Japan Day 7 – Kyoto

Japan’s ancient Capital is known worldwide for the variety of temples, gardens and cherry trees, which, unfortunately for us, had already lost their blossoms and had started to sprout leaves. One of the fascinating parts of our trip is that traveling across this country, which extends for hundreds of kilometers north to south, we can literally witness all the phases of the Spring season, from early to late conditions.
We immediately walked to the main temple, which at the time was being refurbished. The hangar built for the occasion wa so big it could comfortably hold an Airbus A380; the temple is just as impressive, one cannot stop to look at it in awe and feel so tiny next to it. A guide we met there, or rather who came to meet us because he felt like practicing some English, just like many Japanese we have met before, told us that the temple is around one thousand years old and is built entirely in wood without the use of a single nail. Really impressive. Needless to say, the best lenses for the job would be a wide angle and a macro. We walked for about 10 minutes to a hostel described in our Lonely Planet guide, which, since our trip to Peru, has become our favorite guide. The hostel was very pretty and modern looking, painted in nice bright and relaxing colors, but unfortunately full. We have a tendency not to book much, if anything, in advance. We travel with a very flexible schedule, listening to what locals or other fellow travelers have to say about a particular place and take it from there. Too often people travel thousands of miles to end up in your typical overpopulated tourist destinations, not us. Although there are occasions when we feel we need to see why a place is so popular, we leave plenty time to explore countries off the usual tourist path. We try to understand why locals like certain places and absorb as much of their culture as we can. Sometimes, as in this case, there are drawbacks, like not finding a room in a recommended place, but not all is lost; with a positive attitude something good always comes out, and so it was. The girl at the reception called several other places for us but at a time like that nothing was available. This is Kyoto, and every person who visits Japan from another country visits Kyoto, without counting the thousands of tourists arrived from all parts of Japan itself. In less than an hour, though, we found a hostel near the Imperial Palace; we hopped on the subway and after walking around the neighborhood for a while and asking several times for direction (remember: Japan has no addresses) we arrived at the door of what seemed like an abandoned building. The inside was dark (and scary) but it was clean; our room was located in the back of the building at the top of a tight staircase, it was small, had no windows and was nearly pitch black. The good news was that nobody else was occupying it, and the other good news was that the hostel had bicycle rentals for the equivalent of $5 a day.

We could not have asked for better weather, the sun was warm and the sky deep blue without a cloud, for the first time since our arrival in Japan. We traded our preferred method of transportation (our feet) for two bikes and set out to explore this beautiful and intriguing city. People use bicycles a lot in Japan, including the major cities, but there are no bike paths so bikers use the sidewalks (except on crossroads, where there are bike paths used to cross the intersection). The typical Japanese courtesy behavior applies: everyone else has the right of way.
The further we moved away from the central area and the main train station and the more we felt like we were entering an immense garden, it’s quite easy to understand why this city is nicknamed the “Garden City.” With our bikes we pedaled along the bank of one of the rivers that cut the city in different areas enjoying this magnificent day to the fullest, until we found our way to the municipal gardens. We spent hours taking macro and close-up photos of tulips exploding in a myriad of colors and other beautiful flowers. The garden, which looked more and more like a canvas, was painted with small ponds and creeks, and also had a sizeable collection of bonsai. Crossing a wooded area we were surprised to find ourselves surrounded by large cherry trees in blossom and a very peaceful view: an older lady, sitting against a cherry tree, was drawing the pink scenery on a large pad. I snapped some photos of what would become one of my fondest memories of this trip.
Once back on the saddle of our bikes we slowly rolled once again along the river toward the Gion area, while enjoying a spectacular sunset. Gion is one of the most popular areas, if not the most popular, of Kyoto. It’s here that it is still possible to catch a glimpse of a real Geisha or a Maiko (the apprentice) and when we arrived the place was bustling with activity while an incessant flow of people moved in all directions, as attracted by the many lights. The street which cuts this quarter in half, with its cherry trees and river dancing on the side, is often referred to as the most beautiful street in all of Asia and it’s hard not to agree; regardless of the never-ending movement it gave us a sense of calm.

