Asia

Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Asia.

snow-statue

Sapporo Snow Festival – Sapporo, Japan

A Winter Extravaganza

The Japanese talent for reshaping nature is unmatched. Small wonder, then, that the country that has raised ikebana (flower arranging) and garden design to an art form has also transformed this winter festival into a world-famous show where hundreds of mam­moth snow and ice sculptures depict such universal forms as Michelangelo’s Pietà and the even more familiar Minnie Mouse.

Ice palaces are large enough for families to walk through, and a host of other fantasy shapes are created from packed snow and shaved ice, for which more than 38,000 tons of snow are trucked in from the nearby mountains. Some sculptures that can reach more than 130 feet in height and 80 feet in width are begun weeks before the festival’s February opening.

The festival was established in the 1950s after the dismal years following WW II but really caught on in 1972 when Sapporo, Japan’s newest major city, was chosen as the site for the Winter Olympics. Today the snow rides and entertainment transform the town into a wintertime outdoor theater and make Sapporo an excellent base from which to explore Hokkaido’s wild, dramatic interior and ski resorts. Don’t leave town without sampling the ramen noodles and Sapporo beer for which the city is famous.

Nara Koen – Nara, Japan

Towering Temples, the Great Buddha, and Roaming Deer

The highlight of the parkland called Nara Koen is a colossal bronze image of a sitting Buddha housed in Todai-ji (the Great Eastern Temple), which is believed to be the world’s largest wooden structure. Nara’s most-visited site has drawn Buddhist pilgrims and foreign visitors for centuries.

The 53-foot Daibutsu Buddha, the largest in Japan, was originally commissioned in 743, not long after Nara was founded as the capital of a newly united Japan. (The court was moved to Kyoto in 794, where it remained for over 1,000 years.) Buddhism, imported from China in the 6th century, flourished, and so did Nara as a center of politics and culture.

Nara remains more intimate in scale, and its ancient build­ings and temples more intact and authentic than in neighboring Kyoto, where ancient neighborhoods are being encroached upon as the city’s unplanned development continues. Nara Park’s 1,300 acres of ponds, grassy lawns, trees, and temples are home to the famous deer believed to be sacred emissaries of the temples’ gods. More than 1,000 roam the grounds, unintimidated by human visitors and endearing – until they start to eat straw handbags, schoolchildren’s lunches, even your paper map of the city.

nakasendo-trail

Walking the Nakasendo, Visiting the Tawaraya – Kyoto, Japan

In the Footsteps of Shoguns and Samurai

In the 17th century the 315-mile Nakasendo – literally “the road through the central mountains” – was the principal inland route between the capital, Kyoto, and Edo, a growing political and commercial center better known these days as Tokyo.

Today “Walk Japan” cov­ers the most enjoyable, most scenic, and best-preserved section of the Nakasendo, a 63-mile stretch that affords a glimpse of medieval and rustic Japan even the Japanese rarely see. Luggage goes by car while walkers put in a moderate 14 to 16 miles a day, stay­ing in old post towns like Tsumago and family-run inns, many of which date from the early 1600s. These inns are a highlight of the trip, providing excellent meals, the ambi­ence of Hiroshige feudal woodblock prints, and the occasional soak in a hot springs bath (onsen).

Japanese-speaking American or British academic specialists accompany you and provide running commentaries on both the Edo period (1603-1867), when the road traffic of feudal lords, itinerant merchants, and pilgrims was at its height, and contem­porary issues. It’s worth a year back in the classroom.

For a luxurious stay at the beginning or end of your trip, don’t miss the Tawaraya, a 300-year-old family-run ryokan (inn) now in its eleventh generation. Elegance and refine­ment pervade every aspect of the operation, from the almost starkly decorated accommo­dations (where the hand-painted scrolls change with the seasons) to the small, Zen-like private gardens off most of the eighteen rooms.

