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On the banks of the Rio Tomebamba

Ecuador day eight continued


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View from our hotel room

After a morning exploring the heart of colonial Cuenca we returned to the Hotel Victoria, where we had left our bags on arriving some time earlier, to check in. The man on the reception desk, who appeared to be the manager himself, greeted us with the news that he had allocated us a very nice room. He led us a short distance down the corridor to one (#307) on the ground floor, opened the door and all we could see at first was the view!

The whole of the opposite wall was window, and because the hotel is situated on the steep river bank, what is the ground floor on the street side, is several stories up on the river side, where we now were. This isn’t so much a room with a balcony as a room on a balcony. The construction of the traditional houses along the river was designed to make the most of the location, with a long balcony on all the main floors that overlooks the water, and the Hotel Victoria, like some others we saw later, has been sympathetically modernised to glass-in but not otherwise alter those balconies, creating extra space while maximising the views. The view looks south across the river to the newer part of town, with the viewpoint Mirador de Turi, which we were to visit the next morning, on the middle horizon, and is framed by the tall palm trees that grow in the hotel’s lovely garden a few floors below.

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6468830-Another_view_of_the_room_Cuenca.jpgIn our bedroom, Hotel Victoria

Once we tore our eyes from the view we could see that we had a very nice room indeed. It was of a good size, with ample wardrobe space and a bathroom whose large shower shared the same view. We had a TV (which we never turned on), a large and comfortable bed with crisp white linen, plenty of towels and nice toiletries – everything we needed. Our earlier good impressions of the Hotel Victoria were certainly confirmed.

La Parola

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Lunch beckoned next and we looked for somewhere nearby on the Calle Larga. La Parola caught my eye because it had an upstairs terrace which seemed an attraction on this warm sunny day and which we thought might offer views over the Rio Tomebamba. However when we got up there we found that it was largely glassed in and rather hot, but we managed to get a table by a window, which the waiter helpfully opened, so we decided to stay, prompted by a tempting menu.

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Pitta

This is really more bar than café and I am sure is very lively at night, mainly attracting a non-local crowd (and one rather younger than we are, I suspect). But it was a quiet relaxing spot for lunch, though a bit pricey by Ecuadorean standards.

I had a delicious pitta bread stuffed with various vegetables – tomatoes, red and yellow peppers, onions, olives, and with cheese. There were skewers of grapes and more olives too.

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Big sandwich

Chris had a huge sandwich with different meats and cheese, accompanied by very good chips. We both drank sparkling water. The bill was considerably more than we had got used to paying for lunch in Ecuador, but also a rather bigger lunch than we would normally have, and very tasty, so probably worth it.

Leaving La Parola we decided to explore the area to its immediate east and south, near the banks of the Rio Tomebamba.

Todos los Santos

The first thing of interest we saw was this small complex of ruins, named for the nearby church of Todos los Santos. The complex was closed (I have read that it usually is) so I had to content myself with peering over the fence. And to be honest, the ruins are so compact that you can see a fair bit that way. Although small, this is an important site in the history of Cuenca, as it was the first place where the Spanish founders of 1557 built over the old city. The ruins therefore are a mix of Cañari, Inca and Spanish with remains of all three civilisations including Inca walls, ruined arches and an old Spanish water mill. In my photo below, you can see the distinctive Inca construction technique, with the large stones in the walls neatly locked together without any need for a cementing substance.

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Ruinas Todos los Santos

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Todos los Santos

Near here is the Museo del Banco Central, with the archaeological remains of the Inca city, Pumapungo. But we had too little time in the city to see everything, and I lost the argument with Chris about how many museums we would go to in that limited time! So that will have to wait for a possible future visit ...

