“Isn’t Ukraine dangerous??” a friend of mine recently asked me.
In the case of Odessa, it’s most significant Black Sea port, nothing could be further from the truth. The war in the Donbass, the south-east region of Ukraine has blackened the image of this amazing country. But that should take nothing away from a place I’ve been privileged enough to visit on three occasions.
Odessa, is, on the surface, one of the most curious cities you’ll ever visit.
It’s a young city that feels much older, with its concoction of Baroque facades, shining shop windows, vintage Soviet mega-structures, and bright lights.
But beneath the façade, is a celebration of culture. Odessa is a wonderful mix of Ukrainian, Russian, Greek, Turkish, Balkan, Caucasian and Central Asian peoples in one charming enclave, as I was to find out later on in my journey.
IMPRESSIONS AND ILLUSIONS
The joie de vivre of Odessa can be felt as soon as you land in Odessa’s airport. This is definitely the best way of getting there, unless you are familiar with Ukrainian buses, or are touring the region in the relative comfort of a Ukrainian train. I highly recommend the latter if your intention is to see Ukraine for what it really is, a primarily rural, impoverished land but with charm and friendliness to spare.
A taxi ride to the city centre from the airport only takes 20-25 minutes, but to avoid being over-charged, it’s a good idea to arrange one well in advance.
The taxi ride will offer you an interesting impression of Odessa’s suburbs. The life emanating from the outer, and then inner suburbs give the impression of two different cities in existence. The darkened buildings have a character of their own, but there is no doubt that many of Odessa’s citizens are enveloped in a struggle for survival.
The closer you get to the city centre though, the more the multicultural verve becomes apparent. Deribasovskaya Street or Primorsky Boulevard are ideal bases for a visit here. Despite not being wholly representative of Odessa as it might be seen from local eyes, they offer great access to the city’s main attractions.
One of the best known of these is undoubtedly the Potemkin Steps, designed by Italian architect Franz Boffo. The stairs were designed in such a way, that if you stand at the top, the 192 steps look exactly the same width, even though the bottom steps are much wider.
The steps serve another purpose too. Odessa is Ukraine’s ‘mail-order’ brides capital, and newlyweds can be seen promenading across the top of the steps, or posing by the statue of the Duc de Richieleu for their wedding photographs.
The Duc is known as the city’s founder, and the butt of a well known local joke – which involved looking ‘at the Duke from the Manhole Cover’. Looking at the statue from this angle (i.e, to the left of the statue) the scroll which he clutches in his hand gives the illusion of being…well, something else.
BEYOND THE FAÇADE
Walking from Deribasovskaya Street towards the Potemkin Steps, you can’t miss the Italian façade of Odessa’s Opera and Ballet theatre. In addition to being a great photo opportunity, tickets are very reasonable, and the atmosphere and acoustics are equally impressive.
A sit-down in the City Garden and its bandstand is perfect in mid-afternoon. Plenty of cafés and restaurants adorn the area, as well as one of the few currency exchanges that’ll accept pound sterling.
The open-air military museum 9km from the city centre is well worth a visit. The presentation isn’t immaculate, but the array of exhibits is, despite the entrance not being immediately visible once you step off the bus…
UNDER THE SURFACE
Peeking into the character-filled (yet crumbling) 18th century buildings, and you find almost another world, which has everything from washing flapping on a line, to elderly people along with their thoughts, and possibly a cigarette.
A closer inspection will also uncover perhaps Odessa’s most famous feature – the catacombs. Until the late Soviet era, almost every yard in Odessa had its own entrance into the vast network of catacombs. However, the number of children wandering in and getting lost led to these entrances being closed, never to be re-opened. Today however, guided excursions are available to a small section of the catacombs on the outskirts of the city.
Being a port meant that a black market of goods soon thrived in Odessa, in the 18th century, the catacombs being the ideal way to move and store the contraband.
But during WWII, the network was utilised by the Ukrainian partisans in defence of the city, to strike at the occupying German & Romanian forces, who were responsible for decimating the Jewish community of Odessa, from whom the city derives much of its character.
A tour can range from anything from 3 hours to 12, depending on what you’re willing to pay, and your level of interest in this one of many ‘must-sees’ of Odessa.
