Friday, 23 August 2013

Portrait of Three Extremely Old Guys

We seem to have a new security guard in the dormitory. He is small and unassuming, and seems to still be getting used to the job. Other than that I don't a thing about him, but really, I'm not exactly a fountain of knowledge on the original three, either.

It's amazing, actually, how they can be such a constant fixture of our everyday lives while being completely detached from them. My housemates, I've developed friendships and rivalries with; the relationship I have with the staff is similar to the one I have with the furniture. I don't mean to sound like a bourgeoisie twit failing to treat the blue-collar workers around me like human beings, but they are so omnipresent, and yet so quiet, that my consciousness just sort of scans past them whenever they are around. I once, just once, heard one of the guards say his own name when answering the phone. Unfortunately, I forgot it immediately. Even so, after seeing this little crew almost every single day for months, I've picked up little observations and attached vague personality traits to them.

They seem to understand quite well that although this is indeed their workplace, it is our living space first and foremost, and I truly appreciate that they treat it with the same respect as you would a friend's bedroom. This is quite easy to accomplish, as the security guards' main task is to walk up and down the various halls of each floor once every couple of hours, and to otherwise be available at the front office, where they fill the hours doing security guard things, mainly watching a lot of dramas. They also pull the worst split shifts ever, seemingly working all afternoon and evening, sleeping for six hours, and then carrying on for much of the morning before finally being relieved. This means, of course, that there is no guard posted during the nighttime, nor is there on weekends, which is strange to me, because those seem like the times when you would most want one to be keeping an eye out. The only thing they have in common with each other is their job and the fact that they are all extremely old.

The first one I like to call the Overly Happy Guy, because I have not once seen him in anything but the highest of spirits. He greets us with great enthusiasm every time he enters the room, and takes the trouble to bid goodnight to each floor every time he signs off. If his countenance and body language are anything to go by, he finds every day to be as physically and spiritually satisfying as Thanksgiving dinner. That really ought to be assuring, but it is actually quite worrisome. No normal person can be that happy all the time. There must be something terrible going on up there that he isn't telling us about. He's actually kind of annoying, as well, as it's best to do away with any engagement whatsoever; if he catches on that you possess even a smattering of Japanese skill, you risk being drawn into a protracted conversation on the most mundane topics imaginable. He is also quite weak and frail-looking, and I fear that if this place ever actually encountered an emergency of any kind he would quickly be vanquished, so I do not find his presence in any way reassuring at all.

Still, I much prefer him to his counterpart, who looks at any given time like he is fighting within himself a deep desire to murder us all. He possesses a glare that would reduce a Viking to a cowering jumble of steel and furs, which he wears at all times. On the other hand, it does seem like if we were ever to fall afoul of a robber or escaped convict while he was on duty, he would deliver a swift blow to the head with the heavy orange flashlight he carries, ending the situation in moments. In the end, I'd rather a stone cold get-off-my-lawn type had my back than a gladhander, though I will never repeal his nickname of the Terrifying Guy. That said, Cough Medicine refers to him as a the Secretly Happy Guy, citing his habit of playing with the little kid from the Indian family that lives on the first floor, and sometimes – reportedly, though I have never seen it – laugh uncontrollably in the French girl's face, evidently enjoying some private joke.

Our final defender, the Bald Guy, sits somewhere between these two extremes of Woody Allen and Conan the Barbarian. Though diminutive and not shy about flashing a kind smile when appropriate, he also looks to me as though beneath his heavy overcoat ripple the muscles of a trained fighter, and he could easily dismantle bodily the first person who made a hint of trouble for us or university property. He appears eminently collected wherever he is, suggesting the easy comfort of a man who has seen it all by now and is now left with neither anything to fear nor to prove. From time to time I like to invent outrageous backstories for him, like that in his younger days he was a Special Forces captain or an enforcer for the mob, and has come here to supplement his retirement with a modest income and a little something to structure his days around. For obvious reasons, this is by far my favourite of the three, and I think he would make an excellent comic book character or soft drink spokesman.

Amazingly, I find it very difficult to envision any one of them at home or on his day off.

Monday, 19 August 2013

Fushimi Inari

Increasingly as of late, every time I see a picture of some famous Kyouto sight I find myself thinking "Oh hey, I've been there." Across four visits in twelve years, one way or another I've ended up going to pretty much every single major tourist destination in the city. In fact, Fushimi Inari was basically the last one I had left. With my time here rapidly running out - for the moment - this was to be a sort of swan song for my solo Japan travels, one last box to check off the big list.
I was almost immediately waylaid by a blonde English girl, who was looking for a different station. I helped her find her destination and in the fifteen minutes or so that we spent together, I learned that she was teaching English in Viet Nam, and had come here for a visa run. She was quite interesting; I'd have liked to talk with her more. I'm always fascinated to talk to expats from different countries, especially other Asian countries.

 Hey, does this remind you of anything?

Ordinarily I would have shot this whole area much more extensively, but on this day, the camera angle, subject, and composition was often determined by factors such as where the shade happened to lie, and whether or not I had been standing in direct sunlight for more than zero seconds.
 Foxes! Foxes everywhere! They're messengers, apparently. This one has a key in her mouth.

 Ok, so now we're heading to the main event...
 A ton of gates! Seriously. For some reason I'd been thinking there'd be just one line of them, somewhere. No way. We're talking tens of thousands. There's a mirror on the grounds and blah blah blah, but this is the main event here at this shrine. It also appears at the end of Memoirs of a Geisha, which, though I hate to admit it, is kind of what made me want to come here in the first place.


