Saturday, September 28

The Big Seven Zero

We've just returned from an eventful weekend in New Zealand.  We flew out on Friday night to join my family in celebration of my mother's 70th birthday.  My brother Hamish worked feverishly to arrange a memorable lunch at Mills Reef Winery.  He booked a private room for our 30+ guests, and arranged a feast fit for royalty. 

My brother Matt organised the birthday cake.  Although on this occasion the cake was replaced by a display of truly dazzling cupcakes.  They were the talk of the party.  The afternoon was filled with laughter, memories and family fun.

Unfortunately, the story on everyone's lips at lunch had little to do with Mum's seven decades.  In a truly unexplainable moment of stupidity I'd collected the wrong bag from the carosole at Auckland airport the night before.  I discovered the error shortly after midnight, almost two hours south of Auckland, in a MacDonald's carpark. 

As a result, I spent the next 36 hours returning the misappropriated bag while chasing down my own.  My bag was finally delivered to Tauranga airport on Sunday afternoon, a mere two hours before Garry and I headed back to Auckland.  Saturday morning was also a blur as I scurried off to the nearest mall to buy an entire smart casual wardrobe before the birthday lunch kicked off at 11:30am.

Konichiwa 日本

My Mum and I have returned safely from an amazing 11-day tour of Honshu, Japan.  We've walked, sweated and eaten our way through some of the nation's most iconic highlights.  Since my first trip to Japan in 1993 I've had the privilege of visiting many of its famous sights.  This let me pull together a truly memorable itinerary for Mum, while packing in a few new experiences for myself.

Over the next few weeks I'll add links to a series of posts listed below.  Highlights to watch for include:
  • Matsushima - one of Japan's three famous beauty spots, sadly inundated by the 2011 Tohoku tsunami
  • Nikko - a mountain-side village that's home to some of Japan's most sacred shrines
  • Tokyo - highlights from the world's most populous metropolitan region
  • Mt Fuji - its iconic cone emerged briefly from the clouds during our time in the picturesque Fujigoko region
  • Matsumoto - an iconic Samurai castle
  • Osaka - home to the world's largest aquarium and the longest single-span suspension bridge
  • Hiroshima - forever remembered as the world's first atomic bomb target
  • Miyajima - Japan's sacred shrine island, another of the nation's three famous beauty spots
  • Iwakuni - renown for its iconic wooden arch bridge
  • Kyoto - the nation's ancient capital filled with stunning shrine and temples
  • Omiya - the heartland of Bonsai culture.
Phew!  No wonder I have more 2.8GB of photos sitting on my laptop! We also covered at least 3,500 kms by train. Thank goodness for the remarkable Japan Rail Pass. It's probably the only bargain you'll find in Japan. For less than $400 we enjoyed an itinerary that would have cost at least A$1,500 each had we purchased tickets individually.

Through these posts, I hope you'll enjoy our journey as much as we did.

Monday, September 23

Bonsai bonanza

Gardening was the focus of our final day in Japan. Nobody does horticulture as meticulously as the Japanese. We spent a morning visiting the satellite city of Omiya (not that you can tell where one urban district ends and another begins in Tokyo). The area is renowned for its bonsai culture. It origins can be traced back to the 1920s when a collection of nurseries  relocated from central Tokyo. 

We began our day at the Bonsai Art Museum. It's relatively new attraction, opening in 2010. The museum hosts exhibits on the art of Bonsai and displays some of the finest bonsai specimens you'll ever see in a large external courtyard. Perhaps the most surprising exhibit is the Zashiki Kazari room display. The Japanese have three unique room designs created for the sole purpose of displaying bonsai trees indoors. Who knew?

Unfortunately, the main courtyard was closed during our visit. We'd neglected to consider the impact of a typhoon forecast to sweep through Tokyo the following day. As result, when we arrived, staff were working feverishly to get the museum’s priceless specimens safely indoors. It was frustrating to find the museum’s main attraction off-limits.  We left the venue somewhat disappointed.

However, we need not have worried. Almost a dozen privately-owned bonsai nurseries are located within a few short blocks. Most open their doors to the public giving visitors an opportunity to view hundreds of outstanding trees up close.  The museum gave us a walking map of the neighbourhood.  We raised our umbrellas and set out to explore it.

By chance the first nursery we stopped at is the best in the district. The trees on display were simply breath-taking. Row after row of priceless specimens were available for us to wander by at leisure. We then stumbled upon a young American apprentice at work in a small shed. He was using a tiny pair of scissors to patiently trim last season's pine needles from a small, perfectly formed tree.

We peppered him with questions and he patiently explained everything he was doing.  It was fascinating to learn the intricacies of the bonsai art form and its traditions. We were shocked to learn that a typical apprenticeship lasted four years - and it's all unpaid.

After lunch we returned to our hotel. I’d intentionally booked our final night in Tokyo at the New Otani Hotel. It's built in the grounds of a former feudal palace. While the imperial buildings are long gone, the stunning palace gardens continue to be maintained.

