Cherry Blossoms in Japan’s North

DSCN2363There are lots of countries that celebrate spring, but I’ve never been in a country that embraces it so heartily as in Japan. The changing seasons find expression in about everything in Japan, influencing its cuisine, the kimono, artwork gracing a room, haiku and festivals.

The cherry blossom season, which begins in Okinawa and then Kyushu and subsequently races northeast in a glorious fanfare of pink and white flowers, has a tremendous following in Japan, with famous viewing spots throughout the country. But although Kyoto and other destinations are rightfully famous, there are many spots in northern Japan that are equally stunning yet fail to draw international crowds.

This advertorial I wrote for the Japan National Tourism Organization which appeared in the February/March 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveler aims to change that. In any case, international tourism to Japan has increased faster than anyone expected: almost 20 million in 2015 (the goal was 20 million by 2020), more than one million of them from the U.S.

National Geo Ad Feb:Mar 2016 cherry blossoms

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Austin TX Then and Now

The Texas State Capitol is taller than the US Capitol in Washington, D.C.Except, perhaps, for the newcomers who have just moved here (give them a year), everyone in Austin complains about how fast and how much the city is growing. That’s not a new phenomenon, however, as I’m reminded by an article I wrote about Austin that was published in the Chicago Tribune (Jan. 9, 1983), Miami Herald (Oct. 30, 1983) and Los Angeles Times (January 22, 1984).

Here’s a link to the Chicago Tribune archives for my “Laid-back Austin occupies a special place deep in the heart of hearts of Texans.”¬† When I wrote it, 357,200 people lived in Austin. Now there are an estimated 843,000; it’s reportedly the fastest-growing large city in the U.S.

Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum

Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum

Having seen many of Austin’s sights on previous trips, on a recent visit I decided to spend an afternoon at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum to learn more about Texas (actually, I knew almost nothing). The first thing I learned is that Texas wants us to pay for our knowledge–$12 for an adult interested in Texas history, compared with $7 for the Oklahoma History Center, $8 for the Kansas Museum of History and free admission to the Missouri History Museum.

In my three hours at the museum, I also learned that newcomers have been pouring into Texas a lot longer than it’s been a state, much to the chagrin of the people who came before them. Native Americans, of course, were the first, followed by the French and Spanish.

But it was after 1821, when Mexico won its independence from Spain and included

The Texas history museum has three floors of displays

The Texas history museum has three floors of displays

Texas as part of its new country, that the population really took off. In a move Mexico surely later regretted, it allowed U.S. colonists to settle in Texas, where they were given land for ranging and farming. Already by the late 1820s Anglo immigrants in Texas outnumbered Mexicans and residents of Spanish descent. By 1835, there were 30,000 Anglo Americans here, 3,500 Tejanos (who had lived here more than a century), about 14,000 Indians and 5,000 African slaves. So although the majority Anglos were either invited here or living illegally, they chafed under their Mexican hosts and fought for independence in the Texas Revolution (1935-1936), after which the Republic of Texas flew its own flag, drafted its own constitution and grew by leaps and bounds.

Texas became the 28th state in 1845 and by 1847 it had a population of 142,000. But astonishingly, by 1860 the population had swelled to 600,000, mostly because of the cotton industry fueled by slavery. So it’s no surprise that Texas, which produced more cotton than any other state, joined the Confederate States of America. After the Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan found a tremendous following in Texas, gaining a majority in the Texas House of Representatives after the 1922 elections and controlling many city governments (Dallas alone had 13,000 members). To the museum’s credit, it doesn’t gloss over the state’s unsavory past.

Other major events in Texas history include the cattle drives from 1866 to 1890 and that biggest one of all–the discovery of oil at the turn of the 20th century and the explosion of boom towns (Beaumont alone grew from 9,000 residents in January 1901 to 30,000 by March that same year).

But best of all, naturally, is awesome Austin City Limits, which opened in 1974 and is the longest-running music program in TV history. A small theater shows highlights. I felt like I was seeing my life flash before my eyes as I watched Willie Nelson (who starred in the 1974 pilot show), Tom Waits, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow, Foo Fighters and the many other musicians who have provided music to my personal melodramas over the decades.

