Thursday, 16 December 2010

Pieces of Japan: Day 11 - No Man is an Island

29th December 2009
Matsushima Bay, Tohoku, Japan

The famous saying goes that "No man is an Island", supposedly hinting at how desolate a man if left in a state of isolation; and yet, as I peered out into the sea and saw a spread of beautiful little islands that sprinkled the glistering blue waters, I couldn't help but find a little irony in it all.

Hailed as one of the "Three Sights of Japan"(日本三景 Nihon Sankei), as recognized by the poet Hayashi Razen in the 1600s based on his travels throughout Japan, short-listing breath-taking views across the land and arriving at the most awe-inspiring three, Matsushima Bay lives up well to its legacy and reputation, with a breath-taking 260 islands scattered over the span of the bay (also famous for her flavourful oysters).

Mostly comprising of coniferous pines which dressed the little islands in shades of light green that provided a pleasing visual complement to the sparkling blue waters, the sunny setting provided a sharp contrast to the rainy climb up Yamadera and the harsh snows of the Hokkaido region that we had just experienced a mere days before. In fact, the sunny weather reminded us a bit of our tropical home, as Winter seemed like nothing more than a tinge at the back of our minds, as we stood at the rear of the Cruise Boat staring up into the clear blue sky, with the wind in our hair.

Squint Hard and the Monk might Stare back at You

Cruises on different routes are readily available hourly at Matsushima Bay, as we settled for 50-minute one (after some convincing, on my part) that made a short round around the bay, highlighting most of her essential sights. Almost each and every island had a name, mostly historically-named based on their resemblance to certain people or objects. The most famous of which are Niōjima, which was named for resembling the head-shape of an old monk (squint hard at the photo and you'll notice), and Senganjima, Masamune Date's favourite island, which he joked about bringing back to his palace to his men while coasting the bay.

Seagulls followed the wake of the boat tirelessly, as they were probably conditioned to understand that a moving boat equates to a free meal, as the locals and tourists alike bought packets of prawn crackers and threw them skyward, only to be quickly swooped up by the agility of the following gulls. The flock of white slowly turned to brown, as the ratio between hawks and seagulls inversed as we moved further and further out to sea, eventually evolving into a cloud of brown with specks of white, before reverting to its original form as we returned to shallow waters.

And yet, the double irony of it all is thatthe admiration of the beauty and that each of these lonesome little islands provided when standing proudly on their amidst the wavering sea-waves, my inner reflections were more akin towards the beauty of their unity, patterns and spreads, reminding me on a conscious level, of the appreciation I had for the company more than surrounded me moreso than the beauty of isolation.

Creeping up on a Sleeping Duck, exactly what I mean

Through the last 11 days, though we've shared our ups and downs, our blames and shames; braved panic attacks, emotional mood swings, constant weariness and  the freezing cold; more than that, we had built many more unforgettable memories together, and while there is a joy to be had in travelling alone (which I was to validate in the months ahead), some things are simply better shared, and some experiences were amplified simply due to the presence of another - regardless of how distracted she could sometimes be, lost in her own world taking her photos, and just wandering off randomly. But more than that, the squeals of delight and the constant sense of wonder and amazement, or sometimes, just simply the knowing of her presence, definitely added much to the experience of travelling.

A long red bridge stood before us, sharply contrasting the clear blue waters that lay underneath. A splash of green lay at the other end, beckoning to us with its oriental bonsai-like shapes and luscious green leaves. Leading to Fukuura Island, one of the few islands in Matsushima that is open to the public, the local myth is that crossing the bridge with a partner in tow will eventually lead to a breakup. Fortunately, we were not local, hardly superstitious (at least not me), but most important, very much igonrant of this fact until very much later.

A fan of bridges, she was more excited about being on and crossing the bridge than anything else. I, on the other hand - while enjoying the salty sea-breeze in my hair, and  the change in pace of the foot-bound pilgrimage, as compared to our ship-lead expedition earlier -was my usual forward-looking self and sought the treasures that awaited us on the other end of the bridge.

And true enough, the memorial-treasures that awaited us on the other end were abundant enough for our long journey and much beyond that. Walking quietly around the island, sometimes off the beaten path, bathed in the golden sunlight seeping through the rustling tree leaves, the temperate flora and fauna created an impression of land and water unlike any of the typical coconut-laden beaches we had back home, and the sheer peace of the entire scene gave the impression that the island was made nicely just for two.

