Thursday 13 December 2018

Out of Tokyo via Tobu Railway

For my visit to the Nikko region I was hosted by Tobu Railway.

I arrived in Tokyo in September by shinkansen train from Fukuoka. Then, two days later, I headed to Nikko.

The Nikko region, two hours north of the Japanese capital, is a pleasant green region known for its thermal baths. In the town of Kinugawa Onsen, where I was staying, most hotels have their own hot baths to soak in (though you can have problems getting in if you have a tattoo - more about this later).

I reached it via Tobu Railway, a private rail company which operates from Asakusa Station in Tokyo. The company runs both trains and key attractions in the region, and offers the useful Nikko Pass which combines unlimited travel with discounted admission to the local sights.

Starting at Asakusa, I boarded Tobu's ultra-modern Revaty train for the northward ride...

... and alighted at Tobu World Square Station. This is adjacent to the theme park of the same name, full of impressively detailed models of buildings from around the world. It's a lot of fun wandering around and playing the "I've been there" game:

Not far away, linked by shuttle bus, is Edo Wonderland. This is a theme park of a different stripe - a meticulous historical recreation of the Edo period of the 17th to 19th centuries, a golden age of culture for Tokyo and the surrounding region.

It's basically a living village, with working shops and cafes, and regular historical shows and processions:

On the following day I experienced another Tobu train, this one on the opposite end of the modernity spectrum: the SL Taiju steam train which first ran on the island of Hokkaido in 1941. Now it's a tourist train offering half-hour jaunts through the Nikko area:

After the train ride I visited Nikko's World Heritage area, with several historic attractions. The key sight here is the Toshogu Shrine, a beautiful Shinto shrine set within a forest:

At the end of the day I ended up at Kagoiwa Onsen, one of the few thermal baths in the region that are happy to admit people with tattoos (spoiler: I have a small tattoo of the Eye of Horus on my upper right arm).

So I sat in the hot water, and relaxed. Tomorrow it was back to the fast pace and bright lights of Tokyo. But for now, I soaked.

For more information about Tobu's passes and sightseeing in the Nikko region, visit its tourism website.

Aerohaveno will be taking a break over the holiday season, and will be back with you in early January. Have a great New Year!

Friday 7 December 2018

Potato, Anyone? Visiting Thuringian Dumpling World, Germany

"Sie möchten einen Thüringer Kloß, ja?"
On this trip I was hosted by the German National Tourist Board.

I've long regretted not writing about my 2015 visit to Thuringian Dumpling World.

It seems unfair not to let the world know about this institution which pays tribute to the potato products of Thuringia, a state right in the centre of Germany.

The museum is located near Weimar, in the small town of Heichelheim.

It tells the story of the potato in Germany, with special mention of King Frederick the Great's 18th century promotion of its farming by the peasantry.

His enthusiasm for the new crop obviously succeeded, as anyone who's ever eaten a meal in Germany will have noticed.

Apparently, grateful Germans still place potatoes on the grave of the Prussian king at his grave in Potsdam. It's nice to be remembered for something that's given such pleasure, I guess. 

And Frederick the Great said, "Let there be dumplings,"
and there was a dumpling. A big one.

Thuringian dumplings are a big deal locally, and the museum explains how the local potato crop has been processed historically, via exhibitions of potato gathering machines, shredders and dumpling presses.

Preparing for a meeting of the
Heichelheim Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

More excitingly, visitors can take part in cooking classes, learning to make the perfect Thuringian dumpling.

Thuringian dumplings, meet pot.

Even more excitingly, once boiled you get to eat them (that part was really good).

Elke was annoyed that people criticised
her performance as wooden.

So now the secret is out - next time you're in Germany, potato lover, you know where to go. Maybe also make some time for the European Asparagus Museum in Schrobenhausen, Bavaria.

[And here's a past post about a pasta museum in Italy, and a salami museum in Hungary. Guten Appetit!]

The Thuringian Dumpling Museum is located at Hauptstrasse 3, Heichelheim, Germany. Find more information at its website (in German).

Friday 30 November 2018

Review: Adina Sydney Central

For this stay I was hosted by TFE Hotels.

For some reason, my go-to locality when staying in Sydney is Railway Square.

