29 August 2016

Kyoto Daytripping: Fushimi Inari

A while ago I posted a blog about one of the two spots in the Kyoto area that impressed me the most: Arashiyama. This post is about the second of those favourite spots, Fushimi Inari Shrine. Even if you've never heard of it, you'll probably recognise it immediately: the thousands of red torii gates are undoubtedly some of the most photogenic material you'll find in Kyoto, if not the whole of Japan. This impressive Shinto shrine is located in southern Kyoto, and is easily accessed from Kyoto JR station which is just a few stops away. Fushimi is the location of the shrine, and Inari is the god to which it is dedicated, the god of rice.

At the beginning of the shrine complex are a couple of large entrance gates, as well as the main shrine building, both of which share the distinctive vermillion hue of the famous torii gates. 

Behind the main shrine building is where the torii trail up the forested mountain begins. The lower parts of the mountain were incredibly busy with tourists when I visited. I was disappointed at how crowded it was and wondered how on earth various friends of mine, who had visited previously, managed to get great photos of just themselves against the stunning backdrop of the red torii. However, as soon as you start to work your way up the mountain, it gets much, much quieter, and at many points we were quite alone and could enjoy the impressive sights in all their glory, unmarred by crowds. I think a lot of people don't bother hiking up and just stay at the bottom for a few token photos before getting back on their coach and being driven to their next destination. 

The reason why there are so many red gates of varying sizes, is because each one has been bought as a donation to the shrine by either an individual or a business, in the hope of ensuring success and happiness. The bigger the torii, the greater the donation! The writing on the gates marks the name of the donor and the date of the donation. Some of the torii were quite old, with much of the brightness of the paint having faded and splits beginning to appear in the wood. Others were so shiny and bold in colour that they may well have been put up the day before I visited. Whether new or old, together the collection of torii certainly make an impressive sight, especially against the green backdrop of the forest. As the torii bend around a corner, they sometimes give the illusion of going on forever.

There are plenty of other things to capture the imagination along the hiking route, in addition to walking through the many torii gates. There are lots of smaller shrines at intervals along the trail. One of the recurring motifs is that of the fox, as these animals are associated with the god Inari. We even stumbled across a little bamboo grove, this one with far fewer visitors than the famous one at Arashiyama.

Roughly halfway between the starting point of the trail and the mountain summit, you reach a fantastic look out point where you can stop and catch your breath whilst enjoying a bird's eye view of Kyoto.

The whole hike to the summit and back is around 2 1/2 miles, with lots of steps and steep gradients, so it's a good idea to wear comfortable shoes and take some water with you, especially if it is a hot day. If you have forgotten your own refreshments, there are spots on the trail where you can stop for a drink or buy one to-go (and of course there are a scattering of vending machines, as is to be expected in Japan). 

On the way back down from the summit we stopped at one of the small restaurants and ate udon on a tatami mat floor, which was served by an old lady who looked like she was pushing 90 years old. She still had it going on in the kitchen though.

That was just enough fuel to get us back down to the bottom of the mountain. I think that is more or less all I can show and tell about my visit to Fushimi Inari. But you really have to go yourself to experience the magic of it.

I will write one more blog about a few attractions that I visited when in central Kyoto. Although I didn't enjoy the centre of the city as much as Arashiyama and Fushimi Inari, it still has plenty of museums (I particularly loved the new railway museum), temples, a wonderful market, and other sights to keep anyone entertained for a day or two.

22 August 2016

Culture Okinawa: Ryukyu Mura

As I've been living in Okinawa for over 2 months now, it seems like high time that I posted something about my experiences here. I'm currently working in a beach resort somewhere towards the middle of Okinawa honto (the main island), and living in the area Onna. The work is pretty boring and my accommodation is super basic (I don't even have wifi at home, which is why my blog posts have been so few and far between). But it's a price I'm willing to pay to live on this little patch of tropical paradise for a while.

