Friday, 21 November 2014

Journey to the Emerald City…aka Melbourne!

Having lived in Adelaide, South Australia just about all of my life, the anticipation of heading over the border into Victoria and on to Melbourne was always an exciting prospect. Long before the days of cheap flights, the most popular ways to get there was either a nine-hour road trip or by boarding the much loved ‘Overland’ railway. This was definitely a much slower, but infinitely more enjoyable way to make the journey, as there was always something special about traveling in the cool of the night and then lifting the blind in the morning to allow the sun to stream into your sleeper compartment (if you were lucky enough to have one), while the train leisurely rolled into Spencer Street Station. Sadly, those regular overnight runs to Melbourne are no more, having been replaced by a twice weekly day trip, which although still popular, seem somewhat at odds with the fast paced, discounted price of modern air travel. The term ‘air-bus’ probably best describes the convenience of such flights; arriving and departing with constant regularity and with a casualness that belies the achievement of just getting one of those big metal birds into the sky! What is also lost these days is the sense of ‘the journey’ that encapsulates experiences that are often missed when traveling ‘over’ rather than ‘through’ the landscape.    
So it was with memories of our many enjoyable road trips to Melbourne that Jules and I decided to embark on yet another sojourn across the border. As we had done so many times before, we would drive south-east through the scenic Coonawarra wine region, through sheep and logging fields near Casterton, skirt the Grampian Mountains and wind our way through the gold fields of Victoria before hitting the western suburbs of Melbourne, that seem to begin somewhere around Bacchus Marsh these days. Reminiscent of the ‘Wizard of Oz’, we had followed the yellow brick road and finally arrived in the Emerald City!

Melbourne these days is a very different place than when I first visited the Victorian capital in the late 70’s. It was winter or possibly early spring (it is often hard to tell the difference) and my first impression was of a dull, monochromatic cityscape not unlike the visual depiction by John Brack in his famous painting ‘Collins Street, 5.00pm’. Sure, there was a vibrant art and music scene starting to emerge, but for all intents and purposes, such indulgent, anti-establishment activities remained very much under the surface, overshadowed by the long-term legacy of the conservative Henry Bolte era (Victoria’s longest serving Liberal Party Premier). However, what was particularly apparent, in comparison to Adelaide then and now, was the sheer size of Melbourne. This was truly a ‘big city’, evident by the physical scale of its buildings, the griminess of its streets, the wealth of its businesses and the smell of ambition from a multi-cultural working class eager to make its mark in this ever expanding metropolis. It seemed at the time that there would be no stopping Melbourne and indeed that has proven to be the case.

Over the years both its population and the formidable vision for the city has continued to grow; expanding upon what was already there and happily taking from the other states, the things that weren’t. There are still plenty of people in Adelaide smarting over the loss of the Australian Grand Prix, while over the years we have also reluctantly handed over the mantle of ‘Australia’s Arts Capital’. Melbourne’s skyline has changed too, with plenty of seriously high apartment buildings surrounding the Yarra River and the once industrial Docklands area, resulting in a sizeable inner city population that continues to add vibrancy to the city well beyond its business hours. Likewise, the building of Federation Square with its series of awkward angled buildings signaled that Melbourne wasn’t just a haven for sport (although all facets are amply catered for), but also celebrated creativity in all its forms. While full acceptance of this inner city cobblestone square took some time, it is now recognized as a vital city landmark catering for all manner of outdoor public events and remains a popular meeting place for all Melbournians.

While some cities have in recent times decided to decommission their tram systems, thankfully Melbourne had the good sense to retain its wonderful network. Jules and I once again enjoyed such trips this time around, as we were transported quickly and efficiently to the attractions of the near suburbs. Our only lament has been the demise of the old tram conductors who used to rattle off directions to just about anywhere in the city with friendly banter, while always keeping the fare dodger honest. Nonetheless, the tram service remains one of the delights of Melbourne and seemingly arrives with next to no time to wait.

