Monday, January 27, 2014

MARINE MAMMAL CENTER at the Marin Headlands,San Francisco Bay California

View from the Marine Mammal Center entrance on a foggy day.
Every year hundreds of sick and injured seals, sea lions, elephant seals, and sea otters wash up on northern California’s beaches.  If they are lucky, they are found and taken to the Marine Mammal Center on the Marin Headlands where they receive food, medical care, and when they are well enough to be on their own, are returned to the wild. Located on a hillside above the lagoon, the center is open to the public.  On a recent foggy Sunday afternoon I stopped by for a visit.

Life-size Elephant Seal Statue

The entrance to the Marine Mammal Center features life-size statues of a sea lion, elephant seal and sea otter who greet visitors, allowing one to gain an appreciation of how big these animals are and to see them up close--an opportunity one would never have with a live animal.

California sea lion resting next to the pool in its enclosure
Inside the facility a stairway (or elevator) leads to a second floor viewing platform which looks out over the outdoor enclosures where the animals are kept.  Signs caution visitors to be quiet so as not to disturb the animals.  During our visit, in mid-August, not all the enclosures were occupied, but during the pupping season in spring, when young animals get lost and separated from their mothers, the enclosures are full.  A volunteer told us that during the peak period last spring they had hundreds of animals, requiring round the clock feeding.

Whale baleen
The Marine Mammal Center is both a treatment center and an educational center.  Exhibits explain how animals are rescued,what kind of medical treatments they get, the process of reintroducing them to the wild, and the importance of keeping the ocean clean--and the danger to animals of trash, nets, and water pollution.  There are also numerous hands-on exhibits--feeling the softness of sealskin, for instance--as well as displays of animal skeletons, giant whale vertebrae and an example of whale baleen.
The Marin Headlands is located  north of San Francisco, just on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge.  On the road to the Marine Mammal Center one has a dramatic view of the city and of the bridge. 
The Marine Mammal Center is open to the public daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. Admission is free and no reservation is required unless you have a group of 10 or more people. A well-stocked gift shop, which supports the Center, has books and ocean themed toys, shirts, and decorative objects.  The Center relies on donations for its funding. For more information about the Marine Mammal Center click here.

Monday, January 20, 2014

ALCATRAZ: Rock With a History in San Francisco Bay

Alcatraz. Tunnel and Guard Tower at Entrance to Prison Area.
I’ve been visiting the San Francisco Bay area for more than forty years, and every time I cross the Golden Gate Bridge on my way to Marin County I look to my right and see the tiny island of Alcatraz, with its infamous prison that once housed feared felons such as Al Capone and the "Birdman of Alcatraz”. Finally, a few weeks ago, on an unusually warm and sunny December day,  I went there with my family.  In the early days Alcatraz was a lighthouse and a military base. Then it was a prison. Now it is a national park.  The prison closed in 1963 after twenty-nine years as a federal penitentiary and since 1973 tours have provided the chance to visit and learn some of the island’s history.

Boarding the Ferry in San Francisco
Our tour began at Pier 33 in San Francisco (near Fisherman’s Wharf) where we caught the Alcatraz ferry. After a short ride (about 20 minutes) we landed at the Alcatraz dock where a park ranger introduced us to the island.  After that we were on our own to explore, entering the prison area through the sally port, or secure tunnel.

Building 64, once apartments for families of prison staff. The "Indians Welcome" sign is from the island's occupation by Native Americans 1969-70.
We started with a video and exhibits in Building 64--a good place to spend your time on a day when the weather is not so fine as it was for us. (San Francisco Bay is famous for its wind and fog and it was easy to appreciate how miserable life would have been for prisoners in their drafty unheated cells atop the “rock” on cold winter days.)  We then trudged up the hill to the cell block where we picked up our earphones for the audio tour (included in the price of the tour ticket.)

In preparation for our trip, I and all the kids in the family (ages 8, 10 and 12) read Gennifer Choldenko’s book Al Capone Does My Shirts, a fictional story set in the 1930s during the time that families of the prison staff lived on the island. Prisoners did the laundry for everyone on the island--thus the possibility that Al Capone, who was an inmate from 1934 to 1938, personally washed the family's clothes.  (Al Capone Shines My Shoes and Al Capone Does My Homework by the same author are also set on Alcatraz.) 

