eventually got to later on (I’ll tell you all about it tomorrow), a bath and a delicious dinner at an Izakaya that specialised in pork was all we did that day.

Once again apologies for the lack of updates. I have had the busiest two weeks of my entire stay in Japan so far at work and they have just ended. Also this post was a little bit of a mini-epic as you can see. I hope you all enjoy it anyway.

Nagasaki Day 1

The first part of our wonderful stay in Nagasaki involved getting there. Sadly Kyushu is not mainland Japan. There are no lovely super rapids that bisect the island and let you cross from one side to the other in a hour. Instead your options are ride all the way around the edge of the island or take a bus through the middle.

Being both cheaper and quicker bus it was. And it was a really, really nice bus too. Big comfortable seats and a TV screen at the front. Of course the telly was in Japanese but it was playing the weirdly fascinating “20th Century Boys” which one of these days I’m going to have to read/watch.

A slightly odd start to the trip though was this statue of some kind of zombie nurse that I snapped just as we passed by it. Apparently it was advertising some kind of bandage/trauma clinic thing. There is no way in hell you’d be able to get away with displaying that on the street in England; and with good reason. I was freaked out by it and I am hardly squeamish.

Just before lunchtime we pulled into Nagasaki and I got my first impression of the place.

It is hot and it is bloody hilly.

I mean that applies to everywhere in Japan but to Kyushu even moreso. The city seems to consist of a harbour, the area around the main station and then nothing but hills, hills and more hills. And steep ones at that.

Gamely trenching up the first of many hills we emerged, sweating, tired, hot and hungry at our hotel. A traditional Japanese ryokan run by a lovely and enthusiastic little man who spoke not one single word of English. Not even hello.

Divesting ourselves of bags we set off in search of food and stumbled upon this place.

Yes, that is a suit of armour and no; that isn’t even remotely the weirdest thing associated with this café. On the outside it was decorated with suits of armour, masks, fake fruit, statues and Buddhas. On the inside it was festooned with dozens of statues and antique plates, cups, pots and kettles. It was a real Aladdin’s cave, a mix of dozens of different things with no attempt whatsoever to match styles or features. It was in short awesome.

The people running it were even better. The main guy in charge was really friendly and talked to us about all the antiques he’d gathered. How he likes to go out to antique fairs to collect them, etc. He was showing off some bargains, some especially old things he’d grabbed and one or two particularly pricy pieces. A bit all over my head I’m afraid but it was nice to just listen to a man talk about something he was passionate about.

He was also passionate about tea! Something which will serve a man in good standing in my book. Most places here serve basic “kocha” but he had an honest to god tea menu, with different blends, leaves and countries represented. I just plumped for a standard British blend but it was really nice. Easily the best cup of tea I’ve had in Japan that I didn’t make myself.

The rest of his family were all in the café too. At the counter his son or possibly grandson was sat doing his school homework. His wife was doing the cooking and chatting occasionally and she was a marvellous cook (if a touch slow for the café crowd). I had a spicy pork and rice stir-fry that was basic but good. Chinese food is rightly famous in Nagasaki because it absolutely delicious. Not greasy, not slimy, not covered in MSG just tasty and wondrous.

All in all it was the perfect first impression of people in Nagasaki and it was yet another reminder that people in Kyushu are unbelievably friendly.

Full up of spicy ginger stir fry we made our way up the mountain to check out some of the many temples in Nagasaki.

First up was Kanzen-ji, which had a big tree.

Not to disparage the tree, which is pretty damn big, and right smack dab in an urban area to boot. But well, trees can only hold my interest for so long so off we toddled to Shofuku-ji.

Shofuku-ji was really quite lovely, although our enjoyment of it was hampered a bit by rain which suddenly sprang from nowhere and forced us to shelter under the arches of the temple.

Shofuku-ji, like many temples in Nagasaki, displays a mixture of Chinese and Japanese architectural styles. I’m no expert on architecture and I would be hard pressed to explain to you what this means in practise but I have seen enough temples on the main land to know that something about Shofuku-ji was very different to a regular temple. Small touches such as a geometric wooden pattern on the gates or a slightly different style of arched roof might not seem like much but they gave the temple a feeling of novelty that made going to look at temples interesting again.

Yes, after three years in Japan it is possible to become bored of looking at temples. Heck, it took my brother about two days when he visited.

It doesn’t hurt that Shofuku-ji is extremely handsome, with beautifully laid out gardens and wonderful views of the city below. It also had some beautifully detailed gargoyles, including a wall covered in nothing but ogre and gargoyle designs (the onigawara).

