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At the crater's edge

Ecuador day seven


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After a good night’s sleep in our cosy room in the Hacienda la Cienega we woke to dry weather and, I was pleased to note, my headache of the previous day had cleared. We had breakfast in the same restaurant which was more of a success than the dinner had been – fresh fruit (melon, pineapple and banana), fresh juice (babaco – related to papaya and very refreshing), scrambled eggs and bacon, and reasonable coffee.

Overall, we had really liked our short stay here, because of the special atmosphere and history of the place, but if you go, take a warm jumper and ask to order your dinner from the main menu (see previous entry)!

Pujili

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Pujili market

We were heading for Quilotoa, the westernmost of the volcanoes in Ecuador’s Andean range (the country of course has volcanoes further west, on some of the islands in the Galápagos), but on the way stopped first in the small town of Pujili to visit the market. As we had been in Otavalo a few days before, I wondered whether this would be similar, but it was an altogether more local and authentic affair. Market days here are Wednesday and Sunday (we were here on a Wednesday) and are a major event for the local people, as the jammed streets around the town testified. Farmers from all the villages in the surrounding area head here to sell their wares and to buy what they need themselves. But this is more than simply a place to shop; going to the market is an important social activity, and locals dress up and take time to mingle, to greet their friends and to catch up on the gossip.

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Shoppers at the market

There were no tourist handicrafts here, though one woman was selling the local felt hats. Instead, it was all about food! Live chickens, fresh fruits (many that I didn’t recognise but whose juices we realised we had been drinking once we heard their names from Jose Luiz), herbs and vegetables and more.

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Fruit for sale, and very fresh chickens

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Guagua de pan

We also saw several stalls selling the traditional Day of the Dead breads, guagua de pan. Most of the customers were locals (in fact, I don’t believe I saw any other tourists apart from ourselves) and were mainly intent on their shopping, though on one side of the square a small crowd had gathered around a girl who was singing and selling her CDs, and a nearby food stall was doing great business.

This was a fantastic place for people watching (and photographing) and for getting a good introduction to local produce, including several of the fruits we had been enjoying as juices but not seen “whole” before. I can definitely recommend a stop here if you’re in the area on market day.

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Stall holders

The drive to Quilotoa

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Returning to the car after our enjoyable photography session in the market we headed towards Quilatoa through some lovely scenery. One thing that amazed and impressed me was just how much of this highland environment was under cultivation. The local people have farmed these lands for centuries of course, and are experienced at getting the best out of them, using traditional terracing and irrigation techniques. Crops grown here include potatoes, maize, beans and other vegetables.

We also stopped at one point near a house built in the typical indigenous style of wood, wattle and daub, with a steep over-hanging straw roof to protect it from the often harsh weather conditions at this altitude (we were around 3,800 metres at this point).

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Traditional house

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Progress was slow however, owing to extensive roadworks along this road. It seemed that every couple of miles along this road, part of it was being dug up. As I commented at the time, “I’m sure it’s going to be lovely when it’s finished!”

The worst road-works, or at least for anyone in a hurry, involved a narrow stretch of road on a tight bend on a steep hill. To widen the road they were using dynamite, which seems to be a popular “tool” here, and this involved closing the road totally (in both directions) for lengthy periods while they set off a blast and then cleared the resulting rubble. Although not the busiest road in the country this is the only route into and out of the Quilotoa area, so this caused considerable jams.

We were stuck in the waiting queue here for at least thirty minutes, but at least this is a scenic spot and we were able to use the time to get out of the car and stretch our legs, enjoy the views of the surrounding countryside and take a few photos.

Quilotoa

This delay, combined with the stop in Pujili, meant that it was late morning when we arrived at our destination. Later the day was to get very rainy, even stormy, but for now it was dry but with low cloud. Although I had hoped to see the lake in sunshine, I have to say that the gloomy light made it very atmospheric and brought out the green colours very effectively.

We parked in a large car park just below the rim, in the small but sprawling village that relies on tourist income generated by the lake. A short flight of steps led us up to the viewpoint. The previous day I had struggled with a headache that owed much in its intensity to the high altitudes we were at, but today thankfully the only symptom was a certain breathlessness as I hurried to reach the famous view! But soon we were there, perched high above the deep green-blue waters, with the lowering clouds reflected dramatically in them. The sight did not disappoint!

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Quilotoa is the westernmost of the volcanoes in Ecuador’s Andean range (the country of course has volcanoes further west, on some of the islands in the Galápagos) and lies at 3,914 metres. Its large caldera, three kilometres in width, is filled with a beautiful green lake, 250 metres deep. The colour of the lake is due to the various minerals that have dissolved in its waters.

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The lake lies about 400 metres below the rim, and a path winds its way down. But partly because of the weather, partly because of my dodgy knee, and partly because we were later than we’d planned (thanks to those roadworks) and it became a choice between a walk or lunch, we opted not to go down. Instead we just took a shorter walk part of the way along the path round the rim (the full circuit would take the best part of a day). If you do decide to go down it’s about a 30 minute hike, and a good hour or more to climb back up, although it’s also possible to hire mules to bring you up.

Lunch at Kirutwa

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Chris and Jose Luiz at lunch by the fire

We ate our lunch in this friendly café which is perched right on the crater’s edge near to the viewpoint. Jose Luiz explained that he likes to patronise this restaurant because it is community-run. Local people take turns at the cooking and serving and the profits are shared among them.

We took a table by the fireplace and one of the women came over to stoke it, as it was a chilly day. We were amused to see that they were burning all sorts of pieces of wood, including an old broom handle and several bits of old furniture, some of which stuck out into the room rather alarmingly. No UK Health & Safety inspector would have passed the arrangement, but it certainly made for a great blaze!

We started our lunch with a bowl of tasty lentil soup which was accompanied by yucca chips (a nice change from the more usual banana) and a hot aji sauce. The main course was pork chops, as it had been the day before in Tambopaxi. Unused to large lunches I opted to skip this course, but Chris had one and said it was very good. Dessert was pineapple, which I love, although it was a shame that it was served in a rather sweet syrup. The accompanying juices were very refreshing however, and we enjoyed our cosy meal here.

One thing I loved about Quilotoa was the way the light kept changing, because of all those clouds. While we were having lunch a thick fog had descended, which totally hid both the lake and the houses of the small village from view, but by the time we finished eating and climbed back to the viewpoint for a final look, the clouds lifted again briefly to reveal the lake below.

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On our way back to where the car was parked we stopped in the nearby crafts cooperative where local people have stalls to sell their handiwork. This is a new initiative and it felt like it too – very pristine and soulless – a bit like a church hall! But I’m sure it will mellow and bring real benefits to the community.

When we visited only some of the small stalls were open and the place was pretty quiet. Some women were knitting and chatting, and we had a quick look round at the various crafts being sold – mostly textiles and paintings. We wanted to support the initiative so we bought a small Tigua painting from a one of the youngest sellers for $5 (we didn’t haggle as the price was so reasonable and the girl so young).

