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Taking the High Road to Taos

New Mexico day ten


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

For breakfast on our last morning in Santa Fe we returned to the Burro Alley Café for more of their delicious pastries, sitting inside this time rather than in the pretty courtyard as the weather had turned cooler. Then we checked out of our cosy casita and left on the next stage of our road trip.

The High Road to Taos

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On the High Road to Taos

As with the journey from Albuquerque to Santa Fe, we had options for our drive today to Taos. There are two possible routes from Santa Fe – the quicker (but still apparently pretty) Low Road, and the more dramatically scenic and historically interesting High Road. With all day in which to make the journey we chose the latter and it proved to be one of my favourite drives of all in this state packed with scenic routes. The views at times were fantastic, and we found some fascinating villages to stop at along the way.

Santuario de Chimayó

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Santuario de Chimayó

Our first stop was Chimayó, where the Santuario de Chimayó has been a place of pilgrimage for almost two centuries. We were disappointed at times on this trip to find a beautiful adobe church sadly closed and to be forced to admire it only from the outside, but that was certainly not the case here. This is a very active and open church, whatever the time of day. Pilgrims make their way here year-round, although there is a special importance attached to making the pilgrimage in Holy Week.

As we made our way from the car park we saw the many crosses made from twigs and attached to the fence by pilgrims and other visitors arriving in this sacred place, each cross representing a prayer. Outside the pretty church were wooden pews to accommodate the crowds that flock here for special masses on festivals. But what that draws people here is inside.

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Santuario de Chimayó

The church was built in 1816 on the site of an earlier chapel, and on the site of a miraculous discovery, or so it is said. In 1811 a villager saw a light shining from a spot in the earth. He dug down at that spot and found a large crucifix, which he named for Our Lord of Esquipulas, also known as the ‘Black Christ’. A local priest, Father Sebastian Alvarez, was called and he organized a ceremony to carry the crucifix back to a church in Santa Cruz about eight miles away, where it was placed on the altar. But the next morning the crucifix was back in the spot where it had been found. The villagers tried twice more to move it to Santa Cruz, before they realised that Our Lord of Esquipulas wanted to stay in their village and built a church to house him.

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The church

However there are variations to this legend, as well as some that pre-date it. According to the neighbouring Tewa, this spot had been sacred to various Indian tribes for many generations. At one time there had been a spring here, rich in iron and other minerals, which gave healing. When the spring dried up, the people still came for the dirt to benefit from its healing powers. Arms and quarrels between different tribes were customarily laid aside whenever they visited this sacred site. Many Tewa also held sacred the mountain behind the church, T'si Mayoh and it is this that gave the village its name.

Some believe therefore that the local Pueblo people were simply forced by a wealthy landowner to build the sandstone church over a site which was already sacred to them. There are certainly other instances where early Christian settlers chose to build their churches right on top of the indigenous people's sacred sites, and to force those people to do much of the building, for example at Acoma Pueblo.

Yet another version of the legend says that the crucifix originally belonged to a priest who had accompanied the first Spanish settlers to Chimayó and who had a devotion to Our Lord of Esquipulas. He was killed by Indians and buried here. A flood of the Santa Cruz River in the spring of 1810 uncovered the body and the crucifix, and the villagers, who remembered the priest fondly, built a church to honour him and the Black Christ.

Whatever the truth behind the building of the chapel, it is unarguably a place of sincere pilgrimage for believers. Today the sacred spot where the crucifix is said to have been found is protected in a tiny side chapel to the left of the main altar, in the centre of which is el posito, the little well. Visitors and pilgrims can make a small donation in return for digging up some of the ‘holy dirt’ to apply to injured limbs, parts of the body affected by illness – or even to eat (although I noted on the official literature at the church that this is discouraged). A room next to the chapel houses crutches and gifts brought by those giving thanks for healing received. And on the wall of the chapel are these lines:
‘If you are a stranger, if you are weary from the struggles in life, whether you have a handicap, whether you have a broken heart, follow the long mountain road, find a home in Chimayó.’

But although the Holy Dirt chapel is the main draw here, the rest of the church is also very interesting and beautiful. Its walls are lined with reredos, the traditional brightly painted wooden screens, which were restored with the help of Santa Fe's Museum of Folk Art in 2003 and glow with rich colours. There are also several bultos, or statues of saints, including one of Santiago (St. James) on the altar. No photography was allowed inside, unfortunately – I haven’t been able to establish whether that is still the case, but since there are relatively few interior shots posted online, I suspect that it well be.

Outside of course there was no reason not to take photos, and the little church is very photogenic, although the number of visitors at first made it a little hard for me to capture it to best advantage. On this Saturday morning a Mass was just starting, so we hurried our visit of the interior and then had time to take our pictures when everyone had gone in. A local attending the Mass encouraged us to still enter and visit the Holy Dirt chapel, but it did mean that we couldn’t linger and explore the whole church as thoroughly as we would have liked.

Capella de Santo Niño de Atocha

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The Capella de Santo Niño de Atocha

A short walk from the Santurio is another beautiful chapel – in fact, I found the interior of the Capella de Santo Niño de Atocha even more lovely than its (slightly) more famous neighbour. It holds a statue of the Christ Child (El Santo Niño de Atocha), brought here from the shrine dedicated to him in Mexico in the mid nineteenth century. As with the crucifix in the Santurio, there is a story attached to this statue, one that draws believers from all over the country, and beyond.

