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Seeing more of the city

Japan day three


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In Hamarikyu Gardens

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

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

The Asahi Flame

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The Asahi Flame

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The Asahi Flame

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

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

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

Sumida River cruise

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Sumida River boat

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On the Sumida River
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Tokyo Tower seen from the boat

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

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

Hamarikyu Gardens

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In Hamarikyu Gardens

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

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In Hamarikyu Gardens

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

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

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

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Nakajima Teahouse

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

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In the tea house

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

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Matcha and sweets

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

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

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

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The Flower Field, and statue of Umashimadenomikoto

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

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

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300 year old pine

Shiodome

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

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In Shiodome

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

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Plastic pub food

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

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

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The NI-TELE Really BIG Clock

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

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

Takeshita Dori

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Entrance to Takeshita Dori

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

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

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On Takeshita Dori

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Shop window, Takeshita Dori

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A face in the crowd, Takeshita Dori

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

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Shopping on Takeshita Dori

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In the Caffe Solare

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

Meiji Jingu

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Meiji Jingu: torii gate

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

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

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

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Sake barrels

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

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Torii at Meiji Jingu

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Part of the main complex

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The temizuya

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

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

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The ema or prayer plaques

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Soft toys and dolls

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

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Wedding procession

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Wedding photo

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

The Asakusa Grill Burg

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The Asakusa Grill Burg
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Burger with egg

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In the Asakusa Grill Burg

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

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

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

But that is for a future entry!

Posted by ToonSarah 08:06 Archived in Japan Tagged skylines people tokyo shrines parks architecture flowers japan culture temple restaurants city garden customs street_photography Comments (8)

Ancient and modern collide

Japan day nine


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

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Breakfast at the Ryokan Heianbo

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

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

Arashiyama

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Fisherman in Arashiyama

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Cormorants on the Hozu River

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

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

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

Tenryu-ji Temple

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Temple roof, Tenryu-ji

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

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Tenryu-ji Temple from the garden

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

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The garden at Tenryu-ji

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The 'dry waterfall', Tenryu-ji

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

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Bamboo at Tenryu-ji

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

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

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In the garden at Tenryu-ji

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

In the Bamboo Grove

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On the path through the Bamboo Grove

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

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

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In the Bamboo Grove of Arashiyama

Nonomiya Shrine

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

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At Nonomiya Shrine

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Miniature garden at Nonomiya Shrine

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Young women at the shrine

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

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

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At Nonomiya Shrine

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

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

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In the back streets of Kyoto

Ryoan-ji Temple

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The pavilion at Ryoan-ji

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

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'I learn only to be contented'

Ryoan-ji Gardens

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

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Kyoyochi Pond

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

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In the gardens of Ryoan-ji Temple

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

Kinkaku-ji

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Kinkaku-ji: the Golden Pavilion

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

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

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First view of Kinkaku-ji

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

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Kinkaku-ji reflected

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

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The golden phoenix of Kinkaku-ji

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

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From different angles

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

The strolling garden

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

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

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In the strolling garden at Kinkaku-ji

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

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

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Burning incense at Fudodo shrine

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

Kobe Pasta and Sweets

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

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Yodobashi restaurant floor

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'Pasta and sweets'

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Salmon and spinach pasta
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The rather odd 'bucket'!

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

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

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

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

Kyoto Station at night

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

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

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

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

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Illuminated stairs

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

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Kyoto Tower from the Skyway

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

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

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Aqua Fantasy

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

Posted by ToonSarah 07:59 Archived in Japan Tagged night kyoto food architecture restaurant japan culture temple city garden shrine customs Comments (5)

The perfect winter sun destination?

Gambia day one


View Gambia 2014 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Mandina Lodge view

We’re not ones for lazing on a beach or by a pool, but during the English winter we do crave a bit of heat and sunshine. Ideally, we want somewhere completely different from home, and yet not too challenging to travel to, especially if we can’t spare the time for a lengthy break. We want time to relax, and time to explore. Hopefully we’ll find cloudless blue skies, hot sunny days tempered by fresh breezes, and temperate evenings blessed with dramatic sunsets.

Such a place, we discovered, is The Gambia.

In early 2014 we spent a week relaxing by the sea in Fajara, at the wonderful Ngala Lodge, and also managed to get out and about from there to see the local area.

