Friday, April 30, 2010

Before I went to China I took a quick weekend up to Nikko with my good friend Marie (pronounced Mah-ree-ae).

Nikko wasn't really on my radar of places to visit in Japan until I read a book on early Japanese American relations and it said that the must see sights for early American tourists were Nikko, Fuji, and Kyoto. So on Friday night we hopped on the overnight bus to Tokyo. After breakfast at McDonald's (and some freshening up in the bathroom) we took the train from Tokyo to Nikko. Then it was another bus to see Lake Chuzenji where we wandered around, shopping and visiting a local temple.

Lunch on Saturday. Nikko is famous for yuba-soybean paste dried and rolled into noodles.




On Sunday we got up and made our way to visit the famous Tosho-gu temple. It differs from other Japanese temples in its ornate decorations and colorful carvings. Since it was a holiday weekend it was packed but we still had a nice time. We even managed to do a little geocaching.









I like how someone created this small turtle. :)


After the temple we headed over to the Kinugawa Onsen area to try some more modern attractions. The first was a maze. The told us that the average time to get through it is 40 minutes but if you made it in less than 20 then you could have a free drink afterwards. Marie and I thought we were way above average and we totally had this. Then we got in there and realized we would be lucky to make it out in under 40 minutes. We got through in 43 minutes.

At the start.

This is when we realized that this wasn't going to be easy.

DSCF0895 DSCF0896
A give up door and a sign saying we went the wrong way.

Then we went to the Trick Museum. It wasn't really a museum but they had lots of paintings on the wall that played with perspective. They encouraged you to take lots of different and fun pictures. We only had an hour before they closed and even though we could have definitely stayed a lot longer we took advantage of the little time we did have. It was really really fun. After the Trick Museum we grabbed dinner and then found a hotel that had an onsen. Our feet were aching and it was nice to soak and relax.






Monday morning we woke up and caught the train back to Tahara. Tuesday I went to work and Wednesday I caught a flight to Beijing. I'm almost caught up on my travelogues, but not quite yet. I still have the Ninja Festival to post about and Monday I'm going to Hamamatsu to see the Kite Festival and Tuesday I leave for Seoul, South Korea for 4 days. So much to see and so little time. Sometimes I think 3 months is too long to wait to go home and other times I wonder why I didn't re-contract to stay another year.

Back to Beijing

After another 12 hour train ride we arrived back in Beijing. There was more staring but that was nothing compared to the taxi line of DOOM! We waited in line with hundreds of other people fresh off the same train as us.

Let me start by explaining that in Chinese society the idea of queuing up is not as natural as say in countries like the US or Japan. Most places there are no lines. My mom kept getting flustered and irritated when she would try to politely wait only to have people push right by her.

So we come to this line which was only enforced by two metal handrails to corral us all. Pushing was still part of the game but in this crowd it only got you so far. At one point there was no part of my body save my face that was pushed up against someone else. It was like a huge group hug except with strangers and luggage.

After finally getting a taxi and arriving back at our hotel, Dad and I headed back out to see the hutong. These are old traditional neighborhoods that are quickly disappearing and being replaced by high rises. The Lonely Planet was very sentimental and made them seem like they were quaint and picturesque. In truth they were a maze of dirty narrow streets with closed doors and very few hints of what lay behind them. We took a rickshaw tour which was ok. We negotiated a really low rate which was good because I would have been irritated to have spent more money just to see the little that we saw. It might have been grumpiness left over from the taxi line of DOOM but neither Dad or I were impressed.



That night we went to an acrobatics show. And that was far from disappointing. After the Great Wall this was the next thing I was really excited for. Mom almost smacked me on the subway ride over because I decided she was not exhibiting enough enthusiasm for the show and tried to pump her up. (She still wasn't feeling well at that point.)

The show itself was awesome! They had lights and fogs. They sold popcorn and icecream. And the bendiness...oh the bendiness of those Chinese acrobats. They had 12 girls on a bicycle. They had two guys running around in a ring of death. And we had front row seats for the whole 1 1/2 hour extravaganza. Sadly, they didn't allow pictures so here's a shot of the three of us before the show started.

Forbidden City

The last day Dad and I headed back out without Mom to see the Forbidden City. Not surprisingly it was a lot less crowded on a Thursday versus Sunday. Members of the royal family lived here and were not allowed out. Certain people were allowed into the first two thirds of the city but only eunuchs, servants, and royals were allowed in the inner court. It was beautiful although I will admit after awhile all of the courtyards started to blend together. The audio guide was nice though. It was full of stories of palace intrigue and scandals.

Forbidden City

Forbidden City

Forbidden City
One of several throne rooms

Forbidden City

Forbidden City
The royal "climbing wall." The emperor and his concubines climbed this for fun in the spring.

Forbidden City

They have this clock exhibit inside the Forbidden City. You have to pay extra but it wasn't much so we shelled out and went in. We actually timed this for 11am so that we could see the clocks go off. A wonderful plan except that we didn't realize there were two rooms in the exhibit and only discovered where the clocks went off the last 20 seconds of the last clock. Cue my Dad's sad face. Oh well he still enjoyed the other clocks. I have kindly chosen only 3 pictures to show you out of the dozens he took in there. ;-)

Forbidden City Forbidden City

Forbidden City
This one was cool because this little man writes a Chinese character on the hour.

