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Hanami

Hello again tonight I aim to finish up my talk about Kyoto.

But first.

BLOODY HELL THERE WAS AN EARTHQUAKE LAST NIGHT!

Alright fair game, it was a piddly little earthquake. It was a 4 on the ricter scale. To put that in perspective the earthquake in Lincolnshire earlier this year was a 5.0 on the ricter scale. The only damage I know was that my friend Laura’s chair fell over.

I mention it mostly because I’m annoyed. You see I slept through the whole bloody thing. This means I have slept through an earthquake and a hurricane and walked through a bloody tornado without noticing any unusual conditions at all. I’m a bit like Mr Magoo, blindly stumbling through a world of disasters.

Anyway Kyoto.

Finishing up at Kiyomizu-dera me and Fran went into the main temple hall and onto the veranda to look at the views. Both Fran and myself have seen the temple hall before and it is largely unimpressive compared to some of the ones I have seen so it didn’t really draw much interest.

By far the most memorable part of the entire hall was this little chap, a picture I took on my last visit.

Isn’t he just adorable. Ah Japan, sometimes you’re so deliciously oblivious you make me smile. Actually he reminds me of Mr Popo from Dragonball.

Although apparently he isn’t even meant to be a black person. He’s modelled on one of the ancient Japanese deities, the one that’s in charge of wealth I think.

Leaving the temple we nipped into one of the tents at the approach to the temple and had some lunch. This was easily the classiest tent I have ever eaten in. For starters we had to sit on tatami in the Japanese sitting position (you know the one, on your knees with your bum on your heels). I had soba (buckwheat noodles) and Fran had udon (wheat noodles) and we both split some tofu.

Now a lot of people badmouth tofu and I’m here to defend it. Tofu is bland and flavourless, yes, I agree but that isn’t the point. It’s healthy and a good source of protein and has an interesting and delightful texture. You add flavour to it. It’s basically savoury jelly. Jelly is flavourless too until you add fruit but nobody ever complains about jelly. Well actually I do, never really did like it, or custard, or cream and I’m indifferent to sponge. In fact when it comes to desserts you could say I’m a trifle picky.

Anyway this particular tofu was great. It was served in a bucket of hot water. You sieved the tofu out of the water and put it into a bowl containing soy sauce, chilli powder and sliced welsh onions (negi). Good eating, actually it’s one of my favourite snacks.

Having gathered sustenance we had a flick through our lonely planet guide to decide where to head next and chanced upon a walking tour included in the newest edition. This promised to take us down some odd, old and interesting streets. Being a fan of winding ancient alleyways I jumped at the prospect and off we set. First stop teapot lane.

Teapot lane is so called because of the vast numbers of potters plying their wares along it. The entire street is given over to touristy shops but classy touristy shops. Cheap tat (which I am not criticising at all because Japan has the best and most interesting tat in the world) was prevalent on the parallel road but teapot lane is full of artworks, expensive but gorgeous teapots and cups, beautiful delicate fans, Yukata and all the other delicate works of art that people associate with Japan. It’s a fantastic place to wander and window shop and Fran was instantly taken with it.

We followed the advice of the guidebook and turned off teapot lane heading towards Maruyama-koen, a park which is famous in the whole of Japan for it’s sakura. The street we were headed down was amazing my dream Japanese street. Thin, crowded, twisty with ornate slated roofs overhanging into the street and everywhere dotted with sakura. Furthermore the shops continued in the same vein as teapot lane, quirky and very, very Japanese. It was bliss to stroll down it and it was very nearly perfect.

Then it got perfect.

As we started to reach Gion we spotted two geisha wandering down the street and after seeing a young Japanese couple get their photo taken with tme Fran plucked up the courage to do the same.

Geisha, sakura, slate roofs, twisty alleys, beautiful pots and a lovely sunny spring day. Perfect.

