|It’s early spring in Japan. The television weatherman stands before a map of the country crossed by familiar undulating lines. But these aren’t isobars delineating high and low pressure systems, and they don’t measure temperatures either.|
The lines delineate the sakura zensen, the cherry blossom front. On each line is the date when cherry blossoms there will peak. The dates start in late March in Okinawa and Kyushu in the south and advance steadily up the archipelago to Hokkaido in late April.
Japanese watch the sakura zensen with the same fervent anticipation with which Indians await the monsoon. Once the dates are announced people prepare with the same intensity people in the northern hemisphere prepare for a major blizzard. At times cherry petals swirling in spring breezes do resemble a blizzard. It’s hard to imagine the hold cherry blossom time has on the Japanese. Once you see a hillside covered in delicate white-pink cherry trees in full blossom, though, you’ll understand.
Under the trees
Soup, fish salad, and everywhere
In 1690 master haiku poet Basho wrote that, but it could just as easily have been penned today. Japanese still celebrate cherry blossom season as they did then, with joyous hanami — flower-viewing parties held under the trees. Hanami are a national phenomenon. Everyone, from the smallest schoolchild to the president of the largest corporation, attends at least one.
As the sakura zensen advances company sections hold hanami party organizational meetings. Municipal crews prepare parks for the onslaught (and organize their hanami party). School children snip thousands of paper cherry blossoms (as teachers organize school hanami parties). Friends gather at bars (to organize hanami parties). In fact, the Japanese fixation on meetings may originate in the need to organize hanami parties, but that’s another story.
Hanami aren’t gentle social gatherings with quiet “ohhs” and “ahhs” as blossoms float down. They tend to be no-holds-barred bashes. Eyes seem more fixed on the bottom of the beer or sake glass than the ethereal blossoms overhead.
There’s a reason for that, based in the Japanese view of life as reflected in the cherry blossoms. The blossoms are exquisitely beautiful, but fragile and short lived. Within days they’ve fluttered down to the ground, trampled and spoiled in the dirt.Boaters at the Imperial Palace enjoy the gentler side of cherry blossom time.
The Japanese see life the same way. Youth, beauty, and happiness are gone before we know it. Like cherry blossoms, the petals of our life fade and disappear just as we recognize our blossom’s beauty. Life is short. Not a happy thought, but because life is short we should enjoy it while we can. So gay parties roar away beneath the trees, but there is also a touch of sadness for the all-too-short life the blossoms and we viewers share.
The touch of melancholy usually gets washed away in the “life is short, enjoy it while you can” portion of the philosophy. For this short time, Japanese abandon their notorious nose-to-the-grindstone mentality and party. Bacchanalian excess overwhelms Japan’s reserved, dour seriousness.
Party-goers go to extremes for places under the most beautiful trees, pitching a tent the night before a party to hold a choice spot. Company section leaders dispatch junior staff in the early morning to hold a spot until everyone else arrives in the late afternoon. Woe betide the staff if they can’t get the spot the section leader or company president designated.
Some viewers make do with potato chips and “American dogs” (hot dogs at their worst), but others lay out lavish buffets of sushi and sashimi, as well as grills and portable stoves for cooking.
Food and drink lead to song and dance. Traditionalists bring shamisen, a sort of three-stringed banjo. Others bring battery-powered karaoke machines. The more crass (usually somebody high on the corporate ladder) have the flunkies carry in a generator and an enormous laser disc karaoke system.
Still, none of this would happen without the cherry blossoms. Even the hardest drinkers and party-goers sigh wistfully as they brush a fallen petal from their shoulder.Few other cultures bestow such significance to a flower.
Few other cultures greet a blossom with such passion and view its passing with such melancholy.
About 900 years ago the great tanka poet Saigyo (1118-1190) wrote:
Could I but die
Under the cherry blossoms
On the night of the full moon
In the second month of the year.
He was lucky enough to get his wish. It’s believed he passed away with the cherry blossoms in full bloom.
Sakura means the road in Japan will be look mess during the changing season between spring to autumn.
WHAT IS HIP changes, but in Tokyo where to find hip doesn’t. Shibuya, one of the main sub-centres in that great pulsating web of work, play, culture and domicile that is Tokyo, is the place to discover what is hip and hot with young Tokyo-ites.
The crowds here are so young that it seems the mythical Fountain of Youth must be hidden somewhere in Shibuya’s maze of trendy boutiques, “nouvelle cuisine” restaurants, throbbing nightclubs and noisy video arcades. Walking through Shibuya, middle age seems a twisted figment of the imagination. Even 30 seems so far out on the horizon that it sounds like a bad joke.
It wasn’t always like this. Compared to the glittering sakariba (bustling places) of Shinjuku, Ginza and Ueno, Shibuya used to be a mundane characterless suburb, the wrong side of the national railway lines and hemmed in by hills.
