A Travellerspoint blog

London: Street Art Special

A Tour of the South End Street Art Scene

Graffiti - destructive acts of vandalism or vibrant modern art form: discuss.

We have one more day in London and we're going to spend it walking the south end and taking in some of the amazing array of street art to be found in the area. We booked ourselves places on a tour with a guide who knows the most famous pieces and the hidden hot spots so we're hoping to see a lot of good stuff.

We meet the group near Old Street station and there are already several impressive piece in view without having to really move anywhere.

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I already knew a little about the street art scene, I studied art at college and I've seen 'Please, exit through gift shop' (essential viewing), but I'm by no means knowledgeable and I'm very quickly discovering new artists like Phlegm whose mysterious monochrome figures have a weird plague ridden, steam-punk, Alice in Wonderland vibe that I really like.

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Another thing that soon impresses me is the variety of forms the art takes, it's certainly not just spray can or stencil work. There are mosaics and sculptures surreptitiously secreted on walls, intricate miniature embalms that could be easily mistaken for chewing gum embossed on pavements, these are not grandiose self proclaiming tags they are secret pleasures thriving in world running parallel to ours.

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There are also artists I do know about like Invader, who came to fame with his tile/pixel space invaders. Each location he 'invaded' would have several invaders dotted around to discover, and you can even get maps detailing the locations of them in some cities. These originals are now quite often chipped or broken where people have tried to prise them off the wall to take home or to sell. We saw a few imitations of his work in Prague on our honeymoon, but this is the first certified genuine Invaders I have seen and that's a bit of a thrill.

Later in the tour we also saw a newer much bigger piece be him featuring Luke and Vader from Star Wars.

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An unassuming back alley that the guide ducked into also proved to be a gold mine of street art. Less public, this spot serves as a more experimental playground where various artists try things out and come to see what others are up to. There are even pieces playing off each other that form dialogues that prove just how alive and kicking the scene is .

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The flip side of living nature of the art is that it's also ephemeral, this next picture (which I found online) shows a scene quite different to the one that we saw during our visit.

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By the time we came the front most building was gone along with the Frankenstein's monster-a-like mural, some pieces had been left floating in mid air and others were now covered in scaffolding. However, the temporary wall around the site had been seized upon as a fresh canvas and covered in art.

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My personal favourite in this area was this giant flea by Roa who I didn't know before, but apparently is well known for his animal art work.

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As you're probably gathering by now, this was a pretty long tour - so we stopped for lunch around this point. This allowed us to see pieces by Noir whose simple, brightly coloured style was first applied to stretches of the Berlin wall. There was also a chance to peep into a restaurant with one of Damien Hurst's famous animals in formaldehyde on prominent display.

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Around this area there were also some more pieces showing that street art isn't just about spray cans. I really liked these fake street signs and a really nice pointless blue plaque.

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As I said, this was the lunch break in the tour which gives you an idea of just how much was packed in. The variety of styles and types of art on display was just staggering as we continued to explore with our guide.

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Some more big names we encountered along the way included - Shepard Fairy (famous for his Andre the Giant 'Obey' image) with his clean red, black and white graphic style and Brazillian artist Cranio with his distinctive blue figures.

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My favorite new discovery was the simple style of Stik.

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And of course, some Banksy.

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So there you go, if you're ever in London with time to kill and fancy doing something a bit different I really recommend a taking a street art tour. Well worth it and it really will give you a new perspective - now go and watch 'Please exit through gift shop'!

Posted by DKJM74 11:46 Comments (0)

London: Greenwich and the South Bank

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We fly into London in late July, as a gift to myself (and to make it easier to leave Japan) I've timed this so we can see Derren Brown's Infamous show while we're here. So that's where we go almost as soon as we arrive. I've wanted to see him live for a long time and now I have the chance - really good show btw.

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Of course were staying in London for a few days before heading back to Nottingham, and we've made quite a lot of plans. Our first full day back we've planned to spend some time exploring Greenwich. Which is one of those places I'm pretty sure I visited as a kid, but I don't really remember it. To make the journey a little more interesting we're heading there via the Thames on a water taxi which boards just opposite the London eye.

We pass by a lot of famous landmarks as we go including the Tower of London, the Shard and the H.M.S. Belfast now permanently moored on the bank.

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Although it's a cheap water taxi and not an official tour boat, one of the crew gives some stories and history about what we can see as we go. It's all very interesting, in particular when you think what a vital role the river once played in international trade; with boats from all over the world carrying goods in and out of the city. Once this river would have been teeming with life and moorings, docks and ware houses would have lined it's banks. We still pass quite a few tugs and working boats on the way as well as a some pleasure boats out cruising. One highlight being that we passed a high masted ship just near tower bridge, meaning we got to see the bridge open to let it pass directly from the river.

