STILL HERE, CHINA

An abandoned section of the Great Wall. Amazing that these bricks are 900 years old and were hand carried up a 800m incline centuries ago.

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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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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.

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.

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).

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.

MONKEYS, INDIA

There are a lot in India. Nature and people collide all over the country and like the raccoons of Canada, monkeys clamber amongst the sprawling population.

I love shooting monkeys, they are so interesting to watch. Config: Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 28-300mm f/2.8 USM.

This group of families was at the entrance to a park as we travelled to a wildlife sanctuary.

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They are such an intimate species. Clustered together, jumping, playing, taking care of each other.

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As I watched this young man came out of the back of a building. It caused quite the racket as they obviously knew what he was about to do.

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He smiled the entire time, feeding the group.

THINGS I WOULD NOT BUY IN TOKYO

A bear I would never buy. The warning is very clear about language.

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I believe this golf visor was in the men’s section.

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The below translates into roughly $60USD per melon.

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And Tokyo is the 6th most expensive city currently!

CALM DOWN

A sign in Azabu Juban that made me laugh.

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WHAT IS THE RIGHT AMOUNT OF TIME IN INDIA?

It is a question I asked many people before we traveled there for 10 days with a wide range of answers; what is the right amount of time?

Reflecting on our time in the country, I would pass on the following opinions (feel free to disagree):

The tourist sites become repetitive:  The pink city, the blue city, Delhi. The architecture of India is surprisingly consistent. Once you see a couple temples, forts and Tajs, they begin to look the same. Therefore if you are planning, remember that. We went to Agra, Jaipur and Delhi. I do not feel that we missed much by not hitting the other northern cities and am very glad that we didn’t make the very long trips.

That isn’t to say that the south isn’t different. It is and we will make another trip to hit the south of India.

It isn’t about the tourist sites:  Had we followed the itineraries that were presented to us by travel companies we would have missed out. I spent a lot of time searching different locations on Tripadvisor and opportunities to take us off the beaten path. Into villages, on to locations that others don’t usually go to. The Taj Mahal was interesting, but I wouldn’t call it the highlight of the trip. The highlights for us were often down side streets.

I began to form this opinion at Sikandra tomb, the tomb of Akbar the great. Magnificent building? Yes. Did it have anything different than the other tombs we had seen? Not really. It was at this point in the tour that we started to actively push away from the top, commonly visited sites in the cities.

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It is tiring.  India is a full on assault on the senses. A 100km drive can take 5 hours. Everything is caked in dust. You will see flaunted wealth and the saddest of poverty. We booked in breaks at our hotel to just relax or it would have been to much.

As I said in a previous post, our private guide gave us this flexibility and truly explained India to us. The culture, the rich history and he was very flexible as we evolved our itinerary as we went.

And to answer the question again on safety – just be smart. We had a few run ins, but we were never in danger. We stood out in the crowd (My wife and boys are blonde), so expect lots of stairs, people asking for money and a few other things. As a group, it was safe. It is just about being smart.

India is an incredible place, but it is not for the first time traveler. 

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INDIA

Right up until the day we left for India, there was a lot of debate around going. With all of the negative press (and shocking tourist attack right after we left), we had our reservations. We spoke about cancelling many times. Was it dangerous? Was our time there too long? Would the driving from city to city be too much? I would say that of all of the places that we have travelled, this trip was the one that was most debated. We almost cancelled several times and last minute I completely changed the itinerary – shortening it by a few days.

As our guide said “India is not for the first time traveller. Most of the people who come here have been to many places before they venture to our country”.

Well said and good advice because it is not for the unadventurous or first time traveler. While I am sure there are bus tours which put you in a cocoon, India is what I would describe as “full on”. We spent 9 days there and after the trip we left enlightened, amazed and exhausted.

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To be clear, we were also cautious and had a few uncomfortable moments. I happened across this post and could not help but shudder at how this woman is tempting fate (I hope her parents read it and talk some sense into her). Would you walk down a dark alley in Toronto in the middle of the night alone as a woman? Of course not. Same goes for India. We recognized that we stood out in the crowd and with the help of our amazing guide, were smart about it.

It also turned out to be the perfect opportunity to shoot my new lens. The 28-300mm proved it’s value by being able to shoot while in the van or while walking, with huge range.

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And lets just say, we spent a lot of time in the van as we moved from city to city. India’s lack of infrastructure coupled with a huge population does not make for speedy movement.

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Our trip took us from Delhi to Agra to Jaipur and then back to Delhi over 9 days – the Golden Triangle. Over those days we would see many things; beautiful monuments, spectacular architecture, wealth, shocking poverty, back streets, main streets, road side markets and everything in between.

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Trip of a lifetime.

THE MEKONG DELTA MARKETS

A few more shots from around the Mekong Delta, Vietnam (Config: Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 28-70mm).

We spent time wandering around an island market … where the fresh fruit is abundant.

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Even the durian (smile). Seriously, every traveler must try it at least once.

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A flower along the river.

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This woman was making taffy. Coconut taffy. It was amazing when eaten fresh.

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To get back to our boat, we took a taxi through a back canal.

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Vietnam is a beautiful country.

A MEKONG DELTA FISH FARM

I knew very little about the Mekong Delta prior to traveling there. My knowledge was limited to things I had seen on Vietnam war movies and a belief that the delta was full of life.

The last hypothesis was correct. The river brings life to those around it.

The Mekong Delta (Vietnamese: Đồng bằng Sông Cửu Long "Nine Dragon river delta") is the region in southwestern Vietnam where the Mekong River approaches and empties into the sea through a network of distributaries. The Mekong delta region encompasses a large portion of southwestern Vietnam of 39,000 square kilometres (15,000 sq mi).[1] The size of the area covered by water depends on the season.

The Mekong Delta has recently been dubbed as a "biological treasure trove". Over 10,000 new species have been discovered in previously unexplored areas of Mekong Delta, including a species of rat thought to be extinct.[2]

Our journey would be a boat ride along the river with a range of stops. The boats had a similar look at feel to those in Cambodia.

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I am sure the population in this area dwarfs that of Tonle Sap Lake. As one would expect, the river was full of people coming and going, making a living.

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There were a lot of boats.

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One of our more interesting stops was a fish farm. Just like in Cambodia, I cannot fathom living my entire life on the water. A few shot from around the farm.

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Another water dog. I wonder if he looks at the shore wishing he could go for a run?

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The farm itself.

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There were thousands and thousands of fish.

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A very different life.

FLOATING VILLAGES OF TONLE SAP LAKE, CAMBODIA

As mentioned in the previous post, the boat picked up speed and we headed to the next village. One of the first boats we saw as we entered the main village was this floating restaurant, looking for customers.

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The lake will rise and fall 9-10M in a year and the people will float from location to location, following the water. It is a bit unfathomable to live your entire life .. floating.

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Moored into the trees or to each other, the homes at mid/high-tide. At low tide, those trees will be 20m high.

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The village delivery system … gas, fruit, you name it.

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Everyone drives a boat. No matter how old.

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Some boats with motors.

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Many boats with only a paddle.