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Capella de Santo Niño de Atocha

The story starts in Spain in the time of the Moors. They had captured and imprisoned many men in Atocha, near Madrid. The jail did not feed the prisoners, and the caliph ordered that only children could visit and bring them food. The wives and mothers of the men prayed to Our Lady for help, and soon word spread that a small boy had been visiting and feeding the prisoners. His basket was never empty of bread, and his water gourd was always full. He was seen as the answer to the women’s prayers – the Virgin had sent her own son to help them, the Holy Child or Santo Niño.

In 1492 Catholics drove the Moors out of Spain, and the country’s strength and power started to grow. As the Spanish started to colonise the New World, they brought their religion with them, and to the village of Plateros, Mexico, they brought worship of Our Lady of Atocha and her Holy Child. There was a statue here of the Virgin with the Holy Child in her arms, and the child was often removed and brought to help with difficult births. Over time, stories spread about the miracles he performed. It was said that he wandered the countryside at night bringing help to the imprisoned, the poor, and the sick.

It was from this Mexican shrine that the Chimayó statue of El Santo Niño was brought, and this chapel built to house it. The statue now stands on an altar in a side chapel, wearing a pilgrim’s clothing and carrying a bread basket and a pilgrim's staff to which is tied a water gourd. Worshippers believe that as in Mexico, he leaves his shrine each night and roams the local countryside, performing miracles and wearing out his little shoes. Pilgrims therefore bring him baby shoes, and these now line the walls of his chapel, along with photos of children and prayers for his intervention on their behalf. It is all very moving, regardless of your beliefs.

But as with the Santurio, there we also found much to admire in the main body of the church. This had been recently restored when we visited. It is decorated with colourful modern wood carvings and banners, but again no photography was allowed so you will have to take my word for that!

‘Holy chile’

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'Eat more chili'

As well as visiting the two chapels in Chimayó, we also spent a little time exploring the various shops and galleries. Several nationally known weavers live and work here, members of the Ortega and Trujillo families, and both have workshops which can be visited. But there are also several other galleries and craft shops, selling a diverse mix of goods. We liked the two on either side of the road through the village, Santuario Drive, just at the point where it rejoins County Road 98. On the right of the road is ‘Lowlow’s Lowrider Art Place’, selling ‘Chimayó Holy chile’, reasonably priced jewellery and work by local artists.

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Painted car

This intricately decorated car, parked outside, caught our eye, and while photographing it we got chatting to one of the owners who told us that they have been promoting this idea of holy chilli for years via a succession of colourful signs like the one in my photo above.

My photos below were taken outside the gallery on the opposite side of the road. We didn’t go inside this one, but the eclectic assortment of art works and found objects in the front yard kept our cameras busy for a while.

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'Lady Liberty', and the Good Shepherd

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Gallery entrance

Truchas

Our next stop was in Truchas. This village lies just off the main highway, and was built in a square with an entrance just wide enough for one cart to pass through, for defensive purposes. Today it’s a pretty sleepy place, or so it seemed to us, especially after the relative bustle of nearby Chimayó. Like the other villages along and just off the High Road, it is notable mainly for its church, dedicated to Nuestra Senora dei Rosario.

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Nuestra Senora dei Rosario de Truchas

The Church of Our Lady of the Rosary is a classic adobe structure built in the early 19th century at the heart of this tiny village. Apparently it contains two large altar-screens (reredos) by a renowned santero, Pedro Antonio Fresquis, and other fine examples of early santero art. These were preserved during the Bishop Lamy led modernisations of churches in this area, by Truchas residents who hid them in their houses during the late 19th century. I say ‘apparently’ because unfortunately today it was closed. Not that I was surprised – our Moon Handbook had warned that it was usually only open from June to August. Nevertheless it was well worth the detour to see it, as it’s a very photogenic church.

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In Truchas

Of all the villages we stopped in on the High Road to Taos, Truchas seemed the most closed in on itself, even slightly hostile to visitors. This is not to say that anybody was rude to us – indeed the only person I spoke to, the owner of Hand Artes studio (a small gallery), was friendly and welcoming. But there was a slightly brooding atmosphere, or so it seemed to me. Maybe it is the fact that it lies a little off the main road, and until thirty years or so ago had no paved access? Maybe it is the way it is constructed, with most of the older buildings having their ‘backs’ turned to the road, facing into the central plaza? Maybe I was affected by the somewhat aggressive barking of an invisible dog in a nearby yard?

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Bones of Truchas

Or maybe my impression was created by the seeming obsession with the bones of dead animals. Not only were these skulls slightly artfully arranged on a ladder propped in a corner of the plaza, but there was also a somewhat bizarre heap of bones, bleached white by the sun, stacked against one of the adobe walls that surround the little church. We weren’t quite sure what to make of this ‘arrangement’ but it certainly gave the village a distinctive touch!

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Peering into Truchas general store

On the road near the entrance to the plaza where the church lies is Truchas General Store. This too was closed when we visited – a shame, as peering through the window we could see a place seemingly untouched by the passing of the years. I would love to have gone in and ferreted about!

San José de Gracia, Trampas

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San José de Gracia, Trampas

About seventeen miles further down the road from Truchas we came to Trampas (sometimes referred to as Las Trampas), with another gem of a colonial church. Like other traditional villages in New Mexico, Trampas (or Santo Tomás del Río de las Trampas to give it its full name) was built around a plaza, dominated by the church, which during times of war could be blocked to serve as a fortress. The sleepy plaza was almost deserted when we visited, apart from a dog and young child kicking a ball around, and one other tourist taking photos of the church. We didn’t stay long, but the beauty of this church made an indelible impression on me nevertheless, even though we weren’t able to go inside (unfortunately the church is apparently only rarely open).

