A Tiny Taste of Tokyo 2020

A lot of aspects of Japan’s culture appeal strongly to me. The beautiful Kanji script, wabi-sabi, the serene and sad painting and literature, the Japanese artisan’s obsessive attention to detail, bonsai, sashiko, artistic quirkiness, an identification with the cute and tiny, forest-bathing and sushi. And, of course, the national obsession with cream puffs. So I was thrilled when a trans-Pacific flight offered the perfect excuse to stop in Tokyo for a few days.

 

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Arrival

The first thing I noticed at Narita Airport were banners advertising Toto toilets. These space-age bogs are fitted with heated seats, music buttons to disguise unsavory noises, water jets every which way and various other bells and whistles that put your average dunny literally in the shit house. I know because they are everywhere: in the airport, in parks, in malls. For all I know, there is nowhere in Japan that you are not forced to have a luxury bathroom experience.

 

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After marveling at this toilet technology and collecting our luggage, we left most of it at the Japan Airlines Counter so we wouldn’t have to drag it around for three days. Then we got on the Kei Sei Electric Railway from the station just downstairs from the Arrivals Hall—it was a 90-minute comfortable ride direct to Asakusa, the area where we were staying.

Despite the cold air that kept sneaking into the train whenever the doors opened, the sun was shining, the sky bright blue and dotted with fluffy white clouds. The landscape was prettier and more rural than I’d expected. Near Lake Inba-Nuba you could see Dutch windmills and tulip fields, knolls covered with spinneys, towering bamboo groves and small market gardens.

 

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The Sakura tulip festival starts April 1

 

Floating over the scintillating lake I saw a bird of prey—possibly a hawk or osprey. The effect was very odd considering I’d come expecting a concrete jungle ala Blade Runner.

 

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Skytree

 

When we got to Asakusa station, we popped up one block away from the famous Kaminarimon Gate and right next to the red Azuma bashi Bridge. Across the way we saw the tall Skytree tower and the Asahi Beer HQ, instantly recognizable for the large thingummy sitting on top of one of the office buildings. I thought it looked like a giant golden chilli pepper.

 

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Sushi

Check-in time in Tokyo hotels is generally around four o’clock in the afternoon. Because we were a couple of hours early and hungry, we left our backpack at the hotel with the receptionist and set off in search of lunch.

This was not as easy as you might expect. It was a Sunday afternoon and the place was deserted. Most of the shops were closed, there were very few pedestrians or cars and only a few cyclists. Eventually, after roving for ten blocks, I caught sight of an establishment whose banners were standing proudly outside fluttering in the chilly wind. Sure enough, when we arrived, we saw a menu in the window that told us we’d arrived at a sushi place.

 

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Plastic sushi is a big-selling souvenir 

 

The interior was dark and inhabited by two people who looked utterly astonished to see us: a man with a fillet headband standing behind the counter and a woman in a kimono who might have been his mother.

I saw to our left, that there was a shelf full of shoes.

“Um, I think we need to take our shoes off,” I murmured to John.

As we bent down to untie our shoelaces, the pair looked horrified and the woman approached protesting and making gestures to indicate that we should immediately desist.

Abashed, we went to the wooden bench where she pointed.

The man behind the counter solemnly handed us menus. We read them intently, the blush of shame still fresh on our cheeks. As we did so, the chef carefully placed two rectangular trays in front of us, they looked like symmetrical slabs of slate.

Meanwhile, the woman brought us two hot flannel cloths, which seemed to be for washing our hands. When I finished wiping mine, I carefully folded up the cloth and wondered where to put it. Then it occurred to me that it was supposed to go on that slate tray.

“Here, you have to put the cloth on that tray,” I whispered to John, who’d just left his willy nilly on the bench beside his plate mat. Accordingly, he picked up the cloth and put it dutifully on his tray.

The chef returned, probably to take our orders, but his eye fell on the trays and he froze before he could even lift his pen to his notebook. When the shock had subsided, he glared good and long at each of us, then said (very slowly and clearly) “This not for cloth. This is dish.” Disgusted, he carried the contaminated dishes away, with one final backwards glance of revulsion.

 

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“Oh my God,” I whispered, mortified.

“Do you get the feeling,” John mused, “That we might not be entirely welcome here?”

“Possibly.” My stomach rumbled. “Oh well, we’re here now.” Hunger conquers all. 

The chef returned anon, his jaw clenched in readiness for the next foreign outrage.

“I’ll have Set C please,” I said with a conciliatory smile.

Both of you?” he inquired with a sarcastic lift of one eyebrow.

Oh hell, what was it now? I thought grumpily. Is there some eighth-century Samurai code that a woman can’t order sushi before a man?

“Yes, two,” John nodded, throwing me a warning glance.

Eventually, the chef brought out new dishes, this time containing identical morsels of nigiri sushi: a little mound of rice topped with a translucent piece of white fish and a strip of seaweed. I pincered it with the chopsticks and raised it to my mouth praying that it wouldn’t jump out and splash into the miso soup. Miraculously, I managed it. The result was salty and exciting—vastly superior to any sushi I’d had in my life before. The fish was fishy in the sense that it tasted like it had still been swimming around a minute ago. You could taste the seawater and the texture was silky but firm. Every grain of rice was discrete but held together with the sweetness of mirin. Wasabi was there, but not in thick nose-clubbing clumps—it just melded seamlessly into the whole. I chewed it with extreme pleasure.

