Friday, October 9, 2015

Inside the Kanamaruza Theatre, the oldest Kabuki playhouse in the world

The view from the "nosebleed" seats of the oldest
kabuki theater in Japan (and, for that matter, the world)
 I felt privileged to be allowed to stand on the stage of 
the Kanamaruza Theatre on my visit to that venue :)
Puppet Ponyo atop a runway used by the
(male only) performers during a Kabuki show
After walking down more than 1,000 of the stone steps that make up Konpira-san's Sando Approach, I fortified myself with one of those wonderful cones of soft serve ice cream that is yet another thing that seems to taste better in Japan than anywhere else in the world.  And even while I still didn't feel completely refreshed, I told myself that I still wasn't done sightseeing in Kotohira -- not while the oldest Kabuki playhouse that's still in existence lay just a few hundred meters away to the left of the Sando Approach's 22nd step.
Because there are few English language signs about in this small Shikoku town with a population of less than 10,000 (as of May 2011), it took quite an effort for me to locate the Kanamaruza Theatre (and it didn't help that I didn't quite know what a Kabuki theater actually looks like!).  Upon getting to the venue, I was asked to remove my shoes and then met my guide to the premises: an elderly and very traditional-looking Japanese gentleman who I was surprised to discover was highly fluent in English!    
Also unexpected was my being allowed to set foot on the Hanamichi (a wooden runway on which Kabuki performers walk along to the main stage area but on which they also perform) and the main stage area, the back stage and even the upper floor of this playhouse where such as the dressing rooms of the actors are located and the basement (known as naraku, meaning abyss) where I got to see and touch the equipment used to do such as enable the actors to rise and descend between it and main stage.
After being shown the areas of the theater frequented by the Kabuki troupe, I was then taken up to see the box seats and even allowed to enter the special box seat reserved for imperial personages during performances (which still do take place at various times during the year, I was told -- but not the summer because it's too hot then and this historic venue (still) does not have air-conditioning!). And as I stood in the special box seat silently admiring the view from there, my guide sprang one more surprise on me by telling me that he'd now leave me to move about the theater at will, and that I could and should take all the time in the world that I wanted in order to do so! 
Perhaps it was because it was fairly late in the afternoon by the time I got to the Kanamaruza Theatre, but I actually think that it was just me and my guide in there for the majority of the time that I was inside this atmospheric venue!  This made the opportunity to move around by myself in this beautifully preserved playhouse built in 1835 feel all the more special -- as though I had been especially granted private time in this performing arts venue for an art form considered to be one of Japan's three major classical theaters (along with noh and bunraku). 
Of course there's a part of me that wishes I could see (and hear) what this Kabuki playhouse would be like when a show was taking place in front of a packed house.  But on such an occasion, I wouldn't have been allowed on and back stage; and this not just because for centuries now, despite Kabuki having been founded by a female, only men have been allowed to perform it! 

Thursday, October 8, 2015

What to look out for at Konpira-san's main and inner shrines (Photo-essay)

At some point when climbing up Konpira-san's Sando Approach, I got to wondering how come a Shinto shrine dedicated to sailors and seafaring would be located high up a 521-meter-high hill (whose Japanese name translates into English as Elephant's Head Mountain!).  

Since my return from Japan, I've found two possible explanations for this: with one positing that being up on a mountain helps people to imagine and realize how deep seas and oceans can be; and another suggesting that Mount Zozu (on whose slopes Konpira-san is located) serves as a landmark for seafarers navigating the tricky waters of the Seto Ohashi (AKA the Inland Sea).

Regardless of which is the more accepted answer to that puzzle, I was determined to go all the way up all 1,368 steps of the Sando Approach to Konpira-san's Oku-sha (inner shrine) rather than just settle -- like many people do -- for getting up to the main shrine located on the same level as the approach's 785th stone step.  And even though conditions were too misty for me to get good views from either the viewpoint near the main shrine or further up the hill of the town below and beyond, I still do consider the experience to have been worth it -- as well as pretty exhausting! :b

Like the complex as a whole, there are many interesting bits
to check out over at Konpira-san's Hongu (main shrine)

I saw at least four different designs on the ema (votive plaques), 
including one on which ships prominently featured

Unusually, Kotohira-san's Ema Hall not only contains ema but also 
photos of ships and a space traveller, and an actual mini-submarine! 

