A Big City With a Small-Town Feel

Figure 1: Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion)Temple is a Zen temple whose top two floors are covered in gold leaf.

Kyoto is synonymous with incredible temples, cherry blossoms, parks, markets, serene gardens, tea ceremonies, traditional ryokan and craftsmanship.  It was once the imperial capital of Japan for over 1000 years and the finest gardens have been developed over centuries by many levels of society  namely the aristocrats and the monks.  It is no wonder that Kyoto was voted by travelers as the world’s best city, twice.


Learning that Kyoto was nearly bombed during World War II, was shocking .  Kyoto was the first target proposed to test out the capability of a nuclear bomb, the Little Boy, if the military brass had its way.  The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would have included Kyoto as well.  On that fateful day in April 1945, when a meeting in Pentagon was held, the Target Committee decided to play God and met to discuss the selection of targets for nuclear bombing (according to Alex Wellerstein on blog.nuclearsecrecy.com).  Had it not been for the personal intervention by Henry L Stimson, the then US Secretary of War, Kyoto would have been  nuclear-bombed, its gardens  destroyed and buried under a sea of rubble.


It took us about two hours by limousine bus over a distance of about 100 kilometers from Kansai International Airport to reach Kyoto bus station. Our first destination was the air b&b accommodation, Mountain Retreat.  Mountain Retreat was  neatly tucked in the quiet neighbourhood in the periphery of the mountains in Kinugasa Akasakacho Kyoto-shi, in the Prefecture of Kyoto in the Kansai region of Japan.  Kinugasa Hills was a convenient choice because museums such as the Insho Domoto Museum of Fine Arts and the Kyoto Museum for World Peace were within walking distance.  Located at the foot of the gently-sloping Kinugasa Hills is the famous temple Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavilion (Fig: 1).  Taking a bus from  Kinkakuji temple, would bring us to the Central Bus Station in downtown Kyoto.


Kinukake-no-michi Road runs between Kinkakuji Golden Pavilion Temple and Arashiyama. Along the way it passed through many of the famous world-heritage sites such as the Ryoan-ji temple (famous 15-rock Zen garden), Ninna-ji temple (Fig: 2) in Omuro and Tenryu-ji temple in Arashiyama, also campus of the University Ritsumeikan, Museum of Fine Arts of Insho Domoto and the Museum for World Peace.

Figure 2: Kyoko-chi pond in Ninnaji temple with the pagoda called the Kondo Hall,  in the background.

Koji and his son were already waiting to greet us when we reached Mountain Retreat that morning.  Koji was a slight built man of about 37 years of age. He and his partner were tinkering with plants in his greenhouse.  Growing the plants was by no means a mere passion but one that paid him well. Koji spoke very little English but was always ready with a smile. I later found out that a little greeting of “sumimasen” or “ohio” and a slight bow will get you attention and possibly answers in English.


I was excited to be able to get a feel for traditional Japanese style accommodation. Tourists can experience staying in a washitsu (Fig: 3) in a ryokan or a temple to get a feel for Japanese living. The room called a washitsu, came with tatami mats and a futon mattress.  This futon mattress can be folded and stored away during daytime thus giving the room an impression of space.  The tatami mat is made of dried, woven rushes which are then wrapped around and sewn to a core.  Traditionally, the core consisted of rice straw, though now it is often synthetic material.  The washitsu room was introduced during the Muromachi period and was used by the nobles as a study room.


The washitsu came with a low table for us to eat from and a low, legless chair called zaisu tatami chair.  I may be Asian and used to sitting on the floor with folded legs but having to sit in a zaisu tatami chair to eat was tricky even for me.  There was no sliding door, thank goodness for that.  The downside to this accommodation was that the bathroom was located outside, some four flights of steps below our room.

Figure 3: A typical washitsu in one of the temples we visited in Kyoto.

