Namdaemun Market: a little light shopping in case of a little light armageddon

Interesting times we live in eh? Less talk of elections here in South Korea and more of obliteration.

Switch on BBC World/CNN et al and you’ll want to start digging a bunker. Except nobody here appears even slightly bothered by all the fuss in the media.

Witness today at the labyrinthine Namdaemun market in central Seoul. I can speak approximately zero Korean, but observing the locals I don’t think the purchase of kiddies shoes, wholesale costume jewellery, honey filled grilled rice cakes or a jaunty hat qualifies as stockpiling. It is only 35km to the DMZ from here, yet life goes on. This place falls into the “if it’s made, you can buy it” category.

That said, if you’d’ve squeezed your way down “Chopped Noodles Street” – no, really – you might be fogiven that the 4 minute warning had sounded such was the clamour for a bowl of nosh. A mere picture doesn’t help us, but you might see the faintest of glimmers of fear in our faces as we avoided the wrath of Korean-Cooking-Mama. All 4’10”. Not a tribe to be trifled with. Noodle Street? More Noodle Alley. Close proximity heat, pungent aromas, noisy chatter and slurping sounds under sweaty plastic sheeting: claustrophobes need not apply.

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Chopped Noodle Street

See also FISH&STEW alley. More redoubtable cooks with oodles of noodles, violently bubbling sauces and whole fishies on open burners. Tiny rooms with formica tables and small chairs. Locals filling their faces with gusto.
The fishmonger stalls had all sorts of produce to move a pescatarian to veganism. Angler fish, wriggling eels, squid, live octopus, tank after tank of flat fish, clams, oysters and even horror movie-esque angler fish. But most of all the silently screaming dried fish (see below).

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So what did we eat? We weren’t up for a feast so a stand up street food lunch would be just the ticket. J selects a bun steaming operation that is doing brisk trade. [In Japan the service is all gentle polite, apology, bowing sing-song thanking-you. Here it’s more barked “Oooi! Whaddya-you-wan?” Only in rapid-fire Korean. They have industrially sharp elbows and know a steamed bun, so clear off! It’s enough to make a gentle British soul quietly yelp and run for cover.] So with some difficulty and pointing we succeed in a purchase: 5X unnaturally pale steamed buns. They are the only nuclear event of the day. IE: face-meltingly seconds from the jumbo steamer. We brave the heat. What’s inside? Mmmmmm: filled with seasoned pork mince and green onion (leek?). OMfG. A taste sensation. Eaten stood up at the counter with a slice of bright orange pickled-who-knows-what that looked like it came from an industrial accident. Apologies for the photo quality, just snaps to commemorate the moment.

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We emerge unscathed from the market and continue perambulations.

Tomorrow: the DMZ.

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Small world take 3: Kobe to Kanazawa

As commented previously, we had nice drinks with nice people in Kobe.

We were (via Hiroshima) travelling to Kanazawa a few days later which is 300km from that bar. The publican – Japanese equivalent term unclear – commented that she was to travel there also.

So there was pleasant consternation when we chanced upon both owners of the Bitter End on a street corner in the charming Geisha district. (NOTE: Kanazawa is not Dunny on the Wold, it’s a proper town with nigh on 1/2 million souls.)

This kind of thing has happened to me before: NYC & Golden Bay, NZ.

We didn’t take photos of our boozer-owning chums, so you’ll have to believe me.

Instead, here are some photos of the lovely blossom we encountered there.

You’re welcome.

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Castle

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Cherry Blossom

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Cherry-er blossom

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Blooming Marvellous

kanazawa cstle blossoms

Blooming miserable and wouldn’t smile: nice trees though

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Tokyo views: a short slideshow.

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Tokyo. We’re going to need a bigger word for, er, big.

Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, 
hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. 
I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the 
chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space.

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
English humorist & science fiction novelist (1952 – 2001)

So here’s a small way in which the scale of Tokyo hit me.

We are renting an Airbnb apartment which is all arranged, paid for and locked in.

All we need to do is check in.

