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A day trip to Hiroshima

Japan day seven


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Paper cranes, Peace Memorial Park, Hiroshima

Osaka is just two hours from Hiroshima by bullet train, making this a practical option for a day trip – especially if you have a JR Pass as we did and can travel ‘for free’. So on our second day staying in Osaka that is what we opted to do, and had an excellent day out.

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In the Peace Memorial Museum

When, at 8.15 am on August 6th 1945, the first atomic bomb was detonated over Hiroshima, the city became in an instant one of the most famous in the world; but what city would ever have wanted that sort of fame?

The bomb killed an estimated 80,000 people instantly. It flattened an area of five square miles (13 square kilometres) and destroyed about 69% of the city's buildings were completely destroyed, with another 7% severely damaged. Three days later the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, and five days after that, Japan surrendered.

But the effects of the bomb were much longer term, with estimates suggesting that the final death toll was about 140,000, (out of a population of about 350,000), including those who died later from radiation. Many also suffered long-term sickness and disability as a result of the bomb’s radiation effects. Hiroshima would never be the same again.

Today Hiroshima, while never for a moment forgetting its past, has become a lively modern city which has turned its notoriety to advantage in order to campaign for a non-nuclear world; and also, it has to be said, to attract visitors who come to learn about that past and, the city hopes, leave sharing some of its values and ambitions for peace. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the city has succeeded in reinventing itself as a modern city that pays tribute to its past in the best possible way – using those terrible events as a platform from which to campaign for peace. Its memorial park and museum are not ‘Bomb Memorials’ but ‘Peace Memorials’ and this ethos pervades everything you see will here and the people, especially children, whom you will meet.

Travelling to Hiroshima

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On the bus

There are some that consider a visit to Hiroshima to be a bit macabre, but we didn’t feel we could be so near and not see the city for ourselves. We travelled to Hiroshima by bullet train, along with some of the others in our group (most though had opted to go with Andrew to visit Nara instead). There are several trains an hour from Shin-Osaka station, and the journey takes about 90 minutes. The trip was covered by our JR passes. As this was an independent day out, rather than part of our tour, we had no pre-booked seat reservations. We could have queued for some at the station before boarding but decided to take a chance on finding seats in one of the unreserved seating carriages. This was a good call, as lots of people got off in Osaka and it was easy to find seats together.

To get to the Peace Memorial Park from Hiroshima station we took the trolley bus. The fare was a flat 150¥ which you pay on leaving the bus. We weren’t totally sure about this system when we first boarded but a friendly local man showed us what to do, using mime and sign language, and also kindly let me take this photo of him.

We got off the bus by the Atomic Dome. From here you can walk across the bridge on to the island that was once a built-up area but is now totally devoted to the memory of what happened in August 1945 and to trying to ensure that it never happens again.

Genbaku Dōmu: the Atomic Bomb Dome

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Genbaku Dōmu

The first sight we saw on leaving the bus was the stark silhouette of the Genbaku Dōmu or Atomic Bomb Dome. The intended target point of the atomic bomb dropped on Monday 6th August 1945, at 8.15 am was the nearby Aioi Bridge but it missed this slightly and exploded almost directly above this building, which was at the time an exhibition hall known as the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall. Because the blast was felt from immediately above, hitting the structure vertically, a surprising amount remained intact even though, of course, everyone inside was killed instantly.

For some years after the war the skeleton of the building remained as it was. There were some who felt it should be pulled down and the site redeveloped, while others argued for its restoration and yet others for its preservation as a ruin, to stand as a memorial to what had happened and to those who had lost their lives. The latter group won the day, and in 1966 the city council declared that it intended to preserve the building, undertaking only the minimal work necessary to ensuring its stability. In December 1996 the Atomic Bomb Dome was registered on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Its listing was based on its survival from a destructive force, the first use of nuclear weapons on human population, and importantly its representation as a symbol of peace.

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Images of destruction, Genbaku Dōmu

This is a stark introduction to the Peace Memorial Park which lies beyond it, and seems to have become a focus for individual local people who are keeping the memory of what happened on that day alive to express their feelings and, in some cases, share personal experiences with visitors. We saw several displays near here which had been set up by local people – some artefacts from the devastation caused by the bomb such as roof tiles, posters campaigning for peace and some old photos of Hiroshima at the time, both before and after the bomb.

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Campaigning for peace near the Atomic Bomb Dome

One of the displays held a rack of paper flyers promoting a blog by the son of parents who survived the attack (his mother being pregnant with him at the time), in which his mother describes the events of that day and the subsequent death of her father, his grandfather. I followed this up after our visit and found a simply told, powerful first-person testimony: My Father's sixth of August, 1945 in Hiroshima. In this he transcribes his mother’s account of the day the bomb fell:

‘That day, fifty-eight years ago, is something I still can't forget. It is also something I certainly don't want to remember or talk about. Even if I do talk about it, no one can feel what it really means. I don't want to think about it. It makes my heart ache. However, if I don't want it to ever happen again, it seems wise that I should write it down somewhere.’

The blogger, Mito Kosei, used to work at the museum but at the time of our visit (October 2013) was working as a volunteer guide at the Peace Memorial Park showing English-speaking visitors around. He said in the blog that he prefers to work independently as it gives him more freedom to campaign against all forms of nuclear activity.

Mito was one of the hibakusha, which translates as ‘explosion-affected people’, as he was affected by the radiation in utero. Wikipedia explains:

‘The Atomic Bomb Survivors Relief Law defines hibakusha as people who fall into one of the following categories: within a few kilometres of the hypocenters of the bombs; within 2 km of the hypocenters within two weeks of the bombings; exposed to radiation from fallout; or not yet born but carried by pregnant women in any of these categories. As of March 31, 2013, 201,779 hibakusha were recognized by the Japanese government, most living in Japan. … Hibakusha are entitled to government support. They receive a certain amount of allowance per month. About 1%, certified as suffering from bomb-related diseases, receive a special medical allowance.’

Memorial Tower to the Mobilised Students

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Detail of a dove, Memorial Tower to the Mobilised Students

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Memorial Tower to
the Mobilised Students

Before entering the Peace Park, we visited this nearby monument, behind the Atomic Bomb Dome. The Second World War caused a major labour shortage in Japan, so the government brought in the Student Labour Service Act in August 1944 which required students in middle school and above to work in munitions factories etc. Later that year, in November, the edict was extended to cover the work of tearing down homes and other buildings in order to create fire-breaks to limit the spread of fire in the event of air raids. Many were working on these projects in Hiroshima when the atom bomb was dropped; of the more than 8,000 secondary school students mobilised at building demolition sites, approximately 6,300 died. Many students who were working at various factories around the city were also killed.

After the war, the government only permitted mobilised students killed in the atomic bombing or in air strikes to be enshrined in Yasukuni Shrine if their names and date of death were known. In response to this, bereaved families began a campaign to create a list of all the dead and donated funds to build this tower in their memory.

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Paper cranes at the Memorial Tower to the Mobilised Students

The tower was dedicated in July 1967. Its design incorporates eight doves and a statue of the goddess of peace, arranged on and around the five storeys, which widen towards the top. At the base are plaques with scenes of: 1) working to increase food production; 2) female students sewing; 3) factory work; and 4) Hiroshima’s Lantern Floating Memorial. Behind the monument is a list of 352 schools attended by mobilised students throughout Japan who died during the war, from air raids as well as the atomic bombings. An epitaph reads:

‘Mobilised students working as volunteer labourers for increased production efforts number well over 3 million throughout Japan. Of those students who sacrificed their youth and opportunity for education, more than 10,000 fell in the ravages of war, approximately 6,000 of which were killed in the A-bomb. These mobilized students had high hopes and goals and dreamed of taking flight into their futures, but instead died for their country. This monument was constructed by friends and family members to console the spirits of the deceased students.’

Peace Memorial Park

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Peace Memorial Park seen from the Peace Memorial Museum

From the Memorial Tower we crossed the bridge to the Peace Memorial Park itself. This promontory between two rivers in the centre of Hiroshima was once the city’s busiest downtown commercial and residential district, known as Nakajima. It had been a thriving commercial area since the Edo period, with boats coming up the river to unload goods here. In the Meiji era (1868-1912), it was the political, administrative, and business heart of Hiroshima, home to the City Hall, the Prefectural Office and various commercial facilities. It was also heavily populated, with an estimated 6,500 people living in its seven cho (neighbourhood units) at the time of the atomic bombing.

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Models of Nakajima in the museum, before and after the bomb fell

Following the war, the city decided that rather than reconstruct Nakajima as it had been, the entire district would be developed as a park that would not only serve as a memorial to all who had lost their lives but also as a focal point for the city’s new commitment to advocate for world peace and an end to nuclear weapons.

The park covers approximately 122,100 square metres. There are a large number of monuments and memorials dotted around it. Some are dedicated to individuals, some to particular groups of people (e.g. teachers and students, or those working in specific industries such as coal, civil engineering and agriculture). Others are more general, dedicated to peace or to all who died in the war.

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In the Peace Memorial Park

Almost as soon as we arrived in the park we were greeted by a group of three school girls who approached us and asked, in hesitant English, if they might ask us a few questions. We naturally agreed and, armed with a clip-board and a work-book with a set of these questions, the girls proceeded to ‘interview’ us. They were to be the first of many! Our progress through the park was regularly interrupted as group after group spotted us, hurtled towards us, paused, maybe giggled or nudged each other, and then began: ‘Excuse me, may we ask you some questions?’, spoken in chorus and with mixed levels of English, from the reasonable to the almost non-existent. On one occasion there were even two such groups fighting over us!

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Chris and Phil being 'interviewed'

After each interview we might be asked to write something in their work-books – our names, where we lived, and in one, our message for peace. They posed for photos for us, and asked us to pose with them. And often there were gifts – a paper crane, a hand-made bookmark, a photo of their school. I think we must have given about ten of these ‘interviews’, but I have to confess that in the end we did tire of them a little and learned to take a circuitous route around the classes we saw ahead of us. Not that the experience of meeting these kids wasn’t a special one – it was – but we had lots to see in the park and a train back to Osaka to catch at the end of the afternoon. But we left with their halting English voices and shy smiles as lasting memories of the positive side of Hiroshima and its efforts for world peace.

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Young interviewers

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Some of the schoolgirls we met

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Posing for our photos

But in talking about our departure I am running ahead of myself, as there was so much to see in the park and we spent the rest of our day here without even seeing all of it.

The first monument we came to was the Peace Bell. This was added to the park in September 1964 by the A-bomb Survivor Hiroshima Hope Fruition Society with the declaration:

‘This temple bell/temple hall is standing at the dearest wish of Hiroshima aiming at the creation of a world of a true peaceful coexistence without any nuclear weapons or wars, and was built as a symbol for this spiritual and cultural movement. We wish that the sound of the bell resound in each corner of the world and reach the hearts of each and every human being.’

