Posts Tagged With: snow

Snow on the Mountain

One of the many amazing things about the Big Island is its climate diversity. Worldwide, ecologists recognize 14 distinct climate zones; I won’t bore you with all their names but they include things like “Continuously Wet Warm Temperate”, “Hot Semi-Desert”, etc. The point is, that ten of the 14 are found on the Big Island, making it the most climatologically-diverse place on the planet. And so it came to pass that as we drove north and east from Kona to the higher elevations of Kohala, we left behind some of the coastal clouds and most of the tropical vegetation in favor of cloudless windswept grasslands and a stunning view of 14,000 ft Mauna Kea, recently crowned by a snowfall:


This is about a 90 degree panorama; a similar one taken facing in the opposite direction would show Mauna Loa (which, unexpectedly, does not have any snow on it despite being the same height). The bulbous cinder cone at left — the gentle remnant of some ancient lava vent — is a few hundred feet high and is in the foreground; Mauna Kea’s snow-capped peak is 18 miles away in this picture. Here’s a better (and more artistic!) view of the mountain:


Zoom in a little to the left of the summit and you’ll see what brought me to the Big Island in the first place:


(Actually, that’s not technically true. The telescopes that you can see in this image had not yet been built when I was here over 30 years ago, working at a different observatory that is not visible in this photo.) The two identical white domes are the twin telescopes of the Keck Observatory, each 10 m/33 ft (!) in diameter and acting in concert to combine their signals to achieve enormous detail and sensitivity. To the right of the two domes you can make out the gray cylinder of the Subaru Telescope, yet another behemoth whose mirror is 8.2 m/27 ft across. (To give you an idea of how far we’ve come, the telescope I worked at had a 3.8 m/12.5 ft mirror, which was one of the largest in the world at the time.)

Now, at this point, you may be thinking, “Why did they name a big telescope after a Japanese car?” Well, it is a Japanese observatory but cars do not enter into it. “Subaru” is the Japanese word for the Pleiades constellation, and both the car and the telescope are named after them. This very likely answers a question that you never thought to ask. (And now that I’ve got your attention, “Mitsubishi” means “three diamonds” — take a look at the car logo. You’re welcome.)

Where was I? Ah, right. Snow. Mauna Kea does not get snow every winter, but when it does the snowfall can range from a dusting to a downright blizzard that can drop a couple of feet of the white stuff with disturbingly little warning. Indeed, the winter before I arrived, two astronomers got caught out by a storm and were stranded in one of the observatories for a few days, burning furniture for warmth and eating an emergency supply of canned goods. (I know them and trust me, they are still dining out on that story.)

Because of the occasional snow, the Big Island advertises itself as the only tropical island in the world where you can ski. This is quite true, but take my word for it: I’m a skier and do not recommend the experience. There is no recreation infrastructure whatsoever: no lifts, no trails, no nothing. You drive to the summit in your four wheel drive, step into your skis, and head downhill in whatever direction seems to have the most snow whilst praying to the Almighty that you do not wipe out and cut yourself to bloody ribbons on the underlying lava rock. Then at the end of your couple hundred yard run, which takes about 30 seconds if you’re lucky, you take off your skis, sling them over your shoulder, and trudge back to the summit on foot. Then you die of a heart attack because nobody in his right mind would schlep up a steep lava-strewn mountainside at 14,000′ altitude while wearing ski boots.

Back to climate zones. As you can see in the photos, the sky was nearly cloudless, the terrain like a prairie. What you cannot see in the photo was the 30 mph wind that made it nearly impossible to point the camera. And so we continued on, and within five minutes were in yet another climate zone, the “Continuously Wet Warm Temperate” that I mentioned earlier, in the town of Waimea at 2500′ elevation. What that meant in practice was a chilly, misting fog and intermittent light drizzle, a rather dramatic contrast to where we had been literally five minutes earlier. The Big island is like this.

