Friday, April 24, 2015

Perfectly contained wilderness - Japanese irises in the Imperial Palace East Garden in Tokyo

Rolling fields of Japanese irises in full bloom - a lovely illusion of wilderness and a perfect contrast to the "formal" parts of the Imperial Palace East Garden.
Despite having walked around the Imperial Palace grounds on my previous trips to Tokyo, this was the first time that I actually entered the East Garden. I'm not quite sure why - but better late than never, I guess.

This 52 acre park is surrounded by deep moats, dramatic stone walls, and reached through several stone bridges and gates. It was built on grounds that belonged to the Edo Castle, the seat of the Tokugawa Shoguns that ruled Japan from 1603 to 1868. After that, the Meiji Restoration re-established the Imperial family's power, Edo was named Tokyo, and the Imperial family moved here from Kyoto. The palace has been rebuilt at least twice, first after a great fire in the late 19th century, and then due to destruction during the World War II. The East Garden forms its own area on the side of the actual palace complex, and is the only part of the Tokyo Imperial Palace grounds that is open to public.
 Seimon Ishibashi bridge leads to the main entrance to the palace (the entrance to the gardens available to public is on the east side of the palace grounds).

The huge moat remains from the Edo period, together with several beautiful guard towers.
 The monumental stone walls are so beautiful - I love the arched (do you call them that...?) corners, they are so typically Japanese in form.
The adjective most often used to describe these gardens seems to be "manicured" - with a hint of... I'm not quite sure what, arrogance maybe, or some kind of imagined superiority. I'm not sure why. I mean, what would you expect from a garden just outside the palace and residence of Emperor Akihito, the 125th emperor of his line? Not an avant garde patch with experimental plantings, but a garden that transmits the permanence and continuity of the imperial office and the Japanese culture through their traditional garden design - definitely not one that is just "accidentally there".
The wilder parts of the gardens, closer to the outer edge, with meadows filled with Japanese irises under cherries, most of which had already finished flowering.

 Iris japonica, such a perfect plant for the Emperor's gardens.

The irises and cherries were nearly done with their blooming; kerrias, azaleas and wisterias were just beginning theirs.

A little stream under Japanese maples just furling out their leaves, together with grasses and variegated bamboos...

 One more picture of the Japanese irises... I loved the wild and free feeling of some parts of the gardens.
Anyway. The walls and moats form a strong, impressive frame to the garden as you enter the garden  - they can't be seen from inside, but the impression stays in your mind. In the actual garden, paths linger around beds of bearded irises form like rivers through the garden; hedges of azaleas and rhododendrons are closely trimmed into sculptural forms; behind ponds, they disappear into a wilderness of rolling fields filled with Japanese irises. The whole effect is based on the contrast of the contained and the wild. All carefully planned, executed and maintained, of course - but then, what else would you expect of a garden of this rank?
Only very few cherries were still in flower here, but the buds of the wisteria (see pergola in the middle of the picture) were swelling, and will be gorgeous just in a couple of weeks.

A tiny waterfall run down into from the wilder parts of the garden into the pond below.

Yet another angle on the pergola - several artistically pruned pines were part of the gardens.
The lovely Suwa no chaya tea house, also from the Edo period, is part of the gardens - unfortunately (and understandably...), no tea was served here to the strolling visitors.  

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Peony gazing in Ueno Park in Tokyo

Entrance to the peony garden in Ueno Park in Tokyo.

Last week was our spring break and we spent it in Tokyo, almost exactly two years since our previous trip there. This year's spring had been warm, so all things green had developed a bit further than then. Still, we managed to catch loads of sakura trees in full bloom and even sit under then, with falling petals swirling down like snowflakes around us.

Paper parasols are used to protect the flowers from too much sun - such a typically Japanese, beautiful way to do things...

 Old ladies taking a rest in the shade.

More about the cherries later; another glorious favorite of the Japanese, the tree peony, was also just coming to full bloom in the gardens. While strolling around Ueno Park, the oldest of Tokyo's many public gardens, we popped into an area specifically dedicated to these sumptuous bloomers. It felt like we were transported back in time; the wooden signs showing the names, and the bamboo shelters and paper parasols protecting the flowers were just like in some old pictures I'd seen, depicting "peony gazing" in Japan during long gone eras.

A hand-colored 19th century photo of ladies gazing peonies in Tokyo - maybe even in the Ueno Park?
Tree peonies are thought to have arrived to Japan from China already in the 8th century, but their cultivation became widely popular first in the Edo Period (1603 to 1868). Due to this long history, they are often depicted in visual arts and poetry, representing good fortune as well as a righteous and noble spirit.

Nothing seems to have changed in the arrangement of the flowers during the last hundred years...

