Zen we went to ze park!

We got up early and went to the Golden Temple, in northwest Kyoto. The temple grounds were actually quite small, but it’s still notable since the temple is plated in gold.

We only spent about twenty minutes at the temple, and then went in search of an ATM and a zen garden. We found the zen garden, but not an ATM, so were without the funds necessary to enter the garden. Rebuffed and hungry, we got on a free bus and rode to Nijo Castle, where we found both an ATM and much-needed elevensies at 7-11. Elevensies, a meal between breakfast and lunch, has proved to be the most important meal of the day for us. Without elevensies there are bouts of pouting, flopping onto park benches, diminished problem-solving skills and inability to make logical decisions.

Refueled, we stormed Nijo Castle. This is a corner tower of the castle wall, which was surrounded by a moat.

There was a cormorant fishing the moat, and unlike in China, we could take pictures of the cormorant fishing for free!

Nijo Castle was built in 1603 by a shogun (from my understanding a sort of general-king). The floors were specially designed to be squeaky and he had hidden compartments for guards so that nobody could whack him. Talk about paranoid. The castle’s interiors are open to visitors — minus shoes, umbrella and cameras — and made for a lovely, shaded tour. Every room in the castle is covered in murals of scenes from nature, and many even have gold plating.

The castle grounds are quite large and have many gardens. At one point, we broke out our auxiliary elevensies, Kit Kat bars. Unfortunately, it was probably in the 90s at the very least, and they were liquid. So we trekked onward.

Short people, big walls:

Having had a successful castle visit, we had burgers for lunch and journeyed to the western outskirts of town where there are many parks and temples. When we got off the subway train, Jeff noticed a large building that said “piano museum” on the side, so despite it not being in the guide book or agenda, we went in. The lobby was actually a ticket office for some kind of special train ride called the “romance train.” The romance train was actually just a rickety wooden train, but I guess one man’s rickety wooden compartment of death is another’s rose petal-strewn, candle-lit French restaurant.

Once we finally found the museum, we discovered that it was one room with two grand pianos, a few old train engines, some chandeliers and one display case of small, crystal figurines. I guess it should be called “random stuff that fancy white people like,” not “piano museum.”On the up side, one the pianos was a Bösendorfer, and Jeff reached across the velvet rope and touched the leg, which made him happy.

Outside, Jeff worked it for the camera at the Hummer that was also displayed at the “piano museum.”

After that we window shopped and walked around the neighborhood, which was strewn with gardens and temples. There’s also a monkey park, but we decided against paying for monkeys when you can get them for free in other parts of Japan.

We crossed the big river that runs through the city and walked along the shore.

After a long walk, we went to our first zen garden. See? There’s lines in pebbles and everything!

Some moss that looks like tiny pine trees:

Relaxed from our zen experience, we headed home. On the way, we saw this weird fruit:

Ten points to anyone who can tell me what this is!

Zoom! To Kyoto!

Our first Shinkansen bullet train experience was from Odwara, near Hakone, to Kyoto, where we’ve been for several days. These trains, which are really common in Japan, run at about 150 mph, and let me tell you, when they zoom past the station, it’s pretty terrifying to be on the platform watching. Riding them, however, is quite pleasant, very smooth and quiet.

The kyoto train station is really amazing, so once we got in we had lunch there and browsed around. The attached mall has 11 stories of escalators going up in a row, and there’s also two basement levels of stores! The station was designed by Hiroshi Hara who apparently is famous, and it’s pretty futuristic and weird. Here are some night shots of two of the buildings:

Our hostel is only a few minute’s walk from the station, so we dropped our bags there and then went sightseeing in the neighborhood. The hostel is actually only a few blocks from two huge — and free! — temples, so we spent some time at one of them. It’s often customary to take off your shoes before walking around temples in Japan, and walking about barefoot in the sweltering heat was really pleasant.

The floorboards had neat patches over knots:

A nice old tree on crutches:

The temple also had a nice, air-conditioned room for guests to rest in. The bathroom was surprisingly futuristic, with a automatic faucet-soap dispenser-hand dryer. The soap was that foamy kind and I accidentally turned the hand dryer on, spraying myself all over with soap foam. I am such a bumpkin.

So, after our exciting foray we got dinner and went to rest up at the hostel for our first full day of Kyoto sightseeing.

Kimonos in the land of robots

Before I came to Japan, I had imagined it as a futuristic country of metropolises, and hadn’t thought much about it’s traditional culture. Having come from China, which has an incredibly long history, I suppose I was expected Japan to be western and futuristic, and as a result even less in touch with it’s cultural roots. But I couldn’t be more wrong, it seems.