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San José de Gracia

When the village of Trampas was established around 1751 it was initially considered too small to have its own resident priest, so Franciscans from the nearby Picuris Pueblo ministered to the faithful here. But around twenty years later a new church, dedicated to Saint Joseph, was built, being completed around 1776. It is considered possibly the finest example of early mission churches in New Mexico and has even been called ‘the most perfectly preserved church in the United States’. Unsurprisingly it was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1970.

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The bell towers

The church is well maintained, with its thick adobe walls coated with a fresh coat of mud every year, and its chunky bell towers recently restored. Its most striking external feature is the balcony that runs across the front, above the main door. Experts disagree as to its purpose. Some say it was for the choir to perform during outdoor ceremonies, but others are less sure. The reason for the ladders propped on it is also uncertain.

Picuris Pueblo

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San Lorenzo de Picuris Mission Church

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By Tu-Tah Lake

A few miles north of Las Trampas Highway 76 meets Highway 75 and turns to the right. We decided to make a short detour at this point and so turned left to see Picuris Pueblo, one of the more open pueblos in the area. Visitors are welcomed to a small museum telling the story of the pueblo, although this was closed on the day we were there – possibly because it was already quite late in the season.

But even with the museum closed the village was still worth the detour. It has a pretty lake, Tu-Tah Lake, and we found a few picnic tables set out on its shore. Here we ate our picnic lunch while watching a couple of local men, and a small boy, fish on the far side.

There is also an attractive church, dedicated to San Lorenzo. This collapsed in 1989 due to water damage (to which adobe is prone if not properly maintained) but has been painstakingly rebuilt over an eight year period by hand by pueblo members, who followed exactly the form of the original 1776 design.

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San Lorenzo de Picuris Mission Church

According to our Moon Handbook the pueblo maintains a herd of bison but sadly none were in evidence when we visited, or at least not within the area immediately around the village.

Ranchos de Taos

Just south of our destination, Taos, we made our final stop in Ranchos de Taos, one of the places that was high on my ‘must see’ list when were planning this trip. Why? Because its church, dedicated to St Francis of Assisi, inspired one of my favourite photographers, Ansel Adams, and I was keen to see the place for myself.

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San Francisco de Asis, Ranchos de Taos

The San Francisco de Asis Church may be made of adobe like many others in the region, but its appearance is very different. Its thick walls with their jutting buttresses look more like a fortification than a place of worship, and its massive bulk seems completely out of proportion to the small community it was built to serve. But this becomes less surprising when you understand its origins, as it was built to resist unwanted attacks from aggressive tribes such as the local Apaches. The tamped-earth buttresses were further added to in order to strengthen the walls when threatened by floods and erosion. San Francisco de Asis has stood for over 250 years (having been built around 1772) and is still an active church. It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1970, and is also a World Heritage church.

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San Francisco de Asis

This church provokes a range of responses in observers. Some find its so-solid bulk and heaviness off-putting. But for many, especially artists, it has been a source of inspiration. Georgia O’Keeffe painted it several times, and Ansel Adams photographed it – brilliantly. For those who like me admire the latter’s work, following in his footsteps and attempting to capture San Francisco de Asis on camera is quite a challenge, but one I thoroughly enjoyed. The light was great when we were there, with just a few white clouds and the sun low enough (at around 3.30 pm) to create some interesting shadows.

Unfortunately we were less successful in our attempts to see inside the church. A sign said that it was closed for cleaning and would re-open later in the afternoon. So we spent some time taking photos of some pretty houses in the area immediately around the church, visited an interesting shop which had a display of photos taken when ‘Easy Rider’ was being filmed in the area, had a cold drink in one of the nearby cafés, and came back – only to find it still closed.

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In Ranchos de Taos

A couple of New Zealanders were also trying to get in and one of them had the idea of going into the Parish Centre opposite the north side of the church, but although that was open we couldn’t find anyone there to ask. With time getting on, and still not checked into our Taos accommodation, we decided reluctantly that we would have to give up, so we left without ever getting to see the interior. A shame, but to be honest it was the exterior I most wanted to see, having seen it already through Adams’ eyes, so at least I was happy to have done that much.

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San Francisco de Asis

Arriving in Taos

Taos is sometimes seen as a mini Santa Fe, but that is to do both towns an injustice. Sure they are both arty, adobe-rich epitomes of the Southwest, but scratch the surface and they are very different. In comparison to its larger neighbour to the south, we found Taos to be more relaxed, less self-conscious, and a little rougher around the edges. There was a bit of a hippy vibe in the air, with crafts on display in its galleries and at the stalls in the Plaza showing something of a New Age sensitivity – scented candles, imaginative modern interpretations of traditional santos, wind-chimes and colourfully flowing clothes. With a rootsy coffee shop at its heart, this was for us a place in which to sit back, chill, and watch the world go by, rather than rush around ticking off the sights.

I had pre-booked accommodation (essential in this small but busy town). My challenge in choosing where to stay here in Taos was similar to that in Santa Fe – find something central, within walking distance of the Plaza, but that doesn’t cost the earth! Now no one could call my choice, La Doña Luz Inn, cheap, but by Taos standards it was certainly reasonable, and we loved our cosy room here as soon as we saw it. All the rooms are different and are decorated to a theme, and I had selected Los Angelitos, mainly because it was the cheapest one still available at the time I booked. You can guess the theme by the name – the room is full of angels – a little over the top but cute just the same. But what we really liked about the room was the semi-separate seating area, with a comfy couch and large flat screen TV, which made for cosy evenings (once we could drag ourselves away from the excellent bars that we discovered in town!)

