Chinese New Year 2016

Amelie and I celebrated February 14th this year in the traditional way… with Chinese food and a dragon dance!   The 28th Annual Chinese New Year Festival was observed on the 14th in a big festival at Miami Dade College.

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We are currently in the Year of the Monkey, or the Red Fire Monkey. IUt runs from February 8th to January 27th, 2017.   If you were born in 1944, 1956, 1968, 1980, 1992, 2004, or this year, you were born under the sign of the monkey.

These Buddhists make some really tasty buns.

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I’m just saying… the food at this festival was awesome.  I actually enjoyed it so much that I forgot to photograph most of it.  Here’s some rolls.

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…and some adorable candy.

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Famous monkeys include Eleanor Roosevelt, Mick Jagger, Joan Crawford, Lyndon B. Johnson, Leonardo da Vinci, Celine Dion, Halle Berry, Will Smith, Hugh Jackman, Lucy Liu, Pope John Paul II, Bette Davis, Owen Wilson, Margaret Cho, Toni Braxton, Christina Aquilera, Jennifer Aniston, David Copperfield, Alicia Keys, George Lucas, Kylie Minogue, Julius Caesar, Tom Hanks, Diana Ross,  Elizabeth Taylor, Venus Williams, and Yao Ming.

This guy may or may not be a monkey, but he’s certainly making one of my favorite festival treats.  I hadn’t seen these anywhere since I left Germany.  The very first time I saw them, I was in Prague, but they’re just as delicious here as there.    Mmm, cinnamony!

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The show started with the traditional Lion and Dragon Dance, performed by Wing Lung Tai Chi Kung Fu School.  The dragon is being led by the monkey king, holding a sphere representing a pearl.

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It is said that if a Lion looks at you during a dance, you will have good luck for the year.

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The stage had a variety of other performances throghout the day.   Here’s Soul of Shaolin from Shaolin Academy, a.k.a. kids with weapons.

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There were some Taiko drums, courtesy of Matsuriza Taiko Drums.  I do love Taiko.

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I believe this was a Han folk dance, but I sort of lost my place in the program after the Taiko drumming, and this could also be the Miami Chinese Choral.  I’m really not sure.

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Have you ever been to a Chinese New Year festival?

Sanja Matsuri at Senso-ji

On the 16th of May, the first full Saturday after my arrival to Japan, I traveled to Asakusa to see the famed temple Senso-ji.    Founded in the year 645, Senso-ji is Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple.  I arrived to Asakusa expecting to find a serene place for contemplation, and stumbled right into the middle of Sanja Matsuri, one of Tokyo’s biggest festivals.   I noticed right away that the streets were blocked off to vehicles, but I didn’t know yet that this was unusual.

I was following the little map robot on my phone, and it told me to walk down this street.  I only got about ten paces in before I turned back to go a less crowded way.   What I didn’t know until later was that this covered walkway is the Nakamise arcade, a popular covered breezeway full of shops and restaurants.

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Every street I walked down while in Asakusa was lined in lanterns for the festival.  At this point in the day, I still had no idea what was going on.  Also, I really like this woman’s shark shaped backpack.

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As I got closer to the temple, I encountered thicker and thicker crowds.   Of course in a crowd this large, it’s completely appropriate to spot Waldo.

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After some walking, I caught my first glimpse of the temple.

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I walked in through Kaminarimon or “Thunder Gate,” and found myself facing statues of Raijin (god of thunder) and Fujin (god of wind).  It is not at all clear to me which is which.   You can see Tokyo Skytree behind the statues here, and I could easily have seen Senso-ji from Skytree, if I had been there on a clear day.

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This is the point at which I realized that this might not be normal tourism.   I still didn’t know that it was a major festival, however.

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I walked up as close as I could, even making it to the stairs beneath the enormous paper lantern in this photo.

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Here’s a closer shot of the paper lantern.

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However, the inside of the temple was fenced off with this mesh.  I could look, but I could not enter.  There are several Buddhists inside conducting a ritual, but I don’t know more than that.

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Moving away from the main temple gates, I walked around to the side, where stalls selling merchandse and traditional food rested beneath more paper lanterns.