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Another famous ship, the Cutty Sark, marks our arrival in Greenwich. Now in dry docks by the landing station. Built in 1869, the Cutty Sark was one of the last (and fastest) tea clippers to be built. Also used to haul wool from Australia and as a cadet training ship, the Cutty Sark finally retired in 1954 and went on permanent exhibition here in Greenwich.

Greenwich of course has a long-standing connection with all things marine thanks to also being the site of the Old Royal Naval College. Built on the site where a royal palace once stood, and originally intended as a hospital for seamen, construction began in 1696. After the hospital closed in 1869 and was soon re-purposed as a naval college; which is by far it's most famous incarnation.

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These days the complex is managed by a charity who maintain the grounds which are open to the public along with several of the buildings; including the famous painted hall. Chances are you've seen these buildings several times without knowing it as the college is now a hugely popular filming location for big movies. Marvel filmed a huge action sequence for Thor: The Dark World here, it stood in for Florence in one sequence in The Dark Knight Rises, it was the Lilliputian capital in Gulliver's travels (the Jack Black version), Johnny Depp's Capitan Jack met the King in the painted hall here in the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean film, Bond attended a funeral here even of lot of Les Misérables Parisian scenes were actually filmed here in London. That's not even mentioning The Wolfman, Robert Downey Junior's Sherlock Holmes, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Jackie Chan's Shanghai Knight's, The Madness of King , The Mummy Returns, Sense and Sensibility, Sleepy Hollow or Four weddings and a Funeral (for one of the weddings). I could go on, but suffice to say it is one of the most filmed spots on the planet.

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To really see the college at it's best though you have to get a bit of distance from it, and the best way to do that is via another piece of amazing Victorian engineering (though technically it's Edwardian as it was built in 1902, one year after Victoria's death) a tunnel that runs under the Thames to the North bank.

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From there you can really see the wonderful symmetry of the main college buildings that frames the Queen's house in the centre; a former Royal residence that's actually a much older building than the college itself, dating all the way back to 1616. It isn't surprising that the college has been described as the 'finest and most dramatically sited architectural and landscape ensemble in the British Isles'.

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After a spot of lunch we cross under the river again and climb the hill behind the college, from this perspective the college seems almost otherworldly and out-of-time set against the vista of modern London. Though we are now at another famous Greenwich historical site, the Royal Greenwich Observatory. Commissioned in 1675 as part of the race to be the first nation to crack the mysteries of longitude and become the masters of global navigation. Whilst Latitude was relatively easy to calculate using a quadrant or an astrolab, longitude was a much more tricky proposition and for a long time lunar observations was the only method available (though the instability of ships made readings difficult and inaccurate). Any nation that could find a better solution to the problem of longitude would have a huge advantage in international trade and political power; so much so that the British government passed a the longitude act in 1714 offering prizes to anybody who could discover a practical solution.

The problem was eventually solved in 1773 by a watch maker called Harrison whose marine chronometers allowed time based calculations to be made. Though due to the expense and difficulties of making chronometers luner observations were still the primary method of navigation. Luckily between 1765 and 1811, Nevil Maskelyne, Astronomer Royal at Greenwich published 49 issues of his Nautical Almanac based on lunar observations made from the Greenwich observatory. These became the global standard for oceanic navigation and earned Greenwich the role of becoming the zero line for longitude - it became prime meridian with an actual physical line running right through the observatory grounds.

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The whole story of early navigation, the age of exploration and the quest for longitude is one that really interest me, so it was a real treat to come to place that played such a vital role in that drama. As well as seeing the prime meridian and one of the telescopes within the observatory, we also had some time just to enjoy the park and grounds

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Finally we headed back to the riverside and the water taxi to head back into the centre of London after a really nice day out.

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The next day we were staying a little more central and modern with a visit to the Urban festival on the South Bank; a celebration of all things hip hop and street. Where saw a bit of BMX action, some free-styling and some dance offs.

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We also went to see a proper circus sideshow, I mean how can you resist when The Lizard man is drumming up business outside? Not only tattooed from head to toe The Lizardman also has five horn implants, elongated ear lobes, sharpened teeth and (of course) a forked tongue.

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The show consisted of three performers, firstly the Lizard man himself who talked us through his body modifications, showed off his tongue dexterity, lifted weights on his earlobes and introduced us to hi special nasal corkscrew! Next up was a fire-eater whose rand finale was putting out a blowtorch on his tongue!! And if you're wondering how you top that, well you bring out the world record holder for skin elasticity, Gary 'Stretch' Turner!!! Oh boy, I'm still squirming just thinking about the things I saw in that booth, but it was all presented in with good humour and a split-tongue firmly in cheek making it both unique and thoroughly enjoyable. What can I say - freak c'est chic.

