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Photos from Malaysia, Java, Bali and the Gili Islands

December 4, 2013 2 comments

My new wife and I spent most of October in a post-wedding state of happy exhaustion as we traipsed around Malaysia and Indonesia on honeymoon.

Of course, many more pictures can be found on my big Honeymoon set on Flickr. There are a lot of portrait-orientation shots there that I’ve left out for the sake of the layout below.

All photos on this page are Copyright 2013 Luke Robinson – all rights reserved.

Malaysia – Tan Jong Jara
Most of the first few days of our trip were spent in befuddled recuperation at the Tan Jong Jara resort in northeast Malaysia, where our ambitions mostly extended to thinking of what we were going to have to eat at dinnertime. It was perfect after the cathartic release of the wedding week. We did manage to do have some expeditions – to the local market, a nearby island, and a sea turtle hatchery – but mostly we enjoyed not having a wedding to plan for the first time in nearly a year.

Sunrise at Tanjong Jara, Malaysia

Laughing Market Trader, Dungun Market

Beach Panorama, Tenggul Island, Malaysia

 

Malaysia – Kuala Lumpur
After five days on the beach it was time to return to civilisation (of a sort) for a short three-day city break in KL. If you’ve ever been there, you’ll agree that at least in food terms, it is one of the most exciting cities in Asia. A vibrant clash of Malay, Chinese and Indian (and Western, for that matter), KL is a feast in every sense of the word. My panoramic photo of the Petronas Towers at sunset from the top of our hotel made it onto the Flickr Blog recently and is doing quite well on the traffic / favourites front, I am happy to say.

Petronas Towers Sunset Panorama

Chinese Night Market, Jalan Alor

Chow Kit Chicken

Petaling Market

 

Java – Borobudur
Next up was a quick flight to Yogyakarta in Java, and from there up the road a piece to the environs of Borobudur, the huge ancient Buddhist hilltop monument situated in a mist-filled valley of volcanoes. There is simply no other proper way to see Borobudur than by getting there well before the sun rises (and we were the first through the gate that day), so that you can see the first rays of the sun hit the stupas and Buddha figures at the top, and so the mist is caught between the palm trees in the valley floor. Magical.

Borobudur before Dawn

Borobodur Sunrise

Borobudur Panorama

Borobudur Relief Detail

Sunrise Buddha, Borobudur

Borobudur from a Distance

Later the same day, we toured the nearby village of Candirejo, where they are striving to establish themselves as a local tourist alternative to the posh resorts nearby. The people couldn’t have been more friendly, from the tobacco farmers to the old dear who was making cassava crackers in her dilapidated house.

Tobacco Ladies of Candirejo Village, Borobudur

Drying Tobacco, Candirejo Village, Borobudur

Yam Crackers, Candirejo Village, Borobudur

Yam Cracker Lady, Candirejo Village, Borobudur

 

Java – Yogyakarta and Prambanan
In Yogya we found a busy smallish Asian city going about its business, mostly untroubled by excessive tourism, which was different to my recollections of 19 years previous. I suppose I have developed a thicker skin when it comes to pestering touts. In any case we had a gas visiting the Sultan Palace, the Water Palace, the town market, and the Hindu temples of Prambanan.

Tea Ladies of the Sultan Palace, Yogyakarta

"Underground Mosque", Water Palace, Yogyakarta

Roofs of the Water Palace, Yogyakarta

Pasar Beringharjo Market, Yogyakarta

Prambanan Temples, Yogyakarta

 

Central Bali
We went for proper island life next, moving onto the tropical paradise that is Bali. The feeling of paradise was enhanced by our poshest accommodation of the whole trip, at the Four Seasons in Sayan, a spectacular resort built into a river valley, the likes of which we won’t experience again anytime soon. It was extremely hard to leave our pool villa, but we did venture out for trips into nearby Ubud, a hike up the Sayan river valley, and a daytrip up to see the Lake Bratan Water Temple, the Jatuliwiyah Rice Terraces, and a few other highlights.