Mainly older Japanese ladies and gentlemen were admiring the huge peony blooms, frequently stopping to discuss their specifics along their route around the rised flower beds. Many of them took countless pictures of the flowers, with huge lenses for recording their minute details. It felt just like they'd never seen such beauties before, even if their ages clearly showed that it couldn't be the case. This was all about the peonies and nothing else; very few other plants were allowed to mingle and distract from the stars of the show.

My favorite old uncle - first, he examined the flowers carefully, then took what seemed like thousands of photos of them with his special lens...

A couple of weeks, and the fleeting glory of the peonies is over; just like the sakura, maybe the favorite flower of the Japanese, they are such a great reminder of how nothing is everlasting.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Notes from the Yanyue Hutong in Beijing

A grocery store at the Yanyue Hutong in Beijing, just a short walk from the Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City (or Palace Museum, as it is more officially called today).
Last Saturday, the Financial Times ran an article about the hutongs of Beijing, or more closely, about how the Prince of Wales's Foundation of Building Community is trying to help saving some of these for the posterity by trying to revive the craftsmanship needed for the restoration and upkeep of the buildings. Which is of course great, even if you would think there would be money and skills closer to home...
A young father with his daughter in one of the alleys in the Yanyue Hutong.

A gathering point near the police station (picture below) - I took these photos in the morning; the chairs and benches were filled with retirees when the sun came out in the afternoon.
 A street side garden with chillies, gourds and aubergines, still going strong in the end of October.

 Even the inner courtyards seemed to have gardens, as tops of trees and diverse edible climbers peeked above the walls. The ends of the tiles carry the round character of "shou" for longevity, and the half-round end tiles between the shou-character ones are in the form of a bat, which represents the wish for good luck.
Anyway, the article reminded me of the week in last October, that we spend living in the middle of one of the less know of these hutongs, in a small hotel built into one the historical courtyards (yes, we are "adventurous" like that; I'm always on the hunt for something a bit different, sometimes to my family's delight and sometimes - not). Luckily, this stay was a success; the tiny hotel was suitably historical and pretty (if somewhat difficult to reach with a taxi & difficult to get one from), the personnel extremely friendly and helpful, and the chef cooked us the most delightful meals and even arranged a birthday dinner complete with a cake and candles, when she heard that my youngest had her 12th birthday one of our days there.

Local police station from another time - it was difficult to believe that we were in the middle of Beijing, the capital of a country that so many are afraid will "take over" the world soon...

A gateway into a cluster of residential buildings - a wedding had taken place here recently; the symbols for "double happiness", a typical well-meaning wish for newly weds, were still hanging on both sides of the doorway.
Why a hutong, then? Hutongs could be described as low-rise courtyard house communities, that have been part of the traditional life and culture of Beijing and other old cities in China for hundreds of years. The word hutong means a lane or an alleyway, and comes from a Mongolian word for "a water well" - in the 13th century when Mongolian rulers took over China, they even imported their way to dig a well and then build courtyards with buildings to live in and lanes around them. These clusters of courtyard houses, often with finely decorated gateways, are called siheyuan. Despite being hundreds of years old,  a huge number of hutongs have been bulldozed to give place for modern housing - so many, that in 2003 the Human Rights Watch actually placed them on their watch list as an attempt to help their desperate residents. Today, some siheyuans have been snapped up by the new mega-rich of China, which means that the actual buildings are saved, but the communal life of the hutong is gone forever.

 An entrance and a glimpse into yet another cluster of courtyard houses - I wasn't brave enough to ask if I could go in to see more.

A local small business for steamed buns, sold piping hot from the back of the bicycle.
Wandering through the small alleys, I can understand how some residents gladly exchange their dwelling for modern apartments - many of the buildings were extremely run down and probably cold and draughty in winter and hot in summer. Electricity wirings seemed to be of questionable quality, and I would think that sanitation would be a problem, too, given the looks of the environment. But with right resources and skills, hutongs with their historic houses could be as pleasant to live in as they are charming. So I hope that not just the Prince of Wales's Foundation, but also their Chinese counterparts within cultural protection and heritage restoration get their act together, and work to save these living testimonies to Beijing's long history.

A more modern gate, again in the very auspicious color of red and with a lovely decoration above...

... presenting two magpies and cherry blossoms. Magpies represent both a happily married couple and are also seen as a messenger for good news. Coupled with the blossoms, a symbol for spring and good news, they together express a wish for "double good news or good fortune" - what a lovely welcome to a home.

Yet another narrow alleyway...

 And a gateway into what I think is a lush courtyard, complete with a persimmon tree full of fruit towering above the walls.

 And just one last picture, from the courtyard of our little hotel, filled with magnolias, wisterias and other flowering wonders. We might have to return in springtime some day. 

