Saturday, December 23, 2006

A Fall Pageant

I’d like to finish the year with some images from Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital and modern day tourist magnet. This leafy city rivals Tokyo as Japan’s tourist hub, and easily surpasses it in beauty and preserved heritage. Like Kanazawa, Kyoto with its geishas is the Japan that foreigners envision, but in reality it exists only in isolated pockets. Nonetheless, the many UNESCO sites here attest to Kyoto’s being a unique window into this country’s feudal past.

For a brief period at the end of November, nature turns the tables and pushes Kyoto’s architectural gems to background scenery. Like leafpeeping in New England, momijigari is popular in Japan, but New England doesn’t have five-storied pagodas and expansive temple grounds dating back centuries.

Accordingly, the two best spots to view the foliage combine nature with national treasures. Last year I blogged about Nikko. This year I took a bullet train to my date with the belle of the autumnal ball.

There wasn’t a hotel room left in the city. I joined the throngs lining up to enter temples and their outdoor rock gardens (above photo). Mobbed doesn’t even begin to describe the pedestrian traffic, but gazing up at the leaves made the dark coats with clicking Canons fade from consciousness.

You have to be there to appreciate it; my Canon couldn’t capture the delicate intensity of leaves that catch fire when sunlight strikes. The colors, bold and complex, were juxtaposed against a spiritual setting, such as a blue sky, golden pavilion (above), or wooden-framed temple. I was mesmerized. Absorbing the warmth radiating from these colorful trees helped fight the chill in the November air.

Despite being peak season, most of the trees remained green. However, certain species like the Japanese maple and gingko turned the spotlight on themselves and vied for my attention. In Japan’s premier architectural setting, nature, too, was at its finest. Foliage in Kyoto combines the best of nature’s and man’s accomplishments, so sit back and enjoy the pictures.

Kyoto in late September 2006.

Kyoto in late November 2006.

Before heading back to Tokyo, I stopped in nearby Uji for a look at Phoenix Hall (below), which is featured on the back of the 10 yen coin. Uji is also famous for tea. At a teahouse near Phoenix Hall I participated in a private ceremony, which got off to an inauspicious start when I slammed my forehead into the doorframe just after removing my shoes. Participate isn’t really the right word, as the only thing I did was get bowed to. Two kimono-clad ladies prepared a cup of rich green tea before my very eyes, which took a little more precision than adding hot water to a mix. The ceremony was short but highly formal and complex.

Uji in late November 2006.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Buddha in Black

I thought I had seen them all, but alas, another remained. I’ve already described the spiritual satisfaction I get from visiting enormous Buddha statues, which I now realize number four in Japan. Two are famous and two are not. Buddhas at Todai-ji in Nara (60 feet) and Kotoku-in in Kamakura (44 feet) are dwarfed in size but not reputation by Nokogiri-yama’s 102-foot giant carved into the mountainside.

The missing member of Japan’s Buddha family was only one express stop on the Tobu-Tojo line from Ikebukuro. While the closest to the capital, Tokyo Daibutsu (東京大仏, or The Great Buddha of Tokyo) is also the smallest (43 feet).

Sleepy side streets with well-appointed houses near Jouren-ji Temple felt far from the vertical bustle that characterizes the commercial hubs of Tokyo. Behind the temple, a grove of bamboo and a thick carpet of crunchy leaves were two pleasures of nature I’ve never encountered within these city limits.

Except for a leaf blower, the temple precincts were quiet. Yellow ginkgo leaves had finished for the season, but aggressive carp looked as active as ever, opening their gullets wide to fight over air bubbles or fish pellets that my Hawaiian friend Lahela tossed into the pond.

The presence of the main attraction was felt all over the grounds. Tokyo Daibutsu’s silky black bronze body contrasted to the weathered green of Kamakura’s bronze Buddha cast in 1252. Tokyo Daibutsu, however, is about as ancient as I am, and was honored as a New Tokyo Landmark after its completion in 1977.

Yet this is a landmark few know about, and on a Tuesday afternoon in December the seven stone gods of fortune outnumbered human supplicants. I found the smaller Jizo statues in red bibs to be more photogenic. For ¥500 these guardians of deceased and unborn children, pregnant women, and travelers could be purchased and placed on larger Jizo statues to fulfill wishes.

The outing was a chance to test drive my snappy new camera equipped with a powerful zoom lens and advanced auto focus unknown to my old point and shoot. I was able to capture writhing carp, smoking incense, and Jizo statues with as much or as little detail as I pleased. Later on, Lahela caught me performing magic tricks in the leaf pile out back.

