Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Scotland Without Golf, Part I

Blogging is easy when we stay in one place for awhile, or have downtime, like we did during our 2014 month in Bali, or recently in Japan.  This trip, being only two weeks long, with a fun wedding thrown into the mix, makes it hard to find the time and go into detail about each area.

So, to recap--Shanti and Alan's wedding last Saturday was one of the highlights and most fun days of our 60+ years so far.  As I said in a Facebook post on the train to Glasgow,  it was a small civil wedding with just the parents, sister Skyler, and Uncle Steve, followed by a fun pub dinner for 20.  We can now see why weddings the world over are such a joyous occasion. 
Newly weds leaving Islington Town hall.
@Sophia Dinh

There were 20 of us from 11 countries, some coming from as far as Australia and Singapore. Alan and Shanti just seem so right for each other, and we enjoyed their visiting with their very interesting friends, sharp denizens of the world. And Alan’s parents from Australia are our new best friends. Life is more than good.

Uncle Steve, me, Kathy, Skyler, Alan, and Babette
@Sophia Dihn

And Scotland is more than good.  In fact, it's great!  And so are its friendly people, if we could only halfway understand their thick accents.

The transportation museum, with a tall ship in
the reflection.  It had trolleys, cars, steam
engines, bicycles, a models of nearly every
modern ship manufactured in Glasgow.
The eclectic Kelvingrove Museum.  The purpose
of this visit was to see furniture designed by
Charles Macintosh.

We spent a full day and a half in Glasgow, a mighty industrial city, that went into decay in the 70s and 80s, and has come roaring back today, but with a lot of economic and ethnic diversity.  We walked over eight miles, touring the fun and fascinating Transportation Museum, their eclectic national museum, the tenement museum (similar to the one we toured in New York), and the Willow Tea Room, designed by Charles Mackintosh, the Scottish version of Frank Lloyd Wright.

One of many beautiful design
features within the Willow Tea
Room in Glasgow

Then on to the Culzean Castle, the best preserved castle in Scotland, and quite over the top.  
The Culzean Castle, south of Glasgow
Getting there in our Peugeot rental car was an adventure with driving on the left hand side of the narrow roads and countless roundabouts.  The only thing that would have made it more exciting and stressful would be a stick shift.  I'm happy to report that Kathy survived, we are still married, and no guard rails, stone walls, cars, pedestrians, trucks, or people were harmed in the process.  

From there to Loch Lomand.  Finding accommodations in this high tourist season was a struggle, but thanks to AirBnB and Kathy's travel agent and navigation skills, we finally found something, and were damn glad Scotland has good beer, whiskey, and gin.

Today, we hiked partly up a mountain over the loch, then headed 89 miles north on torturous roads with high traffic through stunning scenery.  (See comments from the above paragraph).  Part of our route paralleled the railroad route made famous by the Harry Potter movies.

Traffic through the Highlands
Tomorrow, we take a ferry to the Isle of Skye for two nights.

Typical roadside view of the Highlands

Kathy's window shot while my eyes were
glued to the road.  No need for coffee!
The village of Luss, where we had a lunch
of delightful smoked wild Atlantic salmon.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Wedding Bells are Ringing!

Shanti and Alan in Salem last summer
One of life's great mid-life adventures is to witness the marriage of your children.  As millennials postpone marriage until their mid-thirties, it seems like it will never happen.  But when the announcement is finally made, the joy is worth the wait.

Islington Town Hall

We fly to London on Wednesday for our oldest daughter's wedding.  Shanti Kelemen and Alan Hampson will tie the knot in the Mayor's Parlour at the Islington town hall on Saturday afternoon.

Her sister Skyler from Boston, Uncle Steve from Portland, and John and Babette Hampson from Australia will also join us for the ceremony.  Afterwards they're having a small party for 25 at a pub (the Pig and Butcher), and an after-party and dancing at a nearby bar.
The Mayor's Parlour--their venue

Shanti and Alan met (guess) online four years ago. We're so delighted to have Alan and his parents join our extended family.  For those that don't know, Shanti is a senior portfolio advisor at Coutts Bank and its presence on Bloomberg TV and  CNBC.  Alan is an IT security specialist.  We love Alan and the comfortable chemistry he and Shanti have together.  They are fitness fanatics, go to a lot of big name concerts, and love adventure travel.

The Pig & Buther
We leave London Sunday morning for 10 days of independent travel to Scotland.  The wedding will no doubt be the highlight of the trip, but we're reminded of a friend's recent Facebook post that has rung true for us over the past 41 years:  "It's not the wedding, but the marriage that counts."

