Burning Up

The sun is just rising as I hunker over the handle bars of my bike and scoot through the refreshing morning air to the station. I use our spare bike so that I can park it illegally, though the brakes don't work well so it can be a little frightening. But the streets are deserted just after 6 a.m and so there are no worries.

When I get off the train and catch the bus towards the foothills of the mountains, the air changes. As the sun arches up, water is pulled from the earth and dew from the leaves of plants, the river and buildings flash with light. As I shoulder my bag and stroll up the twisting road to my first rest-stop I am sweating all over my body. By the time I detour back to my school I have changed my t-shirt and slumped down at my desk to start another day in what feels like a sauna. Sweat is dripping down my cheeks and my back. My elbows and feet are sweating although I have never noticed sweating elbows before. And this sweating won't stop for the whole eight hours of work.

Moving prompts a new layer of sweat. Students lay half dead, the lazy whir of the fan doing nothing but forcing hot air onto already slick bodies. Students can't think and I lose the energy to scold, giving in to the weather and handing out quiet assignments. Humidity in spite of a drought, tropical heat although rainy season has failed to come. This is the reality of Japan's summer. There is no way to stay cool, no way to think or be comfortable, or sleep unless it is exhaustion. Air conditioning is cranked so high on the train that it gives you goose-bumps, an ice cream headache and that throbbing discomfort of machine made cool. I am beginning to think I will never be cool again.

27 06 05 - 04:20 - kieren - kyonoki| No comments - §

The Peace of Toji

When the new capital of Heian-kyo (Kyoto) had been constructed, two temples were created to flank each side of the Rajomon Gate. To-ji to the East and Sai-ji to the West. In 1233, Sai-ji was destroyed in a fire and never rebuilt. Japan was not yet a united country when the temples were built, and it was hoped that these centres of Buddhism would help hurry along the unification process through prayer.

To-ji established itself as the most important Buddhist temple in Japan. Prayers for the peace and security of the country continue to be held here even now. The ancient Kodo and Kondo halls are part of the original temple, though the Nandaimon Gate to the South was actually part of the Sanjusanden-do, brought here in 1894 after the previous gate burnt. To-ji's famous pagoda (Goju-no-to) is the tallest wooden structure in Japan. Rebuilt in 1644 it is one of Kyoto's most familiar symbols.

22 06 05 - 04:15 - kieren - kyonoki| No comments - §

The Amazing Reversable Cat

Here is the ancient Rhea (Reebee),...very spoiled and very much loved. She may well be the only reversible cat in the world. When stroked one way she is black, when stroked the other way a light grey. Without a doubt she considers herself in charge of my family house, and in all likelihood considers herself more human than cat. Rhea lives on a diet of Munchies, and at the slightest rattle of the box will come running from miles away. Ever since she was a baby she has been locked in battle with my brother and recently takes to lying on his face while he sleep. What a marvelous cat!

21 06 05 - 06:01 - kieren - kyonoki| one comment - §

Frank The Komainu

Frank the komainu here.

20 06 05 - 05:33 - kieren - kyonoki| No comments - §

Tequila!

Tomi, Jol and Misako join us for tacos and tequila.

18 06 05 - 08:26 - kieren - kyonoki| No comments - §

Kamigamo Shimogamo

Tomi's house sits in the precinct of the Shimogamo Shrine on the small peninsular created by the merging of the Kamo and Takano rivers. A few years ago I visited the Shimogamo for the Aoi Matsuri, but then it had been a sea of jostling bodies crushed against one another. Today we walked around the shrine and the haunting forest.

The Kamigamo and Shimogamo are the upper and lower halves of the same shrine. The Shimogamo was built slightly later than its twin, in the 8th century and has always been of considerable importance, closely connected to agriculture and the protection of the country. The shrine existed long before the capital was dragged here from Nara.

The ancient shin-den (shrine buildings) sit in the primeval Tadasu-no-mori (the 'Forest Where Lies are Revealed'). Originally the streams were used as a place of purification and it is here a princess of the Kamo Family found an arrow from a god floating in the waters. It prompted them to make the ground sacred.

