Archive for the 'Photography' Category

Day Fifteen – Matsumoto to Tokyo (Narita airport)

February 8, 2007

Up early and out of the Enjyoh Bekkan, thanking our host for a pleasant stay. He makes us think, with his excellent English and old world style, that he must be a lost prince of Japan, or the last of the samurai, living out the days in a sleepy motel in the hills. Breakfast in the station, then down and out of the mountains to Nagano on the Shinano train (9.05am). The Japanese alps seem to have layer upon layer of alternating ranges and plateaus: going down, as with coming up, each time you think you’ve reached the bottom, there turns out to be another descent and then another plateau, about three times over from Matsumoto.

Caught the Tokyo shinkansen (10am) and were thrilled once more by the speed of these trains. You can feel a soft tug of acceleration, and the land outside starts to whip past in a smooth flowing torrent. Once on the shinkansen, the green and pink apple orchards lining the track were replaced by concrete barriers on either side, forming a sort of train canal across Japan. We sailed on, whale song beneath us, through thick mist and clear, hot air at times, into the concrete and rectilinear landscape of Tokyo.

In the underground concourse of Tokyo station we bled our way, like two slow-spinning platelets in the blood stream, through the rushing vectors of rush hour people, and boarded the JR Narita Express (1.33pm), which for some unexplained reason arrives in two halves and connects at Tokyo station (probably something to do with service from each terminal, I expect). McDonald’s lunch at the airport – much higher quality than in the UK, including a prawn burger with actual whole prawns in it, and a chicken burger that was blatantly a single piece of chicken breast, with tasty sauces – and caught the Holiday Inn shuttle bus (3.36pm). Arrived at the hotel, after a detour to the other terminal, checked in, and finally dumped our backpacks in our room at 5.02pm.

We’re turning in relatively early, feeling tired and ready to go home (but in a good way). Need to be up at 6.30am to catch the 7.30am shuttle bus to catch the 10.50am flight to be home in London at 2.55pm the same day.

The end.

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Day Fourteen – Matsumoto (JUM)

February 8, 2007

Took the bus in from Utsukushi-ga-hara Onsen where we are staying and caught a oneway train to Oniwa. From here we walked to the Japanese Ukiyo-e Museum (JUM), a glass and concrete block standing in an open plot in a very flat suburb of Matsumoto. Ukiyo-e are broadly defined as woodblock prints on the subject of ‘the floating world’, which was the name given to the ancient pleasure districts of Japan; portraits of actors and courtesans, scenes of nightlife. There are also a lot of glorious designs of the natural world, the most famous exponents of these being Hokusai (the famous wave picture, or the red Mt. Fuji) and Hiroshige, who made his name from views of Edo (Tokyo), Mt. Fuji, and the pilgrim routes (my favourite picture of his is of pilgrims crossing a bridge in heavy rain). It took us a while, and a bit of faith, sans map, to find the museum, but we were sure it was the right place when we got there, being the only likely candidate for at least a mile around.

Inside, and for the price (most expensive entrance fee we paid in our two weeks), this is a meagre museum – so much less than you might hope for. Based on the literature about the collection, I had rather expected to see a great multitude of ukiyo-e but there were only two rooms of displayed items, and a run of prints around the walls of the lobby/entrance hall, including up to and beside the toilets and under the stairs. It was enough, though, to get us both excited about the colours, designs and subjects, and was certainly not a wasted effort, albeit slightly disappointing. There was also a slide show with a mostly Japanese commentary, and brief English descriptions of the telegraphic and mysterious sort. For example, about two minutes of commentary in Japanese about a portrait was translated, in the rushed, strangled tones of the commentator, as ‘Famous kabuki actor! Hai!’ The hai/yes at the end of each description was the signal for the lady operating the machine to move on to the next slide.

The odd location – decidedly uncentral – and the half-hearted exhibition space, suggest to me that the JUM is some sort of elaborate tax dodge for the Sakai family who own the valuable collection. Perhaps they get tax relief on purchases of new works, or the value of the collection, by going through the motions of making it available to the general public. I don’t know – forgive me for being a bit cynical.

We trailed back along the route between the museum and the train stop (station being too elevated a word for this one). Along the way we popped into a grocer’s shop and bought two of the glorious Matsumoto apples that we had seen hanging from the trees beside the railway line. All the fruit up here seems to be giant sized – the grapes were double or triple the size we’re used to seeing in Britain, and were very fragrant, their scent filling the shop with a heady perfume.

We sat quietly in the little train stop waiting room – a plywood box with bench seats – tackling our giant apples. I felt like a child, unaccustomed to a fruit so big that my hand can’t wrap around it, and my biggest bites look like nibbles. From here, the mountains have gone all blue again, like they were left out in the cold, and this little part of town has a surpassingly sleepy feel to it. In time, the train arrived and we returned to Matsumoto proper.