The gardens are an important part of the Tawaraya experience, each a harmonious blend of red maple, bamboo, ferns, stone lanterns, moss rocks, and water, revealing the serene spirit of Japanese culture. A restora­tive soak in the searing water of a perfumed cedar tub is followed by dinner, an elaborate, artistic, multi-course, kaiseki-style affair served in your room by a kimonoed attendant. After that the shoji screens are drawn and a plump futon is brought out and covered with fine starched linen sheets.

old-kyoto-japan

Old Kyoto – Japan

Highlights of an Imperial City

To stroll through Kyoto is to walk through eleven centuries of Japan’s history. Once the home of the imperial court, the city was also a center of Japanese religion, aesthetics, music, theater, and dance, and reached its height as a center for crafts during the Muromachi Period (1334-1568).

Spared by Allied bombing during WW II, the city is said to hold 20 percent of all Japan’s national treasures, including more than 1,700 Buddhist temples and 300 Shinto shrines, all dispersed, often hidden, amid its modem cityscape. Kyoto’s beauty can be elusive, but thoughtful visitors can still glimpse the Japan of the past in its temples and gardens, each a compound of several buildings, like a small village.

The two-story, pagoda-roofed Ginkakuji (Temple of the Silver Pavilion) is surrounded by gardens designed by a master landscape architect for meditative strolling; the nearby cherry-tree-lined, mile-long Path of Philosophy follows a narrow canal that is beautiful year-round.

The Ginkakuji was inspired by the 14th-century Temple of the Golden Pavilion, which was destroyed by arson in 1950. Today, a three-story replica built soon after anchors the moss-covered grounds of its former site. A lovely half-hour walk from here leads to the Ryoanji Temple, whose small garden of raked white gravel and fifteen rocks has become a symbol of the essence of Zen wisdom. The Kiyomizu-era temple, built on a steep hillside, offers sensational views of Kyoto from its wooden platform.

At one time, entire neighborhoods in Kyoto grew up around specific crafts; the country’s finest artisans worked in the city, serving the imperial court and the feudal lords. Today the workshops of their descendants can be found on the quiet backstreets of Kyoto’s historic districts, and the city’s wares – including woodblock prints, silk and textile goods, lacquerware, dolls, and paper goods – are still known for their refinement, elegance, and artistry. To this day, the prefix kyo before a craft is synonymous with fine work.

There’s no better time to visit Kyoto than during any of its annual matsuri, or festivals. The three most important, the Jidai, the Aoi, and the Gion, are worth juggling your itinerary for and making hotel reservations well in advance. Proud Kyotoites by the thousands participate in the Jidai festival on October 22 – one of the newest, having started just over a century ago. A theatrical procession of costumes from the dynasties of the 8th through 19th centuries snakes its way through town, beginning at the Imperial Palace.

The cherry blossoms will be gone when the Aoi festival floats through town on May 15, but spring will still be at its loveliest as hundreds of participants wearing the costumes of impe­rial courtiers parade to the Shimogamo Shrine to pray for the city’s prosperity. The Aoi dates back to the 6th century and is believed to be the world’s oldest surviving festival.

On July 16 and 17, make way for thirty-one huge floats that make up the popular Gion festival, a procession that asks for the protec­tion of Kyoto. It was first held in the 9th century, when the ancient capital was ravaged by a plague.

west-lake-in-hangzhou

West Lake – Hangzhou, Zhejiang, China

The Most Famous Beauty Spot in All China

Described by Marco Polo as “the finest and most beautiful city in the world,” Hangzhou still offers a glimpse of old China, although what hasn’t changed over the centuries or been destroyed by revolution is today obscured by the hordes of Chinese and foreign tourists.

But during off-season or a quiet moment at sunrise, the city’s West Lake is still one of the loveliest sights you will find in China. Its mist-shrouded shores are lined with landscaped gardens, pagodas, teahouses, shaded walkways, and classic pavilions with names like Autumn Moon on a Calm Lake. It may be at its most beautiful (and crowded) in July and August, when it’s covered with a mantle of lotus flowers. The ubiquitous willow creates the perfect Chinese vignette, joined by groves of peach blossoms in spring, orange-scented acacia in autumn, and plum in winter.

