Raja Ampat – Underwater

Home to one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on Earth, the underwater world of Raja Ampat is a dream for snorkelers and divers alike. Below you can find some pictures of the incredible marine life we spotted while snorkeling off the island of Batanta.

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There were plenty of beautifully-patterned clams lying on the sea floor
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These ones, always tucked neatly into the crevices of the reef, would close tightly as we swam overtop of them, leaving nothing but a squiggly blue line to mark where their mouth had been.
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This clam was by far the biggest we would see while snorkeling. If we could have swam down next to it, it would have stretched from our waist to the top of our head.
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Apart from giant clams, we would also come across some oversized fish during our time under water. This angel fish, which in this photo is about 20-30 yards away, was bigger than we were…
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…as was each parrotfish in this school, a video of which you can find here.
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We also saw two cuttlefish swimming together, each the size of our torso.
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Here‘s another video of them.

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A brave clown fish peeking out from an anemone.

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Apart from snorkeling around our homestay, we also went on a manta ray-watching tour where we got to swim with several of the graceful creatures that, like so many other things we had seen underwater, were larger than we were.

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On our very last snorkeling outing before leaving Raja Ampat, our underwater camera malfunctioned and we lost all of our pictures from our entire time in Indonesia due to the memory card getting wet. Luckily, after getting back to China, we were able to recover most of the pictures and videos after purchasing a data-recovery system.

Read on for a poem by Kate:

Bolbometopon muricatum

Limbs tired,
we’ve been out
for an hour.

We push up
our masks,
pop out
our snorkels.

Go back?

Okay.
But first,
one more look.

Gear back in place,
we duck under.

A herd
of trunkless
elephants
blunders by,
trumpeting silently.

Is my mask fogged?
No.

A parade of parrot
fish stretches across
the reef’s drop-off, crunching coral.

They weave in and out
of one another, grazing,
creating clouds of sand that drift

up to shore creating
paradisiacal beaches
with swaying palms and birdsong.

We gaze at the school, mesmerized
by their elephantine mass, while
their colorful cousins
the size of our
hand dart
past.

The stampede swims out to the depths
as we turn to swim inland.

Raja Ampat

If you’re wondering how to get to paradise, you should know that getting there is not quite as easy as being there. For us, the process was as follows:

  1. Schedule a doctor’s appointment to get malaria medication and begin taking it several days prior to the trip
  2. If you’re leaving in winter, are far away from an airport and trying to take as little as possible with you to the tropical destination (as we were), stave off frost bite as you spend an entire day commuting to the airport in freezing temperatures wearing nothing but jeans and a light sweater
  3. Board a plane for Indonesia
  4. Spend a week or two traveling around the country (optional, but recommended)
  5. Take a red eye flight to Sorong after spending the night on an airport bench under the glow of a television screen airing coverage of the CrossFit Games
  6. Arrive in Sorong and haggle with a taxi driver to take you to the ferry dock
  7. Buy ferry tickets and board the cramped, liberally air-conditioned cabin for Waisai
  8. Shiver to stay warm for the hour-long ride all the while listening to and watching the offensively bad Indonesian pop music videos on the cabin’s TV
  9. Arrive in Waisai and wait in line for an hour to pay $70 for a permit to enter said paradise
  10. Take an hour-long motorboat ride across choppy waters with no shaded protection from the sun overhead
  11. Arrive in paradise

Are there more convenient routes to take there? Probably, but this was the one available to us and, as we would quickly find, the hassle of getting to paradise is a worthwhile price to pay.

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The view of our bungalow and island from the ocean

While the collective idea of paradise, uninhabited beaches on remote islands void of responsibility and stress, has many representatives around the world, ours was located in Batanta, one of the four islands the make up Raja Ampat, or four kings, a Papuan archipelago lying at the easternmost edge of Indonesia. 

For many visitors to Raja Ampat, accommodation comes in the form of a homestay, which usually consists of one to several bungalows lying on the beach or overtop the ocean itself, most of which are owned and operated by locals. Choosing to go the traditional route, we stayed at Yenaduak Homestay, which was run by a man named Sam and consisted of four bungalows that lied within ten yards of the ocean. Having seen pictures of similar scenes on postcards and in magazines for most of our life and assuming them to be unattainable, we were surprised at times to find ourselves actually staying in such a place.

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Our bungalow and the ocean which lied just steps away

The thatched bungalow consisted of a bed, one small table and a bathroom with a seatless toilet that also functioned as a sink. To flush, we would have to use a ladle to wash the toilet’s contents through its pipes. The ladle also served as our shower and, since the color of the ground water that filled it looked murkier than the contents of the toilet bowl at most times, we made the easy decision to forego showers for our week’s stay. 

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The inside of our bungalow with our bed covered by a mosquito net
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Our bathroom facilities. We used the red spigot to fill the bin with groundwater, which we would then ladle out to flush the toilet.
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One of our biggest fears before going to Raja Ampat was about what critters and insects would be sharing the bungalow with us. Luckily, this spider, which barely moved an inch during our stay, was the worst we would see. As for the worst we wouldn’t see, one night we woke up to a large thud near the window of our bungalow followed by the scampering of heavy feet and scraping of claws across the floor and walls. As the island is home to large tree lizards (most notably the Varanus indicus–monitor tree lizard), we assumed that that was what it was. To our relief, it was gone by morning.

While far removed from anyone’s idea of luxury, we found the bungalow to be perfect, an idea furthered by its other feature, a front porch equipped with a hammock and two chairs that would bear the brunt of our lethargy during the lazy mornings and afternoons that are an inevitable byproduct of being on a remote island with no internet connection or phone signal.