Originally the Shimogamo's main hall was to be rebuilt every 20 years (this custom was carried out without a break from 1036 to 1322 and then only occasionally), but the last time was in 1863. On the 17th day before risshu (the first day of autumn), people wash their feet in the Mitarashi Pond in a purification rite within the shrine grounds. The Mitarashi Matsuri is said to absolve people of their crimes and sins, drive away sickness, and help to ensure safe childbirth for mothers.

On May 15th the Aoi Matsuri has people flocking to the Kamigamo and Shimogamo to watch people dressed in Heian costumes parade through the city. The name aoi (hollyhock) is said to come from an order given by a god for people to 'put hollyhocks in your hair and hold a festival for me'.

Tomi is very lucky to live close to such a magical place.

18 06 05 - 04:14 - kieren - kyonoki| No comments - §

Remembering Shodo-shima

Akira and I decided to take a three day trip to the island of Shodo-shima in the Seto Inland Sea. Before the sun was up we took the first train to Kobe's main harbour and boarded a mostly empty ferry. Leaving our belongings in one of the many tatami rooms (nothing but a straw-matted floor for sleeping) we went on deck as the ship pulled out into Osaka Bay. Slowly the boat skimmed the edge of Kobe city, the water perfectly still and the morning gently warming as a brilliantly orange sun broke free of the horizon.

My dad always asks me if I have ever seen one of those post-card sunrises where the sun appears impossibly huge. I tell him again and again that it is on the equator that the sun is apparently larger, hotter and more dramatic. Japan rests on the same latitude as England and the sun does not appear any different. That morning the sun was huge and round and I could look at it without having to turn away.

Groggy from lack of sleep we huddled onto the birds-nest to watch the Akashi Bridge pass over us, then peer at the open expanse of the island-dotted Seto Sea. Before people were waking to go to work we were curled up asleep by our bags. We must have missed countless tiny, uninhabited islands, lush and green, stark and peaceful during those few hours of sleep. The Inland Sea was as still as a lake as we sailed towards Shikoku along the length of -and then away from- Awaji Island (the first island in the Japanese archipelago to be created by the gods).

By the time we had woken and eaten a bowl of miso and rice for breakfast the ferry was pulling into the harbour at Takamatsu. The boat was cheaper than a day-ticket to Nara, and taking only 6 hours the journey was comfortable and quick. We took a free shuttle to the castle (which is really just a moat and wall nowadays, but beautiful as it falls directly into the sea) and then another ferry for 40 minutes to Shodo-shima, our final destination. Our rental car was waiting.

It was Akira's first experience driving alone since he had passed his test and he was apprehensive about the tiny winding roads. I was more apprehensive about the soaring cliffs we would have to navigate. He only scratched the car once and this was in the car-park at the very end of the trip. A little problem of reverse and forward gears.

It takes three hours to drive the circumference of the island, down tiny roads that twist up along the edge of cliffs and then plunge down to deserted beaches and small fishing villages. The drive alone was worth the trip for it was the most beautiful place I have visited in Japan. The eerie quiet of the Seto Sea was never more captivating than in the clear moments before sunset.

Shoda-shima is nicknamed the Greece of Japan and produces a huge amount of olives. Many buildings reflect Mediterranean architecture and we spent hours wandering through the olive groves in the stunning early Spring heat. It has a vibrant tourism industry and for such a small island has many points of interest. There is a mountain filled with monkeys (frightening at feeding time, blanketing a foolish woman who was brave enough to toss nuts at them) at the roof of the island, and to the Southern coast a place where stone was excavated for Osaka Castle. The huge blocks were floated to Osaka Bay, a feat similar to that of Stone Henge, though a few thousand years later. There was also a strange formation of rocks in the mountains that looked like a Martian landscape. There was other more usual tourist fare, such as tours of the olive gardens (the shop had olive soap, chocolate, moisturiser and thousands of other themed goods), boat trips, and a small seaweed covered stretch of land (Angel Road) that is submerged by the sea every few hours. There is also a giant (and rather new) standing statue of buddha and a scattering of shrines.

The movie 24 Pairs of Eyes is based on the true story of an elementary teacher who worked at a small school on the island during WWII. You can still see the school house and learn about the movie. It is a harrowing tale about how war can affect the innocence of youth.