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Posted by DKJM74 02:52 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (0)

Sayonara Japan

So, there I am in the car with Andrew... the same small, cheap and frankly slightly crap car that has taken us all over Japan - from Mt Fujii to Shikoku and so many other places. I owe a great debt to pleasure to that car and all that it's given me, everywhere it's taken me - and today is my last adventure in it. A last local run out just to see what lies on one of the many roads we haven't driven down before, ad what do we find? Well, a small alternative community with grand tee-pees and sandbag houses (one actually being built as we walk around).

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Another beautiful village with thatched cottages nestled in the bend of a stream.

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After five years this should all be so normal, it should be enough... but it isn't and it's so hard to let the sun go down on days that you know are ending something you don't want to end.

Of course my friends, my students, my colleagues too - they we're all so nice. The kind comments, the gifts the wonderful goodbye I got from everybody is something that will stay with me. In particular all the wonderful artwork and farewell messages the kids made for me which I will treasure.

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Well that is it, the last entry from my time on the JET program in Japan. Five of the best years of my life, five years that now feels so short. Given the huge hiatus that I took on writing this blog, it's now pretty much two years since I actually left Japan and although I've been back twice since for visits it's not the same. I miss that time and place, I miss those people, those friends, I miss that life almost painfully almost everyday. I wish I could have had one more day, one more road to explore in that crappy little car....

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Posted by DKJM74 02:43 Comments (0)

Totori Sandunes and Matsue

For our final big road trip in Japan I really wanted to go and visit the small town of Matsue in Totori Prefecture, as it has a lot of connections with one of my favourite literary and cultural figures from Japanese history. Also, driving there would allow us to stop off at the famous Totori sand dunes!

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So, these are the Totori dunes, the place where the Tatooine scenes in Star Wars would have been filmed if Star Wars has been a Japanese production. Sufficiently huge and dramatic enough to pass for a desert with a bit of creative shooting; as this photo I took of a couple of cos-play girls we spotted there proves.

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More than a mere beach, or even a standard coastal dune, here the sand has piled up to make hills high enough for sand boarding.

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Climbing these rolling sandy slopes is both exhausting and rewarding, with great ocean views from the tops.

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A word of warning though, as tempting as it might be to run down the steepest sand bank you can find, as fast as you can... those few seconds of wild, devil-may-care, free-wheeling bliss will have to be paid for with a slogging climb back to the top.

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After a fun stop over at the dunes we kept driving south-west towards Matsue, chasing the setting sun as we went...

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... and the next morning we awoke in Matsue itself, a small town built around it's central castle, known as the Black Castle for very obvious reasons. Small, but perfectly formed, it's classic example of the type of castle dating back to Japan's feudal age (along with Hikone castle).

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The small museum inside the castle is quite typical fare for this type of place, objects from feudal Japan including samurai armour and masks which I always enjoy seeing. As nice as these displays are they can become a little stilted and samey after seeing enough of them though, and I can't help but think it'd be nice to see a bit of this history brought to life a b it more.

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Luckily for us we've chosen a good day to be in Matsue for living and breathing history as the local museum is having a demonstration of matchlock firearms today. This type of gun was introduced by visiting Europeans in 1543 and went into mass production, becoming widely used in the late 16th century. These early rifles had to be reloaded with a fresh bullet and powder after every shot, making them quite slow to use in comparison with the rate of fire that a good archer could achieve. They did however have one big advantage, they could be used by relativity unskilled fighters meaning farmers and peasants cold be used to bolster the numbers of an army to great effect if needed.

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Today's display was performed by a mostly female team with great precision and timing, and despite only shooting five or six rifles at once the noise was deafening; what the 500 guns Oda Nobanaga had made all firing together must have sounded like is unimaginable.

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Overall Matsue is a fantastically well preserved slice of old Japan, in addition to the castle and the museum there are a number of well preserved traditional houses some of which are open; such as this Samurai house.

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The house I really want to see though is old house of Lafcadio Hearn, the writer who was the first to really bring Japan to the popular imagination with his collections of classic ghost stories and essays on various aspects of Japanese life. This is actually the second of his old houses I've visited as I also saw his relocated summer house in the Meiji Mura museum

This house was the place where he wrote his 1892 essay 'In a Japanese Garden'. For me it was quite special to be able to sit where Hearn sat and look at the exact garden that helped inspire that essay.

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Visiting the house was only part our Hearn heritage trail for the day though, he also wrote about an Inari shrine that he liked to walk in the grounds of as he went to and from work. As Inari (fox) shrines have long been my favourite type of shrine in Japan, and with the added Hearn connection stopping off for a visit was a no-brainer. On the way though we passed by a small cafe selling dango that looked too good to pass by.