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The view from our porch

The paradisiacal setting wasn’t the only reason people, us included, travel to the islands of Raja Ampat though for, as serene as the above water setting might be, what lies under it can’t be seen anywhere else on Earth. Home to 75% of the world’s coral species and over 1,500 different species of fish, the underwater world of Raja Ampat is one of the richest biodiverse ecosystems anywhere on Earth. Being lovers of snorkeling and aware that finding beautiful and intact coral reefs will be increasingly more difficult in the future we were eager to visit what many snorkelers and divers call the best place in the world for both.

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A sampling of the coral lying just off the shore of the homestay
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Schools of fish were a common sight…
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…as were clown fish.
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We even got to see more unique creatures like sharks, giant parrotfish, and this cuttlefish which was about the size of our torso.

So, with plenty to keep us busy below the ocean and plenty of lazy pursuits lying above it, our time on the island, while limited, was always well spent. A typical day went as follows:

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At dawn we would wake up to the sound of tropical birds cawing from the jungle behind us and waves gently lapping from the ocean in front…
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…and walk out to the beach to catch the sunrise.
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Then we would get some coffee and sip it on our porch…
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…before heading out for a morning snorkeling session.
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Once the tide got too low and the sun too hot to continue snorkeling, we headed back to our bungalow where we awaited the appearance of the green basket that signaled that lunch was ready (the basket covered the food to keep bugs out)
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Enjoying lunch, which sometimes happened alone and other times was in the company of our fellow guests at the homestay
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Afternoons were lazy and usually spent reading books…
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…sipping coffee and eating snacks…
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…and playing mancala on a homemade board comprised of seashells and rocks we found on the beach.
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The coral reef sat so close to the surface of the water that, when the tide was low in the afternoon, it was very difficult to swim overtop of it. So, to know when it was okay to go snorkeling again, we would sit on our porch and wait until the fields of sea grass that sat in front of the coral were no longer visible above the water.
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After snorkeling, we would watch the sunset and eat dinner with the homestay’s other guests before going to bed.

Occasionally we would break from routine to explore the reaches of the shore:

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On one part of the beach there were dozens of these clinging to the burnt remains of a tree. When we got close to them they would skip across the water, using their tail to propel them.
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In one tide pool we saw this starfish that we thought was an octopus at first because it was writhing around in the water and then quickly tucked itself under a rock once it sensed our presence.
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Every now and then we had to remind ourselves to look up as the trees were often full of surprises as well.

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With no proper waste disposal system, guests in Raja Ampat are encouraged to take all of their garbage with them upon leaving the islands. Only being there a week, this was very easy for us to do. However, there was nothing we could do to stop the collection of plastic on the island’s beaches. Even after collecting all of it one morning, by the afternoon a fresh supply had washed ashore.

Apart from exploring the immediate surroundings of our homestay, we would also go on a few of the excellent tours that Sam offered guests. The first was to see Wilson’s bird-of-paradise. Never having gone bird watching before, we had a naive pie-in-the-sky picture in our minds of what it would be: the now laughable image of casually strolling through the jungle while birds of all colors and sizes swooped overhead and perched themselves on nearby branches for our enjoyment. Our first indication that it would not be so easy was when Sam told us that we would be leaving for the tour at 3:30 the next morning so that we could get to the lookout in the cover of dark without the birds seeing us. 

After waking up at 3:00, having considerable debate about which clothes to wear, and boarding the boat which nearly tipped over a couple of times as everyone got situated, we were on our way. It was slow goings at first as we had to maneuver around the coral reef that boxed the bungalows in to the island. One thing we really liked about Sam and his family was that they always took precautionary measures to make sure that the boat and motor weren’t running over the reef and damaging it. In the pre-dawn darkness, this meant pulling up the motor, using a flashlight to see where the coral was, and then using a long stick placed where the coral wasn’t to push the boat out to sea. Once the reef dropped off, Sam put down the motor and sped away.

With nothing much to look at other than the faint outlines of islands standing against the nighttime sky, our attention turned to the water below, whose unwavering blackness was interrupted by the fluorescent glow of tiny jellyfish which speckled the water. There are many times when the ocean emulates the sky above it, but this was the first time we had experienced it doing so at night, the hundreds of jellyfish illuminating the black water much in the same way the stars do the sky.

As the world brightened, the glow of the jellyfish faded and our attention shifted to the scenery above water. Surrounding us were a handful of islands which sat sleepily behind clouds of mist that were much more vigorous in their early morning pursuits as they hurriedly pushed past the islands in route to blending into the overcast sky above. On the shores of one of these islands our boat would finally slow to a creeping pace as we floated inland, past groves of trees that marked the fringes of the island’s reach into the ocean. The trees, whose exposed and gnarled roots clawed menacingly out of sight into the water below, created an eerie setting when paired with the gloominess of pre-dawn. 

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Our boat floating through the mangroves after bird watching (it was too dark to capture the trees before it)

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As our boat approached a mound of gloppy mud that marked the inner-island’s shore, we emphatically disembarked and began a mad march through the jungle in a race against the sunrise. As we traipsed through swampy patches of earth and pushed through fields of reeds that stretched up to our waists, we were thankful that our wardrobe choice earlier in the morning included hiking boots and long sleeves, both of which we deemed essential to  traverse the dark and wet jungle. Our adventurous spirits were put to shame though as we looked ahead to Sam who was walking barefoot over the broken twigs and jagged rocks scattered about the ground and wearing nothing more than a pair of shorts and a T-shirt, which he would later remove. In the Darwinian image of survival, Sam was most definitely the fittest.

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The end of our trek was marked by a climb up a steep and muddy hill where we used trees and vines to pull ourselves up to the lookout – a collection of tattered boards lying behind an equally tattered screen meant to keep us hidden from the elusive bird of paradise. As we climbed onto the wet and muddy boards, a couple of which snapped in two while walking across them, Sam gave us some leaves to sit on while we waited for the bird, which was far from a guarantee. Luckily for us, Sam was quite experienced at eliciting the presence of the bird which he did by the almost comically simplistic task of tossing a couple of wet, brown leaves onto the wet, brown earth in front of the screen. Wondering if a trick had been played on us at first, we were quickly applauding the technique as the cartoonishly colorful bird swooped down and began clearing the leaves away. The male birds, as it turns out, are known for setting up their own display courts on the jungle floor where they perform dances for potential suitors. As a dirty court could spell doom for a bird’s chances at securing a mate, they work tirelessly to keep them clear of debris which explained the irritation and immediate rebuttal of Sam’s having made a mess in this particular bird’s court.

