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Waterfalls and Glaciers: Vestmannaeyjar


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So far things had gone smoothly for us in Iceland. We had accomplished everything I had planned in the first day and a half and we were now proceeding to one of my most eagerly anticipated destinations. Eighteen years earlier I had stood alone atop the dormant volcano Helgafell and seen the most breathtaking view of my life up to that point. With no one to share it with, I resolved to return one day with a family of my own. That moment had now arrived although our late ferry departure meant it would have to wait until the next day. The short ferry ride passed quickly as I braved the sharp wind to watch birds swooping around the uninhabited islets of Elliðaey and Bjarney. The islands are ringed by steep cliffs and each has a single puffin-hunting lodge that is the only sign of human intrusion.
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Heimaey is the only inhabited island of Vestmannaeyjar, which is known to English speakers as the Westman Islands. The rocky outcrops surrounding the harbor were like natural versions of the stone forts ringing the port of Valletta, Malta. The twin volcanoes of Eldfell and Helgafell loomed behind the town with the former's enormous crater clearly visible.
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The town seemed larger and more impersonal than on my last visit, but perhaps my memory had faded over time. The sky was overcast and there were few people on the windy streets. I had to drag the large suitcase with its eroding wheels about half a kilometer to our hotel, where our room was mercifully on the ground floor. We only had a short time to unpack and recuperate before walking around the corner for dinner. My first and second restaurant choices were closed on Mondays, but Einsi Kaldi provided us with a solid meal. Our friendly waitress helped address my confusion about the different names I'd heard for the town. Of Vestmannaeyjar, Vestmannaeyjabær, and Heimaey which referred to the archipelago, which was this island, and which was the town on the island? The waitress assured us all the terms were interchangeable and could refer to any of the locations but I think she just wanted to spare us from having to pronounce the longer words. We asked her about eating puffin and she told us it could no longer be found on restaurant menus due to a decline in the population from my last visit. Apparently there's still some limited hunting permitted and she actually called her aunt to bring in some cured puffin breast for us to try. The heavily spiced raw meat wasn't anywhere near as enjoyable as the savory grilled puffin breast I'd enjoyed on my prior visit but at least Mei Ling could say that she'd tried it.
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In the morning we fortified ourselves with breakfast at a no-frills bakery down by the port. According to my weather app it was low 50's, same as every summer day in Iceland, but it felt a lot colder thanks to a biting wind that whistled unimpeded through the low buildings. I knew if we headed southeast to the outskirts of town we would find our way to the base of Eldfell. It wasn't possible for us to miss it - the twin peaks were visible from every spot on the island. Not far from our hotel we passed through the beautifully-landscaped town park. There was a small playground with a colorful trampoline made of a vinyl sheet stretched over trapped air underneath. It was a quite effective piece of equipment and I wondered why I'd never seen anything like it before. Later we would see the same kind of trampoline in half a dozen other towns in Iceland.
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As we continued onward the wind grew stronger and more chilling. Thankfully we'd brought and worn our heavy winter coats but I'd decided against the long underwear that day. The islanders obviously took great pride in their small plots of land and many had quite creative arrangements of plants and flowers. I saw a sign for the Eldheimar Museum and we ducked inside more to get out of the cold for a short time than out of any particular desire to see the exhibits. The museum is dedicated to the 1973 volcanic eruption that created Eldfell and buried half the town under a lava field. Due to a series of fortunate coincidences no lives were lost during the eruption and much of the town was spared from incineration by the incandescent material ejected from the volcano. Although Heimaey could easily have been rendered uninhabited like the other islands in the archipelago, the town recovered and thrived and is now more populous than ever. Outside the museum we found an abandoned ball and passed it around for a bit before it was lost over the hillside.
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Behind Eldheimar we found a dirt path leading up a steep hillside. This was the beginning of the trail to the Eldfell crater. Even though the top of the hill was always in sight, it never seemed to get closer no matter how long we scrambled up through the green scrub. Spenser and Cleo tore off ahead and seemed to have limitless energy while I had to struggle to keep up. I couldn't let them get too far ahead because I didn't really know for sure what we'd find at the top. Warning signs are a rare sight in Iceland. Meanwhile the town below us was gradually beginning to look like it was made out of Lego.
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Once we finally clambered over the lip of the hill there was a sudden change in terrain. We were now on a wide platform at the edge of Eldfell crater, about halfway between the upper and lower lips. There was no sign of plant life on the edge, just volcanic gravel with a scattering of larger porous rocks. The northern cliffs, Norðurklettar, formed an imposing green backdrop to the town. They looked tame and surmountable from this angle but I knew from my research that it was one of the more treacherous areas of the island. Looking over the lower lip of the crater I could see the lava field from the most recent eruption, now coated with moss, and the mountains of the peninsula on the far side of the harbor.
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The beauty of Heimaey was beginning to reveal itself but we were still only halfway up the sloping crater. We could see a few scattered figures walking precariously on the upper edge, and I was weighing whether it was safe and advisable to push on to the top. Mei Ling, Spenser and Cleo took the decision out of my hands by tackling the upward path along the ridge while I was still trying to judge the force of the winds at the top. I had no choice but to chase after them, dragging Ian along with me.
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It would have been tragic if we had called off our ascent at the middle. As soon as we reached the upper edge I was reminded of why I had maintained my desire to return to Vestmannaeyjar for so many years. To the north Bjarnarey's green surface provided a sharp contrast to the volcanic barrenness we were standing on. Behind it the mainland blurred into the ocean so that the glacier Eyjafjallajökull appeared suspended in midair. To the south the lush Stórhöfði peninsula projected into the ocean and beyond that just a few rocky islets broke the serenity of the watery expanse. I pointed out to the kids how the wind created waves and ripples in the grass on Helgafell that made it seem like water. It's difficult to find words to describe the complexity of the exhilaration I felt at the ridge above the crater. It was a simultaneous awareness of the heights of the world's beauty, the constant struggle of living things to adapt to and overcome the environment, and the cruel indifference of our planet to the life that makes it unique in the known universe. The wind was frighteningly loud and gusty but never threatened to push the kids off their footing.
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We spent some time exploring the upper rim but there really wasn't much to do except gape at the views and examine some of the larger blocks of tephra from the eruption. I realized that there was no way we'd be able to walk to the end of Stórhöfði as I had planned. It was much further than I had remembered, and there was probably more to see if we walked north. On the descent I regretted not wearing my hiking boots as my knees kept twisting on the loose lava. We tried to find a trail that would take us directly through the lava field but eventually we gave up and followed the road to Gaujulundur, a whimsical garden carved out of the lava field a few years after the eruption. Besides hundreds of varieties of local plants, the garden contains elf houses and a miniature windmill.
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Here we found a walking path towards town that allowed us to enjoy some waist-high scrub and an overlook with views of the harbor channel. Some kind of quarrying operation was taking place at the water's edge but it didn't detract from the beauty of the ocean as it slipped serenely between the peninsula and the mainland.
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A few hours after departing town from the south we re-entered it from the east, close to the port. We ate at the popular restaurant next to our hotel which was awful, the first bad meal we had had in Iceland. We still had a couple of hours to kill before our ferry departure so we went to the Sæheimar Aquarium, which is also a beluga whale sanctuary. I'd been warned that the belugas were sometimes away in open water and there was very little else to justify the high admission price, so I was careful to ensure that they would in fact be present before we went inside. They were indeed there and very interactive with the humans they could see through the glass wall of the enclosure. It was my first time being up close with these beautiful and graceful animals and I was glad we had chosen to stop by. The only other part of the aquarium worth noting was a puffin rescue center with just one occupant. I'm not sure if he was a recent rescue or one of the permanent inhabitants they get from time to time.
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We had spent less than half an hour in the whale sanctuary and still had time to kill. We followed the road past the port to the northwestern corner of town which was an industrial area with a strong odor of fish. We scrambled up a low wall and a grassy bank and we found ourselves at the foot of the northern cliffs. I was instantly wary because I had already researched this area and concluded it was far too dangerous for us to climb in. From one cliff we found a rope that the locals used for practicing spranga, the island sport of rappelling. Mei Ling and Cleo still seemed to have inexhaustible energy and took off up the steep grassy slope with Spenser not far behind. I really didn't want them to climb all the way up to the ridge and I didn't feel like chasing down the kids so I implored them to stop halfway up. Thankfully they acquiesced and turned their attention to following around some bemused sheep. After five or ten minutes of that it was time to head down to the terminal and catch our ferry back to the mainland. It had been an extremely productive day of hiking and although we hadn't explored the island completely I felt I had kept the promise I made to myself almost two decades earlier.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 00:09 Archived in Iceland Tagged road_trip tony family_travel travel_blog westman_islands tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (0)

