Saturday, December 26, 2009

Nikko 1

As a stopover on the way back to the States for Christmas, we stopped in Japan for the weekend. It was my second substantial visit to Japan and the Tokyo area, so we took the train up to Nikko for an overnight stay.

You can't tell in that picture but there was snow on the ground. There was snow on the ground! Today I'm in Maine, there's snow everywhere and it's nothing special, but I was very happy to get to Nikko last weekend and have snow on the ground there after a Taiwanese December. We stowed our luggage at the train station and got day bus passes to head to the temple and shrine area.

That last picture shows the bus (foreground) that rolled backwards while the driver was attempting to put chains on its tires, causing it to smash into our bus (background, just barely visible) thus forcing all us passengers to get off and mill about outside. No one was hurt, and we just walked the rest of our way to the temple complex.

Our first day was at the Tosho-gu shrine, where one half of Tokugawa Ieyasu is enshrined.

Toshu-gu in the snow.

The snow made the ground slippery, Jenna had to be careful because of her busted ankle (she'd torn a ligament a few days earlier), and I enjoyed the feeling of moisture soaking through my not-entirely-waterproof shoes. But the snow was beautiful.

Dinner that night was excellent yakitori - my first real Japanese-style yakitori - and then a train ride to the rural bit of Nikko where our hotel was located. Our train let us off in a middle-of-nowhere station with no employees, as rural an area as I've ever seen in Japan. You could see stars. I spotted Orion for the first time in weeks, perhaps months. Fortunately the hotel was across the street from the train station. We were shown to our cabin, a tasteful Japanese house with paper screens and fancy electronics, including a small TV built into the wall, an iPod, and fast wireless Internet.

The following morning, we set out to explore this semi-rural area of Nikko.

Looks oddly like parts of the eastern United States, in terms of population density and the mountains in the background.

We visited a well-known pickle store where we all stocked up on high-quality Japanese pickles, and we went to a tempura&noodle restaurant for some good tempura and noodles.

This friendly cat lives at the hotel and decided Jenna's backpack would be a comfortable place to sit for a couple of minutes.

After that, it was back to the temples for another day of sightseeing - to be continued!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Xiao Wulai

This Sunday six of us went out to Xiao Wulai. Xiao Wulai is another well-known bit of Taiwan's natural beauty; in the vicinity of Daxi and Fuxing, it's a waterfall and forest park that gets a fair number of day-tripping hikers.

Rural Taiwan, near the falls.

The valleys near Fuxing village.

And this is the waterfall proper. You can't get to that pavilion on the right; the way's been blocked by park authorities. Same for a multi-story pavilion out of the camera frame that's presumably been deemed unsafe. But it's quite a nice view, don't you think?

My pictures are few in number and unprocessed. Jenna took many more pictures and did some processing to make them look nice, her pics and commentary can be found here.

Tainan Day

Two Sundays ago we went down to Tainan for the day. Jenna got had a seminar scheduled for Monday in Tainan, so work paid for her to go down. I had the day free, so we went down together and spent the day wandering around central Tainan before I took the high-speed train back in the evening.

I like Tainan. It's quite a sizable city and so it would probably be an interesting place to live long-term. (Pity the public transport isn't better.) And yet there's a huge amount of historic Tainan that's been preserved, although much of it can be hidden behind new development. This was my fourth trip to Tainan and there's always something new to discover.

The Confucius Temple. You don't have to pay unless you want to visit the inner part of the temple; roaming the grounds is free and makes for a fine public park for Tainan.

Phoenix and dragon, outside the Confucius Temple.

Nanmen, the old South Gate and one of the few remaining bits of the old city wall.

The city view from atop Nanmen.

The Wufei Temple, in commemoration of the five concubines of King Ning Jin, who killed themselves when their king was defeated and overthrown in 1683.

After a day of wandering around in the hot, humid September air and snacking when we felt like it, we ended up in the Chikan Towers neighborhood, where they were giving a benefit concert to help Typhoon Morakot victims. From there, we took a taxi to the high-speed rail station, located inconveniently far from the city center (we couldn't be bothered with the bus) and I headed back to Taipei. Jenna stayed in Tainan for another day, working for decent money.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Hong Kong and Macau

We just had the Dragon Boat holiday here in Taiwan. To take advantage, we spent four nights in Hong Kong, just to explore the city in more depth than we'd ever been able to before. It was Jenna's fourth trip to HK, my second, and for the first time we had good weather and plenty of time.

On Thursday, we disembarked at the airport having already filled out our health questionnaires to make sure we did not have H1N1 and hadn't come into contact with it. These questionnaires were collected by personnel at the airport who gave them more scrutiny than our arrival cards got.

We stayed at the Wesley Hotel in Wan Chai. The staff at the hotel reception desk measured our temperatures with little electronic devices. We passed.

Central and inexpensive but with very few facilities, virtually nonexistent service and bare, stuffy rooms.

-- Lonely Planet

Now, I suppose that's true, but what we cared about mostly was the "central and inexpensive" part. Granted, our hotel room was tiny, but that's what you get when you stay in the densest part of Hong Kong Island and you don't want to pay extravagantly for your room. What amused me most was, while practically every other cable TV-equipped hotel room I've stayed at in Asia has provided either CNN International or BBC News (or both), our choices for English-language TV news were CCTV (the Chinese government mouthpiece) or FOX News. The same FOX News that you get in the States.