The neon lights of the shops combined with the light from the lanterns hanging outside of restaurants, and the street was dense with the odors of a myriads of foods prepared in the many restaurants of the area. We ventured in a darker and less populated street, looking for something more original and walked in front of a quaint restaurant with a large water tank by the entrance in which swam squid and other fish.

After peaking inside we knew we had found what we were looking for: four chefs were busy preparing food on a show-kitchen style counter, and the place was full with local people, no foreign tourists in sight. The waiter sat us at the counter where we quickly found ourselves absorbed in watching the cooks prepare their dishes with an elegant speed. After looking at the menu we quickly decided we wanted to try everything on it, and so we did; that was easily the best sashimi I ever had, and portions were very generous. Other than sashimi and sushi in all flavors we had several fish soups and dishes prepared with octopus, squid and shrimps. This was by far the most expensive meal we had in Japan; the two of us spent, including Sake, $61/€39. The same meal back home in Jackson would have easily been around $200.
We rolled out of the restaurant and spent an hour walking around trying to digest our lucullian meal before we jumped on our bikes and headed toward our scary hostel. I was in bed by 10pm, a record in this trip of late nights and sunrise awakenings.

Japan Day 6 – Takayama

Another early morning in our schedule with the train taking us to Takayama, a pretty town at the feet of the mountains well known for its Spring Festivals.We intended to spend the night there but all the hotels had been booked months in advance because of the local festivities. The landscape we experienced crossing the Japan Alps  has been quite different than whatwe have seen in the past few days.  Running along the bank of a river for a good part of the itinerary, the train took us through valleys and canyons, blooming cherry trees, country style houses, waterfalls and snow capped mountains.

Parade Float in Takayama

What made the trip even more interesting was the commentary, both in Japanese and English, broadcasted through the loudspeakers whenever we reached a location of particular interest. The breathtaking landscape had a definite alpine flavor, the name Japan Alps seemed quite appropriate.

Once in Takayama we got off the train, by now packed full with people, and once collected the Festival Program at the tourist office we headed toward center town on foot. It wasn’t long after leaving the station that we found ourselves in front of a shop full of crates overflowing with local delicacies. Every item was available from sampling and between a tasting of  vegetables, fruit, meat, fish, and an incredible variety of desserts we easily spent over half hour there. We were quite intrigued by some ash colored semi-sweet tablets that, Lindsey pointed-out, tasted like… dust. I became immediately addicted to the flavor while Lindsey disliked them at first but days later she was asking for them. Back on our trail we soon discovered that this town offered a lot of sampling, and it’s without any shame that we let that take care of our lunch, after all this was a cultural trip and we needed to understand the locals at all levels. Overall people were eager to let us try their cuisine and they encouraged the sampling.

Parade

The town was inundated by tourists arrived from all sides of the country and in certain streets it was very difficult to walk at a normal pace, in particular on one of the main streets where dozens of kiosks and tents, lined up on the river bank, offered anything from local sake to roasted fillets of trout on a skewer. We crossed a beautiful orange bridge and strolled on the main square, now lively with people in traditional and historical costumes, decorated floats used in the parade. It was not hard at all, for a second, to close our eyes and feel transported back to the land of the Shogun and Samurai.
We decided to escape the town for a moment for a chance to get a bird’s view of it and hiked up a steep road that continued on a narrow trail which took us to the top of a hill. The peacefulness of the forest was a nice contrast to the bustling scene below us and for a while we enjoyed until we got brought back to reality by the sounds of flutes, drums and we walked the steep slope back to watch the parade and the puppet show. Takayama has a fascinating history and traditions and the parade narrates it with the use of costumes, music and dances.

Sampling local food

We enjoyed the rest of the day walking around the many temples of which this city is rich and ate a Bento box and some delicious Kobe beef on a stick on the side of the river next to an old bridge before heading back in the evening to the train station, where our train to Nagoya left, without any surprise, perfectly on time.

