Monday 24th July 2006
This is just a brief postscript to my last post. I was up in the New Territories on Sunday and saw this piece of advice stuck to a wall:
Sound advice. I just wish the little scamp we encountered had been a tufty doe-eyed chap, gingerly tip-toeing towards us, rather than a mangy simian wretch with menacing eyes and sharp bloodied claws.
Wednesday 19th July 2006
I was mugged the other day.
Claire was still in town, and I had dragged her up into the Kowloon Hills. I wanted to experience the views from the trails around Amah Rock and Lion Rock. As we had headed out directly from the beautiful Tsimshatsui hotel in which we were staying, we were badly equipped - instead of a sturdy rucksack, I clutched a supermarket plastic bag containing maps, a guidebook and our water supply. It was probably too hot to go hiking. The air was heavy and trekking up from the KCR station at Tai Wai was hard going. Ten minutes in and I was drenched in sweat. Mosquitoes were circling. The forested hills echoed with the buzzing and clicking of unseen insects. Giant grubs lay twitching in the middle of the paths.
I had been warned about the dangers of hiking in the New Territories. Like gnarled village locals in a ghost story, colleagues warned me not to go into the hills alone. Illegal immigrants from the mainland lie in wait, ready to pounce on the lone hiker and relieve him of his possessions before tying him to a tree and scampering away. I'd never heeded the warnings and had often walked the trails without incident. And this time I wasn't on my own.
We reached a catch-water and walked down the road that ran alongside it. It was as we turned a corner that I first caught sight of them. A family of shabby looking individuals, loitering by the side of the road. They looked slightly malnourished and their bad posture gave them all a vaguely unnerving stoop. They looked up as we approached. Timidly they moved to the other side of the road and started to disappear into the forest. It was then we noticed the mother clutched a baby, whose mouth tugged desperately at her scrawny breast.
But one remained. He had sat down in the middle of the road and was watching us suspiciously. I noticed that his hair was patchy and unkempt. Although it was probably the wrong thing to do, and in retrospect quite rude, I took a photo of him. I thought his behaviour unusual, but put my camera away and carried on walking. As we veered to the left to walk around him, he got up and moved into our path. We changed direction again. This time he came towards me, a menacing look in his eyes. Grunting, he reached forward to grab my plastic bag. Tenaciously I kept my grip. His long dirty finger nails cut into the bag and its contents tumbled onto the road. He looked down disappointed. He grabbed the bottle of water briefly before dropping it as I shouted at him. He ran away into the forest.
Shaken, we gathered our belongings and trudged on. I shall be passing my photo of our assailant onto the relevant authorities:
In other news, the Mercury award shortlist was announced yesterday and I was pleased to see Lou Rhodes' album has got some well deserved recognition. Although she's got brilliant competition in the Thom Yorke and Muse albums, I hope the Mercury judges do their wacko thing again and award it to an outsider (i.e. Lou). And I really hope it doesn't go to Arctic Monkeys (and not because of the experience recounted above) or Editors.
Thursday 6th July 2006
We hopped on the bullet train to Sendai and within two hours were in a taxi with the Sensei, heading up to the compound where the university installs its gaijin staff.
Although northern Honshu's largest city, Sendai retains a provincial air. Pleasant and laid back, its wide tree lined avenues and spacious malls contrast with the more claustrophobic and intense geography of Tokyo. That evening we paced said spacious malls, ate sushi and fell victim to the arcades once more. Stuffed creatures stared out of glass cases, begging to be plucked to freedom by large metal claws. But all they did was steal more of my yen, and we finally escaped to a tiny pub - so small that that the area behind the bar rivalled that in front of it. We propped up the bar and drank endless Coronas, assuring the concerned barman that, owing to our nationality, we didn't object to their warmth.
On Friday we woke to unrelenting rain, which was to continue for the rest of the day. Our enthusiasm undiminished (Ok, only slightly diminished) we returned to the train station, and eventually, after a missed connecting train, arrived in Hiraizumi. Hiraizumi's splendour apparently once rivalled that of Kyoto. That all changed at the end of the twelfth century after the violent and destructive downfall of the Fujiwara clan. Matsuo Basho, whose statue nestles amongst the trees of the Chuson-ji temple complex, referred to the town's glory days as 'a brief remembered dream'. As we trudged from the station to Chuson-ji, it somehow reminded me of a windswept Cornish or Breton village.
