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Day 13: Bagan, Day 1

Since I decided to go to Burma, Bagan was absolutely the most important stop on my plan. Having seen the surreal pictures of thousands of pagodas in the mist, I absolutely had to see this for myself. Getting a bit ahead of myself here, I was not disappointed; it was a complete overdose of temples and pagodas, but it was an incredible learning experience, considering they were all different. I had an excellent guide to take us around, as well – I’d be happy to recommend him if you ever go.

In my descriptions, I will heavily rely on other sourced content, as I cannot pretend to be any sort of an expert on Burmese Buddhism (and there are over 2,200 pagodas and temples in Bagan, about a thousand of which I feel we have visited over the three days). Some of the pictures on these sourced sites are far better than mine, too, but oh well.

Our first visit was to the Dhammayazika Pagoda. Its structure has pentagonal terraces instead of the more typical square base of normal Bagan pagodas. On each side of the pagoda, there is a small temple housing an image of Buddha. The usual practice in most temples was to have four images facing the cardinal points, representing the four Buddhas of the present world cycle who have already attained Enlightenment. In this pagoda, though, the fifth temple is placed with a “future” image of the Buddha. It was under renovation like several others we have seen, which was unfortunate as far as our touristic experience goes, but great for the pagodas, as a number of them have been ignored for far too long. _MG_3674

This was literally our first exposure to Bagan pagodas, so one thing that immediately strikes you is just how old they are. Look at the stones. This particular pagoda was built in 1198, which isn’t quite 1,000 years ago, but it is, relatively speaking, not that far off.

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Seeing as Bagan is much more rural, there are also a lot more people just … living. Not in a hurry to get anywhere, or whatever, which is more of an attribute of larger cities.

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En route to our next destination, we stopped by a local craftsman’s shop, which specialised in silverware, peanuts and weaving. Yeah, just roll with me on this one. One does what one can in Burma.

The men craft silverware…

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The women and children shell peanuts. Incidentally, the stains on the girl’s cheeks are an interesting root-based tree extract that cools the body somewhat, and is great when the temperature is in the high 30s centigrade… which is like, always in this season.

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A cloth weaver:

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Mmmm… peanuts.

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Engine repair (in all honesty, I’m jealous of how organised they are – most of my repairs see car parts in one pile, and I typically end up with spares when I reassemble…):

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Our next stop was the beautiful, white, Lemyethna Temple. Built in 1223, it features a number of murals of Buddha, some of which are even reasonably preserved.

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Surrounding area suffers from abandonment.

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Our guide, patiently waiting for us to finish the walkaround.

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Next stop was Tayok Pye temple. Built around 1260, the key feature of this temple is the stucco decoration on the façade, a very rare, detailed decoration that has survived the test of time.

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Look at the detail of that stucco! This is 900 years old!

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Another shot of the temple, from further away.

 

 

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Our next stop was Shwezigon Pagoda. One of the most important pagodas in Bagan, built around 1090, it is a counterpart of the Shwedagon pagoda in Yangon proper. It takes up a large part of the land, and after parking, you have to walk a pretty long corridor to even get to the entry gate.

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In this corridor, many people live.

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And many try to sell you stuff. While in Yangon we were never accosted by salesfolk selling local wares, Bagan, probably owing to higher general poverty, saw many try to sell things – some more aggressive than others. Our tour guide warned us about this particular corridor – they give gifts that they claim are a gesture of good faith, and when you accept it, they work on selling stuff to you, progressively more aggressively.

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Since we were quite well-informed, we marched onwards through another marble-floored tunnel. All barefoot, of course.

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Eventually, we entered the main courtyard, where we faced the Shwezigen Pagoda in all its gilted majesty.

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The courtyard was full of other mini-temples and pagodas, some of which reminded us of the other, less well-maintained ones that we saw on our earlier visits.

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This was an interesting shot of how even the military has to go barefoot in sacred places. Also, it showcases another interesting innovation: marble tiles. In 37 degree weather in direct sunlight, that is literally the only safe place to walk on. I speak from experience, as a learned man.

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Of course, this does not apply to wise old men who have seen much and experienced yet more.

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… or to kids, who (internationally!) don’t seem to care about cold, heat, or whatever, really.

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More decorative constructions on the grounds:

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After the temple, we went to a restaurant called Queen (nice and specific).

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There, we had typical Burmese curry, which I have come to like a lot.

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Myanmar has a number of very wide roads with very little traffic. I, unfortunately, didn’t get a chance to visit Naypyidaw (the capital), so I cannot verify Top Gear‘s claim of 7-lane highways that are empty, but I did come across some roads which were quite empty.

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Our next stop was That Byin Nyu Temple - the tallest structure in Bagan. It was built in 1144, and can be seen from just about anywhere in Bagan. It is interesting to see how much work was put into ensuring the structural integrity of this temple – the arches are curved, and a lot of detail was paid to make sure it didn’t topple over as time went on. Something was done right, considering Bagan has registered over 400 (!) earthquakes between 1904 and 1975 – at which point an earthquake of a magnitude of about 7.5 severely damaged a number of buildings – but many stood, in an impressive feat of engineering.

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Relatively common method of transport.

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Omnipresent LCD screens above Buddha statues. Puzzling.

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The temple grounds are walled off by gratings from the outside… so local painters and artisans sit on the outside to try to sell goods to tourists. This one seemed rather good at what he did, so we ended up buying some of his work.

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Next stop was Shwe Sandaw Pagoda. It was built in 1057, and it pretty much stayed the same until 1957. When our tour guide said it had an excellent view, I wasn’t entirely certain of what sort of work was required to actually get that view… and oh boy. I was not ready for this.

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Yeah … those steps are like half a metre high, and that varies depending on the stones. There are railings… which aren’t a lot of help.

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Yeah, those random people look like they’re struggling. And I had a toddler with me. But nothing would deter me! I was in Burma, and all those people made it up there, so I was in no way any worse. So up I went.

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Yeah, it was high. And the funniest thing was watching my 3-year-old climb steps which were basically his height – and let me tell you, those railings weren’t very useful. On the way down, I carried him because I wasn’t convinced he’d make it… until I saw a local 6-year-old, or so, holding an iPad with both hands and running up the stairs while filming the ascent. (!)

The view was worth the climb, though.

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Temples, temples everywhere… _MG_3818

I wasn’t the only one appreciating the sights.

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Downstairs was a weird amalgamation of Japanese buses which, besides the Burmese license plates, were fully original, including branding like “Hotoku Kanko” or “Kinki Tourism” or other locations in Japan. It looked like a completely normal parking lot of a Japanese touristy location.

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We then went to watch sunset over the Irrawaddy river near the Bu Paya (Bu Pagoda). Built around the third century (!), it unfortunately toppled over during the 1975 earthquake and was completely rebuilt.

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Sunset over Irrawaddy river, Bagan, Myanmar (Burma).

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After this, we headed back to the hotel, as much was to be seen the next day.

 

 

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Another Japan trip

It occurred to me that if I buffer my posts until I’m done posting the Burma stuff, I’ll be so swamped with subsequent travel that I’ll never get the posts done. So I’m going to intersperse the Burma trip with more “current” news.

So I had to make an unscheduled work trip to Japan. It was set basically on Wednesday, and I’ve just landed. So here are a few notes from the trip so far (though to be fair, I’m not likely to have as many “touristy” notes since I’m here for work – but food blogging shall happen!). I’d make some kind of a quip about “feeling like I’ve not been here for a while”, but that would probably be ill-received.

My flight routing was through Vancouver on to Tokyo. Sadly, the Air Canada 787/Dreamliner does not fly yet, so I couldn’t fly to the much more convenient Haneda airport. I also couldn’t fly the direct Toronto-Narita route because there were 3 seats left in business, and my upgrade chances were so low I was willing to route differently. To be fair, it’s also a bit more pleasant to break the journey into slightly shorter flights (YVR-NRT is a shade under 10 hours, unlike YYZ-NRT, which is almost 12).