First challenge: The address.
It’s in Japanese – obvs – but Google cannot get a grip on it and there’s no such thing as a phone book/directory. And if there was I couldn’t read it. Street names building names/numbers are not as straight forward as other countries. It’s no 33 Acacia Avenue. Never mind, think alternatives.

mario tourSecond challenge: Arranging to meet.
So we’ll meet at the station. Excellent idea. Which one? Asakusa. Exit A4. Simples? Er, no. You see there are FOUR Asakusa stations. Each serving a different metro/rail line. Asakusa is not quiet either. It holds the busiest shrine in Tokyo and – for reasons I can’t explain – hints of Covent Garden. Only with more people.

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Ginza Sunday

Third Challenge: Language.
Our host is super responsive, but the phraseology is cryptic. (It turned out we were talking – at her end – via Google translate. This made things okay. Eh? It makes clear that she wasn’t being difficult, she simply can’t speak English and was copy-pasting machine derived text which was getting frustrating… Until you twig. Some way to go there on that one Google.) Eventually I send a link to a street view piccy of a coffee shop outside the A4 exit of the station I think she means. “Yes.” Comes the reply. Phew.

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Tokyo: on a stick!

Fourth Challenge: Recognition
We breezed through the train/subway gig – masters of Japanese transport after 10 days! – and emerge at the appointed exit a formal 20 minutes ahead of schedule. Oh my, there are a lot of people. I start eyeing every local lady that pauses, ready to cheerfully introduce myself. It’s a wonder I don’t get arrested more often. After a few false starts, a slight lady lingers and toys with her iPhone.

Aside
We are potentially into the bounds of "they all look the same" here. 
The minefield of casual racism. 
Fear not, this is not where this is going.

Slight lady is wearing a mask. No silly, not a Halloween one. The kind of surgical facemask ubiquitous in Japan (and other oriental countries). This means that my chances of matching a face to an Airbnb mugshot are heading towards zero. I offer a smile and a convivial “konnichiwa”. It’s her. (Although in amusing retrospect, she should’ve been more on point. We were the only white family of four – who weren’t wearing masks BTW – hanging out at the station exit. I think of the two parties, we would be the ones picked out in an identity parade.)

Bless, she is splendid. Momentarily we are off in a little people train threading our way through unfamiliar streets knee deep in tourists, rick-shaw-pullers, locals and who knows what else. A few hundred meters later we are “home” (for the next 4 nights). Detailed apartment usage instructions ensue. In Japanese. And then, bows, smiles (one assumes, behind the mask) and we’re alone at “our” place.

My head spins with the surreal. J&M head straight for the wifi.

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45th floor of the Tokyo Government Building looking E-S-E

Elocution 101:

It’s not Toke-ee-oh. No. It’s Toke-yo!

(Twinned with Westward Ho! Possibly. Or not.)

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ShhhhShinkansen

Don’t call it a Bullet Train. It’s a Shinkansen.

No one in Japan calls it bullet train. The signs don’t. Asking for a bullet train would not get you a train.

This particular one is the Asama 614 from Kanazawa to Tokyo. We hopped on at Nagano – of winter olympic fame and the reason it has a shinkansen line – and are getting off at Ueno (Tokyo). It’s a 12-car behemoth: smooth, pretty darn fast and – from this seat – like flying low in a spacious 1990s passenger jet. Porthole style windows, airlinesque seat design, tray tables etcetera. In fact going through the incredibly lengthy tunnels on the run down to Tokyo you might as well be on a jet at night.

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No, it isn’t a bullet train.

They are so quiet and so fast because they run on special tracks. Lines laid in concrete troughs that cut swathes through the countryside. When you consider all the fuss about London-Birmingham HS2… The Japanese would’ve simply built it by now. You can’t hold back progress. As the scenery flashes by you are always accompanied by the same lower view of pale concrete and the stations all but identical. It’s an efficient, relaxing way to cover big distances: point to point outstripping aircraft due to frequency and route choice. It’s all reserved on this service so calmness prevails. Calm is how the Japanese travel too. Quietly, almost invisibly, following procedure, playing the game. The whole thing just works.