Rocky Mountain Highs: Denver


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Perhaps it's just a reflection of my own native bias, but I find the United States to be one of the most interesting countries to travel in. There's a stark difference between the United States and Europe. In the US most of the regional differences are best appreciated in large cities while in Europe it's the small towns that exemplify the regional character. There are very few countries that can boast the kind of difference in culture seen between Miami and San Francisco, New Orleans and New York City. However, it can be difficult to find distinguishing characteristics between small towns in Arizona or South Carolina, on opposite ends of the country. For that reason, my favorite way to travel in the US is to fly to a major city and build a road trip around it that hopefully encompasses other large cities. That's an easier task on the coasts and the upper Midwest, but out in the large western states major cities are few and far between. That's why most of the remaining major cities I haven't seen in the US are out west: Denver, Phoenix, and Santa Fe to be exact. Of all of these, Denver seemed like the most glaring omission so when I felt the time was right to take my family on their first real winter vacation I focused on ski resorts in Colorado. It was quite easy to choose from the countless ski towns because I was determined not to expose us to any risk of altitude sickness. Coming from Miami at an elevation of zero, the adjustment couldn't be any worse. Almost all the Colorado slopes have base elevations well over 7000 feet with some rising as high as 13000 feet. The only town that was even close to 7000 feet was Steamboat Springs so that made our choice pretty easy.

It's possibly, but unlikely, to feel ill from altitude even at 7000 feet so I gave us three days in Denver to acclimate at 5000 feet before pressing onward into the Rocky Mountains. As it turned out, three days was more than enough time for us to check out everything that we could do in Denver in the middle of winter. We took an evening flight from Miami and were at the rental car counter by ten o'clock, benefiting from the two hour time change. I had taken a substantial risk by renting a front-wheel drive car instead of spending three times as much for an SUV. What settled me on the car was the rental company's refusal to guarantee that even the SUV would be four-wheel drive. I have no idea what percentage of their SUV's were two-wheel drive, but I wasn't about to pay triple and end up with essentially the same wheels. I did make sure to check that our ride's wheels had the mud-snow rating. American airport car rental agencies are usually super-efficient but there was a hiccup this time as our agent suddenly determined that the car our children and luggage had been packed into had not actually been released. In return for transferring all our kids and bags into another car in the frigid winter air we were given a free tank of gas. By the time we arrived at our Airbnb in the Jefferson Park neighborhood west of Downtown it was way too late for anything except pizza delivery.

