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A Culture Lover’s Guide to Yogyakarta: The Jewel in Java’s Crown

Picture of Michael Rinaldi
Michael Rinaldi
Updated: 15 August 2016
Situated almost equidistantly between Jakarta and Bali, Yogyakarta maintains an eclectic cultural sphere in the very heart of Java, Indonesia’s most populous island. More affectionately referred to as Jogja by the city’s residents, Yogyakarta is a buzzing metropolis that strikes a successful balance between a chaotic hub of urban life and a purveyor of traditional Javanese culture. Michael Rinaldi brings you a selection of local highlights that showcase Jogja’s unmissable cultural, culinary and artistic heritage.

 

Street Art

At times, whilst wandering the streets of Jogja, even the savviest of travellers would be forgiven for thinking they had been transported to the grimy backstreets of East Berlin. At first, it would seem that the trendy German capital has very little in common Central Java’s principal city. However, upon encountering the many stunning examples of street art that mark almost every street corner or unwanted space, it is clear that both cities spawn limitless artistry and originality. As a dynamic city of culture and education, Yogyakarta breeds creativity. Street art here is a response to this imaginative impetus; artists are not associated with clandestine activity or petty crime, but instead, stimulating social commentary on politics, society and questions of Indonesian and global culture. Browsing some of the city’s street art, which includes posters, stencil art, murals and graffiti, is a unique and rewarding way to delve into the consciousness of Yogyakarta and achieve an understanding of what it may mean to be an Indonesian today in a society that is tending to the wounds of its past and its designs for a brighter future.

 

 

Outstanding examples can be discovered across the city, but those taking a detour out of the Kraton and Jogja’s historic Kotagedewill be rewarded with an array of beautiful street art branding the walls of the peripheral suburbs. More centrally, excellent pieces can also be found smattered upon the structures lining Jalan Sosrowijayan, near Jalan Malioboro, which are complimented by a range of budget accommodation options, quirky cafés and eateries, and typical handicraft stores.

 

Gudeg

Long before the existence of Jogja’s contemporary urban sprawl, the area was home to peaceful agricultural communities with a knack for farming and a penchant for sweet treats. As a response to an over-abundance of green jackfruit and in order to satisfy the desire for expensive meats, the resourceful ancestors of modern Yogyakartans developed gudeg. As spaghetti all’amatriciana is to Rome or as dim sum is to Hong Kong, the signature dish that reigns supreme in Yogyakarta is most certainly gudeg.

 

 

This delectable dish is a celebration of the jackfruit, which is stewed for several hours, absorbing an unrivalled depth of colour and flavour. Garlic, shallot, and coriander seeds are used to spice gudeg, as well as variety of more exotic flavours such as candlenut, galangal and teak leaves. Traditionally, gudeg is served gloriously upon a banana leaf, accompanied by steamed rice (which, according to custom, must never be combined with the jackfruit in the same mouthful), tempeh, a hard-boiled egg, krecek (delicious stewed cow skin), and coconut-flavoured chicken. A visit to Jogja would be incomplete without devoting a meal to the city’s signature dish. It is served all over the city in restaurants, traditional warung and by street vendors. Although many sources claim to have mastered the art of gudeg, it’s best, and certainly more exciting, to choose a locale with blind faith and zest for experimentation.

 

Watch “Global Street Art – Jogja – Art In The Streets – MOCAtv”

 

Gamelan and live music

Like any city with a rich and diverse cultural heritage, Yogyakarta has a proclivity for live music in both its traditional and contemporary forms. Perhaps the most captivating of musical genres that can be experienced in Jogja is the gamelan orchestra. Gamelan, the star of Indonesian traditional music, is an ensemble of bronze percussion instruments including gongs, xylophones and drums which may be combined with string and wind instruments as well as vocals. The product is an exotic orchestra that captures the atmosphere of Indonesia’s jungled, tropical islands.

