It was only this year that I've started watching the skies more avidly than before. Perhaps this is due to the fact that I've been lucky enough to have a great view of sunrises from my front window. I also walk at the park right by the salt marshes and I often watch the planes coming in to land at SFO. It's a wide open space and there's an unobstructed view of the sky. One day while walking along the trail, I espied black smoke in the horizon. Then I heard the sounds of sirens and police cars speeding to the scene of the fire.
Since I walk around the park after work, I'm often rewarded with breathtaking sunsets.
Bay Area sunset
The sky is a canvas in progress. Cloud formations change so quickly that by the time I pull out my camera from my handbag, I've lost that particular scenario. It's a little tricky to take pictures while driving unless you're at a stop sign and the train is passing through so you're waiting ages for the light to turn green. Here's one I took at the stop light. I used my old IPhone to take this image. This is what came out.
And when dark clouds gather, rain is just a whiff away.
Dark clouds over the Central Valley
I woke up early the day after Christmas and watched the sunrise. It was so different from the warm and fiery sunrises of summer. The sky was grey and cold. But it was still a marvel to watch.
Sunrise - December 26, 2012
"The sky is the daily bread of the eyes." Ralph Waldo Emerson
An overnight stay in San Francisco is a welcome treat, especially during the holidays. The streets are abuzz with visitors during the day and there are many bargain finds for the hardy shopper. A stroll around Union Square enchants with decorated display windows vying for attention. And when evening descends upon the City by the Bay, thousands of Christmas lights illuminate the night sky.
Neiman Marcus Atrium
One of my favorite stops is Nieman Marcus. Their Christmas tree is a floor to ceiling giant barely scraping the beautiful stained glass dome. There's at least an hour wait if you decide to eat lunch at the Rotunda restaurant on the fourth floor with a view of Union Square. Best to make a reservation. An alternative would be the food court at The Cellar inside Macy's. It's crowded but there's usually a table or two. I ordered handrolled crab cakes from SC Asian. It came with a salad. It was all surprisingly good. There are also other restaurants to choose from like Boudin which is famous for their sourdough French bread, Mixed Greens and Frontera Fresco. And there's Ben and Jerry's for ice cream.
Is Santa coming your way?
"He's making a list
And checking it twice
Gonna find out who's naughty or nice
Santa Claus is coming to town!"
Where are savvy travelers headed to in 2013? Here are the travel destination picks of National Geographic Traveler editors and Lonely Planet.
National Geographic Traveler Best of the World 2013
National Geographic Traveler Best of the World 2013:
Crimea (Russia), Marseille (France), Raja Ampat (Indonesia), Ravenna (Italy), Great Bear Rainforest (Canada), Malawi, Quito (Ecuador), Bagan (Myanmar), Cape Breton (Canada), Uganda, Hudson Valley (New York), Thessaloniki (Greece), Grenada, Bodø (Norway), Valparaiso (Chile), Missouri River Banks, St. Augustine (Florida), Memphis (Tennessee), Kyoto (Japan), Jarash (Jordan)
Lonely Planet Best in Travel 2013:
Top 10 Countries
Sri Lanka, Montenegro, South Korea, Ecuador, Slovakia, Solomon Islands, Iceland, Turkey, Dominican Republic, Madagascar
Top 10 Cities
San Francisco, Amsterdam, Hyderabad, Londonberry Derry, Beijing, Christchurch, Hobart, Montreal, Addis Abbaba, Puerto Iguazú
Lonely Planet Top Ten Regions pick
Top Ten Regions
Corsica (France), The Negev (Israel), Mustang (Nepal), Yukon (Canada), Chachapoyas and Kuelap (Peru), The Gulf Coast (USA), Carinthia (Austria), Palawan (The Philippines), Inland Sea (Japan), Campania (Italy)
Note that Ecuador has been picked by both National Geographic Travel and Lonely Planet. This is a hot destination! What's on your bucket list for 2013?
Please read my articles on Kyoto, Palawan, Amsterdam, San Francisco and other destinations by checking the tabs under each region in the Home page. Happy travels in 2013.
