Sunday, 28 April 2013

Odds and Ends from Tokyo

My arrival into Japan was a bit of a protracted affair. Five flights over 3 days (Rarotonga-Auckland-Sydney-Hong Kong-Osaka-Tokyo) were followed by a night at Tokyo airport to meet Helena when she arrived to spend a couple of weeks out here with me (thank god for airport showers...). After all that sitting around and waiting in fairly unexciting environments it was high time to plunge into the confusing maelstrom that is Tokyo when you don't speak Japanese! 
Tokyo is HUGE. This is from the 26th floor in the middle of the city, and there was no end of the high-rise area visible in any direction...
But before I get ahead of myself, a quick few photos of my first day - alone still - are in order. Having most of the day free between flights, I decided to see if I could get around the area cheaply to get a bit of a feel for how Japan works. Fortunately I discovered that a one-day rail pass covering the whole Kansai area (some 10% of Honshu, the main island) was cheaper than a return ticket from the airport to Osaka, so off I went. I decided to head to Himeji to have a look at one of Japan's few original castles (ie not concrete imitations, which most of them are) - and the finest one according to many sources, no less. This turned out to be a day well spent - besides catching the cherry blossoms around the beautiful castle grounds in full bloom, I felt slightly better prepared for tackling Tokyo the next day.

I learned a few things about how things in Japan work at this early stage:
  • In a country with as many old buildings and shrines as Japan, renovation works are inevitable. What I did not expect was that instead of keeping scaffolding as subtle as possible, the building to be renovated is enveloped in a temporary building. When I got to Himeji the castle's hill was marred by an enormous (think 10-story building) factory-like abomination that had me wondering how permission to build anything like that right by the castle had ever been given. I was flummoxed to learn that this was, in fact, the castle - the main keep was completely hidden from view by this giant grey cube with an outline of the castle drawn on it. Great. Fortunately, though, the remainder of the castle was still pretty stunning!
  • It is also perfectly accepted practice to rebuild ruins using modern materials in order to give visitors a spotless attraction. People seem to think that this is more important than the authenticity of what they are seeing. 
Yeah. Don't really know who thought that was a good idea...the real deal must look pretty spectacular, though!
  • People will queue for everything here, and with levels of stoicism and even delight unheard of even in England. Up to 20 minutes before a train pulls into its platform, people will obediently queue - unmoving - across half the platform to where the train's doors will be (as shown by stickers on the ground). At a bus stop I saw people queueing huddled under their umbrellas in the pouring rain, not even utilising the stop's shelter. 
  • Comic/anime-style illustration is not restricted to children's books/art. It is utilised in maps (rendering them spectacularly useless), infographics and ads targeting every age group. The Tokyo underground's mascot is a blue anime platypus who passes out with ecstasy upon seeing the benefits conferred by the city's Oyster-card equivalent in videos played on screens in every train every minute or so. 
Osaka's Pokemon Centre - frequented not just by kids...
There are a great many other oddities and idiosyncracies worth mentioning, but I'm sure I'll get to them in good time. For now, fast-forward to Tokyo! Helena and I made it into town from the airport after just two attempts to get hold of the right ticket; Tokyo is crisscrossed by trains run by 2 (3?) different companies who sometimes share stations and sometimes don't, but definitely don't share tickets. Our hotel, too, was easily found. It proved fortunate that it was near the Yamanote train line which circles central Tokyo and would prove to be our lifeline. 

It left a few seconds behind schedule once. It was shocking.
Heavy rain on our first day dampened our (well, mine, anyway...) enthusiasm for immediate exploration a little, but the ubiquity of umbrellas - we were handed two by a receptionist startled by the sight of us attempting to leave the hotel without one - helped. Still, we stayed in the local area for most of that first afternoon and evening. To our delight we found that food was cheap, quick and extremely tasty without being particularly unhealthy in the many little eateries clustered around the station area; ramen (noodles and pork/spring onions/soybeans/various other goodies in a tasty broth) in a small place with seats at the bar has remained one of my mainstays throughout my time in Japan. In general, fast food not being synonymous with awful quality and ingredients - being based mostly on rice, noodles, egg, seafood, seaweed and soybeans - makes it a pleasure to indulge in. 

