Sunday, 29 May 2011

Tasting the Local Drop

With David’s professional interest in the liquor industry, he was keen to visit a few of the local producers of the ‘smooth stuff’ while in town. To be honest this is an aspect of Kansai tourism that Jules and I hadn’t previously considered, so we would be dabbling into unfamiliar territory, yet we were curious about what might be on offer. First stop was the famous Suntory Yamazaki whisky distillery that sits in the foothills outside of Kyoto. Now, I first heard of this famous whisky in the movie ‘Lost in Translation’ when Bill Murray says the memorable line…’for relaxing times, make it Suntory time’ in a scene where he is making a TV commercial. At the time I actually thought it was a made up company, but it turns out it has been operating since 1923 and it is now very well known worldwide, winning many international awards. Despite my obvious ignorance, the tour of the distillery was brilliant, with a comprehensive explanation of the whisky making process (in English), a viewing of their extensive ‘whisky library’ (something I had never heard of or seen before) and of course the obligatory whisky tasting, which is particularly well organised. Having enjoyed this tasting experience we were all keen to explore the wonderful world of sake by visiting the Hakutsura brewery, which was one of a number that can be found on the outskirts of Kobe. Arriving at Simiyoshi train station we were somewhat confused where to actually find the brewery, but not for the first time a local was kind enough to lead us to our destination, which as it turned out was only five minutes walk away. While on a much smaller scale than Suntory, the Hakutsuru sake brewery was particularly well done, with English brochures and ‘Madame Tussauds’ style wax figures depicting every stage of the sake brewing process. Of course it’s the tasting that had attracted us and the other foreigners who were there on the day and the amazing range on offer did not disappoint. Having had a preconceived notion of the sake taste, we were pleasantly surprised by the diversity of flavours, particularly the fruity ones that were deceptive in their alcohol content. Jules was particularly impressed with one that tasted remarkably like limoncello (one of her favourites) and happily purchased a bottle for further taste testing at home. Here sake (rice wine) is appreciated in the same way as we regard a grape wine. There are many different styles and qualities that are enjoyed depending upon the meal, occasion or time of day. Certainly both visits had enlightened our knowledge and our palettes, while providing yet another facet to what this region has to offer.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Takatsuki Street Jazz

The city of Takatsuki lies somewhere between Osaka and Kyoto. Every year it plays host to one of the biggest free jazz festivals in Japan, with musicians converging to the streets and local venues to do their stuff! Having thoroughly enjoyed the Otsu jazz festival last year, the promise of a bigger and better festival was definitely on our agenda especially with Dave and Cara in town.

We arrived there on the second day and things were really jumping at that stage with numerous bands in the streets that surrounded the railway station. The event was well supported with big crowds sitting and standing in the streets enjoying the warm weather, a beer and some great sounds. During the afternoon we kept on moving, following our map to the various performance venues that varied from street corners, intimate caf├ęs or to packed bars that spilled out into the street. The music continued into the night with a multitude of jazz music styles catching the ear as we walked around enjoying the smell of tasty food cooking at several of the venues. We saw some terrific acts, but we thought that we would catch just one more before the last train home. As we wandered in search, we must have looked lost as a man on a bicycle took the time to stop to help. It turned out that he was one of the major organizers of the festival and with typical Japanese friendliness, he was keen to make sure that we made it to the final event and that we had enjoyed our experience. It had indeed been a terrific day, as we had met lots of friendly folks of all ages, who were similarly enjoying plenty of cool sounds performed by some fantastic musicians.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Riding the Hazugawa River

