Monday, 8 December 2014

Geisha-stalking in Kyoto

When I lived in Tokyo, the local correspondents used to have a joke about the to-do list of the visiting, 48-hours-in-Japan journalist: a feature about the yakuza, one about Mount Fuji, and one about geishas. So I decided it would be a bit tacky to go geisha-stalking during my short stay in Kyoto. Or rather, geiko-stalking - here, they're called geiko and maiko (trainee geisha). Surely I was too cool for that.

Anyway, one of the great things about Japan is that you need never feel shy about a photo fetish. Or any kind of fetish, for that matter. After deciding to be all aloof and dignified about the geiko/maiko thing, I passed a little throng of Japanese men and women in front of one of the little tea houses in Miyagawa-cho, where I'm staying. I asked what they were waiting for. A maiko! I think one of the maikos was having a coming-of-age party, hence all the attention. But one of the women and I quickly decided to look out for other geikos as well. And we spotted quite a few.

"They're very quick on their feet," my new friend said. So quick that we didn't manage to take pictures of the others. But anyway, I just wanted one picture. And seeing them clip-clopping through the lantern-lit alleys was better than any photos.

Speaking of Japan and photos, I walked past a lot of engagement photo sessions earlier in the day, around Shimbashi. Most of them were quite traditional: sweetly smiling couples in kimonos, portrait-style. But then I saw these guys. They were having so much fun! I loved it. Dear newly engaged couple, I hope you don't mind seeing your picture on this blog. May you enjoy many more years of happiness and laughter.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Magical Koya-san in the Snow


The temple town on the holy mountain of Koya-san is my new favourite place in Japan. The fact that women have only been allowed to enter this site for a hundred years or so, made my stay here all the sweeter. We're here now, sisters! 
If there's any way you can go and visit Koya-san in December, do it. It's one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences that will change the way you think about life, death and central heating.

I came to this ancient place on a bit of a whim. I'm in Asia to see friends, clear my mind and finish my current novel, and a temple retreat seemed like a good way to help with the second and third part. Otherwise I would just spend the entire trip chatting and drinking. Which is great in terms of catching up with friends, but not all that conducive to writing.

I'm not going to lie - Koya-san in December is not an easy trip. To get here from Tokyo, you need to take a bullet train to Shin-Osaka, then a subway to Namba, a local train to Gokurakubashi (changing at Hashimoto, which is funny if like me you suffer from Hashimito's thyroditis), then a cable car and finally, a bus. 

Other downsides: the monks don't really do central heating, or indeed any kind of heating. I stayed in two temples, and in the first, there was snow in the hallway in the morning. 

However, in a concession to the tourists whose good custom keeps the temples from rotting away, they've put little electric heaters in every guest room, and heated low kotatsu tables. One of the monks assured me that they also use heaters in their own dorms - I was worried the monks were forced to shiver all night as part of the whole austerity and spiritual purity thing, while the guests were sleeping snugly. Apparently, in the old days there was really no heating of any sort, and the older monks used to flee to another monastery the valley when their bones could no longer take the mountain cold!

Some bloggers have described Koya-san as expensive, but right now now it's actually amazingly good value as the yen is so weak. A night at Eko-in, the second temple where I stayed (and my favourite of the two), costs about 12,000 yen including dinner and breakfast. That's about 65 quid. For that, you get to stay in a tatami-matted room in beautiful ancient temple, with a view of snow-topped rooftops; sleep on a comfy futon and relax with your feet unter a heated, duvet-covered kotatsu table; take part in a guided afternoon meditation session; and have a delicious vegetarian feast served by a friendly monk in a dozen pretty bowls (for dinner, and a lighter version for breakfast). Plus, a steaming hot soak in a lovely communal bath, after which you can wrap yourself in one of the yukata (cotton kimonos) they provide, sit by your window and contemplete the bittersweet brevity of life and the beauty of the passing moment. 

You also attend the morning service, which at Eko-in (one of the two temples where I stayed) includes the fire ritual. I may suggest this to my local rabbi to liven up the shabbat service. It should be ok, halachically speaking, as long as you light the fire before sundown on Friday.

