Wednesday, 30 March 2011

The Sensational Street Markets of Chiang Mai

One of the amazing things about Chiang Mai and probably Thailand in general is the amazing sense of business enterprise you constantly come across. There seems to be all manner of street food vendors everywhere you go and countless market stalls are dotted throughout the city and tourist spots. Generally, there appears to be no formal opening times and there is always some enterprising Thai trying to sell you something at any hour of the day. However, for a more organised event, the Sunday night street market is a must see. I’m not sure whether there is a Guinness book of records entry for the worlds largest open-air night market, but if there is, this one would certainly be in the running. It involves closing off several of the major streets in the old part of town, spreading out into the narrow laneways, invading the grounds of several local temples and generally occupying any spare space close to the action. For sale are endless examples of Thai art and craft produced from large local factories down to small backyard operations. When Jules and I went along, it was a balmy night and it seemed that the whole city along with a few thousand tourists were there. However the mood was, as you would expect in Thailand, very happy and relaxed. As we browsed and strolled along, numerous music groups were playing traditional tunes making the event feel more like a cultural festival than a market. The various food stalls continued to tempt our taste buds with exotic flavours drifting through the night air, until we finally succumbed. When we saw something we liked we engaged in some light-hearted bartering, as is expected in this part of the world. Although, Jules often felt guilty about the ridiculous prices we were paying and simply wanted to give the stall owner what they were asking only to find them giving her a discount anyway. It was hard to believe that a market of this size happens each week, but for those who missed it or who are just hooked on searching out a bargain, we found that there were plenty of other opportunities at the daily night bazaar. While being generally more commercial in its selection of products, it still remained a nice way to spend a warm evening in Chiang Mai followed by a nice meal and cooling drink sitting alongside the banks of the Ping River.

Monday, 28 March 2011

Jungle Monkeys

One of the labels that I certainly wouldn’t apply to Jules and myself would be ‘thrill seekers’, but while in Chiang Mai we were tempted by what they call the ‘jungle flight’ experience. Early on a fine and sunny morning we were picked up and driven for an hour outside of town, high into the local mountains. We were around 1000 metres above sea level when the car stopped in a tiny village. There we were met by our instructors, who provided us with a harness and helmet ready to ‘fly’ between the tallest of trees in the forest. This involved hanging by our harness from a series of ‘zip lines’ and flying through the air between a course of wooden platforms or stations. After trekking on foot further into the jungle, we could hear the hoots and screams of other people who were already on the course. They were either loving it or having the fright of their life, we weren’t quite sure! After a quick safety briefing we were handed one important final piece of equipment …a hooked wooden stick! The theory was that when you were flying along at high speed, around 20 metres above the ground, this would act as your brake upon reaching the on coming tree. In the chaos of high-speed flight, you would quickly hook the stick over the cable and pull down hard with the effect of slowing you down. We were soon about to test the theory and to my surprise Jules opted to go first, jumping bravely off the platform as if she had done it a thousand times before. As we advanced, the stations became more and more challenging, coinciding with our growing confidence and we were soon flying through the lush forest like a couple of monkeys. While this was all good fun for us, our guide also pointed out that this tourist activity provided much needed support to the local villagers, who were not only employed by the company, but also paid an annual rent for the trees selected for the various stations. The whole operation appeared to be very eco-friendly with the course sitting naturally within the environment, allowing the natural habitat to continue to flourish. As we finished the final steep ascent we felt a sense of satisfaction that we had not only managed to conquer our nerves, but in an adventurous way had the opportunity to look deep into the jungles of Chiang Mai. Later, sitting back in the tiny village and eating the delicious Thai lunch that was provided, we could brag of our exploits with the other tourists and count ourselves as true jungle thrill seekers.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Sawatdee Chiang Mai

The good thing about living in Osaka is that you are relatively close to plenty of countries in the Asian region. Being the spring vacation, we decided to venture abroad to Thailand and in particular the northern region of Chiang Mai, which we had heard so much about from friends. Upon arrival we were immediately struck with how different it was than Japan. Not only was the weather warmer (mid 30’s), but gone was the feel of the big city. Even though it was bustling with motorbikes, tuk-tuks (popular three wheeled taxis) and cars, it was more like a large country town with it’s population of around 300,000 people. As we travelled the streets it was clear that eating and drinking is a major pastime with many small bars dotted along major streets throughout the town centre, while sidewalk food stalls tempt you with delicious Thai flavours. Once we started to mingle with the locals we soon begin to feel the warmth and friendliness of the people themselves. Both Jules and I commented on the apparent simplicity of life here and how happy everyone appeared to be. Everywhere we went we were always welcomed with a smile and graciously thanked with a bow of the head with the hands placed in the traditional pray-like pose. During our time in Chiang Mai we stayed a little bit out of town in a lovely spot situated on the banks of the Ping River. Each morning we woke to the distinctive sounds of native birds and insects and as we looked out from our balcony and across the river, we could clearly see the misty mountains beyond. Toward the top of Doi Suthep Mountain there stands one of the most beautiful Buddhist temples in the region. So on a warm, clear day we hired a taxi and headed up there to marvel at the ornate decorations of this sacred place. Following a steep and windy 16km trip, we finally arrived and after dogging the many souvenir stalls we joined thousands of other tourists in climbing the final 309 steps to the famous gold pagodas and a sensational view of Chiang Mai. Despite the obvious commercialism of such places, you couldn’t help but admire its mystical and timeless qualities. Clearly it remains a feature that continues to attract many overseas visitors to Chiang Mai and provides just one of many facets of what life in this part of the world continues to offer.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Magnificent Miyajima