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In the craft cooperative - our young seller on the right

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Our little painting

Tigua is a collection of small Andean communities in this area, whose artists have become renowned for their paintings of colourful rural scenes. Traditionally they painted on drums and masks, but in the 1970s a Quito art dealer persuaded one of the artists to paint on a flat surface, a sheep hide stretched over a wooden frame. This changed the art-form completely, and today most Tigua artists produce only flat paintings, still on the stretched sheepskin.

Paintings are usually quite small, limited by the size of the hide (ours though is very small!) The subject matter is always a rural scene, and favourite motifs include Cotopaxi and other Andean scenery, village life, working in the fields, condors, llamas and more. Our little picture features several of these elements, which is why we chose it. I was really pleased to have this small example of this traditional folk art, which now hangs in our kitchen and brightens our breakfasts on dull winter mornings.

Cañon del Río Toachi

Time now though to head back to the city. About half way between Quilotoa and the main road, Jose Luiz pulled over and led us across the road and past a small grove of pine trees to a viewpoint over this dramatic gorge which you wouldn’t even realise was here if not “in the know”. The scenery down in its depths is quite a contrast to the farmland around it – you really get a sense of a scar cut through the landscape by the fast-flowing river, the Toachi, some 2,600 metres below where you stand. A great little photo stop – thank Jose Luiz!

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Cañon del Río Toachi

Storm over the Andes

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The journey back to Quito was to provide one of the most unforgettable sights of our time in Ecuador – one that was totally unplanned, and which arose out of what might have been seen as a problem. We were stuck again in the same traffic jam that had held us up on our way to the lake, and it was sheer bad luck, or so we thought, that we should be returning through this spot at the same time as they again blasted through the hillside and closed it to traffic while clearing the rubble – not a quick undertaking. There was nothing to do but wait. I passed a little time updating my journal, while keeping an eye open out of the window for anything interesting to happen on the road or in the fields below where we sat. As I did so I noticed that the clouds were descending and swirling around, and the sky growing darker. There were some dramatic flashes of lightening and loud claps of thunder as the storm circled around the valley. Despite the rain I just had to get out of the car and get a few shots.

When the storm and the road block cleared, at about the same time, we were able to drive on, through the still-falling rain. It was easy to see why the fields here seem so fertile and green, as rain in these mountains must be a common occurrence at certain times of year at least. I loved these soft green landscapes, with patchwork fields dotted with small houses and occasional workers, children herding sheep and seemingly suicidal dogs darting out into the passing traffic.

Back “home” in Quito

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Room #21

As we approached the city Jose Luiz explained that as it was Wednesday he would be unable to drive us to the hotel. As I explained in an earlier entry in this blog, the city had imposed a one day driving ban on all residents apart from taxi drivers, based on their car’s registration number, to help manage the heavy congestion on its roads, and Wednesday was Jose Luiz’s “no entry” day! The solution was to call his father, also a tour guide but with a restriction on a different day of the week, and get him to meet us just outside the limit of the central zone. The transfer went smoothly and we were soon back at our base, the Hotel San Francisco, where we collected our luggage from storage and found ourselves allocated a much nicer room than on the two previous stays. This was room #21, just down the corridor from our previous one but worlds away in terms of space and character! It had a beautiful vaulted brick ceiling, a large en suite, lots of storage including some antique trunks, and even an in-room Jacuzzi tub! What a shame that we were only here for a few hours though!

Vista Hermosa

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View from the terrace

Jose Luiz had recommended this restaurant to us, so we decided to check it out that evening. It is located just a stone’s throw from the Plaza de la Independencia, on the top floor of a fairly tall (for colonial Quito) building and enjoys wonderful views from both the inside restaurant and the roof terrace above. It is accessed via an old-fashioned lift complete with equally old-fashioned lift attendant. When you emerge from the lift you have the choice of climbing a short flight of steps to the roof or eating inside. We chose the latter, as winter / rainy season evenings in Quito can be a bit chilly as well as damp, but I imagine in fine weather the roof terrace is a fantastic location for an evening drink or two. Even at this time of year, with the heaters provided, it would be OK just for drinking, but less suited to eating in our opinion, though we did go up to admire the view and take some photos.

Inside, we were lucky enough to secure a window table so could admire the view throughout our meal. We started with a shared bowl of corn chips with guacamole – there were plenty of chips (too many really) but the portion of guacamole was a little stingy we thought. We then shared a pizza; we had been going to order one each, fooled by the reasonable prices into thinking they would be quite small, but luckily the helpful waitress told us that one would be enough, and she was right. It had a good ham and mushroom topping, and Chris, a real pizza fan, gave it his seal of approval although personally I prefer a less crispy base. We had a large Pilsner beer each to wash it down, and very much enjoyed what would be our last evening in Quito for a while.

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Interior

Back at the hotel we had plenty to do to sort our bags, as we were going to store one here for our return at the end of the trip. No need to cart around dirty laundry or our clean “travelling home” outfits, when space on our Galápagos cruise boat would be so limited.

But before that we were off to Cuenca, a rather special city …

Posted by ToonSarah 06:17 Archived in Ecuador Tagged mountains lakes volcanoes market quito ecuador crafts Comments (4)

Walking the city

Ecuador day nine


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Cuenca

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Another view from our room

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At breakfast

After a good night’s sleep in our lovely room at the Hotel Victoria we sought out the included breakfast which was served in the large restaurant, Le Jardin, which as its name suggests overlooks the pretty garden and was very good. We sat at a table with a hummingbird visiting the feeder just by our window and enjoyed fresh fruit, papaya juice, a choice of bacon or ham with eggs cooked to order, rolls and much better coffee than we had become used to at our Quito hotel.

City tour with Terra Diversa

When planning our trip to Ecuador I was conscious that we were only going to have very limited time in Cuenca so when our travel company (Simply Ecuador) suggested pre-booking a half-day tour of the city I acquiesced, thinking it would be a good way to see a lot in a short time. But when we arrived, and I realised how compact the city was, I wondered if we would regret that decision as it seemed quite possible to cover a lot of ground even in the couple of days we had available. However, I have to say that the guide we had, Wilson from local company Terra Diversa, was absolutely excellent, with the result that we were very pleased to have secured his services. What made it so good a tour was the variety of places he took us, his flexibility in listening to our preferences (and adjusting to the fact that I couldn’t walk as far as I would have liked with my still-dodgy knee), and the wealth of interesting information he imparted. Terra Diversa offer lots of tours and I wouldn’t hesitate to book with them again, directly – and would certainly ask for Wilson by name!

Our tour started when Wilson collected us from our hotel at 9.00 and should have lasted four hours, but he was as happy as we were to over-run a bit and in the end we spent nearly five hours exploring the city with him.

