New Year

The oldest pagoda in Japan and the oldest wooden building on earth

The oldest pagoda in Japan and the oldest wooden building on earth

…yummy…

Nara is a city with a remarkable affinity for impressive wood. No, I’m not harking back to last week’s Herman Melville. It contains both the world’s oldest and largest wooden buildings. The oldest is a 7th century hall at the temple complex of Horyu-ji, reached via a train and a pleasant walk through the suburbs (parrots in cages by a school was the highlight) which is inexplicably slated by the guidebooks. A corner shop had horribly mould persimmons, but the rest was pleasantly Japanese, wooden walls and curving roof tiles. The temple smelt of history, and briefly beef tacos, as we snacked on one of Japan’s many unusual Dorito flavours. I started to wonder how many days in a row people had worshipped there. My mental maths started to produce difficult (large) numbers, so I gave up and ran my hands over the human polished beams instead. A friendly monk with good English pointed out a famous Kannon statue with 1000 arms, which looked like feathers as they were so fine and so thick.

They got wood

They got wood

deer god!

deer god!

Todai-ji is the largest wooden building in the world, although it is only two thirds of its original width. It is guarded by man-eating Sika deer, which are sacred as they are the messengers of Shinto gods. Numerous stalls sell ‘deer crackers’, and the result of this practice is packs of deer which mercilessly hunt down people with any food item. Lune enjoyed tempting them closer by rustling an empty chocolate wrapper.

Brothers in charms

Brothers in charms

My dad befriended one and they stood side by side, atop steps, looking down at the chaos their respective species were wreaking. Needless to say, Todai-ji itself is huge, with a bulk hard to appreciate even in person. The scale of the place only really becomes apparent upon seeing what’s stored inside: the largest bronze Buddha on earth. It is 16m tall, weighs 500 tonnes, and bankrupt the Japanese economy when it was first cast in 750 AD (not to mention using all the bronze).SONY DSC The hall comfortably fits this giant, as well as a few smaller golden statues of a paltry 7m or so. One pillar has a small hole through which crawling books your place in paradise. Me, Lune and my little brother got through (just before the prop of a Japanese rugby team got stuck), and I happily abandoned religion from that point onwards. Later we found out the hole is the size of the buddha’s nostril.

Paradise here I come

Paradise here I come

One night and a couple of shinkansen rides later, we were driving around a dreary town as the rain poured down, wondering where the hell Fuji-san was. The car trip through the mountains was evocative, with fog rolling above and the huge concrete pillars of highways lancing past us into the valley floors. Eventually, during a late lunch of tea and large slices of cake we found the man who’s house we were renting, in the café he owns. Yoshi is a memorable man, for his personification of the mid-life crisis, his bizarre sexism, and his sumptuous red puffer jacket. Yoshi lived in Tokyo for the boom years, working as an engineer, and moved away to Yamanaka-ko. He then ‘taught himself’ architecture and built the house we were staying in (we were reassured to hear). He has a mane of sandy grey hair and collects classic cars. The Garden Shed was the name of our new home, but it was beautiful and palatial by Japanese standards; I now think of a flat the size of my two front rooms in the UK as enormous. There was a great sound system, which reminded me of how good music sounds when not coming from tinny laptop speakers, as well as shelves filled with Yoshi’s car regalia, including trophies he had won racing at classic car races. He was very talkative to everyone except Lune, who he never spoke to and never asked the name of, despite asking everyone else in turn…

too bright!

too bright!

A wild tanuki appeared!

A wild tanuki appeared!

Advancing to Fuji-san under cloud cover had the advantage of waking up and seeing it swaggering above the horizon. Everyone was gasping with awe (including me) and I felt a strange sense of pride. We were by the shore of Yamanaka-ko, one of the five lakes which ring Fuji’s Northern slope. Climbing a ridge, after eventually finding the footpath thanks to an Australian expat with a golden retriever, gave us a brilliant few of the full mountain, although the dynamic range was a bit high for cameras. In the afternoon we finally found a good viewpoint, and even our first Tanuki (Japanese racoon). Tanuki can mean racoon or badger, depending on where you are in Japan, but the guidebooks plump for badger. There are Tanuki statues outside a large number of shops, which look like paedophilic bears (wide grins and wide balls), and bear no resemblance to badgers. They do however, (sort of) look like these Japanese racoons. Mystery solved.

