Friday, August 31, 2007

damp day, but cool stuff

Note to self #1: when traveling, remember to waterproof your leather shoes. Or at least put water-friendly sandals in the little bag they let you take with you on the tour bus.

Note to self #2: the night after taking over 130 pictures, remember to recharge the camera's battery. We had just enough juice for another thirty pictures or so.

The next day in Takayama City dawned with another rainstorm and a rather damp trip to the farmer's market.
The next stop was a traditional gassho-style house, the Toyama family's farmhouse.
No hardware is used in the construction of the house. Instead, they join all the beams and other parts using carefully cut joints and wooden wedges and use rope in certain other areas. The steeply-sloped roof handles the two meters (six feet) of snow the area sometimes receives. The house has a straw-thatched roof that must be replaced every forty years or so.

After touring this large farmhouse, we went to Shirakawa village, a historically-preserved village full of this style of house.

The next stop was Gokayama, the heart of the paper-making industry, where they've been making mulberry-bark paper for three hundred years or so. We got a chance to try our hands at making paper (just the easy part of turning pulp into paper, not the hard part of preparing the bark and making the pulp.) Unfortunately, that's about the time the camera ran out of juice. They mentioned that paper-making is a dying art and they're trying to find new uses for washi paper, which has me thinking about structural applications. (Hey, if they can make paper sculptures, wallets, and purses, it may also be strong enough for some very interesting structural uses.)

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Takayama City is now on my list of favorite cities in Japan

We traveled to Takayama City first by Shinkansen, the bullet train.

I'm having some problems posting videos from the train. I'll try to get them up in a few days.

Later, we changed to a local train that wound its way through mountains and valleys for two hours to get to the city.

The city itself is small, but they've preserved the old town beautifully.

Twice each year, they have a festival parade that's apparently quite famous, with over a hundred thousand people coming to attend (and hotel space for about a tenth of that.) It's sort of the exact opposite of the Rose Bowl. For the Rose Bowl parade, they make the floats the day before out of flower petals, so they're the most ephemeral things you could imagine. In contrast, many of the parade floats for the Takayama festival are three hundred years old or more. We saw a few of them in a museum, where they rotate several of the floats through:

That night, we had a fantastic dinner of mountain vegetables and a bit of meat cooked at a gas burner at the table using locally made miso. One nabe dish:

and one sukiyaki:

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Mt. Fuji, Hakone, and culture shock

Today's trip was to Mount Fuji and Hakone. Mount Fuji is a volcano that hasn't erupted in 300 years, which is roughly a blink in geological times. It's usually cloudy, but we got a glimpse of the north slope.

At altitude, though, we were in the clouds:

which later turned into a rainstorm preventing a planned cable car trip.

By the end of the day, we landed in a hot spring resort in Hakone. This evening, culture shock started settling in, or at least that's what I'm calling it. No one particular thing precipitated it, it's just that feeling that you get when you realize you're on a boat and far enough out to sea that you have no hope of swimming to land if the thing sinks. It's one of those adjustment processes I'll have to get through.

Tokyo, at least, and much of the rest of Japan seems very western on the surface, but there are some profound cultural differences. I used to think the breakdown was along the lines of convenience versus presentation, where the U.S. is more focused on convenience while Japanese culture values presentation more. Now I'm beginning to change my mind. I think the real difference is that U.S. culture places a strong value on flexibility, while Japanese culture more strongly values order. For example, trying to find a coin laundry in Japan has proven exceptionally difficult, unless you want one associated with a hotel, in which case it's most likely available only to hotel guests. Similarly, getting a doggie bag from a restaurant here is pretty much unheard of (and if you ask for one you're likely to get an excuse along the lines of it being a hot day, and they don't want to endanger you with possible food spoilage--translation: you're bucking the trend and they have no idea how to deal appropriately with the request.) As long as you go with the flow, things flow beautifully, but if you (say) would rather not pay 60,000 yen (around $60 U.S.) for the hotel buffet, and would rather make your own arrangements for dinner, or you simply didn't have dinner reservations, you may have a lengthy search for available food that goes beyond Cup Noodles.

a long day trip to Nikko and Kegon Waterfall

Miscellaneous pictures of a long day trip to Nikko and Kegon Waterfall.

We ended up at Sinjuku station and headed back to the hotel from there. Here's my picture from Shinjuku. It probably expresses the feeling of the place better than a clearer one would.

activities around Tokyo

More pictures and other updates. A few days ago, we helped Coppertop's mom get her new computer set up, so she's no longer running Windows 98. That evening, the town celebrated a harvest festival, with children pulling (and riding, and drumming on) a carriage through town.

