Friday, November 25, 2005

White Christmas

Japan, apparently, loves Christmas. The shopping avenues and department stores are almost indestinguishable from their American equivilents at this time of year, and the shoppers seem to dig it. The slogans are almost all the same as in the states, and they're written in Enlgish. Huge Christmas trees have sprung up in the public plazas and luminescent snowflakes abound in downtown Osaka. Every chrismas carol from "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" to "Joy to the World" is heard in every form in the large stores. I can almost forget where I am sometimes, which is a momentarly dip into surreality.

As was Kyoto, when I left it last thursday the 17th for a week long getaway armed only with a couple changes of clothes and a week long Japanese rail pass. The pass cost around 255 dollars American but I used it well over 800 dollars worth of tickets. Here's a rundown of how I spent the week.

The Northenmost of the four main islands of the Japan Isdland chain. We decided we wanted to see a good mountain and some snow before we took off for tropical malasyia, and we were rewarded. We settled on making reservations at a youth hostel in the town of Makkari, which isn't really on any map. To get to it you have to ride several tiny trainlines up from the southern penninsula, get off at a town called Niseko and then take a bus 40 minutes south. The town had about 3 stoplights and was surrounded on the East, South and West by feilds. On the northside, however, was a pretty cool mountain which gave us a fun chance of winter hiking. When we got there, however, it had just finished dumping about a foot of snow on the area, so everything was covered with pristine white, giving the whole landscape a serene and austere and simple monochromatic quality that I'm sure would be found favorable by a Zen Ink Painting master. We walked around, found a good ramen resteraunt, and hiked into the forest enough to get a reasonably good view of the town and then turned back. Before starting back for town however, we took a couple hours to build what might be remembered forever in Hokkaido as the best snowman in the history of mankind. The whole thing was around 8 feet high and had a purely awesome face carved into it by none other than yours truely. The bottom section is about three feet in diameter, then next section weighing about 75 pounds. Constructing this uber-snowman, was a feat of both sheer ambition and astounding engineering skills.
Another thing that was nice about Hokkaido was the season. It was just a week or two too early for the ski season to open up, and a few months too late for the most hardy of the summer, warm weather hikers, so the whole joint was practically deserted. We saw maybe a handful of people on the streets in all the towns we visited in the area, and we were THE only tourist we ran into while we were there. The hostel was absolutely empty, meaning I got a huge, six person room, all to my self. Hokkaido, in a word, is amazing.

Our accomodations were pretty nice in our next stop, as well. We ended up spending two nights in Tokyo, which was more than planned but allowed us to visit the art museums that were closed on the monday we arrived into town on. The first night we stayed in the classic coinlocker business hotel with each room being little more than a cubic capsule just large enough to hold and bed and a desk, but was still privacy and comfort at a hostel price. The next night, we stumbled into a place about 5 minutes from a train station near downtown, that was out of dormroom style beds, so put us into a large family size japanese style suite at the dorm room price. We got pretty lucky again. Tokyo is said be a source of powerful culture shock to westerners expecting a western city, but really, after Beijing, Xi'an and Ulaan Bataar, Tokyo seems pretty tame. The night shopping avenures are pretty interesting, combining more neon than vegas, more wealth than new york and as much technology as, well, really as much as one would expect in Japan. We visited Yasukuni War museum, also, which is extremely interesting in that it illustrates with profund lack of subtlety the extreme rightwing attitudes in Japan that make most people of other Asian countries not like Japan very much. In our time in Japan it was more than clear that right wing attitudes and militaristic pride in no way dominated the political landscape, but in downtown tokyo it is true that there exist a national museum enjoying public support that recounts the events of the last 150 years with an unquestioning pro-japan bias. We also got a chance to visit the Tokyo Art Museum which was rather dissapointing considering that most of its most famous possesions are only on display one month out of the year. Imagine if the louve only displayed its collection of leonardo da vinchi only every february. I wasn't too happy.

We only spent an afternoon here, but it was well worth the trip. We enjoyed a variety of japanese streetfood that included deep-fried squid and sweat red bean stuffed pancakes. While wandering around we stumbled onto a preformance of Taiko drummers (which, admittedly, are extremely hard to miss considering that from any distance under a kilometer Taiko drumming sounds like someone shooting off artillarly next door). Of course, next we visited the site of the atomic bombing and the memorials attached to them. The immediacy and the intensity of this experience is beyond what I can desribe on the internet.

