Posts Tagged With: incense

The Other Red River Valley

The old Western song notwithstanding, it probably never occurred to you (why would it?) that the literal translation of Vietnam’s capital of Hanoi means “between the rivers”, the rivers in question being the Nhue and the Red. Parts of the city are periodically flooded because of this, and there are actually dikes that run through part of town.

We arrived this morning, met at the airport by our group lead Phuc Nguyen, who wisely goes by “Phil” to avoid three weeks of puerile jokes from his American charges. Phil is a handsome, trim 40 year old who like all OAT tour leads seems to require no sleep whatsoever and has an inexhaustible supply of cheery enthusiasm and useful information.

Hanoi has a population of 7.8 million, who get around via a mere 600,000 cars…. augmented by approximately 11 billion motor scooters. The latter are absolutely everywhere, the streets and even the sidewalks choked with weaving phalanxes of them and the air filled with the ceaseless din of their honking. Interspersed among them are the occasional bus and tourist-bearing rickshaw.

Those scooters, despite their tiny engines, clog the streets in such vast numbers and operate with such  inefficient combustion that air pollution is a real issue. The humidity is very high here — it is monsoon season — and the combination of the water vapor and the scooter exhaust creates a hazy blanket over the city through which a watery sunlight filters.  Phil describes Hanoi as a “second world” city: visibly more advanced than a less developed country but still trying to break into the First World big leagues. They’re working on it: the downtown area includes a lot of very modern high end stores (e.g., Prada, Lamborghini) that would be quite at home in a European capital city.

And indeed, Hanoi does present itself as a struggling-to-be-less-seedy European capital. The architectural DNA of its French colonial history is obvious: broad boulevards, ornate cornices and eaves, tree-lined avenues. The trees are stout, leafy, and old; they clearly weathered the bombings of the war, now 50 years ago, just fine. You still wouldn’t mistake it for Paris, though. Traffic is random and dangerous, and that French architecture often overlooks odd, densely packed storefronts selling all manner of jumbled up, vaguely unsanitary looking stuff ranging from random electronic gadgets to food of questionable provenance. (My characterization of the latter did not stop me from buying some delicious still-hot deep-fried dough balls with custard centers.)

Our hotel is excellently situated in the center of town, very near some of the street markets and major  sights (e.g., the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison where John McCain was held, which we will visit tomorrow). It’s also a several block walk from Hoàn Kiếm Lake, a small (600 x 200 meter), shallow (1.5 meter) freshwater lake surrounded by an elaborate legend involving a magic sword and a giant turtle. The weird part is that there are giant turtles in the lake, a species of rare soft-shelled turtles nearly six feet long. Or at least there were; the last sighting of one was three years ago.

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At the northern end of the lake is a Buddhist temple where all manner of activity was going on when we arrived, having walked the mile or so from the hotel. People were lighting incense and praying at the censer; others were posing in rented traditional costumes; and some kind of presumed Ladies Auxiliary were selling something whilst in costume as well.

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We kept walking north past the lake and found ourselves in a no-kidding Asian market district, block after block of crowded storefronts and makeshift sales counters, this street housing a dozen consecutive shoe stores, the next redolent of marinating fish from 20 different vendors. Scooters clogged the sidewalks, vendors spread their wares on tables, on blankets on the ground, on makeshift counters, in Plexiglas display cases on spindly legs.

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The smells were exotic, the colors all saturated, the hubbub nearly impossible to navigate. It was a hoot, the kind of thing you can only experience in a not-altogether-developed Asian or African country.

We walked back to the hotel, at this point drenched in sweat from the humidity. (The weather today was several degrees cooler than in Hong Kong, but the humidity just as bad and the afternoon punctuated with a downpour.) We’ve been going through our clean clothes way faster than planned, and are thus about to drop a small fortune on the hotel laundry service. This is some kind of karmic balancing for the fact that restaurants here are extremely cheap, our nice meals coming in at about five bucks a person. (It takes an active act of calculation to realize this is because the Viet currency, the dong, is of microscopic value: the exchange rate is about 23,000 to the dollar. So one suffers a moment of confused sticker shock when a restaurant tab for two people comes in at 196,000 dong and it takes you a moment to realize that you just spent all of nine bucks.)

Phil took us all out for drinks at about 7 PM, both to show us some typical night life and to teach us how to cross the street without getting killed. (Hints: safety in numbers, and do not waver from your path despite the vehicles weaving around you within inches.) Here’s half of our group, including Alice at lower right. The woman in the red teeshirt is the waitress.

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The Vietnamese love beer, and there are a couple of native brands that flowed freely. Our snacks were also typical for the locals: steamed peanuts, pork sausage steamed in banana leaves, and fried tofu. (I liked two out of three; tofu and I are generally not on speaking terms.)  Afterwards we went out to one of those wonderful $5 dinners and called it a day.

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Shrine On, Harvest Moon

…But first, the promised pictures from last night’s visit to the Tokyo Tower. The first is of course the tower itself; the others were taken from the top observatory, 800 feet up. (There is also a midpoint observatory at the 500 ft point.)