While this particular trip to Melbourne included neither a visit to a sports event or a theatrical show, as is often the case, it did incorporate several of our other indulgences. For me it’s the many galleries and museums while for Jules there is the great selection of shopping. Of course one of the great joys of traveling to Melbourne remains our common love of restaurants and bars, which are always plentiful and ever changing. It has certainly come a long way from the days of basic pub food and the ‘6.00pm swill’! The multi-cultural nature of the city and the discerning taste of the public ensure that quality international cuisine can be found down every street and also in some of the most tucked away places.

While Melbournians appear to quite blasé about their city, they can feel rightfully proud of what it has become. Many may be too young to remember the way it was or simply hadn’t noticed its gradual transformation from grey to colour, as it evolved into one of Australia’s great destinations. Maybe we have noticed it more than most, as Melbourne still remains our most visited city. Yet for us it has always been the anticipation of the journey as much as the destination. We have always looked forward to our jaunts to Melbourne and they have never disappointed. With this thought in mind we boarded our ‘air bus’ and within 45 minutes we were again back in Adelaide… there really is no place like home!


Wednesday, 9 July 2014

16 Things to Love About Japan!

Having spent the last four years living in Osaka Japan, the time has now come for Jules and I to leave and return back to our home in Australia. We will no doubt miss many of the friends we have met while here, but we will certainly take away with us some truly special memories of times spent traveling throughout Japan. So in thinking about what I might write for my final blog from Japan, I thought it best to simply reflect upon the things we loved and will miss, so in no particular order here they are…

1. Honesty and Trust:
From our experience here, we have always found the Japanese to be very honest and trustworthy. Jules and I have a running joke about how long something might last before it was stolen or vandalized if it was placed in similar circumstances in Australia. Over the years we have heard many amazing stories regarding honest acts by the general public when items have been lost and returned. Indeed in a world where you are constantly having to watch over your shoulder in order to avoid becoming a victim of crime, it has been greatly reassuring to know that for the most part, the Japanese are very honest and considerate people.

2. Service:
The Japanese really know how to provide good service in shops and restaurants. They understand that service means putting the customer first and going to extraordinary lengths to ensure that you feel very special, even if you don’t speak the language. In looking back we can recount numerous examples of remarkable service and we often wonder what the Japanese make of the poor service often provided when traveling in other parts of the world.

3. The Hundred Yen Shop and Konan:
Throughout Japan there are thousands of 100 yen shops that sell a huge range of goods for the equivalent of $1 in Australia. We wished we had known about these stores when we first arrived in Japan as you can easily fit out your apartment with all the implements you need, not to mention the thousands of other problem solving devices. Another one of my favorite haunts has been ‘Konan’ who specialize primarily in hardware but also provide an extensive range of other goods, covering everything from clothing to pet supplies. Jules and I have spent many hours in both of these stores and we rarely left without purchasing something.

4. Toilets:
As Jules knows, I have always argued that it is a basic human right to have access to a toilet in any public area. However, this is something that is often ignored by many countries or more often than not, access is only provided at a price. Thankfully this is not the case in Japan, where free public toilets can always be easily found and are in most cases generally clean. Another plus in more recent times is that the old traditional ‘squat’ toilets continue to be upgraded to western style toilets in line with most other countries, which is a relief in more ways than one!

5. The Changing Seasons:
It has been wonderful living in a country that has distinct seasons. Each time of the year brought with it a unique quality, but spring, with its outburst of blossom and autumn, with the glorious colours of the falling leaves remained our favorite. We also loved the way the Japanese of all ages celebrate and appreciate the changes in nature as they occurred around them. This would often mean going to great lengths to visit locations that showed off a particular season at its best and of course photographing it, just as they had done the previous year and the year before that.

6. Karaoke:
Before we came to Japan, the last thing we wanted to do was to spend an evening in a karaoke bar. At this point some of our family members might rightly claim that we were not blessed with great singing voices and they are absolutely right! However, what we learnt in Japan was that heading to a karaoke room was not just about singing, it was more about letting go of your inhibitions in the company of good friends. In an atmosphere where no one is critical of anyone’s singing, it is your effort that is celebrated. With karaoke rooms on just about every downtown street corner, it was not surprising that we would inevitably find ourselves there, but what surprised us was that we grew to love it!