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Once we'd had delicious dango and a drink we continued on into the shrine itself. A real treasure trove of kitsune, with more foxes than you could shake a stick at. Some modern ceramic, some ancient stone older than Hearn (and now with almost no face and held together with wire). The shrine was a beautiful, peaceful place and I can see why Hearn loved it so much, it was also a great way to wind up our time in Matsue... and pretty much my time in Japan.

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Posted by DKJM74 01:46 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Yokohama

The beginning of the end for my time in Japan really started back at the beginning of 2014. Knowing it was my last year on the program I'd signed up to attend the leavers conference in Yokohama. An annual 2-day conference designed to help those finish with JET to decide what to next, an (although I didn't actually hold out much hope that it's help with such choices) it seemed like a good excuse to visit Yokohama.

Despite being a work trip on the surface Haru also came with me and we explored Yokohama by night after the conference finished. As Yokohama is full of impressive towering building that light up the night, that's not a bad thing. In particular the waterfront are makes for some really pleasant night-time strolls, where you can also see the 'Nippon Maru', a grand old ship build in 1930, moored there.

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Yokohama also boasts quite a large China town area complete with blinking neon adverts and hanging lanterns criss-crossing the streets. Another areas that actually benefits from night time exploration.

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There were a few places that we really wanted to see that would require more than a spare evening to really enjoy though, so we extended our stay in Yokohama for a couple of days after the conference as well. The first of these free days we spent at Yokohama Hakkeijima Sea Paradise.

Hakkejimi is an artificial island built just off the coast which is houses a entertainments complex including theme park rides, a mall and a large indoor and outdoor aquarium and sea life centre.

Like many things, it's only since I've been out of Japan that I've really begun to appreciate how amazing their aquariums are. There are so many of them that they kind of became 'normal' for me, but they really are impressive places. I saw whale sharks at 3 or 4 places in Japan and I doubt anywhere in the UK has one of these gentle giants.

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The dolphin show here was also very enjoyable and included not just the eponymous dolphins, but also sea-lions, two belugas and a walrus as well.

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Inside the collection ranged from the the smaller colourful tropical fish, through sharks and all manner of outlandish critters right back up to the massive walrus, which truly is a majestic beast.

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The languid beauty of the jellyfish is something that I always enjoy as well.

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Some of our favourite exhibits included the huge school of sardines in a special tank including strong currents to encourage natural schooling behaviour. Watching them separate, merge, turn and swarm together as one mass was quite hypnotic.

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The highlight of the day though was the in the Fureai Lagoon area, which is the hands on zone where you can get to meet some of the aquariums inhabitants. As well as the typical touch pool fare (with hermit crabs and star fish etc) there was an area where you could meet the dolphins and belugas - and, if the choose to swim near enough, you can stroke them as the pass by. That was a real treat.

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However, the highlight of our time in Yokohama was visiting Taya caves beneath Josenji temple. Located roughly half way between Yokohama and Kamarara, this temple is the dictionary definition of a hidden gem. Even Japanese people who I told about this place had never heard of it, Haru included, and yet it is one of the most impressive things I saw in all my time in Japan.

The temple itself is small and unassuming, and the entrance to the cave is little more than a low doorway leading into the rock face.

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Pay the modest entrance fee and you're given a small candle and a holder to illuminate your way around a subterranean marvel. Inside there is a series of passages carved by Shingon Buddhist monks training at the temple around 1200 to 1700. This in itself would be impressive enough, as just hewing the basic tunnels would have been hard enough.

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Yet it's the amazing carvings that the monk decorated the corridors and chambers with that really impress. There are domed meditation chambers, a natural spring adorned with a fresh water turtle and birds, whole epic tales retold in long carved sequences and massive monstrous figures. Truly an awe inspiring spite by any standard, and a place I'm genuinely glad to have visited. I really can't recommend this spot enough if you ever get the chance to visit.

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Never have I ever felt as close to fulfilling my old childhood dream of actually being Indiana Jones as I did walking around those ancient passageways guided only by the light of my spluttering candle, and coming face to face with these dreams and visions carved by long dead hands.

Posted by DKJM74 11:13 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Hikone Hanami and Hiking Hieizan

I suspect the word 'last' is going to creep into these next few entries quite a bit, and it begins here with my last hanami (Spring cherry blossom viewing). Which I'll cover briefly as I have A LOT of catching up to do on this blog.

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Every year my favourite local spot was on the north tip of the lake, so that's where we started off this year as well. However, it was only a brief stop before we drove around the lake to Hikone on the far side. Hikone is famous for it's well preserved castle and gardens, and as I'd only been there once (just after arriving in Japan) and Haru had never been there it seemed like a perfect place for our final hanami.

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The castle and it's grounds are on a virtual island separated from the rest of the town by a wide moat overhung with blossom laden branches, and it was here that we headed directly. Starting off with a quick tour around the inside of the main keep which boasts some impressive woodwork, including some rare twisting support beams that have been used in their raw state rather than been trimmed down to a more regular shapes.

