Gardens and Temples

Since the weather today was much cooler (only 28°!) we set out to see Tokyo’s outdoor attractions. Since there’s still an Emperor, you’re only allowed look at his front garden – though it does boast a water garden with a great set of fountains, and loads of cypress trees that sort of look like giant bonsai trees if you know what I mean! We looked at a famous bridge – though we never found out what it’s famous for :)

Next was the Sensoji Temple in Asakusa. This temple is approached via a 250m corridor of shops and stalls – not particularly spiritual, but then some of them have been there centuries, so maybe it’s just our western background that made them feel out of place. Mind you, it didn’t stop us buying a couple of souvenirs :)

The temple entrance gates hold huge lanterns taller than a man, that you walk beneath as you enter. People crowded around a large vessel filled with burning incense, drawing the smoke over their heads – presumably for luck. Inside the temple itself was a kind of altar, before which was a container where people threw coins and prayed. There were cabinets of small drawers with metal tumblers you shake till you get a rod to come out. The number on the rod corresponds to a drawer, each one containing a piece of paper. These end up folded and suspended like home-made christmas decorations on strings – perhaps they hold the supplicants’ requests and wishes. It was all quite different from the kind of thing we’re used to from home, and it was different from the temples we’d seen in China because these were busily being used.

We took a quick look at the Asakusajinja Shrine next to the temple before getting refreshments at the great western temple of McDonalds. The combination of air-con and coffee got us going again, and we decided to stroll back to Ueno at street level rather than use the Metro. This gave us a taste of a more normal Tokyo, a step away from the neon lights and Prada outlets. Before long we were back on the train heading back to Shinagawa.

The display on the train indicated that two lines had been closed or delayed due to earthquake! I thought I had been imagining things last night, but I distinctly felt three rocking movements as I lay in bed fitfully trying to get to sleep, and thought I heard three similar sounds like the curtains moving, or maybe the clothes in the wardrobe. It was nice to find out I haven’t completely lost my mind – yet!

Tomorrow we’re off to see Mt. Fuji, and the day will involve sky gondolas, pirate ships on a lake, and return by bullet train. It’s shaping up to be a great way to end our Far East tour. The only downside is we have to be up at 6:30 in order to get ready and have some breakfast before the coach picks us up, and just like Lost In Translation, it’s hard to get to sleep here :)

Tokyo – a million versions of Dixons

So, here we are on the last leg of our adventure! The first thing to hit us in Tokyo is the heat – literally……it’s 41 degrees. The air is thick and its uncomfortable to be in sunlight at all. Thankfully its not as humid as Beijing. The public transport system is all airconditioned – thank God or we would be either dead or marooned in our hotel!!!

The second thing that hits is the newness of everything – from the buildings to the fashion and the technology. Its all “of the moment”.
Lots of under 25’s around looking painfully edgy and super cool, and you get the feeling that there’s loads of money. Tokyo seems to be all about shopping and consumption – local electronics and European fashion.

I was expecting Tokyo to be really expensive – but its not too bad for the day to day stuff – maybe its just that Dublin has caught up.

On our first day we visited the highly fashionable Ginza district, shopped at the much lauded biggest toy shop in Toyko (Smiths is better by far) and took a turn around the Sony building where you see cutting edge electronics and pre- production consumerables – Ciaran and Adam were in their element. We had lunch in a Japanese restaurant specialising in rice dishes in the International Forum, which is a very impressive exhibition centre.

After nightfall we took the train to Shibuya to see one of the famous crossroads by night. The lights, signs and enormous screens were incredible. It was as bright as daylight from the signs and adverts, with thousands of people streaming across 4 and 5 lane intersections. The whole experience was really exciting.

Today (Friday) it was slightly less hot – only 37 degrees! We had learned from yesterday and spent the hottest part of the day in the excellent Edo-Toyko museum. This museum tells the story of Tokyo through models and artifacts….even down to building a replica kabuki theater.
We had a free volunteer guide bring us around the museum. Can you imagine in Ireland free, volunteer guides – no tip, nothing! They do it as a public service.

We then visited the district of Akihabara, which is the electronic retail centre of the whole world (that’s certainly what it felt like to me and my feet after a few millenia had passed as we wandered around a million versions of Dixons). Totally wasted on me, Adam and Ciaran enjoyed it. I kept thinking how much fun my brothers would have here – they could literally get lost here for days. To stop me from comitting hari kari and out of genuine pity for my numbed brain, Ciaran took us off for fish and chips and beer – ah, the sweet sound of western food silting up the arteries!

I do have to admit that at night the whole area was amazing from the perspective of neon lights, frantic flashing lights and electronic noise – a stereotypical Tokyo streetscape.

Intermingled with phones, stereos and every conceivable gadget was some weird stuff. Whole shops devoted to little plastic models of warriors or fantastic beings, stacks of cards of pokemon type stuff and generally cartoon fantasy stuff – aimed at adults. The weirdest stuff though was the porno stuff – very explicit dolls the same size as barbie were everywhere…..mostly dressed up as schoolgirls. This fascination with schoolgirls is pretty difficult to deal with – but it’s everywhere. I’ve seen grown women walking around in school uniform outfits or in little sailor outfits you’d put on a child. It’s all rather uncomfortable. (Ironically, myself and my friends couldn’t wait to bin our uniforms at the end of the leaving cert. No way the good sisters of mercy allowed us to look like anything but great shapeless lumps in our uniforms.)
All I can say is that I have no problem understanding why Japanese women in turn are not demanding their men titilate by dressing up as school boys – men definitely improve with age and good tailoring :)

The Sunset Coast

We continued our stay in Perth by the beaches of the Sunset Coast. Adam and Cora played with the breakers on the steeply shelving beach at Scarborough. We caught some rays while the surfers caught the waves. We drove along the coast and watched the sun set as we returned to Perth, all of us feeling pretty chilled out.

Our last day in Perth was spent again with Owen, Orla, and their two boys. Lunch at the playground in King’s Park was followed later on with fish and chips on City Beach, watching the sun go down as the kids played in another of the ubiquitous playgrounds :)

It’s been great here, a different pace, and being able to hang out and chat with Owen & Orla has been great – they have been so welcoming. Next it’s a nine and a half hour overnight flight to our last destination – Tokyo.

Perth

We’ve been in Perth for 3 days now and have been really enjoying the laid back living, strongly child friendly atitude and fab beaches and sea scapes. The town itself is low key and mostly low rise. There’s about 1.5 million people here – although the same size as Dublin it doesn’t have the same buzz, its much quieter. We’ve visited the cute town of Freemantle and got a kick out of the local markets and had lunch in a microbrewrey – yum! We’ve also checked out Swan Valley, which is a big wine producing area – we stopped off at a winery and had a look around.

We had a gorgeous breakfast at Cottesloe Beach, watching the surfers while the guys ended up in the Indian ocean in their clothes :)

We had a wonderful dinner and evening in friends’ house, a real injection of news and good fun – spending some time with other people was really welcome after 4 weeks of just us mostly!!!

Starry, starry night…

I have never seen a sky like it – this is going to sound lame, but who’d have guessed that the sky reached down to the horizon in all directions :) The sky was very much a presence and not something that could be ignored or even taken for granted – i genuinely felt that i was on a tiny platform looking into space. The stars were so prevalent it looked like a bad case of nappy rash….and the milky way was enormous – we could even clearly see the Magellanic Clouds with the naked eye. There was no moon and no light pollution, so the darkness was profound. The guide was good – gave some wow- type facts and some fun anecdotes and history. We also got to use some telescopes which added to the sky even more. Adam’s imagination was fired up – Cora really enjoyed it also and got a kick out of looking through the telescopes.

This has been a highlight of the trip – on its own its worth making the journey into the desert for.

The Red Centre

From Cairns we flew on Monday to the Ayers Rock Resort, which sits pretty much in the middle of Australia. Since the area is characterised by red sand and rocks, the region has been dubbed the Red Centre of Australia. Here’s where you find Ayers Rock itself, or Uluru as it’s now known – its original Aboriginal name.

The Ayers Rock Resort itself is some distance from Uluru, and is a complex of hotels, shops, and restaurants – but they’re all run by the same company, so there’s no competition, and consequently prices are somewhat inflated. Since we’re about 5 hours drive from Alice Springs, the nearest major town, it’s similar to when you’re skiing up the top of a mountain and the prices are much higher. It’s a real tourist trap, and there’s a palpable feeling that everyone here is just waiting to go on another tour, or to head on to another destination.

However, we had some idea of what we would be letting ourselves in for, and we checked out the various tours available. In the end we combined hiring a car with two organised tours – star gazing and a helicopter trip over Uluru.

Using the hire car we drove out to Uluru. The Cultural Centre gave us some idea of the local Aboriginal culture and customs, and the history of the Rock and the National Park around it and Kata Tjuta – similar rock formations 50km away.

