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Hanami.

The Japanese obsession with nature culminates in two events every year; Hanami and Momijigari. The latter is the practise of going out to appreciate the autumn leaves, the former is going out to appreciate the sakura (cherry blossom).

And it should be stressed here, Japanese people are mad for the sakura. Amongst the sakura related products I have come across since Spring sprang are sakura crisps (pretty nice), sakura chu-hi (basically sakura tonic), sakura charms, sakura clothes, sakura stickers, sakura phones, sakura tea (very, very salty), sakura jam, sakura sweets, sakura kit-kats and sakura bloody hello kitty.

The Japanese love the sakura.

Circumstances arose last week to grant me two days off work. Admittedly I did have to use up my precious nenkyu in order to do so but it was that, spend a day pottering around the KEC learning Japanese or attend an all day meeting in Japanese at my school. So having been more or less forced to take the day off I decided to make the most of it and see more of Kyoto.

My recently arrived girlfriend has sort of thrown my travelling patterns into a bit of disarray. Since I know that I want to visit places in Japan with her and I know that I only have a limited amount of time in Japan I don’t really want to see every single place I visit twice. As such I was frantically flipping through the guidebook looking for a place I think Fran wouldn’t want to see. Mostly this meant looking for anything that wasn’t described as being “particularly stunning in April when the sakura is in bloom” which seemed to be bloody everything.

Eventually I settled on ginkakuji, The Silver Pavilion, which seemed interesting enough to divert my attention for a day but not so especially amazing that it would necessarily require a second visit.

As it happens it will definitely require a second visit because it was shut! Well not entirely. Ginkakuji started out in life as a villa for a samurai but was later on converted into a Buddhist temple. It consists of two main buildings and an elaborate and beautiful garden built partly into the mountain (a practise known to the Japanese as borrowed scenery). The garden and one of the buildings was open but the main building that the area derives its name from was shut as it was being refurbished.

You would think this would be exceptionally annoying but as it happens I was in too good a mood to be particularly irked. You see, the sakura was in bloom.

The approach to ginkakuji was a canal/river thing in the centre of the road with a row of grass and sakura trees either side of it and the actual road beyond that. I had no idea that the sakura was already out in so much force and was gobsmacked by the sight of it all. It was a little avenue of nature, an oasis of calm right smack dab in the centre of a busy city. It was beautiful and perfect.

And busy, well not terribly busy but surprisingly so for a Wednesday morning. The streets were pulsing with people and vendors, wandering around, taking photos. There were even some girls in Yukata out and about getting their photo taken. I purchased a sakura ice-cream and had a perfectly pleasant meander. Eventually I made my way to ginkakuji.

(Just to interject for a moment lets talk about Ice-cream in Japan. The stall I bought my ice-cream from had nearly none of the standard ice-cream flavours we’re used to. No strawberry, no vanilla, no mint. Furthermore this wasn’t just restricted to this guy; strawberry, vanilla and mint seem to be completely absent from Japanese ice-cream sellers. In fact this guy seemed to have the “standard” Japanese flavours. These would be, melon, mango, milk, ramune, which is a sort of Japanese version of lemon/lime only slightly odder. The bottle usually has a marble in the top, I’m a big fan. He also had green tea, chocolate, sakura and black sesame which I haven’t tried yet but desperately want to.)

The first thing that greats you when you enter ginkakuji is an enormous hedge, fully 13 or 15 foot high! You pass into the hedge which becomes a kind of alleyway bordered by hedges. This is surprisingly intimidating, possibly because it’s a blind corner and all you can see in front, behind and to either side of you is hedge. You can peer through the hedge and glimpse an impenetrable bamboo forest on either side of you, dampening the noise from the outside world.

Eventually you turn a corner and leave the hedge and step into what must be one of the most beautiful gardens I have ever seen.

Alas I was so stunned I pretty much forgot to take photos.

It’s done in the bonsai style, all miniature trees and recreated lakes and mountains. The centrepiece of the bonsai style is a fantastic waterfall at one end of the garden with a koi carp pond beneath it. It’s perfectly tranquil and still and supremely relaxing.

