Posts Tagged With: weather

Digital Klimt in Paris

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

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

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

Paris 2018-007-Edit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Aurora, Sorta

Big news, kinda! We saw the aurora last night! And I write this with exclamation points in order to obscure the fact that in reality, it kinda sucked!

So, yes, we did in fact see the aurora. However, we saw it through a thick cloud haze that utterly obscured the majesty of the thing. What we actually saw was a vague, ever so slightly green, barely visible and poorly defined curtain of light that waxed and waned and changed shape over the course of a few minutes. It occupied a band covering a good 60° of the sky, though only sections were visible at a time, and barely visible at that. It was thrilling in concept only — box checked! — and did not remotely compare to the jaw-dropping display that I beheld in Alaska over 20 years ago. But we have another shot at it: they (the aurora mavens) are forecasting with near certainty that there will be a display tonight. (Yes, there is such a thing as an aurora forecast.) It has been cloudy and drizzly all day but the weather forecast calls for some clearing around midnight. So we will try again; this may be our last good shot at it because the aurora forecast projects the likelihood of a display to drop off significantly for the remainder of our stay.

Before I relate today’s travels I first want to revisit one of yesterday’s stops: the “pseudocraters” dotting Lake Mývatn. I didn’t have enough battery power in my controller to fly the drone yesterday, but remedied that oversight today. An aerial view conveys a much clearer picture of the collapsed cones and their setting on the lake.

Iceland Myvatn Pseudocraters Drone-02-Edit

Nice, huh? (I love my drone.)

Breakfast this morning was an excellent buffet with an, um, unusual view. Remember that this is a “farm resort”, and if we had somehow had any doubts about this, they were dispelled when we sat down at our table, adjacent to a large picture window looking into the cow pen where the cows were all hooked up to milking machines. I was thinking about this whilst pouring milk over my cereal, as I felt the urge to tap on the window and thank them. It is not a vista that one frequently encounters when eating breakfast in the Washington DC area.

Our original plan was to go whale watching today, but we jettisoned that idea when it became clear that the overcast, intermittently drizzly weather would make that an uncomfortable experience at best. Moreover, we are really past the end of the season; the whales hang out here in summer, so we’d be unlikely to see more than one or two this late in the year. We’ll wait for our return to Hawaii in February if we start jonesing for whales.

The whale tours leave from the town of Húsavík, near the very northern end of the island. Despite having abandoned the idea of whale watching, we decided to head there anyway, in part because it was said to have a somewhat quaint and scenic port, but mostly we wanted to get as far north as we could. Iceland does not quite reach the Arctic Circle, but we wanted to get as far as we could in order to garner some bragging rights. So we actually drove on for about 25 km past Húsavík, until we reached a peninsula that is close to the northernmost point in Iceland. (There is another peninsula that juts a few kilometers farther north, but it was inconveniently distant.) So here we are, intrepid explorers all, at the northernmost point of our journey after finally getting a bit of use out of our four wheel drive:

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If you can read the GPS display in the image, you can see that we are at 66° 12.256′ latitude, about 40 km (25 miles) shy of the Arctic Circle. Guess we’re going to have to go to Scandinavia to cross that line, but this’ll do for now. Unsurprisingly, it is not an especially hospitable place, a desolate rocky coast littered with coarse pink and orange seaweed (!) washed by a low surf. This is a pretty representative view.

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You will be unsurprised to learn that the wind was pretty strong and the weather conditions raw. We only lingered long enough to high five each other, take a bunch of photos, and clamber down the rocks to the surf so that we could dip our hands into the sea and tell our friends that we had touched the Arctic Ocean. We now consider ourselves to be officially awesome.

That mission accomplished, we headed back into Húsavík to have lunch and nose around. It doesn’t have a whole lot to offer other than the whale tours, a whaling museum (which we did not visit), and this locally well-known church that shows up in every picture of the town.

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The church was built in 1907 with wood imported from Norway, and the interior sports a nice nautical blue ceiling as befits its locale. The ceiling beams resemble an inverted boat hull.

The harbor was of course occupied almost entirely by the whale watching boats, which ranged from oversized high-powered Zodiacs to this queen of the fleet, designed to resemble a 19th century whaling vessel.

