THE DRAGONS, BEIJING, CHINA

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Across from Tiananmen square, our next stop:

The Forbidden City was the Chinese imperial palace from the Ming dynasty to the end of the Qing dynasty. It is located in the center of Beijing, China, and now houses the Palace Museum. For almost 500 years, it served as the home of emperors and their households, as well as the ceremonial and political center of Chinese government.

Built in 1406 to 1420, the complex consists of 980 buildings and covers 72 ha (180 acres).[1] The palace complex exemplifies traditional Chinese palatial architecture,[2] and has influenced cultural and architectural developments in East Asia and elsewhere. The Forbidden City was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987,[2] and is listed by UNESCO as the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world.

Filled with buildings that once housed royalty, it is worth a wander.

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Our guide mentioned that this is a single piece of stone, climbing up the steps. If I recollect the story correctly, it took thousands of people a very long time to move it here as one piece and then hundreds to carve it – with dragons.

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Dragons are everywhere.

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According to Wikipedia, the Chinese dragon remains important in today’s Chinese culture:

Chinese dragons traditionally symbolize potent and auspicious powers, particularly control over water, rainfall, hurricane, and floods. The dragon is also a symbol of power, strength, and good luck for people who are worthy of it. With this, the Emperor of China usually used the dragon as a symbol of his imperial power and strength.[1]

In Chinese daily language, excellent and outstanding people are compared to a dragon, while incapable people with no achievements are compared with other, disesteemed creatures, such as a worm. A number of Chinese proverbs and idioms feature references to a dragon, for example: "Hoping one’s son will become a dragon" (望子成龍, i.e. be as a dragon).

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The number of dragons is very important – on the roofs, always an odd number. But not all lucky numbers are odd (to my surprise).

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One things is consistent through the shots, the grey sky.

MEDICINE MARKET, Xi’an, China

As I have mentioned before on this blog, when traveling we love to visit markets; seeing what the locals eat and how they live their lives.

I would say that the Chinese medicine market was a new level of different for our travels. As we pulled up our guide explained that these markets are in decline, replaced by Chinese pharmacies that carry every type of herbal medicine imaginable.

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Perhaps the decline is a display issue. A few of these sellers were bagging their wares to sell to other shops.

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A few of my favorite shots.

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That is a bag of snakes.

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I cannot remember, but these were some type of fish. There was a common theme through the market, almost everything would cure one condition … and contribute to fertility or virility.

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Odd to see Sea Horses.

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The shells of turtles, for some reason that bothered me.

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As did seeing these deer horns.

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Last shots. Of course, there has to be lots, and lots of beetles.

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Really interesting to see.

LIGHT

At the Chinese medicine market in Xi’an, China.

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That calculator looks like it has a lot of miles on it.

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TEMPLE of HEAVEN, BEIJING, CHINA

This is the Temple of Heaven, on a warm day with the smog backdrop. We were not there on a clear blue-sky day.

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The Temple of Heaven, literally the Altar of Heaven (simplified Chinese: 天坛; traditional Chinese: 天壇; pinyin: Tiāntán; Manchu: Abkai mukdehun) is a complex of religious buildings situated in the southeastern part of central Beijing. The complex was visited by the Emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties for annual ceremonies of prayer to Heaven for good harvest. It has been regarded as aTaoist temple,[1] although Chinese heaven worship, especially by the reigning monarch of the day, pre-dates Taoism.

To me the more interesting view is the walkway to the temple. Filled with retired people and families, enjoying each other – playing cards and different board games. There is a lot going on, and I am sure there is some money changing hands in some of those games.

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Shirts optional. The Chinese men had an interesting cultural norm of pulling their t-shirts up from the bottom and tucking them through the neck, exposing their mid-sections. It was hot, but for me, not hot enough to resort to that (smile).

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I think I would call this shot “friends”.

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GARBAGE, CHINA

Traveling around Asia you become accustom to different levels of garbage. In the emerging countries where people are trying to make a living you see garbage everywhere for logical reasons; when you are trying to feed your family, ensuring that every plastic bag is picked up doesn’t really make the priority list.

In Tokyo, which went through a terrible pollution stage post World War II, the emergence of wealth has led to incredible cleanliness. Garbage in Japan is about as common as immigrants – not often seen; truly the cleanest city in the world.

Which left me wondering, what would it be like outside of the business areas that I was accustomed to in China? We have all read about the terrible pollution, so would that also mean that the same disregard for the environment is prevalent along back streets?

The answer was a a surprise – it is quite clean. As we traveled around Beijing and Xian, you did not see piles of roadside or back alley garbage. Instead, I saw a lot of people collecting garbage.

