Monday, July 28, 2008

Great Wall Video - Visit to Badaling

Here's take 2 for my travel videos... So much for one a week! It's on my YouTube site or you can just watch it below. Let me know what you think!

Friday, July 25, 2008

There are far better writers out there... a Chinese LOTD

Another housekeeping note, but as you might have noticed, I've added a new Blogger feature on the right-hand toolbar. It's a self-updating blogroll featuring the latest posts from my China comrades. So, if you're looking for more insight into what it's like to be in Beijing for the Olympics, and not just posts about pooping, you might want to check out my friends. It'll be worth it, trust me.

Also, Emerson has started a collective blog, where all of us are required to post at least once a week. There's some enlightening stuff on there, if you want to sift through it.

Just trying to keep y'all entertained at work!

Also, pictures are up from The Temple of Heaven, 7-9-8 Art District (more on that later) and see the random city shots for additions from Beijing's first Apple Store and Hooters.

"Asked a gas station employee if he ever had trouble breathing and he said, 'It varies from season to season.'"

Some musings on Beijing's famous smog...

When you tell people you're preparing for a trip, you generally get warnings based on where you're going.

"Watch out for pickpockets!"

"Get a malaria shot!"

"Bring Amodium!"

All that good stuff. When I was getting ready to come to Beijing, the one comment I received that far outweighed all the others was, "The pollution is terrible there! You can't even breathe! You won't be able to see your hand in front of your face! You'll die of asphyxiation as soon as you step off the plane!"

Turns out, those helpful tidbits were exaggerated... but only slightly. For a kid used to the clean, crisp air of New Hampshire's seacoast, the smog is freaking bad. I could see it the first night I arrived - a yellow haze that settled over the city and showed up like halos of cigarette smoke ringed around streetlights. That worried me.

But like anything else that makes travel difficult (exchange rates, language barriers, entry visas, ticket touts and overbearing Americans in fanny packs), you just learn to deal with it.

I, for one, turn it into a game. I call it "Where's Burns Manor?" Each morning, my alarm goes off and I throw it into the wall. 90 minutes later, I get up and walk across the 3 1/2 feet of tiled floor to my window and gaze out, trying to judge the smog levels for that day. One mile from here, there's a nuclear powerplant, that looks just like the one in Springfield (hence, Burns Manor). If I can see it clearly, it's a great day and the smog has disappeared overnight with no explanation or note - almost like a one-night stand sneaking out before breakfast and regret. If I can make out a shadowy outline, it's a typical day in Beijing; the smog is there when you wake up, like a good friend. On the days where I can't see Burns Manor at all (which is more often than not), it's a crappy, smoggy, hacking day and the clouds of pollution are like a suffocating relationship that you just want to get out of, but can't because you're trapped and smothered under a blanket of pain, tears and lost dreams.

Either way, you're in a relationship with the smog, whether you like it or not.

(Pictures 1&2 are from the fifth day of the trip, which was the clearest we've had. Incidentally, it's also the first day we figured out that a powerplant actually existed. The third shot is from yesterday, which was by far the worst day. Burns Manor should be where that giant cloud is on the right. Walking around the city yesterday felt like simultaneious onset of an asthma attack and a claustrophobic freakout. I need my inhaler.)

Since I'm here, I just have to deal with it. I did come somewhat prepared - stocked up on allergy meds (Claritin and Zyrtec), way-cool nose spray that goes perfectly with my headgear (Zycam), an over-the-counter inhaler and Chinese Airborne (Now, with 15% more lead!). All that's been working well with me and when the smog ups the ante to a higher thickness level, I just check-raise that sucker with more pills. Boo-yah.

There are other ways of coping, too. One is to just not go outdoors, which is a method some have taken - only the air conditioning here is just as bad for you and sitting in a dorm room is now way to travel. Others have taken to bringing face-masks (although, I haven't seen anyone in my group wear one). There are also more than a few PODs (Portable Oxygen Device) going around, too. These little cans of oxygen give you 40 breaths of clean, smog-free air per tube. I have one and I've been using it off-and-on. Have I seen a difference? Um, probably not... but it does give a psychological edge in the battle against smogification. And there are those that swear by them and trade them on the ex-pat black market like they were packs of cigs in federal prison.

I've been told that, eventually, you just get used to the air. The lack of sunlight stops bothering you and your lungs adjust. I hope so, because I've developed a sore throat for the past four days and sort of a dry hack of a cough on occasion. But at least I haven't resorted to the face mask. I'm just living for the next clear view of Burns Manor.