The train conductors in Japan are remarkably spic-and-span, looking more like pilots or generals than train men, in their military style dress hats and uniform coats, with briefcase and whistle. They enact a small ceremony to change one driver for another, officially transferring the key with measured movements and exact phrases; and then they relax and shift their weight to one foot, and chat about the weather. The shinkansen conductors stand beside the departing train and point to each end of it as it slides away, arm and white-gloved hand outstretched, spinning 180 degrees on the heel, back and forth again, blowing sharp bursts on a whistle. It’s all very formal and serious, and as with much else here, I see that as a good thing.

Back in town, we grabbed a quick lunch of chicken and tofu salad, with a ginger sauce that produced a warm tingle in the mouth. Delicious. The restaurant only had a traditional table available, meaning we had to sit on tatami mats with our legs tucked under us, eating at a low table. Many of the restaurants are divided into a Western-style section, with table and chairs, and a raised platform of Japanese-style seating, on tatami. Generally, the tables are too low to get my long legs under, so it’s all a bit awkward. We also bought a packed supper, deciding to stay in this evening and not brave the unlit streets and smoky local dinner places. I was particularly pleased with the little jars of takeaway sake, with foil lids, a bit like an alcoholic jam jar with a wide milk bottle top.

Our learning about Japanese maple trees has continued. Back in Tokyo, on day two, Shizuka introduced us to the word for the leaves – momiji. We promptly got this wrong, using ‘momochi’ and then ‘momichi’ until the couple from Hiroshima, on the train to Tsuruga, corrected our pronunciation. But it wasn’t until today, at the JUM, that we saw it written as ‘momiji’, and the proverbial penny dropped. Our volunteer guide at Matsumoto castle also told us that doting mothers tell their babies that they have ‘momiji hands’ when their small fingers are splayed out, bright pink and transluscent. It is also the motif on our favourite seasonal bottled tea.

Tonight we are planning and packing for the return trip to Narita airport tomorrow.

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Day Thirteen – Matsumoto castle

February 4, 2007

Slept late – 8.30am! – and travelled into Matsumoto proper on the bus. Had awesome maple cinnamon toast with ice-cream for breakfast (this is what being on holiday means – being free to have ice-cream for breakfast), which is somewhere between cinnamon sugar pancakes and a waffle with maple syrup and ice-cream. I think this dish would work in Britain – but perhaps not for breakfast.

Then to Matsumoto castle, the centrepiece of the town. We collected an English-speaking volunteer guide, who led us around the castle itself, and explained its history, construction and significance. Built as a watch tower, not a residence, in the 15th century, it was saved from demolition in the 19th century by a concerned citizen who gathered enough money together to buy it at auction, and was finally fully restored in the 1950s. It has been so completely restored that in fact much of the original castle material is gone and what is left if essentially a replica of Matsumoto castle (which had been crumbling and listing dangerously back in the 19th century). Something like 70% of the original wood beams remain in the current structure, but most of the walls (plaster etc.) and all of the roof are new.

On the outside, the castle is surrounded by a moat, consists of contrasting layers of black and white castleness, and sports wily fish totems on the tops of its towers, to protect against fire. The moat, likewise, brings the good anti-fire quality of water into the general vicinity. Fire, in 15th century Japan, was the great leveller, as almost all buildings were wooden. The defensive features of the castle, as well as its decoration, are designed to protect against fire, and not to use it within. So there are openings around the base of the castle to drop stones from but the defenders would never have done anything so rash as to heat oil for pouring on enemies due to the risk of sending themselves up in smoke instead.

I have a created a set of black and white photographs of Matsumoto castle, that I am quite pleased with, on Flickr.

Other crafty defence features are: sliding slatted windows for closing whilst you reload your projectile weapon of choice; a hidden floor (6 inside, but looks like 5 from outside), mostly for storage, but also for ambushing enemies that have made it inside; steep staircases dotted around in a different position on each floor, so no enemy could storm up to the top of the castle too quickly; a private place on the top floor but one, where the commander could take a moment to kill himself with honour, if the battle was lost; a very top floor with panoramic views in all four cardinal directions, so that commanders could easily survey the threats and the course of the battle. This was all in evidence in the main keep, which was also the original tower.

A later peace-time annex had been added, and showed its expectation of continued peace in its design and construction. The walls were about a third as thick as the main keep, for example, the wood was polished and carved, and the windows were ornate and fragile, instead of small, slatted and brutal. There is also, in the annex, a highly civilised and pleasant moon viewing platform. This room opens on all sides, to admit the night air and the starscape, and faces the alps, above which the moon would rise. The trick was to see the moon three times over – in the sky, reflected in the moat, and sitting neatly on the surface of your sake in your correctly angled sake cup.