The scale and elegance of the garden is truly breath-taking. Despite the passage of more than hundred years you can still cross carefully formed, carp-filled, ponds via a postcard-perfect vermillion bridge. Guests are then free to wander along wooded slopes, soak in the spray of a giant waterfall and ponder the meaning of elegantly pruned shrubs.  It was the perfect end to an incredible vacation

Wednesday, September 18

Ukai in motion

Ukai is a traditional form of river fishing where fishermen use trained birds to catch fish. In Japan, fishermen around the central Honshu city of Gifu have used specially trained cormorants this way for more than 1,300 years. However, what was once a flourishing industry has largely become a popular tourism venture. These days, a dozen or so rivers host ukai demonstrations during the Summer months, usually just after dusk.

Despite many trips to Japan I’ve never had an opportunity to see ukai fishing in action. By chance, Mum and I learnt that fishing was still active on the Hozugawa river, half an hour north-west of central Kyoto. We jumped at the opportunity to see a demonstration on our first evening in Kyoto. Our luck held as we arrived at the river and found two sessions on offer, with plenty of space available.

Ukai involves some simple, but specialized, equipment. Traditional flat-bottomed boats built of cedar are used. Each has a broad flat platform at either end for processing fish as they’re caught. A long iron rod is fixed to the hull of the boat. It curves high over the bow. A large iron “basket” is attached to the end. Firewood is set alit in the basket after dark to attract fish and provide a working light while fishing.

The cormorants are kept onboard in large wicker baskets until it’s time to fish. The fisherman control each bird using a snare tied around the base of its throat. It takes many years to perfect a ukai knot. When tied correctly, the snare prevents the bird from swallowing larger fish. It can still swallow smaller fish thus encouraging it to continue fishing. Whenever a cormorant catches a large fish in its throat, the fisherman hauls it onto the boat and forces it to spit it out.

The ukai demonstration we saw lasted about an hour. The guests were herded into a series of wooden, flat-bottomed boats where we sat crossed-legged for the entire show. Two fishing boats slowly paddled past us in what could only be described as a procession of light, sound and diving birds.  

The firewood sizzles and crackles, the birds splash around, fishermen bang the side of the boat and everyone seems to shout as birds catch fish. It’s an amazing experience. You can catch a brief glimpse of this spectacle in the video below.

Tuesday, September 17

Fushimi Inari Taisha

I said I wasn't going to publish individual posts on our time in Kyoto. I lied.  There's one place I simply have to tell you about.  It's Fushimi Inari Taisha.  This is an incredible shrine complex on the slopes of Mount Inari, just south of Kyoto.

Inari is the god of rice.  As you know, rice is diet staple that rests at the heart of Japanese life and culture.  This means that Inari is also closely associated with wealth and prosperity.  He's considered the patron of business, merchants and manufacturers throughout the country. Fushimi Inari is his primary shrine in Japan.

As you enter the shire you're immediately greeted by an enormous stylized image of a fox.  I must confess that, at first, Mum and I thought it was cartoon dog.  However, we soon learnt that the fox is considered a messenger and guardian for Inari. Fox effigies are often displayed around Inari shrine.  you typically see them presented in one of two poses. The most common of these has the fox holding a granary key in its mouth.

The main shrine structure was built in 1499.  It actually replaced a series of earlier building dating back to 816. However, the earliest Inari shrines in the area were erected at least a century earlier. Behind the main complex stairs leads worshippers toward a series of trials that wind their way a further four kilometres to mountain's summit, 233 metres above sea level.  The main path is framed by thousands, upon thousands, of brilliant red torii gates.

Each gate is private donation from an aspiring, or possibly grateful, Japanese business. It's an extraordinary sight.  In places the path splits into two for several hundred metres.  Each route continues to be framed by the same mesmerizing river of red.

Mum and ventured up one path to the first resting place.  This small clearing houses a series of shrines, each with its own forest of paper prayers tied in neat rows along one of the ubiquitous wire-framed prayer fences you'll always find in Japan. We decided that once you've seen the first thousand gates you've really seen them all.  We retraced our steps and made our way towards Zen temples on the northern flank of the Kyoto hills.

Monday, September 16

Kyoto: picture this!

Mum and I have enjoyed two wonderful days in Kyoto.  We visited at least a dozen different temples and shrines; each with it's own take on the traditions and rituals of Shintoism and Buddhism.  The gardens were stunning and the views, extraordinary.  Japan's ancient capital deserves every acolade it receives.  This was my third trip to Kyoto.  However, I must confess that everything we saw captured my imagination once again. 

I debated long and hard about writing a rich and detailed post about each place we visited.  However, every locations has its own fascinating back story. Each one deserves a blog post of its own.  I've decided that this is simply one task too many. A good guide book would do a far better than I ever could. Instead, I present my pictorial post on all things Kyoto. Enjoy!

Ok, so I lied a little.  I couldn't help myself.  I've published a post about Fushimi Inari Taisha, an amazing shrine with thousands of tori gates that snake their way up the local hillside.

I've also published a second post about an evening excursion we took to witness the Summer tradition of Cormorant fishing. Enjoy.

And now for a little bit of zen.  Contemplate this lot.

 Come closer.  Search deeper.  Let the rocks do the talking.

Time for a stroll.  Which path will you take?

Just another in an endless series of postcard moments.

There's also plenty to see after dark if you know where to look. As for those laterns, they're backlit offerings from optimistic businessmen seeking a better bottom line.

  And a few more magic moments...

Finally, the rest of the pack...

 Did we mention the pagodas? They're everywhere.