A Travellerspoint blog

Mo' Monkeys: Arashiyama Again!

(also with extra cormorant fishing)

Just a very short update today, as I'm basically re-covering old ground again. For long time readers of my blog there isn't anything really new to see here, just a return trip to a favorite place.

I actually decided to go back again simply so I could take the new Takashima JETs (who had arrived a few weeks earlier) and show them around what I think is one of the nicest parts of Kyoto. In the end we only had four people turn out for this, only one of whom was one of the newbies (Good show, Marci). How people can turn down a chance to go and see monkeys, I'll never understand :-) Still four people is just about enough to justify the trip; not that I need that much of an excuse to go back to Arashiyama again anyway!

So, without further ado, for the third time in the five year history of this blog, I proudly re-present the monkeys of Arashiyama monkey park!

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Monkeys do always make good photographic subjects, they have such expressive faces and real character. To be honest if I lived closer to the park I'd probably go even more frequently, the photo opportunities are so good. It's going to be wierd leaving Japan and going to live in a monkey free country again.

However, monkeys weren't the only reason for going back to Arashiyama we also planned to watch the display of cormorant fishing on the river that evening. Again this isn't my first time doing this, I saw cormorant fishing a two or three years back in Uji, but it was something I'd wanted to see again since then.

Unfortunately we weren't the only ones with this idea, and there was quite a queue for the boats. We'd actually come by the ticket stand earlier in the day, but had been told that they tickets wouldn't be on sale until nearer the launch time. However, when we came back it looked uncertain we'd even get any tickets there were so many people. In the end we got split up as there were two places in one boat going out which I jumped on with Marci, while Josh and Joey had to wait another hour for the next performance. Not the best solution, but at least we all managed to get aboard.

Over all I think I prefered the Uji experience more, it was a less crowded (meaning it was also more relaxed) and the chain of boats wasn't as long either; so we had a better view. Having said that I still enjoyed the Arashiyama version as well. Once we had boarded the observation boats, and waited a little for the sun to set, the fishermen came out too. They slip out of the dark, smoothly gliding over the back water in a halo of dancing light from the burning brazier they carry hanging over the sides of their boats. There is something quite myseterious about it and it must have looked quite eerie back in the days when river was full of these ghostly boats.

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Once on position they pause to bring the birds out of the wicker baskets they carry them in. The cormorants are tethered in such a way that the fisherman can track each bird and bring it back to the boat, but the bird can still freely swim and dive to catch the fish attracted to the glowing lights above.

After being placed in the water the cormorants bob and dive, resurfacing with fish that the handlers gather aboard the boat. After the display most of these fish will be fed to the birds anyway, but for now they aren't allowed to swallow them now due to a ring around their necks.

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The display lasts for about an hour with the fishing boats making several passes along the line of tourist boats so everybody has a chance to see and take pictures (very difficult). The cormorant fishing season only runs from the beginning of July to mid September, and can be seen in just a few places in Japan (Arashiyama, Uji and Gifu; that I know about.) If you are in one of those areas during that time, I would recommend trying to see this ancient traditional first hand.

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Godo on the Kisokaido, ukiyo-e prints by Keisai Eisen (1790 – 1848)

Posted by DKJM74 23:15 Comments (0)

Okazaki Park, Kyoto

The longer I live in Japan the less frequent my trips to Kyoto become. Despite it only being an hour away by train, that two hour round trip and the train fare is increasingly off-putting. However, sometimes I make the effort if there's something I really want to see or do. So when I heard there was going to be a Cos-play and Manga festival in Okazaki Park I decided to go.

I've actually been to Okazaki Park a couple of times before, as there is a high concentration of museums and art galleries around the area, but I've never been around the gardens of Heian Shrine before. I decided to correct that oversight by buying a ticket and starting my day off there.

The gardens are fairly typical of many Japanese gardens, but they are quite big and well laid out. The mix of formal and natural elements (like the carefully shaped trees draped with hanging moss) is something I always enjoy , and with few other visitors around it was a pleasant and quiet walk.

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One of the nicest features of the garden is the bridge over the main pond, which certainly looked dramatic under the glowering threatening sky. From there you can also feed the fish and turtles swimming below; I was surprised to see (along with the more familiar turtles) some rather cute soft shell turtles treading water as well.

