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From aliens to the Wild West and back out to space!

New Mexico day fifteen


View New Mexico road trip 2011 on ToonSarah's travel map.

The Rosswell Day’s Inn where we had spent the night included breakfast in its room rate. This was described by the motel in its publicity material as ‘luxurious’, but ‘adequate’ would have been a much better choice of word. The buffet offered eggs and grits, biscuits, mini muffins, make-your-own waffles, brown water masquerading as coffee, and juice.

We then drove into the centre of town for a final look round before hitting the road again.

On the streets of Roswell

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Street art in Roswell

Whatever the truth about the 1947 Roswell Incident, one thing is certain – today, Roswell is a town obsessed. It’s impossible to spend any time here without encountering a large number of aliens and it is clear that whatever you want to promote or sell in Roswell (t-shirts, ice cream, burgers, souvenirs) the best way to do it is to attach an alien to it!

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Shop windows in Roswell

One other thing is clear too; the Roswell Incident (which in fact took place 70 miles away!) has elevated a fairly ordinary town into a major destination for visitors looking for the unusual or quirky, like ourselves, as well as for die-hard UFO aficionados. So we had a good time this morning exploring the downtown streets, photographing our own ‘alien encounters’.

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Building detail

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'Spaceship' McDonalds

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Bus shelter

It was all rather fun, and added to our very positive impression of New Mexico as a state with a huge variety of sights and experiences.

Pioneer Plaza, Roswell

As a break from photographing the aliens, the central Pioneer Plaza proved a pleasant place to hang out for a short while. At its centre is an attractive sculpture, entitled ‘Cattle King of the Pecos’. It shows John Simpson Chisum, a cattle baron who owned a ranch (South Spring Ranch) four miles southeast of downtown Roswell in the mid 19th century. Chisum was involved in the Lincoln County War and initially helped Billy the Kid who was one of his ranch hands, before falling out with him and losing cattle to his raids. He was involved in getting Pat Garrett, who later went on to shoot the Kid elected as sheriff. He was played by John Wayne in the 1970 film of the same name.

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Cattle King of the Pecos

The two most notable buildings in the vicinity of the plaza are rather a contrast in scale and style. One is the Chaves County Courthouse, built in 1911 in the Beaux Arts Classical style popular at that time, and showing the sort of grandeur thought necessary to strike fear into any criminal to be tried here. The other is the modest Conoco service station built in the 1920s. I had read that this was one of the few remaining intact early gasoline stations in the state, so I expected it to be a gas station, complete with photogenic old pumps, and was a little disappointed to discover that it’s now an office.

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Former Conoco service station

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Zia symbol
(free to use clip-art)

The square was constructed in 1997 on the site of what was known as Roswell’s Pioneer Block, hence the name. The first adobe building in Roswell once stood on this site, but is long gone, although a square of brown paving tiles containing the red Zia sun sign (the symbol of New Mexico), on the Main Street side of the square, shows its former location. A cement square with park benches on the corner of 4th and Main Streets marks the location of the store where Sheriff Pat Garrett bought the ammunition he used to shoot Billy the Kid.

Unfortunately when the city authorities developed the square they demolished almost all the buildings then standing here, and nothing was saved for posterity apart from these marks on the ground. And although it’s a very pleasant town square, and apparently well used by residents for all sorts of events, it’s a shame that nothing now remains from Roswell’s early days.

So we left Roswell and its aliens behind us and drove west on Highway 380 to a place where a sense of history was guaranteed.

Lincoln: the town that started a war

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Ammunition for sale in the Tunstall Store, Lincoln

Lincoln is a very small place to have started a war, but that is just what it did. In the late 19th century the Lincoln County War led to the deaths of at least 19 people and terrorised settlers throughout the county, which at that time included all of south-eastern New Mexico. Not for nothing did President Rutherford B. Hayes once call Lincoln’s main street ‘the most dangerous street in America.’

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In Lincoln

Today Lincoln is a pretty sleepy place, although I imagine it gets busy with visitors at the height of the season. The whole town is operated, unusually, as a state monument. Its one street is lined with historic homes and buildings – some museums, others still private homes. There are no gas stations or convenience stores in Lincoln, and only one public telephone.

Arriving in the town we went first to the Visitor Centre, to pay the $5.00 admission fee, which included entry to the six historical properties then open at this time of year (nowadays the website says seven buildings are open to the public, but between November 1st and March 31st only five can be visited). We also spent some time looking at the exhibits here. I had seen many references to the Lincoln County War while travelling around New Mexico, and especially in our encounters with Billy the Kid, but it was only on this next to last day of our trip, when we came here to Lincoln and to this very informative Visitor Centre, that I was able to put together the pieces and understand the full story.

The war started in November 1876, when Henry Tunstall and Alexander McSween opened a store in Lincoln, setting themselves up in competition with existing store owners Lawrence Murphy and J. J. Dolan. The latter had had a monopoly on selling goods not just in the town but also supplying beef to nearby Ft. Stanton and the Mescalero Indian Reservation. When Murphy and Dolan challenged the newcomers, Tunstall was killed, forming the catalyst for all-out battle between the two sides. Tunstall’s cowhands (who included Billy the Kid) and some other local citizens formed a group known as the Regulators to avenge his murder, knowing that they could not rely on the official criminal justice system which was controlled by allies of Murphy and Dolan.

A whole series of killings on either side ensued, culminating in a three day battle here in Lincoln in July 1878. Tunstall’s Regulators were surrounded in two different positions, the McSween house and the Ellis store. Many of the key figures in the war died in this battle, including McSween himself. It was eventually halted by the intervention of the US Army. Those not already killed scattered, including Billy the Kid and other Regulators, who turned to a life of cattle rustling and other crimes. It would be December 1880 before Billy was tracked down by Sherriff Pat Garrett, arrested, and tried in Mesilla (where we were to go the next day).

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In Lincoln

In April 1881 the Kid was convicted of killing Sheriff Brady, the only conviction ever secured against any of the combatants in the Lincoln County War. He was sentenced to be executed, and held under guard at Lincoln Courthouse to await his fate. But he escaped from there, only to be tracked down again by Garrett, in Fort Sumner, and shot dead.

The Visitor Centre told us this story in a series of informative panels. It also covered other aspects of the history of this area. Chris and I were especially interested in the display about the Buffalo Soldiers. We know the Bob Marley song, of course, but didn’t really know much about who they were, until our visit here. The name was a nickname given to African-American troops by the Native Americans they were fighting against in the Indian Wars. The name may have originated in the Indian’s respect for the fierce fighting ability of these soldiers, or perhaps because their dark curly hair resembled a buffalo's coat.

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Model of Indian Scout

Other exhibits showed pueblo culture and life in Lincoln County during the early years of settlement, with items of furniture and household goods. It was all very well done, and just the right size for us to be able to take it in without feeling overwhelmed with facts.

Equipped with all this knowledge we set off to explore the town.

The Montaño Store

The first of the historic buildings we went into was the Montaño Store, almost opposite the Visitor Centre. I confess I was a little disappointed, as it had not been restored as a store but instead houses display panels relating to the history of the building, the store’s owner at the time of the Lincoln County War, José Montaño, and describing adobe construction and the Hispanic way of life. It was all fairly interesting, and there were some fascinating old photos, but I had hoped for more in the way of exhibits and was concerned that Lincoln would prove less absorbing than I had thought. I need not have worried however, as some of the other buildings had more to offer.

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Old stove in the Montaño Store, and sign outside

Meanwhile though we enjoyed getting to know a bit about Montaño. He tried to stay neutral during the War, but the store was used as a shelter by McSween gunmen during the battle that took place here. It was here that one of the most famous examples of marksmanship in Western lore took place. Fernando Herrera, using a Sharps 45-120-555 rifle, fired a shot 756 yards from the roof of the store, fatally wounding Charlie ‘Lallacooler’ Crawford. Crawford’s belt buckle deflected the bullet, but he died from the wound a week later. Eventually the US Army forced the gunmen who were holed up here to abandon the store, which led in part to the killing of McSween himself and burning of his house and store just up the street.

At the height of Lincoln’s prosperity as a town Montaño’s was one of four stores here. It sold tools, whiskey, calico, seeds, nails and everything else that was needed in a mid 19th century Western town. It hosted weekend dances and was probably also used as a bar. Governor Lew Wallace, the author of Ben Hur, spent time socialising here.

Montaño died in 1903 and his wife sold the business to family members, who in turn sold it to another family, the Romeros. It was they that sold it to the Lincoln County Heritage Trust, in 1967, to be operated as museum.

San Juan Mission Church

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San Juan Church

Walking westwards along the main road the next historic building we came to was the mission church, dedicated to San Juan Bautista (St John the Baptist). This Roman Catholic church was built in 1887, of adobe made on site and vigas from the Capitan Mountains, and is still in use today. It is one of the buildings to which our ticket provided admission, although that admission was restricted to the first few yards inside the door, after which there was a barrier. A shame, as I would have liked to have looked around properly.

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Inside San Juan

The church was restored by the New Mexico State Monuments in 1984, hence its good condition. I wasn’t able to find out much else about the building, but I felt that it couldn’t be a coincidence that it was built soon after the Lincoln County War and the battle that took place here on the main street of the town. Maybe an earlier church was damaged or destroyed at that time? Or maybe there was no church, and that contributed to the lawlessness of the community?

The Torreon

Opposite the church is the Torreon, one of the oldest structures still standing in Lincoln. It was built in the 1850s to protect the Spanish settlers here during Apache raids. In the three-day Lincoln County War battle that took place in the town, this tower was used as a base for Murphy’s sharpshooters. It was restored in 1937, and I couldn’t see that it was possible to go inside at all.

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The Torreon

Next door to the tower we found a spinning and weaving shop, La Placita (no longer there, as far as I can tell). Inside we met a lady who was demonstrating the technique of spinning by hand, and there were several looms set up. The shop sold the wool, which is all dyed with natural dyes such as those that would have been used by early settlers – browns from the leaves of walnut trees, yellow from wood shavings, green from avocado skins, and so on.

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In La Placita

The Tunstall Store

Of all the old buildings in Lincoln, this is one of two (the other being the Courthouse) that must rate as the most historically significant and I found them by far the most interesting to visit. It was the opening of this store by Henry Tunstall and Alexander McSween, in November 1876, which triggered the Lincoln County War, as they were seen as a threat by the owners of what was until then the only store in the area, Lawrence Murphy and J. J. Dolan.

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In the Tunstall Store

Today the store is set out just as it would have been back in the 1870s. You could happily peer around here for some time, as all the shelves are stacked with everything a settler would have wanted for daily life in the home and on the land: tools, china and glass for the house, seeds, fabrics, flour and sugar, biscuits, tea, clothing and hats, and of course ammunition. These are displayed in the original shelving and cases, which are incredibly well-preserved considering their age and all that has happened here.

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In the Tunstall Store

I also loved the old cash register and rather battered safe. Photography is allowed in all the buildings, by the way, but no flash. And we were able to wander all over the shop, although visitors are asked to stay on the areas of floor laid for the purpose and not to stray on to the original floorboards, in order to help preserve them.

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Old safe

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Cash register

This is one of only two places where were asked to show our admission ticket. The lady on duty was very friendly and full of information about the store, pointing out several details that we had missed.

Next door to the Tunstall Store is the Thomas W Watson House, which was under restoration at the time of our visit. It was built in the 1880s and served as Doctor Watson’s home and drug store from 1903-1920, hence the name. It is thought to have been built either on the site of the west wing of the McSween house, or just adjacent to it.

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The Thomas W Watson House, Lincoln

The shack opposite the store, and the blue door in the wall next to it, are part of the Dolan Outpost property. The house was built in 1883 and 1884 by Elijah Dow, carpenter, and George Peppin, stonemason, who also built the San Juan Church and the Court House. During the 1920s and 1930s the house was known as the Bonito Inn and it is claimed that Lew Wallace wrote some of Ben-Hur on its porch.

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Dolan Outpost land

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Dolan Outpost land

The Courthouse

The Courthouse was the last building we visited in Lincoln and was one of the most interesting. It was once the Murphy-Dolan store, holding a monopoly in the area until Tunstall and McSween arrived to set up their rival business, and was also Dolan’s home, but was later converted into the courthouse.

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Old sherriff's uniform

Ironically, given the animosity between him and Dolan, this is where Billy the Kid was imprisoned, on the upper floor, while awaiting execution for the murder of Sheriff Brady. Pat Garrett knew that the Kid would find it easy to escape from the regular town jail, so he kept him shackled hand and foot and guarded around the clock in the room behind his own office at the county courthouse, which had been the old Murphy-Dolan store. He was guarded by two deputies, and yet escape he did.