Red Dragonfly on Leaf, Four Seasons Sayan

Pura Taman Saraswati, Ubud

Sowing Rice in Kedewatan Village, Sayan Valley

Cockatoo in Warung Ibu Oka, Ubud

Sayan River from the pool of the Four Seasons, Bali

Labourers on a Truck

Pura Ulun Danau Bratan - Water Temple, Lake Bratan

Jatuliwiyah Rice Terraces

Jatuliwiyah Rice Terraces

Guardian Statue, Taman Ayun Temple

 

The Gili Islands and Southern Bali
After our five nights in paradise, we decamped to an even more laid-back environment, riding a tiny speedboat across to the equally tiny Gili Islands, three mile-wide sandbars, for all intents and purposes, off the coast of Lombok. We got off at Gili Trawangan and were overwhelmed by the bustle of its little waterfront – a sea of Bintang (in boxes and on the singlets of numerous Aussie backpackers). We had a great time on Gili T, snorkeling and mooching around, but it was possibly a step down the luxury ladder too far for us honeymooners so we made a snap decision to come back to Bali for the last two nights. This decision paid off as we ended up on the lovely Jimbaran Bay, where we spent the days on the beach and the evenings on excursions to the Uluwatu cliffside temple and the luxe double-header on the last night of the Rock Bar and the fantastic Sundara beachside restaurant of the Four Seasons Jimbaran Bay. A fitting end to an incredible honeymoon.

Boats off of Gili Air

Sunset from Karma Kayak, Gili Trawangan

Gili Meno from the Sea

Late afternoon, Gili Trawangan

Village Life, Gili Trawangan

Village Children Playing, Gili Trawangan

Uluwatu Temple and Cliffs, Bali

Macaque, Uluwatu, Bali

Sunset from the Rock Bar, Ayana Resort, Bali

Peaceful Day on Jimbaran Bay, Bali

Honeymoon Photos on the Way


Just a quick note to say that yes, I am still alive, and I thought I would use the occasion of Flickr posting this image on their blog today to announce that I will be posting some photos from my honeymoon (and some other trips) on here shortly.

Hong Kong


In December 2012, at the tail end of our Japan holiday, we had a 48hr layover in Hong Kong, the dynamic former British colonial outpost, dangling off the edge of China, that has still clung on to its special status as something simultaneously Cantonese and… not. Still a haven of finance, expat excess (rooftop bars aplenty) and Western influence, Hong Kong manages to maintain its own distinct culture, soaring, impossibly thin tower blocks concealing jumbles of wet markets and street food vendors at street level. And the food… oh, the food. Dim sum and xiao long bao of the highest order. More on that later…

Wan Chai Aerial Night View

Wan Chai Aerial Night View

Central, Hong Kong

Central, Hong Kong

Hong Kong Night Streets, Central

Hong Kong Night Streets, Central

Hong Kong Night Streets, Central

Hong Kong Night Streets, Central

Street Food at Night, Central

Street Food at Night, Central

Hong Kong Island from Victoria Harbour

Hong Kong Island from Victoria Harbour

Kong Kong Sign Jumble, Central

Kong Kong Sign Jumble, Central

Waterfront and Pier, Stanley

Waterfront and Pier, Stanley

Central, Wan Chai and Kowloon from Victoria Peak

Central, Wan Chai and Kowloon from Victoria Peak

Our short but intense visit to Hong Kong definitely left us wanting more, and since we have some friends there who gave us such good tips this time round, we would love to return and explore at a more leisurely pace next time.

As usual, more shots can be found over on Flickr….

Japan – Kyoto and Takayama

February 12, 2013 1 comment

Japan so far:

This post is a photo tour of the beautiful sights of Kyoto, with its many temples, shrines and stunning gardens, as well as the remote mountain town of Takayama and its surrounding traditional villages.

NOTE If you are reading this in a news reader such as Google Reader, or inside Facebook on a tablet, you might want to open this in a dedicated browser window as the photo layout may work better. And there are more photos from these locations available on Flickr

KYOTO

Kyoto is one of the most famous cities in Japan, the former Imperial capital justly famed for its numerous cultural landmarks, the city which gave the world the geisha and set the standard for Japanese haute cuisine. Though it is a major tourist magnet now, both for foreign and domestic visitors, parts of Kyoto retain their charm. The city’s reputation for refinement survives despite now being part of one continuous conurbation with Kobe and Osaka, the latter a decidedly more blue-collar town.

