Archive for category Travel
America is unequivocally the most wondrous land of natural beauty. Our trip to Montana and specifically, Yellowstone National Park did not disappoint a bit. Of course, we only got to see a very very tiny portion of the park on the Montana side. But we were left in fascinated awe of its diverse and gorgeous beauty.
First let me say (on account of enormous rush and crowds) what we did not see and the sites that are on my bucket list, the Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic Spring, Mammoth hot springs, Snake River and more. None of the disappointments took away from the amazing sites we did see.
Norris Geyser Basin is the hottest, oldest and most dynamic of Yellowstone thermal areas. It is also the most acidic. The Porcelain Basin was absolutely breathtakingly beautiful. Devoid of trees, it provides unique sensory experience of sound, color and sulphuric smell. Back Basin was more heavily wooded. Gibbon falls on the Gibbon river, gently drop down 84 feet. All throughout we saw a variety of geysers, springs, vents and mudpots and saw steam rising from thermal waters below. In some places, we got sprayed by the sulphuric waters.
I have always loved caves and naturally air conditioned caverns. The Lewis and Clark limestone caverns are spectacularly lined with stalactites, stalagmites and helictites and it was a beautiful walk to the entrance on a trail that provided some of the most amazing views of the surrounding mountains.
Day trip to Helena from Big Sky and Bozeman was long but lovely. Helena is the state capital and it’s capitol building is absolutely spectacular. The city of Helena extracted millions of dollars of gold from the mining camps and perhaps some of the prosperity is evidence of old money. The architecture of century old cathedral of Saint Helena is gorgeous and inspiring. We had a delicious dinner at one of the many lovely outdoor restaurants on the main street.
Alaska – via land — Wasilla, Palmer, Anchorage, Talkeetna, Healy, Fairbanks, Denali
My Alaskan adventure began in Wasilla and Palmer, Alaska. During 1930s, Great Depression, at a time when people had few sources of income, the Government invited Americans to settle in Alaska and do farming. After strict screening of applicants, 203 families were selected. Each family was allotted several thousand acres in Alaska and was given $3000 as starting incentive. They settled near Palmer. Today Palmer is a little town with a small but vibrant downtown with a little museum that celebrates the original inhabitants and their descendants. While I waited for my friend to arrive, I had a beautiful day visiting the shops and learning some history from chatty shop owners.
We stayed the night in Anchorage and began the 250 mile drive towards Healy. We were greeted by most amazing vistas with rolling snow capped mountains, glaciers and rivers interspersed with forests. In Alaska, you get all the nature your heart desires and it is teeming with wild life. We saw a hare, a black bear and a couple of hyenas. On the way we stopped at the beautiful town of Talkeetna and enjoyed its quaint shops, had fireweed ice cream and birch candy and then came across what we thought was a routine vista point. That was Mount Denali South viewpoint and the view was just breathtaking.
Denali, also known as Mount McKinley, with elevation of over 20,000 feet is the highest mountain in North America. It was a clear day and we could see the gorgeous mountain, in all its majestic beauty.
From Healy we went to town of Denali and then visited Cheena hot springs in Fairbanks. Besides being known for its sulphuric hot springs, Cheena is known for viewing of Aurora Borealis. Unfortunately, we did not get to see Aurora, except in a documentary, in a museum. But we thoroughly and absolutely enjoyed soaking in the hot springs. Very reluctantly, I emerged out the relaxing waters. We drove back to Anchorage enjoyed the day in Anchorage touring the downtown area, visited a little street fair and market and then proceeded on the beautiful drive South to the port of Seward. The drive was lovely. Seward is also a lovely little town and we enjoyed the walk through in the town before boarding the cruise at Holland America.
After we boarded the cruise……
Haines, AK – Absolute awesomeness of natural beauty in Alaska will make your soul sing happy tunes. A small five mile inlet called Glacier Bay exposes travelers to perhaps world’s most majestic wilderness area. It covers over 3.2 million acres of forest, inlet and shore with mountain peaks rising over 15,000 feet, towers of ice and many glaciers. Tidewater glaciers are rivers of ice that flow to the sea and from time to time large chunks of ice break free and flow into the ocean. There are seven such glaciers here.
Margerie Glacier – Margerie glacier is truly Alaska’s spectacular gem of a glacier. The views were so amazing that on a sunny day, a boat load of people were watching on the deck, in stunned silence. And after rumbling sound followed by thunderous cracks, when large chunks of ice began to break off, the people erupted in oohs and aahs…
Juneau, Alaska & Mendenhall Glacier – This land keeps revealing more and more beauty and each new sight competes with the previous one for top spot. Mendenhall Glacier is about 13 miles long, located in Mendenhall Valley it is about 12 miles from downtown Juneau. The glacier terminates in Mendenhall lake where the views are stunning. We gazed upon the blue hues emanating from this spectacular glacier, then walked up to the visitor center and gawked upon more spectacular views from the top. Mendenhall Glacier is overflowing with beauty, with nature and wild life. While we didn’t see the bear, we saw a porcupine very up close. Here’s a little joke we heard on the way. Why are Alaska state employees not allowed to look out of the window in the morning? So they could look out of the window in the afternoon. Actually life moves in a slow lane here and many residents take up to 4 month break and go away to the “lower 48” during winter, to work as a contractor or visit family. Small request: Regardless of your political affiliation, please take care of these gorgeous glaciers. Gunalcheesh (thank you) in Tinglits lingo. We also took Mount Roberts Tramway from right near the cruise ship dock for a short ride up 1,800 feet up the mountain. From there we got to see spectacular views of the city of Juneau and Gastineau Channel and did some shopping of gifts for friends.
