Posted: Jan 16, 2004 12:29:52 PM
Hi everyone. Sorry this last report has taken so long to write: I've had to deal with the usual furore of returning home, coupled with the fact that I've been moving that home at the same time! Nevertheless, I think you may enjoy this final entry, which describes the last days of the trip and then offers a quick summary of many of the things I haven't told you about on this website. It also has a number of photos taken by the wonderful Charlotte (whose birthday it is today, by the way, so please send your best wishes in her direction!), and also by various assisting strangers we met on the way.
When last I left you, Charlotte and I were about to go to Nara to explore the various interesting sites there. Nara, as it turns out, was more fun than I expected. First we explored the largest wooden building in Japan, and indeed the largest in the world. I believe that the parliamentary building in Wellington, New Zealand is the second largest. Hmmm, you know, temples in Japan burn down so easily, and it would be nice for NZ to have another record setter...
On second thoughts, this is not a good idea, because they'd just rebuild it. And it's actually two thirds smaller than it used to be, which is very big considering how large it is now:
Inside, a big Buddha, made of bronze and gold. A very big one. It's quite neat to visit because, like all Japanese temples and shrines, it is covered in gift shops. And by covered I don't mean there's one in every temple - I mean there's five in every temple. This is not tacky, however, because gift-giving is an important part of Japanese culture, and I was very keen to get a feel for the 'real' (that is, non-tourist) side of Japan. But, more on that later. Here's the Todai-ji Buddha:
A curious aside: there is a large wooden pillar behind the Buddha with a hole cut into its base. This hole is the same size as the Buddha's nostril, and supersition has it that if you can fit through this hole you are assured of enlightenment. Which is funny, because only a great fool would do something that embarrassing in public. Er:
I received an absolutely priceless incredulous look from a Japanese tourist when I took off my coat and prepared to enter the Enlightenment hole, but there's something very encouraging about knowing that this tourist and I will never meet again. In this life, anyway.
After this memorable spiritual event we wandered around Nara and then returned to Kyoto - over the next day and a half we ran into so many unexpected Japanese events it was like being immersed in a travelogue. We saw a Noh play being performed (think of it as people in masks or face-paint doing mime in extreme slow motion), a Kabuki play (it moves faster, but still took more than five hours to complete!), and sumo wrestling. My hero was a wrestler who, despite being older than all the other participants, managed to defeat competitors half again his weight. Unfortunately we don't have a picture of this little trooper, but here's a nice action shot:
And then, just like that, I was in the Last Full Day of my trip. There's always the risk of burnout even at this late juncture, but I was rescued from that by the attentions of an excellent guide: Kenichi, a former student of mine, who most enthusiastically showed us around Osaka. He took us to all the wonderful highlights of the city, including the absolutely incredible Osaka Aquarium (more about this later - it ranks right alongside Monaco's as the best aquarium I have visited), Osaka Castle (surprisingly, one of the very few castles I had a chance to visit in the whole trip), and many other highly impressive sites.
But if that had been all Kenichi had done, it would have been little different from every other tourist experience. What I am particularly pleased about is that our guide was smart enough to know that Japanese culture is just as fascinating as the touristy stuff, and that while it's good to do all that it's also important to experience the other side of life. And experience it we did - Kenichi talked me into trying a wide range of fascinating food (Octopus Balls! yum!), took us for a walk through some of the more quiet and tranquil spots in the city (even if it was a bit chilly!), and gave us an insight into some of the more incongruous activities that the Japanese people like to participate in.
I noted in the last report the delightful incongruities of Japanese life, and Kenichi was able to guide us towards some delightful moments of amused awe. An example: in Osaka Aquarium, there is a very large tank. It is in fact the second largest in the world, and houses a prized whale shark (the largest fish in the world). The day we were there, a diver dressed in a Santa Claus costume was swimming through the tank waving at spectators and posing for photo opportunities. Absurd, delightful, marvellous.