Once settled in at the hotel, our first priority was to get the heck off Hong Kong Island and over onto the Kowloon side. We took the MTR to Central, where we spent a decent amount of time wandering around like clueless tourists looking for the Star Ferry terminal. (This was particularly pathetic considering that we'd both been to the terminal on previous Hong Kong visits.)

At ground level, Central resembles a hideously overgrown Rosslyn, Virginia, and has about as much charm. It's got some of the best-known skyscrapers in East Asia, but these are best appreciated at a distance.

We finally found the Star Ferry terminal and traveled across the harbor to Kowloon. We wandered along the promenade for a while, and took in the views of the Hong Kong Island skyline.

(My camera is not all that great at nighttime pictures, as you can see.)

Then we headed to the Temple St. market for food. We filled up on some excellent seafood and looked through the oddities of the night market before taking the MTR back to Wan Chai.

On Day 2, we'd originally planned to go hiking on either Lantau or Lamma Island. Cool, drizzly weather scuttled that idea, so instead we explored some of the neighborhoods on the north side of HK Island. We ate dim sum for lunch in a shopping center in Causeway Bay - I'd never eaten dim sum in HK before, and since it's the style of food most associated with the city I figured I'd better try eating it in its hometown.

Once we had our fill of Causeway Bay, we took the MTR all the way to the northwest part of the island and Sheung Wan.

I'm not sure exactly what it means, but: many streets in Sheung Wan made me feel like I was in Chinatown in a Western city. I think it was all the Chinese medicinal goods out and on sale, like giant mushrooms and dried lizards.

A lovely little park off of Hollywood Rd. in Sheung Wan. Note the apartment blocks rising in the background.

Stone statues outside the Man Mo temple in Sheung Wan.

Eventually we met up with some friends who live in HK for dinner in Central, followed by relaxation at a bar where THE MUSIC IS SO LOUD YOU CAN'T HEAR THE PERSON NEXT TO YOU. I'm sure that appeals to some people, but I'm not one of them. Fortunately we were able to leave for a more relatively quiet alternative soon after.

On Saturday, we went to Lantau Island. We'd planned to take the ferry to Tung Chung to maximize our sightseeing enjoyment, but when we determined that would require a horribly circuitous route, we took the MTR there instead.

From the ultramodern densely populated new town of Tung Chung, you can catch a cable car up the mountain to Ngong Ping.

The cable car was lots of fun. Every bit the equal of the currently-nonfunctioning Maokong Gondola in Taipei, the views from the cable car are quite impressive (except when it's the smog-shrouded airport you're looking at).

At the top, you can walk through a touristy strip of stops and then you reach the stairs to the Tian Tan Buddha.

The Tian Tan Buddha is relatively new as Buddhas go - completed in 1993 - but it's quite well-known and a major tourist attraction.

We descended by cable car and took a bus to Mui Wo, a port town on Lantau, and boarded a ferry for Cheung Chau, a small island off of Lantau's coast.

The town on Cheung Chau, more than any other place in Hong Kong, reminded me of Taiwan. I can be more specific. It reminded me of the back streets of cities in southern Taiwan. I felt like I was wandering through an old section of Tainan or Kaohsiung. Except the language was different. And there were more Westeners about than I would expect. And there were people in little village greens playing croquet.

A sign in a little store in the Cheung Chau back alleys.

We ate dinner - seafood, of course - at a harborfront restuarant (despite an intriguing name and a mention in Lonely Planet, we gave Morocco Indian Food a pass) and took the ferry directly back to Central, giving us some stunning glimpses of the nighttime skyline along the way.

On Sunday: Macau.

Neither of us had been there, and a ferry from HK is relatively cheap and gets you there in under 90 minutes. For the purpose of traveling it's like crossing a national border, so we each collected a total of 4 new passport stamps in one day (and had to fill out 2 H1N1 flu questionnaires each).

Macau is best known for gambling, which neither of us is particularly interested in. I probably don't have enough self-control for gambling, and wouldn't know when to stop. With disastrous results. So we steered clear of the casinos and headed for historical touristy Macau.

You can still see some Portuguese, although I think maybe I heard people speaking it only once.

The most important old tourist sight is, of course, the ruins of St. Paul's. There is a nonstop crowd of tourists with cameras in the plaza in front.

The old town is beautiful. It feels like how I imagine an old city in southern Europe probably feels to wander through (not that I'd know). Of course, there's plenty of new development along roads that get a lot of tourists, and depending on where you point your camera, you might get this gigantic monstrosity towering above the old-timey cityscape.

But the food is wonderful, including the ubiquitous little almond cookies sold in a thousand little shops. Also, the egg tarts are the best in the world. And I'm comparing them to the ones in Hong Kong.

Macau may be small (however big you think Macau is, it's smaller) but I think I could probably enjoy another visit there. We never left the old city to explore the regions further south. Lonely Planet implies the best food in all of Macau is to be found there.