Balcony Chums

Rocko, Al and Rhod chilling out on the veranda of Kiyomizu Temple. Although you can't see it, I am being crushed by thousands of Japanese tourists.

30 10 05 - 11:21 - kieren - kyonoki| No comments - §

Karaoke Passion

Rocko and Als first taste of karaoke. In our smoky little room Misako and Eric give it everything they've got. Surprisingly, it's not the alcohol talking. Misako squeezes her eyes shut as the power of enka overwhelms her. Erik......is Erik.

30 10 05 - 10:46 - kieren - kyonoki| two comments - §

Dusk

Standing on the promitory of Kiyomizu, looking down at the dusky city. Kyoto never looked so good.

30 10 05 - 10:43 - kieren - kyonoki| No comments - §

Blasted Tourists

Grrmph. Gnash, gnash. Tourists, everywhere I look!

30 10 05 - 10:40 - kieren - kyonoki| No comments - §

Crunching

I stumbled cheerily down the street at 1am this morning, shuffling my foot back into my shoe after a late-night trip to the public bath-house, and took a moment to appreciate much of what is great about my life. I was upbeat. Relaxed. Enthused. And I was on my way back to work, after a 30 minute break to get clean, and to bathe away the stresses of an ongoing long crunch-day.

Last night was actually quite tolerable - despite leaving work a good 15hrs after arriving, to 4 hrs of sleep before the alarm started it all over again. Now I just have to wonder... why?

My workload is no bigger than anyone else at the company's. Certainly, there's a huge amount of stress bubbling underneath everyone's jovial and friendly exterior, but the fact that it is shared between everyone makes it seem less, well, stressful. It seems we've relaxed a bit as a company, too; although we ramp up towards a huge crunch at the end of next month, we don't seem to have so many 4am finishes as we once did. Perhaps as I settle into my roles fully, and develop my skills, the tasks and thus the pressure have started to feel less overwhelming. Perhaps it's because I'm growing into the role that I no longer feel utter dread at a new midnight request, but start to think of how to solve it best. My main suspicion is that, because of Kieren and his boundless understanding, and because I am so comfortable living here, putting a few extra long days into a project that I could have only dreamed of, a few years ago, seems like a fair payment.

Or perhaps I'm just giving in. Hahah. Whatever the reason, I didn't hate this week's crunching as much as I used to hate it. The game is taking shape, and that counts for a lot. So I now head off to the sofa, with a duvet, to play some games before my body insists that it, finally, gets the rest I have denied it all week.

28 10 05 - 13:41 - rhod - kyonoki| No comments - §

Love Hotels

If you sit on the tatami of Myo-o-in and pray in the dark recess of the hall, the tarnished buddha grinning knowingly at you, something will catch the corner of your eye. A flashing, garish neon sign, sputtering and out of place amongst the regal and sober buildings.

A million miles from the peace of the temple sanctuary, the Hotel Lille advertises it's hourly rates, an underground car-park discreetly depositing its customers to the entrance. It is just one of a dozen Love Hotels squeezed onto the secluded hillside of the temple. Religion and sex are very much at home with one another in Japan.

27 10 05 - 09:36 - kieren - kyonoki| No comments - §

Superstition and belly-buttons

You should cover your navel when thunder rumbles for the gods might well steal your belly button.

Parents often say such things to their children when thunder rumbles, and originally it was meant as a warning that children (who often ran around scantily clothed) should put on their kimonos. Traditional Japanese belief has it that cold weather can cause problems such as diarrhea, cramps, or stomach pains, so people wore haramaki (long pieces of cloth wrapped around their stomach) and were very concerned about keeping their stomachs warm. Lightning is often accompanied by a sudden drop in temperature, so they were telling their kids to put on something warm, but since children arenít likely to listen to that sort of warning, they told them that the thunder god could steal their belly-buttons.

