France: D-Day Beaches

Three weeks ago I flew from Edinburgh to Charles de Gaulle (CDG) in Paris to kick off my one week tour of France. I rented a car and drove a counterclockwise loop around northern France, picking up the car at CDG, and then hitting Caen, Saint-Malo, Chambord, Tours, and Paris in that order. This tour covered many historical sites in French history, from the late Ancien Régime to Post-World War II.

I started my trip at Caen, one of the first towns to be liberated during the Invasion of Normandy in 1944, located only 15 kilometers inland from the English Channel. About 40 minutes drive to the northwest of Caen lay Arromanches, which housed an artificial port that transported 2.5 million men, 500,000 vehicles, and 4 million tonnes of supplies for the Allied invasion of the western front. The habour is known as Mulberry Harbour, or Port Winston, named after Churchill. Today, we can still see the concrete blocks left from the harbour, which were actually towed over from Britain.

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The Arromanches Mulberry Harbour

A little to the west of Arromanches is the Longues-sur-Mer battery, an artillery battery that was a part of the Wehrmacht Atlantic Wall. They are located only 300 meters inland from the edge of the cliff, and the positioning was suited for protecting the Gold and Omaha beaches. The site has four 152-mm guns, protected by the concrete casing on all sides but the front. Visitors can go behind the guns to see the command post and defensive bunkers. During the week leading up to D-Day and on the night before D-Day, hundreds of tonnes of bombs were dropped here but many missed the target and those that hit were protected by the concrete casing, although some communication links were damaged.

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One of the four imposing-looking guns at the Longues-sur-Mer battery

Due to limited time, my last stop was Pointe du Hoc, the highest point between Omaha beach to the east and Utah beach to the west. On D-Day, this cliff was scaled by American rangers, a task considered impossible by Germans, and later captured. The main objective was to destroy the guns on the cliff which may result in heavy casualties on the landing beaches if not disabled. After capturing the cliff, they withstood several German counterattacks.

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Pointe du Hoc

The sky was about to get dark, so I continued my journey westward towards Saint-Malo, where I was scheduled to stay for the evening.

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Edinburgh and the Writing of Harry Potter

When I immigrated to Canada with my parents 13 years ago, I did not know a lot of English. Among the first English novels I read in their original version was the Harry Potter series. Although I read the Chinese translation of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets back in second grade, I did not enjoy reading it, since it was difficult for me to remember the many translated names, hence requiring a lot of effort to flip through the pages to cross-reference the names. However, soon after starting to read the first Harry Potter book in English in June 2007, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, I instantly became soaked into the story and eagerly finished the entire series during the summer and fall of that year. One of the most memorable times of my youth was listening to the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows audiobook read by Jim Dale, after I turn off the lights at night, before sleeping, during those warm summer nights of 2007. The magical and mysterious soundtrack at the beginning along with his narration in his British accent together with the darkness of the night allowed me to create a rich, vivid imagination of the story in my head. Whenever I rode my bike down a slope, with the wind brushing against my face, I would imagine myself flying on broomstick. I even wrote about the Harry Potter for my grade 8 English final exam. In short, reading Harry Potter made me more happy tremendously during those times and enriched my imagination. This month, I visited the city where J. K. Rowling wrote most of the chapters of the Harry Potter series, Edinburgh.

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We start at King’s Cross Station in London and Platform 9 3/4.

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Then heading north to Edinburgh by train, through some Scottish towns.

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First impressions of Edinburgh after I got off the train and during my afternoon hike to Calton Hill.

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This is the entrance to Greyfriar’s Kirkyard, which inspired Little Hangleton and contains the grave of Tom Riddle. The grave where the tourists are standing belongs to John Gray, a nightwatchman. He had a dog named Bobby who sat at the grave guarding his owner’s grave for 14 years after he passed away. Some believe the name Bobby and his loyalty inspired Dobby, the loyal house-elf.

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The gravestone of the real Tom Riddle can be found inside the graveyard. Inspiration for Professor McGonagall and Moody’s name can also be found in the grave.

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This street apparently is the inspiration for Diagon Alley.