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi - the most sacred of the sacred trees

Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi, a direct descendant of the Bodhi tree under which the Buddha reached enlightenment.

I've always loved trees, so I wasn't surprised when my Tai Chi Master told during our first lesson that trees contain positive chi (a kind of a 'life force' in Daoism). Even more, he told that just being close to a large old tree will transfer some of that life force into one, which sounds quite natural to me. After all, the huge old oak in my garden in Saltsjöbaden has always seemed to radiate protection, like it would be tapping into some kind of a secret underground force with its deep root system.

Stone walls and a golden railing surround the tree; originally, these were built to keep the tree safe from hungry elephants and other 'predators'.

This explains partly why seeing the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi, the most sacred of all living sacred trees in Buddhism, was nonnegotiable while traveling in Sri Lanka - even if the huge flooding in the northern parts of the island almost managed to keep us from it. But I'm very happy we managed to get there; the sacred Bodhi of Anuradhapura definitely seemed to have an aura of that special 'life force' around it.
So why so sacred? It all goes back to the birth of Buddhism. The founder of the religion was born in sixth century BC as Prince Siddhartha Gautama. After years of spiritual searching, he finally reached enlightenment after meditating intensively under a tree in a place called Bodh Gaya in Northern India. From then on, he became known as the Buddha - and befittingly, the tree was renamed the 'Bodhi' - the tree of enlightenment. 

Golden supports (and some less fancy ones) protect the remaining branch of the tree from circa 288 BC. The rest of the tree consists of younger branches, grown from cuttings from the original tree (several cuttings of different ages are propagated on the site,to ensure continuity even in the future).
Bodhi is traditionally translated into English as 'enlightenment', but literally it means 'awakened'. The verbal root "budh" means 'to awaken' - hence the Buddha, the 'Awakened One', or the 'Enlightened One'. A sacred tree of not just for Buddhists but even for Hindus and Jains, the Bodhi was aptly named Ficus religiosa  in the Linnean binomial nomenclature, and is known even by the names of peepal/peepul and the bo-tree. 
The old Bodhi is sacred and highly revered; whole families from tiniest babies to grandparents came with flower offerings and said their prayers in front of the huge tree.
The Jaya Siri Maha Bodhi in Anuradhapura is said to be the oldest living historical tree in the world, with a well-documented past. It was first brought as a cutting in a golden vessel from the original Tree of Enlightenment in Bodh Gaya to Sri Lanka by nun Sanghamitta, who was a daughter of Emperor Ashoka. After spending a couple of years in its golden container, it was planted in 288 BC in the Mahameghavana Park in Anuradhapura by King Devanampiyatissa. The original Bodhi in Bodh Gaya has since died, and the tree growing there is a cutting taken from Jaya Siri Maha Bodhi in Anuradhapura - so the circle of rebirth continues...

During its lifetime - an astonishing 23 centuries - the Jaya Siri Maha Bodhi has seen empires and kingdoms rise and fall. It has been ravaged by storms and attacked by elephants (hence the stone wall with golden railings), almost been overtaken by the jungle, and even seen a massacre  in 1985, when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelan ('Tamil Tigers') killed some 170 monks and nuns by its feet. But even if only one large branch of the original tree remains, it is still deeply revered by Buddhist of all ages and all nationalities as a living reminder of the life and teachings of the historical Buddha.

Beautiful flowers sold outside the to the devotees outside the site of the Jaya Siri Maha Bodhi - pink and white lotuses, and blue waterlilies (Nymphaea stellata) that are the wonderful national flower of Sri Lanka. Flowers fade very fast, so they are meant to remind the devotees of the impermanency of all things and to inspire them to think of the virtues and teachings of the Buddha.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Sigiriya, a magnificent and mysterious palace in the clouds

Symmetry with a well-balanced touch of asymmetry (see that winding little path left from the central axis...?): view from the top of the huge Sigiriya rock, towards the water gardens at the foot of it.
When I travel, I try to be at least reasonable well prepared. I check out properly the places I am going to, read up on their history and sights, and generally do some research in advance in order to get as much as possible out of the trips. But at times, despite all this, some places still manage to take me by quite a surprise... Sigiriya on northeastern Sri Lanka managed to do exactly so during the recent holidays.
Now, Sri Lanka itself is quite a spectacular little island, filled with exquisite cultural sites, lush emerald green jungle, mines filled with precious stones, misty tea plantations and long sandy beaches. Its earlier names, Ceylon and Serendib (used by Arab traders  - the word "serendipity", meaning "fortunate happenstance" or "pleasant surprise" stem from this name...) still evoke thoughts of bygone days in the tropics.

