Man in Black

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We’ve finally arrived back in Tokyo where the fleeting peak of the blossom season has past. Huge flurries of snow-like petals sweep through the parks and streets. It’s transience merely heightens the appeal of the beautiful phenomenon; we were fortunate to hit it head-on on our arrival. There are, however, a few varieties of the sakura which are still resiliently holding onto their adornment which I came across whilst walking through the gardens above the imperial palace, exploring the area vaguely surrounding were we’re staying. (Much to my frustration I only had the poor quality camera with me out on this walk; it was simply stunning.)

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I walked for around three hours, enjoying en route some of the fantastic strawberries they sell in the grocery shops here. I don’t know where they get them from or what they grow them in but they’re some of the best strawberries I’ve ever had: really sweet and delicious.

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With only a very poor quality map in my pocket guide book, after three hours of exploration I tried to get back and eventually ended up very lost, particularly as none of the locals seemed to know what street they were on either (streets are very poorly labelled here, if at all). I asked a young lady for directions (when the street I was convinced was the one to the hotel turned out to be somewhere completely different) and she was, yet again, another example of the outstanding Japanese hospitality. She didn’t speak a word of english but through the little japanese I’ve managed to get to grips with she understood and helped me to find a police station to work out where we were. She then jumped in a taxi which she told me to get in to and took me to the hotel, paying herself despite my objection, and chatting en route about her friend in England. Amazing! If only people were that friendly in the rest of the world!

This morning we headed to meet a lady called Vanessa to do a few hours of ninja martial arts training. It just so happened that the well known Japanese ‘Fuji TV’ television channel wanted to do a report on this dojo (training house) so asked if they could document our private lesson. It was incredible, right from the moment when we walked through the door to a meditation session in the dojo. It was just the two of us with Vanessa, the translator, the master ninja, a trainee and the two members of the TV crew. Firstly we joined in with a meditation session and ‘cutting the air nine times’ ceremony before getting into the clan’s traditional outfits and being taught how to correctly use a wide variety of elaborate weapons. Firstly we threw stars and these sharp sticks (much like chop sticks but ever so slightly more dangerous being spiked and made of metal). Then we had a go with the blow darts, aiming to swing through a revolving door, pop a balloon at the other side of the room then retreat through the door before being hit by the plastic ninja stars the others would fling at us. Luckily I managed to have a bit of a knack for the dart gun and got it first time, saving myself the embarrassment caused by my inferior muscle power in later ‘earth’ tiger claw trials.

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Here we were learning about ‘instinct’. We had to kneel facing away from the enemy and guess when they were swinging the weapon down to our heads, and raise up a guard. To be honest, I was going more by the swishing noise of the sword substitute. Wouldn’t have had that advantage with a samuri sword!

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White Walls

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“I’d rather live in a cave with a view of a palace than live in a palace with a view of a cave.”
 – Karl Pilkington

Osaka castle was the first stop this morning after revisiting a favourite Japanese bakery. It’s incredible just how many people have come over to see the country in this season, and you can see why – it’s extraordinary. Around the castle there where huge groups of tours from various Asian countries, including a football team from Myanmar who I spoke to about Yangon for a while. Wedding’s are going on everywhere and all the women are getting our their best clothes for the season.

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After yet another tube/JR train journey we arrived back in Kyoto and headed to the North West to explore the temples in the hillside forest side of the city before heading back across to Nijo castle in the west. We must have walked miles today my feet are absolutely killing me! Definitely worth it though. Apologies for being lazy but I’m going to let the pictures speak for themselves again.

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N.B. – Very exciting spotting the Geisha’s wandering around the Gion district of the city. Didn’t manage to get a shot though as wasn’t sure whether it was appropriate. Also enjoying the avian spotting opportunities – saw a peregrine falcon (Hayabusa, as they’re known in Japan) today!

 

(Nothing But) Flowers

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“The earth laughs in flowers.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson

This morning we headed back out through the Osaka subway system and the Japanese Rail bullet train to Kyoto where we wandered about the temples and parks of the South Eastern part of the city. Due to the Sakuri (blossom) the festival of Hanami (flower viewing) was in full swing in the city, with women getting out their traditional kimonos and fairs popping up in all the parks.

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We headed to a little traditional tea parlour called ‘En’ were we watched a 45 minute tea ceremony. I couldn’t help thinking about Karl Pilkington banging on about how someone can make such a big deal out of a cup of tea. This kept me chuckeling whilst the lady careful folded and refolded her napkin numerous times to ceremoniously wipe and present each utensil before carefully preparing the matcha green tea with, frothing it up with a bamboo whisk. The matcha green tea is ground up young tea leaves which have been carefully grown to reduce the amount of sunlight they get to keep the taste sweet. It has a surprisingly large amount of caffeine in it as it’s not just the leaf being infused in the water, you’re actually drinking the leave itself.

