Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Chasing cherry blossoms in Kyoto

Every spring, the cherry blossom front sweeps its way across Japan. It starts in the south and moves its way north. It is fast, fleeting and blindingly beautiful.

If you were to videotape Japan from above, and then play it back in fast forward, you'd see a cotton-candy cloud of pale pink sweeping across the country, like the way sunlight races around the globe.

Blindingly beautiful and then gone. The cherry blossoms are a perfect metaphor for the fleeting nature of life. The idea that nothing is permanent or everlasting is a recurring theme in Japanese literature and poetry. And I think maybe that's why the Japanese appreciate cherry blossoms the way they do.

The entire country takes the arrival of the cherry blossoms very seriously. The nightly news report includes a segment tracking the movement of the cherry blossom front. Pictures of cherry trees are splashed all over the front pages of newspapers.

Across Japan, crowds of people are flocking to parks and gardens for flower viewing parties (known as hanami). Wherever there’s a tree in bloom, there’s a party happening underneath it.

You just spread a plastic tarp on the ground below a cherry tree and binge on booze while celebrating the fleeting beauty of the fluttering blossoms above your head.

When a shower of pastel petals floats down with every breeze, there is a gentle sadness in knowing the lives of the flowers will soon be over. But there is a beauty in the short-lived nature of the cherry blossoms too. It is an enjoyable sadness.

The cherry trees are just starting to bloom in Kyoto. I've been out taking pictures every day, and I'll continue to do so until the very last petal falls to the ground.

Maybe it's simplistic to say the sakura is my favourite flower. Maybe it's akin to admitting you like puppies and kittens (who doesn't?). But having a deep appreciation for life's transitory moments is something that resonates with me. And there is no more perfect metaphor for the fleeting nature of life than the pale pink cherry blossom.

More photos on my flickr page.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Hong Kong and Macau

Hong Kong is a rad city. There is no other way to describe it.

It is big, fast, noisy, crowded, exciting, polluted, vibrant, pungent and pulsing with life. It is everything that Kyoto is not. Being in Hong Kong made me feel like I've spent the past six months with the mute button on.

I think I had become so acclimatized to the calm, quiet, hyper-politeness of Japan that the streets of Hong Kong were an assault on my dormant senses. Bus engines roaring, jackhammers pounding, people yelling, neon blazing, incense burning, buildings towering, fish rotting, garlic frying. The city felt alive. I felt alive.

China is a country on the rise. Japan is a country in decline. You can feel it: it's palpable.

I'm not saying one is better than the other. They're radically different countries. There's no point comparing them. But it was interesting to go to a place like Hong Kong after living in a place like Kyoto. It was like I was seeing the city through Japanese eyes ("Why is everyone talking so loudly?" "Why is everyone cutting in line?" "Why aren't the sick people on the bus wearing surgical masks?").

Hong Kong is my kind of city.

I like cities with grit, grime and decrepit buildings. I like cities where it's okay to hang your laundry outside to dry. (What do Canadian cities have against clotheslines anyway?)

I like cities lit up at night with rainbow-coloured neon signs. Sunlight is nice but neon light is the most beautiful light of all.

I like cities with skyscrapers so high you have to crane your neck as far back as it can go to see the entire building.

I like cities surrounded by nature. Hong Kong is similar to Vancouver in that way. Both cities are geographically constrained by mountains and water so it's easy to get out of the city and into the hills.

I like cities that are close to other interesting places, like Macau. Macau is like Las Vegas, Portugal and Asia all rolled into one. I blew five dollars on the slots at the Casino Lisboa before cutting my losses and walking away. I'm not much of a gambler.

I like cities that are cosmopolitan, vibrant and multicultural. Apparently, there is a White Spot in Hong Kong. I didn't find the White Spot, but I did find the Keg. And a Russian ice bar.

Hong Kong is a rad city. You can find the rest of my photos here.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

On my way to Hong Kong

I'm spending the next six days in Hong Kong. It will be my second time in China. It will be my fist time in Hong Kong.

I don't really know what to expect. Hong Kong is always described in superlatives: The New York of Asia! The best skyline in the world! The most exciting city in China!

