Monday, September 5, 2016


Downtown Kyoto isn't very scenic, but the parks around it certainly are. The temples, being made of wood, have a habit of burning down and having to be rebuilt over the centuries, but the gardens around them are often much older. This includes the Arashiyama garden and the golden Kinkaku-ji temple and bamboo grove at the western edge of the city.

Thursday, September 1, 2016


More temples in Kyoto! Buildings are often simple wooden halls resting on large pillars, with elaborate roofs but very simple inside. Walls are white or rice paper, or occasionally painted with murals; there is very little furniture. Floors are covered with Tatami mats. Tatami mats are made from fine soft woven straw, and are so ubiquitous in Japan that they are used to measure floor space. You might hear of a six-mat room, which is about 23 square meters - slightly complicated by the fact that there are three slightly different standard Tatami sizes.

The gardens are often more interesting than the buildings. They are always meticuously landscaped, often working with huge moss-covered spaces and raked gravel ornaments. They are maintained with more care and attention than any English golf lawn; I have seen women with white gloves carefully picking clean moss gardens.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Imperial Kyoto

It's a little over two hours by bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto. Kyoto is not anywhere as busy and loud as Tokyo; the highrise downtown is fairly small and surrounded by more traditional small two- and three-story houses. People visit Kyoto because it was the imperial capital before Edo, now known as Tokyo, and it still has a large number of temples and an imperial palace, many of them very scenically located on the hills to the east and west of the city. (In Tokyo, the imperial palace was almost completely destroyed in WWII, and is mostly a large park today.)

On my first day I was visiting the temples on the east side of town, across the river, that are lined up on the hills like pearls on a string. There is usually a large gate building on massive wooden pillars, and a number of bright orange or red pagodas with multiple roofs. The path to walk is carefully signed, the occasional ugly construction fences carry signs with profuse apologies, and crowds of tourists carrying selfie sticks and making V signs snap pictures of everything. But the temples are also still places of worship; people kneel and pray, sound gongs, and follow ancient ceremonies. Prayers and wishes are written on wooden tablets or small pieces of cloth, and tied to racks or handrails. In most temples, photos are not allowed.

Many women, including some western visitors, wear traditional geisha costumes with something that looks like a small backpack or a large bow on the back. Men in costumes are rare. Outside the temples is usually a souvenir and food market. I found that green tea ice cream is really good.

Monday, August 29, 2016

In the land of primary colors

Tokyo is an enormous city. Everything is bigger here, everything moves faster, and everything screams for your attention. Advertising covers entire buildings, especially in the electronics district of Akihabara shown below, and on the small clips on subway handles. Packaging is always as loud as possible; cookies, tiny bits of chocolates, and almonds are available in individually wrapped in brightly printed candy wrappers. Apples are wrapped in a foam net, placed on a plastic tray, then shrinkwrapped, and finally put in a plastic bag at the checkout - and sell for $4 each. I am leaving a trail of brightly colored trash and do not feel good about it.

Restaurants often have plastic simulacra of all dishes out in the window. Amazingly, the food is then exactly as large and carefully prepared as the display version. Compare the beautifully photographed hamburgers on US burger chain menus and the sad, wilted mush you'll actually find on your plate. Many restaurants have call buttons that you can press to have a waiter at your table within seconds. I have had the pleasure to eat pizza with chopsticks (although I was probably the only one). When I have the choice I'll always go for Japanese cuisine of course, it's one of the best of the world. You haven't eaten sushi unless you have eaten sushi in Japan.

The Japanese are incredibly disciplined. On escalators you stand on the right and walk on the left, and it does. not. happen. that someone violates that rule. I have seen traffic lights where pedestrians form an orderly double line to wait for a green light. Everyone is in a hurry yet everyone is very polite and eager to help. I suppose they are used to foreigners staring at Chinese characters in subway stations the size of Belgium. There's enough English to get by though, at least downtown.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Thai food

This is what a proper four-course lunch looks like:

Sunday, March 13, 2016


Some final photos from Ko Mook. Next stop Bangkok, via Krabi.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Ko Mook

Another day on the islands. Relaxing!

After the big tsunami in 2004 that washed away entire villages on the western coast of Thailand, they installed an earlt\y warning system, including signs on the islands that show which way to run when the tsunami approaches.

Ko Mook

The beaches on Ko Mook aren't quite as white as on the Parhentians, but the place is more authentic. Accommodations are more basic, and the locals live just around the corner in, for Thailand, very simple wooden houses. These people do not have much money.

Otherwise it's another tropical island paradise. They run long-tail boats to all the neighboring islands, with good places for snorkeling or just exploring the jungle interiors. Ko Kradan has a so-so coral reef, but so many fish that one gets rear-ended all the time.

Ko Mook has a long cave with a very low ceiling one can swim through at low tide. It opens up to a kind of cenote, a small beach and some trees completely surrounded by towering vertical cliffs. Very impressive. The screaming boatloads of school children they drag through the place takes away from the wonder a little.

Thursday, March 10, 2016


Kota Bharu is very close to Thailand, there is a border checkpoint just west of it and the Thai city of Hat Yai is not far. Trouble is, using that checkpoint would take me through the southernmost three provinces of Thailand, where some crazies have decided that they'd like to re-establish some old Sultanate, and the best way to accomplish that is bombs. Thailand is governed by the military, and they take a rather dim view of such ideas. So we have a quite brutal war of terror there, one that has completely escaped world attention.

So I had to go the long way around, first from the east coast of Malaysia to Alor Setar and Kangar on the west coast, and from there across a safe border checkpoint to Thailand, and from there to Hat Yai. Several more connections brought me to Ko Mook, a small island in the Andaman Sea, sufficiently far south of Phuket and the other tourist epicenters to be quiet and peaceful. All the connections worked perfectly, not because someone had worked out the timetables to perfection, but because everyone in this part of the world is so friendly, helpful, and intent on making things work.

BTW, the Malaysian restaurant photo below is perfect. It ticks all the boxes. Open to the street, tiled floor, corrugated metal roof, cold and much too bright fluorescent lamps, colorful plastic chairs, fans, TV sets (imaging sugary Thai pop music videos), and some counters where the menu is negotiated.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Leaving paradise

My last day on the Parhentian Islands, spent not doing very much at all, sampling the local cuisine, and trying to remember where I put the shoes that I am going to need off the island.

Kota Bharu is an old Malay town on the northeastern tip of mainland Malaysia. It's not a major tourist destination and never will be. It's museums and Malay row houses are nice enough, but putting a huge monolithic 23-floor hotel, the bottom 10 of which are a parking garage, was not a very bright idea. Right next to it is another huge parking garage, and then the promenade ends. Clearly parking is an overriding concern in this city.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Barefoot paradise

The Parhentian Islands are the sort of place where shoes are just a forgotten artifact left behind in a cupboard. It is just natural to step out of the door onto the beach barefoot. My hut is at one end of the long curved beach and the Quiver dive center is at the other, no problem, and there are plenty of stalls on the way to have a fruit juice or lassi before getting kitted out with dive gear.

This is my diving day. The first site, called T3, is on the opposite side of the island. Unfortunately the sea was rather choppy there and one of the divers described the underwater visibility as "vodka with milk". The second site, just off the beach, was much better.

One nice thing about diving is that there is always lots of time between dives to sit together, chat, have lunch and dinner together, compare notes on where we have been and which dive sites we like most, and generally having a good time. In fact, our dive computers keep track of our blood nitrogen levels and have very clear opinions on when one can go diving and when one can't. And the island is just made for relaxing.