WHERE TO STAY
Odessa happily caters for all types, and the Frapolli Hotel in Deribasovskaya Street, with its small and cosy downstairs bar and restaurant is the best example of this flexible approach, and I wouldn’t stay anywhere else. Friendly staff and spacious rooms ensure a more than pleasant stay. The tours offered are wide-ranging and can cater for everyone, and marks an opportunity well worth taking.
For something a bit more up-market, the legendary Londonskaya on Primorsky Boulevard is only 2 minutes from the Potemkin Steps and Opera & Ballet theatre, and offers a superb evening menu in particular. The classy façade is replicated within, and certainly deserves its reputation as the most luxurious hotel in the city.
If however, you’re more interested in mixing it up a bit more, there are a variety of agents who will let apartments at a variety of rates, depending on style and location. This is highly recommended if you wish to sample local culture at all levels, and is an excellent way of improving your spoken Russian (its being the most commonly spoken language in Odessa)
WINING & DINING
The city’s multi-cultural nature (with over 100 nationalities residing there) paves the way for a greatly diverse eating scene.
For traditional Ukrainian food, the ostentatious Kumanets is ideal. Despite the high prices and the need to book well in advance, the service is first rate, and being just opposite the City Garden, offers a tranquil, yet busy experience.
The French influence found at Maman, as well as the more general European feel of Pivnoi Sad, in the City Garden itself, offer a good deal of familiarity to the Western European clientele who like something a little bit closer to home. The ubiquitous German or Ukrainian pans in the latter are superbly priced, if a little heavy on the waistline!
Staying in the centre, only 100 yards or so from Odessa’s cathedral, is the almost anarchic establishment of Legend. This basement restaurant and wine cellar was built in the style of a medieval nobleman’s house, an idea conceived by the owner barely five years ago. Initially concerned by a possible lack of appeal, he’s seen the restaurant grow in stature and reputation, and its warm feel, from the crockery down to the port-cullised restrooms is an almost surreal joy. Two hundred yards down the street is the Merry Berry café, boasting a wide range of teas and hot chocolates, ideal for an after-dinner nightcap.
For those wanting a faster option, Mario’s Pizza on Sadova street offers a cheap and easy Italian menu to go, is open late at night, and easily within walking distance of most of the city centre hotels.
For me however, the cafes, as opposed to the evening restaurants, are what gives Odessa its charm. Klarabara, in the City Garden is, perfect in the sun, and with Lavazza coffee on the menu, one can’t go far wrong. Kompot, on Panteleimonivs’ka Street offers a traditional Ukrainian lunch menu with multiple varieties of sweet and savoury vareneiki and compote that’s made on site, that makes for a cosy (if calorific) experience.
Perhaps the most striking, and the most delicious though, is Lviv Handmade Chocolate at the western end of Deribasovskaya Street. Boasting a chocolaterie and coffee roasting house on the ground floor, and a café on the top floor, this is one rare occasion where your Russian will be answered with Ukrainian. The range of teas, hot chocolates, coffees and desserts is very impressive, and those waning a novelty chocolate or coffee gift for loved ones or friends should also pay a visit.
Odessa is a city that’s full of surprises. And I was the beneficiary of that very phenomenon, when I was asked by a friend to take a class on British culture, Brexit and Trump of all things, at the Pedagological University on my last day in the city.
Combining a mixture of first and fourth year English language students, I found a highly refreshing and dynamic atmosphere present everywhere in the University. The vast majority of the students were studying to satisfy their curiosity and thirst for knowledge, as opposed to merely securing a job which could enable them to buy a car.
Covering everything from the Anglo-American cultural relationship to the ideal itinerary for a UK holiday, I felt sad in a way that a lot of the students may well not be given the opportunity to fulfil their potential, given how Ukrainian higher education is perceived in the wider world.
Despite this, I had reason to smile. Their welcoming nature, humour, intelligence and spark convinced me that despite the instability that racks their country at the time of writing, the future of their country, as well as this energetic and enigmatic city, is in good hands.
