Monday, July 25, 2011

Japan Alps, Nagoya, Gifu: Part III

Gifu.  Statue of Cormorant fisherman wearing traditional clothing.
Gifu and Nagoya (Trip to Japan, September 2008)
After our visit to the Japan Alps, we took a train back to Gifu from Takayama and arrived in Gifu by 11:30. We bought food for lunch at a market in Gifu station and pastries at a French bakery for my breakfast the next morning, and got a taxi to the Miyako Hotel, a 15 minute ride from the center of town. Our room the 10th floor overlooked the river and was the perfect spot to watch herons, kites and the cormorant boats at night.  
View of river and Mount Kinka from our room at the Miyako Hotel
Tuesday, September 9
Got up at 5:00 for a taxi to Gifu station for a 5:58 train to Nagoya.  I changed there at Kanayama station for Kosoji Station.  All went like clockwork; the trains were not crowded and left precisely on schedule.  While Art attended his conference, I spent the day doing an author visit at the Nagoya International School.  After school, my hosts took me to the 100 yen store (like a dollar store) where I picked up a basket full of toys and souvenirs.

Sidebar on Japanese toilets: Japanese toilets never cease to amaze.  In public places, such as the airport, one has a choice of traditional–a hole in the floor over which you squat–or western style. The western style seat in the airport was 3-way: a regular seat for adults, a smaller flip-down seat for a child, and a baby seat, on a hook on the wall, which could be inserted for a very small child.  Many toilet seats, including the ones at the Best Western, come with a console that allows you to heat the seat and/or the water.  Another button triggers a spray of water on your bottom or converts the toilet to a bidet.  My hosts had a further addition to their toilet.  A small basin mounted on top of the toilet tank has a spout that gushes water when you flush the toilet.  You can use the water to rinse your hands.  The water runs until the tank is refilled.  Apparently another teacher at the school had a toilet with an electric eye that lifts the lid when you open the bathroom door! 
Coffee in a Can 
Typical vending machine.
Wednesday, September 10
Got up early for another day's school visit and had bacon, eggs, fruit, yogurt and coffee from a can.  You can buy canned coffee (and almost any other kind of drink) in vending machines, which are ubiquitous. You pour the coffee into your cup and heat it in the microwave.  It is surprisingly good!

Fish Cookies, an Insect Museum, and Tame Squirrels 
The Nawa Insect Museum displays insects collected from all over the world.
Thursday, September 11
   I spent the morning walking with a friend along the river by the hotel and shopping and sightseeing on the other side.  We bought some fish shaped cookies (fish are a theme throughout Gifu) and peeked in at a temple with a giant golden lacquer Buddha.  At the park, we went to the insect museum.  After lunch I returned to the park and rode the “ropeway” (a cable car) to the top of Mount Kinka to see the view and tour the Shogun era castle, now a museum.  Before leaving, I stopped at the featured squirrel village where I was given a glove and food so I could feed the squirrels, who scampered about in their enclosed "village".  Apparently Japanese people think that squirrels are exotic and feeding them is a treat!  Perhaps they don’t have squirrels being a nuisance in their yards and stealing food from their bird feeders. 

Traditional Cormorant Fishing
Cormorant fishing.  (Itai) The fish are attracted to the surface of the water by a fire suspended from a basket at the front of the fisherman’s boat.
In the evening, Art’s host at the conference  took us on a boat to see the traditional cormorant fishing.  As in the children’s book Ping (one of my favorites as a child), the cormorants are trained to catch fish for their master.  A ring around the cormorant’s neck prevents it from swallowing the fish it catches. One at a time, the birds are hauled in to disgorge their fish into a basket.