Maybe it'll be tomorrow.

(Image of the sun, over cypress trees at the Temple of Heaven, peeking through the smog at 4pm yesterday).

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Highlights of Beijing (to-date)

So, rather than bore you with long-winded descriptions of each place, I'm going to keep y'all updated by giving out a list of the sites I've visited and include a note on each. And lots of pictures. Because a picture is worth a thousand words and no one actually wants to read 10,000 of those, right?

I was able to visit about half of these places courtesy of BOCOG (the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games), who took us News Service worker on a three-day tour of the best Beijing had to offer. So, I have to be eternally thankful to them, even if our first stop was kinda poopy.

On to the sites! As always, I've linked to more shots on Flickr from the entry.

Qinghe Water Reclamation Plant - this is, you guessed it, a waste water treatment plant. Or, more specifically, they clean sewage so the water can be used in car washes, to provide irrigation and the like (thankfully, not drink). The city is definitely proud of this plant and the 12 others just like them it built for the Olympics. There were a plethora of jokes about this visit, but I can't share any of them in mixed company.

Xiang Tang New Culture Village - We visited "the most beautiful village in China," which is a government sanctioned/subsidized/supported/built "village" in Beijing. I'd liken it to something akin to visiting Disneyworld or the City of the Future at the World's Fair. It was eeiry, actually... there a ton of new buildings, but very few are inhabited. It's a mish-mash of old style courtyard homes and Western condos. At the center is an arts center that caters to a resident retirement community. They sang us a song about how happy they were to live in a place with clear skies and fresh mountain air (the smog was so thick that day that we couldn't see the actual mountains that were a 1/2 mile away, but they assured us that they were there). Honestly, I'm not really sure even now what to think about this place. It's either a project to try and reclaim some of China's lost history or one giant PR scam... neither would surprise me.

Peking Duck - let me say, if you had to have a last meal and picked this, you couldn't be too wrong. My goodness, is it ever delicous. Perfect with a Tsingtao.

Great Wall, Badaling - Lonely Planet say thus about Badaling: "The surrounding scenery is raw and impressive and this is the place to come see the wall snaking off into the distance over the undulating hills. Also come here for guard rails, souvenier stalls, a fairground feel and the companionship of sqauds of tourists surging over the ramparts. If you time your visit to coincide with a summer weekend, you won't be able to move against the wall of humanity on the battlements." I have to say, the book couldn't have summed it up better. It took us a full hour of waiting, jammed against Chinese tourists, to get from the ticket booth to the top of the actual wall. Part of it had to do with Felipe Calderon (Mexico's president), who decided to visit the wall on the same day and they closed off sections for him, but part of it was Badaling's natural "tourist charms." I will definitely be re-visting the Great Wall, but not at Badaling. Having said that, it might be the coolest thing I've done in Beijing. Climbing over one of the 7 wonders of the world (that's 2,000 years old) cannot be underestimated.

The Ming Tombs - built during the 1500's during the Ming dynasty, these tombs rival those of Egypt's Pharoahs in splendor and oppulence. There are 13 of them, but only three are open to the public. In essence, they are underground tombs surrounded by lush gardens of cypress and impressive temples. The best part of the visit, however, wasn't the tomb itself. Rather, it was the perfectly clear sky that gave us tremendous views of the rocky mountains just north of Beijing. A landscape fit for an emperor's resting place.

The New Summer Palace - Originally named "Qingyi Yuan" or Garden of Clear Ripples, the Summer Place was built in 1750 by Emperor Qianlong (Qin dynasty) to celebrate his mother's birthday. Um, wow. Let's just say the dude A) really liked his mom and B) had lots of time on his hands. Since then, it's been destroyed twice (by invading Anglo forces, as the signs around the park constantly remind you), but has been open for nearly 100 years as a public park. It's now a UNESCO World Heritage site and full of China's signature brillantly painted temples. The park's two most distinguishing features - a lake and a steep hill - are both manmade. The emperor wanted a lake, there wasn't one there, so slaves dug one. He then also had a hill to build imposing Tower of Buddhist Incense. It's good to be king.

The Old Summer Palace - Anglo-French forces destroyed this one (by fire) in 1860 and it hasn't been rebuilt. That's really all I know about it. It's really sad to see, actually, because it would have been quite impressive... it was inspired by French architecture and would have resembled Versailles, to a certain degree. There was a cool maze, though.

