Bigger Chopsticks

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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:

  • Abalone
  • Crab
  • Razor clam
  • Normal clam
  • Scallops
  • Oysters
  • 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.

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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.

Effigies of the possessions of the deceased to be burnt at funerals

Effigies of the possessions of the deceased to be burnt at funerals

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.

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So Good he Named it Thrice (or rather, didn’t)

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Matsushima truly might have been created by Ōyamazumi [God of the Mountains] in the Great Age of the Gods. What painter or what writer could ever capture fully the wonder of this masterpiece of nature? 

-Matsuo Bashō, Oku no Hosomichi

Matsushima,
Ah! Matsushima,
Matsushima

-Matsuo Bashō, when forced to write a
haiku about the place, much later on

The obligatory haiku stone

The obligatory haiku stone

It is perhaps testament to the state of the weather and the time period in which I find myself that I was not quite struck dumb (although poetically the value of my contributions could be called into question) upon gazing out onto the bay of Matsushima. The clouds and impending rain made the sky and water grey, and peaceful views of the countless islands from Ōjima Island interrupted by the horns of ferries doing tours of the area.

Maybe it was just the clouds, maybe it’s peak season for visits, or maybe it’s because I bit into a seemingly delicious curry-pan only to find it stuffed with oysters (serves me right for not reading the sign properly), but it would appear that Matsushima is one place for me to visit again, just to be sure.

A Trio of Travels

These last three days have been a veritable smorgasbord of Basho-based visitations. While I wait for my sometime companion and, in a sense, hostess, to join me up in Tohoku, I have been saving the more famous Matsushima in favour of three other places that made an impression on the poet.

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Taking the poet’s words to heart, on the way up to my present lodgings I stopped by at Shirakawa, once home of the barrier which divided the safe and civilised south from the lawless north. Not one to take the obvious course of calling a taxi, I set off on a roundabout route following the train tracks with only a highly stylised wall map with no visible scale to guide me on my way. Although the walk was very pleasant, allowing me a view of the town with traffic lights thatJKR_0237 were literally (rather than figuratively) blue, as well as the steady spread of rice fields, after two hours I found myself in a park with an impressive mountain ridge and lake, but no sign of the (somewhat) famous Shirakawa no Seki. In the end I folded, took a taxi at great expense and was given an electric blue umbrella for my troubles. Remember kids, always check to see how far it is before walking.

Hiraizumi

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You’re lucky I have some semblance of self control or every blog post would just be these

Number two was a village with a number of very old temple… foundations. It seems Japan was/is not the best place to be for ageing holy wooden structures, which, even in my experience, seem to have a habit of being knocked down by earthquakes or obliterated by fires, whether naturally occurring or caused by an angry monk who had a bone to pick. Thankfully there are other temples in the area, so up the scenic route I went only to findJKR_0339 Call my hysterical, but I was rather unnerved, and put this to use by augmenting the bear-scaring noise made by hammering the block (most of which were almost completely broken) by practically bellowing any form of tune that sprang to mind, which ended up being a twisted mix of Frank Sinatra and Salve Regina. Despite barely coming across insects on the short walk up, I now feel far more worldly at having navigated bear-infested woods and feel sure that my plan of throwing everything in my camera bag at my oncoming assailant (it being a black bear) whilst sobbing quietly at the loss would have come off in my favour.

Yamadera

JKR_0512 The most famous of the three, boasting a grand total of one foreigner (the only one spotted in three days — we shared a quiet nod of solidarity), Yamadera is so named because it features a large number of temples and, so it would appear, graves, on the side of a mountain, with theJKR_0491 town in the valley below. High heat and humidity, coupled with sporadic rain, did not make the journey on foot particularly pleasant. On the way, however, I was graced with a statue of my predecessor-of-sorts for some inspiration before visiting the nearby museum in his memory. There seems a slightly odd disparity between the number of Japanese people who know much of Oku no Hosomichi and the emphasis placed on the route by the locations mentioned, although perhaps my very presence in such places proves a point.

JKR_0532On the way up, I also encountered my first genuine real life wild Japanese monkey, who seemed rather unnerved at having a camera brandished at her, as indeed many of us would. She, along with the aforementioned bears and the strangely large and copious dragonflies brings the grand total of animals that my current hosts didn’t really believe we don’t have in England to three. I can only expect the total to increase from here on out.

Find the Fish

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Every traveller to Tokyo is, it seems, immediately bombarded with commands and questions directly pertaining to their presence at the famous fish market at Tsukiji, deep within the bay of Tokyo. It has been almost four months since I arrived in the city, which at the very least rules out using the experience as a barrier against jet lag, so at the continuous request of a particular parent and after no less than four failed attempts I came to be blinking in the very un-rainy seasonal sun at nine o’clock in the morning.