You might wonder how he managed that, and the answer is that he pulled one of the oldest tricks in the book – the ‘I need to go to the lavatory’ one! It helped that only one of his guards was present at the time – the other having taken the remaining, less dangerous prisoners, out to dinner. Yes, you read that correctly – apparently they were in the habit of taking their meals in the Wortley Hotel almost opposite the Courthouse, and were there at the time of Billy’s break for freedom.

On the day in question Billy asked the one deputy left on duty, James Bell, if he could use the bathroom, which of course in those days was outside behind the main building. The guard agreed, allowing him to do so though still in his leg-irons and chains and with handcuffs still on.

When they returned to the Courthouse Billy made his move, shooting the deputy as he followed him up the stairs (it is not clear how he managed to get his hands on the gun, which probably came from the Courthouse’s own stock). Bell staggered outside but died from his wounds as soon as he got there. The other deputy, Bob Olinger, heard the shots from the saloon across the road and came running, to see the Kid at an upstairs window. That deputy too was killed, and Billy was free to make his escape, aided by some of the townsfolk sympathetic to his cause. Today you can still see the damage said to have been made by one of the bullets on the wall at the foot of the stairs, while plaques outside mark the spots where Bell and Olinger fell.

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Staircase down which Billy the Kid escaped, and bullet hole in the wall

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The Curry Saloon

As well as all this history directly associated with the Lincoln County War, one ground floor room here is dedicated to the former lawmen of Lincoln County, including Pat Garrett, and models show how the uniform has changed over the years. Personally though I found this much less interesting than the material on Billy the Kid, whose trail we had been following all over the state.

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Old safe in the Courthouse

Opposite the Courthouse is the former Curry Saloon, where, like the Wortley Hotel next door, the judges from the Courthouse opposite used to dine. The saloon takes its name from George Curry, a Territorial Governor of New Mexico and later Congressman, who ran the saloon in the late 1880s. It is now a deli serving light meals and cold drinks, but despite the open sign was closed when we tried it. Luckily the Wortley was not …

The Wortley Hotel

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Sign outside Wortley Hotel

The official Lincoln website said that there were four restaurants operating in the historical district at the time of our visit, but we only saw two, and only one of these was open. Luckily the Wortley Hotel proved to be a good choice for a light lunch. The décor was suitably old-fashioned for such a historic location, the service friendly and the sandwiches tasty and reasonably priced. We sat in the conservatory area at the front, which was lighter and pleasanter than the rather dark main room, but did make service a little slower as we weren’t in the direct eye of the one lady serving. Still, we weren’t in a hurry, and rather enjoyed eavesdropping on the conversation of the couple at the next table, who were evidently locals and having a good gossip about various neighbours!

Chris chose the ‘Captain Jack’s’ grilled cheese sandwich with green chilli and bacon, which he enjoyed, and I had a BBQ pork sandwich, which was packed with moist well-flavoured meat. Both came with a pickle and potato chips. We also had a large orange juice each. The meal was not at all expensive, especially considering the fact that they seemed to have a monopoly, albeit temporary, in the middle of a tourist destination.

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My BBQ pork sandwich

As well as a good meal, you are experiencing a part of Lincoln’s history when you eat here. The Wortley (albeit an earlier building) is where Deputy Olinger had brought the other prisoners for dinner one evening, giving Billy the Kid the opportunity he was looking for to shoot his way out of his Courthouse imprisonment. As the hotel’s website said back then:
~ We no longer feed prisoners.
~ The food is much better these days.
~ Carnage of this sort rarely occurs in modern day Lincoln, thus our motto, ‘No Guests Gunned Down in Over 100 Years’.

After lunch we continued our journey west through the Capitan Mountains and then south on Highway 54 to our planned base for the night, Alamogordo.

Alamogordo

One of the main sights that had brought us to New Mexico in the first place was the White Sands, and it was these that brought us in turn to Alamogordo, saving it for now, towards the end of our trip. The sands themselves were on tomorrow’s itinerary, as we wanted to be there early in the morning, so for now the priority was to find somewhere to stay for the night (I hadn’t pre-booked) and to see what else the town had to offer.

The first was soon sorted. On arriving in town we found that most places were fairly basic non-chain motels, several of which had been recommended in our Moon Handbook. So we chose one of these which looked reasonable, the Alamo Inn. It proved to be just as described – nothing fancy but clean and good value. We secured a room with a queen size bed, fridge, microwave and TV.

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Our room at
the Alamo Inn

Most motels in the town are strung out along this busy main road and traffic noise is just about inevitable wherever you stay, as are the occasional whistles from passing trains – although personally I rather like the latter and never mind being woken by them. So although you could get larger fancier rooms in one of the pricier places, to be honest if you’re just crashing for one night to get an early start at the White Sands, as we were, a no-frills place like this should suit you just fine, as it did us. And in the event I slept well, despite the traffic, as the bed was comfortable and the sheets fresh and clean, which is all you really need. Since our visit, however, the motel has acquired a new name, the Classic, and a new owner, and reviews suggest that it is no longer as welcoming and pleasant as we found it to be – what a shame!

The motel had a small pool, which had already been drained for the winter when we were there, and a continental breakfast was included in the room rates, but we were leaving early to get to the White Sands as soon as the park opened so we made use of the fridge to store our picnic breakfast overnight instead.

Now, with somewhere to lay our heads for the night sorted, we could turn to the next priority, fitting in a bit of sightseeing. And there was one obvious sight in town that was sure to appeal to us both!

The New Mexico Museum of Space History

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Rocket to the moon?

Both Chris and I grew up with the Space Race, and both of us have a clear memory of the Moon Landings, especially the first, so a visit to a museum that documents it all was a must! The museum sits on a hill on the east side of Alamogordo, and it was a very windy day so we really felt the force of it up here. We could see the effect of the wind too – it was whipping up the white sand (or more accurately gypsum) from the White Sands National Monument some miles to the south and creating a bizarre sort of sandstorm on the far side of town. We were a bit concerned about our planned visit there the next day when we saw this, although in the event the wind dropped overnight and we were to have perfect weather for it – but that’s a story for my next entry ...

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Alamogordo from the Museum of Space History
- you can see the haze caused by the 'sandstorm' on the horizon

Despite the wind we spent a little while looking at the exhibits outside the museum, and if you’re short of time and don’t want to pay the admission for a hurried visit it’s worth knowing that these can be seen for free, as well as that good view of the town and beyond. These exhibits include a Mercury capsule, which you can climb into and experience just how cramped it would have been for the astronauts who flew in it.

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Mercury capsule

I also liked seeing the Little Joe II rocket. This was used to test the Apollo launch escape system, as it could boost a spacecraft on a path which duplicated an Apollo-Saturn in-flight emergency. During this ‘emergency’, the Launch Escape system fired and pulled the Command Module containing the astronauts safely away from the booster. At 86 feet tall, Little Joe II is the largest rocket ever launched from New Mexico. Five of these Little Joe II tests were flown from the nearby White Sands Missile Range between August 1963 and January 1966.

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Little Joe

Having finished looking at these and other exhibits we headed inside and paid the (then) $5 admission fee. T thought the museum was very well-organised. We started by taking a lift up to the top floor and from there worked our way down a series of ramps passing all the displays and exhibits. There was so much to see! The displays cover the history of rocket science from early rocket experiments to the NASA programme. One display offered the opportunity to ‘land’ a space shuttle with a simulator (I was very pleased to land it safely at my first attempt!) and another to go inside a mock-up of the Space Lab (my photo shows Chris pretending he knows which knobs to twiddle!)

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Chris in the 'Space Lab'

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Memorial to Ham, the first monkey in space

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Satellite

There was information on meteorites, satellites, commercial space flights and much more. The exhibits were arranged thematically rather than chronologically, so it did seem a little haphazard at times, but most of it was very interesting and I didn’t think you needed to know a lot about the subject matter to be able to appreciate and take it all in.

As we walked down the ramps, we saw that the walls were lined with photos of all those who have been inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame, which commemorates the achievements of men and women who have furthered humanity's exploration of space. I was interested to see that this is truly international – there may once have been great rivalry between the US and the then-USSR, but today the achievements of both nations, and many others, are celebrated here. And I was pleased to see five Brits here, including Arthur C Clarke whose science fiction novels I read avidly as a teenager.

Dinner at Tia Lupes

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Tia Lupes

When we had first arrived in town, one reason for our choice of the Alamo Inn was the proximity of a couple of possible eating places within a block or so. We had planned to try Si Senor, just next door, but when I looked online after checking-in I found several poor reviews – and some very good ones for a place a couple of blocks away, Tia Lupes. So in the evening we walked down there (yes, walked – we’re odd, or so the drivers in the US seem to think when we walk a few blocks along a busy road rather than get out the car to drive so short a distance!)

The reviews had said that Tia Lupes had no liquor license, so we were surprised on arrival to see beers and wines on display in a cold cabinet. Our waiter proudly explained that they had got their license just a few weeks before, so we promptly ordered two beers, only to be asked for ID. This had happened to us earlier in the trip, in Albuquerque, so we had been carefully carrying our passports each evening when going out to eat or drink, but with no license at Tia Lupes, as we had thought, we hadn’t bothered that evening. Luckily the owner here was more flexible than in the Flying Star and a quick check with her got the waiter the permission needed to serve us our beers.

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Chicken chimichanga
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Chilli Relleno Plate

Drinks sorted, we turned to the food. From a long menu I chose the ‘Chilli Relleno Plate’ – green chillies stuffed with cheese and served with a corn tortilla, rice, beans and a choice of green or red chilli sauce. I chose the latter, which the menu warned was ‘HOT’. The waiter offered to bring it on the side, to which I agreed, but although pretty hot it was fine for someone used to Indian food in the UK, so I tipped it on! I found the chillies a little over-cooked but the rice and beans were among the best I’d had on the trip. Chris had a good chicken chimichanga, which also came with rice and beans and some of the same hot red sauce.

We wouldn’t normally have dessert after a meal like that, but we were persuaded by the friendly owner to try that evening’s special, ‘sopapilla swirl’. So we shared one and it was very good, though filling – a plate of small sopapillas (the traditional puffed up breads) served with chocolate sauce and vanilla ice cream (almost like a New Mexican version of profiteroles).

Our bill for the two mains, two beers and the shared dessert was really reasonable. Tia Lupes had won several awards locally and I could see why – it was a good, simple family-run place producing decent food at good prices in a welcoming setting. Unfortunately however, it seems now to have closed down – I guess this sort of place doesn’t always stay established for long. Still, it had given us a good evening out, before we turned in for an early night as we planned a prompt get-away the next morning – the White Sands were calling us!

Posted by ToonSarah 02:30 Archived in USA Tagged food architecture road_trip restaurant history hotel museum space new_mexico Comments (5)

Snow in the desert?

New Mexico day sixteen


View New Mexico road trip 2011 on ToonSarah's travel map.

White Sands National Monument

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Early morning shadows on the White Sands

It was the White Sands in part at least that brought us to New Mexico, and they did not disappoint. After seeing the wonderful photos taken here by a Virtual Tourist friend, Richie, I was really keen to see these scenes for myself, and that was one of the triggers for planning a holiday in this incredible state.

As we were staying in Alamogordo rather than in the park itself (where the only accommodation option is back-country camping), we made an early start that day, skipping breakfast in favour of juice and muffins which we had stocked up on the previous day ready to picnic later in the park.

We were at the gates soon after the 7.00 am opening time. I knew that the best photos are to be had around dawn and dusk, but for non-campers like ourselves arriving at opening time is the next best option. At that time, especially by October when we visited, the sun is still low enough to cast interesting shadows among the dunes, and not so bright that it washes everything out in the harsh white glare.

We paid the $3 per person fee at the gates, skipping the visitor centre which was still closed at that time (and which in any case was much less of a priority for us than seeing the actual dunes), and entered the park. At first the landscape was much like that of the rest of this part of New Mexico, flat scrubland. But we could see the white dunes ahead of us as we drove and were soon among them.

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Driving through White Sands National Monument

Imagine a desert with dunes that stretch to the horizon, dotted with a few hardy plants and baking under a hot sun. Now imagine that the sand in this desert is not yellow, but as white as snow, and you will have some idea of what it is like here.

But despite the name, this is not sand! The white crystals are in fact gypsum, and in this part of New Mexico the dunes cover 275 square miles of desert creating the world's largest gypsum dunefield. Not all of this though is part of the National Monument, as much of it is off-limits on the White Sands Missile Range – these wide open spaces are ideal for such activities it seems. But thankfully the National Monument does preserve a large portion of the dunefield and makes it accessible for us all to enjoy.

Interdune Boardwalk

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View from the Interdune Boardwalk

Our first stop, which I had planned carefully in advance, was at the Interdune Boardwalk. This offers a short easy walk with interpretive boards describing the plant life on the dunes etc. It was just right for a pre-breakfast stroll and got us in among the dunes while the light was still good.