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Our lookout
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Waiting for the bird to arrive, which took around two hours
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Our view through the screen
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While waiting for the bird to appear, we became entranced by a millipede on the ground that we confused for a snake at first due to its size.

Despite our close proximity to the court, the bird still managed to prove elusive as our line of vision was often hindered or blocked entirely by the screen in front of us. Still though, we luckily managed to get a couple of photos of the brilliant bird which we were surprised to find out later only existed on this and one other island in Raja Ampat and was quite rare to see in the wild.

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Even high in the trees above the bird was captivating
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Hiking back through the jungle
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Getting back on the boat

Before going back to our homestay, Sam stopped off at another point on the island to show us a waterfall.

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The path leading up to the waterfall

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Ancient-looking trees were a common sight in the jungle around the waterfall

Apart from seeing Wilson’s bird-of-paradise and the waterfall, Sam would also take us to swim with manta rays and go on another, less fruitful, hornbill watching tour. Through our sporadic conversations with him over the course of the week, we learned that he originally worked in a mine with his brother. After the mine collapsed one day, killing his brother, Sam’s dad convinced him to take a safer job working at a resort. While sweeping leaves and picking up plastic that had washed ashore day after day, Sam would hang English words from trees and memorize them as he went back and forth clearing debris off the beach. Eventually, once he had an adequate level of English, he decided to open his own homestay which had expanded from one bungalow to four at the time of our staying there. As more people become aware of one of the last paradises on Earth, we hope that it can remain a paradise, where visitors support locals and everyone recognizes and respects the incredible wildlife that exists there. 

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Sam (in the red hat) with our bungalow in the background as we left Batanta

Read on for a poem by Kate:

Musings from an Amateur Ornithologist II

Hidden between trees
in the shadowy dawn
rustles a millipede,
gliding over dry leaves,
serpentine, but for his baleen legs
swinging in tandem.

In the canopy,
a regal song rings out,
piercing the morning air
with its vibrato.
The bird,
holding court in paradise,
flutters from branch to branch
dancing for us onlookers,
aware, yet determined to remain aloof.
A flash of red,
a glint of blue,
swooping to the ground,
then flying off to the latticework above,
leaving us awestruck,
reflecting on the privilege
of being granted an audience.

Meanwhile,
the thousand-legged jester
continues his crawl
across the forest floor.

Yogyakarta

Cultural relics are fragile things. Even the most formidable ones, the temples and palaces and castles of the world, were most likely at one point or another in a state of disrepair; crumbling edifices robbed of their allure and lying on the brink of irrelevance. Nowhere was this fragility more evident than in Yogyakarta, the cultural heart of the Indonesian island of Java. Lying just outside its city limits is Borobudur, the largest Buddhist temple in world which, barely over a century ago, was buried under the jungle, vines and roots being the only things roaming its once revered corridors. Despite its past troubles though, Borobudur, and the other tangible aspects of our history and culture, are mostly restored now and kept up meticulously in the spirit of the modern tourism industry.

Inside the city limits of Jogja, the colloquial name for the city, where the more intangible aspects of the island’s culture – music, art and tradition – resided, a different story was playing out. For, while the maintenance of temples and the like rely on the services of bountiful and steady professions like construction workers and engineers, the arts require a much more specialized and often unrewarded profession, the artisan, to maintain their upkeep. As we experienced the making of the region’s famous shadow puppet and batik, a traditional style of clothing, and took in musical performances and puppet shows, we couldn’t help but notice that all of their purveyors were middle-aged or beyond. While we thoroughly enjoyed our experiences with the ancient art forms, we wondered what would happen to them within generations. Like languages without anyone left to speak them, would they simply just disappear?

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The unique interior of our hotel

To get around the city, we would use another cultural relic, this one unwavering in the face of time: public transportation. In Jogja, this came in the form of the endearing becak, a bicycle-powered rickshaw so omnipresent on the streets of the city that they could be found simply by opening one’s eyes and looking in any direction. For us, we didn’t even have to step foot outside of our hotel to spot one as two were parked just outside its front door.

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An empty becak driving through the streets of Jogja

Inside one of the becak’s colorful carriages, under the shade of a tattered awning hanging overhead, sat a gangly man lazily rifling through a newspaper. As we approached him to inquire about taking us around the city, he seemed almost hesitant to oblige, not wanting to abandon his relative comfort to peddle two strangers around the sweltering streets of the city. Over the course of the next several days, as he took us from site to site around Jogja, we would learn his name, Adi, as well as other various tidbits about his life and personality. For example, he was a father of two, had learned his impressive level of English simply by listening to client’s conversations and communicating with them what he could, and had witnessed the eruption of a nearby volcano in 2010, the accounts of which he told with such a casual nonchalance that you could have mistaken his tone for describing the process of drying paint. He would also end up being one of the most genuinely kind people we would come across for the entirety of our time in Indonesia, which made us quite happy to have him as our guide.

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Adi always made sure to point out the city’s galleries of graffiti, which were on vibrant display down nearly every alleyway we turned into

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For our first two days in Jogja, the services of Adi and his becak would only be needed to take us to nearby bus stops where we would take various buses to the nearby ruins of Borobudur and Prambanan. For our third day in the city, Adi took us to see two of the region’s other claims to fame: the processes behind making batik, a kind of dyed fabric, and wayang, or shadow puppets.

