Sunday, 30 December 2012

Christmas at ‘The Bay’

Christmas in Australia is very different than in most parts of the world and while it carries with it much of the same snowy imagery, the hot weather ensures that it is generally celebrated outdoors. Each year the Christmas Day news service broadcasts the usual stock standard story about tourists from the northern hemisphere spending their festive day at the beach. This is usually accompanied by footage of bikini clad ‘Brits’ wearing Santa hats and holding a glass of champagne in one hand and turkey drumstick in the other. The truth is that I can never actually remember having Christmas lunch at the beach (far too much sand for us), but like many other Aussies, we would eventually be drawn to the ocean in the days following Christmas to enjoy the relaxed seaside atmosphere or more likely to seek the cool ocean breeze as respite from the heat of the day.

The most popular of the coastal spots in South Australia is Glenelg, which is simply referred to by locals as the ‘The Bay’. The name harks back its original title of ‘Holdfast Bay’, which was given by the pioneer settlers in 1836 and although it was re-named shortly afterwards, the tag has stuck and the area itself has continued to develop into the premier beachside suburb of Adelaide. As Christmas coincides with the proclamation of the colony, Glenelg has become the place where thousands converge each year to enjoy the celebrations and in particular to witness an event called ‘The Bay Sheffield’. This two-day gathering remains the state’s most prestigious running meet, which has been held annually in the basin shaped park of Colley Reserve since 1887. While Jules and I have lived in Adelaide for most of our lives, I am embarrassed to say that we have never actually attended, however this year during our visit back home, we thought that it was about time we rectified that situation.

Still slightly bloated from consecutive days of eating ham and turkey sandwiches, we were keen to enjoy a casual stroll along Jetty Road, the main shopping strip of Glenelg. This is where the expansion of the popular suburb began many years ago, with some lovely Victorian and Art Deco buildings still remaining and of course the familiar sight of the tram rolling back and forth from the centre of downtown Adelaide. As we walked, we reminisced about memories of the area; the old cinemas that lined the street, the many restaurants that have come and gone and the old trams fondly referred to as ‘red rattlers’. These days the area has expanded in all directions, but particularly along the coast and toward the picturesque marina that now boasts some of the most expensive houses in the state. Seaside pines and palm trees provided much sought after shade as the sun shined brightly and the temperature continued to rise. It was time to get a tub of frozen yogurt (the trendy alternative to ice cream) and head down to Colley Reserve.

Being the final day of the event, the carnival was now in full swing with most of the events being run and won, however it would be past 6.00pm by the time the male athletes would take to the track for the main 120 metre race that the carnival was named after …‘The Bay Sheffield’. By this stage the mounds that surrounded the track were full, held back by only a small, dainty white picket fence. It has always been a free event, so as the major race drew closer, people arrive from all directions. The lovely thing about this race is that you can still get relatively close to the runners, much like a good old-fashioned country carnival. While there is some prize money involved these days, the event harks back to the old days of amateurism, allowing virtually anyone to enter as it provides a handicap system in order to make each race competitive. Yet in the end the cream always rises to the top and the finalists are inevitably the best runners from throughout Australia.

After much fanfare, it is not too long before the runners have each donned their coloured vest and are poised on the starters blocks ready for the gun. Ahead of them are roped laneways, similar to those seen in the film ‘Chariots of Fire’ that depicts the events of 1924 Olympics. This is not by any stretch the Olympics, but for local prestige it is just as important. As I looked around the ground, I realized that there are not too many places in the world were this type of carnival would ever happen, let alone just a few days after Christmas … it was truly unique! I’m was however quickly startled from my daydream by the bang of the starters gun and look to see the athletes rocketing off down the track. In a blink it is all over, with the runner wearing red lying on the ground totally exhausted, but with his arms clearly raised in victory. Former Olympic runner Josh Ross was the only runner to begin the race from ‘scratch’ (the full 120 metres) and while other runners had several metres head start, he had managed to lunge over the line to create local history, as the only non-handicapped runner to win the race in 126 years.

It may have been our first Bay Sheffield, but we had chosen a good one with glorious weather, a festive crowd and an historic victory. I guess these are the sorts of events that we have tended to take for granted over the years, while tourists continue to travel half way around the world for such experiences. However, this year we appreciated it just that little bit more, having left the wintery conditions of Japan just a few days before Christmas. So as the sun continued to blaze on this glorious December day at 'The Bay', there was nothing left to do than to head home for a quiet beer and yet another turkey sandwich!