The next thing we did was rent bicycles from Koji at ¥500 each.  Cycling around  Kyoto is a must.  It allows a more intimate look at the regular Japanese going about their life.  We did not manage to cycle through the oldest streets of Kyoto i.e Sannenzaka and Ninenzaka  but as we made our way back to Mountain Retreat, we did see traditional wooden shop houses like this one below (Fig:4).


Figure 4: A traditional wooden shop-house, on the street we took to get back to Mountain Retreat.

For most locals, cycling is a normal mode of transport. I saw mothers packing their little ones in baskets, the small one in the front basket while the bigger one was seated behind.  I also saw an old lady, in the  80s, effortlessly paddling on the road.  Her stamina would put you and me to shame.


Kyoto is voted to be one of the best bicycle cities in Asia for so many reasons.  The city is relatively  flat, the roads are well maintained and more importantly, Kyoto drivers are sane and patient.  There were also plenty of places where you can easily rent a bicycle. Besides, there were  ample parking spaces for bicycles in the grounds of the temples and museums.  And the Japanese in Kyoto were so honest that you could actually leave your bicycles unlocked.  Visiting the city in May would be perfect for cycling.


Among the stops we made while cycling, was the Kyoto Museum for Peace.  It is the world’s first peace museum, established after  two world wars and tens of millions of lives lost.  It was established by the Ritsumeikan University, as a social responsibility to reflect upon history and promote the development of a peaceful society it thought was necessary to build a peaceful world.  The museum was located far down the road parallel to the Ritsumeikan University campus that you could almost miss it, if you were not careful.  After going through the two floors of the museum for about two hours, I came to appreciate  how going through natural disasters and the World War II have conditioned the Japanese into a resilient, tolerant and disciplined people.  And more importantly, they were  able to draw on a sense of social order, unlike scenes in natural disasters in Haiti and New Orleans. There was little anger or looting amongst the Japanese, according to abcnews.go.com/ report, following the aftermath of such natural disasters like tsunami, earthquake in 2011, 2014 etc.


The first day we cycled a total distance of 15 kilometers, with some stops in between, mainly for a gasp of air.  We visited at least two temples (namely Kinkaku-ji and Ryoan-ji). Another stop we made while cycling around Kyoto was for vanilla ice cream at an ice cream parlor on Nishioji Street. The cafe made beautiful concoctions of fresh fruits and ice cream. The second day we cycled another 12 kilometers to Ninnaji temple and the two museums.  On other days we took buses and trains.


Cycling along the streets of  Kyoto gave me a sense of being in the midst of an ancient centre of Japanese culture.  Kyoto’s history is tangible and accessible on many levels.  Going about in Kyoto means coming face-to-face with that heritage on a daily basis.  While walking on the street towards a bus stop, glimpses of that traditional  life surfaces – an old wooden entrance gate; a sweeping temple roof; a tree-covered mountain;  a traditional wooden shophouse (Fig4) ; ladies in  kimono walking on the streets (Fig:5); a zen monk wearing a traditional kasa straw hat walking past (Fig: 6); and a traditional hand-pulled rickshaw (Fig: 7).  Kinugasa Hills in north western Kyoto was perfect, being completely surrounded by nature.  The nature, the old buildings, the surrounding mountains and a population density almost 3.5 times lower than that of the Tokyo metropolis, all convey a small-town feel to Kyoto.


I love Kyoto….the big city with a small-town feel.

Figure 5: Korean tourists clad in traditional kimono walking towards the entrance to Tenryu-ji Temple, Arashiyama.
Figure 6: A Zen monk (?) in traditional Japanese robes and kasa straw hat walking past. I did not notice any straw sandals.
Figure 7: A traditional hand-pulled rickshaw, in Sagano bamboo forest in Arashiyama…a muscular young man tucking the ladies in the pulled rickshaw.
Cherry blossoms painted on a hand-fan symbolizes richness and good luck.

September 2016

The Dance of Death

bullfight image
Figure 1: Up close image of a veronica pass in a bullfight in the Madrid’s Las Ventas- taken from Wikimedia Commons, 2014.


