Author Archives: victoriassecretblog

About victoriassecretblog

I'm Vix, a 36 year-old Yorkshire girl now living in London. I wish I could say here that my interests include tandem skydiving and extreme oyster-shucking, but they're actually the more prosaic usual suspects: photography (amateur); cinema (anything from art house to blockbuster); eating out (tapas being my favourite); and comedy (watching, not performing). This is my first foray into blogging. Hope you like it!

Bandits and Anarchists

Whilst on holiday in Sardinia earlier this year, I spent a day in the fascinating town of Orgosolo. For many hundreds of years, this bandit town – hidden high in the hills of the Nuoro region – was a place to hide the kidnapped and elude the authorities. It would have remained an isolated and ignored hamlet, were it not for its inhabitants’ spirit of resistance and the artistic flair of a local teacher.

In the late ’60s, having successfully resisted the military’s plan to create a base on common land used by shepherds, a group of local political anarchists created a mural in the town commemorating the event. Francesco Del Casino, a local art teacher and communist, worked with disadvantaged youths to turn this isolated piece of art into a trend. Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, huge cubist graphics were created throughout the town – on walls and gates, window shutters and rocks – recounting a host of global social injustices, from Vietnam to Gaza, or calling for Sardinian independence.

The brightly coloured paintings and frescoes have been well-preserved, and artists now travel from across the globe to contribute to the spectacle. Some tell the story of the province’s customs and traditions, the rural way of life; others continue the anti-establishment, socio-political themes of the early works.

To see every mural (there are ~150) would take several hours, but you can pick up a map in the small central town square that helps you navigate the main streets and includes informative descriptions of over 70 works. Here are photos of a few of my favourites…

A Tale of Two Cities

I’ve been very lax on here of late, so now trying to rectify that. First off, a summary of two much-needed post-Covid mini-breaks.

Palma

Believing all attempts to leave the country to be thwarted in perpetuity, it was a pleasant surprise to find ourselves sitting in departure gate 23 at Gatwick airport last October. Fully vaxed, with the paperwork to prove it, we were headed to Mallorca for four days of sunshine. Like a tiny child on Christmas morning, eyes wide with awe and wonder, I gave a little whoop as we taxied down the runway. And then, suddenly airborne, almost two years of fear, boredom and frustration behind us, I breathed a sigh of contentment, settling back with book and podcast for an uneventful flight to the diminutive Balearic isle.

The holiday was magical. I remain resolute in my desire to never take such things for granted again. Palm trees, seafood, sand, sea, ice-creams…the smell of salt and suncream in my hair, which is my absolute favourite smell in the world. Everything was perfect. Sure, we were bound to see it through rose-tinted (sun)glasses after such an unprecedented enforced absence, but Palma proved a genuinely great location for our first escape.

The city itself is a great size for gentle evening promenading (our favourite pandemic pastime). The imposing Gothic Santa María cathedral, majestic harbour, maze of Arab inflected streets, delicious tapas bars, boutique shops and fish markets provide plenty of distractions without overwhelming a card-carrying sightseeing over-strategist such as myself. I didn’t feel the need to overfill our days, or rush from pillar to post. Happy instead to rest, absorb and indulge.

Nearby Playa de Illetes and Cala Major provided swimming and tanning opportunities, and a day trip to Port de Sóller should be on everyone’s list. A beautiful marina, sandy bay and estuary await, at the end of a diverting trip through the hilly interior of the island. And as the wooden tram trundled home through olive and citrus groves, I reminded myself how stupidly lucky I am.

Of course, I can’t finish without listing some restaurants of note: La Bodeguilla being our undisputed favourite (prawn carpaccio; Mallorcan black suckling pig; polpo with iberico and slow cooked egg…we’re planning a return visit mainly to eat there again!). Aromata, Arume Sake bar, and La Rosa were also great, but I’d advocate for the mouth-watering chuletón steak at the unassuming El Patxi in Santa Catalina over those. Que viva España!

Madrid

Little effort having been required to reignite my passion for European jaunts, I found myself united with one of my favourite travel buddies (my dad!) in spring of this year for a trip to the Spanish capital. Quite the contrast to Palma, the sprawling metropolis is crammed with sights and this hapless tourist was unable to resist sliding back into bad old habits. Armed with guide book, map and refillable water bottle, I marched us in erratic zigzags across the city, attempting to tick off all the attractions in a familiar fit of holiday mania.

