Monday, 13 May 2019

Hiking The Nakasendo Trail

The kids had a full week off school for spring break, so we decided to spend some time in... (drumroll, please)... Japan!

Despite Japan shaping our concept of what "Asia" was like during our formative years (Godzilla and samurai movies, anime, sushi, Picky, Iron Chef, etc.), we'd only yet passed through Japan on our way to and from the USA. We were a bit nervous about visiting, since we knew that 1) English speakers and signs were going to be less prevalent, 2) places were going to be cramped and hectic even by Southeast Asian standards, and 3) costs for everything were going to be higher than during our usual jaunts to developing nations.  So, of course, we found an itinerary that basically dialed all of these concerns up to eleven, and dove in head first.

Also: maps.
[But first, this is a Borchert blog, so we're going to set the stage. Scroll down for the pictures]

In 1603 the first Shogun to unify Japan, Tokugawa Ieyasu, moved the imperial capital from Kyoto in the southwest to Edo, which was renamed as "Tokyo".  He required that all court officials maintain residences in both cities, and spend alternate years in each (largely as a means of keeping them away from their political strongholds and reducing their strength... not dissimilar to the court at Versailles).  As a result, two imperial roads were established along existing highways: the Tokaido which went south along the coast before cutting inland, and the Nakasendo that went southwest over the Japanese alps.  As more and more court officials used the road, post towns developed which attracted more travelers.  At its height there were 69 towns full of ryokan (inns) and onsens (hot spring baths).

In the early 20th century much of the original Nakasendo trail was converted to rail lines and highways as trains and automobiles became more prevalent during Japan's aggressive campaign of modernization.  Many of the post towns chose to embrace modern industries and replaced the ancient inns with modern shops and apartment blocks.  In the 1960's the government of Japan began to restore some of the remaining sections of the Nakasendo trail, improving the trail itself but also providing support to the remaining authentic post towns and to the family-run inns, some of which have been in continuous operation since the 1600's.  Some of these towns now have strict building codes restricting building materials and methods to what would have been used in the 17th and 18th century, preserving the historic and cultural legacy of the Edo period of Japan.

Because Japan's high-speed rail system is amazing, tourists interested in hiking the "nice" parts of the Nakasendo can start their tour in either Tokyo or Kyoto, since from either city it's a relatively short ride on the Shinkansen bullet train to the first trailhead.  We decided to honor the spirit of our "wandering samurai vacation" and do an open-jaw trip in which we flew into Kyoto (more accurately Osaka, and then took a bus to Kyoto), hike the trail towards Tokyo, and then fly straight from Tokyo back home to Singapore.

To start, we had a full day of exploring the ancient capital of Kyoto. Our guest house was nestled between palaces and temples, with our room being in the attic of a small house.  It was the first of many nights sleeping on futon bedrolls on tatami floors, and somehow no children managed to fall off the steep ladder that led up to our room.

The first morning we enjoyed an elaborate breakfast with a delightfully absurd array of little bites and morsels, about half of which we could identify.  This set the stage for the food on the rest of the trip, which was both amazing and inscrutable. 
We could fully identify about 25% of breakfast

We then ventured out out to explore the nearby Higashi Hongan-ji temple (essentially the Vatican for one of the two dominant sub-sects of Buddhism), the Shosei-en gardens (a traditional garden with tea-houses used by shoguns, emperors, and the abbott of the Higashi Hongan-ji temple), and - a surprise hit - the locomotive museum.  It was the tail end of the cherry-blossom season in Kyoto, but the weather was still briskly chilly in the mornings and the trees were still mostly covered in white and pink flowers.

Kids playing tag in front of the largest all-wooden building in the world
Apparently this is "past the peak" of spring.
This locomotive was just for show, but we did get to ride a steam train.
So we could travel lightly while hiking 10-15 km each day, we used the phenomenal "Takkyubin" service to send half our stuff  to meet us in two days. We kept one backpack with two days worth of clothes, plus the requisite stuffed animals, toiletries, and a first-aid kit. When we caught up with it we could swap dirty laundry for clean clothes and then send the big bag forward again.

