Wednesday, July 31, 2013

This is Not a Bee

Ames, Iowa (Jul 27, 2013)

It is not the image of a bee either. It is some kind of bumblebee. The fact is, I have not seen a regular honeybee in my garden for years, now. They seem to have all but disappeared. In fact, they have.

The Colony Collapse Disorder is sending our friends the bees the same way of the dodo. It is not clear what is causing the disease, but it is capable to suddenly wipe out entire colonies (Pennsilvania lost 53% of its honeybee colonies in the 1995-96 season alone). This is an insect that is crucial for us: not just for the honey they produce, but because they are our main pollinator insect. For some species of flowering plants, the only pollinator. No bees, no fruit. It is estimated that bees pollination is responsible for more than $15 billion in increased crop value each year. And bees are disappearing at an alarming rate. While it is not entirely clear what is happening, recent research suggests that the culprit could be a class of pesticide, nicotinoids, that affect bees by lowering their immune response and affecting their homing abilities. These pesticides have been recently banned in some european states in an effort to try saving their colonies.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Monsters from Across the Pacific

Ames, Iowa (July 28, 2013)

I am not talking about a certain summer blockbuster movie where alien monsters surface from a portal at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. The alien monsters I am referring to come from all the way from across the ocean. They didn't arrive through an interdimensional portal, but most likely hitched a ride on a regular boat. Their size is quite diminutive, but their shiny armor is impressive anyway. They are the only thing from Japan that I genuinely hate: Popillia Japonica, or the Japanese Beetle!

The beast is in fact quite small (15 mm max, the photo above is a macro enlargement), but the small size does not make it less of a threat. As the name suggest, it is native to Japan, where it is just another cute bug whose population is controlled by natural predators. Not so in the US, where those predators are absent, making the popillia japonica a terrible pest. Probably introduced with a shipment of irises before 1912 (before routine inspections of imported commodities began), it is gradually taking over the whole continent. Four years ago, when we arrived in Iowa, I remember noticing just a few of them. In the last two years their number has grown so much that my garden is repeatedly invaded by hordes that have completely annihilated my favorite daisy flower-bed, and decimated the remaining ones. The beast acts by skeletonizing the leaves of the victimized plant (you know, artistically eating all the green stuff leaving only the network of dead capillaries). Well, despite the colder than usual weather of this summer, my roses are already starting to be skeletonized. If this was not enough, even in the larva stage they are a menace, as they eat the roots of the grass, leaving large dead patches in the lawn. I really hate them.

As I mentioned before, in the US there isn't much in terms of natural predators capable of dealing with this calamity. Stink bugs and blue wings wasp kill Japanese Beetles, but there isn't enough of them around to stop the invasion, by the hundreds, that reach my garden every day. I don't want to spray pesticide near my tomatoes (or where our dog can play), so chemical warfare is not an option. Biological warfare has some limited effect (the larvae can be killed by fungal spore dispersed in the turf), but to work effectively it would need to be applied to the entire town (otherwise I would just be getting the beetles born in my neighbors lawn). Traps with pheromone baits attract more of them than they can catch. In the end, the most effective way of getting rid of this menace is to pluck the monsters one by one from the victimized plants, smash them in minute fragments and scatter their assorted body parts all around the infested area. Gross, yeah, but it seems to teach them the lesson: don't mess with my garden!

PS: no Japanese beetles were harmed to make the photo above. I actually took pity of the bug, and didn't have the heart to squash it after seeing it straight in its multi-faceted eyes. After taking the photo I just picked it up, and freed across the street.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Princess that Loved Insects

Ames, Iowa (July 27, 2013)

One of my favorite authors is Hayao Miyazaki. I say author because his work go beyond animations. Miyazaki is a magician, capable of conjuring the fantastic worlds hidden inside us, that we lose growing up. Well, we never really lose them, they are just really well hidden, and a wizard like Miyazaki knows how to bring them back. When I am asked about my favorite Miyazaki movie I have a hard time to answer. Maybe Owl's Moving Castle, because of Sophie's strength. Or Spirited Away, because even putrid monsters deserve kindness. Or My Neighbor Totoro, of course, because I see him everywhere and I know I am never alone.

The truth, though, is that there will always be a special place in my heart for Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, the first movie by Miyazaki I had seen (whose manga I have read many times). Nausicaa is a princess who love insects, like the very unconventional lady in the XII century Heian tale. Nausicaa insects are enormous, the result of a human-made disaster that has rendered most of the world inhabitable and covered by a toxic jungle. Nausica knows in her heart (and by scientific experimentation) that the toxic plants are the agents of renovation in the world, and that the insects are the jungle caretakers. Together they are forces of creation, as opposed to humans that, even encroached by this environmental disaster, keep making things worse by pursuing war and destruction. Nausicaa is the one that restores the balance. 

What's not to like? When I was a little kid my parents brought me to a wedding that, as customary in Italy, consisted of a brief ceremony in the church, and an interminable lunch in some restaurant in the countryside. Naturally I got bored pretty soon and got permission to go outside to play in the restaurant garden. Earlier in the day I had noticed that people had been giving presents to the couple, and I was feeling a little sorry that I didn't have anything to give myself, so I decided to find something special for them. And something I found, and happily carried hidden in my hands, to the bride still sitting at the restaurant table. What I was not prepared to, though, was the weird reaction I got when I opened my hands: the bride had not screamed before, when receiving the presents from the other guests! Well, that's how I learned that not everybody likes bugs as much as I do, and beetles good wedding presents do not make. Who knew!