Selection of Bento boxes at Tokyo station - unlike the good old English sandwich, there are enormous food courts here full of delicious-looking goodies. We spent a good 45 minutes here trying to decide on a snack...
As for things we saw - Tokyo is big and diverse and interesting enough that I could easily write a post on each day we spent there...but I won't do that. Instead, I thought it'd be easier to write a little about the things that most readily spring to my mind when I now think of Tokyo. The Imperial Palace has to top the list, with the Japanese emperor as one of those quintessentially Japanese institutions. The castle itself is off limits on 363 days a year, but a stroll around the palace gardens, where the cherry blossoms were in full bloom at this point, was very pleasant. This being one of the first places we visited in Japan, we revelled in being somewhere so decidedly un-Western. Armies of immaculately clad office workers swarm the park - one of central Tokyo's woefully few green areas - at lunchtime with their chopsticks and bento boxes, which will be filled with edible goodies pleasing not only the palate but the eyes with their precise arrangement and design. 

A little tranquility in downtown Tokyo
The next morning (I think - my chronology on those action-packed days isn't great!) we got up bright and early to go to the famous Tokyo fish market: after watching the tuna (up to 300kg) the thing to do here is to get some sushi or sashimi for breakfast - it doesn't really get any fresher! Sadly, despite getting up at 4.30 we missed the auctions as super-keen Japanese tourists apparently start queueing at 2am to snap up the limited viewing spots, so after a wander around the bustling premises we contented ourselves with raw fish - perfect for 6.30am! 

The place was crazy - far too huge, one would think, for much order to prevail (65000 people work there), but somehow things get done. Unfortunately we didn't spot any of the gigantic knives they use to fillet the tuna (apparently they require 2 people to handle them), but weaving around the enormous processing buildings around wholesalers undoubtedly sick of tourists bumbling in the way, there were tasty things of all sorts to be seen. 

The cool contraptions the workers zoom around on - the steering wheel is directly connected to the front wheel.

Akihabara, semi-informally nicknamed Electric Town, is what most people would first think of when thinking of Tokyo. Bathed in neon and covered with anime adverts the size of buildings, this is the home of cheap/grey/black-market consumer electronics, maid cafes (where cosplaying waitresses "treat you like a prince"), hentai (manga porn comics) and sex shops more generally. Slightly surprisingly, teenagers/young men were far from the only clientele; Japan's society is suffused with comics - and, apparently, with lonely men - to an extent that the two seem to combine into a passion for frankly seriously, seriously weird smut comics. 
Not actually taken in Akihabara, but the strange/slightly creepy mannequin seemed fitting...
Of course, the sex shops also catered for all sorts of tastes, but with some of their wares I was genuinely unsure how they would actually physically serve a sexual purpose...
Sage advice for visiting sex shops - exhibits tend not to be edible...

Ultra-realistic cervix - what more could a man want...?
And the plaster cast of dozens of vaginas - with the women's ages written underneath - which hung on this particular store's wall I won't even go into. 

And just to end on yet another bizarre note, our last day in Tokyo was spent at a fertility festival which seemed mostly to pay homage to the penis. Set in a usually undoubtedly tranquil shrine, this features several gigantic phalluses which are then paraded through nearby streets - and the area is absolutely packed. 

...and so the huge pink cock begins its slow, majestic parade down the streets of Kawasaki...
The crushing throng trying to get hold of the ever-popular lollipops (cock-shaped proved more popular than pussy-shaped...make of that what you will). A few of these even made it back to Cambridge, to the delight of their new owners from what I'm told!
Of course, no penis festival would be complete without its share of ladyboys...and dancing monkeys. 
"...and they think they evolved from us..."
Right - for the moment I think that's that for Tokyo. It may not seem like it, but we did see a lot of non-genitalia-based stuff as well! But parks and temples and beautiful places general civilised Japan-y things we found in subsequent cities as well - and I shall get to them in the next post. 