IMG_1195Back in 1983, I began my story with a scene from the Texas Chili Parlor (“Woe to the preppie who should mistakenly wander into this Texas saloon”), and I’m happy to report that although much has changed in Austin, that establishment is as casual and laid-back as ever. In fact, I would list food as one of the main draws for newcomers relocating to the capital. Time was short, but in addition to the Texas Chili Parlor, my travel companion and I had gut-busting Mexican fare at Polvos, split lasagna and a bottle of red wine at classy Vespaio’s, enjoyed burgers and creek views at Ino’z Brew and Chew in Wimberley, and ate what’s probably the best ribs I’ve ever had at Smitty’s Market in Lockhart.

In any case, this is how I ended my article all those years ago:

“Austin is the only place in Texas,”¬† said one man who sat in front of his homemade cabin, pulling absent-mindedly at his long beard.

I waited patiently for him to continue, but he didn’t. As far as he was concerned, that was all that needed to be said.

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Smitty’s Market

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Lawrence Magazine Features Me

It’s always nice to get recognition in your hometown, especially if most people you know never read anything you write (unless, of course, they happen to be traveling to Japan….).

This short article appeared in the winter edition of Lawrence Magazine, ironically, photonot long after my spectacular bicycle crash in which I broke my left arm and several fingers in my right hand, thereby rendering me incapable of hefting a suitcase, not to mention typing.

After surgeries in October and November (metal plate and eight screws in my arm; two screws in my right-hand little finger, which had only 15% of the remaining middle joint intact and required a bone graft from my hand) I am much better, since almost anything would be better than not being able to dress yourself, wash your own hair or cut your own food. Indeed, my left arm is now out of its sling and I can remove my finger brace to type, but there are several months of therapy in my future. Someday I’ll be on the road again.

Lawrence Magazine, Winter 2015

 

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Why Should Aussies have all the Fun?

Japan has long been a mecca for Australians wishing to ski in summer (which in Australia falls during the months of December through February), with Niseko (60 miles southwest of Sapporo on the island of Hokkaido) and Nagano (site of the 1998 Olympics) among the most popular destinations.

With the Japan government’s goal of increasing the number of foreign visitors, it has launched a major campaign around the world, including the United States. This ad I wrote, which appeared in the November issue of Conde Nast Traveler, extols the virtues of winters in Japan, from its ski slopes to its hot-spring spas.

Advertisement in Conde Nast Travler, November 2015

Advertisement in Conde Nast Travler, November 2015

 

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Stanley, Hong Kong

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Stanley waterfront

Almost every time I’ve been in Hong Kong–and I can’t even count how many that would be over the past 30-some years–I’ve spent at least part of a day in Stanley, on the sound end of Hong Kong Island. It’s

Entrance to Stanley Market

Entrance to Stanley Market

long been known for its market, meaning, of course, that it’s no longer the place to go for bargains. In fact, whereas years ago the market dealt only in clothing, over the past couple of decades souvenirs have crept into the mix–which can only mean one thing: tourists.

But although Stanley Market has changed, I still love going there. PartIMG_4661 of it has to do with the wild ride to get there, best done in a double-decker bus that careens around corners and races over hills, gradually revealing glimpses of the South China Sea. The village of Stanley, long a popular enclave for expats, is laid-back and trendy, with good restaurants and a beach popular with families.

For more on Stanley, see this article in Global Traveler:

http://www.globaltravelerusa.com/stanley-hong-kong/

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Escape Macau’s Sensory Overload in Coloane

Chapel of St. Francis Xavier in Coloane Village

Chapel of St. Francis Xavier in Coloane Village

I’ve long been writing about how much Macau has changed since I first stepped ashore here in the 1980s, but one place that has resisted change is the island of Coloane. Not that Coloane has escaped completely unscathed, especially since it was joined to the island of Taipa in order to create reclaimed land that’s now home to mega resorts, shopping malls and casinos.

But Coloane remains the green lungs of the fast-growing city, home to beaches, hiking trails, a park with resident pandas, and a low-key village famous for its al-fresco restaurants. This article I wrote for travel2next.com, called Coloane Macau–Old-World Charm, extols the island’s virtues and explains why I’ve long found it ideal for a weekend escape.

