Sunday, October 27, 2013

Duo Transatlantique guitar concert by Dubai Concert Committee

Guitarists Benjamin Beirs and Maud Laforest of Duo Transatlantique entertained with string harmony at Dubai Concert Committee's second concert of the season. A bit of classical, a bit of tango, and even three soundtrack pieces from the Oscar-winning film Amelie, interspersed with a little music history education from this young, good-humored pair. Not the kind of music to which I normally listen, but a very enjoyable evening nonetheless.

Friday, October 25, 2013

KR&JP 2013 Travelogue Day 15: Kamakura, Noh and improv

Nope, still foggy. But at least now I could get a view of the Imperial Palace moat (left top), on the west bank of which my hotel was located. Just as well that there was a fog around, because my busy schedule on my last day in Japan meant I had no time to enjoy morning views. Grabbing a canned coffee (center bottom) on the my way to the intercity train station (bottom left), I took a south-bound, skipping more touristy Yokohama to disembark at Kamakura Station (bottom).

Kamakura is a relatively quiet and small city today. About 8 centuries ago, however, it was the seat of power for the Minamoto clan's shogunate -- the first time the shoguns took paramount power and reduced the emperor to a figurehead. Their shogunate lasted less than one and a half centuries, and actual Minamoto control of it only lasted two generations, but it sent the precedent for the next 7 centuries of pretty much uninterrupted military rule by the samurai class.

Exiting the station, I walked up the long gravel, sakura-lined path (top right) between the roads of the city's axial avenue, passing through the torii (top left) at each end. On the way, I stopped by a senbei shop (bottom left) to try one of Kamakura's famous senbei i.e. rice crackers (bottom center). It is indeed worthy of fame, with a delicious flavor-laden glazing baked on a crisp cracker base. I also tried a local candied fruit lollipop (bottom right).

At the northern end of the path, I arrived at Tsurugaoka Hachiman-Gu. This shrine is dedicated to the Shinto war patron kami Hachiman, who is a deification of the Japanese emperor Ojin. Hachiman is also the patron kami of the samurai in general, and of the Minamoto clan in particular, so it made sense that the shogunate's founder built the shrine in the kami's honor, to celebrate his clan's triumph. Said emperor's mother, Empress (regnant, to boot) Jingu, is also enshrined here.

Ranked in the second tier under national purview, the shrine complex is centered around a hill. At the foot are a number of satellite buildings, including subordinate shrines and an ablution pool. I also noticed a wedding taking place in one of them. There's a lot of symbolism in the layout of the shrine complex, which is constructed in post-Buddhist architectural style. 

Ascending the hill by stairs takes one to the main shrine, the door to which is flanked by ni-o guardian warriors in glass cases. From here, one can get a good, high view of the surrounding area and the lower part of the complex. A small museum of Minamoto-era artifacts is perched next to it. The complex also contains a special Minamoto shrine (bottom right) and the Kamakura Museum of National Treasures, containing another stash of Kamakura and Ashikaga/Muromachi artifacts.

In recognition of the Minamoto contribution to Kamakura's history, the clan's sasarindo crest has been adopted as the city emblem, and can be found on many public works.

On my way out, I passed by a variety of demo-sized Japanese gardens.

A short eastward walk took me to the site of the tomb of Minamoto no Yoritomo, the founder of the shogunate, and pretty much the main reason for my coming here. Thanks to him and his brother, Yoshitsune, the Minamoto clan was not only brought back from near-extinction, but became the ruling clan of Japan. The Buddhist-style tomb (bottom left) is located at the end of a flight of stairs (top left) leading up a hill. The foot platform is marked with stelae (top right), and includes what appears to be a Shinto shrine (bottom right).

A little further east stands Kamakura-gu, the shrine to Prince Morinaga. This imperial prince (note the Chrysanthemum crest) was appointed shogun by his father, Emperor Go-Daigo, who united the courts and seized power from the Kamakura shoguns in the short-lived Kemmu Restoration. Morinaga was imprisoned and executed here by the Ashikaga, who stamped out the restoration attempt and established themselves as rulers of a new shogunate. After the Meiji Restoration, the Meiji Emperor, in a show of reestablished imperial authority, built the shrine to honor the martyr of his ancestral lineage.

I made lunch of a delicious Japanese beef curry plate at a small local pub, which I found among the quaint and quiet streets near the shrine/tomb area. I also enjoyed a chat with my bartender-server, who could speak English.

Despite being a small-ish city, Kamakura has a decent-sized museum of modern art, at which I spent about an hour checking out the exhibitions of works of Kano Mitsuo and other artists, and enjoying the view over the trees from the balcony cafe.