We then had four nights inland at the equally wonderful (but very different) Mandina Lodges in the Makasutu Cultural Forest, among the mangroves on the banks of the River Gambia.

This series of blog entries is compiled from the reviews I wrote for Virtual Tourist after our return.

Flight to Banjul

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Leaving rainy Gatwick Airport

As (unusually for us) we had booked a package with The Gambia Experience, our flight was a charter one, flying with Monarch from London Gatwick. It was a sort of semi ‘no frills’ experience - we didn't pay for meals, but we did for drinks (even soft drinks). Service throughout, both check-in and on board, was well organised and despite limited leg room, the plane was modern and not uncomfortable.

The lunch that was served was reasonable too, with good marks for including some fresh fruit in particular (grapes, pineapple and mango).

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Landing at Banjul Airport, in bright sunshine!

We landed just a little later than scheduled and stepped off the plane into temperatures more than 20 degrees higher than at home. The sky was blue, there were palm trees and white cattle egrets - we had arrived in the tropics!

The queue for immigration was not too bad, although the luggage carousel was mobbed and someone else nearly walked off with Chris's bag! But soon our luggage had been screened and we were being greeted by The Gambia Experience rep and directed to our buses. The holiday could now begin.

If you travel with The Gambia Experience you can if preferred book a private transfer but we were happy to go in the group buses and found it to be relatively hassle-free. The main downside was that we had to wait until everyone was through customs and ready to leave, but we were given a bottle of cold water and a straw fan, and there was plenty of activity to look at outside while we waited the 15 minutes or so for everyone to board the bus.

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Waiting buses at Banjul Airport

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Roadside drinks stands near the airport

The drive to our hotel took about 30 minutes and took us through Serekunda with its markets and local shops. I was able to grab some photos in passing - children in a school playground, women and children shopping for dinner, a sponsored walk that looked more like a protest march and more snapshots of local life.

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School in Serekunda

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Shop in Serekunda

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Sponsored walk or protest march?

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Serekunda scene
~ all the above photographed from the bus

The journey passed very quickly and we didn't regret for a moment not paying the extra for the private transfer - especially when another couple arrived at the hotel shortly after us in their private taxi that had run out of fuel en route!

Ngala Lodge

Most people who come to The Gambia do so in search of sun, sea and sand – especially winter sun. For northern Europeans especially it offers a guarantee of good weather at a time when their own country is cold, dull and dark. So most hotels are located on the short stretch of Atlantic coastline that runs south from the capital, Banjul. There is something for every budget, from basic guesthouses through budget hotels to all-inclusive resorts. We wanted a bit of a treat, but don’t particularly like large hotels which can be a bit soulless and which often offer (and charge for) facilities we have no intention of using. So we were glad to discover the boutique Ngala Lodge in Fajara.

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In the grounds of Ngala Lodge

This is a quiet adults-only haven perched on the low rocky cliffs a little away from the main tourist areas but still within easy reach (by taxi or on tours) of some of the main sights. It is a tranquil place and won’t suit everyone. No children are allowed, and you don’t find any organised entertainment beyond low-key music provided by local musicians each evening. There are no pool games, beach sports or other activities. If you want to be continually busy and urged to ‘join in with the fun’, you need to go elsewhere.

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In the grounds of Ngala Lodge

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But if you want to relax, recharge the batteries and be just a little bit pampered in an understated way, this is the place! We had a wonderful week here and will choose it again for sure if we return to The Gambia.

First evening at Ngala

On this first afternoon we settled into our room. All rooms here are suites, some more luxurious and larger than others, but we had chosen one of the standard ones and were very happy with it. It was a first floor (second for US readers) corner suite, with a large private balcony, huge sitting room, bedroom with king-size four poster and good-sized bathroom with a shower. We had views through some trees towards the sea.

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The bedroom

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Balcony

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Lounge area, looking out to the balcony

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Lounge area

We’d been invited to meet with the rep from The Gambia Experience along with the other new arrivals that afternoon. As I said, we don’t normally take package holidays and weren’t planning on booking loads of tours but there was one I was keen to do, to the villages associated with Alex Haley, author of Roots, which are hard to get to independently in a single day, so we went along to sign up for that. It was also a chance to get some advice about changing money and to meet one of the resident cats, Rasta, who was to become a firm friend over the next week!

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Rasta

After the meeting we took a walk through the grounds down to the edge of the cliffs, where a path leads down to the small beach, covered at high tide. The sun was starting to sink over the rocky shore.

