Second to none: Climbing Mt. Kitadake in the Japan South Alps

After our Mt. Fuji climb, our feet were itching to climb the rest of Japan’s major peaks. And so it was that we decided to climb Mt. Kitadake in the South Alps. It’s the second highest peak in Japan at 3,193 meters. Although not so famous outside its home country, Kitadake is a favorite with Japanese seasoned hikers for the fewer crowds (compared to the marketplace that is Mt. Fuji), stunning views, and extra challenge (it’s a much harder climb than Fuji because of the steeper ascent and greater elevation change). As an added bonus, Mt. Ainodake (Japan’s 4th highest peak) can also be reached on the same trip.

View of Mt. Fuji from Kitadake

View of Mt. Fuji from Kitadake

Getting there

Some hikers prefer to do the Kitadake climb in three days, but we only had the weekend because of school work, so we squeezed the climb into two full days. We flew in from Fukuoka to Tokyo on a Friday afternoon and on Saturday morning, we took the first train at a little past 5 am to reach Kofu station (check train schedules in English here) in time to catch the 9 am bus (Fare: 1,950 JPY) going to the Hirogawara trailhead (bus schedule here, use Google Chrome to auto-translate the page to English. Be aware that bus schedules change annually).

The ascent

After two hours in the bus, we arrived at the information center of the South Alps National Park located at the Hirogawara trailhead, where we started the trek.

Information Center of the South Alps National Park

Information Center of the South Alps National Park

The trail was well-marked and well-maintained, as is common in all Japanese mountains.

Where to? To the summit!

Where to? To the summit!

The scenery was set in summer green, while the trail consisted of boulders and loose rock fragments.  There were also wooden stairs or stone steps set up in several areas to avoid soil erosion, and wooden bridges were placed in steeper portions that were prone to landslides. There were not many climbers that we met or passed on the trail, probably because it was already September and nearing the end of the climb season.

'Rocky" trail

‘Rocky” trail

Stairs everywhere!

Stairs everywhere!

After climbing for 2.5 hours, the first (and easier) part of the climb ended when we reached the Shiraneoike mountain hut. The mountain hut sold coffee and cup noodles, but we only availed of the free drinking water since we brought our own food. We sat on a bench in front of the hut and quickly prepared our very crude lunch of instant noodles, canned tuna and onigiri (rice balls).

Lunch outside the Shiraneoike mountain hut

Lunch outside the Shiraneoike mountain hut

Outside the mountain hut, several tents were already set up, and more hikers would arrive later that day to stay overnight before continuing the climb the next morning. As for the three of us, after our lunch we hurried off to the more challenging part: the steep ascent. The trail changed into a path with thicker vegetation, but the path was still very obvious because of the large rocks that they set up to prevent encroachment.DSCN0993DSCN1057 I enjoyed looking at the pretty flowers and alpine plants along the trail and observed several bird species, which I recognized from the national park brochure (complete with maps estimating the climb duration for each trail segment and a bonus wildlife guide).

Some of the flowers along the trail

Some of the flowers along the trail

Spotted Nutcracker; ホシガラス- hoshigarasu (Nucifraga caryocatactes)

Spotted Nutcracker; ホシガラス- hoshigarasu (Nucifraga caryocatactes)

Rock ptarmigans ライチョウ - raicho (Lagopus mutus)

Rock ptarmigans; ライチョウ – raicho (Lagopus mutus)

The flora and fauna served as a good distraction from my heaving breath. We were in a hurry to reach the campsite before dark, so we tried to keep a brisk pace.

My two companions, strong as ever

My two companions enjoying the hike

After two hours of continuous climbing, we reached the ridgeline. Here the flora changed from tall trees to short shrubs and grass, indicating our arrival in the low-alpine elevation level. We puton our jackets and walked along the ridge while enjoying the beautiful view just when the sun was starting to set and the mist was creeping in.DSCN1062

Enjoying the view

Enjoying the view

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The trail was full of color

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Finding our way through the mist

Camping at 3,000 masl

We reached the Kitadake kata-no-koya mountain hut/campsite (elevation: 3,000 masl) just before dark. We quickly paid the camping fee (300 JPY) and tent fee (500 JPY), then set up camp before the last of the sunlight disappeared.

mountain hut at 3,000 masl

Kitadake kata-no-koya mountain hut at 3,000 masl

The shopkeeper at the mountain hut store

The shopkeeper at the mountain hut store

price list

Price list (ramen, udon, curry rice - 900 JPY; oden – 600 JPY; coffee, cocoa - 300 JPY)

We were very happy with the fantastic view of Mt. Fuji and its neighboring mountains from our tent. The temperature quickly dropped to near-freezing when it got dark, so we changed into warmer clothes before dinner.

Our tent neighbors

Our tent neighbors

Mt. Fuji from our tent

Mt. Fuji from our tent

The temperature before dark

The temperature before dark

With only our headlamps on, we enjoyed our beef steak and rice meal, which we happily washed down with Asahi beers that we brought from Tokyo. Finally, it was 9 pm and time to sleep.

Kanpai!

Kanpai!

Summit assault and traversing to Japan’s 4th highest peak

We got up really early (3:15 am!), put our belongings inside the tent and left the campsite for the summit. We arrived at the summit at about 4 am, just in time to see the first rays of light emerge.

