Eye to eye with a Great Horned Owl.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

2013 Travel Dispatch #7 (Kyoto)

We have been out to dinner and had our first sushi meal since we've been in Japan. Can you come to Japan and not have at least ONE sushi meal? I think not. As good as it was, we should probably have had more -- and may still though our Japan time is getting short.

As I mentioned, we spent most of today out and about seeing the sights, of which there are MANY here in Kyoto. The town is loaded with Temples and Shrines. We are now staying in another monastery located within a temple compound. In this compound alone there are forty-seven temples. We're NOT going to visit them all. In fact, we may not visit any of them aside from the one we are staying in.

The one temple we visited today worth sharing is the one pictured above. It's called the Golden Temple (for pretty obvious reasons) and has a more official Japanese name that I don't recall at the moment and am too lazy to lookup. It was actually rebuilt in 1955 to its original specs after a fanatic monk burned it down. The original was built as part of a shogun's home in the 1300s. It's also one of the most popular attractions in all of Kyoto. The place was chocka-block with tourists -- at least 90% of whom were Japanese and a large percentage of those were school children.

But enough with the temples. In keeping with the direction I pointed in my latest show at the Guild, I'm trying to pay more attention to people on this trip and not just focus on the scenery. It's not a natural thing for me to do and I'm not all that comfortable about approaching strangers to see if I can take their picture. But if there is anyplace on the planet where people have an understanding of the picture taking impulse, it's Japan and people here, especially near the tourists sites, respond very positively. 

So here's a small gallery of Japanese faces from today.

And that's it for now. It's beddy-bye time, 10:30 on Halloween night and we haven't seen a single trick or treater. They do take Halloween decorations etc. pretty seriously here though. Gotta run.

2013 Travel Dispatch #6 (Kyoto and more Temples)

We did a bunch more sightseeing today (ie. chasing temples), but I'm going to spare you all that, for now at least, to just respond to the show of hands for the 80 year comparison pics. Got some pretty good shots today and will probably get them out at some point but for now this is about all I have the energy for.

The above photo was when Fran's grandmother was at Empuku-ji in 1933.

This is the photo we took yesterday with Fran, Tokuman Roshi and the current crop of monks, almost exactly eighty years later. Everything has changed but the buildings and the sense of the place.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

2013 Travel Dispatch #5 (Empuku-ji, Kyoto)

And we're back! Well, back into a part of the world where we have internet access again. We have just had the most amazing experience at a most amazing place. I can't relate it nearly as well as Fran could, since it's really her story, but I will try to give a sense of my spin on the past couple of days. Sit back, this may be a lengthy one.

This is the entrance to where we have just come back from. It is a Buddhist monastery that has it's origins in the 12th or 13th century. It is a training ground for monks. Fran's grandmother studied Zen Buddhism there exactly 80 years ago, nearly to the day actually, from when we arrived. The monastery is a very private place and not generally open to the public, I was indeed privileged to be able to take the pictures I took in and around the entire compound. Because of Fran's connection through her grandmother and the papers and photos she brought to share with the monks, we were very warmly received. In fact, we were treated as very special guest and afforded every courtesy and consideration. Very impressive considering that the primary focus of the monastery is the difficult and rigorous training of the monks.

The abbot of the monastery, Tokumon Roshi, was a most gracious, engaging host and honored us with an inordinate amount of his time. And, we really liked him. The above is the entrance of the main building.

The interior of the main building. The entire place was immaculate and extremely well kept. There were very old parts and some very new parts. It was difficult at times to know which was which.

This is a view, across a little pond and garden area, of the building we stayed in. Actually, we had pretty much the entire ground floor.

The interior of our room, with sleeping palettes in-place. We were guests there for two nights and two full days plus.

The grounds were littered, hardly an appropriate verb, with artfully arranged and beautiful objects. It was a heavenly place for a photographer to wander around. And again I felt very honored to be allowed to do so. I could append a unseemly number of examples, but will spare you that.