7. Clean Streets:
While some of the modern Japanese streets can at times be a bit ugly due to their age or the haphazard way they have evolved, they are always clean. There is little in the way of litter despite there being very few rubbish bins. It seems that people just take their own rubbish home with them. There is also very little graffiti to be seen and people are generally very respectful of their public spaces in whatever form they take.

8. Onigiri, Okonomiyaki and other Japanese Foods:
Before we arrived in Japan, Jules and I were not really regular consumers of Japanese food, however since being here we have come to enjoy it more and more. We have always enjoyed Sushi and Sashimi, but we have also taken a particular liking to onigiri which is a rice triangle with seafood or other filling that is wrapped in a seaweed square. These are available for around 120 yen from any convenience store and if you can figure out the tricky instructions for getting them out of the wrapper, they are delicious. There are of course other favourites including the local specialty of Okonomiyaki, which is not quite as healthy but just as satisfying.

9. Bars and Restaurants:
Over the years we have seen our fair share of bars and restaurants in the Kansai region, but I would suggest that we probably would have tried less that 1% of what is actually there. The seemingly unlimited amount of establishments is simply overwhelming, but it certainly has been great fun exploring them. We can honestly say that we never had a bad meal in Japan and every bar was always different from the other. They ranged from small stand up bars to sophisticated nightspots that often overlooked the impressive lights of the city.

10. Warm Hand Towels:
It is always nice whenever entering a bar or restaurant to be presented with a warm hand towel or at the very least a wrapped wet tissue. This allows you to freshen yourself up before tucking into your meal or nibbles. It is a sensible hygienic move aimed at preventing the spread of germs, but such a simple action is also a nice welcoming gesture that we have always appreciated.

11. The Railway System:
If there was any country best suited to operate an efficient railway system it is the Japanese. Despite there being millions of commuters each day, the railway always runs efficiently and reliably. While many of the local trains appear to be quite old fashioned, they are always spotlessly clean and can be relied upon to get you to an extensive range of destinations on time. Of course the world recognizes the transportation marvel that is the Shinkansen that can whisk you all around the country at over 200kms an hour, but the local trains are just as impressive and a whole lot cheaper. Often running at around 5-10 minute intervals, for us the train is the only way to get around and not having a car to worry about over the last 4 years has been a blessing.

12. Everything Running on Time:
There is something reassuring about any organization that sticks to its specified time schedule. Again the Japanese are wonderfully punctual about such things. When a bus or train is scheduled to arrive at 8.37am it will indeed arrive at 8.37am not a minute earlier or a minute later. Likewise if a tradesman says he will be coming to your home between 4.00pm-5.00pm on a specific day you can bet your life that he will be there at that time. With everyone simply sticking to the promises they make with regard to time, it makes life so much easier and surprisingly less stressful.

13. The Cost of Living:
A few years ago the most common complaint about visiting Japan was the price of just about everything, although I suspect that this was more due to the crippling conversion rate for most currencies against the highly buoyant Japanese yen. As a result several of the major cities in Japan were listed as the most expensive in the world, however with the economic downturn and following the sobering impact of the 2011 tsunami disaster, this all changed. The yen has dropped dramatically over recent years and these days the cost of living in Japan is very comparable, if not less expensive than other countries, particularly with that of Australia, which we now find far more expensive.

14. The Mix of History and Modernity:
Japan is a complex society (to say the least) and what is fascinating is how it somehow manages to preserve its cultural traditions while forging ahead with an enthusiastic eye to the future. You will see some of the latest technology and some of the most innovative architecture and fashion, yet it all remains somehow connected to its historical past. It is not uncommon to see a modern office building or department store placed alongside a traditional Buddhist temple. Nor is it unusual to see a young lady wearing a kimono while standing on the train next to another wearing the latest in ultra modern street wear. Both the traditional and modern world works hand in hand in Japan, with each adding to the fabric of its society. What we particularly liked was that this notion appeared to be embraced by both young and old, with colourful cultural festivals, conventions and events celebrated on a weekly basis.

