Thursday, October 16, 2014

Yeliu Geopark

We finally made another day trip out from Taiwan! We went to the cape of Yehliu in the north. It's near the city of Keelung, and the coastal area is full of ships and harbors. The bus ride from Taipei took only about an hour.

We got off the bus at one of the fishing harbors in the area. Colorful ships floated around in very dirty waters. There is a large fish market in the area, and I do hope they get their fish from waters further out from the polluted shores!

The entire town near the water appeared a bit run down, and the cloudy weather on that day contributed to the grimy feel. I've noticed that a lot of the smaller Taiwanese towns outside of Taipei tend to have a more industrial feel and aren't as modern or well-maintained as the capital.

The main attraction in the area for visitors is a large geopark with cliffs and interesting rock formations, called Yehliu Geopark. I paid $80 TWD (~$3 USD) for a ticket. There were so many busloads of tourists at this park that I wondered why I hadn't heard of it before.

These spires of rock take on interesting shapes. This one is called the Princess's Head II. Do you see the shape, with the hair pouffed up in the back? There is also a Queen's Head.

The park reaches out to the sea on a peninsula. You can walk along the path with white foamy waves crashing alongside the rocks.

There are so many more rock formations. Tourists like to pose with the different rocks, but there are lots of strict security guards in the area who will yell at people who touch the rocks and tell them to stop. I guess people's clumsiness can erode and destroy rocks just as much as water can.

I really enjoyed watching the waves. The creamy foaminess of the water as it collided with the rocks reminded me of a milky latte.

The sides of the cliffs showed off layers of colorful sediment. It reminded me of the geological processes I learned in high school Earth Science class.

I went down into the area with the different rock spires. It was really difficult to take photographs without people in them, since tourists were climbing all over the place and getting yelled at by the security guards.

Yehliu Geopark is a really unique attraction close to Taipei. It was a fun and inexpensive day trip, and we capped off the day with a visit to a large night market in nearby Keelung before heading back to Taipei.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Otagi Nenbutsu-Ji Temple

On my last day in Kyoto I visited a lesser known temple in the Arashimaya area called Otagi Nenbutsu-Ji - quite a mouthful to say, I know! Fewer people go there because its location is a bit far away from the Arashimaya station - we had to walk a mile or two to reach the temple.

This temple's unique feature is its collection of 1,200 carved stone figures scattered over the grounds. Each of the figures is a disciple of Shaka, the founder of Buddhism. People from around Japan carved these figures between 1981 and 1991.

Each statue, therefore, has a unique set of features. Some have amusing or hilarious expressions, and it was quite fun to go around and observe the small details.

The temple grounds were also quite lovely. Stone paths climb and curve up the hills, set off by distinctive red lantern posts. I love the contrast of the fire engine red with the deep green sheen of moss upon the rocks and the leaves.

At the first pagoda you come across on the hill, you can ring the heavy bells that hang from the ceiling. They create a low, deep, and melodic ring that vibrates across the silence of the hills.

There are seemingly endless little smiling statues, some with their own props, others interacting with their buddies.

You could probably spend hours observing each statue, but for practical purposes you only need an hour at the most to take in the attraction. It cost 300 yen ($3 USD) to enter, and it is open from 8AM to 5PM.

If you are spending a day in the Arashimaya area, I would recommend that you take a little side trip to see this temple. There is actually a bus stop right outside the entrance, and several buses do make the trip to the Arashimaya station, though they do not come frequently.

I'll leave you with a few more photos of this temple!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Life Lessons from Photography

Now, I'm definitely not any kind of professional photography, and I've never had any formal training in the art. After years of taking photos, I mostly follow my own cues and intuition about framing and lighting. This post, however, is not about the technical (or even aesthetic) side of photography. Rather, I've discovered that many of the lessons I've learned from taking photographers apply to life in general. 

1. Look up (literally). Every day, as we busy ourselves along with our routines, running from place to place, we keep our eyes straight in front of us to where we want to go (if they aren't stuck on our phones). We miss out on the beauty that is right on top of us, from gorgeous clouds in clear blue skies to intricate rooftops and window shutters. Take some time to look up, and feel that tremendous sense of awe as you realize how large the skies are, and how small in comparison our individual existence is to the wide universe.

2. Life is fleeting. I don't know how many times I've been disappointed at missing a great photograph because the subject shifted or I was in a moving vehicle. Subjects, especially animals and clouds, don't tend to want to remain mobile for the sole wishes of the photographer. Likewise, life itself flows continuously like a stream - it doesn't come to a standstill, even when we find ourselves stuck at a point in our individual lives. We need to experience the moment and grasp passing opportunities. Situations, emotions, people - they won't last forever.