With the weather warming up, Jules and I were keen to take Dave and Cara out of the big cities to see some of the wonderful countryside in the surrounding mountains of Kyoto. We had heard that one of the best ways to experience Japan’s natural beauty was to take a two-hour boat ride down the Hozugawa River that flows from Kameoka to Arishiyama. After a relatively quick train journey from Osaka, our momentum was somewhat halted when buying our tickets as we learnt that we would have to wait an hour and a half for our boat. Being ‘Golden Week’, a consecutive run of three public holidays in Japan and probably the busiest time of the year for tourist destinations, it wasn’t totally surprising. However eventually, an announcement over the loud speaker (in English) heralded that our boat was finally ready and that we should all hop on board. The lovely thing about this journey is that the boats are of traditional wooden design with the crew of three all taking turns in rowing, punting and steering the boat down river, much as they have done for centuries. There are no motors here and all that can be heard is the creaking of the wooden oar on every stroke as we move gently through the still waters to enter some wonderfully picturesque gorges. We pass scores of turtles lazing on the rocks as we quietly move along leaving civilization behind. The silence is briefly interrupted by a colourful wooden train (referred to as the ‘Romantic Train’), scooting by as it hugs the edge of the steep slopes that line the river. It is full of waving holidaymakers who have opted to see the same scenery using a slightly quicker form of transport. It is soon quiet again, but the pace of our journey increases as we approach our first set of rapids. We notice small groups in rubber dingies who are clearly here to experience the thrill of white water rafting. However, our experienced crew expertly dodge the larger boulders and avoid the more challenging waters, ensuring that we experience a few splashes without being in too much danger. The short burst of excitement livens up the passengers and sparks plenty of banter (in Japanese of course) from the crew, who go on to point out the various heights of the river over the years and the names given by the boatmen to many of the passing rocks. Our heads are craned upward, as we admire the spectacular scenery and gaze at the occasional bridge crossing high overhead. There are several more small rapid runs, but eventually the river slows and we notice a boat heading up stream. It eventually pulls up along side, to serve all manner of cooked food and drinks; it’s a unique touch on the final leg of our journey. Soon we started to notice other smaller boats obviously hired from down stream, so we knew that we had arrived at our destination. The time had passed quickly and in the end we all agreed the ride was a fun way to experience the wooded mountains of Kyoto and the beautiful waters of the Hozugawa River.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

The Golden Pavilion

When visitors hit Osaka, a visit to nearby Kyoto is an absolute must! It has some of the most impressive Buddhist temples and shrines in Japan, most of which have been beautifully renovated. I learnt recently, during my visit to Hiroshima, that Kyoto was originally one of the intended targets for the atomic bomb and was therefore spared from bombing during World War II. The cities fortunate last minute reprieve allowed many of their architectural treasures to be conserved. Not surprisingly there are actually seventeen world heritage sites in Kyoto alone, attracting visitors from all around the world. One such place that we hadn’t visited before and were keen to show Dave and Cara, was the ‘Temple of the Golden Pavilion’. Despite the odd civil war and numerous fires since the thirteenth century, the buildings and gardens have remained lovingly preserved and demonstrate the beauty and simplicity of classic architectural and garden design. The centrepiece is of course The Golden Pavilion itself… a modest three storey wooden building sitting gracefully on the edge of a calm central lake that reflects a striking mirror image. While the ground level of the pavilion shows the traditional use of natural wood and white grid panels, the exterior walls of the upper two floors are completely covered with gold leaf. Although you might imagine the building to be quite opulent, it remains relatively simple in design and contrasts beautifully against the greenery of the surrounding garden. No doubt the scene would change with the seasons, but when we visited it was spring and with a hint of warmth in the air, it made our leisurely walk through the grounds a very tranquil and enjoyable experience.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Encounter with a Whale Shark

With the much anticipated arrival of our son David and his girlfriend Cara it was time to hit the town to show them some of the many tourist attractions that Osaka has to offer. Some we had seen already, but others we had just read about and were yet to investigate. One such place is the famed Osaka Aquarium. Everyone we have met who had been here for a while claimed that it was really quite something to see, so it was definitely on our list. Now, my memories of aquariums are not good, as they are somewhat tainted by visions of the long since demolished Adelaide Aquarium. As a kid I remember visiting and looking through small windows into a very cloudy oversized swimming pool to see the occasional Tommy Ruff swim by. The Osaka Aquarium is quite a contrast, being one of the largest in the world holding over 10 million litres of crystal clear water. Upon our arrival we headed to the eighth floor to begin the gentle walk downwards through a Japanese rainforest, which is the first of 15 habitats that we would visit during our descent (including Antarctica, Monterey Bay and more familiarly The Great Barrier Reef). Each environment depicts not just the marine life, but also the interaction that animals such as penguins, otters and seals have with the ocean. However, the central and biggest area is devoted to the ‘Pacific Ocean’ where the large-scale fish and stingrays swim comfortably in a three-storey tank and can be viewed through floor to ceiling windows. Of course the undisputed star of the show here is the giant Whale Shark, which is one of only a few in captivity and at 16 foot long, it swims lazily past the panoramic windows to the amazement of the crowd. As it swims it is followed by a range of assorted smaller fish that seem to be basking in the attention that is naturally directed toward the big guy. It’s highly unlikely that we will ever have a chance to swim with one of these marvellous creatures or let alone see one in the wild, so seeing it this close is truly a unique experience. Equally fascinating was viewing some of the smaller creatures from the depths of the ocean floor, which are often rarely seen. Delicate floating Jelly Fish and Japanese Spider Crabs appear like aliens from another world and gauging by the amount of cameras in use, the encounter was just as important as viewing the larger scale creatures of the deep.