Bakery in Gifu.  Colorful sweet cakes are filled with bean paste.
Friday, September 12
In the morning, Art and I toured the cormorant fishermen’s village and then went shopping for souvenirs at a bakery across the river.  Then I left for the airport to return to Los Angeles and Art left for Kyoto and Fukuoka, where he attended another conference.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Japan Alps, Nagoya, Gifu: Part II

(Trip to Japan, September 2008; continuation of Part I)

Kamikochi, Gateway to the Japan Alps
 Japan Alps National Park
Saturday, September 6
The bus route to Kamikochi went up into the mountains from Takayama, winding its way along a river valley, stopping at a ski resort where people were walking among the fields of cosmos. From the parking lot at Kamikochi we pulled our suitcases along the rocky path to the bashi (bridge),  where hundreds of tourists milled around the concession stands eating and taking photos. The weather was slightly misty and the peaks on either side came in and out of the clouds. We crossed the bridge and went another .3 km to the Alpen Hotel and checked into our ten tatami mat room.
    We then walked along the river to a picnic area called the Weston Relief marked by a plaque explaining that Weston was a European who promoted the Alps as a national park. The air was fresh and slightly cool, a nice change from the sticky weather in Takayama and Nagoya. The forest on either side of the river was lush and open with ferns and other plants on the forest floor. Quite a few people were walking on the river path, although by the end of the day, most day trippers had left. We returned to our room to wait for dinner. We decided not to use the public baths until after dinner, when we hoped they would be less crowded.

Colorful Meals
We arrived at dinner to find our table--marked by our room number on a stand--already set with a variety of dishes and two little burners each--one to fry our Hida beef steak, and the other with a salmon soup. Hida beef is lesser known but supposedly just as good as Kobe beef. It was definitely tender and heavily marbled with fat. Upon arrival at the dining room we realized that we made the mistake of wearing our shoes to dinner. Everyone else had on slippers. Some of the men wore yukatas (cotton robes). We were the only gaijin (foreigners), and, in the whole weekend, we only saw four other westerners in the park. The waiter brought additional dishes, ending with rice and miso soup.

When we returned to our room, we found that our futons had been prepared for the night.
A Hot Bath
Since there was no shower in the room, we decided to try out the baths. Trudging down the hall in only our yukatas (supplied in the closet) and slippers, we went to the second floor where the red curtain signified the door to the women's bath and blue curtains marked the men's bath. For some reason, they switch sides every day, so you have to remember which color is which. In the dressing room we put our clothes in a basket and then went naked into the bath area. Following the example of another woman, I chose a plastic stool and basin and went to the washing area to lather up. Only after being thoroughly clean and rinsed does one go into the hot bath. The semi-circular tub, big enough for about six people, was heated to 40 degrees Celsius. I lowered myself to the first bench and then into the tub which was about two feet deep. It felt good, but after a few minutes, it was too hot and I got out. Meanwhile, the other woman, who had been washing herself when I came in, was still washing. Art had no one else in his bath. Back in the room we turned on the TV where they were showing the classic Kurosawa movie, The Seven Samurai, but even though we knew the story, the movie wasn't enough to keep us awake.

A Walk Along the River 
Bashi (bridge)
Sunday, September 7
We slept well on our futons with the cool fresh air coming through the screen and the total quiet except for the sound of rushing water from a small stream in the back of the hotel. At breakfast (wearing our slippers this time) we found our table set with an array of dishes including salad, soup, salmon and boiled eggs. We took the eggs for lunch, but found them barely cooked.
   After breakfast we set out to walk up the right side of the river along the mostly level path for a supposedly four hour walk. (By the time we stopped for pictures it took us much longer.) It was a perfect day, sunny, blue sky, not too warm. Most of the path went through forest--primeval tall trees--moist forest floor covered with mushrooms, ferns, asters, various plants, but offered occasional stunning views of the river and distant mountains. Although we could hear birds, we had a hard time seeing any. We had brief glimpses of what looked like a nuthatch and a chickadee but were something else.

