Friday, 11 December 2009

The Day After Thanksgiving - Part I

The living room clock says 4:15 am when I get out of bed the day after Thanksgiving. In the kitchen the turkey bones are simmering away on the stove, just as we left them last night. The simmering stock pot keeps me company as I drink my tea, eat my Cheerios. Everyone else is asleep. It's a rare thing to be up before Dad. He's usually up by five, but when he's on holiday he does tend to sleep in. The house is very dark and only a few coqui frogs are still doing their shrill calls at this hour. Eventually it seems like the only thing to do is slip out the back door and finish my tea on the lanai. It smells like green growing things out here, but there's no hint of dawn yet. I can see a few stars winking through the clouds.

It occurs to me that I haven't had this much time alone since I got to Hilo. And I haven't been this pleased to have some time to myself in a long time. It's been nonstop visiting with one person or another since I arrived. First trip back in about four years. Friends of mine and my parents keep coming by the house to seeing me again or meeting me for the first time. I'm starting to feel like a visiting dignitary. But the five people currently sleeping in the house upstairs are the ones I've really been joyously spending every minute with - my mother, father, partner, cousin, and cousin's husband. It's been so lovely, I didn't realize 'til this moment that it's also exhausting.

Presently it occurs to me that I'd like to do sun salutations right here on the porch, as the first glow of dawn starts to show. I thought maybe it was silly to pack my yoga mat, but this is actually about the fifth time I've used it on this trip. I start with the slow stretches, yawning all the while and feeling my body begin to warm. I go through the salutations with ritualistic deliberateness, rejoicing in the fact that I have the health and strength to carry out these now familiar movements.

By the time I'm finished, I've made up my mind about something. Dad suggested yesterday that we go shopping for Mom's birthday present today, on account of the Black Friday sales. Neither of us are big on shopping, even when it's not the busiest shopping day of the year. But I don't know when I've last been home for Mom's birthday, and I won't be there this year either, but going with Dad to pick out her present feels like the next best thing. When Dad gets up, I have the pleasure of seeing the surprise on his face when he sees I'm up already. We get to work fishing all the bones out of the stock pot and as we're adding some left-over veggies, I tell Dad I want to go to the mall with him. It opens at 6am today, and if we sneak out of the house now we may even return before anyone gets around to missing us.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Two Year Anniversary of living in New Zealand: Day Two

Yeah, I know, this is WAY overdue...

We drove along the coast on Day Two, getting a gorgeous view all the way along.

Palliser Bay coastal road

Palliser Bay coastal road

We hiked up through a dry creek bed see the Pinacles, a sight that reminded me very much of the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon in Utah:

pinnacles 1

Next we stopped in Ngawi for refreshments. This is a tiny fishing village, known for it tractors, of all things. Because the sea is so rough and the coast is so rugged, there is no harbour so they keep the boats dry docked on trailers pulled far up the long stretches of beach. These trailers are hauled by tractors. It's quit a site, these tractors lined up on the beach. I didn't get a photo, but I'll include one my Mom too last time they were here:

ngawi pink tractor

Mom's photo of the tractors

Loren and Me, Ngawi

Loren and I at the dairy in Ngawi

The area past Ngawi is known for its seal colonies. There's a 'bachelor colony' here that can be seen year round. You can also see mothers with babies the right time of year. (It was not the right time of year)

seals basking 7

These guys were basking just meters from the road, and completely unafraid of people.

Our last stop was the light house. We ignored the warning signs and braved the rickety stairs, though the were literally falling apart in places.

stairs down lighthouse2

The trip down was especially harrowing. But we were rewarded with a stunning view.

lighthouse lookout, base of lighthouse, clouds, ocean
View from the lighthouse

And that was pretty much Day Two. Where will we go next year? At the moment Nelson is on the top of our list of places to visit next.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Soaking in The Culture

I fell asleep last night thinking of my experience of Yayoi Kusama's exhibit. Artwork that you can walk into the middle of, be surrounded by, the outside world obliterated. I have a lot of fanciful ideas of what kind of art I would create, if I had a lot of money and time on my hands. I would love to make sculptures so big that they became architecture, something you walk into and climb upon and experience. I never considered you could create that effect with a a room, some paint, and a bunch of custom-made inflatable objects. I walked around inside "Dots Obsession - Day" until I found a vantage point where I could no longer see the door. I was floating in a little world of bright yellow that made the black dots look like endless black holes. Large amorphous objects loomed, floated, leaned against walls, in the same colour scheme. The yellow dots on black of "Dot's Obsession - Night" was a little easier on the eyes. Another piece was a room set up as a mundane living room, down to the tea cups on the coffee table, every surface covered with coloured dots. The only illumination was black lights - which made the dots light up with a pale glow. Walking through this room was peaceful after 'dot's obsession' but also deeply eerie.