The other major feature was an immaculately smooth sand sculpture of a mountain and a lake. Whilst I was there 5 or 6 men were continuously smoothing and layering the mountain but the lake was unattended and was unbelievably smooth.

There was a distinct lack of sakura in the graden but it was so lovely that I didn’t particularly care and just wandered about in a tranquil daze.

Eventually I drew myself from my daze and set off in the vague direction of Hoonen-in.

Hoonen-in is the main temple for Buddhists practising the Joodo Shuu or “pure land” school of Buddhism. It was founded in honour of the creator of this school the monk Hoonen, a very controversial figure during his lifetime. The temple seemed like much more of a working temple than others I’ve visited. Whilst most temples which are tourists attractions are primarily tourist attractions Hoonen-in seemed to be mostly about teaching people. There were classes being attended whilst I was there and a library of Buddhist materials that visitors can stay and read. It was huge too and pretty mazelike.

The main appeal to Hoonen-in seems to be the various artworks and treasures inside it. The building itself is pretty unimpressive even though it’s one of the largest temples I’ve been to but it has some interesting artworks and murals inside. I was particularly fond of a dragon done in what looked to my untrained eye to be charcoals. In any way the only colour used was black but the dragon had a strange organic quality to it, like it hadn’t been painted so much as scratched into the wall. Or maybe burnt there?

The garden was quite nice too, not a patch on ginkakuji but it did give me one very awesome photo.

Making my way back to the station from the two temples I realised that it was still pretty early and I could do two things I have wanted to do in Kyoto for ages.

The first was to go up to the top of Kyoto tower. Nearly every major city in Japan has one of these viewing towers, Kobe has port tower, Tokyo has Tokyo tower (which looks like the Eiffel tower), Osaka has the Umeda Sky Building (which looks like a flying saucer dangling between twin towers) and Kyoto has the Kyoto tower, which they describe as looking like a candle but which I am convinced resembles an upside-down mushroom.

Anyway the view from the top was mightily impressive, vertigo inducing even and having looked at it for a bit too long I had to have a sit down and stop looking at anything but the inside of the tower. My vertigo is weird, 90 % of the time it doesn’t bother me at all but then on that 10 % I’ll be looking at something from a great height and my brain goes YOU’RE GOING TO DIE RUN, RUN YOU FOOL. Stupid brain.

Not that the inside of the tower was dull, Kyoto city-council evidently faced with a tower they’ve constructed and paid for said, “well lads, now what do we do with it?”

The answer apparently is to use it as an usual gallery space for art installations. Some of these made fantastic use of the unusual space and incorporated the view into their presentation but most of them were bafflingly obtuse. Place your bets as to whether this is because they’re modern art or merely Japanese?

Kyoto tower was nice but pretty pricey just to get to the top and I was about to find out that the money I spent was entirely wasted. Next to Kyoto tower is the train station and from the top of the train station the view is almost as good for free!

Bugger.



Kyoto station has the distinct honour of being included in the Lonely Planet guidebook as a distinct attraction in its own right and not merely a way of getting into Kyoto. This is mostly because Kyoto train station is a stunning architectural achievement. It is big, really, really big and is constructed in such a way as to make it seem even bigger than it is. It is intimidatingly big. I mean in terms of actual size it is nothing, it’s probably actually smaller than Newcastle station (although taller, and actually Newcastle station is a pretty gorgeous building itself) but it seems like some kind of giant staring down at you chuckling at your puniness.

It basically consists of a central hall and then two slopes rising up on either side of the central hall making a kind of V. At the top of each point there is a skywalk joining the two going across the central hall so I guess it’s more of a triangular shape. It’s meant to evoke the geography of Kyoto, sitting in a basin with mountains on either side. I certainly agree that the slopes seem mountainous.

Incidentally it’s yet another building that I have been to that I have seen Gamera destroy in a film.

