Posts Tagged With: rain

Oahu and Aloha

We left the Big Island 2 1/2 days ago with our usual reluctance — meaning that a commando team was required to get Alice onto the plane — but as usual have arranged to ease our transition back into non-tropical life by spending three days with our old friends Laura and Brian in Honolulu.  This having become part of a pleasant yearly routine, we by now have a certain number of haunts on Oahu that we visit with them.

The first of these — it having impressed us so much in the past that we now schedule our visit around it — is the Saturday morning farmer’s market at Kapiolani Community College. Trust me, if you’re used to farmer’s markets on the mainland this one is a revelation. Here’s a panorama of a small piece of it:

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The sign on the left says “Kimchi Poke Bowl”, which already tells you a lot about Hawaii: kimchi of course is Korean, whereas poke (pronounced poke-eh) is a Hawaiian specialty, basically marinated sushi (and most wonderful, I should add).  At this market you can also enjoy (among many other delights) sushi sliders, lilikoi (passion fruit) popsicles, grilled giant shrimp, and kimchi sausage on a stick. And we did. In fact, the entire time we are visiting our friends here we eat very exotically and very, very well. And very excessively.

Most non-Hawaiians’ mental image of Honolulu is probably dominated by visions of Waikiki, and it is true that that iconic strand is a very visited place.

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But there are in a sense really two Waikikis: the tourist one that you see in the picture above, and the one frequented by the locals, from which the photos above and below were taken.

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The “local” part of Waikiki is smaller, dominated by an old World War I memorial and a decrepit and long-since-disused public swimming people, long gone in disrepair . But there is also a pleasant beach with no hotels hard upon it, and a large park filled with exercise classes, picnickers, and — on this particular day — a gathering of the Aloha Koi Club, presumably there to compare their respective decorative fish. It’s a pleasant place with a family atmosphere. There is also an old concrete jetty, perhaps 40 meters long, extending into the shallow green surf and offering an excellent platform from which to throw bread crumbs to the waiting fish. The water is clear as glass, and it’s a lot of fun watching the surgeonfish and the triggerfish (“humuhumunuknukuapua’a!”) go after their targets.  That abundance of fish makes it a pretty good place to snorkel; you can see two snorkelers in the foreground of the photo above.

The central part of Oahu, north of Honolulu, is overlooked by the 550′ (16m) high Punchbowl, an extinct volcanic crater that is now home to a military cemetery. A little further north than that, perhaps 10 miles north of the city and about twice as high as the Punchbowl, is “The Pali”, or more formally the Nu’uani Pali Lookout. (Pali means cliff in Hawaiian.) It’s an overlook on the volcanic side, overlooking the central valley of the island and and flanked by the crenelated basaltic cliffs, long overgrown with vegetation. The wind howls up the cliffside from the valley below, and on especially windy days requires you to lean forward to avoid being blown over. It was unusually calm when we visited, and afforded us this view of the plain below.

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Those craggy hillsides are completely typical of eroded volcanic landscapes, and make every setting a dramatic one.  (On rainy or foggy days, they become looming and ominous, as you’ll see below.) And as you can see from the picture, from this 1200′ (360m) vantage point, you can see all the way to the ocean to the northeast.

Heading eastward from Honolulu quickly brings you to the eastern end of the island, Makapuu Point. It’s a commanding viewpoint from which you can easily see the islands of Lanai and Molokai on the horizon, with a glimpse of Maui as well on a really good day. Closer to shore, especially in the winter months, you can see whales, and indeed we saw a handful of them, including one performing a spectacular breach perhaps 200 meters from shore below us. We don’t see a whole lot of those around Washington DC.

The lookout spot where we parked offered an ideal spot from which to launch my drone, but I hesitated because of the cop directing cars into the lot. My hesitation vanished about a minute later when we saw a guy flying a drone about fifty feet from the cop, so off I went. I flew along the coast for a mile or so, keeping both a drone and a protoplasmic eye out to see in case the opportunity to fly above a whale presented itself. It didn’t. (It would have a lot of patience and a lot of drone batteries to pull it off; the whales do not stay on the surface for very long, and it is unlikely that I would have been able to get the drone position before the beast dove again. Those BBC and National Geographic guys have a lot more patience than I do.)

Makapuu Point is dominated by the Makapuu Lighthouse, activated in 1909 and still in use. It has the odd distinction of having the largest lighthouse lens in the US, and is also the third highest lighthouse in the country at 422′ (129m). (The two higher ones are both in California, in case you were wondering.)

Makapuu Lighthouse

There is a fairly steep trail leading up to the lighthouse. Last year we were ambitious enough to make that hike; this year I let the drone do the work. Here’s the video:

We had a gorgeous day for it, as you can see. And yes, the water really is that color, so feel free to hate us.

However, not every day is gorgeous here — only most of them — and today, our last day in the islands, was emphatically not. It rained buckets for most of the day, a relentless drenching of the sort that you only get in the tropics. Unusually, we had thunder and lightning as well. But hell, it was our last day here and we weren’t going to let a little rain stop us. Or a lot of rain. Or an insane nonstop deluge that left us cowering in the car saying, “What were we thinking?”. But we pushed on anyway, Laura bravely navigating her new car through flooded roads whose Stygian depths may well have harbored entire new species of sea life.

But we were not seized by the kraken, and made it around the coast to the North Shore, stopping at a beach whose famous landmark is an offshore island with the condescendingly racist (but nonetheless apt) name of Chinaman’s Hat. You can see why:

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Trust me, those pendulous clouds represented a break in the weather. Turning 180° from this scene to face inland revealed this vista:

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And now you know where Darth Vader goes on vacation.

The rain kept up all day and into the evening, our phones screaming out flash flood alerts every hour or two as they were broadcast by the authorities. (No incoming missile alerts, though.) The downpour finally tapered off about 9 PM, after we got back from our farewell dinner with our friends.

So I guess it is time to leave the islands. We’ll be spending about a week visiting various friends on the mainland before getting home for real at the end of the month. But we’re already talking about next year’s visit.

 

 

 

 

 

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Kauai from the Skai…er…Sky

Yesterday was Helicopter Day for us, that means of transportation being far and away the best way to get a real sense of the geography and vegetation of Kauai.

We woke up with the chickens. I do not mean by this that we woke up early; I mean we literally woke up with the chickens. There are *&%^$# chickens — that is pronounced “frickin’ chickens” — absolutely everywhere on Kauai: on the roads, on the sidewalks, on the golf courses, underfoot. Today we had lunch at an outdoor food court where, for very good reason, there was a sign posted that said “Please Do Not Feed The Chickens”. I have no idea why, but the island is plain crawling with chickens. (Hmm. Somehow “crawling” doesn’t seem like the right word when discussing chickens. But “scratching with chickens” doesn’t sound right.) The consequence of all this is that there are three constant sounds that form the backdrop of life on Kauai: the surf crashing (dramatic!), the suserration of the wind in the palm trees (soothing!), and the ubiquitous roosters crowing (um…).

We made the 50 minute drive to Lihue airport, received a safety briefing, and entered a helo with four other passengers. The bird had bulbous windows in order to accommodate photography and a more panoramic view, at the expense of all sorts of inconvenient reflections and glare. (Fifteen years ago we took a similar helo tour in a ‘copter with no doors, which affords a spectacularly ideal view for the non-nervous.)

