Japan (and a little postscript on South Korea)

Japan                                                              Friday, April 15, 2016

Our last stop in Korea was Busan (aka Pusan), on the southeast coast, and we enjoyed a long day seeing various sights, including some beautiful beaches. We visited a Buddhist temple perched high on a cliff (lots of steps to get to the top, but well worth the climb) overlooking the sea; the temple dates back to 1376, and at its base is a thriving market with all kinds of food, fish, souvenirs and other items. Joe got some great pictures which he will post when the internet connections allow it.

Busan is another one of those cities where entrepreneurship has allowed for incredible success; in the past 2 decades or so Busan was identified as a great location for movies to be shot; now it hosts an international film festival that rivals South by Southwest, Cannes and other leaders. Busan is currently the second largest city in South Korea, and its largest port city.

In Busan one of the tour guides gave us her take on the political situation, which was the first time we heard it openly discussed during our few days in Korea. She indicated that while South Koreans would like reunification with the North under a democratic regime (or even a nominally Communist rule), that seems less like than ever, given the North’s current leadership.

And one last Korean note: Just as I noted that Tiger Woods was born in Thailand, I now know that Lydia Ko is from Jeju Island, South Korea!

And now we are in Japan – 1 day each in 2 relatively small cities (Fukuoka and Shimizu), and a day and a half in Tokyo – very different experiences. Japan is basically 4 large islands (and 4000 smaller ones), of which 70% is mountain and forest. 130 million people crowd into the small percentage left for commercial and residential use (only 20% of Japan is suitable for building), and the cities and towns are dense. Dense, but orderly and beautiful at the same time.

The Japanese practice 2 main religions, Shintoism and Buddhism. Shinto is an ancient Japanese religion founded on the concept that all natural objects (trees, stones, etc.) have spirits and souls. At joyful human events (birth, marriage, new year’s celebrations, etc.) Shinto rites are observed. Buddhism (which came to Japan from India, through China) is concerned with death and the afterworld; accordingly, Buddhist rites are observed at funerals. Thus the 2 religions co-exist.

During our visits in Japan we saw lots of white medical-style face masks (attributed variously to pollution or to pollen conditions), lots of baseball games, lots of cherry blossoms, lots of shrines and temples and Buddhas, and just lots of people in general. We were impressed with the size of Tokyo, and its many colorful neon signs, but didn’t get to anyplace we would really call charming (maybe on another visit we can see some of the gardens and museums that the city has to offer).

Our visit included time at the Shizuoka Prefecture Museum of Art in Shimizu, and we saw many beautiful Rodin schulptures (the Burghers of Calais, the Thinker, the Gates of Hell, etc.) and some lovely gardens.

Outside of Tokyo lies Kamakura, the seat of government when the Shogun (the Samurai class leaders) ruled Japan. We visited a Great Buddha and saw a few monks and some ladies dressed in traditional clothing, as well as the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine, founded in 1180 and still in active use by worshippers.

We have also enjoyed some great local entertainment provided by drummers – they are fast as lightning, and perform modern songs as well as traditional ones, in many cases using only drums and no other instruments.

Tomorrow we’ll be in another Japanese town, in the north of the country. We travelled for the past day or 2 into the North Atlantic, and the sun has been out but the weather is choppy – lots of hanging onto handrails while people travel around the ship.

Many of the folks on the ship have traveled out in the past few days to Kyoto and other ancient towns, or have taken the bullet train for the experience, or gone to see Sumo wrestlers practice, or have visited with geishas (hostesses) and enjoyed tea ceremonies. The reports back have been very positive – welcoming local people who are very proud to describe their long history and share their many art forms.

Hope that all goes well with you all.

Best,

MA

Trip Update

Hello everybody
We can do some posts like this–but we can’t upload photos– apparently because the Peoples Republic of China is blocking certain types of Wi-Fi uploads. So it may be a while before we get out of their range.

Later comrades 🙂

Joe

notes about Korea so far

Seoul and Jeju Island, South Korea             Friday April 8, 2016   8pm

We spent yesterday in Seoul and today in Jeju Island, South Korea. In each place, guides emphasized that Korea is different from China and from Japan. Koreans are descendants of Mongolians, not Chinese clans. Koreans appreciate things on a smaller scale than the way things are done in China (the population is much smaller, of course, as is the land mass). The Japanese took over Korea for a number of years, and the Koreans are glad to have that period over, and to enjoy relative freedom and prosperity today. We heard a lot of discussion about North Korea, much along the lines we hear in US news reports.

