Cherry blossom, temples and a castle

I’m tired. We’ve walked miles, stood on tube trains, sat in taxis, stood and sat in buses, walked in warm sunshine and cool rain, sat on rudimentary benches, balanced on one leg while removing shoes to go into a temple. It’s all been well worth it, just exhausting, and I don’t have the energy to write anything intelligent.

Kyoto cherry blossom single 001 179496

Why did we visit at this time of year? To see cherry blossom. Did we see cherry blossom today? Yes, we did; lots of it. Single trees with exquisite blooms, groves of trees in drifts of pink, cherry trees on mountains, cherry trees beside lakes, cherry trees on islands. And, in addition, the Zen garden of Ryoanji, the Golden Pavilion of Kinkakuji, Nijo Castle, and the bamboo forest. Oh, we saw two herons as a bonus.

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Kyoto cherry blossom island 170406

Incidentally, what you see in the picture below is real gold. That Pavilion is covered in gold leaf, a total of 20 kilograms!

Kyoto Golden Pavilion 170406

Theatre – Miyako Odori

I fear that you, my gentle readers, are going to feel that I cannot write without the use of superlatives. But it’s that sort of trip; the experiences that we’re having can only be appropriately described by superlatives.

Today we travelled by shinkansen, the bullet train, to Kyoto. It’s a train. It’s very fast. It’s very smooth. No, it no longer deserves superlatives, even though it travels at well over 150 mph, and we haven’t built anything that fast yet in the UK.

The countryside through which we travelled is interesting, but not particularly noteworthy. Think of the foreground being Holland and the background being Switzerland and you’ve about got it.

We ate a really pleasant okonomiyaki this evening, washed down with beer. Superlatives unnecessary.

But this afternoon. This afternoon we went to the Miyako Odori. This is a traditional theatrical art form performed by geisha. It has elements of straight theatre, opera, and ballet; and the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.

Kyoto Miyako Odori 170405

I expected to see beauty. I expected to see grace. I expected to be moved emotionally. What I didn’t expect was drama of such intensity that the tears were running down my cheeks. It was a simple story of loss set in the context of the continuity of human life, and performed with a hypnotic focus and skill that was shattering.

Kyoto Miyako Odori 002 170405

It’s invidious to pick out individuals because it was the effect of every contribution together that made the performance so memorable – but I’m going to do it anyway!

The principal singer was superb. An astonishing voice, and such amazing projection of emotion. The flute soloist accomplished remarkable effects and her intonation was wonderfully precise even when using microtones. The little details were perfect, like the snowflakes in the winter grieving scene, which were small paper discs. When illuminated by warm light in the finale, they were revealed as pink cherry blossom underfoot.

So I have yet another memory that I shall cherish until the end of my life. And if I have time on my deathbed to think of this, I shall remember the cherry blossom and die with a tranquil spirit.

Mount Fuji – a Japanese icon

The coach zigzagged its way up the hill, around a seemingly endless sequence of horseshoe bends. The scenery was pleasant but not startling, mountain scenery that you can enjoy in many places, steep slopes, evergreen trees and a few inches depth of unmelted snow, the last remaining from the winter. We were focussed on the next stage of our trip, which was a ride by cable-car down to a lake.

And then, abruptly, there it was. We gave a collective gasp. It was miles distant, and yet it loomed over us, the perfect volcano, an icon of Japan, Mount Fuji. The upper slopes were thickly snow-covered, gleaming in the sun, dazzling under the almost cloudless cerulean sky. I couldn’t help but feel the power of the symbol.

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My photographs cannot begin to do justice to the sight; indeed, I hesitate to offer them at all as they fall so far short. My words are no better.

Hakone Mount Fuji 002 170404

The Japanese feel a great sense of pride in the beauty and majesty of Mount Fuji, and that is as it should be. However, national symbols come with dangers. Think of the American flag, the singing of Jerusalem at the Last Night of the Proms. Because they cause men to come together with a sense of national pride, they can be used by unscrupulous politicians to set us against each other.

Today I sat in a coach with Japanese people, and shared their awe and delight in the might of Mount Fuji. As a human being, I am one with them, they are my brothers and sisters, just as Americans are, or Australian aboriginals, or continental Europeans. I must not, I will not, allow myself ever to be distracted or led away from that profound truth.

The Hakone Open-Air Museum

Combine the Japanese flair for gardens with a mountain setting and the absolute pinnacle of twentieth century sculpture, and what do you have? The Hakone Open-Air Museum.