Macau Giant Panda Pavilion copy

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Riding the Amtrak Rails

The observation car on the Southwest Chief

The observation car on the Southwest Chief

I’ve ridden trains around the world–Europe on a rail pass too many times to count (especially while working on Frommer’s Europe by Train), Shinkansen bullet and commuter trains throughout Japan, in India through the desert to Jaisalmer, on old-fashioned steam-engine trains in Switzerland and Japan, and many other trips–but I recently took my very first long-distance train ride in my own country. I don’t know why it took me so long.

I boarded the Southwest Chief in my hometown of Lawrence KS for the nine-hour trip to Chicago for a family reunion. The

One of many small-town stations on the way

One of many small-town stations on the way

train was more than two hours late, which would cause apoplectic fits in Japan and Germany. But the good thing is that I could follow the actual status of my train on a mobile app, which meant I could enjoy another cup of coffee from the comfort of my home instead of waiting fitfully at the station before dawn.

Although there are assigned seats, I spent almost the entire day in the light-filled observation car, where large windows provided panoramic views of Midwestern fields and tidy small towns, many with diminutive¬† and quaint depots. One of the best things about traveling by train is the mobility it provides, especially if you’re traveling with a group. I played Yahtzee with my nieces at one of the tables in the observation car, shared a lunch with my mother at our seats, and visited with my cousin, who had boarded the same train in Flagstaff and had reserved her own sleeper compartment.

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My mother and nieces

A highlight was the dining car, where we had the choice of everything from steak and salmon to chicken and pasta. Diners are assigned tables with strangers, which makes for an enjoyable way to pass the time, especially for solo travelers.

What surprised me was how crowded the train was, filled with students traveling between their hometown and university, grandparents on their way to visit family, and a variety of people who find trains the most effective and economical way to travel in the U.S. And of course there are train fanatics, those who ride trains just for the love of it. One of those self-professed fanatics is Allan Labrozzi, whom I met on Southwest Chief traveling with his wife. Since taking his first train trip in 1975, followed a few years later traveling with an Amtrak rail pass, Labrozzi takes multiple trips every year, meticulously keeping track of each journey in notebook after notebook.

“No two trips are alike,” he told me. “Traveling by train allows you to relax and get away from the stress of life, and there’s always something to see. But the real plus are the people you meet. Everyone has a story. And the memories stay with you.”

Allan Labrozzi enjoying the observation car

Allan Labrozzi enjoying the observation car

There are numerous train trips Labrozzi recommends for the novice or for international travelers wishing to see North America, including runs between Schenectady and Montreal, Seattle and Los Angeles, the California Zephyr between San Francisco and Chicago and the four-night Toronto-Vancouver trip on Rail Canada.

Though we can’t compete with the extensive train networks of other countries, there are many more lines than I’d imagined, and now I’m interested in exploring more of them. Traveling by train is also inexpensive ($112 round trip between Lawrence and Chicago), with discounts given to seniors, children, students, military personnel, veterans and AAA members. For people with time, a USA Rail Pass is available for 15, 30 or 45 days.

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My cousin in her private sleeper

Although there are many freight trains that rumble through Kansas, my international friends are amused to hear that only two passenger trains stop daily in my hometown, one going east and the other going west.

One of the most long-lasting affects of taking the Southwest Chief is that I now hear the whistles of trains passing through, something I had grown too used to since childhood. If I happen to be awake early in the morning (5:47am if it happens to be on time), I listen for the Chief’s plaintive short and long whistles as it comes into town and approaches the station. Pausing just one minute to unload and board passengers, it’s whistle sounds again as it continues on its journey, first loud, then dimmer, dim and gone.

The dining car

The dining car

 

 

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Falling for Iguazu Falls

Iguazu Falls border Argentina and Brazil

Iguazu Falls border Argentina and Brazil

I’ve seen numerous waterfalls, but nothing prepared me for Iguazu Falls. In fact, I was totally blown away. Describing the experience doesn’t come close to conveying what it was like to actually be there.

