Peru

I’m not sure how many trip reports I’ve started with, “I’ve wanted to go to X place for ages…” Having a penchant for travel and adventure, a bent for research and planning, and a desk job with access to the internet make it a very long list. I have planned literally hundreds of trips that may or may not ever make it onto these pages, but, I have been planning a trip to South America since I was 19..almost since I started planning trips! Here’s a map I drew in my journal planning my route way back then:

South America

But life gets in the way and after years of research and planning and saving and stalling, I never made it farther south than Costa Rica. My problem was that I was trying to see it all at once, everything from Cartagena to Tierra del Fuego, and preferably on a motorcycle. It’s a trip that I still hope to do someday, but it will take months and thousands of dollars, so I decided to start with one place: Machu Picchu.

Peru

LIMA

Machu Picchu was top of my list for South America and it got us to Peru but I’m just not going to go all that way and only see one thing. So we landed in Lima and got ready to eat – Peruvian cuisine has become world-renowned in recent years (much more than Pisco and ceviche now!) and so we planned to feast at Central, Astrid y Gaston and Maido – the 4th, 14th and 44th best restaurants in the world, according to some.

Maido

We booked the restaurants before we booked our flights and somehow I didn’t go back and check the dates – meaning that I scheduled our meal at Central a week too far in advance. The Horror! But the host found us a spot in the lounge and disaster was averted. It was absolutely incredible and we’ll be keeping an eye out for more opportunities to eat there. Maido was even more amazing, if that’s possible, but Astrid y Gaston was a bit of a disappointment. Very luxurious with some excellent dishes but unfortunately not consistent.

Maido

Because we were staying in Miraflores (an upscale, safe suburb of Lima), and because we had travelled so long to get there (left the house at 5:30 AM and got to out hotel at 2:30 AM the next day) we didn’t go to as many museums as I would have liked but we did visit the Plaza de Armas and went on a monastery tour of Santuario de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad with its mouldering library of books from antiquity – untouched since WWII, beautiful courtyard and a depiction of the Last Supper with cuy (guinea pig) for dinner and Pizarro as Judas. It was beautiful but the all the stray dogs, some of them dead, were just heartbreaking.

And the traffic was incredible – 30 minutes by cab to get across town – so we spent some time lazing around the hotel and exploring the Barranco district nearby. Bohemian and busy, we were reminded of Madrid; everyone out on a Saturday night, taking wedding photos, strolling with babies, recording music videos, practicing guitar on a bench and of course eating and drinking. We stuffed ourselves with ceviche and Pisco sours and then it was time to hop on the plane.

Peruvian textiles

CUSCO

I was terribly worried that Cusco was going to be a tourist trap and almost regretted how much time we had to spend in the city but on arrival we found it to be a gorgeous city, full of history and culture and warm people. Before we noticed any of that, however, we noticed the altitude. As soon as we came out of the airport we swooned, and I wondered if that was the Hawthorne Effect or a combination of our fatigue and being out of shape. After some coca candy, a nap and some altitude pills we were feeling alright but still trying to remember to breathe deeply, walk slowly, etc.

Cusco

Cusco was the Inca heartland and the stone walls still form the foundations of the city but everything else has been taken over or topped by the Spanish. Qurikancha, the sun temple was the most important site in the Inca empire. Dedicated to the sun god, it was filled with life-sized gold statues but now not much of it is left –  only a few rows of stones topped with the Santo Domingo convent. It’s sort of is a miniature model for Cusco itself, full of beautiful Spanish colonial art and architecture with Andean flavor. Our hotel was a retro-fitted Spanish mansion with meandering hallways, surprise courtyards and fountains and the walls were covered with with religious oil paintings. It felt a lot like Granada.

Cusco

Our first night we wandered around the historic centre, saw the incredible Inca stonework and the famous 12-sided stone as well as the Plaza de Armas, then ended up on the patio at Papacho’s (a burger place owned by Gaston Acurio) on the square. It was a bit chilly but watching all the people and dogs and Andean woman with bundles of weaving and alpaca rugs was just the thing we needed. I had a drink with tumbo (banana passionfruit) that was too tropical for the Andes but really delicious and Matt had his first coca tea – not realizing that although it is much weaker than cocaine it is still definitely in the stimulant category and he was going to have trouble sleeping.

Peru

I could have spent days longer in Cusco, climbing up the hills to the Sacsayhuaman ruins and the San Blas neighbourhood (I saw them later) but once we had acclimatized to the altitude, we were off in search of motorbikes.

Dirtbiking

MARAS 

So many people told us that we needed to explore the Sacred Valley but the options we had were all by bus; wake up at 5 AM, see all the sites and get back to Cusco by dark. I am always conflicted by bus tours; you get to see the sites but you pay in advance for a set itinerary and if you want to stay longer you’re hurried on to the bus and if you want to skip something, you can’t. Eventually I found a place that rented dirt bikes for super cheap and we made our own plans.

Maras

Well, it wasn’t quite that easy. First we had to explain that we wanted two motorcycles – that I would not be riding on the back of a 250cc dirt bike at altitude – and then we had to go and pick up the second bike – in the back room of the proprietor’s house, up the stairs, on a street dug up for construction. But eventually we were on the road and heading out to explore the Sacred Valley. First stop, Maras, the ancient Inca salt flats that are still being worked today.

Getting out on the bikes was amazing! It was Matt’s first time on a dirt bike and the altitude affected the speed quite a bit but travelling through small towns, walls painted with slogans from various political parties, llamas grazing all over the place, women selling textiles at high altitude markets….and of course the backdrop of the Andes. It was thrilling. When we got to the salt evaporation ponds, we walked down and took a look around, then got back on the bikes and went on to explore more of the valley. We ended the day by signing some house purchasing documents at the hotel and celebrating with a round of pisco sours, our new tradition.

