Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Beijing: Day 1

October 4, 2008

After visiting Xi’an, the next stop on my 12-day trek through China was Beijing.

When I made the trip, Google Maps didn’t display any detail for China, with the exceptions of Hong Kong and Macao, but it seems that the Chinese government relaxed and cooperated in time for the Olympics, and now there are full street maps and the satellite images zoom in all the way.  That would have made traveling much easier, but oh well.

I arrived in Beijing by overnight train at around 7:15am, not well rested, but not a mess either.  I’d paid the $56 for a bunk in a “soft sleeper,” which is a good price considering that it combines lodging and transportation and is cheaper than a plane ticket.  A “hard sleeper” goes for $36, but those sell out quickly and are, of course, less comfortable.  They have triple bunks, no doors, and thin mattresses, whereas soft sleepers are in lockable 4-person compartments, with somewhat better beds.

My three bunk-mates, two men and a woman, were traveling together, and amazingly, were also English-speaking foreign residents of Japan.  They were university students, and like me, they were on a spring break vacation. One guy was from Kuwait and the woman and the other man seemed to be from Southeast Asia, maybe Malaysia.  We compared our experiences in Xi’an and I mentioned that I really liked the Great Mosque.  The Kuwaiti said that the three of them had also visited the mosque, and at the gate, he said hello in Arabic and was greeted with a “Welcome, brother!” and had his entrance fee waived.  But his two non-Muslim companions had to pay, which he viewed as discriminatory.  I thought that it spoke well of him that he felt that way, but I can understand the mosque’s policy.  If non-worshipers didn’t have to pay, then the mosque would have constant problems with vendors, beggars, and scammers, and it would be difficult to maintain the tranquility that I admired so much.

After arriving in Beijing’s South Station, the three students and I parted ways, and I headed out into the gray and drizzly morning in search of breakfast.  Yoshinoya, a Japanese fast food chain, was the only restaurant in the bleak area around the station (which, like much of the city, was under heavy construction), so that’s where I had my first meal in Beijing.  I would rather have eaten local food, but at least it was cheap and filling.

After breakfast, I found my hotel, dropped off my luggage, and then went back out into the city.

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I spent the rest of the morning at the Temple of Heaven.

The playing field to the east gives an idea of how big the place is.

Built in the early 1400s, the Temple of Heaven was visited yearly by emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties, who performed rituals here to pray for good harvests.

Appropriately enough, the main building – the northernmost dark blue mark on the map – is known as the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests.

The blue roof tiles represent heaven, as do circles.  Earth, on the other hand, is represented by squares.

Following the long path south of the Hall of Prayer leads to the Imperial Vault of Heaven, which holds imperial ancestral tablets.

The vault is surrounded by the Echo Wall.  Supposedly, two people standing at opposite ends of the courtyard can hold a conversation in normal speaking voices, thanks to the acoustics of the wall, but it was too noisy with visitors when I was there.

Just south of the Imperial Vault is the Circular Mound Altar.

The number nine is associated with the emperor, and the flagstones forming the top of the mound are arranged in nine rings around a center stone, with a multiple of nine stones in each ring, so that the inner ring has nine and the outer ring has 81.

This is the view back to the north.

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Lunch was a bit of a disaster.

I wanted to eat Peking duck in its home city, but I picked a lousy restaurant.  After I ordered, restaurant employees sat down nearby and had their own lunch while I waited half an hour before getting any tea, and another 15 minutes for my food.  And when the food finally came, it was pretty mediocre.  I had better Peking duck in Yokohama.  So if you’re ever in the neighborhood just south of Tiananmen Square, don’t bother with Jinzhengyang Restaurant (金正阳酒楼), eat somewhere else.

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I spent the afternoon at Yonghe Temple, commonly known as the Lama Temple.  As the name suggests, the Lama Temple belongs to the Tibetan branch of Buddhism.

The temple’s name plate is written in four languages.

From left to right:  Mongolian, Tibetan, Chinese, and Manchu.

The Lama Temple was originally built as a residence for court eunuchs in 1694.  In 1711 it became a prince’s palace, and when the prince became emperor in 1723, he converted half of his former palace into a lamasery.  The other half was converted following the emperor’s death in 1735.  It became the city’s largest and most important Tibetan Buddhist temple and was given imperial status, marked by yellow roof tiles.  The temple was spared during the Cultural Revolution – which saw many other temples destroyed or made into factories – purportedly due to the intervention of Premier Zhou Enlai.

