It is always a unique pleasure to have two weeks holiday in one go. I rarely manage it – the last time in 2015 – and it is even rarer for me to stay in one place for the whole fortnight; I can’t recall the last time I did so – unless you count Peru in 2010, of which the first few days were a conference, and the next 10 a tour around the country. This holiday, Colin and I have taken one cottage for the whole two weeks (albeit that we spent two nights away from it, last week, on Westray and Papay) and this is a wonderful, relaxing, and rare treat.
Hoy, South Walls and Flotta
Our first excursion in this second week, was to the south western islands of the Orkney archipelago. We couldn’t visit them all, but it was fairly easy, in a day trip, to take the ferry across from Houton on the southern coast of the main island across to Lyness on Hoy, drive across the causeway from there to South Walls, and get off the ferry on its way back from Hoy on the island of Flotta, catching it again an hour and a half later to get back to Houton.
The single really rewarding and indeed awe-inspiring sight on this trip was the famous Dwarfie Stane on Hoy. This incomparable marvel of the ancient world, contemporary with the other Neolithic archaeology of the Orkneys, is a single huge stone – a glacial erratic dropped millennia before in a stunning glacial gorge through the mountainous territory of Hoy – that has been painstakingly hollowed out, to provide a small chambered tomb. The amount of work required – with bone and stone tools – and the simply stunning location, are surely signs that this must have been a very special burial, indeed. The plug-stone, that sealed the tomb, now lies outside it, where it was pushed by grave-robbers who broke into the chambers from above (the roof now repaired by conservators). I have never seen anything like it, and indeed I believe there is nothing else like it anywhere in the UK, at least. Simply magnificent – though, as Colin said, it was perhaps disappointing not to see any dwarves.
The rest of Hoy, South Walls, and Flotta, I’m sorry to say, that we saw, are rather drab. The whole area is littered with World War I and II remains, rotting, rusting and crumbling away, sad shells of what were once hastily put-together barracks, munitions buildings, ‘batteries’, and gun emplacements. Oh, and, of course, the 1970s North Sea oil terminal on Flotta. The general feel of these islands, then, away from the ancient grandeur of the glacial interior and its megalithic jewel, is one of decay, waste, and the worst of 20th century industry and refuse.
By the end of the day, then, although happy to be able to tick off three more islands from our spreadsheet – including one of the ‘Top 20’ largest scottish islands (Hoy) – we were glad to return to Unigar cottages.
The contrast, on our next excursion, could not have been greater. Taking the (very) early morning flight from Kirkwall – 15 minutes in the same plane that took us from Westray to Papa Westray – we flew to the furthest north of the Orkney Islands: North Ronaldsay. This island is even smaller than Papay, and has only one archaeological jewel: the ‘Stan Stane’ (disappointingly merely Scottish dialect for ‘Standing Stone’). This stone is, however, at over 13ft high, one of the tallest standing stones in the Orkneys (the tallest being on the island of Eday – which we’re saving for our next trip to the northern isles). The Stan Stane is said to have been the site of annual dancing among the locals, on the New Year.
It sports, moreover, uniquely, a small hole in the middle, although there seems not to be any record of marriage or birthing rituals similar to those at the holed stone at Stenness.
North Ronaldsay also boasts a unique breed of sheep. DNA tests on bones found in Scara Brae suggest that the North Ronaldsay breed are in fact likely the survivors of the sheep first brought to the northern isles at the start of the Neolithic here, c4000BC. A small, hardy breed, some grey, some black, some white, and a few brown or ‘tanny’ in colour, they were kept, when the rest of the island was given over to cattle, by the building of a wall or dyke all around the island, demarcating the beach area for sheep, and the inland pasture for cows. North Ronaldsay sheep, as a result, eat seaweed, and can develop copper poisoning if allowed to eat too much pasture. Their mutton is said to have a distinctive flavour, as a result, and is much prized at specialist restaurants. The lady in the Post Office claimed to have sold some of her sheep to The Star Inn, Harome – one of my favourite restaurants, where Colin and I had our 2nd Anniversary. (After Honeymooning on the Isle of Arran, our first anniversary was in Lerwick, Shetland, our third on the Isle of Coll.)
We had a fascinating tour of the North Ronaldsay Lighthouse – though I elected not to climb to the top, after our four mile walk from the airport to the Stan Stane to the lighthouse, and with another two and half miles yet to walk back! But after a lovely lunch in the little cafe, (though there was no mutton on sale!) I could not resist a ‘tanny’ North Ronaldsay sheepskin from the little Lighthouse shop, and we walked back to the airport via Linklet bay, watched all the way by the seals.
I have stayed three times, now, at the wonderful Unigar Cottages, and ought really to give them a plug. Very comfortable, well appointed, and in a quiet part of the island near to Scara Brae, but only 25mins drive from Kirkwall and less to Stromness, and only 10mins to the Ness of Brodgar.
Here, too, this time, we have befriended a young ginger tom, who has delighted our evenings with his skittish affection.
The Orkneys have pretty much everything. As one local told us, on Papa Westray, Kirkwall is the centre of the universe, and indeed it has all the sporting and leisure activities one would expect of a good sized town, and supermarkets, pubs, hotels, clothes and specialist shops, as well as an airport (serving the isles, Aberdeen, and Manchester) and the ferry port. But the Orkneys have a population of little over 20000, and there is plenty of space, of green, and only one murder in the last 20yrs (a very strange affair, I’m told.)
Orkney also has some fabulous restaurants, including the wonderful Foveran, where we had this year’s Wedding Anniversary dinner, and a fantastic evening it was too!
In the summer of 2018, Colin and I returned to the Orkneys. On our visit in 2015 we had seen pretty much all there is to see on the ‘mainland’ island, and taken the quick and easy crossing to Rousay to see the four chambered cairns in a row there, including the impressive MidHowe. This time, we’re here for a fortnight, with many of the other smaller islands as our principal goal.
Ness of Brodgar
The first weekend was of course dedicated to revisiting the Ness of Brodgar archaeological site, to see the latest finds. We were lucky to be here in time for the second of two ‘Open Days’ when the archaeologist, Nick Card, and his team were on hand to introduce all comers to the site, the finds, and a range of demonstration activities.
I headed straight for the latest finds, and exclaimed ‘There it is!’ as I saw the colourful polished stone axe that was found this summer, towards the beginning of this year’s dig.
As I then looked up, I soon realised it was in fact Nick Card who was standing in front of me, explaining more about the recent finds, and how much he especially liked the smaller, plainer, but exquisitely carved polished axe (to its left in the picture above), which, he told me, was more likely ceremonial, or a gift, whereas the more colourful one showed enough signs of wear to likely have been in use, all those thousands of years ago.
Ring of Brodgar
On the next day, we took the Heritage Scotland tour of the Ring of Brodgar, which was really interesting, and introduced us to a whole different way of looking at the ring: the henge (though without an outer bank it is arguably not like any other ‘henge’ monument) when cleared of vegetation, reveals quite light coloured stone, which would have made a clear whitish circle visible for miles around. It had been dug out in ‘sausage shaped sections,’ possibly by different communities, before each section was finally knocked through to the others, to complete the ring. Moreover the stones seemed also to come from various parts of the island, erected upon the ring nearest to their origin, perhaps representing, or erected by the same communities who had dug that section of the ring. The monument becomes more like a community space, perhaps for meetings (where marriages, for example, could be arranged) or some kind of parliament, or perhaps where markers of special events in that community could be laid, from time to time. In this way, the ring becomes a process, rather than a finished monument with a purpose. All fascinating stuff. But of course no-one really knows….
