Castling, shrining and templing

There is surely no better place in the world than Japan to see amazing castles, temples and shrines;  and to marvel at the propensity for men in power to predictably build to the “mine is bigger than yours” maxim.

We started our exploration at Meiji in Tokyo, a beautiful temple set in a beautiful park; the entrance pathway flanked by donated barrels of sake on one side (Howard cynically pronounced that each brewer succumbs to peer pressure each year to refill their barrels) and on the other side of the path, an even more cynical attempt by French winemakers to secure a place in the hearts and minds of Japanese wine drinkers by the one off donation of an equivalent wall of oak barrels, by now no doubt full of wholly undrinkable wine!   


Next stop Kyoto, the ultimate place for templing!  Howard compromised on a selected package of highlights, in recognition that two small children (and their mother) have limited capacity for appreciating old buildings!  The palace with the nightingale floors was amazing in its subtlety, build so that the floors literally sing, no matter how light footed the intruder (a warning for the rulers of the day of any approaching ninja attackers).  No photos allowed inside, but the gardens were lovely too.  


Then on to join the seething mass on a mission to see the Golden Temple… Beautiful but lacking the promised serenity.  For the first time on our trip, feeling a little over the masses of tour groups, many lacking the inherent politeness and consideration of the locals.


 Howard did save the best for last – Kyomisidera – pronouncing he would be “very disappointed” if I didn’t battle yet more crowds to take in the views from his “favourite temple”.  And, yes it was worth it… The extreme orange-ness of the pagoda, the engineering feat of the temple itself, and the views out over Kyoto- wow!


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It’s not just the big sights that amaze, but the small ones too.  Peter’s penchant for dragons has been very well catered for at these often smallish shrines, each with their own dragon watching over the waters of purification.

Though an elder local visiting Kyomisidera told me it’s all the same water, as he shunned the long queue (including Howard, Rob and Izzy) waiting for purification in the waters of eternal life, to just kneel by the side of the pool and splash some over his head without the requisite ritual!


Too exhausted for anything but bed, Pip and I took the kids home, missing out on the visit to Gion on the way back, and the chance encounter with some geishas.  Oh well, put it on the list for next time!

Definitely ticked off the list, though, was Himeji Castle – another attraction designed to confuse those pesky ninjas (a definite theme here – more on our ninja experience in another post).  A side trip from Osaka on a rainy day, we were definitely getting value from our JR rail passes!  Up the hill to the castle, and then up and up staircase after staircase, through the seven internal floors despite the apparent five stories visible from the exterior.  Made me think of my mother’s retirement village, where apartments 101-199 are on the second floor, 201-299 on the 3rd floor and so on.  Definitely designed to confuse!  Izzy and Matthew made it up all seven flights – along with a massive crowd of hobbling decrepitude (maybe Himeji is something you just have to see before you die?)  In which case, we got in early!

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And while Rob and Jenna made an excursion out of Osaka to one of the oldest Shinto shrines in Japan, per and I (and the other cyclist so) visited the original home of Japanese Buddhism, admiring the turtles, and chuckling at the random “event” going on on the side – a blessing ceremony for Osaka’s florists, according to our Japanese-speaking guide.  Though I preferred my original translation of the mimed explanation, which included much “snipping” actions!

So that was our collection of castles, shrines and temples – though there were a few more religious-type rituals to report on.  Mostly, I was struck by the extreme pragmatism, almost a hedging of bets, with people apparently attending different types of worship or supplication, depending on their need or mood on the day.  Fascinating stuff!

A series of small amazements (part 2)

I guess it wasn’t that amazing, just unexpected how foul the spring weather in Japan really was.  It rained.  It rained a lot.  And even if the wind is howling, rendering it useless, or you’re pushing a stroller, leaving no hands free for your brolly, Japanese people believe you must have an umbrella.  We loved the fact that Pip was accosted by a gentleman who wanted to GIVE her his umbrella, despite her having a rain jacket with a hood…  He was apparently very insistent.  After that, we gathered a small collection of umbrellas, that we took everywhere with us.


Keeping company with the elderly.  A feature of our sightseeing excursions was the old men, and occasionally an old woman, who hang out at tourist spots for no reason other than to chat to tourists, practice their English, maybe share something about their home city or simply wish you a pleasant visit to Japan.  Our jaded western views led us to consider these approaches with suspicion, assuming that they would turn into requests for donations, offers of tourist guiding or shopping recommendations… But no, literally nothing required from you but a moment of your time to share a chat.  And, one suspects, proved some human conversation for a lonely old person.  Nice.