Our first destination was lunch and malasadas — especially malasadas — at the locally famous Tex Drive In, which I wrote about in this space a year ago. I am happy to report that the good people there have not lost their touch. Then we moved on to Waipio Valley, a destination that we failed to reach last year because it was closed off due to an outbreak of dengue fever. That particular danger has since abated, and so we drove to the valley’s striking lookout point, the mist and drizzle notwithstanding:


The valley has a sacred history, supposedly the place where Kamehameha met with the war god Kukailimoku in 1780 to be informed of his destiny to unite the islands. At the time it hosted a population of several thousand. Today only about 50 people live there full time, variously farming taro, raising marijuana, or hiding from civilization in general. It’s a stunning setting for any of those activities, bounded by 2000 ft cliffs and dotted with waterfalls, site of many a skinny-dipping party in my salad days. The black sand beach is gorgeous though it can be treacherous with currents.

(One of my beloved activities in those days was to fly a small plane out to the head of the valley, sideslip down to a few hundred feet above the valley floor, and then zoom out to the ocean at treetop level. This was illegal, dangerous, and wonderful. I always wondered whether any of the pakololo (marijuana) growers would shoot at me, but I never found any bullet holes in the fuselage afterwards, so I guess not. Or they were too wasted to aim accurately.)

The only way down into the valley is via a very steep (25% grade), very winding, and very poorly-maintained road. Your choices are walking or four wheel drive, period. As it happens, our rental car on this trip is a Jeep Grand Cherokee that enjoys about 27 different 4WD settings on a control panel slightly less complicated than the Large Hadron Collider. The car’s user manual is — and I swear this is true — 745 pages long. But we all know that no one reads user manuals, so I pressed the 4WD button that said “Auto” and basically drove off the cliff. Amazingly, we got to the bottom in one piece, and drove around for a bit along the mud path that parallels the river. We made for the black sand beach but were eventually stymied by a puddle the size and depth of Lake Champlain that looked too daunting even for our Testosterone-Mobile. There were two young Canadian women hiking past the obstacle at that moment, about to commence the long trudge uphill, so we turned around, picked them up, and drove back up the hillside as they thanked us repeatedly. (As well they might. On the way down we passed a few Japanese families with a small children in tow, heading down into the valley. I can only imagine the scene as they tried to cajole those kids back up the cliffside afterwards. They’re probably still down there, praying for a kindly stranger with a large Jeep.)

We drove home afterwards, back through the fog, back across the windy prairie, overseen by the two giant mountains, back across to our familiar beach and hot weather. So I’ll close with a final view of Waipio, and today’s serene sunset as viewed from our lanai.





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We Receive Our UNESCO Merit Badge

You know, there probably ought to be an island somewhere where all the people who have vanishing, obsolete, or traditional but obscure skill sets can all live together in peace and harmony. You know: geishas, blacksmiths, slide rule designers, coopers (when’s the last time you had a barrel made?), roof thatchers, that sort of thing. If such a place existed, you can bet that a disproportionate segment of the population would be Japanese. We saw a bunch of them today.

Today’s destinations were all in the UNESCO World Heritage locales of Gokayama and Shirakawa-go and a few of the neighboring towns. They are characterized by a number of attributes: stunning valley settings, gassho farmhouse architecture (which I’ll explain in a moment), and the preservation of what to our philistine Western sensibilities are obscure but colorful arts and crafts. Let’s start with the settings and the architecture.

“Gokayama” means “five mountains”. (Remember that -yama is a suffix meaning “mountain”, as in Fujiyama.) This part of the country is mountainous, which means two things: striking vistas and a lot of snow in winter. Our first stop was the village of Ainokura, a settlement of 1000 people or so nestled in a Shangri-la-like valley (I wish there were some way of typing that without two hyphens) ringed by cloud-misted green peaks. The building roofs are all thatched — very thick thatching, perhaps two feet through, mounted on a steep A-frame with about a 60-degree cant to prevent snow accumulation. And that, gentle reader, is more or less the definition of gassho architecture. The word itself means “praying hands”, which more or less describes the shape of the roof. There are a couple of things to pray for, e.g., that the village won’t get six feet of snow again this winter, because, tradition or no tradition the locals are sick of shoveling the stuff. The residents might also pray that no moronic tourist lights up a cigarette, since a wood frame house with a thatched roof is a conflagration waiting to happen. All of the houses in Ainokura are like this, giving it the feel of a 16th century Colonial Williamsburg. (And the brochures and signs do indeed ask you not to smoke.) We enjoyed a woodcut-worthy photogenic overlook of the town, and ambled around the streets for a while.