Fuji-san

Fuji-san

New year (oshogatsu) is celebrated in Japan by visiting a buddhist temple at midnight, and listening to a bell ringing out 108 times. Each ring signifies one of the human sins in Buddhism. We visited an impressive temple, Fujiyoshida Sengen, in the evening, locked deep in tall conifers, but it was too chilly to wait for the new year (we arrived at 7 or so). A five-hundred year old Sugi tree has hunched, bubbled bark and a thin coat of woven grass. We usher in the new year with a glass of whiskey and Sydney’s fireworks on youtube, It is a far cry from the party I usually go to in Edinburgh (which starts with too much rum and ends, bleary eyed, in the dim light of the morning, wandering around with the rest of the shambling dead), but I go to sleep content nonetheless.

More Fuji

More Fuji

All the people....

All the people….

All too soon we are wishing my family goodbye, and I feel a shadow of the wrenching I felt on leaving the UK. It hurts less now that I have friends, things to do, and a life here. Hatsumode is the first visit to a Shinto shrine of the new year, so me and Lune headed to Meinji-Jingu on the 2nd, not really sure what to expect. I expected it to be busy, but didn’t know at the time that 3.5 million people visit this shrine in the first 3 days of the year. We queued for a very long time. I expected some kind of service, but in the shrine everyone slowly shuffled forward, bowed their heads, said a quiet prayer, dropped a coin, and walked out. We bought fortunes (omikuji), which you tie to trees or wires around the temple if they predict bad luck. The kanji was as indecipherable as ever, so we planned on getting my boss to translate it later that week. Soon we would be headed into the mountains….

oh brother

oh brother

Catching up at Christmas

Do not fear. The cultural impoverishment of our age is drawing to a close. I’m back to the blog. In the past month I’ve been spending most of my time fretting over what to do with my life, writing PhD applications, and feverishly checking them for a spelling mistake Word has not deigned to pick up. Then there were some interviews to prepare for. What I didn’t prepare for was my internet failing 3 minutes into my first interview, resulting in the rest of the interview being a 40 minute international phone call. Explaining the diagrams on the example paper was tricky (no, they changed the interview structure rather than made me suffer that).

The experiences I’ve enjoyed over the past month or so will be sprinkled lightly over future posts to avoid me having to write a novella this week. I recently finished Moby Dick (then the Hunger Games for something lighter, shoot me), which is very enjoyable tale of adventure and obsession (after a slow start). It is fascinating for both answering many questions you never knew you had about 19th century whaling, and for its ubiquitous and potent homo-eroticism, which seems to be present for no other reason than to give you small bouts of giggles whilst reading on buses. Apologies to my snoozing fellow commuters. I also visited the world’s busiest fish market, Tsukiji, and so will describe it in my attempt at an imitation of Herman Melville.

My first new lens

My first new lens

Turret Car

Call me Ishmael. There comes a time in the hearts of most men, upon reaching a certain age, when they suffer a heartfelt yearning for the unknown. To extirpate this ailment, I left without notice at daybreak with a heavy heart and a light pack, and get on a train. The pink flesh of dawn rattles before me as I stare outwards with eyes glazed and bleary. Soon I am perambulating wearily towards Tsukiji. A woman picks up a half-smoked cigarette from the street with chopsticks and lights it. I walk on in broken step, dodging the swarm of turret cars, manned by savages in bandanas, which buzz around the market site. Holding my breath and a nosegay, avoiding a trolley of heads, which substitute for Cerberus, I step hesitantly into the floor.

