A Travellerspoint blog

July 2013

Bright Lights, Big Cities: Beijing and Shanghai

I'm just going to get this out of the way now, so it hopefully won't taint the rest of my post and leave everyone hell-bent on never setting foot in China; I hate Beijing. I very rarely hate a place, but Beijing, to a large extent, invites the sentiment upon itself. The people are rude, the crowds overwhelming and the city is shrouded in a cloud of pollution that blocks out the sky and chokes your lungs. We made the obligatory visit to the famous Tiananmen Square and Forbidden City and were, to be honest, underwhelmed; the buildings seemed rundown and the crowds were overwhelming. Trying to get near the main hall (ironically called the Hall of Supreme Harmony) was less harmonious than turkey shopping on Christmas Eve.

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A better experience of Beijing was the simple pleasure of wandering around the hutong (local neighbourhood) surrounding our hostel, where the streets are lined with fruit stalls, authentic restaurants and groups of old men playing mahjong. On our first night we paid £1.50 and received a huge bowl of spicy noodle soup and more pork dumplings than we could eat, and the next evening we befriended a couple of Chinese-speaking westerners in our hostel and feasted on tofu noodles, peanut chicken and salted green beans in soy sauce. Delicious!

The best thing about Beijing is, of course, its proximity to the Great Wall of China. We chose to go to the section known as Mutianyu, a well-maintained part of the wall that still has relatively few tourists visiting it; the majority of tour groups favour Badaling. During our time there we managed to hike all the way to one end of the section, which is harder than it sounds; the humidity and altitude saps your energy and makes you breathless. The majority of the walk is fairly easygoing, but the end of the section is built up the side of a hill so you find yourself climbing the near-vertical steps with your hands, pulling yourself up. However the views from the top are well worth it; from this vantage point you can see the wall stretching for miles, disappearing and reappearing as it snakes over the hills until finally all you can see are the watchtowers dotted along the horizon.

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One super-express train later we were in Shanghai, the chalk to China's cheese. China's two biggest cities are different in every way - Beijing has ancient temples where Shanghai has modern skyscrapers; Beijing has endless grey streets while Shanghai is dotted with parks; Beijing is gritty while Shanghai is effortlessly chic. There is no place that better emphasises these differences than the Bund, Shanghai's old financial district that has become an icon of the city. We took in the amazing view from across the water, before wandering down the riverbank towards Yuyuan Gardens.

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We then turned inland down one of Shanghai's bustling shopping street until we came across People's Square, where a large park is home to Shanghai Museum. You have to dodge a considerable amount of murderous scooters to reach it, but once you're in the park the chaos of Chinese traffic seems a million miles away. Unfortunately the humidity soon forced us inside, and after exploring the square's underground shopping mall we headed for home, finishing the day with some street food and fruit from what would have seemed a questionable market stall, if the seller next door hadn't been selling melons out of the boot of his car.

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The next day was spent wandering around the beautiful French Concession district, which, with its iron-rail fences and tree-lined streets, gives you the slightly disconcerting feeling of walking around Paris in China. The area is filled with European-style art deco buildings, homey bars and pretty parks, and feels very...not Chinese. Aside from the motorbikes zooming down the pavements of course. We ended the day in Tianzifang, a quirky shopping district built in an intimate network of alleyways, where shops, bars, cafes and stalls are all piled on top of each other in a maze of delightful confusion. I could easily have spent the whole day there, but unfortunately I would also have spent my whole bank account.

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So ended our time in Shanghai, and we hopped aboard an overnight sleeper train to snooze away a 13-hour train journey. The adventure continues in Xian...

Posted by kate1401 00:04 Archived in China Tagged beijing great_wall shanghai forbidden_city hutong bund people's_square french_concession tianzifang Comments (0)

Hiroshima to Osaka

After waving goodbye to our new Buddhist friends we continued south to Hiroshima, a city still struggling to emerge from the shadow of its tragic history. Since the dropping of the atomic bomb in 1945, 'Hiroshima' has become synonymous with death and destruction, a name still half-whispered with an accompanying shudder. However in the wake of that day the people of Hiroshima rallied, and continue to do so; the rumour that nothing would grow for 75 years proved to be false, the city rose from the ashes, and now Hiroshima has much more to offer than just its painful history.

