Friday, March 27, 2009

Taki-an, Chiran, Kyushu, Japan

The winter chill began to dissipate as we cupped frozen fingers around the ceramic hibachi. Filled with glowing charcoal embers, it was the only heat source in the room. Steaming cups of frothy green tea were set on the tansu (low table). A white velvet light diffused through the delicate paper shoji. Yet the screens provided little protection from the harsh seasonal cold.

On one wall hung a banner containing a favorite poem, written in hiragana script. Hand painted sliding doors (fusuma) enclosed little storage spaces tucked high above a window casing.

The muted clink and scrape of serving could be heard over the flutter of conversation in Japanese.

This is the Taki-an restaurant, located in a converted samurai house built over 250 years ago. We sat on zabuton cushions eating the steaming soba noodles made of buckwheat flour. Sipped Chiran tea served in delicate hand-painted porcelain cups - these having neither handle nor saucer.

An earthenware plate of nigiri rice, shredded daikon and cold spinach sat beside a ceramic tray filled with pickled things (tsukemono). A mizuzashi of extra water to freshen the tea was placed in the wooden tray.

Each container, each piece was different, and designated for use with a particular food or drink. Yet the beauty and harmony of all the elements knit together to give a sense of elegant, rustic simplicity.

When asked of our Japanese host the translation of tsukemono, he replied ‘there is no English word for it’.

And, perhaps no English words adequately describe the enchantment of the experience. 

Monday, March 23, 2009

Museu de Sitio Intinan, Ecuador

High in the Andes mountains, a few kilometers north of Quito, Ecuador, visitors to the outdoor Museu de Sitio Intinan can stand with one foot in the northern hemisphere and one in the southern.

This is the exact site the Incas determined to be the Middle of the World in 1460 AD. Hundreds of years later, using sophisticated GPS equipment, scientists found their determination to be completely accurate.

Today, visitors can wander through a replica of an Inca village, led by a local guide who talks about the archaeology and culture of the native tribes. You can peer into an open Inca burial mound, or try your hand at using a real blowgun. (It’s heavier and harder than it looks).

There are several interactive displays lined up on the 3 inch wide red stripe that marks the location of the Equator. You can try to balance a raw egg on the head of nail – and receive a special certificate if you can do it.

Exactly on the Equator, water drains from a sink by falling straight down. In the northern hemisphere it drains counterclockwise. In the southern, it drains clockwise. The guide demonstrates this with just a bucket of water, a portable sink and a few green leaves.

At an altitude of over 7,000 feet the air is thin, cold and windy enough to whip a hat right off your head as you gaze at a display of a real shrunken head, or a preserved spider whose body is the size of a grown man’s hand.

Middle of the World City is not in many guidebooks. It’s not crowded so you can spend time admiring the wonders of this little-known part of the country. And if you feel hungry, try a bite of cuy, the local delicacy. What’s cuy? Cooked guinea pig.  

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Dunkerron Castle, Kenmare, County Kerry, Ireland

Dating from the late 1190s, this castle became the chief stronghold of the O’Sullivan Mór clan. Then, nearly 450 years after it was built, the family destroyed the castle rather than risk its capture by Cromwell.

The site is located near the town of Kenmare in the southwest of Ireland. A “Jewel on the Ring of Kerry”, the town lies nestled between the mountains of Kerry and Cork.

Today, the castle ruins stand in a wooded glen, vegetation crawling up the stone edifice of what remains of a grand tower. Emerging from the stillness of the forest, these ruins are a breathtaking sight. One can almost conjure the history and romance of this powerful clan.

Lush green foliage, the gentle song of wrens wafting through the glade and pervasive mists of an early spring morning gives the site its unique Celtic flavor.

Yet for those of us descending from the O’Sullivan Baera branch, our stronghold is a pile of rock about waist high, situated near Dunboy Castle on the outskirts of Castletownbere. It was blown to bits in 1602 in the Seige of Dunboy. Move along folks, little to see here.

Since Dunkerron belongs to distant cousins from a remote past, I’ve decided to revise my personal history. Skipping a few generations and facts in order to claim the enchanting Dunkerron, I’ve decided to trace my lineage back to Eoghan, founder of all the O’Sullivan branches.

Now, that’s my castle ... Is é do bhaile do chaisleán

Happy St. Patrick’s Day to those who are Irish … and those who wish they were.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

El Cemeterio de Buceo

In a quiet corner of Montevideo, Uruguay, lies the municipal cemetery of Buceo, the oldest burying ground in the city. Built in 1835, it lies across the road from the lively, sandy beaches of the Rio de la Plata.

Much of it is laid out in grid-like fashion, its lanes bordered with palm trees, evergreens and flowering shrubs. Visitors wandering through the park-like necropolis encounter ornately carved white marble monuments, garnished with flowers. Here and there a statue (angel, saint, anchor, crucifix) pokes upward through the jumbled maze of marble, granite and bronze.

In this cluttered grove of elaborate monuments, one grave stands out. Not part of any row, column or grid, it endures alone. Near no trees, there is no shade to provide cool relief from the blazing sun.