The Interdune Boardwalk is an easy elevated trail of about 600 metres (there and back). It led us through a fragile interdune area to a scenic view at the top of a dune. Interdune areas are where all plant life in the dunefield starts. The interpretive boards here described the various plants that manage to grow in this harsh environment and also explained how they get their first footholds and gradually colonise the desert. It was an interesting introduction to this fascinating environment, and the plants themselves made interesting subjects for photography, although because of them the area lacks the other-worldliness of the deeper reaches of the park.

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Plant life near the Interdune Boardwalk

Back at the car we ate our simple breakfast picnic and then it was time to explore further. There are no restrictions on where you can walk here, as long as you pull off the road when you stop, so having found the Interdunes Walk just a little busier than we had expected at that early hour, we stopped again just a short distance up the road and scrambled up a small dune to get an overview of the scene around us.

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Panorama by the road side

Only a few yards from the road we found ourselves alone, and it wasn’t difficult to imagine how it might feel to be lost in this wilderness, or how the desert would have looked in the days before any roads were laid through it or visitor facilities provided. I also got some of my most striking photos here, proving that it is well worth taking the time and trouble to get just a little off the beaten path if at all possible.

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Lone grasses

Alkali Flat Trail

We then followed the road to the far end of the loop drive. There were several marked picnic areas here with grills, tables and seats, and these slightly surreal-looking space-age shelters to provide protection from the harsh midday sun in summer. It was still fairly early in the morning and the place was pretty deserted. I am sure it gets busier later, especially at the height of the season, but we rather enjoyed having it to ourselves as the shelters made great subjects for some rather different White Sands photos. At that time of day in October we didn’t really need their protection, but it was a fun place to relax for a short while and refresh ourselves with a drink, and we were also glad of the (primitive) restrooms provided here.

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Picnic shelters

Then we set out on our walk. The Alkali Flat Trail is the only trail of any real length in the park, at 4.6 miles round trip. This trail should not be undertaken without proper preparation, as there is no shade in this harsh environment, and walking on these shifting sands is not always easy.

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Trail marker

But even if you don’t feel you can walk the full length (and we didn’t), just ten minutes’ walk along here was enough to get us into a different world – the crowds were left behind and we had the dunes to ourselves.

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Panoramas of the Alkali Flat Trail

There are far fewer plants here, and the landscape is even more strange and striking. The Alkali Flat itself lies at the end of the trail. This is the dry lakebed of Lake Otero, a lake that filled the bottom of the Tularosa Basin during the last ice age and covered 1,600 square miles. We didn’t make it that far, but nevertheless the trail gave us plenty of opportunities, as the park brochure had suggested it would, to enjoy the spectacular scenery.

And despite the fact that sun had climbed a little higher by the time we got here (about 9.30 I think), the photo opportunities were still excellent. The white sand stretches for miles, and beyond the dunes we could just see the mauve-grey hues of the Organ Mountains, which we were to pass later in the day on our way to Los Cruces.

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Lone plant on Alkali Flat

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On the Alkali Flat Trail
- Organ Mountains on the horizon

After about half an hour or so of exploring and photography we made our way back to the parking lot. By now it was mid-morning, and we were surprised to see how much fuller the parking area had become. A large coach had just drawn up, disgorging its passengers, and most of them looked as if they would be content to admire the dunes from just where they stood – certainly few of them had the footwear for hiking on soft shifting sands. For them the White Sands would be all about the views to be had from the road-side, which thankfully are pretty great. But I was amazed that some of them did set off on the trail despite being dressed very inappropriately – I even saw one woman in high-heeled sandals! I suspect she didn’t get far, though we didn’t stick around to see

There were also quite a few family groups arriving and setting up for a day on the sands, just as if they were on a beach with deck-chairs to sit on and children playing in the sand! – although with no cooling water in which to take a dip, and no shelter (in this part of the park) from the sun’s heat, this would not be my idea of fun even in relatively cool October!

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Family enjoying the dunes

Visitor Centre

When we had arrived the Visitor Centre was as I mentioned still shut. Besides, we were too keen to get to the sands themselves to stop here even if it had been open. But we did stop on our way out, to use the rest-rooms, see the displays and check out the shopping opportunities.

The exhibition area wasn’t very extensive but I was interested in the information about how these gypsum dunes formed and developed, the wildlife that (perhaps surprisingly) thrives in this harsh environment, and also about man’s interaction with these wide open spaces, including the space programme and other scientific use, not all of it necessarily to be commended; the Trinity Site where the first nuclear device was detonated in July 1945 is now part of the White Sands Missile Range.

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White Sands plant life

I was also impressed by the shopping here – there were plenty of high quality gifts and souvenirs including Native American crafts, jewellery, and very good photos of the dunes. We didn’t buy any of the latter as we had been so busy taking our own! But I was pleased with the delicately painted Christmas tree ornaments that I bought as presents for family. We also got some cold drinks and snacks to enjoy at the picnic tables outside before heading south to Las Cruces.

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Footprint in the sand

Before leaving the subject of the White Sands altogether I want to share some thoughts about photography here that I first pulled together for Virtual Tourist, which I hope will be helpful if any of my readers get to visit this amazing place. This place is truly a photographer’s paradise – but also a photographer’s great challenge. The best photos are to be had around dawn and dusk, but if, like us, you don’t want to camp out, you will want to make an early start to be here when the gates open at 7.00. At that time, especially by October when we visited, the sun is still low enough to cast interesting shadows among the dunes, and not so bright that it washes everything out in the harsh white glare.

So you’re here at the right time. What next? Well, firstly if you want the dunes to look as white in your pictures as they do in real life, disable auto-exposure on your camera if you can, or over-ride it to over-expose slightly. This is just like photographing snow, and left to itself your camera will adjust to darken the scene, making the sand look more light grey than white. Of course if you are lucky enough to be there so early or late that the dunes are reflecting a sunrise or sunset, this doesn’t apply – the last thing you will want is white!

Next, look for something to break up all that whiteness. It could be an interesting plant, a footprint as in my photo, or simply the patterns made by the ripples in the sand. I made a point of taking a mix of images – some of the details, some of the wide open spaces. I also enjoyed using the panorama facility on my camera as it seemed the ideal way to capture the scale of this vast dune field.

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Exploring the White Sands

Lastly, don’t forget the human aspect. Seeing how people interact with the dunes adds a different element to the story your pictures tell, and as always in landscape photography, people give the viewer a good sense of scale. That small black mark near the top of the dune in my photo above is Chris!

Nearing journey's end

Leaving the White Sands behind us we drove southwest across the flat plain, with the ridge of the Organ Mountains ahead of us. These mountains derived their name, Sierra de los Organos, from the early Spanish settlers, for whom the pinnacles resembled the pipes of the great organs in the cathedrals of Europe. Today they are a National Monument, with a visitor centre and marked trails to explore, but we were coming to the end of our New Mexican adventure and still had a bit further to drive before spending our last night right in the south of the state, handy for tomorrow’s flight home.

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The Organ Mountains near Las Cruces

Mesilla

Our last night in New Mexico was spent right in the south of the state, in Mesilla. Mesilla is really a suburb of Las Cruces, but with a very separate identity and character. Its cluster of streets are arranged in a grid patter around the central Plaza and lined with buildings that date back to the colonial Spanish era. Of all the southern New Mexico towns we visited, it was the one that came closest to the historical identity of more northern Santa Fe and Taos, albeit much smaller. It made a lovely base for our last few hours in the state.

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Hanging out in Mesilla!

Mesilla was founded in the mid 19th century and for a part of its history lay in a sort of no man’s land between Mexico and the United States. But in 1854 the Gadsden Purchase declared the town officially part of the United States. As Mesilla was the most important community in this parcel, the treaty was consummated by the raising of the American flag on the town plaza on November 16, 1854. With increased stability came increased trade, and Mesilla found itself in a prime location on the cross-roads of two stagecoach routes. But the town chose not to have the railroad routed through the community, so it went ‘next-door’ to Las Cruces instead. The result was major growth for that city, while Mesilla remained small and retained much of its charm and character.

Today Mesilla is a little pocket of colonial Spain on the outskirts of more modern Las Cruces. There are only a few ‘sights’ (an attractive church, a small museum). Rather, it is a place to wander around and seek the serendipity of a pretty building here, an interesting shop there ...

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Emilia's

We arrived too early to check in to our hotel, but not too early for lunch! So we parked near the plaza and went in search of somewhere to eat. There are a number of good restaurants in the historical buildings in and around the Plaza, but some only seemed to offer more substantial meals than we like at this time of day. But Emilia’s (now renamed as Café Don Felix) looked promising, with several salads and sandwiches on the menu. There were also tables available in the pretty little paved area at the front, and the chance to have lunch outside on our last day sealed the deal!

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Avocado & Swiss sandwich

Our friendly waiter brought chips and salsa to accompany our fruit juices – so much for the light meal! Chris had ordered a salad with chicken and bacon (which was good), while I had the avocado and Swiss cheese sandwich which came with a small side salad. I found my sandwich a little dull (too much lettuce, too little cheese and avocado) but the blue cheese dressing that came with my salad was excellent and also served to brighten up the sandwich.

Mesilla’s Plaza

After lunch we explored the plaza and surrounding streets of the Historic District. At the time Mesilla was founded, the population of the town was concentrated around the Plaza for defence against Apache Raiders who were a constant threat to the settlement. In November 1854 the Plaza was the site for a major historical event, when the Gadsden Purchase declared the town officially part of the United States. As Mesilla was the most important community in this parcel, the treaty was consummated by the raising of the American flag on the town plaza on November 16, 1854. With increased stability came increased trade, and Mesilla found itself in a prime location. It became an important stop on two stagecoach, mail and trade routes – the El Camino Real, from Chihuahua to Santa Fe, and the Butterfield stage route, from San Antonio to San Diego.

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Gazebo in the Plaza

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Paper flowers on the gazebo

Thanks to its major role in the history of the state and of the US, the Mesilla Plaza was declared a New Mexico state monument on September 10th 1957. It was listed on the National Register in January 1982, as a National Historic landmark, and the entire Historic district added in February 1985.

The Plaza and the gazebo at its centre were refurbished in 1978 to suit the growing status of the town as a tourist destination. It is the focal point for any celebration in the town such as Cinco de Mayo and Dia de Los Muertos. It is also home to a Farmers Market on Thursdays and Sundays, but we were only here on a Friday-Saturday so missed that.

However we did come across a couple of local musicians playing very enthusiastically by the gazebo – we weren’t sure if they were there officially to entertain the tourists or were busking. I was also not quite sure of the reason for the paper flowers which decorated part of the gazebo; maybe they are always there, or maybe they were left over from some special celebration? Either way, they were rather pretty!

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Musicians on the Plaza

Basilica of San Albino

The north side of the Plaza is dominated by the Basilica of San Albino. The first church in the town had been a small log and mud construction on the south side, but when the town was transferred from Mexico to the United States as part of the Gadsden Purchase, it began to grow, and a new church was needed. This church was built in adobe in 1855, but soon acquired a more European style, thanks no doubt to the influence of Bishop Lamy who was so averse to adobe architecture, as I explained in my blog entry about Santa Fe: Fanta Se.

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The Basilica of San Albino

The church was completely rebuilt in its present form in 1906 and dedicated in 1908. It did however keep its old bells, cast in the latter half of the 19th century. These include two, named Sagrado Corazon de Jesus and Maria Albina, which were cast in 1886 and the largest of them all, Campana Grande, cast a year later. The church’s website says that, ‘In keeping with Catholic tradition the bells, including Sagrado Corazon de Jesus, were christened and given godparents to care for them’. I have never heard of that tradition elsewhere, but it sounds a lovely one.

In November 2008 the church was granted minor basilica status by the Vatican, an event commemorated by a plaque on the wall outside.

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The Basilica of San Albino

The basilica was advertised as being open from 1.00-3.00 pm daily, but unfortunately was closed when I tried to get in – a shame, as it appears to have some lovely stained glass windows. It was also hard to get a good photo of the church as it faces south and there were cars parked immediately in front of it.

Historic district

Strolling the streets around the Plaza is the number one activity here. Many of the adobe buildings built during the colonial era remain today, and most have been converted into interesting shops, galleries and restaurants, but the district retains a lot of its character and although popular with tourists seemed to us much less busy than somewhat similar (though larger) Santa Fe and Taos.

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Shop sign, Mesilla

We browsed a few of the shops, even though we really had bought enough by this point of the trip! There was some interesting folk art in one, work by more contemporary artists in another. In Scentchips (now closed down) you could mix your own combination of scented wax chips to use as potpourri or in a burner; the owner was most informative and even gave me a small free sample!

We also rather enjoyed the Billy the Kid Gift Shop on the south east corner of the Plaza. Although we found the items on sale to be not really to our taste, the building itself is worth seeing. It was the former capitol of Arizona and New Mexico and later became the courthouse in which Billy the Kid was sentenced to hang. It still has the old viga ceilings and original 18 inch adobe walls.

