The Universe In A Moment At Ryōanji

Ryoanji sketch
Candace Rose Rardon

It’s a Sunday morning in Kyoto and I am sitting on the long wooden steps of the hōjō, the abbott’s residence of Ryōanji Temple – one of 1,600 temples in this historic city.

At my feet is the temple’s famous karesansui, or dry rock garden. In a small rectangle of white gravel, measuring just twenty-five by ten meters and raked to perfection by the monks each morning, fifteen stones have been arranged in such a way that they are never all visible from the same vantage point.
At first, I move up and down the veranda, craning my neck to spot every stone. At the same time, much moves with me: the weather, shifting from bright sunshine to wintry wind in a matter of minutes, as well as the crowds, also shifting in and out, debating in a dozen languages whether or not they can spot the fifteenth stone.

But what never move are the stones themselves – and I realize that perhaps this is the test of Ryōanji, and its secret.

“Every moment has a little universe in it,” says my friend Don, who has brought me here, and indeed I am struck by how the entire world can be felt in this moment, even when seated for hours in the same spot. Despite that elusive stone, there is still much to be felt and experienced: all the nationalities represented by other tourists, all the centuries of time embedded in the moss and gravel, all the groups of students from across the country, who are delighted when I manage even one word of Japanese.

Inscribed on a nearby stone washbasin, which dates to the 17th century, is a four-character message that reads, “I learn only to be contented,” or, according to a different translation, “What one has is all one needs.”

Here at Ryōanji, I can feel this to be true – that with or without the fifteenth stone, the moment is always, forever, enough.

Forget Cronuts. Try These 6 International Food Combinations.

hirotomo t, Flickr

Everyone loves a good food trend or weird restaurant. In fact some people even travel for them. But sometimes trends quickly turn to obsession. This year that has been the cronut, a croissant-doughnut hybrid bred in New York and quickly copied around the world. For example, north of the border in Canada, you can get your hands on a bacon jam cronut burger.

Maybe it’s because it’s a weird combination. Maybe it’s because we all have a secret desire to eat trashy baked goods. But whatever it is, odd food combinations make people go wild. Here are six other food creations from around the world that are right up there with the cronut, and may just be worth traveling for if you’re in search of an odd eating experience.

1. Animal Doughnuts

Japanese animal doughnuts (also know as “doubutsu doonatsu” in Japanese) are a weird/sort of cute combination of a love of anime and fried dough. They’re exactly like they sound: doughnuts with animal ears and faces that are sort of reminiscent of Hello Kitty. If Hello Kitty was made by a pastry chef.

ManEatManila, Flickr

2. Ramen Burger

Why go for a regular bun when you could make one out of ramen noodles? Created by ramen lover Keizo Shimamoto in Brooklyn, the ramen burger is an attempt at combining everyone’s two favorite things: burgers and noodles. A classic example of an uptown/downtown trend, it’s a hipster dish with a classier layer. If you can call a pan-fried ramen bun classy.

3. Crookie

In Canada, you can get your hands on a croissant stuffed with an Oreo. Because nothing says classy like a double stuffed cook sandwich in a French patisserie.

4. Doughnut Burgers

If you thought the French would be offended that their national pastry of choice would be combined with the American fried classic, think again. Turns out, they’re all about doughnuts. Well at least that’s what we can assume from the latest campaign from French fast food chain Quick: the Homer Menu. Inspired by none other than Homer Simpson, it’s a burger in the shape of a doughnut. And if that’s not enough for you, they also have a cheesy doughnut offering; a classic doughnut filled with melted cheese. And no, it’s not brie.

5. Nutella Fries

Nope, it’s not brought to you by the Europeans. Nutella fries are all thanks to the Canucks, who are debuting the dish at this years Canadian National Exhibition. I see no reason why this won’t take off in food trucks across North America.

6. Birizza

Ever eaten biryani? It’s a rice-based dish popular across Asia and the Middle East, but in Sri Lanka, thanks to the local Pizza Hut, you can get it in a pizza version. Curry spiced rice with chicken or paneer in a dough wrapper? You didn’t think you’d be eating calzones on your next trip to Southeast Asia did you?

‘Wannabe Ninja’ Tourists Can Train In Japan

specialoperations, Flickr

Have you been aching to test your skills with a bō staff ever since watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as a kid? Now you can do just that at a ninja training camp in the town in Iga, just east of Osaka, Japan. During the hour-long class, ninja trainees can test their skills in star throwing, scaling vertical walls, crawling across a rope strung between two trees and more.

The town itself would make a great stop for anyone obsessed with ninja culture. Iga’s ninja history can be traced to the 15th century, when students trained at Iga-ryū, one of the two most well-known ninja schools in Japan. Today, the town has a ninja museum with plenty of ninja tools and gadgets (as well as revolving walls and trap doors), and an annual ninja celebration, the Iga-Ueno Festival.