To understand the cultural importance of batik to Indonesia and especially the island of Java, one has to look no further than the fact that the country has an airline named after it, Batik Air, a National Batik Day, and its own version of casual Friday in which workers are encouraged to wear batik to work. After witnessing the process of batik making at a small factory near our hotel and seeing the end result, it was easy to see why it had such fanfare.

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The first part of the process is to pencil the pattern on to the cloth.
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Then, hot wax is traced over the outline of the pattern…
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…after which the cloth undergoes its first dye bath, usually indigo blue.

 

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Once the dye dries, more designs are added to the cloth via hot wax and the process continues as such until the desired pattern is achieved.
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Stamps are also used to apply wax to forego the hand-drawn part of the process.
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Some of the stamps had beautifully elaborate designs on them.
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Colors on some batiks were done by hand instead of dyeing
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The last step of the process was to melt off all the wax, leaving the finished pattern on the cloth. The melted wax was collected and balled to be used again to create the designs on future batiks.

 

 

While the free tour was enjoyable, the free part of it weighed heavily on our minds throughout and our worst nightmares came to fruition as the tour ended in a gift shop where every glance of our eye was pounced upon by a slew of shop assistants who assured us with suspicious frequency that whatever item we had happened to take an interest in was handmade by the artisans we had just seen on our tour. While we were no batik experts, we were fairly certain that the multitude of shirts and tapestries were not made in house as the shop reeked of mass-production, an idea furthered by the fact that every item in it was encased in plastic and had dozens of identical replicas. Before starting the tour, Adi had warned us not to buy anything, advice we had no problem heeding.

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After leaving the factory, Adi took us to a nearby workshop that featured batik from local artists. Of the hundreds of pieces on display, not one was similar to another.

From one process to another, our next stop was to see how the wayang was made. Much like the batik factory, we were issued a guide upon arriving who explained each step in the making of the shadow puppets. 

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The puppets are made from water buffalo hide. After curing the hide and tracing the wayang’s design onto it, an artisan carves out the puppet and the countless holes inside of it necessary for the wayang’s pattern to be seen in its shadow.
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After this, a painter applies the the many colors that make up the wayang’s clothing and skin.
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Each of the many colors and features of the wayang are symbolic, which is evident in the complexity of this illustration explaining what each one means.

As we watched the various artisans meticulously and flawlessly perform the intricate tasks behind the making of each puppet, we were reminded by our guide that he too was an artist. While some of the others used paintbrushes and chisels as their tools, he wielded his mouth, which he used masterfully to create a kind of verbal art that we found just as fascinating as the making of the wayang.

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Our guide showing us what the finished product looks like in its shadowed form, which is how most people would see the puppet during a show. After leaving the wayang workshop, Adi informed us that traditional shows last around eight hours and take place from dusk to dawn!

 

Our last stop of the day was Taman Sari, a once sprawling palace complex used for relaxation and retreat by the Javanese sultans in the 18th century. There, we braved the debilitating heat to explore one of the only remaining parts of the original structure: the baths. Once used as a place for the sultan to observe concubines before choosing one as his companion for the day, the grounds were now filled with revelers of a different kind, tourists. As we walked around the compound, we found ourselves staring longingly at the baths, whose cool waters and bubbling fountains served as a different kind of temptation: an escape from the midday sun that, unlike the concubines, would remain forbidden.

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One of the main gates leading into Taman Sari.

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Looking out from the tower where the sultan would observe and choose a concubine.
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Another one of the main gates leading into the complex.
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Ending the day with a delicious supper of gudega dish comprised of young, unripe jackfruit boiled in palm sugar and coconut milk over the course of several hours. In hindsight, we can’t believe we only ate this once while in Jogja.

The next day, our last in Jogja, would be highlighted by our trip to the Kraton Palace. While the palace itself wasn’t very impressive, the cultural performances put on there were. Not having been able to see a wayang performance the night before due to it being a national holiday, we were pleased to find that the show being put on at the palace that day was a puppet show. Sadly, it wouldn’t feature the shadow puppets we were so hoping to see in action, but another kind endemic to the island, the wooden puppet. 

As we watched the telling of the Ramayana story, our inability to understand the words being spoken in no way diminished our enjoyment of the show. Colorful beings danced and floated effortlessly on the stage to the beat of the smooth and sure voice of the dalang. Behind the scenes, a gamelan orchestra played a hypnotically soothing melody that made us wonder how anyone could possibly stay awake for an eight hour show, let alone one that took place overnight.

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A view of the puppet performance from in front of the stage

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Because Javanese puppet shows, both shadow and wooden, can be enjoyed from either in front of the stage or behind it, we decided to go behind the dalang to see the source of the music. There, an ensemble of musicians gently tapped away at their instruments which seemed far too large to be making such a gentle sound. The hands making that sound, which, as frequently as the music allowed, would replace the grip of their mallets with that of a cigarette, were noticeably aged. As we trailed the plumes of smoke up to the faces of the musicians, many of them looked as if this was more of a retirement gig than a career which made us wonder anew what the culture of Jogja would look like in another decade or two. Sure the palace would still be standing, as would the other structures we had seen, but would music still be filling its halls and puppets still dancing to the enjoyment of others? 

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The dalang behind the stage, wearing batik just like his puppets

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It was with great relief then that, while writing this blog, we discovered that UNESCO, which famously designates certain tangible sites like temples as integral parts of culture, began designating the intangible aspects of it as well. They did so out of a fear that things like batik making and wayang shows could very well disappear as the world became more and more globalized, social structures changed, and younger generations began seeking careers outside that of the unstable one of artisan. To get designated, a country must provide a detailed plan of how they will preserve the art form they want to protect and, in return, get funding and support from UNESCO. For a city as rich with culture as Jogja, it was reassuring to know that both the tangible and intangible aspects of its heritage would continue to be interwoven into the fabric of the city for generations to come.

