Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Wednesday Weirdness: Siem Reap Pedicure

The Siem Reap Art Center is one of Siem Reap's many night markets. Being a philistine, the only painting I got there was on my toes.

Self portrait.
I hate manicures. Pathologically. The only time I really lost it during my wedding planning (family and friends, correct me if I'm missing anything) was after I went for my manicure and had a hysterical fit in the car on the way home. Sitting still waiting for the stupid thing to dry drives me completely insane. I get twitchy and feel this horrible frustrated pressure building up behind my eyeballs. You can't do anything until it's dry, and the only way to know if it's dry is to touch it, and of course you are ALWAYS WRONG. No touched manicure is ever dry. It is the First Universal Law of Manicures. The Second Universal Law of Manicures is that you will chip a nail on the way out of the parking lot.

But pedicures are kind of nice. To me, painted toes seem whimsical, whereas manicures just make me feel high-maintenance. I would probably get them more if they weren't stupid-expensive: given the choice between a $45 pedicure and $45 worth of just about anything else, I'll paint the darn toes myself.

At the Siem Reap Art Market, however, I saw a sign advertising a $4 pedicure. Now that's my kind of price range! Things seemed clean, but just to be on the safe side, I stayed away from having my skin trimmed. Just the old soak, lotion, nail trim, and polish.

In Cambodia, they soak your feet in a bucket with fresh lime slices. I felt like a margarita.
Other people, however, had no squeamishness whatsoever. In the distance beyond my feet, in the greenish tank, you can see foot-nibbling Doctor Fish.

Also pictured: the family cankles
There are tons of these in downtown Siem Reap. You pay however much money to sit for a fixed period of time (usually something like $5 for 20 minutes, or something) and stick your feet in. The fish then eat your dead skin. The hygiene of this practice is debated in the US and UK, where this is often illegal. I didn't do it in Cambodia. Partly, that's because of the green water (forget sterilizing the fish... when did someone last clean that tank?) but mostly it was because I got nibbled on in the wild at Honda Bay in the Philippines, and now I'm a snob about free-range fish.

Bonus fun fact: I tipped $1 on my $4 pedicure. The pedicure ladies probably did not expect a tip from me, but I'm sure they hoped. Tipping is not really a thing in Asia, or at least it wasn't until Americans showed up and started tipping people, and now it is expected that you will tip certain people, like your tour guide. Apparently the Aussies hate us for it.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

ダイエットする (Dieting)

daietto shiteimasu
"diet do am"
I am on a diet.

A couple months ago, my doctor here in Japan set me on an aggressive weight loss plan. (You can see our previous posts here and here.) I'm happy to report that this week, for the first time in about fifteen years, I am officially not-quite-overweight, according to the much-maligned body mass index (BMI) charts. The doctor has set me a goal a few kilos below the upper limit of normal, so there's still some work left to do, and by all appearances one last weight-loss plateau to power through.

When I started trying to lose weight, I was hoping to post a few times about all the little wrenches Japan can throw in the spokes of a would-be gaijin dieter, but the truth is, upping my exercise to sixty minutes a day pretty much erased any time I had for blogging. And in retrospect, losing weight in Japan hasn't been all that different from losing weight anywhere else: no matter where you are, it's just a matter of consistently burning more calories than you consume.

The trick, of course, is in keeping track of what you burn and what you eat. As Nana mentioned in an earlier post, I've been using an iPhone app called LoseIt!, which has been pretty effective at keeping track of my exercise - but keeping track of my calorie intake has been a much more difficult task.

Much of this has to do with the language barrier: sometimes, it's hard to know what you're buying in the grocery store, and all that Japanese can make a nutrition label pretty opaque. But some of it is cultural. For example, whereas many American restaurants, and especially chains, have started to make some effort to publish nutrition information in some form or another, you almost never find nutrition information in restaurants in Japan. Even pre-packaged convenience store meals (a staple of the Japanese diet) lack nutrition info more often than not. Combine this with a work schedule that often precludes cooking at home, and it quickly becomes very difficult to keep track of how much you eat.

