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Archive for the ‘Scenery’ Category

In October, I talked about Harvest Season here: the many garden plots and the plethora of potatoes, soybeans, cauliflower, tomatoes, and daikon that grace the fields and plates of our little town.  I also mentioned getting to harvest rice with one of my elementary schools, which we then used for the big Omochi Party in November.  Well, seasons have changed, winter has come and gone, and now planting season has begun in earnest.  My happiness level and appreciation for the beauty around here has skyrocketed with each blue-sky day and the rising temperatures.  The lack of Daylight Savings Time this far north makes me feel a little like I’m living in the Arctic Circle.  At 4:45am it’s bright as day outside my window and the sun doesn’t set until well past 7.

Baby rice starters

Ofcourse they got dirty! They're kids! **PS. This is for all you NYers out there...mad love from Kazama

Yesterday was no exception.  In the afternoon, I joined the same elementary school to plant the rice that they will then harvest again next fall.  Although I arrived with galoshes, it became pretty clear that they were impractical for the procedure.  So, like my kids, I rolled up my pant legs and waded right in, baby rice starters in hand to plant in perfect grid-like rows already established before we arrived.  The mud was warm, thick and squishy.  And it made me really, superbly, blissed to be out in the sun, calf-deep in earthy sludge, listening to the shouts and giggles coming from my students and fellow teachers.  Sometimes there’s not much more to say than: it was fun.

See the grid rows here? They are made with an archaic looking cylindrical metal tool (about 5ft wide) with spokes, and rolled across the mud (which has been flooded in preparation the last week or so).

Modeling the finished product

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The Great Wall

 

Contrary to our nature, Ellie and I decided to heed the advice of several concerned parents and friends and elected to use a tour service for our Great Wall trip.  We were told that the Wall was dangerous and that camping along it was illegal.  So, for a relatively reasonable fee, we were hooked up with a private tour guide, a car to shuttle us from Beijing to the Wall trail heads, food, and two nights accommodation along the Wall (though we initially thought we’d get a chance at camping ON the Wall with our guide – our preference).

In retrospect, once getting to the Wall, hiking along it and finding somewhere to camp would have been no problem.  Parts of it are certainly in disrepair, but nothing that a little re-routing couldn’t fix.  Also, we discovered that while it is illegal to camp overnight in the renovated “Scenic Spot” sections of the Wall, most everywhere else is fair game, and undisturbed.  Though people will not tell you this.  And while I don’t know statistics, I would bet that 98% of tourists going to the Great Wall of China go to one of three renewed, government regulated, built-up spots.  This leaves miles and miles of real, often crumbling, but far more authentic sections of the Wall untrafficked and unloved.  Naturally, it is these places that held the appeal for us.  Further, I’ll put it flatly: we did not get along with our guide, who was a sheltered, young Chinese man the same age as us, who clearly struggled internally with years of hating America (per Chinese propaganda) and his recent idolization of stereotypical America and Americans, as the scales fell from his eyes in regards to his own government.  To boot, we were (are) women, and despite the fact that we were paying him for a service (i.e. it was, in fact, our vacation), our desires, abilities, and preferences were nigh taken into account.  Not exactly what you look for in a guided personal tour.

 

Gubeikou Section of the Great Wall

All that said, the Great Wall is an impressive feat in architecture, warfare and protection tactics, manpower, and natural beauty, and I am delighted to have discovered it.  Built primarily during the Ming Dynasty (between 1368 and 1644) to protect Beijing from nomadic Mongol invaders to the North, in the end, it did little to keep out the formidable Ghengis Khan.  It snakes its way along the ridges of the Yanshan and Xishan mountain ranges, a series of watchtowers interconnected by long expanses of, well, wall.  We learned that it was engineered to catch rainfall and funnel it only towards the Beijing side of the mountains, and here and there, the usual bricks along our walk were interspersed with fine carvings and etchings, detailing the year and emperor under which that section was built.