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After leaving the palace, we passed away the afternoon at Milas, a vegetarian and eco-friendly restaurant that also does a lot to support the Yogyakarta community

Read on for a poem by Kate:

Wayang

What we cannot faithfully communicate,
art can.
Art alludes to what words elude.
Poetry,
painting,
pantomime.
All inclusive.

Yet,
in art, as in speech,
it still may not convey
total truth.
You must search for the meaning,
the message,
the misunderstanding.

Take the wayang.
Every inch is a symbol.

Fingers—
Mind
Feeling
Instinct

Flowers—
Water
Air
Fire
Earth

Features—
Spirit
Wisdom
Loyalty

Each burst of color
is a burst of meaning,
a truth
about the nature of humans.

Yet, it hides
behind a screen.
Displaying its truth
in shadow.

Borobudur

Walking up to Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist temple, one could be forgiven for confusing the man-made wonder for a small mountain. Built in the 9th century, abandoned in the 14th, and long forgotten afterwards under layers of ash and a thick growth of jungle, Borobudur could very well have looked even more like a mountain than it had to us before Dutch colonialists, intrigued by superstitious tales of ill-omened ruins deep in the wilds of the Indonesian island of Java, dug the temple out of its bushy overgrowth and revealed it once more to the world as the awe-inspiring structure that it was.

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Having visited Prambanan, a nearby Hindu temple complex, the day before, we worried that our appreciation of Borobudur would be somehow diminished as a result. From afar, the temple, a dark gray blotch crowding the horizon, was impressive in size only, its shadowed figure standing in stark contrast to the vibrant greens of the grass and trees surrounding it. Up close though, it became a work of art with a myriad of details covering its different levels, which, like terraces, corralled up and out of sight towards its apex. The more we took it in, the more our worries of Borobudur being somehow dulled because of our time at Prambanan became laughable.

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The temple was not at a lack of buddha statues, boasting over 500 of them

Unlike Prambanan, choosing how to experience Borobudur proved rather easy. While the former had a multitude of temples scattered about its grounds with no discernible way to view them apart from wandering around aimlessly, Borobudur consisted of just one temple, however massive, and just one suggested route for viewing it. The five-kilometer route, as old as the temple itself and just as important to its spirituality as the many carvings and statues covering its walls, consisted of circumscribing each level in a clockwise fashion until reaching the top; a journey meant to symbolize one’s worldly pursuit and ascent towards nirvana. Each level, we would discover later, represented a different stage in that pursuit: the lower levels representing the world of desires where one’s identity is tied to the things they want in life, which is, namely, life itself; the middle levels the world of forms where one no longer pursues desire but whose identity is still linked to their face and name; and the topmost level the formless world or nirvana where identity melts away into eternal nothingness.

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Apart from the three sections mentioned above, other reliefs were discovered buried under the foot of the temple during renovations. The reliefs in this section either depicted humanity’s bad habits or scenes from Buddhist hell. In this relief, as described by the original description etched above it, people are gossiping to one another, looking not too unlike how people might look while gossiping today.

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While there was plenty to take in at eye level, looking up always yielded a reward

As we ascended the temple level by level, we found ourselves unconsciously adhering to what each section represented. In the lower levels, the world of desires, we were greedy in our want to take in every detail. This turned out to be quite the pursuit as every inch of each level’s corridor was covered with reliefs depicting various scenes from the Buddha’s life as well as the glories of the kingdom that constructed Borobudur; to say nothing of the countless other statues and carvings that seemed humbly content with being one of the many minor and overlooked details of the temple, which, when taken as a whole, contributed flawlessly to its grandiosity.

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Archeologists believe that Borobudur’s, reliefs, which number in the thousands, used to be covered with vibrant paint

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Moving further up into the world of forms, we found ourselves resigned to fact that there were simply too many details to take in and became content instead with appreciating the temple as a whole, our attention often drifting from the reliefs and carvings that still ran alongside our path to the natural scenery outside the temple, whose beauty and expanse seemed to grow with each level.

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Looking over the shoulders of a headless buddha statue

To pass from section to section, it was necessary to walk through a doorway atop which sat a deity called Kala, who is said to represent time. As one ascends further towards the formless world, they must continuously grapple with the concept of time and their relationship with it. As you willingly give up desires and identity, you resign yourself to the impermanence of all things, an essential step in moving closer to nirvana. 

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Heading through one last doorway before finally reaching the top of the temple

Passing under our last Kala-capped doorway, our journey took us outside the boundaries of time altogether to the formless world, where the multitude of carvings fittingly gave way to vast open spaces void of detail save the stupa encased Buddha’s dotting the platform. The experience was transcendent. We knew nothing of the stories that the reliefs depicted and were oblivious to the meanings behind the other carvings and imagery of the temple until the writing of this blog, yet when standing atop the temple and looking out at the vast valley it sat in, we experienced an overwhelming state of calm and appreciation toward the greater world, a mindset that was fiercely challenged by the hordes of tourists surrounding us who had also achieved metaphorical nirvana.

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Nirvana means “extinguished,” which is how the temple’s uppermost level felt in comparison to the other, more detailed sections

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Our blissful crash course in nirvana attainment came to an abrupt end as security guards ushered us out of the upper tier of Borobudur and back to the world of desires where, for the rest of the night, our only desire would be to return to the temple and experience it once more.

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The descent from nirvana proved to be considerably easier than the climb towards it
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The source of our dinner that night, a street side warung
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…that we enjoyed on the street. An enjoyable (and delicious) way to end the day!

 

Kelimutu

When confronted with the wonders of nature, it becomes not at all surprising that it took humankind a few millennia to supplant religion with science. For, when face to face with the restless oceans, bottomless caves and capricious volcanoes of the world, one would be hard pressed to convince someone that behind the scope and fury of the nature in question was not an all-powerful and vengeful god but merely a case of natural phenomenon. It was with this thought in mind that we gazed out at the lakes of Kelimutu, which over the years have taken on any number of colors, from red to blue to green to white to brown and even black. That the lakes were passageways to the spiritual world, a belief traditionally held by locals, seemed much more likely an explanation than the fact that their otherworldly color was a result of “oxidation-reduction chemical dynamics” due to the underlying volcanic activity.