Isles of Westray and Papay
Our first big excursion from the ‘mainland’ of Orkney was to the Westrays.
We took the car ferry from Kirkwall to Rapness, and drove slowly up to Pierowall – the only town on Westray – where we had a room in a lovely B&B for the night: No.1 Broughton. Our host cooked us a very nice dinner.
On Westray, there were two principal visits to make: the Westray Heritage Centre, where one can find, on display, the Pierowall Stone, a stone decorated in a very similar manner to those found in Knowth, Ireland, found in the local quarry;
and the Westray Wife, one of three figurines – the only representations of humans found in any Neolithic dig in Orkney, unearthed at the Noltland Links neolithic site, near to Grobust beach, in 2009. Here – faintly – one can see the ‘eye-brow’ motif on the face of a human figurine for the first time.
This site was a second visit, where we were fortunate enough to be given a free – if quick – guided tour to the site, where there are a wealth of both neolithic and bronze age buildings, being gradually uncovered by wind and rain, as the sand dunes are gradually denuded in a shift in weather patterns that first revealed the archeaology beneath in the early 2000s. There are decorated stones here, paved walkways between the houses, and thousands of finds awaiting dating and -eventually – display.
The following morning we took the shortest scheduled flight in the UK – the 2 minute journey to Papa Westray – known as Papay by the locals. Here we stayed at the Beltane House Hostel – a community run affair built recently with good funding and very comfortable.
On Papay there are again two principal sites to visit, the first of which we saw on the first day as part of the all day tour with the Papay Ranger, and second on a special trip he took us on, by boat, on the following morning. The first notable site is the Knap of Howar, a Neolithic dwelling similar to, but slightly older than Scara Brae, and was inhabited between 3600BC and 3100BC. [For comparison, the Great Pyramid of Giza was completed c.2560BC, and the henge at Stonehenge – the first part of that monument, was constructed in 3100BC, the final site completed about 1600BC .] The Knap of Howar is very impressive, showing very fine masonry, the distinctive ‘dresser’ style internal furniture, and walls (now surrounded by earth to help keep them up) several feet thick and high. The two buildings are all that is visible of who knows how much more.
And secondly the Holm of Papa, a tiny island off Papay where there are two cairns, the most impressive of which, the South Cairn, with a new concrete roof, includes in its SE chamber three wonderful neolithic carvings. It is likely, in the fourth millennium BC, that the sea-level was lower, and the Holm of Papa a rise, beyond a low-lying, possibly marshy area of Papay, rather than a separate island. It is possible even Papay was connected to Westray.
The carvings in the cairn, along with chevrons and dots, also display the ‘eye-brow’ motif common to many of the decorated stones in this area.
I planned to come to Mihintale to be here for the New Moon (at 11am GMT 20/09/17). I did not know whether there would be any ceremony to witness. Poya – The Full Moon – is a national holiday each month. I was very pleased to see a few people with a horn player and two drummers like at the Galadari conference (only no dancers this time). They brought a golden covered tray with small pots of food offerings to each of the special places at the top of this mountain. I followed them to take pictures at each place where they made their offering and to clasp my hands in prayer and meditate celebrating the New Moon. At the last, they beckoned me forward: I touched the lid as I had seen others do, but again he beckoned, saying ‘take it’. I had noticed them taking turns to carry it. So I took the tray, reverently, and I carried the tray up to the altar of the central stupa (the spot where Buddha sat in meditation on his third visit to Sri Lanka), placing it on the altar and, as I had seen them do at the bigger stupa above, lifted the lid to make the offering. We all stood back to clasp our hands in prayer, as the horn player and drummers played. Then they beckoned me to take it up again, and carry it through to the private area past the guards. As we walked, one asked me, “Are you Buddhist?” I hesitated, and said merely, “I try.” They liked this.
I followed the guard up into the office where I put down the tray, and fresh food offerings were placed in the pots. Then they beckoned me one last time to carry the tray again through to the relic house, and place it at the high altar. This was a very beautiful inner sanctum, with elephant tusks, rich cloths, and a seated Buddha with an altar in front with flowers, and room for the tray. Such a privilege and honour, to stand with the monk, the musicians, the followers, hands clasped, mind still, at the very moment of New Moon, at the crest of Mihintale. Thanking the monk for the honour, he said “Buddha bless you,” and I went back to the public area, beaming. Easily the highlight of my trip!
The Wilpattu National Park is famous for its leopards. Eco Team Big Game Safaris offer a night in a large square tent inside the park, with candlelit fireside dinner, and a jeep safari to see the animals. A 16month drought ended with rains a few days before my arrival, so there were plenty of insects (!) but this wasn’t so much of a problem. The inner tent has a double bed with a mosquito net! What I found difficult was the heat. Since arriving in Sri Lanka I have been in air-conditioned hotels. This was my first experience of a true Sri Lankan night. I had no appetite at dinner, and barely touched my food, drank less than half my can of beer. In the day, it had been 34′. Thankfully i had descended from Mihintale before it reached 30′, but my visit to the Vedda Cave Carvings was a river of sweat. At Wilpattu, at night, it did not fall below 28′. I sat in front of the fan in the settee area of my tent, sweating, for a while, then retreated from the moths and flies to the inner tent, inside the mosquito net, the second fan playing gently against the net as I tried to sleep.
Awaking at 5.15am, as instructed, I was at the meeting tent at 5.30am for my jeep. Some other guests, (Dutch, German, Australian, French, two Chinese girls) all got into the jeeps they had had the previous evening. Asking about mine, the staff there seemed unaware that I had booked a safari. Perhaps slightly shorter tempered than usual, (I had barely slept, just hoping the night would be over soon) I showed them the email, proving my booking. They got onto the phone with their manager, who assured me my driver was now on his way. The staff there said it was his mistake. He arrived a minute or two later blaming the driver for miscommunication. All-in-all not a great start: this was easily the most expensive outing of my trip, and wasn’t turning out too well thus far.
At the park, we were joined by a very friendly and knowledgeable Park Guide, and made off into the National Park. I saw Spotted deer, the National Bird – Jungle fowl; a Stork billiard kingfisher and various Kites and Eagles, Monitor lizards, and Jackals. Of the dozen or so jeeps out on safari this morning, however, only one was lucky enough to see a leopard, for a few seconds, and no-one saw any bears. I, however, along with my guide, was fortunate enough to witness – for about three seconds (too short a time to get to my camera) – a Tusker! Of all the elephants I have seen here in Sri Lanka this was the only one with tusks – and big 3-4ft long tusks they were too. My guide said this was very rare indeed. He was clearly excited. I also saw Wild buffalo, Grey headed fish eagle, and Green bee eater birds. I’m no David Attenborough so offer no wildlife photos from here. See what I managed to snap on Flickr.