On the way up to the inner shrine, I passed by a wild boar 
warning sign; happily though, I did not end up having 
a sighting of this creature to add to my Japan snake sightings!!

What I did see though were a number of other torii
-- and a heck of a lot more stone steps! ;( 

Konpira-san's inner shrine at long last! :)

Can you see the two tengu faces on the rock wall?

 In a bar in Osaka a few evenings later, I spoke to a man
who told me he had been up to Konpira's inner shrine -- 
but had not known that there were any tengu carvings in the area! ;D

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Much to appreciate artistically at Konpira-san's Shoin

Within the walls of the Shoin (drawing room/reception hall) 
at Konpira-san are artistic treasures by 
18th century master painter Maruyama Okyo

Photography of the Edo period master painter's works 
weren't allowed, so this image has to suffice...

...but they did allow photographs to be taken of this
lovely, tranquil garden within the grounds of the Shoin

As it may already have been surmised, it took no small amount of time -- along with effort -- for me to ascend (never mind descend) Konpira-san's close-to-1,400-stone-stepped Sando Approach on the second day of my recent Japan trip.  And in all honesty, one of the reasons that it took me as long as it did to go all the way up was that there was quite a bit of interesting things to see along the way.

For example, after passing through the Main Gate but before I got the complex's Asashi-no-yashiro shrine, I actually paused for a bit and made a detour to check out the art on show within Konpira-san's Shoin. More specifically, within the building's walls can be found paintings on sliding doors and wall murals by Maruyama Okyo of cranes in a variety of poses, tigers in different attitudes (e.g., sleeping, glaring, hunting, and drinking quietly), seven Chinese sages and three accompanying children engaging in philosophical discussion and such in a bamboo grove, and idyllic mountain and waterside scenery.

Although they appear to not be as highly regarded, I also was impressed by 19th century artist Mori Kansai's ink painting depicting a grand tree and eagle, and Murata Tanryo's view of a snow-covered Mount Fuji that includes a deer hunt taking place on forested foot-slopes -- both of which similarly adorn the walls of rooms within the Shoin.  And although there may be some who may not have given the gardens surrounding the building (which actually are not visible from outside of the building) much thought, I would have been quite happy to gaze at them for a bit as well as feast my eyes on the Shoin's painted treasures.

Looking back, the visit to Konpira-san allowed me to combine many of the things I like including hiking and viewing great art!  Thus it is that even though I would not consider myself a religious person nor an actual disciple of Shinto, I got much out of visiting this ancient Shinto shrine -- one that, in terms of degree of appreciation, I'd rate highly along with the likes of Kyoto's more well known Fushimi Inari Shrine and Tokyo's Meiji Jingu.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The sweat-inducing ascent along the Sando Approach up to Konpira-san (Photo-essay)

The last three birthdays I've had have been spent in Japan.  Two years ago, I paid visits to Kyoto's Ryoanji (of Zen rock garden fame), Ninna-ji and Kitano Tenmagu on my birthday.  Last year, I biked across the Kibi Plain on the anniversary of my birth.  And this year saw me on the island of Shikoku, with my main goal that day being to make it up (and then down) the close to 1,400 stone stairs of Konpira-san, an ancient sacred site high up on a hill in Kotohira

A Buddhist and Shinto holy place for 1,000 years, Konpira-gu (AKA Kotohira-san or Konpira-daigongen) officially became solely a Shinto shrine dedicated to the guardian kami of fishermen and seafarers during the Meiji period, and latterly also has been looked upon as a protector of international as well as local travellers.  

Being someone with international traveller tendencies, I felt it imperative to go check out this ancient shrine -- and rather than be put off by "one of the most difficult shrine approaches in Japan", I looked forward to the experience that I figured would be memorable, and to check out one of the larger shrine complexes I've been to in the country...

