A Travellerspoint blog

Two Cities In Russia

Mind boggling

View Russia. Baltics, Poland and beond on CWalts's travel map.

As I wrap up my time in Moscow and St. Petersburg I am trying to process all the amazing sites jam-packed with centuries of history.
My main thoughts keep going back to how much the people have suffered over the centuries and how proud they are of their country and the treasures they have worked so hard to save and restore. This is a country that has endured through Tsarist rule, three revolutions and two World Wars. Today it seems to be a country that has built a positive future for its people. Unemployment is low, education is highly valued and people are relaxed and enjoying life.
As a visitor, I have been treated with respect and a shy friendliness that is very endearing.

I am having issues with getting photos onto this site but at some point I will get it done.
In the meantime, you can see a lot on Facebook.

Posted by CWalts 23:52 Archived in Russia Comments (1)

Russia, Baltics, Poland and more - 2019

Tsars and revolutions

View Russia. Baltics, Poland and beond on CWalts's travel map.

In September, I will be off for two months of travel to explore the art, history and culture of yet another part of the world.

I have always been interested in exploring Moscow and St. Petersburg and key cities in Poland. My sister brought the Baltics to my attention last summer because she knows I love old cities in general. My father was born in Poland and I have wanted to go there for a very long time. I will spend some of my time there trying to get to archival records of my paternal ancestors.

Prague will be my last stop. Another city I have not yet visited.

Posted by CWalts 08:42 Archived in Russia Comments (1)

Last Days in Japan/Final Post

This is my last post for this trip and it is a wrap up of the last few days in Japan. I have had a wonderful adventure and I am looking forward to heading home. Yet, I feel like I could keep going...which means I will likely start planning for my next adventure as soon as I get home!


On April 7, I took the train from Matsumoto to Nagano, picked up a rental car and drove to Kusatsu. The drive was only a couple of hours but on twisting mountain roads. I drove through rain, sleet, snow and a stretch of singing road! Japan embraced a number of singing streets after engineer Shizuo Shinoda accidentally scraped a road with a bulldozer and realized that the resulting grooves made interesting sounds. Apparently these exist in a lot of places around the world but this was my first experience. I couldn’t make out the tune but it seemed familiar.

When I arrived in Kusatsu the sun was shining and skies the color of blue you really only get in the mountains. Temps were barely above freezing but that just added to the reality of being in a mountain resort.20180408_095936.jpg20180408_123702.jpg

Kusatsu is one of the most famous hot springs towns in Japan and it’s quite close to Tokyo so a popular weekend escaped from the city. I didn’t see another non-Asian tourist. The ryokan I stayed in was lovely. Very traditional and the service was exceptional. It was a lovely relaxing time before heading back to Tokyo.

The Yubatake or hot water field is a symbol of this town. This is the area where the 70+ degree Celsius water is cooled down before it gets distributed to the various ryokan and public baths. 77d0e710-3de3-11e8-9e93-5bd3304f771a.jpg

There is a performance called Yumoni and it is the old way of cooling the water. It was fun to see.90_20180408_093810.jpg90_20180408_094131.jpg

April 9 returned to Tokyo after driving to Takasaki and dropping off the car. I am in a different location from my arrival days. I am right in the Ginza area and close to the river and Tokyo Bay. I have a fabulous view from the 27th floor. This hotel is famous for being an art hotel. It is like staying in a modern museum.90_20180409_170821.jpg90_20180409_170705.jpg

April 10 I spent the morning at Shinjiku Gyoen National Garden. It has 65 different varieties of cherry trees and over 1000 trees many still in bloom. It is pretty spectacular. Lots of other lovely things blooming as well and it was a perfect morning – not too warm but lots of sunshine.20180410_102713.jpg90_20180410_103217.jpg90_20180410_104458.jpg

April 11 - The plan was to do a day trip to Mt. Fuji and a cruise on a nearby lake for lunch. This was thwarted by a dramatic change in the weather. Heavy cloud cover, light rain, gale force wind warnings. Not a good day to be outdoors, let alone on any kind of water. So, I headed to the Tokyo National Museum and thoroughly enjoyed the day. The main museum houses a complete walk through of the periods of history of Japan starting with circa 11,000 BC to 5th century BC. Each period has wonderful displays of art, weapons, tools etc. My favorite area was the Noh masks.90_20180411_103055.jpg

In a nearby building there is currently a special exhibit - Roads of Arabia which follows the history of the trade routes that have intersected the Arabian Peninsula since ancient times. It is a traveling exhibit with Tokyo only the 3rd stop so far. It will move around the world over the next few years so watch for it. It is a great walk through time.90_20180411_110914.jpg

There is also a lovely garden around the museum complex. Saw a Ginko Biloba tree for the first time90_20180411_113226.jpg and with the wind, the cherry blossom petals were falling like snow.90_20180411_112850.jpg

The next couple of days I plan to not do a lot. I will wander and see what I see and I will spend a few hours in the wonderful spa in this hotel.

So this is it. Hope you enjoyed following my travels and I am looking forward to seeing as many of you as possible in the coming months.

Posted by CWalts 17:27 Archived in Japan Comments (2)


April 6

What a day! First of all it was a bright, sunny day in a beautiful little city in the mountains. It also happens to have a castle, cool museums to visit and lovely narrow streets to wander through. Oh, and, the cherry blossoms are in full bloom!90_20180405_114538.jpg

I started the day with a quick wander over to Matsumoto Castle heading to a soba noodle making class. It was fun and eating them after was even better. So, I needed to walk them off and headed back to the castle.90_20180405_104627.jpg20180405_105435.jpg20180405_112146.jpg

Matsumoto Castle is one of Japan's premier historic castles, along with Himeji Castle and Kumamoto Castle. The building is also known as the "Crow Castle" due to its black exterior. It was the seat of the Matsumoto domain and construction occurred in the 1500’s.