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The castle grounds also house a nice walled cherry orchard which was in full bloom, and several people had already settled down on the grass for picnics under the pink.

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As we continued around the grounds we ran we also ran into Hikonyan, the official cat-samurai hybrid mascot of Hikone. The character was created in 2007 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the castle's founding. He's since proved to be one of the more popular mascots and has become quite well known. This Hikonyan show basically consisted of Hikonyan striking a series of cute poses for people to take photos of, not very thrilling but when you consider how many of those photos went on Facebook (or travel blogs) it is a master-stroke of cheap advertising.

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Eventually we made our way back across the moat and toward the formal gardens at the bottom of the hill. On the way down I was both surprised and delighted to see just how many wild turtles there were basking on the grassy bank of the moat or lazily paddling across the still water.

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The gardens below the castle are both elegant and a great example of a classic Japanese style layout. It was also one of the first places I visited upon arriving in Shiga Ken, as every year some local volunteers take new JETs on a guided tour around the caste and grounds. So it was nice to come here again for a second visit at the end of my time in Shiga Ken.

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Actually revisiting favourite old places was something I did quite a bit of in my last few months, and in May we set out to hike Mt. Hiezan and visit the garden museum at the top while it was still in full bloom. Although we could have cheated, and driven most of the way, we set out to walk the full distance which covers a mix of well paved areas and woodland footpath along the way - Oh, and a lot of steps!

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Near the top we took a short stop to take a look around Enrijaku-Ji, the famous temple that dominates the mountain ridge. Here we even found one or two late blooming cherry trees in full blossom.

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But our main goal though was the garden museum located right at the peak with it's colourful spring flowers, a recreation of Monet's water lily ponds and some spectacular views over the slopes all the way down to Lake Biwa and Otsu city spread along it's shore. So let's finish with that!

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Posted by DKJM74 11:13 Archived in Japan Comments (1)

Re-opened and (soon to be) Re-branded

A situational update

Well, it's been over a year and a half since I last posted on this blog, but I'm back now!

To briefly explain, I actually left Japan last July 2014 (not long after I put up the last post). My 5 years on the JET program had come to an end and it was time for myself and Haru to make some tough choices. In the end, having been out of the the UK for almost 2 decades, I felt I wanted to go back and see what it'd be like trying to make a go of it in England- so that's what we decided to do.

We flew to London late last July, and stayed in the UK together throughout August and September traveling and visiting my family. After that Haru had to return to Japan to finish up her work there, and to await the results of her visa application. Meanwhile, I stayed here in the UK trying to get decent job, and to get ready for Haru's arrival. It wasn't easy to say the least. At first all I could get was a warehouse job, which was far from ideal and really didn't pay too well. This also mean being stuck living with family in order to save as much as possible.

Separation from Haru, complications with the visa application and an unexpected death in the family all colluded to make this a trying time.

However, eventually we started the application process, Haru's visa was approved and she came to join me in the UK about 8 months ago. I also finally got a slightly better job. This means that we'll finally be able to start on whatever this next stage of our lives together is going to be, although we're still staying with my folks until Haru also gets a job.

I miss Japan terribly, and I've been loathed to post entries about the last few trips we made while living there there; as doing so seemed to have a kind of finality about it that I wasn't ready to face - in short I simply couldn't close the door on that part of my life yet. However, as I now finally see a crack of light through a new door opening ahead of me, maybe it is time to close the old door now.

So, what does all this mean for the blog?

Well, I'm finally going to post entries for those last few months in Japan, and originally I was then going to close the whole blog down too. However, I've had a change of heart about that. Since leaving Japan we've already had some great trips around the UK, including a London street art tour, some pony trekking in Wales and a steam punk festival in Lincoln. We also took a long weekend in Venice, and a weekend in Carcassonne to celebrate Haru finally getting her visa. I realize that, with Haru here, England can also be an adventure and there could still be a lot worth sharing here. I also realize that I simply like having this record of all our travels and adventures.

So, although my 'Japan with JET' blog has it's days numbered, once I've finished the Japan time-line I'll be re-branding and continuing under the new name ' Japan and Beyond with Damon and Haru'. The journey never truly ends, or as J R R Tolkien put it 'The road goes ever on'. I hope you'll join us for a while longer.

Lastly, as it seems odd to do whole blog entry without any nice pictures, here are some photos from an impromptu trip to the Fukui Ken coast line that Haru and I took way back at the in December 2013 (if I recall correctly). It's a quite stark, rocky piece of coastline and the pictures are quite dramatic and glowering. Enjoy, and here's to the next five years!

