Category Asia

Photo Friday: Japanese snow monkeys

Photo Friday: Japanese snow monkey

I shot this photo in winter when this Japanese snow monkey and his friends were enjoying their hot springs baths in snow-covered Jigokudani Yaenkoen park, not far from Nagano on the island of Honshu.

These snow monkeys are Japanese macaque, a monkey species native to northern Japan and the most northern-living non-human primate surviving winter temperatures below -15 degrees centigrade.

To see the monkeys in their natural environment you walk up alongside the Yokoyu River, which is nicknamed Hell’s Valley because of its steep cliffs and hot water steaming out from the ground. It is fun to watch them going about their business…playing, eating, running around and soaking in the onsen. There is a lot of social activity to enjoy with mothers and babies and alpha males. And it is remarkable how their faces and hands and all their emotions are so like our own.

If you would like to try soaking in an onsen yourself, check out my post on Kusatsu, which is much more human friendly!

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Great Overnight Getaway from Tokyo: Karuizawa

The onsen in Karuizawa, an hour out of Tokyo

The mountain retreat of Karuizawa, just an hour by bullet train from Tokyo, offers a delightful overnight getaway from the frenetic metropolis. In winter, it has skiing, snow shoeing, and steaming onsen baths. In summer it offers a wonderful respite from Tokyo’s heat. And year-round it has great shopping, walking, restaurants and other adventures.

Karuizawa,  has long welcomed travellers. From the early 17th century, when Japan was ruled by the Edo (Tokyo)-based shogun, Karuizawa was a post town along the busy Nakasendo highway between Tokyo and Kyoto.

You can still explore the long narrow post-town street once lined with wooden restaurants and inns catering to samurai lords and merchants. These days the offerings lean more towards trinket-filled Japanese souvenir outlets, bakeries and sweets shops.

What distinguishes Karuizawa from other post towns is…surprisingly…how it became a getaway for Westerners in the late 19th century.  After first coming in 1886, Canadian-born missionary Alexander Croft Shaw recommended what he called Happy Valley to fellow missionaries and other foreigners as a wonderful place to escape Tokyo’s summer heat. Soon an entire community of western-style houses was built among the larch and fir trees.

A ret...

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Photo Friday: Indonesia’s Komodo Dragons

Three Komodo dragons at the UNESCO World Heritage Komodo National Park

I took this Photo Friday image of these three gigantic komodo dragons on UNESCO World Heritage-listed Komodo Island in Komodo National Park off the coast of Flores Island in Eastern Indonesia. They are found only on four volcanic islands that rise Jurassic-park-like from the sea.

Three of them are sunbaking at a waterhole when I visit. Each is three-meters-long with prehistoric claws, beady eyes and scaly skin, which looks like woven metal armor. It feels like I’ve done a Dr Who and dropped into a dinosaur convention. Our diminutive guide is armed with nothing but a pronged stick. One heaves itself up and lurches towards me, so close I can hear its guttural hiss. A foot-long pink forked tongue darts in and out of its mouth. Meanwhile, saliva is drooling from the other two. Even DreamWorks couldn’t have come up with scarier looking creatures. Suddenly, my walk in the Komodo Islands National Park doesn’t feel like…well…a walk in the park anymore...

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Photo Friday: Walking Japan’s Nakasendo Way

Japan's Nakasendo Way is the traditional samurai trail between Edo and Kyoto

I took this Photo Friday image in a bucolic section of Japan’s Nakasendo Way between the restored post towns of Tsumago and Magome. The Nakasendo or the ancient “Middle Mountain Way” wends its way across valleys and mountain passes between the old Imperial capital of Kyoto and the Shogunate stronghold of Edo, now known as Tokyo. Once a busy byway traveled by feudal lords, samurai warriors, merchants and pilgrims, the Nakasendo Way now offers a tantalizing taste of old Japan that can be well nigh impossible to find in the country’s kitch-obsessed, neon-bright cities. It was springtime and beautiful pink blossoms floated down from the cherry trees that lined our path. It couldn’t have been more beautiful.

We had just been invited in to a traditional tea house for refreshments by a fellow wearing a traditional blue jacket and conical hat. We sat on tiny stools around a low table set on a dirt floor in a room that felt like it hadn’t changed for centuries...

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Insider’s Guide to Kyoto: The Golden Temple and other Highlights

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Know Before You Go:

When the Vikings were still raiding England, Kyoto became the imperial capital of Japan, at the beginning of the Heian period, and remained so until the court moved to Edo, or Tokyo, in 1868 during the Meiji Restoration.  To cater to the sophisticated tastes of royalty, Kyoto developed a thriving cottage industry of skilled artisans…kimono makers, wood-block artists, potters, lacquer ware craftsmen and fine woodworkers…which still survives, admittedly in a much smaller way, to this day.

Although it has been ravaged by wars, fires and earthquakes, Kyoto’s cultural treasures helped it to be spared from US bombing raids during World War II and as a result it is one of the few Japanese cities with pre-war buildings such as merchant townhouses.  With it 1600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines as well as a bevy of palaces and gardens, it is a must-visit historic destination.

First time visitors are, however, often surprised that Kyoto is also a busy modern city whose key industries include information technology and electronics (Nintendo has its headquarters here), higher education (there are 38 universities), and film and television production. If you take the bullet train you will arrive via the futuristic glass and steel Kyoto train station, one of Japan’s tallest buildings.  While, of course, you must savor Kyoto’s historical treasures, don’t ignore the contemporary city, with its thriving food markets, fusion restaurants and cutting edge design stores, where local craftsmen use their traditional artisanal training to create contemporary pieces.

Compar...

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