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The Peace Bell

The bell was designed by Masahiko Katori. On its surface is an embossed world map without national boundaries and the ‘sweet spot’ where the log hits the bell depicts the atomic energy symbol, expressing hope for the abolition of atomic and hydrogen bombs. Visitors are encouraged to ring the bell for world peace and you can hear the mellow deep toll ringing out repeatedly as you stroll through the park. In 1966 the sound of the bell was selected for the government Environment Agency's ‘One Hundred Sounds the Japanese People Wish to Preserve’.

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Chris ringing the Peace Bell

Our next stop was at the nearby Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound. After the bombing the bodies of some victims were claimed by relatives, but very many were unidentifiable and thus unclaimed, while others had no relatives left alive. This area, like much of Nakajima, was strewn with dead bodies after the bombing. Innumerable corpses, including those pulled out of the river, were brought here and cremated on a temporary altar at a temple on this site. There were also many who were effectively cremated by the bomb itself.

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The Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound

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Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound

In 1946 a temporary memorial mound, vault and chapel were built here to house their ashes, funded by private donations. In 1955 Hiroshima City took over the site and rebuilt the dilapidated vault. Unclaimed ashes that had been kept in various other places were also brought to this new vault. The vault lies under the mound and contains the ashes of roughly 70,000 victims. Those that were cremated as individuals have their own white porcelain urn and, if their name is known, it is inscribed on the outside. Each year the local newspapers publish the list of these names, and each year several are claimed and transferred to family graves elsewhere in the country or even abroad. As of 2010, the latest figures I could find, just over 800 remain here of the original named 2,432 placed here in 1955.

But the vast majority of those whose ashes lie here don’t even have the dignity of these urns. Behind curtains that hang in the vault are pine crates marked with the names of sites where human dust and bits of bone were found—a factory or a school or an apartment block. Beyond that, the ashes are anonymous. Thousands may still grieve for these victims but there is no way that they can ever be separated or identified. Under this mound therefore, in a handful of wooden boxes, are all that remains of a quarter of the population of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. A sobering thought as we stood before it.

But some of the memorials here carry a message is of hope rather than of grief. The Children's Peace Monument is one such. This is probably the most striking of the memorials in the park and, from what we observed, the focal point for the many school groups that visit. I made a video of one such group as they sang a song in front of the monument, having previously laid their paper cranes at its foot.

The monument, which was erected in 1958, is dedicated to the memory of Sadako Sasaki, a two year old girl living in Hiroshima when the atomic bomb was dropped in August 1945, about a mile from ground zero. She survived the blast, despite being flung out of a window, but in 1954 developed leukaemia and died the following year. Shocked by her death, her classmates put out a national call to ‘build a monument to mourn all the children who died from the atomic bombing.’ With the support of students in more than 3,100 schools around Japan and in nine other countries, the Society raised enough to build this monument to Sadako and to all the other children. The pedestal is topped with a statue of Sadako holding a golden crane, and on each side are suspended the figures of a boy and a girl symbolising a bright future and hope. At its foot is a black marble slab on which is inscribed in Japanese: ‘This is our cry. This is our prayer. Building peace in the world.’

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The Children's Peace Monument

Thousands of paper cranes are offered here every day by the visiting children and others, and are displayed in glass cases around the monument. These paper cranes have become a symbol of Hiroshima’s efforts for peace and you will see them all over the park. The reason for this can be traced back to Sadako Sasaki, the young victim whose memory inspired the Children’s Peace Memorial. When Sadako developed leukaemia in 1954 she was given, at the most, a year to live. While in hospital she started to fold the traditional origami paper cranes so beloved of the Japanese. Her aim was to make a thousand, as an ancient Japanese story promises that anyone who folds a thousand origami cranes will be granted a wish by the gods. One version of her story says that she didn’t manage to achieve this, having made ‘just’ 644 before her death in October of that year. Her school friends completed the task on her behalf and all thousand cranes were buried with her. However, an exhibit in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum asserts that by the end of August 1954, she had achieved her goal and continued to fold more cranes.

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Cases of paper cranes at the Children's Peace Monument

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Children waiting their turn to lay paper cranes

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Paper cranes recently laid

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Paper cranes in
St Paul's Chapel, NYC

Whatever the details of Sadako’s mission, she has inspired several generations of Japanese children. Her legacy is a custom that brings colour to the memorials here and provides a visible reminder of the thousands that pay tribute to the victims. It is also a custom that has travelled the globe. When we were in New York some years ago we visited St Paul’s Chapel, a small church that stood almost in the shadow of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, but miraculously escaped any damage in the attack of 9/11. In the months following, it served as a refuge for rescue workers, a triage centre for victims, and as a beacon of hope for the city. It is now a place of remembrance and among its exhibits are paper cranes sent by the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a sign of their empathy with their counterparts in New York – a wonderful manifestation of Hiroshima’s commitment to world peace.

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The Peace Flame

Beyond the Children’s Peace Monument we came to the focal point of the park, the Pond of Peace with at one end the Cenotaph and at the other the Peace Flame. Coming from the north as we were, we reached the Flame first. This was added to the park in August 1964 and has burned continuously since it was lit. The city has vowed that it will continue to burn until all nuclear bombs on the planet are destroyed and the threat of nuclear annihilation has been eliminated.

The pedestal that supports the flame is designed to suggest two hands pressed together at the wrist and bent back so that the palms point up to the sky. It expresses comfort for the victims unable to satisfy their thirst for water, and a prayer for nuclear abolition and enduring world peace. The flame is sometimes used to light others as a symbol of peace for various events, and in 1994 it lit the flame of the Asian Games which were held in Hiroshima City.

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The Peace Flame burns before the Atomic Dome building

The Pond of Peace links the Peace Flame and the Cenotaph. Originally this was a simple two metre wide moat around the latter, but it was later extended to 17 metres wide and 70 in length, when the Flame of Peace was added. Every August 6th this is the focal point for the park’s Peace Memorial Ceremony, designed to console the victims of the atomic bombs and to pray for the realisation of lasting world peace. This ceremony is attended by families of the deceased and people from all over the world. Coloured lanterns are floated on the pond and a declaration of peace is read out by Hiroshima’s mayor and displayed for the rest of the year in the museum.

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The Cenotaph

The Memorial Cenotaph at the southern end of the pond was one of the first monuments built on the open space set aside for the Peace Memorial Park on August 6, 1952 – the seventh anniversary of the bomb. It is designed to resemble an ancient arch-shaped house, to shelter the souls of the victims from the elements. Its Japanese inscription translates as ‘Let all the souls here rest in peace, for we shall not repeat the evil.’ But this is an approximation of the meaning, as in Japanese it is possible to omit the subject of the sentence. Thus the real reading is ‘Let all the souls here rest in peace, for … shall not repeat the evil.’

In this way they sought not to attribute blame either to the US and their allies who dropped the bomb nor to their own people for their part in the atrocities of war. An explanatory plaque in English makes the subtlety of the wording clearer:

‘The inscription on the front panel offers a prayer for the peaceful repose of the victims and a pledge on behalf of all humanity never to repeat the evil of war. It expresses the spirit of Hiroshima — enduring grief, transcending hatred, pursuing harmony and prosperity for all, and yearning for genuine, lasting world peace.’

The stone chest beneath the arch holds the register of all those known to have died from the bombing, of all nationalities. Names are added to the list whenever anyone related to a death makes an application. As of August 6, 2001, the registry comprised 77 volumes that list a total of 221,893 names.

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Crowds around the Cenotaph

At this point in our explorations we were more than ready for lunch. We had bumped into another of our group, Phil, and we all agreed to go for some lunch together. Following the advice of my Lonely Planet guidebook we explored the streets to the south of the park, beyond the museum. A floating restaurant in a boat on the river looked appealing but was a bit fancy for our needs. Then in a side street we came across a couple of places side by side and chose the first of these, Umaimono-Ibakaya.

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Umaimono-Ibakaya, outside and in

On entering we found that there was no English menu or plastic food display to guide us. Instead, near the door, was a machine with a lot of buttons and a lot of (to us incomprehensible) Japanese writing by each. Pictures of some dishes were displayed above but we weren’t sure how to relate these to the buttons or what to do about it! Luckily a friendly waiter hurried over to explain; his English was limited but he was keen to be helpful and between that and our collective sign language efforts we made progress. We understood that he was recommending two of the dishes as the most popular in the restaurant so all three of us chose one of these, a soup with noodles. We put our money in the machine, pressed the relevant button, and a slip of paper emerged which he then took as our order. He also showed how we should choose a drink from the small number available – Phil had a cola while Chris and I chose a Japanese orange-flavoured soft drink (somewhat like Fanta). We were then ushered to a table to wait for the food.

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Phil making his choice, helped by the waiter

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Ramen soup

When the bowls arrived we were all impressed with the quantity we got for our 750¥. What’s more, it tasted great! The soup itself was flavourful, and it was full of ramen noodles and vegetables such as pak choy and spring onion. A thick slice of pork floated on the top.

The restaurant had a cosy local atmosphere. If there were other tourists here, they were all Japanese. Being so close to the Peace Memorial Park that surprised us a little – this cheap and friendly place deserves to be discovered.

After lunch we decided to focus on the museum for the rest of our afternoon in Hiroshima, and Phil came along with us.

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum

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Children in the Peace Memorial Museum

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum was established on the tenth anniversary of the atomic bomb, in August 1955. It is dedicated to documenting the events surrounding the bombing and its effects, and to the promotion of world peace and an end to all nuclear weapons. It is the focus for the many visiting groups of school children and as such is always crowded (over a million people a year visit it), but I was glad we didn’t let the crowds put us off. You really shouldn’t come to Hiroshima and not see the powerful and moving exhibits it holds.

We entered through the newer East Wing and paid the very reasonable entrance fee of 50¥ for adults – kept deliberately affordable to that no one is excluded from visiting. This two storey building focuses on the history of the period before and after the dropping of the bomb. Models show the city before and immediately after the bombing, as do numerous old photos. One section I found especially interesting was the one devoted to the background to the decision to drop the bomb, including some fascinating documents detailing the process that went into choosing which city it would be dropped on. These accounts reveal the almost random manner in which Hiroshima met its fate.

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Position paper by scientists

Firstly, the Allies could have chosen to use the atom bomb against Germany, as they had developed the technology in time. But they rejected the idea, believing that should things go wrong and it not detonate, the Germans had sufficiently advanced skills to quickly learn from the bomb and develop their own to be turned against the Allies. So Japan it was.