Nathan Williams: Associate Director at Coutts, Coach, Tutor and Traveler out of hours
Even if you have never visited Japan, you must be familiar with Japan’s geisha culture. With their distinctive white face, red lips and elaborately decorated hairstyle, the geisha remain an enduring symbol of Japan. The word geisha means performance person. The geisha are the entertainers of Japan and their existence can be traced back to the 1600s (Edo period). To become a geisha, it takes years of training. Geisha typically begin their training as early as sixteen years of age and are called maiko (geisha in training). The maiko receive extensive coaching in singing, dancing and playing traditional Japanese instruments as well as the use of proper customs and social skills.
It was estimated that Japan had over 80,000 geisha at one time, today that number has dwindled down to 1,000 – 2,000. The geisha can primarily be found in Japan’s cultural capital of Kyoto. They continue to work in traditional teahouses as they have always done, entertaining and charming their clientele with their highly cultivated skills. But you do not have to travel to Kyoto to see the geisha. Hachioji, in western Tokyo, also has its own geisha culture.
Hachioji City is often overlooked by many people living in central Tokyo, but it is more densely populated than central London and has a vibrant city center. Easily accessible by the central JR Chuo Line from Tokyo or Shinjuku stations, the city is renowned for its traditional Japanese festival, the Hachioji Matsuri (八王子まつり).
The three-day festival is held in the beginning of August and includes a parade of mikoshi (portable shrines) and nineteen dashi (floats), music and dance performances and over three hundred food and gift stands. It is the largest festival in Hachioji. The festival also features performances by Hachioji’s geisha.
The geisha culture at its peak had 200-300 geisha working in over 30 restaurants in Hachioji, which was a busy transportation route to Edo (Tokyo). Today, there are less than 20 geisha working in the city. The geisha house in Hachioji is known as Yukinoe okiya, where 54-year-old geisha, Megumi is the okaasan (mother).
The geisha also participate in a series of geisha parades held in September. The women, dressed in their traditional kimonos, dance and play music as they weave through the streets just north of Hachioji Station. The parades are usually held between 6:00 to 9:00 PM and last 30 minutes.
So whether you are interested in learning more about the geisha culture or if you want to experience a traditional Japanese summer festival, take a quick trip to Hachioji. Hachioji Station is just 51 minutes from Tokyo Station on the Chuo Line.
Web page: http://www.hachiojimatsuri.jp/
It is common knowledge that alcohol is an important and accepted part of Japanese culture which extends to everything from social and business drinking to religious rites and traditional customs. The drinking age is 20 and public drinking and intoxication are not considered illegal in Japan. If anything, alcohol helps the Japanese to relax and serves as a social lubricant for essential bonding in an otherwise strictly regimented and lonely society.
Oftentimes, dining and drinking with your coworkers are an unspoken requirement in some companies. Many Japanese feel that after work parties are an important way to enhance relationships. It can be useful to understand who your coworkers are, their typical mindset when they are relaxed and outside of the office. In a typical Japanese company every aspect of the employee’s work is regulated. Everyone is seated right at the start of the day, lunch is strictly one hour from twelve noon sharp and talking with your colleagues is considered “shigo (private talk)” which should be kept to a minimum. Since there is not much room for establishing good or personal relationships at work, activities outside of office become necessary.
Bosses, “Joshi,” and senior team members,“Senpai,” invite the team, “Buka,” or junior staff, “Kohai,” to a quick dinner or a drink (which is never quick nor just one drink). The invitation is often with good intentions, to give them a chance to talk in case they had issues at work. Even if the conversation is not interesting, most of the Buka and Kohai just deal with it as it usually means a free drink or meal at a place they could not afford on their own.
A common saying in Japan is, “if you want to work your way up the corporate ladder you have to drink.” This was how many older generation workers established relationships and considered this the normal way of doing business. However, corporate life and culture have changed a lot in the last decade or so. The work environment is more flexible and accommodates the needs of individuals according to their lifestyle and stage of life. Career changes are more common and easier. If one corporate culture is not a fit, moving on is an option and there is less emphasis on building relationships that need to last a lifetime.
Still, drinking parties, “Nomikai” are still prevalent and seeing the salary men making a beeline to the izakaya, restaurant or nightclub is not uncommon in 2016. The nomikai differs from the traditional year-end drinking parties known as, “Bonenkai (Forget the year party)” which generally involve the entire company. Nomikai is limited to only one section or department of the workplace. Oftentimes, the nomikai is followed by an after party called, “Nijikai” with “ni” signifying “second” and after it concludes there may be a “Sanjikai,” with “san” signifying “third” party. Now it is easy to see that drinking and bar-hopping can go on all night.