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This is the entrance to George Heriot’s school, said to be an inspiration for the house system of Hogwarts, since students are also sorted into houses. It was originally a school for orphans but unfortunately nowadays it is an expensive private school.

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Here is the café where Rowling wrote the first book, which used to be occupied by Nicholson’s Café at the same place and was owned by her brother in-law. There is another café called the Elephant’s House overlooking the graveyard that specifically markets themselves as the “birthplace of Harry Potter”, but that isn’t true since Rowling herself said during an interview she thought of Harry Potter on a train, although she did spend time writing the later books in there.

First Trip to London

On October 7th, I kicked off my graduation trip to Europe starting with the United Kingdom. My impressions of the UK prior to visiting were primarily shaped by reading Harry Potter as a child, studying the Industrial Revolution and Britain’s role in the world wars, reading Shakespeare plays and other English literature, and watching the London Olympic Games. I’ve wanted to write this blog entry for a while, but there is often little time left when I get back to the hotel every evening, and I use the remaining time for planning the next day, or I’m just too tired. But today I’ve finally set some time to do it, writing from Paris, France.

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Overlooking the outskirts of London from above

My first impression as I flew to London Gatwick from Halifax, Canada is that the land is extremely fertile. The long miles of fields below me are all green and vibrant, whereas this time of the year in the Canadian prairies I would expect nothing but yellowness. When I landed, the temperature was almost 20 degrees Celsius, whereas my home in Calgary was about freezing point. London is also slightly further to the north than Calgary by latitude.

When I landed, I was instantly amazed by London’s extensive subway system. During my stay in London I never had to wait more than 2 minutes for any subway to arrive on any of the lines I’ve been on, even late at night. It is also a quick, cheap way to get to many places within London, beating the traffic on the road above ground. Train stations are also located at the same place as subways, connecting London to other places on the island. I suppose in many North American cities the population density just isn’t dense enough to support this kind of amazing infrastructure.

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Roof of the British Museum

On the first afternoon in London I visited the British Museum, which contains artifacts from different civilizations of the world since the ancient Egyptians and Greeks. The most memorable part of the museum for me were the Egyptian mummies, whose evolution through different eras was showcased in successive rooms of the museum.

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Christ Church at Oxford

On my second day I took a day trip to Oxford, the oldest English-speaking university in the world. I learned the name Oxford is quite literal – it is named after the place with shallow water where ox crossed the river. For me, the most amazing thing about Oxford is that many of the greatest minds in history have left their footsteps here, some of whose work I’ve read include J. R. R. Tolkien (The Hobbit) and Oscar Wilde (The Importance of Being Earnest). It feels splendid to walk on the same grounds as they did during the past.

As a fan of history, my third day in London was mainly split between the Tower of London during the morning and the Churchill War Rooms during the afternoon. While the former tells many stories about England during the medieval ages (also contains the old Roman wall), the latter tells stories of Winston Churchill during his entire life and especially the crucial years of World War II. It it fascinating to stand in what was once the most important room in the European theatre on the Allies side.

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Tower of London

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A room in the Churchill War Rooms, with maps tracking shipments of the day

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Buckingham Palace

I wrapped up the day in the area by taking a stroll to Buckingham Palace, the park around it, and the British parliament. Before going back to the Swiss Cottage area, where I lived, I went to King’s Cross Station to pick up my train ticket the next day to Edinburgh, witnessing the real Platform 9 3/4.

22 In Review

Since I started university five years ago, I go home every year just a few days before Christmas, usually in time to celebrate my birthday. Today (I started writing this post on Dec. 20), I say goodbye to the 22 year old version of myself and hello to a new age. People tend to change gradually over time rather than in the course of one day, so this is not meant to say I am suddenly a completely new person. However, birthdays and turning of the calendar years tend to make people reflect on how they evolved in the past year and what to look for in the next. I hope to reflect on my life as a 22 year old young man and also on what I would like to see in the 23 year old version of myself.

