Japan’s artistic manhole covers

Japan’s artistic manhole covers

Japan is a country full of amazing art, and not all of it’s in art galleries. In every town, we have delighted in finding unique manhole covers, composed of beautiful ironwork, some painted, some not. They really brighten up dull pavements.

Apparently, this phenomenon started in 1985, when a high ranking bureaucrat in the construction industry came up with the idea of allowing municipalities to design their own manhole covers. Soon the obsession took off and municipalities were competing with each other to create the best design.

According to the Japan Society of Manhole Covers (yes, such a thing does exist), there are almost 6,000 artistic manhole covers throughout Japan today.

Tottori Sand Museum

Tottori Sand Museum

A rare day apart, whilst Hilary leisurely explored Okayama, (trying to re-charge her batteries), Roger headed to the north coast city of Tottori.

Whilst we were in Australia, the New York Times website featured a picture of Japanese sand dunes, and wrote about the latest show at the world’s foremost sand sculpturing museum. I immediately said to Hilary “I want to go there”.

So, three weeks later, I’m making my way into the hanger-like exhibition space. The theme is the United States of America; there’s the Statue of Liberty, there’s Mount Rushmore, there’s Neil Armstrong. And yes wonderfully, compared to my childhood sand castles, or our kid’s dams, these are industrially gigantic.

Under the creative leadership of Katsuhiko Chaen, 19 leading sand sculptors from all around the world have produced tableaux that are both visually stunning and technically excellent. Apparently, the secrets are to compact the sand and water mix thoroughly, not to make the chins too deep that the heads fall off, and then to “get the shadows right”.

Afterwards, I went for a stroll nearby on the largest sand dunes in Japan. From the highest point, there was an impressive view of the Sea of Japan. And a couple of children were making their own castles in the sand.

If you plan to do this Off the standard tourist trail, Tottori is actually easy to reach by day trip from Okayama. Arriving in Tottori mid-morning by train, Roger had plenty of time to see the Sand Museum, walk on the dunes and have a bite to eat, before getting the late afternoon return.

Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle

More climbing today. Up the Main Keep of Himeji Castle, to the very top. A wonderful but slightly claustrophobic experience due to the narrow, steep stairways, the ever reducing size of the floors, and vast number of tourists.

Although the Main Keep appears to have just five floors, it actually has a seven floor configuration made of six floors and one basement. Two massive wooden pillars, almost one metre across, hold up the whole structure.

Dating from 1609, Himeji Castle is the pre-eminent Japanese Castle, built to project feudal authority and power. In the 19th century it was earmarked for demolition, along with many other Japanese castles, before being reprieved. In World War II it survived the US air raids, that reduced the rest of the town to ashes. And today, after a six year restoration it’s gleaming white; well maybe not gleaming when we saw it on a dull and drizzly day.

Himeji Castle is known as the “White Heron Castle” because it is thought to resemble a white heron taking off. Some readers will recognise it from the James Bond film: You Only Live Twice.

Nara and the Great Buddha

Nara and the Great Buddha

IMG_7121We’re continuing travelling around Western Japan using our Japan Rail Passes. An initiative to encourage more visitors to Japan, these passes – offering unlimited miles – can only be bought prior to arriving here.

A 45 mins local train, through unappealing urban sprawl, brought us to Nara, the capital city prior to Kyoto. It’s where you come to see the Todai-ji complex and the Daibutsu (Great Buddha), one of the largest bronze Bhudda figures in the world.

We had planned a rest evening in the hostel, catching up on diaries and emails, but that was scuppered by the prospect of seeing the temples, shrines and lakes in Nara Park lit by 20,000 glowing lanterns. This magical atmosphere, now in its 19th year, is the Nara To-kae festival, attracting to Nara nearly 1m visitors. We were particularly lucky seeing the Buddhist wooden statues lit up in the Todai-ji complex.

In the morning, bright sunshine replaced the lanterns, and children were feeding the deer in the park. We headed straight to the 16m high Daibutsu, originally cast in 746 BC. It’s housed in the 1709 built Daibutsu-den Hall, one of the world’s largest wooden buildings, yet amazingly a mere two thirds of the size of the 789 BC original.

