Sunday, 30 June 2013

A Summer Day in Kyoto

Kyoto is a great place to visit at any time of the year, with each season providing its own unique perspective to this historical city, that was once the imperial capital of Japan. However, the first few weeks of summer (around June) are particularly nice, as mild spring days give way to pleasant twenty something temperatures shortly before the sticky summer heat eventually arrives. Sure, this is also the rainy season, but the occasional heavy down pour only adds to the rapid regeneration of the tree foliage and helps to top up the many streams that flow from the nearby mountains. With my cousin visiting us for quick-fire, one-day trip from Tokyo, Jules and I could think of no better place to spend a pleasant summers day than in Kyoto. His immanent arrival prompted us to reflect upon some of our favorite spots and attempt to put together a 12-hour itinerary that would somehow highlight the essence of this unique city.

We knew instantly that the famed Tori Gates of Kyoto would be an invigorating way to begin the day, promising both a brisk uphill walk and a welcoming view of the city. However, we were also keen to include one place that we also hadn’t seen before. Nanzen-ji Temple sits in the foothills of the Higashiyama Mountains and is one of the largest Buddhist temple complexes in Kyoto, with a history that dates back to the 13th century. As expected, there are numerous traditional Japanese buildings that are dotted within the picturesque grounds, yet what makes this place particularly different is the presence of a structure that appears remarkably out of place…a large brick aquaduct! It was built in the late 1800’s to carry water from Lake Biwa to Kyoto, but the solid looking arched design suggests that it could have been almost air lifted straight from Victorian England and dropped into Kyoto. In actual fact, the hundreds of thousands of bricks that were used for its construction were all made locally and apparently transported to the site by the women of the town. Considering the structural designs that were common in Japan at the time, the building of a Romanesque aquaduct must have appeared to be a very radical departure from tradition and a particularly adventurous undertaking.

A more familiar location that is always on our must see list when visitors are in town is Kiyomizu-dera Temple, which is as beautiful for its setting as it is for its magnificent wooden structure. Jutting out from the Kiyomizu no Butai Mountain and built upon 139 pillars, the main building is particularly striking in summer set against the lush green foliage of the hillside. In fact it looks amazing at just about anytime of the year, with each of the seasons offering a fresh vision on this remarkable construction. Standing some 13 metres above the ground, it is simply an amazing feat of engineering for its time and also offers one of the best views of Kyoto. One of the other things we also enjoy about visiting this particular temple is wandering around the traditional laneways that surround it. It is a wonderful spot to enjoy a traditional Japanese noodle lunch or to just observe the various foods and handicrafts of the region.

However, for the hardcore gourmet traveler, a walk through Nishiki Market is a real eye opener to the mysteries of Japanese cuisine. Being totally undercover, it’s a nice respite from the summer sun and the narrow laneway, known as ‘Kyoto’s Kitchen’, provides hundreds of stalls spanning five city blocks. While most Japanese supermarkets package fresh produce to within an inch of its life, here it is presented much more authentically in traditional barrels and trays that are open to the elements. Most of the stalls are highly specialized selling all manner of locally grown produce, which for the most part remain a mystery to us westerners. While fish in all its forms can be seen everywhere, reinforcing the popular notion that its almost daily consumption is in part responsible for the longevity of the Japanese.

As late afternoon drifts into early evening, the temperature is still warm so we head toward Pontocho, the most atmospheric of the restaurant districts. This area is full of character, which is further enhanced by the increased number of traditional kimonos that are worn by its Japanese patrons during the summer months. As the paper lanterns start to glow, the narrow laneway begins to fill with locals scrambling for a table at one of the many restaurants offering Kawayuka dining. These are specially constructed platforms that are built over rivers and streams to take advantage of the cool natural breezes of the evening. As you can imagine, such al fresco style dining is particularly popular in the summer months and it is certainly a terrific way to enjoy a meal as the sun begins to set behind the mountains.

As the evening progressed, we observed many of the locals sitting alongside the banks of the Kamogawa River enjoying the evening breezes and sipping a glass of something cool. While Kyoto truly comes alive at night, the hectic pace and the heat of the day had taken its toll and a final visit to one of the many cocktail lounges was just about all we could muster. We knew that our legs would be tired tomorrow, but I guess that’s the inevitable result of visiting a city that encourages you to walk and explore. Kyoto is just such a place and there’s no better time to do that than in those first few balmy weeks of summer.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Mad About Manga

If you walk into a Seven-Eleven store in Japan and see a small group of suited businessmen standing near the magazine section of the store, you can bet your last dollar that they won’t be reading ‘Popular Mechanics’ or ‘Macworld’ … they’ll be reading Manga!

For the uninitiated, these are Japanese comic books that remain extremely popular with not only men, but with both genders and indeed all ages. Likewise, if you travel by train you might see passengers carrying what may initially look like a small telephone directory, but is in fact more likely to be the next installment of one of the many Manga books produced each week. These weighty volumes are printed on cheap paper for mass consumption; to be read insationably and then quickly disposed of.  On our weekly recycling days, I often see volumes of them stacked and bound with string, ready to be pulped and then reprocessed into future editions. The turn over is amazingly quick, with the most popular being reprinted into smaller novel formats and collected in volumes to form a series.

What was once regarded as ‘otaku’ (nerd culture) has over the years developed into a multi-billion dollar industry that has now turned Manga into the uber-cool epitome of ‘Japanese pop culture’? Being an art teacher over here, I observe its popularity first hand everyday, with many of my Japanese high school students appearing to possess some kind of innate ability for drawing manga-style characters. I’m always amazed when I watch them doodling these beautifully formed doe-eyed figures with casual ease and totally from memory. This skill may not be surprising, as I imagine that their exposure to Manga comic books was probably one of their earliest reading experiences.