Three days was not enough. In the absolute silence and quiet of island life, I fell in love with the place. The hospitality was so warming that it makes me think sometimes I am missing out on learning about Japan by having the convenience of city life...although I wouldn't trade places, I would like to experience such a place by living there if I had the money and opportunity. I will be taking Rhod there when we have some spare time, and hopefully I can share the experience with my parents too.

17 06 05 - 02:59 - kieren - kyonoki| No comments - §

Down and Out in Kyoto

Golden Week at the beginning of May is a week of holidays. Greenery Day, Constitution Day (or as it is known in the rest of the world...my birthday) and Children's Day are celebrated one after another to give workers a much needed break before the Summer. After my move to Kyoto and because of Rhod's delayed visa we didn't have much money between us so decided to stay in the city and explore the Eastern and Western hills behind our apartment.

Cycling around the foothills at random we completed a whirlwind tour of shrines, temples and mountains in the four or so days we weren't working. What surprised me most is that in ten minutes we can leave the city completely behind.

Here is a breathless explanation of some of the places we visited.

Kinkaku-ji - The Golden Pavilion was built by Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu in 1397. Covered in gold leaf it is three stories high and looks pretty gaudy for a Japanese temple. It is always full of tourists and school children, yet every time I leave I feel a little bit let down, reminded of a Christmas decoration or cheap cracker toy. A young priest set fire to the original building in 1950, razing it to the ground, and the present building was constructed in 1955. The young man entered priesthood after becoming entranced by the beauty of the pavilion and gradually became obsessed with the idea that the only thing that could bring his aesthetic senses to perfection would be the sight of the building going up in flames. Basara is used to express the temple's beauty...it literally means 'exquisite'.

Ginkaku-ji - One of Rhod's favourites. The Silver Pavilion was built as a place of refuge from the burnt-out wasteland that the city had become after the Battle of Onin. In an attempt to try and escape the devastation going on all around him Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa constructed the rather slight building in 1489, turning to religion in the hope of achieving happiness in the after-life. Ginkaku-ji is much more sorrowful than its richly decorated twin. Ginkaku-ji is not silver. Ashikaga did not have the funds to complete his dream.

Heian Jingu - This is one of Kyoto's newer shrines, built in 1895 to mark the eleven hundredth anniversary of the founding of Heian-kyo (present day Kyoto). It is a reconstruction to 5/8 scale of the buildings that stood in the Imperial Court in the Heian Era. Daigoku-den was the main government hall where the Emperor would conduct the daily affairs of state. It was burnt down in 1177 and has never been rebuilt. The shrine consists of 8 buildings linked by a long corridor from the Oten-Mon Gate in the North to the Daigoku-den Hall in the South. Two of the most interesting structures are the Byakko-ro (White Tiger) and Soryu-ro (Blue Dragon) towers, renowned for their intricate construction. The shrine is dedicated to 2 Emperors. Emperor Kammu (737-806) moved the capital of Japan from Heijo-kyo (Nara) to Heian-kyo (Kyoto). Emperor Komei (1831-1866) was the last to have his palace at Kyoto. After his death, Emperor Meiji moved to Tokyo ending Kyoto's Imperial history.

Koryu-ji (Uzamasa-dera) - Founded by Prince Shotoku (573-621) in 603 and built by Hata-no-Kawakatsu in 630, it is one of Japan's oldest temples. Reconstructed in 1165 it houses many Buddhist statues carved in the 7th and 8th centuries. The temple is famous for the Miroku Bosatsu, a statue carved by Shotoku in his own likeness when he was 33. Many people have found themselves captivated by the charm of the statue. In 1960 a college student was so overcome by its beauty that he unthinkingly embraced it and broke off its little finger. Despite it's fame, Rhod and I spent more time looking at a giant buddha sitting off to one side. With its many hands broken off, leaving ragged stumps, it looked its age. As men felled and carved the trees that would make up this giant figure, Normandy was sailing for the shores of England, ready to do battle and take the crown from Harold. It was the most captivating buddha statue I have ever seen, and will probably have me cycling up there sometime soon to see it again.

