Visiting Kyoto, Japan.

Posted October 4, 2009 by incipiency
Categories: Japan, Travel

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Let’s jump straight to the basics, shall we? Kyoto is one helluva fun city to explore, whether you’re wandering through the narrow older streets and soaking up on the local ambiance or if you’re joining the throngs of tourists crowding together to see the most famous local monuments, you’re sure to see things that will amaze and enjoy an experience quite unlike anywhere else I’ve been in the world.

Being a popularly touristy destination Kyoto has all the infrastructure you’ll need to kick back, relax, and enjoy your stay. It’s also one of the most bilingual cities in Japan, meaning finding your way about town and asking for help (If you need to, not that I ever did, never!) is a breeze. Hotels are plentiful, the food is delicious, the views are spectacular and the people are nice, what more could you ask?

Downtown Kyoto is your typical Japanese skyscraper haven with tall buildings and crowded busy streets. Not particularly beautiful in any way unless you’ve a thing for monolithic grey office buildings, although I confess the Kyoto Train station; a massive gleaming thing of strange angles and shimmering glass, is an interesting sight. But if you’re the type who loves to see Japan at its most modern and technologically savvy (Quite a few people I met were, which surprised me as I’ve always been a more historic and natural fan myself.) you’re not likely to enjoy Kyoto much. Not really. At least from what I saw. Although I’m sure there are all sorts of pleasant cafe to relax at and specialty shops which will offer your every whimsical desire.

No, I found that the farther from central civilization I got the more I found myself enthralled with this beautiful and strange city. And to do that there’s only one means of transportation: The bicycle. You can rent these things in near any city in Japan easily enough, but it’s in Kyoto where you really find the need for them. Too big to properly wander on foot, without the all-encompassing transit system of Tokyo, and both cheaper and easier than taking the bus (Especially those tour ones!). Bicycling is perfect for Kyoto, allowing you to sail through the smooth clean streets and enjoy the ambiance all while still getting to see all the much spread-out sights every self-respecting tourist absolutely must see. Rented one for the day from my surprisingly cheap yet fancy hotel for 1000 yen, the equivalent of around 12 Canadian dollar at the time. Wasn’t a particularly majestic bike, creaky and plain as it was, but worked! And for 12 dollars I ask no more.

There’s the Golden Pavilion for one, also known as  Kinkakuji Temple. This is by far the most crowded of the temples in Kyoto, the most famous, and the one you’ve likely already seen pictures of before and will go “Ooooh, *that* place!” after looking at the picture in which I am about to link to. LINK.

Pretty isn’t it? It’s even more impressive in person. A gleaming golden shrine standing out sharply in contrast to the stunningly well designed and picturesque garden surrounding it. Were it not for the steady blurb of your fellow tourists and sight-seers it would be quite the dramatic experience to see. But as it is while making for fantastic photographs and a great ‘see where I’ve been’ story, I quickly found there are much much more interesting places (Mostly temples.) to see in Kyoto. Near to the site of the Golden Pavilion for example is the Ryoanji Temple, one of the first Zen Temples in Japan and which I’ve only now discovered (Thanks Wikipedia) is also known as The Temple of the Peaceful Dragon. Catchy!

Again a crowded tourist destination, Ryoanji is most famous for its rock garden. You know the ones; massive field of carefully raked white pebbles with the occasional noteworthy rock or plant sticking out. This particular one was designed some six hundred years ago, I kid you not, and has been maintained ever since. An interesting sight really, I must have spent a solid ten or twenty minutes staring at it trying to puzzle out the design. An act which itself proves the gardens ‘zen’ effectiveness (Or my own terrible curiosity, not sure which!) .  One person told me I was supposed to see a tiger, but honestly I never managed to pick out any particular images from the jumble of rock and pebble. What I most enjoyed however were the antique buildings and the style in which they were built as well as the tranquil gardens. The gardens here much more heavily forested and with a talent for strangely shaped plants. There’s just such a sense of serenity and wonder walking down those well-tread path, and being forested as well as less crowded than the temple I mentioned above, it’s a much more personal experience.

Nearby is the misleadingly titled Myoshinji Temple, misleadingly because rather than a simple temple you’ll quickly find yourself wandering the small, vehicle free streets of a small community. Here is where finally we break free of the constraints of tourism and get to see people in their more natural environment rather than posing for the camera of a hundred anonymous visitors. I recall while wandering along one paved street, walls to either side sheltering the small houses and minor shrine within, I was greeted by an elder Japanese man asking if he could have a conversation with me in order to practice his dwindling English. Not unusual really, but this conversation was particularly interesting as I quickly learned the man had once been a wanderer himself having traveled to America among other many long years ago. He also had a particular love of crickets, and I recall him saying memorably “In America, the crickets chirp mathematically while in Japan, they chirp in sadness!”. He asked what the crickets in Canada chirped like, and I responded as best I could and he smiled and said thank you numerous times before wishing me well and ambling off.

Funny sort of encounter, the type I most love and cherish.

On the other side of Kyoto, past the Imperial Palace which while sounding grand is actually not all that impressive from the outside and tricky to get into the inside, you’ll find Ginkaku-ji Temple, or the Silver Pavilion as it’s better known. Unlike its spectacular brother the Golden pavilion, the silver one is not in fact coated with silver, although it was originally supposed to be. For this reason among others the Silver Pavilion is much less crowded than it’s more touristy brethren, and as a result I actually enjoyed it much more. The garden is more scenic with better view and more dramatic vista, the ambiance much more relaxed, and the experience in general more pleasant. I highly recommend it! Ginkakuji also makes for a perfect starting point from which to bicycle beside or walk along the ‘Philosopher’s walk’ as it is called. Dramatic sounding, I know, but in truth it is little more than a simple stone pathway which follows along the twists and turns of a small canal and through the back-streets of urban Kyoto. Although much less dramatic than it sounds it is nevertheless something I think any visitor to Kyoto oughta do and something I myself found so relaxing I can understand why, so long ago, the Philosopher Kitaro Nishida was said to walk its length every day, thus the name.

Wandering across the sturdy wooden bridges covered in prayer scroll and down streets where it seems every few steps you are stumbling across another shrine or temple, you really begin to appreciate Kyoto in a way you can’t most other cities, whether Japanese or otherwise. Many other Japanese cities have been so modernized that for a wanderer in search of that historical culture and beliefs which I crave to understand, they are ultimately disappointing. Vast concrete shells built over the paved remains of the peoples local history. It’s sad really, I can imagine even moreso for those raised in such places.