We paused in our advance to nip into a tearoom and partake of a parfait. A complex Japanese sundae-esque desert. Mine consisted of green tea ice-cream, milk ice-cream, anko (sort of a sweet kidney bean), brown sugar ice-cream, cinnamon biscuits, pudding and warabimochi. I removed the pudding (crème caramel, see “a trifle picky”) and dug in.

Mochi is a very, very sticky dumpling like confection made with pounded rice. Warabimochi was advertised as being “bracken mochi” which intrigued me. What it actually was, was bland jelly. I ate it but I wasn’t happy. The rest of the pudding was delicious though. Green tea ice cream is slightly bitter but fantastically refreshing, milk and anko are a nigh on perfect combination and I would kill for those biscuits again, particularly covered in brown sugar ice-cream.

Japanese people love their sweets, I love certain sweets but it seems that may tastes do not match up with those of the Japanese people. So until then I had never happily eaten a dessert in a Japanese restaurant. But, MY SWEET GOD was that pudding nice.

We ate happily, drank tea, people watched the young girls wandewring by in yukata and spotted more Geisha than I have ever before seen in my life.

Further sated we continued to amble through glorious scenery and eventually made our way to Maruyama-koen.

Hanami can be done in two fashions, we were trying to accomplish both in one day. The first is to amble along lanes underneath sakura looking at the trees. The second and more popular is to find a park and picnic in it sat underneath a sakura tree. And by picnic I mean drink copiously.

Maruyama-koen was packed by the time we got there, absolutely full to bursting with Japanese people of all ages partying wildly. Sitting, dancing, singing, running, playing games. Seldom have I ever seen a Japanese crowd so relaxed and free. Some students had set-up a mixing desk and some speakers and were running an impromptu disco. Well they were, until the police shut them down. Their fun and infectious tracks were then replaced with the same students singing (well, making a sort of noise anyway, an animalistic one) loudly to inaudible songs and inentionally badly, and off key. Nice one mister policeman, this is so much preferable than the music.

We made a circuit of the park to take a photo of the famous “weeping” sakura tree in the centre of the park and then headed off to go get food, drink and join in. Having procured some beers, chu-hi and tako-yaki we started looking for somewhere to sit. There were tarps everywhere but there were also people sitting on tatami and piles of tatami everywhere. I went to grab some tatami and was shouted at by a man.

“hey, hey you have to rent that.”

“oh, never mind.”

Sadly we were on a time-limit to get home and I wasn’t going to rent a tatami for an hour so I put it back.

He then started speaking in Japanese which Fran tried to translate. The gist of it seemed to be that he was inviting us over. We went over to see him and he explained that he rents the tatami and he was inviting us to use some of his for free.

So we sat and chatted (alas awkwardly) and generally had a pretty nice time. He and his friends gave us some free umeshu (a sort of plum wine/liqueur which you drink diluted in summer. It is delicious and Fran is mildly addicted). He also gave us free peanuts despite me explaining repeatedly that I a) had some takoyaki and b) didn’t really like peanuts. I ate some anyway to make him happy.

They were really, really nice people and I wish I could have stayed all night drinking and chatting. The whole thing reminded me of being a student, going to the green festival and just spending a day in a park getting hammered without a care in the world. But we were on a time limit, I had work the next day (in fact I needed to try and get back home before the dry cleaners closed so that I could retrieve my suit) and we needed to get a train back from Kyoto.

Before we left we were treated to one final absolutely magical sight.

I can honestly say that bar some of the stress of trying to get a train home in time (we didn’t manage it in the end and had to get a friend to pick up my laundry) this was one of the best days of my entire life. I will remember it fondly.

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Hello again. I hope you like sakura because today’s post is absolutely filled with it. As indeed was Kyoto last weekend.

Ah Kyoto. In my view there’s no city quite like it. Where else can you find a city so large bustling and vibrant and yet so densely populated by interesting historical features. London or Paris may have more attractions and sights all together but they can’t match the way that shrines and temples seem to leap out at you from every corner, the way that you can’t go more than twenty yards without seeing something ancient or scared or both or how you can be in a modern convenience store, step out, turn left and be confronted by an image straight out of pre-meiji-era Japan. Truly it’s one of the best places to be a tourist in the world.