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To see the lakes we would be staying overnight in Moni, a small town on the eastern-side of the Indonesian island of Flores. Our homestay, unassuming in its simplicity, would end up being one of our favorite places to stay during our time on the island and the whole of Indonesia for that matter. This was due partly to its quiet and welcoming setting, but mostly to the owner who, laid back and reggae-loving, embodied Moni. Our short stay there was highlighted by a wonderful dinner he prepared for us, which, we were told, was made from ingredients that he himself either grew or sourced locally. What surprised and impressed us most about this was that it didn’t seem like a business scheme, something he tells visitors to brand his establishment as eco-friendly, but rather what he truly believed in. It was with deep regret then that we would only be staying for one night, if not for giving business to someone who truly deserved it, then at least not for being able to enjoy another delicious meal.

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The grounds of our homestay, surprisingly free of the packs of dogs and puppies that roamed them freely
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Sipping one of what would be many mugs of complimentary coffee outside our room
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Our open-air bathroom…
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…and shower.

Early the next morning we enthusiastically got dressed in a manner befitting of someone going to see a sunrise, for under no other circumstance could we ever be excited or spry after a 4:00 alarm. Once at the foot of the volcano, the incandescent reach of our smartphone’s flashlight, accompanied by a cloud of swarming gnats, guided our way up the dark and overgrown steps that led to the craters. At the top, a small collection of fellow crater-lake admirers had already gathered along with coffee and snack hawkers who, crouched and unmoving as the wind whistled and whipped around them, looked permanent in their perches around the viewing platform.

To describe the lakes themselves, the suffix of -ish becomes necessary for restricting their appearance to just one color would be a disservice to their uniqueness. Amidst the lifeless terrain of grays, browns and dull and darkened greens, the lakes, a pastel shade of bluish-green that would have looked much more at home in a paint can rather than a volcano crater, practically glowed. The sky above, a marbled gray, offered little hope of seeing a sunrise, though one wouldn’t be necessary as the beauty of the lakes made it difficult to imagine our attention being given to anything else.

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As we marveled at the phenomenon, any number of fantastical explanations seemed plausible to explain the lakes. To us, they called to mind the magical contents of a cauldron, otherworldly in color with wisps of fog coiling off of them and up into the sky, making it seem like the lakes themselves were the steaming contents of a witch’s brew. For the local people of Moni, they believed the lakes to be a final resting place for departed souls, one for the elderly, one for the young, and one for the evil souls of the world. 

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One of the many clouds of mist that would roll of the lakes during our time viewing them
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Despite looking rather hellish and an appropriate place for evil souls to be sent to, this is actually the lake for elderly souls
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The lake in front is for young souls and the lake behind it for evil ones

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With a driver waiting to take us back to the homestay and a trip to the nearby city of Ende still on the day’s agenda, we decided to bid the lakes farewell, returning through the deadened landscape to our awaiting transport back to a reality significantly less enchanting than the one we had just experienced.

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Read on for a poem by Kate:

A Kelimutu Fairytale

Long ago in ages past
The sky liquified
and poured itself into craters.
Now it lies,
whispering breaths of steam
that float and morph
among ribbons of breeze.

A piece of rock breaks away
from the wall and tumbles
into the depths.

Sulphuric toxins wrap
around the rough edges,
acidic fingers dissolving
it as it submerges.

The surface is still
once more.
Waiting.

Pulled from the pages
of Brothers Grimm,
The lake is an ethereal queen
with a witch inside.

Tokyo

Our experience of Tokyo was probably different from most others’. There were no trips up towering skyscrapers, walks through busy shopping districts, or even a viewing of sumo wrestling for that matter. In fact, before we had even come on the trip, we knew the bustling metropolis would be serving more as a base for us than a destination. Having just come from Shanghai, another one of the biggest cities in the world, we were more interested in the charms of a smaller city like Kyoto or the natural beauty of a place like Mt. Fuji. However, as we found out in our brief time there, Tokyo had a lot to offer outside of the typical sights of a city.

We technically had four days in the capital, but three of those consisted of trips to the train station in the morning and from it at night with an occasional meal thrown in. The only real time we had in the city was our last day there, a full one that ended with a train ride back to Osaka to catch our flight. Wanting to make the most of it, we got up early and set off to see the Tsukiji fish market, the largest in the world.

When we got to the market, the condition of the morning–cold and early–gave us and the other tourists a zombie-like pace. Bundled bodies shuffling around each other in the maze of walkways inside the market gates. Our sluggish state was by no means shared by the workers though for, while our day was just beginning, theirs was coming to an end. They zoomed around us from every direction, weaving in and out of each other like a school of fish. Perhaps the ocean wasn’t the only thing they shared with their product.

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The blurring pace of the fish market.

The drastic difference in pace, to our surprise, never seemed to bother the workers outside of an occasional eye roll or deep sigh. Even when we would do foolish things like stop in inconvenient locations to look at a map, pausing for long moments to try and decode the nearly illegible mixture of lines and symbols, the bodies, forklifts and trolleys would just move around us. This held true for other tourists too, but it didn’t mean that we had a happy coexistence with the market for, while it allowed us into it, it in no way changed itself to become a tourist attraction other than the slew of sushi shops sitting at its gates. Because of this, the market’s relationship with us was more of toleration than accommodation, which made the experience all the more unique and exciting.

Little by little, our bodies thawed and we migrated towards the back of the market to see where the actual fish were sold. As we made our way out of the crowds and down a dark hallway littered with dusty machinery, bright lights in the distance assured us that we were going in the right direction and, when we reached them, we entered into a world of styrofoam and ice on which laid fish of every size and color. We had read before coming that the fish were for sale only to restaurants and bulk buyers so we were largely ignored during our time there which worked to our advantage as we were able to work our way through the labyrinthine market without being pounced on by eager vendors.

