Thursday, 30 April 2009

Odawara Castle

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Odawara Castle

Come to think of it, I've only been to two castles in Japan. The first one being Matsumoto Castle (松本城) in Nagano Prefecture and this second one, Odawara Castle (小田原城) in Kanagawa Prefecture. Stopping by in Odawara wasn't my initial plan. Waking up at 5.30am, taking a two-hour train ride followed by a three-hour hike left me longing for an afternoon nap, even just a doze before going off again for a farewell dinner with my colleagues. (It wasn't much to my surprise that after the dinner, we ended up at a karaoke till the last train!)

But, spending all that effort and money to travel all the way to Hakone (箱根) just for a morning hike wasn't too fulfilling. Besides, I had to transit at Odawara station anyway, so why not make a brief stop, I thought. So, after treating my famished stomach to a gyuudon (お好み牛玉丼) at Sukiya - by the way, it was my second time since last Sunday - I headed towards Odawara Castle.

Odawara is an old city located at a strategic point on Tokaido (the ancient Edo-Kyoto Highway).. Whoever was in-charged of this city also controlled the traffic between Sagami area (now Kanagawa) and Tokai (south of modern-dayTokyo). During the post-Warring States Period (16th century), the castle belonged to the Hojo clan for five generations, but was taken over by Toyotomi Hideyoshi (豊臣 秀吉) and handed over to Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川 家康). Later in 1870 during the Meiji Period, it was sold away by the government and demolished, only to be replaced by a shrine 23 years later.

In the early Showa Period, there was even a ferris wheel, which was naturally a famous local attraction. It wasn't until the year 1960 (22 years after Odawara city was designated as a national historical site) that they finally rebuilt the castle keep.

All in all, it's a small castle with a big compound and a short stretch of moat on the lower side. There's no more ferris wheel but guess what, they keep monkeys and an elephant right in front of the castle keep! What's more, there's even train rides for children! I guess this is the quirkest castle I'll ever see.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Personal Favourites

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I've no idea whether anyone even bothered to read last month's posts on my trip to Seoul. It reads, "Seoul in 6 Days" but there're only four entries. The last two days are missing, owing to my feeling lazy to pen them down. And when I eventually feel like doing it, I have problems recalling much of what I did except for some bits and pieces, like my awe and amazement upon seeing a kimchi refrigerator, the visit to the spooky Seodaemun Prison (with its torture chambers) that scared me shitless, and the commanding view from the fortress city of Suwon.

Ideally speaking, I'd like to post those first before doing this. But, I've been wanting to share four of my favourite photos taken during the trip.

1. So, here goes, starting from the first one taken at Namiseom. (Day #2 - Korean Wave)

South Korea Wallpaper #1
Jangseung 장승; 長承
This is a Korean totem pole, usually placed at the edges of villages to ward off evil spirits. In the olden days, Koreans used to practise shamanism that was influenced by Buddhism and Taoism from China.

2. This second one was taken at Namsangol Hanok Village. (Day #3 - A Cultural Evening)

South Korea Wallpaper #2
Namsangol Hanok Village 남산골한옥마을
A lantern in a traditional Korean house.

3. The third one, somewhere in the city, next to a busy junction, and amidst skyscrapers. (Day #5)

South Korea Wallpaper #3
Red and Green 단청; 丹靑
This pavilion is located at a busy junction in downtown Seoul. The contrasting colours of green and red were especially vibrant under the light up.

The word 단청 literally means "red and green". For a list of the names of different shades of red, please refer to Korean Language Notes.

4. Lastly, the one I like the most, taken at UNESCO site, Suwon. (Day 6)

South Korea Wallpaper #4
Hwaseong, Suwon 수원화성; 水原華城
Suwon is about one hour from central Seoul. The fortress, Hwaseong is definitely a must-see spot. Built by King Jeongjo to guard his father's tomb, the walls surrounded the city of Suwon. The place is now designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

This gate (Janganmun), located in the north, and the other one (Paldalmun ) in the south are the largest of the four gates. They resemble Namdaemun in Seoul, which unfortunately has been wrapped under vinyl sheet since the arson incident.

Notice the five small figures on both ends of the roof? They're the characters from Journey to the West: the Monk, the Monkey, the Boar, the River Monster, the Horse and a dragon. What role the famous Chinese novel played in Korean history, I haven't got the chance to find out.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Religion and Social Dysfunction

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In the news this evening was a special interview with a former member of The Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity. It's a "Christian sect" started in South Korea but is not recognized by the Church. In fact, it's often referred to as a cult. Despite the controversies shrouding it, the movement is active around the world, especially in South Korea and Japan. In the interview, the lady claimed to have been conned of at least 3 million Yen. But there're reports from victims who supposedly paid as much as 10 million Yen to the "church".

Obviously cults are detrimental to the society. They make you part with your money and family, they require you to pledge absolute commitment to the cult. But how many of us actually think for a moment if religion actually does much good to us? It's a common belief that religion is beneficial. Advocates are steadfast in view that the belief in supernatural presence is critical to the development of a stable society.

