Indulging my inner hedonist in Rajasthan

If you want a taste of a royal lifestyle, Rajasthan’s the place to go. It seems that there are as many royal palaces and forts in Rajasthan as there are branches of McDonalds in England; every little town has at least one.

Very fittingly, the word Rajasthan means ‘land of kings’, and all the black and white photos in colonial archives of polo-playing, tiger-shooting, gem-incrusted, old-Etonian Maharajas, were taken in Rajasthan.

Some Palaces are very grand, like the fabulous City Palace in Udaipur –

which is full of the most beautiful architecture and intricate carvings –

But when you look more closely at the beautifully carved panels, you can see that the fretwork is there to create peepholes for the royal ladies to peep out of and see what’s going on in their palace –

as they weren’t allowed out of the ladies’ quarters to take part in any of the fun themselves.

Udaipur is also home to the Lake Palace –

which is now one of the most expensive hotels in the country. As these two palaces are next to each other, one on the lake and one in the lake, I wondered why the Royal Family felt the need to have two palaces in such close proximity – even McDonalds would surely draw the line at two adjacent restaurants?

I was baffled by the Amber Fort at Jaipur when I first saw it –

The Red Fort in Delhi is red so why isn’t the Amber Fort amber? I learnt that it should be pronounced ‘amer’, and refers to the name of the family and not to the colour – how very confusing.

But it does have the most beautiful hall of mirrors –

made from local marble and mirrors from Iran. The cool thing to do, according to our guide, is to take a picture of yourself in one of the mirrors, so it looks like your picture is on the wall. So of course I had to have a go –

These were the grandest palaces, which are open to the public as museums, but we stayed in several smaller royal palaces too. When Indira Gandhi removed the privy purse from these ruling families in 1971, many of them opened their palaces up as heritage homestays, in order to make ends meet.

And it’s a great experience – from the welcome at the entrance –

to the huge bedrooms –

This one had hand painted frescoes on every wall.

We enjoyed aperitifs on the battlements at one fort –

with dinner in the courtyard –

and then a breakfast with a view the next morning –

And if the buildings are old and quirky, so is the plumbing. We had bathrooms with no hot water/no cold water/no water at all … and it’s surprising how quickly you adapt and just give a sigh as you turn off the non-functioning shower, and fill up the bucket and jug that are provided in every bathroom –

And one thing I’ve learnt is that a bathroom with no hot water is infinitely preferable to one with no cold water – in one heritage property I had to pour a bottle of mineral water into the bucket to get the scalding temperature down to bearable.

And the best thing about all these royal palaces?

It’s quite straightforward …

… I do love a man in uniform, and in Rajasthan there are so many to choose from.

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An Indian wedding – day three …

The reception on the final day was the most Western event of the whole wedding, and Western dress was the order of the day, so there were no more anxious moments, anticipating unravelling saris.

We started with what is usually called ‘pre-drinks’ – and which I thought would be the only drinks at a dry weddding – but how wrong I was! We gathered in a hotel bedroom for Champagne, gin, beer, rum, whisky … basically everything we’d bought at the state liquor shop, and which now had to be finished before we left the next day.

Then, when it was time to go, a whole host of sneaky drink- holders appeared; wine was poured into water flasks, whisky into hip flasks, gin into water bottles … there was even Bristol Cream sherry being secreted away for a surreptitious swig during the evening.

At the hotel, we enjoyed the sunset in a beautiful courtyard –

The bride and groom had a sumptuous sofa on a dais –

but there was no time for them to sit and enjoy it as there was a very long receiving line, and endless photos for them to get through –

Hundreds of waiters circulated with delicious nibbles – I particularly liked the tandoori paneer – and a selection of mini mocktails … although they weren’t ‘mock’ for very long once the hipflasks came out.

The food and beverage manager was very keen to give us a tour of his kitchen, where he can feed 5,000 people a day, he told us proudly. That’s a mind-boggling number for someone like me, who has to plan ahead to cook for any more than four people. He gave us a demonstration of how to cook a naan in a tandoori oven

And then showed us the wedding cake, just having the final touches applied … macarons, my favourite!

After dinner, Sam gave a brilliant Best Man’s speech –

and there was rapturous applause and a few moist eyes by the end.

After the groom’s speech, it was time for the choreographed dance routines. There was one by the bride’s family, the groom’s family, the bride and groom, the British Asian friends, and finally a surprise dance by the non-Asian friends, who had been practising in secret for several days –

Luckily friends’ parents were exempt from this … luckily for us, and luckily for the audience.

Then the dancing proper started – wild and loud and involving a lot of leaping and waving your arms in the air. I could manage the arm waving, but my leaping was more like prancing; sprightly but definitely not wild.

And instead of dancing around our handbags, we danced around the photographers, who were still in the thick of it, right up to the bitter end, snapping away. Their stamina and dedication were truly impressive.

And that was it … three days of celebrations were over, and I’d worn five outfits, eaten my body weight in paneer, learnt several new dances, and above all, had a fantastic time.

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An Indian wedding – day two …

Day two was actually straight after day one – but due to travelling and intermittent Wifi, this post has been languishing in my notebook for a while.

Day two started for us with a ceremony for the groom, attended by his family and friends, to ask Ganesh to bless the marriage.

Hursh, the groom, sat on a dais with his family and the priest and they performed a set of rituals involving pouring petalled water onto flowers on a tray, spooning yogurt onto a statue of Ganesh and then cleaning it off, while the priest chanted and tapped a metal spoon on a tray.

There were only 3 photographers at this event, so I assume the bride must have been holding a similar ceremony, with the other 5 or 6 photographers in attendance. Even so, each one had an assistant to move the lights and hand over different lenses, so it was still a lot of people running around in front of the action.

Next came a gift giving ceremony, where the groom’s mother’s brothers handed out gifts to the groom’s extended family. There was a viewing table set up beforehand where we could all go and peruse the gifts – rather like eyeing up the raffle prizes before you decide whether or not to buy a ticket –

The final ceremony of the morning was the turmeric smearing. Everyone in the groom’s party lined up to smear turmeric paste on him. Some just daintily dabbed a little on his face, while others lifted up his shirt and rubbed it all over his body or plastered his hair with it. I tried to imagine a similar ritual in England where the groom was ceremoniously coated in Worcestershire sauce and took it all in good part, laughing heartily throughout – but I’m afraid my imagination failed me.

The most exciting part of the ceremony for me was having my sari professionally tied and pleated – I had been a little concerned that if I did it myself I might unravel at a vital point in the proceedings and create an embarrassing incident.

Two sari ladies were on hand and we all had appointments to be professionally draped, pinned and tied.

They gave us a variety of different styles – and I ended up with the Indian-old-lady-flab style, which I feel I carried off with aplomb –

The men all had turbans tied by a local chap who was so overcome at tying so many western men into traditional Gujarati turbans, that he asked for a photo –

Sam, as Best Man, had a particularly magnificent turban –

I now know that a turban can be tied in approximately two minutes … as long as you know what you’re doing, of course –

And they should – of course – only be worn by men …

The groom set off for the wedding in a golden coach. He was clutching a decorated coconut, which made it rather difficult for him to negotiate the steep steps, but he clambered aboard along with his family and the Best Man, and we followed along much more mundanely in a fleet of taxis.