We said goodbye to our lovely guide, who’d really added to our castle experience, and spent some time lazing about in the park around the castle, where people were sitting enjoying the sunshine (like us). There were also, as in Ueno park in Tokyo, a number of artists dotted around the park, many of them school children who’d obviously been set the task of drawing the castle. A photographer on the picture-skew red bridge across the moat was doing brisk business in tourist portraits with the castle as backdrop. Later we headed into the town, where we shopped a bit, had ‘brown’ lunch called curry raisu (curry rice),which is obviously the inspiration for the very popular chicken katsu curry dish that every second Wagamama’s customer chooses. Then back to the bekkan for reading, soaking in a hot spring bath, watching the sunset over a shared can of Kirin beer from one of the ubiquitous vending machines, snoozing etc., then out to another local place recommended by our urbane hotelier. This was a sushi joint where we managed to eat no sushi. Same deal as the night before: sliding door opens to reveal a couple of old men smoking and watching the terebi (TV); all stare at us as we sit and order in very halting Japanese. The awkwardness passed quickly though, and we got on with the business of sipping our sake and sucking edamame (soya beans) out of their pods – the edamame were, again, the freshest and tastiest we’ve had.

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Day Twelve – Kanazawa to Matsumoto

February 1, 2007

Early start for Matsumoto. Trains as follows: Kanazawa to Naotse, then wait for Nagano train (much comical stepping off the train gingerly and then rushing to the vending machine to buy a drink, ready to leap back on the train at any moment; got the drinks, leapt back on the train relieved… and waited 45 minutes for it to leave), then caught a limited express train (with sexy orange stripes on the side) to Matsumoto.

The first leg of the journey, to Naotse, was along the northern coastline. The Japanese alps sat, multi-layered and blue, on our right hand side, keeping pace with us; the sea of Japan, calm as a pond, was on our left. At times the train hugged the shore and the water seemed close enough to dip your fingers in. Sometimes the rails went right out over the water.

The second leg of the journey turned us towards the mountains, taking us inland; the third leg took us up and up and up again, into the northern alps, the track tilting over steep gradient as we climbed and turned, the train leaning out towards orchards of apple trees, heavy with the soft pink globes of Matsumoto apples – thousands of them, so plump and ripe and healthy looking that they made our mouths water. We rushed through tunnels, and over plateaus, always towards another climb, until three times over we’d climbed up into the mountains.

MLW has been cold-ridden and sneezy, and has had to blow her nose surreptitiously, as if digging in her bag or something similar, as it is a cultural faux pas in Japan to blow your nose in public. People prefer to sniff and snuck and cough, which can be a bit nauseating, but I suppose it’s no more distressing to us, really, than it is to them when someone marches across the tatami in shoes. She’s been drinking a sort of isotonic bottled drink, supposedly for the cold, but really for the weirdness factor of drinking something called Pocari Sweat (that even looks like sweat in a bottle – yuk).

Arriving at Matsumoto train station, we were treated to the famous singing station announcements: Matsu-mohh-tohhhhhh! (the end note rising strongly). We then set about finding the bus to take us to our ryokan, outside the city.

We had booked a place at a bekkan – a ryokan with onsen (natural hot springs) – on the outskirts of Matsumoto. Enjyoh Bekkan, near Utsukushi-ga-hara Onsen, is the Japanese equivalent of the Umtali Motel in Aliwal North, in South Africa (for those of you that have been there): all avocado bathroom fittings, turquoise toilets, and fake wood moulded chairs with brown upholstery. But, clean and quiet and the public bath/onsen is nice and steamy with a view of the garden. We’d hoped for an outdoor onsen experience, but have hit things slightly off-season, and most of the bekkans are being renovated ahead of the skiing season. Nevermind – gives us one more reason to return to Japan.

Today, spent mostly on trains, has been about people watching. Some small dialogues, asking for directions, but until this evening’s dinner place, no real chatting. Tried a local place recommended by our urbane but smoky hotelier – very tasty food in a very non-tourist atmosphere, so that it took us a while to feel comfortable (the blaring TV didn’t help). We weathered the stares from the locals, and smiled at each other through the smoke from their cigarettes, seemingly pumped into the air as if from a bellows. Edamame, yakitori, prawn donburi – all were delicious. Donburi is a Kaga regional dish of rice in a bowl, over which an omelette mix with sake stewed onions and other bits is poured; a lid is then put on the bowl and the heat from the rice cooks the egg. Hot sake for me, cold for MLW, tasting of bananas at the front, and nuts and camphor at the back of my mouth.

The waiter was patient and friendly but quiet and no-one else talked to us until we got up to leave and pay the bill, at which point the proprietress emerged from the kitchen and engaged us in our most verbose Japanese yet. She had seemed quite dour until she started talking to us but, I think, once her formal role of cooking for us had been completed, she felt free to be friendly and jokey and engaging.

We crept back to the bekkan in the dark – no torch and little street lighting – and slid onto our separate futons (we didn’t encounter a double futon anywhere we stayed) and fell fast asleep. Tomorrow, we go to see Matsumoto Castle.

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the masters’ house

January 12, 2007



famous writers

Originally uploaded by ricoeurian.

Henry James and TS Eliot both lived in this mansion block – Carlyle Mansions – on Cheyne Walk, London. James lived at #21 and spent his last years there.