The miso soup was also better than usual. It wasn’t even very salty but had flavorful ribbons of seaweed, a hint of sweetness and dice-sized cubes of tofu.

The woman in the kimono brought us green tea in charming ceramic mugs. Mine was in the shape of a dog-faced puffer fish (nothing personal, I hope) and John’s featured the design of a crab.

The chef, meanwhile, was busying himself with his next creation: little seaweed-baskets of rice and orange roe—tiny balls of slippery sweetness that went down a treat. Next up was smoked eel, which I never in a million years thought I’d like. One bite, though, and I was entranced by its rich, creamy, delicious darkness.

Finally, we faced a kind of cake made out of a sweet, rice-filled omlette, which I didn’t like at all. However, with Tojo standing there with a sharp knife in his hand, I was obviously going to eat it all and not leave a thing.

 

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From then on it was ramen ticket-machines for us. Safer.

 

Sumidagawa River

 

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Running through Asakusa down to Tokyo Bay is the Sumida River. Walking paths stretch alongside it for several kilometers, making it the perfect place to walk, run or simply experience the eerie serenity of this part of one of the world’s mega cities. The paths are beautiful in the understated Japanese way, with the muted colors of winter’s grasses and shrubs, and the pleasing geometry of stones and concrete patterns. There is even quite a lot of birdlife: big cormorants, coots, shelducks, gulls and terns. Along the way, you see monuments set up to villas of the Edo period that used to stand there, or plaques mentioning old large rice warehouses where peasants sent a share of their harvest for Samurai, or photographs of times when it flooded its banks.

 

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The locks are so beautiful they could be temple gates

 

Hama-rikyu Gardens

Another way to experience the river is on the Water Bus . We decided to take this one morning down to the Hama-rikyu Gardens, an historic site that used to belong to the family of Tokugawa Shogun but has been a public park since 1946.

 

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The first thing we saw there was a pretty avenue lined with blossoming plum trees–the Ume garden. Each tree came with its own deadly serious photographer, so I decided to join them with my beat-up little Olympus model.

 

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At the end of the avenue was a little shrine to Kyu-Inabu, complete with a small stone gate, a water container and a stone worn down (I like to think) by centuries of worshipful feet and knees.

 

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Past the temple was a garden of dazzling yellow–flowering rape. Perched on the stalks were large knife-beaked birds with a hint of blue in their foliage–I had no idea what they were. Walking past this scene was a young couple in traditional dress–possibly newlyweds–being diligently followed by a professional photographer.

 

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Beyond them was a huge gangly-branched pine tree, a celebrity in the garden for being more than 300 years old. In keeping with its old-man status, its twisted limbs were propped up on sturdy supports and its trunk wrapped lovingly in what looked like tatami bandages.

 

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At this point in the proceedings, I was extremely ready for breakfast. Spying a small canteen in the bushes, I dragged John over and ordered a couple of coffees, along with a box of glutinous yam cakes, which I didn’t like. I prefer red-bean cakes.

Having refreshed ourselves, we set off for the (rebuilt–it was destroyed in WWII) Pine Teahouse (Matsu-no-ochaya) where the Shogun & Co. used to gaze at the beautiful park scenery. These days this is surrounded by glitzy highrises but the effect is still impressive.

 

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Further on was a salt-water pond, called Shioiri-no-iki (Incoming-tide pond) because it is fed by Tokyo Bay and therefore rises and falls with the tide. Aside from that, it is inhabited by several species of salt-water fish and, crucially, ducks. This is the area where the Shogun and other nobles liked to crouch in hides and shoot at a bunch of ducks. 

 

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Salt-water pond, with a hide visible on the left

 

We didn’t dawdle too long there, though, because our return boat was nearly due to arrive. Instead, we wandered through a short stretch of lovely, tree-shaded paths back to the landing area. 

 

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Thailand Works

During our latest stay in Bangkok, we were lucky to meet some people willing to discuss the history of this region and to introduce us to some of the city’s hidden treasures. One of these kindly souls, a Thai-speaking Briton, took us to the Labor Museum. A small building near Makkasan station run by donation and volunteers, this lovingly curated museum illustrates the history of Thai workers—an accessible and illuminating view of the country’s general history.

 

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Before the nineteenth century, Siamese society adhered to a strict hierarchy, with the King at the top, nai—nobles beneath him (each of which controlled a mueang or fortified town), phrai—commoners or freedmen, and slaves. Phrai were actually not all that different from slaves as they were required to carry out corvée labor and the kinds of work they did was essentially the same as that of slaves. Royal officials would keep tabs on numbers by going about the country conducting mass tattooings for phrai.

 

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Teak logging in teak

 

Thailand has the largest Chinese population of any country outside China—about fourteen percent are ethnically Chinese, though many of them are fully assimilated and identify as Thai. In the late eighteenth century, King Taksin (whose mother was Chinese from Guangdong Province), actively encouraged Chinese immigration and trade. During the nineteenth century, particularly as European powers became aware of Siam’s teak forests (coveted by European shipbuilders), pewter and tin deposits, there was an increased need for cheap labor. Chinese men poured into the country to work rickshaw-pullers, blacksmiths and railroad builders (the first railway line was started in 1891). Because they were usually single, many of them married Thai women. In 1876, the Angyee Riots were a big uprising of Chinese tin miners protesting the fact that mine owners laid off so many of them or even stopped paying them wages.