The Forbidden City - This wasn't part of the BOCOG tour, so I went there on my own with a few friends. It's pretty neat to wander around the grounds where the seat of China's power had been for five centuries. During that time, just your Average Joe-types like me wouldn't have been allowed in. It was a place of mystery, excess and politics (kind of like our Congress, ha). Actually, if I had been allowed inside, I'd have to pay with my, um, family jewels, as the only average males let in were the eunuchs who watched over the 3,000+ concubines and supervised their quarters. Pretty crazy...

Tien'anmen Square - did you know it's the largest public square in the world? I didn't. It's massive - took an hour to walk around it. I'd have to say that it was certainly Communist-inspired. The buildings surrounding it all have squared, blocky edifices and, of course, there's Mao's every present pus peering over it all. Definitely a must-see, although it's tough to get pictures to come out with all of the cars and people getting in the way.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

"Hey, everybody... come see how good I look."

Yup, you guessed it. I've got more photos up on Flickr. There are about 150 shots (Too many? Probably.) up which you can look through at your leisure by visiting my China Collection.

Hmm... "China Collection." That either makes me sound like Kenneth Cole or Hannibal Lechter. I can't decide. Judging from what I've been eating lately (mule, scorpion, sea snake, silk worm, McDonalds soft serve), it just may be the latter.

If you're too lazy to click through to another webpage or if you're suffering from horrible finger cramps, I'll put up a few fun ones here for your perusal.

But all the naked ones are on Flickr.

I'm kidding.

Or am I?

Here's that link again, you curious perv.

Lamb skewers at Wangfujing Snack Street

Buddha in the Temple of Heavenly Incense, New Summer Palace

Peeps at the Summer Palace

Me, standing on history at the Great Wall (Badaling)

Chinglish and other messages lost in translation...

So, it's definitely unfortunate that Bill Simmons is off for the rest of the summer, because he would have definitely gotten a kick out of his fake brother of a different mother being considered a big enough star to have his name translated into Mandarin and sold for 40RMB (about $7) at the Great Wall of China's closest gift shop. I'll have to send it to his mailbag in the fall.

(Bobby Simmons, by the way, is a backup forward who averaged under 8 points and 22 minutes per game last year and just got traded to the New Jersey Nets. Maybe his blog is wildly popular in China or something?)

While Bobby Simmons isn't a misspelling, the misrepresentation of the role-player being a "NBA Star" is what got me putting together this post. There is, in touristy areas, quite a lot of English to be found. It's generally paired with the original Mandarin text and is there to help us bumbling tourists find our way around.

However, the Chinese are rather famous for their awkward or downright incorrect translations. It's called Chinglish (let's ignore the racial undertones on that one), and despite the government's best efforts to clean it up before the Games, still can be found quite readily throughout Beijing.

Here are a few of my favorites:

"Dwight Wade" - found alongside Bobby Simmons in the NBA Stars bin.

"Me Jail Bait" - seen on a t-shirt.

"I Heart BJ" - meaning Beijing, of course. Seen on a t-shirt.

"A Step Closer Helps Keep It Cleaner" - seen on a urinal.

"To Return Is Our Welcome" - seen at a bookstore exit.

"Natural to Prevent Health Care" - seen on an herbal pharmacy.

"Shitake Mushroom Rape" - seen on a menu. I presumed it was stuffed mushrooms.

"Onion Explodes the Mutton" - it was delicious.

I'm going to try and keep listing the good ones I see, with some pictures, too...

Side note: PBR makes bottled water to sell in China. It is definitely the PBR of bottled water.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Settling down in China...

So, I feel like I've been really down on Beijing in my first two city-related posts. A lot of that had to do with just sort of getting a wave of culture-shock upon arrival... so I wanted to write and say that I'm doing fine now.

The one thing you can say about the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (BOCOG - the overseeing group for all-things Beijing Olympics) is that it has been nothing but welcoming from Day 1. The longer I stay here, the more I realize the extent of what it's done to make us feel at home.

For example, we have air conditioning in our residences and private bathrooms. That's nearly unheard of... even on the campus we're staying, most of the students have to walk to camping-style, communal bathrooms.

They decorated the hallways of our building with pastoral pictures of forests, mountains and log cabins. Just like the good, ol' USofA (or so they were thinking). It's endearing.