On my way back to the train station, I passed through one of the city's shopping streets, and sampled another one of Kamakura's specialties: croquettes.

Back in Tokyo, and knowing Japanese punctuality, I had to make good on arrival time for my two evening agenda points in Shibuya. I was literally running around in the light rain -- first to locate the Kanze Nohgakudo theater and buy my ticket, then to locate the Crocodile and tell them to hold my reservation, then to dash back to the theater in time for the Noh show (haha, see what I did there?).

Having watched Theatre Mitu's cross-cultural NYU Abu Dhabi performance of Athur Miller's Death of a Salesman, which included Noh/Kyogen theatre styles, I could not got to Japan and miss a Noh show (haha, see what I ... never mind). The theater was capacious and comfortable, most of the attendees were elderly, and all were Japanese. On a simple but beautiful L-shaped stage setup, hauntingly masked and gloriously costumed Noh actors and singers performed their hypnotic art. It's a very, um, slow performance to watch, but part of the beauty is in how everyone takes their time and is yet exactly on time, and the methodical ritual to every move and every word.

Ironic for me, because as soon as it was over, I thundered downhill through Shibuya, making it to Crocodile minutes before showtime. As I waited for the improv to begin, I ordered their house brew (bottom left) and alligator meat plate (bottom right). As expected, the latter tasted like chicken.

Tokyo's centerpiece of English-language improv, Improvazilla, gave us a show to remember. Apart from the games with which my own improv experience has familiarized me, they also played the blind variation of freeze tag, which was way more exciting than regular freeze tag.

About mid-way through the show, they performed a promotional collaboration with some drama performers, having the latter first act out a scene from their play, and then keeping one of the actors onstage to stick to his scripted lines while two impovvers joined him to improvise a scene around said lines based on an audience shout-out. This turned out to be my suggestion -- a pirate ship. What ensued was belly-hurting hilarity, as the drama actor acted out his rather philosophical script lines, while the improvvers played really confused pirates.

They were also fortunate to have a really good pianist to provide music and cues to complement the troupe's amazing musical improv skills. It was a most brilliant show, and even more so for an improv actor and fan.

For my final meal in Japan, I saved a visit to a proper sushi place: Sushi Daidokoya, also in Shibuya. Apart from a regular sushi sampler (top), I also ordered a couple of more exotic items, like sea urchin and horse meat nigiri (bottom left), to complete my experience of a real Japanese sushi bar.

With the heavy-in-the-gut feeling that typically accompanies the final day of a vacation, I took the express train to Narita airport the next morning, to fly back to Dubai via Seoul. Through the early stages of post-travel depression, I was quite pleased at how much of two countries I was able to squeeze into just two weeks -- covering history, art, and modern life, and even improvising and discovering along the way, without missing too many agenda points. All thanks to good planning, good research, discipline, and a bit of luck.

Aaaaand final notes:

(top left) Parking elevator files cars into high-demand parking blocks
(top right) Well, that's a slightly useless "pass"
(center right) Good way to save paper
(bottom right) I had no idea that 7-Eleven was also into banking
(bottom left) Damn right, if you're carrying a lighter of that size

Thursday, October 24, 2013

KR&JP 2013 Travelogue Day 14: History, art and anime in Tokyo

Arriving by Shinkansen at Tokyo early in the morning, I took the subways (yes, Tokyo is so huge, it actually has two separate multi-line subway systems that link at certain locations) to Akihabara in the hopes of getting my agenda for the neighborhood done with. Unfortunately, it was a little too early in the morning; practically no shops or museums were open.

No biggie, because I fell back on plan "B for breakfast" at the only official Gundam Cafe. This cafe is, as the name suggests, themed around the Gundam franchise. The space age decor and TV screens playing the anime are complemented by a menu that frequently makes visual or name-dropping references to the designs and characters in the Gundam universe, such as the Haro cake (bottom right). If I were there for lunch, I would have loved to have ordered a rice dish that would be shaped and decorated to look like a Gundam mecha head.

I then took a subway line east to see the history of Tokyo at the Edo-Tokyo Museum. The museum looks like a bit like an anime starship from the outside, but it contains a massive historical repository of the new-but-old city of Tokyo, known in the samurai age as "Edo". Among the impressive displays are detailed models and reconstructions of neighborhoods and buildings from medieval Edo.

Then there are the samurai armor and weapons, clothing and accessories from the Edo period, and various historical artworks, including intricate painted screens and life-like statues.