We were glad to be here, especially as we have now seen all three of Japan’s most iconic sights (the others are Kinkaku-ji and Mount Fuji). But, we are now completely “templed-out”. The next stop on our train journey will be to visit Japan’s best castle.

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The other World Heritage Site we visited in Nara was Kasuga Taisha, a sprawling Shinto shrine founded in the 8th century, and completely rebuilt every 20 years according to Shinto practice
Kyoto 2 – Temples and Gardens

Kyoto 2 – Temples and Gardens

With 17 Unesco World Heritage Sites, 1600 Buddhist temples and over 400 Shinto shrines, Kyoto offers too much. With just two and a half days here, it was frustrating having to choose only a few sites to see.

Kyoto though has wonderful public transport, so we managed to get around this appealing city fairly easily, despite the fact it was a key holiday weekend with everywhere swarming with visitors, and we were so tired after the Mount Fuji climb.

No wonder Kyoto is such a tourist draw. If you imagine swapping the walled temples for colleges, and the River Kano for the Thames, we could sense a cultural similarity between Kyoto and Oxford, England.

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At Fushimi Imari-Taisha we trekked up the hill through the thousands of Shinto shrine gates (torri) which date from the 8th Century. We were astonished by the scale, only managing  to get half-way before joint pains from Mount Fuji defeated us
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We loved this intimate temple and garden, part of the Nansen-ji complex. Dating from the 13th century, it has been designated as one of the three scenic historical gardens of Kyoto. On a Sunday morning, without so many tourists, we found here our zen-like calm
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The Main Hall (Hondo) at the blockbuster Kiyomizu-dera buddhist temple was undergoing external restoration, so the classic photography views weren’t possible. However, we enjoyed our time strolling around the site’s many features, especially the subterranean walk into the “womb”
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On our second evening in Kyoto, we sat by the side of the River Kano drinking Japanese beer. Around us young couples were chatting away and taking selfies. Behind us, on the restaurant terraces, older couples were enjoying rāmen and kane-yo donburi
Kyoto 1 – Kinkaku-ji Temple

Kyoto 1 – Kinkaku-ji Temple

We are in Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan, so it’s time to join the herds of tourists.

With blue skies and sunshine, our first stop was Kinkaku-ji, known also as the Golden Pavilion, one of the most iconic Japanese buildings and since 1994 a World Heritage Site. Unfortunately, we couldn’t see the stunning reflecting pond within the temple, but the exterior walk around the lake was exquisite enough.

Originally built in 1397 as a villa, when the owner died it was converted, in keeping with his will, into a Zen Buddhist temple.

Amazingly though, what we marvelled at was in fact a 1955 reconstruction, as the original temple was arsoned in 1950 by a schizophrenic novice monk. The reconstruction is said to be a close copy of the original, although some doubt such an extensive gold-leaf coating was used in the 14th Century.

Japanese toilets

Japanese toilets

Since arriving in Japan, Hilary has been praising everything except the toilets. There’s never a sink to wash your hands, or if there is one, there’s no soap or towels. But they do have heated toilet seats, which seems ironic when the outside temperature is pushing forty degrees.

So it took a kindly woman student from Hong Kong to explain, without any embarrassment, how Japanese toilets really work:

“You shouldn’t need to wash your hands, because the toilet does everything for you. It washes your private parts for number one or two, like a French bidet, and even for women, it washes their vagina for hygiene.”

Also, if women are embarrassed about the noise they are making, there’s a music button to cover up the sound. On some advanced toilets, there is even a drier, to ensure no toilet paper has to be used at all and your hands remain impeccably clean.

We wonder how the Japanese survive foreign holidays!

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Mount Fuji – On the top of Japan

Mount Fuji – On the top of Japan

You don’t climb Mount Fuji for personal contemplation in an unspoilt landscape. Instead it’s an endurance challenge, enacted each night in the climbing season (mid July through to mid September) by thousands of Japanese.

