Monday, April 17, 2017

Hiking Little West Lake

This past weekend Aya and I spotted that we had a good air day coming in Beijing and neither of us had obligations, so we signed up for Beijing Hikers to do a hike north of the city in the mountains. We have been living in Beijing for almost 3 years and most of that time we talked about doing one of these hikes, but the air is always a toss up and most weekends I work so time kept ticking away until this weekend we finally had the opportunity to go. I signed us up via the Beijinghikers website and we were put on standby for that Saturday's hike. Most hikes fill up 5-7 days in advance. Lucky for us they decided there were enough people on standby to get another, smaller bus to follow their regular large one. We took a car down to the Lido hotel in Beijing where we met up with other hikers at 830. After about 20 minutes of checking names and handing out bananas everything seemed in order. So, two buses with about 40 people, we headed north to Little West Lake. It took about 2 hours to get there with a potty stop mid way. Most of the drive was through the norther burbs of Beijing, familiar territory for us.
The drive was fine and we started our hike near the top of the mountain. There were not many other groups on the wall or first part of the trail, but in true Chinese fashion those people who were there were chatting noisily and a few of them were blaring music from devices as they hiked breaking the serenity. Also in true Chinese fashion, people never gave way if there was only room for one person to pass on a trail, if they decided to sit for a rest it was always right in the middle of the trail, and a lot of the people I saw hiking just threw their trash on the wall or off the side and there were areas were you could see it was thick with trash. Hey, it's not my country, but if it were...

The first part of the hike we spent 2-3km on a restored part of the wall. It was pretty steep going up and down between towers and took us about 1.5 hours to get through that bit. The next part, where our guides had held up the lead group, was a little bit of a fairly flat stretch through some orchards. That only lasted about 1km before we were back up on the wall, this time an unrestored section. Again we encountered many Chinese hikers. Another 1-2km along the unrestored wall and we could see the end, a ticket shed at the bottom of a steep descent. Once our group came together there we walked the last part of the hike, all flat along a lake and through a park that was packed with people, and then to the parking lot.

After we got all our people together we boarded and had a short drive to a place to have lunch. By then it was about 3pm, so a pretty late lunch, but a few people in our group straggled so we were a bit behind. Lunch was at a local place on a balcony overlooking a reservoir, so pretty nice view and the food was good. After lunch we packed in the buses to head back to the city and most everyone fell asleep from food and weariness. As we approached the edges of Shunyi we asked if we could jump out. It seemed like an odd spot, but it was only 4km from there to our home whereas the bus was going downtown which would probably mean another 45 minutes to get there and then another 45 minutes to turn around and come back to Shunyi. It was no problem to just jump out and from there we took a cab back to our apartment so we were home by 530pm.

Overall I liked the hike and might do one again if I can find the time, but I'm not sure if I want to. Driving out of the city, then being surrounded by Chinese crowds is not exactly a stress reliever. One of our guides was asked if he had been to the Ming Tombs (a popular tourist spot we passed on the way) and he replied that he never had nor would want to since it would mean crowds. He then went on to say that despite living in Beijing for 8 years he had hardly went to any of the touristy spots because he couldn't stand the crowds. I agree, so if we go again we will aim for a place that is a little more off the beaten path. 

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Sumo Practice

Down an unassuming street in Tokyo a stable of wrestlers practicing on a rainy Saturday morning. A gaggle of mostly foreign people were standing outside the windows watching about 15 large men in fundoshi pushing each other around while a couple of others stood to the side pumping weights. Then, a large man wrapped in a robe and sandals came out to mount a bike and teeter down the street.
The rain picked up and the crowd moved on.

Cherry Blossoms

This year we travelled through Osaka to Kobe to Tokyo and we knew that we would see some blossoms on the way, but it was hard to tell when and where. Unfortunately Osaka had not yet bloomed, though we did see a few early trees here and there. In Kobe it was much the same. Luckily Tokyo was just past the peak so many trees were either in full bloom or just past it and loosing petals for leaves.
I also thought the weather this year was quite warm. I didn't need a jacket really at all. A sweater would have been fine the whole trip. This is not what I remember from 2008 when I went to Kyoto with my friend Richard. At that time I wore a jacket and I remember feeling cold in the evenings. So I investigated, has the weather gotten warmer? In fact, yes, and it seems to be causing blossoms to come a little earlier each year.

