Posts tagged ‘Travel’
Monday 22nd November
Our first day in Beijing got off to a rough start when we saw a man being dragged by his ankles into a waiting police van by some acne-ridden soilders whose fingertips still hadn’t quite made it to the edge of their coat sleeves. Reserving judgement (and heavily influenced by Katie Melua), we decided to hire some bicycles to get to grips with the city. This, if I may say so myself (and it’s our blog, so I may) was the best idea ever.
First let me explain how the road system works in Beijing. To accomodate the massive amount of people living in the city, the roads range from 4 lanes (for the “tiny” sidealleys) to 12 lanes for the main thoroughfares. On the outside of the road there is a cycling lane – usually around 1 1/2 times the width of a normal lane – which is often closed off by a metal fence. Of course, this being China, it wouldn’t be any fun at all if there wasn’t a little chaos thrown into the mix. With an almost Irish disregard for the rules of the road, people wander in and out of the cycle lanes, bikes dart between 12 lanes of cars and impatient taxis and buses plough through any cyclists that are too slow to outrun them. Crossings are a whole other kettle of fish too. Rather than one filter light turning at a time, cars turning off are given a green at the same time as pedestrians and, with rarely any light to guide them, cyclists tend to just move into a tight formation and dart across the road, relying on the ‘safety in numbers’ principle and hoping that, while killing 1 in 1.3 billion might not raise any eyebrows, taking out 100 might.
So with blatant disregard for our safety, we packed up our baskets and hopped on our bikes. Gary, always the cautious one, took a while to get into the rhythm of things but once I demonstrated the best way to plough through slow pedestrians whilst ringing his bell manically and screaming, there was no stopping him. Barring a few close on calls with buses baring down on us head-on and stopping only 2ft away and a particularly daring u-turn across an 8-lane road, it was pretty smooth sailing.
Having a bike was a blessing as well as an exhilarating near-death experience though because it meant that when we came into contact with the telling odor of a public restroom (you can’t flush toilet paper here so faeces-coated tissue is just piled up in a seldom-emptied bin located a few inches from your squatting, pale green face) we were able to pick up the pace. It gave us a great sense of being removed from the city too, like we could see all the people squatting around cards tables and milling in and out of shops, but they couldn’t see us. Best of all, it gave us the means to visit loads of sites spread out across the city without ever having to sit on a bus with our ankles tucked behind our ears.
First stop was Tian’amen square. With the city’s smog-rating hovering around full scale we could hardly see 10 metres in front of our noses and, as a result, it was a lot more chilling than I thought a vast, empty slab of concrete ever could be. Knowing the history of the square and its massacre, it was pretty intimidating to see child soldier after child soldier emerging out of the clouds. We didn’t linger long though as we were drawing too much attention so, after being approached by two conmen hoping to take us to their “art exhibition” and four people hoping to have their photo taken with the only blonde in Beijing, we located our bikes and got going again – this time heading for the Temple of Heaven.
What can I say about the Temple of Heaven? It was big, round, had a lovely roof and I would imagine, a beautiful rose garden during the summer months. Like so many things in the city, it was a little lost to us in all its barren winter appearance. Maybe Beijing is beautiful and flower-scented during the warmer months but it’s just baltic and smelly right now so we didn’t hang about for too long. Gary took some beautiful photos though.
While we were cycling towards the three artificial lakes in the north of the city, we tripped across this absolute gem – The National Centre for Performing Arts.
It being late in the evening, the sun was setting and throwing the most beautiful orange glow across the glass hemisphere set in its own little lake. Reflected in the water, the Centre looked like a full sphere and, having a positive effect for once, the smog that shrouded the city behind the dome lent the whole scene a really eritheral quality – like a dream in which you can see the outline of your destination but can never reach it. Quite out of the blue (or in this case the smog) we were sold on China’s capital city.
Tomorrow – the Forbidden City!
When you tell a traveller in Kyoto that you spent your day at the temples they look at you sympathetically, as if you have just said that you recently had your tonsils out. Much like having your tonsils out, temple-hopping in Japan’s cultural capital is good for you, and you know it’s good for you but its exhausting and painful and by the end of the day you just need a big bowl of ice cream.
There are 13 UNESCO World Heritage sites in Kyoto, all but one of which are either a temple or a shrine. They have a temple with a bell it takes 17 monks to ring, a temple covered in gold foil, a temple with 5km of torii and a temple with the biggest gate you have ever seen in your life. They are the biggest temples, the most sacred temples, the best temples but at the end of the day, they are all just temples.