Obligatory group photo at the summit

Obligatory group photo at the summit

The view was really stunning: the sea of clouds enveloped the horizon but for the perfect cone of Mt. Fuji sticking out; this beautiful scene set in a backdrop of quickly changing, fierce orange hues.DSCN1202

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As an added bonus, there were only about 20 people with us at the summit, so we had a quiet and unobstructed view of the sunrise. We appreciated the early morning even more with coffee and breakfast that we prepared with the cook set and stove that we brought to the summit.

The few people we shared the sunrise with

The few people we shared the sunrise with

By 6:00 am, it was already bright and sunny and we were ready for the 7-km traverse to Mt. Ainodake (the fourth highest Japanese mountain at 3,189 m) and back to the campsite. We followed the rocky ridgeline, which offered a fantastic view of the ridge peaks that we were about to climb.DSCN1257

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The trek to Ainodake was really a challenge for me: we were traversing above 3,000 m elevation, but we were also in a hurry to catch the 2:30 pm bus at the trailhead. I couldn’t even appreciate the splendid views anymore; I was just concentrating on reaching the next crag or going down the next steep ladder.

One of the few photos I was able to take during the traverse

One of the few photos I was able to take during the traverse

On our way back to the Kitadake kata-no-koya, my breath was already in short gasps and my heart was pounding very fast. We stopped twice to eat the bread and snacks we packed since I was feeling really weak and hungry. We pushed on and got back to our tent at 11 am. That was five hours after leaving the Kitadake summit, traversing to Ainodake, and returning to the campsite. It seemed to be the longest five hours of my life, and most of it was spent with my heart racing and my legs complaining. One good consolation was that the sky was really clear that day, so I didn’t have to worry about the cold on top of everything else.

Heading back

Heading back

Hurrying back to the campsite

Hurrying to the campsite

There was never a sight more welcome: the view of our campsite (and our tent!)

There was never a sight more welcome: the view of our campsite (and our tent!)

Heading down and back

I was able to catch my breath at the campsite; eating a proper meal for lunch did wonders to my motivation and psyche. By noontime, we were packed and ready for the descent. The average time going down from the  campsite to the trailhead was 3.5 hours, but the only bus from the trailhead going back to the city would leave at 2:30 pm. Needless to say, it was an exciting afternoon. We were in a rush to go down, almost running with our heavy packs.

Going down

Going down

But I was feeling much better descending (I think a heavy stomach really made the difference; that or the high elevation did not suite me very well) so we made good time with some moments to spare near the end of our trek to take photos, and appreciate the last of the snow and the rushing stream running along the trail.DSCN1328

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We arrived at the trailhead at 2:20 pm, with a few minutes to spare before the ride back. But as it turned out, there was no real need to hurry because there were several taxi drivers waiting for passengers to bring back to Kofu Station. Anyway, we wouldn’t have known about it so we were still glad to have hurried back. We shared the taxi with one other climber, and in the end paid the same price as the bus fare but for faster travel time (the taxi drivers fixed this price, I guess they just didn’t want to go back down empty-handed after bringing their passengers up). With that, we said goodbye to Kitadake with weary feet and tired legs, but full of unforgettable moments and good memories. Kitadake might only be Japan’s second highest mountain, but it remains one of my best climb experiences.

Photo credit: Ed Lucio

Photo credit: Ed Lucio

*This post was modified from a feature article written for Trails, the official newsletter of the University of the Philippines Mountaineers.

A day in Denmark: Exploring Copenhagen on foot

After two months of using Copenhagen airport as my travel hub while staying in Lund (Sweden), I decided to finally explore the attractions of the Danish capital. Copenhagen’s proximity to Lund (45 minutes by train) meant that I only need to go there for a day trip. It was to be my shortest visit to a country, hopping from one country to the next and back again in just one day. All in all, I’d say it was a day very well spent.

The amazing bike culture (and why I did not get to ride a bike)

Walking away from the Copenhagen train station, my first thought was, “They really love bikes!”

Pedal power! - bike hanging on the wall at the tourist center

Pedal power! – bike hanging on the wall at the tourist center

From the countless bikers leisurely pedaling all around me to the road signs and even the road paint, Copenhagen is really a bike city through and through.

There are bikes, and then there are these "bikes"...

There are bikes, and then there are these “bikes”…

Bike lanes everywhere!

Bike lanes everywhere!

Unfortunately, it’s also because of this that I was not able to bike around the city. It’s the only city I’ve been to where the racks for bikes-for-rent were empty. I guess it didn’t help that the bikes weren’t really for rent, you just had to deposit a 20 krone coin and get it back when you return the bike. Free use of bikes, which I sadly could not avail. But that was alright, exploring the city on foot was also an enjoyment in itself.

My walking tour of Copenhagen

I got a map from the tourist information center and decided to do the suggested walking tour, but first I had quite the long detour to the shopping streets (but of course!) of Strøget for lunch and some souvenirs.

The throng of tourists in Strøget

The suggested itinerary led me to a four-hour walk to Copenhagen’s famous sights. I stopped by the different landmarks such as the City Hall, H.C. Andersen Boulevard, Royal Theatre, Marble Church, Resistance Museum and countless squares with the biggest one being Kongens Nytorv (King’s New Square).