Even though I've been here since June, in many ways I feel like I've just begun my experiences here. That's because when I arrived here, near to flat-broke after spending the previous couple of months travelling in Kansai and Kyushu, I had to wait 6 weeks for my first pay cheque. 6 WEEKS. Which felt like a really long time. Luckily the beach is free, but obviously I wanted to do more this summer than just lie on the beach getting progressively darker. I wanted to go out and do stuff and see things. Which is exactly what I've been doing since that sweet pay cheque landed in my lap in mid-July.

Getting around the island without a car can be tricky, but luckily there are plenty of things I can get to by bus. Ryukyu Mura in fact is just a 15 minute bus ride from where I live, so was near the top of my list of places to visit, purely from the perspective of ease of access. It also turned out to be a fascinating insight into the islands' rich history.

Ryukyu Mura describes itself as a 'theme park', but for me this conjures up images of rollercoasters and ferris wheels. I would more accurately describe it as an historical park which recreates elements of the Ryukyu Kingdom, which is the independent kingdom that ruled the Okinawan islands before they were forcibly acquired by the Japanese in late 19th century. Ranging from architecture to crafts, folk traditions and local foods, and even indigenous wildlife, this re-constructed village offers diverse insights into the history of Okinawa.

The first area that you walk into is actually free of charge. It has a number of souvenir shops, restaurants, a stage where various performances take place, and even a place where you can rent kimono/yukata to wear around the park. This part is all under cover, so a good place to spend some time if it starts to rain! I explored this area at the end of my tour as I planned to have lunch there, so upon entering the park I went straight to the ticket vending machine to buy an entry ticket. It costs 1,200 JPY for an adult, which I think is pretty good value as you can easily spend half a day here (which I did).

The park itself is beautifully designed and set amongst a verdant, hilly backdrop, meaning that merely walking around and taking in the sights is a really pleasant experience. As I went on an overcast day, I could happily walk around for hours without suffering under the hot Okinawan sun. However, there are plenty of shaded areas too, so it's fine to go on a hot day, but simply strolling around the park at a leisurely pace obviously won't be as pleasant. I personally don't deal well with the heat, so on a really hot day I prefer to go somewhere indoors and air-conditioned like a museum or shopping mall!

Across the courtyard you'll find the ticket machine and entrance

Verdant entry path

You're immediately greeted by a shisa

The park sits in front of a densely forested area

Around the park there are lots of these cute little elves everywhere (they can also be found on some of the nearby highways, advertising Ryukyu Mura). Spotting them makes for a fun game (and not just for kids).

They seem to enjoy hanging out in trees

Once you've finished playing the elf version of Where's Wally? you can proceed (once you've removed your shoes of course) to enter the various houses that have been reconstructed in the park. Almost all of them have something going on inside them, whether it's serving santa andagi (Okinawan doughnuts) or someone working on crafts like pottery or textiles, or performing a traditional dance or music. A lot of the areas offer classes where you can do things like create your own label for a bottle of awamori (traditional Okinawan liquor) or make your own shisa (the famous lion/dog of Okinwan mythology).

Awamori in traditional jars

The pottery factory

A traditional dance performance

Some of the houses have signs outside listing when various performances will take place, so these are worth looking out for. I came across one of the houses just as a dance performance was about to take place, so I duly took a seat. The traditional dance was performed to music played on the sanshin, an Okinawan instrument the body of which is decorated with snakeskin(!), and the sound of which I can only describe as a cross between a shamisen and a banjo.The tune was slow and down-beat, which at first led me to expect a less than exciting performance, but it actually turned out to be quite a moving and beautiful one. It was performed with both precision and emotion; the slow but purposeful movements reminded me a bit of tai chi.

After the rather soothing traditional dance I moved on to something decidedly more adrenaline-inducing: a 'show and tell' on the habu, a poisonous snake indigenous to Okinawa. It took place in the park's Habu and Mongoose centre, although I didn't see much in the way of mongooses (mongeese?) other than a taxidermy exemplar in a box. Maybe the snake handler mentioned them, but as the presentation was all in Japanese I wouldn't know! 

Habu snakes generally feed on rodents but can be aggressive when provoked (for example accidentally stepping on one when you're hiking!). There was one habu snake which stayed safely in its box for the duration of the presentation, but there were others who had had their venomous fangs removed and so could 'safely' be brought out by the handler and shown to the audience at closer range. When he started swinging snakes across the heads of the audience members I slightly regretted having taken a front row seat. I politely declined the offer having a snake hung around my neck. I did however stroke one... it had that slightly creepy cool, smooth skin that all snakes have. 

