Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Who'd Have Thought It?

This is the next post of our trip post Japan.  It took place in September but I only managed to write these notes a couple of months later.  For contemporaneous reports, take a look at Track My Tour -- a brilliant app that I used to ... well, track our tour.  Here is the link.

The real reason for coming to Louisiana was for our friends' wedding in New Orleans.  Mark and Kerri had met here so they wanted to tie the knot here too.  Nice.

I hadn't been to NO for 20+ years and hadn't really been that impressed last time I came.  I thought it dirty and pretty sleazy and for the most part if you stay on Bourbon Street, that is exactly what it is like still.  However there is plenty to like about the place too and this time we found it.

What is it about guys with guns?
By chance our Kiwi friends Bruce and Linda were also here!  Small world, eh?  We'd been emailing about something random and Bruce had mentioned he'd be in NO some time in September between a golf trip, holiday and some meetings.  What date, Bruce?  Well this date.  Whoa, same as us.  Where are you staying?  At the Ritz.  Whoa, same as us!  

First thing was to avoid the water!  Brings it home to you how low lying NO really is.  On the way down the highway from White Castle, we drove over a seemingly endless causeway over a lake or swamp, I think a bit of both.  The road itself wasn't that much above the surface of the water so anything like a storm (don't mention the 'K' word around here) would simply wash everything away and of course that is actually what did happen…

This was where the canal walls broke and let the water in during Katrina.  Pretty low lying!
OK then
So don't drink the water then.  Fine.  The Ritz provided bottled water for everyone.  It must have cost them a fortune as we went through 20 a day… they were little bottles though.

So the architecture.  Yup, very French or rather vieux carre as they say here in NO!  If you keep on Bourbon Street, about the middle of the grid layout going the length of the old town, you'd find endless bars, restaurants and really weird gift shop type stuff.  OK Halloween was a month away here but I think it would be a place to avoid at that time as some of the people emerging at night time were really off the wall.

Typical vieux carre architecture

With Linda and Bruce we did a self guided tour, a bus tour and visit to the really good National WWII museum in the newer part of town.

Everybody had their opinions which way to walk.  You should have heard the yapping...
OK so I have to mention the 'K' word… Katrina. There I said it.  It swamped the city with some parts, the poorer ones of course, one in particular called District 9 still under renovation 10 years later.  It is happening but slowly.  At its height, population was 490,000 but after the storm it fell to 390,000 with many people never coming back.  It has crept back up to 430,000 now as people move in to pick up bargains.

An abandoned home in District 9.  They put red crosses on the doors to signify when a home is unoccupied
There's a district called Treme, just outside District 9 and just outside the downtown core even in the old days.  It was a residential district … for mistresses and Haitians who fled to NO after the sale of Louisiana to the USA in 1804.  Apparently if you were white and wealthy and fancied a mistress, you went to a certain hotel on several special occasions during the year where single black and mulatto girls went to congregate with their mothers.  If you fancied a particular girl, you made a deal with Mum for a specified period of time during which you had to take care of the girl in her own place (in Treme of course) and pay for everything including any children of the liaison.  Should this happen, the deal became permanent.  

An ex-brothel
So Treme is a curious mixture of nice houses and brothels for the girls once their contract terminated banded together to stay in the business, as it were, rather than move back in with Mum.

The guide books don't talk about this!  Isn't history fascinating?

It always pays to do a tour with a local guide.  They know their stuff and the interesting little stories and snippets that make it all worthwhile. Take the famed above ground cemeteries.  The land here is so low lying you simply cannot dig a hole in the ground so it has to be above ground.  Many are truly works of art, even the multi-unit dwellings which operated much as a condo would today.

A condo in the cemetery
The really interesting bit though is in the understanding how and why they don't run out of space as with cemeteries, well there's only much space and coffins take up a huge amount of space so there's only so many you can cram into one mausoleum, right?  Well, actually wrong.  You've forgotten about the temperature down here.  

