Thursday, 7 January 2010

Brass monkeys

Sure looks like fun, can't wait to get back. Honestly.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010


“Happy Christmas by the way.” I looked across at Nipun, trying to adjust the straps of my backpack which seemed to be far heavier on one shoulder than the other, a common annoyance. It was about 5.30am, an hour before sunrise and we were both stiff and heavy from a bad nights rest on an overnight bus between Hiroshima and Kyoto. Adjusting my pack so that it now seemed heavier on the other shoulder I replied curtly, “It’s not until tomorrow. It’s Christmas eve today.”
“No it’s not. Happy Christmas.”
I looked at my watch, startled. Indeed she was right. My tetchiness relaxed a little. It was Christmas day! Not that there was any turkey and roasted potatoes to be had, but still. Maybe the reason the backpack felt so wretchedly heavy was that Santa had filled it up whilst I was not sleeping on the bus I mused. He must of snuck in whilst we half-lay there, eyes tightly shut, sleep gelling the lids closed in spite of our inability to drift off further than the cold window pane. But the daydream was short. We were in Kyoto, trying to figure of the easiest way of deciphering a metro ticketing machine that seemed to be annotated entirely Japanese. True, the prices were in Roman numerals, but other than that it was all pretty meaningless. “Sumi ma san,” (“Excuse me please”) I winced in my far from perfect Japanese to two teenage girls dressed in identical soft pink fluffy outfits with Hello Kitty shoulder bags. “How do we get here?” I pointed at our station on the metro map futilely. The girls faltered at the sight of the desperate, unkempt and red eyed Gajin (foreigner) in front of them. Nipun took over. The girls English was almost as non-existent as our Japanese, but after a few minutes of confused laughter, raised eyebrows and exaggerated gesturing we were on our way. Generally the Japanese are immensely helpful, embarrassingly so at times. They will try and help you even if they have no idea of where you need to be. It is touching, but also time consuming. Then somehow you need to extricate yourself from the situation without being rude. This was an easy one though, the girls in their pink shorts, stockings and fur topped boots deciphered the map and we made our way to the platform.

Upon arriving at our station we made our way into the soft light of the pre-dawn morning and began to look for our hotel. The directions we had were rubbish, we knew our hotel was nearby but still managed to walk around for half an hour before we found it; ironically it was almost directly opposite the subway station exit. Using up some loyalty points we had managed to arrange a very plush hotel for the first couple of nights, overlooking Nijo Castle. Kimono clad attendants swished efficiently through the reception area, looking dubiously at the contrast of our battered backpacks and slept-in clothes against the backdrop of marble floors and ornate, polished wood furniture. “Check in time is only at three o’clock Sir,” the concierge smugly remarked when we announced our arrival. We dumped our bags and went wandering. We started off with the four kilometre walk around the castle moat and then, once the castle had opened up for the day, we went into the grounds. Nijo Castle was originally built in 1603 at the instigation of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate (military government to you and I). Like all good despots he ordered all the feudal lords beneath him to construct him a castle that was then extended over sucessive years. Today (in spite of fires caused by lightning and latterly an uncontrolled conflagration that swept through Kyoto in 1788), the castle is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The rambling complex is massive and includes the famous Ninomaru Palace. A large part of the palace’s fame is down to it’s Uguisu-bari, or Nightingale floor. The wooden floor boards throughout the building have been constructed in such a way that when anyone walks across them they make a birdlike squeaking, hence sending out the alarm to the bodyguards in the various chambers throughout the palace. Paranoid? Certainly not our Tokugawa. The preservation of the place is wonderful, the palace is a maze of inter-leading rooms with sliding wooden doors and hand painted screens preserved from days long passed. The paintings are over 3000 in number, some of which date back to the 1700’s. Outside the palace are carefully tended gardens, an inner moat and outer moat and a second palace.