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Kneeled on the floor, we then drank and enjoyed little Japanese sweets, of which they are completely obsessed here, with sweet shops every 5 metres. Then, with the sun starting to set we headed out to Maruyama park.

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It’s been bitingly cold so I’m actually really looking forward to getting back to the company of 30 odd naked women at the Onsen.

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Knives Out

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Now settled into Osaka, we took a 30 minutes train journey into Kyoto for a four hour class on samurai sword practice with SEIGA, Samurai Kembu. They take it incredibly seriously as it’s a highly regarded part of their tradition, now only used as a performance art rather than the ancient warriors using the practice in battle. It was impossible not to be constantly thinking of Uma Thurman in her yellow tracksuit throughout the entire process.

There were just three of us in the class with one ‘Samurai Grand Master’: Auga Ryu. We were taught various routines about how to correctly draw, wield and formally present the spectacular weapon. We were even elaborately dressed in tradition Samurai attire to fully experience the restrictions which the clothing brings into the action. For example for me it made it much easier to understand why the women traditionally would take such tiny little steps as the very wide obi belt is wrapped restrictively tight like a corset around your waist and hips.

Kyoto itself is a beautifully traditional city with plenty of old Japanese architecture and copious temples and shrines. Black kites seems to be pretty common here, soaring around above the rivers. As it’s cherry blossom season there are also numerous festivals going on throughout the city with processions, parades and dance competitions around every corner.

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Traditional tea preparation

Traditional tea preparation

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Kyoto Imperial Palace

Kyoto Imperial Palace

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Above you can see one of the hilarious ‘pet hire’ opportunities. You can pay for half an hour to use the cafe where you can stay to stroke the cats. You can also hire dogs for walks or, if you’re on a budget, even a beetle. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/from_our_own_correspondent/7818140.stm

Japanese sweet

Japanese sweet

Lunch in Kyoto. Miso soup, tofu rice dish and japanese pickle.

Lunch in Kyoto. Miso soup, tofu rice dish and japanese pickle.

I’m now about to head off to the ‘Onsen’ or traditional Japanese spa/hot spring again. Hilariously, it’s split genders and absolutely no clothes are allowed, which they’re very strict about. Very bizarre experience but the spa itself is fantastic after the cold of the crisp spring weather.

 

 

Organised Chaos

“In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order.” – Carl Jung Apologies in advance for the incredibly extensive post today – everything’s just so novel that limiting it to include just a couple of highlights … Continue reading

Gone in the Morning/ Tokyo Midnight

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“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.”

– Cesare Pavese

So I’m off again! The use of the student loan is now getting increasingly ridiculous  as I’ve actually started at UCL now…anyway, practicalities aside, I headed out from London Gatwick yesterday at around midday and after a couple of flights and brief stopover, a luxury I’m not really accustomed to, arrived in Tokyo, losing 8 hours in the process. The Air China flights were pretty interesting- first time I’ve encountered air hostesses who can’t speak any English. Ended up with some very bizarre food – classic example would be the ‘marinated egg’ I was treated to for breakfast: Imagine a dark brown coloured egg that’s incredibly chewy and you can’t really place what exactly it has been marinated in…maybe something sweet? If that’s not to your fancy then maybe the ‘pickled mustard tubers’ might hit the spot. Don’t even ask – I have no idea.

The elderly Japanese lady sitting next to me on the second of my flights immediately affirmed all that I’d heard about the Japanese being incredibly friendly. Without speaking a word of English she gave me half the brioche that she was eating then after I thanked her she gave me what I thought was a stringy cheese stick, only to find it was some form of processed meat on biting into it. Disgusting. But sweet of her all the same. The bowing/head bowing thing everyone does here is really charming, it’s nice to be able to communicate so much through a gesture without having to worry if I’m pronouncing the little Japanese that I know correctly. People were so keen to help, though, that it was almost comical. One lady noticed me looking at my map and swerved over to the other side of the road and jumped off her bike to help me. She didn’t even speak English – just very eager to help! When I then got lost following her hand drawn map another lady walked me half the way to my hotel – outstanding!

The jet lag resulted, rather inevitably, in me crashing pretty soon after navigating the metro to my hotel. First though I took a moment to explore the area. Found a very sweet little Japanese bakery and enjoyed the blossoms which just seem to be omnipresent. Can’t wait to get out to the parks tomorrow.

Japan Ryogoku Blossom

Ryogoku

Ryogoku, by the station

Blossom Ryogoku

Japanese Bakery Ryogoku

No English in the bakery so had to just pick something that looked vaguely vegetarian – luckily managed to get this delicious cheese loaf thing…

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