(Image shamelessly taken from

My favourite piece was a room fitted on all walls and ceiling with mirrors, the floor was still water with a mirrored platform to stand on. From black chords tiny coloured lights hung at different heights all over the room - the only illumination. People were let in only in ones or twos, the door closed behind them for the full effect. The effect was that of floating in an endless world of little lights, like a starry night sky stretching in every direction. It was beautiful and peaceful. My two minutes was over too soon. I wanted a room like that in my home. When life got too overwhelming, I would just go in there and lie on my back, looking up at the endless sky.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Two Year Anniversary of living in New Zealand

This is my much belated post about our trip to Lake Ferry and Cape Palliser. For our two-year anniversary of moving to New Zealand, I wanted to take a road trip to somewhere we hadn't been before. When I talked to Loren about where we might want to go, he told me to surprise him, which just made it more fun to plan.

Our route took us through Martinborough, so of course we stopped there for lunch and to check out some wineries we hadn't been to yet. It was the end of harvest season and the leaves on the grape vines were turning yellow.

One of our stops was a little family run winery called The Cabbage Tree. Often the tiniest operations make for to the most memorable winery visits. The elderly lady pouring our wine was also co-owner with her husband. After we bought a bottle each of their '04 pinot noir and their rose, she asked if we'd like a tour of their facilities. Turned out the converted barn we were in housed their entire operation, from tasting room to cellar. She lifted the lid off steel barrels so we could get a peek at their bright red merlot and watch her stir it with a huge red-stained wooden paddle. We saw their de-stemmer in action (a metal machine that pulls the stems off harvested grapes). Then we got to put our ears up to the hole in the top of a barrel of chardonnay, so we could hear the hiss of the juice fermenting. Our next stop was Murdoch James, where we got a real surprise when we tasted a syrah that we actually liked. Harvest was under way there as well, so after we bought a bottle of syrah, we got a look at their grapes and they let us taste fresh syrah and a pinot gris grapes. Here's Loren with the syrah grapes:

Loren and the Syrah grapes - murdoch james

And crates of pinot gris:

pino gris grapes

Our accommodation was a tiny cabin just outside of Lake Ferry. Lake Ferry is a tiny village situated next to Lake Onoke and Palliser Bay. After settling into our cabin we took a walk along the beach at Lake Ferry. The beach is composed of tiny black pebbles, and it goes on for ages. The lake is brackish; a narrow strip of beach separates it from the ocean, and a break in this strip allows water to flow between lake and ocean. There were a few brave surfers out there. We had already been warned against swimming; the currents can be treacherous and there's nothing else out there between that particular strip of coast and Antarctica.

palliser bay meets onoke lake 2

Where Lake Onoke meets Palliser Bay

We had pasta from Wishbone for dinner, and opened the rose from Cabbage Tree to go with it.

(this post is getting long. I'll do Day Two later)

Saturday, 25 April 2009

An afternoon spent in the presence of rare birds

I'm hiking up Turbine Track looking for hihi and bell birds. I'd picked out a little stitch call amongst the noisy Tui chattering. Stepping off the track, I followed one of the transect lines that stripe the entire park, allowing rough access and creating a sort of physical grid. I spotted the male first, bright and proud with his yellow flash along the shoulders, singing out a territorial call here and there. Then I saw the subdued browns of a female keeping company with him. I stood there a long time trying to get a clear view of her bands as she darted from branch to branch. I deduced they were some of the transplants from Mount Bruce; they use three coloured leg bands, while Karori Sanctuary uses four. I was just watching them, wondering how long it had been since they'd been seen last, if this spot up a little-used trail was their territory. My primary goal was to spot juveniles that had fledged this season, but these two might be a valuable find as well.

It was then I noticed an owl sleeping in a tree branch not four paces from me. It was startling to notice it sitting so near and in plain view. I knew it's mottled brown colouring had hid it from my eyes. As if sensing my gaze upon it, the owl opened it's eyes just them and fixed its attention on my with a piercing stare. I edged closer, but that spooked it and it flew a few meters away, finding itself another perch.

As I made my way back via Fantail Track, I passed through one area with a disconcertingly large concentration of Tui. I heard them more than saw them. One or a few tui make a lovely exotic music. They have an amazing range, easily outdoing any mockingbird as they ramble through a repertoire so varied that they sound like at least three birds singing at once. What I learned this day was that encountering a large gang of these birds can be a disorienting experience. They are largish, mostly black birds and they like to perch very high in the branches. So as I walked my path down into this particular valley I could hear an overwhelming chorus of birdsong, could hear the rustling of tree branches everywhere, but when I looked around I could barely catch a glimpse of any of them. I may have known intellectually that I was safe, but a part of me still found it spooky to be surrounded by so many creatures and not be able to see any of them.

Wandering through the woods, on the look out for birds, there's a pleasant kind of alertness one must tune into. There's something very fundamental about it, being absorbed in what is currently going on in the present moment. It's part of what keeps me coming back every week.

In case you're curious about the birds I've mentioned today:
Hihi (aka stitch birds)
Morepork (aka Ruru) the owl I saw
Tui song

On that last link, hover over the birds to see a photo, and click to download a short bird song clip. The korimako (aka bell bird), tieke (aka saddleback), Pipiwharauroa (aka fantail), and kaka are also commonly seen in the Sanctuary.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

what's massage school like?