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Posted by DKJM74 08:42 Comments (2)

Ishigakijima - Part 3

Today is the third and final part of my trip to Ishigakijima, and we're actually staying on Ishigakijima this time. First off we'll be spending a bit of time at a park that's decicated to preserving Okinawa's cultural heritage. A goal which they achieve in part by relocating traditional buildings to within the parks confines.

There are several such buildings including a fisherman's hut, traditional residences and a wealthy family's house. All of them are fitted out appropriately and are open for you to wander around. Staff members, in traditaioanl garb, also encourage you to get hands on with props provided in some of the houses and to get into the island groove.

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There are also performances of Okinawan music and dance at various times throughout the day. Though I'm not an expert in Japanese folk music styles by any measure, I can recognise Okinawan music as opposed to other traditional styles. It tends to have a quite upbeat rhythme and a includes chanted elements that are quite interesting. They also have their own unique string instruments that give a distinctly twangy sound to the music.

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Walking around though it was often the more natural elements of the park that caught my eye. plants and flowers, lines, curves and spirals; the geometry of nature.

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My favorite area by far though was the monkey walk, where you could get up close and personal witha gang of squirrel monkeys. They are so cute, it's a real pleasure to watch them chilling out or playing in the trees.

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Things get really interesting though if you invest a couple of hundred yen in a plastic ball full of food pellets. Then they come out of the trees and climb your trouser leg in a jiffy, or just jump straight onto your shoulder for the more direct approach. Being clambered over by squirrel monkeys is actaually a nice sensation in my opnion, so I really enjoyed that.

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After spending too much money on monkey food (Heck it was worth it), we walked down to the mangrove walk area of the park via a winding forest path.

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There I spent several minute laying flat on my stomach hanging my camera over the edge of the raised walkways taking pictures of ...
Well can you see what? Try and look.

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No? OK, here are some slightly more close-up pictures that are easier to see.

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Mudskippers! For some reason I've always found mudskippers pretty interesting (probably as a result of my young brain being boggled by the idea of a creature whose defining feature is that it skips around in mud all day - I remember emulating them on a family holiday one year, by jumping around in the tidal mud flats, when the sea went out and getting pitch black from head to toe!). Anyway, this was the closest I've ever seen the real thing in nature so that was quite exciting for me too.

In the end we spent almost all morning wandering around this park and had a very nice time, the combination of cultural, historical and natural elements really made it for me. However, it was now time to start heading back towards the airport and to turn in the rental car. On the way thought we still had a couple of small stops to make.

Firstly, we made a brief stop at a road side ceramics workshop that produces some of the distinctive day-glo Shisa (and other creatures) that we've seen on sale in many of Okinawa's shops. There are some fantastic large scale examples of their work all around the workshop, and they are currently breaking ground behind the workshop to make a ceramics park - I'd be very interested to go back again in a couple of years time and see how that looks when it's open.

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After that we just had one more destination, Haru wanted to go to a view spot she'd read about. So we hit the road for the last time, and pass more sugar cane fields, distant hills and plm tree lined roads until we arrive at the base of the hill.

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A short climb later and we're looking down on, the deep blue water of a bay on one side, and, the rolling hills and fields stretching down the coast on the other side. Okimawa certainly doesn't lack for scenic spots.

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We make good time on the final stretch of the road and get back to Ishigaki city with a bit of time to spare, so we decide to have a last walk on the beach before we return the car.

The beaches near Ishigaki city aren't the beautiful, slender strips of sand we've been enjoying over the last few days, they are jagged, rocky and quite desolate affairs. Yet somehow it seems quite an appropriate place to bring the trip to an end, standing on a bare beach looking out over the sea wondering what comes next.

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Posted by DKJM74 21:39 Comments (1)

Ishigakijima - Part 2

So, here you can see the local ferry port map. The main island where we are staying (Ishigaki-jima) is in the top right corner of the map. Taketomi-jima, which we visited yesterday, is the small island closest to Ishigaki-jima. Today we are going Iriomote-jima, the big island on the left.

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However, before we head there we're going to stop off for some open water snorkelling on a local reef. When the boat weighs anchor, what looks like a small island turns out to be part of an old dead reef, jutting out of the water and scattered with white sun bleached coral (a couple of chunks of which are now making lovely decorations / climbing structures for my hermit crabs back home).

Underwater it's far more lively, with a huge living reef extending off in three directions and drop off into deeper water on the fourth. Again there's an abundance of small coral fish, anemones, turtles and sea snakes to see. By the time we clamber back onto the boat though the wind is getting up a bit and the water is getting choppy, making the rest of the ride a bit rough.