This slightly messy plaza to the west of Central Station is linked to the suburban rail platforms by a seemingly interminable pedestrian tunnel, with a scattering of fast food joints and hotels around its adjacent bus station.

Though it's busy in terms of both vehicles and foot traffic, it's very handy when I'm travelling as it's a short hop on the train line from the airport.

As it's Central Station, of course, it's on the train line (and two tram lines) to everywhere. In addition to suburban trains, I've caught the sleeper train to Melbourne from there twice, and the mighty Indian Pacific train to Perth three times.

I flit between two sets of accommodation at Railway Square: either the YHA Railway Square hostel, or the Adina Sydney Central. On my way to Seoul on my recent South Korea visit, I stayed overnight at the latter.

The Adina, an apartment hotel, sits within the magnificent Parcel Post Office which was constructed in 1912 to serve the railway station. It's a lovely building, with a sandstone and brick facade that appears both functional and attractive:

My room had a simple modern, uncluttered look. I liked the natural light allowed by the big old-fashioned windows, though sadly they didn't open to let in fresh air.

There was a touch of colour and comfort in my room, but mostly it was practical and businesslike, with the sort of big functional desk I really appreciate.

Downstairs there was a pleasant lobby, and out the back a decent-sized swimming pool with a view of the station's fine clock tower.

Off Henry Deane Plaza in the square there's a small supermarket for DIY catering, and a number of informal eateries including a good cafe, Coffee Trails, and an outlet of my favourite Sydney chain, the German bakery Luneburger.

If you're looking for a no-fuss, conveniently-located place to stay in Sydney, the Adina Sydney Central is an excellent choice.

Just the Facts:
Adina Apartment Hotel Sydney Central
2 Lee St, Sydney, Australia
Phone: +61 2 9356 5062
Rates: Rooms from A$150 per night. 

Friday 23 November 2018

Time & Time Again: Doctor Who’s Cultural Connections

As today is Doctor Who Day (this year marking the 55th anniversary of the BBC TV show's first screening on 23 November 1963), I hope you'll indulge a departure from travel to revisit the article I wrote for the program's 50th anniversary. It originally appeared on the Issimo Magazine site, but as that version is no longer online I'd like to share it with you here...

River Song, Rory, the Doctor and Amy in the American west.
Photo courtesy of the ABC.

One of my earliest memories of Doctor Who is the five-part story The Mind Robber, which screened in 1968. After a fascinating 25 minutes trapped in a pure white void (a cheap-to-make episode created at the last moment due to scheduling issues), the Doctor and his companions Jamie and Zoe arrived in the Land of Fiction.

For a television series that had become famous for encounters with scary rubber-suit monsters in a nominally science fiction setting, this was a surprising change of tack.

Jamie and Zoe among the White Robots in The Mind Robber.
Photo courtesy of the BBC.

Challenged first by Gulliver, who could only speak the lines Jonathan Swift gave him and was therefore somewhat cryptic, the time travellers met numerous mythical and fictional beings – a unicorn, the Minotaur, Medusa, Rapunzel, D’Artagnan and Lancelot among them – before defeating the master of the land.

It was a lively foray into the realms of myth and literature, but not the first or last such excursion. Though commonly dismissed in those days as a children’s show of no substance, Doctor Who has often borrowed from literature and other cultural forms.

The basic conceit of the show – a ship’s crew travelling to distant lands full of strange and wonderful creatures – is an age-old concept, employed by Homer in The Odyssey.

The Doctor meets legends of Greek myth in
The Myth Makers
. Photo courtesy of the BBC.
This resemblance was particularly apt during the tenure of the First Doctor, played by William Hartnell, who kidnapped his first travelling companions and had no control over where the his space-time vessel, the TARDIS, would take them.

Like Odysseus, the Doctor and his companions were cursed to wander to far lands, encountering villains and monsters on the way.

The two sagas intertwined in 1965 in the story The Myth Makers, in which the TARDIS crew met the great figures of Greek myth; in fact the time machine’s sudden materialisation was a crucial distraction which allowed Achilles to slay Hector.

After encounters with Agamemnon, Cyclops and Odysseus, it was – somewhat inevitably – the Doctor himself who suggested the use of a wooden horse to defeat the Trojans.