The Myojin Shrine
Islet at the Myojin Shrine
After about 3 km we came to a bridge leading across the river to the Myojin Shrine. We paid 300 yen (about $3) to get in to see two mirror-like pools, which were, indeed, beautiful. From what we could read in English, they are considered to be home of the gods. We could see fish swimming in the clear water and a heron flew across. In October, a festival is held at the pond and two boats with a dragon and a chicken head on the front are rowed across the water.
    Beyond the Myojin Shrine, far fewer people were on the path. Those we passed were dressed as serious hikers and appeared to have camped overnight. Almost everyone we passed nodded and said o-hi-o gozi mas (good day) or konichiwa. This section of path passed a natural hot spring where we could see bubbles coming up from the bottom. (On our way back, when it was raining, steam formed in the cooler air over the hot pond.) Three kilometers from Myojin we arrived at our destination, a campground called Tasagawa. We ate our picnic lunch by the river and just as we were finishing, it began to rain.

Afternoon Rain
Approaching Storm
On our entire walk back it rained on and off, although never hard enough to soak us. Just after we got back to the hotel, it began to come down harder, but by then it didn't matter. We had some tea (green) with the hot water and tea set provided in our room. Then we ate another huge meal and bathed before bed. The Sunday dinner featured Shabu Shabu, cooked at the table in little paper pots, and beef sashimi. We also were served a whole fish on a stick and numerous little dishes. After dinner the only entertainment on tv was a golf tournament, so again we went to bed early.

Back to Takayama and On to Gifu

Monday, September 8
The morning was misty, but not actually raining.  We went downstairs for breakfast and found scrambled eggs and ham at our table–some others had Japanese style breakfast.  We checked out and pulled our suitcases to the bus stop.  We were the only passengers on the shuttle bus to Hirayu Onsen. Cars are not permitted in Kamikochi so everyone must go in and out either by bus or taxi.  We got right on our next bus and a few minutes after it arrived in Takayama, we caught a train for Gifu, where, for the remainder of the week, Art was attending a conference and I would be doing a school visit.
(To be continued.)

Part III will cover our stay in Gifu and Nagoya.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Japan Alps, Nagoya, Gifu: Part I

Nagoya and Takayama (Trip to Japan, September, 2008) 
Welcome Cats (Hello Kitties)
Thursday, September 4 (Notes from my trip diary)
    Arrived in Nagoya, Japan, and, with the help of an attendant at the ticket machine in the airport, we got train tickets to the Nagoya JR station.  Then we got a taxi, complete with white lace seat covers, a white-gloved driver, video screen, and automated recorded instructions in English admonishing us to wear seat belts, for a short ride to the Hilton Hotel.  There, on advice from the super helpful, somewhat English speaking desk clerk, we went to a travel agent to buy our train tickets for the next morning to Takayama.  There, another super helpful, impeccably uniformed young woman helped us, and spent an extra ten minutes just to find out what track we needed to go to for our train.  For dinner we went to a small sushi restaurant nearby, pointing to pictures on the menu for our meal.

Takayama, the Little Kyoto of the North 
Lunch of Soba (buckwheat) noodles
Friday, September 5
    Checked out of hotel and went to train station.  Rode backwards to Gifu and then the train reversed direction to go toward Takayama.  Nagoya and Gifu are both on a flat coastal plain, but after leaving Gifu, the train climbed into the mountains, mainly following river valleys.  Saw ospreys and white and gray herons fishing in the shallow, swift flowing rocky rivers.  Also, human fishermen. 
    After two hours we arrived at Takayama, known as the little Kyoto of the north.  We walked one block to the Best Western hotel, left our bags, and went to a nearby restaurant for soba (buckwheat) noodles, a local specialty.  They came cold, on a bamboo tray, with a soy dipping sauce.  A side dish, something like runny farina with a raw egg yolk in the middle, was impossible to eat with chopsticks.  Art’s meal also included an excellent roasted fish and rice mixed with vegetables.  Then we caught a local bus to Hida Village.