Dialogue in the Dark

While in Osaka Aya and I went to Dialogue in the Dark. This experience is designed for those with sight to feel what it might be like to be blind. In this case I was especially apprehensive because we were in a small group of Japanese people and all directions would be given in Japanese, but overall the experience went ok.
We entered a dimly lit room where a blind man was waiting to speak to us. As he dimmed the lights he explained how he would guide us and gave us white walking sticks to feel our way around. There were 5 of us excluding the guide and after a few minutes we entered the dark room. Here we had to move to take our shoes off and give up our walking sticks. That was hard enough, not to bump into people, not to trip, but then we entered, "the house". At this point we had to make our way down a stair way and out into a yard where there was a hammock. Some of us got in the hammock. Then we had to come back up the stairs to the porch where we had a tea and sweet. After this we made our way back to the front door and got our shoes and sticks back.
This whole time I kept thinking, how are they going to fill the hour and  half that this is supposed to last, but it took us so long to do anything that the time just flew by. I was pretty impressed by the experience, it was really difficult to get around as each step was taken with doubt. I suppose if you are in a familiar place you can move around pretty freely because you get to know how far apart everything is, but if you are not familiar it is pretty scary. This led me to some other questions like, how do you pour tea in the dark without over filling the cup? How does one get dressed in the morning? Most importantly, how do you know when to stop wiping? 

A Day at the Races

This trip to Tokyo Aya was keen to try going to some boat races and though I thought it sounded a little silly I was interested to see what it would be like. We arrived in the middle of the day on a Saturday, but the arena was maybe 1/4 full. Most of the clientele were grey haired and I don't know if that is just Japan or an indicator of who comes to bet on these races. We grabbed an info sheet and tried to figure out how to fill out a betting slip. 5 boat racers, in tiny boats, climb into their boats and do a couple laps to show off. Then they get into position and the race starts. After three times around the race is over. I was kind of expecting people to cheer or grumble, but the arena was mostly silent but for the roar of the engines.

Both times we bet we lost, about 10 dollars between the two of us, but it was a bit fun to sit and watch the races and I can see why some retirees might get into it. In addition to the races, which occur every 30 minutes or so, you can get some pretty nicely priced beer or food from a few stalls and restaurants around the arena. I could see making a day of it and maybe, maybe we will go back some day.

Yamazaki Distillery

Three years ago I was going for a drink after work with my friend Bill and we went to some posh new place that was a short walk in between both our places. Looking at the menu I thought the Two Smoky Barrels looked interesting, a whiskey drink with orange and lemon flavor. It was so delicious that when I got home I went about finding out what exactly the smoky barrel was. Three years later and I've now tried a couple dozen different kinds of whiskey from the smoky tastes of Islay to the sweet tastes of Aberlour. What does toast taste like? Can I smell the pears? Why char a barrel and what is the angel's share? What is the different between a blend and single malt? I learned.

Shortly after I started trying these different whiskeys my friend Bill bought a bottle of the Yamazaki 12 year. At the time it cost about 65 dollars, a pretty hefty sum for me and a bit out of my budget, but Bill was kind enough to spare me a glass. This was the first time I tasted Yamazaki and it was good.

Since then I'd been keen to visit the distilleries of Japan and so my wife helped to set up a tour we took this April. The distillery is just outside of the city of Osaka so it wasn't hard to get to. We set up and afternoon tour and there were about twenty other people on the tour with us. Oddly (or not?) only three people on the tour were Japanese. Prices varied, but we went for 1000yen per person, about 9 dollars at the current exchange rate. This price payed for the tour as well as a tasting of 4 whiskeys at the end of the tour. A pretty good deal.
The tour took us through the stills and vats where the whiskey was born and on to the barrel room where it is stored. It was a joyous tour and all of us were smiling ear to ear. At the end we had a tasting of 4 types of Yamazaki whiskey and a number of snacks salty and sweet.
After the tasting, cheeks rosy, we headed to the bar. I tried three small glasses, one of which was a 25 year old Yamazaki. Many different whiskeys were available, both Yamazaki and foreign. All were delicious.
Unfortunately word has spread and the Yamazaki 12 year is now a rare bird. What cost Bill 65 dollars 3 years ago would now cost him about 150 dollars. Whiskey is back in fashion and the Chinese market is now imbibing as well. Many brands, including the stalwart Johnny Walker, are facing increasing demand in the face of limited supplies. Prices will only go up.