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I’m back.

After a sizeable absence for Christmas, New Years and getting back into the swing of things at work I have returned to the interwebs to resume blogging duties.

I can’t promise that this year is going to be much better than last year in terms of updates. The plan is to have a definite Tuesday update every week without fail and try and squeeze in some smaller updates on other week days but we’ll see how that goes.

The frustrating thing is that there really is a lot of stuff I’d love to talk about and get written down for you all but my available time for blogging has dwindled significantly whilst at the same time the length, photo content, quality of videos, etc have all grown in size and complexity. So it takes me much, much longer to get a post up and I have less time to do it in. In that situation less blogging is the result.

Anyway to start us off in the New Year I thought I’d begin by talking about how I ended last year and began this year, at a traditional Japanese New Year’s or Oshogatsu.

Oshogatsu is effectively the Japanese Christmas. Whilst in the west we consider Christmas to be a time for families and New Year’s to be a time for hanging out with friends and getting wasted in Japan New Year’s is the time for families to get together.

Actually Christmas Eve in Japan is usually a time for lovers. Young couples go out on expensive dates and give each other presents before retiring to an, ahem, love hotel.

And since my girlfriend (Fran or Mariko-chan to her Japanese relatives) is half Japanese this year I got to spend a traditional Oshogatsu with her relatives.

I stayed with her older cousin’s family (sorry, no names guys I want to protect their privacy) consisting of him, his wife and their three kids. Fran’s mother is the youngest of five siblings and had Fran very late in life so whilst she is only 23 her oldest cousin is in his mid-forties and most of her other cousins are around that age.

As the oldest male in his generation said cousin is basically the defacto head of the family. Japanese people are very concerned with status, even amongst families, and so this meant as the guy in charge obviously Oshogatsu had to be at his place.

They were tremendously generous people, as pretty much every Japanese person I’ve had the good fortune to befriend has been, and during our stay made us feel more than welcome with copious amounts of food and drink.

In fact often I felt that the vast quantities of food were some kind of challenge, a test of my ability to appreciate Japanese hospitality and cooking. I did very little but eat and drink for the entire time I was there. We would get up in the morning, dress and go downstairs to snuggle under the kotatsu (a kind of table with a heating element underneath to warm your legs) and eat breakfast. Breakfast wasn’t anything vast but it was usually nice and in typical Japanese style consisted of five or six different dishes all eaten at once, including rice, fish and soup. After breakfast some tea would come out and we would snuggle under the kotatsu and talk. Then a snack would emerge and more tea. Shortly after that lunch would be served along with the first booze of the day (beer for me, whiskey and soda for everyone else). Next the television goes on and after a while another snack emerges and yet more beer. Yet by the time dinner rolls around, consisting of some vast feat of 10 or 12 dishes, I was still hungry enough to demolish it. Around about 10 o’clock I would finally emerge from my nice warm kotatsu cocoon and have a wonderful relaxing Japanese bath then bed.

Seriously, eat, eat, eat, drink, drink, drink and then bed. It was almost as if they were scared that if I ever got up at any point I might destroy the house or something so they needed to keep me constantly fed and sedated. Except that everyone else does it too; well, except the poor wife who has to cook everything.

Food culture in Japan is enormous. Anything and everything revolves around food. All seasons and special events are associated with special food. Apologies are made with gifts of food. Dating is primarily accomplished by girls offering boys food and boys then taking girls to restaurants. Workers bond over food. Very few people entertain in their own homes, instead most parties are held in Japanese inns with all you can eat and all you can drink offers. And conversation takes a definite second place at parties to food. People travel principally to eat or buy the food there. I thought Americans loved food and I thought Italians loved food but nobody, nobody has so thoroughly fetishised and idolised food like the Japanese.

I think the best example of this was on the last day of our trip. We visited Fran’s Uncle (who is the actual head of the family but part of a slightly smaller side) whose wife is a fantastic cook. From the moment we arrived she kept bringing out dishes constantly, some leftovers but a few brand new dishes. There was so much food in front of us that we didn’t really make a dent in it despite eating constantly from the moment we arrived. And yet when we were due to leave and get our bus she still insisted on going to the supermarket with us to buy sushi to eat as our supper.