Poor Eels

Poor Eels

Woodblock Tuna

Woodblock Tuna

Everywhere is noise, blood, and the senseless twitches of dying things. Octopus tentacles clutch upwards, like a final salute to the kraken, before freezing at the – crunch – of a heavy cleaver, and then writhe anew in death. Eels gasp for breath in the blood of their broodmates. Tuna, with sheen of frost and hollow eyes, are sliced like so many logs at the band saw. Oh! For the gentle sights of a charnel house, for the purity of Gomorrah. Never before have the eyes of man been besmirched as within this temple of gore. The labourers, nay, evince pity rather than disgust, for such torturous work can only torture the souls of those who perform it. Sisyphus, in his daily toil, never had to push so vile a load as this. The arcane tongues of the east battle the omnipresent flopping, chopping, sawing until all that remains is the cacophony of hell itself. I long for Queequeg’s manly embrace, for his stolid arms to cover my ears, his musk to fill my nostrils. When it occurs to me that I could be capturing sweet, pearlescent sperm on the nearest whaler, I turn tail. Polystyrene chasms, dripping ice and scales, wend and warp before me, labyrinthine and endless. Handsome smoking sailors moodily puff as I stagger on towards redemption. As Jesus emerged from the desert, so did I from Tsukiji; sweating, tired, and with few designs on returning.

My brother (and Darth Sidious) looks forward to sushi

My brother (and Darth Sidious) looks forward to sushi

Now that I’ve eliminated most of my readership, I can get on with writing normally about recent happenings (difficult beginning, like Moby Dick). Thankfully, my family decided to come out to Japan for Christmas, so I was very happy to see them and avoid a possibly quite lonely Christmas day (just me and Lune). Their plane arrived at 5am, and to welcome/punish them I took them straight to the aforementioned Tsukiji (after meeting them late by accidentally sleeping in, possibly due to an end of the world party at Pele’s the night before). It was dismal weather and we were happy to get into a sushi bar and out of the rain. The menu choice for veggies (me, Lune and my sister) was limited but present, and I think the carnivores enjoyed the freshest fish in Tokyo. Sushi bars feel a little austere, mainly because the chef stands above you, silently, watching you eat. Especially as a westerner new to the etiquette of sushi (not to mention my family’s colossal ineptitude with chopsticks) this can be a little off-putting. He was very kind, and even lifted out one of his live shrimps when he saw us gawping at it). After a quick soak in the blood of the market, it was time to move on.

This shrimp is staring into the abyss

This shrimp is staring into the abyss

Culture Vulture

Culture Vulture

We changed plans due to weather and headed to the National museum at Ueno, which is filled with a huge variety of Japanese antiques, highlights were the samurai armour and the zen paintings. This all passed the family by as jet-lag was beginning to take hold; me and Lune found various members of the family slumbering on different horizontal surfaces throughout the museum. They needed pepping up, so for lunch I took them to my favourite okonomiyaki (thick unhealthy cabbage omelettes with various fillings that you cook at your table by hot plate) place in Harujuku. Having found this place by chance while lost, I had thought it was my secret gem of Harujuku, but sadly everyone very soon found it recommended in their guidebooks (it’s Sakuratei in case anyone’s in Tokyo). This place also warmed us up with gas fire under the table. My little brother created the okonomiyaki equivalent of the Sistine chapel, and we moved on. Finally to the Tokyo metropolitan building, with free views of Tokyo at sunset (Fuji was resplendent but my camera died), where my sister broke and began sleeping on the floor. People shot her concerned glances as they passed.

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The emperor’s birthday is the 23rd of December, and is one of only two days per year when you can enter the inner grounds of the imperial palace. The outer grounds are lovely gardens, so I thought this would be a good and fairly unique experience for them. After a reasonable queue and two security checks, we shuffled past plain clothes agents with earpieces into the grounds. First we squeezed up to a long line of desks to sign the emperor’s birthday card, and then strolled on to enjoy the…exit? Immediately we found we were back out of the inner grounds, and seemingly the only views permitted are a small avenue of trees, then the large square of tarmac for signing the card. A bit of an anti-climax, but we went to the main grounds afterwards to give them their Japanese garden/castle wall fix.

Sister finds blossom, joy ensues

Sister finds blossom, joy ensues

Guiding your family around a foreign country is sort of like having kids, except they aren’t cute and you can’t solve every problem by producing a drumstick lolly. It was good for mine and Lune’s Japanese to act as their interpreters throughout, but at times their expectations were a little above what we Japanese noobs could handle. The highlights were comments from my dad to the tune of

“so we’re not going to try and translate this kanji then?”