 

 

Etchings over top arrow windows

The first day, we began hiking on the Gubeikou section of the Wall, furthest North-East from Beijing.  The day was dry, hot, and hazy.  This section of the wall, while not renovated, hooks up with Jinshangling, a very popular section of the “Wild Wall,” where we stopped for the night and stayed at an Inn at the base of the Wall in the town proper.  The next day, we awoke to mist and cooler temperatures for our hike to Simatai, perhaps the second most well-known section of Wall in the area north of Beijing. (Second after Badaling, which we did not see, but which I hear is a tourist-trap circus.)  These sections were rebuilt in the 80s and 90s for tourist revenue, and do give quite a nice idea of the Wall in its hey day.  What original stones they could not use for the renovations, they produced similar likenesses.  The hiking was not very difficult at all, although some sections were a little stair-masteresque given all the steps.  After a late and delicious lunch of grilled trout (a specialty of the region), we drove to a village in a really remote section of the Wall, Jiankou.  Here, rather than paying the Chinese government for access, the villagers profited by charging tourists, and I was happier to see my money stay in the remote valley than off somewhere else.

 

Jinshingling Inn Courtyard - Ellie and I playing with our new birdy toy

 

View of the Fairy Watchtower in the Simitai section - we were unable to go beyond the spot where we were standing due to "dangerous disrepair." Although for 200 yuan (approx $30), you could bribe the teenage guards to let you pass.

 

Whole grilled trout in Simitai seasoned with lots of red chilli, cumin, and fennel. Delicious.

That night, we stayed in a guestroom of a local corn farmer, who had become famous in the area for housing many photographers in the 90s.  Let’s just say that while the beds looked decent enough, I was happy to have my own cozy sleeping bag with me for the night.  The last day was the best weather we’d had.  Clear blue skies and a spring breeze to the air.  This was officially the “Wild Wall,” off-limits to regular tourists and by far the most delightfully decrepit portion of the Wall we’d seen.  Footing was treacherous at times and my adrenaline was definitely pumping as I pulled, sidled, and balanced my way up the mountains, praying not to get hurt in remote China without travelers’ insurance.  Here, most of the stones and steps were crumbling away, and plants and trees had reclaimed the watchtowers and paths.  Certain sections, we hiked alongside the Wall for safer passage.  Looking behind me, I could see the Wall wind its way nearly encircling the entire farming valley below.  It was breathtaking and staggering and with sun on my face, my heart swelled.

 

The entrance and outside patio of the farming family's home with whom we stayed

Jiankou section of the Wall

Pondering upon the highest point of the Jiankou Great Wall

After climbing off the Wall and having lunch on the patio of our farmer family’s home, we returned to civilization in Beijing.  Though the distance was covered in less than two hours by car, the quiet view from our remote part of the Wall that morning and our smoggy and noisy evening entry into the city were worlds and worlds removed.

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“And if the job you want is as a professional skier in the Japan boom-time 80s, then you’ve come to the right place….”

Check out the full article here!

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Check out my Niseko post over at Go Girl Magazine!

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On Sunday on travelgogirl.com, you’ll hear about the second part of my sojourn north to Hokkaido (a little ski resort called Niseko), but the impetus for the trek was the Sapporo Snow Festival, famous throughout Japan and also…the world!

While I can see Hokkaido from my little town, I had never yet set foot there.  But after an hour and a half ferry ride across the Tsugaru Strait, there I was, blowing caution to the wind, diving headfirst into the un-chartered territories of the wild and grizzly North, snowshoeing and bushwacking my way towards Sapporo.  Well, actually – hopping in Paul’s sweet Trail-X and watching snowboard DVDs on the dashboard console and munching on snacks.

After the super tough four-hour car ride, we arrived in Sapporo to catch the last two days of the week-long Yuki Matsuri.  Sapporo, in completely unclassic Japanese fashion, is a city organized on a straightforward grid pattern – imagine! In central Sapporo, on a street called “Odori” there is a long park-like avenue, which is where most of the Matsuri action was happening.  Gigantic three-story or more snow sculptures lined the park, block after block.  One block even showcased an “urban ski jump,” where skiers and snowboarders tested their mettle on sheer icepack.  To accommodate the sheer number of tourists in town for the festival, the pedestrian walkways on either side of the sculptures were both one-way, a fact I did not realize until I found myself swimming like a salmon upstream.