15. The Young and the Old:
Having taught a good many Japanese students over the last few years, there are certain qualities I will definitely miss about them and the youth culture here generally. For the most part, they possess an innocence and happy exuberance that comes from living in a society that allows young people to enjoy the full years of their youth. With drinking, driving a car and voting held off until around 21 years, they seem to be less in a rush to join the adult world with all its complications. At the other end of the scale, the aging population appears to enjoy respect and a place within society that should be envied and indeed emulated by other countries. It is not unusual to see a 75 year old serving at a supermarket checkout or working as a security guard. Their active contribution to many aspects of Japanese society appears to be valued, which in turn provides personal dignity, reduces age discrimination and no doubt provides a contributing factor to the well publicised longevity of its population.

16. Love of Jazz:
It is wonderful living in a country that loves its jazz music so much. Not only are there numerous festivals to attend throughout the year, there are countless nightclubs where you can appreciate all forms of jazz. If that is not enough, just about every café and restaurant seems to play jazz, so my favorite form of music is never too far away. There are also so many stores selling jazz music in both CD and classic vinyl form. Many of these recordings are quite unique to Japan with many live recordings by some of the greatest jazz artists who have visited this music loving country over the years. It was within this environment of jazz appreciation that I was encouraged to learn to play the trumpet and I will always be grateful for that.

There is no doubt that in the months and years ahead, Jules and I will continue to reminisce over the many experiences we had in Japan. It will remain a very special place for us. Yet, there is a sense that we only really began to scratch the surface of this unique country during the four years we spent there. We feel blessed that we were able to experience some of it and would certainly recommend a visit. So it is with some sadness that we say sayonara, but with the knowledge that we leave some great friends behind and that a return visit would always be welcomed.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

A Museum in Harmony with Nature

In recent times Japanese architects have increasingly gained a reputation world wide for designing some of the most interesting domestic and public spaces. The best of these designs reflect much about their culture and tradition, which is often exemplified best through a beautiful sense of understated function and simplicity. If you combine this minimalist approach with the use of the latest in modern building materials, the result is often quite spectacular. Jules and I found this to be very much the case when we visited one of the most beautiful museums in the world that sits high in the Shigaraki mountains overlooking Lake Biwa and not too far away from Kyoto.

The Miho Museum was opened in 1997 and was designed by renowned architect I.M.Pei, who’s most notable works include the glass pyramid of the Louvre in Paris and the east wing of the National Portrait Museum in Washington DC, both of which we have had the privilege of visiting. So it was only fitting that we sought out this amazing building too, although it wouldn’t be easy with the most convenient way to travel to it’s remote location being by car. So on a beautiful spring day, in the company of our licenced friends, we winded our way through a scenic mountain landscape filled with lime green spring foliage, to seek out this architectural icon.

After spotting the turn-off we arrived to find a well designed although somewhat understated building, however we quickly realised that this was not the actual museum at all, but rather a tastefully constructed ticket office. The actual museum remained hidden behind the hills and would require us to take a gentle uphill walk before the building would make its impressive reveal. The picturesque walk involved passing through a huge metal-lined tunnel carved into the mountain and exiting onto a cable bridge spanning the valley below. This combination would surely form one of the most impressive approaches to a gallery you are ever likely to see.
When the view of the museum unfolds, images of a traditional temple or teahouse come to mind, with the building settling nicely into the landscape much as they have done here for centuries. Although modernist in essence, the architect has shown respect to long held cultural traditions by creating a structure that is in total harmony with its natural environment. Upon entering we are welcomed into by a light filled interior that is reminiscent of the Louvre foyer, particularly with it’s use of warm coloured limestone walls. This, combined with the spectacular outlook, created an instant sense of wonderment that had people sitting down to simply admire this unique space. Clearly no expense had been spared in this building (reported to cost over 215 million dollars), not to mention the site itself which saw 100,000 truck loads of soil removed then put back in order to meet national park regulations.
Amazingly all of this was privately funded by Koyama Mihoko, heiress to a textiles fortune and one of the richest women in Japan, who’s dream it was to house a priceless collection of Egyptian, Roman and  Asian cultural artifacts that were collected from throughout the world following one clear aquisition policy…’beauty at any cost’! However in the end, it is I.M. Pei’s building that remains the real star here. It is a perfect example of how thoughtful architecture can remain modern and functional, while still remaining in harmony with nature. This is something that appears to be rarely achieved these days, but with the Miho Museum they certainly got it right!   