Also nearby is the church of Todos los Santos that gives the ruins their name. This was the first church built by the Spanish, but various restorations, most recently at the start of the 20th century, mean that today it shows elements of colonial, Renaissance, neo-classical and Gothic architecture. The main west-facing front is ornate with architraves, friezes, balustrades, niches etc. and an attractive and elaborate bell-tower. Despite the newer work, it still has its adobe walls. Unfortunately though, it is only open for Mass on Sunday evenings (18.00) and can’t be visited at other times, so as with the ruins I had to content myself with photos of the exterior only.

Puente Roto

From Todos los Santos it is only a few steps to the Puente Roto. Several bridges cross the Rio Tomebamba, linking the colonial city to the more modern area to the south. One that doesn’t however is the Puente Roto or Broken Bridge. This is an old stone arched bridge dating from the 1840s, a large part of which was washed away by a flood in 1850, only a few years after its completion. Today there is a small gallery under one of the arches whose paintings and sculptures spill out on to the path. On Saturdays this expands into a mini open-air art fair but on the Thursday we were here this part of the river bank was fairly quiet.

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Puente Roto

Rio Tomebamba

We strolled west along the north bank of the river. There are actually four rivers that flow through Cuenca – the Tomebamba, Yanuncay, Tarqui and Machangara. Indeed, the presence of these rivers gives the city its full and rather grand name of “Santa Ana de los cuatro ríos de Cuenca” – Santa Anna of the four rivers of Cuenca, with “cuenca” meaning watershed or basin.

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The Tomebamba

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Typical house

Of these rivers, the Rio Tomebamba is closest to the old city, forming its southern boundary in the area consequently known as El Barranco. A walk here is a very pleasant way to see another side of the city – literally, as it will give you views of the river side of the old buildings on Calle Larga, with their traditional balconies almost overhanging the river. The path is lined with trees and the several benches invite you to sit for a while. I have read that in the mornings local women still come here to do their washing, but on this afternoon visit the activity was of a very different nature, with the riverbanks hosting some of the city’s Independence festival celebrations.

This part of the festival was designed to celebrate the cultures of all the Latin American countries, with dancers from Cuba and Argentina, among others, and stalls selling alpaca scarves from Peru and wood carvings from the Brazilian Amazonia. Locals mixed with tourists, all enjoying the spectacle and the sunny weather. It was a super atmosphere and an unexpected bonus.

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Dancers and audience

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Craft stall

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Colada morada

After some time sitting on the steps that lead down to the river here, watching the dancing and soaking up the atmosphere, we sought more refreshments back at the nearby Coffee Tree café where we had eaten breakfast. This was an opportunity for me to try the traditional drink, colada morada. This is made and drunk only around the time of the Día de los Muertos, and is peculiar to Ecuador (unlike most other elements of that festival which are common to all Latin American countries). It is a thick drink (or some would say a thin porridge) made from purple maize and Andean blackberries, flavoured with cinnamon and other spices and served hot. The traditional accompaniment is guagua de pan, a (usually sweet) loaf shaped to look like a swaddled baby. Guagua means baby or small child in the native language, Quechua, and pan means bread in Spanish, reflecting the dual nature of the origins of the custom, mixing native and Roman Catholic beliefs. I rather liked my colada morada but I passed on the guagua de pan as I’d had a rather larger than usual lunch.

By now we were flagging a little after our early start to the day (having been up at 5.00 for the flight from Quito), so it was back to our lovely hotel to relax a little and settle in properly.

Tiesto’s

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In Tiesto’s

Betty and Marcello, our friends in Quito, had told us that Cuenca was the place to eat the best food in the country, and I had read that Tiesto’s did the best food in Cuenca, so it seemed that this was a place we should try. We had popped in while passing earlier in the day and reserved a table, and it was just as well that we had, because the restaurant, split over two small rooms, was packed. Even with a reservation we had to wait five minutes for our table. But the food was worth the wait.

On seating, we were brought a basket of baguette slices and eight (!) little bowls containing a variety of chilli sauces which were named and described so quickly by the waitress that we didn’t really take in what she said – though I do know one sauce contained pineapple and another apple, while one was very hot indeed!

