Saturday, March 29, 2014

Part of Your World

When you're in love and thinking of wedding rings, don't ever believe the entire shlock about only marrying the person. Short of performing a Mafia-style wedding massacre or falling for an unfortunate orphan, you will not only be joining hands with a bride, you'll be joining the family.

At least if you're Asian.

And after being privy to the entire clan she is marrying into, I fully understand why Lissome Lorelei had her niggling doubts about the commitment she was making. It was clear that her sea-witch mother-in-law was part of what my ISO begrudgingly used to call the Socialistas. Very little to do with socialism, everything to do with the social scene.

No, the Socialistas are out to outwit, outlast and outplay all the others in the upper crust social scene - basically a cross between Gossip Girl and Hunger Games. Calling them just plain old socialites would be an awful disservice since that just doesn't give them enough of a mean cachet.

Shalom : OMG are they gonna fight?Should we stop them?
Paul : Meh, it was gonna happen eventually.

My ISO should know. His patrician mother was a card-carrying member as well. And though she thankfully wasn't part of the scene here at the wedding, it was as if she was here in spirit with all the bouffant updos, the heavy mascaras and the conspicuously fake smiles.

And the prerequisite air-kissing.

Lorelei's mother-in-law was all that. And more.

Paul : The mother-in-law looks formidable. Don't think our poison would kill her. 
Shalom : We'd probably need a barrel. 
Paul : Probably what she wants to shove Lorelei in. 
Shalom : And toss her back into the sea where she came from?
Paul : Judging from the terse smiles, the mother-in-law will probably never accept Lorelei into the family.
Shalom : She's looking at Lorelei as if she was an unwelcome sea slug. 
Paul : Doesn't approve of ambitious sea creatures? 
Shalom : Looks like she wouldn't approve of anyone.
Paul : Let's hope for the best. L'chaim. 

With such a peevish mother-in-law, there's certainly no welcome into the family with open arms. Fairytale wedding might be over but I think our little mermaid is gonna be walking on sharp knives for quite a while.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Kiss The Girl

Like all cherished fairy tales, they all end with a happy ending where the lucky pair walks off into the panoramic sunset hand in hand after their various trials and tribulations. Though we had our doubts about that ever happening for our wandering sea urchin Lissome Lorelei, it turns out that potions and charms actually do work out fine at the end as she finally managed to walk down the aisle to the sound of a hot crustacean band.

On her two feet.

With the rest of the Lushes dressed up to the nines in attendance. Not forgetting our Charming Calvin as my plus one yet again. Turns out life truly can be the bubbles under the sea.

Sarah : The wedding went off smoothly! Time for champagne!
Paul : Phew! Thought we were going to have to break out the poison instead!

Calvin : You brought poison again?
Shalom : Abuthen?

With all the trials and tribulations right before she set off on her voyage into the sunset, could you blame us for doubting? As soon as the wedding date was set, problems seem to plague the wedding planning from bridezilla botherations to parental predicaments. Have to admit there were even times when I wondered if the little mermaid would end up returning the favour by poisoning the shockingly perverse sea witch mother-in-law.

Can't say I would blame her.

Just two weeks before swamped by all the pre-wedding chaos, a jittery Lorelei stood inches away from leaping back into the indigo waves for her beloved fathoms below. Land and shore be damned. It was all I could do to talk her back into her well-appointed suite with all her whosits and whatsits galore. Not forgetting her prince.

But she seemed perfectly composed by the time we finally caught up to her the night before the wedding. Though I found myself astonished to find myself standing beside a distressingly fragile Lorelei.

Paul : OMG have you been starving yourself?
Lorelei : Just a little bit of stress with the wedding.
Paul : So you ate only salted seaweed for six months?
Lorelei : I'm not that thin, am I?
Paul : You're almost a 2-D animated character.
Lorelei : I could still smack you with the conch shell. 
Paul : Sure you could even lift that? 

Think half her weight was her voluminous hair. I was this close to stuffing her with a kelp sandwich.

Lorelei obviously didn't need to have wasted herself worrying since the wedding went on smoothly without a hitch. Each little clam there knew how to jam there, each little slug there cutting a rug there... the little mermaid needn't have worried. Even the sea witch behaved herself relatively well.