You know what it will look like before you arrive – it will be big and wooden and impressive. There will be a sheltered iron pot out front with incense burning and people will be gathered around grabbing at whisps of smoke and rubbing it into their hair and clothes. There will be the sound of coins bouncing off of wood as worshippers throw their money into a box, ring a bell and clap twice to get Buddha’s attention. You will have to take your shoes off and put them in a plastic bag. So you go, knowing what is in store and wearing shoes with no laces and you ‘oooh’ over this Buddha statue and ‘ah’ that beautiful carving. Then you put back on your shoes, trek 100m up a ferociously steep hill and express amazement over this beautiful carving and that Buddha statue.
It wasn’t surprising then that Giles and Anne (our fearless new travel buddies) gave us that ‘Oh no, you have to have your tonsils removed’ look when we told them that we were heading to Nara to see, you got it, more temples. And it was with heavy, slip-on-shoe-clad feet that we dragged ourselves out there at ridiculous o’clock in the morning, expecting to ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ and wish we had stayed in bed.
What we didn’t know however, and what made the whole trip worthwhile, scratch that, a highlight of Japan, was that Nara is not only a UNESCO-holding, temple-filled tourist mecca, but also a deer park. The park is home to thousands of tame deer who wander around footpaths, chase children with ice cream and lounge on top of sacred Buddha. It made for a lot of fun.
The streets of the park are lined with stalls selling deer crackers and, after realizing that the deer want nothing to do with you unless you have a little something to give back, we bought a pack from the first vendor with thoughts to carrying them with us for the day in case we ran into any super cute fawns. Big mistake. The deer were on to us immediately and, the second the vendor handed them over, they rushed me, nudging my hip, licking my bag and sucking on my coat buttons until I handed over the goods. Terrified, I dropped them and ran (before Gary could even get a picture, much to his dismay.)
Eventually we worked out our own crafty plan and Gary distracted them while I quickly threw correct change at the little old man at the stall and dropped the crackers into my bag before hightailing it. We got away safely but as we made our way through the park, we got a little bored and started to leave trails of cracker crumbs behind us, collecting our very own assembly line of deer.
Oh yeah, and we saw some big temples and pretty stone lanterns. Who knew temple-hopping could be so much fun? Nara – highly recommended for the temple weary.
More pictures of Nara are available in the gallery
13th November 2009
*Warning: contains scenes of nudity that may offend/horrify some readers.
At 6.49pm Kyoto time today, I somehow found myself sitting on an upside-down bucket, being scrubbed down by a very small, very old, very naked Japanese woman. She was trying valiantly to teach me Japanese but, being that she didn’t speak any english and that my entire grounding in her language consists of exactly three words, that panned out to be a much more arduous task than removing all those layers of dead skin from my back.
Are you confused? Vaguely aroused? I had better start from the start then. Today we had our first onsen, a Japanese public bath that is traditionally located in a natural hot spring but is reproduced artificially in cities across the country. Much like the Hungarian equivalent, this means a combination of various baths – from hot to cold and everything in between. and much like all other Japanese traditions, attending an onsen is an event with a lot of very specific rituals around it.
Before today I had a lot of preconceived notions about what it was to take a bath. For one, I thought that the purpose of a bath was to clean oneself. Wrong. Bathing is apparently what you do after you are clean.
The ritual begins when you walk through the door. Like everywhere else in Japan your shoes come off at the door. After paying and, if you are not properly equipped, buying a wash cloth and soap, you head for the changing room where men and women are separated and the rate of undressing accelerates. Here you leave all your clothes and walk naked with your washcloth and soap (trying desperately to cover yourself with 5 square inches of cloth) into the onsen, collecting a basin as you go.
Now comes phase one. Sitting on an upside-down bucket you scrub every inch of your body until you are red raw, trying desperately to keep your bare bum on the bucket as you get slippier and slippier. If you are a westerner, a quick glance around you at this point will make two things clear – 1. You are the only person who is having difficulty staying on their bucket and 2. You have a captive audience who are, at this stage, supressing their giggles. Plant your two feet firmly on the floor and get on with it. Two bruised bum cheeks and several bars of soap later, you are now permitted to choose a bath and dive in.
For us, the choice was endless in Funaoka Onsen, with simple cold and hot pools, a jacuzzi, a sauna and, best of all, an outdoor pool – a sheltered, heated bath made of the softest, smoothest wood with a bamboo trunk for a tap. It was utter bliss until it got crowded with naked octogenarians and I was forced to dash inside for the sauna, followed by a dunk in the ice cold pool – strangely enough, that one was empty.
Now pretty confident with my new fleshy look, I plucked up the courage to swagger over to the more adventurous pools. First off was the herbal pool which was a vivid shade of orange and approximately half a degree below boiling point. Gary says that this bit made him feel a little stoned but I just got bored and started to worry about coming out looking like a Cheesy Wotsit.