I am assuming here that the knowledge we have now wasn't always the case so there was a certain amount of trial and error in the past.  Bodies are not buried or rather entombed in coffins, they are placed in shrouds for the entombment and the mausoleum sealed up.  The combination of hot and humid combined with the sealed mausoleum equates to a slow roast in an oven and it has been found that over the course of a year, the body decomposes completely down to ash.  This can then be brushed to the back of the mausoleum down a purposely built chute that fertilizes the ground below and readies the mausoleum for the next one.

A local law is therefore in place whereby once sealed you cannot unseal a mausoleum more than once in any one year … and that is only for a new entrant.  Very practical indeed.  This doesn't work where temperature conditions and humidity levels are different so don't try this at home!

The WWII museum was brilliant though although we did lose Bruce and Linda who didn't want to stop and read every caption, view every exhibit…

Who doesn't remember scribbling this on school walls with chalk?  Oh yes, young people.  Right.
My dad flew one of these P-51 Mustangs and said it was even better than his beloved Spitfire
The wedding was very nice though with the happy couple's triplets looking very cute.  Afterwards they had organized a walk around town (very local apparently, used in festivals and funerals too) which Mark later told me thought would be just down Canal Street which was outside the hotel, then turn left at the street beyond Bourbon and back.  Something like 20 minutes in all with a marching band and police outriders clearing the way.  However it lasted nearly an hour which was due to road works so the cops took us the long way around!  It was great though.

Stu, Mark, Shane and some old geezer
N'Awlins was a lot of fun!

The happy couple!

The White Castle

This is the next post of our trip post Japan.  It took place in September but I only managed to write these notes a couple of months later.  For contemporaneous reports, take a look at Track My Tour -- a brilliant app that I used to ... well, track our tour.  Here is the link.

One of Viv's work friends had told her of a real plantation that you could stay at near New Orleans and as we really wanted to stay on one, not just visit, we thought why not.  It was in a place called White Castle and called the Nottaway Plantation.

The river is to the right of the White Castle.

Many people have seen the Django Unchained movie and I have to say that whilst history books talk about slave owners and plantations, I don't think that anyone could really imagine what it was really like without some sort of visualization.  I don't know how strictly accurate the movie was -- I am talking about the social bits, not the big shoot 'em up stuff!  But the visualization in that movie I think helped, it certainly piqued our interest anyway.

One thing I hadn't appreciated was how big and important the Mississippi River is.  It is huge.  Where Nottaway was it is about 1 mile wide and traveling as it does pretty much all the way up to the Great Lakes, it is clearly a hugely important artery in this huge country particularly so when there were no roads or other means of transport.  So that is why so many of these great plantations line the banks of the Mississippi.  No point building inland if you cannot transport your produce to market, so the river etc.

The Mississippi from the balcony at Nottaway.  The levee (aka 'dyke') is in front.  There is an island in the middle of the river that was created by rerouting the river 100 or so years ago after a huge flood that destroyed a lot of property hereabouts and killed a lot of people.

The estate itself like so many others dates from the 1800's when a ultra-rich guy built this 'folly' really and lived in it only until the Civil War which utterly destroyed the Southern farm economy, killing it stone dead.  Actually rather like the British Empire.  There was a great quote from someone I read years ago along the lines of "the Roman Empire at least had a couple of hundred years of decadence and gradual decline, ours lasted an afternoon". It was like this for the Southern US by the look of it.  The builder himself only had a couple of years to enjoy it before things went down hill (just like some others we visited).  Of course a matriarch lasted for years after but the house and land was split up through the years until an Australian industrial magnate in the last 20 years visited, stayed and fell in love with the place.  So he bought it and did it up, turning it into a boutique hotel.  In keeping with history, he promptly died too but as he'd put the property into a trust of some sort, it still continues as a business and as an attraction.

The White Ballroom at Nottaway.  Not in the least bit ostentatious.
It certainly is lovely.

Night time at Nottaway

As the Union captured New Orleans early in the conflict thereby blockading Southern trade entirely, they could send gun boats up and down the river at will.  Apparently every time they passed the White Castle they'd shoot their cannon.  They must have been terrible shots as they never hit the place (it is huge, so they must have been really bad shots) but only just recently they found a musket ball in one of the rafters when it fell out and got caught in the lawn mower's blades.  So at least one shot hit the place.