View from the plane

View from the plane

Iguazu Falls isn’t just one waterfall but rather a series of many spanning about 1.6 miles, so huge and overpowering that gazing at them made me feel as insignificant as when I look upon the stars. The Iguazu River, which flows about 820 miles mostly through Brazil before hooking up with the Parana River, flows over numerous falls–about 275 of them, some as high as 240 feet. Iguazu gets its name, in fact, comes from the Guarani native language meaning “great waters.” That seems like an understatement.

IMG_0756The most magnificent viewpoint is via a relaxing open-car train ride and then a series of catwalks to Devil’s Throat, where you can peer over a massive U-shaped cascade that roars with fury and shoots up so much white mist that you can’t see the bottom of the abyss, though the mist is a great canvas for many colorful rainbows. Certainly nature at its most glorious and a reminder of how powerful nature can be.

No wonder Iguazu Falls is a World Heritage Site. For a more detailed explanation of my trip and impressions of Iguazu National Park, see my article, A Detour to the Jaw-Dropping Iguazu Falls, published in goNOMAD Travel.

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A series of catwalks hopscotch across islands on its way to Devil’s Throat

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The approach to Devil’s Throat

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Doing the tourist thing at Devil's Throat

Doing the tourist thing at Devil’s Throat

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Walking Tours through Macau’s Historic Districts

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A-Ma Temple has good feng shui

I feel sorry for day-trippers arriving in Macau by ferry from Hong Kong without a clue what to do. True, there was a time when Macau was smaller (literally so, before reclamation filled in the Outer Harbour and created Cotai with its many resorts and casinos) and just striking out toward the old town would bring you to its historic center with its slow pace of life and cafes. There was only one museum (The Maritime Museum), and the dozen or so casinos in town were hidden away in hotels.

IMG_3532Nowadays traffic congests streets, there’s continual construction of new hotels, casinos and shopping malls, and there are so many different destinations vying for your time that you have to be very focused to concentrate on the places or subjects that interest you. My interest lies in history, as well as neighborhoods, food and other aspects of travel that root me in the here and now, so my favorite haunts are the older neighborhoods in the historic center of Macau, concentrated mostly on Penha Peninsula and around the ruins of St. Paul.

This article I wrote for travel2next, Macau Map and Walking Tour of Penha

Lilau Square

Lilau Square

Peninsula, takes in Macau’s oldest temple, a Chinese mansion that I consider an absolute must-see, churches, historic squares and other favorite spots on a walk from A-Ma Temple to Senado Square. My second walking tour for travel2next, A Walk Around St. Paul’s Ruins, takes readers from Senado Square to the Ruins of St. Paul’s and Camoes Garden, with many stops in between.

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Portuguese folkdancing in front of St. Paul’s Ruins

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Rua Felicidad

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St. Augustine’s Square

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Osaka is No Tokyo, and Doesn’t Want to Be

Osaka Castle is the city's most iconic landmark

Osaka Castle is the city’s most iconic landmark

It’s no secret that there’s a long-standing rivalry between Osaka and Tokyo. In fact, after hearing people debate which city is better, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no conclusion. Rather, I like to think both cities and their inhabitants have their unique selling points. It’s like comparing New York to LA. What’s the point?

The Grand Front Osaka, next to Osaka Station, is a huge complex containing a hotel, offices, shops and restaurants, plus plenty of green spaces

The Grand Front Osaka, next to Osaka Station, is a huge complex containing a hotel, offices, shops and restaurants, plus plenty of green spaces

In recent years, Osaka has been spiffing up its image and its urban landscape, most notably around Osaka Station and the Tennoji/Abeno districts. This article I wrote for Global Traveler, Discover the Hip Business Ambience of Modern Osaka, describes some of these recent developments, as well as some of the most notable differences between Osaka and Tokyo. Most peculiar: Tokyoites stand on the left side of a moving escalator while Osakans queue on the right. In fact, so much is this difference ingrained in the national psyche, that The Japan Times ran an article on April 1, 2015, about a new city ordinance that would require all Osakans to stand on the left to avoid confusion.

It was, of course, an April Fool’s Joke. Osakans wouldn’t stand for it.

Japan's tallest building (for now), the 50-story Abeno Harukas contains this observatory on its top floors.

Japan’s tallest building (for now), the 50-story Abeno Harukas contains this observatory on its top floors.

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