We made a clockwise circuit of the island, passing over the coastal plains; hovering next to stratospherically-high thread-thin waterfalls; banking through green valleys and Waimea Canyon (about which more shortly); and surveying the dramatic Na Pali coast. (Na Pali simply means “the cliffs”, by the way.) Here are some shots:

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Eastern coastal plain, looking west towards the interior

 

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One of six zillion waterfalls

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Na Pali, Kauai’s signature vista

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Looking east towards fabled Hanalei Bay. Our B&B is on the north shore (leftmost point) of the peninsula.

The flight took a little under an hour. The sights along the way included some of the venues where “Jurassic Park” was filmed.

After leaving the airport we continued on our own clockwise tour of the island, the first stop being Waimea Canyon, Kauai’s second most well-known geological feature. It is in the interior, accessible by a very winding 18 mile (30 km) road to a lookout point. The canyon itself is about 10 miles (16 km) long and 3000 ft (900 m) deep, strikingly reminiscent of a scale model of the Grand Canyon, thus:

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Though very much younger than the Grand Canyon, it was formed by a similar erosive process. In the Grand Canyon’s case, that would be the Colorado River; Waimea Canyon was formed by rain runoff from 5000′ Mt. Waialeale, the second-highest peak on the island and purportedly the rainiest spot on the planet. Mt. Waialeale averages roughly 14″ (35 cm) of rain per day. You do not want to plan a picnic on Mt. Waialeale.

For our demographic there is little to do here except gawk at the declivity from the lookout point and take a bunch of pictures. It is true that there are bicycle tours that zoom down the side of the canyon, which is also threaded by hiking trails. I could plausibly claim that 35 years ago these are activities that we might have ambitiously undertaken. But I visited here 35 years ago and didn’t want to do it then either, so just enjoy the view. (Which, by the way, nicely illustrates the characteristic colors of Kauai: the iron-rich orange soil and red sedimentary stripes on the formations, dotted with emerald green vegetation.)

We snaked back down the mountain and continued our clockwise course until the road petered out altogether near Polihale State Park, at the westernmost point of the island. The beach there is spectacular: an endlessly long, broad, and flat expanse of coarse pale orange sand, terminating at the Na Pali cliffs a few miles to the north. On calm days, the water is so clear that you can see the sand being sucked up off the bottom by gentle waves as the rollers come close to shore. But that is not a sight for winter, when the surf is ceaselessly punishing.

The main problem with Polihale is getting there, since the last 4 miles of the road isn’t a road at all, but rather a spine-jangling washboard surface of packed dirt and small craters. You are not allowed to take rental cars there, and certainly not our rented Nissan Versa, which appears to be made out of aluminum foil. So I would like to state for the record that we were transported by a giant eagle, like Gandalf in “The Hobbit”.

Since this is the westernmost point of Kauai, it affords the best vantage point to glimpse the last major island in the Hawaiian chain: the “forbidden island” of Niihau, 17 miles (28 km) away. If the nickname sounds a tad melodramatic to you, here is what it looked like yesterday:

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Yep, looks forbidden to me all right.

But the reason Niihau is called “forbidden” is not because the ancient gods will smite you if you land there, the above photo notwithstanding. No, you will be smitten by the lawyers from the Robinson family, a venerable clan of major Kauai landowners who own Niihau outright and maintain it as a preserve of Hawaiian culture. The residents are of native Hawaiian blood — among the very few left — and the primary language of the island is Hawaiian. Tourism is by and large forbidden, though there are a small number of special permits issued. The Robinsons also have an arrangement with the Navy, which maintains a small unmanned facility there which they occasionally use for training exercises.

How did this come about? The answer, simply enough, is that in 1864 a wealthy woman named Elizabeth McHutchison Sinclair flat-out bought the island from Kamehameha V for $10,000 in gold. It passed down through the family and in 1915 her grandson Aubrey Robinson closed it off to visitors. Aubrey’s grandsons own the island today, along with significant swaths of Kauai itself.

I’ve mentioned Na Pali a number of times on this leg of the trip, not unreasonably because it is a genuinely extraordinary sight. We have so far seen it on foot during our hike two days ago, and yesterday by air. We were supposed to have completed the trifecta by taking a boat trip to it earlier this afternoon, but the excursion was canceled because we were the only people who signed up. We have rebooked it for Saturday, so stay tuned for yet more pictures of the place.

 

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Instant Zen, and Rolling Your Own Sushi

We began the day with no little trepidation, occasioned by the proximity of the mysteriously-named Typhoon #18. We knew that we would be climbing a hillside in the town of Arashiyama to visit with Obayashi-san, the resident monk at Senkoji temple, and Mariko had hinted darkly at the ardors of ascending 200 steps to do so. The prospect of negotiating 200 stone steps in the rain did not appeal.

But the weather held, more or less, and the trek (such as it was) began with a more leisurely and scenic amble along the river at the foot of the mountain.

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Feeling serene yet?

The 200 steps turned out to be not such a big deal, sufficiently well spaced out along the few hundred foot ascent to avoid the feeling of an endless trudge. There was even a small shrine or two along the way to remind us of our goal (which was of course enlightenment, or at least the top of the damn hill).

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When we reached the temple our immediate gratification was a large temple bell, which we were allowed to ring.

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It produced a deep, sonorous, and very Asian GONNNNNGGGGGG, just like you’d hope. I was enjoying this, and had already rung the thing about six times when the attendant courteously informed me that you’re only supposed to ring it thrice. So now I’ve probably gone and summoned some polycephalic demon from whatever passes for Hell in Buddhism. (Which would explain the weather that befell us about nine hours later.)

The temple is occupied by the aforementioned monk Obayashi, who lives there with his family (Japanese monks are not celibate). Our gathering place was a typically spartan tatami room, albeit one with a spectacular panoramic view of the valley and town. The decor included samurai armor.

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Monk Obayashi was friendly and talkative, and with Mariko translating gave us an exposition and answered questions about Zen Buddhism and in particular the role of meditation in it. He opened the session with a lengthy chant, punctuated by a drumbeat that he tapped out while chanting. But we were to get into the act too: before beginning he handed out a phonetic cheat sheet so that we could chant along. It starts like this:

KAN JI ZAI BO SA GYO JIN HAN NYA HA RA MI

…and goes on like that for 26 more lines. I believe it is a blessing for our safe travels, but I am not actually certain of this.

He then gave us a quick lesson in how to meditate — how to breathe, empty your thoughts, etc. — and instructed us to begin doing so when he rang a bell. We would meditate, he informed us, for only five minutes or so.

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Now at this point in the narrative I should observe to those readers who do not know me personally that the readers who do know me personally have already collapsed in convulsive hysterical laughter at the prospect of me attempting Zen meditation. The only way I am going to empty my mind of thoughts is by physically removing my brain from my cranium, and my personal record for sitting motionless in quiet contemplation of nothingness is approximately 9 seconds. So let us leave the topic by conceding that I am not cut out to be a Buddhist monk, a revelation that surprises exactly none of my family or friends.

Having failed to achieve nirvana but at least enjoyed the monk’s well-meaning attempt at getting us there, we headed back down the mountain towards our next stop, which was lunch at the Heki residence in the nearby town of Kameoka. But not just any lunch: we received a sushi-making lesson and ate the product of our labors. The process started with our hosts producing big bowls of freshly-made hot rice, which we had to cool by stirring and waving fans.

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We were then instructed how to form it into little plum-sized balls and shown how to embed the various ingredients and toppings into them.