Shanti, Alan, John, Babette, and Kathy last July

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Japan: Between the Cracks

Small, but we wouldn't want to
drive it on narrow Japanese roads
Not everything we experienced or observed in Japan fits into the narrative of the day.  Some topics need their own mini blog or at least a photo. So here are a few things we found interesting during our three-and-a-half week trip there.

Everything in Japan seemed small to us, and we're not big people.  Cars, RVs, hotel rooms--you name it--they seemed small to us.  What wasn't small?  Our meals.  While the individual tidbits of food were small, they were numerous, making for huge meals.  And the ramen bowls were more than we could eat.

More arrived after this photo.  (You can see more Japanese
food porn by clicking on the link at the bottom)

Ubiquitous and smart vending machines
Vending machines at the Golden
Pavillion in Kyoto
The Japanese seem obsessed will vending machines.  We'd find them in the middle of nowhere, unprotected, even near trailheads and bike scenic viewpoints. They sell everything--hot or cold coffee, snacks of all kinds, and even beer in some locations.  In an earthquake, they all unlock to that people can have access to food and water.(And the beer, too?)  We used one in an alley noodle shop in Kyoto.  It spit out a ticket, which we took to the 10-person lunch counter where our soup was served.

Other than Singapore, Japan is probably the cleanest country we've ever experienced, including the US.  Litter is nonexistent, but so are trash cans.  Everyone is expected to keep their trash with them and dispose of it at home. But cleanliness goes beyond litter.  One doesn't wear shoes inside a home and is expected to use special slippers when using the bathroom.  You shower before you soak in the tub.

The bathing stools, buckets, and showers
before entering the soaking tub

Regular and bathroom slippers

No discussion of cleanliness or Japan would be complete without mentioning toilets.  We miss them so much!  The hotels, inns, convenience stores, train stations, and some rest stops have high tech bidet toilets, with male and female settings, where the pressure and water temperature can be adjusted.  (Jokes can be made here, but I'll refrain.)  Many have heated seats and some have blow dryers!  It took awhile to figure them out because there were no instructions in english.  The women toilets in public places often start making loud water trickle sounds as soon as one enters the stall, as Japanese women feel embarrassed by the sound of their own peeing.
Note the sink above. The grey
water from hand washing fills
the tank for the next flush

Wall mounted toilet instructions.  Can you guess which
bidet button is for men or women?  Which one flushes?
Many restrooms have
baby holding seats
while you do
your business

Bowing and Waving Goodbye
We found the custom of bowing amusing and pervasive.  And the same goes for the vigorous  waving-goodbye sessions by our hosts until we are out of sight.  We were greeted at the inns with a bow.  The cashiers bow and accept our money with both hands. People bow to one another in the elevators and on the trail.  I thought it was classy when the train conductor bowed deeply to all the passengers as he left the car, exiting backward through a sliding door.  But the winning bow award goes to the two airport workers with the big flashlights directing our plane in Tokyo out of the gate and onto the tarmac.  After our plane was pointed in the right direction, they waited for it to start moving, holstered their lights, took a deep bow, and vigorously waved goodbye with both hands until we couldn't see them anymore!
At the Kyoto RR &
Subway Guilt Emporium

Every train station, airport, and subway shopping mall has what we call "Guilt Stores" or "Obligation Emporiums."  Gift giving is important for every occasion, special or not.  Since most people live in very small houses and apartments, beautifully packaged food items are a big hit.  The boxes contain elaborate pastries, seaweed, cakes, saki, whiskey, crackers, raw sashimi, and more.  With more samples than Costco on a Saturday, it was a fun way to snack and drink.
Outside our Inn on Miyajima Island

Food Displays
Most of the menus where we ate didn't have English in them.  But rest assured, we ate well.  Many of the restaurants in tourist areas had elaborate plastic models of what they served.  It's quite an art form.  We may not have known that we were about to eat raw pickled fish eggs, but at least we knew what they looked like.  Going through convenience and grocery stores was a blast.  So many snacks to try!  Some were delightful, some were forgettable.  You never knew until you bought the bag and tasted the contents.

This deer knew how to work
the sliding doors  to our inn
at Miyajima Island
Sliding doors
Other than doors to rooms in western-style hotels, nearly every door we encountered was a shoji screen or a sliding door.  Many were automatic and fast, like on the Starship Enterprise or on the Shinkansen (the bullet train).  But some weren't, or they opened too slowly, creating some confusion and an occasional collision with one.    

Cell Phones and Selfie Sticks
Seen in train stations
and tourist areas
Speaking of collisions, more than once we bumped into clueless cell phone addicts on busy streets or subway stations.  It seemed like everyone had one and used it constantly--but not for talking.  In fact, phone conversations are not allowed or at least discouraged on railway and subway cars and busses.  We traveled with an international wifi hotspot and used phones for downloaded maps from and Google Translate. (It was great when it worked, and humorous when it didn't!)