26 10 05 - 13:03 - kieren - kyonoki| No comments - §

It Was a Cold Stormy Night

As if to prove the seasons turning, we came out of the cinema into icy cold curtains of rain in the early hours last night. Wrapped up as best we could, we rode the short distance to home, soaked and chilled to the bone. Struggling out of our clothes, it seems as if the indian summer has come to an abrupt and chilly end. Pyjama bottoms on, windows closed, blankets pulled out...the nights are drawing in. Another washed out weekend, warm and lazy, watching TV shows and big brainless movies. Rhod is crouched, fighting the blue screen of death on his computer, which crashed this morning, and I am feeling lethargic making hundreds of mugs of tea. My usual ADD is vanishing as it gets colder and colder outside, so in spite of being still being in my PJs well into the afternoon, it is well spent being with Rhod.

22 10 05 - 18:17 - kieren - kyonoki| No comments - §

Mario Kidnapped

Mario is back!...well, sort of.

After a lengthy sabbatical, the vibrant hordes of the Mushroom Kingdom have returned, minus a kidnapped Mario. It seems like Nintendo have been scared of dropping the ball for so long, that while Mario is flogged to death pushing mediocre sports and dance games (Mario Kart aside), fans have been somewhat disappointed as the company drags its heels on the real deal. With a new Super Mario Bros. game coming soon, and Mario Kart in December, are we about to get a proper dose of the rotund plumber?

Enter "Super Princess Peach" for DS, with it's four 'emotion-powers' (uplifted, crying, furious, happy) and one of the most annoying characters in the Mario universe, it really shouldn't work. But, although made by an outside company, and while not remarkably challenging, this game whets the appetite for the pending Mario goodness. For once Peach gets to fight for herself; slapping old enemies and new with her handy umbrella, all the while searching for Mario and his mysterious captor.

There are things that still grate. The overly annoying voices of the characters have me turning down the volume, and the music is not by any means classic Mario. It is, however, vivid, imaginative and packed full of value-adding mini-games to accompany the inventive levels. Princess Peach is a must have in the Mario canon.

Unable to put the DS down, it has me desperate to get my hands on the next proper Mario game. Pick up the pace Nintendo, your fans are waiting.

21 10 05 - 09:18 - kieren - kyonoki| No comments - §

The Littlest Statue

Everyday I cut through through Myo-o Shrine, skittering down hundreds and hundreds of steps to the houses below a small cliff. In this way I can slip through the narrow alleys and jumble of villas to reach the station.

Lining the green slopes of the almost-mountain are hundreds of tiny Jizo statues. As I go home, I pat the very last one on the head -a mossy, minuscule little thing, eternally smiling thoughtfully- for good luck.

Jizo statues can be found all over Japan, but especially around graveyards because it is believed that Jizo saves the souls of those in hell, especially aborted, miscarried and stillborn babies.

The Japanese believe that children who die prematurely are sent to hell because they bring so much sadness to their parents. In hell, they are sent to Sai-no-Kawara, a dried up river where they are made to build monuments made of small pebbles to Buddha in order to attract his compassion and be freed. Their work is hampered, however, by a terrible demon who scatters the rocks with an iron club. When the demon comes, it is Jizo that protects the children by hiding them in his sleeves, and Jizo that drives the demon away, making him one of the most beloved of the Bosatsu.

As I leapt down the stairs I noticed the statue was gone. Stopping, I looked around and realised that the small figure had been smashed. Somehow it had been knocked off its small ledge to the cars below. A few pieces left, that was all. It made me sad. I hope that it was an accident. There are other statues, but nothing with anything near the expressive face of my little friend.

You will often see little piles of rocks around Jizo statues, put there by parents who want to help ease the length of time the spirits of the children they never had will spend in hell. Most Jizo also wear red bibs or hats made by mothers who hope that by offering them to Jizo, they can encourage him to take special care of their child's spirit. Occasionally clothes are presented in thanks for illnesses believed to have been healed through the intervention of Jizo.