Kyoto does not have that problem, it is rich with its heritage and history. One of the reasons, I think, that it has become such a popular tourist destination as people such as myself come from afar to try and understand just a tiny bit more the confusing jumble that is Japan.

Eventually, wandering south from The Silver Pavilion you’ll find Kiyomizudera Temple, another location which I highly recommend to fellow wanderers. Built in such a way that it is a series of temple built along the curve of the hillside you’ll go from standing atop a wooden platform high above the ground, staring outward towards a stunning vista view of Kyoto, to wandering along a tree-lined pathway and through dusty, spiritual building till standing before a large stone fountain from which anywhere from dozens to hundreds of pious (Or simply curious!) stand waiting for their turn to drink the springs water as it cascades down in three small waterfall and into a picture-perfect pond. It’s… well, it’s fantastic. By the by, I was told that to drink from the waters bestow good luck, but to drink from all three falling streams was greedy and thus bad luck. I love these little details!

However, all said and done, perhaps my favorite location in Kyoto was a shrine called Fushimi Inari-taisha, annoying as hell to try and type (It’s even spelt wrong on my tourist map I’m using to remember the names of all these things! Hah! And this is the one I got in Kyoto!) and I’m not even going to try and pronounce it, but for me, to finally see it, was such a sight I was left breathless. It was also a complete unknown to me and so visiting this site in Japan I really had no idea what to expect. All I knew was that *this* was the front cover of a National Geographic years ago, I’ve no clue whether it was recent or long ago, but the image of this path completely enclosed by seemingly unending row after row of these orange wooden arches, twisting and turning, it stuck with me. Probably you too if you’ve ever seen pictures of it. And to not only see this remarkable sight in person but to walk its length, well, it was incredible.

What I didn’t know was that this path actually twisted up and around a large hill, its length surprisingly long and the sheer number of steps you have to climb if you wish to see even half of the pathway. Even I, in pretty good shape and used to hiking and walking long distances with a backpack, found myself panting for breath before long. But the view… damn, the view! Climbing steadily upwards, always those arches, or Torii as they are properly called, ascending to either side of you till finally you find yourself atop a platform looking down upon the city from afar and you realize how far you’ve walked and that despite the aching limbs, every single step was completely worth the experience for the wonderful panoramic landscape you see before you. If you choose to continue further the experience only grows more surreal as the Torii slowly begin to dwindle in numbers till you’re stumbling along a wild forested path, likely alone as I myself was, not another tourist to be seen or heard, while stopping occasionally at the numerous shrines and small tea-houses that dot the paths twisting journey. Finally finding yourself entering a familiar clearing and realizing you’ve walked a full circle round this hill, and although exhausted, you smile to yourself and wonder where the time has gone…

And that’s Kyoto, or so it was for me. There are other things to see more numerous that I can’t even count them all, but it would take years if not a lifetime to enjoy all the sights and sounds there are to see in Kyoto. Those simply the sights and experience which stood out most strongly for me.

Kyoto is a wonderful city and I really wish I had more time to explore its wonders. Anyone with any remote interest in Japan should visit this city, I really can’t stress this enough. It’s easily one of the most stunning locations in Japan, if not the world.

(On a more functional note, many but not all of the locations listed above do have a small entrance fee. Never much, but it should be considered. Also most of central Kyoto is based on a grid layout and so it’s an easy city to navigate by bicycle, which I really do suggest you do. It’s only on the outer reaches of town where the streets become a bit more meandering as they shape to the contour of the surrounding hills. I’ll admit I got turned around more than a few times along stretches like that, but it’s all a part of the experience and never was I terribly lost in any sense. All in all Kyoto is one of the nicer cities to wander.)


The city of the future: Tokyo

Posted July 18, 2009 by incipiency
Categories: Japan, Travel

Tags: , , , , , , ,

(I’ve never done this before, never had the chance, but I’m writting this during my latest trip from my hotel room. Normally my rule is to try and cut myself off from technology for a bit while I wander, makes things more interesting both while I’m gone and when I get back. Iuse internet cafe and the like to stay in touch with family and friends. But in this case I had the opportunity to rent a laptop for the evening from my hotel along with internet access, so I’m taking the opportunity to bend my rule some and get some typing done while things are fresh in my mind. I doubt I’ll be getting another similar chance for awhile, so regular updates are still a ways off for when I’m home and unhurried, but this is a chance I’d be a fool to pass up and considering I’m *at* the place I’m writing about this time, I’d say my memories are fresh. All that said, here it is, a writeup on Tokyo, Japan.)

This is the future. This city, right here, is the future of the world if things continue the way they are going and populations world wide continue to rise at such an increased rate. Tokyo. A city of over 35 millionpeople producing a GPD of over a trillion dollars. To sum that all up nicely, this relatively little city (Size wise Tokyo isn’t terribly big, go figure!)not only has more people living in it than all of Canada, a country… let’s do some quick guess math here; You could fit roughly 16078 (holy shit) cities of Tokyo into. Not only that, but probably makes more money too! It’s insane!

So with that said you’ll be unsurprised to hear Tokyo is a very crowded city. Everywhere you go there are crowds, people, noise and disturbances. This city is alive in a way no other city I’ve ever been to is, the city *thrives*, hums, and moves in such a way that after having spent a fair while here, I begin to suspect the city itself is alive. Some giant, massive beast beneath the earth slowly awakening and bursting to life. I’ve gotten this impression before: London reminded me of some grand slumbering beast. But unlike London, Tokyo is awake! There’s no other way to describe it. To see these giant throngs of people moving to and fro beneath the glare of mammoth neon lights and to hear that constant thrum of life; it’s the blood-flow, the eyes and deep, earth-shaking breaths of the beast. Tokyo is alive and awake!

It is also very, very confusing. Not the subway mind you, although the Tokyo metro is indeed one of the more troublesome I’ve met. No, it’s just the way a city presents itself to you is usually very clear. A specific vibe that this particular city likes to show off and be remembered by. Tokyo however has no single ‘vibe’, it’s instead a mishmash of various styles and times, places and beliefs that defies any simple description. There are two reasons for this really, one and most simple is just because Tokyo is so damned big. Another reason, the second, is because Tokyo has been destroyed and rebuilt twice in relatively recent times, once by a massive earthquake, and the other time by the bombs of World War 2. This has resulted in not much of the history and past of Tokyo to have remained over time and for the city and its inhabitants to have had to re-imagine and rebuild time after time. Add to that the influx of foreign influences and you’ve got a city with an identity crisis.

