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Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Nara, Japan




Well,  I got home two weeks ago.  I'm still digesting the trip, to be honest, but I hope you'll like to see some posts of my travels.  

We were three weeks in Japan, based in Tokyo, but my first post will be about Nara.  Nara's in Kansai province, not far from Kyoto, and it was a special place for me, as before I set foot in Japan, it was the city I definitely knew I wanted to see.  (And I'd already fallen in love with Isuien Garden - below)



The reason I was so keen to see Nara is that for years I've been following the beautiful blogs of a group of women who live there. They are StardustSnow White, Cosmos, and Red Rose. (click the links to visit their blogs) and their names in real life are Yoko, Keiko, Tomoko and another Keiko. I felt very honoured when they offered to meet us and show us some of the town they love.

And  Isuien Garden was our first stop.  In the distance is what they call the "borrowed" part of the garden - the wooded hills which don't belong to it, but which add to its charm and atmosphere.

Japanese gardens are intended to suggest an idealised version of nature, so it was no surprise to find a gardener sweeping up and discovering that he was only sweeping up the leaves that did not look nice, leaving the ones that looked beautiful on the ground.. 

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. I believe the characters carved on this stone refer to water.


and the sound of water was never far away.


These stepping stones were by an old water mill.   


Moss plays an important part in Japanese gardens, and this one is no exception.  Even if the grass is brown the moss is usually green under the trees and seems full of life. 


We were lucky to visit as the leaves had began to change colour


I could have stayed in the gardens all day, but then it was lunch time and we went to a simple and elegant restaurant that also offered quick self-service - the kind of place we would never have found by ourselves.  We loved the food - Yoko had taken note of what we liked to eat (This is T's lunch)


Afterwards we went to see the deer who roam around the huge Nara Park. They're wild but are very used to people, and, since you can buy rice cakes to feed them, groups of deer are likely to mob you if you seem to have one.  You can see this girl holding one as the deer pursues her - one of them licking her chops in anticipation! 


This deer below didn't seem to mind only being offered a mere leaf. 


At one point this man turned up quietly on his bike near Kasuga-Taisha shrine, sat down and fed the deer slowly, quite happy for them to nose all around him. In fact, he ws the picture of peace, sitting quite still, surrounded by these inquisitive creatures. 

 
After playing with the deer, we headed for the Todai-ji temple, one of the world's largest wooden structures, and a World Heritage site.   You can see the towering Nandaimon entrance gate through the trees. 


The temple dates to the 8th century, when over two and a half million people helped to construct it on the orders of the Emperor. The 8th century was Nara's heyday, when it was once briefly the capital of Japan.    The temple has been rebuilt twice, and is now 30 percent smaller than it was, but the tiny figures you can just see see on its steps below give you an idea of how large it still is.  On special occasions, the huge window in the centre is opened and the face of the giant golden Buddha inside can be seen. This gives you an idea of the size of the Great Buddha, too. It measures about 15 metres (fifty feet) high.


Sadly I couldn't get a good picture of the Great Buddha - the temple was too dark and too tall. Here is one of the bodhisattvas sitting at the Buddha's feet.  Just imagine a Buddha far bigger than that, towering above!


The statue below shows a warrior guardian, tiny by comparison with the Buddha, trampling on a demon


One of the temple's pillars has a hole in it said to be the size of the hole  in the Great Buddha's nostril, and if you pass through it you will receive enlightenment - and certainly have your photo taken by your friends.... 


Outside I was a little startled by this image of Binzuru, sitting exposed to the elements and dressed in what looks like a red rain cape, although I'm sure it is not really.  Despite his spooky appearance in this statue, he's a benign buddha  who offers relief from illness and had great psychic powers. He apparently got a bit above himself in the past, though, so Buddha ordered him to sit outside the temple at the mercy of the weather.  You're supposed to touch the part of his body which corresponds to your own ailment, when asking him for help. 


We spent a long time in the temple, but as sunset approached, we climbed towards  Nigatsu-dō, "The Hall of the Second Month." The deer were starting to settle down for the night by the side of the road, under the trees and near the row of stone lanterns.


I found that the large 17th century Nigatsu-dō,sits way above the rest of the temple complex on the mountainside, and it's a popular place to view the sunset. You climb up via a long flight of steps to get there, lined with memorials - you can just glimpse the long staircase on the left of the photo below.  It's a bit blurred, I know. But it was getting quite dark!


past the fountain with a dragon twined around its base


and the incense burns in a large, bronze bowl, sending its scent over the spacious wooden balcony, open to the air.