"Panama" hats

In many accounts I read of visits to Cuenca a trip to a “Panama” hat factory was mentioned, so I was quite pleased that one was included in our tour with Wilson, despite being concerned that it might prove to be little more than a sales pitch aimed at persuading us to buy one. As it turned out it was a very informative visit and with only a little pressure to buy – which we resisted, more or less!

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Unfinished hats

The factory we visited was one of the most respected in the city, Homero Ortega & Sons. The visit started with some history, and an explanation of the name, Panama hat. Everyone in Ecuador will tell you that the hats come not from that Central American country, but from Ecuador – and a specific part of the country, near the coast, where the toquilla plant, from whose straw they are made, grows. The reason for the misleading name comes from the fact that, like many other 19th and early 20th century goods from South America, the hats were shipped via Panama to be exported to Europe, America and even as far as Asia. They were popularised by President Roosevelt who wore one when he visited the Panama Canal during its construction – thus probably also contributing to the adoption of the name, Panama, for the hats.

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Mock-up of hat maker's village home

Wilson told us all this and more as we studied the photos in the first of the three rooms at the factory that make up what they slightly grandly call “The Magic of the Hat” Museum. In the second room we learned about the process of making a hat, only part of which happens here at the factory. The hats are first woven by local women, working at home in the villages outside the city. They are delivered to the factory where they are examined and graded.

Homero Ortega buy only the best of the examples sent to them, so those that don’t make the grade will be sold instead in local shops at rather lower prices. Those that are selected are graded according to the weave (more strands of straw to the inch gives a finer quality hat) and sent back out of the factory, this time to specialist hat-shapers, usually men, who trim and neaten the edges and shape the hat on a mould. When they come back to the factory for the second time they are bleached, dyed, reshaped and given their final trim. They are then ready to be sold – here in the factory’s shop, through specialist outlets or sent all over the world. The best hats fetch huge sums – some over $1,000! We were shown photos of many famous people wearing Homero Ortega hats, including film stars, politicians and pop singers.

From the little museum, we went into the working part of the factory, but unfortunately as it was a holiday weekend very few people were at work and we could only see the machinery (very simple and unchanged for generations) and have an explanation of how things were done.

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Trying on a hat

Naturally the factory has a shop, and naturally our tour of the factory ended there. But I have to say that there was minimal “hard sell”. We were persuaded to try on a few hats (and I at least was happy to do so, as some were gorgeous!) but no one forced the issue when we said we didn’t want to buy. Had we wanted to do so, the price range was considerable – from $25 for the simplest men’s ones, made from the coarsest straw, up to around $1,000 for a couple of special ones displayed in locked glass cabinets. Wilson explained that, sadly, making these ultra-fine hats is a dying art, with only a handful of people known to be producing them. They sell through agents, and even the factory owners don’t know where these skilled workers live, or anything about them. It is assumed though that they are by now fairly old, and that when they die there will be no more hats of this quality, so these are usually bought as an investment. Not an investment we chose to make however!

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Our little tile

In a room that led off the hat shop was another shop, selling a good range of high-quality souvenirs including Tigua paintings, jewellery, organic coffee and chocolate and more. Here we did spend some money, buying a small ceramic tile with a picture of a blue footed booby that caught Chris’s eye (in anticipation of seeing the birds very soon in the flesh) and a packet of my favourite chocolate-covered coffee beans so that I could get my caffeine fix “on the move”. Then it was on to our next stop with Wilson

Mirador de Turi

I had read about and wanted to visit this viewpoint to the south of the city, so I was pleased when Wilson told us that we would be going there on the tour. It is a popular spot because it affords such a good panorama of the city, including the historic colonial part. You can pick out the blue domes of the new cathedral and from there orient yourself and find other landmarks such as the Parque Calderón. From this spot it is easy to appreciate the grid layout of the early city planners, and also see how the rivers wind through the city throw that plan out in places.

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Mirador views

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Iglesia de Turi

Next to the viewpoint is the Iglesia de Turi, which dates from 1835. We didn’t have time to go inside on this tour so were unable to see on the main altar the sculpture of the Virgin of Mercy, patron saint of the parish (made in Spain, about 80 years old), and on a side altar the Calvary with the image of the Lord in Bethlehem. This latter is also commemorated in a grotto a short climb above the church.

According to a local legend, the Christ Child appeared to a Cañari shepherd boy on this hill, and since then the Cañari people have had a special devotion to him, coming to the grotto and to the church to leave offerings such as bird feathers, animal feed and small model animals at his feet, thereby ensuring that throughout the year their animals, their livestock, their crops and products are blessed.

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Horno

From the Mirador we drove through an area to the south west of the city famous locally for its restaurants and street-food, and in particular for its horno or roast pig. The smell (to a non-vegetarian) was delicious! And we were interested to see how the pigs had been decorated with flags to mark the independence celebrations that weekend.

Once back in the colonial city Wilson parked the car and the rest of our tour continued on foot.

Plaza San Sebastián

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In the Plaza San Sebastian

I thought this was one of the loveliest and most peaceful spots in Cuenca, although there is a gory piece of history attached to it. It was constructed in the 17th century to serve as an open marketplace for the western part of the city. The church (which was unfortunately closed when we visited) is recently restored and has a carved wooden door, single tower and octagonal raised dome. In front of the church is the Cross of San Sebastián which marked the western limit of the city.

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Iglesia San Sebastian

As we strolled around with Wilson he told us the tale of a member of the French Geodesic Expedition, the surgeon Juan Seniergues, who had come to measure the Equator and later settled in Cuenca. He was by all accounts a bit of a womaniser, but made the mistake of turning his attentions to the former girlfriend of a local dignitary and became embroiled in a dispute between the dignitary and the girl’s father. At that time (1739) the plaza was the venue for bull fights, but one evening at one of these a fight of a different nature broke out here, between the surgeon and some local “heavies”, and he was murdered. It had the appearance of an unfortunate accident, but it is generally accepted, according to Wilson at least, that his murder was ordered and planned.

Today this is such a peaceful scene that it is hard to imagine that it was the location for such an occurrence. And on the south side of the plaza is a great little museum.

Museo de Arte Moderno

This museum is worth visiting even if you have little interest in modern art, because of the lovely building in which is located, but even better if you do have such an interest because of the manageable size of the collection and exhibitions, and the way in which they are presented.

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Museo de Arte Moderno

The building is the former Casa de la Temperancia (House of Temperance), built in 1876 to house people with drinking problems. It later became a convent and then an orphanage before being restored in late 1970s and opening as a museum in 1981. The building has been very sensitively adapted for this new role and provides a somewhat unique setting for the art, which is for the most part displayed in the series of very small rooms (some no larger than cells and housing a single sculpture) which open off the pretty courtyards. You could spend a very pleasant hour wandering from room to room and then relaxing in the greenery of one of those courtyards.

