Monthly Archives: January 2015

Papeete. Wednesday 28/01/15.

This was my view of the A-bomb Dome at the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima.

(null)It struck me as deeply ironic that this iconic structure, famous for having survived destruction on August 6th 1945, should now be surrounded by scaffolding, while they perform a “safety assessment”.

It felt strange to be walking on ground where so many people had lost their lives. One of them was Sasaki Sadako, who died of radiation induced leukaemia. During her illness, she folded over 1,000 paper cranes, the Japanese symbol of long life and good luck. The Children’s Peace Memorial, dedicated to her memory, is surrounded by cabinets containing what must be millions of them.

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There are many memorial structures in the area around ground zero, but it was the museum which affected me the most. The history is probably familiar to most of us, but the remains of personal possessions were very touching.

(null)There were many exhibits of charred school uniforms and clothing. In this case, the dark areas on the cloth burned out and victims had the images of the patterns on their clothes burnt into their skin.

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Very often, we were told, adults and children somehow managed to make it back to their homes, before dying of their injuries a few hours later.

Whilst acknowledging their role in the war and the lies the people were told, (on both sides), to make them give their support at the time, the message here is repeated time after time – we should never let this happen again. The Japanese are very concerned about the use of depleted Uranium by the USA and UK during the Gulf Wars and the increase in birth defects there and in other places where it has been used.

I found myself alone and in tears, but as I left the building a lovely Japanese lady helped me to make an origami crane and though it’s not a very good one, I have kept it.

I spent the night in Hiroshima and went, the following day to Miyajima, a Shinto shrine on an island in the Seto Inland Sea. At high tide the O-tori Gate becomes partially submerged.

(null)There were more deer about, but these were more gentle than those in Nara.

(null)The main temple is lovely and there are pagodas and shrines dotted around the sacred mountain, Mt. Misen.

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(null)Some kind of Shinto ceremony was taking place, as there was a long line of men in black suits waiting to get in to the hall where priests in traditional clothing were officiating.

I made a brief stopover in Osaka, where I finally got to taste a proper Japanese vegetarian meal. There was melt- in-the mouth tofu with sticky Amber sauce.

(null)This was served with green tea rice, seaweed and wasabi. Delicious.

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I spent the next morning at Himeji Castle. It’s a huge place in a town a short “bullet train ” ride from Osaka.

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Like many sites in Japan over the winter, though, it was being repaired and I was not allowed into the Main Keep, which was a pity. I wandered through the West Bailey, which was extensive and was used for apartments for the ladies.

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I had time to go to the Modern Art Museum. It was packed with people earnestly discussing all the pieces. There was some really fine photography displaying both the Japanese love of nature and of innovation and experimentation. I’m pleased I went, even though it was a rather cold day, as this lady in the street clearly demonstrates.

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It was quite a long train ride to Kanazawa, North-East of Osaka on the coast. I only had one day left to explore it. I wished I had a lot longer. There are many things to see and do and most within walking distance, though there is a convenient bus service. I started at the market, which was mainly for crab and fish but had a good variety of vegetables also.

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Next I headed for the Higashi Chayagai district, which is the old Geisha area. You can get a feel for how discreet this way of life could be, as all the shops and restaurants were hidden behind shuttered sliding doors.

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Kanazawa specialises in fine arts and crafts, most particularly in gold leaf. At a bar the night before, this is how I was served free chocolate.

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As well as silk, lacquer ware and their oddly misshapen pottery, there was Mizuhiki string craft, used for tying envelopes or as straps for mobile phones, and Temari or decorative string balls. Most of this was costly but still very pleasurable to view. No windows, though, so I can’t call it window shopping.

Then I walked through the Castle Park to The Museum of Contemporary Art. The best thing there was an exposition of how some local architects were engaging with local communities since the tsunami, to construct low-cost, attractive, safe housing that people want to live in. An exciting new initiative.

There was also an exhibition of “Architecture for Dogs”, which was quite fun, and this swimming pool.

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Lastly, I went to the D.T. Suzuki museum, for a half hour of Zen Philosophy and quiet contemplation.

I would definitely recommend this destination in Japan. I would have also loved to visit me “snow monkeys”, which are not too far away on the route to Tokyo. I had run out of time, however, and only saw the winter snow from the train.

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One more night in Tokyo. I had wised up and I took a forty minute metro ride to a vegetarian restaurant.

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The next day I was on a flight to Tahiti and crossing the International Date Line. So I left Japan in the afternoon and arrived in Papeete the morning of the same day. I’m one day younger.

I liked Japan enormously. Things function well, from the toilets and trains to the packaging that opens easily, without having to use teeth or scissors. It is pleasant to have people bow and smile at me and I haven’t been treated like that since Nepal. The Japanese admire tradition but embrace novelty. Some things are very odd, (they have a radish festival and one for needles and pins), but that is part of the charm. I was made welcome and I would love to return in a different season, to enjoy more of its vibrant yet refined culture.

