A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about city

Back to Tokyo (via Matsumoto)

Japan day fourteen


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

A certain beauty

large_6932381-When_the_skies_cleared_Kamikochi.jpg
When the skies cleared

It had rained for a day and a half. Kamikochi did have a certain beauty in the rain, but it had meant that the mountains we had come to see were hidden from view. But on the previous evening, our last here, we had been summoned outside by a member of the hotel staffto see ‘the white mountain’. There we found that at last the skies had cleared and we could indeed see the nearest mountain glowing palely in the light of the moon. It was bitterly cold, so we didn’t linger long, but that tantalising glimpse made us eager for the next morning.

And when we awoke it was to crisp, still, cold air and to a deep blue sky; to bright white mountains standing majestically around the basin that is Kamikochi; and to a heavy frost. We hurried breakfast and grabbed our cameras and warm jackets, rushing outside to make the most of our final hour or so here. The scene was transformed and wherever we looked there were beautiful views to be marvelled at and captured in our photos. We were so glad we had been granted a short time at least in which to experience this very different side to Kamikochi.

6932377-When_the_skies_cleared_Kamikochi.jpg
Clouds rolling away

6932376-Yakedake_Kamikochi.jpg
Yakedake visible at last

6877298-Kamikochi_National_Park_Japan.jpg
The Azusa River with backdrop of mountains revealed

6932372-More_photos_of_Kamikochi_Kamikochi.jpg6932378-When_the_skies_cleared_Kamikochi.jpg

large_6932379-More_photos_of_Kamikochi_Kamikochi.jpg
Mountain views

But all too soon it was time to leave, crossing a very different-looking Kappa-bashi to that on the day of our arrival - a little slippery with frost and surrounded by stunning mountain views. At last we could see why they call this the 'Japanese Alps'.

Leaving Kamikochi

large_6932363-Kappa_bashi_early_morning_Kamikochi.jpg
Kappa-bashi, early morning

6932362-Sue_Jim_on_Kappa_bashi_Kamikochi.jpg
Sue and Jim on Kappa-bashi

We left Kamikochi as we had arrived, by bus, but this time bound for Shinshimashima. The journey took about an hour and the scenery was wonderful throughout. Unlike the day of our arrival, the sun was shining, the snowy peaks were visible and the views at almost every turn magnificent (apart from in the many tunnels).

But these tantalising glimpses of Kamikochi in sunlight left several of us yearning to stay, myself included. And my new friend Sue was so captivated by this place that when we left she wrote a beautiful song inspired by our time here:
'Kamikochi Mountains’ performed by Jim and Sue - lyrics and music by Sue Lee-Newman.

The bus took us past Taisho-Ike where we had been the previous day. How different it looked! Yesterday’s low cloud and the atmospheric mist that had shrouded the dead trees had lifted, and in its place we saw the glory of the surrounding mountains, Yakedake and Mount Hotaka, reflected in still waters. I was very pleased that I had a seat on the right-hand side of the bus and was able to grab a photo of a very different Taisho-Ike.

large_6932385-Looking_back_Kamikochi.jpg
Looking back at Taisho-Ike

495463026935468-Local_train_.._Matsumoto.jpg
Train from Shinshimashima to Matsumoto

The bus took us directly to the station in Shinshimashima. There we had a 20 minute wait - just time to buy a drink and some fruit (wonderful Hida apples!) from the stall outside the station.

Then it was on to the small local train bound for Matsumoto, a journey of just 30 minutes. Matsumoto has a direct connection to Tokyo's Shinbuka Station, but we dropped our bags in the coin lockers at the station and took a few hours to explore the town before continuing our journey.

A few hours in Matsumoto

6877263-Matsumoto_Japan.jpg
Manhole cover, Matsumoto

Matsumoto lies in the heart of the island of Honshu and can be seen as a gateway to the Japanese Alps which surround the long valley in which it lies. For us however, it was more of an exit point.

6935477-Monument_in_the_town_Matsumoto.jpg
Monument in the town

And with only a few hours to spend here, the main sight we focused on was naturally the castle, which is one of the ‘National Treasures of Japan’ and one of relatively few original castles in the country, most having been lost to fire. It’s an impressive sight, surrounded by a wide moat and with a striking black and white colour scheme.

We also spent a bit of time browsing the quaint shops on Nawate-dori, visiting its tranquil shrine and grabbing lunch at a Western-style café that originates from Seattle USA. But there was no time for the well-regarded Museum of Art or any of the other museums in this culturally-minded city.

I left with fleeting impressions of a city that is well looked-after, with attractive street art, wide clean pavements and a laid-back air compared to the bustle of the large cities such as Tokyo and Osaka. It seems Matsumoto would make a good base for touring in this region at the heart of the country.

Matsumoto Castle

large_6935481-Matsumoto_Castle_Matsumoto.jpg
Matsumoto Castle

The castle lies about 10/15 minutes’ walk from the station and we all walked there as a group, before splitting up to explore at our own pace.

This is one of relatively few original castles in Japan; as they were built mostly of wood they often burned down and were rebuilt, some many times. This though is one of just four castles designated as ‘National Treasures of Japan’ and is the oldest castle donjon still standing in the country.

6935480-Matsumoto_Castle_Matsumoto.jpg6935478-Matsumoto_Castle_Matsumoto.jpg
Matsumoto Castle

The castle was built at the end of the 16th century on the site of an earlier fort by the Ishikawa family. It has a striking black and white colour scheme, and three turrets. It is sometimes called 'Crow Castle' because of the black walls. Both the wooden interiors and external stonework are original. It is known as a flatland castle or hirajiro because it is built not on a hilltop or amid rivers, but on a plain. It is surrounded by a wide moat which makes for lovely photos, although some of the best I think would be from the far side of the castle (as you approach it from the ticket office) where a red bridge crosses the moat – an area of the park that was closed when we visited for construction work. So for us the best views were probably those from the park that surrounds it, as seen in my three photos above.

You can get these outside views of the castle for free but to get closer or to go inside you must pay the admission fee of 600¥, which we decided to do. We were given an informative leaflet in English and if you want can also get a free English language guided tour from a volunteer guide. We didn't do this as we only wanted a quick look round, but we did chat briefly to one of the guides whose English seemed OK and who was interested to chat about the differences between Japanese and English castles.

6935486-Roof_detail_Matsumoto.jpg

6935482-Detail_of_castle_roof_Matsumoto.jpg

P1020078.jpg

Roof details

P1020080.jpg
Warning sign inside

Once inside the castle's precincts you can see some displays about its history and of course go inside. To do the latter you must remove your shoes and carry them in a plastic bag provided. Note that the stairs are all very steep and of polished wood - I found it tricky going in just socks! Various artefacts are displayed (swords, costumes, building materials etc) but very few signs are in English. At the top (six floors up) you get good views of Matsumoto and on a clear day, of the Japanese Alps in the distance – or so I understand. We gave up part way, deciding that the slippery steps weren't worth the trouble for relatively little reward when we had such limited time in the town.

But even if you don't want to go inside I reckon it's worth paying the admission to get a closer look at the castle and see the historical displays, and the guy dressed up as a samurai who I gather is usually there.

453287276935484-Japanese_tou.._Matsumoto.jpg
Japanese tourist with 'samurai'

We also visited the gift shop as I had been advised by Andrew that this was one of relatively few places to buy wasabi chocolate. Yes, you read that correctly! It’s a white chocolate flavoured with the hot Japanese condiment. I rather liked it – but it won't appeal to everyone I suspect!

When we had seen enough of the castle we retraced our steps to an interesting street we had passed on our way here.

Nawate-dori

P1020115.jpg
Sign on Nawate-dori

This is a quaint, if slightly (but only slightly) touristy street not far from the castle. This street once formed the border between the Samurai residences and the commoners’ homes in the Edo era (1603 – 1868).

The name means ‘Frog’ street. It acquired this name at a time when the nearby river became so polluted that even the frogs died. The city managed to clean up the river, and named the street nearby after the frogs that returned to its waters. The name is also related to a pun on the Japanese word for ‘return’ kaeru. The mountains that surround Matsumoto could be treacherous, so frogs were given as a charm so that travellers would return safely.