Most train stations and many of the more popular tourist sites now prohibit selfie sticks. (YES!) Too many people trying to star in their "It's all about me" movies were creating hazards, blocking views for other photographers, and holding up the flow of the large crowds. 

Background and wake-up music
It seemed like every noodle shop and sushi bar in which dined played jazz, mostly smooth jazz.  There must be something about ramen that brings out the inner Miles Davis.  Our roykans (traditional Japanese inns), were a different genre altogether.  We were often awakened at 6:00 am to a music box rendition of  Edelweiss.  The loudspeakers in small villages or temple areas also played Bavarian chime music at noon.

"Feeding the bird"
Typical purse/bag basket
A lot of places didn't accept credit cards, so cash was king.  The bills were easy to understand, but the coins were complicated.  So when making a small purchase requiring change, we simply held out a handful of coins.  The clerk would pick away at them to get what was needed.  Honesty was never a problem.  We had one clerk chase us down a half block because we had overpaid by a few cents.

Purse Baskets
And speaking of honesty, we saw women leave their purses on tables in coffee shops to go place their orders.  They weren't worried, nor did they need to be.  Since eating and drinking establishments were small and crowded, most of them had baskets under the tables for one's purses, backpack or umbrella.

But wait, there's more....
We could go on, but we won't.  Let's just close with saying it is a wonderful and unique place to visit.  The people, while not outgoing, are unbelievably helpful and courteous.  They stand in neat lines and obey the crosswalk signals.  It's clean and modern. You can drink the water.  It's efficient, down to the minute.  The food is fantastic if you're not squeamish.  The countryside is beautiful.  The onsens (hot baths) are so civilized!  Many of the signs have English lettering at the bottom, and the major trains have English announcements.  Tipping isn't expected, so that brings down the cost of meals and services. Oh, and don't forget the toilets! We'll be back!

Some of the tableware for our final feast in a
family-owned ryokan in Kagoshima

Click here if you're into Japanese food porn.

Click here for a "few" photos that hopefully captures the essence of our trip.  

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Yakushima--Saving the Best for Last

At Shiratani Unsuikyo gorge
Wetter than wet, greener than green, beautiful beyond measure.  That's how we would describe Yakushima National Park on Yakushima Island.  It's a 40-minute hydrofoil ride from Ibusuki, our last place by Mt. Kamion.  Its Japan's first World Natural Heritage site.  Unlike the rest of volcanic Japan, this island is made of granite.

Officially one of the wettest places in Japan, it gets over 13 feet of rain per year.  We got to experience that on our first day of hiking.
This makes Olympic National Park
seem very arid and sparce

It was hard to decide whether to get wet from sweating in our rain gear, or wet from the warm rain.  Either way we got wet, but we smelled better with the rain method.  But we didn't care because it was so beautiful and we had to watch our footing.

Our slippery path in many parts

One of many old cedars

A mother stump

Giant cedars, some over 2,000 years old dotted the path.  Others were gigantic stumps, giving birth to more trees of differing species.  Many of them were logged over 1,000 years ago by peasants, paying their taxes to feudal lords in cedar shingles, rather than rice.  Getting them down the mountain to the coast was quite an undertaking, and we walked along some of their "sidewalks."

Ancient "sidewalks" used by
women carrying shingles cut
by the men
One of many bridges
On our second day of hiking we lucked out with one of the few days of the year it doesn't rain here. We ascended nearly 2,000 feet from sea level on a narrow road, then climbed about another 1,000 more for a stunning vista above the rain forest.  Along the way we crossed a spectacular gorge came across the area where Disney animator haymow Miyzazki found inspiration for the scenery in Princess Mononoke.

So many waterfalls, only so much
room to post them here

One of the areas where Disney artists
meticulously copied for Princess Mononoke 

View from Taikoiwa (Thunder) Rock

We descended the peak to a beautiful river where some of us went for a swim in clear, icy water.  Then we followed an old narrow-gauge logging track back to waiting vans.

 Deep, clear, and cold swimming hole with azaleas 
The Japanese version of rails to trails

Part master chef, part

The hosts at our traditional inn (a royakan) went out of their way to prepare us a feast each night with stuff we hadn't had before, like barnacles, pigs feet, and bamboo shoots.  Smooth jazz played in the background. The proprietor was quite the fun-loving character.

This was taken before
the pigs feet arrived

A feast of feasts!

View from our inn and our hot soaking room

Yesterday we returned by plane to Kirishima on the Island of Kyushu, with the intention of exploring the crater lake of Onami, 4,200 feet above sea level.  However a series of eruptions closed the area off.  We actually heard one and saw the plume.  So we walked around a shine, one of oldest in Japan, with some remnants dating back more than 2,000 years ago.  Kind of anti climatic, but we got an early start to our soaking and our farewell partying.

outside the party room

After our last hike on our 12th day of hiking.
Is this a civilized country, or what!

