Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Last Minute

Sometimes things just come together in a perfect way. With my sister on Maui, and my Aunt and Uncle on Oahu, a return trip to Hawaii was high on my list of things to do, but the high cost of airfare was a deterrent, and I didn't have enough miles to go for free. Then United had a mileage sale, and suddenly I could go.

Being that I was booking with miles, I wanted to make sure to get the direct flight to and from Honolulu, no sense in going for free and accepting a sub standard flight! I booked my flights on the first of February, and at 10 AM on the second I was at the airport. I often like to wait til the last minute to do things, but this was probably one of the most extreme cases.

The first full day on Oahu My Aunt and Uncle and I went hiking over on the other side of the island, to these fantastic views up the coast. The wind was whipping around us something fierce, I was a bit worried about both my hat and my camera being blown away. February is a good time for Humpback whales, and we did see one on our hike, but he was pretty far away and wasn't feeling very active.

Even just being in the 80 some degree weather along the beach was great. The chance to relax on the lanai with a good library book was one I didn't want to pass up. As a photographer I've always liked the view from Ewa Beach, as you can see right across to Honolulu and Diamond Head. It is a great view, and it's a view I've captured many times. The other fun thing about that view is ships coming in and out of Pearl Harbor are very visible, as with this submarine and frigate that I saw.

Ever since reading The Hunt for Red October I've had an interest in submarines so I was very excited to see this one exit the harbor. My first few days on Oahu were all about relaxation, sun, and having fun with my Aunt and Uncle.

Friday, February 26, 2010

It was five years ago today...

On February 25th, 2005 I landed in Japan for the very first time. I had already been to Europe several times, and the offer of a free place to stay in a new country was too good to pass up. I had no particular interest in Japan at the time, I just loved to travel. I was, and still am, always looking for new horizons, new things to see and to new places to explore.

Getting off the plane at Narita airport, I doubt I knew just how much my life was about to be impacted. I followed the signs, obtained my three week JR pass, and headed into Tokyo. I remember looking with some trepidation at the map of the Tokyo train system, with the above ground JR lines and the two separate subway systems looking like the most confusing plate of spaghetti ever created. I never made it onto the transit in Tokyo that trip, it was simply too intimidating. I was alone, I was jetlagged, and despite success on the Paris Metro and the London Underground, I just knew I would get horrifically lost.

Luckily for me, I only spent one night and one day in Tokyo, because I was off to meet up with Zach in his Nagano apartment. I spent about a week with him, and I saw a lot. The high black walls of Matsumoto castle amazed me, though not as much as Himeji castle would a few weeks later. Together we went to the little town of Obuse, where famous wood block artist Hokusai spent the last few years of his life. We went to a small museum dedicated to him, as well as a tiny Chinese Art Museum, where the proprietor had to turn on the lights for us, as we were the first visitors that day!

I also visited my Aunt's old student in Hiroshima, spending a weekend in the warmer southern climes. We saw the A-bomb museum, went to a tower of okonomiyaki restaurants, and took the ferry out to Miyajima and the famous floating torii.

Every first time visitor to Japan must go to Kyoto, and so I did as well. I spent about a week there, traipsing from temple to temple. That was also my first trip to Fushimi Inari, and I loved it! I also made it to Zach's favorite place in Japan, the great temple complex at Nikko, where Tokugawa Ieyasu's ashes are interred.

In a far corner of the Nagano area is the Jigokudani hot springs, where the snow monkeys live. I took the train to the last stop, and was then supposed to take a bus, but it seemed that the bus wasn't running, so I walked instead. It was only a few kilometers, and the monkeys were totally worth the trip. While I was walking I ran into a police officer who was going the other way, and was understandably curious just why this foreigner was walking through the woods in the middle of winter. I told him I was going to see Jigokudani, and he expressed some shock that I was WALKING there. Then he said, "You are samurai!" On the trip back I ran into a construction worker on a snowmobile, who despite knowing no English offered me a ride back into town. I gratefully accepted and that marks the first and so far only trip I've done on a snowmobile.