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It was a hoot, and as you can see we also got to dress like altar boys for some unexplained reason. This particular style of sushi — little balls instead of the familiar log-like rolls — is called temari, and was no doubt chosen for us because it is particularly simple to make. It was great fun, and if we can find the ingredients at home (difficult, but almost certainly not impossible) it will make a great novelty dinner party.

Later in the afternoon we visited yet another residence for a demonstration of traditional Japanese music. This was quite a treat, a husband and wife couple who are both local experts (and teachers) in three traditional instruments. Those are the koto…

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…the three-stringed shamisen…

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…and the shakuhachi (bamboo flute)…

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The gentleman playing the shakuhachi has not just arrived from a wild party, nor is he painfully shy. In a private setting it is not in fact required to wear a wicker basket on one’s head whilst playing the instrument; he was demonstrating how he plays in public when soliciting donations for his Buddhist temple. The wooden box on his front is the equivalent of a busker’s hat, for collecting alms for the temple; he will walk the streets and play, and the hat — which he can see through — represents the boundary between the secular and spiritual worlds. It separates him from mundane reality while he is playing for the gods. It’s also a big hit at parties.

The music was haunting and beautifully played. Afterwards, we all got the opportunity to play the instruments, with pretty much zero success as you’d expect. With one exception: here is Alice — and I swear this is true — successfully picking out “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” on the shamisen, which may well be some kind of first.

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“….”E-I-E-I-OOOOOO…”

Dinner this evening was in Kyoto’s Gion distract, a.k.a. the geisha district. In Kyoto, geishas are known as geikos — no insurance company jokes, please — and their apprentices are called maikos. You see quite a few of them out and about in the Gion, complete with white makeup — or rather, you do when you are not in the middle of a typhoon. We saw a few in the street en route to dinner, when the rain was just beginning — my bell-ringing transgression of earlier in the day having finally caught up with me — but an hour or two later this was the scene when we left the restaurant:

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Full-bore torrential downpour. With luck the storm will pass tonight so that we will have decent weather tomorrow, which is our last day here. Alice will be going on a garden walk (weather permitting), but I have few plans beyond some last minute gift shopping so there may not be much to report in a final post. We’ll be home in roughly 48 hours. This has been another great trip.

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Suicidal Pilgrims and the All-Seeing Buddhas

Long day today, and a rainy one at that. It would seem that the northern end of the island is being visited by Typhoon #18 — they gave them numbers instead of names here, which may be the only example on record of Japanese being less colorful than Americans. We’re in Kyoto now, towards the south, and are not receiving the full brunt of it, but it has been mostly a gray and rainy day. Not that this slowed us down.

It is getting late after a long day so I will moistly let the photos do the talking in place of my usual sparkling commentary. So to begin, we visited the Kiyomizu Buddhist temple, which is distinguished by three things: (1) a huge five-story pagoda; (2) a large stage where Noh performances were held; and (3) a platform on the aforementioned five story pagoda that people jumped off of. I’ll answer the obvious question in a moment, but let’s start with some photos of the environs.

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OK, now why exactly would someone jump of of something that high? The answer is easily summarized in one word: religion! Yessirree, when it comes to convincing people of the virtue of doing suicidally stupid things, it’s hard to beat religion. I had kind of figured Buddhism to be immune from this sort of thing, but apparently not. The deal was, you made a wish and jumped off. If you survived, your wish would come true. Personally I’d go with the old coins-in-the-wishing-well approach, but to each his own. Mariko claimed that the survival rate was 80%, which seems highly unlikely to me. In any event, the practice was discontinued a century or so ago.

There’s a beautiful view from the top, as well as a number of other smaller and very colorful ancillary temples. Here’s the view and some of the architecture.

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Our next stop was the 12th century  Sanju Sangendo Hall. Its claim to fame is a room full of Boddhisatva Buddhas, a thousand of them, each qbout 5 1/2 feet (165 cm) tall and strikingly detailed. No photos are allowed, alas, but here is a shot from Google Images. (In the dim light of the hall they actually appear much more brown than the golden tone in the photo.)

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It is quite an amazing sight. And an ironic one as well, for these particular thousand Buddhas – each with 42 arms — are the so-called Kannon Boddhisatvas, Kannon being an incarnation of Buddha who sees everything that happens in the world. Why is that ironic? Because if you were a Japanese entrepreneur who wanted to found a camera company whose name symbolized the all-seeing Buddha, your cameras hopefully seeing things all over the world, you would name your camera company…… Canon! Ta-da! I have now answered a question that you never thought to ask! Canon cameras are named after the thousand Kannon Buddhas…. the ones you’re not allowed to photograph. (As it happens, I shoot with a Canon EOS T1i, so it seems only fair that the authorities should have allowed me to take pictures. They didn’t see it that way.)

Well, at least here is a shot of a nice hallway outside the temple.

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We had a delightful encounter as we were about to leave the grounds, when I was accosted by a gaggle of middle-schoolers on a class trip who had a homework assignment to interview and English speaker in English. They were the most charming group and I happily answered their questions about where we were from (“Washington, DC.” “OOOOoooooohhhhh…!”), how Japan was different from the US, why we had come to visit, what was our favorite Japanese food, etc. We spent about ten very enjoyable minutes with them — you have never encountered a more polite set of adolescents — then took each others’ pictures.

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Next stop: the Golden Pavilion. Why is it called the Golden Pavilion? Duh.

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Its official name is Kinkaju-ji, and it dates from the mid-15th century. That is real gold leaf covering the outside, and as a result of this strikling distinction it is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the region. Which is another way of saying that the place was mobbed, and since it was raining at the time the challenge became navigating the sea of umbrellas without losing an eye.

We moved on to the Nijo Castle, which was the local shogun’s residence during the Edo period (1603-1871) when the shoguns ruled the roost. The emperor was on the throne, of course, but the shogunate held all the power. They would probably have offed the emperor but for the fact that he was a divine descendant and thus much revered by the general population. Killing him would likely have sparked a revolt that would not have needed well for the shoguns, so they contented themselves with actually running things and let the emperor be.

The exterior of the castle is imposing, though very unlike a European castle. It has high, ornate gates and stark dark wooden walls.

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The Nijo castle is also known for its beautiful gardens, said to be among the most iconic in Japan.

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No photos are allowed inside. It is a maze of high-ceilinged square hallways with dark wooden beams and white paper walls. There are a series of large, spartan anterooms — little more than tatami mats and wall carvings — where visiting functionaries awaited their audience with the shogun. But the cool thing — and it is very cool — is that the floors are designed to squeak so that would-be assassins would be unable to sneak around. And we are not talking about the random squeaks that you get from loose floorboards in your house: these floorboards are supported by metal angle brackets that establish a small air gap between the boards and underlying support beams, so that when you step on them the metal bends and the nails through it “chirp”. It is a most remarkable sound: as a group of people (like our tour group) walk down the hallway you hear what sounds for all the world like a soft metallic discordant chittering flock of birds. As busloads of tourists make their way through the building it sounds like you are surrounded by huge numbers of vaguely ominous robot nightingales. It is quite an amazing effect.

We ended the afternoon with a tea ceremony, which I won’t bother describing in detail since this is the second one we’ve had on this trip. But the young woman performing the ceremony was quite graceful and pretty, so here are a few pictures of her anyway.

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I took the last one as we were leaving, when I asked if I could take her portrait. (Alice thinks the photo looks like an ad for Japan Airlines. I’m OK with that.)