On the right hand side is an escalator that rises all the way from the 4th floor to 11th! At the top is the brilliantly named “happy terrace” (oh Japan) at a height that rivals Kyoto tower. From there you have a commanding view of the surrounding city and a horrendously vertigo inducing view down the escalator which is ten times scarier than any mountainside I’ve ever stood on.

Just below the top floor was a door mysteriously marked “ramen restaurants”. Now long time readers of this site will know of my passion for ramen, I bloody love the ramen. I am so in love with ramen that I am nigh on incapable of refusing ramen if offered it even if I have just finished a bowl of ramen. Therefore a door marked “ramen restaurants” intrigued me greatly. Surely this isn’t what it seemed? The door could not lead to a space consisting only of ramen restaurants could it?

As it happens, no, that would be too good to be true and there was a takoyaki and a hamburger restaurant behind the magical door. There were however about 10 ramen restaurants ranging from the cheap and dodgy to the high end and covering the entire spectrum of variety that one can achieve with ramen.

They also all had a pointless little gimmick, the menu was a vending machine. Rather than go in, sit down and order, you perused a vending machine featuring pictures of the food the restaurant sold. Then you selected and paid for your food and got a little voucher. When you went in the restaurant you handed over the voucher and got your food.

Completely pointless but it did liven up the experience a tiny little bit.

So that was Kyoto day 1. Come back next week for far more exciting adventures in Kyoto featuring geisha and drunken men.

Right then, back on schedule.

KARUTA

One of the best aspects of my job is getting to see and participate in all the special activities my school puts on. I think more than anything else this is the biggest insight into Japanese culture. I get to see what Japanese people do as they grow up. Unlike my shrine visits this is simply something a tourist never gets access to.

So I was really excited last Friday afternoon when Kosuga-sensei asked me if I would come watch the students play cards.

Yes you heard me, watch them play cards.

The game was karuta (literally card), specifically “iroha-garuta” which is the original karuta game and something of a Japanese tradition.

Karuta is a sort of listening version of snap. Students sit in small teams surrounding a set of cards placed face up. One person (i.e. a teacher) reads out a word or phrase and the students have to grab the corresponding card. I use it all the time in classes, say by putting a load of pictures of emotions on a table and saying “I’m happy” so the students have to grab the “happy” card. However “iroha-garuta” differs slightly from the way I play it. In “iroha-garuta” one person is reading out various tanka (or poems). He reads the first 3 lines of the poem and the students have to find the card with the last two lines.

The students study tanka in their Japanese classes so playing this game is the culmination of a lot of months hard work memorising poems.

This just sums up Japan so much for me. Not just taking time out from lessons to play a card game but actually studying it in lessons in order to prepare. And for no other reason than that it’s a tradition.

It was a pretty fun afternoon too. Of course I had no idea what the teachers were reading out but the answer cards were written in hiragana not kanji. This meant I could have a go at reading them (although I didn’t have a chance in hell of understanding them) and I was pretty pleased with how well I was doing.

The kids seemed to be having a ball too. One group of boys did the respect fist every time they won a card. So of course after a while I came and joined in.

Traditional school card games. I love this country.

JAPANESE CRISPS ARE WEIRD: PART 2

Ladies and gentlemen these are Strawberry flavoured Cheetos.

Some madman has combined the flavours of cheese, potato and strawberry!

This truly is the upper limit of weird food, surely.

Nothing more insane than this could possibly exist, could it?

Dare I eat them.

I must, for how could I pass up something so tremendously bizarre.

If I do not taste them now I shall forever wonder.

They shall haunt my dreams forever more, a nightmare vision in pink.

And so I must.

Yet, I still fear.

But what is man if he cannot overcome his fear.

Pray for me friends.

*crunch*

Actually.

They’re quite nice.

To provide some explanation for this. In Japan pink is considered to be a lucky colour. It’s a mix of the red and the white of the imperial flag. After the New Year everything turns pink for the whole of January and a startling amount of pink food goes on the market. My sakura crisps were one example of the pink food phenomenon but I’ve also seen a huge variety of pink crisps, sakura flavoured kit-kats and lots of stuff made with prawns.