We were given a 3-day, all-expenses paid tour to Beijing's top sights - the Great Wall, the Ming Tombs, the Summer Palace. And we were also shown a couple areas the local government is especially proud of: a state-of-the-art waste water treatment plant and a planned village, which is where the "future of China" lies. While the latter two aren't necessarily what I'd take visitors to New Hampshire to, the fact that the people were so proud to show off their achievements to a horde of Western volunteers was definitely touching.

All the while, we've been inundated with food... over 100 specially prepared Peking ducks one night for the 350+ volunteers, watermelon (a delicacy here) for dessert each night, dish after dish after dish stacked onto lazy susans... the spread has been immense and I'm hoping my waistband won't be the same in the end. I've come to find out that the number one way to show visitors welcome in Asia is the feed them into a coma.

But the most welcome has been shown by the people of Beijing. The entire city is behind the Olympics. It's not just the people we've been introduced to by BOCOG, either. Rather, everywhere you look, people are wearing Games swag, taking pictures of the beautiful stadiums and smiling happily when you tell them you're here to work for the ONS.

There are a handful of Chinese volunteers that have been assigned the task of being ambassadors to our group, as well. One, in particular, has gone above and beyond to make sure the loud, crazy, non-Mandarin speaking Americans feel welcomed in Beijing.

Cindy rocks. She's a grad student at the Communications University of China (the CUC), where we're staying. While she's been learning English for only two years, she's already fluent. On every bus ride, Cindy has been sitting up front, ready to answer questions or chat about life in China in a friendly, outgoing manner. She's already organized impromtu Ping-Pong-Cho sessions, invited a half-dozen of her friends and schooled each one of us at the ping-pong tables.

I just try to think that if a group of 35 foreigners came to my school for two months, would I have done the same? Honestly, it's not likely...

So while Beijing may not have the natural beauty of some other world-class cities, its citizens have already demonstrated (on the individual level) that some of the country's most beautiful people live there.

Thanks BOCOG and thanks Beijing.

Cindy (left) and fellow-volunteer, Li


Just a couple notes...

For all my Facebook compadres: I'm having a tough time getting on to respond to comments and emails. Sorry, but the Great Cyber Wall of China isn't helping me enjoy my Facebook addiction and I haven't been able to post any pictures. Sad day.... so don't feel offended if I don't respond to you right away (or quickly) (or at all). It's not personal, I'm just blocked for some reason.

For people checking out my Flickr site, the best way to view shots is to view my collections. I've organized everything (or am in the process of arranging, anyway) into Japan and China collections with sub-sets in each of those. Fun, fun, fun...

That's all, folks. Now, back to the fun and your regularly scheduled programming...

Happy Birthday, dear blog, Happy Birthday to you!

So, in all of the travel-related excitement, I missed the one-year anniversary of my blog. At some point last week, "Great Story. Compelling and Rich" - the Mike Nagel saga - reached its first annum.

Let me just say that it's been a fun-filled, exciting year in the blogosphere of all things Mike. I've been learning along the way on how to do these things, how to keep you entertained and how to be a "blogger." It's been a riot all 365 days (and 100+ posts).

The best thing, though, has been the feedback I've gotten from you, my readers. Your comments don't go ignored - whether left here, emailed to me, posted on Facebook or fabricated entirely in my imagination - and I appreciate your willingness to keep reading while I stumble around figuring out what works best and strike a balance between what makes me happy as a writer and y'all enjoying yourself as readers.

So, rather than singing Happy Birthday to a website, I'd like you just to take a second, pat yourself on the back and congratulate yourself on a successful Year One. I couldn't do it without you and I hope you'll stay tuned for more fun in the year to come...

Thank you.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Photos are up...

So I'm doing really well in Beijing. After a bit of culture shock, I feel like I'm fitting in nicely. BOCOG (the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games) has done nothing but make all of us volunteers feel welcomed.

I've been AWOL because there hasn't been much down time with the tourist schedule they set up for us... for three days, they sent us around to: a waste treatment plant, a "future of China" type planned village, the Great Wall (at Badaling), the Ming Tombs, a crafts center, Peking Opera, Peking Duck, the "new" Summer Palace and the "old" Summer palace as well as spread after spread of delicious food. I swear, I will gain 40 pounds by the time I come home.

I've been trying to digest everything I've taken in (both literally and in the tourist sense), but I don't feel like I'm quite ready to break down everything for you. It's all a little new and overwhelming... and I don't want to trivialize anything by a little premature posting. So, I'm going to hold back for now, but I will tell you that I FINALLY have Japan photos posted.

