Always learning new things

Travel sure provides an opportunity to learn things. This trip has been no exception. We’ve learned about Shinto shrines, and had a chance to go inside one. and this week we learned more about Buddhism.

Much of our exposure to Buddhism has been Zen Buddhism, and that always calls up images of monks in silent meditation, sitting for long hours of contemplation.

In our travels over the years we have encountered Buddhism in Thailand and Myanmar – throughout Southeast Asia, in addition to in Japan. In fact in 2015 we stayed at a Buddhist monastery at Koyasan, where we witnessed a fire ceremony.

This week we went to a Buddhist temple. Although Buddhists do not worship a God, there are deities who are worshiped. This temple serves a fire deity, called Fudo-myoo.

A new hall was opened in 2012 and 500 people can attend the ceremony, which occurs maybe 6 times per day.

On the left of the picture above you can see something in black and white.

Sanskrit lettering which represents the mantra used in the ceremony.

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, no photos allowed inside. I will have to tell you as best I can.

Above the ceremonial area is a huge glittering golden canopy. There is a large area below it where the fire itself resides. There were also three large taiko drums.

The monks filed in, six of whom were blowing on conch shells. The senior officiant was escorted in and sat on a stool with his back to us. His escort seated him self behind one of the drums. The ceremony began with chanting and drumming on little drums – the monks with the conch shells had switched to drums. Then the fellow sitting behind one of the large drums stood up and picked up a stick about the thickness of a baseball bat. He positioned himself in front of the very large drum, braced his feet, raised his arms and waited. When he hit the drum we nearly jumped out of our seats. Suddenly we were in the midst of a takio drum performance.

As the ceremony went on the drumming would stop for a bit. Small sticks of wood were added to the fire, which leapt up a good three feet – good thing the golden canopy was a long way up! An assistant went around to the back of the fire area and would take down pairs of wooden boards that had writing on them and would wave them through the fire and smoke, then put them back. Some had been through the smoke many times as they were quite sooty. Worldly concerns are written on the wooden sticks and boards and are burned away.

So on it went, fire, smoke, chanting, conch shells, small drums. Just when we were being lulled into quiet there would be an outburst of taiko drumming.

And then all but one of the monks filed out. The last man there spoke to the crowd for a bit, bowed and left.

We filed out, found a bench and looked at each other. Well, that was totally unexpected. Not the quiet contemplation one might have expected. Big flames, big noise, smoke and incense and golden glitter. It was quite amazing.

Looking at the brochure we had acquired we discovered that behind the main hall is a corridor that contains 10,000 small Fudo-son statues in crystal cases. We had to go see that, too…..

I have no reason to doubt that there are 10,000 little crystal globes, each one containing a sculpture of the Fudo-son. It is said you will be blessed when you walk through the corridor touching the prayer beads hung along the wall.

Ladies and Gentlemen – The Yomiuri Giants

We’ve always wanted to go to a baseball game in Japan. We usually visit in the Fall, which is when the Japan Series is on, so a difficult time to get tickets. Not to mention the logistics of acquiring tickets online. But, being here this time in the Spring we figured tickets might be more available. And, there is a service available that will get the tickets and deliver them to your hotel for you. That is what we did and when we checked in an envelope was waiting for us.

The Yomiuri Giants have been around since the 1930’s, and are often referred to as the New York Yankees of Japan. They win the series a lot and people have strong opinions about them. They are owned by a media conglomerate that has a major TV network and the Yomiuri Shimbun, a major newspaper.

The game was at the Tokyo Dome, which sits about 46,000 for baseball and which is part of a huge entertainment complex. The game started at 6:00 but we got there just before 5:00 to make sure that we could find our seats, our food and get settled.

Hot dogs and beer – check!

And if you run out of beer – well there are lovely young ladies who run and up and down, ready to refill your glass.

No cash – transit card, watch, phone. And if you prefer whisky highball – there’s a gal for that, too!

It was a good game – the Giants pitcher pitched the whole game, and they won 1-0. Low score but some great action and great plays. I’m not really great with the super fine details of baseball, but it all looked familiar. The pace of the game was great – no dawdling while the batter adjusted his gloves over and over.