Later, TS Eliot lived in the same block, in the flat below James’s (#19).

Day Eleven – Kanazawa

January 8, 2007

A busy morning in Kanazawa visiting: the famous Japanese garden, Kenroku-en; an emperor’s mother’s retirement villa in the garden, Seison-kaku; the Ishikawa Prefectural Museum for Traditional Products and Crafts; the samurai district and the Nomura family samurai house.

The villa and samurai house were very similar, each possessing gorgeously decorated rooms, each set in a traditional Japanese garden, and each surrounded by a nightingale floor for security. The shoji (sliding doors) in the samurai house were painted gold, with flower and bird designs, and reminded me of the Leaping Tiger rooms at Nanzen-ji, in Kyoto. In the Nomura family samurai house, there was a sense of peace and compactness, befitting a warrior intellectual, with neat built in shelves and easy access to the watery sounds and verdure of the garden, with its pond full of glittering koi carp. In Seison-kaku, built in 1863, there was a sense of space and grandeur befitting an empress, and has clever touches such as decorated panels at floor level (easily noticed if you kneel on the tatami mats and bow to the empress) and a hidden room beside the audience chamber out of which her guards could leap to her defence, were she attacked. The house is built of rich camphor wood, and kimono are displayed in the rooms, their startling colours and intricate embroidery never failing to draw your eye. Whilst outside filming MLW walking on the nightingale floor (to impress my niece who is potty about Lian Hearn’ Otori books), we fell into conversation with a venerable old gent who had been an English teacher at the local college for most of his working life, and had travelled to England on a number of occasions. We discussed the beauty of the garden, and he told us that there is a very beautiful Japanese garden in Chester.

Here is the video of MLW walking across the nightingale floor, proving that such a floor is, indeed, a bit of a squeaky challenge.

Kenroku-en is regarded, within Japan, as the third best garden in the country. It has an area of 114,435.65 square metres, 183 species of plants, and 8,750 trees. Akin to the follies of an English garden, there are decorative bridges, stone lanterns, and artfully placed rocks mixed in amongst the earth, water and trees. The gardeners are in evidence all around you, stirring up ponds, tipping cups of water onto moss beds, and up on ladders, clipping pine needles – one by one – from the branches of trees. This constant attention, performed to a plan unknown to me, seems almost daft, especially with regard to the trees, which are pruned beyond their capacity to hold themselves upright, so that branches and whole trees must be braced and supported to keep them from breaking and falling. In winter, the gardeners famously suspend the branches of each tree within a cone of ropes, drawing them up toward the top of the tree, and protecting the branches from the weight of snow that settles on them. The garden was between seasons – no blossom left, and no red leaves yet.

In the museum of prefectural arts and crafts (taken at a near run) we saw contemporary examples of the ancient arts of the region, including Wajima lacquerware, Ohi pottery, Kaga embroidery and a neat line in Buddhist altars. I admire and respect the thriving arts and crafts tradition and industry that is evidently alive and well in Japan. I think it shows a valuable continuation of and appreciation for your own cultural effort. And like the insistence on eating only Japanese rice in Japan, it must feed the economy on multiple levels. Some of the products – kimono, gold leaf, pottery – command extraordinary prices (£10K for a large decorative plat, or £15K for a kimono and obi or belt) and I think this is also good, as it shows that these arts and their products are prized within Japan. Before we left for Japan, a dear friend advised us to take something small with us that we could give to people we met, as a sign of esteem and to grease the wheels a bit. Then our friend took back her advice, saying ‘Of course, you can’t find anything that is marked ‘Made in England’ anymore’. The gift would not mean much if it was not from our home.

Back to Murataya ryokan for an afternoon ziz (this is a holiday, after all). MLW has developed a cold – she is sneezing and clearly feels a bit rotten. Hopefully it’ll mostly be over by the end of tomorrow, which will mostly be spent on trains to Matsumoto (it’s a 6 hour journey). We passed through the samurai district on the way home from the garden: unlike the geisha district, where the houses are wooden and the doors easily opened, the streets here were narrow and lined with walls and heavy gates. It makes sense – the geisha house is meant to be inviting, and a place of entertainment; the samurai house is a retreat to be defended. The walls were topped with ceramic roof tiles, and beside them fast flowing streams rushed along stone channels, dug to heighten the wall without eclipsing the roof of the house.

Patronised a Japanese Italian restaurant at dinner time. This place opened onto a central ‘piazza’ ringed by Italian restaurants that obviously pings all the Japanese ideas of an Italian setting. Not on as grand a scale as Montecasino in Johannesburg, but a similar idea. Our dinner was an interesting and not entirely successful fusion of the two cuisines. Starter was a salad of lettuce and seaweed with squid, scallop and tuna sashimi on top. Main was separate elements of the course arranged on wide, horizontal dish, with a pile of spaghetti arrabiata on the left, a prawn and salmon fillet covered in melted cheese (not a happy marriage), and vegetables on the right, in a square dish atop the main plate, served as pickles in a Japanese meal are usually served. Dessert was a yoghurt cup with a blob of ice-cream and layers of jam and cornflakes – nice but odd. We encountered cornflakes a few times in Japan, but never served for breakfast.

