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The truth is out there

New Mexico day fourteen continued


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From Fort Sumner we continued south, cutting across country on State Road 20, with hardly another vehicle to be seen, and then picking up Highway 285 for the run down into Roswell.

Roswell

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Lamp post in Roswell

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Days Inn, Roswell

Our first task on arriving in Roswell was to find somewhere to stay for the night. There seemed to be no accommodation right in the centre of the town but we found a Days Inn in a good location for us, near some restaurants and reasonably priced (neither the cheapest nor by any means the dearest that Roswell has to offer).

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Our room

Many of the rooms were set well back from the busy main road, and we were able to secure one of these – a large room on the ground floor, with parking right outside as is the norm in US motels. We had a comfortable king-size bed, fridge, microwave (didn’t use this so can’t vouch for it), large TV and coffee-making facilities. The bathroom was clean and well-maintained, with basic toiletries and a hairdryer provided. The motel also had a pool but this had closed for the season, so I couldn’t have taken a dip even if we’d had time, which we didn’t – there were sights to be seen!

Roswell would be a totally unremarkable town were it not for a single event – an event that quite possibly didn’t even happen, or at least not in the way that many believe it to have done. In June 1947 a local man found some odd-looking debris on a ranch some 30 miles north of the town. Many of those who believe in UFOs are convinced that he had found a crashed spaceship, complete with its alien pilot who died in the crash. Sceptics are equally convinced that it was no such thing. But whatever the truth of the matter, one thing is certain – today, Roswell is a town obsessed.

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Parking for aliens

You cannot spend time in Roswell today without encountering a large number of aliens – they are everywhere! In shop window displays, on lamp-posts – the local McDonalds even provides parking for them. Depending on your viewpoint this is either an endearing example of American kitsch at its best, or a desperate attempt to attract visitors to a town that would otherwise be well off the beaten tourist trail. We fall firmly into the former group, and spent what remained of the afternoon poring over the exhibits in the town’s UFO museum.

International UFO Museum

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How the Roswell alien is believed by some to have arrived

As I mentioned above, in June 1947 a local man, ‘Mack’ Brazel, found some odd-looking debris on a ranch some 30 miles north of Roswell. Early official press releases referred to a ‘flying disc’, although these were quickly counteracted by reports identifying it as a weather balloon. The incident was soon forgotten, and it was only in the 1970s, with UFO fever at a height, that it was investigated further. By that time many of those involved would have had plenty of time to forget what had happened, but that hasn’t stopped a very detailed account being put together, albeit with many conflicting stories within it.

Many of those who believe in UFOs are convinced that Brazel had found a crashed spaceship, complete with its alien pilot who died in the crash. Sceptics are equally convinced that it was no such thing. The believers, including (naturally) those who run this museum, can find plenty of evidence to indicate some sort of cover-up by the authorities, while those who are unconvinced by tales of aliens can easily explain these cover-ups by speculation about secret government programmes aimed at getting early warnings of Soviet atomic activity.

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'Aliens' at the International UFO Museum

Whichever ‘camp’ you belong to, you have to be impressed with the dedication and attention to detail of those who have amassed this collection. It is extremely thorough. Of most visual appeal are the several dioramas of aliens, and most famously the rather gruesome visualisation of the supposed ‘alien autopsy’ that followed the 1947 discovery.

But these are just the tip of the iceberg when compared to the sizeable collections here. These are spread across a number of bays, each with a theme. The first few deal specifically with the Roswell Incident, with numerous press cuttings of the time, transcripts of interviews with those involved (and many who weren’t but were subsequently keen to air their views). There is little attempt at balance – we were left in no doubt that those responsible for these displays are convinced that the debris found on that ranch was the remains of an alien spaceship. In fact, as an open-minded sceptic I found it difficult not to get drawn into that belief myself, such was the weight of ‘evidence’ presented to me here, at least in terms of its quantity.

What seems incontrovertible is that the official story was changed a day or two after the initial press release, and the material displayed here also seems to point to the fact that this was no mere weather balloon, as the authorities claimed. But whether this was done to cover up an alien invasion, or perhaps more plausibly to correct the loose wording of an over enthusiastic individual and to conceal some sort of secret government programme, is certainly open to question. However, it is much more fun, at least while in Roswell, to suspend your disbelief and go along with the possibility at least that aliens once came here! And as a big science fiction fan, I certainly wanted to believe.

