An Evening with the Volcanoes

Legend has it that, in anticipation of their flights, the Apollo missions trained in this landscape, the closest to that of the moon on earth. I don’t know if that’s true or not but this is the most unusual landscape I’ve ever seen: a huge crater just a few kilometres in the distance in the ground belches out volcanic gas across a barren rock landscape before it wafts over Mauna Lea mountain/volcano. The air here, at over 3000ft, is the coldest we’ve yet felt on Hawaii; all around us, steam rises from every pore in the ground.

We’ve arrived at Volcano National Park, home to night-time lava flow watching, moon landscapes, observatories and the largest active volcano on earth, Mauna Lea. We stop by the visitor center to discover that the “crater rim trail” (an 11km drive around the smoking crater) is partially closed but that many of the other trails remain open.

On the way up to Jaggar Museum we pause to view the sulphur banks and get up close to the (scaldingly hot) steam emanating from the ground around. At the museum, we’re afforded a better view of the Kilauea Crater while the sun sets. Following that, a friendly park ranger has a telescope setup for some quick astronomy: we gaze at the moon and Saturn’s rings before driving back to the Volcano Lodge and a hearty meal in anticipation of tomorrow’s hikes.

Tate Modern

London not only contains some of the best museums on the planet but the best free museums on the planet. To top it off, it also turns out to have the best free late opening museums on the planet. Super mega triple jackpot; London is the restless traveller’s paradise. So far, after a lazy start, we’ve already popped into the houses of parliament, ambled around the Imperial War Museum and now we still have time left to inspect the Tate Modern, open until 10pm on Fridays and Saturdays.

Tate Modern houses one of the biggest and best collections of modern art in the world and had actually been top of my list of things to see in London. Aware that modern art is not to everyone’s taste (although these people are clearly wrong) , discovering that it opened late was a blessing: should worst comes to worst and it’s not a popular choice then at least we didn’t come here at the expense of doing something else we’d both enjoy. All parties agree to give it a try. Sure it’s free! What else would we be doing!

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First exhibit is in the famous Turbine Hall; we’re confused at first, mistakenly thinking there’s nothing on here right now. Then we notice the crack in the floor and the small crowds of people peering inside. It’s hardly the most impressive exhibit we’ll ever see but I’m open to most things…not a good start for skeptical newcomers, however! We spend the next while perusing the permanent exhibitions; I’m happy as a bee flitting around the place…a few I liked:

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There are also two temporary exhibitions in progress:

  • A Juan Muñoz retrospective, with no less than 14 rooms containing his installations and sculptures. I wasn’t sure about this at first at all, opening as it does with a collection of small iron sculptures, however I was quickly won over by “The Wasteland”, an installation featuring a small bronze figure seated on a balcony over a patterned floor. Together with “Two Ballerinas”, I was put in mind of David Lynch’s uncanny ability to combine the absurd, the unsettling and the hilarious. “Many Times” is unsettling in a quite different way: comprising 100 figures with 100 identical heads but 100 different poses, the viewer is suddenly outnumbered by the exhibition. There are groups, cliques, loners, couples and unseen marvels on display here. We are part of the exhibition; we are excluded from the exhibition. For me, it is for some reason really remarkably and uncannily like I am back in Japan…a stranger in a friendly but alien and indifferent place…

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  • I’m less wowed by the Duchamp, Man Ray and Picabia exhibition but that’s not saying much; I felt Muñoz was the best exhibition I’ve seen in a long long time. Here, I’m particularly taken by the early works. Names are sadly forgotten now, however one of them was Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase”.

Overall, a wonderful experience. The museums does have all the standard modern art clichés – huge canvasses painted red, unpainted framed canvasses with a hole cut through them and all that other stuff that was maybe fun the one time – but it has so much more, too: the surrealists, the minimalists, the futurists; the sculptures; the installations; brilliant colours and startling shapes. There’s a little something for everyone and it would be hard work indeed to come away completely unsatisfied. If nothing else, you’ll see the best modern art has to offer; make your mind up here.

