Saturday, October 31, 2009

Victoria, Greek Style

The Apostles...and us...
The stunning Yarra Valley...The incomparable MCG... It is well known that Melbourne is the second (or third or fourth depending on who you speak to) largest Greek city in the world. Thousands upon thousands of Greeks emigrated during hard times before and after the Second World War. Some of these were Christina's forebears. In fact, her grandparents on her mother's side met, married and had children in Victoria. As Christina's mum was one of these children, Chris has the fortune of having an Aussie passport. Our week in and around Melbourne was therefore spent undertaking some serious Greek family time.

This meant loads of humbling, copiously generous hospitality. Only when in Greece itself have I been fed so much wonderful food. The warmth of welcome from Greek family really touched me and the Greek-Australian concept fascinated me. People who have spent a life time at the other end of the earth from their ancestral home, but have kept such a strong sense of origin. I have the feeling this connection is seriously diminishing by the generation. It will be interesting to see how resilient Greek culture is over the next 30 years or so.

The City itself!

Setting out from our base at Mary Lucas's pad (a quite remarkable lady, I have to say), we spent a couple of days wondering around the centre of Melbourne and, all in all, I was not pleasantly surprised. How could I be? I had heard so many great things about the quality of life in this city. It could not surprise me in exceeding these expectations, but I am happy to say the place lived up to them.

With its broad streets, parks, seaside, coffee culture and general laid back attitude it was an instant favourite. Sometimes you have to wonder why we stay (or indeed I stay) in the shit weather stress-pot that is Northern Europe. While I know the draw of Europe's culture and hold of family is my answer, coming to a place like this is certainly tempting.

The highlight for me was undoubtedly a tour of the legendary MCG (Melbourne Cricket Ground). A 100,000 people monolith that I have hoped and wished to visit since I can remember. A tear formed at the corner of my eye o viewing this hallowed turf. Centre-stage of this most competitive of people. The home of AFL and Aussie cricket. Oh for it being Boxing Day next year and the Ashes! I have not given up hope yet of returning for that occasion. From visiting the changing rooms to the highest to tier, the place blew me away!

Pleasant walks and a couple of VB in the city were polished off with a sparkling view of this spread out city (every one has to have their quarter of an acre) from the top of the monstrously unattractive 89 (I think) story Eureka tower. Wonderful to take it all in.

The Yarra Valley

We were lucky enough to be taken on a couple of top-notch side trips, one of which was to the Yarra Valley wine region and our hosts were Mary and David.

My memories of a green Victorian countryside are a little scewed by the region being pelted by more rain in the last couple of months than for many a year. Even with that taken into consideration, the Yarra Valley is a rich fertile land. From the terrace of the Chandon winery, the gently sloping hills curve into the distance, lined with row upon row of vine. Below a lake and far in the distance the Dandanong range covered in thick eucalyptus forest.

We were taken to a couple of different vineyards, trying some delicious wines and at lunch devouring my first bit of kangaroo – very tasty!

We drove on through the mouth-watering landscape and up into the hills until we reached burnt out forest. These were the leftovers of the devastating fire that swept through Victoria earlier in the year and, tragically, took many lives. Explained images of the oil from the eucalyptus literally exploding in fire was tempered by the almost immediate renewal of life before us. Many Australian plants require (or at least prefer) fire to regenerate and here, only months on from destruction, green shoots were covering the trees like toilet brush. The occasional bird was flying and small lizards basked amongst the charred remains of fallen trees. A strange kind of beauty.

The Great Ocean Road

Desma and Graham undertook the lengthy and incredibly generous task of driving us along the Great Ocean Road and back in one day. This is a rugged, spectacular piece of coastline that stretches from the West of Melbourne. It did not disappoint.

We drove along the bay in Melbourne and up to Sorento, spotting half a dozen small puffer fish from the shore in the bay. After crossing by ferry over to Queen's Cliff we set off westward. The first stopping point was Torquay. As with so many places around here, it's name mirrors a place back home in the UK (and as in most cases, out does the original). Home to legendary surf companies including Rip Curl and Quicksilver, some quick retail therapy (even I en joy it where surf gear is concerned) was finished with some great views over Torquay and the revered Bells Beach.