The country here is not beautiful.  It is flat and interspersed with swamp and rivers all over the place so could never really hold a large population or be a great agricultural centre.  The towns hereabout aren't exactly places that compare with say, Rome or Paris, but are interesting in their own way.

Rail crossing in a nearby town called Plaqueville. We couldn't figure which was the right and wrong side of the tracks. Both seemed the same.
The history though is quite interesting and as for many things doesn't conform exactly to the 20-second sound byte version you read these days.

Certainly the French were the first colonizing nation here, paddling down from Canada for goodness sake.  That must have taken ages.  But in 1763, they lost the 7-Years War to the British and one of the hidden clauses in the peace treaty was that all land east of the Mississippi was ceded to the British as far as Florida.  I never knew that.  It didn't last long though for less than 20 years later after the end of the Revolutionary War, the British gave it back again… but to Spain.

This didn't last long either for they couldn't really stand up against the French and particularly when Napoleon came along.  In 1803, Napoleon asked for it back and immediately flipped it to the new USA for $15 million.

Historians drone on about the greatest land deal in history, etc.  Rubbish.  Napoleon first of all needed the money to fight his European wars.  Secondly he realized that the revolution in Haiti (that was going along at this time and which the French would ultimately lose) could not be effectively combated from Europe as the Royal Navy were blockading France very effectively making it impossible to resupply.  Pushing things further out, he also realized that whenever the British got round to it, they could take their mainland US territories too.  So why not cash out when you had the chance? So he did.

And the other interesting thing?

The capital of the territory at the time was a now sleepy town called Natchez, which of course is on the river and which was a trailhead for a whole batch of things: cotton, livestock, agriculture, slaves … yes indeed slaves.  Rather like the silk road in Asia, Natchez was the end of the slave road to the east.  This was the site of the largest slave market hereabouts.  Today the market is marked in a very low key way at a crossroads leading out of town.

Big enough to be a plantation house for sure, this house called Rosalie is actually a town home in Natchez.

Natchez used to be therefore a massively wealthy market town and had great opera, museums and massive homes for the uber-wealthy.  It also had a Spanish governor who in the late 1700's laid out the city in the world's first grid pattern on the bluff overlooking the river.  Very pretty it is too.  Many of the grand houses these days are maintained by groups of ladies (of course) and charitable donations.  Good for them.  Otherwise these houses would be derelict.

Sunset in Natchez from the bluff overlooking the River

The reason for doing it this way as New Orleans would discover and implement, it reduced the fire hazard.  So really the French Quarter in New Orleans isn't French at all.  When they had control of the place, it was a messy, ramshackle sewer of a place.  It took a big fire and the Spanish governor to rebuild it in grid pattern.  So it rightly should be called the Spanish Quarter… except of course that all the residents were French.

Confused yet?

Louisiana's capital is Baton Rouge, another hour away.  Great name.  It is on the river of course and being some 80 or so miles north of New Orleans, is the northern most point of the Port of New Orleans.    the port is HUGE!

The Capitol building in Baton Rouge is apparently the tallest in the US

Lots of refineries and chemical plants down this way.  It is pretty ugly so the NIMBY stuff doesn't really apply here!  One night we got lost using our GPS as we were routed as the crow flies back to Nottaway rather than by roads (which we found out later) which meant a ferry across the river.  As it was too late for the ferry we therefore had to detour driving 30 miles south along the east bank before finding a bridge.  That 30 miles was exclusively through a hellish zone of steaming chemical plants lit by ethereal lighting… with no living person in sight.  Gives me shivers still!

I always wondered what a Po'Boy was.  In actuality it is a sub sandwich with something deep fried inside, like shrimp, crab or something else.  Here with potato salad and some gumbo.  No veggies in sight!
One of the neatest things we did was taking a swamp boat tour.  The guide, Randy, of course lived in a trailer near a bayou (I think a bayou is a small river), only a short way from the main swamp and various inter-connecting rivers.  The entire area is like this so no high rises here.

5 minutes along the bayou and you are in the middle of an area the size of England probably which is all swamp, rivers and what look like gungy land.  Ideal 'gator country!  We didn't see any unfortunately but what we did see were lots of criss-crossing pipelines for transshipping various petrochemicals.  All the lines are buried but the signs are everywhere: "Do not dig or drill here".

