Posts Tagged With: statue

Weasel Poop Central

Dalat is a college town of about 400,000 people with a large (13,000 students) regionally well-known university. It’s only about 30 miles from Nha Trang as the crow flies, but it’s a 3-4 hour bus ride; Dalat is up in the mountains at about 5000′ (1500 m) elevation, and the road to it is steep, winding, and very slow. It does take you through some scenic valleys with narrow waterfalls threading down the cliffsides.

Dalat IMG_8729-HDRThere used to be a rail line connecting Dalat with Saigon but the Viet Cong blew it up during the war and it has never been replaced. It does have an airport with twice-daily flights to Saigon, though. (People seem to randomly call it either Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City as the mood strikes them, though the latter has been the official name since 1975.)

There is a certain amount of nostalgia for the railroad, though, at least among the very small community consisting of a burnt-out expat American who opened a restaurant called the Train Villa Cafe, which sports a railroad car behind the building. He used to be the general manager of Tower Records in Singapore, but he moved here in 1991, married a local woman, and (according to Phil) has been running this restaurant and drinking himself to death since then. We ate lunch there, and he did arrange for some of the local hill tribespeople to come and perform some traditional music for us.

Dalat IMG_8767They are called the Kho, part of a larger set of hill tribes that are collectively known in the West as Montagnards. The Kho themselves are subdivided into a number of groups, including the Khmer in Cambodia. They have a very characteristic style of dress — dark blue cotton with vertical colored stripes as you see in the photo — and speak their own language. This particular family of musicians had been educated in the cities and spoke Vietnamese as well. The Kho language is significantly different from Vietnamese; Phil does not speak it.

We continued on to our hotel, a large ornate place with the inexplicable name of the Sammy Hotel. No one seems to know who “Sammy” was, but the architecture is pretty purely French Colonial and — because of our frequent travel with OAT — we have been upgraded to a very large and pretty snazzy suite, with a full living room and two baths. Yay!

The weather was deteriorating by mid-afternoon but we headed out anyway — eventually getting poured upon — to visit the Linh Phuoc Buddhist temple, a large and impossibly ornate complex in which every exterior square foot — and quite a bit of interior space as well — is covered by elaborate dragon-themed ceramic mosaic tile and statuary. It is an utter riot of color and detail, something that Antoni Gaudi would have happily designed if he had been into Buddhism.

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Dalat IMG_8891-HDRThe interior is no less elaborate, and includes some creepily realistic statuary along with all the ceramic frou-frou.

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Dalat IMG_8870By the time we left we were in a full-on downpour, which continued for the next four hours; it is the monsoon season.

It was still pouring at 6:30 PM when we were picked up at our hotel by a cheerful young woman in a rain poncho, riding a motorbike. (Vietnamese use their scooters to go anywhere at any time; monsoon rains are of no consequence.) Her name was Nhii, and she is the 26 year old daughter of the host family with whom we had dinner at home last night. As I have mentioned before, every OAT trip has a generous dollop of interaction with the locals, and each trip usually includes dinner at home with a local family.  Nhii put us into a taxi, and then led the way home through the driving rain on her motorbike.

Dalat IMG_8908Those are Nhii’s parents at left, and our travel mates Hazel and Bruce on the right. Nhii’s father is a retired archivist with the government; her mother is retired from a bank. Nhii herself is a receptionist at a hotel and the only one of them that spoke any English. (Hers was pretty rocky but serviceable enough for the occasion.) The language barrier put things off to a slow start, but as we started showing each photos of our various grandchildren, things picked up. Nhii’s mom is an excellent cook and served us a nice meal that included pho, spring rolls, sticky rice, and a salad that had a large number of hard-boiled quail eggs in it. The evening was enjoyable enough, but we would have liked to see more of the house (we never got out of the living room and dining room) and learn more about their lives. (We learned a lot more about Nhii since she could converse.)

The rain had stopped by the time we headed back to the hotel, and we slept well enough in our Colonial Overlord room to take on more ambitious sightseeing today.

Dalat is a major center for wholesale flower cultivation and sales; it is sort of the Holland of this part of Asia. Flowers are big, big business here, and the best way to illustrate that is to show you this panorama looking into the valley adjacent to the downtown part of the city:

Dalat IMG_8812-PanoWith the exception of the tile roofs in the foreground, every single building in that image is a greenhouse, hundreds and hundreds of them filling the valley. Here’s the interior of one of them, and happy Alice — who is an avid gardener, unlike myself, and much in her element here — with a sample bloom.