Other displays included reconstructions of daily life, modes of transportation, performing arts, and interactive scenes of life in old Tokyo.

Having missed the Kamigata Ukiyoe Museum in Osaka, I was pleased to find a big section on this wood block printing art, including a play-by-play of the fascinatingly precise block carving and coloring process.

Heading back to Akihabara, I took a little foot tour of the area, browsing the numerous electronics, gaming and anime merchandise shops in the district, while marveling at the garish signage.

Also in Akihabara, in the UDX building, I had a look at the Tokyo Anime Center. The place was not nearly as big or comprehensive as the ambitious name suggested, though. It seems to be mostly an event venue, and centered on manga and sketches. Anyway, I spent a few minutes browsing these and the merchandise, and watching a few anime clips.

Going south, and after quite a walk from the train station, I stopped by the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art (top left). I quite enjoyed this place; there was a delightful Yasumasa Morimura exhibition on, and some indoor and outdoor (top center) permanent installations were also interesting to ponder over a cup from the veranda cafe. My subsequent visit to the Ghibli Museum (bottom left) was, however, foiled; I found out too late that ticket purchase is required days before visiting. Even Totoro (right) looked shocked.

Next to the museum, though, was a quaint patisserie called Cote du Bois (top left). The Japanese seem to love these little European cafes, so I sampled some (amazing) cheescake at this one. Among other food trends I noticed in the country, by the way, are the apparent popularity of spaghetti and naan bread, even on menus that are otherwise devoid of sister foods.

I then bused down to the nearest train station area (top center) to grab some actual dinner at a beefbowl (top right), before taking the subways to the hotel. The beefbowl (bottom right), or gyudon, is basically a bowl of rice topped with beef and spring onion. I still had to get over the raw egg, but it's generously-proportioned and full of energy and umami, apart from being relatively easy to prepare and serve. This makes it popular as the quick, inexpensive belly-filler to have at any time of the day.

Much to my dismay, a thick fog began descending almost as soon as I reached the Grand Arc Hanzomon hotel. This is the last picture I could take before skyline visibility hit zero.

My final destination for the night was the Roppongi district (top left). This somewhat hilly place is famous for nightlife, for which competition appears to be fierce. That meant being persistently propositioned by touts (who, for some reason, seem to be almost exclusively West African) at every crossing.

Anyway, I finally made it to my night's highlight: Mori Art Museum (center left). The contemporary art museum, which gives an obvious nod to the anime/manga world, is located high up on the 52nd floor of the Roppongi Hills skyscraper; unfortunately, my hope for a good city view was ruined by the fog (bottom left). Anyway, I at least had a good look around the museum, including a special exhibition of Puella Magi Madoka Magica sketches and figures (center top and bottom). I ended the night with visits to a couple of Roppongi bars, and sampled the salty fried chicken chunks (right) that seem to be popular around here.

On to observations:

(left) Vending machine with handy categorized recycling drop unit.
(center top) Outdoor smoking tent.
(center bottom) No one can say no to kitty

(top left) Odd combination of hands-free soap dispenser and hands-on water tap
(center left) Handwash water reused to flush
(bottom right) Hanging ads on subway train
(bonus) It seems that the word "service", when used by itself, means "free" or "complimentary" in Japan.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

KR&JP 2013 Travelogue Day 13: Swords, castle, cats and cafes in Nagoya

I clearly remember when I first heard of Nagoya: an episode of the anime Love Hina, in which three lead characters kept getting lost while traveling through Japan.

Coming here was no accident for me, though; Nagoya is conveniently located between Keihanshin and Greater Tokyo, making it a convenient stop on the Shinkansen Central rail line between the two. It's also one of Japan's biggest cities and has quite an illustrious history.

I parked at the lovely Hotel "B" in the downtown area near Sakae for two nights, between which I had one full day to absorb as much as possible. Nearby sights included the 42m-tall Sky Boat ferris wheel (left), the TV tower (right), and an underground shopping center (center bottom). Nagoya, like many other cities in Japan, also has its own branded manhole covers, most intriguing to me of which were the happy water strider ones (centre top).

My first destination was Atsuta Jingu, a Shinto shrine complex located a few kilometres south of the city centre. It's a relatively less garish shrine, with simple wood or stone torii (left top). Yet, it is beautiful in said simplicity, covered with the lush forestation (right) and large gravel paths and yards (left bottom) that are kept free of autumnal debris by armies of attendants with their sieves and rakes.

The shrine complex buildings are constructed of plain dark wood in the older style of Shinto architecture, seen in its straight roofs topped with katsuogi logs and chigi crossing at the ends, all tipped, studded or otherwise decorated with gold (top). The shrine sees many tourists, as well as numerous devotees (bottom).