We saw a secondary palace yesterday, the Changdeokgung Palace. This was not the king’s major residence, but rather a place for his concubines and a getaway spot for him. It’s tucked among the busy streets of Seoul, near to residences and high rise office buildings. You’ll see from Joe’s pix that it is modest when compared to the Summer Palace or the Forbidden City in Beijing – smaller, less ornate, quieter.

We spent the afternoon out in the sunshine on a nice warm day exploring the Hwaseong Fortress – we only walked a part of the wall, but it runs for 4 miles, and has numerous guard towers, observation towers, and platforms for archers to rain arrows down on those who might try to attack the town within the fortress. One unusual thing about this Fortress is that it was completed in 3 years (by 1796), and the laborers were compensated (not usually the case). Visitors were encouraged to try archery, and to learn from their efforts at the sport – look within yourself to identify ways to improve your performance, and don’t place the blame for error elsewhere.

Seoul as a city reminded us of New York and other major cities (it’s home to millions and has been the Korean capital for a very long time). There are many high rise office buildings with logos you’d recognize (not just Sansung or Hyundai, but also Citi and other western firms). Lots of construction going on, and very vibrant.

Today we are on Jeju Island, the southern tip of Korea – it’s a beautiful island with rich soil from the volcanic ash, and many crops are grown here (tea, carrots, garlic, potatoes, barley, and 40 species of Mandarin oranges). We visited a lovely bonsai garden with waterfalls, pools and stone sculptures (the Spirited Garden) and read about the philosophy of its creator, how tending these miniature plants teaches us how to live: be patient, work hard, trim away what we do not need and what makes us bad (greed, envy, etc.), learn to appreciate nature and people who are different from us, etc. The various areas of the Garden have great names: the Welcoming Garden, the Soul Garden, the Inspiration Garden, the Philosopher’s Garden, the Peace Garden, etc. It was a very serene spot, and there were no crowds – quite a difference from China.

We also visited Jeju Island’s largest tea plantation, and viewed beautiful rows of tea plants, lined up almost like vines in a vineyard. It was mid-afternoon when we left, and lots of parents with schoolchildren (in their uniforms, just like ours were when we were 10 years old) were arriving to enjoy the area.

We have more of Korea to see tomorrow, but are really enjoying the philosophy that is embraced here – hard work but a search for understanding and calm. We were interested to learn that in the 1400s during the Joseon Dynasty, the leader created a new alphabet so that more could become literate. Instead of the complex Chinese system of characters, new letters were grouped into syllables that were easy to learn.

Hope that you are all doing well. We’ll be back in NJ in just about 4 weeks – hard to believe!

Best,

MA

Korea’s got Seoul

We are in (South) Korea for 3 days. Here are some photos from Seoul.

Joe

The Emperor's Quarters at the Palace Compound
The Emperor’s Quarters at the Palace Compound
The Changdeokgung Palace in Seoul, Korea
The Changdeokgung Palace in Seoul, Korea
Our Location vis-a-vis London, Paris...
Our Location vis-a-vis London, Paris…
Korean Women in Native Dress
Korean Women in Native Dress
Korean Man in Native Dress
Korean Man in Native Dress
Hwaseong Fortress overlooking the city
Hwaseong Fortress overlooking the city
Closeup of the Changdeokgung Palace in Seoul, Korea
Closeup of the Changdeokgung Palace in Seoul, Korea
Courtyard and entranceway to Changdeokgung Palace
Courtyard and entranceway to Changdeokgung Palace

why the Summer Palace in Beijing reminds me of Spring Lake

it was once the summer palace of the Emperor
it was once the summer palace of the Emperor
and there's a gate at the North End with parking nearby on the street (this is actually a gate from the Great Wall area)
and there’s a gate at the North End with parking nearby on the street (this is actually a gate from the Great Wall area)
and it has a beautiful lake with trees around it...
and it has a beautiful lake with trees around it…
...including cherry blossoms
…including cherry blossoms
and the lake has a bridge that crosses it...
and the lake has a bridge that crosses it…
and another bridge that crosses it...
and another bridge that crosses it…
and some boats that people enjoy in it
and some boats that people enjoy in it
And there is a boardwalk that gets a lot of activity
And there is a boardwalk that gets a lot of activity
And rules are posted about what you can and cannot do
And rules are posted about what you can and cannot do
and there is a pavilion or two
and there is a pavilion or two
and there are lots of happy visitors when the weather is nice!
and there are lots of happy visitors when the weather is nice!