 

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Chinese tin smelter

 

King Rama V (1868-1919), Prince Chulalongkorn, was the first Thai monarch to have a western education and to speak English. Although, he is perhaps best known to English-speakers as the ‘King’ of Margaret London’s semi-fictional book Anna and the King of Siam, that book and all of its cinematic manifestations are banned in Thailand for being deemed offensive to the King. He gradually implemented a number of reforms including the abolition of serfdom and the conscription of commoners for slave labor. He is still regarded with particular fondness by Thais today and you often see his portrait hanging in shops and offices.

 

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Underplayed in the Labor Museum was the Siamese Revolution of 1932, a bloodless coup instigated by intellectuals who’d studied abroad, were sick of royal mismanagement and wanted to try new methods of government. These intellectuals gains some popular support, staged a coup and absolute monarchy was changed to constitutional monarchy. Soon afterwards, Pridi Banomyong, one of the tiny group that organized the coup, presented radical economic plans that would involve nationalizing land, public ownership and universal basic income. These plans were rejected by royalists and in 1933 he went into exile, accused of being a Communist. He returned to the country in 1934, but increasingly found himself to the left of his colleagues.

 

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In 1938, Defence Minister Major General Phibun became Prime Minister and the country took a militaristic turn. He passed authoritarian laws that gave the government powers of complete censorship, he had political opponents arrested and exiled, and he launched a demagogic campaign against the Chinese business class. On June 23, 1939, he renamed Siam ‘Phrathet Thai,’ meaning ‘land of the free’ and meant to include Tai-speaking peoples and exclude Chinese. The country’s slogan become ‘Thailand for the Thai.’ Phibun admired leaders who employed a cult of personality, such as Hitler and Mussolini. In places where you would ordinarily expect to find the King’s portrait, he put his own.

 

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In 1940, Phibun delivers an ultranationalistic speech outside the Grand Palace

 

At the outbreak of World War II, Phibun formed an alliance with Japan. Thailand’s government split into two factions: the Phibun Regime and the Free Thai Movement, which included about 90,000 pro-Allied guerillas. As the war progressed, Phibun’s leadership became increasingly unpopular thanks to economic hardship, strategic bombing of Bangkok by Allied Forces and Japanese arrogance towards Thais, whom they treated more as a conquered people than an ally.

 

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The notorious Siam-Burma Railroad, otherwise known as the Death Railroad, was ordered by the Empire of Japan in 1943 to facilitate transport of supplies to Burma. It was built thanks to at least 180,000 laborers and POWs who suffered maltreatment, sickness and starvation. About 100,000 of them died during its construction. English-language accounts by POWs include Railroad of Death by John Coast, Last Man Out, and In the Shadow of Death by Idris James Barwick. In Asia, the railway’s construction is still considered a war crime committed by Japan. The bridge’s construction was the occasion for Pierre Boulle’s book (and the film based on it) called Le Pont de la Rivière Kwai (The Bridge on the River Kwai).

 

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Bridge over the River Kwai by Leo Rawlings, a POW who was involved in the line’s construction (sketch dated to 1943).

 

After World War II, Thailand received financial aid from the USA, partly (no doubt) in return for acting as a staunch anti-Communist ally in the region during the Cold War. Americans effectively gave the green light to coup makers to overthrow Thailand’s first democratically elected Prime Minister Pridi Banomyong and CIA reports at the time frequently linked the left-leaning Pridi to Chinese Communism and also to the Viet Minh. Naturally, the US was much more comfortable with Phibun, who offered a stable military regime rather than an unpredictable democratic civilian-led government. So the US looked on indulgently as Phibun crushed Pridi supporter and assassinated key members of the opposition, particularly in Isan, in the country’s north-east.

 

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Ironically, according to legend anyway, it was US meddling in Thai politics that was responsible for the creation of one of Thailand’s most famous Communist poets, Somchit Phumisak (Chit for short). The story goes that he was first exposed to Marxism when hired by William J. Gedney, working for the US Embassy, to help translate The Communist Manifesto into Thai. The idea was that if Thai officials could read the thing, they’d take the Communist threat more seriously. Phumisak pretty soon joined the Communist Party and wrote (under pseudonyms) The Face of Thai Feudalism (1957) and several volumes of poetry before being shot to death in a village at the age of 35. In the Labor Museum there is a whole room devoted to poetry and song, and it is dominated by images of this young bespectacled guy. The rest of the room is more or less taken up with paraphernalia related to a folk-band called Caravan, originally student activists who sympathized with Isan farmers. Their songs criticize US interference in Thai politics and celebrate the love between a man and his water buffalo.

 

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Cover of Caravan album “American Antarai” (1976)

 

October 14 1973, theDay of Sorrow, marked the largest democratic uprising in Thai history. More than 200,000 students gathered in Bangkok to protest against the expulsion of student activists by the Thanom Kittikachorn, the pro-US, anti-Communist junta leader since 1963. When the army moved in to break up the crowd, between 50 and 70 people were killed, with 870 wounded. The effect of the uprising was that Thanom fled and there was an eerie calm until the next far-right junta took power in 1976, soon after another massacre of protests, the Thammasat University massacre.