Along the winding, twisting coastline, intersected with numerable golden sandy beaches each split by rising headlands and populated by surfers, we made it to Lorne. A highly popular spot in the height of summer, it reminded me of the Garden Route in South Africa - a genteel bay on a characterful coast. To my delight, lunch on the bay was interrupted by a couple of sulphur-crested cockatoos. I know they are two a penny around Oz, but I had not seen some since I was last here over 8 years ago and I was very excited.

On we went through ancient temperate rainforests, past rolling inland scenery and up to the show piece of this famous road – the Twelve Apostles. Just offshore lie seven or eight (they have been falling one by one) sandstones stacks. Quite stunning rising out of the crashing water in shades of yellow and brown. Our view of this scene was lit up by marching walls of sunshine as, in banks, the rays broke through the clouds. Just something else....

So many thanks...

I really can not thank enough all the people who put us up, fed us wonderful food and provided interesting company. Mary Lucas, Uli, Kathy, Stan, Alexi, Fani, Mary and David, Desma and Graham, Vasili and Poppy, Con and Zara, George and lastly, but by no means least, to Chrissie, Steve and Melissa, for putting us up for 3 days on the ranch - I will not soon forget the thoroughbreds gallivanting around the fields and your touching hospitality.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Felix's Little Thin Japanese Wedding

[Note that due to "issues" the photos are in reverse order - so if you want to experience the occasion as we did, start at the bottom!]

An invite to my best mate's wedding in the southerly town of Kokura was a privilege that we were not going to miss.

Kokura is a sprawling industrial city and key train junction on the northern tip of Kyushu island. After a walk around the bustling centre, Felix exceeded my expectations and was exactly where he said he would be when he should be. Not a first, but maybe a second...

A few drinks at a local Izikaya and good night's kip was followed by a bus ride up into the hills. As with most of the Japanese cities I've visited, packed urbanity is almost always broken by hills. Out of the hecticness and into a peaceful hilltop of greenery and views.

A minor panic concerning my suit (or lack thereof) added to the pre-ceremony butterflies. We were grouped with Felix's family and were able to retire for a couple of minutes in a serene traditional room. The Japanese do these things so well.

The Marriage

The ceremony was held in a Shinto shrine. Ornate yet, full of space, light and air. We met the married couple (this was their second wedding after the one in Sweden) on the steps by the temple gate. I've seen traditional Japanese clothing on films etc, but nothing had prepared me for Fumie's (the bride) outfit. A simply stunning white kimono. The only thing I can liken it to is an outfit Queen Amadala wore in Star Wars part 1. Intricate, with an arched-out back and hood. To give him credit, Felix did not look much less cool in his kimono. Full out Hitachi from Tekken, complete with fan, huge sleeves and a grin.

Removing our shoes, we walked round and into the shrine. Rather like the layout of a chapel, a large room for the congregation leads up a couple of stairs to the more holy area from where the Shinto priest and helper's descend onto the couple. Running along the sides of the main room are pews. Fumie's family filled up the one on the left hand wall as you enter the shrine and we did our best to half fill the one on the right. As you can imagine some minor comic moments lined the ceremony where our side tried to copy the other, clearly bowing in the wrong places etc.

Put simply, the ceremony was remarkable. Two aspects of this jump to mind.

Firstly its beauty. A series of rituals followed, including the banging of a drum, chanting, bowing and the exchange of sake glasses. The latter of which was done first by the couple and then by everyone - very tasty sake I have to say too. Felix showed his talents, removing a scroll from his sleeve and reading Japanese to the audience – I wish I knew what he said!

I was lost in the simplicity and power of the ritual performed by the priest and his two assistants – young ladies in white/red kimono. Taken as a whole it was like nothing I've seen before.

Secondly, familiarity. While as a whole it was so new and wondrous to me, aspects were strikingly similar to other weddings I've been to recently – most markedly to my own Greek orthodox affair. The repetition of ritual three times. Drinking from the sacred cup and swapping back and forth between the bride and the groom. The bride saying nothing...