Literary retellings or appropriations continued over the years, no doubt one of the factors in Doctor Who’s remarkable adaptability to changing times; a mutability no other TV series could match.

In the 1967 tale The Evil of the Daleks, the series crossed science fiction with a Victorian setting in a foreshadowing of steampunk.

Three years later, its “bases under siege from assorted monsters” formula having grown tired, Doctor Who completely reinvented itself along the lines of the then popular “spy-fi” genre, with a new Doctor, Jon Pertwee, fighting villainous Earth-bound masterminds and invasions along the lines of James Bond or The Avengers.

The Docttor and Sarah Jane Smith in The Pyramids of Mars.
Photo courtesy of the BBC.

The best, however, was yet to come. With the arrival of Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor in 1974, the program embarked upon an enormously popular series of stories explicitly borrowing from Gothic horror.

In this bracket of classics were adventures drawing on The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Frankenstein and The Phantom of the Opera, along with aspects of the Sherlock Holmes canon and cinematic mainstays such as malevolent Egyptian mummies.

Doctor Who also adapted the detective/murder mystery concept more than once in such stories as 1977’s Asimov-style The Robots of Death and 1982’s Christie-esque Black Orchid. Later in the 1980s Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor would get to hob-nob with the Arthurian legend’s Mordred and Morgaine, being intriguingly identified by them as Merlin.

The Doctor and shipmate in The Curse of the Black Spot.
Photo courtesy of the BBC.

The revived Doctor Who, launched to instant success in 2005, has borrowed cultural templates less overtly; though it couldn’t resist a walk-the-plank pirate yarn in 2011’s The Curse of the Black Spot, nor a full-blown Western in A Town Called Mercy in 2012. Christmas specials have also drawn on the work of Charles Dickens and CS Lewis.

In the new version of the show the Doctor is much more likely to meet the great writers and artists of the past, than emulate their work. In recent years the Doctor has bumped into the likes of Dickens, William Shakespeare, Agatha Christie, and Vincent van Gogh, not to mention those two influential authors Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler.

The Doctor and Donna meet Agatha Christie in The Unicorn and the Wasp.
Photo courtesy of the BBC.

It’s been pointed out that Doctor Who is basically an anthology series linked by continuing characters; and even they change regularly, including the Doctor as he regenerates into new bodies with subtly different psychologies.

This flexibility may form part of its remarkable durability. A humble teatime TV program launched in 1963 when such things were seen as utterly disposable, has certainly managed to fashion itself into an ongoing saga of heroic proportions.

The Doctor broods in the TARDIS. Photo courtesy of the BBC.

As Philip Sandifer has pointed out in his TARDIS Eruditorum series of critical essays on the program, there is literally no story which cannot be told within Doctor Who, given its remit is the entirety of space and time.

Sandifer posits a fascinating theory in the volume in which he discusses the Second Doctor, as played by Patrick Troughton. In referencing The Mind Robber, Sandifer cheekily suggests this story may supply the true origin of The Doctor, above and beyond his identity as a Time Lord.

What, asks the author, if the Doctor is actually an escapee from the Land of Fiction, a story writer gone rogue? From this angle, the Doctor has slipped his bounds to gallivant through space and time as a literary catalyst, creating new stories wherever he goes.

I have to say, I like that explanation. Happy birthday, Doctor.

Friday 16 November 2018

Profound Devotion: The Festival of Thaipusam in Malaysia

This article from my first visit to Malaysia appeared in The West Australian newspaper in 2009, but never went online: so here it is. I was hosted on that trip by Tourism Malaysia.

The sensual immersion is incredible.

Sight: thousands of devotees walking in procession toward the Batu Caves north of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Sound: Insistent drumming, mixed with amplified Tamil-language music.

Smell: Smoke from incense and tobacco drifting through the air.

The Batu Caves sit within a rocky outcrop that rises dramatically from the flat land surrounding it. It’s an impressive craggy mass, but more impressive yet is the crowd heading toward it to commemorate the annual Hindu festival of Thaipusam.

I’ve arrived here before dawn to avoid the heavy traffic that will envelop the site once the sun rises; but even at 6am the road that leads to the caves is thronging with people.

Weaving my way slowly through the crowd, I find myself on the path of the pilgrims walking to the shrine located high up within the caves. Past me trickle lines of men and women in orange robes, carrying pots of milk on their heads.