I write most of my blogs from this small town in the Central Valley. Sometimes I can't concentrate, like at this very moment, because my neighbor has turned up his stereo system to absolute max and will stay that way until the wee hours of the morning. It's the same "heavy on the bass" music that will wake me up at 6 a.m. And when I go outside tomorrow, I'll discover trash on the side of my garage from the previous night's shindig. "These are the times that try man's soul." My gardener complains to me how much "basura" he picks up when he mows the lawn. So I try to pick up the discarded cups, paper plates, plastic bottles, potato chip wrappers and all the leftover food, with a heavy heart. Why do people litter on private property? Aren't children taught what's right or wrong in school? These teenagers next door were apparently absent from school when the teacher was giving a lecture on how to behave in a civilized world. I've asked these young adults in a nice way, to please not leave their trash on my yard. They apologized and said they wouldn't do it again. But they're back to their old ways. What more can I do?
On the bright side, there are some unique sights to see here. Just check out this man selling bouquets of flowers and colorful armchairs for litle kids. He's the roadside enterpreneur. Then there are the garage sales where used clothes are strewn all over the yard, for better exposure, I suppose. And on special holidays like Valentine's Day and Mother's Day, every major street corner has stalls selling teddy bears, balloons and flowers. Bright reminders to get something for sweetheart or Mom. There must be a lot of little kids in town at the rate I see bounce houses. It's a must for children's parties. And my favorite sight of all is the human billboard. This job has to be the toughest of all, standing on a street corner, waving at all the cars passing by under the heat of the summer sun or exposed to wintry temperatures. Brrr.
"Life is a great sunrise". Vladimir Nabokov.
And then there's awesome nature. This view of sunrise is from my living room window and this fiery sunset was taken from my kitchen window. If only I had a peaceful neighborhood. Is this too much to ask for?
When Hiroshi Hara conceived his plan for Kyoto Station, he thought about "geographical perspective" and Kyoto's grid patterned streets. I am reminded of Piet Mondrian's painting, Broadway Boogie Woogie, which is based on the grid pattern of the streets of Manhattan. Hara had essentially incorporated old Kyoto in his design. But his futuristic ideas met resistance from locals who viewed his modern aesthetic plan for the station as a threat to the traditional landscape of Kyoto.
I felt dwarfed by the immensity of the main hall with its glass and steel beamed roof. Standing in the center of the hall, I looked around in wonder and wondered where to begin my exploration of this city within a city. Here's where three rail lines converge. There's a bus terminal on the north side of the station and a mall in the basement called Porta Underground with about a hundred shops and restaurants. No need to search far for lodging. The Granvia Hotel is inside the station and many more hotels are within walking distance. Isetan, a department store, takes several floors on the west side of the station. And they have an art museum on the 7th floor if you'd rather not shop. Time on you hands before you catch your bus or train? There's an in-house theater too.
Straddling the east and west sides of the station is the Skyway tunnel which is 45 meters above the main hall. There's a great view of Kyoto Tower from here. At the end of the Skyway, on the west side, are more restaurants and a tranquil rooftop garden.
Once when I got off the train from Fushimi Inari, I took a different exit and found myself in another basement which was unfamiliar to me. This turned out to be The Cube Shopping Mall. But the restaurants here were full so I walked across to Porta to get some lunch there at the "all you can eat buffet". It was pricey but the selection was quite good and I was famished.
On some days when I had to take the bus from the station, I would stop and check the grocery store for snacks but what really caught my eye were the bakeries and pastry shops that carried green tea cakes. One afternoon I stopped for tea at Lipton where the price of tea is at a premium but it was well worth it after a day of sightseeing. And I lingered over tea and an apple tart while I checked my email. Wifi is conveniently available and free at Porta Mall.
Most visitors to Kyoto fly into one of three main airports - Kansai, Osaka or Nagoya and connect by train to Kyoto. These trains, including the shinkansen from Tokyo, arrive at Kyoto Station. There are two tourist information centers to aid travelers - one on the second floor and the International Center on the 9th floor which has a multilingual staff.