Kachikan, Alaska – Kachikan is a lovely city facing the Inside Passage and is known for its Native American totem poles. We did not get to visit Misty Fjords, a glacier carved wilderness with snow capped mountains and waterfalls and salmon spawning streams. Kachikan has a vibrant wild life with black bears, wolves and bald eagles. We visited Tongass National Forest which also has a salmon spawning stream. We were incredibly fortunate to see a bald eagle fly fairly up close with its completely majestic display of wings spread out. I could not get to my camera in time to capture the incredible flight but I will forever savor the sight. We also visited a bald eagles sanctuary. Injured or old eagles who cannot survive in the wild, are cared for there and they also work doing little shows for visitors. We visited Totem Pole museum and then visited Creek Street, the former red-light district that is now turned into an arts and craft and museum area.
Our Alaska journey ended in Vancouver, Canada but the incredible expansive beauty of Alaska is seared forever in our memory. Alaska is truly the last most glamorous frontier that is easily accessible and offers spectacular awesomeoness in all its majestic glory for everyone to enjoy. It is up to each one of us, to do little some thing that we can do to preserve and protect this incredible and gorgeous land.
India Trip – Kerala, Gujarat, Maharashtra: People, places, possibilities, pant suits & palazzos – Oct-Nov, 2017
This time my India trip was all about people. I had many discussions around religious beliefs, stayed in many homes, debated and discussed what needs fixing (and there is a lot and mostly I did not bring this up) and what works and why and of course enjoyed world’s most incredible diverse range of cuisine available; enjoyed gawking at incredible, ever evolving, new fashionable clothing like gowns, pant suits and palazzos, and breathtakingly gorgeous jewellery.
Kerala: Diversity of fruits, plants and foliage all growing together and jostling for space and thriving alongside each other in Kerala is just astounding... And amidst vast tea plantations, valleys full of cardamom trees, are bamboo, jackfruit, coffee, Cocoa, plantains, banana, cloves, tons of green peppercorns, cloves, supari, papaya, guava, sitafal, mango and more. And all these teaming with equally diverse animal life including taher mountain goats, elephants, possums and vast vast varieties of birds like maina, bluebirds etc. My friend who accompanied me was like a walking encyclopedia on all native plants and pointed out each variety as we passed them by. Enjoyed chilling in house boat at Alleppey and enjoyed touring amazing Thekkady, Munnar in “God’s own country”, Kerala.
God-crazy India – Slightly with a sense of alarm and slightly lovingly, I wonder if India has gone God crazy.. I found that there is a segment of Indian population that has clearly become more secular and refuse to partake in religion fueled divisiveness. Then there is a substantial segment that has become clearly much more religious. In the early morning of the day I landed and went to a small eatery, the waiter went and poured tea on a nearby tree and when questioned by me, explained that first tea has to go to the tree. Gods, rituals, and shrines keep multiplying in India and practically every Indian has a real ghost story. In one city, the government installed artistic statues of deities in the middle of four way streets to beautify the place. Very soon people began to go there and started praying there. I found catholics fiercely differentiating themselves from their closest siblings, the protestants. A Shiya Muslim cab driver was staunchly asserting that Hindus don’t understand the differences but all terrorist acts are always carried out by Sunnis and unequivocally stated there can never be peace between Shiyas and Sunnis. When my friend asked the cabbie to stop at a spirits store to purchase a bottle of alcohol, he said we should have said it earlier and then he would not have accepted us as passengers because it was against his religion to enable people to drink.
A Hindu woman protested the assertion by Jains and Buddhists to be counted as separate religions because according to her they are all offshoot of Hinduism. Jains fear being swallowed and losing their identity in the amorphous and boundaryless system of Hinduism and equally staunchly assert their identity. And finally, as a most interesting experience, a Jain woman asserted how important are the differences between two sects of Jainism. One of the outward difference between the two sects of Jainism is that God keeps eyes open in one and halfway closed in the other. When I said it was a superficial difference, she explained how significant it was that the God kept the eyes halfway closed (never mind, that the statues are made by people).
I came away feeling more like Ron Reagan Junior (an active atheist). One atheist famously has said, “most people are atheists anyway about most religions, I just go one religion too far”.
Clothes Crazy India: Somehow I came away feeling like all of India and not Paris should be dubbed the fashion capital of the world. Incredible innovation in clothing styles and jewellery has made every Indian woman a fashionista, be it a cleaning woman, a beggar on the street or one living in a big mansion. There are incredible styles of clothes available to suit every pocket, everyone’s choice of color, style and size. In amazement, I stared at billboards and loved gawking and people watching at airports, hotels and on streets.
Enormously hospitable and friendly India – During this trip to India, I stayed in many homes, connected with my cousins on mother’s side, father’s side, with friends and neighbors from early childhood and from school and college days and with friends visiting from California and their families and friends in India. My cousins, friends, neighbors, friends’ friends and families and strangers in whose orbit I came, accepted me as their own, and at the same time, gave me the best things, fed the best items. My heart was filled with love and gratitude in each home that I visited, and in each interaction. Even when people held different beliefs than mine, even when I questioned and debated, in the end, I was in their orbit and I was accepted based our similarity as humans. Over and over people told me that they loved to have me because I was so genuine and adaptable and I responded always that how can anyone not adapt when surrounded by such love and hospitality? I left eagerly for my homeland, but I left my motherland with a heavy heart. As I reminisce, I don’t miss the noise (it seems in India, there is a competition to rise above the din, bells in the temples are loudest, cars and scooters honk for no reason, people burst reams of firecrackers that last full 2-3 minutes when you cannot talk with the person sitting next to you inside a home, and even babies cry louder here). I don’t miss the air pollution (I yearned for a deep breath of fresh there). I don’t miss the dirt and grime (though there is considerable improvement in that). But I do deeply miss and remember people and their love, possibilities that exist, palazzos and pantsuits, gorgeous gowns, sarees and fashionable blouses that I wasn’t able to take my eyes off, the potential that India holds.
