Europe travel · Travel

London travel- British Museum and Parliament

Two grand British institutions are the British Museum and Parliament at Westminster. The former has been home to artifacts and works of arts since the mid-18th century, the latter has been the site of parliamentary governance since the 13th century.

Whenever I visit major cities, whether it be Cape Town or Hanoi or Xian or Tokyo, history museums are always near the top of my list of places to visit. Obviously in London, the British Museum was a must-visit and it didn’t disappoint. The only thing I regret was not being able to spend more time. There are splendid displays of ancient Egyptian, Middle Eastern, and Greek artifacts, as well as sub-Saharan African collection. The huge, central atrium or Great Court features a circular reading room (closed to the public) in the middle, several statues including a giant lion from the 2nd century BC, and a nice, overhead ceiling with an interlacing or tessellated design. The exterior of the museum is a grand but somewhat dowdy gray facade with multiple columns.

Besides the sheer quantity of the collections, it was impressive to be able to view giant pieces such as ancient Egyptian pharaonic statues and tombs and Assyrian lion statues up close. The Elgin Marbles, which were taken from the Parthenon in Athens, were in an entire hall. In the African section, there were entire walls of weapons, colorful cloths and the fascinating Benin Bronzes. These were produced by the kingdom of Benin which was situated in Nigeria (the country of Benin is named after this kingdom but was not where it was located).

I managed to see some of the most famous pieces like the Rosetta Stone, Elgin Marbles, as well as Benin bronzes, from Nigeria. Incidentally all of these are claimed by their country of origin, which raises the point that many of the items in the museum, such as many Greek and Egyptian artifacts, were taken or bought from other countries, sometimes through surreptitious means. The Louvre in Paris is similar, with many of its famous exhibits hailing from other places.
Meanwhile, the British exhibits were alright, but not particularly memorable other than some Roman-era artifacts. I had hoped there might have been exhibits from the British Empire from the Commonwealth countries such as India and Pakistan, but then that is probably unrealistic because it would be like glorifying the empire.

Ideally many of the items should be returned to their countries if they had been illegally bought or taken. On the other hand, there is no certainty that they would be displayed and maintained in such secure and pristine environments in their home countries as those at the British Museum. Also, the best archaeological techniques and knowledge of the day, when these artifacts were obtained, belonged Western explorers and archaeologists, though of course, they honed this from roaming around the world and obtaining other cultures’ artifacts. While a bit self-serving, the availability of these pieces all in one place in the British Museum allows visitors to enjoy and appreciate the history and past civilizations of almost the whole world.

Short of returning all their exhibits, which would be unrealistic, institutions like the British Museum and their governments should provide more funding to countries from where they got the exhibits from, to help them with their local museums, historical research and archaeological efforts and so on.

Lying on the north bank of the Thames River, the British Parliamentary building or Palace Of Westminster houses both the House of Lords and the House of Commons. It is easily recognized, with its gray Gothic features, multitude of windows and spires and the Big Ben clock atop Elizabeth Tower on its flank, though its tallest point is Victoria Tower at its southwestern corner. Alongside the building is an impressive black statue of Richard I, the Lionheart, atop a horse with sword in the air. There is also a statue of Oliver Cromwell, who helped defeat royalist forces in the 17th century and then ruled England as Lord Protector. There were armed policemen on the grounds, befitting the site of the nation’s parliament, though unfortunately this didn’t prevent a terrorist from running over dozens and killing several people, including a policeman, there earlier this year.

But Westminster Palace isn’t the only attraction in the area. Around it are several impressive old buildings such as Westminster Abbey, where the coronations of British monarchs have been held since 1066, St Margaret’s church, the Sanctuary, and Methodist Central Hall. Meanwhile, to get a good view of the Westminster Palace from the river, we walked down along the riverbank to a park and then onto Lambeth Bridge. For some reason, there was even a small rally opposite the parliament building on Myanmar’s upcoming election urging people to vote NLD, the party of Aung San Suu Kyi and which ended up winning over 80% of contested seats in that election.