We all gathered a few hundred metres from the wedding venue along with a troop of drummers, and then danced along the road, to be met by the bride’s family – also dancing – who invited us in.

The bride and groom, both looking resplendent, exchanged garlands and were showered with rose petals – no hay fever in India, it would appear.

Then they sat on a pillared and garlanded dais for the wedding ceremony.

The ceremony itself lasted over 3 hours and was all in Gujarati, so it was rather difficult to follow – and also difficult to see due to the full contingent of 8 photographers and their assistants all standing between the wedding party and the guests.

But it transpired that nobody is expected to sit and watch it all – people sit and chat to their friends, or go off and have dinner – as the food was available all evening.

Finally the bride and groom got up to leave and the bride became hysterical. She was crying so much that she had to be supported by her father and sister, who were also crying. The Western guests were shocked, but Indian guests assured us that it’s traditional to sob heartbrokenly and she wasn’t really being dragged off against her will.

And then it was the end – no real finale, just the tears and then they disappeared in a car, before reappearing for dinner ten minutes later – even the bride and groom have to wait until all the guests have been served before they’re allowed to eat.

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An Indian wedding – day one …

It was very exciting to be invited to a wedding in India, so we packed our bags and headed off to Rajkot in Gujarat.

Gujarat is a dry state, so – following instructions from the groom – we had to apply for alcohol permits before we left –

With our Brits-abroad priorities firmly in place, the first thing we did in Rajkot was to summon a Tuk-Tuk, or auto rickshaw as they call them over here, to go to the state booze shop – braving the pollution to get there –

It turned out to be the busiest shop in town –

and we had to wait ages for our ration of 2 bottles of spirits or 26 cans of beer each (that’s a weekly ration, and pretty generous for a dry state, we felt). For those without permits, a handshake with a couple of thousand rupees changing hands is enough to secure your weekly ration with no questions asked.

Once the booze run was out of way, it was time for the mehndi, where all the women – and those men in touch with their feminine side – get their hands painted. The bride’s family were doing the same thing elsewhere, but as part of the groom’s contingent, we all met up in the hotel to have our hands painted by the two mehndi ladies hired for the event.

They squeeze the paste out of a tube with a very thin nozzle, and create beautiful patterns quickly and deftly.

Once the mehndi is done, you have to wait for it to dry, being very careful not to smudge it, and then leave the paste on to darken for a couple of hours.

Indian women joke that this is the time to be hand fed by your husband, as you can’t pick anything up for yourself. I wasn’t worried about the feeding, I just wanted my husband to carry my handbag for me, as my only other option would have been to kick it through the hotel and into the lift to get it back to our room.

After two hours you scratch the paste off your mehndi, which gives you delightfully dark brown smoker’s fingernails and makes a real mess in the shower, but your hands look wonderful.

The bride had her mendhi done at home, but when we saw it later we realised that you can have a design customised to your particular circumstances, and she chose to pay homage to her new life in England –

The next event was the garba, which is a dance. We all put on our dancing gear –


and headed off to the party lawns, a massive outdoor space where even the largest wedding can be accommodated – and we’re talking thousands here, for some weddings.

There was the obligatory photo shoot to start with – it seems that no Indian wedding is complete without at least eight photographers and multiple photo opportunities – and after dinner, eaten al fresco, the dancing began.

It was beautiful to watch and fun to join in – everyone was keen to show us the moves, so we clapped and swirled and tried to keep up with the others, who’ve obviously all been doing it every week since birth.

Each dance lasts 40-50 minutes and you can dip in and out of it as you please. The Indians – locals and Brits alike – all know the steps and they leap and turn in perfect unison, which is very impressive to watch.

The final dance is the stick dance, where you and your partner tap your sticks together as you dance. When done properly, it looks very elegant. Unfortunately Anthony danced as though he was beating me off with a stick, swiping it violently in my direction every time I approached, so I was forced to retreat and find a less aggressive partner.

The garba ended with a final manic freestyle dance – and then we all staggered back to the hotel … roll on day two!

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A potential change of career

Kanazawa is a wonderful little town on the west side of Honshu.  It’s wonderful for a number of reasons: firstly, it was the seat of an important feudal clan and so has many big houses, temples and shrines, secondly, it escaped bombing during the Second World War, and thirdly, it has one of the top-ranked gardens in Japan.

Being a garden lover, I decided to visit Kenrokuen garden first.  The guide book advised getting there early to avoid the crowds, so I bestirred myself and got there before 8 am, which was quite an achievement for a Saturday morning –

It’s full of trees, tea houses, statues, pagodas –

– and is a beautiful place for strolling and infusing yourself with zen first thing in the morning.

I wasn’t the only one there at that antisocial hour on a Saturday – there was the inevitable wedding couple –

who were shuffling in their traditional shoes from pictureque spot to picturesque spot, with a photographer and a woman who walked behind the bride with a battery operated fan –

Given the amount of clothing she’s wearing, I imagine it would be about as effective as cooling a blast furnace with a couple of ice cubes, but the thought was there.  That’s the great thing about Japan, there’s always a system in place to deal with any situation; I’ve never met such detail-focused people before.  Apparently they even have a special hoover to put down your throat if you start to choke on a mochi ball, which sucks the ball back up again so you can have another go at masticating.

Next door to the garden is one of the very few old samurai houses left in Japan; their fondness for building with wood in a very active seismic zone means that most things were burnt down at least once if not regularly, and most old buildings have been restored multiple times.  But this one has the original painted screens and wooden carvings –

Nomura house was built by a top ranking Samurai for his mother ‘so that she could live in comfort’.  I will be casually mentioning this to my children, and showing them some photos of the beautiful house and garden that this dutiful child created for his deserving mother.

All this tradition had whetted my appetite for more, so I went along to the kaga yuzen studio.  Kaga Yuzen is a technique for handpainting silk kimonos, and in the studio you can see them on display – or …. you can have a go at wearing one!

First you choose your kimono –

and then you put on the undershirt –

– which is tied very tightly around the middle in several places.

The kimono goes on, and then the obi around the middle.

Then the large bow is tied on the back, and several layers of padding are stuffed under the obi, so that you achieve the Japanese ideal of beauty, which is obviously someone who resembles a sake barrel, but has the nape of the neck erotically exposed.

Then it was time for the photoshoot for my new portfolio – first the looking-back-over-the-shoulder shot, which is very popular in Japan –

Then the parasol shot, showing that I can twirl with the best of them when it comes to being sun safe –

and of course, the tea ceremony –

– I won’t get a job as a geisha if I can’t whisk the client’s matcha into a steamy, frothing brew.

There’s a traditional geisha house in Kanazawa which is open to the public during the day, so I went along to sample some tea and a delicious little cake –

– everything is always so exquisitely made and presented – and this cake tasted divine too, whilst the tea was whisked to perfection.

I’m currently updating my cv to reflect my change of direction, and if you would like to book a tea ceremony or some parasol twirling, please drop me a line.

I know that a geisha is supposed to be able to play the shamisen –

– but you’ll have to put up with a few chords on my ukulele, I’m afraid.