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By the time I left the gardens some of the promised Cos-players had begun to appear around the shrine, though not quite in the numbers I'd been expecting. Everybody was as friendly and as willing to pose for a quick photo as ever, so it was still fun.

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This girl with the (totally natural, I'm sure) blue haired, hazel eyes was the undisputed winner of Damon's Cutie of the Day prize; also known as the not-very-coveted 'Girl I'd most likely have hit on if I were single' prize. Yes, the fact that I'm not single is the only thing that keeps me from getting these girls, none of them would have rejected me had I been free to hit on them; at least that's what I choose to believe lol.

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The main Manga convention was being held in a big exhibition hall just across the road, so that's where we headed next (the shift from singular to plural being necessitated by the fact than I'd now met up with fellow JETs Terin and Marci). Together we wandered around slightly bemused and vastly uninformed about what we were seeing, none of us are really J-pop culture geeks and we only recognised a few of the characters and shows being promoted. For me the only one that got me excited was seeing a しろくまカフィ (Polar-bear Cafe) food stand, as I have actually watched that show quite a bit, and it's one of the few Japanese things I actually find funny.

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The food they sold wasN7t anything special, but then food isn't really the draw of these events. It's is the cool art, quirky styles and cute girls - more blue hair ahoy! Sorry ladies, I've already given out today's prize, and I'm not that fickle.

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As well as a couple arists doing live art rendering, there were also some nice galleries of pre-drawn pencil art work for animation cells which were browsing. Again I don't know any of the source material, but the simplicity, fluidity and quality of these 'production line' drawings is really impressive.

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The only new show that caught my eye enough to make me think I should check it out was one that seems to be about a family of Tanuki living in a temple. Tanuki (Japanese Raccoon dogs) are reputed to have a wicked sense of humour, and magical powers allowing them to shape shift. I guess that's why each character has a human and Tanuki form. I like that basic premise and really should track this show down on DVD or something.

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After we left the exhibition hall (and grabbed a bite to eat at the world food fair beside it), we went back to the main street where the 'Red carpet show' was about to start with a parade of mascots. Mascots for what? I hear you cry. I don't know does it matter, everything has a mascot in Japan. Every prefecture, most cities and towns, companies, parks, charities and diseases ... well, maybe not diseases, but there is one for blood donation!

Often the mascots are based on terrible puns, such as the one for my local ski park, which is a big orange box with cute eyes because the mountain with the park is called Mt.Hakodate; and hako means box in Japanese. Do you see what they've done there? Anyway, your guess is as good as mine as to what most of these represent, but who cares when you have an eternally smiling green felt monster asking you 'Do you Kyoto?' Just go with it.

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So there you go another journey into the quirks and perks of Japan, we could have stayed even longer for some other events, but the dark sky finally decided to make good on it's earlier threat of rain and we ran for the subway. I would quite liked to have seem the street dancers, but not enough to get wet watching them.

Whenever I go to an event like this I feel like I should make more of an effort to clue myself in about the various popular shows and comics. I've read a few Doraemon stories for Japanese practice, but that's about it. Naruto, One Piece, Pokemon - I recognise them all, but don't really have any desire to watch them.

In short I really don't watch much anime at all, but I am going to put out one big recommendation for anybody who wants to watch a really good short series. Check out, 'Anohana'. I don't want to say too much about the story, except it's about childhood, growing up and what makes and breaks friendships. It is very good and very touching, but it takes a couple of episodes to start showing it's strength. Watch the whole series though and I defy any of you to come out dry eyed and unaffected.

Do a quick search for 'Anohana streaming' on google, you'll soon find a few sites where you'll be able to watch all 11 episodes with subtitles (each part is only about 22mins so it's not a big time investment really). Really recommended.

Posted by DKJM74 17:15 Comments (0)

Kyuushuu Part 3 - To Hell and Back

Martyrs and Volcanos

We will finally be venturing beyond Nagasaki for the final stretch of our trip to Kyuushuu, but before that we are doing one last sightseeing round up of historical spots that we haven't visited yet. This means once again we're going to see how much the west infulenced this city, be it in small or in devestating ways.

Another architectural legacy of the past are the 11 bridges that span the river, whereas most historical bridges in Japan are wooden arches painted red, here the bridges are made of stone in the European style. The most famous of these bridges is known as the spectacle bridge, because of the way the arches and their reflection on the water form two perfect lens like circles.

