Looking back over the penultimate week of my travels, I find that, despite Hong Kong’s immensity and interestingness, the experience and memories stemming from it are mainly culinary in nature. Therefore, allow me to begin by briefly listing the animals (and parts therein) which I have eaten for the first time (actually or effectively) over the course of this past week with those tree-trunks they call eating utensils in this country:
- Razor clam
- Normal clam
- Chicken feet
- Pork intestine
- Pork kidney
- Parts of an unidentified fish’s face
- Mantis shrimp
- Very strong vegetabley tea
- Cane sugar syrup
Although this was interspersed with various more regular meats, coming from a life that one could hardly be called seafood-focused I had some adapting to do when faced with a large central plate of slimy salty things and an innate need to prove myself as the only foreigner in a restaurant full of locals.
Speaking of locals, I found myself reacquainted with a number of borders from back at
school. It makes sense geographically, but was still rather disconcerting for both parties. Thankfully English was rather more comfortable for them, as I had gotten rather too well-practiced at a blank stare and half-smile at mealtimes to make up for my total lack of Cantonese.
When not eating or sleeping I wandered the streets of the city with my old friend and guide Simon, being shown places the names of which I cannot remember, most of which were (deliberately) somewhat grotty, intriguing and mildly intimidating. Hong Kong is comprised almost entirely of malls, very tall, thin blocks of flats and markets. We spent most of our time in the latter, coming across all sorts of bizarre and very culturally specific items for sale.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the myriad experiences that found me here, I feel Tokyo calling once more and look forward to being back in a country where food is eaten out of plates rather than bowls with unnecessary spoons and people don’t talk on the train.
Having survived Osaka I come to the end of my victory lap around Japan. It wasn’t all grim, however. This week held host to one of the three biggest festivals in the country: Tenjin Matsuri. Technically it is dedicated to Sugawara no Michizane, a scholar, poet and politician of Edo period Japan, currently deified as a patron of learning and art. In practice it consists of a large parade with loud red-hatted drummers, hundreds of umbrella dancers and children leading an ox, culminating in a great show of river-based pomp and ceremony with fireworks and yet more drummers on boats.
There were crowds aplenty, especially next to the river. In 32 degree heat this was not pleasant, but I soldiered on somehow by eating far too much festival food and gawping at the attractions which seemed to involve catching goldfish, crabs and terrapins (not all at once) in incredibly shallow hand-nets. I stuck to the food lest I found myself unexpectedly burdened with a crustacean.
On my last day I rounded off the travels with a true air of finality by visiting the tomb of Bashō. This was actually a second attempt, as I had been caught out by Osaka’s cryptic train system and didn’t arrive until the temples were closed. When I finally made it it was raining with a thunderstorm on the horizon, which seemed oddly fitting. After a rather glassy-eyed ‘discussion’ with the local priest and much money thrown into every single shrine just in case I wrote a final haiku in the visitors book and, cradling my excellent mikuji, said my silent goodbyes before preparing for the next leg of my journey.
I arrived in Osaka ready to tumble into yet another mad rush of Japanese urban living. Unfortunately, being alone and in yet another ‘youth hostel’ jam packed with tired-looking Japanese men over thirty in one of the rough(er) areas of the city I felt rather more inclined to leave and spend my days either sheltering from the heat in a dimmed, highly air-conditioned room or out in some of the more pleasant surrounding areas. In Arashiyama (just outside Kyoto) and Nara, there was something of a recurring theme.
First up were the charming Japanese macaques (snow monkeys), who are native around much of Japan but especially well known in the north. I had spotted some whilst in Tohoku (and surprised my host by telling her that England did not have monkeys natively), but they were rather more timid than their southern counterparts. An interesting inversion is that the visitors stand in a cage (or sorts) and feed the monkeys on the outside, who are completely wild and native to the mountain, and are attracted by the prospect of easy food. This attraction was more of a simian sideshow, however, compared to the main event.
The real reason I had come to Arashiyama was to witness the age old tradition of ukai. This involves a boat about ten metres in length, with two people propelling it punt-fashion and a large cage of burning wood. A third man stands at the front holding a number of strings, which are tied around the necks of about five cormorants swimming in the water. At dusk they set off, followed by eight long boats of tourists, and glide up and down the river, led by the birds. Occasionally one dives and comes up with a fish, which is left half-swallowed due to the rope. It is then yanked out of the water, stripped of its loot and dropped back in to try again. It really is a dramatic spectacle by firelight.
Finally, I journeyed to Nara. It turns out the deer are just as mercenary as I have been warned. Although there are many signs warning that they are still wild animals, it can get somewhat unnerving when surrounded on all sides by antlers butting steadily more urgently at one’s sides as soon as deer cookies are smelled. They are polite at first, even bowing upon introduction and in return if one cares to try. These deer may be wild, but they are certainly still Japanese.