Here, Mashimoto demonstrates the correct way to play an unagi.

Here, Mashimoto demonstrates the correct way to play the unagi.

The 5 am tuna auction is perhaps the most well known aspect of this place, but given that photography is generally not allowed and that getting a place would require me to get the last train from Koenji and wait for four hours, I thought it far more pleasant to skip the whole affair and simply see the post-auction market in action. Surprisingly, the market proper was almost free of tourists. Unsurprisingly, the guidebook-recommended sushi restaurants on the outskirts were not. This allowed me some quality time with some totally unconcerned fishermen in their natural habitat.

As many guidebooks say, tourists at tolerated here rather than welcomed. One has absolutely no right of way amongst the serious looking men wielding comically enormous knives or dock workers speeding about on dollies piles high with frozen fish.

JKR_9796This has definite advantages to the budding street photographer, however, as it allows him to move about effectively unnoticed by his subjects as they go about their morning. The bulk of the day’s commerce has actually been completed by the time tourists are allowed in, so there was a general air of reaching the end of a long morning amongst many of the staff, who were relaxing and having breakfast while their superiors worked on the accounts. Nevertheless, fish were still out and being sold at a steady pace.

While Tsukiji may not be quite the number one attraction Tokyo has to offer (in this wanderer’s opinion, at least), it is most definitely an experience for those looking for ‘the real Japan’. The replacement of sugar coating with a mix of slime, fish blood and water will be refreshing for many. I personally chose sleep over the tuna auction, and have few if any regrets about doing so. Other sources have advised that it is best to avoid the main sushi restaurants where the queues can hit two hours and explore the area a little more to find shops where the fish has had to travel a grand total of 30m further. Just be sure to have your camera ready and your wits about you.

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Cats are Blasé

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I am not generally to be found soaking up the utterly bizarre counterculture of Harajuku, but some of the less fashion-centric trends tend to find their way out into (relatively) less edgy neighbourhoods like Koenji. Cat cafés became somewhat better known in the UK after one opened in London, but here in Tokyo they are almost old-hat now. Being not quite emotionally ready to handle a maid café, it was to Café Baron that I journeyed on my first morning as a nineteen year old.

JKR_9580A small room, littered with paraphernalia both strigidaean and tytonidaen and run by a quiet man with a long ponytail, the café is dominated (visually, if not spatially) by a corner by the window, wherein two owls can be found sleepily gazing out onto the street outside. Having ordered out cinnamon teas, the owner brought out the first of the two owls. Having fluttered up to the back of a chair in the middle of the room, he began the rather arduous task of preening his many feathers, occasionally pausing to stare in a somewhat shocked manner at the patrons drinking and watching, casting accusatory looks at the owner whenever another customer walked in. His vigilance was such that all who entered bowed to both hosts.

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Although there as no touching allowed, we could get very close indeed to the birds. While this larger one maintained his position for most of our stay (he later hopped down and looked very significantly from the door of the enclosure to the owner), the barn owl was rather more mobile, and seemed far more dishevelled from its slumber, although this was soon cleared up by further preening. JKR_9592Both were very quiet and pleasant, posing for photos when needed, although one man who tried to get a clear shot of the back of the barn owl’s head was foiled in every attempt by the its turning round every time he approached with camera primed.

Cats and maids are all very well, but this is one of the few places where one can satisfy strigiformal sympathies in a relaxed and slightly bizarre environment. A little extra research has taught me that such places are far from limited – mice, rabbits and guinea pigs have also joined the ranks of animals that ultra-fashionable Japanese can gaze at and play with while sipping very expensive drinks. Maybe in five years these too will be enjoyed by the folk of London town.

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Violent Hugging

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It was in the spirit of pleasant inevitability that I found myself standing outside Ryōgoku Kokugikan last Friday, watching the (very accurately predicted by a Japanese acquaintance) ‘tourists and old people’ milling about and taking hundreds of thousands of photos of the hut-shaped arena while I, perhaps a little more bravely, went for the sumo wrestlers heading home after the day’s bout in one of the six annual tournaments.

Arriving at a little past two, the arena was generally quite quiet and reserved. The standing of the wrestlers increases throughout the day, leading many people to skip the first eight hours of low-ranking bouts and turn up at four to see the sekitori, who make up the top tiers and generally the more exciting fights. This almost scholarly atmosphere was shattered by eight loud Americans who, through no fault of their own (I am sure), seemed to have misread the ambiance and decided that their presence would be best employed by shouting support and derision during fights, imitating the ritual chanting which follows each bout and wondering loudly why it was all taking so long. Either their patience or their nerve seemed to run out after a few hours, however, and they were not heard from once things started really picking up.JKR_9264

Although each actual fight generally lasts less than 15 seconds, there is a great deal of ceremony both before each individual bout and each round. At first, all the wrestlers of a certain level enter and step up to the ring, with the name and origin of each called JKR_9234out. Instead of the mawashi (loincloth) used in actual fights, the higher-ranking sekitori  wear an embroidered apron called a keshō-mawashi. These also appear in portraits if a wrestler wins the tournament, and is now purely ceremonial and very expensive. Before the fight itself, there is a great deal of stretching of arms (to show a lack of weapons), clapping, throwing of salt for purification of the ring and general staring down of opponents. This is where one sees the crouching poses and enormous stamping that is so often associated with the sport.