Our next stop was the village of Taira, where they, um, pound rice. Not quite sure how else to describe it, really. The desired end product is mochi, or Japanese rice cake. “Cake” hardly seems like the right word, though: mochi is a essentially a little ball of rice gluten, which you can flavor by rolling it in a little sugar and soy powder or dipping it in soy. It’s gummy, sort of like an edible ball of doughy Silly Putty, though gooier and much easier to chew. It’s considered a special treat because making it in the proper fashion is labor-intensive: one person repeatedly pounds a bucket full of rice with a wooden sledgehammer while a second reaches into the goo between hammer strokes to add a bit of water and do a very quick knead. Time it wrong and the second person is looking at five broken fingers. (I asked Mariko how often this occurs among practitioners; she translated the question and was informed that it never happens.  However that is only because I don’t attempt to make mochi; otherwise the local hospital would have to hire a new full-time doctor just to apply splints.)


Like everything else in Japan, mochi is steeped in tradition. You can’t just whale away with your Sears Craftsman hammer into a bowl of Uncle Ben’s Rice. You need just the right kind of rice, soaked for the right amount of time, pounded with the right wooden sledgehammer, and so forth. It’s all very traditional and precise, though the end product is very enjoyable. (At least for me; Alice was not so crazy about it.)

This ethos of doing things just so, using the ancient ways, is certainly a core part of Japanese tradition. We saw it again a few minutes later just down the road, where we made “Gokayama Mashi” paper. Or so they told us; would be more accurate to say that we participated in the final two steps (out of about 20) of making the much-prized, high-fiber paper. A traditional plant must be harvested, and the wrong kind of fibers removed, then boiled, and have other stuff added to it, then this, then that, then something else, and if I remember the informational video correctly then about two months later you have a sheet of very nice paper indeed, which you damn well better use for something important.

Our role in the process was to repeatedly dip a small screen about the size of a dinner tray into a trough of white liquid fibrous pulp, rather like rice pudding. You dip the screen into the pulp in a scooping motion to avoid trapping air bubbles, then lift it out and hold it horizontally to let the water drain. Repeat two more times. Decorate with colorful cutout bits of paper: cats, moons, fish. Hand the screen to a guy who carefully peels out the wet paper-to-be and sticks it flat against a hot drying surface, which is just a vertical panel of heated sheet metal. Twenty minutes later you have a sheet of paper with your decorations embedded in it.



We moved on to a traditional lunch (do you sense a pattern emerging?), “tradition” in this case being an unusual vegetarian lunch of what of what are called “mountain vegetables”, which included items like fiddlehead fern. It was interesting, not at all bad, and a source of nostalgia for Mariko, who remembers her grandmother going into the mountains to gather vegetables for such a meal. Now it’s uncommon; it is hard to find the ingredients in a supermarket, and they are quite expensive.

Lunch concluded with a musical interlude. Two of the ladies who staffed the restaurant did a simple traditional dance while playing the binzasara, a bizarre percussion instrument that is basically a row of clappers strung tightly together.   You hold the two ends and snap your wrist, which causes a wave to propagate down the row of clappers, like tightly-spaced dominoes falling. It makes a clattery buzzing sound, indeed rather like what you’d get if you recorded a bunch of falling dominoes and then played back the audio at high speed. We all tried it; it’s a little tricky but you get the hang of it quickly. The instrument is a big deal around here: as you drive into this village of Taira, you pass under an archway shaped like one.


I am happy to report that we were able to answer this particular Japanese musical tradition with an American musical tradition. Joe, one of our travel group, is a “sonic afficionado”, if there is such a term, who delights in whistling, making sound effects, and generally utilizing whatever is at hand (e.g., a blades of grass) to make noise. He travels with a pocket harmonica at all times — a practice that I recommend on philosophical grounds — and so responded to the binzasara performance by standing up and playing a long, impressive blues piece on his harmonica. It was quite a performance and he brought down the house. (I had told him earlier that I was planning on sending him a USB stick with all my photos; he said that in return he would send me one of his harmonica instructional videos. Seems like a very fair trade.)