INCA TRAIL

We had brought our backpacks as luggage with us to South America, but as the time arrived for us to set out on foot, we stashed books, shoes, our nice clothes and whatever else we thought we could do without into a bag that we left at the hotel, then filled up our water bladders and got the weight adjusted on our backs. We had wanted to walk the Inca trail to Machu Picchu rather than taking the train and once that decision was made it hadn’t occurred to us that we wouldn’t carry our own gear. We found out later that most people opted to carry day packs and have a porter take the rest.

After being on the bus for hours getting to breakfast and the trailhead, the pack weight felt good and we bounded along the rolling “Inca flats,” stopping to learn about the cochineal beetle on the prickly pear cactus from which carmine dye comes, the angel trumpet that is used by shamans in a hallucinogenic tea or to visit with the Andean families (and their dogs) at the rest stops. It was hot but not very strenuous and we were both delighted and annoyed to find our porters setting up the tent for a hot lunch. It seemed unnecessary to be stopping for so long, so soon, but not even a few hours later we were glad of the pace.

Glacier

Our guide was excellent and we learned that Machu Picchu served as a royal estate for Inca emperors and nobles, as well as an important crossroads for trade and Inca trails criss-cross the Sacred Valley (and the Inca empire, from Santiago to Quito) but the one we were following was meant for royalty. The Inca venerated nature and stone – mountains were objects of worship – so they chose the path that went the highest into the mountains to be close to the sky and one that followed the valley without destroying anything. Lucky for us that meant straight up.

The Urubamba river follows the same path as the milky way and the Inca trail to Machu Picchu starts at 82 km close to Ollantaytambo, passes the Patallaqta ruins, and then climbs up through the high jungle to Dead Woman’s Pass (Warmi Wañusqa) at 13,700ft. Day 2 was spent almost entirely gaining altitude. When we got to the pass after climbing all morning we could still see the campsite where we had started out that day.

Matt

We were exhausted and moving so slowly, dragging ourselves up on our hiking poles, chewing on coca leaves and gasping for air as we got closer to the pass but having only gained a space of about 30ft at the summit, we almost immediately started the trail down. Up 3000ft in one day and then back down another 1000 before making camp.

Inca Trail

Machu Picchu was fairly remote, even in Inca days, but a series of relay runners were set up to deliver a message from Cusco in only 6 hours. On special occasion, fish could be brought fresh from the sea in about 16! Because of the distance and the speed of the runners, the Spanish never found out about Machu Picchu. They only got to about Ollantaytambo (where we started our hike) and from there, bridges were destroyed, the trail was covered and the Inca royalty escaped to the jungle.

Our third day of hiking was the “scenic” day where we stopped at the site of several ruins but at times it seemed only to alleviate the constant descent. My toenails! My ankles! My knees! In many ways it was worse than the ascent but maybe only because I hadn’t accounted for the difficulty. The experience of hiking the trail was so worth doing but Matt and I agreed that without a doubt it’s the hardest thing we’ve ever done.

Machu Picchu

MACHU PICCHU

On the last day we got up at 3:30 AM – not to see the sunrise from the Sun Gate, as we had originally believed, nor to be the first at Machu Picchu, but because the train for the porters leaves before 5 AM and they had to run down the mountain to meet it. I cannot believe that with 500 people on the day every day that a better arrangement can’t be made, but maybe the tourists are just too tired when they get home to advocate. We were able to walk to the end of the campsite but couldn’t go further because the checkpoint doesn’t open until 5:30 AM. Standing there in the dark, someone joked that we waiting in line in the dark on Black Friday but otherwise we were pretty quiet, waiting for the last stretch.

Machu Picchu

This was the last, “easiest” day and we were buoyed up by the fact that Machu Picchu was only a few hours away but we were beat and before we got to the Sun Gate we needed to climb on hands and knees up the Inca “staircase” and try to keep from falling into the valley (some 6000ft) below while hikers jostled past. But we made it and the first glimpse of Machu Picchu through the mist was still magical in spite of all the photographs that exist.

We were awed and wowed by this city in the clouds. Watching the mist cover and reveal the city it seemed as special as it has ever been – to the Incas and to Hiram Bingham when he ‘discovered’ it and every morning with every new batch of visitors. That the Incas build such a monument to stone and sky so beautiful and so remote is incredible, but that it has survived virtually unharmed after more than 500 years is astounding.

The city has about 200 buildings, with a quarry and farming terraces to support it, high above the Urubamba river, although archeologists still say that there would not be enough infrastructure to sustain a completed and populated city there. But in one hundred years there was a quarry built on top of the citadel (to bring the granite slabs down to where they were needed, instead of up), terraces, houses, and several temples. The most special parts of Machu Picchu are the Inti Watana, the Temple of the Sun, the Temple of the Condor and the Room of the Three Windows.

The Inti Watana translates as a place to “tie up the sun” and on a certain day it is a marker for the sun. Similarly, the Sun Gate lines up with the Temple of the Sun with mathematical precision. For our part, it was just neat to look back on it and see how far we’d come only that morning, never mind that week.

Our amazement at the ruined city was tempered by our fatigue, hunger, pain and stench and hopped on the bus that would take us down the hill to our hotel in Aguas Calientes. Cruel joke that Matt had booked us into a room without an elevator and we groaned as we climbed up to our room on the third floor, quads aching.

Cusco

The rest of the trip was spent recovering; thermal baths, reading, wandering around Cusco and drinking pisco sours. My mom asked me today if I would go back and I would without hesitation. I’d love to see some of the other ruins and to climb to the top of Huayna Picchu. I’d even do the hike again, although maybe a different path.

Andean family

See all the photos here.