In stark contrast to the elegant and simple Shoin-zukuri architecture of the Samurai, we went for lunch at Kyoto Station. The station is home to an ultra modern complex called the Cube, fifteen floors of restaurants and boutiques that cater for every whim. The architecture is indescribably slick, with a large expanse of open air space that consists of stairs and escalators that ascend up to the 15 floor observatory point. We discovered that it easy to lost in here, every corridor seems to take you back to the astonishing view of Kyoto Tower. What was becoming very clear as we travelled around Kyoto was just how much there was to do. The city boasts 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites, more than 1600 Buddhist Temples and in excess of 400 Shinto Shrines. And we had five days. In that time we made a decent stab at covering as much ground as possible. We did many of the obvious choices such as the district of Ginza which is renowned for it’s Geisha’s. I thought I saw one, laboured over the obligatory photos and then found out that she was actually a tourist from Canada. The photos are good (as in enough) though so maybe I’ll just keep quiet on that one. Whilst Ginza is supposedly best visited in the evening when the Geisha’s are out, I found it really rewarding to visit there very early in the morning, when most people were still asleep. The streets are practically abandoned and we spent a few hours exploring cobble roads and Shinmonzen Minami-dori, “arguably the most beautiful street in all of Asia,” if you believe the hype in the Lonely Planet. It is a very tranquil and beautiful place, but I was a little under whelmed after reading such an exuberant write up. To be fair, it is the middle of winter here and I imagine that in spring and autumn it must be magnificent.

Among the other temples we visited were Fushimi - Inari Taisha, a Shinto shrine best known for it’s thousands of Torii’s (vermillion gateways that mark the entrance to a Shinto Shrine) and dozens of stone foxes. The Shrine is dedicated to the gods of rice and sake, whilst the fox is the messenger of Inari, the God of cereal grains. Another highlight was the village and shrines of Arashiyama, which lie at the base of Kyoto’s western mountain range. To recount all the temples we saw would make for tedious reading and writing, suffice to say that with a year in Kyoto, there would still be much that was missed. After our two days of posh accommodation we moved into an 8 bed dorm and had our first and last experience of shared rooms. It is amusing how inconsiderate fellow travellers can be to each other (travelling is a purely selfish and indulgent occupation after all) and after a couple of nights of tripping over other peoples water bottles and the stale morning air created by sixteen slumbering lungs we were glad to be going again. We were also a little sad though, Kyoto has slipped by so quickly and Tokyo lay before us. It is our last destination. Ten months of travel has gone by since we left London. In some ways it doesn’t even feel like ten days.

Friday, 1 January 2010

Fukuoaka Five: Images from Fukuoka City

1) Prayer Tablets at Kusihida Shrine. Most of them are in Japanese and this one took me by surprise.

2 (Above): Nihon-teien Japanese Garden. Stone, water and sand all combine in these beautiful gardens which appear to have been effortlessly sculpted. The gardens are elegant and tranquil, especially on a late winters afternoon when you are the only one daft enough to be out in the cold.

3: A hundred metres away from the ultra modern Canal City complex lie a handful of traditional style Yatai (food stalls). After pulling back the plastic sheeting and taking a seat on the wooden benches you can savour ramen and kebabs, with sake or beer optional.

4: Stone Basin, Kushida Shrine. The stone basins are an integral part of any shrine and serve for drinking water and to wash hands. They are often ornate and very beautiful. Sometimes the beauty is in their very simplicity.

5 (Below): Street art in Fukuoka near Hakata Station. Fukuoka is a city where the new and old intermingle effortlessly. Indeed the city was historically two towns that were then joined, the posh bit was Fukuoka castle town, and the cheap seats were found in Hakata. The city is now cosmopolitan in parts and quaint in others. From behind a shrine the sun will glint off a glass fronted office complex. It is also a colourful town where animation can be found on random street corners.

