Monthly Archives: November 2005

Japan part four

Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima and Miyajima

I’ve had a nice mixture of sight seeing and aimless wanderings over the past few days. After the temples and gardens of East Kyoto on Friday, I spent most of Saturday in the downtown part of Kyoto which is a strange mixture of the old, imperial era buildings of the shoguns and emporers scattered amongst the covered shopping arcades that I have discovered dominate all the cities I have now visited.

These arcades sell endless amounts of tat and clothing which is familiar to any visitor of Camden Market. Indeed, one of the stores called itself Camden Kyoto which goes to show you how much of a brand name Camden has achieved f or itself, not something to which I am sure it can be that proud. Having said that I did find a toy shop which specialised in Japanese cartoon and scifi toys which I must have spent a good hour in, partially out of shock at the graphic nature of the semi-elicit dolls of girls from manga comics in various poses which certainly seemed to require an Eastern knowledge of yoga. I think the shop owners were worried I was becoming a permanent exhibit as I diligently looked at each one in attempt to work out which ones to buy as souvenirs for friends back home. Never has my gift buying been conducted with such attention to detail.

Of more interest are the myriad of tiny alleyways interconnecting the major thorough fares. These contain an endless array of tiny restaurants, noodle bars and tea houses. It’s not something I really picked up on in Tokyo but you are never more than 1 minute away from an eating establishment here. Whilst Kyoto seems to have a bit more of a cafe culture than too-busy-for-coffee Tokyo, evidenced in Kyoto by the number of establishments calling themselves “Coffee and Lunch”, or “Coffee and Food”, a literal naming convention which is rather endearing, everywhere always seems to be full of people eating something. From the platforms of the train stations where people gulp down a bowl of ramen whilst standing up in a matter of minutes, to the slow pace of multiple small dishes than the white shirted/black tied business men seem to eat in their little tatami boothed restaurant, this, I guess is the pub culture of Japan.

The shoguns palace, Nijo-Jo, in the center of Kyoto, is, like everything here, set in a lovely garden with an imposing moat around it. The interior of the palace consisted of endless tatami bordered rooms which really looked all the same after a while and hint at the extreme publicness which private living must have been conducted in, with every sound audible throughout the palace. As such, the floor boards in the corridors around each room are deliberately engineered to squeak when you walk on them, to allow people in nearby rooms to hear you coming. Compared to the decadent, magnifience of imperial European palaces, these guys definitely got the short end of the stick when it came to ornate surroundings although the gardens do make up for it.

Finally, the discovery that Japanese people do generally speak a bit of English. The trick is to ask them something in Japanese, to which they will reply initially in Japanese, but punctuated with English nouns and adjectives. If you speak to them in English, they seem to get very flustered and embarassed to the point of having to break off eye contact amid a sea of giggles and embarassed looks which precludes any conversation. This all discovered in an arcade with a fellow who taught me how to play multiplayer Counterstrike. Nothing like forcing him to explain that I should use short burst machine gun fire to avoid recoil in broken English to break down the language barrier.

Enjoying the pre-packaged uniformity of the Sheraton after the ryokan in Tokyo, though I wish all the maids would stop standing still and bowing whenever you pass them in the halls. I am worried I may get used to it and insist on something similar at work…

Kyoto’s is about 20 minute from Osaka, Japan’s 3rd largest city, and sprawl adequately describes the endless buildings and roads which connect these two cities together. As with the iminent 3 city unification in NW Holland, or the achieved anschluss between Tokyo and Yokohama (the latter nominally being Japan’s 2nd largest city), I can imagine a time when these two places are one.

My guidebook had eulogised about the city’s aquarium so being thankful that I had shaved and so looked less suspicious amongst the ranks of families with small kids, I joined the crowds in the 7 floor building. It is impressive; there are a number of different tanks, most of which actually cover all 7 floors of the buildings, each representing a different climactic region of the world: tropical, Antartic, the barrier reef and so on. This means you get to see
penguins, dolphins, whale sharks, sea lions, and manta rays, actually swimming from the top to the bottom of the tanks in a very unencumbered way. Not quite like deep sea diving I guess but it was a good second. For the locals, the entire thing must have been the most dynamic menu they have ever seen given that they eat most of the things contained inside the tanks.

