Thursday, February 16, 2012

Nara, Japan

Daibutsuden- Great Buddha Hall

From Kyoto Station, we took the JR Train to the city of Nara. After a 45-minute trip we arrived in the center of town. It took about an hour to walk to the Nara Deer Park and The Todai-ji along the Higashimuki Shopping Arcade. The crowd of visitors increased as we neared the Temple complex.
It is a wonderful experience to buy deer food and feed the holy Sitka Deer. Remember to bring something to wipe your hands with after feeding them. The deer aren’t the cleanest of animals and our hands were black with dirt.
Nandaimon- Great Southern Gate
The Todai-ji (The Eastern Great Temple) in Nara is a large Buddhist complex that contains a number of remarkable historic wooden structures.The centerpiece is the Daibutsuden (The great Buddha hall) that is thought to be the largest wooden structure in the world.The original building was completed in 752CE, but later fell victim to earthquake, fire and warfare.The present building dates from 1709 and is somewhat smaller than the original.
Within the vast 182’ (55.5m) by 160’ (48.75m) interior is an immense bronze seated image of the Buddha of Infinite Light (Vairocana]) begun in 747CE. The statue towers 47’ (14.35m) above its pedestal. Behind is an even larger gilt aura with additional Buddhas. The statue was damaged along with the temple and parts have been replaced at various times.
Because of the immense scale of this building, no single trees were large enough to form the massive columns. In one case, a section of a column was omitted so children or small persons may crawl through to obtain religious merit. Most adults can’t make it though.
After the Daibutsuden, we strolled around seeing the various temple structures and then started back towards Nara Station. We had bowls of Udon in the Higashimuki Arcade on the way back and stopped at several shops selling traditional Nara delicacies, including Sushi, Pickled Vegetables, and other tasty morsels. Having left our Kyoto hotel at around 9:00, we were back at the Kyoto Station at roughly 20:00. Nara City is a great day trip from Kyoto, there’s a lot to see and do. Highly recommended!

Monday, February 13, 2012


Hakone Open Air Museum

While we were in Tokyo we decided to take a day trip to Hakone that is one of the closest and most popular day trip destinations from Tokyo. The beautiful area of Hakone has everything… hot-springs, mountains, lakes and beautiful views of Mount Fuji. We left early so we could see everything in the Hakone area.
Getting there was half the fun. Since we had a Japan Rail Pass we took the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Odawara that took a little over an hour. In Odawara we bought Hakone Free passes that allowed travel throughout Hakone on private railways, cable cars, ropeways, buses and boats. It’s a pretty inclusive ticket. It’s great fun to make the circuit around Hakone.
Starting at the Hakone Yumoto Station we took the charming two car electric train that goes through forests and over streams on the way to the first stop, Gora. It only took 45 minutes and was super scenic. There were beautiful hot-springs along the way but unfortunately we didn’t have the time to stop. Maybe next time. 
It’s worth a long stop at the Hakone Open Air Museum which is possibly Hakone’s number one attraction. It’s very interesting, with beautiful 20th century sculpture shown in gardens and meadows. There are over 400 sculptures on view from artists such as Picasso, de Kooning and Henry Moore. There’s also a Picasso Pavilion showing his art ranging from pastels to ceramics. It’s one of the worlds largest collections. The picture Gallery nearby has paintings by Miró, Renoir, Kandinsky and many more. Fantastic place to see.
We then took the Cable car to Sounzan which has the Hakone Museum of art that shows pottery and ceramics from 4000 BCE to the Edo period. Again, very interesting. We stopped for tea and a snack at a teahouse there that is in a moss garden that is quite beautiful.
With our Hakone Free Pass in hand we next got on the ropeway gondola which provides a scenic half-hour trip over the mountain to Togendai that lies next to Lake Ashi. Breathtaking views. The ropeway is the best route to Togendai for sightseeing, but if you want to get there quickly instead, make sure to take the bus. Not half as picturesque though.The circuit then continues with a boat ride across the lake to the town of Hakone-machi. The boats are pretty interesting as they’re Disney-like replicas of pirate ships. It’s pretty weird to be sailing in a pirate ship in the middle of Japan but the views are incredible. It’s really quite fun.
At Hakone-machi there were plenty of buses ready to go back to Odawara and the train to Tokyo. It's easy. All in all, Hakone was a wonderful day trip from Tokyo with lots to see and do. All the scenery, The Hakone Open Air Museum and the transportation itself makes Hakone an unforgettable destination. Highly recommended!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Kamakura Japan