The rain couldn't dampen the delights of Chuson-ji. Climbing up from the town into a forest, the complex's main path takes visitors past numerous wooden temples, red-bibbed Jizos, tombs and other shrines and buildings. Occasionally, the trees opened up to offer views over the sodden valley below. Souvenir stalls liberally dotted the site offering phone fobs from which Hello Kitty hung, dressed as the cycloptic Date Masumane, the area's greatest feudal lord known as "the one-eyed dragon".
Chuson-ji's centrepiece is Konjiki-do, the golden temple. Housed in a specially built pavilion (to protect it from the elements) the temple contains an Amida Buddha surrounded by gold leaf, exquisite laquerwork and mother-of-pearl. As we passed through the pavilion the attendants thoughtfully played an English language commentary which informed us that generations of mummified Fujiwaras were also stuffed into niches in the temple.
After some warming ramen at a small restaurant below Chuson-ji we took a quick tour through the graceful Heinan gardens at Motsu-ji on the other side of Hiraizumi, before heading back to Sendai. There we stocked up on food and sake, the latter making it fairly hard for me to get out of bed the following morning.
Another train ride, this time through fresh rain-free air, took us to Hon-Shiogama. There, with dozens of Japanese tourists, we boarded a small ferry. As it slowly chugged out of Hon-Shiogama's industrial harbour I noticed the sky was thick with seagulls, swooping and arcing around the back of the boat. The reason soon became apparent, as the tourists bought bags of Wotsit style crisps and started lobbing them at the appreciative birds, which put on a display of dog-fight like aerial acrobatics in order to catch the crisps before they hit the water. The more adventurous tourist stood by the rails, arm stretched proffering the cheesy snacks to whichever gull was brave enough to wheel in and snatch the food before making a sharp turn to avoid the hard metal of the boat. Stocking up on crisps, I only broke off baiting the gulls as the ferry entered Matsushima Bay.
Officially one of the three most scenic views in Japan, Matsushima Bay is an archipelago of around 250 islands. Legend tells that Basho was so overawed by its beauty that he could not describe it in words, his poem on the place reading merely
(Apparently this is a perfect haiku in the original Japanese.)
It is certainly striking. Countless islets sit in the bay, on which fir trees perch over rocks distorted by centuries of the sea's attention. We arrived at the town of Matsushima and walked along the waterfront for a while, before crossing a short bridge to the crowded island that plays host to Godai-do, a small wooden temple. We briefly admired the Shinto shrine. The temple houses the statues of 5 Buddhist deities that are only put on show to the public every 33 years. Fortunately 2006 is one of the years. Unfortunately I didn't realise this until I was back in Hong Kong. I don't remember seeing any ancient statues sitting around there, but then again, it would explain why the island was so crowded, but I don't think that the 2006 display had started.
We also crossed the long red (and scaffolded) bridge to the pleasant wooded island of Fukura-jima before returning to the shore and gorging on unidentifiable raw sea creatures - they could have been Nemo and SpongeBob Squarepants for all I could tell. We then headed up a wide cedar lined avenue to the unfortunately closed gates of Zuigan-ji, Matsushima's most famous temple. All was not lost though, as lining the avenue were dozens of stone Buddhas and Bodhisattvas along with the odd Shinto shrine and mysterious caves carved into the surrounding cliffs.
That evening, back in Sendai, we followed a sign to Eric's Bar, and found ourselves drinking in a room covered from floor to ceiling with photos, magazine covers, posters and album sleeves featuring Eric Clapton. The toilets were wallpapered with gig reviews of Clapton's performances. On the bar's large television, Eric strummed in an interminable compilation of live appearances.
Departure came all too quickly - the following day, after thanking the Sensei for his excellent hospitality, the bullet train rushed us back to Tokyo. After a few nervous minutes trying to locate the correct train (and station) in Ueno, we set out for Narita. At the airport we found that, oddly enough, the only thing in Japan which is utterly disorganised and inefficient is the airport checking-in system. In spite of this we made it onto the plane, which was a pity, as I really fancied staying in Japan for much longer.
Some selected Japan photos can be found here, while some of Claire's are here.