We were still enjoying these when our mains (we had wisely opted not to have starters) arrived – rather too quickly really. These were both delicious. Chris had chicken in a sauce made with blue cheese (en salsa de queso azul), while my chicken was cooked in sauce of tomatoes, peppers and onions (el Tiesto en su salsa). The latter was an especially large portion so Chris had some of that too. More, slightly larger, bowls appeared with a variety of accompaniments including boiled potatoes, rice, salad, white corn, a semolina salad and marocho (a variety of maize and my favourite, though Chris was less keen).

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Bread with eight dips, and my chicken dish

You could spend quite a lot of money here, especially if indulging in the tasting menu, but our bill, with two Club beers, was very reasonable. The only sour note (apart from the over-speedy serving of the main course) was that we were short changed, and although this was corrected as soon as we pointed it out, there was no apology. But plus points for the cosy atmosphere, lovely old building and gregarious chef, who makes a point of visiting each table to check that you are enjoying his food.

As we only had two evenings here, and as we were equally impressed with our dinner on the second of these, I’m not in a position to vouch for this being the best – but I can say that it was very good food indeed, despite the few issues with the service.

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In the Wunderbar

Colonial Cuenca appears to have rather more of a nightlife scene than Colonial Quito, lacking the latter’s competition from neighbouring districts perhaps. I had read about the Wunderbar on a VT friend’s Cuenca page and it sounded like our sort of place – I liked the sound of the cocktails, and Chris liked the pun in the name! What is more, it was only a few doors from our hotel, the Victoria, so we really had to check it out.

This is a really cosy spot and one where you are likely to feel comfortable whether old or young, or in-between. There are a number of small connecting rooms, each with just a few tables. We found it busy enough but not crowded – there was no problem in securing a table. We discovered that Thursday was “Ladies’ night”, meaning that all cocktails are half-priced for female customers, so I had an excellent caipirinha for just $2.25 (it would have been good value even at the full $4.50) while Chris stuck to beer.

A very pleasant way to end our first day in Cuenca, a city we were already starting to like very much indeed, and we were looking forward to seeing more of it the next day …

Posted by ToonSarah 13:34 Archived in Ecuador Tagged ruins hotel river restaurants dance festival customs cuenca Comments (5)

Walking the city

Ecuador day nine


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Cuenca

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Another view from our room

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At breakfast

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

City tour with Terra Diversa

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

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

"Panama" hats

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

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Unfinished hats

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

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Mock-up of hat maker's village home

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

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

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

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Trying on a hat

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

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Our little tile

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

Mirador de Turi

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

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Mirador views

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Iglesia de Turi

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

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

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Horno

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

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

Plaza San Sebastián

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In the Plaza San Sebastian

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

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Iglesia San Sebastian

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

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

Museo de Arte Moderno

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

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Museo de Arte Moderno

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

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Exhibits outdoors and in

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

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

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Chapel ceiling

A traditional craftsman

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

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Tin craftsman

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Engraving the tin

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

Plaza del Cruz del Vado

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Cruz del Vado

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

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Greasy pole sculpture

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

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

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Traditional roof decorations

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

Prohibido Centro Cultural

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In Prohibido Centro Cultural

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

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

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Light-fitting

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Typical of the art here

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Hand-washing and guillotine

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

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

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Locra de papa

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

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

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One of the cats

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Cheers

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

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

Las Monjas

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

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

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

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Garlic bread & dips, and starter platter

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Corvina, and chicken

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

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

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

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

City shopping and dining

Ecuador day eighteen


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

Quito

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In Tianguez

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

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

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

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

Parque Itchimbia

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View of the city from Parque Itchimbia

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

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Cultural centre in the park

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

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Basilica del Voto Nacional from Itchimbia

Mercado Artesanal Metropolitano

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In the market

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

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

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Betty and Marcello choosing their mask

