Saturday, 25 June 2011

A Celebration of Belgian Beer

With the warmer weather approaching there is nothing that the Japanese like better than a large cold beer. Much like us Aussies, they prefer the lager style and serve it in very large, thick rimmed glasses suitable for heavy duty ‘clinking’. There are some very nice crisp beers here, from world famous breweries like Asahi, Suntory, Sapporo and Kirin, but the Japanese also have a taste for a wide range of foreign beers. Throughout the country there are an extraordinary number of Belgian beer cafes that serve a diverse range of flavours. Jules and I have a favourite one in Kobe, and some friends of ours recently introduced us to a very nice bar tucked away in the back streets of down town Osaka. It was from here that we were handed a flyer inviting us to attend the ‘Belgian Beer Weekend Osaka 2011’…sounded good to us! So on a warm night we headed down to Umeda for this popular outdoor event, which was held under the Sky Tower (one of the tallest buildings in Osaka). There were 48 Belgian beers on offer that could be tasted by using pre-purchased tokens. This worked out at around 500 yen per glass (about $A 5.00) so it was around half of what it would normally cost for such imported beers. The weekend mirrored a similar weekend event that is held annually in Brussels and needless to say, the 13,000 strong crowd who attended over the four days, were certainly enjoying this little taste of Europe. When we arrived there was a nice relaxed atmosphere with plenty of taste testing while the crowd listening attentively to the smooth sounds of the Jeff Neve Trio, who had travelled especially from Brussels to perform. In between the music brackets there was plenty of toasting (in a range of languages) from the main stage. Like most people who were there, we were happy to hold our glasses up high and simply say ‘Kampai’ to Belgian Beer.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Tackling the Tori Gates

In 2005 the famous installation artist Christo created a controversial sculpture in New York City called ‘The Gates’. It consisted of seven and a half thousand arched gateways following a thirty-seven kilometre pathway through the heart of Central Park. Like most of Christo’s works, it was perceived as being on the cutting edge of modern art, yet it was actually inspired by the Ancient Tori Gates of Kyoto. Known officially as the Fushimi Inari shrine, the original ‘Gates’ consists of tens of thousands (approx. 30,000) of traditional Shinto archways that follow a steep trail to the top of Inari Mountain. Unlike the Christo sculpture which only lasted several months, the Tori Gates of Kyoto date back to the fourteenth century and still remains one of the most significant Imperial shrines in Japan. We managed to visit this picturesque site during David and Cara’s recent whirlwind tour of the Kansai area. It was the last of our Kyoto attractions and it was very late in the day when we arrived. The souvenir shops were closing and most of the tourists were heading home, so we had the trail pretty much to ourselves. As it was heading toward dusk, we all agreed that we would walk along the trail no more than an hour and then turn back. However, as we passed through the seemingly endless tunnel of vermillion coloured archways (placed literally inches apart), I became more and more curious about how far they would actually continue. The pace began to quicken, time was running out and with my curiosity getting the better of me, I decided to make a breakaway. My cunning plan was to quickly make it to the top of the mountain then head back to meet up with other ‘slower walkers’ on my way down. The trail became steeper and the gates became increasingly spread out, but there was an added bonus with a stunning view of Kyoto becoming increasingly prominent. With a lot of huffing and puffing I proudly reached the top, only to be followed by Jules, Dave and Cara just minutes later. Jules took great pleasure in rubbing it in about my lack of faith that they would be able to make it within the hour. I ate a slice of humble pie and we all enjoyed the sunset view of Kyoto before heading back down through the spectacular Tori gates one more time.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

The 20 Million Dollar View

Have you ever wanted to see what a population of 20 million people looks like? Well, if you venture to the top of Mt. Rokko in Kobe, Japan you will get a pretty good idea. It is in fact referred to in the tourist brochures as the ’10 million dollar view’ which I think tends to short change it, at only 50 cents per person (hence the title of this blog)…nonetheless it is a very spectacular view. On a recent trip to Kobe with Dave and Cara we decided to make the ascent once again. In our early days in Japan we had headed to the top of the 1000 metre mountain in a small bubble shaped cable car (or ropeway, as they called it here) that gracefully skimmed above the treetops arriving to a fabulous view of downtown Kobe. However this time we thought we would try another vantage point that was said to have an even wider panoramic view taking in both Osaka and Kobe. Rather than travelling upward on a ropeway we were surprised to find a more traditional wooden cable car (what is referred to in Europe as a vernacular) that is pulled along a steep 45 degree track. While the view on the way up wasn’t quite as spectacular, the sharp ascent took us through some thick forest areas. As we moved upward, the increasingly cooling temperature suggested it was certainly going to a lofty vantage point which was soon confirmed upon arrival and we were able to scan our eyes across one of the most condensed population centres in the world. Taking in the vista of the horseshoe shaped bay was quite amazing and for the first time we were able to match what we had seen on maps with the actual scene. It was remarkably quiet, in contrast to the activity below and with the sun beginning to set we enjoyed the sheer scale of the outlook while taking pleasure in spotting familiar landmarks. As we were about to leave we began chatting with a local man who spoke very good English, who claimed that there was an even better vantage point to be had at yet another location …we filed it away for another day.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

The Magnificent Monuments of Nara

Since arriving in Osaka we have had many people recommending a trip to the nearby town of Nara as a must see experience. So, with Dave and Cara keen to explore the area, we all hopped on a train bound for the mountains east of Osaka to experience ‘the Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara’ as it is referred to on UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites. We had also been told about the abundant deer that can be found roaming the town and in particular throughout scenic Nara Park. Here by Shinto tradition, they are regarded as ‘heavenly’ creatures and are able to walk around quite freely being fed with especially prepared crackers that can be easily bought from the numerous street vendors. After joining the many other tourists keeping the deer well and truly nourished, we made our way to view some of the largest Buddhist temples to be found in Japan. Jules and Cara had temple books in hand and were keen to have them signed by the local monks so initially we viewed the Kofuku-ji temple with it’s magnificent four storey pagoda. This was soon followed by a pilgrimage to Todaiji temple, which is particularly notable as it houses Japans largest bronze Buddha. As we approached the temple we walked through Nandaimon gate, which is guarded by two fierce looking statues dating back to the thirteenth century. The temple itself is impressive in both its design and scale, being the largest wooden building in the world. Upon entering, the size of the structure is even more evident, with the imposing giant Buddha (all of 15 metres tall) taking pride of place. We pondered which might have come first… the temple or the Buddha? As we moved on we ventured further into the hills where other smaller, but no less beautiful temples overlooked the township and provided views of beyond. By now it was late afternoon and although we had just begun to explore the area we were suitably impressed with the many cultural sights Nara had to offer. As claimed, it was certainly worth the visit and with more to see we will be back!