(above: photo taken near the start of 22)

Perhaps the greatest change about me within the past year is I became more confident in my personal character. I just be myself and worry less about how others’ perception of me change as a result of what I say or do. I am more open to discuss sensitive and deeper issues with friends, about their and my behaviour, and what is right and what is wrong, for example, even though there is the risk of disagreement, misunderstanding, or alienation. As a result, I am able to have more meaningful and deeper conversations with more people than before, including both old and new friends. I am also not as afraid to hide my failures, such as getting no marks on an assignment for submitting it two minutes late or getting a terrible grade on a course that seems important for my area of study, when many think of me as a very good student. True friendships are hard to establish, and I sincerely hope that I can continue to be more open and earnest so I can find more common connections with people and make more true friends.

(above: coming back from the US during reading week)

In terms of major milestones in my life, after five years of school and internships, I finally received my bachelor’s degree in June. I still remember five years ago when my family sent me to university, me saying goodbye to them in the university plaza, and thinking in my head while watching their car driving away what my next five years living independently would be like. Although there are things I imagined about university life that turned out to be different from the ideal, I grew tremendously in these five years and I feel confident about myself in terms of facing the future. I feel thankful for the opportunities I had in meeting many wonderful people in these years who influenced me from my work ethics to my interests to my vision of what an ideal future is like. I’m also happy that in the end I was able to maintain a good enough average to graduate on the Dean’s Honour’s List for the math faculty.

(above: having dinner with my family at Niagara Falls after convocation; many turning points)

After traveling to seven countries in 2016, 2017 had high expectations. I ended up traveling to five different countries in 2017: Canada, US, China (including Hong Kong SAR), Japan, and South Korea. I would like to become a worldly person. Travel is both a way to escape the routine, everyday life and see a bigger world with alternative cultures and histories (人文历史) from my own. Out of all places I travelled to this year, Kyoto is my favourite.

(above: one of my favourite sights during my East Asia summer trip)

Next year, probably the most important thing for me will be to land a job after I graduate from my Master’s, and say goodbye to Waterloo after 6 years of calling this place home. I would like to work at a place with smart and motivated peers who can help me grow and solve problems that are either impactful or technically interesting or both. Ideally, it can be in the field of natural language processing, which is the larger area my Master’s thesis will be in, but I am also open to other areas such as working on some important infrastructure projects or other AI-applications. Other things I hope for the upcoming year include improving my grasp of mathematics important for my area such as linear algebra and statistics, read more novels and watch more movies, learn to better play the guitar, and make more deeper connections with people. I believe the key-ingredient to most of these things is simply better self-discipline (easy to say, hard to manage), but I am getting older and time is more critical so I hope this will keep motivate and remind me.

To 23, here I come.

A Half-Day Visit to Hiroshima (2017 East Asia Trip Series)

I did not plan to visit Hiroshima during my one week trip to Japan, since it was far from Tokyo and Kyoto. Originally I planned to stay in Osaka for the entire day. However, my interest in history prevailed so I undertook a half-day trip to Hiroshima and made the decision almost spontaneously (in Chinese: 说走就走) before I went to Osaka. Since Osaka is on the way from Kyoto to Hiroshima, I left my luggage in Osaka at the hotel and came back for the night after visiting Hiroshima.


If there is one thing people associate with Hiroshima, it is probably the atomic bomb. The first atomic bomb to be ever used in war was dropped on Hiroshima during the final days of World War II, killing many innocent people as well as combatants alike. Today, Hiroshima has many monuments dedicated to promoting world peace.

I arrived in a gloomy Hiroshima on a cloudy and relatively cool afternoon on the Shinkansen, in contrast with the sunny and hot weather for the past several days, perhaps setting the tone for what I am about to see.

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My first destination was the Atomic Bomb Dome, located right beside the river. I got there on a street car from the Hiroshima Shinkansen station. The dome is what is left of the former Hiroshima Prefecture Industrial Promotion Hall, originally designed by Czech architect Jan Letzel. The atomic bomb “Little Boy” was exploded approximately 600 meters in the air, 160 meters southeast of the hall. Since the blast came from almost directly above, some of the walls around the dome are still standing.