Also, check out the story I wrote for Steller stories:


Koyasan (Japan)

Koya (10)

The slow train out of Kyoto chugged into the suburbs and then out into a patchwork of rice paddies and bamboo groves. That dappled green blur turned to a darker hue as farms gave way to forest and at the end of the line I traded the train car for a funicular that took me 800 metres up the side of Mount Koya in about 5 minutes. Exciting the cable car, I lurched a bit (whether from the uneven sidewalk or the sudden change in altitude) and found my way onto a bus for the next phase of my journey up a winding mountain road. The mountain, called Kōya-san in Japanese, is a sacred Buddhist site started in 805 by the monk Kobo Daishi. It has been an important pilgrimage destination for many years but now it is also a UNESCO-designated area with 120 temples, a small town, a university, the largest rock garden in Japan and Okunoin – an enormous cemetery that has been growing up around Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum. After my kaiseki ryōri meal at Yuzuya Ryokan, I was interested in staying in shukubō (temple lodgings) and eating shōjin ryōri, the vegetarian food cooked for and prepared by monks so I planned to stay a few days to explore.

The road was so narrow that we had to pull off the road and come to a complete stop so that the oncoming bus could squeeze past, and even then the road jack-knifed so severely that one miscalculation would have sent a vehicle right down to the train station below. Arriving at the gates to Kōya-san, we were met by a large stone Buddha standing guard in a red robe and a promotional banner advertising the site’s 1200th anniversary next year. 1200 years! For several minutes, I was agog at the sheer age of the place but also at the determination of the early pilgrims. This was decidedly not an easy place to get to even in the modern age so their journeys would have been long and treacherous. I learned later that women were banned from the town’s temples for a significant part of history so in order to pray at Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum they had to take an even more dangerous and remote route through the mountains.

Once we were inside the gates the town lost its aura of remoteness. It was both bigger and busier than I expected and we picked up people from bus stops and passed shopkeepers closing up for the evening, dragging in shelves of prettily wrapped products. There was a large pagoda-shaped temple looming over the road and demanding attention with its red beams, blue kanji, and gold-painted wooden lanterns lining the entrance, but other temples were small, humble, and set back from the road. Most had some kind of gate with paper lanterns to welcome guests and as we drove past I tried to catch a glimpse of the gardens and temples inside. In the driveway of one, I saw a monk sweeping leaves into a circle with s straw broom – a Zen exercise.

Koya (9)

At Ekoin, the monastery I had chosen to stay at, there was an ornate wooden gate carved with swirls and accented with copper pieces. Through it, I could see a pond in the garden surrounded with stone sculptures, stubby trees, and rocky outcrops rising up to the main temple up above, as well as a row of potted lotus plants lining the driveway.  A young monk ran out to greet me and took me to my room on the first floor. As at Yuzuya Ryokan, I stored my shoes in a cubby and put on borrowed slippers to enter the room which was sparsely decorated with tatami mat flooring, a low table with a tea set, cushions, an alcove with a scroll and sadly, another television. A blue and white cotton yukata (pajama robe) was hanging in the corner for me to wear to the bath and paper screens opened onto a small patio with a wicker chair and a serene scene; fragrant cedar trees, rocks with scrub trees and mosses, and a fountain bubbling in the pond. I sighed happily. It had felt like quite a journey but I had the satisfaction of one who has reached their destination and was looking forward to dinner and a bath.

Koyasan

DINNER

Shōjin ryōri is vegetarian but the Shingon Buddhism sect also prohibits eating root vegetables – potatoes, carrots, onion, garlic, etc. – and dairy is not frequently consumed in Japan so I was intrigued about what my “sumptuous feast” would entail. However, I was not in the least concerned. At this point in my journey, I was well aware of the culinary reach that was possible and had eaten all manner of delicious things I never knew existed. At the monastery, dinner is served in your room so at the appointed hour a trio of young monks arrived at my door carrying lacquer boxes that were unpacked to showcase an incredible meal – three trays each containing smaller containers and beautiful ceramic plates laden with delicacies, as well as the staples; rice, tea, soy sauce, and a special fall harvest beer. I didn’t know where to start!

On the main tray in front of me was steamed rice, pickles and clear soup with radish cakes floating in it, and some unidentified assorted vegetables which my menu suggested might consist of: Japanese radish, perilla leaf, wakame seaweed, Chinese yam, sword bean flowers, bayberry, raw konjac and vinegared miso sauce. Having eaten very few of these ingredients prior to my trip to Japan (I didn’t even know what konjac was), I was out of luck, but I enjoyed them thoroughly….a combination of a little bit salty and a slight tang from the vinegar and miso. The next dish was a simmered dish with snow peas, chestnut, young corn, shiitake mushroom and yuba (dried soy-milk skin) which I devoured, feeling grateful for all of the variety but also for the small portions. The final dish held tofu in sesame oil. This is something I eat fairly often at home but here I really relished the texture of the tofu and the nuttiness of the oil as I marvelled at all of the different types of food and methods of food preparation in front of me.

Koya (1)

I tried to pace myself but I as swapped the main tray with the second tray (allowing myself a few minutes to get out of the kneeling position to try and regain some feeling in my feet) I realized that I was already starting to feel full. Yikes! But quitting wasn’t an option – the tray in front of me now held hassun – a delicious fried dumpling with Chinese yam and candied Japanese plum, assorted tempura with sweet potato, shishitō pepper, laver seaweed, pumpkin and eggplant – and I dug in. There was another simmered dish that contained Kōya-dōfu, a local delicacy of freeze-dried and reconstituted tofu with rolled kelp, wheat gluten, and more snow peas. The next day I saw some for sale in one of the shops and was tempted to buy some but I realized I had already bought too many treats and still needed some room in my luggage for presents.

My feet had completely fallen asleep by this point in the meal and I was starting to groan under the weight of all that food but I saw that the third tray held delicate soba noodles with soba sauce in a beautiful ceramic container, a bowl of dark brown hijiki seaweed, and a couple of pieces of fruit, and I realized that of course, the order of the trays contained perfect pacing. The third tray was cool and cleansing and not that difficult to finish, especially with some tea and the last of my beer, so I swapped trays again, ate up and then laid myself out on my tatami mat, relieving my aching legs. In Japan, children are taught to sit on their knees from an early age so they are quite used to this position but after weeks in Japan, I was still only able to do about 5 minutes at a time. I could have easily had a little nap on the floor but the monks were coming back to pick up the trays and I still wanted to visit the graveyard.