                                    courtesy of the Miho Museum

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Art Right Under Your Feet

This is a blog article that Jules has been ribbing me about for quite a while, but it has to be said that Japan simply has the best manhole covers in the world! Now, I know that might sound a bit ‘nerdy’ to Jules and to others, but as a Visual Arts teacher you come to appreciate all sorts of interesting forms of street art, in whatever form it may take. For such normally drab and utilitarian objects, here in Japan they are always beautifully creative and can be viewed no matter where you find yourself within the country.

Often as we walk the streets, I will take the time to stop and photograph some of the more interesting designs. After all, there are said to be over 6000 different images throughout the country that include a wide range of popular motifs based upon the Japanese love for landscapes, nature, local landmarks and festivals. The designs themselves vary considerably depending upon the prefecture in which they are found, but they are always highly intricate and stylized designs. Quite often the covers are painted in detailed colours, but they are equally impressive as relief images in their raw metallic state.

Apparently all this attention to manhole covers came about in the 1980’s when the national construction ministry decided to hand over responsibility to local municipalities for what was seen as an insignificant form of city infrastructure. This somehow sparked the competitive nature of rival towns, encouraging them to create the most distinctive design to represent their area. What ensued was a series of contests, which encouraged communities to develop more and more creative images. Today these humble metal manhole covers have attracted international attention, particularly from those who are referred to as ‘Drainspotters’, who often trek across the country to seek them out and of course photograph them. Indeed if you search Google you will find an increasing number of sites that pay tribute to the Japanese manhole cover in extensive detail…ie

So if you do happen to step foot in Japan, remember to take look at what is happening on the streets. Great art isn’t always to be found in galleries, but can often be discovered in the most unlikely of places. While exhibitions will come and go, I’m sure that this form of art will be around for a good many years to come. The humble manhole cover, as seen on most local streets, remains yet another one of those quirky artifacts of modern Japan. Although remaining functional, they continue to reflect a certain attention to civic detail, but more importantly an artistic sensitivity to an object that is so often overlooked in most other countries. Sure, it may sound a bit ‘nerdy’, but the manholes here do certainly grab your attention and are quite impressive. I guess it’s like viewing any form of art; it’s all about the search and discovery of something new… even if it is to be found just below your feet!

Saturday, 26 April 2014

Walking the Fukuchiyama Line

One of the things that Jules and I have always enjoyed while living here in Japan is getting away from the usual tourist spots and discovering some of its lesser known attractions. We recently experienced one such place when looking for an interesting local walking trail on a beautiful spring day. Jules had read about an abandoned stretch of railway line between Namaze and Takedao that had once run through mountains between Kobe and Kyoto. The former Fukuchiyama line had began its service in 1899 but had ceased to operate during the 1960’s, leaving behind the remnants of what must have been one of the most scenic short railway journeys in Japan.

After arriving by local train to Namaze station, we made our way past timber houses, lined vegetable gardens and then eventually under a series of massive cement pylons that holds the giant multi-laned freeway high overhead. While this is quite ugly, you can’t help but marvel at the engineering involved in creating such a monolithic structure that allows a perfectly straight road to pierce its way through the picturesque mountains. Shortly past this point the remnants of the old railway track began to emerge and we soon found ourselves entering a valley of lush green trees clinging to sheer cliffs, while a boulder filled river flowed below. Although the iron railway tracks had been pulled up years ago, the old sleepers that had once held them still remained and as we were to discover, so too was much of the stone and rusting metal infrastructure of the old line.

As we continued, we came across quite a few signs reminding hikers not to walk the line. However, this seemed more like of a notice of discouragement and a means of denying legal responsibility rather than an enforceable demand. After all, this trail had become increasingly popular with both locals and visitors over the years, so it was unlikely that access was going to be denied in the foreseeable future. There was evidence that the welfare of ‘line walkers’ had also been considered, with plenty of safety barriers erected since the closure. We guessed that the major concern was the six long tunnels that hikers would pass through during the trek. Being well aware of these, we came armed with our torch, as we had read that some tunnels are often pitch black in the middle and they were! Probably the most spectacular of the tunnels led directly onto a large riveted iron bridge that spanned the valley. Looking like something straight out of ‘Bridge Over the River Kwai’, it provided some spectacular views both upstream and down, particularly with added water from the melted winter snow now dramatically increasing the flow of the rocky rapids below.

