Join me in my wanderings around the globe via these online ramblings in far off places....

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Bizarre Japan

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Any outsider who has ever scratched the surface of Japan and it’s culture, particularly modern pop culture, will no doubt have come across some kind of bizarre, unusual or unique facet that has left them wondering WTF???
The other day I had to catch a train from Matsuyama to Uwajima and as we were running ahead of time, we arrived at the station 2 hours before the train we were due to catch was scheduled in the hope we could get an earlier train. We were in luck – not only could we get an earlier train, it was a SPECIAL train. It was ANPANMAN’s Train!! WTF??? And who the hell is Anpanman? Well I was about to find out as Anpanman’s train, with “Creampanda GO!” written across the front end pulled into the station.
wdsc_0839 Creampanda Go!

Japan is big on Anime, a stylised from of animated cartoons, and Anpanman, apparently, is a hugely popular Anime character. Japan seems to have a cartoon character for everything. Cartoon characters appear on public service notices about smoking or at pedestrian crossings. Museums and other public spaces have cartoon characters on their signs giving directions. So why not have a train dedicated to one of the most popular of all – Anpanman! The train was fully decorated with cartoon depictions of Anpanman and friends; such as CurryPanMan (yep believe it), Melonpana, and wait for it, BreadHeadMan! Filipinos and others reading this will have recognised “pan” as a type of bread roll, and in Japan “Anpan” is a bread roll filled with sweet bean paste. So CurryPanMan and Melonpana are Curry and Melon filled bread respectively. And good old BreadHeadMan? Well he’s just a slice of boring old white bread. As well as these pictorial depictions, the announcements on the train were recorded in Anpanman’s voice, so Anpanman himself announced the next station and told us to have a nice day. Hell, I  wouldn't have been surprised if I went up to the drivers compartment and found a giant Ampanman was actually driving the bloody train!
wdsc_0858CurryPanMan Go! 

wdsc_0843Anpanman’s Train 

wdsc_0857Anpanman Seat Cover on the train

wdsc_0842 Anpanman and friends!

wdsc_0841Anpanman’s Arch Nemesis:  Baikinman, which literally translates as Germ Man, but in English versions he was called MeanyMan! He has a weakness to soap, which shrinks him to the size of a fly. He constructs machines and thinks of intricate plans to counteract Anpanman's strength.

You could in fact dedicate a whole blog to Weird Japan (there are several out there), and when it comes to weird Japanese food once again you could dedicate the whole blog to that subject alone. Today I came across something I had never seen before and to me sums up Japanese weirdness – chocolate coated potato chips. The premier manufacturer of this strange combination of foods is Japanese chocolatier Royce’ Confect of Hokkaido. Now at the moment I am at the almost opposite end of the country to where these chocolate potato chips are made, but do to a centuries old trade relationship, due to Shogun Lords from Hokkaido and the the Uwajima area once being related, Royce’ products are heavily marketed and sold here in Uwajima.

I have to say they were an interesting flavour combination. I won’t be racing back to buy another packet, but it was a positive flavour experience none the less.
IT seems every part of modern Japanese society has some kind of little quirky thing to remind us outsiders to go WTF????

wdsc_0016 “Don’t drop cigarette butts, which could start fires”…apparently

wp7130073Mascot for a sake shop on Miyajima 

When it comes to Bizarre Japan, this barely even opens the can of worms………

Anpanman Train Route from Matsuyama to Uwajima (the Blue Line)

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Man’s Inhumanity to Man : Reflections on Hiroshima

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August 6th 1945 the world changed forever when an Atomic weapon was detonated above Hiroshima, Japan. No visit to Japan should pass without a visit to the Hiroshima Peace Park & the Peace Museum.
wdsc_0544the A-Bomb Dome, Ground Zero of the atomic blast 
wdsc_0574the Peace Park Cenotaph 
wdsc_0565 the Flame of Eternal peace shall burn until there are no longer Nuclear Weapons on this earth (note the rain)
wdsc_0594Hiroshima before the drop 
wdsc_0596…and after the drop….. 

The following images are all photographs of the displays of the Peace Museum, the images themselves really say all there is to say … … …
wdsc_0606 the drop

wdsc_0609minutes after…. 

wdsc_0603in the following days…

wdsc_0598just hours after… 

wdsc_0589almost total destruction… 

wdsc_0583with no knowledge of radiation poisoning, residents continued to work in the effected areas 

wdsc_0587Survivor Art Work 
wdsc_0558Local School Children have the last word…..