We got a free leaflet here which detailed the Kid’s connections to Mesilla. This was to be the last of our several encounters with him on this trip; one on which he had seemed to be with us for much of our journey through the state where he grew up, lived his short and ignominious life, and was shot.

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Mesilla building details

Our last night in New Mexico

We had hoped to be able to stay in one of the few bed and breakfast places in the heart of old Mesilla, but one was fully booked by the time we came to make arrangements and the other very expensive. The Meson de Mesilla seemed from my research to be the next best option, and I think that proved to be the case, being a smallish hotel within walking distance of the Plaza, so that we could leave the car behind and both enjoy a few drinks on our final evening. But this hotel seems to have gone through some upheavals since our visit, to say the least!

At the time of our stay I wrote the following in my Virtual Tourist review:

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The Meson de Mesilla

It would be churlish to complain about the comfortable stay we had here, were it not for the exaggerated claims made by the hotel itself on its website. This is not a ‘boutique hotel’, nor is it any sort of bed and breakfast, let alone the ‘finest Bed and Breakfast in Mesilla’ – breakfast is not even included in the room rates. What it is, in fact, is simply a mid-range mid-priced hotel with some nice design features in its rather small bedrooms.

I had read some reviews that referred to the smallness of the rooms, and as it was our last night and I knew we would want to unpack and repack, difficult in a small space, I chose to pay extra for the middle of three room options, the Veranda Queen room. But it was still definitely on the small side. The queen bed was very comfortable, though bizarrely high from the floor. The bathroom was stylish and had lovely thick towels, but there were few toiletries provided, such as one would have expected from a real boutique hotel. We had a small TV, but no fridge or mini-bar.

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Our room and bathroom


That was in 2011. In 2014 Gordon Ramsey featured the hotel, which was struggling by then, in his ‘Hotel Hell’ TV series (see https://www.realitytvrevisited.com/2014/08/season-2-meson-de-mesilla.html). From what I can read in some rather conflicting reports, the owner appears to have accepted some of his changes and reversed others, and more recently has refurbished again and brought in someone else to run the restaurant, to largely positive reviews. Maybe the Meson de Mesilla has life in it yet! And as I said, its location certainly suited us, giving us an easy stroll back to the Plaza for our last night out in the state.

Peppers

We were keen to find somewhere nice in Mesilla for our final meal of the trip, and at first tried La Posta which got good reviews. But not only would we have had to wait for a table, we were also put off by the rather over-touristy, over-gimicky décor, and I objected to the caged birds in the entrance area (cruel and unnecessary – what’s New Mexican about macaws?) So we looked elsewhere. The equally-historic Double Eagle seemed to be more expensive and fancier than we usually look for in a holiday meal (special occasions excepted) but then I remembered reading that it had a cheaper more informal section, so we went to check that out. The menu for this part, Peppers, wasn’t posted outside but as soon as we went in and asked to see it, our decision was made – and what a good one it turned out to be!

Peppers may be the cheaper end of the Double Eagle, but we wouldn’t have known it to look at it. The tables were set out in an atrium area with lush plants and plenty of dark wood, in keeping with the décor elsewhere in the building. The rather small but very attractive bar opened off one side and was lively with drinkers, while the restaurant area was busy enough with both locals and tourists to make us feel comfortable but not crowded. Our waiter was friendly (and patience personified with the moaning group on the next-door table, who twice changed their order while claiming it was his error!)

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In Peppers

The menu was extensive, and while the steaks were perhaps a little pricey, the rest lived up to the ‘good value’ billing. Starters were a New Mexican take on tapas, and a selection of these would have made a great lunch. But we decided sharing just one would be enough, given the usual size of portions around here. So we opted for the ‘Green Chile Cheese Wontons with Pineapple-Jalapeno Salsa’ which were delicious, especially the unusual but very successful salsa. My only complaint was that there were five of them – either four or six would have made sharing easier! We also had a complimentary serving of chips and salsa, as we had had almost everywhere we had been, and the salsa was great too.

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Carne Asada Tacos

For my main course I chose the Carne Asada Tacos. The beef was excellent – very juicy and with a good amount of spicy heat. There were so many accompaniments that when I later wrote my VT review I had to cut and paste from the menu on the website:
‘Grilled, marinated and seasoned beef morsels with sweet onions, three soft corn tortillas, guacamole, pico de gallo, shredded lettuce, tomato and crumbles of Chihuahua style queso fresco cheese. Choice of black beans or refried.’

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Traditional margarita

Chris meanwhile opted for the simple Old-fashioned Burger, which he also enjoyed. He had a couple of beers – one with the meal and one for desert. I did likewise but with margaritas! My first choice was the house margarita, which was fine but nothing special. For my second I took our waiter’s advice and ordered a ‘Traditional’. He was right – it was well worth the extra $1 it cost, as it was stronger, made with freshly-squeezed lime juice, and was strained into a martini glass rather than being served on the rocks, meaning that it retained its full flavour right to the last drop!

Our total bill although not cheap, was, we felt, a very good price to pay for a delicious meal in a lovely historic setting and with attentive service. A great way to round off our trip!

Time to go home

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Chris plus muffin plus coffee

The Meson de Mesilla, despite calling itself a ‘bed and breakfast’ in some of its publicity, charged extra for breakfast in its restaurant. Besides, when travelling in the US I am always on the lookout for a good cup of coffee, especially at this time of day, and that isn’t always the case with restaurant breakfasts. I had spotted The Bean in our Moon New Mexico Handbook and was pleased to see that it was just down the road from the hotel.

It sounded like just our sort of place, and it proved to be exactly that – warm (it was a chilly morning), friendly and inviting, with excellent coffee and great baked goods. They roast and grind their own beans too, so there was a wonderful smell lingering about the place. And on a Saturday morning it was very busy with a steady stream of locals – some getting take-out but many obviously using it as their regular Saturday morning hang-out.

The building that houses the Bean is an old gas station. It wasn’t fancy but it was nicely decorated with modern art and had lots of character. There was a small dining area in front of the service counter, where we managed to get a good table, and a larger one to the side, which seemed to us to have a bit less cosy an atmosphere. There were also a few tables outside, but it was a very chilly October morning – Mesilla is quite high above sea level, so nights are pretty nippy here by this time in the year!

We enjoyed our good mugs of coffee and large muffins, and would have loved to have lingered over a second cup but sadly we had a plane to catch ...

So we drove the short distance south back over the border into Texas and to the airport in El Paso. We handed in the hire car that had served us so well, checked in and were soon on our way – firstly on a domestic flight to Charlotte NC and then across the Atlantic to London Heathrow.

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Our plane at El Paso Airport

It was at Heathrow that things got, briefly, ‘interesting’. We stood at the luggage carousel watching all the bags from our flight arrive and be taken by their owners. As time passed I began to get that feeling, familiar I’m sure to all regular flyers, that ours were not going to appear. This had happened many times before (and has happened many times since), and the cases had always turned up, but not today. Luggage stopped coming down the chute, we waited in case there were more bags to come and gradually realised that this time our luck had run out. I went to the desk to report the bags’ non-arrival, handed over the necessary ID slips, and a helpful lady looked them up on her computer, quickly identifying the problem. There had been two flights leaving El Paso around the same time, both connecting with a London flight – one via Charlotte, and another via LA. It seemed that while we had flown on the first of these our bags might have been on the second. I was a bit taken aback at this information, as I’ve always understood that planes won’t take off carrying luggage that isn’t clearly the possession of someone on board. The lady at the desk confirmed this and said it was quite likely that our bags had been taken off the flight before it took off from LA, but if we cared to wait that flight was due to land in less than an hour and we could at least see if the bags came with it before filing a missing baggage report.

Although tired from our overnight journey we decided to do this and sure enough an hour later there were our suitcases, tumbling out of the chute onto the carousel with all the other bags from LA. We weren’t sure whether to be relieved to see them or disconcerted to learn that sometimes planes do take off with unaccompanied luggage in their holds. But relief won the day and we headed off home on the Tube, bags in hand. It had been a fantastic trip and a few worries over delayed baggage weren’t going to change that!

Posted by ToonSarah 01:05 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes food architecture desert road_trip history church square shopping restaurants photography national_park new_mexico Comments (11)

Seeing more of the city

Japan day three


View Japan, Essential Honshu tour 2013 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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In Hamarikyu Gardens

We spent the following day in Tokyo exploring in part with our Inside Japan group and in part on our own, setting the pattern for the rest of this very flexible tour. Most of us left the hotel together after breakfast and walked with Andrew in the direction of the Senso-ji Temple which Chris and I had already visited on our first afternoon in the city. We were happy to return however, as on that occasion our weariness from the journey had meant that we had missed seeing, and photographing, some parts, including the Asakusa Jinja or Sanja Sama (Shrine of the Three Guardians).

It was interesting too, to hear Andrew’s commentary on the sights. While the role of tour leader on an Inside Japan tour is rather different from that of guide (you are warned that he/she is there to help with logistics rather than provide detailed information on history etc.), having lived in Tokyo for some time he was very familiar with the temple and could tell us quite a bit about it to supplement our own reading. It was he who told me, for instance, about the practice of tying an unappealing fortune to a frame to cancel it out!

The Asahi Flame

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The Asahi Flame

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The Asahi Flame

From the temple we walked east towards the Sumida River. Here we had a good view of the Asahi Flame. Apparently the building it sits on was designed to look like a beer glass, as it is one of a small complex housing the headquarters of the Asahi Breweries. But very few people look at the building itself as the eye is inevitably drawn to the structure on its top. The Asahi Flame is said to represent both the ‘burning heart of Asahi beer’ and the frothy head to be found on a glass of it. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, if the company was looking to get noticed and talked about!), the thing that most people consider it resembles is rather more prosaic. Hence its nickname, ‘the golden turd’ or kin no unko!

The flame is hollow but still manages to weigh 360 tonnes. It was designed by the prominent French designer, Philippe Stark, and apparently made using submarine construction techniques. I read somewhere that it was originally intended to stand upright but that this proved impossible to achieve; that may be an urban myth, however, as I haven’t been able to find it substantiated anywhere. Whatever the truth of it, it certainly can’t fail to attract attention and must be one of the most photographed modern buildings in this part of the city.

The building to its left, by the way, is meant to resemble a giant beer jug complete with a foam shaped white roof. I’m not sure it achieves that, but at least it doesn’t remind me of anything else! The complex is built on the site where Asahi started brewing beer over 100 years ago, and although we didn’t go any closer than these photos suggest, you can visit bars and restaurants here to enjoy some of that beer.

Sumida River cruise

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Sumida River boat

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On the Sumida River
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Tokyo Tower seen from the boat

Reaching the river we boarded a boat for a short ‘cruise’ to Hamarikyu Gardens. The ride took about 45 minutes to journey down river. As we travelled we had a commentary in both Japanese and English which seemed mainly to be about the various bridges we passed under (12 of the 26 in total that span this river in the city), but as the volume was set quite low on the English version and there was lots of chatter on the nearly full boat, I may have missed some bits.

We didn’t see much in the way of views of famous landmarks and historic sights on this trip, apart from a glimpse of the Tokyo Tower through the haze, but it was interesting to observe life beside the river. There were some modern apartment complexes and some nicely landscaped green areas where people were jogging or simply relaxing (it was a Sunday morning). Just before arriving at Hamarikyu there was one other famous sight, the Tokyo Fish Market, although this was silent and inactive by the time we sailed past (mid-morning). We then turned into an inlet to moor at the gardens’ dedicated pier.

Hamarikyu Gardens

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In Hamarikyu Gardens

I was really pleased that on our first morning of the tour we were able to visit these traditional Japanese gardens in the heart of modern Tokyo. The gardens were originally built as part of the Tokyo residence of the Tokugawa Shogun during the Edo Period (1603-1867). They are of the ‘strolling gardens’ style – large gardens with ponds, islands and artificial hills that could be enjoyed from a variety of viewpoints along a circular trail. They were first laid out in 1654 by the brother of the fourth shogun who had part of the Sumida River shallows filled in and built a residence on the land thus reclaimed, with strolling gardens and duck hunting grounds by the river. Over time various shoguns made changes and developed the garden, and it was finally finished under the 11th and has remained more or less the same since then. After the Meiji Revolution the residence became a so-called Detached Palace for the Imperial family. It and the gardens were badly damaged in the air raids of World War Two and after the war the gardens were given to the people of Tokyo and reconstructed, opening to the public in 1952.

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In Hamarikyu Gardens

So today the gardens retain much of their original appearance despite serving more as city centre park than anything else. For instance, there are several reconstructed duck hunting blinds and you can still see the remains of an old moat. There is even a ‘duck grave’ created in 1935 to console the spirits of the ducks that were once killed here.

