Monday, December 30, 2013

KYOTO, JAPAN: Gion Festival, Tea Ceremony, and Flower Arranging

Kyomizu Temple, Kyoto, Japan
In July of 1995, I accompanied Art to Kyoto, Japan, where he was attending a conference. Kyoto is famous for its festivals and its beautiful shrines and temples. While Art was at his meetings, I toured the city (on foot and by bus and subway) and joined several activities provided by the conference for accompanying people like me. One of these activities was an introduction to the traditional Japanese tea ceremony and to the art of flower arranging.
Models of Gion Festival Carts
The Tea Ceremony
The tea ceremony was held in a traditional tea house near the conference center.  We took off our shoes and sat on a rug around the tatami mats while an American man who was an expert in the tea ceremony narrated what was happening while a Japanese woman dressed in a pink kimono made the tea.  Another woman helped her serve it.  Each of us was first served a “sweet” on a square of paper along with a small stick cut into a crude knife for slicing it.  The “sweet” was a gelatinous white bar with a red bean in the center (symbolic of the Japanese flag.) It was slightly slippery and moderately sweet tasting.  Its purpose was to provide an antidote to the bitter taste of the tea that followed.  The tea is made from green leaves that have been crushed into a fine powder and then whisked with hot (not boiling) water until frothy and then served in a large, cereal sized ceramic bowl.  One turns the bowl in the left palm before drinking so that the “front” of the bowl faces the host as a sign of deference to him or her. The tea definitely had a strong, bitter taste. What we experienced was only the last 20 minutes of a tea ceremony, which normally takes about four and a half hours and includes a full course meal!

Flower Arranging Class
Flower Arranging
Our group then proceeded to the flower arranging room where we each were provided with a shallow bowl in which there was a “frog” for securing the stems, and three tall purple flowers, three long-stemmed pink roses, and two ferns.  The goal of the arrangement was to create “harmony” between all the elements.  Not so easy!  In the end, when my arrangement was critiqued, it was deemed to be good except that I had left too many leaves on the bottom of the stems.

Gion Festival cart under construction
Gion Festival
Our stay in Kyoto coincided with the preparation for the annual Gion Festival.  This festival originated as part of a purification ritual to appease the gods thought to cause fire, floods and earthquakes. (Our trip was just six months after the devastating earthquake in Kobe, Japan, on January 16, 1995.) As we walked the city streets we passed some of the Gion wagons, nearly finished and ready for the parade.  They were surrounded by rows of paper lanterns and tables where you could buy maps of the parade route.  For the parade, teams of young men would pull the wagons through the streets of Kyoto. The Gion festival is a highlight of the year in Kyoto.  We would miss it because we would be leaving the next day for Tokyo on the express train (Shinkansen).

Monday, December 23, 2013


Amaryllis.  Native to South Africa, they are now cultivated all over the world.
Every year at holiday time I like to buy amaryllis bulbs.  There is something magical about the way the bulb suddenly springs to life, producing a green shoot that grows almost visibly day by day and then blossoms into gigantic flowers.  Last year one of my plants timed its flowering perfectly for Christmas, with blooms so heavy it had to be supported so it didn’t topple over. When it finished blooming, the leaves continued to grow, renewing the bulb for another season.
Christmas is a time of renewed hope and celebration. I am looking forward to celebrating with family and friends and I send you
best wishes for a very 
Happy Holiday Season
and Joyous New Year!

Monday, December 16, 2013

California’s LOST COAST HEADLANDS: Hike to Guthrie Creek

The Lost Coast in northern California has some of the state’s most spectacular scenery--ranging from alpine forests and thick redwood groves to rolling rangeland and rugged beaches.  In mid-October, when I was in Humboldt County for the bi-annual Children’s Authors Festival, I had the chance to visit the Lost Coast twice–first during the festival when I was a guest at two small rural schools and talked about my books and what it is like to be an author, and then after the festival finished, hiking with a friend on the beautiful Guthrie Creek trail.
For our hike, we started from the town of Ferndale, driving along a very narrow, winding road to the Guthrie Creek trail head, about a half hour’s journey. When we arrived, we were the only car in the small parking lot, and, in fact, we had not passed any other traffic along our way.  One of the attractions of the Lost Coast is its remoteness–which means that you are not likely to run into other people.
The morning had started with thick fog coming in from the ocean, but by the time we set off down the path, it was starting to clear. Below us, Guthrie Creek made its way to the sea.  In the distance down the coast we could see the huge rock that is Cape Mendocino.  White-crowned sparrows were hopping about in the bushes and purple asters bloomed along the edge of the path.
The hike to the beach goes along a well-maintained path that zag-zags along the side of the hill with views of the beach and coastal vegetation.  It is not a strenuous climb.  It takes about an hour.

Directions to the Guthrie Creek Trailhead from Highway 101
Exit Highway 101 at the Ferndale exit. Travel west towards Ferndale for five miles. From Main Street, turn right onto Ocean Avenue. Continue on Ocean Avenue for seven miles to the trailhead for Fleener Creek. The road will alternate between dirt and pavement.
Continue past the Fleener Creek Trailhead south approximately 2 miles and look for the trailhead to Guthrie Creek on your right. From the parking lot to the beach below is 1 mile.

For more information about the hike, click here.
For directions to a scenic drive of the Lost Coast, click here.  The drive, which takes about four hours, starts in Ferndale and goes through the towns of Petrolia, Honeydew and back to Highway 101 through the redwoods in Humboldt State Park.