Secondly, they could have opted not to use it at all. Several leading scientists of the day argued unsuccessfully that merely having (and demonstrating that they had) the capacity to build and use atomic weapons would be enough to ensure US post-war supremacy, and that indeed using the bomb would restrict that supremacy as it would speed up its acquisition by other powers. The position paper displayed in the museum states:

We believe that these considerations make the use of nuclear bombs for an early unannounced attack against Japan inadvisable. If the United States were to be the first to release this new means of indiscriminate destruction upon mankind, she would sacrifice public support throughout the world, precipitate the race for armaments, and prejudice the possibility of reaching an international agreement on the future control of such weapons.

Much more favorable conditions for the eventual achievement of such an agreement could be created if nuclear bombs were first revealed to the world by a demonstration in an appropriately selected uninhabited area.'

But the scientists were ignored.

Thirdly, there was an initial long-list of 17 Japanese cities, and then a short-list of four, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki (where the second bomb was dropped) were just two on this list. The criteria for the list included factors such as not having any prisoner of war facilities (the Allies didn’t want to bomb their own people), plus of course being of some strategic importance (a significant number of troops were stationed in Hiroshima and its port was one of the most important in the country). Also, to some extent the dropping of the bomb was an experiment by the Allies; they didn’t know exactly what impact it would have. So to ensure that the effects could be accurately observed, potential target cities had to have an urban area at least three miles in diameter (about 4.8 kilometres). Interestingly, at one point Kyoto was apparently considered as a possible target, but the wife of a senior US general reminded him of the wonderful honeymoon they had spent there and pleaded that its temples should be spared, so they were.

Finally, they had a shortlist of four: Hiroshima, Kokura, Niigata, and Nagasaki. But in the end it all came down to weather. On the morning of 6th August 1945 the skies were clear over Hiroshima, so Hiroshima it was. The Peace Memorial Museum website describes what happened:

‘The bombardier was ordered to conduct a visual bombing, the most reliable method at the time. Before dawn on August 6, weather reconnaissance planes took off for Hiroshima, Kokura, and Nagasaki from Tinian, Mariana Islands. Three B29s took off later: the Enola Gay carrying the atomic bomb, a second bomber carrying scientific observation equipment, and a third with photographic equipment. Receiving the report that the sky over the primary target was clear, the Enola Gay headed straight for Hiroshima. The aiming point was the T-shaped Aioi Bridge in the central part of the city. At 8:15 a.m. on August 6, the atomic bomb was dropped and detonated approximately 600 meters over the Shima Hospital, located about 300 meters southeast of the Aioi Bridge.’

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Photo showing the devastation, with just a few buildings left half-standing

This wing also explores the impact on the fabric of the city, and ends with information about the nuclear age and the city’s efforts for international peace. From here we proceeded to the older West Wing across a raised walkway. I found this is altogether more personal and more harrowing. It concentrates on the damage caused by the bomb, both to the city and to the lives of its inhabitants. It is divided into sections such as Material Witness (clothing, watches, hair, and other personal effects worn by victims of the bomb – the most distressing section); Damage by the Heat Rays (looks at what happened to wood, stone, metal, glass, and flesh in the intense heat); Damage by the Blast (the destruction caused by the after-shocks); and Damage by the Radiation (the health effects suffered by survivors and also the challenges they faced in being accepted in society). Viewing all of this was not a comfortable experience but it brings home the individual impacts caused by the bomb in a way that the big numbers quoted in relation to the various monuments cannot do.

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Glass bottles fused by the heat

Photography is allowed throughout the museum but I felt uncomfortable taking pictures of the most personal exhibits so took most of my pictures in the more impersonal East Wing.

By the time we came out of the museum the afternoon was getting on and all three of us felt we had seen and absorbed enough, so we took the trolley bus back to the station, where we bumped into two more of our group, and travelled back to Osaka together.

An evening in Osaka

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Ganko

On the way back to Osaka Chris and I arranged to meet up again later with Phil for a drink, but meanwhile there was dinner to be found. So after freshening up back at the hotel we explored the arcades just behind it and chose a small restaurant, Ganko, on the strength of the availability of an English menu that was advertised outside, the attractive appearance and the presence of plenty of locals. These were all good signs, and we were not to be disappointed with our choice.

Seating is at the counter or Western-style tables and chairs – we chose the latter, in a nice booth from where we could still watch the sushi chefs working behind the counter and the kimono-clad waitresses. We both had the tempura salmon with tartare sauce - a good choice. It had lovely light tempura batter coating a good piece of salmon, and while the sauce was not like our tartare, having a milder flavour and with egg in it, it was tasty. We shared a Japanese radish salad which came with a nice dressing (with a hint of ginger) and fish flakes – again, good stuff! This was a relatively light meal so we had room for dessert and both chose a tempting-looking sundae from the picture menu - a scoop each of vanilla ice cream and berry sorbet, and frozen berries.

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Sushi chefs at work in Ganko

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Kimono-clad waitress

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Tempura salmon with tartare sauce

Apparently ‘ganko’ means stubborn - an odd name for a restaurant and one we could see no reason for. Certainly the service was anything but, and we enjoyed our meal here and the accompanying draft beer. The restaurant seems to be part of a small Osaka chain with three branches in the city – as well as the one we visited in Umeda there’s another on Dōtonbori and one in Kyobashi near the castle. There are also branches in Kyoto and Ginza I think.

Every city with any claim to a nightlife must these days have at least one Irish bar. We don’t make a habit of frequenting these, but we were tempted by what we read about the Blarney Stone in my Lonely Planet guide-book and decided to give it a go, so we had arranged to meet up here with Phil after dinner. And we had a fun time, helped perhaps by the fact that for several days previously we hadn’t had much chance for a night out.

This wasn’t the easiest place to find. It’s hidden in the maze of lanes behind the Umeda OS Hotel on Mido-Suji, on the one that runs parallel to the main road immediately behind the hotel. We spotted the sign outside a narrow and anonymous entryway and took the lift to the sixth floor. We were wondering what we would find at the top and were not entranced by the corridor that looked more like a cheap office building than anything else. But push open the door marked Blarney Stone and you are immediately transported – if not (definitely not!) to Ireland, at least to a weird and fascinating image of what the Japanese expect Irish pubs to look like. This is a cross between a US sports bar, an English (rather than Irish) pub and something uniquely Japanese. It’s cosy, down-to-earth and strangely appealing.

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In the Blarney Stone

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Bad Luck and Trouble

I’m not sure if there was a particular reason for cocktails being on special offer that night, but when I saw that they were all just 400¥ I had to indulge. This was a bargain price for my good (though not especially strong) Cosmopolitans, but beer was more expensive at 700¥ a pint for local brews and 900¥ for imports such as Chris's very good Kilkenny.

There was live music from a band of three US guys who were obviously regulars here and were pretty good. It was fun to watch the antics (I can't really justify calling it dancing) of some local lasses who were trying to impress a handful of older Western men – and who to be fair did seem easily impressed! There was no cover charge despite the live music, which according to the website is the pub’s regular policy (and there’s music every weekend night). I think from info on the same website that the band we saw are called Bad Luck & Trouble!

This was an enjoyable way to spend our last evening in Osaka. Tomorrow we would be leaving for Kyoto.

Posted by ToonSarah 06:09 Archived in Japan Tagged people children night trains osaka food monument japan history restaurants museum hiroshima customs war_and_peace Comments (7)

City of two thousand shrines

Japan day eight


View Japan, Essential Honshu tour 2013 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Kyoto

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At Kiyomizu-dera

For over a thousand years Kyoto was the capital of Japan and it is probably the best preserved of all its cities.

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Kyoto station

Its historic value saw it dropped from the list of cities to be targeted by air raids and the atomic bomb during World War Two (some say because the wife of a senior US commander had fallen in love with Kyoto when they honeymooned there before the war), and is still treasured today. And while our time here was perhaps too limited for me to also fall in love, that time was packed with wonders.

To Kyoto by bullet train

We arrived in Kyoto on a bullet train from Osaka, a journey of just 15 minutes - but around an hour by regular train! The station is on the southern edge of the main downtown area and is very modern and very large. It is also very busy. It can therefore be a challenge to negotiate when carrying bags and newly arrived, but is impressive enough to merit a separate sightseeing visit another time.

For now though we focused on finding our way out of the station for the short walk to our accommodation at the Heianbo Ryokan. It was too early though to check-in, so we left our bags and hurried out again to make the most of our time, and all decided to catch taxis together to Kiyomizu-dera, one of the city’s most famous temples.

Kiyomizu-dera Temple

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Preying mantis at Kiyomizu-dera

This Buddhist temple is possibly the most visited in Kyoto – it is certainly up there in the top five. And it’s easy to see why it draws the crowds. It has a lovely hillside setting with views of the town and several other nearby pagodas and temples. It is near enough the centre of town and those other temples to be easily accessible. And it has a unique feature – a sort of platform or veranda that juts out on one side of the main hall, 13 metres above the hillside below. Both hall and stage, and indeed all the buildings here, were built without the use of nails, an amazing achievement. They date from 1633, though the temple was founded much earlier, in 778. Since that foundation, the temple had burned down many times, and thus most of the current buildings were rebuilt by the third Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu in the early Edo period. In 1994, the temple was added to the list of UNESCO world heritage sites.

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Japanese visitors to Kiyomizu-dera

By the time we arrived here, at around 11.00 AM, it was packed, but the crowds, who were mostly Japanese tourists and worshippers, didn’t detract from our enjoyment at all. Indeed, I enjoyed watching the many girls who had dressed in kimonos for the occasion, and it was interesting to observe the rituals of washing in the fountain and burning incense, the smell of which wafted on the air and lent atmosphere to the temple complex.

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Nio-mon, Kiyomizu-dera

We entered the complex through the stunning Nio-mon, the 16th century gate that was refurbished in 2003. Beyond this is another gate, Sai-mon, dating from 1631 and famous for its view at sunset, and beyond that a three-storied pagoda. The photo above shows parts of both gates and the pagoda beyond.

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View of Kyoto from the Sai-mon

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The pagoda at Kiyomizu-dera

Off to our left we spotted a small crowd around another building, the Zuigu-do Hall, and went over to investigate. A man was selling tickets, or rather, exchanging them for a ‘suggested donation’ of 100¥, which we were happy to make though we had no idea what we were paying for at that point. We were then asked to remove our shoes and given a plastic bag each in which to carry them as we entered the shrine.

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The Zuigu-do Hall, with Sai-mon in the foreground

We were instructed to hold on to the rope handrail as we entered, and soon realised why. The path through the shrine is constructed in such a way that after a few steps you are plunged into total darkness, unable to see even an inch in front of you. This is the Tainai-meguri. The idea is that the total darkness here represents the womb of a female bodhisattva, so you are returning to a pre-birth state. At the heart of the shrine a little light falls on a large stone, which you spin and make a wish before ascending through more darkness until you emerge, blinking, into the bright light of day.