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Some of the vendors at the market.
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Cutting up the day’s haul.
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A variety crustaceans on display.

Among the bountiful variety of fish and seafood we saw lining the aisles of the market, some of the more interesting ones were: sea cucumbers, blowfish, octopi of every size (and sometimes just their tentacles), sea urchins, and tangles of crabs, most of which were still alive. Occasionally we would even come across remnants of the 4 a.m. tuna auction, giant fish heads laying on the ground whose bodies were most likely in the back of some van heading to a restaurant. Seeing all of this seafood, even the tuna heads strangely enough, reminded us of the other reason we had come to the market:  to try the sushi, which we heard would be the freshest we would ever have.

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A couple of the many colorful fish we saw.
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Blowfish ornaments.
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Octopi in a box.
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Leaning in for a kiss with one of the tuna heads.

Finding a restaurant to satisfy our appetite for sushi proved easy enough, the tricky part came in choosing which one to go to as each that we passed had a line snaking out of it so long it would make an anaconda blush. This, we figured, meant that they were all equally good and we randomly chose a restaurant with a green awning that sat at the market’s entrance. After getting in line we began to creep forward little by little but our steps were too infrequent for our liking. Nonetheless, we waited, our appetites borderline ravenous as we watched satisfied face after satisfied face leave the restaurant. After over an hour, we stood at the front door, next in line to go in and hardly able to contain ourselves as we peered through the steamy windows at the people enjoying their sushi inside.

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Waiting in line at the sushi restaurant.
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Peering in at the lucky sushi patrons.

Finally, our names were called and we smugly entered, abandoning the rest of the line-dwellers to their fate in the cold. As we sat down and took in our surroundings, we found out why our wait had been so long. The interior sat fewer than a dozen and the staff consisted of one waitress, who doubled as the cashier, and two sushi chefs.  After settling in, the waitress brought us a mug of oolong tea and laid out a banana leaf before us which we knew would soon be decorated with the colorful variety of sushi we had just ordered. A bowl of shrimp head soup was added later and we filled up a dish of soy sauce in preparation. Now fully ready, we watched the chefs artistically prepare each of our rolls, slicing slivers of fish and adding pinches of wasabi to the balls of rice in their hands.

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Our chef preparing the sushi.
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Pausing from the feast for a picture.

We had heard that the process of becoming a sushi chef was an arduous one, requiring years and years of training and experience before getting certified. While we initially questioned the necessity of this, as we slid the first salmon-capped roll into our mouths, we realized it was a process we were extremely grateful for. Eel, shrimp, squid, and tuna followed along with rolls of sea urchin and fish eggs. We meticulously chewed each bite, wanting to savor each new flavor and texture we were experiencing. As we did this, the sushi, so carefully prepared, practically melted in our mouths.  We’d had sushi many times before, but this felt like we were trying it for the first time–a kind of born again sushi enthusiast.

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Nearing the end of our sushi experience.

After savoring our last piece and knowing that there were people waiting anxiously outside, we paid our bill and left the restaurant to a barrage of jealous stares from the faces in line. After the fish market, we debated where to go next. We had wanted to see a few more places before leaving, but after pulling out our map, we realized how poor our planning had been and just how drastically we had underestimated the size of Tokyo. For some reason we expected temples, museums, gardens, and shopping districts all to be clumped together conveniently in one place. Apparently, the zoning commissioners of the ancient city didn’t have tourism in mind when they laid it out.

With the sights we wanted to see in different corners of the city, we realized that we would only have time to visit one and decided on the oldest temple in Tokyo: Sensoji. As we got off the subway and walked up to it’s iconic front gate, we wondered if we were going to see a temple at all. Crowds and noise exploded out of the entrance, making for a very un-templelike atmosphere, but exciting nonetheless. Eager to see what the commotion was about, we maneuvered through the people and entered the gate, passing under the giant red lantern that hung from its ceiling. As we did this, the path we were walking on became lined with rows of souvenir shops and food vendors which both eventually led to the temple itself. Looking off into the distance was like looking down a hallway with the mass of heads serving as the floor, the store fronts as the walls and the sky as the ceiling.

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At the front gate of Sensoji.
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Making our way down the hall of vendors.

Wanting to reach a less claustrophobic space, we made our way down the path to the second gate, which looked strikingly similar to the first, and passed through it into an open plaza. The smell of incense filled the air and we gazed around, taking in the different features of the temple. A pagoda jutting out from the landscape, the main temple with a mob of people filing in and out, the Tokyo Sky Tree off in the distance, and, one of the more unique features, giant sandals mounted on the wall of the gate.

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Finding some breathing room inside the temple grounds.
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One of the giant sandals with the Sky Tree in the distance.
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The view from the main hall.

It was bittersweet walking around the grounds knowing that this would be our last experience of Japan outside of the interior of train cars and airports. With this in mind, we made sure to enjoy the temple to its fullest, which reduced our pace to a slow contemplative meander. Minutes turned into hours and, as the lights and lamps slowly started to flicker on around the temple, we knew the moment we had dreaded had finally come. Despite only spending a week in the country, we had grown attached to it. We were aware of course that we were experiencing everything through the all-too biased tourist goggles, where everything is new and wonderful, but we’ve been many places before and this one felt different.

Perhaps the feeling could best be summed up in one of our very last experiences in Japan. After getting a train back to Osaka late that night, we discovered that the subway trains and city buses going to the airport were no longer running. So, with no place to stay and both of us being too stubborn to pay for a taxi, we decided to just wander around the city. At about 3 a.m., after getting some coffee at a gas station, we went back to the bus stop to sit and wait for the 3:30 bus. As we sat and sipped our coffees, an old street sweeper came by and began making his rounds. After sweeping for a short while, he saw us sitting there, came over, and proceeded to carry out a conversation with the handful of English he knew.  After a few minutes of exhausting his arsenal, he gave a friendly wave and went on sweeping down the street.  Even at 3 a.m., in an unfamiliar city outside in the cold, we still felt comfortable. For us, more than the sights and tastes, this was Japan.