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Day Ten – Fukui to Kanazawa

December 29, 2006

Collected our clean clothes from the hotel’s laundry service and headed to the station. Took the 44 minute express train to Kanazawa.

Kanazawa has a good vibe and was bright and sunny today. We went on a bit of a shopping spree, especially for lacquer ware bowls and chopsticks. There’s so much lovely stuff on offer – especially in Kanazawa, which is a bit of an arts and crafts centre of Japan – that it’s difficult to know what to buy and take home, but this decision is mostly made for us by our hand luggage capacity and the high security restrictions on hand luggage items at the moment. Having been mad about pottery and ceramics, today I find myself appreciating the simple but arduous beauty of lacquer ware (and the lightness of it!). A lacquered bowl starts as a block of wood that is carved into a lovely bowl shape and then sanded smooth. A coat of lacquer is then applied, allowed to dry and sanded again. This process is repeated many times, often more than ten, until the final coat and decorations are applied, and the lacquer left to dry in a dust free environment.

We also went to the Higashi geisha district, which is one of the best preserved, authentic geisha districts in Japan. Kanazawa in general is one of the best preserved bits of Japan, as it escaped being flattened by Allied bombing during WW2 because it had no military targets.

Visited the famous shop of the Sakuda Gold Leaf Company and got the telegraphic Japanese/English explanation of how gold leaf is made. Basically, by pounding and cutting and re-pounding and re-cutting ad nauseum, a piece of gold the size of a 10 yen coin is turned into a tatami mat sized sheet of gold leaf cut into neat 10.9cm square squares. The gold leaf is so thin that it dissolves when held between your fingers and can be eaten (or drunk in tea). The professionals handle it with very fine chopsticks and flatten it by breathing softly across it, the gold leaf rippling like cloth or water. We watched, hypnotised, as a woman worked with the rough squares, neatening them up, and transferring them to a finished stack. She had a box of scraps beside her that were in constant movement, tossed about by the tiniest air movements within the box.

On the way to the Sakuda shop we popped into an older style tea shop, where large quantities of tea leaves and mixes are stored in jars, flasks and boxes, stacked on shelves. The old chap serving us dug in each box with a metal pan with a shallow funnel at the business end, and poured the tea onto a scale. The weighed tea was transferred to a bag and then vacuum sealed for freshness. We bought 200g of hojicha (roasted green tea) and 100g of a roasted rice and green tea mix.

The next sight to see was a genuine ochaya (tea house) where geisha lived and worked, entertaining wealthy male clients. Most of the upper floor was divided into three entertainment areas, each with a main guest room and a ‘behind the wings’ waiting room beside it. The house was arranged around a central garden, with balconies running along the inner walls upstairs. Downstairs were the hearth, shrine, kitchen (with lots of fascinating kitchen stuff in it), the well, bathroom, dressing room and a place for the women to sleep downstairs. Outwardly many of the houses in the Higashi district evoke old-world Japan; inside, though, most have been restored or modernised. This ochaya, Shima, is in a mostly historical, unrestored state and was fascinating to wander through. In its heyday, the doors and beams would have been lacquered – smooth and glossy – and the tatami mats would have been replaced every three months to keep them fresh and dry. That would have been about 180 years ago.

Murataya ryokan is clean and friendly, with lots of English spoken and a hand-drawn map of the area and major sights on offer. Some muzak outside our window at the moment but hopefully that will wind down in due course. The Japanese seem to enjoy more muzak than is good for you, in my opinion, especially in the shopping centres. We get quite exhausted sometimes by the vaguely familiar tunes rendered as if played on a child’s toy keyboard – your brain eventually realises that the sweet notes, with their synthesised resonance, add up to a Sinatra or a U2 song, but it takes a while.

Today North Korea claimed to have detonated an atomic device under their sacred mountain. I had not previously realised, geographically speaking, that Japan and Korea were so nearby. Kanazawa is about as close, within Japan, as you can get to Korea, without swimming out to sea a bit.

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Day Nine – Eihei-ji

December 28, 2006

I slept well last night, my head on a half feather, half bean pillow. Up at 7.30am and down to a “Viking” breakfast (as a Western smorgasbord/buffet breakfast is referred to in Japan).

To the station to find out about transport to Eihei-ji temple and discovered that we had a 90 minute wait until the next bus. Bought a paper and read it over tea served in the English manner, on fancy floral china, with a handle-bearing cup and saucer. Bought our tickets from a demonstrative man in a little booth and stood amongst the other tourists and some faithful, milling about at the bus stop for Eihei-ji.