Saturday, 8 December 2012

On the Slow Train to Nikko

If you ever look at tourist brochures or coffee table books about Japan, chances are that you have seen images of Nikko. Second to Mt.Fuji, it must be one of the most photographed areas of Japan, as it provides the setting for one of the country’s most significant shrines and some of its most scenic mountain ranges, forming the Nikko National Park. Not surprisingly it has developed into a very popular attraction for both local and overseas visitors, who flock there throughout the year and in particular during the all important seasonal changes. Such was the case at the peak of Autumn; with the leaves in full colour, we decided to take the 140km journey north of Tokyo to visit this popular attraction. Although we knew it would be packed with tourists, we were determined to see it.

For such a trip, most foreigners tend to book a coach tour, but we decided that we would travel the way that most Japanese tend to get there … by rail. Since we have been in Japan, Jules has become so proficient in her mastery of what must be the world’s complicated rail system that these days I just sit back and relax in the knowledge that she will always get us there. So early on a bright and sunny Sunday morning, I blindly followed her to Asukusa station to board what we knew would be a long slow trip to Nikko … around two and a half hours. Not that we particularly minded as we much prefer traveling by rail than road, plus there was the added bonus of being able to see the tallest tower in the world, the ‘Tokyo Skytree’, which looms close by. We had been reliably told that this marvel of engineering stands twice as tall as the Eiffel Tower and while providing a great view of the city, also acts as a giant aerial for broadcasters, whose signals have been increasingly blocked by the plethora of high-rise buildings.

As we headed out of Tokyo and its suburbs, we looked back to see Mt. Fuji majestically rising from the distant horizon. This was the cloudless, sky blue day we had hoped for when we had visited the day before and we were grateful to have such good weather to see Nikko in all its glory. By mid-way through the trip we were also thankful we actually had a seat, as the train was becoming increasingly crowded, which was exacerbated even further when several carriages were removed from our convoy making the last leg of the journey quite a squeeze. Yet with the usual Japanese efficiency we eventually rolled into Nikko right on time and by that stage were more than happy to stretch our legs over the two kilometre walk that would take us to its most famous shrine.

Toshogu Shrine (dedicated to the Tokugawa shogunate) is possibly the most lavishly decorated mausoleum in all of Japan. It is set at the foot of the mountains amongst a forest of giant Cedar and Cyprus trees with each structure adorned with wonderfully opulent carvings that date back to the 15th century. However it’s most famous carving surrounds the eaves of one it’s smaller and less grand 17th century buildings and depicts ‘The Three Wise Monkeys’ whose moral ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ has become universally recognised. This whimsical carving also has personal significance to Jules who recounts that as a child, the saying was regularly bandied around the dinner table as the ultimate ode to live by. Years later the saying still rings in her ears! Of course she had to join the many other tourists to have her photograph taken below the famous carving for old times sake, although she sensibly resisted recreating one of the famous gestures as many just had to do … groups of three were particularly popular!

We continued to wander around the grounds to study the detail of the architecture, admire colourful leaves and to generally soak up the atmosphere of this UNESCO World Heritage site. However, tourism and the commercial aspects of Nikko has to a certain extent taken its toll over the years. The highly photographed sacred Shinkyo Bridge was not quite what we expected. Images of the elegant red lacquered arched bridge that spans the Daiya River can be seen on a myriad of postcards, but what they conveniently fail to show is the traffic filled road complete with traffic lights that infringes right along side … an unfortunate sign of the times! Likewise, the ticket booth where you can pay 300 yen to walk to the end of the 28 metre long dead-end bridge is, not surprisingly, also out of shot.

While there were many more temples and natural attractions to be seen further a field, we had seen what we had come to see within the precinct of the town and by three o’clock were quite happy to board the slow train for the trip back to Tokyo. Following Jules’ impeccable knowledge of train timetables we managed to get on board at just the right time to secure seats once again. It seemed that many of the same crowd we had previously arrived with were also heading back, so it wasn’t too long before the carriage was again full to capacity. As we slowly pulled away from the platform, the excitement of the passengers who had frantically made the last minute sprint in order to squeeze on board began to subside and everyone settled in for the long ride ahead. It would be well after dark when we arrived back to the bright lights of bustling Tokyo and at that point, Nikko seemed like a million miles away … not exactly, but it was quite a journey!