The buildings in the temple are packed closely together, making them hard to photograph.

I tried (too) hard to fit this one in the frame, but it wasn’t happening.

Inside, by the way, is the world’s largest statue carved from a single piece of wood, an 18-meter-tall figure of Maitreya, the Future Buddha.  Alas, no pictures were allowed in any of the buildings.  But here’s a neat guardian lion.

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Dinner was much, much more successful than lunch.  I ate at Luogu Dongtian (锣鼓洞天), whose English name is Drum and Gong Fusion Restaurant, although the characters literally mean “gong-drum-cave-heavens.”

The restaurant says it serves fusion food, but I’d describe most of the menu as Chinese home cooking with a Sichuan bent.  In any case, the food was inexpensive and very good.

I returned to my hotel with a happy stomach and collapsed into bed.  The next day I visited the Great Wall.

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Certification and City Gods

October 2, 2008

Alright, back in the saddle.

I spent the last few weeks studying for the CompTIA A+ certification, and now that I’ve passed the two tests (Woo hoo!), it’s high time I attended to this blog.  I’m writing a post on my visit to Beijing, but while I’m working on that, here’s a random picture.  This is at the Temple of the City Gods, in Xi’an.

There wasn’t that much to see, especially with several buildings under renovation, but this and Hong Kong’s Man Mo Temple are the only Taoist temples I’ve been to.

Kyoto: Food!

July 13, 2008

With just half a month to go before I leave Japan and the JET Program, I’ve been really busy and my blog has languished as a result.  I’ll probably finish writing about my China travels after I’ve returned to the US, but I’ll try to squeeze in some posts before I leave.

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Yesterday, packing be damned, I went to Kyoto.

Last Christmas, I was given an excellent book called Old Kyoto, which details traditional shops, restaurants, and inns in the former capital.  I haven’t had many chances to get over to Kyoto since then, so I made time this weekend and visited a few places from the book.

I got a late start – partly due to a farewell party the night before and partly because I had to do some laundry – so my first stop in Kyoto was for lunch.  I ate at Minokō, a cha-kaiseki restaurant in the Gion district.

Cha-kaiseki is a sort of haute cuisine served to accompany a tea ceremony.  At lunch, the restaurant serves an informal, less elaborate version in shared rooms.

(A bit blurry, alas.)  Inside Minokō, dark, wooden hallways lead to tatami mat rooms like this one, all very traditional, except for the table cloths and central air conditioning.  For dinner, you get a private room.

The meal began with matcha tea and some sweets.

The green container held toothpicks.  I suppose I should have moved it out of the shot, but oh well.

After tea, lunch was brought out in a chabako, a lacquer box meant for taking tea implements to picnics.

The jar on the left held rice and the red stuff was a dipping sauce made from pickled Japanese plums.  Inside the box were two layers.

I won’t list everything in the box – I don’t even know what some of it was – but here’s a better look at the three cups from the bottom.

In addition to the box, they also brought out a plate of grilled eggplant with a miso-based sauce.

And of course, no traditional Japanese meal is complete without more tea.

In this case, hōjicha, roasted green tea.

Finally, a small, simple dessert of watermelon ended the meal.

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After lunch, I walked to nearby Kennin-ji, Kyoto’s first Zen temple, established in 1202.

Like any proper Zen temple, it has rock gardens . . .

. . . and green gardens.

Nice, if nothing special.

The temple also had some notable art.  This is a replica of a 400-year-old screen painting of wind and lightning gods.  The original is a designated national treasure and is now held at Kyoto National Museum.

Old ink paintings decorated some of the walls.

And a brand new painting covers the ceiling of the Dharma Hall.

It was created to celebrate the temple’s 800th anniversary.

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After my temple detour, I got back to checking out places mentioned in Old Kyoto.

One was Aritsugu, a kitchen knife shop that’s been in business since 1560.  I didn’t take any pictures, but their knives are all hand-forged, and were clearly of outstanding quality.  A couple of professional chefs were talking business as the knives they had bought were sharpened and polished one more time before being boxed up.