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We left Húsavík after a late lunch (and a very expensive one, like just about everything here) and headed back to Mývatn. The weather remained overcast with an on-and-off (mostly off) light drizzle, so we stopped at a couple of the prominent geothermal attractions on the way back to the farm. The first of these was Dimmuborgir, the so-called Dark Castle, which is basically — no, not basically, entirely — a collection of lava slag heaps threaded by a walking trail. If that sounds unromantic, look at this picture and tell me I’m wrong.

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It looked sufficiently unexciting that we contented ourselves with taking some obligatory photos from this viewpoint, using the bathrooms, and moving to our next stop, which was a lot more impressive.

That would be the Hverfjall cinder cone, a truly monumental formation that reminded me of a lava version of Uluru (Ayer’s Rock) in Australia. Black, 150 meters (500 feet) high and a kilometer across, it’s about the most ominous-looking thing you can imagine, and it took a drone flight to do it justice. So here is what it looks like from 300 meters (1000′) in the air and 800 meters (half a mile) away.

Iceland Myvatn Cinder Cone Drone-002-Edit

There’s a trail, walkable in about 15 minutes, that follows the least-steep side from the parking lot up to the crater rim. Janet and Tim made the hike; Alice napped in the car while I flew the drone.

And that was today… so far. We ate sandwiches in our rooms for dinner as we await the predicted improvement in the weather, anticipating a much hoped-for view of the aurora after midnight. I’ve already dialed in my camera settings in a display of faux optimism, or perhaps a dose of sympathetic magic. I’ll let you know tomorrow if we got lucky.

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

Cold Water, Hot Water

Yesterday was a watery kind of day, not in the meteorological sense — the weather was surprisingly mild — but in the sense that most of our destinations involved either looking at or being immersed in water. Our first destination was the tourist-heavy Gullfoss waterfall (that “-foss” suffix in fact means “waterfall” in Icelandic), which holds a special place in Icelanders’ hearts because of the repeated failed attempts over the decades to exploit it for hydroelectric power. But, atypically for much of the world, the preservationists have repeatedly prevailed and the site remains pristine if you don’t count the endless stream of tour buses.

The two hour drive to Gullfoss took us pass scenes like these, which in some ways are Iceland as its finest, at least when the weather cooperates.

 

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Gullfoss itself is beautiful, large, though not altogether eye-popping in the Niagara or Victoria Falls sense, a pleasing two-tiered cascade through a broad canyon.

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The wind was ferocious, which seems to be Iceland’s default, and which pretty much buries any ambitions I had of getting any aerial imagery with my drone. (The signs forbidding drones didn’t help either.)

Our next stop was a geyser, and not just any old geyser, but the ur-geyser, the geyser after which all geysers are named. Ever wonder where the word “geyser” comes from?Wonder no more, because here it is:

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This particular site was first noticed (and named) by a local traveler in the year 1249, then lapsed into obscurity for 400 years before being rediscovered as a must-visit destination in the 17th century. Now, if you look carefully at the above photo you may notice a certain lack of geothermal activity, in that, well, there doesn’t actually seem to be a geyser there. That is because in the early 20th century its activity started to diminish. Frustrated tourists — this is a true story — started throwing rocks and garbage into the mouth of the geyser, causing its throat to collapse and thus transmogrifying it into a non-geyser, nearly 700 years after its eponymous discovery. Bottom line: the world’s first named geyser….isn’t one anymore.

Fortunately for the tourism industry, one need only walk about 100 meters from this disappointment to the site of the Stokkur geyser, which erupts satisfyingly every 5-10 minutes.

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After watching a couple of eruptions (“Was it good for you too?”) we ate lunch in the form of a private tailgate party — having visited a supermarket for lunch fixings the previous day — and headed to our final destination of the day, the Solfra volcanic fissure in Thingvellir National Park. Thinkvellir is distinguished by one very important geological feature: the boundary between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates runs through it. It is literally the boundary between continents. Here is the basaltic wall that marks the edge of the North American plate:

Iceland Silfra 2018-002-Edit

It’s tall, ominously brownish-gray, and imposing, probably 20 meters tall and looking for all it’s worth like either the entrance to Mordor or the Wall from Game of Thrones. There were no White Walkers in the vicinity (discounting Icelanders’ natural complexion), but there is a notable location, which you can see marked by the flagpole at the right of the photo. That is the original meeting place of the Althing, the Icelandic parliament that has been meeting since the year 930. The chieftains from all over the island would meet there yearly, traveling from all over the island to do so.

