Thursday, September 25, 2008

My Summer Holiday, by Philip Cooke (23), Part Two: Kyoto

Japan is not filled with beautiful cities. In fact, the identikit nature of the larger towns and smaller cities can be downright depressing. Obviously the same charge could easily be levelled at the other strange island I call home, and maybe it is just my familiarity with Britain that stops this sameness becoming grinding, but there is something indescribably dismal about the homogenous parts of Japanese towns.

Obviously, just like England, charms unique to each area can usually be found with sufficient endeavour. However, the heritage and character of comparable areas of Britain always seems to be more immediately obvious. Maybe it’s the longer lasting building materials used in Britain, or the amount of bombing raids suffered in Japan during WWII. Maybe my thinking this says more about the shallowness of my immersion in Japanese culture than I would like. But the fact remains I struggle to discern the unique traits of small cities like Akita, Aomori or Yamagata. These places are worth visiting, but often only for the festivals that define these areas, rather than any uniqueness inherent in their ambience.

Kyoto, a surprisingly small city, stands out a mile in this regard. It is easy to descend into clich├ęs when describing the way a bicycle tour round Kyoto can reveal new delights round every corner, or to invent new and silly words to depict just how amazingly shrinetastic this place is. But trust me, just round the corner those delights are there, and the shrineyness of the shrines is certainly shrinetastic. I would also proffer Shrinemazing in this description, or possibly Templiffic. In the immortal words of Bill and Ted, it was most tranquil.

The best way to see this beautiful city is definitely by bike. Even in late July, when the weather is thigh chaffingly hot, a pootle around the enjoyably flat roads of Kyoto on a two wheeled steed is certainly the best way to go. I won’t go into the tedious specifics of me and my brother pedalling through kyoto, but there really is a WOW moment around every corner, and more shrines and temples than you could shake a stick at unless you shook that stick with a dangerous amount of vigour and pointed it at a lot of shrines and temples. We saw geishas in Gion and turtles at Kiyomizu Dera. I also had a fairly (i.e. very) stupid moment when near an enormous Buddha statue I wanted to get a closer sniff of the incense stick I was holding. One very burnt nostril and two watering eyes later I told my brother of my mistake (which anyone could have made). Naturally he was an unsympathetic little bastard.

Fushimi Inari Shrine is probably my favourite piece of traditional Japan. A tunnel of orange torii gates stretching through the mountainside forest for a 2 hour walk, and while we there, a temporary water slide induced by a thunderstorm louder than Armageddon (assuming the apocalypse will be really rather noisy). The torii gate tunnel is I believe the only one of it’s kind, and while kyoto’s pagodas and temples are fantastic, Fushimi Inari is the one thing that makes it a must see.

There’s also a must eat place in Kyoto, but this has more to do with the insistence of the owner that you MUST eat as opposed to the merits of the food. After having a ramen restaurant recommended to us by the hostel staff we strode confidently in and were instantly told the word PORK in a loud insistent voice by the good lady who was so evidently running this establishment. The words ‘menu’ and ‘miso ramen’ were met simply with a slightly louder shouting of the word PORK, until eventually we decided that having the pork was probably the best option. We assumed that this was standard treatment for tourists, that to prevent any linguistic barrier foreigners would just be shouted at until they agreed to eat whatever was put in front of them. Then we realised that to her credit this woman was actually just shouting the word PORK at customers indiscriminately, and some admittedly less startled locals were perfectly happy to acquiesce.

There are also MONKEYS. Monkeys make a fine addition to any holiday. Actually monkeys make a fine addition to almost anything, but especially holidays. The monkeys of Kyoto can be found in the hills of Arashiyama, and are best described as ape like. Incidentally these monkeys can easily become aggressive, so customers are warned not to look them in the eye. Having made that mistake once, the resultant tense face off showed that this is in fact very good advice. Monkeys do tend to augment the awesomeness of Holidays, but I bet en masse they could do someone a fair injury. That said, ‘I went to Kyoto and fought a monkey’ would be a good story to tell the grandchildren… maybe next time. And for the record, I could totally beat that monkey in a fight. I just didn’t wanna.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

My Summer Holiday, by Philip Cooke (23), Part One: Sumo

Sporting arenas are strange places.

I watched the final day of The Ashes test match at Old Trafford, Manchester, and saw some of the most amazing cricket that ground had ever witnessed. The wall of noise created to intimidate the Australian batsmen was something I have never seen replicated, as the alcohol fuelled crowd sought to contribute everything they could towards an England victory. 20,000 people, mere spectators, but entirely convinced that if they shouted loud enough, Aussie wickets would tumble. Call it mass delusion, but it creates a sense of togetherness that not much else can acheive.