The result is a city where at one train station you’ll find yourself emerging into the glare of titan TV screens and huge crowds flowing between these glass towers, the noise deafening and the pace frantic. And yet at another train stop not even too far away you’ll find yourself emerging into the simple sunlit daylight, a few passerby walking along the sidewalk and a pleasant breeze in the air causing a rustling among the trees of a nearby garden. While this can be disorienting, it can also make for an extremely memorable and fun experience. No matter what you’re looking for, what kind of city or what kind of experience, there’s likely somewhere in Tokyo where your wishes will be fulfilled.

Me, I like the quieter districts. Or if not quiet, the more traditional. While I have plenty of interest in electronics, I didn’t come here to go shopping, and I’ve no interest really in ‘anime’, or Japanese cartoons, comics and the like. All of which are extremely popular here as well in other parts of the world I’m assured, although it’s not to my particular tastes. No, I came to Japan because I wanted to visit a culture different from my own, alien, and to explore their history and traditions. To immerse myself in something different than the European cultures I’m so familiar with. For example I’ve seen many of the most grand cathedral and church in the world, more Notre Dame than I can count, and yet till just recently I’d never before explored a shrine or temple.

But now I have, in Tokyo is where you’ll find among other more modest holy buildings, the Senso-ji Temple, a Buddhist temple in the heart of Tokyo which unlike the cathedral and church mentioned above, is in truth a series of buildings and shrines built and designed as one grand whole to appeal to every facet and personal belief of this religion. Or so it seems to me, an admitted outsider. The original buildings, as with most things in Tokyo, were destroyed a fair time ago but the recreation remains true to the original and it’s the people and their beliefs and traditions which matter here, and those remain untouched with the passing of time, war and cataclysm which has destroyed so much before. Which is not to say those buildings are unimpressive, they are anything but. Massive painted gateway holding up high these carefully crafted and intricately carves roof. The massive pagoda, a strange inconceivable tower reaching upwards into the sky, painted brightly and shimmering with golden trim and hand-painted patterns.  And amidst these huge, towering structures a range of smaller, equally skillfully crafted shrines and gardens each representing some other facet of the faith. All this to the smells of sweet incense that blows through the air and the sights and sounds of hundreds of followers of this belief following their rituals, bowing and praying… it can be overwhelming. Completely different, and yet in certain ways so alike, the giant stone Cathedrals of the western world!

Senso-ji however represents only one of many temples within this city and far from all the various faiths you’ll find here, Shinto for example is another great belief you’ll find common. But I write this not to debate faiths or compare religions, as fun as that is, but to describe the great city of Tokyo. Religion is only one of the many facets of the traditional ways within this city. Exploring some of the more historic districts would prove another. Near the Nippori train station remain a collection of buildings which have survived the passage of time, and to walk amidst them, to hear the locals chatter and to wander the nearby market streets and taste the foods being sold there is a joy unto itself and another experience unique to this part of the world. Small, tight streets crowded with the sights and smells of vendors selling their wares, people and bicycles crowding together to walk between the stalls. I’m not one to enjoy crowds, but things like that… it’s enjoyable to be a part of something even if I am painfully obviously just a passing traveller.

Tokyo is not unkind to travellers however. I’ve been to places that hated visitors and Tokyo is not among them thankfully. The people are people, and no matter where you go on this great globe of ours you’ll find the same types of people. But for the most part Tokyo citizens are a friendly lot, much moreso than you’d expect perhaps for a city this size. It’s surprising in a nice way to be approached by a man and asked if you have any questions, clearly he’s not a guide, but you ask your questions and that leads to idle chatter and you soon discover he simply wished to practice his english and you’d looked like you could use a few helpful words. Something I had happen to me twice. No, Tokyo’s greatest bane towards travellers is not the locals but the city itself and among other things weather. The city I say because exploring a city of this size is always a task not taken lightly, and the weather I mention because as a Canadian I find it ridiculously hot and muggy at times. Not too bad mind you, not like some places, and in Tokyo at least a drink is never far away in the form of the legion of vending machine that dot every street and corner of the city. Well maintained and stocked machines dispensing cool relief to sweaty tourists like myself and local alike. The things are incredible, one of my two favorite things about Tokyo. The other?

The gardens. The Japanese have a love of gardens and gardening in a sort of way you’ll not encounter anywhere else in the world, and Tokyo boasts a couple spectacular gardens and parks you’ll never forget. Crammed among the skyscrapers and condo you’ll find these gardens, usually walled and *always* with a history behind them. The Imperial Palace (Guests only allowed in twice a year and I’ve no intention of waiting around long enough to be in Tokyo during one of em!) is surrounded by gardens as well as any other royal structure, some open to the public others not. Many temples and shrines will have a small garden to walk around in. And then there are the few others which stand alone. My favorite of which is the amazing Korakuen Garden, located in the middle of a busy city with a theme park and coliseum nearby, you’d never guess that it would be such a calming and beautiful place to walk, so much so the honking of horns and screams of people riding the nearby roller coaster are simply forgotten. This particular park I enjoy because not only does it have a history (Signs marked ‘the __ shogun enjoyed sitting on this rock’ or ‘this monument was dedicated to __ shogun’s favorite eagle’ among others.) but the part itself is designed as a landscape in miniature, every crevice and stream representing part of a greater whole, and it all forms together into this spectacularly calming experience where one step is crossing miles and every tree a forest. A much needed oasis of tranquility and relaxation in Tokyo.