 

 

The earliest records of gamelan-like ensembles can be found carved in reliefs at Borobudur, Prambanan and Candi Sari, indicating a history that at least predates the 8th century AD. Arguably, gamelan is the sound of Indonesia, an inseparable element of its cultural identity. In Jogja, this notion is palpable. Gamelan can be experienced regularly throughout the week at the Sultan’s Palace in the Kraton, accompanied by traditional dances and shadow puppetry performances. Aside from Jogja’s more traditional musical forms, modern expressions are equally, if not more popular here with the locals, perhaps owing to a large body of students and younger generations. Contemporary Indonesian and international music is enjoyed in many venues across the city. Opting for a buzzing local tavern over a stuffy western-oriented restaurant is an ideal way to witness the locals’ love of popular music. Asmara Art & Coffee Shop is an excellent option; eccentric décor and a friendly crowd of locals create a casual atmosphere where sipping a Bintang whilst listening to accomplished a capella vocals would certainly constitute as a foray into local culture.

 

Watch “Indonesian gamelan medley from Java, Sunda and Bali”:

 

Markets

As with any trip to an Asian urban centre, it would be unthinkable not to pencil in a visit to at least one market. Markets, or pasar in Indonesian, are integral elements of the local culture. A traditional Indonesian market serves as a multi-purpose space in which one may trade or purchase goods, eat and drink, socialise or just pass time. Jalan Malioboro, perhaps the most electric thoroughfare in all of Yogyakarta, is home to the city’s most vibrant markets. Covered pavements are hives of activity; stores offering clothes, fabric, home wears and ornaments battle for custom with street and market vendors selling cheap trinkets and batik. Traders are tenacious, yet not enough to outshine the trademark Indonesian cheer. Delving deeper, one can find lines of spice merchants and greengrocers, the aromas of whose produce permeate and characterise the air. Here, a taste of Yogyakarta’s premier street food, satay and lontong (compressed rice cakes wrapped in banana leaf), is obligatory. Scores of traditionally dressed women tend to grills and stir pots of delicious peanut sauce, offering succulent skewers of chicken, beef and even mutton.

 

 

An alternative to the more tourist-geared central markets, a more faithful snapshot of Yogyakartan market life may be granted at the Animal and Decorative Plants Market on the outskirts of the city. Join locals in the search for the perfect songbird to bring upon their family good luck and witness a dizzying array of exotic birds, reptiles and small mammals in sometimes beautifully decorated menageries. Beware, however, that the trade of birds and other animals is highly controversial and the conditions of some of the animals is often suspect to scrutiny. Whilst lending to our understanding of Indonesian culture, the bird market is sadly a double-edged sword with regards to the treatment of animals.

 

Wayang Kulit

Perhaps the one of the most iconic and ubiquitous features of Javanese culture that has had national and international acclaim is wayang kulit, more commonly known as shadow puppetry. The ethereal figures, which are designed and constructed by accomplished craftsman using leather, buffalo horn and bamboo, are mastered in conjunction with the manipulation of light and shadow, creating beautiful performances of epic proportions. The dancing silhouettes are most commonly employed to tell the ancient Hindu epics from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, sagas that, since their arrival from the Indian subcontinent in middle of the first millennium, have infused and characterised the Indonesian archipelago.

 

 

Wayang kulit is much more than a mere performance; it is an expression of a vibrant history and pluralistic culture; in the most populous Muslim country on earth, it is an elegant challenge to those with a blinkered vision of Islamic culture. Here, the spectator may engage imagery and mythology evoking deep-rooted elements of Hindu and Buddhist culture which, today, coexist in a cultural collage that typifies the Indonesian identity. Yogyakarta, along with rival city Surakarta and the island of Bali, is the home of this majestic art and it is widely believed that performances and puppets in Jogja are among the best in the country. The art form, which it must be added has gained recognition from UNESCO, can be enjoyed nightly at Sonobodoyo Museum in central Jogja or alternatively, another trip to the Kraton on a Saturday will be rewarded with one of Indonesia’s most beguiling spectacles.

 

Watch “The Wayang Puppet Theatre“:

 

By Michael Rinaldi