One of the reasons for the popularity of Atsuta Jingu is its status as the repository of Kusanagi no Tsurugi, a legendary sword of divine origin. This sword is also one of the three items comprising the imperial regalia of Japan; naturally, then, this shrine is top-ranked.

Housing the sword also links the shrine to the story of the legendary-era prince Yamato Takeru (depicted left), who borrowed the sword from his aunt at Ise Shrine (another top-ranked shrine housing imperial regalia) when his father, Emperor Keiko, sent him on a dangerous mission.

After his adventures with the sword, he passed away and the sword, it is said, came to be housed here. The shrine is thus dedicated to him, along with deities and other figures associated with Kusanagi no Tsurugi, such as storm god Susanoo and sun goddess Amaterasu.

Appropriately, the shrine complex also features a modest sword museum. Displayed therein are numerous intriguing sharp-edged treasures, such as a sword decorated with crests of both Toyotomi and Tokugawa, a daikatana in a scabbard decorated with both Toyotomi and imperial crests, and a very over-sized katana (right). Kusanagi no Tsurugi, as with the other imperial regalia, was not available for public viewing.

I walked a couple of blocks northwest to visit a neighboring site, the Danpusan Kofun. While it's not the largest keyhole kofun, and although it is, like most large kofun, grown over, it simultaneously has enough girth to impress, while being small enough to walk around and make out its shape -- visitors are allowed fairly close to the perimeter. According to legend, it also has a link to Atsuta Shrine: it is said to be the tomb of Yamato Takeru's wife, Princess Miyazu.

Next up, I took a train back to the city centre for the city's architectural and historical icon: Nagoya Castle. This castle, in its earliest incarnation, dates back to just before the early Sengoku period, and was initially an Oda stronghold. When the Tokugawa shogunate was established, it became the primary residence of the Owari branch of the ruling clan. The castle dominated the old city (top), with a wide moat (centre) protecting the fortified residence within. Today, the state maintains the premises, including the lovely gardens (bottom left), and the remains of old structures that have yet to be restored (bottom right).

One thing that is likely to catch a visitor's eye on entering the site is the Omotenashi Busho-Tai (top), a troupe of actors who promote local tourism by suiting up and playing snazzed-up versions of characters associated with Nagoya. These include the Sengoku three -- Oda Nobunaga (said to have been born at the castle itself), Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu (bottom left) -- along with three other famous lords and a few foot soldiers (bottom left), all in colorfully dramatized costumes and armor. Notably missing is the first ruling shogun, Minamoto no Yoritomo, who was also born in Nagoya; I hope they add him to the troupe some day. At a kiosk within the castle grounds, some of their merchandise (bottom right) is also available.

Architecturally-skilled samurai general Kato Kiyomasa (also represented among the Busho-Tai) was in charge of much of the critical construction, including that of the foundation block of the main keep. A statue of him (left) presumably directing construction activity stands on a rock within the castle grounds.

Around the grounds are numerous ancient trees, some so old they require support. (top right). A golden fish/dolphin/orca creature (kinshachi), like those that bite down on the ends of the highest roof of the main keep, sits in a display area nearby (top centre), so that visitors can get a closer look.

A large shelter has been set up near the main keep to house the reconstruction of the Honmaru castle palace, and the onsite reconstruction activity workshops are partially open for public viewing (bottom right). Here, one can see dedicated craftspeople cut wood to precision and piece them together into building components consistent with the original construction techniques.

The castle's two keeps -- a main keep of five levels (bottom) and an entrance keep of two levels (top left) -- are connected by a bridge, and both sit atop foundation blocks that are built slightly concave for added stability. Many stones used in the castle's construction can be seen marked with symbols (top centre), which were required to track the various lords' contributions to the construction. Like Osaka Castle, the roofs here are tiled with patina-green copper, although they are more curved than those at Osaka. The Fumei Gate (top right) opens into the inner compound.

(clockwide from top left) Dolls; Scale model of the old city; Honmaru wall painting; box with Tokugawa crests; stirrups with mother-of-pearl inlay; samurai armor

Within the main keep is a multi-storey museum, in which various samurai-age artifacts, models and reconstructions are exhibited, along with information about the construction and features of castle itself. A smaller museum outside exhibits examples of doll-making craftsmanship (top left).

From the viewing deck on the seventh floor, beautiful views of the city can be had over the penultimate roof.