And now, once again, I find myself wondering what to type about next. The city is just so big, so vast and diverse that to focus on any one facet is to ignore a million others. I spend a paragraph talking about gardens and in so doing ignore the cities monuments to the future. The skyscrapers, built like giant glass cathedral which ascend toward the sky and leave your mind in wonder. The exhibition halls, the huge glass domes and the wonderful electronics you’ll find everywhere. And having typed that, I am once again reminded that Tokyo is a city of the future. I enjoy the remnants of the past, but it is the future the city sets its eyes upon. Not only does Tokyo seem to embrace other cultures and ideas, it takes those ideas and engulfs them, making them a part of itself and then setting itself to surpass the source from which those ideas came from. Paris has a giant tower? So does Tokyo, and it’s actually bigger in size… but here is also where I, personally, find flaw in Tokyo’s thinking as a city and I’ll use this tower as an example. The Eiffel tower is not simply a big metal radio tower, but it in many ways it is a symbol. It wasn’t just built to be the tallest, but it was designed to be a metallic work of art, you see this when you look closely at how it was built. The tower is a sort of french ideal, a wonder, that’s why not even in World War 2 could the axis bring themselves to destroy it. Building a bigger tower is impressive, yes, but it hasn’t the same effect nor the impact. Tokyo does it bigger, does it better likely, and yet somehow it’s still just not right. It’s the same with much of the ‘new’ Tokyo, and you’ll forgive me I hope if this seems harsh, but it’s shallow. That’s why I so enjoy delving into Tokyo’s past rather than face the future, glorious although it may be.

But that’s simply me, my personal opinion on the city and its peoples and ideals. As mentioned many a time, Tokyo is too big to really classify. Impossible to give a proper title to. And at the rate the world is advancing it’s only a matter of time till we find that Tokyo is the trendsetter and we, these other cities, copying it and creating our own little shallow copies of its glories. Whether or not this is a good or a bad thing I cannot say, but it is the future and not as far away as some might think. Tokyo is like a murky mirror into what every city could be given the time and people, a glimpse into the future. It is an Alpha-world-city, one of few in the world.

It is a city of the future.

(I’ll add links to pictures like I normally do when I’m home again, which could be awhile but who knows? Not me!)

Guess where I’m going?

Posted June 28, 2009 by incipiency
Categories: Travel

I’ll be leaving soon, can’t wait! Seen my fair share of western Europe and North America, now it’s time for something completely different. How long will I be gone, how much will I be able to see? I’ve got no bloody clue and it’s glorious

My Desk

My Desk

Be leaving in a bit over a week.

The Cathedrals of the World.

Posted June 14, 2009 by incipiency
Categories: Rants, Travel

Tags: , , , , ,

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; I’m not a particularly religious person. It’s simply not something I dwell upon and as such I find myself drifting into the ‘agnostic’ category of religious beliefs rather than towards any one religion or another. However it does not take a man of god to be impressed by the feats accomplished in his name. The sheer majesty of some of the structures built in a gods name and the amazing effort and work that must have gone into creating these massive behemoth structure is simply mind-boggling. I do not exaggerate when I state cannot even comprehend the magnitude of effort that must have at some point gone into many of these places.

Now I say Cathedrals because while I have been in mosque and temple for various religions from around the world, I don’t have nearly the same amount of experience with those ‘style’ of religious artifact as I do those of the more Catholic persuasion. Something which I aim to change with an upcoming trip I’m planning, but which remains true till then. And so keep that in mind as I continue; I care not for the ‘who’ in particular these buildings were built for, neither do I praise these structures for any particularly divine reason. These are simply the most impressive building I have ever seen and perhaps will ever see, perhaps, we’ll see…

Have you ever stood at the base of a structure and stared upward in awe, your mouth gaping as your eyes seem to drill into your brain from the sheer effort of trying to take in the mass of detail which has been put into this structure before you? And as your feet carry your forward you mind only continues to reel as passing beneath a monumental archway, statues of kings and heroes past staring down at you from every conceivable corner, you find yourself feeling weak from the impossibility of it all as you stare wide-eyed down a seemingly never-ending hallway, massive stone pillar supporting an arching roof so high that it seems as though it were touching the sky. Beams of light shinning inward through tall multicoloured windows wasting the world before you in a surreal haze even as the unearthly sound of pounding organ music invites you to transcend from simple awe and fall to your knees instead as you embrace whatever divine creator must have descended from the heavens to craft such a marvel of this world, for surely you think, no human hands could have crafted such artwork…

I ask because that is the ‘purpose’ of these cathedrals. That is the desired effect! And for thousands of years of human history it has worked perfectly, tempting these simplistic people who’s days consist of endless tedium and dreary despair to see the wondrous and fall to their knees in rapture as they soak up the ambiance around them and dream of a land beyond their own they might visit, one like this, grand and beautiful. Cathedral are symbols, and as such they interest me greatly. Not just because they are symbols of a particular divinity, but because almost unconsciously these massive structure are also statements of the time they were built, the ways of life for the people where the building was constructed and sometimes even stark reminders of when dreams fell.

If this all sounds a little obscure let me to explain further. One needs to remember when they look at any sort of church or cathedral that although they may stand as symbols the the divine, they are inevitably crafted by the hands of men, and men are fickle creatures that tend to leave imprints of themselves whenever they tread and work. As such each church and cathedral in the world is unique and will have been twisted and changed to suit the location where it was built. Not only that but these buildings have continued to grow and evolve as time passed, changing to suit the needs of future generations long after the original builders have long since passed on themselves. So if you look closely and you pay attention you can ‘see’ the outlines of the people who built these places, if you look at the details and pay attention you can ‘understand’ them even and ‘why’ they built what they did. They stand not just as symbols of their divinity but of the people around them.

Allow me to recount one of the most dramatic examples. In Germany many church and Cathedral lay bare in the middle of cities, the roof long ago collapsed and the ground swept clean of debris but otherwise left bare. There are rarely any signs or plaque to explain the reason for this, but an astute person will quickly pick up on just what these barren structures represent. It was while wandering once such ruin in the middle of busy downtown Hamburg that I got caught in the heavy rain and ran beneath the remains of a stone arch for shelter. To my left stood a statue of a figure hunched as though crying atop a pile of bricks. Reading the small plaque there read that people must remember the truth and learn from it, and although I’d picked up the concept earlier in my travels, it was only then that it struck me that these ruins were a sad monument, a reminder of the past atrocities and conflicts of World War 2. The roof no doubt destroyed in the allied bombings, the walls collapsed from the thunder of conflict and the walls blackened by flame. Just like that is has evolved, its purpose has changed from that of a symbol of the divine to a stark monument to the terrors of the past, pleading and begging future generations to heed by its example and to not repeat the mistakes of the past. It tells alot of the culture of the people who live there.