Pass through the large torii gate to get on the 1,368 stone steps
that make up the Sando Approach up to Konpira-san

The aged, infirm and others willing to pay the price are carried up
in a palanquin up the first 225 steps to the shrine's main gate

 In the courtyard just past the main gate are five representatives of 
farmers allowed to trade within the grounds of Konpira-san 

Each of the hundreds, if not thousands, of stone markers
found on the sides of the path are records of donations
made to this shrine in Kotohira
Puppet Ponyo points to just a few of the many steps within the 
precinct of this temple located on 521-meter-high Mount Zozu
The large Asahi-no-Yashiro shrine looks pretty impressive,
but it actually isn't Konpira-san's main shrine or building!
The stone monk image points to more stone steps you have
to ascend in order to get to Konpira-san's main shrine...
So near... and yet so far? 

Monday, October 5, 2015

More than fine art at Fine Art Asia 2015

A 17th century coromandel lacquer screen on show (and 
for sale) at the Ataliers Brugier booth at Fine Art Asia 2015
A large nanmu root which easily could be mistake
for a scholar's rock is part of the art fair's 
Flowers and Landscapes special exhibition 
Also on display at Fine Art Asia are contemporary works
like this big installation by "floral artisan" Kirk Cheng
Two years before Art HK (now known as Art Basel Hong Kong) came onto the scene, Fine Art Asia was already up and running.  Now in its 10th year, the international fine art fair -- which runs this year between October 3 and 7 -- is being staged at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre which also plays host to Art Basel Hong Kong (and assorted other events including the HK Film Mart and pop concerts).  
But although Fine Art Asia boasts a far greater range of art than the blockbuster art event which these days takes place in March -- what with this art fair's pieces including decorative arts (think furniture) and wearable art (think jewelry) as well as paintings, drawings, calligraphy, sculpture and installation works -- it's actually quite a bit smaller than the younger event.  Despite this not being the first year that I attended it, the previous time had been long ago enough that I had forgotten that it doesn't take up even one third of the space that Art Basel Hong Kong does.  
Actually, after having seen the other art fair develop so rapidly and well in such a short period of time, I expected to see large, enthusiastic crowds too at this longer established art event.  Instead, the two exhibition halls taken up by Fine Art Asia this year were on the quiet side (and I'm going to assume that their being on the HK Convention and Exhibition Centre's upper floors won't have helped in terms of attracting "walk in" visitors).  
On one hand, this made for an atmosphere that could be described as more "subdued".  On the other hand, this resulted in Fine Art Asia possessing a more "exclusive" air; a feeling that was further heightened by the design of many of the exhibition booths making them look like "stand alone" galleries rather than being more open plan.
For myself, what I noticed most -- and exulted over -- was that one didn't have one's views of the art pieces blocked by crowds the way that can be the case with certain popular works at the zoo that Art Basel Hong Kong has at times become.  And with 100 galleries from Hong Kong and beyond (including London, New York, Paris and Tokyo but also, more "exotically", Belgium and Beirut) participating in this year's edition of Fine Art Asia, there was plenty to see -- without feeling overwhelming by the quantity (rather than quality) as can be the case at the other art fair.  
Soon after I entered the exhibition area, the booth of French gallery Ateliers Brugier caught my eye.  Pride of place there is given to a 12-panel Kangxi period coromandel screen decorated with a detailed, bird's-eye view of a palace, its gardens and its inhabitants.  But I also found myself standing for several minutes in front of an elegant 18th century Japanese six-fold screen on which is illustrated a pine tree (that got my mind thinking back of the ones I saw at Ritsurin Koen just a little more than a week ago) and flowers on a gold background.   
On the contemporary end of the spectrum, I adored the colorful paintings of French artist Isabelle Duret-Dujarric being showcased in Hong Kong-based The Spectacle Group's booth.  In particular, I liked those of works that had a three-dimensional quality to them due to her rich daubs of paint being so thick that they break out of the flat plain that's the normal province of paintings.  (And I'd have to say that her works are among those which one really needs to see "in person" because photos just will not be able to do them justice!)
On the special exhibitions front, I again enjoyed seeing both antique and new works being showcased.  Incorporating ceramics, wood creations (such as beautifully decorated huanghali brushpots as well as a nanmu root resembling a scholar's stone that, in turn, resembles a mountain landscape) and more, the Flowers and Landscapes exhibition was made extra enjoyable by including well written information.  In contrast, there was little written information about Kirk Cheng's floral creations.  Happily though, his are the kind of work that please the eye and therefore can be appreciated even without grasping their meaning! :)

