In a country of around 200 Million people, Japan is a country which uses just about every piece of space possible. From its cube room hotels which are nothing more than a coffin like space in which to sleep, to their agricultural lands which are found in amongst villages and on the periphery of gigantic mega cities, almost every piece of land is used thoughtfully and carefully.
Whilst it’s a necessity given its large sprawling cities and limited land mass, the careful and thoughtful use of space dates far back before mass urbanisation. If Australians could be collectively referred to as ‘laid back’, the French ‘arrogant’ and then Germans ‘blunt’, the Japanese could only be referred to as ‘organised.’
Despite sprawling mega cities being as ugly as a Boxing Day shopping spree with stilettos to boot, step inside a Japanese house, shop or any other building and the transformation is stark. From here you can see that organisation goes into everything Japanese.
Japanese Use Of Space In Architecture
From the way that traditional buildings are designed to the amazing landscaping of Japanese gardens, there’s something relaxing and enjoyable about such order. Now this might be your personal version of hell if you’re an Eastern European Anarchist, but thankfully, not too many of our readers are. Order and organisation seem to go hand in hand with well-being and there is something some find fascinating about that.
Exquisite Japanese Gardens
Food is another example of the lengths to which the Japanese go to to use space thoughtfully and effectively. In western countries, we’re used to having a meal on a plate with everything heaped on top. However, in Japan, everything has its own bowl, plate, or small dish and fits neatly into the table, or even if travelling, in a bento box.
'Oishii' Means Delicious In Japanese
An interesting thing I started to notice as I travelled throughout Japan, was the use of space and the connectivity with the environment. If there’s a spare space on a city road, a pavement, an alleyway, a small piece of unoccupied land, there will be trees, plants, vegetables or flowers growing in it. What may appear to be a tiny house with a dull front entrance in the middle of a city, often opens up into a wonderful tranquil garden space which we would often not do anything with because it was too small or not worth doing.
With a land as vast as Australia, we just don’t do this and instead are quite lazy when it comes to the use of space. Whilst we can get away with it for the moment, as our population and cities continue to grow, how will we address this? Sydney is now limited in its growth outwards by the blue mountains, the Royal National Park and the water between Palm beach and the central coast, so what will our use of space be into the future? Will we just keep going higher and higher and put so many cars on the road that it’s an endless parking lot? Or will we be able to come up with a more suitable and lasting solution?
If you look at the connection between humans and natural spaces, then you start to understand the challenge for mega cities and for cities of our own into the future. When development is becoming denser due to population growth, are we going to have the same capacity for thoughtful space as the Japanese?
If we bring this back into education, how do you use space with your class? How do you organise everything in your room, or around the school? Are there natural areas with trees, plants and water features? What would be the impact if there were? When we take students out into the wildness, the mood changes, as they’re now in a different space and most people naturally respond to this.
If we can start thoughtfully building natural spaces into our schools, especially in inner city schools, maybe a little zen garden, this will help students understand the challenge that they are going to have to face in the coming years and one which Japan might have some great insights already into solving.
The Fushimi Shrine in Kyoto is one of the most iconic temples in Japan. Its distinctive path of orange gates wind their way up the side of a mountain, which is revered as sacred. Along this path of gates as it winds it way up the mountain, are a series of small shrines and grave stones and of course shops for everyone along the way.
The visit to this amazing site was both cultural and outdoor ed in its experience. At the very base is a market place filled with food stalls which emanate a wonderful aroma of hot Japanese delicacies. There are many girls dressed up in traditional Japanese Kimonos and if you really want, you can rent one in the many rental shops nearby. Despite the crowds, it was well worth getting something to eat here before going into the temple. I managed to find a beef skewer that I could afford. The standard ones were 500yen (about AUD$6.00). However the wagyu ones were 2,000yen (about $24.00). As meat on a stick goes, $24 is a bit out of my league, so I went for the cheaper option. However, the food’s not limited to this and you can get all sorts of things on a stick, from weird dessert like buns to octopus that look as if they’ve just had a visit from Vlad The Impailer.
Before going there, I hadn’t really read up much on it, so I thought that it was a few gates that arched around in a bit of a circle. However, I couldn’t have been more wrong. The gates do loop around, but they go all the way up the mountain and back. A truly remarkable feat of design.