My favorite garbage collectors were those at Tiananmen Square and like many people in China, they were on electric scooters.

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BEIJING, CHINA

Our tour of China started with Tiananmen square. It is interesting to tour the square knowing the history. I don’t know what I was expecting to see? Obviously not demonstrators or anything of that ilk.

In the end it is a big square, with a few monuments to those deemed worth. My shots; Config Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 28-300mm f/2.8 USM. A note on the shots: China was very frustrating. I did not bring the right filters and the haze/pollution played havoc with the shots.

One of the buildings surrounding the square.

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The big communist party building beside the square, The Great Hall of the People. When you read through the history you will find that occasionally it is used for artistic performances. I found it funny that the first western performer was a country western singer. I will refrain from explaining why I found that point so humorous.

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This is the Tiananmen.

The Tiananmen (simplified Chinese: 天安门; traditional Chinese: 天安門; pinyin: Tiān’ānmén), or Gate of Heavenly Peace, is a famous monument in Beijing, the capital of the People’s Republic of China. It is widely used as a national symbol. First built during the Ming Dynasty in 1420, Tiananmen is often referred to as the front entrance to the Forbidden City. However, the Meridian Gate (午门) is the first entrance to the Forbidden City proper, while Tiananmen was the entrance to the Imperial City, within which the Forbidden City was located.

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The monument to the People’s Heroes, manned by young communist party members and commemorating wars such as the Opium war, the war against Japan and the different revolutions. When you read through China’s history and how imperialist forces abused this country, it is no wonder that self defense is so important to them.

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The square is filled with uniformed and plain clothes security. Many standing at attention.

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An interesting stroll through the square.

MONKS DRIVE BMWs

Wasn’t that a book? No, it is the Monk who sold his Ferrari.

Well, it would appear that the monks of Japan are not so interested in selling. I am amazed by the number of BMWs you see at shrines around Tokyo. When I asked a colleague, he explained that many of the shrines are handed from family to family, and are exempt from taxes.

Interested if anyone has a link – my searches on the topic proved futile.

A few shrine shots around Minato-ku, Tokyo.

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And of course, a BMW

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Last shot.

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A WALK IN THE PARK, TOKYO

I think that Yoyogi Park is one of my favorite parks. I love walking it. In Tokyo, people gather in the parks on the weekends. Families, friends, joggers, ninjas, cosplayers, dancers … everyone.

That is why it is such a great park, if you stop and look around.

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There are many joggers holding a piece of rope between them. When I asked, it was explained that these people are jogging with a blind companion.

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The bridge, that takes you to where the festivals are – on this day it was Cinco de Mayo day.

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A few shots from Cinco de Mayo which was all about the food and .. of course, some dancing. It was amazing watching this woman balance the bottles. I wonder what made her want to learn this dance? She went to 8 bottles.

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In Japan you will never be disappointed by the unique English translations.

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You will never be disappointed by the food either.

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CHINA

I have travelled to China a number of times, but always on business. Business travel involves plane > cab > hotel > client/office > hotel > plane. Maybe a restaurant in between. I never make time for personal travel while on the road.

But China was on the bucket list and we finally got there. Posts to follow … But I had to put this picture up from when we hiked an abandoned part of the Great Wall.  It captures the moment well. Just us, our guide and the wilderness.

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Beautiful.

YOU BE THE JUDGE

On the weekend you will see these huge trucks driving around Tokyo blaring music – advertising bands. These bands are always pop bands – and J-POP is a very unique brand of music.

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You be the judge: when you read the name of this album – GUTS! – and interpret the name of the band (‘Arashi’ means ‘Storm’) what do you envision? Myself, I envisioned a tough-guy band.

Now view the band. (smile)

WAVES IN HDR, PHUKET

We took our March break in Phuket this year. The Le Meridien is a great stop; outside of the hustle and bustle of Phuket but still accessible with a great private beach.

The waves would kick up some mornings, making for some great shots. Config: Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 28-300mm f/2.8 USM.

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A contrast to a calm sunset.

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MYSTERY Wi-Fi, PHUKET

It was early and I was enjoying a coffee on the balcony. I turned on my iPad’s wi-fi and noticed a new signal ‘Samax’. Odd. I looked out over the beach and saw this.

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Turns out it is easy to find a ship, thanks to websites like this.

You can read a fascinating account of how this yacht survived the 2005 tsunami here.

This was the rest of my view that morning.

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COLOURS, BANGKOK

It is a colorful city. Config: Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 28-300mm f/2.8 USM.

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Sitting in one of the canal locks (there are many).

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You also see some interesting wildlife on the canals. To answer your question, yes – it really is that big. This is not the zoom making it look bigger.