Dramatics aside Cathedral also tend to be some of the most beautiful buildings architecturally in the world. The style varies from country to country, but as mentioned, these are buildings built from the ground up to impress. In Britain you’ve got Westminster Abbey and the Yorkminster, both of which are amazing to behold whether it’s the plethora of history at Westminster or the sheer awe one feels while staring upward into the Yorkminsters central tower while choir sing in the background. Then there are the smaller places which I also enjoyed. Bristol’s St. Mary Radcliffe I found to be a particularly memorable experience. The Amiens Cathedral in France is just as grand as nearly other cathedral in France and yet not nearly as crowded nor busy. Italy has a neat meditterenean style to its cathedral and church with a much higher focus on painted artwork rather than stonework, and so on.

In North America, Canada specifically since I’ve never really seen that much of the US, I can only think of one cathedral that can even begin to compare to its European counterparts; The Basilica Notre Dame in Montreal Quebec. Although not nearly as big on the outside as many others its interior is an amazing display of wood-carved artistry that easily compares and even beats the best I’ve seen elsewhere in the world. Highlighted with multi-coloured spotlights and other more modern touches while still maintaining the classical design of the original cathedral, it’s an amazing sight to behold.

Hmm… you know, I’ve run out of things to say. There never really was a point to me typing this, just an entertaining rant I thought up while looking over pictures. I have alot of those; rants that is. I remember once being compared to Louis Black and his rant-themed comedy, but I’m getting sidetracked, best to end this now before my mind wanders elsewhere.

Looking forward to being able to compare the buildings mentioned above to the more Asian specific shrines and such. I’ll be travelling to Japan within a month, should be interesting.

Great European Train Experience.

Posted May 23, 2009 by incipiency
Categories: Rants, Travel

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

(Long delay between updates this time, just got back from some camping among other things. Hope to finish up a few half-written memories I’ve got saved before the next time I vanish.)

So you’re a backpacker, making your way across the world saving every last penny you can in the hopes of squeezing just a few more days travel outta the money you’ve got sitting in the bank. Plus there’s the entire ordeal of being able to afford to get home at some point. Now sure, you *could* in theory walk (or swim) everywhere you want to go. There was a neat video circulating around the Internet only days ago of a man who crossed China and I presume much of Australia or some-such on foot. Impressive! But me? I’m too lazy to walk that far! Do you realize how much walking that is? It’s insane. Plus I really don’t have the face for one of those ‘grizzled traveller’ beards that inevitably spread across the faces of wanderer’s everywhere, I’ve tried it and honestly think I look ridiculous. However I’m also far too cheap and, let’s face it, poor to fly everywhere, so what options do I have left?

The train, that’s what. Whether it be Eurorail or Britrail or any other ___rail, it’s the backpackers transportation method of choice. I’ve spent more time sitting on my ass bored outta my mind on trains than I dare to contemplate. Hell, during one particularly long trip I practically took root at one point and spent hours drifting too and fro between the dreary reality of this trains interior and the fantastical world that exists only within my mind (It’s awesome there, you should visit!). And in France I had the particularly entertaining experience of getting kicked off a train into the middle of nowhere all because the train I was *supposed* to take had been canceled and the only other train running that morning to my destination was of a particular brand which didn’t allow the pass I used and blah blah etc. The point it is was not fun. I can recall numerous unpleasant experience involving trains.

However not all is bad, indeed some of the most amazing moments you’ll ever enjoy, the most incredible sights and the most surreal experience are often on those amazing massive machines we call trains. And so in the spirit of adventure, allow me to recall a few of the most memorable experience I’ve had while riding upon the good ol’ train system, regardless of where or when.

-Scotland, Edinburgh-Inverness.

The Britrail train system is rather expensive but makes up for that in quality and comfort when compared to mtos other rail system. The problem however is that most of England honestly isn’t that grand to look at and what portions do sport a grand view, well, the locals also thought the view was fantastic and didn’t want a railway botching the view and so often planted trees and shrubs to obscure that unpleasant train from sight. Wonderful for the locals but miserable for those within the trains who’s view is obscured by layers of foliage. The exception to this is Scotland where the hills are free and stunningly beautiful to behold and the view is rarely obscured, leaving the trip a wonderful experience where you sit and relax in comfort and watch the Scottish Highlands as they pass by your window. Even now the lands look wild and untamed, the grass lush and the sky a mesmerizing shade of blue that leaves you breathless and wide-eyed. It’s a long train-ride and not all of it is so stunning, but what sections are more than make up for any restless boredom you might have built up. There’s just a certain rugged beauty to the landscape in Scotland that I can’t help but be impressed by and recommend for everyone to experience and see for themselves.

-Switzerland, Brig-Zurich.

This is one of the most well known ‘scenic’ train routes to such an extent that the trains themselves you’ll ride on this trip are specially designed for sight-seeing. So famous really that I was amazed to discover my Eurorail pass worked for the trip with no additional fees, something I was quick to take advantage of. At first I feared the typical crowds that come with any major attraction, but with a little patience I waited till a train arrived at such a time few other passengers boarded with me, most having crowded aboard the earlier train. So with the train all but abandoned and the weather wonderful that day, was the trip all it is hyped up to be? Yes! Absolutely yes! From the beginning to the end this is one train ride which will leave you in wide-eyed wonder with barely a seconds pause between one stunning vista and another. The Swiss alps are truly gorgeous to behold and this particular train ride grants its passengers an unobstructed and unrestricted view. Whether you stare in wonder at the massive mountains or the pristine lakes, the perfectly cut green lawns or the picturesque cottage villages that dot the mountaintops, you WILL be amazed.

-Italy, Pompei-Foggia-Termoli.

From the comfortable confines of the British rail and the famed views of the Swiss trains, we now go in a different direction to a less well known and less sumptuous experience. Riding in a beat-up single-car train among a few surly locals this train rout twists and turn amidst the Italian alps exposing view after view which will leave you amazed. This is a long stretch and likely to take an entire day, but will give you an unparalleled view of Italy as few travellers will ever see, from vast verdant farms to the wild mountainous alps and even Italian grasslands with massive hills of wheat all swaying soothingly in the pleasant Italian breeze. As wonderful as the view is however, the experience itself is what sealed this particular stretch into my mind. The rickety train, the small town train-stops you’ll encounter along the way, the locals as they ride alongside you. It all adds up to one memorable experience you’re unlikely to ever forget.

-Memorable experience in Termoli, Italy.

