Monday, January 26, 2015

Bitchu-Takahashi's Matsuyama-jo and Raikyuji (Photo-essay)

Years ago at boarding school in England, one of the nicknames I had bestowed upon me was that of "The Culture Vulture".  But while it's true that I do continue to love cultural pursuits, I also do enjoy communing with nature -- and my ideal vacation would include both cultural and greener components.

So, as far as I was concerned, my September 2014 Japan vacation got off to a great start with the first day having been largely spent in Bitchu-Takahashi, a small provincial city located in Okayama Prefecture's mountainous interior with a lovely historical section, doing such as checking out cultural sights but also spending time in natural surroundings, and sometimes a mix of both as when doing such as sitting in a Zen Buddhist temple in the area and gazing out at its famous garden... :) 
    On the path up to Matsuyama Castle, one is treated to views
like this of Bitchu-Takahashi and the surrounding countryside

 With multiple rugged walls like these, this mountaintop castle
was most definitely a defensive fortress first and foremost

Matsuyama-jo's two-storey keep and associated buildings
cannot compare in size or aesthetic beauty to Himeji-jo's -- 
but its location atop a 430 meter high hill is more impressive

...and Puppet Ponyo, for one, was happy enough to
have a photographic record of her having been to
this castle whose origins date back to the 13th century ;)

after Matsuyama Castle is one that can be easily overlooked,
not least because of its entrance is on the understated side 

 Climb up the stairs and you'll see portions of Raikyuji 
that look attractive enough

 Enter one of those buildings though to see what is 
considered to be the temple's gem: its dry landscape garden 

The last photo I took in Bitchu-Takahashi gives a good sense of 
how far I walked that day -- from the castle atop Mount Gagyu 
(click on the photo to enlarge it) all the way to its train station!

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Snake spotting on Bitchu-Takahashi's Mount Gagyu!

A trail in Japan that was far less frequented
by humans than I thought would be the case

Not a sight I was expecting to see on 
the first day of my September Japan trip!

And lest it not be clear: it was the longest --
and largest -- snake I've seen in the wild! :O

Before my September 2014 visit to Japan, I told a Japanese friend about having seen a snake slithering across the path that I was going along in Shirakawa-go last May.  Rather than thinking this was bad luck, she told me that I should be happy -- because to the Japanese, seeing a snake is a good thing!

Thus it was that when I caught side of a large snake slithering just meters away from me along a mountain path on the first day of my next visit to the Land of the Rising Sun, I told myself -- after calming down somewhat, especially after ascertaining from the shape of the snake's head that it was not poisonous -- that I should consider it a good omen.  And as things would have it, I did go on to have a vacation that I consider to be among the most enjoyable that I've had in Japan thus far.

Although I ideally would have written about this wonderful vacation soon after my return to Hong Kong, certain things -- notably the onset of the Umbrella Movement -- got in the way of my doing so. Still, while certain memories of this September trip may have faded, others have stayed very vivid -- including the hillside trail that I was on when I had my second snake spotting in Japan of 2014.

Earlier in the afternoon, I had been to Matsuyama Castle, Japan's oldest surviving castle and the only one of the original castles that survived the post-feudal age intact located on a mountaintop.  Earlier still in the day, I had flown into Kansai International Airport, taken two trains from there to Okayama and checked into a hotel in that city, and then taken another train over to the small city of Bitchu-Takahashi.        

Upon getting into Bitchu-Takahashi, I was informed by the lady at the tourist information center that  the usual buses weren't running because it happened to be Autumnal Equinox Day and therefore a public holiday that day.  So I ended up taking a taxi from the city's train station to the nearest car park to Matsuyama-jo, about three-quarters of the way up the hill -- and after checking out the small but interesting castle perched atop 430-meter-high Mount Gagyu, decided to walk down along the clearly marked path back into town.

After I had got about 100 meters down though, I began to wonder whether I had done the right thing as the path started to get quite a bit steeper and more slippery (because of such as the large amount of uncleared fallen leaves on the trail).  And it also was the case that the path looked to be pretty deserted. But I just didn't feel like climbing some 100 meters back up on what was a pretty warm day for late September.  Also, I reasoned to myself, how difficult and dangerous can a path that lead up to a tourist attraction -- albeit one that's a spartan-looking mountaintop castle -- be?

Post having gone along the trail, I have to say that going down it alone is not something that really should be done -- and I have to admit that, even before the large snake spotting, I was filled with a greater sense of unease than I would have liked.  At the very least, I should have had my hiking boots on rather than just the regular sneakers I wear while I'm generally at leisure.  Also, it would have been good to have had some insect repellant handy as I also encountered quite a few swarms of mosquitoes hungry for blood along the way! 