Westminster Abbey

The Sanctuary, located next to Westminster Abbey

More British Museum photos
The Rosetta Stone, from Egypt
Close-up of the Benin Bronzes

Europe travel · Travel

France travel- Paris at last

Usually I write about my travel in sequential order but I’ve decided to skip ahead to the next city on my Euro trip last year and continue doing so, and then go back to the beginning. London was my first stop so it was natural that the next big city was Paris, which was just a short cross-channel Eurostar trip away.

Paris is a city that obviously doesn’t need an introduction, being featured, written about and pictured in so many movies, books and photos. I was never one of those people who dreamed of going to Paris, especially as I’ve never been a romantic person, but I figured if I was going to Europe, I might as well come here. And I would be very glad I did.

After getting off the Eurostar train in Paris, where we had a most inauspicious start by having to go through an alternate exit due to precautions taken after station staff found a piece of unattended luggage, my mother and I got to our hotel by subway, as in London. Initially, the “antiquity” of the Paris subway was a little underwhelming, with the rickety old carriages and the doors that had to be pulled open with a handle and the somewhat dim platforms.

The first full day started with a trip to the Louvre, of course, and ended with a view of Paris and the Eiffel Tower from on high. The Louvre is one of the world’s most famous museums, and when we got out of the subway station, passed these elegant old buildings, and walked through the dark entrance of one of these buildings to see IM Pei’s glittering pyramid in the centre of the Louvre’s inner courtyard, it really hit home that we were in Paris.

But before we could enjoy the museum, I had to brave the hustlers and pickpockets which I read so much about and had come to fear. After a brief search to buy a Museum Pass, during which I avoided people pretending to seek donations (the web is full of warnings about people seeking donations from hapless tourists while their accomplices try to take your wallet), we lined up in the courtyard for about half an hour before entering the pyramid and descending to the basement entrance.

I didn’t realize it at first but the Louvre is huge, housed in a former royal palace with three different wings in different directions (according to Wikipedia, the Louvre is the world’s largest museum). After figuring out the map, we chose one wing and set off. The museum is big but it was packed with tourists and predictably, there were scrums around the most famous exhibits like the headless Winged Victory of Samothrace (marble statue of the winged goddess Nike) and of course, the Mona Lisa, where after much moving around and maneuvering in the dense crowd (no pushing or jostling though), I managed to get up close to the fabled painting.

Those two exhibits were very decent, but there were so many great pieces of exhibits including the massive Babylonian marble lions, Greek statues, and paintings of French kings and Napoleon. We were there for only three hours, but I really could have spent a couple of more hours as we only saw about one half of the museum. Of the three wings, we saw two of them and probably not even most of them.
The only complaints I had were that all the exhibit captions were in French, which for a world-class museum was a big stunning to me. Obviously, it was deliberate because it’s the French. Also, the toilets are few and inadequate – for instance, a couple of the washrooms only had one toilet and they are far apart. While my mother had lunch, I had to walk through something like 10 rooms to get a vacant washroom and by the time I returned, she had finished. Yes, I know the building is old, and the exhibits are old, but surely the authorities should be able to install some modern washrooms.

From there, we went on to Île de la Cité, an islet located on the Seine that is the center of Paris. This was Paris as I had imagined, with the rows of elegant townhouses, magnificent old buildings, Notre Dame cathedral, and the streetside bakeries selling baguettes and crepes. But of course, it was also a very heavily touristed place. First, we went to St Chappelle, a royal 13th century Gothic chapel fitted with the most beautiful stained glass windows I’d ever seen. There is a smaller hall from which you went on to the larger sanctuary whose upper walls were filled with fantastic multicoloured stained glass windows featuring scenes from the New Testament. The effect was like being in a hall with resplendent purple and blue ceilings.

Notre Dame was next, with its imposing Gothic structure fronted by two towers, and the famous stone gargoyles perched on its roof and above its windows. There was some impressive sculpted artwork in its front – midway, a row of stone statues of bishops stood sentry across the entire front facade while the three curved entrances had countless stone bishops sculpted along the sides and top. The cathedral is massive and it was an interesting experience to walk in the cavernous inside and view the stained glass windows, the sculpted scenes of Christ rising, and even the stone coffins of two bishops at the back. I was starting to enjoy Paris, even its old subway system, which now seemed kind of cool.