This is one of those stories which at the time left me endlessly frustrated but which even at the time I remarked ‘this will make for one helluva story when I get home’. Allow me to set the scenario; it’s early morning and I’ve just arrived at the train station to board a train to Ravenna. The weather is nice and although the train I board seems beat-up, this doesn’t surprise me. Italy in general has terrible trains and just as terrible service really. This morning would be the one to cement that idea within my mind as first minutes and then nearly an hour passes without the train moving an inch. No announcements are made, and even if there were they’d be unlikely to translate anything for the poor pair of Canadian backpackers aboard. Finally, impatient, I set off myself to try and find out what the blazes is going on… and that’s when I see it! A portly Italian man with a bristling beard and a pissed look on his red-flushed face push-starting the train with a long stick. Oh, you think I’m lying? Surely, you say, it is both impossible and silly. But I do not lie! You see, although the train was diesel or somesuch, it used an overhead power line in order to get that initial burst of power needed to no doubt start the engines proper. Problem was one of the connectors was failing to rise and so the train could not start. Naturally, you surmise, they’d call in a proper engineer to get that fixed, perhaps call in another train seeing as this one clearly is broken in a very fundamental way? But no, oh-no, the Italian solution? A portly sweating Italian man and a long stick. Seems like a decent idea even until you realize that power line he’s poking at is buzzing with more than enough electricity to reduce one large Italian man to a large Italian corpse. And then you are witness to the fascinating and terrifying image of one, by this point extremely pissed, Italian man pushing upwards and flinching away at the last second in a dance of electric poke-death, all to try and get the connector atop the train to touch that wire and give the engine a nice starting buzz. And yes, frustrated Italians do say ‘mama-mia’ all the time! It’d be a bit more comical were it not for the death-defying nature of the scene before me and the fact by this point boredom has seethed within me to such a point I’d be lying if I weren’t secretly hoping to see a little zap, just a little one, just enough to set the man a dancin and me laughing. But no, eventually the connection was made and the train was sent off to its destination where I’ve little doubt the next day it had to be poke-started all over again. Absolutely miserable at the time, but I was right, it’s a fun story to tell!

-Austria & Germany, Innsbruck-Munich.

There are a couple places in the world left that just seem to even now evoke thoughts of wonder and chivalry. Of armoured knights charging through mist-strewn forests and grand battles fought in ages past. One early morning departing from Innsbruck I got to see some of those places as my train twisted and turned through the mountains towards southern Germany. The mist was a perfect white that seethed as though alive amidst the forests, of magical vast mountain vistas being exposed to my view for a few brief, amazing moments before the sight is swallowed once again by that mystical white cloud. Small wood-built cottages still lingering as though sent from a time passed among the rocks and trees, glimpsed only for brief flashes before lost to sight. For a a brief stretch of time, riding along within that train, I could truly believe I were staring out from my window into a strange and distant land of wonder and beauty, mystery and glory! Truly that mornings train ride was for a stretch one of the most inspiring moments of my life, and although I cannot guarantee anyone else travelling that same route would experience the same thing, I can only say ‘go, go yourself and hope you too will get to see something akin to how I saw it that one misty mornings ride’.

-Memorable experience entering Germany via train.

Short one this, but entertaining. Everyone knows the German stereotype of big burly men with handlebar moustache and black leather caps, all but bursting forth in hairy power like some sort of terrifying bear/man hybrid no doubt designed from birth to appear in a certain type of film which I shall not mention. For the most part it’s not really true, but there was this one time… picture two men fitting the exact description above sauntering into your train cabin and staring at you with a look that seems to physically shove you back against your seat. Now picture them coming up to you, massive shadows of squeaking leather and exposed hair (So. Much. Hair! Gah!) and staring down towards you. And as you wonder if you’re about to be beaten up for some unknown crime one pulls out a badge and demands to see your passport. I’m a decent size guy, taller than most others so I’m not used to feeling intimidated through sheer size, but that was one such experience. I’d never before been asked for my passport while travelling along the euro train-line, but I was hardly in a position to say no and so I showed it to them. They hummed and stared over it, grunting then as they handed it back to me and in an anti-climactic finish simply walked away. I know, being asked for your passport by a pair of officers isn’t really that grand an experience, but still, it was one helluva thing at the time and really, why the blazes were they dressed for a cheap German porn flick anyway? Damn, I said it! They never did ask anyone else in the train car for their passports either I might add. I hope I don’t look like the criminal type, do I?

-Germany, Munich-Füssen/Neuschwanstein

Another southern-Germany thing, Bavaria, but this one a different sort of experience. I’m not really sure how to describe this one really, so I’ll let some pictures do the talking for me as the sheer majesty of the view on that train ride is of nearly indescribable beauty. These are all taken from the moving train, luckily my camera is well suited to snapping moving scenery.

Breathtaking!Stunning! –  Scenic!

Really, I can barely believe it now looking at those pictures that that was something I saw and enjoyed. That I was really there and that such places really exist outside of fantastical tales and movie magic.

-Germany, Frankfurt-Koblenz, along the Rhine River.

Germany again, what gives? Well for one the German train system is easily the best in Europe. Second, it’s a big place! This time rather than Southern Germany and Bavaria we’re talking the Rhine River. What’s so special about it? Not only are the natural vistas beautiful on their own, but… how can I put this? There are so damn many castles, palace and monuments along the Rhine that it’s almost silly. I can just picture these wealthy nobles staring out their windows from one hilltop to another yelling ‘We must build our castle bigger, more twisty towers and spiral staircase or our neighbors will outdo us!’. Even the sheer magnitude of castles and monument aside, there’s also the small picture-perfect towns you’ll pass and the pleasant ambiance to take in. It really is a fantastic trip.

That’s all I can think of for now, but perhaps later I’ll add another. There’s a particular stretch along the Italian coast that was postcard-perfect with jagged dramatic cliff strewn with wildflower and numerous small cottage dangling close to the coastal brink, but for the life of me I can’t remember where exactly this was and didn’t manage to snap any pictures to remember it by later.

Renaissance Italy!

Posted April 24, 2009 by incipiency
Categories: Italy, Travel

Tags: , , , , , ,

Crowded and touristy although it may be, Florence remains one of the most entertaining cities to visit in Italy and indeed the entire world. There’s just a lingering mythos about the city which remains present to this very day, a unique vibe I’ve only really encountered in Florence.

Of all the city in Italy Florence was easily my personal favorite, let me just put it that way.

