Sunday, August 19, 2007

Old temples and a new tire.

(A temple bell... with car)

I recently had to take to walking to work because the rear tire on my bicycle was worn down to the thread, and I had an attack of the `can`t be bothered`s` when it came to replacing it. Walking was a nice change of pace though, and Kyoto is a city that you really should walk around anyway. I enjoyed zig zagging my way through the gridded narrow streets and noticing for the first time beautiful ornate temples that, tucked away in little pockets, have stood their ground as the surrounding buildings and houses succumb to the need for newer and nicer.

They stand gracefully as reminders of this ancient city`s past, in defiance of modernity and providing a treat for the visitors who wander off the tourist trails and encounter them. That is a great thing about Kyoto, the seemingly endless maze of twists and turns will inevitably lead you to a gem, and give you a nice feeling of discovering a piece of history. Considering that Kyoto has over 1500 temples and shrines to stumble across, people often run the risk of being `all templed out` after a day or two. I would suggest however, that if you replace the Lonely Planet with a street map and a sandwich you`ll be content to wander around the streets for a lot longer, as the surprises await you around every corner, literally.

(Temple. rebuilt in 1512 after being destroyed by fire, now surrounded by apartment blocks.)

I enjoyed walking, for a while at least, but soon began to miss my bike. I`ve always had a bike, and Japan is the land of bicycles, so eventually my `can`t be bothered`s` gave way to `gotta do it`s`, and I hunted down a new tire and set about mounting it. As I was mucking around out the front of my place, a couple of friendly neighbourhood Yakuza wandered over to investigate what the hell I was doing.

For a start I understood only a little of what they were saying so I began (as I often do) to translate their conversation in my head with my own dialogue as I busied myself with the tire...
Fancy not buying a new bike, and just replacing a tire.... damn frugal foreigners.
Yeah tell me about it. You want a new bike? We can get you a new bike. You don`t wanna know what we can get you
But as I listened I began to hear a few murmurings of surprise and grunts of approval! Hold on, they were genuinely impressed that I was replacing a tire, rather than the whole bike, which is what the senior one of the two proclaimed most Japanese would do. It was definitely complimentary! This was amazing - a compliment from a gangster, what the hell? I thought these guys were meant to be right wing foreigner hating Japanese nationalists who would look upon my bike maintenance as a slight on the Japanese economy. But no! These two were pretty impressed that I would... let alone could do such a thing. I on the other hand was pretty bemused as to why they had nothing better to do than watch me change my tire, but wasn`t about to point that out to them. In any case, I thought, perhaps they are as fascinated by me fixing a tire as I am by what is probably just some generic neighbourhood temple in their eyes. Funny what an insight into a different culture can do, how what can appear mundane and monotonous to some can be so alluring to others.

Apparently though the allure of tire fixing quickly faded, and they`d soon had their fill of amusement from the foreign bike fixer. So, they wandered back to their gangster day, and I pumped up my tire and rolled off into the hot Kyoto sun, a little slower than before though, so as not to miss anything.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Fans of Festivals

The arrival of summer in Japan is heralded by a flurry of fireworks, festivals and fancy dress. The flavour of the festivals depends on where you are, but the fundamentals are always the same.

Summer festivals in Japan involve a lot of people, and it seems the more humid the
weather, the more people there are. Cramming in like salmon in a sushi roll, people jostle for position to get a good view of the passing floats and performers, all the while frantically fanning themselves, with the plastic fans that are dished out by the hundred. These fans (which unashamedly advertise everything from beer to movies) are vital to maintaining a cool body temperature whilst rubbing sweaty shoulders with the locals. They are flapped up and down vigorously, yet with a concerted economy of movement,so as not to whack the person standing alongside. I believe that elbows in and quick wrist snaps is the key, but I`m more prone to whack people than most, and so I tend to try and bludge a breeze from one of the more vigorous fanners; terrible.

Meanwhile,the crowd rolls around , heads bobbing up and down like buoys on a rolling tide, as they try to peer over the inevitably two or three inch taller person in front of them to get a good look at the passing performers. All this, remember while trying not to whack someone with their fan, or be whacked by someone elses fan, or even worse, unintentionally fan some cheeky foreigner who is free loading from your fan. Quite a work out really, especially in stifling humidity, so thank God for the yatai!

Yatai are food and beer stalls, and a staple of any self respecting summer festival. They offer the standard festival fare: Candy floss is a favourite, as are toffee apples and fried chicken. But a festival wouldn`t be a festival without okonomiyaki ( a kind of pork and cabbage pancake) or takoyaki (octopus dumplings) now would it!?

Nothing like cooling off with a beer or three, and maybe some squid on a stick, after scrummaging with sweaty Japanese in their Yukata.

(Yukata is a kind of kimono, worn by men women and children during the summer months. As you`d imagine they`re very cool, although I still haven`t worked out how to sit down in one without clearing the room. Very tricky garments are the yukata, but I can`t help feeling a little like a `bushi` whenever I`m decked out in one).

The main event at most summer festivals though is the fireworks. Literally millions of yen worth of fireworks are sent fizzing into the night sky, with stunning results that last for up to an hour. I visited the Toyama festival last week, and ended up standing basically underneath these massive pyrotechnic showers. No matter how many fireworks I see, they still keep me entranced, and I`m unable to turn away as one after another spray spectacularly into the night sky. The noise is enough to be heard from kilometers away, and the darkness is again and again ripped apart by huge flashes of green and yellow.
I don`t know if the irony of commerating the day that Toyama was destroyed by bombs during the Second World War (August 1st) with a huge fireworks display every year is lost on the residents or not. I think it might be their way of confronting the horrors of the past by replacing such a horrible image with one of celebration and enjoyment. I watched an elderly grandfather, who was easily old enough to have seen those horrible times first hand clutch his granddaughter`s shoulders as they both watched the sky transfixed; the young girl blissfully unaware of the significance of the day in the city`s past.

The fireworks will continue whistling and fizzing throughout the summer, and the humidity won`t relent for a while yet. But at least we`ll have the beers stalls and plastic fans to see us through, and what would summer in Japan be without those!?