Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Lawn Sakura in Chichibu

When you think its all over, Sakura, that is, there's Lawn Sakura in Chichibu. What a relief. It seemed hard to move on after experiencing the sakura in Gion, Kyoto. It's not surprising there are fanatics who chase the blossoms as they move northwards in springtime.
To see carpet or lawn sakura, just head to Chichibu, north of Tokyo in Saitama prefecture on the Seibu Ikebukuro Line. You will not be disappointed after a relaxing 1.5 hour journey by-passing forested countryside.
This quaint station greets you and helpful signs lead you to the pot of gold.

A pleasant 30 minute walk through vegetable and flower gardens gives you a glimpse into the calm country life of this farming region.Green fingers are abound as you see the love and care put into their gardens.

Ever conscious of the environment, the sign is a reminder to collect doggy poo.
This hippie completely mesmerised by this glorious sight... The carpet sakura covers an area of 16,500 square meters forming a patchwork of pink, white and mauve.Close up it appears like candy floss - good enough to eat!...and very close up...The colours deepen as the sun starts to set. Taking the short cut back through the woods provided yet another exposure to the beauty of nature. The vision of setting sun rays highlighting the trees and allowing the last slivers of blue skies through is hard to ignore. A beautiful end to a wonderous day...

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Inside the Japanese mind...

Hanami, the traditional party-in-the-park to celebrate the arrival of spring and cherry blossoms epitomises the Japanese love of life and nature. Throngs head for their favourite parks, and settle down on blue tarps and share pot-luck goodies and sake. Friends, families, clubs and - more creative still - a mommy-and-baby group get together.Office colleagues utilise this time to chill out and improve bonds in this hierarchical environment. The junior-most salary men (typical Japanese office workers) have the honour of organising the nitty gritty, most important of all staking out the party space. Others may have to sleep on it . . .After work at 7-8 pm the big guns stroll in and the party is on. Ueno Park allows alcohol to be brought in, however Shinjuku Gyoen Park does not and charges an entrance fee of 200 yen. You have to give it to the Japanese for detailed organisation and being prepared. Garbage bins sorted by category for cans, plastic and biodegradables are put in place for the occasion. At the end of the day you can be sure the park is spotless!
Harajuku is paradise for the kinky, especially on Sunday, where the Goths and Lolitas go on parade. This is where the kawaii/cuteness culture explodes. It emerged in the 70's as a new style of writing, invented by teenage Japanese girls, where pictures of smiley faces, stars, hearts, etc. were randomly inserted between text. This was considered cute. You could say this was the first use of emoticons that we love so much. In the 80's, cute icons like Hello Kitty and later, Pikachu from Pokemon emerged and set the mold for things to come. Sociologists report that 'cute' is now considered a 'magic term' that encompasses everything that's acceptable and desirable in Japan.Japanese kids 'just wanna have fun'. Very much into fashion and boy bands/Johnnies, they roam the streets of Shibuya, where the famed multicrossing exists, until the last train at midnight. The worst swear word is the 4-letter word starting with 's' for excrement. F U or any equivalent does not exist as sex is not considered dirty or worth cursing about!
Somewhere in Kyoto a group of ladies are also dressed to the nines in traditional kimonos, a practice that seems to be gaining popularity. Meanwhile, three maiko or geisha-in-training, in full regalia and white makeup, hurry along the streets of Gion to meet their patrons. Geisha or female Japanese entertainer is a profession still embraced to this day although its population is diminshing. High school or college leavers undergo training of not less than six months to learn traditional instruments, dances and songs befitting an entertainer. They are hired to attend parties, dinners and tea ceremonies. In the Japanese context, the geisha's role ends at playful innuendos. It is the Western presumption that more than this is rendered.

Love hotels exist out of sheer necessity due to the close living quarters and appreciation for privacy. In a country where sex is accepted without much of the guilt associated with it as in the West, a couple can rent a room for a few hours and be assured of anonymity. All transactions are done by video menu and vending machine. Love hotels cater to all tastes and desires from wild west rooms to private swimming pools to other less conventional preferences. There has been a shift in focus where the decor now caters for women's themes. Even single women utilise this facility for some luxury, privacy and space. For a particular comic writer whose illustrations revolve around the love hotel, these establishments are an extension of her office, so to speak. Riding the trains is where you can elbow in with everyday people. The Japanese have perfected the art of napping either sitting down or standing up as well as getting off at their stop. An urban legend tells of a salary man who has taken the train to work for the past 40 years and has only missed his stop 4 times - believe it or not? What used to be a reading society of standard-sized paperbacks and manga, has seen an obvious swing to MP3s, iPods and electronic devices, especially since the launch last year of Playstation Portable (PSP) and Nintendo DS.

It is difficult to not to get up close and personal on the JR lines. Eavesdropping becomes a neccessary evil.
Make of this what you will...