The flipside of this is that as an independent traveller, Kyoto is also an occasionally frustrating city once you set about actually trying to explore it. If you don’t find yourself near one of the few subway lines, you rely on buses and taxis to get around, or bicycles if you are brave enough. Once you get to any of the major sights, you will find it completely swarmed with Japanese and other tourists. And, sadly, perhaps as a consequence of the tourist overload and the refined reputation, it is harder there to just walk into a restaurant or bar and get a warm welcome, if indeed you are let in at all. Still, this is one case where advanced research paid off and we were able to enjoy some great food whilst we were there, and did manage a friendly drink or two.

And of course there is the scenery….

Kiyomizu-dera Temple and southern Higashimiya
The Kiyomizu-dera Temple is justly celebrated as one of the major attractions of Kyoto, and isn’t shy about advertising itself either – a powerful spotlight beam emanates from the hill behind the site and sweeps across southern Kyoto, drawing in tourists by the coach load. This was easily the most crowded religious site we visited, and as it was our first night we were anxious about the rest of our time in Kyoto – were we to be jostled like human bowling pins for the entirety of our time here? But it was (just) worth it to see the famous view of the temple’s main hall suspended over the illuminated autumn-colour gardens. How I managed to get any sharp photos I couldn’t tell you…

Main Hall of Kiyomizu-dera Temple, Kyoto

Main Hall of Kiyomizu-dera Temple, Kyoto

 

Moving on from the Kiyomizu-dera we walked through the old-town pedestrianised hillside streets of southern Higashimiya, past a number of temples, to the Chion-in and its gardens, the famous Yasaka Shrine with its central dance hall lit by rows of (sponsored) lanterns every night, and ending up in the Gion district, home of the famous Geisha.

 

Northwestern Kyoto: The Golden Pavilion, Imamiya Shrine and Koto-in Temple
The next morning, we gingerly approached the Golden Pavilion, knowing it was one of the other “must-see” sights of Kyoto, and I remembered the last time I was here having to elbow my way past hordes of school groups to see anything. Mercifully, we happened to hit during a relatively quiet period, and were able to enjoy the temple grounds a bit more. We decided to have a walk through Northeast Kyoto after that, and ambled our way across to the Imamiya Shrine and finally to the Koto-In Temple, the latter experiencing a fantastic display of autumn colours in a serene setting.

The Golden Pavilion, Kyoto

The Golden Pavilion, Kyoto

 

Western Kyoto: Arashimaya and Tenryuji
After a comedy of errors getting from Northwest Kyoto to the Arashimaya district on public transport (perishing hunger and poor map reading skills do not make for a great combo) we topped up with some gorgeous soba noodles before ambling back out to the waterside to see the famous Togetsukyo Bridge, with its ludicrously colourful hillside backdrop, and just managed to make it along the river and into the picturesque gardens of the Tenryuji Temple before the sun went down and we were escorted out, politely but firmly, by a security guard with an illuminated wand, who put us in mind of fleeing from a menacing Darth Vader…

Togetsukyo Bridge, Arashimaya, Kyoto

Togetsukyo Bridge, Arashimaya, Kyoto

 

Eastern Kyoto: Silver Pavilion, Philosopher Path, Honen-in and Eikando Temples
The next day we struck out early for the Philosopher Path in eastern Kyoto, with the Silver Pavilion at the northern end, and a sedate amble along the canal path heading south to visit the small Honen-in temple and then to the larger complex of the Eikando temple, which boasted stunning autumn colours. Sense a theme here?

Silver Pavilion, Kyoto

Silver Pavilion, Kyoto

 

We had to run off after sampling the morning’s temple visits, because we had a lunch date with one of Kyoto’s finest kaiseki ryori / haute cuisine restaurants, Roan Kikunoi. This was a stunning foodie experience, down to personalised printed menus walking you through the many exquisite courses (more on this in a later post). One of the things we were fascinated with, sitting at the bar, was the deft knifework of the various chefs, especially when slicing sashimi or trimming fillets. I asked about the knives they used, and the head chef laid out the three knives below. It turns out they all started off the same length, but that the lengths they are now are a result of five-year increments of multiple sharpenings per day. Amazing.