Further, there is an etiquette to follow during these parties where one tries to avoid filling their own glass and instead fills the glasses of the other members in attendance. This is especially true for the Senpai-Kohai relationships where the lower ranked or younger employee will offer to serve his or her superior. The relationship is reciprocal, and the superior will often fill the junior’s empty glass. But keep in mind that people are not pressured to drink alcohol at these parties. Participants may elect to drink non-alcoholic beverages or leave their glasses full to signify that they are not willing to drink more alcohol.
Beer and sake are the preferred drinks during drinking parties but whisky is also popular and it is not uncommon to find bars keeping their patron’s favorite bottles on the shelf with the party’s name tag dangling from the bottleneck. Women tend to prefer wine or clear spirits such as shochu (a Japanese distilled beverage less than 45% alcohol by volume. It is typically distilled from rice, barley, sweet potatoes, buckwheat, and even brown sugar) or chuhai (shochu highball).
The Japanese love games and drinking games such as “Ikkinomi (Down in one),” are common. Unfortunately many Japanese are unable to drink too much as they lack the necessary enzyme to break down alcohol. Despite this, they still insist on playing the games, bar-hopping and typically end up turning a frightening shade of red after consuming too much alcohol and falling asleep in some of the strangest places imaginable. It is all too common to take the late trains and find some sloshed salary man fast asleep across from you.
But don’t misunderstand, Japan is not a nation of alcoholics. Though alcohol consumption has quadrupled in Japan since 1960, Japan still ranks sixth in the world for beer consumption after China, the U.S., Germany, Brazil and Russia!
When visiting Japan, you may encounter intoxicated people leaving bars late at night on any given day and you may also be lucky to get invited to a drinking party. The Japanese are quite curious about a foreigner’s ability to handle alcohol so don’t be surprised if they pour you a drink after drink. Just understand the culture and always remain polite. These parties are generally quite enjoyable and as they say, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do!”
Japan possesses a unique culture that dates back thousands of years and to understand it to some degree will only enhance your experiences when you travel to this wonderful country. In previous posts, I had written about some aspects of Japanese culture and now I would like to delve into something that is lesser known in the Western world, the concept of Tsukimono.
In Japan, where there are nearly eight million gods and monsters, it isn’t unlikely to come across tales of a few who take possession of human bodies. Essentially, that is the definition of Tsukimono, a possessing thing. (Tsuki meaning “possession” and mono meaning “thing.”)
Spirit possession is a long standing, ancient belief in Japan. The oldest form known as Kamiyadori (god possession), stems from the Shinto (also called Kaminomichi) religion, the ethnic religion of the people of Japan dating back to the 8th century. This involves mediums who are able to draw the power of the god or ancestor spirits and serve as oracles. However, this type of possession is different from the possession of Tsukimono.
Tsukimono are exclusively yokai (ghost) or animal spirits which invade human bodies and the event is “involuntary” on the part of the human being possessed. It is said that the yokai possesses a body out of vengeance whereas the animal spirits take over a body out of greed. The animal spirit may desire to eat something that it normally cannot obtain, therefore it takes possession of a human body to accomplish this act.
The types of Tsukimono are different depending on what source you consult however the typical list includes:
Kappa-tsuki ( Kappa possession) : Kappas are mischievous water sprites found in Japanese folklore who dwell in lakes, rivers and swampy areas. Tales of the Kappa were used to warn children of the dangers lurking in rivers and lakes, as kappa were said to lure people into the water and drown them. Kappa are also said to victimize animals, especially horses and cows. These mythical creatures are believed to be innately curious about human beings and perhaps this is the reason why they are believed to possess human bodies.
Gaki-tsuki (Hungry Ghost possession): Gaki are the Japanese spirit of starvation looking for a little sustenance and somewhere warm to stay hence human bodies are inviting.
