Posts Tagged With: museum

Déšť, Déšť, Go Away

That would be “rain”, which is what is falling from the sky in Prague today. It didn’t really slow us down because in the wake of yesterday’s ambitious touring, we decided to take it easy today. Our first stop was the National Museum of Decorative Arts for the purpose of seeing the photography exhibition of Josef Koudelka, an outstanding and near-legendary Czech photographer whose name you may never have heard but whose work you have seen. He’s the guy who took all those famous street photos of the Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968.

It was an enormous exhibit displaying hundreds of works — all in black and white — from over Koudelka’s 60+ year career. He’s currently 80 and still working… and collecting awards by the bushel.

 

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(I don’t know who the visitor is in this picture; Alice was in another room at the moment.) If you have any interest in photography at all you owe it to yourself to learn more about Koudelka and look up his work. He’s amazing.

Our second and final stop was a return to the Franz Kafka Head, which frustrated us a couple of days ago by stubbornly sitting there inert instead of doing its metamorphic act. But today we got lucky, and I filmed this:

Alice correctly observed that it was a lot cooler in motion than standing still.

And that’s about it for today, which was our last full day here. We return for a stopover overnight in Reykjavik late tomorrow evening, then return home Tuesday afternoon. For our penultimate dinner in Prague tonight, we went to…. a Thai restaurant. Czech food is fine but is heavy on things like lamb and venison and wild boar and such, accompanied by five different kinds of bread and potato dishes. We were getting a little dumpling’ed out so went to a Mexican restaurant last night, one run by actual Mexicans, which was excellent. If you’re wondering how and why Mexicans came to Prague to open a restaurant as opposed to, say, San Diego or Omaha, the answer is complicated. Some of the owners and staff came as students and stayed; others skipped over the US (I can’t imagine why) and emigrated to Canada, then came to Prague from there. Restaurant prices, by the way, are about 20% cheaper here than they are at home in the DC area. So Prague generally seems like a bargain.

Some final random notes about the city that I was too tired to include in yesterday’s entry:

  • St. Vitus Chapel at Prague Castle contains the sepulchers of both Saint/Sorta King Wenceslas and Saint John of Nepomuk. You’ve never heard of Nepomuk but he’s got a good story: in the late 14th century he was said to be the confessor for the queen of Bohemia. (This is unlikely to be true for reasons that I will not bore you with.) The king was the jealous sort and demanded that John reveal the queen’s secrets. But unlike Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen, John of Nepomuk refused to dish to the authorities. So the king had him drowned. Three centuries later, his body was exhumed and his apparently intact tongue — the one that he held, so to speak — was found in his skull. Wow! Miracle! Canonize this guy right now! So they did. Three centuries after that, the Catholic Church — who should have known better — allowed a forensic analysis of the tissue and it was discovered not to be a tongue at all, but rather a mummified glob of brain tissue. But hey, once you’re a saint, you’re a saint. No take-backs.
  • Speaking of Catholics, there aren’t enough of them here to fill the churches. Nearly 80% of the Czech population either identifies as “no religion” or refuses to answer the official survey questions about it. 30% declare themselves full-on atheists. The Catholic population, nearly 40% of the population as recently as 25 years ago, is now down to 10%. So this translates into a lot of empty churches: one that we visited had been donated by the local diocese to their Greek Orthodox counterparts, who were apparently able to make better use of it.
  • I mentioned earlier that Prague is a popular movie filming location: Amadeus, a couple of  Mission Impossibles, Yentl, The Bourne Identity, the Vin Diesel action movie “xXx”, and a number of others. Our wanderings happened to bring us to a number of the sites, including the courtyard of Prague Castle, which played the role of the Kremlin courtyard in Mission Impossible IV. Or III. Or some other number. Here’s a street corner that shows up in Amadeus:

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  • Prague loves to claim Mozart as a sort of adopted favorite son, even though he never really lived here. He did visit several times for extended stays of a month or two. But interestingly, Prague contains one of the very few harpsichords that is known for certain to have been played by Mozart. It’s a “George Washington Slept Here” sort of thing.

Weather permitting, probably the last thing we will do tomorrow is visit the highest point in Prague: the Petřín Tower. At 63.5 meters (208 ft) tall this would not seem to be a strong candidate for the designation, but the trick is that it sits on top of a 318 meter (1043 ft) hill overlooking the city, so its observation deck is actually 382 meters (1252 ft) above the river. That’s taller than the Eiffel Tower… which is not a coincidence, because the Petřín Tower is a nearly exact model of the uppermost 64 meters of the Eiffel Tower! This bit of architectural weirdness gives the Czechs an opportunity to thumb their collective nose at the French.

Since we are flying out tomorrow evening, I expect that this will be my last blog post from this trip, which began nearly three weeks ago. It’s been another great trip. Next up is a visit to our friends in Arizona in about 6 weeks, followed by our return to Hawaii in February. Life is good!

 

 

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Agog in Prague

Prague is a strikingly beautiful city, albeit a little heavy on the whole Medieval Catholicism thing. It has park areas like this:

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…as well as densely packed looming Gothic edifices like this.

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The bridge in that night photo is the Charles Bridge, the main pedestrian thoroughfare between the Old and New Town areas on the east side of the river, and the more modern areas to the west. It is lined with ominous saintly statues and throngs of tourists.

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But it is not the only bridge into the old city, and by crossing a little further to the south you get a great panoramic view of the river and the Charles Bridge connecting the two halves of the city.

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The river is dotted with pedal boats, as you can see; the unseasonably warm sunny weather brings them out in droves, a celebration of the most inefficient form of transportation known to man.

Our first destination of the day, about a 20 minute walk from our flat across the Charles Bridge, was the Jewish Quarter. Tiny — perhaps 700 meters on a side (less than half a mile) — it houses five synagogues and an ancient Jewish cemetery. The usual starting point when touring the Jewish Quarter is the Maisel Synagogue, because the tickets are sold there and because it houses a display of artifacts and an historical narrative of the history of the Jews in Bohemia. Short summary: restrictive laws and humiliation, occasional easing, relocation, re-imposition of restrictive laws and humiliation, enlightenment and false hope, expulsion, return, pogroms, re-relocation, re-enlightenment, World War II. Today there are somewhere between 4,000 and 10,000 Jews in the Czech Republic, about half of them in Prague.

The most venerable of the synagogues is the Old New Synagogue, so named because it was the New Synagogue in 1270, later superseded by a newer New Synagogue a mere three hundred years later. So it became known as the Old New Synagogue, primarily due to a failure of imagination. It is tiny, with thick stone walls, and it is still in use.