We were seated in the lower level along the first base line. By the time the game got started the place was full. Across from us there were two super fan areas – all in blue for the BayStars, in orange for the Giants.

While the players were certainly competitive, there was also more co-operation. Mascots came out together and did things together, and the cheerleaders for both teams performed together.

A little pregame light show

One thing there is in Japanese baseball is singing. There is a song for each team that the fans sing. But there is also a song for each player. Everyone sings the player’s song when they come up to bat. No DJ in the house pumping out random clips of music….

Here’s what it sounds like:

It was a fun day, a fun game and I’m glad we finally go to go!

On the street where we live

So, last you heard your intrepid travelers were wending their way home from the crowds at the centre of the matsuri activities. It was a bit of a salmon upstream kind of thing, but we got to our street. And it was crowded but not impossibly so. Our street intersects with Hoppy Street, which is full of small bars and eateries which is always busy. Our street – Rokku Street once was lined with theatres – there are still a few – and was the heart of the old entertainment district. Lots of eateries, including a very popular Korean hot dog shop.

When we came to the street there were lots of people in matching happi coats, but that was true of ever where we went. And sure enough – there was a mikoshi just heading off from almost right in front of our hotel.

We are on the seventh floor – the mikoshi was leaving but another smaller one was already at the corner.

Off they both went.

This was fairly short fairly local little visit because soon they were back. At the bottom of the picture you can see the cart with the drums. And just above it the all important station serving free beer to participants.

The mikoshi, resting after its journey

One door down from us there are ninjas. Not at all unusual to look up and see them hanging out. Their actual business is entertaining kids – getting them dressed up as ninjas and teaching them some moves, taking them through the neighbourhood. As one does.

Down at street level beer was being drunk, pictures taken and a good time was had by all. They guys on the right brought a tarp and after the free beer for the participants they settled in for a long stretch in front of the bar next door.

In the distance you can see the big Don Quixote store (known locally as Donki) where we get our provisions. Five floors of stuff you didn’t know you needed, open 24 hours. Great source of beer and snacks!

So – we survived day two of the matsuri, saw lots of great stuff and had a party on our door step. What’s next?

After castles the next best thing is a volcano.

From Kinosaki we headed back east to the Izu Peninsula, which is south of Tokyo. We were headed for the seaside town of Ito. It has a real vacation by the beach vibe to it, and is known for its seafood. It is also near to a geopark with some interesting geology that needed to be seen.

The hotel we stayed at had a fancy onsen on the ground floor, but even better it had an in room mineral bath. It was a hybrid room – there were Western style beds along with a separate tatami mat room where futons could be laid out for a larger group. As I’ve mentioned before if the room is of any size the toilet will be in a separate room, usually with a hand basin near by. The shower/tub is in a different room. There is a door – usually glass, with a gasket to seal it and a ledge to step over, making a waterproof room. On one side is the shower area where one gets clean. And then there is the tub. In this hotel instead of a regular bath tub there was a large square wooden tub with a stream of hot water bubbling in from the corner. After a good shower and scrub we could hop in the tub for a soak in the mineralized water. It was very nice.

But that wasn’t why we were in Ito, nice as it was. We arranged to have our luggage shipped ahead of us to Tokyo and set out for the day’s adventure. (This freed us from backtracking to get our luggage for the onward journey – and manhandling it on the train. As it happens we beat our luggage to Tokyo, but it caught up to us!)

We took a local bus to visit Mt Omuroyama. Taking busses can be a bit nerve wracking as I always worry that I won’t hear the stop or will somehow foul things up. Since the route began at the train station and ended at the mountain that turned out not to be an issue on this excursion.

Is this not the most amazing volcano? Does it not look like a dessert?

At one point this area was very active in the volcanic department, but these volcanoes are now extinct. From the top we could see four other extinct cones. Mt Omuroyama was active as recently as 4000 years ago. It is the only one kept so beautifully manicured. Every winter they burn off the dried grass and keep it bright and vibrant. There is a ski lift to the top and a path around the top. Of course we went up!

And the crater itself is in use – there’s an archery range in the bottom!

We didn’t go down to partake – it was a long way down and then back up again!

The views were spectacular in all directions, even with a heavy haze from the ocean.

Can you see the faint smudge that is the top of Mount Fuji just above the land form – at about the 11:00 position?