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The alien autopsy

In addition to the material about the local ‘alien activity’ there are displays about other suggested examples of evidence of alien activity (such as crop circles, images left by ancient cultures etc), other famous sightings, quotes from famous people who have some belief in extra-terrestrial life (including astronauts and even a former President!) and a section devoted to the film that was made about the Roswell Incident. It is in this last section that you will find the ‘alien autopsy’, which I have to say could be quite scary for younger visitors.

Admission cost us $5 and we easily got that amount of fun out of it. And it was OK to take photos throughout, which for us added to the enjoyment – it’s not every day that you get to photograph an alien! The museum also had a large gift shop, although I felt that you’d probably need to be either obsessed with aliens, or a child, to find anything you really wanted to buy here. I was impressed however by the number of low-cost items on sale – very helpful for the parents of young children expert in pester power! And for those who want to really immerse themselves in the subject matter there is a research library onsite too.

The museum can also claim a major role in putting Roswell on the tourist map. Its popularity has brought visitors here in large numbers, encouraged business growth and even spawned an annual UFO Festival!

Evening in Roswell

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Moon over Farleys (it seemed appropriate, somehow!)

A sports bar, ‘Farley's Food Fun & Pub’ (a name clearly chosen to ensure you know exactly what to expect!), was directly across the road from our motel and had been recommended by a Virtual Tourist friend, ‘Jumping’ Norman. So that evening we crossed the road (carefully – it’s a very busy one) and checked it out. We liked what we saw – a lively pub/sports bar vibe, clearly popular with locals as well as visitors to Roswell. Most tables were full, but we secured a good one far enough away from the noisy bar to be able to talk, but near enough to soak up the atmosphere. We loved the eclectic décor, with all the pipework showing, a variety of old signs, and even an old car inside!

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Old sign in the bar

The menu was simple but appealing, and we both found something to suit. Chris was pleased to see one of his favourites, a Reuben sandwich, while I opted for ‘Viva le chicken’, which was a chicken burger with bacon, guacamole and cheese. It was a bit mean with the guacamole but otherwise pretty good, and the fries were excellent. To accompany our two mains we both drank the Alien Amber, which was pleasant and went well with the pub-style food, so we had a second one each for dessert to round off an excellent and varied day which epitomised several of the many sides of New Mexico.

Posted by ToonSarah 06:28 Archived in USA Tagged food beer road_trip restaurant hotel museum science space new_mexico Comments (9)

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

New Mexico day fifteen


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

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

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

On the streets of Roswell

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Street art in Roswell

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

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Shop windows in Roswell

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

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Building detail

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'Spaceship' McDonalds

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Bus shelter

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

Pioneer Plaza, Roswell

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

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Cattle King of the Pecos

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

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Former Conoco service station

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Zia symbol
(free to use clip-art)

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

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

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

Lincoln: the town that started a war

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Ammunition for sale in the Tunstall Store, Lincoln

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

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In Lincoln

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

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

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

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

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In Lincoln

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

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

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Model of Indian Scout

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

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

The Montaño Store

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

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Old stove in the Montaño Store, and sign outside

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

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

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

San Juan Mission Church

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San Juan Church

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

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Inside San Juan

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

The Torreon

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

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The Torreon

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

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In La Placita

The Tunstall Store

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

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In the Tunstall Store

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

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In the Tunstall Store

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

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Old safe

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Cash register

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

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

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The Thomas W Watson House, Lincoln

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

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Dolan Outpost land

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Dolan Outpost land

The Courthouse

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

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Old sherriff's uniform

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

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

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

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

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

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The Curry Saloon

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

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Old safe in the Courthouse

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

The Wortley Hotel

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Sign outside Wortley Hotel

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

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

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My BBQ pork sandwich

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

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

Alamogordo

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

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

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Our room at
the Alamo Inn

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

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

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

The New Mexico Museum of Space History

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Rocket to the moon?