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It isn't long before we get to Iriomote-jima though. Despite it's relative size most of the interior of the island is made up of unihabitable mountains and is actually only sparsely poulated along it's coast. It is, however, the only place on earth where the rare Japanese mountain cat
lives. This shy and secretive cat is almost never seen, but habitat surveys suggest that the entire population consists of just over 100 individuals. Despite the establishment of a national park, and measures such as frequent warning signs and animal safe crossings on the roads, several are killed every year in road accidents. The cat is now considered critically endangered.

It goes without saying we never saw one, though we did see plenty of the road signs and information boards about the cats - the only real cats we saw were the beach bums we saw the day before.

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It would have been amazing if we had seen a mountain cat, but that was never the real reason we came here. No, we are here for some light mangrove kayaking and jungle hiking.

Depite glowering skies and spotting rain, the weather holds as we make our way down to the launch. I love mangroves. Maybe it's because, like the volcanic landscapes in Kyushu, it's still quite a fresh environment type for me. This is only my third time in a mangrove, and it still excites me with it's sheer otherness.

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Once we are on the water and making our way upstream, there is something faintly 'Heart of Darkness' about the whole venture. Maybe it's the moody roiling clouds, or the sense of moving towards unknown and mysterious depths, but it's there... It is of course slightly spoilt by frequent sightings of other tourists paddling by, and the fact that we pretty much know where we are going.

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Where we are going is a small landing upstream that leads onto a hiking trail through the forest. Scrambling up rocks, over fallen trees and pushing past huge ferns we climb up following the path of a stream. At some point the bare rocks in the waters start to give way to green moss covered stones instead, signifying that we have passed the line between the salt water of the mangroves and the fresh water coming off the mountain.

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The source of that fresh water is actually the goal of our hike. A waterfall plunging down a sheer rock face, a thin thread of water that disintergrates into nothing but spray and mist when the wind blows too hard only to reform again moments later. This is as far as we're going today, we stop here for a rest, and a bite to eat before heading back down to our kayaks and wending our way back through the mangroves.

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Almost as soon as we get back to the landing stage and onto the bus, the weather breaks and it starts to pour down. It's almost as if it was just holding back until we'd finished our day out. All we have to do now is sit back and relax as the rain lashes against the glass blurring everything beyond. Actaully it looks quite pretty, maybe this would be a good time to experiment with my camera a bit more ...

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Posted by DKJM74 00:05 Comments (0)

Ishigakijima - Part 1

Back to Okinawa

Time sure flies, I actually had to dig around in my diary to remind myself when this second trip to Okinawa actually took place; apparently I was there last October, though it really doesn't seem that long ago. Having had a great time on our previous trip to Okinawa, it was a given that we'd be going back to explore more of the islands.

This time our main destination is Ishigaki-jima, which is smaller and even more Southern than the main island of Okinawa. It is also less built up and even more packed with beautiful nature - we've barely arrived and we're on a white sand beach looking out over deep blue ocean views already. I've brought my snorkeling gear this time so I can check out some of the local coral reefs, but first we're going to take the lazier option - a ride on a glass bottom boat; thanks to some free tickets from the rental car company.

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Given the rather restricted point of view you get from the boat (unless it's directly under the boat you can't see it), I was surprised how much we could actually see. As well as the numerous fish darting among the corals, we also saw couple of sea turtles passing calmly by and (much to my surprise) a few good sized sea snakes freely swimming about as well.

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It was certainly enough to whet my appetite for some proper snorkeling. So on our way to the hotel we stopped on another beach, away from the boats and pretty much deserted, where I got to get wet and go aqua-exploring. This was the first of three snorkeling sessions I managed to squeeze into the trip, and it was a real joy each time. However, you'll just have to take my word for how nice it was, with schools of small bright fish darting around everywhere, as (my non-waterproof camera) stayed firmly ashore - so here are a few beach shots Haru took while I was splashing about instead.

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After drying off it was time finish off the costal drive to our hotel; which was more a collection of beach side chalets rather than a classic hotel. By the time we get there the sun has already set and the geckos are out in force, taking up positions on almost every lamp that might attract flying insects. Time for a bit of a reptile night safari I think.

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The next morning we're down at the ferry docks bright and reasonably early, Ishigaki-jima isn't so big, so we're planning on doing a bit of island hopping while we're here to see some the the even more remote and smaller islets. Today were going to rent bikes and take a relaxing tour around the neighbouring Taketomi-jima.

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Of course the intended relaxing cyle ride turned competitive as soon as we got on the open road...

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Luckily, there were plenty of great beaches around to keep us distracted, including one famed for having star shaped grains of sand (apparently, we couldn't find any) and another with a huge expanse of crystal clear shallows - perfect for paddling in and cooling down.

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Unlike mainland Japan, several areas in Okinawa use Ox for farm work. Taketomi-jima is one such place and you can see Ox and Ox-drawn carts throughout the island; although it's now seems to be more of a tourist attraction than of any real practical use.

