Nam Tso

1,000 km to Nam Tso

May 30 – 31, 2014
Photo set on Flickr

Click here for the first part of my road trip from Lhasa to Mt Everest

Day 3 (May 30)

What’s next after Everest?

Everyone is eerily quiet the entire morning; quite understandable, consider none of us had any sleep last night. Not a single word is spoken until 11 am when we arrive in Tingri (定日), a town 60 km northwest of Everest. Here Luoni asks us once again, “Are you sure you want to go to Jilongguo (吉隆溝)? That place is nothing special. You will for sure regret not visiting Nam Tso (納木錯).”

And this brags the question: Where on earth is Jilongguo? I couldn’t find a definite answer even after searching on Baidu (Chinese version of Google) and Mafengwo (Chinese version of Tripadvisor). A few pictures of a generic valley and a blog post about an “undiscovered paradise” and that’s it. In our current internet age where there is more information than you will ever need, this is a rarity.

So why are we ditching Nam Tso, the holy lake that is an integral part of the typical 5-day Everest road trip? Seeing how our two friends have succumbed to high altitude sickness, I am wary of asking them to spend another night at an altitude above 4,000 m. The pale faces of my friends tell me we should go for the 3,800 m-high Jilongguo. Nam Tso, at 4,718 m, might be pushing our luck too far. Besides, there is a tint of exoticism about visiting a place even the internet fails to provide much information on.

Jilongguo: So close yet so far

On the way to Jilongguo

To reach Jilongguo we first have to pass through Shishapangma Nature Reserve (希夏邦馬峰自然保護區), named after the world’s 14th tallest peak and the only eight-thousanders to reside completely within Chinese border. Obviously with an official designation comes admission fee, this time 80 RMB per person. At least some of the money is channeled into a well-maintained two-lane road.

The day has been a little rough thus far. We feel tired, hot, suffocated and starved. Tingri was the logical place to get lunch, but Luoni insisted us to cover ground first and eat later. Two hours later we are still on empty stomachs. Even a visitor like me knows there won’t be any eatery in the nature reserve. Luoni is a terrific driver and a kindred spirit. He is also a little stubborn and not the best communicator in Mandarin. No point to grumble about it at this point – we will just have to continue to subsist on snacks for a while.

Shishapangma
Peiku Tso

The scenery makes for good distraction. We pass by the majestic Shishapangma, numerous snow-capped peaks, several glaciers and the perfectly azure Peiku Tso. We reach Jilong town at 3 pm on high morale; we have covered 330 km already and food seems finally to be within sight.

At the entrance of the Jilong police checkpoint hangs a chalk board with a listing of the distances to various places in Tibet; Jilongguo is only 30 km away. Inside four policemen are playing cards and our presence has caught them off guard. “Where are you heading? Jilongguo? Don’t you know the road is closed off today? It will reopen tomorrow morning at 8.”

You must be freaking kidding me! Apparently the road is closed every other day for construction. So between Pan, Luoni and the guy who sold us the tickets to the nature reserve, none of them has the state of mind to inform us that the chance of getting to the valley is literally a coin toss. No, Luoni, you can’t come to me with a “I told you so” rant when the adjective you used should have been “inaccessible” instead of “unremarkable”.

Two abominable choices stand before us. The road to the valley only opens from 8 – 10 in the morning over the next two days. Which means, if we insist on going to the valley, having to spend a spirit-breaking night in Jilong Town, a drab two-street village that looks like the setting of a post-apocalypse movie, then two days later we will need to endure a 18-hr drive back to Lhasa in order to make our flight. Or we can choose to make a beeline for Shigatse right now. Luoni dejectedly estimates our arrival time to be around midnight. The latter choice is more pragmatic – we don’t want to risk missing our plane.

To make haste Luoni instructs us to forfeit our long-awaited meal until we make it back to National Highway 318. One of our friends, a thin gal with an enormous appetite, unleashes all her pent-up hunger rage on Luoni. It is not just the hunger; she has been miserable since leaving Lhasa. The rest of us do our best to comfort the two of them – this is not time to start bickering among ourselves.

All eyes on Luoni

The same mountains, glaciers and lakes that give us thrill not that long ago now serve a more tangible purpose; they clue us on how much distance we have covered. Peiku Tso, Shishapangma, park entrance… gradually we are back to square one. Yes, Tingri, the junction where had we headed northeast seven hours ago would find us chilling out at our hotel in Shigatse already. Alas, we are now 240 km away from Shigatse and facing the unnerving prospect of traveling on the poorly maintained National Highway 318 at night. To minimize our time in the dark, we will continue to postpone dinner and try to cover as much ground in daylight as possible.

Luoni is visibly tired and has been on the record about his reluctance on driving at night. He used to be a construction worker; he had a hand in the building of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway. Seven years ago he became a long-distance driver because of the allure of promising money in the tourism sector. It is by no means easy money though – a typical work cycle is five to seven consecutive days of ten-hour driving, one day back home, then follow immediately with another multi-day trip. Places we consider risky like Everest and Nam Tso are basically his second homes. For all this hard work he doesn’t even earn that much. After subtracting one grand of agency fee and two grand of gas, he only gets to pocket half of our tour fee.

His professionalism is admirable. Aside from a few brief rants, he just focuses on the road and not let the fact he has somehow driven an additional eight hours get to him. His demeanor doesn’t waver when he is slapped with a speed ticket; ostensibly the speed limit is 80 km/h but everyone ignores it. To him it is an expected road toll. The only emotion he shows is a smile upon hearing we will pay the ticket on his behalf.