Leaving Wilpattu late morning, meeting up with my driver Rohana again, we made for the last excursion of my trip – Mannah. This part of Northern Sri Lanka is mostly Tamil. Tamils are more Muslim, Hindu and Catholic, and less Buddhist, than the rest of the country. The Buddhas here seem mostly to do with the large police and army presence, underscoring the victory of the majority over the ethnic minority separatists only a few years ago.
Along the way were two more temples – the great Catholic Church complex at Maddhu, and the Thiruketheeswaram Shiva Temple. The former, to be honest, I found rather dull, but (from the crucifix and Jesus-pendant in the car) I guess my driver is from the Christian community here, and he was clearly interested to visit this place. As I told him, I have been to Jerusalem and to the Vatican – ‘so you see plenty churches,’ yes. The Thiruketheeswaram Shiva Temple, on the other hand, is something I have never experienced before, but, in a different way, was also rather disappointing.
The Temple was ‘under renovation’, with no access inside; all the statues from inside were arranged in a great shed outside the Temple, but there was no access inside the shed either. What was strangest, in the 33′ heat, was that to enter the complex at all, one had to not only remove one’s hat and shoes – which I am used to now from the Buddhist temples – but one must also remove one’s shirt!
Mannah itself is an island promontory jutting out into the Indian Ocean, petering out into a series of islands that then at last become a new promontory jutting out from southern India. This is known as Adam’s bridge, and the beach where this begins was my final visit of the day.
Tomorrow begins the long journey back south, for a last night, at Negombo, before the flight home, with just a couple more temples along the way.
Manavari and Chilaw
To break up the long journey, a little research revealed a fascinating Shiva Temple at Manavari, just short of Chilaw, where we could stop for lunch. This little known temple in fact houses one of only two Ramalingams in the world (the other in India), so called because the Shivalingam venerated inside this temple was made, according to the chronicles, by Lord Rama himself. Here, the Hindu priest sat on the steps of his temple, speaking with two or three devotees, and welcomed me with a warm smile, beckoning me in to visit, and to take photographs. Reverently, I entered, and soon discovered at the back of the temple the inner sanctum where the Ramalingam was kept, draped in a cloth. Returning to the steps, I smiled and said, “Ramalingam” and the priest nodded smiling, enthusiastically explaining that this lingam was 10000 years old!
I asked him if there was also an Ardhanarisvara statue here – perhaps I did not pronounce this properly, or it is known to him by another name. I explained by saying “Shiva, Pavarti” and miming the two together by clasping my hands and threading my fingers together, hoping this would convey the hermaphroditic union of the God and Goddess in one deity that is Ardhanarisvara. He nodded, explaining there was one on the left hand side of the temple. I looked, and found an old blackened statue there, but was not sure this was the one I sought.
Shortly further down the road, at Rohana’s suggestion, after lunching in Chilaw – a rather hot but very tasty Sri Lankan rice and curry – we also stopped at Chilaw’s Kali Kovil Temple. Here, I caught the eye of the Hijra (the third gender of the Indian subcontinent, often a specifically religious one, and clearly a much respected devotee here) who took it upon him/herself (perhaps after seeing me put notes into the donation box) to show me around, introducing me to each of four different statues, beckoning me to photograph each.
Then s/he brought me forward to the altar, instructed me to bow, placed his/her hand upon my shoulder, and proceeded to chant a blessing for me -helpfully explained here and there in English- for good fortune on my travels. I was most grateful! What an honour, on this trip, to have received, without seeking it, the blessing of both a Buddhist Monk and a Hindu Hijra, at their Temples. I am blessed indeed! Just outside the Kali Temple, at a stall packed with Indian brass statues, I spotted a heavy brass Shivalingam, and with the aid of my driver, Rohana, paid not too handsome a price for it, to bring home as a keepsake of my Hindu blessing.
At last, then, to the Heritance Negombo – a wonderful beach hotel just 20minutes taxi ride from Colombo airport, for my final night, and a fantastic sunset view from my bedroom.
I was fortunate enough, in September 2017, to attend an academic event in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
As in the past, I took some annual leave whilst in the country, as soon as the work was over, to get outside the hotel and conference centre and actually see something of the country itself – especially of its rich history, many thousands of years old, and of its rich flora and fauna. It is not, however, a rich country, financially, and even after the shrinking of its value since the summer of 2016, the British pound still goes a long way here: there were many times I felt very privileged, and the tips I gave, though seemingly small to me, meant a lot to those who received them. You can haggle, but when the price is £3, why bother to argue it down to £2.50?
After my week in the very nice, but corporate hotel/conference complex in Colombo (where a plush dinner is £15), I spent a couple of nights at Jungle Tide – the retirement villa Homestay of two old friends from the theatre world, where I received a warm and comfortable welcome.
Homestays are like Bed and Breakfast, but they’ll cook dinner for you too, and make you welcome in the lounge. This was just the antidote I needed to the working week in Colombo, perched in the mountains above Kandy, treated to the fireflies in the evening, monkeys squabbling in the trees. The large rat snake (so called because it eats rats) that I disturbed on the path in the morning – thick as my arm and probably as long as I am tall – gave me a fright, but all they eat is rats, so I wasn’t in any danger. At least it wasn’t a python – which of course can kill with a single bite!
Sad to say, it is still illegal in Sri Lanka to be gay. A legacy, no doubt, of colonial times. In this, as in many parts of the world, same-sex relationships in a variety of forms were commonplace before the arrival of the bigoted and discriminatory Christian Europeans. But here, perforce, I have had to retreat, quietly, back into the closet, for a couple of weeks, answering questions like “Are you married” with an affirmative that then describes my spouse with a female pronoun. Yes, “she” is well, but could not join me this time. Yes I will bring “her” next time. Sadly, with two sisters in their late sixties running Jungle Tide in the absence of my theatre friends, already used to this from Colombo, I stayed in this temporary holiday closet, not wanting to risk spoiling the enjoyment of the homestay with a challenge they might not welcome. Who knows, they may have been very accepting, but I did not want to run the risk. With the Sri Lankans, I am not prepared to take any such risk.
Between my two nights’ stay at Jungle Tide I took a tuk-tuk ride down into Kandy itself. The tuk-tuk is ubiquitous in Sri Lanka: a sort-of three-wheeler moped taxi, mostly open air, not very fast, and driven largely by mad people!
Don’t even think about hiring a car and driving anywhere yourself in this country: the roads are insane. What you do is hire a car and driver – I got one from reputable company Mahaweli, arranged for me by my theatre friends at Jungle Tide, and driven by mid-late 20s man-of-the-world-in-the-making, Rohana. Mahaweli are a company whose owner-director is only 38, and all his employees between 25 and 35. Rohana answers the phone with “Hello, Sir” all the time, perhaps especially with his employers as much as with potential clients. (The phone rings all the time while we are driving, and there is no hesitation to answer and talk while at the wheel, here.) He is a very friendly, helpful, hospitable fellow who has tried really hard to make me welcome and to ensure I enjoyed my stay, and learnt about the country and enjoyed its hospitality. I would certainly recommend Mahaweli – and Rohana – to any tourist in Sri Lanka, including gay men such as myself, missing their husbands at home. I have no idea what his reaction might be to this knowledge, but didn’t want to risk the potential estrangement a bad reaction might bring. What a gay couple holidaying together here might do, I have no idea. But this country has so much to offer, that these personal questions are, when you are a solo traveller at least, relatively easy to set aside.