G-GUNDAM

I usually don’t talk about the Manga (comics) and Anime (cartoons) that I’m into at any moment in time because I generally assume that the people reading this blog either a) already know about them or b) couldn’t care less.

G-Gundam is an exception because it is profoundly and gloriously stupid.

Gundam is a catch all title for various series all about giant robot vehicles called “mobile suits”. If you want to know all the details then by all means check out wikipedia but take it from me, you don’t want to know all the details. My friend Ryan is obsessed with Gundam to the point of frightening normal people but I can’t judge because I find the series to be quite cool myself. I watched “Gundam Wing” back home in England and bought a Shenlong Gundam model (my favourite gundam) shortly after I arrived. I even sent some gundams to my nephew for Christmas.

G-Gundam is set in a universe where most of the countries of the world have established colonies in space and given up on life on Earth. To avert the possibility of a catastrophic war between space colonies they hit upon the idea of deciding all conflicts by gundam combat. So once every 4 years each colony competes for the right to rule the entirety of space in a pitched gundam battle. Earth is the battleground and anything goes.

So far so laboured but serviceable set-up to watch robots hit each other. However, it is the designs of these robots that sets G-Gundam apart from its more normal sister shows.

This is the robot of Neo-Japan. It looks like a standard gundam. Humanoid, coloured in red, blue and gold with a white body. In every gundam series there will be a robot that looks like this and it will be the hero.

In sharp contrast here is the Mexican “Tequila Gundam”

That there is a robot with a sombrero. A giant robot sombrero.

Yes, you guessed it. The whole series is little more than one national stereotype after another. But the humour comes from seeing what the Japanese think about other countries. For example China and Hong Kong get relatively sensible robots. But Denmark.

They get a robot dressed as a fish. The “mermaid gundam”.

America fairs slightly better with an American football themed robot.

That transforms into a topless boxer.

I’m not even going to touch the Spanish “Taurus Gundam”

What have Sweden got?

Why yes, a leggy blonde, of course.

Japanese people love France and the French “Gundam Rose” is actually pretty dignified and cool. Although the Napoloen hat cracks me up.

And of course now I’ve shown you France you’re all curious what the English gundam looks like right? Well presenting the “John Bull Gundam”.

Yes, they gave us a robot bearskin. You’ll be pleased to know that we beat up the French Gundam, but then the Japanese guy kills our pilot (we’re baddies in this series).

But undeniably the king of the stupid is the Dutch Gundam, or “Nether Gundam”

Plus the theme tune features the phrases “bright you now” and “shining finger”. This is obviously hilarious but unfortunately the theme tune is incredibly catchy. This means I’ve been wandering around my house and school singing “bright you now” without noticing. Damn catchy gibberish.

GAMERA

Mentioned in the Aquarium post was Gamera. Here he is again.

Gamera is an enormous turtle. He breathes fire, he can fly by retracting limbs and shooting fire out of the holes and he is amongst other titles “guardian of the universe” and “friend to all children”.

I have recently been watching a lot of Gamera and again I wouldn’t mention it, except that recently I watched a film called Gamera vs Barugon.

This was much like any other Gamera film, in fact all told it was a pretty poor Gamera film (right up until the part where barugon shot rainbows from his back that somehow destroyed missles) with one exception.

At one point Barugon destroys Kobe.

You have no idea how much we cheered.

Having seen years of asteroids destroying the empire state building, aliens blowing up the white house or the Eiffel tower, dragons eating London or Godzilla stomping Tokyo I finally got to see something I know and love destroyed on camera.

It was awesome. Nothing makes a disaster movie more fun than recognising what’s been destroyed. I’m sure there’s the basis of an interesting essay in there but at the moment I’m just too happy to think about it properly.

I mean a giant lizard knocked over Port Tower with his tongue. Glee!

The other cool thing about Gamera is that the film company that makes his films, Daiei, is the same company as my supermarket.

And finally.

I have been sick recently and bought tissues. Hilarious tissues.

Aroe? That isn’t an ingredient, it’s what my kids say to greet me in the morning.

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