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The next thing I wanted to see was the monument to the 26 martyrs of Nagasaki. Having been made aware, during our first day in Nagasaki, of the stomy and violent history of Christianity in Japan I was curious about this site. On February 5th, 1597, 26 European missionaries and Japanese converts were cruxified on this hill top, making them the first (but not the last) Christian martyrs in Japan.

Although these first martyrs became especially revered, to the point of being cannonized, there were other cases over the years. In fact the largest mass execution of Christians in Japan wasn't to occur for another 35 years, when 55 executions took place in the Great Genna Martyrdom of 1632; again in Nagasaki.

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Unfortunately, this is still a long way off being Nagasaki's darkest day. That day would have to be August 9, 1945 when the atomic bomb, codenamed 'Fatman', was dropped on the city. The death toll from that single bomb totalled an estimated 73,884, including 2,000 Korean forced workers and eight POWs. Another 74,909 were injured, and several hundred thousand more were left dying due to radioactive fallout or the various diseases that soon followed.

This series of rings in a quite corner of a leafy park shows the epicentre of the blast, though the bomb actually detonated 500m up in the air. The last remaining intact piece of the original Urakami Cathedral (which stood 500m from the epicentre, and was otherwise totally destroyed in the blast) has been moved to stand close by as a reminder of the destruction.

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The park is now refered to as the 'Peace park' and an annual memorial ceremony is held here on the anniversary of the bombing. The park also houses 15 statues, expressing ideas about the theme of peace, donated to the Nagasaki by artists from around the world.

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It's impossible to say that one part of this planet has more history than any other part, we are walking on bones of those who came before almost anywhere we tread these days. Often it's just a question of what is forgotten and what is remembered, what is torn down and built over and what is left to stand. Nagasaki is a city where history has left scars. Scars that tell a story that spans hundreds of years. Nagasaki is a city that remembers not just because it hasn't forgotten yet, but because things happened here that shouldn't be forgotten.

It's time for me to leave Nagasaki now, and while I may not have left my mark on the city it has left its mark on me. I too shall remember.

However, we still have a little time left in Kyuushuu. Enought time to go to hell and back, so we're hitting the road and heading east for a spot of volcanic R&R.

Of course all of Japan is the product of underwater volcanic activity, even Mt Fuji is actually an active volcano that hasn't erupted for a long time. Almost anywhere in Japan you can find onsen, bathhouses based around natural hot springs that are also a result of the geothermal activity going on in the hidden depths. Some areas of Kyuushuu are a little more transparently volcanic than most of Japan is though, one such area is called Unzen Jigoku and that's where we are heading now.

On the way we pass plenty of onsen venting clouds of steam into the air. We also pass the longest free foot spa in Japan, where we take a short break and a relaxing foot soak with a sea view.

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Unzen Jigoku itself is a little further on, and we'll be spending the night in a big ryokan style hotel here. Jigoku actaully means hell in Japanese, and looking out from our room you can see why the area has that nick-name. The heat, and concentration of chemical elements being dragged up from below, have stripped some areas clean of all vegetation, leaving a blasted, blighted and billious (yet oddly beatutiful) landscape behind.

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This is only the second time I've visited a volcanic area, but both times I've found it fascinating. Visually it may look quite bare at first, but there if you look closer there are some wonderful details that you couldn't see elsewhere - vivid chemical greens and yellows, roiling living mud, delicate crystal formations.

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Beyond that there are also the sounds and smells. Steam can whistle, blow, gush and roar as it erupts from the ground, in places the air is heavy with the tang of eggy sulphur - you don't just smell it you can taste it (and, if you really want to, you can buy real hard boiled eggs cooked in the naturally boiling waters to snack on as you walk around). In short volcanic landscapes are visceral, they catch your eyes, your ears, your nose and even your taste buds.

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We did a full circuit of hell twice during our stay, we also discovered a small family run toy museum just down the road from the hotel which we visited on the second day. The term museum is a broad umbrella, covering everything from huge national instututions to ramshackle collections of junk thrown on display by their loving owners. This was definately much more at the ramshackle end of the spectrum, but I have no problem with that. This was an true Alladin's cave of retro plastic, tin and rubber. Enough to make me nostalgic for a childhood I might have had (if I'd been born in Japan)

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Of course there was a real grockle-trap of a shop attatched as well, with a mix of original and retro style toys and sweets on sale. We filled a bag with pick and mix, and bought some cute animal themed paper lantern decorations which are now hanging in our living room.

