Japan – Day 2, Nara

I woke up this morning ready for my trip to Nara. The helpful concierge at the hotel had given me the train schedule and a map to Nara along with some of the highlights I was to be sure not to miss. I opened the curtains to my room and saw some dreary skies. Although it was quite grey out, I decided to go on. How many chances does one get to explore a new country? That and I am really not a museum person, which would have been the alternative.

The train to Nara was uneventful, and it was likewise grey there too. I think I made my best investment of the trip yet when I stopped at the local 7-11 and picked up an umbrella. Not more than 3 minutes walk out of the station did it start to drizzle. It stayed drizzly all day, so I had to balance the umbrella and my small camera. I opted not to use much of my Nikon D100 today due to the weather. Even with the weather I couldn’t be happier. Walking around all the different temples in this quaint town was something to experience. There I met several citizens, both human and deer. Apparently deer are somewhat revered in this town. The foliage was mostly still on the trees, which made for some fantastic scenes. One of the temples, Daibutsuden, has one of the largest seated Buddha statues I’ve ever seen. What was nice is that they allowed people to take pictures there. Most other temples and buildings restrict photography to the outside. I also ended up at the Kasuga Temple that has hundreds of stone lanterns that are covered in moss and look amazing. the fall colors also helped accentuate and add more magic to the surroundings.

Tomorrow will mostly be a travel day back into Tokyo. I am going to try to hit a couple of antique stores in Kyoto before jumping on the bullet train back into Tokyo and see what I can do in the afternoon.

Kasuga Shrine

Japan – Day 1, Kyoto

My first full day in Japan was a beautiful one. I started out early since I had a few places I wanted to visit. First on my list was Nij? Castle. I walked outside and felt the nice crisp air. Believe it or not, I have missed cold weather, and feeling the 50-ish-degree weather was great. To my absolute delight on the way to the castle I saw a couple of trees in bright red and yellow. Being from New England I have become accustomed to Fall foliage, and having been in Singapore for over a year I have missed that season. Last week a friend of mine had visited Japan and she saw the foliage. I arrived here fully expecting to see bare trees in complete winter mode. A smile grew on my face and stuck when I saw one, two, and more trees still with their leafs just for me. To top it off, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. I explored Nij? Castle then asked to go to the next temple on my list which is right on the Philosopher’s Walk. The taxi driver dutifully said “hi” and drove me to this amazing temple right on the water and fully clad in gold. It is one thing to see Wats and Chedis in gold, but to see an ornate building that is completely in gold is something else. Kinkaku-ji - Golden Temple

Me and 1000 of my closest tourist friends walked around the lake with the temple and the surrounding park to take pictures at all sorts of angles. When I was done, I took out my handy guide book and went off in search of the canal to walk the Philosopher’s walk. It took some time but I found a canal and started to follow it. It took me through a neighborhood which was quite picturesque. The strange thing was that around the time I was supposed to find another temple, it wasn’t there. Stranger still I had to walk away from the canal to walk on the streets by several houses. Eventually I found what looked like a shopping center, and the guard-post lady was baffled at my question as to where the next temple I was to find was. Turns out the taxi driver mis-understood me and took me to Kinkaku-ji temple instead of Ginkaku-ji! It didn’t help that I somehow found a different canal that was about the same number of blocks away from the temple and started walking. Another taxi was hailed, and I was back on track. Ginkaku-ji is also a very nice temple, and is known as the Silver Temple although it never got its silver overcoat. The actual canal to walk down was quite beautiful, and I enjoyed the scenery and temples along its path.

For my next day I decided to visit the town of Nara upon the recommendations I had heard throughout the day.

Off to Japan

My time in Singapore is coming to a close, and I’ll be moving back to the U.S. Before I head home, I decided to take a quick trip to Japan, as I have only had a chance to see Narita (the airport in Tokyo), and figured I would do well to better explore the country. My trip is a short one, only 6-ish days, and I have chosen to visit Kyoto and Tokyo.