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Pilgrimage to Mt. Fuji

There is something about standing in the shadows of a great mountain that reminds you just how small we humans are in nature’s grand scheme. This is certainly the case when you visit Mt. Fuji, Japans most revered natural attraction and certainly one of world’s most beautiful mountain images. Rising majestically from the relatively flat surrounding landscape, it forms an almost perfect symmetrical shape that looks much the same as the way a child might simplistically draw a mountain on a distant horizon. Its even, conical appearance can be explained by the fact that Mt. Fuji is actually a volcano (last erupting in the early 1700’s) resulting in its flattened peak that indicates the crater below. Being Japans highest mountain (12,388 ft.), it remains largely snowcapped for most of the year and set against a clear blue sky, it provides the iconic image that tourists from far and wide come to see.

Such was the case when Jules and I boarded one of three buses leaving Tokyo in the early hours of the morning bound for the area referred to as ‘The Three Holy Mountains’ (Mount Fuji, Mount Tate and Mount Haku). It was believed that the top of Mt Fuji is where Buddha once resided and the climb to the summit (known as ‘Zenjo’) still remains a long-standing tradition of followers during the summer months. The closest that Jules and I had come to the sacred mountain previously was seeing it as a distant blur from the porthole windows of the high speed Shinkansen bullet train. This time we were making our own pilgrimage from Osaka to view it at close range. Like most of the other tourists on the bus, we had been magnetically drawn to it, much like the Richard Dreyfuss character in the movie ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ … not knowing quite the reason why or what we might experience when we got there … it was just something that had to be done!

Our day-trip around the mountain involved several hours of travel broken up with various stops where we could view the iconic peak from different vantage points. There could only be one factor that would spoil the whole experience and that was the unpredictable nature of the weather! It had rained all of the previous day and the skies were again very gloomy (not totally surprising for late November in Japan). Fine weather would be critical to our viewing pleasure, although all pre-booked tours continue to run despite impending weather. On a particularly bad day, visitors have been known to miss seeing Mt. Fuji altogether, even though it may only be a few hundred metres in front of them.

Our guide for the trip was a softly spoken young lady called Yoko, who seemed quite proud of sharing the same name as the other more famous Yoko who was married to John Lennon. As we left Tokyo, Yoko began providing us with a wealth of useful information about Japanese culture in between making regular phone calls to check the all important weather forecast and its effect on what level of the mountain we might be able to reach. She explained that level 10 was the summit, which could only be reached by foot at certain times of the year (certainly not this time of the year), while level 5 was the highest level able to be reached by road. Although Yoko was initially hopeful that we might actually make it mid-way up the mountain, she soon informed us that the previous days rain had turned the roads into sheets of ice and the highest point we could possibly reach would be level one … pretty much the base of the mountain! While a small collective sigh of disappointment was heard throughout the bus, it was tempered by the sight of distant sunlight beginning to break through the clouds for the first time in days revealing a lovely blue sky, ensuring a that we would be able to see Mt. Fuji clearly.

As we headed down the highway, we were relieved to see the great mountain emerging through the wispy clouds, looking much as depicted in many traditional Japanese artworks. It is claimed that on a clear day Mt. Fuji can be seen from up to 100 kilometers away; today we were just happy to see it at all! As we headed toward the tourist centre to take our first photos, we were slightly distracted by the inexplicable sight of an amusement park (complete with giant rollercoaster) that appeared totally out of place for the location. This was yet another example of the type of contradictions that Jules and I often see in Japan, which we have now managed to train ourselves to ignore by selectively framing its more beautiful sights. Such was the case as we glanced toward Mt Fuji only a few kilometers away.The sun had almost totally broken through, reflecting light off the snow on its gentle slopes. With a lone cloud lingering over the peak of the summit, the mountain took on an ancient and almost mystical quality.

Not wasting the opportune break in the weather, we quickly boarded the bus for the short ride to the base of the mountain only to find, as Yoko had predicted, the road barriers were indeed in place and we could travel no further. Surrounded by other tourists also stopped in their tracks, we could do nothing else but collectively stare upward; the small crowd dwarfed by its overwhelming scale. The sun was still shining, but alas not for too much longer and we could see clouds quickly beginning to engulf the giant mountain once again.

As we headed away, we had the interesting experience of passing over a series of man made corrugations carved into the road that, when combined with the friction of rubber tyres, remarkably caused a musical tune to vibrate throughout the cabin of the bus ... quite strange! Yoko explained that the tune was a popular children’s song that celebrated Mt. Fuji as ‘the number one mountain in Japan’. There was certainly no doubting that and despite the fickle nature of the weather, we had both been glad to have made the pilgrimage to witness its grandeur first hand. We were reminded that with all good pilgrimages, it’s always as much about the journey as the arrival!