Finally I tried the electrical pool – distinguishable by the presence of a series of plug sockets at around knee height. I’m not certain how that was supposed to feel but I had the sensation that all of my joints were dislocating themselves. Let’s just say that I won’t be hopping into my tub with a hairdryer any time soon.
Just in case the seven pools, sauna and various hosing downs don’t leave you squeaky clean, the last step to onsen-fresh skin is another vigorous scrub down using liberal amounts of soap and a rough cloth. Apparently I wasn’t quite up to scratch on my vigorous scrubbing skills however, as the aforementioned old woman was forced to take over with her scrubbing brush and organic soap (without a word of warning, might I add).
As clean as a whistle, I floated outside to meet Gary who, after an hour and a half with dozens of naked Asian men, had a new found confidence and a swagger in his step.
As we were unable to take a camera into the Onsen (for obvious reasons) the pictures used in this post are courtesy of Google Images.
12 November 2009
Have you ever felt like you have stepped onto the set of an indescribably beautiful film and that any second the lights will come up and someone will usher you off the premises? Well we had one of those days today in Kyoto.
Our first Hollywood moment took place at Fushimi Inari Shrine when, predictably, we stumbled onto a scene from Memoirs of a Geisha. Luckily they let us hang around for a while.
Although the shrine includes the usual temples and incense, what everyone really goes for is the torii – those beautiful deep orange gates that you see on every Japanese postcard. While we had seen the odd one or two lying around since we arrived, we had been a little underwhelmed – until now.
With 4km of torii climbing up a steep mountain, Fushimi Inarii is the mother lode for anyone who likes gates. Or the colour orange. The most memorable section, and the one from Memoirs of a Geisha, is a pretty short stretch (maybe 100m long) of back-to-back vivid orange torii with black engraved Japanese letters on them. Of course, as is always the case, running the route was easier for the Geisha than it was for us. Two hours, several bottles of over-priced water and one sunburn later, our white make-up was was all over our kimono and our heavily ornamented hair was a darn sight.
12 November 2009
Our second brush with fame happened outside the north gate of Tenryuji Temple. As it was coming into early evening (and it being winter it was starting to get dark), this one was fortunately less crowded with tourists than our first stop.
After a few wrong turns we managed to locate the Bamboo Grove in Arashiyama that looks exactly like a scene out of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The fading light gave it a great eretheral air, even if there was a gang of Japanese schoolgirls holding up peace signs while their friends took photos on their 25th century phones. The soundtrack of screaming monkeys and the wind blowing through the trees also added to the magic. Since bamboos are so tall and hollow, they make a really unique, faraway sound – the usual whoosh of leaves blowing combined with the hollow thwack of trunks banging against each other. Strangely enough it sounds exactly like rain beating against glass on a windy day.
More pictures from Kyoto are available on the gallery
It’s 5pm and, in a rural town high in the Japanese Alps, the sun is setting over a scene that could only have been crafted by a hyperactive child in possession of some Magic Markers. Streaks of scarlet red stain the pathways and clash with pools of golden yellow and lime green, the vibrant ruins of an earlier sugar rush. A breeze whistles through the thinning branches, colouring the air with the last remnants of summer and prompting an old woman to clutch the sleeves of her kimono closer to her chest.
This is the Japan we have been looking for. Here Autumn is one of the most important times of the year and from our seat overlooking Hida Takayama, it’s not hard to see why. In early November the mornings are cold enough to call for the use of thermals during trips to the morning markets and electric blankets at night time. Cold enough to almost merit the fluffy jumpers that all the local poodles are wearing and the sailor costume on a passing terrier. But in the afternoon glow, the changing leaves are worth every hardship. As is Takayama.
Hugged on every side by snow‐capped mountains, Takayama is the piece of rural Japan that most travelers come in search of. The focal point of the town is a wide river, thick with colourful carp, crossed by a startling red and white wooden bridge. At this time of year the length of the river is lined with maple trees at various stages of their seasonal colour cycle, ranging from the young and green to the more developed, burgundy maples which stretch all the way through the town and up to the top of the hill behind it.
Just off the river, traditional wooden buildings line the streets and the smell of fresh sake floats out from local distilleries. From 9am to 12pm the streets are alive for the morning markets and the sweet sake fumes mingle with that of delicious Hida beef skewers being cooked by local vendors and slices of juicy Japanese apples offered up by women in their food stalls. Even during its hectic hours though, there is a sense of peace in Takayama that only comes from knowing that the village is watched over by a ridiculous (and still growing) amount of temples and shrines.
Takayama is the perfect place to unwind after a hectic few days (and one particularly raucous night) in Tokyo – for added zen anyone visiting should consider staying in the reasonably priced Zenkoji Buddhist Temple.
More photos of Takayama are posted in the gallery.