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According to a board near the A-Bomb Dome, the citizens of Hiroshima debated whether to keep this structure. “Some felt it should be preserved as a memorial to the bombing, while others thought it should be destroyed as a dangerously dilapidated structure evoking painful memories.” Ultimately, it was preserved and the goal is to keep it looking like the original site after the bombing.

I circled around the enclosure around the dome and walked one street to the east, to a ordinary-looking hospital. On the west side of the hospital was a stone monument, marking the hypocenter of the blast. Unlike the A-Bomb Dome, this place was much obscure and hard to find, and there weren’t any tourists when I was there.

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The stone monument reads:

Carried to the Hiroshima from Tinian Island by the Enora Gay, a U.S. Army B-29 bomber, the first atomic bomb used in the history of humankind exploded approximately 600 meters above this spot. The city below was hit by heat rays of approximately 3,000 to 4,000 °C along with a blast wind and radiation. Most people in the area lost their lives instantly. The time was 8:15 am., August 6, 1945.

Next I crossed the bridge, which was the intended target of the bomb. On the other side of the river is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and Children’s Peace Monument. There is a memorial for Sadako Sasaki from Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, who developed leukemia after radiation exposure due to the bombings and began folding paper cranes while in hospital, as legend says that anyone who can fold 1000 origami paper cranes can be granted a wish by the gods.

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I wrapped up my day by walking back towards the train station on foot, passing by the Hiroshima Castle. The entire city has a sullen feel to it. As I was finding my way through the city, I was reminded of not just the suffering of innocent people in Hiroshima, but also the many more in China, Korea, and all parts of Asia harmed by Japanese invasion during World World II, as well as innocent civilians in other Japanese cities that were bombed. Unfortunately, militarism started by a small group of people overtook the country in the early 20th century and ultimately resulted in the suffering of Japan’s own people.

We should all be grateful we live in a relatively peaceful era, don’t take that for granted and live our lives meaningfully.

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Three Nights and Two Days in Kyoto (2017 East Asia Trip Series)

During my one week trip to Japan, I spent a total of three nights and two days in the city of Kyoto. I arrived on the late afternoon of August 18th on the Shinkansen (high speed bullet train; 新干线) from Tokyo and slept in Kyoto on the nights of August 18th, 19th, and 21st. On the 20th, I spent the night in Nara during a one day trip there. I spent more time in Kyoto than any other city in Japan, after consulting with a few friends who suggested Kyoto had more to see than Tokyo. As a traveler who is more interested in history than modern city scenery, I sensed this was the right judgement. Kyoto was the capital of Japan for more than 1000 years.

First Night: Kamo River and Gion

Since I arrived in the late afternoon, I decided to tour somewhere close by the hotel. The hotel staff suggested I check out the Gion-Shijo subway station area, which has the Kamo river and many bustling restaurants and shops to the west. To the east is Gion, the most famous geisha district in Kyoto.

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I stayed at Piece Hostel Sanjo and toured the bridge area around Gion-Shijo station.

After having conveyer belt sushi for the first time in my life, I arrived on the Shijo Dori bridge overlooking the Kamo river. On the west side of the river, many people dined on the roofless wooden balconies illuminated by lights that look like fireflies from afar. Many young people sat along the grassy river banks, staring into the water that rushes in the dark. Some maybe locals just casually enjoying a night beside the river, others maybe travellers taking the opportunity to soak in the peaceful yet lively atmosphere. A little to the southeast is the Hanamikoji Dori, a road with traditional Japanese houses on both sides. There were many tourists on this road, all waiting to see geisha, which we did.

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Second Day: Higashiyama Ward and Fushimi-Inari Taisha

On the next day, I started the day exploring the Higashiyama Ward (东山区), beginning with Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺), an independent Buddhist temple with a history over 1200 years, dedicated to Kannon, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It sits high on Mount Otawa and one can get a panoramic view of Kyoto from the top. There is a shrine up the top, Jishu Shrine, that is popular with young people. It is said if one can walk from one stone pillar to the other with his/her eyes closed, one will be able to find true love. Up and down the road to Kiyomizu-dera one can find many small shops selling various arts and crafts, and specialty foods and drinks. My favourite is anything made with matcha, which can be found throughout Kyoto.