As we walked the track we would occasionally pass other hikers heading along in the other direction. In long dark tunnels our paths would cross in torch light with polite greetings of “Konichiwa”. Not being able to be seen, we wondered whether our accent would give us away as being foreigners … probably! As we got closer toward Takedeo, we increasingly spotted family groups sitting by the banks of the river, admiring the views and being at one with nature, as is the Japanese way. The demise of the track had now provided a very convenient inroad into some of the most spectacular countryside this region has to offer, as well as providing a permanent reminder of simpler days of rail travel that have now long since passed.I imagine that if this stretch of railway line had closed today, it is unlikely that it would ever become a walking trail. No doubt a candy coloured steam train or something similar would be running tourists back and forth between the two towns. It would indeed be a spectacular short journey for those onboard, but nowhere near as peaceful as it is today. Instead the Fukuchiyama line remains a beautiful hidden gem, known by the locals and just a few visitors who make the effort to seek it out. Its attraction is not just as a gateway to the spectacularly scenic mountains, but in providing a reminiscent insight to this amazing stretch of railway that was, for a time, the everyday commute for the locals who once live here.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Spring Break in Kanazawa

It has been three years since the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that caused devastation across northern Japan and since that time, the country has been working vigorously to encourage the return of overseas tourism back to its shores. Encouraged by the gradual devaluation of the Japanese yen, sightseers have begun to return, although there remains determined competition between the various cities to attract its share of the tourist dollar. One place that continues to make positive strides in generating local and overseas interest is the city of Kanazawa. Positioned north east of Osaka, it is nicely nestled between its picturesque mountains and the Sea of Japan. With a population of less than half a million people, this ‘castle-town’ offers a very manageable alternative to many of the larger and more familiar destinations. It is also one of the few locations in Japan that has not suffered from the ravages of war or natural disaster. So with Kanazawa only a few hours away by train, Jules and I thought that we might indulge ourselves with an over-night stay to celebrate the beginning of Spring.

Emerging from the impressively modern railway station, we could feel the warming sun and while there was still snow on the mountains, there were signs that Kanazawa was beginning to thaw out from a particularly cold winter. Council workers were beginning to dismantle maypole-like structures often used as supports for tree branches laden with snow, while the first signs of pink and white blossom could just be seen. Of course the best place to observe the transformation into spring would be at the famous Kenrokuen Garden, which is widely regarded as one of the best in Japan. It sits alongside Kanazawa Castle Park, which is also a pretty impressive sight, with each capturing perfectly the symbiotic relationship between traditional Japanese culture and nature. As we wandered around the fastidiously manicured gardens, we constantly came across beautifully harmonious tableaux with visitors sitting on benches quietly absorbing the scene. A bride and groom in traditional dress were being photographed amongst the blossom of the Japanese plum grove, while close to the Meijikinen monument an old man could be seen balancing a spinning plate on a bamboo stick. There were quaint wooden teahouses jutting out over reflective ponds that narrowed into winding streams as well as the occasional gently flowing waterfall. Kenrokuen Garden was certainly living up to its reputation and with such perfect spring weather, we couldn’t imagine it looking much better.

Another reason for visiting Kanazawa was to have a look at one of the most cutting edge art galleries in Japan. The 21st Museum of Contemporary Art was opened in 2005 and has already attracted over 1.5 million visitors. As we approached the impressive low lined circular glass building, we sensed that this minimalist environment would provide us with some interesting encounters with modern art. With permanent works from artists such as Leandro Erlich, James Turrell and Anish Kapoor, the gallery gained a reputation for innovation and has openly set itself the mission of ‘awakening Kanazawa’s creative energy and becoming a compelling regional cultural attraction’. Sadly, our creative energy was left a bit flat when we discovered that the majority of the gallery was actually closed due to preparations for its next exhibition. All we were able to do was just wander around the buildings outer perimeters, catching sight of the odd piece of art here and there. Still, we remained positive, as we have learnt over years of traveling that there are occasionally such disappointments. It certainly didn’t dampen our enjoyment of the city, after all there were plenty of other things yet to see in Kanazawa before heading home.