We arrived in Munich, Germany and spent the day on our own touring the city, specifically the Central Marienplatz Square surrounded by Neo Gothic landmarks and high end modern stores. Next day we joined organized tour by Cosmos and started driving towards Prague. On the way, we stopped at Nuremberg, a city in northern Bavaria, distinguished by medieval architecture. The Hauptmarkt (central square) contains the Schöner Brunnen, the gilded “beautiful fountain” with tiers of figures, and Frauenkirche, a 14th-century Gothic church. Strolled the square and enjoyed gelato.
Prague is capital of new Czech Republic. Part of Czechoslovakia, the Czech Republic was in a sort of a time wrap behind the Soviet iron curtain until 1989. When the curtain fell, a McDonald’s opened within 29 minutes and the country has not looked back since. Along with many trappings of the modern society, there are stark reminders of the past. The countryside is still lined up with insipid looking 10+ story buildings, many of them without an elevator, that were used to house the factory workers. The capital city Prague is bisected by the Vltava River and Charles bridge that is lined with statues of Catholic saints. Prague nicknamed “the City of a Hundred Spires,” is known for its Old Town Square, the heart of its historic core, with colorful baroque buildings, Gothic churches and the medieval Astronomical Clock, which gives an animated hourly show. Time was too short to enjoy this city with medieval charm and strong Austrian influence. Prior to World War I, Czechoslovakia was part of the mighty Austro-Hungarian empire. We did a quick deep dive into the history, palaces and churches of the city but I would have loved to spend time with the locals and learn more about how they lived under Soviet influence and relentless propaganda and what was it like to drink change through the fire hose when the curtain fell.
Wowed by Vienna, capital of Austria. If Prague had a medieval feel, Vienna felt regal OR as locals say… It is very ShikiMiki…Situated on the Danube River, Vienna’s artistic and intellectual legacy has been shaped by it’s well known monarch, Maria Teresia and other Hapsburgs and genius artists like Mozart, Beethoven, Strausse and also Sigmund Freud. Strolling through the main square and landmark St. Stevens Cathedral and plague memorial was amazing. Besides tons of gelato, I also greatly enjoyed sunflower seeds bread and Saher chocolate torte at the world famous Saher cafe. Visit through the incredibly gorgeous Schönbrunn Palace and gardens gave an insight into the Habsburgs might and opulence.
I was completely blown away by Budapest’s beauty and medieval charm. I did not expect it. Budapest, Hungary’s capital, gets it’s name by merger of two cities Buda and Pest, bisected by the River Danube. Its 19th-century Chain Bridge connects the hilly Buda district with flat Pest. Nicknamed Paris of the East with sweeping vistas all around, and vibrant nightlife, this is a city to enjoy… Hungary, once part of the mighty Austro-Hungarian empire, is now a very small country of 10 million residents of whom 2M reside in Budapest. Hungarians feel bummed out as they were invaded, annexed, and ruled by many Invaders. But I feel due to circumstances or whatever the case may be, Hungary also happened to be on the losing side in both world wars and that loss exacted a stiff price. In WW II, Hungary made a choice to side with Hitler to get away from the Soviet Union but when Germany lost then in the global arena it was a very small country to have a say and it came under the Soviet control…. So Hungary got dinged both ways; first the Nazis took a toll and then under the communistic Soviet control. Fortunately Budapest’s incredible architecture stands intact. There is SO MUCH BEAUTY TO ENJOY HERE. The dinner cruise on the Danube was the highlight of the trip. While the vegetarian food was nothing to swoon about the gorgeous views all around and lighted buildings kept us riveted, with camera in hand.
Salzburg, Austria birthplace of Mozart, where the Von Trapp family of Sound of Music lived prior to escaping Hitler and where the movie is shot has sweeping views of the Eastern Alps with medieval and baroque buildings. To me, Sound of Music epitomizes freedom that sets you free to be a better human being and the courage it takes to do what’s right because freedom is a right but it’s also a responsibility and a privilege. On the way to Salzburg, on a rocky outcrop overlooking Danube river, adjoining the Wachau Valley, we saw Melk Abbey, originally built as a castle, it was gifted to become a church and survived threats and political upheavals. What’s an ordinary looking church from outside has entirely gold and gold plated interior with 40 kg of GOLD, its opulence meant to resonate with Benedictine tenet of “Glory to God in Everything!!!!!! At Salzburg, visited the places associated with the filming of the movie, walked through the town and ended up at the main square with it’s landmark cathedral, Mozart’s House, and shops and food. Bought Austria’s famous marzipan Mozart chocolates and Salzburg Schnapps and of course a day in any city in Europe must include gelato.
We had our farewell dinner in Munich and took pictures, exchanged emails and departed next day with many beautiful memories.
My daughter and I wanted to do a tour before she went away for next phase of her studies. The decision to go to Morocco was somewhat random and we were pleasantly surprised. We took conducted tour by Gate 1. Our tour started in Rabat, capital city of Morocco. Morocco is in North Africa, bordering the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. Originally inhabited by the Berbers, Berber is still spoken in Morocco, and it has Berber influence, along with Arabian and European cultural influences.
In Rabat, we visited the area where Royal Palace is located. Morocco has constitutional monarch with young king holding large powers. He married an engineer who was also a commoner and he is believed to be very progressive, passing several decrees that would benefit women. We also strolled among ruins of Chellah, one of the most ancient human settlements.