Finally, for the evening, we went to the Montparnasse Tower. The building is considered a monstrosity by some due to its somewhat unattractive appearance, but that is exactly why it provides the best views of Paris. Because if you go up the Eiffel Tower, which is another great place to view the city, you will see the Montparnasse Tower itself. As it is, when you can see the neat triangular grids of the uniform townhouses and famous landmarks like the Louvre, Notre Dame and even Montmartre hill, Paris is amazing. Continue reading “France travel- Paris at last”

Japan travel · Travel

Japan travel- Tokyo’s Ueno district

When I was in Tokyo, I stayed in a hotel in the middle of two historic districts. To the east was Asakusa, and to the west was Ueno. Its main attraction is Ueno Park, a giant park in which the National Museum, Tokyo Zoo and several other museums are located as well as quite a few temples and shrines, including one dedicated to Tokugawa Ieyasu, the great Japanese shogun who helped unify the country in the 17th century.

The park was actually built on the site of a major battle in 1868 when shogunate samurais (Shogitai) tried unsuccessfully to resist the new Meiji government, and the tomb of Shogitai warriors still lies inside the park. There is a large lotus pond at the south end, Shinobazu Pond, that looks out onto office buildings, providing a stark contrast. The photo at the top of this post is of Saigo Takamori, who was a samurai commander who led an imperial army in an earlier uprising (when the battle in Ueno happened) but then rebelled against the government in 1877 and died under mysterious circumstances in the climatic battle. According to Wikipedia, the plot in The Last Samurai, the Tom Cruise samurai movie, was based on his rebellion. I have to admit though that when I visited the park, mainly to go to the national museum, I was unaware of all this history and it was only after I stumbled onto all these sights like the Shogitai tomb and the samurai statue that I learned about it.

The Tokyo National Museum stands at the north end of the park and is divided into several buildings housing Japanese history, art, and Asian artifacts. While the Japanese section was good, with Japanese samurai armor and swords being a personal highlight, the most interesting section was the Asian building which featured Chinese, Korean, SE Asian and even South Asian exhibits, as well an Egyptian mummy.

Ueno train station is nearby, and if you saw the first Wolverine movie, it was featured during a chase scene. Opposite the park is a shopping area called Ameyayokocho, a busy shopping area wedged into a bunch of alleys. The “Ame” in its name stands for America, as it was a black market for American goods after World War II. At night, its numerous pachinko (a popular Japanese pinball-like game) parlors really light up the area.
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Shrine to Tokugawa Ieyasu, one of Japan’s greatest shoguns


Shinobazu pond, below
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Tokyo National Museum
Another of the museum buildings
Wooden statues of the “twelve heavenly generals.” They look more devilish than heavenly to me.
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Samurai sword (above) and armor (below)
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Buddha found near Peshawar, Pakistan from the 2nd-3rd century. The lean figure looks much different from the chubby, bald Buddhas you usually find in China and SE Asia.
Seen in the Wolverine movie!

Japan travel · Travel

Osaka photo roundup

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Osaka Castle Park IMAG1825 Indoor shopping arcade with restaurants, bars, supermarkets, clothes and DVD stores. This was in the morning so most stores were closed. IMAG1820 Not flooded steps, but a terraced fountain near Osaka Station DSC06815 Mao-Nixon photo at peace center in Osaka Castle Park DSC06838 Skyscraper seen from the park, with a construction crane on top IMAG1805 DSC06868 DSC06862 DSC06860 Flags of the generals and units at the Summer War of Osaka, when Osaka Castle was besieged and overrun by the warlord who would go on to be the shogun of Japan, in the museum inside Osaka Castle DSC06936
Royal courtier figures who served in the castle when the capital was in Osaka, Osaka history museum
DSC06928 Site of former ancient imperial palace on the left where a lot of artifacts were found, just opposite from the history museum IMG_0470 DSC07202 DSC07216
Drinking fountain at Shittenoji Temple where you scoop the water from a ladle and drink it directly. I saw these at almost every temple I went to as well as at Osaka Castle.
Jellyfish at the Osaka aquarium

Japan travel · Travel

Japan travel – starting off in Osaka with its castle, museum, peace center

Back in the summer of 2013, I took a 2-week trip through Japan, my final one before coming to China to work. It’s fair to say I’ve lagged pretty badly in posting about it. I even wrote a newspaper travel article about the trip last year. The trip was also my last long overseas trip, barring my last visit back to Taiwan for medical reasons.