We also saw such off-the-beaten-track sites as a historic neon billboard next to the Dotomborijawa River (no kidding - it's sixty-eight years old), which was incidentally also the location for a mass jump into the water when the local baseball club won the championship. You'd think they'd jump in if the Hanshin Tigers lost, surely?
In any case, we rounded off the day with a quick trip to Kobe to view the spectacular Luminarie Light Festival - simply a huge collection of light-bulbs arranged in the most awe-inducing way possible. Nothing can reproduce the feeling of being there, but to give you an idea, this was the entrance:
And like that, it was over. I was soon saying goodbye to Charlotte at the airport, flying over the Pacific, and arriving in Christchurch airport in style (on a 747 decorated with Lord of the Rings images). I boggled over our weird-looking money (I had forgotten how colourful it was), hugged the waiting family, and returned home.
So, what can I say about this trip? It has been wonderful, and wonderfully packed; I have not even mentioned half of the things I've seen on the way. So I figured I may try now. Those of you who bore easily might want to skim-read these lists, but I want to communicate that it is perfectly possible to do so much in only four months.
I visited palaces: Topkapi Palace in Istanbul; the Palazzo Reale in Naples; the Palace of the Grand Masters in Malta; Holyrood House in Edinburgh; the Royal Palace in Stockholm; the Old Royal Palace in Prague; Schloss Schonbrunn in Vienna; Hofburg (the Imperial Palace of the Hapsburgs) also in Vienna; the Palazzo Ducale of the Doge of Venice; Versailles; the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence; and Kyoto Imperial Palace with its wonderful toilet sounds.
I saw holy relics: Mohammed's sword, and hairs from his beard; John the Baptist's index finger; pieces of the Crown of Thorns of Jesus; the Spear of Longinus; and many many many pieces of the True Cross.
I tried as much eponymous food as possible: Neapolitan ice cream in Naples; a danish in Denmark; a hamburger in Hamburg; a berliner in Berlin; and Wiener schnitzel in Vienna; as well as haggis in Edinburgh, pickled herring (for breakfast) in Oslo, locusts in Berlin, chocolate in Bruges and Zurich, sushi in Osaka, and red-bean ice cream too!
I've travelled by plane, train, bus, car, scooter, ferry, sampan, luxury cruiser, minibus, tractor, Jeep, Segway, and bicycle; seen the world's longest escalator, the oldest working clock in the world, and the smallest book in the world.
I've been to innumerable holy sites, temples, cathedrals, shrines, and mosques, including: the Aya Sofya in Istanbul; the Blue Mosque in Istanbul; the Duomo in Naples; the Chiesa di Santa Chiara in Naples; the Chiesa di San Cataldo in Palermo; St. John's Co-Cathedral in Malta; St. Giles' Cathedral in Edinburgh; Yorkminster; Shrewsbury Church - the church Darwin was baptised in; Salisbury Cathedral; St. Mary the Virgin University Church; Westminster; St. Pauls in London; the ruins of a Cistercian Abbey in an Oslo Fjord; St Vitus' Cathedral in Prague; Stephansdom in Vienna; the Duomo in Milan; St. Peterskirche in Zurich; the Aachen Dom; the Cologne Dom; Notre Dame in Paris; the Duomo in Florence; the Chiesa di San Miniato al Monte in Florence; the Sagrada Familia; the Chiesa di Santa Maria Antiqua in Rome; St. Peter's Basilica; the Basilica di San Marco in Venice; the Basilique Notre Dame de Fourviere in Lyon; the Basilica di Santa Maria Novella, not to mention Kinkaku-ji, Ginkaku-ji, Heian-jingu, Kiyomizu-dera, Todai-ji, Horyu-ji, and more.
I've seen performances of: real Whirling Dervishes; 'The Taming of the Shrew' by the Royal Shakespeare Company, in Stratford-upon-Avon; 'Stomp'; 'Mousetrap'; 'Jerry Springer: The Opera'; a Noh play; a Kabuki play; and Sumo wrestling.