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Of course, there is a phone store.

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A completely different way of life. Thanks for dropping by.

THE TRAVELER’S LOGIC

We have been traveling over the last week and it is amazing to watch foreigners enter a country and simply shed the logic that they apply in their home country. I am not sure if it is the “do as they do here” mindset or simply a belief that entering a country with less rules is a refreshing change from our safe, structured 1st world way of life.

Or perhaps it is naivety.

This is no more apparent than in helmet usage. Rent a scooter; why use a helmet in a foreign country where they don’t enforce it? After all, travelers logic dictates that your chance of an accident is lower while tearing down dirt, pothole ridden streets with scooters and cars everywhere right?

Taking a tour with scooter drivers. They have helmets on but you don’t. Why would you?

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As one tour guide said, he found many travelers ‘obstinate’. In his words, we warn them “please don’t go there’ or ‘please don’t climb that’ but they do anyway.

I don’t understand it. We had a tour in Ho Chi Minh city and the options were scooters with drivers or the ‘scaredie cat’ option of a taxi to flit us around. We took a cab option.

12 MINUTES

I got off of a red-eye from LAX in Haneda, Japan this week and the total time from plane to taxi was 12 minutes. I love Japanese efficiency and Haneda is my favorite airport in the world. Close to downtown Tokyo and so efficient.

The "special re-entry" line also helps as it is often empty (smile).

UNDERWATER

I bought a Canon G12 with an underwater casing a few years ago and enjoy taking shots with it.

However, I think it may be time to consider taking my 5D underwater (although the price tag is not for the faint of heart).

A few underwater favorites from Palau. Off of the beach of our hotel was a marine sanctuary and the biggest clams I have ever seen. This one was more than 1m long and if you got to close, it would snap shut.

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I had never seen a blue starfish before. They were everywhere.

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Hang on little starfish.

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Come to think of it I had never seen a neon blue and pink clam before either.

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This fellow was tucked in the coral and looked rather ominous.

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The other thing that I noticed was that many clams were literally embedded into the coral, like these two. One has to wonder how many years that took?

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Coral as far as you could see.

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Note the sharp looking teeth on this cheery pink fellow.

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Spot the fish.

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Last shot, the rain from below.

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SHOTS AROUND SYDNEY

Our family loved Sydney. I get there frequently but have very little time to tour. I did click off a few shots while moving around the city from meeting to meeting a few months back. One meeting was held at Cockatoo Island, a place with a long and storied history.

Cockatoo Island, an UNESCO World Heritage Site,[4] is an island located at the junction of the Parramatta and Lane Cove rivers, in Sydney Harbour,Sydney, New South Wales, Australia.

At 17.9 hectares (44 acres) it is the largest of several islands that were, in their original state, heavily timbered sandstone knolls. Cockatoo Island rose to 18 metres (59 ft) above sea level and is now cleared of most vegetation. Called Wa-rea-mah by the Indigenous Australians who traditionally inhabited the land prior to European settlement, the island may have been used as a fishing base, although physical evidence of Aboriginal heritage has not been found on the island.[5]

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The water taxi out. He was late. It was raining very hard …

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After my speech we headed down to the wharf for a ride back to Sydney. Luckily, it stopped raining for the walk.

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Someone marking time.

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The old ship buildings remain intact.

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There are a few unusual cottages at the top of the island, apparently for rent.

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With great views of Sydney and your own private tennis court. Hard to beat the view.

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Perhaps we will consider it for our next holiday.

THE MILKY WAY, PALAU

We used Sam’s Tours to get out to the Rock Islands, home to Jellyfish Lake and The Milky Way. They are based in a cove, beside the fishermen.

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As we left the cove I asked about the anchored ships and the sunk ship; they are illegal fishing ships often from Indonesia, out to fish the waters and many out shark fining in the first shark reserve in the world. If you do not know about the terrible, cruel mass butchery of sharks that is feeding the Asian appetite for shark fin soup, you should watch Sharkwater. After watching it we went straight to the Sea Sheppard website and made a donation as it seems like they are one of the few who are taking on illegal whaling and the shark travesty.

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At least we were lucky during the day. The weather shifted significantly; crazy rain, then sun, then rain, then ….

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One of the attractions of Palau is a place called the Milky Way. Tourist flood to this cove where they collect a white mud for cosmetics. The tour involves diving down, bringing up the white mud, spreading it all over and then jumping in.

The cove is beautiful.

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I will spare the photos of the process, which was unique and fun.

CUSTOMS LINES AND FAMILIES WITH PLASTIC BAGS

They are to be avoided at all costs.

When I say plastic bags, I mean the $1 store plastic bags with zippers or perhaps a plastic bag in the form of a duffle bag. In a customs line at the airport it never ends well.

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This has now happened to me 3 times, watching the spectacle unravel in front of you.

I will admit, I smiled as the I watched the Chinese customs official pull out 3 bottles of liquor (carefully wrapped in tube socks), three bottles of assorted drinks, scissors and a brand new Zippo lighter still in the packaging. However, the ensuing loud voiced, arms waving argument between the man and his family with the 3 customs guards just went on and on. I politely tapped a customs official on the shoulder and indicated that it would be great to be passed through using my hands and a smile as I do not speak Mandarin.

I would have rather watched it from a line over.

REMEMBER: YOU ARE NOT IN TOKYO ANYMORE

This is a conversation I have had time and time again with expat friends and colleagues. When you leave the safety of Tokyo, you need to remember that the rest of the world is different.

Sitting in the ANA Lounge the other day I had zero qualms about leaving all of my bags at my seat and heading to the washroom. I would never do that in another country.

A colleague and I were discussing it the other day (he is American) and he told the story that I have heard so many times before. They walked off the plane in the US and ran their young children through the “You are not in Tokyo anymore” reminders.

When you go to the washroom, make sure that Mom or Dad knows.

You cannot leave your laptop on a chair and come back expecting it to still be there.

Stay close, don’t get lost in the crowd. Don’t talk to strangers.

If you are a parent with children, Tokyo is like the hometown of your youth. An island surrounded by a much different world.

Plus, where else in the world is the lounge breakfast comprised of noodles and fried tofu, yogurt and a cappuccino? (smile)

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JAPANESE HQ, PELELIU

My last Peleliu post.

One of the most interesting buildings on Peleliu is the old Japanese HQ. Bombed, shelled and generally beaten into pieces, the jungle has come back with a vengeance to grow through the .5m-1m thick concrete floors that are doing everything they can to stay together.  Config: Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 28-70mm f/2.8.

These first shots give you a sense of the place. It is a big building.

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The jungle is taking it over, slowly but surely.

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1,000 paper cranes near a very large artillery or bomb hole.

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These doors go to a room that I could not get to (stairs were removed).

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I wonder what this building means to Capt. Lusczynski?

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It never ceases to amaze me how plants can find a crack and grow.

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Off to the side was a metal structure that served as a mess hall for the Japanese, a mechanics shed for the Americans.

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A fascinating view into World War II.