Our friend, who will now be referred as the Dinner Crusader, is not relenting on her crusade for dinner. Each passing town comes an inquiry on why aren’t we stopping for food. Hunger has completely overtaken her consciousness, which is not entirely incomprehensible. Without food, physical safety and respect of others are nothing but abstract concepts. Frankly, when we finally stop for dinner at 8 pm in a nondescript town about 120 km from Shigatse, it is Luoni who is running on fumes and truly needs some food.

The sun has disappeared below the horizon when we resume our journey at 8:40. National Highway 318 is surprisingly busy after dark. This is prime time for truckers to commute to/from Nepal. Casualty is unfortunately common, mostly happens to self-assured drivers who are unfamiliar with the road condition. It is under such condition Luoni’s knowledge of the roads really shines, always knowing the right timing to navigate through the numerous potholes, construction sites and tight turns.

At 12:30 am we finally arrive at our hotel, concluding our day that begins with an incredible high of seeing Everest and follows by a life-draining 15-hour long ride west to Jilong then all the way back east to Shigatse. That’s all in the past now; Everest was incredible, but all I care about at this moment is to take a quick shower then immediately jump into bed.

Day 4 (May 31)

Onward to Nam Tso

Revised route

On a vote of 3-1 we have decided to go ahead to Nam Tso. Feeling overwhelmed, the Dinner Crusader wants to go back to Lhasa where comfortable accommodation is guaranteed. Seeing she has been alright since taking Diamox at the base camp (our other friend has taken the same drug in Lhasa), the rest of us reject her plan because, really, three days has been more than enough for Lhasa. It doesn’t make any sense to have a spare day and not go to Nam Tso. The lake’s high altitude still makes us a little uneasy – this is after all the reason why we had bypassed Nam Tso at the beginning – but we are starting to develop some confidence in Diamox’s effectiveness.

Another 9-hour drive is ahead of us. Sitting inside a cramped SUV is becoming our day job; a 9-6 routine we endure in order to get somewhere in life. And just like in real life we have to give up something in the process, which in this case is Shigatse’s Tashilhunpo Monastery (扎什倫布寺), the traditional seat of Panchen Lama and one of the most important religious institutions in Tibet.

On the way to Nam Tso, 304 Provincial Road
Kid along 304 Provincial Road

Compares to the yesterday’s imposing alpine scenery, the journey along 304 Provincial Road is subdued. The occasional snow-capped mountain aside, barren meadow that can barely support grazing dominates the landscape. A few kids, unattended and playing dangerously close to the road, catch our attention; we give them some pencils and play with them briefly. They speak no Mandarin and are obviously not receiving any formal education. Their lives are determined the moment they are born to this world, oblivious to the many rights and opportunities we take for granted. It is not easy, on holiday especially, to stare soul-crushing straight in the eyes.

Nam Tso

Zaxi Peninsula, Nam Tso

With a surface area totaling 1,920 sq. km (25x Hong Kong Island), we aren’t exactly going to accomplish much more than taking a glimpse at Nam Tso. Like almost everyone else, we are staying in Zhaxi Peninsula (札西半島), the only place that accommodates overnight visitors in the protected area. The designation of “protected area”, you’ve guessed it, is just an excuse to collect admission fee (120 RMB), as the sight and smell of garbage and burnt coal are just as prevalent as everywhere else across Tibet.

As our leader, I feverishly hope Nam Tso will deliver, seeing we have traveled more than 1,000 km over the past two days and held a mini referendum to get to this point. I can feel the weight off my shoulders when my wife, always dispassionate on all things travel related, declares, “Wow, I didn’t expect Nam Tso to be so beautiful!” Even the skeptical Dinner Crusader nods approvingly.

So what differentiates Nam Tso from numerous other lakes we have encountered along the way? Its color, the darkest navy blue imaginable, imitates not the relative shallow lake with an average depth of 33 m but the deepest of oceans, gives us the illusion of discovering a boundless body of water at the world’s highest plateau.

Star Trails

Star Trail in Nam Tso

11 pm. 3 °C. Mostly clear.

As the rest of the crew are taking shelter from the blistering cold in our makeshift lodging made with corrugated metal sheets (50 RMB pp), I am at the lakeshore again to photograph star trails, a task that’s only possible in these three conditions: clear sky, minimal light pollution, and ideally a lunar phase near the new moon. Check, check, and check. I find myself entirely engulfed in darkness under a 20% covered sky barely illuminated by a waxing crescent Moon. But the best condition can only go so far – the stars are disappointingly dim and the Milky Way is barely noticeable.

The shooting is rather tedious. First there is setting up the camera and lens, then locating the Big Dipper and trying various compositions, and when finally the setup is complete you have to stand guard for at least an hour while your camera shoots continuously at 30s a shot. I have no clue how it will turn out, but there is a first for everything.

My senses are gradually being submerged by the surrounding darkness; my eyes, ears, nose and skin are providing consistent signals of numbing nothingness. Any hobby, once you get hooked, is like falling into a sinkhole; you fall deeper and deeper until you find yourself alone at midnight accompanied by nothing but your ice-cold camera.

This is what being young is all about.

Introduction: Ten Days in Tibet

May 24 – June 2, 2014
Photo set on Flickr

“Is Tibet worth visiting?”