Before flying out here I was given the good advice of getting a Rail Pass. This can only be purchased outside of Japan and then redeemed when you arrive. The timing of my trip forced me to take United Airlines, but I was fortunate enough to have enough frequent flyer miles that I was able to be upgraded to Business Class. This makes the flight go a lot smoother and quicker. One thing I am amazed at is how backward the American flights are. Although the plane was a Boeing 777 the “entertainment” system was something out of the 80’s. I hate to gripe, but Singapore Air and Thai Air have on-demand movies with about 1000 choices on their international flights. On this flight we had a choice of 3 movies that were not on-demand. Fortunately I had a few tv shows saved up on my mac, so I was happy.

I landed in Tokyo, made my way through immigration and quickly got my bag off the luggage belt. It did take me a few minutes to figure out where to pick up my Rail Pass, but once that was done I hopped on the “Narita Express” to Tokyo station to make a connection to Kyoto. It takes about an hour to go from the airport to Tokyo station. I was also lucky enough to board a Shinkansen train to Kyoto (a bullet train). The ride took about 2 hours, and it was a very smooth ride. Metro North in Connecticut feels like an off-road ride comparatively. I arrived in Kyoto in the evening, and after checking into my hotel, which is located right at (in?) the station I walked around and found a small sushi restaurant to eat at.

View of the Kyoto train station from my room
View of the Kyoto train station from my room

Diving in Borneo

In mid April Sandy and I decided it would be nice to go on another scuba diving adventure. It had been about a year since we both had dived in Phuket, and the urge to blow bubbles was immense. I had done a bit of research on good diving spots, and upon the recommendation of several friends, we decided to dive in Sipadan, and its surrounding areas. Sipadan is located off the coast of the northeastern side of the island of Borneo, which is part of Malaysia.

It wasn’t the quickest place to visit, as it took about a day to reach our hotel. We flew out from Singapore to Kota Kinabalu, and from there another flight to Tawau. From there, we hopped onto a van that drove an hour to the costal town of Semporna where we boarded a motor boat for a forty-five minute ride to our hotel on the island of Mabul. This is a tiny island, which one can easily walk around within an hour. The Sipadan Water Village Resort is built completely over the water on stilts. The accommodations are quite nice, and it was cool to be walking over to breakfast and have a sea turtle swimming under the pathway toward the open water. This hotel is catered specifically to scuba divers which made the logistics quite easy. Wake up, grab breakfast, walk to the dive center to board the boat, dive, repeat. Sandy and I had some fantastic diving at Mabul, Kapalai, and were lucky enough to get a permit one day to dive at Sipadan, a nature preserve which the Malaysian government strictly controls.

I had some great shots with my camera, though I fear the underwater housing has now outlived its usefulness. Toward the end of the trip a tremendous amount of condensation was building up after each dive.

Without further Ado, here are my pictures… Enjoy!

The Vietnam Trip – Hanoi/Halong Bay

After a couple nice nights in Hue, Sandy and I flew to Hanoi for the final portion of our trip. We landed at the airport and were given a tour of the Old Quarter. This neighborhood is unique where historically each street specialized in a specific craft. Most streets now are no longer dedicated to one craft, but there are a few remaining exceptions. We explored the metal-smithing street, along with the musical instrument street and kitchen wares. It was fascinating to think that it is more than likely that the toilet paper roll holder my parents have in their bathroom back in the U.S. more than likely was made on the side of the street a few feet from me. 🙂 Later that evening we were treated to a fantastic water puppet show. The puppeteers hide behind a bamboo curtain, knee-deep in water, and through the use of some long poles control wooden puppets that not only move their arms, but some breathe fire!

The next day we continued to explore Hanoi, by first visiting Ho Chi Minh’s tomb, and his home nearby. There was a very unique temple that is build upon a single pole in a pond, which was fun to photograph. We also had the chance to visit a heritage museum, which has some great reproductions of some tribal housing. One of my favorite houses is one that has what has to be a two-three story thatched roof. The main living space is also about one story above ground making this one of the tallest indigenous dwellings I have ever seen. We continued on to the Temple of Literature which is a nice little oasis of calm in the chaos of Hanoi. I like the fact that all graduates of this early university have their names immortalized on a stella carried by a turtle.