Friday, July 26, 2013

My Kind of Roads

Umbria, Italy (October 28, 2007)

My kind of roads does not go straight. To go from A to B it detours through Z, with all the alphabet in between. There is a bend in each letter, and you can write a novel at each stop. If it is in US, it is not very well paved. In New Zealand it would be unsealed. In Italy, it would be forgotten. In Venezuela it would be stolen by the last rains. It doesn't matter, it is still my road: a thread to be followed not to escape, but to get lost in the labyrinth. 

A cat in Bolsena
As much as I wish rail transportation was more developed in the US, my favorite mode of transportation is driving on small roads. When I am visiting a new place this is what I always try to do, if there is enough time and if renting a car is not prohibitively expensive. The reason why I like it so much is because if I am in a car on a small road I can stop. And I can stop a lot. There is always something new to see (and photograph), and some countries can only be fully understood by escaping the traffic of the large cities, to get immersed in the small towns in the hills and mountains. Such a country is Italy which, after all, still longs to be an agricultural society, and where the "entroterra" tends to be more interesting than the large cries and coastal resorts. There is a road crossing the Apennines in Umbria (the ancient land of the mysterious etruscans) that I really like, passing near the volcanic lakes north of Rome (where the romans were staging mock naval battles for the amusement of populace and emperors), and ending on the Adriatic sea coast. You find a lot of castles, in-between brick-and-stone villages with the best food ever. Cats are sleeping under the sun, and you can always feel the shadow of old ladies spying from behind the curtains, if they are not sitting on the doorway from the beginning of time, telling stories to the traveler, or making up new ones.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

City of Marengo

Marengo, Illinois (Oct 18, 2008)

I am not sure what is the exact origin of my family name. I do know however that my family is from an area of Piedmont near Spinetta Marengo, which is where Napoleon, on June 14, 1800, defeated the coalition led by Austria. As a consequence of this battle, Napoleon reinforced his position as "first Consul", ultimately leading to his self-coronation as Emperor. My point, however, is not about empires and battles, but rather about geography. It turns out that if Italy has only one town named "Marengo", US has as much as 7 towns with that name. Six of them are in the Midwest, one in the South. For what I could figure out it seems some of these towns were settled by french exiles, after Napoleon was finally dethroned in 1815, closing the circle that starts with Spinetta Marengo and ends in the US (that's me).

Galena, IL
I have been in two of the US Marengo Cities. The photo above shows one of them, Marengo, Illinois (the other being Marengo, Iowa). It is a typical small midwest town: a main street (unusually called "State Street") with craft stores and pubs/diners. Residential suburbs. Flat geography. Of all the towns with that name, Marengo Illinois seems to be the most internet savvy, as it secured the "" address, forcing its sister cities to more awkward web presences. We passed through Marengo, IL while driving from Chicago to Galena, a picturesque town on the Mississippi that made its fortune as a mining town (galena is lead sulfide, the most important mineral ore, once used in radio tuners) and was the residence of Ulysses Grant and other 8 civil war generals. The first to mine the lead were the native american that lived in the area, that were using it for body painting (in retrospect, not the safest use of lead). They were soon followed by french trappers, that settled the area in the 1690s. That was way before Napoleon, which might explain why the town was named Galena, instead of Marengo. Oh well, not all your city are belong to me.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

All Good Things...

Kyoto (Jun 2, 2012)

All good things must come to an end. After two weeks spent in Japan (one of work and one of vacation) it was time to go home. Mayli was going to start her meeting in Kyoto. I was instead going to take the shinkansen to Tokyo, then the long flight to Chicago and finally the connection to Minneapolis. I Minneapolis I would find the car that Mayli left in the airport long term parking, drive to a nearby hotel and get a night of sleep. Then pick up Kero (that Mayli left, on her way out, with his mom and sister) and finally drive home to Ames. What can go wrong?

Well, yes, as I said before the trains in Japan are easy, and so are the connections with the airport. I had breakfast with Mayli in a nice caffe in Kyoto, and then I managed to arrive to Narita with plenty of time to get my flight. The flight itself was long, but rather uneventful. We flew over Alaska, which made me feel a little stupid given that the next week I would have had to jump on another plane to get all the way back to Anchorage, for another meeting I had to attend. In Chicago I did immigration and custom (easy and fast for once), got on my connection (late as usual, but what can you do these days) and finally arrived to the Twin Cities (tired but happy).

And that is where things started to go wrong. As I said before, I was supposed to get to the long term parking to find the car that Mayli left on her way out. The problem is, the Minneapolis airport has more than one long term parking lot. In the end I had to check all levels of each lot, constantly pressing the car's remote, until I saw our blue car flashing its "okairinasai". Not exactly what I had been looking forward to, at the end of a trip that had already passed its 18th hour mark. But by then the worst was over, right? Well, no. I started driving, following the directions of my trusted GPS to the hotel, until I found myself, in the middle of the night, in a very deserted, very industrial area. Of course my hotel was nowhere to be seen. To be fair, there was one hotel across the street, but definitely not one of the chain I had my reservation. Damn GPS! Well, it turns out that for once the GPS was not at fault. Between the time I made my reservation on Expedia, and the time I arrived there, my hotel had been bought by this other chain, and they had already swapped the name (although they probably didn't swapped the side of the street; for that I am still inclined to fault my GPS). I could have probably figured it out faster if I have had some sleep in the 24 hours, but my sleep-deprived neurons clearly don't work at their best when I jump across too many time zones. In the end, however, everything went right, I did figure out the hotel situation, slept, and found Kero the next day, half happy to see me, half complaining that I had left him for two weeks to go half around the world, and have fun without him. Three hours later, we were HOME.