Copenhagen City Hall

Copenhagen City Hall

Kongens Nytorv (King's New Square)

Kongens Nytorv (King’s New Square)

My favorite sight would have to be the canal waterfront in Nyhavn (New Harbour). The view of the colorful houses by the waterfront is postcard perfect! I felt really happy that I got to see how lively and vibrant Nyhavn is.???????????????????????????????

The colorful side of Nyhavn

Colorful building facades

I chanced upon a beer-tasting event and a jazz concert out of a truck that was part of the Christmas Festival (in early November).???????????????????????????????

There were a lot of quaint shops selling unique knick knacks and souvenirs. Across the colorful houses just near Kongens Nytorv, I found an interesting outdoor art exhibit at Kunsthal Charlottenborg (space for contemporary art in Charlottenborg Palace). There were really a lot of things to see and do!

Outdoor exhibit at Kunsthal Carlottenborg

Outdoor exhibit at Kunsthal Carlottenborg

Another interesting place is the Amalienborg Palace, the winter residence of the Danish Royal Family. It was a big complex with a lot of nice buildings.

Amalienborg Palace grounds

Amalienborg Palace grounds

I tried to follow the Danish royal guards on patrol for a nice photo and maybe some reaction from them, but I couldn’t get anything more than their unflinching stern expressions while they were marching around. They must have been very annoyed at curious tourists following them around like crazy (guilty!).

The guards on duty

The guards on duty

The guards are famous Danish souvenirs, too!

They are famous Danish souvenirs, too!

Missing Little Mermaid

I couldn’t have chosen a worst time to visit Copenhagen. When I was there was the only time the iconic Little Mermaid statue was not on Denmark’s shores! That time, the Little Mermaid was shipped off to Shanghai for six months as part of the World Expo in 2010.

The mermaid visited China!

The mermaid visited China!

I already knew this from the tourist information center but since I couldn’t accept the fact sitting down, I still walked over to the site to see for myself. Yep, she was not there.

No mermaid :(

No mermaid :(

Still, the visit wasn’t a total waste. I saw some memorable sights by the shore, such as couples on dates and a horde of rowdy teenagers (un)dressed in gowns and tuxedos being chauffered in stretch limousines.

I've never seen so many limousines together in one place

I’ve never seen so many limousines together in one place

But more than those curiosities, I think what made the walk to the shore worth it was the fountain dedicated to the goddess Gefion. It’s also near the shore, a stone’s throw away from the Little Mermaid’s location. The statue is life-size, and made even more impressive with the fountain water cascading down several levels.

The fountain of Gefion

The fountain of Gefion

It depicts the story of why Zealand (the island where Copenhagen is located) separated from Sweden (because Gefion ploughed Sweden with her four sons, which she turned into oxen). Great stuff!

Gefion and her sons/oxen

Gefion and her sons/oxen

Early Christmas in Copenhagen

I visited in early November, and I was able to catch the start of Christmas festivities. In the City Hall square, I was greeted by rows and rows of Christmas ‘trees’ that was part of a charity activity. In Nyhavn, the Christmas bazaar was already in full swing. The window shops in Stroget were already displaying either life-sized Santas or big Christmas wreaths.

Christmas in Copenhagen (yes, life-sized Lego Santa)

Christmas in Copenhagen (Lego Santa is so cool!)

But there couldn’t be any place more Christmasy than the Tivoli Gardens. The lights, decorations, and displays really got me into the Christmas spirit. The exhibits were amusing, fake snow and all.

Tivoli Gardens in early November

Tivoli Gardens in early November

There were so many things to see in the very big amusement park, whether it was the big halls or the shops, and especially the rides. Since I was alone, I made do with looking around and eating a very large candy floss (cotton candy!). ???????????????????????????????

A little bit of everything, plus some really large cotton candy

A little bit of everything, plus a really large cotton candy

I arrived back in Lund at around 10 pm, tired but very happy with the day’s activities. Copenhagen is such a vibrant and dynamic city, I would love to come back for a longer trip next time. :)

The obligatory tourist photo

The obligatory tourist photo

Oh, and I eventually found the little mermaid… in Tivoli Gardens! Only the sculpture was made of ice and the face is that of a monkey… Go figure.

Little mermaid?

Little mermaid?

Loi Krathong Festival in Sukhothai: a celebration of Thai culture

Loi Krathong is one of Thailand’s biggest annual festivals held every full moon of the 12th lunar month, which usually falls in November. Our gracious hosts from Chulalongkorn University organized our fieldwork to coincide with the event so that we were able to celebrate Loi Krathong in historic Sukhothai.

Wat Mahathat in Sukhothai

Wat Mahathat in Sukhothai

Sukhothai

Majestic Sukhothai

 

Pre-festival celebrations

From its origins in Sukhothai, the Loi Krathong Festival spread throughout Thailand and even to Laos and Myanmar. The activities already started a few days before the main event and we were already caught up in the festive atmosphere even before reaching Sukhothai. In the smaller towns of Tak and Phitansulok, our evenings were kept busy with the night bazaar, parades and performances.