We had a marvelous time wandering along the crater edge, peering down into the valleys below, looking for the offshore islands lurking in the mist.

And when we came down from the mountain we stumbled across a tiny little cafe serving a most amazing lunch:

Appetizer plate with green salad, potato salad, fried fish, seaweed salad and other things that were very tasty.

The main course, which was a bowl of rice and a serving of whitebait, a tiny white fish boiled and served whole. So good! Were instructed to eat half of it and then take the flask of dashi stock and add it to the bowl to make a soup for the second half of the meal.

And to finish – matcha tea, pudding and a wee chocolate cake. For the grand sum of $14.00 per person! So good!

And with that the rambling portion of our trip is a wrap. We took a taxi to the train station south of Ito and caught a rapid express train to Tokyo Station, where we started our adventures a week ago. We arrived at our hotel in Asakusa – same one we stayed at last year and our happily settled into the same room.

So much to tell you about Tokyo!

I don’t know what I was expecting

But it wasn’t this….

Wilf has several day trips planned for us, and yesterday we were to go see a famous library. Okay – that sounds good. I like libraries. We’ve gone to look at libraries before. First up – an hour of riding trains to get to a town near the city of Saitama. The town is called Tokorozawa. As we were pounding our way north and west from Tokyo the train lines went through some agricultural areas, quite a lot of small industrial areas, small towns, small cities – quite a variety. Sometimes the train stations were big multilevel affairs with shopping centres and lots of activities, sometimes they were not. Tokorozawa was from the ‘sometimes not’ side of the ledger. But, our friend Mr Google knows how to get us places, so when we wound up in front of a small station on a small street he began to direct us.

I will say that for some reason Mr Google has taken to showing us the scenic route when we are walking. We have seen many a neighbourhood in quite a bit of detail, only to discover that there was another route on more traveled streets that might have been simpler…..

So we are walking through neighbourhoods, admiring the mostly two story houses. Nice houses with nice gardens – quite a few persimmon trees. We go a little further and the neighbourhood shifts a bit to small businesses.

And then this heaves into view:

This is where we’re going? According to the map it is…..

Before we get there we see a first for us – a contemporary Shinto shrine

Complete with tori gates and a purification fountain out front.

But lets get back to the main attraction across the plaza

This is the Kadokawa Culture Museum, designed by architect Kengo Kuma.The giant polyhedral is clad with 20,000 blocks of granite and ‘floats’ in a wading pool.

I’m a little confused at this point as I was expecting a public library and this seems a bit …. much.

In we go. Into a cavernous space. We look around a bit and Wilf engages an employee to ask where the granite came from. With some toing and froing and a translation app the answer is ‘China’. Wilf has read that the books are on the 5th floor, so we take the elevator up. And when the doors open we are greeted with this:

And a ticket gate. I look at Wilf and say ‘I don’t know what this is but we have to go back and get a ticket.’

A quick session with my phone tells me that this is not, in fact, a public library. It is a museum/gallery/event space sponsored by a publishing company called Kodokawa. Their area of publishing is the world of manga, anime, and light novels(which are basically young adult novels), with tv and movie divisions.

Back to the fifth floor we go, tickets in hand. First we are directed to the exhibition space. No pictures allowed, and lots of young ladies with signs telling us so and watching over us. I did not, of course, take pictures in the exhibit. But I did take a picture of the poster for the show to share with you:

The artist Mitsuaki Iwago is a wildlife photographer and this exhibit is pictures of cats taken all over the world. The poster cat, chilling on Copacabana Beach in Rio di Janeiro, is the coolest cat of the bunch, but there were many more from all over the world.

Having seen the cat pictures, back to the books. There is a desk at the front with a librarian at it, so the sign said. And then the books. Piled up every which way. Well, not entirely every which way. There is a type of classification. For example:

Each section is crammed with books, shelves full to bursting. Japanese books, English books, old books, new books. There are chairs and tables to sit at, and trolleys to put the books for re-filing.

And there are things to look at all around

Two giant paper mache shirts because why not.

And then, we pass through a huge gauze curtain to this space:

Here is a video to give you a sense of the space:

Behind the mask my mouth is hanging open.

I had to sit down for a bit after that.

