Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Japan, part III - Nara

The last part of our trip to Japan, Nara!

Ancient capital of Japan, founded in 710, Nara offered us way more than we could have expected. When you get there, and the closer you get to the main historical sites, you'll see a number of "messengers of the gods", roaming FREELY: DEER! Not just within the designated Nara Park (which has an area of 8 square km), but near and around it, loads of them, just wandering, basking in the sun, eating what tourists may offer, without any enclosures to keep them in! You have to see it to believe it.

Then, there's Todaiji Temple. But, before you get to it, you'll pass a wooden gate with two Nio, or benevolent kings, that serve to guard the entrance to the temple. The are huge, some 6 metres tall, and are imbued with such energy! a truly remarkable work of art, they seemed ready to spring to life! and they guard the entrance to the one of the biggest wooden structures in the world: Todaiji Temple. An imposing sight, it's only 2/3rds the size of the previous version, with an equally impressive gold and copper Buddha (apparently the biggest one in Japan, weighing several tons). We kept going around the building, going inside, seeing it from the outside again... it's so much take in! the lines of the building are so graceful and the surrounding park just makes it so much more beautiful. No pics will make it justice, you have to be there.

And there's quite more to see: more temples, one of them with a collection of wooden Buddhist statues, and nature (we saw the weirdest flower-spore-fungus-thingy ever in the forest behind the temple, almost out of a science fiction novel!); you need at the very least a full day to explore. It's so definitely worth the trip if you happen to be in the area.

And with that we finished our 5th anniversary trip. We were so fascinated with Japan and its culture we'll be going back, but this time to Tokyo, hoping to catch Sumo wrestling, Butoh dance and possibly an onsen (spa) in the mountains!

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Japan, part II - Kyōto

Pics: First one is Ryoanji, the second one a view from Kōtō garden at Daitokuji Temple, the third is Kiyomizu Dera, fourth a Geisha walking near Gion, last is Inari Shrine.

After such an interesting in a big city as Osaka, we were ready for a more relaxed experience in the ancient city of Kyoto.

There’s even more to tell about Kyoto than Osaka, so I’ll try to just mention “some” highlights!

Zen Gardens.
This is THE place to visit a Zen garden and, if you’re there early and beat the crowds, just to sit and let your mind wander through it. The very first one we visited was Ryoanji, the most famous Zen rock garden of Kyoto. It’s located within Ryoanji Temple, just outside the city. You just sit in front of it, and let it enfold you. Whatever I say about it will sound either shallow or artificial, and even the pic I’m attaching won’t say much. I can just say it’s a very special experience, of calm and otherworldliness.


We saw quite a few other gardens during our 6 day stay, each one different and surprising, like the one in Daitokuji Temple, which had soft moss and smooth stone on the front, and then had an impressive bamboo forest on the back, marking such a severe and hypnotic transition from one to the other…

Kiyomizu Temple. This is an enormous temple complex on a luxuriously verdant hill overlooking the city. The temple’s architecture, how it blends with the surrounding forest, the sheer size of it… It’s very well worth the climb (and the jostling with tourists) to get to the entrance. AND there is this small temple within the complex, not too far from the main entrance, where you go through a most unusual experience. You approach the temple, pay your entrance fee, go down a narrow flight of stairs, and… well, the guide I was reading didn’t say what exactly we’d find, and I think I’ll do the same, so I won’t ruin the experience for those of you that may visit. All I’ll say is that you enter a Bodhisattva’s womb...

Gion District. Get a feeling of old Kyoto (small, cobblestone streets, old houses and water canals), nightlife, great food, and the chance of spotting a geisha all in one place!

Fushimi Inari Shrine. THIS was one of my absolute favourites. A Shinto shrine on the southern outskirts of Kyoto. The shrine itself is located on top of the hill, and the paths winding up are framed by fantastic red gates (torii), which are smooth orange-red on one side and have calligraphy on the other side (mostly dates and names). There are hundreds of these, and walking through them at dawn feels like walking into another dimension. There’s a small lake halfway up, with some smaller shrines and stone foxes guarding the place.

Kaiseki Meal. This is a set meal, but no ordinary one! Kyoto is one of the best places to have a Kaiseki Meal, which consists of delicacy after delicacy, in modest amounts but aesthetically presented. Colour, texture, temperature and arrangement are as important as taste. We had it at an old house with a carp pond. Delicious, delicious, and beautiful (and expensive, expensive, expensive, but worth it).