Family and friends have been asking me this question ever since I come home. This is not your run-of-the-mill conversation starter; their curiosity is genuine. Despite being more accessible than ever, with daily flights to Beijing, Chengdu and Xi’an, and a direct railway to the capital, Tibet will always be one of the most geographically hostile places on Earth. No amount of technological advancement can ever change this fundamental fact.

Averaging more than four thousand meters above sea level, high altitude sickness is something all travelers to the Tibetan Plateau will experience. Some might only have a mild headache but severe cases of edema (fluid accumulation in the tissues of the body) are not unheard of. My wife and I were of the former, but our two travel mates became so weak (in Lhasa and at Everest Base Camp respectively) they could hardly get out of bed. Fortunately they both recovered after taking the high altitude medicine Diamox.

Also not changing any time soon is Tibet’s political situation. Since being “liberated” by China in 1951, Tibet has been one of the most politically sensitive areas in the world. Having a tireless and charismatic ambassador in the 14th Dalai Lama, in exile in India since a failed uprising in 1959, certainly helps project an international spotlight on the continual plight of the Tibetans. But Dalai Lama is closing on his 80th birthday and has already retired from his post as the head of the exile government in 2011, and even the Noble Prize winner himself admits his “middle way” approach of non-violence and dialogue has failed to bring change to the situation. Beijing is hoping the eventual death of the Tibetan spiritual leader, along with continued economic development and a steady stream of Han Chinese migrants will ultimately bring Tibet indisputably under Chinese rule. Or, without the Dalai Lama’s preaching of non-violence, some Tibetans could take up arms like their neighbors in Xinjiang and go the terrorism route. Not matter where you stand on this extremely complicated issue – support Chinese rule, true autonomy or full-blown independence – it is clear the status quo won’t last for much longer.

For most Chinese visitors, the Tibet political conundrum is an nonissue entirely manufactured by the Dalai Lama camp and the West. They are in Tibet to indulge themselves in what is popularly known in China as the “last pristine joy land on earth”. To each his own, but the reality is Tibet is firmly established on the tourist trail and this all-too-important tourism industry is completely environmentally unsustainable. Rubbish is everywhere, from grassland to river to mountains. It is impossible to not find a construction of roads and buildings somewhere, resulting in erosion and mudslide. At Mt Everest Base Camp the preferred source of heating is coal and garbage disposal by incineration. At the foot of the world’s highest peak my mind was not filled with an inflated sense of accomplishment or an appreciation of mother nature but how I was blackening my lung with every breathe I took.

I have never had such mixed feelings after coming home from a trip. I can’t wholeheartedly recommend visiting Tibet, but if this place intrigues you, temper your expectation and come with an open heart. It is most likely unlike anywhere else you have seen before.

Itinerary:

May 24 – Fly Air China from Shenzhen via Chengdu to Lhasa
May 25 – Barkhor, Jokhang and Ramoche Temple
May 26 – Drepung Monastery and Potala Palace
May 27 – Sera Monastery and Drak Yerpa
May 28 – Began 5 day road trip; Yamdrok Tso, Gyantse and Shigatse
May 29 – Mt Everest Base Camp
May 30 – Shishapangma Protected Area; Back to Shigatse
May 31 – Namtso
Jun 1 – Back to Lhasa
Jun 2 – Fly Air China via Chongqing to Shenzhen

 

DDP

Travel Dictionary: Seoul 2014 Edition

A by-the-letter reference guide to all things Seoul

Photo set on Flickr

Immediately following Kyoto I was in Seoul for work, where my wife was also in town for a weekend to do some shopping. My feeling about Seoul as a traveling destination hasn’t changed at all from my first visit back in 2009; this is one of the least interesting places in Asia to find yourself in if you are a man. Yet as we are still very much in the middle of the era of Korean pop dominance (at least in Asia), I feel compelled to write the following reference guide as a barometer of what’s trending in Seoul circa 2014. It will also cover various places I have been across town, old and new.

Bibimbap (n.) — Originated from the city of Jeonju, bibimbap (mixed rice in a stone pot) is probably the most recognizable Korean dish for foreigner. Many point to Jeonju Jungang as home of the best in Seoul. I personally find all bibimbap to taste quite the same when you mix in the doenjang (fermented soybean paste).

Byeoreseo on geudae (n., lit. You who came from the stars) — The popularity of this recently wrapped up television drama can only be matched if you roll Game of Thrones, Mad Men and True Detective into one. You will be hard-pressed not to hear references about this show sooner or later.

Changdeokgung (n.) — A whopping five World Heritage Sites (WHS) locate within day trip distance from Seoul. The most visited among them is Changdeokgung, one of the five “Grand Palaces” built during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897). Do temper your expectation before visiting; all of these palaces were recently rebuilt after suffering severe damages during the Japanese occupation.

Come Back Home (n.) — There is no hiding from this song by the girl group 2NE1, the front-runner for the most obnoxious song of the first half of 2014.

Dongdaemun Design Plaza (n.) — The opening of Zaha Hadid’s latest project is yet the boldest in Dongdaemun’s attempt to diversify beyond round-the-clock shopping, The full impact of DDP might not be reached for some time — its rather bland mix of exhibitions draw only a scant crowd during my visit.

Fried chicken (n.) — Koreans have adopted this American food as its own, with no less than eight national chains specializing in this dish. I have only tried Kyochon’s original (honey garlic) and spicy recipes. The white meat portion is too dry but it still tastes much better than KFC.

