Thursday, March 29, 2012

Cherry Blossoms in Kyoto, Japan

Kyoto is the heart of traditional Japanese culture and the hills here turn pink during the cherry blossoms. After our visit to Osaka and Himeji Castle, this was our next stop. To this day, Ryoan-ji is one of my favorite places in the world because of the sight above. It's impossible to capture the moment in picture or word, but my friend and I entered the temple a bit burnt out from a day of temple hopping, turned the corner to see this cherry tree over the Zen garden, and were speechless. Literally. We both sat down and turned our full an complete attention to the scene.

I earnestly believe that we seldom truly experience the world around us. It's actually a skill that needs active practice because it's easy to get caught up in either the past or the future, instead of the present. In short, we think too much and it keeps us from truly experiencing the world around us. On top of the challenge of simply being present, we also add ourselves to our perception of the world. At a very basic level, even adding names to what we see around us is a distortion of a type because it adds values and associated concepts to the object being viewed. True experience wastes no energy on what is not there and instead focuses all the senses on everything around you. That might sound like a stretch, but this garden was built in part to help attain these types of true experiences through their use in Shikantaza, which is part of Zen Buddhism and is the practice of "quiet sitting in open awareness, reflecting directly the reality of life". We fell into some version of this when we were there and only left after someone politely let us know that they were closing for the night.

There is so much more to Kyoto than just cherry blossoms and Ryoan-ji. After the break, we'll continue the sakura festival and take a look around Kyoto.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

(Some) Cherry Blossoms by Himeji Castle, Japan

Himeji Castle is located about 50 miles outside of Osaka and is an easy day trip from the city. By train, it's about an hour and a half and $20 and there are plenty of options for getting there and back at all hours except early morning. We arrived after the peak bloom when most of the petals had already fallen, but the castle is worth a visit anytime. Unlike many castles in Japan which have succumb to fire or destruction by war, this is a 400 year old original. It's the quintessential Japanese castle. 

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Virtual Visit of the 2012 Washington DC Cherry Blossoms

I've been keeping an eye on the Cherry Blossoms in DC and noticed that photographer David Coleman has a live blog of the trees with this year's blossoms. Check out his website: Have Camera Will Travel - Washington DC Cherry Blossoms

Monday, March 19, 2012

Cherry Blossoms in Osaka, Japan

In Japan, cherry blossoms are more than just a mark of a new season. They are as deeply part of the national identity as Mt. Fuji, but to really understand the connection that the Japanese have to these blossoms requires seeing it in person in Japan. In my case, I visited in 2009 and found out for myself, completely on accident, how wonderful the Japanese sakura season is.

When I purchased my tickets to Osaka, I hadn't thought about timing the visit at all. I simply wanted to see Kyoto and the Kansai region and found a tremendously inexpensive fare that made it possible ($437 roundtrip). My friend and I arrived at night in Osaka and it wasn't until the next morning that we realized that the cherry trees were in bloom when came out between the skyscrapers and onto the grounds of Osaka Castle. We had obviously arrived just after the peak bloom, but there were plenty of trees left full of blossoms and when the wind blew the sight was like pink snow on a warm breeze. It's very easy to see how the Japanese fall in love with the sight generation after generation and have integrated it into their landscapes and identityover the centuries.

Osaka is a wonderful place to visit. It's a blue collar town with a great baseball team (The Hanshin Tigers: Win or lose Tigers Pride!) and a fantastic food culture. Osaka is actually the epicenter for food culture in Japan partially because of it's blue collar heritage: Merchants in Japan were at the bottom of the traditional caste system in the 1800s because money was considered to be corrupted or dirty. However, while successful merchants had plenty of money they were not allowed to flaunt their wealth directly or own form land. Instead, they showed status and wealthy by spending on art, food, and non-obvious luxuries like silk linings to otherwise mute clothing. As a result, Osaka's food scene flourished with the patronage of wealthy merchants. The canal district, Dōtonbori, is still a flourishing restaurant and entertainment district that offers something for everyone: There are street vendors serving up takoyaki, walk up booths with snow crabs, open charcoal grills for do it grilled meat, and a wide range of restaurants for any price range.