Sometimes you will see Jizo statues by the side of the road because they are also said to protect travelers and pilgrims. He is also important to firemen because it is said that Jizo descended into hell to relieve the suffering of those there by reducing the heat.

He is a busy guy.

20 10 05 - 10:10 - kieren - kyonoki| one comment - §

Nothing to write home about...

Hello readers. I thought I ought to post, apologetically, about having nothing really to post about this last week. It's not been a bad week, by any means, just... not so exciting. It rained a lot on the weekend, meaning that we stayed at home, I fired up the GameCube and PS2 for some much desired gaming time, and Ki watched an entire series of The Sopranos which he bought on DVD last week. Aside from the below-featured Bus-Driving simulator that I sampled before meeting some friends for dinner, there really has been nothing to show. To compensate, please utilise the 'comments' feature below, and let us know what YOU have been up to. That way, no matter how boring it might be, you can help us keep the blog an interesting place to visit in times of inactivity ;)

19 10 05 - 05:39 - rhod - kyonoki| two comments - §

The Wheels on the Bus

Rhod concentrating on his driving skills, thinking hard about a change of careers.

15 10 05 - 16:15 - kieren - kyonoki| one comment - §

The Moving Tortoise

When challenged to paint a picture of a tortoise that would move, Sesshu decided instead to carve one in stone, along with a crane. At night the tortoise was said to move around the gardens. In frustration, Sesshu rammed a rock through the tortoise's back, pinning it down and stopping it from moving. You can still see this rock, the tortoise, sitting in the Hasso Gardens of Tofuku-ji.

This morning I dragged Rhod away from his game playing, hopping on a bus that took us around the outskirts of the city, passing through the slum suburbs, tantalisingly close to Nintendo HQ. In the leafy, cobbled streets of Tofuku-ji, we explored the Hasso Gardens and crossed the Tsuten Bridge (immortalised by the ukiyoe artist Hiroshige), which spans the Sengyokukan stream and narrow ravine that cuts through the hills.

The famous beauty Ono-no-Komachi, who was said to have been propositioned more times than there are raindrops in a storm, lived at Tofuku-ji for many years. She commissioned a sculptor to carve her a small buddha, called Tamazusa Jizo. There is an opening in his back where it is said Ono kept the hundreds of amorous letters and poems she received.

Tofuku-ji was meant to challenge the wonders of Todai-ji and Kofuku-ji in Nara, and the name is derived from characters of both.

10 10 05 - 09:33 - kieren - kyonoki| No comments - §

Weather trigger

Funny how the weather can trigger memories quite unlike anything else, in me. Often, as spring comes along, I remember my caravan site in west Wales, with its beautiful beach and forested valleys. Today in Kyoto, it's あきばれ - autumn skies. Clear and crisp, with a slight chill in the air, and a total lack of the humidity that marks the summers here. It reminded me of a memory I haven't thought of for years; 12 years old, on a French exchange, in a town called St. Pol de Leon, I was awoken at 7:30 am on my last day by the daughter in my host family, to go for a swim while the tide was up. Freezing cold, but brilliant fun. Reminds me that I really must get to the ocean again soon.

Weather, eh?

06 10 05 - 01:30 - rhod - kyonoki| two comments - §

12 months to the day

What a difference 12 months can make. A year ago today, I had just wrapped up my professional involvement with Team Fable, said goodbye to my amazing friends, filled some of their houses with my clutter, and just about come to terms with the fact that I was leaving to live in Japan for the 2nd time in 3 years.

The transition from 'idle dream', through 'possibility', to 'really happening' was very, very quick. The ticket was booked pretty much on a whim, after an evening discussion at Wagamama's with my colleagues in which I presented the question, "should I stay or should I go"?

I already knew the answer - some of my most trusted friends had told me that I should go for it already - but I wanted to gauge support from a few more people before taking the plunge.