And just to make it even better I was not travelling alone but was, for a change, accompanied by my wonderful and patient girlfriend Fran. During my first couple of weeks in Japan I basically spent all my time wandering around going “oh Fran would love this” or “I can’t wait to show this to Fran” or variations on that theme. Now I finally had a chance to introduce Fran to my Japan. Oddly however I opted to start with something she’d already seen, Kiyomizu-dera. But while Fran had visited this temple before she hadn’t visited it when the sakura was in bloom and that made all the difference.

You might notice that some of the photos in this post are, well good. Rest assured my photographic skills have not miraculously improved overnight and no deals with the devil have been struck. Instead the good photos can be attributed to Fran who will hopefully be sparing you all my amateurish attempts in future. Not entirely alas but at least your eyes will be spared some of the torment I refer to as photography.

Anyway, enough pre-amble. What did we do?

We set forth first by train to Kyoto station and then by foot in the general direction of away from Kyoto station and uphill. This strategy was largely working for us until Fran became intrigued by some “pretty sakura” and we had to be diverted from our path to wander into a smaller temple to look at the sakura.

I have no idea what this temple was called but it was absolutely packed! The main garden in the centre was absolutely full of middle-aged Japanese people and off to the side there was a building that seemed to be some kind of museum. Just before this building was a row of desks and the sort of queue I’d expect to see in a post office or some kind of government building. Only it was a temple. This intrigued me greatly but alas we had no time to waste and I mentally filed it to investigate another time.


And in fairness to Fran the sakura in the temple was very beautiful, but it was nothing compared to the one we were about to go find so I hastened her onwards. However our detour had taken us away from the path we wanted to take and into the biggest graveyard I have ever seen.

Kiyomizu-dera sits atop a hill and on the slopes to the east of the temple heading almost into the heart of the city itself is one, huge, graveyard. It is an intimidating and impressive sight, row after row after row of gleaming marble neatly arrayed and spreading out to cover an entire mountainside. If I didn’t think it was somewhat disrespectful I would have taken some pictures because it was truly awe inspiring.

And what’s more it was quite busy too. You may or may not know this but Japanese people have a very different relationship with their dead relatives than we in the west do. This derives from the old Shinto religion in Japan which holds that souls do not enter any kind of heaven but instead remain on earth bound into natural forms, as stones, trees, etc or sometimes as ghosts. So when famous or important people die a shrine is built on their remains and they achieve a kind of godhood from this. They are a god and they live inside the shrine. This doesn’t just happen to famous people though, whenever a Japanese person dies they effectively live inside their gravestone or a household shrine dedicated to them. In fact a tombstone becomes not merely an icon or marker but a sort of body after death. Japanese people still feed their dead relatives, usually mochi (a kind of rice cake) and offer them drinks. Sometimes they go out and give their dead relatives a wash, giving the gravestone a really good scrub so that it stays gleaming marble and isn’t neglected. Fran has even done this apparently and there were a few people out bathing their relatives on this lovely sunny day. There are even two festivals each year (in the spring and autumn equinox) where the boundaries between the world of the living and the dead are much closer. At these times Japanese people go visit their relatives, drinking, chatting and reminiscing and generally remembering all the things you loved about them.

This I think is quite brilliant actually. I don’t for a second believe in any of the spiritual aspects of this but I think that a festival to celebrate all your dead friends is a fantastic idea. In the west we’re too conditioned to let the dead go and we suffer too much grief and depression because of it. In Japan the dead never really go but continue to be a presence in your life, a postive and happy presence. Visting a graveyeard is not a mounrful ocassion but an excuse to get out and about on a sunny day.

I will say this though. The practise of household shrines is yet another way in which the combining of Buddhism and Shinto into one religion in Japan is faintly ridiculous. In one you live forever in nature, in the other you continually re-incarnate and what happens after detah is a central tenent in both religion that is nigh on impossible to reconcile together. Most Japanese people don’t even attempt to reconcile the two though and seem cheerfully uninterested that their religion doesn’t make a lick of sense. Which is all for the best probably.

