Sunday, 24 April 2011

Night in the City

Exciting times for Jules and I at the moment as we prepare for our first overseas visitors to Japan. Our son David and his girlfriend Cara will be jetting in for around ten days in a weeks time, so we have been busily putting together a list of hot spots to see while they are here. As they are into good food and drink (sounds familiar) they are certainly coming to the right city. Often referred to as ‘the stomach of Japan’, Osaka boasts a countless range of places to indulge the palette. Here more than anywhere else in Japan the locals enjoy their food culture to such an extent that they have invented a word to encapsulate their passion. “Kuidaore” literally means "bringing ruin upon oneself by extravagance in food” and it’s not too difficult to see how this term might have come into existence. So, as part of our duty as good hosts, we have been spending some time downtown researching a wealth of bars and restaurants the city has to offer…a tough job but someone has to do it! The two areas we focused on were Umeda and Namba, but there are many more we could have chosen. While Umeda is best known as a commercial district, it has been steadily going through a transformation with many new upmarket shops and equally upmarket restaurants. Major department stores are accompanied by a of range multi-storey buildings filled with eateries. The centre piece of the area is the ‘Sky Tower’ with its stunning views of the city from the bar on the thirty ninth floor, but for something different, the ferris wheel on the top of the ‘Hep 5’ building offers a great outlook as well as a host of trendy places specializing in desserts. Many smaller restaurants and bars can be found in the maze of side streets, not to mention the extensive underground arcades that includes a ‘Gourmet Museum’, which despite its name, is simply row upon row of more restaurants catering for every possible taste. However after all that, the place for us is Namba, regarded as the entertainment district of Osaka, with its famous images of the Giant Crab and the Glico man sitting on the Dotonbori canal. Here bars, nightclubs, cafes and restaurants sprawl in all directions branching off from the very long shopping mall that runs all the way along Shinsaibashi Suji and beyond. The amount of places at ground level is simply amazing, but when you look upward and notice that most buildings have several stories of other possibilities it becomes quite overwhelming. In the name of research, we tried just a few and were always warmly welcomed. Each time the atmosphere was happy and energetic as both locals and foreigners enjoyed each others company and a common enjoyment of food and drink. It seems that as long as you’re open to the concept of ‘Kuidaore’ the door is always open and a good time is had by all.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Cherry Blossom Season

Spring is in the air in Japan, marking an important time of the year…cherry blossom time! This is a very short lived period (around two weeks) that signifies the end of winter and dawning of new life, as represented by the symbolic blossoming of the Sukura or cherry tree. Since the start of this school term, I have taken to walking the scenic route through Kita Senri Park especially to observe the ever increasing budding of white and pink blossoms and the action they have generated amongst the locals. Each day blue tarpaulin sheets have been placed on the ground to reserve the choice spots underneath the blossom, in preparation for a picnic that would occur at some time during the day. The position is important because many believe that sitting under the blossom will bring them good luck. It is a time for family, friends and even work colleagues to come together to enjoy each other’s company and to view the blossom in the warming sun of a mild spring day. The atmosphere is often further enhanced by the consumption of food from the picnic basket or tasty offerings from the occasional barbeque. This is often washed down with significant quantities of Saki, which on the peak blooming weekend can make for a marathon drinking session. However, it should be much more tame this year with the government asking for restraint as a mark of respect to the victims of the recent earthquake and tsunami in the north. In contradiction, retail groups are calling for not too much restraint, as the season provides a much-needed annual boost for the Japanese economy through significant consumer spending. So it seems that despite the recent disaster the traditions of the cherry blossom season are set to continue. So as I jogged through the park at 8.00am on a Sunday morning, picnic groups were already staking claim to their little patch of blossom, as they would be doing throughout Japan. Hopefully their participation will bring collective luck to the country, which has suffered greatly over the past month and allow the Japanese to continue to celebrate their on going fascination with the changing seasons.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Street Artists of Chiang Mai

Throughout our journey I am continually on the search for interesting artworks in all their forms. This has seen us visiting many of the world’s major galleries and a lot of smaller ones too. Then of course there is always the artists of the street, who simply set up a small stall in a public place and manage to survive by selling to passing trade or quickly completing works on the spot. The quality of such works at times is very mixed, with the accompanying displays of completed works not always matching what you see being produced in front of you. There are however occasions when you see pieces that catch your attention as you admire the artists skills. Such was the case in Chiang Mai where there were numerous opportunities to view artists working in a variety of media to produce works that were generally in a realistic style. While there were plenty on the streets at the various night bazaars, there were also quite a number who had small studio spaces in the commercial part of town. Clearly most of these were involved in fulfilling commissions by working from photographs to produce highly realistic renderings. The process they followed was in fact a precision crafting process, with the artist carefully scanning over the photo with a magnifying glass and then painstakingly reproducing it section by section in an enlarged format. The results were often ‘super-realistic’ and produced to a technically high standard. As such works were relatively cheap, these artists seemed to be constantly working, often holding photos that had clearly come from western origins. Amazingly the standard remained consistently high throughout the town, with competition clearly dictating that they needed to produce quality work in order to survive. Whilst it certainly couldn’t be labelled as high-end art, you had to admire the quality of their drawing skills and their patience in producing these pieces. Maybe it was the number of tourist customers that had attracted them or simply the quality of the lifestyle in Chiang Mai, but over time a significant artist community has evolved, producing some of the better street art that I have seen during our travels.

Friday, 1 April 2011

An Elephant Called Medo

One of the things that Jules and I definitely wanted to experience while in Chiang Mai was the magnificent Asian elephants of this region. While we were keen to see them up close, we were both adamant that we didn’t want to buy into anything exploitative. There were many tours that offered rides, performances and even elephants painting ... not for us! Instead we opted for the ‘Elephant Nature Park’ which is an elephant sanctuary that was set up in 1996 for injured and distressed elephants that have been physically and mentally abused or have experienced horrendous conditions working or performing. A 60km trip from Chiang Mai saw us joining a group of like-minded volunteers from around the world keen to make amends for the mistakes of mankind in some small way by befriending and caring for these beautiful creatures. As we were introduced to each of the elephants by name, stories were repeatedly related of such abuse that would bring a tear to your eye. It was gratifying that at least here they would spend the rest of their days living a peaceful and natural life in a caring environment. During our day we spent much of the time feeding the elephants huge volumes of fruit and vegetables and then in the heat of the afternoon, wandered down to the river to soak them with buckets of cooling water. Jules and I were both keen to assist one particular elephant called ‘Medo’ (Mae Do in Thai) who initially caught our attention because she had similar sounding name to ours. We learnt that Medo’s injuries and experiences had been horrific ( resulting in a broken back and damaged leg, but thankfully as a result of her time at the sanctuary she had developed a lovely gentle temperament. She walked slowly, awkwardly and generally behind the other elephants, but we were reassured that she was definitely part of their family and that there was a particular male elephant who would immediately come running to her aid if she called out to him. By the days end we left with a greater understanding of elephant behaviour, but more importantly an appreciation for the fine work being done by this sanctuary. In coming here we didn’t need any performances, just seeing the elephants happy, healthy and content was enough for us.
Footnote: Jules and I were so touched by Medo’s plight that we have now officially adopted her (or at least sponsored her) and will continue to watch her progress over the coming year.