Monday, July 11, 2016

Is it Lude to Raugh?



3 to 9 July, 2016 - Gifu, Magome, Tsumago, Tokyo, Nikko, Mt Fuji - (Japan)

Oh, I do hate myself for finding amusement in the Japanese accent. They are, after all, speaking way more English than I am speaking Japanese. But when the "Toirets are in the lear carriage", when you "cannot use frash when taking photos", and you are flying on "Qantas fright 26", then it is hard to keep a straight face.

One thing that had interested me some years ago was when I first heard about the ancient Japanese practice of cormorant fishing - where cormorants are used by the fisherman to get the fish! Well, it wasn't far out of our way, so we ended up spending a night in Gifu to witness the fascinating practice.

A Quick Bite at Gifu Station
A Quick Bite at Gifu Station
Sashimi and tempura platter.


Cormorant Fishing
Cormorant Fishing
At Gifu, we went to see the 1300 year old practice of cormorant fishing. The master fishers, of which there are 6 in Gifu, own the cormorants. Each boat has a master fisher and 2 crew. They hang iron lanterns with blazing fires out the front of the boats, and the 10-12 cormorants dive for fish. The small ones, they swallow, the ones which are too big are regurgitated and collected by the master. It is fascinating to watch, and the fires make it a real spectacle.


Cormorant Fishing
Cormorant Fishing
All the boats working together in a line to herd the fish.


Being a quick trip, we couldn't allocate too much time to any one thing. Doing a short hike between two villages, though, did get us a small taste of some of the nature that Japan has. What's more, it was a perfect opportunity to experience a ryokan, a super traditional Japanese accommodation.

The Dinner Bell
The Dinner Bell
We wondered if ringing the bell would get the bears salivating "Pavlov's Dogs" style in anticipation of a nice meal of "mountain trekker with seasonal vegetables".


Tsumago
Tsumago
The beautiful mountain village of Tsumago. This ancient post town is apparently oft used in Japanese movies and television shows. It is on a long mountain trail, which we hiked a small section of.



Ryokan Fujioto - Tsumago
Click on photo to change focus and perspective.


Just One of Ten Courses
Just One of Ten Courses
We stayed in a ryokan in Tsumago. A ryokan is a traditional Japanese accommodation. Like inns and hotels, they can vary in quality, but generally they are very high class and make you feel special. The best ones also offer some of the best dining in Japan. We had 10 impeccable courses.


Hot Sake
Hot Sake
To round off the meal, a few shots of hot sake.


One thing we are having trouble with is the tendency of Japanese maps to not necessarily put north at the top. Particularly on signs with maps where the norm seems to line the map up with the orientation of the sign. It is not wrong, just different. And it surprised me how hard it is to change one's thinking. More than once, we nearly headed off in the wrong direction after assuming the wrong thing...

The last four nights we spent in Tokyo, making day trips or wandering in the city.

Day trip one - world heritage site of Tosho-gu at Nikko.

Shin-kyo
Shin-kyo
A footbridge in Nikko - where some dude was carried over the river by a pair of serpents.


Bell Tower of Tosho-gu
Bell Tower of Tosho-gu
World heritage site in Nikko, near Tokyo.



Toshu-gu - Nikko
Click on photo to change focus and perspective.



Toshu-gu - Nikko
Click on photo to change focus and perspective.


Back in Tokyo, we seemed to spend a large amount of our time eating and drinking. We found one particularly authentic bar near the hotel which we frequented a few times. Ordering drinks was straightforward, but food was a bit more challenging. Even when we gestured at some skewers of meat that looked quite nice, they seemed skeptical that we would be wanting them. Eventually, one began charades, pointing at his brain, his heart, and his bum. We decided it may not be the perfect delicacy we were anticipating.

But never fear, it would be hard to go hungry in Japan.


"Crams" in Sake
One of the little places near our hotel.


Our second last day was "Tokyo super-kitsch". Focusing on Harajuka and neighbouring areas, we got to see and experience some of the Tokyo's most bizarre.

Robot Pets
Electronic Pets
She was very contented playing with her robot dog and cat.


Richard Making a Friend
Richard Making a Friend
Trying to work out if Pepper the robot understands any English. Pepper responded to our Konichiwa, but seemed to get disinterested when I tried some English.