From Osaka, it's easy enough to get to Kyoto, Himeji, and the rest of Japan via bullet train. Next time, we'll take a look at the last blossoms at Himeji Castle, one of the last authentic ancient castles of Japan (most other castles like the one in Osaka are reconstruction). After the break, more photos from my trip to Osaka!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Cherry Blossoms on the Quad

These photos aren't from this year (for 2012, check this post out), but while we're waiting for the trees to bloom this year these pictures come from the quad at the University of Washington. These trees are part of the experience studying there and every year they announce the arrival of spring on campus. While most visitors are students or alumni, the grove here does attract some tourists from Japan and beyond.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Seattle Favorite Dick's Drive-In named "Most Life-Changing Burger Joint" in America

Esquire magazine recently named Dick's Drive-In the most life-changing burger joint in America. While I'm shocked at the sheer landslide that it won by (56% of the vote!?), I love this place. If you visit Seattle, the closest one to downtown is up on Broadway and will be there open until 2am, waiting with burger glory. Grabbing a burger and a shake here (as I did just above) is grabbing a delicious part of Seattle history.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The National Cherry Blossom Festival 2012: 100 Years of Cherry Trees in DC

In 1912, exactly 100 years ago, over 3000 cherry trees arrived in Washington DC from Japan to be planted in the capitol. The trees had survived transit over the Pacific to Seattle and then across the country by rail before finding their home in the tidal basin of the Potomac. Some of these tree, and many more added over the years, still stand today and this year's National Cherry Blossom Festival celebrates the centennial of the first trees being planted.

The celebration takes place between March 20th and April 27, but blossoms have already started the celebration early this year according to the National Park Service. There are a lot of events planned around the blossoms, including bike tours, concerts, and plenty of other events highlighting Japanese culture and the celebration of the cherry blossom season. You'll find more information in the links at the end of the post.

While not everyone can make it to DC, this is also the season to look for cherry trees in your own community. Spring is here and cherry trees are a sure sign that winter is on the way out. Many botanical gardens in cities around the nation have their own cherry tree groves where you can hold your own hanami (Blossom viewing party) just like they do in Japan. In Seattle, we're lucky enough to have a long history of Japanese cultural exchange which means thousands of trees throughout the city, including a grove on the University of Washington campus. If you can't make it, you can always enjoy the view with a virtual visit to DC and beyond:

A Virtual Visit to Cherry Blossoms in DC, 2012
Cherry Blossoms in Osaka
Cherry Blossoms in Kyoto
Cherry Blossoms at Himeji Castle
Cherry Blossoms at the University of Washington (The Quad), 2009
Cherry Blossoms at the University of Washington (The Quad), 2012

[via National Cherry Blossom Festival]
[via 100 Best Cherry Blossom Spots]

Friday, March 09, 2012

McDonald's Around the World: Breakfast in Kyoto

Awhile back when I was in Japan (which will be the focus of the next couple travel posts), I decided to drop by and try the McHotdog that I saw advertised on the subway. A McHotdog is nothing I would expect to see in the states, so this was perfect to satisfy my curiosity. I waited until we reached Kyoto and since there was a McDonald's on the way to our bed and breakfast, I decided I would swing in and get one.

When I walked up to the counter and tried my best to the little functional Japanese I knew ("McHotdog o kudasai!"), the woman behind the counter started looking a little nervous. After a moment, I figured out what she was trying to tell me: The McHotdog is a breakfast only item. Who knew?

I came back the next day and was successful in my quest to try the creation below. It was actually not that bad, but odd to think that it belongs next to a McMuffin.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Two Portland Coffee Houses

Portland has a great coffee scene, which is undeniable. While I was there recently, I had a change to check out two shops that have been on the edge of trying to get coffee to the next level. Here are two shops that have been making a name for themselves in the coffee scene.

After the break, Public Domain Coffee and Coffeehouse Northwest.