The keep, which was completed in the late sixteenth century, maintains its original wooden interiors and external stonework and is listed as a National Treasure of Japan. This also gives it the right to claim that it is the oldest castle in Japan. I guess because it has more remaining original architecture because, let’s face it, the history of all the remaining castles dates back to around the period.20180405_120428.jpg

It is a flatland castle because it is not built on a hilltop or amid rivers, but on a plain. Its complete defenses included an extensive system of inter-connecting walls, moats, and gatehouses.

The site is beautiful and is surrounded by a small garden and the black castle soars above it. The moat is edged with cherry trees and has swans and giant catfish or maybe they’re carp...90_20180405_114544.jpg90_20180405_120055.jpg90_20180405_120533.jpg

April 7

A very windy day but it started out sunny at least. I headed out to visit the Daio Wasabi Farm which is a quick 30 minute train ride to Hotaka. The farm is the largest wasabi farm in Japan and has done a good job of making it a destination if visiting Matsumoto. It was interesting to see how wasabi grows and what it looks and tastes like. The wasabi paste we get in the west is not real wasabi. It is mostly horseradish mixed with some other things to make it spicy. Real wasabi is much more flavorful and only has a bite to it when processed into paste. 20180406_100856.jpg

The store on the farm sells all things wasabi and many can be sampled. Quite a taste adventure. The farm has lovely pathways and bridges around the wasabi fields and it makes for a very nice couple of hours.90_20180406_104921.jpg90_20180406_104624.jpg

Returning to Matsumoto the wind was so strong the train was rocking more than trains’ rock! A piece of flew into and got caught in the engine mechanism and we were stopped for about 15 minutes waiting for an emergency crew to get it out. This is a very serious deal in Japan – nothing is late here!!!! It was impressive how quickly things were back working and we were once again on our way.90_20180406_125021.jpg

I really like this part of Japan. The mountains are beautiful and, thankfully, other than the wind today, the weather has been mild.

Tomorrow I drive deeper into the mountains to Katsatsu where natural hot springs are the main attraction.

Posted by CWalts 01:08 Archived in Japan Comments (1)

Into The Mountains of Japan

sunny 13 °C

April 1

First stop after leaving Kanazawa by bus was Shirakawa-go. This is a small village in a region that lies in the Shogawa River Valley surrounded by mountains that span from Gifu to Toyama Prefectures. I sound like I know where I am, but I only sort of do.90_20180401_105945.jpg

It was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1995 and is famous for the traditional gassho-zukuri farmhouses, some of which are more than 250 years old. This is the main reason I wanted to visit.

Gassho-zukuri means "constructed like hands in prayer” which is a lovely way to describe the farmhouses' steep thatched roofs which resemble the hands of Buddhist monks pressed together in prayer. Of course, it is a very practical architectural style that can withstand the large amounts of heavy snow that falls in the region during winter. The roofs, made without nails, provided a large attic space used for cultivating silkworms.

The village is a popular tourist attraction as it is an easy hour or so bus ride from Kanazawa or a day trip from other main cities. It can be easily explored in 2-3 hours. Besides looking at the traditional houses, there are some shops selling local crafts which is always fun to look at. Not surprisingly, baskets are a local craft. It is also popular to do farm stays in this area. That would have appealed to me about 15 years ago but I am no longer eager to share a large room with other people and share one bathroom…I guess I am old!!

After this stop, back on the bus and headed to Takayama.

April 2

Spent the day wandering around the northeastern half of this lovely town. It also is often referred to as ‘little Kyoto’ and this time it applies (unlike the way I felt about Kanazawa). Anyway, the old parts of the town are beautifully maintained and many of the narrow streets are along the river or canals which are lined with soon to blossom trees of all kinds. Spring comes later to this part of Japan. 20180402_100006.jpg

Many shops and homes are decorated with dolls. April 3 is celebrated as the festival of dolls and is linked to the arrival of spring. The dolls on display are mostly handmade and very detailed. Lovely.90_20180402_100436.jpg

I also visited two museum as I wandered. The Sakurayama Nikkokan Museum features beautifully crafted, small-scale (1/10 scale) replicas of the Nikko-Toshogu shrine and other historical sites of Nikko which is a day trip from Tokyo. It took the 33 carpenters a total of 15 years to complete. The replicas are very detailed and I now plan to take a trip to Nikko to see the real thing. It will be interesting to compare.

Also fascinating was Takayama Festival of Floats Exhibition which features some of the ancient full size floats that are paraded around town twice a year – spring and fall. Unfortunately I leave before the April festival but was thrilled to see these beautifully crafted floats, some date back to the 17th century. Walking around town you see these large garages, kind of like motorhome garages. These store some of the floats. 90_20180402_101500.jpg

April 3

Another day of simply wandering around. Today I headed southwest to visit the Hida Folk Village. The village was opened in 1971 to preserve houses and lifestyle of the Hida region. Some 30 buildings were moved into this location including Gassho style thatched roof houses and others. Various daily tools and articles are displayed in houses and artisans are working on traditional arts and crafts. It is a nice way to get the feel of old rural life in Japan. After a couple of hours I took the bus back into central Takayama and did more wandering through the old, well preserved streets. I do like this place but am moving on tomorrow to Matsumoto.
Hard to believe I am down to the last 2 weeks of this trip.