 

 

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One of the most poignant exhibits in the museum is devoted to the Kader Tragedy of 1993. This was a massive fire in a shoddily built toy factory on the outskirts of Bangkok. Most of the workers were women from poor rural areas. Because there were no fire alarms, sprinklers or fire escapes, the women learned of the fire too late and when they tried to escape they were trapped. Officially, 188 people died and more than 469 were injured, making it the worst industrial fire in history. Outside the museum there is a monument to the victims featuring images of Bart Simpson, as the world was at the height of The Simpsons craze.

 

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Toys salvaged from the fire.

MaxPhht Bangkok

When we arrived in Bangkok, the first thing I noticed was that it would not be practical to run outside. The sky was a sludgy color and the evening sun looked like a bright-orange moon over hazy high-rise silhouettes. Traffic on the expressway next to our hotel stretched bumper-to-bumper day and night. Even the little sideroad had no sidewalk and heavy traffic—a mix of giant tour buses and scooter taxis. The scent of gasoline fumes combined with a pungent smell emanating from a nearby canal made breathing something of a chore. And apart from that, it was 33 degrees centigrade on a cool day.

 

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All the same, I did definitely need to run because running calms me down. Two days before, the Indian government had inexplicably refused John’s visa 24 hours before we were all set to fly there and 48 hours before we were required to leave Sri Lanka. The shock of this unexpected set-back, combined with the mental effort of making new arrangements, had left me fit for a strait-jacket.

 

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Our hotel, which boasted of a fitness center on booking.com, mysteriously did not actually have a fitness center. It also, despite attractive ads featuring martinis in the elevator, did not have a ‘sky bar’, so seeking solace in drink was also out. Luckily, one of the non-imaginary services the hotel did provide was a free shuttle service to any destination within 5 kilometers. Accordingly, I searched for a gym and found something called Maxfit Performance exactly five kilometers from the hotel.

So the next morning I got into the van bright and early dressed in an old T-shirt, a little snug around the middle perhaps, and trackpants. The driver, avoiding choked-up main arteries, took me through a maze of roads and I looked with interest at the goings-on. Children in crisp white blouses and shirts headed off to school. Street-food vendors in wide-brimmed hats grilled tiny sausages, chopped mangoes and papaya, and neatly bagged soups and curries. Stray dogs trotted by the side of the road, expert traffic dodgers. Thousands of scooter riders wove between the cars—some of them carrying an entire family with the father driving, toddler squished in between (sometimes standing up!) and mother behind holding on to the child. Interestingly, there were taxi-scooters, identifiable by official orange vests complete with taxi ID stuck to the front. Women passengers in short skirts sometimes rode side-saddle.

 

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After about half an hour, the van dropped me off at the address I’d given. It seemed to be an upscale, brand-new outdoor mall with a dog-centred theme. There was a dog-food bakery, a pet-accessories store, a tea shop with puppy pictures on the walls. I couldn’t immediately see the gym but the helpful driver asked a cleaning lady and she pointed me up a set of stairs.

At the top, I entered a big room that had zero treadmills or exercycles. There was a group of people jumping around holding weights and a guy in a baseball cap who gave me a big toothy smile and Mickey Mouse wave. I started backing away but before I could get out the door, a young guy with bulky upper arms emerged from his lair and asked if he could help me.

“Hi, I’m Adam,” he said in Australian accent. “Come into the office and we’ll see what we can do for you.”

I followed him. The office also contained a beefy blond fellow, an American named Jake who might have been in the United States Marine Corps and done five million push-ups before breakfast. Adam pointed to a chair and I dutifully sat down.

“What are you looking for today?” he said earnestly.

“I was just wanting somewhere to run,” I said, “With it being so hot,” I waved at the window.

He nodded seriously. I could see him taking in my sloppy attire.

“Have you ever been to a place like this?”

“Er, actually, what kind of place is this?” I asked.

“I’m glad you asked. We provide a service that is just like personal training except that it is done in small, supportive groups. Our customers come from all kinds of different backgrounds—yoga, weightlifting, pilates—and we all learn from each other.”

“Well, I was really looking for somewhere to run in the heat. Do you…run?” I asked.

“No,” he said.

“Do you have treadmills?” I asked hopefully.

“You can find treadmills in any of the commercial gyms on the street,” he grimaced.

“Oh. OK,” I felt heartened by the implication that there were thousands of them out there. I only had to walk a block before tripping over one.

“So let me tell you a little bit about what we do here. You’ve probably heard of the Body Mass Index, the BMI?”

I nodded.

“Well, where most gyms go wrong is not focusing on the fat-to-muscle ration of the body mass.”

Uh oh, I thought and sucked my stomach in a bit.

“How much do you weigh, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Er, I’m not sure. I haven’t weighed myself recently.”

“Probably 63 kilograms,” he shrugged. “And how tall are you?”

“About a meter sixty-five.”

“Right,” he nodded. “And,” he titled his head and looked at my middle, “Probably fourteen per cent fat.”

“Hmmm,” I said. He had the self-satisfied look of a magician pulling a rabbit out of a top hat, demonstrating his personal-trainer expertise. What really surprised me, though, was that there was no outward evidence of him having any sustained serious injuries. His nose had never been broken, for example. If his job was coolly estimating women’s fat percentage to their faces, it seemed like it would entail grave risks. He was safe with me because I have iron self-control where violent urges are concerned, but another day he would not be so lucky.

 

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A case for the side eye

 

“If you joined us, we’d make a point of measuring your muscle-to-fat ration in order to accurately track your process.”