But after I completed the hike, I had such an adrenaline rush that I ended up happily walking all the way back to the train station.  It undoubtedly helped that it was a generally beautiful day and that Bitchu Takahashi has some picturesque parts (particularly the old part of the castle town).  All told, it really was a nice place to stretch my legs after a flight and three train rides -- and also adjust to the idea that I was on holiday and thus could do such as wander about at will, and at a pace that allowed me to look about and enjoy whatever sights grabbed my fancy. :) 

Saturday, January 24, 2015

10 more things I learnt about Germany on my most recent holiday there

Just one of the monumental sights I saw 
on my most recent trip to Germany

A snack I came across at a train station in Germany ;)

The final resting place of an avid reader
that I encountered on my most recent German vacation!

Ten more German vacation observations (to add to those that I made after my 2010 trip to Deutschland) -- again, in no particular order:-

1) Christianity's presence in Germany is noticeable not only in the many churches, cathedrals and minsters to be found in the country but also such practices as the vast majority of shops being closed on Sundays (with about the only exceptions being bakeries -- and those are only open in the morning on Sundays -- and petrol stations)!

2) Among the baked items I discovered in Germany this time around was the Berliner brezel -- which, to my mind, looked pretzel shaped but tasted more like a donut (though not one filled with jam the way that a regular Berliner -- donut, not person! -- is)

3) At Christmas markets in Germany, one can expect to find stalls selling gluhwein, many varieties of sausages, ditto re brushes, headgear, craft items, candies, spices and chocolate desserts, including chocolate covered fruits such as bananas, strawberries and pineapple rings -- and chocolate covered marshmallow treats that my German friend told me used to be called "negro kisses" but in our more politically correct times are now known as chocolate kisses!

4) In what also can be seen as a sign of political correctness (or increased egalitarianism), female versions (equivalents?) of St Nicholas as well as the more traditional males can be seen out and about on St Nicholas Day (on which my recent European vacation happened to have begun on!)

5) I'm not sure whether this is seen as forward-thinking or not but in Germany, children are allowed in bars and the sense I often got was that the brauhaus, especially those of the craft variety, are considered family friendly and look to be places where whole families are likely to go for a meal rather than just to drink and be merry.

6) Germans love their drink but don't seem to get drunk much or easily -- at least in the places I visited (which did include a number of brauhaus, and Christmas markets where lots of alcohol was being served!). I think one big reason for this is that, like with such as the Japanese (as opposed to the British), they tend to eat on occasions when they're drinking -- even if it's "just" a big pretzel!

7) Germany is full of surprises in terms of such as the kind of art to be found in religious buildngs, palaces and outdoor public spaces, the lack of tourists in some truly attractive towns* and -- I can hear my German friend screaming from thousands of miles re my stating this -- the number of sexy lingerie stores that can be found in many a town center!

8) One reason for Germany being full of surprises for the visitor is that many non-Germans don't realize that regional diversity exists in terms of such as the cuisine.  As my German friend said, what is often taken to be German food, culture, etc. outside of Germany is actually just Bavarian!

9) For much of its history, the part of Europe now known as Germany didn't have the borders that it currently does.  One consequence of this was that there has been more movement of people and populations around then is often realized, and ditto re their mixing.    

10) In more than one German town that I visited, it can be such a visual treat to stroll around the older sections that this museophile actually found myself often preferring to do that rather than check out a museum or more in the town! ;b

*I get the feeling that the stigma of Nazism continues to pervade many people's idea of Germany and that this is a not insignificant factor behind the country not attracting as many foreign tourists as would otherwise be expected.  Another possible factor is that people may think that it's expensive to visit.  I found neither to be the case -- with many of the Germans I met being friendly and welcoming (and also fluent in English), and food, drink and hotel prices to be quite a bit lower than Hong Kong, especially if you take into account the quality!

And for the record: this time around, the places in Germany that I visited included Ludwigshafen, Mannheim, Trier, Weinheim and Freiburg -- with a couple of days in neighboring Luxembourg thrown into the holiday equation. :)

Friday, January 23, 2015

Old architectural gems and other interesting sights in Freiburg (Photo-essay)

The Black Forest.  It's one of those evocative names -- and this even discounting a delicious cake being named after it!  So when my German friend suggested that we visit Freiburg -- more specifically, Freiburg im Breisau, a city known as the Jewel of the Black Forest -- during my most recent trip to her native land, I immediately signalled my agreement.

In my mind's eye, I had imagined that Freiburg would be a fairytale locale deep in the heart of a forest so dense that its foliage would look black rather than green.  As it turned out, however, I didn't notice the presence of that many trees either inside the city or immediately outside it.  Instead, what really struck me -- especially compared to the likes of Trier -- was how very crowded Freiburg was. Indeed, I'd also go so far as to state that this city may be the most touristy of all the ones I've been to in Germany in recent years -- including the more famous (to my mind) Heidelberg and Cologne!
 Strolling about in Freiburg, one encounters sights like
the impressive old Kaufhaus (Customs House), with its statues of 
four Habsburg Emperors that ruled over the region

Also in the old part of the city is the Zum Roten Baren,

But when gazing about you, don't forget to look down occasionally -- 
if only to avoid accidentally stepping or falling into the bachles 
(channels of water running through many of Freiburg's streets and alleys)! 