Posted by CWalts 14:47 Archived in Japan Comments (1)


sunny 12 °C

Kanazawa is on the central northern coast of Honshu Island and is often called ‘little Kyoto.’ It has some similarities but not the same level of charm I felt when in Kyoto. Historically, Kanazawa was significant because it became the home of Lord Maeda Toshiie whose rule was second only to the powerful Tokugawa family who resided in Kyoto. The history of samurai lords and shoguns is long and complicated but super fascinating.90_20180329_092050.jpg

The main attraction here is Kanazawa Castle and the surrounding Kenrokuen Garden. The garden has some original areas that date back to the 13th century. Other parts have been restored and replanted after fires etc. The original castle was built in 1580 burned down several times over the centuries and has been reconstructed to what it looked like in the 1850’s. It is a defensive castle with many similar features to Himeji Castle but on a smaller scale. 20180331_085909.jpg

Kenrokuen Garden is built around three sets of contrasting garden elements: spaciousness contrasts with seclusion, artifice contrasts with antiquity, and water-courses contrast with panoramas. Thus the name: Ken (combined) roku (six) en (garden). There is almost nothing in Japan that isn’t chock full of symbolism.90_39d2d1e0-3491-11e8-a696-3957aa06a252.jpg90_20180329_105451.jpg

The Samurai District is made up of several winding streets of original properties and, in some cases, houses of great warlords. Some are open to the public. I visited Nomura Samurai House. While it is not the original house, it is a lovely example of ancient Japanese architecture and not hard to imagine a famous warlord living there. The gardens and ponds are the originals and add to the beauty of the place. 20180329_094802.jpg

There is also a geisha district (two areas actually but they run right into each other) which is very similar to the one in Kyoto. It has some interesting shops but, as in Kyoto, you won’t see any maiko or geiko walking around. Lots of kimono rental shops if you want to dress up. This is very popular particularly with young Asian women.

There is also no shortage of Buddhist shrines and temples which I am sad to say are all starting to look the same to me. I am looking forward to heading into more rural Japan over the next few days.

I did a silk dyeing class for the heck of it. The ladies working there spoke no English but had lots of interesting ways to show me how to mix the paints and as I worked there were lots of oohs and ahhs – not sure it this was encouragement or shock at what I was doing. It was fun. The ladies themselves paint silk for magnificent and very costly kimonos which are on display.

Posted by CWalts 20:15 Archived in Japan Comments (2)

Himeji and Beyond



A stop in Himeji is primarily to visit the immense Himeji Castle so that was first on my list. My hotel is right across the street to the south of Himeji Station so a quick walk through the station and out the North Exit faces directly to the castle. The first sight of it is truly amazing but does not give you the full perspective on how huge it is. As you walk towards it you start to realize this isn’t any typical castle.

It is the biggest and most impressive original samurai castle in all of Japan. It has escaped fire, war and earthquakes and remains as it has been since it was constructed in 1581 by the samurai hero Toyotomi Hideyoshi.90_20180325_111757.jpg

Known as the White Heron Castle, the impressive ‘main keep’ and all surrounding wooden structures are finished with white plaster walls that show little wear since a 2015 renovation. The main keep is the top of the main part of the castle. To reach it you have to climb up 6 floors by increasingly narrow stone stairways – without shoes! I didn’t. These feet don’t do well without shoes let alone on cold, steep stone. This area is closely regulated for the safety of visitors. They only allow about 50 people at a time to start the ascent.

I chose to walk around the castle areas that eventually lead to the West Bailey. This is a long narrow corridor reached by three small, steep stairways. No shoes but much easier to manage. The corridor is lined with small rooms used to house Princess Sen, granddaughter of a prominent, very wealthy shogun, and moved to Himeji when she married Toyotomi Hideyoshi. There is a sad story about her told in some detail along the way. Short version – Toyotomi died, she remarried and had a daughter and a son, lived happily for 10 years but husband died at age 31 and son died at age 3. She spent the rest of her life in mourning as a Buddhist nun and died at age 70.

The castle was considered one of the best fortified structures of its time and there are many architectural details to support this. All the stone walls curve in a fan like manner making them impossible to climb. Several imperial period crests still exist on and within the castle.

Miyajima and Hiroshima

Both places are easily visited in a day trip from Himeji or Osaka or Kyoto. Miyajima is a small island most famous for its ‘floating’ torii gate and Itsukusima Shrine. It is easily reached by a ferry that runs right from the Hiroshima JR Station. It is a very popular place for both tourists and locals. It has lots of shops and restaurants, nice walkway along the beach and lots of deer. 90_20180326_103610.jpg

After walking around enjoying the lovely day, I took a different ferry that took me directly to a landing at the Peace Memorial Park. This area is entirely dedicated to remembering the first of two Atomic Bombs dropped on August 6, 1945. It is a sobering experience with several memorials all dedicated to remembering the horrors of this event and those who died. Importantly, many structures also are hopeful reminders that this never needs to happen again. 90_20180326_124144.jpg


This is another easy trip from Himeji. The main attraction is the old merchant quarter is called the Bikan historical area. It contains 17th century wooden warehouses painted white with traditional black tiles, along a canal soon to be framed with weeping willows and flowering cherry trees. The area has no electric poles in order to make it more closely resemble the look of the Meiji period. It is not quite a charming as Tsumago but a good way spend a leisurely day. The old store fronts are now shops and restaurants. Many have some lovely pottery, art and locally made textile products. My favorite event of the day was watching a very lazy swan paddle along on the canal, mostly asleep until feeding time. 90_20180327_112156.jpg

Tomorrow I head north again into an area near the Japanese Alps and home to many traditional villages and natural onsens (hot springs).

Posted by CWalts 00:23 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Last days in Kyoto

sunny 15 °C

Kyoto 3.23 – 24

The last day and a half in Kyoto was spent getting outdoors as much as possible because the weather has turned to absolutely wonderful. Still cool but sunny and some of the earlier blooming cherry trees are popping with blooms.20180323_102614.jpg

I visited 3 more temple sites mostly to look at their lovely gardens. These are all North West of Central Kyoto and either an expensive taxi ride or over an hour by buss so much less visited.

Daikaku-ji Temple is one of the oldest in Kyoto and was originally the Imperial Villa of Emperor Saga, built around 1200 years ago. It now belongs to the Shingon Buddhism sect. When it was a villa it was used by royalty as a fishing (huge artificial pond), evening floating dinners and duck hinting. The courtyard of what was once the banquet hall is now an austere Zen rock garden. There are 3 other great halls used for various purposes including a residence for the Empress, a peace talk hall used when it was needed to quell the feudal lord’s tempers and a transcription hall which now houses the statues of the Five Wisdom Kings. These are all surrounded by lovely gardens – the primary reason for heading this far from Central Kyoto.20180323_144223.jpg

Ninna-ji Temple is a short taxi ride from Daikaku-ji and is famous for its huge front gate. This is one of many ancient structures that is built with no nails. All pieces are fit together with tongue and groove-like architecture and have survived many earthquakes because they are not rigid structures. The rooms of the main hall are lined with beautifully painted paper screens. This is one of the few places where photos are allowed. I am guessing this is because it is not visited by as many people given it’s somewhat off the beaten path location. This is also the home of the Omura School of Flower Arrangement. There are some lovely examples of Ikebana at the entrance.20180323_142608.jpg

Ryoan-ji Temple is a short walk from Ninna-ji and is most famous for its Zen garden. Said to be the oldest in existence, created around 1500) and no one knows for sure who designed it. Some say it was a highly respected monk of the time. The garden is surrounded by walls made of clay boiled in oil and over time the oil seeped out to create the design seen today. The garden has fifteen rocks in total but no matter how or where you look at the garden you can never see all 15 at one time. This reflects one of the Buddhist sayings that basically means you can never have it all. The rocks are set in white gravel carefully raked into a design that is completely left to your imagination to decide the story behind the garden. The rest of the area has lovely gardens as well that date back to the 12th century.20180323_161221.jpg

March 24 was only a half day in Kyoto so I did a morning walk and then headed to Kyoto Station to catch my train to Himeji. There was a large group of maiko – apprentice geiko (specifically geisha from Kyoto) handing out leaflets for an upcoming dance performance done every year to celebrate the arrival of spring. Normally, maiko are not allowed to interact with the public so this was a rare opportunity to get photos. Their gorgeous kimono are amazing. They are very elaborate and have yards of fabric in many layers. The white makeup, kimono and elaborate hair with flowers and/or ornaments is how many think a geisha will look but, in fact, once a woman becomes a geiko her dress is very somber, hair (actually geiko wear wigs) is not as elaborate and they do not wear flowers or ornaments in their hair.90_20180324_104044.jpg

Posted by CWalts 17:00 Archived in Japan Comments (1)


overcast 13 °C

Arushimaya is in Kyoto but quite a bit west of Central Kyoto and home to the famous bamboo forest and home to one of the five great Zen temples - Tenryu-ji and its spectacular gardens. I thought I might not get there because the weather has been fairly crappy but there was a break in the cloud cover this morning so I hopped on the train and hoped not to get caught in a down pour like yesterday. 90_20180322_102207.jpg 90_20180322_104147.jpg

As luck would have it - must be all those spirits I have been invoking, the day was ok. Overcast but no real rain.

The walk along the bamboo forest path is lovely but hard to find a spot without people stopping to take a zillion photos in every pose imaginable. I am less annoyed by this in Japan because the locals actually apologize for being in your way and offer to take your picture.

Tenryu-ji Temple is an important temple for a branch of Rinzai Zen Buddhism. It was established in 1339 by a shogun in honor of the emperor of that time. The temple has been razed by fore a total of eight times, most recently in 1864. Most of the present buildings date to the Meiji period - 1868 - 1912. The landscaping was not severely affected by the fires and is one of the oldest gardens in Japan. And, it is an absolutely beautiful place. One can only imagine how magnificent it will be when everything is in bloom. It retains the same form as when it was designed in the 14th century and has been a World Heritage site since 1994.

A smaller sub-temple, Kogen-ji Temple is close by and main hall, dating back to the 1600's is built in the kyakuden style, a more residential style than classic architecture. The rooms contain beautiful painted screens and original wall hangings and look out onto more lovely Zen gardens. Photos are not allowed in the rooms.20180322_111900.jpg

The garden is known as the Tiger's Roar Garden, from the Zen expression, "When a dragon cries, clouds appear; when the tiger roars, wind arises."

How can you not love this!!!

Posted by CWalts 22:44 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

More shrines of Kyoto

overcast 13 °C

Fushimi Inari Shrine (Fushimi Inari Taisha) is an important Shinto shrine in southern Kyoto. It is famous for its thousands of vermilion torii gates. Photos of these are in pretty much anything you look at about Kyoto. They straddle a network of trails behind the shrines main buildings. The trails lead into the wooded forest of the sacred Mount Inari which belongs to the shrine grounds.

Fushimi Inari is the most important of several thousands of shrines dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice. Foxes are thought to be Inari's messengers, resulting in many fox statues across the shrine grounds. They are all sizes and some are cleverly placed so you have to really look to see them. Fushimi Inari Shrine predates the capital's move to Kyoto in 794. The first statues are two larges foxes at the entrance to the shrine. One is fox holding a key in its mouth and the other is holding a special ball that is said to glow blue in the dark. Other images of the ball look very much like a Quidditch ball (ala Harry Potter). 90_20180319_082237.jpg90_20180319_082258.jpg

The primary reason most foreign visitors come to Fushimi Inari Shrine is to explore the mountain trails and take photos of the tori, I found the shrine buildings themselves lovely and interesting. At the shrine's entrance stands the Romon Gate, which was donated in 1589 by the famous leader Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Behind stands the shrine's main hall (honden) where visitors should pay respect to the resident deity by making a small offering.90_87BD501CAA47D7A602439A54BE1E0B45.jpg

At the very back of the shrine's main grounds is the entrance to the torii gate-covered hiking trail, which starts with two dense, parallel rows of gates called Senbon Torii ("thousands of torii gates"). The torii gates along the entire trail are donations by individuals and companies, and the donator's name and date of the donation is inscribed on the back of each gate. The cost starts around 400,000 yen for a small sized gate and increases to over one million yen for a large gate.