One style often employed in these traditional gardens was known as ‘borrowed scenery’; in this, surrounding scenery was incorporated into a garden’s composition. Of course today the surrounding scenery is of city skyscrapers but for me the contrast they create only served to emphasise the tranquillity of this green haven.

As I explored I found it hard to believe that every hill here is artificial – it all looks very natural. The pool at the centre of the gardens is an obvious focal point and is very pretty, with some traditional looking bridges, lovely trees and a teahouse on a small island.

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Nakajima Teahouse

This is the Nakajima Teahouse, and as we didn’t get to attend a full tea ceremony while in Japan, I was pleased that we had the chance to drink tea here. Our visit included many of the main elements of a traditional ceremony – the formal offering of the tea (though the preparation was done elsewhere), the style of the utensils, the accompanying sweetmeats and the detailed instructions on how to drink our tea.

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In the tea house

The Japanese Tea Ceremony is a very prescribed ritual for the ceremonial preparation and offering to guests of matcha, or powdered green tea. It has its origins in Chinese traditions and in Zen thinking. There is a specific order to the events, and responsibilities for both host and guests to follow the particular actions laid down by tradition, from arrival, through the preparation and drinking of the tea, and the clearing away of the (often very precious) utensils.

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Matcha and sweets

For us, drinking matcha here, there were only a few suggested rules. These involved eating the sweets before drinking the tea, as the sweetness is intended to counteract the bitterness of the tea (I’m afraid I disobeyed and ate part before, part after); and holding the bowl in a particular fashion, turning it a quarter turn before drinking. This latter custom relates to the sharing of a single bowl in some parts of a traditional ceremony I believe.

Matcha is rather different to regular green tea and is something of an acquired taste I suspect. For me it was a bit like I imagine drinking grass would be, were that possible! It was certainly interesting to try it, and the traditional setting and sense of occasion made for a great experience which I can certainly recommend even if you aren't too keen on the drink itself.

Elsewhere in the gardens one of my favourite spots was on the north side where a large area is devoted to a sort of wild flower meadow, the Flower Field, which changes with the seasons. When we were there in early October it was the turn of the autumn planting of cosmos – beautiful!

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The Flower Field, and statue of Umashimadenomikoto

Umashimadenomikoto was the god of war. According to a sign next to the statue, it won a contest organised by the former Ministry of War to celebrate the silver wedding anniversary of the Emperor Meiji in 1894.

Other features include a peony garden and wisteria trellises (sadly we were here too late in the year for these), a 300 year old pine that has needed to be considerably propped up (said to have been planted by the sixth Shogun in the 17th century and apparently the biggest pine tree in Tokyo), and several pavilions. I loved my time taking photos here and could happily have spent longer, were there not so much more to be seen in this amazing city!

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300 year old pine

Shiodome

After our relaxing time in the Hamarikyu Gardens we emerged on to the busy streets of the Shiodome area of the city. It was a Sunday however, so while there was a lot of passing traffic, the precincts around the skyscrapers were for the most part eerily quiet – very much like visiting the City of London on a Sunday, I thought.

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In Shiodome

Shiodome is a very recent development (2002) and it shows. The glitzy modern towers accommodate offices, shops, cafés, restaurants, etc. etc. They are separated by elevated walkways and footbridges that allow pedestrians to stroll undisturbed by city traffic. It is all slightly reminiscent of Blade Runner. But Shiodome wasn’t always like this, naturally. The clue is in the name – Shiodome literally means ‘halt the tides’. This was at one time a tidal marshland which separated the Imperial Palace from Tokyo Bay. During the Edo Period (1603-1867) the marshes were dried out and developed into residential land for feudal lords. Later this became the site of Shimbashi Station, the Tokyo terminus of Japan's first railway line. When the railway tracks were later extended to Tokyo Station, Shimbashi was moved to its current location a little to the west, and the Shiodome area was converted into a freight yard. It remained like this into the 1980s when the yard was demolished to clear the site for the development we see today.

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Plastic pub food

We only passed through the area on our way to Shimbashi Station, but there was time to stop for photos and to get a bit of a sense of what was here. Some of the bars and restaurants looked good and seemed popular as a Sunday lunch destination with locals. I spotted a very incongruous-looking bar that styled itself a Victorian pub, the Rose and Crown, but which could not have looked less Victorian, or less English – at the foot of a modern skyscraper block and with a typically Japanese display of plastic food to tempt you into its equally plastic interior!

One sight worth looking out for here is the amazing clock on the side of the Nippon Television Tower. Its official name is the ‘NI-TELE Really BIG Clock’ (yes, really!) and it was created by a famous manga artist and anime director Hayao Miyazaki over a period of four years.

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The NI-TELE Really BIG Clock

Its design reflects his enthusiasm for what is known as ‘steampunk’, a term coined in April 1987 by the American writer Kevin Wayne Jeter. He defined it as a sub-genre of science fiction, alternate history and speculative fiction characterized by worlds which use all kind of steam-powered machines, from trains to airplanes and even computers. In addition to steampunk stories and movies, fans of the genre have created real-life steampunk objects, some of them totally functional, and this is apparently one of the best-known examples, though I had never heard of any of this when I was brought up short by the sight as we passed by. The clock is made mainly of copper and lives up to its ‘Really BIG’ name, being ten metres tall and 18 wide. At certain times of day its 32 mechanical scenes come to life – the various human-like robot figures spin wheels, turn levers, work the smithy and perform other operations. But unfortunately, our timing was wrong for seeing this all happen, so I can only go by what I have since read when I say it must be quite a sight. If you want to time your visit better than we did, the ‘show’ happens at 12:00, 15:00, 18:00 and 20:00 every day of the week, with an additional performance at 10:00 on a Saturday and Sunday. The show starts 3 minutes and 45 seconds before each hour so get there a bit early!

From Shimbashi station we took the subway to Harajuku on the JR Yamanote line. Here our group split up, with Andrew going off to collect our JR Passes for tomorrow, when we would be leaving Tokyo to start our journey around Honshu Island, and the rest of us fanning out to explore on our own or in smaller groups.

Takeshita Dori

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Entrance to Takeshita Dori

Harajuku is known as a focal point for some of Japan's most extreme teenage cultures and fashion styles, and Takeshita Dori is the epitome of this. Its narrow pedestrians-only (thankfully!) length is lined with uber-trendy clothes shops interspersed with the kind of refreshment stops likely to appeal to its mainly teenage market. This is a great place to come, and in particular on a Sunday, if you want to see Tokyo’s youth at play.

The most eccentric and colourful fashions will be those of the so-called ‘cosplay’ aficionados, cosplay being short for costume play, in which fans of animė, manga etc. dress in the costumes of favourite characters. While this started as a practice for fan conventions and similar gatherings, today it has extended into life on the streets and the range of costumes widened. As well as these costumes you’re likely to see Goth, punk and many other styles – often several combined in the one outfit! And the shop windows of course display fashions in the same vein. I wasn’t surprised to read later that Lady Gaga apparently shops in at least one of these!

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On Takeshita Dori

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Shop window, Takeshita Dori

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A face in the crowd, Takeshita Dori

Chris and I squeezed ourselves into the crush of people walking along Takeshita Dori and wove our way between them. The shops here are mainly independent ones, clearly targeted at the young people who flock here to shop for cute accessories and the latest fashions, but there are one or two chains among them, including 7-Eleven and McDonalds for refreshment breaks. We wanted something more Japanese than the latter so, despite feeling a little out of place in this youthful crowd, decided on lunch at the Caffe Solare which had both Western and Japanese light meals (I had a great toasted sandwich with avocado and cheese – so not so Japanese after all maybe!) We managed to get a table by an upstairs window which gave us a great vantage point from which to watch the passing crowds.

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Shopping on Takeshita Dori

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In the Caffe Solare

After lunch we walked a little further down the street and grabbed some more photos. But we are clearly not in the target market for these shops, so relatively soon we retraced our steps and crossed the road by Harajuku station to enter Yoyogi Park.

Meiji Jingu

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Meiji Jingu: torii gate

The main draw in Yoyogi Park is the Shinto shrine dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shōken. It was originally built between 1915 and 1921 but was destroyed in the Tokyo air raids of World War Two, so what we see today is the 1950s reconstruction.

Emperor Meiji was born in 1852 and ascended to the throne in 1867 as the first emperor of modern Japan. His accession brought an end to the feudal shogun era and ushered in a period known as the Meiji Restoration, during which Japan modernised and westernised herself to join the world's major powers. This shrine celebrates that achievement so is a significant place in the country’s history and sense of itself.

The shrine is surrounded by an evergreen forest that consists of 120,000 trees of 365 different species, by people from all over the country. We strolled through these trees along wide paths, following the crowds of both Japanese visitors and tourists. The first thing we saw was a large number of sake barrels displayed by the side of the path. These are offered every year by sake brewers from around the country to show their respect for the souls of the Emperor and Empress in recognition of the encouragement given to the growth of this and other industries under the Meiji Restoration.

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Sake barrels

Near here we passed through the first of several torii or shrine gates. This one is the biggest of its style (known as Myojin) in the country – 12 metres high with a 17 metre cross piece spanning its 1.2 metre wide pillars. It was made from 1,500 year old Japanese cypress or hinoki in 1970 and is an exact replica of the 1920 original.

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Torii at Meiji Jingu

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Part of the main complex

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The temizuya

Passing beneath this the path continued to the main shrine which we entered beneath another torii. Just before this on the left is the temizuya or font where the faithful purify themselves before entering the shrine.

Once inside we found ourselves in a large courtyard surrounded by several buildings and with the shrine itself in front of us. People were milling about, and there were amulets for sale and prayer plaques, known as ema, on which people were writing prayers and wishes before leaving them hanging for the spirits to read. Around two sides of this courtyard we saw hundreds of dolls and soft toys lined up in rows, with more being added even as we looked. I wasn’t sure whether these are given in gratitude for prayers answered or as offerings to ensure a positive response to entreaties.

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The ema or prayer plaques

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Soft toys and dolls

Perhaps because it was a Sunday, we were lucky enough to see several weddings in progress while we were here, and no one seemed to mind us watching and taking photos. The bride in the photo below had an especially beautifully embroidered white kimono and a striking headdress, but all were lovely.

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Wedding procession

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Wedding photo

After some time wandering around and taking in the sights I was a bit weary and wanted to rest. We sat on the steps near the entrance but were asked to get up – this is sacred ground and it seems sitting on it is not allowed. So we headed back to the visitor centre area beyond the outer torii. Here there is a self-service café selling light meals and drinks, a restaurant, shop and also a treasure house where you can see personal belongings of the Emperor and Empress, including the carriage which the emperor rode to the formal declaration of the Meiji Constitution in 1889. We decided to skip the treasure house however, as time was getting on, so after a cold drink we headed back to our hotel to rest up for a while before dinner.

The Asakusa Grill Burg

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The Asakusa Grill Burg
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Burger with egg

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In the Asakusa Grill Burg

In the evening we decided to try the Asakusa Grill Burg restaurant, almost opposite our hotel on Kokusai Dori. The menu (there was a single English one, which we had to wait to see) suggested a fusion of Western and Japanese cooking styles, which we thought might be interesting. The decor appealed to us too, with an interesting mix of art work displayed on the walls.

To start with we shared some crudités, and for mains both chose burgers with cheese and egg topping and soy sauce with wasabi. These came with a few vegetables (including bean sprouts and broccoli) and rice. We drank two small, draft Asahi beers each. The meal was OK although nothing special, but the beers were good and the service friendly, with a little English spoken, so we had a good evening.

The next morning we were to leave Tokyo after breakfast, but return eleven days later to a very different part of the city.

But that is for a future entry!

Posted by ToonSarah 08:06 Archived in Japan Tagged skylines people tokyo shrines parks architecture flowers japan culture temple restaurants city garden customs street_photography Comments (6)

City of two thousand shrines

Japan day eight


View Japan, Essential Honshu tour 2013 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Kyoto

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At Kiyomizu-dera

For over a thousand years Kyoto was the capital of Japan and it is probably the best preserved of all its cities.

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Kyoto station

Its historic value saw it dropped from the list of cities to be targeted by air raids and the atomic bomb during World War Two (some say because the wife of a senior US commander had fallen in love with Kyoto when they honeymooned there before the war), and is still treasured today. And while our time here was perhaps too limited for me to also fall in love, that time was packed with wonders.

To Kyoto by bullet train

We arrived in Kyoto on a bullet train from Osaka, a journey of just 15 minutes - but around an hour by regular train! The station is on the southern edge of the main downtown area and is very modern and very large. It is also very busy. It can therefore be a challenge to negotiate when carrying bags and newly arrived, but is impressive enough to merit a separate sightseeing visit another time.