After Kiyomizu-dera I strode downhill along two preserved streets, Sannen-zaka (三年坂) and Ninen-zaka (二年坂). There are restaurants and teahouses on either side of the street. This pedestrian-only street doesn’t have any power lines, unlike the rest of Kyoto, which can give visitors a taste of what Kyoto was like before modern times. Further north lies Maruyama-koen Park, with a small pond and trees that look like a small oasis. Further downhill I passed the Chion-in Temple and Shoren-in Temple.

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I then took the subway to downtown Kyoto, ate ramen for lunch, and toured Nishiki Market and the food floor at the Daimaru Department Store, which is essentially a foodie’s paradise.

In the afternoon I took the JR Nara Line train to Fushini-Inari Taisha, one of the most iconic sites of Kyoto. According to the official map, the shrine is made for “worship for the guardian god of abundant crops, businesses, prosperity, and family safety.” Many fox statues can be seen on the mountain since the foxes are considered servants of the god of harvest. The earliest parts were built in the year 711, before Kyoto became the capital of Japan. The most notable sights at Fushini-Inari Taisha are the orange torii gates, called the Senbon Torii (千鸟本居). There are approximately 10,000 torii gates along the main path up the mountain. The torii gates have the colour of vermilion, symbolizing the “life force and counteract spells”. The gates are given by worshippers nationwide and they symbolize “wishes coming through”.

In the evening I strolled in the Gion area again, revisiting the amazing views and some roads I missed.

Third Day: Arashiyama

In between my the second and third day, I took a day trip to Nara. On the third day, I got back to Kyoto around noon and set off to see the Arashiyama (岚山) area on the western outskirts of Kyoto, known for the famed bamboo forest.

My first destination was Tenryu-ji Temple (天龙寺), another UNESCO World Heritage site. This Zen temple was established in 1339. Profits from trading ships to China were used to complete its construction. The site consists of the Main Hall and the garden / pond. Previously on my trip to Japan I saw tea houses and halls with bamboo mattings that were closed off to the public. This was the first time where I can take my shoes off, step into the hall, and feel like I’m traveling back in time. One can take a walk that stretches around the pond and to the garden at the back as the path slopes uphill. The garden is known as the Garden of a Hundred Flowers, with a wide collection of trees, bushes, and herbs all together in one place.

There is an exit from the back of the garden directly to the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. Before going to the Bamboo Grove I contemplated on making a detour from the front of the temple and walk further along the southwest direction to see this stone monument for Chinese premier Zhou Enlai. I learned afterwards there is a poem by him inscribed on the stone. However, I was short on time in the afternoon and decided to save that for another time when I come back to Kyoto in the future.

The Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is the most spectacular bamboo forest I saw in my life thus far. Even though the forest wasn’t too large by area, it was not possible to discern an end by peering through the bamboos, or even standing in the middle of the narrow path that cuts through the forest, shrouded by tall bamboos from either side. A few minutes into my journey into the forest, it was just the right of time of day for rays of sunlight to pierce the grove, creating an amazing effect.

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At the end of the Bamboo Grove sits the Okochi-Sanso Villa, formerly the estate of a famous Japanese film actor. The admission includes a free cup of matcha tea and sweet at the end of tour.

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My plan was to go to Kinkaku-ji Temple. But unfortunately it closed right before I got there. In the evening I toured a narrow alley, Pontocho Alley. I’ve been close to it before but never walked on the alley before since it was narrow and easy to miss.

Conclusions

Kyoto is by far my favourite place out of all places I visited and will visit this year. Its rich history and cultural significance provide a nice break for anyone who want to escape from the present for a while. I feel in North America people live a hurried, fast-paced life everyday. It would be an amazing feeling to relax, read a book or otherwise, along the riverside or in some wooden house enjoying tea at the same time in Kyoto. Finally, of course, matcha is everywhere over there.

 

 

One Day Trip to Nara (2017 East Asia Trip Series)

This is my first blog post on my new blog!

