No fish left in the sea

I spent last weekend in Tokyo and I loved it! Its posh department stores and restaurants in Ginza, its trendy cafes and shops in Shibuya and Harajuku (this even though I am an old timer), and its traditional Japanese restaurants in Asakusa, to name a few of the key sources of my love for the capital of Japan.

However, by far the most striking experience I had in Tokyo was the Tsukiji fish market.

Some of you might view going to a fish market a bit like going to the butchers or an abattoir, and you are right – that’s what it is, kind of. But if you are prepared to eat octopus sushi, tuna sashimi, raw sea urchin, salmon soup, oyster tempura, grilled mackerel, deep fried white bait, eel on a skewer, pan fried perch, prawn cocktail, or to open a tin of Whiskas for your feline friend, I think one should be prepared to understand (and ideally see) where that food comes from and accept the responsibility that your (or your cat’s) diet will mean that marine creatures will be caught and killed for your benefit.

To try to get a better understanding of this, I had an early start and met my Japanese friend in the foyer of my hotel at 4.40am. He had kindly offered to come to the fish market with me before heading to work straight from the fish market. Since the tube wasn’t running that early in the morning, we walked for 20 minutes to the fish market and got there at 5am when the ticket office for the tuna and sea urchin auction was due to open. They only let 150 visitors observe the auction, which starts at 5.25am.

When we got to the ticket booth, we learned that the booth had opened already at 2.30am and that by 4am all the tickets were sold out, and that we were thus not going to witness the extremely expensive black tuna or sea urchin changing hands by way of some elaborate hand movements indicating bids and prices.

Disappointed, we walked around aimlessly trying to avoid being run over by very busy men on battery powered turret trucks which looked like a cross between a forklift and a petrol barrel (see short video below).

 

By coincidence we came across one not–so-busy man, sitting on a crate of fish and my friend asked him if there was anything interesting to see at 5am instead of the auction that we had missed. Apparently we were welcome to go and have a look inside a huge, intimidating looking warehouse full of men, boxes of fish and turret trucks.

 

img_3420

So we walk into the warehouse, again trying not to get run over by the guys on their trucks or clog up the narrow walkways. I’m taking photos of fish, squid, octopus, turtles, and shell fish in boxes and fish tanks, and on tables and trolleys, and of sellers and buyers negotiating (see photos).

img_3415

 

img_3413

 

img_3429

 

img_3423

 

img_3411

 

img_3409

 

img_3412

There were piles and boxes of fish everywhere in this gigantic warehouse whose extremities were unknown to us. I had never seen so many fish.  I started to have an unnerving thought. Tsukiji fish market is just one of several fish markets in Tokyo, and there are many more fish markets in Japan, and Japan is just one country in Asia, and Asia is just one continent. These types of fish markets take place in thousands of places in the world. And they take place every day! I could but think that there must be no fish left in the sea! It’s all on tables and boxes in fish markets like this! Or revolving around sushi restaurant counters or being covered in batter in fish and chip shops.

img_3416

When the tuna auction had finished and the tuna was brought to the market

 

img_3414

 

img_3430

 

img_3428

After having had a look around the market, we decided that we had seen enough and wanted to head back to the hotel, but the warehouse was so big that we couldn’t find our way out. Eventually, my friend asked directions from an elderly man loading his turret truck. We were gobsmacked when the guy glanced at us from underneath his eyebrows and then offered to give us a lift to the closest tube station in his truck. At 6am these workers are super busy. I don’t think they would generally be willing to operate a taxi service for lost visitors. So, we were extremely grateful (and very excited!) when we hopped on the back of the truck and off we went.

img_3408

When we cruised out of the warehouse, I noticed many tourists (none of whom were using a similar taxi service as us!), and said to my friend that it is weird that none of the other tourists came into the actual fish warehouse to have a look. That, funnily enough, we seemed to be the only tourists there.

He then admits that the guy who had instructed us to go in had done so because my friend was wearing a suit (as he was going straight to work from the fish market) and the guy had said that even though strictly speaking we were not supposed to go in, the staff would think we were there on business! Never have I felt more like a gatecrasher! But at the same time I was grateful to my friend and his suit for having experienced something I’ll never forget – the content of the entire sea on tables of a fish market and the ride at the back of a barrel on four wheels.

img_3407

I have mixed emotions after seeing the fish market.  Part of me is happy to have seen first hand where our food comes from. However, it does make me think seriously about how much I actually enjoy eating fish. Do I love it so much that I am prepared to support the fish industry in their capture and killing of fish? Aside from the suffering that the fish endure, I am also concerned about the hazards for humans of eating fish (e.g. due to levels of mercury) and the environmental impact of fishing. One to ponder I think.