3 ages of sashimi knife, Roan Kikunoi Restaurant, Kyoto

3 ages of sashimi knife, Roan Kikunoi Restaurant, Kyoto

 

Fushimi Inari Shrine
The last major religious sight we would visit in Kyoto is one I missed on my last visit – the Fushimi Inari Shrine, with its famous ranks of thousands of red torii gates flanking paths snaking up the hillside, leading to miniature shrines with offerings and fox kami statues aplenty. There were also various Shinto ceremonies going on as we made our way around the grounds, jarring in a way as so many of the temples and shrines we visited seemed to be almost deconsecrated, odes to the past, and here was one that was still very much active.

Giant torii gate at entrance to Fushimi Inari Shrine, Kyoto

Giant torii gate at entrance to Fushimi Inari Shrine, Kyoto

 

TAKAYAMA

From Kyoto we made our way North up into the Japan Alps, to the sleepy mountain town of Takayama. Famous for its preserved old town with its wooden buildings, Takayama is altogether more accessible than Kyoto was, though as we got there in the late afternoon and didn’t clock onto the fact that all of the tourist-oriented shops and restaurants in the old town area shut down precisely at 5pm, we wandered about for a while in the twilight increasingly worried that we had made a mistake and that Takayama was in fact not open for business. Thankfully a bit of research prior to the trip meant we ended up in a friendly (and, more importantly, open) izakaya where we sat around low tables, grilled our own Hida beef over a charcoal brazier, and were regaled with local drinking songs by the increasingly-inebriated neighbouring table. In fact we found Takayama locals to be by far the most welcoming and gregarious the Japanese we encountered on our trip, and we ended up exchanging rounds of drinks and plates of food and getting riotously drunk. So drunk that, defying all reason, we walked into an otherwise anonymous-looking door because we heard karaoke coming out of it, and ended up spending the evening in the company of the elderly mama-san and a couple of other old coots who had nothing better to do on a Monday night….

Takayama old town by night

Takayama old town by night

Sunday crowd at the Kyoya izakaya, Takayama

Sunday crowd at the Kyoya izakaya, Takayama

 

Takayama is also a handy jumping-off point to tour various preserved farm villages in the nearby valleys. We visited one called Ogimachi in Shirakawa-go, where a number of historic gassho-zukuri thatch-roof farmhouses sat nestled in the valley, and, as the early-morning sun began to melt the snow off the roofs, the steam rising off of them made for quite a sight.

Gassho-zukuri farmhouses, Ogimachi, Shirakawa-go

Gassho-zukuri farmhouses, Ogimachi, Shirakawa-go

 

Well that’s about it from Japan, barring a food-related post I have been mulling. The next stop will be the final set of photos of this trip, from a brief but very enjoyable stopover in Hong Kong. Considering we got home over two months, it’s about time!

Japan – Hiroshima, Miyajima and Koya-San

January 22, 2013 1 comment

Japan so far:

This post is a photo tour of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, the shrine island of Miyajima, and the mountaintop temple complex and cemetery of Koya-san.

NOTE If you are reading this in a news reader such as Google Reader, or inside Facebook on a tablet, you might want to open this in a dedicated browser window as the photo layout may work better. And there are more photos from these locations available on Flickr

HIROSHIMA

Hiroshima is famous for all the wrong reasons. Back in August 1945 it was a military garrison town, but hadn’t been extensively targeted by the Allied bombing raids that had devastated many of Japan’s other cities. It was therefore thought a prime target to test the first atomic bomb deployed in anger. This was treated primarily as a deterrent to urge Japan to surrender, but touring the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum makes you realise that the US military also treated it as a scientific endeavour, wanting to see how much damage and how many casualties would be caused. This chilling experiment resulted in over 100,000 deaths, both directly and over time, and of course devastated the city centre.

In the islands that were directly under the centre of the bomb blast, several buildings half-survived and are preserved as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, chief amongst them the Atomic Bomb Dome.

A-Bomb Dome, Peace Memorial Park, Hiroshima

A-Bomb Dome, Peace Memorial Park, Hiroshima

 

The Atomic Bomb Dome is set in the Peace Memorial Park, which contains a number of moving monuments including the Children’s Peace Memorial, the Cenotaph, and of course the Peace Memorial Museum, which has a harrowing set of exhibits of items recovered from the blast site.

 

Of course, nowadays Hiroshima is a thriving, commercial city, and one thing it is famous for is a special type of okonomiyaki that is layered rather than mixed, as one would find elsewhere. In fact, in Hiroshima there is even a miniature okonomikayi theme park called Okonomi-mura with several floors of competing vendors.