My first impression of Hanami-koji was that it was clean and orderly. Wooden machiya merchant houses line this street of ochaya (tea houses) and expensive restaurants serving Japanese haute cuisine. It was late afternoon but the machiyas were still shuttered from the world. It was relatively quiet as I walked up the street hoping to see a geiko (term for geisha in Kyoto) or two.
A side street in Gion
I passed by somnolent alleys where not even a cat stirred. I reached the end of the street and looked up at the houses to check for signs of life. No such luck. I retraced my steps to Shijo Dori past Gion Corner where one can pay to watch maiko (apprentice geiko) perform traditional Japanese arts like the tea ceremony, ikebana, music, and dance. Then suddenly I noticed a maiko coming towards me from an alley to my right. She was walking fast in her geta sandals. I had to move faster to get that fleeting image. What I saw was an exquisite woman in a beautiful kimono. Her nape was as white as her face and the red collar of her kimono identified her as a maiko.Then all the tourists converged on her like a hound of paparazzis and I genuinely felt sorry for her as she walked past them without looking directly at anyone.
A maiko (apprentice geisha)
"Now I understood what I'd overlooked; the point was not to become a geisha but to be one. To become a geisha....well that was hardly a purpose in life. But to be a geisha.....I could see it now as a stepping stone to something else." Quote from Sayuri in Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden.
Buses 100 and 206 go to Gion area from Kyoto Station.
Fushimi Inari Taisha is the main Shinto shrine of the thousands of shrines in Japan. It is dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice and sake. With Japan's transformation from an agricultural economy to an industrial state, Inari has come to represent success and prosperity especially for businessmen and companies.
Shinto is an ethnic religion that flourished in Japan from the 12th century. References to Shinto practices have been traced as early as the 8th century. Shinto, unlike Christianity, does not recognize one god but rather believes in a multitude of deities (kami) who demonstrate superhuman qualities. About 46% of the Japanese population profess the Shinto faith.*
Behind the honden (main hall) is a trail lined with thousands of vermilion torii gates which were donated by individual worshippers and businesses. The cost of a small torii gate is around 400,000 yen. Etched in black on the back of each gate is the name and address of the donor. The trail leads up to Mount Inari which is 233 meters high (764 ft.). It's incredible to behold the sheer number of torii gates (in the thousands) in the midst of such a lush landscape. And it seemed to go on and on as I climbed higher and deeper into the woods. It was a gradual ascent and easy on the legs. I went halfway up past smaller shrines and diminishing torii gates before I turned back.
Names of donors are inscribed on the back of each torii
Fushimi Inari shrine was not on my list of places to visit in Kyoto. I was fortunate enough to have read my hotel's recommendations of the top destinations in Kyoto which included this particular shrine. It is my favorite of all the places I visited during my trip to Kyoto.
The best way to get to Fushimi Inari is by train from Kyoto Station. It's the second stop on the JR Nara line and right outside the train station in Inari. As of this writing, the fare is 140 yen. There is no entrance fee to the shrine. There's a pedestrian only street outside the shrine with tea houses, restaurants and souvenir shops.
* from Umeda Yoshimi's "Studies in Shinto" (10-23-2009). The figure 46.4% was taken from the Religion Yearbook published by the Japan Agency for Cultural Affairs.
All that glitters is gold at Kinkakuji Temple in northern Kyoto. Gold leaf covers the two upper floors of Kinkakuji or the Golden Pavilion which was once the retirement villa of the shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. When he died in 1408, his villa became a Zen temple of the Rinzai sect of Buddhism as specified in his will. It is officially called Rakuon-ji which is also the name given to Yoshimitsu on his journey to the next world.