Ok, this is the last post of this Japan's diary. I have many other photos from this trip that are still waiting to be shown, and more stories wanting to be told. I will post them from time to time, but from now on you should expect some more variety in the topics of my writing and images. If you have missed the begin of this Japan's story, and want to catch up, you can start from the beginning here: "As I am writing, Mayli is on a plane flying to Japan [...]"

Monday, July 22, 2013

We Want a Japanese Maple!

Leaves at Daikaku-ji, Kyoto (Jun 3, 2012)

Mayli and I have a big fascination with japanese maples. These are trees with personality. They tell you some secret story in the way their leaves change colors with their seasons, and they get shaped by the intricate doings of weather and time. Since we came back from our Japan trip we have been looking for a good tree that would survive the iowan glacial winters and grow the right shape and height for the perfect spot in front of our house. But there are almost infinite varieties, each of them with individual properties, qualities and preference, and just choosing seems an impossible task. Plus, we realized quite soon that it is not just a matter of finding the right variety, each tree has its own individuality. And behind each great tree there is an even greater gardener that pull out the greatness from that tree (we have read that young gardeners are not authorized to prune the trees until after many years of training; for the first 10 years they only pick up twigs from the ground). But we are not despairing, and we are still looking: our tree (or at least our gardener) must be out there waiting for us.

Anyway, Daikaku-ji, when we finally found it, was full of excellent maples trees. The temple itself was interesting and somewhat different than the other we saw in Kyoto. The first peculiar thing was a beautiful floral arrangement place at the entrance: apparently the temple hosts the headquarters of a famous school of ikebana. Other interesting notion is that the temple was founded by a woman in the Heian period, the empress Masako, to honor her father the emperor Saga (saga grandson is thought to be the inspiration of the main character in The Tale of Genji). Tradition holds that the emperor, a 30 years before, personally copied an important religious document to propitiate the end of a pestilence. The Gods obliged, and the manuscript is still kept at the temple and shown to the public every 60 years (mark your calendar, next exposition will be soon, in 2018). The temple seemed to be more "lived in" than many others we saw, and in fact it was the only one where we saw monks doing their things. Finally, just outside the temple there is a very large pond, said to be older than the temple itself. It is designed to be seen from a boat, rather than from the shores. I wish we had a boat to experience that, but at this stage we have all to trust Wikipedia on this.

Sunday, July 21, 2013


Kyoto, Japan (Jun 3, 2012)

According to Mayli I don't have any sense of orientation. She may have a point, I do tend to get lost. When she took her job in Argonne (near Chicago, while I was still working in the Boston area), she got me a GPS unit to make sure I would find my way back home every day after work. After 12 years living in Boston I was indeed still getting lost all the time. If I am navigationally challenged in a place where I speak the language, you can imagine how it generally went in Japan, where I can barely read the syllabic alphabets (kana) and no more than the dozen most common ideograms (kanji). What I lack in natural skills, however, I supplement in technology (iPhone + international data plan + Google maps), so when Mayli proposed to take a bus to go from Tenru-ji to Daikaku-ji (another temple barely 2 km north), I proclaimed that buses are for wimps, and that we should hike. As so we hiked, on the 24 min Google maps route faithfully shown on my handset. Well, after one hour Daikaku-ji was nowhere in sight. We were on unpaved roads in the middle of rice paddies, as documented in the photo above (I still take pictures even when I am lost, for posterity). You know how at some point the Australian police was officially warning people against using the new Apple Maps application, due to the excessive number of tourists lead to perdition along inexistent roads in the middle of the outback? Well, this was Google maps, Japan is a little more densely populated than Australia and we never really left Kyoto. Still, we were lost!

In the end the temple was just behind the next bend in the road (Daikaku-ji is in the middle of rice paddies) and, as Mayli pointed out, we weren't really lost and I have the tendency of slightly dramatize my adventures. It was enough, though, to persuade me, after our temple visit, to get the bus on our way back to the Saga Arashiyama station. And that's where we did get utterly lost! Taking trains in Japan is easy, if you trust the timetable and follow the signs, usually in english. City buses are a different beast, as the sign are often in japanese only (with a lot more kanji I can deal with), and the drivers are the japanese equivalent of the Boston T (the subway) conductors: easily comprehensible provided that you speak their language (japanese and that obscure linguistic mystery that is the bostonian english, respectively). After getting on what we thought was the right bus we realized that we had no clue where the bus was actually going, and most importantly where the bus was supposed to stop! Despite the language barrier we decided to ask the driver. He apparently understood our request, but we certainly didn't understand his answer, which was, very much, in very fluent japanese. He was clearly trying to be helpful, but all was coming out of his mouth was unequivocally japanese, and way above our level. Well, I guess this is the same that happens when foreign tourists asks directions to italian bus drivers: despite the drivers efforts to help, the chances of getting a reply in english would be rather small. The only difference would be that the italian drivers would try to compensate by raising their voice, based on the common assumption that repeating a sentence loud enough can overcome any language barrier. Our japanese driver didn't raise his voice, but we still could not understand a thing of what he was saying.