The greatest attraction at Kandy is the Temple of the Tooth – a reliquary temple for one of the teeth of Siddharta Gautama Buddha, brought to Sri Lanka in the 3rd century BC.
Whoever holds it holds the governance of the country. After some years in Anuradhapura – the ancient capital for many centuries – it came to Kandy, the last Sri Lankan kingdom to hold out against the European colonial powers, and, after some time in British hands, it is kept again in this fantastic temple by an artificial lake in the high mountain town of Kandy. The majority of the Sinhalese are Buddhist.
Journey north from Kandy
At Aluvihare Rock Temple, in Matale, the moment when Buddhism was first written down in Sri Lanka, in the 2nd century BC is remembered both in a fantastic cave temple, and in a superb giant Buddha sculpture on the hillside.
Also present in Sri Lanka, however, are many Hindus, Muslims, and Christians (in that order) and a good deal of harmony between them all. (The ethnic tensions between the Sinhalese and Tamils, many centuries old, the latest chapter of which ended bloodily some years ago, is less religious than it is ethnic). There is plenty of syncretism between the prevailing, largely Theravada, but in parts Mahayana Buddhism, and the Hinduism that exists alongside it. The Nalanda Gedige Temple, for example, from a thousand years ago, shows two faces: one Buddhist, one Hindu, as an example of the harmony between the two traditions in Sri Lanka.
Islam arrived during the ascendancy of the Mughals in India, and Christianity – in the form of Catholicism – arrived with the Portuguese.
In Buddhist Temples in Sri Lanka, therefore, it is not uncommon to see many aspects of Hindu culture absorbed into the local form of Buddhist practice. Krishna, Ganesha (known here as Pulyar), and Shiva are all present both in their own shrines and in the Buddhist temples. Here also, is the Hindu Goddess of Rain and Fertility, Sri Muthumariamman.
Dambulla Cave Temples
Amongst the best Buddhist temples, of course, are the caves. At Dambulla, where one must climb high up to the top of a small mountain, up many stone steps, to reach them, are four natural and one man-made cave all exquisitely painted inside and filled with statues of the Buddha at various stages of his life-story. These are particularly impressive, and testimony to the devout following of Buddhist practice for many centuries – and still today – in this country.
Traditional Village life in Sri Lanka
After leaving Jungle Tide, and visiting temples along the route north to Sigiriya, I was treated to an interesting experience of pre-colonial traditional village life in Sri Lanka, through a ride on a traditional bullock cart to a (man-made) lake, and a boat ride across to a lakeside village where locals prepared and served traditional Sri Lankan food – the traditional way. This was the idea of my Mahaweli driver and guide, Rohana, and it was amazing to see how it is all done, how simple, and how delicious it all turns out. Alongside the South American introductions (tomato, chilli) were the older, local foodstuffs: fenugreek, salt, mustard seeds, lime, turmeric, lentils, okra, onion, a local kind of pumpkin, fresh water tilapia fish, the ubiquitous curry leaves, and the incredible coconut which produces oil to cook with, the flesh to spice and eat as a salad, and the milk to make the rich sauces of the vegetable curries – along with the leaves to make the roof, the half-shell cups to drink from, and many more uses beside.
Kaudulla National Park
My Mahaweli guide, Rohana, through friends of friends, asking for someone who knew about the animals and could please someone such as me, with lots of information, and who had a good, safe vehicle for the jungle, got a recommendation, got his number, and managed to book a fantastic guide for us for an Elephant Safari.
I confess I felt very proud of our 1959 vintage black Land Rover Defender, as we passed the touristy Mitsubishi jeeps (all 2-wheel drive and not very comfortable) on the dirt tracks. We were also taken into Kaudulla park, rather than Haburana, as the elephants move, each year, from the latter to the former, when the late September rains begin. This year, they have come early (nowhere escapes climate change) and so the elephants are on the move already – the males, or ‘bulls’ on their solo journeys – sometimes blocking the minor roads around the park – and the herds of females and their offspring in family groups.
We arrived by the lake shortly after several of these solo male elephants and three family groups had emerged from the jungle onto the grassy plains around the lake, and were amongst only three or four jeeps of tourists to witness these amazing animals up close.
As we left, dozens more jeeps were arriving in the park, and I was very grateful to our guide for knowing not just where to be, but when, to witness these extraordinary creatures. On the way there, and on the way back, he also stopped frequently, with keen eyes, to point out the red-faced macaques in the trees by the road, black faced grey langurs, peacocks and peahens, and even a crested hawk eagle.
Rarest of all, on our way out, standing in the back of the land rover, I was first to spot a billiard kingfisher – and our guide was really impressed that we had had the opportunity to see one – and that I had spotted it!
It was truly an incredible privilege to see all these fantastic animals, and an absolute delight to do so from what was clearly the best vehicle around, and probably the best guide!
Staying at the Zinc Sigiriya – once the ‘Resthouse’ and now fully renovated and newly marketed to the global market – I rose very early to climb the famous, UNESCO World Heritage Site Sigiriya Rock. The site opens at 7am, and it is wise to begin one’s climb straight away, to be on the top at 8am, and making one’s descent by 8.30.
The heat is such that a visit any later in the day invites both exhaustion and burning for northern European white skin. The rock is the vanity project of a 5th Century CE royal usurper, defeated in battle by the ‘rightful’ king, who temporarily transferred the royal capital from Anaradhapura to this pleasure-palace-cum-fortress for the length of his reign. As a feat of urban planning and architectural folly it is perhaps in many ways unsurpassed, and remains immensely impressive a millenium and a half later.
The many, many steps up are nothing compared to a climb up Mount Misen in Japan , taking only 30 minutes, but the final section up fire-escape-style metal steps is definitely not for the faint-hearted: if you have any kind of vertigo that makes you quiver up a ladder, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is probably not for you.
I was not the only one quite fearful on this stretch of the climb, both up and down, and you have to steel yourself to brave the trip. The rewards, however, at the top, are very well worth it. The views across Central Province are astounding and unmissable, and the extraordinary brick architecture of the citadel palace built upon the flat-topped summit are a wonder to behold, even now, some 1500 years later.
Back at the hotel, after a shower and a good breakfast, I made ready and embarked on our journey to Anaradhapura. On our way, we took a detour down rural country roads, past local country shrines to Pulyar (Sri Lanka’s name for Ganesh) where the locals pick a twig of leaves to hang by the shrine and pray for a safe journey.
Just past here, our destination was Aukana – the largest rock-carved Buddha in all Sri Lanka. This enormous statue of the standing Buddha, hand raised in blessing, and the rock-hewn water cistern nearby, are contemporary with the palace at Sigiriya Rock (late 5th century CE) and although somewhat out of the way, well worth the visit if you have time. Here, the orange robed monk, with impecable English, clearly a very well educated and highly intelligent man, personally welcomed me and showed me around the site, as the coach of local children came and went. He was clearly pleased to see an international tourist and I would recommend any visitor to the country to make the time to come here. It is a very special place with a fantastic ambience, and I was deeply moved by the exquisite carving and serenity of this enormous standing Buddha sculpture.