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HOUSES, BANGKOK

On the canals of Bangkok. Config: Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 28-300mm f/2.8 USM.

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Collecting water.

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As we rode down the river, lots of people were playing music. Some with some very big speakers.

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These homes exist in the shadow of some of the world’s most modern buildings.

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Reminds me of Hong Kong.

DOWN THE STREET, HIROO, TOKYO, JAPAN

Actually, down the street from where we live – a spring view. Config: Canon 5D Mark III with a Canon 28-300mm f/2.8 USM.

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Many restaurants look like this, with the welcome cloth over the door.

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This fellow was arriving, ready for his next food delivery.

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Last shot, in black and white.

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JAPANESE SCOOTER

I kept meaning to take a picture of these uniquely Japanese scooters. These retro, cruisers are everywhere.

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A FEW SHRINE SALE HDRs, TOKYO

My last shots.

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I had never seen porcelain prayer requests before.

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I also do not know what these are. Perhaps prayer requests for a nice garden this summer?

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As with most shrines, 1,000 cranes offered.

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Last shot – a caged dragon.

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SHRINE FOOD, TOKYO

As previously mentioned, a few weeks ago we headed to a shrine sale/market on a Saturday morning. In one area they were serving food. I love Japanese food. I love that Japanese “fast food” means that someone is cooking it quickly, from scratch, instead of mcCooking it.

A few shots. This fellow was quite artfully keeping his ashes out of my food (smile).

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These folks were cooking a very popular dish that you see at the baseball fields – octopus balls with a nice squirt of Japanese mayonnaise on-top.

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I went for the noodles.

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I am afraid that I am becoming a Japanese food bigot and will not be able to step into Canada’s version of a restaurant .. Moxie’s, Jack Astors .. without a sense of despair. I will definitely have to seek out those Canadian ‘chef owned’ restaurants actively.

Reflecting on the difference, it seems to come down to economics. More and more, Canadian restaurants are owned by business people – not chefs. It is bought as a business, not as a extension of a passion and everything from building layout to food delivery is controlled by HQ.

Very different from Japan where those holes in the wall are still family owned with the husband busy cooking while the wife runs the business. Sure, there are fast food chains, but they are a small fraction of the ecosystem.

Guess that is why Tokyo has more Michelin stars than anywhere else in the world – by a huge margin. If you come to Tokyo, explore the food. You will not be disappointed.

SHRINE SALE, TOKYO

A fun way to spend a Saturday morning.

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This fellow was super content.

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Stop!

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In the end we didn’t buy anything. I don’t need a $100 hand crafted wood comb. But really enjoyed wandering around.

UNHEALTHY

I was in North America for a few hours recently and I grabbed a quick bite in a food court – avoiding the fast food chains (which is really hard) and getting a scratch made sandwich. I walked down the drink aisle and found it depressing. Pop, a few vitamin waters, high sugar energy drinks – a wasteland of unhealthy drinks and obesity in a bottle.

Just so different to Japan where it is pretty clear that the vending machines are one of those secrets to long life and a low BMI.

Compare.

A North American drink shelf.

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Now Japan. In the country with a vending machine for every 13 people, the diversity is amazing. Coffees, green teas, hot – cold, jasmine tea, sparking water (in many flavors), flavored waters sweetened and unsweetened, this grape drink with aloe cubes and everything in between.

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Sure, you can buy a pop (I still love a cold Coke) or a different fizzy drink, but it makes up a very small percentage of the vending machine real estate.

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Lattes, vitamin C, milk tea, fiber drinks …

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This is a pretty common sight, 4 or 5 vending machines in a row. They are everywhere.

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Here is my current favorite drink, the “Green Shower”. It is humulus lupulus sparkling water – and has an herbal taste to it.

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For those of you who do not know what Humulus Lupulus is (I certainly did not):

Humulus lupulus (common hop or hop) is a species of flowering plant in the Cannabaceae family, native to Europe, western Asia and North America. It is a dioecious, perennial, herbaceous climbing plant which sends up new shoots in early spring and dies back to a cold-hardy rhizome in autumn. Strictly speaking it is a bine rather than a vine, using its own shoots to act as supports for new growth.

Who are the companies that make all of those healthy, amazing Japanese drinks? Ironically, the same ones that delivery very little choice in North America. Or perhaps, they are delivering what the market wants – which is too bad.

AN ALLEY, TOKYO

The homes and apartments may be small, but they burst with plants.

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Notice the complete lack of any litter.

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The Japanese make the most of their space.

COLORFUL INDIA

After all of my posts on India, I am left with a sense of awe. We went not knowing what to expect, a little worried and questioning if it was the right trip for us.