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One unusual wrinkle about this trip is that we were joined by a small family that Mei Ling is friendly with in Miami, consisting of a four year old boy, his aunt, and her mother. In the morning we met up and began our downtown exploration at Denver Union Station. Denver's original railway station underwent a very successful restoration and redevelopment in the first half of this decade and now evokes memories of the great train stations of the early 20th century. A warm and welcoming waiting area is surrounded by coffee shops, lunch restaurants, and bookstores. The building is still a major transportation hub with a commuter rail station and an underground bus terminal.
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One thing I noticed right away was the very upbeat atmosphere among everyone at Union Station, both employees and patrons. One patron at the bookstore where we were browsing suddenly turned to me and made a joke about the cover of a book. That doesn't happen in most cities. Was it a Denver thing? We ate at Snooze, a popular Denver breakfast chain, which was pleasant but not remarkable. The staff there was likewise cheerful and laid back, despite the hectic atmosphere. I wondered if everyone's positivity was somehow related to the wide availability of legal cannabis. Were they just stoned 24/7? People seemed to be eating as if they were. Walking around afterwards we discovered Mercantile Dining & Provision, a beautiful restaurant with an open kitchen attached to a gourmet market. I regretted not having explored the whole building before breakfast, but at least our meal had been very satisfying.
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Next door to Union Station we spotted a very cute Chinese cafe called Zoe Ma Ma and went in to check it out. They had just opened and were getting dumplings and pancakes ready for lunch. It was a very authentic place owned and staffed by Taiwanese immigrants and they were pretty happy to meet Mei Ling and the kids.
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Our next stop was the Colorado Convention Center to see a modern landmark, the Big Blue Bear. I love these kinds of whimsical installations that help to give cities a memorable and unique profile, and I knew the kids would get a kick out of the statue. The enormous sculpture was even more imposing than I had expected, and worth every penny of the half million dollars the city paid for it.
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The bear is just two blocks from downtown's main thoroughfare, the 16th Street Mall. Although the Mall appears pedestrianized, pedestrians would be wise to keep a watchful eye on the large shuttle buses that careen up and down the street with alarming speed and regularity. Despite the stately and ornate buildings that lined the Mall, most of the ground level businesses were convenience stores and low end eating establishments and we didn't find much reason to hesitate as we walked southward.
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At the end of the Mall we encountered Civic Center Park, which was dominated by the imposing Colorado State Capitol Building. The grayish-white granite exterior was impressively pristine in the bright winter sun and the golden dome gleamed cheerfully.
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In the plaza at center of the park there were so many people in small groups that at first we thought we'd stumbled on a farmer's market in the dead of winter. It turned out to be something less salutary, a large encampment of homeless people many of whom had carts piled high with their belongings. At the north end of the park we passed through the Voorhies Memorial, a neoclassical monument with a pleasing semicircular design and a fountain in front. Our tour of the neighborhood had ended almost as quickly as it had begun. I was somewhat nonplussed at how small and bland the downtown area had been compared to other American cities of similar size such as Boston or Minneapolis. Thus far Denver seemed more on a level with smaller cities like Buffalo or Orlando, not that there was necessarily anything wrong with that.
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Once we'd finished with Downtown, it wasn't easy to choose another destination to visit. I hadn't found any particularly interesting neighborhoods in my research, and certainly no ethnic neighborhoods. There wasn't much in the way of eclectic stores or markets like we'd found in other cities either. Eventually we decided to visit the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, which seemed to be the best choice for young kids among Denver's museums. We spent more than an hour wandering among the wildlife dioramas on the second floor before realizing that there was a much more interesting area called Discovery Zone on the ground level. We gave the kids another hour here because they enjoyed the interactive displays much more than the static exhibits upstairs. As we left the sun was setting over the large expanse of City Park.
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Denver was a little light on activities in the winter months but one area where the city seemed to be very competitive was food halls. There were several sizable ones in the central city and some other good ones in the suburbs. For our first dinner in Denver we chose The Source, a former iron foundry in a neighborhood called Five Points adjacent to Downtown. It wasn't a typical food hall in that several of the spaces were occupied by retail boutiques. The few restaurants were mostly of the sit-down variety and there was very little in the way of common area to combine purchases from different vendors. The division of the development into two disconnected spaces made each section seem somewhat threadbare and inert. We had drinks in the small central bar called Isabel while we perused the appealing menu of a restaurant called Acorn, which fortunately was just opening and permitted us a large table on the condition that we be out in less than two hours. No problem there. The food was prepared in that contemporary, farm-to-table American bistro style that's often attempted but rarely well-executed. In this case it was done very, very well and we were very pleased with our first real restaurant in Denver. I noted ruefully that we would probably have to try ten new restaurants in Miami to expect to find one meal that good. Afterwards we went to the adjoining market hall which is attached to a boutique hotel. Here we found a barbecue restaurant and some cool eclectic art. On the roof of the hotel was a stylish bar with great views over Downtown.
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During the night something pretty awesome happened. It snowed. To a lot of people reading this that might seem fairly mundane, but none of my kids have ever seen snow falling or freshly fallen snow. The closest they've come has been old patches of spring snow in Andorra and Norway that were dotted with sheep dung. When they woke up and saw what was going on out the window they were incredulous. It had been fifteen years for me since my last snowfall and I have to admit it looked pretty sweet. There were several inches on the ground and the snow was still coming down. It was light, powdery stuff that melted quickly when it touched our skin. For the kids the snow was pure excitement but I had other things to worry about. I'd decided not to pay threefold the price to rent an SUV after the rental company refused to guarantee me a four-wheel drive, so we had a regular front-wheel drive full size car. At least we had the mud-snow rated tires, but I felt a little guilty about having chosen the cheaper and somewhat riskier option. The car was perched atop a very steep driveway that had been easy to negotiate before, but now I had to reverse it down into the street. I carefully made sure that there weren't any cars coming our way before I backed it down, and fortunately the car didn't slip. The roads hadn't been plowed but the snow on the asphalt had already largely been churned to slush by morning traffic. It was still unnerving driving in snow again after so long. Funnily enough, I'd driven through much worse countless times in Boston during my residency with a light front-wheel drive Nissan sports car which didn't even have snow tires. I rarely thought about it being dangerous even though I'd had to dig myself out of the middle of the street more than once. Having a wife and three little kids in the car changes one's perspective on these things rather dramatically.