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

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

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

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Mercury capsule

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

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Little Joe

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

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Chris in the 'Space Lab'

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Memorial to Ham, the first monkey in space

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Satellite

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

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

Dinner at Tia Lupes

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Tia Lupes

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

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

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Chicken chimichanga
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Chilli Relleno Plate

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

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

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

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

To market, to market …

Ecuador day three


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

… To buy a fat pig?

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Maybe not, but Otavalo market is still, despite being very “touristy”, a must for most visitors to Quito. To be honest, when planning our Ecuador trip, a visit here wasn’t one of my top priorities and with relatively little time in Quito I had considered giving it a miss as we’d seen many colourful markets elsewhere. But then I had second thoughts and when our tour company proposed including it I went along with the suggestion. On balance, I think it was good decision as we enjoyed our visit and it is one of the sights of northern Ecuador. But we opted for a half-day visit rather than the more usual full day and packed some other sights into our day out, as you will see. And although a guided excursion is not for everyone, we decided that while not cheap it would be the most efficient way to fit several of the major sights near Quito into just one day of our limited time there. We were very pleased with the arrangement as we had an excellent guide in Jose Luiz, working for local company Surtrek.

We left Quito after an early breakfast, driving north. We stopped in the town of Cayambe to take photos of the volcano of that name and to taste custard apples bought from one of the several fruit stalls along the roadside.

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Volcan Cayambe

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Custard apples

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Posing for a photo

We also stopped at a roadside gift-shop and café near Lago San Pablo, El Miralago, which is clearly strategically positioned to catch the tourist trade, with super views from its garden and local children posing with alpacas and llamas in return for a coin or two. But you can hardly blame them for cashing in like this, and since it gave us a chance to pause for refreshment as well as photos, and to help the local economy, I had no complaints!

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Lago San Pablo

Here we were able to try the local treat of biscochos (biscuits, served with dulce de leche) and queso de hoja (a haloumi-like white cheese, served in cubes on a banana leaf). The views were great and it was a restful spot, despite the steady stream of other visitors. We didn’t buy anything in the shop, other than a couple of postage stamps, but it looked to have a range of souvenirs towards the tackier end of the spectrum, although as I didn’t have a proper look round I may be doing them a disservice!

From here we continued to Otavalo, where Jose Luiz dropped us off not far from the Plaza de Ponchos where the market is held. He showed us where to go, but after that left us to our own devices for a couple of hours, for which I was thankful, as we were happier wandering around on our own than following a guide everywhere.

Plaza de Ponchos

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The tourist-focused market takes place in this large central square. There are markets in every Ecuadorean town, small or large, so what is so special about Otavalo? Well, for one thing, its size. It has to be one of the largest markets not just in Ecuador but possibly in South America – at least on a Saturday, the principal market day, when not only the Plaza de Ponchos is jammed with those selling and those buying, but also the surrounding streets. The other factor in its popularity is its location - only 145 kilometres, and therefore an easy day trip, from Quito.

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Scarves for sale

The people of Otavalo and the surrounding area have been making textiles for centuries. As tourism to Ecuador has grown, their goods have become well-known and popular, and the market has grown because of this, and also because the local people have spotted a good opportunity and made the most of it! They are recognised as the most prosperous indigenous group in Ecuador, and perhaps in all Latin America.

The textiles are mainly of the practical variety, such as blankets, thick jumpers, ponchos, scarves, hats and so on, rather than the purely decorative wall-hangings that you see in other cultures. But it is not only textiles that you will find for sale here. We saw pictures (lots of Guayasamin reproductions of varying qualities, and some interesting paintings based on pre-Columbian motifs, one of which we bought); musical instruments (mainly the ubiquitous pan-pipes, but also drums and other percussion instruments); hats; jewellery; wood-carvings and tagua nut carvings; leather handbags and larger woven bags; hammocks and cushions and more.

On one side of the square are a few stalls selling simple meals such as roast pork, corn and soups, but otherwise the emphasis is very much on handicrafts (there is an animal and food market elsewhere in town but we didn’t visit that).

Of course the sellers are hoping that you will buy, but we didn’t experience too much pressure, although when I stopped to look at a stall for any length of time I would raise their hopes and there would be a rapid explanation of the goods and how wonderful they were!