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Dalat IMG_8931I am informed that that is a gerbera daisy.

The greenhouses are not made of glass, but rather nylon, which we were told is a technique invented by the Israelis. Water condenses on the interior and drips into the gutters that you can see running the length of the structure, thus minimizing the need for an external water supply.

Besides flowers, the other cash crop in these parts is coffee, and so of course we were morally obliged to visit a coffee plantation. Since we live in Kona (Hawaii) for about five weeks a year that was not exactly new and exciting for us — and I don’t even drink the stuff — but here you go anyway:

Dalat IMG_8937-PanoWe got The Coffee Spiel. There are three types of coffee here, being Arabica, Mocha, and Something Elsa-a (Robusta, I think), and the differences are [at this point my brain turns off due to total indifference]. So of course they sat us down and served us a sample, which everyone duly admired, except for Alice, who literally shuddered and sotto voce averred it much inferior to Kona coffee.

Dalat IMG_8942Those are our travel mates Yvonne, Karen, and Joan. Yvonne looks a little dubious.

But this was not the main event. Oh no, far from it. This particular coffee was conventionally grown and processed. At no point did it emerge from a weasel’s digestive tract.

You may perhaps have heard of kopi luwak, the fabulously expensive Indonesian coffee that is processed from beans that have been eaten and excreted by a civet cat. Well, guess what? They do it here too. They call the creature a weasel here, but it is the same animal, Paradoxurus hermaphroditus if you’re taxonomically inclined. It is not related to the ferret-like thing that we in the West call a weasel, but looks rather like a raccoon. Here’s one in its cage at the plantation.

Dalat IMG_8975So the deal is, they feed the coffee “cherry” — the red fruit with the bean at its core — to the animal, which dutifully poops it out the other end, its digestive enzymes having dissolved the fruit and worked some chemical miracle upon the bean. The poop is dried in the sun and the beans then extracted by machine (thank God). You then process the beans and charge a zillion dollars a pound for them because people are insane. I mean seriously, this is certainly the only consumable substance in the world where declaring, “This tastes like shit,” is considered a compliment.

Dalat IMG_8948Note the sign above. For the record, I was not tempted to take any away. I am however going to start an emo band named “Weasel Feces”.

Alice, who is a coffee snob, was very disdainful of the whole thing but upon actually tasting it — they gave everyone about a half a shot glass to try — declared it quite excellent after all.  And as I looked on in head-scratching wonder she actually plunked down money to buy a few ounces, at a price that scaled to US $90 a pound.  That’s about three times the price of good Kona coffee. She is unable to testify that it is three times as good.

That adventure under our belt, we climbed onto a flatbed hitched to a tractor — this has been an especially interesting trip, transportation-wise — and literally headed for the hills, traveling a short distance up into the hills to visit a Montagnard/Kho village. Our first encounter was with some fierce children (one was wearing a Batman teeshirt so you know this is serious) who took a break from chasing each other around to threaten to eat us.

Dalat IMG_8994We navigated this existential threat — I taught two of them to play Thumb War in case my grandsons ever visit here — and spent some time talking to the village headman and his wife, who was patiently weaving through part of the conversation.

It’s an interesting society, matriarchal for starters; property is handed down through the women in the family, and arranged marriages have been abolished.

That’s as much of Dalat as we have time for. Tomorrow morning we fly to Saigon for the last leg of the trip. We’ll be there for three nights, then leave for home on Saturday.

 

Categories: Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Day in the Life, Vietnam Edition

Every OAT trip includes some kind of “day in the life” activity that attempts to give travelers a taste of what normal, non-touristic life is life in whatever country we happen to be in. These are unavoidably somewhat artificial (“Today’s activity will include contracting hepatitis while bathing in unfiltered sewage!”) but they do make an honest attempt given all the constraints of time, safety, etc. But we did pretty well yesterday, since our “day in the life” started with a big part of every Vietnamese’s life: getting somewhere on a motorbike. This was probably not the safest activity that OAT could have chosen for us — a couple of our group just straight-up refused to get on them — but it was probably the most fun one. So off we went in crazy city traffic…IMG_8716

IMG_8520That’s Alice in the red helmet at right.