They're here on my Flickr site. I really wanted to get them onto Facebook, but I believe the Great Firewall is preventing me from accessing it. Either that or the application I use has a glitch (also a possibility). Anyways, if I figure out a way, I'll get them there, but for now they're on Flickr.

I will have more blogs - whether writing, videos or pictures - for you tomorrow, I promise.

In the meantime, here's that link again.

Enjoy, friends!
Ceremonial, pre-temple cleansing

Downtown Peeps

Owabi on the grill

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Culture - it's a shocker.

I have to say, there’s been a little bit of culture shock. It’s weird because that sort of thing never really bothered me before. And it’s not like I haven’t been in situations of extreme cultural differences before – it’s just not gotten to me the way life in Beijing has. I’ve always been able to brush it aside and use my excitement for exploration to get over it.

Maybe it’s because I’ll be here for a full two months. Maybe it’s because the language is so difficult to navigate and I feel completely lost, linguistically. Whatever it is, it had be down for the first couple of days.

The funk settled in like a thick layer of the city’s infamous smog, which, by the way, exists in full force. What little of Beijing I’ve seen is, quite frankly, very ugly and full of concrete buildings and massive, Communist-era structures. These intimidating skyscrapers are everywhere.

The skyline’s uninviting demeanor isn’t exactly improved by the thickly settled pollution, either. This stuff is just as bad as advertised. It’s like the weather is continually foggy, yet strangely bright, all around here. You can’t help but feel sluggish as you struggle through the pollution’s pea soup.

I’ve seen the sun twice since I’ve gotten here. The other day, at 1pm, it towered high above Tiananmen Square, burning bright and yellow. But it was just a glimpse and then it disappeared, blocked out by the thick clouds that jostled each other for position over the city. Then, later that night, I saw it again before it set… a burning, red orb angered at being pushed aside and forgotten.

I’ve heard that people my age, who have never left Beijing, have seen fewer blue skies than they can count on their hands.

The most noticeable feature of the city’s skyline are the towering, skeletal outlines of massive cranes. There is a huge amount of construction underway in Beijing and these tools are literally everywhere. They are specters overlooking the birth street-and-concrete offspring - new buildings, bringing new life to a Beijing that’s evolving on a daily basis.
They should be the image of rejuvenation. And yet, I haven’t been able to shake off the ominous prickling up the back of my spine when I see them rising from the mists, looking ready to devour the young they helped create.

Yeah, you could say that I’ve been in a funk.

A little bit of culture shock is a standard part of travel. Strange faces, strange faces and strange foods can overwhelm, but for me, that was always the most exciting part. It was the reason I traveled in the first place. I wanted to be surprised, I wanted to see new things, I wanted my comfort zone to melt away.

But during my first two days here, I didn’t want any of that. As I looked around at what I perceived to be a despairing city, lost in in a sea of 17 million fast-paced, hard-charging citizens, I felt lost.

(An aside: very few people wait in lines here – there’s a whole lot of cutting and jostling while at cafeterias or waiting for the subway)

I felt lost and insignificant. What was I doing here? I still had two months to go… could I cut it? For fleeting moments, when thinking about home and Sonja, I wanted to leave Beijing. And I’d barely even gotten here.

It’s funny, sometimes, how life works. One minute, you can be completely lost (in my case, in China, struggling to be understood and to understand) and then a seemingly inconsequential act can give you a ray of hope that pierces the clouds like a bright beacon.

For me, it came at a subway station ticket machine. Rush hour in downtown Beijing and literally thousands of commuters were pouring past me through turnstiles and herding themselves towards the trains. I stood there with the whirlwind whipping around me, trying to work the touchscreen and buy a ticket back to home campus.

Even though there were English directions, I couldn’t figure out exactly how to work it to purchase a ticket. Every time I searched for my destination on the map and tried to put in my money, the machine either timed out or spit out my bill. Over and over and over, I got rejected. Looking around, there wasn’t a station attendant in sight or a counter where I could bypass the dysfunctional computer station.

Right when I was about to give up, there came a small tap-tap-tap on my left shoulder. I turned around to see three teenagers, smiling w/ gapped, yellow teeth. The tallest one, his unruly hair sticking out at every angle and dressed in a t-shirt two sizes too large, motioned to me and then to the machine.

I thought he wanted to use it and had gotten impatient with the befuddled American (wei guy ren) in front of him. He just wanted me to get out the way right? Wrong. Quietly, he punched three keys on the screen. His friends stood there smiling as he motioned for me to put money into the feeder. I slid a 10 yuan note in, the machine took it this time and then it spit out a ticket.