Jungle Animals

A smaller scuplture of a Japanese temple

Chibi Maruko-chan - a kid's cartoon character. The Dora of Japan.

I have yet to (and suspect I never will) understand Japanese humour. This man is a comedian, yet his act consisted of dancing around in below freezing temperatures, stripping to his rose-covered drawars, and singing in a cabaret type fashion. Not really that funny. Kindof depressing actually.

Across town, the other venue for the Yuki Matsuri was being held on a street in the “entertainment” district.  This is where the ice sculptures were showcased.  Blocks of ice intricately carved and sculpted into a variety of forms, lit up at night.  One personal favorite was the Ice Bar, an entire bar (stools and all) formed out of ice.  The dragon (below) wasn’t unimpressive, either.  All the walking around in the cold looking at snow worked up an appetite, however, and for dinner we participated in an all-you-can-eat and all-you-can-drink menu at the Sapporo Bier Garten.  Consuming all that beer (Sapporo lager, ale, or mix) and food (Genghis Khan yaki-niku – mutton and vegetables grilled on a pan that looks like Ghengis Khan’s helmet) was one way of fending off the cold, and it worked wonders to rally everyone for a late night karaoke session.  Which could only mean one thing: trouble.  The following day, nursing our beer and mutton hangovers, we stumbled to Sapporo’s quaint and clean (compared to Tokyo’s Tsukiji) fish market.  Wandering the aisles, sampling bits of crab, salmon roe, and sea urchin, I had a strong desire to live one day in a town with a fish market, picking up that evening’s fresh filets before the morning rush.  Does it get more romantic than that?  (Well – maybe if I also had access to locally grown fresh fruit, vegetables, and meat!)

Ice Dragon

Sapporo Bier Garten - where all the magic happens

Hokkaido is known for its King Crabs. Yes, this is a 15,800 yen crab. That's approximately $180

In the end, there’s only so much ice and snow you can see.  (I think I’m good for at least another year, thanks.) So, on Friday, we all piled into the two cars and caravanned south to get some epic skiing in.  Niseko-ho!

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My two weeks in Thailand were sunny, warm, fun, delicious, challenging, eye-opening, and all together, just what I needed.  While it’s always a little hard to be away from family and friends during the holidays, exploring a new – and awesome – country helped in abating my lonesomeness for home.  The trip also came at a good time, when the grey days of Shimokita were slowly but surely wearing me down and the kerosene from my heater had taken up residence in my chest as a nasty cough.  (Incidentally, this caused everyone to force masks on me whenever I entered a building.  Funny, because it’s true.)

Although there were certainly moments I wished that I had a companion to share in the absurdity, admiration, or humor of a situation, I definitely took to traveling alone like a fish to water.  I got to do what I wanted, when I wanted, depending on how I felt.  It was grand.  I also came to realize that traveling, especially alone, in a foreign speaking country really requires one major thing on the part of the traveler: letting go.  You have to be okay with not knowing exactly what’s happening and why at any given time.  This is a hard mental shift for someone like me, but probably a good exercise in character in the smaller scheme of travel and the bigger scheme of life.

Stepping off the plane into the December Bangkok heat felt like an August day in DC.  Almost instantly, my whole body relaxed.  No longer did I have to shiver myself warm.  I found Bangkok to be beautiful, balmy, hectic, pungent, and colorful.  My hotel was adequate and clean – in a convenient part of town, with a big open air restaurant for my complimentary breakfasts.  I spent my time in Bangkok exploring mostly on foot or by way of the river and canal boat taxis – the Grand Palace, which houses the enormous gold reclining Buddha (I spent more time examining and admiring the minute paintings of the Buddha’s life covering the 30 foot walls floor-to-ceiling); Wat Arun, a rather phallic temple on the far side of the river nestled in sparkling mosaic tiles; the Chatuchuk Weekend Market, an incredible maze of shops and stalls, grouped together based on wares (pet supplies, fake flowers, electronics, young designers, Thailand tourist tchotchkes); the midnight Flower Market, heaps and heaps of the most kaleidescopic wholesale floral displays; the ultra-modern and sleek downtown, centered around high-rise consumer-driven shopping malls and a convenient above-ground Sky Train system; China town; a refreshingly ungentrified China town, streets so packed with open-air food vendors and tables that the traffic nearly stops.  And the food! Oh, the food!

