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Saturday, October 16, 2010

On the Road - Hong Kong and Japan

I’ve just returned from a tour to the Far East, mostly in Hong Kong and Japan. The band, put together by Pekka Pylkkanen (alto) from Finland, consisted of the Greek pianist George Contrafouris and the Brazilian Drummer Carlos Ezequiel – a truly international band, put together in the way these things often are in jazz these days, through mutual connections. I’d played with George with Dave Liebman and in various trio and quartet settings, I’d played with Carlos in Brazil, and with Carlos and Pekka in Denmark, George had played with Pekka in Finland. So we all knew each other in different ways, though I think I was the only one who knew everybody. We rehearsed by email in advance (as you do these days) and then put the music together in real time when we got there.

What follows is as much a travelogue as a blog, with some thoughts along the way on various subjects that were prompted by our experiences

Hong Kong

And so it begins - Asia. We had a typical Asian experience this morning - i.e. not knowing what's going on. We had a place booked for a rehearsal this morning only for it to be cancelled at the last minute. Efforts to find another place seemed to have borne fruit and so we waited for the confirmation phone call – and waited and waited......... So here we are, still in the hotel lobby three hours after we arranged to meet there to head off to rehearsal. Pekka has fought the good fight, multi-tasking on his iPhone and Macbook, but to no avail. So we’ve decided to give in and go out. You can’t fight the local ways, the best thing you can do is be glad you’re in as interesting a place as Hong Kong and get out and enjoy it – and that’s what we’re going to do............

...............And that’s what we did - took a bus to Kowloon, got lost after staying on the bus too long, walked part of the way back and eventually found the subway. I love figuring out subway systems in different cities in various parts of the world. Once you figure it out it the city just opens up to you and you get a great sense of liberation and independence – the city is your Oyster.

And Oysters seem to be the only type of seafood I haven’t seen in the vast amounts of it here – stalls, shops, restaurants, all selling fish and seafood. And it’s sold dried, fresh, salted, roasted, spiced, steamed........ The number of ways the Chinese do seafood (and many other kinds of food) is always dazzling. Even the vegetable dishes are dazzling. I’m a reluctant vegetarian myself, (as in only if I’ve no choice!), but here the vegetables are cooked so freshly that I didn’t think twice about ordering a vegetable dish for lunch instead of my usual carnivorous spread.

The following morning is the beginning of our first really musical day – a rehearsal followed by a workshop at the Hong Kong Academy for the Performing Arts. The rehearsal took place in an unusual setting – as these these kinds of rehearsals often do once you get off the beaten jazz track – in the nightclub section of a fancy hotel. How Pekka managed to get the use of the place is beyond me, but he did, so here we are amidst the chintzy glitz of a nightclub – all fake gold and sequins and thick carpet – playing contemporary jazz. Or trying to play it – we’re all a little jet lagged and nightclubs by day are always strange places. Stripped of whatever allure they have in the evenings, in broad daylight they reveal all their tackiness and their false promises of glamour. It’s hard to get it going in such a setting, but we work efficiently, have a brief lunch next door, a brief rest back at the hotel and then off to the workshop.

The Hong Kong Academy for the Performing Arts is a very impressive looking building with state of the art facilities. As far as music goes the two big subjects here are Classical Music and Chinese Music, but an American flautist and saxophonist called Tim Wilson has begun a part time jazz programme for interested students – 2 hours a week, playing standard tunes etc. I have real admiration for people like Tim who work really hard to get something going in a place like Hong Kong, so far removed from the geographical mainstream of jazz activity – Europe and America. Of course Japan, with its long history of jazz support, is pretty close by, but China and Japan do NOT get on, for all kinds of historical and political reasons, so don’t expect Japanese musicians and teachers becoming active in founding a scene in China anytime soon.......

The workshop consists of us playing a few tunes, taking questions and then having the students play while we listen and then make comments. The technical level is quite low, as is their knowledge of the jazz idiom, but they’re really enthusiastic and I must say I get a warmer feeling teaching in a place like this than I often do at some of the high level jazz schools in Europe where the students are sometimes so spoiled you can nearly drown from the combination of their sense of entitlement and their apathy.