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Exhibits outdoors and in

The exhibits are a mix of those from the small permanent collection and temporary exhibitions. When we were there the latter included some intriguing sculptures as well as paintings exploring how modern technology is changing who we are as humans (or so I believe from the limited amount of Spanish labelling that I could guess at, and the works themselves).

The chapel of the Temperance House has been restored to its former appearance and is used as a venue for talks etc. If not in use, you can pop inside to see the lovely painted ceiling and friezes.

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Chapel ceiling

A traditional craftsman

Next to some art of a different and far more traditional nature. Leaving the Plaza San Sebastián by its south-eastern corner Wilson led us down a street of small traditional houses, far less grand than most of those nearer the centre of the old city around the Parque Calderón. This is Coronel Guillermo Talbot and in one of the houses on the west side a traditional craftsman, working in tin, has his workshop. Wilson took us in to meet him. It was a fascinating place, the walls covered with examples of his craft and his tools laid out on the small table where he worked – tools he has clearly been using for decades. He proudly showed us his newspaper cuttings with several articles from local papers in which he has featured. Wilson acted as translator as he explained that sadly his son, like most younger people, has no interest in following in his footsteps and the craft of engraving in tin as he does it is dying out.

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Tin craftsman

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Engraving the tin

Of course all his work is for sale, but I’m sure you could come and visit just to see the work. Probably though, like us, you will feel that you want to make at least a small purchase to acknowledge his time and support him – and as a memento of the visit. We bought two of the pretty tin stars that he makes, to give as Christmas tree ornaments to my family. If you want something more than this there are photo frames, larger ornaments and pictures, many (but not all) of a religious theme. We paid $6 for each of our stars, which is at the lower end of the prices. If buying a more expensive item I reckon it would be possible to haggle but we didn’t as we were mainly buying to thank him so haggling seemed to go against that somewhat!

Plaza del Cruz del Vado

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Cruz del Vado

Continuing our walk, we came to this little square perched on a ledge above the Rio Tomebamba on the southern edge of the colonial city. There are good views from here over the more modern city on the other side of the river. Its main feature is a cross, called the Cruz del Vado, which is protected by a six-sided structure. This cross was erected as a symbol of protection for travellers who had to cross the waters of Tomebamba.

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Greasy pole sculpture

Next to the cross is an interesting modern sculpture depicting the Ecuadorean version of the traditional greasy pole contest. Women in local dress watch as two young men try to climb up to where a selection of pots, pans and other household objects dangle above their heads – such very practical prizes!

This square is located in one of the most traditional neighbourhoods of the city. Houses near here are for the most part less ornate than near the centre and some are run down and in need of restoration. Others though have been smartened up, and several have the traditional roof tile decorations to protect the inhabitants from evil spirits. It’s an interesting area to explore and I was pleased Wilson had brought us here as it wasn’t a part of the city I’d read about at all.

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Traditional roof decorations

And nearby was an even more intriguing place. Wilson asked if we were easily offended, which seemed an odd question, but we assured him that we were not, so he proposed stopping for coffee in a rather different sort of café.

Prohibido Centro Cultural

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In Prohibido Centro Cultural

In one of the old houses on La Condamine, which are gradually being restored, a local artist with a bizarre but very creative mind has undertaken a restoration very different in style. Yes, the old house (dating from 1810) has retained its traditional layout, with small rooms leading off open courtyards. But the décor in those rooms would I am sure shock the original inhabitants, although if you go with an open mind you will be intrigued and entertained.

You must knock for entry (apart from when one of the regular music events is going on) and will be charged just 50 cents. Believe me, it’s worth it! The whole house is an intriguing shrine to the macabre. There are skulls, coffins and tombstones; religious imagery with more than a twist; designs inspired by tattoos, heavy metal music and black magic; even a guillotine! And if you want to use the bathroom facilities (and you must!) you will find yourself washing your hands in water that flows from the “private parts” of an appropriate sculpture – a goddess for the men and an impish creature for the women.

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Light-fitting

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Typical of the art here

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Hand-washing and guillotine

As you can imagine we spent quite some time looking around and taking photos, but after a while took our seats with Wilson in the small open courtyard where we had a coffee. The artist’s wife sat with us and was stringing flowers as she chatted, preparing them for their afternoon visit to the family graves as part of the Day of the Dead celebrations. We wanted to treat Wilson to coffee but she said his was on the house, so we paid $3 for our own two. This is definitely something worth doing when in Cuenca if you want a change from the more conventional sights – and if, as Wilson put it, you are not easily offended!

We finished our tour with Wilson by walking some more interesting streets, peering into a few shops and ending up, a lot later than intended (by mutual agreement!) in the Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción, which we had already seen and which I have already described in a previous entry.

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Locra de papa

Having said our goodbyes (and tipped generously as was deserved), Chris and I headed for a late lunch at nearby Raymipampa, where we had enjoyed our fruit juices the previous morning. We had a short wait for a table, but only a matter of minutes. I had the traditional soup, locra de papa, which was very good (one of the best I had on the trip) and a sparkling water, while Chris had a toasted cheese sandwich and a Coke.

After lunch we spent a bit of time relaxing in the Parque Calderón and enjoying some of the festivities there and in the surrounding streets, before heading back to the hotel. There we went down to explore the garden and enjoyed meeting the resident cats. There are some chairs set out here for guests to relax in, and you can access the hotel directly from the river through this garden.

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One of the cats

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Cheers

Before dinner that evening we decided to try out the offerings at La Compañia Microcerveceria. It claims to be the first micro-brewery in Cuenca and when we saw the sign we decided we just had to go in and sample its beers. We liked the rather higgledy-piggledy arrangement, with tables on different levels and a friendly buzz, but were less impressed with the beers themselves – which were sort of the point! My Irish Red was OK, if rather cloudy, but Chris’s Golden Ale somehow managed to be both watery and a little acidic in flavour.

It was good to see that local entrepreneurs want to produce local beers, but we concluded that they would have to get better at it than this to really make an impression on the ubiquitous Club / Pilsner duopoly in Ecuador. Although having said that, the bar was busy enough when we went and many people were sinking back large glasses, mainly of the stout, so maybe that is a better beer than the ones we tried?

Las Monjas

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On our first evening in Cuenca we had eaten at the restaurant rated number one in the city, and the only way to follow that seemed to be to try the one rated as number two, Las Monjas. And to be honest, based on just one visit to each, I would give this one the edge. The only surprising thing is that it isn’t busier. This was a Friday evening and we were amazed to find only two other tables taken as we had worried that we might not get in, having not got round to making a reservation. This really deserves to be better known!

In contrast to the traditional décor of Tiesto’s, the atmosphere here is cool and modern. It looks expensive, but while you can certainly eat more cheaply in Ecuador, the prices here are not really much higher than many a less-good restaurant and we thought it was excellent value for the quality of the food.