All that changed during the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics. The main Olympic village was housed in Shibuya, and suddenly its streets filled with young foreigners who brought with them fashion, food, culture and music that the Japanese had never experienced: a jolt of energy that Tokyo’s youth rushed to grab, and continue to be mesmerised by today.
Precisely because it had no established character, Shibuya became a place that the young could call their own, and even today nothing is ever around Shibuya long enough to get that settled feeling that is the opposite of youthful spontaneity and invention.
After the Olympics young Tokyo-ites continued to flock to Shibuya to see what was new and hip in New York, London, and Paris. Japan’s postwar economic boom also gave them not only the will, but also the purchasing power to create their own styles. Today designers from all over the world roam Shibuya’s streets to discover what’s going to be hip.
As the work-day ends, Tokyo’s 20-somethings switch from work to play, and gather outside the Shibuya underground station. Dull suits and wrinkle-free polyester uniforms give way toÉwell, whatever is hip at that particular point in the never-ending march of fashion.
Next to the station is Tokyo’s most famous meeting spot, a monument commemorating a dog, Hachiko. The tale behind it is as follows: each evening Hachiko’s master would return from work to find his faithful pet waiting outside the train station. Rain or shine, the dog was there, awaiting his master’s return. For an entire decade following his master’s death, Hachiko continued to wait each evening at the station, fulfilling his duty and responsibility, until his own death. A statue to Hachiko was subsequently erected, and there is now even a festival honoring him.
Hachiko embodied duty, dependability and devotion to responsibility, all the qualities that the young people who meet beneath his statue are making one last attempt to avoid before they start down the bland path of routine that most in Japan view adulthood to be.
Starbucks Coffee has just hit Japan and naturally there is a huge outlet across from the station, packed with the latest fashions, including some that appear pretty bizarre to the newcomer. Take the girls, who teeter by in shoes with soles up to 30cm thick. Combined with micro-mini-skirts, a tanning-salon tan so dark it practically glows, fluorescent lipstick and eye-shadow, topped by hair dyed strawberry-blond, and you have a look that is, well, distinctive.
Young men also go for the deep-tanned, blond-haired look, accented by a gold neck-chain. Others sport spiked hair that would make a London punk proud, and designer T-shirts (a tip for the in-crowd: Van seems to have overtaken Nike) over nylon sports pants.
Here, even department stores, usually bastions of matronly establishment taste, cater to the young. One chain, Marui, even renamed its Shibuya store “Marui Young”. The ledge outside its display window is always crowded with 20-somethings, cell-phones and cigarettes held casually but coolly at the ready.
Just up the street is another Shibuya landmark, Tower Records. Long lines of fans, mostly young women, regularly pack the sidewalk waiting for the appearance of the latest “J-pop” (Japanese Pop Music) singer or group who have made it big.
But to really see Shibuya at its raucous youthful best, take a walk down Center Gai (Alley). This narrow street basically goes nowhere, but touches upon every current trend in music, fashion, food and culture. You won’t be alone; the pavements are always crowded with the cool and the wannabe’s. Karaoke bars, fast-food chains, boutiques and nightclubs assail you with neon light as well as a cacophony of music and sales patter.
So come to Shibuya, where you’re never more than a step from a reminder of how great it is to be young, and never more than a half-step from a sales poster for what to buy to be young. Don’t worry about not coming immediately, because in Shibuya although the look may change, the attitude never will: life is good, life is young.
|Tokyo is an eight-hour flight from Kuala Lumpur. Malaysian Airlines flies to Tokyo every day of the week. Call Malaysian Airlines at|
(60) 3 746 3000 for bookings.
Text and pictures by Mathias Tugores
IN 1492, Spain had more than one reason to celebrate: on October 12, Columbus crossed the great Dark Sea and discovered the New World, while in early January, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabel the Catholic drove the Moors out of the country. The Reconquista was a slow process which lasted nearly eight centuries.
In 711, 5,000 Berbers under the leadership of Tarik landed in Gibraltar. Within a matter of five years the whole of the Iberian peninsula (with the exception of the small Christian nuclei in northern Spain) was theirs and the course of Western civilisation was altered. The culture and science they brought converted Moorish Spain into a land of learning well ahead of its time.
At times, the Islamic presence in Spain flourished, at times it dwindled into warring and fratricidal fiefdoms. The Moors and the Christians went on building fortifications and castles to consolidate and expand their territories.
It was in Granada, which rose at the foot of the Sierra Nevada, that the Moorish architects, inspired by educated emirs keen on Art, built their most outstanding works, both military and civilian. They transformed the capital of Al-Andalus (Muslim Spain) into a jewel, the most important architectural achievement of the Middle Ages.
The favourite of the last Moorish kings whose empire was shrinking under the raids of the Reconquest was a small independent state stretching from Gibraltar to the frontier of Murcia.