This turned out to be a wonderful trip, both our first independent part and with the Sierra Club hiking part.  Lots of physical activity, unique things to see, unusual food, fun and compatible traveling companions, and a hospitable country.  We made some new good friends.  Above all, we had two outstanding local guides from Walk Japan and two well-organized volunteer trip leaders from the Sierra Club.  Thanks, everybody for making everything so fun and special!
Volunteer leader Todd, local guide Mario,
volunteer leader Joyce, and local guide Ben. Mario
was born here, educated in the States.  Ben moved
here from the UK abut 11 years ago.
You can see more photos by clicking on this link.  Enjoy!

 Be sure to catch my next blog in a few days entitled "Japan Between the Cracks."  It will be about things we found unusual or interesting, but that didn't fit the narrative of the previous blogs.  I promise you it will be a fun read.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Kyushu Island: Volcanoes, Samurai, and Kamikazes

Kappa, a water spirit on the steps of
an old Samurai home in Chiran
Another day, another hike—a very comfortable rhythm, yet every day and every hike is different.  And so are our culinary experiences.  We’ve left the ancient Buddhist trails portion of our trip and have been exploring the volcanoes and beauty of the rest of Kyushu Island.
Kyushu, Japans, largest southern island.
We started at the top, and now we're
south of Kagoshima, near the bottom

Five days ago we enjoyed the luxury of spending two nights in the same place at the hot springs resort area at the base of Mt. Yufuin. The climb to the top of it was well worth the seven hours it took to ascend 800 meters and descend 1200 back to town. We lucked out with perfect weather.

Mt. Yufuin in the distance
View from near the top of Mt. Yufuin

We only had one really long bus day, coupled with a train ride.  It took us down to the bottom of one of the world’s largest calderas at Aso, (12 miles across and 18 long), complete with rice paddies, two cities, and multi-story apartments.

The giant caldera at Aso

Then we ascended 500 meters to the rim on the other side for a hike among the azaleas to the top of Mt. Eboshi to view the active Mt.Naka volcano. The azaleas were spectacular!

View the way to Mt. Eboshi 

After a bullet train ride we spent the night in Kagoshima, the third largest city on Kyushu Island.

We woke up the next morning to find the city streets dusted with gritty volcanic ash from an overnight eruption of Mt. Sakurajima 20 miles away.

Mt. Naka blowing off steam

One of our regrets about this trip is that we just couldn't work the Hiroshima Peace Park into our itinerary.  However, we may have made up for it in a small way with a visit the next morning to the Peace Museum for the Kamikaze pilots, located in Chiran, the site of a former Japanese Air Force base. Kamikaze means "divine wind," from over 1,000 years ago when typhoons wiped out two invading Chinese navies.  It was both fascinating and highly emotional. We saw the artifacts and photos of all 937 pilots, including some translations of their poignant last letters to their parents, wives, girlfriends, and children.

The Kamikaze Peace Museum
Many of the pilots were only 17 and had never seen combat before, but they had been training since the age of 14. No one, including their commanders, suspected months earlier that they would be flying such desperate last-ditch missions in the battle of Okinawa. Many didn’t want to go and were scared, but their honor and duty were more important then their own lives. I wonder if soldiers and airmen of the Allied forces felt the same way on the eve of Normandy, bombing missions over Germany, the invasion of Iwo Jima. Perhaps, but they at least had a glimmer of hope that they might survive. The Kamikaze pilots didn’t.  Only 10-15% hit their targets, but nearly all of them died.

At a Samurai garden near Chiran
Nearby we visited a well-preserved Samurai village dating back to the the 1600s.  This was the "Edo Period" of peace that lasted for about 250 years.  The Samurai got bored of all that peace stuff and focused on gardens and geishas.  The Kappa water spirit at the top of the post was on one of the steps to a home.

We ended the day with a climb part way up Mt. Kaimon, the “Mt. Fuji of the South.” This was the last glimpse the pilots saw of the Japan mainland as they tipped their wings and headed and headed toward Okinawa. The hike was hot and humid in lush foliage and volcanic rock.

Mt. Kaimon, the "Mt. Fuji of Satsuma"

View from part way up Mt. Kamian
We ended the day in a resort town with hot mineral baths.  Our inn had several of varying temperatures, including ice-cold.  Nice!

Click here for more photos.

Getting ready to "sabo-sabo" pork in Kagoshima

The mother of all sashimi in Yufin

Mario, our guide and
tabletop barbecue expert