Kanazawa has quite a few historic districts and over the two days we were there, we spent quite some time wandering through backstreets exploring them. To the east, the Higashi Chaya area is still regarded as the geisha district of the city, with a streetscape of wooden houses that wouldn’t have changed too much since the feudal-period. To the west, the Nishi Chaya district is known for its traditional tea houses, while just a short walk away is the beautifully preserved walled residences of the Nagamachi area that allowed us to see where the samurai once lived.

Over the past few years, Jules and I have seen many Buddhist temples, but we hadn’t seen quite as many in such a concentrated place as we did in the Teramachi district (meaning ‘temple-town’). With over seventy temples packed into just a few streets, we could easily imagine how in feudal times this district would have been regarded as a major religious centre. While most of the larger temples on the main street had been well preserved, we felt that the smaller, less maintained structures in the back streets also tended to provide a valuable insight into how this area might have once been many years ago. Clearly Kanazawa was becoming more mindful of its past and was now making every effort to preserve what remains of its historic districts. By revitalizing its artistic and cultural traditions, it was not only celebrating the city’s unique place in Japanese history, but would also ensure a strong economic future through tourism.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Dining with the Sumos

This years Grand Sumo Tournament was back again in Osaka and Jules and I found ourselves in the fortunate position of being invited by one of the sponsors to come along to view the big event. We had attended a couple of years ago but had found ourselves quite a way back in the upper seats, toward the back of the stadium. This time we would be viewing from what is referred to as a private box, but is in actual fact a small, tatami matted area with cushions to sit on. In any case these were very sought after cushions indeed, as they would be quite a bit closer to the action. However, the biggest bonus of the invitation was the opportunity for us to attend a post tournament dinner hosted by the Sumos themselves. This was a customary event held by the various Sumo ‘stables’ as a way of thanking sponsors and supporters, while also allowing them to meet some of Japan’s most revered sportsman in an informal setting.

It was mid afternoon on the final day of competition when we took up our positions in the box. The tournament had been running for two weeks and it was now approaching the final events that would decide the ultimate grand champion and the all important rankings. While our seats were very much sought after, it was still quite a tight squeeze, leaving little room for leg adjustment when the pins and needles eventually began to set in. However, the position was terrific; close to the action, but not too close as to have a Sumo land in your lap after being tossed off the dohyo (the raised wrestling ring). Being a sponsors box, we were being well looked after too, with drinks and a generous supply of bentos to keep us nourished between bouts. As is tradition, we were also presented with gift bags containing several nicely wrapped presents as a mark of appreciation of our support for the event…at this point Jules and I were beginning to feel a little guilty, but of course graciously accepted them rather than offend.

With the final bout having been fought and the grand champion decided (Kakuryu, with 14 victories and only one loss) it was time to head off to the Sumo dinner, but with absolutely no idea what to expect. We imagined sitting in a traditional wooden building steeped in the traditions of this ancient sport, but what we found was a surprisingly modern high rise environment, much like you would find for any corporate organisation. Sumo is after all a very professional business these days and so, much like any other corporatised sport, they too have moved with the times. We were however, pleased to be greeted by several Sumo, complete with the traditional ‘chonmage’ styled hair and dressed in their post-tournament robes. These gentle giants looked slightly out of place in this contemporary environment, but they were more than happy to act as hosts by leading us to the elevators and eventually to our seats at the front of a large conference-like room.

The formalities and award giving were about to begin, where each Sumo in the stable would be presented with an envelope of varying size, commensurate with their achievements during the tournament. With the speeches well underway, bowls of noodles, cold meats and sushi began to be served by the Sumos who, despite their size, worked their way around the tables with the graceful ease of a ballet dancer. With the formalities soon over it was time for some fun. There was passionate singing, some impersonations of famous Sumos and several rounds of audience games, all adding to a very relaxed atmosphere. The drinks and conversation flowed while small groups took their turn in having their photographs taken alongside a sizable Sumo.