Chicago Symphony Rehearsal

Well, it was quite a thing, it really was. Rarely has a perilously positioned brass neck’s pay-off been so great. I could have played tourist for the morning; I very nearly did. I had tickets bought and audio player rented for the Chicago Architectural Walking Tour. It meant an early morning but somehow I’d gotten my accoutrements together and carcass down to the ticket office and left time for breakfast.

To celebrate, I’d rewarded myself with breakfast (muffin tops, alá Seinfeld, from a local coffee chain). En route, I’d seen bodies entering and exiting Symphony Hall. It was early morning; my subconsciousness pondered the meaning of this whilst I feeded upon muffin tops.

Some context is required: although we had played in Chicago Symphony Hall and had several days to spend in the city, we had ourselves taken in no shows. Between arrival, concert, jetlag and general “getting our bearings”, we’d made no provision for entertainment as such except for noticing Chicago Symphony were playing Thursday, i.e. tonight. We, unfortunately, had another gig that clashed heart-breakingly with that of the CSO’s. This unfortunate fact had placed something of a damper upon the trip, to say the least. We were sojourned just five minutes down the road in the Hilton Hotel; it may as well have been a light year away.

Back to the moment: 10am, bodies entering the hall…no show scheduled…rehearsal? Could I be so lucky? Well, I declared in the safety of my own mind, it’s worth a try. Emboldened by the Pittsburgh Symphony’s “open rehearsal” in the NCH last year, I decided it was worth ago…

It was closed. Family and special guests of the orchestra only. Sorry son, not a hope. Come back November 9th. Well, with any luck I’d be back home by then. But, wait! I played here the other night! I’m one of you guys! Kiss me, I’m Irish! Well now, that’s a different story…I entered bearing proudly the moniker of “travelling musician”. Half right, at least.

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One very quick text later to my brass buddies ("omg, come down to the hall right now and listen to THIS") and I’m seated just in time for Sibelius’ violin concerto. Christoph von Dohnány is conducting, one Arabella Steinbacher performing the solo. Just like Pittsburgh’s, their rehearsal is essentially the concert: play the piece, play back a few random bars. A bit like Gordon Ramsey’s F Word – “bar 80, violins. bar 114, horns. Sibelius violin concerto…done.”

Following this, my trombone colleague arrives with supernaturally good timing for the highlight of the evening, (morning in our case) Bruckner’s 4 symphony. This is a treat from start to end. A delightful horn solo is rewarded with the orchestra’s foot stomping (tonight’s audience won’t get that!), the most perfect string section imaginable is counterbalanced with a most bombastic brass section putting in their oar for some demanding ff passages. Then, at the end, we got to hear the horn solo again! Magic.

Not much more to say. It was simply surreal: sitting down, savouring what is quite possibly the best orchestra on planet earth perform for me, my friend and just one other person. Now, if I never do anything else again, you can put that on my tombstone!

Coffee in Seattle

There’s an old philosophical thought experiment concerning the multiplication of bacteria. It goes something like this:

A cell can divide itself in two, producing a new cell, every five minutes. In effect, the number of cells doubles every five minutes: two, four, eight, sixteen, etc. After one day at this rate of growth you already have 2^288 bacteria (lots) and, in fact, it’s easy to calculate that pretty soon the entire universe is full. Or maybe it already is. So, why isn’t the universe full of bacteria?

Well, it just doesn’t happen in practise. Or so they thought: there is one actual recorded case, from international globalised economics, of such sustained exponential growth: the Starbucks coffee chain, whose branches filled the entire known universe in late 2003 (although they still only have two outlets in Dublin).

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Seattle is where it all began, way back when in 1971, in a little outlet – just like a hundred others – on the edge of Pike Market. Overlooking the Pacific Ocean, this particular branch eschews the normal green sans-serif livery in favour of what are presumably the branch’s original colours and slogans. It’s a tourist attraction of sorts, a landmark store whose queue is far too long to contemplate joining.