While on holiday in Croatia I watched Hajduk Split play a Champions League fixture against Debrecen of Hungary. The match was nothing to write home about, Split were awful, but once again the aura of the place made it something to behold. That aura was largely created by the home fans willingness to set fire to their own stadium midway through the first half. Arson does tend to add a bit of spice to an atmosphere. The reaction of the fans who realised the stadium was on fire behind them was almost as incredible as the initial wilful act of destruction. They just picked up their stuff, moved 5 rows away from the fire and carried on watching the game. They then warmed their hands on the fire at half time. Oh those wacky Croatians.

These two would probably be the highlights of the sporting events at which I have been an enthralled spectator. However the "tingle factor" of walking into Maine Road (the old Manchester City stadium for global readers) was something else. The sense of unity, of pride in your heritage, the colour, the noise, the pies, all of it comes together in a spine tingling moment even before you reach your seat. And then the game: that single moment of unadulterated ecstasy as the ball hits the back of the net. Every weekend this is felt by millions around the globe, no matter if it's Chelsea or Chesterfield, no matter how many people are watching, when the ball hits the back of the net, you go absolutely bonkers.

All of this creates what I thought, for me at least, would be the only sporting arena that could give me goosebumps as I enter.

July 26th, 2008: I'd spent the day visiting the various charms of Nagoya with my family. These were two in number, no more, no less: the fabulously grand Nagoya castle, and a fertility shrine, WHICH HAD LOTS OF WOODEN PENISES EVERYWHERE AND IT WAS DEAD FUNNY COS WILLY'S ARE FUNNY HAHAHAHA.

My reaction at the time was certainly around that level of maturity. But hey, it was a big wooden dick. And there were lots of them, even one with enormous stone testicles. I challenge anyone not to at least raise the tiniest of smirks, possibly with a "huh huh, penis. huh huh" under their breath. For 400 yen you could buy a tiny wooden penis to write a prayer on, and in inspecting those that had already been hung up around the shrine we found a wooden penis that said in big, confident writing: "HELLO TO ALL MY FRIENDS ON MYSPACE.COM!!!!" Quite.

After the hilarity of the penis shrine we visited the rebuilt Nagoya castle, which, (although perhaps losing something in charm due to its status as essentially a purpose built museum) was still a mightily impressive feature of the Nagoyan skyline.

After lunch we made our way to the Aichi Prefectural Gym, the venue for the Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament. The crowds were thronging in the way that only crowds do (if you can think of anything else that throngs, and does it well, please tell me), and after a spot of deliberation we made our way round to the entrance. I was excited, of course I was. I had watched these enormous tributes to what man can acheive (if man eats a dangerous quantity of noodles and beer) wrestling each other on television for the best part of a year.

We picked up the fight schedule list for the day and moseyed round the concourse trying to find the right entrance to the arena. We climbed the stairs, and it hit me. The colour, the noise. The ornate roof above a clay mound in the centre, and in the middle of that mound, the wrestlers. All eyes focused on these two men mountains. I've watched a crowd applaud Tiger Woods at St Andrews, I've seen Ronaldinho enrapt a stadium with a stepover, but I've never seen two people dominate a place like the two men in the centre of the arena.

The ceremony of sumo had always bored me rigid while watching it on television, but seeing it in context it makes a lot more sense. There is an innate elegance to the performance that at times is more like watching a bizarre ballet. Infact the flexibility levels demonstrated by some of these 26 stone men were truly astounding. One lower division wrestler lifted his leg above his head to such a degree that he was essentially doing the splits whilst stood up. Salt flew, slaps echoed around the arena and the audience gazed in rapt wonder at the gladitorial contests within the ring.

Ultimately, it was the simplicity of the sport that made it such an amazing spectacle. Two men, despite an arguably comical appearance often mocked in western culture, with their bodies perfectly honed for the job ahead. Fighting machines to entertain a crowd, a theme arising continually through sport since the days of Rome's colloseum. So wonderfully primitive, and yet with a level of sophistication in the ceremony to make the air tingle before each fight.

At the end Hakuho saw off the challenge of Kotooshu, and despite a yokozuna victory, purple cushions were hurled into the air by people who had paid good money to hurl those cushions. The good news for those reading this in Britain is that in October 2009 professional sumo is coming to london! I'll be there! Fighto!