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Ngala Lodge sunset day one

It’s possible to book half-board at Ngala but we were keen to have the option to eat elsewhere on some evenings at least, so we’d opted for bed and breakfast. However on this first evening it made sense to have dinner here, and a delicious meal it was – preceded by a drink on the terrace outside the restaurant and followed by a night time stroll through the grounds before heading to bed, grateful that there is no time difference between the UK and The Gambia and hence no jet-lag to overcome!

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Pre-dinner drinks

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Spring rolls starter

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Butterfish carpaccio starter

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Cajun tuna

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Restaurant terrace at night

Posted by ToonSarah 08:55 Archived in Gambia Tagged planes food sunset coast hotel flight airport garden africa cats gambia street_photography Comments (16)

Settling in

Gambia day two


View Gambia 2014 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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The beach at Ngala Lodge

We spent our first day in The Gambia settling into our accommodation at the beautiful Ngala Lodge, enjoying the pretty gardens, refreshing pool and the small but attractive beach.

The grounds were very nicely planted and decorated with lots of art pieces. Paths wound between the bushes leading to the restaurant, pool and down to the beach.

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Bougainvillea

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Hibiscus

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We wandered around for a while, with me taking photos of, and trying to identify, the birds, many of which were new to us. Everywhere we went in the grounds we were greeted with a smile. The staff here are well trained, and we got the impression they genuinely enjoy their work and meeting the visitors who stay here.

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Laughing Dove

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Laughing Dove

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Senegal Coucal

The pool wasn’t large, but I found it more than adequate and it was well supplied with loungers, shade umbrellas, towels etc, and surrounded by pretty bougainvillea. Since our visit they have added a cliff-top infinity pool, as well as a few more rooms, but it remains very much a boutique hotel.

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More bougainvillea

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By the pool

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After our initial explorations we spent much of the morning by the pool, so I could swim, but after a light lunch on the hotel’s restaurant terrace, we headed down to the beach.

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Tempura prawns for lunch

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Art work in the grounds

On the beach

The beach here is fairly small and is almost completely covered at high tide, but the hotel has thoughtfully built a substantial decking area at the foot of the cliffs that allows guests to sunbathe, or rest in the shade of a day bed, close to the sea at all times.

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View of the beach from the decking

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Chris relaxing on the decking
~ you can see the wooden steps that lead down here on the left

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Colourful pots on the decking

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At low tide a pretty cove is revealed, scattered with some rocks and a few little rock pools and surrounded by low red cliffs. We found this very pretty and photogenic, and spent some time today, and on later days too, trying to capture its charms on camera.

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The red cliffs

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The beach

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Reflections on the beach

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Rocks and shells

I also chased a Whimbrel around for a while, trying to get a good shot!

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Whimbrel on the beach

If you time your walk here carefully you can apparently go round the headland to the south and on to the much larger beach at Kotu, but you will probably have to return by road or on the footpath through the golf course as the beach route is only open for a short while each day. This does mean though that for most of the time the beach is private, accessible only to guests at the lodge and only occasionally visited by hassling bumsters. The latter are a Gambian hazard which we were to encounter several times on our explorations outside the hotel, but thankfully not really on the beach, although we saw a couple today.

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Bumster on the beach
~ you can also see a couple in my photo of the beach from the decking area above

The beach isn’t the best of places for swimming, as the waves can be large and unpredictable, and there’s a strong undertow. Some other guests at the hotel, who come here regularly, told us that a young lad died here a year or so back – a local who you might have thought would know the waters too well to be caught out. So I restricted myself to waist-deep splashing in the waves and used the hotel pool when I wanted to swim.

While relaxing on the decking area we could watch the fishermen from Bakau, the village to the north of the lodge, coming and going in their colourful boats, known as pirogues. The use of the French word reflects that country’s former colonialisation of the region although The Gambia itself is of course a former British colony and currently (2020) also a member of the British Commonwealth. Interestingly at the time of the visit I’m describing here it had left the Commonwealth, in October 2013, and only rejoined in February 2018.

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Fishermen seen from the beach

The Butcher's Shop

In the evening we took advantage of our decision not to book half board and rather than eat in Ngala Lodge’s restaurant, excellent though it was, we went to this recommended local one in nearby Fajara. It was a bit far to walk so the hotel kindly booked us a taxi there and back. Our driver was Habib and as we had already booked him for some tours later in the week this was a good opportunity to have a chat to him about the plans and settle on the sights we most wanted to see.

