Visit to Yogyakarta: Central Java
Back in the first week of December, I took the train to Yogyakarta (also spelled Jogjakarta), a famous city about 250 miles east of Bandung, where I’m living. I wrote about the second half of the trip in an earlier post (about Borobudur), but I spent the first four days in Yogyakarta, home to about 400,000 people.
I took the train because I had read that the scenery is stunning — true! The best views came in the first two hours after leaving Bandung (at 7 a.m.) as we rolled through mountain passes and above lush valleys. After that, the land continues to be about 95 percent farms (largely wet rice fields, but there’s also corn and other crops) but becomes endlessly flat — the fertile Kedu Plain lies west of Yogyakarta, and Central Java (Jawa Tengah) is the rice basket of Indonesia.
I stayed in a very nice hotel (I actually loved the hotel: Jogja Village Inn) south of all the tourist hullabaloo. I had a second-story deluxe room with a big bed, an excellent shower, free wi-fi, and a sweet balcony (with a couch!) overlooking the lush, peaceful garden (sorry, forgot to take photos). I swam in the big saltwater pool each afternoon and then sat poolside and read and drank fresh fruit juices (watermelon and mango). Breakfast included, about $70/night.
The big tourist “must see” in Yogya is the Kraton, or Sultan’s palace. There is still a Sultan, and he and his family still live there, but of course you don’t get to see that part! I really enjoyed wandering around the palace grounds and getting a good look at traditional Javanese architecture (example: above) — this is said to be some of the best still standing. Around Bandung, we do not see Javanese architecture because the people there are Sundanese, not Javanese (even though we all live on the island of Java).
There are two very nice batik exhibits inside the Kraton. Batik is made pretty much all over Indonesia, but there’s a long tradition of design and innovation in Yogyakarta, and in Solo (Surakarta) to the east. I also learned more about this when I visited the Ullen Sentalu Museum on the slopes of Mount Merapi — the active volcano just north of Yogya! Buying batik is a big tourist thing to do in Yogya; many foreigners buy batik pictures (suitable for framing), but the real tradition of batik is for clothing, and especially sarongs. I bought three sarongs in Yogya:
Then there’s another famous Javanese tradition: wayang kulit. This is a theater performance with flat rawhide puppets moving behind a big white sheet and backlit by a bright light. The puppet master (dalang) is an important figure in Indonesian culture. He tells the story in deep, sonorous tones, doing different voices for the characters.
I got to see a two-hour performance of wayang kulit Saturday at the Kraton — they do different performances there every day, but the wayang kulit is only on Saturday! I was thrilled at my good luck, because I hadn’t seen it yet (in the Sundanese part of Java, they do wayang golek, which uses brilliantly painted wooden puppets and no shadows).
The performance takes place inside a big pendopo, a high-roofed pavilion with open sides, and a full (huge) gamelan orchestra accompanies the dalang. Gamelan are large gongs that are arrayed in long rows and played like a xylophone. Because it was daytime (wayang kulit traditionally happens after dark) and the pendopo is open on all four sides, I could walk all around and observe the puppeteer, the musicians, and everything else. I really love the photo above — that’s the dalang with his hand outstretched to place the puppet against the screen. (Later I saw a man making the puppets; see close-up photo.)
Another popular place for tourists to visit in Yogya is Taman Sari (below). It’s rather small but pleasant — it’s a series of pools reconstructed to show what the Sultan’s pleasure gardens looked like in the distant past.
I did a lot of walking around the center of Yogya. It was much hotter than Bandung (downside) but much more pleasant for walking because there’s not nearly as much car traffic. Many people are riding bicycles. Of course there are zillions of motorbikes too, and more becak (three-wheeled pedal taxis) than I could have ever imagined. A couple of times (more like four times) I got lost while walking, and each time I just got in a becak and had the driver take me where I had intended to go. They are everywhere!
I found lots of pleasant little side streets in Yogya. People have tidy houses with potted plants in front and birds in cages hanging from the front porch awning. I poked around in several antique shops. They were not very good shops, really, but I had fun.
I also visited a silver jewelry “factory” in Kota Gede (a suburb of Yogya) and saw how people bend super-fine silver wire (more like thread, actually) to create intricate brooches, earrings, and diverse items such as little horse carriages, doll furniture, and even a scale Harley-Davidson. It was very cool to see their skills. Although the final products are not really to my taste, I enjoyed learning how they work. Their working environment was pleasant — well lighted, clean, and very airy and spacious — but the fine nature of the work probably ruins a lot of people’s eyesight after some years. (I didn’t take any pictures there.)
I went to a kampung called Kasongan (just south of Yogya) where just about everyone works in small commercial pottery factories or in shops selling the ceramic products. For the most part this is not art by any means — just big urns and vases and very trite large statues for use in hotels and restaurants. But the manufacturing process is fascinating to see, and if you ask around and wander down a backstreet, you’ll find blazing hot brick kilns and sheds full of big wet clay things drying and (if it’s not lunchtime) men packing clay into giant molds or breaking molds open and removing finished stuff.
So — Yogya! I enjoyed it. I’m going to go back there in May, after the rainy season (musim hujan) ends, to seen the Ramayana Ballet at the Prambanan Temple site. They do not stage the full version during the rainy season (which is now). Maybe next time I will finally sample gudeg, the famous jackfruit stew.
Photo album: Kraton, Yogyakarta (includes wayang kulit and gamelan)
Photo album: Taman Sari (includes two photos of a man making wayang kulit puppets)
Photo album: Around Yogyakarta (includes Kasongan)