6935488-Nawate_dori_Matsumoto.jpg6935471-Samurai_frog_Matsumoto.jpg
Nawate-dori, with giant frog

6935490-Frog_shop_Nawate_dori_Matsumoto.jpg
Frog shop

We certainly would have found it hard to miss this street, as there is this very large fibreglass statue of a samurai frog by the entrance on Daimyocho Street. This was created by students from the Tokyo University for the Arts. The street is pedestrianised and not long – if you don’t stop to shop or browse you can walk it in about five minutes.

But there are plenty of interesting shops selling antiques and bric-a-brac, and others with gift items (one of which has only frog-related items!) I was very tempted by some antique sake cups but persuaded (probably rightly!) by Chris that we had already bought more than enough souvenirs.

6935489-Shop_window_Nawate_dori_Matsumoto.jpg
Shop window, Nawate-dori

P1020093.jpg
Nawate-dori book shop

6935493-Garden_on_Nawate_dori_Matsumoto.jpg
Garden on Nawate-dori

There are also some quaint corners likely to catch your eye if you’re a keen photographer, and several places to eat, both stalls selling local snacks such as soy bean dumplings, and more substantial sit-down places. We decided to have lunch in one of these.

Sweet Bakery

We had mostly eaten (and for the most part enjoyed) Japanese food on our travels, but there are times when you really crave the food of home - or at least of another country! So when we spotted this cosy bakery/café, with a menu of pizza, toasted sandwiches and soup, we thought it looked a promising spot for a more Western lunch for a change. And so it proved to be.

6935470-Sweet_Matsumoto.jpg
Sweet Bakery on Nawate-dori

Sweet appears to be a Matsumoto offshoot of a Seattle bakery, and has been on this spot since 1924. It claims to have been the first shop to sell French-style baguettes in the region, a claim I find easy to believe!

6935469-Cosy_interior_Matsumoto.jpg
Cosy interior of Sweet Bakery

Inside we found a pleasant space, with old photos on the walls reflecting the bakery's establishment in 1924. There are also a few seats and tables outside, where smoking and dogs are permitted (neither is allowed inside, and after finding some Japanese cafės too smoky for my liking, I was pleased about this). Looking at the clientele, this place seems popular with local young mums. Chris found one of his favourites on the menu, a Reuben sandwich, and I had a bowl of clam chowder. We both enjoyed these dishes and they were just the right size for lunch.

Yohashira Shrine

large_6935498-Carving_detail_Matsumoto.jpg
Carving detail, Yohashira Shrine

The main sight we found on Nawate-dori (in addition to the appeal of browsing the small shops) was this tranquil Shinto shrine. I haven’t been able to find out much about it, as the only website I could find was entirely Japanese, but if Google Translate was doing its job properly, the shrine was built in 1924 to replace an earlier one (1874?) that was destroyed by fire in 1888.

6935494-Lion_dog_guardian_Matsumoto.jpg
Lion dog guardian, Yohashira Shrine

It seems to be something of a haven in the city for locals, several of whom stopped briefly to pray while we were here – I enjoyed seeing the little boy who was being shown by his mother how to ring the bell that draws the attention of the spirits or kami to the presence of the would-be petitioner.

It also seems to be a popular spot for pigeons – one man was feeding them here when we came, and there are several references to them among the brief descriptions of the shrine that I’ve been able to track down.

6935487-Yohashira_Shrine_Matsumoto.jpg6935496-Yohashira_Shrine_Matsumoto.jpg
Yohashira Shrine - feeding the pigeons and ringing the temple bell

We took a few photos here and enjoyed the tranquillity for a while but moved on when a small group arrived, armed with a set of metal steps, to set up a group photo in front of the main shrine. In any case, it was time to head back to the station to continue our journey to Tokyo.

Return to a very different Tokyo

We left Matsumoto on a limited express train service to Tokyo's Shinjuku Station. This journey took about two and a half hours, making Matsumoto just about do-able as a day trip from the capital. I learned that this train service is called the ‘Azusa’ or ‘Super Azusa’ limited express, named after the river we had enjoyed walking and staying beside in Kamikochi!

large_6888311-_Tokyo.jpg
Arriving in Shinjuku at night

We emerged from Shinjuku Station to a rather different Tokyo from the one we had experienced when staying in Asakusa at the start of our trip. There we had found relatively tranquillity in the almost suburban streets that surround its atmospheric shrine, Senso-ji. Here everything was modern and frenetic, constantly on the move. This is the Tokyo we so often see – a truly 24 hour city.

6888324-Its_the_red_brick_building_Tokyo.jpg
Ibis Hotel, Shinjuku

Our base here for the night was the Ibis Hotel, just a few minutes’ walk from the station. We found the bedroom small, as they seemed to be in all the standard hotels in Japan - and, again as everywhere, we had everything we might need to make our stay comfortable: tea-making, TV (with, rare here, BBC World News channel), hair dryer, toiletries, robes and slippers, good free wifi.

We settled in but didn’t bother unpacking, as we would be leaving again the next morning. The bright lights of Shinjuku awaited!

Udon noodles galore!

6888318-Outside_the_restaurant_Tokyo.jpg
Outside Mentsudan restaurant - Andrew explaining the menu

This was the final night of our group tour and everyone was keen to have dinner together. Andrew proposed a visit to one of his favourite restaurants in Tokyo, Mentsudan, an unpretentious and great value udon joint. There are no frills here, but you can get a filling bowl of udon noodles in a wide range of styles for less than 1,000¥, and they are tasty!

It is self-service, but with the noodles cooked to order, and according to Time Out Tokyo ‘are handmade in-house by expert noodle makers from Kagawa, where the dish originates’. The first thing we saw on entering was the cooking area on the left, with the chefs hard at work and a small counter where we placed our orders. I didn't see an English menu but there were pictures to help us make our choice, and of course we had Andrew along to advise. On his recommendation we all chose a large portion, which for dinner I think is probably good advice.

6888319-Place_your_order_Tokyo.jpg
Place your order

6888320-Rolling_the_noodles_Tokyo.jpg
Rolling the noodles

6888321-Final_result_Tokyo.jpg
Udon noodles with tempura side

Once we’d ordered we sat on a bench opposite the counter to wait for our noodles to be prepared. I enjoyed watching the chefs in action as they rolled and cut the dough and cooked the noodles before topping them with our chosen sauces. Both Chris and I opted for cheese, again on Andrew's recommendation, and it was very good (a bit like macaroni cheese!)

Once we had our bowl of noodles we took our trays and proceeded along the counter choosing any additional dishes we fancied, all of which were priced at around 50-200¥. I chose a vegetable tempura dish, and Chris some potato salad. Others in our group had rice, other salads and different tempura including octopus and even a tempura bacon rasher! You can also get drinks - beer, sake, soft drinks. A few items are priced at 0¥ and can be added for free - I sprinkled some sliced spring onion onto my bowl of noodles and had some ginger paste on the side with my tempura. At the end of the counter we paid, took our trays to some available seats at one end of a long wooden table in the centre of the room, and tucked in. Yummy!

Oh, and also very cheap – for our two large cheese udon bowls, a couple of side dishes and two large beers we paid just 2,400¥ (about £15).

large_6877838-Farewell_group_shot_in_Shinjuku_Japan.jpg
Farewell group shot

After dinner we went back to the hotel and most of us had a drink together in the bar before taking a final group photo and saying our farewells. The next day most would be leaving Japan, but we still had a few more days to explore on our own while another couple were staying on in Tokyo. Some had to get up early the next day for flights home, but our train to Nikko wasn’t until mid morning. The night was young and the bright lights of Shinjuku were calling! So we went out to explore and take some photos.

Shinjuku at night

large_6888316-_Tokyo.jpg
Shinjuku at night

This is one of the most vibrant night-life areas of the city, and was a real contrast to Asakusa where we had stayed at the start of our trip – and even more to beautiful Kamikochi where we had been for the previous two nights. We wandered through the streets near our hotel and took lots of photos of the neon lights and all the activity. In some ways we could have been in any major city; in others, it was uniquely Japan.

P1020145.jpg

P1020154.jpg

P1020157.jpg

P1020156.jpg
Shinjuku at night

I was especially intrigued by the narrow alleyways north of the station, known variously as Omoide Yokocho (which means ‘memory lane’), Yakitori Alley or more crudely, Piss Alley. They are lined with a myriad of the tiniest restaurants I think I have ever seen, most with just a counter and a handful of stools. Big bowls of noodles (ramen, soba, udon) bubble on the stoves and yakitori skewers are lined up on the grills. Fragrant steam rises on the air to tempt diners. Unfortunately we had already eaten so we just strolled through and took in all the sights.

