NZ: Marlborough Wine Country

…Typed while drinking a 2008 Highfield Pinot Noir and eating smoked NZ salmon with fresh blue cheese – our pre-dinner/blogging appetizer…

View from Highfield Winery

View from the Highfield Winery

We spent our first two days in New Zealand in the Marlborough Wine Country in the northern part of the South Island.  Our trip from Japan was great – the upgrade to premium economy on the Air New Zealand flight from Tokyo to Auckland more than paid for itself in comfort, food and wine.

We flew from Auckland to Blenheim on a 14-seat plane. The first half of the flight was cloudy but as we crossed the sound to the South Island the weather began to clear and the view slowly became spectacular. The fingers of the Marlborough Sound emerged from the sea as we began our descent. The valley floor was covered with vineyards as far as the eye could see…it was sort of magical.

After finding the woman who came to meet us with our rental car, we left the 1-gate airport/air force base and headed to our B&B. We checked in, showered and changed into our summer clothes – shorts and a t-shirt – and were off to squeeze in some wine tasting before closing time.  We managed to make it to three and purchased a bottle of wine from each.

We drove into Blenheim (about 5k) for dinner and ended up eating an early meal at a Thai/Chinese restaurant – very good.  We were starting to get tired and headed back home where we had a block of blue cheese, an apple and a bottle of St. Clair Sauvignon Blanc on the deck on the backyard.  After that, we had no trouble getting to sleep – even with the 4-hour time change from Japan.

Our Favorite - Seresin Winery

Our Favorite Winery – Seresin

On Day 2, we started out the day with a breakfast of fruit, homemade yogurt and muesli, croissants, and coffee – not a bad way to get going. We made it to our first winery by 11 am. I think I have decided that the wine you have between breakfast and lunch is invariably the best. Maybe we have this whole wine at night thing wrong? We visited 5-6 more wineries during the day and are now fully stocked for the first week of our trip.  My recommendations for best wines in Marlborough are: Saint Clair and Seresin.

Tomorrow our plan is to get up and have another wonderful breakfast and then start our longest drive of the trip (6 hours).  We will end the day in Lake Tekapo and stay at another B&B.  We should have Internet access on a regular basis after that and will hopefully be able to get more pictures posted.

Daisaitogomaku “Fire” Festival

Fire Festival (Daisaitou Gomaku)

Atago Fire Festival

Robert had some work to catch up on today, so I went with a couple of other teachers to our local shrine (Atago) to see it’s biggest festival.  There is not a lot of information about it in English other than “it is a fire festival during which participants overcome adversities and purify their souls by walking barefoot on burning coals”.   How could you not want to go see that?  We got there early so we could watch the whole ceremony from beginning to end.  It lasted 2 1/2 hours.  There was a young shrine “helper” who spoke some English that explained a few things to us.  We bought some long wooden sticks and wrote our ‘dreams and wishes’ on them.  He informed us that they would eventually be thrown into the bonfire where the ‘prayer’ could make it’s way to heaven.

Fire Festival (Daisaitou Gomaku)

Burning of the Prayers

The festival started with chanting and singing, and then a procession of the Shinto priests into the shrine hall for prayer.  They eventually made their way out of the hall, where one priest cut the rope surrounding the ceremonial grounds with his sword so all the priests could enter.  This was followed by a series of priests (in pairs) performing different rituals to prepare for the bonfire.  Arrows were shot in four different directions, axes were swung around the burn pile, and a series of other blessings (both verbal and physical) were performed until the torches were blessed and lit.  The head priest sang from his scroll and the pile was set on fire.  Then the drumming and chanting began.  This went on for about an hour while the fire burned.  The crowd (including me) was allowed to throw the wooden prayers into the fire.   The priests attended to the flames…allowing it to burn, yet keeping it under control with holy water.  The constant rhythm of the drums and chanting was almost hypnotizing.  The priests had large wooden prayers which were thrown in last.  The fire was finally allowed to die down.  The priests then began raking the coals and spreading them out.  Finally, a pathway was created through the center of the hot coals using a large bamboo tree trunk.

Fire Festival (Daisaitou Gomaku)

Walking on the Coals

The observers started taking off their socks and shoes. Our shrine ‘helper’ informed us it was OK for us to walk across if we wanted.  The priests and priestesses went across first, then the observers – of all ages.  Maureen decided she was going to walk on the coals.  I thought about crossing it, but I figured my soul doesn’t need any purifying :).  Actually, I would definitely do it next year if Robert is interested in seeing it.  After the last participant finished the walk, we watched the priests put out the rest of the flames.  The day was still young, so I even had time to head out and do some Christmas shopping.

Return to Dazaifu

Walking around Dazaifu

Temple Doors

Last time we were in Dazaifu it was brutally hot….so hot we couldn’t think straight, much less enjoy the area.  In fact, we spent most of the time in the National Museum just to stay cool and sane.  We’ve been wanting to go back for a while and since the weather was perfect and another flea market was taking place, we decided to venture out that way again.

Our first stop was Komyozenji Temple which we didn’t see last time.  It was nice and quiet.  We almost had the whole place to ourselves.  It actually looked and felt like winter had arrived at this temple…even the old floorboards were cold.  And I’m not sure when those monks are suppose to rake their gardens, but the back was covered in leaves with no gravel visible.  We took our time in there trying to soak up all the calm and quiet we could before heading into the bustling flea market.  We both admired the simple, yet beautiful woodwork throughout the building.  Eventually, we made our way back into the crowds and checked out the market merchandise.  There were plenty of choices if you wanted fabric, kimonos, obis or jewelry.  There were a couple of pottery stalls and a few with antiques, but we didn’t see anything we couldn’t live without.

Rice fields

Rice Fields

We decided during lunch to finish our day with a walkabout.  The town has lots of places to see, so we thought we’d knock a few of them out by following the recommended historical walk through town on one of the back roads.  Dazaifu is an incredibly pretty and very relaxing little town.  On our walk, we saw lots of little side roads that lead up into the hillside…beckoning us for a future visit.  We visited a couple of other temples and then spent some time hanging out at the Dazaifu government ruins (which is more of a park) enjoying the wonderful weather and watching families play.  Robert enjoyed listening to a few kids practicing on their trombones.  Amazingly there were still some very colorful fall spots along the base of the hills.  We eventually boarded the SLOW train back to Tenjin and picked up a few more macaroons.  They should last us until maybe Monday. 🙂