A real tear to the eye affair. Sometimes you question why people have a second wedding, but after being there I can completely understand why Fumie wished to also make her vows in the traditional Japanese way. There is something about following in the footsteps of your forebears. I'm not sure it even matters if you believe in the spiritual background of the ceremony, it just seems to connect you and important actions of your life to the stream of your culture and people.
We then followed the couple out from the shrine and back down the steps. Fumie removed her hood at this point and revealed a geisha style buffon, jet black and curling back in one high-arching sweep. A sight to follow all the way back to the reception.

The Reception

As with a wedding in Europe, the family of the couple meet and greet the guests. Fumie's parents are so welcoming. Each of us received personalised gifts. I am now the proud owner of a traditional carry bag sheet made in their local town and initialed with Japanese characters as close as you can get to James – something like “Jimmu” I think.

A 16 odd course meal awaited us. From snails, to sushimi, to tender marbled-beef and back many more times to uncooked fish, it was a feast. Throughout there was a peppering of further ritual and tradition. The couple bashing open the sake barrel and cutting the rice. Somewhere in the middle they left individually to huge applause for what I had mistaken for a toilet stop, but in fact was a costume change. Out with the kimono's and in with sparkling white Western attire. She in her puff, sparkling white dress and him more neat then I've ever seen him in a bleach white suit.

The prize dish was the infamous fugu (puffer fish). World wide known for it highly poisonous parts, history of killing a few people and rigorously trained chefs, it created some excitement if only at our end of the table. In fact no one has died of the fish for a while and the chefs have to train for a long time in order to prepare the potentially fatal dish. None of the hardcore leaving just enough poison to numb the lips, we had the shavings from the side and I can safely say that it tasted of very little and we survived. A “seen it done it” sort of thing.

A round of multi-lingual speeches finished off the boozy-foody affair and with a final few bows to the parents we were off for a siesta.

The After-party

As is the thing at Japanese weddings (I am lead to believe), the young of the do all met up a couple of hours later. All you can drink and eat places are common hear and we went to a nice little joint in downtown Kokura. After one of the largest feasts of my life at lunch, we found a hole somewhere and devoured a whole lot more sushimi, terriyaki, soup and goodness knows what else. I only stopped at the local pig's stomach speciality.

Beer, sake and sucho (evil spirit stuff that is served by the big glass and catches you unawares) flowed as Christina and I had a very entertaining time on a table of Fumie's school friends. Their lack of English was significantly beaten by our lack of Japanese, but we got by with some translation services and loads of rounds of cheers in as many languages as we could think of. I learned “Hoshe”, which apparently does the trick in Kazakhstan.

A couple of hours more in an odd bar adorned by rock music and a wandering pussy-cat ended with saying a warm goodbye to the last of Fumie's Japanese friends. That left about 7 of us geijin to do very silly things at a karaoke bar. I shall stop at alluding to accidentally broken glasses, doctor wrestling, table-jumping, fire-extinguisher knocking, police attracting, very bad singing. All worth it to see Vik's face in the morning...

A raucous end to a most wonderful day. Alcohol fueled antics may pass from memory, but the intricacy, interest, peace and generosity of this wedding will stay with me for good. I can only say thanks to Fumie and her parents for putting on such a do!
The celebrations over, we jumped on the shinkansen for one last time, spent a night and a day touring the sights of Tokyo and jumped on a plane to down under. The Greeks of Melbourne awaited...

Bula Fiji!

A bit of a positional update. Having toured the sights of Melbourne, Sydney and surrounds we are this instant boarding a flight to FIJI!!!

I can not wait.....

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Jingo's and Ji's in Nara and Kyoto

A trip to Japan would hardly seem complete without a few days spent in the country's cultural heartland. Kyoto and Nara, both former capitals, have between them something like 24 UNESCO world heritage sights and numerous else besides. Temples and shrines are coming out of your eye-balls so, just as we rationed the ones we saw and for the sake of diminishing returns, I will limit those I mention here.

Todai Ji (Nara)

Urban Nara gives way to intricately kept parkland. Alongside the mass of museums, pagoda, shrine, temple and trees are a herd of completely tame, hungry deer. They are seen as holy and as such left to their own devices, whether that be freaking the hell out of schoolgirls in search of biscuits  (see ANGRY deer warning sign) or occupying the most scenic spots for the hell of it. Naturally cautious animals ready to jump at the breaking of a twig, it is astonishing how utterly unconcerned these animals are. Like cows in India, it is clear who sits atop the tree.