6888315-Omoide_Yokocho_Tokyo.jpg6888314-Omoide_Yokocho_Tokyo.jpg
6888333-A_Omoide_Yokocho_restaurant_Tokyo.jpg
On Omoide Yokocho

A less appealing area for many will be Kabukicho, Japan’s largest red light district, which lies to the north east of the station. When we passed here I spotted several men obviously out to tout for business so we gave it a miss! It’s probably safe enough with so many other people around, but there were plenty of other streets to explore and bright lights to photograph.

82 Ale House

6888330-Entrance_Tokyo.jpg
Entrance to the pub

After we’d spent some time wandering around the brightly lit streets we decided it was time for another drink. We had spotted the narrow frontage of this bar and thought it looked welcoming so decided to give it a try. It was quite an interesting experience! The aim here is to recreate a British pub in the heart of Tokyo and I imagine for Japanese visitors it could feel very exotic and foreign. Certainly there were plenty of them there – the small space was almost full and mostly with Japanese drinkers though there were a few Westerners too. In appearance it has managed to create a fair impression of a UK pub (we were chuffed to see old pictures of Northumberland on the walls) and they have also replicated the custom of ordering and paying for your drinks at the bar. But it was very odd to be greeted at the door, after descending the short flight of steps to the basement, and seated as if we were in a restaurant – ‘Table for two? Over here please’!

Once settled at our table (which we were lucky to get) we found that there was a decent selection of drinks including some British ales, naturally, but also local ones. Chris had a Kirin while I was persuaded by the pub’s Jack Daniels promotion to try a cocktail based on their Tennessee Honey whiskey which was rather nice. We also shared a bowl of mixed nuts and rather enjoyed our experience of a Japanese take on a British night out!

6888331-A_British_Pub_Tokyo.jpg
Japanese take on a British pub

6888332-Note_the_Alnwick_poster_Tokyo.jpg
In the pub - note the Alnwick Castle poster!

Posted by ToonSarah 04:45 Archived in Japan Tagged landscapes mountains night trains tokyo castles food streets architecture japan temple hotel restaurants pubs city shrine national_park matsumoto customs kamikochi Comments (4)

Coming full circle

Japan day seventeen


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

large_6941794-Tobu_Nikko_Station_Nikko.jpg
Trains at Tobu Nikko Station

We were up quite early to enjoy another simple breakfast at the Turtle Inn Annexe. We then finished packing our small bags (having left most of our luggage in storage at the Ibis Hotel in Shinjuku) and our hostess kindly called a taxi for our drive to the Tobu Nikko Station.

We got to the station early so had plenty of time to shop for the obligatory bento boxes for the journey. Then I started to think about a missed opportunity from the previous day. As I mentioned, I was quite taken with several of the items we saw for sale in various shops in Nikko, as the quality of the workmanship here seemed high, but we already had several souvenirs by this point (a secret box from Hakone, a sake dish from Kyoto, our lovely wood-block painting from Takayama so I was persuaded yesterday not to buy anything else. One item though had stuck with me, and it was my turn to do the persuading, convincing Chris that it would be light and easy to carry and was easily worth the price asked.

So I left him guarding our luggage and walked up the main street to one of the shops we had visited the previous afternoon.

Nikkobori

6941660-Beautifully_carved_Nikko.jpg
My souvenir of Nikko

In a small shop on Nikko's main street a local woodcarver makes and sells his beautiful work - small bowls, hand mirrors, boxes and larger items, all carved with intricate flowers and stained red with a dye made from cashew nuts. This style of carving, known as Nikkobori, is typical of the Nikko region, employing a unique v-shaped gouge known as a hikkake (meaning ‘scratcher’). This was originally developed during the restoration of Toshogu Shrine, as the triangular shape of the end made it the ideal tool for scraping off the difficult to remove varnish. Later, at the end of the Edo period, this tool began to be used in carving, using it to gouge out the design by pulling towards the carver. You can see being used in this YouTube video I found. Another characteristic of Nikko carving is the use of plant life as the main theme, influenced by the carvings at Toshogu - tree peony, chrysanthemum, Japanese apricot and cherry trees are all common.

I had fallen for one of the shallow bowls, which cost me 4,000¥. Each one is unique so that isn't a bad price at all, and the items are all so light and easy to carry (and of course, as this is Japan, beautifully wrapped on purchase) that they make great souvenirs of your trip or gifts for someone back home. This one was very definitely a souvenir for me (it still sits on a table in our front room). I only wished, however, that I had taken my camera when I went back to buy it (I’d left my heavy bag with Chris, taking only my purse), as I would have loved to have captured a picture of the artist at work and of some at least of the many other beautiful items he has created.

Returning to the station in good time for the train I rejoined Chris for the ride back to Tokyo. As on the outward journey we travelled via Shimo Imaichi to Shinjuku. There we headed for the Ibis to check in and retrieve the luggage we had stored.

Exploring Shinjuku

large_ab27d870-2629-11e8-b636-11d5ef6ae52c.jpg
Street art in the Shinjuku skyscraper district

The bad weather that had been forecast had arrived, with driving rain and strong winds. but we were determined not to waste the last afternoon of our trip to Japan. So we grabbed our umbrellas and ventured out of the hotel to see more of Shinjuku. The area to the west of its massive station (the busiest in the world!) consists mainly of skyscrapers, some of them very distinctive in design – I loved the so-called Cocoon Tower! But in the pouring rain it was hard to get decent photos.

Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building

153900496888326-Tokyo_Metrop..ding_Tokyo.jpg13043246888328-Tokyo_Metrop..ding_Tokyo.jpg
Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building

At the western edge of Shinjuku’s skyscraper district is this, its tallest. Indeed, when it was built in 1991 it was the tallest in the city, an honour it held until 2006 when it was overtaken by the Midtown Tower. It was designed by architect Kenzo Tange and intended to resemble a computer chip (no, I can’t see it myself!), while the twin towers are said also to echo the design of a Gothic cathedral. It is 48 stories high with three further levels below ground, and splits into its two towers at the 33rd storey height. Both towers have an observatory on their 45th floor which is open to the public and free of charge.

On a good day you can see Mount Fuji from here; on a bad day you can’t see much further than the next skyscraper. Unfortunately this was a very bad day! Of course we knew how bad the weather was before ascending and had no illusions that we might get much of a view, but it was free and promised time in the warm and dry, so we headed up. I had reckoned on poor visibility but, rather stupidly, had not considered that the glass windows would also be streaming with rain, which made it even worse. So – no great photos even of the surrounding streets, but it was fun to be so high for a while and peer down at the traffic (light as it was a Sunday), although frustrating to be told by informative plaques at every window about the great sights we weren’t seeing!

6888327-Looking_down_Tokyo.jpg

6888329-Looking_straight_down_Tokyo.jpg

P1020435.jpg

Looking down from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building

Sompo Japan Museum of Art

As well as checking out the architecture in this part of the city, we visited the small but interesting Sompo Japan Museum of Art which as well as showcasing the work of Japanese Cubist-influenced artist Seiji Togo, has several notable Impressionist works including Van Gogh’s Sunflowers (bought at the height of the 1980s bubble economy by the insurance company which owns the building for a then unprecedented five billion yen) and others by Gauguin and Cezanne. It’s not a large collection by any means, but a visit here is worthwhile if you are interested in art of this period, and especially in poor weather.

IMG_0332.jpg IMG_0333.jpg
Umbrella lockers at the Sompo Japan Museum of Art

On our way back to the hotel my umbrella finally gave up its fight with the wind (we learned the next day that we were on the edge of a typhoon). But there was a trusty Lawsons nearby, the chain we had come to love when staying in Hakone, and they had the ubiquitous Japanese style of large transparent umbrella for sale, which coped much better with these conditions than my flimsy telescopic one brought from home.

Our last evening in Japan

IMG_0337.jpg
In 82 Ale House again

We decided that given the weather we would eat in the hotel restaurant that evening (an OK pasta dish, salad and garlic bread) but the rained eased a bit later so we went back to the nearby pub we had spent an enjoyable hour or so in a few evenings previously, the 82 Ale House. It was a Sunday evening and the place was as busy as before but luckily not totally packed, and again we were welcomed and shown to a table.