What’s interesting musically is that the problems the students have, even at this quite low technical level, are the same problems I see with jazz students everywhere, they’re just a little more extreme. They don’t listen to each other, they play in a very literal way with a high element of role playing – press button A and play this, press button B and play that......... These kids don’t have much vocabulary, but otherwise there are similar issues that one sees in students everywhere. Of course being so far from the jazz mainstream it’s probably also very difficult for them to feel part of something larger – the jazz community and history – but that’s something I often wonder about anyway – how much are young jazz students learning this music as a kind of classical music, and how much are they learning it and seeing themselves as being part of a much larger thing? Questions for another day perhaps........... But first, dinner!

The following day we go to the Hong Kong Institute for Education and do a workshop and performance for the students there. These guys are studying pedagogy, and some have taken jazz studies as part of that. The students are of a higher technical level than in the previous institution, but the same problems are evident. Lack of listening is a big problem – not just to each other, but to the recorded history of the music. Out of 10 guys playing ‘Impressions’ only three had ever listened to the original recording, or heard Coltrane play it! An extreme example perhaps, but again lack of in-depth listening is another current issue among young musicians – the sheer availability of so much stuff does actually impact negatively on their listening habits I believe. They listen to lots of stuff – but often just once, and rarely in-depth. Again, a question for another day......... But the vibe is great, and everyone is so nice and enthusiastic, it made the 2 hours trek out there by subway worthwhile. Dinner in a great Thai Restaurant ends the day very satisfactorily

(Two Students from the Hong Kong Institute for Education try out my bass)

Hong Kong Jazz Festival

Today is the anchor gig of the tour, the Hong Kong Jazz Festival, but before the gig Carlos and I take a trek out to Mong Kok, the electronics Mecca of Kowloon. I want to by a DV Camcorder in order to have a second camera to give a different angle on things when I record music and gigs etc. (In recent years I’ve probably got too into this – spent far too much time on Final Cut Express and not enough on the simple 4 string bass!). We go the Mong Kok Computer Centre – three floors of electronics and a geek’s haven. I eventually settle on a Sanyo hand held device that functions as both a DV camcorder and a digital camera. I save myself an estimated 70 euro on the deal by buying it here, so I’m, pretty happy leaving the store. Out on the street there are even more electronics places – some really huge (see below) - it’s an extraordinary two blocks............

And so to the gig – at the Hong Kong City Hall Theatre – a big 800 seater theatre with very nice acoustics for jazz. Everything is very well organised and the soundcheck runs smoothly and there’s very good equipment and a decent dressing room. Add a free dinner courtesy of the festival to that and you can’t really ask for more. Over dinner we talk to two of the girls running the gig – Carol and Alison and it turns out they’re both piano teachers but also studied other things - business studies of some kind. So the Asian work ethic is very clear from these two young women – you can see why Japan forged ahead in the past, and why China and Korea are galloping up now.

The gig itself is great – the last 2 days of playing/workshops has got our individual and collective chops up and the band really clicks and plays a very high energy set that’s very well received. We’re playing opposite the Rusconi Trio, (whose sound engineer very generously helps us with our soundcheck), whose music is much different to ours, but the audience seems to like both. We have to wait till the end of the concert before we can go back to the hotel since the tradition here is that people get autographs. Since Pekka and Carlos are the only ones who brought CDs George and I let them do the meet and greet while George and I hang out and solve even more of the world’s musical and social problems..........

Back to the hotel – tomorrow, Japan!


Tokyo is so huge it took us two hours by train to get from the airport to the city. It’s SO different here from China – I’ve been in Japan before but it’s very interesting to come to Japan from another Asian country rather than from Europe – you get a different perspective. First of all it’s so clean and everything looks so modern and less traditional than in China. And the other thing that hit us the minute we got on the plane was the politeness! Of course I know about Japanese politeness, but when you come from China it’s thrown into even sharper relief. The Hong Kong Chinese (at least to strangers on the street or in shops etc.) are not really polite at all, they’re quite brusque and rude sometimes and never give you the impression they’ve the slightest interest in you. Which is fair enough – it’s their country and they can decide what attitude they want to take to visitors (though I think the waiter who gave me a sort of slap on the arm to remind me to take my bass with me was taking it a BIT far!).Here it’s so different, people are incredibly polite – and friendly! I had at least three exchanges with people by the time we got to the hotel, I don’t think a Chinese person outside of our business dealings, spoke to us even once.