In the big room the lower stacks are of modern books – a lot of them collections of books published by Kadokawa. In the upper reaches the books looked older and the info brochure said that they were private libraries from the founder of the publishing company and other famous Japanese writers and scholars.

A giant steampunk fish is coming out of the wall and people are walking around, reading books, looking at things. There was another exhibit tucked behind the stacks that was a sort of cabinet of curiosities that a Victorian collector might have assembled. No pictures there, either. But collections of butterflies and bird skeletons and everything you can imagine.

On the second floor there was another smaller library of manga and light novels. I forgot to take a picture there – it was a bright open space with comfy low furniture and and probably everything Kadokawa had ever published. It was full of young people reading the books. If you are a fan and a local – what a treasure trove.

So – I was pretty dazzled by what I’d seen. It is not a lending library, though you are free to sit and read. There is no catalogue, so it is really a matter of serendipity what kind of books you come across. But walking down what felt like streets of books, interspersed with art and video and places to sit was an interesting thing to do.

And top it all off there was an brewpub on the other side of the plaza that made excellent beer and handmade udon noodles, so we were able to fortify ourselves for the journey back to Tokyo.

Street Food. Sort of….

Pop up flower shop on the corner.

I talked yesterday about our trip to a local market. That was the first stop on a tour about Saigon street food. The components, as it were. The next stop was a street food street. Basically a stretch of sidewalk, it is managed by a local charity and is an attempt to get people started in small businesses- the first step away from unlicensed mobile carts. The spaces are made available to small business people, and they have the use of the space for one meal service. When we got there the breakfast vendors were just packing up and the lunch people were about to arrive. Our guide works for a telecom company around the corner during the week and this is their go to lunch spot. Not much to see when we were there, but when things are in full swing it’s a very busy place.

And then the tourists started to arrive and they want to try the street food experience. The government thought about it a bit and decided to create the street food market (not street) for the tourists. While the street is licensed and inspected, the market is managed to a slightly higher standard. Can’t be poisoning the tourists, after all. Not quite as authentic but still yummy.

Chicken thighs wrapped in vermicelli noodles. With chicken thigh in the side.

Yum yum! Wilf found a craft beer and declared it good. Besides Vietnamese food there was Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Mexican- you name it.

Tourists – out of the heat and into the food!

After a snack we headed off to a very swanky restaurant for lunch. The lack of passengers on our ship has made for a bit of tap dancing on the part of the tour operators. Usually when we arrive at the pier there is a phalanx of buses waiting for us. In Hoi An both tours I did had sixteen people. In Ho Chi Minh City there was one coach bus per tour – maybe 30 people? Usually the guides are on their phones, making sure we don’t all wind up at the same place at the same time, coordinating arrivals for lunch. With so few people we keep showing up early for things. At our lunch stop we got a very thorough tour of the restaurant – I think they skipped the refrigerators – to get the kitchen caught up to our arrival.

This was really good but hooh! A lot of food.

In Ho Chi Minh City there are three ports. The old colonial port was built by the French. The river is deep enough there, but narrow, so only shorter cruise ships can go there – they need to be able to turn around. About 45 minutes away in the container port where the small and medium ships can berth. The big guys are another 30 minutes away in the area where the car carriers unload. After our huge lunch the guide finally gave up, stopped talking and let us snooze on our way back to the container port.

So good I did it twice

Our first port in Vietnam was Da Nang. I’ve sort of lost track of what the original plan was – it didn’t include a stop in Da Nang – but it did include a visit to the town of Hoi An. The plan was to visit the town and go to a cooking school.

The two days at sea to get to Vietnam were rather bumpy, so Wilf decided he didn’t need a bus ride and stayed on board while I joined the excursion.

Once upon a time Hoi An was a major port for Southeast Asia. Chinese and Japanese traders set up residence and this was one of the towns where East met West to do business. Eventually, however, the port silted up, business shifted to Da Namg and Hoi An became a riverside backwater. This fact saved it from being bombed during the Vietnam war and now it is a major tourist destination.

Amongst all the tourist tat there are some beautiful old building – old merchant houses, meeting houses and temples. The historic part of the town is closed to cars in the middle of the day. Nothing to be done about the motorbikes, though.