I had developed a taste for Japanese whisky so sampled two of the four on the menu, deciding that the Yoichi was my preferred one. Chris again had local beer (Kirin) and we had a lovely last evening in Japan in this cosy spot.

Postscript

6888178-The_Cocoon_Tokyo.jpg
The Cocoon

Of course the next day was fine and bright, just as we had to leave! To return to Narita Airport for our flight home we travelled not on the subway but using the so-called Friendly Airport Limousine service, which was more convenient leaving from Shinjuku. I say ‘so-called’ not because it isn't friendly but because it isn't really a limousine but merely a bus. However, it is a good and useful service nevertheless - and probably far far cheaper than any limousine would be!

We had pre-booked the bus we wanted a couple of days beforehand, on arriving back in Tokyo from Nikko. It's always best to do this to be sure of a seat, although as it happened when we arrived at the stop early we were able to get on the bus before the one we'd booked.

The buses run very frequently throughout the day and the journey is advertised as taking 90 minutes although we did it in about 75 (and that in the morning rush hour). We were dropped off right in front of the main entrance to departures, so it couldn't have been more convenient. And as a bonus, we got some great views of Tokyo on the first part of the ride as the route follows an elevated stretch of road that loops around some of the high-rise business districts. I was glad I had my camera at the ready to capture a few last shots of this amazing country.

6888335-Seen_from_the_bus_Tokyo.jpg

6888336-Seen_from_the_bus_Tokyo.jpg
Seen from the bus to the airport

Posted by ToonSarah 11:42 Archived in Japan Tagged art buildings tokyo rain architecture japan pubs city weather street_art skyscrapers crafts Comments (6)

Manic traffic, atrocious pollution, endlessly captivating

Day one India


View Rajasthan 2015 on ToonSarah's travel map.

7516449-Delhi_traffic_Delhi.jpg
Delhi traffic

By any measure Delhi is an assault on the senses. The sound of car horns and auto-rickshaw bells fill the air; these vehicles weave endlessly in a manic dance; people ebb and flow between and all around them. The air is at times fragrant with the smells of spices; at other times choking with fumes. The heat beats down …

After a long overnight flight from London it really seemed as if we had landed on a different planet, not just a different continent. And I loved it! The energy, the colours, the constant buzz. And when we returned to Delhi at the end of our trip, and to the same hotel, it almost felt like coming home.
Delhi is India’s capital, its second largest city (by population) and had a rich history. At its heart is Old Delhi, founded by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in 1639 and known originally as Shahjahanabad – the last of seven ancient cities in this immediate area. These include Qila Rai Pithora (the first to be recorded, in the 10th century AD), and Mehrauli, built by the first Muslim sultan, Qutubuddin, in the early part of the 13th century, whose Qutb Minar still stands and was one of the highlights of our brief visit.

7516458-Hotel_entrance_Delhi.jpg

Our base here was the comfortable Suryaa Hotel, located in the New Friends Colony area of the city, not far from the Lotus Temple. We stayed here for the first few nights of our tour with Transindus, and again on our last night, and were impressed with their choice. The large marble lobby gave us a good first impression, which extended to our comfortable fourth floor room with a good-sized bed, lots of space, efficient A/C, a flat screen TV, bottled water, tea and coffee-making stuff, mini-bar, safe and plenty of storage. The bathroom had a bath with shower over, a good selection of toiletries and a hairdryer. All the staff we encountered or had dealings with were welcoming, helpful and courteous.

The hotel has a number of places to eat and drink – a buffet restaurant and bar downstairs, and an upmarket pan-Asian restaurant and cocktail bar on the top floor, plus a coffee shop in the lobby where we enjoyed a coffee and cake soon after arriving. The choice at breakfast is amazing - cereals, pastries, exotic juices, fruits, eggs cooked to order, ditto pancakes and waffles, all the regular hot items (bacon, sausage, tomatoes etc.) plus Indian dahls and curries and even Japanese miso soup, and loads more.

7516459-Our_room_Delhi.jpg7516460-Part_of_breakfast_buffet_Delhi.jpg
Our room, and breakfast buffet

The hotel has a pool which we didn’t use but could see from our bedroom window – it looked a good size for a city hotel pool and seemed well kept. There’s also a gym and spa but I didn’t see those so can’t comment.

Even if you don't visit the top floor restaurant or bar it's worth going up there for the views, though it was very hazy when we did so. You don't see many famous sights (the aforementioned Lotus Temple is the main one) but you do get a good look at the circling eagles. A barman told us that these nest on the roof of the hotel, as do owls which can be seen here at night. We didn't get around to eating here but did have a nice dinner one evening in the downstairs bar (murgh malai kebab and tandoori vegetable platter) where the friendly barman let us have the Happy Hour "two for one" deal on our beers despite having arrived in the bar some 15 minutes after the offer period.

7516461-View_from_the_roof_Delhi.jpg
From the hotel roof

577980777516452-Excellent_fo..elhi_Delhi.jpg
Veda

On arriving in Delhi we learned that dinner on the first night of our tour was included in the cost so that evening we met up with our guide, Rajesh, and driver, Mehar, to go to Connaught Place for a meal at Veda, one of a small (I think) chain of restaurants in India. Well, it may be a chain, but we were certainly impressed by the food here, as well as by the somewhat exotic décor - dark, rich reds, lots of gilt mirrors and ornate light fittings, plus a hammered metal ceiling reflecting the candles on the tables.

The website describes the cuisine as “a contemporary interpretation of classic Indian cooking”. We had a set meal and everything was delicious. The first course was two vegetable appetisers - fried spinach leaves topped with tiny noodles and cheese (a Veda speciality), and cauliflowers fritters. Then two meat appetisers - small pieces of mutton kebab and chicken tikka. The main event was a selection of dishes served with rice and chappattis. There was a chicken curry cooked with spring onion, a lamb curry, paneer (Indian cottage cheese) in a spicy tomato sauce, a black lentil dahl and another Veda special, crispy fried strips of okra (a sort of fusion of that classic Indian ingredient with the Chinese way of serving seaweed). Finally there was kulfi, the rich Indian ice cream. As I said, everything was delicious, but if I had to pick favourites it would be the cauliflower fritters, the fried okra and the paneer - all excellent.

Exploring the city

Although we only had a day in which to see something of Delhi we managed to pack in a fair amount, thanks in part to our excellent guide Rajesh and star driver Mehar.

Jama Masjid

7516446-Approach_to_north_gate_Delhi.jpg
Steps up to the mosque

We started our explorations at the massive Jama Masjid mosque. This is one of the largest (some sources, and our guide, say the largest) mosques in India. It was built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (most famous for another building, the Taj Mahal) between 1644 and 1656. It is said to have taken 5,000 workers and cost a million rupees to build, which must have been a huge sum in those days. It is certainly on an impressively grand scale. The huge courtyard can accommodate more than 25,000 worshippers. Its surrounding walls are pierced by three great gates (most visitors enter through the north gate) and on the west side is the main mosque structure, built of red sandstone and white marble, with three white marble domes and two 40 metre high minarets.

large_7516442-Jama_Masjid_Delhi.jpg

Entry is free but there is a fee of 300 IR per camera to take photos and you'll be charged for every camera you are carrying, including smartphones, even if you don't plan to use them all. All visitors, including non-Muslims, are allowed inside as well as out, and photos can be taken everywhere, but the mosque is closed to non-Muslims at prayer time. And don’t even consider a visit here if you aren’t able to climb steps, as the mosque sits on an elevated sandstone platform and there are 39 steps up to the northern gate. You must leave your shoes at this main entrance so wear socks you don't mind getting grubby or borrow a pair of the slippers available. Women in trousers or with short sleeves are also asked to put on a gown.

201544497516965-Tourists_in_.._Rajasthan.jpg110734597516966-Cover_up_gow.._Rajasthan.jpg
Tourists in slippers, and me in my gown (with Rajesh)

Once inside, take your time to wander round the courtyard, which is a buzz of both tourist and worshipper activity. We were advised not to photograph Muslim women but told that otherwise no one would mind, and in fact that seemed to extend to some of the women too. Bowls are set out to feed the many pigeons, and the seed they spill is carefully swept up. Locals and tourists mill around and it could be any city square, until you approach the prayer hall where a more respectful and devout atmosphere prevails. Even here though, a man sitting reading the Koran in one corner saw my camera and beckoned me over with a “welcome to take photos” gesture. So do pay that camera fee, as you will surely get some memorable shots here.