They describe the cooking here as “New Andean” – a kind of Andes/European fusion. That may sound odd, but judging by what we ate, it works! The cover (which like everywhere we went in Ecuador was complimentary) was garlic bread with four delicious sauces – two with chilli and two we couldn’t identify. We then shared a mixed starter platter (one of two on the menu) which consisted of my favourite Ecuadorean treat of llapingachos (cheese-filled potato patties), cheesy empanadas (sprinkled with sugar as is quite common here), a stuffed green chilli and slice of pork in an apple sauce.

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Garlic bread & dips, and starter platter

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Corvina, and chicken

My main dish certainly reflected the fusion theme – corvina (sea bass) in a quinoa crust with an olive sauce, served on a bed of nicely al dente fettuccini (Ecuador meets Italy!). Chris chose one of several chicken dishes which had pieces of chicken, peppers and other vegetables in a sauce flavoured with tree tomato and accompanied with rice. We had no room for dessert despite a rather tempting menu.

On the way back to the hotel somehow our feet took a detour and we ended up back in the Wunderbar for a night-cap – a margarita for me and beer again for Chris.

Our time in Cuenca was drawing to a close, although we would have the following morning to take in just a few more sights …

Posted by ToonSarah 06:27 Archived in Ecuador Tagged art views restaurants city museum tour ecuador crafts cuenca Comments (6)

City shopping and dining

Ecuador day eighteen


View Ecuador & Galapagos 2012 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Quito

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In Tianguez

On our last full day in Ecuador we had made plans to meet up again with Betty and Marcello, the parents of a London friend whose company we had enjoyed earlier in the trip. They texted in the morning to say they had a small bit of business to attend to first, so we decided to use the time to pay a visit to our favourite café, Tianguez in the Plaza San Francisco.

After coffee we went into the attached shop to hunt for souvenirs, which occupies several of the arched spaces beneath the San Francisco monastery. It sells a wide range of high-quality crafts from all over Ecuador. Prices are not low, but everything is guaranteed fair-trade so you can be confident that the people who made the objects are getting a reasonable reward for their work.

And the selection is excellent – so-called Panama hats to Amazonian blow-pipes, Pre-Colombian ceramics, tapestries and Tigua paintings. We had already bought all the souvenirs we wanted (and more!) as we travelled around, but I still wanted to find good quality coffee and chocolate as gifts for my family, and I knew I would find it here. And I wasn’t disappointed! There was a lot to choose from too, and I didn’t want to keep Betty and Marcello waiting, so I had to decide quite quickly. In the end, I purchased a selection of different chocolate bars, including one flavoured with rose petals and another with crystallised orange; some small boxes of chocolate covered fruits (such as pineapple) and coffee beans, and a jar of jam made by women in a local cooperative. I spent almost $50 here – a lot of money but I bought a lot of things :)

Then we headed back to the hotel to meet up with our friends. Their suggestion for our first visit of the morning was to another good Quito viewpoint.

Parque Itchimbia

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View of the city from Parque Itchimbia

Parque Itchimbia is one of several city parks in Quito, all of which seemed to me to be well-maintained and well-loved by locals. It is located on the hill of the same name and has quite recently (2004) been renovated, with new facilities added. These include the cultural centre in my main photo, which was reconstructed from the old glass and steel structure of the Santa Clara Market which lay on the other side of the city and had been imported from Hamburg during the government of Eloy Alfaro in 1889. The building now hosts exhibitions and trade shows – when we were there a modern furniture show was being dismantled, so we couldn’t go inside unfortunately.

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Cultural centre in the park

But we had come here mainly to check out the views, which were great, and as it was morning the sky was still blue and the weather warm and sunny. In particular, we had a super view of the Basilica del Voto Nacional, which stands opposite and just below the park, and of the mountains and volcanoes of the range to the west of the city, including Pichincha.

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Basilica del Voto Nacional from Itchimbia

Mercado Artesanal Metropolitano

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In the market

After spending some time in the park Betty proposed a visit to this large covered market. It reminded me a little of a Middle Eastern souk, with its narrow passages threaded between stalls piled high with colourful crafts etc. I was surprised to see quite a lot of locals shopping here, as the goods seemed to be mainly aimed at the tourist market – textiles (scarves, table coverings, hats and other clothing); pictures (some reasonably good Guayasamin reproductions, Tigua paintings and other rather tackier souvenirs); ornaments of various kinds; leather-work and speciality food-stuffs such as coffee and chocolate.

We had already done most of our souvenir shopping by this stage (or so we thought!) so we didn’t buy a lot, but we did enjoy wandering around and taking in all the activity. The one thing that we did buy was some ground coffee ($6.50 for a large bag) as that was one typically Ecuadorean souvenir that we hadn’t yet bought for ourselves – and very good it was too! Betty bought a small traditional mask for Marcello to take as a gift to friends in Venezuela whom he was to visit the next week and also bought us a bar of passion-fruit flavoured chocolate – delicious!

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Betty and Marcello choosing their mask

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Mural near the market

As we had enjoyed the market Betty suggested that they show us one of their favourite shops for traditional crafts. We weren’t particularly planning to shop, having already bought a lot on this trip (by our standards – we’re not usually big shoppers on holiday), but we agreed to check it out as it sounded interesting. And it was – interesting, lovely and rather expensive, at least when compared with the markets!

Galeria Latina

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In the Galeria Latina

This shop specialises in crafts from all over Latin America, not just Ecuador, and they seem only to have the best of everything. Nothing here was tacky, nothing badly made or uninteresting. There were musical instruments, textiles, beautiful silver jewellery, wall-hangings, paintings, wood-carvings, tagua nut carvings and even some very good antiques.

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Our coasters

As I have said, we had no plans to shop so just browsed around while Betty picked out a pair of silver earrings as a gift for her daughter in London, which we were to deliver on her behalf. But my eye was caught by a table full of very attractive wooden coasters, all different and in a range of colours. We asked about them and were told they were from Peru – so not much good as a souvenir of Ecuador then! We walked away ... and then returned. They really would go in our room, and we really did need new coasters ;) So we decided to buy a set. They were being sold on the basis that you could pick out any six that you wanted for the price of $35, so we went through and selected some that would best match our décor while also appealing to us – see what you think of our choices in my photo.

La Choza

After shopping it was time for lunch. On our previous day out we had treated them; this time they wanted to return the favour and brought us to this smart-looking restaurant on a busy street in modern Quito, Avenida 12 de Octubre. In appearance it is the antithesis of cosy Mama Clorinda where we had eaten with them previously, being a large open dining room with a bustling atmosphere and some beautiful traditional art and decorative touches. But like Mama Clorinda it focuses on Ecuadorean cooking and is very well-established in the city, having been run by three generations of the same family for forty years.