And on the same theme, Osaka city workers have the choice, when they retire, of continuing to work as park / city keepers, heading our in uniform each day with a little cart, equipped with bin and sweepers, to literally ensure that no leaf is out of place in the gardens and streets.  They wander around the city in twos or threes, ensuring that the city remains pristine and the parks picture perfect.

Much of these and other random facts discovered on the full day cycling tour that Peter and I did in Osaka, heading out with our British guide are in who came to Japan 12 years ago, met and married a Japanes girl and just stayed on.  We were joined by an eager young couple from London, and the cycling-incompetents William from Hong Kong, and Doris from Sydney (via HK).  And what a “Doris” she was!  Fell off her bike at least three times, dropped her cycle helmet into an artist’s paint palette in the park, kept crashing into the bollards along the path, and was generally one of those people you just want to avoid when cycling!  Or maybe just avoid in general!
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The cycling itself required huge concentration, not because of the vehicular traffic – in Japan, cycles mostly used the footpaths, weaving between shoppers, pedestrians and even the odd kindergarten out on their morning walk!

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And of course other cyclists!  There is also apparently no requirement to stick to the right side of the road ( in Japan, the left) …  At one point we were all riding along happily behind our guide, on the wrong side of the road, weaving through the oncoming traffic – all except Peter, diligently sticking to the left.  What were we thinking?  We just assumed Kevin knew what he was doing, I guess.  And then when we did hit the main road for a few hundred metres, now admittedly all carefully hanging far left, we had to pull out to overtake a parked van, only to be met head on by another cyclists on the wrong side of the road, also pulling out around said van!  After six hours, we’d done about 30km, seen heaps of the city, and I was exhausted, more from the concentration than from the physical exertion!

We visited the castle too…  complete with moat and apparently Ninja-proof walls.  They can’t be claimed, said Kevin – well apart from his mate from Cairns who swam across the moat in the dead of night a few months back, and scaled the unclimbable wall to the very top, diving back into the moat to return to the lads on the other side cheering him on!  Trust a bloody Aussie!

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And everywhere we went, there were these reminders…

imageJapan, surely the only country in the world where you’re allowed to smoke in a restaurant, but not out on the street!

Take me down to the ballgame…

One night in Osaka we set off to watch a game of baseball, as you do.  The local Buffalos were playing the visiting Hawks – and by all accounts, it was a great game.  Not that I am in any way knowledgeable about baseball, even with the helpful crash course delivered on the fly by my trusty in house tour guide! But the experience of a Japanese baseball game is something not to be missed, particularly if, like me, you’re a regular attendee at other team sporting events. 

The stadium was a giant covered in dome, only about 20% full on this a school / work night.  Supporters seemed to be naturally grouped around two different sections of the ground, though not in a confrontational way.  Each team had a core group of supporters complete with drums, trumpets and an assortment of other brass instruments – but rather than create a competing cacophony, each support crew limited their cheering, chanting and clanging to when their team was batting…  using their pitching time to top up on food and drink, visit the toilets or simply regather their energy for the next batting round. 

Supporters had what seemed to be a fairly standard set of gear…

1.  A baseball shirt, only to be donned once you reach your seat, often over the top of your work clothes.  Amazing the number of salarymen who arrived interior standard dark suit, white shirt, conservative tie “uniform” and simply replaced their jacket with the baseball shirt over the top of their collar and tie, tie knot still firmly and neatly in place.  And then reserved the process at the end of the game, leaving their seat in salaryman uniform again!

These two out on a date night right in front of us – note his tie still on!

2. A team neck towel and pair of plastic cones or sticks, both to be used in the choreographed supporter chants, the cones for banging together and waving in the air.

3.  Balloons, not just any balloons but large long ones in your team’s specified colour, with a big bulbous head….  All on cue (but only one team at a time – in our case the Hawks at the end of the 6th inning and the Buffalos at the end of the 7th) supporters start inflating their ballots until the whole stand seems to be filled with waving sperm shaped blossoms….


 And as the innings ends, they all let the balloons go whizzing up into the sky as they deflate en masse!

No ballgame would be complete without the obligatory food and beer, and this too was a revelation.  None of the limitations on how much alcohol one person can buy that has become commonplace back in NZ.  In fact, each of the mainstream breweries appears to have a team of pretty girls, each with a 25litre keg on her back and a holstered pourer, dispensing at your seat for those who don’t want to miss a pitch.  Even whisky was available “on tap” off the girl’s back!


We tried a range of fast food on offer…  The famous Osaka octopus dumpling balls, hot dogs (of course, after all it was a baseball game) and the most delicious deep fried salt chicken.  Healthy stuff!