A Thousand Of Bright Orange Torii Gates
The place was crowded and of course everyone was trying to get a photo (or fifty) right at the start. The noise of the bustling crowd really made it hard to appreciate the significance and wonder of this site. I shuffled through the crowd, which once inside the gates, there was little chance of getting away from, until the crowd popped out at another temple and some shops. Looking at a ‘You Are Here!’ type map, I suddenly realised that this was just the beginning and the gates went on and on, all the way up the mountain. I continued to follow the crowd up the hill as it got steeper and the path turned into steps. Rising up to the next intersection, the path split and the crowd suddenly thinned out. Obviously, people had already taken enough photos of themselves with the orange gates that the thought of hiking to the top was too much for them to bear.
However, for me the experience of the temple and the sacred mountain only began at this point. There’s something very serene about walking through bamboo scattered forests and the bright orange contrast of the gates. There were hardly any people up here to ruin the experience with endless selfies, although I do admit to taking a few at the top. The absence of the crowd also meant that I was able to see more of the amazing details and the work that’s gone into building such a phenomenal structure.
One Of The Many Fox Statues Across The Shrine Grounds
Once I reached the top, which was gated by some rather unhappy looking fox-like statutes, I had a look around the highest shrine before descending into another gulley. As I walked down the many steps, suddenly a wind rippled through the bamboo. It was directional, by which I mean it was concentrated above my head in a very narrow band. You could imagine in years gone by, those making a pilgrimage to the mountain could have seen something like this as a passing dragon spirit. Hopefully the happy dragon type from ‘The Never Ending Story,’ rather than the angry, greedy type from ‘The Hobbit.’
Regardless of this, it was a wonderful moment as the golden coloured autumn leaves were dislodged from their branches and glided down to the ground around me.
Continuing back down, the closer I came to the intersection, the greater the number of people there were until I finally popped out, just past the enormous frog shrine, back at the main temple at the base of the mountain.
This was both a great hike and a fascinating cultural experience. If you’re ever in Kyoto, this is a must, but wear your hiking boots as the real experience is only to be found beyond where most people give up.
Kyoto is an amazing city of contrasts. A bustling city of around 1.5 million people, which is central Kyoto, not the surrounding areas, this mega city seems to go on and on and is connected to Osaka through an unbroken series of medium and high rise apartment buildings. It’s crazy to think that this combined urban area consists of around 20 million people.
It’s an astonishing and busy place. I arrived by Shinkansen, aka the bullet train, from Tokyo and managed to find my way through the crowded station onto the subway and eventually to the hotel. Not trying to get through a crowded train station carrying a pair of skis was a wonderful bonus this time around. Instead of skiing, I was out exploring some of the astounding history and culture of Japan.
Other than trying to get through Tokyo station in peak hour, I’d not been out into any major Japanese cities before and this was a fascinating experience. The outward impression I have of Japanese cities is that they’re kind of ugly. There are lots of tall buildings which on the outside look dull and grotty, interspersed with a few amazing ancient castles, temples and traditional styled houses.
A massive population, random sprawling developments, recessions and years of deflation, haven’t helped the look of many of the cities in Japan. Functionally, over design seems to have been the thought at the time. Despite this outward appearance, once inside one of these mega cities, you can find endless hidden gems of the ancient world, living right alongside colossal skyscrapers. The cities have simply grown up around and consumed so many of these places that were once focal points of small villages and townships.
Kyoto, for example, has a lot of temples and I mean a lot! Everywhere you turn, there’s another temple staring back at you. You can be walking down a laneway and a simple old wooden doorway can take you into another world. I came across many of these by chance. I had a fairly general map from the hotel which indicated areas where the major temples were, but on the way there I found temples in the middle of shopping centres and in amongst suburban housing areas.
The moment you step through one of these doorways, it feels as if you’ve stepped back in time and out of the city. The change of atmosphere is stark. Gone are the bustling noises of traffic and the manic pace of the city. Instead, you’re surrounded by a serenity that’s further enhanced by delicately tended gardens and bamboo water features that continue to flow gently. No wonder the zen garden is such an art form, as it can dramatically transform and create a quiet space, even amongst millions of people.
I found the same experience time and time again as I stepped inside an ancient building. It feels a world away from the hectic pace of the surrounding city. The Imperial Palace, nearby castles and countless temples were all the same. Somehow, time has stood still inside these spaces, whilst the city has exploded around them.
Another interesting place which provided the same dramatic contrast, was the Japanese Gardens next to Himeji Castle. There’s a major four lane road right out in front and a massive car park opposite. Inside, however, is a serene series of masterfully designed and maintained gardens where I heard the birds chirping for the first time in days and saw huge koi fish swim lazily through the ponds, expectantly popping their mouths out whenever someone’s shadow appeared over the water. Buffeted by solid traditional Japanese walls, these gardens are a wonderful example how the old and the new within huge cities co-exist.