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La Doña Luz Inn - bedroom area in Los Angelitos

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La Doña Luz Inn - exterior and our seating area

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Angels even in the bathroom!

Indeed the entire building was full of character – a fascinating hotch-potch of the artistic and kitsch covering every possible surface of the old adobe walls. But perhaps the best thing of all about this place for us was its location, just yards from the main drag in the very centre of town. There is parking reserved for guests at the end of the unpaved lane that leads here, so we could leave our car here all day while exploring (except when we visited out of town sights such as Taos Pueblo). This was a real bonus at night especially, as we were just a short stagger home from a margarita-fuelled evening in the Adobe Bar, or even closer to the beers of Eske’s Brewpub!

Talking of which …

The Taos Inn

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Taos Inn sign

The Taos Inn is one of two historic hotels in the centre of Taos, and has bags of character. We did briefly consider staying here but the budget wouldn’t stretch! However that didn’t stop us enjoying an excellent evening in the hotel’s Adobe Bar. This serves the same menu as the more formal restaurant (as well as a simpler bistro menu), but in a more casual setting. This suited us fine, as did the fact that we could get a table immediately whereas there would have been a 30 minute wait for one in the restaurant.

We found a table in a side room off the main bar, which was an attractive space and relatively quiet. Our server was very friendly and made a great recommendation on the margarita – the signature ‘Cowboy Buddha’ was excellent!

I chose the blue corn chicken enchiladas with red chilli (as in most places I could also have had green), Spanish rice and pinto beans. Chris had a green chilli cheeseburger which came with French fries. Portions were good, but we managed to squeeze in a shared helping of dessert – fruit cobbler with cinnamon ice cream. The margarita and a couple of beers for Chris pushed the bill up a bit, but we’d thoroughly enjoyed the meal and felt it was reasonable value for the setting, service and quality of food – and drink!

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Blue corn chicken enchiladas

To make an evening of it, we then moved to the main part of the bar where there was live music. This was pretty full, but we secured seats up on the balcony, where we had an excellent view of all the activity below. I just had to have another Cowboy Buddha, and Chris another beer. The band were very good, playing Western and folk-influenced music which might not be my usual listening at home but fitted perfectly with the atmosphere in this historic spot. What a great evening!

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The Adobe Bar from the balcony

Posted by ToonSarah 11:30 Archived in USA Tagged churches art trees shrines food road_trip restaurants music new_mexico taos Comments (6)

First full day in Tokyo

Japan day two


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

Exploring the city

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On a festival float at the Edo-Tokyo Museum

On our first full day in Tokyo we woke early, excited to get out and explore, although no doubt our jet lag would have been helped by sleeping a little longer. We ate breakfast in the hotel; it was served in the lobby area and consisted of a small but adequate buffet of mainly Japanese items (miso soup, rice) but also small pastries and slices of cake and decent coffee which we supplemented with juice from the inevitable vending machine.

Leaving the hotel we walked south to Kuramae station on the Toei Oedo line which would take us directly to Ryoguku subway station, just one minute walk from our destination.

Edo Tokyo Museum

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Museum entrance

This modern museum, which opened in 1993 in a rather striking building, is devoted to the history of Tokyo from the Edo Period which started at the end of the 16th century) to the post World War Two reconstruction and recovery. Displays include original artefacts, models and large-scale reconstructions. Despite suffering from considerable jet-lag that day (the worst I have experienced) I still found it absolutely fascinating – one of the best museums I have visited anywhere!

We bought our tickets on the 3rd floor concourse and took the striking red escalator up to the 6th floor where visits to the permanent exhibits begin. From our first arrival in the main exhibition area, with its replica of the Nihonbashi Bridge which you cross to reach the first Edo period displays, I could tell that I was in a museum that takes pride not only in its collections but in their presentation and curation. This early 19th century bridge was the gateway from Edo to such places as Kyoto (to the west) and Nikko (to the north). The original was 51 metres in length of and 8 metres wide. This replica is of the same width as the original but half its length.

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The replica Nihonbashi Bridge

As we crossed the bridge we could see below us the replica Kabuki Theatre, or rather the entryway into the Nakamuraza Playhouse where Kabuki Theatre was often performed. On this occasion some museum staff were busy setting up some musical instruments here so we lingered on the bridge and eventually were able to hear the start of a lovely performance on the koto (a traditional Japanese instrument) and some kind of flute. I made a short video of the koto player while we watched, and later the music followed us as we started to explore the rest of the exhibits in the Edo zone.

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Part of the playhouse

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The koto player

Koto performance

These included some very good models of Edo period buildings, both town houses and rich Samurai homes; a row of replica town houses from various periods; a fascinating display about wood-block printing (showing how each differently coloured layer of the image is built up one by one); and lots of artefacts from the time.

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Model of a street in the Edo period, with town houses

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Another Edo period street model

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Samurai mansion from the mid 17th century

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Replica of a print shop

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Replica of a print shop

The Tokyo zone which portrays the city’s more recent history is also very well done, although by the time we reached it jet-lag was kicking in and my body was screaming at me that it was now 2.00 am and I really should be in bed and asleep! Nevertheless, I was interested to see how European influences gradually crept into building design and shocked to see the devastation caused by the Tokyo fire bomb raids of World War Two. I was in this area when a guide was giving some American tourists a tour and I stopped to eavesdrop on what he was telling them – apparently more people died in these raids and in the fires they caused than in Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a result of the atom bombs – horrific. More positively, a small section near the end describes how Tokyo recovered and rebuilt, and how Japan as a whole embraced a technological revolution that led to its current strong position in the world economy.