 

 

 

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My first experience of sumo

It was most definitely serendipity times two; firstly to discover that one of the six annual sumo tournaments in Japan is held in Nagoya, and secondly to find that it would take place during my stay.  I felt that there must be a ticket with my name on it – but just to make sure, I booked one through an English language website.  It arrived by registered post –

– and I just had to hope I hadn’t been sent a ticket for the Under 14 badminton quarter finals by mistake.  The only information I could glean from the ticket was that I wouldn’t be able to smoke.

Next quandary … how to find the stadium?  I knew it was near the castle, so I set off purposefully in that direction, and before long, all I had to do was to follow a trail of sumo leading to the stadium –

– and a trail of sumo is much easier to follow than a trail of breadcrumbs –

It’s only when you see them with an average sized person that you realise how big they are –

Most of the seating in the basketball stadium had been replaced by mats for the sumo tournament, and you could buy a solo mat, a twin matted area, or a family space with four mats –

– and the posh ones here even have a little table so you can eat your lunch in a civilised manner.

I didn’t think my Western legs would be up to sitting cross-legged on the floor for about 8 hours, so I opted for one of the proper seats at the back, along with all the other foreigners, as it turned out.

The whole place was practically empty when I got there at ten o’clock, even though the tournament had started at 8.30; the diehard fans like to turn up in the early afternoon, just before the second division fights start.  The morning fights are the junior wrestlers, hoping to move up the ranks if they put on a good showing that day.

I was surprised by how small the ring is – only four and a half metres in diameter – not very big at all for two hulking men to be grappling around in –

– and there is a shrine-like roof suspended over the ring because it is a sacred space; only the wrestlers, referees and sponsors are permitted to enter.

Each bout begins with a lot of posturing, stamping, thigh slapping, throwing salt around to purify the ring … anything to try to discountenance your opponent.  Then when they’re finally ready, they lean forwards with their knuckles on the ground –

– and then suddenly lunge towards each other, both trying to grab hold of their opponent’s loin cloth to give him a massive wedgy and chuck him out of the ring.

Before each new division begins to fight, the wrestlers all parade around the ring wearing special aprons –

– a bit like the male equivalent of sexy waitresses in a strip club.

The Japanese love of queueing was in evidence at lunchtime, when a queue stretched the length of the stadium –

for the chance to eat a bowl of ‘sumo stew’.  Some people were prepared to wait for an hour in a queue in the corridor and miss the wrestling, just to eat a bowl of rather sloppy looking stew.  This young chap was rather unnerved to see me closing in on him and his lunch –

– perhaps he thought I wanted to avoid the queue and steal his stew.

And they’ve all got chopsticks – how can you eat something as liquid as that with a pair of chopsticks?

The place filled up in the afternoon, and the sponsors started parading their banners before some of the fights.  The winning sumo in those bouts is handed an envelope full of cash as he leaves the ring – perfectly safe, I suppose – who’s going to mug a sumo wrestler?

Everything was done with perfect decorum.  The winners didn’t cheer, punch the air or even smile, and the losers accepted their lot with equal equanimity; there were no tantrums, nobody was ‘gutted’, and no spectators questioned the referees’ eyesight.  I think sumo definitely qualifies as a gentleman’s game – in fact, it may well be the only one left.

 

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University life in Japan

Before I arrived, I wasn’t sure how I would feel about teaching in a women’s university.  How archaic, I thought, to have such institutions in the 21st Century in a first world country.  But now that I’ve experienced just how much of a man’s world it is in Japan, and how women are supposed to defer to men at all times, I think it’s better that these girls are allowed to be themselves in this female environment for another four years of their life.  Once they start out on their chosen career – unless they’re planning to be a nun or an infant teacher – they’ll be working with men and will be expected to behave in a dizzy way, raise the pitch of their voice by at least an octave whenever they speak, and giggle behind their hand like a demented hyena as often as possible.

One of the first tasks for my students at the beginning of term was to fill in an information card, so I could learn a little bit about them, and I was astonished when I read about their goals and ambitions –

 

I wondered when was the last time that an English university student regarded marriage as her only long-term goal?  Probably in the 1950s.

Other goals were equally lacking in ambition and drive –

Or how about this list of favourites from a 19 year-old?

No mention of alcohol, cigarettes, nightclubs, clothes, music or any of the other things that university students usually enjoy.

I soon realised that a university in Japan is more like a school in England.  They love a game of snakes and ladders –

And are definitely not too cool to do the Macarena –

I’m planning to teach them the hokey-cokey on the last day of term.

And another thing about these girls is that they’re always so exhausted –

They stay up half the night online, and then can’t stay awake during the day.  It’s such a common occurrence that one of the comments in our comment bank for writing reports says ‘she sleeps in class’.  Even the most disaffected students I taught in England managed to stay awake for the whole lesson.

I’m also getting an insight into the way the Japanese mind works, and for all their reputation for precision and detail, their measuring system seems somewhat vague –

And this girl wasn’t the only one who measured a character’s size in puddings, there were several others.  What sort of pudding, I wanted to know – is there a standard size for a big pudding?

Equally strange is a fondness for pop stars with dead fish eyes –

– I’ve never seen ‘dead fish eyes’ and ‘cute’ in the same sentence before.

The girls graduate in traditional costume, and a hire company set up shop next to the cafeteria a couple of weeks ago, so that the girls could get kitted out –

I was horrified by the price – nearly £400 just to hire the outift – but there was no shortage of customers having a fitting –

It’s different from a standard kimono because it has an extra piece, almost like a skirt at the front, and it’s worn with boots rather than sandals –

I suppose it’s good training for them, so they’ll be used to this formal attire when they finally achieve their ambitions and put on their wedding kimono, before settling down to a life of bliss with a salaryman who works 14 hours a day – weekends too – and hardly ever takes a holiday.

Japan may look Western on the surface, but once you get beneath the veneer you soon find out that it’s utterly, utterly different.

 

 

 

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Nara – too much venison walking around uncooked

Nara was once the capital of Japan.  In 710 AD it became the country’s first  permanent capital city, losing the title to Kyoto 75 years later, due to the corruption of the Nara clergy … plus ça change, as we French speakers say.

As it’s a city that’s so steeped in history and culture, I felt it would be the best place to indulge in a night in a ryokan – something that’s been on my list since I arrived.  A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn, and very different from the usual hotel experience.

For a start, you’re given a summer kimono when you check in that you can wear around the hotel.  Being Japan, it comes with instructions on how to wear it, and I was told that ladies must tie the sash in a bow and then move the bow to the side –

– phew … managed to do that quite successfully.  I’m a bit pink here after my soak in the hotel’s rooftop public bath – lovely view of the pagoda in the park.

And …

I got my first pair of tabi, which was very exciting.  I’ll have to wear them with my flip flops when I get home – they were a bit wasted in my hotel slippers.

Then there’s a kind of silk jerkin that you wear over the top of the kimonoto go into the restaurant for dinner –

The problem was that with everyone wearing the same thing –

– it looked rather like we were all in prison.

Although, of course, the food was immeasurably better than it would have been in jail.  We had seven courses comprising beautifully presented little morsels –

– all perfectly designed to complement each other, with a balance of flavours and textures.