While we were in Tokyo, we used our JR pass and took a day trip to Kamakura on the Yokosuka line that took about an hour. Once in Kamakura we wanted to see the great Buddha so took the little JR Enoden Line that putt-putts to the Hase station. Very charming.
The most famous attraction in town is the Great Buddha (Daibutsu) near the Kotoku-in Temple. The Buddha is 13.5 meters (44 ft) high, weighs 93 tons and is the second largest bronze Daibutsu in Japan, the largest is at Nara’s Todai-ji. The statue was cast in 1252 and was originally located inside a large temple there. However, the temple buildings were destroyed multiple times by typhoons and finally a tidal wave in the 15th century. Since 1495, the Buddha has been standing in the open air becoming more weathered and beautiful with each passing year.

You can pay ¥20 and go into the Buddha. Standing inside the Daibutsu, you get a sense of the sophisticated technologies used to cast it. It is clear from the lattice pattern on the interior walls that the Great Buddha was made in a series of 40 separate castings. Impressive.

Kamakura is a small city now but it once was very important and was the center of the Kamakura period from 1185 to 1333. This period marks the governance of the Kamakura Shogunate and the transition to the Japanese medieval era, a nearly 700-year period in which the emperor, the court, and the traditional central government were left intact but lonly had ceremonial functions.

In 1333, the Kamakura shogunate was overthrown in a coup d'état. The Imperial House was restored to political influence, but that only lasted three years.

Rickshaw Driver
The history of Kamakura is fascinating and was once a very important city in Japan. Now it’s a wonderful, relatively quiet place to get away to from the crowds and noise of Tokyo. Highly recommended! 

Marunouchi Tokyo

Four Seasons Marunouchi

When in Tokyo, the Four Seasons Marunouchi, Chiyoda is a favorite for many reasons. It’s very near Tokyo station, which provides many transit opportunities; from shinkansen bullet trains for long distance, subways, buses, taxis and the Narita Express (NEX) train for the airport. It’s about an hour to and from NRT.

FS Marunouchi provides a white-gloved agent at the airport that helps you to get on your feet at the airport and get NEX tickets.  The train and seat number is phoned ahead to FS staff at Tokyo Station so they’re waiting at the exact train door to help with luggage and provide an escort through the Tokyo Station maze to the hotel, a few minutes walk away. After a long flight, that’s a good thing.

The small hotel (57 rooms) lives up to Four Seasons expectations, with clean, modern and large rooms for Tokyo. Our favorite room is the Deluxe Premier, which overlooks the bullet trains gliding into Tokyo Station. These rooms have a living room, walk in closet and floor to ceiling triple glazed windows so the silence is profound. Relaxation can also be found in the Onsen, a Japanese hot bath that uses spring water.

The front desk and concierge staff was amazingly genuine and polished. They are on the seventh floor and are very knowledgeable about the city's best offerings. No request was impossible for them. Anything they plan and lay out for guests is presented written in English or any other language a guest prefers, along with a map and any necessary other information written in Japanese. They think of everything.

The Four Seasons Marunouchi has the best location in Tokyo. The Ginza, Tsukiji Fish Market and the Imperial Palace are all with-in walking distance. There are many exceptional hotels in Tokyo, but this is the place to stay.

Japanese Emperor's Birthday

The Emperor’s Birthday is a national holiday in Japan. The Holiday date moves relative to who the emperor is at the time. The modern Emperor Akihito’s birthday is December 23rd. Being in Tokyo for the holidays allowed us the ability to go through the gates of the Imperial palace and see the Emperor and his family in person.

In Japan, the emperor is given great respect and never referred to by his given name, but rather is referred to as "His Imperial Majesty the Emperor" which may be shortened to “His Imperial Majesty." He is very loved and respected.

The Japanese imperial system  -with its estimated 1,800-year history- almost got eliminated after World War II. World War II was fought in the name of then Emperor Hirohito. U.S. occupying forces decided to keep Emperor Hirohito on the Chrysanthemum throne as a symbol of state at the end of the war. Emperor Akihito acceded to the throne in 1989 following the death of his father Emperor Hirohito.