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Our next stop was the Pinkas Synagogue, known for its Holocaust memorial, which, in the philosophy of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC, is little more than a compelling list of names on the walls: 78,000 of them, sorted by the neighborhood from which the Jews were taken, then alphabetically within the neighborhood, then by dates of birth and death. In most cases the date of death is unknown, and so the date is the last day on which the victim was seen alive. 78,000 names on a wall is a lot, and the emotional impact grows as you move from one room into the next, only to be confronted with more names, row after row after row of them.

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Adjacent to the Pinkas Synagogue, appropriately enough, is an old Jewish cemetery, densely packed with headstones pointing at random angles. (In the 2 x 2 grid of photos below the color one, you can click on the thumbnails to see larger images.)

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And now to answer the question that you, if you are a nerd like me, have been wondering about for 40 years, namely: did Mr. Spock’s “live long and prosper” Vulcan salute really come from a Jewish priestly blessing? Answer: yes, and here is your proof (beside the fact that actor Leonard Nimoy actually said that this was the case):

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Alice, being generally estranged from popular culture, pointed this and a couple of similar headstones out to me and asked, “What’s the weird hand gesture?” I informed her that it was the Vulcan salute, which she did not feel fully answered the question, and which required additional explanation.

We left the Jewish quarter and walked the short distance to Old Town Square, dominated by the much photographed city hall and overseen by the statue of Bohemia’s favorite saintly regent, Good King Wenceslas. The Christmas carol notwithstanding, Wenceslas was actually a 10th century duke. His 17-year reign was marked by the usual political intrigue and minor military skirmishes, and he was considered neither particularly saintly nor un-saintly at the time. However, in the year 935 he was murdered by his brother, Boleslav the Cruel, whose name is so cool that I am thinking of changing mine.

Nobody liked Boleslav — he might have considered a different nickname — and so a retroactive cult grew up around Wenceslas, and he was deemed a martyr. The Holy Roman Emperor Otto I posthumously conferred the title “king” upon him, somebody wrote that Christmas song a couple of centuries later, and bingo, the guy is a pop culture icon.  In my opinion there are better ways to achieve popularity than being run through by a lance at age 35. In any case, here is the square and the town hall. I have no idea why Superman is in the foreground, a little left of center; Alice speculates that someone lost a bet.

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Part of the reason that we went to the main square, besides finding an ice cream vendor, of which there are fortunately many, was that it is just around the corner from Prague’s famed 600 year old, 2 1/2 story tall Astronomical Clock, which I mentioned yesterday.

And now a brief diversion. If you have been following this blog for a while, then you may recall that if there is one single word that can be applied to Alice’s and my travels to the great cities of the world, then that word is…. scaffolding. Yes. As soon as we book a trip, some mysterious omniscient organization — possibly Interpol, or the Illuminati — notifies the authorities at our destination so that scaffolding can be erected before our arrival. I suspect that they take it down as soon as we leave. You name it — the Parthenon, the Via Veneto, Big Ben, Notre Dame — we have seen them all, covered in scaffolding. (The Eiffel Tower is a freebie because it sort of is scaffolding.) I am quite convinced that if someone had somehow figured out how to put scaffolding around blue-footed boobies and Darwin’s finches then our trip to the Galapagos might have been a very different experience. So with that background information, here is Prague’s famous Astronomical Clock as we beheld it this afternoon:

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Sigh. It is of course supposed to be back in place some time next month.

Well, the only way to sublimate our disappointment at this turn of events was to go the Sex Machine Museum, right down the block from the afflicted clock.

What? You mean you’ve never heard of Prague’s Sex Machine Museum? Housing some 200, um, devices spread out (so to speak) over three floors, the museum’s reviews range from “must see” to “tourist trap”, but for ten bucks we thought it was a hoot. If you can get through this place without laughing out loud at least once, there is something seriously wrong with you.

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This being a mostly family blog, and me not wanting to be banned by WordPress.com, I can’t show photos of most of the exhibits; X-rated barely describes some of them. But I will make one or two observations. First, it is clear that late 19th and early 20th century sex devices had a distinctly…. how shall I put this…. “industrial” aspect to them. Yes, “industrial” is definitely the word.

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There was one mid-19th century item, which I couldn’t get a good picture of, and which I probably wouldn’t show anyway, that — I am not making this up — was steam-powered, using a coal-fired boiler. No kidding, this thing belonged on a narrow-gauge railroad track, and definitely not anywhere near anyone’s genitals.

But my absolute favorite — and possibly the best best museum exhibit in the history of time — was this remote-control Ukrainian sex toy from the 1960’s:

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Seriously, this is an erotic device. It positively screams, “Defend the Motherland!” Or more likely, moans.

At this point, the astute reader may have noticed that in the space of a few hours we visited a Holocaust memorial, followed by a visit to a sex machine museum. I know what you’re thinking, and you are probably right: we are going to burn in Hell. But we will deal with that later, because we wanted to finish our afternoon by visiting Franz Kafka instead. More accurately, we went to visit Franz Kafka’s head. Or still more accurately, an 11 meter tall steel statue of his head.

As you can see the head comprises a number of horizontal slabs — 42 of them, to be exact — which rotate to cause the head to metamorphose into random shapes. Or rather, they are supposed to. No one seemed to know when this action would take place; there was no information to be found about it online — randomly? On the hour? Or what? — and the speculation arose among those of us waiting patiently for something to happen that the thing was no longer functional.  There is some circumstantial evidence for this because if you look carefully you will see that the slab corresponding to the middle of Franz’s nose is out of position. All I can tell you for certain is that we waited for 45 minutes for something to happen, and nothing ever did. The experience was…… Kafkaesque. Hmmm.

Giving up, we made our way back to the our flat, rested up for a couple of hours, and had an elegant dinner at a nearby restaurant, supposedly one of the best in Prague, that specializes in duck, plus the kind of meals where the animal’s head is hanging on the wall. It was excellent. (We both had the duck.) Tomorrow is our full day guided tour, so I’ll report back.

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Last Day in Paris

This will be a brief post since it is late and we still have to pack for our departure to Prague tomorrow.

One of our favorite venues in Paris is Sainte-Chappele, a spectacular Gothic chapel literally around the corner from Notre Dame. A lot of visitors overlook it on their first visit to Paris, which is a mistake, since its stained glass alone is practically worth the trip to France. The lower chapel is modest enough, dominated by a small gift shop and some statuary like this one.