Japan Day 1 and 2 – Tokyo

I had dreamt of visiting Japan since I was a kid. When I thought of it I painted in my mind images of big cities, rolling hills, cherry blossoms and tall mountains. In college I took Japanese as an elective because my fascination with this country didn’t fade as I grew up and listening to my Japanese native teacher speaking conjured up the images I had as a kid. After three failed attempts, it finally came the day when I was going to see all this with my own eyes… and my camera’s “sensor”; at last a photographic trip across Japan. The 12 hours between Houston and Tokyo were spent watching movies and absorbing the

Rainy Day in Tokyo

information contained in my faithful Lonely Planet guide and it wasn’t long before the landing gear touched down on Japanese land. Nihon e irasshai mase, welcome to Japan,

pronounced the flight attendant.

I wasn’t even out of the gangway and I already had a grin on my face that I couldn’t wash out. My first mission was finding the travel agency on the ground level where I could exchange my voucher for an unlimited use 14 days train pass and meet up with my friend Lindsey who was arriving on a different flight. The agency was easy to find and Lindsey showed up an hour later, right on time.

Those of you who read my Peru blog will remember that on that occasion Lindsey showed up three hours late, making me wonder if she’d show up at all.

Getting to Tokyo was easy and the train ride across the countryside was enjoyable. At the station we met a lady from Singapore who made a trip to Japan to admire the cherry blossoms (sakura) her yearly pilgrimage. Her fluency in Japanese helped us get some subway tickets to Asakusa, the part of Tokyo where we were staying, but somehow managed to get us lost inside the train station. I rarely get lost, my inner compass seems to work quite well even in pl

aces I have never been to before, it must be a sense that gets developed with years of traveling, but I followed her because it seemed she knew where she was going… so we thought. Once we found ourselves again, and the right train, we ended up in Hasakusa. It was dark. The very pleasant lady from Singapore was still with us as she had not booked a hotel and trusted that we had made the right choice. All we had was the address to our hostel and my knowledge, gained in college, that Japanese streets don’t have names and therefore when people tell you how to get to a place they often draw a map or ask the police which, not unlike Scotland, major task is to help people find their way. I remembered a nightmare I had months before when I dreamt of being a pizza delivery guy in Tokyo, I had woken up with a sense of panic.

Prayer at the Temple

I saw a police kiosk on the opposite side of the street and asked, in a rusty Japanese that had not seen a grammar book since college, for directions. Out of professional deformation, I have no idea why I did that, I also asked where was the closest camera shop. The police was very friendly but even after they consulted their maps for a while their directions didn’t help much. We ended up walking for about thirty minutes to finally get to destination, and find out that the hostel was just 5 minutes walk from the subway station we got out of, had we taken the right path. Lesson learned. We stopped at the bar downstairs for a little while to talk to the other hostel residents and ask about their experiences then called it a night. I pretty much fell asleep as soon as I hit the bed and slept deeply in the silence of the night (no sarcasm, it was really quiet).

Peru Day 4 & 5 – Huacachina

The alarm clock rang at 5am. I wanted to get out early and take a walk in the desert to photograph the dunes at sunrise since last night we didn’t get to see much in the dark. At 5 there’s light already, I keep forgetting I am under the equator line. This is my first time under the equator so it’s still a bit of a reason to wonder; the sky is different, I don’t recognize any stars. We walked for a while (after five minutes you realize that all those movies of people running in the desert are fake, there is no running here, walking takes too much energy already), I shot many photos of the dunes and the oasis seen from above. It gives me a feeling of being in Morocco, never been there but from the photos I’ve seen this is what it reminds me of… actually it sounds like I need to fit Morocco in one of my next trips.
There was some fog and therefore we did not see the sunrise, and only around eight, when the sky showed itself a bit, we saw that the sun was already high. I missed the warm sunrise light. Too bad, it will be for next time.