Eternal meditation

img_2731

 

I recently had an amazing, educational and spiritually enlightening experience. A friend and I stayed at Koyasan (Mount Koya), a UNESCO World Heritage site, about a 1 ½ h train journey south of Osaka.

Koya is an old Buddhist town founded by a monk called Kobo Daichi some 1,200 years ago and even though there used to be many more temples, due to some monks’ happy-go-lucky attitude with candles, today there are 117 temples in Koyasan’s 4 km x 2 km area.

When we got to Koyasan we were hungry to see as many temples as possible. But instead of visiting all 117 temples, we managed maybe about 15 after which we, surprisingly perhaps, felt desensitised to all the picturesque buildings, smell of incense, aesthetic temple rock gardens, lovely little ponds and their carps and ever so friendly monks smiling at everybody.

 

img_2739

img_2740

img_2744

 

So, we decided to go back to our lodgings and meditate with the monks.

We stayed in a pilgrim’s lodgings (Shukubo), which is a temple that has rooms for people making a holy trip to this extremely important spiritual place in Japan.

img_2743

Our room

 

My friend and I are not Buddhists, in fact, neither one of us are religious, but after having spent a weekend in Koyasan, we agreed that if we were religious, Buddhism, its positive attitude and concrete real life application would be the one we’d be most likely to go for. Apparently, one way to be a good Buddhist is to start by cleaning your home! Due to your ‘soul’ being connected to the ambient world, a clean and tidy home equals a clean and tidy soul. I love this kind of practical stuff, which doesn’t really strike me as religion but more like common sense. Related to this, our temple lodgings were spotless!

The food at the temple was vegetarian and sooo good – even fried tofu that usually tastes like a wet woolly mitten was to die for! After dinner, two young monks came to clear away the food trays and replaced them with our beds. I asked them whether or not they cook the food themselves. They said that they have a chef who does all the cooking (the monks just make beds and do other household chores, and presumably meditate, pray and engage in other Buddhist routines). I’m guessing the chef used to work in a Michelin star restaurant. I’m not kidding. I’m still drooling over that tofu.

 

img_2737

 

After dinner we went on a night tour led a monk to one of the most sacred places in Japan, Okunoin.

img_2741

Okunoin is a Buddhist cemetery consisting of 200,000 tombs, the most important of which is that of Kobo Daichi’s (the monk who is the father of Koyasan). Well actually it is not his ‘tomb’. You see, in the 9th century, at the age of 63 years, Kobo Daichi entered a room underneath one of the temples for eternal meditation. Supposedly, for the past 1200 years he’s been there but only the reigning head monks of the temple, when bringing him his daily meals, have seen him in his deep state of meditation. One British tourist asked the question that might be on some of your lips: Is he still alive? By the monk’s ever so diplomatic answer, I assume that was not the first time someone asked that question. He said: Some people believe that he is still alive, but most people assume that he lives in this temple in spirit.

The cemetery surrounding Kobo Daichi meditation temple was breath-taking. In the dark it looked magical but also a little spooky. It didn’t help that the monk told us that a well half-way through the cemetery was believed to indicate whether you were to die soon. Apparently, if you couldn’t see your own reflection in the water of the well it meant that you would die within three years. We decided to wait until the morning to have a look – we really didn’t want to risk it at night with hardly any light. The monk added that a flight of steps next to the well were also an indicator of your longevity. He said that if you slipped or fell over on the steps then you would die within three years. Maybe this was just a way for the monk to get a group of Westerners (who hardly resembled graceful gazelles) to pay attention and not break their necks on the slippery steps (and maybe sue the temple!). After all, before we got to the cemetery and its slippery steps one lady in our group had already ended up on her all fours. Luckily nobody fell over on the fall-over-and-your-a-goner-in-three-years-steps, and as far I am aware, the lady didn’t sue the temple for the earlier tumble either.

img_2761

The steps at night

 

img_2726

The steps at day

 