The breakfast next morning was equally spectacular –

– so I rolled out of the ryokan afterwards, practically spherical, ready to see the sights of Nara.

The Great Buddha is the number one attraction, and is a Unesco World Heritage Site.  I fought my way through the crowds to get to the temple which, incidentally, is one of the largest wooden buildings in the world –

Wherever I go in Japan, no matter which day of the week, there are always hordes of school children trooping around – I don’t think the poor little sods ever get a day off … and in full school uniform too.  The kids at my school in England would have mutinied if they’d been told to go on a school trip on a Sunday in uniform.

The Giant Buddha, which practically bankrupted Japan when it was first built in 746 AD, is over 16 metres high –

According to my guide book, it’s made of 437 tonnes of bronze and 130 kilos of gold – and it’s a very impressive sight.

Interestingly, one of the pillars in the temple has a hole in it which is exactly the same size as one of the Giant Buddha’s nostrils, and it’s believed that if you can squeeze through the hole, you will attain enlightenment –

Presumably you attain enlightenment at a later date, because none of the successful squirmers looked remotely enlightened as they lay on the floor panting.

I hung around for a bit because I could see a plump boy in the queue, and I was hoping he’d get stuck –

– but disappointingly, he finally managed to squeeze through with a lot of puffing and grunting.

Giant Buddhas aside, what Nara is really known for these days is deer – the native sika deer, which look very Bambi-inspired.

In the central park area and surrounding streets there are thousands of deer wandering around, waiting hopefully for you to feed them with ‘dear cookies’ –

As soon as you buy a pack, they rush at you, all trying to get more than their fair share –

So, naturally, there are rules on how to feed the deer –

and repeated warnings of what might happen if you don’t follow the rules –

– so you can’t say you haven’t been warned.

And everything in the town is deer-themed; even the wooden votive tablets in the shinto shrine –

I rather like Exasperated Deer and Quizzical Deer –

The temple has deer lanterns –

Even the traffic barriers conform to the theme –

And I was forced to the sad conclusion that you can’t improve an ugly baby by giving him a pair of cute Bambi antlers –

In fact, the only thing missing in this deer-saturated town is a delicious venison casserole.  And the Japanese reluctance to eat venison has led to an over-population of deer, which destroy trees by eating the bark and devour farmers crops, threatening their livelihood and leaving no food for other wildlife.

If you lived in Europe, my little friend, your days would be numbered.

 

 

 

 

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Osaka – home of the pot noodle

Osaka is famous for being the foodie capital of Japan, so I was surprised to learn that it is also the home of the pot noodle.  It was a bit like discovering that Angel Delight is a popular dessert at the Dorchester, or that Raymond Blanc invented the turkey twizzler.

Anway, once I knew that Osaka has the world’s only Cup Noodle Museum, I had to go.

Momofuku Ando created what he called ‘instant ramen’ in a shed in his garden in 1958, and the guide book contains an important message for all of us –

I consider myself to be pretty creative, so am planning my first world-changing invention in the very near future.

The museum is sadly lacking in English translations, so we couldn’t do the quizzes or read about the history of instant ramen, but we could admire –

the instant ramen tunnel –

– not only wall-to-wall noodles, but also wall-to-ceiling noodles – very impressive.

But the best part of the museum is creating your own pot noodle to take home.

First you design the cup –

and then you queue up to fill it with dehydrated deliciousness.

First the noodles –

– and then your own personal selection of toppings –

and then it’s sealed up and you’re good to go –

– with strict instructions that it must be eaten within a month.   I haven’t tried it yet, so can’t report on its deliciousness or otherwise.  To be honest, I can’t read the instructions, so I don’t know how much water to add – being functionally illiterate is very challenging.

There’s lots of other fun stuff in Osaka too – like editing your own glamour pics –

sake tasting –

and admiring strange men sitting around with random creatures –

This might at first glance look like a junk-filled old pushchair –

– but it’s actually a customised mobile rabbit-home.  I feel sure that the chap in the mask created it in his little shed with only ordinary tools, following in the footsteps of Momofuku Ando.

 

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The Ginger Ninja

I’ve had quite a cultural weekend, one way and another.

I went to Kyoto because I had a ticket to see a kabuki play at the Minamiza theatre, which is the home of kabuki.  It’s a wonderful old building, which has been hosting kabuki performances for 400 years –

– and I was pleased to learn that it was renovated and made totally earthquake proof last year.

Kabuki is a type of stylised drama, where specific actions are used to depict specific emotions, and there are very elaborate costumes and make up.  It always been considered the theatre of the people, and not highbrow like Noh theatre.  But the play I went to see wasn’t at all traditional – it was brand new and based on a very famous manga character, a ninja called Naruto –

As you can see from the poster, he has unusual colouring for a Japanese, and that’s because he has half a fox sealed up inside him, giving him strength and cunning.

Mind you, he wasn’t the only one with unusual colouring; the girl Ninja has pink hair – and there was no mention that she had part of a flamingo secreted in her large intestine –

– and several of the other characters had obviously been reading Hairdressers’ Weekly, which has been advising its readers that aqua and pewter are the summer shades for 2019.

Anyway, it was a jolly good show, with lots of ninja acrobatics and wizardry, culminating in a fight under a huge waterfall, the full height of the stage, which was pouring out gallons of water per second, and the actors got utterly soaked as they wrestled and splashed – all very thrilling and dramatic.

With typical Japanese efficiency, foreigners can rent an audio guide which somehow gives a recorded commentary in English that keeps pace with the live action on stage – all very clever.

It’s a long show – nearly four hours with two intervals – and the timings for each act are clearly shown on posters, and they are accurate to the millisecond.

You can buy bento boxes to eat during the interval, which looked delicious and definitely an improvement on the bag of Maltesers that’s usually on offer in an English theatre.  There’s plenty of comfy seating for the intervals, and you can sit there and wield your chopsticks until it’s time to go back for the next act.  All in all, it was a very civilised experience.

My other cultural experiences this weekend were fortuitous rather than planned.  As I walked around Kyoto castle, I heard bells in the distance.  When I went to investigate, there was a whole procession of men doing very manly skipping with an enormous pole –

Some had a better technique than others –

– and I had to jump out of the way at one point when one of the poles started swaying dangerously.

Each group was wearing its own uniform, and some were a little more unusual than others –

The crowd all clapped politely as each group lowered the pole at the end of the skipping, and I wished I knew what they were doing.

At the Daitokuji temple in the afternoon, there were also strange happenings.

I saw lots of monkishly dressed men hurrying along the paths –

And there was a young chap standing outside one of the temple buildings waving a vicious-looking sword –

And something was definitely happening in the main hall of the temple –

– and I wasn’t the only one on the outside, trying to see what was going on.

In another part of the temple complex there was chanting and dancing –

With their acrobatic moves and vivid hair colour, I wondered if they might be related to the ginger ninja –

But then disaster struck, and I realised they weren’t –

– even in the toughest battles, the ginger ninja’s hair always remained firmly on his head.

 

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Bears and eel chips

Shogun Ieyasu was a canny chap.  When he became Shogun in 1603 he forced all the great lords to spend every second year with him in Edo, or Tokyo as it is now.  This meant that they spent huge amounts of time and money travelling with their vast retinues along the road between Kyoto and Edo, and consequently had no time or money to be plotting to overthrow the shogun and take his place.