Koko-en Garden Near Himeji Castle
From here, you can walk ten minutes down the road to a gaudy neon lit mall, filled with seemingly endless shops and constantly swiftly moving crowds of shoppers and commuters rushing through one of seven identical Starbucks stores that line the streets. This dramatic contrast shows the underlying complexity of the modern world and the desire to escape to quieter and more relaxing times and spaces from the past.
There’s something wonderful about both sides of this mix of old and new. It’s important to preserve and value our global heritage and cultures and at the same time we still need to build cities which can leverage the technological advances and advantages that are being continuously designed and developed in the digital age. Whilst we can all hope that city design into the future will be less ugly than what it is now, the reality is that this is just the surface and once you step inside, you’re only moments away from a serene green space or a preserved vast estate. Working out how to best link all of this together with some thoughtful design, is definitely going to be an ongoing challenge for the next few generations, but the possibilities of future cities which connect both old and new in a seamless manner is an exciting prospect to anticipate.
Having traveled quite a bit for work and for fun, I’ve never learnt more about a new culture than immersing myself in it. We always learn best through our experiences, yet most of what’s taught is still inside a classroom. Now if it’s maths, that’s fair enough as there are many basic concepts that need to be worked through in a fairly structured way, but if it’s cultural understanding for which you’re aiming, then it’s near impossible to truly learn anything unless you immerse everyone in the cultural experience.
There’s a lot of schools doing just this with countless overseas trips happening each holiday period. But why should this be just an optimal extra in a holiday program? Firstly, the cost involved to take an entire school away each year on some sort of cultural experience would potentially be prohibitively expensive. However, there are other options. Why not explore the cost of chartering an entire plane? If you’ve got to move a few hundred people, surely one of the airlines could come up with a special deal, plus it removes the often annoying feeling for other passengers of being surrounded by a group of school students.
Anyway, major logistics aside, which I’m sure when you think of it aren’t insurmountable, there are some massive benefits to taking students away to experience another culture. Students today are getting a very distorted view on life due to the bombardment of marketing and digital noise that’s constantly around them. For many, it’s all about image and consumption, which creates a disconnect with relationships and so many aspects of the world. This is not of their own making, but conditioning being experienced in their every day lives.
What many students and teachers need is a good shock to the system to snap out of the sometimes monotonous grind of every day classrooms and experience something different and amazing that can never be taught. Immersing students in a different culture, can create a life changing experience which they can’t get any other way. It can provide them with a completely different perspective on life and enhance their appreciation of others. For any worthwhile cultural experience, it has to be dramatically different. It doesn’t have to be the shockingly inappropriate orphan tourism which so many schools have enabled in recent years, but is does need to be something remarkably different from our own culture.
Thankfully, we don’t even need to go outside of our own country for this as we have some unique local cultures and aboriginal communities in places such as Arnhem Land that welcome school groups for extended stays to experience a more simple way of life that’s focused on relationships, rather than consumption.
An Aboriginal Person - Tjapukai Cultural Centre
Māori Cultural Performance - Waitangi
Another great place to go, which is only a couple of hours flight from Darwin is East Timor. With a mix of Tetem, Portuguese and Indonesian influences, this is a remarkable country with a unique culture. Whilst still a very poor nation, the Timorese people are big on education and are in the process of rebuilding their nation after years of conflict. Whilst now a relatively safe country, it’s worth connecting with the Department of Foreign Affairs for the latest assessment. However, from an educational point of view, immersion in this type of culture that’s so close to our own country, is a great way of developing the global citizenship within our community.
Until going to East Timor, I had no idea how devastated it still was from years of war, but contrasted with this was the positivity within the community that with democratic freedom, they could now build a nation of their design and not one imposed from outside. Having been occupied by the Portuguese and more recently the Indonesians, this is something we can’t fathom as Europeans, who have done most of the occupying.
One of the key skills required for students to be successful into the future, is cultural understanding. It’s not just knowing about a culture from reading about it. It’s about truly understanding other cultures and gaining an appreciation for a different kind of world view and life experience. This doesn’t need to be limited to our own regional ‘backyard,’ but can extend to all sorts of places around the world. Living this sort of experience can put into perspective the history, the geography and the global perspective of another culture which in turn can help develop an appreciation for others and a greater understanding and appreciation of our own culture. Whilst it may not be possible for everyone to go away every year and experience a cultural immersion, (although you could charter an A380), it should however, be part of an integrated Yr 7-12 curriculum. The long-term educational benefit for students and the development of global citizenship would be profoundly impacted on in such a positive way.