Medina Al-Hamra (the city of Alhambra) stood up on the Red Hill, one of the three mounds over Granada. It was shaped like a vessel whose prow, formed by the alcazaba (the citadel) was oriented towards the city, with a length of over 700 metres and a maximum width of 200 metres. It was the seat of the government and the sultan had his residence there.
Sober-looking from the outside, the spell begins when one walks past the 14th-century Puerta de la Justicia, a rectangular tower linked by one of its flanks to the city wall. It fronts the Puerta del Vino (the Wine Gate) whose name was derived from a wine market which stood there from 1554. The intricate labyrinth of the medieval city led to the upper part of the Alhambra where around 2,000 inhabitants lived.
Though the palaces of the Alhambra were built during different epochs, they nevertheless give the impression of unity and harmony. The Alhambra grew from century to century; from its beginnings it went on unplanned, extending from the alcazaba which was built near the end of the 9th century.
In 1238, Muhammad ben Yusuf ben Nasr, the ruler of Arjona, took possession of the city. As the alcazaba was not regarded as fit for a king, he and his successors relentlessly built small palaces, mosques, schools and baths all around the grounds. Over the years the Alhambra grew to be a palatine city housing an aristocratic population in constant growth. Its Palace of Camares with its Hall of the Ambassadors and its Patio of the Arrayanes, the centre of the diplomatic and political activity of the Alhambra, comprised the most important nucleus of the residential area.
Its Patio de los Leones (Lion courtyard) was the nucleus of the private house of the Sultan. By the end of 1362, when the structures surrounding it were being built, there was nothing standing except the Hall of the Two Sisters. It is today Spain’s most precious Moorish monument. The fountain after which it is named is believed to have been inspired by the one which according to the Bible stood at the entrance to the temple of Jerusalem. It was known as “Sea of Bronze” and was supported by the bulls of the twelve tribes of Israel.
Twelve marble lions surround a basin which is thought to have been richly decorated. Along its rim is engraved a poetic composition of Ibn Zamrak which explains how the complex and ingenious hydraulic system supplying water to it functioned.
The courtyard is lined with 124 slender columns of white marble. Their capitals, which were originally painted, are highly elaborate: the ceilings of the arcades enclosing it are exquisitely worked and the walls covered with delicate pillow-lace-like stucco ornamentation.
Slightly off-centred, the Generalife, which derives its name from “Djennat al Arif” (high garden) was used by the sultans as a country residence. The architecture, gardens, and the view the Generalife commands makes it a delightful and serene place.
Islamic culture in Spain, which had begun to flourish in earnest during the reign of Abderraman I, came to an end in January 1492. The Reconquista which had been initiated as early as the year 718, when in Covadonga King Pelayo crushed the troops of the emir of Cordoba, was finally over.
|Text and pictures by Mathias Tugores|
TO DECLARE HIS LOVE for his sweetheart, man has always been
resourceful and creative. In the early days of Great Britain, suitors expressed their feelings for their Dulcineas by exchanging arrays of love tokens. In Wales, rustics and seafarers were often illiterate and they found it easier to convey their feelings using a wooden spoon aptly known as a love spoon.
No documentary evidence exists that suggests the acceptance of an offer of a love spoon by a suitor for his beloved will develop into a betrothal. It is, however, generally believed that the offer forms part of the prelude to courtship and represents a desire to form a liaison between the two parties.
The origin of the custom is obscure and thought to date back to the 16th century. The carving of wooden spoons as a pastime to relief the tedious long dark evenings became very popular in Welsh farms. Some of these spoons were undoubtedly designed for use, but from the 17th to 19th century, the highly decorated spoon presented by a carver, as a token of love became a common feature of rural life. While the utilitarian spoon represents the will of its maker to help himself, the so-called love spoon symbolizes the desire to help one’s loved one.
A wealth of imagination is reflected in the carving of these mementos of love. Their bowls, gradually, became virtually expandable while their handles grew to enormous proportions. An overflowing blend of symbols and patterns elaborately carved into an ever-increasing complication of design and dimension, they became works of art in their own right.
Sycamore was the most commonly used wood. According to tradition, it was to be winter felled as this ensured a pale lustre, free of all blemishes and stains. Though extensively used, sycamore was not essential: oak, birch, lime, apple, pear, peach and cherry wood, ash, yew and mahogany would handsomely fulfil the same purpose. It is important to use a dense, knot-free, straight-grained piece of wood.