Arashiyama- The Togestsu spans the Oi River, literally meaning the 'Crossing Moon' bridge. The name is a poetic allusion to the moon crossing the night sky. The present bridge was rebuilt in 1934. Arashiyama means Storm Mountai. Its beautiful scenery has been celebrated in poem and song since olden times. Sagano, close to the town, has many temples and villas belonging to the ancient nobility and has witnessed numerous events of historical significance.

Ryoan-ji - One of Japan's most famous sekitei (Zen-influenced rock gardens...a unique style of garden employing rocks and white sand to create abstract representations of nature, developed in the Muromachi Era), Ryoan-Ji's garden consists of 300 square metres of sand and 15 rocks arranged to represent islands in an ocean. Priests draw on the wave-like patterns in the sand with a special broom. Many people often sit and let their minds peacefully imagine what the garden truly means. However because I am so impatient, I much preferred wandering around the ponds (Kyoyochi Pond was made in the 12th Century and until recent years filled with mandarin ducks, giving Ryoan-Ji the nickname Oshidoridera, Temple of the Mandarin Ducks) and forests surrounding Ryoan-Ji.

Daikaku-ji - Originally the detached palace (in other words it was his own and not an imperial property) of Emperor Saga, in 876 he designated it as part of the Shingon Buddhist Sect, converting his palace into a temple. He constructed a massive pond in the grounds of Daikaku-ji, named Osawa. The temple is famous for its screen doors painted by the renowned Sanraku Kano and Shiko Watanabe.

Ninna-ji - Founded by Emperor Uda in 888 (the fourth year of Ninna) it was formerly called the Old Imperial Palace of Omuro as it served as a residence for the ex-emperor. The temple is incredibly famous for the Omuro School of Flower Arranging. The Kondo and Miedo halls were moved from the Imperial Palace and rebuilt here, their palace architecture unusual in these surroundings. The uniquely low branched Omuro cherry trees are another treasure of the temple.

Most of these places take no more that 30 minutes to reach by bike from our apartment. Whilst cycling through the maze of streets around you, you are never quite sure where you will end up.

12 06 05 - 08:22 - kieren - kyonoki| No comments - §

Fading Landscapes

When I first came to Kobe I never thought it would feel so much like home, so much like a shelter from my homesickness and close to everything my heart would need. It had a job that I truly enjoyed waking up to, the mountains to hike in and the beach a few train stops away. To say goodbye seemed an impossible thing, but then I met Rhod and everything changed. He asked me to move in and as my new job was in Osaka it seemed to make sense.

I will always have bright flashes of memory that are important to me, and I know that although we must move on I will desperately miss Kobe.

11 06 05 - 02:15 - kieren - kyonoki| No comments - §

The Wrath of Michizane

If you cycle North from our apartment, cutting down small alleyways and steaming hot streets, through arcades of shops that look faded, rundown and still clinging to the 70s, you come to Kitano Temmangu Shrine. Two giant dog-lion-guardians look down at you at the entrance, daring you to follow the winding, lantern cluttered driveway.

The shrine was built in honour of Michizane Sugawara, in a desperate attempt to try and calm his spirit after a series of calamity fell the city following his unjust death. Michizane was a scholar in the Heian period, exiled by enemies after a fall from grace. During the journey he fell sick and perished. It should have been the end of the matter, but his death brought forth a tornado of disaster. Great lightning storms raged above the capital, striking every quarter of the city and setting fire to the palace. Even the Emperor appeared to be at the wronged courtier's mercy. Forever on linked to the thunder god, Michizane came also to be known as god of learning.

Temmangu was constructed in the hope that Michizane could be placated, and that the city would be free from his wrath. From beyond the grave Michizane not only won back his honour, but saw his enemies punished. Hundreds and hundreds of high school students continue to flock to the shrine in late Spring and early Summer during their school trips to pray for luck in their upcoming exams (most write their wishes on the back of an ema, a small wooden votive tablet with a picture of horse or resting bullock, and hang them in the Ema-do, a special hall built in 1608 to carry these wishes)

Thunder growled in the sky as I visited today. All those years ago what voices did people hear in the thunder? Did they pray, cowering as lightning rained down upon the foothills and ignited their wooden homes? In a world of wooden buildings, is it little surprise that the people hurried to calm Michizane's spirit?