One of the wonderful things about visiting Hiroshima is hopping on one of the many trams and moving around the city. Much like Melbourne in Australia, the network is extensive and it can take you far and wide. There are modern trams, but I particularly loved the many beautifully preserved carriages from the 1950/60’s (many of which were provided by countries during re-building following the devastation of the A- Bomb). One such trip will take you on a 16km journey from the city centre to Miyajima-guchi, where you can board a ferry across to Miyajima Island. This is a wonderful spot, which as you look across the narrow channel, evokes images of traditional Japanese woodblock prints with their ethereal scenes of mountains rising from the mist. The trip over is quite short and the township that awaits you is a very quaint, with the usual tourist shops and specialised restaurants. However, what strikes you more immediately are scenes of wild deer happily wandering around the town. After many years of continued contact with humans, they are now in the habit of meandering down from the mountains on a daily basis in the hope of scrounging the odd morsal. While the interaction of these placid beasts and camera-laden tourists is not necessarily encouraged, it has become inevitable and somehow it all seems to work. Miyajima is a world heritage listed site and as well as the deer and it’s many temples, is probably most recognised by the Tori Gate, which is one of the most photographed sights in Japan with this iconic image making it’s way onto the cover of many a travel brochures. Standing a few hundred metres off shore it amazingly remains freestanding on the sand and at low tide it is possible to walk out to view it at close quarters. However, the best view of this magnificent gate is from the shore at the Itsukushima Shrine; a classic piece of Japanese architecture, painted in traditional orange colours combined with natural woods. It stands in the shadow of Mt. Misen and leads to a series of walking trails that take you along picturesque paths to the summit, which is over 500 metres above sea level. Fortunately, for those less inclined there is also the cable car option, which I was quite happy to use on the way down after a couple of hours of steep up hill hiking. However, walking is certainly worth the effort as you encounter more wild deer and sometimes even monkeys along the way. Nearing the top, the trail narrows and there are many giant boulders to traverse before you begin to smell the welcoming charcoal fumes from the Shingon Buddhist temple that contains a sacred flame that has burnt for over 1,170 years. Upward a few hundred metres you finally reach the mountain peek which rewards you with the most spectacular views of the Seto inland sea all the way through to Hiroshoma. Thankfully when I was there it was fine and sunny, the view was clear and looking downward there was a quiet opportunity to reflect upon the magnificence of Miyajima Island.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Hope for Recovery

My initial motivation for writing this blog was to try and articulate in words my impressions of the things that Jules and I encounter on our journey as well as the emotional response we have to them. For the most part these are positive experiences that leave us both with a sense of wonder about the interesting facets of our world. However, with the events in Japan this week you are quickly jolted back into perspective as you realise the dramatic impact that mother-nature can have upon all of our lives. Last Friday I was travelling back from Hiroshima on the bullet train when the earthquake hit. Fortunately the impact was minimal with only a slight delay, however the uncertainty of what had happened in other parts of the country was quickly spreading. By the time we arrived in Osaka, the seriousness of what had happened was beginning to become apparent. While the centre of the quake was well to the north, its impact was already beginning to spread throughout the country. By the time I had returned to our apartment the news of the resulting tsunami was beginning to be telecast on the TV and like the rest of the world, we sat in disbelief and watched it’s destructive force. The next day the news of the damaged nuclear reactors began to surface and at this time there still remains uncertainty about the long-term ramifications of the radiation leaks. Having only lived in Japan for a short while, we have quickly gained respect for the friendliness, determination, efficiency and resilience of the people. For the time being Japan is our home and we feel both sympathy and empathy for those affected. It remains our sincere hope that the problems caused by this disaster can be quickly overcome.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Flying the company colours