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The Butcher's Shop

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Chris in the Butcher's Shop

This is a somewhat unusual restaurant which started life as (as the name suggests) a butcher, branched out via deli meats into serving lunches, and today is a fully fledged restaurant with a very good reputation - the chef even has his own TV series! We ate at an outside table from where we could watch all the passing activity on the street – but also unfortunately suffer a little from the traffic fumes. Despite this, we really enjoyed our evening and I’m pleased to see the restaurant is still going strong, offering a take-away only service during the current pandemic of course.

I ate the fried Brie as a starter and the Moroccan chicken for my main course, both of which were very good. I was less impressed by my dessert of grilled fruits as there was a large proportion of watermelon which didn't really suit this way of serving, in my opinion. Chris liked his duck spring rolls, simple grilled chicken and the home-made ‘Italian’ ice cream he had for dessert.

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Fried Brie

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Grilled chicken

Habib arrived to pick us up not long after we had finished and paid for our meal, so we were soon back at Ngala Lodge for another comfortable night in our beautiful room.

Posted by ToonSarah 07:48 Archived in Gambia Tagged people birds food flowers restaurant beach hotel garden africa gambia Comments (14)

An outing with Habib

Gambia day six


View Gambia 2014 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Habib at Kachikally

At our welcome meeting on arrival at Ngala we had not only been told about the organised tours, only one of which we chose to do, but also the possibility to book a private local driver/guide through reception. The guide of choice here was (and still is, judging by reviews) Habib, and we were able to secure his services for two morning trips, the first of them today.

We had already met Habib as he had been our taxi driver when we went to the Butcher’s Shop restaurant, and after chatting to us then and making some suggestions he came up with a great programme.

On our way to our first planned stop, Serekunda Market, he detoured to show us a local sight, the so-called Serekunda Big Tree. This is a silk cotton tree so well known that it has given its name to this district of the town (tell any local you are going to Big Tree and he will know where you mean).

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Serekunda Big Tree

Silk cotton trees, also known as kapok trees, grow to a large size and the trunks are massive, with striking buttresses. The fibres from its pods are used to stuff mattresses and pillows, sofas etc., and also sometimes for insulation. In the photo of Habib above, taken at Kachikally, he is standing in front of another huge silk cotton tree.

Serekunda Market

From the Big Tree Habib drove a little further into Serekunda and squeezed his large vehicle into what seemed to be an impossibly small parking spot a couple of streets away from the market.

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Small shop near the market
~ not in north west England as the sign might suggest, 'typo' notwithstanding!

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Serekunda Market

Serekunda Market is the largest in The Gambia, and we spent around an hour wandering around here. We were very pleased to have Habib’s company as I'm not at all sure we would have found our way around this maze of lanes on our own, and we would certainly have attracted more attention, more hassle, and found it harder to take photos. As it was, most people were comfortable with our presence and our cameras - and the few that complained, we stopped photographing.

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Serekunda Market

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Market sellers and shopper

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At Serekunda Market

This market takes place all day and every day. Few Gambian homes have freezers, and with frequent power cuts the fridge cannot be relied on to keep food fresh, so the women (and it is still always the women) shop daily for fresh vegetables, fruits, herbs, fish etc. The place was so packed it was hard to make progress at times, especially with the occasional car or bush taxi trying to squeeze through the crowds and the many porters with their wheelbarrows (all licensed by the government, with ‘number plates’ to prove it).

Among the huge variety of goods on sale we saw:
~ chillies of all shapes and sizes
~ peppers – red, green, orange and yellow
~ tomatoes, aubergines and courgettes
~ yams, cassava and sweet potatoes
~ fruits of all kinds, with oranges the most common
~ palm oil in shades of yellow, orange and brown
~ rice, corn and other grains
~ fish both smoked and fresh
~ red sorrel flowers for making tea or wonjo juice
~ leafy green herbs
~ aluminium cooking pots, small, large and huge
~ second-hand clothes (including underwear and shoes)
~ colourful fabrics hung up and sold by the metre
~ batteries and small electrical goods
~ and so much more!