I remember incredibly vividly the day of departure - getting picked up by Rob, finishing packing literally as he walked in the door. A whirlwind trip to the office to say goodbye to those people I hadn't yet been able to see, and then to collect Ange before heading to the Airport. One final pizza-express later, and I was on my way to Germany for a one-night stopover.

99 Luft Balloons is playing as I write this, coincidentally, as that song still plays at least once a day on Frankfurt's radio stations. A few games and a good night's sleep later, I was back at the airport and en-route to Japan. All the travelling was smooth, and my newly presented, shiny, instantly beloved iRhod made good company for the 12 hrs to Osaka. By the 7th, I was in Kyoto, navigating as if it were my hometown, and on my way to my friend Jolique's place to think about what I was going to do next.

Turns out what I was going to do next was get re-acquainted with my Kyoto friends, find a nice flat, snag my dream job on a dream project, and fall in love. Not bad for the first three months here. Since then, it's been mostly fantastic. Work is harsh at times, but I'm learning so much, enjoying it every day, and working on a project that is simply brilliant. Despite having had serious food poisoning, twice, since arriving, I feel generally healthier than I am used to and I eat much more healthily than I did in the UK. Kieren and I are really happy together, and every weekend is a bit like a mini-holiday for us. I've seen just about every temple and shrine in Kyoto, been to many of its restaurants, and feel as settled here as I ever have in Britain.

There's just one downside, then. My friends.

I really miss just the idle everyday banter with my friends in the UK. I miss impromptu karaoke parties. I miss chance-encounters in town, shopping. I miss gaming evenings. I just miss my friends. It's funny that someone so fond of upheaval as I seem to be, is also so dependent on their friends, but hey, that's me. Since being here, babies have been born, wedding vows have been exchanged, houses have been bought, relatives have died, and I have wanted to be there all the time, to share the happiness or try and ease the sadness. But that's not possible. That's the downside of my big gamble coming back to Japan. I'll be here for a fair while yet, but thankfully, I know that when I go home, there'll still be my friends there. It's ok to miss people when you know you'll be with them again, I think.

So in general, turns out that throwing everything up in the air - in favour of the unknown - can work out just fine. If the next year is going to be as much fun, as challenging and rewarding, as exciting and surprising, then I can't wait to write my 2 year anniversary blog entry next October.

05 10 05 - 13:10 - rhod - kyonoki| three comments - §

The Drowned God

Has the Autumn finally reached into Kyoto's valley? Have we seen an end to the half-delirium that comes in the summer nights? At last come the comfortable evenings spent drifting off towards a more natural sleep. The drone of air-conditioners is hushed, grasshoppers start singing their solitary songs. After many months it seems that Fall is almost upon us.

While still in t-shirts at work, the mornings are decidedly more chilly and it won't be long until I pull on a jacket before leaving the house. Now comes the season of typhoons with its lashing rain and angry skies. The nights seem a lot darker, and home seems a lot more enticing. Sports Day was drowned out today, the weeks of preparations coming to little more than a shrug of 'oh well'. The baseball pitch lay under 2 inches of water this morning as students shook off their wet clothes and resigned themselves to extra hours of studying.

Despite being soaked to the bone, finding pools of water trapped in my pockets, I love the rain. Cycling home without umbrella or jacket, I stopped my mad rush for shelter, soaking up the strange silence of the downpour, the water thrumming in my ears and dumbing down the noise of traffic. Sports Day was drowned out today, the weeks of preparations coming to little more than a shrug of 'oh well'. The baseball pitch lay under 2 inches of water this morning, as students shook off their wet clothes and resigned themselves to extra hours of studying.