No, we are not. There are thousands of kanji. We (especially me) know very few of them. You cannot translate them by looking harder like Simba at a storm cloud. NOTE: I am very glad that my family came.

Shinkansen!

Shinkansen!

We headed to Yudanaka, an onsen (hot spring) town North-West of Tokyo via shinkansen, the speed of which wowed my family. Not quite as much as the rotating train seats, but nearly. The second train was a private rail company who had had the excellent idea (although it is in the Hunger Games as well) of putting a panoramic wraparound window at the front of the train with the drivers sitting up top. We wound our way slowly into the hills, through suburbs, orchards, and increasingly white rice fields. The Japanese hotel (a ryokan) which we stayed at was lovely. Rooms contained rice mats, sliding paper doors, and yukatas (light Japanese kimonos). I was proud that we were the only family sporting them at breakfast. Upon arrival the proprietor suggested we drop everything and head to the onsen for sunset. We (just) got over our English prudishness, piled into a car, and whizzed at breakneck speed across the valley.

Soon we were naked, gently broiling in the manner of lobsters, and looking out at the twinkling electric lights below. We had missed the sunset but the view was good enough. The nakedness wasn’t really apparent due to the billowing clouds of water vapour rolling up off the hot water. The men’s half made me think of gorillas in the mist. Sitting in a volcanic spring as your hair freezes and snow wafts down from above is a pleasure similar to the feeling you get when listening to rain hiss on a tent roof from the safety of your sleeping bag. A Japanese man was obviously sick of his tent, so jumped out the pool and rolled in the snow, shouting and laughing. He returned quickly. Me and my brother had a cold shower afterwards, because I thought it was a custom. It’s not.

Pick me! Pick me!

Pick me! Pick me!

The main attraction of Yudanaka is its Japanese macaques, the northernmost primates in the world (excluding us of course).They scamper about the snow, looking exceedingly cute, as monkeys tend to when they’re not snatching your lunch. Thankfully these ones had the charming habit of ignoring humans completely, letting you get close without worrying for your safety. I felt sorry for a monkey who was being repeatedly flashed (camera) by a Japanese man with and exceedingly long (camera) lens. The adorable epicentre of this park is the onsen where the monkeys go to warm up. David Attenborough did a feature on the pools once, and if I remember correctly the position one holds in a pool is decided by the highness of your birth (just like the UK then). However, the pool tourists are allowed to visit is artificially maintained, so that may not apply. There was one very large and angry male who went ballistic at a baby monkey who presumably, in the parlance of Carlisle, ‘looked at him funny’. It made a wonderful Christmas morning. On the snowy walk back through the conifers me and my brother tried to use snowballs to dislodge snow from the trees onto our parents.

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Christmas dinner was a Chinese, where the staff were very nice, but didn’t quite understand vegetarians. We assured them that tomato ketchup was fine. In the next few days me and Lune went back to the monkeys (I wanted to take more photos), we caught up with the family at a Hokusai museum (who created that Japanese print with the waves, and perhaps more importantly the pokemon Ho-oh) to find my brother sleeping again, and drunk lots at a sake brewery. Next was a quick stop in Matsumoto to admire the castle, then onwards to Kyoto, except for my sister who left to go to a new year’s party at this point. I hope it was good. I’ll talk about my autumn trip to Kyoto more in a future post. This time we saw Kinkakuji, which has a pavilion covered in gold, and Sajusangendo, which has 1000 life-size Buddha statues from the 12th century, again painted in gold. Kyoto has a wide variety of unbelievably good things to see, but we were pressed for time. Izakaya (sort of like an Asian tapas bar) are quintessentially Japanese, so we had dinner at one. The waiter said “chotto sumimasen, gaijin desu” as we entered to the only other customer, who was steaming like an onsen. This translates as “sorry, it’s foreigners”.

Matsumoto Castle

Matsumoto Castle

I have more from this trip, but will leave it for next week as the post is LOOOOONG enough already. I recently bought Shogun 2: Total War so currently enjoy sipping sake whilst conquering Japan in the evenings.