We had two more stops to make after lunch, but i will be brief since it is getting late and this post is already somewhat longer than average. The first was the 500-year old home of the Iwase family, who have occupied it for 18 generations. The house dates back to the samurai era and has variously been used to store gunpowder, silk, and other commodities. I’m not sure if it is technically in the gassho style since the roof is not as steeply tilted as the other buildings. But the thatching was thick and robustly bound to heavy circular beams on the upper floors. Now the is just a family home, but the Iwases use it to (you guessed it) keep some of the old traditions alive, notably the kokiriko dance.

shirakawa-007 shirakawa-005

Kokiriko is the oldest traditional Japanese dance, accompanied by a binzasara and percussion sticks. Though performed by women now, it was originally a dance performed only by the nobles and was used to celebrate the hunt. The costumes are said to be silk versions of a hunting outfit; I infer that the role of the hat (see photo above!) was to facilitate the hunt by making the animals convulse with derisive laughter. (“Look at that stupid hat!  You can’t even see anyth…OUCH ARROWS! OUCHouchouchouch…”) The Iwases served us tea after the dance, and we explored the house for a while.


Our final stop of the day was Shirakawa-go itself, essentially a larger and more touristy version of the village of Ainokura that we saw first thing this morning. Like Ainokura, it sits serenely yet strikingly in a valley dotted with rice paddies and ringed with mountains. We admired the view, walked down into the town, then headed back to Kanazawa for a decidedly non-traditional Japanese dinner: Chinese food

shirakawa-012 shirakawa-008 shirakawa-009 shirakawa-010.Thus concludes our stay in Kanazawa. Tomorrow we head off to Kyoto for five nights, the final leg of our trip.



Categories: Japan | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Winter

As I type this, here is the view out our front door:

snow pan

Snome, sweet snome.

…and it is still snowing. All of which will become irrelevant, if all goes according to plan, since in about a week we will be exchanging it for this view out our front door.

2016-01-23 13_49_57-An Artist's Home on the Big Island - Houses for Rent in Kailua-Kona

Now we’re talkin’.

This is because we have decided to transform into snowbirds this year, about to sojourn in Hawaii for nearly six weeks. Our goals are to escape the winter, do a lot of snorkeling, visit the volcano, hike around, and make our friends jealous.

There is an element of homecoming on this trip, as I lived on the Big Island for three years in the early 1980’s as a postdoc at Mauna Kea Observatory. For those of you unfamiliar with the geography of Hawaii, here’s the picture:

2016-01-23 14_28_01-Hawaii - Google MapsWe chose Kona because it is on the sunny, leeward side of the island. The Big Island is far and away the most diverse of the islands in the Hawaiian archipelago. Its size is one reason, though at its widest point it is only 93 mi (150 km) across. More importantly, the presence of two 14,000′ (4300m) mountains in the middle of the island, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, break up the terrain into a remarkable number of distinct climate zones. For our purposes the important fact is that the trade winds blow from the east, pick up lots o’ moisture from the Pacific, and collide with those two mountains when they get to Hawaii. That causes the winds to dump all their moisture on the eastern side of the island. Result: Hilo (where I lived) is very rainy, averaging (wait for it) 156″ (4m) of rain a year, whilst Kona gets about 1/3 as much. The temperature is pretty steady throughout the year, with lows of about 70F (19C) and highs of about 82F (28C).

This is an El Niño year, as you may know – one of the most powerful on record, as it happens. What that means for Hawaii is slightly warmer water temperatures than usual (about 80F/27C) and more cloudy days. But we can live with that.

We’ll be enjoying a pretty steady stream of visitors during our stay, and I hope to take a lot of photos, a sampling of which I’ll post here along with the occasional brain dump about Hawaii’s history, geology, etc., along with our own experiences.