For now though we focused on finding our way out of the station for the short walk to our accommodation at the Heianbo Ryokan. It was too early though to check-in, so we left our bags and hurried out again to make the most of our time, and all decided to catch taxis together to Kiyomizu-dera, one of the city’s most famous temples.

Kiyomizu-dera Temple

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Preying mantis at Kiyomizu-dera

This Buddhist temple is possibly the most visited in Kyoto – it is certainly up there in the top five. And it’s easy to see why it draws the crowds. It has a lovely hillside setting with views of the town and several other nearby pagodas and temples. It is near enough the centre of town and those other temples to be easily accessible. And it has a unique feature – a sort of platform or veranda that juts out on one side of the main hall, 13 metres above the hillside below. Both hall and stage, and indeed all the buildings here, were built without the use of nails, an amazing achievement. They date from 1633, though the temple was founded much earlier, in 778. Since that foundation, the temple had burned down many times, and thus most of the current buildings were rebuilt by the third Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu in the early Edo period. In 1994, the temple was added to the list of UNESCO world heritage sites.

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Japanese visitors to Kiyomizu-dera

By the time we arrived here, at around 11.00 AM, it was packed, but the crowds, who were mostly Japanese tourists and worshippers, didn’t detract from our enjoyment at all. Indeed, I enjoyed watching the many girls who had dressed in kimonos for the occasion, and it was interesting to observe the rituals of washing in the fountain and burning incense, the smell of which wafted on the air and lent atmosphere to the temple complex.

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Nio-mon, Kiyomizu-dera

We entered the complex through the stunning Nio-mon, the 16th century gate that was refurbished in 2003. Beyond this is another gate, Sai-mon, dating from 1631 and famous for its view at sunset, and beyond that a three-storied pagoda. The photo above shows parts of both gates and the pagoda beyond.

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View of Kyoto from the Sai-mon

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The pagoda at Kiyomizu-dera

Off to our left we spotted a small crowd around another building, the Zuigu-do Hall, and went over to investigate. A man was selling tickets, or rather, exchanging them for a ‘suggested donation’ of 100¥, which we were happy to make though we had no idea what we were paying for at that point. We were then asked to remove our shoes and given a plastic bag each in which to carry them as we entered the shrine.

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The Zuigu-do Hall, with Sai-mon in the foreground

We were instructed to hold on to the rope handrail as we entered, and soon realised why. The path through the shrine is constructed in such a way that after a few steps you are plunged into total darkness, unable to see even an inch in front of you. This is the Tainai-meguri. The idea is that the total darkness here represents the womb of a female bodhisattva, so you are returning to a pre-birth state. At the heart of the shrine a little light falls on a large stone, which you spin and make a wish before ascending through more darkness until you emerge, blinking, into the bright light of day.

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Hondo lantern

After this rather special experience we continued on the path to the main hall or Hondo. This houses a small statue of the eleven-faced, thousand-armed Kannon Bodhisattva, the main object of worship here, which is only shown to the public once in 33 years. I found this story of the founding of the temple and the devotion to this statue:

‘In the year 778, Priest Enchin who was inspired by divine revelation in a dream to go up Kizu-gawa river to find a fountain of pure water, travelled up to a waterfall in the foot of Otowa-yama (Mt. Otowa). He met Gyoei Koji, a Buddhist recluse who had been devoted to self-discipline there, and was given a block of sacred wood. Enchin carved a statue of a Buddhist deity Kannon Bosatsu out of the block and enshrined it in the thatched hut in which Gyoei had been living till then. Two years later, a military general, Sakanoue no Tamuramaro, came up into the mountain and met Enchin who lectured for him on the merciful teaching of Kannon Bosatsu. Tamuramaro became a pious devotee to the Kannon and he dedicated a hall to the statue. This is said to be the origin of this temple. The name of the temple, ‘Kiyomizu’, literally means ‘pure water’ and came from the above story.’

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Kiyomizu-dera: the veranda

The Hondo has a unique feature which helps to explain the popularity of Kiyomizu-dera for both tourists and worshippers. On its southern side a sort of platform or veranda juts out, 13 metres above the hillside below. The veranda is known as the Kiyomizu Stage; it is supported by huge 12-metre high pillars made from Japanese Zelkova trees, were assembled without using a single nail, and its floor consists of over 410 cypress boards.

So famous is this veranda that it has given rise to a well-known Japanese saying, ‘To jump off the veranda of Kiyomizu-dera’, which has the same meaning as the English saying, ‘To take the plunge’, i.e. to take a risk.

We followed the path above and to the right of the main hall which led us past a couple of other halls that were undergoing major preservation work at that time and were hidden beneath scaffolding and wraps. From this path we could look back at the rest of the complex and see the dramatic way in which the veranda juts out over the hillside. We could have continued to follow the path as it wound round and down to the small group of buildings below the main hall, but instead retraced our steps a little to reach these via a stone staircase.

This took us to a path below the water fountain that gives Kiyomizu-dera its name of ‘clear water temple’. This is channelled from the Otowa Waterfall which falls from the mountain of the same name. There are three separate fountains dropping into the pool below. Drinking the water is believed to bestow special powers, and each fountain gives a different one – a long life, success in your career or in love. It is considered greedy to drink from all three!

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Otowa water fountain, Kiyomizu-dera

The path then led us beneath the veranda, and we could really appreciate the scale of its construction. There were several jizo statues brought here from elsewhere in Japan I believe, and some refreshment booths. It was while walking along here that we bumped into another member of our group, Phil, and decided to stop for a snack with him.

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Jizu statues

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The café

We spotted a little café beside the path and were pleased to see space on its shady terrace. The menu was only in Japanese but luckily had photos, though it was still in part a question of ‘pot-luck’ as to what we would get! I saw someone nearby eating something that looked like vanilla ice cream with a fruit sauce, but peering at the photos I could see that it was probably a dish that came with the sweet red adzuki bean paste topping I’d had and liked at the Edo Tokyo Museum, so I chose that.

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My kakigori

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Chris's noodles

The ‘ice cream’ was in fact shaved ice; I had chosen kakigori, one of Japan's favourite summer sweets. It is served all over the country with a wide range of toppings including syrups and fruits. I really enjoyed this version and found it very refreshing on what was proving to be the hottest day of our trip. Phil had the same shaved ice but with a fruit sauce, while Chris had some gelatinous noodles in a soy/wasabi based sauce, having opted for what seemed to be the only savoury item on the menu.

All the dishes were very good value at just a few hundred yen each. The staff were friendly and helpful, and it was here that we had our best demonstration of the Japanese non-tipping culture. When we sat down Chris noticed a small coin on the bench next to him – a single yen, worth about half a penny or about one cent. He left it lying there, but when we departed the café a waitress ran after us to give him back the coin she thought he had left in error!

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Hondo roof detail, Kiyomizu-dera

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Another roof detail

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And another!

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A torii gate

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View from Kiyomizu-dera

Higashiyama

After our snack we took a few more photos before leaving the temple area to explore the surrounding streets of the Higashiyama district which lies along the lower slopes of the mountains to the east of Kyoto and is one of the city's best preserved historic districts. These streets have been recently renovated to remove telephone poles and repave the streets to increase the traditional feel of the district. This atmosphere is enhanced by the many girls wearing kimono to do their sightseeing – although perhaps less so by the hordes of other tourists who throng to this area.

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Tourists on Chawan-zaka

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On Chawan-zaka

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Our sake cup

The street leading up to the temple, Chawan-zaka, has been given the nickname of Teapot Lane because of the large number of shops selling china goods (as well as other crafts and souvenirs). We bought a pretty little sake cup in one of these – not cheap but very nicely made. We also had a good cup of coffee in the upstairs café of another of the shops, where some large items, we noted, cost hundreds of pounds.

Part way up the street, on the left-hand side if you are facing uphill, we came across a small shrine. I wasn’t able to uncover a name or any other details about this, either at the time or since.

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Shrine on Chawan-zaka

After our shopping and coffee break here we were ready for another temple visit. We met up with the rest of our group and all piled into taxis again to head to Sanjusangen-do.

Sanjusangen-do Temple

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Roof detail, Sanjūsangen-dō, Kyoto

This temple, also known as Rengeo-in, was a complete contrast to Kiyomizu-dera but no less impressive in its way. The main hall is all that remains here, having been rebuilt in 1266 after a fire destroyed the temple 17 years before that. The hall is 120 metres long and is Japan's longest wooden structure. The name Sanjusangen-do (literally ‘33 intervals’) derives from the number of spaces between the building's support columns, which was a traditional method of measuring the size of a building.

Entering this main hall (after removing our shoes) we joined other visitors in filing along one side to view the wonders it contains. In the centre is a six foot tall wooden statue of a 1000-armed Kannon. This was carved by the Kamakura sculptor Tankei in 1254 and is a National Treasure of Japan. On each side of this are 500 more (making 1,001 Kannons in total), made of cypress wood and arranged in tiers (10 rows and 50 columns). They are human-sized and each one is subtly different from the next. People apparently come to Sanjusangen-do to look for the likeness of a loved one among the many statues. 124 of these statues are from the original temple, rescued from the fire of 1249, while the remaining 876 were constructed in the 13th century.

Traditionally 1000-armed Kannons are equipped with 11 heads to better witness the suffering of humans, and with 1000 arms to better help them fight the suffering. But you won’t be able to count 1000 arms on them, as in practice they are made with just 42 arms each. You need to subtract the two regular arms to give 40, each of which is said to have the power to save 25 worlds, giving the full thousand. In Buddhist beliefs, Kannon is a Bodhisattva, i.e. one who achieves enlightenment but postpones Buddhahood until all can be saved. The name literally means watchful listening, and it is the task of the compassionate Kannon to witness and listen to the prayers and cries of those in difficulty in the earthly realm, and to help them achieve salvation.

As we filed back to our starting point along the corridor behind these statues we passed 28 more statues of Japanese deities who protect the Buddhist universe. I was disappointed (as I always am) that no photography is allowed inside the hall. This rule is very strictly enforced, with CCTV cameras to supervise and notices announcing that anyone suspected of taking photos will have their camera examined and offending images deleted. You can however see some images of the Kannons on the temple’s website.

Outside there is a small Japanese garden with a water fountain, where we enjoyed relaxing on a shady bench for a while, and where we could take photos. As you can see, I worked off my frustrations at not being able to take photos inside by gorging on the beautiful details of the architecture here, especially the roof!

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Sanjusangendo Temple

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Roof details, Sanjūsangen-dō

After this we went back to check into our ryokan and to rest before another outing planned for later that afternoon. We were staying for two nights at the friendly, family-run, Heianbo Ryokan. Our room there was traditional in style, with futons on tatami mats for sleeping, but with en suite (half tub with a shower over) and air conditioning and other mod cons (such as a TV and hair dryer). We found this to be a great base in the city – very quiet for so central a location, and with lots of character.

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Our bedroom at the Ryokan Heianbo

Gion

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For the most part our Inside Japan tour didn’t include any guided sightseeing (although Andrew was always happy to lead some explorations in each place we visited). This allows for flexibility to do your own thing or go around with some or all of the group, according to preference. But one exception was a guided walk in Gion, Kyoto’s famous geisha district. This tour was led by a Canadian ex-pat who had previously been married to a geisha. He showed us some of the main sights and told us a lot about the lives of present-day maiko and geiko, as geisha are known in Kyoto.

One thing it is important to stress is that geisha are not prostitutes. Some may choose to prostitute themselves, but it is not ‘in the job description’ and is not normal practice. No – a geisha is an entertainer of men, a skilled performer, an expert in Japanese traditions and, probably, an accomplished flirt and conversationalist. To become a geisha a girl must study for some years and will usually start as an apprentice or maiko. The term maiko means dancing girl, while geisha means ‘art doer’, i.e. performer. These days, girls will probably not decide to study as a geisha until their teens – the days when a girl could be apprenticed as young as three or four are long gone. In the geisha school, apprentices learn to play traditional instruments such as the shamisen, to dance in the traditional way, and to perform the tea ceremony. They study literature, poetry and calligraphy. They also learn by following and observing experienced geisha, especially the ‘older sister’ who mentors them. At each stage of her development a maiko will wear the appropriate dress, hairstyle and make-up, and an expert could tell at a glance how long she had been working from this.

We saw several geiko and maiko on our walk around Gion but they move very quickly and, understandably, don’t choose to spend their valuable time posing for photos for tourists! I managed to get a few photos of maiko, but only from behind.

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Maiko in Gion

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A sign in Gion

We also saw the geisha school where all geisha study music and dance (regardless of age and how long they have been working), and a number of ochaya (tea-houses) where the geisha entertain. And although we didn’t have time to go inside while on this tour, we also walked through the grounds of the Kenninji Temple, where I loved the setting among the ‘cloud-pruned’ trees or niwaki. This is Japan's oldest Zen temple, having been founded in 1202, but the temple buildings we see today date from the 16th century when it was last rebuilt. The extensive grounds include sand and moss gardens, and inside there are notable art works, including the most recent addition, a ceiling painting of two dragons by Koizumi Junsaku which was installed in 2002 to commemorate the temple's 800th anniversary.