It’s a great display, and well worth a visit. We were there two and a half hours, and we could have spent twice as long.

Unfortunately (from the pov of writing a blog) we’re staying in a ryo-kan, and I’m typing this with the laptop on a relatively low table and me standing. Uncomfortable? Very.

So all you’re getting is pictures! I hope you enjoy them. I can assure you that the real thing is much better!

Hakone landscape with sculpture 170403

 The sculpture below is “La Pleureuse”. It’s awesome!

Hakone La Pleureuse 170403

The next sculpture is “Symphonic sculpture”.

Hakone Symphonic sculpture 170403

And finally, a piece on a more human scale – “Alba”

Hakone Alba 170403

Senso-ji Temple – and a quaint alley

The longer I live and the more I travel, the more I realize the extent to which all religions are syncretic. For example, today we visited Senso-ji, the oldest Buddhist temple in Tokyo. The temple is, apparently, dedicated to Guanyin, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy. I may be wrong, but I had thought that Buddhism was established on the basis of the four Noble Truths, and the eight-fold way, none of which relies on a deity at all. Of all the ancient religions, Buddhism seems the closest to modern humanism, and yet here in this temple many people are wafting holy smoke over themselves for healing, and using divination to foretell their future.

 Tokyo Senso-ji smoke 170402

The temple was founded in 645 AD. It was destroyed by Allied bombing in WW2 but has been rebuilt. In the courtyard is a tree that was hit by a bomb, but has regrown in the husk of the old tree. I’m encouraged by that symbol of hope. The firebombing of Tokyo was an appalling act – I won’t enter the debate as to whether it was essential to end the war and limit Allied casualties – I shall just mention that 100,000 people died by fire and very many more were injured and made homeless. Justified or not, it showed the depths to which human beings can fall.

 Tokyo Senso-ji buddha 170402

Here, I shall declare an interest. I am a Christian, and I try to write from a Christian perspective. However, I do not see Christianity as exclusive. There is fine moral and ethical teaching in many religions, including humanism, and those who follow them sincerely are likely to be more humane as a result. So I am gladdened by the fact that 30 million people every year visit the Senso-ji. Many of them come with sincere hearts and I feel sure they are spiritually uplifted by the experience.

Tokyo Senso ji entrance 170402 

After visiting the temple, we took to the Sumida River, and cruised down to the Hama-rikyu landscape gardens. Like the other gardens we saw on previous days, these were wonderfully laid out and cultivated.

Tokyo Hara-kyu Gardens 170402 

Then, this evening, we went from the sublime to the ridiculous – a walk down “Piss Street”, or “Nostalgia Alley”. This narrow passage is lined with tiny food outlets, with and without seating. A quaint and picturesque finale!

Tokyo Piss Alley 170402

 

A picnic in the rain

The weather forecast today for Tokyo was for rain and a maximum temperature of 6°C. It helpfully added that 6°C would feel like 1°C. So where was I at 12:30? In the Imperial Palace Outer Garden, eating a picnic in the rain, on a plastic sheet, with no shoes on. Yes, you read that correctly; I had no shoes on. To be fair, the food was both tasty and filling.

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And we were, too, under a magnificent cherry tree in almost full bloom. I am sure this will bring me enormous good fortune over the next twelve months, just as soon as I’ve recovered from the pneumonia. We sang a song about the blossom

“Sakura, sakura, yayoi no sarawa miwatasu kagiri

Kasumika kumokanioi zo izuru, izaya izaya mini yukan.”

In the morning we had visited the Tsukiji fish market. This is made up of an outer market, which has unrestricted public access. It’s a maze of literally hundreds of small retail outlets, which are not food stalls exactly, but I struggle to call them shops, as they are completely open to the street at the front. They sell fish, fish derivatives (like flaked bonito tuna), fruit and veg, processed fruit and veg, and general small items. And there are lots and lots of micro-eateries mostly with disproportionately long queues. It’s crowded.

Tokyo fish market outer 170401

The inner market is where the serious business takes place, with £15m of fish being traded every day, and a where a large tuna can fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars. Public access is restricted to a period after 10:00, when the busiest time is past. Again, it’s crowded. It’s also hazardous, with motorised trolleys whizzing unexpectedly round corners. They have de facto right of way; pedestrians must dodge! The visit was very worthwhile, because it gave us a view of some of the things that happen behind the scenes to enable visitors like me, and of course the residents of the city, to enjoy our daily life. Here are people working in cold, wet, crowded, hazardous conditions, for not very much money. For them, life is hard, and we could see that it was.