India is a full-on, visual assault. People, activity, honking, smells, traffic, chaos, laughter, despair – all these words describe it. But in the end, I think I would trend toward words like ‘vibrant’ and ‘colorful’ as the ones that truly capture India.

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Yes, I think the right word is “colorful”.

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It is not for everyone. It is definitely not for the first time or unseasoned traveler.

Personally, I cannot wait to go back.

THE FINAL LEG, INDIA

With Jaipur complete we faced the arduous trip from Jaipur to Delhi. How long would it take? The answer was 5 – 8 hours. Who knows? That is the joy of traveling in India. A couple hundred kilometers is a trip into chaos where anything can happen.

The good thing about that? Lots to see. A few shots from the drive.

Those are bags filled with cotton candy. Some children will be happy,

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While we were in India I read all about multinational business failure in India’s food market. It seems like the country is not ready for wide-scale, super market led food distribution. Read the article on the Journey of an Indian Onion from the Economist, fascinating.

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One of the many, many markets that we passed as we drove to Delhi.

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One of the local distribution engines in action. If you tried loading your truck up like this in Canada, you wouldn’t make it 2km before the police had you stopped.

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Of course, the police would have to find you and get to you first. It might be hard to conduct a police chase on an Indian highway .. with all of the tractors, cattle, camels and everything else in between.

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These guys didn’t seem to mind the traffic.

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One last shot of a potter, by the side of the road; who needs some help organizing.

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It took us 7 hours. Time seemed to fly by.

HOW MUCH FOR THE DOGGIE IN THE WINDOW?

If you live in Japan, you know that the Japanese are dog crazy. With a plummeting birth rate, the dogs are clearly filling a gap.

This little fellow is in the pet store down the street. Take a guess at the price.

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You are probably wrong.

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That translates to roughly $20K CDN. Premium, for sure. If you are going to have a dog that expensive, you better buy a dog stroller.

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You better buy a carrier too.

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Of course, if you are having a tea party, everyone needs to be dressed up – bow in the hair and all.

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Japanese love their dogs. Check out this site from some amazing Japan dog photos.

INSIDE THE AMBER FORT, JAIPUR

Once inside the fort, it felt different than others we had visited. More opulent.

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You can read more of the forts history here. In a nutshell:

The aesthetic ambiance of the palace is seen within its walls on a four level layout plan (each with a courtyard) in a well turned out opulent palace complex built with red sandstone and marble consisting of the Diwan-e-Aam or the "Hall of Public Audience", the Diwan-e-Khas or the "Hall of Private Audience", the Sheesh Mahal (mirror palace) or Jai Mandir, and the Sukh Niwas where a cool climate is artificially created by winds that blow over the water cascade within the palace. Hence, the Amer Fort is also popularly known as the Amer Palace.[4] The palace was lived in by the Rajput Maharajas and their families. At the entrance to the palace near the fort’s Ganesh Gate, there is also a temple dedicated to Sila Devi, a goddess of the Chaitanya cult which was given to Raja Man Singh when he had defeated the Raja of Jessore, Bengal in 1604. (Jessore is now in Bangladesh).[3][8][9]

There are really two key areas. The central court yard and the third courtyard. It is beautiful.

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Looking down from the walls you see the ruler’s herb garden. Cooled by the lake, it allowed the ruling family to grow foods that would not otherwise do well in this climate.

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But the highlight of the fort is third courtyard which is breathtaking.

The building to the left of the entrance gate is called the Jai Mandir, which is exquisitely beautified with glass inlaid panels and multi-mirrored ceilings. The mirrors are of convex shape and designed with coloured foil and paint which would glitter bright under candle nights at the time it was in use. Also known as Sheesh Mahal (mirror palace), the mirror mosaics and coloured glasses were "glittering jewel box in flickering candle light".[4] However, most of this work was allowed to deteriorate during the period 1970–80 but has since then been subjected to a process of restoration and renovation. Carved marble relief panels are placed on walls around the hall. The hall provides enchanting vistas of the Maota Lake.[14]

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A shot where wall and roof meet.

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We wandered deeper into the fort.

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An ancient ventilation shaft. Love the way the light comes through in the shot.

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A beautiful fort, well worth the rather painful trip to get to the top.

THE ELEPHANTS OF THE AMBER FORT

There are 3 ways to the top of the Amber Fort, walk (it is long), a jeep up the side streets (our method) or an elephant ride that wanders up the hill.

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I jumped in front of this one as it made its way back down the hill.

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The road up and down the hill is packed with jeeps.  Elephants randomly walking into the middle of the street do not speed things up.

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Neither do the random cattle. Wandering free and completely unafraid.

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I had a chuckle at this sign. Not an issue.

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This fellow was moving much, much faster than we were.