The corresponding wall marking the edge of the Eurasian plate is a few kilometers to the east, and the broad plain in between is a sort of geological no man’s land, belonging to neither continent. (This of course causes me to wonder what’s underneath it. Could we, like, jump up and down really hard, break through the ground, and fall all the way to the center of the Earth? Let’s try!)

There is, however, a narrow fissure running parallel to the wall, only a few meters wide in places and about 20 meters deep, fed by a spring whose source is a melting glacier a few kilometers upstream. That means two things: (1) the spring water is filtered through several kilometers of volcanic rock and is thus spectacularly pure and clear (I mean, like distilled water); and (2) the water is seriously ^%$**ing cold, i.e. just a couple of degrees above freezing.

All of which is the lead-in to our snorkeling trip through said fissure, a remarkable experience. We were clad in enormously cumbersome, airtight drysuits. These are highly constricting and basically constrain you to floating on the surface like a straitjacketed Michelin Man. But they do you keep you dry and reasonably warm: the only part of your body that is exposed is your lips, since you need to bite on the snorkel to breathe. So here I am in the channel:

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The water has a vertical visibility of its full depth (~20 m) and a horizontal visibility of about 6-8 times that. You read that right: you can see about 150 meters horizontally through the water. It is like swimming through very viscous blue-green air, quite the unearthly sensation.

There is almost no fish life in the channel, but there is quite a lot of exotic multicolored strands and blobs of algae coating many of the rocks. In some places the channel looks like someone went crazy with cans of Silly String.

There is a place where the channel is narrow enough to touch both sides at once, and of course the tour operators exploit this by taking photos of everyone doing so. They advertise this quite incorrectly as touching both continents at once; our enthusiastic and voluble guide Kate explained all this to us and swore us to utter secrecy. So don’t tell anyone!

Kate herself is worth a mention. A Canadian semi-expat, she spends summers as a tour guide in Iceland. Tall, athletic, and enthusiastic, she is thus the archetype of the 20-something outdoor adventure guide. And she’s got the piece of paper to prove it: her college degree is in (wait for it) “Adventure Tourism”. That is definitely the diploma that you want to have.

After de-drysuiting and downing some hot chocolate, we returned to Reykjavik, ate diner, and went out for a final nighttime view of the Harpa. We’re about to leave for our next destination: the town of Borganes.

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Categories: Europe, Iceland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Oahu and Aloha

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pali lookout

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

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

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

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

Makapuu Lighthouse

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

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

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

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

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

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And now you know where Darth Vader goes on vacation.

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: Hawaii | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Instant Zen, and Rolling Your Own Sushi

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

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

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Feeling serene yet?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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…the three-stringed shamisen…

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…and the shakuhachi (bamboo flute)…

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

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

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“….”E-I-E-I-OOOOOO…”

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

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

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Hakone in the Mist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It wasn’t pretty.

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

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

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Sailor Moon Vs the Dancing Corpse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This afternoon: sumo match. Stay tuned.

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Land of the Rising Sun and Falling Rain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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En Garda!

With great reluctance we took leave of our castle yesterday afternoon, pausing only to hand out pennies to the serfs who were throwing rose petals in our path. Well, no actually. We did however, get to chat with the owners, or more accurately the managers, Maria and Gabriele, a handsome thirty-ish couple with two small children who run the place (and several others) on behalf of Maria’s grandfather , who bought the place from an eccentric baroness (really) ten years ago. Turns out that we were only the second guests, ever.

Maria also told us a bit of the castle’s history. (She has done some research and is preparing a brochure which has not yet been translated into English.) The oldest part of the castle dates from the 14th century, with various parts being added and renovated all the way up to the 19th. Our apartment was originally part of the one of the older sections, though has obviously undergone a series of renovations. (14th century electrical wiring was notoriously unreliable.)