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Mural near the market

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

Galeria Latina

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In the Galeria Latina

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

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Our coasters

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

La Choza

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

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In La Choza

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Llapingachos con fritada

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

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

Back to the Vista Hermosa

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

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

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

Arriving in Tokyo, jet-lagged and with senses overloaded

Japan day one


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

Tokyo, city of contrasts

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Tea house, Hamarikyu

Here, ancient meets modern. A tranquil garden with a traditional teahouse provides a haven among towering skyscrapers. Girls in kimono tour ancient shrines while others don cute or kitsch cosplay outfits to shop in the trendiest boutiques. Shops sell exquisite crafts and the very latest in electronic gadgets. And there are people everywhere ...

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Visitors to Senso-ji, Asakusa

Tokyo is an enormous city, a true metropolis, and its scale can be daunting. Where to go, what to see in a limited time, and how best to get around?

The solution, I think, is to slow down (hard when all around you are rushing), choose a few areas to focus on, and not beat yourself up about everything else that you have no time to see. And make sure you build in downtime – a pause to sit, look around you and take in the sounds, scents and sensations of this at times overwhelming experience of a city.

We started and ended our Japanese holiday here. For the first few days we were in Asakusa – relatively quiet, almost suburban in places, with the beautiful Senso-ji Temple at its heart. This is the city’s oldest temple and our visit here was a great introduction to Japan. Although much of it had to be rebuilt following the World War Two air raids, it exudes history and, despite the crowds, a strong sense of the enduring faith that provides a stable background amid the frenzy of modern Japan.

London to Tokyo

We flew to Tokyo with British Airways on a direct flight from London Heathrow to Narita. The flight took 11.5 hours. That's a long while to be shut up in a tin box!

I'm useless at sleeping on planes and inevitably the time dragged, but the in-flight service was fine and the food served (dinner soon after boarding, breakfast before landing) also fine, if unremarkable.

The biggest challenge with this journey is the crossing of time zones. Tokyo is nine hours ahead of GMT, although ‘just’ eight hours ahead of London's British Summer Time when we travelled in early October. The timing of our flight meant that we landed a couple of hours after we would normally have gone to bed, to find Tokyo wide awake and ready to start a new day.

Luckily we found Narita Airport easy to navigate. The queues at immigration weren't too bad, our luggage arrived promptly, and we were soon through customs and searching for the counter where we were to pick up our pre-ordered wifi hub, before heading into the city. The holiday had begun!

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Subway platform at Narita

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Warning sign on the subway platform

To get to Asakusa we took the Kasei Line. We had already been supplied with preloaded Manaca cards, and with directions on the route to take. We followed the orange signs to platform 3 where we had about a 20 minute wait for the next through train to Asakusa. It arrived bang on time!

The journey took about 55 minutes. The first part was through an agricultural landscape (mainly paddy fields) before we entered the Tokyo suburbs. We had views of the Skytree on the left at one point.

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View from the train into the city

At Asakusa we decided that rather than make the 10 minute walk (with suitcases) to our hotel we would change to the orange Ginza line and travel one stop to Tarawamachi station which was quite a bit nearer - although the extra stairs involved in the change of train may have been no better than the walk as it turned out. But we made it OK and found the train to have been an efficient way to reach the hotel, given its location.

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In the Café Sunset

Unfortunately for weary travellers however, the hotel (one of the Toyoko Inn chain) had a check-in time of 16.00 so when we arrived late morning we could do little more than leave our bags and head out again to start sight-seeing. Looking for coffee to help us stay awake after our long overnight flight we came across a small cheerfully decorated cafe not far from the hotel, the Café Sunset.

The first sight that greeted us on entering was a model train set (in fact there are two here) and the second sight was the smiling owner with a helpful English coffee menu in his hand. I was warm from the journey so had an iced caffe latte, and Chris had a cappuccino. The drinks were nice and strong and were served with a small biscuit - just what we needed to revive us.