Anyway, what I'm saying is that it's all worth it. Even if I had left Koya-san with pneumonia and not a single new chapter, it would have been worth it. The beauty of the place is impossible to capture in words or pictures. Maybe you're looking at the photos and thinking, oh that temple is pretty - but the point is, the entire town looks like that. There are a few modern buildings, little shops and cafes, but the site is really dominated by the dozens of temples lining the streets. You can step away and take it all in a one big temple feast for the eyes, and it's beautiful, and then you walk close up and see a carved stone sculpture, or a charm dangling in some incense smoke, or a red bridge flashing in the snow, and it takes your breath away.

Ok, enough cliched travel writing. Koya-san in spring, summer, autumn is probably stunning as well, and more comfortable. But I cannot imagine it looking any more spectacular than this. 

(Footnote: my Japanese was never great, even when I lived here, and once I moved away, what little I had fell out of my brain. However, in a wholly unexpected, delightful bit of travel magic, I now find I can suddenly speak Japanese! Sort of. I can book a room, order a meal, praise the prettiness of the snow, agree that it's very cold but the onsen is very hot, tell them I'm from Germany via London and working on a book, exclaim "omoshiroi-desu, ne!" and "sugoi!" and "honto!" while tilting my head and widening my eyes just so, and check if the Eko-in temple is after the next set of traffic lights and then to the right. And so on. All of this seemed pretty lame when I was living here, the kind of functional level it's so easy to get stuck on, but now, as a tourist, it feels GREAT.)

Friday, 5 December 2014

A Visit to the Umbrella Revolution


I'm a bit of an accidental protest tourist. Last year, during the Gezi Park protests, I attended a dear friend's henna night in Istanbul complete with a big "Occupy Henna" banner. This year, visiting some friends in Hong Kong, I stumbled into one of the pro-democracy camps, the one at Admiralty. Intrigued, I took a stroll around and chatted with the activists.

Christmas at the protest camp

When they heard I was German, they reacted with delight (when does this ever happen?). 
Seriously, they got very excited about that. Several of them said the fall of the Berlin wall was a huge inspiration and proved the power of peaceful protest. Yay.

I for my part always find it moving to see a peaceful pro-democracy campaign, precisely because it reminds me of one of the few good things my country is known for.

I liked the protest art inspired by the humble umbrella, which turned into a revolutionary symbol after demonstrators used it to shield themselves from tear gas. The characters on the yellow sign say: "I want universal suffrage." The Occupy activists are demanding free and fair elections for 2017, with the people choosing their own candidates. Beijing on the other hand insists on vetting any candidates first. After two months of protests, the student leaders are now considering ending the occupation, and activists at the site expected police to come in soon and dismantly the camp anyway. So here are some more photos before it all goes.

How about some Occupy Origami:

And some very orderly Occupy graffiti:


Keeping fit for the revolution:

While studying hard:

Why there are no pictures of people in this post - "Protect student, please don't take photo of the face!"

The protests are student-led, and an older man I spoke to expressed great concern for them.
"I'm old, if I go to jail, it doesn't matter," he said. But many of the students, including the leaders, are only 17 or 18. He pointed out that risking their future in this struggle. Which is why it's so important that the rest of the world doesn't forget about them. In any case, they keep reminding us to listen:

Mini-camp at the British Consulate in Hong Kong, reminding Britain that guarantees for Hong Kong's democracy were part of the handover to China

Also, in case you forget we're in Hong Kong. Occupy tents reflected in a fancy car dealer's window:

Despite their perseverance so far, the people I spoke to at the camp were not very hopeful. China is unlikely to give in, especially since it would probably fuel people-power movements elsewhere. Think how the average Tibetan or even Beijinger would react to the umbrella revolution triumphing over the central government. 

But regardless of who will win this particular stand-off, just the fact that the movement has come this far, gathering global attention and defending the right to protest right under the nose of a dictatorship, should be a point of pride. 

As activist Benny Tai wrote in the New York Times: "The Umbrella Movement has awakened the democratic aspirations of a whole generation of Hong Kong people. In this sense, we have achieved much more than what we could have hoped for."