For the most part we were happy to wander up and down, soaking up the atmosphere and taking lots of photos. A few people were OK about posing, especially stall-holders hoping we might make a purchase, but they tend to do so quite stiffly so you don’t get a natural look and a sense of the bustle and activity of the market. So mainly I used my zoom lens to grab candid shots as I find these more natural and wanted to capture the activity as much as the individuals.

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As I wandered around the market stalls taking my photos I began to realise that all the women were dressed in a similar style, rather different from the indigenous people I had seen in Quito. This is the traditional dress of the Otavaleña. It consists of white blouses, with coloured embroidery (usually of flowers) and flared lace sleeves, worn with black or dark skirts. They wear their hair long, but instead of plaiting it, as I had seen the women of Quito do, they tie it back with coloured braid in a loose ponytail. They usually have many strings of gold beads around their necks, and strings of coral beads around their wrists. Many of the older ones fold a cloth over their heads, known as a fachalina, like those in some of my photos.

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Women in traditional Otavalan dress

The men traditionally wear white trousers, cut off just below the knee, with dark blue ponchos and felt hats. Their hair too is worn long. We saw relatively few men in this costume compared to the number of women wearing the traditional dress, but many had the long hair and felt hat, albeit often combined with modern jeans and t-shirts.

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Traditional hat

Shopping at the market

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Picture on leather

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Necklace

While I always like to bring back a souvenir or two from our travels, neither Chris nor I see shopping as a major holiday activity, and we hadn’t expected to buy a lot at Otavalo, being more interested in taking photos of the activity than participating in it. However a number of things did catch my eye and I couldn’t resist making a few purchases in the market. These were:

~ A pretty silver necklace with inlays of different coloured bits of shell, depicting a bird (a quetzal I suspect), for which, after some haggling, I paid $20, having brought the vendor down from $26 and got him to throw in the silver chain

~ A small picture executed on leather in a style we saw on a few stalls, based on indigenous (pre-Columbian) mythology and symbolism – we paid $8 for this, which we thought so reasonable that we didn’t bother to haggle

Buena Vista

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In need of refreshment and a sit-down after an hour or so of wandering around the market, we looked for somewhere where we might also get a view of the action, and found it at the Buena Vista, which lived up to its name! We climbed the stairs to the first floor room which is quite cosy – lots of wood, a small library of travel guides to browse, and bright cushions on the chairs. We secured a table near the window (there was just one other small group of people here at the time, though a couple more arrived before we left) and were pleased to find a good list of fresh juices on the menu, as by then we had already realised that no other cold drink came close to these for taste and refreshment in Ecuador! Chris chose orange juice and I had passion-fruit, and both were delicious and served in large glasses. As we drank we were able to step out onto the tiny balcony and take some photos of the market from above and all the activity going on beneath us. Just the break from browsing and shopping that we had needed!

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A few more photos in the market

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After another wander around and a few more photos it was time to head to the point Jose Luiz had designated to pick us up. Arriving there five minutes early we were easy prey for a couple of sellers operating on the streets outside the market! Although attracted by the colourful scarves I’d seen on many stalls I hadn’t planned on buying one, as I had a pile of scarves at home, but one older lady who approached us had a good selection, and they were so bright and cheerful, and she was quite interesting (showing us photos of her home near Lago San Pablo), so I cracked and bought one for $2.50 (she had wanted $3 but I had seen similar at two for $5 in Quito so refused to pay more).

And I have to say that I have worn it regularly every winter since, it has retained its bright colours and is often admired by friends and colleagues, so it has more than justified the impulse purchase!

Cotacachi

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Church in Cotacachi

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On the church steps

From Otavalo we drove to Cotacachi, a town a little to the north. The town is known throughout Ecuador for its leather work, on items such as clothing, footwear, bags, belts and wallets. We strolled the length of the main street, where every shop it seemed was selling these leather goods – everything from tiny coin purses for a couple of dollars to very stylish handbags, jackets and even small pieces of furniture. Had we wanted to shop, we could have spent ages choosing, but as it was we soon tired of every shop looking the same! However, a detour off the main road along Avenida Bolivar offered us a glimpse of this striking church which we were pleased to have seen, though there was no time to see if the interior was as interesting as the exterior.