We slept on the tatami floor on a relatively thin futon. I didn’t sleep very well. Not because of the thin futon or nightmares about Okunoin and life-ending wells but, due to the walls in old Japanese buildings being essentially paper, I could hear a guy three rooms down the corridor snore and the couple in the room next to us breath. But I didn’t mind too much really – a bad night’s sleep is a small price to pay for experiencing Koyasan!

img_2745

 

At 6am our alarms woke us up to go and take part in our temple’s morning service and fire ritual (gomakito), which they hold routinely every day, rather than as a gimmick for the tourists. The purpose of them is to pray for our ancestors and to cleanse negative energies and thoughts. These ceremonies were very interesting and to me a little bit moving, partly because of what I wrote on my soegomagi – a piece of wood that the monks burn in the morning fire ritual for a contribution of 300JPY (€2.50). What I wrote was a wish that there would be a cure for Type 1 diabetes. Maybe it was the incense, the powerful beating of the taiko drums, the chanting of a mantra by the monks and the thought of my Type 1 diabetic daughter that made me feel so emotional. In any case it was lovely (and I am looking forward to the cure for Type 1 soon).

The only things that distracted me in the morning service and the fire ceremony was an approx. 10-year of daughter of the British lady who had asked about 1,200 year old Kobo Daichi’s vital signs at Okunoin temple. The daughter loudly farted during the morning ceremony and the family giggled for 5 minutes after which the daughter and their 8-year old son lay down on the floor, I presume expressing boredom and/or tiredness.

img_2760

Morning service

img_2734

Fire ritual

 

After breakfast (and some more tofu, Yay!) we went back to the Okunoin cemetery. Some of the oldest tombs have stood there in the middle of the forest, in the morning mist for 900 years. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything quite like that.

img_2732

 

img_2728

img_2730

One of the oldest tombs in Okunoin

img_2729

img_2756

 

In addition to the beautiful old tombs and a tranquil atmosphere, there were also some more modern tombs and even some slightly quirky ones, like a rocket, a teacup and a termite tomb.

img_2680

 

Apparently, anyone can have a tomb in Okunoin; you don’t even have to be a Buddhist. You just need to have a thick wallet to pay for the spot and to have a tomb made. But even though Okunoin was amazingly beautiful, I think I want to go into my eternal meditation back home, in England or Finland.

 

 

img_2757

Jizo (if you would like to know more about jizo, click here)

 

Tall, taller, tallest

IMG_7839

The view from Harukas, Osaka

Many people (excluding the ones with a fear of heights) like visiting tall buildings, so much so that different cities/countries/companies seem to be having an everlasting race for the sky to see which city/country/company has the tallest building on the planet. Due to this, the reign of a given ‘tallest’ building only lasts for a short number of years, until the time when it is no longer possible to build taller buildings. Or maybe that day will never come?

You see, I recall a recent dinner table conversation with some male acquaintances (none of whom were structural engineers, architects or bricklayers – and neither am I). Somehow the conversation got onto the topic of tall buildings in the world: Burj Khalifa in Dubai, Tokyo Skytree, Shanghai Tower, Taipei 101 and Harukas in Osaka.

Going off on one, there is also of course Trump Tower. My 8-year old son asked the other day why there is a building called ‘fart tower’. It took all my willpower to resist telling him that it was because there was an asshole at the top of it.

The men agreed that there was no limit as to how high big objects could be erected until it is no longer feasible to reach higher altitudes. I joined their conversation and said that it is likely that there is a limit, not only from a financial point of view (I mean, how expensive would it be to add an extra floor to a 10 km tall building rather than an extra floor of a shorter building) but also that due to the earth being round, which in my non-structural engineer’s mind says that there must be a point when the earth’s surface would no longer provide a structurally sound foundation for a ridiculously tall building (I based my assertion on my knowledge of building towers of wooden blocks with my children – the taller the tower the bigger the base). Maybe this was a stupid thing to say, but in my opinion not any more stupid than talking about the possibility of having infinitely high buildings. They nevertheless laughed and said that only a woman could point that kind of an argument out. I, in turn, wanted to point out that only men with certain issues would spend time comparing the size of erect things.

I have since talked to my husband because I was so furious about the mansplaining that took place around that dinner table. He isn’t a structural engineer, architect or bricklayer either but he agreed that finance was one of the biggest limits to building an indefinitely tall building. He also added (1) problems with elevators/transportation from the bottom to the top of the building (2) wind and (3) materials. In addition he pointed out that of course there is a limit because at some point you would theoretically hit the moon/sun/other object.