The carver commences with the shaping of the spoon with a sharp axe or hatchet, followed by the smoothing of the bowl with a drawknife and a spokeshave; the scoop was created with the help of a gouge or and old traditional tool known as twca cam. The spoon has to be carved out of one single piece of wood, and this applied to all the parts like links and balls that had to be shaped out of the original log. The elaborate and symbolic shaping and cutting of the large handle in fretwork style emphasize most the carver’s feelings for his belle. Originally it was used for engraving the name of one’s darling as well as the date the spoon was given, but with the passing of time, it was used to depict a likeness to the loved one. Occasionally, it was completed with a rectangular or circular panel, and a swivel shackle or chain link symbolizing loyalty and fidelity would be attached to it. In the hands of the most talented and imaginative makers, the spoon handle was transformed into a fretted, clotted and pierced sculpture. Some handles were carved to represent pairs of spectacles (“I love the one I see”), while others were hollowed out and had small spheres running freely in a slotted cavity (these characterized as a general rule the number of children the carver wished to have). Some spoons even had two bowls sprouting from one handle (“we two make one”).
A wealth of symbols was carved all over the spoon. The heart, quite naturally, was the most conventional sign and it was to be a full heart carved into the depth of the spoon. A merely fretted heart could imply the lack of real desire, linked hearts meant love reciprocated, two hearts on a spoon indicated that both the giver and recipient felt the same about each other, while a heart-shaped bowl expressed the wish to share a full and bountiful life. Wheels and spades suggested work and service. With a lock the carver let his maiden know that he wished to lock her in his heart, and with a key, keyhole and house, he told her his heart and house were hers to unlock. Anchors were often carved on spoons suggesting that the donor had found a place where he wishes to settle. The representation of growth was often depicted through a vine tree and similar motifs.
Far less conventional features were those spoons with coal and sugar glued onto the wood, both being symbols of domestic bliss: coal stands for warmth and sugar for sweetness. Horseshoes, dolphins, diamonds and four-leave clovers epitomized good luck and fortune. The dragon (the symbol of Wales and a sign of protection), ropes and cables, windows, animals, flowers, the daystar and crosses were also frequently used.
Today, a handful of artisans continue the age-old tradition. The love spoon, however, is no longer a Celtic symbol of betrothal. It is being hand-fashioned for special occasions such as marriages, birthdays, anniversaries, and carved as gifts of friendship, affection and love.
GODTFRED KIRK CHRISTIANSEN was a man with a knack for making dreams come true. He was the wonder-monger who created Legoland on a moorland in Jutland, Denmark’s splinter-shaped peninsula. On June 7 1968, he inaugurated a model village that singled itself out from all others; it was entirely built with the versatile toothed plastic bricks, Lego.
Christiansen’s father, Ole, was the one who started it all. Ole was a jobless carpenter who, with his vivid imagination and carpenter’s bench, came up with an idea to make toys that will not only appeal to the natural creativity and curiosity of young children but are also durable. The result was toys of wood, yoyos, elephants on wheels and much more. He called them “Lego” (play well), a name created by placing the Danish words “leg” and “godt” together.
In 1954, Godtfred, who had begun working in his father’s atelier at the age of 14, hit on the idea that the Lego bricks could be worked into countless combinations. They became instant successes. Fifteen years later this wizard, who could well have been dubbed “the Walt Disney of the Children’s Toys”, set up a Lillliputian world on over 100,000 square metres of heath, near the little town of Billund where he was born. Legoland now attracts millions of visitors a year.
Unlike Madurodam, its Dutch counterpart which is entirely devoted to the wonders and achievements of the Netherlands, Legoland is a cosmopolitan miniland which emphasises entertainment and play – important elements in a child’s world. In Castleland, young visitors can take a boat ride through Captain Roger’s Caves where they will see exciting scenes of pirates’ lives. Thrill-minded medievalists can take a Dragon Ride while others delight in train rides along a roller-coaster-like monorail. Daredevils can scream their heads off in gravity-defying rides in the “Legocopter” and “Duplo” planes. For the intellectually stimulated, the indoor Lego playroom allows them to try their hands at building models out of Lego and Duplo blocks; the best works will then be selected and prizes sent to the winners.
The cynosure of all eyes, however, is quite naturally Legoland’s model village built at a scale of 1 to 25 and assembled using a staggering 45 million Lego bricks. Many of the world’s man-made marvels, such as Mount Rushmore memorial in South Dakota depicting the faces of US presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt; the Taj Mahal, the Statue of Liberty and the Temples of the Nile Valley were represented but so were some less impressive architectural achievements. The Amalienborg Royal Castle in Copenhagen, an important symbol for the Danish people, was constructed with nearly a million blocks of Lego bricks. Other enthralling displays include “cross-sections” of Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Bergen, fishing villages with boats chugging into their harbours, medieval towns, and many more features from around the world. Among the indoor attractions, the Titania’s palace, an 18-room dollhouse that took 15 years to build, is certainly the most captivating.
Legoland is open from late March to late October. Two other Legoland theme parks have recently been opened: one in Windsor, England in 1996 (www.legoland.co.uk) and the second one in California in 1998 (www.legolandca.com)