In the end, the Hawks won easily – setting off another ejection of sperm-like balloons (you need to carry a spare white one in the hopes of a win, apparently).  And the crowd briefly went wild.  Before changing back into the orderly throng of mostly business attired workers, heading home (or maybe to a karaoke bar to celebrate).

(Photos and video courtesy of Pip Gilbert – my camera battery died of over-use syndrome!)

Hiroshima’s monuments to peace

One hesitates to even dare comment on a visit to such an historic place, with so much said, and so much written by the more informed, the more experienced and those more closely affected by a literally world-changing event.  But somehow it seems disrespectful to let this sobering visit pass without even a brief comment.


The Peace Park is awesome – in the true sense of the word.  A monument to a nation that seems to my uninformed eye to have genuinely channeled their deepest grief into a bid for future peace.  I thought of the many Kiwis I have met, touched by WWII experiences in South East Asia.  I wanted them all to be here with me to see the other side.  I wondered if it was real – the sense of reconciliation, the lack of vengeful desire to exact retribution, the acceptance of defeat.

imageimagePeter rang the peace bell.

I was not brave enough to visit the museum.  Photos displayed in the park, with writings of those who were there on the day and briefly survived long enough to document thoughts and feelings; these were enough.  I sat outside and watched my grandchildren playing in the park.



imageYouth are our future – and it is apt that youth are at the forefront of the movement for peace.


My daughter did a great job of explaining to her children why we were here – and why the adults in our party were sad.  Izzy (aged 6) said we would come back one day to see that the flame was no longer burning – when all the bombs are gone. Yes Izzy, one day.


Izzy left her own little “monument” in the park…


A series of small amazements – part 1 (dogs)

It is one of the  great gifts of travel that, as tourists in a foreign land, we experience not just the Sights – the must do, must see attractions of each place – but also the sights of day to day ordinariness going on around us, as locals go about the daily lives in ways that to us are different, unusual or just plan weird.

Certainly, no trip to Japan would be complete without comment on those small things that catch the eye, and cause us to sometimes wonder why.  So let’s start with dogs…  an earlier trip to Fukuoka over a decade ago introduced me to the reality of pet clothing boutiques (and rugby supporters bringing their dogs to the game fully kitted out in the jerseys of their favourite team).  Dogs in clothes are still very much the order of the day, as evidenced by this wee poodle in her tartan pleated skirt and pale pink sweater…


However, it seems things have moved on…  Or maybe it’s just the sophistication of a larger city, with not just doggy day care… 

… but aromatherapy and reflexology for your pampered pooch.  Presumably the coffee,  tea, beer and wine are for the owners, while you wait?  Or perhaps you’d like to browse the store for a lovely soft crescent moon bed, or a black and cream dog carrying bag, tastefully trimmed?


And when the wee darling’s little legs get tired – there’s a LOT of walking in Japan, I can vouch for that – you can always pop her up into the custom pet stroller for a ride.


Two different days, in different places…  Wow!  And just one more beauty in pink …


An assault on the senses

There is no other way to describe Tsukiji, the giant Tokyo fish markets.  Although the market itself opens at 4am, they only let the gawpers like us in at 9… Apart from a tiny band of tourist keen enough to be there queuing when they open for the 120 observer passes to the tuna auction.  We were not that keen.

So Rob and Jenna, Peter and I, set out at a more civil hour for “just a look”.  Wow!  A vast terrain of polystyrene, water, people and fish… teeming with custom vehicles suited to transporting wares down narrow aisles, some more river than road; all admist a growing throng of incredulous foreigners – gaijin – in inappropriate footwear, cameras clicking, at times oblivious to the hazards all around.



Not just the vehicles, but men walking along swinging their meat hooks (well, I suppose you’d call them fish hooks here), but think what you’d see in an abbatoir, not on a fishing line.

Officials trying valiantly to move the crowd along at the stall where the butchering of large tuna carcasses was going on – by axe and bandsaw.


All juxtaposed with scenes from another world – the old copper kettle steaming away gently, and the bent over old lady shucking oysters out the back.

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And looking incredibly out of place…  New Zealand salmon, Manuka smoked, if you want a more packaged option!


We all did a lap together, the four of us, and then Rob and I went back for more – the fascination of so much industry, so much freshness, the blood and water flowing together, the urgency with which everything is done, the fish, the people…  all overcoming the sensory assault of sights, sounds, smells and slipperiness;  and yes even the feeling of horror at seeing in the fles, literally, what I knew could only be whale meat.