En route to Fez, we visited the ancient ruins at Volubilis and I was surprised to find them very similar to other ruins I have visited. Well, guess what — they were from Roman empire. Roman empire had expanded to become one of the largest empires in the ancient world, had at one point covered about 20% of the world’s population and covered 2.5 million square miles. Volubilis has nicely preserved mosaics, Roman road and city layout and it is always fun to see Roman baths and even more fun to see Roman toilets where men sat in rows and talked while doing their job. The evening dinner at the home of a local family was one of the earliest highlights of this trip. They served wonderful 8 course meal beginning with sweets and followed by salad, breads, couscous, vegetarian pastilla (yummy), vegetarian tagine (traditional Moroccon dish cooked in special earthenware pots), followed by fruits, and more desserts (delicious) served with mint tea.
In Fez, we visited the crowded medina (narrow walled city, with maze like streets), with beautiful Medersa, Moulay Idreiss mausoleum, fountains, and Fez’s famous tanneries. Fez Medina is UNESCO world heritage site. We wandered through the souk (market) watching traditional craftsmen, visited authentic Moroccan carpet store, visited exterior of gorgeous Royal Palace gate, walked through the Jewish quarter and all the while stopping to shop for knickknacks, while also trying to stay with the group. According to our guide, if we got lost in the Medina, it would be hard to find our way back and we would have to locate a Moroccan spouse. I memorized some key words, should that happen, “Habibi oheb buka”.
From Fez, en route to Arfoud, we travelled middle Atlas Mountains and lush Ziz valley. We visited the fossil factory (fossils are big business here), a lively souk and one more opportunity to shop and negotiate and shop some more, and visited the 18th century ksar (castle). Then we traveled to Rissani (small city, on the edge of the Sahara). This was one of the most memorable experiences. We had a delicious meal, in a small oasis, in the middle of the desert. We relaxes in the shade for some time. Then we traveled more interior and finally rode the camels to watch the sunset. Until the sunset, we played in the sand dunes, carpet rode the hills (our guide pulled us down the steep hills on carpets, but climbing them back up took every ounce of our energy). We enjoyed absolutely incredible vistas with sky above in various hues and glistening red sand below (full of iron and no salt).
En route to Ouarzazate (a city with a funny name), we visited truly magnificent Todgha canyons, which rose to steep 800 feet. We also passed lush Todgha and Dades valleys. We passed Meggouna valley of roses. It is filled with roses, and rose water, oils and creams from here are exported all over the world. We walked in a Berber village, constructed in 12th century and still inhabited by Berbers. Some of us hiked up to Ksar of Ait Benhaddou (enjoyed incredible vistas where many films have been shot), before proceeding through Tichka Pass (highest road point on Atlas Mountain chain) to the bustling city of Marrakesh.
In Marrakesh, we visited Saadian tombs, dating back to the 16th century, the Koutoubia Minaret (law forbids any buildings to be taller than the Minaret) and the beautiful Bahia Palace. But Marrakesh’s main attraction was the Square and continued to be for the next three days. The busy square was populated with Henna artists, snake and monkey charmers (saw this monkey grooming the owner for almost 30 minutes), all sorts of knick knacks, street food and the square branches off in various directions into the crowded busy markets, another towards a road full of restaurants, and yet another road leading to horse carriages for carriage rides.
En route to the beach and fishing town of Essaouira, we stopped at some Argan trees full of goats. Small round fruit of Argan trees have thick peel that the goats love. They used to freely roam and climb these trees and eat the peel and spit out the nuts. People gathered these spitted nuts and ground them for culinary and skin care use. But now Argan oil has become world famous, highly expensive, and a huge business here. So a few Government sanctioned trees where goats are allowed to climb, serve mainly as tourist attractions. Oh what a site. For some reason, goats are my favorite animals. I love mountain climbing goats, grassy plains goats and I just adored these Argan tree climbing goats. Another truly memorable experience.
We visited argan oil factory, run by a women’s cooperative. Besides learning about argan trees and sampling some products, it was also a beautiful opportunity to learn about the democratic way this cooperative runs, where many women find friendships and support. In Essaouira, we walked the streets and while some enjoyed fresh fish cooked to perfection, Neesha and I stumbled into a small cafe serving vegetarian burgers. It was a wonderful meal, with the most delicious juice ever. It was date, almond, avocado, and orange juice freshly made with just the right blend of the ingredients.
Finally, at Casablanca (Morocco’s largest city), we visited the incredible Hassan II Mosque. With 60 stories high Minaret, it is 13th largest mosque, topped by a laser light directed towards Mecca. Part of it sits on the Atlantic ocean, with sea bed being visible through the glass floor (which we did not see), and has a retractable roof. Inside its marble walls, 25,000 can gather for prayers and another 80,000 can pray on the mosque’s outside grounds. It is packed with worshippers during Ramadan. We also visited Notre Dame De Lourdes Catholic Church surrounded by beautiful stain glass. We passed by the Rick’s Cafe, started recently by an enterprising American but were disappointed to learn that “Casablanca” was not shot in Casablanca.
What a beautiful trip. Morocco seems to enjoy a peaceful blend of cultures and its diverse terrain with high mountains, rugged coastline, winding alleys of the souks at Medinas, and sweeping desert, offered a range of experiences. Walking past the cafes was a bit of the strange experience. I called it, walking past viewing galleries. Moroccan men sit outside the cafes, sipping mint tea and people watching (most likely, women watching). Two men will not sit face to face but sit watching out, side by side, next to each other, often touching and enjoying a level of intimacy, not found among men in the US. Also very often women walked together linking their arms. Moroccan women don’t wear a veil but they may wear beautiful scarves and are mostly well covered. Both men and women wear lovely long flowing robes that are very comfortable, called the Djellabas.