The hike to the summit of the mountain and back takes about 2-3 hours and visitors are free to walk just as far as they wish before turning back. I went about halfway, as far as the viewing area where there are good views of Kyoto. I also explored some of the trails that lead deeper into the mountain. There are multiple smaller shrines with stacks of miniature torii gates that were donated by visitors and the cost ranges from about 1000 yen for the smallest to 3500 for larger ones – roughly a bit less than 10-35 US $.

The older shrines have been here for centuries and placed for free by individuals wanting a special place to call on the spirits. The newer ones (about 300 years) are placed in a more orderly fashion and had to be paid for by the decree of the emperor at that time.

Koumyouin Temple

A short walk from Fushimi-Inari is a Zen Buddhist temple with one of Shigemori Mirei’s earliest Zen Gardens. It is a lovely, peaceful place and many people come here to sit and read or meditate sitting on one of the verandas off the main building. The building itself looks more like a traditional Japanese house with small rooms divided by paper screen door ways, mats and minimal to no furnishings.

A beautiful wall hanging has this poem on it:90_20180319_120700.jpg

Up in the clouds, on the mountain top
There is the moon, and your heart.

Tofuku-ji Temple

Also within walking distance from Fushimi-Inari is Tofuku-ji Temple. Besides being one of the oldest temples to survive earthquakes and fires, it also has several Zen gardens by Shigemori Mirei. His work, mostly done in the 1930’s was considered revolutionary because many critics thought it was too Western and did not truly reflect Japanese thought and culture. He is now one of the most famous Zen artists in the world.90_20180319_123737.jpg

Posted by CWalts 17:26 Archived in Japan Comments (0)


all seasons in one day

My first few days in Kyoto have been spent exploring castles and temples which are abundant here. It is a modern city built around these ancient sites. Many of them have acres of park surrounding them so once inside a give complex it is easy to forget you are still within the city.

Kyoto is in the western part of Japan’s largest island, Honshu, and is located in a peaceful valley surrounded by mountains on three sides. Its origins go back to the 6thcentury; it has been a Buddhist center since the 8th century and is in many ways the intellectual heartland of Japan.

It is largely untouched by war. Wars have raged across Kyoto down the centuries, but the city largely escaped World War II bombs because it was not included in American invasion plans. There was talk of dropping the Nagasaki atom bomb on it because its largely intellectual population would be “better able to appreciate the significance of the weapon.” The Secretary of War vetoed the idea, and so the Imperial City of Kyoto has more pre-war buildings than most other Japanese cities taken together.

The city has 1,600 Buddhist shrines and 400 Shinto Temples. Among these, the 17 historic monuments of ancient Kyoto are a collective UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are also many intact palaces, gardens, and historic buildings. It is renowned for its incredible authentic cuisine. Its distant from the sea and so many Buddhist vegetarians resulted in the development of 13 varieties of vegetables. Some examples are, albino potatoes, shogun kabul turnips, kamo nasu eggplants, and the shogoin radish which is very tasty raw or simmered.

Old Kyoto is a Replica of an even more ancient city. Following a period of destruction in the 15th century, Emperor Toyotomi Hideyoshi refashioned Kyoto in the style of the City of Chang'an that had a quarter of a million inhabitants by the year 2 AD, when recorded history begins. The original design called for matching square city blocks. During the 16th century, Emperor Toyotomi Hideyoshi doubled up the number of north-south streets. This created the familiar rectangular blocks with shorter side streets that form the fascinating older suburbs adored by visiting tourists.

Nijo Castle was built in 1603 as the Kyoto residence of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Edo Period (1603-1867). His grandson Iemitsu completed the castle's palace buildings 23 years later and further expanded the castle by adding a five story castle keep.
After the Tokugawa Shogunate fell in 1867, Nijo Castle was used as an imperial palace before being donated to the city and opened up to the public as a historic site. Its palace buildings are said to be some of the best surviving examples of castle palace architecture of Japan's feudal era, and the castle was designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1994.20180316_090029.jpg

Nijo Castle can be divided into three areas: the Honmaru (main circle of defense), the Ninomaru (secondary circle of defense) and some gardens that encircle the Honmaru and Ninomaru. The entire castle grounds and the Honmaru are surrounded by stone walls and moats.
Entry into the castle grounds is through a large gate. After a short walk you get to the Chinese style Karamon Gate, the entrance to the Ninomaru (secondary circle of defense), where the castle's main attraction, the Ninomaru Palace is located.

The Ninomaru Palace served as the residence and office of the shogun during his visits to Kyoto. Surviving in its original form, the palace consists of multiple separate buildings that are connected with each other by corridors with so called nightingale floors - they squeak when stepped upon as a security measure against intruders. It really does sound like birds chirping as you walk along. The palace rooms are tatami mat covered and feature elegantly decorated ceilings and beautiful silk screen paintings. Sadly no photos allowed inside.

Kiyomizu Temple was founded in 778 by Sakanoue no Tamuramaro, and its present buildings were constructed in 1633, ordered by the Tokugawa Iemitsu. There is not a single nail used in the entire structure! It takes its name from the waterfall within the complex, which runs off the nearby hills. Kiyomizu means clear water, or pure water.90_20180317_114847.jpg

The main hall has a large veranda, supported by tall pillars, that juts out over the hillside and offers impressive views of the city. There is currently a massive restoration happening so the exterior is covered but the views from the veranda are not blocked.
A popular expression in Japan is "to jump off the stage at Kiyomizu.” It means "to take the plunge". This refers to an Edo-period tradition that held that if one were to survive a 13-meter (43-foot) jump from the stage, one's wish would be granted. During the Edo period, 234 jumps were recorded, and of those, 85.4% survived. The practice is now prohibited and there are very nasty looking sharpened bamboo stakes all around it to offer further dis-incentive.