Hello Kitty lantern at the night bazaar

Hello Kitty lantern at the night bazaar

Beautiful girls in traditional costume were paraded in floats

Beautiful girls in traditional costume were paraded in floats

The food stalls offered several unique delicacies, the most unforgettable of which are the deep-fried insects (which I did not try, heeding the warning of my Thai friend about sanitary issues). Our students tried it though, and I heard they were “crunchy” and “not bad”.

Fried roaches, anyone?

Fried roaches, anyone?

But I did try lighting a paper lantern with my colleagues. The stall owner helped us light our paper lantern before letting it float away into the sky.

Before releasing the lantern

Before releasing the lantern

We also bought the krathong (the decorative float used in the festival) from one of the many street vendors.

Krathong for sale

Krathong for sale

I lit the candle on my krathong and placed it on the water, letting the strong river current sweep it away. I was told that doing this is the Thai way of giving thanks to the river. After trying these local customs, I already felt part of the celebration.IMG_7895

 

Sukhothai and the festivities

On the day of the main event, we went to Sukhothai Historical Park in the afternoon to enjoy the festivities. But first, we explored the Wat Mahathat temple complex. I marveled at the numerous Buddha statues standing (mostly sitting, actually) proudly amidst the ruins.

Standing Buddha

Standing Buddha

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I could only imagine the former glory of ancient Siam’s spiritual center as I look at the black-stained walls and the crumbling palace halls.IMG_8027IMG_8021IMG_8020

The setting sun also added to the air of mystery that I felt, or that’s just me being dramatic ;)

A monk at the Wat Mahathat

A monk at the Wat Mahathat

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Just outside the Wat Mahathat, the celebration was in full swing. There were parades, numerous food stalls, and activity centers that offers anything from Thai massage (which I of course availed) to martial arts lessons and even beauty pageants.

The stalls were packed with people

The stalls were packed with people

There were really a lot of things to see and do, but the star of the festival are the krathong in all shapes and sizes. My favorite are those handmade krathong sold by local vendors along the water’s edge.

The ASEAN krathong float

The ASEAN krathong float

There were the small and simple krathong, and then there was this

There were the small and simple krathong, and then there was this

We bought one each and let it float with all the other krathong already in the water, which created a beautiful sight.

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Setting my krathong on the water

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Photos cannot do the beautiful view justice

While walking around the festival area, the speakers were playing the Loi Krathong song alternately in Thai and English, and the catchy melody was stuck in my head for a long time after, so I want to share it with you:

 

Light & Sound Show

In the evening, we bought tickets to watch the Light & Sound Show set up in the Wat Mahathat. The one-hour show featured the history of Sukhothai as Thailand’s first capital and the origin of the Loi Krathong festival, complete with narration as the actors sang, danced, prayed, and fought with fake swords.IMG_8270IMG_8268

The show was all in Thai so I didn’t catch all of the story, but the light effects and the fireworks more than made up for it.IMG_8185IMG_8147

Seeing the Wat Mahathat bathed in glorious light with lanterns floating above it gave me a glimpse of the former glory of Sukhothai.IMG_8230

The numerous lanterns dotting the sky was also a glorious sight. The show was a nice conclusion to our Loi Krathong experience.IMG_8227IMG_8217

I just feel very lucky to have experienced such a unique Thai celebration and in Sukhothai at that, the place where the Loi Krathong festival began.IMG_8243IMG_8267

“I amsterdam”: Playing tourist in the Dutch capital

“I amsterdam” is a marketing strategy to promote all aspects of living in, doing business with, and visiting the Dutch capital. I rode the I amsterdam bandwagon when I played tourist in one of the most lively cities I have visited. Whether its the scenic canals, popular museums, or the (in)famous red light district, Amsterdam always has something for everyone.

I amsterdam sign at the Rijksmuseum

I amsterdam sign at the Rijksmuseum

Amsterdam at night

I arrived early evening in Amsterdam and met up with my friend Darwin, who was studying there for his Masters degree at the time.  Our first stop: red light district. I was initially shocked seeing all those scantily clad women in the glass doors. I have heard a lot of stories about this area, but I didn’t realize just how many “glass doors” and how much variety (for lack of a better word) there were. Of course, taking photos of the ladies are not encouraged. Rumors say if you get caught taking photos, the ladies will grab your camera and throw it in the canal or worse, they will throw their piss in your face (so they have their piss in cups, ready to be thrown at tourists’ faces? Hmm…).  So anyway, no photos. Here is a photo of the swans in the canal instead:

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Swans at the red light district

We stayed the night just looking around the area, pub hopping and beer tasting. The sights, not to mention the smells ;) , are really something you wouldn’t normally find elsewhere.

Free walking tour

In the morning, we went to Dam Square to join Sandeman’s free walking tour (instead of a fixed amount, the guides work for tips from customers).

Line for the tour

Line for the tour at Dam’s Square

The tour guide first brought us to the red light district, which looked different without the blinking bright lights. There were still a lot of interesting things to see, though.

Magic mushrooms, anyone?

Magic mushrooms, anyone?

Condoman and the condoms (what?!)

Condoman…

We also went to Chinatown and then to the Dutch East India Company for some history lessons.

Dutch East India Company headquarters

Dutch East India Company headquarters

Then we went outside the Royal Palace (unfortunately under renovation) and to several other interesting places like the courtyard of the Begijnhof Convent, house of Anne Frank and the “narrowest house”.

