Saturday, March 31, 2012

Earth Hour 2012

Yes, today is Earth Hour, and it's happening 8.30pm in the time of your respective home country.

Will there ever be a possibility that a city participate in Earth Hour such that the whole city is plunged into darkness, and then the heavens will reveal itself in its full glory!

When its dark enough, you can see the stars. -- Persian Proverb

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Three Great Festivals of Tohoku

Summer in Japan is humidly hot, especially on the main island of Honshu, but it is during this season where there are tons of festivals about. Thus on my overland journey from Hokkaido (which is really pleasant for sightseeing in summer) back to Tokyo, I managed to catch the Three Great Festivals of Tohoku - Aomori's Nebuta Matsuri, Akita's Kanto Matsuri and Sendai's Tanabata.

Aomori's Nebuta Matsuri is held from August 2-7, and consists of a parade of music and dances, with the highlight being the huge graphic lantern floats. These paper lantern floats are fantastically detailed, depicting the gods and demons of Japanese/Chinese culture. They are mounted on a huge wheeled platform, and pushed and spun about by a contingent of energetic enthusiastic men. These floats supposedly take a year to design and build, and looking at the artistry, it's not hard to believe!

Akita's Kanto Matsuri is held from August 3-6. The highlight of the festival is the balancing of kanto - bamboo poles adorned with paper lanterns. The performers do that sequentially using 4 methods - on the palm, forehead, shoulder, and hip... all using one hand! During the day, competitions are held with teams and individual events, accompanied by drums and music. During the night parade, the streets are lined with these kantos, and the lanterns lighted with real candles. On a single signal, all the kantos are hoisted up and a mass display of skill occurs. Amazing sight!

There are many Tanabata festivals in Japan, but Sendai's one of the biggest and most famous. Also known as Star festival, it is based on the Chinese legend about the cowherd and weaver girl which is held on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month. However, due to calendar differences, different Tanabata festivals are held on July as well as August. Sendai's Tanabata is held on August 6-8. Basically, the whole city's shopping streets and arcades will be decorated by these long paper streamers, designed and made by just about any local organisation (schools, shops, communities, groups etc). Aside from these decorations though, this festival appears relatively uninteresting as compared to the other two. There are, of course, performances, music & dances and various points in the city.

There are lots more other festivals scattered across the country, and the most wonderful aspect of the festivities is that, everyone turns up in their traditional attire, and seeing all those kids all dressed up really makes them soooooo kawaii!! :)

Aside from the heat, it's great fun!!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

City in a Cave

Situated near Akhaltsikhe in southern Georgia, Vardzia ranks as one of the country's most interesting sights. Dug out of solid rock, comprising 13 stories of apartments (some say 6000!), complete with a throne room, a church and even a bell tower, the cave city of Vardzia is making a definite claim into UNESCO's list.

Built as early as the 12th century during the reign of their beloved ruler Queen Tamar, it was a bastion against the Mongol horde. However, it was not the Mongols, but an earthquake that destroyed part of the city years after the invasion. Today, it is a major tourist attraction in Georgia, though only part of the complex is open for sightseeing. In fact, a portion of the place are occupied by monks and it is a fully working monastery. There are some really awesome frescoes in there (but then, there're many awesome frescoes all around Georgia!), and there are also some mazy tunnels which you could wander in. No worries though as you would eventually come out into the open! (though not really advisable for those who are claustrophobic) The scenery around are also quite spectacular!

There are only a few marshrutkas a day plying the beautiful route from Akhaltsikhe to Vardzia and I believe I took the last one at close to 4pm. It's 2+hours of journey, and there a few guesthouses around the area where you could spend the night (the Lonely Planet guide lists a few). For those in a group, there will be many taxi drivers in Akhaltsikhe which you could hire for the trip and may be a better alternative. There are also many marshrutkas between Akhaltsikhe and Tbilisi, and Akhaltsikhe is also the start/end point of the Posof border crossing into Turkey.

For visitors to Georgia who have a bit of time, Vardzia can be an excellent option besides the popular Kazbegi/Svaneti and/or Kalkheti regions. Check it out!

Monday, March 5, 2012


Mendoza, a world-renowned wine region, and a city in western Argentina, makes for an excellent stop in your travels through Argentina, particularly if you are a wine/Malbec fan!

One of the unique ways to visit the wineries here, is to go for a wine bike tour. And one of the more backpacker-budget-friendly options is through one of the bike rental agencies in MaipĂș. Basically, you can take a public bus from Mendoza city to MaipĂș, and from there, take your pick of the agencies. Hostels and travel agencies in Mendoza itself have lots of brochures on these bike rental companies, so getting there shouldn't be a problem. However, competitation must have been pretty tough. When we showed the bus driver our intended bike rental joint, he stopped us at a competitor's place. Luckily, its a short walk to the other agency. And for 25-30 pesos, you get your bike for the day, a bottle of water, and a map of the attractions/winery nearby. At the end of your excursion, after you return the bikes, you get to enjoy a free glass of wine, and relax and chat with other travelers!

I've taken those day-trip wine tours before, and like most "packaged tours", you usually have little time and little choice of wineries/destinations. I've also taken self-drive wine tours with friends, but usually the driver (which could be you) don't really get to do the wine-tasting. So I find these bike wine tours great, as you have the flexibility to choose where/what to see (there are other stuff besides wineries, like beer garden, olive oil plant etc), although you do need some leg power. The other downside is, well, parts of the road are pretty narrow, and it can get pretty harrowing with trucks and motorcycles whooshing by you...

Mendoza itself is great too, and like many cities in Argentina, offers wonderful dine and wine experience. Even some hostels provide a free glass of wine for your stay, and there are often barbeque nights organized. Oh, there is a wonderful weekend flea market as well!

Yes, I'd love to visit Mendoza again!