Sunday, 22 April 2012

Treasure Hunting at Kyoto Market

One of our regular routines back in Australia would be getting up early on Sunday morning to head off to the local ‘Trash ‘n’ Treasure’ market to see if we could pick up something interesting or unique. While most of the time what was for sale erred on being more trash rather than treasure, there was always the possibility finding something special lying at the bottom of an old box or trailer. So each week there was always a certain ‘thrill of the chase’ as Jules and I set off with great expectations of what we might bag.

From our traveling experience it seems that this basic primeval urge is evident in every culture and Japan is certainly no different. Since being in Osaka we have investigated a number of different markets in the Kansal region, each with their own unique character and variations in the goods for sale. However, currently our favorite one can be found at the Toji Temple in Kyoto where a couple of times a month the normally sedate sacred grounds are transformed into a bustling magnet for bargain hunters looking for all manner of furniture, pottery, artwork, clothes and general ‘bric-a-brac’. The beauty of the location, with its backdrop of wooden temples, is really quite a bonus that certainly enhances the market experience. This is in stark contrast to the deserted drive-in cinemas back in Australia that were often resurrected once a week for such events. Likewise, what is for sale seems to us far more exotic, representing both ancient and contemporary aspects of Japanese culture. It is not unusual to see stalls selling traditional kimonos and samurai swords next to ones selling manga comics and figurines of popular super heroes. We often see some wonderful old pieces of Japanese furniture, many of which are unfortunately far too large for us to carry home on the train. However, some of the most poignant artifacts for sale often come from the World War Two era; reminding us of the days of Imperial expansionism as seen from a Japanese perspective. While ephemera from the 50’s and 60’s provides tangible evidence of social and economic recovery and the inevitable influence of western culture.

 While our more favored antique market is held on the first Sunday of each month, the largest general market is actually held on the 21st day of each month (not quite sure of the significance of that date), which dramatically widens the scope of what is on offer. With the addition of all manner of produce stalls, plants and handicrafts, the market becomes enormous. So much so that stalls burst out from the temple grounds into the local streets.

Like all such markets, there is always a very lively and friendly atmosphere. Being free to enter, the market provides an interesting combination of bargain hunters, tourists and worshippers that makes it all quite unique. There is usually plenty of street food being cooked, providing some very tempting aromas and it’s not uncommon to see the local traders enjoying a bowl of noodles while conducting business. They are all pretty relaxed and it seems that they are well used to overseas visitors searching out interesting souvenirs of their time in the country. We have found that they are always prepared to make allowances for our lack of Japanese language and of course in the end, as always, money does the talking. While we are usually quite selective about what we acquire at the Toji Antique Market, the items gathered certainly provide some of our most cherished mementos of our time here so far.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Cheering on the Sumos

One of the things that Jules and I had put on our ‘must do list’ while in Japan was to attend a sumo tournament. Last year a major tournament planned for Osaka was cancelled due to a betting scandal that had tarnished the reputation of the country’s most revered sport. However this year, sumo was back and would nicely coincide with the arrival of a friend from Australia who was also very keen to see the ‘big boys’ demonstrating this unique form of martial art.

We had booked tickets for the final day of the two-week tournament and the stadium was a sellout. As we entered the Osaka Prefecture Gymnasium, the crowds were filling in for the final Makuuchi competition (the top division of professional sumo). We chose to sit on western style seats high on the third level, but if we wanted a closer view, we could have sat on pillows in one of the numerous tatami styled areas that circle the dohyo (the raised wrestling ring). It seemed that the closer you moved to the to the central ring, the more formal it all became with absolute ringside seats being reserved for traditionally dressed officials, the well to do of Osaka and the sumos themselves.

Eventually it was time for the wrestlers to make their appearance and following protocol, they strutted into the arena in reverse rank order, each wearing a large traditional apron called a kesko-mawashi. Following a short ritual ceremony, they were ready to begin, with each retiring to the dressing rooms to await their all important match. As with the previous days, each sumo would only fight once, adding to their win/loss record which would ultimately determine their overall ranking for the tournament.

As we began to watch proceedings, we became fascinated by the various traditions and gestures of the combatants and the officials. While the actual bouts might only last for a matter of seconds, there was always plenty happening in and around the dohyo. The sumos have up to four minutes to get their bout underway, so there is plenty of posturing, body slapping and throwing handfuls of salt into the ring (a ritual of purification). Finally they would take up positions with the mandatory stamping of feet before crouching ready for action. The fight itself is ‘no holds barred’ in an attempt to force an opponent to the ground or outside the circle. This can often result in a sumo being spectacularly tossed off the raised dohyo into the crowd, which probably explained why many of the wrestlers had battle scars and bandages following a long tournament.