It also means that this ancient route, called the Nakasendo Way, has a series of picturesque old post-towns which used to provide accommodation and food to these travellers.  There are walking trails – often with the original shogun-initiated paving stones still in place –

– and we decided to walk between two of the prettiest towns in the Kiso Valley, not far from Nagoya.

 

After a stroll through the first town, Magome, which has lovely views and lots of cute houses –

– we started walking through the woods.  And, as they say, If you go down to the woods today …

… you’d better ring that bell hard.

And just in case that wasn’t clear enough –

– there are added visuals to reinforce the message.

There’s a bell every few hundred metres, so we rang them all very hard and I kept a firm grip on the emergency whistle attached to my backpack.  But fortunately no heroics were needed and we had a bear-free day.

Halfway along the route there’s an old house where quaintly-dressed retainers serve tea –

And there’s a traditional irori fire pit, which makes for an authentic, if smoky, experience –

But we soon realised that we weren’t the first Brits to have had tea there –

When we finally arrived in Tsumago, I was thrilled to find that there was a dressing-up opportunity – a small hall with a stage and several traditional outfits just begging to be worn and paraded for a photo opportunity.

The dilemma … how to choose between a kimono and a samurai outfit?

The solution … fusion fashion –

Another problem … four people and three outfits.

The solution … improvisation –

I don’t think anyone would be able to tell that one of these outfits is not traditionally Japanese.

Now that the summer is officially here, the famous Nagoya speciality – eel – is on the menu.  So we went to a recommended eel restaurant to try it and the first thing you see are the eels cooking over hot coals –

– with a large vat of special sauce bubbling away beside them.

I love the way that the ordered and orderly Japanese have rules on how to eat pretty much every dish available – no freestyling here, thank you very much.

It’s not the first time I’ve been given a detailed handout on how to eat something –

So when my eel arrived –

complete with all the necessary components for every stage of the eating process – I obediently divided it into quarters as instructed.

And I have to report that the plain eel, grilled, sauced and served with rice was my absolute favourite.

And what of the eel chips?  Well, they’re actually made from the discarded backbone, which is fried until crunchy –

The general consensus was that they tasted a bit like pork scratchings, only not porky.

But I couldn’t help thinking that they looked rather like a plateful of centipedes –

I’ll definitely be having eel again, but I may give the eel chips a miss next time.

 

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A series of unfortunate events …

There’s a very strict code of conduct associated with being Japanese; they’re the greatest rule followers I’ve ever known.  But unless you’ve grown up with these rules, it can be very difficult to a) remember them, or b) notice them in the first place.  But I suppose that the good thing about being a foreigner is that you have no idea whether or not you’ve offended people, and the polite Japanese are unlikely to say anything to you.

My first mistake last week was when I accidentally pushed the emergency alarm button instead of the flush button in the public loos at the station –

I realised my mistake as soon as the alarm sounded, and my initial reaction was to rush off immediately – but the problem was that I couldn’t find the flush button.  I know that toilet etiquette states that leaving behind any evidence whatsoever of your visit is a heinous crime, and if I’d dashed off without flushing, I would have had to ritually disembowel myself with the nearest sharp implement – probably my Daiso ceramic fruit knife.  So I raced around the cubicle randomly pressing every button I could find, until I finally found the flush, just as I heard pounding feet approaching.  I opened the door, trepidatiously, and saw a very out of breath railway offical standing outside.  I know that the depth of the apologetic bow must match the severity of the crime, so my forehead practically touched the floor as I muttered ‘sumimasen’ (a very useful word for a foreigner, I’ve discovered) and then sidled towards the door as quickly as I could.

Faux pas number two happened as I was enjoying a stroll around the zen gardens of a temple.  It was a beautiful, sunny afternoon and I was looking up at the imposing entrance gate –

– when I heard an ominous crunching under my feet.  I looked down and discovered that I’d strayed off the path and was walking on the raked garden –

– and had left several footprints in the otherwise perfect design.  Having read about the years of training and then hours of toil that go into a zen garden, I dashed away immediately before I could be identified by my footprints.

Then I was supposed to wear this Ku Klux Klan headdress to try on some clothes –

I put it on and took a photo, and then promptly forgot about it while I was trying on the clothes – so I took it away in my handbag in case they could tell that it hadn’t been used while clothes were pulled over my head.

And shoes are another minefield.  If you’re Japanese, you automatically know when you have to take your shoes off and when you don’t, but for foreigners it’s a nightmare.  No shoes in the fitting room in a clothes shop, no shoes in parts of the pub with matting on the floor, but shoes fine on the wooden floor in pubs,  no shoes on wooden floors in temples and shrines – but you have to wear shoes when there isn’t a wooden floor.  I wanted to walk across a bit of concrete in my socks to save putting my shoes on for ten seconds and then having to take them off again – but the strict woman in charge of the old merchant house I was visiting wouldn’t let me set foot on the concrete floor without shoes – so I put them on, plodded across it, and then took them off again.

There are also special bathroom slippers that you put on to use the loo in temples, museums, public baths etc – and apparently Japanese people also have them in their homes.

When you wear them, you must always take them off backwards so that they’re facing the right way for the next person to slip them on when they arrive – AND – the worst possible thing you can do is to go back into the public area still wearing these shoes – it’s the Japanese equivalent of having your zip undone and a wodge of damp toilet tissue sticking out of it, or trailing an incontinence pad across the floor behind you, that’s caught in the bottom of your tousers.

I think I’ve got away with it so far, as I’ve always realised before I got anywhere too public, and scuttled back along the corridor to take them off again.  But I know that shoe etiquette is not in my DNA, and the time will come when I’m publicly shamed.  Hopefully I won’t understand the scandalised comments, as I have no idea what the Japanese for ‘uncouth’ or ‘brazen’ is, but I do know that ‘Gaijin’ is a derogatory term for foreigners, so I expect I’ll hear that.

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Investigating the Nagoya food scene

Every country has its own love-it-or-hate-it foodstuff.  In England it’s Marmite, in Malaysia it’s Durian, and in Japan the polarizing comestible is called natto.  It’s made from fermented soya beans and, according to Wikipedia, ‘is an acquired taste  because of its powerful smell, strong flavor and slimy, sticky texture.’

After coping with the smell of durian, and then the strong flavour of stinky tofu in Taiwan, I reckoned natto would be well within my capabilities, so I went off to the supermarket to buy some.

It comes in a little polystyrene box with some soy sauce and super-hot Japanese mustard to jazz it up, and it has the weirdest texture of anything I’ve ever eaten – it’s very slimy, but sticky at the same time, and separates into a million tiny strings when you lift a forkful –

– a bit like saliva, or lots of tiny baby hairs.  And once you get through the slime, it has a bitter flavour.  I was undecided at first, but when I found out that it’s the latest superfood and really good for you, I persevered.  Then someone recommended natto with avocado – presumably the Japanese hipster breakfast of choice – and I loved it – so I’ll be researching natto stockists when I get back to the UK, to feed my new addiction.