As I might have mentioned at some point, I love medieval history. Having studied the Vikings through to Elizabethan England for history at uni, it’s an amazing, disturbing and rather dysfunctional period of history, but what period isn’t? However, when it comes to anything but medieval Europe, I’m at a bit of a loss. Consequently, if asked about medieval Japan, all I could tell you was that there was some unpleasantness, a civil war, lots of people in armour and many in their pyjamas grabbed their swords and got stabby! For many it didn’t end well…
Yes, I know, for those Japanese historians amongst you, not a very detailed picture of the Shogunate! However, I recently had the chance to visit a number of castles in Japan and to read up on some of this history.
I started the day in Hiroshima. I visited the rebuilt Hiroshima castle, which I found out was in fact the main target of the Americans, not because they were trying to capture the castle from the Shogun, but because the Imperial High Command was based within the castle grounds.
The restoration work is amazing with the entrance and main keep having been rebuilt from scratch with original materials. The time, effort and care that’s gone into this is astounding and something you have to see to really appreciate. Hiroshima, in medieval times, was a centre of trade and power and its huge defensive advantage was the fact that it’s on an island. It may be difficult to see today, but as with many medieval Japanese castles, there are several outer layers that make up a fortified walled town before you even get close to the castle itself.
This layering of walls, outer perimeters, moats and fortified townships is often seen in European castles, but not to the same extent that the Japanese castles were. This gave a massive defensive advantage for the incumbent in the castle as they could still grow crops and have fresh water for longer periods of time before an enemy could get close to starving them out through a siege.
One interesting feature I saw in Hiroshima, that you don’t find in European castles, was that of the sliding wooden doors. These were a feature in the outer perimeter of the castle. If an enemy got in here, the guards could swiftly slide open the doors, fire a volley of arrows, then slide them shut. The outer-side of this part of the castle had holes in the walls for doing the same, but the rapid attack and withdrawing feature meant far more arrows could be poured on a visiting enemy.
As with European castles, Japanese castles have a keep, or an inner tower that’s the most secure part of the castle. For Japanese castles, these are massive wooden structures which are built up with progressively smaller levels until you reach the top, giving the classic and unique tiered look of the castle.
From Hiroshima I travelled to Himeji, less than an hour by bullet train and it was here I found the most stunning castle I’ve ever seen. One family held this continuously for 120 years and standing at the front entrance, you can see why. This is a grand imposing structure that can be seen from anywhere in the city, except now through skyscrapers. In its day, it would have commanded unbridled position in the Himeji skyline. Now world heritage listed, you really have to go there and experience it for yourself to understand the sheer size, scale and defensive capabilities of this castle. This left every European and English castle for dead that I’ve visited so far in terms of layout, design, functionality and standing the test of time.
To get to the keep is a relentless uphill climb through layer upon layer of walls, gates barricades and watch towers, all of which could decimate your army. Even if you managed to get inside the first or second layer, you still continued to have to battle through so many obstacles to try to even get close to the keep. I guess when you’ve got samurais and ninjas wanting to break in and kill you, then it makes perfect sense to build so many fail- safes into your house.
Himeji Castle, A UNESCO World Heritage Site
Himeji castle is distinctively white in design, which I can imagine on a moonlit night would have been a glowing beacon for the surrounding villages. This is a stunning and well-preserved building which is steeped in history. Despite massive cities having developed around both Hiroshima and Himeji castles, there are still obvious remnants of the original fortified townships. It’s easier to work out with Hiroshima, as you just have to look for the natural water ways. However, generally if you find a canal or small brook that’s been built with amazing stonework, then the chances are you’ve reached one of the defensive lines of the castle, often so far away from the castle itself. Without the context of the castle design in mind, it’s just another waterway next to a city street.
One of the most interesting tours I’ve ever been on was in Vienna at the Schönnbrunn, which is a stunning palace made up of 1441 rooms! Built between the 16th & 17th century and further improved upon in the 18th century to its current standard and design, by Maria Theresa, who was given the estate as a wedding gift, which I’m sure would’ve been a nice surprise. This is one of the most magnificent palaces in the world and is World Heritage Listed. It remains the property of the Austrian people. However, it’s had a fascinating history of splendour, grandeur, victory and success, sadly contrasted with conflict, conquest, decline, depression and death.
Stepping into the grounds of the palace, I was immediately impressed by its sheer size and magnitude. I can imagine in its heyday, anyone riding into the city from the countryside would have been blown away by it. However, it’s not until you step inside that you get the true sense of just how magnificent it really is. The high fresco ceilings, intricate gold leafed embossed paneling, grand furnishings and sumptuous artwork, makes you feel somewhat insignificant in comparison with what has gone on within its walls.
