Saturday, February 22, 2014

13: Celebrating the Year of the Horse in Shanghai...

It was just a three-day sail from Kobe, Japan to Shanghai, China. After the numerous and varied adventures enjoyed by many of the students, as well as the faculty and life long learners, shifting gears to focus on classes was not easy.

To top it off, now that had gotten a little comfortable with a few Japanese words, it was time to learn some Chinese! We needed to learn how to say “ma” with five different tones so you didn’t end up calling your mother a horse. Fortunately, there were some Chinese phrases that I was able to pull out from the recesses of my brain: ne hoa ma…hao…xie xie... My friend Henrietta must have taught them to me in architecture school. Thank you, Henrietta.

As I mentioned, Harumi was our Interport Lecturer prior to our arrival in Japan. Our next Interport Lecturer, William Saito came on board in Japan and gave quite a memorable talk. He is a first generation Japanese American entrepreneur who currently serves as a personal advisor to the Prime Minister of Japan. His work is well worth looking into. One of the memorable quotes from his talk was: “The opposite of success is not failure. It is doing nothing.”

Our approach to Shanghai would be through the mouth of the Yangtze River. Apparently, the pilot would meet our ship at midnight, and then it would take another nine hours to navigate through the narrow and undulating river to finally arrive at our dock at the International Cruise Terminal in Shanghai.

Well, for some reason I woke up in the middle of the night. It didn’t look like we were moving, and I opened my computer to see that there was message stating that our pilot had not met our ship at the designated time and location, and so our arrival, which was scheduled for 9am, would be delayed by several hours.

I was disappointed, as this delay would undoubtedly affect the plans I had made to meet up with Ron, a friend and colleague who had left New York City to run the Shanghai office full time. I had not see him in ten years, and was hoping to catch up – as much as we could catch up on ten years in a few hours.

At breakfast time, we were still standing still. Though we didn’t know it at the time, it turned out that there was a miscommunication with the Chinese pilot and by the time it was cleared up, we had lost the tide. We would not actually arrive in Singapore until 6:30pm that night – the last day of the Lunar New Year holiday.

Though the end of the Lunar New Year holiday marks the “Spring” season, it was overcast and rainy and cold. With no classes scheduled, the majority of the ship’s passengers had what some people called a “river day”, as opposed to a “snow day”. The photographs that follow illustrate what many of us spent our day doing – going out into the cold to catch any glimpse of life on our cameras, and then ducking back into the lounge to get warm.

As we started to glimpse the lights of Shanghai’s skyline, obscured by mist and mystery, excitement increased. After we finally docked, it took another two hours for the ship to clear. In those two hours, Ron and I communicated, not very effectively, by email. Then we tried texting, and finally connected by phone. He would pick us up by taxi and take us to a place in the Bund that would be quiet and have a view - somewhere we could talk over a latte and beer, and maybe have some light fare.

This was my first visit to Mainland China. The weather was less than agreeable. But somehow, perhaps because we had Ron to give us a resident’s perspective (if there is one thing that is still pleasantly affordable in Shanghai, it’s the taxis! A taxi ride to the Bund cost less than the latte I ordered) and we chatted on the roof terrace of the old Roosevelt Hotel while he pointed out all the architects who had a hand in changing the skyline of Shanghai over the last 10 years, I was satisfied. When I turned to Gary, I noticed he had a puzzled look on his face and could tell he was thinking, “these buildings sure had some odd names…”

Tomorrow we were going to be on a flight to Guilin….the land of karst towers that inspired ephemeral watercolor landscapes…a geologist’s dream.

12: Sayonara to Japan...Random Wanderings in Kobe

Coming into the Port of Kobe, Japan
Our last day in Kobe, Japan was one of leisure. Both Gary and I felt very satisfied with our visit to Nara, and decided take it easy, eat some good food, and maybe do a little shopping.

From where our ship was docked, we took a 5 minute tram ride into Sannomiya, Kobe. The Japanese pronounce it so endearingly (to my ear...), drawing out the first syllable, and the third...Saaa-no-mee-yah.

Walking around, we observed the young people in video arcades and photo booths. We had learned from Harumi, that these were very special photo booths - not only do they take your picture, but they also instantly transform your features so that you have giant eyes!

Directly across the street I noticed a line forming at a restaurant. It was about 11:45am. I had noticed the line day before as well, and wondered if it might be a place to sample the fabled Kobe beef.  We were ready for an early lunch, so we walked over. Immediately, the line started growing, and there were at least 20 people behind us. We were seated at noon, and ordered the Kobe. It was cooked on a grill right in front of us, and wow.... it definitely ranks as one of the most memorable meals we have ever had.

I'll close our short week in Japan (3 days in Yokohama, 2 days at sea, and 3 days in Kobe), with a few random photographs, and the acknowledgment that it is impossible for me to do justice here to the rich culture of Japan, or really, any country we visit on this trip.

In another two days, we will be in Shanghai.

Wooden tools for making Japanese sweets - the triangular prisms were exactly the size of architectural scales
An unknown (to us) Japanese performer who seemed to be well loved.
We happened to wander into a temple where people were gathering, and were treated to her singing and dancing.
When the performance included a Japanese version of the Village People's "YMCA",
she was able to get the crowd to happily join in...
Beautiful young women in traditional dress...but we didn't have a clue as to why they were part of the show...
These women were part of a group who serenaded the assembled crowd with traditional instruments.

On of our other lunches....Japanese "pizza" and grilled prawns.
Japanese Department Stores are a bit like the famed London stores - Harrods and Sefridges - they have multiple levels and include a grocery store and also a sumptuous prepared foods level. It was a treat just to stroll through and see all the local and international offerings.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

11: Finding Nara

For our next excursion from the port in Kobe, we decided to go it on our own and head for Nara, the city that had been Japan’s capital prior to Kyoto.