Trip to Kyoto – Kinkaku-Ji Gold Temple, Shogun’s Castle, Kiyomizu-dera, Byodoin Temple, Fushimi Inari Shrine and trip to Kobe: Japan Travel
The best part of my trip to Japan was that we enjoyed different sites with so many of our Japanese hosts. Each one of them was wonderful, infinitely kind and gracious and truly made our trip memorable. We saw a lot of temples and shrines in Kyoto. Kyoto is called a city of ten thousand shrines and has the most gorgeous shrines and temples.
On first day in Kyoto, Piper and I met Hanada San and Nakagome San. These two ladies are 83 and 81 years old and have been best friends for over four decades. They are highly educated. Hanada San studied languages and Nakagome San has PhD in Chemistry. They use technology, accessed emails on their cell phones, and walked at such a fast pace and climbed stairs with such gusto that it would put young people to shame.
I found that in place of typical Japanese softness and roundabout way of saying things, older Japanese women are very direct. They sit up so straight and exude such dignity as if every wrinkle is telling a tale of hardships overcome and character built. These two gorgeous women were completely straight forward and totally direct. Right away they made it abundantly clear that they were going to pay for everything, including meals, entrance fees, and various cab rides.
They took us to Kinkaku-Ji gold temple. This is a zen temple whose top two floors are completely covered in gold leaf. There is another similarly named Silver temple, Ginkakuji that we did not see. Kinkakuji is absolutely gorgeous temple, overlooking a large pond. We could not go inside. But we walked around outside and took pictures.
We went to a lovely restaurant with delicious vegetarian food for lunch. Then we took a taxi and went to see beautiful rock garden and lotus garden. Again the views were absolutely astounding and every place gave an idea of how seriously Japanese people take elements of beauty. Hanada San and Nakagome San were lovely company. Hanada San told me that she was just like my mother and I began calling her Mama San.
We took a taxi and went to see a Shogun’s castle, called Nijo Castle. The castle castle has two concentric rings of fortifications, the Ninomaru Palace, the ruins of Honmaru Palace and various support buildings and several gardens. In 1601, the founder of Tokugawa Shogunate, ordered all the feudal lords in Western Japan to contribute to the construction of the Nijo castle. In 1867, the palace was the stage for the declaration of support to the emperor by Tokugawa Yoshinobu and the palace was returned to the Imperial Court.
We were the last people to enter. As we walked past an area, the caretakers closed the doors behind us. We were the only people and so we clearly heard that as we walked by the wooden floors squeaked, but not in an annoying way. The floors squeaked like the sound of the bird and they called it the nightingale squeak. The squeak was designed to alert the shogun when someone was walking and so that no one would sneak up on anyone in the castle and yet it was designed to be gentle on the ears. It was a gorgeous castle with lovely views outside.
We then went to Takashimaya, a huge shopping center and after some window shopping, went for dinner. I wanted to climb up the seven floors, while everyone else took an elevator. The floors however, did not go straight up but veered sideways on each floor and finally when I landed on the 7th floor, I emerged in the warehouse of a huge grocery store. I made my way out of the grocery store but could not locate them. In English combined with sign language, I explained to the concierge to make an announcement for Piper, and they did. I got found, and we had a hearty laugh during the lovely dinner!! Hanada San and Nakagome San insisted on coming with us to the train station to buy tickets and stood waving goodbye at us for as long as they could see us. Awww I was soooo touched!! What a memorable day!
We enjoyed Kyoto again with Kozue and her daughters Hikari and Yuki and visited the Kiyomizu-dera shrine. Kyomizu-dera temple was founded in 780 on the site of Otowa Waterfall, and is added to UNESCO world heritage sites. The main temple juts out with a big wooden stage, 13 meters above the hillside below, offering gorgeous views of cherry and maple trees, along with the views of the city of Kyoto, in the distance. The main hall, along with the stage, was built without the use of nails.
Behind Kiyomizudera’s main hall is the Jishu Shrine, dedicated to the deity of love and matchmaking. In front of the shirne are two stones, placed 18 meters apart. If you can successfully walk from one to the other, with the eyes closed then it is said to bring luck, in finding love. If someone guides you and you reach the other stone then it means that an intermediary may be needed, in finding love. At the shrine, there are many other little puzzles and special prayer places to help in finding love. The Otowa Waterfall is located at the base of Kiyomizudera’s main hall. The waters come out in three separate streams and visitors use cups attached to long poles to drink from them. Each stream’s water is said to have a different benefit, namely to cause longevity, success at school, and a fortunate love life. However, drinking from all three streams is considered greedy, so you must choose, where to drink from. Important lesson in prioritizing!
We walked up and down the souvenir street and then went to eat at hot pot restaurant for Okinawa cuisine. Kozue was immensely sweet and discussed menu for me at great length to make sure that I got completely vegetarian food. Later we walked around and enjoyed the Kyoto skyline at night and saw the reflection of the Kyoto tower on the glass building, opposite the tower and enjoyed the water fountain with music.
Later I enjoyed the visit with Lisa to the beautiful Byodoin Temple and garden. While walking back from the temple, we stopped at a tea shop and then walked to the station. But Lisa forgot her water bottle at the tea shop. So we parted company, as she went back to retrieve the bottle and I went alone to Fushimi Inari Shrine.
Fushimi Inari Shrine is at a base of Inari mountain (Inari mens God of rice) and has trails that go up the mountain to many smaller shrines, across 4 kilometers. The distinctive feature of this shrine is that entire walkways up are lined with literally thousands of vermilion or orange tori gates. This is not only one of the most popular shrines among tourists visiting Japan but during Japanese New Year, it also draws several million Japanese worshipers. It was great fun walking up the trail.