IMG_8526We putt-putted and honked our way to the outskirts of the city, eventually making our way to the countryside, past rice paddies and temples.

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IMG_8593Our first stop was a place where guys hang out for hours, drinking and watching some entertainment. Your first thought is no doubt “bar” or “strip club”, but no, it wasn’t either of those. If you’re a Vietnamese city male, your go-to entertainment on a Sunday afternoon is the local….. bird cafe.

Say what?

Bird cafe. Songbirds are a very big deal here, in particular a type of bird called a bulbul, which is found throughout Asia but not in North America. It’s name is Persian for “nightingale” but it actually belongs to a different family. They sell for hundreds or thousands of dollars here, and at the bird cafes they hang in cages by the dozen, the staff moving them around from space to space to get them acclimated to their surroundings and keep them singing.

IMG_8534IMG_8536Notice all the guys in the lower photo, basically hanging around and staring at the birds. This goes on for hours. There are huge bulbul competitions, sometimes involving as many as 2,000 birds; they are judged on both appearance and the perseverance with which they keep singing. Hard to see this catching on the US. (“I’m heading out to the bird cafe to have a few glasses of lemongrass tea with the boys.” “Like hell. That’s the third night this week and I’m sick of picking feathers out of your clothes.”)

The next stop on our motorbike outing was the marketplace where, we were informed, we would have to go shopping for dinner. Phil gave us some money and a shopping list, and divided us into two teams: “Tiger”, and “Dragon”. I was the Dragon Leader, which is a title I have always coveted.

IMG_8575Various items were assigned to various people within the teams, but the catch was that we had to ask for all the items in Vietnamese. Remember what I wrote about the impossibility of saying anything correctly in Vietnamese? Now the linguistic rubber was about to meet the metaphorical road. My particular item was sugar, which in Vietnamese is Đường, which you pronounce by shooting yourself since you’ll never get it right. It’s sorta like doo-ong, except that the first syllable is spoken WAY down in your throat, and you glide into the second syllable all the way up top to your palate. Basically it’s the sound that a bullfrog makes, and I am proud to report that after three attempts Phil declared my pronunciation perfect. Off we went, me bullfrogging for all I was worth, and by golly we scored two plastic sacks full of sugar. Here’s more of our team in action, successfully buying a bag of limes.

IMG_8566Groceries in hand, we biked out to the countryside to a village where the headman was a former South Vietnamese paratrooper, Mr. Hoang. After the war he spent two years in a reeducation camp and was eventually fully “rehabilitated” into a position of responsibility in this small village.

IMG_8612He showed us around the village, which included a stop at a local family who derived their income from that most venerable and stereotypical craft, basket weaving. They put us to work. The head of this family was a former Viet Cong soldier.

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IMG_8624Then we went to Mr. Hoang’s house for lunch, where his wife put half of us to work in the kitchen, chopping vegetables. The other half of the group want out to the backyard to use that sugar we bought, along with limes and lemongrass, to mix up some drinks whose name I forget but which involved a whole lot of rum.

IMG_8628Drinks were poured and toasts were raised. The very first toast, in fact, was raised by the four men who actually fought in the war: Mr. Hoang and the three veterans in our travel group. That makes this a fairly remarkable gathering:

IMG_8633That toast drunk, more followed, with everyone getting into the act. Alice and I being teetotalers, our drinks were rum-free, but a couple of our group more than made up for our abstemiousness.

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Things got pretty happy, but everyone settled down for a lunch, which was of course yet another multi-course extravaganza. This one, though, was outdoors, in a shaded grove behind the house.

And then it was time to go. Hugs all around, especially among the vets, and everyone boarded the bus… except for me. Phil had cottoned to the fact that I am an adrenaline junkie — it may have been my look-ma-no-hands continuous camera-clicking from the back of the motorbike — and arranged for me to motorbike back the city instead of riding the bus. So I had my own personal tour of the back alleys, farms, graveyards, rice paddies, and other cool locales from my perch at the back of the bike.

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(The swastikas don’t mean what you think. They’re a very ancient Hindu symbol, appearing widely on temples and other structures throughout Asia. The Nazi corruption of the symbol came thousands of years later.)