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In La Choza

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Llapingachos con fritada

I opted for the llapingachos con fritada – my favourite potato patties here served with fried pork. I loved the patties as I had elsewhere, the egg was nicely fried, and the peanut sauce that came with the dish was good. But I found the pork a little dry and thought the meat had been over-cooked, not for the first time in Ecuador. Chris felt the same about the pork in his traditional platter, which he otherwise enjoyed, but Marcello had the same dish and enthused about the meat, so I am guessing that it must be local taste to serve it so dry, rather than poor cooking skills! Betty’s corvina (sea bass) in coconut sauce looked lovely, as she said it was, and I found myself wishing I’d ordered that ;) I drank a delicious guanabana juice (another of my favourite Ecuadorean tastes). As our hosts paid I don’t know what the final bill came to, but it struck me as quite expensive for Quito. Overall I enjoyed the meal, and loved the décor here, but I’m not sure it’s worth the higher prices when there’s so much good value food in the city.

We had sat for quite a while chatting over lunch, so afterwards we decided to head back to our hotel – we had packing to do and we also felt that our hosts had given up more than enough of their time. So Marcello drove back through the heavy Quito traffic and we said our farewells, promising to meet again when/if they came to visit their daughter in London (which so far unfortunately hasn’t happened).

Back to the Vista Hermosa

For our final dinner in the city we decided to go back to one of the restaurants we had enjoyed earlier in the trip, the Vista Hermosa, as we thought it would be nice to end the trip with another look at this great view. Unfortunately we weren’t quite so lucky and our table was one row back from the windows, but we could still enjoy the city lights from where we sat. We skipped the starters as we had eaten a large lunch, and again shared a pizza – this time the vegetarian one, which I preferred to the ham and mushroom one we’d had previously. Chris had two Club beers, I also had one, and after the meal had an excellent Brandy Alexander to round off our farewell dinner.

But there would still be time to see a little more of the city tomorrow morning …

Posted by ToonSarah 03:55 Archived in Ecuador Tagged market restaurants quito ecuador crafts Comments (0)

A full and fabulous day!

Japan day five


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

Making the most of the Hakone Free Pass

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At Owakudani Hot Springs

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Our bedroom

I slept well on my futon in the Fuji-Hakone Guesthouse – a little to my surprise as I had expected the floor to seem hard. Most of us were up early, eager to see what Hakone had to offer and with most of the group opting to join Andrew on a full day out in the region. The shared bathroom facilities meant a bit of polite juggling but we were all soon at breakfast which was served in the adjacent house just a few steps away. Although this is a traditional guest-house, the breakfast was Western in style, with fresh fruit (pineapple and banana), bread for toasting with a selection of jams, yoghurt, cereals, tea, coffee and orange juice.

The plan for the day was to make the most of our Hakone Free Pass and, guided by Andrew, take in some of the major sights using a variety of means of transport. The element that could not be planned was to see Mount Fuji. Fujiyama is a fickle lady and too often shrouded in cloud, but today the sun was shining and we hoped for the best!

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On the funicular
from Gora to Sounzan

We took the bus from Sengokuhara to the small town of Gora, where we changed to the funicular to Sounzan. Confusingly the Japanese call this a cable car, and what I would call a cable car they term a ‘ropeway’! But whatever you call it, this is a useful little service that links Gora, one of the main transport hubs in Hakone, with Sounzan where you can catch the ropeway / cable car proper to Owakudani and onwards to Lake Ashi.

The journey from Gora to Sounzan only took us about ten minutes, with brief stops at a number of stations – one serving a hotel while others seemed to be used by a few locals and walkers.

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Funicular from Gora to Sounzan

In Sounzan we changed to the rope way. This is a cable car system that links Gora to some of the main sights of the region, including Owakudani Hot Springs and Togendai on Lake Ashi. I love travelling in cable cars but a few of our group were less enthusiastic, especially one who had a fear of heights. We were able to reassure her, and all piled into a car for the eight minute ride up the mountain.

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On the way up to Owakudani

There were some lovely views as we went (though there would be better ones still on the way down, as you will see) and we were soon alighting at Owakudani. Here we found ourselves in a rather incongruous modern building with shops and cafės, but a quick look outside the picture window showed us a very different scene.

Owakudani

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Owakudani Hot Springs

Beyond the modern cable car station we were in a landscape that seemed to be from another world. The earth is steaming; this is truly the ‘Great Boiling Valley’ that the name, Owakudani, declares it to be. It also lives up to a previous name, O-jigoku, meaning Great Hell.

We started to climb the path towards the hot springs, but before reaching them we were stopped in our tracks by another sight. There is no more recognised symbol of Japan than Mount Fuji, and every visitor to the country hopes to see this iconic volcano, so perfectly conical in shape, just as a child would draw one. But the weather in this region (indeed in most of Japan) is not especially reliable, and on many days Fuji is shrouded in cloud. For several days before our visit here the talk in our group often turned to this topic - would we see Fuji? And now, suddenly, there she was – completely clear and also, unusually, devoid of snow. Andrew was very surprised by this latter sight as he had never before seen Fuji snow-free.

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First view of Mount Fuji

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Mount Fuji from the path to the hot springs

Andrew promised us an even better view later in the day, when we would, he said, be able to photograph the volcano with Lake Ashi and one of its red torii gates in the foreground. But as I have said, Fuji is elusive and does not reveal herself willingly. By the time we were to reach this spot, however, the clouds would have descended and Fujiyama be hidden from view. But no matter – we had seen what all visitors dream of seeing, a dream that only some are able to realise.

I am getting ahead of myself. For now, after taking loads of photos of the mountain, we continued up the path. As we climbed the steam rose and swirled around us, and there was a strong smell of sulphur in the air.

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Owakudani Hot Springs

The trail leads up and loops around several of the pools, but there are many more on the hillside above. This eerie landscape was created when Mount Kamiyama erupted around 3,000 years ago. Standing here you are in fact in its crater – no wonder the ground hisses and boils beneath your feet. As a visitor to Japan you will have been aware that it is a seismologically active country, with earthquakes a fact of life; here you can really appreciate what that means.

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Kuro-tamago: black eggs

At the point where the path divides to make a loop around the geysers there is a small hut and in one of the hot pools nearby a man was boiling eggs. Eating one of these eggs is said to add seven years to your life! They look black but are just ordinary chicken eggs – the shell turns black due to being boiled in the hot sulphur spring. You can buy them in bags of five but it isn’t advised to eat more than two, however desperate you are for those extra years! However one guy in our group ate three and didn’t seem to suffer any ill effects, although whether he was successful in adding 21 years to his life remains to be seen!

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The egg man

Once you can get over the blackness of the shell I found these really don’t taste much different to regularly boiled eggs. The bags have sachets of salt in them if you want to add it, but the eggs seemed to me to be already a little salty from the chemicals in the water. If you really don’t fancy the eggs, or want something sweet to take the taste away afterwards, the hut also sells chocolate-covered almonds – presumably because their pale interior and dark coating mimic the eggs.