A little refreshed we felt able to get out and see some sights, starting with the nearby Senso-ji Temple. This is the city’s oldest temple and our visit here was a great introduction to Japan. We had a fascinating couple of hours of wandering here and in the vicinity, despite the inevitable tiredness that comes with an eleven hour overnight flight plus eight hours’ worth of jet-lag!

Senso-ji

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Hozomon, Senso-ji

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Fishing the Kannon from the river

Senso-ji was founded in the 7th century and is dedicated to Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. According to legend, the temple was founded after two fishermen pulled a golden statue of Kannon from the Sumida River right by this spot. The sacred statue is apparently still housed in the temple, carefully preserved inside three boxes, but never displayed.

The approach to the temple is an experience itself. You enter through the huge Kaminarimon or Thunder Gate. Unfortunately for us, this was under renovation when we visited and largely obscured by scaffolding and hoardings, so I didn’t get a good look or a chance to take photos of it. The gate was originally built in 942 in a different location south of Asakusa in Komagata and was moved here during the Kamakura period (1192-1333). It has been destroyed numerous times, most recently by fire in 1865. It was only 95 years later that it was finally reconstructed by Konosuke Matsushita, founder of Panasonic (who are now sponsoring the renovation work, I noticed).

The gate is guarded on each side by fierce statues of the guardian gods Raijin (the god of thunder) and Fujin (the god of wind), and has a massive red lantern hanging above the entrance. The gods are there to guard the temple and people would pray to them to protect it against natural disasters such as typhoons, floods and fire. Over time however people came to pray for their own needs too – a bountiful harvest, good health and for peace in the world.

From here you proceed along a street lined with shops, Nakamise Dori. Nakamise means ‘inside shops’ and I assume the street takes its name from the fact that the stalls are inside the temple grounds. There have been vendors selling their wares here since the late 17th century, and many of the stalls have been owned by the same family for generations. But just because you’re inside a temple’s precincts, don’t expect the items on sale to have any religious significance. This is consumerism living side by side with worship in a way that everyone seems comfortable with here, perhaps because religious practice seems so integrated with daily life.

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Nakamise Dori

So the stalls sell a range of items that just shout ‘you're in Japan’! Super-cute dolls, lucky cats, fans of all descriptions, hair ornaments, cheap polyester kimonos, parasols, chopsticks ... Nothing is very expensive and some of it looks as cheap as it costs, but there are also plenty of eminently purchasable souvenirs and, on our very first day in the country, I had to resist the temptation to buy!

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Stalls on Nakamise Dori

There are also some stalls selling edible treats at very reasonable prices. We snacked on some soy bean jam buns (one with pork which was good, one with sweet potato which was less so, being a little too sweet for my taste) which cost just 170¥ each, bought from some very friendly ladies.

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The soy bean jam bun stall

From here we arrived at another gate, Hozomon, the Treasury Gate. This also has its ferocious guardian gods and red lantern, and on its far (northern) side, a pair of huge straw sandals (O-Waraji) which should be taken as belonging to one of these gods, showing their great size. A sign on the gate explains:

‘This pair of huge straw sandals called O-Waraji had been made by 800 citizens of Murayama City in a month and devoted to Senso-ji. O-Waraji is made of straw and 2500 kilograms in weight, 4.5 metres high. They are the charm against evils because they are symbolic of the power of Ni-Ou. Wishing for being goodwalkers, many people will touch this O-Waraji.’

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Hozomon, and one of the giant sandals

At the top of the gate are storerooms, complete with modern disaster-prevention equipment, to hold Senso-ji's treasures and Buddhist objects.

Hozomon, like Kaminarimon, is thought to date from 942, and also like Kaminarimon has been destroyed many times by fire and rebuilt. The current design reflects its 1649 incarnation which had stood for 250 years until being burned down again in the Tokyo air raids of World War Two. This version is an exact copy of that, and very impressive.