She lies unadorned on a flat sheet of bronze, spread over a granite slab. Her procumbent body emerges from the smooth surface in high relief. Curled on her right side she lies in a fetal position; face blurred in a mass of tangled hair. Who is she?

Head cradled in her arms, the fingers flex to graze her tender flesh. A delicate shoulder emerges gracefully from the folds of her sleeveless dress. The hem of a garment flows to cover her heels. Only the toes are seen arched gracefully.  Is she asleep?

Grass fringing the grey stone slab has yellowed; died thirsting for rains that never came. Debris from dead vegetation encircles her neck like a garland.  The only green is the patina covering her bronze flesh and flowing dress. Does she grieve for someone, or is she to be grieved?

A marker inscribed with the name and profession of the occupant is the only decoration. There are no dates of birth or death. One is not able to tell whether the occupant is present or yet to arrive. Is she the guardian or the lost?

Gazing at her crumpled figure lying flat against the slab, ones eyes and the heart are drawn to the earth, rather than aspiring to heavenly heights. Is this the vision of death? It is faceless, nameless. At once peaceful and fearful, it is not grand. Angelic intermediaries between heaven and earth do not surround it. There are no florid architectural devices. Stunning in its simplicity, it stands alone.

And so do we.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Udo-Jingu Shrine, Miyazaki, Kyushu, Japan

Steps descending to the Udo-Jingu shrine, near Miyazaki, Kuyshu Japan is the final picture in the banner.

According to legend it was here in a cave that Emperor Jimmu was born. The mythic founder of Japan, he is said to be a direct descendent of the sea goddess Amateratsu.

A Shinto shrine was built into this very cave, carved into a cliff overlooking the Nichinan coast of the Pacific Ocean. To reach it, visitors first pass through a welcoming gate, enormous red torii, then climb down the stone steps, rounded and slick from eons of ocean spray and footsteps.

To the left of the steps are fantastic rock formations that look like boiled and melted concrete. On the right down a sheer cliff, ocean waves crash as they froth and shatter against rounded rocks. The boulders  represent the breasts of Jimmu’s mother. For this reason, expectant mothers come here to pray for easy birth, while newlyweds pray for a happy marriage.

The top of one of these rocks is crowned with a knotted rope encircling a depression in its center. Visitors toss lucky stones (undama) into the center. It is said that if the stone lands in the center, your wish will come true. To make it tougher, men must toss with their left hand; women with their right, according to the sign, posted in English and Japanese.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Copp's Hill Terrace and Park, Boston, MA

The next image in the banner is a photo of Copp's Hill Terrace gate. It began as an exercise in composition - a study of perspective, the Rule of Thirds, framing and diagonals. I was looking to digitally capture basic photographic elements.

Then I stepped back to appreciate how much there is to enjoy in the historic North End of Boston, one of the oldest cities in the US.

This terrace overlooks Copp's Hill Burying Ground, dating back to the early British colonial days of the 1660s. It is the 2nd cemetery built in Boston, and holds many historic residents including Cotton Mather (Salem Witch Trial fame), and Robert Newman, who hung the lanterns in the Old North Church the night of Paul Revere's ride.

The burial ground is a destination for history buffs who wander through its thousands of tombstones. Buried here are veterans of the battle of Bunker Hill, free Black folks and slaves, as well as hundreds of others whose grave markers have vanished or deteriorated over the centuries.

Copp's Hill Terrace and Park is located on Copp's Hill between Commercial and Charter streets west of Jackson Place. It is listed in the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Chateau Villandry, Loire Valley, France

The second photo in my blog's banner is a view of Chateau Villandry. This palace is one of more than 20 castles found in the valley of the Loire River. The valley itself is considered the garden of France and produces the famous and luscious wines of Vouvray, Sancerre, Chinon and Anjou.

On a cool day in April, we began to wander the castle grounds. To escape the increasing drizzle, we ducked inside the chateau for shelter. Completed in the 1530s, it is the last great Renaissance castle built in this part of the country.

Climbing up the grey stone steps to the keep, I stopped to look out the window overlooking the gardens. From that vantage point I discovered why the magnificent gardens surrounding the chateau are its major attraction. The view is spectacular.

The 10 acres of Italian Renaissance gardens, laid out in geometric mosaics, are a gardener's dream. Here, in the best garden in the Loire Valley, one finds over 250,000 flowers and vegetable plants. Over 11 miles of low box hedges border the multi-colored sections.

'Gardens of Love' are four enormous squares, each planted with symbols representing a different aspect of that emotion: Tender, Passionate, Fickle and Tragic. It is my favorite part of this park-like setting.

Chateau Villandry is a World Heritage site.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Welcome to my travel blog

Here is a favorite image, photographed on my first trip to Vietnam.

A fragrant haze of incense drifts over brightly colored joss sticks deep in the interior of the Thien Hau Temple. Above the sand-filled bronze urns, coils of incense hang suspended from painted rafters.

The center of the roof is open to the sky; sunlight illuminates beautifully carved friezes decorating the interior brick walls.

Visitors wander through dreamy park-like settings to see monks at prayer, or to admire the fragrant blossoms of the apricot tree.

Then the reverie is shattered upon finding the only facility on the premises is a squat potty. 

Thien Hau Temple, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam