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My brother Al took this great shot of us at Prokopios Beach. It’s almost impossible to believe how beautiful that water was.

Finally Naxos, the fifth and last of our Cycladic Island adventures. Naxos was an easy boat ride from Mykonos; these island-to-island ferries have been one of the great joys of our island hopping experience. Definitely more laid-back than Mykonos, Naxos was a great way to wrap up this part of our trip.

After four earlier islands, though, I’m at somewhat of a loss as to what to say. Fabulous beach, great food, some ancient Greek ruins … I’ve kind of said it all. I suppose it is worth mentioning that our hotel, Hotel Nissaki Beach, sat right on St. George Beach, though it was by no means a great beach; the fabulous beach was a couple miles away. St. George Beach did, though, have some nice restaurants ringing the beach so that was pleasant. And Prokopios Beach, a 40-minute walk or 15-minute bus ride away, was every bit as perfect as the other beaches we’ve seen in the area.

The remains of Apollo’s Temple sits just outside today’s main town on Naxos. It made a great location for early evening sight-seeing.

Otherwise, though, there may not be a lot more to add. So here are a couple pictures and then it’s off to Athens. And Rome, briefly.

And after a brief tour of the Greek ruins this was my reading spot. Not bad.

Al & Anita enjoying dinner in Naxos. As you can see, I’m not the only St. George who likes bright colors.

Mark waving goodbye from this nearly perfect beach

Mark inside just a few of the 10,000 vermilion-hued torii gates of Fushimi Inari-Taisha

Mark inside just a few of the 10,000 vermilion-hued torii gates of Fushimi Inari-Taisha

Kyoto is an amazing city. We were here once before, celebrating after the 2008 election, and were enchanted then with a visit of just a couple days. This time we had five nights – a welcome relief after the series of one-night stops on the bike trip – and we loved pretty much every minute of it.

For over 1,000 years Kyoto was the capital of the Japanese empire; it was only in the mid-19th century with the Meiji Restoration that ended the shogunate and returned power to the emperor that he moved the capital to Tokyo. As a result of that history the city is filled with ancient temples, beautiful shrines, and remarkable gardens and ponds. Of course, much of Japan’s historic legacy was destroyed during the bombings of World War II, and the U.S. military considered Kyoto a prime candidate for one of the atomic bombs it was preparing to drop. Secretary of War Henry Stimson, though, insisted repeatedly that it be taken off the list; ultimately he went to President Truman directly to insist that Kyoto be spared. Why? He said that it was too important culturally and was not a military target. But neither Hiroshima nor Nagasaki were particularly important militarily, either. Instead, historians suspect that Secretary Stimson spared Kyoto for distinctly personal reasons: it was where he had spent his honeymoon while he was Governor of the Philippines. And thus a stunning cultural heritage was preserved.

Beauty everywhere in and around Kyoto

Beauty everywhere in and around Kyoto

Pretty much everywhere you turn around the city you find big temples and green spaces. There are 17 sites in and around the city listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, fully one in five of all Japan’s sites. That’s a lot of history and a lot of beauty. Even with four days and five nights, we couldn’t do more than scratch the surface of all Kyoto has to offer. Of course, truth be told, we didn’t need to see all of the UNESCO sites. To Western eyes like ours, at least, they all kind of look the same. I often wonder if Asians traveling in Europe get bored with all the cathedrals, thinking they all just look the same. At any rate, it was a treat seeing some of the temples but we didn’t kill ourselves trying to see them all.

Instead, along with poking around our neighborhood in the northern part of the city, we headed a bit out of town to see some of the further-flung sites. One day we caught a train maybe an hour away to Nara, Japan’s first “permanent” capital. Until the 7th century, on the death of an emperor the new emperor chose a new capital. In 710, though, the emperor decreed that Nara would be Japan’s permanent capital. As the capital quickly developed its own inbred bureaucracy that threatened imperial power, though, after just 75 years the capital was moved to Kyoto where it lasted a lot more than 75 years.

One of Nara's gardens

One of Nara’s gardens

The legacy, though, remains. In pre-Buddhist times, deer were considered messengers of the gods, so there are hundreds of tame deer rambling about the area, looking for handouts from tourists and, well, taking stuff if it’s not offered. More impressive is Todai-ji, a massive temple with a giant Great Buddha. When I say massive, I mean massive: it is claimed to be the largest wooden building in the world. We were inclined to be unimpressed. I mean, who really cares if it’s the biggest or the third biggest or whatever, right? Walking through the gate, though, was a truly “Holy shit!” moment. That was one big building. And the Buddha inside stands (OK, sits…) at some 50 feet tall consisting of well over 400 tons of bronze and nearly 300 pounds of gold. Impressive indeed.

Nara's massive Todai-ji temple. The picture can barely suggest the scale of the building; walking through the gates to this sight was breathtaking.

Nara’s massive Todai-ji temple. The picture can barely suggest the scale of the building; walking through the gates to this sight was breathtaking.

And the Buddha was pretty big, too

And the Buddha was pretty big, too

Then there was the day trip to Kurama and Kibune, this time just a 30-minute train ride north of the city. You take the train to Kurama and hike up to the mountain temple. Then you continue on to the mountain peak (it’s really just a big hill) and down to Kibune, an impossibly cute little town with lots of little inns and ryokans and restaurants and cafés built along a cute mountain stream with its cool rushing waters. The temple itself was, well, kind of like all the other temples, but the hike in the woods – what Lonely Planet calls old-growth Cryptomeria, a cypress tree – was something close to heaven.

The hike from Kurama to Kibune. The signs in Japanese weren't a lot of help but the beautiful trail was easy to follow.

The hike from Kurama to Kibune. The signs in Japanese weren’t a lot of help but the beautiful trail was easy to follow.

The little main street in Kibune was simply beautiful

The little main street in Kibune was simply beautiful

Then there was Fushimi Inari-Taisha, the #1 Kyoto Highlight in Lonely Planet. Simply put, this put the awe into awesome. The site is spread out up a big hill over many acres and consists of some 10,000 torii gates – those classical orange gates that signal the entrance of a Japanese Buddhist site. OK, I call it orange, but apparently it is officially vermillion, a word I had to look up since I only know it as a huge lake in Northern Minnesota. But vermillion it is, a reddish-orange. I was skeptical that there were really 10,000 until we started walking up and up and up … and up. The crowds were heavy near the bottom but as we climbed, and climbed, and climbed the crowds thinned and the sights became more ethereal and the experience more calm and beautiful. I wasn’t sure we’d ever get to the top but we did and then got to walk down, again through all those torii gates. Stunning.

I didn't realize the hike up to Fushimi Inari-Taisha was going to take well over an hour, but it was worth it

I didn’t realize the hike up to Fushimi Inari-Taisha was going to take well over an hour, but it was worth it

And finally, much closer to home, was the Path of Philosophy, a walk along a tiny canal just a mile or so from our hotel. Peaceful, calm, quiet, beautiful … it had everything going for it. Mark & I walked it our first day in Kyoto, then I walked it on my own a day or two later, and then Mark went back up and did it yet again. It was like having a tiny, elegant village right in your back yard.

The Path of Philosophy ran along a little stream, just calm and relaxing (except for all the damned tourists sometimes)

The Path of Philosophy ran along a little stream, just calm and relaxing (except for all the damned tourists sometimes)

So that was Kyoto, for us. Morning runs along the Kamo River, a night tour of the geisha district, some good food, beautiful walks, historic sites. Kyoto really is one of those places in the world you just have to get to know so I suspect we’ll be back in a few years. First, though, we have to get back to Europe for the summer so we’re taking a train up to Tokyo and then a flight to Paris on Thai Airlines via Bangkok. The only tragedy is the prospect of going to Bangkok and not spending a few days!

The Kamo River, running right through the heart of Kyoto. The water was clean and shallow and periodically you'd see kids playing in it. And while there were big modern bridges across the river for traffic at several places there were also these large boulders (some in the shape of turtles) that allowed people to walk/jump from one side to the other without having to go up onto a bridge.

The Kamo River, running right through the heart of Kyoto. The water was clean and shallow and periodically you’d see kids playing in it. And while there were big modern bridges across the river for traffic at several places there were also these large boulders (some in the shape of turtles) that allowed people to walk/jump from one side to the other without having to go up onto a bridge.

Ducks in the Kamo River

Ducks in the Kamo River

Japan - even modern Japan - has limited private spaces in the typically small dwellings. So musicians come out to the parks to practice. This guy seemed to be enjoying himself immensely in his own private world.

Japan – even modern Japan – has limited private spaces in the typically small dwellings. So musicians come out to the parks to practice. This guy seemed to be enjoying himself immensely in his own private world.

Mark on one of hikes. That vermilion color is extremely popular around here.

Mark on one of hikes. That vermilion color is extremely popular around here.

One of the Buddha's top guys protecting him at Todai-ji

One of the Buddha’s top guys protecting him at Todai-ji

And this guy was just outside the temple. I'm not sure what it was supposed to be or to represent but Mark observed that it had a look of one of those paintings of some long-forgotten Roman Catholic Cardinal.

And this guy was just outside the temple. I’m not sure what it was supposed to be or to represent but Mark observed that it had a look of one of those paintings of some long-forgotten Roman Catholic Cardinal.

Random beauty

Random beauty

And speaking of beauty, we had dinner twice with Ethyl (there, I got her name right for a change). This one was a tapas place, along with Natalia and Luba from the bike trip, after a night tour of Gion, Kyoto's primary geisha district.

And speaking of beauty, we had dinner twice with Ethyl (there, I got her name right for a change). This one was a tapas place, along with Natalia and Luba from the bike trip, after a night tour of Gion, Kyoto’s primary geisha district.

And sure enough, while touring the geisha district there comes a real live geisha - fancy kimono, fancier hair, white makeup, and all that - down the street. Japanese emphasize that geishas are NOT prostitutes, but still you're not supposed to take pictures if they're with johns customers to protect their privacy. Sounds suspicious to me.

And sure enough, while touring the geisha district there comes a real live geisha – fancy kimono, fancier hair, white makeup, and all that – down the street. Japanese emphasize that geishas are NOT prostitutes, but still you’re not supposed to take pictures if they’re with johns customers to protect their privacy. Sounds suspicious to me.

I keep coming back to random beauty

I keep coming back to random beauty

And more

And more

Then there were all these pictures from Fushimi Inari-Taisha

Then there were all these pictures from Fushimi Inari-Taisha

Lots of pictures

Lots of pictures

And more

And more

If you like one, you should like lots of them, right?

If you like one, you should like lots of them, right?

One of countless shrines in   Fushimi Inari-Taisha

One of countless shrines in Fushimi Inari-Taisha

OK, the last one, I promise

OK, the last one, I promise

The first lilacs of the season for us. As we're off to Paris from here, we're expecting to see more.

The first lilacs of the season for us. As we’re off to Paris from here, we’re expecting to see more.

Nara has thousands of tame deer walking around. If you weren't giving them food, they weren't too interested in you.

Nara has thousands of tame deer walking around. If you weren’t giving them food, they weren’t too interested in you.

Speaking of food, while you think of Japanese food as sushi and sashimi and other fish dishes, they also have incredible steaks

Speaking of food, while you think of Japanese food as sushi and sashimi and other fish dishes, they also have incredible steaks

And oddly, a nice French restaurant with this Niçoise salad. I say oddly, since of course we're off to Paris from here but we decided to do a little preview of our next stop for dinner one night.

And oddly, a nice French restaurant with this Niçoise salad. I say oddly, since of course we’re off to Paris from here but we decided to do a little preview of our next stop for dinner one night.

And then there were these white strawberries that we saw a couple times in Japan. Strange; never seen anything like them before.

And then there were these white strawberries that we saw a couple times in Japan. Strange; never seen anything like them before.

The kind of thing you see all over Kyoto

The kind of thing you see all over Kyoto

Boston Bear loved Kyoto, too

Boston Bear loved Kyoto, too

We spotted these guys fishing along the Path of Philosophy the day after Boston Bear had gone bar hopping with them

We spotted these guys fishing along the Path of Philosophy the day after Boston Bear had gone bar hopping with them

The eponymous palms of Palm Cove along the Coral Sea shore

The eponymous palms of Palm Cove along the Coral Sea shore

We’re spending a couple weeks here in Queensland (yeah, cue the jokes: the two of us moving from Queenstown to Queensland..) and one of the things you learn is just how big this state is. As in BIG. Bigger than Alaska, by far the biggest state in the U.S. In fact, according to a list on Wikipedia, Queensland is the sixth-biggest national subdivision in the world, behind such behemoths as Greenland and a couple of what we would call Russian provinces. So there’s plenty to explore here.

Our next stop was Palm Cove, a little tourist-centered beach community a little south of Mossman (and thus just a little north of Cairns). What’s most obvious about Palm Cove is the beautiful Coral Sea, seemingly a paradise with the white sand beach, blue water, and swaying palm trees. What’s less obvious about Palm Cove is that you’ll likely die if you go in the water.

No shortage of warnings that dipping a single toe in the water could lead to a horrible death

No shortage of warnings that dipping a single toe in the water could lead to a horrible death

OK, maybe that’s a little overstated, but perhaps not much. Crocodiles infest the water near shore but, according to at least one local we talked with, they’re pretty unusual. The real problem this time of year is the infestation of poisonous jellyfish. As the temperatures rise, both air and sea, the jellyfish move in and their sting is potentially fatal. You only go in the water with full wetsuits which means, in practice, that no one goes in this time of year. Lots of biking and walking and jogging along the trails, but for those of us who don’t want to die too soon, no swimming.

Is it really a beach if you can’t go in the water?

What do you do if you’re in a beach town but can’t enjoy the beach beyond looking at it? Well, the hotels have nice pools, and you can still read and walk around.

A segment of the cableway traveling above the rainforest

A segment of the cableway traveling above the rainforest

And we did this cool day trip, the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway. What’s a skyrail? Well, it’s a cableway spanning nearly five miles up and over the wet tropics rainforest with a couple stops along the way for short little walks. The town of Kuranda, a tourist destination since the early 20th century as a somewhat cooler alternative to Cairns’s summer heat, is at the end. There you can shop, have a beautiful walk through the rainforest and then along the Barron River, and have a decent lunch before getting on a scenic slow train back down to the coast. Thus “skyrail.” We were distinctly skeptical, knowing there was a chance it would be cheesy-touristy but it turned out to be a lot of fun.

Those are seriously bad restaurant ratings. Thank God TripAdvisor saved us from the looming lunch disaster.

Those are seriously bad restaurant ratings. Thank God TripAdvisor saved us from the looming lunch disaster.

Of course, the “decent lunch” part of that is premised on finding the right place. We walked around a bit and saw one place that looked good: decent menu, nice setting, reasonable prices. We were going to just stop in but decided to check it out on TripAdvisor first. Good thing. We’ve never seen a place trashed so consistently with Terrible ratings vastly outpacing any other categories. The reviews included words and phrases like “disgusting,” “vile,” “worst food ever,” “ridiculously overpriced,” and, my favorite, “seriously horrible.” We found someplace else to eat.

We’re in Queensland for another week or so before heading to Sydney for Christmas. Meanwhile, some more pictures from Palm Cove and the skyrail.

Mark as we prepare to set off on the Kuranda Scenic Railway. Originally built to service the mining industry in the area, for decades now it is primarily a tourist attraction. I loved the old-school feel of it, particularly the open windows!

Mark as we prepare to set off on the Kuranda Scenic Railway. Originally built to service the mining industry in the area, for decades now it is primarily a tourist attraction. I loved the old-school feel of it, particularly the open windows!

Yeah, open windows!

Yeah, open windows!

Part of the train ride was a pretty steep drop over sharp curves from the highlands but as we moved down you could get nice views of the train and countryside

Part of the train ride was a pretty steep drop over sharp curves from the highlands but as we moved down you could get nice views of the train and countryside

Barron Falls, from a viewpoint during one of the little stops on the cableway

Barron Falls, from a viewpoint during one of the little stops on the cableway

Our Barron Falls selfie

Our Barron Falls selfie

The walks at stops along the cableway aren't too rustic or challenging

The walks at stops along the cableway aren’t too rustic or challenging

Palms, sand, and the Coral Sea

Palms, sand, and the Coral Sea

And what blog post from Queensland in the spring would be complete without pictures of flame trees?

And what blogpost from Queensland in the spring would be complete without pictures of flame trees?