3. It's in the details. As much as I like seeing and photographing grand temples and vistas, I also derive much pleasure from finding the unexpected beauty that might be right in front of me, like these delicate leaves turning autumnal colors. It's as much about knowing where to look as it is about appreciating the simpler aspects of life. If you can find joy and contentment in your everyday life (and you can, I know it!), you will be much more satisfied with where you are at. Think of the beauty all around you on a ordinary day - the steam rising from soothing cup of tea, crisp and brilliant rays of sunlight though your windows, the crinkly feel of the pages of a used book, a nourishing meal prepared by loved ones.

4. Try a different angle. If I really like a subject, but it just doesn't seem to be working out well, sometimes I will attempt to shot it from a different angle. This might mean squatting down at looking at it from below, or going to a taller vantage point and pointing downwards. Sometimes, just this small change and perspective can make a huge difference in how something will appear. The same principle affects our emotions and judgment regarding a situation. If I'm feeling negative or stressed by an event, I always look for a silver lining. I ask myself, what good can come out of this experience? What can I learn from it? I try my best to see it as an opportunity or learning experience.

5. Don't forget to recharge. I feel a tiny sense of panic whenever I see my camera's battery beeping. Before a long trip, I always make sure to charge my camera fully, and I sometimes will bring along my charger if space permits. We take such good care of our electronic devices and make sure they are well-maintained and charged; we need to make sure to do the same for ourselves. Recharging can mean different things at different situations. Perhaps you need a long afternoon nap after a restless night or a good meal after a long day at work. Some peace and quiet can restore your mind after a chaotic day. Spend more care on yourself than on your belongings - after all, they can be replaced. You can't. 

Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Cute and the Quirky in Japan

There are so many interesting parts of Japanese culture and technology that you will rarely find in other parts of the world. During my visit I would walk for hours, marveling at the unique, quirky displays and products in the malls and arcades.

Restaurants usually display an assortment of their menu items with plastic models. This visual proves to be quite helpful if you cannot read Japanese and therefore don't know what to order from the menu. I really liked this one model I found, which showcases the food and chopsticks in midair, in the act of being eaten!

I've also found unusual variations on otherwise familiar foods. Take this "Kuro Diamond" burger at Burger King, for example - it's made with a black charcoal bun, black cheese, and a black sauce. No big surprise that kuro means black in Japanese.  

Most convenient stores and souvenir shops sell a large variety of matcha flavored products. I've found instant matcha latte packets, matcha candies, chocolates, and cookies. 

I even found Oreos in matcha latte flavor filling! Kit Kats are also a favorite, though apparently you don't need to go all the way to Japan to experience them.

I found out about this ingenious method of selecting and paying for your meal in a restaurant - using a vending machine! Two of the restaurants I went to had this contraception at the entrance. You pick your meal by pushing a button, then you pay at the machine. The machine spits out a ticket designating your choice, and then you can give the ticket to the server. It saves a lot of time and manpower!

Finally, in addition to plastic food models, in Osaka I found large replications of food used on advertisements. Take this huge red crab, for instance, on Dontonburi Street.

Fried dumplings!

And a giant octopus! The creature was advertising for takoyaki, a famous Osaka snack. Takoyaki are ball-shaped and consist of minced octopus and batter. We didn't try any because the line for this stand was rather long.

Needless to say, you won't be bored if you visit Japan. You can also find Hello Kitty themed shops, a Pokemon center, among other amusements. I'm not sure how many of these wacky inventions are geared towards amusing tourists, or are inherently a part of the culture. I'm sure the two factors have blended together over time. 

Affordable Japanese Eats

I had so many delicious and cheap eats during my trip to Kyoto. Of course, my first dinner had to be a big bowl of ramen noodles. We wandered into a little neighborhood ramen bar called Salt Ramen near the Teramachi shopping arcade. I ordered the chicken, watercress, and soft-boiled egg ramen. The savory broth and springy, fresh noodles made the dish! The prices at this ramen joint were reasonable, with most dishes around $8 USD. 

One of my absolute favorite foods is Kabocha squash, otherwise known as Japanese pumpkin. Many grocery stores in Japan sell this dense and sweet squash in the deli section. It's already prepared and seasoned with a light soy sauce. It tastes heavenly and is also full of nutrients. 