Dunes are BIG and STEEP… no avalanches here though

We laid down on the sand (very thin, the thinnest I have ever seen, but it doesn’t stick because it’s not humid and there’s no salt) and we enjoyed this morning in the Peruvian desert. Back at the oasis, at 9:30, we had breakfast and then did the desert tour in a Dune Buggie and tried a hand at sandboarding, it’s like snowboarding but you gotta go straight, speed is ridiculous and you can’t stop unless you throw yourself down, fall, or reach the end of the slope (which typically ends with falling hard after what must feel like when you drop out of Warp Speed if those dampeners are malfunctioning). We had tons of fun; in  our group there was a German girl who had just visited Chile by herself and will be traveling until January when her boyfriend meets her, and together they will travel South America until April; there were also 3 Israeli and one American.
We had sand everywhere… back at the hostel Lindsey and I took a nice swim in the pool (wish I had more time to tan, the sun is strong here and it’s barely spring. Scorching hot!). We met some people and had dinner with them, that was the end of a long, exhausting and fantastic day.

I removed some more sand from my pockets and after breakfast we lingered around the oasis for some more photography and a bit of relaxation, then in the afternoon we took a cab to Ica. There, we wondered the streets a little without getting too far from the populated center while we waited for the time to catch our next bus. Regardless of the recent earthquake and destruction the town was bustling with an ongoing flow of people, this probably would have been a good opportunity for a photo reporter, but that’s not my kind of photography, so I just enjoyed walking around and mixing up with the crowd. We also quickly discovered that this town knows the art of pastry making, in one of the bakeries we saw we had, what we agreed was, the best strudel we ever had. I could go back to Ica just for that. In the late afternoon we finally boarded our bus to Nazca and after a few hours spent staring at the desert out of our windows we arrived.

The Peru Travel Adventure continues here

Peru Day 3 – Lima and Huacachina

Cultivated fields between Lima and Ica

In the morning we walked around Lima. The hostel owner was very nice and showed us around, then took us to the bus station of the company Cruz del Sur to get our tickets. The hospitality of the people in Peru by far exceeded our expectations. We were shown the direction to a Peruvian restaurant to calm our growling stomachs and ate a huge plate of Lomo Saltado (stripes of beef, cooked in a pan with an awesome sauce and mixed with french fries, red onions and red peppers). The portions were very generous, a plate would have been enough for three people, but that didn’t stop us from finishing the place. The price including drink (a pitcher of Chicha Morada, a sweetish, non-alcoholic, non-carbonated drink made with red corn and fruit) was barely $3.

After lunch we took the express bus to Ica. It was a very comfortable 2 floors bus with chairs reclining almost completely, a TV playing movies and one bathroom on each floor. Downstairs was the location of the first class, with completely reclining chairs, bed style; first class occupied half of the length of the bus and had a door for access and privacy). From the brochure on-board I learned that the bus had a GPS tracking system so that the company could send help shall the bus stop for any unscheduled reason in rural areas. Some buses even have Wi-Fi. Soon after leaving the hostess passed lunch; I wasn’t ready to eat again and I just nibbled a bit to see what it was like, not the best food I had, even less appetizing than airline food.
Ica is located some 300Km south of Lima and before arriving we passed by Pisco, the town that was subject to a major earthquake nearly three months before our trip and left over 500 dead. There was a lot of destruction, but that didn’t seem to have touched the good spirit of these people. I admired their resiliency.

The Oasis-Town of Huacachina

Once at the bus station in Ica we hopped on a taxi for Huacachina, 5km away. By then it was dark and we couldn’t see much of the scenery other than realize that our surrounding were now sand and more sand. Huacachina is an oasis in a desert of giant dunes, around the lake there are hotels and restaurants. Trusting our ever-faithful Lonely Planet guide we asked the driver to take us to a hostel called Salvatierra. The cab ride was $2 and the welcoming in the hostel was once again a very warm one. A young boy gave us the tour and told us about a dune buggy / sandboarding trip that was taking place the next morning. We asked for an obtained a private room with bathroom and shower (open sky ceiling over the first part of the bathroom) which coasted us $6 each plus $2 for the (large) continental breakfast. In the hostel we met many young people coming from all over the world to offer their help in clearing the city from rubble left by the earthquake and whatever else they could do as volunteers. We took a short walk around the oasis and ended up stopping by the patio of a restaurant, where we met a group of young people from several countries who were here to spend two days; many of them had just met or met randomly at some point of their journey. We sat with these fellows and joined them for dinner and, once again, ate too much for very little.