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Sakura

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

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

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

Himeji Castle.

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

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

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

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

And he had told everyone to go see it.

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

Arse.

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

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

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

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

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

It is bloody gorgeous!

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

Osaka Operations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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