On our final day in Vietnam, we took a day trip up to Halong Bay. This is one of the most serene an peaceful places I have experienced. The day was overcast, but it added to the mystery and mystique of the area. Giant limestone islands scattered throughout the bay appear and disappear through the mist as our boat glides through the water. Some of these islands have caves which the Vietnamese government have made visitable to all people. Among these islands you can find a few floating villages where people make their living fishing and selling humble crafts to tourists. All too quickly our excursion ended, both Sandy and I reluctantly got back into the car for the long drive back to the hotel.

The Vietnam Trip – The colors of Hue?

Sorry, could never resist a pun. Oh, and stop groaning I can hear you from here!

We left early morning by car from Da Nang onto the city of Hue (pronounced “way). This was a longish drive, which Sandy had already endured two days prior on her trek to join me. We took the scenic route which took us up to the peak of a mountain where an old US watch station was and got to see some great vistas of the ocean. As we approached the town, we took detours to see the tombs of some of the Vietnamese kings. This was well timed, as both Sandy and I were feeling the effects of the road. The conditions of these roads are marginal, riddled with pot holes. It also seems that Vietnamese drivers like to view driving as a video game, where one goes as fast as he can while narrowly avoiding obstacles. This makes for a jerky ride, which can test the strongest of stomachs. Neither of us were in danger of feeling sick, but had the ride lasted a lot longer, we might have been in trouble.

Vietnam had been heavily influenced by China in the beginning, and the by the French toward the end. It was quite fascinating to see how the kings built their mausoleums accordingly. All were very much into Feng Shui, so each tomb was placed in very beautiful surroundings with lots of water and mountains. The last king, built his tomb so that it resembled an Asian Chateau on a mountain’s edge. Elaborate stone carvings decorating all the structures. Sandy and I were left at our great hotel in downtown Hue, and we explored the streets a bit in the evening, and eating a nice seafood dinner across the way from our hotel.

The next morning we boarded a very thematic, yet cool dragon boat and motored up the Perfume river toward a Buddhist temple. Along the way we saw river people, who live and work on their boats. Most are sand barges that are filled to an impossible limit of sand to be carried off to concrete manufacturers. These people eek out a living, always on the edge of disaster, but overall they seem happy and peaceful. The temple is set on the side of the river with a seven-tiered pagoda welcoming travelers. We also get a chance to visit the royal palace, that belonged to the kings. This was modeled after the Chinese, with a Forbidden Palace and several gates and walls. The war had devastated the innermost portion of the palace, but the rest is visitable, and quite beautiful. Sandy and I had fun taking pictures of all the urns, buildings, and British Phone booth structures (used to protect some old statues of dragons, but maybe they really wanted to call home). We visited the market after lunch where we had fun seeing all the items one can buy if the vendors are awake. Yes, it does seem that there is a siesta culture here too 😉

The Vietnam Trip – Da Nang

Yikes. I really do take a while to update this don’t I?

I fly out of Saigon in the early morning to Da Nang. The flight does not have any drama on it, and takes maybe about 45 minutes. I once again have to explain to my new guide that Sandy is trying to make her way to Da Nang, and should arrive at some point during the day. We decide that we’ll call her in a bit since it was only about 8am. We drive directly from the airport to what has become my favorite Vietnamese town, Hoi An. This is a very pretty cultural city on a river full of interesting shops and pictures. As it was early morning on Sunday, the walk around town was particularly peaceful and picturesque. I got some great shots of people getting ready for the day ahead. The street vendors not yet ready to start hawking their wares to tourists (namely, me.) As we walked through the town, I was feeling a bit bad, since I knew Sandy would really enjoy this town. Tran, my excellent guide for this portion of the trip, suggested that we could come back here the next day with Sandy, as our scheduled tour the next day was only for half a day. I called Sandy, and through a very poor cell phone connection I learned that she was not taking a plane, and something about driving directly through to Danang, then the connection was lost, and I could not reach her. My guide and I continued on into Da Nang to a small museum containing artifacts of their ancient people. These were mostly Buddhist in type, and reminded me a lot of Angkor Wat and other regional artifacts I’ve seen over the years. After a nice lunch on the river’s edge, I was brought to my hotel right on China Beach. I was struck at how beautiful the ocean was here, and tried to imagine what the beach looked like during the war as a US Marine base. Now the beach is being groomed for large hotels and resorts. In a way, this is sad, as the natural beauty of the landscape will be marred by buildings, but given the history, it may be the best that can be done to this scarred country.