The Royal Palace under renovation

The Royal Palace under renovation

Can you see the narrowest house?

Can you see the narrowest house? It’s only 2 meters wide!

We crossed several bridges to enjoy the view of the picturesque canals.??????????????????????????????? We also passed by several “coffee shops” (euphemism for shops selling weed), where there were long lines to buy one of the most sought after products in Amsterdam. And I’m not talking about Dutch cheese, although we did pass by several cheese shops ;)

Amsterdam "coffee"

Amsterdam “coffee”

Long line for weed

Long line to buy pot

Cheese everywhere!

Cheese everywhere!

One thing I really appreciate is the bike culture. It’s really awesome that bikes are the king of the road in Amsterdam. Bikes are everywhere, and everyone is riding a bike!???????????????????????????????

Art and culture at the Rijksmuseum

We stayed in Enschede for a few nights but I went back to Amsterdam to meet up with my godmother and her friend. This time, we used the tram to go around the city. We first went to the Rijksmuseum, where the I amsterdam sign is located. We spent some time excitedly taking photos with the iconic sign. IMG_4272???????????????????????????????The museum was still under renovation when we went, but we still saw a decent-sized art collection. Seeing Rembrandt’s famous Night Watch painting is really worth the visit.

Rijksmuseum

Rijksmuseum

File:The Nightwatch by Rembrandt.jpg

Rembrandt’s Night Watch (photo credit: Wikipedia)

Touristy canal cruise

After lunch we went on a canal cruise on one of the glass roof boats.??????????????????????????????? I enjoyed seeing the rows of buildings lining the canals as well as the unique “boat” houses floating on the water.

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View from the boat

Boat houses on the canal

Boat houses on the canal

We also got to see the West Church (where Rembrandt was buried) at the start and the Nemo Museum near the end of the tour.

West Church tower

West Church tower

Nemo Museum

Nemo Museum

It was a very relaxing way to spend the afternoon. Too relaxing in fact, that I dozed off in the boat for a while, probably due to the good lunch, the mechanized voice of the tour guide recording, and the rocking motion of the boat. After the canal tour, we capped off our Amsterdam visit by shopping for souvenirs at the flower market. Aside from flowers (duh!), there were also shops selling cheese and different types of souvenirs.

Cannabis starter kit...

Cannabis starter kit…

I amsterdam

We left Amsterdam in the late afternoon to spend the night in The Hague. I felt tired but happy for two days well-spent. I am glad that I got to experience even a little of the many things that Amsterdam has to offer and that I can say “I amsterdam” :)

I amsterdam

I amsterdam

Yogyakarta Temple tour: visit to Borobudur and Prambanan

Last year, I supervised international students on a fieldtrip to Yogyakarta (pronounced Jogja by Indonesian friends) to see geothermal manifestations and power plants. Of course, in any field trip, the cultural aspect of the place should not be missed (*wink wink*), so just before our afternoon return flight we visited two of Jogja’s most famous sites: Borobudur and Prambanan Temples.

Buddhist Borobudur Temple

Borobudur is a Buddhist temple northwest of Jogja. We drove for ~1.5 hours to get to the temple complex. We each paid 190 IDR (or the equivalent of 20 USD) to enter, and hired a local guide for ~10 USD.

Guide fees

Guide fees

The entrance fee included a free bottle of water, and the use of a batik cloth to wrap around the waist.

Our group wearing the batik

Our group wearing the batik

We were told this is a marketing strategy to introduce the batik to tourists, which was selected as a UNESCO World Heritage in 2009.

Batik

Batik, an intangible World Heritage

The guide explained that Borobudur was constructed in the 9th century when Buddhism and Hinduism were still the dominant religion in the area. The temple was buried due to several volcanic eruptions and lay abandoned for several hundred years before its rediscovery by the British in the 19th century. It was unearthed and painstakingly restored to the incredible structure that it was intended to be.

Candi Borobudur: World Heritage Site

Candi Borobudur: World Heritage Site

There was a recommended way to explore the temple: enter from the east and walk clockwise until the top. We were with a guide, so we did it the “proper” way.

Instructions to explore Borobudur

Instructions to explore Borobudur

My attention was piqued by the hundreds of relief panels covering the walls of the temple. The guide explained that the panels at the bottom portions depicted the concept of karma, while the panels on the higher levels of the temple illustrated narratives from Buddha’s life before he reached enlightenment, as well as his lives as reincarnations of different animals.f1513664

The guide telling us the stories of the relief panels

The guide telling us the stories of the relief panels

It was interesting to learn a little bit more about Buddhism through the stories in the panels. I noticed quite a number of smaller Buddha statues on the walls and roofs, but about half of them are already headless. The guide said the Buddha heads were looted in the past to sell to willing buyers.

Headless Buddha statues

Headless Buddha statues on either end

We climbed the steep stairs to reach the famous stupas.f1596288 The picturesque scene of the stupas overlooking Central Java’s greenery is the typical “postcard photo” of Borobudur, and the view in person is even more beautiful.f1673920

f1793216 We learned that there’s supposed to be a Buddha statue inside every stupa, but several statues are missing because of theft across the centuries. A few of the stupas were half-opened to reveal the Buddha statues inside.