Koya (6)

OKUNOIN

To call Okunoin a graveyard is the most grievous kind of understatement but that’s what I thought I was going to see when I set out in the dark after dinner. I knew that the sun had set and that the moon was still nearly full (I’d been at the full moon ceremony the night before in Kyoto) but I hadn’t really counted on it being so incredibly dark. There were some streetlights and a couple of lights on in the town but as I walked and walked and walked and wondered when I was going to get to the main gates, and then wondered if I had taken a wrong turn out of town, I couldn’t help being a little uneasy. But I eventually arrived at the gates and the ubiquitous washing station with its stone fountain and bamboo ladles.

I’d been walking for about half an hour at this point and didn’t have a map with me. I had no idea where the mausoleum was but I figured I’d walk along the path for a while and see what I could see. That turned out to be not very much… there was a promenade that seemed to be relatively new as all of the tiles were level and no weeds growing through the cracks. Along the sides were some stone lanterns typical of the but several were burned out and a few inches behind them all I could make out was shaggy undergrowth and the occasional outline of a statue in the moonlight. I kept walking but the farther I got into the cemetery, the more scared I got but I couldn’t figure out why. Because I was in a graveyard? Ridiculous. At night? No. Did I hear drums in the distance? Certainly not. The possibility of dengue fever? Maybe that one…a couple of tourists had gotten it at a temple in Tokyo a few weeks before my trip. But no. The two men who fell in behind me? Ordinarily, this would have put me on my guard, especially combined with the cemetery, remote mountain top, darkness and my incredibly poor footwear but come on, this was Japan! One of the safest countries in the world and not only that but a MONASTERY in Japan. I kept walking. Eventually, I did give up and turn around because I was an hour away from my bed and still hadn’t really seen anything.

Koya (5)

The next day I learned that I had taken the wrong fork in the road and walked almost to the far end of the Okunoin, unknowingly passing hundreds and hundreds of graves as I pressed on in the dark, and also that while it is an incredibly holy and serene place, Okunoin is still a little bit creepy in the daytime. I probably wouldn’t have come in the dark if I had seen it first but in the fresh light of morning I could hear woodpeckers hammering away and calling to each other and the smell of cedar and moss was lovely. From the main path I had walked the night before were all kinds of trails and dirt paths leading off into family complexes (marked by mossy Torii gates) and forest. Some of the cedars must have been big when the site was created because they are ancient now. I found one huge statue almost knocked on its side simply because a cedar tree bigger than I could put my arms around had kept growing beside it.

Koya (8)

The site is sacred because Kobo Daishi is believed to be in eternal meditation in the temple but throughout history, people have buried their families and loved ones close by (or set up a monument) so that when he wakes up, he will be able to revive them as well. But the oldest monument in the cemetery was constructed in the year 997 and there are hundreds more covered in moss and crumbling. This place is OLD and it feels as though the stone has in some way started to return to the earth. In places where new marble has been used its newness feels jarring…like being polished is an affront somehow.

In spite of its age, it’s evident that this is a busy place. Some of the newer monuments have been erected by corporations (a sure sign of the times) and pinwheels are stuck in the ground close to monuments for children, turning slightly in the cool air but never getting up enough movement to rid themselves of moss. Small statues of the Jizo Buddha (a protector of children, pregnant women, and travellers) are everywhere, dressed in knitted toques and aprons with offerings of coins and flowers. I had seen these Jizo Buddha at Hase-dera temple in Kamakura and a fox variation at Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto but there was something unsettling about seeing hundreds of these statues at Okunoin, tucked into the nooks of trees or piled up to cover all the sides of a huge pyramid – all in various stages of decay. Later I read here that “In ancient times it was thought that children who died could not go to Heaven because they had caused great sorrow for their parents. Therefore grieving parents would wrap articles of their children’s clothing around Jizo statues and ask the Jizo to find their children and guide them to Heaven. Over the years this evolved into a tradition of wrapping a red bib around the Jizo when asking for any sort of favor.”

The Kobo Daishi Gobyo mausoleum is very serene and clearly very sacred. To get to it, I crossed a little moat (to an area where no photos are allowed). Monks in saffron robes were sweeping the ground around the Great Hall and inside several people were sitting in silent meditation. Beautiful.

Koya (3)

MORNING SERVICE & FIRE CEREMONY

When I got back to my room at night, the monks had cleared away my trays and set up my futon on the floor with a pillow stuffed with buckwheat. I’d slept on this setup a few times by this point on my trip and it was always very comfortable so I keep wondering why it needs to be more complicated than that. I’d been sleeping pretty lightly because of all the strange noises and walls made of paper, but I’d forgotten that I was at a working monastery – soft chimes called the monks to prayer at 4 AM, then again to call everyone else to morning service at 6:30 AM. In case anyone managed to sleep in, Muzak blared out the speakers all over town at 8.

The morning service was at the temple on the hill behind my room but as I’d arrived too late for afternoon meditation the day before, I hadn’t seen it yet. After exchanging my sandals for slippers at the cubby, I came around to the main hall where we were greeted by two monks in black robes and purple overlay with a pattern of circles with vertical crosses on them. We knelt in front of a shrine with candles and an incense burner and a small statue of Buddha and the monks started chanting. Behind the shrine was a deep hall with many more altars and candles and banners of red silk hanging from the ceiling.  Then the monks added gongs and cymbals to their chanting and a priest in black robes with a gold overlay came out to stand in front of the altar. He gave a short sermon in Japanese that sounded as though it was rattled off rather quickly but the only people still kneeling nodded appreciatively and we were invited to add a pinch of incense to the burner. When it was time to leave we followed the monks around the hall, bowing to the Buddha and then heading back out into the courtyard where we would attend the fire ceremony.