Gal: Stop making noise! (In a rough manly/aggressive tone)
Guy: I'm not. (In a meek voice)
Gal: You are!! (Getting more aggressive)
Guy: No I'm not... (kawaii)
Gal: Yes you are... with your eyes!!

... Is this a Love Hotel moment?

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Baring it all at the Onsen

In Japanese philosophy, Onsen, Japanese hot spring bath, is the diametric opposite of everything in normal, hectic day-to-day life. Onsen blends the mysticism and spirituality of the East into the traditional sweat bath practice, lending it a Zen, meditative quality. This has been practised for thousands of years and is a major part of Japanese culture and lifestyle, providing a socially acceptable relief from the pressures of the contemporary Japanese twelve-hour work ethic. It represents an opportunity for the Japanese to melt down the hierarchical nature of society through mutual nakedness and intimacy. Hot springs are distinguished by the minerals dissolved in the water. Different minerals provide different health benefits, and all hot springs are supposed to have a relaxing effect on the body and mind. Hot spring baths come in many varieties, indoor and outdoor, gender separated and mixed. For most Japanese Onsen is not a regular part of life, but essentially a respite from it and is enjoyed throughout the seasons.Hill retreats like Hakone are famed for their ryokans (tradition Japanese rest houses) and onsen where residential facilities include 3 meals and a tatami-styled room where one sleeps on futons spread out on the floor. Kusatsu hot spring is widely recognised as one of the best quality spring waters rich in sulfur, aluminum, sulfate and chloride of high acidity. A traditional folk song sings the praises of the therapeutic benefits of its spring water that it is able to “cure everything but love sickness”.Tradition has been successfully commercialised in the major cities where theme park onsens thrive on the energy of the young and tourists. Its a matter of taste - modern design . . . . . . versus rocks and boulders.Additional attractions like Doctor Fish spas have been introduced to titillate the senses. Garra Rufa, a type of small tropical fish, are able to withstand temperatures of up to 43-degree hot waters. They eat dead skin (no they are not piranha) and are used for the treatment of skin diseases. Another intriguing spa therapy is the sand bath, originating from Ibusuki, Japan. Wearing a yukata (Japanese cotton robe) one is buried up to the neck in heated sand for 15 minutes to achieve the benefits of this detox treatment. Together with improved circulation, one feels surprisingly refreshed after a sand bath. Now comes the hot topic of etiquette. The onsen is not a place to cleanse oneself but rather to relax and benefit from its therapeutic effects. One is required to disrobe and don a yukata. In the bathing area, one must be prepared to bare all, and head for the washing station for a good scrub and wash. Good quality bath and hair shampoo and conditioner are provided. All you have is a small stool to hide your modesty which is a better option than standing upright in full view, belting out strains of "Obladi oblada..." as you would do in your own shower! Rest assured there will be a major uproar if there is nonconformance of this practice. Embarrassment is a given and not just because one is caught with one's pants down!
Armed only with a wash cloth, a meager 15 cm x 40 cm, which you are not supposed to immerse in the water but keep on your head, you wander to pools of varying temperatures and mineral content and gracefully immerse yourself without screaming as you embrace the hot water.

Very soon you do relax and enjoy the moment despite the obvious nudity all around you. For those of us who are not used to this practice, it is better to go to an onsen on your own, I think. You cut out the giggles and stress. After 30 minutes you imagine yourself on a different planet, feeling as light as a feather and drifting from pool to pool without a care. Perhaps this is what it must be like on the island of Lesbos or before Adam and Eve ate that wretched apple! Pure bliss.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Kyoto - the romance of Gion

Much of the magic of Japan is nestled in Kyoto, formerly the imperial capital of Japan (794-1868).It took a heavy downpour to discover skills (or not) in balancing an umbrella to protect the precious camera, rather than oneself, and taking zoom shots of sakura buds.
The Imperial Garden visit while it was raining bullets turned out to be a bad idea. The shops at Kyoto Station, which extend underground for about a kilometer in diameter, would have been a better option.

Not to be deterred, we soldiered on to Gion, the famed geisha district.
The first glimpse was reward enough for earlier disappointments. Picture a fairyland of cherry blossoms, the warm glow of lights from traditional wooden houses beside a canal of running water. . . pure magic! A few more steps and you hit the soft warm center of this romantic place . . . where all your dreams come true.
The umbrellas add an interesting dimension to the almost perfect setting for an epic love story. . . Some wishes were granted when this beautiful geisha appeared being photographed by her escort. Note the nape of neck, a sensuous part of the anatomy in the eyes of Japanese men, heavy with make up in true geisha style. Restaurants along the canal offer premium cuisine and views at premium prices.
Low lit side streets exude an air of mystery and secrets untold.

'Memoirs of a Geisha', brought to life. Another intriguing Japanese cultural practice that continues to this day.