When you add in the fact that Maria Theresa was the mother of Marie Antoinette (who most famously suggested the French to eat cake, before losing her head in a disagreement with some poorly dressed commoners wearing silly hats over the said comment), you start to see how important the business of the palace was to the political landscape of Renaissance and post Renaissance Europe. The palace was even suitably grand enough for Napoleon, who commandeered it and took up residence in 1805 when he captured Vienna. It was an ideal location for a visiting tyrant, as it has a very attractive backyard in which you could accommodate an entire army, right next to the zoo.
Palmenhaus Schönbrunn, A 128-Meter-Long Greenhouse
However, it wasn’t just the site of political power, diplomacy and a pleasant weekender for the invading French army. It was a central hub of the arts, music and culture, with Mozart playing his first ever concert here at the age of 5! “If the walls could talk,” has never been a more appropriate term uttered for a grand building that’s seen hundreds of years of fun, excitement, glamorous parties filled with ballroom dancing, as well as forced marriages, intrigue, poisonings, suicides, hostile occupations, declarations of war and finally capitulation after years of bloody conflict in the Great War that saw a family destroyed, an empire collapse, millions killed and the world changed forever.
The Schönbrunn Palace Park Is A UNESCO World Heritage Site
When we visit a palace such as Shönnbrunn, or Versailles, we can often romanticise what it would have been like living with everything. The land, the grandeur, the wealth, the armies, the servants, the parties, the decadence! The strolls through the gardens, the visiting envoys bringing gifts you don’t really need, the polite yet saucy lovers and the luxury to do whatever you wanted to do. Sounds wonderful right? Unfortunately however, the reality was quite different. Austria was on the frontier to the Middle East and the threat from the Turks was ever present. After the reformation, Austria was one of the few European countries that remained Catholic, which was yet another source of conflict within the Central European States. Suddenly the money, the palace, the fast sport carriage and the decadent parties feel a little less attractive when you have to deal with all the intrigue, wars, death, destruction and lots of people wanting to kill you all the time.
Despite these constant threats, Austria prospered and became an extremely powerful empire. Having gained control over Hungary, Tuscany and a few bits of Romania, Serbia, Ukraine, Czech areas, Slovakia, Croatia and a bit of Poland for good measure. The empire was the third largest power in Europe by population and was an economic powerhouse. However, having everything was ultimately a poison challis for Emperor Franz Joseph I who was emperor from 1848 to 1916. During his reign, despite his best efforts, the empire started to decline. Plagued by ethnic problems, assassination attempts, economic strains and ultimately the Great War, Franz Joseph remained a diligent leader to the end. With the assassination of his nephew, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, being the catalyst for WWI, this was just another devastating event in what can only be described as a tragic life. Franz Joseph died in 1916 from pneumonia and although he was succeeded by Charles I, this reign was short-lived when Austria lost the war in 1918. Charles also died from pneumonia four years later in 1922 at the age of 34.
When you look at the history of such a magnificent palace, the Schönnbrunn, you only have to scrape away the thin veneer of wealth to see how fickle and empty life can be when you supposedly have everything.
In today’s world of endless consumption, marketing and imagery targeted at people for the desire to have it all, we must be mindful of the fact that having everything can come at a very heavy price. Power, wealth and material goods whilst on the surface look wonderful, scratch that surface and it can reveal that it’s nothing more than the same thin veneer covering another deeply unhappy and flawed core. Why in an age where we can have more than we’ve ever been able to have before, are mental health issues such as anxiety, body image and depression on the rise? It’s because our relationships are what is fulfilling in life and not all the stuff and power over others we can amass for ourselves. Vienna and its palaces are truly stunning, as are many throughout the world, but it’s always worth looking a little deeper at the true cost of those palaces and the lives lived within them.
Waitangi in New Zealand is the birthplace of the nation! Visiting the scenic outlook in the Bay of Islands, you can’t help but be impressed by the place in which the signing of two completely different treaties was done, thus creating a united nation, that was about to become bitterly divided.
Wandering around the grounds and listening to the stories of this historic place, I felt a mix of emotions. Despite the tour guide calling Australians convicts and claiming that we copied their flag, which is obviously not true, because ours is clearly more original than theirs. However, that wasn’t the reason for my mixed emotions. Our guide gave an informative and what I thought was a balanced account of what was essentially a good way to unite a nation, that went terribly wrong. The good intentions of the tribal chiefs was certainly not reciprocated by the English, as they vied for control of every piece of land on which they could get their hands, so that the French, Dutch and the Spanish couldn’t.