As we headed back to the hotel, Mariko proposed an “architecture walk” through Kyoto railway station before dinner. I confess I was unenthusiastic about the idea, since we were tired and I had a mental image of a decidedly unexciting walk: “These roof beams date from the early shogunate…”, that sort of thing.  But I had to go along: I lost my lens cap yesterday and Mariko had told me that there was a camera store at the station. Hoo boy, was my expectation off base. My interest would have been a lot higher had Mariko explained that the Kyoto railway station architecture dated from the early 23rd century, e.g.:

kyoto-023 kyoto-024 kyoto-025Absolutely unbelievable…the place is pure Blade Runner, except for the Las Vegas parts. It is vast, a five-story science fiction shopping mall with animated LED staircases and spidery skyways, attached to a train station. Do not fail to visit this place at night if you are ever in Kyoto.

New lens cap acquired, and we headed to dinner, the uniquely Japanese okonomiyaki. It’s a teppan yaki kind of thing, like Benihana without the steak or the theatrics. Rather, the entrees are various types of pancake-like agglomerations of meat, noodles, and cabbage, cooked on the grill at the table. Satisfying, tasty, and cheap.

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Hmmm, I thought I said something about not writing much. I guess I can’t help myself. Anyway, that was our day…

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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.

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Oh, the Humidity!

September is typhoon season in Japan — it averages over 9 inches of rain — which raises the obvious question of why anyone (and by anyone I mean “we”) would plan a vacation here in that particular month. The answer in our case is work-related: I have a consulting gig supporting my former employer in winning a major NASA bid, whose timing would collide with an October or November trip. So I hope that my former coworkers all appreciate that I am taking a bullet for the team here. Or at least a large number of raindrops.

In truth, though, it doesn’t really slow us down. We’ve only had one “Why the hell are we here?” downpour, at the Giant Buddha in Kamakura two days ago; most of the time it’s no worse than a light drizzle, and we’ve gone for up to six hours at a time with no rain at all. When this happens, we get very excited: we look outside our hotel room in the morning and exclaim, “Look! It’s only gloomy today!”

It is, however, humid. Really, really humid: the needle is pretty much pinned at 100%, and every article of clothing and object on our person that is not made of metal is at least slightly damp. There is no point in eating potato chips: they go stale before you can get them to your mouth.

I mention all this because the weather was a direct contributor to one of yesterday’s interesting and non-touristy experiences, which was a short journey through the Japanese health care system.

I am very mildly asthmatic, and it normally impinges upon my life almost not at all. I do not experience any shortness of breath but rather on occasion am afflicted with a mild but irritating cough. It’s not much of a problem; I have one of those little puff-spray inhalers that cause undersized nerds to get beat up in high school movies, and I just take a hit or two off it if I start to cough. Even that doesn’t happen very often. But since arriving in Japan I have been coughing much more frequently, the result being that I have been hitting the inhaler much more often than I anticipated and it is thus running low. Alice speculated — correctly, as it turned out — that this was because of the relentless humidity. Again, not a huge problem, but I didn’t want to spend the last week or two of the trip with an annoying cough, and so decided to seek out a doctor and try to get a refill. (My family doctor is 6700 miles from here and no Japanese pharmacy is going to honor an American prescription anyway.)

And so we came to St. Luke’s International Hospital, one Metro stop from our hotel. It is a large university hospital, and — being Japanese – extremely modern and well-organized. Everything is white, except for the people. By which I mean that Japan’s ethnic homogeneity is somewhat jarring to a foreigner; I saw but a single Caucasian person (a blonde woman) among all the hospital staff. The administrative staff’s English skills were rocky but serviceable, and it wasn’t a problem in any case because, in billing itself as an “international hospital”, St. Luke’s has a number of interpreters on staff. When someone wanted to explain something to me in detail — like the fact that I needed a Japanese national medical insurance card to do anything (“Single payer” system! Take that, critics of Obamacare!) — she would dial an in-house number and hand me the phone, and I would find myself talking to a very friendly person whose English was absolutely perfect. Admin girl and I would pass the phone back and forth, communicating through the interpreter. This worked surprisingly well, and I now have a unique souvenir: a Japanese national medical insurance card.

My doctor was a delightful young woman whose English was a little rough but adequate for the purpose: no phone calls to the interpreter needed. She very clearly knew what she was doing — trust me on this assessment, as I have way too much experience with doctors — and confirmed the asthma diagnosis, writing me the needed prescription. She also established Alice’s medical credentials, remarking that typhoon season brings her an enormous number of asthma cases.

I could fill the prescription right there in the hospital, and did so, and we were on our way. Total elapsed time since we walked in: 1 hour 35 minutes. Total cost (since despite now being registered in the system I obviously do not have Japanese medical insurance): $500, all major credit cards accepted. So now when we get home I will experience the joy of submitting a claim to my own actual health insurance company. I’m sure they won’t be fazed in the least by the fact that my receipt and every piece of accompanying documentation is in Japanese.

After leaving the hospital we went and did some actual fun stuff, which I will leave for the next post.

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Sailor Moon Vs the Dancing Corpse

I’ll bet that title got your attention. All in good time….

Because the weather was drizzly (and would get a whole lot worse, though we didn’t know that yet), we decided that seeing Tokyo from indoors would be our best starting point. And so with little difficulty we Metro’ed our way to one of the city’s best-known museums, the Edo-Tokyo Museum. “Edo” refers to the so-called Tokugawa Shogunate era, when the shoguns ruled the land for over two centuries and provided enough material to script generations of TV mini-series starring Richard Chamberlain. The nominal start of the Edo era was in 1603 when 260 samurai pledged their fealty to the shoguns and basically started keeping everybody in line. It was a period of significant economic prosperity and extreme isolation from the rest of the world: no foreign influences of any sort were allowed, including books and people. Things started to falter economically in the 1800’s and the system was already tottering when Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Tokyo Bay with a fleet of gunships in 1853 and announced that he had heard so much about the place and really, really wanted to pay a visit. And so the negotiations went along the lines of:

Shoguns: “Sorry, we just closed an hour ago. No one is allowed in. Ever.”

Perry: “Please re-check your reservation list. It’s under the name “gunboats”.

Shoguns: “Ah, um, yes, we see. Please come in and make yourself loud and intrusive.”

And that was the end of the Edo era. It is remembered as a time of great cultural richness, driven in part by a great expansion of education. The Edo-Tokyo Museum is a large blocky structure with most of the exhibits on two large floors divided into open galleries. There is some summary signage in English, enough to actually learn something without being overwhelmed by detail, of which there is a great deal in Japanese: the walls are covered with all sorts of graphs and charts, showing things like the change in life expectancy correlated with the size of the rice harvest, as well as assorted block diagrams and organization charts showing how the local governments functioned. I was secretly grateful not to be able to read any of it.

But the highlights of the museums are the artifacts and the many really cool models of villages and royal compounds, huge (20 x 30 feet) platforms at waist height populated by wonderfully detailed buildings surrounded by hundreds of miniature people going about their business. Each model has a few sets of binoculars around the perimeter so you can scan the setup as though you were spying on a real village.

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At the risk of compromising historical accuracy, these things definitely need little electric trains running around them.

Besides the models and the pie charts, there are the expected assortment of beautiful artifacts: samurai armor, tapestries, that sort of thing. Some are interactive: models of water buckets and peddler sample boxes that you can pick up (all ridiculously heavy), and a palanquin (sedan chair) that you can climb into as you wait for your underlings to carry you around.

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I couldn’t find any volunteers to carry her around, so she’s still there.