The background photo of a mongoose devouring a habu is brutal!

Some habu specimens you can safely take a closer look at

Centre Left: two habu eating each other; Centre Right: a habu eating a cat. Lovely.

Although habu venom is poisonous, some Okinawans believe that consuming it can induce vitality. There were a number of different habu products on display and for sale in the the shop but its safe to say that I didn't feel tempted to try any of them. I mean habu liquor is even weirder than tequila with a worm in it. A lot weirder.

Drink venom for bulging biceps apparently

Some habu products for your delectation

After your encounter with the deadly viper you can calm your nerves by feeding the carp in the lake in front of the Habu Centre. Because in Japan you can buy absolutely anything in a vending machine, you can of course buy carp food in a vending machine next to the lake for the bargain price of 100 JPY.

Carp food

Plus carp pond

Equals carp feeding frenzy

Having passed on the habu liquor earlier, I nonetheless really wanted to try some unusual / traditional foods in the village, and when I strolled passed a stall serving snacks and beverages I couldn't help but order the sugar cane juice. Sugar cane has been an important part of Okinawan agriculture for some time, and some of the island's most famous edible products come from sugar cane, such as kuro sato (black sugar). To my delight, when I ordered the lady behind the counter grabbed several sticks of sugar cane and proceeded to make the juice freshly!

The result was delicious. Not sickly-sweet as you might expect it to be, but with a fruity flavour and what I can only describe as a slightly straw-like aftertaste (not at all unpleasant). The glass was so delicious and refreshing, I could easily have had another. The drink also came with a small chunk of kuro sato, which I hadn't tried before. A colleague of mine bought some on the first day I arrived in Okinawa, explaining it was a famous local product (I had never heard of it at this stage). When she tasted it she said it just tasted like regular sugar... which I thought sounded pretty boring so I didn't go out of my way to try it after that less than glowing review. However, when I tried this piece with my sugar cane juice, I was pleasantly surprised. It definitely doesn't just taste like regular sugar... it tastes like the most treacly, rich, molasses-like chunk of sugar that you've ever tasted. It has a fruity and complex taste which you don't get in regular sugar which just tastes blandly 'sweet'. It was so good that I bought a bag from the shop at the end. The minerals found in the unprocessed sugar are supposed to bring health benefits... I'm slightly dubious about this, but as with anything, eating this in moderation surely can't hurt. 

Freshly pressed sugar cane juice

After drinking my sugar cane juice, I fittingly came across the last part of the park which includes a sugar cane mill that was traditionally operated using the strength of water buffaloes. On the day I was there the mill was inactive and the water buffalo was having a well-deserved day off.

I finished my trip to Ryukyu Mura with a traditional lunch of Okinawa soba. When I first came to Okinawa, I was surprised to see what they called 'soba' here, as in the rest of Japan soba is a buckwheat noodle, usually served with either a hot or cold broth. In Okinawa, their version of soba is more like a ramen, using a regular wheat noodle and the dish is topped with slow-cooked boneless pork rib. Now, they do serve this dish in the staff canteen at work, but the quality of the food there is sadly questionable, so I really wanted to try the dish in an actual restaurant. I'm glad I did, as it tasted so different from the one at work, and was truly delicious. I could really taste the bonito flakes in the broth, creating a lovely umami accompaniment to the rich and gamey yet sweet agu pork. This one also had some seaweed and spinach in it, which made for some nice textural contrast (and let's face it, some vitamins), whereas the one at work only ever has a measly sprinkling of spring onions. After trying this version, I can see why it is considered a quintessential Okinawan dish!

Okinawa has such an interesting history, and it was a joy to visit this park which keeps some of its traditions alive, and reminds visitors that these islands have complex identities and are not simply 'Japanese' alone. The more time I spend in Okinawa, the more I appreciate how unique it is in so many ways. I will post more articles as I continue to discover the place I'm calling home this summer.