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Five Storied Pagoda

As you pass through Hozomon you will see the Five Storied Pagoda to your left. This, like other buildings in the complex, dates originally from 942 but has been many times destroyed by fire and rebuilt. Most recently, fires from the World War Two Tokyo air raids raised it to the ground, and it was rebuilt through donations made by faithful Buddhists from all over the country. In 1973, the pagoda was further restored to include additional facilities such as a room for mortuary tablets. Relics of the Buddha are kept on the top floor.

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Burning incense at Senso-Ji

In the area in front of the main shrine you’ll see a large incense burner. This is where worshippers ‘wash’ themselves in the smoke to ward off or help cure illness. Either side of this are the fortune telling drawers. For 100¥ you can shake one of the wooden boxes until a bamboo stick slides out of the hole. The stick will have a Japanese number on it, which corresponds to one of the numbers on the set of drawers. You then take the fortune, written in both English and Japanese, from the drawer of that number. I had read that the English translations were pretty obtuse so we didn’t try our fortune. In any case, if you don't like the fortune you get, you can conveniently cancel it out it by tying it to one of the wires provided for this purpose nearby!

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Fortune telling at Senso-Ji

Beyond the fortune telling are some stalls selling prayer cards and amulets. And then you arrive at the shrine itself, Kannondo Hall. This too is a 1950s reconstruction of an older building lost in the March 1945 Tokyo air raids. Though it mirrors the original style, the current building features a solid reinforced concrete structure with titanium roof tiles – the Japanese are rightly taking no more chances.

According to legend, the hall was originally built in 628 to house the statue of Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy, fished out of the nearby Sumida River by two brothers. At the heart of the inner shrine or naijin is the gokuden which houses this statue, or so the believers say – it is never ever seen and cynics might question its existence. It also houses a duplicate statue and this is seen on occasion – once a year to be accurate, on December 13 when it is taken out for public viewing. Either side of the gokuden are the Buddhist protector deities Bonten and Taishakuten. You can’t enter this inner shrine but you can approach to view it through a grille, taking off your shoes to do so. I couldn’t see any signs prohibiting photography so I took one, respectful, picture.

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Main shrine, Senso-Ji

You can easily spend quite some time wandering around the grounds of Senso-ji, as we did, as there is so much to see here. To the north east of the main shrine is another, known as the Asakusa Jinja or Sanja Sama (Shrine of the Three Guardians). Unlike Senso-ji, which is a Buddhist temple, this one is Shinto and their proximity to each other mirrors the way in which these two religions coexist peacefully in Japan and often interact. In this case, the Shinto shrine serves as protection for the Buddhist temple.

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Asakusa Jinja, Senso-ji

It was built in 1649 by Iemitsu Tokugawa, the third Tokugawa shogun, to commemorate the two fishermen who found the statue of Kannon in the Sumida River, Hamanari and Takenari Hinokuma, and to their village chief, Hajino Nakatomo. According to the story of the discovery, it was the latter who realised the importance of the statue and who built the first temple on this site to house it. The three men seen as the founders of Senso-ji and indeed of Asakusa are themselves now worshipped here. The shrine is built in the architectural style known as Gongen-zukuri, which we were to see two weeks later in Nikko at the Toshogu Shrine. This is one of the few original structures in the complex, having survived the numerous fires and the air raids of World War Two.

Near here is the Nitenmon gate, named for the two Buddhist deities (known as ten) that flank it. Like the Jinja Shrine, this gate is an original structure. It dates from 1618 although the deities are a more recent replacement for two that were desecrated in the late 19th century when Buddhism and Shintoism did not live so harmoniously together. The present statues were taken from the grave of Tokugwa Ietsuna, the fourth Edo shogun at Ueno Park. For some reason I seem to have omitted to take any photos of this gate – possibly because it started raining as we reached this point in our explorations.