The Goma fire ritual also happens every morning as part of the monks’ service. In the evening guests are invited to write a prayer on a piece of wood and bring it to the office to be burned in the morning. As we filed into the smaller temple after the morning service one of the monks was seated at the shrine carefully setting up the materials for the fire. He had put on a saffron overlay for this part. While he built the fire in the brazier another monk started steadily drumming. The flames got higher and higher the drumming became faster and faster and then the prayers were added which caused the flames to lick up a bit higher but the climax was when the monk added a bit of oil to the fire and the flames reached almost to the ceiling. It’s quite close quarters in the fire temple and the drumming, chanting and flames are quite sensational. Here’s a short video clip:

https://www.flickr.com/photos/degan/15271729481

Koya (2)

BREAKFAST

The monks brought in trays of steamed rice, pickles, tea, miso soup (made with wakame seaweed, wheat gluten and Japanese honeywort), crispy dried laver seaweed to wrap around pinches of rice, deep-fried soybean curd with vegetables, marinated vegetables, grated Chinese yam, and wheat gluten boiled in soy sauce. It was amazing.

After breakfast, I explored the town and tried to taste as many traditional Kōya-san delicacies as I could find. One specialty was a green paste filled with adzuki beans and wrapped in a banana leaf (a bit slimy and not overly sweet) but my favourite was yakimochi – a rice dumpling filled with black bean paste then fried on a griddle. I had heard that pressed sushi wrapped in persimmon leaves was a specialty of the mountains (because the persimmon leaves help preserve the fish) but I couldn’t find it at any of the shops. I was sad to leave Kōya-san because with all the ancient history, culture, religion and natural beauty that come together here it was certainly a highlight of the trip.

Kamakura (Japan)

Kamakura

In Spain almost all of my journal entries started with “OMG, it’s so hot” or “I’m melting!” and when I think back to riding around the country on motorcycles in thick leather, the heat in Japan shouldn’t even phase me but OMG, it was so hot! I now understand why every shop sells tengui – beautiful and highly useful handkerchiefs – and why every woman in Japanese art is holding a fan. What I don’t understand is how people – especially the coiffed women –  manage to hold it together wearing stockings or suits and carefully done hair in weather that made me want to stay in my air-conditioned hotel room all day. But for all the chic people walking around Tokyo without noticing the heat, at least some of them were with me on the train to Kamakura – a beach town about an hour and a half south.

I wasn’t going to visit the beach though – in fact, I didn’t even go to it. I wanted to see the Great Buddha. When I was a kid I was obsessed with Greek culture and desperately wanted to go to Athens but my mom was afraid I would turn it into a beach vacation and just party the entire time (so she sent me on a home exchange to rural France instead). I feel like she would have been satisfied with my Kamakura itinerary though – in the 2 days that I was there, I saw 5 temples and 3 shrines and the only time I even saw the sea was from the top of the Hase-dera temple complex.

Kamakura Buddha

That was too bad but I loved the Great Buddha, beautiful and serene and sitting out in the open after a tsunami destroyed the Kōtoku-in temple in 1498. In Tokyo so much felt new and modern. Even the Asakusa temple complex was mostly rebuilt after the war. Kamakura has been a temple town since about year 700.

Hase-dera

Next, I went to the Hase-dera temple, a Buddhist temple dedicated to Kannon (goddess of mercy). The literature I was given says that according to legend the monk Tokudō found a camphor tree so large he thought he could carve two statues with it. One went to Nara and the other was launched into the sea, letting fate decide where it would end up. It washed ashore close to Kamakura and the temple was built to house it. The statue of Kannon was impressive but what struck me even more were the statues of tiny buddhas lined up everywhere like a little army. They are statues of the Jizo Bodhisattva who helps the souls of dead children to reach paradise, and they are everywhere, covering all the landings as you climb up and up and up, with potato chips and flowers and candles left for offerings.

Kamakura

That night I stayed in a traditional guest house with gorgeous post and beam construction, a traditional sandpit stove and teakettle, and tatami mats. At night we unrolled our soft futons in a communal female room and laid out pillows that are stuffed with adzuki beans. There was no air conditioning and I thought I was in for a sleepless night but it’s amazing what can be done with airflow in a house made of screens, and both the pillow and the bed turned out to be completely comfortable. I was amazed to see so many women travelling by themselves too. Japan is notoriously safe (one of the reasons it won out over several other destinations for me) but the only man in the guesthouse was one that worked there. The rest were solo women travellers, some who had been on the road for months at a time through many countries, others travelling in groups from relatively close by in Japan.

It was wonderful to be in such a welcoming space after the masculine no-nonsense business hotels of Tokyo and I would have loved to stay for a few days to get into the rhythm of it but there were temples to see and I don’t know if I could have lasted that much longer without A/C.

Hōkoku-ji

The next day I went to Engaku-ji, Kenchō-ji, Tōkei-ji (the “divorce temple”), Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū, and Hōkoku-ji (the “bamboo temple”). Engaku-ji and Kenchō-ji are the darlings around town, huge monastery complexes rated #1 and #2 for Zen temples in the area. I was impressed by the many outbuildings and gardens but without having an opportunity to sit for a meditation session, most of it was lost on me. Instead, I preferred Tōkei-ji which got its start as a refuge for battered women and was instrumental in cementing Japan’s divorce policy because they considered women to be officially divorced after staying there for three years. Hōkoku-ji is called the “bamboo temple” because it is housed in a grove of enormous bamboo. Most of the grounds are closed off but there is a teahouse and sitting drinking a bowl of bitter matcha tea while the green light filtered through the bamboo down was serene. I felt closed off from the world and so calm…which I guess is kind of the point of a temple.

