A Gentler Japan

Sunday, April 8, 2007

WORTH A TRIP: April's Conde Nast Traveler finds Pico Iyer scaling spiritual heights at Koyasan, the Japanese mountain "consecrated to everything old and changeless and hushed." While modern Japan's cities scream with nighttime neon, its mountains are "the only places in the often overdeveloped country where you can get in touch with a kind of aboriginal land of spirits and folklore."

The focus for the many Japanese pilgrims here is Kobo Daishi, 9th-century national hero and Shingon Buddhist master. But what Iyer finds among the 2,000-plus shrines, symbolic bridges and 800-year-old cedars is "a prior Japan . . . a kind of family heirloom kept in a dusty attic of the country." Yet the sacred mountain is not without profane touches: "in truth, many of the temples are famous for their sake and beer."

WORTH A FLIP: Flamingos in the snow are a phenomenon not limited to souvenir paperweights. Americas finds the ungainly beauties high in the Bolivian Andes. Why there? One explanation is that the mountain waters they love weren't always so high; when geological forces pushed the baby Andes -- and the lakes in them -- skyward, the flamingos went along for the ride. Their lives today hang in a delicate balance, imperiled by seemingly small factors such as soap residue in the geothermal pools where tourists do laundry. . . . "River cruising is all about slowness and intimacy." Budget Travel drifts down the Danube from Nuremberg to Budapest aboard, well, not a luxury liner but not Huck Finn's raft, either. The Viking Europe carries 150 passengers and 40 crew members. There are no glitzy floor shows aboard; rather, "You're entertained by the towns and scenery."

So. Crimea. "Charge of the Light Brigade" and all that. But what does the famous battleground peninsula look like today? According to Men's Journal, it sometimes resembles "Malibu a hundred years ago," but also "Atlantic City gone to seed." But, hey, "Ukrainians have just cast off the shackles of almost a century of dictatorship. Let them throw a little trash." . . . It's "The Green Issue" for Outside this month, and "China is the asterisk at the end of every conversation about the environment." Patrick Symmes blends a discourse on China's huge environmental challenges with his own story of whitewater rafting down the Yangtze -- the Yangtze whose valleys may soon be flooded as China's hunger for electricity leads to construction of hydroelectric dams.

In Gourmet, Pete Hamill paints an unsentimental picture of modern Dublin. Although Ireland basks in recent economic progress, he sees "the casualties not often present in glowing tales of the Celtic Tiger": drifters, beggars, junkies, drunks. While acknowledging the city's many glories, he heeds Jonathan Swift's advice to writers "that it is better to write with the point of the pen, not the feather." . . . "The Flint Hills are no longer hard to get to," says National Geographic, but they're still hard to contemplate. "The last great swath of tallgrass prairie in the nation" may strike you first as "nothing," but this National Park System preserve in eastern Kansas demonstrates, among other things, toughness. The resilient land is more than a match for grass fires and grazing cattle. Yet the accompanying photos prove that "nothing" can be beautiful, as in the golden moments before sunset or when fireflies dance in the twilight over the wild alfalfa.

WORTH A CLIP: "What's new in Europe?" Rick Steves asks rhetorically in Transitions Abroad. Better you should ask, "What's closed?" But fortunately, "for everything that's covered in scaffolding, many more attractions are newly restored and looking better than ever." The clock tower in Venice's Piazza San Marco is still closed, but the bell tower across the water at San Giorgio Maggiore has reopened. In Paris, the six-year refurbishment is finished at the Musee de L'Orangerie, home to many famous impressionist paintings; Monet's waterlilies are now bathed in natural light. . . . If you're 21 years old and thinking of traveling for romance, sorry, you're too young. According to National Geographic Adventure, "The Age of Romance" comprises ages 25 to 45, while 17 through 22 is "The Age of Virtue." You're supposed to be building schools and protecting endangered apes. NGA suggests appropriate escapes for its seven demographic ranges, from Yellowstone horsepacking trips for the kiddies to Aegean island-hopping for the elderl -- uh, for "The Age of Reason."

WORTH A NOSH: Could two cuisines be more dissimilar? But whether Saveur's editors intended it, there is a common theme to its articles on Singapore and a New England diner: honest cooking in a cultural crossroads. The cafe fare and street food of Singapore owe much to the Nyonyas, ethnic Chinese women who decades ago merged their heritage recipes with local techniques and ingredients. And in Massachusetts, a classic Greek diner, which goes through 600 eggs in a typical breakfast, serves tradition as it slings the hash.

-- Jerry V. Haines

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