Monday, December 9, 2013

THE U.S.S. POTOMAC: FDR’s “Floating White House”, Port of Oakland, CA

The USS Potomac, FDR's Presidential Yacht, docked in Oakland, CA
The USS Potomac, a 165-foot vessel originally built for the Coast Guard, served as Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Presidential yacht from 1936 to 1945.  After his death, it was sold and changed hands numerous times–one of the owners was Elvis Presley!-- and in the process made its way to San Francisco Bay. It fell into neglect and was almost sold for scrap before it was rescued by the Port of Oakland, which spearheaded a cooperative effort to restore it to its former glory. It is now a National Historic Landmark.  The yacht, furnished as it would have been in FDR’s time, is berthed at Jack London Square in the Port of Oakland and open for dockside tours and cruises on the Bay.

On a recent trip to Oakland I went with friends to tour the Potomac at Jack London Square. (It has been open for tours since 1990 and I am amazed that I never got around to doing this before!)  It was a beautiful sunny day, perfect to be by the water.  We went first to the Visitor Center (540 Water Street) where we bought tickets for the tour and watched a 15-minute video with background and historical photos and movies of FDR.  This included FDR’s entertaining the King and Queen of England on the “first ever” historic visit of a reigning British monarch to the United States.

A sailor's trunk.
Our guide then took us across the street to the dock for our tour of the boat. (All tours and maintenance of the USS Potomac is done by the non-profit volunteer organization the Potomac Association.)  Starting with the service area of the ship, our guide then took us through every part of the ship from the staterooms to the engine rooms and captains quarters. In the service quarters we saw the bunks where the sailors slept (which folded down from the walls) and a trunk packed with the required clothing.  “Standards for Uniform Storage”, a list for proper folding and placing of items, was tacked to top of the trunk.  For example:
 1.  Dungaree pants - Leading edge should face front of locker with crotch on left.  
3.  Undershirts - leading edge should face left with thin, thick, thick, thin folds facing front of locker. 
13. Shoes - (shined and tied) Left to right.  Dress shoes, work shoes (boondockers), tennis shoes and shower slippers, with toes toward locker.
Clearly, nothing was to be left to chance.
Doorway to the elevator.
While we went up and down the rather steep stairways between decks, we learned that FDR used a special elevator which was constructed for him inside one of the smokestacks.  It was just big enough for him and his wheelchair and was operated by hand. (The engine room was reconfigured so all smoke was routed through the other smokestack.)
The Presidential suite was surprisingly simple and designed so that FDR could manage everything by himself.  The public areas where the President relaxed and entertained guests were gracious, but not overly ornate.  Apparently Roosevelt liked to use the yacht as a place where he could relax with friends, go fishing, and get away from the hectic life of Washington.  As we toured the yacht, photos helped us imagine FDR on one of his cruises.
Looking into the sitting area at the back of the boat
Our tour was supposed to take 45 minutes but actually lasted a bit longer because we asked so many questions and our tour guide was so knowledgeable.  Someday I’d like to go back and take one of the longer trips around the Bay.

For information about tours of the USS Potomac contact the the Potomac Association.

The Potomac Association Visitor Center
540 Water Street
Oakland, CA 94607
Telephone: 510-627-1215

Monday, December 2, 2013

MEGALODON at the Raleigh Natural Science Museum, North Carolina: Jaws of Giant Shark Close-Up

Model of the jaws of Megalodon at the Raleigh Museum of Natural Science
Imagine a giant shark twice as big as the modern-day great white shark, with razor-sharp teeth the size of a human hand, and jaws so huge they could swallow an object the size of a horse!  Long ago, just such a creature swam the oceans of the world.  It was megalodon, the biggest predatory shark that ever lived.  Growing nearly fifty feet long, this fearsome hunter cruised the ocean depths for millions of years, feeding on nearly anything that swam in the sea.

A year and a half ago, when I was in North Carolina, I went with my family to the Raleigh Natural Science Museum where a model of megalodon’s huge jaws are on display in the main lobby of the museum.  Megalodon roamed the oceans of the world for at least 17 or 18 million years before becoming extinct about 2 million years ago at the beginning of the last Ice Age.  Fossilized giant megalodon teeth have been unearthed in North Carolina and South Carolina, as well as in fossil deposits in California, Florida, Maryland, Belgium, Morocco, Mexico, South America and in other places once covered by ancient seas.

Shark teeth are among the most commonly found fossils.  All sharks lose teeth frequently–a single shark may lose thousands of teeth in its lifetime.  A tooth may last only a week.  The teeth are loosely fastened in the jaw and often break or simply fall out.  This is never a problem for the shark, because a new tooth is always ready to take its place.  A shark’s replacement teeth are folded back in its jaw and pop up into place when needed as if they were on a conveyer belt.  No matter how many teeth a shark loses, it is always prepared for its next meal!
While fossil shark teeth are common, no complete fossil skeleton of megalodon has ever been found.  Sharks have skeletons made of cartilage.  Cartilage is tough, but not as hard or durable as bone or teeth and does not fossilize nearly as well.
Giant Shark (Clarion Books, 2000)
I first learned about megalodon when I was doing research for my children's book Giant Shark: Megalodon, Prehistoric Super Predator. The book has beautiful illustrations by Laurie Caple. When I go to schools and libraries to talk about my books, I bring my fossil megalodon tooth for "show and tell."  (I bought the tooth, which was found in South Carolina, at a fossil shop.) The enormous tooth, which is still sharp on its sawtooth edge, always makes a big impression on my audience.

Fossil megalodon tooth, 14 million years old
Megalodon was once the supreme hunter of the sea.  Luckily, ocean dwellers no longer have to fear this giant predator.  But at places like the Raleigh Natural Science Museum, we can marvel at the giant jaws and enormous teeth of this ancestor of the great white shark.