Lotus

Most of the temples I had been to so far are Buddhist but I loved the Shinto Meiji-Jingu shrine in Tokyo and Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū (also Shinto) was my favourite site in Kamakura. In Japan, Buddhist temples are noted by the -dera or -ji appended to their names, and shrines are jinja. I love the orange Torii gates and flags leading up the path, the shrine maidens in their white robes and the various activity stations. At Tsurugaoka I wrote a prayer for peace and happiness on a horse ema (a wooden plaque that is hung up with the wish on it for the gods), and I bought a fortune by shaking a cylinder with numbered chopsticks in it – the number of the one that falls out corresponds to a drawer with your fortune in it. Fortunately, my was both a good one and included an English translation, so I kept it with me. If you get a good fortune you’re supposed to save it and if not then you tie it to a fence and say a prayer. I also purchansed an amulet to ward off senility. Later I learned that each shrine and temple has its own stamp and calligrapher so I bought a calligraphy book and had it inscribed as well. I was tempted to backtrack to the temples I had already been to that day but instead, I worked on filling it up in Kyoto and Koyasan, and it is one of my most treasured souvenirs from Japan.

Calligraphy

There is some crossover in the history of Shinto and Buddhism and there are also many similarities in the way people behave at the sites. Most have a purification area near the entrance where bamboo ladles are laid out on a fountain. To purify yourself, first you pour water onto one hand then onto the other, then rinse your mouth from the water in your hand and pour the remaining water out into the drain (not back into the fountain). Inside a Shinto shrine, you swing a heavy rope pull to ring the gong get the god’s attention, then throw a coin into the (insanely loud) offering box, bow deeply twice, clap your hands twice, bow deeply once more and pray for a few seconds. For someone who was raised to be as quiet as possible in church, this all feels quite noisy and public and jovial and I loved all of them.

I found out later that I had effectively come in the back door, that this shrine is the darling of Kamakura and a wide tree-lined street leads up to it from the train station.

Wedding

As I came up to the main pavilion I saw a wedding! The groom was wearing a kimono and the bride was in white, wearing the traditional hat that my guidebook says is designed to hide the woman’s horns until after the wedding (!). The musicians sat on the side of the pavilion and were dressed in turquoise robes but everyone else stood outside, many dressed in beautiful kimonos – although there seemed to be as many professional photographers as guests at the wedding. Apparently part of the ceremony includes a shrine maiden dance which I missed but I did get to see the procession down to the main street where their rickshaws were waiting.

Postcard from Tokyo

Tsukiji

It’s become very fashionable for people to describe Tokyo as a hectic, crowded place absolutely teeming with people and positioned squarely in the future. A host / author / blogger / yelper goes to dinner at the fighting robot cafe and then to a pachinko parlour and then maybe eats some fugu before passing through Shibuya crossing at rush hour on the way to Kabuki-cho, the frenetic pleasure district. This kind of thing. You hardly ever see the Meiji-Jingu shrine, with its 100,000 trees, or the wide, empty streets of Ginza on a late weekday morning. It took me two entire days to get to Tokyo, during which time I passed through the rice paddies of Incheon, Korea, industrial areas around the Seoul airport, vacant lots of Narita and then along the partially closed expressway to arrive at Tokyo station. Later I would have a near panic attack at the number of people pushing through the station and the utter lack of coherency of the train schedule, but arriving by bus in the middle of the day and walking to my hotel I marvelled at the quiet emptiness. When I had settled into my hotel I sat down with a cold beer and wrote this:

“Tokyo is a big city, yes, but there are plenty of green spaces and the pace isn’t as fast as I expected. The expressways are impressive but there are homeless people sleeping under them, like in any city. And there are expensive hotels and restaurants to be sure, but there are plenty of cheap ones too. It feels a bit like Manhattan to me so I think what I’m surprised about is the lack of culture shock that I was bracing myself for.  But maybe the things that make it feel almost recognizable are the same things that are masking cultural mysteries. The department stores are like museums where you are not supposed to take photos and where you’re wasting everyone’s time if you don’t know what you want. The city is immaculate but there are no trash cans anywhere. Everything is in Japanese, except for some English words that catch my eye then end up being entirely random. The city is not built on a grid, the address scheme is almost incomprehensive, and street signs are rare. If you do find what you’re looking for, there is another level of impenetrability inherent in the manners and etiquette. Every man is wearing the same outfit; white undershirt, short-sleeved dress shirt, black slacks and shoes, black laptop shoulder bag – the uniform for some kind of office-worker army”

Victoria Abbott Riccardi expresses something similar in ‘Untangling My Chopsticks’, “things seem so easy until you try to understand them. An American acquaintance now living in Tokyo said that after his first week, he felt he could write a book about the country; a year later, only a magazine article; after fifteen years, only one sentence.”

Ramen

For dinner my first evening I went back to Tokyo station for ramen at “Ramen Street” – a collection of ramen shops where you order from a machine and have the option of paying with your metro card. I had some trouble with the order of operations (as well as my first realization that things were not going to be as simple as they seemed) but the ramen was delicious and deeply comforting – and I decided to be satisfied with the success of having arrived in Japan and fed myself. At one point during my trip, a friend had emailed and said she thought I was brave for travelling in Japan by myself. I hadn’t given it much thought because back when I travelled often, it was frequently by myself and I like the freedom to spend as long as I like in a museum or occasionally eating lunch twice without forcing anyone onto my schedule. But if I had thought about it, about the fact that it was my first time in Asia or in a place where I knew only a few words of the language and none of the alphabet, my first time travelling alone in quite a while and after a hard year of set-backs that knocked big holes in my confidence, I’m not sure if I would have been so cavalier about it. I wrote in my journal, “this is hard. Other times when I’ve travelled, I leveraged beauty or money or knowledge (language, geography, etiquette) without even realizing it but now I have only the internet and the kindness of strangers.” The kindness of strangers started well before my trip, with people offering all kinds of suggestions for things to see and do and eat. Friends reached out to friends, my landlady introduced me to someone she knew in Tokyo, and people everywhere were offering to help. Part of this is the Japanese culture – the importance of being polite and a gracious host is evident everywhere – but as I sat eating my ramen that the person behind me had helped me order, it was good to be reminded that people are kind and the world is a beautiful and interesting place.