The three kids, all of whom were about 10 years younger than me, and I never exchanged a word of English. But they came to my rescue no matter what the language barrier. I quickly grabbed my ticket and change, thanked them repeatedly (in Mandarin – one of the few things I know how to say) and then hurried off to catch the next train.

It was an inconsequential moment, really – the whole thing took less than 15 seconds – but to me, it mean quite a lot. A ragtag group of teens had seen me struggling to get through a simple transaction, saw I couldn’t do it on my own and stepped in to help a complete stranger.

I boarded the train, pressed in on all sides by a crush of humanity, and thought, “Maybe I can make it after all.”

Two days later, not coincidentally, I woke up to blue skies and bright sunlight with mere wisps of clouds in the sky. It was a beautiful summer day in Beijing.

I’m still here.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Touching down in Beijing...

Well, I've been in Beijing for under 12 hours (and spent seven of those asleep) and there's already some culture shock going around in my head.

I think it first happened when I hit the seat of my taxi. Now, in Japan, I took quite a few taxis. With three or four of us traveling at a time, it was often cheaper and/or more convenient to hail a cab versus taking the subway. There, the cars glide up alongside the curb and the drivers pop open a side door for you (they open and close automatically). The seats are covered with soft, white, lace-like cloth that's invariably spotless and might even have been ironed that morning. Most cabbies there will wear a military style uniform or, at the very least, wear a jacket and tie. It's almost like taking a car service back in the States. Quite nice; I definitely got used to a superior level of service.

Let's just say that my first experience with a taxi in Beijing was the complete, utter opposite. If I had to describe it in one sentence, I'd say I was back in NYC all over again.

The cab itself was dinged up and old. There was a whitish cloth on the seats, but it was torn and spotted in places and I doubted it had ever been washed - nevermind ironed. My driver had no uniform, didn't help with the bags and I had to (gasp) open my own door. I tried to communicate the directions and handed him my address (written in Mandarin). In response, he just grunted and we sped off - hopefully in the right direction.

Almost as soon as we were in motion, the driver clicked on his radio and began barking Chinese into it. The only time he stopped doing that during the entire ride was when he switched to barking Chinese into his cell phone. Also, for our entire trip, he chain smoked. From my vantage point in the backseat, I could barely make out his silloutte in the smokey haze... I guess they were right about Beijing's pollution.

We sped through the streets, cutting people off - him yelling and me digging through the cushions for non-existent seatbelts. Finally, after him stopping to ask directions a couple times, we arrived at the right building - me shaken slightly, but in one piece overall. There, he uncermoniously handed me my backpack (upside down) and sped off, puffs of cigarette smoke coming from his windows.

I stood there on the sidewalk with my bags and watched him go.

I had arrived in Beijing.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Pictures up!

Check out the few photos I was able to load here. Many, many, many more to come!

Temple Etiquette - Kyoto Journals

In Kyoto, like many cities in Japan, it’s hard to walk 10 yards without stumbling over a temple or a shire. They’re literally everywhere, ranging in size from huge ornate, palace-like complexes to small boxes that are no larger than a picture frame and stashed away unremarkably on random street corners. And just as the temples are diverse, so are the visitors. You can either find yourself amidst a swarm of excitedly yapping, uniformed school children and camera-flashing busloads of tourists or be entirely alone, appreciating the quiet beauty of peaceful, zen courtyards, listening to birds chirping and water gurgling.

I think I’ve mentioned that I’m using Lonely Planet Japan as my guidebook for this trip. (Side note: good guidebooks are an absolute essential for traveling – find one that works for you and make it your constant companion.) I’ve been happy with the LP so far, but visiting religious sites are an area that no guide can really cover. It’s awfully hard to try and encompass the essence of each place, give the history and make the description appealing without pictures. I think you just have to go to these places and see for yourself. It’s like in Good Will Hunting when Robin Williams tells Matt Damon that there isn’t a book in the world that can tell you what it smells like inside the Sistene Chapel – it’s true.

Incidentally, it smells like hot dogs.

Of course, in Kyoto, with 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites and dozens more Japanese national historic places of interest, it can be awfully hard to figure out which places to go visit. Mom, Jen and I tried to stop by the important ones that were relatively grouped together and not super attractive to tourists. That, unfortunately, meant we had to cross The Golden Temple off our list. That particular temple is possibly the most photographed spot in Japan. You’d recognize the gold-leaf covered pagoda easily (For us Mac users, it’s one of the default background images and currently shown on my laptop). But I feel like, in the end, we used our three days of sightseeing to the fullest extent. I won’t bore you with long descriptions of each place, but I’ll mention where we went, give you my favorites and why.