Tall buildings are obviously a popular tourist attraction and a great place for a marriage proposal, wedding venue or a party. What a spectacular place to propose to your partner – not only for the view, but also for the convenience. If the answer is not what you were hoping for you can always threaten to jump off the building because you think your life no longer has any meaning (or alternatively you can threaten to throw them off the building) – only kidding! Please don’t go jumping or throwing people off of buildings even if they don’t want to marry you (or respect your passion for spectacular erections).

In any case, Japan has many tall buildings, the tallest of which is Tokyo Skytree, a tower that stands a whopping 634m tall. See photo below.

FullSizeRender

Tokyo Skytree

 

Here in Osaka, we have the tallest (300m) inhabited building in Japan, Harukas.

 

It’s one of our favourite places to visit in Osaka, partly because

  • the view is stunning, even though Osaka is not exactly the prettiest of cities, see photos above and below
IMG_2308

Harukas, Osaka

IMG_4906

The view from Harukas, Osaka

  • on a weekday it is not particularly busy and so you can just sit there for hours and relax

 

IMG_4941

  • the café at the top of the building sells delicious pineapple ice cream (and wine) – perfect for relaxation
  • the toilets at the top with glass walls that will allow you to take an interesting mirror selfie for your Facebook page (unless your reflection in the mirror resembles a chipmunk, like mine does below, in which case you might want to refrain from posting the photo on Facebook).

 

IMG_5192

  • the light display in the lift is beautiful – it makes you feel like you are on a journey to somewhere lovely (maybe somewhere far away from the depressing post-Brexit reality) (see the video below)

 

 

I suppose the only negative is that when you get to the bottom, you realise that you are not in a beautiful world where everyone is intelligent and loving, but that you are in a huge department store and you need to try to find you way back to the tube.

If you are ever in Osaka (and if you don’t suffer from a fear of heights) you should visit Harukas, that is of course unless by that time there is already a taller building, maybe one that reaches the sun.

Is this really Japan?

One thing that is wonderful about Japan is the fact that it has so many different types of places to visit. What I mean is that you go on a domestic holiday within Japan but it feels like you have gone abroad, and you sometimes forget that you are actually still in Japan. A beach holiday on a small Okinawan island feels like you have gone somewhere like the Seychelles (you can find some of our Okinawa photos here). You go to Hiroshima and the scenery you are greeted with at the Inland sea makes you think that you are not in Japan but somewhere in South Asia (you can find some of our Hiroshima photos here). Tokyo looks like a metropolis smilar to New York or London, but it’s clean, people are typically extremely polite and the infrastructure functions exceptionally well (recall that there are frequent earthquakes and typhoons in Tokyo and it deals with these better than London deals with three flakes of snow) (you can find some of our Tokyo photos here). And maybe you could say that Kyoto looks like ‘real’ Japan with its temples, shrines and kimono-wearing ladies heading to the closest tea ceremony or Ikebana class (you can find some of our Kyoto photos here).

Last weekend, with some Japanese friends, me and the kids headed to what I think is the ‘Switzerland’ of Japan, namely to Shirokawago in the Gifu prefecture.

Early Saturday morning our friends in their 8-seater rental car pulled outside our apartment to pick us up for this ‘Alpine’ adventure. Our kids and their kids are good friends so I assumed the 4-hour journey would be a piece of cake with ‘I spy with my little eye’, Top Trumps, joint book reading and a carefully controlled iPad quota, but it actually turned out to be pieces of cake, everywhere. Not only were the kids monkeying around with food, they were also making a mess with nose bleeds, vomiting, dirty shoes on the seats, and the usual stuff most parents would expect on a 4-hour car journey. But even though the car’s interior was having a road trip from hell – in between vomits and nose bleeds, us passengers were having a great time.

We had reserved Sunday for Shirakawago, so when we got to Gifu on Saturday, we first went mountain biking in the town called Hida. Actually, when I say ‘mountain biking’, I don’t quite mean your typical mountain biking. We had the mountain and the bikes but instead of revving across unbeaten peak paths, we jumped on bikes that were attached to a frame, which in turn was attached to an old train track. The younger kids sat in between the two bikes like royalty and enjoyed chauffeuring service provided by us adults and a 12-year old (to make up numbers).