Tsukiji

The next morning I had an early morning wake up call to check out Tsukiji Market, followed by the early morning sushi breakfast at Sushi Dai. 

I wrote on my food blog (now defunct):

I thought I would cry at the fish auction. I was actually prepared for the possibility that I might have to give up eating fish, so anxious am I already at the dire strait of the oceans. The sight of so many tuna lined up on the floor didn’t unhinge me, but the understanding that this was the second series of auctions that day and this happened almost every day of the year made me feel faint. However, as much as I am passionate about ocean conservation and sustainable fisheries, it was hard to be angry here.

I hate that we are fishing tuna out of the water. I hate that Japan is still whaling, I hate that there was a mountain of Styrofoam and all this is juxtaposed against the love I have of diving and undersea life, but instead of being angry, I felt intense respect for these workers, readying their shops every day at 4 in the morning and doing their best to move food through the market in spite of the tourists who come to gawk at them. Awe at the sheer diversity (not only of fish but produce too) and beauty in the market as well as the frantic pace of bikes, pedestrians, cars, vans and scooter carts trying to get the fish delivered as quickly as possible.

In short, I thought it was pretty neat, even before I ate the best sushi of my life.

Sushi

Matthew Amster Burton writes in Pretty Good Number One that ‘Tokyo is not beautiful but is full of beautiful things’ that really resonated with me. I had no desire to climb the Skytree but every side street I looked down had a shop or restaurant that I wanted to check out…paper lanterns moving about softly in the breeze and bells tinkling invitingly, or a display of something so specialized you could hardly believe the shop could stay in business. The beauty here is in the details; a pair of hand-carved cedar chopsticks made with love and incredible attention to detail then wrapped in such beautiful packaging it looks like a treasure. Or wagashi, Japanese confectionery, handled by glove-wearing attendants in the glamorous depachika department stores that are so detailed and beautiful that they really are edible gems. Matt asked me in an email what I had seen that was beautiful and I replied that everything was beautiful – from the police motorcycles to tengui handkerchiefs, everything has been hand-crafted thoughtfully. And the attention to detail shows through in the service as well. I sat and watched a doorman at a shop changing the position of the doors at closing time to lead outwards instead of inwards and I was ashamed for every mall in America.

Asakusa

I only had a few days in Tokyo but I took my metro card and ranged far and wide. I went to the Asakusa Buddhist temple complex, wandered around and snacked on street food. I had the best sushi of my life again and I walked from the serenity of the Meiji-Jingu Shinto shrine through Harajuku down into the insanity of Kabuki-cho in Shinjuku. Kabuki-cho is the pleasure district (in another city it might be called the red light district) and there are a couple of strip bars here but there are also Maid Cafes, video arcades, pachinko parlours, photo studios where you can be digitally glammed up, and who knows what else that got missed in translation. Arriving in Kabuki-cho at rush-hour and getting caught up in the sea of commuters spilling out of Shinjuku station felt like the Tokyo postcard that I described at the start of this post. I explore for a while and then continued back up under the station where I found the warren of yakitori joints and izakayas.

Shinjuku

There must have been 30 different places, all specializing in something different and most so small that the proprietor was grilling on the windowsill facing the street then passing meat down to patrons. The smell of smoke (from the grills and from all the men off work smoking cigarettes while they drank) united the area called Nonbei Yokocho (Drunkard’s Alley). My guidebook warned that some entire places are reserved for locals and I thought this was just code for “not friendly to foreigners” but then I saw a reserved sign hanging across the doorway of one shop.

Some shops were specific to noodles and others were dedicated to yakitori. I also saw some mushrooms and something cut in a half-circle (zucchini?). I had fun walking down an alley and looking in the front doors and windows of the restaurants, then turning a corner and being able to see in the back. Finally, I decided on a place and ordered the set menu – which meant that I had no idea what I was eating. My best guess is pork heart, chicken skin, chicken thigh, wingtip, negi (similar to a fat green onion) and some other kind of pork. I thought how funny it is that many people are scared to eat here and don’t worry about the etiquette because they don’t know a thing about it but for me, it’s the opposite – I chewed happily on my mystery meat and didn’t really care to know more.

Drunkard Alley

Later I met up with a friend of a friend, a fellow travel-lover and a decidedly awesome person, and we went to a grill-it-yourself izakaya in the area. She ordered for us but it was easy to identify the giant scallops (as big as my hand), huge turban snails, sashimi and crab with quails eggs in them ready to be cooked. We sampled sake and shochu and chatted about all the amazing places in the world. Then suddenly it was so late and we ran to catch the last train, smelling of smoke and grease and grinning broadly. 

Snacks

In the morning, I left for Kamakura.

Prague

Charles Bridge

After Kiev, Prague felt like a fairy tale. Not a candy-coated Disney one with all the princesses, but more of a dark Brothers Grimm style, with something a bit sinister in it. The book I’m reading cautions about applying too much myth and mysticism to the city but it’s hard to avoid. Walking from the Hradcany castle district, over the Charles Bridge to the old town (a walk that I did every day I was there, for various reasons), there are secrets and mysteries tucked into every corner; in the almost unpronounceable language, behind the ornate house insignia  in the upper old town, and of course in the architecture.

Hradcany

Prague was one of the few cities in Europe that was never bombed or burned and so you can see how the city has grown over time; Gothic, then Baroque, then Renaissance, then Neo-Gothic, then Modern…all crammed up against each other. Like most European towns, there is a castle on the high ground but in Prague, the castle is a relatively modern addition and really more of a palace so what you see towering above is instead St. Vitus Cathedral.

We were staying in Smíchov, a non-touristy neighbourhood about 40 minutes away from the Stare Mesto old town / downtown and while there is a good transit system in place, I like walking so I just walked into town along the Vlatava river every day, and then up to the Hradčany castle district. I didn’t mean to go every day…the first day we were exploring as a group and then the second day I went to spend more time on my own. Later I went to check out the Loreto of Prague, a baroque Catholic church and cloister and Strahov Monastery, with its grand library and Cabinet of Oddities a little farther up the hill but it got so that I enjoyed the slow transition from bustling everyday working Prague, through the dog park and past the art gallery along the river to the Charles Bridge and then into the tight meandering and steep streets up to the castle, and so I just kept walking.