I'm lying face down on the table while three students regard my bare back. I can see their shoes through the face hole in the massage table. A fourth pair of shoes appear.
"Southern cross?"
It's our instructor. He's just making conversation with me while he observes my classmates pressing their hands into my back, marking the borders of my trapesius muscle.
I'm pleased he recognises the constellation. It's done in diamonds-like shapes, which tends to throw people off.
"Did you have a freckle removed?" My classmate C asks as he touches the scar on my right shoulder (They're on to the rhomboid muscles now).
"I had a mole removed. Turned out not to be cancerous."
(Mostly I forget that scar even exists. I've been reminded of it twice in the last week)
"You've got an awful lot of tension here. Man, what were these shoulders like before you worked on them, D?" He asks the pair of sensible shoes on my right.
D was my partner for our assessment the day before. And she did a great job on my shoulders, actually.

Just another day at massage college. You get to know your classmates pretty quick.

For me it's been a great class so far. I've got a break for a couple weeks now.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Kyoto part VII (last one - I swear!)

Monday (continued)

I don't know if the day got colder then, or if we realized how cold it was because of the snow. We were after a tea shop recommended in our book. After walking past the place marked on our map a couple times, I went into a shop selling chopsticks and pottery to ask directions. I repeated the name of the tea shop - along with the word matcha - to the ancient lady behind the counter. She grabbed a cane and hobbled out to the street to point at a nondescript store front with neither English signage nor plastic food. I gave her a thank-you in Japanese (about the only thing I can say in Japanese other than names of food items). The tea shop was in an tiny old building, everything made of wood from floor to ceiling. Inside it was cosy and warm, with a space heater humming away in one corner. We both ordered matcha, which came with two sweets made of rice and adzuki beans, and took our time sipping the rich green tea as our hands and toes warmed up.


It was even colder, with the weather report calling for rain. Despite the large number of shrines, temples, and gardens we hadn't seen yet, there was no way we were doing anything out of doors in that weather. So we planned a trip to some sake breweries. This was meant to be easy, requiring very little time out of doors. However, or map led us astray. First up was Gekkeikan brewery, but we ended up at their central brewery, which is not open to the public. I am pleased to report, I was able to make out from the Japanese characters that we were in Gekkeikan territory of some kind, and I walked into their offices asking for the location of the sake museum (their tourist facilities, where we might learn about sake and also taste some). After waiting patiently while the staff discussed the matter at length, someone showed up who could speak a little English. He gave us a map, and better instructions. We thanked him profusely and headed out. That's when the snow started coming down in earnest, and we started to realise we had been unwise to leave the hostel without umbrellas. We had just started down the street, when a lady hurried up to us and asked us to wait here: someone would drive us to the sake museum! We were very thankful for the ride. The museum was interesting, and the sake was tasty. We bought a bottle of sake and a bottle of plum wine as well.

Loren with Sake fermetation barrel at Gekkeikan

Loren with large sake fermentation tank at Gekkeikan Sake Museum

A short venture in the snow found us at stop number two: Kizakura Kappa Country, a sake and beer brewery. We got a very tasty lunch at their restaurant, and a flight of three little glasses of beer to taste. We guessed them as a lager, an Irish red style, and a hefewizen style. They were all tasty, and unsurprisingly we both liked the hefewizen best. They had a museum as well, though it was smaller and we were glad we'd seen Gekkeikan's first as this one had no English signs. In addition, however, they had a little museum dedicated to the kappa, a mythical creature, that apparently is know for being sneaky, and looks something like an anthropomorphic cross between a frog and a turtle.

Loren eating noodles, Kizakura Sake Brewery

Loren slurping noodles at Kizakura's restaurant

Kappa scuplture, Kizakura sake brewery

Somewhat lewd kappa sculpture at Kizakura's kappa museum

After that we called it a day. The weather was miserable; we bought a cheap umbrella at a corner store and headed home.


It was my turn to be sick. Spent most of the day on the couch in the lounge drinking tea and reading my book. Loren did some wandering around the city without me.


Last day. I was feeling a little better, we mostly just got ourselves packed and headed to the airport around mid-day.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Kyoto part VI

Loren didn't make Day Three. That was not a surprise; it is only for the top 8 players. He made 80-somethingth out of nearly 400, which is not bad for his first time playing at this level. We didn't do much this day, as Loren was not feeling well. We started out to check out a shrine in Southern Higashiyama, but by the time we got there Loren was feeling sick. We stopped in a very tasty soba restaurant on our way back to the hostel. Loren ordered a dish with 'thick broth' which neither of us much liked. It was like a typical broth that someone had then added a lot of corn starch or other thickener to, it was sickeningly thick and made the soba sticky so that it was hard to pry out of the bowl with chopsticks. We did nothing much the rest of the day. I enjoyed another bath in the hostel's luxurious tub.