After our picnic, we strolled in the Imperial Palace Eastern Garden.

Tokyo cherry blossom 170401

There are castle ruins, a pond with koi, and a small museum with woodblock prints. And some of them are beautiful, indeed, one of them is amongst the most beautiful objects I’ve ever seen in my life and I shall never forget it. It depicted rain at dawn on a shrine. The light from the rising sun was wonderfully captured, and the shrine glowed translucent. Utter perfection!

Shinjuko Gyoen and a hearty meal

This morning we braved the Tokyo public transport on our own to visit the Sankyo flute atelier. The journey was not difficult, but it took us some time to locate the right building. In the end we asked a local – who referred to her mobile phone and directed us. The flutes we were shown were wonderfully crafted – you would desire one for its appearance even if you couldn’t play it. And the sound Daphne produced playing it was amazing, with tremendous dynamic range and control.

Tokyo cherry blossom vista 170331

In the afternoon, we visited Shinjuku Gyoen, the National Garden. This is a beautiful park, with a mixture of open spaces and trees and lakes with wooden bridges over them. Despite the cold rain, Japanese tourists were out in force, smiling and being positively British about the weather.

Tokyo Kabuki-cho 170331

However, don’t let me give you the impression that Tokyo is all culture and tranquil parks. In the evening, our tour guides took us to one of the areas for entertainment, where there are pachinko parlours, hostess (and host!) bars, cinemas, karaoke bars and, of course, a vast diversity of eateries.

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We were taken to a restaurant where you cook your own okonomiyaki at the table. What could be better after a cold, wet afternoon, than a hearty serving of pork, cabbage, prawns and other stuff in a matrix of egg, everything being liberally drenched in soy-based sauce and mayonnaise? And seaweed. And dried flakes of bonita tuna. All washed down with beer.

 

Tokyo – Meiji Jingu shrine

Tokyo has some pleasant parks, and the closest to our hotel is the Yoyogi park. We approached from the north, and came first of all to the Meiji Jingu shrine. This is a Shinto shrine, one of the most important in Tokyo. In the early twentieth century, Emperor Meiji created a garden in the shrine complex, which, according to the various information boards, was greatly enjoyed by the Empress Shohen. One of the boards solemnly told us that the Empress liked fishing, and often went fishing from this specially constructed fishing point. Somehow I just couldn’t visualize her cooking and eating her catch! Nowadays, anybody can walk in the gardens for 500 yen (it’s a standard admission fee presented as a donation for upkeep – fair enough, I think), so we paid up and followed the path to the iris garden.

Tokyo Meiji garden teahouse 170330

The photo shows the teahouse constructed by the Emperor for Empress Shohen

Of course, at this time of year, all you can see of the irises is the green shoots, but it was clear that in the flowering season (June) it would be a spectacular sight. Despite there being no flowering irises, we had the pleasure of the deciduous trees just barely coming into leaf, giving a mist of colour around the nearly bare branches. In any case, all excellent gardens are beautiful in every season and this was no exception.

The photo shows the torii at the entrance to the Meiji Jingu shrine.

Tokyo Meiji Jingu shrine 170330

At the Meiji Jingu shrine itself there was a place for people to write their prayers and place them with a donation in an envelope to be presented in the shrine. You could buy all sorts of pre-printed messages, like “I pray to come back to Japan.” It would be easy to make fun of the practice, but as we passed a middle-aged woman got up from where she had been kneeling. Her face was quietly desperate, with an expression of desolation mingled with a forlorn hope. Real people pray here, with real needs. I hope she found comfort.

We spent so long enjoying the tranquil gardens that we never made it to the Yoyogi park itself. Never mind – there’s always tomorrow!

 

 

Autumn Leaves and Cherry Blossom

Hiroshima torii 170326

I am delighted to invite my family, my friends and all those who follow my blog to come with me in spirit as I visit Japan. The itinerary includes Tokyo, Hakone, Kyoto and Hiroshima. I expect to blog pictures of Mt Fuji, cherry blossom, the Golden Pavilion, Ryoanji Zen garden, the bullet train, Miyajima Island, and the Peace Park in Hiroshima. There will also be pictures of food…

I don’t expect to be writing any fiction unless the muse becomes very insistent.

Normal blogging will resume w/c 17 April, with the first post planned for Tuesday 18th April.

Hiroshima cherry blossom and A bomb ruin 170326