First, though, we’ve gotta cover shrine etiquette…

---Visiting How-To’s---

At the entrance to most temples and shrines, there is a basin set to one side with perpetually trickling water and ladles. It can be large (up to several feet long) and decorated with statues and carvings around a bathtub-like stone structure. Or, it can be a small, simple faucet running into an overflowing bowl.

Now, we human beings are dirty creatures, as the Japanese know so well (Why else would they have separate sets of shoes for the outside world, the home and the bathroom?). They believe the gods, who are pure, understand this fully. Hence, in order to approach the being living inside the shrine, we mortals must wash to at least partially purify ourselves.

The ritual is a simple one and involves no removal of clothing. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, I leave up to you and your definitions of “sight-seeing.”

Step 1: Take a ladle and scoop up water from either the basin or the faucet.

Step 2: Splash some water over one hand and then the other.

Step 3: Grab another ladleful, pour some into a cupped hand (yours) and then use that water to rinse out your mouth.

Step 4: When you’ve gargled enough to feel clean, spit out the water onto the ground or into the provided trough and replace the ladle for the next visitor’s use.

There you go; you are now clean. Well, clean enough to at least enter and not enrage the gods. That was easy enough, no?

---Shinto Shrines, Buddhist Temples---

One more thing before we head inside to light incense and either ring a bell (if available) or clap to draw the gods’ attention. It’s probably a good idea to know what kind of diety you’re visiting, if you want it to work on your behalf.

99% of Japanese citizens believe in a mixture of Shintoism and Buddhism. Shinto originated in Japan hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago (pre-dating the nation’s written language). It’s a poly-theist religion where there are many spirits to be worshipped – each one having a special blessing for the mortal world. In Shinto, there are gods for good business, food, mental health, protection of women, guardians of children, fertility, rain, etc…

The problem with Shinto, however, is that there was no afterlife. You just stopped living and that’s it – the gods could care less about the dead. So, 600 years ago, when Japan was introduced to Indian Buddhism and the concept of Buddhas available to guide you to an afterlife, the people loved it. They quickly combined the two religions and why not? One was for the living and one was for the dead. It all seemed simple enough.

With the two religions came two kinds of places of worship and those physical divisions remain to this day. Shinto shrines are easily recognizable for the pagoda at the front of each – two tall, vertical sticks topped by a pair of crossbars, one of which is usually curved. Often, those pagoda are painted red or orange. Buddhist temples, on the other hand, don’t have pagodas. Rather, their entrances are guarded by massive gates, which can be so large as to look like mansions with their tiered, slate roofs and ornate woodwork.

If you’re a true worshipper, and not just a tourist poking around for pictures, you’ll visit Shinto shrines to receive blessings on your life and Buddhist temples to pray for your passed ancestors or when you yourself are nothing but and urn full of ashes.

---Religious Highlights of Kyoto---

Higashi Hongan-ji

Originally built in 1591, this is arguably the most important Buddhist temple in all of Japan, as the ashes of the deceased believers must pass through for blessing shortly after death. Its main hall (goe-do) is the largest wooden structure in the world, although another temple in nearby Nara disputes that claim. Unfortunately for us, a few years back, the heavy stone tiles began to cave in the roof. So the temple is currently covered by scaffolding and undergoing construction.

Be there is another hall, a sort of 2nd-tier worship center, that remains open to the public. It’s wonderfully ornate, featuring gilded screens, a golden Buddha and a statue of the temples founder, which actually receives more prominence than the deity’s image itself. Unfortunately, I have no pictures for this one – it’s not allowed (one of the few temples where that rule applies), so you’ll just have to go there and see for yourself.

Nanzen-ji Oku-no-in

Nazen-ji is a major temple and attraction in Kyoto. A huge structure, it was originally built in 1291 as a retirement villa for Emperor Kameyama (although most of what remains now was built in the 17th century, post-Japanese civil war).