Final Destination

“Konichiwa, Jonathan desu. Sake wa Kuda sai asa gaan.” Thus begins my tentative exploration of Japanese. It is phonetic by the way and no doubt any self respecting Japanese person would roll their eyes in exasperation at the abundant spelling mistakes. My pronunciation is worse still. But I can make myself understood. It means “Hello, my name is Jonathan and I like Sake.” After all it is the festive season here. And it is cold, runny nose, burning ear lobe cold. It is not so much the temperature as such, it is more a case of the Siberian winds that take you by surprise and cut through your clothes with the efficacy of a Stanley knife. And a hot sake is just the thing to make you feel that maybe it is not all bad.

We arrived in Japan about ten days ago and the time has flown. We had left Manila at about six o’clock in the morning, still half asleep and vaguely aware that a hangover was in the post after a night out with Zeena, Shiela and Anthony. I slept the entire flight which is unusual for me, and then arrived in Tokyo where we found that it was twenty five odd degrees colder than we have been used to for the last ten months. Though expected the shock was nasty. NASTY. I was instantly reminded of how much I dislike being cold. We made our way through customs and immigration and then found a shuttle bus to the hotel near the airport as were flying again the next day, this time further South to Fukuoka. We munched McDonalds (a Teriyaki burger that was not bad actually, in spite of my abhorrence for Ronald McDonald and the monstrosity that he has spawned) and spent an uneventful first night in Japan. Narita Airport, the gateway to Tokyo, is commonly cited as the worlds most hated airport on account of it’s distance from the city itself and the expense involved in getting into town. As such we had a lazy day, which once in a while is a really refreshing change from the continual packing and unpacking of bags.

Most people coming to Japan for a short visit will usually purchase a Japan Rail Pass that allows unlimited travel on the supernumary trains that dissect the country, including the speed of light shinkansen bullet trains. Whilst these tickets are generally acknowledged as being good value for money, they are expensive. For Nipun and I they would have been about £600 expensive so after much pontificating we decided to use up air miles and fly along the longer routes that we had and catch over night buses for other trips. It would have been great to do the bullet train, but the costs involved are a real budget breaker. We arrived in Fukuoka the following evening, found a place to stay (the excellent Khoa San guest house) and then went out for dinner. In other words we went to the local 7 Eleven where the pre packaged meals are cheap and actually pretty good. These have almost become a staple for us during our time in Japan, whether they be from the Daily Yakamaza, Lawsons or 7 Eleven. Back in the common area of the guest house we met Satoshi, a Japanese thirty year old who was doing a bit of travelling for the next few days. We were chatting away and asking him questions when suddenly he gave one of his inimitable high pitched laughs and said “Sorry, I am really drunk.” He turned out to be good fun, and carried a shoulder bag around that seemed to produce an infinite amount of little sake bottles. He was not by any means a heavy drinker, but in his own words, “I’m on holiday so it’s ok.” Followed by his high pitched laugh. Satoshi became our companion the next day as we dragged him around Fukuoka looking at the sights.

We started off the day at the Robo Square, a building dedicated (as the name would suggest) to showcasing robotic technology. Most of the robots on display are pretty small - dogs and dinosaurs that can be petted and made to chase after a ball. The application of these was really interesting, largely the pets are given to people in old peoples homes where the aged can have a virtual pet that can be looked after, without any of the tedious tasks and manual labour involved. It sounds crazy, but seeing the robots and the attention to detail it makes sense. You could imagine getting attached to, say a little green dinosaur with big blue eyes that demands attention and reacts affectionately to being stroked and tickled. The animals were actually very cute, but then again if I gave my grandmother a virtual pet for Christmas I think she would strike me with it. She would certainly be more concerned for my mental health than hers. Back on the bus we carried on around Fukuoka, a town that is ultra modern in places and yet is home to temples and gardens that would not be out of place in Kyoto. One of the highlights of the day was indeed a trip to Nihon-teien (a Japanese garden) at Satoshi‘s instigation. Despite the biting cold and the fact that the trees had lost all their leaves the garden was starkly beautiful, the elements of rocks and water and sand all being fused together to create a place of great tranquillity. We walked around the town a bit, shopped for new winter jackets and went to a temple close to town. We finished off the day in a wholly Japanese bar where Satoshi became our translator, ordering snacks of barbequed skewers and hot sake with great avidity. We spent a few more days in Fukuoka, mainly visiting the shrines and temples and marvelling at the detail that goes into these stunning structures. In contrast to the more traditional side of things we visited Canal City, an uber-modern six storey complex built around an artificial canal that houses a theatre, shopping mall, hotels and cinemas. It is very slick and neoteric, especially at dusk when the neon lights begin to sparkle and the yatai (food stalls) begin to open up for the evening. I was not at all surprised when I read many days later that “nationally the city is known for it’s Hakata-bijin (beautiful women).” The women in Fukuoka were indeed beautiful, and immaculately dressed too. It made me wonder if there was such a term as “high maintenance bijin” in those parts.