Really peaceful though.

Baton Rouge skyline

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Sayonara Tokyo!

This is the next post of our Japan trip.  It took place in September but I only managed to write these notes a couple of months later.  For contemporaneous reports, take a look at Track My Tour -- a brilliant app that I used to ... well, track our tour.  Here is the link.

To use the same Hancock phrase, "it was raining in Tokyo", when we got there and to our hotel, the Imperial Palace.  A very nice hotel indeed.  We had a floor geisha!  She wasn't a real geisha though but it was a nice touch.

Still raining in Tokyo
As it was raining, walking through the Imperial Palace gardens across the street would have been miserable so we split up again with Viv and I heading back to the National Museum that had been closed the time we had tried to go before (it wasn't Monday today).  It was certainly big but compared to other museums I have been to elsewhere, it wasn't packed full of stuff that I'd expected and hoped it would have been.  Rather things were more artfully arranged.  Also sadly the signs on exhibits weren't that helpful either.  No descriptions or background of things, mostly the name of the artist or exhibit and the year in which it was created.  It made it rather tricky to get things in context but I think it goes something like this.

Shogun's armour

The emperors lost power in the 9th century AD when the warlords (Shoguns) took over.  The then emperor was a cypher who simply lost power and the successive Shoguns kept them that way for the next 1,000 years.  The Shoguns came to power by conquest so there were successive civil wars that wracked the country.  As they also kept the country closed to outsiders, there was very little progress so the sword wielding samurai remained pretty much the top of the tree in weaponry terms.  It was largely because of this closed nature and the Japanese habit of executing anyone unfortunate enough to land in Japan either by shipwreck or other means that the US became annoyed enough to sail a fleet into Tokyo Bay and forcibly open the country up by virtue of their weapons technology.

A different Shogun's armor
The exhibits in the museum were arranged chronologically throughout the various dynasties (I think of the Shoguns only as the emperors remained dynastically unchanged).  The early ones showed the similarity with Chinese art, calligraphy and other items - Japan doesn't want to admit it but they are simply offshoots of China that went their own way.  Over time this morphed away from Chinese influence to more home derived influences but there definitely seemed a divide between pre-1860 and post-1860 (when the US arrived) for the museum almost totally stopped at that point.

Gruesome mural!
Mind you I really like museums and I enjoyed this one too.  Even the gruesome screens.

We rejoined the party at a bar called Gonpachi - Izakat made famous (infamous?) in the Kill Bill movie.  Remember the seen when the girl in yellow (the hero) takes on 100 killers with samurai swords in a big room with balconies?  That was this bar.  No samurais tonight though although we did get to chat with the owner who found a table for us (as it was jammed) and brought us drinks.

Dinner though was simply wonderful.

Thelma and Gordon went off to an Italian restaurant somewhere nearby whilst Viv, Cat, Indy and I went to a 2 Michelin Star restaurant, a hole in the wall from the outside but a simple kitchen set up inside with 8 seats around it.  The maestro made up each course in front of us and kept them coming!

Each dish was small, maybe one bite, but really well put together.  My favourite was the sea urchin mashed up into some plain rice with salmon roe over the top.  Other people's was the tuna.

The maestro at work
I don't think I can ever eat sushi again.  This definitely spoiled me!

Next up was Abbey Road, a Beatles tribute band where we were able to sing and dance the night away to someone singing "All My Ruvving"...  Magnificent!

We had an early start the next day as Cat had organised a tour of the Tsukijishiju fish market with Koshiyi, our tour guide.  Cat found him by some obscure means which is quite often the best way as he was a start early before the rest of the tourists show up kind of guy, but we still had to wait till after 9 am for the biggest part of the market activity to be over before we were allowed in.

Tuna technology in action!  That's a 500,000 Yen piece of tuna by the way
Every big city has a place like this so it was great fun to check things out.  It wasn't quite an Anthony Bordain experience as nobody gave us any free samples unfortunately despite Koshiyi stopping to engage almost anybody in conversation with a fish implement in hand and messy apron on.  However that did mean we got to see some action.  Some veggie auctions and some serious hacking about of monstrous tunas stand out.