Asian-Mexican fusion Onefold proved to be an excellent choice for Sunday brunch. All eight of us were delighted with the delicious and creative food and returned to the outdoors warmed and satiated. We browsed a gourmet food store called Marczyk Fine Foods for a while and then drove around Belcaro, which seemed to be the wealthiest residential neighborhood within the city limits. It was nice, but didn't have the same wow factor as the high end neighborhoods in other cities.
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It was barely noon and I was completely out of ideas for what to do in Denver. All I had left was my list of food halls. We decided to drive half an hour south to the small town of Castle Rock which had a small food hall called Ecclesia Market. As we exited the highway we passed the distinctive butte that gave the town its name. The enormous caprock at the summit evoked the ruined castles we've seen atop similar hills in Italy and Spain, but the town itself was classic Americana. Inside the market were a specialty foods store and a couple of small restaurants that didn't really tempt us. There was a also a fish market which didn't have much fish but incongruously sold fresh coconuts which were quite delicious. The very friendly guys working there entertained the kids with a fake spider in a box.
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Down the street from Ecclesia was a large crafts market and variety store where we browsed for about an hour and bought some toys for the kids. Our first stop back in Denver was the closest thing we could find to an ethnic neighborhood, a mixed Mexican and Vietnamese section of Federal Boulevard in the southwestern part of the city. We stocked up on noodles at Vietnamese supermarket and then chose a Vietnamese-Cajun crawfish restaurant called The Crawling Crab for lunch. Vietnamese-Cajun? Yes, it's a thing. Apparently it was started by Vietnamese who had been displaced to Houston by Hurricane Katrina in 2009 and spread back to New Orleans and then all over the country. We even have one in Miami and it's the best crawfish I know of here. It turns out a couple of big bags of messy, spicy crawfish and a couple of dozen freshly-shucked oysters were all that we needed.
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We drove back downtown with the idea that we could spend a couple of hours giving the kids their first experience with bowling at Lucky Strike Denver, but when we arrived we learned there was a four hour waiting list. Instead we bought tickets for the huge video game arcade which suited the kids just fine, although watching them flail on the complex racing games made me wince. On the way to dinner we passed by an outdoor carousel and Larimer Square, both of which were beautifully lighted.
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Our choice for the evening food hall was Denver Milk Market, also downtown and not far from Union Station. This was a fairly large food hall that was pleasantly energetic and crowded, but the food choices were fairly banal. It felt like someone had created a list of the most popular fast foods across all the food halls in the United States and then put them all in one place. As it turned out, one restaurateur was behind all sixteen vendors so perhaps this was exactly the concept he was looking for. The one exception was a cheese shop where we put together a platter of whatever cheeses and salumi took our fancy. Cleo also loved the carpet of pennies in front of the counter. On the way out we stopped for a brief chat with a blue Lego man who was sitting morosely on a bench.
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On our last morning in Denver we dressed the kids up in the color-coded fleece underwear I'd carefully selected before the trip. It had been surprisingly temperate in Denver but I knew it would be a lot colder once we got into the mountains. I decided to take a shot at a brunch reservation at Root Down, one of the most celebrated restaurants in Denver, and surprisingly got a table for the eight of us. We arrived a little early, ten minutes before the restaurant opened, which meant we could fulfill another of the kids' dreams. Their first snowball fight! There was a small park right across the street from the playground that had several inches of pristine day-old snow. The kids never really got the hang of packing snowballs. They were in too much of a hurry, and most of their attempts disintegrated as soon as the snow left their hands. I took it pretty easy on them, but I still made sure they each got to experience the unique sensation of getting nailed by a snowball.
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Root Down had solid American food, although the menu was small and not very adventurous. It was definitely no competition to the brunch we had at Onefold the previous day. The kids were entertained by the display of colorful rotary dial telephones, whose purpose they had trouble identifying. Close to Root Down, we stopped at another small food hall called Avanti Food & Beverage although we didn't have any inclination to keep eating. It looked decent although there weren't many customers on a Sunday morning.
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We were an hour ahead of schedule for snow tubing in the mountains so we made one last stop at an amazing used bookstore called West Side Books. The place reminded me of the bookstores I used to frequent as a college student in Boston. It's too bad that our hometown of Miami doesn't seem to have any worth visiting. The kids all got a kick out of it and we found several books to keep them away from their iPads for a while as we drove into the Rockies.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 01:38 Archived in USA Tagged travel denver blog tony friedman Comments (0)

East Asian Immersion: Tianjin


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Once we were finished with Shanghai we only had nine days left to fill in our itinerary. We still wanted to spend a few days in Beijing at the end so we chose Tianjin to fill the gap since it was the largest city in eastern China we hadn't visited. In fact, Tianjin is the third largest city in China although it receives much less attention from travelers than Beijing, Shanghai, and many smaller cities. Internet searches didn't produce a long list of things to do in Tianjin, but we were confident that we could stay busy for three days in such a large city.

We arrived on a late flight from Shanghai and didn't get into our Airbnb until close to midnight. As usual, we were on an upper floor of a tall condo building. The dilapidated lobby and elevator weren't encouraging, but the apartment itself was clean, modern, and spacious. It was also furnished rather ostentatiously with matching faux Victorian living room and bedroom sets. China is never short of surprises.
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By the time we got ourselves out of the apartment the next morning the heat and humidity had already become oppressive. Our apartment complex was a typical Chinese block of modern high-rises amidst a mostly flat expanse of enormous boulevards. We had a noodle breakfast and took a short walk around our immediate neighborhood. I found an unusual pair of sandals with a drawstring-type closure and we built our own salad at a small produce market. Unfortunately when the salad bar owner tossed our selections with seasonings I was too late to stop her from throwing a huge spoonful of salt into the mix, which rendered the final product virtually inedible.
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Across the street from our apartment complex is Tianjin's Ancient Culture Street, which is a very touristy rendition of an old commercial street with early 20th century styled buildings which now house various retail establishments. While much of it was schlock, there were enough stores devoted to genuine local artisanry to keep us entertained for a couple of hours.
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I wandered into one small shop whose proprietor was serving various alcoholic drinks in small clay saucers. He demonstrated that once I drank the contents of the saucer, I should heave it against the far wall of the shop. Indeed, there was a huge pile of broken saucers at the bottom of the wall. Mei Ling joined me and we selected some rice-derived moonshine for ourselves and plum juice for the kids, and we all took a turn at heaving our saucers at the wall except for Ian who managed to drop his on the floor immediately.
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Our last adventure on Ancient Cultural Street was trying nitro puffs for the first time. I'm not sure how liquid nitrogen became a part of ancient Chinese culture but it was a fun experience for everyone.

We walked back east and soon found ourselves at the western bank of the Hai River, a wide channel that flows through the center of Tianjin before emptying into Bohai Bay. The other side of the river looked to have the most activity so we set across the bridge that stretched out in front of us. The bridge was lined with snack vendors who were cooking with rickety-appearing propane tanks. To the north we could see the red arch of the Jingang Bridge and behind that the huge Ferris wheel called Tianjin Eye. On the south side of the bridge locals were diving acrobatically into the river from a concrete esplanade.
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We walked south along the esplanade which was an excellent way to see the mixture of classical buildings and modern skyscrapers that Tianjin had to offer. The beauty and variety of styles of the many bridges was reminiscent of Bilbao.
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The esplanade seemed to be a beloved place for locals to walk, ride bicycles, and enjoy amateur street performances. In the space of an hour we encountered a saxophone player, an operatic dance, and groups of middle aged locals dancing and marching for exercise. Our kids were thrilled to be able to join in the last of these activities. The best part is that nothing felt like it was manufactured for tourism, mainly because there were hardly any tourists there except for other Chinese. It was just people getting outside on a pleasant summer evening to relax and do the things they loved.

As Tianjin slipped into darkness the river promenade remained brightly illuminated by streetlamps and strategically-placed floodlights. Buildings and bridges acquired an unearthly and beautiful glow. The skyscrapers to the south were also artfully highlighted, their geometric outlines encased in rectangles and parabolas of light. It was as though the entire city had been engineered to create a nocturnal spectacle.
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Our evening's journey ended at the Italian Style Street, a touristy development at the site of the former Italian concession. The area was renovated into its current form and opened to the public in 2008 to coincide with the Beijing Olympics. Contrary to its name, the area is actually a small cluster of cobblestone streets with a few older buildings but nothing that struck me as particularly Italian in character. Of the many international restaurants on the main pedestrian street, only a few were Italian. We ultimately settled on a French restaurant called La Seine which proved to be extraordinarily good. It's hard to compare French with Chinese cuisine, but it was certainly one of the more enjoyable meals of our six week trip.
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We had barely noticed how far we had walked to our final destination but the prospect of returning on foot after our huge meal was very unappealing. Mei Ling hailed a cab with her Chinese ridesharing app and we returned to the apartment very satisfied with our first evening in Tianjin. Despite the city's lack of international recognition, the walk along the Hai River had been one of the most interesting and pleasurable experiences of the trip so far.

