Sunday, 1 January 2017

2016 in pictures.

Happy New Year!  I was wondering what to write for the last post of 2016 and then before I knew it it was 2017, so this will be the first post of 2017 now.   I always like reading Jeanie's "Marmelade Gypsy" blog and I thought I'd follow her example of posting a photo from each month to show how the year progressed. Thing is, it's been very hard to just select ONE picture from each month, and I am tempted to put in lots - but that would be cheating.

So, let's start with the January photo. It's the view out of the window of the cottage we stay at in Suffolk. It used to belong to a good friend who sadly died a few years ago, but it is still in her family and they don't mind our using it when they are away.  We have grown really fond of the Suffolk Coastal area and always jump at the chance to go, whatever the time of year.  Here was the view that greeted me one morning, at dawn, with the frost and the mist.  Although it was cold outside, that pink sky gradually turned blue and the day became sparkling and wintry bright.

February we went to Iceland - and Florida.  I'd like to show pictures of both places, but since I've only got one I'll choose this one of Young A in the Viking Museum in Reykjanesbær, Iceland.  The museum's like the Tardis, apparently modestly proportioned on the outside but mysteriously expanding as you get further inside. We managed to spend a whole morning there and there was still more to see, but unfortunately we had a plane to catch.

It is a great bit of modern architecture too, so imagine standing inside that great expanse of glass feeling nice and warm and watching the cold sea hurling itself at the rocks directly outside in the savage wind. (I always like doing stuff like that.)  The ghostly figures in the foreground are seated in a full sized Viking ship called the "Icelander" which was built by a shipbuilder called Gunnar Marel Eggertsson, who then sailed to New York in it before bringing it back to Iceland. Best of all, the staff were so pleasant and helpful. It seemed to matter to them personally that we enjoyed the place.

There is so much to see in Spain in March, especially if you like religious processions.  Much of our time in Andalucia was spent with family and friends -  but the abiding memory for me was the sight of hundreds, if not thousands of penitents in their curious outfits filling the streets and marching for hours in the Holy Week parades.  This drapers down a Malaga side street sells everything you need to make a good Penitent outfit.

And yay, April brought the swallows* back - a sign that spring was definitely here.

For the first time in my life I saw a complete half circle double rainbow late one evening in early May.   My phone doesn't have much of a camera, but even so I was glad I could take a photo of it

June has to be about roses.  I grew these ones on the balcony in a pot, then planted the whole bush out in the garden where it has taken very well. 

Late June, early July and quite a while after that was, for me, about the Brexit vote, and I attended the march in early July. I respect the views of those who genuinely believe Britain is better out of the EU, but I was shocked at the lies, self-centredness and responsibility-dodging of so many politicians - on both sides - and, looking back at my post, this was a major concern of many of the other marchers too, in spite of the generally good natured atmosphere.   

Anyway, there is no denying that this bloke thoroughly entered into the generally cheerful spirit of the march.

In August, we revisited the Kentish Town City Farm in NW London for the first time in years. The tots were thrilled at the chance to pick real apples and pears off low growing trees, delighted at seeing all the farm animals up close, and they ran around the rather messy and free environment in glee.  The farm is based on otherwise unusable land alongside a railway, and gives city children the chance to get close to nature, care for animals and learn to ride.   There are a number of city farms in London but Kentish Town was, I think, the very first. 

T and I had many walks and cycle rides over this summer, and one of the most interesting for me was to the Church of St Swithuns, in Wickham, Berkshire.   Many old churches have angels attached to the roofs - but elephants? Seems that the Rev. William Nicholson, one of the church's Victorian rectors, began restoring the church in 1845 and had commissioned some angels to decorate the hammerbeam roof in the conventional way.  But then he visited the Paris Exhibition of 1855 and was enchanted by a set of 4 papier mache elephants he saw there. Nothing else would do after that, and so after buying those, he commissioned another four, set them up - and they're there to this day. 

October and some of November we went to Japan.  We had so many adventures there but one thing that remains in my mind is the little shrine of Kansagu Ukiki on Lake Tazawa, in Akita Prefecture.  This tiny, peaceful shrine is set on the shores of the famous crater lake, considered to be one of the most beautiful in Japan, and all around  the shrine's pebbly base,  thousands of little fish gather. The shrine sells packs of fish food,  and when you venture down onto the shingle and throw it into the water, a seething mass of fish suddenly erupts.  What a bizarre experience! I rediscovered my childhood love of feeding the ducks -  except that there were so many more fish than there had ever been ducks!  And then I could hardly tear myself away...   

Returning to London in November we took several long walks exploring parts of the city we hadn't visited in a while.  One Sunday afternoon we found ourselves at Columbia Road Flower Market,  in Bethnal Green.  This is the top retail flower market in the country. It is crowded, bustling, and loads of fun, and the market holders still yell out their wares in the way that most stallholders have stopped doing these days.  And, you get flowers at Columbia Road that you don't see anywhere else.