Serving Hiroshima-style Okonomiyaki, Okonomi-mura, Hiroshima

Serving Hiroshima-style Okonomiyaki, Okonomi-mura, Hiroshima

 

MIYAJIMA

A short train ride down the coast of Hiroshima Bay will bring you to Hatsukaichi, from where you can board a ferry to the shrine island of Itsukushima, popularly known as Miyajima. I made it here last time round, as you can see over on Flickr.

Before we could board our ferry, though, we ran into this odd couple who reminded us of our recent time in Fukuoka

Sumo rikishi on the Miyajima Ferry

Sumo rikishi on the Miyajima Ferry

 

On the island itself, one of the most famous symbols of Japan is the bright red torii gate sitting out in front of the main Itsukushima Shrine. When the tide is high, it appears to float offshore. It is, of course, besieged by camera-wielding tourists like yours truly. However, a little persistence, and a disregard for little things like cold and sleep, can yield rewards.

 

The actual Itsukushima Shrine itself is no slouch in the looks department – it was built on stilts so that it too appears to float when the tide is in – and it boasts a lovely pagoda.

Pagoda of the Itsukushima Shrine, Miyajima

Pagoda of the Itsukushima Shrine, Miyajima

 

Finally on Miyajima, up a series of cable cars, is Mount Misen, where one can enjoy a walk through some scenic woods before enjoying a panorama of Hiroshima Bay. We rather foolishly did not allow ourselves enough time to do this venture justice, and had all of 10 minutes to look around at the top before throwing ourselves back down the mountain…

Parkland and Autumn Colours on Mount Misen, Miyajima

Parkland and Autumn Colours on Mount Misen, Miyajima

Panorama of Hiroshima Bay from Mount Misen, Miyajima

Panorama of Hiroshima Bay from Mount Misen, Miyajima

 

From Miyajima we had to rush to catch a train back to Hiroshima and thence to Koya-san. This was by far and away our most stressful day of travel, and went roughly like this: ferry, local train, bullet train, subway, local train, local train, an awfully steep funicular up a mountainside, and finally bus. But the reward was ending up in the serene mountain surroundings of Koya-san…

KOYA-SAN

Once we finally got to Koya-san we hopped off our bus, glad that that our epic journey was over, and curious about the next 24 hours. Koya-san is nestled in a valley at 800m in altitude, surrounded by peaks of the mountain range of the same name. Koya-san is known as the spiritual centre of the Shingon sect, one of the mainstream varieties of Buddhism in Japan. The town exists to serve its temples, not the other way around, and the temples are an important centre for pilgrims adhering to Shingon, who can be seen wandering through town in white jackets, conical straw hats and walking sticks.

We were to stay in the Ichijo-in, one of the temples offering shukubo or temple lodging. This intrigued us as we knew that it was not going to be your normal ryokan experience: not only were we going to be served dinner and breakfast in our room, but it was to be shojin ryori – completely vegetarian. We were also curious about being invited to participate in the morning ceremony the following day, which would involve a 6AM start and, apparently, some meditation.

 

As we entered the gates we were immediately welcomed into the temple – by a monk – with a short purification ceremony in which we rubbed dried incense powder together between our hands. We were welcomed into a pretty decent-sized tatami room, with a comfortable electric blanket over the table’s seats, served tea, and then the host monk surprised us by launching into a fluent English conversation and asking us whether we wanted beer or sake with our meal. What followed was a surprisingly lush, well-presented and delicious meal which we meat-eaters found extremely satisfying. We had some time to relax after that and get an early night’s sleep before the next morning’s ceremony.

Early the next morning, we wrapped up tight into our warmest layers, put on our slippers and shuffled through the temple to the main hall, where we sat and listened to the head monk and the four acolytes chant sutras for over half an hour, while various supplicants made their way up to an offering box to find their fortunes, and we shifted from seating position to seating position on the tatami floor, all too aware that behind us, 70-year-old Japanese folks were calmly sitting on their ankles and not moving an inch.

Soon it was time to go out and see the town. We got an early start as we had heard that it was more atmospheric in the morning. It did not disappoint.