However my main memory of Shofuku-ji is of the very nice gentleman who decided to explain the history of the temple to us. I have mentioned in earlier posts that we visited Kyushu during Obon. Traditionally during this time Japanese families go and visit their parents and grandparents and then visit temples and shrines. Obviously this elderly gentleman was out visiting temples with his family. Equally obviously he was bored to tears with them because he decided to abandon them and instead talk to two foreigners. Whilst he explained in Japanese I had no hope at all of understanding about the history of the temple his family watched us suspiciously from some distance. At some point a small child was entrusted to come over and summon Grandad away to stop bothering the poor people. But he was having none of it and continued to regale us with stories and ask questions about England.

Eventually we convinced him to rejoin his family and with a somewhat sad expression he trundled off and we made our way elsewhere. People, especially old people, in Kyushu are awesome.

Next up on our tour was Fukusai-ji Kannon. A temple built, I kid you not, in the shape of a giant turtle with a Buddha standing on its back.

No, seriously, giant turtle. Here are some pictures.

I know I talk about Gamera a lot on this blog* but come on. That thing looks like its about to rear up and fight Godzilla. Maybe the next time America tries to bomb Nagasaki it will.

*Gamera is a giant turtle with tusks that can fly and breathe fire. He is also “a friend to children” which is perfectly logical.

Awesome turtle aside, we were a bit disappointed to find out that the temple was shut. We had a shufty around the outside of it all but we couldn’t find a door that wasn’t locked. Oh well we thought, at least we got to see the giant turtle.
Just as we were leaving, however, an incredibly old, but surprisingly spry woman started sprinting towards us. Turns out she was the caretaker and she was happy to show us around.

So we ended up with our own personal tour of the temple. Since we were the only people there we were treated to some extra special benefits, such as;

Getting to bang the drum used for services.

Posing with the big bell outside that is used to call in the faithful.

Whilst the turtle was fantastic the inside of the temple was full of some really cool touches as well. Our guide took us through many of them demonstrating such things as secret cabinets built into the walls and altars where Chinese residents used to hide things during the war.

Best of all was a massive Foucault’s pendulum underneath the temple. The string reaches right up into the Buddha’s head and is connected to a ball pendulum which measures the rate of rotation of the earth. It is one of the biggest such pendulums in the whole world, only beaten by three others. However I think it may need resetting a little bit as the intervals between the rods falling down were not regular.

Fukusai-ji was followed up by the Ouranda (Holland) Cathedral and the 26 Martyrs Memorial.

Nagasaki is a somewhat unique city in Japan due to the wide mix of different cultures that coexist here. Primarily it is the most Chinese influenced city in Japan but there is also a strong influence of Portuguese and Dutch culture. This is because for a long time Nagasaki was the only port in the country that was open for westerners, principally those from Portugal and the Netherlands, to trade in. The Dutch settled here on the “Dutch slopes” and in a small city within a city which initially represented the only place they were legally free to move around in. With their settlement they brought sunflowers and tulips, coffee, different kinds of cake, tobacco and a whole range of goods.

They also imported Christianity (although actually the first missionaries had arrived sometime earlier), and that’s where the problems began. Buddhism and particularly the Shinto variant practised in Japan places an emphasis on venerating authority figures and paying respect to them. Every man, woman and child in the land was legally obliged to attend Buddhist ceremonies. Through the temples and the shrines the Shogunate extended quite a lot of their power. Anything that was a threat to this order would have to be controlled and Christianity presented a definite threat.

So it was then that Christianity became illegal in Japan. This ban didn’t apply to the foreigners who lived and traded in Nagasaki but it did apply to the Japanese residents of the city. However due to their contact with the Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish many Japanese residents began to convert to Christianity.

So it was that on February 5th 1597 Toyotomi Hideoyshi executed 26 Christian priests, 2 of them children, 20 of them Japanese, 4 Spanish, 1 Mexican and 1 Indian by crucifixion.

The memorial that stands here commemorates the site at which they were crucified.

Whilst an interesting history lesson the whole area made me sick to my stomach with anger at what madness and barbarism man does to his fellow man all because of religion.

Ugh.

It was a nicely done memorial though. And the church with its crazy mosaics and abstract angels was a striking and impressive sight.

Our final tourist attraction that evening was Glover Garden. This is a garden (surprisingly) and a series of old houses in a western style dating back to the Victorian era/ Meiji-restoration. It’s situated up a hill (also surprisingly) overlooking the harbour below.