Aritsugu is on the Nishiki market street, which is known as “Kyoto’s Kitchen” and is an experience in itself.  Many shops on Nishiki take pains to do things the old-fashioned way.  Here, for example, is an assortment of pickled vegetables displayed in the handsome, traditional pickling tubs used to make them.

The brown stuff is rice bran, the pickling agent in this case.

After wandering around Nishiki I headed to the main store of Ippodo, a tea shop that has been around since 1717.  Ippodo was an official purveyor to the Imperial Household, and although such designations ended after World War II, the company hasn’t lost its reputation.  I bought a can of tea leaves, and while I was there, I ducked into the shop’s cafe/tasting room and tried some “koicha,” thick matcha.  It was indeed thick.  Really, really thick.  After drinking it, you add more water and make regular matcha just using the tea left coating the cup.  Crazy stuff.

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Before heading back to Kobe, I grabbed dinner at Matsuno, an eel restaurant a few doors down from the Minami-za theater.  Good eel restaurants can be pretty expensive, so I ordered something simple.

Grilled eel over rice, with green tea, pickles, and beer.  Just this was thirty dollars, not counting the beer, but it was very good, and surprisingly filling.

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That’s all for now.  Next week is the last week of class, and the following week I’m using the last of my paid leave to clear out my apartment.  I’m glad I paid attention to my vacation days.  Some poor suckers will be stuck at school with absolutely nothing to do.

If I can get packing and cleaning done quickly, I think I’ll make one more visit to Kyoto, but if this one was my last, I guess I did alright.

Xi’an: Day 3

June 15, 2008

On the morning of my third and final day in Xi’an, I visited the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, about a ten-minute bus ride south of the old city walls.

The pagoda was originally built in 652 to hold Buddhist sutras brought from India by the Chinese monk, Xuanzang, whose travels were the basis for the enduringly popular novel, Journey to the West.

Xuanzang set out for India at age 28, heading west from Chang’an (Xi’an) along the Silk Road through the deserts of central Asia, and then south into India via present-day Afghanistan.  He then spent about 15 years traveling and studying in India before returning to Chang’an with 657 sutras.  Xuanzang had to sneak out of Chang’an when he began his trek, since China was at war with the Eastern Turks and travel was restricted, but after his return, he was made the abbot of a temple and received imperial support to create a translation bureau to convert his mountain of Sanskrit sutras into Chinese.  The translations he produced spread throughout East Asia and had a significant effect on Buddhism in the region.

So Big Wild Goose Pagoda is a very important historical site.  Unfortunately, the temple’s current state is somewhat depressing.  The buildings are kept in good condition, but at least four have been turned into souvenir shops, and there was even a shop on the first floor of the pagoda itself, selling tacky toys with flashing lights and noisy sound effects.  Meanwhile, signs prohibit any “superstitious activity” – i.e. actual religion – at the former religious institution, which is now a tourist attraction first and a temple not at all.

Luckily, my day didn’t stay depressing.  When I moved on to the Great Mosque of Xi’an, the situation was very different.

With its position at the northwest edge of central China, Xi’an has a community of perhaps 60,000 Muslims, mostly belonging to the Hui ethnic minority, and mostly living together in the city’s “Muslim Quarter.” This is a halal restaurant in the Muslim Quarter.

If you look closely, you can see Arabic on the shop sign and the glass case.

The Great Mosque has been the center of worship for this community since its foundation in 742, and it was clearly clearly receiving the love and respect sadly absent from the pagoda.  For example, shortly after I arrived an afternoon prayer service began, and when it was finished, I saw the worshipers clearing fallen twigs and seed pods from the walkways as they departed.  And certainly, no one was selling anything.

Here’s the worship hall.


The name board is in Arabic, but you’ll notice that the building is completely Chinese in style.  In fact, the whole mosque looks like a temple.  The current buildings mostly date from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644).

This is the mosque’s minaret.

Least traditional minaret ever.

Leaving the Great Mosque with my mood repaired, I wandered around Xi’an for the rest of the afternoon and then took an overnight train to Beijing.

And that’s where I’ll pick up next time.