New Zealand was another potential colony that was resource rich and another spot in the Pacific over which Britannia could rule some more waves. Australia has far more beaches and better surf than New Zealand. Despite having dodgy surf, beaches and hobbits, New Zealand remained an important piece of land for Britain which was at the time in the midst of various wars and skirmishes with almost all the other European powers in an attempt at securing land, resources and trade routes throughout the world.
It was also a time when a private company (The East India Company) found itself in charge of an army and running a nation. To say that colonial powers lacked a moral compass would be an understatement. However, this is not about dwelling on the past. It’s understanding it and putting the past into context with what has happened since. For years, Maori people were subjugated. However, they believed so strongly in the version of the treaty they signed, not the English version, they continued to fight for its fair and equatable application in law.
The Treaty House
The English being English, instead thought their version of the treaty was correct, which nobody in fact had signed other than the English themselves. Today that would be legally considered an unenforceable contract. However, when you have an enormous navy and a standing army with lots of muskets and cannons, it’s fairly hard to argue against that.
The end result was essentially a civil war between the Maori tribes and the English settlers that dragged on. However, the sheer size of the English forces eventually overwhelmed the Maoris and they had to seek alternate and more peaceful and political means of the proper application of their treaty. This came in the form of Maori representation in the New Zealand parliament and continued to build momentum over the next 100 years and remains a strength of their system of government today. Protests and a huge political protest walk from the north to the south of the island was also instrumental in improving the rights of the Maoris which had been lost through a version of a treaty to which they never agreed.
In the 1840s, Waitangi was also the largest trading port and commercial hub of New Zealand. With the signing of the treaty, this all moved to a new capital, in Auckland, which for the local area was devastating. However, the long term benefit for the Bay of Islands has been enormous. It’s preserved the natural beauty of the area and protected the land and waters from the impact that a major city such as Auckland has. The Waitangi site also fell into ruins, however, was bought by Lord Bledisloe who then donated it back to the New Zealand Government in perpetuity. This also preserved the site and the original house was restored and the accompanying Maori house, which uniquely faces south was turned into a place of living history.
To gain an understanding of the early Maori and European experience in New Zealand and why New Zealand is what it is as a nation today, the Waitangi Treaty Grounds are a must if you’re visiting the North. It was a remarkable experience and I met wonderful and friendly people.
This week, since it’s the new year holiday period, I thought I'd write more about adventures and well nothing about work. After a massive past month, I managed to jump on a plane and fly to Japan. I love flying and with my favourite TV show, now movie, Absolutely Fabulous on the entertainment system, the movie was just the right length to have dinner and then fall asleep. Having not stopped for weeks, it wasn't hard at all to doze off and wake when the stewards were serving breakfast!
After a muesli and a couple of espressos, I was all ready to go. Another thing I love about travelling is the fact that one moment I can be in stinking hot weather, the next I step into winter. It's not quite like going into your cupboard and discovering Narnia, but not that far off it either!
Shuffling through immigration seems to get faster and faster as they improve technology to check people through. The biggest hassle however, was trying to work out how to make all the connections to get to my destination. The Japanese I did at school hardly prepared me for any of this. It came down to a couple of options. 1. I could wait 4 hours and catch a bus directly to my hotel (boring). 2. Get a mono-rail, bullet train and bus to my destination. Far more interesting… and challenging! Whilst I already knew of these two options and had it planned out in my mind what I needed to do to make this happen, it's not until you're faced with a ticket machine that even when in English Mode doesn't make sense and no ticket sales desks in sight.
I managed to fudge my way through and buy a ticket. I wasn't sure if it were the right one, but hey it kept working everytime I stuck it in a machine, so I guessed I was on the right track. (The track being a monorail, it was kind of hard not to be!)
I made my way to Tokyo Central Station and from here ran around madly trying to find the next connection. It was the bullet train! I again did battle with the ticket machine that had way too many options that didn't make any sense at all. However, I finally succeeded in getting it to spit out a ticket, yet when I went to the gate, it turns out it wanted two tickets. So after the guard said something I didn't understand except for the word two, I went back and got a second ticket (which was apparently slightly different somehow). Placing both tickets in the machine at once, it worked! With a strange feeling that this ticketing process was somehow inefficient and un-Japanese, I raced up to the platform as the train was minutes from leaving.