And the beer. I was trying not to get drunk but it is damn near impossible not to. In Japan in a social setting it is considered very rude to pour your own drink. People should offer to pour each others and that way everyone stays topped up and the party stays lubricated.

There are some flaws in this system. In a big party that gets quite raucous your own drink can easily get over looked, especially if you are fairly low in the seniority order (like I, the gaijin). The best tip for that situation is to pour someone else a drink and hope they notice that your glass is empty and return the favour.

The other flaw in that system is that if everyone is topping up your drink it becomes impossible to keep track of how much you have drunk, especially if someone fills your drink without you noticing or without asking. Which Fran’s relatives did to me all the time. Almost the first question I was asked in every household was “what do you drink?” Shortly after that a beer glass would be placed in front of me and it would pretty much be full until the end of the night. I was trying not to get too drink I swear but it is impossible not to drink beer when there is a full glass sitting in front of you.

All of which has made me very thirsty. One moment.

*crack* hisssssss.

Ah… where was I?

So yes. Eat, eat, eat, drink, drink, drink. Any other time left was spent playing with the kids, who were awesome and ridiculously cute. I don’t know what it is about Japanese kids that makes them look so adorable but I want one. Particularly Fran’s baby cousin who wrote Fran a letter when we visited her, one which read;
“Dear Mariko big sister.

I love you.

Let’s play lots!”

Couldn’t you just eat her up with a spoon? It’s just a shame that her brother thought I was scary.

So staying with Japanese people is an Epicurean delight but what about Oshogatsu itself? What are the traditions and ceremonies associated with it?

Well on New Year’s Eve itself there aren’t that many traditions. Most of the focus is on New Year’s Day. This makes a lot of sense to me, for the Japanese the celebration is not so much about the end of the old year as it is the beginning of the new one. Consequently there are a lot of special “firsts” that Japanese people do at this time. The first dream, first visit to a shrine and first meal of the year all have special connotations and traditions attached. Mostly these are based on obscure Japanese word play puns where dreaming about an object that sounds like or has a similar kanji to something good can be lucky i.e. dreaming about Mt Fuji is said to be auspicious.

Other than the first shrine visit the most important of these firsts is the first sunrise of the year. Many Japanese people climb (or these days, drive to the top of) a mountain to get a good view of the first sunrise of the New Year. Fortunately for my abysmal fitness we did not do that.

New Year’s Eve does have some traditions of its own though. A relatively recent one but a popular one is for people to watch Kouhaku Uta Gassen or “Red and White Song Battle” a singing competition where celebrities are organised into teams one red (all female) and one white (all male) who take it in turn to sing songs. At the end a combination of studio judges and a home vote decide which team is the winner.

The show is considered a big honour because of its popular appeal so the top singers and artists in Japan are featured. I’m not madly keen on Japanese music to be honest but stripping away much of the extraneous crap and horrible bubblegum J-Pop and just presenting the cream of the crop has shown me that there are quite a few worthwhile Japanese artists. And my favourite Japanese artist (Angela Aki) did my favourite song of hers, tegami, which was awesome.

Plus the little girl from Ponyo (now two years older so much less cute sadly) did the Ponyo theme. Probably my second favourite Japanese song (and the only Japanese song I know the words to).

Oh and every year a foreign guest is invited onto the show. Anybody have any guesses as to which international singing sensation made it onto Japanese screens this year?

Susan Boyle.

Sadly no clips to show you lot as NHK have ruthlessly excised them from Youtube. That’s a real shame as SMAP’s “tribute” to Michael Jackson really had to be seen to be believed.

The guys won this year but if you ask me the women were robbed. I mean, they had Susan Boyle who is famous for winning singing contests.
Oooooooo, bit of a blow there then Subo.

Another New Year’s Eve tradition is to visit a shrine and hear the monks ring the bell at exactly the stroke of midnight. I did this last year and it was a lot of fun. Although Ikuta Shrine in Kobe was packed all the people’s body heat just made it nice and warm. We did shriney things like get our fortunes read, buy decorations, etc. I would have happily done it again but in the words of Fran’s cousin;

“We’re not going because it is too cold.”

Well, you can’t argue with the head of the family. Instead we watched various snowy temples around Japan ring in the New Year through the magic of television.

The final thing to do before the stroke of midnight is to eat soba (buckwheat noodles). I don’t know why, probably for good luck. Still I like soba so I was all in favour of this tradition.

