Monday, June 09, 2008

an afternoon in tokyo - from tea water to 仏蘭西 cuisine

On a bicycle in Tokyo, one was able to cover a number of places which the usual foreign tourists would not cover. You get to get a glimpse of how the Tokyoites live as you cycle around the metropolis at your own casual pace.

17May/ Saturday afternoon

Ochanomizu - 御茶ノ水 - Literary means – water for making tea. This photograph is taken from the bridge over the Kanda River next to the Ochanomizu train station.

Leaving Asakusa at around 11:30am, it took less than an hour to reach Ochanomzui Station - お茶の水駅.

The first I heard of Ochanomizu was related to the Ochanomizu University - お茶の水女子大学 . Although there are other universities around the area, I remembered this university well, because, we had a - kompa - a sort of a drinking party - with the female students from this university.

The Ochanomizu University is the leading all girl university in Tokyo and Japan. As we were from the top technological university in Tokyo we were able to arrange for a party with the female college students.

At the party, it was an immersion into another aspect of Japanese culture -

The female students would take the initiative and be the first one to pour beer and sake – Japanese rice wine - for the guys. The party was held close to Valentine’s Day. And on that day it was again the ladies who took the initiatives to send us guys - nice little boxes of chocolates! What a blessing it is - or was - to be a male – in Japan..

The Nikolai Cathedral

Other than being the center for higher leaning, Ochanomizu is also well-known for another landmark, the Nikolai Cathedral - ニコライ堂。

What Tokyoites do a Saturday afternoon – you may ask.

As it was a warm May afternoon - in and around the compound of the cathedral, there were close to 30 odd - obasan – おばさん aunties- and ojisan – おじさん - uncles - sketching and painting.

I was sort of taken by surprise by the number of aunties and uncles – and even - oji-i-san - おじいさんgrandpa – painting this cathedral, engaging in this artistic pursuit. In Singapore, one would perhaps find them playing mahjong.

Why this building, and not another Shinto temple or shrine. Perhaps, it was the exotic charm of old European architecture and the west that that was the draw.

The Nikolai Cathedral was build around the same time as the National Museum of Singapore in the 1880/s and took seven years to complete - from Meiji 17th to 24th year. It is noted as the biggest Byzantine structure in Japan. On Sunday, church service, albeit the Eastern Orthodox tradition, I think – is still conducted. It was designated an Important Cultural Treasure – 重要文化財- by the Ministry of Education in the 1960/s.

Yushima Seido - 湯島聖堂 - Shrine of Confucius(孔子庙)

Looking down the slope from the Ochanomizu Station and wondering what this grey dark colored building in traditional architecture was, I cycled over. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was a shrine build in traditional Chinese architecture style and dedicated to Confucius.

I was taken quite aback that the whole shrine complex has a very subdue and grey tone – with - black colored walls & pillars and roof of grey green tiles. Though it’s the first time anywhere, that I had visited a shrine dedicated to honor Confucius, I struck me as strange on why this color scheme for this Confucius temple.

Well, this is another aspect of the Japanese culture shock that I had to ‘acclimatized’ to when I first went to Japan. The Japanese sense of traditional color – is very different from that of the Chinese culture– well that of the Chinese culture in the current scheme of things – that is the recent dynasties from the Sung onwards, perhaps.

A black walled temple – could perhaps be a Taoist Temple in China, but would not have been one dedicated to honor Confucius. For a Confucius shrine would be bestowed the same honorable color of golden tiled roof and crimson wall. This is the color of the palace of the emperor. Well, on the other hand, the palace of the Japanese emperor never would have it in such bold colors as well – of crimson red wall or golden titled roof.

And way back in antiquity – the Chinese emperors of the Chin- 秦朝- and - Han - 汉朝 Dynasties if you notice in period dramas i.e. dramas that are authentically portrayed – were dressed in black gown. For the color of black – in - Yi-Jing - 易经 – the Book of Change – signifies Earth. That is, abode of the Son of Heaven & earthly power. Perhaps the authentic color should be black then.

Taking about Confucianism –

This temple looks quite empty and run-down though it is big. I wonder if this temple perform the annual rites though on the altar is laid out with various paraphernalia to honor Confucius. Perhaps not, for since the Meiji Restoration and with the call to reject things Asian and embrace the European civilization – 脱亞入欧 – and last they would honor would be the Sage. Confucianism was backward and hindrance to progress. Unlike Korea, there don’t seem to be any diehard Confucian scholars in traditional costumes and all - in Japan.