About the flight. In frequent flyer circles, if I commended Air Canada, their service, their business class, or anything remotely to do with a North American airline, I’d get panned and ridiculed. The mantra is that it’s a North American airline and by definition, it can’t be good.

The really weird thing is, despite me trying to avoid it as much as I possibly can on most of my holiday trips, AC business literally leaves nothing but good memories for me, every time I fly. Maybe it’s because I have zero expectations so I don’t have to deal with the clusterf. that SQ First was (that report is yet to come, as part of my Burma trip). Maybe it’s the … actually, I don’t know what else. I guess I’ll go with the “diminished expectations”. But seriously. With few exceptions, I’ve had nothing but good experiences with AC business. They are certainly not pretentious. They are hardly ever stunning looking. Yet maybe… with age comes skill and experience. Small example: on my flight today, my glass got refilled without me asking. Normal on an Asian airline; not so normal on a North American one. But wait! More than that, it got refilled without the guy *looking*. he passed by and I tried to catch his eye, but didn’t succeed … and then a refill came. I’m VERY impressed. The flight also had *three* varieties of red and two varieties of white, of which one a pretty decent Californian. You’d be lucky to find two of each on most flights.

In a way, AC service is very Canadian. Often quite informal and highly “personal”, but pleasant. I asked for Japanese newspapers on the flight. the stewardess’s reaction: “Wow! I’m impressed! Ok I’ll give you ALL the ones we have onboard, but I expect results.” And she brought me *three* papers (Yomiuri, Asahi and an all-sports paper of some kind, which was sorta weird). Not sure what sort of results she was expecting, but that … friendliness is what sets AC apart, I think. UA is probably the closest thing but something is off – and somehow it just isn’t quite like this. And obviously the Asian airlines are far too stuck up to be anywhere near like this.

First flight of the day – breakfast (on the domestic segment):

 

I went to check out the Maple Leaf Lounge in Vancouver, since I haven’t been to the international side of it in quite some time. Summary: about the same as the other MLLs; in fact, worse in some ways, as it only has Molson Canadian beer (which wasn’t working anyway, since it was before 11. Who woulda thunk).

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I realised I had some  time remaining, so I went over to the Plaza Premium lounge, since it was also closer to my departure gate. Turns out it’s a very impressive lounge, and I should have gone here in the first place. Doh. Even has hot sandwiches they can grill for you, and local beer on tap (it was just past 11am :p ).

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Anyway, on to the flight. The food wasn’t anything particularly special, but it was decent. Of course, the funny thing about AC is that it feels kind of rickety at times. On neither of my two flights today was the satellite map working:

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(and yet, unlike on SQ, where I expect nothing but perfection, here, I just closed the screen and resigned to not knowing where I am).

Another thing that I must commend AC on, though, are the landings. I have consistently experienced excellent landings with AC pilots. Again, it may be only my experience, but the moment the wheels touch the ground has virtually always been impressive.

Arriving to Narita reminded me why I sort of don’t like this airport, though. The walk from the plane to the exit is so long that you basically become hungry by the time you’re at the exit. That said, there was zero wait at immigration, my “priority” bag actually came out first (unlike in Montreal, where, I feel, all luggage with priority tags comes <em>last</em>), and I made it to the ticket machine and got on the Narita Express that departed at 14:44 (and the plane opened doors at about 14:25). So within 19 minutes I was not only out, but in a train and moving towards the city. I suppose, in a way, I shouldn’t complain too much. What I was reminded of is that I am in Japan: the “express” train map is in English, since that’s what foreigners take, but the local train map is only in Japanese, because why would a foreigner go to a local station… right?

The Narita Express represents a variety of airport express trains in Japan that are extremely convenient, and therefore prohibitively expensive. There are a number of ways to get from Narita to downtown, but if one wants to get there <em>soon</em>, then there are rather few. Taxi will easily break the $200 mark, and local trains will take hours. The Express is a compromise at about 45 minutes and $35, which I find excessive for a train, but considering how far the damn airport is, a necessary evil. I can’t wait for Haneda flights to start.

Since the difference between a green car (“first class”) and a “regular” one was only $10, I figured, I’m blowing money on the train already, why the hell not try the difference. Realistically though, neither the Shinkansen nor this express are really worth spending money on for the deluxe seat, since the regular ones have so much legroom that you can exit without bothering the neighbour. This one is freshly renovated and smells of leather, though. And has an overpriced menu for food.

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The upside is there are almost no people in this car, and unlikely to be. So maybe it *is* worth it (considering it’s 4,700 yen instead of 3,400). The seat recline is excellent, too. Shockingly, though, WiFi wasn’t working on the train. Something not working in Japan? I am actually surprised.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Interlude: flight from Yangon to Bagan

After a wildly busy day in Yangon, I was fully expecting a no less busy day in Bagan, considering that beyond sightseeing, it actually contained, you know, flying there. For some obscure reason, all domestic flights from Yangon leave between 6:00am and 6:45am. (and there are like, 6 of them). And all domestic flights come back around 5-6pm. One would think that, you know, considering tourists are likely to have flown in late the previous day, and considering the (lack of?) volume of domestic flights, it wouldn’t make a difference whether they left at 6:30 or, say, a more humane 9am. But no. Everyone, out, early. Fortunately, everyone is used to, so the hotel prepared breakfast boxes for us, which was really cool. We had breakfast included, sure, but typically kitchens open at 6:30-10:00 or so, and if you don’t fit in those hours, well, too bad. So it was a nice gesture of them to actually prepare takeaways for us:

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Nothing extravagant, but sandwiches, muffins and juice. Works for me.

Off to the airport we went. Of course, as usual, we were delayed getting out of the hotel, so our driver looked a little bit stressed, and he drove fast. He had a weird Toyota Crown converted to run on propane gas (dual-fuel, in fact: he had a normal gas tank, and a propane gas tank, and he could switch with the flick of a button, which is kind of cool), and he flogged that thing as fast as it would go. Peculiarly, Yangon roads are actually fairly wide, and when there is little traffic (which is only around 5am), stuff happens pretty fast. Next thing you know, we were at the airport. I was finally about to get what I came to Myanmar for in the first place… a dose of “local” air travel.

The domestic airport terminal was very different from the international one. Excess baggage had to be weighed:

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Checkin counters had orderly lines:

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We found our checkin counter:

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Remember our paper tickets? We showed them, and got boarding passes that in no way detracted from the experience. E-boarding passes? Right.

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Pop quiz: what’s missing from the BP? No, not the date.

We went through security, where the haphasardness continued. I was asked to throw away all water. I asked if the juices we received from the hotel were fine, and was told that they will be perfectly okay. We went through security, not one question asked, and when I went to the convenience store inside the “secure” area, I couldn’t find a single bottle of water – but there was plenty of juices for sale. This left me completely baffled, so I went to sit in the departure “lounge”.

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Watching TV, I realised not only first-world-nations were subject to Windows problems.

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The controlled chaos continued when boarding was announced. We were shuffled into these buses:

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Went on to drive to the planes, which were seemingly completely randomly parked on the apron:

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The bus driver didn’t even bother to close the doors:

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The actual airport terminal that we left from was actually pretty nice, when seen in retrospect:

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Reasonably orderly boarding onto our ATR-72, in service as of October 1995, where it was in the hands of a now-defunct airline for a year, went on to serve Alitalia for ten years, before landing in Yangon.

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Interior shot of the plane:

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The age of the plane showed in the windows. That is, in the fact that I couldn’t really see anything through them.

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A tiny bit more was visible on arrival to Bagan.