30 minutes on the bus to Eihei-ji. Awesome bus – it had all the seventies glamour you could hope for, including a square, plastic chandelier light embedded in the ceiling near the back. Eihei-ji is an impressive temple complex sitting in the hills above a little village seemingly entirely devoted to selling religious tat and nasty street food. Surprisingly the momiji (Japanese maple) leaves here were still a vibrant green, with only a very few showing a light pink tinge. We were surprised, as the leaves in Kyoto, behind us now, were closer to turning that in Fukui-ken, which is only a little bit more northerly. The avenue leading to the temple gate was lined with large, swishing momiji, their little spiky leaves rustling and jittering in the breeze, so many of them that they looked like waters rippling above you, the sun glittering through and in between them, like light dancing on waves [ 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 ].

The temple is one of the biggest Buddhist temples in the world and a leader in its school of Buddhism, and has occupied the site much longer than any of its particular buildings have been standing. It’s a working temple, with young shaven-headed monks in long black robes with pointed shoulders (looking much like young Vulcans with D&G specs on) running to and fro. A visit to the temple is structured as an educational tour and begins with a lecture in Japanese that we were expected (and happy) to sit through before moving on to view the temple buildings and artefacts.

You can visit the temple for a number of days, on a sort of religious working holiday, but we chose not to put our irons in the fire – the list of chores, beginning at 3am or something, and the prospect of lots of sitting up put me off, especially.

We trotted about from one building to the next, enjoying again the weird sensation of being out and about in our socks, our shoes safe in a plastic carrier bag. Being almost the only Westerners amongst the crowd we drew a few stares and a couple of muffled or surprised soundings of ‘gaijin!’, especially from the children. Some friendly questions from an old man who spoke English lead to an introduction to his one year old granddaughter. I noticed that where I did the equivalent of ‘koochi-koochi-koo’ to introduce myself, the young lady was encouraged to bow and say ‘konnichiwa’ (whilst perched on her grandfather’s hip), aided by a firm hand on the back of her head pushing it down and forward. And at that point we realised, as the one year old was made to bow in greeting, how deeply the culture of politeness runs, and how the bow is a gesture of life-long training.

Highlights of the temple include the old hall at the centre of it, the main gate, with its super-clean shiny floor, and the monks’ bathhouse, at the top of a dramatic flight of steps, where they bath every full moon, or thereabouts.

Back to Fukui, having run the gauntlet of tat shops at the foot of the temple. 30 mins of snorting, coughing, smoke-breathing yukky man on the bus, and then back to the hotel for tea and TV and a bit of lounging about. Fukui doesn’t have a lot going for it, and we felt the stirrings of black van and hooded lads dodginess during the evening foray out into the town for dinner – a local speciality of soba (buckwheat noodles) with prawn tempura and with donburi, the soba served cold with its own dipping sauce.

MLW had a wonderful cultural exchange and some ‘skinship’ in the ladies bath as she got chatting to some middle-aged women who ended up scrubbing her back and encouraging her to wash her face with some black seaweed soap (to which she must have been mildly allergic, as her face was very red for a few hours afterwards). They compared notes on Britain (the lack of hot springs and outdoor bathing shocked these ladies, and the sushi must not be as good because Japanese rice doesn’t taste the same as other rice) and Japan. I had chickened out of another cultural confrontation in the mens’ bath and instead took a very hot, long soaking bath in a very short, deep tub in our private en suite bathroom.

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Day Eight – Kyoto to Fukui

December 13, 2006

Both slept deeply last night. Toast and coffee with cremora for breakfast. Checked out of Hiraiwa ryokan and was sad to go as it had been a good experience staying there. We needed to kill some time before catching the train to Fukui but we were all templed-out in Kyoto. So we bunged our rucksacks in station lockers and went shopping in the massive station building. Found okonomoyaki for lunch, which had been there all the time I’d been hunting for it everywhere else. We enjoyed watching the cooks create the big pancake omelettes and flip them up and over, doing various things to them, depending on what people had ordered.

On the terraced steps of the station interior there was a concert happening – the final round of a national schools talent contest was in full swing. So we settled down on the granite steps, huddled under our transparent umbrellas, and watched the show. We were impressed by the energetic and imaginative acts, ranging from cheerleading, to a sort of tumbling about gymnastic dancing with attitude, to an odd synthesis of ancient and modern instruments, and a magic act. Finally, getting a bit cold and wet, we decided it was time to head for the trains.

Our bright and cheery enquiries at the JR info centre about trains to Fukui were met with a worried intake of breath and the frowning face of a very helpful JR info person. She explained that Fukui is not a popular destination on a Sunday and that only the very tedious local trains were running (this woman had clearly never taken trains in Britain). She helpfully wrote down the details of our route for us, which today would take over three hours and three trains, when normally one train would do the job in under an hour. We were unconcerned, as half the idea of taking trains around Japan was to see the passing countryside.