Our goal lay to the northwest towards the mountains, in particular the resort region of Lake Garda, with a stop along the way in Verona. And as in the previous couple of days we eschewed the Autostrade in favor of the proverbial scenic route, wending our sinuous way through an endless series of hairpin turns up and down through the hills so that we could enjoy the views of the countryside, e.g.:

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Those are grape vines in the lower right, by the way. They are ubiquitous.

Scenes like this were a fine reward for taking this route, of course, but the driving itself was exhausting, a master-class exercise in heel-and-toe work on the clutch, brake, gas, and stick. It was one of the few occasions when I would have been happy to sacrifice my Manliness Points for driving a stick shift in favor of a good old pedestrian automatic transmission.

Verone lay at about the halfway point between Vicenza and Lake Garda, so we stopped there for lunch and to look around. It’s a lively city of about a quarter-million inhabitants, dating all the way back to about 500 BC. It became officially Roman in about 100 BC, and as they did everywhere else the Romans left their architectural mark, in the form of high city walls that encompass the city center and, most notably, a large amphitheater that looks remarkably (and unsurprisingly) like the Roman Coliseum.

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It is, however, in rather better repair than its big brother in Rome, because the choice was made to repurpose it for modern performances rather than preserve its full archaeological value. Hence the performance space, rather than being a field of collapsed columns, looks like this:

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Great for Bar Mitzvahs

The bowels of the structure are a lot more historical looking, however:

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Lions enter on the left, Christians please continue around to the right.

 

The arena has a seating capacity of 30,000 and is used for every kind of performance: opera, plays by Shakespeare through Tennessee Williams (“Gatto Sul Tetto Che Scotta” = “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”), and rock concerts (Mumford & Sons this June!).

As you can tell, the seating is a mix of folding chairs down at ground level, and both aluminum bleachers and the original stone steps above. The stone steps, though brutal on my poor arthritic knees, are beautifully preserved and beautiful in their own right, being a mix of different colored stone:

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We climbed to the uppermost row of seats to get a view of the town, in particular the teeming square adjacent to the amphitheater. Verona is quite the tourist draw, in part because of its mention in a couple of Shakespeare’s plays, and of course for the amphitheater itself as well as other Roman architectural legacies.   The square is lined with restaurants and alive with tourists, strolling locals, tchotchke vendors, and political groups making their pitch from canopied folding tables.

Verona does not shy from its literary connection to Shakespeare, far from it. The local authorities will no doubt be forever grateful that Romeo and Juliet was set here, as that fact alone is probably responsible for a measurable fraction of the tourist traffic. And indeed, somewhere in the city there is a balcony that is advertised as the one that Juliet stood on for her immortal “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” speech. This of course is completely idiotic, Juliet being a fictional character and Shakespeare never having left England. I was ranting on this topic and complained, “Hey, if you have any friends in Missouri who live in a house with a white picket fence, tell them that they can make money by advertising it as the one that Tom Sawyer talked his friends into whitewashing!” Whereupon Elaine informed me that such a fence does in fact exist, in Mark Twain’s home town of Hannibal, MO. Which just goes to show that it is not possible to be too cynical. In any case, we did not seek out the pointlessly-famous balcony, so I cannot tell you what it looks like.

We left Verona, and our driver (me) having tired of hairpin turns, headed directly to the resort town of Gardone Riviera on the western shore of Lake Garda, in the foothills of the Alps about 60 miles from the Swiss border. The weather, alas, has been deteriorating, and so our view of the gorgeous multitude of orange-tiled roofs along the shore was hindered by low-hanging clouds and a very light drizzle.  Still, we found our flat, a modern two-bedroom affair, nothing compared to our previous digs but enjoying a beautiful view of the lake. Here are some shots taken from the balcony outside our bedroom:

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Verona & Garda-8

Our flat is high on the hillside, nestled in a maze of the ever-present steep, narrow, winding cobblestone streets. (Navigating them by car is all sorts of fun.) The owner recommended a gourmet restaurant right down the street, where we enjoyed an excellent meal whose dishes included a rather unusual array of ingredients: Alice’s included spelt pasta with octopus sauce; mine was a fish mousse. If for some reason you ever find yourself in this particular town, by all means eat at Osteria Antica Brolo. Tell them that Fabrizio Pollini sent you.