View Hiroshima in a larger map
Location of Hiroshima on Google Maps

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Japan Calling: Salad Express to Giant Pumpkins

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Well after a slight hitch and quick flight change, I arrived in Japan one day later than originally planned. Not a big deal, easy to make up time when needed.
I took a Jetstar flight in the end, managed to get business class ticket for next to nothing, and I must say I was impressed with the service, much better than any domestic Jetstar flight I had ever had the misfortune of undertaking. I had flown into Kansai International in Osaka, but due to my day-later-than-planned arrival, Osaka was just going to be an overnight and first thing in the morning it was the Bullet Train to Okayama. Within minutes of arrival at Kansai, there was no escaping the Japanese “quirkiness”. The bus from the airport to downtown Osaka was called “the Salad Express” complete with pictures of various salad vegetables……

p7100002 Jetstar – now gets an extra star from me

p7100008 Tokyo from the Air

p7100013 Salad Express – Don’t ask why, it just is….

First thing the next morning the ever efficient Japanese public transport system had me in Okayama in no time at all, where my “Limousine Bus” was waiting.


One of the big things in Japan is the old formal gardens. My first stop was the Korakuen Gardens, dating from around 1700, when the then feudal lord Ikeda Tunamasa had the 133,000 square metre gardens created. Certainly a stunning site, with the Okayama Castle sitting above the whole scene. Unfortunately drizzling but persistent rain impeded my visit.

dsc_0013 Okayama Castle overlooks Korakuen Gardens

The Edo Period of Japanese history, running from 1603 to 1868, has left its legacy on modern Japan in many ways. For the traveller one of the best ways to experience the atmosphere of Edo Period Japan is a visit to Kurashiki. The Kurashiki River was once used by small boats to transfer goods (primarily rice) from ships anchored further out along the coast. The river bank was lined with warehouses and rice store houses, which today have been turned into museums, art galleries, restaurants, cafes and shops. You can soak up the atmosphere of pre-modern Japan whilst shopping, eating, drinking and generally enjoying the surrounds of the canal area. It’s a great spot just to wander around and take it all in.

dsc_0027old rice store houses now part of the Ohara Museum

dsc_0041these lilies reportedly come from Monet’s pond…..

dsc_0048   the Canal-like Kurashiki River is the central point of the area

dsc_0064  the Kurashiki River

Now Okayama and these places we have just discussed are about an hour inland from the coast. And this coast opens up into the stunning Seto Inland Sea. There a dozens of islands of various sizes but one of them stands out for it’s uniqueness, and that is Naoshima. My “Limousine-Bus” was able to “drive” to Naoshima courtesy of a regular ro/ro ferry service. 10 minutes on the ferry and then we were driving on Naoshima.
What makes Naoshima so unique is a group of artists and a wealthy benefactor have basically taken an island which was an industrial waste dump with a small fishing village and turned it into an “art space”. As well as formal galleries housing everything from Monet’s to Japanese artists, open spaces around the island have sculptures or other art works placed all around the place. And then to top it off, in conjunction with the local village, 100-300 yr old houses have been converted into “art spaces” as well. So through out the village old traditional houses have been turned into modern pieces of art without losing the appeal of the old world style. Benesse Corporation (one of the largest education companies in Japan and based in Okayama) has directed the creation and operation of the island's museums and other projects since the late 1980s. The whole look and feel of the island is quite unique.

dsc_0101 an open art space in the Chuchi Museum by Tadao Ando

dsc_0088an outdoor art-space by Cai Guo-Qiang

dsc_0133part of a series of art found on houses in the old village on Naoshima

dsc_0178this series of seascape paintings by Hiroshi Sugimoto continued beyond the Benesse Gallery onto the cliff face

dsc_0169Couple of cool fungi growing on Naoshima

p7120037this flower is carved from wood and is part of a series found all over the island

dsc_0214 the two iconic pumpkins of Naoshima by Yayoi Kusama

But the absolute highlight of Naoshima was Benesse House. This is the hotel on the island which is also just full of “art-spaces”. It’s like no other place I have ever stayed. The rooms were great, although no TV, no Internet – part of the whole art experience.

Watch this video to get the bizarre feeling of a hotel that is also an art gallery/museum. This was part of the walk from my room to the restaurant.

But the absolute cream on the cake, the final point that gave Naoshima the big tick from me was dinner at the Benesse House restaurant. This would have to rate as one of the best meals I have ever had. The Beef Cheek in Beer main course was so soft and delicate it was impossible to eat with a fork, it melted when you touched it. And the Tuna Tartare with all the bizarre additives was a total flavour explosion – to get the Tuna with every single added flavour was totally mind blowing. It was just an amazing dining experience to round off my visit to Naoshima – a bizarre art island in Japan!

the Mealdinner P7110023Tempura Beans and Croquette with lemon

dinner P7110025Gazpacho with marinated Jack Mackerel

dinner P7110026Tuna Steak Tartare with uncured ham jelly
plus capers, cream, avocado mousse, balsamic vinegar and lemon sauce

dinner P7110028Conga Eel with Purple Yam and Foi Gras-Red Wine Sauce

dinner P7110029Stewed Japanese Beef Cheek in Beer with Carrot puree

dinner P7110031Lemon Sorbet, with lemon segment, lemon zest & olive oil

dinner P7110032Chocolate ice cream with mint and rum jelly-balls

And that was just my first day in Japan………………….

Okayama and Naoshima

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