Todai Ji is the park's prize asset. Last rebuild in 1709, the grand hall of the shrine (Daibatsu-den) is the largest wooden building in the world. It is immense. More than that, it is architecture of beauty, balance and refinement and conjures an atmosphere of peace. Rarely have I been so taken aback by the combined elegance and scale of a structure. Guarding the entrance to the shrine are giant guardians that look like they're going to jump out and eat alive anyone who takes their fancy. In wonderful condition considering their 13th century origin, they are a great introduction of what is to come. Cloisters surround an ornate garden which is split by the main pathway and towered over by the grand hall, itself topped with flourishing tile-work reaching to the heavens. Inside the hall are a number of other large wooden sculptures and, at its centre, a 16 meter high Buddha weighing in at quite a bit over 400 tonnes. We were overawed. How could we not be?

A real gem of a building that must rank with anything I've been lucky enough to see. If you get the chance, GO THERE!

Kiyomizudera (Kyoto)

Nestled on lower-to-middling slopes amongst the traditional cobbled streets of Southern Higashiyama, this place grabbed a part of us. A large gate welcomes you into a large temple complex. As you ascend further, you pass one Buddhist temple after another. All intricate woodwork and Buddha. The largest one cambers over the side of a lush lull in the hillside which pours out towards the city. The views are just phenomenal. The hilly green setting makes the city. We spend some time staring out and taking it all in.

Round the corner, down and up some stairs resides a charming little shrine. It has amazed me how Shinto (traditional Japanese ancestor worship) shrines reside in the middle of Buddhist temples. What is fascinating to the Western viewpoint is that, in general, the Japanese see no conflict between the two “religions” (oh OK, I know Buddhism may not technically be a religion, but it is a convenient term). For things of this world, people worship at Shinto shrines – marriage, fertility business etc. For things of the next and/or other worlds, Buddhist temples are the place –  including exclusivity over funerals. To me this element of people's spiritual life reflects very favourably against closed monotheistic beliefs in the west.

Then again, the Japanese do not exactly get full marks on the openness scale if you look back at their history – Christians beware etc. It is all a mixed bag I suppose. The privilege of being able to see such interesting places is that you can take what you choose. The good and bad in societies is particularly evident when you compare cultures and this comparison is all the more interesting in a country like Japan which is fundamentally so different while ever converging on Western society.

Back to the temple...or rather the small shrine. Covered in small charms for sale and sold and full of schoolgirls giggling on overdrive. This is a shrine of love and out front lie two stones roughly 10m from each other. As the tradition goes, if you set off from the first stone with your eyes shut and make it to the second stone without opening your eyes your love will be true. Those poor girls who missed the stone – doomed for eternity...

Our visit was topped off by another great vista from the highest temple and then, much to Christina's initial frustration due to time constraints, waiting in line with numerous more giggling school kids to drink of the holy spring. I was so caught up in the UV cleaned drinking pots that I forgot to make my wish.

We wondered out along some of the oldest streets in Japan. For stretches we had them all to ourselves. A look around a park complete with carp and a solitary heron, a bus, a shinkansen and we were away.
We had the big wedding to come!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Beppu-on-Sea - Onsen country!

On a recommendation we spent a day and a couple of nights in the, to me, odd seaside town of Beppu. Famous throughout Japan for its multitude of onsen (Japanese hot bath – the spa concept has been hot here for millenia) it reminded me of Blackpool. On the face of it, a place that has clearly seen better days. A beautiful bit of coast has been destroyed by 1960's development, much of which is rather dilapidated, and heavy industry in the distance. On the one hand, the town is full of “Pachinko Slot” places (a countrywide obsession akin to slot machines with balls and scantily clad mermaids) and adult entertainment.

On the other, it has very friendly people and numerous onsen and “hells” (geizers) stretching up into scenic hills.

What made the place for us was the Ryokan we stayed in (Japanese inn), complete with tatami matted rooms and private onsen. A time for some serious relaxation and self-cooking. Three onsen in a day was clearly my limit, jabbering like a semi-conscious idiot on leaving the hottest one.