The local Anungu people are quite secretive about Uluru and Kata Tjuta and the roles they play in their ceremonies. There are certain areas you are not supposed to enter or photograph, and they don’t like people climbing Uluru – though that doesn’t seem to stop many people making the ascent.

We drove around Uluru and stopped to take one of the shorter walks to a waterhole at its base. There were traditional painted images under some of the rock overhangs, and the features of Uluru around us, such as different coloured areas on the rock face, all had significance and stories associated with them. It certainly struck you as a special place, looming out of the desert sands, providing shelter, shade, and water.

We went on to the designated parking area to watch sunset on Uluru, where the colour changes as the sun goes down are supposed to be remarkable. We got there early, but we weren’t the first there by any means. The colours did change, from glowing orange through burnt ochre into dark violet as the last shadows rose surprisingly quickly up its face, and yet it might not have been as spectacular as I expected. Still well worth seeing though :)

The next morning we headed out to Kata Tjuta – similar to Uluru in its physical makeup, but made up of over 30 sheer-sided domes of rock. This area seems to be even more significant spiritually to the Anungu – certainly to their men. Again there are restricted areas and no climbing. We walked into a narrow gorge where there was water and rare vegitation, surrounded by the vertical sides of the rock domes.

The rock itself is an odd mixture of stones and boulders in seemingly solidified red mud – reminiscent of concrete. The surface weathers at different speeds, giving the rock a strange texture. Uluru and Kata Tjuta are impressive geological features, well worth seeing. I don’t feel that I really connected with the Anungu or got real information or insight into their people or culture – but maybe that’s the way they want it.

This afternoon we topped it off – literally! – with a helicopter ride around Uluru. We had our safety briefing, hopped in and donned our headsets. They were the best thing as far as Cora was concerned :) She talked non-stop through the flight! That certainly didn’t spoil it, or the view, which was spectacular. The real size and bulk of Uluru was revealed, along with a view of its rippled top. Amazing!

Almost as good – as far as I was concerned anyway – was just the fact of being in a helicopter :) I sat up front beside the pilot, and got a great view of all the controls and gauges. The flight was really smooth, and the noise from the rotors didn’t seem much different than the engine noise in the light aircraft I’ve done some lessons in.

Being up front in the helicopter meant I could see down through the window in the floor of the nose, and overall the visibility was excellent. You could see really far towards the horizon, and the ripples in the sand – which were low hills – were really clear. The aerial perspective really highlighted how much of an anomaly Uluru is in the local geography.

Anyway, I came off the flight with a big grin on my face. I’ve always wanted to fly a helicopter, and this is the closest I’ve come yet – and what a place to do it in!

Fire, stars & didgerdoos

We had a chilled out day in preparation for our evening visit to the Tjapukai visitors park, dinner and show. It started really well with an intro to different Aboriginal spirits – it was really evocative and slighty scary for Cora, but put us in the mood for more. We then joined a procession down to this huge campfire, where there were 3 Tjapukai tribesmen in traditional body paint and clothes doing a traditional fire lighting ceremony – it was fun as we were given trad rythm sticks (as in “hit me with…….”) to beat along to the chanting and singing. There was a bit of theatrics with fire and spears and then we all trooped inside for a buffet dinner – was tasty.

At dessert the floor show started with some didgerdoo playing – much more musical than i would have expected. After that we had the most bizzarely amaturish, downright rubbish “musical and mime show” that i have ever seen. It was cringy.

We left completely mystified and disappointed – we learned nothing about the culture of what they call the “tradiitional owners”. I was also a bit cross as this cost us $250…..for $100 worth of dinner and a show you would be disappointed to see as a primary school annual play.

The real star of the night was the night sky. It was a gorgeous night and the first time we were away from city lights. It was actually a little disorientating looking at the sky and not being able to recognize anything – no familiar points at all. We could actually see the milky way and the sky was crowded with bright stars. Pity the aboriginals didn’t sit us down around the camp fire and tell us their trad stories about the sky and their environment – thats something I would have been happy to pay for!

Not the Wexford mudflats!

Today we took seats on a 4×4 bus thingie affectionately called Matilda, and joined another 6 people on the Billy Tea Daintree & Cape Tribulation Adventure. It was a superb day – we were introduced to a rainforest that more than lived up to our imaginings. We had an informed and amusing local guide who filled us in on everything from fauna, flora, history and culture.

