Friday, June 18, 2010

Istanbul was once Constantinople - Istanbul Day 1

We found out very early on in our visit to Istanbul that Turkey would have a few adventures in store for us. Take good notes because you might be able to learn some valuable lessons from our experiences.

Istanbul is full of cruise ship tourists. No offense to those who like to cruise, but it's a little annoying when thousands of tourists bombard a city at once. Sara's New Yorker personality comes out when surrounded by these tourists and trust me, it isn't pretty.

Our first stop was the Blue Mosque. This is a beautiful mosque with thousands of blue tiles in the interior. There are six minarets and the courtyard is the largest of all of the Ottoman mosques. The Blue Mosque was built to rival another neighboring attraction, the Aya Sofya. The Aya Sofya was built in 537 AD and was originally a church that Emperor Justinian had built as part of his effort to restore the greatness of the Roman Empire. In 1453 it was converted into a mosque and in 1935 it became a museum. It's pretty interesting to walk inside and see symbols that represent both Christianity and Islam. Never would I have ever imagined seeing a mosaic of Christ and large medallions inscribed with Arabic in the same building. Fascinating!

We decided to take a break in a small plaza to plan our next plan of attack. As we were studying our map, a man approached us to see if we needed help. (Note, we left our skepticism skills back in Japan after the people were so friendly and helpful. Very bad idea!) We engaged in light conversation and he eventually told us he was a fashion designer. Some how we ended up in his shop where he offered us hot apple tea and then tried to persuade John into buying a custom leather jacket. It was hilarious watching John try on leather jackets in 100 degree weather. John politely declined and asked for his business card so he could pass it along to a fashion designer friend in Houston. Phew, we survived! Our friend wanted to walk us out the back way so we could find his shop a little easier if we decided we wanted a jacket later. Hmm, how convenient that the back way happened to pass a carpet store that he wanted to show us. Next thing we knew we were trapped in a carpet shop. Our friend offered us another glass of apple tea because if you drink apple tea together once you are friends for 30 years but if you drink tea together twice you are friends for 70 years. Gag! How could we say no? Five minutes later our friend of 70 years was gone and another friend started shoving silk rugs down our throats. After throwing rugs one after another onto the floor, our new friend then asked us to eliminate the rugs we didn't like. We played along until there were two rugs on the ground. He proceeded to tell us how much the rug would cost. We said it was too expensive and that we weren't interested. He then demanded over and over again for us to tell him how much we would be willing to pay. We sat there is awkward silence because neither of us wanted to purchase a rug. Finally, John threw out a shockingly low number (still expensive). We thought he would say no thank you but no, he wanted to continue to bargain. John knew that one of us would be walking out with a rug and it wasn't going to be him. John threw Sara under the bus and told the man that he had just purchased artwork so he wouldn't be buying anything but Sara would be the one to decide. A few minutes later Sara walked out of the store with a silk rug she never wanted in the first place. Another life lesson learned the hard/expensive way. Shady Turks!

After the rug fiasco, we headed to the Basilica Cistern. The cistern was used to store water for the Great Palace. It's a little spooky walking along the slimy platforms and looking into the carp infested waters below. Oh and don't worry, random drops of water will fall on you and yes, you are just as disgusted by them as you are with the subway drips in NYC.

We ended the day at the Grand Bazaar. There are over 4,000 shops to bargain a deal with. Don't worry, we learned our lesson for the day and didn't get conned into buying another carpet.....but we came away with a few things that we actually wanted!

Detour - Layover in Dubai

We had a 10 hour layover in Dubai so we ventured into the city to see what the hype was all about. When all was said and done, we both agreed we'd love to return to this modern city filled with fabulous architectural wonders. The weather didn't was 99 degrees at 5am. Thank goodness they had plenty of indoor activities to keep us nice and cool during our visit.

The first thing on our list was to check out the tallest building in the world - Burj Khalifa. The building was completed in January 2010, so it was exciting to see the new city attraction. The views of the city/desert were incredible. It's hard to believe that people actually live there. There were some fascinating exhibits documenting the construction of the building. It was quite inspiring to see how this modern architectural beauty was created. Every detail of the building was incredible. Well done Dubai!