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My coffee set

Once we had seen as much as we could take in we went back to the ground floor and got coffee and a bite to eat in the coffee shop there – a coffee plus a cake 'set' for 650¥. I chose ice cream with rice dumplings and a sweet bean sauce, and Chris had pancakes with chestnut puree. This revived us and we were ready to tackle some more sightseeing.

Sky Tree Town and Sky Tree

I had wanted to go up the Sky Tree as soon as I read about it when researching our trip, and had planned to do so this afternoon, but the light rain that had been falling all morning was becoming more persistent and any chance of views from the top seemed remote. But we decided to head over in that direction in any case, optimistic that the clouds might lift. We were becoming more familiar with the subway system so the short but slightly more complex (two changes) journey to Oshiage station was easily accomplished, but we emerged from the station to find that the top of the tower so lost in the clouds that visibility would have been close to zero.

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Sky Tree

So we had to content ourselves with snatching glimpses from below, and with exploring the bustling modern shopping centre that sits at its foot, Sky Tree Town or in Japanese, Solamachi. This apparently has over 300 shops and restaurants, and I can believe that! On this Saturday afternoon it was packed with locals, mostly young, and was a fascinating place to watch young Tokyo at play.

We didn’t shop but we did enjoy seeing the range of goods available and the different displays. We were struck by how cutesy much of the clothing and the accessories were – we’re used to seeing Hello Kitty at home, but she looks positively sophisticated next to some other Japanese trends! There are also a lot of food shops and we were offered some free samples as we browsed.

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Chocolate cake in 100% Chocolate

We stopped off for refreshments at the appealingly-named 100% Chocolate cafė, where I had an excellent iced mocha and Chris a regular coffee and small chocolate cake. The cafė also sells tablets of its own chocolate in a wide range of flavours (56 of them to be precise). I was tempted - but buying chocolate gifts so early in our trip seemed a bit impractical (they would never have made it home!)

Soon after this it was time to head back to the hotel; our Essential Honshu tour was to start officially that evening and we were meeting up with our tour leader and travelling companions for a briefing and to go out for dinner.

Meeting the group

The group briefing took place in the lobby of our hotel, where we had eaten breakfast. By now my jet-lag had subsided and I was able to enjoy meeting everyone and hearing a bit more about the plans for the next couple of weeks from Andrew, our tour leader. There were also some practical details to attend to – he needed copies of our insurance documents and also took our passports as he had offered to go to collect our JR Passes the next afternoon, leaving us more time for sightseeing.

Andrew was to prove an excellent tour leader. An American, he had lived and worked in Japan for quite a few years – initially in a Japanese company and more recently for Inside Japan. This gave him great insights into the culture while ensuring that he understood what we would find most puzzling and/or intriguing. He was also good company and very flexible – happy to lead people around but not at all bothered if anyone preferred to go off and do their own thing, and full of helpful advice to assist us in planning our individual explorations.

After this initial meeting he invited us to join him for dinner, and nine out of our group of thirteen accepted. While this meal wasn’t included in the tour price, it seemed to us a good idea to benefit from his local knowledge and also use the time to get to know our travelling companions a little better, so we were among that nine.

Andrew proposed one of his local favourite spots for dinner, one of the Watami chain of izakaya (Japanese-style pubs) on Kaminarimon Dori, about ten minutes’ walk from the hotel. On arrival we all removed our shoes and put them into the lockers provided. We had a large group table on the third floor with semi-traditional sunken seating (much easier for Westerners than sitting on the floor!)

Andrew suggested a selection of dishes and as we were all still pretty new to Japanese food we were happy to go with his ideas. A good decision, as everything he picked was very tasty, including spicy udon noodles, delicious pork dumplings with hot sauce to dip them in, and chicken minced and formed around cheese on skewers. Most of us had dessert - I chose the ‘citrus sherbet’ (sort of like a lemon sorbet) and Chris had a really good chocolate fondant. We both drank draft beer (Santory) which was very good too. The whole meal, with the drinks, was excellent value, and we had a great evening out with our new friends.

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In Watami

Our tour had officially begun and the next day we would explore more of Tokyo together ...

Posted by ToonSarah 04:01 Tagged tokyo japan history restaurants city museum music Comments (7)

City of two thousand shrines

Japan day eight


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

Kyoto

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At Kiyomizu-dera

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

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Kyoto station

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

To Kyoto by bullet train

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

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

Kiyomizu-dera Temple

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Preying mantis at Kiyomizu-dera

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

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Japanese visitors to Kiyomizu-dera

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

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Nio-mon, Kiyomizu-dera

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

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View of Kyoto from the Sai-mon

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The pagoda at Kiyomizu-dera

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

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

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

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Hondo lantern

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

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

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Kiyomizu-dera: the veranda

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

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

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

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

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Otowa water fountain, Kiyomizu-dera

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

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Jizu statues

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The café

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

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My kakigori

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Chris's noodles

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

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

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Hondo roof detail, Kiyomizu-dera

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Another roof detail

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And another!