We saw 800 year old palm trees, tree hugger reptiles, crocodiles lazily lying on the river bank. We had midmorning tea (grown locally) beside an crystal clear brook with black perch who swam right up you, we tasted some locally grown exotic fruit – most i had never heard of. Cora and Adam fed 2 giant red kagaroos and one tiny one during our BBQ lunch.

We even managed a swim in the coral sea in Cape Tribulation – the whitest sands you have ever seen – sea like glass and about 27 degrees. This is where the rainforest mets the sea and its almost cheesy its so picture card beautiful.

A river cruise where we saw crocodiles, pythons, all sorts of bizzare birds and plants ended a truely fab day – no mistaking it, we certainly couldn’t have confused our day trip with a day in the Wexford mudflats.

What is so incredible is that
“civilization” and this wildness lives side by side.

Snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef

Wednesday we were up early to head out to the Great Barrier Reef. We got a coach to Port Douglas and then boarded a high-speed catamaran that brought us to the outer reef. It was a bit too high-speed, and there were many passengers green around the gills – including poor Cora. Before long though we were at the pontoon on the reef and getting our snorkelling equipment.

The water was warm (24°) so we didn’t hold back and got right in. After getting used to breathing through the snorkel and convincing our reflexes that we could in fact keep breathing face-down in the water, the wonders beneath the waves were revealed. Even though the day was overcast the visibility was still excellent. There were loads of fish of all kinds and sizes, and many types of coral, including ones that look like large brains :)

Cora’s mask didn’t fit her that well, so she didn’t really get the chance to look under water, which is a real shame – she would have loved it. She still swam for a while in the sea, but before long she wanted to get out – plus she was starting to turn blue :) Rachel and I took turns swimming with Adam for a bit longer, but then we got out to have some lunch.

After lunch we checked out the underwater viewing area which was great – it gave Cora the chance to see what we had seen, while giving us the chance to see more aquatic life. All too soon we were on our way back home – a nicer trip than the outward one. The snorkelling was just brilliant, we would have loved to spend more time in the water. Next time hopefully Cora’s equipment will fit better so she can enjoy it as much as we did.

Thursday we walked into Cairns along the seafront which was great – loads of amenities for the public – playgrounds, barbeque stations, exercise points, skateboarding park, etc., etc.! There were warning signs about crocodiles along the beach – which put paid to our ideas of swimming. Mind you it was more muddy mangrove than sandy beach, so swimming probably wasn’t on the agenda anyway :) To compensate, there was loads of wildlife, including crabs, pelicans, and those wierd fish that can crawl out of the water using their fins!

Cairns centre was mostly just shops & restaurants, and we had lunch while being deafened by the parrots squawking in the palm trees overhead. We bought some souvenirs and topped them off with a few bags of groceries for good measure before grabbing a taxi back to the appartment. Unfortunately Cora left behind a pink cowgirl hat we just bought today – but she didn’t seem that bothered.

Tomorrow we’ve another early start as we head off on a guided tour up to the Daintree River and Cape Tribulation – so named by Captain Cook when his boat ran aground on the nearby reefs :) Can’t wait!

From Sydney to the rainforest

On our last day in Sydney we left the city, rented a 4×4 and headed up the Blue Mountains. I was confused for awhile as we drove along – it felt like we were in the mountains, the houses were suitable for mountains, there was lots of pines around……but no mountains :) Turns out the Blue mountains are actually a plateau. It was all gorgeous – fab views, waterfalls and sleepy villages. It weirdly felt like Cape Cod…..certainly American rather than Australian.

Our flight to Cairns the next day was uneventful and only 3.5 hours.
The minute we got off the plane you knew you were somewhere different — the walkway off the plane had opeen sides, with lush vegitation everywhere. The smell was wonderful and it was about 25 degrees.

We are staying in an apt. In a resort – and it’s like paradise. Its also rather nice to have more space than a hotel room…..its also nice to cook again (yep, evidence i am losing my mind – choosing cooking over eating out).

We chilled by the pool for our first day – then Monday we took a cable car over 7km over the top of the rainforest. We took a horse trek through the forest (only thing in the whole trip Cora cared about) – adam and cora were great.
We then took an old, “steam” train back down.

I wasn’t completely bowled over by the forest – it’s the dry season, so it all actually was like a European wood – just bigger. There was very little mention of the animals living in the area, which was weird. The rainforest village at the top of the cable car was a complete tourist trap, with little to do other than eating and shopping.

We chill again tomorrow and then go to the barrier reef on Wednesday. That should be amazing.