On the other hand, as Alex Kerr notes in his book Lost Japan, they tend to, well, say bugger to the environment. Need power? Chuck in pylons. Shifting slope? Concrete that hillside. Need speed? Throw a Shinkansen viaduct across the valley. As one Kobe local lamented: “Japanese always in a rush to get there.” This land is criss-crossed with arteries: utilities, transport. The streets/townscapes/architecture are higglety pigglety, cheek by jowl.

All at once I have shining admiration for the engineering, the scale, ambition and execution. Then I lament the environmental damage, disregard for non-built aesthetics, the natural world ranking way behind progress in the risk registers.

But then we are spearing toward on of the mightiest conurbations on the planet. 31 million souls? (Give or take.) Half the population of the UK in one town? [Stares out of window at the endless built environment and blinks.] That’s a fair old swarm of creatures isn’t it? How do you deal with that much humanity without simultaneously trashing the place?

Okay, okay: a bit weighty.

So at (an estimated) 250kph we quietly, undramatically whoosh into Tokyo and I am already missing our train journeys here. We have covered a lot of ground. (Around 1500-2000km in little more than a week.) All of it on time. Most of it in comfort. (Yes, yes, we had to stand on an unreserved rush hour Shinkansen, but just the once.) Then again (in holiday mode), it made for great people watching. (Unlike a similar stand-up-ride to Reading from Paddington on the 18.17.) We have ridden all manner of different train flavours. All of it interesting, fascinating and highly functional. (The former for those of us who can tear themselves away from a screen.)

And now Tokyo. 782 stations. 14 subway lines (not counting railways). 8 million+ passengers a day. Try Googling “Tokyo Subway Facts” and boggle away. What could possibly go wrong?

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Koyasan – Buddhist Central

So with a budding Buddhist in the fold, we thought why not spend a night with the chaps at a temple? Hence the Beers are taking a slow, twisty train up a misty mountain. When we are deep in the forest and high in the clouds, we alight and re-board a cable car. (Europeans call them funiculars.) 5 minutes later we are getting on a bus and a few minutes after that are mildly white knuckled as the driver navigates the tortuously twisty road to temple town: Koyasan. 1,200 years ago a Buddhist thought it’d be a splendid spot for a monastic jaunt. Still drawing in the crowds today.

The short bus journey gives us all flashbacks to Tamil Nadu in 2012, only without risk of soiling ourselves through terror. Better driver, better bus, better road-sense here.

Presently we arrive at our lodgings, the delightfully named Hoon Inn (Or is it Hoo In? Never quite found out, the website being in Japanese.) We are greeted by a enthusiastic young monk who shows us thoroughly, considerately and carefully to our room. There is much etiquette to observe. Shoes outside, where the loos are, bath times, food serving times, what to wear and when. We listen with serious, bordering on pious, intent which crumbles just a little when he offers us the WiFi code.

MGB Rockin the Yukuta

Mog rocks the Yukuta look

In a flash we are relaxing in our Yukuta whilst the rain pelts down outside. We are snug behind sliding framed paper doors on our cushions, futons and tatami. We all try to ignore the fact that we’re sleeping in one room. Together. On the floor. Heigh ho. “It’ll be like camping!” No response was the stern reply.

Soon the boy and I are bobbing in the communal bath down the hall at his suggestion. At 13 he’s not usually keen to clean, so I seize the day ensuring he gets a thorough scrubbing. At six sharp we are in a large tatami-and-screen dining hall – where they filmed Neo/Morpheous training fight scene in the Matrix* – with 20+ other guests for a vegan slap-up-tea fit for a monk.

It’s an experience alright. Although I sense the pains in my legs will last more than my memory of the tastes of various pickled things. (Furtive glances show that all of us soft westerners cannot sit on the floor for more than a minute or three without fidgeting. Sitting zazen is indeed a meditation in itself.)  Actually the food included some things I have never eaten and will never eat again. Great fun. We turned down beer & sake – at extra cost – but it didn’t seem to stop anyone else necking the booze. Yay Buddhism! A religion without too much piety.

[Considering we are up a Japanese holy mountain, you’d imagine that eating-what-yer-given because this is a temple, not a Holiday Inn would be correct operating procedure? Ohhhh no. This doesn’t stop the Shermans’ next to us noisily enquiring about gluten, radiation, toenail clippings and cod sperm. Every other nationality just cracks on with it in the spirit of the gig. Well done the young Beers for having a crack at the tucker: some of it was pretty out there.]