JKR_9210It was somewhat to my surprise that, alongside the classically gelatinous wrestlers, a (relatively) slighter and European-looking man also appeared. Foreigners are far from unheard of in sumo – there hasn’t been a Japanese yokozuna (highest ranking sumo) since 2007, but most come from Mongolia, with Pacific Island dominance common in the 1980’s. This has become so apparent that the Japan Sumo Association has started placing limits on the number of foreigners allowed in sumo stables. It turns out that our man, known as Takanoyama Shuntarō, hails from the Czech Republic. He appeared to win his match with relative ease, but is apparently held back from rising much further by his lack of bulk. Matches begin when both competitors have touched their fists to their corresponding white line, which is immediately followed by both men leading towards each other with a sometimes audible slap. Finally, the result of the match is announced by a man in white holding a fan, who chants the name of the winner and the technique used.

Actually a word from our sponsors before a big match - the winner gets extra prize money and sometimes a related gift

Actually a word from our sponsors before a big match – the winner gets extra prize money and sometimes a related gift

As the matches get bigger, so do the crowds, the excitement and the wrestlers themselves. Sponsors appear, walking carefully around the edge holding large colourful banners. While the atmosphere and tension certainly increases, there is certainly no guarantee that the win itself will be more impressive. There were a few more amateur mistakes (such as embarrassing slips) in the earlier rounds, but many fights end with a wrestler being pushed out of the ring and walking dejectedly back to his place, rather than spectacular throws. Highlights did however, include a sekitori finding himself rather abruptly seated amongst the audience as a result of a particularly vigorous tumble, and a technically forbidden throwing of cushions after one victory by an underdog.

The day ends with a bow-spinning ceremony

The day ends with a bow-spinning ceremony

Sumo is something so quintessentially Japanese that my attendance was all but non-negotiable. Although among the Japanese it is very much an over-50’s sport, there is a great deal of excitement and ceremony, alongside the rather base pleasure of seeing two enormously fat men in nappies trying to push each other over.

Road Trip!(?)

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It may only be mid-spring but already temperature is rising and the gentle whisper of the breeze through sakura has been replaced by the roar of air conditioning from every vehicle and abode. It was with a little bemusement therefore that I found myself not lying face-down below a column of fast moving 18°C air but rather crammed into a pale blue Toyota Aqua with four other people on my way to Hakone, a stretch of lake and mountains just a few miles away from Mt. Fuji.

The above photo is only half representative. In the depths of those blown out highlights in the windscreen, the road appears clear. In actuality, it seems that every car in Tokyo was similarly intent on leaving the city on that precise Saturday morning, allowing us to lengthen the journey from an estimated two hours to nearer six, albeit with rather liberal rest stops. We nevertheless made light of the journey through loud dance music, open windows and dancing to/harassing passing cars, developing a particular affinity for a man in a silver Lexus who seemed to cross our path continually on the main highway.

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I’m counting this as a success

No prizes for guessing which vessel we chose

No prizes for guessing which vessel we chose

Having set off at a little past eight, we finally arrived at almost 2pm and were bombarded with interesting sights. Not only was Mt. Fuji properly visible (I refuse to count my excursion to Fujimizaka as a viewing) but the lake was host to enormous pirate ships by way of transport. Once on the ship, we had about half an hour of travelling time, most of which was spent (for me, anyway) changing lenses and bemoaning the distance haze in subsequent photos.

Once at the other side of the lake, we settled into more traffic of a human variety in order to take a cable car up to an observation area and hot springs. Time was a particular consideration, as the car needed to be returned by 8pm. Even getting this far, we were cutting it very fine indeed and our spirits were not raised by the enormous line of people who greeted us at the top.

Eggs are boiled in the hot springs, absorbing the salts, until they turn black. Said to increase longevity, they are speciality of this area.

Eggs are boiled in the hot springs, absorbing the salts, until they turn black. Said to increase longevity, they are speciality of this area.

The traffic and time pressure was such that we had just enough time to sprint in a circle, take this picture and wolf down a very expensive hot dog before we joined the second queue to return home. The last pirate ship left at five, leaving us to sprint on board through crowds of apparently unconcerned tourists. Thankfully we made it, and began the somewhat less arduous journey back to Tokyo just as the sun was setting.