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Herbs for sale

There are of course many other markets in The Gambia but as the biggest and liveliest I thought Serekunda was well worth a visit, though you have to be prepared for a degree of chaos and be comfortable in crowds. For me the main highlight was the sense of colour that surrounded me - not just from the goods on display but also the women's clothes. I think it was here I fell in love with African prints!

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At Serekunda Market

Kachikally

Have you ever petted a full-grown crocodile?! No, nor had we, and when Habib suggested that we might do just that at the Kachikally Crocodile Pool I was in two minds about the idea. But as it turned out we found the crocs docile enough that we did pet them, and lived to tell the tale!

Kachikally is part tourist attraction, part shrine. It is one of several sacred crocodile pools in The Gambia which are used as sites for fertility rituals – Wikipedia says there are three in total while information I found on a Gambian website claims that there are dozens, though not all have crocodiles now.

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Crocodile at Kachikally

Kachikally itself is a privately owned shrine belonging to the Bojang family of Bakau, one of the most prominent families of the city. It was a palm wine tapper from that clan who first found it over 100 years ago. It is located right among the residential compounds on the outskirts of town and is thus the easiest of The Gambia’s sacred pools for tourists to visit. But its original role as shrine is still very much alive, I understand, though we saw no sign of that on our visit.

Some local people believe that these pools have supernatural healing powers and also that bathing in their waters can aid in fertility. Habib told us that these beliefs are still quite common and many people take them seriously and believe in the powers of Kachikally’s waters. I found this description of the rituals on a website:
‘Infertile women travel from far and wide from both within and outside the Gambia to visit the site where they are washed with sacred water from the pool by specially trained women of the Bojang clan. After the ritual washing the women are given some of the water in a bottle to be applied to certain body parts before going to bed and first thing in the morning. In return, people washed at the pool are expected to make a small cash donation, a piece of cloth and a cola nut – half of which is shared among the elderly and the other half of which is thrown into the pool to appease the crocodiles. Once the ritual is performed, one is not supposed to shake hands with anybody from Bakau. Members of the Bojang clan are forbidden from exploiting the pool for financial gains lest it loses its sacredness.’

While they may be forbidden from making money from the pool (or at least from those seeking its cure), this doesn’t stop them from charging tourists a small admission fee and we were also asked once inside to make a further contribution to food for the crocs before we could progress round the pool.

The museum at Kachikally

But I am leaping ahead. The first area you visit after paying your admission is a cluster of small round buildings that house a little museum dedicated to tribal customs. It was interesting to look round this with Habib as he told us more than the signs did in some cases. He also made it personal by telling us which was his own tribe and that of his father, which his mother’s and which his wife’s (marriage between the tribes is normal and even encouraged). There was a variety of musical instruments in one room, tribal costumes in another and some rather less attention-grabbing old photos of military aircraft in the third.

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Museum exhibit

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Fangbondi

I found the displays about Gambian culture and beliefs far the most interesting. The fearsome looking creature in my left-hand photo above is Fangbondi, a Mandinka tribe circumcision mask. Habib is himself Mandinka and he told us something of the custom that it relates to, which I have supplemented here with information on a sign in the museum.

Young boys in The Gambia, from all tribes, spend some nights in the bush just before reaching puberty, when they are circumcised and go through various rituals to mark this rite of passage. While in the bush they are initiated into manhood and are taught abut such as tribal traditions, ‘the facts of life’, male responsibilities, respect for the elders and the medicinal uses of various herbs and plants.

There is a belief that boys just circumcised are most vulnerable to attack by evil spirits and witches, So Fangbondi is usually seen late at night when it comes out to protect the initiates from these. As the museum sign explained, 'it has extraordinary abilities to fly or disappear from sight and is dressed in the red bark of the fara tree.' It usually carries two blunt cutlasses that it strikes against each other while making what the sign called ‘esoteric’ noises – I suspect they mean exotic but am not sure.

So far, so interesting, and we were intrigued by Habib’s explanations. But I have since read (see http://www.accessgambia.com/information/female-circumcision-fgm.html ) that regrettably in rural areas of The Gambia female circumcision aka FGM is also still practised, albeit in reducing numbers – a discovery that makes such tales of tribal customs much more disturbing.

Near the museum was another huge silk cotton tree, and Habib was happy to pose in front of it to help demonstrate its size – the photo at the top of this entry.

Crocodiles!

