Monday, 22 October 2012

Japan III

Hiroshima.  The Peace Memorial Museum, A-bomb dome, Hall of Remembrance. Tragic, incomprehensible. 

Taking away my words. 

Thousands of paper cranes at the Children's Peace Monument, strung together, collaged into pictures, bright,  colourful, lovingly folded. Hopeful.

Sushi from a conveyor belts, watching the chefs slice fish, sear tiny octopus with a blowtorch, press onto sticky rice with a dab of wasabi. I ate raw tuna, though preferred the cucumber maki rolls. 

Constant heat, stickiness, sweat dripping. Respite in the air conditioned hotels, restaurants and shopping centres, but everywhere else the air heavy with the heat and humidity. We consume frozen matcha (green tea) lattes, dusty green and slightly bitter or iced coffee or piles of flaked ice, syrup drenched, all in an attempt to keep us cool. Cans or bottles of drink, strange combinations, lychee and salt, grape with aloe jelly, bought from any one of the numerous vending machines, keeping us hydrated.

Elegant gardens, zen raked sand, moss covered rocks, meandering streams. The first of the maple, turning golden red, though autumn seems a far cry away from these hot days. Descending down hillsides through grey-green bamboo groves.

Cobbled old streets in Kyoto, hoping for sight of an elusive Geisha. Settling for tourists who have paid to dress up in kimono instead. Secret garden courtyards off the main routes, glimpsed behind gates, through doorways. 

At dusk, in the rain, Fushimi-Inari Taisha shrine, avenues of geranium red torii gates stretching up the mountainside. Stone foxes, the god of the rice harvest.  Rain, dripping from the trees, between the torii gates, mosquitos hovering in anticipation between bare legs.

Friday night, a vegetarian restaurant hunted down with the help of a blog, down a side street, up a tiny alley, through a doorway into a room in what looks like someone's home, crowded with ephemera, a bar running the length of it, stools for customers, a single woman cooking and serving behind it. Walls covered with posters for music gigs, posters protesting nuclear arms. Jazz CDs on the stereo, the smell of cat, and a loud mewing too from a grey tabby. Delicious food, tofu in many forms, rice, pickles, soup. We both ordered the vegetarian set menu and were given different dishes each so we had more to try. The place filled up in the time we were there, obviously popular.

A couple of nights in a ryokan, traditional style Japanese accommodation in Kyoto, tatami mats and paper sliding doors, futon bedding laid out each night. And then two nights somewhere a little more futuristic, Kyoto Tower Hotel, ninth floor, overlooking the modern glass and steel Kyoto station, at night, all lit up, a scene from Blade Runner. Such contrasts. 

There's still more...

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Japan II

We were in Japan for two weeks. It was hot, thirty five degrees centigrade. Hotter than ideal for walking round temples, down busy streets, doing anything other than lying flat out in an air-conditioned room, but there was so much to see, and do, that we hauled ourselves out into the humid air anyway, made frequent use of the numerous chilled drink vending machines.

Endless noise. In the parks, cicadas and crickets and probably hundreds of other species (have you seen Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo?), chirping and clicking away from trees all around, so loud. On the roads, in the stations, a constant soundtrack,cheerful melodies played to indicate the green light for crossing the road, piped birdsong on the platforms, unique jingles for each subway station stop, yet more jingles to indicate tannoy announcements, so that eventually you begin to feel like you are in a film, perpetual soundtrack. 

But then also the quiet. Of peaceful temple gardens, lowered voices, bare feet on ancient wooden floors. The not-quite-silence of trees.

In Fukuoka, dinner at one of the yatai, pavement stalls serving food, one of the many in the strip by the canal. Perched on stools, cold beer, vegetable tempura made in front of us, aubergine, okra, baby corn, sweet potato, green pepper, hot, crisp. Tempura squid, better than any squid I have ever tasted. Shitake mushroom, grilled and drizzled with a delicious sauce. We get talking to the couple sitting next to us, en route to a holiday in Seoul. Half in Japanese, half in English, lots of smiles. They offer up morsels of their food to try, tempura fish roe wrapped in spicy leaves, beef tongue.

Flower shops with breathtaking orchids, ten regal flowers to each stem, so perfect, so uniform. Outside one flower shop, discarded orchid plants, leaves only, tumbled into a crate, selling for a pound or two, unwanted without their impressive plumage.

A trip by ferry to an island off the coast, jellyfish translucent in the water beneath us. A bus ride across the island in the hope of finding a beach, instead finding ourselves at the island flower park, without many flowers, wrong time of year. Sheltering in a covered picnic area during a sudden rainstorm, drinking grape Fanta, laughing. At the harbour, waiting for the ferry back, a pair of sea eagles, gliding just above us, swooping down to catch fish.  

In a supermarket, oggling at the unfamiliar, fairytale mushrooms, spindly, pale asparagus, giant white radishes, octopus tentacles in cellophane packaging, suckers pink and glistening. Dried fish sold like crisps. I could spend hours in foreign supermarkets, and Japan is no exception.

To be continued....

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Japan I

Japan. In my head for so long, expectations and images, informed by films, television, popular culture. The build of excitement as the trip approached. 

And then to suddenly be there. 

I was sick on the plane, horrible, a combination of disrupted sleep and eating patterns, a headache from watching films on the tiny screen, the cabin too hot. Being served breakfast at the equivalent of midnight. I couldn't eat any of it, but the smell of mirco-waved scrambled egg and floppy sausages was enough to send me running to the toilet. Emerging from the plane to humid heat, then the air-conditioned cool of the airport, and suddenly the headache, the queasy stomach, ceased to matter, because I was here, finally. Finally.

Walking through Ueno Park on the afternoon of our first day to battle the jet lag. A lake covered with lotus plants, pink flowers, giant seed heads. Terrapins and grey carp. A man in a black suit with white polka dots, thick-framed yellow glasses, head all shaved about from a heart-shaped, orange-dyed patch at the front, making balloon animals for the crowd, doing magic tricks, swallowing a long black balloon in full, making a lit cigarette disappear in the palm of his hand. A man in red making an origami creature climb up and down his arms. The tiny, wrinkled old man who came up to us, pointed at M, said 'tall', then proceeded to have a ten minute, pretty one-sided, conversation, which he rounded off by asking to take a photo of M in all his six foot four towering glory.

Japanese television on our first night in an attempt to stay awake beyond 7pm, a gameshow in which a contestant  in a studio met various puppies, kittens, a speckled fawn with big eyes and a red bow around its neck, and finally a lion cub, feeding them milk from bottles and occasionally shrieking, to much laughter from the audience. For the first time, but not the last, I felt like Bill Murray, Lost in Translation.

A department store with a food hall in the basement, a fruit section with fruit swaddled in layers of latticed foam then cellophane, as though rare and precious. Prices reflecting this. A pair of perfect peaches, softly blushing, for 1800 yen, about £16, a display of melons, the most expensive for 12000 yen, almost £100. My mind cannot comprehend when you would ever want to buy a single melon for a hundred pounds, but there it is, a tasteful green sphere, packaged with a discrete gold bow, and I can see beauty in it. No crazier than spending £500 on a handbag I suppose, except perhaps the melon's transience. Maybe transience adds to the beauty. Maybe we should all treat fruit, vegetables, with a little more reverence, exquisite, short-lived jewels produced by nature. 

I wonder what a hundred pound melon tastes like.

To be continued....