Embarassingly, as Malaysians, this very stereotypical view is firmly embedded in our head. I'm sure skmming through any essay written by a Malaysian student can confirm this. Whenever we're asked to discuss about social problems, we immediately point to the lack of religious faith as one of the underlying factors.

But check this out. According to a study made by Gregory S. Paul, "the most religious democracies exhibited substantially higher degrees of social dysfunction than societies with larger percentages of atheists and agnostics." (Excerpt from Los Angeles Times: The Dark Side of Faith, October 01, 2005)

Inarguably, there's no way to come up with a definitive conclusion but at least the result will hopefully encourage further debate on the matter. People should be aware that religion is no holy issue which should be, by default, spared from scrutiny. Because, like it or not, religion plays a big role in the formation of both government and judicial policies. Think about the laws on abortion, gene therapy, cloning, stem cells research... They are made based on the standards set by religion, presumed to be the default public consensus. Believers or not, we are all dictated by religious dogmas. How then, can laxity towards religion be tolerated?

See also:
"Religion is Bad for Societal Health" - Church of the Churchless
Testimonial of a former member of the Unification Church (Japanese)
Legal complaints filed by fraud victims of the Unification Church (Japanese)

Friday, 17 April 2009

Running Away from Boredom

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People who complain about being busy obviously have not had a taste of extreme boredom. It's worse than having an itchy spot on your back where your fingers can't reach to give it a good scratch. You know you ought to move your ass and do something, anything; but for some uncanny reason, it's rooted to the chair or to the bed or to wherever you parked it on. You'd rather just sit there, and stay as inanimate as your other furniture, for as long as it takes rigor mortis to set in. Or until you eventually get bored of looking like a retard, and decide to put on your sports shoes and go out for a jog, just like what I did.

Taking a jog out of boredom was my first time. The last time I did it was for the peace of mind. It helped clear my head and offered me solace, albeit a temporary one. Ironically - or, should I say, in a masochistic manner - it feels good to have every muscle in your body throbbing in pain, and your lungs screaming for air.

However, I didn't achieve what I intended to when I set off for a one-hour run yesterday evening. The legs were vaguely aching from the weekend's badminton session but no bursting lungs. In fact, I was enjoying the run, to and fro Tamagawa 4.55km away from home.

Alden, I can see you stifling your laughter! I'm not a marathon runner, mind you! But maybe I should try to cover 10km within an hour the next time!

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Washing Legs

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Senzoku-ike 洗足池

This photo was taken at Senzoku-ike (洗足池), one of the most famous spots in Tokyo known for cherry blossom viewing. It's a small pond with a serene view, situated right next to the buzzing Nakahara Highway. (By the way, Nakahara Highway was a main road linking Edo - now Tokyo - to Kanagawa in the olden days.)

During the cherry blossom season, stalls are set up by the pond and the place is crowded with people, though it's far from the likes of Ueno's. You could either choose to go up the small hill to enjoy the breeze, or sit by the pond watching the ducks and carps and gulls, or rent a boat to paddle or row in the pond. Either way, it offers a chance for city folks to relax and unwind.

All this while, I've been confused with the name of the place, for Senzoku can be written in two ways - "千束" and "洗足". I did a search and found out that, coincidentally, the history of the place is related to that of Honmonji. See previous post: The Last of Sakura (Friday, 10 April 2009)

During the Heian Period (794-1185), the place was known as "千束" (literally "thousand bundles"). The paddy fields there belonged to the monastery, so up to 1000 bundles of paddy were exempted from tax each year.

Then one day during the Kamakura Period (12th century), a monk by the name Nichiren (the founder of the Nichiren sect of Buddhism) passed by the place in his journey. He stopped by to rest and allegedly washed his legs at the pond. Henceforth, the place has been known as "洗足池" (literally, "leg-washing pond").

I don't know about you but it doesn't sound like an elegant name to me.

Friday, 10 April 2009

The Last of Sakura

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The Last of Sakura
桜吹雪 風に舞う
(Direct translation: Sakura blizzard, dancing in the wind)
Kelvin complained that the previous sakura shot was "stiff and dead" and that "sakura shots should always be petals dancing in the wind, full of life swirling around in the air". It's easy to image a perfect "sakura blizzard" but to shoot it is another question.

I gave it a shot anyway but this was the best I could do. See those white speckles? Those are the petals dancing in the wind. Hope that satiates your sakura fetish, Kelvin! No more sakura shots till next year!

Now, for some background information on the place where I took this shot. I know it won't be of much interest to most people but I'm doing it anyway for my own record.

This shot was taken at Ikegami Honmon-ji (池上本門寺). It's a famous temple belonging to the Nichiren (日蓮宗) sect of Buddhisim, founded by Nichiren himself shortly before his death at the same place. Nichiren was born during mid-Kamakura period. At that time, different sects started branching out from Buddhism, each with its own interpretation on the religion. Nichiren studied Buddhism in different temples from the age of 16 to 32. He then concluded the contemporary teachings of all other schools to be misguided, and put forth his own interpretation.