Over my fat, dead body, I thought.

He produced a folder from his shelf and opened it to a page full of headless female bellies. There was the ab-tastic ideal at the top left and things got fuller and floppier from there.

“Now,” Adam said, “I would say, considering your percentage, you would be somewhere around here,” he jabbed a scientific finger at number eleven, a wobbly paunch that looked like the ‘before’ photo from an infomercial for liposuction.

“Huh,” I said. Inside, I brooded. “What kind of lousy sales pitch is this? This gym should be renamed ‘Masochist Fat Gym’! FFS, I just want to run off some anxiety and now I’m getting lectured about diet by a juvenile steroid casualty! SMGDH.” I’m not saying that there wasn’t justice in young Adam’s remarks. I’m just saying that his approach revealed a lack insight into female psychology, particularly the psychology of a stressed female who just wants to go for a run and doesn’t care to focus on her love handles just at this moment thank you very much.

“The way we measure it,” Adam continued, warming to his subject, “Is with this fat caliper.”

 

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I stared with dull horror at the plastic instrument he was waving around like some kind of deformed lobster pincer. Surely he did not intend to apply it now? If he did, I decided then and there, I would fight him. To the death. Sure he had the big muscles, but I had the crazy. The element of surprise would be an advantage—he’d never see it coming.

“But,” I sputtered, “Why does it matter?”

He looked amazed.

“Less fat means a fitter you,” he explained, as if to a confused child. “If you have a greater ratio of muscle then you will be stronger, faster and fitter. Have you ever done any exercise in the past?”

“Yes, I run,” I said through gritted teeth. Clearly he had not noticed that my T-shirt said ‘Patagonia Marathon’.

“Right!” he smiled brightly. “So with less fat you will be faster.”

“But I don’t want to win any races, I just like running.”

He looked perplexed. He knew I was wrong but I was so wrong that he couldn’t think of any logical way to respond.

“Well, to be honest I just want to run and not do other stuff,” I said, getting up “So I’m not sure this is the right fat–I mean fit–for me.”

“Well, why not sign up for a trial session?” He asked. “What have you got to lose?”

Possible answers: time, money, patience, self-esteem…

“Oh no, I think I’ll just…I’m only here for a few weeks, so I’ll just go to a commercial gym. Thanks very much!” 

As I went down the stairs I thought it was kind of funny that this gym didn’t consider itself commercial. After all, it wasn’t exactly free. What did it think it was? A spiritual gym?

 

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Creators and Destroyers in Colombo’s National Museum

 

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After visiting the National Museum, I had a dream in which a mass murderer walked into a supermarket with an arsenal of antique Sri Lankan weapons. This is not surprising because the museum has a large display of guns and knives in the last room we visited. Also, the daggers are of a shape and design that leaves no doubt as to their eviscerating function. With swords and cutlasses and the like you can always pretend you are just looking at oversized kitchenware. With the wiggly-bladed kriss or the thing with one sharpened horn facing one way, another horn facing the other, or a dagger with a skeleton on its hilt, there is no room for doubt. Even the ceremonial swords are a bit terrifying, with their grimacing red-eyed lions on the hilts.

 

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But most of the museum is not about murder but about god/s and the pursuit of pleasure, peace and painlessness-in-oblivion.

The museum is a huge two-storied white building sitting on a huge manicured lawn, with a couple of banyan trees off to the side. The first thing you see as you walk in the entrance is this granite Buddha from Anurādhapura (800 AD), in Samadhi pose–Samadhi is a word indicating single-pointedness of mind. This statue, called the Toluvila Buddha after the name of the village where a team led by the British archeologist Harry Charles Purvis Bell uncovered it during a 1900 dig, is one of the island’s best-preserved ancient statues.

 

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Today about 70% of Sri Lanka’s population are Theravada Buddhists. The religion was introduced to Sri Lanka around the third century BCE, and Sri Lanka has the longest continuous history of Buddhism of any country on earth. Anurādhapura, one of the island’s ancient capitals and a city that has been continuously inhabited since the 10th century BCE, was the center of Theravada Buddhism for many centuries and is a rich source of beautiful objects partly because royals and nobles commissioned fine sculptures and works of art in order to adorn the temples and monasteries. The museum had several rooms devoted to statues depicting the Buddha in various poses, as well as Bodhisattvas (embodiments of compassion). My favorite Buddha pose was the reclining one, since it seemed to lend a kind of spiritual aspect to my love of naps.

 

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Ganesha’s vehicle, a mouse.

 

Next came the Hindu gods—about 12.6% of the population is Hindu, almost all of them Tamil – an ethnic group native to Sri Lanka and genetically closely related to the Sinhalese. Hinduism was the first religion to be practiced here. Today, most Hindus on the island are Shaivist, which means they worship Shiva, the god who danced the world into being, as their primary creator. The island’s greatest period of Hindu activity was between 985 and 1014 CE under the Chola Dynasty, when wealthy Tamil nobles built their own temples and statues. My favorite Hindu statues were of Ganesh, the son of Shiva and Parvati. He is known as the Remover of Obstacles, and as the god of domestic harmony and success. In the form of Ganesh Gajanana he has as his ‘vehicle’ a mouse named Krauncha.

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Beyond relics and treasures of the island’s two major religions, there are reminders of other influences that have visited the island for centuries: Arabic inscriptions, Chinese pottery, Roman coins, Portuguese drawings, Dutch pipes and British photographs.