What we found was that each station we arrived at and each train we subsequently caught got progressively less modern and less tourist ready (I won’t say less tourist friendly, because they were all very accessible in that sense). So train number one was a new-ish one from Kyoto to Nagahama, after which things all got a bit provincial. At Nagahama we had our longest wait for a train in Japan (about 15 minutes) until a fabulous, top heavy machine arrived, coloured cream with blue stripes, that looked like it was from at least as far back as 1960. The shape of if, seen from the front, made me think of a loaf of bread that has risen over the top of the tin, or a Moriarty figure, his frontal lobes massively over-developed.

Train number two was from Nagahama to Tsuruga, upon which I read the Japan Times from first page to last, and watched the mountainous, pine-clad landscape close in on us, and the darkness, in turn, close in on it. There were some great long tunnels that we passed through, all rushing noise and underground light and close walls. Some stops were not on the main line, and the train entered these stations frontwards, and then reversed out of them again, back to the main line. As the stops racked up and we began to suspect Tsuruga was around a corner or two, we struck up a dialogue with a middle-aged couple across the aisle, who were from Hiroshima, we learned, and travelling to Tsuruga as well, to visit family. So we detrained when they did.

Train number three – as old or older than number two – got us to Fukui, looking out of place and anachronistic arriving at its bright lit and shiny white station. We bought bento boxes in the station and found the Riverge Akebono hotel, where none of the staff spoke English. This was the sternest test of our Japanese so far, as we had to request a different room to the one we’d been assigned. An arduous few minutes of communication resulted in a 30% discount and a new room, so I must have said something right!

We enjoyed our bento boxes (except the ‘meat’ bit) in our room, then headed to the rooftop baths – Japanese style – that the hotel is famous for (at least within Fukui). The baths were impressive, with a bamboo and cane chair style dressing room, and lots of black marble, mosaic tiles and shiny chrome taps in the bath. The windows were from floor to ceiling, wrapping up over your head for about a quarter of the depth of the roof, and the full moon was shining brightly. Boys and girls had separate rooms but we could hear the girls over the dividing wall. A segment of the crescent bath swept along the curve of the wall, a think curtain of hot water pouring continuously in. I followed protocol and first rinsed my body before stepping into the hot water of the soaking tub. I had done exactly what a man who entered the bath at the same time as me had done, but remarkably the three men already in the pool promptly stepped out when I stepped in. MLW did not experience this – on this night, the other women in the bath largely ignored her, and she enjoyed a private soaking and cleaning time. I, on the other hand, felt distinctly self-conscious now. I soaked for a bit, and then got out and sat down on one of the little wooden stools provided, and set about washing myself quite thoroughly. The men trickled back into the soaking pool, and then finished up one by one, so that by the time I was back in the bath they were mostly leaving and when I was ready to get out they were all gone and I had the place to myself. I think they relaxed a bit after the initial shock of my arrival, but I am also sure that they didn’t really want me there.

This shared bath is a lovely ritual and this was a particularly smart facility that reminded me of the swimming pool changing room at the Johannesburg Country Club in Auckland Park. It had the same smell of talcum powder and hair oil, the ranks of lockers and benches, with white towels hanging from their edges, and a clothes brush on each bench; the sound of water splashing and men mumbling to each other, one or two whistling or humming, and the air all hot and humid and clean. I would have loved to be able to share that experience with my family members or close friends – a good place for healthy male bonding. On the train earlier, I was reading an article about changing attitudes in Japan to parents bathing with their children, and I was reminded of it by the father and son (about 5 years old) who were entering the baths as I was leaving. The article was describing a loss of innocence, as public ‘skinship’ becomes darkened by the spectre of paedophilia, and this is unsettling people and making them think twice about taking their children to public baths. (Here is a link to the article on the Japan Times online – but you need to register to access it.)

We’ve been noticing how cute and beautiful Japanese babies are – smooth almond skin and shiny jet black hair. And they have bright and clear voices, piping up in curious tones, more often than not. The children are generally respectful and happy, and we’ve been struck by the lack of histrionics from them. They seem more contented and composed than the tense little mini-adults we breed in Britain.

To Eihei-ji temple tomorrow – the proximity to this complex is the reason for stopping in Fukui. I expect it to be much like Nanzen-ji in Kyoto, but on a bigger scale. Nanzen-ji has stayed in my mind since we were there. What seemed just simple and nice when we were there seems radiant and peaceful now that we are not. Lights out.

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Day Seven – Kyoto (Nanzen-ji)

November 29, 2006

Started the day with black tea and toast (lovely thick slices) as a break from the Japanese style breakfast of rice, seaweed and pickles. The Japanese breakfast was lovely, but a return to the familiar comforts of tea and toast was marvellous.

We took the #5 bus north and east to Nanzen-ji, the temple famous for the leaping tiger shoji (sliding screens) and the Leaping Tiger Garden, a stone garden. The garden was named for the large orange- and black-brindled rocks that it was created around, which resemble (with a bit of imagination) tigers leaping across a stream. The leaping tiger shoji are all gorgeous – warm gold background, with a different scene in each room of tigers and leopards up to tricks – drinking, playing, hunting, sleeping, etc. In other words, tigers enjoying the good life.