We spent the remainder of our time in the gigantic Dubai Mall. The shopping is out of this world and the aquarium could entertain one for hours. We definitely appreciated the food court that had every American food chain possible. We thoroughly enjoyed our tacos from Baja Fresh and refillable fountain diet cokes. Just a little bit of heaven on earth.

PS - we will be hitting up the indoor ski slopes next time around

Road trip to Koya-san

Final words forms Lizzy:

Koya-san, tucked into the forest up in the mountains, is the headquarters of one of the schools of Buddhism. And, we were lucky enough to be there on the eve of a festival commemorating Kukai, the founder of the school. To celebrate, they had a little parade of brightly lit floats, a carnival of booths selling all sorts of junk food (kind of like if Japan were to have a State Fair), and a gathering of people in a light-hearted mood (and one creepy American dude who we thought was being too friendly to the locals).

The town was pretty small (although, not as small as we thought it would be) so we basically covered it in a few hours. Probably the best part of town, oddly enough, is the cemetery. This is what Lonely Planet says about it, and since I don't know enough about Buddhism to really understand what this means, I'll just say it word for word: "Any Buddhist worth their salt in Japan has had their remains, or just a lock of hair, interred in this cemetery-temple to ensure pole position when Miroku Buddha comes to earth." The place is huge, since it's been around for hundreds and hundreds of years, and filled with both ancient and modern burial sites. Well, burial probably isn't the right word because I think most of them are like little shrines to house people's cremated remains. It feels like the ghosts of samurai are haunting the surrounding forest of HUGE cedar trees and the bugs were on attack. So, we played a little game called, "How much money would someone have to pay you to spend a night in this cemetery?"

We also visited some temples, the largest of which is another photogenic red pagoda. While we don't appreciate these as much as the people who were there to make a religious pilgrimage of sorts, we did enjoy just observing their rituals. For example, people were bowing to and picking up three-pronged needle pods from one of the trees in front a temple, the monks who worked at the temples wore either really simple clothing or sometimes really ornate clothing and platformed flip-flops, people would sometimes quietly bow and clap in temples or would sometimes start chanting, and sometimes the monks would get mad at us for wearing shoes in places that we shouldn't be.

That night, we stayed in some accommodations of one of the temples for the truly authentic Japanese kind of living (except they were kind enough to include A/C, television, and western style toilets). Each room was small, enclosed with sliding doors, decorated with classic Japanese paintings onto the walls, and we slept on the floor on futon mats. Traditional vegetarian meals were served to us while we sat on the floor. We even bathed in the bath house. Although in the girls' tub, we established the rule of "Close your eyes until I'm in." At 6:30 in the morning, we were woken up to attend the temple's prayers. We thought it would be a little more participatory, but instead, we just watched three monks chanting for about 30 minutes.

Then, we hopped back on the cable car to take us down the mountain and then trains to take us to Osaka. From there, Hyeku left for Korea. Sara, John, and Lizzy spent a little time in Osaka checking out the shopping malls. Well, basically the whole city is a shopping mall with high-rises above them. The Japanese must like to shop because we have never seen another country with many stores, especially designer store. We also spent over an hour in an arcade. Having not been in an arcade for years, it was quite addictive. Then, that was basically it. Sara and John left that night and I, Lizzy, left the next day. Sad! The saddest part: I had to go back to work while Sara and John keep on traveling the world! (Until I meet up with them again in a few weeks. See you soon!)