Tokyo, Sunday 25/01/15

I took the Tokaido Shinkansen train to Kyoto – clean, quiet, fast and comfortable- and checked in to what turned out to be the most luxurious hostel I stayed in – the Gion Ryokan Q-bey. The wooden cubicles, (not bunks) were large enough to take my bags, as well as having shelves, hangers, a light and wall sockets. The duvet was huge and fluffy. Best of all was the round ceramic hot tub, which I availed myself of the first evening. You booked it for an hour, were called when it was ready and given a towel too!

The next day I bought a one-day bus pass, costing 500yen, (about £2.80). This is what it looked like.

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There are temples and shrines everywhere in Kyoto. This one, Chionin Temple, was on the way to the bus stop.

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During the day I visited Kinkakuji Temple – the Golden -.

IMG_6034.JPG which had a rather nice garden and Nijojo Castle

IMG_6063.JPGwhich had even nicer gardens.

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The most memorable moment for me, though, was the rock garden at Ryoanji Temple. It’s a Zen garden, comprised of clay walls, fifteen rocks and raked gravel. Sitting on the veranda in front, I felt still and calm, in spite of the clamour of people around me. You cannot see all the rocks from one position. The little pieces of gravel all resemble one another, but the eye can pick out individuals and some sparkle like stars in the sunlight. The shadow of a bare tree rested motionless on the scene, though the breeze stirred the pine trees in the background. As I left, I found this bush beginning to bloom in January.

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Next day I went to Nara with a very friendly Canadian woman called Deepa. We saw Todai-ji Temple, a massive wooden structure containing the world’s largest wooden statue of the Buddha Daibutsu.

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We also saw lots of deer, considered by Shinto to be messengers of the gods, but in this case a little intimidating to the tourists. One of them ate Deepa’s map.

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Deepa was a big help to me. After a few days in Japan I was nearly starving. All the restaurant menus are in Japanese only and usually for set meals or Bento boxes. Everything in the supermarkets is only in Japanese too, so no recognisable ingredients. Twice I bought what looked like a vegetable salad, only to find a piece of chicken hidden away inside, (after I’d already eaten most of it in one case).
Deepa told me about Okonomiyaki, or Japanese pancake, which, with a little help from a translation app, I could get without meat or fish. It starts off as a kind of omelette cooked on a long griddle, then various bits are added.

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From Kyoto I went to Hiroshima. I will say more about that in my next post.

Osaka, 22/01/15

My first morning in Tokyo I went to see Sensoji temple in daylight. It is also known as Asakusa Kannon, because of the statue of the Bhoddisatva Kannon found on the site. Kannon turns out to be another manifestation of Quan Yin, in this case, a male. In style the temple is rather restrained, if highly colourful.

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There are many smaller buildings and a pagoda in the temple complex.

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The narrow approach to the main temple is lined with enclosed stalls and packed with people.

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Indeed, the whole area has arcades of specialist shops and curios. It was my first encounter with the plastic dishes they use to tempt the hungry shoppers.

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It was just a taster for my experience of Japanese love of style and colour.

Following up on that theme, I proceeded to Harajuku district, known for its flamboyant fashion. There is a broad street which resembles the Champs Élysées in the display of luxury shops, but the side streets are much more fun.

IMG_5935.JPG I didn’t see anyone wearing anything outrageous, but I suppose it may be because it is winter.

As it is close by, I went to the Meiji shrine. Most of the visitors were Japanese and carrying what looked like long fake arrows. I still haven’t worked out what these are really about, but there were also wooden slates with sheep on them, (because it’s the year of the sheep), on which to write wishes for the coming year and hang by a sacred tree.

IMG_6044.JPG(These were in Kyoto, but same difference).
You can get your fortune told by Omikuji. You shake a bamboo box with sticks with numbers on inside. One of them slides out of a narrow hole at the bottom. You take this to the counter and are given a slip of paper with the fortune which corresponds to the number. There are good and bad ones. If you get a bad one you tie it to a tree and hopefully the bad luck will remain.

Some things about Japan are disconcerting. I hadn’t realised that you cannot get a JR train pass in Japan, though I managed to buy an exchange voucher, (for a certain surplus fee), the day before leaving New Zealand. On the other hand, this really saves you a lot of money and hassle buying tickets and works for local and Shinkansen, or “bullet” trains.

I bought a SIM card. It was quite a bother to get it activated and then I found out it was for data only. After enquiries I discovered that non- residents are not allowed mobile phone calls. The SIM did come with an origami crane making kit, though.

I wanted to go to the Ghibli Museum, (Japanese animated film company, if you haven’t come across them).. It was a good job I googled it. I had to go to a Lawson convenience store and locate the Loppi machine. Tickets are by reservation only and you have to specify the date and time. You will not be allowed entrance later than 30 minutes after your designated time. Though I was following the instructions, one screen was in Japanese only. I went to ask the store assistant, who, typically for Japan, was charming, polite and helpful. We tried 12 noon – sold out. We tried 2pm – sold out. Last chance, 4 pm – hurrah! It worked. He seemed pleased for me. Then I paid him at the counter. This, too, you have to do within a specified time frame.

With most of the day free, I set off for the National Museum. There were some beautiful things, but displayed in a traditional way. The Samurai swords were dazzlingly finely wrought and sharp and there were some extreme types of armour, as well as the landscapes, kimono and calligraphy you would expect.