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A torii gate

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View from Kiyomizu-dera

Higashiyama

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

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Tourists on Chawan-zaka

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On Chawan-zaka

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Our sake cup

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

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

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Shrine on Chawan-zaka

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

Sanjusangen-do Temple

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Roof detail, Sanjūsangen-dō, Kyoto

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

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

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

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

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

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Sanjusangendo Temple

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Roof details, Sanjūsangen-dō

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

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Our bedroom at the Ryokan Heianbo

Gion

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

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

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

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Maiko in Gion

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A sign in Gion

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

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Kenninji Temple

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Near Tatsumi Bashi

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

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Tatsumi Daimyojin Shrine

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Shirakawa Canal, Gion

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

Our first evening in Kyoto

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

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Plastic sushi in the window

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Sushi chef

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Karaoke room sign

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

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

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

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

Andrew and Sue's performances

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In the karaoke room

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Andrew, Sue and Jim

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

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Ryokan Heianbo at night

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

Into the Thar Desert

India day five


View Rajasthan 2015 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Onwards to Khimsar

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Friendly locals

Leaving Jaipur we headed west, deep into Rajasthan. Now we were truly in the desert state. The first part of the journey was on a good multi-lane toll road, less interesting for us than the rural roads. After a while though we left this and took a fairly rough road that wound through small villages and into the Thar Desert. In places there was construction work that meant we had to leave the road altogether, at times driving directly over the desert sand! As we passed through the villages some locals would wave to us, and in one these two guys spotted my camera and indicated I should take their photo - so I did!

The most notable sight on the journey was our first Indian antelope, a Nilgai, which Mehar spotted, stopping for us to take photos from the car, but other than that we didn't stop until we reached Khimsar – a journey time of about six hours, although it would have been less without the road works. As always we had enjoyed watching life beside the road, but this was among the less interesting of the several drives we had in India.

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Nilgai

Khimsar

Around a 450 year old fort on the edge of the Thar Desert a small town has grown up, consisting of little more than a market, some shops and a bus station. These serve the surrounding rural community and those who work in the fort, which is today is both home to the Thakurs, former rulers of the Kingdom of Khimsar, who built it, and also a heritage hotel. Confusingly the town is also sometimes referred to as Khinvsar or Khinwsar, but the fort always (as far as I can ascertain) as Khimsar.

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Khimsar Fort

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We spent one night here as a break on the long drive between Jaipur and Jaisalmer. There are no sights as such in Khimsar, unless you consider the magnificent fort, but as we wanted to see something of ordinary daily life in the region this suited us perfectly.

Arriving quite late in the afternoon we decided to resist the temptation of the rather lovely swimming pool in favour of a stroll around the village with our cameras. We found that most people were friendly and didn't mind those cameras in the slightest – indeed, many asked us to take their photo. This shopkeeper and his son were among these, and he gave us his address so we could send the pictures (which we have since done). A couple of women did shake their heads, no, so we respected this of course.

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Local people, Khimsar

The main street is lined with small shops and is also a bus terminal, so there is plenty of activity. Cows and goats wander freely, men gossip or play cards in the shade, women pick through vegetables to select the best for the evening meal. Several small boys, and not so small ones, posed on motorbikes or scooters - one teenage lad rushing from a shop to do so as we passed. The bus sounded its horn multiple times to signal departure, but there was always one more person to squeeze in first.

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Local cafe

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Market scene

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More of the locals

Near the entrance to the fort is a small temple and a couple of statues. One of these, near the fort, is I think of a former Maharaja. But as I said, a walk here isn't about finding the historical sights but those of daily life as it unfolds here in this Thar Desert village.

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Statue and temple, Khimsar

Khimsar Fort

We spent the night in this rather stunning heritage hotel, the first of a number that we stayed in on this trip and although not my favourite (that honour goes to Narlai), it was probably the grandest and certainly the largest. Quite apart from the photo opps to be had on its doorstep when wandering around the town, the hotel itself provides plenty – beautiful flowers, lovely old architecture and views of the surrounding countryside from the ramparts.

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This is a historic fort now converted to a hotel, although the owner (a descendant of the Thakurs of Khimsar who once ruled this region and were themselves descendants of Rao Jodhaji, founder of Jodhpur) still lives in one wing. Construction of the fort was started in 1523 but apparently the family only lived here from the 18th century onwards (I don’t know what they did with it prior to that!) It is a large sprawling complex of buildings built in beautiful honey-coloured sandstone. The grounds are quite extensive and include a lovely looking pool. There is also a spa, tennis court and small gym. Entertainment in the form of traditional musicians and dancers, and a puppet show is laid on in the evenings. For car enthusiasts, there is a collection of vintage cars on display in the royal garage.

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View from the hotel

We had one of the standard rooms but it was nevertheless very large and comfortable. It was located towards the back of the main building on the upper floor, and we had a small staircase in our room that led to a door out on to a roof terrace – perfect for star gazing, although it was a rather hazy night.

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Pool with our block beyond

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Our bedroom

Traditional Thar Desert musicians

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Musicians in front of the ruins

When we arrived at Khimsar Fort we were told that local musicians would perform below the ruins of Fateh Mahal that evening. There is a story attached to these ruins. They are named after Fateh Pir Baba, a Sufi saint who blessed the ruling family. When he died, he was buried here next to the fort walls. At that time a residence was being built just next to the spot chosen for his tomb. The ruling chief died during the construction and people said that this showed that the saint's spirit was not in peace. Work was halted and the building was left incomplete.

A small performance area has been created here, with a semi-circular seating area. We went along as directed and found a group of five here. One of the musicians tried to teach us to play his traditional castanet-like instruments, but we couldn't get the hang of the grip, so left him to it! We certainly weren't going to emulate the girl who danced on knife blades (even if these weren't sharp – we had no way of knowing) and on nails!

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Musicians

The performance was quite short but we enjoyed it and I loved the colourful costumes too. I made a short video which I think gives a good flavour not only of the performance but also of Chris’s reaction when the knives were brought out!