Trusting that the bus driver had, despite all chances, really understood us, we decided for an all-or-nothing strategy: we would stand in front of the exit door just as the bus was approaching each stop, looking at the driver to see how he would react. At the first stop he almost jumped from his seat trying to stop us. At the second stop he kind of figured what was going on, and just said a loud "ie". At the third stop he only motioned us to stay in the bus, and so on for many, many stops on a much longer route than the one we did by walking. When finally the Saga Arashiyama station appeared behind the corner, the whole bus had by then realized the likely reason of our dance to and from the door, and all the passengers erupted together in a joyous "hai", clearly signaling that we had finally found our destination. We were saved! The Japanese people are the most helpful in the world!

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Zen Cuisine

Tenryu-ji, Kyoto (Jun 3, 2012)

Sagano bamboo forest
For our last free day in Kyoto (the next day Mayli was to start her meeting and I was to head back to Tokyo and the US) we decided to go to Arashiyama. The "storm mountain" is an actual mountain on the outskirts of Kyoto, but also a nice village that can be easily reached by train. Our first destination was the Tenryu-ji, the head temple of the homonymous branch of Zen Buddism. The temple is famous for her pond, which is indeed beautiful, with plenty of flowers and giant mosquitos (see photo above). Just outside the temple there is also a very famous bamboo forest (see photo on the left), which in itself is worth the trip (I really like bamboo). The main surprise of the day, however, was the Shigetsu Zen restaurant within the temple. Housed in a large hall covered by tatami mats, it has a very tasty and refined vegan menu. You sit on the mats and eat, crouching on the floor in front of the tiny tables that are placed in front of you together with the multi-course food. With our typical (un)preparedness we had no idea about the restaurant, which turned out to be one of the best meals we had in Kyoto, and provided us the needed nourishment for the adventure that was to follow (but this is for tomorrow's post).

Friday, July 19, 2013

Caves of Steel

Kyoto (Jun 2, 2012)

The Caves of Steel is a novel written by Isaac Asimov. Three millennia in the future, Earth is an overpopulated world with most people living in huge cities enclosed by gigantic steel domes. The cities are connected by underground transit systems, to a point that people became extremely agoraphobic, rarely venturing to the outside world and living all their life in the eponymous "caves of steel". This is the image that came to my mind when we arrived in Kyoto with the bullet train, end entered the large hall of the main station in the city. It was late in the afternoon, and the crowd was not so dense as in the Asimov future Earth (that would be rush hour in Tokyo). The space however was a close rendering of the imagined caves of steel: high lattice ceiling with a large multi-level central space, and a dizzying labyrinth of escalators, suspended passageways and terraces around a space so large that one would think weather would develop inside. Our hotel (a modern western-style hotel, which came quite as a shock after the time spent in the japan-style ryokan in Hakone) was nearby, so we had several chances to see the building, that hosted not just the train and subway system, but also a complete mall, with stores and restaurant. We tried one of the restaurants (a shabu-shabu place) the night I was sick, and could not motivate myself in doing a complicated dinner in Gion. It was ok, but not the best food we had in Japan. Then again, I don't think I would have appreciated any food in the conditions I was that night.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Dichotomously Branched Tree

Ryoan-ji, Kyoto (Jun 2, 2012)

One of the most famous zen gardens in Kyoto is the dry landscape rock garden in the Ryoan-ji temple. Possibly designed by the celebrated painter and monk Soami in the XIV century, it is a long rectangle with 15 carefully arranged stones surrounded by white gravel. The stones are organized in three groups, and it is said that you can only see up to 14 stones at any time, with all 15 boulders visible at once only after achieving enlightenment. A recent article on Nature (Van Tonder, Lyons & Ejima, 2002) showed that the garden has a tree-like axial symmetry. The "branches" of the tree are located in-between the stones, and the "trunk" is instead passing by the center of the main hall, which traditionally is the intended point from where to admire the garden. This symmetries would disappear even by small random shifts of the rocks, revealing how the composition must have been carefully studied by the garden creator. Structures of this type have been shown to appeal to human brain visual sensitivity at an unconscious level, and is found in many examples of abstract art. 

Water basin at Ryoan-ji
This is probably the most popular garden we saw, and in fact there was a large crowd sitting in the veranda, looking at the stones with both regular eyes (and maybe the third one focused on the last stone). Taking a photo of the whole garden was impossible, in part for its long and narrow shape (forget 14 stones, I could not even get more than half of the boulders within the same frame -- my 50mm lens is definitely not enlightened), but mostly because the sheer number of people moving around was making any photo not very zen-like. So, instead of escaping it, I decided to embrace the crowd, and use it as main focus of the image. The little girl in the photo above was the younger of two sisters, visiting the garden with their parents. I found it interesting that their parents were exposing them to such sophisticated art even at that young age. Outside the garden, the temple complex also has a large pond around which I found the little moss-covered basin in the photo on the left. While not the most famous ritual basing in the complex, is shares one important characteristics with it: it is very low, so that one has to lean down to one's knees to get the blessing from the purification water.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Golden Pavillion and Statistical Fluctuations

Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto (Jun 2, 2012)