The highlight of my trip to Kobe was that quite unexpectedly, we ran into a Jain temple, even as I was explaining to Donna that during the religious days of Paryushan, I generally go at least one day to the temple and this may be the only year, when I would not be going, since I was in Japan. As we accidently came upon a Jain temple, Donna insisted that it was not a coincidence and these events happen in our lives, when we have powerful intentions and that it is a part of the divine plan. We walked in Kobe a lot. Also went to the harbor, which was beautiful. I love Manju, little Japanese dessert and ate a lot of that.
Marie-San and her husband Hiroyuki-San picked us up from Barbara’s home in Nara. We drove for about 3 hours to a place called Koyasan which is a seat of one of the Shingon sect of Buddhism. UNESCO has declared Mt. Koya as one of the world heritage sites. Located in a valley amid the eight mountain peaks, it is supposed to resemble a lotus and hence the location was selected as headquarters of the Shingon Buddhist sect. We had a lovely lunch at a vegetarian place and then took a long walk where on both sides are beautiful graves of various people. At the end of the road the founder of the sect is laid to rest and there is the head temple or Kongobu-Ji. It started drizzling on our walk and Marie had brought umbrellas; so we walked in the gentle rain. It was a beautiful start to awesome experience of spending time at the Buddhist monastery where Marie had made our booking.
At the monastery, at the entrance we were to leave our shoes at the door and use the shoes provided by the monastery. Our room was simple 6 by 6 tatami mat room, with a large table in the middle, where they served us welcome tea. Marie and Hiroyuki came to our room and we all enjoyed the tea together.
We ladies then went for the bath and men went into their own separate bath. This was my first Japanese bathing experience and it was wonderful. We each received a small wash towel and first scrubbed ourselves clean at our individual stalls. Each stall was equipped with a tap and a shower head, a sitting stool, shampoo, and soap. After thoroughly cleaning ourselves, we entered the bath and soaked in the warm water. We scrubbed our bodies clean and rinsed and then entered the bath and soaked in the bath. After we emerged clean and relaxed, we wore yucatas (bath robes) provided to us and then proceeded to a special room, where we were served dinner. I don’t have words to describe the dinner. It was amazingly beautifully served on two trays and had over 22 items and counting lids and chop sticks and chop sticks rester etc. there were 30 plus items. Each item was served decorated into each server. This was the most beautifully presented and the most delicious dinner I have ever had.
After dinner, there was still some time before the curfew (at 9 pm). So we changed into regular clothes and went for a night walk and to watch the pagodas that were lighted. It was enormously beautiful. We returned before 9 pm and went to bed and were at the mantra chanting by 6 am. After an hour of prayers, mantra chanting, and a lecture by the monk, we went for breakfast. Again amazed by the care with which it was served and we ate in silence or minimally talking only when necessary. We then toured the garden and went to another temple for meditation. Here Marie had planned meditation training for us. After each set of instructions, the priest paused, while Marie translated in English for us. We then walked around the various pagodas and had lunch and started towards Nara.
Upon reaching Nara, we went for supa cento. Those are public baths on a much larger scale. There were at least 15 pools or baths (by my count), baths that included cold bath, hot bath, outdoor pool, cave pool, salt bath, small bath tub, lying down shallow pool, jacuzzi with different jets, electric bathing pool, outdoor small pool with TV and there was wet sauna, hot sauna and so on. There were special massage baths as well for those who wanted to pay etc. This was a highlight of the trip. I enjoyed the Japanese bathing experience so much that I made a special request that Marie plan at least one more day of supa cento and she did even though she and Hiroyuki-San had to drive several hours to drop me back since I missed the train back!!
Touring Japan was an amazingly refreshing experience. I will post a series of blogs, to cover different regions of Japan or different experiences I had in Japan. This blog is on our time in Nara. Nara is the capital city of Nara Prefecture, in Kansai region of Japan.
As the plane was landing into Osaka, I looked down at the ocean and the scene with multiple ships similar gray looking ships (with only variation in sizes), looked almost exactly like the board of the game “Battleship”. I felt a bit emotional thinking about my father going to Japan, almost 45 or so years ago. He established great collaborations, with sole agency to sell Toshiba and National electronic products in Ethiopia and other parts of Africa, a business that brought much prosperity for the family, in years to come.
Landed into Osaka airport and took airport bus to Nara where Barbara’s husband Iishu picked us up. They live in Byakugo-Ji, a small little village, in Nara. While Barbara, Piper and I went for a walk around the village, Iishu set the table and put finishing touches on the dinner. This place, a little eco habitat as Barabra calls it, is teaming with wild life. We had to ask Iishu to identify multiple sounds, at different hours in the day. The crows were the most vocal, noisy and as Barbara explained, most intrusive. Garbage had to be left outside in little netted boxes to prohibit crows from picking apart garbage bags and making a mess. Then there were certain types of cicadas that were buzzing till late in the night. The morning came alive by 4 am with sounds from sparrows, various birds and of course the crows. The village is dotted with gorgeous little houses. Daily I was the first one to get up and I went for a lovely walk and often saw older Japanese women tending to their gardens with great care.
Iishu-San had prepared a lavish dinner with a some completely vegetarian items. The table was beautifully set with rice served in the bowl with delicious little plum pickle in the middle to represent the Japanese flag. We discussed itinerary and made calls and plans.
Next day, Barbara, Piper and I went to see the Big Buddha in Nara. There we wrote a message on a tile and donated it to the temple, for the roof. Barbara asked me to write something in gujarati and I wrote Aum Shanti. We then walked around, took pictures with the deer, one of them came and licked me. Deer in Japan don’t run away. In fact at Miyajima, one of them put his head into my bag that I had left on the ground and I chased him and picked up the bag so the deer kept following me. Then I became the one being chased, I was scared and started running away from the deer.