After Aukana we headed on to another UNESCO World Heritage Site: Anuradhapura. This time I stayed at the Rajarata Hotel. This was a good hotel – not unlike Zinc Sigirya – although offering hot water for people to make their own coffee with sachets of Nescafe is for the rooms, not for the breakfast buffet, please! Dinner, however, was very good here, as it had been at Zinc Sigiriya.
I then spent all day – from 8am to 3pm – with Jagath, a guide whose excellent English and understanding of the sites made the whole experience exceptionally interesting, despite the crushing heat (a very humid C29-31 most of the time.) I kept applying sun block and spraying anti-mosquito spray, but still got a bit red, and several bites. (You have to take your hat and shoes off to get into/near to the Buddhist shrines.) Jagath was extremely informative, and Anuradhapura is simply incredible.
The village of Anuradh was founded by a King’s minister (called Anuradh) in about 600BC, and only later became a city (a ‘pura’) in 300BC when Buddhism was introduced to the country, when pagan Sri Lankan King Devanampiyatissa was converted to Buddhism, and his people with him. Anaradhapura was the place, shortly after, where a clipping was brought from the Bodhi tree under which Gautama Siddharta, the Buddha, had reached Enlightenment. Relics of the Buddha’s body, of objects from his life, and of things associated with him, form the three different kinds of relics, nearly all of which are buried in sacred caverns (called relic chambers), and then enormous solid brick domes are erected over those chambers. Atop the domes, where once were a kind of fence, there are now square or rectangular boxes, and above these, where once were parasols one atop another, there are now cylindrical columns. Crowning the pinnacle of the columns there are now bright crystals ( – possibly lightning conductors in their day – ) where once there was a simple pillar next to the fence.
This religious architecture is called a STUPA, and is completed by three rings around the base of the dome, representing the Buddha, his life, and his Enlightenment. The main stupa at the First Monastic Complex at Anuradhapura, originally built around 100BC, contains many such relics, and is the largest brick built building in the entire world. (Nearby, at the 3rd monastic complex, the Stupa there is the 2nd largest brick building in the world and is estimated to have 93million bricks in it, which would be enough to build a wall from London to Edinburgh.) The biggest is repainted every June. The second biggest has just been restored, from being covered in greenery. Beside the main stupa in the First Monastic Complex, from that original cutting brought to Sri Lanka around 300BC from the tree in Northern India under which the Buddha gained Enlightenment around 600BC, is a giant fig tree – the very same Bodhi tree. It is, thus, the oldest chronicled tree in the world: now 2600 years old. So this oldest tree in the world, and the largest brick building in the world, together form the centrepiece of the First Monastic Complex of Anuradhapura.
The Second Monastic Complex is a city where 5000 monks lived, worked, meditated, ate, slept, and welcomed international visitors from around Asia for study and sharing. There are a further six or more such complexes, which were sub-schools of the Second Monastic Complex, some of which remain buried in the jungle, some just beginning to be excavated. The site, in short, is vast – literally a kind of Ancient Rome or Athens in Sri Lanka, but entirely devoted to the Buddhist philosophy and way of life. It finally came to an end, in the 10th century AD, when Sri Lanka was invaded from South India, and the great city was completely destroyed and burned. The capital moved to Polonuwara (where I don’t have time to visit on this trip) briefly, and then to Kandy, which, at last, fell to the European colonialists.
In the Second Monastic Complex I had time – amongst the vast area of living quarters and shrines – to visit some special places selected by my guide: the finest ‘moon stone’ in Sri Lanka, the finest ‘door guardians’, and both the largest water cistern and the pair of most attractive water cisterns. The sandakada pahana, or ‘moon stone,’ named after a half-moon, is a semi-circle laid at the entrance to many different Buddhist sites around Sri Lanka. There are a series of semi-circular rings. The outermost ring is of fire: the experience of the world, of desire, and the pain and suffering that go with it. The next ring is of elephants, lions, horses and bulls – the four animals that represent the four pains of life: birth, ageing, ill-health, and death. They are also the four stages of life: growth, energy, power and forbearance. The next ring is a twisted creeper, representing the tortuous routes one must sometimes take to put aside desire in search of one’s true happiness. Then the next ring is of Thorn Birds or Swans; in Sri Lankan mythology the Thorn Bird can magically separate milk and water. This symbolises, then, the moment when the follower of Buddhism begins to discern the true happiness from the fires of the world. At last, then, in the inner semi-circle is reached: a semi-circle of lotus flowers, and the radiant inner happiness of nirvana. Thus, at the entrance to a Buddhist site in Sri Lanka, stepping upon the ‘moon stone’, one is stepping upon the path to Enlightenment. It is the cycle of Samsara – from worldly desires to the achievement of Nirvana.
There are, of course, lots more photographs on Flickr.
I began my trip to Japan – it seems like a long time ago! – with a visit to pay my respects to one of the first Emperors – Nintoku-tenno-ryu – the legendary Emperor of the 5th century, when Shinto was supreme and the shrines of Ise Jingu and Izumo Taisha already in their prime. But this was around about the time that Buddhism first arrived in Japan, and in Kyoto already I had seen shrines and temples side by side, exhibiting the famed co-existence, and even syncretism, of the two religions in this country. So it seemed appropriate, on the last day, to visit the greatest Buddhist temple in Japan: Todai-Ji, in Nara, where in a great hall there resides the largest statue of the Buddha I have ever seen – at 49ft 2in high a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the largest statue of the Buddha Vairocana in the world – known to the Japanese as simply Daibutsu.
Right next to it, however, amongst all the deer (Shinto messengers of the gods) roaming the great Nara Park, lies the Kosagu-Taisha Shrine, perhaps the third, alongside Ise Jingu and Izumo Taisha, of the greatest Shinto Shrines in Japan. Here, at the very last, I cleansed at the fountain, and worshipped in the proper way at the gate of the shrine, and thanked Japan for all that it has given me over the past two weeks.
Nara Park – particularly on a Sunday – however, is a bit like the Tower of London: thronged with tourists from all over the world, but also with worshippers from all over Japan, and, in truth, I am, at the last, getting a bit ‘shrined-out,’ if I am allowed such an expression. Having taken in these two great sights, therefore, I decided to forego the rest of the shrines and temples around the Park, and get the bus back to Nara Station, the train back to Osaka, and the subway back to Shin-Osaka, for a final meal at the Marriott, and an early night for an early start heading for the airport.
It has been a truly amazing trip, taking in some of the most awe-inspiring sacred places I have ever had the privilege to visit, and pay my respects to. Both Shinto and Buddhism are living and thriving religions, side-by-side, in Japan, (alongside capitalism, which thrives right next to both!) and the co-existence, mutual respect, humility and harmony of these faiths – and of the Japanese people – and the meticulous care of the truly beautiful buildings and gardens where these religions thrive, have really impressed me. The news from the UK, and from the US, during my stay here, has been so depressing, in comparison. It is no wonder to me that Japan is now one of only 10 countries in the whole world that is fully at peace, and not engaged in some external or internal war. Long may it remain so.