We spent an enjoyable couple of hours at the museum, then decided to head over to Akihabara, the electronic district, to ogle the consumer goods and find some lunch. Akihabara is legendary, and rightly so. It is an area about four blocks on a side, and it all looks like this:

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The thing that you have to understand is that nearly every single one of those establishments is selling electronics of one sort or another. Some are in a well-lit, upscale department store setting; others are literally back-alley vendor stalls, and it is these that are particularly fascinating. You duck into a storefront and are instantly in a 21st century Japanese version of an Arab souk: dimly lit passageways lined with stall after stall of vendors selling the most ridiculously specialized electronic goods. This one sells only network cables; that one only connectors; another one only power bricks. It goes on and on, and you have to wonder how this sales model is economically viable. I mean, how many feet of CAT-5 ethernet cable do you have to sell every day to pay the rent? And yet, somehow it works, and has worked for quite a while: when I was here 20 years ago the same vendors were no less specialized, this one selling resistors, that one capacitors.

It is not strictly correct to say that every building is an electronics store. There are some restaurants as well, but the remaining retail establishments fall into two categories: pachinko parlors and manga action figure stores. Both are weird enough to merit discussion.

You may have heard the word, but in case you have never seen the device, a pachinko machine is a cross between a slot machine and a pinball machine. It is about the size of a slot machine and stands vertically. You sit in front of it and feed a large number of ball bearings into the top; these bounce around inside, eventually landing in slots that reward you with…..more ball bearings. You do this until you either die of smoke inhalation (these places are not smoke free), go deaf (each machine pounds out techno music at Who concert decibel levels, and there are hundreds of machines), or redeem your accumulated collection of ball bearings for dubiously-valuable prizes. In other words, it’s like Chuck E. Cheese for grownups, but much less subtle.

When I was hear twenty years ago, pachinko parlors were noisy, smoky, dirty, somewhat primitive and (to me) sad places. Now they are noisy, smoky, clean, digital, and still sad. Which is to say that they are better lit than twenty years ago, and now each machine has an animated digital display in the center showing a variously writhing or kiss-blowing nymphet. Progress!

Which brings us to the manga action figures. I am not quite sure how to begin because the concept is so uniquely Japanese that the weirdness quotient is astronomical. So let me begin with this photo of one of the display cases:

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Each case is jammed with an assortment of plastic homages to every anime character in existence, a large fraction with more than a passing nod to the uniquely Japanese take on what we might call crypto-pedophila, e.g.:

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Sailor Moon, call your office. And Child Protective Services.

Now I need you to imagine not just a small store full of these things, but a multi-story emporium. The particular one that we were in was at least three stories high. And the items are not cheap. The very smallest ones, perhaps 5 inches tall with minimal detail, start at $20 or so. The prices goes up rapidly in proportion to the size of the figure — the size of her boobs in particular — and in inverse proportion to how much clothing she is wearing. The almost-pornographic ones cost hundreds of dollars. Who buys these things? This guy, for one:

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“Don’t tell Mom I shop here or she’ll kick me out of the basement.”

I am being a little unfair here, of course. (Hey, that guy can write his own blog.) But only a little. These models are very big business here, and they are not all semi-naked schoolgirls with 50-inch breasts. Those are only about 65% of the inventory. The rest are determinedly-scowling muscly guys with flames instead of hair, and variations on Godzilla. I feel much better now.

After leaving the manga store and hosing ourselves down, we ate lunch at another uniquely Japanese establishment, which I have come to call the Vertical Food Court. This is a great concept that I would love to see back home. Typically, such a place is a several-story building, each floor of which houses one or two regular sit-down restaurants. At the entrance to the building is a display showing photos of each restaurant and offering a sample menu. You then step into the elevator and pick your floor/restaurant. Since the information was all in Japanese we chose essentially at random — we picked floor 8 out of a possible 9 — and ended up at a good Korean restaurant. (We didn’t know it was Korean until we sat down and were given English-language versions of the menu. Who knew?)

Our penultimate stop of the day — it was now getting on towards about 4 PM and the wind and rain were worsening — was a kabuki performance. A kabuki play and a sumo match have both been on my bucket list — no remarks about having an odd bucket list, please — so I was finally going to check one off. (And we’ll see the sumo match this afternoon!) Kabuki, as you may know, is a very traditional formal style of Japanese drama; there is a well-known kabuki theater in Tokyo and tickets are much sought-after. The thing is, full kabuki performances are 4-5 hours long, and so the theater wisely caters to tourists by offering single-act tickets in the nosebleed seats, available very cheaply on a first-come basis at the box office on the day of the performance. We opted for the second act, which would take 45 minutes to perform. We figured that since we were there mainly for the atmosphere, we would not bother paying for one of the handheld translation devices. I’m not sure whether this was a good idea or not, since we had almost no idea what the hell what was going on.

The theater was large and beautifully architected in wood. The stage was very wide and the set simple and elegant, a Japanese house a la “Teahouse of the August Moon”. There were about five actors, apparently well-known judging from the applause with which each was greeted upon walking on. The plot was incomprehensible, but I will quote for you the English summary sheet that we were given for our particular act:

“A petty gang member called Rakuda has died after eating blowfish. Hanji, one of his evil companions, wants to hold a wake but has no money, and the neighbors will not contribute. Hanji threatens Kyuroku, the waste paper collector, to go to the landlord’s house to collect some money, but the landlord turns down the request. Hanji forces Kyuroku to break into the landlord’s house again, this time carrying Rakuda’s body and make it look like it’s dancing. The plan works, and they buy some sake. They start drinking together but as they become drunk the hapless Kyoroku becomes surprisingly aggressive.”

That’s it. The play ends with everybody drunk and dancing with the corpse. This is a comedy. (Yes, really.) Dancing with a corpse is apparently a particular laugh riot in these parts, judging from the audience reaction.

Well. That was different. The acting was rather broad, the actors sort of barking their lines in that Japanese way, as all the while a shamisen – that tradition Japanese stringed instrument — goes plink-plink-plink in the background. Particularly important moments are underlined by clopping wooden blocks.

We were glad we went. We were also glad that it was only 45 minutes.

By the time we left the theater, Tropical Storm Godzilla (I have renamed it) was in full cry. Driving rain, howling wind, peoples’ umbrellas being turned inside out, the works. But we still needed dinner, and Alice had identified a particular shabu-shabu restaurant in the area that she wanted to try. Unfortunately we couldn’t find the place, and after passing about a half dozen inviting-looking sushi bars, all the while being pummeled by the weather, we realized that we were being, well, stupid. So we gave up and popped in to one of those sushi bars, where we had an excellent meal. We rolled the dice and went with the “chef’s choice”, which worked out well: there was only one completely unidentifiable object, and it tasted OK. And I only humiliated us once by dropping a piece of sushi onto the counter when my chopsticks slipped. (Unusual for me, actually, as I am normally gratifyingly adept with them.) I offered to kill myself but they said not to bother. My family will simply have to live with the shame instead, but they’re used to that.

This afternoon: sumo match. Stay tuned.

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Land of the Rising Sun and Falling Rain

alice-metaOur flights to Tokyo began in Philadelphia but since I’m in charge here and I’m writing about airports I feel compelled to open with an image of Alice on meta-display at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, close to where we live. This doesn’t have anything to do with Japan but all our friends thought it was pretty cool. (I took the photo of Alice in a waterfall in New Zealand and wrote a blog post about it here. I submitted it for display at the airport about a month ago.)