In short, my trip went like this. I touched down in Osaka, spent a few days there, then went on to Kyoto and did the same. From there, I went to Matsumoto, a scenic holiday town, and visited Mt Tateyama and the Kurobe Dam, then moved on to Tokyo. From Tokyo, I went to climb Mt Fuji, then returned to Tokyo.

I should point out that while Japan is not a cheap place to travel in, I was able to use up less than a month’s salary for my trip. I flew by budget airlines, and mostly stayed in lower-end but decent hotels (my drab Tokyo hotel was the most expensive at $50 a night). Only at the foot of Mt Fuji did I stay at a hostel.

I flew from Taipei to Osaka on a Friday evening, via Peach Airlines. While Japanese are in general extremely polite people, there was a very disgruntled passenger who argued with the hostesses and who then continued arguing after we touched down and he was met by a male staff. It was all in Japanese so I couldn’t understand anything, though I saw how accommodating the female Japanese stewardesses were towards him. It would not be the first time in Japan I would see an incident like this involving a male passenger and female staff.

Anyways, after landing in Osaka’s artificial island-based airport, I collected my stuff quickly, went through immigration and then had to be searched at customs. I think Japan is one of the few countries where you need to undergo this when leaving the airport. It happened to me many years ago when I went to Japan as part of a Taiwan tour group. While I had my luggage searched, I noticed a few passengers who were taken to a nearby compartment, probably to be body-searched.

The customs officer was a friendly guy who asked me a few questions. He was amused when he saw my jacket and pointed out Japan is hot in the summer. When I said I was planning to climb Mt Fuji, he seemed impressed. After he asked me questions, he then took out a folder filled with photos of weapons and drugs and asked me if I was carrying any of those. No, no, no, I replied as he pointed to a photo of a gun, a knife and explosives and I started laughing, though not too loudly. “Sorry, I’m just doing my job,” he said, probably a little embarrassed. I was impressed when he said that as his English wasn’t that good but it showed he could make conversation.

As it was already past 11, I scrambled to take the airport train to the city. I managed to get on the last train with minutes to spare, then got out at my stop. This is where things got a little interesting. Now, Japan is a wealthy country with a high level of development.

But when I stepped out of the station onto the street, the first thing I smelt was urine and the first thing I saw was a homeless old man, or maybe he was a drunk, sitting on the sidewalk. Apparently this was in an old, working-class neighborhood in Osaka, and it certainly looked so. I used Google Maps and Streetview extensively while doing research for the trip, so I tried following the directions to my hotel but I got a bit lost.

I walked into a Family-Mart convenience store where I showed my printed hotel map to two young clerks who spoke no English and pored over my map enthusiastically but weren’t able to recognize the place.

At this point, it was almost midnight and I ended up walking back to the station exit and heading into a different direction. I did find my hotel though I had a brief scare when I saw the front desk was closed. Luckily I was able to press a bell and a staff came out and sleepily checked me in.

The next day, I set out for Osaka Castle. It’s an attractive castle surrounded by a moat in the middle of a massive park, with a few smaller buildings scattered. One of these was the Osaka International Peace Center, which I was going to first. It is a small museum that commemorates World War II by showing Japan’s beginning of the war in Asia, the city’s damage from retaliatory US bombing and more importantly and impressively, displays photos and information about Japan’s aggression in China, Korea and across Southeast Asia in that war. Japan has a reputation for downplaying what it did during the war, but in this museum, the photos showed graphic evidence of what they did, such as dead Chinese and wretched prisoners of war. There was also a display on Auschwitz, the German Nazi prisoner camp in Poland where lots of Jews were killed, and a room full of black-and-white photos of momentous events in the late 20th century. Above the photos were “doomsday clocks,” a clock devised by an American science magazine that showed how close to doomsday or nuclear war the world was at the moment by how close the minute hand was to the starting point (12 o’clock) – the more conflicts in the world, the closer it would be to doomsday. The time for the clock for 2013 was 11.55.
It admits Japan did bad things in Asia though the wording is vague plus it mentions the Japanese who died too (they wouldn’t have if Japan hadn’t started the war). It’s a bit half-hearted though at least it’s a start.