The Golden Pavilion represents three architectural styles. The first floor is in the Shinden style featuring a large room with a veranda and wooden pillars supporting the upper storeys. The second level reflects the samurai style and was used for private meetings. It's completely gilded on the outside. The top floor emulates Chinese Zenshu style of architecture with cusp windows, gilding inside and out, and houses the Amida triad and 25 Bodhisattvas. A bronze phoenix which is also covered in gold leaf crowns the rooftop. These three distinct styles blend harmoniously to create a glittering shariden that houses the relics of Buddha. Kinkakuji was rebuilt from scratch in 1955 when a crazy monk burned it to the ground in 1950. The Golden Pavilion is closed to the public as is the Abbot's House or Hojo.
Kinkakuji is beautiful to behold from across the pond which bears its reflection. The pond and surrounding gardens have been designated as a National Special Historic Site and Special Place of Scenic Beauty.
Abbot's House (Hojo)
A stroll around the property could be a relaxing walk in the woods were it not for the hordes of tourists and students who are everywhere. It's hard to find a spot where one can quietly enjoy the scenery except perhaps in the tea garden where I found a few empty seats behind the foliage.
Crowds notwithstanding, the walk up to the upper pond is pleasurable with much to catch the eye. I especially liked the little fishing deck on the side of the Golden Pavilion. Before leaving the temple grounds, visitors toss coins at these statues for good luck.
Buses 101 and 205 stop at Kinkakuji from Kyoto Station. It costs ¥220 for the 40 minute ride. There is an entrance fee. It's open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Kiyomizu-dera has one of the most enviable locations in Kyoto. Set in the wooded hills of eastern Kyoto, it has a commanding view of the city that was once the capital of Japan. Kiyomizu-dera or the Pure Water Temple has been around since 778. It was named after the Otowa waterfall which flows down from a spring in the mountain above the hills. It is a Buddhist temple belonging to the Kita Hosso sect.
The Hondo or Main Hall was built in 1633. It has an impressive veranda known as the Kiyomizu Stage. It hangs 13 meters above the hillside and is supported by wooden pillars which were assembled without using a single nail. It is held together by wooden braces. The floor of the stage is made of cypress boards. The Hondo is considered a national treasure and is a Unesco World Cultural Heritage site.
The pillars supporting the stage
It's a quite a climb up the hill to the temple halls but there are several spots to stop and rest along the way. The stage can be crowded at times and there's nothing to do but wait for your turn to stand on the edge of the veranda to enjoy the views of Kyoto and the surrounding woods below. On the way down, I paused often to admire the pillars supporting the stage. It's an amazing sight.
Deva Gate and Kyoto in the distance
At the base of the hill in front of Deva Gate is Higashiyama District which is a corridor of souvenir shops and restaurants. Some enterprising food shops offer tea to entice visitors to come in and check their treats. This worked for me because chilled green tea was exactly what I needed after a long trek on a hot September day.
There are several interesting halls to discover in the Kiyomizu-dera compound so plan to spend some time here. Note that Amida and Okunoin Halls are closed for renovations until early 2013.
There's a fee to enter Hondo Hall. Buses 100 and 206 stop at Kiyomizu-michi from Kyoto Station. It's a 10 minute walk from the bus stop.
I was struck by this message on the wall surrounding the Higashi Honganji mother temple. "Now, Life is living you". I believe we should live life. Not the other way around. Perhaps this is a wake up call. The Shakyamuni Buddha taught a path to self awakening. "Through this, one is able to become aware of the futility and suffering caused by one's actions and eventually come to truly appreciate life as it is." (from Higashi Honganji - The Teaching of Jodo Shin-shu)
A door leading to the Goeidō
When Kennyo the 11th Monshu (Chief Priest) of the Jodo Shin-shu sect passed away in 1592, he named his third son, Junnyo, his successor. This created a conflict between Junnyo and Kyōnyo, the eldest son. Hideyoshi who arbitrated in this dispute of succession asked Kyōnyo to step down. In 1602, Kyōnyo, received land from the shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu. There he built his own temple. Honganji was thus divided into two branches. Higashi (East) Honganji became the head temple of the Otani-ha branch of Jodo Shin-shu.