Monster Cafe Wonderland
Monster Cafe Wonderland
Some of the tables around the bizarre "Monster Cafe".


Drinks and Icecream, Monster Style
Drinks and Icecream, Monster Style
At the bar of the Tokyo Monster Cafe.


When A
When A "Monster" Pulls You Up to Dance...
Was Jo chosen because she was clapping along too enthusiastically, or not enthusiastic enough? Either way, she starred on the cake merry go round with the three "monster" dancers.


A Giant Robot Serpent
A Giant Robot Serpent
This giant serpent, representing the living creatures of the sea and the forest in the bizarre battle of robots versus living creatures. Ironically, yes it was a robot...


A Giant Robot Robot
A Giant Robot Robot
And representing the robots was this robot... made to look sort of like a dragon or monster or living creature of some sort. The "story" was not big on plot - like a twelve year old boy might write. "And then a bigger creature comes out, and then an even bigger robot, and then a super serpent, and then a gigantic robot, and then a fire breathing dinosaur, and they fight and the good guys win". You get the idea.


Dancers
Dancers
Robot Restaurant.


Tokyo at Night
Tokyo at Night
View from the observation deck in the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Offices.


Sunday, July 3, 2016

Japan Introduction



26 June to 3 July, 2016 - Narita, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Hijemi - (Japan)

So, a short adventure begins. Thank you to Qantas Frequent Flyer for the flights. Although, me-thinks the general costs are going to out-weigh any savings from the flights. I tried to use Jo's birthday as much as possible - however no business class upgrade :( - but we did manage to get some French Champagne down in economy :) - little blessings...

And, for the first time, I am playing with my new toy. A Lytro Illum camera. A depth of field camera that allows the taking of some amazing interactive pictures. They are interspersed below.

First Meal in Japan
First Meal in Japan
So, we flew in late. We got to our hotel, and decided we could NOT be bothered going out to find something to eat. The vending machine in the hall had "hot meals in 8 minutes". Basically, after putting the ingredients in the correct spot, you pull the string. A chemical reaction begins inside and cooks your dinner. At one point, I felt like I was holding a bomb and might need to throw it out the window before bringing the building down.


Shinkansen Bullet Train
Shinkansen Bullet Train
Photo taken especially for Ben.


Our first bullet train ride had us in Kyoto in no time. OK, so no time is a bit of an exaggeration, it was a few hours, but it was fast considering. We got an iconic Mt Fuji vista (I do believe most people see it from the bullet train first)! We found our little house in the back streets of Kyoto, found our local supermarket, and headed out to celebrate Jo's birthday with a proper meal.

We are loving our little house. It has a traditional pot bathtub, and there are some lovely antique furnishings. The bedroom has latticed paper walls, and there is a magnificent round window that screams Japanese. Yes, it is tiny. Downstairs is a toilet, a bathroom (same size as the toilet), a kitchen/living area (a bit bigger than the bathroom), and a stairway that is almost steep enough to be classified a ladder. Upstairs is a bedroom. It is about 2 or 3 times bigger than the double bed it contains. It's small, but it is everything we need. The amazing thing is that we are sure there are many families living in similar size houses. Home, for the week.

Jizo-an - Our Kyoto Home
Jizo-an - Our Kyoto Home
The entire upstairs of our house in Kyoto. It is gorgeous in a quiet residential neighbourhood.


So, we interspersed site-seeing in Kyoto with day trips. We had one rainy day. Oh boy, did it rain. We had thought about grabbing the umbrellas because of the forecast, but when the skies are clear it is hard to imagine them changing. As we sheltered in a little cafe with our noodles, we regretted leaving those umbrellas. As we ran from temple to tree to eave, we regretted ignoring that forecast. You would think we were novices or something...

Anyway, we came back to our abode, warmed up, dried out, and had some sushi. Our dinners have generally been sushi, tempura, and something else. We have been eating lunch out, and dinner back in our room. Cheap sushi and sashimi is the staple. A bottle of imported wine always helps, or a local beer. Haven't quite taken to the saki.

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
Kimono clad young ladies in the magnificent Bamboo Grove in western Kyoto.