So tonight we went out looking for a restaurant and ran into a girl giving out leaflets about a restaurant on the street – she had very little English, but Pekka has a little Japanese and so we decided to go to that restaurant. When we said we’d go she nearly had hysterics – laughing and doing the Japanese equivalent of ‘OH MY GOD!” - ringing ahead to say she was bringing four foreigners with her. And so we ended up in this tiny traditional restaurant, full of Japanese, and we sat on the floor on Tatamis around a table and had some really great food – sashimi, and Yakitori, rice and various other bits and pieces. There was great hilarity as we tried to figure out from the Japanese menu what to order and the same girl with the leaflets turned out to be the waitress there too – she was a really fun character, up for anything and laughing all the time. Then a man came in who spoke some English, and he helped us with the translation and promptly joined us at the dinner table and had dinner with us and became George’s smoking partner. So it was great fun, and it was very pleasant to be in a real authentic restaurant eating real Japanese food. Everyone in the restaurant waved goodbye to us as we left, and it was a very nice personaiised evening after the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong.

(The band with the two ladies who ran the very nice restaurant on our first night in Tokyo)

The next day we had a gig in the city, in a small venue converted for the evening into a concert space. We got there early, set up, soundchecked and having a few hours to kill we went back to the centre of town, the extraordinary Shinjuku district. Shinjuku epitomises the stereotype about Tokyo – thousands of people, flashing lights, constant movement, noise. It’s almost futuristic around there, ‘like a scene from Blade Runner’ as George described it. I’d imagine you either love it or you hate it – we loved it!

It was a real rush being there, especially being in Shinjuku station which is huge – a million people pass through it every day! - and SO easy to get lost in. Pekka did a very good job in figuring out the lines to take which, when you take a look at the Tokyo subway map (below), you can see is no easy task.

And if you do get lost it’s very hard to get information to help you with because hardly anybody speaks English. In the whole time we were in Tokyo and stopped people to ask for help, and asked them if they spoke English the answer was always no. And these were young people in one of the world’s best educated and richest nations on earth. I’m not saying they SHOULD speak English – we English speakers get away with far too much linguistic colonialism as it is – but there’s no denying that English is the travel and business language of the world, yet in Japan the level of English speaking was lower than almost any country I can remember travelling in. One of the Japanese guys I met, who does speak good English, said it was because the way English was taught - nearly all through written work - was very bad. Anyway, the fact that there's so little English spoken and a lot of the signs are unreadable to a westerner, forces you to really make an effort and to not mind the fact that it's hard to find out what's going on, or where to go, or what stuff is on a menu etc. - sometimes it's fun being lost!

We ended up at Disk Union – a famous Japanese record shop that specialises in jazz and – even more specialised – in jazz on vinyl. George is a collector of vinyl jazz LPs and there was no way he was going to visit Tokyo without visiting Disk Union as well. And it was extraordinary in there – the place was packed with people buying LPs! It reminded me of specialist record shops like Mole Jazz in London (long gone) 20 years ago. Actually it’s amazing how much jazz you hear walking around Tokyo – in shops, restaurants etc. They seem to have a real taste for it, though I notice it tends to be very much focussed around the 50s Hard Bop era. And they’re much more attached to American jazz than they are European (or Japanese for that matter), in fact European jazz musicians rarely play here in comparison to their American counterparts.

(Result! - George with a prized Clare Fischer LP at Disk Union)

George’s LP cravings having been sated for now, we head back to the gig and a play a 90 minute set, which is preceded by an interview with Pekka and George on the subject of ‘what is Finnish Jazz?’ Yutaka, the organiser of the gig, has a passion for Finnish jazz and is selling a bunch of Finnish jazz CDs at the gig. The gig itself is really good – again the band gels very well from the first bar, and it all feels great. Sometimes when you’re on the road and you’re dealing with lots of stuff – hotels, airports, food, money, etc. - you forget that the real reason you are there is to play music. And then if the band is good – which it is on this occasion – you are pleasantly reminded of it once you start playing, as in, “Now I remember - THIS is why we’re here!” After the very well received gig, we head back to Shinjuku and find a restaurant, which is packed with Saturday night diners and which is a bit of a squeeze for four large-ish westerners to get into. But all is achieved with good humour on everyone’s part and the food is delicious.

