Thursday, August 21, 2008

Kyoto to Hiroshima on a series of bullets

An island nation adrift from the continent in more than just geography, the wide ocean stretching forth… Strained relations with the mainland – an origin it feels it has surpassed…

Builder of mighty navy, obsessed with the sea and her creatures…

In the past, ambitious to the point of criticism…Birth place of many an invention…A nation that has punched above its weight, now humbled…

Traditional courtesy and the riddle of class complications… social breakdown and consequence…Seeking a new position in the world ….

Striking similarities with my homeland that make you think. It is though exotic difference that drew me to Japan. From sushi to sumo to samurai. I was not disappointed.

While Japan has always been towards the top of my “to go to” list, the famed cost of living has kept me away. Some mates on secondment in Tokyo, cheap flights and a cheap rail pass, came together to just about bring it into my price range…So off I went this May.

After some catch up natters with Dom and Portia - said very generous mates on secondments - and an early morning run that proved to me that (a) I was clearly jet-lagged (when have I ever run at 6am in the morning) and (b) Tokyo is simply immense (the views from the Portia’s office made me gulp), I was off to catch the bullet.

A real buzz making my way round the gargantuan Shinjuku station, the busiest in the world with some 3.6 million people travelling through it each day, and then onto the Shinkanzen (bullet train) and away away.

As it whists past mile upon mile of urban sprawl it takes the piss out of the “high-speed” Eurostar. Tokyo and everything connected to it just goes on and on and on. It is a quirk of the mountainous geography of this heavily populated island that the population has squeezed on to every remotely flat, or at least un-mountainous piece of land, leading to a hugely heightened density. It is through these areas that the Shinkansen races, leading to an eerily consistent chain of humanity for 100’s of km’s.

And… before I knew it… I was in Kyoto – city of temples, Emperors and Geisha, the cultural capital of Japan.


Eventually, it blew me away….

As with a number of renowned places I have visited, on first sight it was an anti-climax. The pre-image of shining pagoda and perfect miniature gardens is shattered by row after row of charmless concrete buildings. As far as I can figure, the phenomena is usually caused by the train/bus station being in the least interesting part of the city and in this respect Kyoto reminded me of none other than Dusseldorf. Strange connections.

To be fair, my many km wanderings for a place to stay showed me increasingly charming back streets of low level semi-traditional housing. Quiet, peaceful and private. From this point on it only got better.

To summarise a few days of solitary wandering around temples, palaces and a fort is both easy and difficult. It may suffice to keep it to 'I saw beautiful building after building and garden after garden'. Keep it simple when you know you would fail miserably to pass on with any accuracy the details and history that you have gauged. Easy. But, these places of immense tranquillity allowed me to rest my mind and think more clearly than I have had the opportunity for a year or more. How can you explain this? Hard.

The impressiveness of the Golden Temple and the Imperial Palace are appreciably impressive, but they did not pinch a part of my soul in the way of those little hidden away temples that litter the edge of the valley as it slowly climbs. Wandering between such places on a squeaky bike with no breaks through the ever more traditional housing - delightful. The design of the single story wooden buildings that abide owe much to the earthquake producing fault line upon which this country lies.

It is the little things that usually get you. Like the small old lady who stopped me for a chat because she wanted me to explain the meaning of words from her relatives living in Europe. As we parted she bowed and thanked me more than could possibly be necessary. The giggling school girls - who strangely seem everywhere in Japan despite the worryingly ageing population - who went a little crazy when I fluked a coin toss into a charm bowl from about 4m and then their disappointment when, having followed me to the next one, I missed by a mile (Note to self: quite while you are ahead). And finally, the pinnacle, quintessential moment. Having meandered down the hill I stumbled into the Gion district, criss-crossed the quaint old streets, and then, having turned into an isolated street, a Geisha walked out and glided across the alley. It is hard to quite say why, but I was totally taken about. Something about the refined beauty and setting as the sun was dimming and the paper lanterns lit-up. I perched on the seat of my bike and stared - I could not help it. And then she was gone…

After Dark

During my stay, I resided at probably the dirtiest hostel in town. This was not by design – everywhere else was full. The place proved to be a facilitator of great interest and fun which should not go unmentioned. From all-night chats with Dutch photographers, to through the night parties in reggae bars, complete with red stripe and locals with quirky Caribbean accent, and techno clubs where fine artists painted their trade as the night waned (cheers Dom and Catina). And possibly the pick of the bunch – hours of fascinating political debate with a German anarchist who had taken shelter from the darkness, pummelling rain and shadowing cops. Frustrated at the oxymoron of a hierarchical anarchistic movement that he encountered in Japan, he had come to help disrupt the G8 summit and was leaving totally disillusioned and questioning his beliefs. He taught me anarchy is “Order without Authority”....something new each day and all that!!

Good times painted before our eyes as the whisky poured.

Hiroshima and the European Cup Final

Back on the bullet and before I know it in Hiroshima – a surprising city. I was not sure what to expect from this place synonymous with the bomb. I suppose something along the lines of a depressing place still making its slow recovery from tragedy. How wrong I was!

I found was a green, upbeat and vibrant city. Buzzing full of activity and youth in the centre. I walked for hours just soaking the place in.

Ground zero was even more surprising. A pretty verdant space covered in plants and trees and segregated by branches of a river. All there is to show of the destruction wrought on 6 August 1945 are the devastated remains of a former bank; glass fused, iron deformed, brick blown away; and the peace park built to commemorate.

A place of beauty. Tears to the eyes. Shock at how they manage to transform something of such inherent anger into peace. A lesson which humbled, a privilege to visit – one of those strange pilgrimages that smack perspective in your face with the force of an anvil. So many much suffering....after a few hours sitting and watching and praying to hope... you move on...but the memory stays and how wonderfully they cultivate it.

If a small bomb can kill 100,000 people, what on earth can the arsenal of man do. They expected nothing to grow for 50 years. I seek sanctuary in the growth of life after mere months - life full of fortitude.

After that, what could one expect from the place? The answer was a lot of craziness. A quick stop in an Irish bar on the way to the station ended up in an all night drinking session with a Geordie and some cool Japanese guys I met. From Mario-kart with the kids, to the best record collection I have ever seen in a bar, via many cool people and some shady spots to the special opening night of a Japanese guy’s bar for the European Cup final – to think they opened it just for us – such generosity. Carnage, that missed penalty, a lost phone, wobbling around the commuter station at rush hour – a surreal experience if ever I have had one – on the bullet to the south of Japan, a turn around and all the way to Tokyo – cheap refreshing confused sleep....appropriate for what lay ahead!
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