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Bagan airport main (well, only) terminal building:

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Baggage transport:

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Passenger side of the airport terminal:

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Now I was getting somewhere. With the Lexuses and GTRs in Yangon, I was almost becoming disappointed with Burma – after all, I didn’t come there for car spotting. I came for the rustic, rural landscapes…. and finally, in Bagan, I got them.

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Our hotel was a nondescript building on the outskirts of the city. I knew it was well-rated, but the strange white wall and the tropical corridor into the checkin area didn’t look all that promising…

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… until we checked in and went into the main area, at which point I was a little bit floored.

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There was a completely stunning swimming pool, too:

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Which was, apparently, so clean that it was tested for drinkability. Or something.

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The corridor to our room:

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… and our room itself.

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The very safe-looking safe deposit box.

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A pretty unique rain shower, which is more like “waterfall shower”.

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When you travel through this many countries on one trip, you end up with a stash of money from a whole bunch of places:

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Finally, we went to grab some breakfast. It wasn’t nearly as extravagant at Traders, but it once again completely surprised me by how good it was – and their “fresh juices”, were, unlike in hipster North American restaurants, actually fresh. I was very, very impressed with Burmese food to date.

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After this, we took a break, and readied ourselves for a full day of Bagan sightseeing (since it was only 8:30am at this point).

More in the next post!

 

 

 

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Day 12: A day in Yangon, Burma

When looking for hotels in Yangon, I went through a number of threads and reviews, since I haven’t been anywhere close to the city, and there were no major chains present. I ended up settling on Traders Yangon, which is as close to a chain as possible (it’s a Shangri-La property – an excellent chain of hotels); there were a few other very good options, such as the Governor’s Residence, but unfortunately, the glory days of $100 5-star hotels in Yangon are far, far gone, and the Governor’s Residence was pricing out in the $400 range for the days I needed it for, which was completely unreasonable. I managed to find a sort-of a mistake deal on the Traders (with breakfast, too!), so I went with them instead – plus, having participated in the Shangri-La 3rd anniversary game, I had some points to blow on dinners.

Seeing as Traders is the “budget” version of Shangri-La, I was prepared for a somewhat scrungy 3-star hotel. I wasn’t quite prepared for what we came to, though.

Here goes the photographic diarrhoea that I had previously promised. On the off chance it makes you feel any better, I have a total of just under 4,000 pictures from this trip; so what you are seeing here is a very carefully curated subset.

Building from the outside:

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Metal detectors at the entrance:

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Entrance:

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Lobby (if this is a 3-star lobby… I will eat my hat):

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Completely anonymous, Western-looking corridor:

 

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Elevators:

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Room:

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Seriously… absent any reality check, none of this looks remotely like anything. That is to say, this hotel (except maybe the metal detector) could be anywhere in the West, or East, or South for that matter. It was extremely upscale, very clean, with spectacular service, and just overall… NICE.

The view from the room, though, reminded where this was:

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We headed out to breakfast. Another surprise awaited us here. I’m used to the pathetic breakfasts that hotels tend to usually have – and if not “continental” (which means three fruits, a piece of bread, some juice and a whack on the head) then a “full” one, which replaces the last item on the previous menu with a piece of bacon that can be used as an assault weapon due to its stiffness. Overall, I have rarely had good breakfast experiences (notable exceptions: InterContinental Park Lane and Fairmont Chateau Laurier). Well… add Traders Yangon to this list. I was absolutely floored at the breadth of selection, and the taste – things tasted well (I don’t know why that surprises me, but in today’s world of saving a penny on everything, it just does).

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There was a lot of choice. Quite amazing. Even catered to vegetarians, halal, and non-halal eaters. And so began my adventure with Myanmar’s food (I’m fully cognizant that the above is hardly “Myanmar food”, but I lump it together with a more general “food that I ate in Myanmar” rather than an expression of ethnic belonging).

We ate, and headed out, as our driver was waiting. The tour of Yangon began. Of course, our first experience was the heat: though we weren’t crazy enough to go to Yangon in May, which is the hottest season of the year, we weren’t too far off with our trip.

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I should preface this by saying that just prior to arrival, I discovered that Top Gear did a Myanmar special – so I decided to educate myself on visual imagery of Myanmar by watching three old men drive around in trucks and look like fools. It’s hardly the appropriate cultural education one requires prior to landing in a country, but it was mildly appropriate in its levity. Fast-forwarding to the present, I am happy to report that a lot of the craziness that was shown in the Top Gear special was actually not entirely true, but it was still an amusing episode.

Our first stop was the Botataung Pagoda (“the 1,000 military officers’ pagoda”). Sadly lost in World War II, it was completely rebuilt right after independence, in 1948 onwards. It is a major attraction in Yangon, and was my first reality check: no shoes anywhere in sacred places. I’m used to religious places requiring visitors to go shoeless: Japan does this, Abu Dhabi did this, Istanbul did it in and so on. However, most places are inside – in Japan, each temple could require you to remove footwear, but only if you actually go inside – not on the grounds of the temple. This was not the case in Yangon. The entire premises were completely shoeless, inside and outside! Interestingly, while the locals would just leave their shoes on the steps and head right in, foreigners had to be redirected:

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The entrance fee was $3 each, and allowed us to store our shoes in that hut, and get wet towels the purpose of which was unclear… until I realised I could not wear socks inside, when all became clear to me. Ha. Well, I figured, I’m here for the cultural experience, so charge on! We went to the entrance.

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The pagoda was, unfortunately, under renovation, so rather than looking like this… (courtesy of Wikipedia):

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… it looked like this:

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But not to despair. Much stuff was yet to see. For instance, the absolutely fascinating gilted interior maze:

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And the excavated artefacts, which were quite fascinating, but in all fairness, the crazy gratings kind of took away from the experience somewhat.

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Outside, we walked around the perimeter of the pagoda to see the mini-shrines dedicated to each day of the week… except most curiously, Myanmar astrology recognises not seven, but eight days of the week: while there are the normal Monday through Sunday, Wednesday gets split into two: between 18:00 and 23:59 it’s no longer Wednesday, but Rahu’s day, a unique Myanmar creation. Therefore, a pagoda will have not seven, but eight shrines dedicated to weekdays, and each person who visits would go and pray to their particular day’s shrine.

An interesting tangent here is what matters to what cultures. There are certain indelible bits of knowledge that are completely natural to a certain culture, and completely alien to another. In Japan, for instance, it is very weird to not know one’s blood type; relationships are built and broken on people’s blood types, and everyone knows theirs. In Myanmar, when our tour guide took us to visit this first pagoda, when he was explaining the day of the week concept, his first question was, “what day of the week were you born on?” – and I had absolutely no idea. I had to pull out my iPhone and scroll all the way back to my birth year to see. Turned out it was a Friday, for what it’s worth.

This is the view of the Tuesday and a Saturday shrine.

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We then continued down a passage to another section of the pagoda complex.

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Mmm… turtle soup. Egads! I really shouldn’t say that, they are probably sacred.

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In this shrine, people brought wads of bananas. It is said that bringing bananas to this god helps gain success in one’s business (whether the business in question revolves around bananas or not).

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Came across a group of volunteers who were diligently washing the floors of the pagoda complex. I hate to be a party pooper, but spoiler alert: this was not helping.

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On the way out, came across most of the Buddhist history in frescoes à la Michelangelo.

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The ceiling was quite intricate.

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On the pagoda grounds, we came across a number of interesting people. Some who simply sat in the shade of the trees:

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Some who greeted us as we walked by:

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Some who were there to contemplate life in the shade… or just the cool floors:

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Others there because their parents probably told them so:

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Others quite likely because their parents told them so:

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Yet others seemed to actually ponder their life, in spite of age:

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It was absolutely fascinating to see this many young children indoctrinated with respect to their traditions, however. Though not many wore monk robes, all the children that were on the temple grounds would pay some level of respect to the Buddha – whether actually kneeling and making a semblance of a prayer, or just doing a quick bow and running along – but overall, it was very impressive to see children do that. Respect for tradition is a cornerstone of a society’s ability to survive, and I was humbled by the effort the Burmese society makes in this regard. Not all the children were Burmese, of course - though there were relatively few foreign tourists, there were numbers of Thai and other neighbouring countries’ tourists – and even those children behaved similarly. Very impressive.