Our actual journey to Tokyo was unremarkable, taking 5,211 hours — at least it felt that way — and arriving on schedule with our desiccated corpses in row 19. The trans-Pacific leg of the flight was on a 787, the Boeing “Dreamliner”, which is as advertised a pretty nice plane: noticeably quieter than most and with much better air quality. The snazzy part, though, were the windows: the shades are electronic, not physical, and you can dial in the opacity to turn them a lighter or darker shade of blue. Most people opted to do this — it being rather sunny at 38,000 feet — consequently bathing the cabin in a tropical oceanic blue light. It is rather like flying inside an aquarium.

The downside of this is that when you do fly over something interesting — and we overflew some truly spectacular Alaskan glaciers — it becomes difficult to find a place from which to look out and admire the view. Everyone’s windows are dark blue, and it feels like looking at the Arctic landscape as through it had been relocated underwater in the Bahamas.

Narita airport is in the hinterlands about 40 miles outside of Tokyo, so after flying all that distance you get to enjoy a whole new journey into town. There are several ways to do this, one of the easiest being an express train line that runs directly from the airport to the Tokyo main rail station. It takes about an hour. We bought tickets immediately after clearing customs but had to wait about half hour until the train left. Notice that I say “until the train left“. The train arrived almost immediately but the cleaning crew — one man to a car — spent the rest of the time cleaning in that fastidious Japanese way that reflects either an advanced aesthetic or culturally-ingrained OCD. By the time we were allowed to board  you could have performed open heart surgery in that rail car.

The ride into town passes through surprisingly rural countryside considering how vast and utterly urbanized Tokyo itself is: the metro area is 5,200 square miles with a population of 38 million. In other words, it is a city that itself is one-third the size of Holland with twice the population. With numbers like that it is surprising to see any grassland at all, let alone rolling fields. Gradually, of course, the landscape gives over to suburbia, small outlying towns that are surprisingly European in appearance, two story dwellings with tile roofs. The giveaway is that about 10% of those roofs curve slightly upwards at the eaves, giving them a distinctly (and deliberately) pagoda-like appearance.

The overall scene was on the gloomy side, mainly due to the weather. We arrived through drizzle and heavy overcast, and the towns — and Tokyo itself — were shrouded in low-lying clouds and a persistent light rain. We are in a tropical storm, it seems, and the rainy weather continued through today and will alas remain with us for at least another few days. Nothing to do about it but sightsee with umbrellas, which we had the foresight to bring. (I do not know the name of this particular storm, or even whether it has one. This being Japan, I would name it either Tropical Storm Sushi or Tropical Storm Manga, the latter if the storm has a big eye. Ha ha!  A little meteorological humor there!) Tokyo is in general a pretty rainy city: it gets 105 days of rain per year, about the same as London.

mustardWe arrived at our hotel, 24 hours after walking out the door and suitably exhausted, at about 5 PM. (We are staying at the Hotel Sardonyx, whose name, Alice observes, would make it the ideal pied-á-terre for me and my entire family.)  In the interest of mitigating the worst of our impending jet lag, we decided to tough it out for a few hours and have some dinner at the hotel before crashing into bed. That dinner was a little dose of surrealism of its own, the management having decided for some reason to serve almost exclusively some Bizarro-world simulacrum of what someone thinks American cuisine is. Everything you need to know about that meal is contained in this image of a mustard packet that I was served with my sandwich.  I did not have any “frank frutes” with my dinner, and if I had I assure you that I would not be looking for the “unique taste of plan sourness”, in part because I have no idea what that is attempting to mean.

And so to bed. Our room is small but comfortable, largely Western in appearance and feel but for a few very Japanese touches. One is an invisible rectangular heating coil behind the bathroom mirror, about 16 inches on a side, that keeps that area of the mirror fog-free no matter how long and steamy a shower you wish to take. The other is an intimidating toilet with onboard electronics, which is to say about a half dozen buttons of varied and uncertain function. At least two are related to some bidet-related butt-washing function; a third — which Alice mistakenly activated, to our delight — heats up the toilet seat. Our buttocks are now nice and toasty, thank you very much.

We slept well and long enough to at least partly counteract the 13-hour time difference, awakening at 7:00 AM or so, so we had some breakfast (vastly better than dinner) and struck out on the Tokyo Metro for our first round of exploration. As it turns out, that fact inspires me to close this post with a paean to the Metro.

The first thing you have to realize is that you need a big subway system to serve 38 million people.  How big?  This big:

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Leaving out the buses and trains, there are 13 lines containing 285 stations. It carries nearly 9 million people a day. But the system’s designers did something very clever that, astonishingly, does not seem to have occurred to any of their counterparts in other cities: they numbered the stations on each line. The stations all have names describing their location, of course — the one across the street from our hotel is Hatchibori — but on all the maps and signage they also appear as sequential numbers on their particular line. Hence our Hatchibori station is Hibiya-11, Hibiya being the name of the line that we’re on. The Ginza is Hibiya-8, which tells us immediately that if we want to go see those gazillion lights at night we need only hop on our own local station and travel for three stops.

How do you navigate transfers? In our case, with the help of my new favorite and exceedingly wonderful piece of software, the “Tokyo Subway Navigation” app, available for free at your favorite online app store. This little gem uses your phone’s GPS to tell you what station is nearby and how far away it is; lets you select start and destination points from a searchable database (e.g., your hotel and the Imperial Palace); and then tells you not only what stations to get on and off at, but how long each leg will take and how much the trip will cost. You can even eliminate that last concern altogether by shelling out ten bucks for a Metro 24-hour pass, which gives you unlimited usage on all 13 lines. Between that day pas, the app, and the intuitive station numbering, the city is basically at your feet; we bopped around all day with scarcely a thought. Next time I will tell you where we bopped to.  It involves sushi, kabuki, and manga action figures.

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Arganic Farming (or, Return of the Tree-Climbing Goats!)

A change in the weather seems to presage a change in our circumstances, as the wind picks up and our trip winds down. Last night’s daramati  sunset was a harbinger, viewed from a rooftop bar near the fort overlooking the beach. We had gathered for a sunset happy hour before going out to a particularly nice French dinner, not quite our farewell meal but getting pretty close.

The wind strengthened during the night and brought some rain with it as well, the first we had seen since a brief drizzle at the Sahara camp proved to be the leading edge of our little sandstorm there, about a week ago. (I confess to be being a little disappointed that it had rained last night, as I had been looking forward to telling people ironically that the only time it had rained on this trip was when we were in the middle of the Sahara desert.)

The rain had stopped by the time we awakened this morning though there were still a lot of clouds and the temperature was noticeably cooler than yesterday. As any sailor will tell you, this meant that it was going to be a Jimi Hendrix, Orson Wells, and tree-climbing goat sort of day. (It is possible that you have never encountered that particular bit of folk wisdom.)

Our primary goal today was the women’s Argan oil collective, but our first stop along the way was in Jimi Hendrix territory, who as I mentioned passed through here in 1968. He stayed for about 11 days, including at our hotel, but one of his stops was at this café in a  rundown little village, well off the beaten path for anyone except the residents, the occasional passing rock star, and the latter’s various drug connections.

If your French is rusty, the sign reads, “1968, a date that marks the presence of a great star at this location.” In other words, “Jimi Hendrix toked here.” Note also that the sign around the arched entrance advertises wifi, which Jimi was probably unable to enjoy at the time.

