Sunday, 30 March 2014

Anime Comes Alive in the Streets of Osaka

While the traditional and historical aspects of Japanese culture still remain the central focus for ceremony and celebration, increasingly modern culture is beginning to establish its own traditions and events. This phenomenon has been primarily driven by the increasing popularity of Japanese animation (known as anime) and also through a wide range of ‘Marvel’ comic superheroes that have invaded the country through numerous action packed movies from the US. As a result, there are many anime/comic stores throughout the country where you can also buy an extensive range of books, videos, memorabilia and costumes. Here the youth of Japan often spend a small fortune on their collections and enjoy nothing more than actually dressing up and parading as their favorite characters. They certainly need little encouragement to take to the streets for the annual Nipponbashi Street Festa, which is a particularly popular annual event in Osaka. This is an anime-themed festival that his held in an area called Den Den Town, which is the electronics centre of Osaka and home to all things manga or anime.

Although the weather was cold and overcast (being March), Jules and I decided to head downtown to see what it was all about. Coming up from the underground, it was clear that this was a very popular event, with large crowds streaming into the area. Increasingly, the sight of coloured hair and strange looking costumes gave us a pretty good guide that we were heading in the right direction. Yet with temperatures plunging and the clouds quickly building, we weren’t quite sure whether festivities might soon be called off by the time we got there. We should have realized that such devoted fans are made of sterner stuff than that and even when a slight bit of snow did eventually fall they remained there in force.

With the normally busy streets closed off from traffic, a wide range of fascinating characters could be seen, each striking well practiced poses for groups of excited amateur photographers. For everyday people, dressing up in such extravagant costumes certainly generated the sort of frenzied attention that would normally be reserved for pop stars and movie idols. There were no inhibitions here, with plenty of cross-dressing and a proliferation of skimpy costumes despite the chilly weather. No one was camera shy either; they seemed to love acting out their characters and appeared to thrive on all the attention. In the parking lot, highly decorated cars adorned with popular anime graphics were also very much the centre of attention. Their owners could be seen vigorously wiping down their pride and joy once the brief burst of snow had passed and as the sun re-emerged, their shiny cars became the backdrop for even more photographs.

There was certainly no denying the energy and excitement of both the crowds and its participants at this years Nipponbashi Street Festa. The day was a celebration of youth culture and the unique way of experiencing a sample of the visual aesthetic that has emerged through the popularity of anime. Despite the weather, the tremendous sense of fun was evident, providing a positive contrast to how many from other parts of the world might perceive modern Japanese life. It was an opportunity for ordinary people to openly express their sense of fantasy amongst a crowd who clearly where in admiration of their passion for anime, manga and the world of comic book characters.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Higashiyama by Lantern Light

Higashiyama is one of the most traditional and prettiest areas of Kyoto, providing a buffer between bustling downtown and lush green mountain forests beyond. It is a great place to experience old Kyoto with many traditional wooden buildings and shrines as well as a myriad of food and craft shops that cater to its constant stream of visitors. The area is particularly popular in mid-March when its picturesque narrow lanes are adorned with small lanterns for 10 days of evening illuminations. While officially this is one of the many local events that signals the start of Spring, the temperature is still a bit brisk at that time of year, particularly when the sun goes down. However, Jules and I decided to brave the chilly evening in order to experience a very different perspective of this wonderfully historic part of town.

 We arrived there late in the afternoon and noticed that despite the cool temperature, the area was particularly busy in anticipation of the lights going on around 6.30pm. One thing you can say about the Japanese is that they organize such events with passion and efficiency. There are always plenty of people to direct you, delicious food stalls and extra decorations. In response such festivities are always well patronized, with crowds of all ages filing in with cameras in hand. In Kyoto the wearing of traditional dress is also very popular with many women wearing the kimono, adding to the visual spectacle set against of the traditional buildings of Higashiyama.

This area is one of our favorites at any time of the year, but it was wonderful to see pavilions such as the Yasaka Shrine lit with traditional lanterns, while the nearby pagoda was illuminated with golden lighting. Here, professional and amateur photographers queued in anticipation of the setting sun and the chance to get a once a year shot of this magnificent historic spire under lights. Having skirted around the major attractions, Jules and I then wandered into some of the quieter laneways, which we found to be just as appealing as the little lanterns beautifully set off the traditional architecture. We were also able to discover a few hidden restaurants whose simple wooden entrances might have been quite easily missed during the day.

Having spent plenty of time exploring, we were both starting to feel a little frozen and in need of a warming drink. Thankfully Jules had heard about a place that was not too far away, so after a quick taxi ride we found ourselves walking down an inconspicuous street looking for what is regarded as one of Kyoto’s most secretive bars. Eventually we came across a magnificent old Buddhist temple and true to the theme of the night, we were led along a lantern-lined pathway to its doors, where we discovered something quite special. With no signage to be seen anywhere, it was inconceivable to imagine that just to the side of the main temple was a small, yet classy 10 seater bar. Established by the enterprising monks in 2008, this tastefully designed watering hole, set amongst a beautifully manicured Japanese garden is only now beginning to be discovered by visitors to Kyoto. I must say that sitting there with a warming glass of Yamazaki whisky in hand and looking out of the floor to ceiling windows toward a lantern lit courtyard garden was all a little bit surreal. However, it was clearly the perfect way to end an illuminating evening of sights and discoveries.