After the show finished we went for dinner. With very little available in the village we decided to eat in the hotel, as I imagine most guests do. As far as we could gather (the staff have quite limited English compared with other hotels we stayed in) it's possible to get an a la carte meal in the restaurant, but in the dry winter months most people, including us, opt for the buffet served up on the ramparts. While buffets are not my preferred option, the setting made up for that – a lovely view of the fort itself, a pleasant breeze after the afternoon's heat, and music drifting up from the village.

We stayed on a while after dinner enjoying the setting and another beer. To be honest the setting was the best thing about this meal, as the food was really just ordinary. They have something of a captive market – as I said, few visitors are likely to venture into the village to eat (it's very much just a local village with no tourist facilities, even of the most basic nature). Still, the location was lovely, the service friendly (our waiter kept bringing more poppadums to go with our post-dinner beers!), and the price very reasonable, so we were pretty happy with our evening.

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And after dinner, a stroll around the ramparts back to our comfortable room, to rest before another long drive tomorrow.

Posted by ToonSarah 11:27 Archived in India Tagged people india hotel fort village dance music rajasthan khimsar Comments (9)

Glamping in Rajasthan

India day eight


View Rajasthan 2015 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Thar Desert stay

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Desert sunset

Rajasthan is in part a desert state, and a visit here, for a desert lover such as myself, would not be complete without spending a night in one of its desert camps. It was this that brought us to Dechu. The Thar Desert is the 17th largest in the world and home to 40% of Rajasthan’s people who for the most part eke out a living growing what crops they can in its arid soil or raising livestock. But in recent years eco-tourism has brought a much welcome boost to the region, and we were here to help!

We left our lovely Jaisalmer hotel, Fort Rajwanda, after breakfast and set off through the desert, at first retracing our steps eastwards from a few days previously but then branching off to the south towards Dechu. The drive took only three hours, mostly across flat scrubby desert.

Along the way we enjoyed seeing our first mongoose on the road, while I failed to photograph successfully, and a large herd of camels, some 400 strong, by which Mehar stopped for photos. One of the herders explained that one camel had fractured a leg and they were trying to separate it from the rest. This was a great photo opportunity and I also managed to shoot a video of the herd – I found their constant movement rather mesmerising.

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Another sight, well-spotted by Mehar, was a small antelope, I believe a Chinkara, resting under a bush in a lentil field. According to Wikipedia around 80,000 of India’s population of 100,000 of these live in the Thar Desert so it was perhaps not surprising that we saw several while there.

Near Dechu the scenery got more varied, with sand dunes dotted with stunted trees either side of the road. About seven kilometres beyond the town we turned off the road into Samsara Resort.

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Chinkara

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Scenery near Dechu

We didn't stay at Samara Resort itself but at the Desert Camp about eight kilometres away. However we arrived here around midday and were given the use of a room and the run of the facilities until our transfer to the camp some four hours later (in October when we visited it is far too hot in the desert during the middle part of the day so guests only spend the evening, night and first part of the morning at the camp).

The room we were given was really lovely (we dubbed it "the nicest room we never stayed in"!) and we enjoyed a good lunch in the restaurant and a few pleasant hours swimming in, and relaxing by, the pool. I am pretty sure this would be a great place to stay if you'd like to sleep in a proper bedroom and see the desert on excursions rather than spend a night in a tent, however luxurious.

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The nicest room we never stayed in, and hotel pool

But that was not for us – we were headed for a night under canvas …

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Our stay at the desert camp was one of the highlights of our trip to India. The whole experience was wonderful, starting with our late afternoon jeep transfer to the camp from the resort, which, although a distance of just eight kilometres as the crow flies, is lengthened into a mini safari through the surrounding countryside. The return journey the next morning was to take just 15 minutes, but this outward ride was more like 90.

Our luggage was transferred separately (the next morning it was to travel with us) and we had the jeep to ourselves. After a short ride along the main road we turned off on to a sandy track that wound among some scattered houses. We passed the government-run school and the all-important water tank. We made a wide loop through this area, at one point spotting some more Indian antelopes, Chinkara, like the one we had seen earlier on our journey to Dechu.

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Chinkara antelopes

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The grandmother

We stopped at one house to visit a local family. Obviously this was a bit set-up compared to the visit we had made with Mehar a few days previously (see my earlier blog entry), but it was nevertheless interesting and the family were very welcoming. Mum and Dad were away working in the fields, so we met the grandmother and children. All were very happy to pose for photos. Unlike that previous visit with Mehar, we were able to go inside the various buildings which included a kitchen, living/sleeping house and storage room.

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Family possessions

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With our hostess and her oldest grandchild

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The home

Leaving the village area we returned to the main road, only to leave it again after just a short distance. Now we were among the dunes proper, although in this desert you find scrubby growth on the dunes rather than the empty wide sweep of sand you see elsewhere. Our driver took us on a roundabout route that involved at least three very steep descents – the sort where you get something of the sensation of being on a roller coaster (although much more fun to my mind). We stopped for photos at the top of one dune, and at another the guide got out and borrowed my camera to take pictures of our descent from below – although I was surprised when I looked at the photos later to see that the steepness wasn’t that apparent. Much more effective was my own photo taken looking down on him just as we started down from the top of the dune.

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Jeep ride in the dunes

Eventually we topped one particular dune to find ourselves looking down on the camp. We dropped down into it and pulled up at the edge of the circle of tents.