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In the grounds of Senso-Ji

Meanwhile to the west of the main temple is a lovely garden area with some smaller shrines, statues of the Buddha, attractive planting and a stream with some large carp. There are a number of quiet corners and great photo opportunities. We spent some time relaxing on a bench here, still fighting sleepiness and jet-lag.

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In the grounds of Senso-Ji

Chingodo Temple

After leaving Senso-ji we explored some of the surrounding streets, soaking up the atmosphere.

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In Asakusa

We came across a tranquil tucked-away shrine devoted to the deity Otanuki-sama, the Chingodo Temple. Tanuki means raccoon-dog and the deity is thought to protect people and their homes from disasters such as fire and theft and is also, according to a sign I saw here, a god of ‘the art of public entertainment’.

Also here is a statue of Mizuko Jizo, the Buddhist monk guardian of aborted and prematurely dead children. Mizuko Jizō is often depicted as a staff-wielding monk with children in his arms or, as here, under his robe. The unfortunate parents of these children make offerings to the deity to enlist his help in helping the children escape hell, since they are considered not to have had the chance to lead the moral life that would have ensured good karma.

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Mizuko Jizo statues, Chingodo shrine

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The children at the Chingodo shrine

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Water fountain at Chingodo

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The Toyoko Inn Asakusa

By now it was late enough to check into our hotel, the Toyoko Inn, and we were weary enough to need a rest, so we headed back there to relax for a while before dinner. We got a friendly welcome, some soft drinks and toiletries as ‘gifts’ (including a gel that claimed to be able turn my ‘ugly body’ into one fit to be seen at celeb parties - yes, really!) and even the offer of a sterilised nightgown! Our 10th floor room was on the small side (as is common in Japan), but had no view other than of the wall of the next-door building. It was dominated by a large, comfortable bed, and we had everything else we needed for our stay too, including a bathroom with shower, washbasin and fancy Japanese toilet (heated seat, spray washes etc). There was a mini-bar, TV, hair dryer, kettle for tea-making and even slippers.

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Compact bedroom at the Toyoko Inn

As we were so tired we didn't want to venture far from our hotel that evening, so found a small restaurant on Kokusai Dori a block or so north of Tarawamachi Station. We had no idea what the name was as the sign was in Japanese only, but they did have an English menu and various set dinner options, which made choosing easier. Service was friendly, and although, as the only non-Japanese in there, we caused a small stir on entering, we felt comfortable and welcomed dining here. There is both western-style and traditional seating; the latter was all taken by a group of what I took to be local businessmen, and we were offered a choice of the one free table or eating at the counter, and chose the former.

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Futuwama

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Tempura set at Futuwama

We both had tempura meals which came with miso soup, rice, sauce for dipping the tempura, pickles and a small salad. We liked the tempura and the dipping sauce but I found the miso soup saltier than I am used to (and I like salt!) and Chris didn't take to it much at all. This was our first meal in Japan so hard to judge at the time, but looking back later in the trip we both agreed it was probably the least good meal we had. A shame, but possibly our tiredness had contributed to that impression, and at least it was good value and convenient for our hotel, so we could tumble gratefully into bed soon afterwards!

Posted by ToonSarah 01:22 Archived in Japan Tagged tokyo japan culture temple hotel restaurants city shrine customs street_photography Comments (6)

First full day in Tokyo

Japan day two


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

Exploring the city

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On a festival float at the Edo-Tokyo Museum

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

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

Edo Tokyo Museum

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Museum entrance

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

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

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The replica Nihonbashi Bridge

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

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Part of the playhouse

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The koto player

Koto performance

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

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

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Another Edo period street model

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Samurai mansion from the mid 17th century

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Replica of a print shop

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Replica of a print shop

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

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My coffee set

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

Sky Tree Town and Sky Tree

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

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Sky Tree

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

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

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Chocolate cake in 100% Chocolate

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

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

Meeting the group

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

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

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

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

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

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In Watami

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

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

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