Sunday, 27 May 2012

Temple of a Thousand Buddhas

As mentioned previously, Buddhism still remains a mystery to both Jules and myself. Yet, since we have lived here, we’ve developed a healthy respect for its traditions and rituals as well as the various art forms that seek to represent it. As a cultural influence, it is so deeply embedded into the grain of Japanese life that its presence can be felt everywhere as we move around the country. Temples abound, each filled with sacred objects and diverse representations from the Buddhist faith. While many look very similar, we occasionally come across something that is quite unique. Such was the case with the Sanjusangendo Temple in Kyoto, which surprised us in terms of both its scale and visual impact.

This 12th century ‘long building’ is in itself quite monumental, but it is the interior that provides the surprise. It houses the most amazing assemblages of life-sized Buddha statues that are carefully arranged in 10 rows of 100. Covered in gold leaf, each are positioned in a standing pose and while they are said to be identical, the hand-made nature of each figure provides some nice subtle variations to their facial features. Directly in the centre of the mass of statues is a large gold Buddha and interspersed along the full length of the figures are 28 fierce looking guardian deities (supernatural beings).

As it is a sacred place, Jules and I removed our shoes to enter the wooden structure that has seen few changes over the centuries. As we rounded the corner the sight of the seemingly endless line of golden statues created quite an impact. The scale and order of the formation was impressive with each row rising up a level as it moved back. Naturally we had the camera at the ready, but were dashed at the last minute by a large threatening sign forbidding any images from being taken (not usually the case in Japan). We wondered whether this was a religious thing or the custodians simply protecting their commercial asset? Possibly the latter, as it seemed that religious propriety didn’t quite apply to the souvenir shop next door.

While we strolled the long walk passed all of the figures, we were amazed at the sculptural detail, which we learned was all completed by a most respected artist called Tankai (1173-1256), who apparently worked into his 80’s to complete the mammoth task. Quite an achievement and it is not at all surprising that this temple is now regarded as one of the National Treasure of Japan.

As we reached the southern end of the hall and prepared to undertake the long walk back, we learn that the building has yet another facet to it’s long history. In the 17th century, samurai began assembling at the Sanjusangendo Temple to practice their archery skills; this eventually led to an annual tournament called the ‘Tōshiya’. The contest continues to this day and is held in the west verandah of the temple where archers shoot arrows the full length of the 118 metre long hall. Originally these were flaming arrows, so its testament to the accuracy of the archers over the past 250 years that the wooden structure wasn’t accidentally burnt down. It was fascinating to view some of it’s history through the traditional woodcuts that hung on it’s walls, as we both marveled at how such a building could some how still exist after all these years.

With no photos allowed, this is an image of an old postcard (copyright free)

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Encore at the Takatsuki Jazz Festival

One of the things I really like about living in Japan is their love of jazz. In shops, restaurants and cafes you can hear it being played and there are numerous clubs where it can be heard live. However, what Jules and I really look forward to are the jazz festivals and in Osaka it just doesn’t get any better than the Takatsuki Jazz Festival, which is simply known here as ‘Jazz Street’ and is billed as the largest musical event of its kind in Japan.

Established in 1999, it has now developed into a major event on the jazz music calendar attracting visitors and musicians from all over the world. Amazingly, it remains totally free of charge, as it is run by a well organized group of t-shirt clad volunteers who ensure that you are aware of all the venues, which can vary from large open air spaces, cosy intimate bars or even a Buddhist shrine. Held during the warming days of spring (May), it coincides with ‘Golden Week’, (a series of national holidays), which ensures a happy and care free crowd. Over the two days of the festival, thousands invade Takatsuki, ready to indulge in good jazz and of course being true Osakans, also the wide range of food and drink on offer.