10 06 05 - 04:03 - kieren - kyonoki| No comments - §

By Imperial Invitation

As I cycled through the sea of gravel about Gosho today, skimming off some journey time on my way to the Kamo, I thought of the endless times I had walked around the park with my parents and friends, wondering what it would be like to have a peek inside the imperial chambers. Twice a year the gates open to the public and I have such fond memories of the place because it was the first time Rhod showed me around Kyoto.

In November we pushed and shoved our way through the crowds to enjoy the last days of Japan's Indian Summer. Kyoto Gosho (the old Imperial Palace) was originally used as the Emperor's second palace and became a permanent abode from 1331 (to 1867) after the original palace burnt down. Shishinden is the main palace of the Kyoto Gosho, also known as Na-den (South Palace) since it occupies the Southern-most position in the precinct. It is a single story building enclosed by three gates and a white sand garden.

The Northern-most part of the Gosho was an enclosed town of courtly families and administrative staff all under the control of the Shogun. The Imperial Court assembled here from the 17th century. When the Emperor moved to Tokyo in 1867 the court town was dismantled and the ruins became the Kyoto Gyoen (Imperial Park), which includes the Omiya and Sento Palaces.

My first visit to the Gosho remains somehow empty. Visitors are only allowed to skirt around the buildings and not allowed to prowl the gardens at all. Mannequins try to recreate the atmosphere of the Imperial Court, though they look like ghosts haunting the soulless rooms. I like the Gosho, but in all honesty I prefer being outside the walls in the park watching people stroll, seeing children playing baseball and families picnicking, cycling in the troughs of displaced gravel.

09 06 05 - 03:03 - kieren - kyonoki| No comments - §

Three Boats and a Monkey

Jol, James, Rhod and I cycled along the tram-line, skirted around Koryu-ji Temple (with it's fantastic wooden Buddha, its many hands broken off) and visited Arashiyama for the Mifune Matsuri. Although the bad weather forced us to abandon a picnic, we decided to at least risk the wind and rain to watch the boat festival.

Thousands of people swarmed on the pebble banks of the river to watch the boats slowly carry a shrine from one side to the other. Men and women on the boats were dressed in period clothes, some performing and some just looking good in their courtly garb. As with most festivals it was chaotic, people jostling close to the river, crowding in until it was impossible to move.

Apart from the traditional boats carrying tourists and performers, someone had struck upon the brilliant idea of allowing the hiring of row boats, clogging the river with inexperienced sailors. Some people watched, others chased after the lead boat, many losing complete control and knocking into others. Somehow it wiped away some of the magic of the day.

We didn't stay for long. After taking some pictures we bumped into some people we knew and scrambled back along the bank. It was too cloudy and cold to wade back down the river. Apart from the traditional boats carrying tourists and performers, someone had struck upon the brilliant idea of allowing the hiring of row boats, clogging the river with inexperienced sailors. Some people watched, others chased after the lead boat, many losing complete control and knocking into others. Somehow it wiped away some of the magic of the day.

Finally escaping the crowds for the calm and cool of Monkey Mountain, we trekked up through the forest to go and feed the fat little simians. A new hut has been built for tourists. You can go inside, buy some nuts or fruit and feed it to the monkeys who come and hang to the chicken wire. Fatty was still there, an obese monkey who I like and who will eat until one day she explodes.Apart from the traditional boats carrying tourists and performers, someone had struck upon the brilliant idea of allowing the hiring of row boats, clogging the river with inexperienced sailors. Some people watched, others chased after the lead boat, many losing complete control and knocking into others. Somehow it wiped away some of the magic of the day.

It was a great day, made even better by the image of Rhod and Jol getting stuck on a slide meant for kids.

02 06 05 - 05:56 - kieren - kyonoki| No comments - §

Grace This Fish!

Grace the fish once had lovely black lips, stripy fins and a speckled body that perfectly complimented her bright orange scales. But no more. In a move to equal Micheal Jackson, she has lost her black roots. Grace is now just orange, and I am happy to say that after this development she seems to be doing swimmingly well.

01 06 05 - 03:27 - kieren - kyonoki| No comments - §

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Rhod and Ki's tour of life in Kyoto, Japan.

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