 Not something one expects to see in a German city's waterway
-- the large stone head of a crocodile! :O

This man whose knee armor and sword are designed to 
look like heads was another surprising sight in Freiburg --
this one found in the city's Minster (Munster)

I also found it interesting to discover by way of one of 
the church's stained glass window that the patron saint 

Puppet Ponyo was most impressed by the Munster's
116 meter high tower which was the only Gothic
tower in Germany completed in the Middle Ages

For my part, I was most impressed by the people who managed 
to not be distracted by the large -- and often loud -- crowds 
of tourists and be able to pray in this much visited church

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

War memorials and Holocaust reminders in Germany

especially upon first glance

This especially when coupled with the sight of
stoplerstein (stumbling blocks) like these in Freiburg

Even though the Second World War ended close to 70 years ago now, there are many people who still primarily associate two of my favorite countries to visit with it.  And although it's true enough that I don't often think of the war that, after all, occured several decades before I was born when visiting Japan or Germany when there, it's also the case that every once in a while, I encounter sights that do get me thinking of the terrible things that happened during that period in history when it often seemed like the world -- and particularly the Japanese and Germans -- went (temporarily) insane.

Sometimes, it can be something as innocuous as passing through a section of a German town or city with the sign "Judengasse" (Jewish alley) and realizing that no Jews live there anymore.  Then there was the war memorial my German friend and I passed by in Weinheim that got her recoiling in shock and my wondering whether the likes of me would be welcomed in that town.

As it so happens, I actually received a warm and enthusiastic welcome at the tourist office and later was treated very nicely at the Woinemer Haubrauerei, particularly after it was recognized that I was -- as my German friend described -- a "beer fan"!  And what my German friend had taken to be statues of Nazi soldiers adorning a war memorial were later identified by another friend of mine who knows military stuff pretty well to be those of first world war German army combatants.

Still, rather than try to brush away or bury their Nazi past, contemporary Germans tend -- if my German friend is any guide -- to openly admit that way too many horrors were committed under Adolf Hitler, with the idea being that keeping knowledge of this alive will ensure that the past horrors will not be repeated any time soon.  And thus it was that she and I both were intrigued to learn that in Trier, brass plates bearing embossed inscriptions had been set in the pavement all over the city to memorialize and commemorate the victims of National Socialism.

Despite our making a point to look out for those "stumbling blocks", however, neither my German friend nor I spotted a single one in Trier -- and it wasn't until the final full day of my German holiday, when we were strolling around the aldstadt (old town) of Freiburg im Breisau (or just Freiburg for short) that we encountered those inspired cobblestone-sized creations of German artist Gunther Demnig.  

Located in front of the former homes of victims of Nazism (including Jews but also homosexuals, political dissidents, Roma "Gypsies" and such), these "stumbling blocks" are items my German friend and I sometimes would literally stumble across on our amble through Freiburg.  And almost needless to say, the sight(ing) of them would cause us to stop in our tracks and pause for a bit before going our way once more.  

Also, yes, the sight of these items is indeed sobering -- but I'm also very glad of their existence; this not least because I do believe that "the past may serve" and that those who forget the past will be condemned to repeat it.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Eating bread, pasta and pig in Germany

Bavarian schweinbraten is one of those dishes
that helps warm one up in the winter ;b

These Swabian maultasche look like from the outside
like large elongated ravioli...

 But when cut into half, their inside brings to mind lasagne to me!

Before my most recent trip to Germany, a friend of mine in Hong Kong told me to enjoy eating lots of sausages.  But as was the case on my previous trips to Germany (including in 2010, when I first visited my German friend in her home country), I actually ended up eating far more meals that didn't involve a single sausage than ones that did -- and, in fact, I ate more sausages on the flights to and from Deutschland than I did in Germany itself!

Actually, what I ate the most regularly on this past German trip was bread -- and there was many a day when I'd have bread at breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Although this may sound boring, it was not since there really are many varieties of bread to be found in Germany: for example, I tried bread made out of chestnuts for the first time on this recent vacation!  

Also, I didn't just have German bread -- which actually may be my favorite bread in the whole wide world -- on this recent holiday.  Instead, on the two occasions that my German friend and I opted to have some Turkish food, there was Turkish bread -- which I first grew to love when I visited Istanbul some years back -- thrown into the mix!