7516443-Jama_Masjid_Delhi.jpg7516444-Jama_Masjid_Delhi.jpg
Delhi_00020__Jama_Masjid.jpgDelhi_00015__Jama_Masjid.jpg
7516393-In_Jama_Masjid_courtyard_Delhi.jpg

Chandni Chowk

The mosque lies in Old Delhi, surrounded by the vibrant streets of Chandni Chowk market. The name Chandni Chowk is used for a specific street in Old Delhi, but also for the maze of alleys that surround it. This is the market place for Old Delhi, dating back to the 17th century when it was, so it is said, designed by the daughter of Shah Jahan with a canal (long since covered over) running the length of the street which reflected the moonlight. But if the mention of moonlight suggests peace and tranquillity, think again. Today’s Chandni Chowk is a complete assault on the senses – narrow lanes strung with electric cables, a cacophony of sound from horns (as everywhere in Delhi), a riot of colour, the scents of perfumes and spices in the air. On the pavements are people washing, cooking, cutting hair. Each narrow alleyway is lined with small shops specialising in certain goods - wedding saris in one, fruit and vegetables in another. Nai Sarak specialises in text books and calendars, Chawri in paper and stationery and Dariba Kalan in jewellery.

7516437-Life_on_the_streets_cooking_Delhi.jpg7516439-Chandni_Chowk_shop_Delhi.jpg
7516438-Life_on_the_streets_washing_Delhi.jpg

We took a cycle rickshaw ride which is possibly the best way to see the madness close-up but without being totally sucked into it. Our driver pointed out some of the more interesting goods on sale, a small Jain temple tucked in an alleyway, even at one point monkeys (macaques) on a roof above us. Make sure you hold on to your possessions as you ride, and keep arms and hands inside the frame of the rickshaw - it's a bumpy ride and your driver will squeeze through the narrowest of spaces. Despite the bumps however, and the need to hang on, I did manage to shoot a few snippets of video that I hope give just a little flavour of the experience.

7516392-Rickshaw_driver_Chandni_Chowk_Delhi.jpg7516463-Rickshaws_in_Old_Delhi_Delhi.jpg

Presidential Palace complex

From Old Delhi we drove to the Presidential Palace, where we stopped briefly to admire the architecture and the views (very hazy) all the way down the Rajpath (the King’s Way) to the India Gate two kilometres away.

large_7516432-Presidential_Palace_complex_Delhi.jpg
Presidential Palace

7516433-Presidential_Palace_complex_Delhi.jpg

The palace is the work of Edwin Lutyens, whose original plans were for a classically European building (he had little respect for the local architectural traditions which he once dismissed as “Moghul tosh”). Fortunately he was over-ruled and added features such as Rajasthani-inspired sandstone window grilles (known as jaalis), statues of elephants and cobras. He also lost an argument about the placing of the Palace, which he had intended to sit at the edge of Raisina Hill, and had to move it back to accommodate the buildings that now flank it on either side. This means it is not visible from the foot of the hill – something he considered a fault but which I felt gave the building an interesting element of surprise as you crest the hill and see the scale of the complex of buildings that greet you.

You approach along a wide avenue, Rajpath (the King’s Way), which links the palace to the India Gate two kilometres away. Either side of this avenue are the north and south buildings of the Secretariat, designed by Herbert Baker. It was these structures that caused Lutyen’s design for the plateau to be modified and the palace moved back from the edge. Today they house various government offices and ministries including Finance and Foreign Affairs.

Since 1950, when the first President of a now independent India took up residence here, it was renamed as the President’s Palace or Rashtrapati Bhavan. In area this was the largest residence of a Head of State in the world until the Presidential Complex of Turkey was opened on 29th October 2014. It has 340 rooms spread over four floors and covers 200,000 square feet (19,000 square metres).

7516434-Dominion_Column_Delhi.jpg
Dominion Column

Like the Palace, Baker’s designs for the Secretariat buildings include Indian elements and are made from the same cream and red sandstone. The columns in front of these are known as Dominion Columns and were gifts from Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. At the time it was expected that India would, like these countries, soon become a British Dominion, but instead it was to win independence within 18 years from the date of the buildings’ completion.

Although we didn’t have time to visit the museum inside the palace, this made an interesting photo stop, and came with a bonus. Although Chris has never owned or ridden a motorbike himself, his father was great biker and Chris has inherited something of his affection for the great makes such as BSA and Royal Enfield – the latter being originally a British company but made in India since the 1950s and exclusively there since 1971. He was very happy when the owner of a classic Royal Enfield bike, parked in front of the Presidential Palace, let him pose with it for some photos – and no, this wasn’t a “pose in return for payment” staged photo opp! We were also interested to learn that the beautiful ornamental iron gates in front of the palace were copied by Lutyens from some he saw in Chiswick, very near our London home.

7516436-Chris_plus_Royal_Enfield_Delhi.jpg

India Gate

large_146833577516429-As_seen_from..lace_Delhi.jpg

At the opposite end of the Rajpath to the Presidential Palace, and two kilometres away, is the India Gate. This was built in the 1920s as a war memorial to commemorate the soldiers of the British Indian Army who died in the First World War and in the Third Anglo-Afghan War. In all, more than 13,300 names are inscribed on the gate. Like the Presidential Palace it was designed by Edwin Lutyens (who also designed London’s Cenotaph and 65 other war memorials in Europe on behalf of the Imperial War Graves Commission which also commissioned this) and has the appearance more of a victory or triumphal arch than a memorial.

The gate is 42 metres in height and has a shallow bowl at the top which was intended to be filled with burning oil on anniversaries although this is rarely done. Near the top on each side is inscribed “INDIA” and beneath that, all in capitals,

“TO THE DEAD OF THE INDIAN ARMIES WHO FELL HONOURED IN FRANCE AND FLANDERS MESOPOTAMIA AND PERSIA EAST AFRICA GALLIPOLI AND ELSEWHERE IN THE NEAR AND THE FAR-EAST AND IN SACRED MEMORY ALSO OF THOSE WHOSE NAMES ARE RECORDED AND WHO FELL IN INDIA OR THE NORTH-WEST FRONTIER AND DURING THE THIRD AFGHAN WAR”

Beneath the arch (added in 1971) is a small black marble plinth with a rifle capped by a war helmet, and bounded by four eternal flames, which serves as India’s tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

In my photos you can also see the canopy that stands some 150 metres further east, which was also designed by Lutyens and once covered a statue of George V in his coronation robes. This was moved in the 1960s to Coronation Park. The canopy has since stood empty, although there was talk at one point of installing a statue here of Mahatma Gandhi. This never happened, and it seems to me unlikely now that in will, given the ambivalent attitude that we were told now prevails in India towards the once universally acclaimed hero.

7516430-India_Gate_Delhi.jpg7516431-India_Gate_at_night_Delhi.jpg
By day and by night

Raj Ghat

After our brief photo stop at the India Gate, we drove to Raj Ghat, the site of the cremation of Mahatma Gandhi in January 1948, which serves as a permanent memorial to him. A black marble plinth marks the actual spot of the cremation, at one end of which burns an eternal flame. It is set in peaceful gardens with paths that allow visitors to walk past and pay their respects, although when we were there the peace was somewhat disrupted by the several groups of boisterous schoolchildren visiting the site. Several other memorials to prominent figures are located nearby, including former Prime Ministers Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, but we only visited this one.

7516425-Raj_Ghat_Delhi.jpg

7516427-Indian_visitor_to_Raj_Ghat_Delhi.jpg7516428-Souvenir_stall_Delhi.jpg
Indian visitor, and souvenir stall

We were somewhat surprised to learn from our guide that Gandhi is not so much respected among Indians these days. Many feel that his policy of non-violence was too restrained and they admire more active revolutionaries such as Rani Laxmi Bai, Bhagat Singh and Subhas Chandra Bose. But from what I observed, many more Indians than foreigners seemed to be visiting this shrine and doing so with great respect, so it seems opinion may be divided on this, as on so many political matters.

With so much to see on our packed day out in Delhi it makes sense to continue in a second entry ...

Posted by ToonSarah 10:13 Archived in India Tagged buildings people mosque market city tomb delhi street_photography Comments (5)

A more tranquil side to Delhi

India day one continued


View Rajasthan 2015 on ToonSarah's travel map.