As the first bull entered the ring through the gate charging with a soft galloping rush, the matador and his team immediately began assessing the bull’s reactions using their capote and their voices.  The work with the capote is often seen as one of the most visually appealing parts of the bullfight. The basic and most classic pass performed during this phase is called the “veronica”.  Each bullfighter tries to give a personal interpretation of this pass (Fig 1).


It was a known fact that Ernest Hemingway the writer, was a regular at bullfights across Spain, forming friendships with some leading matadors of that time (http://www.telegraph.co.uk).  He explored his own thoughts on the fear and courage involved in bullfights.  If there was anyone who could describe a “veronica” pass well,  it had to be Hemingway:

“Without hesitation, the bull charged at Chicuelo.  The kid stood his ground, simply swung back on his heels and floated his cape like a ballet dancer’s skirt in to the bull’s face as it passed.  “Ole” roared the crowd. The bull whirled and charged again.  Without moving Chicuelo repeated the performance again.  His legs rigid, just withdrawing his body from the rush of the bull’s horns, he floated the cape with that beautiful swing.  Again the crowd roared!  Each time he gave the bull a free shot at him, missing him by inches”

(1923 Hemingway Papers, Ernest Hemingway)

Figure 2: End of Phase 1, the matador in green suit of lights together with his band of support crews of banderilleros and picadors (on horse-back) (as seen from the top of the stadium where we were seated).

I heard many ole from the stands that Wednesday evening (Fig 2).   All of a sudden, the entire stadium stood up exploding in a gasp of horror, triggered by an adrenaline rush. A body was suddenly tossed up into the air by a bull in a moment of a careless pass.  Even though the toss was not fatal, it was easily an eight foot toss no doubt.  The matador picked himself up while his banderilleros tried to avert the bull’s attention with their capes and voices. But his finery was stained by the bull, bloodied by the piercings of the lances of the banderillas and picadors.


It seemed that some matadors were not so lucky.  In early July 2016, 29 year old professional matador Victor Bario was tossed into the air and then gored in a bullfight in eastern town of Teruel.  He died on the way to the hospital.  Incidentally Victor Barrio was at the San Isidro Bullfighting Festival in Madrid in May 2016.  He was probably one of the matadors on the Wednesday bullfight that I attended in Las Ventas.


Once the matador gained control over the bull, a picador (wearing wide flat hats) sitting squarely on horseback, entered the arena for that final spike of the lance to inflict injury to the large muscle on top of the bull’s neck, the “morrillo”.  There was argument made by a veterinary group in a Madrid’s university, claiming that with each spike of the picador’s lance or the matador’s sword, the fighting bull would release high levels of beta endorphin hormones which produce pleasure, switching off the pain (https://www.telegraph.co.uk). Spain’s animal-rights group may not agree.



The final phase was the matador’s one-on-one encounter with the bull using the famous one-handed red cape, the “muleta.   The performance with the muleta, was the climax of the matador’s artistic display. The matador strove to display an aesthetically and technically coherent performance which culminated in the killing of the bull.  A skilled matador could kill a bull with one artistic pass and a swift, precise single thrust of the steel blade into the bull’s neck (the coup de grace).   The perfect kill comes from a perfect sword thrust accompanied by a stroke of good luck.


A few tourists left halfway through the bullfight, unable to continue watching the gory scene. The dead bull was dragged around the arena by the horses as  the entire  stadium grew aesthetic.  The crowd sparked by intense euphoria and chanting all the time, rushed into the midst of the arena to ‘shoulder’ and parade the king of matadors around the arena.  Even though Ernest Hemingway never apologized for it, there is no other way of looking at bullfighting as just a systematic and brutal killing of an animal for sport, putting aside the artistry of matador passes and technical precision using the banderillas and the cape.