Xi’an: Day 2

May 31, 2008

The 7.9-magnitude earthquake that hit Sichuan province has killed more than 68,000 people by the current count and left millions homeless. I was fortunate enough to be well out of the country when the disaster occurred, although in any case the closest I got to the future epicenter was Xi’an, more than 400 miles distant.

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But earthquakes certainly are scary things. The quality of a building’s construction is probably the biggest factor determining safety, but even if your building is earthquake-proof, that won’t matter if a mountain falls on you, and even if you don’t have that danger, things like gas leaks and soil liquefaction can still do you in.

And aside from loss of life, there’s destruction to homes, businesses, and infrastructure. The 1995 Kobe Earthquake “only” killed about 6,400 people, but it still holds the record for the costliest natural disaster to befall a single country, with $200 billion in damage. Kobe was Japan’s busiest port before the quake, but although the city has recovered, it’s now the number four port and isn’t likely to regain its former prominence.

But back to my travels.

On my second day in Xi’an, I visited the famous Terracotta Army, which lies a fair distance outside the city. Statues were discovered in 1974 by farmers digging a well and are still being slowly excavated and restored. The life-sized figures number in the thousands and the enclosures protecting the several excavation sites are as big as aircraft hangers.

The army was built to accompany the First Emperor into the afterlife. The Qin dynasty also soon followed him into death, but the emperor definitely left his mark on history. As he forged the empire, he standardized measures, currency, laws, and writing. He undertook immense canal and road building projects, and he connected several walls left over from the Warring States period into the predecessor of the Great Wall. He also ruthlessly repressed Confucianism, which stresses that rulers should be virtuous and benevolent, burning books and burying hundreds of Confucian scholars alive (Confucianism was revived in the next dynasty, though). He did everything on a grand scale and his burial arrangements were no exception.

The Terracotta Army includes not only infantry, but also archers, charioteers, horses, officers, generals, and even some jugglers. Their uniforms differ by rank, but even among soldiers of the same type, you can see variation in faces and clothing.

I think this is a so-called “heavenly horse,” a Ferghana.

The horses were imported from Bactria, and although they’re much smaller than Arabians, they’re larger and faster than the little Mongolian horses that had previously been used in China and they were highly prized.

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After returning to the city, I spent the end of the day at the “Stele Forest.”

The Stele Forest is a collection of more than 2,000 stelae, kept within a Confucian temple. The stone blocks are inscribed with all manner of things, including books, poetry, memorials, and the occasional map or diagram.

There’s some pretty major stuff in the collection. For example, this stele is the first record of Christianity in China.

It was carved in 781 and it documents the spread of Nestorian Christianity since it entered the empire in 635. Christianity was later outlawed and the stele was buried and forgotten until being unearthed in the 17th century.

Content aside, on many stelae, the writing itself is a treasure. The work of a number of famous calligraphers is in the collection and a variety of styles are represented. Alas, due to glare, I don’t have any decent pictures of the best calligraphy, but I can at least show some different types of writing.

This is seal script, so called because today it’s mostly only used in official seals.

The newly codified characters mandated by the Qin emperor were written in seal script. Although it is thoroughly abstract and stylized, it’s closer to the writing system’s pictographic origins than later forms. I think this stele is a guide to writing seal script made after it had passed out of daily use, because it’s subtitled in the “regular script” seen here.

Regular script, which evolved out of clerical hand, is what people use today. It’s the easiest style to read and write.

And for an even bigger contrast, this is cursive, known as grass script.

I find it amazing that anyone can actually read grass script. When I see Japanese written in the style I can never make out more than a couple words.

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Well this entry took forever. I’ll try to speed up my pace as far as time allows, because at this rate, I’ll be back in the States before I finish writing about China. Just two months to go. Yikes.

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Addendum:

Here’s a neat chart from Wikipedia showing how the character for “tiger” evolved from a pictograph to its modern, abstract form.

As an aside, it’s worth noting that only a small fraction of Chinese characters have direct pictographic origins. Most are composed of one part indicating the general meaning and another part supplying the pronunciation (at the time the character was invented, that is). For example, “language,” 語, is made of a part indicating speech-related words, 言, plus a part giving the pronunciation, 吾, whose own meaning (“my”) is unrelated to that of final character. Alas, things are complicated by how pronunciation has changed over the centuries. Although 語 and 吾 were both pronounced something like “go” during the Han dynasty, modern Mandarin says “yǔ” and “wú” respectively. So while there is logic in how characters were made, the task of learning them today is mostly rote memorization.