Another thing we saw on the pagoda grounds was a Red Cross setup for blood donations. Once again, it was moving to see this many people participate in what were obviously less than spectacular conditions (I couldn’t imagine being covered by a blanket when the weather was 37 degrees Celsius, and just the whole thing looked ….. HOT).

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On the way out, we passed by a Buddha shrine with something rather peculiar:

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That’s right: around the Buddha’s head, there was a whole flickering LED setup. I found it really incongruent with the rest of the exhibit, but I later discovered that it seems to be all the rage in Burmese temples, and most of them have this.

We went to our car to drive onwards. Saw this Mazda RX-8:_MG_3323

One thing I was suprised by in Yangon were the cars. There a great number of completely rickety vehicles; especially buses, such as these:

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Also, people drive … in a way I cannot recount. If you’ve been to India, kind of like that. What completely shocked me, though, was just how many nice cars I saw in Yangon. I saw no less than three or four Nissan GT-Rs, an inordinate number of Lexuses (the 460 and the 600h, no less), and so on. Somewhat surprising for a country just coming out of an embargo.

Driving to our next destination, we came across a number of examples of old colonial architecture, in what was most likely their original state, too.

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Thought this looked like a Yangon version of Abbey Road, as well.

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Eventually we came to a pretty strange place: it was a completely perfect park, situated in the centre of the city. Given the general state of Yangon being closer to the above pictures, it was very peculiar to find this perfect park in the middle of the city. Interestingly, it was kept perfect by keeping people out, rather than in – a solid barbed wire setup around the perimeter ensured that (and made our entry into it particularly difficult until we realised there is literally one point of entry on the side with a security gate).

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The perfect park with the happy people in it:

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And the perimeter with not-so-happy protesters around it (protesting about lands that were confiscated from them to build a hyperspace bypass).

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The monument at the People’s Park:

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The High Court building (another great example of colonial architecture):

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Next, we went to a market. Parking is somewhat hard to come by, so we parked in the parking lot of an abandoned hotel, The Grand Mee Ya Hta:

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(love the towering Hitachi building in the background, makes for an interesting contrast).

The market was the Bo Gyoke market, one of the best known in Yangon. Basically, it sold jade, pearls, other jewelry (for prices sometimes exceeding $2,000 for a necklace – and yeah, those are not some devalued dollars, those are legitimate US dollars!), fake bags and the like:

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Came across this Toyota Crown with “JUNCTION PRODU E” (that’s a tuning shop, supposed to be “PRODUCE”, obviously) mods. This one is far, FAR from home (=Japan).

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At this point, seeing as the little one was being extremely patient with all the pagoda visiting and other things that he likely cared very little about, we inquired as to what stroke his fancy, and to my great, great surprise, it was neither pagodas nor Buddha nor parks or markets. It was… trains! Right. That’s got to be a shocker. So we went to the Yangon Central Railway Station! The railway basically remains from the colonial times… and is completely unchanged. Piece of history here.

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Traffic (pedestrian and rail) is about as insane as outside in the city. Just at a slower pace since the trains run more slowly.

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Part of the skills required of a Burmese train operator is to … just know … how not to go certain places.

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When a train arrived, we decided to go around and explore. Those steps look exactly as difficult to get up on (with a toddler) as they were in reality.

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The interior of the train looked like … it was designed to take many people to many places. Comfort wasn’t exactly a design consideration.

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People tend to sell wares to passengers of trains… and they park their stuff really just about anywhere where there is shade, whether logical or not.

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Another shot of the station and an awesome hairdo.

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Who needs to actually stop at the station for passengers to get on and off – right?

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After the thirst for knowledge of the young one was satisfied, we returned to Buddha sightseeing and went to see the Giant Reclining Buddha of Yangon.

We stopped by Aung San Suu Kyi’s house, though, though to be honest, there wasn’t very much to see.

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It’s located right on the lake, though, and the area in general seems to be very nice. But on to the Buddha.

The statue is absolutely breathtaking. “Massive” does not begin to describe the sheer size of it.

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As with a few other famous Buddha statues, an interesting effect can be observed: when watching the statue head on, the face could be said to be slightly smiling, and is generally of a positive demeanour.

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Yet, when watched from the top of the head downwards, the face appears sad, almost crying.

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This optical trickery is recurrent throughout Burmese Buddha imagery - I have never seen it done before, and it definitely creates a different perspective.

In the meantime, an ordainment was in progress.

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After this, we returned to the hotel to take a break, snack, and head onwards. Our final stop for the day was the magnificent, glorious, massive Shwedagon Pagoda, the most sacred Buddhist pagoda for the Burmese. On the way there, we saw a car that looked like it was way too hot…

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… and a car that was being filled way above its capacity (spoiler alert: they all fit and joyfully drove off):

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And yes: that’s Shwedagon Pagoda in the distance.

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The entire complex is quite huge, the pagoda itself is 99 metres tall, and it certainly is one of the most recognizable buildings of the Yangon skyline.

We went to explore the pagoda grounds.

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In a stark reminder that this is, indeed, 2014, we came across free WiFi…

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… and another LED-powered Buddha.

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Incidentally, it was very interesting to see the sheer number of people who had camera-capable phones and were taking pictures of everything. As a matter of fact, I would venture so far as to say that most people didn’t have an actual camera – they were using some kind of a phone to snap pictures with. Also, the vast majority of phones were Android-powered – I saw very, very few iPhones, which is likely indicative of the prohibitive price point that it carries for countries like Burma (and Thailand, since there were a number of Thai tourists).

We came across a number of monks at Shwedagon. We saw grumpy-looking monks…

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… pensive monks …

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… scurrying monks …

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… elder, meditating monks … (incidentally, the reason the shot is angled was because people were standing just off to the right taking selfies with the monk, which I thought was somewhat crass) …

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… young apprentice monks …

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… and in a completely endearing moment, one kid helping another with his monk’s robe.

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Between this and that, night fell, and we started heading out, but not before being treated to a deeply impressive light-up of the Shwedagon.

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After mavelling at this sight for a while, we went downstairs, got into our car, and left.

Remember how I mentioned traffic rules are entirely suggestive, rather than prescriptive, in Yangon? Here’s an example.

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Yep – the taxi was literally going the wrong way on a one-way street just because he needed to get to wherever it was that that one-way was coming from. Sigh.

I’ll sign off with this far-away shot of the Shwedagon Pagoda at night.

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This ended our single day in Yangon. It was a complete overload of information, and an interesting experience. I wasn’t sure what to expect next in Bagan, the city of a thousand pagodas (actually, over 2,200), but I was looking forward to it. The hustle and bustle of Yangon was actually slightly disappointing: I was looking for a more rural, “different” experience, yet it ended up being another capital city. Not that I was surprised, though. In all the research I’ve done prior to structuring my trip, every comment I read said that Yangon is well worth exploring for a day or two, but anything onwards should be elsewhere in Burma, and so that’s exactly what I planned; and I felt in a day, we saw most of what I would have wanted to see in Yangon.

So new adventures are up next… and if the paper ticket on which my flight information is handwritten is any indication, it should be all good fun!

 

 

 

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Interlude: On to Myanmar (Burma)!