On a long day out exploring Delhi with our guide Rajesh and driver Mehar we had already visited the heart of Old Delhi, around the Jama Masjid and the chaotic streets of the Chandni Chowk market, seen the grand architecture of Lutyens' New Delhi, and paid tribute to Gandhi at the Raj Ghat. Now it was time to see a slightly more tranquil side to the city.

Humayun's Tomb

Our next stop was at one of the highlights of the tour for me, Humayun's Tomb. This, the tomb of the second Mughal emperor, is a must-see sight for a number of reasons. It was the first great example of Mughal architecture in India, the first garden tomb, and the first building to use red sandstone on such a scale. Commissioned by Humayun’s first wife, Hamida Begum, fourteen years after his death in 1556, a hundred years later it would inspire the design of the best-known of such tombs, the Taj Mahal itself. Architecturally it forms a bridge between the mausoleum of the Mughals’ ancestor Timur in Samarkand, the Gur Emir and the Taj Mahal. Unsurprisingly it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (listed in 1993).

large_7516420-Humayuns_Tomb_Delhi.jpg
Humayun's Tomb

Delhi_0004..ayan_s_Tomb.jpg

You enter on the west side where a small museum (which we didn’t visit) tells the story of the tomb and its restoration, partly funded by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. Among other things, this restoration work removed many intrusive shop stalls etc. from the surroundings and recreated the garden setting of the tomb – a garden designed on the lines of a Persian-style charbagh with quadrilateral form. As you approach the main tomb look to your right where you will see an even older structure, the 1547 tomb complex of Isa Khan Niyazi, an Afghan noble who fought against the Mughals.

7516424-Tomb_of_Isa_Khan_Niyazi_Delhi.jpg
Tomb of Isa Khan Niyazi

Humayun’s Tomb itself stands on a massive platform about seven metres high, dominating its surroundings. It is built from red sandstone, with white marble decoration and a white marble dome. It is 47 metres high and 91 metres wide. Like the garden which surrounds it, it was inspired by Persian architecture and is an early classic of the Mughal style which blends the Islamic elements of the homelands of the foreign dynasties that ruled India from the 12th century with local features, mainly originating from the Rajasthan region. Thus Islamic arches are in-filled with carved sandstone lattices or jaalis, and the Persian-influenced main dome surrounded by small chuttris – the elevated domed pavilions seen on so many Hindu and Mughal buildings and as free-standing structures in cenotaphs at cremation sites.

7516421-Humayuns_Tomb_Delhi.jpg7516395-Tourists_at_Humayans_Tomb_Delhi.jpg

You ascend to the platform up a flight of steps under the central arch, and from there can enter the tomb on its south side. The main central chamber contains one cenotaph, that of Humayan himself – although, in accordance with standard Indo-Islamic practice, his body lies on a duplicate cenotaph in a lower chamber, precisely aligned with this one but sealed off from public view. Both are on a north-south axis, with his head to the north and turned to face Mecca which from India lies to the west. The raised cenotaph in this chamber allows those paying their respects to focus on the point of his burial and ensures that no one walks directly above him. We were to see the same burial style in several other places, most notably the Taj Mahal. And as there, the chamber is ornamented with delicate pietra dura work – a technique in which marble is inlayed with coloured, often precious or semi-precious, stones. Another feature echoed in the later Taj Mahal is the network of smaller chambers that surrounds this central one, containing the burial places of a number of other members of the royal family and nobility, including that of Humayun’s widow herself, Hamida Begum. These chambers, like the main one, have eight sides and themselves have even smaller chambers opening off them. As you explore you have a sense of being in something of a rabbit warren, and yet you are drawn to circumnavigate the main chamber from which all others radiate. Also buried on this site, although not in the main tomb building, is Humayun’s favourite barber - in fact, there are over 100 graves in this complex.

7516422-One_of_the_side_chambers_Delhi.jpg
One of the side chambers

When you exit the main structure take the time to stroll around the platform, which provides a bird’s eye view of the gardens and their symmetry. This is also a good vantage point for views over this part of Delhi – look out for a Sikh and a Buddhist temple as a visible sign of the multiplicity of faiths here.

Delhi_0005..ayan_s_Tomb.jpg
View from Humayun's Tomb

Qutb Minar

I think however that my favourite of the sights we visited in Delhi was the Qutb Minar, perhaps because we arrived here in the late afternoon when the sun was at the perfect height for photography, making the stones glow and picking out all the details of the carvings.

7516415-Qutb_Minar_Delhi.jpg7516409-More_images_from_Qutb_Minar_Delhi.jpg
Qutb Minar

This is the tallest brick minaret in the world, at 73 metres, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site (listed in 1993). It is five storeys high, and tapers from a 15 m diameter at the base to just 2.5 m at the top. The first three storeys are constructed with red sandstone bricks while the top two also incorporate some white marble. The different styles reflect the fact that it was built over a period of time. It was started by the first Muslim ruler of India, Qutab-ud-din Aibak, in 1200 AD, but he only managed to complete the bottom level. His son-in-law who succeeded him, Iltutmush, added three more storeys in 1220, but the topmost of these was destroyed by lightening in 1369, so the then-ruler Firoz Shah Tughlak replaced this with two new ones in red sandstone and white marble.

In 1803 it was badly damaged again, this time by earthquake, and restored by Robert Smith of the British Indian Army in 1828. For some reason he decided it would look better with a cupola on the top, so he added one, but this was removed some twenty years or so later under instructions from Lord Hardinge, then Governor General of India, and it now sits in the grounds.

The minaret is surrounded by a number of other buildings, all partially ruined, most notably the Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque, the first mosque to be built in India in 1192. It was built by reusing stones from Hindu temples so you will see many defaced carvings of faces and animals, because of the Muslim prohibition on portraying living things.

large_7516411-More_images_from_Qutb_Minar_Delhi.jpg

7516417-Mosque_ruins_Delhi.jpgDelhi_00064__Qutb_Minar.jpg

7516410-More_images_from_Qutb_Minar_Delhi.jpg7516407-More_images_from_Qutb_Minar_Delhi.jpg
7516464-Qutb_Minar_detail_Delhi.jpg

Also nearby is a famous iron pillar, seven metres in height. This is older even than the minaret, dating from the early part of the 5th century AD. It has stood on this site since 1233 but there is a lot of debate, and no firm agreement, on its original location. It is notable for its lack of corrosion. Tradition holds that you will have good fortune if you can stand with your back to the pillar and make your hands meet behind it, but it is nowadays impossible to test that superstition as years of wear and tear have led the authorities to build a low fence around it. Wikipedia has a detailed description and exploration of the various theories that have been expounded relating to its construction and original location: Iron pillar of Delhi

7516416-Iron_pillar_and_Qutb_Minar_Delhi.jpg
Iron pillar and Qutb Minar

7516419-Stump_of_unbuilt_minaret_Delhi.jpg

Opposite the Qutb Minar you will see the base of another minaret which our guide told us was to have been twice the height, but this was never finished. I haven’t however found any reference to this in my online research – maybe someone else can shed some light? I did though find some theorising that Qutb Minar could be older than is usually stated, pre-dating Islam in India: http://www.qutubminar.org/. As this is founded on the use of stones with Hindu images, which can be explained by the reuse of the temples, this seems dubious at best but I note it here for interest.

This was the first place on our trip when we encountered what was to become a regular occurrence - local people (in this case a group of young tourists) asking us to pose for photos with them. We were always happy to oblige on these occasions, and sometimes, as here, made sure we got a photo too. It seems likely that there are now photos of us all over Rajasthan and elsewhere in India!

7516413-More_images_from_Qutb_Minar_Delhi.jpg
With young tourists at the Qutb Minar

7516396-Tourist_at_Qutb_Minar_Delhi.jpgDelhi_00069__Qutb_Minar.jpg
Other tourists

Life lived on the streets

Delhi was our first stop of a tour spent mostly in Rajasthan, and our first chance to observe daily life which, even in this bustling metropolis, is lived much more on the street than we are used to in the UK. Partly this is a factor of the climate, and partly one of culture. On the whole, it seems that Indian people don't have the reservations and need for privacy that we Brits are famed for. Everywhere we went, we found that people were quite open in showing their curiosity about us, which made it easier for us to do the same in return. Here, as everywhere, I enjoyed taking lots of candid street photos as well as others for which people were happy to pose.

