Saturday, January 30, 2016

Wayang Kulit Show, Yogyakarta

After thanking the puppet maker for the demonstration, I headed over to the building at the Sonobudoyo Museum where the puppet show was taking place. The music had already started, with the Gamelan orchestra comprised of gongs, metallophones and xylophones, flutes, zithers, drums, and vocalists.
The dalang puppeteer was seated in front of the wide screen. Large puppets and several Tree of Life props were in front of the screen, their bone sticks stabbed into the soft banana leaf log. I was a bit surprised to see how tall some of the puppets were; Wayang Kulit puppets range in size from around 8-40 inches (20-100 cm) tall.

 Additional puppets were lined up on each edge of the screen. Traditional Wayang shows might last around 9 hours and comprise of between 100-500 puppet characters.
The dalang puppeteer was quite the multi-tasker. In addition to manipulating the sticks of the puppets, he was the narrator, made lots of sound effects, and leads the gamelan orchestra. He must know the entire performance by heart and keep track of all the different puppet characters - their personality, voices, actions, and physical location. Humor and the ability to comment on current affairs is also important. I can only imagine that with so many puppets lined up, the dalang must be very organized, arranging the puppets in an efficient order so he can grab the correct one at the correct moment. Improvisation is also a part of Wayang performances, ensuring that things stay fresh. The dalang traditionally had a priest-like role which was passed on from father to son, but now there are special schools that provide training. A dalang may have an assistant, who also must know the story well so he can anticipate the needs of the narrator. In the battle scenes, it was fun watching the dalang flip, spin, and twirl the puppets and then crash them together, much like a young boy does with cars or action figures. The "good" characters were positioned to the right of the puppeteer.
As much fun as it was watching the behind-the-scenes work of the dalang and the gamelan orchestra, I spent part of my time watching the actual shadow performance on the other side of the screen. (Years ago it was customary for women to view the colorful "behind" side, while the men viewed the shadow side). The intricately painted designs that were so apparent on the other side of the screen were replaced by an emphasis of contrasting negative and positive spaces. The lace-like perforations I had seen the puppet maker punch into the leather were now much more visible. I found it interesting that the puppets were never totally flush against the screen. The heads were pressed against the screen for clarity, but the legs were often slightly away. I later read that this was done to help achieve the desired proportions of the shadow. At times the action was quite slow and subtle, emphasizing the intricate movements of the arms. Punctuated with vocal cues of the dalang and synchronized orchestral accents, some scenes became quite dramatic. 
During the 80 minutes or so that I was there, I went back and forth between the front and back sides. I could see that the storyline was about good vs. evil, but found it a bit difficult to stay focused. It is rather typical for viewers to wander in and out. Imagine though, how challenging it must be for the dalang to stay on top of things and keep his voice for the entire duration of those really long performances. No wonder his role is held in high esteem!

I'm glad I had a chance to view a Wayang Kulit show in its epicentre of Yogyakarta. In 2008, the Wayang puppet theatre was inscribed on the intangible UNESCO cultural heritage of humanity list.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Wayang Kulit Puppet Making

Prior to seeing the Wayang puppet show in Yogyakarta, I arrived early so I could meet a puppet maker. I had purchased some leather puppets when in India and was eager to see the process for how the intricate Indonesian versions were made. 

Wayang means shadow and kulit means skin. The puppets are traced on and scratched in the hide of an oxen or bull. Sharp tools are used to cut out the main shape.The artist uses chisels with varying widths & curves to punch in the lace-like interior holes, sometimes using several different ones to form the desired shape of the negative spaces. This is all done on a sliced section of wood. Wax is used periodically to make the chisel punching more smooth. Arms and other pieces are jointed with thick plastic line or bone, and then are attached to the body.

The lace-like puppet is then sanded, after which the puppet is painted with water-based paints. Gold leaf, connoting dignity and serenity, provides some embellishment.
Colors chosen for the characters is symbolic. Black signifies anger or maturity; red is for tempestuousness; white is the color of youth. Interestingly, noble characters are typically smaller, with trim bodies and faces with long pointed noses and downward-gazing soybean shaped eyes. Conversely, demons or aggressive figures are much larger. Strong characters might be looking upward and have large, bulging eyes.

The upper body is much longer than than the legs and the arms are always elongated. During performances, the head is always placed flush against the screen so it is viewed clearly, while the lower portion is away slightly from the screen. In the resulting shadow, the body proportions appear correct. 
Intricate painted details
After the figures are painted, they are sewn onto the main stick (often made from bull horns) in three or four spots. The stick is tapered at the bottom to make it easy to stab into a soft log to support the character against the screen. Additional sticks are attached to the arms.