The sunset could have been more colourful, but it is the calm atmosphere and pin-drop silence of this big old place that sticks in my mind


Afterwards we walked back towards the town through almost-silent streets



And once back in town,  Yoko and Keiko recommended an okinomiyaki restaurant in a local mall. This meal is specially popular in the Kansai region of Japan, and consists of a mixture of omelette and pancake, which is cooked at your table with the toppings of your choice - and it really is very good.


As if this wasn't enough, they gave me some beautiful presents.   I really don't know how to thank them, but I know when I look at the presents and my photos, I won't forget Nara.  


I'll get round to visiting everyone's blogs soon!

Friday, 14 November 2014

Scarborough!

If you're reading this, it means that I am not able to post right now. The time in Japan is going to be VERY busy and I'm not anticipating much time to sit and compose posts, or visit everyone's blogs, even though I will do my best!  (I'll certainly read comments at every opportunity though.)  In case not, I have scheduled a few more posts which might just remind you of summer. 

There is still so much to say about our cycle trip. We went to so many places but I seemed to get stuck on Yorkshire.  And, in fact, I'm still stuck on Yorkshire!  Because I did want to write about Scarborough, Yorks, which we found most interesting.  Before the 1930s,and even beyond, this famous seaside town was smart and fashionable, and there's enough left of that to help you realise it really was a spectacular place, with yamazing scenery and everything (such as cliff railways, a spa, golden sands, even a castle) that the j and 20th century holidaymaker could desire.

When we arrived, we strolled along to the renovated spa buildings, where a first rate Hammond Organist was playing on the terrace. Glass screens block out the wind and allow a view of the sea through the columns, so it was surprisingly cosy down there.  The audience gradually increased as time went on.   

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We also climbed up to the castle, which also has good views.  


and we looked around the town quite thoroughly before deciding that Scarborough potentially has so much, but it is certainly lacking something at the moment.

TLC, perhaps.

There's been renovation and updating but somehow it doesn't come together and the overwhelming feeling is of a super place that is crying out for help, appealing to not quite the right market or something.  So, despite it being midday in midsummer, the rest of that lovely spa building was shut, so if you didn't like Hammond Organs, there was nothing else to do there.   The fabulous cliffside gardens near our hotel were overgrown with weeds. Dinky Victorian shops nearby were closed (this Colonial Outfitters was on a street almost white with bird droppings and dive bombed by huge scary feral flocks of screaming gulls, a most miserable place. Why couldn't they do something to persuade these ferocious hordes of birds to go elsewhere? )


Wake up, Scarborough!   

 I particularly noticed the Grand Hotel, which was once a posh, over-the-top High Victorian hotel, with seven stories for seven days of the week, four towers for four seasons and 365 bedrooms. Its splendiferous interiors still exist, and faded 1950s photos on the wall show it in its luxurious heyday - but the town's flagship hotel now scores lousy ratings on Tripadvisor and has been done for food hygiene failures more than once. (read more here and here

During our visit a filthy overflowing rubbish skip stood right by the front entrance. And take a look in this ballroom. At first it looks fine....


then you see the black mould all over the walls....


Perhaps I shouldn't be too negative.  Some of the guests think the hotel has great entertainment, even if they don't necessarily love the food or cobwebs.  Anyway, the bottom line is that Scarborough isn't suited to being downmarket, and it is obviously waiting for some major project to pull some well off customers and money in, so it can turn its fortunes round like Margate has done. 

 Meanwhile, there is always the sea, and lots of people do like to go there for their holidays.  It was fascinating just sitting and watching them all.




The weather looks a bit grey but actually it was warm enough.


And people were doing the traditional things British people always do at the seaside. 



Fun! 



We stayed at the Crown Spa hotel, which was built in 1844, just at the start of Scarborough's rise to popularity.  It has huge sea views and is not as expensive as it looks, so it's a real bargain - it's well decorated, the facilities are good, we had a classy meal there and the staff were charming.

So we really enjoyed Scarborough - and many residents are doing their best for it.  I hope they can manage to attract some sort of cultural icon to the town, spruce up the bad bits and capitalise on its Victorian heritage to turn it back into the place it should be. 

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Kyoto

I've been awake most of the  night with an awful attack of neuralgia of the head  - caused , I think, by a deceptively cold wind yesterday. But we saw some splendid things in Kyoto and I thought I'd share some images of temple gardens and buildings. It's the start of the autumn leaf season and quite wonderful

No captions or information I am afraid but the pictures I hope will tell their own story.I hope I will sleep tonight but I will I hope stay awake long enough to see the Golden Temple and Imperial Palace!

I will meet Yoko and other Nara bloggers tomorrow. I'm looking forward to it.  And I can hardly believe my time in Japan is nearing its end - I wish I had planned another couple of weeks! 















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