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Hondo lantern

After this rather special experience we continued on the path to the main hall or Hondo. This houses a small statue of the eleven-faced, thousand-armed Kannon Bodhisattva, the main object of worship here, which is only shown to the public once in 33 years. I found this story of the founding of the temple and the devotion to this statue:

‘In the year 778, Priest Enchin who was inspired by divine revelation in a dream to go up Kizu-gawa river to find a fountain of pure water, travelled up to a waterfall in the foot of Otowa-yama (Mt. Otowa). He met Gyoei Koji, a Buddhist recluse who had been devoted to self-discipline there, and was given a block of sacred wood. Enchin carved a statue of a Buddhist deity Kannon Bosatsu out of the block and enshrined it in the thatched hut in which Gyoei had been living till then. Two years later, a military general, Sakanoue no Tamuramaro, came up into the mountain and met Enchin who lectured for him on the merciful teaching of Kannon Bosatsu. Tamuramaro became a pious devotee to the Kannon and he dedicated a hall to the statue. This is said to be the origin of this temple. The name of the temple, ‘Kiyomizu’, literally means ‘pure water’ and came from the above story.’

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Kiyomizu-dera: the veranda

The Hondo has a unique feature which helps to explain the popularity of Kiyomizu-dera for both tourists and worshippers. On its southern side a sort of platform or veranda juts out, 13 metres above the hillside below. The veranda is known as the Kiyomizu Stage; it is supported by huge 12-metre high pillars made from Japanese Zelkova trees, were assembled without using a single nail, and its floor consists of over 410 cypress boards.

So famous is this veranda that it has given rise to a well-known Japanese saying, ‘To jump off the veranda of Kiyomizu-dera’, which has the same meaning as the English saying, ‘To take the plunge’, i.e. to take a risk.

We followed the path above and to the right of the main hall which led us past a couple of other halls that were undergoing major preservation work at that time and were hidden beneath scaffolding and wraps. From this path we could look back at the rest of the complex and see the dramatic way in which the veranda juts out over the hillside. We could have continued to follow the path as it wound round and down to the small group of buildings below the main hall, but instead retraced our steps a little to reach these via a stone staircase.

This took us to a path below the water fountain that gives Kiyomizu-dera its name of ‘clear water temple’. This is channelled from the Otowa Waterfall which falls from the mountain of the same name. There are three separate fountains dropping into the pool below. Drinking the water is believed to bestow special powers, and each fountain gives a different one – a long life, success in your career or in love. It is considered greedy to drink from all three!

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Otowa water fountain, Kiyomizu-dera

The path then led us beneath the veranda, and we could really appreciate the scale of its construction. There were several jizo statues brought here from elsewhere in Japan I believe, and some refreshment booths. It was while walking along here that we bumped into another member of our group, Phil, and decided to stop for a snack with him.

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Jizu statues

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The café

We spotted a little café beside the path and were pleased to see space on its shady terrace. The menu was only in Japanese but luckily had photos, though it was still in part a question of ‘pot-luck’ as to what we would get! I saw someone nearby eating something that looked like vanilla ice cream with a fruit sauce, but peering at the photos I could see that it was probably a dish that came with the sweet red adzuki bean paste topping I’d had and liked at the Edo Tokyo Museum, so I chose that.

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My kakigori

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Chris's noodles

The ‘ice cream’ was in fact shaved ice; I had chosen kakigori, one of Japan's favourite summer sweets. It is served all over the country with a wide range of toppings including syrups and fruits. I really enjoyed this version and found it very refreshing on what was proving to be the hottest day of our trip. Phil had the same shaved ice but with a fruit sauce, while Chris had some gelatinous noodles in a soy/wasabi based sauce, having opted for what seemed to be the only savoury item on the menu.

All the dishes were very good value at just a few hundred yen each. The staff were friendly and helpful, and it was here that we had our best demonstration of the Japanese non-tipping culture. When we sat down Chris noticed a small coin on the bench next to him – a single yen, worth about half a penny or about one cent. He left it lying there, but when we departed the café a waitress ran after us to give him back the coin she thought he had left in error!

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Hondo roof detail, Kiyomizu-dera

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Another roof detail

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And another!

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A torii gate

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View from Kiyomizu-dera

Higashiyama

After our snack we took a few more photos before leaving the temple area to explore the surrounding streets of the Higashiyama district which lies along the lower slopes of the mountains to the east of Kyoto and is one of the city's best preserved historic districts. These streets have been recently renovated to remove telephone poles and repave the streets to increase the traditional feel of the district. This atmosphere is enhanced by the many girls wearing kimono to do their sightseeing – although perhaps less so by the hordes of other tourists who throng to this area.

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Tourists on Chawan-zaka

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On Chawan-zaka

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Our sake cup

The street leading up to the temple, Chawan-zaka, has been given the nickname of Teapot Lane because of the large number of shops selling china goods (as well as other crafts and souvenirs). We bought a pretty little sake cup in one of these – not cheap but very nicely made. We also had a good cup of coffee in the upstairs café of another of the shops, where some large items, we noted, cost hundreds of pounds.

Part way up the street, on the left-hand side if you are facing uphill, we came across a small shrine. I wasn’t able to uncover a name or any other details about this, either at the time or since.

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Shrine on Chawan-zaka

After our shopping and coffee break here we were ready for another temple visit. We met up with the rest of our group and all piled into taxis again to head to Sanjusangen-do.

Sanjusangen-do Temple

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Roof detail, Sanjūsangen-dō, Kyoto

This temple, also known as Rengeo-in, was a complete contrast to Kiyomizu-dera but no less impressive in its way. The main hall is all that remains here, having been rebuilt in 1266 after a fire destroyed the temple 17 years before that. The hall is 120 metres long and is Japan's longest wooden structure. The name Sanjusangen-do (literally ‘33 intervals’) derives from the number of spaces between the building's support columns, which was a traditional method of measuring the size of a building.

Entering this main hall (after removing our shoes) we joined other visitors in filing along one side to view the wonders it contains. In the centre is a six foot tall wooden statue of a 1000-armed Kannon. This was carved by the Kamakura sculptor Tankei in 1254 and is a National Treasure of Japan. On each side of this are 500 more (making 1,001 Kannons in total), made of cypress wood and arranged in tiers (10 rows and 50 columns). They are human-sized and each one is subtly different from the next. People apparently come to Sanjusangen-do to look for the likeness of a loved one among the many statues. 124 of these statues are from the original temple, rescued from the fire of 1249, while the remaining 876 were constructed in the 13th century.

Traditionally 1000-armed Kannons are equipped with 11 heads to better witness the suffering of humans, and with 1000 arms to better help them fight the suffering. But you won’t be able to count 1000 arms on them, as in practice they are made with just 42 arms each. You need to subtract the two regular arms to give 40, each of which is said to have the power to save 25 worlds, giving the full thousand. In Buddhist beliefs, Kannon is a Bodhisattva, i.e. one who achieves enlightenment but postpones Buddhahood until all can be saved. The name literally means watchful listening, and it is the task of the compassionate Kannon to witness and listen to the prayers and cries of those in difficulty in the earthly realm, and to help them achieve salvation.

As we filed back to our starting point along the corridor behind these statues we passed 28 more statues of Japanese deities who protect the Buddhist universe. I was disappointed (as I always am) that no photography is allowed inside the hall. This rule is very strictly enforced, with CCTV cameras to supervise and notices announcing that anyone suspected of taking photos will have their camera examined and offending images deleted. You can however see some images of the Kannons on the temple’s website.

Outside there is a small Japanese garden with a water fountain, where we enjoyed relaxing on a shady bench for a while, and where we could take photos. As you can see, I worked off my frustrations at not being able to take photos inside by gorging on the beautiful details of the architecture here, especially the roof!

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Sanjusangendo Temple

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Roof details, Sanjūsangen-dō

After this we went back to check into our ryokan and to rest before another outing planned for later that afternoon. We were staying for two nights at the friendly, family-run, Heianbo Ryokan. Our room there was traditional in style, with futons on tatami mats for sleeping, but with en suite (half tub with a shower over) and air conditioning and other mod cons (such as a TV and hair dryer). We found this to be a great base in the city – very quiet for so central a location, and with lots of character.

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Our bedroom at the Ryokan Heianbo

Gion

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For the most part our Inside Japan tour didn’t include any guided sightseeing (although Andrew was always happy to lead some explorations in each place we visited). This allows for flexibility to do your own thing or go around with some or all of the group, according to preference. But one exception was a guided walk in Gion, Kyoto’s famous geisha district. This tour was led by a Canadian ex-pat who had previously been married to a geisha. He showed us some of the main sights and told us a lot about the lives of present-day maiko and geiko, as geisha are known in Kyoto.

One thing it is important to stress is that geisha are not prostitutes. Some may choose to prostitute themselves, but it is not ‘in the job description’ and is not normal practice. No – a geisha is an entertainer of men, a skilled performer, an expert in Japanese traditions and, probably, an accomplished flirt and conversationalist. To become a geisha a girl must study for some years and will usually start as an apprentice or maiko. The term maiko means dancing girl, while geisha means ‘art doer’, i.e. performer. These days, girls will probably not decide to study as a geisha until their teens – the days when a girl could be apprenticed as young as three or four are long gone. In the geisha school, apprentices learn to play traditional instruments such as the shamisen, to dance in the traditional way, and to perform the tea ceremony. They study literature, poetry and calligraphy. They also learn by following and observing experienced geisha, especially the ‘older sister’ who mentors them. At each stage of her development a maiko will wear the appropriate dress, hairstyle and make-up, and an expert could tell at a glance how long she had been working from this.

We saw several geiko and maiko on our walk around Gion but they move very quickly and, understandably, don’t choose to spend their valuable time posing for photos for tourists! I managed to get a few photos of maiko, but only from behind.

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Maiko in Gion

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A sign in Gion

We also saw the geisha school where all geisha study music and dance (regardless of age and how long they have been working), and a number of ochaya (tea-houses) where the geisha entertain. And although we didn’t have time to go inside while on this tour, we also walked through the grounds of the Kenninji Temple, where I loved the setting among the ‘cloud-pruned’ trees or niwaki. This is Japan's oldest Zen temple, having been founded in 1202, but the temple buildings we see today date from the 16th century when it was last rebuilt. The extensive grounds include sand and moss gardens, and inside there are notable art works, including the most recent addition, a ceiling painting of two dragons by Koizumi Junsaku which was installed in 2002 to commemorate the temple's 800th anniversary.

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Kenninji Temple

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Near Tatsumi Bashi

We passed several spots that featured in ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’, although our guide told us that the film was almost completely shot on a lot in California as the Kyoto authorities weren't keen to have it made here. One of the most picturesque of these was around the Shirakawa Canal and in particular by the bridge, Tatsumi Bashi, and the nearby Tatsumi Daimyojin Shrine where traditionally geiko and maiko come to pray for help in improving their skills. It was dusk by the time we arrived here and the lights were coming on in the houses overlooking the canal, giving it a special atmosphere – a lovely place to end our walk.