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But upstairs is the main event, 750 square meters (8000 square feet) of stained glass in exquisite detail. This panorama along one wall does not come close to doing it justice (in part because of the terrible fish-eye distortion…trust me, the walls do not bulge). The real thing is eye-popping because the windows are 50 feet (15 m) high (!) and cover all four walls of the room.

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The chapel was completed in 1248 and 700 years later amazingly survived World War II without a scratch. But three quarters of a millennium takes its toll even on workmanship like this, and so in 2008 an enormous restoration effort got underway, costing some US $12M and lasting seven years. Every single segment of glass was removed, cleaned, given a protective glass veneer (with an air gap), reassembled if cracked, re-leaded around its perimeter, and reinserted. The results are spectacular, and when you make it to Paris you should not fail to visit.

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By the way — you’ll thank me for this if you come — you should buy tickets for Sainte-Chapelle online. They do not cost any extra than “real time” walk-up tickets and though they commit you to a particular day, they do not tie you to a particular time of day. But the important thing is that they give you priority admission, i.e. they allow you to skip the (sometimes very long) line. It’s an absolute no-brainer. (The same paradigm applies to the Picasso Museum and the Musée d’Orsay as well. Buy online and save yourself a lot of line-waiting at a cost of zero dollars. You’re welcome.)

Speaking of Musée d’Orsay, that was our next stop. Originally built as a Beaux-Arts-style railway station between 1898 and 1900, it fell into disuse after three or four decades, and after yet a few more decades of everyone wondering what to do with it, was finally re-purposed as an art museum. It opened in 1986 and now houses the largest collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist masterpieces in the world (even greater than the Louvre) and includes collections of Monet, Manet, Degas, Renoir, Cézanne, Seurat, Gauguin, and Van Gogh. In other words, the A-Team.

Alice is a lot more into Impressionism than I am (though I love Van Gogh), but even aside from the art we both love the space itself, whose central atrium still has the look of a modernized version of its Beaux-Arts railway origin.

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And here was an unexpected display: a very detailed and seriously cool cross-sectional model of L’Opera, which of course we had just visited yesterday! (They really ought to hide a little model Phantom in there somewhere.)

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We spent an hour or two in the museum, then had lunch at a nearby brasserie and walked a mile and a half along the Seine to the Eiffel Tower. Distressingly, the security paranoia of the past several years has taken hold; unlike all of our other visits here, it is now no longer possible to stroll among the tower’s four gigantic pylons and look straight up at it from underneath. The area is now cordoned off with a security fence, and only ticket holders for the elevator are allowed through.

But the surrounding grounds are unchanged, and it is still a genial place to lie in the shade and gaze up at the tower, watching the elevators glide up and down its spidery height. We lazed for a while, then headed home to have dinner and pack and talk about when our next visit should be.

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Lon Chaney, Call Your Office

So it appears that in France they believe that “The Phantom of the Opera” was a documentary. And, weirdly, that may not be altogether off the mark. The famed book, about a half dozen movie versions, and the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical all take place at L’Opera de Paris, also known as the Palais Garnier for the young architect who designed it in the 1870’s. Interestingly, the following things actually did happen in real life:

  • Some flooding occurred during construction, necessitating the inclusion of a retaining wall that created a small sub-basement pool that still exists and became the “Fantasy Lake” of the story.
  • One of the construction workers had a terrible facial deformity that he kept hidden. He loved the building and pretty much hung around there in secret all the time.
  • A counterweight from the chandelier in the main auditorium broke loose and fell in 1896, killing a spectator.

Who knew? In any case, the building is a spectacular one, built in an ornate neoclassical style, all marble and curlicues and domes and staircases. We took the tour. Here is the main lobby. It made me feel like I should have arrived in a horse-drawn carriage.

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Here’s the domed main auditorium. It seats nearly 2,000.

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And here is the dome itself with the infamous chandelier. You may note that the painting style does not exactly say “1875”. That is because it was repainted in a more current motif in 1968 at the behest of the then Minister of Culture, author Andre Malraux. The style may look familiar to you, since the artist is… Marc Chagall!

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And finally, here is the austere, understated Great Hall, in case the palace of Versailles isn’t garish enough for your tastes.

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Now here’s the weird part: the blockbuster Broadway musical “Phantom of the Opera” has never been shown in France. Apparently it was finally scheduled to run in Paris two years ago in October 2016, but a fire in the theater a few days before opening destroyed everything. So… no “Phantom” for Parisians, L’Opera notwithstanding.

Our next stop was a pilgrimage of sort, although I am not sure if it counts as a pilgrimage when you’re making the trip for somebody else. My former Evil Assistant and longtime BFF Angie is a devotee of insanely expensive designer purses (or, as she describes them, “receptacles for my soul”) and so we spent a few minutes wandering through the Insanely Expensive Purse And Other Retail Store district, just off the Champs Elysée. Our specific goal at Angie’s request was the Hermes flagship store (it’s pronounced er-MEZZ, you Philistine, not HER-meez), which we photographed but did not enter because we were not worthy. Angie was outraged that we did not take the opportunity to stop in and pick her up something called a “Birkin 35 Vermillion Togo”, which a moment of Googling revealed to be a $10,000 purse. I told her that we had decided to wait till it went on sale.

Designer-purseless, we moved on to one of our favorite museums in Paris, the Picasso Museum.

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The Picasso Museum is four stories tall, and by the time we got to the top I must confess that even we, big fans that we are, were utterly Picasso’ed out.

We had dinner at an excellent nearby Greek restaurant, three doors down from one of the sleazy sex shops on our street. Our dirty little secret (unrelated to the sex shops) is that neither Alice nor I are big fans of French haute cuisine. We love French “street food”: baguettes, crepes, that sort of thing. But I am not especially fond of creamy sauces, and Alice, being lactose intolerant, can’t handle the French fondness for butter and cream in everything. So when in Paris we go ethnic, much as we do at home. As you might expect Paris has very cosmopolitan restaurant offerings; so far our diners have been Italian, Vietnamese, and Greek. Tonight we’re doing Japanese.

It was dark after dinner, and so we made our way to the Seine for our nighttime boat ride. The Bateaux Mouches (literally “fly boats”, as in the insect, named for the Mouche region of Lyon where they were first built) are one of Paris’s delightful institutions They’re huge barge-like tourist boats, perhaps 200′ (60 m) long that hold hundreds of passengers, and they’ve been plying the Seine since 1867. Americans and Japanese seemed to be the predominant groups last night. The best time to go is at night when the monuments are lit up, so here are some shots from our trip. (The first, showing the beacon, is from shore, but all the others from on board. The second one shows Notre Dame over the rooftops.)