Tyn Church

The main square is a beautiful spot, with Tyn Church (above), the  Astronomical clock (below) and Town Hall, several street food vendors, a Baroque church, a carriage stop and many restaurants.

Astronomical clock

I had seen so many pictures of Charles Bridge before I arrived, and I delighted visiting it at all hours of the day, seeing different types of people coming and going – both across it and along the river.  One magical evening I was rushing to try and catch the golden hour light on the bridge for some photographs. I just missed it but saw that glass-harp player Alexander Zoltan was setting up in between the artist stands and could not help but stay for a bit of his performance. He played ‘Air on the G string’ exceptionally well – on water glasses! and when he was finished, I saw that the lights had just come on on the bridge and a full moon was rising over it, white swans gliding silently by underneath, and lovers leaning into corners. I got an ice cream cone and walked home the long way.

Charles Bridge

Similarly, on one evening we ate dinner on a patio in the square and as the light got dimmer and dimmer, I kept taking “just one more photograph” of the beautiful black powder towers until I had amassed quite a collection.

Strahov Monastery

Another favourite stop was the Strahov Monastery library at the Loreta of Prague. The chapel and cloister were closed so I missed seeing the statue of St. Wilgefortis in the chapel of Our Lady of Sorrows which made me so sad, but I did get to see the library’s Cabinet of Curiosities. The cabinet of curiosities is the precursor to modern museums with their collections of oddities. I’d never seen one before and I was surprised to see that more than half of the collection was marine-related, including many extinct species. This collection came to the monastery from the estate in 1798 when Prague’s access to the sea would have been very limited, so it makes sense that there would be a fascination with those kinds of objects.

Weddings

FOOD

Czech food is ridiculously heavy and clearly meant to stick to your ribs; goulash (gulášovka) with both bread and potato dumplings (knedlíky), fried cheese (smažený sýr), sausage (klobása), Prague ham, lots of pork and other roasts, fruit dumplings (ovocné knedlíky) and lots of beer. There is occasionally a vegetable, although it’s usually cabbage. It all comes in enormous sizes and quantities and costs virtually nothing so it’s hard not to over-order every single time – especially as it was also almost universally delicious. I had read an article before we left about a regional specialty involving marinated head cheese and Matt was trepidacious but even that turned out to be tasty.

On my last night, I had to order something that I’d seen on all the menus but hadn’t had the stomach space to order yet – a Bohemian pork knuckle braised in beer with apple horseradish, mustard and pickled vegetables. It came to the table on a tray, an absolutely massive thing with a knife simply sticking out of the top of it. I did my best but if we lived in Prague that would have come home with me to be an entire second dinner.

Trdelnik

There is a strange round pastry called trdelnik (above) which is sweet dough wrapped on a roller and dusted with sugar and almonds before being cooked over an open flame. It’s usually sold on the street and there are trdelnik shops all around the old town so we had it a couple of times.

Patio

Czechs drink more beer per capita than anyone else in the world and so it’s easy to come by. The beer is as plentiful (and as enormous, and as cheap) as the food and I truly don’t understand why everyone here isn’t obese or at least very stout. Pilsner Urquell and seems to own this town – with their buddies Budvar and Staropramen – and every square has at least one (but usually several) patios filled with umbrellas and signs indicating the particular brewery loyalty. But the real fun is in the beer halls.

Beer

U Fleků beer hall is the oldest in Prague and seats 1200 people. It reminded me a lot of Hofbräuhaus in Munich, although here their only beer is a special 13% dark beer that they’ve been making since they opened in 1499. It’s not heavy or overly flavourful, just nice and strong and the guy with the tray comes by often, handing them out to anyone who makes a move. There was also a choice of honey or herbal “aperitif” that turned out to be a shot, handed out by an adorably pushy waiter and a series of rotating accordion players, including one that looked like Super Mario.  I also spent some time in U Černého Vola (a tavern where the decor is medieval, the beer is good and dark, and the barmen are the appropriate combination of friendly and surly) and U Medvídků.

Ossuary

I took a trip out to the small town of Kutná Hora, east of Prague, to see the Sedlac Ossuary (a.k.a. the bone church). The ossuary has 40,000+ bones stacked in the basement of a church in beautiful formations. They had been dug up from surrounding lands (that were to be used for something else) and brought to the church where they were washed by a half-blind monk and later they were arranged ornately.

Kutná Hora is an old silver mining town that dates back to the 10th century. It had the deepest mine in the middle ages – 500m deep – and the only way in and out was by climbing up and down a ladder single file. A mint was created and all that silver coming through town meant that it was the second richest city in the Czech lands. It competed with Prague for centuries during which time they built a gorgeous Gothic cathedral (that still has Gothic and Renaissance paintings on the wall), a beautifully decorated Gothic home and even a Gothic water cistern. As the town became richer they moved the town hall to the Italian Court with intricately painted walls (especially in the gorgeous – but no photos allowed! – Chapel of St. Wenceslas) and built a promenade reminiscent of the Charles Bridge in Prague.

Cesky Krumlov

On our last day, Matt and I went to Český Krumlov, a small town that is designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. Like all towns, the castle is front and centre but being so close to the Austrian border and at the valley’s entrance leading to Prague, this one is actually quite well fortified. The castle uses the river partly as a moat and sheer walls rise up from the water. There are live bears that are still kept at the gate, but mostly for tourist / historical purposes.  Inside, the walls are painted to look like architectural details, a technique that I liked but Matt found distracting. The town was full of local pubs and we spent the evening exploring several along the river.

Cesky Krumlov

We loved Prague and Czech and can’t wait to go back and explore it some more.

Charles Bridge