The Veranda of the Goeidō
The Goeidō Hall (Founder's Hall) is one of the largest wooden structures in the world. It houses the image of Shinran, the founder of Jodo Shin-shu Buddhism. One architectural element of this hall is its long and sweeping veranda which wraps around the building. The building is 250 ft. long and 190 ft. wide. The wooden flooring is polished to a sheen. I would tread lightly on this beauty. The Amida Hall is under renovation and may be closed to the public. The current temple halls were reconstructed in 1879 and completed in 1895.
One of the gates to the temple complex
The Higashi Honganji is a short walk from Kyoto Station. There is no fee to enter the temple. It's addres is
Karasuma Shichi-jō Agaru
Shimogyō-ku, Kyoto www.higashihonganji.or.jp
The Nishi Honganji (or West Honganji) is the main temple of the Hongwanji-ha denomination of Jodo Shin-shu Buddhism in Japan. Shinran Sonin founded the Jodo Shin-shu (True Pure Land) sect during the mid Kamakura period and it became one of the largest and most influential schools in succeeding centuries. Over time, the Jodo Shin-shu sect was challenged by both interminable wars and warlords who were bent on controlling the country. Oda Nobunaga, a military leader, finally succeeded with the help of Emperor Ogimachi in moving the group out of Kyoto in order to diminish its power. Later, in the 17th century, the sect was divided into two factions, effectively weakening its political influence. The Nishi Honganji faction are followers of Junnyo, the third son and successor of Kennyo, the 11th Monshu (spiritual leader) and descendant of Shinran. To this day, the Jodo Shin-shu sect has kept its large following intact. It is the largest of any sect in Japan.
The Goeidō Hall (left) and the Amida Hall (right)
There are two main halls in the compound - the Goeidō and the Amida Hall, the latter of which is dedicated to the Amida Buddha, the most important Buddha in Jodo Shin-shu Buddhism. The Goeidō or Founder's Hall is consecrated to Shinran whose image is on the main altar. Though the altar is heavily gilded, it doesn't distract the mind. I felt at ease sitting on the tatami mat while admiring the beautiful altar.
Water Purification Ritual
It is important to observe the rules of decorum when visiting a temple (or church for that matter) even though you may profess a diferrent faith. For starters, dress appropriately. Remove shoes before entering the temple. Follow the purification ritual of hand washing. Wash the right hand first, then the left. Carefully put ladle back so that the handle points down towards the ground. Always check if taking photos inside the temple is allowed before you click away.
The Nishi Honganji was declared a World Cultural Heritage site in 1994 The buildings we see today were constructed in the 17th century after a fire in 1617 razed the main halls to the ground.
The temple is open all year round. There is no entrance fee. It's a short walk from Kyoto Station. The address is:
Hours of operation:
5:30 to 17:30 (March, April, September, October)
5:30 to 18:00 (May to August)
6:00 to 17:00 (November to February)
"When the mind is at peace, the world too is at peace". P'ang Yun
The Rock Garden
The Ryoan-ji Temple was once the country estate of the Tokudaiji Clan. In 1450 it was bought by Hosokawa Katsumoto who converted it into a Zen training temple. Neither the origin nor the meaning of the rock garden is definitively known though according to the brochure, Tokuho Zenketsu, a Zen monk, may have created it around 1500. The rectangular garden has 15 rocks (both large and small) sitting on moss and look like islets amidst white gravel. It can be viewed from the portico of the Hojo which was the former residence of the head priest. There are stairs leading down to the stone garden where you can sit awhile and meditate on the significance of this creation. But at midday the intimate portico becomes too crowded and meditating or taking an unobstructed photo may present a challenge.
The Hojo has several tatami rooms divided by sliding doors called fusuma. These doors and walls are painted in the traditional style. The rooms are spacious and airy and are surrounded by two small gardens. At the back of the Hojo is a stone wash basin called tsukubai. You wash your hands here before entering the tea room (which is not open to the public). It has an inscription in Kanji that says, "I learn only to be contented". This is an important belief in Zen Buddhism because the person who is content is considered spiritually rich.