Xi’an: Day 1

May 6, 2008

From Guilin, I flew north to Xi’an.

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Xi’an lies in the dusty but fertile Wei River valley, one of the cradles of Chinese civilization. This spot near the Wei River, the largest tributary of the Yellow River, was frequently the location of China’s capital.

An attempt at an abridged history:

The capital of the Western Zhou dynasty (1046-771 BC) was near present day Xi’an. When, in 771 BC, the King of Zhou replaced his queen with a concubine, the queen’s family sacked the city and put her son on the throne at a new capital, beyond the mountains to the east. Central power weakened and eventually Zhou dissolved into warring states.

The state of Qin made its capital near the site of the old Western Zhou capital. In 221 BC, the King of Qin conquered the other states and declared himself the First Emperor. His rule accomplished amazing things, but was also brutally repressive. After he died, the empire became a mess within months, with rebellions all over, and the Qin dynasty didn’t last long.

In 206 BC the Han dynasty was established. The Han capital, Chang’an, was near the ruined Qin capital. The Han dynasty was a golden age in Chinese history – today, China’s ethnic majority call themselves Han Chinese – and Chang’an flourished both as the capital of the empire and as the eastern end of the Silk Road.

As dynasties came and went, the capital moved many times, but it often returned to Chang’an. At its zenith as the capital of the Tang dynasty (618-907) – China’s second golden age – Chang’an was possibly the largest city in the world. However, it was sacked near the end of the Tang dynasty and never regained its former glory.

In the 14th century, Chang’an was given new, much smaller city walls and renamed Xi’an.

The walls still stand today. This is the south gate, as seen from the old bell tower.

Unlike the Li River pictures from the last post, by the way, this haze is from pollution.

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I spent an evening and two days in Xi’an. For dinner on the first night, I had a Xi’an specialty, “yangrou paomo,” which is mutton soup poured over torn-up flatbread.

You prepare the bread yourself (I’m halfway done in this picture).

. . . and then the server takes your bowl and adds the soup. This restaurant used metal rings to mark which bowl belonged to which table.

Yangrou paomo’s traditional accompaniment is pickled garlic. I’ve heard people say that it’s meant to counter the oiliness of the mutton, but I think the dubious looking drink on the left did a better job. The restaurant called the seed-filled concoction “yellow tea.” I think it was what is more often called “eight-treasure tea,” a northern Chinese drink whose recipe has many variations.

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Alright, that’s all for now. I’ll continue with Xi’an in another post.

The Li River

April 25, 2008

Leaving Hong Kong, my first stop on the continent was the city of Guilin.

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Guilin is over two thousand years old, but it doesn’t show much of its history. It’s now just a standard modern Chinese city, dirty and made up of ugly concrete buildings. This small lake-park is probably the nicest spot inside the city.

Lake Shan

Guilin itself doesn’t have much to offer, but that was fine. I went not for the city, but for the countryside – for the otherworldly karst mountains of Song dynasty ink-on-silk paintings.

The first of only two tours I joined on my trip through China was a cruise down the Li River, as far as the town of Yangshuo. It’s a popular thing to do; boats set out one after another.

The scenery really was amazing. It’s been celebrated in paintings and poetry for centuries, and today, this particular point on the river is on the back of the 20 yuan note.

A few houses were scattered along the way, when there was land between mountain and river.

A small number of fishermen plied the river on bamboo rafts.

After four hours, the boat arrived in Yangshuo. Upon disembarking, we were immediately surrounded by dozens of people trying to sell us tourist junk, pushing their wares in our faces, grabbing at sleeves, and saying “hello” over and over. The barrage lessened as we got away from the dock, but throughout the city, you – presuming you are a foreigner – can’t walk three steps without someone trying to part you from your money. It was unpleasant.

Fortunately I didn’t spend much time there. My second and last tour was to see a bit of the country before taking a bus back to Guilin around 5pm.