Overall I spent three weeks exploring Japan on a rail pass and my feet, and had the time of my life. Getting off that first flight, I never expected that less than six months later I would be flying back to Japan to live and work nor that five years later I would be doing it all again. 僕は日本に帰ります。

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Ghost Ship

The best popular history books pick an event or person and use that to illuminate a whole place or period. Ghost Ship:The Mysterious True Story of the Mary Celeste and Her Missing Crew by Brian Hicks takes the famous tale of the Mary Celeste and shows us a window into the end of the age of sail and the beginnings of "yellow journalism" before that term even existed.

Everybody knows the basics of the story. The cargo brig Mary Celeste was found totally abandoned, but still very seaworthy, about 300 miles off the coast of Portugal. Theories of all sorts have been expounded, ranging from giant squid assaults to mutiny to pirates to alien abductions to insurance fraud to bad weather and even more. Because no trace of the crew was ever found the mystery has given many a fertile imagination a starting point. Even Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a short story about the Mary Celeste, years before he struck gold with Sherlock Holmes.

Hicks's take on the tragedy is very human, and walks us through the whole story of the Mary Celeste, from her construction on a sand bar in Nova Scotia to her eventual death on a reef near Haiti. He talks about the ship, the time, and the people who's lives were touched by the Ghost Ship. Hicks's true triumph is that the reader gets a very real sense of the missing Captain Briggs and his family, and sees more than just a mystery, but an unexplained tragedy that cost the lives of ten people.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Panoramic Asia

Since photos like panoramas and HDRs take a bit longer to put together, I've saved up most of the panoramas for this post. As always with panoramas, I highly encourage clicking on the photo to view it in a larger size, much of the detail is lost when viewed on the main blog page. This first picture is Shinjuku, the hotel I stayed in is the large red building on the far left of the frame.

This is the Sai river in Kanazawa, facing towards downtown and my old apartment.

I took this picture while walking to the station from Travis's house in Kohoku.

From the top of Osaka Castle you have great views in every direction. Here is the view to the south, towards where Zach lives.

These two photos are right in central Osaka, the Glico Man is a famous sight in Osaka, and changes every few years.

Here we are facing back north towards Osaka Castle, taken from the top of Tsutenkaku Tower in the Shinsekai neighborhood. My favorite site in Osaka, Spa World, is right next to the tower. You can sit in the (bathing suit required) outdoor spas on the roof of Spa World and watch Tsutenkaku Tower light up as the sun sets.

The great wall is of course an excellent subject for panoramas, though I found when I got home I had only shot this one!

The Temple of Heaven in Beijing.

I shot three panoramic images of the sun rising over the Forbidden city, but the change in exposure across the breadth of the image was too much, and the other two just didn't come out.

The roof of Zach's apartment is open, so I traipsed up twice for a photo shoot. It is a fun and unique perspective, above the crowd but not too far above that all the detail on the buildings is lost.

So there we have it! I have a few HDR's to post, but that will likely come in a few weeks, as I am a bit behind in my processing still. However, I lucked out in Hawaii this trip, the weather was gorgeous and I'll start posting about that trip soon, as well as my preparations to return to Japan in a mere four weeks.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Himeji Castle

Himeji-Jo is hands down the most famous castle in Japan. The imposing and beautiful castle is one of the few remaining originals, narrowly surviving both the end of feudalism and the firebombing of World War II.

Of the twelve remaining wooden castles, Himeji is the most complete, with both the central keep, or donjon, and the surrounding buildings and walls all surviving. This really lets a visitor get a sense of just how fortified these castles were. The path up to the keep twists and turns, and is often a narrow path with towers and walls on either side. Any attacking army would have a very difficult time.

The castle was completely restored in the 1950's and 60's, but is undergoing a new round of restoration and preservation work. When I visited in November a small portion of the outer wall blocked off, but the coming months will see a vast covered scaffolding being erected over the central keep. The keep will be closed for several months, and the scaffolding will be up for years.

The refurbishment will take until 2015, and while there are plenty of other castles to visit while we wait, there are few that achieve the beauty and imposing grandeur of Himeji-jo.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Leaving Beijing

My flight out of Beijing was later in the afternoon, so I had plenty of time in the morning for some final sightseeing.