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The Tower was the tallest structure in Tokyo until July 2008, when the Tokyo Skytree was finished; at 2080 feet it dwarfs the Tower but is far less convenient to our hotel. Plus, I was up in the Tower 20 years ago so there was a certain nostalgia factor as well.

Today was a shrine-filled day as we moved around for the first time with our 15-person group. Also, the weather appears to have improved for the moment, so I suppose one could say it was a sun-shriney day. (Rim shot!)

Our first stop, however, was the Imperial Palace. You can’t actually go inside without special arrangements made long in advance, so your options are basically to either look at the gardens (which in truth are not all that interesting), or circumnavigate the grounds whilst admiring the wals and the moat. We went with the latter, and about all we have to show for it is a nice view of the so-called “double gate”, i.e.:

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Along the way our tour lead Mariko — a knowledge, high-energy 30-ish woman who speaks noticeably accented but generally good English — filled us in on the structure and recent history of the Japanese royal family. It’s less dysfunctional than the English royal family, though not by a whole lot. There was all sorts of angst about royals marrying commoners, that sort of thing. (There was also a case of a commoner joining the royal household and basically lapsing into permanent depression upon losing control of all aspects of her life.)

We moved on to Asakusa shrine, like Meiji one of the larger and better known shrines, although not one that acrries quite as much historical import as Meiji. Asakusa, like Meiji, has a large courtyard but with an added attraction: a large well-shaped incense burner in the middle of the courtyard so that prior to approaching the shrine supplicants can immerse themselves in, well, holy smoke, I guess. You can see the incense burner smoking in the middle of this photo, taken from the steps of the shrine and looking back towards the courtyard.

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And here are some visitors getting smoked:

asakusa-004The woman on the right in the sleeveless top who appears to be complaining about a migraine is in fact wafting the smoke towards her face, the better to be immersed in it. This is not a recommended religious activity for asthmatics.

One of the fun things about Asakusa is that it attracts a lot of people in traditional garb, like this girl.

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Here’s another traditional Japanese activity that you can find in the area:

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But another fun part of Asakusa — the best part, if you don’t actually practice Shinto — is that the road leading up to it is lined with vendor storefronts selling everything from Hello Kitty souvenirs to an enormous variety of interesting edibles.

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As you can see it’s a total madhouse, jam-packed with people to the point that it is occasionally difficult to move. We had lunch at an udon (thick noodle) restaurant on a side street and hit an ice cream stall for dessert on the crowded promenade. This was more interesting than it sounds, because the Japanese — as with so many other things — have a unique approach to ice cream. You know those Keurig coffee machines, where the cofee comes in a little cup-shaped pod that you pop into the machine? That’s how the Japanese do ice cream. The “pods” in this case are about the size of a small cereal bowl and are (obviously) stored at very low temperature. You specify what flavor you want, and they pop the appropriate pod into the machine, which aerates and extrudes the contents into the familiar cone. The wonderful thing about this paradigm is that since the pods can be stored so efficiently in these single-serving pods — you just have to stack the things in the freezer — that it is easy to lay in an inventory with a very large number of flavors, even in a small store. And so it came to pass that I had honeydew ice cream and Alice had — wait for it — sesame ice cream. In case you were wondering, sesame ice cream is gray in color, which is a little odd to behold. But they taste great.

Sated, we moved on to our next shrine, the controversial Yakusuni war memorial. More on that in a moment but first we stopped along the river for a view of Asahi (the beer company) headquarters. Why?  Here’s the building:

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The tall pointy thing second from left is the aforementioned Tokyo Skytree. The Asahi headquarters is the gold building with the funny upper floors. Look carefully now. Could it be that that building is built to resemble….a glass of beer? Yep, complete with foam head. But what’s that giant misshapen rhinoceros horn on the right? It is supposed to represent some kind of divine spirit that motivates the (apparently) blessed beermakers of Asahi. To me it looks less like a divine spirit than some kind of caricatured spermatazoa from a poorly-made junior high school sex-ed film. But that’s just me.

But back to the Yasukuni shrine. It is controversial because it is the memorial to 2.5 million war dead, all of whom are named there. This might not be so terrible except that the names include a number of Japan’s A-list war criminals. Every year there is a huge blow-up as to whether the prime minister should visit the shrine and pay homage; for many years he did not, at the urging of the US, Russia, China, and just about everybody else, the not unreasonable argument being that it kinda sends the wrong message. But the very nationalistic right wing is ascendant in Japan these days, just as in the US and Europe, and so the Prime Minister attended this year and pissed off a number of foreign governments in the process.

The shrine includes a good-size museum about the war, which I can hardly begin to describe because it is frankly such an egregious whitewash. But here’s a corner of the lobby:

yasakuni-001You may have a sense of where this is going. I won’t go into the details — partly because I am still picking my jaw up off the floor and partly because it is late and I need to get to bed — but here’s the big takeaway: World War II was the U.S.’s fault. Wow! I had no idea. I will have to sleep on this, so good night.

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