This was my first time on a bullet train and it was amazing! The sleek design, the aerodynamics, the whole train was awesome. I can't for the life of me work out why Australia hasn't built any lines for them. The smooth pace at which they accelerated and slowed mean that you were never thrown about. Although I have to admit I was slightly disappointed that leaving the station I wasn't nailed to the back of my seat by 5Gs of thrust. Now that would be cool.
Seeing the sheer size and spread of Tokyo was something itself. The high-rise apartments, the industrial areas, the sprawl of the city seemed to go on forever. As the urban centre became more distant, the train sped up hitting over 280kph! The world flashed by and in the distance, I could see the snow capped Mt Fuji dominating the landscape.
The train ride was around 1.5hrs and as the towns became more rural, the design of the building changed and there was some great tranquility about this transition.
Reaching Nagano (venue of the 1998 Winter Olympics), the bullet train ride ended. Stepping off the headed carriage, I was snapped back into winter by the frosty chill in the air. From here, I transitioned onto a bus for the final leg of the journey. As the bus wound its way through the rural townships, light snow began to fall, getting heavier and heavier as we ascended into the mountains.
After another hour and a bit on the bus, we reached the township of Hakuba, a great town now deep with snow. I explored town for a couple of hours buying and eating some random foods which looked like one thing but tasted like something else. One such food looked like a cream bun and turned out to have some sort of black bean mash within it! Ha! It's always worth trying new foods and I eventually stumbled on something I liked for lunch.
Going anywhere new for the first time is always filled with uncertainty, but that's what makes it so exciting. I don't know what's going to happen next, but to an extent it doesn't matter, as enjoying the journey and everything that happens along the way is the most important thing. It's way too easy to get so wrapped up in work and ‘regular’ life that you miss out on the opportunities to travel, to explore and to experience new things. So over the Christmas break, think about somewhere new you'd like to go or something new you’d like to try. Ask yourself where your next adventure will be and go and book it in the next hour! Whatever it is, don't delay, don't defer it, make it happen and have an awesome adventure whatever it may be!
I love Christmas decorations! The vibrant magic they bring to this time of the year is so special and something to which I always look forward. Ever since I travelled to Germany for a student exchange and experienced a wonderful snow laden town with its windows lit up with the flickering of candles and shrouded in red and green, I’ve loved it!
Having said that, I must also qualify this with the fact that I don’t like the crappy tacky decoration people buy whilst shopping for their groceries and the sort of things people like to adorn themselves with at their work Christmas party. No, this is trash and I don’t like that in the slightest.
For me, Christmas decorations have depth and meaning. How does a decoration have depth and meaning I hear you yelling at your device?! Are you insane??? Well, possibly, but the jury’s still out on that one. Anyway, decorations, as with many other things people like to collect, derive meaning through the way in which you come to have them. If you did get all your decorations in aisle 17 next to the chips, dips and some plastic plates, then perhaps not, but if you’ve collected them from around the world, then they take on a whole different meaning.
A couple of years ago when I began travelling a lot more than I had ever done before, I started collecting Christmas decorations from all the places I visited. Since I didn’t want to waste money on pointless souvenirs that are great for five minutes, but once you’ve arrived home and shown everyone, it’s then put down and forgotten, often placed in a cupboard to gather dust. I have an entire collection of teaspoons and badges which has suffered this fate and is somewhere lost in the garage. However, unlike most souvenirs which suffer this fate, Christmas decorations appear each year! It might only be for a month, but for that month, all of those wonderful memories of travel and experiences you’ve had around the world, come flooding back.
For example, when I was in Japan a few years ago, it was really hard to find Christmas decorations. It’s not something the Japanese celebrate, but being a westerner, I was not deterred by their cultural indifference to this important festival that I thought they should have filling their stores and so was determined to find a Christmas decoration somewhere. I received many strange looks when trying to ask Japanese people without much English where I could buy Christmas decorations. What I thought would be an easy task, turned out not to be. I was told that the only place to find them would be in some western stores in the major cities. However, I wasn’t in a major city. They had snow, they should have Christmas decorations. It was like a pre-High King & Queen Narnia.
However, one day I decided to give skiing a break and went for a day trip to the seaside town of O, which is renowned for its seafood and glass blowing. Walking up and down the streets for hours, I finally came across this out of the way place where I had a delicious lunch of tempura prawns. Next to this restaurant, were a series of different glass blowing shops. After buying what I thought was a custard bun, which turned out to be an awful tasting black bean bun, I wandered through the glass shops, which had some astounding pieces of artwork as well as other beautiful and ornate glassware. Casually wandering through, looking at all the cool things I couldn’t afford, I came across a tiny shelf in one of the shops. It had about dozen tiny little glass objects in the shape of reindeer and a tiny Santa! I had finally discovered Christmas decorations in Japan!!!