Once we had sent our big bag on into the unknown we took a bus across town and visited the Kiyomizu Dera temple complex, a 1200-year-old UNESCO world heritage site bustling with tourists in rented kimonos taking selfies.  There we also had a course of Japanese street food, including yakitori (meat on a stick), takoyaki (octopus dumplings), and sprite-flavored ice cream.  After escaping the rain into a tea+coffee shop (it was actually a single drink, made with both tea and coffee.  Not unpleasant, but don't need to do that again) we took a bus to a ramen shop that specialized in gluten-free noodles so that Elizabeth and Eldest Monkey could experience the real deal.

A little rain wasn't enough to dampen our spirits

Korean tourists taking a selfie with our prop children

Michael is pondering how our kids got so weird.

The next day, it was time to get on the trail!

A beautiful day for a stroll through medieval Japan! Complete with an umbrella we bought at FamilyMart.

We hiked down to the train station and rode to the first leg. For the next 5 days we mostly hiked from one train station to another, and then took a train or bus to an inn or a hotel where we changed into traditional robes (yukata) and slippers, took a _very_ hot bath, had a sumptuous multi-course dinner, and slept on bedrolls on tatami floors. We woke up to a sumptuous breakfast, and then made our way back to the trail.

Ryokan breakfast.  Dinner was even more elaborate.
The first onsen we stayed in was an enormous industrial affair - more like a Midwestern casino complex - full of senior citizens abusing the crab at the buffet.  This location also _strongly_ forbade the use of public bathing facilities by anyone with tattoos, so Michael had to sit this one out.  The rest of the onsens were smaller places with only a few other guests with no such tatoo restrictions, probably because they were more aimed at foreign tourists than locals.

The later inns were very cozy, and the model of what you expect from traditional Japanese hospitality and lodging: impeccable service, wood and paper walls, and lots of green tea.
Miyazaki movie night

The trail itself varied between paving stones, soft mulch, rocky scrambles, paved trails through towns or following old railway beds, and dirt track along the side of country roads.  We hiked through forests of bamboo, cyprus, and cedar and through fields and farms and flower gardens.  We hiked beside rushing rivers littered with great white boulders, through medieval post towns filled with inns,  noodle shops, and trinket sellers, and over mountain passes where patches of snow lingered in the shadows of ancient temples.  Spring comes a little later in the mountains, and so were able to see valleys of cherry trees in peak bloom with gentle winds carrying a rain of white flower petals; as we got up to the higher passes we found budding forests that were poised to explode in color. All of this was framed against the dramatic backdrop of snow-capped mountains in the distance.  It was aggressively beautiful.

A representative section of trail.

Danger Monkey a.k.a. Asian Baby was confused by snow.

Next step: climb over those mountains!
Cedar forest.
It was also a unique experience in terms of simply walking to get somewhere further away than you could get in a a single day.  Getting into the rhythm of hiking up to a pass and then down the valley on the other side to a river confluence where we would start hiking up _another_ valley to _another_ pass, and knowing that was all that were were doing for days on end, gave us a new perspective on what travel would have been like in a world without trains, automobiles, or even easy access to horses. Having served as the major highway between the two most important cities of medieval Japan, the entire trail was steeped in history.  We passed by temples that had been constructed to commemorate military victories, mass graves of samurai warriors, abandoned tea houses, and a small sign commemorating when the Meiji emperor had passed by that spot as he toured the Nakasendo.

Shinto gates and shrines were everywhere

An old carved marker.  Still on the right trail!
We saw no bears.  Probably because all three kids rang every bell.
Communing with the cherry blossoms

Matsumoto Castle is one of the 4 remaining original medieval castles.  It is also SO PRETTY.

Ta daa!

No one loves trains the way the Japanese love trains

After five days of heavy exertion and tranquil beauty, our time on the trail was at an end. We arrived in Tokyo via the local train on Friday afternoon, checked in to our hotel to freshen up a bit, and braved the metro during rush hour to meet up with an old high-school friend of Michael's for a conveyor belt Sushi feast.

Mt. Fuji is somewhere in that haze
Having, by this point, experienced an abundance of serene tranquility, classical architecture, and floral beauty, we dedicated our one full day in Tokyo to "crazy robot nonsense."  We started at the Tokyo Municipal Government building which has a free observation deck providing a great view of the Tokyo skyline and, on a good day,  Mt. Fuji. It was not a good day, but it was still a good orientation.

We then hiked through the neighborhood of Shinjuku, stopping to play wacky arcade games at the arcades that were already noisy and bustling at 11 AM. 