New Year’s Day was a lot more interesting for me and a much more fun experience. Although we didn’t do many of the “firsts” on New Year’s Day itself we were getting ready for a big party, all of Fran’s relatives that lived nearby were coming and the real heart of Japanese New Year was about to begin. Osechi Ryori.

Osechi Ryori is a special meal prepared on or just before New Year’s Day but eaten on the 1st. Traditionally it consists of several beautifully presented dishes stacked in gorgeous boxes. Department stores will make Osechi for you and a box for a family of four can easily run into the many hundreds of pounds. These are massively elaborate and ornate dishes with an insane amount of time and effort put into their preparation.

But we didn’t make any. Why? Let’s ask Fran’s cousin.

“Because nobody likes it.”

Which is true actually. I have had left over Osechi before (most of it is eaten cold) and wasn’t very impressed an opinion apparently shared by most young Japanese. So if the food isn’t especially nice then why make it? Well as ever with the Japanese it is all about puns. Many of the foods in Osechi sound like auspicious or lucky things and so Japanese eat them as a way of summoning good luck. For example;

“Kazunoko (数の子), herring roe. Kazu means “number” and ko means “child”. It symbolizes a wish to be gifted with numerous children in the New Year.” Stolen from wikipedia.

We did make some Osechi but very little. We made some edamame, (black soybeans which sound like “health”) some kazunoku, some kamaboko, (fish cake in pink and white colours that are considered festive because they are the colours of the Japanese flag) and some kurikinton (I have no idea but it is bright yellow and sweeter than sugar).

And I say we and not Fran’s cousin’s wife because I helped! I was finally allowed to roam free of my cocoon and actually assist in helping prepare the food I consume. Japanese people are actually always really surprised that I can cook (as a rule, Japanese men cannot and eat out pretty much constantly until they marry) to the extent that I have had fawning admiration for a cheese sandwich I prepared. Consequently my beautifully made and presented Inarizushi (sushi rice in a sweet tofu wrapper) was met with much appreciation. I did feel a little bit bad when Fran’s cousin used it as an excuse to complain about how his wife always fills the parcels with too much or too little rice though. Whoops.

Although we made very little Osechi we made an enormous feast which puts most Christmas dinners to shame. Here’s a brief run down of what we ate;

Various Osechi products
Green soy beans
Fried prawns
3 different kids of fish cake
Boiled eggs
Soy simmered carrot and root
Fried chicken
Spring rolls
Sausages
Boiled Hokkaido crab (which was gorgeous)
Konnyaku (devil’s tongue potato jelly)
Pickled octopus
Raw tuna
Sushi
Salad

It was an epic dinner.

As Fran’s relatives started to arrive they started to give the kids Otoshidama (as did we, bloody sponging kids). Otoshidama are elaborately decorated envelopes filled with money and are basically the Japanese version of Christmas presents.

By the end of the day one of the kids who was about 12 had accumulated nearly 500pounds worth of cash! £500! At his age I had never seen so much money in once place. And he just keeps it in a flimsy envelope. It just goes to show that there is hardly any crime at all in Japan.

Throughout the meal we talked of various things. As a guest and a foreigner I got a lot of attention, most of it the usual stuff (can you use chopsticks, do you like Japanese food, why did you come here?), some of it startlingly original (what British films have we all seen? Um, James Bond and ….. nope, that’s it.) and a bit of it quite embarrassing. Particularly when everyone commented that my Japanese is better than Fran’s brother. Whoops, that’s going to be a bit tough for him the next time he visits.
I had expected the conversation to be a bit awkward and me to be intruding into a family situation but it was actually fine. Whenever they wanted to gossip and be a family they just switched into Japanese too fast for me to pick up. At which point I nattered to Fran or gorged myself on pickled octopus (my new favouritest thing in the world evers) Whenever they expressed a genuine interest in my opinions or me they slowed down and simplified and I joined in.

Afterwards exhausted, drunk and full the family fell into a catatonic stupor and watched television.

What we watched was this.

This is a show called Sasuke (apparently it’s called Ninja Warrior in the states) which is basically a televised obstacle course. However some of the obstacles look absolutely insanely tough! Witness, for example, the climbing task about 2:40 where the contestant has to hurl a bar upwards and hook it onto some hooks then using momentum hurl it upwards again in order to climb a wall. These people are superhuman!