Over the years the Manga and Anime (the animated versions of the art form) has continued to spread throughout the world, although Japan still remains the undisputed leader in both the creation and consumption of this highly visual form of story telling. Throughout Japan there are many specialized Manga stores and in more recent years, several museums have opened that trace its development from the Heian period (794-1192) through until today. On a recent trip to Kyoto, Jules and I decided to visit the ‘International Manga Museum’ to try and gain an insight into this phenomenon and were quite surprised with what we found. This was not simply an exhibition space, but also a vast library of over 300,000 publications and items. It was a place to not only view the works of popular contemporary artists, but to spend the day comfortably relaxing while reading one or even a series of your favorite Manga books.

Opened in 2006 in a former elementary school, the museum has set itself the charter of preserving and fostering ‘Manga culture’, with the aim of passing it on to future generations. It is certainly a place to experience all things Manga, with not only displays of artwork, but also distinctive ‘Kawaii’ (cute) fashions associated with its youth sub-culture. With several artists on hand, Jules and I watched as they cleverly penciled and inked a comic book, page by page and in the end we simply couldn’t resist having our own Manga-style portraits painted. While we aren’t particularly into the Manga scene, we could well understand its popular appeal and we were impressed by the way the museum was successfully paying homage to this unique Japanese art form. Likewise, the reverence that its patrons held for the museum was plain to see, with hushed tones throughout. This was surprisingly a very tranquil place, with soothing music being piped throughout the building and the sight of groups of totally engrossed readers on each of its three levels.

As we exited through the gift shop (as you tend to do in all museums), we observed scores of Manga devotees spilling out onto the museums grassed area. It was a pleasant sunny day, ideal for all manner of activities, but this crowd appeared to be going nowhere. Much like the businessmen standing in the Seven-Eleven, they seemed oblivious to their surroundings and as they quietly read their books, they were clearly in a world of their own. This was a world of fantasy, excitement and adventure … this is the extraordinary world of Manga!

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Meeting the ‘Big Men’ of Osaka

In most large cities there are a few key locations that everybody knows and plan to meet at when they are about to set out for an evening down town. More often than not, these places are not necessarily planned, but somehow they become part of the local folk law. In my hometown of Adelaide, South Australia we have the famed ‘Balls in the Mall’, a tag which congers up a range interesting images. However, they are in fact a couple of large chrome spheres stacked one on top of each other to form a very distinct abstract sculpture that stands centrally in the city’s main shopping mall. Everyone who lives there knows it very well and it is by far Adelaide’s most well known meeting place. Here in Osaka it isn’t too much different, but of course being a much bigger city there are actually two spots in selected parts of town where people tend to meet up. Each are very different and prove yet again that there is absolutely no logical reason for such places being chosen by the public…they just are!

The most recognizable place for a rendezvous in the Namba ward of Osaka is on Dotonbori Bridge where the neon signs light up the nearby canal when the sun sets. Here, amongst the vast array of illuminated advertising, is one the city’s most recognizable landmarks known as the ‘Glico Man’. This is a giant twenty-meter high neon sign that depicts a runner crossing the finishing line of a race. While other signage has come and gone over the years, the Glico Man has somehow remained, having been originally installed in 1935 by the Glico Company to promote its range of confectionaries. It seems that advertising in those days was largely based upon fact, with the image of the runner chosen after it was scientifically determined that one Glico-caramel provided you with enough calories to run exactly 300 meters. That is of course if you are 165cm tall, weigh 55kg and complete the 300 metres in exactly 1.88 minutes (Japanese precision at work)! Sure, this isn't award winning advertising, with the obscure message being almost totally lost, but somehow the strong graphic image worked well with the public and the Glico Man has gone on to become a much loved symbol throughout Japan. On any given night you will find thousands of people standing on Dotonbori Bridge being photographed with the towering figure of the Glico Man in the background. Over the years the bridge itself has also been expanded to cater for the sign’s ever growing popularity with tourists and as a favored meeting place for Osakans.

With all this interest in the giant Glico Man, Jules and I were slightly confused when we were first asked to meet up at the second most favored gathering spot in downtown Umeda, at a place that is simply referred to as ‘Big Man’. Having become familiar with the Glico Man, we were expecting to see a similarly oversized character at this location in the Umeda Railway Station. Not so! We were quite surprised the find that ‘Big Man’ is not actually a man at all, but rather a nickname given to a giant video screen that is positioned in the central concourse of the station. The five metre high screen is not particularly ‘big’ either, at least by today’s standards, but it was built during the economic boom when Japan led the world in large screen technology and it was indeed new and revolutionary at the time. While technology has since moved on, ‘Big Man’ has over the years proved to be a hit with the general public, who can be seen at all hours of the day waiting in the crowded area for their friends, while being entertained by the colourful images on the big screen. The phrase ‘meet me at Big Man’ has become so common here, that after a while it doesn’t seem unusual at all, unless of course you are new to the city.

While Osaka itself continues to change and evolve, there are now many new places emerging that could be equally suitable as locations to gather and meet. While there is no determining the areas that the general public will favor in the future, it appears for at least the time being, the old favorites remain as popular as ever. Who knows what the formula might be for making a spot in a big city so identifiable and commonly known? Some places just mysteriously strike a chord with the widespread public and over time become a magnet for people to connect. So if you ever get to Osaka and have to meet someone, one of the two ‘big men’ of the city will certainly be the most obvious places. While a visitor might be a little confused, the locals will know exactly where to go!