By 10 we were done, and ready to find the freshest sushi in town for Rob and Peter.  A small queue at a nearby stall, and they were in for what they described as the best ever “happy to come back tonight and do it all again” food experience.  I was vaguely tempted, until Rob pronounced that his favourite was the sea urchin.  Yeah, maybe not.

From there we followed my very poor directions to our planned lunch stop – for what Peter remembered as the best spare ribs ever.  A 4.4km walk turned out to be much longer, through a combination of deliberate detours and really bad route planning.  It was a great walk – through the very posh Ginza area (where we couldn’t resist a small black marble addition to our dragon collection) and then on through the “government” district, pristine and heavily guarded.  Orderly, orderly, orderly… That is Japan, and nowhere more so than in the parliamentary precinct.

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Two hours later, we plopped our parched selves down at the Rose & Crown, spotted in the distance by Rob – “surely must be a pub”, we thought.  And yes it was, with good beer, and a helpful waitress who informed us that our chosen destination was just a 5 minute walk up the road – and came out onto the pavement with us to check we were taking the RIGHT road.

As is so often the case, the ribs were not quite as great in reality as in recollection, but it was a good lunch.  The taxi home seemed like a sensible choice too (though it did take us a wee while to figure out where our house was in relation to where he dropped us.  Lesson of the day – follow Rob, not Peter’s Garmin (which admittedly is operating blind without a set of Japanese maps).  Pretty much like the rest of us, really.

Time for a lie down – we walked 15km apparently – and even a nap for some;  only to be woken by the excitement of the Gilbert family back from their trip to the Science and Innovation Museum, which sounds like the best trip ever for kids, and big kids too!  Not sure who was more excited – the adults or the kids.

And then, because we obviously hadn’t had enough exercise for the day, The girls set off on a shopping excursion, abandoning the boys with the tired children.  The strong NZ dollar is making this a very attractive place to shop, despite the obvious limitations in catering for those of western size.  Add to that the alarming return of winter temperatures – tomorrow the high will be 7C! – and a bit of shopping becomes a “necessity” rather than an indulgence.

Along with the bad weather came the news – sensible but disappointing – that our great cycle tour has been cancelled.  Can’t wait to see what Howard has in store for us in its place.  So much to see (and hear and do and taste and feel), so little time!

i think the thing I love most is this.  No matter how busy, challenging or confronting the experience, it seems there is always a quite place of tranquility just around the corniness.  Very Zen!

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and taste and feel), so little time.

Just like camping, only with walls and technologically advanced plumbing!

“Only in Japan”. A phrase already becoming somewhat overused less than 48 hours into our epic family holiday.

Sleeping on 1inch thick futons rolled out on a wooden floor – at least there’s no sagging mattress here!  The “pencil house” in Shinjuku turn out to be in the middle of Tokyo-suburbia, with a minor subway station just five minutes walk away.  A steep and narrow staircase leads up past a ground floor “bed”room, to a tiny living space, and then up again to two more rooms up above.

I know it’s a cliche to be amazed at Japanese toilets, but honestly, the reality of plonking yourself down in the middle of the night to find a really warm seat, has to be experienced.  As Pip said, your first thought is that you have been preceded by a really long sitter.  The lid lifts automatically when you entered and water starts running automatically (to mask the sounds of your normal bodily functions!  There are is not one, but two control panels. I pressed a button, experimentally, you understand, only to have a strong stream of water shoot out of the bowl, between my legs and hit the opposite wall! Ooops!  No more experimenting here.

Moved on to the kitchen where the glass hob has plates you can set the temperature on…  Interesting, but useless if you have no idea what temp you need for hotcakes or bacon!

So on to the sights of the day.  Given the impending weather deterioration, we dedicated our first day in Tokyo to Hanami – the celebration of the beautiful cherry blossoms, slightly past their best, but still pretty amazing.



A long walk through Ueno Park revealed so much more than just flowers.  The local penchant for pampered pooches was very much in evidence.


Note the pleats on that poodle’s tartan skirt!

There was also no shortage of interesting dress styles, from traditional to questionable to fun dress



And this is Izzy, and Matthew too, all wrapped up against the cold.



For yes it is cold!    Not that that is any deterrent to the enthusiastic Hanami picnicking, that is done with style and aplomb.  Large territories pegged out well in advance, heaps of food and drink, they shed their shoes to settle in for the day, and apparently on into the night… With a convenient ditch to roll into when l becomes too much!



And finally, no Japanese excursion would be complete without the obligatory paparazzi!

Feeling right at home with my camera!