The large castle in the center of Osaka, Osaka-Jo, is one of the grander sites I have seen thus far, looking like the more traditional imposing image of a Japanese castle you see in films. The grounds hugging the embankment of the moat were host to a homeless village of some sort with tents erected from blue tarpaulin in some ambitious ways, once more hinting at the industrious attitude even the homeless seem to have here. They also seem to pick some choice spots. Having no fixed address in the grounds of an imperial castle is the way to go. A few blocks over from the castle, near Namba station, which I kept reading as Nambla (the more innocent of you can Google search the term), Osaka consisted of more covered arcades draped from bottom to top in neon, and interconnecting alleyways, once more jammed with red lanterned restaurants. The atmosphere seemed a bit more relaxed here than either Tokyo or Kyoto, with kids hanging out along the canals, which cut through the city center, listening to the music, chatting and -shock horror- making out. It is also noticable how many Koreans there are here, both from the few people who kept coming up to me to ask where I was from, a sympton of being a rather obvious site when standing in the middle of a busy road with a 7 ft camera tripod, and the slightly different facial features I saw on the metro. I know I can tell a Japanese facial type but despite trying to classify it in some way, I still can’t work out what the defining features are. This is frustrating me.

There were a number of European faces on the Shinkansen to Hiroshima this morning. I was impressed to see that a large group of South Americans in my carriage, whom I assumed would sit and talk in the loud Latin way so alien to us platonic Anglo-Saxons, had been beaten into submission by the studious quiet which infects public transport here. All they needed was large mobile phones to sit and tap endlessly into to have fully faded into the background along with all the other indiginous commuters.

I suspect the Indians would have embraced the Japanese and helped them get through Thailand and Burma in World War II, had they know the efficiency with which the Japanese run their train systems. Whilst the British saddled India with a geriatric, arthiric system, a genetic cousin of the nonsense British commuters rely on, the Japanese would have blessed them with a system where you don’t worry about missing a connecting train because it is a matter of honour
from the train driver to the points operator, that everything runs on time. Should Network Rail workers in the UK be forced to cut off their little fingers whenever there is a fault on the line, things would improve pretty damn quickly, make no mistake.

Despite my mixed experience of the ryokan in Tokyo, I hadn’t changed my plans to stay in one here in Hiroshima, which thankfully was a good move. Liking going to a pub and not ordering a pint, staying in a ryokan without taking the full service is rather pointless. My mistake was in assuming it is run like a B&B in the UK, which it isn’t. The point is to order the full on in-house service.

This time I am staying a proper Japanese style tatami room. The main living area functions as a lounge during the day, the TV in the corner the only incongruity in an otherwise starkly minimalistic room. You get a low wooden table in the middle of the room, which has comfortabler-than-they-look cushions cum chairs around it which allow you to drink tea in a regal, Roman style. The modern bathroom in the adjacent room features one of the simplest, most practical things I’ve seen so far in Japan: a toilet which features a spout above the cistern under which you can wash your hands in the water which goes to fill the cistern after a flush. Clever, economical and simple.

After a quick wonder around town, I was served dinner in my room. This is where you get to understand how the geisha system must haved worked: a kimono clad lady comes into your room and serves about 10 small dishes in front of you, sets up a bowl under a flame to heat some soup and prepares the tea, before leaving you to eat. Alas no shimasen music or Noh recitals, though having specifically procured me a large yukata (male kimono) to wear, I do my best to look respectable: a Jewish shmo-gun rather than a Japanese shogun.

I was expecting a small meal but this really was a feast. As with all Japanese food, smell, texture and colour are totally useless at working out what you are about to eat. Until you bite into something, and even then, you really cannot be sure if what you are eating is animal, vegetable or mineral. This certainly isn’t a country for fussy eaters. Even now after the meal, I have no idea what I’ve really eaten though it’s all extremely tasty and, I suspect, nutritious.

The lady having cleared away the table and set up the bedding in the center of the floor, I must admit to not taking an onsen, a public bath, at the top of the ryokan, which is traditional. I can eat things which bear no resemblance to anything you’ve ever seen before, but taking a bath in public, I still find hard to do. Perhaps deep down, I just don’t want to embarass the Japanese men…

Hiroshima is a compact town sitting on a delta to the South West of the main Japanese island. The downtown area, where my ryokan is based, is fairly non-descript and having seen 4 major Japanese cities, I am beginning to get the feel for the local equivalent of generica, the homogenous look that major cities in each country take on.