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It was very hard not to jump out of our parked vehicle for some authentic popcorn. But the rule was clear, no street food, no matter how seemly innocent – not even popcorn.

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Never a dull moment.

THE AMBER FORT, JAIPUR, INDIA

Our last fort and our last site, as we finished our tour of the Golden Triangle. The Amber Fort is quite opulent, and flows across the hilltops with a great view of the town below.

A few of my favorite shots from the walls. Mostly in HDR with a Canon 5D Mark III and a Canon 28-300mm f/2.8 USM).

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Great views.

BLANKETS, JAIPUR

According to our guide, Jaipur is famous for their blankets – people come from around India to buy their Jaipur blankets. Very colorful.

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A blanket market .. I think.

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Unfortunately, we did not need a blanket.

THE AMBER FORT, JAIPUR

Our last tourist stop.

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ELEPHANTS, JAIPUR

While in Jaipur we made a trek to Elefantastic. From all of the reviews, it seemed the most humane, animal centric group who would give us a chance to see elephants up close. It is hard to see them in captivity, but with less and less space, their reality has now become one where they cannot roam free.

We have been to places like this before in Asia and Elefantastic lived up to their reputation. Families living with the elephants, making a living while treating them as – one of the family, in this huge communal area.

When I have the opportunity to be close to elephants, what always strikes me is the eyes. You look into them and you know, there is a deep intelligence looking back.

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Part of the tour is seeing how they live. This is an elephant home, shared with the handlers family, with a big yellow door.

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Satellite and all.

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The handlers guide the elephants with their bare feet.

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For me, the highlight was not the ride. It was simply spending time with them – feeding the elephants and being around such huge, majestic animals. Part of the tour is the opportunity to paint the elephants before they go for their dip in the lake.

What else would I paint?

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COMMON, INDIA

Shot through the window of our van as we drove through a street.

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GOATS, JAIPUR

The goats of India are like the dogs of Tokyo, dressed!

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A WANDER, JAIPUR

One of the benefits of having a private guide is itinerary control. When we arrived in Jaipur the family was ready for a quiet break from touring. I had to run an errand and Anu accompanied me – through the side streets of Jaipur.

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Once the errand was complete we stepped out and decided to take a one block loop around the shop. What fascinated me was the fact that the one block walk was a city, inside a city with a wide range of shops so diverse that the area could almost operate as a self contained unit. Food, mechanical shops, butchers, a pharmacy, clothing and apartments in a block.

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Rickshaws are like scooters in other countries, everywhere.

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Fossil fuels, specifically wood, is still used to cook and in homes around the city. This wood “store” was manned by a man and his goat.

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A micro-city, within the city, which also included a wide range of food – fruits, street vendors and of course, the local butcher.

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Last street shot. The hustle and bustle, in this case two guys trying to sell carpets. According to our guide, the women are tough negotiators.

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Highly recommend stepping into the side streets if you can.

A BLUE DOOR, JAIPUR

I love the colors and vibrancy of India.

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CARPETS AND SILKS, INDIA (2)

The second stage of the sales cycle was to show us how they made a carpet.

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Hand woven and then burned with a torch to remove the extra silk.

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An intricate process of burning (to tighten and seal the knots) and shaving. With the wool carpets he took a blade to the fibers to finish the process.

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While it is all staged to facilitate the sales process just like in other places such as Murano, Italy, it was interesting to watch. The problem I have as a “tourist” is what is the right price? This vendor was pitching us rugs that ran from $5K-$12K USD. While I know silk rugs in downtown Toronto often go for that price (or more), I was instantly on the defensive. Certainly they send those to foreign markets at a fraction of the cost – so what is the right price?

In the end, that is why we did not buy. Perhaps we would have if we felt there was a compelling reason and a deal to be had due to the “buy from the source” scenario.

CARPETS AND SILKS, INDIA

Being Expats our propensity to “consume” is quite low. Beside the fact that we are living in Tokyo, we have entered into a phase in our lives where we are getting rid of things – not adding. It has to be pretty special to get into our suitcase on a trip.

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Our guide had scheduled a stop at a textile shop which is a collective and one that he trusts. I have a long sales background and appreciate a good selling process. Their process is all about creating that emotional tie, letting us know the background on the collective and walking us through how the carpets are made.

The selling process started with showing us how they print silk by hand. Amazing to watch.

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The finished process.

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Made me wish that we needed something. Carpets, their high price item, were next.

THE BARBERSHOPS OF INDIA

I kept seeing these sidewalk barbershops as we traveled the roads of India – often too late (our van had already whizzed by). On our last couple days in India I set a goal – get a few shots before it is too late.

Config: Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 28-300mm f/28 USM. Having the 300mm helped.