From Fukuoka we jumped on a night bus to Hiroshima. The bus journey was truly painless, there was lots of space to stretch out and at one stage I seem to remember waking up and the bus had come to a stand still. The engine had been turned off which in turn made me wonder if the driver was also taking advantage of the comfy facilities. Nonetheless we arrived in Hiroshima at the specified time and trundled out into the pre-dawn darkness of Hiroshima at 5.30am. We ambled through the streets and found our guest house where we collapsed onto a couch in the common area for a couple of hours before the early risers came in. We then set off ourselves, met Satoshi again as he had left all his parcels behind in Fukuoka by mistake. We picked them up for him and when we met again he effusively thanked us and then pressed a bottle of sake into my hand. I had it on New Years eve, it was delicious. Thank you mate. After much prevaricating we went to the Peace Memorial Museum for the day. My heart went out to Satoshi. We love museums and are especially slow to make our way through them. For Satoshi, well, there was some interest, but I did catch him having forty winks in a corner at one stage. He smiled sheepishly and agreed that a cup of coffee would most certainly hit the spot.
The museum is excellent, and of course by the time you leave you are depressed, angry and just down right incredulous that there are still morons who are out there manufacturing nuclear bombs and testing them. It beggars belief. Anyone who walks through the museum cannot help but be shocked and deeply saddened by what they see. We all know Japan was not exactly fair, angelic or vaguely concerned about the welfare of POW’s during WWII. However the museum and indeed the Memorial Park as a whole make the event more human, more accessible and more than just an historical abstraction. Were the Japanese more sinned against than sinning? When you consider that no warning was given to evacuate the cities that were then decimated, maybe they were. There is some evidence that Japan had been developing atomic technology themselves though and would they have behaved any differently from the allies? I personally think not. Ironically the order had been given to knock down wooden buildings and to create fire breaks in Hiroshima in case of any allied bombings. 70% of the city and 80 000 people were then wiped out by one bomb, affectionately called “Little Boy” and dropped by an aircraft named after the pilot’s mother. There is some seriously warped thinking going on in all of that. I'll leave out the swear words, but I am sure you get the drift as to what I may be thinking here.

Naturally Hiroshima will always be remembered as the first city to have an atomic bomb dropped on it. It’s place in history is assured by this horrific event. Based on this I expected it to be a really depressing place. If truth be known though I really liked Hiroshima. The Peace Memorial Park and the conservation of the A Bomb Dome (the building above which the atomic bomb was exploded at 8.15am on the 6th August 1945 and whose shell still miraculously stands) is a sombre but immensely peaceful place. Further afield the city itself is modern and feels prosperous. We were told that a couple of days would be more than enough in Hiroshima, but if truth be known I wish we had stayed a whole lot longer. As it is I failed to make to the much touted Miyajima Island, deciding to stay in Hiroshima and explore for our last day there. Nipun did make it though and from her reports I am furious that I missed it. Should have listened to my wife I guess.