 See, I told you they were everywhere.
 A branch in the path! Whatever. I didn't know the meaning of either character (both of which recur, together, throughout the complex) off the top of my head, so I just chose one at random. I went with the right one. Judging by the video above, the left is the one where Memoirs was filmed. Damn!
 So if you look down the path, the gates appear to form one solid wall, but if you view them at an angle, you can see the gaps. Now if you're like me, you've wondered just how far apart they actually are. Here's a picture, with my hand for scale. Answer is: It's completely inconsistent. Some are jammed up right against each other, some I could almost squeeze my body between. I hope that was informative for you.
 Couples! Couples everywhere.

 Like I turned out to be a much larger place than I'd anticipated. Come here expecting to invest some time, bring good walking footwear, and prepare for a lot of uphill walking. And don't be afraid to head back down once you've had your fill, because you're never going to explore all the various paths unless you work here.
 Just behind the main shrine area. Wow. Ok. We get it, Fushimi Inari. You like gates.
 After following behind this agriculture fan and his gf for a bit, I decided to explore a side path. After twenty minutes of walking, I was rewarded with fascinating sights such as this:
 Well, ok, also this:
 But, again, also this:

 Also, this. This is either a Shintou god I'm not familiar with or the most ostentatious Buddha I've ever seen. I actually stood there and wished I'd had Stupid Ugly Foreigner with me.

 This is where things got truly arduous. I stopped even bothering to try to take photos. There was nothing but stairs. And gates, which at least provided ample shade, but mostly, stairs. Stairs and stairs and stairs and stairs and stairs. At one point I had to rest because I felt the onset of delirium. But I didn't gave up. And my tenacity was rewarded with...!
 This thing. Yay?
Ok, also this.

Sunday, 18 August 2013


One day I'm going to do a full post detailing the Shinsengumi. In fact, I already have one mostly written, sitting deep in the bowels of my "blog" folder. But today, although we're going to be visiting the group's iconic headquarters, we're going to glaze over a bit of the history and the details. If you're unfamiliar, it's enough to know, for the time being, that they were a small group of elite samurai who acted as a sort of special police for the Tokugawa bakufu, and like modern police, they sometimes clashed with other divisions, such as the rival Mimawarigumi. They were subject to a strict and somewhat arbitrary code of conduct, the penalty for violating which was being commanded to commit suicide. They wore intimdatingly colourful haori into battle, per the above photo (though they probably actually wore yellow, not blue), and were organized into eleven squads, each led by a talented soldier with all manner of stories surrounding him. They were basically the late-Edo Gotei 13tai, and wow do I hate myself for even typing that.
 And they operated out of this place.
 Easy access! Only one gate is open to the public at the moment. I know, because I started by taking a stroll around the whole complex. It took a solid 20 minutes.
 The moat isn't particularly deep and certainly not impassably wide, but you can imagine how stressful it would be to try to lurch across and then scale the walls while the defenders constantly fired rifles and bows at you.
 K, so here we are inside. Nijoujou is full of flat, open spaces.
 My plan was to arrive as early in the morning as possible, in order to avoid the crowds and thus get better shots. As you can see, my plan was a rousing success.
 You can only go into some of the buildings, and only at some times of year, and only if you pay extra money. I didn't really try to understand it. The site was used for different things at different times, including the Tokugawa residence, a young noble's household, and the Imperial Cabinet, and of course parts of it have been destroyed and rebuilt over the centuries, so functionally speaking it's a bit of a patchwork.
 Should that be "so" keep off? A bit demanding if that's the case, but I can't think what else it could be. Hmph.
 Bells, but I couldn't read the explanation. I'm sorry.
 The first area opens into a beautiful garden...
 ...which, naturally, you are not allowed to walk through. Still though.

 A second moat protects the inner, more important section, the actual "castle" part of the castle.

 You've gotta be kidding me, there's a whole garden type thing up here too?! Wow. Nijoujou is just overflowing with green.

 I don't even really like nature, and even I'm beginning to think that I'd enjoy living here. I mean, not by myself, obviously. Maybe me and some of my close friends, and a few tenants, a retinue of bodyguards, and staff. Yeah, that could be really nice.

 Let's head up these stairs...
 ...but not before whirling and taking a shot of this couple. ^0^

 I thought I'd be able to look out and see some of the Kyouto cityscape, but I was wrong. Instead, the trees block our view, lending a feeling of insulation. I also thought a refreshing breeze would blow off the moat and cool me off, but I was wrong. Instead, it was still hot as balls.
 So cool.
 Glancing back.

 As we make our way back to the entrance we're directed to another, smaller garden. This one has what appears to be the warden's residence. In reality there's probably like a ride 'em mower or something in there.
 Conspicuously regular trees.
 Some of the buildings are suspiciously modern.
 I was curious about this, but not enough to both pay an additional 100 yen and take my shoes off. One or the other, ok; the two in combination, can't be bothered. Probably wasn't anything too too spectacular anyway. What, now you're curious too? Oh, fine.
Probably a bunch of stuff like this, if I had to guess. Ok, that is kind of cool.
There are better castles, and 600 yen entrance is a little steep, but Nijoujou is a nice visit. Also, while researching this post I found a video that you might enjoy, so let's finish out with that: