Archive for October 2018

Shanghai Old And New

October 31, 2018

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Shanghai is full of paradoxes. They have preserved some lovely old areas, as well as some even lovelier and older areas, but much of the city is brand, spanking new. The contrasts are amazing.

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It’s not just the architecture, it’s also the generations. These two women didn’t seem to know each other, but seeing them together was really evocative.

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And the fashion. Ultra-hip,

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and pose-worthy ancient.

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Even the furniture surprised me. These hand-carved chairs are from the Qing Dynasty, which began in 1636.

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But this furniture is from the Ming Dynasty, which began in 1368, although this stuff could just about pass for mid-century modern. Both are found in the wonderful Yu Garden, which is over 400 years old and also offers the visitor

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a cacophony of koi,

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a zig-zag bridge that only the emperor was allowed to cross, because it contains nine zigs and zags, the most auspicious number, and one reserved for the emperor’s use. Not even the empress was allowed to cross it.

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There’s a lion made of iron that is over 700 years old,

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a stone with 72 holes that’s been revered for more than 1000 years, because if you pour water in the top, or burn incense at the bottom, all of the holes will yield a beautiful result,

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and a reflecting pool illustrating the principle that the reflection of the moon gate prevents you from knowing the depth of the water.

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Outside the garden, in the old town, you can buy a bracelet of hand-hammered silver,

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a flute made of clay,

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or even a jade carving, if you’re extremely rich.

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Outside of Shanghai proper, in the “water town” of Zhujiajiao, you can ride a hand-poled boat, which we did.

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While in the French Concession, a part of Shanghai that was ceded to France from 1849-1943, you can celebrate Halloween at Wolfgang Puck’s,

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rest in the shade of plane trees (platanes) that were imported from France,

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get a taste of Bavaria at Paulaner, served to you by Chinese ladies in Bavarian costume,

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and even marvel at the site where the very first congress of the Chinese communist party was held.

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If you’re utterly exhausted you can stop at this tea house,DSC01309.JPG

before visiting the state-run silk factory. Now let me say that I went there to learn about Chinese silk production, and possibly buy a scarf.

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But after they showed me how the silk thread is spun, something I had already seen in France,

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they showed me how the workers take a small mat of silk

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lifting and stretching it until it becomes a single layer in a pure silk comforter. You guessed it, I couldn’t resist getting one to bring home.

That was just two amazing days in Shanghai. I feel like I barely scratched the surface, and I haven’t even mentioned the food, which certainly isn’t for lack of sampling it. And I haven’t told you about the marriage market. Or strange Chinese medicines I’ve tried. That’ll all be next.

 

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Shanghai By Night

October 30, 2018

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I was completely unprepared for the beauty of Shanghai. My guide in Beijing had kind of disparaged it, “so modern, so commercial,” and I hadn’t read enough about it before we arrived to be prepared for how breathtaking it is. There’s so much to show you that I’m going to do it in three separate posts. This one is about the Chinese art of taking back the night.

These were taken through a moving car window, but are still beautiful, I think.

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This last little ditty was the night time view from my balcony. But what the city is really famous for is the nightly light show created by the stunning architecture and a parade of dinner cruise boats. I watched it all from our ship, and I think that’s the best possible view. Now you can see it too.

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This last amoeboid boat is my personal favorite, but the whole thing was the stuff of dreams. What amazes me is that in largely utilitarian China this entire spectacle exists for one reason only: beauty. It’s not for a special event, it’s not advertising, Shanghai does it just because it can. Or maybe, to show that it can, as it progresses along its path toward becoming one of the world’s hottest and brightest economic rising stars.

Better In Beijing

October 27, 2018

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Ok, so Beijing wasn’t all terrible, not at all, despite my nerve-wracking run-in with the embassy. The city is surrealistically huge and crowded, with death-defying traffic and milky-white air. Oh, and my guide was mostly a dud and didn’t explain much, but he did get me safely from place to place, which I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish on my own. But there is beauty, and interesting stuff, and I aim to show you that, without prejudice. It’ll be mainly a photo essay, which is more prejudice-free than words, but I know you’ll enjoy the eye candy.

It’s more or less mandatory to go to the Forbidden City and Tienanmen Square, although I wouldn’t have minded giving it a miss. It takes hours to walk through even a fraction of it, and most of that looks more or less the same. I know, I’m a heretic.

 

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In fact, it’s so exhausting visiting there that people have to stop for rests and snacks. Notice how they all look kind of grumpy? That seemed to be a standard look in Beijing, where I saw very few smiles.

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However, I do have this shot of myself with Chairman Mao and a few dozen of our best friends, which is worth something.

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This jacket is perfectly ironic in a city where each person seems to have about one square meter of personal space, at best.

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There are lots of gorgeous details in the Forbidden City,

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and it’s also a thing to dress up and have your picture taken there.

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Although I suspect that these kids are dressed like this all the time.

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Later, walking through a shopping street, we saw these baboons advertising…..something. It wasn’t clear what. Flashlights?

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Also these scorpions waiting to be fried, although it wasn’t clear why, since I didn’t see one person eating them. Maybe because some were still writhing around.

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I also saw several Muslim restaurants, which don’t serve pork and have a lamb-based menu.

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The Peking Opera was quite wonderful, and if you ever have a chance to see it I recommend it highly. The performance is only an hour long, but the level of skill and pageantry is quite something.

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And speaking of wonderful, I think this was my favorite stop in Beijing. China has 56 distinct ethnic minorities and all of them are represented in this outdoor museum, with original buildings and objects that have been moved from their home areas.

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These women are from Qinghai province, and the lady in blue was super nice and sold me a pair of earrings from her home town.

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The park is huge, and I don’t think I saw more than a third of it before it was time to go.

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Besides, the air pollution was getting steadily thicker and the buildings were shrouded in smog. All in all it was an interesting couple of days, although I don’t feel in any rush to visit Beijing again soon.

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Although I had gotten from the port at Tianjin into Beijing by car, a journey of 2 1/2 hours if the traffic is good, we went back partly by high-speed train, which was cool. The terminal was vast,

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and the train was impeccably clean, quieter than many European fast trains, and made it up to 346 km per hour on our short 30 minute journey.

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Alas, when we got back to Tianjin the air quality had deteriorated even further and was like nothing I’ve ever seen before. I think I can safely speak for everyone on board when I say we were all glad to set sail for Shanghai.

 

Trouble In Beijing

October 26, 2018

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First trouble is, you can scarcely breathe. See that air pollution? It’s not fog. It’s air so thick you can taste it, and believe me, it doesn’t taste good. This shot is actually at the port in Tianjin, but it was the same everywhere.

But that was the absolute least of my worries. No photos will accompany this story, because I was afraid that if I took any I might get arrested. Seriously.

One side thing I’m doing on this trip is visiting a series of Education USA offices, helping to recruit foreign students to come to the college where I work. Education USA is under the auspices of the U.S. Department of State, staffed by local people, and is usually located inside an American embassy building. That’s the case in Beijing, and I had been warned to be prepared for the fact that the building was a fortress.

Oh yes, it definitely is that. But I have an appointment with an Education USA staff person, I’m an American and I have an American passport, and it’s my embassy, right? What could possibly go wrong, except everything?

I present myself for the appointment, accompanied by my Chinese guide. I’m sure it doesn’t help that he’s dressed like some sort of teen hip-hopper, in a long denim duster with a hoodie underneath, but I don’t really know if that makes any difference.

So I show up at the east gate at the Beijing embassy as instructed, half an hour early, figuring it might take some time to get in and find my way to her office. I show my passport at the gate, show them the name of the person I’m supposed to meet, and they refuse to let me in. And by “they” I mean the Chinese guards surrounding the place. If you imagine, as I did, that our embassies are guarded by crisp battalions of our Marines, you’re in for the same surprise I got.

The guards say no Americans are allowed to come in by that particular gate. I have my Chinese guide with me and he argues with them, gives them my contact’s name and tells them I have an appointment. They ask for her phone number, but I don’t have that. Oops. What I do have is a bag with Education USA printed on it that I was given in Tokyo, and I show it to them, but they have no earthly idea about the program. I wave my passport around quite adamantly, and they definitely know I’m an American, but they still refuse to let me into my own embassy, and they aren’t the least bit nice about it. No one there speaks English at all, and they show no sign of sympathy for my plight. Finally they tell me to go to the west gate. Just to get rid of me, I guess.

I’m at the east gate, going to the west gate. The circumference of the embassy is enormous. I’m not good at judging distance, but it’s probably half a mile all the way around, maybe more. We finally arrive at the west gate, which turns out to be the entrance to a parking structure. The guards tell my guide no one is ever allowed to go in by that gate, unless it’s for parking. Also, they don’t speak English and are totally unimpressed by my passport.

A small group of Americans walks out and I beg them to help me. They say they are only “contractors traveling with diplomatic passports.” Uh, yeah, right. They’re inside the embassy, they’re contractors, and they have diplomatic passports. I sensibly refrain from asking them who they work for, because I don’t think it would be in my best interest to know that.

One of them does take pity on me and finds and calls my contact’s number. No answer, straight to voice mail. The west gate guards deny me entry just like their east gate brothers, and they tell me to go to the south gate. Are you sensing a pattern here?

At the south gate they won’t let my guide come with me, no Chinese people allowed, they say. I kind of panic, because now we’re going to be separated and it’s not clear how we will meet up again, and I’m going inside a gate but not inside the building, and I can’t understand a word anyone says. Having no choice, I walk to the entrance of the building alone, but guess what? They won’t let me in either, because I don’t have a phone number for my contact. I didn’t have the wit to ask that “contractor” guy for the number he had called, so distraught was I at the time. The guys at this entrance are friendly and even smile at me, and they speak a little English, all a welcome change, but they won’t let me in. I ask to see an American officer. No can do, you can’t see any American without an appointment. I’m an American, this is my embassy, and I can’t see anyone. Then they call someone at the east gate, who tells them to send me back, this time they will let me in. I feel caught between Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day and Dante’s nine circles of hell, but I go. Reluctantly.

When I get back to the east gate, a little more than an hour after I first arrived, a nice lady comes to meet me and lets me in. She’s a colleague of my contact, who, as it turns out, was on leave for the day even though we had an appointment, which is why no one answered her phone.

The meeting with the nice lady goes well, and it turns out to have been a worthwhile exercise in frustration and rage. However, and I can’t say this strongly enough, WTAF? The Chinese “guard” our embassy (or, as a shipboard friend suggested, hold it hostage), and an American can’t get in. If it had been an emergency would they have let me in? If I had been bleeding to death would they have called an American to help out?

I hate to say this, but I really don’t think so. I always thought that an embassy was a place of refuge for its citizens. How wrong I was. Take heed and be prepared. Your embassy may not be your friend.

Fun In Fukuoka

October 25, 2018

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To get to Fukuoka we passed through the Kanmon Straits, the narrow body of water separating the islands of Honshu and Kyushu, very early in the morning.

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On the optical illusion, near-miss front, I wondered whether we’d actually make it under this bridge,

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and whether we were actually on a collision course with this freighter. Of course, we did, and we weren’t. See that yellow haze above the mountains?

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Here’s the explanation. This part of the coastline is heavily industrialized,

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and heavily populated. Here you can see how big apartment complexes are edging out more traditional neighborhoods.

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After being in several small Japanese cities Fukuoka, with a population of over 1.5 million, was a bit of a shock,

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although it was very pretty downtown along the canal.

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It was Sunday and there was a band playing in a downtown shopping area, neither of which explains why this person in the audience was so outlandishly dressed.

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There was an “eco-festival” in a downtown park and I arrived just in time to see these dancers walk offstage,

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and to meet these two. In gestures and pidgin English I asked them a few questions: “Costume?” “Ninja dress!” “Salute?” “Ninja sign!” And then, with a bow, they presented me with their cards “Ninja card!”

My pidgen-talk got exercised a lot in Fukuoka, consisting mainly of “Sumimasen, Daimaru?” accompanied by a gesture in one direction or another along the street. Translation: Excuse me, is the Daimaru store this way? It’s a huge department store, known to everyone, very upscale, and was conveniently located near near the ship’s shuttle bus drop off point, so if I could find Daimaru, I could find my way home.

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How luxurious is it? You’ve heard about those hundred dollar melons in Japan? Well, here are two at roughly $100 each, and one at about $150.

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But wait! This one is almost $300. Not per kilo, not even per pound. Per melon. And there was only one on offer, so the buyer would be one very lucky owner of an unimaginably expensive but extremely well-dressed cucurbit.

Although the upper floors of Daimaru are filled with the likes of Givenchy, Yves St. Laurent, Estee Lauder, and so on, I made a beeline for the basement.

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That’s where the melons are to be found, and also things like this $500 party in a box,

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a fantastically fragrant Paul Bocuse bakery section. There were endless shelves of beautiful prepared foods and I wanted to have lunch there, but I never found anywhere to actually eat. Apparently it’s all there for the convenience  of hungry (and wealthy) subway commuters, since the doors of this food emporium open directly into a subway station.

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That evening I had organized a group of fellow passengers to go with me on a yatai crawl, after I read this article. It’s a nightly pop-up scene, tiny food carts, lots of drinking, cheek-to-jowl with other diners at the few stools surrounding each cart.

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Where we were, the carts all served three things: Fukuoka’s famous pork ramen, grilled yakitori skewers,

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and oden. Since I love oden so much I decided to skip the ramen, although a friend who had a bowl said it was delicious. And here’s also where I learned to order dry sake, instead of the sweeter kind usually served to women. The sake was poured into cups holding, oh, I’d say about 5 ounces, but the food must have soaked it all up, because no one seemed at all drunk, nor was I, even after two full cups.

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The oden was wonderful, as was the yakitori,

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and the people sitting next to me thought so too.

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Heading back to the ship that night I was really sorry to be leaving Japan. I have never been made to feel so welcome in any other country. The Japanese sense of hospitality was truly heart-warming, and I’m glad that we will have another couple of days in Japan a little later in our journey.

Now, onward to Beijing, an admittedly daunting prospect.

 

 

 

Sweet Little Kochi

October 23, 2018

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I’m a real fan of taiko drumming, which, when played in a group, is properly called kumi-daiko, so says Wikipedia. It has a thrilling energy that always captures my attention, but it never occurred to me that I would hear the best taiko of my life on a dock in a small Japanese town I’d never heard of before. These guys were absolutely fierce, and approached drumming as a martial art. Best wake-up call ever, and their energy got my day off to a great start.

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Today I had just three goals: get more yen, find a specific lunch, and do some non-specific shopping. I had read that the latter two were to be accomplished in the covered arcade called Obiyamachi, and I assumed that yen were everywhere. It was an easy walk from the ship to Obiyamachi, but an ATM proved more difficult to find. The directions I was given at the money exchange office led me through some narrow back streets, so that was interesting in itself, although, in fact, there was a bank not 100 yards from the spot I’d left when setting out on a wild goose chase. Wandering semi-aimlessly is getting to be a specialty of mine on this trip, and in Japan, at least, it feels perfectly safe and comfortable.

Once properly provisioned with money, I began to enjoy the window shopping.

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This was an amazing flower shop, and leads me to a question. Which of the above photos is “better?” Obviously, it’s the same shot, just with a different crop. To me they say two entirely different things, but maybe that’s just me.

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There were also several shops selling kids’ school uniforms,

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and even a couple of western-style cake shops. I thought the $15 price tag on those pretty rolled cakes was quite a bargain, and proved that not everything in Japan is exorbitantly expensive.

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I stopped into a little textile shop, because I needed a hand towel. It’s an odd fact of Japanese life that many restrooms, even though they have fancy toilets that can play music to drown out potentially embarrassing bathroom noises, do not have any paper towels. Some have air dry systems, but many have nothing at all. I noticed lots of Japanese people pulling small towels from purses and pockets and decided that I needed one too.

I found many lovely things in that shop, and ended up buying several of them. But the real story is that a couple of the pieces had unfinished edges and were unraveling a bit. I could see that the shop made things to order, so I asked (pantomimed, really) whether the edges could be sewn up. The helpful couple running the shop indicated that they were happy to do so, and I kept on looking around for a few minutes until I saw, to my horror, that the lady was sewing them up by hand and not by machine. Since they had already told me “free” and “service” I felt terrible about all that work, and ended up saying that I would do the piece that she hadn’t already finished by myself. I was just blown away by the fact that she was willing to hand sew the edges of a $17 piece of fabric, which took her about 15 minutes, for free.