I’m glad the queue was too long: it gave me an excuse to wait for better, genuine coffee later in the day. In fact, I have great coffee karma in Seattle. Here are my finds for the two days, listed in the order in which I stumbled across them:

  • Seattle Coffee Works
    Situated between the market and the Seattle Art Museum, this coffee house boasts a veritable cornucopia of local roasts. Did I know there’s over 80 independent coffee roasters in Seattle? No, I did not! The friendly barista asks me a rare question: what sort of coffee do I want? I say espresso but that’s not what she means; do I like it light, dark, spicy? She quickly assembles a special concoction of her very own to my exact specification (“eh, dark – but light!”) and whose merits I’m instructed to report back. Best of all, if I’m not happy then she’ll “keep doing it until I like it”. What an offer!
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  • Zeitgeist
    The Smashing Pumpkins play across the road for this fine cup of coffee in the historic Pioneer Square district. In another city this would be something to write home about.
  • Vivace (off Broadway)
    There’s a long queue and it takes a long time to prepare but it’s the most amazing cup of coffee in the entire history of the world, ever. It’s deeply dark and unleashes upon the tongue that rarest of things, what I call the “coffee fruit hit”. This is my own term for a coffee taste that is so fresh and rich it goes far beyond bitter and almost into sweetness, as if someone had genetically engineered a coffee-flavoured banana and somehow mashed it into coffee-banana juice…no, paste.

The “coffee fruit hit” I first experienced with a clown-sized double espresso from Peaches in Dublin – never since, incidentally – and, in my innocence, momentarily mistook my angel espresso for a fruit drink and/or portal into another dimension. A very strange and rare delight indeed.

Not bad for one weekend.

Lombard Street

The crookedest street in the world!

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Actually, according to Frommer’s, it’s not even the crookedest street in San Francisco. But everyone thinks it is and so somehow it is.

Tourists line up in traffic for hours to tentatively edge down this tiny block of Lombard Street which was so steep that the road zig zags slowly down. A very loud and exasperated policewoman yells at drivers to stop messing around just get on with it. Even on Labor Day she has to deal with this damn street.

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Pedestrians have steps with which to experience “the slope.” I’m absolutely knackered but the view makes up for it…

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Sapporo – Tokyo

On reflection, I realise I’ve never taken an internal flight at all – not even in the states. Naturally, this owes, at least in part, to my slight train obsession. This time, however, I simply don’t have time to indulge that passion – an entire day on the train was “fun” once but I can’t do it again without sacrificing my last full day in Tokyo.

So, I swallow my pride and book an internal flight from Sapporo to Tokyo. Miraculously, a flight with Air Do at only 24 hours notice costs only 17,000¥ (about €100). The surcharge alone for the 16 hours overnight train from Sapporo is about 22,000¥. I don’t feel so bad and now I console myself with the knowledge that at least the trip is noteworthy, in one fairly major way, for being the busiest air route (domestic or international) in the entire world (easily beating even Dublin-London) with about 25 million passengers per year.

Time to build a new shinkansen perhaps…?

Anyway, it was surprisingly easy to book this over the phone but trying to spell “Trevor” in an Irish accent to a Japanese speaker is an exercise in patience and international relations.

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As is customary, after a very nice and very leisurely day I still somehow end up in a bit of a panic when the “express” airport train turns out not to be so fast at all. I encounter another strange bit of Japanese time-keeping when querying the rail attendant about this:

I thought the train only took 36 minutes?

Yes, 36 minutes, express!

But 8.10 to 8.58 is 48 minutes?

(check in time for the 9.20 flight is 9.05)

That’s right, 36 minutes!

(she ushers me proudly but quickly towards the platform)

When I arrive I have, by my calculations, a full 4 minutes in which to check in. Never in my life will I negotiate any airport with such fluidity as I have tonight (although this is more a reflection on the good people at New Chitose airport than myself): I check in with 1 minute to spare.

The staff and airport are a study in composure: my baggage is processed in seconds, there’s no passport control (I forgot about this) and it’s a quick walk to the gate. I suddenly see why internal flights are so popular.

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90 minutes later, back in Tokyo, I take the monorail from Haneda airport back to Tokyo Station, briefly passing through the most impressive bit of infrastructure of the whole trip: at one point, the monorail is suspended about 100m in the air above a regular rail line which, in turn, passes over a road which – unless I was mistaken, as it was dark – ran over a car park. And there was a river nearby, too.

Definitely back in Tokyo!

Hokkaido Bound

I’ve had this strange compulsion to reach Hokkaido – having ventured to Nagasaki in the very south-west, it seems only appropriate and somehow fitting to reach the very north-east. Coast to coast, as it were. It is a three-week long trip and I did buy this rail pass, so what else am I going to do?