Gwangjang Market (n.) — Seoul’s most famous food market. You can get popular snacks like bindaetteok (mung bean pancake), tteokbokki (rice cake in chili sauce), gimbap (rice roll), jokbal (pork hock) and porridge for about 20% more expensive than less-heralded street stalls.

Gyeongbokgung (n.) — One of the five “Grand Palaces”. If you want to see the somewhat tacky changing of the royal guards, come to this palace between 10:00 – 15:00 at the top of each hour.

Frenetic (adj.) — Although not quite the level of madness that’s Black Friday shopping in the States, Seoulites take their shopping seriously. Frenetically serious. Proof? Most malls and street stalls in Dongdaemun are opened daily from 10 am – 5 am the next day. Every day.

Honeycomb ice cream (n.) — This new fad was supposedly introduced by a shop called Softree, opened just last year in Sinsa-dong. Now a slew of places offer this all over town. I found the honeycomb too sweet and doesn’t match well with the ice cream.

Hwaseong Fortress (n.) — The only historic site around Seoul I find worthwhile. Located an hour south by train in the city Suwon, Hwaseong is a 18th century-built wall that completely surrounds the city centre. Long been obsolete, the wall is a rarity in modern Asia which prizes urban development space as a premium. Nowadays instead of the wall protecting its city, it is a sprawling mass of skyscrapers and low-rises that stretches out to the end of the horizon. Slot five hours to reach and walk around this World Heritage Site.

Insadong (n.) — Famous for its tea houses, antique and calligraphy shops. Also home to a handful of modern galleries. Reminds me of a more approachable version of Hong Kong’s Hollywood Street.

Kim Soo-hyun (n.) — The protagonist of the aforementioned Byeoreseo on geudae, his presence is not limited to South Korea. Even in Hong Kong you can find his face attached to brands like Hyundai, Samsung and Samsonite.

Jongmyo (n.) — I missed the annual Royal Shrine Ritual by a few days. Alas, I have a difficult time understanding how Jongmyo, even taken into account its status as one of the longest wooden shrines in the world, belongs on the WHS list. You will be hard-pressed to tell Jongmyo apart from thousands of temples and shrines all over East Asia. Beyond its Confucian heritage, also in full display at this park is one of the dark secrets of modern Korean society — elderly poverty

Jun Ji-hyun(n.) — This actress’s star had dimmed after debacles like Blood: the Last Vampire, but she has bounced back big time after starring in Byeoreseo on geudae. Between more-than-you-can-count endorsement deals and female of all ages mimicking her fashion style, Jun has a firm footing as the biggest star in Korea. At least until the next new hot drama comes along.

Kimchi (n.) — The undisputed national food of Korea. But even this food staple is under threat from globalization and changing diet pattern. Koreans nowadays are trending towards less salty food and western cuisines. Even the Agriculture Ministry is getting involved in trying to promote a lighter version of kimchi.

Live octopus (n.) — If you want to do this, the Noryangjin Fish Market is your best bet.

Myeongdong (n.) In 2012 Korea Tourism Organization conducted a survey with a sample size of 12,000 tourists, asking them where was their favorite destination in Seoul. Myeongdong, the capital’s prime shopping district, came out on top. I personally find this result a telling sign that I might not enjoy this city very much.

Plastic surgery (n.) — My Korean colleague once told me it is expected that every female in Seoul undergoes some forms of plastic surgery. A quick eye test on subway will reveal that’s complete bullshit. What’s true is the general public’s apparent acceptance; advertisements are inescapable in Gangnam district, home to most of the plastic surgery clinics.

Psy (n.) — Mercifully I didn’t hear the unspeakably awful Gangnam Style once during my stay, but Psy remains a notable presence, thanks in part to his role as the current tourism ambassador for his country.

Samgyetang (n.) — Of the few I have tried, the best samgyetang (ginseng chicken soup) is at Tosokchon, near Gyeongbokgung. I wish to say some place less famous, but this is indeed the best in town.

Shopping (v.) — I am someone who unequivocally hates spending any of his holiday to shop, but I have to concede Seoul has a wide range of quality clothing retailers at reasonable prices. Besides, there isn’t much else to do anyway.

Sinsa-dong (n.) — One of Seoul’s trendiest districts. Most of the activities are congregated along Garosugil, an avenue flanked by gingko trees. Ostensibly home to a bohemian crowd, we probably are there 10 years too late as chains populated the area. There are still some independent labels, all targeting the young female populace.

SNSD (n.) — Boy and girl groups have faded away as a trend in the West for more than a decade, but in Korea they have been all the rage over the past few years. None is bigger than the girl group SNSD (Girl’s Generation), recently named as the most influential celebrities by Forbes Korea.

Tight (adj.) — Koreans like really tight clothing. The general level of spoken English is not great, but the one adjective every clothing salesperson seems to know is the word “tight”. As in, “These pants, tight! Good!”. Sounds really badass if these words aren’t coming out of the mouths of 60 year-old ladies.

Last but not least, God blesses the families and friends of those who perished aboard the sunken ferry Sewol.

Vasa Museum

Vasa Museum

February 28, 2014

A little hard to believe now since Sweden has adopted a neutrality stance for almost 200 years until the end of the Cold War, but in the 17th century this previously impoverished nation-state expanded into the third largest country in Europe, behind only Russia and Spain. How could Sweden, with its limited population and natural resources, become so powerful?