Being tourists though we still had to avoid the local market particpants who were in all probability sick to death of tourists standing in gangways gawping so still whizzed around on motorized dollies carrying boxes of this and that.  Those things can move!

We split up after in search of varying foodstuffs for lunch but planned to meet up later on at the national Sumo wrestling championships that were being held at that time. Cat had got 4 tickets together but as we were late in deciding to go, managed to sit elsewhere in the auditorium which was lucky as it was sold out.

We were getting pretty good at using the public transport by this point and had subway passes so tried to go everywhere by this means.  The equipment as you'd expect was new and very clean and everyone was really polite even when we somehow got confused or lost (not too often but it did happen).  One thing is that so many people where uniforms and it seems to me that they wear them with huge pride.  There's none of this 'casual Friday' stuff we have, its work equals uniforms.  Shirts were starched, trousers and hems pressed.  Everyone bowed.  Not subserviently but enough to be respectful and polite.  I was very impressed.  The pride in work carried through to the cleanliness and order of the public transport system.

The auditorium was in the Sumida Yaokan district and today was day 6 of 15 for the contestants.  The wrestlers fight every day so its a long drawn out event.  However the auditorium reminded me of a typical event arena; endless entrances, concession stands everywhere and long lines for the toilets.  As we took headsets, we were able to get a bit of a grasp of how things work in sumo. It really isn't just 2 really big guys thumping their thighs and then leaning against one another although to be fair if you didn't know what was going on, you could think that.

The commentators reminded me a little of the Test Match Special bunch.  A group of ex-competitors who knew what they were looking at and could articulate it to a bunch of no-nothing gaijin (we had the English version of course).

Sumo is divided in divisions.  This competition had two such divisions called Juryo (the lower level) and Makucchi split as much by age and size as by ability as during the competition you could get promoted or relegated, so poor performance today could mean being dumped for tomorrow.  For that is really how it appears.

The top guys have the razzamatazz attaching to them.  The wrestler parades, the big music and most importantly before the biggest match ups, the parade of sponsors who hire people to carry around large flags promoting this or that.  In Juryo, the auditorium is half empty and the bouts come and go pretty much unremarked.  Even the commentary didn't kick in until over half way through those bouts for that is how the day went -- about 20 Juryo bouts followed by the same number of Makucchi.

The average size of the Juryo wrestlers was 140 kg whilst for the Makucchi you could add anything up to 70 more kilos!  The biggest was a Bulgarian who was 6 foot 7 inches and weighed 208 kilos which I calculated was around 460 pounds!!  He was a monster although his opponent's canny tactic was to do the thigh thumping start up as usual and then when things kicked off, stepped sharply to one side whilst the Bulgar lurched forward and went straight out of the ring without touching anything or anyone other than the floor and maybe an usher or two.

Very ritualistic.  At the start and end of the Makucchi bouts, all the wrestlers troop on and circle the piste (think round wrestling ring without corners and those stays that stop people lurching out.  Here almost everyone lurches out) and probably do something with religious overtones (think Gladiatorial 'we who are about to die salute you') before trooping off again.

Before each bout, the competing duo come on in turn, stomp around a bit, sprinkle rice on the piste (again tradition but the stadium hires people to come on and sweep up all the time) and then go through the getting ready bit which looks similar to a front row bending down for a rugby scrum except that there's only one wrestler, not the entire front row.  That's when they do the thigh slapping and stomping regimen before turning around and wandering off again.  The preamble can take 5 minutes each time and it is pretty similar except the big bout when one of the competitors did it 3 times and the favourite did the sumo equivalent of nearly spitting the dummy (according to the commentator) and himself nearly stomped off.  The bout itself (as was the case in the main) lasted all of 10 seconds as one or the other got on top (literally) or one may slip over.  In any case, any slight deviation means toast.