Our exploration started, inevitably, at the A-Bomb Peace Memorial Park, an area dedicated to the memory of the bomb's victims. The most striking feature of the Park is the skeletal A-Bomb Dome that stands just across the river from the main memorial site; after miraculously surviving the explosion it was decided that this building would remain as a hard-hitting reminder of the power of the bomb.

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The park's main feature is the Peace Memorial Museum, two buildings joined by a long glass tunnel and both packed with enough information to keep us busy for several hours. The first building focuses mainly on the political and historical elements of the story, while the second is more distressing, outlining the short and long-term health risks and even sharing some personal stories. The museum's focus is not limited to the events of Hiroshima; there is also a sizeable section dedicated to the subject of nuclear weapons worldwide and their potential threat to humanity. Every time a country begins a new nuclear weapons experiment, the mayor of Hiroshima writes them a letter of protest, showing that the city is still very much affected by its harrowing past.

However Hiroshima has much more to offer than just its ghosts. Our most memorable experience was our day spent on the island of Miyajima, about a 40-minute train ride and 10-minute ferry crossing out of the city centre. The island's most famous attraction is the floating torii gate in front of Itsukushima Shrine, a huge red gate built in the sea that, when the tide comes in, appears to be floating on the water. We were lucky enough to see it at both low and high tide.

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The island's other big draw is the view from the top of Mount Misen, Miyajima's highest peak. There is a cable car available to take you to the top but we, in a fit of madness, decided to opt for the hiking trail to the top instead. What folly that turned out to be. Although the walk to the summit is only a distance of 3km, the climb is steep and the extreme humidity of Japanese summer makes you feel like you're inhaling more water than air. By the time we got to the top we were aching and exhausted, and then found to our dismay that the views were almost completely obscured by mist. It was still pretty spectacular though, and we enjoyed a sense of achievement not shared by the 99% of visitors who took the cable car. We did however take the cable car back to the bottom.

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One 9-hour night bus later we were in Osaka, a city best-loved on the traveller circuit for its location; although slightly lacking in notable sights, it is a great base for visiting nearby wonderlands, as we discovered. However, wanting to give Osaka opportunity to reveal its delights, we spent our first day exploring the city. Our first stop was Osaka Castle, an impressive structure built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a powerful Japanese general who ruled Japan in the 1500s. The inside of the castle is now a museum on the castle's history, which was surprisingly interesting. We also visited Dotombori, Osaka's 'neon district', where the shops and restaurants seem to exist under the impression that a ridiculously oversized or flashing sign is essential for success.

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The following day we set out for Nara, a nearby town that, even by Japan's standards, has more than its fair share of temples. A large part of Nara's appeal is that the majority of its sights are situated in Nara Park, a huge green space that stretches across half the town; the green lawns and tree-lined paths make for a very pleasant sightseeing setting. You just have to remember to stay alert, as the park is home to many over-friendly deer who will eat your map and train tickets if you let your guard down. We spent about four hours wandering around the park and saw most of the main temples including Kofukuji and Toda-ji, which boasts a beautifully carved wooden entrance gate.

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However our next trip was to be far-and-away one of the best experiences of our trip. We made an early start in order to make the highly-recommended pilgrimage to Koya-San, a mountain-top village that is home to the headquarters of Shingon Buddhism and one of the most spiritual places in Japan. The mountain is so remote that it takes two hours, two trains and a cable car to reach it from Osaka, but it was worth it. The temperature is cooler, the air is fresher, and despite the number of tourists the town maintains an amazing sense of peace, as though everyone is walking around in a daze of hushed awe. Our first stop was Okunoin, a huge cemetery where Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism, is believed to be resting in meditation as he awaits the arrival of the Buddha of the Future. It is believed that he will be the only person able to translate the words of this Buddha, and therefore everyone who can afford it is buried here to get a front row seat for the second coming. Over 200,000 tombs are erected here, and we spent an hour wandering among the carved stones before finally finding our way to the main hall.