We joined the joyous crowd going through the Nakamon gate with everyone flying little paper Rising Sun flags. The gates slowly creaked open as we filed past the palace guards who formally allowed us to pass. The palace is a beautiful stone and wooden building that employs traditional Japanese architecture that rose above us to the left. We followed the stone path that led to the Kyuden Totei Plaza in front of the main reception hall where the Emperor and his family would appear on the balcony. Rustling paper flags flew everywhere.

During the height of the 1980s Japanese property bubble, The Imperial Palace grounds were valued by some as more than the value of all the real estate in California. 

The happy crowd was in respectful anticipation as the rarely seen Emperor and his family came to the front of the porch. Speaking slowly and deliberately the Emperor gave a short address of which I didn’t understand a word. It didn’t matter; just seeing Akihito speak to his people was lucky and excitement enough. It happens only once a year.

Friday, February 10, 2012


A day trip to Macau from Hong Kong is a fun and easy thing to do. Getting there is an interesting hour trip by high-speed ferry or 20 minutes by helicopter. The ferries depart from the Hong Kong-Macau ferry terminal right above the Sheung Wan MTR station and is in walking distance from Central

Macau along with Hong Kong is a  “special administrative region (SAR)” of China. You do need your passports to exit Hong Kong and to enter Macau and then to return to HK.

Macau is a city with 3 cultures. One is the colonial Portuguese fortresses, churches and food that speak to a true Mediterranean experience on the China coast. The other is the Las Vegas of the East. But don’t forget, we may talk about Portugal and Vegas, but there’s a big historic Chinese culture there too.

During the past few years, sleepy Macau has experienced a boom usually associated with big cities. But rather than skyscrapers and office towers, the construction here is all about Vegas-style casinos and hotels. 

As far as historic sights go, the façade of St. Paul’s is the classic iconic image of Macau. On its own, it’s just an average attraction compared to European cathedral standards. But, due to its significance for Macau, the Ruins of St. Paul's makes a nice stop while you’re strolling around the center of town. The Fort, Castle and museum nearby are nice attractions as well. Central Macau is a charming euro-mediterranean collection of buildings as well to explore. Nice experience.

An entirely different architectural view is the Cotai Strip. There are many casinos including the Venetian, The Sands and the Wynn Macau among them. We didn't gamble much in Macau but at the Wynn, we had lunch in the Red 8 restaurant that was very good Chinese food; much better than the Red 8 at Wynn Las Vegas. I guess the cuisine is always better closer to home… even in a casino!

We took a helicopter back to HK for the fun of it and in 20 minutes we were back to Central.  The trip to Macau was a fun day trip and next time we’re in Hong Kong we’ll do it again.

Giant Tian Tan Buddha

No trip to Hong Kong is complete without a visit to the Giant Tian Tan Buddha and the Po Lin Monastery, so we got on the MTR in Central and got off at the Tung Chung Station to get there. Then we walked over to the Ngong Ping 360 Cable Car, and took it up the hill to the Giant Buddha who was sitting serenely on top of the Ngong Ping plateau, looking down on the mountain scenery of Lantau Island.

Originally, the Buddhist monastery was built by three monks and was initially called Da Maopeng. In 1924, however, it was renamed Po Lin Monastery. About 90 years later, the Po Lin Monastery has become one of the most renowned and most popular destinations in Hong Kong.

The statue is named Tian Tan Buddha because its base is a model of the Altar of Heaven or Earthly Mount of Tian Tan, the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. It is one of the five large Buddha statues in China. Six smaller bronze statues known as “The Offering of the Six Devas” surround it. The offerings symbolize charity, morality, patience, zeal, meditation, and wisdom, all of which are necessary to enter into nirvana.

We got a decent workout as we climbed the 268 steps to reach where the Buddha resides. Once there, we had a beautiful view of Lantau Island and we visited the Buddha both inside and out.

From Po Lin Monastery it's a short walk to the Wisdom Path, an outdoor replica of the centuries old Heart Sutra, one of the world’s best-known prayers that is revered by Confucians, Buddhists and Taoists alike. The sutra is displayed on wooden pillars placed in the form of a figure 8 to symbolize the idea of immeasurable splendor and infinity.

After all the hiking up stairs and walking the Wisdom Path, we were ready to stop at the Po Lin monastery’s restaurant for a lunch of vegetarian dishes made by Buddhist monks. Refilled and refreshed, we continued exploring and then hiked back to Tung Chung on a beautiful nature trail, which was a nice way to end our viewing of the Giant Tian Tan Buddha. Highly recommended!