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Our time in Kyuushuu was fast drawing to a close now, it was time to drive back to Nagasaki, return the rental car and fly home. Still we had time for one more stop on the way back - at the Penguinarium!

Yes, I probably just made that word up, but that's what it was an aquarium with a collection that was 90% penguins. So that's what we'll close with today; Africans, Adelies, Kings, Emperors, Humbolts and Rockhoppers - a right proper pack of penguins (and not a chocolate biscuit in sight).

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Posted by DKJM74 22:12 Comments (0)

Kyuushuu Part 2 - Gunkanjima

Today I'm finally going to get to set foot in one of the places that I've most wanted to visit in Japan ever since I first learnt about it. We will be setting out from Nagasaki Port and taking a ferry over to the urban explorers wet dream that is the abandoned island of Hashima; more commonly known as Gunkanjima.

As I said in the last entry Nagasaki has played a big role in the industrialisation of Japan through the likes of Mr. Glover and his associates; and as we slide out towards open water we can see one of his gifts to Nagasaki, Japan's first dry dock for ship repair and building (see below, bottom left). These days ship building is a far grander affair, but Nagasaki is still in the thick of it as you can see by the huge Mitsubishi rigs out in the bay.

Mitsubishi (which Glover was a key player in the establishment of) is actually a Nagasaki based company, and their logo was on a lot of things we passed during this trip; from these giant ship building rigs to elevators and automated carparks. So it's no surprise that Mitsubishi are also firmly connected to the history of Gunkanjima as well as we'll see.

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Now, firstly I think I should maybe manage your expectations a little bit. As much as I would have loved to make a daring landing on the island with a small fishing boat and really explored the decaying heart of Gunkanjima (as some people do), I'm afraid that I'm limited to doing the tourist approved tour, which is ok - I will at least get to see Gunkanjima with my own eyes and Haru is happy to come along as well when there is an official boat with a freindly captain, so we can go together.

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Mitsubishi bought the island in 1890 with a view to using it as a base for mining undersea coal reserves. This island was populated from 1887 to 1974 when my birth herelded the closure of the mine (Please note, no connection between my birth in 1974 and the closure of the mine can be lagally supported, it was probably much more likely due to a shift away from coal towards petrolium as a major fuel source).

Since then the island has been abandoned and left, uninhabited and at the mercy of the elements, to fall into disrepair.

As the boat draws closer the island presents itself as a dramatic silhouette on the hoirizon. My first impression is that it looks like an environment designed for a video game like Tomb Raider or Uncharted; that is a very good thing in my book.

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Even the name Gunkanjima (Battleship island) is highly evocative, but (as you can see below) that's just what it looks like from the right angle; a huge concrete battleship riding the waves. Seen from the air though you can see just how compact the island actually is, there isn't any part of the surface that wasn't covered in concrete or any edge that wasn't walled to protect it from the churning sea.

Along with the exclusion zone around Chernobyl this is one of the few places where you can see on a larger scale what happens when man walks away from what he built, and nature if left to run it's course. As such it is a somewhat unique place that captures the imagination, and has appeared in several documenteries (Such as 'Life after people') and numerous art exhibits, photo books and unofficial blogs. Recently the island was the inspiration for the abandoned Chinese island hideout of the villain in 'Skyfall'; a few external shots of the real island were used to establish the location, but all the 'on the island' scenes were filmed in a studio.

However, those unofficial blogs created by tenacious Urban explorers are some of the best sources to get an idea of what it's like at the heart of Gunkanjima. One of the best (that I stole from, a little, for the collage below) is the post by Gakuranman which is well worth checking out; though there are other good ones if you search.

(The photos in the collage below are from various sources, just to show things I personally couldn't get a picture of)
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OK from here on the photos are all mine, I promise! So first let's give you a quick tour around the perimeter of the island. If you headed right around the northern tip of the island, before looping back to the official landing site this is pretty much what you'd see.

Most of the buildings here are the workers housing, incredibly at the height of it's productivity as a mine Gunkanjima was the most densely populated place on earth with 5,259 people in just 6.3-hectare (16-acre). So many people packed into such a small area. Unfortunately these areas, although perhaps the most interesting, are considered highly dangerous due to the deterioration of the building materials, and are still firmly closed to casual visitors.