Path at Fushimi Inari-Taisha
Path at Fushimi Inari-Taisha
Some of the thousands of torii for the Shinto shrine of Fushimi Inari-Taisha.


Fox Carving
Fox Carving
Spring for ritualistic washing and cleansing. Fushimi Inari-Taisha.


Jo at Fushimi Inari-Taisha
Jo at Fushimi Inari-Taisha
Under the torii.



Lanterns at Fushimi Inari-Taishi - Kyoto
Click on photo to change focus and perspective.


Cemetery, Kyoto
Cemetery, Kyoto


Cemetery - Kyoto
Click on photo to change focus and perspective.


Kinkaku-ji
Kinkaku-ji
The "golden pavilion" of Kinkaku-ji.


Drinks in Kyoto
Click on photo to change focus and perspective.



Dragon at Kiyomizu-dera - Kyoto
Click on photo to change focus and perspective.


Kiyomizu-dera
Kiyomizu-dera
A very large temple complex in eastern Kyoto, with this view being a highlight.


Higashi Hongan-ji
Higashi Hongan-ji
Incredible temple in the heart of Kyoto. Nearly as big was the coil of rope made from human hair.



Kyoto Tower viewed from Higashi Hongan-ji
Click on photo to change focus and perspective.


Our two day trips from Kyoto were both amazing. Hiroshima, for one reason, and Himeji, for another.

In reality, there was no preparing for how we felt at Hiroshima. Speaking for myself, I felt that I came ready for certain feelings. I had already decided what my reactions would be, and what emotional impact the experience would have on me. Ten minutes in front of the dome, and all bets were off. It was not necessarily sadder than I expected, but it certainly cut deeper.

A-Bomb Dome
A-Bomb Dome
Almost directly under the spot where the world's first atomic bomb was dropped in August 1945. Hiroshima.



Ground-zero - Hiroshima
A paper crane at the Atomic Bomb Dome. 6 August 1945 should not be forgotten.

Click on photo to change focus and perspective.


Himeji Jo
Himeji Jo
The magnificent castle of Himeji.


Sunday, January 17, 2016

Wrapping Up In Reunion



11 to 16 January, 2015 - St Joseph, Cirque de Cilaos, Piton St-Leu - (Reunion/France)

So, around the south and up the west, our time in Reunion (and this adventure) draws towards a close. We are definitely not running out of things to do here. Another week would be easy to fill in! Unfortunately, we do not have that, so now it is a matter of choosing what to do to out of what has not been done.

One thing we had been particularly planning all along was some walking in the interior, going to the famed "cirques" of Reunion. Cirque de Cilaos seems often listed as the most impressive of the three, so into the interior we went. A wonderful drive of 400 plus twists and turns, not too much of a climb overall, but we went up to passes, down along ravines, over and under, to be ultimately at Cilaos.

Look Carefully...
Look Carefully...
If you look carefully, you will see the "canyoners" making their way down the falls. Nice, because it gives perspective. Cascade de la Grande Ravine.


Grande Anse
Grande Anse
Beach time on Reunion's south coast.


Road to Cirque de Cilaos
Road to Cirque de Cilaos
There are more than 400 twists and turns on the 37 kilometre road to Cirque de Cilaos. Many of them are hairpins. One is even a 270 degree rotation where the road passes back over itself on a bridge. An exciting drive indeed, punctuated by many viewpoints and lookouts.


Peak in Cirque de Cilaos
Peak in Cirque de Cilaos
One of the peaks en-route to Cirque de Cilaos. Just to the left of the peak, keen eyes can pick out the road tunnel passing through the massif of rock.


Well, here we are. This part of the blog comes to you from where we are "stranded" in the mountains. Not entirely cut off, so I don't want to over-dramatise. We are at Ilet a Cordes. It is 10 km from Cilaos. The views are incredibly beautiful. Anyway, Cilaos almost feels like the end of the world as it is. But it is not the end - 10 km further is Ilet a Cordes. We came here for even more views. And now we are stuck. A rock face has collapsed and closed the only road. How long for? Nobody seems to know. 4 hours in, and some engineers have been helicoptered in to begin assessment. Initial assessment has them saying we should be out of here tonight. But it is past lunch time, and not one pebble has been moved yet. The retaining mesh for the rocks has been ripped off and I think that is probably their first concern.