Our next stop was the local surfer’s paradise, a broad and at that moment isolated beach where the wind was blowing a full gale, throwing spray into our faces even from 100 yards away (hence no photo). The wind was whipping the waves into a froth, and there were no surfers (or anyone else) masochistic enough to suffer through these conditions. In other words, it was an empty windy beach on a cloudy day, and we did not linger.

The road through this area was one of the paragons of lousy Moroccan roads, barely wide enough for one direction of traffic but allowing two, and not so much having a defined shoulder as sort of petering out into rubble at the edges. Every time we encountered an oncoming vehicle — which was frequently — both drivers had to decide whether (a) there was enough room to actually get past each other and so barrel onward with an inch or two of clearance, or (b) to slow to a crawl and inch past each other. I am amazed that it has taken three weeks, but it was on this road near the windswept beach that both drivers finally made the wrong decision and we lost a chunk of our outside mirror. Both our and the other vehicle stopped and the drivers got out to collect the debris and discuss the situation. To my surprise this did not involve any yelling and gesturing; this must happen so often that it’s just one of those things, like getting jostled in a crowd.

We continued onward and as we approached the collective were rewarded with a wonderful sight: more tree-climbing goats! Real ones this time! A big flock in a grove of Argan trees! Who were actually climbing into the trees and jumping out of them! It was satisfyingly surreal, and you can see a couple of them in action here. The two guys in the foreground seemed to be in conversation just before the top one jumped down out of the tree:

…while this guy in the second photo is just getting started.

I was glad to see all this, as you can tell, since I was grievously disappointed to learn that the batch of goats we had seen two days ago had been put in the trees. And now that we were seeing them in natural action, I took the opportunity to resolve a question that had been bothering me since that previous goat encounter, namely, how did those other goats get “put” into the tree? Several mental images had come to mind at the time, including (a) a goat pulley system; (b) a goat ladder; or (b) some kind of goat catapult.

In my own fantasy I had come to secretly favor the goat catapult. I imagined some crude medieval-looking counterweighted rough-hewn structure with a range of maybe 100 feet. You could launch them way up into the top of the tree but you had to calibrate your aim really carefully because there’d be very little margin of error and a miss would cost you a goat. That would lead to conversations like this:

FARMER (trudging in at the end of the day): “We’ll be having goat for dinner tonight.”

WIFE: “You missed the tree again, didn’t you?”

As it turns out, no catapults are involved. Basically the farmers who are trying to attract tourist photos out of season carry the goats up into the trees.

But today’s goats were satisfyingly self-propelled. We could see some nuts up in the tree branches, some late bloomers that had not yet been harvested and which were sufficient in number to motivate the goats. There were also a fair number of them scattered about on the ground that no one had taken the trouble to harvest. As I think I mentioned yesterday, they’re about the size of olives.

We continued on to the “Marjana Cooperative for Argan Oil Extraction”. If you’re wondering what that looks like in Arabic (and French), here’s the sign:

The production facility is, well, a room full of women breaking open nuts with rocks, then grinding them up into oil. Here are two of them:

   
 

As you can see, the Berber women… hey, wait a minute, that’s no Berber woman on the right! I knew I was missing something.

As you can see, the Berber women open the nuts one at a time by placing them on Rock #1 and hitting them with Rock #2. It takes something like 60 lbs of nuts to make a quart of oil, so you might think that the management could hurry things along by, say, giving the women hammers. But they seem to zip right along with rocks about as fast as they could do it with a hammer, and so tradition is preserved. (There is little doubt that this process could be mechanized for great efficiency and probably eliminate the women altogether. But of course the goal of the place is to provide employment as much as it is to produce the oil.)

After the nuts are opened they are ground in a stone bowl, essentially a rotary mortar and pestle. If the oil is destined to be eaten (it can be used as a dip or salad dressing) then the kernel is roasted first; for cosmetic products it is not. And I can now tell you what an unroasted Argan kernel tastes like: terrible. Very bitter. But once roasted they are kind of almondy.

There’s a shop adjacent to the production building, but you already knew that. So of course we bought a variety of Argan oil products. (By the way, I am a little uncertain as to whether Argan should actually be capitalized. I suspect that it shouldn’t. But my iPad autocorrect believes that it should, so I have decided to live with it.)

Lunch today was our final family home visit, in this case a somewhat down at the heels family of five: a Berber widow, her three sons, and her daughter. They lived in a small but neat concrete dwelling on a trash-strewn dirt road. We met only the widow and her eldest son, neither of whom spoke English so our tour lead Mohammed translated.  It was probably our most awkward encounter to date. They were certainly friendly and hospitable to us but rather incurious; they were happy to answer all our questions but asked not a single one of us, unlike all our other hosts. We did learn, however, that the street happens to be the dividing line between the Berber and Arab parts of the area. This has no practical significance since they’re not hostile to one another and intermarry with regularity, but I found it interesting that everyone is aware of the precise location of the imaginary border.

We returned to our hotel and I followed up on something that I had belatedly noticed yesterday (and that Alice had seen earlier but not remarked upon): we are directly across the hall from the “Orson Wells Suite”. So now I took action, marching to the front desk and asking whether Orson Wells had actually stayed there. Turns out he did, and the desk clerk kindly asked if I would like to see it. Of course I would, and as we walked down the hall towards it I fetched Alice, who rather sourly theorized that the chairs in that room would be twice as wide as the ones in the regular rooms. Turns out she was right. So for the historical record here is the living room of the Orson Wells Suite in the beachfront Hotel des Iles in Essaouria, Morocco:

“Rosebud!”

There was also a separate bedroom. The bed was of unremarkable size. And there was a portrait of Orson on the living room wall, all bearded and scowly as though someone had sold him a bottle of wine before its time.

Our Moroccan adventure is basically finished now. We’re going out for pizza tonight (no more couscous!), then leaving tomorrow morning for the all-day drive back to Casablanca where we started, three eventful weeks ago. We fly out of Casablanca very early Monday morning, so this is probably the last blog post for this trip. (Once I have finished sorting and editing our photos and videos, as opposed to the quick-and-dirty ones I have been posting here, I will create a website for them and post the link as a final blog entry; over the next several weeks I will be editing 3000 photos down to a few hundred.)

Our next sojourn: Hawaii in late January. Inshallah.

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

One Hump or Two?

We had a comfortable night, punctuated by occasional sounds from the dunes of varying familiarity: a dog barking, percussive music wafting from some other distant camp, and braying by some wayward beast, either a donkey or a camel. And if darkness had a sound, the night would have been deafening, because it was dark, very dark indeed, eyes-closed-while-standing-in-a-closet dark, so dark that when you wake up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, if you don’t find the bedside flashlight you might as well just keep your eyes closed. 

Despite our diligence in keep the screens of our tent zippered, we nonetheless awakened this morning to find a microtome-thin patina of fine sand covering absolutely everything. Moreover, in the “unintended consequences” department, the camp staff did us a favor of leaving the power on all night so we could charge iPads and the like, which drained the solar-powered batteries, which in turn meant that the water pumps could not operate, which yet in turn meant that we could not shower this morning. So it was not only our room furniture, blankets, and clothing that were covered with Saharan dust: we were too, and would remain so for most of the day. So it goes; this sort of thing is just part of the landscape. Literally.

We awakened early enough to throw on some clothes and climb the nearest dune to watch the desert sunrise, which you can see below. There were tracks in the sand: fox, stag beetles, and something big, presumably last night’s braying Mystery Animal. The sunrise itself was evocative though not the colorful extravaganza that one might hope for: there was a layer of dust haze near the horizon that muted the illumination of the clouds. Still, how often will we see a sunrise over the Sahara? (Answer: once more, tomorrow.)