But ultimately, a monastery is not really about the place, beautiful and special as it is, it is about the monks being trained there. They were a wonderful group of devoted young men, though a couple were into their 40s most of them were in their 20s. They treated us wonderfully and tolerated our intrusion into their monastic lives with grace. Their days start at 3:30am with an exercise session and then proceeds to prayer and meditation. Fran joined them one morning, I did not. They have two breaks, at 9 in the morning and 4 in the afternoon. The above is during one of those breaks. It is the only time I observed them to act somewhat unmonk-like.

Both Fran and the Roshi had copies of a picture of Fran's grandmother with the Roshi and monks of her time. The above is a present day, as of today actually, recreation of that photo taken in exactly the same place. The only things different are that the trees are bigger and the group of monks is smaller. The picture Fran is holding is of her grandmother. (A show of hands if you want to see the original pic from 1933.)

And now for a closing bonus for the foodies in the crowd, we know you're out there.

We had lunch at the monastery and dinner on the 11th floor of Kyoto Station after we got back. The lunch was with the Roshi and dinner was with a lovely young lady who served as translator the whole time we were at the monastery. (Maybe more about her later.) But the food....  Below are the foodie pics.

A most excellent monastery lunch. . .

. . . and our decidedly un-monastic dinner. But both were delicious. The Japanese do do food well, in both taste and appearance.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

2013 Travel Dispatch #4 (Nara)

Another day and another temple and another garden. Not that it's anything to complain about. As you can see, the garden is/was lovely. This is the Isuien Garden in Nara. Nara was one of the ancient capitals of Japan, is just a short hop from Kyoto and made up the bulk of today's activities.  We took the train out of Kyoto this morning and joined the Sunday crowd of tourists (mostly Japanese) to see the sights of Nara. This garden was an absolute delight. And we're getting another round of fall. As is evident in the picture, leaves here are just beginning to turn. Interestingly, most of the commercial pictures I've seen around here are taken at this time of the year.

While the vast majority of Japanese dress in very western style clothing, you do see occasional girls or women in Kimonos. Someone said that if they wear kimonos they get into the various temple sites free. A gratuity that could add right up as the fees for temple visits are not inconsiderable. Happily, they are also very willing to pose.

This the Todaiji Temple in Nara. It is supposed to be "the largest wooden structure in Japan and maybe even the world" (their words not mine). It also houses one big ass Buddha cast in bronze. 

Here's a shot of the corner of the building's roof.

And here's the Buddha.

My little NEX camera did a fine job in really terrible light conditions, if I do say so myself... so I will.

But all is not temples and buddhas. 

It seems Nara is as weird about deer as India is about cows. They are all over the park near the temple and one of the favorite pastimes of the Japanese visitors is feeding the deer -- there are vendors for deer food all over the place. The deer are extremely tame and rather bold. We saw one that went right up to a vendor's cart and started helping itself.

And, of course, what's travel without food. And food shots have become almost as popular as selfies. Here's a shot of a meal already half consumed. The Japanese present food so well and we keep meaning to get a picture of it before eating. But the urge to begin eating always wins out and presentation gets destroyed. 

And finally, just to prove I do take picture of something besides temples, another shot of some dour young ladies in kimonos.

This may be the last dispatch for a few days as tomorrow we head down to Fran's monastery and chances are better than even that we will not have access to wifi. Until then, Be well and prosper. Catch you on the flip-side.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

2013 Travel Dispatch #3 (Kyoto and many Temples)

We did some Temple touring with a guide today and are feeling just a bit Templed out... so we'll do it all again tomorrow but on our own. These things are quite amazing and I'll mostly just let the pictures speak for themselves. We lucked out on the weather today with the rains ending during the night and while the skies didn't exactly clear we stayed dry and even saw a few glimpses of sun. Unfortunately, those glimpses were pretty rare and the light for most of the day was pretty flat and uninteresting. The temples, on the other hand were fascinating. The things are HUGE and they've been around for a long, long time.

The above image is from a walk of 1000 Torii Gates that are part of the Fushimi Inari Shrine. The things go all the way up the mountain -- not all as closely spaced as in the picture, but they do go on.