Though I was ready with darts in case she didn't.

And we finally had the prince kiss the girl.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Twilight Samurai

Each year there is an annual general hue and cry on the part of the Chinese and Koreans as the Japanese leaders make their yearly pilgrimage to honour their fallen war veterans at the Yasukuni Shrine. Among the revered souls enshrined there are war criminals from World War II charged with "murdering, maiming and ill-treating prisoners of war (and) civilian internees ... forcing them to labor under inhumane conditions ... plundering public and private property, wantonly destroying cities, towns and villages beyond any justification of military necessity; (perpetrating) mass murder, rape, pillage, brigandage, torture, and other barbaric cruelties upon the helpless civilian population of the over-run countries."

Even reading the heated words of the tribunal makes my skin crawl. With the relentless culling done during their bloodthirsty occupation in World War II - and the seeming whitewashing of said events by the Japanese, it's no wonder the Chinese and Koreans are utterly unforgiving. 

But when it comes to mindless razing, brutal pillaging and savage mass executions, I wouldn't be surprised if the stoic Japanese didn't even blink an eye - since honestly they weren't all that merciful on themselves either. Just a brief display at Osaka Castle of the Sengoku period brilliantly showcases just how ruthlessly destructive these vicious warlords could be. Perfectly enacted dioramas depict the protracted lifetime of Toyotomi Hideyoshi - the preeminent daimyo who constructed the castle - and there seemed to be endless bloody conflict throughout.

Talk about tiresome!

I only came to have dinner! You mean we've gotta draw swords over this!?

In the exhibitis, there's even a horrific tale drawn out on a paper scroll that details the legend of an entire samurai clan ending their lives in drowning - only to subsequently be reborn as the Heikegani crab. Though worry not about biting into them in some random sushi since these crabs are generally thrown back into the sea by the highly superstitious fishermen. 

If I were a daimyo back then, I would hastily decamp as far as possible to the northern reaches of Hokkaido, preferably surrounded by insurmountable mountain ranges - along with stone walls if that isn't enough to deter them, just to avoid all the senseless bloodshed.

Back in those days, peace and zen... not so much. 

But they sure as hell built some mighty impressive fortresses. One of which was Osaka Castle - which itself suffered several debilitating conflicts, conflagrations and calamities - hence the recently refurbished one on sight. Definitely would recommend a visit, though the uphill hike through the entire 15-acre park to reach the main tower itself was quite intentionally arduous. No doubt one of the many intricate defense strategies created to frustrate their enemies!

Monday, March 17, 2014

In the Realm of the Senses

Odd for me to say this especially since I planned the trip for Japan but I used to have an irrational dislike of sushi and udon. Sure, I practically worship the indescribable taste of sashimi but when it comes to the various makis and rolls, I'm utterly indifferent. Since I doubt the chefs originally planned for me to drown the sliver of sushi in a river of wasabi just to swallow it down, I figured there had to be more to it than that.

Which is why I intended to partake of Japanese cuisine as much as humanly possible during my short trip. Apart from the occasional pork sausage from the convenience store.

Samurai : Did he just say he didn't like Japanese food? 

Let's begin by saying how ecstatic I am to be totally wrong about sushi. Tinged with a bit of anxiety though since I doubt few of our kaiten belt sushi here can compare to the ones prepared in Japan. I can honestly say that I didn't have a meal during my trip that was anything less than oishi.

One of the first meals I had was the elaborate kaiseki meal. All presented in beautifully decorated, perfectly arranged ikebana-like dishes worthy of a dozen Instagram shots. Wish I could say more about it but I seriously didn't know the half of what I was consuming - though I can easily assure everyone that it was all delicious. Attempting to question the ever-attentive hostesses in the ryokan only elicited a confused flurry of garbled sentences that had me even more anxious about the dubious contents of each serving. Fortunately Charming Calvin, the hyper-allergic member of our crew, managed to survive the entire challenging ordeal.