However, the gaggles of visitors often miss the small, rather unmarked, dirt path that runs out the back of Nanzen-ji and into a small shire/temple called Oku-no-in. Lonely Planet clued me in on the secret and the three of us were able to find it. Oku-no-in sits beneath a mountain waterfall that’s carved its mark into a cleft of rock. The walk there is through a quiet mountain forest full of bamboo groves, soaring maples and leafy ferns. Several small washbasins and “prayer station” shrines line the carved stone steps of the path. In the stillness of the air, en route to Oku-no-in, you can hear the quiet gurgling of water whispering deep, enchanted secrets and letting you know that you’ve truly entered a special place.


It’s five-story, bright orange pagoda is one of the most photographed in all of Japan as it majestically rises through the treetops overlooking the east side of Kyoto. Though it’s overrun by tourists (I saw a dozen sprinting through the entry gate at 5:55pm to snap a quick picture before the 6 o’clock closing), Kiyomizu-dera is quite historical, having originally been built in 798 and then reconstructed in 1633.

However, for me, the historicity of the place wasn’t what drew me in. Rather, when I turned my back on the crowds and famous pagoda, I could look over the whole city of Kyoto. It spread all the way below my feet to the mountains off in the distance – a magical valley covered in a mist of summer’s haze. Amidst rows of old, tiled homes and blocky, modern buildings, there shot up colorful pagodas and the decorated tops of temples. They stood like so many ancient wise men keeping watch over their city. For the briefest of moments, I joined in their eternal vigilance.

All was well in Kyoto.

Poo on the Road

I am a man unafraid to talk some serious poop.

I do not mean s***, because that would be foul and I may get my meanings confused, as I am not talking about talking about someone. Rather, I am referring to genuine crap – the fecal that matters.

Now, I’m a regular guy. And when I say regular, I mean that you could set your watch by my BM’s: one in the a.m. right after rolling out of bed, 90 minutes after each meal thereafter until I hit the sack and a final finale to close out the day, for good measure.

While some my call my frequent, stinky adventures excessive and bordering on colon endangering, I find them to be both healthy (Better out than in!) and delightfully liberating. Every time I leave the john, it’s like a load has been lifted or erstwhile removed, I’m lighter on my feet and the sun shines just a smidge brighter.

However, my digestive tract has a mortal enemy – it cannot overcome airplanes.

Just what, you might ask, does a vast chunk of steel hurtling at 600mph through the skies have anything to do with smaller chunks of digested food hurtling out at a less-than-sound-barrier-breaking pace? Frankly, I’m not entirely sure myself of the exact connection. But all I know is that the moment I step off a flight, I am no longer a free man. Oh, on the outside, I may appear to be the same. But within, I am bound and trussed, my free spirit stopped up.

Constipation: it’s no laughing matter.

Most unfortunately, this stoppage has become an unavoidable part of every trip I’ve taken over the past few years. Try (and try, and try, and try, and try and try) as I might, I cannot escape constipation’s colon clogging clutches.

I have noticed, in the course of my thoroughly scientific research, that the length of the flight is directly correlated to the length of y suffering. For example, I’ll only need a day or two to recover from a 90-minute shuttle flight. But put me on a 15-hour trans-Pacific route and The Works just ain’t working right.

I came on this trip armed with a full bottle of Metamucil capsules (courtesy of Grandma) and a half-bottle of fish oil (courtesy of Mom, who handed them to me saying, “This should grease the skids.”).

Still, despite the best natural remedies available to me, I waited five full days in quiet… urgent… pressing… desperation for sweet release to come. Five days. That’s almost a week and about a 500 percent decrease in going. My lower intestine’s rate of production fell faster than last week’s stock market – ba dum, ching.

Many times, I rushed to the loo, feeling a welcome gurgling sensation in my stomach only to find they ceased as soon as I reached the seat (which, by the way, are often heated in Japan – how did we NOT think of that sooner?). Each time, I sighed in frustration, flushed the folded toilet paper I’d readied in anticipation and zipped my fly.

“Maybe next time.”

As I waited, it seemed like the next time was always the next time. I was Charlie Brown, constantly running up to kick the football only to have Lucy the Toilet yank it away at the last instant. Maddening. Painfully maddening. Good grief!

They say good things come to those who wait. I have no idea who “they” are, but it turns out it’s a smart group of people. Just when I was about to grit my teeth and succumb to the temptation of the quick fix offered by Grandma’s glycerin suppositories (don’t ask), good things did indeed happen. Small at first – like a trickle through the Netherlands’ dyke. But it gave me hope for the future. The dawn was breaking; I was to be a free man.

Not a moment too soon, either.

It’s amazing how much more beautiful this country is when you’re 10 pounds lighter…