The next day, it was a visit to Tokyo Tower, a three hundred meter landmark.

Here's the view from the observation deck looking down through a window in the floor:

We also swung by the Imperial Palace. We couldn't go inside, but here's what the gate looks like:

Then it was a temple and shopping area:

For some reason, these tours seem to like shopping.

That evening, we went to Akihabara, Tokyo's electronics town, a place where you can buy anything and everything electronic. There are stores specializing in capacitors, others in coax cable, and others in antique recording equipment. We eventually found one called Sofmap which has a large selection of used personal computers. After much searching, we found an inexpensive, good quality one suitable for Coppertop's seven year old nephew (and his family.) We paid them 1,000 yen--about $10--to deliver it in order to avoid having to carry the thing on the crowded trains. We're currently on a tour outside Tokyo, but the current plan is to set it up when we get back.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

the science museum

Yesterday's tour gave us only 45 minutes at the museum, so we returned there today to explore further. My very weak command of the language meant I caught about half of what was going on, but we both enjoyed ourselves.

Japan's one of th world leaders (if not the world leader) in robotics, so the robotics demonstrations were a definite high point. They had huge crowds for Asimo:

The robot moves fairly quickly and reasonably fluidly, though it has an odd knees-bent gait. When it runs, it's really more of a fast walk, because there's never a time when both feet are off the floor simultaneously.

One of the more interesting robots was the Hull / Halluc 2 combo.

This robot is more of a remotely piloted vehicle. The operator gives it commands telling it directions to move and/or turn, it provides force feedback depending on how close it is to obstacles, and it makes its own decisions about how to move its wheels or legs to move the body in whatever direction the operator wants. The insect-like design gives the robot tremendous flexibility in how it moves: rolling on wheels, walking with its wheels, or flipping its legs around and walking on its axles as this clip shows:

blogging access

We're in Japan now. Internet access has been a bit of a challenge, making blogging difficult, but I'll try to post when I can.

Yesterday, we took a half day tour of downtown Tokyo. Highlights included a man-made island and the city's museum of the future (sort of a science museum--more on that next post.)

Here's a restaurant in a TV network building on the island:

and their miniature version of the Statue of Liberty:

This fountain, believe it or not, is a public toilet:

Traffic around here is crazy. Here's what it looked like in the train station yesterday (Friday, since we're a day ahead of the U.S.A.):

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

a very long day paddling

The day before yesterday, we took a slow day of it, just hanging around
the beach, partly as recovery from the day-long travel to Waimea canyon,
and partly to get ready for yesterday's activities.

Yesterday was a seventeen mile kayak trip. There's a highway that runs
almost all the way around Kaua'i. The remaining few miles, the part you
can't cross by car, is wonderfully unspoiled, with rugged cliffs and
canyons, wild goats, and vegetation that ranges from lush to beach
scrub. That was the stretch we were kayaking.

The kayak company's about half-way around the island from us, and
check-in was 6 a.m., so we were up at 4 a.m. We drove there, checked
in, and then caught the van to the drop-off point, which was back the
way we'd just come, some distance past the condo. They put us two to a
kayak, gave us a lesson in how to paddle, how to brace to keep yourself
from tippng over, and how to get back in when you do tip over, and we

Most of the early part of the trip covered a stretch of water that, in
the winter, can see 40-60 foot waves. (It's too dangerous to run the
tour in the winter.) Over the years, they'd carved out caves in the
rock. Conditions were mild enough that we were able to explore some of
the caves, which were stunning. One in particular was like paddling
into a cathedral, with brilliant sunlit fountains cascading from a hole
in the ceiling, and a large, round, watery room. Another was a big,
round, open hole with a lava reef in the center, sheltered from the
ocean swells outside.

The usual pattern was paddle for half an hour or so, then take a break,
then paddle some more. After twelve miles or so, we stopped on a beach
for lunch. The beach is a state park accessible only by boat. It has
running water for showers and a sink, fed by a stream on top of a
cliff. After lunch, we hiked up the cliff and played in a small
waterfall there, where you could sit on a rock and get a massage from
the falling water.

After lunch, the wind that had been pushing us along had mostly died
down to a light breeze in the other direction. By that time, we'd
crossed over to the dry side of the island, the terrain had changed to
low scrub and sandy beaches, and we were all feeling the "burn" in our
arms and shoulders. We eventually landed after seventeen miles on a
large sandy beach were we were treated to a double rainbow in the
setting sun, macadamia nut cookies, and tuna poke (think sashimi bits
with heavy seasoning).