I finished my undergraduate degree in April of this year and immediately started graduate school in May. Many of my friends went on grad trips in the summer, but since there wasn’t enough time at the end of April, I decided that I wanted to take a trip to escape from Waterloo at the end of August, when I have about three weeks off. In the end I decided to visit Japan and Korea, spending approximately one week in each country.


Today is my 6th day in Japan, and currently I’m spending my night in Osaka. I lived in Tokyo on my first full day, Kyoto for the next two, Nara the next, and Kyoto again last night. There are a lot of things to discuss about Kyoto, which will be my next blog. Today I’ll recap my Nara one day trip on August 20th.

If you are not too familiar with Japan, you might not have heard of Nara (奈良) before. I have not before I started planning for the trip. Nara was Japan’s capital from AD 710 to 794, and it was Japan’s first permanent capital. It was modelled after Chang’an (modern day Xi’an, China). The time during which the capital was at Nara was called the Nara Period. Note that during the same time China was in the Tang dynasty. There was a great amount of Chinese influence on Japan during the Nara period. Chinese characters were adopted, Chinese manuscripts such as Buddhist scriptures were copied, and legal codes based on those in China were adopted. [1] At the end of the Nara period the Emperor moved from Nara to Kyoto, and Kyoto would remain the capital of Japan for more than one thousand years.

I took the JR (Japan Rail) line from Kyoto to Nara on a light rail train, which took about an hour, and arrived around noon. My first impression of Nara is that it is a lot quieter than Kyoto and less crowded, like a small town rather than a densely populated city. Upon arrival I immediately headed for the place I’m staying at for the evening to leave my luggage there so I can travel with a lighter load. After eating some beef udon in thick curry sauce in a traditional Japanese marketplace restaurant, I began my adventure.

When I tell others I’m going to Nara, the first word they tell me is deer. It is said Takemikazuchi (god of thunder / sword god) was seen riding white deer, so the deer was considered divine and sacred. Killing a deer was punishable by death until 1637. After World War II, deers are no longer officially sacred, but they are still national treasures. I went to Noborioji Street where there should be a lot of deers, and indeed, I saw them. There are street vendors selling crackers to feed them.

My next stop was the Isuien Garden (依水園). This was the prettiest garden I have seen in my life to-date. It consists of two gardens, a Front Garden designed in the Edo period and a Back Garden designed in the Meiji period. Both have a variety of different views and are made to enjoy tea. There is also the Neiraku Museum beside it, with many Chinese, Korean, and Japanese treasures that date back to the earliest Chinese dynasties.

Beside the Isuien Garden there is also the Yoshikien Garden, which is free to enter for foreigners of Japan.

Next I visited the Tōdai-ji (東大寺, Eastern Great Temple). It is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has the world’s largest bronze statue of Buddha Vairocana, who embodies the concept of emptiness (Buddhist concept). There are many deers inside the area. Inside the temple there is a pillar with a hole in the middle. “Children who can squeeze through it are said to be assured of enlightenment.” [2]

After that began the more spectacular parts of my day in Nara. Amid the 35 degree heat and intense humidity, I made my way to Kasuga-taisha (春日大社) shrine, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, which was first established in AD 768. It is the shrine of the Fujiwara family, who dominated politics during the Heian period (794-1185). The landscape on the way there was also beautiful in its serenity.

After Kasuga-taisha I went directly back to the hotel. On my way back I saw some of the most impressive and awe-inspiring views in my life. Nature and mankind are in perfect harmony. Clouds are illuminated in a hint of orange by the setting sun against the faint blue sky behind the mountains; deers and humans roam the vast green hills. Pictures are not adequate to describe the feeling, one has to go there to experience it for themselves.

On my way back from dinner, I was able to catch these red lanterns illuminating the pond at night.

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I would like to thank my friends Bai Li and Shirley Du for travel tips and encouraging me to write blog posts, and Taoling Yang for photography tips.

References:

[1] https://www.britannica.com/event/Nara-period

[2]  https://www.insidekyoto.com/things-to-do-in-nara#todai-ji-temple