Japan has a wealth of cultural sites and temples, and not just ones for tourism. All over Japan I’ve seen evidence that although people are very modern, they still deeply value their traditions. It’s very common to see people dressed in traditional kimonos, which Jeff’s aunt said are usually worn on formal occasions and to traditional classes in dance, flower arranging and other arts. Small temples are also incredibly common even in cities, and it seems that native religion is still very much a part of the culture.

One of the neatest things we’ve seen so far is a traditional dance festival in Tokyo. Every year in late summer there are festivals in each town to welcome home the spirits of the townspeople’s ancestors. In big cities like Tokyo, these festivals have become neighborhood-wide festivals, and we were lucky enough to witness one. Everyone dressed in their kimonos for the festival, which attracted old and young. There were traditional dances, led by volunteers and Taiko drummers, and small snack stands for refreshment.

It’s very heartwarming to see that prosperity and modernity don’t have to come at the expense of Asian culture. In China it feels like a either-or situation, whereas Japan seems to have found a balance between the old and new. Perhaps because of their long history, or maybe because of the recent history, China has lost much of it’s traditional daily life. People do not live like they did 70 years ago, and you won’t find a traditional temple fair or quiet shrine to visit in Beijing. Historical things in China seem to be just for tourists, but don’t really connect to people’s daily lives. It often feels like in its rush to modernize, China is dismissing it’s own roots as backwards. Of course, there are always those who push back against this wave of modernization and Westernization, and hopefully, Japan can serve as proof that China doesn’t have to choose progress over tradition.

Meiji Shrine and Harajuku

While unwinding in Tokyo, Jeff and I visited the Meiji Shrine and Gardens. The shrine was built in honor of a late empress, and it’s situated in a large forest park. According to the shrine’s informational signs, the park was built by volunteers, and the forest was planted with trees from all over the world. The shrine was a Shinto shrine, a native Japanese religion.

Before entering the shrine, there were several gigantic gates like this. Some had pillars that were perhaps three feet in diameter, made from single tree trunks!

Along the entrance path to the shrine were these barrels of sake, donated to the shrine.

Before entering the shrine, Shinto worshipers will wash from these fountains.

All over the grounds there were gigantic old trees. Under this tree, which was living in the central courtyard of the temple, were small prayers written by visitors and tied to the fence surrounding the tree.

One of my favorite things about old buildings in Japan is that the roofs were often made of copper, which has now turned a brilliant green.

Traditional Japanese architecture looks very similar to traditional Chinese architecture — at least to an unschooled observer like myself. The Chinese buildings tend to have much brighter and more complex color schemes, while the Japanese favor simpler designs and earth tones, however.

Even more enjoyable than the shrine itself was the forest park it was situated in. The park had many small paths through manicured gardens and coy ponds.

We spent quite a long time communing with the large coy and variety of gigantic turtles at the ponds. The coy were about two feet long, and some of the turtles rivaled them in size as well! All were very keen to be fed, but alas, we had nothing to offer but company.

I got to search for bugs and play with the macro setting — also known as the “flower setting” among us Kelly-Sneeds.

We discovered these weird flat worms. They’re about half a centimeter wide and twenty centimeters long, with flat bodies and hammerheads.

Everything was covered in moss and mushrooms, in the most pleasing way possible!

The Meiji Shrine is right next to Harajuku, which is home to the height of Japanese street fashion. One of the really neat things about Japan is that it seems to effortlessly blend tradition with innovation. There couldn’t be two places more different than Harajuku and the shrine, but it felt natural to go between the two. We didn’t see too many outfits — just the usual schoolgirls and petticoated dolls during the day — but we did do some window shopping at thrift stores.

Harajuku also has a strip of large malls and top brands, with H&M, Forever 21, Lacoste…etc.


JAPAN!!!

First of all, Jeff and I LOVE Japan. In a lot of ways, Japan and China are complete opposites culturally, and it’s really refreshing. Since I’m lazy, here is a current list of things that I’ve loved in Japan:

1. Strangers are polite to each other

2. Spitting on the street/in public transportation is considered a no-no

3. Their parks actually seem natural, not overly manicured

4. It’s not crowded, even in Tokyo

5. Individuality in fashion choices

6. Everything is cuter

7. No staring at white people

8. Tasty food, even when you can’t read the menu

9. The weather is pretty pleasant

10. The city is quiet (no honking!) and non-stinky (no people defecating/urinating on the sidewalk)

We’ll be in Japan until August 20, as far as we know. Sweeeeeet.