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Chillin’ with the Ice Man

We awoke this morning to a gloomy, steady rain pelting Merano, but staring balefully and unproductively out the window as we pondered how to plan the day offered us an unexpected reward. Jim, looking down, abruptly observed, “That’s a funny-shaped hedge…it looks like a Jewish star.” Which, indeed, it unquestionably did. I then noticed that the building next door had a carving of the Ten Commandments on the side, and lo and behold we realized that we were next to a synagogue. And not just any synagogue: the only one in Merano.

It is still in use, Merano having a small Jewish community that up until the 1930’s was a large Jewish community. After the war it had a very large flux of Jewish refugees passing through because it was a major waypoint on what was in effect a Jewish Underground Railroad for refugees trying to smuggle themselves to Palestine.

We were admitted to the synagogue by the caretaker, a stout blonde middle-aged woman smoking a cigarette. She let us into the sanctuary, which had three simple but beautiful stained glass windows, and below which to our surprised lived the local Jewish Museum. This was unexpectedly fascinating, a single large room housing a large number of letters, photos, and artifacts from the Holocaust era, as well as some considerably older items. (The oldest of these was a late 15th century Torah scroll. The most unusual was a “secret” miniature Torah, a scroll about the size of a pack of cigarettes and hand-lettered in the tiniest font you have ever seen outside of one of those novelty grains of rice. If you ever find yourself in Merano, you must certainly visit this place.

Moving out of our flat was an exercise in logistical unpleasant both because of the rain and because the guy living in the flat next story was also moving out, as in with movers and a van and all that. Which would not have been too much of a problem except that the elevator was approximately three feet square and the van was parked where we needed our car to be. The whole operation turned into a giant 3D jigsaw puzzle but we made it work.

The good news was that the weather did not seriously impede our plans, which were to return to Balzano to visit the South Tyrol Archaeological Museum to see the famous Ice Man mummy, then continue by car 140 miles south to Modena, where we will spend the night. None of that required sunshine, though as it happened the weather improved greatly in the afternoon.

The museum, and the Ice Man himself, are remarkable and ceratinly among the most interesting museum exhibits we have seen. His name — coined by an Austrian journalist — is “Ötzi” a portmanteau of the word “yeti” (as in the Abominable Snowman) and the Ötz valley where he was discovered in September 1991, buried in the snow at an elevation of about 10,000 ft. And here is what he looks like in his current state:

otzi_tattoos(Photos are not allowed, so thank Google for the image.) Carbon dating reveals that he is 5200 years old. He is kept in a refrigerated vault whose conditions replicate those that have preserved him: 21 deg F temperature (-6 C) at a humidity of 99%. A fine mist of water sprays over him, giving his skin an icy sheen that, irreverently enough, makes him look like he is made of lacquered beef jerky. He lies on a table close to a viewing window, and you get quite a good look at him. The vault has its own backup power supply, and the mummy can, in case of extreme emergency, be removed and transported to a nearby hospital that has its own “cold room” waiting for him. (Doctor: “I’m sorry, there is nothing we can do for him. We tried CPR to revive him but, well, he fell apart.”)

2_Rekonstruktion (6)_0Ötzi was found with a large number of artifacts that have enabled forensic anthropogists to accurately reconstruct his clothing, weaponry, food, and other aspects of his life. They have also determined that he was killed in a fight, ultimately felled by an arrow to the shoulder. They do not know who killed him or why because – wait for it — the case has gone cold. (Ba-dum bump! <cymbal clash>)

Here is the latest reconstruction of his appearance in life, vaguely resembling The Big Lebowski. (This model, life size in the museum, does not show much of his clothing, which included a coat, cap, and backpack, all of which are on display elsewhere in the exhibit.)

The entire museum was fascinating, and among everything else we learned these two important facts:

  1. Things that Alice has in common with Ötzi: They are both lactose-intolerant.
  2. Things that Rich has in common with Ötzi: We both have blood type O+.

Cool, huh?

We spent two solid hours in the place, by which time the sun had come out and the day turned beautiful. So we had lunch an outdoor cafe, enjoyed our daily infusion of gelato, and hit the road for the 2 1/2 drive to Merano. (By the way, we firmly believe that if you visit Italy and do not have a daily dose of gelato — a different flavor each day, of course — then you are doing it wrong.)