In the early 1990/s in one of the lectures on Confucianism by Professor Du of Harvard, in Singapore that I attended, he lamented that though Confucianism originated in China more than 2500 years ago, the model students are in Japan & Korea. As an ethic Chinese and a Confucian scholar he felt sadden about the whole state of Confucianism in the Chinese world then.

Coming on the heels of the 1970/s and the campaign in China to denounce Lin Biao and Confucius – 批林批孔 – pilin pikong - one could not expect anything more, could one.

Well what a turn of fortune has Confucius underwent again barely 30 years on. Lun Yu – 论语 - the Analects - has been given a new interpretation to 21st century living and a new lease of life by the likes of Prof Yu Dan – 于丹 - a lady lecturer from Beijing – on the popular CCTV lecture series. It reflects another step in heralding the revival of Confucianism, and as mass culture.

Perhaps, with the renaissance of Confucianism, the Japanese may someday start to officially perform the rites to honor Confucius again in the temple. Then would it be rejoining the Asia – i/e the Far East family of nation again – that she left more than a century ago.

Hibiya Park – Matsumotoro – 日比谷公園 - 松本楼

Though I have visited Hibiya park a number of times, I did not know that it had such a historic restaurant in it’s midst, until I read of it in the ST , where on May06, 2008, PM Fukuda of Japan hosted President Hu Jin Tao of China to a dinner at the Matsumoto Ro - 松本楼 - famous for its French cuisine - 仏蘭西料理– furansu ryoori - fine dining.

On this trip I marked it in my itinerary as one of the palace to visit.

One of its most distinguished guests was Dr Sun Yat Sen. 孙中山. The great grandfather of the present owner Umeya Shoya - 梅屋庄屋 - was a close friend and ardent supporter of Dr Sun’s & donated generously to his revolutionary cause. While in Japan, Dr Sun would occasionally drop in to this restaurant. Umeya had organized many a functions at this restaurant to introduce Dr Sun to his Japanese supports.

At the lobby of the restaurant stands an old piano, a 1907 make, by the predecessor of Yamaha Piano. This is only one of 2 set left in Japan. In 1915, while on the run from the failed republic, Dr Sun married Soong Mei Ling - 宋美岭- at the Umeya residence in Tokyo. To while away her time while waiting to return to China, Madame Soong would tinkle at the piano.

Well, on - 仏蘭西 – has the same pronunciation as the katakana form -フランス – Furansu – the Japanese name for France ?

Interestingly, in the menu France cuisine is written in Kanji as – 仏蘭西料理– furansu ryoori - instead of – フランス料理 - furansu ryoori .

Perhaps it’s rooted in history - 仏蘭西 料理 - certainly looks more cultured, refined, romantic and with a character, than - フランス料理. So when you are looking for fine western - French dining in Japan, look out for - 仏蘭西料理- instead.

See, again knowing Kanji or Chinese characters is a great advantage in Japan.

However, though France in abbreviated Kanji is written as - 仏国 – Fukkoku – it is never use together with the term for cooking/cuisine - 料理 – ryoori – meaning cooking/cuisine.

For 仏国料理 –could also to mean - cooking from the land of Buddha!

So much for an appetizing and confusing afternoon…

Postscript –
1. 湯島聖堂 – Yushima seido - Shrine of Confucius

The 5th Shogun of the Tokugawa Shogunate, who was very much inclined towards Confucianism, built this shrine & residential college in 1690. The shogun would organize lectures on the Analects -论语 - and promote its learning.

In 1797 the Bakufu administration expanded the residential college & named it after the birthplace of Confucius - 平昌坂学問所. For the next 70 years, up till the Meiji Restoration of 1868, this was the center of education of the Edo period.

In the 4th year of the Meiji Era, in 1871, the Ministry of Education, as well as the National Museum was located here. Subsequently, the Tokyo Normal College (the predecessor of Tsukuba University) and the Tokyo Ladies Normal College -東京女子師範学校 -( the predecessor of the Ochanomizu University were located here too.

The Shrine to Confucius was burnt down 4 times, and each time it was rebuilt. It was destroyed in the great Kanto earthquake of 1923. The present structure of reinforced concrete was built in 1935. However the gate - 入徳門 - located at the bottom of the slope, was the original structure from 1704, and it is dedicated an important cultural treasure)

(Adapted from the synopsis at the entrance to the shrine)

2. Matsumotoro - 松本楼

3. 仏蘭西 vs 法蘭西- Furansu

In Chinese – France is written as - 法兰西 ( simplified Chinese) or - 法蘭西 – (traditional script). In short it’s - 法国 – faguo – land of Law (literary).