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Actually this idea of atificial-tradition is true of many several aspects of the island. While, on the surface, it seems as if traditions have been preserved here, like the Ox-carts, it's truer to say that have been restored to enhance the traditional feel of the island which attracts tourists.

The red tiled roofs that are prevalent throughout the village are another good example. Traditionally only the most wealthy families would have had such tiled roofs, most of these buildings would have been thatched. The image of traditional Okinawan houses having red tiled roofs is so strong though that they have now almost totally replaced the thatched roofs - whcih as late as 1964 still accounted for about 40% of the islands residences.

The red tiles and Shisa (Okinawa's protective spirits, represented as small red dog-like creatures), which now adorn almost every house, do look great though!

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Ultimately it's a moot question; how authentic or artificial the traditional atmosphere of the island is. However it came to be the way it is, Taketomi-jima is a qauint, peaceful and very beautiful place to while away some time.

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Posted by DKJM74 21:26 Comments (0)

Uriwari no Taki and Kumagawa-juku

Head north from where I live in Imazu you pass through Makino (which constitutes the final stretch of Takashima City) and quite soon you pass out of Shiga and over the border into Fukui. It's really close, and we have taken this route to drive up to Tsuruga several times.

Turn off the main road a little and you can find Uriwari no Taki. A nice peaceful, spot with traditional shrines built around the splashing streams coming down from the mountains. It's even closer than Tsuruga, so quite why I've never been there before is a bit of a mystery. Still it's always nice to find a (not so) hidden gem close to home.

The waterfalls are not the the dramatic, vertical plunge and smashing onto rocks type. They are more the gentle tumbling kind, cascading down the hillside and feeding the moss that grows all around.

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As for the shrines they are spread out and worked into the landscape in a rather non-intrusive and pleasent manner. As you walk around you'll find various familiar elements such as red bibbed icons, enshrinement halls and a koi pond all embedded in the surrounding greenery.

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Some of the icons have already been worn smooth, and have themselves become part of the green as the creeping moss reclaims them.

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As impressive as grand stone catherderals in urban centres can be, there is something about quietly crumbling wooden shrines towered over by massive ancient trees that speaks much more of the divine to me. I guess the former tells us that we are beneath something greater than us, the latter tells us that we are part of something that includes us. At least that's what it seems to say to me.

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Set back off the main road as it stands now, Uriwari no Taki would be quite easy to miss (as we evidently did several times). However, back in the day it would have been situated directly on a very important route - one of the so called Saba-kaido or Mackerel routes.

These were the ways along which fresh fish were carried from the port town of Wakasa to the (then) capital in Kyoto. The same routes would also have been used for carrying post, and some of the key places along these old routes still remain today set back from the modern road.

One such place, not far from Uriwari no Taki, is the old postal town of Kumagawa-Juku.

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Like many such places, the village is long and narrow. There are almost no buildings that don't front directly onto the road to better atttract those walking the Saba-kaido as they passed. Even now the way is lined with traditional Edo style merchant houses that offer up tantalising fragments of the past. Outside - carvings that would have served to denote certain families or businesses now lie propped again walls while kettles and vegetables cool in the fast flowing stream. Inside - glimpsed steep wooden stairs and tatami rooms with traditional hearths are visible as as you pass by.

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On the day that we visit there is even a festival taking place, bringing the normally sleepy village to life. Craftsmen were actually sitting in some of the shop fronts whittling away to make crafts and toys, such as bamboo waterguns for the kids to play with. Local ladies were out making hand-made oni-giri (rice balls) for visitors, other vendors were selling sweets and music was playing.

One quite rare sight was a Fuke-shu monk playing a wooden flute (or shakuhachi). Fuke Shu is a sect of buddhism which used the flute music as a substitution for the more traditional sutras and texts as a means to reach enlightenment. In Fuke Shu the idea of pilgrimage was very important and the image of the wandering flute playing monk, wearing his strange basket like headgear, is perhaps the most typical associated with the sect. The story goes that the Bakufu govenment in power at the time gave Fuke-shu monks the freedom of the country, able to travel wherever they pleased regardless of the normal checkpoints and regulations.

This may seem like a wonderful act of religious tollerance, but in reality with their hidden faces and ease of movement many Fuke-shu monks were actually govenment spies. When the Bakufu government fell, the fuke-shu sect fell with it and for a while it's practice was actaully banned though it has survived and is still practiced by a small number of people to this day.

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Now, todays entry may have been generally a celerbration of traditional Japan, its history and culture and how it has survived and still exists today. However, this wouldn't be modern Japan without a bit of quirkiness. So of course in addition to the traditional we also got a a slice of modern odd. So I'll leave you today with some local mascots on parade, and monkey pulling a rickshaw - of course.

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Posted by DKJM74 16:39 Comments (0)

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)

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