Sunday, October 4, 2015

2015's Office, the film adaptation of 2008 hit play Design for Living (film review)

Cool advertising for Johnnie To's Office in the MTR

Office (Hong Kong-Mainland China, 2015)
- Johnnie To, director
- Starring: Sylvia Chang, Eason Chan, Tang Wei, Wang Ziyi, Long Yueting,
Chow Yun Fat

Twenty-five years after they last worked together on a film (1990 Chinese New Year comedy The Fun, The Luck and the Tycoon), Sylvia Chang and Chow Yun Fat appear once more in a movie directed by Johnnie To.  This time around, the lead actress also has scriptwriting credits -- with Office being her film adaptation of Design for Living, a hit play examining contemporary urban Chinese values which she co-produced as well as starred in and wrote.

The theatrical work which had Chang playing the CEO of a company preparing to be listed shortly during what turns out to be the global banking crisis linked to the collapse of Lehman Brothers clocked in at close to four hours in length when it first was performed in 2008 (in cities such as Shenzhen and Hong Kong).  With a total running time of 119 minutes, Office is a considerably shorter effort -- and there is indeed a sense that certain of its characters' and overall plot development suffer from it being an abbreviated product.

Admirers of their work also will surely conclude that Office would have been a better film if both Chang and Chow Yun Fat had had larger roles in it than they, in fact, do.  (The charismatic Chow's actually more of a guest star than anything else and Chang does not anchor the film like it'd be expected.)  Instead, the younger likes of Canto-pop mega star Eason Chan have more prominent parts to play -- and the character that it looks like the audience is supposed to identify with the most, or at least be most sympathetic towards, is that essayed by Wang Ziyi.  

Office begins on Li Xiang (Wang) and Kat (Long Yueting)'s first day at Jones & Sunn, the billion dollar company whose chairman is the smooth talking Ho Chung Ping (Chow Yun Fat), a married man and father who also happens to be personally as well as professionally involved with its formidable CEO, Winnie Chang (Sylvia Chang).  Idealistic but also ambitious, the young man is clearly less sophisticated than Harvard graduate Kat but gains the attention of Winnie, who tells her main protege at the company, David (Eason Chan), that Li Xiang reminds her of him when he was younger.  

Before too long, Li Xiang gets involved in company intrigues and power plays.  So too, in her own way, does Kat, who needs to hide her true identity as Ho's only child from her colleagues and intermediate bosses.  And although David seems more interested in playing the stock market than actually working while financial controller Sophie (Tang Wei) is often distracted by her boyfriend, who lives in another city, they too get caught in developments that see their lives spinning out of control.

Through it all, there is a strong sense that the movie's helmer has his hand(s) firmly on the rudder.  And as far as technical values are concerned, Office cannot be faulted.  In particular, William Chang and Alfred Yau's set designs (which are simultaneously stripped down and visually impressive) are top notch, and Cheng Siu Keung's stylish cinematography takes full advantage of this.

But for a film billed as a comedy, Office really isn't very funny -- and, in fact, comes across more as sad and tragic.  Worse, that which also happens to be a musical doesn't have any memorable songs.  Indeed, their lyrics don't seem particularly inspired and the tunes are plain forgettable. 

Most unforgivable of all is that virtually all of this film's characters come across as soulless, with none of them coming across as people one wants to spend much time with in real life or watching on screen.  More than incidentally, the screening of the film I went to (just a little over a week after it had opened here in Hong Kong) had fewer than 10 attendees -- and one of them walked out of the cinema before the movie's half way mark.  When I reported this to a friend, she told me that another friend had said that if he had been to see Office alone (rather than with her and a third friend), he would have got up and left 30 minutes into the movie!    