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Tatsumi Daimyojin Shrine

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Shirakawa Canal, Gion

After we had thanked our Canadian guide, Andrew proposed dinner at one of his favourite conveyer-belt sushi restaurants in the city, about a 20 minute walk away. Most of us liked the suggestion and decided to join him. I and several others in the group were wearying of all the walking so decided to get a taxi, while others walked with Andrew and we all met up again at the restaurant.

Our first evening in Kyoto

Although not fancy, Musashi Sushi is a great example of a kaiten or conveyor-belt sushi restaurant and we had an excellent meal here. We ate on the upper floor where booths radiate out from the central hub where sushi is prepared by the chefs and loaded on to the conveyor. Here the diners at the conveyor end of the table must take the responsibility for grabbing the passing plates not only for themselves but also for their dining companions. We ate with another couple from our group, Sue and John from Australia, and it was John and I who performed this task – with enthusiasm you might say, if you saw the number of empty plates piled on the table by the end of the meal! All the sushi here is handmade. There was a really good variety available and I don't think we had anything more than once, however good, in order to try more dishes. My favourite was probably the melt-in-your-mouth bonito tuna, closely followed by the tempura prawns (I've never had tempura on sushi before!) and crab.

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Plastic sushi in the window

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Sushi chef

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Karaoke room sign

After dinner some of us went to a nearby karaoke room for another classic Japanese experience. Most people know that karaoke was invented here; the word derives from the Japanese for empty, kara, and orchestra okesutora, alluding to the use of a musical track with its main lyrics removed. But unlike in Europe and the US, where karaoke is most often a public performance (or humiliation, depending on your viewpoint and the abilities of the singer!), in Japan it is more usually enjoyed in a private ‘karaoke box’, or small room, which a group of friends can rent for a fixed period of time.

Arriving at the venue we (well, Andrew, as the only Japanese speaker in our group of eight) negotiated the price of a room for two hours at reception. We then headed upstairs to find ourselves in a narrow, very pink room. At one end was the TV screen, round the other three walls low comfortable seating, and in the middle a table on which were two small machines – one for selecting songs and the other drinks. Our price of 2,600¥ per person (based on eight sharing) also included all we could drink, so the latter was as important as the music selection device! There was a wide choice of drinks – beer, plum wine, regular wine, sake and some spirits as well as soft drinks.

We ordered via the machine and a waiter would knock respectfully at the door within minutes, carrying the tray.

But to the main point of the exercise, the singing! The machine thankfully had an English language button for selecting and lots of English language tracks as well as Japanese – certainly more than enough to keep us occupied for two hours. As the drinks poured in, the inhibitions fell, and by the end we had not only enjoyed enthusiastic performances of Japanese pop (by Andrew), Elvis (both Presley and Costello, by Chris) and Pat Benatar (by Sue), but had also joined in with some great group numbers such as Hey Jude and American Pie. To hear just how well Andrew and Sue entered into the spirit of karaoke (and how well they sang) check out my short video.

Andrew and Sue's performances

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In the karaoke room

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Andrew, Sue and Jim

The two hours were up all too soon, and we reluctantly vacated the room and paid our fee back down at the lobby before hailing taxis to take us back to our ryokan. It had been a very full day and we were happy to snuggle down on our futons for a good night’s sleep.

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Ryokan Heianbo at night

Posted by ToonSarah 16:00 Archived in Japan Tagged buildings people kyoto shrines food architecture restaurant japan culture temple history music customs Comments (5)

More wonders of Nikko

Japan day sixteen continued


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Futarasan

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Torii gate at entrance to Futurasan Shrine

Futarasan is only five minutes’ or so walk from Toshogu but it seemed to us that we were in a different world. The crowds had gone, leaving just a handful of tourists (some Western, some Japanese) and some local families. We strolled around in a much more leisurely way than had been possible at Toshogu, taking photos and soaking up the tranquil atmosphere and the rich colours of the leaves just starting to take on their autumn hues.

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Futarasan

Several local families with small children, some of them dressed up in traditional costume, were clearly here for a celebration. The festivities were focussed on a building to the right of the shrine itself and one mother there was more than happy for me to photograph her children, even encouraging them to pose for me.

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Children's festival at Futarasan

Futarasan Shrine was founded in 782 by Shodo Shonin, the Buddhist monk who introduced Buddhism to Nikko and who also founded the nearby Rinnoji Temple. It is dedicated to the deities of Nikko's three most sacred mountains: Mount Nantai, Mount Nyoho and Mount Taro (Futarasan being another name the first and most prominent of these.

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Torii gate at Futarasan

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Futarasan

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Nun at Futarasan

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Carving detail, Futarasan

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Torii gate detail, Futurasan

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Entrance to paid area

You can wander round the grounds here for free, though there was a small charge (300¥ in October 2013) to enter an area featuring a small forested garden with a couple more halls including the Shinyosha (portable shrines store) and Daikokuden where some treasures, including some beautifully worked swords, were on display.

There is also a sacred fountain, a modern Buddha statue and some old sacred trees. We found this the most peaceful part as few people other than us seemed minded to pay that small fee.

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Portable shrine

Modern Buddha statue

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Stone lanterns at Futarasan

When we left the shrine we encountered another local family group just outside and again there was no problem with us taking some photos. We then followed the rickshaw as the children were taken for a ride along the path between here and Toshogu, escorted by their proud parents and stopping at intervals for more photos, both by their own photographer and a few other tourists who had by now joined us. A woman nearby during one of these sessions, who I think may have been a family member, was kind enough to explain to me what was going on.

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Children's festival at Futarasan

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With the proud parents

She told me that it is the custom in Japan for children to be taken to a shrine to be blessed on reaching three, five and seven years of age. In the past, the lack of medical expertise and knowledge meant that to get through infancy was something to be celebrated, and each milestone on the journey was marked in this way. Today when childhood mortality is thankfully much less of an issue, the custom of thanking the spirits for the good health of a child remains.

It seems that this family must have one child at each of these ages: a boy of five and girls of three and seven. The seven year old was very solemn, like a little lady – clearly after two previous such celebrations she must have considered herself an old hand and responsible for keeping her younger siblings up to the mark!

Lunch time

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Kishino

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My soup at Kishino

At the far end of this path the rickshaw turned back to Futarasan and we turned our attention to lunch. After a long morning exploring Toshogu and Futarasan we were ready for something to eat, and in the grey and chilly weather, preferably something warming. I’d spotted a sign near the entrance to Toshogu that had looked promising so we headed over there to explore.

Kishino is part gift shop, part restaurant. You enter the latter through the former, so it was a good job they had those signs outside or we would never have realised we could eat here! It’s not very big and we were lucky to get one of only two free tables. We were promptly brought glasses of water and an English language menu which included various noodle dishes and a few other options. From this Chris chose the curry rice while I opted for soba noodles with yuba – the local delicacy made from sheets of bean curd skimmed from the surface when making tofu. The yuba in my photo is the coiled omelette-looking stuff floating on the top of the soup.

The dishes were nothing special but they were filling and warming on a chilly day. The service was brisk, understandably since they want to turn tables in such a popular location, but friendly, and we were able to use the spotless toilets here too.

Fortified, we were ready to carry on to our final sight in this part of town, Rinnoji.

Rinnoji Temple

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Protective structure at Rinnoji Temple

It is fair to say that we did not see Rinnoji at its best. The main sanctuary building, Sanbutsudoh (Three Buddha Hall), was undergoing major reconstruction at the time of our visit (October 2013) and was completely shrouded in this industrial-looking structure, within which it seems to have been almost completely dismantled. There was only an image of its frontage on the front of this to give us any idea of its usual appearance. But at least we were able to go into this structure (for a reduced fee, 400¥) and get just a glimpse of some of its treasures.

Rinnoji Temple was originally called Nikko-san, and was established by a Buddhist monk Shodo (whose statue stands at the entrance) in 766. It grew quickly, as many Buddhist monks flocked here in search of solitude among Nikko’s forests and mountains. By the 15th century there were over 500 buildings on this site; today there are just 15. Of these, Sanbutsudoh is the most significant by some distance. It has been moved several times in the past – at one time it stood where Toshogu is now located, then on the present-day site of Futarasan, and only under the Meiji regime, when it was decreed that Buddhist and Shinto places of worship should be separated (they had become very muddled over the years and were often co-located and intermingled), did it relocate to this spot. Or rather, Rinnoji relocated – it was some years before the temple, which was short of funds, could afford to rebuild Sanbutsudoh.

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Model Sanbutsu on display at Rinnoji Temple

In it are the three gold-leafed statues of Buddha: Amida, Kannnon with a thousand arms (Senju Kannon) and Kannon with a horse’s head (Bato Kannon). These were made in the early Edo period and are all 8 metres high. We were told when we paid for admission that we would only see one of these but that we would get much closer to it than is usually the case. Well, we certainly got close, just a metre or so from its feet, but as no photos were allowed in that part I can’t share it with you. The one we saw, Amida, is considered the foremost seated wooden image in Japan. I believe each of the three will be rotated in turn in this display area throughout the restoration period, which is due to last until March 2021.

We were allowed to take photos of the model Sanbutsu on display, and higher up this ten storey structure I got some photos of other elements of the temple that are being worked on by the restoration team, including (I have since realised) the one below which is, I think, one of the other Buddhas – Bato Kannon, or ‘Kannon with a horse’s head’ (so I probably should not have photographed it!).

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Bato Kannon(?) at Rinnoji Temple

As it was a Saturday, we didn’t see anyone actually at work on this immense task – an Australian lady we had spoken to outside had assured us that this was a fascinating process to view, as I’m sure it must be, so our timing was unfortunate in that respect. The relatively poor weather also meant that the views from the top were not as good as they must sometimes be, but it was still an excellent way to get a sense of Nikko’s lovely setting among the mountains, so well worth the climb.

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View of Nikko from the top of Rinnoji Temple

There are a number of other buildings dotted around the complex but we didn’t spend a lot of time investigating these (Chris in particular was suffering from temple overload and keen to leave time to see something of the town!) There is a small garden attached to the temple, Shoyoen, which was made in the Edo period and is in the style known as Chisen Kaiyu Shiki (‘short excursion around the pond’). The weather was not really conducive to garden visits so we skipped this too, but we did take a few photos in the pretty garden area immediately surrounding Sanbutsudoh.

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In the grounds of Rinnoji Temple

Exploring the town

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Statue near the Shinkyo Bridge

After leaving Rinnoji we headed into town. As we started to walk along the main street of the town we were in search of somewhere we could get a drink and a short rest after climbing the ten storeys of the Rinnoji restoration structure. We found what we wanted at Hippari Dako, a tiny place on the west side of the main street at the Shinkyo Bridge end. There are only three tables inside and a fairly limited menu (in English at least) but that wasn’t a problem for us as we only wanted a drink. I had an orange juice, Chris a coffee, and both were fine.

