Trip Start Feb 22, 2005
12Trip End Ongoing
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My apologies for being out of contact for some time. The past couple of months have been very busy ones, and I may have decided that I don't like you. Although the former is a more likely explanation. In either case, it has been a bit too long.
Anyway, our most recent story begins with the visit of my old mate from Sheffield days and beyond, John (one of my all-time favourite mates of all time), and his girlfriend, Mags (one of my all-time favourite mates' girlfriends of all time). Not only was it, of course, wonderful to see them after a long time, but it also afforded the opportunity/excuse to further engage my wanderlust and see some more of Japan. As such, I revisited Kyoto and finally got out as far as Hiroshima, in the southwestern corner of Honshu, Japan's main island.
Sorry if this is the ad suggesting you visit Switzerland. It is rather aggressive and seems intent on taking over the picture below. And I thought Switzerland was neutral? Maybe clicking refresh will bring something a little less invasive. "Visit the British Empire" for example. ==============>
Actually earning reasonable money for some time in our respective jobs obviously had something of an effect on us, as, this time, I enjoyed Kyoto from the relative splendour of a hotel. No sharing of 10-bed hostel rooms for me any more. Nope, I was travelling 3-star all the way. I quickly learned, however, that the Japanese interpretation of "single room" differed slightly from my naive Western conceptions. Indeed, the same bright spark who had brought "mansion" and "deposit" into the Japanese language (See a previous entry) appears to have confused "hotel" and "hamster cage". Don't get me wrong, I actually really liked the room and I have certainly gotten used to 'compact living' since coming to Japan. But this was taking being economical with space to new levels.
Anyway, Kyoto itself had not changed much since my last visit. This should not come as much a surprise given the endurance of many of Kyoto's ancient sites over the past millennium - eleven months was not likely to have rendered any drastic alteration. There is a lot to see there, and I used my time to visit places I had not been to before. The previous Kyoto entry (clicky) dealt with temple pictures in considerable numbers, so I shall post this photo of Kinkakuji (The Temple of the Golden Pavilion), alone:
And here is some video of the mighty Heian Shrine.
I think I may have appreciated Kyoto even more the second time around. I don't think Japan necessarily enjoys, or indeed promotes, the best image internationally when it comes to tourism, but Kyoto really is something special. A large portion of its land area if given over to UNESCO World Heritage Sites, some of which are truly breathtaking. It is a rare thing to find so modern and large a city peppered with such important reminders of a unique and powerful culture.
So, three days in Kyoto were followed up by two in Hiroshima, easily reached by the marvels of the Shinkansen bullet train. I'm not sure that two days were really enough, as Hiroshima has quite a lot to offer, but at least my hotel room space was upgraded to "rabbit hutch" class. Our first day there was actually spent outside Hiroshima, enjoying the majesty of Miyajima, one of the sites in the whole of Japan. The ferry ride over to this island and its almost-floating shrine could rival the Manly Ferry across Sydney Harbour, or the Staten Island Ferry in New York, given the opportunities for photography.
But it is actually upon reaching the island that the best views are afforded. Itsukushima Shrine was once considered so important that commoners could only approach by water and disembark directly. Thus they used to pass through the giant tori gate as they entered the shrine. This now has the dubious distinction of being one of the three most photographed sites in Japan, so naturally I contributed to maintaining that status:
The shrine itself is very attractively set, sitting in front of a mountain, and surrounded by other venerable places of worship. Its neighbours also include those who practice the ancient sacred art of mass-producing awful touristy souvenirs. I could have secured my very own miniature tori. I didn't.
Of course, the name Hiroshima rarely conjures ancient or particularly positive images in the modern mind. "A Day that Shook the World" is an over-used cliche, but it does at least seem appropriate to what happened there on August 6th, 1945. This travelogue has at least attempted to take a light-hearted look at my time in Japan, although readers may disagree as to its success, but the sombre dignity with which Hiroshima bears the marks of that day belittles such trivialities.
The most recognised symbol of devastation is, remarkably, a survivor from almost directly below where the bomb exploded.
The haunting ruin of Genbaku Doumu, "Atomic Bomb Dome", stands at the edge of the large Peace Park (video) which now covers a significant portion of what was once the centre of Hiroshima. The park contains one of the most powerful museums I have ever visited, which pulls no punches in detailing the bombing, its aftermath or, to the museum's great credit, the actions of those on all sides that led to that moment. It deals effectively and directly with myths associated with the bombing, but at no stage descends into recrimination or hints at a spirit of victimisation or self-pity. This attitude, echoed across the city, left a deep impression on me.
Hiroshima is a large and modern city and certainly does not wallow in its tragic past. It boats wide boulevards, a thriving high-rise business community, and one of the few Japanese baseball teams not to succumb to the lures of corporate sponsorship. It also boasts the best okonomiyaki I have tasted in Japan. This stuff is good.
The weeks after I came back from my time in Kyoto and Hiroshima were very busy. So, to finally return to the apology at the top, I can explain why. First, I had to work loads of extra shifts because I took time off. Teaching is often a kind of performance, and this left me, well, knackered.
Second, I got promoted at work. I am now in the real glamour world of power and influence, and have been made the supervisor of my own school. I can, like, change the schedule and everything. This has entailed moving branches, but fortunately not very far away. I now work in Omote Sando, an area of central Tokyo that serves as the headquarters of Japan's fashion industry. I was somewhat perturbed to find out that this did not mean it would be just like Manchester, consisting mainly of cotton mills. In fact, I could not feel more alien there, as my fashion sense rivals that of a particularly poorly-dressed goat, and many of my new students are designers and buyers in the local boutiques. Still, the challenge of low-level people management has, so far, kept me busy.
Third, and perhaps most important, I now seek to spend all my free time eating. This is because I have decided that I would make an excellent sumo wrestler. Maybe. Very recently I attended the May tournament in Tokyo, bringing together all the top wrestlers in the sport. Sumo is, of course, an ancient Japanese practice, and remains deeply traditional in its ceremonies and mind set. I found this fascinating to watch, especially the pre-fight parade of the top division (video). This has caused some controversy of late, with foreign wrestlers finding it difficult to enter the sport due to attempts to keep it "Japanese". In a sense I can understand this, because sumo is unique to the country, but, at present, the Yokozuna champion is Mongolian, and perhaps sumo's biggest star, Koto Oshu, is Bulgarian (see below).
Koto Oshu is not the stereotypical sumo wrestler. He is very tall and not one of the twenty fattest men in the world. This gives me hope. Or rather it did give me hope until he lost his bout that day inside 10 seconds. Rubbish. I have to say that I really enjoyed my day watching sumo. Despite the fact that the build up to each fight lasts several minutes, and that the bout itself lasts between 3 and 20 seconds, I found it a completely engaging experience, and would jump at the chance to go again. And the really big guys hit hard (video).
So that just about brings you up to date. As ever, things in Japan remain great, and it looks like even the World Cup will be instantly viewable over here. So in order to gain the maximum of cultural experience from it all, I am off to an English pub to watch England's first game. If I fail as a sumo wrestler, there's always a gallant quarter final defeat on penalties to console me.
More pictures from Kyoto and Hiroshima can be viewed right about here.
And finally, a picture of monkeys.
Monkeys are brilliant.