We arrived as darkness was falling and the market was about to close for the day. All the small local shops were brightly illuminated, the stalls even more so, and there was a very festive air even though Christmas was still a month away.  As we arrived the stallholders began selling off the last bunches at half price, so we got two bunches of magnificent white freesias and a bunch of extraordinary red and black tulips with heads as large as peonies.   They would have been eye catching in the Spring but I've never seen anything like them in November.  Even though they were much cheaper than the half-dead bunches of sad flowers sold by our local Waitrose, they lasted twice as long, getting more amazing every day as they opened out bigger and bigger. 

And so to December. We took S and Young A to the panto ("Sleeping Beauty") at Hackney Empire.  It was a great panto, with plenty of audience participation, and I was flabbergasted, as usual, by the sheer amount of talent there is on the stage in this country.  Not only can these folks act but they can do so many other things too, quite perfectly  - sing, mime and dance, set up a rapport with the audience, make them laugh and carry them along.  This is a serious question  - why don't they all have Oscars?  

The Empire is an old music hall, and, as you'd expect, it is heavy on the gilt and plush. It still has the old board at the side of the stage from its music-hall days, on which the management would put the act's number, so you'd know what you were watching, (can you spot the number 4 on the bottom left?) and in the foyer it has photos of some of the stars of yore who have appeared there - Marie Lloyd included.   I loved the lighting, lurid reds and blues in the auditorium, mirrorballs and all sprinkled with stars.   Very Christmassy.

And so that was 2016.  Let us all hope that 2017 is a good year, and I do wish you the very best.

(*thanks to John E and Joanne N for tactfully pointing out it's not a swift. Well, ornithology isn't really one of my skills. I'm usually delighted to manage to spot a bird at all, one of the reason I always admire bird photographers.) 

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Christmas in its many forms.....

And now it's Christmas in London, so I won't post more about Japan for now. I've been making cards for family members and busy looking through some of my pics for inspiration and images, so I thought I'd share some images of a London Christmas, as I've experienced it over some years. Christmas in its many forms....

Here's a Christmas cake I made a few years ago. I don't usually make cakes but this was for someone dear to me who loved ginger, and it had a lot of ginger in it, as you can see from the decoration.  I haven't got round to doing a cake this year, but never mind - a friend who is a magnificent cook unexpectedly sent me a home made stollen - what a bonus!  

T and I always like to go to Oxford St. and see Selfridge's Christmas windows. They are always really original.  This year, Selfridge's Santa is a playboy. So the windows show Santa in the jacuzzi, Santa in the sauna, Santa going dancing... and here he is with his cool mates in a glittery ski lift in his sequined robes, gold sparkly ski boots and golden poles.... 

This Santa in Camden Town wasn't living the high life but seemed to be very content to be sprawled in front of a splendid repast in a barber's shop. 

I happened to be passing Guys Hospital when I spotted this festive character? They do say that doctors can have a rather black sense of humour! But there again, his eyes are made of champagne corks, and he has a very warm and good quality scarf... 

This Santa, spotted in the Oval area of SW London, made me smile.

I don't usually put pics of my family on this blog, so you must imagine the delighted faces there were when one of our daughters brought some treats back from a pre-Christmas trip to Paris a few years ago.  The display of cheese was almost too beautiful to eat (we did it eat it, though) and the macaroons from Fauchon were utterly elegant as well as delicious. Actually if you look closely you will see that one macaroon is already gone - it was shiny and bronze, like sculpture.  It really is true that nobody can do special food like the French.

And what about these cakes, below, which I spotted in South London - how do you think they were decorated? It look almost as if they have been embossed. I'd love to know how it is done so please tell me if you know. 

I haven't heard as many carols as usual in the shops, and I am not sorry because I far prefer to hear real people singing carols.  (PS: written on 27 December: I posted something about Wham's "Last Christmas" but I was really sad to hear George Michael died on Christmas Day, so I've deleted it now. He was a good kind man who died far too young. ) 

I was happy to hear the children below, in their school choir, in Bermondsey, singing their hearts out.

This year I haven't gone to Kensington Palace to see what they're doing for Christmas. At the present rate of (non) progress I probably won't, this year.  It's usually interesting, and they manage to ring the changes pretty well on the theme of palaces and princesses. One year, though, I felt a distinctly eerie atmosphere.  A bit  "Last Year At Marienbad" air it as we walked amongst clipped trees in a park that had become very silent.

We left after the palace had closed for the night, and it has quite a different atmosphere when there's nobody there.

It really did seem slightly creepy....
 The staff at that time were telling us that the palace  was haunted by some kind of large dog but I didn't spot it.