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Walking back down toward Thunder Gate, I noticed another incense burner.  I like the smell of these things, but it was very warm.

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When I walked back toward the train station, I found the main street to be significantly more crowded than when I first arrived.  This is one of the biggest parts of Sanja Matsuri!

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The giant metal and wood construct being held up here is called a Mikoshi.   The Mikoshi pictured here is one of three which are built to act as miniature and portable versions of Asakusa Shrine.  They contain representations of Kami, the spirits, gods and deities of Japan’s Shinto religion.

The Mikoshi are tremendously heavy, and they are carried on four long poles lashed together with ropes by a Mikoshi team of about 40 people.  The Mikoshi team has a uniform, with a Happi coat and Tabi boots.  The team bounces it up and down, as a show of strength and teamwork.

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Mikoshi are usually carried around the neighborhood so that the Kami inside can see the neighborhood. It’s considered good luck for the area. Afterwards, the Mikoshi is brought back to the shrine.

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I watched the Mikoshi for a while, then I grabbed a burger before I headed back to Kanda.  Several of my colleagues who had previously visited Tokyo mentioned that they really enjoyed Mos Burger.  It wasn’t bad, but it definitely wasn’t the best burger I had while I was in Japan.

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Have you ever seen Sanja Matsuri?  Have you ever seen a Mikoshi being carried? Have you ever eaten at Mos Burger?

Further Drachenstich

Each year, the town of Furth im Wald holds a festival called Drachenstich, or Spearing the Dragon.    Part of the main street is fenced off to become an arena, and the town performs one of the oldest folk plays in Germany.  The original version goes back to 1590, but the play has been revised along the way- once in 1951, and again around 2007.  The festival is so ingrained into the city’s identity that the signs leading into town focus on the Drachenstich.

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The story in the play focuses on the evils of war-  the dragon is good and kind in the beginning of the story, but gets a taste for blood after the humans start to kill one another, until eventually there’s a traditional hero type (Udo, in this story) saving his love from becoming a Dragon-snack.  It’s a pretty big spectacle.

Before I get further into the pictures, let’s talk about the dragon-  after all, this is the real reason that I wanted to see Drachenstich in the first place.  The dragon is quite new, and holds the world’s record for largest four-legged walking robot.  It’s 15.5 meters long, 4.5 meters tall, and it has a 12 meter wingspan.  It walks, blinks, breathes fire, roars, spreads its wings, waves its tail, and even bleeds at the appropriate point in the story.  It was manufactured by Zollner, which also makes some of the buses that I ride to work every day.

We arrived to Furth and parked the car just in time to catch the Dragon-wranglers bringing the dragon up the street toward the Drachenstich arena.  For up-the-street transport, the dragon was on a custom wheeled base-  the walking speed is less than two kilometers per hour, which would have been interminably slow up that hill.

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The two guys in the brown shirts in this picture are the controllers-  I counted three different controllers with very large control boxes strapped to their chests.

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At the top of the hill, they ran some pre-show tests, including a little bit of flame.

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You can see the dude in the bottom right of this picture controlling the dragon’s head.

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The dragon’s face is really expressive.

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This is from the earlier part of the play, when the dragon is good and kind.

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The lady in the red head-dress would be the woman that Udo is rescuing by killing the dragon.  To be honest, I didn’t get a lot of the non-dragon parts of the story.  There was a lot of yelling and a repeating creepy feral girl from the first scene.  There were lots of horses, too.

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During the climactic final scene in the play, the dragon walks all the way into the arena, spreads its wings, and does battle with Udo.

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Flame on!

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The Drachenstich festival runs until 17 August, so there’s still time to see it this year.

Who’s your favorite dragon?

Keukenhof, Part Two: The Flower Parade

The day we chose for our Keukenhof visit happened to be the Saturday of the yearly Flower Parade.  The parade covers a 40 kilometer route from Noordwijk to Haarlem, passing Keukenhof at around 3:30 in the afternoon.  The following day, the floats are all on display in Haarlem.

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It’s Captain Stubing!

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Singapore Airlines sponsored a float.

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“I can’t see!  Can you see?  I can’t see a thing!”

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Floral yoga?

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Nope.  Aerobics.

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DJing from inside a floral pod.