The Ryokan was just around the corner from a proper old-stylie onsen called Takegawara. This place is well-known for its hot-sand bath and I indulged being slowly baked in a sand-pit covered from head to toe with the black-beige stuff. This was followed by a good soak in a bath that was so hot that I left in short-lived blotches. Clearly I am not an “onsen master” - they exist, they really do!

An odd place, but it proved its purpose along with giving us an intriguing insight into a different side of Japan. As I am not one to love (or really in any way like) the Blackpool's and Skegness's of England, this is not a place to which I am likely to return.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

On the train from Uzuki

As I write I am whistling through the Japanese “countryside” on a slightly stuffy commuter train. I emphasize “countryside” because in the 1.400km or so of train rides we have taken so far we have never before been more than 100m from a mass of buildings. For a few precious minutes we are cutting across and through the verdant hills of Eastern Kyushu and lapping it up. There is a real beauty in the way the hills take over the landscape in their bibbly-bobbly lush green way before spilling onto narrow plains splattered with condensed humanity or, as at the moment, dive into the Pacific Ocean.

A small bamboo forest is off to my left and, to my surprise, a gleaming white Buddhist stuppa to my right - surprise because this is the first Theravada style stuppa we've come across in many a temple and shrine in the past week.

Back to the recent past....


We've just had a charming day in and around the little town of Usuki. A quiet calm place. A pleasant contrast to the hectic cities we've largely convened since landing.
In the center of the the town lies a couple of historical streets lined with old traditional wooden buildings. Peaceful temples and former Samurai residences complete with curved ornate tiled roofs, tatami matted floors, rice paper windows and intricate Japanese gardens. The people are so friendly here. Everywhere we go people nod and smile. They are only too keen to help. One of the old houses has been set up as a rest area for visitors - there was nothing and nobody there except very inviting tranquility. A rare thing to be offered on a plate in a town.

Many a Buddha

The main reason we were here was to peruse some 1,000 year old stone Buddhas a few kms out of town. At the station a very nice man lent us bikes for free, so we rode along the old wooden shopping streets, through the more modern bit of town and out through the padi lined country to our destination. There is little as pleasant as pedaling through new vistas singing a tune (and kind of fitting in the home land of karaoke).
The statues were impressive. Built out of the sides of volcanic rock dispersed by the near'ish Mt Aso, their detail well preserved. In some cases the original ornate paint work is still faintly evident. Via a walk through a bamboo forest and a comic concern at the local snake signs (with evil red eyes!!) we reached the final set of Buddha's, the largest of which being the most renowned stone Buddha in the country and as thus a “national treasure” - a nice concept I think, especially as it does not seem to differentiate between people and things.
The cycle back was delayed by a lady ushering me with a cycle pump. She had noticed my back tyre was low and wanted to help. How can you not smile at such a welcome.

I better stop now as our train is coming into Beppu and we only have a 5 minute change to the next train. I am little concerned about the connection not working out. In our time in Japan everything has run on time and worked well. From seat warming, squirting toilets to, of course, the trains. Why should this time be any different....

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Baseball Jingo

After an afternoon of visiting some impressive shrines including Meiji Jingo, walking eclectic fashion streets complete with doggie pet costume shops and taking a confused passing interest in the Cosplay-zoku (Lolita goths) and surprisingly uncoordinated dancing bill-rocker boys (apparently the Elvis's were out of town) at Jingo Bashi, what better way to round off a weekend in Tokyo then to take in a national past time - baseball.

This was accompanied by some of the most out of tune and odd chanting I have had the misfortune to come across...

A traditional wedding at Meiji Jingo

Arguably Japan's biggest team, the Yomiuri Giants, were taking on the Tokyo Yakult Swallows at the latter's ground. Meeting up with Dom and his mate's we took a seat at first base and watched the night unfold. A few local beer's sold by ladies in cheer leading costumes helped us make sense of the slowly unravelling action. “Our” team, the Swallows, only scored one run despite at one point having base's loaded (far too many jokes... ). The Giants swept them aside with a couple of big hits and general all round dominating play. The real entertainment though came from the crowd – quite unlike anything I've seen before. The home and away fans would take it in turns to do their well rehearsed chants. None of the banter or overpowering competitive chanting that graces most European games. Instead mutual respect. Strange. The best bit had to be the home teams' little umbrella dance. One impromptu jiggle prompted by their sole score was outdone by the full shabang sometime around the 7th innings. Prompted by amazingly asexual cheerleaders (blown away by the beer-girls!), the crowd went about as wild as it gets in its slightly peculiar regimented way.