I haven't done much research beyond flipping through the Lonely Planet guidebook. Sometimes it's better to go in blind. Like going to a movie without having seen the preview. If the movie turns out to be good, the surprise factor makes it that much sweeter. If the movie turns out to be bad, it's not that disappointing because you had no expectations to begin with. I go to Hong Kong with no expectations. I am open to any adventure that comes along.

If the trip seems spontaneous and last minute, that's because it is. My classmate Elena and I simply wanted to get out of Japan and into somewhere new for a bit. She found a great deal on tickets to Hong Kong. With our scholarship money sitting in the bank and classes on hold until April, we thought why not? (Sometimes I am blown away by how good my life is. This is one of these times.)

Hong Kong awaits!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Curse of Colonel Sanders

There's a great story out of Japan this week. It is the stuff of legends: drunk Japanese baseball fans, a wild victory party, a statue of Colonel Sanders chucked into the river, a quarter century curse.

The story begins in 1985 when the underdog Hanshin Tigers won Japan's national baseball championship for the fist time in 21 years. Ecstatic fans celebrated by throwing a statue of Colonel Sanders into the Dontonbori River in Osaka.

Why Colonel Sanders? Well, to celebrate the victory, fans gathered on a bridge over the Dontonbori River. The supporters would call out a player's name and a fan who resembled that player would jump into the water. Because there was no one in the crowd who resembled American player Randy Bass, a few rabid fans stole a statue of Colonel Sanders outside a nearby KFC and chucked it in the river as an effigy (both Bass and Sanders had beards and were not Japanese).

With that one action, the Curse of Colonel Sanders had begun. Legend has it that Colonel Sanders cursed the Hanshin Tigers due to his anger over the treatment over one of his store-front statues. The Tigers have not won a single championship ever since.

Over the years, attempts were made to find the statue but it was never recovered. Divers were sent into the canal and the river was dredged in an effort to end the Tigers' losing streak. Colonel Sanders was never found. Fans blamed the statue's disappearance on the team's poor performance.

But guess what happened? Construction workers accidentally found the statue this week at the bottom of the Dontonbori River. The curse of Colonel Sanders has been broken!

The story was headline news all over Japan this week.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Cutest story ever

I didn't think it was possible, but it turns out there is a place in Japan that rivals the city of Obama for its ability to reinvent itself as a quirky tourist town.

Welcome to Wakayama where a cat named Tama has been named stationmaster of the local railway station. The cat has an office, wears a uniform and greets commuters as they come in and out of the station during rush hour.

Apparently, the cat has become so popular that the railway had to hire a human employee to assist the feline stationmaster.

A Japanese TV show did an in-depth report on the cat and the train station. The story is in Japanese but I've posted an English summary below (credit goes to James at Japan Probe for the translation).

1. Tama's popularity made it necessary for the railway to appoint a human employee to assistant the stationmaster. The assistant, Mr. Nishiyama, helps guide visitors to Tama.

2. The railway has been around for about 90 years, but changing times almost caused the railway to disappear in 2004. However, thanks to the efforts of local citizens, the railway relaunched itself under new management in 2006 as the Wakayama Electric Railway.

3. In January of 2007, the president of the railway decided that Tama, a cat belonging to a shopkeeper at an unmanned station on the line, would be named stationmaster.

4. Stationmaster Tama begins every day with a stretch on the floor of his master's shop. He then puts on his stationmaster cap and greets customers as they leave and enter the station during the morning rush hour. His master sometimes helps him wave to train passengers.

5. Much of Tama's day is spent entertaining fans who have come to catch a glimpse of the famous stationmaster. A shop at the station sells a variety of Tama-branded souvenir goods, including buttons, snacks, and a special photo book.

6. When Tama puts his front legs together, the patterns on his fur form a heart shape. It is said that it is good luck for couples to visit Tama and be shown the heart mark.

7. Stationmaster Tama sometimes gives radio interviews and attends local events as a VIP.

The Japan Times reports that the cat has drawn in thousands of tourists from across the country and has boosted the local economy by 1.1 billion yen. Tama's popularity is being credited with singlehandedly saving the railway.

This spring, the Wakayama Electric Railway will honour Tama with his own special train. It's not a special train for cats. It's a special train for humans. It's a regular train but with Tama's image plastered on each of the cars.

I'm totally catching the next train to Wakayama!