Of course, this is far from the first “wannabe” tourist activity out there. From a day-long venture into the life of a polygamist to slum tours of India, here are a few other adventures that satisfy tourists’ wildest curiosities.

Fake Plastic Food In Japan Evolved From Less Than Appetizing Origins

plastic food samples japan
Mathieu Thouvenin, Flickr

Walk through any food court or eatery in Japan and you’ll find yourself face to face with walls of plastic food. These displays are designed to show potential diners exactly what they’ll receive if they order a particular dish, from the portion size to the ingredients right down to the little garnishes. They’re helpful for foreigners who can’t decipher Japanese menus but even the locals have come to depend on the fake food when eating out.

These sample meals have always had an uncanny realism to them – and now we know why. It turns out these plastic food replicas were borne out of a more scientific art form. The original maker of fake food started out creating models of human organs and diseases, with the realistic plastic replicas aimed at helping doctors study illnesses. Pretty soon, restaurants came knocking on the artisan’s door – despite it’s unappetizing origins, they figured fake food was the perfect way to familiarize country folk with the unique fare city restaurants had to offer.Like most things in Japan, the plastic samples don’t come cheap, especially since the food samples are modeled off real dishes and created for each individual restaurant. A life-like plate of plastic sushi or a heaping bowl of fake spaghetti sell for around $100 each, although budget-conscious restaurants can rent their fake food for about $6 a month.

The sample-making company says they haven’t been able to get the concept to take off in the Western world… after learning the less than appetizing story behind the samples, we’re not sure they ever will.

Do you like the idea of plastic food? Do these samples help you pick your meal or are they are turn off?

Great Comeback Cities For Travel

comeback cities - Detroit love
Flickr, Michigan Municipal League

Recently, the former automotive boomtown of Detroit made history by filing for bankruptcy, making it an easy butt of jokes on Twitter and in the news. However, Motown has also been making strides to become America’s great comeback city, with artists and entrepreneurs lured by cheap rents, and innovative projects happening all over town (disclosure: I’m a big fan of the city, and so is the New York TimesFrank Bruni). Detroit has more than a few great things going for it, including architecture, museums and sports, and tourist dollars could go a long way in helping the city recover. Can it become a tourist destination again?

Some of the top tourist destinations in the world were once no-go zones for travelers, suffering from financial crises, war, natural disasters and rampant crime. Here are a few of our favorite comeback cities:Berlin: One of the world’s most resilient cities, Berlin has been through war, occupation and one gigantic divide, and come back to thrive. In the decades following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, East Berlin in particular has become a hipster mecca, due to some of the lowest prices in western Europe for nightlife and a vibrant art and design scene. While not everyone welcomes the gentrification, the German capital is continuing to gain millions of foreign tourists each year.

Buenos Aires: A mix of hyperinflation, government corruption and mounting debt led to riots and an economic crisis in Argentina in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The country has stabilized and the peso value has risen, but it’s affordability has made it increasingly attractive to travelers in the last ten years, making it the No. 1 tourism destination in South America. Buenos Aires is opening more boutique hotels each year, ensuring a place every year on lists such as Conde Nast Traveler’s Hot List of new hotels.

New Orleans: A longtime favorite for the French Quarter and Bourbon Street, along with events like Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest, New Orleans was profoundly affected by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Tourism is the biggest source of employment in the city and a major factor to its economy, and the disaster made visitor numbers plummet. Louisiana’s recovery has been slow but steady, and major infrastructure improvements brought on by this year’s “Super Gras” have helped the Big Easy come back.

New York City: Visitors to the Big Apple have topped 50 million, spending billions of dollars in the city annually. While New York has never suffered from lack of tourists, the 1980s crack epidemic and surge in crime gave it an image of being a violent, dirty and dangerous city and visitor numbers dipped. Like Detroit, it also faced possible bankruptcy in 1975 and President Ford was infamously (mis)quoted to tell NYC to “drop dead.” The terrorist attacks in 2001 caused another slowdown in visitors, but it’s now one of the safest, most visited cities in the world.

Tokyo: While Tokyo was not as devastated by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami as other parts of Japan, it definitely felt the hurt with a sharp decline in tourism, major damage to national infrastructure, and radiation concerns. Foreign visitors are now exceeding the pre-disaster levels, though seismologists worry that an even bigger earthquake is due to hit Tokyo.

An honorable mention must go to the countries in the former Yugoslavia, especially Croatia and the cities of Belgrade and Sarajevo. Twenty years ago, who could have predicted the popularity of the Dalmatian coast as a beach destination, or the battle-scarred Serbian capital as a nightlife hotspot? They aren’t quite seeing the same tourism numbers as the destinations above, but they should be on your travel radar. Istanbul and Beirut are also favorites for their many comebacks and reinventions, though the effects from current events are already being seen in the local tourism industries.

What are your favorite “comeback cities”?