I wish I could say that our first evening in Tianjin was just a taste of what the city had in store for us, but it turned out to be the high point of our three day stay. The next morning we took a long taxi ride to the southern part of the city to hunt for a seafood market I had read about on a travel blog. In general there was a surprising absence of food markets in central Tianjin and this was my only lead after extensive searching. When we finally arrived after much driver confusion we found a wholesale market that had only a few vendors among an array of deserted warehouses, and no retail customers in sight. It was a complete wash, and it took quite a while for Mei Ling to find a driver on her Chinese app to get us out of there. The driver took us to a seafood restaurant which was somewhat a fish market in its own right, so we were able to get the food we wanted if not the experience.
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One of China's special qualities is that it has some of the most beautiful city parks I've ever visited. I love discovering the creative landscaping, secluded paths, and serene lakes of these urban oases. The parks in Dalian and Beijing had been particularly awesome. Tianjin's largest park is called Water Park because most of the surface area is comprised of two enormous lakes separated by a chain of islands connected by bridges. On the way to the park I saw an unfinished skyscraper from the window of the taxi. There were no other buildings around it which made it hard to judge its height but it seemed gigantic. The taxi driver told Mei Ling that it was the Goldin Finance 117 tower and it had been under construction since 2008. It was originally supposed to be completed in 2014 but construction has been suspended multiple times due to lack of financing. If the building is completed as scheduled in 2020, it will be the fifth tallest in the world at 1959 feet. My photo from the taxi window through the smog doesn't do the building justice so I stole an aerial picture from this awesome skyscraper message board.
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When we arrived at Water Park we took a wrong entrance and ended up at the adjacent Zhou Enlai Memorial. Zhou is revered in China for his role in the Chinese Civil War and his position as the first premier of the People's Republic of China. It wasn't really our kind of place but the kids got a kick out of touring the airplane that Zhou received as a gift from Stalin.
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Once we figured out how to get to Water Park it did not disappoint. At the northern end of the park was a Bonsai Garden with a classical Chinese pavilion. The kids were amazed by the miniature trees and Cleo was very skeptical when I told her they were regular trees that had been trimmed very carefully over years.
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The trail over boardwalks and bridges from the north to the south side of the park was truly remarkable. We were surrounded on every side by tranquil lakes and lush vegetation, yet on the other side of the water was the imposing urban landscape of Tianjin. The park wasn't as meticulously maintained as People's Park in Dalian but it was just as beautiful in its own way.
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On the way back to the center of town we drove around the Tianjin Radio and Television Tower, which is the eighth tallest freestanding tower in the world. For a city that is barely on the tourism radar, Tianjin has a surprising number of visually arresting sights.
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Tianjin is another city that has largely lost its night markets, if it ever had any. Our research uncovered a couple of food streets, but they proved to be a pale imitation of true night markets. They were more similar to Ancient Cultural Street with lonely vendors selling traditional snacks in a largely deserted cavernous building.
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It was dark by the time we arrived at Minyuan Stadium, a former sports arena which is now a multipurpose space for artistic performances, boutiques, and restaurants. In front of the Neoclassical entrance arch was a sports monument that had a large installation of illuminated piano keys arranged around it. Dozens of kids were jumping on the keys which caused them to blink and change colors. Inside the stadium people were congregated on the concrete bleachers even though there was nothing happening on the small stage at the center except for a few kids skateboarding. Inside the covered archways was a somewhat sterile but crowded night market devoted to crafts and artisanal foods. As we left the stadium we encountered a crowd watching middle-aged Chinese women dancing to Irish-sounding music being played by Chinese men with harmonica and bongo drums. China seems to have become one of the world's foremost cultural melting pots even without having much of a foreign community. We had dinner at a steakhouse in Minyuan Stadium but couldn't recreate the magic from the previous night at the French restaurant. The steaks were tough and greasy despite the Western prices.

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We started our last day in Tianjin with a walk up the Western bank of the Hai to the Yongle Bridge, where we bought tickets for an evening ride on the Tianjin Eye. On the way we noticed that many of the trees had what looked like a large open insect cocoon nailed to their trunks. We were unable to think of a reason why anyone would do this, nor could I find out anything online afterwards.
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We spent most of the day in the Heping District of central Tianjin. The Porcelain House is a large mansion in the French Concession area whose current owner has decorated it with thousands of porcelain jars and porcelain vases. It reminded me a lot of the Dickeyville Grotto in Wisconsin, an odd convergence of Eastern and Western aesthetics. It was quite an interesting and beautiful structure, but it was also a quite expensive tourist trap so we took photos outside and moved on.
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We took a long walk southeast towards another Tianjin landmark, St. Joseph's Cathedral. On the way we encountered a large shopping mall with several food courts which had much better offerings than the touristy official food streets. With full stomachs we pressed onward to the cathedral, which turned out to be a pleasantly symmetric red and white-striped confection. The hundred-year-old Roman Catholic church was constructed from bricks shipped from France and seemed quite incongruous against a backdrop of drab modern highrises.
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At this point we were relatively close to Minyuan Stadium so we decided to take another look during the day time. On the way we passed a barbershop and all three of us boys got our hair cut under the watchful eye of Mei Ling.
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The area around Minyuan Stadium is called Wu Da Dao, or Five Great Avenues. The area is known for its many Western style buildings that were built during the concession era in the early 20th century. During the day we found the stadium and surroundings to be almost completely deserted. We walked around the immediate area and didn't see any buildings that were particularly remarkable. Tourists were being loaded into horse-drawn carriages for tours of the area but we decided we'd already seen enough Western style buildings at Badaguan in Qingdao.
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The time had come for us to return to the Tianjin Eye for our scheduled ride. The enormous Ferris Wheel was already illuminated in the gathering dusk. There was a long line of people who already had tickets but Mei Ling was somehow able to negotiate with a security guard to get us past the bulk of it. Even so we had to wait on a very slow moving line for more than an hour after our ride was supposed to have begun. Eventually we got on the wheel which also turned excruciating slowly. It took forty minutes to complete the revolution by which time the kids were totally bored and jumping around the small cabin. Thanks to the many tall condo buildings in the area, the view from the top wasn't that much better than it had been from the ground. Of all the things we had done in Tianjin, riding the Eye had certainly been the least worthwhile.
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For our last dinner in Tianjin I had a lead on a place called Shiyue Food Street in the Hebei District on the east side of the river. I'd only found one mention of it so I wasn't sure it really existed, but fortunately our taxi driver knew exactly where it was. There weren't many restaurants open on the street but at least it was outdoors and crowded. It was the only authentic night market we found in Tianjin.
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We had now been to the five largest cities in China and Tianjin was by far the least impressive, which explains why Tianjin is barely a blip on the tourist radar. I was still happy we'd visited, mainly for the experience of walking alongside the Hai River and eating at the Italian Style Town. However, there was nothing else about Tianjin that particularly stood out even when compared to smaller cities like Dalian or Shenyang. I think Tianjin is best visited as an overnight trip from Beijing so that the evening can be enjoyed on the river and perhaps a visit to Ancient Cultural Street or Water Park in the morning before returning. And definitely, for sure, skip the Tianjin Eye.