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Eifel Tower Moon crop (5 of 1)

Note the sequence of low bridges in the middle photo. The boats have unusual design to accommodate them: the ship’s bridge (where the captain steers) is on a hydraulic cantilevered arm and can raise and lower by several feet as needed.

We returned home about 11 PM, navigating the gauntlet of prostitutes working the street near our flat. One surprisingly pretty streetwalker, all hot pants and fishnets, greeted me with that most venerable come-on: “Hi! Do you speak English?” I said, “Yep,” and continued to walk, but before I could take another step, Alice charged up from a few feet behind me, grabbed my arm, and forcefully declared, “HE’S MINE!” It was such an absurd, retro bit of rom-com that all three of us — including the hooker — burst out laughing. Which, I suppose, was as surreal a way as any to end the evening.

We had another “museum day” today — St Chappelle cathedral, with its spectacular stained glass, and the Musée d’Orsay. I may write about them later if time and energy permit. This was our last day in Paris: we head to Prague tomorrow morning. We loved our time here; for us, Paris is the most enjoyable city in the world to simply be in, regardless of whether one runs around checking off all the traditional sights.

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Digital Klimt in Paris

Want to know how to vacation cheaply in Paris? It’s easy! Just spend ten days in Iceland first! Iceland is outrageously expensive: we estimated that everything there cost twice as much as it does in the Washington DC area, with the exception of gas, which costs three times as much. (These are actual, non-exaggerated numbers, in case you’re wondering.) So Paris looks like a bargain by comparison; prices are maybe 20% higher than at home.

We arrived in Paris yesterday (Sunday) afternoon and were temporarily stymied in getting to our AirBnb apartment, because central Paris is closed to automobile traffic on Sunday afternoons. This was a major headache for our taxi driver, who had to drive a badly clogged and circuitous route to get us here. I gave him a big tip.

We are in a tiny but well-equipped third floor walk-up in the Montregueil district, a lively area full of clothing stores, restaurants, and sleazy sex shops and peep shows. The sex shops and peep shows are all a block or two away from the Rue Montregueil itself, happily, which is mostly closed off to auto traffic. Here’s a view down our street from last night.

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So it’s a fun place to be. It also holds some happy memories for us, since it was 20 years ago that we rented an apartment here for a delightful week with our then-teenage sons. They enthusiastically discovered crepes and escargot at the time, and have become experienced world travelers in the two decades since. The neighborhood has not changed much.

Our first destination this morning was a bakery a few doors down from our flat, where we had some breakfast consisting mostly of some to-die-for chocolate croissants that cost about two bucks each. This is how we knew that we were back in Paris. Then we headed off by Metro to our first “sight” of the day, the Atelier des Lumières (“Studio of Lights”), also known as the Digital Art Museum. You have in all likelihood not heard of it, and indeed we had not either until our friend Elaine posted a link about it on Facebook. So, thanks Elaine! It was amazing!

The Atelier des Lumières is a former foundry that has been converted to a digital art space, in which spectacular animated digital “collages” are projected onto the warehouse-like walls and floor. Each display lasts from about 5 to 20 minutes and has a theme, and the two centerpieces of today’s displays were the Viennese artists Friedensreich Hundertwasser (whom I confess we had never heard of) and Gustav Klimt (whom of course we had). Here are a couple of still of the display, taken from a mezzanine above.

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..and here is one taken at floor level, featuring Alice and her cell phone.

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The display is dynamic and very immersive, accompanied by music that ranges from Philip Glass to Puccini. No still photo does it justice, so here’s a 3-minute video clip that I made from the mezzanine to give you an idea. Watch it with your sound on.

We left the Atelier and headed to one of our favorite spots in Paris, Sacre Coeur Cathedral and the Montmartre. I  have come to believe that it is not possible to take an original photo of Sacre Coeur, so I took the standard postcard shot.

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As you can see, it was a clear, sunny day. What you cannot see is that it was hot: about 82F / 27C. So the area was thronged with tourists enjoying the unseasonable summer weather. Of course, it is pretty much always thronged with tourists. Making a living off them are of course block after block of restaurants, cheesy souvenir stores, and street denizens. The most common species of the latter these days seem to be shell-game players, rapidly moving the ball around among three overturned cups. They were everywhere: on one short street there were two that were literally within about an arm’s length of each other.

Incredibly, there is still an adequate supply of tourists naive enough to play the game. Alice asked me what fraction of the players I thought won, and I unhesitatingly replied, “Zero.” They don’t call it the old shell game for nothing. But on further reflection, I realized that this cannot be true; you need to have an occasional — and highly visible — winner in order to keep the crowds coming. And indeed, we saw some wins…. immediately followed by a double-or-nothing offer. Guess what happens then.

We ate lunch in Montmartre and wandered the area; the main square is a core of restaurants surrounded by a ring of artists, a few of whom are not at all bad. (Alice bought a piece here about ten years ago; the same artists is still there.) Here is the scene, with Alice in the midst of things:

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One entire side of the square is occupied by portrait artists and caricaturists. Tons of them also wander the street, sketch pad in hand, inveigling tourists into some real-time portraiture. But here’s one of the sit-down portraitists at work.

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Our final stop was the Dali Museum, which is always high on both our lists. We both enjoy his work tremendously, but it resonates especially strongly with Alice because Dali’s muse was his wife Gala, who Alice pointedly observes was ten years older than him. (Alice is seven years older than me. I do not dare hypothesize aloud the implication that she is only 70% as inspirational, since that is clearly untrue. At least, if I know what is good for me.)

As we walked back to the Metro after leaving the Dali Museum we encountered in an abandoned lot yet another example that everything in Paris is a work of art.

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The phrase in the middle — “Regarder C’est Inventer” — means “observing is inventing”. It was one of Dali’s mottos. You generally do not see quotes from surrealist artists spray painted on abandoned buildings in the US.

I think that tonight we will ride the famous bateaux mouches, the Seine tour boats, to see the lights of the city at night. It’s one of those touristy things that you have to do no matter how often you visit Paris. And so we will.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Yesterday, Today, and Damara

We are in Etosha National Park now, back on the grid (barely) after three days in the stark northern Damaraland region, so buckle up: this will be a long post with lots of photos. (And I should confess that the title is not quite as clever as it appears on the page because the accent is actually on the first syllable: DAMara.)