The city is stunning in so many ways, whether it be the detailed and well maintained architecture or the sheer volume of history and the abundance of ‘stories’ that have in the past and continue to flow from the glorious city to this very day.

However that wasn’t always how I felt. Upon first entering the city and finding a place to spend the night my overall view was rather dreary. One quickly becomes used to the unique styles of Italy so much that they alone cease to impress, and the city I’d been to before Florence, Pisa, had been a complete disappointment which no doubt overshadowed any initial goodwill Florence presented…

Perhaps I should actually touch on that a bit before I continue with my little mini-review of Florence. Pisa is above all else a strange sort of tourist city that both thrives on visitors and at the same time resents them with all the hatred and disgust one would normally reserve for invaders and pests. The city just doesn’t like you, that’s the vibe I got, Pisa wants you to get over there, spend yer damned filthy money, see the bloody tower, and get out as quick as you can so you can make room for the next batch of babbling fools from afar. It’s a one trick pony that thrives on the simple novelty of a tower which happens to be leaning and which has somehow become a global symbol towards Italy in general. And it is, I confess, a pretty neat tower. The problem lies in that really that the tower is pretty much all there is of note within an otherwise somewhat surly old city. Everything else is simply a sideshow to this one tower, which leans, and that’s about it! There are some neat Cathedral, a couple cool looking buildings, an old wall, and really that’s about it. It’s also worth noting the city stinks, it really does. I can only presume it still uses the old Roman sewer system in places which sounds neat right up until you have to deal with the overwhelming stench of crap and piss which floods certain parts of the city.

That’s all fine if you’re making a quick day trip out of seeing the Tower. Hell, if you’re in and out quick enough you’ll probably love Pisa! That one tower and its accompanying church and walls are really well preserved and prettied up considerably for us bloody tourists. It’s only when you stray from the path and have to wander the parts of the city you’re not really supposed to see in order to return to a dank cheap little hotel you’re spending the night in that the cities luster not only fades but peels with such drama it’s remarkable.

And so understandably I was in a bit of a darker mood when wandering Florence. Add to that some massive indigestion or stomach cramps or whatever the blazes it was tormenting me throughout the early morning and I was all but determined to hate the ever lovin crap outta Florence. This place was going down! And at first Florence did an admirable job of making me dislike it with its massive crowds and overwhelming heat (I *am* Canadian. I’m better in snow! Hell, my ideal temperature meanders between 10 and -10 depending on my mood. Italy’s weather and I don’t get along well at all really.) , plus every here and there in Florence you’ll get a foul whiff of something unpleasant not unlike Pisa but to a lesser degree. So I saw the Florence Cathedral, or The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore if you wanna be fancy about it, and if you look in Google Maps you’ll find a tiny little dot in a white shirt going ‘Alright, that’s pretty cool, but I’ve seen better!’ which is me. Go ahead and look! I’m the one to the right amid the giant seething mass of tourists that besiege the Cathedral daily in an attempt to re-enact the fall of Rome to foreign barbarians or somesuch witty retort.

So funky smells (The least of which was no doubt me, have I mentioned I don’t do well in heart?), massive crowds, feelin terrible and still resenting Italy for earlier experience? Everything was right on track towards me loathing Florence with a passion in ways which I normally reserve only for Manchester, which is my most disliked city in the world and which with any luck will someday collapse into itself in an epic implosion of self-loathing.

Fortunately Florence had other plans. You see, Florence doesn’t just end with one neat attraction like certain other cities who’s name I’ve already mentioned enough in one day. No, Florence continues to thrive the more you go out and explore it! The people while still not especially nice at least don’t hate your guts and are willing to toss a smile in the direction of a kindly traveler. The city itself is gorgeous in all the ways you’ve been told Florence is supposed to be gorgeous. The parks are clean, the streets crowded but well taken care of, and there is always something to look at and enjoy. Everywhere, everywhere you look painting and statue, historic monument and quaint streets. All well maintained with that certain touch of a people who take pride in their city!

Now despite all the flattery if you spent a day in Florence eventually you will begin to get sick of the crowds and tourists. I did, so here I did what I normally do on such occasions with often mixed results. I wander off in a certain direction to see the little spots and the corners where we backpackers aren’t meant to be wandering so freely and locations in which your average tourist will never see. For me this involved a roundabout walk through some tight streets and eventually up numerous picturesque but not all that easily climbed stairs to eventually find myself at the Piazzale Michelangelo, a famous and plaza with a beautiful overall view of Florence. However again, crowds! Not as many as in the historic city below, but still crowds. So I continued onwards and soon found myself at the San Miniato al Monte Basilica (I know, it’s a mouthful!), a much smaller structure than the cities grand Cathedral, but one in which I found much more enjoyable. San Miniato not only rests atop one of the highest points in the city and offers another majestic view of the city of Florence but is also itself one of the most dramatic sights possible within the city, with its ascending stairs upwards and old walls which themselves help create a flat plateau in which numerous old graves and tombs have been built. It is humbling. The interior is dignified and, finally, much less crowded than most other sights in Florence.  It is not as showy or ‘fancy’ as many other Cathedral, but instead presents itself through smooth surface and numerous colourful artworks which cover the walls and pillars in a tasteful manner.

From there I would go on to wander parks and walk down simple but scenic streets, eventually finding my way to ‘Piazza della Calza’, which itself contained the old ‘Porta Romana’ (Why yes I am looking the city up right now on Google Maps and researching names through wikipedia, however did you guess?) which as far as I can figure was an old probably Roman gatehouse judging by the name built as part of the cities old wall. Whatever the case may be I wandered down a smaller more trendy street back towards the more central part of town, and found myself stumbling across ‘Palazzo Pitti’ the local renaissance palace and… You know what? I’m going to stop this now, trying to look up the names of everything I stumbled across that was noteworthy in Florence is exhausting. As I mentioned earlier, Florence is absolutely packed full of history and things to see and experience. Packed! That’s part of the reason I so love the city, it was one of those places I want to revisit and spend a week, a month even just wandering and seeing fully, paying special attention to the things which deserve it and soaking up the abundance of local history.