By hired boat, float up to the Three Pools Mirroring the Moon, the stone pagodas on the Island in the Little Ocean or, opposite this, the Island of the Hill of Solitude, whose excellent 150-year-old Louwailou Restaurant is one of many reasons to come ashore.

xishuangbanna–yunnan

Xishuangbanna – Yunnan, China

Life Among the Hill Tribes of Southern China

The remote agricultural province of Yunnan is the perfect destination for relaxed travel through rural China. Bordering on Myanmar (formerly Burma) and Laos, its biggest draw is the Xishuangbanna region’s small towns, which are home to more than one third of China’s ethnic minorities.

Market days, hol­idays, and festivals attract a veritable A-to-Z constellation of more than twenty-five hill tribes, from the Aini to the Zhuang, with the Buddhist Dai being one of the most promi­nent.

They still wear their traditional clothing, colors, headwear, and body art, and sell hand­icrafts that have not changed in centuries. Among other attractions in Xishuangbanna are Mount Jizu (a sacred Buddhist site to which many pilgrims come to watch the sun­rise); boating on lovely Lake Erhai; the 200- acre Lunan Stone Forest of weirdly shaped eroded rocks; Dali, a town in a beautiful mountain setting where backpackers come, stay, and tune out; and the Yangtze River’s dramatic Tiger Leaping Gorge – one of the deepest in the world – where a challenging trek offers unparalleled adventure. Xishuang-banna is a tongue-twisting approximation of the original Thai name Sip Sawng Panna (Twelve Rice-Growing Districts), and there’s an exotic and kick-back feel of tropical Thailand and Southeast Asia here.

kashgar-sunday-market

Sunday Market – Kashgar, Xinjiang, China

The Crossroads of the Silk Road

At the foot of the Pamir Mountains, where it’s hard to remember you’re still in China, much less the 21st century, the remote city of Kashgar hosts a mind-boggling Sunday market that is any photographer’s dream. By most accounts it is Asia’s (and arguably the world’s) largest market.

Estimates of 100,000 to 150,000 people sound right – a remarkable statistic considering that it’s held weekly, and has been for probably well over 1,000 years. The Muslim Uighurs are the majority popula­tion in China’s Alaska-size Xinjiang Province, and bearded Uighur men and women hidden behind veils of brown gauze come to trade, sell, and haggle over sheep, cattle, horses, dowry chests, fur hats, spices, fruit, daggers, and carpets in a scene not unlike what Marco Polo must have witnessed when he passed through in the 13th century, heading east.

Although the Silk Road that once made Kashgar prosperous died out around the 15th century, when sea routes won most of the lucrative trade, try to explain that to these folks. Kashgar is just east of the Kyrgystan and Tajikistan borders, and its culture has more in common with the Central Asian republics than with Beijing, 2,000 miles east.

mount-kailash-tibet

Mount Kailas – Tibet, China

Sacred Circuit Around the Mystical Home of the Gods

Though at 22,028 feet it’s not among the highest peaks of the Himalayas, Kailas is one of the most beautiful. More important, though, it’s the most sacred mountain in Asia, revered in the Hindu, Buddhist, and Bon faiths (the latter, Tibet’s ancient indigenous religion).

The devout believe that Kailas is the home of the gods and the center of the cosmos. For more than 1,000 years, they have come here on pilgrims’ paths from all over Tibet and beyond to perform a kora, a 32-mile clockwise circumambulation around the mountain to pay homage to the deities. Some even prostrate their way around the peak. One circuit is said to erase the sins of a lifetime, and 108 assures Nirvana, the ultimate spiritual enlightenment.