Beijing

Our three days in Beijing included trips to the Forbidden City, the Emperor’s Summer Palace, the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square and dinner and entertainment at the Great Hall of the People. Here are some photos–including one of the ambulance that followed the tour group–just in case someone fell off the Great Wall.

Joe

The Great Wall of China in the mountains around Beijing
The Great Wall of China in the mountains around Beijing
Watchtowers along the Great Wall of China
Watchtowers along the Great Wall of China
Reflections Inside the Forbidden City
Reflections Inside the Forbidden City
Temples inside the Forbidden City
Temples inside the Forbidden City
At the Top of the Forbidden City
At the Top of the Forbidden City
Mao's Portrait in Tiannamen Square
Mao’s Portrait in Tiannamen Square
Yulan Tang (House of Jade Ripples)
Yulan Tang (House of Jade Ripples)
Father and Son visit the Summer Palace
Father and Son visit the Summer Palace
Rickshaws with Drivers
Rickshaws with Drivers
Atop the Forbidden City
Atop the Forbidden City
Great Wall with Mountains in the Background
Great Wall with Mountains in the Background
Sign posted on the Great Wall
Sign posted on the Great Wall
The Great Wall of China in the Mountains by Beijing
The Great Wall of China in the Mountains by Beijing
Our tag along tour ambulence
Our tag along tour ambulence

MA’s pix from Beijing – not great quality but my goal was to give you a sense of scale

one of the many housing clusters on the road into Beijing from the port
one of the many housing clusters on the road into Beijing from the port
an area between the public square and the buildings where dignitaries stayed if they wanted to speak with the Emperor (and if he granted their request to speak to him) (Forbidden City)
an area between the public square and the buildings where dignitaries stayed if they wanted to speak with the Emperor (and if he granted their request to speak to him) (Forbidden City)
Forbidden City courtyard tiles- not bad for being over 500 years old
Forbidden City courtyard tiles- not bad for being over 500 years old
Forbidden City Fire Extinguisher - large urns of water were kept in case there was a fire in the wooden structures
Forbidden City Fire Extinguisher – large urns of water were kept in case there was a fire in the wooden structures
one corner of Tiananmen Square
one corner of Tiananmen Square; Great Hall of the People is on the left (you can just see a corner of the building)
The Museum of China, across the street from T Square
The Museum of China, across the street from T Square
the owner of the Hutong house talks with a guest from the ship in the courtyard/quadrangle
the owner of the Hutong house talks with a guest from the ship in the courtyard/quadrangle
Hutong courtyard with plants and caged birds in center
Hutong courtyard with plants and caged birds in center
One of the many pavilions at the Summer Palace
One of the many pavilions at the Summer Palace
one of the many bridges at the Summer Palace
one of the many bridges at the Summer Palace
we are the Great Wall, trying to look inscrutable.  Notice the blue sky at 11 am
we are the Great Wall, trying to look inscrutable. Notice the blue sky at 11 am
a maintenance lady at the Great Wall - I thought her tool looked like chopsticks
a maintenance lady at the Great Wall – I thought her tool looked like chopsticks
back to the ship at 4pm and look at the smog that has settled over the area (Beijing is over 200 miles away); that structure in the foreground is a wing of the terminal building
back to the ship at 4pm and look at the smog that has settled over the area (Beijing is over 200 miles away); that structure in the foreground is a wing of the terminal building
a shot from the top of the ship - if you peer through the smog you can see just a few of the big machines at the port
a shot from the top of the ship – if you peer through the smog you can see just a few of the big machines at the port

 

3 days in Beijing

Beijing, China                                                 Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The bottom line, if you don’t want to read further, is that this is just about the biggest place we have ever seen – more people, more land, more buildings, bigger buildings, more of everything than we ever could have imagined. We cannot even begin to explain the history of China or of Beijing, but suffice to say, it’s long and complex (kind of like this post turned out to be).

We departed Beijing last night (Tuesday ), after spending 3 days viewing as many sights as we could. Sunday (the day we landed) started a three-day national holiday, the “Sweeping of the Tombs.” This is a major holiday here where the dead are honored, and many Chinese use this time to take a family holiday, so Beijing was especially crowded as it is a major destination for Chinese visitors as well as foreign visitors.