Then back out into Shinjuku subway station for the train back to the hotel. What was interesting was the fact that at night there are only young people in the subway - all the older people disappear - it was amazing! We were by far the oldest people on the subway that night. And of course everyone was dressed up - or what passes for dressed up among Japanese youth. For the girls it usually means short skirts or shorts, or even more popular, the mini skirt with the knee socks pulled to above the knee. It’s actually a very strange phenomenon in my opinion – this, (as a Japanese friend of mine described it) ‘Lolita Complex’ Almost none of them dress like women - they all dress like girls. There's a kind of childishness about their image - the kind of schoolgirly outfits (and I saw a couple of really weird ones - like Bo-Peep or something!), the Hello Kitty handbags, the miniature pink teddy bears hanging from their mobile phones - that's a little disturbing after a while. And the guys were in all kinds of weird and wonderful haircuts, sunglasses, outlandish clothes etc. It's really unique to walk through Shinjuku station on a Saturday night and see Japanese youth en-masse. An extraordinary sight. Yet, for all this apparent rebellion against the sober dress of the adult Japanese there’s no sense of anarchy about them, nor do you feel any threat, as I would in a Western city late on a Saturday night. They’re very well behaved and they form neat rows, side by side in twos, at the designated areas, to get on the subway trains. I got the feeling that the outfits constituted the beginning and the end of the rebelliousness, and that in other ways they were probably quite comfortably part of mainstream society.

The friendliness of everyone continues to be impressive. The following morning George and I were talking outside the hotel and three ladies came out - very well dressed - and invited us to come and have lunch with them - despite the fact that they had barely any English. But they were SO friendly, trying to find out where were were from (they were baffled by Greece, but were very excited by 'Irelando!') and being giggly and friendly. And in Starbucks in Shinjuku later on a man offered me his seat, said welcome and shook my hand, and then the girls came out from behind the counter and got chairs for all four of us - in a packed Starbucks on a Saturday afternoon! Never saw that anywhere else in the world.......

Having some free time before the gig, George, Carlos and I take a walk in the suburbs, and once you get off the main streets you enter a different world – quiet, narrow streets, very little traffic. It all makes for a very pleasant walk after the madness of Shinjuku and we buy some Yakatori chicken that is being grilled freshly on the side of the road, and finish the walk by having a cappucino in a café – everything was very pleasant except the price of the coffee.......... Japan is an EXPENSIVE country! I’d say it’s more expensive than even Switzerland, and that’s saying something. It’s hard to have a meal in a restaurant for less than €30 a head, and that’s just in a regular place – it’s very easy to spend much more than that. In this little café, we had 5 coffees between the three of us, I decided it was my turn to buy the coffees and was somewhat stunned to be handed a bill of €22!

The gig that night is in the ‘Finland Café’, in Shubiya (another incredibly busy area), in a café devoted to all things Finnish. It seems particularly Japanese to do this – this kind of obsessive attention being paid to one thing – though I’m hardly in a position to comment since the whole world is infected with the terrible ‘Irish Pub’ plague. The interior of the café is studded with fake birch trees and books on Finland are strewn around casually (though of course, being in Japan, there’s nothing casual about it at all). It’s a very swish looking place in the basement of an apartment block.

There are no drums in the place, so it’s to be trio, and George, being the trouper that he is, doesn’t balk at the electric keyboard he’s given to play. We play the first set - all standards, which we figure is more apposite for this audience, and which we like to play anyway - and then Yutaka approaches me, looking very embarrassed. It seems there’s been a complaint from a resident about the sound of the bass going up to his/her apartment, and would I mind not playing the second set. He assures me that it’s got nothing to do with my playing! Well, what can you do? So Pekka and George play the 2nd set, with George’s left-hand working overtime...... The audience are great, and interestingly (though it’s tragic that this is something worth mentioning), are mostly women. They pay rapt attention throughout, applaud all solos and insist on an encore at the end. If only all audiences were like this......... Another expensive dinner, an even more expensive taxi ride (having missed the last subway train) and the evening ends.