Tengu-tsuki (Tengu possession): Tengu is a dangerous spirit thought to dwell in mountains and forests. They were depicted with a beak in early drawings which later gave way to a more humanized depiction having an unnaturally long nose. Tengu are believed to be troublesome opponents of Buddhism, who mislead the pious with false images of the Buddha, carry off monks only to drop them in remote places, possess women in an attempt to seduce holy men, rob temples and endow those who worship them with unholy power. They often disguise themselves as priests or nuns.
Neko-tsuki (Cat possession): In the West, cats were often believed to be familiars of human witches. They were said to possess the ability to sense the presence of spirits before humans noticed them. In Japan, cats have long been well regarded, often epitomized by the Maneki Neko, a good luck talisman in the shape of a cat found in shops, restaurants, pachinko parlors and other businesses throughout the country. But cats according to the Shinto belief can also be kami (spirits or phenomena that are worshipped). In Shinto, kami began as the mysterious forces of nature associated primarily with permanent features in the landscape such as mountains, rivers, trees, and rocks. Many folk tales evolved around these holy places, often referring to animal possession chiefly involving foxes, badgers, dogs and cats. Although the kami can be considered deities, they are not necessarily considered omnipotent or omniscient, and like the Greek Gods, they had flawed personalities and were quite capable of ignoble acts. Therefore, it is important to please the kami as they can either grant blessings or curses to a person. Possession by a tsukimono occurs in cases where a person is cursed.
Other animal possesions include: Hebi-tsuki (Snake possession); Tanuki-tsuki (Japanese raccoon possession); Uma-tsuki (Horse possession); Inu-tsuki (Dog possession); Kitsune-tsuki (Fox possession).
The effects of the possession vary widely as well. In most possessions the victim takes on the attributes of the yokai or animal. For instance, if a victim is possessed by a tanuki, it is said that they voraciously overeat until their belly swells up like a tanuki, causing death unless exorcized. In the case of an uma possession, people become ill-mannered, huffing at everything and sticking their face into their food to eat like a horse. Those plagued with kappa-tsuki become overwhelmed with the need to be in water and develop an appetite for cucumbers.
Possession by tsukimono was frequently used as an explanatory concept and a cultural device as the cause of disease and misfortune. Generally, the only way to free someone from a tsukimono was through an exorcist. Wandering Shugendo priests called Yamabushi were often engaged for this purpose.
So there you have it, a look at the darker side of Japanese culture and a possible explanation as to why Japanese people believe so strongly in the power of the omamori (amulets, charms and talismans commonly sold at religious sites and dedicated to particular Shinto deities as well as Buddhist figures, that are said to provide various forms of luck or protection).
Traveling through Tokyo on the shinkansen (bullet train) and gazing out at the scenery, I couldn’t help but notice how widespread pachinko parlors were in Japan.
Pachinko is a type of mechanical game resembling a vertical pinball machine that originated in Japan. The player gets a number of balls by inserting cash or cards directly into the machine. The balls are then shot into the machine by pulling a lever once for each launch from a ball tray. The balls then fall vertically through an array of pins, levers, cups, traps and various obstacles until they reach the bottom of the machine screen. The player has a chance to get more balls to play with if one of the launched balls hit a certain place during the fall through the pachinko machine. The object of the game is to capture as many balls as possible thus remaining in the game longer and increasing your winning odds.
The arcades and the machines have evolved over the years where the machines now resemble video slot machines and the parlors are more like casinos. For some, pachinko is a recreational arcade game and for many it is a form of gambling. Gambling for cash is illegal in Japan, therefore the balls are exchanged for prizes such as t-shirts, pens, cigarette lighters, perfume, cosmetics, candy or coupons to a nearby grocery store at the pachinko parlor. However, you can also elect to take a voucher which in turn can be exchanged for cash at “exchange centers” distinctly separate from the parlor.
At any given time, you can wonder into a pachinko parlor and find players of all ages and backgrounds transfixed on their machines which pack the narrow aisles. It is estimated that one-quarter of Japan’s over-18 population of approximately 100 million plays pachinko at least occasionally and up to 30 million people play pachinko regularly.
In 1999 the pachinko industry was worth a staggering 30 trillion yen, more than the Japanese motor industry! Further, the current recession doesn’t seem to be affecting pachinko’s prospects. Pachinko is unquestionably Japan’s number one leisure activity.