The port where we docked seems to go on for miles and miles, and it probably does in reality – I have never seen so many container or cranes and other loading equipment – as far as the eye could see, and then some.

The cruise line organized this Beijing trip for 700 of the passengers – a miracle of logistics. We found it funny, but kind of reassuring, that an ambulance actually accompanied the 24 buses that got people around to various sites (not one ambulance per bus, but one ambulance when all of the buses were going together to a site). Apparently someone fell at the Great Wall a couple of years ago and broke a leg, so now the cruise line plans for an ambulance to join the crowd when we are all headed in the same direction. It seemed generally that about half of us visited some sites and half visited others on Sunday, and then we switched on Monday. A lot of folks had been to Beijing before so they didn’t join the organized tour but went out on their own. Very brave when the street signs are not in the Western alphabet and many local folks do not speak English.

On our way Sunday morning from the ship into Beijing (260 kilometers – a 3 hour trip if there is no traffic), we passed a large cemetery where the Sweeping of the Tombs was being celebrated – every tomb was decorated with vibrant flowers, and families were celebrating and setting off fireworks, etc. Very festive and respectful in a culture where ancestors are worshipped.

But the real news on Sunday was that a trip from the port into the city takes 3 hours on a good day – this gave us an inkling of the size of the city and the country, the number of people, and the scope of it all, which is just amazing. Early on during that ride into the city I started taking pictures of the incredible housing projects that I saw – very tall apartment buildings that popped up in clusters of 20 or more. After about 20 minutes I couldn’t take any more pictures – it was overwhelming how many residential units there are, how many roads there are, how much construction you can see as new places go up, how many trees and shrubs are being planted by those roads, and how I had never seen anything on this scale – and this wasn’t even close to the heart of Beijing. I learned later that Beijing actually has 6 ring roads, and I guess when a city is 6500 square miles that is what you need.

Beijing is one of China’s ancient cities, and it started off as a much smaller place, with a large wall around it, a moat, several watchtowers and a bell tower (to let people know when the city gates were about to close), and all those nice old touches.

Beijing is now the national center of politics, economics, education (over 500 universities!), culture, trade and communication. Approximately 20 million people reside in Beijing, and I think at least a few million more came in for the long weekend.

As we went around central Beijing in a tour group arranged by the ship, I saw traffic circles that looked as pretty as Park Avenue NYC looks in the spring (flowers everywhere), but there were 6 lanes of traffic in each direction in the Beijing intersections, and lots of cars, trucks, motorcycles, motor scooters, bicycles and pedestrians in those traffic circles. A bit chaotic but everyone seemed able to negotiate it very well.

You may recall that Beijing hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics, and built new large stadia and venues for the events. Good thing, since they will also be hosting the 2022 Winter Olympic Games.

On Sunday we saw the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square – Joe got some great pix and I tried to get some that show the scale of these places – just enormous. Tiananmen Square is a large plaza where “the people” could assemble when the Emperor wanted to address them. It is just across the street from the Forbidden City, and the Great Hall of the People is on one side of the Square while the Museum is on the other.

The Forbidden City is surrounded by a moat and a wall 10 meters high. Once inside the Forbidden City, we saw many public buildings that were on the outer perimeter, where “the people” could muster. Inside of that were large courtyards and buildings in which the Emperor conducted official business – buildings for visiting dignitaries, buildings for the staff, etc.   And then after another large courtyard you get to the buildings for the household goods and the food, and then to the Emperor’s residence, and then to the Empress’s residence, etc. We tried to capture some of this in the pictures, but it is hard to describe the scale of this, and I am not sure the pix will do it justice.

The Forbidden City is where 24 Emperors held their imperial palace, and it covers 180 acres (with over 8700 rooms) – there is a very large park (Imperial Park) at the end of the City, with the traditional water features, stone work, and greenery.   In the Forbidden City, the government limits visitors to 80,000 day max – a LOT of people.

Tiananmen Square (109 acres) is the biggest plaza we have seen in a city – and on Sunday it was full of visitors. Quite a different place than the photo that we saw in 1989 with tanks lined up and a lone student in front of them protesting.   We saw the kind of scene you’d see at any park on a weekend – lots of families with children, having a great time in the sunshine.