One thing I will not forget is the hospitality and friendliness of the Japanese people, and their amazing food! It is difficult to pick out one ‘best’ meal during the last two weeks: the first dinner at Iseshinsen was memorable for the sheer number of wonderful dishes; the sashimi dinner at Iberaki unforgettable for freshness, flavour, and of course the sashimi whale; the sushi dinner at the Imperial Hotel (as well as being one of the most expensive meals I’ve ever eaten) was similarly memorable for the freshness of the fish – and the delight and expertise with which the master chef prepared each sushi morsel for me before my eyes; finally, of course, the multi-course oyster extravaganza at Yamaichi on Miyajima was an eye-opening wonder of culinary delight. I suspect the Japanese restaurants at home in the UK won’t quite meat my expectations after such delights, but I’m sure I’ll be trying them out!
Miyajima Island! What a magical place. A World Heritage site, and rightfully so. Not just because the island is a nature reserve of so many wonderful trees – many in their finest Autumn colours right now – and apparently amazing in April when the cherry trees blossom – and not just because of the incredible ‘floating’ Itsukushima Shrine in the bay overlooking the mainland, with its Grand Torii you can walk out to touch at low tide.
But because here, all over the island, there are literally dozens of Shinto Shrines and Buddhist Temples, marking the sanctity of this beautiful place. There is also – importantly – the towering Mount Misen overlooking it all, with its own collection of Shrines and Temples around the top. I chose the Daishoin Route, which begins round the bay the other side of the Itsukushima Shrine from the ferry landing, beside the majestic Daishoin Temple.
The Daishoin Route up Mt Misen is 2.5km in all, and takes roughly 90minutes to climb to the top. There are 2000 steps. It is not for the faint hearted. At 53, with a bit of ‘wine-belly’ (as I call it) and none-too-healthy a back at the best of times, had I not by this point felt I had fully recovered from the cold I came down with in the rain at Ise Jingu, and fully adjusted to the Japanese time zone, I would not have dreamt of attempting this climb. As it was, around a third of the way up, I had to steel myself, believe in my steadfastness, tighten my belt and, pacing myself with frequent little stops to sip the bottle of water I had brought with me, press on up the mountain, sure of the sense of reward and self-esteem I would enjoy at the top – and of the sense of failure I would feel were I to give up! I only met a small handful of people coming down this path, and was passed by only three young people on their way up.
Eventually getting into a good stride, nursing my right knee a little but not pushing it too hard, I finally reached the little crossroads shy of the top where various routes lead off to a range of shrines, and to the very top. It was sooner than I’d feared, and I was very glad! Here, the Naio Gate presents you with two very fierce demons who will certainly scare away anything untoward! Passing this Gate one feels safely within the confines of the summit. Here, to the left, is a steep flight of steps up to a shrine I believe was the Dainichido.
This, according to the Miyajima website is “The prestigious guardian temple for Itsukushima Shrine. All the priests in the island gather here to pray for the prosperity of the nation for 7 days of New Year since the Meiji Era.” Quietly taking off my boots, delighting in the silence and solitude at this quiet shrine, I stepped up to the doors, slid them open, and closed them behind me, to kneel on the little cushion at the temple. A little sign made clear one could take a candle and a stick of incense for a few yen, which I placed in the box, before lighting the incense and placing it in the sand in the bowl before me. Hot, exhausted, sweaty, but truly satisfied with having made it to the top, I channeled my pride into a prayer for my nearest and dearest, completing it with picking up the baton and rolling it around the metal bowl beside me to make the signature singing sound, and gently banging the drum to my left: hopefully the gods were awakened enough to hear my prayer. Stepping back out of the shrine to put my boots back on, I was struck by how delightful an experience this was – a truly Japanese moment, too.
The very summit of the Mount was only five minutes or so climb further up, and the views from there absolutely breathtaking. The tourists however – including the obligatory party of 30 or so schoolchildren – were everywhere, and pretty noisy. I felt quite the special one, however, having climbed up the path, albeit, as I sat on the benches in the observation tower to catch my breath and take a little rest, I determined to take the cable car back down the mountain!
The ‘Ropeway’, as they call it on the signposts, begins 1km walk away from the summit of Mt Misen, atop a lower sister peak across a saddle of land between them. It descends in two stages – a larger car which can take 20 or more, followed by smaller pagodas that can take only 6 or 8. Again the views however are stunning, and it was a lovely ride down in the pagoda, sat watching the sky, and the gathering clouds. I definitely chose the right time to climb the mountain – there is rain coming!
At the foot of the mountain again, at last, I took time to wander through Itsukushima shrine among the tourists, cleansed at the entrance and paid my respects in the proper way at the shrine’s doors, and followed the crowds through the ‘floating’ corridors raised on their piers above the waters of the bay. A truly stunning old building. There are a few Westerners here – mostly Americans – but 90% of the crowds are Japanese, here because of the beauty and sanctity of the place, and to shop amongst the many trinket shops and food outlets along the street from the shrine to the ferry port. Exhausted, however, and ‘on my last legs’ I finally retraced my steps back to the hotel to rest for the afternoon. Onsen at 4pm. Kaiseki at 7pm. My last night of touring. Back to Osaka tomorrow, for a quieter weekend in the Marriott, and flying home, finally, on Monday.
So, today is a different, and in some senses more difficult day, overshadowed with a sense of foreboding the night before, and the morning when the journey begins. I am reminded of a visit I made, 10years ago, with similar foreboding, to another relic of the 2nd world war, in Poland. There, at Auschwitz, the relic of the sheer scale of man’s potential inhumanity to man was the since untouched, now crumbling remains of the machinery of mass slaughter used by the Nazis in their ‘final solution’. I recall the horror with which I learnt that this place had, at the height of its operation, extinguished the lives of 100,000 people in one day, and over a million in all. Here, in Japan, the relic I visit today is the famous, barely surviving dome, at Hiroshima, surrounded by the Memorial and Peace Park where the lives of the between 90 and 166,000 people who were snuffed out on (and in the few months after) 6.8.1945 are remembered. The distinctions between these two sites are of course crucial. The former was perhaps the worst excess of cruelty perpetrated by a conquering power bent on mastery over its neighbors. The latter was the overwhelming force with which two countries attacked by such conquering powers brought the conflict to an end.
It may also be pointed out that some commentators would assert that in the former case, the defeated conquering power has learnt its lessons well, owned and absorbed its past; and that in the latter case the defeated conquering power has by contrast yet to fully own its past. I’m not qualified to say, and both interpretations may in fact be merely stereotyping rather than insightful. ‘Culture’ is all too often too broad a brushstroke with which to describe a country’s people and its ways. What is most alarming, perhaps, today, is that the UK and US, the two powers who used the bomb on Japan, are today in the grip of just the kind of xenophobic, right wing populism that marked the rise of the Nazis. Thankfully the kind of militarism that gripped Japan following the Meiji restoration of 1868 and (on and off) up to the 1930s does not appear to be evident; the US, however, already has the most powerful and extensive military machine in world history, including a fleet in every ocean and troops stationed in numerous countries around the world, and spends some 54% of its Federal Discretionary spending on its military – roughly 40% of all arms spending in the world, as much as the nine next biggest national defence budgets combined.
That the use of this overwhelming force is soon to be at the discretion of a xenophobic, misogynistic, far right populist with zero experience of politics, government, and – most importantly – diplomacy, is a frightening prospect. A very sobering day, altogether.
Just to the south west of Hiroshima, is the delightful island of Miyajima, with the amazing Tsukushima Shrine in its bay. Here, at the end of the day, I was lucky enough to find tranquility and serenity once more.