Morning - Cirque de Cilaos
Morning - Cirque de Cilaos
The mornings generally bring better views. The clouds tend to be higher or non-existant. In the high parts of Reunion, as the day progresses, so does the deterioration of the weather.


Looking Back at Cilaos
Looking Back at Cilaos
When you are in Cilaos, it is harder to appreciate its location than when you look at it.


Road Closed
Road Closed
Workmen survey the rock fall on the road from Ilet a Cordes to Cilaos. This had the road closed for nearly six hours, primarily while we waited for engineers to be helicoptered in, who then abseiled down the cliff, dislodging all loose boulders and rubble as they went. It seems the problem was not the rocks which had fallen, but the rocks which were yet to fall!


Well, by 5:00, we were back in town with a glass of wine in hand. It was around six hours we were held up. Really, nothing to complain about, just another adventure.

Mushrooms Along the Way
Mushrooms Along the Way
Along one of the trails we walked in Cirque de Cilaos.


Cardinal
Cardinal
Ubiquitous throughout Reunion.


A Comouflaged Frog
A Comouflaged Frog
Trying to hide in the undergrowth, I managed to get a shot as he scuttled from one pile of dead leaves to another.


Longose
Longose
A beautiful flower, but unfortunately, it is a weed.


Back to the coast, to couchsurf with Marion and Benoit, and their children Alix and Basile. We met this family in Rodrigues, and they invited us to stay when we passed through.

On our second last day, we headed up to "La Fenetre", the window, to try and get some views. Unfortunately, cloud meant we never saw the whole view at once. Most of the time, we were staring at white nothing. Occasionally a break in the clouds revealed a tiny snippet of the overall vista, but a lot of imagination was needed to piece it all together.

So we headed down to the beach, and ended up at l'Etang-Sale les Bains, which has a black sand beach. If you think a normal beach can get hot, try black sand. We decided to leave our things in the shade, high above the water line, and make a dash to the water. I realised it was hot, but was committed and just kept on going with the cool waters as my target. What I didn't realise was that I was seriously burning my feet in the process. It was too late, and now I am nursing seriously blistered feet and toes. Jo has asked me to please be more careful with my feet the day before leaving an island. This makes two in a row.

Final day was relaxed, with not too much planned. This is par for the course when there is an afternoon flight. It is hard to enjoy things with the thought of flights and formalities looming - better to underplan, and finish with a wonderful meal of octopus and prawns and a carafe of red wine.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

It's France with an Active Volcano



7 to 10 January, 2015 - St-Andre, Piton de la Fornaise, La Brule - (Reunion/France)

Reunion. A French department in the Indian Ocean. Geographically, it's Africa. Culturally, it's laid back France. Magnificent topography, formed by numerous volcanoes, not all of them extinct.

We picked up a hire car, dealt with odd opening hours, discovered how little English was spoken here, and dined on take-away Creole food and a bottle of red. That was day one.

The second day saw us discovering some of the beautiful natural wonders of this island. The afternoon had us climbing high to spend the night close to the volcanic heart of Reunion.

A Beautiful Local
A Beautiful Local
Being French, geckos here care about fashion. I wonder if a gecko in Reunion calls in French?


Gecko Attitude
Gecko Attitude
I love how much detail has been picked up with this photo. He almost seems expressive, don't you think?


Falls at Bassin La Paix
Falls at Bassin La Paix
Two of four waterfalls pouring in to this magnificently picturesque large pool.


Route du Volcan
Route du Volcan
The last few kilometres to Pas de Bellcombe (Piton de la Fornaise) are across this magnificent landscape. This is Route du Volcan - Volcano Route. I almost expected to encounter the Mars Rover!


We arose early - almost an hour before sunrise, so had already descended a couple of hundred metres to the lava field when the sun first appeared. The volcano itself cast a long shadow, keeping us out of the sun for at least another hour. By this time, we were some way up the side of the cone that houses the main crater. The going was relatively difficult - the dry lava underfoot being uneven and unyielding. But the views into the crater were amazing. We were so blessed, too. We were alone some ten to fifteen minutes before anyone else reached the viewpoint. Also, by the time they arrived, the clouds had began to roll in. They had to piece together the overall vista, as clouds rolled in and out and around. We expected to walk back in baking sun. Instead, it was moisture soaked fog. And somehow, we still got back to the car feeling dry and dehydrated. A wonderful experience, though, and still different to other things we have done.