Did I mention our garb? We took to the Yukuta en masse and – am pleased to report – the Beers rocked it.

Fast forward to 06.00 following a cosy night. (Well, I slept.) We are invited to join the morning service. It’s a sleepy, hazy mix of incense, low rhytmic zazen chanting, gongs, chimes and memories that will reverberate for many a moon. Whilst I won’t claim the word spiritual, I would venture meditative in a calming, enveloping way.

Add in a deckchair, maybe a beanbag and it’d be perfect.

When the music stops, a senior monk stands, thanks us in English for coming along and invites us to breakfast.

They’d run out of Crunchy Nut Cornflakes.

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Whilst it’s a basic hostelry in many ways, it’s not a hostelesque experience for the wallet. A night at the monks gaff, including return transport and such was £400 thing pretty much.

Totally worth it. Just look at the temples nearby, best seen in peaceful, atmospheric early misty morning seclusion nestling amongst magnificent trees. Low gonging bells and monastic chants floating through the woods.

Next stop Kobe.

*Not true. But for those who’ve seen the film it’s a good visual prompt.

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Navigating Japan: rules vs etiquette

One word in a FaceBook thread and the penny drops.

A week down in Japan and the culture shock is subsiding a little. I can imagine many foreigners – outside person; gaijin – getting caught up in how things work, retreating to their westernised hotel room and bolting the door. I think we’re doing okay. By which I mean we’ve yet to be arrested.

It’s a country of 2 ways. The Japanese way and the wrong way?

Before setting out we took advice – cheers to the Jodester – and researched. But that’s not the same as experiencing it first hand.

Things to consider:

  • Don’t leave chopsticks vertically speared in your food.
  • Blend in.
  • Shoes off indoors.
  • Which side you tie your room wear (dressing gown).
  • Avoiding cracks in the pavement.
  • Bowing.
  • Tipping.
  • Where to stand on the station platform?
  • Exhibition grade farting/toilet noises.
  • Wearing Yukuta to dinner but not to morning service.
  • Towels and “naked communion” in onsen.
  • Eating in public: where can/can’t you do this?
  • I may have made up one of this list. But only one: Any guesses?

It’s a complex business alright.

Some stuff – including and in addition to the above – is not illegal nor downright rude, it’s just not classy. Other stuff is life imprisonment standard.

Exhibit A: Beer boys' first trip to the onsen

With a strong similarity to Iceland, it’s most certainly scrub first, then once sparkly clean, into the hot pools to soak. The difference being it’s birthday suit only and – typically – segregated. [See image below provided as a helpful guide at a public onsen.] But it’s a DIY affair unlike Istanbul, so a lot less violent.

Onsen rulesSo with a headful of rules the boy and I trip off to the baths in our “room wear”. (Japanese dressing gown/robe.) Sandals off at the tatami? Check. Boys changing room? Check. Then [insert crockery smashing sound of dropped tray here/record needle abrupt scratch] utter consternation. A room full of naked Japanese men double take at the Beers. A second passes. I look around. It’s us. We are the problem. [Freeze frame.] Bowing and panic all at once. A middle age chap offers in worried, clipped English: “MEN ONLY ONSEN.”

Eh? Ahhhh.

I tousle Morgan’s luscious blonde, curly locks in a fatherly fashion.

“It’s okay! He’s a boy!”

They remain unconvinced. What now? We expose our full resplendence in a stiff-upper-lip, workaday “nothing to see here” fashion, exhibit our external plumbing and – without further ado – normal business is resumed. [Music restarts.]

Whilst we get stared at a fair bit – we are a novelty item to the locals here in Kanazawa – the onsen experience is suitably superb.

Morgan cares not. He loved it. (He’s made of sterner stuff than I. That would have sent me scurrying under a rock at his age.)

Penny drop

This is where the aforementioned FB penny comes into focus: “How did you get on with the onsen etiquette?” 

I was seeing Japan as all about rules, whereas really it’s about etiquette. I can’t really explain the difference other than I have an urge to non-comply, resist and break the former. The latter? I suppose it’s a Britishness gene? Where one considers correct etiquette as right and proper. Gentlemanly? Mm. Polite? Certainly. When in Rome… Going with the flow.