What an extraordinary day at Izumo Taisha. This is probably the most important Shinto Shrine in the whole of Japan, if only because of the extraordinary festival which takes place here every year in the lunar month that broadly coincides with November. This month is known as the Month of No Gods. This is because all the Gods of Japan, kami from shrines large and small, in cities and in the countryside, from riversides and mountainsides, all leave their own shrines and come to gather for a festival at Izumo Taisha. The eight-day festival begins with a marvellous welcoming ceremony, which I had to miss because I was in Tokyo, but ends with a marvellous departure ceremony, which happened today, at 4pm. I felt so privileged and blessed to witness it. There was a French photographer here, accompanying a Japanese Tourism development officer, who had impeccable English, and whom I met at both the Museum and at the Shrine itself. I think I saw one American, too, briefly. Other than that everyone here was Japanese, and the ‘crowds’ were not thick, albeit that the place was clearly busy. This was a religious festival for the religious, although there was plenty of laughter and informality in between the more sober moments.
A bit like religion all over the world (Catholicism is markedly similar) it is also a bit of a racket, with every worshipper throwing coins into the offertory to accompany each prayer – a genuine offering for sure, but always monetary – and the ranks of official shops beside the shrines selling an incredible range of little tokens, with embroidery and other designs, each a special form of ‘good luck’ for a range of circumstances. You can buy a good luck charm for the health and safety of your family, or for good fortune when taking an exam. There are special booths where a monk will write in formal lettering a prayer for you that you can post on special racks, that are literally covered in such messages, for the kami to read later, one supposes.
But such commerciality – common to any religion – really did not subtract from the serenity and seriousness of the reverence which all visitors to each of the many shrines that make up the Taisha were clearly giving. I relished the opportunity to share in such reverence, repeating what I had learned at Ise. Here – I don’t know whether because it is Izumo Taisha, or because of the auspiciousness of this particular day – the worshippers clap four times, not twice, and I quickly picked this up and changed my own routine to fall into step. The leading deity here is Okuninushi-no-kami, the deity in control of the unseen world, and – most especially at this time – the deity of ‘en-musubi’, the connections that bind us together. At this special festival of the gods, each year, the meetings which take place are to determine what ‘en’ – which connections between people – will best fit the future year. Pilgrims to Izumo Taisha at this time, then, pray for their relationships to be noticed and to be granted favour by the gods in the coming year, pray for those who are most special to them, and pray for new connections that will advance them.
Also special to this place is the Magatama. The Magatama – of which many examples have been found by archaeologists from all periods of the known (and many) incarnations of this ancient shrine, as far back as c2000 years ago – represents the overlapping shapes of the sun and the moon. It is a symbol of the universe in one go, described in the English subtitles in the Museum as a ‘comma’ shape, rather than a teardrop. I’m not sure there is any relation to the Tao at all, and did not see this mentioned anywhere. Even where I saw two together, in reverse relation to each other, it was on a modern welcome mat at the door of one of the many crystal shops, and the two Magatama were not joined as with the Tao. Furthermore, unlike the white dot in the black teardrop of the Tao, (and vice versa), the hole in the Magatama seems not to represent the entrance of an opposite. The Magatama already incorporates both sun and moon. The hole in the Magatama is said, rather, to symbolize the blessed spiritual power provided for each one of us through the link with our ancestors, to whom we owe our life. The mystic deep green colour (midori) whether in full, or in streaks, signifies the constant movements and growth of life – the renewal of fresh shoots and sprouts, the leaves in spring, the evergreen trees in the wind. Moss Agate, with its pearly translucence and its green streaks, symbolises Power, and a Moss Agate Magatama, the Power of the Universe in movement and life.
At 4pm, the ceremony of the departure of the Gods took place. There were two classes of officials – I guess ‘monks’ and ‘priests’ – in two different sets of garb. The former policed the area, keeping the (obedient) tourists in their place. Those with the money and foresight had booked seats within the shrine. The rest of us had the benefit of being able to take pictures – from outside. The latter officiants wore the most exotic garb, and undertook the ceremony. Below are two short videos I took of the ceremony, one when the priests returned from a brief excursion with something special to bring to the ceremony; the other at the end when they departed. The best thing about it, from outside, was the drum and flute that seemed to accompany on the most important moments.
This was an extraordinary day – a stand-out highlight of my trip to Japan. I feel I have experienced something truly, authentically Japanese today, something very old and still continuing. A privilege indeed.
[Full tally of photographs from the day on Flickr]
Besides this being one of the friendliest and most enjoyable – as well as very intellectually stimulating – conferences I have ever been to, it’s also true to say that I have really taken to (what I have seen and experienced of) Japan. Our wonderful hosts were extremely attentive and ensured we were well-cared for! The food here, especially, is just incredible. I haven’t eaten anything here that I didn’t think was absolutely delicious. It is good, however, I would say, that I am both an adventurous and keen ‘foodie’, because there’s little doubt that the food is exotic by any European standard: much of the time one has no idea what one is eating. On our first evening, after a particularly long day of presentations and discussions (all very high quality content – I have learnt so much these past few days, as well as contributing to the debates) we were taken to a rather fine restaurant. Everyone takes off their shoes, being careful not to stand on the boards below the shoe racks in anything but one’s socks, and then you sit, effectively, on the floor, with the table at floor level, but with your legs and feet comfortably in the well dug beneath the table. On this first night we were treated to Nabe with exquisite tofu and tripe. This is a large bowl shared between several people, filled with finely sliced vegetables, chunks of tofu, and pieces of tripe, sat upon a heater. Once the water is bubbling, the heat is turned down, and with a ladle you help yourself to a small personal bowl of the mixture. This is accompanied by a range of other dishes, little delicacies such as tempura vegetables, sashimi (raw) slices of tuna, and the excellent Asahi Japanese beer, which is quite strong at 5% but smooth and delicious. There was also, of course, the hot sake, which comes in a small jug, and which you drink from tiny bowls. It was a very fine meal. On the second night, we were treated to a buffet at the conference venue, including a fine range of delicious dishes, and accompanied not just by French wine but by Japanese whiskey. It was my first time to try Japanese whiskey, and I must say I was impressed!
The third day was a transfer day, moving the conference from Tokyo to Osaka, and we all took the shinkansen together, checked in to our conference hotel at Shin-Osaka (overlooking, as it turned out, the Marriott where I had stayed a few days before) and were then taken for an excursion around Osaka, to visit the famed shopping district of Dotonbori. This is like London’s West End, only the streets are all as narrow as Soho, all dead straight in a grid, and the whole area at least three or four times the size. Leaving the subway we arrived at ground level outside Cartier and Louis Vitton, and walked past Zara and Tiffany to approach the beginning of the lanes. The streets are very long, the atmosphere buzzing, the crowds lively (but always polite – this is Japan!) and the whole ambience simply jolly – as if an infectious joie de vivre permeated the very air.