So with our trip to Japan wrapped up, it was time for the part of the trip I have been waiting for for a very long time. In fact, before I got my hands on the so-called “RGN fares”, i.e. the first-class tickets from Myanmar to Montreal that happened in September 2012, I didn’t even know I wanted to go to Burma. It is only once this incredible deal came about that I got on the bandwagon, and decided to go. I participated in what was called “round 3″ – because it was the third time airlines ignored the warnings from IATA that the Burmese kyat was about to be devalued by 100 times, and fares departing Burma had to be reindexed. The first two rounds were either to the West Coast, or on non-Star Alliance airlines, so I didn’t bother with them, as I couldn’t earn any mileage that I cared about in one case, and positioning to the West Coast was not exactly exciting for me; but to Montreal? Really now.

So we packed our stuff and headed to the airport. For once, we were early arriving to Kansai Airport – a completely unheard-of feat for me, so I was profoundly looking forward to using the beer machine in the lounge. It’s the coolest beer-pouring device you can ever come across: you put your glass on it and, as is the case with most things in Japan, press a button and wait. It will tilt your (cold) glass, pour beer with no foam, then straighten it, then put the foam in. Completely awesome. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The excitement mounts.

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Our flight was KIX-ICN-RGN, with about 45 minutes in ICN. Not enough to go to the lounge, but hopefully at least enough to have a decent connection without running anywhere. But first, we had to get out of Kansai – and that meant hitting the lounge. There are two choices of lounges in Kansai: the Asuka lounge, which has a beer machine that serves Asahi, and the ANA lounge, which has windows and Kirin beer. Though Asahi is by far my preferred beer, I’m kind of tired of the overall darkness of the Asuka lounge, so I’ve been going with the ANA lounge lately.

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The famed beer machine is on the left. Akin to North American lounges, food offerings are sparse (though in stark contrast, there is SOME food, which is rarely the case with most North American airlines anymore). And alcohol is free, unlike with United (who serves “beer” for $3 these days, and … whatever word applies to Budweiser and Miller Lite, for free). Oh, and you can drink anytime. 9am if you’d like. Ahh, Japan. Cultivating alcoholism nonstop.

A beer and some sushi later, we were off to our flight. Our plane (sadly, an Airbus 319 – the 777 with Quadra Smartium seating flies the 12:00 flight, and we were on the 17:00):

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I had seat 2C, which was the first row of the cabin, for some reason. At least it didn’t feature European “business class” seating – the seats were decent, though unfortunately, they were recliners. It was fine on this flight, but our flight to Yangon was going to be 6 hours on the same plane, and I wasn’t excited to think about it.

Fortunately, the seat next to me was empty, so I was considering moving to it to take pictures of the runway and all the other fun things… but of course, there are always some foreigners to thwart your plans. Behold… the foot woman.

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I tried to get my mind off the foot woman when the food came.

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Foot woman put on socks at this point. A rare case where I am grateful for the cabin temperature to be set to freezing.

The rest of the flight went without incident. Foot woman continued to park her foot on the armrest, but I tried to drink myself into a stupour and watch TV, and eventually I succeeded. Plus, it was just barely two-hour flight.

The transfer in Seoul was quick – we made it in slightly ahead of schedule, so we were just in between the time where you can comfortably go to the lounge, and where you need to run to the gate – so we just walked to the gate. At the gate, I saw something peculiar:

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Hmm… this is not the promised Airbus 320. This is a Boeing 777. Of course, I would be mad to think they would put Quadra Smartium flat beds to Yangon… but hey, the seats can’t be nearly as bad as on the 319 we just flew… right? Right! This was the weirdest seat layout I’ve ever seen: 2-1-2, so a single row in the centre. Not near the windows as they often tend to do. In the centre!

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Food came some time later. As tends to be the case with Asiana, it was pretty good, especially considering this was a random flight into nowhere.

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Eventually, we arrived to Yangon after a completely uneventful flight. It was hot and humid. Interestingly, this was a case where I deeply appreciated being in business class, and therefore literally the first off the plane. This is the customs hall:

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Towards the top left of the picture, you can see the customs gates. At this hour (23:30), there were precisely two employees working: one for Myanmar nationals, of which there were few, and one for international travellers, of which there were many. He didn’t seem to be too enthused to be at work at midnight, so he wasn’t in a spectacular hurry to verify the passports and visas; he also didn’t accept families, so EACH person had to go through the process by themselves. Each visa verification took approximately 2-3 minutes… on a plane with 200 people, you can roughly figure how much time it would take to clear the whole thing. I was overjoyed we were in the first group of three or so people, so we were quickly out.

Our driver was waiting for us, as was the travel agent who had our tickets for our onward journey. Quick background: when I was looking for things to do in Myanmar, I found that Bagan, the city of a thousand temples, was barely an hour’s flight from Yangon. Furthermore, Yangon was not recommended as a long-term tourist destination – the Schwedagon Pagoda was a beautiful sight, but between that and a few other things, there wasn’t much else to see, so time should be spent exploring the rest of the country. Being as we only had five full days (plus two days for travel in/out), I decided Bagan would be the right second destination. Since you cannot purchase internal air tickets online (some attempts by carriers are being made, but they are somewhat haphasard), I had to book through a local travel agency, and they told me they would meet me at the airport to give me the tickets once I pay. I was requested to bring $650 in brand-new, crisp $100 USD bills. I was specifically warned worn bills, crumpled or folded bills will not be accepted. What I didn’t click on was the whole “delivery of tickets” part – I assumed that the only purpose was to actually hand over the money so that my etickets would be issued. I forgot which country I was in. This is what was waiting for me:

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An exercise in complete awesomeness. Paper tickets, handwritten. I felt a throwback to circa early 1990s Eastern Bloc airlines. This couldn’t get any better.

I also exchanged some money, and suddenly felt extremely well off.

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Strangely, the whole thing about crisp, new bills didn’t seem to apply on local money given to us.

At this point, we headed to the hotel. Interesting observation: premium hotels have metal detectors on entry, where every single person has to pass through. Bags are checked, and when we brought in our suitcases, we were asked to remove a knife we had purchased in Japan (!) – it would be kept in separate storage for us until the day we departed. Security is taken very seriously, particularly in spots that foreigners visit. I can’t say I do not appreciate it (although to be fair, being scanned by metal detectors and asked to remove knives from suitcases at midnight does have a certain annoyance factor).

Next up – our day spent in Yangon. I have to moderate the length of the posts, as I came back with just over 6,000 pictures from this trip; so I will do my best to contain the photographic diarrhoea, so I do apologise for the impending length in advance.

 

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Day 11: Kyoto and Sakura (cherry blossoms)

There is probably no more beautiful city than Kyoto. It’s a terribly cheesy statement. An intensely disputable one, as well, considering the multitude of other examples of cities which are serene and beautiful. But if you visit Kyoto, and especially if you live there for a bit, there is something undeniably unique about it, which sets it apart from other cities. I’m getting ahead of myself here, but after our usual pilgrimage to the city, I spent some time trying to understand what is it in Kyoto that I like so much, and I couldn’t quite: in a way, there is nothing specifically different about it (besides a myriad temples). It has the same streets as other Japanese cities. It has the same overhead power lines. It has the same mix of old and new houses (though “old” tends to dominate, and even new ones tend to respectfully follow older design guidelines). It has hordes of tourists, both foreigners and Japanese, especially during important holidays and seasons. But… after everything, there is something so deeply ingrained into its fabric that connects with you and just pulls you in that you can’t vocalise it, but it sticks forever. To complete this sentimental soliloquy, Matsuo Basho, a famous Japanese poet, once wrote, “Kyo nitemo… kyo natsukashiya.” – “Even when in Kyoto, I long for Kyoto”.  

So we went to Kyoto to see cherry blossoms. Clearly, one of the dumbest things you can do in Japan is go to any of the major locations during sakura season. Considering we pretty much only had this day to visit Kyoto, we didn’t have much flexibility in the matter, but should you ever find yourself anywhere in Japan during sakura season, go somewhere other than the major tourist spots. Heed this advice. There are so, so many people that congregate in the key spots, and yet, especially if you have access to a car, there are numbers of beautiful spots that are devoid of people (hey, Tottori turned out to be one of them!).