1,000 MAN CAVE, PELELIU

I would say the most disturbing site on Peleliu is this cave – which you could call an execution cave. Inside the series of tunnels a thousand Japanese soldiers camped, refusing to come out. As the story goes, whenever the Americans tried to get a surrender the Japanese would respond by throwing out grenades or firing shots.

The Americans were forced to block up the exits, leaving only two open. In one exit they fired explosives and flame throwers, attempting to push the remaining soldiers out the last exit. The fact that they would not give up despite certain defeat remains unfathomable.

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Old sake bottles were everywhere along the floor of the caves.

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Everywhere you stepped there were remnants of the days long past; rubber insoles, small parts of weapons, bowls and the remains of an IV stand at the medical station.

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The blast marks on the entrance of the cave from the flame throwers.

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A lonely shrine.

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Musty, filled with large spiders and very dark. A rather disturbing place.

MEMORIAL TO LEADERSHIP FAILURE

This memorial is located at the cave where Colonel Kunio Nakagawa, leader of the Japanese troops on Peleliu Island, committed suicide during World War II. He led his men to certain death. 12,000 Japanese troops fought a battle with no hope of winning, dying instead of surrendering honorably.

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To me it was a memorial to the differences in cultures, because I do not understand his leadership or see suicide as honorable. Under his leadership they mutilated Americans that they captured in direct contradiction to the Geneva Convention and justified all actions, regardless of how inhumane they were, as acceptable due to divine right.

The memorial seemed an affront to peace, sensibility, and to the terrible fate of those poor, common Japanese soldiers who were given no options but death.

WHY THE LINE-UP IN SHIBUYA?

There is always a line around a stairwell near Shibuya in Tokyo. Why? Popcorn of course.

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It was a Saturday and the “feels like” temperature is 42. Perfect temperature to line up for an hour to get some hot popcorn right? The parasol helps.

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It is right around the corner from this incredibly quirky street, Takeshita Street.

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Costume shops, punk rock clothing and a hundred things in between including great outfits for your dog.

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Not sure marvel would appreciate the cross-dressing Spiderman.

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Crepes on the corner, ice cream and chocolate or tuna and lettuce? Would you like that in a cone?

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Absolutely must get to this place before we head back to NA. Stock up on Halloween costumes.

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(NOTE: EXPLETIVE AHEAD – FEEL FREE TO STOP READING).

I have thought about blogging about this before, and will instead make a simple reference. In Japan there are almost no t-shirts with the Japanese language on them, only English (which is an oddity). Furthermore, the Japanese use English words in odd ways and it is very clear that they do not understand the cultural implications of some words.

In an overly formal and polite society which does not have swear words in the language (In Japan, you swear through voice inflection – there literally are no swear words), it makes their prominent display of the f-word quite surprising. My son once pulled me aside to show me a 80 year old woman with the word prominently displayed on her shirt. I recently walked behind a young man who had it written all over his shorts.

It isn’t quite “everywhere”, but surprisingly common. Walking down this street, I counted it on 7 items of clothing including this young, well dressed girl’s hat as she strolled through a shop (I cropped the picture).

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I really do think someone needs to sit them down and explain the word. Stranger in a strange land.

LOOKING DOWN THE BARREL OF A 200MM GUN, PELELIU

Or specifically, the barrel of a Japanese 200mm cannon on Peleliu. The World War II cannon was dug into the rocks and virtually unreachable with sniper holes guarding the entrance. The problem? As it was so deeply dug into the rocks it had a very limited field of view and effectiveness.

The Americans snuck up the side to take it out.

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The artillery and mortar caves of the Japanese were well thought out. Many had steel doors on them, which would close during US naval or artillery bombardment – popping open the moment the shelling stopped. This was a big gun.

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It was very well dug in. Too well in fact.

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The sniper holes are under the moss.

AROUND PELELIU

A few random shots from our travels around the island.

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This bridge was bombed by the Americans during WWII. The remnants reminded me of a Tori gate. I am sure there is some form of irony there.

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An old concrete machine gun bunker.

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The old Japanese communications building. You are not allowed in, as the back collapsed during a hurricane in 2012.

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The memorial to the US 81st Infantry. It was a cemetery but years ago Congress went around the world and brought their war dead back to the US.

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The old runway that was so precious to McArthur. If you watch The Pacific (HBO) they show how this area was an open field with all vegetation bombed and burned to the ground. Nature has reclaimed the airfield.

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A plaque on a memorial from the Japanese people.

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I would agree and let us all hope and pray for those around the world who are suffering through war today.

PELELIU’s TANKS

Scattered around the island are remnants of the fierce World War II battle. The US LTV(A)-1, LTV(A)-4s, rusting under the hot Pacific sun. A few of my favorite shots (Config: Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 28-70mm f/2.8)

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Believe it or not, some of the wheels on the tanks still turn.

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The spot where the enemy shells went in.

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It was surprising how much smaller the Japanese tanks were. This Type 95 Ha-Go Light Tank was half the height of the American tanks. I do not know how a full grown man would fit into it – must have been tight. It was sitting on the old airfield.

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Nature is slowly trying to reclaim the vehicles.

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Spot the faded star.

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The Japanese tanks had little effect on the battle and were destroyed almost immediately during a poorly executed counter attack:

The 5th Marines made the most progress on the first day, due to their distance from the heavy gun emplacements guarding the left and right flanks. They pushed toward the airfield, but were met with Nakagawa’s first counterattack. His armored tank company raced across the airfield to push the Marines back, but was soon engaged by tanks, howitzers, naval guns and dive bombers. Nakagawa’s tanks and escorting infantrymen were quickly destroyed.

They had very small guns.

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Fascinating to see.

PALAU ABANDONED JAPANESE WAR MONUMENT

We had rented a car and were driving the roads of Palau in search of a waterfall. Along the side of the road we noticed a concrete pyramid rising out of the jungle. What was that?

We backtracked and found the entrance with a set of tire tracks through the grass, no “official” road in sight and everything overgrown. What was it?

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As we moved closer, we started to notice the writing on the walls – definitely Japanese. But so overgrown … so un-Japanese.

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On the left were names of companies. All of the companies you would easily recognize; JAL, Toshiba, Panasonic and others.

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On the right are the names of people. I assume people who have donated.

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One of the first names is very interesting … Ryoichi Sasakawa who has a very interesting and mixed history.

Ryoichi Sasakawa (笹川 良一 Sasakawa Ryōichi?, May 4, 1899 – July 18, 1995) was a Japanese businessman, politician and fascist[1][2][3] born in Minoh,Osaka. He was imprisoned as a Class A war criminal after World War II but later released without a trial,[4][5][6] kuromaku (political power-broker), and the founder of the Nippon Foundation. While he is widely known throughout Africa and much of the developing world for the wide-ranging philanthropic programs that he established, he is at the same time viewed with hostility by many intellectuals[7][8] for his right wing ideals and ties to Japan’s motorboat racing industry and support for the Unification Movement

I found his quote “I am the world’s richest fascist” particularly interesting when he is also recognized for leading significant charity efforts in poverty stricken nations and a peace organization that bears his name.