One thing that’s been puzzling me since I arrived is the reputation that Japanese food has for being healthy.  Apart from natto, they seem to eat only protein and carbs and an awful lot of sweet stuff.  Eating out is generally reckoned to be cheaper than cooking at home, and I think that’s partly due to the exorbitant cost of fruit and vegetables.

At my local supermarket you can buy a beautifully wrapped, single stick of celery –

which costs approximately £1.  No wonder they separate it into sticks – at those prices nobody could afford a whole head of the stuff.

Similarly, apples are individually packaged and cost somewhere between £1.50 and £2 each.  And why are they so big?

In a country which tends to serve small portions, it seems perverse to grow apples until they’re the size of your head.

And apples are cheap compared to some other fruit.  I saw this melon in the food hall –

very nicely packaged, you might say – and so it should be … 10,800 yen is £77.27 at today’s exchange rate.

But if you really want to impress someone, you have to give them cherries.  This box –

– contains 40 perfect and beautiful cherries, and will set you back £154.55.

I know they’re intended to be bought as a gift and not scoffed in the car on the way home from the shops, but even so, I can’t help wondering who would buy them, and whether the recipient would fully appreciate the gift, unless you left the price tag on.

The best way to eat fruit is probably in a sandwich, along with custard and whipped cream –

– I haven’t summoned the courage to try one yet, so can’t report back on their deliciousness or otherwise.

In contrast, sushi is much more reasonably priced – and I have a cheap and cheerful sushi restaurant just around the corner, so had to try it out.  The ordering is all done via ipad –

and the sushi arrives on a little train which whooshes along a track next to the tables –

It’s all absolutely delicious.  This is the tuna – my favourite –

and costs less than a pound per two pieces.

In the interests of research, I also went to a posh sushi place, where there’s a conveyer belt of ready-made sushi –

and a chef in the middle, who makes things to order.  Here she is –

– putting the finishing touches to our seared scallops.

You can also get a fantastic selection of sushi at even the most bog-standard supermarket –

After two years in Malaysia, it’s nice to be in a country where drinking isn’t frowned on – and to celebrate my birthday last week, we went to a typical Japanese-style pub called an Izakaya.

We sat on tatami mats – no shoes – but there is a footwell, so we didn’t have to sit cross-legged all night.  We were surrounded by salarymen, all out for Friday night drinks, and the atmosphere was loud and buzzing –

I thoroughly approved of the size of a gin and tonic –

Most Izakayas in Nagoya are famous for chicken wings –

– and they’re so moreish that they must be coated in MSG or cocaine –

The menu also offers some unusual offcuts –

– and I like their straightforward approach to wine –

But I decided to try the sake, and managed to expertly ping an edamame bean straight into the glass –

A jolly good evening was had by all – and the bill was less than £20 a head … about 5 cherries-worth.

If I meet anyone looking for careers’ advice, I shall advise them to start a cherry orchard in Japan.

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The philistine’s guide to Japanese culture

I’ve now done some reading up on Japanese culture and history, so I feel slightly less ignorant than I did a few weeks ago, when I went to the National Musuem.

Ooh! It’s Morecambe and Wise, I thought –

I now know that they are, in fact, 6th Century tomb figurines.

And what I initially assumed was a statue of Windy Miller from Camberwick Green –

– is actually a nobleman in formal clothing.  But in my defence, they do look very similar

And a Satsuma glass bowl –

– isn’t meant to hold small oranges; it’s a special type of cut glass dating from the 18th Century, from the former province of Satsuma in southern Japan.

Once I’d got to grips with the rudiments of Japanese history – the different eras, the roles of the Shogun and the Emperor, the finer points of Kabuki theatre –

and the inspired, traditional practice of shutting your children in a small box –

– it was finally time to head out into the country and acquaint myself with rural Japanese culture.

I headed up into the Japan Alps for a weekend of fresh air and culture.

It’s only a couple of hours by train from Nagoya, and there are snow covered peaks and not a pair of lederhosen in sight.

Takayama is a beautiful town dating from the Edo period, which I now know was from 1603 to 1868, and it has some lovely old buildings –

– including six sake breweries – and some beautifully preserved, old merchant houses which are open to the public –

I tried the local speciality –

which is miso paste and onion cooked on a leaf over a charcoal brazier.  It was interesting, but I think once was enough.

There are some famous villages near Takayama, where the houses are known as gassho or prayer-hand houses.  To pray in Japan, the hands are placed together in a steep triangle, with the fingers together and the palms further apart, and the houses in these villages are the same shape –

It’s a practical design if you have to contend with heavy snow every winter.  They’re nestled in a very attractive valley –

– with the snowy peaks forming a backdrop.

I was very glad to be visiting in summer and not winter, after I saw this sign on one of the houses –

The traditional toy from this area is a faceless doll, known as sarubobo or monkey baby.  It has no face because you’re supposed to project your own feelings onto it, and imagine its features and expression –

I imagine this one was rolling its eyes and saying ‘OMG – another bloody tourist …’

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Tokyo food tours

I’ve come to appreciate, during my travels, that signing up for a food tour in a new place pays back dividends.  The guide takes you to all sorts of wonderful hidden-away spots, explains the whole food scene and generally equips you with enough know-how to go solo afterwards.  So when I got to Tokyo I signed up for two food tours, in different areas with different specialities on offer.

I turned out to be the only participant for the first tour, so Yokio and I got to be best friends after several bottles of sake –

But we started with a very special fish – blow fish or puffer fish sashimi –

I remember reading an article years ago about Japanese businessmen who pay a fortune and risk death just to eat raw puffer fish served by a beautiful geisha.  It sounded like a sort of Japanese roulette.  But Yokio assured me that none of his clients had died (yet) from the puffer fish, so that was reassuring.

Using chopsticks, we had to add spice, spring onion and daikon radish to each piece and then roll it up, which required a fair amount of dexterity –

– it was chewy and succulent – but for me the highlight of this restaurant was the drink they served with it –

– it’s sake with a flambé of dried roasted puffer fish fin – and it smelt and tasted divine.  The fin was removed before drinking, but I kept picking it up for a quick sniff.

Stop number two was an Izakaya – which is a traditional Japanese pub – and this one had been family owned for several generations –

We tried Hoppy, which dates back to after the war, when people were too poor to afford beer.  They drank an alcohol-free beer substitute and shoved a whole load of cheap alcohol into the glass first, topping it up with the Hoppy.

I’m not really a beer drinker, so it tasted fine to me, but I’m sure real ale fans wouldn’t approve.

The last stop on our tour was a very well-known restaurant, which serves dojo loach – a Tokyo speciality.  It was a beautiful traditional place which has been there for over 200 years, with tatami mats on the floor and waitresses in old fashioned outfits.

Our waitress knelt beside our little table to cook the Dozeu Nabe for us.  It has sake, soy sauce bonito soup and Japanese leek along with the loach – and of course we had to have more sake to go with it –

You should always have cold sake, not hot, I’ve been told several times now.  They heat up the poor quality stuff, and save the best to serve chilled.

We staggered out and tottered down to the subway, and both agreed that it had been a great evening – as far as we could remember.

The second food tour took in an area called Golden Gai, which is a small area of six narrow lanes which is packed with over 200 tiny bars and restaurants- some are so small that you can only fit five people inside.