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I think that the blue chair might be a barbershop standard.

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This is the only barbershop that I spotted inside – on the way from Jaipur to Delhi.

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Incredible India! I just loved having a camera there.

ABHANERI STEPWELL, INDIA

Another TripAdvisor advised detour in India, we stopped at our second step well. Throughout the trip it never ceased to amaze me how advanced Indian engineering was. Abhaneri was built for one reason, to harvest rain water.

Stepwells, also called kalyani or pushkarani (Kannada: ), bawdi (Hindi: बावड़ी) or baoli (Hindi: बावली), barav (Marathi: बारव), vaav (Gujarati: વાવ) are wells or ponds in which the water may be reached by descending a set of steps. They may be covered and protected and are often of architectural significance. They also may be multi-storied having a bullock which turns the water wheel ("rehat") to raise the water in the well to the first or second floor.

I wonder when the last time this step well was full?

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We were not allowed down.

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Beautiful green water with thousands of steps and I counted 14 levels. Amazing piece of 8th century work.

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The architecture around the well was stunning.

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Random chunks of block filled the corridors, from temples in the area.

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For the traveller moving from Agra to Jaipur (or vice versa), it is an interesting detour.

THE POTTER, INDIA

As we approached the potter’s home his family gathered around. It was a simple demonstration, showing us his craft.

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I love the bright colors of the community.

With no signs of electricity into the home, it was all done the old fashioned way – by hand.

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His watch seemed an odd contrast to the surroundings.

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A SIDE STREET, INDIA

While traveling from Agra to Jaipur we detoured into a small town. We went to see how the locals live and to see a potter. Config: Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 28-300mm f/2.8 USM.

Every street, regardless of location, has one thing in common – water buffalo and cows.

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The potters house.

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Cow dung was spread out on the roofs of many of the houses – they use it for fuel.

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I was allowed to look inside one of the homes (below), and it was as you would expect. Simple open rooms, with a fire pit and sleeping quarters on mats. It was also filled with smiling children, staring at the gaijin.

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The potter was next.

SUBWAY, TOKYO (2)

My transfer station is Ginza. Again, it seems like I flow against the commuters with more people getting off than getting on. Config: Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 50mm f/1.2.

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As with much of Japan’s society, it is all about order. When you stand on a platform you will notice the little colored markers where the doors will stop and people calmly and neatly line up on either side, waiting.

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As people funnel on, there is no pushing or shoving – even as it gets tight.

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And it definitely gets tight. Although on this day, the conductor did not need to do one of those famous ‘pushes’.

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A few more shots around the subway.

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The subways of Japan, the cleanest and most efficient in the world.

TOKYO SUBWAY

It occurred to me recently that I have never brought my camera along for the commute. The other week I did.    Config: Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 50mm f/1.2.

The subways have some old fashion elements – like white gloved conductors who hop on and off to guide the crowds.

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My commute to work is a short one. It starts at Hiroo station – stop number 3. I change trains at stop number 8.

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I seem to go against the flow of the commuters. This station fills up with people getting off the train, not on to it. Very clean.

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Note the face masks. I found that very odd when I first moved to Tokyo – people on the train, in the street and in the office wearing facemasks.

As an insight into the Japan culture, often people wear masks not to avoid getting sick – but to stop themselves from getting others sick. Very polite. I have even started wearing a mask when ill (garnering a few looks) and on airplanes; it is fantastic for your throat as the air is dryer than a dessert on a plane and the worst place to catch a cold. I travelled a significant amount in 2013 (often 10 hour flights) and seemed to be catching a cold every other flight – the mask helped.

Another common reason for wearing a mask is allergies (blogged about previously).

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The train flying by.

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The Tokyo rush hour can become very crowded.

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I think this is my favorite shot of the morning.

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Next stop Ginza.

THINGS I WISH I WOULD HAVE KNOWN BEFORE MOVING TO TOKYO

When we moved to Tokyo I found it very hard to figure out. As expatriate assignments go, Japan is like moving to Mars and dramatically more complex than when we moved to Europe.

As a public service announcement, I share a few key learnings in the hope that it helps others in the future.