Hida Village
Hida Village.  Farmhouse roof made of thatch is steep to withstand winters with up to 6 feet of snow.  Thatch is lashed onto roof supports with rope.  An opening in the roof lets in light.
   In the old part of Takayama and at Hida Village, one feels plopped into a Kurosawa movie, half-expecting a samurai to appear around the next corner.  (In fact, one can rent costumes in Takayama to wear for the day.)  The Hida Village, about a mile uphill from the center of town, is a collection of farmhouses and other buildings from the Edo period, moved there as a “living history” park. (You can see buildings of the same era in the movie “Silk” which was filmed at a similarly preserved mountain village.)  Signs admonished us to “stay on the course”, presumably for traffic control, and follow the prescribed route through the village.  The huge parking lots outside the gate, almost empty, suggested that at peak times the place is packed, but we found it almost empty. 
      The village of about six large houses/barns and various outbuildings  is organized around a pond–with carp you can feed, a swan, and a water wheel.  Except for one house, not from the local area, all the houses had roofs designed to withstand heavy snow, up to two meters, with shingles held down by rocks or thick thatch lashed onto logs.  A small fire burned in each house, filling it with smoke and making it almost impossible to breathe.  In all buildings we had to take off our shoes to go inside (slippers were provided).  At the charcoal burning shed a sign warned us to “Bee careful.”  Few signs in the village were in English.  We did have a brochure with brief English explanations.  Some people were demonstrating local crafts–woodcarving, lacquerware, doll making and textile stitchery.  We bought a set of six cloth coasters.

River Walk
Tori Gate, Takayama
Instead of waiting for the bus, we walked downhill to the art museum.  On the way, we bought three little brooms, another local craft, at a shop.  The art museum is a huge modern building with a shallow reflecting pool on one side and an English tea garden overlooking the city on the other.  It specializes in glass art.  We didn’t pay to go in and instead, caught the free bus (a red double decker) back to town. 
      For about an hour we wandered the streets near the river where the old buildings have been preserved, many converted into shops.  We went to the red bridge (bashi) for a picture and then walked along the river.  For dinner we went to a restaurant we found in the guidebook, Suzuya, where the menu was in English.  We saw more non-Japanese (gaijin) there than we had all day.  I had sukiyaki and Art had beef cooked on a large leaf, a local specialty, both cooked over small burners at the table.
Woman selling mushrooms at farmer's market

Farmers' Market and A Walk in the Park 
Saturday, September 6
    After an American breakfast at the hotel–the buffet offered both American and Japanese foods– we walked to the morning market by the Civic Center where farm women sold apples, peaches, grapes, pears, all kinds of vegetables, leaves like we had seen at the restaurant, pickles, and handcrafts.  We bought two girl’s cloth purses shaped like fish.  We then climbed the hill to walk in the wooded park above the town.  Each time we passed someone, they would bow and greet us with O-hi-o Go-zi-mas (good morning) or ko-neechi-wa and we would reply.  On top of the hill were the ruins of the shogun’s castle and a lot of mosquitoes.  The day had started out with comfortable weather, but became steadily hotter and more humid. 

Festival Carts, Shrines, and Lion Masks
Festival carts and manikins wearing traditional clothing
We returned to town to see festival carts on display at the museum next to the Shinto shrine and Tori arch.  There a polite young woman apologized that no one could take us on an English language tour; instead, she handed us a tape recorder with English explanations.  The elaborately carved and painted carts (two stories high) are similar to those used at the Gion festival in Kyoto except that they have wheels.  The carts are used for festivals in the spring and fall; the one held in the fall is a harvest festival, similar to American Thanksgiving. Our ticket also got us in to the museum next door in which the shrine complex at Nikko had been recreated in miniature–it felt a little like going to see the tiny Taj Mahal in Florida.
     Next to shrine museum was the Lion Mask museum where we went in to see lion masks and the “puppet show.”  The puppets, which were similar to those on some of the festival carts, were more like robots or automatons and did acrobatics, served tea, or wrote.  Art was selected from the audience and given a scroll written by the puppet scribe.

