Wednesday, 30 July 2014


Last week I made a quick trip back to Tokyo - because who knows when I'll next be able to pay £30, jump on a bus, and be in Tokyo by morning?

The first day, I stopped by a couple of art galleries and then headed to Tokyo Tower to meet up with some friends. It's not the biggest tower in Tokyo any more, but I think it might just be the prettiest.

 From the viewing platform you can see this road, which my friend says is supposed to look like a reflection of the tower.
 The inside was pretty stunning too, incidentally.
 The next day I went to the Kyu Shiba Rikyu Garden, the garden of a feudal lord that's been preserved since the Edo Period. I was hoping that it would be a relaxing little stroll, but the ridiculous heat meant that I needed an extra sit down in a cafe afterwards too... It is a very pretty garden, anyway

 I'm not sure the garden's designer would have considered how well skyscrapers would reflect in the pond, but here you go.
 While I was in the area I also paid a visit to the Advertising Museum, which was super cool and also free. It has the history of Japanese advertising with a wall of typical products from each decade up til now, and the special exhibition is the winners of this year's prizes in some kind of advertising industry awards. They were really fun to see too!

For the last evening I headed to Shibuya for one of the highlights of my trip - the Rilakkuma Cafe!
Decorations in the shopping district:
The whole Tower Records Cafe has a nice feel to it. (With Rilakkuma bunting!)
 Rilakkuma curry.
 Rilakkuma milky coffee.

Rilakkuma everything!

... it was pretty fabulous.

And if you want to go, it's only around until about halfway through August!

Since Tokyo, I have been crazy busy clearing my room. I move out of my dormitory this afternoon, so you have to clean every corner, every mirror, hide every tea stain... (actually I didn't leave any stains, though when I moved the bed to hoover underneath it I found a couple of patches of what I hope was just coffee left by the previous inhabitant...) I also had to run down halfway through writing this to send my boxes home with the post office guy - it's really nice that they come to pick up heavy boxes for free. So now that's done, and all that's left is me and my airplane luggage! I guess it'll be a bit of a struggle to move it to a hostel and then to the airport, but given how hectic the last couple of days have been I'm actually quite grateful that I'm moving out of here before I have to start dealing with moving out of Japan.

I think I'll write one more post on this blog - I should be up to a lot of fun touristy stuff in the next couple of days. Then it's back to the UK!

Friday, 25 July 2014

Uji and Fushimi Inari

Last Friday was my last exam so I celebrated the next day by throwing myself into tourism whole-heartedly. We still had class on Monday, though, so I couldn't go far out of town. In fact, that's probably for the best, because there are still so many places inside Kyoto that I haven't gotten around to visiting yet, and the time I have left to visit them is diminishing rather quickly...

Uji is a town south of Kyoto famed for its green tea. Some parts of the town are full of the scent of the green tea wafting out of the tea shops. There is also a temple called Byodo-in that is famous for being the temple on the 10 yen coin! Until my friend told me this, I hadn't even realised that there was a temple on back of the coin...

 Can you see the design? It's exactly like the temple!
 The temple itself was created in the Heian period, and is said to represent Paradise (it belongs to the Pure Land Buddhism sect, which is all about getting to Paradise). There are lotus flowers all around the gardens, which are also linked to paradise. Inside the main hall of the temple, surrounding the statue of Amida Buddha, there are intricate carvings of what paradise might look like. Actually they just finished construction works on the main hall, so we got to go in and see it for ourselves. The tour groups filing in and out of the hall may make it hard to take a good picture of the outside, but it was exciting to go inside when it was our turn, all the same. The paintings in the hall are quite faded (in some areas non-existent). However, there's a really good museum on the grounds where you can see a stunning full-colour replica.
 They've had a lot of trouble with fires over the last 1000 years (the building is made of wood after all) so a lot of tiles on the property have symbols for water carved into them, as a protection charm.

After the temple we stopped by this lovely tea hut.
 Matcha tea, Uji Green Tea, and mochi.

If that wasn't enough, Uji is also the setting for the last 10 chapters or so of the Tale of Genji (the 11th century novel, if you remember way back I went to the grave of its author, Murasaki Shikibu). So we also managed to fit in a trip to the Tale of Genji Museum. It's a good little museum, displaying various items from the Heian period and pointing out where each part of the story takes place in the town. The highlight was possibly the 20 minute film of the Uji parts of the Tale. Very dramatic, lots of weeping on verandas. Also the little cinema itself is a fun design- you enter over a bridge, with dry ice creating a mist around your feet.

In the evening we headed over to Fushimi Inari shrine for the yearly festival. The actual festival was the next day, but the night before red lanterns line the buildings and the red Torii corridors. People also buy papier mache fox masks and run about looking awesome.