Beneath the main hall is the Otowa waterfall, where three channels of water fall into a pond. ee2a0220-2a79-11e8-baab-4176377da83a.jpgCatching and drinking the water is believed to have wish-granting powers. I am learning that Japanese are very superstitious. People line up to do this – sometimes for hours.
The temple complex includes several other shrines, among them the Jishu Shrine, dedicated to Ōkuninushi, a god of love and "good matches". Jishu Shrine possesses a pair of "love stones" placed 18 meters (60 feet) apart, which lonely visitors can try to walk between with their eyes closed. Success in reaching the other stone with their eyes closed implies that the pilgrim will find love, or true love. One can be assisted in the crossing, but this is taken to mean that a go-between will be needed. The person's romantic interest can assist them as well.90_20180317_123147.jpg90_ee07ad10-2a79-11e8-9c56-79d422c71857.jpg

In 2007, Kiyomizu-dera was one of 21 finalists for the New Seven Wonders of the World, but was not picked as one of the seven winning sites. It would get my vote!

The Kyoto Imperial Palace used to be the residence of Japan's Imperial Family until 1868, when the emperor and capital were moved from Kyoto to Tokyo. It is located in a lovely park in the center of the city that also encompasses the Sento Imperial Palace and a few other attractions.

The current palace was built in 1885 after it had burned down. This is a common story with many of the ancient temples and shrines because they were and are all built of wood. The complex is enclosed by long walls and consists of several gates, halls and gardens. The enthronement ceremonies of Emperors Taisho and Showa were still held in the palace's main hall. Tokyo Imperial Palace is now used for enthronement ceremonies. The complex is enclosed by long walls and consists of several gates, halls and gardens. The enthronement ceremonies of Emperors Taisho and Showa were still held in the palace's main hall. Tokyo Imperial Palace is now used for enthronement ceremonies.

Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion) is a Zen temple whose top two floors are completely covered in gold leaf. Formally known as Rokuonji, the temple was the retirement villa of the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, and according to his will it became a Zen temple of the Rinzai sect after his death in 1408. Kinkakuji was the inspiration for the similarly named Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion), built by Yoshimitsu's grandson, Ashikaga Yoshimasa, on the other side of the city a few decades later.90_20180316_102756.jpg

It is an impressive structure, even on a gloomy, rainy day, built overlooking a large pond, and is the only building left of Yoshimitsu's former retirement complex. It has burned down numerous times throughout its history including twice during the Onin War, a civil war that destroyed much of Kyoto; and once again more recently in 1950 when it was set on fire by a fanatic monk. The present structure was rebuilt in 1955. This temple is also surrounded by lovely paths winding through gardens. You pass by little waterfalls, a tea house perched on a hill and as you descend there are unassuming souvenir vendors.

Kyoto is popularly known as the City of Ten Thousand Shrines, of which the Shimogamo Shrine is the most venerable. It stands in honor of the Mother of the God of Thunder. Buddhist monks built the original structure in 678 AD ahead of a visit by the Emperor Tenmu who became the first monarch of Japan. Shimogamo Shrine is part of the larger Kamo religious complex. This is within an area landscaped beautifully according to ancient Japanese tradition and you can wander around freely. I was fortunate enough to be here when two weddings took place. 90_20180318_101702.jpg90_20180318_103003.jpg90_20180318_095819.jpg

Posted by CWalts 00:16 Archived in Japan Comments (1)

Into Japan

A bit off the beaten path

sunny 10 °C

March 9 – 10 - Tsumago/Magome

The area is known as the Kiso Valley in the Japanese Alps is a step back in time to a setting without visible power lines, lovely ancient traditional farmhouses and tea fields. There are 11 towns along the Nakasendo Way, the most famous are Tsumago and Magome, connected by an ancient samurai trail. The towns have been lovingly preserved to retain their Edo period (1603 – 1867) ambiance. Power lines are hidden and cars are banned from the main roads during the day time. They have beautiful traditional buildings and flag stone streets. The trail between Magome and Tsumago is quiet, lush with pine and bamboo forests, rushing streams and a few smaller villages to support the tea fields along the way.
I was almost completely alone on the trail. I passed no more than 6 people walking the opposite direction – all of them Japanese. I was told by a guide in Tokyo that “no one but Japanese go there” and he was fascinated that I even knew about it. I did see a couple of tourists at my ryokan in Tsumago but they were just visiting the town.90_20180310_113146.jpg270_20180310_121042.jpg

This was my first ryokan experience and it is so lovely. The room was a traditional Japanese style with tatami mats. Breakfast and dinner were in a private screened dining area and the food was out of this world. The freshest of ingredients and each dish presented looked like a piece of art. All served by smiling young ladies who spoke no English but chattered to me anyway and just kept smiling when I chatted back.

March 11 was a travel day to Kashikojima a small town on Ago Bay. The bay is lovely and is home to lots of seafood and pearls. There are pearl divers and in a town nearby the original location of the famous Mikimoto Pearl Company. Mikimoto was the first person to figure out how to grow pearls by seeding the oysters – cultured pearls. It is even more traditional than in Tsumago. Little English is spoken here so it is a bit more of a challenge but somehow we manage to communicate. 20180312_060229.jpg

March 12

I took the train to Ise to visit an important shrine in Japan here. Ise Grand Shrine (Ise Jingu) is a Shinto shrine that was built to honor the goddess Amaterasu. The shrine consists of over 125 shrines that are separated into the Naiku (inner shrine) or Geku (outer shrine). It is one of the most sacred sites in all of japan with more than seven million visitors every year.

The exact date of construction of the shrines is in question. While it is believed that the shrines were built in year four B.C.E, many historians believe them to be built in 690 C.E. According to Japanese legend, the daughter of Emperor Suinin, Yamatohime-no-mikoto established the inner shrine (Naiku) after goddess Amaterasu, ruler of the High Plain of Heaven, came to her saying she would like to live in Ise to be close to the sea and mountains Grand Shrine (Ise Jingu) is a Shinto shrine in Ise, Mie, Japan that was built to honor the goddess Amaterasu.