Sand and water still comprised the primary elements, but with drops of bright luscious green never too far away, and the unique oriental shapes of the darker green trees that presented themselves into the distance - as the islands got nearer and nearer to the horizon, silhouetted against the sun - they created an impression of a wholly different waterside aesthetic.

I walked to the edge of the viewing platform, tired from mapping and identifying the islands that stood in front of me based on the given map-like images; shelving extraneous knowledge aside simply to admire the Zen-like view of greens and blue, a perfect composition of trees, the sand, the waters and the sky singing in perfect visual harmony before my very eyes. Awe-struck and breath-taken, but hardly exaggerated or expressed; but rather, a simple and quiet type of awe that resonated deep within me as I looked on at nothing, and yet everything, clearing my mind and soothing my soul.

Rays of gold fell onto her soft, round face, as I took a moment off the sunset to look at her, with the usual child-like wonder in her eyes; smiling secretly to myself as I felt a sense of thankfulness amidst the entire setting. Reaching out for her hand, we sat there in silence, watching the golden setting sun slowly creep downwards, behind the silhouette of trees and islands that lay in the horizon, below eventually disappearing below it.

Matsushima Bay is said to have 4 different definite views to view the bay from, each supposedly providing a different perspective and aesthetic on the bay. I saw none of them, and yet, I didn't need either to justify or validate the beauty of the visual and mental photograph that I had just taken; an image that would rather surely be etched deeply in the recesses of my memory for a long, long time to come.

As we walked hand-in-hand, back across the bridge and under the pinkish hue of the dusk sky, I turned to look at her through the silence, and saw a silhouette of her face looking back at me, hardly being able to decipher her features within the silhouette, but enough to see warmness of a gentle heart smile smiling back at me. And through the silence, words rang out to me; words of wisdom, an age-old saying, indeed : "No Man is an Island".

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Pieces of Japan: Day 10 - Crying Zen

28th December 2009
Yamadera, Yamagata, Japan

The thudding sound of the footsteps through the snow-covered concrete came to a stunning halt, as I stopped short in my tracks. Silence filled the air, save for the sound of a singing winter-bird, singing her lonesome song that added much to the ambience.

Breath-taken and in awe, I stared out at the sight that lay before me. An implicit V-shaped formed by the green canopy of the coniferous trees on the left, and the cliff face of the mountain on the right, while a little red hut standing atop the cliff added a sharp colour contrast to the entire scene, as layers and layers of snow-covered mountains stretched out beyond and into the horizon through the visual-valley between. 

I have always liked mountain-top views, but this was nothing less than a perfect sight of Zen; a view befitting on of the famous mountain-temples in Japan.  

Slice of Zen on the Mountain Top

In fact, the name "Yamadera" itself simply translates directly to "Mountain Temple", probably hinting at its iconic status in the region. An age-old Buddhist temple, Yamadera was built atop and into a mountain, with the temple compound starting at the base of the mountain and stretching all the way to the top - with a view to die for, and a whole lot of Zen to gain - separated by an arduous 1,015 stone steps. It is said that the view that awaits at the end of these 1,015 steps at Godai-dou will make climbers forget about their weary feet, a visual-Nirvana I was determined to verify, as I looked up at the pavilion and knew that I only had a fraction of the ascension left to complete before I attained.

Upper Temple - The Holy Air Up There

There was just one thing left to do before making my final ascent to the peak, and that was to look for my travelling companion, however un-apt the word was for the day thus far. Visually combing the area that lay around me, I finally found her at the opposite end of a winding snow-covered walkway across me, as I saw her walking slowly in my direction. 

Winding Pathway of Death

The ascension had been a torturous one, partially physically - as I willed my feet to go on, one step at a time, watching the scenery around change from a quiet little temple at the bottom, to a quiet snow-covered path through the trees sprinkled with sacred temple monuments and statues, before arriving at the upper temple area, with the structures built into and atop the mountain, with views that would bring a Zen-tear to one's eye.

Yet, the physical toll was the least of my worries, as silence fell between us through the climb, oftentimes with her walking a good distance ahead, and me deliberately slowing down and to keep a sizeable distance between us, but still being able to keep an eye on her.

It was one of those tantrum-days, perhaps where traveller's-fatigue had already set in, and she was at best, non-conversational, and at worst, angry. They say that travelling together is potentially hazardous to a relationship, as arguments are bound to surface, and I guess I could see why.

As she made her way across the winding path towards me one step at a time, her body language indicated something was wrong, as I noticed that her steps were getting increasingly careful, and her arms were spreading out more. I stepped out onto the winding path towards her, hoping to meet her halfway, when I sensed that there was very little traction between my shoes and the snowy path, that almost had an icy-finish atop it.