My rating for the film: 5.5

Saturday, October 3, 2015

"International public style" dining (and drinking!) in Takamatsu

Where I had dinner my first night in Shikoku
The first dish I ordered at the izakaya ;b
Until I ate this, I didn't realize that there are 
Japanese restaurants that serve hellishly spicy food! :O
Even though sushi is my favorite single type of Japanese food by quite a long chalk (and I can't imagine visiting Japan without eating at least one sushi meal), I look forward to trying out other dishes -- particularly those which I don't (often) see on the menu of Japanese restaurants in Hong Kong -- when I'm in what amounts to the closest place to foodie heaven there is on earth.  
As part of my trip preparation, I'll research what is the region or city's particular food specialty, and then will make a point to sample it while there.  (For example, I knew to make sure to eat crab when in Hokkaido, soba when in Kyoto, and sanuki udon in Kagawa.)  But there also are times when I leave it to serendipity -- in that I'll go into an interesting looking restaurant and order items on the menu that sound unusual!
On my first night in Takamatsu, I decided to try out an atmospheric looking eatery located in a street full of eateries and bars that was just a few minutes' walk from my hotel.  Very nice smells were wafting out of the corner establishment with "international public style" written out on a sign.  And even though I couldn't quite figure out if that was the restaurant's name or its declared "style", I felt confident enough to slide open its main door, proceed to a counter seat and order myself a large mug of draft beer before even glancing at the English language menu that I was pleasantly surprised that this very local looking place had!
I must admit to having been somewhat intrigued when reading that the rustic eatery's recommended dishes included beef intestines served on a hot plate.  But a dish of "thickly sliced bacon" sounded more enticing -- if not more heart attack-inducing -- and I proceeded to order first that along with a portion of "cabbage with dry black seaweed" (which appeared to be a local favorite) for balance.  
Both the "thickly sliced bacon" (chunks of which turned out to be far thicker than I had imagined would be the case!) and the cabbage (which also was liberally drenched with delicious sesame oil) went very well with the draft beer that I knew from experience would be a super smooth lager that would hit the spot.  But rather than order another mug of nama biru, I decided to try what was listed on the drinks section of the menu as "lychee sake".   
Upon doing so, the waiter asked me if I wanted it mixed with soda or vodka.  Noticing my consternation, he suggested that I have it "on the rocks".  Having had yuzu-flavored sake served with ice at Sake Bar Ginn, I agreed to that idea and was quite happy when the waiter brought me a generous sized glass of the ordered drink.  
Imagine my shock, then, when my first sip of the fruity concoction got me realizing that I had ordered something far higher in alcohol volume than the fruit flavored sake I've had at my favorite sake bar in Hong Kong -- and belatedly figuring out that sake on the eatery's menu actually was a generic reference to alcohol rather than what the rest of the world knows as sake but the Japanese specifically refer to as nihonshu (translation: Japanese alcohol)!  
Deciding that I needed more food to coat my stomach when imbibing that pretty strong -- even if sweet tasting -- lychee sake, I really was tempted to go for the beef intestines dish but figured that it would be too substantial to have as my third food order of the night.  Opting instead for the "spicy cod stomach" on the menu, and figuring it would be something like mentaiko, I ended up being presented with a portion of the spiciest dish I have ever tasted in Japan, and maybe even ever!
I'm generally a proponent of the idea that spicy food and alcohol should not be consumed together.  But no way was I going to let any of the flaming hot "spicy cod stomach" (whose color got me suspecting that its cultural origins are in the Korean Peninsula) and lychee sake go to waste as they actually were both pretty delicious!  The bad thing of course is that I ended up draining the glass of highly alcoholic drink much faster than I would otherwise have done -- and when I got back to my hotel room and looked into the mirror, my face literally was the reddest I have ever seen it be!
Minutes after I entered the room, I had fallen fast asleep.  Surprisingly though, when I woke the next door, I didn't have any symptoms of a hangover: no headache, no nausea, no tiredness even!  So I'm actually not sure if I was drunk the night before -- and whether my literally red face was the result of the super spicy food or strongly alcoholic drink... ;b