The land on which the temple was built on was donated by a wealthy feudal lord named Ikegami Munenaka. Obviously, that was how Ikegami city got its name.

The temple is situated by a hillside, providing a commanding view on the city below. It somehow reminded me of the temples and shrines in Kyoto - pagoda, tall trees, spacious compound... Most of the buildings were destroyed in the air raid during World War II except the main gate, the scripture hall, the stupa and the five-storey pagoda, which has been designated as a tangible cultural asset.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Bye-bye Sakura

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Bye-bye Sakura
I'm starting to get fed up with cherry blossoms. Seeing the blossoms with your own eyes is one thing; shooting them is another. Firstly, framing is difficult. I find macro shots the easiest but they normally turn out lame. But if you attempt to shoot the whole tree, there's the problem with contrast - you don't get the details.

Last Saturday night, when I was trying my hands on shooting lighted-up cherry blossoms at the compound of a hospital nearby, a middle-aged man stopped by and started chatting with me. It turned out that he's a professional photographer and he shared the same opinion about photographing cherry blossoms. He then invited me to his house (he lives just around the corner) and showed me the shots he took. They were awesome! He managed to capture the depth in the scene by cleverly choosing his angle of view, thus reproducing the liveliness of the blossoms.

Armed with the generous tips given by Fukumiya-san, I headed towards Chidori-ga-Fuchi Ryokudou (千鳥が淵緑道) just outside the imperial palace for the cherry blossom light up. But unfortunately, I did not manage to get any decent shots. The place was as crowded as a rush-hour train!

One last day before university lessons starts tomorrow. It's today or never because the flowers aren't going to wait any longer. I eventually resorted to taking macro shots. Oh well, I've got to brush up my skills before the next spring!

Bye-bye sakura!

Monday, 6 April 2009

Kanamara Matsuri かなまら祭り

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This is the wildest Japanese festival I've ever been to! Giant dicks parading the streets! And I mean it literally!

What: Festival of the Steel Phallus (An annual Shinto fertility festival)
When: First Sunday of April (Procession starts around noon)
Where: Kanayama Shrine, Kawasaki-shi (川崎市金山神社)

The Kanamara Matsuri is centered around a local penis-venerating shrine once popular among prostitutes who wished to pray for protection against sexually transmitted diseases. It is said that there are divine protections also in business prosperity and the clan's prosperity, easy delivery, marriage, and married couple harmony. There is also a legend of a sharp-toothed demon that hid inside the vagina of a young girl and castrated two young men on their wedding nights with the young girl before a blacksmith fashioned an iron phallus to break the demon's teeth, leading to the enshrinement of the item. ~Kanamara Matsuri, Wikipedia
The train to Kawasaki Daishi (川崎大師) was crowded, although not as fully-packed as during the hanabi's. Hey, you don't get to see portable penis shrines all the time! Just the mere thought of it was kinky. No one bothered to make the effort to hide the naughty grin on their face.

There were three penises in the procession.

Firstly, there was the steel phallus, known as the "Kanamara boat portable shrine", donated by Hitachi Zosen Corporation.

Second in line was the one that stood out the most, the pink phallus, known as the "Elizabeth portable shrine" donated by a cross-dressing club in Asakusa by the same name. While the other two portable shrines were carried by the locals, this one was mainly carried by guys in female clothing, chanting "Kanamara! Dekkaimara!". (Steel phallus! Big phallus!)

Last but not least, there was the wooden phallus, called the "Kanamara Big Portable Shrine". This is the oldest of the three.

For some reason, the black penis is smaller than the pink one... The wooden penis, the smallest...

People went wild during the festival. Rushing forward to touch the penises, licking penis and vagina candies, old ladies showing off big Chinese pao's in the shape of a penis, cross-dressers everywhere...

There were obscene souvenirs too. A toy that when you wind up the guy, humps the girl from the back, for instance. And a handkerchief featuring different sex positions, selling at a price of 1000 yen. Also, penis and vagina key chains which are unfortunately too small to satiate your sexual desires.

Click to view large
Yes it was a wild festival indeed. I mean, could you have imagined seeing a girl harassing a guy with a dick?

Note: For more photos on the festival, see Kim's blog.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Sweet and Sour Pork

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The Budding Chef: Sweet and Sour Pork 酢豚
Tada! Sweet and sour pork, folks! Just to tease your appetites!

This was actually done quite some time ago. I'm not sure why I went into all the trouble making this dish. I think it was more because of the fun of taking the shot, than because of the fun of making it.

Recipe on Flickr page (Note: Double the sauce)

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Can I Go to Bed Already?

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Can I Go to Bed Already? :: Wallpaper
I spent the whole afternoon working on a composite photo but it turned out crappy. So, I ended up taking a simple shot instead, starring Stitch's cousin.

Decent shot, don't you think? At least, now I can call it a day! Phew!

The white backdrop effect was achieved by turning over a wall calendar and propping it against the wall. No special lighting equipment used. Just the fluorescent lamp on the ceiling. I've been thinking of making a light tent but for the meantime, improvisation does the trick. "Necessity is the mother of invention," as the saying goes!

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