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IMG_8684On we went, past the revolutionary statues in the city, back into the maw of traffic, and home again to our hotel. Helluva day!

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Categories: Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

My Son

Actually I have two sons, both exceptionally fine human beings whom I love and am proud of beyond words.  But this post is not about either of them. In fact, it is not about anybody’s son. It’s about a place called Mỹ Sơn, written with all those accent marks that make Vietnamese a special kind of nightmare. I just left the accent marks out of the title so I could have a moderately clever opening line. (And at some point down the line I am going to write a post about the Vietnamese language, which is an utter beast.)

Mỹ Sơn is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a complex of temples and other buildings created between the 4th and 14th centuries by the Champa people, whom you have very likely never heard of. It’s considered to be one of the longest inhabited archaeological sites in Indochina, comparable in appearance to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and Ayutthaya in Thailand.  We spent yesterday morning and early afternoon there; it’s about an hour’s drive from Hoi An.

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Naturally, this being such an important site, the US bombed the bejeezus out of it during the war. Much of it was destroyed, and the path among the ruins is pockmarked by 50 year old overgrown bomb craters, perhaps 30 feet wide and still 8-10 feet deep.

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The Champa people were an extensive and aggressive group who were a big deal in central and southern Vietnam from about the 2nd century AD for a good thousand years or so. They were Hindu, not Buddhist, in particular venerating Shiva, part of the Hindu trinity that includes Vishnu and Brahma. In keeping with the whole yin-yang paradigm, and oversimplifying by about 2 billion light years, Vishnu is female, the creator, symbolized by the yoni (representing the female genitalia); Shiva is male, the destroyer, symbolized by the lingam (representing the male genitalia). There are stylized versions of each scattered throughout the complex; here is a yoni:

My Son IMG_8423 If your lingam persists for more than 400 years, consult your doctor.

There is a path that meanders among the ruins, a number of which have armless, headless statues of Shiva in and around them. The arm- and headlessness of the statues are one of the many gifts of later Western occupiers, notably the French.

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You will note from all of the above photos that the structures are made almost entriely out of brick. That is pretty remarkable in itself: it is very difficult to make bricks that will last for ~1500 years in this hot, wet climate. In fact, it is so difficult that no one knows how the Champa did it. The composition of the bricks is well known through various assay techniques, but the manufacturing process is still a mystery. Replacement bricks have been made as part of a partial site restoration process; you can see Phil pointing out some of the new bricks in the photo below. But these will not have anything like the longevity of the original structure.

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At about the halfway point of the path through the complex, we came to a small open area that is used for a folk music performance, using traditional instruments as we have sen before, and dancers as well. They played for about 10 minutes and we continued on our way.

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If you look carefully, you can see that the elaborate headdress worn by the dancer in red in the middle has a burning candle on top. Here’s a better view.

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We continued along the path, which looped back to the starting point. There was a pavilion there where we saw yet another performance, this time more directly tied to the Champa and having a distinctly more Hindu flavor, albeit a little sexed-up for the tourists, e.g.:

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By this time we were dance-performanced-out and, in keeping with our typical day here, drenched with sweat. So we retreated back to our hotel, Alice to get a massage (which costs about one-third here of what it does back home,) and me to take advantage of one of the hotel infinity pools.

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Prague Slog

We walked around the city for 8 1/2 hours today, courtesy of our knowledgeable and unstoppable guide Martin, who showed us far more than I can possibly remember. So partly out of exhaustion and a desire to get to bed at a reasonable hour, I’ll let the photos do the talking today with less narrative than usual. Probably.

But first, the required dose of surrealism. You probably think this happy couple on the Charles Bridge has just been married:

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But you’d be wrong. Or more charitably, you’d be about 3/4 right. This couple is participating in a hot new trend in mainland China, in which (1) you and your spouse-to-be travel to a foreign destination with a photographer; (2) rent wedding outfits and have all your romantic wedding photos taken; (3) return to China and make a photo album to show to the family; and then, finally (4) get married in China. It’s kind of a destination pre-wedding without the guests. Or the wedding.  When China takes over the world there are a lot of things that are going to take some getting used to.

In case you’re wondering how I know all this, Martin has on occasion been hired as a photographer or a factotum to help rent the wedding outfits.