The capacity crowd, who clearly had their favorites, enthusiastically cheered each encounter. The arrival of local sumo Goeido sent the fans wild and they were soon chanting his name throughout the stadium. With a ranking of 6th, he was taking on the much favored and higher ranked, Kakurya. The crowd support must have worked, as he went on to win the bout; much to the delight of the cheering fans. This was an unexpected defeat for Kakurya who could have won the tournament with that win. He was now forced into a final deciding bout to determine the ultimate champion. This would be against his archrival Hakuho, who was seeking revenge following his defeat at the previous tournament. It seems that Goeido’s earlier win had indeed proved decisive, shaking Kakurya's confidence and allowing Hakuho to go on to win the bout and the championship!

After receiving the rapturous adulation of the fans, the presentation ceremony began and as we were by now well entrenched in the atmosphere of the moment, we decided to stay although we would understand none of the speeches. One by one, large trophies were brought out and presented to Hakuko, who graciously acknowledged the crowd before passing them on to his assistants who dutifully rushed them off to his dressing room. We were somewhat amazed by the scale and number of these lavish gifts, some of which took two men to lift. By the tenth presentation and speech we finally decided to leave the stadium, with yet more trophies to be given waiting in the wings.

While having to learn much about the rules and formalities as we went along, we had certainly enjoyed our day of sumo wrestling. This was yet another facet of Japanese culture that continues to fascinate us westerners and the type of experience that makes a visit here so wonderfully unique.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Take Me Out To The Ball Game

As Jules and I continued to discover, the influence of American culture on modern Japanese society is everywhere. This is particularly evident with their love of baseball, which is the most popular summer sport in Japan. The people here follow the major leagues in (both Japan and US) with a passion and on the weekends scores of children can be seen pitching a ball or swinging a bat in local parks of Osaka. You might think that this infatuation with the American game evolved during the recovery years following World War Two…not so! In fact baseball in Japan dates back to the 1870’s and the two countries even competed in a competitive ‘All Star Series’ during the 1930’s. Today, Nippon Baseball is second biggest professional baseball league in the world, which continues to attract huge crowds, major sponsorships and in turn a significant number of US players. Each game is widely telecast and baseball stars are idolized here as much as they are in America.

Not having actually seen a baseball game here, we were prompted by the visit of a friend from Australia to visit the Osaka Dome to watch a trial game for the upcoming season. Both of our local teams, The Hanshin Tigers and The Orix Buffaloes, were playing each other in a ‘friendly’, but the match-up would be a good indicator for the season ahead and of course local pride was at stake. So while it rained steadily outside, we sat down in the heated undercover stadium, in our perfectly positioned seats to watch the big game unfold.

Being a pre-season competition many of the stands remained empty, which is in contrast the usual sellouts that regularly occur in the height of the season. Despite the somewhat smaller crowd, the ‘die hard’ fans were certainly there in force to enthusiastically encourage their team and to welcome in the new season. Wearing the mandatory team hat and shirt, they came to the game complete with banners, trumpets, drums and mini plastic baseball bats, which they would regularly bang together in practiced unison. Their enthusiastic barracking for their team was relentless and reinforced what I had previously heard about them being some of the most passionate fans in the world. We had adopted the Hanshin Tigers as our team for the day and in between watching the various activities in the crowd, we cheered and clapped along with our fellow fans through every hit and every out. In the midst of the excitement on the field, we couldn’t help but notice a number of people blowing up large, elongated balloons. The numbers continued to grow until by the end of the sixth innings it seemed like every second person was holding a coloured balloon in anticipation that something was going to happen. Suddenly as the players changed positions on the field and following a co-ordinated big screen countdown they were released screaming into the air followed by howls of laughter and smiles all around. It was indicative of the happy mood within the stadium where the result of the game didn’t appear to matter. A day at the baseball in Japan was clearly a fun day for the whole family, no matter what your age might be. For the record the Tigers went down to the Buffaloes on the day 5 – 9, but the result at this stage of the season was quite irrelevant. As they say in the classics…‘Baseball was the winner’ and we all walked away happier for the experience.