It turned out to be the best decision, as after the crowds and rushing around in Kyoto, the ease of Nara and what we saw there was exactly what we needed.

We wanted to take our time, so didn’t have any set agenda for what we planned to see. In fact, even though Gary had visited Nara thirty or so years ago, we didn’t even have a clear idea of where things were, or what they were called. Luckily, there were great maps posted near the train station and the sites that looked interesting – a temple and a garden – were within walking distance.

In the interest of time, I will cut short my narrative here and let the photographs speak to the enjoyment and peace we encountered in Nara.

There is beauty in even the most basic material constructions along our path...

A group of school children on a field trip were eager to meet this Semester at Sea student. They wanted to practice their english and learn more about what she was doing in Japan...and of course, also get their photograph taken with her...

Nara is know for the deer that wander freely around the city.
They are a bit disconcerting, as they quite aggressively go after any food you might be carrying.
Our Japanese guide said they "bow" asking for food, but the bowing looks more like a prelude to some head butting!

The entrance to the Isuien Gardens. There was an admittance fee for entry, but just within a few steps, we concluded that the experience was totally worth the cost. We got there maybe forty five minutes before closing time, and were fortunate to have the place virtually to ourselves.

All I need to say, is that at the end of the day, as we headed back to Sannomiya, Kobe and our cabin, I felt totally satisfied. I felt I had finally found Japan.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

10: Three World Heritage Sites in Kyoto...

Kinkaku-ji Temple (or the Golden Pavilion), Kyoto, Japan
Kyoto has always been on my list of "must visit" cities. It was the capital of Japan for over one thousand years and in addition to the palaces and temples and shrines, I was very interested in seeing some examples of traditional Japanese townhouses, or machiya. Our one day organized tour was supposed to hit three important sites, but I assumed that on the drive into and around Kyoto, the traditional vernacular architecture would be visible. That was definitely not the case, and if I had done my research, I would have known this.

I would also have known that one day in Kyoto would not be enough, especially when the tour company had included an afternoon session of hands-on Japanese sweet making which however interesting as a manifestation of Japan's unique cultural sensibilities, seems a bit of an unusual juxtaposition (but more on that in another post....).

Each of the three places we visited easily deserve longer individual descriptions, but my inability to upload any posts in China has created quite a lag, I've decided that brevity might be the better choice for now.

A detail of one of the other structures one encounters prior to entering the site of the Golden Pavilion
Our first stop was the Kinkaku-ji Temple (also know as the Golden Pavilion), which was one component of a compound that the Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu developed in Kyoto as his retirement "villa". 

The beautiful temple has had it's share of setbacks. According to our guide (whose story differs from that I just read in wikipedia...), upon his death, the next Shogun, tore down the entire complex of buildings leaving only the temple in tact. Then in 1950, a novice monk who suffered from mental illness, set the the temple on fire, destroying most of it. Coming just after Japan's defeat in WWII when the country and the people were poor, a collection was taken up to restore the temple. It was rebuilt in 1955, but the lack of funds led to a reduction in quality, and after a few years, the temple sadly turned more black than gold. With additional funding, the additional thicker gilding and lacquer was added in 1987 and the roof was restored in 2003.

Like the best of Japanese design, nature and building here are beautifully integrated, with outdoor elements of the building masterfully framing specific views to the magnificent garden. While the building is stunning, to my mind it is the garden that is richer in detail and more satisfying to linger on and contemplate. 

Even the wildlife understands its role in the overall design and composition of a Japanese garden...

From the Golden Pavilion, we piled back on the bus (we were on a schedule, unfortunately…) to head to the Nijo Castle, completed in 1603. It is surrounded by a moat and known for its “nightingale floors”…floors (that were designed to act as early warning “announcement” of visitors) and expert use of joinery.

View towards one section of Nijo Castle open to the public
Upper detail of the imposting entry to the Nijo Castle

Because of our limited time at the Castle, Gary and I decided to forego the interior visit and get a sense of the magnitude of the compound by strolling the grounds. As always, the Japanese attention to detail and unique approach to the plants and nature was evident.

Spectacular decorative work on inner section of another entry gate on Nijo Castle grounds

One of the humble entrances into the Garden
Juxtaposition of rooflines, construction, and decorative detailing in Nijo Castle

Our final stop (before our sweet making lesson) was the Kiyomizu-dera (Pure Water) Temple in eastern Kyoto. Though founded in 798, most of what one can currently see on the site dates to 1633. The Temple complex is known for its stage which was constructed without any fasteners and rises thirteen meters from the hillside..

This was quite a different experience. We made our way uphill towards a multi-story temple we could see in the distance. To each side of us were shops with traditionally dressed Japanese women offering free samples of treats. It was Saturday, so in addition to the usual suspects (western tourists) there were Japanese visitors too, as well as Koreans and Chinese who were still enjoying Lunar New Year holidays.

Rather than be frustrated photographing through the crowds, I decided to switch to my 77mm portrait lens and capture interesting details that sometimes get missed, and of course, people.

Detail of the top of the three-tiered temple
Offering of Incense

On going restoration efforts added to the sense of chaos...but use of bamboo scaffolding
and this particular construction worker's sense of balance were impressive.

Bamboo pergolas, delightful even in winter
Men and women can rent traditional kimonos for a day in Kyoto visiting the temples and when doing so, they even receive a discount on the entry fee to popular sites. This idea was conceived as a way to bolster the city's lagging kimono business. Interestingly, our guide told us that many of the visitors we saw in kimonos were Chinese and Korean tourists, rather than native Japanese.

Off on a side street, we serendipitously ran into three others in our group who were also looking for some respite from the crowds and had a relaxing and satisfying lunch before jumping back into the fray…