Upstairs is the most amazing thing in the whole museum: reproductions of gorgeous frescos from the giant rock fortress of Sigiriya, ‘Lion rock.’ The story of Sigiriya is blood-chilling. According to the Cūḷavaṃsa, a chronicle that covers the 4th to the 19th century (that is partly available in English here), Kashyapa I was not in line for the throne but acquired it through the expedient of staging a coup and having his father Dhatusena imprisoned. The real heir fled because he believed, probably with good reason, that he would be assassinated. Meanwhile, newly ascended to the throne, Kashyapa believed his dad had hidden some treasure and let him out of prison to show him where he put it. Dhatusena led him to a large irrigation tank, saying it was the only treasure he had. Enraged, Kashyapa walled his father up and left him to die. This behavior turned the public against him. They called him Pithru Ghathaka Kashyapa, ‘Kashyapa the Patricide’. Afraid they would help the rightful heir to attack him, Kashyapa moved here:

 

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He made it even more defensible with a moat and ramparts. Not only that, he planted a huge garden around the rock, including fountains and pools, supplied with water by a complex irrigation system. The entrance to the Sky Palace was via a staircase built into the rock, which was carved around it to look like a crouching lion—the entrance was through the lion’s chest.

 

lion staircase

 

The frescos, painted during his rule, show beautiful maidens with flowers. According to Dr. Edwin Ariyadasa, the maidens are a kind of divine welcome committee in the form of Apsara, cloud goddesses dancing and scattering flowers as a welcome to (non-hostile) visitors to the palace.

 

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Another memorable room was the one reserved for Kolam masks. A kolam is a comic folk play in which masked actors tell a story through dance, mime and dialogue. There was one playing on a TV in a little movie theater. A couple of unmasked drummers sat off to the side and would strike up a conversation with the grotesque masked caricatures that appeared on stage. The conversation was all in Sinhalese (I think), but you could get a sense of the characters through their voices and posture—one, for example, seemed to be an unhealthy old lady who whined a lot. Another seemed to be a very angry man. After a bit of banter between the masked character and the drummer, music started up and the character would dance in a frenzy.

 

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Policemen masks

 

There was a lot more to the museum than I have described here: textiles, explanations of agricultural practices, musical instruments and jewelry to name just a tiny fraction of objects. In fact there’s a whole other museum next door–the National Museum of Natural History. Unfortunately, though, we have limited museum endurance and hurried through whole rooms near the end, desperate for a sit-down and cold drink. That wasn’t the museum’s fault, though. If you are ever in Colombo I would recommend a visit.  

Life in the Kandy Kingdom

Kandy sits on a hill in the central highlands of Sri Lanka, ensconced in dense jungle and a curve of the island’s great river the Mahaweli. The town of Kandy used to be so inaccessible that no one—not the Portuguese nor the Dutch nor the English could take it by military means. Getting there is still a hassle (though you’re less likely to be brained by a keteriya) and involves either driving along a winding and congested road or getting on a crowded and very slow train. Our taxi ride from Hikkaduwa took seven hours, the last two devoted exclusively to the final 16 kilometers. Our driver was so exhausted by the end of it that he caused two small fender-benders and kept misunderstanding Siri’s directions.

Kandy map final

New Year’s Eve

When we finally arrived, there were still two hours left in the tired old year of 2019. Having signed up for the Gala Dinner at our hotel, we hauled our jangled carcasses along to the dining room looking for some booze and burbling to steady our nerves. After all, if there is one day of the year when heedless revelry is generally permitted, it is New Year’s Eve.

Alas, the mood was not conducive to a bacchanalia. The vast dining room was sparsely peopled by tense and tidy monadic groups. A table of twelve women dressed in white emitted a distinctly religious odor; a wholesome German family of four looked about ready for bed; a young couple from some indeterminate European country were clearly just there for the food. The only likely looking ally was a large British family, the father of which was wearing one of the party hats provided and drinking a glass of red wine.

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Then the music started. The Hummingbirds, a calypso band of four playing well-known Reggae hits and a few Sri Lankan numbers. Despite the profusion of Bob Marley, the music was doing nothing to loosen the room. We ate our chicken à l’orange and prawn cocktails in a state of exhaustion wondering when the waiter would bring the bubbles.

When all the guests were still in this painfully self-conscious state, the band started zero in on one table per song, inviting the table to name a song and then, when it was over, to fork over cash for their CD. When they came to our table, we requested a Sri Lankan tune. I tried to avoid eye contact by looking up at a corner of the room and softly tapped my fingers on the table as a feeble gesture of goodwill. When the band finished they shoved their CD in front of us and I realized that I didn’t bring cash downstairs but told them I would go and get it and give it to them later.

The dinner wore on. No booze was forthcoming. John went to the waiter and asked about it. The waiter replied rather stiffly that alcoholic beverages were not included in the menu and would need to be ordered separately. However, he duly brought a bottle over and that was a blessing.

The band went outside to the pool, following the shyest diners, who had thought to avoid them. John wanted to sing with them so we followed them all out there and found the band serenading a couple of blushing Swedes with ABBA’s “The Winner Takes All”.

As the band retreated without making a sale, John pounced.

“Do you know ‘Cough Syrup’ by The Butthole Surfers?” he asked.

“What kind of song is it sir?”

“American song.”

“Country?” The lead singer asked.

