Tuesday, March 29, 2011

You Lucky Duck! Part I - Coasting into Laghet

Luck has been on my mind a lot lately, what with leaving Tokyo mere days before the devastating earthquake hit. 

Yesterday I saw a photo of a 4-month old baby found alive in the rubble of one of the many Japanese villages destroyed by the Tsunami.  Seeing that photo made me think about luck and miracles and hope and that made me think about the time Uncle Jim and I accidentally coasted into Notre Dame de Laghet, a famous shrine to miracles, luck, hope and gratitude....

All was cheery as we set out in our little convertible on a sunny Sunday afternoon, our backpack filled with peanut butter sandwiches and apples.  Our destination:  a hiking path in the beautiful Parc de la Justice in the Col d'Eze.  We discovered the park by accident the week before, having used the entrance to turn our car around after delivering a lovely wedding cake to a nearby restaurant.  Strangely, things didn't turn out quite as we planned...

Halfway there, rolling merrily along the Grand Corniche, high above the Mediterranean, the fuel light on the dashboard came on.  Oops, we were almost out of gas!

Well I don't know if you've ever driven along the Grand Corniche but gas stations are few and far between and  most shops and businesses in France are closed on Sundays including gas stations.

The situation looked a bit tenuous.  Maps were pulled from glove boxes, fingernails were bitten, options were discussed and then with some quick thinking on Uncle Jim's part, we took a sharp right turn on the road towards Nice, La Trinité hoping to find a much needed gas station.  As luck would have it, La Trinité is in a valley that is much lower than the Grand Corniche so we pressed in the clutch to save fuel and silently glided downwards  through a beautiful forest.
After about 5 minutes of coasting with no gas station in sight,  we found ourselves in the lovely little village of Laghet.

Who can resist an ancient little French village, especially one with a public washroom which by the time we had arrived  had become a necessity.  Plan "B" had begun!

In the spirit of exploration we parked the car,  ignoring the gas situation for the moment and poked around the narrow streets that eventually led us to The Sanctuary of Notre Dame de Laghet.

Crowds were milling around the entrance to the Sanctuary and after confirming that we were allowed inside,  in we went, our hiking plans abandoned for a different sort of adventure.

After a few minutes in the Sanctuary, there we stood, completely agog. Everywhere we looked there were drawings, poems, plaques, paintings and other heartfelt depictions of danger, survival  and thanks.  Holy cow. 

Four thousand of these fascinating Ex Voto as they are known in Latin, line every available inch of the Chapel walls. 

Displaying Ex Voto is not a new tradition by any means.  They existed in ancient Egypt and can be found in many shrines and chapels throughout the world. They are given in gratitude and thanks for fulfillment of a wish or prayer and to show others what is possible.

We described our trip to Laghet to a friend and she asked us if we had gone to the crypt under the Sanctuary which she said was overflowing with canes, crutches and other such paraphernalia no longer needed by those who have been miraculously cured.  Too bad we missed that.

French Revolutionaries ransacked the Sanctuary in 1792 and destroyed all the Ex Voto but thankfully since then it has been safe and protected, filled once again with heartfelt Ex Voto

Laghet is descended upon annually by  tens of thousands of visitors,  all of whom I imagine thoughtfully plan their pilgrimages months or years in advance just like the first faithful who arrived there in 1652.  We were the exceptions, having just coasted in looking for gas.

Hours later we left Laghet.  Not far down the same road we coasted in on we found an open gas station, filled up, and drove quietly home, the images we had seen haunting us for days afterwards.

Even if you're not a religious person, it's hard to deny that creating Ex Voto is a lovely and memorable way to express thanks and gratitude.   

Maybe we should all be making Ex Voto for people who deserve to be thanked and why not?  Dust off those coloured pencils and let's all get to it!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Bad Fortune in Japan

Following the tradition of millions of Buddhist Pilgrims throughout  the centuries before us, Auntie and Uncle Jim set out on a cold and rainy day, umbrellas in hand, to visit the Sensō-ji Buddhist Temple in Asakusa.