Cotacachi is also considered to be a good place to get a taste of traditional Ecuadorean food. We spotted several places that looked tempting, but as lunch was included in our tour we had to go where Jose Luiz took us. I was at first disappointed to see that the large restaurant he stopped at was apparently catering just for tourists visiting with their guides, but I have to admit that the lunch we had there was excellent – a really good shrimp ceviche to start with, pork (grilled outside in the garden) to follow, and we could also have had desert though both Chris and I were too full and declined this. It was a pleasant, relaxing meal after the bustle of Otavalo market.

Apparently Cotacachi is becoming a popular place for Americans to retire to, and I could see why it might appeal, set in the scenic highlands of northern Ecuador and with a good standard of living for relatively low prices. Too quiet for me though!

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Mural in the town

El Mitad del Mundo

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Monument at El Mitad del Mundo

Our afternoon was spent at the Middle of the World! You might imagine that this is at the centre of the earth’s core! But no. El Mitad del Mundo is the name given to both a monument near Quito, and the area immediately around it which was erected to mark the line of the equator. Rather than cause confusion, as “Ecuador” means “Equator” in Spanish, it was given this more fanciful name.

Today we know that in any case the monument stands not on the equator but very near it instead, but that is because we now have more sophisticated means of measuring such things than did those whose exploits are commemorated here. The monument here commemorates the work of the French Geodesic Mission in 1736. In that year a multi-national team – Spanish, French and Ecuadorean – was sent to this region to try to scientifically verify the roundness of the Earth, and to establish whether its circumference were greater around its equator or around the poles. In doing this they needed to establish the exact line of the equator, and this is where they determined it lay – close, but not quite accurate, although impressive for that day and age.

Around the monument various museums and attractions have sprung up, aimed at the many visitors who come here, and it was to one of these that we headed first.

Museo de Sitio Intiñan

Inti Nan is a tourist attraction in the vicinity of the Mitad del Mundo monument. Depending on your perspective it is either a tourist trap or a lot of fun. We took it all with a pinch of salt and thoroughly enjoyed our visit, but whether it lives up to the grand claim made on its website of being “an educational centre of culture and promotion of our nation” is debatable!

It actually seems to be a bit unsure of what it is, exactly, and the result is a bit of a hotch-potch of exhibits. You go around with a guide (independent wandering seems not to be allowed) – ours was very good but had a rather unfortunate squeaky voice that added to the oddness of the place.

We went first to an area which focuses on the Amazonian region of Ecuador, with exhibits covering the wildlife (snakes and spiders for the most part), the typical lives of its people (there’s a mock-up of a traditional dwelling) and the custom of shrinking heads. This was explained to us in some detail and their prized “real shrunken head” pointed out with pride. Our guide was keen to reassure this that this is thought to be the head of the twelve year old son of a chief who died of natural causes (there are no signs of violence, and heads were traditionally shrunk to preserve an important person for posterity as well as to celebrate a victory over an enemy).

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Head-shrinking

A nearby area is devoted to a collection of totem poles from the various indigenous peoples of the Americas, including Chile, Mexico and of course Ecuador. But the main attraction is an Equator line that the owners of the museum claim is the true line, and although others dispute that it seems to be generally agreed that this is closer than Mitad del Mundo at least. Of course, everyone wants to stand on the line and the guides are happy to take your photo while you do so.

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On the Equator?

They will also demonstrate a series of “scientific” experiments demonstrated to “prove” that it is genuinely the equator. Some say the experiments are fake, and some certainly seemed likely to be so to me, such as the demonstration of the difficulty in walking in a straight line with eyes closed, or our apparent lack of strength here. Others were more convincing, such as the water changing direction as it swirls through a plug-hole (attributed to the “Coriolis effect”, a scientific principle to which our guide referred several times). But even so, when I got home and looked more closely at my video of this last one I started to wonder whether that too might not be faked. Wikipedia would seem to back up my suspicions:

“Water rotation in home bathrooms under normal circumstances is not related to the Coriolis effect or to the rotation of the earth, and no consistent difference in rotation direction between toilets in the northern and southern hemispheres can be observed.” See the full Wikipedia article for a more detailed explanation, and have a look at my video for yourself to see if you share my doubts.