Posted by zzlangerhans 04:07 Archived in China Tagged travel market china blog tianjin tony friedman Comments (2)

East Asian Immersion: Nara and Himeji


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There's a lot more to Kansai than Osaka and Kyoto, but since we only had ten days in Japan we limited ourselves to two of the most popular day trips. I could still remember visiting Nara with my parents as a fifteen year old. Although the iconic temples of the ancient capital are its primary draw, my most vivid memories were of the crowds of tame deer overwhelming my attempts to parcel out crackers fairly.
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We had an easy train ride from Namba and now I was in Nara again thirty-five years later, this time with my own children. While Nara is a good-sized suburb of Osaka, most tourists confine themselves to the small complex of temples and gardens at the northwestern edge of the town. We wandered around the peripheries of the more famous temples such as Kofoku-ji and Todai-ji but didn't go in, even to see the giant Buddha in Todai-ji. Neither Mei Ling nor I get too excited about religious iconography and the kids are too young to care. On the other hand the kids were enormously entertained by the hungry deer that roamed throughout the complex.
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The largest concentration of deer were in Noborioji Park next to Kofoku-ji. A vendor was selling packages of crackers which contained an instruction pamphlet. The paper warned us not to tease the deer with the crackers and to show them our empty hands when we had nothing left. It seemed a little silly until we actually got out there with the crackers and had to contend with being swarmed by deer aggressively darting at our hands. At the same time that we were trying to keep the packages from being snatched out of our hands, other deer were circling behind us and investigating our pockets and bags. At one point I had to jump away from a deer that was slowly working my Japanese phrasebook out of my back pocket. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a sudden flash of movement near Spenser but by the time I could focus on him he was brushing himself off unperturbed. Only later when I watched the video did I see that he barely dodged a large doe lunging at him with its front hooves. He hadn't even done anything to provoke her. I guess I should have been watching my kids a little more carefully instead of filming, but at least we have a video Spenser can be proud to show his own kids one day.
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There are two neighboring walled gardens adjacent to Todai-ji. We chose Yoshiki-en Garden for the simple reason that it was free for foreigners while Isui-en was fairly expensive to enter. We enjoyed a relaxing walk along the pebble paths of the beautifully landscaped garden before our return to Osaka.
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Over the ten days we spent in Kansai we probably visited about as many temples and castles as the average tourist visits in two days. However, we didn't hold back when it came to visiting Japan's largest and most beautiful castle on the last full day of our visit. After a hearty breakfast in one of the food halls in Umeda Station we took the direct limited express train to Himeji. This meant we would be leaving Japan without taking a single bullet train which is something of a tourism sacrilege. On the other hand, we saved about forty bucks for an extra forty-five minutes of travel time. Maybe the shinkansen would have been worth it if we had been riding on the roof of the train, but from the inside of the carriage I don't see how the extra speed would have felt much different.

Himeji is a sizable city of half a million people that sits at the end of the continuously developed coastal area that begins at Osaka. The castle is about a kilometer from the train station but try as we might we couldn't find the stop for the bus that shuttles tourists from the station to the castle. Instead we walked up the wide thoroughfare Otemae Street with the hilltop castle directly in our sights. When I first researched Osaka and came across Himeji Castle I was taken back by how enormous and beautiful it was. Seeing it in person, what struck me the most was the visual impact of the gray-tiled eaves and gables against the pristine whiteness of the castle walls.
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The interior tour of Himeji was quite exhausting. There were six floors and after the second the staircases were more like ladders. Between trying to position myself behind the kids while they climbed and keeping track of them on each crowded floor I don't recall very much about what was inside, aside from the facts that the floors and walls were a dark wood. I don't even recall if photographs were prohibited or not worth taking, but I don't have any. It was a relief to get back outside and walk the rest of the compound underneath the overcast sky.
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Adjacent to the castle compound is a large complex of gardens called Koko-en. These were the best gardens we saw on this trip to Japan. There was a seemingly endless chain of gardens, each one greener and more pleasingly manicured than the last. The koi in the numerous ponds were colorful and enormous. It was a very relaxing way to conclude the day trip.
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On the walk back to the Himeji train station we realized we hadn't eaten any soba since our first night in Kyoto. Not wanting to miss our last opportunity to eat these delicious buckwheat noodles in the country of their origin we found yet another underground food court close to the station. There was an unusual system in the restaurant where we had to buy tickets for our dishes at a vending machine and give them to the cook, where they were thankfully prepared in the kitchen and not in the bowels of the machine.
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We arrived back at Umeda in the evening and stepped outside for one last look at the plaza with the fountains in front of Osaka Station. We often have mixed feelings about leaving a city that we've enjoyed, but we were sorry to be leaving Osaka. While we had packed everything on our list into our eight day stay, I was acutely conscious that we had still only seen a small fraction of the city's area. Who knows what secrets of Osaka we still hadn't uncovered? It would have been great to have had another week to find out. I had never expected to visit a city on this trip that would crack our top ten, let alone our top three, but we both agreed that Osaka and Kyoto taken together had more to offer a traveler than Tokyo. That left only New York City and London as greater cities to visit thanks to their incomparable international character. Now it was time to fly back to China and revisit our fourth favorite city in the world, the electrifying metropolis of Shanghai.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 02:02 Archived in Japan Tagged himeji travel nara blog tony friedman Comments (0)

East Asian Immersion: Osaka IV (Shinsekai and Tajiri)


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Osaka is one of that rare breed of cities with areas worth visiting scattered all around the metropolitan area. With the exception of London, most major European cities have their interesting sights concentrated in the center. Some of the places I'd compare Osaka to would be New York City, Los Angeles, and Tokyo. As we reached the end of our eight day stay we began to explore some of the less well-known but no less fascinating parts of this enormous, intricate metropolis.