Riding the shinkansen is a little odd: it is the fastest train in the world (or thereabouts; certainly the most extensive/fastest) but it really doesn’t feel like it. The track is so smooth and the engines so quiet that the air conditioning is considerably noisier than both. Ocasionally you feel a burst of acceleration when the turbo booster (or afterburner, warp engines or whatever these things have) engages…but you still only get a slightly higher pitched engine noise for its troubles.

However, when you venture off the beaten track a little to where the shinkansen doesn’t shine, you realise just how fast it is. It’s as if its speed cannot be observed directly; it must instead be inferred from slower, inferior trains. Or something like that.

A trip to Hokkaido certainly requires you to leave the comfort and regularity of the shinkansen behind. While the Nozomi 700 blazes through the 1174km from Tokyo to Fukuoka in under 5 hours, it’s at least 11 hours from Tokyo to Sapporo – with two changes along the way.

Starting this morning from Kyoto I figured I could reach Hokkaido today, but not Sapporo (the main city). Instead, I could spend a night in Hakodate and then head for Sapporo. The guide-book lists a number of interesting diversions at Hakodate (more than Sapporo, as it turns out) so it’s a day or so in Hakodate then up to Sapporo for another day before returning to Tokyo and, soon after, home.

Anyway, all today’s travelling required three separate train journeys, for a total of 11 hours:

  1. Kyoto-Tokyo
    Three hours on the Hikari super-express. When I arrive, the track is miraculously near Yaesu North, the one part of Tokyo Station I’m familiar with. It’s funny how I cursed this vast labyrinth of a station before but today it’s kind: I find a (big) locker for my (big) luggage, then the replacement ipod cable and USB 2.0 hub I need in, literally, 30 seconds of arriving before a quick lunch and espresso prior to searching for track 23.
  2. Tokyo-Hachinoe
    Almost three hours on the Hayate super-express. At 16 carraiges, this is surely the longest train ever. Soon I realise it splits in two at Morioka; a wonderful sign disembarking at Hachinoe says “dead heading train” (de-heading, i.e. splitting, train?).
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  3. Hachinoe-Hakodate
    Yet another three hours on a local service. This is notable for passing through the Seikan Tunnel. According to the Rough Guide this is – at 54km – the longest underwater tunnel in the world (over 200m below the sea separating Honshu and Hokkaido in parts) and the second-longest tunnel of any type. It took 40 years to build and, as if to commemorate in some small way this effort and the train’s progress through it (took us about 40 minutes) the train has the cutest little graphic I’ve ever seen:
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Getting back to Tokyo actually presents a minor problem; it’s either an overnight train (16 hours!) or an internal flight (boo). Indeed, the long journey time between Tokyo and Sapporo has led to terrible under-use of the Seikan Tunnel (after all the effort building the damn thing) and Tokyo-Sapporo to become one of the busiest air routes in the whole world.

We’ll see…

UPDATE 16/8/2007: this was a distance of 1417.6km.

Horyu-ji

Another wee Japanese town 10km south-west of Nara, Horyu-ji is home to the magnificent Horyu-ji temple. A world heritage site since 1993, this temple has the distinct honour of containing the world’s oldest wooden structure.

It mightn’t look like it (and it looks like about a billion other old Japanese temple buildings) but this thing is over 1200 years old…for a Japanese building, that’s an awful lot of disasters, wars and other potential hazardry.

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Next door is Japan’s oldest five-tier pagoda…

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Along with Todai-ji, Horyu-ji makes for an excellent day’s templing…and, as the lady at the tourist information office rightly said, give yourself a good two hours to enjoy Horyu-ji.

The sun even made a guest appearance…

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Todai-ji

Located at the north end of Nara-koen, the temple of Todai-ji is Nara’s main tourist attraction. It contains the Daibatsu-den which contains an truly enormous statue of the Buddha (Japan’s largest, in fact) and has the unusual distinction of being the largest all-wooden structure in the world.

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Inside, the bronze Buddha is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen…if only there were someone standing in front to illustrate just how enormously and humungously big these statues are. You just have to see them up close I guess…

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