Once again Jules and I joined the legion of jazz fans enjoying the festivities, however as with our visit last year, we found the hardest task of the day was choosing which acts to see. With over 600 performances this year, it became a daunting task just deciding on how best to utilise our limited time. As with the nature of jazz itself, the style of the music on offer was so varied that finding our particular genre remained a major challenge. Needless to say, we found several terrific acts and thoroughly enjoyed their 45 minute bracket (the usual performance time), before quickly scurrying off to the next venue and the next act.

What struck us in particular this year was the number of young performers who were there entertaining the crowds. There were just so many accomplished musicians, who were clearly passionate about jazz and enjoying the opportunity to perform it. Certainly, the future of jazz music in Japan is in good hands with festivals such as this providing a much needed forum for a new generation of musicians to be recognized. The Takatsuki Jazz Festival continues to grow and in doing so it celebrates one of the wonderful qualities of the Japanese people … their love of all forms of jazz music and the people who perform it.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Relaxing at Raffles

One place that is truly synonymous with Singapore and a place that just has to be visited was the world famous Raffles Hotel. Forget about those big name hotel chains with their modern generic designs, this is a hotel that is a throw back to the grand old days of exotic travel and the experience staying in lodgings that oozed class and sophistication. Such is it’s stature in Singapore that in the surrounding area there are a myriad of streets, plazas, shopping centres and offices that have all adopted the ‘Raffles’ name, yet there remains just one ‘Raffles Hotel’. It is simply one of the most famous and visited hotels in the world!

Heading down Orchard Road, we came across the famous white colonial building and entered it from the side entrance, however to fully appreciate the grand facade in all its glory, you really need to head around to Beach Road. From here you can truly appreciate the impressive Victorian architecture and the leafy circular driveway that has welcomed the rich and famous since it’s opening in 1887. Indeed, Raffles has attracted many a visitor over the years, including Charlie Chaplain, Noel Coward, Jean Harlow and Rudyard Kipling, not to mention heads of state such as Queen Elizabeth and George Bush Snr. Not surprisingly this historic hotel has become a Singapore institution, having witnessed the cities development from remote colonial trading post to a modern economic powerhouse. Considering its iconic status and its exclusive clientele, I was amazed and thankful that tourists were able to walk freely around the grounds to appreciate the hotel as a living and working museum. In the courtyard, the bar staff were mixing cool drinks under the glass and wrought iron gazebo while in The Tiffin Room, white-jacketed waiters were preparing settings for lunch. In the billiard room, where reputedly the last wild tiger in Singapore was shot in 1902, the green felt was racked ready for a game, while the ornate fountain in the courtyard provided a soothing cascade, much as it did over a hundred years ago.

Of course, no visit to Raffles is quite complete without a visit to the Long Bar to enjoy a ‘Singapore Sling’. After all, it was behind this bar that this world famous drink was invented (around 1915) and on a 32 degree day in Singapore, there was simply no better place to be. Sitting high on a bar stool with the pink liquid concoction in hand (although a little sweet for my taste to be honest), I imagined the stories that these walls could tell. Looking overhead, traditional rattan ‘punkahs’ (broad fans) gently moved back and forth providing us with a gentle breeze. Today they run on small motors but back in the old days, ‘punkah-wallahs’ (fan men) would have stood there manually pulling them back and forth as ‘well to do’ patrons sat back and sipped their drinks … a very different era! On the bar we are provided with a large box of peanuts, harking back to yet another Long Bar tradition of strewing the empty shells on the floor, something I couldn’t quite bring myself to do although looking around, it was clearly the expectation.

Much like The Windsor in Melbourne and The Empress on Vancouver Island, Raffles is a gem of a hotel that is delightfully rare and unique. Over the years, places such as these have often been torn down and replaced with slick high-rise accommodation more intent on profit rather than character. Thankfully, Raffles has been acknowledged as a significant place that is well worth preserving. It’s architecture, history and contribution to the wonderful world of food and beverage has certainly been recognized worldwide and its survival is assured. For a visitor to Singapore, such as myself, it was a must see spot that provided a unique insight into a bygone era, even if it was just for a refreshing hour or two.