With a well-managed economy and a booming iron industry, Sweden managed to take advantage of a power vacuum in the Baltic Sea thanked to the Thirty Years’ War in the Holy Roman Empire and the Polish–Muscovite War in Russia. Under the leadership of king Gustavus Adolphus, the Swedish Empire included Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia and parts of northern Germany.

The Vasa was a product of this era of expansion. In 1628 Gustavus Adolphus launched this newly built warship towards Poland. Measuring 69 m in length, 11.7 m at the beam and 52.5 m in height, the Vasa was the largest and most powerful ship built by Sweden at the time. It was a symbol of a turnaround for the Swedish navy, which had suffered consecutive defeats at the hand of the Poles.

Unfortunately the Vasa sank within an hour of its maiden voyage, killing 30 of those 150 on board. The commonly stated reason that the 72 cannons on board overwhelmed the warship’s capacity was only half correct — if the Vasa were simply a little wider its fate would be completely different. Its sister ship the Äpplet, completely identical except for being 1.5 meters wider, roamed the Baltic for more than three decades.

Vasa Museum

Indefinitely the Vasa remained in the sea. In 1959 the technology finally became advance enough to undertake the extremely challenging task of lifting this delicate artifact from the seabed, and on April 24, 1961 it was reintroduced to the world after 333 years. The reason why it managed to stay in such good condition while most wooden ships quickly decay in the sea was because the water of Strömmen (the innermost part of the bay that surrounds Stockholm) was until the late 20th century so toxic that most wood-devouring microorganisms couldn’t survive.

Today the Vasa sits in a specially designed museum as a symbol of the bygone Swedish Empire, but the daunting task of keeping it intact continues. For 17 years the Vasa was sprayed with a chemical coating called polyethylene glycol for protection against oxidation and deterioration.

The battle to save the Vasa is very much still ongoing. The most urgent matter is to replace the ship’s 5,000 rusty bolts with specially designed ones, each cost around €250. Most of this large sum of money will have to come from the museum, severely underfunded at the moment.

Make sure to visit the Vasa Museum when you find yourself in Stockholm. You won’t find another ship quite like the Vasa elsewhere, and you can contribute to a worthy cause to ensure it can remain intact for our future generations to see.

 

Gion Geisha Photography Club

Gion Geisha Photography Club

April 2, 2014, 14:00 – 15:00
Participants: Geisha 祇園甲部槇子 and Maiko 宮川町とし桃
Official website

The image of a geisha, under the guise of white foundation and red lipstick, is one that many visitors to Kyoto wish to capture on camera. Some unfortunately opt for aggressive and insensitive tactics such as stalking and grabbing. These ugly behaviors not only reflect poorly on the offenders themselves, but also cause a backlash from the geisha community and the need for new measures to protect these girls.

Those who wish to photograph geisha in a respectful manner can time their stay in Kyoto to coincide with the annual Gion Geisha Photography Club (白川藝妓攝影會), a one-hour photo shoot arranges by the local community on Shirakawa-minami Dori.

Gion Geisha Photography Club

This year’s took place at 2 pm on April 2. When I arrived on time a ring of mostly middle-aged men had completely engulfed a single geisha. The level of testosterone was so intense I could almost smell it in the air. The geisha seemed unfazed by this army of photographers; she gracefully stood under a cherry tree and responded admirably to all posing requests.

This was not the crowd I wanted to associate myself with, but you gotta do what you gotta do.

Gion Geisha Photography Club

Halfway through the shoot we had a new participant, a maiko (apprentice geisha) in her twenties. Immediately she drew everyone’s attention. A few men in their seventies tried to get her to look their way by hissing and calling her Momo-chan (Miss Peach, the first name of her alias) in a high-pitched voice like they were talking to an infant. One man threw her a plastic ball so she could play with it like a kitten. As a foreigner all these felt rather embarrassing. Not so for the girls – they managed their parts as professionally as imaginable and provided us ample chances to capture on camera their normally secluded selves.

Gion at Night

Ranking of Kyoto’s Sakura Spots (Part 2)

April 1 – 4, 2014

Photo set on Flickr

Click here for Part 1 of the ranking. Again, this ranking only applies to the early cherry blossom season.

Don’t Miss

Daigo-ji 醍醐寺

Daigo-ji

This is another one of those places where I would not have visited if not for its cherry blossoms. Alas, Daigo-ji is one of the top 100 cherry blossom spots in Japan as compiled by the Japan Cherry Blossom Association, making it a mandatory stop during the sakura season.

Of all the places on this sakura mission, visiting Daigo-ji demanded the most money and time. Getting to Daigo from Gion took about 40 minutes by subway, then another five minutes from the station to the temple by shuttle bus. The ¥1,000 combo ticket was the most expensive I paid anywhere in Kyoto.

Was my effort well-rewarded? The answer is …probably… yes. Daigo-ji indeed has an abundance of cherry trees, which were mostly in full bloom when I visited. The most impressive batch, ironically, is planted along a corridor outside of Reihou-kan (霊宝館) in a free area. Yet I don’t find Daigo-ji’s sakura to be superior than, say, Keage Incline Railway’s. The temple’s fame does make bypassing it a difficult decision, thus my lukewarm endorsement.

Sanbo-in garden

I used my combo tickets to gain entrance to Sanbo-in (三宝院) and Garan (伽藍). Sanbo-in is a sub-temple dating back to 1115 and reconstructed by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1598. Photography is not allowed inside Sanbo-in. I personally don’t find the temple and the few cherry trees in the garden interesting enough to justify my time.