I've performed numerous literary pilgrimages, such as: climbing up Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh, visiting Tolkien's haunt, the Rabbit Room of the Eagle and Child, Poet's corner in Westminster, Strawberry Hill, Shakespeare's birthplace, the reconstruction of the Globe, the house Keats died in, and Kafka's house in Prague; as well as seeing originals of the Magna Carta, the cuneiform Hammurabi law codes, the Flood Tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh, and the Rosetta Stone (not to mention a long walk through the Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers in Paris, for all you Eco fans out there).
I've slept in some uncomfortable positions (in trains, planes, buses, and ships), and stayed in some strange lodgings: Kadiz's Treehouses in Turkey; a troglodytic cave in Cappadocia; an old Choir School for St. Paul's in London; and a former monastery built in the 12th century, five minutes' walk from Notre Dame Cathedral on the Ile de France.
I've visited so many fine galleries and art collections, seeing work by artists such as: Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso, Dali, Monet, Renoir, Duchamp, Raphael, Delacroix, Donatello, Giotto, Rubens, Caravaggio, and Botticelli, as well as famous works such as Munch's 'The Scream', Brueghel's 'The Tower of Babel', Rembrandt's 'The Night Watch', Van Gogh's 'Crows in a Cornfield', Rodin's 'Le Penseur', Michelangelo's 'David', Da Vinci's 'Mona Lisa', and the 'Venus de Milo', and delightful modern art from Hirst, Klimt, Rothco, Pollock, Lichtenstein, Paul McCarthy, Bruce Nauman, Sigmar Polke, Andy Warhol, Yves Klein, Fiona Tan, Le Corbusier, Kandinsky, and Magritte.
I've met and walked around with fascinating people: the Kurdish tour guide, the Italian nun, the Norwegian belly-dancer, the Australian social-worker, the Slovakian herpetologist, as well as travellers from Jerusalem, Brazil, Edinburgh, the Czech Republic, New Zealand, and of course the U.S. Amongst many others.
I've been to so many places for dead people, such as: the Catacombs of San Giovanni in Siracusa, the Catacombs of St. Paul in Malta, the Graveyards of Gallipoli, the Bayeux War Cemetery, and the Paris Catacombs. I've visited: the graves of the founder of modern Turkey (at Anit Kabir), Tolkien's grave in Wolvercote Cemetery, Chaucer's grave, Charlemagne's tomb, the Magi shrine (where the Three Wise Men are supposed to be entombed), the Cimitiere du Pere Lachaise (graves of Chopin, Heloise and Abelard, Jim Morrison, and Oscar Wilde), The Pantheon in Paris (last resting place of Rousseau, Voltaire, Hugo, Dumas, Zola, Braille, and the Curies), Napoleon's coffins in the Hotel des Invalides, the burial place of the grand dukes of Florence in the Cappelle Medicee, Federico Fellini's grave in Rimini, Julius Caesar's final resting place in Rome, and the tombs of Edward I, Henry III, Henry V, Elizabeth I, Mary I, Henry VII, Mary Queen of Scots, Edward III, Richard II, and St. Edward the Confessor.
Not that I'm morbid or anything
In total, I have stood in twenty three countries: China (Hong Kong SAR), Germany, Turkey, Italy, Malta, the Vatican City, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, the Czech Republic, Austria, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, San Marino, Monaco, Spain, Andorra, and Japan.
And you know what? It was very fun. I'd do it again in an instant. It's possible, and what is more it's easy. No amount of reading can truly compare to what it's like to travel, and I hope that many of you get a chance to explore this strange, difficult, and wonderful world we all call home. Soon.
I'd like to end this report by giving my heartfelt thanks to all the people who have put me up along the way, dropped by to say, run into me and provided companionship on the route, or offered advice, warnings, or encouragement. You all mean a lot to me, and I appreciate it hugely. And for those of you overseas, if you ever come to New Zealand be sure to give me a call, or if you are not able to come drop me an e-mail and keep in touch!
Here's one last picture, of Charlotte and me in the gardens of Ginkaku-ji. Enjoy!
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