The best museum in Beijing

I’m aware that Beijing is famous for its history, and yes, I know that most people would list one of Beijing’s art museums, 798 or perhaps the Forbidden City as the best museum in Beijing.

But they’re wrong.

Against all expectation and probability, the best museum in Beijing is the Exhibition Center for Urban Planning.

And here’s why:

1. On a beautiful, sunny Saturday in Spring, the centrally located museum had less than a dozen visitors.

The four-story museum was opened in 2004, but it’s gorgeous main entrance, seen above, is not in use. I’d hate to be the official who has to explain the surely astronomical building price to higher-ups for the technologically advanced museum with no visitors. But it’s great for the few people who do go! No crowds!

2. Interactive exhibits with flashy lights and little buildings

This shows a five square-foot, scale map of Beijing and the surrounding mountains. The different lights referred to different, no doubt educational features of Beijing. Mostly, it makes it look like I live in some kind of evil mastermind’s volcano lair!

3. The future

An entire floor of the museum is devoted to models and concept drawings depicting the future of Beijing. It’s actually really cool, and you don’t really need to read the accompanying placards to enjoy it.

The creepiest part of the museum has to be it’s future house:

On the incredibly large bed rests a very corpse-like, life-sized little girl doll. Nuff said on that.

However, no matter how futuristic China gets, the Chinese will always have a penchant for doilies and covering their household appliances.

4. 4-D movies

Ok, so I don’t have a picture of this, but it was like the ride at Disneyland where your seats tilt around and you fly through the city. Except that the employees, not realizing I spoke Chinese, had a nervous and protracted argument in front of us about whether to show the English or the Chinese version. It seems that although the English version was supposed to be shown at four, they had sold tickets to a Chinese group for the 4 pm showing, creating a conflict when two foreigners also bought tickets. I kept quiet and enjoyed the little panic attack they were having. Eventually they hustled us into the theater early, and we were out a little after four to let the Chinese group in for their Chinese showing.

5. Did I mention a scale model of the entire city of Beijing?

There’s my school, with the track.

Here’s where I intern at The Beijing! It’s the relatively short building in the lower center of the photo. In real life it’s 28 stories tall.

Mostly it’s fun for pretending to be Godzilla!

Even the things that are kind of sad about the museum are funny at the same time. Our favorite joke: Holding onto XYZ as hard as Beijing’s holding onto the Olympics.

Yes, that’s a countdown timer to the Olympics start date.

Jingshan Park

One of the up-sides to having a slow-down in freelance work is that I’ve had a bit more time to tourist around, so Thursday I went to Jingshan Park. Also know as Coal Hill Park, it is located directly behind the Forbidden City. On the four separate times that I’ve visited the Forbidden City, I’ve always thought I’d really like to visit the park, which has a striking pagoda on a hill overlooking the palace. But, seeing as the Forbidden City is incredibly large, I’m always too pooped to bother.

However, I finally devoted an afternoon to it, and it’s one of my favorite parks in Beijing. The entrance fee is only 5 kuai, and from the West Gate there are no rickshaw-driving louts or hordes of tour bus-driven, matching hat-wearing tourists — just old people and locals. It’s also relatively small, but it packs quite a punch, and you don’t end up feeling overwhelmed by its size.

As soon as I entered the park, the sounds of traffic and smells of pollution seemed to magically disappear from Beijing, and I was transported to another place entirely. The park was just beginning to bloom, and the whole park smelled sweet.

The peonies that cover much of the park have just started to blossom:

Now I don’t even need to go to Holland!

I feel like this should be a motivational poster — Dare to be different!/Always show your TRUE colors!

After wandering about for a bit, I began the climb to the top of the park, which is quite short and easy, but has great rewards. Beijing was meticulously designed so that the most important buildings were all aligned on its center line. So, from the top of Jingshan Park you can easily see many of the scenic spots of Beijing.

Here is the White Pagoda on the top of Beihai Park, west of the Forbidden City. In the distance, you can see the Lama Temple:

And here, of course, the obligatory Forbidden City shot. It’s so big, it’s impossible to get the whole thing in one picture though. It was actually really fun to admire how big it really is, and feel a renewed sense of wonder (after four visits it does get old).

I ended up leaving the park through it’s front gate, directly across from the Forbidden City, which unlike the gate I entered through, was swarming with annoying tour groups, rickshaw peddlers, acrobats show peddlers and the like. And since I have a white face, I got to talk to all of them.