The section on what the Japanese did in China. The photos explicitly show the horrors done to Chinese.

After leaving the peace museum, I walked through what seemed like a forest for a while before eventually reaching the castle moat. I saw the moat first, a wide channel upon which a mighty sloping stone wall stood on the other side. The castle was in the middle of a complex within the stone wall that was itself surrounded by another moat, but smaller. Inside this second moat, the castle stood proudly atop a stone base, six stories each topped by a green tiled roof with gold decorations. At the top level was a viewing platform that gave a great 360-degree view of the surroundings.
Outer moat
Inner moat


As impressive as the castle is, the fact was it was a recent replica built in 1931. Originally built in 1585, it was destroyed after a mighty battle in the Summer War of Osaka. It was then rebuilt but was again destroyed by fire from a lightning strike in 1665. It was restored again in 1931 but then destroyed again in 1945 from airplane bombs during World War II. Finally, in 1997, it was rebuilt according to the original specifications and designs. This is therefore the fourth version of the castle and less than 20 years ago.

The castle’s original importance stems from the fact its roots involve two of Japan’s three greatest warlord unifiers. The castle was built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, one of the great warlords. Toyotomi died while it was being completed and it passed to his son Hideyori. However, Tokugawa Ieyasu, the third of the great warlords, attacked Hideyori in 1614, besieging the great castle. After a prolonged siege, they came to an understanding and Tokugawa withdrew. However, a year later, Hideyori decided to restore the castle’s defenses and Tokugawa attacked again in what is called the Summer War of Osaka. This time, Tokugawa won and completely annihilated the Toyotomi clan. This year incidentally is the 400th anniversary of this great battle.

The inside of the castle reflects the sad end of its original owner, with paintings depicting the siege and the final battle as the Toyotomi warriors were routed and their family members killed. There are images of the various banners used on each sides and detailed information on the generals in the armies and how they fared.

The area around the castle featured vendors, people in samurai and ninja costumes and even street performers. There were a good bit of people, but not crowded, which is probably the best condition at tourist attractions.
Cosplay samurai near the castle

I then proceeded to the Osaka Museum of History, a tower across the street from the southwestern corner of the castle park. So far, it is the only museum I’ve been to that is in an entire tower, and it has a unique elliptical shape, covered in what looked to be brownish tiles but with one edge glassed, and is next to the NHK Osaka tower. The tower is over 10 stories, and you start from the top and make your way down.
Osaka history museum on the left and NHK Osaka on the right, joined to each other by the round entrance lobby.

As expected, it covers Osaka’s history from the early hundreds (400AD onwards). Interestingly, I found out that Osaka was one of Japan’s earliest capitals in the 7th and 8th century, when it was known as Naniwa. Historical artifacts were kind of sparse though the displays of early 20th century Osaka were quite interesting. What it lacked in ancient pieces, the museum made up for in life-size replicas of boats and shops and entire pavilions recreating society in different times.

As I was leaving, there was some cosplay gathering outside. As I was looking back, I saw a family of ninja and I quickly took a photo of them. Rather than be annoyed, they were all smiles and decided to pose, and I took another one. I’d heard how Japanese can be reserved and polite, but not warm, but that family (I assume they were) definitely broke that stereotype. That remained my best experience with Japanese strangers during that whole trip hence why their photo is the second one at the top of this post.
Osaka Castle and the park from the history museum across the street
Information on the generals who fought in the final battle at the castle
A shrine near the castle, probably dedicated to the warrior in front

Osaka Castle, elegant and historic, but flanked by modern concrete and glass
The blue tower is a beautiful building. Not to mention there’s a motorized crane perched on top of it.
Exit of the park with guard building at the side

Southeast Asia travel · Thailand travel · Travel

Bangkok photo roundup – Wat Pho, National Museum

Here’re several more photos of Wat Pho and Bangkok National Museum, and the park and street nearby.

Wat Pho

Reclining Buddha’s feet
Street outside of Wat Pho; the houses look a little European

Bangkok National Museum

Painting of a battle with the Burmese
Statue of Vishnu, a Hindu god
Ivory sculptures with Buddha engraved on them
Diorama of a battle against, who else, the Burmese. Notice how both sides used war elephants.


Sanam Laung park, outside of the Grand Palace
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