We flew – in formation! – in two small planes from Walvis Bay to Damaraland, through dust-filled skies over harsh Martian terrain reminiscent of Death Valley. In the photo below I had to stretch the contrast in Photoshop till it screamed for mercy, because what it looked like to the naked eye was a vaguely orange fog with no visible features. The sand particles here are so fine that (a) the wind carries them aloft with ease in inconceivable quantities, and (b) everything, and I mean everything, gets ultrafine grit in it, including camera equipment and bodily orifices.

One of the odd side effects of the particulate-laden atmosphere is that the intense sunlight is scattered like crazy, every solar photon getting bounced hither and yon before it reaches the ground. Which in practice means that sky is fully light a solid half hour before dawn. (I was flabbergasted one morning when I awoke to photograph the sunrise and mistakenly thought that I had misread my watch, since it was daylight and I had obviously missed it – only to see a wan orange disk creep over the distant mountains about twenty minutes later.) On the plus side, all that dust acts like a pretty effective UV blocker, so that despite the intense midday sun even I with my generally pasty complexion and vitiligo-mottled hands have not picked up any sunburn.

The wind dies down completely after sunset, however, and the dust partly settles out, which means that other than everything looking rather reddish when close to then horizon, the night sky is spectacular. Here’s the center of our Galaxy, the densest part of the Milky Way, straight overhead at about 9 PM.

That’s a 20 second time exposure, if you’re interested. Here’s another view, looking low on the horizon.

Damaraland has two types of terrain, both of them sandy. Part of it looks like the area around Kulala, i.e. rippled trackless lose sand punctuated by dunes. The more common terrain is packed sand, grey-brown hardpan strewn with sandstone and granite rubble, dotted with stunted acacia and mopane trees. There is a distant low mountain range, the Etendekas, which somply means “flat top”. If this all sounds rather survival-challenged and uninviting, it really comes down to whether you like deserts, which I do. (I could do without the grit in my ears, though.)

Our stay was it the Doro Nawas Lodge, which if you want to be a linguistic stickler should actually be written Doro !Nawas, with an exclamation point at the front of the second word. (Whoa… Microsoft word does not like that, and is complaining to me about it as I type.) It is a click sound, a “tok” made by pulling the tongue off the roof of the mouth as you say the N. There are actually four different click sounds in Damara (and San, the Bushman language), each represented in the Roman alphabet with a different punctuation mark: !, /, //, and ǂ. They sound sort of – emphasis on the sort of — like a tok, and a tcht, and a tsk, and something that I can’t even figure out a combination of letters for, let alone actually say. Even Damara children cannot pronounce them until the age of six or so. When the locals converse it sounds like they are talking while dropping marbles onto hollow wooden blocks.

The lodge appears from the outside like Mad Max’s secret fortress, a low dark wood and stone structure situated commandingly on a hilltop and ringed by cabins lower down the slope.

It is very pleasant, with few interior walls and all open to the outside. Our cabin is beautiful, a full bungalow perhaps 800 square feet (74 square m) in size with both indoor and outdoor showers and an enormous sliding glass door/window nearly 30 ft (9 m) long looking out over the desert towards the south. Everything is made of stone and dark wood like the lodge, and the cathedral ceiling looks straight up onto the underside of the thatched roof and its round rough wood beams (tree trunks, of course).

Damaraland is known for its elephants, so I might as well lay a bunch of elephant photos on you right now before I go all didactic on you.

These are desert elephants, unique to the region and a source of no little controversy. Although taxonomically and genetically identical to the “usual” African elephants, they enjoy some important and easily seen adaptations to desert life. They are noticeably smaller than their more common cousins, for one thing, with much thinner tusks and long skinny legs. (Long and skinny for an elephant, anyway.)

There is considerable controversy surrounding these animals. The national government maintains that there is no important difference between these elephants and the other 20,000 throughout the country, and that there is thus no reason not to sell expensive hunting licenses to wealthy foreigners. At the same time – speaking out of the other side of its institutional face – the selfsame government markets these permits at a premium by maintaining to those wealthy foreigners that the desert elephants are rare and special. Exactly how rare is also a point of dispute: game spotters and NGOs maintain that there are only about 120 of them; the government claims that there are 600. Nine hunting permits have already been sold, all to one wealthy and famous South African hunter Johan Louw. But the outcry over the beasts’ rarity (or not) has inhibited him from actually using them. (Karma is a Bitch Department: Louw was injured by an elephant, and his client killed, by an elephant during a hunting party in a different part of the country several months ago.

The locals have mixed feelings about all this. Elephants bring a lot of tourism to the country, but the government is so corrupt that most of those dollars do not flow down to the grass roots to fund infrastructure, schools, etc. What does happen at the village level is that the elephants destroy things, notably water wells. So the corruption problem is going to have to be alleviated before conservation efforts get the necessary amount of support at the local level.

We visited one of those villages, a Damara farming community where the village elders, who with the entire population of a few hundred, had been relocated to this patch of desert by apartheid policies in 1974.  Here’s the village, which comprises a couple of hundred people, a few goats, and some garden plots. Only one resident is brave enough to raise a garden of substantial size. Why? Well, you know how hard it is to keep pesky deer and rabbits from eating your vegetable garden? And how the bigger the garden, the bigger the problem? Now replace the deer and rabbits with elephants. A chicken-wire fence will not do the job.

You may conclude from the photo above that the village is not the most inviting place to live, and I can state with confidence that if I and my family were forcibly relocated there that we would not survive a week. (“Satya! STAY AWAY FROM THAT ELEPH… oh jeez….”) However, by their own standards the village is doing OK, and the elders at least stated that they were happy there.

They seemed to be receiving a fair amount of government support, in the form of financial subsidies, well boreholes, and even a very rare kindergarten school. This seems to be at least one case where the system is working more or less as it is supposed to, and these two ladies claimed to be very supportive of the desert elephant conservation efforts. (In answer to that question, they responded: “We like the elephants. You’re here because they’re here.”)

In contrast to this village, with real people living their daily hardscrabble lives, we also visited the Damara Living Museum, which if you are an American reading this, you may think of as Naked Colonial Williamsburg. There, local Damara tribespeople don traditional close and demonstrate dances and assorted skills (building a fire, preparing an animal hide, that sort of thing).