First we visited an old farmhouse, well outside of town. It was an ordinary family’s house, not a scenic or historic site, but even there a few people tried to sell us postcards and useless trinkets. I imagine these were the neighbors, who weren’t so lucky as to have people paying to see their homes. The upshot is that I don’t have any pictures of the outside of the house, but it was similar to the riverside houses in the earlier photo.

I do have a shot of the front door, though.

Houses throughout China still had red paper decorations on their front doors from the lunar new year, even though it was over a month past. The mirror and scissors, meanwhile, are a local tradition meant to protect the house from wandering ghosts. The idea is that ghosts will be frightened of their own reflections, and if that doesn’t work, the scissors will fall and cut any that try to enter.

We only got to enter as far as the courtyard, but it was still fascinating.

Snake and centipede wines!

A shrine to Mao.

While city people have painful memories of the Cultural Revolution, many poor farmers in the country revere Mao for giving them ownership of their land and ending what was essentially serfdom.

After seeing the house, we went to a tributary of the Li River for a ride on a bamboo boat, including a demonstration of cormorant fishing and local folksongs.

The singing bit was sort of lame, since it was in Mandarin (and not the language that the song comes from), but the tune was local, at least.

All my shots of the cormorants in action came out blurry, but here are some resting.

That’s all for now.

Hong Kong

April 16, 2008

It’s been a week and a half since I returned from China. I’m still worn out from my travels and now I’m suffering from allergies. My brain doesn’t want to cooperate with attempts at writing anything coherent, but I’ll see what I can do.

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Hong Kong.

I had less than half a day in Hong Kong, so I don’t know if my reaction would hold over a longer stay, but I liked Hong Kong the most of all the Chinese cities I visited. It’s very cosmopolitan and doesn’t suffer from the problems of the mainland’s culture (I’ll get to those when I write about Beijing).

Hong Kong is the densest city I’ve seen, at least in terms of buildings. And yet the streets weren’t that crowded with people or cars, compared to Tokyo, anyway. Okay, maybe that’s not a useful comparison, but with so many tall buildings packed so closely together, it felt strange to have so much elbow room. Maybe I’ve just been in Japan for too long.

Hong Kong doesn’t really have any sights other than the city itself, but I did duck into a temple as I was wandering the streets.

This is Man Mo Temple – owned by a hospital, oddly enough – and dedicated to Man, god of literature, and Mo, god of war. The coils are incense and the air inside was thick with it. It was a little strange. The incense smelled neither bad nor good, just strong.

It was at this early point in my travels that my camera started having problems, which to my great frustration continued until I returned to Japan. The image would occasionally flip, which made aiming really difficult. I could still use the mechanical viewfinder rather than the screen, but it doesn’t show the picture’s true borders, so that was only good for aiming.

And so this shot is lousy, but here’s the outside of the temple.

The trees at the top are at street level, so you can see how steep the slope is. The city continues at this grade for block after block, climbing pretty far up the side of Victoria Peak.

I’ve barely written anything, but I’m about ready to collapse, so here’s one last thing before I go to bed.

Hong Kong’s currency isn’t issued by the government, it’s issued by banks, so each denomination has several different versions.

Odd, eh?

Hiroshima and Miyajima

March 23, 2008

My spring break trip to China is just a few days away. On the 26th, I’ll fly to Hong Kong and then visit Guilin, Xi’an, Beijing, and Shanghai, returning to Japan on April 6th. I imagine that I’ll come back with enough material to keep me writing for quite a while, so before that has me occupied, I want to talk about one of my previous excursions that deserves mention.

Back in the beginning of October, I spent a weekend in Hiroshima.

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Hiroshima is of course the first city to have been struck with a nuclear bomb. This building was at the hypocenter of the explosion – the spot directly below the blast point.

Hiroshima A-Bomb Dome

At the nearby memorial museum, a set of pictures taken at the hypocenter not long after the bombing shows a panorama of nothing but miles of scorched rubble.

Hiroshima has recovered impressively from its devastation. The surroundings are beautiful and the city is both vibrant and laid-back. And though as a loyal resident of the Kansai region it pains me to admit it, Hiroshima style okonomiyaki wins over Osaka style.

I spent Saturday night and most of Sunday in Hiroshima, but before that I visited the nearby island of Miyajima.

Miyajima Ferry View

Miyajima (“shrine island”) is properly named Itsukushima, and it’s famous for Itsukushima Shrine’s Shinto gate.