The most distinctive feature of Hippari Dako is its décor. The interior walls are covered with business cards, notes from happy customers, photos, banknotes etc etc. I added a VT card with my details to their collection! The owner was very happy for us to take photos of all of this, but declined Chris’s request to be in a photo herself.

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In Hippari Dako

Refreshed, we wandered on down the main street. We spent a very pleasant couple of hours exploring this and I was surprised at how much there was to occupy us here, from browsing in some shops and galleries to taking photos of quirky signs and interesting shop displays. I could have quite happily spent a fair bit of money in the shops but Chris kept me in check! I especially enjoyed the several antique shops we browsed in, and some delicate old china sake cups in particular.

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Shops in Nikko

Another thing you see a lot of here are items carved in wood, from small kitchen utensils to large pieces of furniture. The craftsmanship is excellent and it’s worth a look in these shops even if you don’t plan to buy, just to see the styles and the quality of the work.

About halfway along the street on its western side we found a lovely modern art gallery / café. You can browse the works on display on the ground floor and mezzanine above, and then have a coffee and maybe a piece of cake, also on the ground floor and surrounded by art – just the sort of place we enjoy. And the paintings on display when we visited included some lovely bird ones in a distinctive modern Japanese style that we rather liked.

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Above a door

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Shop keeper

After enjoying all the shops etc along the street we reached the bottom, by Tobu Nikko Station. We went inside to make some enquiries at the ticket office. Our return ticket to Tokyo tomorrow specified an afternoon train. But we saw that bad weather (worse than today’s occasional drizzle) was forecast and thought that it would be better to spend our last day in Japan in the city, where there were more options for indoor activities, than here in Nikko. So we enquired in the ticket office about taking a morning train instead, and were able to change our tickets and seat reservations without any problem – apparently you are allowed one free alteration, which is very helpful.

We then continued on to see Nikko’s other station.

JR Nikko Station

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JR Station, Nikko

Which station you arrive at in Nikko depends on the route you take from Tokyo. We had travelled yesterday from Shinjuku to Tobu Nikko Station, but other routes bring you to the other one, the JR Station. The reason that there are two stations so close together (about a five minute walk) is that the Tobu line is privately owned and has its own distinct station.

In most places it would be enough to know which station to use and you might then safely ignore the presence of the other. But if like me you are an admirer of the work of Frank Lloyd Wright you will perhaps want to check out this JR Station even if not using it for your journey, as he designed it. This fact came as something of a surprise to me as I hadn’t been aware that he had done any work in Japan. But what did I know?! It turns out that apart from America, Japan is the only other country where Frank Lloyd Wright ever worked and lived, and he did quite a lot here. But this station doesn’t seem typical of his work here, nor does it look like a style I would associate with him, being rather traditional in appearance (and even having, dare I say, having a little of the suburban twee aesthetic about it?!)

The station opened on 1 August 1890 and is in the typical somewhat romantic style of the Meiji period, though streamlined a little I think by the influence of Wright on that style. It apparently has an ornate and rather beautiful ‘guest room’ used by a former emperor, but this is only open at certain periods. We however contented ourselves with a quick look at the outside of the station, as it had been a long day and we were ready for a break.

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Nikkoji beer

Heading back up the main street we stopped for an early evening drink in the Little Wing café and were pleased to find that they served the local pilsner style beer, Nikkoji, as we'd been keen to try it. We found it pleasant enough though not really any different to other Japanese lagers, all of which are very palatable but unremarkable. It was maybe a little less fizzy than some of the others however, so depending on how you like your lager (personally I like a bit of a head) you may want to give this a try. The ones we tried were bottled and I’ve read that the draught is better so that’s something to look out for. You should also look out for the same brewery’s Premium Ale as I’ve read good reviews of that (it wasn’t available in the Little Wing), and I gather that they also sometimes have seasonal brews, such as dark, amber and special ales.

We had a very pleasant half hour or so here, enjoying the beer and a chat with a local guy at the next table, who had lived and worked for some years in California and thus spoke very good English. He was killing time over a coffee while waiting to pick his son up from football practice and was glad of the chance to refresh his English skills in a conversation with us.

But after a while we decided to move on in search of dinner as I’d read that restaurants in Nikko close early, as they cater mainly to the day trippers I assume. This is very true, and we were lucky to find a meal!

Kanaya Hotel Restaurant

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In the Kanaya Hotel

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Carving detail, Kanaya Hotel

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Crab croquettes

The guidebook I was using said that this restaurant was open till 20.00, unlike many in town, so we headed there for an early (for us) dinner at about 18.30, only to be told on arrival that they were about to close. I asked the waitress if she knew of any other restaurant nearby that would still be open, explaining that we were hungry and wanted dinner. She immediately offered to let us eat there after all! But perhaps for this reason, the service was probably the speediest we have ever experienced, with the waitress positively scurrying to take our order and bring us our drinks and food.

We had a table to one side of the attractive old room, which is ornamented with colourful woodcarvings, although the old world atmosphere is somewhat marred by the harsh fluorescent lighting. The menus we were given were in English and offered a choice of set dinners, with the cuisine a blend of Japanese and Western. I had the crab croquettes in a tomato sauce with rice, Chris had the hamburger in ‘Japanese style’ (which proved to be with grated radish on top). The croquettes were quite tasty and Chris’s burger was OK too. The set meal price included a cup of soup (quite nice, with strips of yuba) and a small salad, and we also had a large beer each. But we didn’t try our waitress’s good nature or patience by attempting to order dessert, so after paying the bill we headed back to the Turtle Inn Annexe, as Nikko had clearly shut down for the night (at about 19.30).

There we made sure of another session in the lovely onsen, listening to the river flow past outside – a great way to relax after a very busy day of sightseeing in Nikko.

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Shinkyo Bridge at night

Posted by ToonSarah 06:06 Archived in Japan Tagged people children food nikko architecture beer japan culture temple shopping restaurants shrine customs Comments (6)

Manic traffic, atrocious pollution, endlessly captivating

Day one India


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Delhi traffic

By any measure Delhi is an assault on the senses. The sound of car horns and auto-rickshaw bells fill the air; these vehicles weave endlessly in a manic dance; people ebb and flow between and all around them. The air is at times fragrant with the smells of spices; at other times choking with fumes. The heat beats down …

After a long overnight flight from London it really seemed as if we had landed on a different planet, not just a different continent. And I loved it! The energy, the colours, the constant buzz. And when we returned to Delhi at the end of our trip, and to the same hotel, it almost felt like coming home.
Delhi is India’s capital, its second largest city (by population) and had a rich history. At its heart is Old Delhi, founded by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in 1639 and known originally as Shahjahanabad – the last of seven ancient cities in this immediate area. These include Qila Rai Pithora (the first to be recorded, in the 10th century AD), and Mehrauli, built by the first Muslim sultan, Qutubuddin, in the early part of the 13th century, whose Qutb Minar still stands and was one of the highlights of our brief visit.

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Our base here was the comfortable Suryaa Hotel, located in the New Friends Colony area of the city, not far from the Lotus Temple. We stayed here for the first few nights of our tour with Transindus, and again on our last night, and were impressed with their choice. The large marble lobby gave us a good first impression, which extended to our comfortable fourth floor room with a good-sized bed, lots of space, efficient A/C, a flat screen TV, bottled water, tea and coffee-making stuff, mini-bar, safe and plenty of storage. The bathroom had a bath with shower over, a good selection of toiletries and a hairdryer. All the staff we encountered or had dealings with were welcoming, helpful and courteous.

The hotel has a number of places to eat and drink – a buffet restaurant and bar downstairs, and an upmarket pan-Asian restaurant and cocktail bar on the top floor, plus a coffee shop in the lobby where we enjoyed a coffee and cake soon after arriving. The choice at breakfast is amazing - cereals, pastries, exotic juices, fruits, eggs cooked to order, ditto pancakes and waffles, all the regular hot items (bacon, sausage, tomatoes etc.) plus Indian dahls and curries and even Japanese miso soup, and loads more.

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Our room, and breakfast buffet

The hotel has a pool which we didn’t use but could see from our bedroom window – it looked a good size for a city hotel pool and seemed well kept. There’s also a gym and spa but I didn’t see those so can’t comment.

Even if you don't visit the top floor restaurant or bar it's worth going up there for the views, though it was very hazy when we did so. You don't see many famous sights (the aforementioned Lotus Temple is the main one) but you do get a good look at the circling eagles. A barman told us that these nest on the roof of the hotel, as do owls which can be seen here at night. We didn't get around to eating here but did have a nice dinner one evening in the downstairs bar (murgh malai kebab and tandoori vegetable platter) where the friendly barman let us have the Happy Hour "two for one" deal on our beers despite having arrived in the bar some 15 minutes after the offer period.

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From the hotel roof

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Veda

On arriving in Delhi we learned that dinner on the first night of our tour was included in the cost so that evening we met up with our guide, Rajesh, and driver, Mehar, to go to Connaught Place for a meal at Veda, one of a small (I think) chain of restaurants in India. Well, it may be a chain, but we were certainly impressed by the food here, as well as by the somewhat exotic décor - dark, rich reds, lots of gilt mirrors and ornate light fittings, plus a hammered metal ceiling reflecting the candles on the tables.

The website describes the cuisine as “a contemporary interpretation of classic Indian cooking”. We had a set meal and everything was delicious. The first course was two vegetable appetisers - fried spinach leaves topped with tiny noodles and cheese (a Veda speciality), and cauliflowers fritters. Then two meat appetisers - small pieces of mutton kebab and chicken tikka. The main event was a selection of dishes served with rice and chappattis. There was a chicken curry cooked with spring onion, a lamb curry, paneer (Indian cottage cheese) in a spicy tomato sauce, a black lentil dahl and another Veda special, crispy fried strips of okra (a sort of fusion of that classic Indian ingredient with the Chinese way of serving seaweed). Finally there was kulfi, the rich Indian ice cream. As I said, everything was delicious, but if I had to pick favourites it would be the cauliflower fritters, the fried okra and the paneer - all excellent.

Exploring the city

Although we only had a day in which to see something of Delhi we managed to pack in a fair amount, thanks in part to our excellent guide Rajesh and star driver Mehar.

Jama Masjid

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Steps up to the mosque

We started our explorations at the massive Jama Masjid mosque. This is one of the largest (some sources, and our guide, say the largest) mosques in India. It was built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (most famous for another building, the Taj Mahal) between 1644 and 1656. It is said to have taken 5,000 workers and cost a million rupees to build, which must have been a huge sum in those days. It is certainly on an impressively grand scale. The huge courtyard can accommodate more than 25,000 worshippers. Its surrounding walls are pierced by three great gates (most visitors enter through the north gate) and on the west side is the main mosque structure, built of red sandstone and white marble, with three white marble domes and two 40 metre high minarets.