View towards the Sigiriya rock rising from the jungle and with the advanced pleasure gardens leading to it - it is said that King Kassapa had 400 maidens living in his palace, and that he enjoyed watching them bathing in the large pools...
Primitive metal scaffolding leads to the top of the rock, which made me question what we had undertaken as I'm quite afraid of heights. In the ancient times, bamboo was used instead of metal, and I wonder how many builders lost their lives making the first version...
The history of the island goes back millenniums, and even written such about reaches about three thousand years back. Visited by seafarers since ancient times, and often attacked and even invaded or colonialized by foreign powers, those many cultures have added their own footnotes to the story of the island.
Given such a long, rich history, the island is filled with cultural treasures - for example, a total of eight UNESCO World Heritage sites are crammed within its compact shores. One of the most interesting of these (according to my own, very personal rating..) is Sigiriya, part a pleasure palace, part a fortress and part a sacred complex from the late 5th century. No-one knows what it was built for so its history is shrouded in mystery, the first written records are from almost 800 years after its glory days.

A couple of more pictures of the water gardens at the foot of the rock. Technically very advanced for their time, they even contain bubbling fountains, fed by water led via underground pipes from the higher levels.

Two pictures showing how the palace and other buildings on the rock were constructed: first, cuts were hacked into the stone; tiles were inserted into these, and walls built on the base. Many of the buildings have disappeared and only the initial cuts show on the rocks and cliffs.  
Rising some 200 meters above the jungle around, the site consists of vast pleasure gardens at the foot of the rock, and ruins of a palace on middle and top of it. Some historians believe that King Kassapa I (also spelled Kasyapa) built the huge complex during his 18-year long reign in late 5th century; others (what seems more realistic) think that he extended an existing holy site or Buddhist monastery.

Halfway up the rock, a difficult to reach rocky shelter in the vertical wall (the "orange band" in the rock wall in above pictures) houses rock paintings of extremely high artistic quality depicting 21 female figures called 'The Maidens of the Clouds'. There are many theories but no definitive answers to what these beautiful figures represent - they might be goddesses, or jewel-bedecked court ladies... For centuries after Kassapa's defeat, travelers came to Sigiriya just to see these lovely ladies, and scribbled their appreciative poems into the surrounding walls.

Kassapa's own history is another mystery. According to some sources, he committed patricide and threw his brother out of the country; then fearful for his defeated brother to return from exile to extract vengeance, built and moved into his fortress and palace on the top of the huge rock. Now, sitting at the top of a rock wouldn't seem smart as a strategy as it would be easy for any attackers to just cut out all supplies and wait until the targets would surrender, which makes many historians suspicious of the theory. But no-one has quite been able to put together the complete story; the only thing we know for sure is that Kassapa's brother did eventually come back, and that in the face of a certain defeat, Kassapa took his own life. Afterwards, Sigiriya was used as a Buddhist monastery (again?), and became one of the earliest tourist site probably in the whole world: a wall on the way up to the top still has well-preserved "graffitis" since 1600 years back - nothing is really new under the sun.

A terrace with water tanks halfway up the rock.

Not nearly as well-known as the Angkor Wat in Cambodia, I found Sigiriya every bit as impressive even if it is much smaller - no pictures, especially mine taken in a pouring rain, really make justice to the genius that planned and produced it. Just thinking of the ancient builders chiseling the steps into the vertical rock wall, and carrying all building materials on the top of the huge rock using only bamboo scaffoldings make be dizzy. As tourism at Sri Lanka has increasing fast since the 30-year long civil war ended in 2009, I'm not sure how this site can be properly protected from the negative effects of huge crowds (it is very sensitive, given the extreme nature of its construction), as even now, it seems on the brink of what the site can cope with. But I sincerely hope that careful thought and generous resources will be available to save it to the future generations.

The Lion Gate halfway up the rock; originally, it consisted of a face of a lion with the paws underneath (only the paws remain). It is thought to be a symbol of the Buddha, also called the "Lion of the Sakyas" (Sakya is the clan into which the historical Buddha was born into). 

Another view from the top of the rock, towards the water gardens below.

There are several water tanks and bathing pools even at the top of the huge rock; it is said, that Kassapa was fond of bathing - and of watching his court ladies bathing. Water is collected during the wet monsoon, but interestingly, there was even a hydraulic water pump system that provided water from the ground level.

One of the many natural stone "gates" leading from the top back to the ground level.
 Kassapa's deserted stone throne - it is said that he sat on the top level with his closest courtiers (upper left corner), and the visitors and administrators had to shout their messages to him from the stone set on the lower level (lower right in the picture). Sounds quite remarkable to me - but then, everything about Sigiriya is pretty remarkable... and absolutely magnificent.