The black marble triangle with the dirt darkened inscription and long dead wreaths reads (roughly translated)

As a memory of fighting in this war we built this to take care of the spirits of the soldiers.

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To Japan …

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A place to sit and contemplate.

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You can find the monument at Longitude 7 27 51.71, Latitude 134 31 40.878 (embedded in the metadata). How quickly nature creeps back …

PELELIU, BLOODY NOSE RIDGE

Our first stop on our exploration of the island of Peleliu was bloody nose ridge. Along the road was a small sign about a few Japanese men who held out well after the war.

On 21 April 1947, a small band of Japanese holdouts was discovered on Peleliu. They formally surrendered only after considerable effort to convince them the war was over. Lieutenant Yamaguchi, who had maintained military discipline in the group for the intervening years, led 26 soldiers to a position in front of 80 battle-dressed Marines where he turned over his sword.

You can read more about the account here. (Config: Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 28-70mm f/2.8)

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Their cave is 50m that way.

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The fighting in Peleliu was inhuman. It was not a strategic battle with cleaver maneuvers and tightly managed strategies. With 22,000 combatants surrounded by hundreds of ships and planes on a 2 mile by 6 mile island, it was a meat grinder – a battle of brute force. While the US Army wanted to execute a conservative strategy to beat the Japanese after extensive bombing/artillery, inching their sandbags forward; the controversial leader of the US Marines Colonel Chesty Puller had one strategy, drive ahead at all costs. That cost was divisions going in with 280 men and walking out with 70 left days later. Many say that Marine Corps. casualties did not need to be so high.

It was fought hand to hand and due to the Japanese Imperial Army’s mentality of too the death for the Emperor, it lead to some of the highest casualty rates in American history and almost no Japanese prisoners. I read With The Old Breed before flying over, and while I found the writing of the book rather simplistic, he describes the rawness of Peleliu very clearly:

to those who entered the meat grinder itself, the war was a nether world of horror [in which] time had no meaning; life had no meaning. The fierce struggle for survival in the abyss of Peleliu eroded the veneer of civilization and made savages of us all. We existed in an environment totally incomprehensible to men behind the lines — service troops and civilians.

In addition to rotting corpses and organic waste, the litter of smashed and worn out equipment of every type became more abundant as the battle dragged on and the size of the Umurbrogol Pocket shrank slowly. The ridges and ravines were littered with the flotsam of fierce combat. Debris of battle was everywhere and became more noticeable as the weeks dragged on.

That debris is everywhere. In fact, it is still quite dangerous in the jungle as they are still clearing it out.

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Along the trail, you see remnants of the war scattered everywhere (including the occasional human bone).

Old mortar rounds were everywhere.

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As were caves. The Japanese adopted a new strategy at Peleliu after their many previous failures and learning that the banzai charge was not a successful strategy. They adopted a defense in depth strategy with extensive tunnels. This meant that they would hide until the American shelling let up and then pop up and surprise the US troops. This approach created the most vicious of battles, with the Americans having to root the soldiers out one by one using some of the most terrible of weapons (such as the flame thrower). According to one source, the US military expended 1,500 rounds of ammunition for every Japanese death (All but 280 of the 12,000 Japanese soldiers were killed).

A cave filled with anti-aircraft cartridges.

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A plaque and memorial to Elmer Lowe, Sgt USMC who died on this ridge. Over 2,000 marines were killed or wounded in this tight battle with the Japanese (8,500 Americans were killed or wounded in Peleliu – a battle that was supposed to be over in 3 days).

Another quote from The Old Breed that seem particularly apt at a place like this:

War is such self-defeating, organized madness the way it destroys a nations best. I wondered also about the hopes and aspirations of a dead

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The infamous water barrels of the Peleliu battle. Soldiers had been assigned to steam clean 55 gallon oil drums, which the military would repurpose for drinking water. The problem is that the job was not well done or inspected. The fresh water that arrived for the troops was full of rust and oil. In the 120F heat, many tried to drink it anyway and became violently ill.

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Shells and guns lay strewn along the walk.

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From The Old Breed:

None of us would ever be the same after what we had endured. To some degree that is true, of course, of all human experience. But something in me died at Peleliu. Perhaps it was a childish innocence that accepted as faith the claim that man is basically good. Possibly I lost faith that politicians in high places who do not have to endure wars savagery will ever stop blundering and sending others to endure it.

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PELELIU, A TRIP TO A HORRIFIC PAST (Part 1)

One of the targets for the Palau trip was a tour of Peleliu. I have read a lot of World War II history, more documentaries than I can count and throughout my life have been fascinated with WWII. I also enjoy touring the more remote historical locations, where the antiseptic aura of the well kept museum is not present.

Peleliu is one of those place. We booked a boat tour with Sam’s Tours and headed out early in the morning. I was hopeful, the weather looked good.

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It was an hour ride with a single rough spot where rain threatened, but as we approached the island, the sky was clear. As we scooted along I noticed a large object on the reef. I didn’t have time to swap to my 70-200mm and we did not have time to swing out there, so here is the poor shot of a Japanese concrete “ship” resting on the reef. The Japanese built it with the hopes of drawing American ships close to the reef. To me it seems like one of those ideas where a bunch of officers are sitting around brainstorming .. one of those “no idea is too stupid” type of sessions. Only in this case, they obviously missed the joke.

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Our engines started to sputter, and the captain stopped to have a look which gave me a calm moment to take this shot. Two observations from our guide:

The reason why the Japanese picked Peleliu is because it is the only flat island in the area.

If you look carefully you can see a few floating bottles … floating from Indonesia was the explanation (with a trace of animosity clearly present)

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A closer shot. The Americans thought the island looked flat too (they were wrong).

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As we approached the dock, we passed fisherman wading near the reef.

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This is a small island with roughly 500 locals. The kind of place where everyone knows everyone.

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We disembarked, ready to learn the island’s dark history.

JELLYFISH LAKE, THE ROCK ISLANDS OF PALAU

I read about Jellyfish Lake years and years ago. It has always been in the back of my mind as a place where our family needs to go. It is a fascinating story of the natural evolution of a species; the golden jellyfish which inhabit the lake have few predators and have almost completely lost their ability to sting.

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The lake is wide and different to many lakes as the 15m threshold leads to no oxygen, high levels of toxic hydrogen sulfide and lots of ammonia. Our guide stated that decades ago a group went down to 30m and in minutes the water started to eat away their wetsuits (hence, no divers allowed). You can read about the lakes ecological make-up here.

We arrived after a windy and rainy ride, ahead of the majority of tours. It is the peak time for Japanese tourism which means groups of 50, moving in tight packs with life jackets on. We had our snorkel gear with us and decided to skip the life jackets so that we could dive.

With very little trepidation, we headed past the tight, lifejacket wearing packs to the deeper middle part of the lake where the sun was shining and the golden jellyfish were floating near the top, in the thousands.

It was mesmerizing. Configuration: Canon G12 with Canon WP-DC34 underwater casing.

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Due to the make up of the lake, the water has this green tinge too it and visibility is limited to around 2m.