Leaving the clothing district and moving into the area more focussed upon restaurants and bars we were treated to the incredible vivacity with which the various food outlets encourage passers-by to come in and enjoy their food: huge, sometimes animated models of crabs, an octopus, even a bull! We stopped to eat some of the famous street food from the area – balls of octopus prepared in front of us on hot plates which you then have to eat in one go while it’s still hot, rolling it around in your mouth until the liquid centre is just cool enough to taste and to swallow. Exquisite! We went then back into the subway briefly to visit the Osaka Tower, and be treated to Japan’s exotic values when it comes to animal welfare: a trained monkey show. Setting aside our European/American values, we sat with the Japanese to enjoy the show. It was a good introduction to different values. At the restaurant we arrived at shortly after, we were then treated to an Osakan speciality: deliciously fresh cuts of fish and slices of vegetable dipped in batter and flash-fried, served on a stick. So many kinds of fish, with names I’d never heard before, which our host was unable to translate into English, but all so very delicious. Including, however, one I never thought I would ever eat: whale. Yes, we ate pieces of whale dipped in a delicious batter and fried, and served to us on a stick. And it was absolutely delicious – like the tenderest most succulent beef. We then returned to the centre of town, and were taken up to the bar of a posh hotel above Osaka Station, where we drank Japanese whiskey – I had the Hibiki, and it was very fine indeed! The following day, after the completion of the conference, we were taken to a restaurant in the Ibaraki district, where we were treated to sashimi – a series of dishes of the freshest, most delicious raw fish, along with edamame (green peas) and cabbage, and lots of Asahi Super Dry beer.
And yes, amongst the tuna and sole and other fish, was one small plate of Kujira sashimi: raw whale. I ate a slice. It was far and away the finest carpaccio I have ever tried – and thicker than you would get of beef. Absolutely delicious. It is apparently a rare thing, that only a very few restaurants are allowed to serve, and we felt very privileged. It was tantamount to a sacrament. As if this experience weren’t enough, however, we were also treated at this restaurant to fried oysters. Yes fried oysters! Even the Frenchmen amongst us, however, agreed that this was just delicious!
As if the hospitality of this country had not already impressed itself upon me enough, the day after the conference three of us were treated to a guided tour of Kyoto by one of the Japanese academics and his wife. The sky was covered in a thick carapace of cloud all day, and on occasions a light rain accompanied our travels, but we each had umbrellas, and it was never heavy. I had planned something like this – I especially wanted to visit the Matsunoo-Taisha shrine on this day – but I was very glad of the guide, as there was much I would have missed, and the distances between everything made navigating the transport system quite a challenge! But our guides knew to spend only 500Y on a one day bus-pass, and take us around the city on the buses, rather than the subway. We began in the East, at the serene Buddhist Temple of Shisen-Do. The colours of the leaves here were just so beautiful – a signature of Buddhist Temples here, alongside the famed grey gravel gardens. The Shinto Shrines, by contrast, celebrate evergreen trees, rather than those more seasonal. We are blessed to be here in Japan in November, because this is indeed the perfect season for the Buddhist Temples, when the leaves are at their most colourful. It is also one of the high points of the year in the Shinto calendar, when it is said there are no gods in Japan – because they have all gone to Izumo-Taisha, where I too am headed after Osaka and Kyoto. In one corner of the garden here, a tea-house that is normally closed instead today sat with its main door open to the air, revealing the painting on its inner wall of the full moon behind the waving grass. This day, of course, was the day of the so-called ‘supermoon’, when the Full Moon was to occur within only two hours of its perigee (nearest approach to Earth) and – in addition – be closer to the Earth (and seem larger) than it has for nearly 70 years. It was a privilege to see this Moon shrine at Shisen-Do.
After Shisen-Do we stopped for a Lamey lunch, a Kyoto speciality, which is a very thick broth with garlic and ramen and pork. We three Westerners insisted, in return for their hospitality, on paying for this lunch, and I fear our Japanese guides found this rather embarrassing. A classic clash of cultural expectations, I think, here, whereby for us it would seem too much to accept all this generous hospitality without taking the opportunity to make some small return – such as paying for lunch – but for our guides such an eventuality seemed almost to slight their generosity. Still – after some protestation, they accepted, and we did pay, and the embarrassment passed. From there we went to the very famous Buddhist Temple, Kinkakiuji Golden Temple – possibly one of the most beautiful sights in all of Japan. This was heavily populated with tourists, however, compared to Shisen-Do, and the crowds were moved along quite quickly, such that we were already leaving the precincts of the temple only some ten minutes after arriving. Delightful, nonetheless, to see such a fantastic sight, and – tall as I am, and especially here! – capture a photograph from over the heads of the crowd. Next we went to Ryoanji Temple, to pay a visit to the Philosopher’s Garden – perhaps the signature example of a grey gravel and stone garden.
Lastly, then, as the dusk on this amazing day out gathered, we took two buses back through the centre of the city and out towards the west to visit Matsunoo-Taisha, arriving, finally, at the shrine, moments after sunset. The shrine is quite high-up into the foothills of the mountains that surround Kyoto, and we could see the twinkling lights of the city below us. The shrine was still open, but deserted, and we entered, paid our proper respects in the Shinto way, and wandered around the courtyard drinking in the atmosphere. It was the highlight of the day – and not just for me. The shrine honoured the mountain, whose evergreen trees towered above it behind the wooden buildings. All the roofs of Shinto shrines are thatch, unlike the wooden poles of the Buddhist Temples, and the older ones gather moss as green as the evergreen trees.
The ambience of the place was ancient, serene, and exotic, and somehow, in the dusk, just for us. Until, that is, the Headman of the Shrine’s staff appeared, and spoke with our Japanese guide. I found myself being pictured together with him – a young man, I thought, for such high office, but then perhaps the Shinto shrines in Japan are still busy with devotees. I spoke the word I had learnt, which was the name of one of the gods to which this shrine is dedicated – Tsukuyoni – the Moon God. It was because of this, on this day of the extra special ‘supermoon’, that I had wanted to visit Matsunoo-Taisha. He nodded, and spoke again with our Japanese guide. As we left the shrine, the Headman closed the gates behind us – we had arrived just in time! Our guide now told us, informed by the Headman, that there was another, small, special shrine, that was dedicated to Tsukuyoni alone, just five minutes along the lane. We all walked along this lane, feeling privileged with this special information: although they had visited Matsunoo-Taisha themselves, before, our Japanese guides had never heard of this extra shrine. Arriving there, we saw that it was indeed just for the Moon God, and entered quietly. Again empty except for us, this small shrine was somehow as spacious and serene as the main shrine, for all that it was so much smaller. I made especial prayer to the Moon God, greeting him from the Moon Goddess of Britain, and paying honour and respect to him on this, his most auspicious and special of nights. It was a truly delightful experience. Turning from the shrine, at last, our little party began to walk down the lane, with the main Torii of the Tsukuyuni shrine behind and above us. It was then, at this moment, surely the only moment in the entire day, that the clouds suddenly parted, just in one small part of the sky, and the giant, bright, full disc of the Moon shone down upon us and the shrine behind us, for an exquisite few moments, before the cloud cover crashed back across its face and hid it once more from view. Moments later, one could not tell where in the sky the Moon was at all. All of us were absolutely enthralled, feeling utterly blessed by this moment – a vision of this perigee of perigees itself.
There was only one way to follow such a divine experience – with a night at the Imperial Hotel, Osaka, including sushi individually prepared in front of me by the Master Sushi chef, followed by a (Plymouth) Gin Martini and a Montecristo No.4 in the Old Imperial Bar!