Intrepid trekkers and travelers have picked up the custom, circling the mountain in the company of avid pilgrims and experi­encing the austere beauty and silence of the landscape, visiting far-flung monasteries overlooked by the Chinese authorities, and encountering the occasional nomad family or yak herder.

There is no mistaking the holiness of Mount Kailas, whence originates the sacred Ganges River. The mountain itself is off-limits to people; it has never been climbed, because that would disturb the gods.

lhasa-tibet

Lhasa – Tibet, China

Tibet’s Most Sacred Shrine and the Fortress Palace of the Dalai Lamas

Lhasa, which in Tibetan means “the Holy City” or “Place of the Gods,” is the vortex of Tibetan spirituality, a city that mystifies and intoxicates, despite the present-day Chinese presence. The vast hilltop Potala, the empty thirteen-story fortress that was once the winter palace and seat of the god-king, the Dalai Lama, is the most recognizable of the city’s landmarks. Its white-and-red walls and golden roofs rise above the holy city, seeming to grow out of the hill on which it has stood since the 17th century.

It is now a museum, an empty shell of its former self, its central figure and his government having taken its life with them when they fled to India in 1959 following the Chinese occupation. And yet, as 20th-century Chinese-born novelist Han Suyin wrote, “No one can remain unmoved by the sheer power and beauty of the structure, with its thousand windows like a thousand eyes.”

The Dalai Lamas, each of whom is believed to be the reincarnation of Avalokitshvara, the Buddhist embodiment of compassion, ruled Tibet as spiritual and temporal overlords from 1644; the current Dalai Lama, the fourteenth rein­carnation, was just sixteen when Tibet was occupied by China. His private apartments have been left untouched, and surprisingly the building, said to have as many as 1,000 rooms, has been left undamaged by the Chinese; in fact, they are restoring it – reportedly for the purpose of luring tourism.

Though the Potala will be your first sight in Lhasa, the Jokhang Temple is actually the spir­itual heart of the city, as well as the busy hub of the main market district, known as the Barkhor. Founded more than 1,300 years ago, the golden-roofed Jokhang is a mixture of Tibetan, Indian, Nepalese, and Chinese archi­tecture and is Tibet’s holiest shrine.

Tibetan Buddhists express devotion to a holy site by walking clockwise around it, and here the cir­cumambulation, or holy path of transformation, runs right around the marketplace and goes on from dawn until dusk. At the temple’s entrance, devout worshippers repeatedly prostrate them­selves to gain religious merit, while inside, a million butter candles softly illuminate the most important statue of Buddha, one of more than 200 in the temple.

You may feel as if you have stepped back in time as you listen to the chanting of holy scriptures – a sensation that may last until long after you have walked back out into the bustling jamboree of the sur­rounding Barkhor marketplace.

yangtze-river

The Three Gorges – Chongqing, Sichuan, China

The Yangtze River: A Natural Art Gallery

The Three Gorges – Qutang, Wu, and Xiling – rank with the panda bear and the Great Wall as China’s most globally recognized icons, showing up everywhere from classical poetry to modern postcards. For sheer scenic beauty, they can be topped by little else in China. So it made headlines when work began in 1995 on the world’s largest dam and hydro­electric project, a multibillion-dollar effort that resulted in the relocation of more than a million people.

When complete in 2010, it will greatly submerge the gorges’ vertical cliffs, rapids, and dozens of cultural sites and ancient temples, not to mention hundreds of villages and cities. Environmental and civil rights groups protested, but the Chinese gov­ernment wasn’t swayed, so the time for viewing the area is now.

Varying from some 1,000 feet to just 330 at their narrowest point, the Three Gorges is a special 126-mile stretch of the mighty, 4,000-mile-long Yangtze River, the third longest in the world (after the Amazon and Nile). At one point, most boats stop to shift passengers to smaller, more maneuverable, custom-built boats for a detour to the Three Little Gorges along the Daning River, even narrower and more dramatic, the highlight of most trips.