But of course even the intricate kaiseki hasn't gained as much fame as the humble sushi. Attempts at communicating with the helpful locals led us to a small sushi restaurant that could seat twenty at most. It was there that they proved me wrong when it came to sushi. I don't know if it was the fresh ingredients, the fluffy rice, the fragrant seaweed but it call came together in quite a melange of exotic flavours. Even the dreaded unagi which Calvin favours turned out to be scrumptious - and I ordered several after.

Beef sukiyaki came after. Heaven. That's all I can say.

One of the last meals we had was the udon. And we literally stumbled onto this wonderful cafe one morning in Osaka as we were scouting the immediate area for breakfast before catching the train. Didn't seem like much but the workers inside seemed so delightfully chirpy that we had to try the udon - despite my lifelong dislike of it. Glad I took that chance since the Marugame udon was simply delicious. Who knew plain boiled udon liberally doused with soup broth and some egg would taste that amazing. The freshly deep-fried tempura was only the perfect accompaniment to the meal.

And for late night supper every night, I usually tried out every possible instant ramen there was. Can say without a doubt that the Ippudo instant ramen trumps them all. Though not as wonderful as the real deal - and yes, I visited several Ippudo stores, it comes relatively close for a five-minute instant noodle!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Glass in the Shell

Quite obvious after a few days that things aren't as I always imagined in Japan. At least not in Kyoto.

The attention to politeness and form is true enough, quite obvious from the first day as the hostess in the ryokan performed all her duties just so. Even the mercantile stores here are famed for their incomparable service from the deliberate consideration paid to their customers to the immaculate attention paid to the wrapping of even the smallest parcel. Not more, not less, just absolutely perfect. Customary bows are common enough here - and yes, after a day or two, you start automatically bowing like the locals do.

Though with much less finesse I'm sure.

And yes, they do wear traditional kimonos here and there, especially during the weekends. Think there might even be an ongoing initiative by the city trying to promote traditional wear - which I'm all for btw. Though most of the perfectly adorned kimono-clad girls daintily tripping down the lanes would most likely be fellow tourists renting costumes from the numerous stores here.

And isn't the kimono just lovely, even on a tiny tyke?

Some things however you never actually notice till you're there in person. Like the assiduous shopkeepers I mentioned earlier. The simple purchase of an inconsequential item turns out to be quite a ceremony as well. After receiving payment for said item, the shopkeepers always make it a point to only hand the beautifully wrapped parcel, sometimes with multiple layers of wrapping, at the door of their store, followed by a perfectly executed bow and repeated exhortations to return.

And can I mention how very hardworking they all are? For the storekeepers and the restaurateurs, not a single moment is lost in lackadaisical contemplation. When there are no customers to prepare for, the shopkeepers would be busy sweeping the already immaculate floors, wiping the spotless tables, taking out the garbage, arranging the eating utensils, folding the napkins, rearranging the menus etc. And most restaurants here only hire one or perhaps two waitpersons. Efficiency at its best.

Some sentimental visitors here of course expect the stores to be situated in humble wooden quarters bisected by narrow cobbled streets and that's true for some part of the city but not all. Sepia-toned images of ancient wooden quarters are true enough but not as numerous as one would think from the gushing travel brochures. For the most part, Kyoto is modern steel and concrete quite comparable to any other contemporary Japanese city.

And one odd thing to add but it has to be said. Glasses made here are not only shockingly cheap but also amazingly fast. Take several minutes of browsing through the hundreds of choices available in one of the many chain stores here - and in barely half an hour, you could have your individualized spectacles ready for you. With lens ready, mind you. Such a tempting offer that we purchased several.

Didn't need anyone to tempt us into buying the kimonos! After a day or two of strutting about in the yukata, it seemed just so easy and natural that we couldn't help but purchase a few for ourselves. Bold solid colours in the usual range of blacks to blues for the men unfortunately - unlike the dazzlingly beautiful patterns in dozens of vibrant shades for the girls. Tried my best to recall which side to place on top ( usually left over right ), took even longer to master the more intricate knot on the obi sash ( rather than just the simple one for yukata at home ) but I finally managed.

In fact I'm wearing one right now. 

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Spirited Away

Calvin : Where are we going after this? 
Paul : Temple.
Calvin : Didn't we just finish visiting a temple? 
Paul : Yes. 
Calvin : What are we doing tomorrow then?
Paul : Temple. 
Calvin : All temples?
Paul : It's all temples. 