We exited the Tyrol driving south, which for ambience purposes meant that we were leaving Austria and returning to Italy. We first passed back through the province of Veneto (where Venice and Vicenza are located), and into Emilia-Romagna, where Modena, Bologna, and Parma are. Indeed, Modena is located more or less midway between those two larger cities and, as a result of borrowing from both of them, is known for being a foodie’s paradise with a large number of gourmet restaurants.

It is striking how quickly one leaves the mountains. As we shot down the Autostrade at 130 kph (80 mph), one moment we were surrounded by the granite cliffs of the Dolomite foothills — with a castle midway up every cliff face, of course — and the next moment we were flying across open plains as far as we could see.

We arrived in Modena, made contact with our landlord, and got into our apartment, a charmingly decorated and richly equipped two bedroom flat, a warm and welcoming place that feels like the polar opposite of our severe and unadorned quarters in Merano.  We are only here for a night, contrinuing on to Lucca tomorrow. We may if we are feeling flush visit the Ferrari factory, but it is rather expensive and none of us are real car buffs.


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The Answer is Hikin’ in the Wind

Today was mostly a riding-in-the-bus day as we made the several-hour semicircle around the mountains to get from Torres del Paine National Park in Chile to the Argentine town of El Calafate. This involved driving back across the park in conditions that were noticeably gloomier and windier than yesterday. We passed by the mountain range again, past scenes like this:

Torres del Paine in the wind

The wind was ferocious today, clocking in at 56 mph. You can see the ripples and some whitecaps on the lake in the picture above. But hey, they don’t call it adventure travel for nothing, and Julio promised that the threatened hike would be through a valley that was sheltered from the wind. Uh huh. And so it was that we found ourselves hiking through a high valley that, if this was what they call “sheltered”, I don’t want to see “exposed”, as we were basically sandblasted every inch of the way. Here we are making our way through the valley, looking for our lost Sherpas:

We paid good money to do this. Auntie Em’s house blew by a few moments later.

It is possible that at some time in your life you have wondered what it would be like to hike through a hurricane in the lower Andes mountains. If so, you probably concluded that it would not be physically pleasant. You were right. 

This guy should not have hiked on this path

It did have its rewards in the form of the view, the proliferation of interesting plants and rock formations, and the occasional gaunáco carcass such as the skull and fur at left. There were forensic artifacts like that all over the place: rib cages, vertebrae, mostly-intact bodies.  Seems that there is a population of pumas in the area, and we were walking through their happy hunting grounds. Happy for the pumas, anyway. For an awful lot of guanácos, not so much.

The hike was blissfully short — less than an hour — and we gratefully re-boarded our bus at the far end for the trip across the Chile-Argentina border, both sides of which were manned by bored-looking guards who stamped our passports. The Argentine guards in particular looked pretty miserable; their station was a windowless shack whose only power source was a generator that had failed, leaving them to inspect our visas in the cold and drafty dark. (Julio had cautioned us to say as little as possible if they asked us any questions at all, not because they were hostile but because they were starved for human contact and would keep us their for hours for the sole purpose of engaging in conversation.)

By the time we reached the border, an hour or so after our hike, the weather had gone full-blown (and I do mean blown) Patagonian Nasty, with the previous intermittent cold drizzle replaced by a hard blowing snowstorm that rocked the bus as we drove. We nonetheless stopped for a few minutes at yet another shrine to Gauchito Gil (remember him?), it being an OAT tradition to thank him for having had non-miserable weather during the trip, at least up to this point. This was more than a little ironic since both we and the shrine were being torn apart by gale-force winds and blizzard-like snow at the time.

We continued on to the 20,000-person town of El Calafate, whose primary economic base is tourism for the Perrito Moreno glacier, our destination for tomorrow. That will mark the end of the Patagonia leg of the trip; on Tuesday we return to Buenos Aires for a day before heading up to Iguassu Falls, where, mirabile dictu, it will be tropically warm.

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