I expect Queen Victoria and Albert's cooks at Kensington Palace ordered from the old established posh grocers, Fortnum and Mason, when preparing for Christmas. We usually like to take a look at Fortnums' decorations and window displays.  This year's window didn't appeal to us much, so I won't show you pictures. To be honest, I didn't really understand what they were on about.   Below, though, are some Christmas crackers from a year when colour and celebration were Fortnum's Christmas themes.  I can't even begin to imagine what the price was, but I seem to recall they had real jewellery inside.   

They also had suitably over the top ideas for Christmas decorations.  Not recommended for households with little kids - can't I see little hands closing on those sharp, spiky glass ornaments! But it was all so cheerful I almost felt like a child myself.

There was festive fish and chips for the less well-off in Stoke Newington...

And lights for everyone

A cherub in Kings Cross

About three years ago we were surprised to chance upon pens of real farm animals when we happened to walk out of  Herne Hill railway station. The aim was partly to show the local kids what real farm animals looked like, and there was a Christmas market spread around the neighbouring narrow streets. 

Every year the faithful Salvation Army comes out with its brass band at Christmas.  I took this picture yesterday in Oxford St. We gave them some money. Homeless people I have spoken to usually have good things to say about the Salvation Army, who treat them with kindly respect, they say. 

This, spotted through a pub indow in Dalston, shows some of the older generation meeting up like they have probably been doing for years, under the tinsel. 

And so back home.  Nothing like being on the top of a double decker bus! 

  Happy Christmas! 

Monday, 12 December 2016

Folklore and Fish

Normally I'd be talking about Christmas, but I've been stuck inside with a nasty bug. Inside my head I've been returning to Akita though, in Northern Japan, so let me introduce you to the Namahage, the region's most famous folkloric characters. 

 The Oga peninsula has lots of thick forest and lovely coastline, and driving along the remote little road we suddenly came across these two giving us a friendly wave...

Well, maybe not that friendly.

Akita Prefecture is famous for its Namahage.  Or Yamahage (see later). Our friends were taking us to a museum deep in the forest, part of which is a traditional inn (below), where it's a good idea to begin your visit.

Once inside the inn, you need to imagine it's New Year and the landscape outside is deep in snow. There is nobody for miles, except..... the Namahage.  These are demonic religious figures whose job it is to make sure that people (especially the children) are working hard, being tough and enduring difficult things.  They dress in straw, have long hair and terrifying masks. 

They arrive outside the house roaring and shouting and banging at the door, upon which they must be invited in.  Once inside, they stamp about (stamping is often a way of getting rid of evil).  Then they shout at the children, demanding to see their lesson books, and fire questions around about how good everyone is being.  You see the one below shaking his finger.  

When everything is in uproar, and the children are screaming their heads off, the Namahage are offered food, drink and sake ("Kampai!" or "cheers!" - see below).  Then they go away, leaving everyone to reflect on whether or not they have been quite hardworking and strong enough lately.

I guess the tradition wouldn't get the approval of supernanny Jo Frost, though Mary Poppins might have had a shade of sympathy .... but anyway, that's what they do. Near the inn, there's a really beautiful museum giving a lot of background to this curious tradition and

also offering you the chance to dress up as a namahage yourself, in rice straw cape and shoes. Sorry it's a bit blurry, I wasn't using flash.

And when fully dressed you might look a bit like this....

Here is T. trying on a mask for size. 

and local kids had done some terrific, and terrifying murals, although, as you see the kid in the green sweater at the bottom of the picture is obviously finding the whole thing really amusing...  there's always one, isn't there?

In fact, the Namahage are the popular face of another very similar tradition, the Yamahage. Confusingly, the Yamahage, although they look and act in a similar way,  are much more rustic and are not a tourist attraction, and are more associated with having a good rice harvest.   As in many parts of rural Japan, though, the young are fleeing to Tokyo and other big cities, and the private old religious customs are struggling to survive in their pure and original form. So the Yamahage, with their simple rice straw masks are falling foul of the plain fact that you need to be young and quite serious about the rice harvest to tramp around for hours through sub-zero winter woods while dressed in straw.  It is as well that the Namahage are keeping their traditions alive.

Anyway, there are religious roots to both Namahage and Yamahage, as you can see from zigzag white streamers the creatures carry (below and first picture). 

I would love to go into this in more detail but I don't want this post to be full of my rather half-baked thoughts on Japanese folklore, so I'll just say that I bought the twins some splendid Namahage socks in the fantastic gift shop. I was also a bit tempted by this keyring of Jibanyan, "Yokai Watch"'s fire raising cat, as a Namahage.   Don't you think it's cute?