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The jellyfish were more “solid” than I expected. Almost rubbery to the touch and no sting.

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I found myself gently moving them around .. bouncing the jellyfish up and down, while watching their pulsing .. rhythmic movement. We were also very careful with our fins .. kick to hard and you would cut one in half.

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And of course, we had to dive through them .. floating up through hundreds of jellyfish is a unique experience.

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This shot provides a perspective on the numbers. If you go .. swim to the middle .. toward the sun, away from others.

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It is like nothing I have ever done before. Fortunate to have the opportunity.

IMPRESSIONS OF PALAU

I have had Palau on my bucket list for a long time for two reasons; Jellyfish Lake in the Rock Islands and Peleliu, the island the US/Japan fought a vicious WWII battle.

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For those of you who do not know Palau;

Palau (Listeni/pəˈl/, sometimes spelled Belau or Pelew), officially the Republic of Palau (Palauan: Beluu er a Belau),[4] is an island country located in the western Pacific Ocean. It is geographically part of the larger island group of Micronesia. The country’s population of around 21,000 is spread across 250 islands forming the western chain of the Caroline Islands. The most populous island is Koror. The islands share maritime boundaries with Indonesia, Philippines and theFederated States of Micronesia. The capital Ngerulmud is located in Melekeok State on the nearby island of Babeldaob.

It is a breathtakingly beautiful set of islands, with the friendliest of people and an interesting history. First colonized by the Spanish, then sold to the Germans, occupied by the Japanese in 1914 and now supported by the US as a United Nations protected territory, Palau has seen its share of foreigners.

Like many islands, the buildings are crumbling with the people surviving on a mix of subsistence farming/fishing, tourism and international aid which allows the government to employee roughly half of the population. The US is at the forefront of that aid, providing a $250M package in 2010 and remains in a tight military compact with the island (although the only US forces in Palau are there to support civil projects such as school and road construction).

The reason why so few have heard about it is due to the location and a coastline of mangrove swamps that do not allow the country to compete with the beaches of Hawaii or Tahiti. The airlines don’t help either, our flight from Tokyo was one of the only directs and the return flight left the island at 4:20am (less than ideal). But a bucket list is a bucket list …. and so we went. Glad we did, it is a truly unique place.

When you get there, the island culture starts to seep into you. It is a beautiful island and despite a week of way too much rain, we had a few great adventures .. which will kick off a few posts.

All of that being said, the view from our hotel, the PPR, was fantastic.

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The problem with traveling to Asia in the summer? It is the wet season. It was very wet … all week unfortunately.

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View from the hilltop.

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Beautiful place. Maybe we need to sell everything in a decade and go live near a beach …. there are definitely worse things in life.

RAP MUSIC IN YOYOGI PARK, JAPAN

Japan has reaffirmed my opinion, rap music is not to my taste regardless of language.

Config: Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 70-200mm f/2.8.

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I enjoyed their enthusiasm and had a good chuckle at their creative intermingling of the f-word into the Japanese lyrics .. but the music hurt my ears. I stayed for a single Asahi super-dry under a nice Red Bull umbrella (thanks Red Bull, it was 42C)

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Keep on rocking in the free world, young Japanese …

OPEN AIR MUSEUM, HAKONE, JAPAN

I didn’t know what to expect when we arrived at this museum as I have never been to an outdoor museum.

Set in the stunning landscape of Hakone, the Hakone Open-Air Museum opened in 1969 as the first open-air art museum in Japan. Constantly changing with the seasons, our spectacular grounds are the permanent home for approximately 120 works by well-known modern and contemporary sculptors. We also have 5 exhibition halls including the Picasso Pavilion, as well as pieces where children can play, a footbath fed by natural hot springs, and a variety of other facilities where our visitors can relax and enjoy the splendor of art in nature.

It was as one would expect; open, beautiful grounds at the foot of the mountains. Config: Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 28-70mm f/2.8 with a mix of handheld HDRs.

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“Intersecting Space Construction” …

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Japanese maples are beautiful all year round and plentiful here. They do not grow well in my home country due to the winters.

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I saw this ball’s cousin at the Vatican … Sfera con Sfera (sphere within a sphere).

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The “symphonic sculpture”, a wonder of colored glass. It became a symphony of children’s laughter and screams about 3/4 of the way up as the school kids streamed in (smile).

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The grounds are scattered with sculptures and beautiful flowers.

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A few hours well spent.

HAKONE SHRINE, JAPAN

I have had this shrine on the “While living in Japan” list. It is one of the more famous Tori gates in Japan, the Hakone Shrine. The massive Tori sits at the edge of the Lake Ashi.

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It was dark, cloudy and about to rain that day.

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While taking a shot of the family under the gate we all started chuckling at this sight … she was working very hard on the windy lake so that her husband, in the life jacket, could get a photograph.

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Supposedly it is a great place to view Mt. Fuji. Unless it is cloudy. For reference, Mt. Fuji is that way. You know .. behind the clouds.

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There is a long stairway from the Lake Ashi Tori to the shrine at the top. This shot gives you a perspective off the surrounding forest with it’s very large trees.

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The shrine at the top ..

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and the dragons at the purification fountain.

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An important monk .. but I have no idea who he is as it was all in Japanese.

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Will have to go back to see Fuji another day.

MOUNT KOMAGATAKE: VIEWING MT FUJI

One of the reasons why you travel to the Hakone region is for the views of Mt. Fuji. Fuji-san has been quite problematic for me, seems like whenever I have my camera it hides away. It is also the reason why the region is so busy and with Fuji-san’s new world heritage status, tourism is booming.

That being said, while we were there Fuji-san was nowhere to be seen, hiding in the dense cloud cover. Mt. Komagatake is supposed to be the best place to view Fuji from and as the cloud cover was so dense, the ropeway to the top was almost empty.

On the plus side, it meant no waiting .. we went up anyway. Configuration: Canon 5D Mark III, handheld HDRs and Canon 28-70mm f/2.8.

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As you head up you see a golf course to the right. I think we will need to add that course to the list.

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It was very, very foggy.

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Very, very foggy.

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At the top there are trails ringing the mountain with great views .. on any other day. I can honestly say that I fretted a little bit about getting lost. At one point, visibility was down to a meter or less.

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But the wind blew in and it started to clear (for 2 minutes).

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I would wager it is a good view on a clear day (smile).

OWAKUDANI: BLACK EGGS AND SULFUR

Owakudani is a valley in the Hakone region south of Tokyo where you can see the volcanic activity up close.

(大涌谷 lit. "Great Boiling Valley"?) is a volcanic valley with active sulphur vents and hot springs in Hakone, Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan. It is a popular tourist site for its scenic views, volcanic activity, and especially, Kuro-tamago (黒卵 lit. "black egg"?) — a local specialty of eggs hard-boiled in the hot springs. The boiled eggs turn black and smell slightly sulphuric; consuming the eggs is said to increase longevity. Eating one is said to add seven years to your life. You may eat up to two and a half for up to seventeen and a half years, but eating a whole third is said to be highly unadvised.