Buddha statue inside the stupa

Buddha statue inside the stupa

Opened stupa revealing the statue inside

Opened stupa revealing the statue inside

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After spending some time enjoying the majestic view, it was already time to go. I felt really privileged to visit Borobudur and learn of its story throughout the centuries. The grandeur of Borobudur is even made more majestic by the colorful history behind it.

The obligatory tourist photo

The obligatory tourist photo

 

The Hindu temple of Prambanan

We drove back to Jogja, where Prambanan temple is located. The entrance fee is 18 USD (Rupiah charge depends on the exchange rate), but this time we did not get a guide since we were accompanied by Jogja locals familiar with the temple. We wrapped the mandatory batik around the waist and entered the large compound. The temple complex look mystical from afar with the building’s towering spires set against the backdrop of the blue sky.f1962880

Prambanan is a Hindu temple complex built in honor of the Hindu god Shiva (the Destroyer). It had the same fate as Borobudur, built at around the same time, abandoned because of natural disasters, and rediscovered by the British in the 19th century.

Unlike the single structure of Borobudur, Prambanan consists of several buildings characterized by tall spires.

Tall spires, you say?

Tall spires, you say?

There were originally 240 buildings, but most of the minor structures are now in ruins.  The six major structures thankfully managed to remain intact.

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Most of the temples are now in ruins

The biggest building is a temple for Shiva, so we visited that first. Due to the 2006 earthquake the Shiva temple is categorized as “relatively stable”, which means we had to wear hard hats to enter in case of falling debris.

"Relatively stable"

“Relatively stable”

Hard hat area

Hard hat area

Several parts of the building still reveal the damage caused by the earthquake, but I think they did a decent job with the renovation work.

Some damaged parts of the temple

Some damaged parts of the temple

The Shiva temple also have relief panels like Borobudur, but this time the panels illustrate the story of the Ramayana, which incidentally is being played almost every night at the nearby amphitheater.

Ramayana Ballet amphitheater

View of the Ramayana Ballet amphitheater from the Shiva temple

In the center of the temple was a statue of Shiva. I couldn’t help but notice that there was only one statue of the main deity here in Prambanan as opposed to the abundance of Buddha statues in Borobudur.

Shiva, the Destroyer

Shiva, the Destroyer

We also visited the smaller but similar-looking buildings on either side of the Shiva temple. These two structures are dedicated to Brahma (Creator) and Vishnu (Keeper), and each deity had their statues in each temple.

Temple for Brahma

Temple for Brahma

Vishnu, the Keeper

Statue of Vishnu, the Keeper

There were three even smaller buildings in front of the gods’ temples. The smaller structures house the favored vehicle of each deity: bull (Nandi) for Shiva, swan (Angsa) for Brahma, and the kite (Garuda) for Vishnu.

Temple for Garuda

Temple for Garuda, Vishnu’s bird

The Bull

Nandi, the bull of Shiva

Outside of the six major structures, a lot of the minor temples are now mostly in ruins.f2200832

Nevertheless, what remains of the Prambanan temple complex is still worth a visit. I left Prambanan wishing that it can survive future earthquakes and volcanic eruptions so more people can appreciate its beauty.f2207296

 

I find it very interesting that Borobudur and Prambanan were built almost at the same time and they share similar stories and fate, even though they were built for different religions. It is also fascinating that two major temples of Buddhism and Hinduism are located relatively close to each other, given that Indonesia’s current dominant religion is Islam. The Borobudur and Prambanan temples are truly a testament to the rich heritage of Indonesia.

Walking on history lane: Our trip to the Great Wall of China

When I was a kid, I’ve dreamed of standing on the “only man-made structure visible from space” (that was what the books said, anyway). Even though this claim has long been proven to have no truth to it, I was still glad to visit (and walk on) one of history’s most famous structures: the Great Wall.

Last winter found us in China, because it’s the cheapest flight deal we could find on the internet. Nobody else was crazy enough to escape Japanese winter by visiting below-freezing Beijing. This worked to our advantage in the end, because there were no crowds!

Surprisingly not crowded!

The Great Wall during our visit: Surprisingly not crowded!

M and I stayed in Beijing Downtown Backpackers Hostel, where we also booked the Great Wall tour. After extensive googling a few weeks prior, I decided they offered the best deal and least worry out of all the deals offered. Our original plan was to hike the 6-km unspoilt portions of the Great Wall, but we backed down the night before when the weather forecast reported below freezing temperatures (-6 degrees Celsius) and  a chance of rain. We were already reeling from the cold in Beijing and figured we wouldn’t fare better in the mountains, so we chose the “fun” option, which was to visit the Mutianyu portion of the wall. The tour package cost us 280 RMB including transportation, entrance fees, and lunch.

Some information on Mutianyu (in case you care to read about it)

Some information on Mutianyu (in case you care to read about it)

At 8:30 the next morning, we departed for Mutianyu. Our guide Lulu gave a brief explanation on the origin and history of the Great Wall during the trip. We arrived at Mutianyu after two hours, and Lulu told us to be back by 1 pm for lunch.