The bomb was detonated a little off the center of town, towards a little island on the west side of downtown and for some reason, perhaps which only the original Czech architect knows, a single building directly beneath the hypocentre survived. This is the only remaining relic from that day and is commonly known as the A-Bomb Dome, due to the distinctive dome on the top of the brick building.

The island itself, now christened Peace Island, is a centre to all the different memorials to the victims. There are about 20 different cenotaphs and sculptures dedicated to the children, Koreans, company employees and so on, who died from the bombing, all of which had the distinctive shinto (or is it buddhist) blessing tags laid out in front of them, whilst the official cenotaph is a simple arch which frames the A-bomb dome.

There were literally thousands of school kids moving around between the different memorials, with some groups bowing their heads for a minute of silence and others singing songs in unison whilst standing in strict formation. A group of 4 boys from one of the schools gave me a welcome card and each presented me an origami crane they had
made, inspired by the first leukemia victim of the bomb, who according to the legend, made a thousand cranes in order for her wishes to come true.

The museum on the south end of the island reminded me of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. It was well laid out, traumatically powerful and aboslutely riveting. The scale of the destruction is depicted though models and photos of the town both before and after the bomb, as well as preserved blood soaked clothes
and warped roof tiles but the two items which I think will linger were the preserved stone steps of the town bank, upon which the shadow of someone, who had been sitting on them, had been seared, and, someones pocket watch which had stopped at the exact moment of the detonation: 8:15.

After a rather heavy morning of apocalyptic contemplation, the rest of my afternoon in Hiroshima was spent enjoying the miniature gardens and castle gardens of the quieter parts of town. Even Henry Moore seems to have parachuted in a sculpture into the grounds of the city museum, perched up in the hills, discovered whilst I was looking for the manga library (yes – a whole library of comics in a foreign language. It’s enough to make you want to learn the 50 thousand odd characters..). It’s always nice to find a little bit of England, of which I associate Henry Moore, nestled quietly in a faraway place. If only I had mustered the courage to challenge a small den of Go players I discovered hidden down a small alleyway, in a cramped room, to a game, the day would have been nicely capped, but alas I feared their powerful Go-fu so had to settle for just chatting with the local Go shopkeeper instead.

Sandwiched between the Japanese mainland, Honshu, and the southern island of Saisho, nestles the Inland Sea: a cramped patchwork of small islands reached by ferry from Hiroshima. One of the most famous is Miyajima, home to a large red shrine which is built in the middle of the bay so that it stands in the middle of water when the tide is in, reputedly one of the most beautiful sights in Japan.

Like the outlying islands near Hong Kong, pottling around on the ferries has a nice old world feel to it and the village at the ferry entrance reminded me very much of Lantau except instead of tanned to leather burnt out hippies the place is home to wild dear who follow the humans everywhere and just generally lounge about the place. The ubiquitous groups of school children seemed to take much enjoyment from stroking the rather cute animals though the powerful Eau de Nature was pretty overwhelming.

There are 2 cable car rides to get you near the top of the mountain that nestles in the middle of the island, however my guidebook had failed to tell me that to actually reach the summit required a further 25 minute hike up rather steep terrain. Not wanting to look the sickly foreigner that I actually am, I tried keeping pace with a young Japanese couple who had come up in the cable car with me, but even the standard local policy of ignoring other people must have got
hard as they listened to me panting and wheezing in increasingly desperate levels behind them. By the time we reached the top, they hadn’t broken a sweat and I looked like I’d been under Chinese water torture for an hour, my two layers of clothing damper than the nappy of a baby with chronic diarrhea .Another westerner who had caught up
with us at the summit was also sweating profusely though didn’t look quite so bad for it, but nonetheless, with the two cool as cucumber Japanese and the two shwizting white boys, the whole thing looked like a seen from Bridge over the River Kwai or Tenko.

Whilst the view from the top was impressive, it was, as is often the case, obscured by trees. I suggested to the other westerner, who happened to be English, that they should “cut down all the green crap so I could see the damn view”. He told me I was missing the point. I presumed he must have American parentage for failing to see I was being SARCASTIC.

Bombing back down the mountain in time to see the sun set over the red shrine in the middle of the sea, the view was impressive… but not that impressive. If this is the site the Japanese consider one of the most beautiful in Japan, the men should perhaps look up from their phones a little more often on the subway.

Back to Tokyo tomorrow…