In the Kinkaku-ji garden
Of all the temples we visited in Kyoto, Kinkaku-ji was definitely the most touristic intensive. A horde of people was there to see the Golden Pavillion, which is shown in the photo above. There were in fact so many people that there was one person organizing the foot traffic to keep the people going around the pond. Getting the people-less image above was just the product of a statistical fluctuation. Given enough time even unlike events are bound to happen: some people call them miracles or bad luck (depending on the case), I just call them a product of chance. And by chance it happened that while I was ready to get my crowd-filled photo, the people on the other side of the pond all stepped behind the trees, all at the same time before other people could get their place. And so I got my photo of a seemingly deserted pavillion in high touristic season. Kinkaku-ji was originally the villa of an important XIII century statesman, bough by a shogun in the XIV century and then converted into a Zen temple. It all burned down one century later during a civil war, with the exception of the Golden Pavillion. The pavillion itself, however, was destroyed by a mentally ill young monk in 1950. The current structure, covered with gold leaves as the original, was rebuilt in 1955. Many books and movies have been written about the temple-burning monk episode (including, bizarrely, an adult movie series).

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Truth of the Universe

Kodatei in Ryogen-in, Kyoto (Jun 2, 2012)

Kodatei, or A-un-no-seki-tei (the Stone Garden of A-Un) is a small garden in the Ryogen-in subtemple, part of the Daitoku-ji complex. It is long and narrow, with raked gravel around two stones taken from the Toyotomi Hideyoshi's Jurakudai Palace (one of the two stones in the photo above). It is Mayli's favorite zen garden, and we spent a good deal of time in there. The garden represents a-un. A-un is a japanese transliteration of the "aum" syllable ("om", does this ring a bell?). Sacred in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, it is the composite of the first and last letter of the alphabet (the first sound pronounced by a newborn infant, and the last sound pronounced while exhaling the last breath). A-un represent the beginning and the end, and all that is complementary. A-un represents the truth of the Universe.

More painted panels in Ryogen-in, Kyoto (Jun 2, 2012)

Friday, July 12, 2013

Rocks and Dragons at Daitoku-ji

Zen Garden, Zuiho-in, Kyoto (Jun 2, 2012)

The photo above shows a zen garden in Zuiho-in, one of the temples part of the Daitoku-ji complex. The temple complex, founded in 1315, is a rather large walled area (more than 53 acres), with many buildings part of the main temple, and several sub-temples each with their own gardens. Even though only a few of the sub-temples are open at any given time, there is so much to see, and think about, that one could spend countless hours, maybe just sitting in front at one stone, in one garden, of one temple. Some of the gardens are tiny, some are large. Some are entirely made of stones and sand, others are covered with mosses. Many of the buildings have spectacular painted panels, like the one below we found in the Ryogen-in temple, which is Mayli's favorite dragon ever.

A fiery dragon in Ryogen-in, Kyoto (Jun 2, 2012)

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Gion and Ruru Atakku

Gion, Kyoto (Jun 1m 2012)

From Kiyomizu-dera we walked down, back to the city across the Gion district. Gion has preserved the traditional architecture of wooden machiya houses, now mostly converted into restaurants serving traditional Kyoto-style meals (kaiseki ryori) and tea-houses (ochaya). It is also the most famous geisha districts, that performs in the most expensive and exclusive establishments (rarely for tourists, as you need to be introduced by an existing customer). Still, it is not uncommon to cross path with a geiko (Kyoto dialect for geisha) and maiko (geiko apprentice) as they walk to and from work dressed in beautiful kimonos. The plan for Mayli and me was to find a place to eat. The problem with this is that we could not agree on where to stay, and I started to feel more and more uncomfortable about the price of the menus affixed to the restaurants (these were the cheap ones, the higher end establishments didn't even post prices). Now, I am not necessarily against spending significant money for food, when the experience is worth it. It was however not the right day, as I was starting to feel more and more sick due to a strong cold (a flu?) that started to catch up with me as soon as we left the ryokan in Hakone. I was tired, I was sick, I was grumpy. Grumpy enough that I managed to really upset Mayli as she was desperately trying to find a place I would agree to eat in. In the end it was too much even for her patience, and we got back to the hotel as soon as we found a bus going the right way, without dinner (in the end we managed to eat something near the hotel).

My state of (not)health wasn't very promising for the few days left in our vacation, so Mayli the next day persuaded me to go to a pharmacy and find something to relieve my congestion. Now, try to find the right medication in a country were your usual medicine have a different name, and all labels are written with an alien alphabet. Well, we have been studying the basic kanas (the japanese syllabic alphabets) for quite some time before the trip, so as soon as we found a pharmacy we started the laborious work of translating, letter by letter, anything that was looking like a cold remedy. After a good part of an unsuccessful hour, we decided to ask the pharmacist, that of course didn't speak english. As soon as she saw my face, however, she figured out my problem and exclaimed: ルルアタック (RURU ATAKKU)! This is the equivalent of Teraflu, but on steroids. The japanese recommended daily dosage is about the same as the weekly dosage of the US counterpart (Mayli managed to read the label and confirm the composition, and scale down the dosage to survivable levels). Well, this thing worked like magic: after the first pills most of my symptoms disappeared, and I was back in force, less grumpy (say, at normal level of grumpiness), ready for a new day of touristic japanese adventures. Now every time one of us (or some friend) goes to Japan, we make sure to bring back a bottle of ruru atakku, capable to defeat even the most terrible cold.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Kiyomizu-dera and Tanuki