Opinion polls have shown that 60% of Spaniards do not want the bullfighting tradition to continue. Despite the argument that bullfight enthusiasts put forth that execution of passes and the final kill is a dance of skill and art, the animal rights activists claimed that bullfighting is a cruel, barbarous blood sport in which the bull suffers severe stress and a slow tortuous death.


It seemed that bulls killed in the Las Ventas are sent to a slaughterhouse.  In Portugal, it is unlawful to kill the bull but in Spain, the bull is killed at  the end of the bullfight.  As one matador, Juan Jose Padilla put it, “In our culture, bulls are born to be killed” (vice.com, Guille Alvarez, June 2017).  I thought I saw  a restaurant in the neighbourhood of Madrid’s Las Ventas, suggesting “rabo de toro de lidia” which is a stew made of the tails of fighting bulls which came from the bullring.   Bull meat has a wild taste because the bull dies in the fever of the fight, according to http://www.livescience.com.


There were two images that would haunt me for a very long time.  One was when the bull’s legs buckled under him, staggering and collapsing as the steel blade was driven into the back of his neck in the midst of the cheering and screaming of approvals by the stadium.  The other was when the dead bull was dragged around the arena by the horses for everyone to see.


During the long walk back to the hotel, I began to understand why, on my way to the Plaza de Toros, the taxi driver kept asking me if I knew anything about bullfights and if I was really sure I wanted to watch one! No matter how one sees it, a bullfight is just a cruel, elaborate dance of death between man and beasts.

(May, 2016,  1133 words)


Romancing the Bull

Figure 1: Plaza de Toros de la Maestranza de Caballeria de Sevilla, dating back to 1762-1881, Seville.

Ernest Hemingway, the writer, believed that there are only three activities that could be called sports, namely: bullfighting, motor racing and mountaineering. All the rest are merely games, he said.   Later on, perhaps driven by moral dilemma, he changed his opinion about bullfighting:

“Bullfighting is not a sport.  It was never supposed to be.  It is a tragedy.  A very great tragedy. The tragedy is the death of the bull played in three definite acts. Bullfighting symbolises a struggle between man and beasts”

(Hemingway Papers)


To others, bullfighting is never a sport.  It is often considered a ritual, an art, but never a sport.  Aficianados, lovers or fans of bullfighting, insist that bullfighting is an art form with a sporting character.  Whatever the opinion  is, watching a bullfight for the first time, can be a mix of emotions…intrigue, artistic, dangerous, heart-wrenching.


I could not appreciate the fascination people have for the bullfighting ritual.  However when we arrived at the hotel reception in Madrid on 24 May, we were told there was a bullfight at 7pm that very evening, if we wanted to watch one. Even though bullfighting was never on our to-do-list, we decided to give it a shot.  After all, we were first-time travelers to Madrid.  I was advised to go with an open mind, since I was seeing a bullfight for the very first time.


I heard that the best time to watch a bullfight is in May or June, when Madrid holds its world-famous bullfighting event called San Isidro Festival.  Ticket price depends on how close your seat is to the ‘arena’ and whether you are in the sun or the shade.  I saw a website called madridbullfighting.com offering tickets at €149 for a platinum seat, €89 for a gold seat and €45 for a bronze seat. We got our tickets from the ticket counter at €10 each so it’s not hard to imagine where our seats would be located….right at the top of the stadium, with the afternoon spring sun shining brightly.



The best plaza de toros in Spain are in Seville, Cordoba and Madrid.  The magnificent bullring La Monumental Maestranza (Fig.1) in Seville together with Las Ventas in Madrid (Fig 2) are considered to be two of the oldest and most important in the world.  The best bullfighters fought in them and is the perfect place to experience the electric atmosphere of a corrida (bullfight).