On to Kamikochi
    We walked back to the hotel to pick up our luggage, stopping on the way at an ATM and the convenience store for some boxed lunches (a sandwich and "bento"). We ate them at the bus station while waiting for the bus to Hirayu Onsen where we caught a shuttle to Kamikochi. 

For more detailed information about Takayama from other travelers, click here and here.

Part II will be about our visit to Japan Alps National Park.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Australia's Red Center: Alice Springs

Tropic of Capricorn marker just north of Alice Springs

A Town Called Alice
(Diary entry from our visit to Alice Springs in April 1999)
    On Sunday morning we flew from Ayers Rock to Alice Springs, a distance of about 300 miles.  Although it was Easter, there wasn’t much celebration.  We noticed that some people are trying to promote the bilby, a marsupial with long, rabbit-like ears, as an Easter Bunny alternative--eg, the Easter Bilby--but it doesn't seem to be catching on. At the Desert Park in Alice Springs (where we actually saw a bilby in the night exhibit) they had a special exhibit of eggs to celebrate the rebirth of life.  They showed all kinds of eggs--birds, reptiles, insects and even mammals (the echidna.)  We got nabbed by a ranger on our way in who needed an audience to talk about the eggs but who managed to get sidetracked into telling us about his Aboriginal heritage and how he is part of the emu clan.
A Working Ranch (Station) and Bed and Breakfast
Flock of budgies seen at water hole at Bond Springs Station

     In Alice Springs we visited the shops and art galleries in the center of town and were tempted to buy some of the carvings and paintings but the ones we really liked were both too big and too expensive.  We then drove north of town about fifteen miles to the Tropic of Capricorn marker (to take a companion photo for our Equator shot from 1971 and the more recent Greenwich Meridian) en route to the Bond Springs Station, a working cattle ranch that was also our bed and breakfast.  We had our own small cottage and arranged to have dinner there which we ate on our own verandah as we watched the stars come out. 
    In the morning we went out for a bird walk along a dry creek bed and saw parrots, cockatoos, budgies, zebra finches as well as some kangaroos who seemed as surprised to see us as we were to see them.  Later in the day we had a tour of the station and got some insight into the challenges of grazing cattle over millions of acres in the outback.  I always had a romantic image of cowboys on horseback rounding up the cattle, but on modern stations like this one the cattle are mustered with airplanes, helicopters and motorbikes because it is quicker and more cost effective.  That evening we went to a barbecue and were served beef steaks from the station’s own cattle. At both Ayers Rock and Alice Springs we had terrific views of the night sky.  For the first time we saw the Magellanic clouds--which Magellan apparently used to figure out where south was.
The Telegraph Station
Sign at Old Telegraph Station, restored at site of original Alice Springs

   Our outings in Alice Springs included a tour of the old telegraph station (now a museum) which is at the site of the original Alice Springs.  The “spring” is actually a pool in a river bed and was named after the wife of the Superintendent of Telegraphs.  The telegraph station, constructed in the 1870's, was the beginning of the town of Alice Springs and the line, which went between Adelaide in the south and Darwin in the north, provided, for the first time, a direct connection (via an undersea cable between Darwin and Java) between Australia and the rest of the world.  We got to talking with the managers of the Telegraph Station Museum and they showed us the three joeys (baby kangaroos) that they were taking care of after their mothers had been killed by cars.  One was so small that they kept it tucked into a purse sized cloth pouch.

The Flying Doctor

    Our other tourist destinations in Alice Springs were to the Desert Park (an exhibit of desert wildlife), the Royal Flying Doctor Service, the School of the Air, and finally a date grove where we had afternoon coffee and date cake before returning to Melbourne. 
    The Flying Doctor Service was started by a Presbyterian missionary in 1928 as a way of providing health care to people in remote areas.  Communication to the center in Alice Springs was by radio and when a call came in a pilot and a doctor would head out hoping that when they got there they would find a suitable place to land.  The radio service is also used to give medical advice for immediate treatment while the patient is waiting for the doctor to arrive. When we toured the center in the early afternoon, the log on the wall showed five emergencies had already been dealt with that day.  In the 1950's someone had the idea of using the same radio service to provide schooling to children who live on remote cattle stations and that became the School of the Air.