The tour ends with a demonstration of traditional dancing, which I found more laughable than authentic, but that might just have been the incongruous setting. Generally though it was all good fun – and we even got our passports stamped to show that we had been right at the equator!

Mitad del Mundo monument

The monument that bears the name Mitad del Mundo is a 30 metre tall stone pyramid topped with a globe 4.5 metres in diameter, so it’s hard to miss! It can hardly be considered beautiful but it is certainly impressive. It would be all the more so perhaps if the painted line on which it stands, and which crosses the plaza beneath to feature in so many tourist photos, really did mark the equator, but sadly this is not the case.

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The French Geodesic Mission arrived in what is today Ecuador in 1736. It was undertaken by a multi-national team – Spanish, French and Ecuadorean. The purpose was to scientifically verify the roundness of the Earth, and to establish whether its circumference was greater around its equator or around the poles. The team measured arcs of the Earth’s curvature from the plains near Quito to the southern city of Cuenca. These measurements enabled them to establish accurately for the first time the true size of the Earth, which eventual led to the development of the international metric system of measurement. As part of their work it was of course necessary to ascertain where the equator fell, and they made a pretty good job of it considering that they were working in an age before computers, GPS and so on. But we now know that they were off by a few degrees, and that all those who pose so enthusiastically on this line are not quite where they maybe think they are!

There is a lot more to do here than pose for that photo, but we were short of time after our busy day at Otavalo market and Intiñan. If you wanted, you could probably spend the best part of a day here. There is a museum inside the monument itself, which exhibits a variety of objects relating to indigenous Ecuadorian culture, such as clothing of the different ethnic groups, and in the area immediately around you can visit a planetarium, see a miniature model of Quito, and walk through a mock-up of a small colonial town complete with handicraft shops and cafés. But we contended ourselves with a few photos before rejoining Jose Luis and our driver for the journey back to Quito.

Back in Quito for the evening

That evening we decided to return to La Ronda where we had enjoyed a drink the previous day and look for a restaurant there for dinner. Our choice was La Primera Casa, which is popular but which we found a little disappointing. It was a Saturday evening, when La Ronda was at its busiest and the restaurant pretty busy too, although not completely full. Perhaps that explains, but doesn’t justify, the incredibly slow service. Now, I don’t want to be hurried over a meal when I’m on holiday, and I’d rather that service were a little slow than too quick. But to sit for 15 minutes between ordering our first beer and its arrival, and 30 minutes before the empanadas we’d ordered to go with it appeared, is a bit too much! A shame, as the interior of this restaurant is lovely, with several small rooms decorated with interesting folk items such as colourful masks and a central fire – though we were to find that the latter did not give off enough heat to counter the chill air coming through the door.

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In La Primera Casa

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Fritada

When the empanadas did eventually arrive they were very good – light and crisp, with a tasty filling and a hot salsa aji (chilli sauce) for dipping. Unfortunately though, my main course didn’t live up to this promising start. I had ordered fritada, a traditional dish of pork with different accompaniments – corn (both the local white corn or moté and corn on the cob), lima beans, avocado, white cheese, plantain, my favourite llapingachos (potato patties) and salsa. The meat seemed over-cooked to my taste (though as I found this in a number of Ecuadorean restaurants I started to wonder if locals prefer their meat served dry like this?) The corn and beans were lacking in flavour too, though the llapingachos were very good and the salsa delicious. Chris was somewhat happier with his choice of chicken Cordon Bleu (a popular, albeit international, dish here), but overall we found the meal disappointing and, by the end of it, the restaurant uncomfortably cold.

So, back to the hotel to warm up, and to prepare for tomorrow’s adventure which was to be an overnight trip out of town …

Posted by ToonSarah 04:14 Archived in Ecuador Tagged restaurant market equator quito mitad_del_mundo otavalo Comments (6)

There’s more to Hakone than Mount Fuji

Japan day four


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

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General view from the Open Air Museum, Hakone

The best known landmark in Japan, and indeed one of its most iconic sights, is Mount Fuji. There is however no guarantee that you will see it, as the weather is unpredictable and the mountain often shrouded in cloud. We however were to be among the select band of lucky ones. But even had we not seen Fuji at all, our couple of days here would have been among the most pleasant of the whole trip, made more so by the friendly welcome we received at the Fuji-Hakone Guesthouse. We spent two nights in this small family-run guest house in Sengokuhara, and travelled the region by bus, funicular, cable car and even pirate ship!