Thursday, June 17, 2010

History Lesson - Hiroshima

More words from Lizzy:

We took a day trip to Hiroshima where, as you know, the first atomic bomb was dropped on August 6, 1945. The first thing we saw was the stark reminder of that day: the A-Bomb Dome. The bomb exploded almost directly over this building since the bridge right next to it was the target (it's shaped like a T, so it was easy to see from the air), but surprisingly it was one of the few buildings that remained standing. It's a grim site, but serves as an important reminder of the devastating effects of the war. Across the river, is the Peace Memorial Park. This used to be a major industrial part of town that was totally demolished from the bomb and is now a large park with several memorials, including a wall with the names of all the known victims, a bell of peace, and a flame that will burn until all the atomic weapons in the world are destroyed. There was one really touching memorial called the Children's Peace Monument. This is in commemoration of a girl named Sadako Sasaki who, due to radiation exposure from the bomb, developed leukemia years after the war. In Japan, the crane is a symbol of longevity and happiness, so she believed that if she could fold 1,000 origami cranes, she would recover. Sadly, she died before she could complete her goal, so her classmates finished for her. Now, there is a country-wide tradition of folding paper cranes, thousands of which are sent to this memorial each year to be displayed.

Also, at this park is the Peace Memorial Museum. It was good to get a refresher of the historical events that led up to the bombing. Although, we felt like it was told a little different than we remembered learning in our history courses in the U.S. I suppose it makes sense that the different perspectives would tell the story a little differently. There wasn't a lot of discussion of the war before Pearl Harbor, then they briefly mentioned that Pearl Harbor made the Americans mad, and then there was a lot of focus and illustration of internal government memos related to the development of atomic weapons and their ultimate use. It certainly is controversial whether this is what made the difference in the result of the war or whether it was America's biggest mistake; we all felt like we'd like to go back and re-read some of this history to remember some of the broader history, so we can understand this better. Regardless of the way you tell the story though, it is certainly easy to understand the tragedy and devastation caused by nuclear weapons.

A few specific things that we thought were interesting here: Kyoto was on the list of potential targets that the Presidential committee was considering and, having just come from Kyoto, we couldn't help but think of how sad it would have been to lose all those historical sites; they were not shy to name the countries that still have atomic weapons (U.S., U.K., Russia, etc.), but we felt like they were missing a few (Iran and North Korea, I'm talking about you! Maybe these are still considered unconfirmed?); there were a lot of pictures of victims that we had to try hard to not look at, it's just too hard to see, and they talked a lot about how the survivors are still suffering from health problems related to nuclear exposure, but we were pleased to know that the U.S. set up a fund to help pay for their medical expenses; there were some stone steps with a shadow preserved onto them from the person who was sitting there when the bomb went off, which was a bit haunting.

It was also interesting to be in Hiroshima as an American. There really weren't that many foreign tourists. It was mostly filled with Japanese/Asian tourists or Japanese school kids on school trips. It would have been interesting to know their thoughts of us being there. I mean, the U.S. has had it's tragedies, of course, but there were over 200,000 casualties in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so really this level of devastation is hard to relate to. I almost felt like I should offer an apology on behalf of my country. I hope that they realize that this is an important part of our history too and that reflecting on this event is relevant to our current wartime lives. Surprisingly though, the Japanese don't seem to harbor any anti-American sentiments today and politically we are allies. So, we will continue to hope that the same sort of recovered relationship will some day happen with our current political enemies, that we will one day see a world where countries do not feel so threatened as to hold on to atomic weapons, and that the Flame of Peace will be extinguished.

Melting in Kyoto

From the mouth of Lizzy:

Our first experience with the Shinkansen trains (the bullet trains that Japan is famous for) was when we traveled from Tokyo to Kyoto. The train system is quite efficient and orderly. Luckily, it seems that numbers are usually printed in "normal" characters we can read, rather than Japanese characters that just look like pretty drawings to us. So, we could pick out the important information: departure and arrival times, car number, and seat numbers. On the platforms, lines are marked out to queue for each train car and when the train pulls up to the track, it stops exactly in place. If it's the last stop of the line, a cleaning person boards each car to clean and to flip the seats around (the seats just spin around!). If it's not the last stop, you better be ready to jump on because the train only stops for less than a minute. Then it zips away so smoothly that you wouldn't even realize that its going so fast. In summary, we were impressed.