If you’ve gotta visit one city in Italy, and only one, I’d probably still say Venice because it’s so unique (Betcha weren’t expecting that huh? Go read my writeup on Venice.) but if you could see two I’d add Florence as the other city. Yes, even ahead of Rome. Although above any of those I’d say go see Pompeii… Gah! Italy is just such an incredible little boot shaped country, there’s so much to see there. Hell, even Pisa for all the crap I give it was a pretty neat city at times. Italy as a whole was just so incredible.

Oh, I know how to praise Florence best: If there was one city in which I’d want to ‘live’ in Italy, it would be Florence. My favorite city in Italy.

(By the way I’d post these more often but I’ve actually begun planning my next trip and so have been rather busy lately. On that note Lost on Planet China by Maarten Troost is a fantastic travel book, go read it! Not sure if I myself will be going to China, but it’ll be somewhere in that area methinks, more reading and research will determine exactly where. )

The most beautiful city in France.

Posted April 11, 2009 by incipiency
Categories: France, Travel

Tags: , , , , ,

I’m going to be honest here: France was not my favorite country by a long-shot. While some cities were nicer than others and it’s obviously not fair to be judging an entire country on the basis of my own personal experience, I can’t help the fact that France simply failed to impress as a whole. There was however one major exception, one location in France which stood out above the rest and which not only impressed me but which I consider one of the most enjoyable cities I’ve ever visited: Nice. No, not the adjective, the location; Nice, France. It’s a city. Really!  I believe it’s pronounced ‘niece’ actually, but written as Nice. Whatever the case it really is a grand place.

Located on the very tip of South Eastern France near the border with Italy, Nice is the leading resort on the French Riviera with its vast beautiful Mediterranean beaches and crystal blue water all bordering on a lively leading resort town. It’s more or less the relaxing vacation ideal in many many ways, the very image of  the classic vacation package which you’ll find on every pamphlet. How can you not love that? Easy. You’re like me and you’re honestly not much intrigued by pretty beaches and local nightlife. Just not my thing. Here’s the kicker however; regardless of its status as a resort city, Nice easily stands on its own as a city of beauty and intrigue.

Allow me to explain more fully. Oftentimes it seems the ‘resort town’ locations tend to be a facade, an illusion carefully crafted in order to appeal towards tourists and in so doing to make some decent money. These ‘fake’ towns in truth are often rather boring and even sometimes dismal places where the resort area exists in its own little bubble of reality kept separate from the city or town proper where the average grunts live their average lives and not everyone is a bronzed beach god and the vendors sell more mundane things like food and groceries rather than exotic overpriced charms and supposedly local specialties which, again, more often than not are little traditions the locals will either shrug their shoulders about and dismiss with a casual “I guess…” or dislike outright, hating you for bringing up the foul old tradition and loathing you to your very core for so daring to stereotype them if you should have the nerve to talk about the subject.

That’s your typical travel brochure resort town. It really is!

Nice is not a thing like that. For one it’s actually an extremely pleasant place to visit even if you never once go anywhere near the beaches or the tourist trap areas. As a city standing alone and any mention of resorts or fame or even location tossed aside, Nice stands pretty damn tall amidst its competition. The streets are clean, the buildings are pleasant to look at, the people are surprisingly pleasant, there’s a good historical backing behind the city and there almost always is something interesting to search out and explore. Most importantly for me at least it also have a good vibe to it, that indescribable inner judgement where all the above melds together into one grand image to which I hold the city up to. The vibe, the pulse, the je ne sais quoi, the… I can’t think of any other  appropriate words at the moment but whatever it is Nice has a good one.

For me the moment when I realized I was really enjoying myself in this humorously named city was when I was walking up a slight incline along an average city street, the sun shinning downward brightly but an enjoyable breeze keeping things from getting stiflingly hot. I was snacking on a brownie I’d picked up from a small local bakery and sipping a cool drink while talking with my friend and enjoying the simple local scenery. The picturesque houses and small gardens with their abundance of plants and flowers of all sorts, most in bloom at the time so that the gardens were grand explosions of colour and fragrances that wafted by slowly in the light wind. It was then I thought to myself “Wow, I am really impressed by this city!”. Why? Because I wasn’t doing anything special, I was just walking to the attraction I’d wanted to see and yet still despite being ‘in-between’ sights I was enjoying myself and the locale around me immensely. Anywhere given enough time and money can create sights and experience you’re bound to enjoy, that’s easy! But to make it so that you enjoy the simple process of getting from point A to B and that you’re continually seeing and finding things of interest even just while travelling between planned sights and sounds, that’s the hallmark of a genuinely fine place to be.

Of touristy things I actually did little during my stay in Nice. I saw the ancient roman ruins the city boasts, an active archaeological dig site open to the public with a small museum and walking path to wander along. Not particularly big nor was there much to actually do there, but it was certainly worth the money to visit if only because of just how damned scenic it is. I saw and walked along the winding upwards paths of the hill where once a castle used to sit, now converted into a large park with an absolutely mesmerizing view towards the peak where the entire landscape of the city around you is left open to the eyes and your worries just tend to drift away amidst the Mediterranean foliage and gentle warm breeze. And I wandered the old cities twisted narrow streets, my senses assaulted by the fragrances of the restaurants and food vendors, my eyes dazzled by the curiosity and volume of small details to note and enjoy as I walked. I would eventually eat a fine bowl of Gnocchi for dinner in that district served by a friendly older lady while listening to the pleasant sounds of local music before heading back to where I was staying at the time and off the next day to another location.

Not really much seen when it comes down to it. Some old ruins, a nice park (Which also contained its own slightly less old ruins), and an older local market area. Not much. But the simple act of walking from place to place, to see and enjoy the city around me and soak in the ambiance was something I found so pleasant that it pushed Nice into my list of favourite cities I’ve been to. Looking up the various details on Wikipedia now and reading about Nice to refresh my memory, there’s so much I haven’t seen and so many things I never even knew while I was there. That I still loved the city so much having seen so little just stands as a testament to how great of a place Nice really is, and I desperately want to re-visit and to search and explore it more thoroughly in the future.

Other cities in France boast their own sights and sounds and I do not try to lessen their grandeur with my adoration towards this one place, but few come close to so tying everything together and making the city such a cohesive and enjoyable whole as Nice does and for that I praise it.

What’s funny is that I label Nice the most beautiful city in France when, looking the city up now, I find that historically it’s much more of an Italian city than anything else if I were to label the city as ‘belonging’ to a certain way of life. But that aside the city is French now and has been for a very long time, so I call it the most beautiful city in France.