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Aitutaki: End of the Road

Well, this is it. I highly doubt I will ever be as far from home - or anywhere generally so remote - as Aitutaki. To illustrate, here is a map of the Cook Islands, with the nearest commonly known (in terms of where exactly it is) reference point - Auckland, New Zealand:

Maybe most poignantly, the islands - or even their labels - aren't actually visible at this level of zoom. Zooming in reveals the Cooks, which are scattered over an area of the Pacific the size of Europe, but the land surface is about a sixth of London. In fact, it is impossible to zoom in any more without losing sight of some of the more remote islands in the group, namely Penrhyn (B) and Mangaia (A):

The so-called "northern group" of islands is so inaccessible to travellers (and pretty much everyone else) on account of their distance even from Rarotonga that they are practically unvisited. Apart from private yachts (intrepid travellers have apparently "hitchhiked" on these from Raro), the only way to get there is on cargo ships which go irregularly at best; flights go rarely and irregularly. Fortunately, Aitutaki is rather closer to Rarotonga (which is where the "Cook Islands" word shows up on google maps), right at the bottom of this map:

To be precise, it was about a 45-minute flight on one of these bad boys to get there. 

A Saab 340, apparently. The flight attendant was one of three employed by Air Rarotonga (their other planes being too small to need a flight attendant), and she did the return flight to Aitutaki thrice a day. Fun times...
On the plane's approach my mind struggled to accept the fact that I was actually about to go somewhere as beautiful as what I was seeing. Since photos from a plane rarely do anything justice and I was sat on the wrong side anyway, here's one from the interwebs. The main (inhabited) island is the big one in the back, with the runway visible at the far end. The other motus, or islets, are uninhabited and sometimes little more than permanent sandbanks. They encircle a frankly out-of-this-world lagoon: when I explored the island on a scooter and found a hilltop vantage point, I just sat down for a good hour and a half and tried to drink it all in.

This was the spot...
Now after having spent a few days on Raro I thought I had a rough grasp on islander lifestyle. I was about to be proven very, very wrong. It was a joy to see how uncorrupted Aitutaki is by tourism - a few luxury honeymoon-style resorts exist and provide employment, but the locals' lifestyle is completely unaffected by these. The resort guests rarely mingle, at most renting a scooter to zip around the island on their own, and the "cultural shows" serving clich├ęs to flower-garland-wearing westerners are thankfully constrained to Rarotonga.

As you can imagine, then, I did not stay at a luxury resort. My home was the Paratrooper's Motel, an institution without a website which I only found out about from another hotel proprietor when I told her I couldn't afford her rooms.I stayed in a basic but spacious bungalow (2 rooms, all to myself!), effectively an outbuilding on a family's property near the main "village" of Arutanga. I hesitate to use the word village here because the only thing that distinguishes it from the rest of the island is that what few administrative buildings there are are mostly located in this general area.

Arutanga City.
Stark reminders of a tsunami 2 years ago which devastated 80% of the island's buildings. I chatted to an English woman who ran a crafts shop, and she said that despite having 4 children and a completely destroyed house weighing on her mind, the first thing her neighbour did afterwards was come by to see if *she* needed food. 
Now my position - not unique, but rare among visitors of Aitutaki - of effectively living among the locals rather than in a segregated little bubble allowed me to experience fully just what friendliness means. With only 1000-odd inhabitants, everyone on the island knows each other (there are no addresses; the mailman simply knows where everyone lives). This means lots of waving, chatting, and general hanging out anytime two or more people cross paths. A far cry from London-style anonymity! 

It also means that when an unknown face - like mine - shows up, people are curious and intrigued. On multiple occasions every day, whether I was on a bike, a scooter or on foot, people sitting in their front gardens taking a break from working (or not working - self-sufficiency is easy here, it seems!) would wave and call me over for a glass of water or some juice or ice cream, and for conversation. There was a lot of curiosity as to where I was from, what I was doing all the way out here, and, on the whole, smiles and good cheer absolutely everywhere.

In fact, it was impossible to just watch goings-on from a distance. During my days on Aitutaki, I watched a practice session of the island's boy scouts' brass band (I had stopped at the garden gates wondering what the music was when one of them saw me and called me over), went to a Sunday church service I was initially skeptical about (having never attended one before) and, after following the Henley Boat Races from 4 to 6am (time difference fun...), joined a bunch of revellers as they finished their last few drinks at the end of a long night. I also took a passport photo for a middle-aged woman who said she needed to get one to travel to New Zealand - her first time leaving the island! 

Aitutaki's main church - there are several, including a Mormon church and a few other Christian denominations, but this is the oldest church in the Cook Islands. It dates back to 1821 and is made of coral, which makes for the blinding white of both church and graves.