Benten-do

Garan is a large area that includes the picturesque Benten-dō (弁天堂), a Buddhist temple dedicated to Benzaiten (Sarasvati), goddess of knowledge and liberal arts. Not many cherry trees are planted, but I found this prime autumn foliage spot quite beautiful even during off-season.

Sakura Index: 4/5
Opening hours: 9:00 to 17:00
Admission fee: ¥600 for one attraction, ¥1,000 for two, ¥1,500 for three
Transport: ¥300 for round trip bus outside of Daigo Subway Station

Tenryu-ji 天龍寺

Ōhōjō and Zen Garden, Tenryu-ji

While not known as a sakura-viewing spot, Tenryu-ji, my second favorite temple in Kyoto, contains the single most impressive cherry tree among the thousands I have come across on this trip. There are also many other kinds of flowers in full bloom, including plum and papaya.

History has not been kind to Tenryu-ji; it was burned down nine times since its founding in 1339 and all of the current buildings were rebuilt relatively recently in the late 19th century. It is however home to one of the most impressive Zen gardens in Kyoto, and given its location next to the famous bamboo groves, anyone who plans to visit Arashiyama should circle Tenryu-ji as a priority.

Tenryu-ji

Sakura Index: 4/5
Opening hours: 8:30 to 17:30
Admission fee: ¥600 for temple and garden
Transport: Keifuku Arashiyama Station on Keifuku-Arashiyama Line

The Best

Philosopher’s Path 哲學之道

Philosopher’s Path

The Philosopher’s Path, for 350 days of the year, is a quaint walkway that accommodated the daily meditation of the late philosopher Kitaro Nishida, but during the two weeks when sakura blooms it is transformed into one of the most crowded places in Kyoto, and possibly on Earth. With good reason – who doesn’t love the sight of row upon row of white cherry blossoms lining up neatly above a gentle stream? Just don’t expect any resemblance of tranquility during this time.

Those tired of cherry blossom can make detours to the numerous temples along the path, such as Nanzen-ji (covered in Part 1), Honen-in (法然院) and Ginkaku-ji (銀閣寺), all of which I enjoyed.

Sakura Index: 4.5/5
Opening hours: Always open
Admission fee: Free
Transport: Bus 17, 102, 203 then walk south from Ginkaku-ji

Nakanoshima Park, Arashiyama 嵐山中之島公園

Arashiyama

In the past, I never understand the hype of Arashiyama. Besides the ugly bridge with the beautiful name (Togetsukyō, lit. Moon Crossing Bridge), what’s there to see besides trees?

The key lies within the trees. You see, as repeatedly mentioned throughout these rankings, visiting these places at the right time is extremely important. Many of the trees in Arashiyama are in fact cherry, and in early spring this becomes one of the best spots in Kyoto for sakura-viewing. Like Ninna-ji and Diago-ji, Arashiyama is also one of the top 100 sakura-viewing spots in Japan, highlighted by the riverside Nakanoshima Park (lit. Middle of the Island Park).

Nakanoshima Park

On a side note, everywhere in Kyoto I have bumped into DSLR-wielding people who obviously have no idea on how to use their gears, but this one lady from Hong Kong who I bumped into at Nakanoshima Park clearly takes the cake. For some reasons she had attached an external flash to her DSLR, and when she asked me to take a picture of her group, it was obvious from the setting of her camera she had no idea what she was doing. The result was the constant firing of her flash, even for landscape shots under the midday sun.

Sakura Index: 5/5
Opening hours: Always open
Admission fee: Free
Transport: Keifuku Arashiyama Station on Keifuku-Arashiyama Line

Shirakawa-minami Dori, Gion 祇園白川南通 (Night)

Shirakawa, Gion

On the first evening when I visited Maruyama Park, I wasn’t too impressed with seeing the cherry blossoms at night. The light-colored petals easily become overexposed under the bright lights. Besides, I found the whole atmosphere a little theme-park-like and gimmicky.

But I experienced a 180° change of heart the next evening during my visit to the place with the most beautiful cherry blossom in Kyoto (more on that in a moment). If not, however, for its unbearable crowd, the section of Gion along Shirakawa-minami Dori might very well receive my vote as the best sakura-viewing spot in town. That’s not to say Gion doesn’t resemble a theme park, but I am willing to turn a blind eye because its cherry blossoms are so amazingly photogenic at night.

Let me backtrack a little to mention there are numerous sakura spots in Gion, particularly along the district’s many waterways such as Kamogawa (鴨川), Shirakawa (白川) and Takasegawa (高瀬川). Many people do prefer quieter spots, but the stretch of Shirakawa along Shirakawa-minami Dori is commonly acknowledged to be where the most spectacular cherry blossoms reside in Gion. Adding the fact that here is a tourist’s best bet to bump into a geisha, it is no wonder why hundreds of people congregate on this narrow alley throughout the night.

Pedestrian Zone between Shirakawa-minami Dori and Kamogawa

Even when you are fed up with the crowd, be sure to continue to head west until you have reached the Kamo River, where you will find a small pedestrian zone towered over by a impenetrable canopy of cherry blossoms.

Sakura Index: 5/5
Opening hours: Always open
Admission fee: Free
Transport: Gion-Shijo Subway Station

Nijo-jo 二条城 (Night)

Nijo-jo

Finally we have arrived at the no. 1 spot on my ranking, Nijo-jo (Nijo Castle). Only the garden is opened to the public at night, so for those who would like to visit the castle you will have to do it during its day time opening hours (8:30 – 16:00).