 

Our guide took us into a bar for a drink and it was like travelling down a birth canal –

We started our food tasting with skewers – or yakitori – in a restaurant that had the cutest wash basins ever –

and the yakitori weren’t bad either .

Then it was on to the next place for ramen. You should always slurp in Japan when you eat noodles in soup – a bit like wine tasting, they believe the flavour improves if you take air in with the broth.  There are four main types of ramen in Japan, and this one was tonkotsu , or pork bone broth – delicious and filling.

But not so filling that there wasn’t room for sushi afterwards – my absolute favourite over here.  This was posh sushi – you can tell because the wasabi is added to the sushi, rather than mixed in with the soy sauce.  The tuna sushi was amazing, but the octopus was surprisingly good too.

We had more sake, and I learnt that you must never pour your own sake – your neighbour must pour yours and you must pour theirs – just to add an extra complication to the event.

I was also pleased to learn that it’s quite acceptable to eat sushi with your fingers, you don’t have to use chopsticks.  And real experts put it in their mouth upside down, to allow the full flavour of the fish to linger on their tongue.

So then I was ready – upskilled and keen to try out the local food scene by myself.  I had yuzu flavoured mochi, which was very good –


But decided against the candy floss, which was large enough to conceal a medium-sized child –

And my greatest achievement was going into a restaurant in a spa town and ordering a bowl of the most wonderful seafood, served with rice and seaweed and lots of tiny little pots  of random nibbly bits –

I was very proud of myself – if there was an exam in Japanese eating, I feel sure I’d get a top grade now.

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The dawn of a new era

The new Emperor of Japan ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne today which signalled the first day of a new era.  Whilst they do use the year 2019, they also use their own system based on the number of years the Emperor has been on the throne.  When I got my ID card, I was surprised to see that my date of birth was 34.  When I queried it, I was told that I was born in the 34th year of the Showa Era, which was the name for Hirohito’s reign.

So today is the first day of the Reiwa Era – beautiful harmony – and the cause of a ten-day-long public holiday … hurrah!

The first week in May is called Golden Week, and there are three public holidays, which can give a 5-day break if they fall on the right days, but the extra days this year have doubled that.  So I hopped on a train to Tokyo to make the most of my unexpected free time.

It is soo crowded here – I’ve never seen so many people in the same place before.  I used to think Oxford Street was crowded in the run-up to Christmas – now I know that it’s simply a little bit more lively than usual.

This is a popular shopping street in Tokyo –

– you can see our guide waving her flag below, so we can all fight our way through the crowd in roughly the right direction.

And this is the longest queue I’ve ever seen –

– it’s a two-way  queue which snakes its way around the perimeter of a large Shinto shrine.  There are thousands of people all standing patiently – no jostling or queue jumping, of course.  We asked what they were queuing for ( … The Dalai Lama?  Ariana Grande?) and it turned out they were all waiting for a date stamp from the temple, officially recording the new era.  Oh well, if you’ve got ten days to burn, you can spend one of them standing in a queue for 18 hours, I suppose.

Today was also an auspicious day to get married.  We saw two weddings within half an hour at the shrine –

the bride’s father looks very uncomfortable in his suit at this wedding –

he can’t seem to lower his shoulders below the level of his ears – I don’t think the bride will be very happy with the photos.

There’s a huge installation of sake barrels in the grounds of the shrine –

Sake manufacturers consider it an honour to donate a barrel to the shrine – and they do get a bit of free advertising out of it.  Our guide told us that they’re all empty though, as Shinto priests are allowed to drink – unlike Buddhists.  And these priests have very cosmopolitan tastes … there’s also a display of 60 barrels of the finest Burgundy –

– presumably all empty too.

I went to see the Palace gardens, and the azaleas were magnificent-

all clipped into very tidy hedges, which were a riot of colour.

Following my tried and tested method of joining a queue if I see one  (although not an 18-hour stamp queue, I do have my limits) I joined a queue in the gardens, and it turned out that I was queuing to take my turn to squat in the grass –

and photograph this flower –

Any ideas as to why?  Everyone else seemed very excited by it.

Another busy place today was the maid cafes.  I’d heard of them before, and seen a video clip, but some of the maids were out on the streets today touting for trade –

I picked up a menu, and the Japanese obsession with cuteness hit me right between the eyes.  In fact, kawaii was one of the first words I learnt when I arrived, they all use it so much.

This is not a children’s menu –

– so adults go into these places and  order an omelette and rice shaped liked two (platonic) bears in a bed, or a ‘bunny in the forest’ ice cream.

Think I’ll be giving this one a miss.

 

 

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The obedience of rain

 

In Japan, if the weather forecast says it’s going to rain, then it rains, and if the forecast says it won’t rain, then it doesn’t.

Having spent time in both Norfolk and Malaysia, where it rains if it feels like it, and nobody has any idea what the weather will be like in five minutes, let alone five days, I am in awe of the skill of these meteorologists.  But then this is Japan, where everyone and everything follows the rules, including the weather.

As soon as it starts to rain, a little man appears at every road junction –

– dressed in waterproofs and wielding a baton, he swings into action as soon as the green man appears on the crossing sign.  He stands on the crossing to stop any motorists, blinded by the drizzle, from mowing down the pedestrians on the crossing.

I wondered what these men do when it’s not raining – because there must be thousands of them across the country.  But at least they know well in advance when they’ll be needed, thanks to the forecast.

I also couldn’t help thinking that if there was a list of the countries where you’re most likely to get run over on a pedestrian crossing, Japan wouldn’t be on it.  Instead, it would be top of the list of countries where you’re least likely to be flattened mid-crossing.

And it’s not just the rain that’s organised – the people are too.

Everyone has an umbrella, which is produced when the first raindrops appear, and neatly furled whenever they’re not using it, like when they’re on the train, regardless of how wet and soggy it is.  I felt very under-dressed with my skanky old Ikea brolley, so had to go out and buy a smarter one after my first rainy day.

Once you get to work, or to a shop, there’s a special umbrella drying machine –

– so you queue up in an orderly way to dry your umbrella –

– and then hang it on the special umbrella rack –

In case you hadn’t noticed, this is a country that does detail in a big, big way.

 

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My new favourite city – Kyoto

I’ve had three weekends in Japan so far, and have chosen to spend two of them in Kyoto;  I absolutely adore it there.  Everything is exquisite – the temples, the gardens, the little streets with wooden houses, the little waterways lined with cherry trees, the tiny craft studios and cafes – it has to be one of the most picturesque cities in the world.

My first visit coincided with peak cherry blossom viewing, so I went to the park which is the place to see the blossom, and headed for the most famous cherry tree in Kyoto –

It’s a huge old tree, which everyone wants to be photographed in front of.  I sat and watched it as the sun started to set, and there was even a stall selling pink fizz just to complete the pink experience –

There were hundred of girls in kimonos, with various accessories, having their picture taken in front of the blossom –

or in other picturesque locations –

– and even Little Bo-Peep had left her sheep for the day to come and send a few texts from a blossomy bridge –

One thing I’ve learnt on my travels is: if there’s a queue, get on the end of it, as it invariably leads to something either delicious or interesting.  So when I saw this line inside a temple –

I immediately jumped onto the end and stood patiently, wondering what we were waiting for.  It turned out to be a queue to look at a particular cherry tree through an attractively shaped window –

I hadn’t realised until then, that individual cherry trees could become celebrities in their own right.