Then men appear bearing huge decorated frames resting on their shoulders - colourful canopies decked out with feathers, tassels and statues of the Hindu god Murugan.

These kavadi are extraordinarily elaborate; one even has a mobile generator connected to lights upon its exterior, being pushed along by a friend of the devotee beneath it.

And Murugan is the focus of this spiritual event, a god particularly revered by Malaysia’s Tamil community. Every year during Thaipusam, they carry milk to his shrine, or bear a decorated kavadi as a greater offering. Some devotees are thanking the god for a past prayer that has been answered; others are hoping for help in the year ahead.

Although Thaipusam originated in India and is still celebrated there, the Batu Caves celebration is one of the most spectacular, with up to a million devotees making the journey up the stairs set into the spectacular mountain that houses the deity’s shrine.

The devotees are watched by tens of thousands of spectators, and there’s a carnival atmosphere among the diverse stalls and tents lining the route, selling everything from spiritual memorabilia to mobile phone plans.

The generosity of the day is also called upon by charities, including a mobile blood donation centre among the stalls.

The most striking act of devotion is the piercing of the skin by skewers, inserted through the tongue or cheeks. Some even have hooks inserted through the skin on their backs, held taut by supporters walking behind them.

The degree of pain represents the worshipper’s devotion to the god, though those with spikes through their flesh are often coaxed into a trance state which lessens the impact of the pain.

It’s intriguing to watch the faces of those in a trance - one man with hooks in his back is rolling his eyes and tongue dreamily as a holy man speaks to him, walking backwards ahead of the devotee. For someone from a completely different cultural background, immersed within the crowd, the sight is overwhelming and fascinating at the same time.

As I’m moving along with the masses, following the generator-lit kavadi and taking photos, I pause next to a group of young men who are dancing to the incessant beat of the music which accompanies the procession. One of them peels away to shake my hand and ask me where I’m from.

“What do you think of all this?” he asks, eyes sparkling, as he bounces on the ground with enthusiasm.

“It’s amazing!” I reply, quite truthfully - I’m feeling unexpectedly awed by the sensory overload. Satisfied, he shakes my hand again and rejoins his friends.

The loud music keeps playing, and as I wait to reinsert myself within the procession, my left foot starts tapping out an involuntary little dance.

My new acquaintance notices this and points it out to a friend, and they both laugh. It’s a good-natured chuckle, in keeping with the joyous mood of the occasion.

Along the way I chat with several more onlookers, and supporters of the devotees. The supporters accompany their friends and family members, and ensure their safety if they should be overcome by their burdens on their way to the shrine.

It’s an inclusive, energetic event, completely lacking the solemnity I associate with Western religions, and people are enthused by the all-encompassing sounds, sights and crowds. There’s something intensely stimulating about the controlled chaos of the procession, a ritualised abandonment of daily routines and inhibitions.

By the time we reach the foot of the 272 steps which lead up to the shrine, dawn is breaking. I peel off, walking past a vast mound of coconuts to find a seat at a refreshment stall.

Sitting with an iced tea, I watch the growing stream of pilgrims move onward and upwards, past the enormous statue of Murugan that towers alongside the steps.

Music is playing loudly, smoke is billowing from a nearby shrine, and a flock of birds is flying across the sky above the crowd.

It’s an invigorating atmosphere: a potent blend of aroma, sound, colour, motion and human vibrancy that reaches deeper than the rational mind, intensely moving in both its passion and the good humour of the crowds which have come to share in it.

Thaipusam takes place upon the full moon in the Tamil month of Thai (January or February each year). Thaipusam will provisionally fall on 21 January in 2019.

Friday 9 November 2018

Užupis: The Improbable Republic Within Lithuania

This article from my 2008 visit to Lithuania appeared in Sydney's Sunday Telegraph newspaper, but is no longer online: so here it is, lightly revised for your enjoyment. Užupis forever!

A dog has the right to be a dog.

I’m standing on a quiet side street in Vilnius, Lithuania, looking at this point on a 41-point document displayed on a large mirrored sign. Other unlikely sentences assert that “Everyone has the right to make mistakes”, “Everyone has the right to be idle”, and “Everyone has the right to die, but this is not an obligation.”