As I have mentioned before “the nail that sticks up…” but conformity is not really what we’re talking about here.

In any event, experiencing Japan with, er, correctness is the way we’re going. Even if it is our blundering, blithering, awkward gaijin version.

すみません
Sumimasen

ありがとうございます
Arigatou gozaimasu

 

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Fushimi Inari: Shrine-tastic

Before I start, may I point you to an entirely more respectful, insightful and factual piece on this wonderful place: https://blog.gaijinpot.com/fushimi-inari-tori-gates/ Better photos too.

And back to our scheduled programme...

The train rolls into Inari station. The tourists flood out. Within 20m we are on final approach to Shrine central.

The mahousive Orange gates – I will never look at the B&Q logo the same way again – beckon you up to the temples. And herein lies a rub. This is a sacred site yet it is treated like a theme park. We see our first Japanese temple-rage incident as a pensionable local gets properly, coronary threateningly angry with some Eurpoean tourists who have the temerity to pause and sit on the temple steps to munch their snacks. He was probably correct in his outrage, as it’s an important place to those of religion and all, but I actually felt a little sorry for the visitors as they skulked off, tails between legs: they were unconciously ignorant, not wilfully distrispectful.

We head past them with mental note to stick to the rules. That’s how Japan works. [At Heathrow a million miles back we encountered a family flying to Addis Abbaba at the check-in assistance desk. They were heading to a place where the concept of rules likely seemed different. Their approach certainly wasn’t fitting in with the airline procedures. Wildly different in retrospect from here.]

Heading up hill we encounter our first Orange tori gate. These are then arranged one behind the other to a vanishing point. About 70cm apart until they curve away out of sight into the bamboo. They are fab, enticing, resolute. We climb. Presently, the crowds are behind us and the quiet descends. To the side hither and thither are shrines. Languorous, Zen like pussy-cats casually accept a cwtch from their sacred bolt holes. We climb. Humidity becomes more noticeable.

We then realise that it’s a much longer walk than the map suggests. Damn you, non-linear illustrative visitor information artist! We push for one more shrine. It’s a corker, only missing an Indiana Jones and emerge onto a temporarily private, perfect spot where the lights of Kyoto twinkle as dusk descends. We didn’t summit, no flag planted, but we had a lovely family moment.

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Behold: Kyoto!

Ah, we hadn’t though about descending in the dark.

Luckily at a 24/7 shrine they’ve opted for pilgrim-path-lighting. It adds a touch more predictability to the trek and some eerily beautiful views of the site. All too soon we’re back at the station. The signs warn of wild boar. Gilly swears she heard one. No, really she totes did. Honest. Why does nobody believe her… WHY?!

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Cover shot for the difficult third album

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Avoiding carnivorous piggies we find a train. In short order we are aloft in Kyoto station in failed search of Ramen: the queues were too much. What we find is our best meal yet. Was it perfectly authentic? All we cared about was that is was perfectly delicious. Then more trains back to Osaka before we head on a altogether more secretive adventure.

Crikey, got a bit Hardy Boys at the end there. Calm down.

So to relieve the tension, a picture prefixed with an inconsequential smutty question: Teeny gate or enormous pussy?

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A snippet of Kyoto.

Not a whiff of ‘protocol as we emerge from the ordinary platform the into the extraordinary space that is Kyoto Station. We ride super-length escalators to the sky garden and argue pointlessly about what to do next. You see Kyoto is bloody huge and arriving sans plan is a whole heap of time a’wastin’.

Taxi! We skip the queue to get a “tourist friendly, no extra charge” cab. Nice. Presently we are stuck in endless Kyoto traffic and I am admiring the car. It’s a Toyota Crown. Taxi model. A squared off 1970s silohuette like a lesser Japanese Volvo with doilies on the head-restraints. This one has done 662,000km. Wh-aat? Literally moon and back mileage. I ask what our drive’ – a local, who helps by speaking English – likes about his whip?

“Very reliable.”

(I admit, I giggled. Think about it.)