Reclining Buddha

Wat Arun

Flower vendors at night watching TV

 

Downtown Bangkok: Skytrain + ubiquitous traffic. *Note the pink taxis!

The street food was by far the best bet no matter where I was in Thailand.  Red and green and yellow curries; wide chewy rice noodles; slippery vermicelli noodles; spicy chicken and pork soups that you could pile high with fresh vegetables and herbs (wing beans, cucumbers, bean sprouts, pickled cabbage, dill, basil, mint…) – beware the offal and chicken feet version, though…; papaya salads; mango sticky rice; all manners of protein on sticks; little, sweet coconut milk pancakes topped with corn or chocolate.  There were fruit vendors on every corner hawking all sorts of exotic fruits (from delicious mangoes to durian to rambutan and tamarinds).   Thailand, it turns out, is a gourmand’s heaven.  Especially after the relatively spice-less Japanese diet, some heat did my taste buds good.

Street Cart Pad Thai - first night dinner

Crunchy young mango, with sugar & chilis

Durian Cart

China Town street dining al fresco

From Bangkok, I traveled south via Krabi to Ko Phi-Phi, the island famous for hosting Leonardo DiCaprio and his movie “The Beach.”  Ko Phi-Phi was certainly breathtaking, but was far too touristy and resort-filled for my tastes.  While I will admit that I, too, was a tourist in Thailand, there are many different breeds of tourist, and the one I found in Ko Phi-Phi smacked of Spring Break Cancun 2009!   In all, not my thing, and though I had a great time meeting up with a couple pals from Japan who were also there at the time, I could’ve skipped it altogether in favor of the next spot on my trip.

Phi-Phi: Longtails on the beach

View from "The Beach" & our longtail boat

Back on the mainland, I traveled to Ton Sai Beach, a section of Rai Leh peninsula, only accessible by a 10 minute long-tail boat ride from a neighboring town.  I found Ton Sai to be everything that Phi-Phi was not.  In fact, even arriving at dusk, after a hectic and round-about day of travel with an increasingly heavy pack on my back, I could breathe a sigh of relief.  Where Phi-Phi was paved streets, neon tourist shops and  sleek Swedish restaurants, Ton Sai was sandy paths from the beach into the mosquito-filled interior, delicious and cheap cart food, and quiet bungalows nestled among the hills.  My cabin was up the mountain, with a fan purring on the ceiling, bats cooing under the eaves at night, and little green geckos slurping around the walls.  The view from my balcony was that of jungles and cliffs and deep blue sky.  Ton Sai was literally dripping with climbers.  With more than a hundred set routes all over the peninsula, it’s a rock climber’s wet dream.  Many of the other travelers I met were there for several months, at least, climbing every day, relaxing at night.  I found it easy to find people willing to trade belays and meet for some morning beach yoga sessions – both of which satisfied some goals I had for my trip.  And, in the end, I’m glad I spent New Year’s listening to reggae-ton and oldies at a bar at the beach, watching beautiful paper white lanterns filled with kerosene heat and wishes float off into the ether, rather than being assaulted by electronica and glow sticks at Phi-Phi.

Ton Sai: Yoga Morning

Ton Sai: Yoga before a day of climbing and beaching

Ton Sai: Climbers starting their day

Ton Sai: the sun sets on 2009

Hesitant to leave,  my next stop was Khao Lak, Thailand, a beach town on the north west of Thailand’s southern leg.  Mostly used as a jump-off point for scuba diving trips into the Surin or Similan National Park Islands  (candidates for UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site status), that was exactly what I did, making good use of the PADI license I earned forever ago.  I joined a 3-day, 3-night live-aboard trip into the Surins.  Unfortunately, I damaged my ear on one of the first dives, and could only do half of the 9 total dives, unable to get down to even 10 to 15 of the 30 meters max we were diving.  The dives that I did partake in, though, were breathtaking – all sorts of fishies (the parrot fish are my favorite), nudibranches, shrimps, bulging-eyed stingrays, tons of graceful turtles, jelly-fish, and reef sharks.  Every dive was followed by a delicious Thai meal cooked by the Thai staff on the boat, maybe some beach time on one of the pristine islands, or some relaxing boat time, reading and swaying in the waves.  Pretty rough life.