Noh. We went twice to a Noh theatre. The first time it was an introduction to Noh, where children and younger people could give a shot at wearing the costumes, learning how to walk, playing the instruments, reciting, etc. Fascinating! The second time it was a full Noh performance, Kyogen included, which lasted… I don’t know, 5? 6 hours? I will admit, at some point, I had to fight against falling asleep, but there was this dance from a devil… wow, it was mesmerizing! I mean, the performer had such energy! And mind you, they’re wearing masks, so all the emotional intensity is transmitted through corporal actions. Truly outstanding. We were not allowed to take pictures…such a shame!

Kyoto is FULL of culture, architecture, nature, great food, crafts… I’d even consider living there!

Next post: Nara!

Monday, July 24, 2006

Japan, part I - Ōsaka


This should be just one post about our trip to Osaka, Kyoto and Nara, but we enjoyed so much all three of them each one deserves its own post (plus, that means a total of 15 pics instead of just 5, lol). 

So, first of all: OSAKA.


Well, no, first of all, why Japan? We went there to celebrate our 5th anniversary together, in Kyoto. The previous one was in Shanghai, the one before that was the Dead Sea (on the Jordanian side), the one before that… Beirut? And of course, our very first one, in Mexico City. We both had been wanting to go to Japan for a long time, so it was an easy choice.
We spent one week in Osaka. And we enjoyed it thoroughly!

Since we've seen our share of Peking Opera (and a few other Chinese operas), we had to see the Japanese side of drama, and off we went to see Bunraku and Kabuki. In the simplest terms possible (and probably the only terms a lay person like me can use) Bunraku are traditional plays with puppets. What’s interesting is that the puppets are handled by three persons: two of them clad completely in black, and who move the legs and one arm (and hand) of the puppet, and one of the clad in traditional robes and who moves the head (and mouth and eyebrows) and the other arm (and hand). There are two persons in charge of singing/reciting the dialogues and story, and who sit at one side of the stage, and musicians. Well, the puppet handlers are so extraordinary you quickly forget there are three persons per puppet on stage and focus completely on the puppet! And believe me, coordinating the puppet’s moves is no easy task: during the intermission they invited kids to learn how to handle the puppets, and you could immediately see that making a puppet geisha kneel down and turn her face away shyly is VERY DIFFICULT.

As for Kabuki, again, you might want to check on the web for more information. Basically, it’s traditional theatre, with rather defined characters (which is reflected in the clothing, make-up and even movements), and where voices have a specific quality (also learned from masters). There can be a somewhat elaborate scenery, there’s dancing and some singing too (all of it unlike our western versions, of course!). One of the most interesting things, though, was seeing so many of the women in the audience wearing kimonos! I had no idea people would still wear them for an occasion like going to the theatre!

We also went to the Osaka Aquarium. YOU HAVE TO GO. It’s not only got an impressive array of sea life, it’s got something you won’t see anywhere else: a whale shark, and it was one whale of a shark! Humongous. You can’t imagine how big it was. Swimming right there, in the central tank (which spans some 5 floors), amidst a number of other amazing species, like ray! I do admit I have mixed feelings about such wondrous animals being held in captivity, after all, what size would the tank need to be for them to feel “at home”? But I admit I was fascinated, and kept coming back to watch the whale shark and the rays (so many different species!).

Ah, and we also got to see a traditional festival, with a looong procession of dancers and religious items on the street, topped with a parade of boats on the river and fireworks!

This post is getting as long as the procession we saw... I’ll try not to make it much longer.

We also tried fugu. Darn, I know, I’m vegan, I don’t eat fish, but well, I’m not perfect, I was darn curious, and my habib was actually trying to convince me NOT to eat it, so I gave in and went with him to a special fugu place. I assume you know, but in case you don’t, fugu is a poisonous fish which, when not properly prepared, causes death by asphyxia. Nice, huh? But not just anyone can prepare it, so you’re mostly on the safe side. What can I say, the taste was like any other fish (sort of), but well, now I can say I’ve tried fugu! (oh, and I got my habib to try some, LOL!)

We saw some really advanced fashion, so advanced in fact that the hairstyles we saw on the street were used by Jean Paul Gaultier for a fashion show in December! And what you read about Japanese trains being on time, it’s 100% true. They leave and arrive EXACTLY at the time indicated, EXACTLY. And about the cost of life, yes, it’s BLOODY EXPENSIVE. We saw the most expensive fruit in our life! In a supermarket in the subway we saw a cantaloupe (A cantaloupe, ONE) for over 100USD, and we saw a range of fruits costing anything between 10 and 300USD A PIECE. In some less fancy places we did find some fruit that was more reasonably priced (like ONE banana for 85 cents). The good side is that you get what you pay for: food was expensive, BUT EXCELLENT. Just EXCELLENT.

We did, saw and tried a lot more, but this is enough for now. Next post: Kyoto!