Despite being soaked to the bone, finding pools of water trapped in my pockets, I love the rain. Cycling home without umbrella or jacket, I stopped my mad rush for shelter, soaking up the strange silence of the downpour, the water thrumming in my ears and dumbing down the noise of traffic. As my brakes squealed to a halt, I watched a long procession of people as they wound their way down the main road in front of our apartment. Carrying one of the portable shrines, the priests were wrapped up in rain coats, great plastic sheets thrown across the old wooden shrine itself. For about ten minutes the people shuffled by, all colours of umbrellas, nodding slowly at the god housed within the small wooden box. As the rain grew stronger, they carried on, taking their charge through the streets, ringing a solitary bell.

I remember those paintings of old old funerals in New Orleans, a train of people in black, all carrying parasols from the burning sun, gently making their way towards the service. Not a funeral, but a celebration, not dampened by the shower.

After a time I soggily squelched upstairs, noticing that over the last week our dragonfly has finally disappeared. He appeared to be around for much longer than 6 weeks and now his job is done his thousands of hatchlings wait in some river or pond. The trees still cling to their leaves, but it is only a matter of weeks before Japan is swept in waves of autumnal reds, yellows and ochres.

Autumn is here and I am thankful for it.

05 10 05 - 09:45 - kieren - kyonoki| No comments - §

Barefoot Gen

A few years ago, I helped my friend Yoshi clear out his parents attic before their family moved to Aomori. While we were hunting through the dusty boxes I came across hundreds and hundreds of manga (graphic novels), so pulled them out into the garden and sat flicking through the yellowed, old pages. Scores of books were about a boy called Gen, who lived with his family in Hiroshima during World War II. I couldn't understand everything, though the pictures told the story. Scores of comics formed the tale of the family as it tried to cope with war and their fate at the time the atomic bomb was dropped.

Today I finally got to sit down and read the English translation. It didn't take a great deal of time as there were no pictures. Barefoot Gen stunned me in ways I did not expect and while I anxiously followed the course of his family's life, the tragedy and injustice of their tale horrified me to the core and in ways other novels about Hiroshima have not.

Following Japan's surrender and subsequent struggle to rebuild itself, picture books began to recount the painful war years. Many manga books are dedicated to the history of those years, so rich are the stories of heroism, tragedy, evil and courage. Barefoot Gen is merely one of many. With its cartoon-like drawings it conjures up the hardships and daily toil of life for families living under the constant threat of invasion.

Gen Nakaoka is seven at the time we are introduced to him, an elementary school student. His father is a skilled craftsman, painting lacquer on clogs for a living. His mother is pregnant, while his eldest brother Koji is a Middle School student, working at a munitions factory. Akira, another brother, has been evacuated to the country. At home Eiko (his sister) and Shinji (his little brother) remain with the family.

Gen's father is cynical about war, and despite the bombardment of propaganda, does not believe that the war can be won or is just in the first place. He tells his family to be strong, that Japan is being misled by a foolish government. His outspoken views are not taken lightly in the neighbourhood and for months the family is persecuted, called all sorts of names. Eventually his father is arrested, and for weeks severely beaten, while his sister is accused of stealing at school, and his father's wares tossed cruelly into the river.

With little food and finding themselves in an increasingly desperate situation, the family remains strong through their many hardships. To save his family's name, Koji decides to join the navy, shocking both his parents and making Gen bitter towards his own country. But they have no time to grieve, for soon after, the atomic bomb is dropped on Hiroshima.

Although simple and childlike, the pictures are horrifying in the images they weave. Gen and his mother are lucky enough to be away from home when the explosion comes, but as they hurry back, find father, Eiko and Shinji trapped beneath the rubble of the house. In spite of their pleas for help, there is little Gen can do. A fire begins to rage across the city and his father's final words are for Gen to save his mother.

Gen's father, Eiko and Shinji do not survive.

Gen's mother gives birth as the remains of the city burn. It gives them new hope that not all is lost.

There are few words to convey the horrors of the atomic fallout. This simple graphic novel, made for children but for everyone, is the most amazing learning tool and warning. Unlike more academic reports it has an emotional punch that genuinely makes you think about the terrible fate of all the people within the city at the time. Children should read this book, and their parents alike. Rather than a bleak tale, it gives hope, and tells us to have the courage to always do the right thing.