We take the Shinkansen to Kobe – the famous Japanese Bullet Trains. Very comfortable and very fast, we cover the 600+ Km to Kobe in 3 hours. During the journey Carlos and I order a coffee from the girl pushing the coffee trolley through the carriages, and she pours the coffee and then carefully arranges the coffee, sugar, milk and napkin in a very symmetric design on the fold-down table on the couch. Having done that she then pushes her trolley out of the carriage, turns around and bows ceremoniously to the carriage before leaving. Only in Japan would the ordering of a coffee on a train involve such an elaborate display of manners complete with a little ceremony to go with it.

We arrive in Kobe and are picked up at the station by Tako, one of the main guys at the Koyo Conservatory – our hosts during our stay. We go straight from the station to the workshop/performance which will take place in a club called Maiden Voyage. It always feels strange to be in these club situations during daylight – as I mentioned earlier there’s something that doesn’t quite fit about a club shorn of its night-time allure - being exposed like an ageing stage performer who is dragged out into daylight so that their true flaws and imperfections can be seen all the more clearly. But this place is actually quite nice, even during the day and the audience is made up of about 40 Japanese students who are very polite and attentive throughout. We play several tunes first and then open it up to questions.

This workshop (like all the ones we did in Japan) is being translated for us – again the low level of English is pointed up by the necessity of having a translator, something that was never necessary in the Hong Kong workshops that we did. Translated workshops are always difficult since it’s impossible to have any real interaction with the students, the delay of having everything translated kills any spontaneity, and you can only speak in short sentences since the translator has to deal with all the points you’re making, and can’t be expected to remember more than a few sentences at a time. But we do our best (and the translator does a great job), and the students are responsive, if a little shy.

They do get up to play though, and that’s always interesting since you can engage more personally with them having heard them play, rather than just doing a lecture/demonstration kind of thing. Walking cold into a room full of students in a school and figuring out what the best approach for a workshop might be is a very difficult task since you’ve no idea of their experience or concerns or needs. It’s a bit easier in a typical 3rd level US or European jazz school since the curriculum tends to be similar throughout these institutions, but in more far flung places it’s often a bit tricky regarding what level to pitch your teaching to, and what information might be most useful in the short space of time you have. In an instrumental masterclass where you’re dealing with a specific instrument it gets a bit easier, but in these mixed classes it requires a bit of care in order to maximise the impact of whatever information, or help, or even philosophical thoughts you might be be able to give. The students play through Autumn Leaves and this gives us some good talking points and allows us to focus our comments more effectively for the short time we have

The evening ends with a group photo with those who haven’t already left to smoke or go about their business (why do all Japanese kids make the Peace Sign every time a camera is pointed at them!?) then it’s off to the hotel to drop the cases and out for dinner with our hosts Akihito (whom I’ve known for a long time through the IASJ) and Tako.

They take us to a great restaurant and miraculously convert me to Sushi! I’ve never been a fan, (a friend of mine used to say ‘that’s not food, that’s bait!), though I’ve always wished I was, but on this trip the joys of Sushi are fully revealed to me and I’m now a complete convert. But I think for it to work the fish has to be as incredibly fresh, and everything else as well cooked and presented as it was at this restaurant. The food was just amazing, and foodie that I am, I’m delighted to be able to share in a gastronomic miracle that was a closed book to me up to this point.

Back to Tokyo

On any tour there are days that prove trying, and the day after the Kobe workshop/performance proves to be one of those days. Carlos and George have offered to do some extra teaching at Koyo Conservatory before we leave for Tokyo and so we head off there first and, teaching finished, go to the station for the train to Tokyo. There, for reasons too dull too go into, there’s a delay in getting the tickets and we end up missing our train and hanging around for nearly an hour and a half before eventually getting a later train. This delay means we’re behind schedule when we get to to Tokyo, where we have a workshop to do at Tokyo College of Music in the late afternoon. Before doing the workshop we have to check into our hotel in Shinjuku, and Tokyo is so huge that by far the fastest (and cheapest) way to get around, is by subway. Which is fine when you’re travelling with just a shoulder bag or something, but when you’ve got all your luggage and your bass, and you’ve several subway line changes to make on a humid afternoon, the whole thing becomes a bit of an ordeal really. By the time we reach the hotel my shoulders are aching from carrying the gear and manipulating it up and down escalators, across platforms and onto trains. Then it’s into the hotel, drop the stuff and back on the subway for the trip to TCM.