 We got there in time to see the lights turn on!
 It was a gorgeous red sunset to go with the red lanterns. Also it's hard to see here, but what's happening in the picture is that the people on the stage are playing traditional music and singing, while old ladies in kimono dance around them. Slowly more and more people started to join in too. The music continued all through the evening (and possibly the same guy was singing the entire time!).

 There's a section where two "corridors" of torii (i.e. lots of red torii built really close together) run parallel, and this is what you could see of the other one through the gaps in our own corridor.
 As we were leaving we noticed this swallow nest under the eaves of a tourist shop! I think they have some kind of special protection here, or maybe people just like them and tolerate the mess, but there are swallow nests all around the city. There's a nest under somebody's balcony near the tram station, and they've put up a whole bunch of nets to catch any chicks that might tumble out.

I'm so glad I got to see this festival, it is quite magical.

And after that, my term finished, and I went to Tokyo! So expect more pictures of the trip very soon, it was fantastic also.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Gion Matsuri preparations and Koke-dera

Last week was Gion Matsuri, one of the three biggest festivals in Japan. The local community build highly decorated floats that they then pull around in a parade, as musicians play traditional music. They build the floats the weekend before. Then for the three nights leading up to the parade the roads in the center of town are closed at night so that people can wander around the lit-up floats, buying protection charms and apparently eating a lot of good food. Unfortunately the festival coincided with my exam week, so I couldn't make it out for these festivities, but I did go and have a wander around last weekend to see the floats being made.

Here's an almost-complete one tucked down a side street.
 The little platform comes straight out of the second floor of one of the businesses along the main road.

 We managed to be there just in time to see the wheels going on to this one. The men are about to lever the entire thing up a bit with that log so that they can slip the wheel into place.
 One much less complete float. I love the design that the ropes make. It looked like the entire thing is made by slotting pieces of wood together and then making sure they don't fall out with the rope.
 Spent a long time watching these guys run around on the top of this one with big planks of wood, without once wobbling. Okay, so it's not that high, but I'm not sure I would be able to!
 Getting ready to hang the banners down the side of this one.

The next day we got up bright and early and in the pouring rain to go and visit Koke-dera, the moss temple. It's a Unesco World Heritage site, so they really limit the number of visitors and you have to send them a postcard asking to go. That part was kind of exciting, it was my first (and so far only) letter in Japanese. I heard it's best to go when it's been raining, so the moss will be happy, and that was a consolation for how squelchy my shoes got... Actually, it was rather a relief to be out and about in relatively cool weather, and the temple is up in the mountains a little so the air was much clearer. It was raining hardest as the monk recited a sutra at the beginning of the visit, and it sounded all the more beautiful.
 Once you've listened to the chanting and written a wish to offer at the altar, you're allowed to go and explore the garden. You can also copy the sutra you just heard with the calligraphy materials provided.

 It's probably a good thing that you have to book your entrance in advance, because if I could, I would probably go every week, it's that lovely a garden. Even the area around it is pretty. This is the wall by the road.

 This week was also my last ikebana class. I enjoyed this class even more than I expected to, and it was a really nice arrangement to finish off.
 The two sets of flowers we had this week join last week's willow arrangement that's still going strong. Since I took this picture the lilies have opened as well. I always got a little extra kick out of bringing the flowers home in brown paper like I'd gotten a bouquet, and sticking them in the kitchen for everyone to enjoy.
Now, finally, though, not only has ikebana finished but so have the rest of my classes. It was a pretty unforgiving term, but I feel like I learnt a lot. Now to actually organise... everything.

But before I go back to the UK there is still a lot of fun to be had. I was already out touristing yesterday at Uji and then to Fushimi Inari shrine (Again! But there was a special reason this time), so I'll write a post about that sometime this week. I'm also off to Tokyo on Tuesday evening, and when I get back I'm planning a lot more day trips from Kyoto. Watch this space!

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Kamo River

 Last week I took myself on a cycle ride before classes across the Kamo river (Kamo means duck, which is why there's a fairly abstract duck sculpture by the sign...). I went Tadao Ando's Garden of Fine Art, tucked away beside the botanical garden. It's an outdoor art gallery, exhibiting 8 of the world's most famous paintings recreated in ceramics so that they can be kept outside, whatever the weather. The building itself was beautiful, made all of concrete, very like the other gorgeous art gallery (the Chichu Art Museum) that I visited on my trip to Naoshima, designed by the same architect. There's water everywhere in the Fine Art Garden, and seeing golden light reflect off the small ripples in the pool underneath Van Gogh's "Road with Cypress and Star" was an experience. Also whoever decided to put Monet's Water Lilies actually under water was clearly a genius.