 

We walked through nearly-empty streets, eastwards towards Koya-san’s other main attraction, the Oku-no-in Temple and its surrounding cemetery. This graveyard is, for want of a better word, the most prestigious in Japan. It means something to be interred here, as it is said that the founder of Shingon Buddhism, Kobo Daishi, is merely resting in his tomb and will return one day – and if you are a Buddhist worth your salt then you want to be nearby when this happens. Many of Japan’s great and good, from important politicians, captains of industry, religious figures and so on are to be found resting here.

What has resulted is a seemingly endless forest full of mossy gravestones, memorial edifices, Shinto kami statues, torii gates, and even corporate-owned plots with branding intact.

 

As you walk deeper into the forest, and approach the main temple area – which is a sacred area in which you are forbidden to take pictures – you see more and more pilgrims on the paths. Once into the sacred area there is a small pagoda where the faithful can reach through a hole and try to toss a heavy stone up onto a grate to prove their spiritual purity. I am happy to report that I was able to achieve this, though how spiritually pure I was, I couldn’t tell you.

Shingon Buddhist pilgrims, Oku-no-in Cemetery, Koya-san

Shingon Buddhist pilgrims, Oku-no-in Cemetery, Koya-san

 

On our way out, just outside the sacred area was a stream, and a series of Jizō statues which one makes offerings to for the souls of children, unborn, stillborn or otherwise. This was a touching end to the cemetery walk.

 

On our way back into town we just had time to visit one more temple – that of the Kongobuji, the head temple of Shingon Buddhism. We enjoyed its rock garden and its spacious tea hall, where we rested our weary legs and supped matcha tea while we planned our next journey.

 

Koya-san was a memorable, exceptional experience that could only have happened in Japan.

Next up will be the final set of destinations in Japan: the refined temple metropolis of Kyoto, and the sleepy friendly mountain town of Takayama.

Japan – Mount Aso, Kurokawa, and Kumamoto

January 11, 2013 4 comments

Japan so far:

This post is a photo tour of Kyushu, Japan’s southern island, including the national park around the active volcano Mount Aso, as well as the spa town of Kurokawa and finishing up in the Kumamoto, dominated by an infamous samurai castle.

NOTE If you are reading this in a news reader such as Google Reader, or inside Facebook on a tablet, you might want to open this in a dedicated browser window as the photo layout may work better. And there are more photos from these locations available on Flickr

MOUNT ASO
We hopped an early morning train from Fukuoka south along Kyushu’s west coast and changed to a rental car. After getting our heads around Japanese road signs, and puzzling out the sat-nav system (in which you enter phone numbers, not addresses, to locate your destination) we headed through Kumamoto’s suburban sprawl, which could be mistaken for Anywhere, USA, east into the hills of central Kyushu. We were headed for the national park around Mount Aso, a set of active peaks and a boiling sulphur lake in a crater, all of which sit in one of the largest calderas on Earth. It makes for a dramatic landscape, and one that you have to take care with – the viewpoint over the crater is regularly shut down when the sulphur emissions get too strong, and there are bunkers in which visitors can shelter in the case of any violent eruptions. But it’s worth visiting as the turquoise sulphur water bubbling away, and the columns of steam shooting a hundred feet in the air, are a sight to behold…. and the rolling grasslands in the plains around the caldera made for a very enjoyable drive.

 

KUROKAWA
After a lovely outing to Mount Aso, we headed down through the mountain passes into the forested valleys south of the caldera region, ending up in Kurokawa, an onsen town built around a pretty bend in the river, hosting scores of ryokans catering mainly to more mature Japanese tourists whose idea of a fun day is to lounge around in a yukata robe and flit around from one outdoor hot spring bath (rotemburo) to another, and retire in the evening to be pampered in traditional Japanese ryokan style. We were keen on this, as it happened, and we chose an excellent inn just outside the main town, the Sanga Ryokan, because it had its own pretty stretch of river, seemed smart, and boasted no less than five separate rotemburo. Aside from all this, it had incredibly pretty traditional rooms and the food was edging onto what you would get in a high-end kaiseki restaurant. We could have stayed there longer. Sadly, we had only the one night.