The northern most tip.
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Going around the back.
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The far side of the island.
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So, having established what you can't see as a regular tourist, lets take a closer look at what you can.

The official landing site covers the south east portion of the island, with 3 designated viewing areas linked by a paved walkway. This is more the 'business area' of the island meaning you get a much clearer view of the mining ruins here.

The first viewing area looks north towards the workers quarters, and is lined with a series of concrete arches similar to those I've seen at other mine ruin sites. What, I think, was the main administration building stands at the highest point, bringing a very literal interpretation to the idea of overseeing your workers.

Our guide, who used to live on the island as a child, said that even in the last couple of months that the view had changed and one or two structures had collapsed during recent bad weather. Gunkanjima exists at the whim of time and tide, and day by day it is disappearing.

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The second stage is right next to what used to be the exit from the mine. That small two storey building with half a flight of stairs hanging down into nothing; that is where the miners would once have emerged from at the end of their shifts. From there their next stop would have been the workers baths, large communal baths which used heated sea water for bathing as fresh water was a valuable commodity on the island. The water of the baths would be dyed black a mere moment after the miners climbed in our guide recalls.

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The third and final area is on the southern most tip of the island and is as close as we can get to the concrete skeletons of the apartment blocks. Although not typical for Japan at the time, concrete was used to make buildings able to withstand the typhoons that would often batter the community. One 9 storey apartment building was Japan's first large concrete building.

Nowadays the absence of people and access to good fishing waters make it a great nesting site for Black Kites, several of which could be seen wheeling in the blue overhead. Repurposing at it's best.

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Then the tour is over and it's time to retrace our steps back to the pier, but it feels too soon. There is so much here to see, even if I am seperated from it by white safety bars and a no man's land that I'd be easily spotted on if I tried to dash across it. No choice but to get back on the boat as scheduled.

As the boat pulls away I'm still snapping pictures as the islands shrinks away, I can't help but feel I've been there but I haven't really done that so to speak.

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Overall I really enjoyed my time on Gunkanjima, though I was left with twinges of regret, and a stong desire to really walk the ruins and explore the forbidden depths.

However, if it came down to a choice between either never setting foot on the island or only going on an official tour.... Well, then I'm glad I got to go there, and that Haru came and enjoyed it too is a bonus; she'd never have gone without the seal of official approval on the tour.

That night, after a rest stop back at the hotel, we took a drive up a long, winding hillside road to a famous view spot over looking modern day Nagasaki. And there it was, the city humming with light and energy, Nagasaki as it is. What is that though?

Well what I've seen and learnt over the last couple of days tells me that it's a place poised somewhere between it's history and the ruins it will one day become. In that sense it's where we all are, it's what we all are; and while we should never forget all the turmoil that brought us to this place or the fact that time moves on, and that change is the only promise the future keeps... sometimes it's just best to be in the present and enjoy the view.

Happy New Year everyone.

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Posted by DKJM74 16:40 Comments (0)

Kyuushuu Part 1 - Nagasaki, First contact

Internationalization, indoctrination and industrialization

Today, we are embarking on the first of three enteries about my first trip to Kyuushuu; the southern most of the four main islands that make up Japan (excluding the islands that make up Okinawa).

After a short flight from Osaka we arrive in Nagasaki, a town well known around the world as being, along with Hiroshima, one of the two cities to be targetted with Atomic bombs during WWII. However, Nagasaki has a much richer history that isn't quite so well known as it was the first point of real contact between Japan and the rest of the world; a fact that has shaped the city in a way that is still evident to this day, with clearly visible European and Chinese influences abounding all over the city. Such as this hill top church looking down on the waterfront

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The map below shows Nagasaki as it used to be in 1792, in particular the placement of foriegn colonies around the harbour. On the right is Dutch trading post, Dejima; more about that later. On the left are the Chinese settlement and Shinchi Warehouse complex. There is still a small China town in Nagasaki, a few intersecting streets strewn with Chinese resturants, but not much remains of the orignial settlement bar a few gateways that open onto nothing. There was a vending machine full of Chinese specialities, including canned 'Bird's Nest Soup' right where the historical heart of the settlement would have been.