Our first stop was the central market, which is the food supply for the town. At first it was all fruit and veg.

Soon enough we came to the meat and fish area. There was a bit of horrified muttering in our group ‘no refrigeration! What about the heat?’ I would say – do you smell anything? Nope. All of this stuff was alive a few hours ago and it will all be sold within hours.

This tour was happening on Tuesday, and on Wednesday Wilf and I came back to Hoi An. We went to the market about 2.5 hours later tha my previous visit. And the fish was all sold and the meat vendors were also packing up. Everything all ship shape and proper. After some of the fish and meat markets we’ve been in in other parts of the world (I’m looking at you, Durban.) this was a wonder of cleanliness.

Normally the town is full of tourists. We happened to be there on a rare rainy day, which thinned things out considerably. It did make for a session of swimming up stream like salmon in the teeming rain.

Time for some food!

The cooking school was on the third floor of a building – Chinese restaurant on the second floor, street food market on the first. They were all ready for us in a very slick teaching set up.

We made spring rolls, barbecue chicken thighs, crispy pancakes and green mango salad. It was all delicious!

Shrimp and pork spring roll
Ingredients for chicken marinade
Green mango salad

Everything was so delicious that on the following day we came back. The ship moved from Da Nang to Chan May. We took an excursion from the ship that took us to Hoi An and left us to our own devices for the afternoon, then took us back to the ship. Being us, you know what we did!

Yep – lunch and local beer. The ground floor of this restaurant has a central seating area and little stalls arranged all around the edges where all different types of food were being made.

Dumpling production

We ordered by saying yes to the dumplings, checking out the lady at the next table and her interesting banana leaf packages and generally ‘bring all the food’.

Those are crispy pancakes, Madame.

By the way – yesterday I was rocking the ‘doused by a bucket of water’ look courtesy of the rain. Today I was working that shiny look only high heat and high humidity could bring…..

Once fed we explored the town a bit. There are several very old temples and merchant houses to visit. Being next to the river flooding is an issue. This merchant house is right beside the river. There are markers inside to show how high the water has been. There is an attic area and all the furniture can be hauled up if there is enough warning. The enormous teak pillars that support the house stand on marble pads. In the picture below you can see almost at the top the marker for the 1964 flood, which was devastating…

This area is also famous for its marble production,and families have been in the business for generations. No bus trip is complete without a stop. I’ll leave you with a selection of items that they would have been happy to ship to us…

East meets west, Goddess style

Tap tap. Is this thing still on?

Greetings, beloveds. Last I left you we were in Windy Wellington, NZ. And then – whoosh – a year has passed. Our next adventure begins soon, but I wanted to check and see if I still remember how to do this.

I’ll be back soon, but until then here is a picture of the sort of thing we are planning to escape.

Making sure we have an escape route

That was last month, and it didn’t last long. But still! Not supposed to happen here!

Back to Japan

Wilf and I just can’t seem to get Japan out of our system, so off we go again. We’re starting in Osaka this time. I’ll be back with the details of our adventures- until then here’s a little bling from a shop across from our hotel:

U-huh – that’s a convertible Benz completely covered (seats, too) with rhinestones. As one does.

The first time we came to Japan in 2009 Hallowe’en was a low key affair. It gets bigger each time we visit.

They call it fishing, not catching

Wilf and I headed to the north end of Vancouver Island recently to see if the pink salmon were schooling at the mouth of the Cluxewe River. After the miraculous summer of 2014 and the no show of 2015 our hopes were high. Wilf has been following reports from his fishing buddies throughout the north island, and the reports were…… inconsistent. Some fish around, but they were not biting.

Wilf sets out to see who’s out there.

 One of the nice things about being at Cluxewe is running into friends. Don and Peggy, Margaret and Denise were on hand.

 Margaret did catch fish – one of which we ate!

 Our last night there was perfect – sunny, no wind. Margaret took a break with us while Miss Emma kept a close eye on Don.

There’s at least one fish out there and Don wants it.

 James wandered by

 Eventually Don came in to join the log sitters.

I wandered up the beach

 And found Wilf and Denise returning from the mouth of the river.

There were a few fish out there, and a few were hooked but they weren’t being landed. Once again- lots of fishing, not much catching.