All this diversion meant we were approaching Kiyomizu-dera from the wrong side. Typically one wants to start at the left hand side of the temple if facing the mountain and move right and back down into Kyoto city. However we had approached from the right and were at the right hand bottom side of the temple. We could head back down a bit and loop round but we decided to head up the mountain and right to get some photos and then back into the main temple.

Before we did this though we opted to try and beat the crowds that we knew would form by going to drink the scared water early.

Kiyo-mizu literally translates as “pure water”. The story behind its founding is recorded at the temple itself but frustratingly wikipedia appears to have let me down on this one. As I recall a monk in 8th century had a dream to found a temple where a spring was and he found the pure water. Sorry it isn’t more evocative but that pretty much was all there was to the story in the first place. The sacred waters are meant to confer prosperity, longevity and health and fancying some of that me and Fran queued up to take the waters.

To take the scared waters you go into a shrine that is positioned underneath a sort of parapet over which the waterfall flows. This means that technically you’re underneath the waterfall but the actual water is about 3 ft in front of you. To take the sacred water you have to use a large pewter cup on a stick, dangling it in the falling water and then bringing it back in to drink from whilst simultaneously trying to avoid whacking people with the 3ft of wood extending from your face.

Having successfully negotiated the crush of people without causing a facial incident Fran and I headed off to go get our pictures.

And my word what pictures we got.

Easily one of the finest sights in the whole world.

Apparently legend holds that if you plunge from that veranda and survive then one of your wishes will be granted. Apparently, mostly due to the vegetation below, this is eminently do-able and about 85% of the pilgrims who attempted this during the Edo period survived. No word on what proportion got their wish granted but if I leapt off a building my wish on the way down would probably be something along the lines of “oh god I want to live, I want to live!” so I’m estimating quite a high percentage. It also used to be a popular suicide spot (the trick would seem to be to angle your head) so the government put a stop to leaping off for any purpose. Spoilsports.

Coming back into the temple complex proper I was pleased to see that the crowd for the sacred water was now enormous. Is there anything that makes an Englishman happier than learning that he has skilfully avoided an enormous queue?

Looping back into the temple annoyingly we couldn’t enter the main temple from this angle and so had to go down the mountain and come back up again where we detoured into the jisha-shrine that is on the same grounds.

Jisha is the Japanese god of matchmaking and together with his messenger (a white rabbit) they’re the subject of this shrine. The shrine is tiny due to being squeezed onto the same grounds as the much more impressive Kiyomizu-dera but it is the most commercially dense shrine I have ever visited. There is exactly one thing there that doesn’t offer you the chance to part with money and that is the love stones, supposedly a pair of stones about 18 yards apart. If you can walk from one to the other with your eyes closed then all your wishes for love will be fulfilled. I would have loved to have given this a go but the place was so packed that I couldn’t even find the second stone despite searching frantically for it for some time. For all I know it doesn’t exist. Maybe it costs 500 Yen to see the other one and it’s rendered invisible until you buy some special glasses.

Despite how much I complain about the rampant commercialisation in Japanese shrines I am still a sucker for them. Thus I ended up buying a pair of charms for me and Fran that promised to “deepen our relationship”. I also had a go at the shrine of some tubby bloke who invited me to rub his belly for small fee in order to get a wish granted. As of yet said wish has not been granted but I live in hope.

Whilst we were in Jisha-jinja some kind of ceremony began. I cannot begin to comment on what it signified or its purpose but I can briefly describe what it consisted of. Firstly two monks emerged from the inner shrine wielding various plants and fruits. They began to chant and wave the plants and fruits over the spectators, then everybody bowed, then they did it again. Diverting but not exactly captivating.

And on that note let’s call it a night. I still have loads more to post about Kyoto and Kiyomizu-dera but it is getting very late for me and bed beckons. I promise you on Thursday I will have geisha, drunks, pottery and racist caricatures. See you then.

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.

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