“Sure!” John said and launched into a full-throated rendition of late-twentieth-century lyricism.

Sportingly, the band followed along with lugubrious twanging and sweet harmonies that made it a fairly idiosyncratic arrangement, to say the least.

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The Lake

The only thing I really knew about Kandy was that it had a Temple of the Tooth on the edge of an artificial lake. Sri Dalida Maligawa is the temple built to house the canine tooth of Gautama Buddha, which is said to have been retrieved from his ashes by a disciple and smuggled to the island later on. The temple is part of the royal palace complex, reflecting the tradition that whoever holds the tooth holds the divine right to rule.

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On the first day of the New Year I woke up early and decided to go see the temple and lake before it got too hot. At seven o’clock, the streets were just whirring into action. A skinny old man in the faded sarong was laying out the components of his shoe-polishing kit on a rag on the sidewalk. The newspaper vendor next door had received bundles from the printer and was busy cutting the blue plastic strips tying them together. A woman was sweeping the street with a twig broom. The old hat-seller was laboriously unpacking his big black sack of hats and pinning them up on a plastic frame. Short-haired, long-eared stray dogs lay curled against walls in corners. Tuk-tuk drivers were picking out strategic parking spots.

When I got to the fence around the temple grounds, I saw that there was already a big line at the entrance gate. The line was moving slowly because each entrant was being checked thoroughly by security guards. The temple has been bombed twice, in 1988 and 1998, so no more chances are being taken.

There were a lot of women in white and vendors around the grounds were selling flowers and snacks. I’ve since learned that Wednesday is the day of the week when the tooth is bathed in floral water. New Year’s Day was a Wednesday this year, so perhaps that was why it was so busy. I was particularly enthralled with the lotus-blossom stands, which attracted dozens of large black bees.

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Instead of going to the temple, I followed the lake shore. The lake itself is full of fish, which are sacred so it is forbidden to catch them. This explains the very large number of cormorants who frequent the overhanging trees, and the cats who laze on its bank. I even saw a monkey eating one, though I don’t know if it caught it itself or borrowed it from someone else.

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It took about half an hour to walk right round the lake. The calm lake, greenery and birds create a scene of peacefulness that is unusual in the middle of towns in this island. Even so, though, the road ran right beside the lake, which meant that even early in the morning there was a steady stream of traffic.  

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The Best Tuk-Tuk Driver in the World

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Specifically, there were a lot of tuk-tuk drivers. Usually they just said “Taxi?,” checked for a reaction, then zoomed on. All drivers were men and they drove exactly the same model motorized tuk-tuk: red or blue with a black canopy fastened with white bolts designed to look (appropriately enough) like winged skulls. An oilskin curtain was invariably tied neatly up at the back window ready for the eventuality of rain; a gas-filled whiskey or vodka bottle sat next to the driver’s foot. The back of the canopy tended to be personalized with some kind of slogan or logo, for example a drawing of Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean or a witty phrase like ‘Available All Times But Busy Times Sorry’ or a seemingly random corporate logo such as Gucci or Apple.

“Hello Madam! Tuk-tuk!”

I turned around to see a slim, mustachio’d tuk-tuk driver waving his long arms.

“Hello,” I said. “No tuk-tuk thank you, I’m walking,” I said, pointing along my path.

“Where you going?” he asked.

“I’m just walking. No tuk-tuk.”

“Madam! It’s OK, I just want you to read my book.”

I hesitated. Book? He was an author? Somehow, he must have known that I, too, nursed literary dreams. Perhaps he was the nation’s next big prize-winning novelist, detailing the touching and funny daily trials and tribulations of a tuk-tuk driver in Kandy, satirizing the brutality of the global forces that kept him putting in endless loop de loops around the sacred city. I certainly couldn’t snub him now. It was my duty as a fellow author to nurture this against-the-odds talent. I stepped resolutely towards him.

“Where you from?” he asked.

“New Zealand,” I said, wondering about the relevance of the question to his literary career.

“Ah!” His eyes lit up, the light of inspiration that probably beamed out of them onto the pages of his diary in the wee hours of the morning, the only time he had the peace and quiet to hone his craft.

“I know someone from Australia. Two days ago, here!” He grabbed a tattered exercise book from the seat next to him, riffled through its pages and showed me an entry, hand-written in blue pen:

Ravi is the best tuk-tuk driver in the world. He took me to all the places and was very good. He was very friendly and I would 100% recommend his service to anyone.

“Ah, great!” I nodded, handing the book back, nodding and smiling.

“I take you to see the monument.”

I didn’t know which monument he meant but decided not to ask because that meant getting side-tracked.

“No thank you, I’m walking. I don’t have any money,” I patted the place where my pockets would have been if I had any.

“No, no, not now!” He laughed. “Later, I give you my card.”

“But I don’t have a phone,” I said.

He fished around in his pockets and produced a business card.

“I don’t have a phone so I can’t call you,” I explained, concerned that he wasn’t understanding.

“Here, here,” he said and thrust the card into my hand.

“OK, bye,” I said, and walked off, deaf to further entreaties.

For the rest of the walk I considered how this sort of hard sell was probably an effective approach if every single other man in your city was employed in the same occupation and there was a limited pool of available customers.  

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The Crows

They started gathering at about five-thirty, when the light changed, finding the highest spots—the ridges of roofs, the tops of poles and posts and the topmost branches of the tallest trees. These are slim jungle crows with big ravenesque beaks. At mid-day their feathers shine with an oily green iridescence but now, in the dimming day, they were turning into silouettes. 