IMG_9840

 

Somewhat typically for Japan where most cyclists’ seats have been adjusted so that the cyclist’s knees seem to hit their chin when pedalling, when I sat on the bike, the seat was uncomfortably low. No self-respecting Finnish outdoor shop owners’ daughter would accept knee-to-chin style inefficient pedalling. So, I asked a staff member to adjust the seat. He explained that it was in its highest setting. There we were again, in a situation where Japan ever so effortlessly makes a normal size Western woman feel like an Amazonian. My 150 cm, 40kg female friend and her only slightly bigger husband found it hilarious that their Finnish pal’s long legs (hardly!!!) were not compatible with (what I would call a child’s) mountain bike. Luckily us Westerners as well as the Japanese looked equally unflattering in our crash helmets.

IMG_9856

Two-by-two us and the other 15 cyclist pairs leisurely cruised 3 km down the hill. It was awesome. The sun was shining but there was a slight breeze (which you would appreciate if you knew how painfully hot Japanese summer days can be) and the view was amazing. Little did I know (due to slight translation problems) that once we were down the hill, we would have to cycle that 3km back up! Yikes! Maybe it was for the best I didn’t know what was coming, or I wouldn’t have enjoyed the ride down through the old train tunnels and lovely mountain forests as much as I did. Anyway, when we got down to the resting spot at the 3 km mark and the staff swiftly turned the bikes round towards the direction we had come from, it hit me that we would have to cycle back up the hill, which now, thinking about it, kind of makes sense. Luckily, the bikes were installed with battery operated pedalling aids. However, when I was huffing and puffing up the hill (regardless of the pedalling aid) worrying that the cyclists behind us would start ringing their bells at us crawling up the hill like an overweight turtle after a too ambitious CrossFit class, I would have paid good money for the exchange of my bike for one of the staffs’ mopeds at the front and the back of the line of us mountain cyclists.

IMG_9817

 

Apart from my unacceptably poor physical performance, the ‘mountain biking’ experience was good fun. All of us adults, and the kids loved it.

After mountain biking, we drove to Takayama, a town known for its historical old town.

IMG_0338

 

IMG_9931

 

IMG_0341

 

In addition to the beautiful old buildings, Takayama had several sake shops.

IMG_0337

 

IMG_0336

 

Since my husband missed the trip due to having been in England at the time, I thought I’d buy him some sake, his favourite drink. Entertainingly, I got a bit tipsy sampling some delicious local sake in the search for very dry sake for my husband (I’m more of a sweet plum sake person while my husband prefers nail varnish remover). As you can see in the picture below, I eventually found a ‘little’ something for him.

Image-1

 

We also noticed many bird nests around. I was told that the Japanese believe that swallow nests bring good luck and thus, people are very creative in coming up with workable ways to share their habitat with the nests. In the photo below the umbrella hangs underneath a nest to protect the taxi from anything that might drop down from the nest.

Image-1

 

Our hotel in Takayama was great. The hotel had indoor and outdoor onsens (hot springs) and it served one of the best buffet dinners I’ve ever had (which included for instance sushi and sashimi made to order, pizzas baked to order in a proper stone oven and personal table-top BBQs). After the buffet we headed for a relaxing session in the hot springs.

A word of advice to anyone else slightly self-conscious about the circumference of their waist: Don’t go to an onsen after a buffet dinner. After all, similarly to Finnish saunas you go to onsens naked, and thus, you can’t hide the earlier overdose of sushi, tempura or Chinese dumplings. The post-buffet-look really isn’t flattering even for the petit Japanese ladies let alone someone who carries around her waist a 10kg ‘lifebuoy’.

The following morning we drove to Shirakawago in the mountains of Gifu.

IMG_0225

Due to its location, Shirakawago gets lots of snow in the winter and thus, similar to many houses in the Alps, the angle of roofs of houses in Shirakawago is relatively steep.

IMG_0334

 

IMG_0328

 

IMG_0273

 

IMG_0094

 

IMG_0329

 

Not only are the roofs unusually steep, but the material of the roofs in Shirakawago is predominantly thatch (presumably to insulate the cold in the winter). And Shirakawago did not leave a fan of old British thatched houses cold. The village was beautiful with the old thatched houses, lovely forests around it and a river running through it. No wonder it is one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Centres.

IMG_0335

 

IMG_0088

 

We had a great weekend experiencing a new side of Japan (to us). Now the only thing to do is to start thinking where to go next.