Next was a bit of a scavenger hunt to find a cat cafe that allowed 3-year-olds, followed by a metro trip to the harbor to see the life-size Gundam Unicorn statue and visit the Museum of Emerging Science and Technology. There we played with various hands-on exhibits like a functional mechanical marble-run model of the internet, a working-backwards model and game for thinking about climate change, and an Asimo robotics demonstration.

Hot cocoa goes great with kitties
Such meow.  Much purr.
NT-D System enabled: Psycho frame ACTIVATED
Black and white balls stand for zeroes and ones

 Afterwards we took the metro back up to the Akihabara neighborhood and explored the anime/manga superstores looking for nerdy souvenirs.  We grabbed a late tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet) dinner at a hole-in-the-wall where we had to order from a vending machine, and eventually retired to our hotel where we packed and collapsed. A full day, and a good one!

  And that wrapped up our time in Japan.  It was even parts relaxing timeless hiking and whirlwind tour, we could have spent a whole week in Kyoto and probably a lifetime in Tokyo.  

Stopping to smell the flowers

Monday, 6 May 2019

Rajasthan Part 2

Welcome back!  After Ranthambore we had a couple of more urban destinations in a row.  We started off in Jaipur, the "Pink City" that was actually a planned city built in the early 18th century when the capital of the Amer kingdom outgrew its narrow valley to the  north.

It contains, among other things, a collection of enormous mechanical astronomical tools, including sundials and star charts.  The largest sundial in the collection could tell time accurate to 2 seconds, and the assorted instruments were largely used to be able to more precisely generate horoscopes.
Sadly, they didn't let us climb to the top

We also visited the city palace and explored the beautiful inlaid halls and gates, and our guide for the day brought us to a local market.  At the market the entire local economy was laid out in the open, with farmers bringing their vegetables and flowers in to the central square and selling only large quantities at wholesale prices, where it was bought by middlemen who would bring it just 10 meters away outside the official market square, and sell a wider variety of vegetables and herbs at a mark-up.  The farmers themselves were even just renting the right to sell in the market from the lease holders, whose job it seemed was to sit in the shade and drink tea.

In addition to the food market there were streets and streets of flower sellers, again selling in bulk to people who were creating garlands to be sold to the people who were going to the temple to bring as offerings.
Nobody could resist giving him flowers
We're not sure if it was part of a tourism-board-approved itinerary or not, but our guide also brought us into the kitchen of one of the more popular street food stalls, and explained how the fried potatoes and curry was created on an industrial scale.  For whatever reason, super hot, bustling commercial kitchens ended up being a recurring theme on our trip.

We eventually made our way back to our minibus, where we took a quick break to feed the cows that had gathered there. The ubiquity of wandering cows is hard to overstate.  We saw them foraging in trash piles and scrub brush, but also being fed the day's first bread by city dwellers.  They were, like many things we encountered, an aspect of daily Indian life that had basically no western equivalent.
The next day we took a trip out past Amer to visit some elephants.  Although there are a lot of tourist attractions that still use elephants as conveyances (like the Amer fort just down the road), but the practice is decreasing as more and more tourists realize that the elephants don't actually _like_ to cart people around.  Instead, we visited an elephant sanctuary where we pet the elephants, fed them sugarcane, and went on a stroll with them.  They are terrifyingly large in person.
Happy elephant is happy.

Our mixtape is gonna be sick.

Our next stop was the holy city of Pushkar, home to the one of the most famous Brahman temples in India.  Of the top tier of the 33 million Hindu gods, Brahma (the creator) is a lot less popular these days than Shiva (the destroyer) or Vishnu (the preserver).  Pushkar is built around a holy lake that is said to have been blessed by lord Brahma himself, and consists of dozens of temples and holy bathing ponds (or "ghats"). 
Shoes go off, shoes go on; shoes go off, shoes go on...

The water is sacred, but not especially inviting.
Pushkar at night!  This restaurant served us eggs, even though they weren't supposed to.

After Pushkar we headed west, and stayed in an array of small villages.  We took a jeep "safari" out to explore some of them and meet some locals where we had opium tea with a farmer's family, and Eldest tried her hand at throwing a clay bowl at a potter's workshop.

On our way westward to Osian and the Thar desert we stopped off at Jodhpur (the Blue City) to tour the fort there.  Jodhpur is the second largest city in Rajasthan, and had a picturesque lost-in-time feel to it.