A top evening and about time to leave Tokyo. Waking early we braved the incredibly pushy and rude rush-hour commuter trains (an intriguing contrast to the almost over-polite way you are treated in all other activities), stamped our magical JR pass (a pass to nearly all JR trains for a fraction of the normal price) and shot off on the “Shinkansen” bullet train to Kyoto.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Bashing London out the system...a bit of Tokyo carnage!

With the possible exception of flying Ryanair, I'm usually excited when I jump on a plane but this was something extra. So much so that, aided by some vintage 1981 Ashes footage, I barely slept all night and landed in Tokyo wired. Perhaps an appropriate state with what was to come.

Knocking out for much of the afternoon, we met up with Scott (cool Aussie dude who is more than nicely putting us up in his pretty plush flat), had a local beer splashed down in front of us and the rest is history. Of a hundred odd and varied experiences that seem to accompany a proper night out in this town, on this occasion the most (or perhaps least) memorable experiences revolved around a distinctuve area called Golden Gai. A collection of hundreds of tiny bars on narrow streets just around the corner from Shinjuku. The Japanese are remarked to have a tendency to be intricate and obsessive over small details and seem to like a drink. These characteristics mix to great aplomb in this area to create the greatest ensemble of quirky bars that I have come across. Each one totally unique and sprouting from one guy's dream which, owing to the tiny size of each bar, can only be shared with 5 or 6 people at a time. Images of a Van Halen themed toilet, some awesome Radiohead tunes and red carpets flicker into memory – or was that another night......? Generally we found ourselves very welcome, though in a couple of places one guy or another did not want to share their dream with us and we were waived away - the other side of the polite welcome you generally receive in this country.

Chris showing here swing at 3.30 am

A complete right off of a Saturday was followed by a continuation of the night before. Atrociously bad skills at a “golf” bar were offset by no less than 3 meals. The prize has to go an exquisite establishment where thin slices of prime beef were sliced off a large slab of beef in front of you, to be cooked at your own pleasure in a mini boiling oil pot built into your counter. All the joy of fondu, but with much nicer food and no wee smell. Being involuntarily sprayed by staff with freebreeze after a Korean BBQ also registered interest as a first time.

At some point in the middle of another 12 hour night (a true 24 hour city!) came a gem of an experience. Somewhere on the backstreets of Shimbashi we wandered up some dirty spiral stairs and took a chance on a small red door. Inside we found a couple of hours of highly enjoyable salary-man company in a tiny sake-karaoke bar (for better or worse, both of these were sizeably sampled). The guys were very friendly indeed, if considerably on the sloshed side. A rendition of “Here Comes the Sun” brought down the curtain on our singing efforts which were interluded by many a Kampei and a sunk glass of saki. It was interesting to see how, despite her obvious lack of interest, the bar maid barely registered one of the guys rather pathetic naughty school boy touchy feely flicking up her skirt attitude. After a bill that was hefty despite the alleviation of the guys paying for our sake, we left with handshakes and a buzz.

What was so nice about these nights out was that, with a cut-short detour to Geronimo's aside, we managed to avoid the Geijin (expat) scene pretty well. I could have seen me being sucked into it a few years ago, but the idea of hanging around in a little self-imposed bubble does not really interest me. Even more so when there is so much on offer in this great flickering monster of a city. But then again, maybe it is what's on offer that keeps the legions of Western guys around Rappongi. How many blokes can say no to a good ego boost?

Anyhow, by the time we awoke a little worse for wear on Sunday the London cobwebs were well and truly blown away (along with our budget). On to more civilized things....

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Tokyo headache

Its 4pm on my second day in Tokyo and I've just woken up. Perhaps a bit of jet lag, but I'd be lying if I failed to admit that getting back to the flat at 6.30 am last night after a loonnnnnng night had something to do with it.... and quite a bit of saki!

From yakatori via a nasty geijin bar to the wanders of Golden Gai.
Good times! I just wish my head didn't hurt.