7516447-Delhi_traffic_Delhi.jpg7516448-Delhi_traffic_Delhi.jpg
7516462-Friendly_doorman_Delhi.jpg

Traffic in Delhi

As we were driven around the city by our fantastic driver Mehar I was continually fascinated to watch all the activity and the skill of those who, for the most part, avoided what seemed to me to be inevitable accidents. There are few rules, and those that exist are ignored. It is definitely a case of "every man for himself" - and yes, the vast majority of drivers are men. At every junction or roundabout the vehicle that goes first is not the one with the right of way (an alien concept here it seems) but the one with the most confident or aggressive driver. To misquote another proverb, he who hesitates may not be lost, but he will definitely still be sitting at that junction at nightfall. Signs do exhort drivers to be more courteous and careful – giving way to pedestrians and “no honking”! But these are ignored, and as everyone knows this and is playing by the same “rules” it seems not to cause anything but fairly minor scrapes and bumps.

But of course all this traffic results in many problems for the city. The roads are so congested that to get anywhere takes ages. And worse, the pollution is terrible. When we visited in 2015 we were told that Delhi had overtaken Beijing to become the world's most polluted city - a dubious honour to say the least. The authorities are trying to tackle the problem. The Metro, which is already used by a million people a day, is being extended to encourage more to leave the car at home - but meanwhile it seems that the extension works are themselves adding to the traffic problems on the roads. Diesel cars over ten years old are banned, and all auto-rickshaws must run on clean energy (CNG). And they are considering introducing a congestion charge as in London. But for now the roads remain a frustrating but constantly fascinating spectacle, where mini dramas are played out every minute.

7516450-Delhi_traffic_Delhi.jpg7516451-Delhi_traffic_Delhi.jpg

To get just a brief taste of the experience watch my short video, shot from the car.

Train journeys to and from Delhi

7516378-Station_in_Delhi_early_morning_Delhi.jpg

After two nights in Delhi we left on an early morning train to Agra from New Delhi Railway Station, one of five main stations in the city. The journey took about two hours. It was dark when we left Delhi at 6.00 AM, but the sun was soon up and we enjoyed the views of the surrounding countryside in the misty morning light. It is a flat landscape so there is nothing spectacular to see, but we found it interesting. Taking photos of the passing views wasn't really an option however, as the windows were both dirty and double glazed, making it hard to focus. However I did manage to shoot another short video.

We travelled in a 2nd class air-conditioned coach. The ticket price includes a meal served to your seat by "Meals on Wheels" but as we had a packed breakfast provided by our Delhi hotel we skipped that. We were also given newspapers (English language) but we were too busy looking out of the window to bother with those either.

Delhi_00074_.jpg
Meals on Wheels team waits to board the train at Delhi

The train arrived only a couple of minutes late in Agra where we had five minutes to get ourselves and our luggage off the train - no problem! We were met by a rep from the travel company and our driver Mehar who had driven down from Delhi, and we were soon on our way to our hotel...

Two weeks after we had left Delhi for Agra we returned by the same means, a train, although this time arriving at Hazrat Nizamuddin station. Our journey from Sawai Madhopur, near Ranthambore, took something over six hours. The train had started in Mumbai the previous evening so the second class a/c carriage where we sat was a sleeper one. We had been allocated both lower and upper berth in a four person curtained section, but only used the lower for sitting as the journey was an afternoon one.

For part of the time we shared the section with a friendly young local couple. She spoke some English and chatted to us a bit about our holiday as well as pointing out one of the stations in which we stopped as being Mathura, believed by Hindus to be the birthplace of Lord Krishna, and offering us bananas.

I enjoyed taking my last long looks at the passing landscape, watching the largely rural communities we passed through going about their daily lives. This was to be our last day in the country (for this trip) as we flew home the next morning. The windows were just a little less grubby than had been the case on our first train journey and I was able to take some reasonable photos of the various sights.

7516383-Return_to_Delhi_Delhi.jpg7516384-Return_to_Delhi_Delhi.jpg
Seen from the train

When we arrived in Delhi we were pleased to find that our “meet and greet” rep was our guide from our previous stay at the start of the trip, Rajesh. And although we were at first a little disappointed that Mehar wasn’t to be our driver for this final transfer, imagine how pleased we were, and he also, when his car pulled up outside the station as we stood waiting for ours! He was there to meet another English couple who had travelled on our train, and hurried over to say hello and ask about our time in Ranthambore. It was lovely to see him one last time, before our car arrived and we headed to our hotel for our last night in Delhi.

Posted by ToonSarah 11:14 Archived in India Tagged buildings traffic india city delhi Comments (6)

Tales of life and death in Jaisalmer

India day seven continued


View Rajasthan 2015 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Before and after our visit to the fort we wandered the streets of the old city of Jaisalmer, with its honey-coloured havelis with ornately carved sandstone windows. Beyond we found eerily atmospheric cenotaphs, and beyond that the desert …

Gadisar Lake

large_7536716-Gadisar_Lake_Jaisalmer.jpg

Our first stop on our day’s sightseeing tour here was at this very photogenic spot on the edge of the old town. The lake is also often referred to locally as Gadisar Tank, as it is manmade – built as a reservoir for the city of Jaisalmer by Rawal Jaisal, the first maharaja of Jaisalmer, and later restored and improved by Maharaja Maharwal Gadsi Singh in about 1400 AD. There are a number of temples and shrines not only around the lake but also out in the middle, and several ghats once (but no longer) used for cremations.

7536745-Gadisar_Lake_Jaisalmer.jpg

Jaisalmer_..disar_Tank2.jpgJaisalmer_16_Gadisar_Tank.jpg
On Gadisar Lake

7536720-Cat_fish_Jaisalmer.jpg

A large number of catfish live in the lake. Our guide Gaurav had bought some slices of bread from a local lad as we walked along the road and we were soon to find out why. He tossed a few pieces into the water and it immediately began to churn as the fish jostled to grab a bite. I don’t think I have ever seen so many fish so close together in a body of water at one time!

It is possible to hire boats here, and it’s also a good place for birdwatching, as well as for photography as I hope you can see.

7536718-Gadisar_Lake_Jaisalmer.jpg

7536709-Tilon_ki_Pol_Jaisalmer.jpg

The main path down to Gadisar Lake leads beneath a lovely sandstone gate, the Tilon-ki-Pol (meaning Gate of Tilon), which dates back to the 14th century.

The story goes that Tilon was a famous dancer (some people say prostitute) in the court of the maharaja. She wanted to pay for a gate to be built here, so that she would be remembered after her death. But the maharaja refused permission because he would have to pass under it to go down to the lake, and this he felt would be beneath his dignity as a great ruler (another version of the tale puts the maharaja in a better light by suggesting that he felt it would detract from the importance of the lake as it would become the main feature here). Whatever the truth of his displeasure, while he was away on court business she had it built anyway, and when he returned and threatened to pull it down, she added a temple to Krishna on the top so that it would become sacred and therefore not to be destroyed even by a king.

To get a good view of the gate don’t walk through it to the lake but instead follow the road a short way past it and head down to the water further to the east.

Sati memorials

Some of the structures around Gadisar Lake have small memorial stones, beautifully carved, which Gaurav told us commemorated women who had immolated themselves.

In fact, I have since learned, they commemorate first and foremost the men who died and were cremated at these ghats, but also their wives who practised what is known as sati – self-immolation on the funeral pyre of their husband. The stone with the carving of a man on horseback is a memorial to the man, while that with the figures with their hands folded is for the wives, with the number of figures showing how many wives performed sati.

7536711-_Jaisalmer.jpg7536714-_Jaisalmer.jpg

This seems a horrific idea to Westerners, and probably these days to most Indians too, but Gaurav told us that it was not so long ago that sati was still practised here. His own great grandmother had immolated herself on the death of her husband (I didn’t think to ask about the date, being quite shocked at the revelation, but I would guess that it must have been in the first part of the twentieth century, long after the practice was officially banned in India). Later that day we were to visit the Brahmin cenotaph of Vyas Chhatri where he told us that this (to me) gruesome sacrifice had taken place.

Meanwhile though we spent the rest of the morning exploring the fort (as described in my previous entry), and the afternoon in the old town that surrounds it …

Old town architecture

After spending much of the morning in the fort and taking a short break for a cold drink in one of its many rooftop restaurants, we made our way down into the streets of the old town below. These are not dissimilar in many ways to those inside the fort, but perhaps a little wider and with more traffic in places.