The first pachinko machines appeared in the 1920s as a children’s game called “Korinto Gemu.” It wasn’t until the 1930s that they emerged as an adult pastime in Nagoya. During WWII, all of the pachinko parlors in Japan were shut down but re-opened in the late 1940s and the industry has been growing strong ever since.
In the early days, Nishijin and Sankyo were the main manufacturers of pachinko machines. Today, the Heiwa Corporation, established in Kiryu, Gunma in 1949 is the world’s largest privately owned manufacturer of pachinko and pachislot machines.
So does Japan have a massive gambling habit? Why not visit a pachinko parlor during your next trip and make that determination for yourself! Also, keep in mind that the Japanese prefer to call it gaming rather than gambling!
In the third installment of Japanese traditions, I’d like to introduce you to one of three forms of traditional lighting in Japan called “chochin” (提灯). It is perhaps the oldest form of lighting, with records dating back to 1085 and perhaps the most popular in terms of being used for matsuri and events. The traditional chochin is made from paper or silk stretched over a split bamboo frame that is wound in a spiral. The lamp is collapsible and is hung from a hook at the top. Its main purpose is outside illumination and you will find them strung together and hung outside Shinto shrines. You will also find chochin hung in front of restaurant buildings all over Japan. The akachochin (red lantern) typically signifies an izakaya (a traditional Japanese drinking establishment.) It was originally used in the Yoshiwara district (red light district) to light the way of visitors but today it has lost that association.
Another form of folding lantern called Odawara chochin appeared in Japan during the Edo Period (1600-1868) and was used by travelers to light their path during the night. Later, the Bura chochin, round in shape and resembling a tea container became popular among travelers. They were hung from the end of a short brass rod which the samurai used as a weapon for self-defense.
Today, you can find chochin made from plastic and illuminated by a light bulb sold in souvenir shops both in Japan and abroad. The chochin is recognized worldwide as an icon of Japan and has been elevated to a symbol of celebration in modern Japanese society. As a matter of fact, every year from October 4th-6th, Nihonmatsu in Fukushima Prefecture hosts the Nihonmatsu Chochin Matsuri (Festival). The festival dates back to over 360 years ago and consists of 3,000 chochin illuminated and paraded around the city on taiko drum floats.
The omamori, the noren and the chochin are all a part of the time-honored culture of Japan. We are very fortunate that these traditions still live on today in modern Japan, enabling visitors to experience its history and customs. Whether you are visiting Japan for the first time or if this is several of many visits to this magnificent country, now you are armed with the knowledge and information to help you understand and appreciate some of what you see during your travels.
In an earlier blog post I mentioned that it is always a good idea to familiarize yourself with the traditions and conducts of the country you are planning to visit. It has been my past experience that having an understanding of the customs allows you to immerse yourself deeper into the culture and enjoy your trip even more.
Since I tend to write quite a bit about traveling to Japan, I thought it would be good to introduce you to yet another Japanese tradition, noren (暖簾). You will notice noren throughout your travels in Japan and perhaps may become a little curious about its significance.
Noren are the traditional fabric curtains hung in doorways, windows and in between rooms. The use of noren dates back to the Jomon Period (12,000 BC to 300 BC) where they were used to protect temples and residences from external elements like dust, rain and sunlight. They also provided a sense of privacy. Eventually, noren’s use evolved to where they were used indoors as room dividers and as advertisement pieces by businesses. The traditional noren were cobalt blue with a white design inscribed on them.
Today, noren curtains play both a functional and aesthetic role and come in many different materials, sizes, colors and patterns. You will commonly find them hung in homes, shops and restaurants. You will also find them in commercial bathhouses (sento) and onsens, used to clearly mark men’s and women’s entrances. Hung in the front entrance of a business, the noren signals that the shop is open for business. At the end of the day, the curtain is taken down signifying that the business is closed. Further, since the noren hung across front entrances of businesses often features the shop name or logo, the word noren has evolved to refer to the company’s brand value. In other words, the term noren is often used in accounting to describe the goodwill of a company after an acquisition.
So there you have it – noren represents yet another facet of the unique culture of Japan. Oftentimes, visitors to the country bring them back as souvenirs hence spreading the traditions of Japan.