We decided to embrace the excited crowds, young and old, many wearing new hiking anoraks and boots, some with wooden hiking sticks which will be stamped at each of the mountain huts up the mountain.

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But this is no Sunday afternoon stroll. For much of the way up the steep side, the terrain is rough lava rock requiring commitment and stamina.

There are four routes up, and we were taking the most popular one. We set off at 11.45am in partial cloud, but this was good, it kept the temperatures lower.

By 5pm we were above the clouds and arriving at our booked mountain hut. After basic food was industrially served, we chatted to a small group, before heading off to our beds around 8.30pm. Now bed isn’t really the right word. Better to imagine how slaves would have slept in the late 18th century on the ships crossing to America, but without the chains. 200 people crammed into double-decker sleeping pens.

Not surprisingly, we hardly slept at all, which actually made getting up at 2.30am to continue the climb a lot easier than you might imagine.

Under a starry, clear sky, and a near full moon, a continuous procession of headlamps moved slowly up the mountain. This is the M25 of mountain climbing, complete with hold-ups from weight of traffic. However, at 5.15am, just after sunrise, we reached the highest point of the ‘land of the rising sun’.

But one more thing needs to be mentioned. Given this is a sacred mountain, also a Japanese icon, and climbing it is a Japanese rite of passage, we were surprised by the generally shabby facilities. Also, the poor service and inflated prices in the hut. We expected more from Japan.

If you plan to do this It’s best to do more of the climb in the evening, by booking a higher hut, even though they tend to be more expensive. That way, after summiting, you’ll have more energy for the gruelling, three hour walk down the mountain. And in our opinion, walking poles are a must.

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This wonderful Japanese man is 83 years old. With his daughter and grandson (pictured), he was climbing Mount Fuji for the 33rd time
Resting up for Mount Fuji

Resting up for Mount Fuji

We’ve arrived at the lakeside town of Kawaguchiko with one goal in mind – to climb Mount Fuji (Fuji-san in Japanese), the most climbed mountain in the world.

“A wise man climbs Fuji once. A fool climbs it twice” says the Japanese proverb.

Trouble is Typhoon Noru is crossing Japan, bringing storms and torrential downpours. When we reached our hostel, we were dripping wet, with Mount Fuji nowhere to be seen.

However, we are promised better weather Wednesday night/ Thursday morning, so we are now in preparation mode. We have hired poles and headlamps, and stocked up on lots of lovely biscuits and bars. But with the climb described as serious, tough, and difficult, the key thing is to get some rest. Nine months of travelling are taking their toll and we are worried we won’t have the energy, or the knees, to make it to the top. Hence, we are enjoying a rare day of having our feet up.

Wish us luck.

At 3776m, Mount Fuji is Japan’s highest mountain, but fortunately for us, today’s tourist climbers start from a station 2305m high, and get some rest in mountain huts before the sunrise summit push. We’ve been warned, because of the crowds and the commercialisation of the mountain, this is the package-holiday version of mountain climbing.

Art exchange

Art exchange

Seen at the Tokyo National Museum, the above folded screen is Mountain Valley in Spring, an oil on silk, painted in 1935 by Matsubaynshi Keigetsu.

Do you view Japanese painted folding screens or sliding doors, or decorated ceramics and clothing as “art”?

Probably yes, thanks to a modern-day perspective that now accepts any material can be a canvas for artistic expression.

But, much to the chagrin of the Japanese, this was not always the prevailing view of the western art establishment. A perspective that was to change, thanks partly to the Japanese Government’s showcasing of their traditional crafts, by hosting exhibitions and supporting art schools, in the late 19th/early 20th century Meiji period, as the country sought to leave behind a period of isolated feudalism.

So next time you go to an art gallery and are told a pile of bricks is art, think back to the Japanese screen painter.

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As if to reinforce the fact that folded screens are art, Matsubayashi Keigetsu’s beautiful Pine Trees painted about 400 years ago was given the full modern-era video showcasing