Kiyomizu-dera balcony (Jun 1, 2012)

The day spent at the Nanzen-ji temple was one of those hot and humid summer days that makes me think that Japan and Iowa must be somewhat related. Once we were done with the gardens open to visit, we strolled across the street to look for something edible, and for a much needed drink. The first thing we found was a vending machine, featuring what appears to be the best selling Japanese beverage: Pocari Sweat. No, the pocari is not a furry south-american critter with a tendency for sweating profusely (I read on the internet somebody suggesting how you can harvest pocaris' sweat by having them exercising in a hamster wheel doubling as centrifuge). It is instead a very popular beverage advertised as an "ion supplement" sports drink. It is clear that customers in japan don't mentally translate the name of beverages before they drink them. Still, I am not japanese and I don't fancy furry animals secretions, so I went for a coke (most likely less healthy than the sweat of a pocari). While that solved the drinking urges, the eating part was brilliantly fixed by finding an excellent nearby bakery where we had a focaccia and other freshly baked goods. We ate all that in a public garden next to the temples, offering a place to seat in the shade, as well as free tea (also healthier than the coke).

Well endowed Tanukis
Refreshed, we decided to get to the Kiyomizu-dera temple, which is a UNESCO Heritage site and one of the most spectacular temples in Kyoto. It was founded in 780 on the site of the Otowa waterfall (Kiyomizu literally means "pure water"). We read on our internet guide that the temple doesn't have a single nail in the whole structure (but don't believe all you read in the internet, I see several bolts in the photo above). The waterfall has been converted into a three streams fountain, from which visitors can drink. Water from the first stream will give you longevity. The second stream is associated to fortune at school, and the third one will give you fortune in love. It is said that you should not drink from all three streams, though, because it is considered greedy. Mayli drank from two of the streams, but I saw people cheating and filling bottles with water from all the streams. The Kyomizu-dera temple is quite far from Daitoku-ji, and we wanted to get there by sunset, so in the end we had to take a taxi to find it in time (guess what, we got lost). Along the way, however, we found the three endearing little statuettes on the left, which are effigies of the popular Tanuki, a magical shape-shifting creature based on the real-world japanese raccoon dog (that's a real canid, not a raccoon). Tanuki is also notorious for being especially well endowed (symbolizing wealth, not sexual prowess), even if this cannot be easily seen in my photo. The large photo on top shows the main building in Kiyomizu-dera, with the 13 meters tall terrace, offering a breathtaking view of the modern Kyoto below. In Japan, "jumping the stage at Kiyomizu" is equivalent to the english "taking the plunge". It was originally meant literally, as in the Edo period at least 234 people actually jumped off the terrace to test fortune (a wish would be granted to the survivors). With a 85.4% survival rate it may not be a bad deal, but drinking at the fountain seems safer. As you can see in the large photo, people don't jump anymore, but visit the terrace to enjoy the vista. See now why we wanted to get there by sunset? 

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Heian Shrine and Nanzen-ji

Heian Shrine, Kyoto, Japan (Jun 1, 2012)

As much as we liked the pampered life at the Hakone-Ginyu ryokan, as all good things, that came to an end. We packed for Kyoto, where Mayli had her neutrinos meeting, for the last part of our trip. We still had a few days of vacation, though, that we spent visiting the many temples and zen garden in the city. The photo above shows one of the structures part of the Heian shrine, a reproduction of the imperial palace built in 1895 in occasion of the industrial exposition fair held in Kyoto that year. The complex is today an important Shinto shrine, and has a fairly large garden with ponds created over the course of 20 years by famous gardener Jihei Ogawa (see photo above). After spending some time in the Shrine, we walked towards Nanzen-ji, a nearby large buddist temples complex founded in the middle of the Heian period, in 1291. The temples are adorned with simple yet rich art, like the painted panels below. They also have smaller but beautiful gardens, like the one with the hidden path over stepping stones shown on the left (not so hidden actually, I had to wait quite a long time to get my people-free shot). The best of this all is that, despite the complex being a quite popular touristic destination, you can still find the forgotten temple without many tourists, and sit there enjoying the silence and your thoughts.

Cranes in Konchi-in (Jun 1, 2012)

Monday, July 8, 2013

Old Tokaido Road

Hakone, Japan (May 30, 2013)

The last leg of our lake Ashi tour was on foot. Yumiko told us about the old Tokaido road, a road lined with tall cedar trees that was used to travel to Edo from the Hakone checkpoint. Parts of the road are still preserved, and one can go all the way from the checkpoint to Hatajuku, a two hours steep walk. It was too late for the whole hike (the volcano hike in Owakudani was enough for the day), but we decided nevertheless to walk along the easy part of the road from the checkpoint to Moto-Hakone, running parallel to the shore of the lake. The photo above is about typical for this part of the road, even though it does not effectively render how impressive these trees are: I tried to hug one of them and there is no way. You need at least two or three persons to match the circumference of these enormous trees. From Moto-Hakone onward the road is paved by rough stones (the road was made for walking, not for carts). We didn't try that part of the road, so I refer you to +Rurousha  and her walk. I didn't see any yamamba, btw, only many flowers like the one on the left (crested iris japonica). From Moto-Hakone we got the bus back to the onsen, given that we needed to get back in time for dinner. Dinner at the onsen is something you absolutely do not want to miss! Murata sensei, the ryokan chef, is a true artist, and his dinners (and full breakfast) are pieces of art. Each dish is a treat, not just for the taste, but also for the sight. The dinner is a progression in which you are hand-held in an adventure involving all your senses. The only problem with experiencing Murata sensei dinners is that we got very spoiled and could not enjoy as much the food we had for the rest of our trip. Take note: if you plan to stay in a ryokan with a famous chef, leave it for the end of your trip!