Sea Dragon MV Mariner - the boat

Surin Island Number...9?

Hangin out on the boat between dives

Surin Island Number...7?

I was impressed at my own planning and forethought, too, to realize that the nicest and cushiest accommodation I’d booked during the whole trip (at a whopping 34USD!) was right after my return to shore, after several days of sea-water bathing and a rocking cabin.  (Though, the night I slept on the top deck under the stars beat any hotel room I had the entire time!)  The comfort was short-lived, however, as I soon found myself on a creaking and cranky 12 hour, 2nd class night bus to Bangkok, 24 hours after arriving on dry land.  (One of the most convenient things about being a small and flexible person is the ease with which I can get comfy curled up in even the most uncomfortable scenarios.  And the fact that big things, obviously, come in small packages.)

The national flower of Thailand

The beach at Khao Lak, waiting for my night bus back to Bangkok

Bangkok Round II was mostly a wrap up of last minute gift shopping and of checking off the list some stuff I ran out of time for the first visit.  I ended my Thailand adventure with a delicious dinner at an unassuming, hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant, and a $6 ticket into a stadium-seating, Dolby surround sound, HD Sherlock Holmes movie (the first new movie I’ve seen since July) on the 1oth floor of some high-rise mall.  And, in typical Thai fashion, seamlessly blending the ultra-modern with patriotic history and culture, we stood as the national anthem played over a montage of His Highness, King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

 

Street cart durian baby

Luxe and cheap movie experience. For 1st Class tickets you get: snack, dinner, and drinks + entrance into the 1st class lounge an hour before showtime + the loveseat option + slippers & blankies all for your viewing pleasure.

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Snow’s the Theme

It’s been snowing for the past week in northern Japan.  Mostly the snow has been these soft little pebbles, brought on by very cold temperatures and high winds.  Everything was covered for the most part, but because of all the blowing, nothing really collected in my town, though the major inland towns and cities got dumped on.  Then the temperature rose to around -1 or 0, and the winds calmed down on Sunday.  Within 20 minutes, it was blizzard weather, with no visibility and these fat, fluffy, faceted crystals. Now that’s what I’m talking about!  If it’s going to be freezing cold (which it is: I now regularly wake up to ice coating the inside of my bathroom window), there might as well be snow everywhere. And lots of it.  However, I am claustrophobic on the coast.  Yes, it’s beautiful and vast and changes colors breathtakingly, but I feel like a regular fish out of water, a billy-goat out of the Andes, a snow-leopard in the desert, without my mountains.  Whether it’s snowing or not, give me 14,000 foot peaks any day of the week.  There are things you realize thousands of miles away from home, and one of those things is where exactly home is.

Kazamaura Coast

Kaza Coast 2 - about a 10 minute walk from my house

In any case, the good news is that it’s snowing.  I woke up Monday literally plowed in to my house – but at least that meant the plows were working.  The conditions of the winter roads here are terrible.  They hardly ever plow unless there’s significant snowfall, they don’t sand or salt the roads, and in some towns, their method is actually to water the roads.  (This entails a slight slope, and sprinkler-like systems constantly spraying water, with the idea that running water doesn’t freeze??)  This week seems to be a snowy one in many places – on the East coast in DC and NY,  in Paris, in Colorado, and of course, Aomori-ken, Japan.  I like the idea that there’s a unifying link in the weather between me and the people I love, a big beautiful blanket of calm ringing in the upcoming winter festivities.

Setting sun, snow on ricefields

The Beast lurks, waiting to plow through feet upon feet of snow, rejoicing in her natural habitat

And on that note, very Merry Holidays and despite how gorgeous all this winter white is, in three days I’ll be spending Christmas in 90 degree heat in Bangkok and I cannot wait!  I’ll be back next year!

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