It’s hard to know how to feel about this. If I were part of a Jewish congregation making a living by demonstrating bar mitzvahs or seders for tourists I would not be too crazy about it, but Lloyd maintains that these Damara are OK with this, in part because it helps keep the ancient skills and traditions alive. (However, for the record, if I am one of those hypothetical Jewish congregants I am drawing the line at circumcision.)

Relocation aside, desert tribes have lived in this area for a long time. They’ve got the wall art to prove it, in this case petroglyphs on sandstone much as one finds in the American Southwest and in Australia.

Unlike petroglyphs elsewhere, however, these are impossible to date with any certainty. The analogous carvings in the USA and Australia are usually dated by organic or carbon dating analysis of any pigments in the drawings or remains of campfires. But there are no campfire remnants here, nor pigments; they are scratched into the rock. And the utter lack of rainfall means that the carvings erode slowly and unpredictably. As a result, the best that anyone can say is that the petroglyphs are between 2,000 and 6,000, which is an unsatisfyingly wide range.

You can probably infer from the pictures that the geology of this area is very similar to that of the American Southwest, and you’re right. Here is a shot that validates that sense.

The area even boasts a number of petrified forests, both privately and government owned, and they look like, well, petrified forests everywhere. We visited the government-run one, whose centerpiece is a log about 2 ft in diameter and roughly 200 ft (60 m) long, sort of a skinny redwood collapsed onto its side.

Possibly the stars of the local geology are the so-called Organ Pipes, vertical columns of a mélange of minerals, compressed by volcanic pressures into polygonal cross sections.

What this region has that is truly unique, however, is a particular plant, the Welwitschia Mirabilis, a.k.a. the national plant of Namibia. It even appears on the flag.

It’s your typically curious desert plant, that not only requires little water but actually requires it: dump a pitcher of water on it and you’ll kill it. The root system only goes down about a foot or so (30 cm) and is a big bulbous thing for water storage.  It’s very slow growing and long-lived — this one is decades old, the leaves thick and leathery.

We left Damara this morning and, as I type this, have already had a game-rich day in Etosha, further to the north. More about that when I get a chance, but I will leave you with our farewell visitor to our cabin in Doro !Nawas this morning, sitting on a fence post about four feet away from me. I have a nice photo of him, but I think Alice’s little watercolor captures the moment nicely.

 

 

 

 

Categories: Africa, Namibia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Whirlwind Windhoek

See, “Windhoek” actually means “wind corner” in both Afrikaans and Dutch, and today was a whirlwind tour, thereby compounding the cleverness of my title and, oh forget it.

As I mentioned yesterday, Windhoek is about a mile above sea level, sitting on Namibia’s central plain. But it is on a plain within that plain, basically a bowl defined by the encircling Auas Mountains. (That’s pronounced “ouse“, in case you were wondering.) So here’s the view from our hotel restaurant.

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Recall that the neighborhood surrounding the hotel is an affluent one, filled with clean if somewhat boxy-looking houses as you can see here. Come down off the hill, however, and things are markedly grittier. The main downtown streets are about four lanes wide, lined with slightly down-at-the-heels looking businesses and some more prosperous looking banks and financial firms.

Downtown is also home to the National Museum of Namibia, whose main building is a bizarre structure donated by South Korea, and resembling some kind of postmodern water storage structure, i.e.:

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That’s national founder and first president Sam Nujoma standing out front. The perspective of the photo is a little misleading: Sam’s statue is about 20 feet tall including the base, whereas the building is about 10 stories high including all that empty space at the bottom (which, by the way, channels the wind in most spectacular fashion).

The actual museum part of the building is on three floors and is a more or less hagiographic accounting of the battle for liberation and Sam’s role in it. There are a number of informative and dramatic photos of the war and the people at the time, liberally interspersed with propaganda and neo-Stalinist art like these inspiring tableaus:

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Now there is more than a bit of irony here, astutely noted by travelmate Steve: we have here a museum celebrating a successful Communist-supported national liberation movement, built and paid for by… South Korea. What’s wrong with this picture?

Adjacent to the main building is an old German fort that has been repurposed a few times, most recently as part of the museum. But between 1904 and 1907 it was a German concentration camp for the native Herero and Nama tribes, whom the German colonists were determined to extirpate. Chillingly, the fort includes a plaque from that era helpfully explaining that the purpose of the facility was to house tribespeople as part of an effort to aid communication and ease intertribal tensions. Which it certainly did, since it is hard to argue with someone when you are both dead.

Several years after the attempted genocide, the Germans erected in town a memorial to the dead from the 1904-1907 slaughter………. the German dead.    The statue is of a German soldier on horseback, and in a further display of sensitivity the builders oriented the horse so that it faced Berlin. The locals reacted to this with all the enthusiasm that you’d expect, and the statue was removed from its home in a public square and relocated to the fort, where you can see it to this day.

We walked around downtown for a while, past the seedy little casinos, past the bare-breasted Himba tribeswomen selling handicrafts. Then we reboarded our bus and headed to the edge of the city to Katutura, one of many all-black so-called “townships” just outside the city. The townships were created as part of apartheid policies spilling over from South Africa; they were basically enforced suburbs, since blacks were not allowed to live downtown. Indeed, the word Katutura is Herero for “we have no place to live”. It is a downscale suburb, thick with single-story simple residences and small businesses such as barbers, car repair shops (used tires are a big business) and shebeens, the latter a sort of a hybrid gathering place, sundries store, and speakeasies for sometimes-illegal liquor.

But among the townships, Katutura has a particular draw: the Oshetu Community Market. Oshetu is a big tented farmers’ market offering everything from haircuts to wholesale freshly-killed sides of beef. It is a combination marketplace, business center, restaurant, and social hub.

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The beef business is of some note. At one side of the tented area are the beef wholesalers, standing by their tables piles high with huge slabs of meat, and the occasional flyblown cow head and legs lying on the ground nearby. They sell to the retailers, barely more than an arm’s length away, who then grill it and sell it in consumer-friendly quantities.

01 Windhoek 2017-083This we ate. We took small strips of barbecued beef off the grill, dipped it in seasoned salt and chili pepper proffered on a paper towel, and ate by hand. It was quite delicious, as long as you could avoid thinking about the likely bacteria count. A typical lunch, which followed, included this plus a loaf of polenta, chunks of which one would grab by hand and dip into a tomato salsa, also delicious. It is a communal activity: we all shared the same loaf of polenta (called “pap” locally) and bowl of salsa. So I am desperately hoping that no one in our group of 15 (including Lloyd) is sick, because in that case we all are, or will be shortly.