Being westerners and westerners that have seen plenty of Victorian architecture at that we weren’t too interested in visiting Glover Gardens. What attracted us there was an advertisement for a Beer Garden. Beer Gardens in Japan aren’t the back bit of a pub but rather a short lived attraction in the summer offering all you can drink booze and all you can eat buffet food in an open air environment. Stuffing ourselves in a Victorian garden with fantastic views of the harbour definitely appealed to Fran and I. Sadly the beer garden was cancelled for the day due to rain, although whilst we were there it was a balmy summer night and never rained once.

I am glad we went there though because the buildings served as an excellent and very informative museum about Glover Garden and the area around it. Basically this was the area where all the expats used to live back in the Meiji-era when expat meant Victorian industrialist. What I had no idea about was how influential and important these British industrialists were to the development of Japan. Thomas Glover, whom the area is named for brought the first steam locomotive to Japan and built the first steam ship. In fact the company he founded to manufacture steam ships eventually became the Mitsubishi Corporation. Even better then that Glover was the founder of the first ever brewery in Japan, a brewery that eventually underwent a name change and became Kirin Breweries; the makers of Kirin beer.

See the moustache on that horse, supposedly that is a little tribute to glover and his own quite iconic moustache.

Glover wasn’t alone in his endeavours either. The area around him was full of western style houses all the former abodes of industrialists that built ships, founded breweries, imported tea back to England (god bless those men, sniff, it makes me tear up a little) and worked tirelessly to bring Japanese culture to the west and vice versa.

The fact that they all clung together, had clubs together and built houses that tried to recapture home really spoke to me. These people had no internet, no television and no British radio. They were in a properly alien culture which they clearly loved but they missed home in ways I can only imagine. The strange compromise of half one lifestyle and half another will resonate with anyone who has ever been an expatriate. It was quite touching to realise that I had something in common with these people and quite fascinating to see what British comforts seemed to be important to them (fireplaces, beds and baths seemed to be the main ones and I can sympathise with all three).

Glover Garden also had some small curiosities such as this statue of Puccini and another statue of the famous heroine of his opera “Madam Butterfly”. Apparently the Soprano it was based on lived and worked in Nagasaki.

Oh yes and this brilliant monument marking the place where bowling was first introduced to Japan. I think that may be the best historical plaque I have yet seen. Particularly the stained glass bowling pins.

Finally one of the best things about going to Glover Garden was getting to meet these guys, Jan and Steven. Fran had spotted them talking at the entrance to the Garden in Dutch. Now Fran used to live in the Netherlands and speaks Dutch pretty much fluently. She thus likes to point out to me when she notices people speaking Dutch.

Can I just say that for a small nation, and a language that is only spoken in that one nation, Dutch speakers really get around. I have heard them (or rather had them pointed out to me) in Italy, nearly every major city in Japan and Newcastle. Dutch folks like to travel it seems.

Jan and Steven asked us a question about directions which we were happy to help them with, Fran pointed out the Dutch connection (the cheesier sequel…see what I did there) we got to chatting and we ended up hanging out for the rest of the evening.

Nice guys. They were in Japan with their company as part of a project. The project was over and they were headed on a whirlwind tour of Japanese destinations they had missed before they had to return home. It was fun introducing them to things they didn’t know and swapping ex-pat stories.

We wandered around the garden with them and then eventually into a small museum which contained replica boats. These are used in Nagasaki’s major festival. I particularly like the evil looking whale.

We also headed out to dinner with them. I had been itching to try out some Nagasaki Chinese food since it was supposed to be the best Chinese food in Japan. In particular I wanted to try some Champon, a kind of ramen made with a very salty soup and loaded up with literally every kind of topping imaginable. Fishcakes, carrots, cabbage, beansprouts, mushrooms, etc, etc.

At first we tried a Chinese restaurant that was recommended by our guidebook. No luck, it closed at 9 o’clock. So off we trudged to Chinatown.

Shut, shut, shut, shut. It seemed that every restaurant we tried was shut at 9 o’clock. What was that all about? Do people in Nagasaki not eat late? In most Japanese cities restaurants are full up until midnight with salaraymen leaving work and grabbing a quick bite. I personally have eaten at 4 in the morning in 2 major Japanese cities in quite nice cafes. Are there no salarymen in Nagasaki? What was going on?

Eventually we found a restaurant that was open and dug into 4 bowls of Champon and 3 massive beers.

The champon was good too. There were so many conflicting flavours that it was basically a flavour mess, although a predominantly salty flavour mess. But it was greasy, salty, loaded with MSG and went down nice and easy with a cold beer. Real comfort food and just what I needed.

Finally, bidding Jan and Steven “sayonara” and full up of Chinese we set off home. At which point the rain we had been promised started.

As you can see, it was quite a heavy rain.

Three things you must know about Kyushu. The old people are awesome. It is very hilly and hot. When it rains, you absolutely know that it has been raining.

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