Our guide explaining the plan

Our guide explaining the plan for that day on the map by the entrance

Going up the ticket booth, there were shops on both sides of the path selling an assortment of souvenirs.IMG_9254 We did not buy anything because there were no price tags on the items and I don’t think I can out-haggle the Chinese merchants.

After Lulu handed out our tickets, we entered and immediately started climbing the concrete stairs.

It's a long way up!

It’s a long way up!

There was an option to go up by cableway and go down by toboggan (80 RMB for both), but we preferred to climb.

Cableway and toboggan

Cableway and toboggan

It took us about 15 minutes of stair-climbing before we reached the wall, and boy was it worth the whole trip!IMG_9303

Seeing the length of the wall on either side was overwhelming. I can only imagine the amount of effort, time, and people’s lives that were sacrificed in order to build just that one section of the Wall. Building 6,000 kilometers of that structure to protect historical China’s northern border is just beyond my imagination.IMG_9277

The view of the mountains on either side is also something else entirely. It must be super exciting to study the geology of the area (I saw semi-metamorphosed granite boulders on the way up).

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View of the mountains from the Wall

One thing I realized was that a great part of the Wall was made of stairs. When I imagined it from photos, I thought it was all road-like structures where chariots (or whatever transportation they used back then) could be used. Apparently, a large chunk of the wall is made up of steep stairs.

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The introductory signs said Mutianyu has one of the steepest portions of the Wall, so I guess that’s the reason for all the stairs. Some of the tourists were too afraid to go down the stairs without using their butts, which made for a lot of teasing among their friends. I also had to hold on to the railings going down, I didn’t trust my steps on those steep stairs.

Also interesting were the fortresses. It seemed like it would be fun to play tag or hide-and-seek in them with the small passageways, stairs, and windows.

Inside one of the fortresses

Inside one of the fortresses

I’d be too scared to run around though, it’s a long fall from the windows. The view from the fortress was also very nice, both looking up and staring down!

Bright blue sky (still cold, though)

Bright blue sky (still very cold, though)

View from the window

View from the window

One thing to watch out for though are the vendors. Some will just leave you alone, but others are strategically located to bar your passage.

Vendors in the Great Wall

Vendors in the Great Wall

We felt cheated when a merchant in soldier’s uniform wouldn’t let us pass and pressured us into buying his overpriced snacks. We bought a Snickers bar (it seemed to be the cheapest) so he would leave us alone. Classic tourist trap! He was smart wearing that soldier uniform, I give him that.

We tried to walk as much of the wall as we can, but we only covered one-third of the Mutianyu Great Wall, about 8 fortresses out of 22. We eventually felt cold and hungry after 12:30 pm, so we made our way down to the restaurant for the free lunch.

Burp!

Burp! (In my hunger I forgot to take photos before eating)

The food was tasty and they served generous helpings of rice, but the catch was that there were no free drinks (even house water, maybe the water source was limited or not safe?). Good thing we brought our own water as the prices were unsurprisingly inflated. After lunch (about 2pm), we left the Mutianyu Great Wall to go back to Beijing.

Bonus: Olympic Bird’s Nest Stadium

The tour included a bonus stop at the Olympic Stadium. There was no entry fee and we just had to submit to the security inspection to enter. If there were few people on the Great Wall, there were hardly anyone outside the Bird’s Nest. There were just one family who were on skiing chairs(?) enjoying the frozen lake and one other group of foreign tourists walking around the Bird’s Nest. The rest were vendors on their stalls.

Skiing on chairs? It's the first time I've seen anything like it.

Skiing on chairs? It’s the first time I’ve seen anything like it.

There was a frozen lake by the entrance, and we walked on it, jumped on it, and took photos atop it.

It was my first time to stand on a frozen lake!

It was my first time to stand on a frozen lake!

We were only able to see the exterior of it since we didn’t have much time, but it was really an architectural marvel from the outside. I can only wonder what it looks like on the inside (and if they were able to preserve its interior grandeur).

The Olympic Stadium

The Olympic Stadium

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The details of the exterior

After gawking at the steel exterior, we made our way to the nearby Water Cube with its blue “bubble” outer wall. I personally think the Water Cube is way cooler, it looks more alive to me somehow (maybe because of the color? or the “bubbles”?).

The Water Cube

The Water Cube

The Cube had a lot more people outside. There were locals walking around, selling souvenirs, painting, and flying (selling?) kites.IMG_9353 After evading a few of the vendors convincing us to buy this and that, we headed back to our vehicle and went back to the hostel.

At the end of the day, it felt good to finally visit an iconic structure that I only see in history textbooks as a child. I felt really privileged to finally visit the Great Wall, to stand on it and gaze at the extensive structure that snakes onto the Chinese mountains farther than my eyes could reach, and to realize how many more marvels mankind is capable of building (and destroying).IMG_9316

Bath in summer: day trip to the World Heritage city

Last summer, I spent two weeks in Bristol for a UK-Japan researcher workshop (RENKEI, which I have to write about soon!) and on our free weekend I visited the nearby city of Bath. The city is a World Heritage Site most famous for its… you guessed it, baths!

World Heritage City

World Heritage City

Let me elaborate. The city has a natural hot spring, which became historically important when it was established as a public bath during the Roman occupation of Britain in the first century.