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Unfortunately photos are not permitted inside the main temple, Torodo Hall, but it is absolutely breathtaking. The inside is all black polished wood and glowing red lanterns, and the monks lead services at intervals throughout the day. My favourite room was the hall's basement, where thousands of tiny Buddha statues sit in countless rows and the ceiling is completely covered in red hanging lanterns, casting a gloomy glow over the whole room. As we walked towards the exit, the sound of hundreds of chanting monks floated through the trees; it was the perfect end to our visit to such an intensely spiritual place.

We headed back to the centre of town and spent the rest of the day in the grounds of the main temples, Kongobuji and the Garan complex. Kongobuji is the head temple of Shingon Buddhism and therefore the more important site, but I personally preferred the buildings in the Garan complex. Each building is made of wood and exquisitely carved, and the Konpon Daito Pagoda, painted bright reddish-orange, is particularly striking. A fountain splashes quietly in the middle of the adjoining lake, and we took a short break just to sit on the bridge and absorb the unique atmosphere of this amazing place.

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After a few final days in Tokyo we found ourselves back at the airport, ready to embark on the final stage of our journey. Our month in Japan has flown by far too fast, but we will not be sad as this is certainly not the last time we will see this beautiful country. But for now, China and a whole host of new challenges await...

Posted by kate1401 22:10 Archived in Japan Tagged osaka nara miyajima hiroshima koya osaka_castle peace_memorial_park Comments (0)

Kyoto and Living With Monks

I think when people visit a new place, they set out with an idea in their heads of how they expect it to look. I include myself in this. You see photos, read books, watch films, and piece together a perfect vision of beauty that unfortunately very rarely materialises in real life. But in Kyoto I found everything that I had ever imagined when I thought of Japan; quaint narrow streets, wooden teahouses, magnificent temples, even a few flawlessly painted geishas.

When we arrived in Kyoto we were exhausted from our sleepless overnight bus trip, and decided to have a quiet day exploring the beautiful old district around our hostel. However we got so absorbed in our wanderings that we eventually found ourselves at Kiyomizudera Temple, one of the most popular temples in Kyoto. It was impressive, but we were soon driven back into the streets by the hoards of over-enthusiastic tourists. The next day we visited the famous Golden Pavilion at Kinkakuji Temple, and left with a similar case of tourist fatigue. Visitors are forced to stick to a marked path, and it is easy to feel like a herd of cattle in the enclosed space. However the gold leaf-covered Pavilion is beautiful, particularly as it casts perfect reflections onto the still waters of the lake beside it.

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The following day we made the 30-minute trip to the district of Arashiyama on the western edge of Kyoto. This small calm town feels like a world of its own, and it is difficult to believe that it lies so close to the city. The Togetsukyo Bridge has become a symbol of Arashiyama, but the main attraction is the beautiful bamboo forest, where pathways have been made to allow people to wander through the endless rows of bamboo. It's a perfect way to while away an afternoon; shafts of light shine through the forest, the stalks sway in the breeze, and you feel absolutely at peace.

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My imagination became reality on our last day in Kyoto at Fushimi-Inari Shrine, which embodied all my expectations of what Japan would be like. We had intended to go to Nara on this day, and changed our plans last minute on the word of a fellow traveller, and now the idea that we almost missed this place fills me with disbelief. The shrine itself, while attractive, is not the centre of attention; it fades in comparison to the thousands of Torii gates that frame the paths leading up Mount Inari behind the shrine. This, for me, was picture-perfect Japan.

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We spent the day wandering among the endless rows of gates, our amazement increasing with every step. The paths are set amongst shady forest, and every so often a break in the gates would reveal a gathering of tiny shrines where locals come to worship. Eventually we emerged from the forest halfway up the mountain to discover a lovely view over the city below, before we plunged back into the winding trails leading back to the main shrine.

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The story now turns to one of the more interesting experiences of our trip - two nights living with monks in a small Buddhist temple near Kameoka, about an hour away from Kyoto. The temple is in a tiny village surrounded by rice fields, with a mountain looming in the background. I can understand how people find peace there; there is hardly a sound to be heard except for frogs, birds and the occasional car.