I see why it's not part of the usual Kyoto tourist route, because it's pretty far away from the main attractions. But it was a very relaxing way to spend a morning, though sadly if the temperature keeps rising here I won't be able to stomach the cycle again...

It IS a beautiful cycle, though, and I stopped to take this wonderful view south along the Kamo river. Actually this direction is heading into town, you'd start to see loads more buildings just fifteen minutes walk down river, but you wouldn't know it from this picture, would you?
 The flower display outside the botanical garden, and my lovely long-suffering bicycle.

 The other activity I took part in recently also involved the Kamo river. Actually, it involved huddling under a bridge while rain poured down...

We'd planned to light sparklers and generally hang around at the river, so the immense amount of rain pouring down wasn't going to stop us. As well as the sparklers we usually have in the UK, a friend had bought two more types that are popular here. One sort is this one I tried to take a picture of - it's like holding a watered-down roman candle in your hands. The person with the lighter has to jump back pretty quickly when it gets going. (We were all very careful, I promise!)
 The other type, called Senkou fireworks (directly translates to incense-stick firework) was really interesting. You hold the top of it, and light the bottom. The flame travels up the stick to whatever (metal?) is coating it, and forms a ball. This ball starts to emit flashes of light, like lightning. As the flame travels higher, the ball becomes heavier, until it drops to the floor and extinguishes the light. It's mesmerising to watch. We had races where everyone lights their sparkler at the same time and the last person whose sparkler is lit wins. Really fun, and a bit surreal when you take into account that to have these races, we were all crouched around a lighter, under a bridge, by a river, in the pouring rain...
(It was a lovely evening).

That day I also got my first design coffee. The art of making designs in the foam on the top of your coffee is pretty big in Japan, and everyone got a different one. I thought it looked like a mysterious eye.
 I'm hoping I'll get another design coffee when I go to Tokyo in a couple of weeks time. I'm only there for two days, but I'm definitely fitting in a trip to the pop-up Rilakkuma cafe in Shibuya. (Rilakkuma is a cartoon bear, used to sell merchandise, and I'm a sucker for it...). And yes, at the cafe you can get Rilakkuma design coffee!

Still, before that trip I have an upsetting amount of essays and exams to get done. Also, coming up this weekend, the trip to the moss temple. I look forward to telling you all about it next week.

Saturday, 28 June 2014


... is what I've been doing for the last three weeks. And going out to restaurants with friends, but mostly studying. I'd almost forgotten I was here as a university student...

So there's no big trip to tell you about, but I did just want to share a few pictures from around Kyoto.

This is part of the local tram tracks that you go past on the way to school. The people who live along the road grow flowers up the bank and there's always something new to look at.

 The azaleas have just started losing petals but I think they still look pretty!
 Speaking of flowers - in ikebana class we reached the modern art part of its history, so our teacher explained a few ideas of what you can do, but then set us loose on our own designs for the first time. I... tried to make a butterfly. It was really fun, though!

And on the topic of insects - we found this huge dragonfly on campus the other day! It's kind of exciting to see so many flying about (though my friend from Taiwan was less impressed - she said they have so many dragonflies on their university campus back home that they're actually kind of a pest).

We went to the Tofu Cafe again the other day - I enjoyed their summer menu very much.

I also almost forgot to mention, but I went to see fireflies the other day! With about half of the population of Kyoto, it felt like. Fireflies are only about at a very particular time of year - the rainy season - so when there's a chance to see them people flock there. The Uji Botanical Garden had late opening hours for a week especially for firefly viewing.

The entrance at dusk was really pretty, and there were swarms of bats flying around just above our heads.
 This is the best picture I can give you of a firefly, I'm afraid. Photography is banned in the garden in case flashes disturb the fireflies (and even if I were allowed to take pictures I'm not sure my phone camera would be much good).
It was pretty mesmerising watching the fireflies floating around under the trees. It was also just lovely to hang about in the garden at night, when the weather was cool! (Everyone warned us about the heat and humidity of Kyoto, but this right now is ridiculous!)

So with report deadlines and presentations I can't promise a blog post in the next couple of weeks. But we do have a lot coming up. There are a few tourist spots in Kyoto that I'm going to try to visit while I still can, and soon it'll be the Gion Matsuri (possibly the biggest festival in Kyoto?). Also I have a trip booked to the Moss Temple (you have to reserve in advance by sending them a postcard, it was all very exciting) and I'm really looking forward to that!

(p.s. I just realised I didn't write about the Takarazuka, either. I'm so behind! It was fabulous, I definitely recommend it. There you go.)