Nanzen-ji was a little harder to find than the central Kyoto sights (although not much harder) but it was well worth the extra effort. The temple precinct was alive with people and the rows of momiji trees, the top edges of their leaves just starting to show pink, were swishing in the breeze. For once, we arrived at the main gate – the San-mon – and approached the main hall along the central avenue, as you’re meant to. Inside the main building, our shoes religiously abandoned at the door, all was peace and quiet. We both enjoyed padding around old buildings in our socks – somehow, it adds a homely dimension to all the touristy gawping, and makes you feel more comfortable in an unfamiliar place.

We had a look at all the leaping tiger screens (sadly not allowed to photograph them) – the overall effect, with the golden screens and the golden tatami mats, was of profound warmth and simple ostentation (if that’s not too oxymoronic). We also padded around the building, enjoying the feeling of being inside and outside, as the structure passed over the garden, or walls dissolved around corners and you walked towards a vision of green or gold. And then we settled down for some serious garden watching.

Regarding a stone garden was a new experience for both of us. As with the fortune telling ritual that Shizuka and Issy performed at Senso-ji in Tokyo, I found it took me a while to put my mind in the right gear for the task. Because, at first, you’re looking at some rocks, some shaped shrubs, and some scrubby grass. Looking for leaping tigers. And not seeing them.

So I turned to the information leaflet for some instruction and it told me to look at the garden in the context of its setting, to regard the wall and the floor and the buildings behind it, and the trees and hills behind them, as an extension of the garden. So I tried that. I can’t say when or how it all changed in my mind’s eye, but it did. I felt some movement in the rocks, saw something liquid in the grass, and discerned repeating patterns and unrepeating distortions in the angles of the trees and the rooves. The sky and the people around became one and… just kidding.

A fascinating experience and a new instruction in beauty, both from the garden and the temple as a whole. Highly recommended. Here is a set of photos that I took there at Nanzen-ji, with which I am rather pleased.

Found lunch of udon, soup and vegetable tempura in a pukka Japanese lunch place. The chef saved us by knowing the words of ‘noodles’, ‘tempura’ and ‘vegetable’ when he saw our puzzled perusal of the Kanji menu. We said ‘yes please’ to all three. He had a cavalier attitude towards his cooking, flinging battered stuff into one of two vats of hot oil, and fishing ropes of udon noodles out of a basin with his bare hands. Most tasty meal, although udon in soup are a challenge, being thick and heavy and very slippery, and tempura goes soggy sitting in the soup.

On to the Heian Jingu shrine that appeared in the film ‘Lost in Translation’ (Scarlet Johanssen walks diagonally across the main courtyard) [ 1 | 2 ]. Not the same effect as in the film, where it was symbolic of the mystical and religious aspect of Japanese culture, primarily because of some temporary building works in the middle of the gravel courtyard. The shrine was interesting nonetheless, and resplendent in that vigorous orange that we were encountering quite frequently now.

#5 and #17 buses home, after a brief diversion into Takashimaya to hunt yukatta, only to find the choice limited as this is a summer clothing item and it was autumn. Back to Hiraiwa ryokan and some sleepy lazing about watching a judo competition on the telly.

Overcast outside, so the plan to attend the moon viewing festival in Kyoto outskirts dissolved and we headed to Gion for dinner instead. We felt a little as though we’d wimped out, but the posters advertising the event had been unequivocal about the strategy to cancel the event if the moon was unlikely to be viewable due to cloud cover.

Followed the guide book recommendation for a tempura restaurant in Gion, only to find the place full of other tourists. We should have figured that would be the case before hand, and vowed never to seek out a place listed in the book again. We also paid a premium for sitting on tatami mats and watching the tempura being cooked right in front of us (lots of frying). The actual food, whilst very nice, was not as fresh and tasty as the much cheaper lunch that we’d muddled our way through. Chatted to a friendly and engaging couple from San Francisco, who were sitting beside us at the food bar. They had been on the geisha spotting tour led by the Canadian man that we’d not been able to contact to arrange a place on the tour with. They confirmed that he was very difficult to contact and they’d only caught him on the phone by calling every day that they were in Japan. No great loss. They described the kind of activity neither of us is very keen on: that is, hanging around outside known geisha haunts waiting for one to emerge, then frantically photographing her and pushing against others to see her as she rushed (no doubt with very dainty steps) from the door and into a waiting car, then stared fixedly ahead as the car sped off. Great fun.

Back at the ryokan and ready for bed in our all too middle-aged fashion. There is a small horde of Austrialian schoolgirls here now, and a couple of demure boys who looked distinctly outnumbered and were wisely keeping there heads down. The noise hasn’t died down yet (shrieking, giggling, stamping, shouting), although a lovely teacher lady in a too short green, floral satin dressing gown has assured us they’ll settle down soon.

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