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Kenninji Temple

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Near Tatsumi Bashi

We passed several spots that featured in ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’, although our guide told us that the film was almost completely shot on a lot in California as the Kyoto authorities weren't keen to have it made here. One of the most picturesque of these was around the Shirakawa Canal and in particular by the bridge, Tatsumi Bashi, and the nearby Tatsumi Daimyojin Shrine where traditionally geiko and maiko come to pray for help in improving their skills. It was dusk by the time we arrived here and the lights were coming on in the houses overlooking the canal, giving it a special atmosphere – a lovely place to end our walk.

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Tatsumi Daimyojin Shrine

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Shirakawa Canal, Gion

After we had thanked our Canadian guide, Andrew proposed dinner at one of his favourite conveyer-belt sushi restaurants in the city, about a 20 minute walk away. Most of us liked the suggestion and decided to join him. I and several others in the group were wearying of all the walking so decided to get a taxi, while others walked with Andrew and we all met up again at the restaurant.

Our first evening in Kyoto

Although not fancy, Musashi Sushi is a great example of a kaiten or conveyor-belt sushi restaurant and we had an excellent meal here. We ate on the upper floor where booths radiate out from the central hub where sushi is prepared by the chefs and loaded on to the conveyor. Here the diners at the conveyor end of the table must take the responsibility for grabbing the passing plates not only for themselves but also for their dining companions. We ate with another couple from our group, Sue and John from Australia, and it was John and I who performed this task – with enthusiasm you might say, if you saw the number of empty plates piled on the table by the end of the meal! All the sushi here is handmade. There was a really good variety available and I don't think we had anything more than once, however good, in order to try more dishes. My favourite was probably the melt-in-your-mouth bonito tuna, closely followed by the tempura prawns (I've never had tempura on sushi before!) and crab.

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Plastic sushi in the window

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Sushi chef

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Karaoke room sign

After dinner some of us went to a nearby karaoke room for another classic Japanese experience. Most people know that karaoke was invented here; the word derives from the Japanese for empty, kara, and orchestra okesutora, alluding to the use of a musical track with its main lyrics removed. But unlike in Europe and the US, where karaoke is most often a public performance (or humiliation, depending on your viewpoint and the abilities of the singer!), in Japan it is more usually enjoyed in a private ‘karaoke box’, or small room, which a group of friends can rent for a fixed period of time.

Arriving at the venue we (well, Andrew, as the only Japanese speaker in our group of eight) negotiated the price of a room for two hours at reception. We then headed upstairs to find ourselves in a narrow, very pink room. At one end was the TV screen, round the other three walls low comfortable seating, and in the middle a table on which were two small machines – one for selecting songs and the other drinks. Our price of 2,600¥ per person (based on eight sharing) also included all we could drink, so the latter was as important as the music selection device! There was a wide choice of drinks – beer, plum wine, regular wine, sake and some spirits as well as soft drinks.

We ordered via the machine and a waiter would knock respectfully at the door within minutes, carrying the tray.

But to the main point of the exercise, the singing! The machine thankfully had an English language button for selecting and lots of English language tracks as well as Japanese – certainly more than enough to keep us occupied for two hours. As the drinks poured in, the inhibitions fell, and by the end we had not only enjoyed enthusiastic performances of Japanese pop (by Andrew), Elvis (both Presley and Costello, by Chris) and Pat Benatar (by Sue), but had also joined in with some great group numbers such as Hey Jude and American Pie. To hear just how well Andrew and Sue entered into the spirit of karaoke (and how well they sang) check out my short video.

Andrew and Sue's performances

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In the karaoke room

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Andrew, Sue and Jim

The two hours were up all too soon, and we reluctantly vacated the room and paid our fee back down at the lobby before hailing taxis to take us back to our ryokan. It had been a very full day and we were happy to snuggle down on our futons for a good night’s sleep.

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Ryokan Heianbo at night

Posted by ToonSarah 16:00 Archived in Japan Tagged buildings people kyoto shrines food architecture restaurant japan culture temple history music customs Comments (5)

Ancient and modern collide

Japan day nine


View Japan, Essential Honshu tour 2013 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Breakfast at the Ryokan Heianbo

On our second day in Kyoto we had breakfast at the ryokan – a traditional Japanese one served on a tray with items such as tofu with wasabi, some noodles, pickles and seaweed. Miso soup and rice were served separately, as was green tea. I was pleased to see the yoghurt and small pieces of fruit, and also the coffee available from a machine in the lobby.

Andrew had again offered to lead an outing, an offer that several in the group accepted, but Chris and I decided on a day exploring by ourselves. We headed for the Central Bus Station (right opposite the railway station), which we found to be well-organised and signposted. We took a 73 from there to Arashiyama. The journey lasted about 45 minutes and cost 240¥ per person. We had already observed in Hakone the Japanese bus ticketing system. You take a ticket on boarding and pay as you exit, according to the distance travelled – the fare for your stop is displayed on a screen above the driver. The bus stops for major sights in the city were announced in English but those likely to be of interest only to locals were not. We figured, correctly, that there was no reason to worry about missing our stop – if the announcement is in Japanese only, you can be pretty sure this isn't yours!

Arashiyama

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Fisherman in Arashiyama

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Cormorants on the Hozu River

We got off the bus near the bridge over the Hozu River (also often called the Katsura) in Arashiyama, not far from the station. The Hozu was in the past used to transport logs for the construction of many of Kyoto’s temples, and for Osaka’s castle. During the Edo Period it also carried grain, firewood and other cargo, but trains and road haulage made river transport obsolete, and operations ceased after several hundred years of use.

There were quite a few cormorants on the rocks in the water, and we spotted a lone fisherman apparently making his way home. We waited a while hoping that he would cast his traditional net but it seemed fishing was over for the morning and we waited in vain.

We soon left the river and started our explorations of this fascinating corner of the city. There is so much to see in Arashiyama that you could easily spend all day here, but we had decided on just a morning, with the afternoon reserved for some other must-see sights on my wish-list. So the plan was to focus on two sights in the area, the famous bamboo grove but before that another temple.

Tenryu-ji Temple

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Temple roof, Tenryu-ji

Tenryu-ji Temple is one of the most important Zen temples in Kyoto and is registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was built in 1339 by the ruling shogun Ashikaga Takauji, who dedicated it to his predecessor, the Emperor Go-Daigo. These two were formerly allies but Takauji turned against the emperor in his struggle for supremacy over Japan. By building the temple, Takauji intended to appease the former emperor's spirits. Many of the temple buildings were repeatedly lost in fires and wars over the centuries, and most of the current halls date from the relatively recent Meiji Period (1868-1912).

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Tenryu-ji Temple from the garden

The main reason we came to Tenryu-ji was to see its gardens, which was just as well, as at the time of our visit its main halls were being renovated and it is not possible to go inside. But in any case, the gardens are considered the main draw here (they are designated as a Special Place of Scenic Beauty), and were among the loveliest we saw in Japan, I thought. Unlike the buildings they have survived unchanged through the centuries. At their heart, immediately in front of one of the main buildings, is a beautiful pond, Sogen Pond. Various rocks are artfully placed in and around the water to look completely natural (in a technique known as ishigumi, literally ‘arranged rocks’), and large carp swim in the water. When we were here, in mid October, a few trees’ leaves were just turning into their bright autumn colours. Paths meandered among the trees past a number of little shrines and sculptures which are dotted around. This style of garden is known as a chisen-kaiyu-shiki or pond-stroll garden, which sums it up perfectly.

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The garden at Tenryu-ji

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The 'dry waterfall', Tenryu-ji

Lying just south of the famous Bamboo Grove of Arashiyama, Tenryu-ji also has its own small area of bamboo just inside the north gate, with more paths weaving through it. Find a quiet one and you can really absorb the strange sounds and atmosphere of this surreal-looking plant.

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Bamboo at Tenryu-ji

The forested Mount Arashiyama and Mount Kameyama to the west form an attractive background to the garden. This is an excellent example of the Japanese garden design technique, shakkei, usually translated as ‘borrowed scenery’. In this, the garden is designed in such a way that the surrounding scenery provides a background that complements and enhances the ambiance. Thus, the garden can be placed near an old forest or in front of an important landmark, such as a temple or a castle. But most frequently the garden designers used nearby hills or mountains, as here at Tenryu-ji.

Despite being busy, this temple felt quite peaceful compared to some others that we visited – perhaps the closure of its main buildings had kept some visitors away.

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In the garden at Tenryu-ji

We spent some time enjoying our surroundings before exiting from the north gate to visit the nearby Bamboo Grove.

In the Bamboo Grove

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On the path through the Bamboo Grove

The famous Bamboo Grove of Arashiyama lies just to the north of Tenryu-ji Temple. The bamboo has been used to manufacture various products, such as baskets, cups, boxes and mats at local workshops for centuries. Many visitors to Kyoto come here simply to see this grove, and it can get busy on the main path, as we found. I have seen pictures showing an empty path winding through the tall stems of bamboo, but if such a path exists, we didn’t find it, and I actually found the bamboo within the gardens of Tenryū-ji to have more atmosphere. But here it was fun to share the walk with lots of excited Japanese visitors, many of the girls in kimono, though we had to be quick at times to jump out of the path of the rickshaws that hurtled past, carrying more of these visitors!

Nevertheless it was quiet enough in places for us to be able to enjoy listening to the strange sounds the bamboo made whenever a breeze blew through the grove (it must be amazing on a windy day). But most of all I loved photographing the bamboo and trying to do justice to its subtle tones and geometric shapes.

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In the Bamboo Grove of Arashiyama

Nonomiya Shrine

Strolling back to the main road of Arashiyama from the Bamboo Grove our attention was caught by some pictures on the fence to our left of a shrine and wooded garden. We turned in to investigate and found ourselves in a small shrine tucked among the trees. There was no entry gate and no admission fee – this seemed to be more a place of worship than a tourist sight, though it was crowded with Japanese visitors doing a bit of both. We made the suggested donation of 100¥ for a small leaflet (all in Japanese but with pretty pictures) and also threw some coins into a bowl at the shrine. We strolled around taking photos (as everywhere in Japan we found that the locals had no concerns about us doing so) and admired the pretty moss garden in particular. Later, back home, I read up all about our ‘discovery’.

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At Nonomiya Shrine

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Miniature garden at Nonomiya Shrine

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Young women at the shrine

Nonomiya literally means a ‘field palace’ and there were once several shrines with this name, each of which served the same purpose. In the past there was a custom for one of the Imperial princesses to be selected to serve the god of Ise-jingu, the most sacred Shinto Shrine, where only a relative of the Japanese Imperial family could be a high priest or priestess. Once selected, she would undergo a one year period of purification inside the Imperial Palace, and would then move to the Nonomiya-jinja for a further three years of purification. Only after this long period was she able to go to Ise-jingu.

Several gods are enshrined at Nonomiya. One of them is a god of marriage and another is a god of an easy delivery. It is no doubt to these gods that the many young women we saw here were praying.

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At Nonomiya Shrine

With more time to spare in Kyoto I would have happily spent a whole day in Arashiyama, but there were other sights on my must-see list and so, somewhat regretfully, we left around lunch time. We headed to the smaller of the two stations that serve this district and stopped there for ice-creams (including an unusual sesame seed one) before catching the useful Randen Railway, with its little trains that are more like trams, to travel from here to Ryoanji-michi, changing at Katabiranotsuji.

When we got off the train at Ryoanji-michi we found that we had to walk through some residential streets for about 10/12 minutes or so in order to reach the main road. For us, on our first visit to Japan, everything was interesting. The first stretch led along a street of local shops, and then through a more residential area. Several of the houses had small private shrines in their front gardens, and many of the gardens were very nicely designed and immaculately kept, though small.

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In the back streets of Kyoto

Ryoan-ji Temple

I am fascinated by the different forms of Japanese garden design and wanted to see as varied a sample as possible in our limited time in Kyoto. I read about the famous Zen garden at Ryoan-ji Temple and knew it would give us a different perspective on this ancient art. And so it did.

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This style of garden dates from a period in Japanese history when interest in Zen Buddhism was at its height, in the late 14th-16th centuries. At this time gardens became smaller, simpler and more minimalist, but most retained many of the same elements as before, including ponds, islands, bridges and waterfalls. However, an extremely minimalist version emerged, the Karesansui dry garden, which uses nothing but rocks, gravel and sand to represent all the elements of the landscape. This example at Ryoan-ji is one of the most famous in the country.