Before we get to Kyoto, though, here are a few general sakura shots from Kobe. Technically, they aren’t entirely relevant to this subject, but I don’t want to make a separate post just for them, so this is kind of a good place to fit them, seeing as we’re talking about sakura in general.
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But back to our sheep, or more specifically, the story of Kyoto. In this case, I specifically wanted to re-visit 哲学の道, Philosopher’s path. It is one of my favourite places in Kyoto; it goes between two well-known templates, Ginkaku-ji and Nanzen-ji, and is completely lined with cherry blossom trees. It is one of the most enjoyable walks in Kyoto, though due to all the reasoning above, I do tend to prefer it on cold, rainy days.
Before we got there, though, we stopped by a temple where we saw a whole crown of sakura…
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… and a car covered in mattresses (?) (don’t ask. This is Japan).
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We also stopped by my favourite restaurant in Japan, which makes the best tonkatsu in the world – Katsukura, a Kyoto original store. When I used to visit Kobe, I’d make the almost two-hour train ride to Kyoto just to eat tonkatsu there. I then found out that Sannomiya, the central train station in Kobe, had a branch. Now I could get to Sannomiya, have tonkatsu, THEN make the two-hour train ride, and have it again. Life was perfect. But I digress.
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photo 1 photo 2 photo 3
Mmm… favourite food.
Onwards with the journey. We drove to the Philosopher’s Path, and fortunately found parking in the neighbourhood. If you know anything about Japan… or even if you don’t, I challenge you to find the  foreigner’s car in this parking lot:
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Yeah, haters goin’ hate, and I didn’t care. Incidentally, the van to my right (i.e. the last one) spent SO much time parking backwards that he actually hit that wooden electric pole once. I didn’t have any of these problems. Ha.
The Philosopher’s Path was as full of people as I could have imagined it to be. Which still does not detract from its beauty.
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Came across some tulips.
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Buses, buses, buses of tourists! (Remember this picture: I will reference it later, in Burma).
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There’s really no way to take “too many” pictures of sakura. So here’s another one.
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I came across some interesting characters during the walk.
A tour guide who gave in to the fate of being abandoned by his tour group in their picture-taking craze.
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A local resident resigned to the circus around her:
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A man commanding the madness to disappear (but in his madness, he’s facing the wrong way):
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A tourist satisfied with the photographic and cultural intake of the day:
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Another grandiose cherry blossom tree:
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And a view of a nearby street lined up with sakura trees:
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After taking in as much tourist traffic as we could, we headed off to our next stop – Arashiyama. It is a location near Kyoto that has a rustic, old-school appearance – it is a mountain surrounded by parks, restaurants, and extremely expensive ryokans (Japanese-style hotels). It is also another popular tourist destination, though while it is known for its cherry blossoms, it tends to get busier in fall, when a larger percentage of the trees change colours.
Our goal this time was to take an old train that goes up the canyon on the old rail tracks. It used to be a common mode of transport, and featured a steam locomotive, but times have moved on, and it’s now a “romantic voyage” through a few tunnels and along a river. I’ve heard a lot about the views, however, and wanted to check them out.
This is what used to power the route:
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Wild anticipation of the “current” operator:
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… and here it comes!
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View while en route:
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On the way, various views of the mountains and rivers appear and fade away as you take the half-an-hour ride.
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Eventually, you reach Kameoka station, where people shuffle around the cars and take the journey back (or stay there, and … do not much, since there really isn’t a lot to do in Kameoka). Some people take a river boat cruise back, which is basically a glorified canoe, but it was far too cold for that.
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Right as you exit the station, there is a “tunnel” made of sakura trees.
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More pretty river views on the way back:
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And people doing their best to document it on 10 quadrillion cameras:
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Did I mention ultra nice hotels? Look, they even have people with iPads taking pictures of stuff. Oh, how I can’t stand those people.
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So that was about it for the ride. After all was done, we went for another bout of nostalgia – cheesecake at Papa Jon’s (not to be confused with the US pizza chain), which makes, to my taste, one of the best cheesecakes I’ve ever had – anywhere. It doesn’t help that there used to be a branch across the street from my dorm where I lived in Kyoto, but really, honestly, I’m being objective here.
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Sadly, in a complete first for me, I seem to have taken pictures of the restaurant, but not of the cheesecake itself, so I’m going to have to go do some soul-searching there, because I can’t fathom how this may have happened.
Instead, here is a picture of some drunk people standing on a staircase in a shopping mall, singing, in front of a restaurant called “Namaste Taj Mahal”. You can’t invent these things. This is Japan.
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That pretty much wraps up our Japan trip. There were other bits and pieces here and there, but the most important things for me were visiting Kyoto, and visiting a desert with camels in the middle of Japan.
And now… it is time to dive into the place that I’ve never thought I’d go to, yet one that I fought a long battle to get my tickets reinstated on, and one that I finally succeeded to visit.
Myanmar – also known as Burma.
Up next.
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Apologies for slow updates

I must apologise for the general lack of updates, especially considering I pretty much stopped at the most interesting point. Two days after landing home, I had to fly out to Miami for two weeks for work, and two days after returning from Miami, I had to fly to Seattle for a further three. Besides the fact that those two trips will warrant trip reports (Sixt is one of my favourite car rental companies, for what it’s worth), I am flying back today. I would love to begin updating the trip report on landing… but we’re heading to NYC for the weekend on a Delta mistake fare from last December that will see us fly in first class on a CRJ900 (which really means just a slightly wider seat – everything is called “first class” in America – and really, it’s a CRJ900. You couldn’t make that sound “premium” if you gold-plated it and strapped it onto a space shuttle). Finally, in June, on the same mistake fare, we are heading to Honolulu and Kona, which will at least be on domestic 757s on Delta, so if not much more glamorous then at least with slightly better seats.

So yeah … I will catch up with all these trip reports. I promise.

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Day 10: Tottori Part 2 (and the reason why I came to Tottori!)