By the time we'd seen the museum it was gone lunchtime, so we drove a little further on to a fish restaurant our friends knew. We would never have found this on our own. It's a simple place, with plastic tables and a couple of Japanese style low tables, and all over the walls are pictures of the owners and their friends.  Basically they get fish from the sea each day, chop it up and cook it with vegetables in a wooden dish containing red hot stones.  It is really, really delicious, and, as always in Japan, beautifully presented with many side dishes.

The owners were so cheerful and friendly, chatting and joking with their customers. They posed for their picture.

And since we were their very last lunch customers of the day, they came out and waved us goodbye when we left, also bowing as is the Japanese custom.

We drove back via some wild, windy and unspoiled coastal scenery. By now the sun was starting to appear.  I could have stayed for far longer and taken a walk by the sea...

But we had to get back to collect our friend's son from school!

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Akita - text fixed.

(I posted this in a hurry without checking how it appeared, and then found it was nearly illegible because of a load of junk html which had appeared.  Blogger does this. I've now removed the junk)

Whenever we told our various Japanese friends we would be visiting Akita, they asked, politely,  "Why is this?"    I think they were surprised to find that Western visitors with a limited time in Japan would make the long trip up to this rather remote area.   But actually, Akita was fantastic.  We originally headed there because we were staying with people who lived there, but something about the region  "spoke" to me, and I would love to return another time.  

One place I'd particularly like to return to is Nyuto Onsen.   This is actually a collection of ryokans (traditional inns with hot springs) inside the Towada Hachimantai National Park.    Weather permitting, you can hike in the surrounding mountain and valleys, and visit all the ryokans and onsens if you feel like it.  The picture below shows the type of scenery, (although I think they only have sections of boardwalk in ecologically sensitive or marshy areas.)  

  We visited in October and were lucky to catch the most spectacular autumn leaves. 

I like to know what trees I'm looking at, and I did identify beech and maple, both of which have brilliantly coloured foliage, but many of the other trees weren't familiar and as you see there was quite a variety, stretching away for miles. 

Given unlimited time and money, I think I'd have hiked some of the trails between several different ryokan, but we only had time to visit Tsurunoyu Onsen, perhaps the best known of them all.   You approach it via a very narrow road. this picture doesn't show the hairpin bends and steep gradients and the deep ditches - but it is certainly rustic. Passing the occasional car or bus was a bit of a challenge, and I did wonder how people manage when it's deep in snow - they most certainly do come then, because the onsens look fabulous and are popular in the winter.  Anyway, we got there in one piece, with me admiring trees all the way - partly so that I didn't have to think about the hairpin bends and steep drops...

And I loved the many lively streams and  little waterfalls in the woods.

This ryokan has traditional samurai-era lodgings - you can see some of them in the photo below.  Here, you live in traditional Japanese style, and your food is cooked for you in a fire pit in the floor.  I was too polite to photograph the people I saw through open doors and windows, sitting and eating.

The central pathway shown below leads to the pools.  And I'm sorry to be disappointing, but I was too polite to snap away with my camera there too.  The tradition is that you are quite naked, and although it did not bother me, I am not sure I'd have liked someone coming in and taking photos of me.      

The women's pool, Kodakara-no-yu (I'm told it means “blessed with children”) is three or four feet deep. It seems to be almost unchanged from centuries ago, with its bamboo pipes bringing in natural hot and cold water,  rough wooden changing shelter hewn from logs, and long white banners hanging over the entrance.  It is milky green-white in colour, and pretty hot, and a couple of strides from its edge there's a tiny shrine, set on the black volcanic rock. Traditionally, women who hoped to conceive used this pool and prayed at the shrine.

 I learned afterwards that the shrine is supposed to have a sculpture of a penis in it, but somehow I missed seeing that.  So I guess I won't be having any more children as a result of my visit. 

This is the entrance to the mixed pool, which you can glimpse if you look at the little opening on the left.

The place has been left in a very natural state, very clean but not groomed and "prettified."  Being surrounded by silence and natural beauty is very relaxing, although if you got near to the waterwheel, you could hear it trundling around. 

I'd like to write a bit about the Namahage, godlike creatures who live in the mountains and visit homes in the depths of Akita's harsh and snowy winters at New Year.  Also about some wonderful architecture that we saw.   But that will have to wait for my next post.  I will leave you with a picture of the famous Akita dog.

This breed is rather like a husky, bred to cope with the savage winters. It is said to be an independent and dominant breed that is fond of its owners but doesn't relate well to strangers.  Although we called to this one, it took absolutely no notice of us but continued to lie there with its eyes obstinately closed.  Perhaps that is how it showed it was independent and dominant and didn't like strangers.   But what a lovely dog, or at least I thought so.

(By the way, I have been meaning to say that my artist pal The Chubby Chatterbox has a superb picture giveaway on his blog - and it only has two days to run.  Take a look here for more details. )

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