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Entry is free but there is a fee of 300 IR per camera to take photos and you'll be charged for every camera you are carrying, including smartphones, even if you don't plan to use them all. All visitors, including non-Muslims, are allowed inside as well as out, and photos can be taken everywhere, but the mosque is closed to non-Muslims at prayer time. And don’t even consider a visit here if you aren’t able to climb steps, as the mosque sits on an elevated sandstone platform and there are 39 steps up to the northern gate. You must leave your shoes at this main entrance so wear socks you don't mind getting grubby or borrow a pair of the slippers available. Women in trousers or with short sleeves are also asked to put on a gown.

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Tourists in slippers, and me in my gown (with Rajesh)

Once inside, take your time to wander round the courtyard, which is a buzz of both tourist and worshipper activity. We were advised not to photograph Muslim women but told that otherwise no one would mind, and in fact that seemed to extend to some of the women too. Bowls are set out to feed the many pigeons, and the seed they spill is carefully swept up. Locals and tourists mill around and it could be any city square, until you approach the prayer hall where a more respectful and devout atmosphere prevails. Even here though, a man sitting reading the Koran in one corner saw my camera and beckoned me over with a “welcome to take photos” gesture. So do pay that camera fee, as you will surely get some memorable shots here.

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Chandni Chowk

The mosque lies in Old Delhi, surrounded by the vibrant streets of Chandni Chowk market. The name Chandni Chowk is used for a specific street in Old Delhi, but also for the maze of alleys that surround it. This is the market place for Old Delhi, dating back to the 17th century when it was, so it is said, designed by the daughter of Shah Jahan with a canal (long since covered over) running the length of the street which reflected the moonlight. But if the mention of moonlight suggests peace and tranquillity, think again. Today’s Chandni Chowk is a complete assault on the senses – narrow lanes strung with electric cables, a cacophony of sound from horns (as everywhere in Delhi), a riot of colour, the scents of perfumes and spices in the air. On the pavements are people washing, cooking, cutting hair. Each narrow alleyway is lined with small shops specialising in certain goods - wedding saris in one, fruit and vegetables in another. Nai Sarak specialises in text books and calendars, Chawri in paper and stationery and Dariba Kalan in jewellery.

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We took a cycle rickshaw ride which is possibly the best way to see the madness close-up but without being totally sucked into it. Our driver pointed out some of the more interesting goods on sale, a small Jain temple tucked in an alleyway, even at one point monkeys (macaques) on a roof above us. Make sure you hold on to your possessions as you ride, and keep arms and hands inside the frame of the rickshaw - it's a bumpy ride and your driver will squeeze through the narrowest of spaces. Despite the bumps however, and the need to hang on, I did manage to shoot a few snippets of video that I hope give just a little flavour of the experience.

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Presidential Palace complex

From Old Delhi we drove to the Presidential Palace, where we stopped briefly to admire the architecture and the views (very hazy) all the way down the Rajpath (the King’s Way) to the India Gate two kilometres away.

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Presidential Palace

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The palace is the work of Edwin Lutyens, whose original plans were for a classically European building (he had little respect for the local architectural traditions which he once dismissed as “Moghul tosh”). Fortunately he was over-ruled and added features such as Rajasthani-inspired sandstone window grilles (known as jaalis), statues of elephants and cobras. He also lost an argument about the placing of the Palace, which he had intended to sit at the edge of Raisina Hill, and had to move it back to accommodate the buildings that now flank it on either side. This means it is not visible from the foot of the hill – something he considered a fault but which I felt gave the building an interesting element of surprise as you crest the hill and see the scale of the complex of buildings that greet you.

You approach along a wide avenue, Rajpath (the King’s Way), which links the palace to the India Gate two kilometres away. Either side of this avenue are the north and south buildings of the Secretariat, designed by Herbert Baker. It was these structures that caused Lutyen’s design for the plateau to be modified and the palace moved back from the edge. Today they house various government offices and ministries including Finance and Foreign Affairs.

Since 1950, when the first President of a now independent India took up residence here, it was renamed as the President’s Palace or Rashtrapati Bhavan. In area this was the largest residence of a Head of State in the world until the Presidential Complex of Turkey was opened on 29th October 2014. It has 340 rooms spread over four floors and covers 200,000 square feet (19,000 square metres).

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Dominion Column

Like the Palace, Baker’s designs for the Secretariat buildings include Indian elements and are made from the same cream and red sandstone. The columns in front of these are known as Dominion Columns and were gifts from Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. At the time it was expected that India would, like these countries, soon become a British Dominion, but instead it was to win independence within 18 years from the date of the buildings’ completion.

Although we didn’t have time to visit the museum inside the palace, this made an interesting photo stop, and came with a bonus. Although Chris has never owned or ridden a motorbike himself, his father was great biker and Chris has inherited something of his affection for the great makes such as BSA and Royal Enfield – the latter being originally a British company but made in India since the 1950s and exclusively there since 1971. He was very happy when the owner of a classic Royal Enfield bike, parked in front of the Presidential Palace, let him pose with it for some photos – and no, this wasn’t a “pose in return for payment” staged photo opp! We were also interested to learn that the beautiful ornamental iron gates in front of the palace were copied by Lutyens from some he saw in Chiswick, very near our London home.

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India Gate

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At the opposite end of the Rajpath to the Presidential Palace, and two kilometres away, is the India Gate. This was built in the 1920s as a war memorial to commemorate the soldiers of the British Indian Army who died in the First World War and in the Third Anglo-Afghan War. In all, more than 13,300 names are inscribed on the gate. Like the Presidential Palace it was designed by Edwin Lutyens (who also designed London’s Cenotaph and 65 other war memorials in Europe on behalf of the Imperial War Graves Commission which also commissioned this) and has the appearance more of a victory or triumphal arch than a memorial.

The gate is 42 metres in height and has a shallow bowl at the top which was intended to be filled with burning oil on anniversaries although this is rarely done. Near the top on each side is inscribed “INDIA” and beneath that, all in capitals,

“TO THE DEAD OF THE INDIAN ARMIES WHO FELL HONOURED IN FRANCE AND FLANDERS MESOPOTAMIA AND PERSIA EAST AFRICA GALLIPOLI AND ELSEWHERE IN THE NEAR AND THE FAR-EAST AND IN SACRED MEMORY ALSO OF THOSE WHOSE NAMES ARE RECORDED AND WHO FELL IN INDIA OR THE NORTH-WEST FRONTIER AND DURING THE THIRD AFGHAN WAR”

Beneath the arch (added in 1971) is a small black marble plinth with a rifle capped by a war helmet, and bounded by four eternal flames, which serves as India’s tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

In my photos you can also see the canopy that stands some 150 metres further east, which was also designed by Lutyens and once covered a statue of George V in his coronation robes. This was moved in the 1960s to Coronation Park. The canopy has since stood empty, although there was talk at one point of installing a statue here of Mahatma Gandhi. This never happened, and it seems to me unlikely now that in will, given the ambivalent attitude that we were told now prevails in India towards the once universally acclaimed hero.

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By day and by night

Raj Ghat

After our brief photo stop at the India Gate, we drove to Raj Ghat, the site of the cremation of Mahatma Gandhi in January 1948, which serves as a permanent memorial to him. A black marble plinth marks the actual spot of the cremation, at one end of which burns an eternal flame. It is set in peaceful gardens with paths that allow visitors to walk past and pay their respects, although when we were there the peace was somewhat disrupted by the several groups of boisterous schoolchildren visiting the site. Several other memorials to prominent figures are located nearby, including former Prime Ministers Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, but we only visited this one.

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Indian visitor, and souvenir stall

We were somewhat surprised to learn from our guide that Gandhi is not so much respected among Indians these days. Many feel that his policy of non-violence was too restrained and they admire more active revolutionaries such as Rani Laxmi Bai, Bhagat Singh and Subhas Chandra Bose. But from what I observed, many more Indians than foreigners seemed to be visiting this shrine and doing so with great respect, so it seems opinion may be divided on this, as on so many political matters.

With so much to see on our packed day out in Delhi it makes sense to continue in a second entry ...

Posted by ToonSarah 10:13 Archived in India Tagged buildings people mosque market city tomb delhi street_photography Comments (5)

Hilltop citadel

India day four


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The Amber Fort

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Amber Fort from Maota Lake

This is what a fort should look like, perhaps – high on a hill, dominating the surrounding countryside, large and apparently impregnable. But climb the hill and pass through those fortified gates, and you find yourself in another world – a world of elegant and sumptuous palace architecture, mirrored halls and pretty gardens.

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Gardener in the fort

Amber or Amer Fort (in any case, the “b” is not pronounced) is situated about 11 kilometres from Jaipur and usually visited from there. There has been a fort here since the 10th century AD but most of the current buildings date from the 17th.

We came to Amer on the morning of our day spent in and around Jaipur, and spent several hours exploring the various courtyards and beautiful buildings here – with more time in our schedule we could easily have spent longer! As well as the wonderful decorative features, I loved the views from the fort of Maota Lake at the foot of the hill and the surrounding landscape.

The fort was established in what was the Kachwaha capital by the then king, Man Singh I, in 1529, on the site of an earlier 10th / 11th century fort. It was added to significantly in the early 17th century by his grandson Jai Singh I who was an army general during the reign of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (he who built the Taj Mahal – I fancied I saw his influence in places here, if only in the use of white marble). In 1727 the Kachwahas shifted their capital to Jaipur but continued to maintain the fort, partly because it is home to an important temple, the Shila Devi Temple.

The name "amber" derives not from the colour of the sandstone, as I had assumed prior to visiting, but from the goddess Amba Mata (Mother Earth) who was worshiped by local tribes here long before the fort was built.

Your first view of the fort will probably be, as ours was, from the far side of Maota Lake. It is worth stopping here for some time as it’s the perfect spot from which to take some photos. As well as Amer Fort you can see the neighbouring Jaigarh Fort, part of the same defensive complex. The lake is also a good place for bird-watching it seems – I spotted several stilts, egrets and herons.

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Fortified hilltop

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Stilt and egret

It was very busy when we were here, not only with tourists but also groups of pilgrims on their way to celebrate the Saraswati Puja festival at the temple in the fort. Their colourful flags and clothing added to the charm of the scene and really got our camera shutter fingers busy!

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Pilgrims by Maota Lake

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Elephant or jeep?

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The most popular way to visit the fort is by ascending the hill on an elephant, but we were here at the time of the major Hindu festival, Saraswati Puja, and the elephants had been given a holiday. We were to see why when we arrived in the fort and saw the courtyard they normally occupy, Jaleb Chowk, taken over by the pilgrims. From a conversation overheard at our Jaipur hotel I gather that tourists who were disappointed by the lack of elephant rides at this time could choose to do one somewhere else nearby – although I guess that it wouldn’t be the same as arriving in a fort by this means. And in any case, there has been some criticism by animal welfare groups of the way in which elephants are kept and used here (poor housing conditions and abuse of the animals). Our tour company TransIndus doesn’t recommend tourists riding them to the fort and, much as I love the romantic idea, I would have followed their advice even had the option been open to us. As it was, it was a choice of a long hot uphill walk or a jeep. You can guess which I chose – especially as the jeep had been prepaid and included in our tour cost.