Although I had enjoyed our time in Tokyo, it was in Hakone that I first started to really feel that I was getting closer to Japan.

Getting to Hakone

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Odawara Castle seen from the bus station

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Hakone Free Pass

To get to Hakone from our hotel in Asakusa we first took the subway (Ginza line) to Ueno, then the JR train to Tokyo station. Here we boarded a bullet train to Odawara (about 30 minutes). From here we took the bus, using our Hakone Free Pass.

This is a great buy if you plan to spend any time at all travelling around the Hakone area. You can buy a pass for two or three days, and use it for free travel on all the varied forms of local transport – local trains, buses, the funicular railway, all the cable cars and even on the pirate ships on Lake Ashi. As a bonus, you also get discounts at some of the attractions.

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Local bus

The ride to Sengokuhara took about 50 minutes, with lots of stops, climbing gradually. We followed a pretty river for part of the time, and later the road wound through woodland with glimpses of the surrounding mountains. The bus stopped only a couple of minutes’ walk from our guest house, Fuji-Hakone in Sengokuhara, so it was a very convenient way to travel here.

These though are local buses and not geared up for bulky luggage. We had taken Andrew’s advice to make use of the excellent luggage forwarding service offered by Japan Rail, so most of our stuff went directly from Tokyo to Osaka while we brought just enough for two nights on our journey to Hakone. I definitely advise doing the same as even our small overnight bags were an effort to squeeze in.

We stayed for two nights at the Fuji-Hakone Guesthouse, a friendly family-run ryokan in Sengokuhara. Rooms are Japanese style, with futons and tatami mats. Chris and I had a ground floor room, Fuji (all rooms are named after places in Japan). It opened directly from the pleasant communal sitting area. Walls are thin here, so even in your room you will have only a certain amount of privacy. I hadn't been sure how I would find sleeping on a futon but it was fine – comfortable and very cosy. There are no en suite facilities but you can book either the indoor or outdoor onsen for private use (30 mins at a time per room) – we used the outdoor one on both evenings and felt wonderfully relaxed each time after our soak under the stars.

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Corner of our room at the guesthouse

But for now we simply checked in, left our bags in our room, and hurried out again with Andrew and most of the rest of the group to return to the nearby bus stop and catch another bus to the Open Air Museum.

Hakone Open Air Museum

This was one of my highlights of our time in Hakone (although looking back I can’t think of much that we did here that wouldn’t fall into that category!) Not only does it have a fantastic collection of modern sculptures, including works by Henry Moore, Picasso, Antony Gormley, Rodin, Miro, Giocometti and others, it displays them in the most stunning setting. On arriving here we first had lunch in the Chinese restaurant near the entrance, which has fantastic views of the museum and the mountains beyond (the photo at the top of this page was taken from there), and then set off to explore the collection.

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Man and Pegasus, Carl Milles

All the sculptures are beautifully displayed around the grounds, each one positioned in a spot carefully chosen to show it off to best advantage. As you wander the paths you find a new gem around each corner, and most you will see from several angles and all with these fantastic scenic backdrops. We strolled around happily, taking lots of photos, for a couple of hours.

Among my favourite works were:

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Sfera con Stera by the Italian Arnaldo Pomodoro

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Reclining Figure: Arch Leg, Henry Moore

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A series of four Grande Statues (la Force, la Victoire, la Libertė and la Eloquence) by French sculptor Bourdelle, which looked especially good in this setting - the photos above are of la Libertė and la Eloquence

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The Hand of God by Carl Milles, and his Man and Pegasus above

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Grande Racconot (detail) by Giuliano Vangi

I also liked a kinetic sculpture by a Japanese artist, Takamichi Ito, called Sixteen Turning Sticks, which I videoed for a while.

One highlight was the Symphonic Sculpture, where we climbed the spiral steps for some more wonderful views, as well as admiring its wonderful stained glass interior.