Now, if I were in the US, this would be less of a problem, as you can find rough nutrition info for most common restaurant meals, or at least for common restaurant ingredients, and the Internet is full of advice on what sneakily caloric dishes to avoid.

No such luck in Japan: if I want to know how many calories there are in a bowl of tonkotsu ramen, I have to find a home-made recipe in English (if such a thing exists) and calculate the calories from there, adding some wiggle room for the inevitable fact that restaurants are always fattening up their fare. I mean, you try finding nutrition information for saba mirin and assorted tsukemono, or the relative calorie counts of different varieties of daifuku. If it's out there, it ain't in English!

As a result, when Nana's mercifully delicious home cooking isn't an option, I've ended up depending heavily on labeled, pre-packaged foods. Onigiri, bento, and *gasp!* Calorie Mate Balanced Food Block, a kind of vitamin-enriched shortbread-esque energy bar. (I look forward to the day when I will never have to eat one of those things again.)

Other days, when I know I'll be going out for dinner, I've skimped heavily on breakfast and lunch, leaving a calorie budget for dinner that would be tough to exceed with even a big Japanese meal. Still, this level of guesswork is frustrating, and I know it means I've missed my target some days, either to the detriment of my health (if over) or my sanity (if under).

In any case, it seems the end is in sight, at least in terms of the dieting phase. But of course, as any weight-loser can tell you, sometimes keeping the weight off is just as tough. I expect I'll be calorie-counting for the foreseeable future. Doubly tough, when you're living in Japan, as the food is both delicious and incredibly difficult to understand.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Angkor Day 1: Angkor Thom and the Bayon

This post is part of a series on our recent trip to see the temples of Angkor in Siem Reap, Cambodia. You can see our first post here.

After spending the morning touring the temples of the ancient Khmer city of Hariharalaya, referred to by the modern name of Rolous - and after a lazy lunch and an early afternoon siesta to escape the brutal heat - Nana and I struck out for Angkor Thom, the holy city at the heart of golden-age Angkor.

Angkor Thom

Angkor Thom ("Great City") was built at the end of the 12th century by Jayavarman II. Jayavarman II, as you may recall, was the king who tried to add his own Buddhist faith to the Hindu state religion. The last great king of the Khmer Empire. Jayavarman II and presided over a golden age that included, among other accomplishments, a massive building project responsible for a staggering number of the most important surviving temples of Angkor.

The architecture of Jayavarman II's reign is characterized by a blend of Buddhist and Hindu motifs. This blend is most memorable in the "face towers" that mark the entrances to every major structure he built.

However, the south gate of Angkor Thom is perhaps best known for a major work of Hindu monumental art: a causeway flanked by an elaborate naga balustrade depicting the Hindu story of the churning of the ocean of milk (generally believed to represent the Milky Way). 

To make a long story short, in the early days of the present universe the demigods and demons learned that they had to churn this cosmic ocean of milk in order to obtain the nectar of immortality. However, they were unsuccessful so long as they refused to cooperate. Vishnu eventually got the demons to take the head of a giant naga, and the demigods to take the head. Using a mythical mountain as a pivot, with some help from Kurma (Vishnu in the form of a giant turtle), they succeeded, spawning a bunch of other cool stuff, like  and dancing apsaras and Lakshmi, the wife of Vishnu. (Caution: this is not the last you will hear of this tale.)

Each entrance to Angkor Thom includes a balustrade depicting the demons and demigods pulling on he naga, with the south entrance - being both closer to Siem Reap and pretty well preserved - by far the most popular spot. Here, the right side depicts demons, and the left demigods.

Demon: bulging eyes, curly hair.