Pics from other temples explored today follow without comment cause I'm tired and ready to see if sleep comes more easily tonight than it did last night. The brain and body still seem to think we're on NY time.

Friday, October 25, 2013

2013 Travel Dispatch #2 (Osaka, Kyoto)

Woke to rain this morning, this is looking out the window of our Osaka hotel room. Things were pretty wet and continued to be so throughout the day.

Not a major inconvenience at first because we just had to get to and on the train and head for Kyoto, mostly dry except for the "getting to" part.

This it inside Kyoto Station. Obviously a much more modern place than one imagines when you think of its ancient and cultural reputation. 

Getting from the station to our hotel (ryokan, a traditional style Japanese hotel), was the biggest challenge of the day in a number of ways. First off was the challenge of orienting ourselves in a totally foreign (in more ways than one) city and second was navigating the streets and traffic in the midst of the heaviest downpour of the day. By the time we waded into the ryokan, we were soaked to the skin and our luggage had not faired very much better. We arrived about noon and were informed that our room would not be available until 4:00. They did allow us to regroup and dry off a bit, but then it was back to the strange streets to fill four hours until we could move into our room.

We were directed to a huge store nearby that, among other things, had a very large and fun camera department--as well as some very interesting restaurant options on the top floor--lunch!

This was one of the displays at the camera store. This is the most popular camera in Japan, the Pentax K-50. And, as you can see, it comes in a wide variety of colors. Chartreuse anyone? 

After lunch, and the modern shopping center, we ferreted out a more traditional shopping experience. A covered, it was still raining after all, but sort of open air street market that had shops and stalls that pervade all manner of things. Many of which we never did identify.

At the very end of the market area, was a lovely little shrine. Our first exposure to the side of Kyoto we had come to see.

By this time, we were somewhat footsore, weary and soggy but it was finally after 4:00. We returned to the ryokan, checked in and had a chance to relax a bit before venturing back out to find dinner in a very small, very traditional little cafe. It was sort of a Japanese version of a tapas bar and was delicious. Definitely ate some stuff we've never eaten before, good though. 

And so it goes. The weather tomorrow is supposed to be pretty much a repeat of today. Japan is currently "enjoying" their 27th typhoon of the season. Don't know what its name is, but it's probably something like "Another GD Typhoon?" We do a couple of Temple and Shrine tours tomorrow so it should be interesting.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

And They're Offffff!

"Hi" from Hong Kong. Well actually from Osaka, but this is Fran in the Hong Kong airport--the only thing we saw of Hong Kong. We thought about Kyle and Jamie and waved to them, but the ingrates never waved back.

It's been waaaay toooooo long since any blog entries, but now I do believe I might have something to blog about, if anyone is interested. Now the problem may be finding or making the time to do it.

We have just stopped after almost exactly 24 hours of travel that took us right over the top of the world and sat us down in a new day. We flew over the vast snow and ice sheet that is Greenland and then through a bunch of Russian and Chinese airspace. It felt like we were flying east more than we were flying west. I think the plane just got up high enough in the air and then stopped and let the earth turn under us. It turns out we skipped about 12 hours. All is going well but we have managed to have a bit of an adventure finding our hotel on both ends of the trip.

In New York, our cabbie (a lovely West African fellow) was quite new on the job and was good with JFK Airport but not so sure about the hotels around it. So we turned to Siri to get us to the hotel and she managed to get us even loster -- the first time. After going in a couple of circles, we finally landed at the correct hotel. 

On the other end, in Osaka, we had the first evidence of incoherent directions. What the directions directed didn't agree with what we were finding on the ground. Finally, after some rather aimless and misguided wandering about, a very kind and patient Japanese lady literally lead us to our hotel. Where we are now safely and happily ensconced.

 Below are some typical travel pictures of the sort you get while stuck in airports. Feel free to peruse or ignore.

The last one is obviously not an airport but is our room in Osaka. We will be here overnight and then tomorrow off to Kyoto and the real beginning of Fran's grand adventure.