After walking the loop path round the springs it was time to head back to the cable car station and continue on our journey. Rather than return to Sonzan we continued in the same direction along the rope way, with our car ascending further before dropping down to Lake Ashi. Andrew warned us to have our cameras ready as the descent started and we soon saw why, as again we saw Mount Fuji dominating the horizon. Drifting almost silently above the mountains with that distant view of Fuji is something I’ll remember for a long while.

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Descending from Owakudani on the cable car

Cruise on a pirate ship!

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Pirate ship on Lake Ashi

The cable car took us to Togendai on the lake shore, and here we changed to yet another form of transport, the most unusual of them all. When I heard we were to travel on a pirate ship I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I don’t think it was this! The ships are really just regular lake boats ‘in disguise’, with masts added, and with sails and even ropes moulded from plastic. The pirates are equally artificial, being just models (I think I had expected that the crew would be dressed up!) Apparently the ships are modelled on medieval sailing vessels, but once on board they are fairly indistinguishable from any modern boat.

Nevertheless this was a fun ride and the scenery around Lake Ashi is wonderful. We got one more view of Mount Fuji from here, while around the shore are wooded mountains and some brightly coloured torii. On our busy day this was a relaxing and scenic way to travel.

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Pirate ship and torii on Lake Ashi

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Pirate ship with Mount Fuji behind

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Lakeside hotel and pirate ship

This beautiful lake, also known as Ashinoko, lies about 720 metres above sea level and has an area of seven square kilometres, making it the largest lake in this area. It is a crater lake lying along the southwest wall of the caldera of Mount Hakone and was formed after the volcano's last eruption 3,000 years ago.

This is the place to come for views of Japan’s most famous mountain, although by the time we were crossing the lake on our ‘pirate ship’ the clouds were just starting to creep in, and were soon to cover her completely and hide her from view.

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Lake Ashi

The name 'Ashinoko' means lake of reeds (ashi is reed and ko means lake). According to legend Lake Ashi is home to a nine-headed dragon, and to appease this it is presented with an offering of traditional red rice at the Hakone Shrine Lake Ashi Festival on July 31st each year. But no dragon made an appearance to disrupt our journey, which was pleasant but uneventful.

Hakone-Machi

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Soba noodles, Meihika

We got off the boat in Hakone-Machi, a small town on the shore with several hotels and restaurants catering to visitors. Andrew recommended one of the restaurants, Meihika, so most of us went there together for lunch. There was a good selection of dishes and the menu was thankfully in English and with illustrations. Many of the dishes were noodle ones and I chose one of these – soba noodles in a soup with seaweed. Chris had the curry rice, a popular Japanese take on that Indian staple with a simple curry sauce over the rice. Both were tasty, though my soup was so generous a portion that I didn't finish it. Another dish that proved popular with our group included the raw tuna with rice. The service was friendly and when we paid at the till on leaving we were all given a small gift of an origami fish to thank us for our custom.

Hakone secret boxes

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Craftsman making secret boxes

After lunch Andrew suggested that we visit a shop where a craftsman would demonstrate how Hakone’s famous secret boxes are made. As we approached the shop and entered I was anticipating the all too common ‘quick demo then hard sell to the gullible tourists’ that we have experienced in some other places, but this was much more than that – we saw a real craftsman at work.

The traditional craft of the Himitsu-Bako, or Secret Box, is over 100 years old. The boxes are made in various complexities, and require a precise series of small moves to open them. The difficulty of opening a box goes up as the number of sliding panels involved increases. They must be manipulated in the correct sequence, and there can be as few as two moves needed, or (so I have read) as many as 1,500! But most usual are boxes ranging from five to around 60 moves. The number of moves is one factor in determining the price; the size and (most important) quality of craftsmanship are the others.

However, the craftsman we met is not a maker of secret boxes, yet his work is just as skilful, just as traditional and an important element in the intrigue of a secret box. Many of these are covered in intricate inlaid patterns that mask the secret panels that are the key to eventually opening the box. The technique used to make these patterns is known as Yosegi Zaiku and it originated in the late Edo Period. The Hakone Mountains are noted for their great variety of trees and the local craftsmen make the most of the various natural colours of woods to create these intricate designs. The one we met also made beautiful marquetry pictures known as Japanese inlay work or Zougan, but it was the Yosegi Zaiku techniques that he demonstrated to us. The patterns are created by assembling together thin sticks of wood in different colours and then shaving very thin layers off the assembly across the grain to reveal the design. By using the wide variety of tree species and colours available here, he can create complex and surprisingly vivid designs. The thin layers can be applied not only to the secret boxes but to many other items, from coasters to furniture.

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The sheets of shaved wood patterns

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Tools of the secret box trade

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Our little secret box

As we watched the demonstration the man shaved off and passed round a number of strips, enough for us each to have one as a souvenir. He also showed us how the secret boxes worked. There was absolutely no pressure to buy, but of course we were all intrigued by the boxes and we all browsed around the shop, with several of us succumbing to temptation, including us – we bought a small seven move box for which we paid about 1,500¥ (just over £9 or $14). It still sits on a shelf in our front room but unfortunately I have lost the slip of paper illustrating the moves, or possibly (and stupidly) left it inside the box when I last opened it. Either way, for now the box is sealed to me as I can’t get past the second move!

Hakone Checkpoint

Leaving the secret box shop we walked along the street to this reconstruction of a checkpoint on the Tokaido Way, the old highway which linked Tokyo with Kyoto during the feudal Edo Period. This was the most important of the highways, and connected Edo (modern-day Tokyo) to Kyoto. At intervals there were checkpoints like this one, known as sekisho, where travellers had to show the permits that were necessary to allow them to travel the route.

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Entrance to Hakone Tokaido Checkpoint

The sekisho had two main purposes: to control ‘incoming guns and outgoing women’, i.e. to prevent weapons from being brought into Edo and to prevent the wives and children of feudal lords from fleeing from Edo. At Hakone the second purpose is thought to have been by far the more significant. I found this dramatic story on a website which brings to life the harsh reality of the purpose of the checkpoints:

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In the officers' quarters

In February of 1702, a young girl was captured by authorities in the mountain area behind the Hakone Check Point (barrier station). She didn’t have legal permission to pass through the gate and so she tried to secretly cut across the mountain. After being detained in prison for about two months she was executed, and her head put on display in public. The poor girl’s name was Otama. She had wanted to go back to her parents’ home in Izu, leaving her place of employment in Edo without permission. If she had finished her apprenticeship, she could have gotten a legal pass. But she hated working there and ran away. She was accused of breaking through the barrier – a very serious felony at that time.

