This gap year constantly reminds us that to understand the world today you need to appreciate the depth of faith in so many people’s lives. Sometimes the religious sights are uplifting (think Italian churches), sometimes emotional (women crying at a service in Quito) and sometimes disturbing (the very wealthy new churches going up all over the southern USA states).
But in largely Hindu Bali we perhaps saw the strangest, yet in some ways the sweetest, sight – the daily cabangsari offering.
This is a small palm-leaf basket with an assortment of gifts for the Gods. Every morning, right across the island, they are left outside most shops, businesses and restaurants. We saw women with trays of them going from street to street dispensing these, no doubt to order.
The funny thing is many of the trays included hand-rolled cigarettes. Also by the end of the day, their job done, the cabangsari get trodden upon or driven over, making a complete mess of the pavement.
On our second day with the scooter we headed up the coast. After a 25km journey of sensual overload, we reached a different world; of black sparkling sand (think best kitchen granite) secret coves, windswept palm trees and locals fishing.
It was the perfect place to walk and talk, we touched on aspects of Indonesian society, which Hilary had been reading about in the book “Indonesia etc” by Elizabeth Pisani, as well as all our plans when we get home.
Spontaneously, we splashed out on lunch at the palatial uber stylish Soori resort nestled away in the palm trees. We stood out as the only Europeans in the restaurant amongst young, graceful Korean and Chinese couples, who obviously have a lot more money than a couple of Brits travelling around the world.
An ideal stop on the way back was the Tanah Lot Hindu temple. Built in the 16th century, this is one of seven sea temples around the Balinese coast, each established within eyesight of the next to form a chain along the south-western coast. It was fun to watch the tourists take selfies, whilst getting soaked by the waves.
Then it was back to “the junction of death”. Hilary executed the nerve-racking right turn, squeezing through the other scooters, and we were safely back in our hotel.
Doesn’t the above photo look more like England than China?
However, as the home of many Europeans and their churches, organs were brought to Gulangyu – the small island reached by ferry from Xiamen – in the mid 19th century, and pianos by the early 20th century.
Today on the island, both instruments have their own museums, courtesy of a rich Gulangyuan philanthropist who now lives in Australia, so we spent an engaging hour wandering around. Organs were described as the most complex man-made device until overtaken by the telephone exchange, and pianos are apparently the crystallisation of human history, world science & culture, and the labour & wisdom of mankind.
With over 100 western pianos on show, it was interesting to read that the great composers had their own favourite piano manufacturers. For instance, Liszt liked Bösendorfer, whilst Chopin preferred Broadwood. Now that all classical performances use the ubiquitous Steinway, maybe we have lost some of pianos’ musical diversity.
And of course Gulangyu was the right place to remind us of the number of prodigy pianists China has produced in recent decades. Many born and taught on this island.
With the BRICS conference over, Putin et al back in their own fiefdoms, we were finally able to cross to Gulangyu, the old colonial enclave of Xiamen.
Ceded to the Europeans after the Opium Wars, this small island makes an excellent day trip of walking, sightseeing and a long relaxing lunch. It is particularly delightful because no cars, bikes or scooters are allowed. You get to walk the 5km around the island in peace, only a dream elsewhere in China. In fact, it felt like walking around an Asian version of Lake Como.
For us the main interest was seeing the splendid early 20th century buildings. There are several ex-consulates, including the British and American, and mansions built by wealthy Taiwanese merchants, many padlocked up, looking for their next owners.
TripAdvisor reviews warn that Gulangyu can be heaving with tourists. We were evidently lucky, the well-kept paths and gardens were fairly empty, the conference keeping the cruise ships away.
If you plan to do this It’s important to go to the correct ferry port, as travellers are segregated from the locals, paying more for their tickets, though still a bargain at £10 return for two. You’ll need the northern port at the cruise terminal.
Also in Hangzhou we toured the Museum of Umbrellas. Invented by the Chinese some 2000 years ago, the early oiled paper and and silk umbrellas (we would call them parasols) were designed for sun protection. Only later in northern China, when tougher fabrics were developed, did they morph into rain protectors.
There is an umbrella attached to the best preserved Terracotta Horsemen’s Carriage at Xi’an, and the folding umbrella was first developed around 300AD.
Hilary particularly likes the way the Chinese have made an art form out of these essential every day items. Bright decorative patterns and illustrations adorned so many examples in the museum. And nearby, playful children were being encouraged to design and paint their own umbrellas.
Silk Road trade brought umbrellas to Europe as late as the 1700s. The modern British gentlemen and ladies umbrellas in the museum, inevitably manufactured in China, were utilitarian compared to the Chinese displays.
So far during our gap year, Hilary has gone through four umbrellas. Used mainly to shield the sun, it’s been the occasional wind and rain doing the damage.
In People’s Park on any Sunday morning, an extraordinary site. Older people sit with upturned umbrellas displaying carefully typed notices.
Initially, Hilary thought it might be some sort of selling, Roger wondered if these were accommodation ads.
In fact, behind every umbrella and notice is an anxious parent trying to find a partner for their (inevitably only) daughter or son. The ads are aimed at other parents in a similar state, and we were told this is all initiated without their child’s knowledge.
Probably, it’s as much to do with bringing a new salary into the family as having grandchildren. There are no photos just cv style details, with a focus on education and jobs.
It’s a symptom of the problems younger people have in finding partners. Works hours are long and demanding for going out much. And thanks to the ‘one child policy’ there’s some 35 million extra males under age 40, with a famed arrogance and inability to sustain relationships.
As we’ve staggered around dehydrated in hot temperatures, we’ve often been very grateful to see a vending machine.
Vending machines are ubiquitous here, on streets, in stations, by crossroads in the country, even at the top of Mount Fuji. In fact, Japan has the highest usage per person of vending machine anywhere in the world. This is most likely due to the law abiding nature of its citizens resulting in a total lack of vandalism, and the Japanese’s love of automation, they always work and even give change!
In addition to chilled drinks, they dispense a wide variety of snacks, fresh sandwiches and sweets.
Vending machines are such a part of the Japanese psyche that one marketing director used them as a spoof for selling a new line of made-to-measure bras. They weren’t really supplied by vending machines, but it got everyone talking about the bra’s brand on social media.
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.
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.
On a searingly hot Sunday morning we took the Tokyo tube to the Asakusa district, walked along the Sumida River, and followed the crowds into the Sensō-ji temple.
Housing a golden image of the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, what we see today is a 1958 rebuild of the original 16th century temple that was destroyed in a Second World War bombing raid.
As pictured above, Roger paid ¥100 to pull out a wooden stick from a silver box to reveal his fortune. Part of it said ‘The moon is covered in cloud. You will have difficulties in making any plans. Do your best and ask for help of others. Then you will be able to catch good fortune. You don’t have to worry; open your eyes and look to the future’.
Some readers may be confused by the swastica image shown above. This is the ancient East Asian Buddhist symbol, supposedly representing the footprints of the Buddha, not to be confused with the Nazi version, which is right-facing (rather than left-facing) and always at an angle.
Given the heat, we were incredibly impressed by the number of women and girls we saw wearing traditional Japanese Kimono, the formal style of clothing associated with politeness and good manners. How wonderful to see tradition being maintained. Don’t they look colourful and beautiful.