Sensō-ji is Tokyo's oldest temple and lining the approach to Sensō-ji are hundreds of interesting shops and food stalls, the air fragrant with the aroma of traditional little Ningyo Yaki or temple cakes stuffed with sweet red bean paste.  We did what everyone else was doing, munching on temple cakes, buying souvenirs, snapping pictures and then swimming our way through the crowds  and clouds of incense to climb the steps to visit the very beautiful temple.   

One thing I always like to do when I visit a temple is to buy an omikuji, or fortune.  To get your fortune at the Sensō-ji Temple you donate ¥100 and then shake a metal container filled with 100 thin wooden sticks.  There is a little hole in one end of the container and after a bit of shaking, one of the sticks eventually  falls through the hole.  Each stick has a number on it and each number corresponds to a small wooden drawer.  In this drawer is your paper fortune.

Traditionally before you shake the container you should have a question in mind and the fortune  you get represents the answer to your question.  I really didn't have a question in mind  when I shook the container, my head being very busy with all the fabulous things I had seen on the way to the temple.

Well,  my fortune couldn't have been worse.  It predicted doom, failure, and gloom in all aspects of my life.  Yikes!  We decided to donate another ¥100 and have a second go to counteract the first fortune and guess what?  It was just as bad! 

When the fortune is bad, it is customary  to fold it up and attach it to either a pine tree or metal wires that are strung in the temple, the idea being that the bad fortune will stay on the wire or the tree rather than attach itself to the bearer.  Well, being more tourist than  Buddhist, I took our fortunes home with us and having re-read the fortunes today I thought that they could not have been more wrong.

For here we sit, happy and comfortable, a world away from the sad and tragic events unfolding in Japan. It's hard to imagine anything worse than the sorrow of injured or missing friends and loved ones or the devastation of having your home and cherished possessions swept away, to who knows where, never to be seen again.  

Tragedies like the Tsunami in Japan always remind me of how truly lucky we all are to live a safe and joy filled life and to have cherished friends and loved ones with whom to share it.  You just never know when it can all be just swept away.  These days my loved ones are getting plenty of hugs.

And just in case, I plan to tie those fortunes to a pine tree.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Smart Smoking in Tokyo

As you probably know, Auntie is not a fan of smoking.  You may remember the Spring/Summer 2005 issue of the Auntie Times I wrote about how the recent smoking ban in Italy allowed Auntie and Uncle Jim to shoot eastward into Italy and finally eat pasta in smoke-free comfort. Viva Vietato Fumare!

Well, the world has evolved since then and most places on earth have finally butted out and most countries now realize the health and financial benefits of imposing smoking bans.

While doing research before our recent trip to Tokyo I was horrified to learn that smoking was still going on in public places in Japan.  Curses!  Who would have thought that such a sophisticated and progressive place as Japan would still allow smoking.  

Well, having just returned I can report that indeed,  in Tokyo, smoking is still generally permitted. Most restaurants have both non-smoking and smoking areas, some ban it all together but they are in the minority.

No Smoke, Walks or Butts
But after having been in Tokyo for a few days, I learned that in fact, it has a quite sophisticated and clever non-smoking policy.  For example, there are some neighbourhoods where smoking is not permitted while walking, Ginza being one of them.   How wonderful it was to walk along the street and not have to dodge streams nor clouds of smoke  and run  down the street with your breath held like you do in Hong Kong or Paris.  During our 10 day visit I saw only two people who broke the rules, both of whom unfortunately were foreigners.

In Ginza,  smokers gather on street corners that  are designated as smoking  zones and in some neighbourhoods we found Smoking Lounges, the entrances flanked by cigarette machines so you can stock up before you light up. We spotted many cigarette machines dotting the streets, each dispensing a wide variety of cheap ciggies although along with your Yen you'll need a special card in order to buy them.

Japan's PHP Institute (Peace and Happiness through Prosperity Institute) published a 95-page "Tokyo Kitsuenjo Map" which identifies 200 smoking areas in and around Tokyo where smokers can light up.  The booklet also provides handy details such as if there are public restrooms nearby, Where the cigarette machines  are and which smoking rooms have chairs.  How nice!