Friday, 4 May 2012

Getting Beneath the Gloss of Singapore

If you were asked to design the perfect world-class city, a vision not unlike Singapore is probably what might emerge. It is modern, clean and combines the built and natural environment perfectly. It remains culturally diverse and celebrates its historical past, while also conveying the impression of constantly looking forward. Yet despite its global reputation as being a truly great metropolis, like many other travelers my only experience of this great city had been during the occasional stopover at the airport en-route to somewhere else. Therefore, this week I was more than pleased to be attending a Visual Arts conference and to have the chance to get to know this impressive city a little better.

Driving in from the airport, I couldn’t but be immediately impressed by both the visual aesthetic and sheer scale of the city skyline. In one glance it seemed to encapsulate most of the major developments in high-rise architecture over the past thirty years. One of the most recent designs is the spectacular Marina Bay Sands Resort designed by renowned Israeli architect Moshe Safdie. Looking much like a futuristic cruise ship (referred to as the ‘Skypark’) that has been beached on top of three 55 storey towers, the $8 billion dollar building is said to be the worlds most expensive casino property and understandably dominates the picturesque marina. It towers over the smaller but no the less impressive ‘ArtScience’ Museum (also designed by Safdie), which he based upon the form of an unfolding lotus flower, although our driver had his own interpretation of the building by simply referring to it as ‘the five fingers’. Its delicate design is particularly unusual in a city that prides itself on its high-rise development (around 4,300) and in particular its skyscrapers (standing over 140 metres), which at the last count numbered 49 in the downtown area.

I have on occasions heard criticisms of Singapore as being too sterile and lacking the ‘grit’ of a big city. To be honest, it didn’t really give me that impression, particularly when you balance the slick corporate centres against the diverse cultural areas that lay within the city boundaries. Over the years, three major cultural groups, Chinese, Malay and Indian, have established their own distinct precincts that have added to the cultural fabric of Singapore and provided a rich historical, ethnic and architectural contribution to the city. On a balmy evening and accompanied by colleagues, we ventured into the bustling precinct of ‘Little India’ to find vibrant commercial streets filled with people and the scent of exotic spices. With Indian immigration harking back to the colonial days of the 1800’s, here there remains a flourishing community that continues to celebrate it’s culture through a myriad of shops selling jasmine garlands, silk saris and ethnic jewelry (particularly gold). The next night it was Chinatown, with its beautifully conserved colonial buildings and traditional religious temples. However, it was the famous outdoor food market that we had come to experience. Here, some of the best food in Singapore can be sampled at a bargain price. This includes the popular Laksa (spicy noodle soup), which certainly fulfilled our expectations along with several other delicious dishes. Both in Chinatown and little India, we were welcomed into their community with a smile, suggesting that their happy nature was not only a reflection of their pride in their city, but also their own cultural acceptance within it.

Of course, like most major cities in the Asian region, Singapore has no shortage of high end shopping, much of which is to be found on Orchard Road. We spent a few hours walking down this 2.5 kilometre homage to retail therapy, which is said to have the largest concentration of shopping malls in the world. It was certainly difficult to avoid them, as when crossing the street by overhead or underground walkway, you are led directly into a mall. Much like being caught in a spiders web, once entering it was often very difficult to escape. Back on the street, we came across the jewel in the crown of Orchard Road, ‘Istana’ (meaning palace in Malay), which is the official residence of the President of Singapore. It is a gracious white Victorian style mansion built in 1867, set against a manicured half an acre of grounds. Like the beautifully restored Singapore Art Museum and Raffles Hotel, which are on the same road, the care and maintenance of these 19th century buildings suggest a healthy respect for the cities colonial past as well as their historical relevance to its ongoing development.

It’s clear that modern Singapore represents more than just the trappings of big business. If you are prepared to scratch below the glossy surface, its history, culture and traditions suggest that it’s a city that has indeed far much more to offer.