Another night I tried a bowl of chilled kimchi noodles. It was a cold ramen dish topped with spicy kimchi, sliced cucumbers, and a half a soft boiled egg.

If there's one drink you have to try when you visit Japan, it's matcha green tea! The tea is made from a finely powdered green tea leaf, and the taste is completely different from the tea bags you can buy from a grocery store elsewhere in the world. Somehow the drink tastes nutty and a bit creamy and frothy, even without sugar and other additives. The iced version makes quite the refreshing drink after a long stroll outdoors.

At Nishiki Market, a vendor was selling oden: large chunks of winter radish, eggs, fishcakes, and konjac that have been boiled in a dashi broth. I bought a big thick slice of radish and an egg, and they were lightly salty from the seasoning.

Many restaurants in Japan offer economical lunch sets. For one lunch, I ordered a mini soba set that came with soba (buckwheat) noodles in a light broth, inarizushi (sweet fried tofu skins filled with sushi rice), and a piece of delicate soft tofu. The inarizushi is named after the god Inari, because he apparently liked fried tofu. It's quite fitting then that I ate this lunch right before visiting the Fushimi Inari Shrine!

One thing I noticed in Kyoto is that the portions are reasonable and small compared to American standards. For example, one afternoon I decided I needed a little caffeine boost and I bought a small soda from McDonald's. The "small" size was a tiny 8 oz cup. Of course, 8 oz is far enough for a serving of soda, but I am used to 16 oz American default (with free refills, no less)!

An extremely unique dish that I tried in Osaka is okonomiyaki. It's a type of fried Japanese pancake or pizza, made from diced cabbage, yam, egg, meat, and a thick, sweet sauce. Diners often sit at a bar at the restaurant, and the okonomiyaki is placed on the grill in front of them. You get to eat it fresh and sizzling hot. There are many variations on the ingredients, but I decided to go for the basic version with sliced pork. It was delicious, especially the bottom bits that get crispy from the heat of the grill.

Finally, I couldn't leave Japan without eating some sashimi! I got a lunch set on my last day that included sliced raw salmon, tuna, and octopus, as well as miso soup, rice, pickles, and a salad.

What a balanced, nutritious, and delicious meal! It cost less than $9 USD for the whole set.

Japan is known for being expensive, but you can manage to eat cheaply while still trying different parts of the cuisine. Find little neighborhood restaurants and take advantage of cheap lunch sets when eating out. These meals will cost anywhere from $6 to $10 USD. Additionally, for breakfast and lunch you can go to the nearest convenience store like Seven-Eleven or Family Mart. There are cheap and tasty options like prepared sushi. Finally, if you are staying near a supermarket, go check out the deli section about an hour before closing time. Prepared foods may be discounted up to 50% if you arrive at the right time.

No matter your budget, you can still have a good experience trying out Japanese cuisine. I wish I were back there now! 

Friday, October 3, 2014

Ryoan-ji Temple

Ryoan-ji is a World Heritage Site temple in Kyoto famous for its rock garden. It's located a short walk away from the famous Kinkakuji (Golden Temple). I think sometimes it tends to get overshadowed, though it's highly worth the visit if you enjoy nature scenery and peace.

I went in the very early morning, right after the temple grounds opened, and I was able to avoid most of the crowds. The area was tranquil and serene. Ryoan-ji is most well-known for the rock garden but it also has a beautiful lake and a "landscape garden" with winding sun-dappled paths. In the early fall season, the full vegetation remained lush and green.

The minimalist rock garden is located within the temple walls. There are fifteen rocks of different sizes arranged meticulously inside a large rectangular yard full of white sand. During my brief visit, tourists sat on the broad steps next to the rock garden, meditating, contemplating, and photographing the scene. The origins and the meaning of the rock garden are unclear, so it is up to the viewer's own interpretation.

Another significant feature of Ryoan-ji is this beautiful stone water basin called Tsukubai. The water flowing from the basin is used for ritual washing and purification. There is an inscription upon the stone that carries the Buddhist saying "I learn only be to contented." The zen message here is to be at peace with yourself at your current situation.

The beautiful and well-kept grounds were perfect for an early morning stroll. I really wish I could have this type of environment around me every day - it's neither completely nature nor completely man-made. Rather, it's a delicate balance between the two, of humans carefully crafting natural forms into unique designs and meanings. 

I highly recommend that you dedicate an hour or two to Ryoan-ji if you are in the area, especially in the early morning hours before the crowds arrive.