The second most common thing I ate this past holiday was pig meat - be it in the form of pork, ham or bacon.  (And yes, I sometimes wonder which people love pig more -- the Chinese or the Germans!)  Among the more memorable and  delicious pig meat I had this time around were a traditional Bavarian pork loin dish -- despite not visiting Bavaria this time around! -- and a Swabian one featuring pasta that was thicker, rougher and more substantial than the Italian versions that I'm more familiar with, with a spinach filling and served with fried bacon along with onions.

While the Swabian maultasche was pretty unusual, it still was not the most exotic thing I ate on my recent German holiday.  And neither, even, was the cheese with volcanic ash in it -- the second time I've eaten such a thing (with the first time having been at the Caprice Bar in Hong Kong).  Instead, that accolade has to go to the lard that I have to say really does taste great when spread on good bread -- one of them a traditional German pig fat concoction that I had in Trier with some tasty craft beer; and another a vegetarian version that may be considered to be healthier! ;b

Friday, January 16, 2015

Sampling beers in Trier, Weinheim and Freiburg

The Woinemer Hausbrauerei in Weinheim was one of 
three brauhaus I visited in Gemany this past December

In Trier, I had sampled five very different 
beers at Kraft Brau

And at Martin's Brau in Freiburg, Puppet Ponyo happily posed
with a glass of weissbier radler was taller than her as well as 
a slice of very alcoholic Black Forest cake!

Shocking but true: the first two days of my recent Germany and Luxembourg trip, I didn't drink any beer.  This was because I was trying to get rid of a lingering cough I had brought with me from Hong Kong.  But on the evening of day three, I couldn't contain myself any more -- and had a beer at dinner at a ratskeller in Trier's aldstadt.   

Sadly, that first beer I had in Germany was from a bottle and wasn't particularly distinguished.  Realizing that we couldn't just stumble upon a great beer place in Trier, on account of it being in a part of Germany that was more into wine than beer drinking and producing, my German friend and I decided we needed to get expert advice from the local tourist office -- and were accordingly steered to a craft brewery away from the city center that required a taxi ride to get to but turned out to be very much worth our while.

A word on my German friend: as unlikely as it may seem, she's a German who doesn't usually drink beer!  But she's happy to see me enjoying beer, especially good German beer, and sip some of what I have whenever we visit biergartens, bierkellers and brauhauses together -- and partake of the usually pretty good food that they also have to offer!!

At Trier's Kraft Brau, we were told that they had six different beers on tap -- all of which had been brewed on the premises, and which our server offered to serve in 100 millileter portions to allow me to sample a number of them.  Although I had hoped to try all six beers, I ended up stopping after five as the lowest alcohol beer they offered was a 4.8% alcohol keller-pils and their most alcoholic brew was the pretty well named 10.5% alcohol strong ale!

Of the beers I tried at Kraft Brau, I liked their seasonal Adventsbock best.  So when we went to the Woinemer Hausbrauerei in Weinheim a few days later, I was happy to find that it too had a similar seasonal beer on offer which the server told me was only available for six weeks each year.  As at Kraft Brau, I really enjoyed the Christmas beer on tap there.  But actually even better was another unusual draft beer available there -- one which had been smoked and, to my mind, smelt and tasted smokey and got me thinking of grilled meat!

Ideally, we'd have spent more time sampling beers at the Weinheim brewhouse that was the case.  But since it was uncommonly crowded to the point that we only got seats outside (and even then, it was because my German friend told the servers that I was a major "beer fan" who had come from thousands of kilometers away!), it soon got too chilly for us to really feel comfortable hanging out ther in the cold outdoor area!  (Also, it was at the Woinemer Hausbrauerei that we encountered the one and only obviously soused person on this recent trip -- and it was a Russian man (rather than native German individual) who looked to have gotten drunk on gluhwein at a company party!

Before I headed back to Hong Kong, I had one more draft drink at a brauhaus -- this time at Martin's Brau in Freiburg.  Having already had a large glass of beer with my lunch a few hours earlier, I decided to go for a radler -- i.e., a beer-lemonade mix that's similar to the British shandy -- rather than regular beer.  Although I've had shandys consisting of lemonade mixed with lager and also ones consisting of lemonade mixed with ale, it was at Martin's Brau that I had my first lemonade weissbier mix -- and I thought it was pretty tasty and refreshing! 

More than incidentally, there were two things that got me giggling at Martin's Brau.  The first was that the delicious slice of Black Forest cake that my German friend ordered -- and I tried a bit of tasted of -- was more alcoholic than my radler; and the second was that as I posed Puppet Ponyo for a photo, the Frenchwoman sitting next to me at our communal table actually recognized that my beloved travelling companion was a Hayao Miyazaki creation, and proceeded to tell me that she had seen a bunch of other Studio Ghibli movies, not just Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea! (And for the record: no, Puppet Ponyo did not have any beer, radler or otherwise.  She's way below the drinking age after all! ;b )