Weddings make me think of religion, so now it’s time for a good old fashioned dose of Central European antisemitism, in the form of this delightful statue, also on the Charles Bridge:

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Yes, that’s Hebrew encircling Big JC, and not just any Hebrew: it is the Kaddish, one of Judaism’s most important prayers. How did this come about? Well, the cross — minus the Hebrew — was installed on the bridge in 1659. In 1696, a local wealthy Jewish merchant, one Elias Backoffen, was convicted of dissing Christianity by having been witnessed sporting a blasphemous facial expression. (Yes, really. It was pretty hard for Jews to avoid breaking the law.) He was fined a bunch of money and the local authorities decided to put the money towards humiliating all the Jews in the vicinity — always a popular move — by decorating the crucifix with their most sacred invocation. Classy.

It took a little over 300 years of enlightenment for the city fathers to figure out that in the 21st century the current population of Jews might find this just a wee bit offensive. But by virtue of having been there all this time, the statue had acquired some perceived historical significance, and so in the year 2000 a solution, such as it was, was put in place, in the form of a plaque at the base of the statue that basically says, “Yeah, we know this is offensive, but here’s the background….”

OK, on to the pictures so I can get to bed. First, a monument to Jan Palach, a student who immolated himself in protest of the Soviet repression of the Prague Spring in 1968.

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Next, a baroque garden — complete with white peacock — adjacent to the palace where the Czech Senate meets.

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The garden also includes this weird black melty stuff, which is an art installation called the “Dripwall”.  It is actually a sculpture designed to look like a cave, that has assorted whimsical faces hidden in it.

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Now we move up the hillside in “Castle Town” on the east side of the river, working our way towards the Prague Castle. Our first stop is the Furstenburg Gardens and its sundial, on the hillside just below the Castle.

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And now Prague Castle itself, a looming Gothic melange of architecture from about a half dozen different eras starting in the 10th century, whose centerpiece is St. Vitus Cathedral (makes you wanna dance!). First the enormous, terrifying outside:

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And now the interior of the cathedral. A lot of the stained glass is contemporary, designed in the 20th century:

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The locale affords us a view back towards the town to the east of us.

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Our last stop of the day was the highlight: the Strahov Monastery. It has a truly glorious library that includes a wonderful collection of terrestrial and celestial globes, and the whole place belongs in a Harry Potter movie. We were extremely lucky to be with Martin, who is able to get authorization to go into the library itself, as opposed to viewing it from the doorway. We had to put on soft slippers to avoid damaging the floor, but we had the place to ourselves for about 45 minutes. Here is what we saw!

Isaacman Strahovsky Library pano 1

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Prague 2018-297There’s even a hidden staircase behind a fake bookshelf, so you can sneak around and kill people. Or steal books. Or something.

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The library was the highlight of the day, and it was a very fine day. We’re exhausted. Tomorrow it is supposed to rain, so we will probably visit the National Gallery, which has a big photography exhibit going on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: Czech, Europe | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Agog in Prague

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Last Day in Paris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Europe, France | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

London Calling

I expect to have my laptop back — and thus be able to post my final Namibia entry — within a few days, but in the meantime I’ll leapfrog in time a little bit to our first post-Namibia destination. ( And you knew that had to be the title, right?)

If the aliens ever land and want to know where the Capital of the World is, you could make a pretty good case for pointing them to London. You might be able to make a stronger case for New York City in the past 80 years or so, but for a couple of hundred years prior to that it would have been a no-brainer for London. It’s stodgy, lively, vast, intimate, and generally schizophrenic all at once, with traditions and about one-third of its architecture rooted in the 11th century.  Another third of the buildings seem to have congealed some time in the 1940’s, and the rest looks it has been taking lessons from 22nd-century Japanese architects.

Of course, one of the more recent non-architectural traditions is Worrying About Brexit, probably for good reason. The most recent source of angst as I type this is a report that came out yesterday predicting that British farmers’ profits will be cut in half as a result of Brexit. This could put real pressure on the milk supplies to make the batter for fish and chips.