Knowledgeable Japanese would avoid using仏 and use 法国, instead. For 仏 when pronounced as - butsu – hotoke – means Buddhism. When pronounced as Futsu –it means French. (ref - Wikipedia )

– Japanese blog on France -仏蘭西

4. Ochanomizu University


Sunday, June 01, 2008

on a bicycle in tokyo - 有料 - 無料

Tokyo has an excellent and dense railway network and you get to places. However, by walking you can only cover the major sites in the vicinity of the railway stations.

On the recent trip, with a bicycle I was able to extend my parameters beyond the usual tourist’s sites around the railway stations, and cover many more places in a day- & off the beaten track. At a rental of rate of ¥300 for 3 days I save on train fare. Moreover, cycling is not as tiring as walking – and you can take your own leisure time and yet cover distance. As Tokyo is on relatively flat land, and it does not sap your energy cycling – when the weather is still cool.

With a map to identify the major avenues that crisscrosses the metropolis you use them as makers and revert back into them if you were to get wayward. The major Avenues to take you places are:
- Chuo-dori Avenue - 中央道り- and Showa-dori Avenue - 昭和道り – on the eastern flank of Tokyo traverse in a North-Easterly to South-westerly direction covering the direction of Ueno Akihabara, Kanda, Tokyo Station, Marunouchi, the Palace and Ginza.
- Sotobori-dori Avenue - 外堀道り- and the Ysukuni-dori Avenue -靖国道り.traverse the heart of Tokyo towards the Northern flank and leads from Akihabara - 秋葉原.- the electric city to Shinjuku – 新宿– where you have the skyscrapers and Kabuki-cho – the center for entertainment and nightlife.

The month of May is a fine time to plan for a cycling trip. It’s late spring and early summer, and the day temperature is still relative cool in the mid twenties C – and the outdoor sun is not too strong yet. However there may be days of slight showers and you need to get the weather forecast correct. Or alternatively if you can plan for one in early autumn in September when the summer heat of July and August has dissipated.

All bicycles are registered and there are designated places to park bicycles near the railway stations. Illegal parking is issued with a notice and the bicycle will be confiscated if not cleared with the designated period,.

If you are game to try it – it’s worth the fun discovering Tokyo on the bicycle. You live and ride like the local. If you keep to the pavement and follow the traffic rules it is a safe ride.

Bicycle rental -

Bicycle rental near to Shin-Okachimachi Station -新御歩行町駅 (on the Tsukuba-Express Line), and in the vicinity of Ueno Station. The rental office is at the basement. From the JR Line Okachimachi station- 御歩行町 - it’s about a 10 minutes walk. The yellow banner reads –レンタルサイクル あります – Bicycle rental available .

In the Taito-ku- 台東区 area –centering around Ueno - 上野 and Asakusa 浅草  there are a number of bicycle rental places. The type of bicycle available for rent is mainly the family type bicycles – with a basket in front, and a tag stating that it is a rental bicycle.

You can check out on the bicycle rental in Taito-ku in the web link below.

Parking service -

There are designated parking lots and depot around the city. This bicycle parking lot is located at the Ueno Station. It offers free auto-locking at the parking bay. To unlock you go to the self-service paying station – key in the bicycle bay number and insert the fee that shows up on the screen. Within the first 2 hours it’s FOC. Within 6 hours it’s ¥100 year.

The parking service is on from 06:30 am to 12 mid-nite. After mid-nite you will have to wait till the next morning to collect your bicycle.

As space is cramp in Tokyo, even bicycle parking has a double stacking rack system. The snap locker at the front of the parking bay automatic locks the bicycle when the front wheel engages it.

Notice board in front of parking depot – in Japanese though, with no English translation. If you are able to read Kanji – 漢字 –Chinese characters it might help you to decipher how to do about parking your bicycle.

For you don’t need to know Japanese to understand Japanese. However, the words - 有料 & 無料 - will take you nowhere if you read them in Chinese as - you liao & wu liao .

In Chinese it would mean:
有料 - you liao – literary meaning to have substance, have information or have ingredient , such as to describe someone with substance; a dish with ingredients, or have gotten information, espcially in an espionage!
無料 - wu liao – is the negative form, such as to describe some with no substance, a plain dish without any ingredient, no info

However in Japanese –
有料 – yuu ryoo - meaning you need to pay for the service with money!
無料 – mu ryoo - anything that is Free-Of-Charge

On the signboard :
2時間まで無料 – nijikan made muryoo - means – within two hours fee parking.

The self-service parking with an automated paying machine – you punch in you parking bay number and the amount that you need to pay comes on. After you pay up, the lock in the parking bay automatically opens up.