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Symphonic Sculpture

Another was the hot water spring foot-bath at the far end of the gardens, where we could slip off our shoes and sit relaxing with our feet in the warm water. While this is included in the admission fee, I did pay 100¥ to get a small towel to dry off my feet afterwards it made a great little souvenir of our visit.

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The foot spa seen from the Symphonic Sculpture

We didn’t bother to go inside the several indoor galleries, which have among other things an extensive collection of works by Picasso, as it seemed a shame not to spend all our time outside where we could enjoy the wonderful scenery as a backdrop to the art. But we did pop into the café near the hot spring for ice creams – my first taste of green tea ice cream (and last, as it turned out, as it proved not really to my taste).

After a really lovely afternoon here we caught the bus back to the guest-house to freshen up before dinner.

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At the entrance to Daichi

On Andrew's recommendation we all headed to Daichi for our first dinner in the Hakone region. This is a family-run restaurant and that’s just what it feels like. The interior isn’t fancy (bare wood tables and seating, minimal decor) but it’s cosy and the service is friendly.

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Teriyaki chicken set

With 14 in our group we were asked to pre-order but that wasn't a problem as the guest-house had menus (in English, with photos) for us to consult. We all chose from the various set dinners. I had the ginger pork (the meat is thinly sliced and more like bacon) and Chris the teriyaki chicken. All our set dinners came with a bowl of chicken soup, a vegetable dish (egg-plant / aubergine), rice, pickles and salad. The portions were very generous and although the food was good I couldn't eat all of mine. Washed down with cold sake it made for an excellent if simple meal, and great value.

It was still quite early when we got off the bus back at the guest-house, and several off us decided to check out the shop opposite, which was still open – Lawson’s. This proved to be to be the ideal spot to pick up dessert and/or a drink to enjoy while relaxing in the lounge after dinner. They had some things we recognised from home (a good range of Hagen Dazs ice creams, for instance), and many that we did not. We bought some plum wine (very nice), an odd-looking half-hollow chocolate cake (less so) and a can of hot coffee from an impressive range on display.

There isn’t much to do in Sengokuhara after dark, but with snacks and drinks from Lawson’s and the cosy lounge at the Fuji-Hakone Guesthouse in which to enjoy them, no wonder the watchword for our group soon became ‘We love Lawson's!’

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Hot coffee for sale in Lawson's

Later, Chris and I had our pre-booked 30 minute slot in the outdoor onsen, and found it wonderfully relaxing to soak under the stars. A lovely end to a super day.

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In the onsen!!

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And in the cosy lounge

Tips

Posted by ToonSarah 12:08 Archived in Japan Tagged art restaurant japan museum customs hakone Comments (4)

A full and fabulous day!

Japan day five


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

Making the most of the Hakone Free Pass

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At Owakudani Hot Springs

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Our bedroom

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

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

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On the funicular
from Gora to Sounzan

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

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

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Funicular from Gora to Sounzan

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

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On the way up to Owakudani

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

Owakudani

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Owakudani Hot Springs

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

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

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First view of Mount Fuji

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Mount Fuji from the path to the hot springs

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

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

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Owakudani Hot Springs

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

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Kuro-tamago: black eggs

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

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The egg man

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

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

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Descending from Owakudani on the cable car

Cruise on a pirate ship!

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Pirate ship on Lake Ashi

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

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

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Pirate ship and torii on Lake Ashi

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Pirate ship with Mount Fuji behind

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Lakeside hotel and pirate ship

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

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

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Lake Ashi

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

Hakone-Machi

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Soba noodles, Meihika

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

Hakone secret boxes

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Craftsman making secret boxes

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

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

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

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The sheets of shaved wood patterns

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Tools of the secret box trade

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Our little secret box

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

Hakone Checkpoint

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

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Entrance to Hakone Tokaido Checkpoint

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

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In the officers' quarters

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

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

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Checking papers

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Officers

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

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

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View from the lookout point - Hakone Tokaido Checkpoint

The Tokaido Way

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Path through the cedars on the Tokaido Way

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

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

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

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Torii seen from the path

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

Koto music and kimonos

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

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The musician

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Koto detail

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

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

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

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

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Group photo, with some of us dressed up

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Zen garden, Hoshino An

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

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

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

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

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DIY soup and chopsticks, Hoshino An

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

It had been a long but fabulous day!

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

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