 

KUMAMOTO
In the morning, after another lovely rotemburo at another ryokan set beside a river with a waterfall, we took our time driving back to Kumamoto, as the weather turned sour. We felt very lucky to have gotten a lovely sunny day to see Mount Aso, and so we arrived in Kumamoto fairly happy with our lot. We (just) had time to pop over to Kumamoto’s samurai castle, infamously besieged and burnt down during the Satsuma Rebellion in 1877, which was the loose basis for the film The Last Samurai. Sunset arrived and we were ushered out (politely, of course)

 

That’s all from Kyushu. The next instalment will bring us back onto the main island of Japan and will feature Hiroshima and its monuments, the idyllic island of Miyajima, and then we will head off into the mountains to stay in a Buddhist temple and visit Japan’s most prestigious…. cemetery.

Japan – Osaka and Fukuoka

January 7, 2013 5 comments

Japan so far:

After the forested temples of Nara Park, a short train ride brought us back into modernity with a bang and deposited us right into the middle of the buzzing burg of Osaka. Later, we moved on to Fukuoka to catch the yearly sumo tournament.

NOTE If you are reading this in a news reader such as Google Reader, or inside Facebook on a tablet, you might want to open this in a dedicated browser window as the photo layout may work better. And there are more photos from these locations available on Flickr

OSAKA

Osaka is a paradox – a city with seemingly little to see from a typical tourist’s viewpoint, but a city that remains nonetheless very compelling. Aside from Osaka Castle and a couple of other attractions, the main pull for Osaka has a rather more hedonistic bent. This is, after all, the city which boasts a special word for “eat until you drop” and the same might be said of the attitude towards drink. More working-class and street-food-oriented than its big brother Tokyo, less stuffy than its neighbour Kyoto, Osaka is proudly brash and boldly neon.

To get it out of the way: yes, we did visit Osaka Castle. Sadly, we did so having suffered the after effects of our first night out in Osaka, so we might not have been best placed to appreciate a seven story climb through a museum stuffed to the rafters with Japanese pensioners and with little in the way of English commentary. We did however appreciate the walk, and the obligatory green-tea ice cream cone in the park outside.

 

But, dear reader, the main event in Osaka is the nightlife. This is truly a city that looks better when the sun goes down and the neon signs ignite. Ridley Scott famously quoted night-time Osaka as his inspiration when designing Blade Runner, and he returned here to make the Michael Douglas-starring yakuza drama “Black Rain”. In any case, we enjoyed galavanting up and down the Dotonbori canal and main street, and even ventured far enough abroad to Shinsekai, the dodgier end of town, to go up a pointless viewing platform in a faux-Eiffel Tower and eat many varieties of fried foods. A good time was had by all.

 

Of course, we occasionally saw the dark side of hedonism (or perhaps Japan’s ever-fluctuating economy) and Osaka had its fair share of down-and-outs, including this poor chap:

Homeless Man under Overpass, Osaka

Homeless Man under Overpass, Osaka

 

FUKUOKA

After a couple of nights’ liver damage, and a daily rate of one okonomiyaki per person (which is frankly unsustainable) we moved on to Fukuoka, a medium sized city at the north end of the southern island of Kyushu. Fukuoka is another place one could reasonably say held little in the tourist-magnet department in terms of sightseeing, but for those of a foodie persuasion, Fukuoka is a bit of a mecca. Not only is it the home of the lovely and very-bad-for-you Hakata-style tonkotsu ramen, but there are also heaps of street food vendors in stalls called yatai lining the many waterways running through the centre of the town.

Yatai food stalls along the river, Fukuoka

Yatai food stalls along the river, Fukuoka

 

The main reason we had for coming to Fukuoka, aside from the lovely food, was to visit the 2012 Fukuoka Grand Sumo competition on its penultimate day. I had been to this same competition in 2007 but timing then meant that I could only stay for the midday session, when the lower-ranking rikishi (fighters) had their bouts in front of an empty hall. This time, we had ensured that we arrived in Osaka with enough time to enjoy the full afternoon of competition, being able to see the higher echelons of competitors in the juryou and maku-uchi divisions (the latter including the highest class of Yokozuna). This time, as the afternoon wore on, the crowd filled in and the hall was soon filled with raucous cheering, no doubt enhanced by copious amounts of beer and sake being consumed in the seats and boxes all round. This was definitely a higher class of sport than what I had previously witnessed.

 

Next time we’re going to venture south into Kyushu, into rolling grasslands, volcanic lakes, burbling hot springs, and samurai castles…. see you then!