The Maestranza building with an impressive baroque façade dates back to 1762 – 1881 with a seating capacity of 14,000.  Despite its size, the acoustics allow you to hear everything wherever you are seated.  Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas is the 3rd largest bullring in the world and is the most famous with a reputation for being the hardest bullring for matadors to succeed.  It is located in Guindalera quarter of the district of Salamanca, east Madrid with a seating capacity of 25,000.  It was built in 1929 and held its first bullfight in 1930.  Every year, 2000 bullfights are held here which meant a total of 12,000 bulls would have been killed every year.


While some cities have banned bullfighting altogether, Madrid has taken it to a new level, protecting bullfighting as an art form, of special cultural value.  Given the huge economics of the bullfighting industry, it is understandable that the city refused to consider a ban.  Anyone guilty of trying to stop bullfights is subject to fines for attempting to damage Madrid’s cultural heritage.  In fact a Royal Decree was drawn up in 1996, which laid out standards for the characteristics of bulls to be used in a bullfight.

Figure 2: Plaza de Toros de las Ventas, Madrid, where San Isidro Festival is held.



I was wondering which sport commands a bigger following in Madrid – bullfighting or football?  Despite thousands of protesters demanding an end to bullfighting, that Wednesday evening saw the Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas (Fig. 2) overflowing with enthusiasm and brimming with excitement. The Plaza was full.  Before the doors to the Plaza were opened, we decided to walk around the grounds of the Plaza.  There were hawkers selling all kinds of nuts, sweets, drinks and souvenirs.  Enthusiasts were lingering around waiting for friends to show up.  A group of matured Spaniards were deep in discussion, some laughing away in the shade of the endearing copper statute of El Toro (Fig. 3).  This must most probably be those highly opinionated group of enthusiasts called aficianados.

Figure 3: A meeting of aficianados in the shade of the endearing El Toro, Plaza de Toros, Madrid, during the San Isidro festival in May.

The majority of the enthusiasts were elderly or matured male Spaniards.  It seemed bullfights attract real ‘aficianados’ of the bullfighting world and they are ‘devotees’ of the bullfighting ritual. It seemed good aficianados watch the bull as closely as they watch the bullfighter.  But some older aficianados watch mainly for the bull’s courage, strength, determination and ferocity. They spent time to speculate on the bull’s character and look for defects.  One can easily recognise these aficianados; they come in small groups, armed with crates of beer in their arms, ready for the two hours or so of an adrenaline rush.


That Wednesday afternoon, a fairly good mix of age groups were lingering inside the stadium.  Some were a younger (most probably) local crowd and some were tourists like me, with a dubious curiosity for the sport.  I was seated next to some tourists from Taiwan, who came armed with cameras and field glasses.  A beautiful green-eyed Spanish young lady came “dressed for a party”, carefully picking her way through some 10 or so flights of tight, narrow steps on her 6-inch stiletto!

I could feel the excitement building up as the crowd started filling up the stadium…



The traditional and most common bullfight format sees three matadors alternating in facing and ultimately killing six bulls over the course of roughly two and a half hours. This format is followed in Spain, Mexico, France and other countries with this tradition.


The opening parade or paseíllo was led by two horsemen called marshalls, in black velvet with ruffs around their necks.  Behind the two horsemen came the bullfighters with their support crew.  The three matadors (the star performers distinguished by wearing a suit of lights with gold embroidery) entered the ring together with their cuadrillas, their support crews of banderilleros and picadors.  The parade also included the red-shirted monosabios who smooth out the sand between bullfights.


The bullfight would commence in three phases (or tercio).  The First Phase saw the entrace of the bull and the act of the lances.  The Second Phase commenced with the act of the banderillas.  The Final Phase saw the use of the muleta termed Moment of Truth.  Each phase was distinguished by the equipment used to maim or kill the bull – the lances, the banderillas and the seemingly-innocent muleta. 


It was a dance of courage, fear and grace between man and beast.  After all, at the heart of all romanticism is suffering….a suffering that ends in the death of either the bull (most probably) or the matador (occasionally).

(Check out the second installment on bullfighting titled “The Dance of Death” in the upcoming 15th February post).

(May 2016, 1218 words)