Interesting for its picterous views and historical temples. Also, its home to about 10,000 tamed and well fed deer. If you're anti-hunting, a trip to nara might change your mind.

Mixed Bizness

Just got back to stability after a week of travel around Japan by myself, and while I will have stories from that in just a few, I thought I'd take a chance, while I have a frieends pictures availible to me, and post some pictures from the trip so far for my family who has been so desperately requesting them. First lets start with an introduction to the group and a few of our Mongolian friends we madde during our 12 days in the Mongolian country side.

This is everyone in the group, plus a few additions. We have Enis (far left) and Christian (next to me on left) who are from New York and somehow connected to Elisabeth (our program director) through their parents in New York. They were traveling the continent, taking the transiberian railroad from Moscow to Bejing with a small stop with us in Mongolia. We also have Edwena, an friend of Elisabeth also from New York (the elder women on the right). On the bottom row center is the Abbott, as you might be able to tell from his bright red buddhist preist style Deel. You might remember him as the organizer of the trip to Hovsgol in Mongolia and general mystery man. Next to him on the right is an elder mongolian of some status local to the province we were in, he was a connection used by the Abbott to find us horses to travel some of the land in that area. On the bottom row far left is Damadorje, a young man who was the driver of the van I was in. He was either (A) MacGyver, for his ability to consistantly repair our horribly malfunctioning transportation or (B) a terrible machanic for allowing his car to break down about once every 5 hours of drive time. He did, however, rebuild a carborator in the Middle of the Mountain Steppes, but it did emit strong gas fumes that filled the van for the remainder of the trip.

The mountains behind us our covered in the first snow of the season (on October 10) in Mongolia that fell the night before (we drove through it, actually, at lower elevations). They are not that far away. River coming from a natural spring is flowing behind us down a gulley that isn't visable. The spring was about maybe 12-20 kilometers away, so we didn't trust the water for cleanness, but it was remarkably clear. It was hard to tell the difference between parts that were 6 inches deep and 6 feet deep. Hovsgol all in all is full of clear water, the Lake it self has well over 130 feet of visability, meaning if you droped a golfball in it, it would be a long time before you lost sight of it. We were able to sample the water directly from the spring a little later in the day. Supposedly it restores health to your liver, heart, kidneys or brain, depending from which spring you drink from.

Speaking of riding horses, I also have these shots. I don't know really how to desribe Mongolian horse riding other than the horses are small (as are most Mongolians) the saddles are cheap, uncomfortable and well broken in, and Mongolians tend to prefer horses that only go fast, breaking a horse to speed control is not a high priority. But they walk just fine and when you get the hang of them, galloping is fun. Mine (whome I called Clyde) was a rare one who did exactly what you wanted. Other were not so lucky. This shot is of a group of straglers which include Edwena, Nima (Elisabeth's Husband) on the far right, the Abbott on the far left, Christian in back and some Mongolians who owned the horses we were riding and made sure we wern't going to get ourselfs killed. Here's Julia, Jenna and Nicole (from left to right) riding off into the mountain peaks.

Also, speaking of the Van's we were riding in, here's a picture of one of them. The best Soviet engineering and Hungarian construction has to offer. Despite all the problems with the vans, they're still the only thing you will see on the "roads" outside of the Imars, or regional capitals. The reason is, of course, because they do not, in anyway, need roads.

Here's a shot of Barry, our professor in Mongolia, explaining something to someone, a favorite pastime of his. He was a really good guy to have around in our first country as he was extremely committed to our class, going on the road trip with us, sleeping in gers with us and even on multiple occasions inviting us to his appparment for pizzia and a movie. His natural curiosity has filled him full of Mongolia facts that showered down on us during our trips into this region, and since he is a professor of ecology and biodiviersity, he was a good one to have around when we started wondering "now how do you tell the difference between a marmot and a pika?"

So when you talk about having full access to you professors, going camping with them for almost two weeks in pretty amazing. Those are good Office Hours.

Here's a cow wandering through one of our geer camps. It happens.

Ulaan Bataar is full of temples belonging to sects of Tibetan Buddhism, and here's a monestery right in the middle of the south side of the city. When we found it, the first day back from our road trip, it had just finished a whole night and morning of light snowing. This was a good day.