After a blur of cherry blossom we are turfed out – as requested – on the road up to the Kiyomizu-dera temples where tourism seems to have dumped every single tourist in the world. Right now. The low, narrow hill side street shops are hawking all sorts of trinkets and local sweets – they love a sweet treat – but we resist and head ever upwards.

Kyoto BlossomUnlike the superficial selfieness of Nara, the “we’re totally into it” thing here is to tour a shrine or three in a rented Kimono. You get groups of girls and occasional couples – but never gangs of lads – giving it shy, giggly, bashful, Japanese “large” on a sanctified hillside under the cherry blossom. Like a fancy dress hen do only not. They are committed to the vibe and are doing it correctly. Drawing attention to themselves is not how it’s done. Despite the looky-here threads.

All shrined-up we head for the Maruyama Park where Mum admonishes us all for craving food from the oddles of noodle stores. “There’ll be plenty at the food market!” There wasn’t. The Nishiki Market is a spectacle alright: a long, narrow aisle fish/veg/spices/tea/fruit extravaganza but no Borough Market. D’oh. We end up snacking in a Seven-Eleven and soaking up free WiFi.

Blimey Kyoto is busy. Yes, it is “cherry blossom” season and all but still.

We ignore 97% of the sights and instead make for Inari and the Fushimi Inari Shrine. Good call as it turns out.

Apologies Kyoto: we spared you no time and moved too fast.

Kyoto Tower

Gilly literally blurs she moves so fast

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A grand day out at Nara Park

Once upon a really long time ago the decision was made to make a new capital city. Although it didn’t last – 75 years they say – the Park at Nara – Nara-koen – is clearly a very popular place to have a look-see at the temples and shrines that survive that period of Japanese history.  How peeved they must have been at those upstarts in Kyoto – just up the road – who were (lets imagine) smugly constructing a new capital that everyone would know about globally centuries later. (Show offs.)

Not that Nara is a secret! An easy hour from Osaka on the train it’s a well worn path with domestic and foreign vistors. There are sooo many traditional/significant/holy buildings in what is now a huge protected parkland: a splendid and rewarding way to walk up an appetite on a spring day under the cherry blossom. Additionally the park is home to countless deer that are as tame as tame can be. These are not free range meat, nor a plague you understand, but a living sculpture symbolic as messengers of the gods. I suspect if you ask youngsters what the best thing about Nara it’d be feeding sjhika-sembei (deer biccys) to these beasts.

[Although there were also countless young folk manoeuvring said deer to get every conceivable manner of selfie. Enough already. That said, they are a cut above/below are those making highly rehearsed Vogue poses. “A la modelle Rodney” as Del-Boy might say. With feelings oscillating between mirth and distaste at such runaway vanity we trip around these superficial cretins. I should also point out that there are simultaneously much sweeter self portraits going on as newly wed couples in traditional dress make very earnest romantic poses. The latter are clearly alright whilst the former are just numpties. And us doing family selfies is totes fine. Obvs. Un hypocrite? Moi?]

What would grown-ups takea way froma day here? It is worth tripping around here because the grand temple is home to Japan’s largest, the Great Bhudda. Even with the crowds it’s as close to an enlightenment this atheist is likely get stepping into the vast space where he hangs out. And even then, as robust a chap as he is, the building itself outdoes him.

 

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Just a gate really, you should see the main event.

Even by today’s standards the Todai-ji temple complex is huge and the Daibutsu-den hall itself? Mighty. Intimidating even. In the seventh century? It must have had the subservient classes quaking in their wooden clogs. Largest wooden building in the world they say. But wait, what’s this? Rebuilt in 1709? Sheesh: we’ve been cheated! But wait again? Rebuilt at 2/3rds original size? You’re kidding!?

 

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A totally acceptable classy selfie

With the stern rule of “we’re not bloody paying to go in there” in operation (to preserve the daily budget since you ask) we avoid the highbrow museums etcetera and stick to the walking between (free} temples/shrines. So heathens that we are we will have doubtless missed the point in all sorts of school-boy error ways. Sorry purists. But despite the crowds we take away happy memories. And deer biscuit crumbs.

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Lantern monitor (will work for biscuits)

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Big bronze Bhudda and buddies

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