The man in the video is the only contestant this year who actually managed to complete all four courses although one guy lost by a mere second. I recommend watching this and just letting your jaw hit the floor.

So good food, good drink, good company and good telly. All in all a great start to the New Year.

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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.

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.

Odds and Ends time today as we play catch up on some things I did recently that don’t merit a full post but might be of interest.

The Kobe Matsuri

The hot weather is coming and Matsuri (festival) season is approaching. At the moment we’re stuck firmly in the rainy season in Kobe so the weather is changeable, wet and generally not very nice. However for a brief spell before the rainy season started we had a couple of brilliantly sunny weeks and I got a preview of what summer in Japan will be like. Not fun, although I am looking forward to the festivals.

The Kobe Matsuri was a bit contradictory in many respects. It was partly a huge event and partly a bit of a non-entity. For starters none of the things I associate with Japanese festivals were present, no stalls selling tako-yaki, no goldfish catching games and nothing to do with religion or tradition.

What it did have though was a parade. I’m not particularly well versed in parades as Leeds is not known for any particularly famous ones and so my experience of them is largely limited to Disney World and the Scholes Village Gala. I can safely say that the parade at the Kobe Matsuri was better than the Scholes Gala but probably not as good as Disney World. Yes I know; that’s hardly particularly illuminating but what can I say, I know sod all about parades.

The highlights included.

A group of Beavers, Cubs and Scouts that carried tents in the parade. Of all the things I expected to see small children hefting tents about was not one of them. I’ve seen tents and they don’t really impress me, even if they are hefted by children.

A samba troupe. This group must have been enormous because they had actually managed to set up a second smaller parade on the way to the main one. In the main parade they had legions of women of various ages and body shapes dancing along with a band. The band was pretty fun. Again I know nothing about samba music but I generally dislike most Caribbean music and this was fun and cheery. I feel sorry for the guy singing though; he had to repeat the same phrase again and again for hours. I can only imagine the state his voice was in afterwards.

And finally giant ambulatory cigarettes. Because nothing says Kobe like waving fags.

The parade was a good laugh but the rest of the festival was a distinct disappointment. Events were spread out between the city centre and “Harborland” near the port. The stuff in the city centre wasn’t even vaguely diverting and the “Harborland” attractions had closed by the time we got there from the city centre.

Universal Studios Japan

Due to poor weather Fran and I had to abandon plans to attend a barbeque and were left with a free Sunday and no real plans.

We decided to go to the theme park that’s just on our door, Universal Studios Japan, or USJ as it is more commonly known.

I’ve been to USJ before and I can kind recommend it. If you’re an English speaker than I don’t really recommend it, at least not in preference to the park in Florida. The rides in USJ (Back to the Future, Jaws, Spider-man, Waterworld, Shrek 4-D, Jurassic Park and Backdraft) are all exactly the same as the originals with one exception. They’re all translated into Japanese. This would be a serious disadvantage if you didn’t speak Japanese because most of these rides are story driven and knowing the plot is integral to enjoying them. Only Spider-man and Jurassic Park are really rides with the others being more along the lines of shows or simulators.

However, as I have been on all the original rides I have the luxury of knowing the plot in advance and being able to compare it to the Japanese version. This for me is part of the fun, in that the Japanese attendants are super-super-ultra-genki. The staff in the theme park in Florida are some of the syrupiest, most gee-whiz and golly gee perky monstrosities to ever walk to earth. Doubly so because I’m British and we don’t do perky. But my god, they have absolutely nothing on the Japanese staff. These people are so happy they look like they might explode at any moment and reveal Hello Kitty’s head in their place. They actually applaud you when you complete the ride. Their smiles are like staring into some kind of diabetes hell. Sterner men than I have gone mad gazing into that grin. And yet it holds some kind of bizarre fascination for me. The abyss not only gazes into me it invites further gazing.

There is one attraction which as far as I know is unique to USJ; the Hollywood Dream roller-coaster. It’s a pretty generic coaster, nothing too exhilarating and pretty tame but it has two distinguishing touches, one great and one incredibly lame. The great touch is that riders can select theme music to be played whilst they are on the rollercoaster. I love roller-coasters but I have decided that what I love even more is blasting around a track at high speed whilst the Beatles tell me to get back, get back, get back to where I once belonged.