From here we proceeded to the pool itself. We were introduced to our ‘pool guide’ and warned not to touch any crocodile without his express permission. A particularly docile and sleepy croc was resting nearby on the bank and this was the one we were to pet. We waited while one other visitor took her turn, and as she came away with all fingers intact I decided to give it a go. As you might expect, the texture of his skin was hard and leathery, but also a little slimy with pond weed. Chris was next but before stepping forward he declared his cynicism by suggesting that this particular creature was not alive but stuffed. A prod of the guide’s stick soon showed him that he was wrong!

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Petting a crocodile

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We then, having made our payment for the food, headed round the pool to an area from where we could see lots of the crocodiles (there are apparently over 80). Many were lazing on the banks but some were swimming rather languidly, and I made a short video of these.

It is said that the reason these crocs are so relaxed and unthreatening is that they get plenty to eat and are given only fish, so they have lost any taste for red meat. Certainly none of them took any interest in their human visitors.

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Crocodiles at Kachikally

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Jewellery stall

As we left there were a few small shacks selling crafts such as batik. I bought a silver bangle from one of these – I liked the fact that you could see the guy working on the jewellery here and also Habib vouched for him as genuine. Whether the silver was I wasn't quite sure, but the price was low enough and the bangle pretty so I didn’t much care if it was slightly less than pure.

This was a favourite piece of jewellery for some years until I lost it when we were burgled – one of many holiday souvenirs that I mourned on that occasion.

Bakau Botanic Gardens

Our next stop was at the botanic gardens in the centre of Bakau, not far from the fishing quay. After the colourful flowers on many of the shrubs in the grounds of Ngala Lodge this struck us as a little dusty and bare, with few flowers and some plants looking less than well-tended.

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Dutchman’s Pipe, Bakau Botanic Gardens

However it was an interesting opportunity to see some of the country’s native plants and a few were very striking – none more so than the 'Dutchman’s Pipe' (Aristolochia Macrophylla) above, with its large dramatically marked blooms that reminded me a little of brocade or maybe flocked wallpaper! I also liked the Caesalpinia pulcherrima or 'Pride of Barbados'.

This is also a good place to spot birds. We saw several Long-tailed Glossy Starlings which I managed to photograph and two Green Wood Hoopoe which I did not! There was also a Red-billed Hornbill and several smaller birds which Habib couldn’t name.

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Caesalpinia pulcherrima

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Long-tailed Glossy Starling

Calypso at the Cape

Habib then suggested a refreshment break to round off the morning, and when we agreed brought us to this bar by the mouth of the Gambia River, north of Bakau. We found a shady table overlooking the pool and a great view of all the bird life there and had a lovely relaxing time sipping cold fresh wonjo juice (made from sorrel, as Habib told us, not as is usually claimed from hibiscus).

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Chris with wonjo juice, Calypso at the Cape

We especially enjoyed watching a pair of Pied Kingfishers fishing in the pool. We also spotted, with Habib's help, some Caspian Terns, a Cinnamon Roller and various others including weavers and lots of swifts and swallows.

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Weavers (not sure which sort)

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Cinnamon Roller

A large Gambian lizard sat sunning himself on a nearby wall, while a couple of crocodiles swam lazily across the pool. A wonderful spot!

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Gambian lizard

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Spot the croc!

More relaxation at Ngala Lodge

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Grilled goats cheese salad
for lunch

Habib dropped us off at the lodge in time for lunch, having made plans to pick us up again after breakfast tomorrow for another short tour. We had been chatting about football during the morning and of course had mentioned that we were Newcastle United supporters. Habib told us that he had a Newcastle strip, a gift from a previous client, and promised to wear it tomorrow in our honour, although we weren’t sure whether to believe him. Let’s see, we said!

We spent the afternoon taking it easy – a light lunch, a bit of swimming to cool off, bird spotting around the grounds (a Red-billed Hornbill and several Whimbrels, among others).

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Red Hornbill

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Whimbrel

Later there was another gorgeous sunset ...

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Ngala sunset

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The perfect spot from which to watch a Ngala sunset

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The sea at sunset

... and of course an excellent dinner in the restaurant with another great music set by Tabou Diop.

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Dinner at Ngala Lodge - duck ...

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... and Jamaican mousse for dessert

Posted by ToonSarah 02:19 Archived in Gambia Tagged trees animals birds lizards food sunset flowers coast culture fountain views market museum garden africa reptiles crocodiles customs gambia street_photography Comments (14)

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