Finally, we made it to our last real destination before taking a night train back to Delhi for our flights home: a camel camp on the edge of the Thar desert.   The Thar desert extends from here well into Pakistan, and was a pretty inhospitable place even when we were there during the nicest weather of the year.  The record high temperature in this region is over 125 degrees fahrenheit and gets just a few inches of rain per year.  Our children claimed that this wasn't a real desert since it didn't have minecraft-style cactuses, but I think the camels prove otherwise.
Trekking out to get a good view of the sunset
There is no graceful way to get off a camel.
Osian had once been a large and prosperous town, and had a number of important pilgrimage sites dating back to the 8th and 9th centuries.  We saw a steady stream of people coming to receive blessings, split sacrificial coconuts, and pay their respects to the goddess Sachiya.
Like all Hindu temples, this one felt like a cross between a cathedral and a casino.

After our camel excursion we spent a day lounging around our lodging at the camel racing track, eating delicious food and letting the kids run around until it was time to pack them into an overnight train back to Delhi.

India is an incredible place, full of bustling energy, insane contradictions, and extremes of climate, geography, and wealth.  Between Michael's work and Elizabeth's social group around the condo we know a lot of people that are part of the Indian diaspora, and this trip gave us a lot more insight into their background and perspective.  It was also amazing to see how a country as populous as China can exist without any sort of strict hierarchical control and command economy... it's not always pretty but it seems to be holding together.

Next up: We go hiking through the mountains in Japan!

Monday, 18 February 2019

Back In The Saddle

Hello, and welcome back!  Our blogging responsibilities got away from us, but we're getting back into the swing of things.  Since we've last posted we've visited Cambodia, Vietnam, and India, but while it's still relatively fresh in our mind we're going to start at the end and work backwards over the next few posts.

We took advantage of the kids break for Chinese New Year (and the fact that Michael's work is pretty quiet until after the CNY holiday) to spend 2 weeks touring in and around Rajasthan, an arid state in the northwest of India that borders on Pakistan and contains the Thar desert as well as countless temples, palaces, shrines, and nature reserves.
Borcherts gotta map.

It has been said that India is not a vacation, but rather an experience.  Having traveled around a fair amount by this point in our lives, we can safely say that India is one of the most intense places we have ever visited.  It is a place of extremes and energy, of incredible tradition and history but also very immediate.  We like to make a distinction when we talk to our kids about whether or not we are going on a "vacation" or a "trip", where vacations are primarily relaxing and trips are primarily character building.  India was a trip.

We flew into New Delhi where we toured around for a day acclimating to the cold weather and culture.
Yes, there are actually sacred cows wandering around intersections in Delhi.

Our first day in Delhi was Republic Day in India, when they celebrated their declaration of independence as well as the day that their first constitution took effect a year later.  As a result pretty much all of old Delhi was closed for tours since it was thronged with hundreds of thousands of patriotic revelers, but we were still able to see the tomb of the second Mughal emperor (Humayun), which was the first garden tomb on the Indian subcontinent and served as one of the inspirations for the Taj Mahal.
The Mughals were descended from various Asian steppes peoples, and swept into the subcontinent in the early 16th century from the northwest, defeating the Delhi Sultanate and establishing an empire that covered modern-day Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh.  The Mughals established imperial control over the patchwork of Hindu kings that ruled and managed the day-to-day interactions with the locals, and would rule India until their power structures were co-opted by the British East India Company in the mid-19th century.

Our first day in Delhi we also toured the Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, a prominent Sikh temple with a large holy pond of magical healing water, and a kitchen where they prepare over 20,000 free meals per day.
Orange bandanas for everyone!

The chapati machine on the right could spit out about 2 per second.
India is very good at making religions.  It is the origin of Hinduism and Buddhism (or as Michael likes to call it, "new testament Hinduism"), but also Jainism and Sikhism.  Buddhism is now a tiny minority in India, and successive waves of invasion and immigration have made Islam the largest minority religion. 