The Ise Shrine is located in the “Sacred Forest of Ise Jingu”. This forest is home to 5500 hectares of Japanese cypress trees, which are used for the ritual rebuilding of the inner and outer shrines. Naiku (inner shrine) contains Amaterasu’s Sacred Mirror, which is considered one of the Three Sacred Treasures of Japan. Geku (outer shrine) honors Toyouke Okami, goddess of food, agriculture, and shelter. Sacred rituals are performed here daily. It is interesting to watch people going from shrine to shrine and stopping to pray. They approach the shrine, bow three times, say a prayer, clap their hands twice and bow once more. As they move from shrine to shrine it is clear they are becoming more meditative and more connected spiritually. It was very moving.

Interestingly, every 20 years the Jingu grand shrine is torn down and rebuilt in a ceremony called Shinkinen Sengo. It is such a large event that preparations take over eight years, four years alone to prepare the timber. This has been going on since the first shrine was built. It is partly to preserve the cultural continuity, transmitting the culture to the next generation and partly the belief that repeated rebuilding renders the sanctuaries eternal. This seems to exemplify how Japanese feel about maintaining and passing along their traditions in general.

Posted by CWalts 18:00 Archived in Japan Comments (1)

Slurping and Burping

rain 9 °C

In just 4 days in Japan I am so impressed with how kind and courteous everyone is. The attitude is beyond just being nice or friendly it the very definition of courtesy and it is everyone – youngest to oldest. In spite of the fact everyone moves very fast, there is an order to their movement. Entering subway stations stairways and escalators have very clear signage about using the left or right side and everyone does it! Traffic lights are obeyed! People wait for others to get off the subway or trains before getting on even in the busiest times! Younger people give up their seats for older people! People in shops and restaurants all greet you with a smile, slight bow and friendly ‘Kon’nichiwa yokoso’ – hello, welcome and are there to help you without bugging you.

Then, there is eating. Suddenly these orderly, exceedingly polite people get loud, laugh a lot and enjoy their food immensely by loudly slurping noodles followed by satisfied burbs. I was aware of the slurping and burping before coming here and it is such fun to watch the reactions of tourists. Looks of horror, uncontrolled giggling, looking away as if that will really avoid hearing it. It is too funny.

The weather the past two days has been quite ugly – cold, windy, raining. Pretty miserable. I have tried to make the best of it and am happy I got 2 decent days of outdoor exploring before this really set in. I also have a few days at the end of this trip in Tokyo so I am hopeful it will be nicer to get to some of the places I am missing this week. Asakusa, where I am staying is fun to explore and many streets have a light filtering roof so you can at least stay dry. Lots of shops and restaurants so I went shopping. Yes, I did. Not really my thing but there is a big shopping place near me – 7 stories of shops covering almost any product category you can thing of in all price ranges. Just the food and pastry sections alone are a sight to behold. Everything is packaged so beautifully as well – little works of art.

Last night I went on a Night Food Tour. There were 5 of us plus the guide. Kenji was energetic, informative and entertaining. We started on Yakitori Alley which is right in the heart of where most people work in Tokyo. This is a popular area for ‘salary men’ to stop for a snack and a beer before heading home. Yakitori is grilled chicken on skewers. Yaki = grill; Tori = bird. The meat is served in a variety of ways along with grilled leeks, asparagus, hot green peppers etc. It is served like tapas – small plates at a time and if you want more you order another plate. You can also order with sauce or without. The sauce is kind of like BBQ sauce but a little sweeter. All eaten with many cups of sake. There are lots of other foods available in this area that would not appeal to most Western palettes - raw horse meat, grill pig penis and other organs, grilled lizard, snake etc. 90_20180307_165958.jpg

From there we walked to nearby Ginza area. Famous for its high end stores and expensive everything. We went into the most expensive fruit store – in the world! Individual pieces of fruit started at $10 US for a banana to $300 for a small melon. Apparently the wealthy buy here to take fruit as gifts. Too over the top for me but each to his own….90_20180307_181016.jpg

We then took the subway over to the small island of Tsukishima. This used to be just an industrial island for smelting steel. It is now the cool place to live for young business people and is filled with lots of places to eat and drink. Here we stopped for the Tokyo style Monjayki. This is a pancake like snack made with vegetables and meat cooked on a grill in the table with a sauce that is made of secret ingredients. This version is creamier verses a pancake but very tasty and went very well with draft beer. There are many versions of this pancake around Japan so my mission is to try them everywhere I visit.

Posted by CWalts 21:52 Archived in Japan Comments (0)


I arrived late Sunday night and got to my hotel in Asakusa without incident. I had arranged for a seat on a shared bus but I was the only passenger so the driver filled me in along the way of what we passed through. Because I flew into Haneda which is closer to the city it was quite a fast trip – about 30 minutes.

Monday I had a guide for part of the day and she helped me get oriented to the subway system here and also to get my JR Rail Pass which will be my mode of transport for much of this trip. The day was very overcast and after about an hour it rained the rest of the day. We still had a great time.

First stop was just around the corner from my hotel. Asakusa has done a good job or retaining some of its old-town. The historical Buddhist temple, Sensoji is lovely and it is surrounded by a vibrant shopping area with traditional Japanese restaurants, arts and crafts and touristy things.
Sensoji Temple is part of a larger complex that also includes a five story pagoda, and the Asakusa Shrine. The Asakusa Shrine is one of only two buildings in the area to survive WWII and is designated an Important Cultural Property. The pagoda and temple were completely destroyed and the buildings today are built to look exactly like the originals with some modern architecture to help them survive earthquakes and fire. The legend of the Asakusa Shrine is that two brothers, fishermen, found a bosatsu Kannon (Goddess of Mercy, Lord of Compassion) statuette caught in a fishing net in the nearby Samida River in 628. A wealthy man heard of the discovery and approached the brothers and delivered an impassioned sermon about the Buddha. The brothers were very impressed and subsequently converted to Buddhism. The Kannon statue was consecrated and Asakusa Shrine was built in order to worship these men as deities.C8994E900B7A22669A210BD9FDEF2EF1.jpg

We then headed to the subway station just down the street and went to see Hama-rikyu Garden. The garden was originally built more than 350 years ago as a villa and duck hunting ground by the Tokugawa Shogun Family. The garden is a typical Japanese feudal lord’s garden and is very tranquil. The plum flowers and canola flowers were in bloom. A few other flowers were starting to bud but the cherry blossoms are not quite there yet. I hope to catch them in Kyoto if I am lucky. It started to rain while we were here but it only added to how lovely it is.