The next morning, we woke up and breakfast was pretty much ready. A note on Japanese ryokans: they typically have fairly late checkin times, and very early checkout times. Late checkout, as is common in North America (particularly with status), is almost unheard of, and certainly not to the tune of 4pm: I can imagine a hotel allowing noon under extreme duress, but 9-10am is usually much more common. On the one hand, it’s kind of stressful, since you must get up early and get out, but on the positive side, it means you don’t need to worry about wasting half a day slobbering about the hotel: up, and out. In ryokans, where (set) breakfast is made to order specifically for you, you also have a specific time window during which to eat it – unless you like cold breakfast, that is. So we had ours scheduled for 8am, with a checkout time of 10 (and, by my plans, 9am to get out).
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Just before leaving Nishioka-Onsen, though, we wanted to check out a little store which was closed the day prior, and which seemed rather interesting: a “pudding” shop. These are quite popular in Japan, and tend to have devout followings. Many of the major brands (Morozoff, Koenigs-Crosse, and many others) have their own brands; I am also completely cognisant of the fact that likely nobody reading this has the remotest idea of what a “pudding” is in the Japanese context, nor what makes it special, nor why it even matters. But it does.
Japan, and I am making a bold, sweeping statement here, has a tendency to not so much invent, but rather, improve others’ inventions. This is very obvious in pastries, for instance: while traditional Japanese sweets are often considered inedible by foreigners (or, in a softer version, “unique and worth trying once”), their Western-style pastries are pretty much to die for. They did not invent castella, nor did they invent the pudding. They are variations of existing delicacies from their respective countries (castella from Portugal, pudding … from who knows where, but certainly not Japan, and baumkuchen from Germany) that have a tendency to suck, comparatively, in their home locations. The Portuguese have been said to note that the Japanese version of castella is significantly better. All this to say that when you find one of these shops that specialise in some “borrowed and improved” food, it’s probably worth checking out. To add to that – we’re in the woods, so to say, in the middle of nowhere. Does one think I would really pass on the chance to try some local variant of something I like :)
The shop turned out to be run by the son of the adjunct ryokan. As it turns out, the ryokan itself is variably busy – some days completely shut due to lack of tourists, and some days rather busy. So the son, for want of anything better to do with his life, runs a pudding shop. Or helps his parents in the ryokan. I suppose it’s better than him being on the street shooting crystal meth, but it’s still a little bit peculiar – not many mid-20 year olds go home to run a pudding shop. But I digress.
The store was closed on the first day, but I made certain to take a picture to ensure we remember to come back:
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The inside was STRAIGHT out of a Tadanobu Asano movie. You need to look him up if you do not know him – I cannot explain it, but suffice it to say that the ultimate arthouse weird you can imagine – this is what it was. It was such a random, tasteless aggregation of random Western paraphernalia that it had a total, coherent charm of its own – akin to a Malevich or a Kandinsky painting, most of which make absolutely no sense at all, but in most of which all the art hippies tend to find at least three variatons of God.
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We bought our pudding (which actually turned out to be rather expensive – but I will save the suspense, especially considering I forgot to take pictures of it for posterity’s sake, and when we ate it later that evening, it turned out to be amazing - so WELL worth the money and effort spent).
On leaving our ryokan, as is traditional, the owner saw us off.
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And so, we come to our main reason for coming to Tottori. I did not go here the first day because I wanted to allocate sufficient time and respect, of sort, to this place, because I had medium to high expectations from it. Admittedly, I was somewhat concerned: on the one hand, I was about to experience something pretty awesome. On the other hand, there is a tendency in Japan to make a sand dune out of a grain of sand, to twist a metaphor, so they have huge pilgrimages to the most mundane things because either a famous TV celebrity went there, or because it was featured on NHK. It was kind of like that with the Heso Koen last year, where I certainly enjoyed it, but purely from a checkmark point of view – “I’ve been here” – none of my co-travellers were nearly as enthused (at least, not until the evil overlord Magneto’s world-domination laboratory telescope experience at the end). So I had mixed feelings about this place.
What is it?
A sand dune. Yup. In the middle of Japan, right on the shore of the Sea of Japan (or as all the neighbouring nations insist on renaming it despite it having been called this for hundreds of years, “Some Blue Sea” or something like that).
With bated breath, we came to the “entrance” (how do you have an “entrance” to a sand dune?!?)
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I saw sand in the background, which looked promising. I also saw that corporate Japan seems to endorse it (it is completely beyond me why you would go to a sand dune in a 3-piece suit, but then again, see above about there being a tendency to visit any famous place, which also tends to make little worthless places into glorious meccas of pilgrimage):
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Looking good so far…. narrow passage into the dune:
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… and after we pass through this narrow passage, holy SHIT! (hey, if The Economist has no qualms about using the word, why should I, right?). Anyway, that’s exactly the emotion I felt.
This place is VAST. I was literally expecting about a few hundred square meters, maybe a hectare of sand, with lots of picture-snapping tourists, all making a huge deal out of it. I didn’t expect to find what amounts to a small desert. All those dots are people, FAR away in the distance.
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Far, far away, a very steep sand dune had a bunch of people excited to climb it:
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I will spare the myriad pictures I took of the way to the top of the dune itself, but once we climbed onto it, the view was absolutely magical.
In one direction, an impossibly blue sky and an impossibly blue sea…
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… and in the other, sand as far as eyes could see followed by lush greens and snow-covered mountains (!!!).
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A completely awe-inspiring, unlikely combination that I honestly did not expect to find, and was … for lack of a better word, awed by. The most impressive aspect of it was the yellowness of the sand contrasted with the blueness of the water and the sky – it was almost surreal in its beauty. I didn’t even tweak the colours of the above pictures too much. It was, simply put, impossibly blue.
Of course, men in suits were to be found here, too. It looks like his job is to take pictures, based on how businesslike his picture-taking appears to be.
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After spending some time enjoying this unexpected gem of a find, we walked back to the entrance to the dune. Of course, this is a major tourist spot, so what goes in deserts? Ice cream, you say? No, that’s outside the entrance. Inside, there are …… well, obviously.
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I guess it was felt that if the tourists came to this desert and found no camels, they would leave disgruntled, tell their friends, and nobody would ever come again. So they imported a few camels – some from Egypt, some from Mongolia. They seem to be pretty satisfied with their life here.
This was a very interesting experience. First, it solidified my belief that you can find EVERYTHING in Japan. Despite being a small country, I am constantly reminded that you don’t need to go anywhere to experience everything. It’s kind of like a compact version of Russia or the USA – countries that span time zones and latitudes, and where the flora and fauna spans the gamut from oranges and palm trees to stumps of ice and angry birds who are stuck on ice. In Japan, everything is more compact, and whatever isn’t indigenous, is imported for a complete experience. From Tobu World Square, where one can see all the major world monuments and buildings faithfully recreated to scale, to aquariums featuring giant sharks, to the tropical paradise that is Okinawa to the frozen wastelands of Hokkaido (okay, maybe that’s a bit of a stretch, but it IS pretty far north) to, apparently, even the desert of Tottori now – Japan truly does have it all.
The funny thing is that I was just in Dubai, and I really wanted to see the desert – this is why I wanted to drive to Al Amn, but never got a chance to. I am happy I was able to see it, complete with camels, in good old Japan.
Second, I realised that I have a new to-do on my list: I must come back here in winter. Considering Tottori gets a reasonably high amount of snow, the entire desert gets covered by snow. Have you ever seen snow in the desert? Yeah, neither have I.
Third, it was unsettling to walk on the sand for one curious reason (which sort of ties into #2 above). We went barefoot, because what normal person walks a kilometre in the sand in boots – but they were actually renting out rubber boots to walk around, which was somewhat comical. In the middle of summer, apparently, the sand is hot enough to burn – but this was April, so it wasn’t. The unsettling part was this: it was VERY hot (as deserts tend to be), until the wind blew. With the wind, it was actually quite chilly – and as a result, we were dressed in long-sleeve shirts, and light jackets. IN THE DESERT. And barefoot. Indeed, a very, very strange experience.
So that pretty much covered the main reason why we went to Tottori. After this, we had no specific plans but for returning home, so we decided to stop by Kanikkokan – a crab sanctuary and aquarium (and, of course, a crab restaurant nearby).
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A variety of crabs were on display; none were actually sold or edible, which probably reduced the fun factor for many, but in all seriousness, it’s an actual conservation organisation with tons of aquariums and tanks in the back designed to protect endangered crab species.
Some of them looked like you wouldn’t want to meet them alone in a dark alley…
And others looked like … yeah, also like you wouldn’t want to meet them in a dark alley.
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It was time to head back after this. But not before seeing a prime example of Japanese domestic manufacturing – a Mitsuoka Ryoga, a particularly rare and unique brand of cars that has never been exported – and I think it should be:
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… and a ridiculous colour VW van:
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We were treated to a beautiful show of sakura on the local river, which reminded me of Kamogawa in Kyoto – and which tends to be a similar sight in many cities.
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And in parting, a shot of an entrance to a temple where the liveliness of the greenery in the back seemed to contrast with the finality of the stone monument:
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With that, our adventure in Tottori was over, and it was time for new discoveries.
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Day 9: Tottori Part 1

When doing research on my trips, I occasionally stumble upon things that I absolutely must see in places I go to, even if everyone else is unwilling (and especially if everyone else is willing). I am somewhat regretful I didn’t make Al Amn, as Edmunds termed it “The best driving road ever”, even though it’s probably not necessarily true (since the Stelvio Pass likely beats it), but when I found that Tottori prefecture had … what it had, I realised I absolutely must visit. Of course, that will only come in part 2, so in the meantime, I must engage my cherished readers in alluring banter that will make browsing through a thousand pictures easier. I swear I’d have posted it all in one day, but I felt the first day had enough experiences to justify a post by itself, and day 2 will cover the entire reason why I went there. Of course, as many of my trips tend to, ours started by eating. We ate at a roadstop near the Sea of Japan where I expected to be able to find some decent fish.