Part of the reconstructed Honmaru is open to visitors (top left and bottom right). It's the only palace interior on my trip in which photography was permitted, so I was able to capture these gorgeous shots of the gold leaf paintings (top right, top centre, bottom centre, bottom left) that decorated the walls within. The non-uniform lighting made the vivid paintings of animals (mostly feline or avian) and plants against gold leaf backgrounds all the more striking.

My final historical site of the day was Ozone Shimoyashiki, the other residence of the Owari Tokugawa. Past the complex's black gate (top right) and off to the left is Tokugawaen, the Tokugawa Garden. It's a typical samurai lord's grand garden, replete with quaint paths, bridges (bottom left) and pavilions (bottom right) amid gorgeous landscaping.

Water features center on the huge lake, with its bridges (bottom right), its causeway (top right) -- supposed to have been inspired by the Su Causeway across Hangzhou's West Lake, incidentally -- and abundant colorful koi (bottom centre). Streams run through the garden, occasionally dropping levels in small waterfalls (top centre). After taking in this verdant treasure, I visited the nearby Tokugawa art museum (left) to check out its large collection of artifacts and artworks from the shogunate.

With historical stuff out of the way, it was time for some alt (well, alt to the rest of the world) nightlife on the streets of Sakae (left and bottom right) and Osu, including the famous Akamon Street (top right).

First up, a feline indulgence at Cat St. in Sakae. This establishment is one of Nagoya's well-known spots in the neko cafe business, in which people pay to spend time with cats -- useful when you love cats, but can't keep one due to time or space constraints. The cafe is a large hall up the stairs from the entrance (top left), with an attached kitchenette and washroom.

You get a capped coffee mug when you enter; while you're there, coffee and some other soft beverages are self-serve and free (in Japan, the word "service" means "complimentary", apparently). And there are, of course, plenty of cat toys, cat trees, cat tunnels. catwalk wall shelves, and the like (top right). The atmosphere is inviting and calm (bottom left); the unwritten rule -- assuming it's not written on the kawaii illustrated rule poster (bottom right) -- seems to be to not chat up fellow patrons, and focus all of one's attention on ...

... kittehz! I spent two sessions (30 minutes each) playing with the dozen or so furry residents of various ages, breeds and coats. The cats take the attention sportingly, probably having gotten used to it over the months or years.

I then visited two theme cafes in the Osu area, the first of which was Mai Leaf, a maid cafe (top). Here, the waitresses dress up in Victorian-style maid costumes, while doing their jobs with quaintly antiquated mannerisms, in a setting with ambiance and decor to match. The "maids" were friendly and very welcoming  to their solitary foreign customer that evening, despite seemingly not speaking any English apart from a very enthusiastic "OKKKKAYYYY!!". Quite an experience.

The other was Carnival☆Stars, an idol cafe (bottom). This place is staffed by young ladies who, as per the business model of this sector, work in Japanese popular entertainment. A little more communication was possible here, since my server knew a smattering of English; thanks to her and the TV screens all around, I came to be acquainted with more updated information on the Japanese idol scene, including the likes of BABYMETAL and Shoko Nakagawa. The staff were also dressed up as cutesy horror characters; Halloween, which was more than a week away, is huge in Japan, and this kind of makes sense if you consider that they have a big thing going with cosplay here.

On to F&B. Ticking this one off my list, I grabbed a cup at Doutor (top left), a mainstay of Japan's coffee culture. And while it's technically a Hawaiian-Japanese food, I finally got my first taste of the very blasphemous SPAM musubi (top right). At the idol cafe, I tried a few bar snacks, such as edamame (bottom left) and katsu sticks (bottom right).

For my more substantial meals, I had a meat floss and vegetable bowl the previous night (top left), and a pretty substantial bento the next morning (bottom right) on the Shinkansen ride out. The day's lunch was tempura shrimp with rice and soup, at the Nagoya Castle restaurant (top right); I'm guessing that this dish is intended to allude to the castle's kinshachi. And for dinner, I wolfed down a very hearty donburi, a bowl of rice topped with minced/flossed fish or meats with vegetables, at the Honmaru restaurant in Sakae (bottom left). Quite yummy, and I had by now gotten used to the idea of dropping raw eggs on food.

(top left) It's actually pronounced "O-zo-ne".
(top right) I guess this fish has something to do with Nagoya?
(bottom left) Smoking is prohibited even on pedestrian paths in some places, lest one run into a back-waft; I guess it must be limited to alleys or smoking rooms.
(bottom right) Give up your seats for the elderly, the pregnant, the child-holding, the disabled, and the ... lovesick? Just kidding, I know what it means.