  • Japanese addresses:  Have your home address in your contacts in Japanese. It makes it much easier with the taxi drivers. If you are going somewhere, print it out from the web and hand it over in Japanese. Easy.
  • Metro:  The Android/iPhone application for getting around the subways is invaluable. Put in your starting location and your ending stop and it maps the way. I use it all the time.
  • Costco:  It took us months to figure out where the Costco was. There are (now) many in Japan. Want to avoid that $50 melon? Costco is the place. Amazing prices, English signs and great service.
  • Amazon.jp:  I wish I would have known this right from the beginning. Amazon.jp sells almost everything imaginable and has been a savior for the family. Boxes of lemon water, kitchen items, condiments, a vacuum cleaner, humidifiers (it gets very dry), vacuum bags – you name it, that is where I start when we need something (other than Costco).  As an Amazon prime member shipping is free on many items so you don’t have to worry about buying a single bottle of $2 cinnamon. The trick is finding things, you can select “English” on the website but it may not find what you want so I often use the “People who bought this also looked at these items” features or browse by category. Last, there is nothing more amazing than ordering two boxes of vitamin water at 9AM and having it arrive at 7PM that same night  .. on a Saturday.
  • Google Translate:  Invaluable for a few words. Avoid sentences to ensure you do not accidentally offend (smile). At home, use the Chrome browser and install the extension as sometimes it gets “stuck” translating a page into Japanese and it is handy to be able to hit the translate button and have it start over. Plus, very handy on your iPhone. It is how I bought a car.
  • Money: The best way to move money from country to country (unless you are moving a huge amount), is with a check. You can read more here.
  • Electric bikes:  If you have young children, buy a bike in Japan. They have electric bikes which are a mix of pedaling and battery power. Tokyo is a VERY hilly place, and that battery “boost” will be very helpful if you have a child or a host of groceries on the back of the bike. Just don’t be like most of the expats and almost all of the Japanese, wear a helmet.
  • Guam and Saipan:  We needed a break from the city in the summer and tried to head down to Okinawa or into the central parts of Asia (Philippines, etc.) when we first moved here. As we drove to the airport we cancelled our trip to Okinawa as a typhoon was hitting. The summer is typhoon season in Asia, making your choice of destinations one that requires a lot of research. I wish I would have known about Guam – close to Tokyo, beautiful beaches, English speaking and simple. We have been there 3 times in the last 2 years – it is the easy, get out of the city break for a beach.
  • Lunch:  Tokyo has, absolutely, the best restaurants in the world. More Michelin stars than anywhere else. But dinner is expensive – with the restaurants pushing set menus that range from $75 to $250 per person. The secret is that lunch in Japan is the best deal in the world. Those $200 dinners for $30 (with less courses). Do lunch.

Tokyo is the safest and cleanest city in the world. It has beautiful parks and perplexing rules. The Japanese people are incredibly friendly and will openly try to help you out as a foreigner.

But it can be daunting, as I described in this post. I hope this helps others.

THE DIVER

At the back of the Fatehpur Sikri complex is a large water basin. There were two men at the base of the wall working hard to get our attention. They yelled an offer to our guide – money for a dive.

That is a long drop, but I admire their entrepreneurial approach and agreed. Config: Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 28-300mm f/2.8 USM.

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Awesome jump (smile).

FATEHPUR SIKRI, INDIA

Outside of Agra is Fatehpur Sikri, a small city that would often serve as the summer capital:

The city was founded in 1569 by the Mughal emperor Akbar, and served as the capital of the Mughal Empire from 1571 to 1585.[1] After his military victories over Chittor and Ranthambore, Akbar decided to shift his capital from Agra to a new location 23 miles (37 km) W.S.W on the Sikri ridge, to honor the Sufi saint Salim Chishti. Here he commenced the construction of a planned walled city which took the next fifteen years in planning and construction of a series of royal palaces, harem, courts, a mosque, private quarters and other utility buildings.[2] He named the city, Fatehabad, with Fateh, a word of Arabic origin in Persian, meaning "victorious." it was later called Fatehpur Sikri.[3] It is at Fatehpur Sikri that the legends of Akbar and his famed courtiers, the nine jewels or Navaratnas, were born.[citation needed] Fatehpur Sikri is one of the best preserved collections of Mughal architecture in India.[4]

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Ornately built with incredible detail everywhere. It is an architectural wonder, and quite the “summer home”.

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While we were there it was quite cloudy and foggy. We are just fortunate that the entire trip was not that way.

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The most interesting part of the fort was the insight into the male/female lifestyle. At different spots through the fort Anu (our guide) would point out where they celebrated – with dancers and musicians – always pointing to where the women would be located/segregated, often behind some type of screen or up on one of the balconies.

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Interesting insight into a Moghul’s summer life. As an aside – a point on literacy embedded in the Wikipedia entry:

Fatehpur Sikri has a population of 28,754. Males constitute 53% of the population and females 47%. Fatehpur Sikri has an average literacy rate of 46%, lower than the national average of 59.5%: male literacy is 57%, and female literacy is 34%. In Fatehpur Sikri, 19% of the population is under 6 years of age

We had many conversations with our guide on literacy, education and the class system in India. It became apparent that there is a lot of local skepticism around the claimed national literacy average of 72%.