Behind the Forbidden City is a park and hill with wonderful views out over the city. I made a point to be there as early as possible for some nice morning light. The day was probably the clearest day I had seen in Beijing, though it still wasn't very clear!

Looking out over the city you can really see just how massive it is, and you can see how massive the Forbidden City is as well!

As I packed up and caught the train to the airport, I found myself conflicted. Exploring Beijing had been amazing, but also largely a solitary affair. I was eager to get back to my friends and the more welcoming and familiar territory of Japan, but I was also sad to be leaving the colorful history and amazing food of China.

Every time you travel somewhere, you make that place a part of yourself and while Japan is and (probably) always will be my favorite East Asian country, I have a new found respect for and interest in one of the worlds oldest civilizations. And I'll never be able to eat takeout Chinese food again!

Like much of the rest of the local infrastructure, the Beijing Capital Airport saw a lot of new construction for the Olympics. The results were quite impressive, it really is a beautiful airport, and I've seen enough airports to know!

The one real upside of heading back to Osaka was that my lingering sore throat from all the smoking and pollution finally disappeared.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Rokku Bando

Well I'm back from Hawaii, and I'm already missing the 'winter' they have there. Its gray and chilly here in Denver!

While eating a Malo Malo ice cream treat at a Max's of Manila restaurant on Oahu I got a call from Interac with my placement. Come late March I'll be headed to the city of Bando, in Ibaraki Prefecture. Ibaraki is a bit north of Tokyo, so it's an area that I haven't really explored at all. Bando itself is a tiny, rural town of about 57,000 people, weighing in at about a third of the population density of Denver. Forget the suburbs, this is the boondocks! Luckily, these boondocks (inaka in Japanese) are 45 minutes from central Tokyo, so I don't have to worry about being too far from the city.

As always in Japan, there is a Lot to do within a few hours of Bando city, so I'm not too worried about being board. The position comes with a car, and while I was initially reluctant, I can see a real bright spot as well. I can pick up visitors at Narita Airport.. in my car. I can drive to Fuji, Nikko and other places that are a bit hard to get around on foot.

All in all, I'm excited about this. At times I'm worried about going back and teaching English again. I feel like I've been there, and done that, but there is always something else to experience and something new to learn. It will also be great to be earning a salary again. Though I suppose I will have to rename my blog again. Bando Tales sounds kind of strange though. Any suggestions?

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Computer problems and other fun times.

I try and update this blog every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. As any tour through the archives can tell you, this is an ideal that I rarely reach. However, that's my goal, and I feel bad that the last few weeks have had a much more spotty update schedule, especially as I still have tons of interesting places and stories from the last week of my most recent excursion to Asia. This time though, I have a pretty good excuse. My laptop computer has been having an intermittent locking problem since before I left, but recently it has become much worse. In fact, last week there were days at a time when the computer didn't work at all. Several hours of HP customer service calls later, and my laptop is now in their service center in California. Another, happier wrench in my upcoming posting is another trip, this time to Hawaii. I'm off today to visit with my Aunt on Oahu and my sister on Maui. I'll be gone for two weeks, and will do what I can to provide some content, but I can make no promises. However, we can all look forward some great pictures from the islands, and it will be just enough to tide the blog over until I head back to Japan in March for another year (or more?) of teaching English.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

The Temple of Heaven

The Temple of Heaven rates high on the list of Ming Dynasty landmarks that dot Beijing. The temple is actually a series of large halls arranged in an even larger park, and the park itself was in use.

The area near the entrance was filled with mostly older couples dancing the morning away, and seeing the delight and joy on their faces brought a matching smile to my own. So often when traveling you see the great landmarks covered in tourists but not people who actually live there, so it was good to see the park being used by the locals.

One of the major structures is the Hall for Good Harvests, where the emperor would go once a year to offer sacrifices for a good harvest. This was to me the most impressive of the buildings, and it made it into many of my photos.

Really the most fun I had though was at a nearby tourist shop, bargaining down the price of a wall scroll I bought. I'm sure I still overpaid, but since I ended up paying about 8 dollars for it, I figure I can't complain too much!