Even though cigarettes are widely available day and night and cheap to boot I saw perhaps 5 cigarette butts littering the streets during our stay. 

Puff the Magic Shopper
Shopping Centres are another story.  Smoking is banned throughout but for the convenience of smokers, there are chic little rooms that are thankfully vented to the exterior.  

On the 8th floor of the Shinjuku Marui Department Store there is one such Smoking Room with extraordinarily effective ventilation.  Nearby there was not even a hint of smoke or odour despite the many shoppers happily puffing away while seated inside.

All in all it was interesting to see how the Japanese handle smoking in the modern age.  They showed a true respect for both smokers and non-smokers and created clever ways to achieve equality and happiness for both.  Hooray!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Cat Spotted in Tokyo!!

Who would have guessed that Cat, the fury little feline that once warmed our hearts is now a famous actor?

Strolling through Ginza on a recent trip to Tokyo,  Uncle Jim and I walked past the Theatre Ginza and up high on the marquee was a poster with a photo of Cat!!  I stopped and stared.  Well, I'll be darned!  Cat is a big star!

Cat is starring as "Pete the Cat" in a play based on the 1957 novel, The Door into Summer by science fiction writer, Robert A. Heinlein.

In the original story, the protagonist's cat refuses to leave the house through any of its numerous doors when he sees snow on the ground: The cat is looking for the "door into summer." Tickets to the performance start at ¥6500 or about $76.

Uncle Jim and I thought we would wait at the Stage Door after one of the performances, visit with Cat and bring him a tin of tuna but despite our best efforts, Cat's agent could not be reached so our plan for a visit was nixed..

How Cat arrived in Menton in the first place and got to Tokyo remains a mystery.

Kon'nichiwa neko!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Classic Urban Legends: Spider Eggs in Bubble Yum, The Poodle in the Microwave and the Woman who got the Unbelievable Airfare to Tokyo

Last Monday at the outset of our Tokyo Food Tour (more about that in later posts), our fabulous guide Mika casually asked us what brought us to Tokyo.

I think she expected us to say something like, "it's always been a dream of ours to visit Japan", or something equally lovely but in fact we were in Tokyo because of the airfare deal of the decade!

It all started in January while I was checking in online for our flights back to Europe. On the screen, up popped:  


Now Auntie is usually quite skeptical about these things but just for fun I typed in "Nice, France to Tokyo, Japan" and I couldn't believe my eyes!  Round trip airfare from Nice to Tokyo, Business Class (sweet!) and the grand total for both of us:  1,600.  Huh?

I double checked:  perhaps it was a strange routing with 4  long connections?  Nope.  Early morning flight at 4:30AM?  Nope. Seat that doesn't recline, in the last row next to the loo?  Nope. I squealed!  Then I pulled out my credit card and it was all set.  We were going to Tokyo!!

Right away I emailed my Japanese friend in Monaco to share this  discovery since she frequently travels to Tokyo but alas, by the time she logged on and with the 6 hour time difference the fare had vanished like a mirage....  the Tokyo airfare has since become an urban legend.

Now speaking of urban legends, did you hear about the cat who visited Menton all on his own and then mysteriously vanished.....

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Jesus on the 16th Step

By far the best way to zoom around Hong Kong is by subway, known as the MTR,  and with our handy Octopus Pass Cards we beep through the turnstiles and jet around underground in clean and efficient style for pennies a trip, bypassing all the noisy congestion above ground.

This January Uncle Jim and I were trotting down the subway steps in Kowloon at exit 6 of the Tsim Sha Tsui entrance on the Tsuen Wan Line (easier done than said) when we both stopped dead in our tracks.  Then I whipped out the camera and started snapping.

Right there, on the 16th step from the bottom of the staircase, was what looked like an image of Jesus.  Now Auntie is not a religious person but she sure can recognize Jesus when she sees Him.  

Since most Chinese are Buddhists, no one else seemed interested in our discovery nor did anyone pause to take a look but instead, politely walked around us.

You can decide for yourself if you see what we saw. 

Just another interesting day on the busy streets of Hong Kong....