View of Alcatraz from Pier 39 in San Francisco
As we walked around the island the story came to life as we passed the apartments where people lived and the dock where children caught the boat each day to go to school on the mainland. At the top of the hill we passed the remains of the warden’s house. Like many of the buildings on the island, it burned after the prison was closed and was never rebuilt.

The audio tour of the cell block was excellent, directing us through the building with stops at critical points to tell about prison life.  The narration is by former prison guards. Several cells were furnished as they would have been–with a narrow bed, toilet and simple table and shelf.  We also visited the dining hall–meals lasted 20 minutes–and what had been the prison library.  Apparently philosophy books were among the most popular.
Prison library.  Books were delivered to inmates.
A few days before our trip to Alcatraz we watched the movie The Birdman of Alcatraz starring Burt Lancaster.  It is the true story of Robert Stroud, whose book on bird diseases, based on his study of birds while in prison in Leavenworth, Kansas, is still the definitive book on the subject.  As it turns out, though, he never had birds at Alcatraz. Stroud came to Alcatraz in 1942 and stayed there until 1952 when he was transferred to a medical facility for federal prisoners in Springfield, Missouri.

Alcatraz lighthouse, built in 1854--the first lighthouse on the West Coast. Ruins of the Warden's house are on left. The city and Bay Bridge are in the distance.

The audio tour ends near the patio outside the administration building in front of the lighthouse, where there is a spectacular view of the city of San Francisco and the Bay Bridge and Golden Gate.  But for prisoners confined to life inside their tiny cells, that view must have seemed a million miles away.

Aerial photo of Alcatraz displayed in the gift shop.
Tour information is available at Alcatraz Cruises, the official government concessioner for visits to the island. Tickets usually sell out days in advance, especially during vacation periods so it is important to plan ahead.  I bought our tickets about a month ahead of time.  Find out more about Alcatraz from the National Park Service website.

The cell house had three tiers of individual cells.
Did anyone escape from Alcatraz?
In its 29 years as a prison, 36 prisoners tried to escape; all but five were recaptured or accounted for.  Three who were unaccounted for participated in the same breakout, the June 1962 escape, immortalized in the movie Escape from Alcatraz with Clint Eastwood.

Golden Gate National Recreation Area
Alcatraz Island is just one part of the breathtaking Golden Gate National Recreation Area, one of the largest and most visited urban National Parks in the United States.

Other "Must See" Spots of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area:
Fort Mason Center
Marin Headlands 
Crissy Field
Fort Point
Muir Woods (see my post on this blog for 12/26/11)
Sweeney and Milagra Ridges and Mori Point
Fort Funston
San Francisco National Maritime Historic Park

Support your National Parks
Get involved and preserve their beauty by visiting America’s National Parks

Monday, January 13, 2014

KYOTO, JAPAN: 1000 Shrines and Temples

Heian Shrine, Kyoto
In July of 1995, I accompanied Art to Kyoto, Japan, where he was attending a conference. Kyoto is renowned for its beautiful shrines and temples and on our first afternoon we did a walking tour of several of them.  We first went to the Heian Shrine, famous for its gardens.  On our way out, two uniformed school girls stopped us and asked if they could interview us–obviously an English class assignment.  One question was, “Do you know any Japanese words?” and they giggled when Art rattled off the few phrases that he knew.

Bamboo.  Path to Shoren-in Temple
We continued southward until the street narrowed and we came to the Shoren-in Temple, surrounded by enormous one thousand year old camphor trees and a beautiful ancient garden covered in moss.  By the time we reached the next stop–Chion-in Temple–it was 5:00 and the temple was closed.  The “walking tour”, described on the map as taking 50 minutes, was clearly much longer as we were not even half way to the Kiyomizu Temple at the end.