Our stay in London was a brief one: just about three days, much of which was spent looking up old friends. (And one new one. I have for some years been following the beautifully-written travel blog “Are We There Yet” written by Italian ex-pat Fabrizio S, living in London. We have been following each others’ blogs and corresponding by email for about two years and have finally met face to face!) But we managed to hit at least a few of the high spots: St Paul’s, the Tate Modern Gallery, and the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace (viewed in person daily by over 45 billion people, most of them standing in front of me). So here are some obligatory London Tourist photos:

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Lord Nelson overlooks Trafalgar Square

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St Paul’s Cathedral,. Yes, we climbed to the Whispering Gallery.

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Iconic Tower Bridge

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The latest Harry Potter movie.

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Westminster Abbey

You will note the scaffolding around Big Ben in the second to last photo. I have warned you about this in the past: when Alice and I travel, there will be scaffolding. So far in our globetrotting we have seen scaffolding around the Parthenon, scaffolding around the Via Veneto, scaffolding around the Washington Monument. So if you ever go to a major world heritage monument and see scaffolding, you can be sure that we’re around somewhere.

One of our go-to stops on this trip was the London Eye, the famous 450′ Ferris wheel built for the millennium celebrations in 1999. It’s a great sight in and of itself, fitting oddly but somehow comfortably into the local skyline, and of course affording a spectacular view of the city.

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We arrived at 2:15 PM on a cloudy afternoon amidst an enormous throng of visitors, and were told by the automated kiosk that we could buy either a regular admission ticket for £26 or a so-called FastTrack ticket to jump part of the line for £36. Hmmm, tough call. How long would we have to wait? Well-ll-ll-ll, we were informed, with the Fastrack ticket we could get onto the Eye at 4:00, versus a plain-old cheaper regular ticket that would allow us on at….. 3:15 PM. I asked the nice uniformed attendant how this could be, and was told, “Well, so many people sign up for the FastTrack tickets that it makes the wait longer.” OK then.

The ride takes a half hour, during which time the wheel rotates only once. There are 32 ovoidal capsules (Alice was quite scandalized when I described them as suppository-shaped), each holding 25 people, which means that at any given moment 800 people are enjoying the view and peeking down into Parliament.

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There is a lot that has changed in London in the decades since I last visited, most notably the ethnic mix, about which a lot of people angst, since “ethnic” in this context is a sort of code word for “Muslim”. I heard grim tales about areas where no Westerner or immodestly-dressed women dare to tread without getting glared out, and it is all rather overwrought.

It is certainly true that London has a far more diverse ethnic array than it did when I last visited, over 25 years ago. (The mayor is a Muslim, Sadiq Khan.) It is also true that there are areas that are heavily Muslim: there are blocks at a time when all of the store signage is in Arabic as well as English. But to us at least, the general feel of those areas is not a whole lot different — and no more threatening — then, say, Chinatown in San Francisco. There are certainly visibly many Muslims in traditional garb in the streets, but it by no means feels like an isolated enclave; there are lots of other ethnicities walking around as well, all looking quite unconcerned.

I suppose it is quite possible that women in particular might receive a lot of hostility for being seen as dressing too immodestly. But context is pretty important: I guarantee you that you’ll receive those same looks today by walking around in revealing clothes in the orthodox Jewish sections of the Williamsburg neighborhood of New York City. Ethnic mixes change, cities change, countries change, and in general I feel that the threat is more to our perceptions and self-image than anything else.

Of course one of the upsides to all this newfound diversity is….better food. English food has its reputation, of course — and completeness compels me to report that the aptly-named “Mushy Peas” is still a dish here — and it has long been the case that you were better off frequenting Indian Restaurants. But now there’s a lot of everything: Middle Eastern, of course, and even (to my amazement) the occasional taco truck. So things are looking up.

But a lot of the old charm is still there, even as ancient cathedrals nestle up against 50-story steel and glass extrusions. Our hotel was adjacent to St James Park with its long lake, country gardens, ice cream stands, and enormous diversity of waterfowl.

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The Guard still marches, the weather is still rainy, and overall it was great to be back.