To the west, a valley receded into misty, green haze. The piled-up clouds that signal humidity were turning an orangey-pink and occasional flashes indicated a lightning storm somewhere in the distance. On the hill a huge white statue of the Buddha presided over the town. From the main street below you could hear the usual honks and engine noise, along with shouts and laughter and snatches of music booming from a passing car.

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A flock of white herons passed by at our eye-level. There were about a dozen of them, long legs stretched out behind. They flew gracefully and quickly in a straight line, from A to B, with B being somewhere beyond the lake. Then there was a synchronous flash of white—the quick flap of a flock of minas, whose butterfly-like wings were taking them somewhere safe, a tree on the street, maybe.

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Meanwhile, the number of silent crows was gathering. At five to six, the view from the bar was like a scene from The Birds. Now and then a single crow ruffled its neck feathers, bowed its head and let out a belligerent squawk, but the majority stood silent and waiting.

Then, when the sun had almost disappeared, this majority lifts off. There must be hundreds of them whirling around and squawking. From the porch, we are astounded by the noise. We can’t hear each other speak, I can’t even hear myself. The air is filled with a multi-throated raucous gloating. The crows are not travelling; they were dancing or fighting or singing or threatening or something. It’s such an exciting spectacle, we make sure we don’t miss it again. The bar tender says it happens every night, “So many birds” he waves his hand at the window, smiling.

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The Hot Museum

Misreading Google Maps, I thought the museum was inside the walled-off temple complex, whereas it is actually just outside it. This mistake was significant because it meant we spent a good forty minutes lining up outside the temple complex, going through a gender-segregated security check and trudging across an immaculate lawn only to find that we didn’t have to. It’s one of those little things that spouses tuck away in their memory to tax the offending partner with at a later date.

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We might have cut our losses and gone to see the Temple of the Sacred Tooth but in the end we didn’t want to because (1) we’re not believers and would feel as if we were intruding and (2) it would involve walking around with no shoes on and (3) we knew the limits of our museum-temple endurance, especially on a hot day in SE Asia.

By the time we made it to the museum, we were floppy with the heat and not in a mood to be impressed by anything. Considering this, the museum must have been interesting enough because there were several objects that made us linger grumpily around the glass cabinet for a second or two.

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The nobles of Kandy wore fine clothes and jewelry and were carted around on palanquins. They used pretty objects including hand-carved-coconut ladles liked to watch dances. The men were good at sword fighting and they produced manuscripts written on ola leaf. Their metalsmiths were competent.

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The coolest thing in the museum was probably the flag of the rebel Monarawila Keppetipola Disawa, who resisted British rule in the nineteenth century. It features a pop-eyed, red-lipped roaring cartoon lion that I, for one, wouldn’t like to meet in a dark alley.

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Escaping Kandy

 

Getting out of Kandy is not easy.

The train station is open to the elements, which means it is hot. We arrived early and the train was an hour late. This gave us plenty of time to watch the locals. Crows had made the place their home, even the indoor parts of it. A couple of healthy stray dogs trotted here and there, getting hand outs from staff and making parkour leaps onto platforms from the tracks. At the end of the platforms was an aquarium containing a bunch of confused looking fish.

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An elderly woman with no teeth patiently led a blind woman—her daughter?—from person to person asking for a small offering.

I got bored waiting and finished the chocolate-covered peanuts we’d brought for the journey. I went to the loo, which had no lock or toilet paper. I photographed things around the station then went for a short walk. Every second person asked, “Where are you from madam and where do you want to go?” so I returned to the station after five minutes.

Just before our train arrived, an announcement in Sinhalese caused everyone on our platform to move to platform 2. We followed in a mad scramble and only just made it in time to shove all our luggage aboard and claim our seats.

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The relief we felt when the train started moving was immense, but short-lived. That’s because the train stopped moving after about five kilometres and stayed still for 20 minutes. We don’t know why. At one point a British girl piped up, perhaps speaking for everyone else, “I’m hungry. I’m tired. And I’m sick of being on this stupid train.”

The journey continued for several hours at a maddeningly slow speed, stopping at every station on the way. When the ticket-collector came, John patted his pockets with consternation.

“I don’t have the tickets.”

“Are you sure? Did you check your bag?” I asked.

He checked his bag.

“Wait a minute, didn’t I give them to you?” he asked.

“I don’t think so,” I said. “I’ll check.” I riffled through my pockets and purse. Nothing.

“Oh well,” I shrugged. “Just tell him we lost them.”

“He’s—they’re going to kick us off the train!” John hissed. “This is a disaster! I’m having chest pains.”

“Tickets please sir?” The man said.

“They’re back there, in our luggage,” John said bravely.

The man nodded and moved on.

“There, see?” I patted John on the arm and drifted off to sleep.

When we arrived at Colombo Fort station several hours later I noticed something was folded up in the bottom of my jeans pocket and fished it out. When I realized what it was I hastened to shove it back in my purse, but not before John saw it.

“Are those the tickets by any chance?” he asked between clenched teeth.

“Ah well, ‘All is well’ as Trump would say, eh?” I smiled sheepishly. “No harm after all?”

“Chest pains,” he muttered, shaking his head, as we rolled our bags to a taxi.

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End of the line