Yasaka-Jinja shrine
Yaska-Jinja shrine in Southern Higashiyama (Gion district)

Yesterday Loren was feeling better. We picked a walking self-tour recommended by our guide book. It took us through some temples in Southern Higashiyama. At the first temple, the book recommended a strange side-attraction in the temple grounds, it was hard to find as there were no English signs. We were determined though as the book said it was 'one of the strangest attractions in Kyoto.' Inside a small temple, you pay a small fee and follow stairs down into darkness. Your left hand had hold of the railing; it is a series of large wooden orbs, like prayer beads, leading your way. It leads into the kind of complete darkness I have only experienced deep in the lava tubes of Hawaii. You turn right and left, your feet tentatively sliding along the slight unevenness of the age-worn rock slabs of the floor. Then you round a corner, and there hovering in front of you is a very large circular stone, somewhat flat on top. It has a Japanese symbol carved into the top. Though I can see one slender hand placed on the stone, It appears disembodied; the lighting is illuminating the stone and nothing else. The hand of the person in front of me disappears into the darkness, and it's my turn. Holding the large wood beads with my left hand, I place my right on the stone and move it around the edge as I was directed to before descending. Slowly, silently, the stone begins to rotate under my hand, as if it were floating on something.

We followed a narrow street lined with restaurants, and shops of all kinds - selling sweets, Japanese fans, and so on. We noticed a few large raindrops starting to fall here and there. We stopped at a stand selling fresh steamed buns. Loren got one with beef inside, I got one with sweet bean paste and green tea mochi.

We walked to another shrine, it had a huge statue of Buddha sitting on top of it. Loren didn't feel like going in, so I left him to wander the grounds outside. I paid my 100 yen (that's about two Kiwi dollars) at the gate. The lady lit a fat stick of incense, handed it too me, and conveyed through gesture that I was to place it in the large incense burner in front of the shrine. Turns out the whole shrine was some sort of memorial for the unknown soldiers who died in World War Two. I strolled past a peaceful pond toward the shrine steps. The place was basically empty; I ventured up the steps alone, clutching my purple stick of incense, watching the smoke curl into the chill air. In the incense burner someone had made a swirling pattern in what looked like years of ash; I sunk my stick down into the ash in the company of several others. Just then the rain started up again, and as I looked up, I had the sudden realisation that it was not rain. I was experiencing a snow flurry! It melted the moment it hit the earth, but I opened my gloved hand and caught a snowflake. It had been snow all along.

Ryozen Kwanon 3
Ryozen Kwanon

incense holder at Ryozen Kwanon
Incense burner at Ryozen Kwanon

Saturday, 28 March 2009

Kyoto part V

3rd March


Loren made it to Day Two. After a leisurely morning I took the train to the tournament site to see the artists and such. The best was this table of craftsmen who made sort of 3-dimensional versions of magic cards by taking like 10 of the same cards, and doing intricate cut-outs of the features on them. I then walked to a nearby temple. I got seriously lost getting there, the sort of lost you can only get if you can't read any of the street signs. Finally found my way back to a point I could distinguish on the map using (I swear!) the position of the sun and the time of day.

3d Magic cards
3-D Magic cards

It was all worth it because the temple (or shrine?) was really lovely. It featured inari (meaning fox, not sushi) statues, and an uncountable quantity of reddish-orange gates. These simple wooden gates were set one behind the other continuously for long stretches of pathways. It was an amazing experience to walk into the brilliant orange tunnels that the gates created. These temples are not relics; they are ancient and yet they are full of life and activity. The religion is very much alive, and interactive in a way I am not accustomed to. The many shrines on the property are visited by Japanese followers, which ring a bell, toss a coin into collection boxes, and make a wish or prayer. This is just one of the activities I observed. (there were no English signs, so I did a lot of observing). Another set of activities involved paying a small fee to write your wish/prayer on a piece of paper, a strip of wood, or other objects, which are then hung up together in the appropriate location. There were also various methods for receiving a pre-written fortune. And these are just the bits that were somewhat comprehensible to me!

fox with key
Inari fox statue

shrine gates at fushimi-inari 4
Shrine Gates

I followed one path that lead through a well tended bamboo forest. I have not seen bamboo this large aside from one memorable garden on the Big Island. Eventually there was a side-path with a lot of what looked like little shrines all crowded together. Some looked well tended, others old somewhat fallen to neglect. It wasn't til I'd gotten to the second wandering path featuring similar 'shrines' that it dawned on me that I was really looking at graves. I have never seen so strange a grave-yard!

handprints on bamboo
Hand print on giant bamboo

graves at Fushimi-Inari 4
Grave at Fushimi-Inari

graves at Fushimi-Inari 2
Another strange grave at Fushimi-Inari

grave and cobweb
Spider web on grave stones

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Earth Hour

Sign up. Pass it on.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Kyoto part IV

27th February

3:15 pm

The weather is crap so I've only made one major trip out today, and I keep checking to see how Loren's doing. Info on the tournament is being added to Magic The Gathering's site as it happens. Loren's at 34th place if anyone cares to know. Only one lost match so far, and he's still in the top 50. Three more matches to go.


I walked Loren to the station, but didn't feel like making the treck out there with him. It was early, I was sleepy, and aside from the featured artist table there wouldn't be much for me to do. Magic doesn't make a very good spectator sport. I did a lot of nothing much in the morning, waiting for the day to warp up a bit. Then I made the trip into downtown Kyoto on the subway. I wasn't feeling very good. When I resized that I'd hardly had a vegetable since we got here - mostly just noodles, meat and fish - I figured that probably wasn't helping. The only thing along my route that sounded veggie-friendly was a French restaurant and the guide book promised the staff could speak English. I had a nicoise salad, which made me feel a lot better.

I could smell the tea shop before I saw it. Suddenly the smell of green tea was in the air - the place itself looked ancient, everything well-worn wood. Everything was in Japanese; I was relieved when one of the staff offered me a brochure in English, set out a tray of tea samples to smell, and gestured to a chair. I decided on a mid-range matcha and a roasted bancha.


Japanese Teas

I didn't take any photos that day. So I'm using this photo of the teas I bought. Bancha is a category of least-refined everyday teas. The type I bought is called hojicha which is a roasted green tea, light brown in colour. It was common to get complimentary tea instead of water at restaurants in Japan, usually a bancha. Matcha on the other hand is a very special type of Japanese tea. It is usually described as "powdered green tea." This means it's actually green tea leaves ground to a fine powder. Traditionally, you add a small scoop of the powder to a bowl with hot water in it, then use a special matcha whisk to suspend the powder in the water, making the tea a bit frothy. You then drink the whole thing down, consuming the powdered tea leaf with the tea. It has a rich, distinctive taste that is unlike other types of green tea. This is what is used in the famous "Japanese tea ceremony." In the photo, the matcha is the little tin that I haven't yet taken the fancy washi paper wrapping off of.

And I'll toss one more random photo in here, since today's entry is light on photos (don't worry, the next one will more than make up for it).

toilet with sink
Toilet with sink built in - sink water runs when toilet is flushed, and drains into the toilet bowl. Only one of the strange toilet designs we saw in Japan.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Kyoto part III

27th February

7:05 am - sleepy morning update.

Woke up early this morning, my neck bothering me. As it does when I'm in a hotel bed; though I bring my travel mattress pad with me it is not the same as my memory foam haven of a bed back home. Loren is sleeping but soon the alarm will wake him so he can get up and take the subway to day one of the tournament. Day one is for everyone; the top 50 make it to day two,* and the top 8 make it to day three. Day one starts with hundreds - and it feels like half of them are staying at our hostel, even at 7am there are six magic players in the lounge talking strategy and sorting cards. This is Loren's first tournament on this level, still I hope he makes top 50 which would mean he walked away with some amount of prize money.** Ok, on to the travel log:

* editor's note: it was actually top 1/2 makes it to day two.
** It was actually top 64 players get cash prizes. You'd think I wasn't paying attention and maybe that's true.


We had breakfast at a bakery serving both French-style pastries and Japanese-style steam buns. I had a plum blossom steam bun with sweet bean paste. We did a tour around the massive Kyoto station complex. It's a weird sort of modern architectural style; when I get home and the the photos up, you'll see what I mean. Loren spent the middle part of the day playing and watching Magic games; preparation for the event. Apparently there is a somewhat famous Brazilian player staying at our hostel. I took the subway to down town to do some shopping which I knew Loren wouldn't be much into. I started by walking down one of the covered open-air markets, taking my time looking at exotic sweets and incense shops, pottery shops, chopstick shops, etc. In one sweet shop, there was a glass-walled kitchen where you could see them making something. It smelled like cinnamon buns in there; it turned out the were making a sort of crunchy, thin cinnamon cookie. I bought a small box of them, they were really good. Later I read in my guidebook that they are some sort of Kyoto speciality and are actually made of mochi.

Kyoto station complex
Looking down from the 11th story at a series of escalators and granite stairs.

My destination was a Japanese paper merchant, I spent some time looking at elaborately-designed paper, and all manor of things made of paper. I bought some small colourful origami paper there. I then walked to Southern Higashiyama just across the river. I was headed to a tea and sweets shop. This was in the Gion area - traditional theatres. This area was just full of every type of sweet shop! By the time I found my destination, It was getting close to time to head back, and was unsure how log it would take if I ordered matcha. So I bought a box of tea sweets and then walked back along the river - the Kamo-gawa. I saw cranes in the shallow, broad river, and a hawk or falcon hunting for fish above the water.

Late afternoon, and I was back at the hostel. Needed a break from all the walking, so I read my book some in the lounge and then we headed to an area just South of the city to the place where the Magic tournament will be; Loren needed to register. We didn't have a good map of this area, and got a bit lost, wandering through a residential neighbourhood with some ancient-looking houses and some houses that were new but done in the traditional style (austere wooded construction, elaborate tiled roofing, manicured lawn with a stone lantern in it). It surprised us that here, in a still somewhat urban area, there were sizable plots full of rows of vegetables, interspersed with the houses.

We had dinner at an Italian restaurant because Loren insisted Italian pasta was the best thing to eat before a big tournament. It was actually very good, and we were amused to see the Japanese diners around us eating their pasta dishes family style, and slurping the noodles just as they would with a bowl of ramen.

plastic food
The ubiquitous plastic food in restaurant windows. Even Italian restaurants. Note the fried egg on the pizza on the right.

Today the weather is bad, rainy and only meant to get to about 8 degrees Celsius. I am determined to head out there at some point and find some Japanese tea. My destination is a place down town which both serves tea and sells packages of it.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Kyoto part II

25th February


The rain cleared up by mid-morning and we braved a trip out in much nicer weather than yesterday's. We went to a supermarket for some basics like cereal and milk, and had to walk down every aisle fascinated by the weird and mysterious items for sale.

bean paste kit kat
Adzuki bean paste kit-kats. They were pretty good.

Then we went to another temple that is in Kyoto Station area (the neighbourhood we are staying in). It was very nice, the number massive wood beams used to construct these huge buildings is truly amazing. Unfortunately this one was also partially closed due to renovation. It had a temple gate that is designated a national treasure or some such - it is a very large wooden gate with intricately carved and painted details depicting kirin and fu dogs. Then went to a sento (bath house).

This was a real treat, and figuring out what to do when there was not a scrap of English to be found was an interesting if disorienting experience. There were all manor of hot and warm spa pools, and a sauna with a television in it! My favourite was a spa pool with some kind of mineralised water in it. It was pleasantly just warmer than body temperature, and the minerals made lots of very tiny bubbles, the water felt very soft and lovely. Loren encountered an electric pool (the men and women were in separate areas). Apparently it was a pool with a very mild electrical current in it, causing a sort of tingly feeling. There were no places to hang towels, everyone was just carrying around a tiny towel that they rent to you that is no bigger than a tea towel. This towel is used to wash yourself when you come in, and at least attempt to cover yourself if you're feeling modest.

Then we walked to downtown and had dinner at a nice sushi restaurant. After that, we walked down this street that our guidebook said was very pleasant at night. It is the narrowest street I have seen yet in Kyoto and suitable only for foot traffic. But it is truly very lovely at night due to the colourful lanterns hung outside beautiful old wooden store fronts, most of them restaurants. This area apparently has some of the fanciest and most exclusive eating establishments in Kyoto; it it easy to see why as they are built right to the edge of a large river that runs through town.

pontocho 5
Pontocho: a beautiful street at night

pontocho 2

Second shot of Pontocho

After we finished our walk through this area, we crossed the river and found a nice pathway that was set above the river but below the level of the street, and had a nice invigorating walk all the way back down to Kyoto Station area and then back to the hostel.

I am typing this in the lounge once again, and the place is truly packed. Most of the Magic players have hit town at this point, both dinning tables and one coffee table are full of Magic players and Loren is right in the middle of it of course. I came up here for a tea and a relaxing read of my book, but the noise level at the moment is not very conducive to this.

magic players in the lounge at K's House
Magic players in the lounge of our hostel

narrow room 2

Our very cozy sleeping quarters.

Well I'd better get going. Probably I'll be back on here again tomorrow.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Kyoto part I

I kept a private (online) journal in Kyoto, using the coin-op computers in our hostel. I'm now going to start porting the entries over here, and adding some photos (I took so many photos!) from the trip.


24th February

Right now Loren is playing Magic with a couple of Americans he just met in the lounge of the Kiwi-style Backpackers we are staying at. I am therefore entertaining myself by feeding my internet addiction on one of the coin-op computers in said lounge.

So. I will give you the quick run-down because it is hard to type on this keyboard.

Plane ride.
Uneventful. Spotted the first Japanese people wearing surgical masks. I would say on the street I see about one person in twenty wearing one of these. Most of the airport staff at Immigration in Osaka Kansai airport were wearing them. Service on Air New Zealand flights, as usual, was great. They had a Japanese or Western option for meals, and offered a hot moist towel for the cleaning of hands and face before meals, which is common practice in Japanese restaurants.

It was cold but no longer raining as it had been the night we got in. We visited a lovely garden near our hostel, which our guide book described as not particularly impressive (therefore, can not wait to see the impressive ones). And visited a Buddhist temple also not far away. It is allegedly the largest all-wooden building ever made. I would believe it too, though it would have been better if the main building had not been closed for renovation, and also so covered with scaffolding that you could not see the outside of it. We had ramen at a hole-in-the-wall ramen house for lunch. We had ramen for dinner as well (along with some gyoza), at one of these strange little ramen houses where you order and pay via a coin-op machine outside, then hand them your tickets inside to get served.

Heather on bridge
Me on one of the bridges of Shosei-en Garden

dead tree & cherry branches
Cherry tree supported bamboo lattice. We were there just before cherry blossom season.

dragon fountain
Dragon fountain at Higashi Hongan-ji temple

The rain is back, and it is colder. We went into dowtown Kyoto and visited two strange museums. One was a manga museum that also was a sort of manga archive; there were walls full of shelved manga and people sitting at tables reading them. The second was a kaleidoscope museum, which was more fun than it sounds. I have never seen so many kinds of kaleidoscope, nor such fancy ones. The most elaborate was a stained-glass statue of a geisha; you look into a peep hole in the top of her hair and turn one of her elaborate hair ornaments. We also checked out an open-air market in the same area. It is huge, full mostly of food vendors of all kinds. I have never seen so many strange foods, some we could only guess at what they might be. Nearly all of the signs were in Japanese. We sampled a variety of things by way of having lunch. My favorites were fresh mochi with adzuki bean paste inside and a strawberry on top, and just absolutely delicious unagi nigiri.

Nishiki Market
Nishiki market


Thursday, 5 February 2009


February is the best time to visit Wellington. The weather is still warm (It's the antipodes equivalent of August). Airfare and other travel-related prices are starting to go down post-Christmas holidays. But most importantly, my goodness is there a lot going on!

Fringe Festival is almost upon us upon us (6th Feb. to 1st March) This festival prides itself on having an "open access" policy, making it easy for any artist to become a part of the events. It's an idea launching pad for up and coming artists, and the best of all, it's a festival that's easy to enjoy on the cheap. You can even get a discount card for it!

The Cuba Street Carnival
(21st Feb.) does alternate years with the New Zealand International Arts Festival (26th Feb to 21st March). Last year was the Arts Festival (big, fancy, expensive showcase of artists of all kinds) and we didn't make it to anything partially due to laziness and partially due to price. This year I am looking foreword to the Cuba Street Carnival - a huge, free, Rio de Janeiro-style street party with costume contests, multiple stages, and a night parade.

New Zealand International Sevens (6th and 7th Feb.) is probably the biggest costume-wearing day of the year, which is saying a lot for a city whose residents are happy to use even a mundane office party as an excuse to wear a costume. Technically a sporting event, the Sevens is more like an annual event. There are parades, costume contests, and countless parties surrounding the games. I don't have much interest in sport, but it's easy to see what's so appealing about the Sevens. It is a simplified, slimmed-down version of Rugby, allowing for action-packed matches that only last fifteen minutes. An entire tournament is played through in just two days. This also means that all of the Rugby Sevens teams come through town all at once. A very big event for Rugby fans. As for me, tickets to the actual game are expensive and not worth it. We'll probably do what we did last year: Walk outside our door, turn the corner, and find ourselves in the midst of the Courtneay Place block party where we'll be able to catch the last couple of games on the big screen they've got set up in the street.

Waitangi Day
(6th of February). While walking along the waterfront last night, I overheard a snippet of conversation: "Waitangi Day is our Thanksgiving." I thought, "no it's not, Waitangi Day is obviously more like the 4th of July!" It is, after all, the day to celebrate the founding of the country. It is the day a group of Maori tribes signed a treaty with the British Crown. Of course, now I think about it, that is a tiny bit like Thanksgiving, which does celebrate a day in which the native Americans and the colonists got together and formed a sort of friendship. Of course, we all know how that turned out for the native Americans. The Europeans made a number of treaties with the American natives, but we won't be celebrating those. That's because the Europeans would eventually violate every one of them.

Summer City (31st December to March 29th march). This is a Summer-long series of free events put on by the Wellington City Council. It's everything from outdoor concerts to circus performances, from New Years parties to volleyball games on the beach.

Wow! That's a lot of stuff. I am exhausted just writing about all of it. As you can see, a confluence of events this year places Sevens weekend and Waitangi Day weekend right on top of each other. As I walk the relatively calm streets of Courtenay Place this afternoon, inside I am bracing myself for a particularly crazy weekend in Wellington's pub/club/theatre district.

I leave you with this photo I snapped yesterday on Lambton Quay:

Plimmer at the Sevens

Even Wellington founding father John Plimmer is dressing up for the Rugby Sevens this year

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Study in New Zealand

Yes, I am "going back to school." I keep calling this my Mid-life Crisis, which is kind of a joke because it doesn't feel like a crisis, but also kind of fitting because I've had a real shift in my goals and perspective and it's starting to show. In the past month or two I've quit my job, got a tattoo, and enrolled in a Massage Certificate programme - a complete shift of focus for me.

Which brings us to today's topic.

This being my first venture in tertiary education here in my adoptive country, I have learned a little bit about how these things work in New Zealand.

I admit I still don't understand the complex testing system which high school students take and which somehow has specific consequences for what types of university programmes they can get into. But I can now tell you something about finances.

First, there's student loans. I applied for one last week. Just about anyone can get one, and here is how it works: You take out the loan, the special government agency that handles such things then pays your enrolment fees and can also pay you for course-related costs (in my case, that's mainly a massage table). Once you graduate, your loan account gets handed over to the IRD (it's like the IRS). This loan is completely interest free. And you don't have to pay it back 'til you start making over a certain amount of money (about $18,000 a year). THEN you just have to repay 10% of your current income until it's paid off. It doesn't matter how long it takes. Just 10% of your earnings taken right out of your pay check by the IRD. It's that easy.

Oh, but it does not, in fact, end there. Here's a brand new term: Student Allowances. How these work is a little simpler: the government gives you money. And you don't owe them anything ever. Yes, my friends, the government will actually PAY you to go to university! Now, how much you get depends on your income as well as your partner's. I my case I don't qualify for any because of Loren's income, and because of my age (partner's income doesn't count if you're under 23). But the average student just out of high school will get somewhere between $50 and $150 per week, depending on their parent's circumstances. Now that is pretty great.

For an adult student, the whole system is still pretty neat. But for a parent trying to send their kid to university, well, it's pretty damn amazing.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

National Identity

America's National Bird: Bald Eagle

(solitary, powerful, predatory)

Wildlife Pictures, Images and Photos

New Zealand's National Bird: Kiwi

(flightless, rare, and.. uh.. stroppy?*)

Kiwi Bird

* Stroppy: a fighter; easily provoked to anger; fiercely protective.





Actually, a New Zealand national icon that I think fits a little better is: the Bee

(Industrious, hard-working, civic-minded)

Buzzy Bee Pictures, Images and Photos

"buzzy bee" a classic Kiwi child's toy

Thursday, 15 January 2009

27th July, 2005: Waiting for the Fall

I've had a request to re-post some of the stuff I wrote back when I first started working with animals and had a lot more to say about it. The following is one of my favourites.


I wish I were a painter. So I could paint a picture for you. A clearing in dappled light, under the canopy of a large twisted old bay tree. In the center of the clearing is a deer, standing very still, its nose just touching the ground. At the edges of the clearing there are several women, all standing very still, all watching the deer. It is very quiet. The woman in the background is crouching, sturdy-looking, middle aged with short graying hair. The woman standing just to the deer's left is wearing the same sensible khaki as the others, but her hair is blonde and curly, she has ear rings, she looks almost glamorous, she is glancing down at her watch. The two women in profile in the foreground look almost peaceful, and a little bit weary, their eyes fixed on the deer, who is looking back at them. If I were a painter, I could paint this with perfect detail. I would call it "Waiting for the fall."

We stood there so still and so quiet for what seemed like a very long time. I saw the vet shoot the dart, and then we closed in, and then we waited. She should have gone down then, but she just wouldn't. Its not her fault - in the wild, you have to hide your weaknesses as long as possible, especially when you are a prey animal. The vet. got two more doses of ketamine in her before it was all over. Then we tried to just drive her into the holding area, but she bolted the other way, and I was the one to cut her off that time. I should have just froze, then, with my arms out, making myself as big as possible. She was too far to drive through the door now, but I didn't think of that, so I just reached out and touched her on the nose, and she took off again. We cornered her again, and then the keeper said "everyone hold!" and we stopped, and we closed in. The vet. inched in painfully slow and got a pillow case over her head, and we helped her to the ground and into the net and that was the end of it.

There's something I just love about this part of it. Whether its cornering a deer or handling a fractious cat or finding that sneaky way to get a shot into a scared dog with the minimum of restraint. It takes a certain kind of skill that's so far removed from the technical side of the job, and it takes a kind of animal sense which can't really be taught. There was something particularly exciting about being part of this group of women working together to take down a deer. Though we weren't out to kill it, of course. We just wanted to trim its hooves, give it some medicine, and clean its teeth.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Election Day/ Guy Fawkes Day

Still trying to catch up on all that's happened in the last few months. Let's go back to November...

The first guests to arrive were my parents. The day they got here happened to be the day of the Presidential election in America. We choose to not get any television reception in our home, but I still wanted to know what was going on with the election. I heard JJ Murphy's - an Irish pub up on Cuba St. - was going to be showing election coverage all day. They probably weren't the only pub doing this, but the were the only pub hosting the American Democrat's election-watching party.

USA 08 race at JJ Murphys

Patrons at JJ Murphy's watching the race

It was a warm cloudy day with misty rain on and off. We walked around the CBD alternately doing last-minute Celebration preparations and popping into JJ Murphy's to catch the tally. We were eating lunch at Offbeat Originals when we heard a cheer go up from JJ Murphy's down the street. When we went in to get an update, the place was packed. Obama had just won the presidency. Americans and Kiwis alike were celebrating. We watched McCain's concession speach, and Mom said how nice that the three of us were all together for this historic moment.

Obama in the lead

Parents looking hopeful as Obama takes the lead

It also happened to be Guy Fawkes Day, which is celebrated each year with a fireworks display over the harbour. As we walked the couple blocks from our apartment to the waterfront that evening, the fireworks were already going, and we could hear some kids nearby hollering "Obama!" It was an excellent display, with two launch points working in tandem from barges out in the harbour. It was easy to imagine the whole thing was a celebration of Obama's victory.

It is fair to say that mostly Kiwis are happy about Obama's victory. While American is not, in fact, the centre of the universe, most other countries do care about American politics, simply because they have to. American is still a powerful political and military force which likes to get all up in everyone else's business. And I think that if the world's population had voted in America's presidential election, Obama would have won by a landslide. Wellington will be celebrating his inauguration on the 21st with party featuring African and African-American music:


Tuesday, 6 January 2009


So we're going to Japan. It is official. We bought tickets today. I am excited.

This all started when Loren went to an international Magic (the card game) tournament in Auckland. He got 16th place which won him some money and an invite to a international tournament in Japan. (no, not enough money to cover the trip, but enough to help). That was the end of November and the tournament is at the end of February. Not much time to decide whether to go and how to get there. Last week I finally got a Kyoto guide book (that's the city we will be visiting). And now I can't wait to go, it sounds like a really beautiful city, and completely different than anywhere I've ever been. Neither of us have been anywhere in Asia before.

kyoto guide

So. I am just going to pretend this is our non-honeymoon following our non-wedding in December. And remind myself that some people spend more on a wedding dress than we'll be spending on all of our travel expenses combined.

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