Clearly the sponsors and supporters who had been especially invited to the event were all very highly regarded by this particular stable of Sumo wrestlers. They had expressed their appreciation with good humor and through the generosity of their hospitality that night. As visitors to the country and as invited guests, we too felt very special for being there. As we stood to leave, they presented us with framed signatures and other momentoes as a reminder of the evening. It had been a remarkable night and yet another one of those unforgettable experiences that Jules and I will cherish from our time here in Japan.

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.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

A Night in a Capsule Hotel

If you ever fancied living on a space station, the closest thing that you might find here on earth would be to stay at a Japanese ‘capsule’ hotel. This unique and popular form of accommodation (also referred to as ‘pod’ hotels) requires guests to sleep communally in individual capsules that are stacked on top of each other, much like those seen in many sci-fi movies. It was certainly one of those novel things that Jules and I had on our ‘to do’ list whilst living here in Japan, but until now had never got around to it. So on a wintery long weekend we headed to Kyoto with friends to enjoy some of many attractions of this great city and to experience this somewhat futuristic form of accommodation.

Jules had done some initial research on what was available and while she found the choice a little limited in Kyoto, there was a popular one called ‘9 hours’ that was right in the heart of the city and offered very modern facilities. Being a long weekend, she was lucky to arrange a booking at the bargain price of approximately $25AU a head; this capsule hotel was no doubt the most affordable form of accommodation in town. Contrary to what the name of the hotel might have suggested, here guests were provided with 24 hours of accommodation so our plan was to check in early before venturing out to enjoy the sights and eventually the city nightlife.

Upon arrival, we were warmly greeted at reception by friendly young attendants who all spoke very good English. It was clear that they were used to all manner of visitors from around the world, keen to experience this very different form of hotel. The stark white interior with minimal styling provided our first indication to the modernist décor we would experience on the floors above. With check in complete, we couldn’t resist the opportunity to further explore the facilities and made our way to the elevators. The first thing we noticed is that there was one elevator for males and another for females. Here there is a strict demarcation of areas accessible to each of the sexes, so those interested in activities other than sleeping were clearly in the wrong place. Going are own separate way, I headed to the sleeping area to find a dark room with dimly lit streamlined plastic molded sleeping ‘pods’ arranged on two levels. While each capsule was very private, it reminded me of the old bunk bed arrangement and as I climbed up to test my mattress on the upper level, memories of high school camps strangely drifted back. The sleeping pod was small, but certainly not claustrophobic. The coziness was enhanced by a privacy blind that rolled down to cover the opening rather than a solid door, which might have felt a little too hemmed in. On the floor above we were provided with our storage lockers and access to a highly functional bathroom. With everything looking so white and clean, it was as if this hotel had taken a line from the architect Le Corbusier by creating the ultimate ‘machine for living in’.

After a very indulgent evening sampling the nightlife of Kyoto, it was well past midnight by the time we made our way back to our hotel. Around this time of night the capsule hotel really comes into its own, as the cost of a stay over is far less than catching a taxi home. Subsequently, by the time we had changed into our pyjamas (also supplied) and headed to the sleeping quarters, it was clear that all of the pods were now occupied and most of its occupants were tucked away for the night. Despite the closeness of the arrangement, it was all very quiet, as it remained throughout the night, with just the occasional sound of people rousing out of their pod in the early hours of the morning. At this point I wondered whether this form of accommodation could actually work in any other country other than Japan, as the people here are for the most part so considerate of others around them. There was no conversation, no coughing or any other of the usual sounds of the morning.

So after a warm and comfortable night, I eventually rolled up my blind and emerged from my upper level capsule. Stepping tentatively backwards down the steps, I must have looked like some sort of middle aged Neil Armstrong about to step foot on the moon. It was certainly difficult not to make space-age comparisons here! This form of accommodation could well be the way of the future, but for now a stay in a capsule hotel was simply a very cool and affordable way to enjoy a night in Kyoto, Japan.