We delivered aid by helicopter to a remote village in Cambodia. On the way back the pilot flew us over The Angkor Wat Archeological Park so we could see the ruins from the air and put the huge temple complex into perspective.

Stretching over 400 sq km, Angkor Park contains the ruins of a series of capitals, built in the phases of Khmer Empire dating from the 9th through 15th centuries. The Park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1992. It luckily got through the turmoil of the Khmer Rouge era largely intact; the main sites are clean but land mines are still being found and destroyed in the more remote areas.

Early Angkor temples –including Angkor Wat itself, built to honor Shiva- were Hindu. A powerful King, Jayavarman-VII then converted to Mahayana Buddhism around 1200 CE and his many new temples were dedicated Buddhist structures. However, Jayavarman-VIII, his successor, returned to Hinduism and began a massive destruction of J7’s Buddhist temples; he systematically defaced images and altered them to become Hindu again. Hinduism eventually lost to Buddhism in the religious struggle for the Khmer people.
One set of structures that continues to mystify archeologists are the Barays (reservoirs) near Angkor Wat. While it has long been assumed that they were used for irrigation, some historians argue that their primary function was political or religious. It is a question that has not been answered.
We were lucky to fly over Angkor Archeological Park to get some idea of its vastness. It will take many more trips to grasp the wonders that are the Angkor Wat Archaeological Park.

The Golden Triangle

Four Seasons Tented Camp

Perched on a hill above the Ruak River, the Four Seasons Tented Camp is hidden in a beautiful forest with tents overlooking the famed Golden Triangle.

Burma bar
Before you get there, the excitement of the Tented Camp begins with a 90-minute Land Rover ride from Chiang Rai through the northern countryside. You then reach a little boat pier on the Ruak where there's a long-boat waiting to take you up the river to Camp.

Our Tent
The Golden Triangle was, until just recently, a no mans land of drugs and violence. According to the CIA Fact book, it was “the world’s second largest producer of opium” behind only Afghanistan. Quite a place… historically it was  infamous for its connection to the opium trade. Then, along with the relentless efforts of the Thai Royal family, many worked to transform the agricultural landscape from poppy growing to one of producing coffee, tea, fruits and other highland crops in neatly terraced fields. Today, the term Golden Triangle simply designates the confluence of the Ruak and the Mekong Rivers at the junction of Thailand, Laos, and Burma (Myanmar).

Tent Interior
After a 15-minute private long-boat trip, the camp has a luxurious feeling of a turn of the century asian safari camp and the resort truly lives up to its high rankings. The experience of staying in one of the nicest tents you'll ever sleep in is great, while waking up to the sound of birds and looking over the river with an outdoor shower is sublime…

Another nice thing about the resort is it’s all-inclusive. Really inclusive; starting with breakfast, lunch and dinner; then cocktails, a wine cellar with cheese plus the Burma bar for the daily drinks and hors d'oeuvres during “Sundowners”. 

And that’s just the food… also included are daily guided tours to nearby destinations in Thailand and Burma. Then a full day of mahout training and riding elephants to the river for their daily baths. It's great to be a mahout for the day.

Wine Cellar
It's a very personal, intimate experience with just14 tents and there were only 20 guests while we were there. All in all you will be amazed at this resort and it's truly one of the great and unique travel experiences one might have. Highly recommended!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Khlongs in Bangkok

Long Tail Boat on Chao Phraya River

Bangkok is a city of khlongs or canals that are connected to the main river, the Chao Phraya.  It was once called the Venice of the East due to the number of canals and passages that divided the city into separate areas of land. The city once used these canals as a basic transportation network but they have since slowly been filled over the years as motorized vehicles have taken over the movement of people and Trade.

Does the Venice of the East still exist? Yes and no. The canals were drained or filled because of the risk of cholera and Malaria they posed, or to make way for the badly needed roads. 
River Lock
However it wasn't a total destruction of the canals.In some areas, the remaining khlongs are a slightly pungent but are still quite picturesque. The old bridges survive and crooked houses still crowd the waters edge. For a few baht you can zip past them in long tail boats or take a gentle stroll along canal paths, peeking into Thai homes, stepping over shoes, children or elderly ladies watering potted plants. Either by boat or by path it shows the Thai way of living and their lifestyle. It's fascinating.
We really like being in Bangkok and exploring the Khlongs by long tail boat. It's an interesting thing to do there. If you get a chance, grab a long tail boat and go.