Monday we visited the Hutong – the traditional housing in this area – houses built around a quadrangle for a family (3 generations, usually) to reside. These areas are being demolished over time to make way for more dense housing, but there is some thinking that it’s beneficial to keep these “lane houses” to show how things were in times gone by. We spent some time with one of the house owners to hear the history of the family and to learn how things have changed over time. Given the political changes over the ages in China, suffice to say that it is complicated – if I got it right, the land is now owned by the government but the buildings are privately owned, although the land and buildings were taken from the Emperor and his staff in the People’s Revolution. We’ll have to see if the future holds a place for greater private property rights.

We also visited the Emperor’s Summer Palace – a gorgeous place around a man-made lake of some size. The names of the various rooms in the Summer Palace were wonderful – the Hall of Longevity and Happiness, The Palace of Compassion and Tranquility, etc. We were able to take a little ferry ride around the lake, to observe some of its pavilions, halls, temples, bridges, etc.

I’ll do a separate post on the many ways the Summer Palace reminded me of Spring Lake.

Monday night we were treated to a special performance of traditional Chinese works at the Great Hall of the People, which is adjacent to Tiananmen Square – this is the building where the government officials meet, and where foreign dignitaries are met.   It is a building that holds 5000 people in its main chamber, and additional thousands in its adjacent chambers. Can’t say that I have ever seen a hall so large or a stage so high.

At the Great Hall, we enjoyed a delightful performance of Italian opera pieces, acrobatics, children’s song and other traditional dance and song – just incredible. When we left the performance we walked out to Tiananmen Square and the streetlights made a beautiful romantic scene along the wide boulevards (just sorry that I didn’t have a camera because it was a public building with high security). And on a modern note, one guest who left the Great Hall because he wanted to get back to the hotel took an Uber car and was happy to report today that it cost under US $3.

Tuesday was time for the Great Wall – I think Joe’s pix will do all the talking for this, other than to say that the Wall was built to protect China from invaders are Mongolia and other areas, and took 2000 years to build. It’s over 13,000 miles, and much of it is broken up, while some of it has been restored (like the place we saw today). The scale of it is hard to describe – it’s high on the hills (and there are a lot of mountains west of Beijing), and it runs along those mountains with lots of paths down the hills, and lots of towers where those who used to keep watch could use smoke to warn others along the wall of a problem/intrusion/etc.

After the trip to the Great Wall we headed back to the ship (another 3+ hours) and that’s when the weather allowed us to see the smog for which Beijing is known – it was a grey soup that limited vision and made my eyes smart. We were fortunate to have missed it during our days of touring the area.

So this trip to China has been one where we marvel at the creativity and the entrepreneurial spirit of the people, and one where we speculate about the power and strength represented by the structures and buildings Seems like a classic mix of communism (government) and capitalism (economy).   It will be interesting to see how the future unfolds for this giant country and its many people.

Pictures will follow from Joe and me.

Wishing you all the best,

Mary Anne

Pix from Xiamen and Shanghai (MA’s pix)

little one enjoying the Xiamen beach
little one enjoying the Xiamen beach
student nuns in Shanghai at the temple, on their way to service
student nuns in Shanghai at the temple, on their way to service
a monk at the service takes a quick call
a monk at the service takes a quick call
we were not permitted into the temple but we could take pix from the area outside the temple; this is a picture of the nun students at the prayer service
we were not permitted into the temple but we could take pix from the area outside the temple; this is a picture of the nun students at the prayer service
and now a student takes a call during the service....
and now a student takes a call during the service….
interior courtyard of the temple; note the clay roof tiles and the high rise buildings in the background - this temple is surrounded by buildings and construction
interior courtyard of the temple; note the clay roof tiles and the high rise buildings in the background – this temple is surrounded by buildings and construction
a garden tucked into the temple's free space
a garden tucked into the temple’s free space
a floral wall along part of the Bund (the Shanghai embankment on the Huangpu River)
a floral wall along part of the Bund (the Shanghai embankment on the Huangpu River)
flowers on a busy Shanghai street
flowers on a busy Shanghai street
part of a jade sculpture at the Arts and Crafts Research Institute
part of a jade sculpture at the Arts and Crafts Research Institute in Shanghai
a large jade sculpture of a town, from the Arts and Crafts Research Institute in Shanghai
a large jade sculpture of a town, from the Arts and Crafts Research Institute in Shanghai
detail from the large sculpture in the last picture
detail from the large sculpture in the last picture