The judges in their huddle
Only on one occasion did the 4 or 5 judges (all ex-sumo champions) get hauled into the ring for a discussion about a knotty one.  It seemed to me that one guy held the other by the throat but one other guy fell out of the ring.  The one I thought would win was non-Japanese (there were Turks, Indians, Eastern Europeans, Chinese and any central Asian nationality you could think of) however the judges disagreed and awarded it to the local boy who had seemed to have been unceremoniously dumped out of the ring.  The loser wasn't happy at all about this and the commentator didn't help much other than saying it must have been the winner's under arm shoulder slap and choke hold that tipped the balance.    It reminded me a little of an early Iron Chef competition on Food TV when a US chef took on a Japanese chef in a cook off with turkey as the common theme.  The Japanese guy won with his rendition of turkey sushi winning the day (forget salmonella!).  Home court advantage indeed !!

Fantastic experience though.

Our final day thankfully was lovely and sunny so the Imperial Palace gardens beckoned.  They were across the street from the hotel, so just a short walk away.  A little curious though as the 'gardens' themselves weren't that garden-y if you get my drift.  Rather wide boulevards with grass and trees leading up to the palace gates.  Very big of course but in terms of spectacle and beauty...

Keep off the grass!

However it was really nice to wander around in the sunshine and that's pretty much what we did all day as one of the key aiming points was that street corner which you see on all travelogues or movies about Tokyo -- an immense crossing with thousands of cars and billions of people.  Its called Subiya.

This really is the downtown of Tokyo.  The subway empties out onto a square which then leads off in many directions with large shopping streets everywhere.  No wonder it is busy.  Having waited there a while, I think I've figured out why there's so many people crossing the street at once.  Its the traffic lights.  Because there's so many roads fanning out from the square, each light takes its turn for each exit so that by the time all have had their turn, there's a billion more people waiting to cross the street.  The layout reminds me of Piccadilly Circus somehwat except with billions more people wanting to cross the street, any street.

Subiya Crossing

Viv, Cat, Indy and I found what turned out to be our last ramen noodles and deep fried pork chops at some upstairs hovel nearby (just great of course!!) after which the entire party tramped all over finally finding of all things an upstairs record shop that had a couple of Talbot Brothers vinyl records (!) that Indy bought.  What would take Bermuda's 1950's crooners to Japan for goodness sake? Mind you I found several of the records I have, the most expensive by a street being an LP by a band called Patto that everyone has forgotten about (if they ever cared in the first place, that is) which was on sale for $35.  I'd bought it for $1 when the Music Box sold their entire vinyl collection back in the 1990's. It actually wasn't worth $1 in my book, proving of course that I know nothing!

The last ramen...
We wandered through the funky people district before ending up at our journey's end, which was the 5.15 pm performance of Robot Wars.

Yes that's right, you heard right.  Robot Wars.

Located next to the central train station, this is right in the middle of sleaze town. The Paradise Club was next door just in case you got bored with fighting robots, large reptiles and woodland nymphs.  Oh yes, I forgot the snakes, sharks and marching band too...
This is Japan remember so you just had to have fighting robots with Godzilla thrown in too.  Add woodland nymphs and a story line to make you cringe and there you have it.  Robot Wars.

First though, we had a drink in the anteroom where a group of robots (alright, people dressed up like robots) played lounge music.  Kenny G, that sort of thing.  Not even some blood curdling heavy metal but... lounge music.  Talk about weird.

The lounge.  Very refined.
Then we went down 2 or 3 flights of stairs into a long room where we sat in 5 or 6 rows -- we managed the front row -- and drank beer and ate pop corn whilst we waited.

First came the story line and the nymphs.  Then came the bad robots, followed by the good robots and the very large reptiles that were helping them all ridden by woodland nymphs dressed very skimpily.

Apparently good won out over evil but I don't want to go into too much detail as it would spoil the thrill when you go... because if you go to Tokyo, you MUST go to Robot Wars.

Indy heard about the place from an Anthony Bourdain TV show...
You MUST also go to the weird tea house, the Japanese Alps, travel on a shinkansen, enjoy an onsen experience, eat ramen noodles at a hole in the wall, drink sake whilst eating grilled gizzards, watch sumo, take in a baseball game and of course... climb thousands and thousands of stairs to visit endless temples and shrines.

This was a fantastic trip!! Only sad it had to end...

Sayonara Tokyo... and Japan!