More impressions from the service - the preacher also ran the boy scouts' band, and he gave me a cheery wave when he spotted me mid-sermon.
Wherever I went, I was invited to join whatever was going on - it was great. In fact, the day following the post-HBR morning drinks, the same family invited me to dinner spontaneously: it was a Sunday evening, with lunch being the big meal (similar to an English roast). They offered me enormous quantities of taro, rice, coconut milk and the local specialty: raw tuna marinated in lemon, lime and spring onions. This is not dissimilar to sashimi but eaten in chunks rather than thin strips, and bursts with flavour from the marinade; absolutely delicious! 

All that said, I did find one thing a little grating, or disappointing. Aitutaki was the first of the Cook Islands to be converted to Christianity in 1821, and every last Aitutakian is now a devout Christian. There isn't anything wrong with this, of course, but they did seem a little intense about it, using "God bless x or y" at every possibly opportunity - and putting up a LOT of signs along these lines:

Sadly, it felt like "their" tradition was rather thoroughly replaced about 200 years ago...
Even this wouldn't really bother me much - each to their own, after all - but when I asked one of the island's high school (science) teachers why they were so comfortable with having left behind all of their old Polynesian culture (although not, fortunately, the language: everyone grows up fully bilingually) so completely, he couldn't, or didn't want to give me a straight answer. All I got was mumblings about "the Bible" and how everything was so much better now - and how the pre-Christian days had been "dark days". What I find sad and a little disturbing is that they see Christianity not as something different from Polynesian beliefs but something superior - and that they could not tell me why this would be so. 

After all, the issue of young people leaving the islands for better money and job prospects in New Zealand is mostly caused by Christianty and the arrival of the Western notion that self-sufficient life was somehow not enough and that money and wealth should be striven for. I do not doubt that island life can be tough, but I have never seen people so universally content with their general situation. Yet, when confronted with this idea, I got no response apart from mutterings about "the Bible". 

Eventually I let the issue rest as there seemed little reason to be argumentative - with these things there rarely is. Instead, it is time to turn to the other important aspect of Aitutaki - the fact that it is famous as one of the most beautiful islands/lagoons in the world.

It is not easy to put into words - or, for me, into photos - just how scenic the entire island is. Part of this stems from the untouched nature of it, with most of the few roads being unpaved, and from the complete absence of anything with more than one floor. But mostly, to be honest, it is simply the classic island paradise in its most ridiculously over-the-top form; no wonder people come here on their honeymoon - if this is your kind of honeymoon, then I cannot imagine anywhere better in the world. 

My wider-ranging explorations were mostly undertaken on the one day I had a scooter, as the heat and humidity (and a rental bike on its very last legs) prevented me from getting around as far on most other days. They took me first to the southern tip of the main island, which is devoid of habitation and really just a track through empty jungle to, well, the other end of the island. 

Once there, I had a little break for lunch and reading at a spot where I later attempted some good-luck photos for HBR (there was a BB one, as well...); I later completely failed to upload these due to the sketchy wifi connection...

Finally, it was time to hit the hills in the middle of the island, such as they are; the highest point is 123m above sea level. The view - yet again words fail me; I'm afraid these photos don't even come close to doing it justice. But hopefully they will convey something of just how I felt looking around. 

I have to confess it made me quite happy that most of the houses up there, which boasted some incredible views (not least the two pictured above), belonged to locals rather than being holiday homes for rich New Zealanders. Another testament to how unspoilt this place really is. 

In the evening, then, I tended to unwind from the day's strenuous activities with a book on the Pacific Resort's beach chairs. The resort being pretty empty at this point, nobody seemed to mind - and in fact, the whole beach was spectacularly empty for its whole length of at least a couple of miles: 

This cheeky crustacaean was the biggest of his kind I could find - by some way.
And then, of course, there's the sunrise. And what a sunrise I was treated to - the next morning I sought out my hilltop spot from the previous day hoping for some nice colours on the water and in the sky.

Early on I suspected that this might be as good as it would get...I have rarely been gladder to have been horribly, horribly mistaken. 

I really, really didn't want to cut down any further than this. May I be forgiven...
Righto - I think that's as close as I'm likely to do this incredible island justice. Having fallen behind with my blog in the lovely fortnight I spent in Japan with Helena, it is now catch-up time! Expect floods of photos from Japan, as well - being in a country (unlike, say, India) where running around with a DSLR is not just not unusual but, in fact, more common than running around without one, has contributed to my snap-happiness quite a lot.