Demigod: placid face, pointy hair.
Cool fact: no two demons or demigods look alike. This one helper is particularly unique:

Unfortunately, many of the heads are missing - stolen, most likely, and sold on the black market to collectors. These days, there's an ongoing project to restore some of the missing heads, sometimes by locating them in museums overseas, and sometimes by replacing them with the work of local stone carvers.

At the end of the balustrade stands a face tower, simultaneously representing (did you study?) Brahma, the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, and Jayavarman II.
Brahma-Buddha-Jayavarman is flanked by images of Airavata, the three-headed elephant ridden by Indra, who figures in both Hindu and Buddhist mythology.
The south gate face tower is especially nice because you can walk up the sloped ramparts behind the city wall and get pretty close to the tower itself.

Today, the land inside the city walls is mostly forest, dotted with temples. In the reign of King Jayavarman II,  however, the land would have been filled with a bustling wooden city that was one of the largest in the world at the time.

The Bayon

The Bayon was Jayavarman II's state temple, set at the heart of Angkor Thom. Built around 1200 AD, the Bayon is unique among Angkor state temples. Most state temples were temple mountains built to impress, like Bakong in Hariharalaya, or of course Angkor Wat. The Bayon is a much more intimate setting, a tangled jungle of galleries and face towers with short sight-lines, surprising corners, and a pair of Brahma-Buddha-Jayavarman's eyes watching over you wherever you turn.

Furthermore, the Bayon is the only surviving Angkor temple dedicated to Buddha (most were dedicated to Shiva, with a handful dedicated to Vishnu).

We spent the first part of our visit poring over the galleries, whose walls are covered in a seven-foot bas relief.

These carvings are unique in that, alongside the usual historical and mythological fare, they also illustrate scenes from everyday life in the Khmer Empire. As a result, they're one of only two remaining sources on what life was like for the regular folk in ancient Angkor. (The other is an account by a Chinese envoy named Zhou Daguan, who visited Angkor Thom in 1296-1297.)
A procession of Chinese soldiers, identifiable by their  eyes and beards.

In this particular conflict, the Chinese were allied with the Khmer against the Cham, a kingdom in what would now be Vietnam with ethnic ties to Taiwanese aborigines and Pacific Islanders.

Khmer soldiers, identified by their long earlobes and the crossed ropes, which were sacred and therefore supposed to protect the wearer from harm.

A family with an oxcart full of provisions follows the conquering army.

Butchering a pig.

Blowing on the fire to get the rice going.

According to our guide, this turtle has just bitten the soldier in the butt.

Hunting in the forest. The apparently flying fish are from the "panel" above, which depicts a battle on Lake Tonle Sap.


A theraputic massage.

A man being eaten by a lion.

Cockfighting, with Chinese merchants on the right and Khmer merchants on the left. Again, the giant airborne fish is from another "panel" of the illustration.

Khmer soldiers training for battle.

A Khmer soldier killing a Cham soldier. The Cham soldiers are identifiable by their lotus-flower headdresses.

Cooking for the troops.
A fallen soldier being eaten by a crocodile.

In all honesty, I may have become mildly obsessed with these bas reliefs. Like so many of the carvings at Angkor, the Bayon reliefs are just full of life and humor - a quality that seems to have been passed down to the Khmer people through the generations. Every minute spent staring at these reliefs shows you something new and, half the time, funny.

After leaving the galleries, we began ascending the modest temple mountain of the Bayon, stopping for frequent photos of the countless faces peering down at us.

I think in this case, it's best to let the pictures speak for themselves.

Sometimes, it's like Where's Waldo. The face is always there - if you haven't found it, it just means you're not looking hard enough.

Nana got a little frisky with this one.

As you can tell, each of the faces is slightly different, and those slight differences add up to a major change in expression. This is by far the happiest of the faces - check out that developing smirk!