Quickly buying them so no other sneaky westerner would take them before I could, although the chance of that was probably slim, I’d found some really cool decorations for home. For me however, it’s not the decoration itself. It’s the story that goes with it. When I see those little glass decorations, they not only look cool, but more importantly they remind me of my first adventure to Japan, which was planned and booked in about ten minutes whilst sitting on the front deck of a boat at work as we were in the process of reconnoitering a new outdoor trip. Another one I have is a wooden Santa from Breckenridge in Colorado. This was my first trip to the USA, when I was cooking for a snowboarding training school. One of the best days I had there was when Peak 10 opened and I was able to ski down chest-deep double black runs all day... it was awesome!
However, back to the decorations. The more I travel or the more experiences I have, the more I collect and when they’re all out each Christmas, they bring back wonderful memories which brings so much more meaning to this time of the year so. Next time you’re travelling or on an adventure, instead of buying a crappy souvenir pen or snow globe that will disappear into the abyss of your garage five minutes after you arrive home, buy a Christmas decoration, which you can put out every year that will bring back all the cool memories of the experiences you had when you first received it.
Have a Merry Christmas and a Wonderful New Year!
For some time, I’d been wanting to go to the Bay of Islands. It’s a subtropical region at the northern end of the North Island of New Zealand. There are over 100 islands within the Bay of Islands and it’s a wonderful, tranquil environment that’s been well-protected by New Zealand’s Department of Conservation.
In addition to being a place of great beauty, it was also the first port of call for Lieutenant Cook who was apparently on his way to discover the ‘Great Southern Land,’ after a massively unsuccessful attempt at observing the transect of Venus in Tahiti. Cook was in need of some good luck, although he really needed it later in life when visiting Hawaii for his comeback tour! Like most come-back tours, it did not end well, as Cook was part of a tasty farewell feast on his final night.
As with a number of Cook’s voyagers, he managed run his ship, The Endeavour, around on a rock, which is called Whale Rock, as Cook first thought he’d run into a whale. He only worked out that it was actually a rock, when he hit it again on the way out!
Most of the islands are protected areas and a significant effort has been put into the eradication of introduced predators and pests. Many islands have had their natural beauty restored having eradicated feral cats, rats, foxes, dogs and possums. Yes… possums. Despite them being cute and protected in Australia, they’re horrible, rabid and evil in New Zealand and make nice warm blankets.
The boat headed out to the Hole In The Rock, which is an amazing hole in a rock that’s been eroded by the sea over time. The vaulting cliffs above the wall are dressed with a beautiful light canopy of greenery and passing through the hole in the rock on the boat is a wonderful experience. On the other side, you can see the old lighthouse, once kerosene, then diesel, now replaced by an automated solar powered beacon. The lighthouse keeper’s house also remains and I was informed it’s listed as $15 per night to stay, although it’s a six hour walk to get there and possibly haunted! Still… $15 for one of the most spectacular views imaginable!
It’s quite ironic that this area of first contact with Europeans in New Zealand and the start of introduced species, is at the forefront of removing introduced species. The exception is the “introduced” tourist who help fund the conservation work being done.
Once off the boat, I managed to go for a hike to the top of some amazing cliffs. Looking down with slight trepidation, I could see the clear azure water and slight swell splashing into one of the tiny bays. Heading to the highest point on the island, I could see 360 degrees of amazing rugged coast line, open ocean and islands dotted all over the place. A truly spectacular area of natural beauty and one in which ground dwelling birds such as the native Kiwi are being protected and their numbers rebuilt having previously been decimated by the possum. Not quite, but it sounds more dramatic than foxes and dogs which get blamed for many things.
Going somewhere like this helps you to appreciate the importance of protecting our natural environment. Humans and natural wonders can live hand in hand, but it requires us to think about how we’re impacting on an ecosystem and what we need to do to effectively care for and manage our surroundings. As the world decreases the number of mindless jobs with automation, perhaps this will allow that with more time, energy and resources, these can be spent on protecting the environment we have.
Due to the efforts of NZ Department of Conservation, numerous endangered species of birds, plants and animals have been given a second chance to live in a balanced and natural environment, once shattered by the inevitable colonisation and modernisation of the world and now restored. Let’s just hope that the New Zealanders don’t release the Kiwi on our shores as revenge for the possum. Apparently, they’re very territorial and have a long pointy beak which could wreak havoc on our nation!