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Underneath the Millennium Bridge

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Whirlwind Windhoek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Odds and Ends at the End

Today is our last day in Japan, and naturally the weather has turned beautiful now that Typhoon #18 has left the area. Alice is off on a garden walk so I thought I’d take the opportunity for a final trip post to capture some of the various odds and ends that I either forgot about or didn’t have time or space for during my evening blog rants. So in no particular order, here are some final Japanese peculiarities:

Save the Children. Everywhere we went, but particularly in the vicinity of Buddhist temples, we saw clusters of little stone “Buddha-ling” statues averaging about 18 inches tall, and all wearing little red bibs like dress-dolls. Here are a few:

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It turns out that dress-up dolls are not terribly off the mark. (Sometimes they sport little knit caps too.) These guys are called ojizosama, and they are the guardians of children, especially ones who died in childhood. Touchingly, the bibs and hats are to protect the spirits of the children in cold weather; apparently it can get a little chilly even in the afterlife. Ojizosama are also said to protect firefighters and travelers. They are plentiful: it is said that there are about 5000 in the Kyoto area alone. Certainly we saw them very frequently.

Karaoke. Japanese love karaoke, as you may know. There are karaoke bars aplenty in  the downtown areas in all the cities. There is even a big chain of them called Big Echo. Our tour lead Mariko sings very well, as I have mentioned, and so inevitably the subject of an after-dinner karaoke outing has come up more than once. It never actually came off, fortunately, as it would not be an exaggeration to report that Alice and I both recoiled in horror at the suggestion. Outside of entertaining our grandchildren with “Itsy Bitsy Spider” I cannot sing worth a damn, and Alice, despite her many talents (which include being able to pick out “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” on the shamisen, as I wrote about last time) has a singing voice that drives nightingales to suicide. Alice’s singing is like a drunk stumbling down a tonal dark alley, caroming off one pentatonic lamppost after another before finally being mugged into unconsciousness without ever having encountered a recognizable note. So no karaoke for us.

Vending Machines. Japanese seem to love vending machines almost as much as they love karaoke. The country is famous — some might say infamous — for having vending machines that sell just about everything, including some rather unsavory stuff. I don’t actually recall seeing anything of the latter, but we sure saw lots of snack machines (including ice cream, dispensed cold) and countless drink machines. It is not unusual to see ranks of drink machines, a half dozen side by side, selling soft drinks, hot and cold coffee and tea, and even beer. Among the more famous uniquely Japanese drinks are the unfortunately-named “Calpis” and “Pocari Sweat”. Both are uncarbonated. Calpis is rather like watery yogurt; Pocari Sweat, aptly enough, is a sports drink similar to Gatorade.

Kwik-E-Marts. They’re not actually called that (sorry, Simpsons fans), but Japan is awash in convenience stores. The Big Three in decreasing size order are 7-11 (yes, they’re here in a big way), Lawson’s, and Family Mart. It is difficult to walk down a city street in Japan without encountering at least one of them, and frequently all three. Despite their names Lawson’s and Family Mart are Japanese firms, though Lawson’s was originally founded in Cleveland and eventually became Circle K in the US. Their ubiquity here is nothing if not convenient, although “excessive” might also apply. They are more or less identical to each other, and other than the obvious Japanese nature of the shelf stock (and more polite staff), to their various American counterparts. (I was amused by the Japanese equivalent of those sketchy-looking hot dogs on a rotating grill that you see at American convenience stores; here you see sketchy-looking bowls of dumplings and noodles.) One interesting distinction, though, is that 7-11 in Japan also operates a bank. Sounds strange but it turns out to be a great, um, convenience for tourists, the reason being that most ATMs here will only accept debit cards from their affiliated bank, whereas 7-11 is agnostic. So if you’re a tourist needing to withdraw some cash from an ATM, your go-to place is a 7-11. And this is very handy indeed, since unless you are standing on top of Mt. Fuji you are unlikely to be more than a block or two from the nearest one.

There is no doubt more trivia of this nature that I will remember later, but this will do. Once I have all my photos culled and edited I will post a link here, but until then — sayonara and o genki de (“take care, see ya”).