And here is a picture of Alice at the base of our sunrise-viewing dune, her smile belying the sandiness of her underwear.

 

Breakfast included a “Berber omelet” which is made with olives and a kind of local salsa. I would probably wax rapturous about it if I didn’t hate olives, as I have previously confessed. So I ate around them and joined everyone else in declaring my approval. Then we climbed into our convoy of 4 x 4s and made dusty tracks across the rocks and sand to our day’s first destination, a one-room Berber schoolhouse, pictured below. A slightly harried teacher was giving Arabic lessons to about 30 children, half of them girls.

I say “lessons“, plural, because she was teaching two classes at once, side by side in the room. The right half of the room, viewed from the back where we stood, seated about 10 fifth graders; the left half, 20 sixth graders. So in addition to answering our questions she was simultaneously ping-ponging her attention between the two groups. She spoke and wrote on the blackboard in Arabic, and the posters around the room were variously in Arabic and French. Until recently Berber was purely a spoken language, but under government auspices a project was undertaken about a dozen years ago to create a written Berber alphabet. It looks a bit like Greek, and reads from left to right like English (unlike Arabic or Hebrew). Some of the children had Berber reading primers.

I mentioned that half the students were girls. This is obviously a good thing. The problem is follow-up; it is not at all certain that most of those girls will still be in school a year from now, since, appallingly, they are getting close to marrying age.

Our next stop was (for us, anyway) the day’s main event: camel ride! The handlers divided us into three groups, each with its own handler and “train” of camels tethered single-file. (No, I have not forgotten that they are dromedaries, and I also have no idea whether “train” is a correct term.) We mounted them (not that kind of mounted, you pervert) by stepping on overturned plastic milk crates as the camels knelt on all fours, positioning ourselves in the saddle and gripping the T-shaped handlebar for all we were worth, as the beasts rose one by one. Then we bobbed off into the dunes. We were out for about 45 minutes, just enough time for our thigh muscles to start begging for mercy. Here are some shots of the experience, starting with Alice grinning naively after mounting and seconds before the beast lurched skyward by standing up.

..and now we are under way, Alice in front of me, then Thumper and Steve.

Here’s another part of our group. 

Now Alice is attempting to film her entry for World’s Shakiest Home Videos:

…while I bring up the rear. The rear rider bears the heavy responsibility of being the most likely person to have an article of clothing blown away by the wind, which I did. (One of the handlers recovered my bandanna.)

 And at the conclusion of the ride, we share a self-congratulatory moment with Steve and Thumper. So was the whole thing “touristy”? Of course. But was it nonetheless fun and cool as all get-out? Absolutely.

Our next stop was a fossil bed, or perhaps more accurately, The Mother of All Fossil Beds. A paleontologist might find the whole thing rather pedestrian, since the variety of fossils in this region is pretty limited… basically the three sorts that I mentioned yesterday. But for sheer numbers, I have never seen anything remotely like it. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that every rock was covered in mineralized squids, nautilus-like ammonites, and — much more rarely — trilobites, all more than 300 million years old. The things were literally underfoot as we walked upon intact little ammonites a half inch across. Here are a couple of examples: for scale, the rock in the first photo was about 3 ft across;the big creature in the center of the second photo was about a foot long. (To put things in perspective, the largest one of this type ever found was a 40 ft monster in Israel.)

We probably spent about a half hour there, spreading out over the small plateau and into the shallow valley that were littered with little fossil bonanzas. Sound carries extremely well in the desert, and for that half hour the plateau echoed with our shouts to each other: “Hey, come look at this!”  “Look what I found!” “Look at the size of this one!” 

It’s a protected area, as you’d suppose, and commercial harvesting of the fossils is forbidden. (God knows there must be vast numbers of them around since every fly specked backwater souvenir store sells them.) But Momo said that taking a few small ones was not a big deal, and so we somewhat guiltily pocketed about a half dozen tiny ones, the biggest about 3/4″ long. Those included two completely intact ammonites, perfect little stone snail-like spirals less than a half inch across.

Our last stop of the day was at the canvas dwelling of a truly nomadic nomadic. No semipermanent corrugated aluminum walls and satellite dish for this 51 year old nomadic widow: she lives in the home that you see here for a few months at a time, then literally folds her tent and moves on. 

She lives at present with her 20 year daughter and granddaughter; the daughter’s husband is a shepherd who was away tending his flocks for long periods. The daughter was baking bread in a tiny outdoor “beehive” oven while we were there, a little stone or clay dome perhaps two feet high, identical in concept to what we saw in the mountains near Chefchaouen but much smaller. The bread came our of the oven steaming hot and irresistibly appetizing in appearance, crusty and puffy. After removing it from the oven and letting it cool for, oh, 30 seconds, she scooped it up on a blanket and handed it to Momo to allow us to sample it. And so we did, including Momo, one by one burning our fingers because that loaf of bread was way too damn hot to touch, let alone eat, because it looked to good to wait for. It was indeed possibly the best bread we have had so far, and I’m sure our fingers will heal quickly.

After all this driving around it developed that this particular nomad was about a half mile from our own camp, so we made the two minute drive there and basically rested up for an hour or two. (Happily, the camp batteries had since recharged and we once again had running water.)

In a couple of days we will be having a discussion session with a Sunni imam, so to give us some background for this (and possibly to forestall the likelihood of anyone sticking a religious foot in his or her mouth), Momo lectured us for about 45 minutes on the precepts of Islam. We had already inferred that he was a very moderate, live-and-let-live sort, and he confirmed this at length, giving us not only some Islamic history (including the Sunni-Shia schism) but making it abundantly clear that he regards all the current flavors of Islamic extremism as evil and stupid.

The conversation was interesting and led to a a uprising observation — one might even say epiphany — from Alice. During the discussion Steve asked Momo about the origins and justification of jihad as a weapon of Islam. Momo explained that jihad as currently defined is a perversion of its Koranic definition. According to him, the Koran defines jihad as a struggle to perform godly acts; these may include self defense (but never offense), acts of charitable sacrifice, and the imperative of providing for and defending one’s family. Whereupon Alice leaned over to me and said one word: “Mitzvahs.” So think about that connection for a while.

After the discussion I sought out Momo and asked him if he knew what a bar mitzvah was, which he did not. So I explained the whole thing to him, including the concept of a mitzvah. (Note to Gentile friends: a mitzvah is a godly act, a good deed of any sort, performed without the expectation of any kind of reward, simply because God commanded that everyone should do good deeds, period.) He saw the connection immediately and lit up, shaking my hand delightedly before we returned to our tent. Alice went barefoot as we walked, and so I took my sandals off too. Everyone should walk barefoot in the Sahara at least once.

We leave the tent camp tomorrow morning and drive to the town of Tineghir, which we are told is an oasis. So I guess we’ll learn (a) what an oasis is in practice, and (b) whether they have wifi.

Postscript: RAIN! About 20 minutes ago as I type this, the wind picked up ferociously. Sand came blowing throug the screens into our tent, and the space between the two rows of tent was snaking with windblown serpentines of fine sand, sidewinding  down from the dunes. The clouds had been building through the day and finally coalesced into dark and pendulous omens, and just now the wind reached a crescendo and the rain started. It’s not heavy, more of a wind-driven drizzle, but the fact that it is happening at all is pretty neat.

Categories: Africa, Morocco | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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