Barbara, Piper and I went to a beautiful garden and walked around and took pictures. Then we went to a tiny Japanese restaurant and had cold udon noodles. Barabra explained in detail that I did not eat any kind of meat, including dashi (fish sause) which is ubiquitous in almost all Japanese cooking; and they were very gracious in accommodating our needs.
We shopped for groceries and got home and I cooked Indian dinner; Chole to serve with nan, pavbhaji to serve with bread, and eggplant pulao, and bundi raita. They enjoyed the dinner immensely.
We stayed a few days in Nara. Our hosts were extremely gracious. One day, after dinner, we got a special “show and tell” from Iishu-san. Iishu happens to be an artist and a phenomenal story-teller. From his childhood memories, he has made several small paintings and has special stories to go with them. He showed us the paintings and regaled us with stories, which were not only entertaining, but gave a deep insight into olden (pre-internet) days, into Japanese culture, and into his own life.
One highlight was a rainy day when several friends visited us. We walked around Nara, did window shopping, shared umbrellas, found vegetarian food, and later had coffee in a beautiful cafe. One day, our host, Iishu-San took us to a temple of new Shinto order and we sat there, enjoying the rhythmic sound and ritual of the prayers.
Touring Japan was an amazingly refreshing experience. I will post a series of blogs, to cover different regions of Japan or different experiences I had in Japan.
Japan, it seems, is all about efficiency, but additionally, it is compassionate efficiency. That is to say, it is all about making things easier for others. And one always thinks of others, before self. You observe the efficiency in everything from the tender loving care with which the tiniest of gardens are nurtured that utilizes small spaces beautifully, to the way in which shoes are removed before entering homes, by turning around, so that when you leave, you can put the feet directly into the shoes, with ease.
But the efficiency of the toilets just bowled me over. The toilets have numerous settings, bidet and behind washing etc. When you flush the toilet, a tiny wash basin behind the toilet starts to pour water to fill up the tank. One uses that water pouring into the wash basin to wash hands. There is a slight inconvenience to reach over the toilet to wash hands, but it leads to extreme efficiency in water usage as the same water used for washing hands will be used to flush the toilet in the next round. Some toilets start playing music as you enter, so that you do not have to listen to the sounds of other people doing their job.
I was so fascinated by toilets and each time examined them carefully. In one toilet, I noticed a little contraption on the wall opposite the toilet. I could not quite understand Japanese writing but when I pulled it down, it came down as a little seat. And from the picture, I realized it was a seat for a parent to sit on while their little toddler was on the toilet. Fascinating!
In another toilet, there was seat to let the toddler sit while the parent needed to use the toilet. Now I wonder how exactly we used the toilet while carrying a child and with no place to put the child down. And then there was one where both a parent and the toddler can use the toilet, side by side. Compared to the US, while the toilets are much smaller in Japan, they include these little conveniences because someone thought about it.
Japanese efficiency is different from German efficiency. In both systems, the train comes on time and both countries are efficient because they both have a set of mostly rigid, unbendable rules, and they have cultivated a mindset to stick to them. But consider this fact about Germany. I read somewhere that “everything there has to be done exactly as prescribed (no exceptions). There is no point waving madly at the bus driver to let you on after he has closed the doors: the timetable leaves no time for compassion”.
It is a tad different in Japan. Similar unbendable rules underpin the efficiency, but the rules include compassion, thinking about the community, graciousness, and respect for others.
How so? There is a rule that after the train leaves the station, the conductor needs to make one round in each compartment. Then it reaches the next station and he or she gets up and again makes one round (in case anyone needs any help). Each time, whether the passengers acknowledge his presence or not, the conductor is required to acknowledge the passengers and render himself approachable, by bowing to the entire compartment, as he enters, and again, as he exits.
In another situation, we went to stay at a monastery. We were required to take off our shoes at the door (as is customary also in every Japanese home), and were given a set of shoes to wear inside the monastery buildings. All shoes were exactly the same and therefore interchangeable. One morning, we went to pray in the Buddhist temple. We all removes shoes at the door. Me and my friends were the last in coming out of the temple. I presumed that shoes closest to the door will be taken by the others, who came out before us. To the contrary, everyone coming out makes extra effort to take shoes furthest away, so it will be easier for others coming after them.
Before entering every temple, you are required to wash your hands with a ladle, by the water spigot. The hand washing is ritualistic and has to be done exactly the same way. And it was thus explained to me. You pour water over right hand, once that is washed, you hold the ladle with the right hand and pour water over left hand, and then you lift the ladle such that the water pours over the handle. The reason you do this is because after both your hands are cleaned, the water goes over the handle and it is cleaned for the next person to use.
I found Japan to be incredibly clean but once when I was looking to throw some garbage, I could not find any garbage bins. Then I asked someone how did they manage to keep the country so clean, without any garbage bins. She explained that in order to eliminate security threats and to lessen the work for the city, they have minimized the garbage cans, and people just take their garbage home!
Everytime one enters a place of worship, one is required to take off the shoes and wear another set of shoes to be used inside. One time, as we came out, I dumped the shoes given and promptly took my shoes and I was ready. The next one to come out was 81 year old Nakagome-San. She took the shoes of every member of our group and laid them on the floor such that each of them can put their feet directly into the shoes. I was totally ashamed that it had not even occurred to me that I should get everybody else’s shoes and keep them ready for them.
Thinking about others is such an integral part of Japanese mindset that with the Japanese, it is a habit. Thinking about the community and others, before self, is just how things are done and in the process, it enhances efficiency and ensures smooth running of the system. Unfortunately, in some instance, things have gone awry when majority in the group engage in something inappropriate, and no one would challenge the community or the majority.