The weather today is pretty bad, chilly and drizzly, and so we are setting aside our more ambitious touring plans. As it happens we are very close to a large and famously bizarre Addams-Family-style mansion, the Vittoriale D’Annunzio, whose eccentric owner decorated it with knick-knacks like gilded turtle shells that happened to catch his fancy. A more complete report later…

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The Big Splash and the Long Goodbye (Oct 17)

Today was our last full day of the trip and we spent it mostly doing one thing, which was getting very, very wet. We are still at Iguazú Falls and today was our visit to the Argentine side. This would have been a reprise of my own visit here 12 years ago but for one change that happened here in the past year, which is that the walkway that I trod at that time no longer exists, having been wiped out by a flood just last July. That’s a pity: the walkway was a dramatic catwalk that cantilevered way out over the gorge up to the face of the Devil’s Throat, the largest of the 270 cataracts. (We got pretty close to it yesterday from the Brazilian side, fortunately.) But last July’s rains were record-breakers, with water levels reaching unprecedented heights and doing damage to a number of the paths; indeed, we are still experiencing the aftermath of the rains in the form of exceptionally high water volumes over the falls, as I mentioned yesterday.

We arrived at the park in the morning, for the twin reasons of beating the crowds and beating the heat: the temperature hit 102°F today, and let me assure you that it is not a dry heat. It is in fact a sponge-soaking, sweltering, who-stole-all-the-oxygen, oh-my-god-why-am-I-here heat. So better the morning than the afternoon.

“Hand over the table scraps and no one gets hurt.”

There are a couple of ways in which the Argentine side of the park differs from the Brazilian side, one of which being the proliferation of raccoon-like coatimundis (universally called coatis, pronounced co-AH-tees). They’re everywhere, big family groups scampering in the woods, ambling across the walking paths, and wrestling each other on the ground and in the trees. They are about the size of raccoons, somewhat more lithe-looking, and with pointier snouts. (Here’s one at left.)

They’re cute, they’re great marketing material — you got your coati hats and tee shirts in the gift shop — and they’re brazen, hanging around the various snack bars to look for food targets of opportunity. And so of course the inevitable happens, which is that numbskull tourists try and hand-feed them and end up with an impressive collection of souvenir bite marks and lacerations. The park authorities, needless to say, try to discourage this, primarily by means of extremely graphic, medical grade warning signs depicting said bite marks and lacerations.

A suspicious butterfly, signaling his gang

Another attraction that distinguishes the Argentine park is butterflies, lots of them. We saw quite a few yesterday but many, many more today, probably ten varieties if not more. Like the coatis, they’re pretty brazen too, alighting everywhere and on everyone. I am not aware of any serious injuries resulting from butterfly attacks, however. (But I can see how it would happen. You’re crossing one of the metal catwalks across a high gorge with a roaring cataract below. Suddenly a cloud of butterflies comes fluttering out of nowhere, harassing you around the eyes! You swat at them but there are too many, and you’re not watching where you’re going so you bump into a lady in a wheelchair and stumble over the railing, plummeting a hundred feet, screaming and flailing, into the roiling whitecapped cascade below.)

Sorry, I got a little distracted there. What I was thinking of was something that did in fact happen today, which is that a woman in a wheelchair bumped into something whilst on a catwalk and her camera went flying over the edge and into liquid oblivion. No butterflies were involved. At least, none that we know of; they all have alibis. Anyway, here is one of the fearless butterflies, pictured at right.

Lost in all this talk about dangerous creatures are the falls themselves, which are about as spectacular on the Argentine side as in Brazil. So here they are, or more accurately a small part of them:

*Part* of the Argentine falls at Iguazú

Our goal today was a boat ride, in particular a boat ride straight into the bottom of the falls. This is about as insane and fun as it sounds. It’s rather hard to convey — you’ll have to wait till we post the video after we get home — but here’s what it looks like from above, as another boat enters the falls. The boat is that barely visible mist-cloaked triangular shape to the left of the rocks at the right side of the picture.