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The Dutch settlement has been far better preserved. Actually Dejima wasn't just a Dutch colony, it was in fact built in 1634 to contain traders from Portugal. More specifically it was to contain the threat posed by the new religious ideas that came with the traders. However, only a few years later an attempted uprising (called the Shimbara Rebellion, mostly undertaken by peasents who had converted to Christianity) Japanese attitudes towards foriegners took a harsher turn. By 1639 all the Porugese had been expelled and from 1641 only the Chinese and Dutch were allowed to trade with Japan, and only via Nagasaki. The Dutch were allowed to stay, mainly due to there professional and business like approach to relations, and because of an emnity with Portugal that the Japanese now sympathised with. So between 1641 and 1853 Dejima became a Dutch trading post.

Dejima was in fact a small artificial island built in the harbour; 'Dejima' literally means protruding island. It was walled off and seperated from Japanese Nagasaki to satisfy the requirements of the Japanese Sakoku (an isolationist policy in effect at the time). Strict rules about inhabitants of Dejima leaving the compound and, vice versa, about Japanese entering it were put into place. It was purely business, and no more seditious ideas were going to be tollerated.

Over the years the expansion of Nagasaki has swollowed up Dejima so it's no longer and island. The area that used to make up the island is still preserved behind a wall that seperates it from the city, and many of the original buildings (a hybrid of European and Japanese styles) have been reconstructed exactly where they used to stand (there are plans to raise even more of these over the next few years)

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Although the exterior of the buildings may be a hybrid of two cultures, but many of the interiors are strictly classic European. Real beds, fine lighting for fine dining, plush wall paper and elegant flourishes that betray the fashion of the times are everywhere; except in the areas where the Japanese would have worked, the fireplace in the tally house where the Japanese importers would have counted the goods it very Japanese in style for example.

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There is also a fine collection of objects preserved from the period, including somehting else that Europeans brought to Japan that would forever change the country - guns. Though what you can see here is an encrusted pistol the weapon that had a real effect on the course of Japanese history was the Matchlock rifle, but that's another story.

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By the time Dejima ceased to serve as a trading post the political tides had begun to shift again. Although anti-Western sentiment was still rife it was largely aimed at the Japanese Shogante who had entered into agreements unbalanced foriegn trade agreements. There was a rising movement to topple the Shogante, and restore the Emperor as ruled of Japan.

One man who sympathised with this cause, and even helped provide weapons for the rebels was the Scot, Thomas Blake Glover. After the eventual establishment of the Meiji Government, Glover's became in instrumental figure in the industrialization of Japan.

This bust of Thomas Glover stands in the grounds of Glover Garden, a park built around the site where his and his comapnion's old houses once stood.

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Although initially in Japan to trade in green tea, Glovers role in supplying weapons during the Boshin war saw him soon expanding into other areas thanks to the gratitude of the new government.

The patch of asphalt road (pictured above) is just one of many firsts that Glover brought to Japan. He was also responsible for setting up Japan's first coal mine and first dry dock. This latter development was part of the establishment of the shipping company that would later became the Mitsubishi corporation that we know today.

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Glover, for most of his life in Japan, lived with a Japanese woman called Awajiya Tsuru with whom he had a daughter called Hana. The couple never married, but Awajiya is regarded as Glover's common-law wife. Though the fact that he also adopted another British-Japanese child born of another woman, whose connection to Glover is unknown, suggests it may not have been a strictly exclusive relationship.

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Yet, despite a strong Japanese influence in his life Glover built a distinctly European world aound himself. The buildings of Glover park may be roofed with Japanese tiles, but inside (like Deshima) they are bastions of European style. Though at the time the Georgian style may have seemed a little outdated to the modern Victorian gent; surprising for a man who brought so much modern edge to all his business concearns.

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As you've probably gathered by now, all this history makes Nagasaki quite a unique place in Japan. It was the first point of contact for Japan with the world, and that first contact sent out ripples that that can be traced through the landscape of the city, and maybe even through all of Japan. Through the Portugese and Dutch Deshima traders bringing goods, Gods and guns. Through the missionaries and the martrys, the failed and the sucessful rebellions, the influx of new ideas and technologies that started here - Nagasaki has shaped Japan just as much Kyoto and Tokyo have.

Posted by DKJM74 22:11 Comments (0)

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