- Hong Kong has the world’s 6th highest GDP (PPP) per capita.
- Hong Kong has been ranked first in terms of economic freedom for 20 years (1995-2014) according to the Heritage Foundation.
- According to one 2013 survey, Hong Kong was the world’s fifth largest foreign exchange market, in terms of turnover.
- Daily turnover in Hong Kong interbank market averaged Hong Kong $200.9B in April, 2014
- Hong Kong was one of the most active markets for raising Initial Public Offerings or IPOs.
- Mainlanders pour in Hong Kong bringing with them money and culture clashes. In 2010, 20M mainlanders visited Hong Kong, last year, 41M, and the number is projected to be 100M annually, by 2020.
- While Hong Kong GDP has risen by 50% in the last decade, the median household incomes have risen by only about 10%, causing wide income disparities.
- Average income of people younger than 40 dropped by more than 11% between 2000 and 2010.
- Number of elders age 65+ is expected to go up from the current 1.0M to 2.6M in 204, while there are likely to be fewer working age people to support the elders.
- According to a recent survey in Chinese University of Hong Kong, 1 in 5 people said they would consider leaving the territory for a life overseas.
I did not enjoying my visit to Hong Kong very much, especially right after touring Japan, Hong Kong felt like a city without a soul. When you consider the statistics above, it is not hard to imagine why. Hong Kong is primarily a commercial center. Culturally, there is a huge diversity but there is hardly much inclusiveness. Populations seem to be segregated by class divisions, along ethnic, racial and cultural lines. Consider for instance, this statistic. There are an estimated 200,000 female domestic workers from other countries, living in Hong Kong. They mostly work as maids for the city’s wealthy families. I happened to be in Hong Kong’s Statue Square, on their day off. They all gather on Sundays and visit with each other, play cards, eat, sleep, style each other’s hair and trade romance books. Apparently, these “helpers” often work twenty four hours a day, six days a week. Very likely, they don’t get paid enough to go eat out or enjoy movies on their one day off, and they simply gather in Hong Kong’s stations, parks, or outside public buildings. I learned, that these maids are often yearning to go home, frequently go to bed hungry, are often sexually harassed, although there are some who are very happy with their employers.
Similarly, stereotypes about young and old, about classes, and different ethnic groups abound. I heard many stereotypes. One of the newest cultural divides has occurred between Hong Kong residents and mainland Chinese. On one hand, the mainlanders are bringing with them money and are creating business opportunities, and giving Hong Kong economy a boost. On the other hand, they annoy Hong Kongers, who see the mainlanders as uncouth, uncultured, and ready to get their kids to pee over a trash can.
Anyway, one of the highlights of the trip was a visit to The Peak, the highest point in Hong Kong, in an exclusive, classy neighborhood. We enjoyed absolutely incredible, breathtaking vistas of one of the most spactacular cityscapes, in the world. What we see is an architectural evidence of the economic boom that hit the city, after the colonial power handed the former colony back to China, in 1997. From here, you can feel the incredible commercial city humming below this amazing vantage point. I could have stayed there all evening, but the heat was a little much for my travel companions. we strolled over to a little cafe and enjoyed our cool lemonade, in the shade.
The Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery, located in Sha Tin, in the New Territories, occupies an area of over eight hectares. My travel companions were not interested in hiking up the steep hill, in order to reach the monastery. So I went alone, while they enjoyed a cool drink and waited for me at a cafe below. I climbed up the steep concrete path comprising of 431 steps, lined on either side with 500 life-sized gilded Arhan Statues. At the top, there are five temples, four pavilions, one verandah and a pagoda. The monastery was constructed between 1949 and 1957 but then it took ten more years to complete the miniature Buddha statues, displayed around the walls of the main temple (apparently there are about 13,000 but in Cantonese tradition “ten thousand” represents a figurative term for an extremely large number.
I also greatly enjoyed the visit to the Wong Tai Sin Temple in Kowloon, famous for having the prayers answered via “what you request is what you get” deal 🙂. I prayed deeply and then got my fortune read. The fortune teller can only answer one question and it did not turn out as I had hoped. I was wondering who would win in this conflict — would I get my money’s worth and would the fortune teller turn out to be correct OR would my prayers be answered. hummmmm……
Our visit to the island of Macau was interesting. Macau is one of the world’s richest cities, with the highest GDP per capita, by purchasing power parity, as of 2013, according to the World Bank. Of course the reason I wanted to go there was to try my luck at the casinos in Macau. Macau became the world’s largest gambling center in 2006. In a mixed blessing, I won a large amount of money and then either I dropped my large bill or it was stolen somehow. Easy come, easy go. My travel companion was not interested in gambling and that halted further attempts on my part to try my luck. We walked over to the historic Portuguese center of Macau (Macau is a former Portuguese colony) and enjoyed some Portuguese cuisine.
Going shopping is and always has been one of my least favorite activity and did not greatly enjoy it. But massive and glistening luxury shops and huge bank buildings and other skyscrapers give an idea of the trade that is flowing through Hong Kong.
The protesters in Hong Kong are demanding real political reform. While Beijing is willing to hold elections, it has announced that all candidates have to be approved by a screening committee, clearly in violation of China’s 1997 promise to allow free elections in 2017, according to the protesters. Hopefully, the clamor for democracy will also spark opportunities for real dialog and change around broader issues of human rights like income disparities and ethnic tensions.
Here is a link to my review of the book “The Piano Teacher” by Janice Lee set during the brutal 3 years and 8 months of Japanese occupation of Hong Kong that started in December, 1941. http://bit.ly/1j3GSYC