It's Kyoto. Though my patent disregard for sombre spiritual spectacles ( not to mention awe-inspiring postcard-ready vistas ) is nearly infamous, it's almost impossible to escape from the dozens of temples here. Or shrines. Can pronounce quite emphatically without a doubt that there's a monumental historical shrine on almost every corner.

Sometimes even two.

Unlike in China where the communist revolutionaries did quite a number on their numerous temples. Or even Korea where barbaric invaders kept razing entire cities to the ground.

Perhaps fortuitously protected by a divine light, most of the shrines in Kyoto are not only intact ( or repeatedly rebuilt ) but also astonishingly beautiful works of architectural art. From austere Zen temples to towering Buddhist monasteries, we did a quick runaround of the inevitable must-sees on the tourist trail from the serene Nanzenji temple to the hilly Kiyomizudera. Game for all the kitsch, we tried out all the tacky touristy things on the list including making wishes at the various shrines, throwing dimes at the rock statues at Kinkakuji to drinking from the Otowa waterfall at the base of Kiyomizudera in the hope of achieving wealth, wisdom and longevity.

And just like every terrible Asian tourist, we snapped dozens of Instagram selfies of every possible scene.

It is just that wonderfully vermillion!

While I did enjoy the steep climb up to the Kiyomizudera - through narrow cobbled streets of stores and stalls, my personal favourite site would be the Fushimi Inari shrine. Though it's situated quite a distance from the main city centre, there's nothing quite as enchanting as spending a chilly misty morning walking through dozens of dazzlingly vermillion torii gates. Even made a purchase of my favourite soft toy which is a kitsune fox, supposedly the animal guardian of the temple.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Memoirs of a Gay Sire

Kyoto. 京都

Even the name itself evokes gauzy images of perfectly coiffed geishas daintily fluttering up cobblestoned lanes towards mist-enshrouded mountain shrines to offer up their daily prayers.

Though nondescript concrete box skyscrapers now dominate the modern city skyline, all it takes to find that romantic view of Kyoto is an inadvertent slip down a shady side lane. Perhaps I might not have been a true believer of all things Japanese before but I'll admit to falling just a bit in love with the city after spending a few days there. Hard not to tumble a little when you're awoken on a misty February morning to a light snowfall over a Japanese zen garden. Followed by the soft hush of slippered feet as the gentle ryokan owner brings you the exquisitely presented kaiseki meals.

It was worth even the hellish madcap rush through Osaka Central to find the proper train to Kyoto. With several private train companies operating in the immediate area, it isn't surprising that the increasingly complex train system seems wildly entangled. Far from the ruthless efficiency and organization the Japanese are renowned for.

But all it took was less than an hour to be away from the chaos of Osaka - and on towards the more sedate charms of Kyoto.

Would certainly recommend at least an overnight at one of the many luxurious ryokans dotting the city. Basically a traditional Japanese inn catering to weary travellers along their many highways, ryokans are the perfect opportunity to experience the lifestyle and hospitality of the Japanese, incorporating local elements such as tatami floors, futon beds, baths and local cuisine.

Yes, my room looked just like those in the movies. And yes, I was dressed similarly, except without the radical haircut. 

For us, the first day was mostly spent trying to navigate our way through the seemingly labyrinthine maze of the ryokan in our newly minted yukatas and getas. After an hour or two, it seems almost natural to be strutting around in our yukatas - so much so that we actually purchased a few later. Fortunately we already had some experience with knotting towels and sarongs which helped plenty - since I doubt the ryokan would be pleased to have us unwittingly flashing them.

Of course being utterly naked was par for the course in the communal bathing area. Unless you count the little scrap of towel as adequate cover. Nothing quite as intimate as sitting side by side with your boyfriend on matching stools while tossing sandalwood scented soap and shampoo at one another; all before stepping into the shockingly steamy bath.

Followed by an elaborate kaiseki dinner by the garden; the half which I had no idea what plant or animal the dish came from though all were supremely delicious. Though sometimes the dishes were so exquisitely presented that it seemed a shame to just consume them expeditiously.