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Lake Ashi

Lake Ashi, Japan (May 30, 2012)

Once we made back to Owakudani, much later than programmed, we took the ropeway down for the Togendai terminal station on the shores of lake Ashi. As I mentioned earlier, lake Ashi is a lake filling part of the caldera of the Mt. Hakone volcano.

Tori on lake Ashi
The ropeway terminal station is at one end of the lake, with the main town of Hakone (Hakone-Machi) on the opposite shore: the best way to get from one side to the other is by boat. And we didn't just get a boat, we got a faux-galleon boat ("unfortunately" we arrived just a bit too late to get the pirate boat, which you can see leaving the docks in the photo above). Even without pirate flag, but still equipped with faux cannons (you never know with those pirates around), we made it safe to Hakone, where we spent some time recovering from the inadvertent hike on the volcano, and we visited the Hakone Sekisho. This is a restored fort from the Edo period (built in 1619), part of the checkpoint system that controlled the traffic of weapons and people with the capital (Edo = Tokio). The main role of Sekisho was to control "incoming guns and outgoing women" (i.e. prevent weapons to be brought into Edo and wives and children of the feudal lords to escape the capital). The Hakone Sekisho was one of the most important checkpoints of the system, operating without interruption for 260 years until the Meiji restoration in 1868. The complex has been restored recently, and shows vignettes of life as it was during the historical period when the sekisho was active. The small photo on the left shows instead another local touristic attraction, the Hakone shrine, which we didn't have time to visit. You can find an alternative version of the same photo, taken almost from the same vantage point, on Wikitravel: the only difference is that this other photo was taken in December, with a clear sky allowing to see the ultimate scenic attraction of Hakone: a snow-capped Mt. Fuji emerging at the end of lake Ashi.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Can Not Go Buying Black Eggs Shop

Mt. Hakone forest (May 30, 2012)

Mt. Hakone last recorded eruption was over 800 years ago, but the area still shows an impressive array of active volcanism. From the Owakudani ropeway station there are a number of paths leading to observation points near the fumaroles. We could see quite a crowd of tourists across the valley, overlooking over a particularly active vent. We decided to go there, as it seemed to be just a short walk. Well. Maybe not so short. After half an hour we were still climbing a steep mountain trail, deeply embedded in a lush forest. While the area around the sulfuric vents looked like the wasteland of Mordor, the sides of the volcano were more like the forest of Fangorn. There were plenty of large trees with a beautiful brown polished bark. Even the undergrowth and the grasses growing below the trees was beautiful with leaves in an endless variety of greens, red and white stripes. Lichens and mosses with bright red tips were covering the ground and the tree barks, thriving in the green light seeping from the thick canopy. Clearly we were not on our way to the fumarole observatory!

The trail was however not deserted by any means, as plenty of people in full hiking gear and heavy photographic equipment were climbing with us. So we kept going convinced that the trail must have been going somewhere interesting. After an hour or so of steep climbing, however, the end wasn't in sight. As we were about to turn around, an old couple that saw us stopping asked in a very excited way if we had already photographed the flowers. Flowers? Which flowers??? They told us that we were very fortunate, because this was the right time of the year to see a rare mountain flower growing exclusively in the area. There were people coming from all over Japan to see this flower! Well, I wish I could tell you the name of the plant, but I have spent the best part of an hour without succeeding to find it on the internet. Google may have failed me this time, but I can still show you one of my pictures of the flower, posted here on the right. A photo worth more than an hour climbing on the steep slopes of a volcano! It was only once we got back at the ropeway station that we solved the mystery of our lost path to the fumarole overlook. We had somehow missed a very obvious sign, posted on the side of the trail, which suddenly made a lot of sense: "Mountain -- climbing only. Can not go buying black eggs shop". I guess they had a lot of tourists getting lost on the mountain trail while they were trying to get to the gift shop to buy the famous Owakudani black eggs!

Friday, July 5, 2013

Hakone Ropeway

Hakone Ropeway (May 30, 2012)

Owakudani (May 30, 2012)
While I can certainly envision lazying out at the onsen the whole day, the next morning we decided to explore the area of lake Ashi, a large crater lake that lies at the feet of the Mt. Hakone volcano complex. The classic tour starts in Hakone, where you can board the Hakone ropeway, climbing the sides of the volcano in the Owakudani valley. The valley is the site of active sulfuric vents, exploited for the production of sulfur (the abundant yellow stuff in the large photo above): the mist you see surrounding the mining equipment is not actual mist, but the sulfuric steam rising from the depth of the volcano. It is in this area that the hot thermal water powering the onsen in Hakone is originated, and piped down the valley for the enjoyment of the bath-goers. The Owakudani ropeway station is a very popular touristic destination. We found hordes of schoolchildren with one single-minded goal: finding foreigners to interview for their english class homework. Each student had to meet a minimum quota of foreign tourists, asking them questions such as their country of origin. They got lucky with Mayli: there are not many tourists from Venezuela that are visiting Japan these days. I however got asked the fundamental question of the day: had I already eaten the world famous Owakudani black egg? But this is a story for tomorrow.