Miyajima Torii

Both the gate and the shrine are at their best when the tide is in.

Miyajima Itsukushima Jinja

If the tide had been in, the shrine would seem like it’s floating on water. Oh well.

Itsukushima Shrine is about 1,400 years old, although its current form dates from 1168. As for the famous gate, it’s not just there to look cool; its position offshore indicates that the entire island is sacred. I’ve heard that to that end, no burials are allowed on the island, even though there are enough residents that it has an elementary school and a junior high.

Like Nara, Miyajima has sacred deer.

Miyajima Deer

They’re a bit less well-behaved than their cousins, though. Whereas the deer in Nara will only bug you if you have food, Miyajima’s love to eat paper, and you have to watch that any maps, tickets, bags, and the like aren’t devoured in an unguarded moment.

Miyajima’s fame resides with the shrine and its gate, without a doubt, but it also has a significant temple.

Miyajima Daishou-in Map

Daishō-in was founded in 806 by Kōbō-Daishi, an important figure in the history of Buddhism in Japan. I’ll write a post about him someday. The Dalai Lama visited the temple on its 1,200th anniversary.

Daishō-in doesn’t feature anything I’d rate as must-see, but a lot of little things made it worth the time.

Like this carving.

Miyajima Daishou-in Medashi-Daruma

Or this one, of a tanuki dressed as a monk.

Miyajima Daishou-in Tanuki

I love his expression.

And there’s always good old Jizō.

Miyajima Daishou-in Jizou

The buildings, meanwhile, were a mix of old and new, although I’m pretty sure that none of the originals remain. The newest construction was the highest main building, which had to be rebuilt after a nasty typhoon in 2004. This is the top floor, looking very new indeed.

Miyajima Daishou-in New

Finally, this is from the basement of another building.

Miyajima Daishou-in Lanterns

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I remembered that Daishō-in actually does have a big draw. On the top of the mountain, a good hike from the main temple, is a building that houses a fire that has been kept burning since the temple’s foundation. Unfortunately, the path up the mountain had been washed out and was closed, so I wasn’t able to take a look.

Yokohama

March 16, 2008

Rather abruptly, it’s spring here in Kobe. Temperatures are at least ten degrees higher than last week, birds are chirping, and the non-evergreen plants are showing signs of life again. Unfortunately, spring has also brought several days when the air is filled with yellow dust from northwest China. Blah.

Last Wednesday was the graduation ceremony at the junior high school. The first and second year students still have a week and a half of classes, though. On the same day, the board of education sent out notice of school placements. I’ll be staying at the same school for my last term.

This news is a month old, but I’ll mention it anyway: I passed the level two JLPT. So I have “mastered grammar to a relatively high level, [know] around 1,000 kanji and 6,000 words, and [have] the ability to converse, read, and write about matters of a general nature.” Still can’t read the blasted newspaper without consulting a dictionary every sentence, though.

Speaking of old news, the conference at Yokohama two weeks ago was in fact worthwhile. Most of the speakers were former JETs, and it was really interesting to hear them talk about where their lives took them after they left the program.

Before and after the conference, I had a little time to explore Yokohama.

Its Chinatown – Chūkagai, literally “China Street” – is purportedly the largest in Japan.

Yokohama Chinatown

Another JET said, “It feels just like Taiwan. Except that it’s clean.”

I also visited Sankei-en, a garden built a hundred years ago by a silk tycoon. More interesting than the garden itself is that the owner had almost a dozen historic buildings moved to the garden.

This one – a 1623 construction of unusual design- was taken from the grounds of Ni-jō, the former shogunal castle in Kyoto.

Yokohama Sankei-en Choshukaku

This is inside a villa built in 1649 by relatives of the shogun.

Yokohama Sankei-en Rinshunkaku

And this isn’t the best picture, but the building shown here was taken from Daitoku-ji. It was built in 1591 by Toyotomi Hideyoshi to celebrate the long life of his mother.

Yokohama Sankei-en Oido

Hideyoshi unified Japan at the end of the Warring States period and led invasions of Korea in the 1590s. He died in 1598, and as the country started to fall apart again, Tokugawa Ieyasu took control and established stable rule with the Tokugawa Shogunate.

That’s all for now.