As in the fort, there was so much here to photograph – more Ganesh paintings (see my previous entry for an explanation of these), more beautiful buildings, more colourful details and local dress.

7536654-Ganesh_paintings_Jaisalmer.jpg7536618-In_the_old_town_Jaisalmer.jpg

7536608-More_people_photos_Jaisalmer.jpg
90_08A5A384F6B4D46172F6B81DF86F022E.jpg90_Jaisalmer_..own_streets.jpg

7536620-Local_women_in_the_fort_Jaisalmer.jpg08AABFFF00DDC2C838193DB7FE47546D.jpg
Street scenes in the old town

Havelis

7536645-Patwa_Haveli_Jaisalmer.jpg
Patwa Haveli

Jaisalmer grew up as an oasis town on the camel caravan routes between East and West, trading silk, spices, indigo and precious and semi-precious stones. The caravans would stay here to rest and resupply, and the high tolls they paid enriched the city and the Court. Its merchants became wealthy, as did its bankers (both, by the way, professions favoured by the large number of Jains who lived here, who shun agriculture because it conflicts with their belief regarding the sanctity of every living thing). These rich merchants and bankers naturally liked to show off their wealth in the grandeur and beauty of their homes. Furthermore, the relative liberalism of this western border town when much of northern India was under Mughal rule, attracted artists and craftsmen, whose skills flourished here. Thus many of the city’s houses, all built in that lovely golden sandstone, are further embellished by carvings, and of these the most gorgeously elaborate are the mansions or havelis of the rich. You can find havelis in many places in India, but Jaisalmer is particularly noted both for the large concentration of them in a relatively small city, and for the delicacy of the carvings in the sandstone.

You will see such beautiful stonework in both the fort itself and in the lower town streets, but the best examples of havelis are probably those in the latter which is where these photos were taken. Here you will find the one considered the most beautiful of all, the Patwa Haveli. This was built over a period of about 50 years from 1805 onwards by a Jain merchant, Guman Chand Patwa, as a home for his five sons consisting of five adjoining houses. The many oriel windows projecting out over the street maximise the use of space in the small town plot, while the carved sandstone lattice screens let in cool air in the desert heat. This building is open to the public but I have to say that by the time we reached this point in our hot day’s sightseeing we were running out of energy so we contented ourselves with views from outside. Although the streets here are narrow there is a small open square opposite making photography a little easier than it might otherwise be (Gaurav told us that the city government had cleared this space deliberately, which made me wonder what had been destroyed in the process).

7536644-Patwa_Haveli_Jaisalmer.jpg7536649-Patwa_Haveli_Jaisalmer.jpg
Patwa Haveli

7536647-In_the_old_town_Jaisalmer.jpg90_09055416B1C0BF22A81347EF844424AA.jpg
Haveli architecture in the old town

Other havelis of note are Nathmal and Salim, but really you will find this wonderfully detailed stonework on so many houses here that you will be spoiled for choice! Whichever you visit, there are three distinctive features to look out for. Firstly, the carved sandstone screen known as a jaali, which you find on many old buildings in Mughal India. Secondly, the decorative stone oriel window called a jharokha as seen in such profusion on the Patwa Haveli. Both of these elements could be partly prefabricated and installed in even quite modest houses which explains perhaps why so many houses in Jaisalmer look so fabulous. The third element, again easily seen on the Patwa Haveli, is the deep downward curve of the small roofs that shelter the windows – a style brought by the Mughals from Bengal.

Shopping for silver

7536607-Bangles_galore_Jaisalmer.jpg

Mehar had told us on the drive to Jaisalmer that one of the things it was famous for was its silver-work and silver jewellery, and I love silver jewellery! So I determined that a bangle bought here would make a nice souvenir of my trip. I asked Gaurav for advice (yes, knowing that his chosen shop would be one that paid him to bring us there, but also knowing that TransIndus guides are under strict instructions not to rip tourists off and only to recommend good places). He suggested that he could take us to a family business, run from their home in the old town.

We arrived at the house, slipped off our shoes, and descended to the basement which serves as the shop. There were two other customers seated on the low cushions – one another tourist, an American woman and her daughter picking out presents for friends back home; the other a local woman choosing with great care the jewellery she would wear at her wedding. I asked the man serving us if I could see some bangles and he emptied a large bag on the floor at my feet! He demonstrated the clever design, a speciality here – the bangles are hollow and can be twisted to put on and take off, clicking into place to hold them. I rummaged for a short while until I found a design I liked, and he then helped me unearth it in the correct size.

I was pleased that there was no “hard sell” here – OK, it was suggested I might like to wear more than one bangle, or buy another for a friend, but neither of these points were pressed when I said no thank you. The service was pleasant and the buying experience more relaxed than in a shop, so I was happy with Gaurav’s recommendation, and with my purchase, which I wore almost daily for more than a year following this trip. Sadly though, it was one of very many holiday-bought pieces of jewellery that were stolen when we were burgled in spring 2016, and this photo of the pile of bangles on the carpet is my only record of it – that, and the memories, which no burglar can take away.

Vyas Chhatri

large_7536631-Sunset_at_Vyas_Chhatri_Jaisalmer.jpg

After a break at our hotel, the Fort Rajwada, and a swim in its lovely pool, Gaurav picked us up again to go to see the sunset, a popular outing in Jaisalmer. From what I have read it seems that many people visit Bada Bagh, the cenotaphs of the Jaisalmer Royal Family, but our Brahmin guide brought us to these instead. The place had a particular meaning for him, as he explained that it was here that his great grandmother had performed immolation on the death of her husband, according to the then-tradition, as he had told us that morning by Gadisar Lake.

7536633-Sunset_at_Vyas_Chhatri_Jaisalmer.jpg

The name of Vyas Chhatri refers to the structure of the tombs – these small domed pavilions seen in so much of Mughal architecture. It is not usual in Hinduism to erect such tombs for the dead, as Hindus believe that their souls will be reborn through reincarnation, but when the Mughals brought Islam to India they brought with it the custom of erecting tombs which gradually become popular among Hindus too in some regions, especially in these western desert parts. Kings and important people would be honoured and remembered in these “tomb gardens” which were established in prominent spots such as this hillside and were open to the public.

7536630-Sunset_at_Vyas_Chhatri_Jaisalmer.jpg

This is still an active cremation site so be prepared to see the remains of fires and wood stacked for future use. I have seen some visitors suggest that this makes it inappropriate to visit as a tourist attraction, but I felt it was no more so than visiting a graveyard, for instance, and the fact that it was suggested by a local with a direct connection to the place reassured me further on that count. Be prepared for this though, and for the fact that if a cremation has recently taken place you may even, as one shocked tourist whose account I read (The creepy beautiful cenotaphs of Rajasthan), come across smouldering ashes.

The same writer also notes with some revulsion that funerals in this part of India at least are still caste-based, so only Brahmins will be cremated here while other castes each have their own site. I find the whole caste system bewildering and somewhat anachronistic, but by this point in our trip had learned to accept that to many of the locals we spoke with it was an unquestioned way of life – although perhaps even more so to a Brahmin like Gaurav.

large_7536628-Sunset_at_Vyas_Chhatri_Jaisalmer.jpglarge_7536629-Sunset_at_Vyas_Chhatri_Jaisalmer.jpg

The latter had suggested that we head for a spot about five minutes’ walk away to watch the sunset, and most visitors there at the time did this, presumably because it offers a view of the town and fort beyond. But after checking it out quickly we decided to stay by the cenotaphs themselves and were rewarded with much better photos as a result, as you can frame the setting sun with the structures, which really glow in this light.

Entry to this spot is free but there’s a small charge of 50 IR for camera use – do pay this as you will want to take photos!

Once the sun had set it was back to our hotel for dinner in the same Sonal restaurant where we had eaten the previous evening. We enjoyed our meal of a minced lamb kebab, potatoes stuffed with nuts and dry fruit, and dal, washed down with a couple of beers, while reflecting on a busy and fascinating day in the city that has probably stayed with me more than most others visited on that trip.

Jaisalmer_119.jpg
Hotel view, the following morning

Posted by ToonSarah 07:17 Archived in India Tagged buildings people sunset india city rajasthan jaisalmer customs Comments (2)

(Entries 16 - 20 of 20) Previous « Page 1 2 3 [4]