The handwritten entrance sign was encouraging…

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The interior was somewhat rustic:

 

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The view was pretty nice:

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And the food was decent. Note that I say “decent”. Some years ago, while driving around Chiba, we randomly went to a roadside restaurant that sat on the side of the ocean. We were completely floored by their food – it was fresh, it was original and although the presentation was classic Japanese in its arrangement and beauty, it still felt like a mom-and-pop shop where the owners were cooking – and doing so very well. This wasn’t really the case here. The food was solid, but nothing out of this world; so in the end, it was just another diner at a huge parking lot near a highway (really, in retrospect, that should have been the most obvious giveaway).

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A view of the Tottori beaches:

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After lunch, we began our cultural program. Our first stop were the ruins of Tottori castle, complete with an interesting mansion built on its grounds. As is often the case with many castles, this one was surrounded by water, and by sakura (cherry blossom) trees which were approaching full bloom.

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The main road onto the castle grounds was packed with street vendors selling various local delicacies, none of which I had absolutely any interest in.

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In many cities, the castles have fallen into ruin, and very few cities actually have impressive castles (like Himeji does, for instance). Tottori, unfortunately, is no exception – so no actual castle remains. What I did want to see, though, was the Jinpukaku mansion, though. Built by the 14th lord of the Ikeda clan. Built to (possibly) house future Emperor Taisho during his tour of Japan in the early 20th century, it was a radical departure from the traditional Japanese architecture. We must remember that the Meiji period, which is when the mansion was built, saw an opening of Japan to the West, and an assimilation of various elements of Western culture. The demise of the samurais, the switch to Western clothing and so on all happened during this time, so, I suppose, during such a wildly “progressive” time, it is only natural that rather than looking like this (interestingly, note the Christian church in the background)….

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… the Ikeda mansion looks like this:

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When built, it was the first building in Tottori to be electrified, and it was a beacon of progress. Of course, being an imperial mansion, the grounds are impeccable:

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The interior is rather curious, as well. The most notable feature is that the mansion is done in a distinctly Western style… and yet all the floors are tatami mats. I suppose there were things even the modernists of the day were unwilling to surrender :)

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We climbed the mountain to the ruins of the Ikeda castle to see a pretty vista of the city of Tottori:

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On the way back, we saw a heart-warming sight.

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The little girl was tired, and her brother was carrying her on her back.

We went on to the Children’s Toy Museum, where I experienced something completely shocking. On arrival, we looked at the price board, and something nonsensical was on it. It was 500 yen for admission……. unless you’re a foreigner, in which case it was half price. I have never seen that. Typically, foreigners pay double (or more), but half? The man at the cash asked to see some foreigner ID from me, which I didn’t have, but he gave me the 50% off, anyway; in retrospect, I should have told him that if he thinks I look like a Japanese national, I would gladly pay the full price. :) Apparently, though, because they have received a tremendous amount of support from various countries around the world, they are looking to encourage foreigners to visit, and hence are discounting admission fees for them.

It wasn’t as varied as the Singapore museum, but it was interesting nonetheless:

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On leaving the museum, since it was approaching 5pm, we figured it would be best to head to the hotel (or more specifically, the ryokan – a traditional Japanese hotel). Hotels in Japan tend to generally be a lot more punctual on checkin/checkout times, and even more so with ryokans where breakfast and dinner are included: you really, really need to be on time there. So we went there, but not before I came across a lady walking a really, really old Shiba. I absolutely had to stop and chat, and this deserves a small digression.

Generally, since I spent most of my time in the Osaka area and the Tokyo area, I have experienced exactly two reactions from people when I speak to them in Japanese. One is of utter disbelief (akin to the Russian joke, in which an Armenian comes to a zoo, looks at a giraffe, takes in its size…. shakes his head, says “nope, this can’t possibly exist”, and walks away), followed by a response in broken English. The other response, iconified in my glorious experience in the middle of the night in Ibaraki, a somewhat rural city between Osaka and Kyoto, went something like this. I was lost, and I flagged a passerby to ask where the city hall was, which would have oriented me towards where the train station was. So I asked her, in (and the intent is not to show off my Japanese skills, but to situate the readers) my relatively fluent, and even area-local Japanese, where this city hall was. She looked at me with the look of the Armenian in the Russian joke above, stuttered, “NOTTO-UNDERSTANDO” and ran away. So this has been my experience in Japan, by and large.

Peculiarly, my experience in Tottori was completely the opposite. First, when refuelling at a gas station, the attendant came over to chat. While the car was refuelling, we chatted about this and that, he told me about his sister who has a foreign boyfriend who speaks no Japanese, I commented that that’s kind of lazy of him, that the attendant happily agreed with. Most of my conversations with the inhabitants of Japan tend to be either transactional, where either I, or they, need something, such as in the case of buying things, accessing things, and so on; or singular-emotional, such as “what a beautiful tree! — Yes, ain’t it.”. This one here, though, was refreshingly pointless, where we could have been chatting about the weather, or anything, really.

So when I saw the woman pass by with an extremely elderly Shiba, I felt I had to inquire how old the dog was. Field research, so to say, as the dog looked to be extremely old. I literally walked about a block after I saw her, and I doubled back. Strangely (because, as I describe above, it IS strange in Japan), the woman neither ran away, nor got scared. We just started chatting about her dog, and Shibas in general. Turned out the dog was 15 years old, and until 14 was a healthy, active grandma – until old age hit at 15, and she became barely able to walk around. I told her I had a Shiba, as well, and our conversation went on for a few minutes. I appreciated it very much, and it made me feel like people in Tottori are… just nice.

Ending this parenthesis, we then set off to our hotel. I prefer to pick smaller ryokans, as you tend to find more personal, friendly service in these kinds of places, so I booked one that had only three guest rooms. It was located in Yoshioka-Onsen, an area southwest of Tottori city, which was powered by underground geysers and tourists. Strangely, this seemed to be a low season (despite it being sakura season), as many ryokans were shut, few tourists were on the roads, and all we could see was occasional elderly locals scuttling about. Our ryokan looked effectively like someone’s house (and it probably was, at some point in the past):

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The vestibule was quite typical:

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The owner welcomed us and showed us to our room, which was already set:

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Welcome sweets were provided:

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Prior to catching dinner, we went for a short walk to explore the neigbourhood (the middle car was ours):

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Came across a nice waterfall:

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When we came back, dinner was served:  _MG_2454

 

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After dinner finished, I felt I had to grab a few pictures of “yoo-zakura”, which is evening sakura – typically, backlit with ambient or artificial light.

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On the way back to the ryokan, I felt like I had to take some pictures of the deserted roads.

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As I was capturing some shots, an old lady was passing by. She saw me hiding behind a lamppost trying to take some of these shots, and (once again, unlike any other Japanese city I’ve been in) she walked over to me to check what I was doing (I mean, a foreigner, out alone in the dark, hiding behind a lamp post, right?). So since I didn’t want her to get a heart attack or something, I called out to her – “Night sakura’s quite pretty, isn’t it?” She got all happy, nodded, and walked off.

Puzzling city, indeed.

 

 

 

 

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Interlude: Random shots in Japan

I’m desperately trying to catch up with my travel notes before the trip to Myanmar (Burma) actually starts, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen, since we’re leaving to the airport in 3 hours; so the notes on Tottori will come at some point. Here are some other random shots from here and there in Japan, simply because they looked nice.

First, a few shots from Suma Rikyu Koen – a park not far away from where I was, which I have only discovered now, and wish I visited some more.

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