The next afternoon I took a bus to the Golden Temple (Kinkakuji).  By the time I got there the sky was overcast and as I walked in I could hear thunder.  I walked around the paths, which were shaded by a canopy of beautiful large maple trees, and arrived at the lake where the temple, covered on the top two floors with gold leaf, stood like a shining island.

Offerings at Kiyomizu Temple
Another day Art and I caught a bus to the Kiyomizu Temple–one of the most famous in Kyoto.  One walks up a narrow road–called Teapot Lane because of many pottery shops–past all kinds of tourist shops, many of them selling bean paste candies.  We bought some small round cakes–like pancakes with sweet bean paste in the center.  They are cooked on a machine in which metal rings about three inches across move around a griddle and are then filled and flipped before the cakes slide down a chute to be packaged.  We ate our picnic lunch at the entrance to the shrine–under a huge orange Tori gate.  The temple is perched on the side of a hill and is supported by huge interlocking timbers–no nails.  Unlike at other temples, we were allowed to take off our shoes and walk inside the building.

Water cups at Kiyomizu Temple
We then walked along a path to a small pagoda on the other side of the hill and then down past a small waterfall where people held out long bamboo sticks with cups on the end.  (The water was meant for cleansing the mouth, not drinking.)  As at the other temples, we saw rows of paddles with writing on them and white paper “wishes”.  Monks from the temple, wearing long black robes covered by a sort of overcoat, walked around the temple grounds in wooden clogs.
Kyoto claims to have more than 1000 shrines and temples.  We only saw a few, but found each one different and interesting and in harmony with nature.
Stepping Stones at the Heian Shrine

Monday, January 6, 2014

NARA, JAPAN: The First Capital of Japan

Gate to Tadai-ji Temple, Nara, Japan
In July of 1995, I accompanied Art to the beautiful city of Kyoto, Japan, where Art was attending a conference. While he 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 day I took a tour to the ancient city of Nara.

Nara was the first capital of Japan and dates back to the 8th century. The trip to Nara had been billed as an “excursion through the countryside” mainly because the drive took 45 minutes each way. We stopped first at a Buddhist Temple which houses the largest brass Buddha in Japan.  The pillars of the temple are trunks of cedar trees.  In one of them a hole about 15 inches across was cut and we were told that any person who could fit through the hole was closer to entering heaven. Two teenage boys in our group tried it and managed to slither through.

Stone lanterns along walk to Kasuga Shrine
Our next stop was at the Shinto Kasuga shrine, with 3000 plus ancient stone lanterns lining the walkway up the hill to the shrine. Each lamp represents a donation to the shrine.  Originally the lamps burnt oil. Now they are lit twice a year with candles.

Paper "fortunes" at Kasuga shrine, Nara
At the shrine we could buy our fortunes by choosing a numbered stick from a long cylinder–similar to a fireplace match–and then showing the number to the fortune seller. Each fortune is printed on a long slip of white paper–usually the fortunes are in Japanese but at this shrine you could get them in English.  The idea is that if your fortune is good, you keep it; but if it is bad, you tie it to some object near the shrine–usually a bush or branch of a tree–in hopes that the spirits of the shrine will neutralize the bad fortune, or at least dilute it.

We learned from our tour leader that most Japanese practice both Buddhist and Shinto beliefs, depending on the situation.  Shintoism is more connected with beginnings, so wedding ceremonies are usually in the Shinto tradition.  Buddhism is more associated with the afterlife, so funeral rites are usually Buddhist.

Shrines and temples offer a variety of opportunities to buy spiritual help.  Another way you can beseech the help of the spirits is by buying a wooden paddle.  You write your wish on the paddle and hang it up on a rack near the shrine.  Most of the inscriptions were in Japanese, but one we read in English at the Kiyomizu shrine in Kyoto said he hoped his girlfriend would love him again.  Apparently, a typical Japanese wish is to pass the entrance exam to the university.

Sika deer at Nara
According to the legendary history of Kasuga Shrine, a mythological god Takemikazuchi arrived in Nara on a white deer to guard the newly built capital of Heijo--kyo-. Since then the deer have been regarded as heavenly animals, protecting the city and the country. Tame Sika Deer roam through the town, especially in Nara Park.

Nara is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.