Saturday, 30 October 2010

Croissants and Kimonos

When you think about France and in particular Paris, it conjures up a whole range of mental images usually associated with food, wine, fashion, art or architecture. We certainly loved experiencing as many of these things as possible while we were there. However, it seems that nowhere in the world is French culture regarded in such high esteem as here in Japan. All things French are unquestioningly placed on a pedestal and held up as the pinnacle of sophistication. Many fashion arcades are dedicated to the giants of French couture, while lesser local clothes shops simply brand their establishments in French in order to suggest their stylistic credentials. When walking through a food area you are hard pressed not to come across a patisserie or boulangerie, complete with a catchy French title (often spelt incorrectly). If you peer through the windows you see high-hatted bakers producing delicate pastries and crunchy French sticks that could be straight from the streets of Paris. Similarly, the local liqueur stores proudly boast a wide selection of wines from major wine regions such as Champagne, Provence and Bordeaux (highly recommended). There also seems to be an endless number of homeware stores encouraging the Japanese to switch to the French provincial style. Of course the major galleries here heavily promote their French collections of paintings, even if they seem to consist of lesser known works. If you want a souvenir of Paris itself, why go there, when you can easily pick up a fridge magnet, postcard or even a replica Eiffel Tower! Possibly the strangest thing we came across was in Kobe, where we found a complete full size replica of an old style French village on a busy city corner. The facade not only came with traditional windows and signage, but in a dedicated attempt for authenticity, it had been artificially aged with faded paintwork and chipping plaster. The old style French oil lamps further sought to complete an illusion that was never really going to work, as numerous high-rise buildings tower over the scene. Jules and I, are constantly amazed with this strange fascination and always looking for further evidence of ‘Japanese-Francophilia’.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Otsu and All That Jazz

The Japanese love their jazz and it seems that just about every weekend you can listen to some wonderful live performances in and around the city. We have run into several by accident, but on the weekend we decided to visit a small jazz festival in a town called Otsu just a few miles out from Kyoto.

The‘Otsu Jazz Festival’ is quite a new one and this year is only the second time the event has operated. After about a 45 minute train journey, we walk out of the station to be enthusiastically greeted by an English speaking promotion volunteer who thrusts a program in our hands and starts to direct us toward the many venues in the town. Otsu is a relatively quiet place, perched on the banks of Lake Biwa and the jazz festival was obviously originally designed to inject a little bit of life into the town and provide a focus for the community.

As we wander around the streets we come across some terrific performers who are all surrounded by small enthusiastic groups of jazz lovers, wildly applauding each number.Not surprisingly we seem to be the only foreigners there, although do we come across a food vendor from Turkey selling yiros at one of the venues near the water. In the same spot our eyes catch a glimpse of an Australian flag, where to our surprise, there is a Japanese man selling Aussie meat pies! Our patriotic duty meant that we simply had to have one! As we continued to move around to see the various acts, we are ushered into a traditional Japanese house by a kindly old gentleman uncharacteristically wearing a jazz festival t-shirt. The interior is typically Japanese with its wooden screens and as we pass an ancient interior water well (that is obviously still in use) we see and hear a young guitar duet playing some lovely jazz standards in a large tatami room. We respectfully remove our shoes, pull up a pillow and join the handful of spectators sitting on the floor enjoying the music. Near the performers the sliding screens are open, revealing a picturesque Japanese courtyard. It was just perfect and sitting there listening to some soulful jazz it all seemed quite surreal. I must say that Jules and I have never listened to live jazz quite like this before!

Monday, 11 October 2010

A tasty time in Kobe

On a bright and sunny Autumn day Jules and I decide to venture out toward the seaside to visit the nearby city of Kobe. It’s about an hour away from our apartment by train, so it’s quite an easy commute that takes you between the coast on one side and the mountains on the other. Kobe is most recently known for the 1995 earthquake, which killed around 6,500 people and injured some 250,000. When we arrive there is now little sign of the devastation, although down by the docks there is small Commemorative Park where an original stretch of the ruined coastal walkway is still preserved. Today it is once again a bustling city, but it’s proximity to the coast gives it a somewhat more relaxed feel than other areas around Osaka. We had set out to visit one of the many art & craft markets that are constantly held throughout the year, but as is often the case there is so much more to see. We stumble into a small jazz concert, and then spend some time sampling the many tasty delights of Chinatown (where there was another jazz concert). With a Turkish ice cream in hand we head down toward the shore to find yet another flea market, then upon arriving at docks themselves we discover a huge gourmet festival in full swing! The Japanese really know how to celebrate the joys of good food and we are happy to join in! There is little time to explore the temples and other cultural sights on this visit; we’ll save that for another day!!