The sakura at Shirakawa-minami Dori and Nijo-jo are both top-notch, but the latter has the benefit of a fenced off area where people can’t walk under the cherry trees. Taking also into account its slightly smaller crowd, it is much easier to take photos at Nijo-jo than most of the other famous sakura spots.

If you stay until the castle closes, you will get to experience the somewhat heavy-handed method by the staff to evict the remaining visitors. Fifteen minutes before closing time a dozen of so of the staff will lock their arms with one another and begin pressuring the visitor towards the exit in the form of a human wall. They will not touch you, but they will be right behind your back and repeat the same sentence about the need for you to abide the castle’s schedule and leave now. At 21:30 they will turn to their ultimate trick that never fails – turning off all the lights on the ground. There was a collective “oh” and followed immediately by laughter. So, I wonder, why the need for the anti-riot police tactic if they can just turn off the light at the moment the castle is scheduled to close?

Sakura Index: 5/5
Opening hours: 18:00 – 21:30
Admission fee: ¥600
Transport: Nijo Subway Station

Final Word

My schedule for these four days:
Day 1 – Hotel at 18:00; Maruyama Park, Kiyomizu-dera
Day 2 – Chion-ji, Heian jingū, Philosopher’s Path, Honen-in, Ginkaku-ji; Gion; Diago-ji; New hotel at 19:30; Nijo-jo
Day 3 – Arashiyama, Tenryu-ji; Ninna-ji, Myoshin-ji, Ryoan-ji, Hirano-jinja; New hotel at 19:30; Gion
Day 4 – Keage Incline Railway, Nanzen-ji; Airport

Just looking back at my ambitious schedule tires me out. The omnipresent crowd wears my patience thin. Hay fever is sapping my life rapidly – I feel like a part of me has died on the second day when I sneezed no less than a hundred times. The cherry blossoms all look the same after thousands of them in succession. And as noted before, sakura is not meant to be enjoyed alone.

All that said, I still have great fun. The cherry blossoms look great on camera and even better in person – any excuse to get me back to Kyoto is good enough for me.

 

Philosopher's Path

Ranking of Kyoto’s Sakura Spots (Part 1)

April 1 – 4, 2014

Photo set on Flickr

Thanks to cheap flights and an agreeable schedule, I find myself back in Kyoto right in time for the start of its sakura (cherry blossom) season. I actually prefer to come back in the autumn, but November is anticipated to be hectic this year – better capitalize on what’s certain now. I am traveling by myself again because my wife knows with a subject like cherry blossom I will be spending 12 hours shooting photos each day and she wants no part of that.

Japan has increased its consumption tax from 5% to 8%, beginning from April 1, my date of arrival. Everything from transportation to food has become more expensive. A good way to stretch your budget is to eat at gyūdon (beef rice bowl) fast food chains like Sukiya and Matsuya, where a meal costs less today than ten years ago.

Kyoto’s accommodation is unbelievably expensive during the sakura season. What I have found out is same-day promotion is often availaible on the Japanese website Rakuten Travel. I have stayed at three different accommodations over my three nights in Kyoto. None cost more than ¥‎8,900 (100 yen = 0.98 USD), which was what I paid for アパホテル〈京都祇園〉EXCELLENT, located right at the heart of Gion and is normally priced at ¥‎16,000 per night.

Kyoto’s sakura season officially begins on March 27 this year and usually lasts for around two weeks. There are numerous viewing spots over town, but do keep in mind that different cherry tree varieties bloom on different dates. For example, Somei Yoshino, the most common type of sakura in Japan, is an earlier bloomer, while Ninna-ji’s Omuro sakura only opens at the tail end of the sakura season. Everything I write only applies to the beginning of the sakura season, so when I say Ninna-ji is not worth visiting, that is only because I didn’t visit in season.

Between suffering from a severe bout of hay fever and non-stop photo shooting, I am absolutely spent at this point. I did manage to visit most of the famous sakura-viewing spots over the past 2.5 days and here are my thoughts and tips on each of them.

Too early

Ninna-ji 仁和寺

Five-story Pagoda, Ninna-ji

I knew it wasn’t season yet, but since it was right next to Ryoan-ji I decided to check out Ninna-ji. There were a few Somei Yoshino cherry trees in full bloom, but the Omuro variety was at least a week away. The temple grounds is unexceptional, and because of a lack of time I decided to give the Goten (former residence of the head priest) and its ¥500 admission fee a pass.

Sakura Index: n/a
Opening hours: 8:00 to 17:00
Admission fee: ¥500 for the temple grounds during sakura season
Transport: Omuro Ninnaji Station on the Keifuku Kitano Line

Mediocre

Ryoan-ji 龍安寺

Zen Garden, Ryoan-ji

This has to be the most overrated site in Kyoto. Don’t get me wrong – I like Zen garden, but I just don’t see how Ryoan-ji’s stands above all others. It is the largest and that’s about it.

Ryoan-ji is not a prime sakura-viewing spot, so feel free to allocate your time elsewhere if you have seen its Zen garden before.

Sakura Index: 1.5/5
Opening hours: 8:00 to 17:00
Admission fee: ¥500
Transport: Ryoanji-michi Station on the Keifuku Kitano Line

Chion-ji 知恩寺

Sanmon, Chion-ji

Except for the largest surviving sanmon (the most important gate of a Japanese Zen Temple) in Japan, there isn’t much to see at Chion-ji as its main hall is under renovation until 2019. Some sparse sakura scatter around the complex – nothing to get excited about.