THE CAMEL, INDIA

This fellow was very proud of his camel and the grooming. A majestic animal. He was offering rides outside of Fatehpur Sikri.

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Love the intricate designs. He loves his camel.

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TOKYO POLICE ACADEMY

It seems that regardless of country, students always get stuck doing manual labor to “build character”. In this case it is weeding and cutting the grass (with their hands) at the Tokyo police academy.

Tokyo police academy

There must have been 200 of them. The only difference between them and their brethren everywhere ? Most of them were wearing a face mask.

JAPANESE ON-HOLD MUSIC

Ever since we landed in Japan two years ago I have constantly been smiling at the little things that are so different. Truly, I say it again and again, living on Japan is like living on Mars. It could not be more different than Canada.

Case in point, music. J-pop is everywhere and I personally find the dollification (I made that word up) and boy/girl band music confusing and well, not reeling me in. That artificial, tinny, synthetic type of music can be found everywhere in Japanese society. It is particularly grating in D2, my local hardware store, which has found a way to make elevator music even more soul crushing by replicating it via synthetic organ music.

To give you an insight into this music, I pass on a video. It is me recording what it is like to be on hold with an un-named Michelin 3 star restaurant in Tokyo.

Michelin 3 Star on-hold music

 

I live on j-pop Mars (smile).

CONSTRUCTION IN JAPAN

In most countries when you think of a construction worker you think of a hardhat, steel boots and safety equipment.

                          Safety-boots-150x150   hard-hat(1)

In the land of paradox, where rules abound and business culture is all about adhering to the norms and coloring within the lines, the attire of the Japanese construction worker continues to confuse me.

Japanese construction worker

Construction pants? Well yes, but they are these huge, flowing baggy things that look perfect for getting caught in an auger and ripping off a limb. Called a Tobi trouser.

Tobi trousers or tobi pants are a type of baggy pants used as a common uniform of tobi shokunin, construction workers in Japan who work on high places (such as scaffolding and skyscrapers).[1] The pants are baggy to a point below the knees, abruptly narrowing at the calves so as to be put into the footwear: high boots or jikatabi (tabi-style boots), often brightly colored.[2]

According to a spokesperson for Toraichi, a major manufacturer of worker’s clothes of this style, the style was developed from knickerbockers. The regular knickerbocker-style pants are called nikka zubon ("zubon" means "trousers," and "nikka" or "nikka-bokka" is a gairaigo-transformation of the word "knickerbockers"). The excessively widened ones are calledchocho zubon.[1] This style has also entered popular fashion,[3] as evidenced by the emergence of toramani ("Toraichi maniacs"), die-hard fans of Toraichi trousers.[1]

Construction boots? No. Usually soft boots with the big toe separate to allow for slip on footwear (i.e. flip flops). Definitely not steel toe. He happens to be wearing running shoes. Called the Jikatabi. I personally like this commentary on the boot “Though slowly being replaced by steel-toed, rigid-sole shoes in some industries, many workers prefer them for the softness of their soles”.

Hard hat? Infrequently. The bandana seems to be a team favorite.

One could say that construction mirrors culture – where tradition is tantamount, despite the changing world around them. Or perhaps, the right term is “to spite the changing world around them”. The paradox that is Japan.

WILDLIFE SOS, INDIA

The only way that we found out about this wildlife sanctuary is through TripAdvisor, and my unwillingness to accept a pre-canned trip. I am glad we did.

The sanctuary is a little bit out of the way and I wish we would have scheduled more time as they also have a elephant sanctuary in the park – 30 minutes away. If you read through the TripAdvisor reviews, there will be people complaining about some fees such as the “take picture” fee at the entrance to the park. For me, it was worth every penny. These people are doing amazing work and we made a donation on the spot.

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It is a rather heartbreaking story. Wildlife SOS started in 1995 with a movement to save the “dancing bears” of India. Ripped from their mothers at an early age their noses are pierced, teeth are broken and they are trained to “dance”. Their owners move from town to town, entertaining the villagers. Through a program of buying back the bears and helping the previous owners find a new livelihood (i.e. become a rickshaw driver), they have slowly eliminated the practice. Very few remain and it is now illegal.

It is truly amazing work they are doing and these bears appear so content in their huge, open sanctuary. The sloth toed bears are beautiful and incredibly serene.

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You can see the mark where the ring was initially in place. Now, long gone.

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Relaxing.

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They also rescue other animals – which we did not have the time to see (regrettably). Although we did have a ton of fun playing with their dogs – rescued from the streets of the city, and beyond happy. This fellow was a vixen (smile).

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I would highly recommend watching this video to understand the plight of these bears. You can donate here.

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