We spent two days exploring Kyoto, which were not enough to see everything. The city itself is not as mesmerizing as Tokyo, but as the cultural center of Japan, there are loads of historical sites to see. On the first day, we followed a walking tour in the Lonely Planet book of the Higashiyama neighborhood where many historical sites are centered. When we were in Tokyo, it had been rainy and overcast, so we we excited to see the sun. That is, until we realized that the combination of sun, humidity, and walking meant that we'd spend our time in Kyoto melting. Thank heavens that they have drink vending machines all over the place. John particularly loved these. He got a different drink each time, it seemed! We also took after the local women and used our umbrellas for shade. It helped, but for some reason we were still sweating up a storm while all the locals seemed perfectly at ease strolling around under their umbrellas--in heels no less and some even in kimono! Well, it wouldn't be a true adventure if it wasn't physically challenging, right?

So, on our 5K (did I mention that it was 5 kilometers?), we walked through some really cute streets that were lined with quaint, historical, totally Japanese homes and shops (think: sliding doors, clay tile roofs, and bamboo shades). Unfortunately, most of them were turned into shops selling knick-knacks to tourists, but if you focused on the architecture, the little lanes were quite darling. We also saw several shrines and temples, each a little different. One was giant-sized; one had lovely trees; one had a huge Buddha sitting on its roof. After climbing a modest-sized hill (sweating to death, remember?), we visited Kiyomizu-dera temple. The highlights here were a bright red pagoda that overlooked the city and a pillar-supported veranda hanging off the main temple that overlooked the dense trees growing all over the hillside. John also drank some water from the magical spring, so he now should be healed or powerful or something. One wacky part of this temple (maybe not so wacky if you're Buddhist and you believe these superstitions) was when we were instructed to go down into the pitch-black basement of the temple. We followed a handrail until we got to a large stone with Japanese characters under a little spotlight. Tradition follows that you make a wish and then spin the stone. And so we did. I'm not sure who was giggling more, the two Saras or the schoolgirls ahead of us. It was silly. (As an aside, there were uniformed school groups wherever we went. They must go on a lot of fieldtrips!)

That evening, we enjoyed a delicious ramen meal and then walked around the Gion neighborhood--home of the Geisha. There are only about 100 geisha left in Kyoto and they live pretty discrete lives, so they are hard to find. To further complicate the hunt, Japanese tourists like to get dressed up like them. So, we saw quite a few 'geisha,' but we were quite skeptical that any of them were real. A couple of them seemed legit though because they were alone and scurrying along as if they were going to an appointment; as opposed to the others that were in giggly groups as if they were on vacation. If you haven't done your homework and read Memoirs of a Geisha (guilty!), then, in brief, Geisha are skilled entertainers of Japanese arts of classical music and dance. (They are not prostitutes. A few naughty Geisha gave them a bad name, but a classy Geisha wouldn't do that.) Going to a dinner that is served by a Geisha is very expensive. I suppose that explains why this neighborhood was also filled with clubs that sported bouncers at the doors and all the patrons were very dressed up. It was weird--unassuming streets filled with clubs and geisha houses with who-knows-what going on inside. It felt like a secret world that we didn't understand. Because we don't, actually.

For Kyoto day two, we split up. John went to a bamboo forest and the two Saras went to the Golden Pavilion temple and to a park with hundreds of shrines and torii gates all in a row. I think we all enjoyed our little adventures. And I think we all hope that there's a 'next time' so we can see some more of the sights. We found it interesting that on more than one occasion strangers on the street offered to help us find our way when we paused on the sidewalk to look at a map. The Japanese people are incredibly nice! That night, Hyeku Song, Sara's friend from New York, met up with us. We went out for some delicious tonkatsu, deep-fried, panko encrusted pork cutlets. Yum! We then happened upon a crowd of people, kids mainly, gathered at the riverbank. A band was playing and a skinny dude in hipster clothes was drawing, DJing, and dancing at the same time. All that action combined with the wild, flamboyant, metro, cutesy outfits of the Japanese youth made for some great people-watching.