People paying to get very wet

The boats are open and hold maybe 25 people, all wearing life vests (of course), and all having stored their wallets, cameras, etc., etc., in sealed oilskin bags provided by the operators.

A prelude to getting lots more wet than this

But I am getting ahead of myself. The first thing that happens is that you have to get down to the river from the walkways way up at the tops of the falls. This involves, first, a long gentle traversing pathway that takes you about halfway down the cliffside, followed by a large number of stone steps down to river’s edge, followed by a rocky walkway along the river and about 30 feet above it. There are a number of spectacular viewpoints along the way, such as this one at right.

The problem with walking down all those steps, of course, is that (a) you are doing it in 102° heat, and (b) you are going to have to walk back up those steps later, when you are soaked to the skin. This is the price we pay for adventure tourism.

Once at the boarding point, we are issued life vests, the aforementioned dry bags, and we march aboard and sit down. As we cast off we receive a loud and insistent safety briefing entirely in Spanish, which we assume pretty much says, “Don’t do anything that a drunken 19 year old fraternity pledge would do.”

Blub blub, gurgle gurgle

The current is strong, the cataracts deafening, and the boat’s engine nearly a match for them. We charge up the river, make a few tight turns for the hell of it, then gun the motor and charge straight into the falls. WHHOOOSH!! Instant hurricane, pounding, blinding rain and swirling mist, the falls barely visible, looming directly atop us and thundering down onto us like a swimming pool dropped onto our heads from 100 feet up, which is pretty much what it is. Everybody screams and laughs as the irresistible current pushes us back out of the falls, the water pressure overwhelming the engine thrust. What a rush! I think even my internal organs got wet.

Julio had instructed everyone to chant “Uno mas!” (“One more time!”) over and over again as we came out of the falls to induce the boat driver to give us an encore. Which he did: we went under the falls four times and came out looking like drowned rats. (See my spousal drowned rat at left, partly obscured by drops on our thankfully waterproof camera lens.)

Exhilarated and soaked to the skin as we were, the task before us was to retrace our steps back up the cliffside. The water, of course, was wonderfully refreshing and its gradual evaporation as we hiked back up provided some cooling against the otherwise oppressive heat. By the time we reached the top, we were about 2/3 dry and ready to start sweating and stifling again. So we took a lunch break at the inevitable snack bar at the top (taking care not to feed the coatis lest mutilation ensue), rode the van back to the hotel, and variously showered, napped, and vegged out for the rst of the day.

Which brings us to the end of our adventure. Tomorrow morning we fly back to Buenos Aires, kill most of the day there, and fly home on a red eye via Miami tomorrow (Saturday) night. We’ve got a several-hour layover there, so we’ll walk through the door of our home near dinnertime on Sunday.

We have seen and some so much that it seems like forever ago that we landed in Santiago and struck out for the Atacama desert. Here are several stats for the South America part of the trip:

 Highest temperature  102° today and yesterday at Iguazú Falls
 Lowest temperature  20° at Tatio Geyser Field in the Atacama Desert
 Highest elevation  14,020′ at Tatio Geyser Field
 Lowest elevation  Sea level! (On the Via Australis Zodiacs, of course)
 Strongest wind  56 mph at Torres del Paine National Park
 Northernmost latitude   -25° 41′ at Iguazú Falls
 Southernmost latitude  -55° 59′ at Cape Horn
 Number of hotel rooms  11
 Plane flights  7 (plus 4 more to and from the US)

So we’ve spanned 30° of latitude, 14,020′ of elevation, and 82° of temperature. We saw calving glaciers and flamingoes living in desert salt flats; we walked on the southernmost point of land outside Antarctica; watched penguins; power-boated under a 200′ waterfall; rode a Zodiac through an ice-choked fjord; saw herds of guanáco and llamas roaming desert hillsides; drove across the Argentine pampas; and made an offering to some crazy semi-Catholic idol who isn’t even an official saint.

We took 2850 pictures. It was a great vacation.

 

 

  

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