Jo and the Volcano
Jo and the Volcano
Piton de la Fornaise, a very active volcano on Reunion. Reached by trekking 2-3 hours over lava fields. This viewpoint is reached after ascending to the eastern rim.


Smoking!
Smoking!
From the rim, the Dolomieu Crater floor can be viewed, some 350 metres below, smoking and steaming, just to remind observers that it is not dead, just asleep.


Driving along the south eastern coast of the island has you crossing the "Grand Brule". This is the lava field where the spewings of countless eruptions have made their way to the sea. Some are marked - 2001, 1986. The greatest flow is from the 2007 eruption.

Lava Flows in Stained Glass
The church in Piton Ste-Rose. In 1977, a lava flow split and went around the church. The stained glass of commemorates this miracle. The church is now know as Notre Dame des Laves.


Driving Across Grand Brule
Older lava flows have significant vegetation growing. This lava field was from 2001.


Rippled and Rolled Lava
Some of the beautiful forms left when lava flows solidified.


Thursday, January 7, 2016

Rodrigues - The "More" of Mauritius



1 to 7 January, 2015 - Mahebourg, Graviers - (Mauritius)

Mauritius, or at least the main island of Mauritius, is more of a staging point for us than a destination in itself. We spent a couple of nights to get a little feel for it all, but then we were on a small plane to Rodrigues.

Rodrigues Island, of around 30,000 people, lies almost 700 km east of the main island. There are 2 or 3 "resorts", but overall, it is very underdeveloped and incredibly underrated. In our eyes, perfect. Sometimes, we had entire beaches to ourselves. Crowded beaches were those with 3 or 4 large families. Being the middle of high season, with public holidays and weekends and close to New Year, there were extended families barbecuing and camping in all sorts of spots. But it never once felt busy!

Snorkelling, sun, beaches, food and drink, and a 26th anniversary slap up lunch. Absolutely perfect.

Lion Mountain
Lion Mountain
Near Mahebourg, Mauritius.


Rodrigues Lagoon
Rodrigues Lagoon
Coming in to land at Rodrigues Island, Mauritius. The lagoon around the island is twice the size of the island itself. Unfortunately, the clouds obscured the peaks of the interior.


Idyllic Beach on Rodrigues
Idyllic Beach on Rodrigues
On the west coast of the island are a series of beaches that can only be reached on foot. Beautiful sand enclosed by cliffs, and the reefs are not far off shore. We walked from St Francois to Graviers (where we are staying), visiting them all. Unfortunately, I stepped on a rock at our second swim, and took a small chunk out of the sole of my foot. Ouch. I had to hobble for a few hours to finish the walk, and the final swim and snorkel was accordingly cancelled :(


Our Outlook
Our Outlook
After a wonderful anniversary lunch in town, where we had well and truly eaten our fill and imbibed a bottle of wine (and a couple of cocktails). All we could manage was to collapse with a late afternoon beer and enjoy our last evening in Rodrigues.


Flying out, we were treated by the pilot to a bit of an aerial tour. Very soon after take-off, he stopped the climb, and rather than turning abruptly to head direct to Mauritius, he did a low-level complete circuit of the island. And it meant so much more to see it that way having completed our visit. We could point out the places we'd been to, identify the beaches where we had swum.

The South-Eastern Beaches
The South-Eastern Beaches
An aerial view of the beaches we had hiked to on the south-east coast of Rodrigues. These lie between St Francois and Graviers, the location of the B&B we were staying at. From the air you can appreciate just how close the reef comes to the coast. The first beach is the "bottle neck". The third one along is where I injured my foot. Sorry, I wrote that more so I would remember, not because I think anyone really cares which beach I hurt my foot on!


Long Stretches of Sand
Long Stretches of Sand
The beaches of St Francois and Cotton Bay.


Coco Island, Rodrigues
Coco Island, Rodrigues
A small island near the edge of the Rodrigues Island lagoon.