IMG_5968.JPG“Don’t stand so close to me.”

I thoroughly enjoyed the Ghibli museum. It is a ramshackle wooden house, crammed with diorama, clockwork models, books and bric-a-brac. You wander about, up and down spiral staircases and explore what it might mean to work for the studio. Everyone becomes a little childlike.

My last evening in Tokyo, I arrived back at the hostel to find all the guests and staff in the kitchen making mochi. This involves beating sticky rice with a mallet until it reaches the consistency of gum, a ritual known as mochitsuki and associated with the new year. We were divided up into teams to consume the results of the process with soy sauce, red bean paste, pickled radish, sesame etc. it was a very good way to get everyone mixing and talking.

In fact, it has been difficult to write my blog in Japan, because every evening in the hostels I have been talking with such interesting people until late at night. Japanese people stay in the hostels and ryokan and mix with people from all over the world.

I went to Kamakura and stayed in a delightful hostel.

IMG_6015.JPG An offer of green tea started the conversation going and I met two Japanese and one American vegetarians. There was a charcoal fire in the common room and a heated table with a heavy cloth surround, so you could keep your feet toasty warm underneath. We all slept on futons on the floor in the communal dorm and by breakfast the next morning we felt like family.

The large metal Buddha at Kamakura is not particularly inspiring.

IMG_5993.JPG Most people seemed more interested in the shopping opportunities, but I confess to being baffled by some of the items for sale.

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IMG_5996-0.JPGBack at the hostel they tell me the first pack is some kind of vegetable and the second is radish. No-one can explain why anyone would want to buy the objects below though, (for sale in a shop selling tiny glass figurines).

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Apparently you can even buy “toilet candy” in Japan, which you drink through a straw out of a tiny plastic, self-assembly toilet.

Japan, of course, embraced Zen Buddhism. A Chinese master, Rankei Doryu, established a Zen temple, Kencho-ju, in Kamakura. So I left the busy streets behind and walked up the hill to visit it. There are several buildings and gates made of wood.

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Mighty juniper trees were planted over 750 years ago from seed the Founder brought from China.

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There was hardly anyone around and the atmosphere was quiet and subdued. As I left the garden at the back and passed this gate

IMG_6013.JPGthe evening sun shone full in my face. Tiny scattered flakes of snow fell and glistened in the rays. I held my hand out, but it remained dry. A magic moment.

Kyoto, 18/01/15

Before I left New Zealand. I made it to the Bay of Islands, in the North of the country. All the tours etc. were way too expensive for me to consider and just as well, because I realised I had trouble with a tooth. Neither of the two dentists in the area were available, which meant a speedy return to Auckland.

I caught up with my new friend Anna, at her home with her beautiful family all around. I was sad to say goodbye again, but she recommended a dentist and I managed to get an emergency appointment. I thought I had an abscess under an old crown, due to the swelling, but it really wasn’t too bad as I have a high pain threshold. The female dentist was very kind and gentle while draining the gum, but said I should get orthodontic surgery and a new crown soon. I’ll see how long I can hold out.

My last two days in NZ I stayed with Nev, another member of Servas and a golfer. He took me up to the top of Mt. Eden, to look down over Auckland and into the crater.

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We went to visit some friends of his on the west coast and to Muriwai beach, noted for its black sand and gannet colony.

IMG_5900.JPG The gannets had chicks, from young and fluffy to almost fledged, so it made up for missing them at Hawkes Bay.

On my last day he kindly drove me to the airport. Farewell NZ.

The flight to Japan takes about ten hours and it’s four hours behind NZ, which means I’ve experienced a bit of jet lag, even though Air New Zealand afforded a comfortable journey. Mount Fuji was clearly visible on our approach. On the descent to the airport the sun was setting and throwing a rosy glow over low cloud around the base and snow on the summit. Picture perfect.

It took about three hours to get into Tokyo itself and I came out of the metro at the wrong exit, as I had not realised that you need to choose this on the platform. I took my phone out to check my direction andI must have looked a little hesitant, as a young man came up to offer me some help. He ended up walking me all the way to my hostel, along a narrow passage and past Senso-ju temple all lit up.

IMG_5953.JPGI couldn’t have wished for a better introduction to Japan.

New Plymouth 05/01/15

I am approaching the end of my time here and I’ve been thinking about some of my lasting impressions of New Zealand.

In the Maori culture, carving is of great significance, especially on their boats and around the thresholds of the Marae, or community houses.

As in many other cultures, weaving is a primary craft for the women, but here it is native flax and the “cabbage tree”, (see photo), that are the most utilised.

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In the South Island, as well as the snow-covered mountains, the lakes and coastlines, I was struck by the slate-blue braided rivers running along steel-grey gravel beds brightened by yellow lupins.

The museums, gardens and art galleries are impressive and there is a sense of fun and community.

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There are pianos outdoors in many of the cities, loved by children and talented amateurs alike.

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Yesterday I went to the Festival of Lights here in New Plymouth- free music, film and illuminations in the park nearby .

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Friendly people and extraordinary wildlife. What more can I say?
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