School of the Air
Studio at School of the Air where classes are broadcast

    The School of the Air now has its own facility and teaches about 200 children, some of them living as far as 1000 kilometers from Alice Springs.  We listened in as a teacher gave a lesson to a six year old student.  Kids get group lessons by grade level each morning for an hour and then once a week each child gets an individual lesson.  The kids get lesson packets every two weeks in the mail and the work is supervised either by a parent or a governess.  We saw samples of work on display at the school headquarters and it was well done.  In many ways these kids have all the advantages of individual attention in their home schooling and at the same time they are able to grow up on their cattle stations and be part of that life too. 
    School of the Air goes to grade 7 and after that the kids go to boarding school.  Our tour guide on the cattle ranch where we stayed had grown up there and went to School of the Air with his brother and two sisters.  (We saw the room that they had used for their lessons.)  Although we had driven into the ranch on a dirt road that was in bumpy but reasonable condition, until recently there was no road at all.  Getting into town was an ordeal, especially if it rained and the creeks filled with water, so School of the Air was the best option.
A Self-Sufficient Life
Sunset, Bond Springs Station

    It is hard for us to realize how self-sufficient people have to be in the outback.   At Bond Springs they have maintained the original homestead buildings as part of the National Trust so you can see how people really lived when they first came to the outback. The first house was one tiny room with dirt floors and a canvas bed.  Later a slightly larger house was built.  (I had always thought that quilts were a uniquely American craft but when we visited the homestead we saw on the bed a wedding quilt that had been made for the couple by the bride and groom's mothers.)
  The current family home was built in the 1930's and has at its heart a high ceilinged kitchen with a giant table where we ate breakfast..  Even at Bond Springs, which now seems quite modern, it has only been recently that the station has had telephone service and they still have to produce all their own electricity.  Despite the obvious hardships, the people who live in the outback love it and can't imagine why anyone would want to live anywhere else.  When we told one of the staff at Bond Springs that our home was in Los Angeles, she seemed genuinely sorry that we had to live in a city.

Vacation Reading 
    I am reading a book called We of the Never-Never, a memoir of Jeannie Gunn, a woman at a cattle station in the early part of the century.  During the rainy season they would be cut off for weeks when rain swollen rivers became impassable and then it would take weeks after it dried for wagons to travel from Darwin.  Her solution to the perpetual fly problem was to construct a net that enclosed the entire dining room--table, chairs and all!  The book was made into a movie that we saw the last time we were in Australia. (The outback is the Never-Never because once you live there, you never-never want to return to city life.) Art is reading another classic, A Fortunate Life, about a man whose life would seem to be anything but fortunate.

Window Seat
    I always take several books to read on vacations and never read any of them partly because I always buy books on the trip (like We of the Never-Never) and start reading them and partly because when I'm on the airplane I find it much more interesting to look out the window than to read.  Our flight to Uluru (from Melbourne via Sydney) took us over miles and miles of desolate desert where you could see the patterns of salt deposited across the bottom of enormous dry lake beds.  It is hard to imagine that there are times when these lakes actually have water in them.

Desert on a Grand Scale
    Our trip was so full that I have just touched on the highlights.  At moments the Australian desert reminded us of experiences we’ve had in American deserts such as at Joshua Tree National Monument, in the Mojave, or in Borrego Springs, east of San Diego, but the scale and distances in Australia are so much grander.  There is also the sense with the Aborigines that they are part of a really distant past--in a time long before there was any human life in the Americas. The Red Center is definitely the most foreign place we've visited in Australia and it’s a long way from anywhere.  Its like flying from LA to Denver and realizing that there is nothing in between.
[Our trip to Alice Springs was during a three month stay in Australia in 1999 when Art was working in Melbourne.  I have been to Australia a total of five times.  We returned to the Red Center on our trip in 2002.]