Friday, 30 December 2011

Sipping the Southern Vales

Amazingly another year has passed and we’re back in Adelaide, Australia for Christmas. As usual the sun is blazing and the barbeque is in full swing. There is a golden turkey on the table and a nice drop of chilled local wine to accompany it.

Frankly, you couldn’t do much better, particular in regard to wines. Over the years South Australia has a built a worldwide reputation for fine wines that continues to attract tourists. This was particularly highlighted when we were in the UK, where local brands like Jacobs Creek, Wolf Blass and Leasingham were well established commercial brands sold in supermarkets everywhere. These particular wines come from the north of Adelaide in the famed Barossa and Clare Valley regions, however Jules and I have always had a particular bias toward the slightly lesser known Southern Vales region of McLaren Vale. This area was close to where we both lived in our younger days and over the years we have seen this region grow from a handful of small wineries into a prestigious wine growing area.

So with the Christmas celebrations over, we decided to take a trip down memory lane by revisiting the Southern Vales to sample the product direct from the cellar. The first stop was to one of our old favorites, Wirra Wirra Wines which continues to go from strength to strength, with it’s classic Church Block Red and Mrs. Wigley Rose. The folk here are particularly friendly and knowledgeable about their wines, however on this particular day we were looking for a champagne style white, which unfortunately they no longer produce. Their suggestion was to try the d’Arenberg Winery, that had just released a quite exceptional sparkling Chardonnay Pinot Noir. We had been to d’Arenberg a few years ago and had a wonderful meal at their restaurant called ‘d’Aary’s Verandah’, so we knew that it would be a quality wine ...and it was! After a confirming taste as we admired the view, a bottle was quickly purchased before heading off to explore the nearby Coriole Vineyards. This was a winery that we had previously brought visitors to from overseas, not only for its great wines, but also for its equally commanding views over the Southern Vales. Once again it didn’t disappoint, although it was now clear that many others had now also discovered this place, as it had noticeably expanded since the time we were last there.

Our final stop would be at Leconfield Winery, which is a relatively new name to the area, but certainly not to quality wine making. Originating at Coonawarra in the south east of the state, the brand has gained a reputation for producing some of South Australia’s most prestigious wines. However, it’s winemaking credentials were established way back in the 1800’s and with family connections through Hamilton Wines, a long established McLaren Vale winery, it’s expansion into the areas was inevitable.

As Jules and I sipped a nice champagne style Curvee Blanc and looked out over the acres of vineyards, we reflected on how well the southern wine trail had developed over the years. It had become not only a centre for fine wines, but also for quality cuisine. While the region had always been quietly well regarded by South Australians, it was now clear that the secret was well and truly out. We had always thought that it more than compared with its counterpart to the north of Adelaide, but now we felt that it could truly claim to be one of the great wine areas of the world.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Tasting Kobe Chinatown

Just about every major city in the world has its very own Chinatown...nothing new there. These cultural centres reflect historical and cultural connections with China, all condensed within a small bustling area. However, there is usually one common and significant element that draws the wider community to these areas and that’s simply the food. With the Osakan love of all things culinary, it is therefore strange that there is actually no designated Chinatown area to visit in the city. However, you don't have to go too far, with the nearby city of Kobe taking the honors with a thriving Chinatown that has a great atmosphere and a terrific selection of food.

Certainly when Jules and I are in town we always pay a visit to enjoy the many freshly cooked dishes for which the area has become famous. Kobe Chinatown is set in the area of Nachinmachi, which is just a short walk from the train station and not too far away from the nearby coastal port. No matter what time of the day, this area is always teaming with people, keen to get a quick bite to eat and to enjoy the various festivities. There always seem to be street performances on the weekends and of course the terrific food attracts queues of people, particularly for the wide variety of street food on offer. It certainly is a colourful, thriving environment that has a unique visual appeal that is distinctly different from any other place in the Kansai region. We often comment on how genuinely ‘Chinese’ it all feels... so much so, that it almost has a 'theme park' feel. Not having been to China, we ask ourselves whether this is all truly authentic or just a foreigners notion of what a Chinese town might look like. For all we know, it may not be truly authentic Chinese food that we are eating after all, but rather a Japanese version of some familiar dishes? This is likely the case, but it is definitely different from the normal Japanese style cuisine. The truth is that we don't particularly mind, to us the food is simply hot, cheap and delicious!

This particular Chinatown has built it's reputation as a great place to stop for distinctly different food. While the area is buzzing don't expect nice tables and chairs to sit back and enjoy the atmosphere. This is food of the stand up variety. You will often see people huddled in side streets downing steamed pork buns or squatting somewhere to devour a deep fried chicken skewer. For us it’s normally an irresistible bite on the run that tempts you from the moment you smell those tasty aromas.

Whether it’s the food, the culture or the atmosphere, there is certainly something about this place that is quite unique and continues to attracts thousands of Japanese, as well as a couple of foreigners, to keep returning again and again.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

The Merchants of Kurashiki

Living in the fast paced world of modern Japan, it’s often difficult to imagine what towns and villages might have been like in more simple times. However, Jules and I had a little taste of it when we visited the historic city of Kurashiki, which lies to the west of Osaka. We were on our return journey from Naoshima Island when we decided to investigate the old merchant quarter, which is highly regarded for it’s seventeenth century wooden shops and warehouses (Kurashika actually translates as ‘town of storehouses’).