Click here to see the results.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Picnic in the Park

Just two entries after first blogging about her on Halloween, it was time to say sayonara to Delphine. Japan was losing this Frenchwoman to Australia. Disgruntled with my current teaching job, she offered me hers. Seeing as I do enough baby-sitting of 7th graders, the thought of changing diapers and wiping runny noses of crusty-eyed preschoolers was out of the question.

Thanks to Tokyo’s already mild winters, and with a little help from global warming, November 12 was still seasonal for a farewell picnic in the beautifully landscaped Shinjukugyoen, once the estate of a feudal lord from the Edo period. ¥200 ($1.75) was well worth admission to touch real grass, the most manicured I’ve seen growing in a city otherwise paved over in concrete. Luckily, the Central Park of Tokyo is not far from my new apartment, and was the setting of a few lazy August days when I was on summer vacation.

An international group spread out on the lawn, and dug into perhaps the most international of foodstuffs – Pringles potato chips, seemingly available in every country with UN membership. I, however, packed a supermarket bento lunch box of grilled salmon, and brought tea and cookies for the others to munch on.

Low autumn sunshine cast tall afternoon shadows in the park. Gingko trees with brilliant yellow leaves rustled. Creeping shadows and steady breezes made lounging on the grass feel chilly, so we began tossing around a frisbee with predictably chaotic results. The wind steered the disc according to its whim, on occasion colliding with someone’s back or back of the head.

By 4 o’clock, shadows had overtaken sunlight, and we retreated to a nearby café to warm up over tea and coffee. Thanks to Yukari for being the official picnic photographer, and for inspiring me to upgrade my point and shoot to a digital DSLR retailing for more than a month’s rent.

Christmas came early to Tokyo, but the good-byes continued a month later with Lawrence , my best friend here, and then the freewheeling Jackson who was last seen on the blog atop the Yamanote line’s luggage rack on Halloween. Lawrence is back in Paris while Jackson is off to pursue his career as a talent across four cities worldwide. And I’m still in this conflictingly irritating but fascinating city, but feel like I, too, am on my way out.

Top (from left): Tanya (Ukraine), Lawrence (France)
Bottom (from left): Yours Truly (USA), three girls I don’t know (Australia, Taiwan, Japan), Delphine (France)
Not pictured: Michelle (Canada), Yukari (photographer, Japan).

Sunday, December 10, 2006

I Didn’t Do It

Culture shock and the oddities of Japanese life have worn off, but every now and then something takes me by surprise. Such was the case waiting on the outdoor platform of Akabane station, the crossroads of northern Tokyo.

Winds sprayed a December rain onto trains and those waiting for them. I insulated myself with a scarf and gloves while iPod earphones warmed my eardrums. I didn’t look approachable. Firstly, I’m a foreigner. Few Japanese will risk the unknown and initiate interaction with such species. Furthermore, my ears were closed to conversation, and the corners of my mouth sagged in protest at heading to work on yet another Saturday.

But all that didn’t stop a 30-something-year-old man from pushing a book under my nose. The text was in Japanese, but penciled neatly above an image of Bart Simpson was one of his trademark lines: “I didn’t do it.”

The man pointed, and on cue this ever-ready English teacher read the phrase aloud. He pointed again, and so I repeated. His eyes flickered while processing the information.

“I didn’t do it,” he quickly muttered as if Bart had sprung to life.

Yes,” I said approvingly. He repeated. “Yup, you got it!” I was less enthusiastic by the fourth go-around, and by the seventh time I wanted to unplug him.

I scanned the horizon for my train that would break this awkward encounter. He then flipped to a group picture of men from the cartoon “King of the Hill.” Unfamiliar with the program, I could not comment on the grunts and groans he uttered as he pointed to each character. After seven of them, he stopped making noises, and stared at me with widening eyes.

“I’m gonna kick your ass!” he seethed through his teeth at least three times. I didn’t know who he was imitating, but silently cursed the global influence of American television.

The weirdo wasn’t finished. He turned to a picture of the Simpsons family hanging off the Empire State Building. Homer grabbed the needle in one hand and pumped his fist in the other.

“Doh!” the childlike man cried as if Homer himself were standing next to me. He then imitated something unintelligible for Marge and Lisa before pointing to Bart. I knew what was coming next. “I didn’t do it,” he said once, twice, five times, before belting out a final “Doh!”

Platform bells announced imminent relief snaking towards me. Or maybe not. What if he clambered aboard after me to continue the unsolicited routine?

“I’m gonna kick your ass!” he hissed into his book while walking to the opposite track. The doors closed (another melody – aren’t they fun?), and by the time they opened at my stop, I had completed another blog entry.