The grocery part of the market offers all the usual produce and staples, the former including a number of fruits that we had never seen before, e.g., a “monkey orange”, which is a variety of orange with an astoundingly hard rind, almost like a thin coconut shell. The staples included a variety of beans, dried vegetables (such as a spinach “cake”), sardines, dried worm skins, and…wait, what?

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Yes, those are dried worm skins in the front (and no, they do not come in a can of Havoline motor oil). You take a worm, see, and squoosh out its guts like squeezing toothpaste from a tube. Then you dry the remaining skin in the sun, creating (in effect) worm jerky. When you’re hankering for a snack, you put it in water to rehydrate it, then pan fry it with salt. It has a mild taste (yes, I ate several), slightly chewy and a little salty. I mean, come on, you pan fry and salt pretty much anything and it’ll be perfectly palatable, right? Stop making that face.

Our final stop of the day was the Penduka Women’s Collective, a combination school (for children of both sexes), restaurant, and craft center, where local women produce pottery, batik, and bead jewelry for public sale.

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The women make their own glass beads individually, starting with empty bottles, which they pulverize and take through an elaborate and very hand labor intensive process. We were served lunch, and as part of our visit were presented with some traditional dances by some of the women.

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And that was our whirlwind day in Windhoek. Tomorrow we fly in small planes to our desert camp in Kulula, there to behold a whole lot of sand — notably the Namib Desert’s famous dunes — and, I hope, a spectacular night sky. I expect that we will be altogether off the grid for the next several days, so I will resume posting when connectivity allows.

Categories: Africa, Namibia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Slouching Towards Johannesburg

Disclaimer: no photos in this post, since we haven’t yet been much of anyplace other then the inside of an airplane or the interior of an airport hotel in Johannesburg. I’ll resume my usual photo essay style once I, well, have some photos.

I have discovered that a 15 hour plane ride (New York to Jo’burg) makes me feel like a superhero, though not in any useful way. In particular:

(1) The constant vibration and low level noise feels over the great length of the flight as though it ought to be resonating my connective tissue and most of cell walls into a protoplasmic stew. Somehow this does not happen, which makes me think that I am secretly related to Barry Allen, a.k.a. The Flash, the Scarlet Speedster himself, who can among other useful skills vibrate himself through solid objects.  I believe I felt myself actually merging with my seat cushion.  (As an aside, props to South African Airways for providing about 2″ more legroom than most American carriers in economy class. The Flash never worries about legroom because he can run fast enough to transport himself into parallel universes. I’m sure that at least one of those universes has airlines that only offer lots of legroom.)

(2) I develop Super Hearing, although it only works for slightly annoying sounds. It struck me that that the masking effect of the whooshing ventilation system combined with the engine rumble (see Vibrational Superpower above) makes everything sound a little muffled. Everything, that is, except for a ubiquitous crackling sound that, on reflection, turned out to be many of the 300 passengers randomly opening cellophane packages of whatever. Somehow every crinkle and crackle penetrates the vaguely subterranean roar that otherwise permeates the cabin. It actually sounds a bit like the popcorn-like snickity-snick sound that pervades tropical reefs when you go snorkeling: that is caused by parrotfish nibbling on coral. (At this point, if this were some kind of self-help book, I would helpfully observe that the similarity makes me feel like I am diving in a tropical lagoon even while crammed into an airline economy seat. News flash: it doesn’t.)

Even so, it could have been worse. Our 15 hour flight from New York was originally scheduled as a 16 hour flight from Atlanta. Since we were to fly out of Baltimore to Atlanta, and Hurricane Irma seemed to have that part of the country in her sights, we were understandably nervous about actually making our connection. My BFF and former Evil Assistant Angie assured me that I had nothing to worry, that she would on my behalf invoke pagan magical powers to ensure that Irma would not torpedo our itinerary. By way of proof she reminded me that it was due to her ministrations that our annual company summer picnic has enjoyed good weather every single year since she joined the firm.

All Angie required were some crow feathers and some other magical ingredients, unknown to me, but which I assume one does not normally obtain at an office supply store. So I gave her the go-ahead, thanked her in advance for her efforts… and with just a twinge of guilt changed our itinerary to connect through New York instead of Atlanta. And then —

If you’ve been following the Irma drama, you know that the storm weakened significantly and veered west. We would in fact have made our original connection. (Angie has forgiven me for my lack of faith, but I am going to have to bring back something nice from Namibia if I am to avoid a punishing round of I-told-you-sos.

The upshot is that we arrived in Johannesburg this morning at about 7:45 AM local time, slightly ahead of schedule, and after enduring a very long line at passport control were picked up and driven the short distance to our airport hotel. We are here for only tonight before flying to Windhoek, Namibia’s capital, tomorrow.

Johannesburg — universally dubbed Jo’burg in conversation — is a large, dusty, hollow city of 4.4 million, plus another 2 million in the suburbs. By “hollow” I mean that the city center is built up but largely unoccupied, a grid of tall office buildings that give the city a Potemkin skyline because such a large fraction of them are empty. Business fled as one of the major revenue streams — gold mining — dried up, and as a result the downtown is now a crime-ridden warren of abandoned buildings. Downtown is ringed by residential areas as well as enormous sprawling shantytowns, largely devoid of electricity or plumbing and dotted by Port-a-Potties supplied by the local government councils. In short, Jo’burg is a decidedly unsafe metropolis where barbed wire and steel shutters are the ubiquitous decor, even on residences. We were told not to go anywhere on our own.

The one thing that we did do — and pretty much the only thing we had time for before dropping from exhaustion — was  visit the Apartheid Museum, which is an extremely worthwhile place to spend 2-3 hours. It is a modern building, marked by steel beams and rock walls on the outside as a reminder of the harsh conditions in the mines that so many black laborers endured. The inside is a maze-like self-guided tour through the entire history of apartheid from the 1940’s through its dissolution in the 1990’s, replete with oral histories, newsreel clips, photo displays, and documentary footage from the heartrending Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings, in which government-sponsored torturers and willfully blind bureaucrats sought amnesty for their immoral activities under apartheid, in part by confessing their crimes to their victims.  The entire museum was informative and powerful, reminding me in some ways of the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC.

We returned to our hotel, the O.R. Tambo Protea, to start meeting up with the rest of our group, starting with two of our previous traveling companions Steve and Thumper (who flew for about a billion hours to get here from San Francisco). The Protea is comfortable, with an excellent restaurant, the odd note being its neo-Mad Max architectural style, in which every surface is either an I-beam or corrugated aluminum, and where the lobby and bar are gaily decorated in machine tools, stacks of tires, and engine blocks. They really need to introduce a dress code requiring spiked leather collars at a minimum.

