A Travellerspoint blog

May 2016

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)

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