It’s quite a bumpy ride as you rattle upwards through the narrow streets of the small town of Amer that lies in the shadow of the fort, but an interesting one as you get glimpses of local life in passing. Don’t hope to take many photos though, as it’s more or less impossible to hold a camera still!

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View of the fort's walls from where we caught the jeep

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Musician by arrival area

Taking the jeep meant that we arrived at a different gate from those walking – the Moon Gate (Chand Pol) rather than the Sun Gate (Suraj Pol, where the elephants when operating also arrive). But both gates lead to the same point, the Jaleb Chowk.

Jaleb Chowk

This large courtyard, the first of a series we will pass through, was the fort’s parade ground. I have seen the name translated variously as ““the quadrangle where horses and elephants are tethered” and “a place for soldiers to assemble”, but in practice both were true even if only one (I believe the latter) is an accurate translation. Here the Maharaja would inspect his troops and here those same troops would, on returning from battle, display their war loot. The women of the palace could look down on these scenes from the screened windows above.

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Jaleb Chowk

Today it is usually the place where the elephants that bring tourists to the fort are tethered, but as I have explained, when we visited the courtyard had been taken over by the many groups of pilgrims visiting the temple that lies just off one corner of Jaleb Chowk, to mark the festival of Saraswati Puja. So for us it was a different, but very colourful scene.

There are two gates opening on to Jaleb Chowk – on the eastern side the Sun Gate or Suraj Pol, and on the west the Moon Gate, Chand Pol. Stately processions would have entered the fort only through the Suraj Pol. In my photo above, taken from the next level, the Sun Gate is on the right and the Moon Gate on the left. You can see the many temporary canopies erected to shield pilgrims from the sun as they waited their turn to go into the Sila Devi temple. This lies in the south west corner (bottom left of my photo and out of shot). This is where the Maharajas used to offer animal sacrifices (usually a buffalo) until that practice was stopped here, I think in the 1980s (if I remember our guide’s talk accurately). Today’s pilgrims bring offerings of food instead. We weren’t able to go inside the temple because of the festival but I believe it is usually possible.

In the photo below you can see the Sun Gate more clearly, and pilgrims gathering nearby, probably having just completed the walk up to the fort. On the distant hills you can see the old walls that still surround Amber and Jaigarh Forts, and just a corner of the latter in the top left.

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Jaleb Chowk and Suraj Pol

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Suraj Pol

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Pilgrims and pilgrim flag

On the south side of the courtyard is a wide staircase leading up through the Singh Pol (Lion Gate) to the next part of the palace.
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Singh Pol from the far side

Diwan-i-Am

The second courtyard of the fort is dominated by the Hall of Public Audience or Diwan-i-Am. As the name suggests, this was where the Maharajah would meet the people, respond to petitions and settle disputes. It was also the place where certain festivities were celebrated – victory in battle, the birthday of the Maharajah and more. It was constructed in the early 17th century, built from red sandstone and marble, and modelled on similar halls in Mughal palaces. It combines Mughal and Raiput styles, with decorative elements such as elephant trunk brackets and vines. The roof is supported by sandstone columns on the outer edges and marble ones within.

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Diwan-i-Am

You can get some great views from here of the Saffron Garden or Kesar Kyaari on Maota Lake below. It is named for the saffron flowers that used to be planted here.

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View of Maota Lake and Kesar Kyaari

While we were here there was some minor restoration work going on and it was interesting to watch the men working to clean the carvings and bring them back to their best.

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Taking a break from restoration work

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Restoring the Diwan-i-Am

Next to the Diwan-I-Am is the Sattais Katcheri, where scribes would sit to receive and record revenue brought to the Maharaja. I have read that both this and the Diwan-i-Am are frequented by monkeys but there were none here when we visited, perhaps because of the restoration work in progress.

From this courtyard the fort’s best known gate leads to a third.

Ganesh Pol

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Ganesh Pol

The Ganesh Pol, or Elephant Gate, connects the second and third courtyards, and is the most richly decorated of all the gates here – a riot of colour, both frescoes and mosaics, with flowers, vines, flower vases and intricate geometric designs. The design of a large central arch flanked by two smaller ones on each side, one above the other, shows the influence of Mughal architecture here (the Taj Mahal has the same arrangement, for instance) and has led to speculation that it was made by Sawai Jai Singh II, the founder of Jaipur, rather than his father, Jai Singh I.

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Ganesh

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Ganesh Pol decorations

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In the Suhag Mandir

Above the main arch is a fresco depicting Ganesh, the Hindu god, with the customary mouse at his feet and on either side a slender cypress tree. Unusually Ganesh is here shown in profile rather than the more usual face forward pose. Walking beneath him you must make two right-angled turns through the gate – a design intended to impede invading armies.

From the lattice-screened walkway above the gate, known as the Suhag Mandir, the ladies could look down on the activity in and around the Diwan-I-Am. Also from here the maharani would await the maharaja’s return from battle and sprinkle scented water and flowers down on him in welcome and gratitude for his safe homecoming.

After passing through the gate you will be able to climb to the Suhag Mandir yourself to enjoy the same views the ladies in purdah would have had, and to get good views too of the next courtyard.

Aram Bagh and Sukh Mandir

Passing through the Ganesh Pol you come to the third courtyard, the heart of the private part of the palace where the maharaja held court. Unlike the earlier ones, which are paved, this has a garden laid out in the traditional Mughal charbagh style, divided into symmetrical quarters. In the centre is a star-shaped pool. You can get a good view from above by ascending the stairs above the Ganesh Pol to the Suhag Mandir, which gives you an opportunity to really appreciate the symmetry of this style of garden.

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Aram Bagh and sweeper

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Sukh Mandir details

To your right as you look from the gate is the Sukh Mandir, known as the “pleasure palace” or “temple of contentment”. This was where a maharaja would relax, no doubt with his maharani (queen) and some of the women of the harem. It is clearly designed for such relaxation. A channel running through it carries water which flows out into the pool of the Aram Bagh, helping to keep the marble rooms cool. The doors are of sandalwood and ivory, and the walls are decorated in a more subtle, restful style than the ornate rooms elsewhere – quite a contrast to the Jai Mandir which lies on the opposite side of the gardens.

Jai Mandir and Sheesh Mahal

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Sheesh Mahal

Opposite the Sukh Mandir on the other side of the Aram Bagh (that is, your left as you pass through the Ganesh Pol) is possibly the most sumptuous building within the fort and also its most famous. The Jai Mandir (Hall of Victory) is divided into three sections – the Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of Private Audience) on the ground floor at the front, the Sheesh Mahal (Hall of Mirrors) behind this, and the Jas Mandir (Hall of Glory) on the upper floor – although some sources refer to the whole of the lower part as the Sheesh Mahal. Certainly its decorations merit that. Ceilings and walls are studded with thousands of small pieces of glass and mirrors, reflecting light and a multitude of images and colours.

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Sheesh Mahal

One explanation for the decoration that I read is that the queen was not allowed to sleep in the open air although she loved to see the stars shining. So the king ordered his architects to design a room where she could do that, as the candlelight reflected from all the mirrors was said to resemble a thousand stars. I think this explanation is unlikely however, as the queen would have slept in the women’s quarters around the fourth courtyard, the Zenana. It was probably the maharaja himself therefore who liked to sleep under the stars!

Around the outside of the Jai Mandir are marble panels carved with exotic flowers and little insects. Some of the flowers are said to imitate other insects and animals such as a hooded cobra (look at the leaf near the bottom right of the first photo below).

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Jai Mandir: details of carvings

The Zenana

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Our guide

The final courtyard in the complex is the Zenana. This is the oldest part of the fort, built at the end of the 16th century during the reign of Raja Man Singh I. It originally formed the main palace but was later converted into the Zenana or "women's quarters" to house his twelve wives and concubines. Each queen/maharani and concubine had her individual suite of rooms here so the maharaja could visit one without the others knowing. In the centre of the courtyard is a covered pavilion, the Baradari, which formed the gathering place for the women. Here they would gossip and no doubt try to assert their own status within the ranks based on wealth, looks and the frequency of the maharaja’s visits!

Unfortunately I had a small problem with my camera here, which jammed – I think the heat got to it, as it did a couple of times on this trip. It sorted itself after turning off and waiting a while, but by then we were on our way out of the fort. The heat must have got to me too, as stupidly I didn’t think to take any photos on my phone! So at this point I run out of images …

We also ran out of energy around here too, and decided to head back to the city for refreshments and to see some of the sights there. On the way though, we made one further stop, to see the Jal Mahal.

Jal Mahal: the Lake Palace

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Jal Mahal

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We stopped briefly for photos here on our way back into town from the Amber Fort. The Jal Mahal sits in the south west corner of Man Sagar Lake, a man-made lake created in the 16th century when a dam was built across the Darbhawati River to address water shortage problems in Amer. The palace itself is thought to have been used for Maharajah picnics and duck hunting parties, but no one seems quite sure. It is partly sunk, with four floors hidden under water (when the lake is full), and has been neglected for over 200 years, but our guide told us there are now plans to restore it and open it as a hotel. If done well (and the Indians do these things very well) it will be an amazing place to stay!

The lake too has been badly neglected in the past, with pollution caused by untreated sewage and a build-up of silt on the lake bed. In recent years a number of bodies, including tourism and government organisations, have worked together to address this and the lake has been considerably cleaned up. A sign of this is the gradual return of bird life, although not in the numbers and variety (yet) that they once were. Nevertheless just from the roadside I spotted a number of egrets, Chinese cormorants, a brown heron and a few moorhens.

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Egret, heron and cormorants

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We were here in the morning when unfortunately the light is not at its best for photographs – I imagine it could be wonderful in the late afternoon or at sunset. However we did have an interesting encounter here which made the stop more memorable. On the terrace overlooking the lake we met an enterprising young lad offering to show us some magic. We decided to invest a few rupees in his performance and he performed some sleight of hand tricks with coins, cups and small stones. At times it was easy to spot him palming the objects, but at other times he surprised us, making the coins "pass through Chris's head" from ear to ear, pass from his ear to my nose, and even from my ear to fall from Chris's "private parts"!! It was entertaining to hear his patter and well worth the 50 rupees our guide suggested we give him. If you want to see him and enjoy one of his tricks, check out my little video.

After this we headed back into the city, and our explorations there will form the subject of my next entry ...

Posted by ToonSarah 00:46 Archived in India Tagged people history india fort jaipur rajasthan amber_fort Comments (6)

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