It is rectangular in shape, enclosed by a clay wall. Arranged within it are fifteen stones of different sizes, composed in five groups: one group of five stones, two groups of three, and two groups of two stones. These stones are surrounded by white gravel which is carefully raked each day by the monks. The only vegetation is some moss surrounding each group of stones. The garden is intended to be viewed from a seated position on the veranda of the hojo, the pavilion that serves as the residence of the head priest.

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At first glance it may seem random, though elegant in its design. But everything is very deliberate. The stones are placed in such a way that it is impossible to see the entire composition at once from the veranda. They are also arranged so that when looking at the garden from any angle (other than from above) only fourteen are visible at a time. Tradition holds that only through attaining enlightenment could a person view all fifteen.

And the wall too is part of the design. The clay has been mixed with rapeseed oil to give these brown and rust-coloured tones, intended to set off the whiteness of the gravel by absorbing light, and to create a neutral background that focuses attention on the stones.

It isn’t known who designed this garden, and although there are many theories, no one can say for sure what it is intended to represent.

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Some say it is an abstraction of a tiger and her cubs crossing a river, but that appears to refer to an earlier version of the garden that had only nine stones. Some say these are small islands in the ocean, or mountain peaks emerging through a sea of cloud. Others have suggested that the arrangement of the rocks relates to the character for ‘heart’ or that there is some hidden geometry behind them. It is probably best to simply accept that they are as they are because someone wanted them to look exactly like this, rather than minimise their potential impact by straining to find an unintended meaning.

You cannot go inside the pavilion here but instead walk around its veranda (shoes off, naturally) to view the famous garden from a platform. Be warned – this is a popular spot and you may need to wait your turn to view it from a perch at the edge. While you wait you can peer inside to see the beautifully painted screens.

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The pavilion at Ryoan-ji

On the far side of the pavilion (that is, away from the garden) the building is surrounded by trees and moss, and there is a famous stone washbasin known as Tsukubai, which is said to have been contributed by Tokugawa Mitsukuni in the 17th century. It bears a simple but profound four-character Zen inscription: ‘I learn only to be contented’.

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'I learn only to be contented'

Ryoan-ji Gardens

When we’d walked right round the pavilion we went on to explore the rest of the gardens here. Although Ryoan-ji Temple is best known for its Zen dry garden, there is much more to it than that. It has a pretty pond garden which is also well worth exploring, its lush greenery all the more refreshing as a contrast to the white gravel and bare rocks of the former. This is Kyoyochi Pond, built in the 12th century when this site still served as an aristocrat's villa. There are large carp, white ducks and (when we were there in mid October) pink water lilies.

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Kyoyochi Pond

The path round the pond leads past the small stone bridge that will take you on to the islet with a little torii gate and shrine, and past a large stone Buddha statue.

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In the gardens of Ryoan-ji Temple

The leaves were just starting to turn when we were here, adding to the beauty of the scene. Towards the end of our walk we came across a small café where we sat outside and had one of the most refreshing drinks I’ve come across – a sort of lemonade with a blob of what tasted like marmalade in the bottom of the glass. I don’t know what this was called – a waiter with limited English helped us to order from the ‘pay first and take a slip’ machine, and all we knew for sure was that we were ordering a cold drink that wasn’t cola! We sat outside on shady benches and enjoyed a pleasant rest before heading off to our last temple for the day.

Kinkaku-ji

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Kinkaku-ji: the Golden Pavilion

Some sights are so much talked about and so often visited that you wonder if they can really be that wonderful. The Golden Pavilion is one such sight – and yes, it really is that wonderful. You will have to share it with many other people, but don’t let the thought of the crowds that flock here put you off. This place is a stunner and popular for good reason. I had seen advice that you should go first thing to avoid the crowds but we couldn’t manage that on our tight Kyoto schedule and in any case I'm not sure the light would be so good then. We were here around 4.00 PM and at that time the temple was beautifully lit by the late afternoon sun. I reckon whatever time you go you’ll probably have to just put up with the crowds if you want to see it, and see it you should.

The ‘proper’ name for this temple is Rokuon-ji or Deer Garden Temple, but no one seems to call it that. This is for sure the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Kinkaku-ji – no other name would suit it half as well. And no number of previously seen photos can prepare you for the sight that greets you when you arrive at the edge of the pond here and gaze across at the pavilion reflected in its waters. When you succeed in making your way to the shoreline the jostling of the crowd will fade away and you will be spell-bound – especially if, like us, you are fortunate enough to be able to see it in bright sunlight.

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First view of Kinkaku-ji

Like many of Kyoto’s temples, this was originally the site of a private villa, but it was converted to a Zen temple at the very start of the 15th century by the son of Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, as a memorial to his father. Most of the buildings were lost in the Onin War later the same century, apart from the pavilion which survived. But in 1950 it too was lost, burned down by a novice monk, who tried to commit suicide as a result of what he had done. It was rebuilt in 1955 and that is the building we see today, a close copy of the original.

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Kinkaku-ji reflected

You can’t go inside the pavilion, only admire from outside, although a display panel does show some photos of the interior. This is unusual in that each floor has a different style. The top floor is a Zen meditation hall, built in Karayo style or Zen temple style. It is called Kukkyo-cho and its interior walls are also gilded. The middle floor is a hall dedicated to Kannon Bodhisattva; it is built in Buke-zukuri, the style of the samurai house and is called Cho-on-do. It holds a seated statue of the Kannon surrounded by statues of the Four Heavenly Kings, although this is not on view to the public. The lower, unpainted floor is a more secular space, designed for admiring the landscape and is Shinden-zukuri, or palace style, and is named Ho-sui-in. This, incidentally, is said to be the reason that this bottom floor is painted white on the exterior rather than gilded. The sacred upper floors which house temple halls are painted in gold, while the more worldly first floor looks like any other building. The building is topped with a wonderful golden phoenix.

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The golden phoenix of Kinkaku-ji

We found it most crowded at the first viewpoint, which is where most of my photos were taken, as inevitably everyone is brought up short at this point – and also, I am sure a few visitors never progress further than this in their rush to ‘tick off’ the sights of Kyoto. But once we had started to walk around the lake towards the temple it was just a little quieter, and there were also some interesting different views to be had.

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From different angles

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On golden pond - Kinkaku-ji reflected in the surrounding waters

The strolling garden

After viewing the Golden Temple of Kinkaku-ji from most sides, the path led us around the rest of the gardens. These have retained their original design from the days of Yoshimitsu, the Shogun who first built the temple on this spot. They are landscaped in a very natural way, with a variety of trees, bamboo, mosses and a stream, in a style known as ‘strolling garden’. This means that the garden is intended to be enjoyed not from a specific viewpoint (such as the famous Zen garden at Ryoan-ji which we had just come from) but rather from a series of viewpoints as you move along its paths.

There is a lot of symbolism in the garden too, with the rocks, bridges and plants arranged in particular ways to represent famous places in Chinese and Japanese literature. The largest of the islets in the pond represents the islands that constitute Japan itself, while four rocks which form a straight line in the pond near the pavilion are said to represent sailboats anchored at night, bound for the Isle of Eternal Life of Chinese mythology.

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In the strolling garden at Kinkaku-ji

Here and there in the grounds we came across statues and sculptures. The one in my photo above stands on an island in another small pond, An-min-taku. It is called Hakuja-no-tsuka (the Mound in Memory of the White Snake). This pond is said to never dry up.

Near the end of the path as you head towards the exit is a small shrine known as Fudodo, where the stone Fudo-myoc (Acara) is enshrined as a guardian. Also near here we found a couple of stalls selling snacks and bought some tasty wasabi nuts to fortify us after our long day out.

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Burning incense at Fudodo shrine

By now the afternoon was almost over and we were weary. It was time to head back to the ryokan to rest and freshen up before dinner. We decided to treat ourselves to a taxi back, rather than wait for a bus, and enjoyed chatting to the driver whose English was a little better than some others. He showed us a photo of his family (when stopped at some traffic lights!), pointed out a couple of sights as we passed them, and confirmed what I had already deduced, that the wearing of white gloves was compulsory for taxi drivers. Apparently it’s intended to make them look smart and also distinguish them from other drivers.

Kobe Pasta and Sweets

While enjoying Japanese cuisine is part of any trip here, just occasionally we found ourselves fancying a change. In Kyoto this urge for something different hit us, and we headed to the ‘restaurant floor’ of the Yodobashi store right by our hotel in search of pasta – Italian restaurants are very popular in Japan (due to the similarity between pasta and noodles it seems) and you'll find them in most cities. We found what we were looking for here, one of a number of restaurants strung out along a sort of indoor street on the sixth floor.

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Yodobashi restaurant floor

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'Pasta and sweets'

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Salmon and spinach pasta
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The rather odd 'bucket'!

There was an English menu of sorts and our waitress also spoke just enough words to be able to advise us that one of the set meals (here in Japan known as ‘sets’) would offer us good value as we could pay a single price for our pasta dish and beer. Chris chose a prosciutto and cheese sauce for his spaghetti while I went for salmon and spinach. The dishes are available as small, medium or large – and somewhat surprisingly, all sizes cost the same! We also got something they call a ‘bucket’, which is simply a baguette with a flavoured butter (we had basil) served rather incongruously in a beer stein!

Our medium dishes were a good size. The pasta was cooked fairly well (not too soft) and the sauces pleasant enough, if unremarkable. The beer washed it all down nicely and there was nothing to complain of in a bill of 3,080¥.

By the way. I’m not convinced that ‘Pasta and Sweets’ is its real name, but it appears prominently on the sign outside. Google Translate suggested ‘Kobe Pasta and Suites’ as a translation of its website but the shop sign clearly states ‘Sweets’ which seems more likely!

After dinner we did a bit of late-night shopping in Yodobashi, as Chris needed a new memory card (all those temples to photograph!) We found prices comparable with what we would pay at home, and the selection and overall size of the shop mind-boggling. Then we headed across the road to explore the station as its modern architecture had caught my eye on arriving in the city the day before.

Kyoto Station at night

Kyoto Station is huge (the second largest in the country, after Nagoya) and as I mentioned in my previous entry can be daunting to navigate as a traveller. But come back at your leisure, preferably at night, and you will find it an altogether different experience.

The station’s architecture is ultra modern, a real contrast to the historic temples that most people come to Kyoto to see. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but I loved it (I do tend to like modern architecture, if done well which this is). It makes a really bold statement in the centre of the city, and also serves its multiple functions effectively. Transport hub, shopping centre, entertainment complex, hotel – you will find all this and more within this massive structure.

The station was opened in 1997 to coincide with the city’s 1,200th anniversary. The style is loosely futurist, designed by Hiroshi Hara who also designed the Umeda Sky Building in Osaka. It wasn’t universally welcomed as many thought it was inappropriate for so historic a city and some have blamed it for a recent flush of modern buildings in the city centre.

The statistics give some idea of the scale of this structure. It is 70 metres high and 470 metres from east to west, with a total floor area of 238,000 square metres. The central atrium is 60 metres long and at the west end is an imposing 171 step stairway. This latter was a great place to start our night-time explorations as it is illuminated and (when we were there at least) constantly changing.

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Illuminated stairs

I wasn’t able to confirm whether this is a year-round feature or linked to specific seasonal events (in our case, Halloween) but do check it out to see whether there’s a ‘show’. I did a short video of the staircase but unfortunately my camera battery chose that moment to go flat, and I had thought to bring a spare on our evening out, so I wasn’t able to capture as many ‘scene changes’ as I would have liked. But the still photos give some idea.

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Kyoto Tower from the Skyway

After watching this for a while we headed upwards to visit the 45 metre long Skyway, a sort of suspended aerial corridor which you can walk along for great views of the Kyoto Tower and the city at night. To reach this you have to go up to the 10th floor and through a door to the left of the stairs which leads through a food hall to the Skyway. If you want to check this out do keep your eyes open, as we missed this door the first time – it’s easy to not spot the sign to the right of the door or to think you are walking into a restaurant by mistake! And give it a miss if you have a problem with heights as you feel quite exposed up there even though surrounded by glass.

After descending from the Skyway we headed outside the station to investigate something intriguing we had spotted from above, the Aqua Fantasy. This is a somewhat odd sight. On the roof of a small shop in front of Kyoto Station is a nightly display in which water jets are lit to look a little like fireworks and are set to music in a synchronised show. It’s a bit corny but fun, and worth stopping to watch if in the area. My flagging camera battery had gained a new lease of life with a short rest so again I made a little video of the performance. I read somewhere that these shows take place every evening at 7pm, 8pm, 9pm and 9.30pm. Do check it out if you’re nearby as it offers a different Kyoto experience.

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Aqua Fantasy

It had been a long day and we had packed in a lot of sights. It was time to head back to the ryokan, check our emails using the free wifi in the lobby, and snuggle down in our futons again. Tomorrow we would leave Kyoto on the next step of our journey …

Posted by ToonSarah 07:59 Archived in Japan Tagged night kyoto food architecture restaurant japan culture temple city garden shrine customs Comments (3)

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