The next morning we took the train to Agra, and spent the day visiting the Red Fort and "Baby Taj" (a.k.a. the Tomb of I'timād-ud-Daulah, which also served as an inspiration for the Taj Mahal).
Seriously, this completely covered a three-storey building.
Basically all of the construction in Rajasthan, either historical or contemporary, was built from sedimentary rock.  A distinctive red sandstone was ubiquitous, forming not only the walls and towers of ancient hilltop forts but also the ceilings and lintels of houses we saw under construction and even fenceposts along the side of the road.  Massive white marble outcroppings amidst the sandstone were quarried to build the palaces, mausoleums, and monuments throughout the Mughal period, and were completely covered in incredibly intricate stone inlay.

We ended the day at a park across the river from the Taj Mahal where we watched the sunset and the kids blew off some pent-up energy.
AMAZING MONUMENT plus pretty good goats.

The next day we toured the Taj Mahal at dawn.  No pictures do it justice. 

Afterwards we had a quick breakfast and boarded our private excursion bus that would be our mode of transportation for the next 10 days and drove to the town of Karauli, stopping off for some birding at the Kheoladeo Bird Sanctuary, where hundreds of bird species from as far away as Siberia spend the winter.  These include the Bar-Headed Goose, which actually flies over the Himalayas to get to nesting grounds in peninsular India.
We also saw storks, pelicans, kingfishers, cranes, deer, owls, and Sambar deer (a sort of Indian elk).  We hired bicycle rickshaws and a naturalist guide to show us around for the two hours we had to spare, but the park could have been an all-day event.  This was a common theme with our India travels... nearly everywhere we went was larger and richer than we had time to fully appreciate.

In Karauli we stayed at a hotel that was operating out of the converted palace of the local Maharajah.
Out of frame: the stuffed tiger and display cases full of swords
Not a bad place to relax for an afternoon
 The British Raj was, in many ways, an imperial power structure that simply replaced the Mughals but left everything beneath it basically intact.  The hundreds of small kingdoms began teaching their nobility English instead of Arabic, but other than that it was a change that wouldn't have necessarily been noticed by your average farmer or goat herder.  Between 1947 and 1950 India converted from a British colony to a republic, and all 500+ kingdoms entered into a complex process of essentially negotiating their relinquishment of the complete power and autonomy that they enjoyed over their territory. 
Many of the local kings emerged quite wealthy and still the de-facto ruler of their former territory, however they no longer had their hereditary guaranteed income streams.  Some of them have done better than others, but many of them have begun converting their palaces into luxurious bed-and-breakfasts.  The Bhanwar Vilas Palace (pictured above) is still the home of Maharajah Krishna Chandra Pal, the 181st king of the Yaduvanshi dynasty.  He happened to be in town while we were there, and we chatted about digital marketing while our eldest children rode his horses.  Michael and Middle-Child also explored his garage, which was full of howdahs, royal palanquins, 16th century firearms, and His Highness's Royal Chrysler.

And you thought a lot of junk accumulated in _your_ house

Complete with royal sigil

While in Karauli we also rode a camel cart into town to visit the old city palace, which the current Maharajah's grandfather moved out of in 1933.  The first wing of the palace had been built in the 15th century, with successive waves of construction up until the 19th.
Literally all of this is made of stone.  Even the screens.
This picture shows the largest courtyard, but doesn't really capture the scale of the place.  Also, as with all palaces in India, you need to imagine it teeming with brightly-dressed courtiers, concubines, eunuch guards, and wandering magicians.  There would have been thick curtains hung in all of the windows during winter months, and thick rugs and embroidered cushions all over the floors.  There would have been gravity-powered fountains running, flowering plants everywhere, and also the occasional elephant.  The fact that this was royal life up until the 1930's is mind-blowing.

After two nights in Karauli our next stop was the Ranthambore Tiger Preserve, where we slept in tents.  Like I said: a place of extremes.  The tiger preserve also contains a hilltop fort, and the hilltop fort also contains an important shrine to Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu god of beginnings and remover of obstacles.  The shrine to Ganesha contains many many monkeys.
Langur monkeys are "friendly".  At least in comparison to Macaques.

Somewhere in this picture there is definitely a wild tiger.
The following day we took two safari trips out into the tiger preserve, and while we saw a crocodile, many deer, a mongoose and a leopard, saw no tigers.  This is, apparently, not uncommon.  There are only a handful of tigers in the 400-square-kilometer park, and those tigers are only active for brief periods each day.  Even still, it was a beautiful savannah landscape and probably the most peaceful place we found in India.

Coming up next time, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Elephants, and Camels!
Attempting to purchase more pepto-bismol