It’s an unconventional list; but nothing is conventional in the district of Užupis. The document is the self-proclaimed constitution of this bohemian enclave, whose resident artists declared independence from Lithuania in 1997.

The prequel to this artistic revolt happened in the early 1990s, after Lithuania had achieved independence from the Soviet Union. A group of artists declared that the time for political statues was over - and commissioned a statue of musician Frank Zappa as a quirky symbol of freedom.

The dynamic bust, bearing Zappa’s distinctive features and flowing long hair, still stands atop a pillar on the western side of Vilnius’ historic Old Town.

Fresh from this triumph, it didn’t take the artistic community long to declare Užupis independent. But this isn’t a Russia versus Ukraine situation. The Republic has an honorary president, no standing armed forces, and a commitment only to art.

When you learn that its national day is April 1st, you can see why the Lithuanian government casts an indulgently amused eye over Užupis, seeing its “independence” as a great tourist attraction.

Not far from the constitution wall is the Angel of Užupis, another impressive statue. It’s the most well-known symbol of Užupis, and it’s easy to see why. As I turn the corner and catch my first sight of the angel, I can’t help but smile. He’s perfect.

Not too big, not too small, he stands on a column high above the pedestrians, emphasising his lofty detachment. Facing toward the downhill slope, trumpet raised high, hair swept back as if blown by the wind, the Angel seems to embody the pride of this reborn district, and is frankly inspiring.

Stepping across the street, I enter Prie Angelo, a cafe facing the plaza. Its name and decor seem a tribute to the Angel - or, in fact, all angels. The pale, old-fashioned interior with its bare floorboards and deep-set windows is decorated with a variety of heavenly spirits in the shape of candleholders, vases, and busts poking straight out of the walls.

As angels watch over me and sunlight softly illuminates the space, I struggle to believe Užupis was once a dangerous, dilapidated district of the USSR.

However, proof is at hand. Following small side streets off the plaza, occasionally ducking through arches into residential buildings’ courtyards, It becomes clear that Užupis is still a work in progress. Some of the courtyards are in a terrible state - crumbling stonework, rusted railings, rubbish strewn around. In another, I see an old car up on blocks, missing its tyres.

Then I stick my head into the gallery of the Vilnius Potters’ Guild. I’m not sure it’s somewhere I should be - piles of newspaper-wrapped objects are being packed into boxes, and it looks like I’d be underfoot.

But a woman ushers me in, explaining that they’re preparing for a medieval fair, and encourages me to look at their work. The pieces I can view have a rustic simplicity, a smooth but organic look that’s very appealing.

I head uphill away from the Angel, into the heart of Užupis. It’s only when I reach the restaurant Tores, and step through to its backyard terrace, that I realise how high I’ve risen above the city. Lunch is a pizza and a stein of Švyturys, a pale golden beer which packs a fair punch.

Beneath the terrace, the hill drops away dramatically toward the river, and across the valley is a fine view of Vilnius’ Old Town: a beautiful collection of red-tiled roofs and baroque church spires.

Walking back down to the river, I spot yet another statue down an alley to my right. At least, I think it’s a statue. On closer inspection, it turns out to be a indeterminate shape on a pedestal, wrapped and taped within black plastic. Very arty.

Passing the object, I arrive at a gallery called the Užupis Art Incubator. It’s the essence of a bohemian artists’ community, housed in decaying riverside buildings covered in a jumble of colourful paintings of outlandish figures.

Beyond it is a fantasy land of painted trees and more open-air artwork. Overlooking the water are a young couple, funkily dressed and talking quietly - either discussing postmodern art trends, or slowly shaking off the effects of a late night.

Approaching the attractive small iron bridge that crosses the river, I find myself unable to finish my Užupis adventure just yet; I’ve become attached to its quirky charm.

So I seat myself at an outside bench at Užupio Kavine, a pub overlooking the shallow, swift-flowing water, and nurse another beer.

Within the stone retaining wall which forms the opposite riverbank, there’s a statue of a mermaid seated inside an alcove, gazing longingly across to Užupis. I meet her gaze, then glance up to the busy roadway in the “real world” beyond the artistic republic.

I have to go back there, but... not yet. As the green-and-white Užupis flag flutters gently from the pub’s wall, I sip my beer and smile at the light-hearted absurdity of the place.