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We arrived at 2pm during free time, and were welcomed by the two monks who live there permanently and the one other visitor. We were given time to unpack and settle into our new rooms - mine in the temple and John's in the nearby guesthouse - and then we entered straight into the monks' strict daily routine. First was the evening service, when the monks kneel in front of the shrine and chant their prayers in time. John and I were given prayer books and invited to join in, but the chanting is fast and rhythmic and we found it hard to keep up! The service was followed by dinner, a solemn affair that is undertaken in complete silence and in a specific fashion. Large wooden bowls were passed down the table containing rice, soup and a cold vegetable, and once everyone had filled their small bowls we ate, and then took a second portion if desired. It turns out monks eat very fast, and our first dinner culminated in an awkward couple of minutes where John was the only one eating, to the sound of complete silence. We then had to wash our bowl by filling it with warm water and scrubbing the food remnants off with a slice of radish. Don't ask me to explain it, I can't. I don't think even the monks could.

After a little free time, we had our first 'zazen' (meditation). We all took a seat on some cushions in the lotus position (half-lotus for the less flexible), and in the growing darkness we sat, completely still. I had thought that zazen required you to completely empty your mind, but one of the monks had told us that it is acceptable for thoughts to enter your head, as long as you don't hold onto them, and instead allow them to float through your mind like clouds. I found zazen to be a very relaxing experience, and when a bell rang to signal the end of the first half hour I found it hard to rouse myself. We then untangled our numb legs, massaged the feeling back into them, stood, and walked a few times around the room before settling down for a second half-hour session. Our day ended with a chat over a cup of cold tea, and we were in bed at 9pm in preparation for our 5am start the following day. My bed was just a futon on the floor, but zazen had tired my body so I fell asleep all the same.

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A bell woke me at 4.50, and I groggily crawled out of bed and shuffled to the shrine room for the morning service - another vain attempt to follow the hypnotic chanting. We then had another hour of zazen before being put to our morning cleaning duties; John and I scrubbed the wooden decking that ran around the outside of the temple. Just as we finished a gong called us to breakfast, and we hurried to the table with rumbling stomachs. As the night before it was hardly a satisfying meal; rice mixed with hot water to create a thin porridge and a bowl of sliced cucumber. We followed the monks' example and ate fast, me feeling eternally grateful that I had mastered chopsticks in Thailand. After washing our bowls with the infamous radish, we did another hour of zazen then had some free time, during which the other visitor showed us around the village.

Our short, silent lunch of rice and vegetables was followed by a break from our routine; we had expected to return to the shrine room for mditation, but instead one of the monks took us to a neighbouring temple a short walk away, where the 'roshi' lived, the master of the temple. He was a tiny old man who looked a little like Yoda, but it turned out he's quite famous and has been invited all over the world to lead Buddhist services. After being shown around the temple we sat down to a tea ceremony with him, and over tea and Japanese cakes he showed us several photo albums depicting his adventures across Europe. We had our afternoon zazen session with him, and then returned to our own temple with a bag of vegetables. The monk thanked the roshi for the gift, but on the way home quietly admitted disappointment that it wasn't cake.

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The evening followed the same pattern as the night before; we had our evening service, dinner of rice, soup and vegetables, and then sat down to our zazen. The repeated sessions were beginning to take their toll on our limbs, and our thoughts now tended to fixate on how much our knees and ankles were aching. As we sat drinking our evening tea and massaging our tingling feet, we asked the monks how long it took to get used to the constant sitting. The younger monk told us he no longer felt pain, but it had taken him three months to get to that point.

The next day we did our morning service, zazen and work, then after breakfast we packed up our things and said goodbye to the monks. It had been an amazing experience, but we'd be lying if we said we weren't somewhat relieved to return to real life, a life of lie-ins, meat and painless bones. One of the four noble truths of Buddhism is that 'life means suffering'. It definitely is the way they do it.

Posted by kate1401 05:01 Archived in Japan Tagged kyoto japan buddhism arashiyama zen golden_pavilion zazen fushimi_inari torii_gates temple_stay Comments (0)

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