I really need to invest in a hat that says “I speak fluent Chinese, and I know better than to ride four blocks in a 200 kuai rickshaw,” and a T-shirt that says “Leave me alone, I live in Beijing.” Maybe even a flag that says “I’ve been to the Great Wall, and those Chinese tourists over there in matching hats are way more likely to buy your crap.”

The cab shyster

Today Jeff and I decided to go to the park after work, so I met him at his office and we took a cab uptown. It was a lovely, hot day, the first real day of spring, and a national holiday.

As we were riding, I noticed that the driver was taking a slightly inefficient route to get to the park, but it wasn’t an egregious case of fare inflation so I didn’t worry about it. I figured he’d possibly make a few extra kuai, but with the traffic slow on more traveled roads, it’d be more or less even.

At any rate, just as we were entering the on-ramp to the second ring road — it functions like a freeway within the city— he slammed on his breaks. We weren’t going too fast, but it caused the car behind to rear-end us. This is the first car accident I’ve been in in China, so I was mildly excited and a little worried it’d delay us.

He hopped out of his car, exchanged pleasantries with the other driver, who was a young army official driving a rather nice look sedan, 200 kuai exchanged hands and in less than a minute we were driving along as before.

The thing is, the taxi driver had no reason to stop, and our slow speed insured that little damage would be done. I’m pretty sure he did it on purpose. I wonder how often he gets in accidents…

Jiangxi, Day 3

On the last day of our trip, we went to Jingdezhen, the capital of Chinese porcelain. The weather was beautiful, and we mostly went to museums.

One of the coolest things we saw was a porcelain workshop where they make porcelain the old-fashioned way. Unlike most “workshops” and “factory tours,” this was not just an elaborate ploy to sell stuff, it was actually really neat!

This man was throwing bowls, and he taught some of the people on our tour how to do it. The wheel is hand-powered.

This man was trimming the bowls. There were more steps before and between these two, but I didn’t take pictures of everything. First they throw the bowl, then let it dry. After it dries it’s put on a stone mold and beaten to unify the shape. Then it’s trimmed, glazed and fired.

The designs are incredibly intricate and all hand-painted here. This man said it takes him about two weeks to finish each piece, and he copies famous vase designs.

This pot is also hand carved. It was about the size of a 20 or 30 gallon pot, and the man working on it said it would take about a month to complete the designs. After that, it would be painted as well.

Some of the items were really, really ugly. I think my dad would like these though.

The workshop was surrounded by beautiful gardens and outdoor kilns that we could walk into.

We also saw some other porcelain museums, but were a little rushed because we wanted to eat lunch. However, I thought this guy was worth capturing and sharing:

What do you think he’s thinking about? Feel free to leave a comment. Every time I look at his face I laugh.

After lunch we went to a porcelain market with nice enough pieces for really good prices. I don’t really want any porcelain, so I didn’t buy anything, but if you’re into porcelain at all or want a new teaset, go to Jingdezhen, it certainly earns its title as the capital of porcelain.

Jiangxi, Day 1

This weekend I took a trip to Jiangxi province in southern China. It was wonderfully humid and green, but also a bit too cold for spring.

After we got in, we drove three hours out to a small, ancient village that was known for its porcelain. Porcelain is the main cultural export from Jiangxi, so many of our activities revolved around porcelain.

In the village we toured several mansions of architectural and historical note. One mansion belonged to a famous revolutionary who fought for the nationalists during the Sino-Japanese war. We also saw a museum featuring lion dancing costumes, photos from days past, a foot-binding stool and other items from the village’s history. It also featured a porcelain collection with several horrifying pieces from the cultural revolution. Many featured a “horrible landlord” or evil capitalist getting their head cut off. It was pretty interesting, but considering the embarrassment many intellectuals feel about the era, I was shocked these were on display. I guess word hadn’t reached the small village museum that these are a part of history the elites would rather everyone forgot.

After the village tour, we went to a preserved ancient porcelain factory. Here is a video of part of the machinery for pounding the clay. It’s all water-powered, very cool!

The best part of the area was the lovely scenery and lack of other tourists. There was also a really creepy statue there.

After this, we went on a hike to see waterfalls. There were so many beautiful spring flowers, one of the highlights of the trip for me.

We just kept hiking up and up, it was so mysterious and peaceful in the mountains. The bamboo forests were gorgeous.

The very highest waterfall was gigantic, and the top of the mountain was basically a vertical face.

After the long hike, we were all beat, so we went back to the hotel for dinner. Our program only has about fifteen kids in it now, so needless to say we’re a pretty tight-knit group and played games together after dinner. I had really forgotten what great games Egyptian War, Doctor Doctor and Sardines are.