When we arrive at the nearest subway station we’re met by our hosts and then it turns out to be a 15 minute walk to the college and our hosts (both Westerners BTW), are quite happy to walk along beside us for this long trek and it never once occurs to them to offer to help carry the gear – I’ve got my bass, Pekka his alto and backpack, and Carlos his cymbals and they know we’ve had a bit of a trying day, but still they walk along empty-handed, chattering away and never offering to take anything from anyone, and this causes me to add grumpiness to my already tired mood.

So when we arrive at the college (which is an amazing modern building ), late due to all the earlier problems, I’m not really in the mood to do the workshop at all. But once we enter the room the students cheer and applaud and this immediately lifts our mood – how can you resist such enthusiasm? So, on with the show – again we play, and although it’s a cliché, the healing power of music shows itself again in that once we start playing the tired grumpy mood disappears and it’s fun time again! We’ve been playing together for almost two weeks now, the band has really gelled, and we can hit a very high level almost from the first beat. Good humour restored, we answer questions and then have the students play. Again the workshop is translated which slows things down a bit, but these students are really charming and very sweet and enthusiastic and it’s a lot of fun working with them. There are a couple of really talented improvisers among them too – all they need is a bit more experience and access to good information and a wider playing environment.

I find it extraordinary that there is no undergraduate degree that can be taken in jazz alone in Japan. When you see the history of engagement with the music here, and the popularity of it, it’s amazing that there’s no way of studying full time to degree level through the state institutions. But from talking to teachers here who are trying to change things it seems the Japanese education system is very rigid and the same structural problems that prevent effective English language teaching, also stymie any attempt to bring jazz into mainstream music education here. The Koyo Conservatory has a 2-Year full time programme, but it’s a private school and as far as I know it can’t offer an undergraduate degree at the end of the course.

As always, the evening ends with food. This time the some of the students and one of the teachers comes with us and it’s a fine way to end the tour, chatting with these very nice people and eating, again, GREAT food that arrives one dish after another in that very nice communal eating style found in Asia. George gives one of the piano players an impromptu lesson in upper structure chord voicings while I expound the joys of the Ligeti Études to another group of pianists and Carlos and I explain the geographical position, and relative difference in size and population between Ireland (4.2 million people) and Brazil (200 million). The students talk about their lives and studies and the whole evening is a great way to end the working part of the tour – we have a day off the next day before heading home.

Which Carlos and I decide to spend in Akihabara, the famed electronics district of Tokyo. It’s a noisy crowded area, full of electronics shops blaring out music and sound effects from computer games, and Anime films and all kids of other things. I remark to Carlos that this area is definitely many people’s idea of hell – noise, commercialism, crowds – but it’s also fascinating, at least for a couple of hours. The sheer energy of the place is extraordinary and it’s a real luxury to have a couple of hours to wander around and observe the scene. Again this strange Lolita complex is in evidence as the area has girls of about 17 years old on every street corner, dressed in kind of French Maid outfits handing out leaflets for various shops. The whole thing is kind of weird – there would be outrage in the West if teenagers were asked to parade around in outfits like that for the purposes of selling electronics, but here, in modern industrialised Japan, it doesn’t seem to provoke even a raised eyebrow among the passers-by.........

I end up not buying anything – the prices are dearer than Hong Kong and nothing really catches my eye. In the evening Carlos, George and I meet up for a last meal and on impulse go to an Indian restaurant (Indian food is a passion of mine), where the food is very good and the portions more in keeping with the needs of someone of George’s size. George has been enjoying the Japanese food but has felt that the meals often feel more like a snack to him than a proper meal. We finish up having a coffee in Starbucks – not a chain I like particularly, but I have been missing the after dinner coffee while in Japan – they haven’t really embraced coffee culture and, uncultured addict that I am, I’ve been feeling that the one thing these great Japanese meals need to make them even greater is an espresso at the end.

So that was that – the next day we all undertook the long trip home, (Carlos’ journey was 44 hours via South Africa......) and brought to an end a really great trip involving music, crowds, culture shock, traffic, teachers, students, subways, soundchecks, festivals, sushi, sashimi, stir fry, yakitori, neon signs, unreadable signs, noise, politeness, impoliteness, efficiency, inefficiency, planes, trains, automobiles..................

After 2 weeks of man-made wonder, on the way home my plane flies over Siberia on a perfect day for viewing the beauty and wonder of nature...........