Finally at nine o’clock that night Sandy arrived at the hotel. I finally learned that she had endured a 24 hour road trip to join me in Vietnam. Each leg progressively becoming more and more of a challenge, from Bangkok to Laos, into Vietnam and down to Da Nang. I am quite impressed and proud that Sandy did this insane odyssey to join me for the trip, when it was well in her right to cancel and stay at home. We ate a late dinner and prepared for the next day.

The next morning I introduce Trang to Sandy and she tells of her story (I’m sure she’s repeated it to many people who become more and more amazed), and we drive off to the My Son temple complex. This is a very pretty, complex about two hours outside of Da Nang. It is a hot spot for tourists, and it was a bit of a challenge to get clear crowd-less photos, but certainly worth the trip. As promised, Trang took us back to Hoi An, and did a slight variation of the tour I took to keep things fresh for me. Sandy and I took advantage of some of the stores, and picked up some great handicraft bargains. Satisfied, we returned to the hotel, ready for our drive to Hue the next morning.

The Vietnam Trip – Saigon

It was an amazing trip. Filled with drama, relief, and wonder. The political turmoil in Bangkok gave my trip a rocky start, as my girlfriend could not fly out as protesters had set up blockades around both airports. I arrived in Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City) without any trouble or delay on Friday November 28. Going through the airport was easy enough, as I had already obtained a visa, so I got to skip the very long visa-on-arrival line. There was some initial confusion with the guide as to the whereabouts of my travel companion, and I patiently explained the situation. Nothing much I could do from where I was about her situation, other than call and get updates.

The next day I had a very interesting tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels just outside Saigon, which was interesting and sad too. I felt a little guilty about being interested and enjoying the tunnels that had defeated our GI’s. There I learned of the scary traps the Viet Cong (aka VC… aka Victor-Charlie… aka Charlie) had set up to ambush their enemies. I was also able to crawl through a small portion of the tunnels. These were dug out by hand with simple pick-axes and rattan shovels, and were quite elaborate and clever. The tunnels had three levels, the deepest being safe enough from bombardment. There were rooms that housed sleeping quarters, meeting rooms, armories, kitchens and more. Traps were set up in case the tunnels were discovered and broken into.

Afterwards we drove back into Saigon and had a city tour which included the Reunification Palace which was once the old presidential palace for South Vietnam. It is a very impressive building built in the 60’s, and is now a museum. I also got to see a war museum, the local cathedral colloquially known as Notre Dame, and the very impressive post office.

As Vietnam was once occupied by the french there are very strong design cues in the buildings. Also, the art of making baguettes also was passed to the Vietnamese. So every morning I was enjoying the fantastic bread. yum.. I spent a second night in Saigon, Sandy had started to make her way to Vietnam, and was to meet me in Danang the next day…

Heading off to Vietnam…

Well. For a while now I have had a plan to visit to Vietnam with my girlfriend. As most of you know she lives in Bangkok, and we were to meet in Ho Chi Minh this afternoon. Well the fine protesters of the PAD in Thailand have disrupted this. So now I am hoping that she can either find another way to get to Vietnam, or join me on the tour down the road. I am usually OK about traveling and exploring on my own, but I have been really looking forward to this trip with S. Anyway, I’m off to the airport.