Tomorrow: Windhoek.

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Hakone in the Mist

Man does not live on hot springs baths alone, so the original plan for today was to include a short cruise on Lake Ashi, the scenic lake on whose shores Hakone sits. It became clear pretty quickly that that wasn’t going to happen, because it was this kind of day:

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On and off drizzle, wind, and heavy fog rolling in off the lake made the prospect of a cruise pretty unappealing. The boat operators thought so too: the cruise was canceled as our bus pulled into the parking lot. However, our tour lead is nothing if not flexible, and so the day’s itinerary was immediately reshuffled accordingly.

Our first stop thus became Narukawa Art Museum, a privately-owned museum that sits above the shores of the lake and offers a commanding view of it. Today the view was more opaque than commanding, although if you like fog you would have been impressed. The museum’s collection is small and pleasant to browse, almost all contemporary stuff in a spare, almost Scandinavian setting.

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A guide gave us a short presentation about the collection and some of the artists’ techniques, and we were turned loose for an hour or so on our own.

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As you can tell from that last photo, the Japanese are heavily into ridiculously detailed carvings, frequently out of a single piece of marble, or jade, or whatever. A raging case of OCD is a big plus if you are in this line of work. Speaking of which…

Our next stop was the workshop and store of a nationally-recognized master of marquetry, which I confess is a word that I had never heard before. You know what it is, but in case you didn’t know what it was called either, Google defines it as “inlaid work made from small pieces of variously colored wood or other materials, used chiefly for the decoration of furniture.” If you go to Google Images you will immediately recognize it as this stuff:

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I had never really thought about how it is made, but the process and skill are level are extraordinary. The craftsman basically shapes short (an inch or two, sometimes more) rods of different types of wood — each with its unique color — such that their cross sections represent every shape in the final image, then fits and glues them together like a thick jigsaw puzzle. He then cuts slices through the assemblage to make multiple copies of the finished image. In some cases those slices are as thin as a piece of paper; he uses a wood plane to shave off a slice of absolutely uniform paper-thinness. There are no paints or dyes or used; all of the colors are the natural wood. And even the most finely detailed features in the image, which look they have been drawn on using a pen, are made using microscopically think slices of wood, shaped with a jigsaw whose blade looked to be about the thickness of a human hair. It was a very, very impressive demonstration, and here is the master in action (using a wood plane):

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In addition to planar objects such as coasters and hangings, he also makes bowls like the one you see in the foreground. You can see that it is resting on a glued-together stack of cylinders (they are actually triangular, hexagonal, and octagonal in cross section); the bowl is created by carving (i.e., hollowing out) a stack like that one. And he also makes puzzle boxes — you know, those fancy wooden boxes with hidden panels that you have to find in slide in the right order to open it. He makes phenomenally complex ones: he demonstrated one that required seven steps — and I swear there was not a seam to be felt — then held up one that required fifty. He said the most complex that he had seen required — wait for it — seventy-two steps to open. I mean jeez, it would take you 20 minutes to open the damn thing even if you had correctly memorized all the steps. And if you haven’t, well, I can promise you that the only way you ever going to see the inside of that box is with a saw or a sledge hammer.

And speaking of wood, Hakone is also known for having a small cedar forest. There is an easy strolling path along its edge, adjacent to the historical road that connects Osaka to Tokyo. On this misty, drizzly day the forest looked like this:

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The trees are tall and the place feels ancient, rather like Muir Woods with its redwoods.

Our final stop of the day was another art museum, the Hakone Open Air Museum. It is, fortunately, not entirely outdoors since the weather had not yet started cooperating. It comprises three very modern gallery buildings spread out over a park-like area criscorssed by poaths that connect the buildings and dotted with sculptures by (to our surprise) very famous Western artists: Henry Moore, Brancusi, Giacometti, Modigilani. And one of the gallery buildings was devoted entirely to an impressive Picasso collection, which we were rather surprised to find here.

After walking around all day, however, our personal highlight of the Open Air Museum was an outdoor hot springs foot bath at a temperature of 41C (106F). You pay 100 yen (about $1) for a towel, and you can soak your aching tootsies for as long as you like. Of course, when it is raining — which it was — then your enthusiasm for doing so is somewhat dampened, literally. However, that was not going to stop Alice:

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Dinner this evening was a another artistically-arranged 10-course traditional Japanese meal. (The courses are quite small, so it is not the feat of gluttony that it sounds like.) And afterwards, we were given a lesson in “gift wrapping cloth) by Mariko. As you may know, the Japanese are big on gifts, and the presentation no less than the gift itself is very much a part of the ethos. If you buy something at a department store, they will wrap it for you in such a transcendentally artistic way that your heart breaks when you are forced to open it later. But for many occasions — visiting friends, for example, or possibly even having your tires rotated — mere paper will not do. No, special cloth is used for this purpose, and Mariko gave us each a couple of brightly colored swaths, each about a meter on a side, then showed us how to wrap a gift in it.

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It looks deceptively easy when she does it, as a few of our travel mates will attest:

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“That folds over…no, wait…bring that corner over to…hold it…my shirt is tangled in that corner…no, fold it… wait, I lost my hand…. aaaarrrghhhhhh”

It wasn’t pretty.

And that pretty much wraps up Hakone. Tomorrow we take the bullet train to Kanezawa, where we will stay for a few nights before heading on to Kyoto.

After all this discussion of artistic stuff, I will close this entry with a nonsequiter about toilets. Well, it’s not altogether a nonsequiter, just mostly. One of the common factors binding all of the aesthetics that we witnessed today was a very high degree of the fastidiousness for which the Japanese are justly known. This mindset makes for delicate art but makes the whole issue of, um, elimination somewhat problematic: there is noting fastidious about what you are doing in the bathroom when, say, suffering a bout of digestive upset. So in order to preserve everyone’s delicate sensibilities, many toilets — on the trains, and in our hotel rooms — are equipped with noise machines. While you are proceeding with your unspeakable excretory business you push a button and the machine emits a continuous loud sound — water running, white noise, or the sound of continuous flushing — that prevents the sounds of your personal biology from impinging upon the attention of whoever is in the next room. I have to say that my reaction to this is, “C’mon, people, grow up!” I mean, really.

Categories: Japan | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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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