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Samsara Desert Camp, late afternoon

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We were greeted with the news that our luggage was already in our tent, number three, and our camel was waiting for us, ready for the next part of the experience as soon as we had freshened up. So we hurried to our tent to leave our day bags, taking only our cameras with us on the next experience, a camel ride on the dunes. We have ridden camels in the past and it is something I always enjoy (although after an unfortunate encounter in Uzbekistan, which I will no doubt share here some time in the future, Chris is slightly less enthusiastic!)

On this occasion, we both rode on the same camel. I was up front and could hold on to part of the harness, but Chris, behind, had only me to clutch. If I had fallen, so would he! This was quite a short ride compared to the one we had in the Uzbek desert – just up and over the nearest dune, a short stop for photos and then up to the highest point from where we would be able to watch the sunset.

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Our camel gets a well-deserved rest, after carrying us both up the dunes!

Desert sunset

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We arrived by camel at the top of the dunes, to find that the camp staff had set out some cushions to sit on and laid on a musician playing the traditional Rajasthani double flutes. A few other tourists from the camp were already here, having come by jeep. There were drinks available (tea, coffee and water at no charge, plus soft and alcoholic drinks to buy). It was all very low-key – we all stood around or sat and listened to the music, drinking a beer or a G&T and chatting, as the sun got lower over the dunes.

It was quite hazy, so the sky was pretty rather than dramatic, but the photo opportunities were greatly enhanced when a local happened to drive his flock of sheep along the ridge of the dune right in front of the setting sun. The sand kicked up by their hooves filtered the rays and created a timeless scene that made a pleasant experience into a totally memorable one.

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Was it serendipity that brought him here at this moment? Does the camp choose this spot because the locals also come here – or even, dare I say it, encourage him to do so to enhance our experience? Those thoughts occurred to me, but no, I think we were probably just lucky as, since neither shepherd nor hotel staff looked for a tip there would have been nothing for them to gain by arranging the scene.

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After he moved on there was time to take a few more photos of the post-sunset sky, and now our camel took centre stage in the photos.

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Dancer

Then it was back to the camp, this time by jeep, to settle into our tent before the evening’s cultural performance and dinner.

Evening in the camp

In the hour before dinner traditional musicians played in an area of the camp set aside for these performances. There was cushioned seating for the audience, drinks could be purchased and the first course of dinner was served, consisting of stuffed potato chunks, chicken tikka and vegetable patties. While we had seen similar shows in several hotels already (and were to see several more before the end of our trip, this was probably the most accomplished of those we saw, with the quality of the dancing especially notable. These dances are traditional among the Thar Desert tribes as are the elaborate costumes worn by both men and women. I hope you enjoy my little video of the performance.

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Musicians and dancer

Cultural performance

Our evening meal started with small appetisers handed round as we sat listening to the music - chicken tikka, stuffed potatoes and vegetable patties, and we ordered beers to wash these down. We then went up the slope, lit by hurricane lamps, to the dining tent where like all the other guests we chose to eat outside on the terrace. The meal was a buffet with lots of choice, and I found some dishes nicer than others (a potato curry and another with cauliflower among them). You pay for any drinks but otherwise all is included. When we had finished our meal we sat out on the terrace a little longer, enjoying the desert air and a final beer.

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Our tent at night

Desert sunrise

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We slept very well in our “luxury” tent, which was both gorgeous and comfortable. It had twin beds inside, with a properly plumbed en-suite with large walk-in shower behind, and a terrace with loungers in front. The tents are set in a circle nestled under a large dune, with another dune opposite. Part way up this one is the dining tent where both dinner and breakfast are served, and at the foot of this dune is a circular area where the evening entertainment takes place.

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The camp at dawn

The next morning we woke early to the sound of the camp coming to life. Some of the staff were walking around collecting the lanterns that had been hung in the bushes and outside each tent the previous evening, while others were up at the dining tent on the opposite dune, starting to prepare breakfast. When we emerged from our tent we found we were the only guests to have done so, somewhat to our surprise. Yes, it was still early, but it’s not every day you get to enjoy watching the sunrise in the desert. Armed with our cameras we climbed up the steep dune on the far side of the camp and were there in time to see the sun rise over the tents circled below us. Well worth the effort of getting up and clambering up the dune!

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Desert sunrise

By the way, when I first went out that morning I did so with bare feet and really enjoyed the sensation of the cool morning sand between my toes. But it’s not a good idea to walk around like that on the dunes as there are some very prickly burrs that attach themselves to shoes and socks and would certainly be painful if they were to attach themselves to you!

Once the sun was up it was time to descend for breakfast, which was a good one, with eggs cooked to order and other items, including fresh fruit, pastries and toast, served at the buffet. The musician who had played the previous evening when we watched the sun set from the dunes also played during breakfast which was lovely.

Music at breakfast

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Farewell to the camp

All too soon though we were leaving the camp behind us, very pleased to have had this chance to experience a taste of the Thar Desert and a stay so different from those that made up the bulk of our tour.

If you get the chance to do this I totally recommend it as it really shows you another side to Rajasthan. Yes, it is all laid on for tourists and is somewhat artificial, but at the same time you are out in the desert and getting closer to a harsh but beautiful environment that is home to many local people. And of course the camp also brings employment and a much-needed source of income to some of those people. I was pleased to learn, for example, that the guide who accompanied us on the jeep safari and looked after us during our stay was from a village just a few miles away.

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Our jeep driver

We met up with Mehar back at the Samsara resort. It was time to head further south ...

Posted by ToonSarah 21:53 Archived in India Tagged desert culture india music camp camel rajasthan Comments (14)

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