We finally made it home around 9:30 p.m., utterly exhausted. I managed
to pack for the flight to Japan and then crashed hard.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Waimea Canyon

Well, the $10 camera has officially died. I tried a new battery yesterday but no joy. That probably means no camera for the kayak trip on Tuesday, but till then I'm using a film camera and borrowing digital pictures from friends.

Here's a picture of the farmer's market from yesterday:

Today's excursion was a long trip around the island to Waimea Canyon, a large canyon that somewhat resembles a scaled-down Grand Canyon. Here's a view from an outlook over the ocean.
Here's the canyon itself. Notice the red color in the walls. The red mud apparently stains so well that some local companies use it to die T-shirts.
Here's another picture of the canyon's outlet. Clouds roll through here frequently enough that you have to wait for a break to snap a picture.

On the way back, we stopped at a beach with a children's pool. They'd piled rocks on the beach to create two pools, a larger one for bigger kids, and then, within it, a smaller one for the little kids. The pool-within-a-pool design worked very well, letting ocean water in through the rocks but ensuring there were very few waves in the little pool.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

competitive farmers' market shopping

First thing on the agenda this morning was to stop at the farmers' market. The market here is totally unlike the normal laid-back atmosphere you find everywhere else. The merchants arrive early, but there's no shopping until 9:30. So a crowd of people waits just at the entrance to the market, strategizing about who's going after the greens, who's headed for papayas first, and so on. As soon as 9:30 arrives, the stampede begins. By 9:45, we'd made all our purchases and were ready to head onward.

Unfortunately, the digital camera may have died during snorkeling today (see below), so my pix of the market didn't survive, but the setting is breathtaking: it's in a field at the foot of a tall, jagged mountain, surrounded by greenery. Some merchants were local artisans, selling shell necklaces, clothing and pillowcases, pottery, and sculpture. Most, though, were selling farm produce, including one fellow with what had to be 30 pound jackfruit. (I sampled some. To me, it tasted a bit like lychee.) He said all the fruit came off a single tree in his back yard. Considering how much cleanup is involved with most fruit and nut trees, I guess if you have a jackfruit tree your only option is to sell the fruit preemptively before it drops--or to learn every jackfruit recipe in existence and have a lot of friends over for feasts.

After the market, we rendezvoused at the "secret beach" from yesterday. I decided to risk the $10 camera on a snorkeling trip. I tried to make sure the zip-lock bag was water tight, but it turned out later it wasn't, so unfortunately the camera got soaked. It's drying now. Once it's thoroughly dry, I'll try a new battery and see if it still works. If it doesn't, I won't be able to post pictures till I meet up with Coppertop, since she has the fancy digicam. Most of the reef was covered in brown algae (fertilizer runoff from the adjacent golf course, perhaps?), but highlights of snorkeling included a spiny sea cucumber, at least two species of nudibranchs, and not one but two large sea horses.

a trip to the secret beach

This morning, we hiked down to a different beach (which we've jokingly named the "secret beach," because of the winding and steep hiking path, which follows an old dirt road, to get there.) As you can see, we mostly had it to ourselves when we first arrived. Looking left:

. . . and right:

I spent most of the morning sitting on a beach towel, staring out at the ocean. Which is not a bad way to spend a morning after all that bar study, though a beer would've definitely improved the undertaking. Anyway, this little guy dropped by to beg some food:

(Unfortunately, we didn't have any food, so the bird was disappointed.)

Later in the day, a couple of us headed out to do a bit of shopping. It was mostly groceries, but I also cashed in the gift certificate from winning the "halfway to Hawaii" guessing game. We also stopped by the top of a gorgeous waterfall, but I forgot the camera so didn't get a picture of it.

Hopefully I'll have more pictures of the activities tomorrow, but the camera's been acting strangely. The AAA battery may be dying.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

sunset tonight

Here are some pictures from tonight's sunset. I suspect I'm pushing this little camera's CCD pretty hard, but let's see what comes out.

a morning at the beach

So far, the pace of this trip's been pretty slow. This morning, there was an outing to the beach, but Kaua'i is so beautiful even such a mundane outing is pretty special. Here are some the best pictures my $10 Innovage Keychain camera from Walgreens could produce.

The drive there (through the car window):

Here's the beach, with a lagoon suitable for snorkeling.

Sorry, no snorkeling pictures, because my Waterproof Camera Enclosure (a zip-lock bag) had a hole in it. I have since replaced said Waterproof Camera Enclosure. Here are the surrounding mountains:

all volcanic rock, of course:

(It looks like the camera has some issues with high contrast images.) There's a hiking trail along the beach. Here are some pictures of the hike: