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