The distinctly annoying touch is that riders are requested to empty their pockets completely and put them in a locker before riding. Why? I have been riding roller-coasters for years and whilst I have voluntarily divested myself of some things I think might get lost (mostly hats) I have never, ever been requested to entirely empty my pockets. Mostly because it isn’t necessary. G-force pushes stuff back into the seat. Even if you turn upside down (which you don’t) the majority of your pocket contents will stay in your pocket. I know it’s a minor thing to whinge about but the Japanese staff are so bloody insistent about it, constantly checking your pockets and actually checking to see if you have bulges. It feels insanely patronising which is one the biggest issues with being a Gaijin in Japan, the feeling of being patronised constantly. It’s a palpable hatred in the first few months but it eventually fades as you learn how to fit into Japanese culture more effectively.

By far the best thing about the Japanese version of Universal Studios though is the shopping. All I really need to say is that there is a shop called “Hello Kitty Celebrity Style.” Fran was very, very pleased. Pictures of my Helloy Kitty themed humiliation will be posted later this week.

Beer Festival

I love beer.

No, I really, really do.

I don’t drink beer for the alcohol, I don’t even particularly relish being drunk, but if it wasn’t so bad for me I would drink beer with every meal and all day long.

Beer is simply my favourite drink.

And I mean beer here, not lager and not that crap Americans laughingly call beer; actual beer. Ales, stouts, bitters, porters, blondes and all the rest.

I was pleasantly pleased when I moved to Japan and found the beer here to generally be to my liking. In my experience outside of Europe it is a real struggle to get what I would term a decent pint and I was deathly afraid that I would be stuck drinking Asahi Super Dry for three years.

Much to my relief Japanese beer tends to be very strong tasting and flavourful, particularly the “All Malt” and “Hop” versions of the main companies beers. They have a rich and complex palate but are sharp like a lager. Japanese beer uniformly has the body and consistency of a lager too although not always a carbonated one. This generally doesn’t bother me too much as the thinner, waterier beer suits the warm climate. However once in a while I do get a hankering for a proper English Ale.

I was very intrigued then when I was offered a chance to attend the Great Japan Beer Festival in Osaka. For a mere 3000 Yen (about £15) I could drink as much beer as I wanted for 5 hours and sample a variety of brews from across Japan and around the world. Another example of something in Japan that simply would not work in Britain.

When you enter you get a free glass with this brilliant environmental slogan.

I have no idea what it refers to but that is some green thinking I can get behind.

You can take this glass to receive a free sample at any of the various stalls in the building and at various points there are stations where you can rinse out your glass to prevent the cross contamination of flavours.

I had a brilliant day, went with a group of friends, drank many delicious ales, got very tipsy and ended up at the karaoke.

Of the beers I sampled the Japanese beers played to type by all being deliciously flavourful but completely lacking any sort of body. This was especially pronounced in the porters and stouts which were far too watery to possibly bear those names.

Stands out included an “Inperial [sic] Chocolate Stout” which was a wee bit watery but very strong and richly flavoured. Conversely all my friends thought it tasted of tar. A grape beer was highly regarded amongst my companions but to me tasted like a child’s melted lollipop in some beer. A caramel beer from Hokkaido was a massive hit with all concerned and quickly sold out but was my favourite of the day. Rich, sweet, fruity without being sickly and with a caramel undertone that put me in mind of my favourite beer in the world, Deuchars Caledonian IPA. Also a man with a clip-board whom I assumed was quite clued up recommended a Coriander Ale which was one of the foulest things I have ever drunk.

However for me the overall winner was a Palestinian brewery called Taybeh. They produced a range of ales from an IPA to an amber to a very dark ale that were all quite sweet but refreshingly well bodied and very complex on the palate. Their slogan also drew some interest. “Taste the Revolution.” Hmm, possibly not in the best of taste.

Oh and as an added moment of surrealism the food people were selling Shepherd’s Pie.

I shall have to start including that in my self introductions. Nobody in Japan claims to know any British foods outside Fish and Chips so maybe I can surprise them with the revelation that shepherd’s pie was how I used to fortify myself at University.

That’s all for tonight. This week I should have some videos from the festival, pics from USJ and an article I wrote some time ago but that has been sitting on my memory stick at school.

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