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“In area, in grandeur, in completeness, the baths of Aquae Sulis were unequaled”

Today, Bath is a famous tourist destination not only for the Roman Baths, but for a number of other sights and activities as well.

From Bristol to Bath is an easy 10 minutes by train, so I did not encounter any transportation problems. The city was not so large and easily walkable.

Walkable city, but how I wish I had a bike that day... The weather was perfect for it!

Walkable city, but how I wish I had a bike that day… The weather was perfect for it!

The first site I gravitated towards was the Roman Baths, but not before I took notice of the nearby majestic Bath Abbey.

Bath Abbey

Bath Abbey

A brush with history at the Roman Baths

The Roman Baths is the main attraction of the city, so there was no way I was going to miss it; never mind the 13.50 GBP entrance fee and the long line of tourists.

The line to enter the Roman Baths

The line to enter the Roman Baths

I borrowed an audio guide at the entrance and proceeded to follow the arrows pointing me to the different sites. The first stop was the terrace, which provided a view of the Great Bath from the second level.

View from the terrace

View from the terrace

There were statues in the terrace that apparently depicts Roman governors and emperors with connections to Britain.07

After that, the arrows led me indoors into a museum depicting the Roman way of life in Aquae Sulis (lit. the waters of the goddess Sulis Minerva), the old name of Bath. An important part of the exhibit was the temple pediment, supposedly taken from the old temple dedicated to Minerva.

Remains of the temple pediment, with a projected image of what it used to look like

Remains of the temple pediment, with a projected image of what it used to look like

Animated video reconstruction of the old temple

Animated video reconstruction of the old temple

Another part of the Roman Baths showcased the preserved ruins of the temple altar, the courtyard, and even the head of the Minerva statue. It felt a little surreal walking along the temple ruins that belonged to the first century.

The remains of the temple

The remains of the temple

Another highlight of the complex is the sacred spring. The site is where hot water bubbles to the surface, which they thought was miraculous in Roman times (it’s actually a geothermal manifestation… alright, I’ll stop the geology lecture here).

Bubbles!

Bubbles!

Many items were “offered” to the sacred spring, and some of them are exhibited in the complex. Most common are the coins and gemstones, but most interesting are the rolled up lead sheets with curses written on them wishing for bad luck upon their enemies (is this the same everywhere? Because this sounds like the Filipino kulam to me).

Offerings to the sacred spring

Offerings to the sacred spring

After the hot spring area, I finally reached the Great Bath, which is the open air swimming bath that I have been seeing from the start of the tour.

The Great Bath

The Great Bath

There were costumed characters playing the role of a Roman official and a Roman lady.

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The costumed lady asked me to smell some of her bath perfumes, so I sat by the pool to check out her basket of bath goodies.

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The area around the Great Bath pool had some of the original structures exhibited, like the original roof spine and floor from the Roman times. It was pretty cool that they got to keep some of the old building parts.

Different layers of the floor (like rock layers! hihi)

Different layers of the floor (like rock layers! hihi)

At one end of the Great Bath, there is a circular pool asking for “offerings”. The money you throw in would be collected after a year(?) and used for preserving the Roman Baths archeological collection.

Pool for donations to preserve the Roman Baths

Pool for donations to preserve the Roman Baths

Before exiting the Roman Baths complex, there was a drinking faucet that offers a taste of Bath’s spring waters. The waters are believed to have healing properties by ancient people.

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I got a glassful, but I only finished a quarter of it as it tasted weird. It was slightly salty and feels alkaline; until now I could still remember the taste in my mouth so I guess it’s quite remarkable (I’m not sure if in a good way).

Getting my nerd on at the Jane Austen Centre

After the tour of the Roman Baths, I met up with my RENKEI friends for lunch at a restaurant in one of the side streets of Bath. After lunch, I left them to explore the Roman Baths while I explore the next interesting Bath attraction for me: The Jane Austen Centre. The centre is a permanent exhibition located in the same street where she lived and features Jane Austen’s time in Bath.

Walking up the street, I knew I was in the right place when I was greeted by a bearded man in a top hat and coat from the 19th century.23 Personally, I was a little bit concerned that he was feeling too hot, as it was the peak of summer and he was sweating in his coat. Anyway, I just left him outside and I entered the house. It was really just an old (>250 years old!) house that they transformed into an exhibit.

The >250 years old staircase

The >250 years old staircase

I took a deep breath of acceptance before reluctantly handing out 8 pounds for the entry fee and the guide pamphlet (it was expensive by my standards!).

Jane Austen

Jane Austen

In the end though, what matters is I enjoyed the short lecture, the guided tour, and dressing up Regency style!

Tea set and free cookies at the exhibit

Tea set and free cookies at the exhibit

Flirting, Regency style! "A Fan... expresses the caprices of the heart, nay even sometimes speaks"

Flirting, Regency style! “A Fan… expresses the caprices of the heart, nay even sometimes speaks”

This may be the only time I get to wear a bonnet.

This may be the only time I get to wear a bonnet.

Afterwards, I walked around Bath with the map from the Jane Austen Centre as my guide.Bath-004 I visited several lovely and quiet gardens, but I equally enjoyed the lively streets in the city center where buskers and small shops abound.Bath

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Bath is a quaint little city that is perfect for a day trip, and I especially enjoyed exploring it on that bright and sunny summer day.