The Museum of International Folk Art has a fairly detailed video showing the different steps of Wayang Kulit puppet making.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Javanese Tofu Maker

On our way to a pottery place, my driver stopped at a tofu maker. The few windows provided a bit of illumination, but didn't do much to dissipate the heat. Beams of light,  intermingled with smoke and dust, shone from the spaces in the roof. In this toasty room, a man labored in the production of tofu. 
Wood provided the heat source for boiling. I can only imagine how hot it must have been to stoke the fire on a very regular basis throughout the day. 
After much stirring and straining, the vats are weighted, allowing more liquid to drain. After about 20 minutes, the weights are removed and the moulds are covered and deftly flipped over the man's head, resulting in a fresh block of tofu.

Tofu drying on some woven racks

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Illuminated Winter Wonderland at Garden of the Morning Calm

After spending the afternoon at Nami Island, I was excited to head on over to the Garden of the Morning Calm. I had seen photos of this place located around 80 minutes (without traffic) northeast of Seoul, but I wasn't able to make the meetup times. Yes, it was going to be cold, but the colorful illuminated scene beckoned me. The oldest private garden in South Korea, the Garden of the Morning Calm has 20 different themed sections. Although not comprising the entire 30,000 sq meter site, the illuminated area was quite vast and had plenty to see/photograph for the few hours we had. 
Particularly in the Morning Plaza and Sunken Garden sections, there were viewing platforms set up, enabling visitors to get a wider view of the spectacular sight in front of them. Thousands of bushes and wide variety of trees transformed the inky night into a wonderland worthy of Candyland, with the well-manicured bushes reminding me of gumdrops.  

The light snowfall reflected colors from the various types of lights.

The colored balls kept drawing my attention.

Set amidst a sea of blue lights, the illuminated horse and carriage added to the fairyland feel. Even the crowds of people were reduced to mere silhouettes. When we left around 7:15pm, more people will still arriving (closing time on Saturdays is at 11pm). On weekdays and Sundays, hours are from 11am-9pm; Saturday 11am-11pm.

I'd love to return to the Garden of the Morning Calm once spring rolls around. I am especially interested to see the Pond and Korean Garden sections, as these were not part of the winter feature. If a meetup group doesn't go there, I'll try the subway/shuttle bus option.
The Garden of the Morning Calm is an excellent example of the changing beauty of Korea in the seasons. Until next time...

Friday, January 22, 2016

Namimaids and Warming Snowmen

This past weekend, I braved the cold temperatures with a meetup group and headed over to Nami Island. Located 63 km from Seoul, this tiny island with an area of 460,000 sq km is a popular tourist destination. After the airing of the 2002 Korean drama Winter Sonata, many fans flocked to this island to see the filming location. 
After taking a short ferry across the Han River, one of the first things I saw was the "namimaid," the island's famous statue clad in a winter outfit. Behind her were frozen waterspout fountains.

I enjoyed walking on the lanes through the island. This one was rather quiet. Most people seemed to be more concentrated around the interior areas, particularly the shops and cafés. With gingko trees and gardens, it must be quite pretty in the fall and spring.
Thousands of trees were planted by Mr. Byeong-Do Minn, who purchased the island in the 1960s for the purpose of transforming it into a recreational site. Now, the metasequoias are 40 meters tall.
In 2006, Nami Island declared its cultural independence from South Korea, renaming itself the Naminara Republic. It has its own flag, national anthem, and even some chunky looking currency with a square hole in the middle (Korean won still readily accepted though). For a 15,000 won, you could buy a passport, or you could have your "real" passport stamped. 

On this chilly day, keeping warm was on many people's minds. After walking around for a while after a lunch at of the island's several restaurants, we entered a café for a hot drink and a chance to warm up. These people joined the snowman and dog who had already been warming their paws/hands at the fire. Despite cold hands, the cell phones were still out and active. I kept my gloved hands in my jacket pockets when possible, warmed by some excellent army-grade warmer packets purchased at one of the shops. Gotta get me some more of those - it was still generating heat 18 hours later!

Wintry-themed mosaic fountain

One of the island's attractions are the ostriches. They felt a bit out of place in the wintry scene.
The island is also home to deer, squirrels, rabbits, ducks, and birds, but none of these were seen on this cold day.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Through the Market Alleys

Having a few more minutes to spare, we meandered a but further within the local market near Borobudur, past the cheap plastic Chinese stuff and to locally made items. Functional hats and baskets were plentiful.
Ceramic "piggy" banks in bright and neutral colors seemed too pretty to break.

A sweet little lady was immersed in her task of peeling garlic.