But I was also very taken with the raked patterns in the gravel, and since that first experience, I’ve become a tad obsessed with raked zen gardens, and have a hundred photos just to prove it …

Swirls and lines –

A subtle design with perfect symmetry –

A bold stripe seen through another window – without a queue this time –

This one is supposed to evoke mountains, but looks more like an upturned flowerpot to me –

Or working with nature to enhance and harmonise –

I was smitten with these gardens and had decided to create my very own zen garden, until I read a book on Kyoto

– and decided that perhaps I’ll stick to admiring other people’s efforts instead.

Or …

– sweeping seems to be a possible alternative, for those unable to commit to years of  training.  Admittedly sweeping doesn’t have the cachet of raking, but it’s extremely worthy and much easier to master.

Then I’ll sit on my immaculately swept path and admire the view –

or sit and marvel at my pristine stepping stones –

As Goethe said, ‘Let everyone sweep in front of his own door and the whole world will be clean.’  I think he would have approved of Japan.

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Kyoto – getting naked with the natives

I decided to hop on a bullet train and spend my first weekend in Japan in Kyoto.  It’s about 90 miles away, but as the train gets up to 175 mph, the journey only takes 35 minutes and there’s a train every ten minutes or so – what an amazing service!  It’s fairly expensive – £28 for a single ticket on Friday, and £36 to get back on Sunday – but the trains are immaculately clean, with reclining seats and a snack trolley, and of course they are on time, down to the very last second.

When I got to my hotel, I was thrilled and terrified in equal measure to discover that they had a sento – a public bath – for their guests to enjoy.  I knew I’d have to try one some time while I’m in Japan – I just didn’t realise it would be quite so soon.

The receptionist gave me an etiquette sheet, which I studied carefully –

The leaflet also explained how the Japanese manage to be so efficient; they appear to have 25 hours in their day, unlike the rest of us.

Once I’d read it, it was time to go … before I changed my mind.  So I put on the special shoes –

– and changed into the special pyjamas for wearing to and from the sento

– and I was good to go.

The baths are strictly segregated, which is apparently a modern phenomenon, and mixed bathing used to be the norm.  I can’t yet understand how people who are so modest that even a millimetre of cleavage is unacceptable, will quite happily strip off and show all their saggy, flabby bits to friends and strangers alike.  I have to confess that I was very relieved that my first sento experience was in front of total strangers – but most women there were in groups, chatting away unconcernedly together.

I used my colour-coded female room key to open the door, took a deep breath and walked in.  The changing room was full of women dressing, undressing, sitting at vanity tables with hair dryers – just like any old gym.  So this bit was easy – I undressed and locked my basket of clothes in a locker.

Then came the difficult part.  I opened the door to the sento, which was like opening the door into a sauna, and could see all the women doing the pre-bathing wash at the showers around the edges of the room.  They all had a white wash cloth, and I didn’t – but a very kind woman rinsed hers out and gave it to me, so I felt less of a conspicuous newbie.

I knew from the etiquette sheet that you mustn’t splash your neighbours when showering, but that’s quite difficult, as the wash stations are all quite close together –

I found this pic online, just to show you, as there is obviously no photography allowed inside the sento.

Once I was scrubbed clean, I went down the steps into the large bath, carefully avoiding eye contact with anyone else.  I was surprised by how hot is was, but there are two levels of seating, so you can be immersed up to your neck, or just to your waist, or even sit on the edge and just dangle your legs in the water.

Once I’d sat down, an elderly lady came over and sat beside me and struck up a conversation.  So there we were, discussing her grandson who’s at university in Nagoya, just as though we were at any social occasion – the only difference was that we didn’t have any clothes on.

I was a little disconcerted that she had a small towel plonked at a rakish angle on her head, and it stayed there the whole time she was talking to me.  I wondered if she was perhaps a little eccentric or confused, but afterwards I found a very good website, Sento For Beginners, which explained that you must never put a towel or your head in the water, so people often put the towel on their head to keep it out of the way.

After ten minutes of sweating and conversation, I got out, showered again and got dressed, feeling a great sense of achievement.

And you know what?  I went back the next day and did it all again.  So now I feel that I’m practically a sento pro.

 

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Yay! It’s Cherry blossom time!

I arrived in Japan on Tuesday, and I have to say that it’s a lot more foreign than Malaysia.  On the bullet train from Tokyo to Nagoya I felt just like Harry Potter on the Hogwart’s Express when the trolley lady arrived with the refreshment trolley; I had absolutely no idea what anything was, and as she spoke no English and I speak no Japanese, there was no way of finding out.  I scanned the boxes desperately, looking for a clue, but there’s no English writing, and everything is triple-wrapped, so you can’t even see what’s inside the box.  All I could do was select one at random, and once I’d fought my way into it, it turned out to be a beef cutlet sandwich – perfectly fine, but not necessarily what I’d have chosen.  At least I don’t have specific dietary requirements or food allergies; that would turn a difficult situation into a nightmare.

But once I arived in Nagoya, I had two very nice surprises:

1.  I have a hot bot loo, complete with washing and drying programmes

– it’s great fun – but you have to make sure you sit right at the back, unless you actually want to wash your jumper at the same time.

2. I live within walking distance of the castle and castle park in Nagoya, which are the places for cherry blossom in town, and it’s the peak viewing time for cherry blossom here at the moment, which is something that’s been on my bucket list for ever.

So on my free day yesterday, of course I strolled down to the park to enjoy the sakura

I was thrilled to see the families and groups of friends all sitting enjoying a picnic under the blossoms, just as I’d been told they do –

I was surprised to see that some groups were obviously work colleagues who’d come to spend their lunch hour sitting on a tarpaulin under the trees in their suit and tie.  Apparently some firms give their employees time off to go and picnic under the blossom – the event even has its own name  – Hanami.

But having already spent time in Asia, I wasn’t surprised at the number of photos being taken.  I soon got the hang of the requirements – you either hold a blossom-laden branch close to your face –

or you pick a few flowers and put them in your hair –

And if you haven’t brought your own photographer, there’s always the tried and tested selfie to fall back on –

or – for a bit of one upmanship – why not choreograph your very own cherry blossom dance? …

She kicked off her shoes and leapt onto someone else’s picnic tarpaulin, that the poor man was trying to sweep clean, and then proceeded to twirl with abandon while her adoring husband filmed her.

It was all getting too exciting in the park, so I went off to see the castle.

It was built by a shogun in the 17th Century, but flattened in 1945, so it’s  mainly a reconstruction – although some of the towers seem to be original, judging by the rickety stairs I climbed up to get a view from the top floor –

The Palace, which is inside the castle walls, was refurbished and reopened at the end of last year.  We all shuffled around in our socks admiring the beautiful painted screens and cloisonne work –

I was interested to note that the castle has a Ninja of the day –

and I saw one of them – or at least I think I did –

– but looking a lot scarier than on the poster.

I discovered that the hardcore cherry blossom posers were all inside the castle grounds too –

I just hope those kimonos are warm, as there was a very cold wind blowing.

 

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