There are benches around the pond where you can sit and contemplate on the beauty of these water lilies. Or eat your sushi in peace. I think of Monet when I see water lilies. He painted so many of them. It's easier to appreciate his fascination with nymphéas when you read what he had to say about them: "Water lilies are an extension of my life. Without water, the lilies will not live, as I without my art".
Take Bus 50 from Kyoto Station. It's a long 35 minute ride. The fare as of this writing is 220 yen. It's best to buy a bus pass if you plan to do a lot of sightseeing during the day. A one day pass is 500 yen. Bus passes are sold at the bus ticket counter across from Kyoto Station. Or have your coins ready and pay the driver as you leave the bus. Signs and announcements inside the bus are both in English and Japanese. Enter the bus from the side and exit through the front door.
There is an entrance fee to the temple. Shoes will have to be left in the Kuri building which serves as the main entrance to the rock garden. Ryoan-ji is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. except from December to February when it opens later at 8:30 a.m. and closes at 4:30 p.m.
Ryoan-ji (Temple of the Peaceful Dragon) was declared a World Heritage site by Unesco in 1994.
I have been dreaming of going to Kyoto since I read Arthur Golden's "Memoirs of a Geisha" many moons ago. This dream was fortified when I watched the movie version and was enthralled by the characterization and haunting scenery. After years of planning, I finally had the chance to visit Kyoto last September. I approached a "Kyoto travel expert" before leaving and asked him to recommend three temples I should visit on my first trip to this city. These were his recommendations: Kinkakuji, Kiyomizu-dera and Ryōanji . To this list I added Gion, Kyoto's famous geiko district. I had a lot on my plate with only two and a half days to spare. I thought I shoud take a bus tour so I could maximize my time. The guided tours though were quite expensive and after my introductory walk to Terramachi, I found Kyoto easy to navigate on foot and discovered that several buses stopped at most of the temples I wanted to visit.
So here's what I managed to see during my stay in Kyoto and how I got there: Kinkakuji Temple - by bus Kiyomizu-dera - by bus Ryōanji Temple - by bus Fushimi-Inari Shrine - by train Nishi Honganji - on foot Higashi Honganji - on foot Gion - by bus and on foot Terramachi Market - on foot In the next few weeks I'll write about these special places I visited because each one deserves a full write-up. My journey begins and ends at Kyoto Station, a city within a city. Here's a preview.
I found this quote on the Gadling Facebook status and I wanted to share it with all of you who love to travel. This quote originated from Afar magazine's "fill in the blank" post on Facebook. Yes, to travel is to grow.
What a thrill it was for all of us who witnessed the final flight of the Space Shuttle Endeavour riding piggyback on a jumbo jet 747 as it soared above Bay Area skies on its way to its retirement home in Los Angeles! We had a great view of the Endeavour accompanied by two jet bombers and with our smartphones, took photos of this once in a lifetime spectacle. After 25 space missions from 1992 to 2011, the Endeavour will be parked in the California Science Center where it will be on permanent display starting on October 30, 2012.
The Casa Gorordo in Cebu City is a fine example of an elegant Filipino home from the mid 19th century. It incorporates some architectural designs which are intrinsic to this period such as the zaguan on the ground floor which was used as storage space and carriage parking, the sliding Capiz shell windows, the statement staircase which announces the social and economic standing of the homeowner, the kitchen window with an area for drying plates and utensils, and the intricately carved arches dividing the rooms. The house also has a long azotea (terrace) which not only served as an extended living room, it also providied a natural cooling system for the upper story allowing the breeze to circulate freely through the rooms.
Zaguan (storage space)
The Casa Gorordo was the home of four generations of Gorordos, one of whom was the first Filipino Bishop of Cebu, Juan Gorordo. The Casa has a little chapel so the bishop could pray there during the days he visited with his family.
John the Baptist baptizing Jesus
This painting is on the ceiling of the chapel. It's not a fresco nor a mural as you can see from the folds in the canvas. It is a stunning piece of art from this era along with well preserved pieces of furniture and objets d'art.
There is a small fee to enter Casa Gorordo which has been declared a national historical landmark. It is owned and managed by the Ramon Aboitiz Foundation.
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