As I approached her and entered within the radius of her reach, she fell into my arms, body shivering as tears rolled down her face; tears of fear and tears of foolishness - tears that were a result of the fear felt from her imagining herself slipping off the icy path and down the mountain side, perhaps tumbling to her doom. She's always had a more than vivid child-like imagination, and while I was holding her tight and comforting her, at the same time, I was secretly glad that that very same imagination broke the icy silence that fell between us for the last 2 hours of so.

They also say that travelling can help to bring 2 people closer together and strengthen a relationship; and perhaps in this almost-typical scenario of emotional support and dependency, I could see why.  I took her hand, as we walked slowly across the icy path to the base of the wooden pavilion; readying ourselves to scale the final flights of wooden steps to the view that awaited us on top.

Soba in the Little Town Below


Sendai: Starlight Pageant

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Piece of Japan: Day 9 - Time in a Coffee Cup

27th December 2009
Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan

I looked down into the darkness within the uniquely-shaped Coffee Cup, swirling it gently while gripping it by its handle, and watching the chocolate drink within ripple with my gentle movements.

I raised the cup to my lips to sip the rich, chocolate drink within; bringing a sense of warmth physically and emotionally, as I imagined the endorphins within my mind to be released as an after-effect of the consumption of all things chocolate.

I placed the cup down slowly on the table - hearing the soft clattering against the saucer resonate through the foreign-chatter that surrounded us, save for a table not too far off with an accent too familiar for comfort.

I remained silent, peering out of the window at a large field of white snow, stretching to a range of snow-capped mountains not too far off into the distance. Snow fell gently down, as with the few days before, but that made the cosiness of the indoor cafe all-the-more inviting.

She was fiddling with her camera as usual at the corner of my eye, as I continued to peer out into the distance, reminiscing before I had even left.

Sapporo had been kind to us, with her navigate-able grid-like layout, comprehensible transport system and a good amount of English-speaking people all round; the population of one-million to her city size was definitely comfortable without being crowded; especially compared to the Tokyo that we had just came from before that.

The day had been left deliberately free-and-easy for us to explore the city at our own leisurely pace, based on some of the sort-listed locations that we had marked out - allowing us to adjust our schedule ad-hoc-ly to our liking; a sheer pleasure that something more restrictive like a tour package would probably not had been able to provide us.

This freedom landed us in a cafe on the higher floors of the rustic Ishiya Chocolate Factory, sitting by the window panes peering out into the winter landscape if for no other reason than it being cosy, and possibly romantic (if only she would have stopped fiddling around with the flash, hah).

With its rich trademark taste deeply-infused in the signature and somewhat pricey Chocolate Drink, its namesake was well lived up to and proved to be the perfect companion for a cold, winter afternoon. One that was sandwiched within a day well-spent hopping about town searching for the famed Ramen Yokocho, a small-street cramped with 16 or so different ramen stores, for the necessary Hokkaido Ramen fix; and one that would take us to much greater heights atop Mount Moiwa for a breath-taking night view of the city and beyond, with lights that would stretch on for miles into the sea, outlining the unique and rather angular shape of beautiful island of Hokkaido.

Of course, she hardly knew what was in store for her later that evening, as she continued to fiddle with her camera frivolously; unaware of the height that had to be scaled via an odd, snow-tracked bus-like vehicle, and the overwhelming fear of heights that would set in as she approached the ledge to peer out into the distance of the night view.

But that was for later... for now 0 a smile lit upon her face as she brought the cup down from her lips, eyes-widening at the rich taste, and perhaps also from the cosiness of the entire experience.

The clock tower outside of window bustled with activity, as toy soldiers, bears and all manner of cuddly-types made their hourly parade, ushering in the new hour... and the sunset at four - an adjustment that I still hadn't been able to really wrap my head around after so many days in the country.

Everything was two hours faster in Japan, ten felt like noon, sunset was at four, and eight in the evening resonated with the deadness of a typical 10pm vibe. But it always revealed that time was often a matter of perception, and existed in the minds of people more than anything else.

As I brought my coffee cup to my lips and took the time to take another sip of that heavenly taste, I was just glad that I had made time - and it was entirely in my hands for that day.


Ramen Yokocho: 16-in-1

16 shops through that 1 Tiny Street

The Chef...

...And His Work


Ishiya Chocolate Factory: Like Disneyland, but Edible


Mt. Moiwa: The Colour and the Shape

Lights shaped the Island

Not picture: Tears in her Eyes

 Peering into the Past