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More nautical themed floral design.

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…but this one had mock surfers.

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There were four or five marching bands in the parade.

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Better visibility than the other car, but man these flowers are heavy!

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Dancing to the groovy sounds of the Beach Boys.  I’m not really sure why.

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This was the ‘please give us money’ float.  I missed the giant floral piggy, alas.

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The energy company’s float.

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Another marching band.

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This one looked a bit like it was going to destroy us all.

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I think this was supposed to represent farming?

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Hey hey, it’s (not quite) the Beatles!

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Cooking with flowers!

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Who doesn’t love a good marching band?

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I think I’m going to start using this next picture whenever someone asks me what kind of plugs are used in Germany.  These look just like the charging plug for my phone.  Except, you know, giant and made of flowers.

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Faces!  Very Easter-Island-y.

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This school bus was being eaten by a shark.  Again, I don’t really know why.

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The purple and white cow was riding a motorcycle.  I couldn’t get a better shot of the whole float though.

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One of the last floats in the parade was actually a stage with a live band.

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Have you ever seen the Keukenhof Flower Parade?

Keukenhof, Part One: The Park

The Tulip Festival in Holland has long been a big item on my Geographic To-Do list.  Jenny also wanted to see the Tulips, so on the first Friday in May, we all piled into Robert’s car and headed up to Keukenhof, about thirty-five kilometers from Amsterdam.

Keukenhof is the world’s second largest flower garden, only exceeded by Dubai Miracle Garden.  The park is only open for about eight weeks each year, typically from mid-March to late May.  During those eight weeks, Keukenhof sees around 800,000 visitors.

When we arrived, we were greeted by staff members handing out maps in traditional dresses.

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At least I think these are traditional dresses.  When I tried to research “traditional Dutch dresses,”  I kept finding lots of things with pointy hats.  This girl is definitely not wearing a pointy hat.

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I don’t really have too much to say about the flowers in Keukenhof.  I took a tremendous amount of pictures, but I’ll try not to overwhelm you with flowers.

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Needless to say, it was really colorful.

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Really, really colorful.

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We arrived a week or two too late to see the giant colorful fields of tulips that we were hoping for.  Warmer weather broke early this year, and we couldn’t visit in time to see the best blooms.

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That poor timing didn’t make the flowers we did see any less spectacular, though.

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The problem with going to a place like Keukenhof on the busiest weekend of its year, the weekend of the flower parade, is that everyone has basically the same idea.  To get any of the pictures I posted above, I had to wade through a whole lot of this:

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And, for some odd reason, weird sculpted fish.

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Flowers and people, as far as the eye can see!

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In order to get flowers without people, you have to get really  close to the flowers…

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Some of the people had very little courtesy.   They tromped through other people’s pictures, and in some cases damaged the flowers themselves.

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These signs?  Yeah, they were completely useless.

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I did my best to stay off the grass most of the time, because they gave us paved walkways that went right up to giant banks of flowers.

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By lunchtime, this is what the Keukenhof crowd levels looked like.

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This is some sort of art-deco tree.  I have no further comment.

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Some people didn’t think the flowers were pretty enough as-is, and made their own versions.

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There were some indoor exhibits about the history of the tulip, the planting methods used by Keukenhof, and so forth.  I thought this illustration of the worth of tulips was interesting.

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I liked these white ones quite a lot.

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And also these dark red ones.

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This picture and the one before it are taken from the exact same place.  This one just shows you all the crowds walking through it as well.

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Keukenhof is broken into sections.  There’s a historical garden, an English garden, an Asian garden, and so forth.

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One area of the historical garden has a sun-dial.  It was actually quite accurate.

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There were several picturesque fountains around the park.

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The carts you see on the opposite of this fountain?  Waffles and hot dogs, basically.   The waffle was delicious.

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Tulip-shaped candy pops?  Check!

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Giant windmill you can climb?  Check!  I skipped this one because of the crowds.

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On our way out, we passed some wooden busts of composers that I thought were nifty.  This one is Chopin.

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This one is Brahms.  Insert your own Brahms Lullaby/”sawing logs” joke here.

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And last but not least:  Orchids!

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Have you ever been to Keukenhof for the yearly Tulip Festival?