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Kamakura, For Sure-a

Kamakura is a scenic shrine- and shop-laden town of 175,000 apparently very religious souls, located about an hour and a half drive southwest of Tokyo. It is particularly famous for the Giant Buddha, which is exactly what it sounds like: a 44-foot tall Buddha, dating from the year 1252, located at the Buddhist (obviously) temple of Kōtoku-in. The statue sits in a courtyard in the middle of the temple, apparently as Buddha himself or some equally influential deity intended, since every few centuries the monks try and construct a building around it, only to have said building destroyed by hail, or a tsunami, or what have you. So now it looks like this:

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Notice the grayness and the umbrellas. “Ah,” you say, “it was raining while you were there.” If only. It was in fact pouring, a cyclonic downpour that left our shoes squishy and our pants soggy, despite our having had the foresight to bring umbrellas. So despite the fame of the statue we did not linger worshipfully, or at all. That said, I will note that this guy was having a great time in the rain. His parents, not so much.

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Continuing with our Buddhist theme — and hoping that eventually the guy upstairs would accept our touristic devotion and ease up on the goddamn rain — our next stop was the Hokokuji Temple, which is famed for its serene and beautiful bamboo gardens. We learned more about bamboo than anyone this side of a panda needs to know, e.g., the fact that Chinese bamboo is better to eat, but Japanese bamboo is better for weaving and construction. Remember this when you are bamboo shopping. But in any case, here are some shots of the temple and the bamboo grove.

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It is traditional to have one’s picture taken among the bamboo, and so of course we did. We then moved on to the Jomyoji Temple, a serene little place (“little” in comparison to the others) that is known for offering a tourist-level tea ceremony. Obviously we were not going not pass that up, and so we and about 20 others gathered at low tables in a quiet, severe room, all wooden floors, tapestries, and bamboo, and watched as a silent young woman moved fluidly through the rigidly prescribed process of wiping the utensils, mixing the tea, rotating the bowl in her hands, and other highly symbolic gestures whose significance was unsurprisingly lost on us. The drink itself was a very bitter green tea, a green powder (“matcha”) mixed with a bamboo whisk into hot water poured from an earthenware pot. The ritual was very…..precise.

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They do not have Lipton’s, so don’t ask.

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Our smiles belie the fact that the stuff tastes terrible.

By now the rain had finally let up, Buddha apparently having been mollified by our visits to three temples, so we decided to push our ecumenical luck by shifting theological gears and visiting a Shinto shrine. The major one in Kamakura is Tsurugaoka Hachimangu, which is dominated by a large traditional dance hall at the top of a long flight of stone stairs. The hall has a commanding view of the grounds and indeed much of the town and is not in fact used for dances (though it was once used for a ritual dance) but rather for other religious ceremonies. Before you approach it you must purify yourself at a hand washing station, like so:

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As with many Shinto shrines, the grounds include a number of locations where you can buy the Shinto equivalent of a fortune cookie: a scroll that, when you open it, reveals your predilections in areas of health, career, relationships, and so forth. You pay your money, and you are given a cylindrical shaker about the size of an oatmeal tin with the scroll inside. You shake, shake, shake the container, then open it and remove your scroll, which you then unwind to read your fate. If you like what you see — and you don’t always — you hang it on a sort of clothesline next to the shrine, along with everyone else’s wishes, like this:

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Many people — young women in particular — visit the shrine wearing traditional clothes, and it is quite delightful seeing groups of them strolling around, giggling over their fortunes.

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I should add that the other structure dominating the grounds is a huge wall full of sake casks, each about the size of a beer keg.

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In the immortal words of Slim Pickens in Doctor Strangelove, “Hell, a fella could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with this stuff!”

By this time it was 3 PM or so and we were pretty much templed- and shrined out. We walked around the shopping district for a while so that Alice could ogle pottery, then boarded the bus for the drive back to Tokyo. It was starting to get dark by the time we arrived, and since the bus had dropped us off at the Ginza railway station, we took advantage of the hour and the lack of rain to walk around that famously energetic shopping district before finding some dinner. After a day of cultural immersion we decided that having a Western meal would not compromise our touristic integrity, and so found a surprisingly good and reasonably priced Italian restaurant on a side street.

[Tourist Tip: when dining in Ginza, “side street” becomes an important restaurant selection criterion. The main drags are filled with Prada, Tiffany, Dior, Gucci, et cetera, et cetera stores, and consequently the restaurants on those streets have prices suitable for people who shop at Prada, Tiffany, Dior, and Gucci stores. Prices drop by about a factor of four when you move a block away.]

I will close with some shots of the Ginza, so that you can see exuberant consumerism at its energy-intense finest.

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Categories: Japan | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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