Barefoot Gen is mischievious and naughty, but loyal and brave when his family need him. If only more of us were like him.

04 10 05 - 09:54 - kieren - kyonoki| No comments - §

The Somersaulting Manta

This weekend we visited the aquarium in Osaka.

I took my mum and dad a few years ago, and remember being captivated by the sheer number of fish on display. Kobe has a small aquarium, with giant turtles squeezed into tiny pools, but it is nothing compared to the time, love and attention that went into creating the displays in Osaka.

My one complaint is the size of the tanks, but then again maybe it is unrealistic to expect them to create an environment for the fish and other sea dwellers big enough to genuinely mimic their natural habitat. The dolphins, seals and sea otters certainly looked cramped, but not unhappy. Unlike England, Japan does not have a fine track record of looking after animals. I remember the sorrowful sight of a full grown hippo sitting in a pool a little larger than itself at Oji Zoo in Kobe. But zoos are really in a different league. It seems a lot less cruel to keep fish this way.

There are many highlights from the day, but aside from cuteness (otters, sealions, dolphins and turtles), the more exotic animals caught my eye. A giant manta-ray somersaulted dozens of times in a stream of bubbles from the air-tank of a diver cleaning the filters. Spider-crabs silhouetted monstrously against a blue light, with their thin legs looking like those of an alien tripod. Then there was the sunfish - a moon shaped fish with a perpetual pout, netted within his tank. As he swims round and round, his misplaced fins propel him gently along. You'd be forgiven for thinking evolution has simply stopped when it came to him.

A few months ago a small boy in Wales was injured when a sunfish launched itself out of the sea and into his boat. A notice on the tank explained that a net surrounds the fish because they are prone to massive leaps which in the past have killed them. In the wild they are often found on beaches, having jumped too far out of the water to find their way back. Sunfish swim in the shallows, soaking up the sun, thus their name.
Wales, over the past few years, has become overcrowded with exotic sea creatures...Portugese Man'o'wars, Sun-fish and even giant squid. With the earth's climate fluctuating towards warmer seasons (not necessarily because of greenhouse gases, but because the Earth goes through natural cycles of hot and cold over many centuries) the seas around Britain are becoming inhabited by creatures we would never expect to find. It might horrify us if we knew the full catalogue of creatures in those oft plain looking seas.

Osaka Aquarium is expensive, but every penny of the fee is worth it. All the money gets channeled towards protecting and keeping these amazing fish and sea mammals. What it lacks for in space, it makes up for in ingenuity and careful caring for the hundreds of animals in its charge. Being surrounded by so much water is alluring. Hypnotic even.

The trip has made me think it is time to buy a new fish for our small kitchen tank. We tried hard to keep the last ones happy, but it didn't work out. The combination of a horribly humid summer and the unhealthiness of Kyoto water (Kobe's water is not much better. After the earthquake most of it was contaminated and the government warned nobody, claiming that hardly anyone drinks tap water!) probably did not help the fish, so maybe with Autumn coming it would be a chance to get them out of the horrible department store tanks.

03 10 05 - 14:39 - kieren - kyonoki| No comments - §

Osaka Otters

Sea otters are so so cute, rolling over as they glide through the spacious (yet massively more confined than I'm sure they'd like) enclosure and washing their faces and upper bodies with their cute little seapaws. WANT.

Before today, I never knew how cute these otters, or those weird wall climbing crabs, were. Osaka aquarium contains the finest and most diverse group of aquatic creatures I've seen thus far, and to have dolphins, enormous manta rays, a whale shark, a horde of penguins, sea lions and otters all within the same complex made for a really great, though morally dubious, 2000yen day out.

Just avert your eyes at the end, when you go past a huge pool of multi-foot long spider crabs. Eeesh.

01 10 05 - 10:47 - rhod - kyonoki| one comment - §

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

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