Chion-ji is located right in the midst of the sakura trail between Gion and Philosopher’s Path in Eastern Kyoto. You will come across it one way or another – it is your choice if you want to take a quick look.

Sakura Index: 1.5/5
Opening hours: 9:00 to 16:30
Admission fee: Free for temple grounds
Transport: Higashiyama Subway Station

Nanzen-ji 南禪寺

Hattō, Nanzen-ji

Nanzen-ji is my favorite temple/shrine in all of Kyoto, home to perhaps the town’s most bizarre sight – a Meiji-era aqueduct amid the serene temple grounds.

Famous for its autumn foliage but not so much for sakura, nonetheless I have a soft spot for Nanzen-ji and I recommend anyone who heads to the Philosopher’s Path to also drop by for a visit.

Sakura Index: 1.5/5
Opening hours: 8:40 to 17:00
Admission fee: Free for temple grounds
Transport: Keage Subway Station

Half bloom

Taizō-in, Myōshin-ji 妙心寺退蔵院

Taizō-in, Myōshin-ji

All over town during the sakura season you will find a poster of a beautiful Shidarezakura (weeping cherry) advertising a little-known temple called Taizō-in, part of the sprawling Myōshin-ji temple complex.

The subject of the poster was only about 30% opened when I visited. It would be a much better time to visit a week later, probably along with the nearby Ninna-ji.

Sakura Index: 2.5/5
Opening hours: 9:00 to 17:00
Admission fee: ¥500
Transport: Myoshinji Station on the Keifuku Kitano Line

Heian-jingū Garden 平安神宮神苑

Heian-jingu Garden

Another place I visited one week too early. Most of the sakura, especially the ones along the shore of the garden’s large lake, were only 30% – 50% opened.

Heian-jingu Garden

That said, Heian-jingu’s large varieties of cherry blossoms ensure it would not be a lost cause to visit early in the sakura season. The sakura in the rear part of the beautiful garden were about 80% opened.

Sakura Index: 2.5/5
Opening hours: 8:30 to 17:00
Admission fee: ¥600
Transport: Bus 100 or Higashiyama Subway Station

Full bloom

Kiyomizu-dera 清水寺(Night)

Kiyomizu-dera

For a few weeks during the sakura and koyo (autumn foliage) seasons a handful of sites in Kyoto will open their doors at night, including Kiyomizu-dera, in my opinion the town’s most iconic attraction.

Kiyomizu-dera

The highest concentration of cherry trees is located next to a pond near the exit. Still doesn’t account to much when compares to the neighboring Maruyama Park, but even without an abundance of sakura the draw of seeing an illuminated Kiyomizu-dera in the dark is too much to pass up.

Sakura Index: 3/5
Opening hours: 18:30 to 21:30
Admission fee: ¥400
Transport: Bus 100 or 206

Hirano-jinja 平野神社 (Night)

Hirano-jinja

Hirano-jinja, a Shinto Shrine located near the Kitanohakubaicho Station on the Keifuku Kitano Line, might seems unassuming at first glance, yet every year comes the sakura season this is one of the most beloved spot in Kyoto, thanks to the presence of 400 cherry trees over 60 varieties.

Hirano-jinja

Unlike the temples and shrines already mentioned, hanami (flower viewing) parties are allowed at the park next to the shrine. Tourists and locals alike gather under the cherry trees with their friends and families, bonding over beer and food.

Sakura Index: 3/5
Opening hours: Until 21:00
Admission fee: Free
Transport: Bus 205, 50, 15, 55

Maruyama Park 円山公園 (Night)

Maruyama Park’s famous Shidarezakura

Maruyama Park is another massively popular hanami spot. In fact, due to its location next to Gion, this park probably draws the largest crowd every night in Kyoto during the sakura season.

Inside the park is the most photographed cherry tree in Kyoto, a large Shidarezakura that was first planted in 1886, then again in 1947 followed the withering of the first incarnation.

I recognized a few food stalls from my last visit back in January, including a curry stall owns by a Japanese-fluent Indian. Food is not cheap, ranging from ¥300 – ¥500 per serving.

Maruyama Park

For Japanese, sakura viewing is as much a social event as appreciation of nature. My single-minded pursuit of photograph seems to go against what these beautiful flowers are all about. Not that I am feeling sorry for myself – I have taken some good photos on this trip and I can always come back next time with my family and friends.

Sakura Index: 3.5/5
Opening hours: Until 1:00 am
Admission fee: Free
Transport: Bus 100 or 206

Keage Incline Railway 蹴上傾斜鐵道

Keage Incline Railway

Nowhere is the prevalence of visitors from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong more noticeable than at this abandoned railway living a second life as a famous sakura-viewing spot with about 100 cherry trees. All I could hear when I arrived at 8:30 am were Mandarin and Cantonese. Just to clarify myself – this is not an exaggeration – nobody was speaking Japanese. At all. There were two couples from Hong Kong doing their pre-wedding photos to boot.

This place is extremely popular, so come early if you want to take photos without a huge crowd in the foreground.

Sakura Index: 3.5/5
Opening hours: Always open
Admission fee: Free
Transport: Keage Subway Station

Click here for Part 2 of the ranking. 

A Recollection of Past Travels

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