It looked like a bit of a moonscape to me. Configuration: Canon 5D Mark III, shooting a mix of handheld HDR with a Canon EF 28-70mm f/2.8.

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As you take the short hike to the viewing area, the smell of sulfur (rotten eggs) becomes stronger and stronger.

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There is a reason there are signs like this. The sulfur is very strong, a few times I felt a bit lightheaded when the wind shifted (and nauseous). It is clearly signed that if the sulfur gets too bad, they close the area down.

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At the end of the hike you come to a viewing area which also happens to be where they are cooking the eggs. They have these large metal baskets, which they place into the hot water.

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I just realized that I didn’t take a lot of shots with the eggs. But they are as black as night. The taste? You will have to find that out for yourself (smile).

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As we hiked back we watched the eggs shoot down the hill on their own ropeway. I would wager they sell a lot of eggs everyday.

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As we left the valley, I began wondering about the volcanic gases. Japan is a hotbed of geological activity, with almost daily earthquakes and 2 volcanoes that rank in the top 5 for most “dangerous” to a population. In fact, the volcanic gases can be very dangerous for the unaware:

Hikers have died on volcanoes in Japan after taking a wrong turn on a trail and being overcome by volcanic gases, In April 2009, a U.S. poet, Craig Arnold, disappeared after setting off on a hike on the volcanic island of Kuchinoerabujima, 50 kilometers off the cost of southern Kyushu.

Enjoy that onsens and hot springs, they come from an interesting source.

THREE TYPES OF TRAVEL

In my mind there are three types of travel:

1. The relax trip:  this involves reading, eating, some exercise of the conventional nature (to balance out eating) and for us, usually a beach. Recently, that was a family week in Guam. Nothing to do but enjoy the beach and the sunset …. Barely brought out the camera. No point, but read a few books (4), swam and snorkelled, relaxed with the family. It was perfect.

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2. The experience trip:  This is about learning a new culture, adventure and activity. A trip in Europe fits into this category, or our recent trip to Kyoto where it was all about exploring a culture. On this vacation you often come home more tired than you left. This is what our upcoming trip to Palau will be.

3. The hybrid trip:  A mix of 1 and 2 – some relaxation, sprinkled experiences. To which I pose a question – do these trips ever work out how you want them?

I have the opinion that if you set an expectation to experience and relax, that something always comes up wanting, one of the items will be mediocre. To illustrate: Bali. We had hoped that Bali would be a great hybrid trip, a mix of culture and relaxation. On the culture front, we were not disappointed, it was an amazing trip filled with history, culture and wonderful sites. On the relaxation front, we stayed at a wonderful hotel but the beach was mediocre. Nusa Dua simply isn’t a place where we would travel for the beach – that was the mediocre part.

It seems to me, you have to choose one or the other, or be prepared to “settle”. Thoughts?

KIYOMIZU TEMPLE, KYOTO, JAPAN

One of the more famous temples in Kyoto is Kiyomizu Temple, and it has a grand view of the city.

It is a hike up a hill to get to the temple, which is half the fun as the road is lined with shops. It was very hot in Kyoto (32C+humidity), so the ice cream shops were very busy with their special Japanese flavours.

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And a few uniquely Japanese treats on a stick.

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Our guide pointed out the woman in the hat (center near building in the hat). He said she has been standing there for 20 years and is a fraud. She chants nothing (he has leaned in many times) collecting gifts from tourists … he stops his clients.

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I could pop a Wikipedia reference in, or post this simple explanation. Thanks Fujicolor.

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It has a grand entrance and in 2007 was nominated as one of the “new” 7 wonders of the world.

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Inside the temple are the oldest wood based paintings in Japan, depicting the Samurai.

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And if you look across the forest, past the hydrangeas, you see a beautiful temple peaking out of the trees.

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We hiked over.

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A view of the Kiyomizu Temple from across the forest.

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Thanks for dropping by.

THE MONKEY BABIES, KYOTO, JAPAN

There were plenty of monkey babies at the Iwatayama Monkey Park. This little fellow didn’t look old and wobbled like a new born.

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He also stayed very close to his mom.

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It was interesting to watch the mothers. At one point a commotion broke out behind me between this very angry mother …. (baby hanging on tight) ..

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and this frightened male, who clearly did not want to tangle and kept retreating. Perhaps he forgot to take out the garbage?

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These two little fellows were having a great time, chasing each other around and playing.

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Glad we stopped at the park.

KYOTO MONKEY, JAPAN

I am not sure if people know about Iwatayama Monkey Park in Kyoto. It wasn’t listed as one of the “must see” in Kyoto as I researched for our trip. But as an animal loving family, when we found out about it we quickly added it to our itinerary.

The park is on the top of a mountain and sanctuary to 140 monkeys.

Iwatayama Monkey Park (Japanese: 嵐山モンキーパーク, Arashiyama Monkī Pāku) is a commercial park located in Arashiyama in Kyoto, Japan. The park is on Mt Arashiyama, on the same side of the Oi River as the train station. It is inhabited by a troop of over 170 Japanese macaque monkeys. The animals are wild but can be fed food purchased at the site.

It is a 20-25 minute climb up the small mountain and as you get closer to the top, you start to see the monkeys in the trees. The macaques are everywhere.

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This was a very different experience than Bali. The sanctuary is very well controlled, you do not feed the monkeys as they are conditioned to 2 feeding patterns; pre-set feeding times (we arrived at for the 1pm feeding) and the option to buy food and feed them from behind caged windows in a single building.

Upon reflection, this makes the entire experience safer for both the animals and humans.

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This fellow made me laugh. The entire time we were there he sat on the post, waiting for a tourist to hand him some nuts.

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I could have stayed all day photographing the macaques. These are the same monkeys that enjoy the hot springs in the winter.

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This fellow was sitting on the edge and a big yellow koi kept flitting around his feet. Every once in a while he would just reach down and flick it away.

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Fun to watch them .. just “hanging out”.

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A Kyoto must-see .. and all of the babies were an added bonus.

NIJO CASTLE, KYOTO

Our first stop on our big “day tour” was Nijo Castle, samurai and shogun home.

In 1601, Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate, ordered all the feudal lords in Western Japan to contribute to the construction of Nijō Castle, which was completed during the reign of Tokugawa Iemitsu in 1626. Parts of Fushimi Castle, such as the main tower and the karamon, were moved here in 1625-26.[1] It was built as the Kyoto residence of the Tokugawa Shoguns. The Tokugawa Shogunate used Edo as the capital city, but Kyoto continued to be the home of the Imperial Court. Kyoto Imperial Palace is located north-east of Nijo Castle.

There is so much history hidden in these very thick walls.

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A few interesting facts from our guide on the castle:

The building is raised off the ground. The shogun would sit on his mat with a large piece of wood under him to protect him from someone shoving a sword up and through the floor

The 500 year old paintings were made from crushed shells to add white color

In the main hall where the shogun received guests he would keep 15m between himself and the guests. Beside him was a sliding door filled with samurai ready to jump through in the event of a threat. Although the threats often had a large preamble, where someone would stand up and honourably declare “I (insert name), son of (insert name), grandson of (insert name) from the city of (insert city) will kill you” – giving the samurai lots of time to line up.