Fun side note: as we were leaving the Bayon, we stumbled on two heart-warming hints of modern activity on the site. (I say this to distinguish them from the hordes of shouting tourists, who were considerably less heart-warming.)
There cannot have been many Koreans left in Korea.
First, we came across a Japanese-led team working on restoring one of the lower levels of the temple.
Japan is among several nations heavily involved in conservation and restoration at Angkor. At the entrance to nearly every temple, you can see a sign describing the conservation team and its efforts. I hope to talk about this more in a later post.

Second, we see a modern Buddhist shrine in bright saffron. Had I been less shy about asking for their permission, I would have gotten a shot of the monks stepping barefoot through the ruins.
That's right - the Bayon, like many Angkor sites, is a modern place of worship for Cambodia's Buddhist majority. Kind of ironic, in a way: despite the efforts of Jayavarman II's successors to erase his Buddhist influence on the empire, it was Hinduism that eventually died out in Cambodia, with even the most Hindu of Angkor shrines being used as Buddhist temples to this day.
Another empty niche, another defaced Buddha.

After the Bayon, we made a couple quick stops at other Angkor Thom sites. First up was Baphuon, sometimes called the world's greatest jigsaw puzzle.

This temple-mountain, which pre-dates the rest of Angkor Thom by more than a century, was in almost complete disrepair as recently as fifteen years ago, and was only partly opened to the public in 2010. Baphuon has been the focus of a massive reconstruction effort led by the French, which concluded (for now) in April 2011.

You can see evidence of the restoration work everywhere. For instance, the grounds around Baphuon are covered with sorted and numbered sandstone blocks from the original temple, some of which have been replaced with careful replicas, others of which might, sometime in the future, find their way back into the temple.
These fields of stone also provide a physical record of the original temple - in theory, it would be possible for someone with a knowledge of the numbering system to recreate a picture of where each stone was found in the original ruin.

The current structure is a kind of historical jungle gym. Thankfully, by the time we started climbing, a cloud bank had rolled in, giving us a little respite from the heat.
For reference, that structure is about 1.5 storeys off the forest floor.


A gallery of restored columns, about 3-4 storeys up.

Looking down on the causeway, to the east.

You can see the difference between color in the restored and original stones.

The central tower has not been restored, though oddly enough the doorposts have.
A view from Baphuon to Phimenakas, the next temple over.
One side of Baphuon has been left untouched by the restoration team, as it features a later "reclining Buddha" image carved into the original wall.

It's a bit easier to spot after you've looked at the diagram.

Phimeanakas is what passes for a minor temple in Angkor Thom: you know, only about four storeys high, and older than everything else in Angkor Thom by a couple measly centuries. It was originally the state temple of Suryavarman I. It later served as the palace temple for a series of Khmer kings.

We climbed it, of course. Because we're masochists.

A fallen stone roof on the penultimate level.

The Royal Square

East of Phimeanakas, at the edge of what used to be the royal palace, are two huge terraces overlooking an empty field. These two terraces, the Terrace of the Elephants and the Terrace of the Leper King, along with the adjoining field, are referred to collectively as the Royal Square of Angkor Thom.

It's assumed that the square was used for public addresses and other ceremonies, possibly including royal cremations and the launching of military campaigns.

Atop the Terrace of the Elephants.
The Terrace of the Elephants is so called because it's, well, covered in elephants, and especially in images of Airavata.

The Terrace of the Leper King is named after a later statue of Yama, the Hindu god of death, who apparently looked a bit leprous after centuries in the jungle.

The base of the Terrace of the Leper King features more wonderful relief carvings, including some unfinished patches that both hint at the hard times that befell the late kings of Angkor and give some insight into how the carvings were made.
Apsaras and concubines.

A vivid naga.

An unfinished carving of the king, flanked by concubines.
A finished image of the king, being fanned by concubines. (Lots of concubines on the Terrace of the Leper King!)
If you love ancient temples, if you hate ancient temples, or if you're completely ambivalent to ancient temples . . . stay tuned for lots, lots more!