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Next I set out looking for the Hirome market, which I’d read about on TripAdvisor. There someone had said there would be no English sign, that I should just look for the “fortune cat.” I correctly identified this as the lucky creature, and dived in.

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That post also said that the market itself was a sort of madhouse of non-English-speaking, communal tables, free-for-all, which turned out to be pretty accurate. I was in search of the meal this post had described, a local specialty, and to find it, I’d read, I should look for the longest line in the place. Bingo.

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My apologies for the photo. The food, however, needed no apologies. This is katsuo tataki, bonito fish that is wrapped in hay and set on fire, to char the outside while leaving the inside rare. Sliced and sprinkled heavily with coarse salt, it’s heaven. Served with freshly-grated wasabi and thinly sliced raw garlic (which my first enthusiastic bite revealed to be definitely not ginger) it’s a total treat. In the background you can see the blobby green aonori tempura, which looked even blobbier up close. Just imagine taking sheets of nori and crumpling them, then dipping and frying them into a dense crunchiness. I wish I could eat that meal again and again.

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Being alone, I sat at a table with several young Japanese guys who were all looking at their phones and paid no attention to me. But as they began to leave these five ladies filtered over to my table, one by one, until we were all together. The lady at the far end turned out to be a retired English teacher, which really brightened things up for me. It turned out that these ladies had all played together in an orchestra at university, and now they make an annual reunion trip together, this year to Kochi.

Weirdly, they weren’t eating what I had, and they asked me how I knew to eat those dishes. When I said it was a “famous meal on the Internet” they were all astonished. They professed to be equally astonished by my proficiency with chopsticks, which made me realize that it was the fourth or fifth time I’d heard that compliment since we got to Japan. It was hard for them to understand that, growing up in California, I’ve been using chopsticks for most of my life. I guess my upbringing was more cross-cultural than I normally give it credit for being.

Some of my best experiences here have been around food, and partaking of it with people who are also willing to share a bit of their culture with me over a bite and a glass. But I imagine that comes as no surprise to you.

Everyone Loves Kyoto

October 21, 2018

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I love Kyoto. Everyone loves Kyoto. And on the day we were there, everyone else was there too, all at once, loving Kyoto almost to death.

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We started at the Golden Pavilion, or Kinkakuji. It’s Kyoto’s most iconic sight, and thousands of people were there to see it, at least half of them groups of school kids.

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They were remarkably well-behaved, but each group had to have its picture taken in front of the view of the Pavilion, making for a chaotic scene.

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This is the view I wanted, unadorned by selfie-takers and giggling kids.

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However, our guide grabbed my camera and insisted that I too had to have a photo taken there. I guess I’m sort of half-way glad he did.

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One group of students was walking together, all dressed in kimono, which is A Thing to do while in Kyoto. Alas, they too were absorbed in looking at their selfies.

The Pavilion is topped by a golden phoenix, to denote its rising from the ashes. It has burned down several times over the centuries, most recently in 1950. It was restored in 1955, and is said to have been covered with 45 pounds of gold leaf during that restoration.

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Here was a spot to toss a coin and make a wish. I decided to the stick with the same wish I made in Tokyo.

After what our guide called “an ordinary working peoples’ lunch,” which was indeed nothing remarkable, we went to the Eikan-do Zenrin-ji temple.

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It’s a wonderful place, not least for two signs that might be my favorite signs of all time.

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Seriously, though, it’s gorgeous and tranquil and doesn’t allow photos of its antiquities, which include the only known statue of Buddha looking backward over his shoulder. I did take pictures wherever allowed, most notably on the stunning grounds surrounding the temple.

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Next our guide, Ken, took us to Kyoto’s old town.

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Here too there were crowds, and lots of kimono-clad tourists. I wish we’d had more time there, but a quick walkabout revealed that

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even Kyoto is not immune to nonsense-English. Fortunately, most of what we saw was more like this.

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Because we were docked in Kobe, some 80 minutes away from Kyoto, our time there was much shorter than I would have liked. It’s definitely a city I’d like to visit in more depth.

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This is all I got to see of Kobe, nor did I get to try the famous beef. I hope that I’ll have the chance to return to this special corner of the world.