The roof of the entrance to the main hall is made of thatch. It is a small section, but costs millions to replace. (The brown sections at the front)

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The floor boards are built with a U shaped device to hold the board and a nail through it. This is built to make the floor boards creak when someone walks on it to warn of intruders. I got the sense that being a shogun was not the most “secure” of positions.

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A corner guard house.

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The handle on a large bell in the main courtyard.

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The gardens beside the main hall.

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The entrance to the main castle, which is a reproduction as the original burned:

In 1788, the Inner Palace was destroyed by a city-wide fire. The site remained empty until it was replaced by a prince’s residence transferred from the Kyoto Imperial Palace in 1893.

In 1867, the Ninomaru Palace was the stage for the declaration by Tokugawa Yoshinobu, returning the authority to the Imperial Court. Next year the Imperial Cabinet was installed in the castle. The palace became imperial property and was declared a detached palace. During this time, the Tokugawahollyhock crest was removed wherever possible and replaced with the imperial chrysanthemum.

We crossed the bridge, but did not enter.

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What I found amazing is how the intricate work has survived, even though it is exposed to the elements.

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Thanks for dropping by.

10,000 TORI GATES, KYOTO, JAPAN

Fushimi Inari is one of the more famous Kyoto temples, known for one prominent feature – 10,000 Tori gates.

Fushimi Inari Taisha (伏見稲荷大社?) is the head shrine of Inari, located in Fushimi-ku, Kyoto, Japan. The shrine sits at the base of a mountain also named Inari which is 233 metres above sea level, and includes trails up the mountain to many smaller shrines.

Since early Japan Inari was seen as the patron of business, and merchants and manufacturers have traditionally worshipped Inari. Each of thetorii at Fushimi Inari Taisha is donated by a Japanese business. First and foremost, though, Inari is the god of rice.

This popular shrine is said to have as many as 32,000 sub-shrines (bunsha (分社?)) throughout Japan.[1]

An amazing temple, on the mountain.

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More on the gates in a moment. It could also be known for some very cool fox statues and probably the most orange paint in one area.

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The gate to the temple.

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A side temple with more 1,000 origami crane offerings than you can count. The sheer quantity of time invested in those cranes is mindboggling. There were a lot of them ….

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As mentioned above, the temple is a popular place for business people to come and seek good fortune. What most people probably don’t notice is this sign, which lists the prices. Yen is simple to translate .. simply drop 2 zeros to get an approximate USD price. A 5 foot Tori gate is $1,750 and a 10 footer is $13,020. Seems reasonable.

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The temple inscribes your name/business and address into the Tori. It lasts for about 20 years at which time they call you and you have the option to buy a new one or have it removed (the foundations rot).

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The path winds up the mountain. We didn’t have time to hike it. Perhaps next time. It is about 2 hours round-trip. The path to the top ….

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And one of my favourite shots.

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Definitely worth seeing.

BAMBOO FOREST, KYOTO

It is one of those must go places (they say). A simple bamboo forest where a single stock of bamboo can grow up to 1.3M overnight. Another ‘short’ visit location on our day tour of Kyoto. Our guide drove to the top, we walked down and back (perhaps 300m each way).

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Yes, it is beautiful. Serene.

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What I found most interesting was not the bamboo but this long, long line of ants walking along the bamboo fence. They went on and on and on .. until near the top of the hill the started to thin out, heading down the fence into the forest.

In this shot you can see them on the posts …

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A little clearer .. the march on and on.

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Thanks for dropping by.

THE MOSS TEMPLE, KYOTO

Off the beaten path is a small temple called the Moss Temple, or Gio-ji. It is lesser known than the famous and Y3,000 larger moss temple. The history of the temple is one of lost love:

A Shirabyoshi dancer Gio was loved by Taira-no-Kiyomori but was jilted when he was enslaved by the beauty of another Shirabyoshi, Hotoke-Gozen. Gio, her sister Ginyo and their mother Toji left Kiyomori and after all they entered a nunnery that was present day Gio-ji. Then, Hotoke-Gozen joined them as she knew that she would be eventually jilted also by heartless Kiyomori. It was when Gio was 21 years old and Hotoke-Gozen was 17. The four women lived here remainder of their life.

Best viewed during a wet period in time (dry seasons see the moss go brown) and down a remote road, the temple makes for interesting viewing.

Walking down the entrance path you are covered by a thick canopy of leaves.

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The moss is everywhere, growing on every roof and fence.

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Turning the corner you come upon an open area in front of the temple. It was a bit surreal, the glowing greens. Looked like a movie set (I don’t know why, but that is what popped into mind).

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If memory serves me, there are 19 different mosses. A few that are quite invasive and needed to be regularly culled back to ensure they do not take over the other mosses. Including this moss that was furry to the touch.

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Of course, hydrangea. At least I think it is a hydrangea ….

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Rounding the corner there is a cemetery and in the hundreds and hundreds of times Yoshida-san our guide has been here, something he had never seen. A lone monkey.

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Sad to say he was injured (bad left hand). He did sit and enjoy eating a few daisies though.

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Interesting place. Not busy, serene and the vibrancy of the mosses were visually stunning.

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Worth a visit.

DINNER WITH A GEISHA (Maiko): THE CONVERSATION

As mentioned in my initial post on Kyoto, we enjoy learning the history and culture of Japan. We did not know what to expect with our dining with a maiko/geisha/geiko experience. When the maiko-san originally arrived, our interpreter quickly helped us make introductions.

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She sat down with our family and the conversation began, a free flowing discussion of her life over 2 hours.

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In no particular order, a few highlights from the conversation.

She is 17 and grew up in Nagoya. She chose to become a maiko after going on a school trip to Kyoto. She watched a geiko perform and decided that she wanted to join the profession.

Her upper lip is white as she is a maiko. When she becomes a geiko she will decorate both lips.

Every month she changes her hair decorations. This month I believe it is the willow.

She often entertains school groups and when asked what the funniest question she gets, she laughed and said one question always come up – does she have a boyfriend? (answer is no – not allowed to).

In her first year prior to becoming a maiko it was like an apprenticeship. She learned what the years ahead would be like, and whether she wanted to continue.

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It is not an easy life. She starts the day at 10am with training in the arts. She then dresses, doing her own make-up (it takes 40 minutes) and having assistance from a man who comes to the house daily to assist with the kimono which weighs 10kg. The sash is 7m long. She then visits 20 tea houses that her house is affiliated with, and starting at 6pm does 2 hour hosting sessions until midnight. At midnight she heads home, has a hot bath and a few hours of personal time (reading, TV, music) until she heads to bed at 3am.

She is not allowed to have a cell phone.

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When she contracted with her mama-san to become a maiko, she made a 5-7 year commitment until she becomes a geiko at 20-22 years. The mamma-san pays for everything (training, food, clothing, lodging) and in return takes all profits from the days work.

She lives with 8 other maiko.