You won't see Shinsekai on many of the recommended short Osaka itineraries you'll find on the web. This compact commercial area just east of Tennoji Park was created by the local government in the early 20th century to mimic entertainment districts in the west, and the vibe is preternaturally similar to Coney Island in New York City. The streets are packed with cheap restaurants selling Japanese fast food to locals and tourists alike who may not be amenable to the high prices of izakayas in Minami and Kita. In the center of Shinsekai is Tsutentaku, which was the second tallest building in Asia at the time of its construction in 1912 and is still popular for its indoor exhibits and observation decks.
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Shinsekai in some ways was similar to Dotonbori but the atmosphere was more working class than touristy. I had the feeling that most of the visitors to the area were local blue collar types who were looking for a cheap place to eat, drink, and socialize. The close proximity to Osaka's largest red light district probably contributes to that atmospheree as well. The Buddha-like monkey statue that appears somewhere around almost every establishment in Shinsekai is named Billiken and is the unofficial mascot of the area. Despite the enticing decoration of many of the restaurants, the offerings of deep fried skewers and other low quality snacks didn't tempt us. Fortunately Mei Ling figured out that the restaurant with the full-size fishing boat embedded in the marquee offered indoor fishing for dinner and we were immediately sold.
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You can't make three young kids much happier than by taking them to a restaurant where you fish for your own dinner. The interior of the restaurant was styled like an ocean with the tables on large boat-shaped platforms seemingly floating on the water. Between and around the boats two kinds of fish swam freely, brown puffer fish and pinkish bream. The waiter provided us with a paper cup of tiny dead shrimp and made it clear that whatever we caught we had to buy, nothing could be thrown back. We baited hooks on the fishing poles that were propped against the railing and quickly learned that neither type of fish was the slightest bit interested in the dead shrimp. We could see the fish swimming right past the bait without even shifting their course. The next thing we tried was the net which I could actually reach into the water with. After a couple of misses I caught one of the puffer fish. I'm pretty sure it wasn't the kind that will kill you if it isn't prepared correctly, but it still cost us eighty bucks. I hadn't read the menu carefully before we began fishing. Afterwards we watched how the locals were doing it. They all went to the most crowded tank and waited for a huge swarm of the pink fish to swim underneath, at which point they would whip the bare hook up and snag one of the fish through the skin. We tried the same technique and soon enough caught one of the pink ones. We tried several different preparations of our fish including on-the-bone sashimi and flash-frying. Ironically the twenty dollar bream tasted better than the puffer fish which was four times as expensive.
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The kids loved the fishing restaurant so much they made us go back for a second round two days later. This time it was Saturday evening so we had the added bonus of the weekly night market, held in a covered arcade parallel to the main pedestrian street. The first stall we encountered had a wide array of exotic snacks from lizards to scorpions. We'd tried similar things before in China but it was surprising to see in a conservative country like Japan. A lot of their food seems exotic to Westerners but typically insects and lizards are not on the menu. Cleo was actually the one who got us started on eating the bugs, clamoring insistently for a cup of the sauteed mealworms which she devoured with gusto. By the time we'd finished we'd gone through the mealworms as well as a huge scorpion and a meaty gecko. Unfortunately I can't say I enjoyed the creepy-crawlies as much as I did in China. The vendor used a frying pan rather than a deep fryer so the large scorpion and gecko didn't get crispy at all. The scorpion's skin was chewy and when it tore open there was a white pulpy interior that was somewhat bitter. The gecko likewise had an inedible skin and very fishy meat. The kids all had a go at each of them but in the end most of it ended up in the trash.
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My research into Osaka seafood markets had yielded one last promising opportunity, the Sunday fish market in the southern suburb of Tajiri. The English language internet didn't have much information about this market so it was somewhat of a leap of faith for us to take the hour-long metro trip early on Sunday morning. Fortunately we found the market as promised and although it was small it wasn't disappointing. Not many tourists are up for the long trek to a residential neighborhood far from the center and it was clear that it was mainly a local event. We didn't see any seafood that was unusual or unfamiliar but there were a lot of snack vendors and we put together a decent lunch of typical specialties. There were plenty of fruit and vegetable stands along with the seafood stalls. One of the most popular dishes was eel tempura, although none of us are partial to deep-fried food.
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There's an opportunity at Tajiri to board one of the fishing boats and help them haul in the nets, after which you can prepare your catch in an area of outdoor grills. We were somewhat late for that and it seemed to be a complicated and expensive venture, so we chose the alternative activity of fishing for bream in makeshift pools underneath the suspension bridge that crossed over the port. I was surprised at the number of adults that were fishing in these stocked tanks but I suppose it's the best way to be sure you're getting the freshest fish. It was kind of tricky to keep balanced on the floating platforms and I was terrified that one of the kids would fall into the water so we made them sit down most of the time even when they were fishing. We had to pay the full price for each kid to catch a fish even though we were throwing them back. We'd already eaten enough bream for a year over two dinners in Shinsekai.
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We took a long walk through local streets to the next metro station over from the one we had arrived at. It was another nice opportunity to enjoy a quiet suburban atmosphere and admire the uniqueness of Japanese design. I especially enjoyed the old-fashioned ceramic tile roofs that make the most modest house look like a Buddhist temple. One house under construction had beautiful wavy blue tiles that were reminiscent of the surface of the ocean. It was another example of how Japan has managed to be simultaneously one of the most innovative and also most traditional societies in the world at the same time.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 15:31 Archived in Japan Tagged osaka japan travel blog tajiri tony friedman shinsekai Comments (0)

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