The checkpoints were removed soon after the Meiji Restoration, which saw the end of the feudal period. But in recent years this one has been restored exactly as it would have been, thanks to the discovery of some old records which showed every detail of the buildings here. This has the somewhat disconcerting effect of the various structures looking incongruously new. But a visit is worthwhile as the work has been very carefully done and the role of the checkpoint cleverly brought to life. We visited the reconstructed officers’ quarters and the much less spacious ones allocated to the lower ranks. Shadowy grey figures have been used effectively to show the activity that would have taken place in each part of the buildings – sleeping, cooking, checking permits and even inspecting the long hair of female travellers for hidden weapons. Apparently researchers were not able to discover enough details about the colour or design of their clothing, so the models were created like this, but I also found it rather evocative – almost as of the ghosts of the past officials still linger here.

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Checking papers

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Officers

In the open area between the two sets of quarters the tools used to catch criminals (those trying to evade the checkpoint by passing around it) are displayed, and they look pretty effective. I didn’t take a photo but you can see one on the website – nasty!

After visiting these quarters we climbed a hill to the lookout tower. It was a bit of an effort on rather large steps, but we were rewarded with a good view of Lake Ashi (but not Mount Fuji). From here the soldiers would keep watch over the lake as it was prohibited to cross it my ship and thus evade the checkpoints. We also went in the small museum which has displays about the checkpoint and about the Tokaido, but unfortunately no English signage whatsoever, so many of these were lost on me. I did however find the video of the restoration work quite interesting.

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View from the lookout point - Hakone Tokaido Checkpoint

The Tokaido Way

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Path through the cedars on the Tokaido Way

Just north of the checkpoint we were able to walk along a short stretch of the Tokaido Way. This was the most important of the Five Routes or highways during the Edo period, and connected Edo (modern-day Tokyo) to Kyoto. Tokaido means East Sea Road – this was a coastal route along the sea coast of eastern Honshū (there was also a less well-travelled inland route).

The name lives on today in the Shinkansen (bullet train) line linking Tokyo with Kyoto and Osaka, and the highway itself can still be found in a few places. Here in Hakone-Machi the path runs for about 500 metres, to Moto-Hakone, the next settlement on the lake. The path (which was an easy walk but a little muddy in places) lies between rows of ancient cedar trees, some as much as 400 years old. They were planted by the Edo government to provide travellers with shelter from winter snow and summer heat, and approximately 420 of them remain to this day. The trees reach up to 30 metres high, and some have a girth of over four metres. Walking here you are following the route taken centuries before by travellers to Edo. Most would have been on foot, as we were, though some higher-class people would have been able to afford to travel in a kago, a form of litter or sedan chair carried by a team of men.

At one point on the path you can apparently get the classic view of Mount Fuji, with the red of the Hakone shrine in the foreground, Lake Ashi beyond, and the mountain rising majestically above them both. I say ‘apparently’ because, having been blessed with great good fortune earlier and some fantastic views of Fujiyama, by now our luck had turned and she was hidden in the clouds. But we had nothing to complain of, and did not. We knew that many come here to Hakone and never see her at all, so we were all simply grateful that we had been honoured.

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Torii seen from the path

At the end of this stretch of path we walked down to the boat landing in Moto-Hakone. There we caught another pirate boat back to Togendai where we caught a bus to Sengokuhara and to our guest-house there.

Koto music and kimonos

When we got back to the guest-house our hostess there announced that she had been able to arrange a treat for us. She had invited a local woman, a retired teacher who has been playing the koto for a number of years, to give us a demonstration. This is a traditional stringed instrument, played horizontally on the floor. The 13 strings sit on moveable bridges which can be adjusted to change the pitch.

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The musician

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Koto detail

The musician had set up a small area in the lounge with a screen as backdrop and fabrics to create a sort of stage. She started by explaining something about the instrument and the different styles of playing, both traditional and more modern – she herself plays in a traditional style. She then told us the story of the song she would perform – a cheery piece about a general who kills a young boy fighting on the opposing side despite realising how much he reminds him of his own son, and afterwards feels such remorse that he renounces warfare and becomes a monk. Then she played and sang.

I think you maybe need to have grown up listening to traditional Japanese music, or to have had your ear trained over many years, as to most of us it seemed very strange, even discordant. If you want to hear what I mean, check out my short video. It certainly didn't have the haunting quality of the koto music we had heard a few days previously at the Edo-Tokyo Museum -maybe that was the more modern style, although that seems unlikely in a museum devoted to history.

But the performance was certainly interesting, and the musician couldn't have been more charming. As well as singing and playing for us she had brought gifts for each of us of origami figures, little dolls which she asked that we take with us on our journey and remember her as we travelled. I have carried mine ever since in my travel wallet!

She also brought some kimonos and with the help of the guest house owner and one of the staff offered to dress a few of us up in them so we could find out for ourselves what it was like to wear one. I volunteered and loved the experience of wearing such a beautiful garment, though it was a revelation to see how much binding, padding and clipping goes into the dressing process.

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Group photo, with some of us dressed up

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Zen garden, Hoshino An

After the performance it was time for dinner. There were no restaurants within an easy walk of the guest-house so as on the previous evening we all agreed to Andrew’s suggestion that we go with him to one of his favourites, this time Hoshino An, some way out of Sengokuhara. Because of this isolation the restaurant arranges pick-ups from local hotels if pre-booked, so we piled into the cars that had come to collect us and set off.

The setting of the restaurant was lovely, with a pretty Zen garden. We ate in the first floor area, where the seating was that perfect compromise between traditional and modern – low tables but with a well for your feet so no need to sit cross-legged.

There was an English menu, with photos. Most of the dishes came as part of a set meal with soup, pickles and an oddly salty egg custard dessert. The soup was a DIY affair; we were all brought a bowl with a few small mushrooms and spring onions, and a larger one over a flame with steaming miso soup. We waited till this was hot enough, then ladled it into the bowl of vegetables and tucked in!

The main course dish I chose was of salmon with steamed rice, while Chris had a similar one but with chicken. Also in the dish were a few vegetables - carrot, peas, radish, and a large tasty mushroom. I rather enjoyed my salmon dish though some of our group who aren't keen on fish were a little disconcerted to find that even the non-fish dishes tasted fishy (we think because the rice here may be cooked in fish stock). And as mentioned, the dessert was weird!

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DIY soup and chopsticks, Hoshino An

Still, all in all this was a good experience. The service was friendly, the beer cold and the meal tasty enough and reasonable value. Afterwards it was all back to the guest-house and over the road to stock up on evening treats (plum wine in my case!) at Lawson’s before relaxing in the cosy lounge and later in the outdoor onsen, as on the previous evening.

It had been a long but fabulous day!

Posted by ToonSarah 07:10 Archived in Japan Tagged landscapes mountains lakes boats restaurant japan history hot_springs cable_car funicular crafts hakone Comments (4)

Coming full circle

Japan day seventeen


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

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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

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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

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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

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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!

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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.

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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

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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

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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.

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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)

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