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She only does her hair once a week, sleeping with it made like this (which can be awkward)

Because she keeps her hair in this style all the time, she must be careful where she goes when she does have time off as people will recognize her as a maiko. (i.e. no junk food places)

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She only gets 1-2 days off a month and time at New Years to go home.

When asked what do people think at home – she said that she is growing apart from her old friends. Her grandmother has never approved.

If she needs money she has to ask the mamma-san. I got the impression that was not something that was done often or lightly.

She enjoys listening to music on her Sony Walkman. She likes Avril Lavigne.

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Dinners are mostly with business men, although they are starting to see women. If it is after dinner, it often involves karaoke and evenings at bars.

Tourists are always trying to take her picture. She would prefer if they asked first.

She will often take the train to Tokyo for events (entertaining events, Sumo tournaments) fully dressed.

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To formally enter her maiko apprenticeship, she had a ceremony involving her performing for the mamma-san and an important client.

Many maiko do not become geiko (50/50). They decide to go back to their homes, head back to school or get jobs. In effect, starting a different education.

Will she continue on and become a geiko? She didn’t know. It is a hard life.

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Fascinating.

DINNER WITH A GEISHA (Maiko) Part 2

Using the concierge at the Westin we booked Yoshikawa in Kyoto with a room overlooking the garden.

Attached to a Japanese Inn that has played host to the rich and famous, it was a beautiful traditional restaurant and amazing staff who quickly settled us in for our dinner.

Our room was on the left.

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The dinner received mixed ratings from the family (Two really enjoyed it, two were not impressed). It was a traditional 8 course Japanese meal, tempura, sashimi, seasonal grilled fish and all. I really enjoyed it. Although on the seasonal grilled fish … I never eat the head, too bitter for me .. the rest is delicious.

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Our interpreter was already waiting for us. She had done this many times before and her English was perfect. She quickly started answering our questions and explained that “Yes”, I could take 400 pictures if I wanted (I didn’t – I took 99).

She also corrected our first misperception. We would not be joined by a geisha, we would be joined by a maiko – a geiko in training.

Maiko (舞妓?) is an apprentice geisha in western Japan, especially Kyoto. Their jobs consist of performing songs, dances, and playing the shamisen(three-stringed Japanese instrument) for visitors during feasts. Maiko are usually aged 15 to 20 years old and become geisha after learning how to dance (a kind of Japanese traditional dance), play the shamisen, and learning Kyō-kotoba (dialect of Kyoto), regardless of their origins.

The term Geisha is not a term they used in Kyoto. On the internet they assert that this is a dialect issue, but it was explained to us that the difference between a “true” geisha and a geiko relate to training. A geisha does not go through the arduous and extensive training in the arts, dance, culture and protocol that the Kyoto maiko/geiko goes through. Perhaps this is related to the post WWII occupation and the rise of the geisha girl:

“Geisha girls”[78] were Japanese women who worked as prostitutes during the period of the Allied Occupation of Japan. They almost exclusively serviced American GIs stationed in the country, who referred to them as “Geesha girls” (a mispronunciation).[78][79]

These women dressed in kimono and imitated the look of geisha. Americans unfamiliar with the Japanese culture could not tell the difference between legitimate geisha and these costumed prostitutes.[78]

It also became clear that this was a dying profession. 100 years ago there were 80,000 geisha where we were told there were only 300 left in Kyoto.  In Kyoto there are 5 Hanamachi, or houses that Geisha align themselves with:

Hanamachi typically contained a number of okiya and ochaya, along with a kaburenjō; the kaburenjō was a meeting place for geisha, usually with a theatre, rooms where geisha classes can be held, and the kenban offices, which dealt with geisha’s pay, regulation and similar matters. Gion also has a vocational school, called Nyokoba. Many of the teachers there are designated as Living National Treasures. Today, hanamachi are rare outside of Kyoto.

At which point, our maiko-san entered; a term that would catch me off guard multiple times through the night as the pronunciation is close to Michael-san.

With a kneel and a bow, our dinner with a maiko began.

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DINNER WITH A GEISHA (Maiko) Part I in KYOTO

This is a very interesting post to write as it elicits mixed feelings.

Part of living in a different culture is that never ending quest to understand, learn and to grow while trying not to use your own cultural biases to judge. After all, perception is reality.

As I have often joked with friends back home, living in Japan is like living on Mars. It is just so fascinatingly different.

The Japanese think differently than North Americans, and different than Canadians. How can it not be the case? Canada is a country of every culture (Asian, European, African) where Japan is comprised of 98.5% Japanese and non-existent immigration. Canada is a country with only a few hundred years of history while Japan is one of the world’s oldest societies, with 3,000 years of history and a clear isolationist bent where foreigners were killed on sight until the late 1800s. Canadians are individuals, in a society where they cut their lives out of the unconquered wilderness with an understanding that merit leads to fortune while Japan is about the group good, where the notion of paying a high performer more than others in the team is at odds with their values.

At a very fundamental level, culture, history, education and values, Japan is different than most other countries in the world and the Geisha is one of those cases.

Prior to leaving for Kyoto, we watched Memoirs of a Geisha and I could not help but find it disturbing on many levels. Obviously the selling of young girls into a brothel and a Geisha house was disturbing as were many of the scenes, but this type of abuse is unfortunately, common around the world.

The uniquely Japanese part that was disturbing was the whole notion of the Geisha. Reading broadly, the information was varied. Prostitution is disputed and the truth hard to determine; in this post it is clearly stated it does not happen yet another quote says that in 1929 3/4 of geisha were prostitutes.  While there is an elegance to the appearance of a Geisha, the information on “what a Geisha is” left us wondering about the profession … Noble undertaking or a veneer hiding a seedy underside of sex for sale?

Nothing made us wonder more than this question: what does it mean that this profession is funded by older business men, where the Geisha’s sole purpose is to entertain them every evening? I find the feminism assertions hard to swallow and cannot think that it is good for marriages.

It is with those questions in mind that we did something that is not common for a gaijin.

We booked a dinner in a wonderful restaurant with a room by the garden, a Geisha and an English interpreter to learn.

We were not disappointed.

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NISHIIKI MARKET, KYOTO

After our first temple we headed to Nishiki market. A cab dropped us off at one entrance and we started down this very long covered walkway past hundreds of interesting stalls.

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Uniquely Japanese is a good way to describe it; pottery, restaurants, fish markets, vegetable stands and everything in-between.

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Lots and lots of pickled choices. The Japanese love to pickle things.

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I believe this is grilled eel. Had I not just eaten, I would have grabbed some. Love grilled eel.

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The young lady at the stand tried to sell me one of these .. only a couple hundred yen. Look closely, it is a small octopus with a quail egg stuffed where the head use to be. I regret not trying it. Had to chuckle at the little cartoon ad guy saying “It will eat” …  not sure what that means.

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At some point in the near future, our family will be buying special chopsticks. As of right now, we use them frequently but haven’t made the “special” purchase yet. Perhaps metallic is in order?

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This fellow was making the circular Japanese cakes. They are delicious.

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And last, check out this flower stall. My Uncle Frank would have loved the colors .. I know I did. So vibrant.

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Thanks for dropping by.

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