Thursday, July 4, 2013


Hakone Ginyu (May 31, 2012)

After one more day in Tokyo (I went to IPMU to give a talk on my Cepheids work) we left for Hakone. A small town on a volcanic area west from Tokyo, it is renowned for its thermal waters and hot spring resorts (onsen). Getting to Hakone takes the good part of a day, as the last leg of the trip, from the town to the onsen area up in the valley, is done on a small mountain train literally imported from Switzerland. We were headed to a traditional Japanese inn (a ryokan). If you have never been in a ryokan, you should: they are kind of expensive, but the price is compensated by the service they offer. You won't just get a place to sleep, but also a traditional style breakfast and dinner, served in your room one dish at a time. If you are in an onsen area, like Hakone, you also get communal (or private in upscale ryokan) thermal baths using the water from the local hot springs. The large photo shows Mayli in our japanese-style living-room, with the view on the garden. As you can see it has a low table where you seat at the floor level (but the floor was lowered under the table for comfort). That table is where we had dinner. However, we previously had tea served on a removable table placed in the bedroom. That table was removed while we had dinner, and the bedding (two futons) set up in its place on the tatami mat covered floor.

Our ryokan, the Hakone-Ginyu, offered two stunning communal baths (segregated by gender), one of them was an infinity pool perched on the valley below. Each room also had two private baths, one inside and the other outside of the private garden (see small photo on the left). The water is almost unbearably hot, but feels very good once you are submerged with just your head outside in the cold mountain air. I refer you to any of these sites about onsen etiquette on the web: the basics are that you should wash yourself very carefully (scrub hard) before entering the water, and then make sure you are completely naked when you finally enter the bath. Which makes a lot of sense, especially in the communal bath, where you don't want to bathe in the water dirtied by somebody else or their clothes. We only stayed at Ginyu for two nights (we could not afford more, as those two days costed as much as the rest of our vacation) but those were certainly among the two most relaxing days I can remember.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Shopping and Tempura

Tokyo Ueno (May 26, 2012)

After our early morning escapade to the fish market, we headed to Ginza, a very commercial district known for its department stores. Mayli in particular wanted to see the Mitsukoshi and Wako department stores. Founded in 1673, Mitsukoshi is the oldest department store chain in Japan. The Ginza branch is not the largest store of the chain (they have a gargantuan flagship store in Nihonbashi), but it is still impressive. The Wako store is similarly large and famous for its clock tower that plays the Westminster chimes at every quarter hour. The highlight of the visit was to wait in front of the store at the opening time, to see the huge crowd squeezing through the door, as if on a daily re-enactment of black friday. Differently than the black friday chaos, however, here the crowd enters very orderly, shepherded by the employees standing at the door welcoming the daily customers. The little photo on the left shows an interesting ritual that happens on every store before opening: the pep talk of the manger to the employee, receiving the instructions for the day.

After all this walking we were quite tired, so we decided to eat at the restaurant at the hotel. Without knowing better, we chose what looked like a small tempura restaurant on the back street of the hotel. It turned out to be an excellent surprise: Koromo ended up being one of the best restaurant we found in our whole trip. I had no idea a tempura restaurant could be so sophisticated. The dinner turned out to be not only delicious, but also educational. We sat at the bar (like a sushi bar) and the chef prepared every tempura disk (fish and vegetables) in front of us. He didn't speak much english, but he went out of his way to explain us every dish, what it was and how to eat it. He had a book that he used to show us each kind of fish he was preparing: the pictures in the book were so beautiful that when by chance we found it in a bookstore, we bought a copy even though it was in Japanese. We got lucky in finding Koromo, because the other places in the neighborhood were not quite as sophisticated. In fact most of the places on that same backstreet were pachinko parlors and "gentleman's clubs", the latter identifiable by the nice ladies standing in front, waiting for suitable customers to entice inside for "a drink" (on the right in the top photo).

Monday, July 1, 2013

Tsukiji Fish Market

Tsukiji, Japan (May 27, 2012)

The next morning we attempted to visit the famed Tokyo fish market. The Tsukiji market is by far the largest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world, handling 15% of the total tonnage of fresh and frozen seafood that goes through the entire Japan. The centerpiece of the market is the live auction, where the best fish is sold wholesale in a process resembling the stock market exchange. The live auction is a world famous ritual, and it was the target of our visit. Of course we didn't have a chance. First the auction is closed on Sundays, which was the last day we had left available in Tokyo. Second, the market has a limit of 120 visitors each day, on a first-come first-serve basis. Second (and that for us was the killer) the market opens at 5:00AM (but you need to get there earlier than that to be in the lucky 120) which, if you know us, is kind of an early hour. So, we contented ourselves with strolling in the market area, which is a lively neighborhood with many places where it is possible to have an authentic Japanese breakfast, i.e. raw fish over rice and raw eggs, which I found quite delicious (Mayli less so). We then walked by the waterfront, where I took several photos along the shore of the river Sumida, like the large one above. The smaller photo is instead a picture of a typical gas station in Tokyo. Since in this city every inch of space matters, the nozzles descend on from the roof, where the gas pumps are attached!


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