Japan is a country that is justifiably proud of its achievements in the car manufacturing industry. It is fair to say that the land of the rising sun remains one of the world leaders in providing quality and innovative automotive design. The brands have become highly successful and recognisable household names…Toyota, Honda, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru, Suzuki, Daihatsu etc. What you may not know is that each company is strongly linked to a major Japanese city. Much like the local football team, the community strongly support their particular team or should I say company. They in turn continue to financially support the regional economy while providing significant employment for the local population. Tokyo has Honda and Mitsubishi, Nagoya has Toyota, Osaka has Daihatsu and Yokahama has Nissan. When in Hiroshima it’s Mazda that is the car of choice and they dominate the roads and carparks. Likewise, you can’t miss the company headquarters that commands a significant part of the city infrastructure. If you are there, be sure to join one of their free tours that take you to the museum and manufacturing plant. The pride in their product is immediately obvious, as they enthusiastically guide you through the company history and development from its three-wheeled origins to the sleek concept cars of today. You can observe the modern day production line as the latest models are churned out through a highly sophisticated manufacturing combination of robotics and manpower. You can also view the shiny end product as it moves off the production line and rolls smoothly onto the company ships, which are conveniently docked alongside the factory… a very streamlined operation indeed! Of course there are also plenty of opportunities to jump into the latest models and you might even be tempted to place an order. However, much like the rivalry between Holden and Ford in Australia, there is more to choosing a car than just basing your decision on performance and style. In Japan, flying the company colours is economically important and loyalty to a brand continues to be powerful attractor that can sometimes be generational decision.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Memories of Hiroshima

I recently had the opportunity to take a school group to Hiroshima to visit Peace Park and to meet some of the actual survivors from the atomic bomb. It was an enlightening and humbling experience to stand only metres from the site of the hypocentre of the explosion and to hear, see and read accounts of that fateful day. In the centre of the city stands the ‘Atomic Bomb Dome’ with its ruins standing much as they did immediately following the devastation. It provides the most fitting memorial to the many thousands who horrifically lost their lives at 8.15am August 6 1945. Walking through nearby Peace Park you pass the Children Memorial where thousands of paper cranes pay tribute to Sadako, a little Japanese girl who became a victim of leukaemia as a result of her exposure to atomic radiation. Onward along the pathway you approach the arched Memorial Cenotaph that leads on to The Peace Memorial Museum. This impressive building houses many of the disfigured artefacts from that catastrophic time and graphically describes the historical background of the atomic bomb in the hope that such devastation will never be witnessed again. Certainly this was also the sentiment of Setsuko Morita, who graciously spoke to our students about her experience as a Hiroshima bomb victim. She was 13 at the time and despite being 1.7 kilometres from the hypocentre of the explosion was blown to the ground by its sheer force, receiving many severe burns. She recalled the blinding flash of white light and the indescribable horror of what she saw as she made her way through the streets. Her poignant account provided a very personal perspective to an historical event that I had only previously been able to visualise through old black and white photos and grainy film footage. The clarity and passion in which she spoke and her advocacy against the use of nuclear weapons was quite inspirational. Certainly this point of view continues to be echoed by many other survivors and citizens of Hiroshima. While the city today remains bustling and vibrant, clearly the memories of 1945 are never too far away.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

The Pachinko Phenomenon

As Jules and I often say, Japan is certainly ‘the land of contradictions’! We are often amazed at the many subtle and delicate aspects of the culture, while at other times we are simply overwhelmed by the incredible crassness of it’s modern society. Such is the case with the plethora of ‘Pachinko parlours’ that are dotted around the cities and suburbs. For the uninitiated, ‘Pachinko’ is unique to Japanese society and is something like a pinball machine with metal balls spinning around in a circular motion. They look very much like a slot machine and in fact they are normally found in the same establishments. No doubt they are a form of gambling, even though technically gambling for cash is illegal in Japan. This is a law that is somewhat flaunted, as winning participants receive vouchers that are taken to premises closeby where they exchange them for prizes, these in turn can be exchanged again for cash! It is an interesting arrangement that appears to allow authorities to turn a blind eye to the whole transaction. Finding a Pachinko parlour is not difficult and while it’s appearance may sometimes blend into the visual chaos of many of the nightlife districts, it’s location will soon become obvious when the big sliding doors open…you can’t miss it! You are first hit by a wave of indescribable noise, with the sound of thousands of cascading ball bearings simultaneously whirling around the machines. Upon entering it’s even worse, to the point that you can barely think. The sight of row upon row of the machines, the deafening noise, the flashing lights, garish surroundings and the smoke filled room has you searching for the exit very quickly. Still, it somehow remains an extremely popular pastime throughout Japan with many adults from all walks of life spending hours sitting in line watching the balls spin around and around, with very little actual control over the result. It appears to be quite a mindless exercise with very limited chance of winning, but participants appear mesmerised. Perhaps it is the chance of that big win, it can’t surely be the atmosphere!! Whatever the attraction, it remains a complete mystery to these two westerners and yet another strange contradiction of life over here.