Another short ride on the subway took us to Meiji-Jingu, one of the most famous Shinto Shrines in Tokyo. It is dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken. The emperor died in 1912 and the shrine and gardens are located in an area the emperor and empress used to visit to see the irises. The current shrine was built in 1958 because the original was destroyed by air raids in WWII. The surrounding forest covers 170 acres and consists of 120,000 tress of 365 different species, which were donated by people from all over Japan. Entering you pass through a wooden Torii gate and walk along a lovely pathway. At one point along the way one side has straw covered sake barrels that have been donated by the sake producers of Japan. On the opposite side are French red wine barrels donated by France because Emperor Meiji loved red wine.

The shrine and forest area is a popular place for celebrations like weddings, birth of a first child etc. and there are places to make special blessings written on cedar wood that are then hung near the entrance to the shrine.

Tuesday included a trip to the famous Tsukiji Market and then onto a sushi making class. I had a guide for the fish market which really isn’t necessary but he was very helpful in helping find the right tuna for the sushi class and also assisted at the JR station to make my seat reservations for Friday’s travel.

The Tsukiji Market is comprised of the outer market which is many small streets of retail stores selling seafood as well as fruits and vegetables. It is very crowded because it is the best place to eat fresh seafood. Lots of the stores are small restaurants with just a street facing counter where you order and, if lucky, find a place at a barrel used as tables. Some have seating areas. People line up for these restaurants to open. The inner market is the wholesale area and tourists can only enter at 10am after the major business of the market is slowing down. This was changed a few years ago because tourists were getting in the way and the fish wholesalers got fed up – can’t blame them. Too many tourists think the whole world is like an amusement park or something and can be very obnoxious.

On to the home of a lovely lady who very patiently taught me how to make sushi. Be aware that this will not be happening if you visit me! I bought a piece of tuna at the fish market so sashimi was included. I learned to make 3 kinds of rolls – traditional, ship or boat shape and heart or hand shaped. I managed the traditional and ship fairly well but the hand shaped required more dexterity than I have. It was very informative and fun. We enjoyed eating it and, not surprisingly, it was the best sushi I have ever had! My hostess also served me two kinds of green tea – one with a slight sweet flavor and Matcha. Matcha is made with a finely ground green tea leaves. The tea is shade-grown for about 3 weeks before harvest. This produces more theanine and caffeine. After harvesting it is processed into a fine powder and is dissolved in hot water or milk. The taste is more bitter but still very pleasant and it is thicker than regular tea. Matcha is the tea used in traditional tea ceremonies and Samurai drank it before going into battle.

I made it back to Asakusa on my own and wandered through the shopping area before heading back to the hotel.

Posted by CWalts 00:56 Archived in Japan Comments (1)

Goodbye Hanoi

sunny 21 °C

Global Volunteers daily meetings start with a message. The message is meant to be about something we took away from the day or something we feel strongly about. Following was my last message and I think it encompasses how I feel about life:

Life isn't perfect but we all have a chance, an opportunity or a right to embrace each new day to do many things. We can decide to make it a great day, or we can simply squander it with pettiness, old grudges, or dwelling on previous mistakes.
Byron Pulsifer, Happiness Is A Choice

My service at BlindLink ended, Friday March 2. I am so glad I did this. I learned a lot and I know I made a little bit of a difference for these young sight-impaired people. Our send off yesterday was another round of lovely traditional Vietnamese songs and lots of hugs. It is hard to leave them but, once again, I have many new friends. My Facebook page has been buzzing with Friend Requests. It will be fun to keep track of all of them.

I spent today, March 3 exploring more things. In spite of the chaotic traffic it is an easy city to walk around. I headed to St Joseph’s Cathedral to get a look inside. It is 19th century, Gothic Revival built in 1886. It was one of the first structures built by the French Colonial government and is the oldest church in Hanoi. It is quite lovely inside and out and has mass several times a day. I saw more tourists in and around it than locals but it might have been the time of day.90_20180303_111009.jpg

From there I headed to the Vietnamese Women’s Museum which is an amazing 5 floor exhibit of the culture of women here. It shows the role women play in the history and culture and currently play in the Arts and in family life. A permanent photo exhibit of Ageless Beauty is very powerful and is a reminder to me of how the elderly are honored here, especially women. Most interesting to me where the women heroes of the 70 years revolutionary war which saw the defeat of the Japanese, Chinese, French and Americans and ultimately achieved the goal of a unified Vietnam. These women are revered in the history of this country. They were experts in communication (propaganda), undercover tactics, medics and warfare tacticians. They were driven by a desire to live in this country without interference from the outside. This history of brave, committed women goes all the way back to 40AD when the Trang sisters rebelled against the first Chinese domination of Vietnam. They are national heroes to this day.20180303_103432.jpg

The circular road around Hoan Kiem Lake is closed to traffic on weekends so it is a wonderful place where families and young people gather. Today the sun came out and it was especially lovely. The evening around the lake is busy with young couples and teens enjoying company of friends, dancing and laughing.

I will once again be sad to leave Vietnam and I am very happy that I got to visit Hanoi again. Last time I was here I was really sick and only my photos remind me I was here at all.

This is a country that continues to capture my soul.

Posted by CWalts 17:56 Archived in Vietnam Comments (2)

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