After a short walk from the station, we turned into a series of narrow laneways, which made us feel as though we were stepping back in time. The area suddenly took on the appearance of a village scene from the Edo period (1603-1867). Electrical poles had disappeared and the architecture of the buildings took on a much more recognisable Japanese style. The gently flowing canal that ran through the centre of the area further enhanced the atmosphere of the old town. Lined with weeping willows, set amongst the autumn colours and with white swans paddling along, it all looked very picturesque. As we stood on one of the arched stone bridges, we could see a small canal boat slowly making its way along the waterway being punted by a boatman in a traditional outfit. This was much as you imagine it might have looked hundreds of years ago, however this time he was carrying tourists rather than merchants or produce. As we admired the scene and as if on queue, a bride and groom arrive to having their wedding photos taken while wearing traditional wedding attire. We thought that it couldn’t get much more authentic than this.

Close by there was a grand neo-classic building that appeared to be oddly out of place and this was somewhat of a bonus for us, as it turned out to be the Ohara Art Museum, which holds one of Japans finest permanent collections of western art. We spend a couple of hours leisurely wandering around the numerous buildings that compile the museum and we left very impressed. In many ways it offered more than some of the museums we had seen on Naoshima, with an excellent cross-section of significant modern and traditional styles. Back on the streets, the tourist numbers had definitely increased with the arrival of a number of tourist buses, although there still appeared to be very few westerners. We seemed to have attracted some attention as a number of people stopped to ask where we are from and to generally practice their English language.

We certainly felt a warm and welcoming atmosphere in Kurashiki (much as it is throughout Japan) and we were really pleased that we had taken the time to stop on our way back to Osaka. However, there was just one more place to visit before we headed home and that was the outlet shopping centre that Jules had spied near the railway station. These were merchants of the more contemporary kind, but she is never one to miss a bargain no matter where we are.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Naoshima Art Island

If you’re looking for some of the most cutting edge contemporary artwork you don’t necessarily need to go to Paris, New York or London, you can see it on a small island off the coast of Japan, called Naoshima.

As an art teacher, this was a location that was often mentioned to me as a place that I must make the effort to see, as it was only a couple of hours from Osaka. Taking the short ferry crossing from Uno, Jules and I arrived on a brisk, but sunny autumn morning to walk between the major hotspots that continue to add to Naoshima’s growing reputation in the art world. Our first stop was at what is referred to as the ‘Art House Project’, where abandoned houses have been turned over to artists to develop into works of art. Following our walking trail map, we moved to each of the seven houses to find them to be creatively very different from each other. Our two favorites were ‘Haisha’ by Shinro Ohtake with its eclectic scrapbook of sculptural materials and ‘Minamidera’ by James Turrell, which encouraged us to pause in complete darkness to eventually discover its slowly emerging illuminations. For us, part of the appeal of the project was its setting amongst the simple homes of the local people who had clearly embraced this artistic concept by welcoming visitors enthusiastically to view these thought provoking environments.

Heading toward the coast, we set our sights on Bennesse House, designed by renowned post-modernist architect Tadao Ando. His futuristic design is set into the hills overlooking the picturesque bay and integrates both an art museum and hotel within its walls. The interior of the building looks as if it could be a set from a James Bond movie and not surprisingly is actually included in Robert Benson’s 007 novel, ‘The Man With The Red Tattoo’. However, what particularly attracts visitors is its site-specific collection of installation art by many of the worlds leading artists. Sculptural artworks of varying scale can also be found scattered throughout the extensive grounds, with possibly the most popular being the bright yellow dotted ‘Pumpkin’ of Yayoi Kasama that sits boldly at the end of a short, stone pier. As we walked around the coast, other works would unexpectedly appear, sometimes subtle and at other times strangely out of context.

We moved on to the much-anticipated ChiChu Art Museum, another striking piece of minimalist Ando architecture, which is set almost entirely underground. We had heard that the museum housed a small collection of priceless Monet paintings as well as more recent works by a number of leading contemporary artists. Indeed, in a large white room lit only by natural light, five works from the famed ‘Waterlillies’ series were boldly displayed. In hushed silence we viewed the works while wearing white slippers that had been given to us in order to protect the millions of tiny squares of white stone that lay under foot. We both agreed that this was probably taking artistic reverence a bit too far. To our disappointment only a few other works could be seen (only four others in total); the most striking being a room installation by Walter de Maria that contained a 2.2 metre diameter sphere sitting precariously on a steep flight of stairs. In the end we were both reconciled to the opinion that it was definitely the building itself that was the most significant piece of art on show. Its brutalist use of raw cement formed an abstract, uniformed space that continued to draw our eyes upward toward the sky via its numerous skylights and voids, making it a totally unique environment for displaying art.

As we made our way back toward the ferry late in the day, we reflected on what we had seen and how bold the notion had been to create a centre for contemporary art in such a remote and unlikely location. Clearly this was a case study that reaffirmed the old adage of… ‘if you build it, they will come’.