Darkness in a City

JKR_8898On something of a whim I found myself making the hour long trip to Kawasaki last weekend. In my search for ever more obscure and/or zany pastimes and atractions, I had heard of an interestingly themed arcade there. Game centres (as they are generally known) are certainly nothing new in Japan, and given the country’s penchant for jaw-dropping absurdity when it comes to institutions like restaurants and hotels, I figured that this particular establishment was not to be missed.JKR_8903

The number and quality of the arcade machines could not be faulted. Indeed, they have an entire floor devoted to darts, snooker and fake race betting. The strangeness came in the décor, being as it was an apparently very faithful reconstruction of the (in)famous Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong.

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Large and lithe alike danced wildly, thumped rhythmically glowing boxes and buttons or twiddled knobs with that calorie-conserving efficiency that only a practiced gamer can call his own amongst delicately hand-painted and rusted street signs, individually torn fliers and JKR_8897speakers playing distant Chinese chatter and rat squeaks. The floor changed from bare concrete to plush patterned carpet with alarming rapidity once I walked past the escalators. Evidently the Japanese proclivity to thematic extravagance doesn’t stretch that far.

Every last detail was thought of. Plug sockets and vending machines had been covered with grimy sheet metal. Tiny windows opened out onto the main square, revealing tiny bedrooms and kitchens. Steam from leaky pipes hissed loudly as unsuspecting would-be photojournalists strolled beneath hidden motion sensors embedded in the rough concrete ceiling. The effect was eerie and strangely awe-inspiring

JKR_8885Given that the city was demolished in 1993, this strange arcade is the closest many of us will ever get to experiencing some part of what that bizarre few hectares must have been like (minus the smells, crowds, real rats, heavy drug use, gang violence, prostitution and claustrophobic reality of the place, of course) for those who lived there. I suspect, however that Dance Dance Revolution would have been a little harder to find.JKR_8912

That’s no mushroom (NSFW)

In times of old, there was a demon with very sharp teeth. It fell in love with a woman, but this went sadly unrequited, with her resolving to wed a human companion. Seized by bitterness and anger, the demon secreted itself in a very particular orifice, and, upon consummation, forcibly cleft that one appendage which all gentlemen hold dear from his body. Apparently taking this disconcerting event rather more stoically than her (soon to be ex-)husband, the woman remarried, only to realise the effect of those precisely-placed dentures once again. The woman was understandably somewhat miffed that two in as many grooms had run screaming from her bedchamber trailing blood and masculinity, so she paid a local blacksmith to construct a (rather optimistically sized, I must say) phallus made of iron. The demon, fooled, broke its teeth upon’t, and left the woman forever, presumably leaving her to convince a third man to become her husband. Thence onward, the event was commemorated annually as Kanamara Matsuri. Ladies and gentleman, I give you,

The Penis Festival

JKR_8793Yes indeed. Three Brobdingnagian bishops were paraded through the temple grounds and down the street, amid great cheers and cries of happy laughter. Unfortunately I took an unexpected detour to Haneda Airport, meaning that when I did arrive I was forced into the most tightly packed crowd I have ever experienced. I think it’s safe to say we all learned something about fluid dynamics and crowd psychology that day. There were three in total, the first, which seemed to be metal (but not the John Thomas of the tale), was pulled by burly men. The larger pink pecker by blushing women, and a final wooden wedding tackle by older representatives of the community.JKR_8839

I was lucky enough to find myself standing right next to the stone torii (gate), opposite some ironic Frenchmen and with a clear view of each manoeuvring love muscle. This was the main commemorative event of the festival, and having already missed the daikon (radish) carving JKR_8865competition I let myself be carried in behind the stately procession of pork swords and into my colleague James. We solemnly prayed for fertility and delved in against the jubilant crowd.

What did you really expect?

What did you really expect?

A slight hush was apparent around one hut in particular. Upon entering, we saw not only hundreds of charms depicting historical and anime characters doing unspeakable things, but also the legendary longfellow itself. As hinted before, it was of a prestigious size, rising majestically a foot and a half from an anvil and about the width of my neck. The mechanics hardly bear thinking about.

Whilst James was buying himself some 金玉 (testicles) sake, my attention was drawn to the many people indulging in rather anatomical lollipops with absent-minded nonchalance, which was in itself more shocking than the objects themselves. After a long queue, I was able to purchase a couple of ‘kings’. Unfortunately, they were all out of ‘queens’.

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Alas, when the rain came there was little to be done but meander home. If only for a few hours, the experience had been one of blissful juvenility mixed with knee-jerk conservatism at seeing an enormous wooden wonder weasel bestraddled by young children. However, when duty called I was only too happy to oblige.

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