Poultry sellers - even those wearing "SpongeBob" aprons - quickly hacked off parts and weighed them on the simple scale.
Chicken heads, anyone?
All done at the market? Plenty of becak drivers are eager for your business.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Purple Chicks and Green Eggs

Vibrant colors at markets are not limited to produce. Look what I spotted at the market near Borobudur - live peeps! Coloring chicks apparently makes them more attractive to customers. They certainly caught my attention! However, I actually was a bit disturbed at the sight. The dye may be injected into the embryo, resulting in colored hatchlings. Coloring can also be achieved through spray painting or dipping the live chicks in dye - eeks!
Reading online, it is apparent that Indonesia is not the only place where this is done. Sometimes the chicks are sold as playthings for kids; they often don't live for very many days. Colored chicks are more popular at Easter time. Even though I don't care for them, I think the marshmallow type is much more humane.
Should the chicks make it to adulthood, the adult feathers typically come in their normal colors. 
So no, those blue-green eggs were not hatched from that turquoise chick above. However, different breeds of chickens will produce different colored eggs.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Snakeskin Fruit and Sator Beans

If possible, I try to visit local markets when I visit new places. They are a beehive of activity and awaken the senses. Such wonderful combinations of color and textures. 
The photo above has some great complementary colors - the reds of the rambutan, other (I'm not sure what they are) produce, and the man's shirt are offset by the bright green sator beans. These "stink beans" make a great combination with durian, which was also sold at the market.

At the market and along the roadside, I saw lots of Salak being sold. Also known as snakeskin fruit, I can definitely see where it gets its nickname!

Thursday, January 14, 2016

A Hop, Skip and a Jump to Borobudur

For the night before visiting Borobodur UNESCO World Heritage site, I stayed at the Manohara Hotel. It was a more expensive than the other places I would stay at, but the hotel came with some significant benefits. The hotel is the only one that is within the Borobudur park complex and it offers a sunrise tour (discount for those staying at the hotel), granting access to the monument already at 4:30AM - an hour and a half prior to when the site is open to the public. This enabled me to stumble on out of the hotel room and right to the lobby to meet my guide. It also offered guests the opportunity to view an informative video (in English and Indonesian) on the Borobudur temple, providing some background information on what they would be seeing.

The hotel grounds was well-kept and the architecture fit in nicely with the area. The room was spacious and clean. After visiting the Borobudur temple, I came back and enjoyed complimentary breakfast at the open-air pavilion. 

Trees and foliage on the hotel grounds were beautiful; I hadn't seen a sausage tree since I left India.

View of Borobudur from the hotel
If I would have had more time, I could have gone back and re-visited the temple later in the day. Alas, my driver was waiting for me to continue my tour to other local places.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Relief Panels at Borobudur

As one walks through the levels of the Borobudur monument that are symbols of Buddhist cosmology, they pass by 2,760 relief panels. They are everywhere - on the rather high walls and balustrades. In fact, Borobudur is considered to have the largest and most complete ensemble of Buddhist reliefs in the world.  

Some depict scenes of the life of Buddha and the life as Prince Siddhartha.

Historians can glean much from the panels about life and fashion of 8th century Java. 

Walk up and around the monument clockwise, and a fairly comprehensive retelling of Buddha's birth, life, teachings, and his progress towards Nirvana are presented.

Reverence towards nature is visible in many panels. There are about 160 hidden panels that were discovered during a restoration, but most of the foot has since been covered up again.
Some tell stories with morals, such as the panel above where the bird pulled out a bone from the lion's throat and asked for a reward - to which the lion scoffed and said that the reward was that he didn't eat the bird. Moral: Don't expect a reward when you help others.

With a total surface area of 2,500 square meters (27,000 sq ft), it would take some time to view all the relief panels. The sun now was a bit higher in the sky and more visitors were now coming, so I followed my empty stomach and went back to the hotel for breakfast.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Borobudur Site and Sculptures

These photos are of Borobudur, the world's largest Buddhist temple. It is located in the Central Java island of Indonesia. Borobudur has a 118x118m base, nine stacked platforms (six square and the top three are round), topped by a central dome. Built between 750 and 850 AD, it has withstood abandonment (buried under layers of ash and thick tropical growth), was rediscovered in 1815, and since then restored multiple times. 

More recently it faced more pressures, including nine bombs in 1985 by Islamic extremists, escaped without much damage from a  6.2 magnitude earthquake in 2006 that severely damaged nearby Prambanam temple, the ash from Merapi volcano in 2010, and in summer of 2014, faced security threats from Indonesian groups expressing loyalty to ISIS.  

Considered the largest single attraction in Indonesia, it is also beginning to show signs of wear just from visitors using the stairs.
Lion Guardian, still at rather early in the morning before the site's gates were open to the public.
 Borobudur has 504 Buddha statues, 32 lion guardian statues, and Maraka gargoyle heads jutting out each side. Of the original Buddha statues, over 300 are damaged (typically headless - many of these ended up in museums all over the world) and 43 are missing.
By manipulating my lens through one of the diamond lattice openings, I could get a better image of one of the Buddhas inside the stupa. Note the hand/finger positions - graceful, even with some broken fingers.

Melissa on some temple steps
Borobudur is still used as a Buddhist site for worship on some occasions. Guided by a system of staircases and corridors, they ascend to the top platform, circumnavigating each platform in a clockwise manner. The top platform is considered to signify the never-ending nirvana.