After leaving the Forbidden City we went across the street to the park and hiked up the hill to see a view overlooking the palace. But not before Dad excitingly pointed out the moat. I tried to tell him there was a moat at the front where we came in (and had crossed over 3 times before during other trips to Tienanmen) but he didn't believe me.

Forbidden City
Look! There's a moat!

Forbidden City
The view overlooking the Forbidden City

Forbidden City
He really liked that moat. ;)

After lunch we headed back to the hotel where we spent our last night relaxing and packing. We had one last lunch with our new American friends from earlier in the week and then it was off to the airport. Mom can mark the Great Wall off her bucket list and I didn't have to wait a whole year between seeing them both.

Saturday, April 24, 2010


After 12 hours on the overnight train we arrived in Xi'an and met up with our tour guide for the day who took us out to see the famous Terracotta Warriors. First we watched a video that looked like it had been made in the early 80's, not too long after the site was discovered, and then we got to meet the farmer that actually found them. And by meet I mean we bought a book and he glanced at us and then signed it for us.

This Chinese peasant farmer, whose picture we unfortunately did not get, had been earning the same meager existence he had before he found the treasure trove for many years after until President Clinton came to China for a visit. Clinton requested that during his visit he have his picture taken down among the Terracotta Warriors and that he get the autograph of the farmer who had discovered them. The only problem was that the farmer was uneducated and unable to write his own name. So the government sent him some tutors who decided what characters he should use and how to write them. He's been signing his name ever since.

On a side note, Clinton was also the only person to ever have his picture taken down among the soldiers. Even Chairman Mao had his picture taken from the observation platform.

Once we had our autograph we moved to the first warehouse that protects the biggest group of warriors from the elements. They estimate that there are about 6,000 warriors housed in there, but only a small percentage have been reconstructed. Even still there were enough reconstructed to instill a sense of amazement. They say that each face is different, modeled after a real soldier. And every last detail is sculpted, even the tread on the archer's shoes.

The first pit was the largest


The Terracotta Warriors were commissioned by Emperor Qin who declared himself the first emperor of China in 221 BC. The warriors were meant to protect his kingdom from any invaders or usurpers in death. They all face east which is in the direction of where Emperor Qin's enemies and defeated lands lay. There are generals, infantrymen, archers, and chariots. Only the horses and iron pieces of the chariots remain. The wood has long since rotted away. The warriors were also painted at one time but as soon as they excavated and the figures were exposed to the open air, the paint disappeared. The archeologists are now working on techniques to excavate the remaining pits in such a way as to preserve the colors.



After checking out the Terracotta Warriors we had lunch and then headed back to our hotel in Xi'an. We decided to explore the Muslim Quarter for dinner after being told that very good and very cheap food could be found there. We wandered around until we found a place that wasn't too crowded but still had a decent amount of people in it. The menu was overwhelming and lucky for us one of the waiters spoke some English so we convinced him to order for us. We ended up with cold sesame noodles, some spicy chicken, and a cooked cabbage dish, all of which were delicious. It was way more than we could finish and even with me ordering a beer the bill only came to roughly $8. It was like that almost everywhere we went in China. If you went to a McDonald's or a Starbucks you could expect to pay roughly the same as you would back home but if you were adventurous and went in a Chinese establishment then the prices dropped dramatically.

After dinner, we toured a traditional courtyard house that also had a shadow puppet show and perused the market. Back at our hotel we enjoyed spectacular views of the Bell Tower.

The Muslim Quarter at night.

The view from our hotel room.

The next morning mom, who had been feeling sick the last couple of days thanks to the pollution in Beijing, woke up feeling horrible. So Dad went out to see another nearby tomb while Mom and I slept in and checked out late. I ran out in the late morning to get her some medicine and was surprised to be offered a Z-pack at the pharmacy. I didn't buy it then but we did go back later and bought it for her and some more antibiotics for me to take back to Japan because doctors here seem disinclined to prescribe a full 10 day dose and I get sinus infections on a regular basis. (The last time I got 4 days worth.) It cost me less than $2!!!

Once we met up with dad we went back to the Muslim Quarter to do some more shopping, see the Great Mosque and have some lunch. The mosque was of particular interest because unlike any other mosque in the world it is built with Chinese architecture rather than Middle Eastern (although those elements are also present, they are more subtle.) All the flowers were blooming and it was really a lovely place. And the fact that in order to get to it you had to go through these small back alleys crammed with shops made it even more romantic.



In the market on the way back from the Mosque.

Birds for sale.

Before we caught our train back to Beijing we went in the Bell Tower, where we saw a short show featuring traditional Chinese music and I got to ring the bell three times. Dad also tried his best to get a picture of the city wall (the only city left in China that still has a wall intact.) The Bell Tower was traditionally used in the morning to signify the start of the work day and the drum tower down the street (which we didn't go in) signaled the end of the day. Both were impressive. We could hear the bell being rung by tourists from our hotel but we never did hear the drums.



Looking down to the main gate of the wall.

And then it onto the train station for more staring and another 12 hour ride back to Beijing. We all three agreed that we wished we could stay longer in Xi'an.

Next up: The taxi line of DOOM, the hutong, acrobats, and a huge photodump of the Forbidden City.