Jigokudani

The journey to Jigokudani from Tokyo was long but enjoyable and ended as our bus rolled up a snowy hillside and came to a stop outside a small wooden shelter. The bus driver began shouting some things to the passengers and we listened attentively to the string of Japanese that ended with “snow monkeys” in broken English. At the sound of this we stood up along with everyone else and shuffled out into the cold. After looking clueless for a few moments, we were lazily pointed in the direction of the park and anxiously began making our way further up the hillside, following the signs with little pictures of smiling monkeys on them to guide us. The signs eventually led us to a steep set of stairs towered over by a big banner adorned with pictures of bathing monkeys, our official welcome to the park.

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The view from the bus stop.
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At the entrance to the park.

Despite the icy state of the stairs, we opted to forego the crampons being sold at the foot in the hope that our boots would be sufficient enough to carry us up. Luckily, the hill was short and a rope laid alongside the stairs, both of which served to our advantage in getting up it easily without the traction of the crampons…frugality had won out this time. Once at the top of the hill, we were met with a scene out of a Christmas greeting card. The path, now long and flat, wound into a thick forest of cedar trees, whose branches still carried the burden of the latest snowfall, some of which would occasionally fall on our heads, creating the illusion of a blizzard.

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The scenery along our hike.

It was exciting seeing snow again after nearly two years without it. Our enjoyment of it was aided by nostalgia and the fact that it was the kind of snow depicted in the movies, white and pure, a far cry from the gray, sloppy reality of a Midwestern winter. Without fail, snowballs were made and trees (and occasionally each other) were targeted as we slowly made our way along the path. After meandering for about 30 minutes, the forest cleared out into a valley whose edges we would zig-zag up to continue our hike through the park.

As we walked along, little by little, we would start to notice more people on the path. A person here. A family there. Some were on their way back from the park, parents clutching children who were excitedly recalling what they had both just seen. By that time, the trees and snow had become old news and our pace quickened in anticipation of what we knew was so near. Finally, we came to an area where a small crowd of people were huddled under a tree. As we followed their gazes up it, we got our first sight of the macaque monkeys that gave the park its fame.

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Our first sighting.
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Basking in the sun.

As excited as we were to see it sitting perched in the tree, our attention was quickly diverted because another monkey would brush our leg, or walk by on the railing beside us. Everywhere we looked there were monkeys and as interested as we were in them, they couldn’t have cared less about us. An obstacle in their everyday life. If the rice that they snacked on wasn’t thrown from human hands, who knows if we would have been tolerated at all. For our sake though, we were, and not only that but able to interact with them in a way we had never been able to with wild animals before.

Determined not to overstep our boundaries though, we kept our distance, appreciating the monkeys from afar while on the lookout for the onsen, a Japanese hot spring, where the monkeys famously bathed. We only had to look as far as the crowd of people mushrooming out from a steaming cluster of rocks in the distance to know where to go.

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The onsen on the left among the crowd of people.

Walking up to the onsen was like walking through the TV screen into a National Geographic special. All around the hot spring, monkeys lounged around in different states of indulgence. Some partook in gluttony, lapping up water and picking bugs, others in sloth, sitting on the rocks surrounding the water and soaking in the steam. Perhaps the smartest and most blissful looking of all though were the ones physically in the pool, most of them with their eyes closed, tuning out the world around them. Having just been to an onsen ourselves the night before, we felt a bit like voyeurs gazing in. This feeling wouldn’t last long however as the smell of monkey feces carried to our nostrils by the hot spring’s steam put an end to any trace of jealousy we were feeling.

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Monkeys enjoying their spa treatment.
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One of the monkeys swimming around the onsen.

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Relaxing in the pool.

Occasionally, a monkey would grow tired of the hot spring and climb out, fur soaked and steaming, and make its way through the crowd, which consisted of a slew of paparazzi, cameras ready and hanging on their every movement. Each time a monkey would do this, or anything that resembled exertion, a chorus of oohs and ahhs would accompany it. Despite this and our constant crowding around them, blocking their paths, and shoving cameras in their faces, the monkeys, for the most part, kept to themselves, scoffing at the attention being showered down on them.

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Leaving the pool.
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Glamour shot.

This wasn’t always the case though, as Kate found out first hand what happens when the line of tolerance is crossed. Leaning in to take a picture of one particular monkey whose privacy had apparently been invaded too much that day, Kate was swiped at by the monkey who then proceeded to jump on to her and climb up her leg. As this happened, those around her were much more concerned in extending their camera lenses than a helping hand, leaving Kate to fend for herself. Luckily though, the monkey’s efforts to retrieve the camera were abandoned rather quickly as it lost interest and moved on to its next endeavor.

Taking the hint, we moved on from the hot springs, following the river that flowed alongside it to a more open area where the simian-sapien ratio wasn’t as human heavy. Among the abundance of monkeys lounging along the banks, we chose to sit by three who were picking bugs out of each other’s fur. Shortly after we sat down, the monkeys heads shot up and they and nearly all of the other ones around them began hurrying over to the hot springs. Curious to find the cause of commotion, we followed the migration to a group of park rangers throwing a dinner of rice grains into the hot springs and surrounding snow banks. The bugs, we supposed, had been their appetizer.

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Hors d’oeuvres

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Snacking on some rice.
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Foraging…
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…and more foraging.

Oddly enough, as we watched the monkeys forage though the snow and water in search of the rice we were reminded of our own hunger and decided to bid farewell to our newfound friends, making our way back through the forest and down the hillside until finally reaching the bus stop to take us back to Tokyo.