What is it about the Special Region
that makes it so special?
Alleys are sketchy. In unfamiliar cities and even around San Francisco they're usually no-go's for me. In Yogyakarta, that's just not the case. It's a very safe city with little crime (i.e. no pick-pocketing) like most of the Muslim majority cities I've visited. In Jogya, the big boulevards dicing the city into neat cubes are just perimeters housing endless mazes of alleyways clustered into unique and tight-knit neighborhoods. Fortunately, we stayed on one of these sweet alleyways at the Happy Buddha hostel and got to see a lot more of what makes this metropolis a community. My little ode to the character of each little detail in these shops and homes:
Yogya is more than just a stopover on your way to Borobudur. It's a cultural mecca with lots of history that barely feels ancient because they keep it very much alive. They take care of their temples and palaces and storied traditions like ballet and shadow puppetry are still actively practiced (and not just for tourists.)
A chat with someone on the street led us through some of those alleyways to the local art school, Program Pasca Sarajana Institut. It was the last day of their weekend exhibition and a lot of student art was on display. On one side of the room were tons of oil paintings and on the other were derived from a medium foreign to me. The owner of the school demonstrated the Batik process, which involves drawing intricate designs with hot wax and repeatedly dyed to add layers of color. You then stretch the design over a frame like any other piece of art. It's a very time-consuming process that's pretty rare to see anymore, especially since textiles can be produced so cheaply in factories and flood the market. Knowing more about the technique made me appreciate the craftsmanship all the more and it was such a treat to peruse their designs.
Another can't-miss is Taman Sari, known as the water castle, a 17th-century palace/ bath house/ meditation retreat/ fortress for the sultan. You'd never know it was there; again tucked away down some intersecting alleys. The series of grand gates and courtyards housing those bright blue pools at the heart of the complex are so much more stunning than I could have imagined. Then again, maybe the water just looked too tempting for the 90-degree heat! Still, we spent quite some time wandering around and taking it all in. The juxtaposition of the weather-beaten stone with the fresh, lively water winking in the sun was intoxicating.
Not too far away, we followed a local guy we struck up a conversation with to something I could have never found myself, nor had read about in any area guides. The underground mosque, still part of the same larger complex as the water castle, starts with a nondescript staircase leading you down into what could easily be someone's cellar. Inside, there's a circular chamber where the men would pray and in the center, an open staircase leading up to the second level where the women would worship.
Walking around, we happened across a pretty normal cafe with an interesting pet. In many parts of Asia, specialty coffee varieties are named after the animal who eats the beans, which ferment but are not digested in their GI tract, and are cleaned and roasted for consumption. Each region has their own special kind, like weasel or squirrel, and Java has a great reputation for Luwak coffee. A Luwak is a type of civet (think of a bigger, wilder, fatter raccoon) that only picks the sweetest and best beans so the coffee is thought to be of the highest quality, which is what makes this coffee the most expensive in the world. This cafe had a Luwak as a pet, and he looked like a big fat cat! We asked if we could pet him and the barista nodded, but once Dain got even a little close to his fur he tried to nip him with surprisingly huge teeth. Note: Luwaks are not big fat cats.