Luckily, my far more sensible companion had some (limited) success in reigning me in, forcing the odd pause for pintxos, obligatory ice-creams, and breakfast churros. Still, if you are planning to tackle Madrid I would suggest focusing on fewer locations and allowing time for relaxation. Especially given its size demands regular metro trips, which can eat into your time considerably. Having said all that, there weren’t many things we saw that I wouldn’t recommend…so it’s really a case of being more ruthless in your choices.

Our first day took in Parque de El Retiro, quite possibly the prettiest and most varied city park I’ve visited. With its central boating lake, rose gardens, “crystal palace” (Palacio de Cristal), wooded picnic spots, fountains and only-known public statue of Satan, there’s enough here alone to occupy half a day. The fact that we also crammed in Plaza Major (one of the handsome central squares), Palacio Real de Madrid (official residence of the Spanish royal family), Mercado de San Miguel, and Catedral de la Almudena (a twentieth century Catholic church built on the site of a medieval mosque) is testament to my aforementioned over-enthusiasm and explains why our feet were throbbing for days.

We weren’t done there though. Before dinner we also squeezed in a visit to Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, the excellent modern art and sculpture gallery. Once a hospital, the building is worth visiting on its own merits, with its airy central courtyard and modern glass annex (plus a cafe serving excellent vermouth!). Many make the pilgrimage to ogle Picasso’s admittedly impressive Guernica, but I actually preferred discovering new works by Dalí, Juan Gris, Picabia, and – my favourite piece – Miró’s Hombre Con Pipa. Well worth having on your itinerary.

Dinner, when it finally came, was at the really excellent Malacatín, where we enjoyed traditional cocido madrileño. Open for more than 125 years, and one of the original twelve ‘centennial taverns’, the restaurant is protected for preserving the cultural heritage of the city. The stew consists of broth, chickpeas, cabbage, and a selection of meats (pork belly, morcilla, jamón serrano, beef shank) and is absolutely delicious.

After an aborted attempt to visit the hilltop city of Toledo, through which I fostered a deep and ineliminable hatred of Atocha train station, the following day was spent at the botanical gardens, Museo del Prado, Calle de las Huertas (the neighborhood of Spanish writers), Plaza de Oriente, and Puerta del Sol (the busiest public square in the city and site of the wild bear and strawberry tree statue, Madrid’s famous coat of arms).

Large and imposing, the two-hundred-year-old Prado is not one of my favourite galleries. The dark and dour works of Goya, El Greco and Velázquez are not my thing. However, I wouldn’t have missed seeing Hieronymus Bosch’s staggeringly bonkers and stunningly beautiful Garden of Earthly Delights, nor the macabre and haunting Triumph of Death by Pieter Bruegel. As for the rest, my dad managed to google a list of highlights, and we amused ourselves by proclaiming “nothing to see here” as we passed by unfeatured masterpieces. Cocktails on the roof of Palacio de Cibeles rounded off the day.

Armed with our passports, having navigated 3 miles of subterranean passageways and sacrificed a few goats, we were finally allowed on a train to Toledo the next day. Perched atop a gorge overlooking the Río Tajo, Toledo was known as the ‘city of three cultures’ in the Middle Ages, a place where Christian, Muslim and Jewish communities peacefully co-existed. Sephardic synagogues, Visigothic and Roman ruins, a grand Gothic cathedral, and several interesting museums and galleries are packed into the small walled city. You need a whole day to do it justice, allowing time for tapas on one of the lantern-strewn medieval streets.

Amongst the highlights, I’d recommend Monasterio San Juan de los Reyes, with its peaceful cloisters and remarkable chapel. And save some time for walking the city walls and taking in the views over the Tagus river and countryside.

Our trip ended with a tasty meal of clams, scrambled hake, and baby lamb chops at La Castela. There you have it: two very different cities, with the common through-line of delectable Spanish cuisine. A not at all displeasing way to get back in the saddle.

Zephyr

Generally acknowledged as the worst of the national lockdowns, ‘Lockdown 3.0’ – which started officially on 5th January 2021 and drifted interminably through winter and into a grey, drizzly spring – has been, to put not too fine a point on it, resoundingly s**t.

Dark and cold for most of the last 4 months, the Covid-19 pandemic has once again robbed us of seeing family and friends, deprived us of entertainment (cinemas, theatres, gigs…all legally banned) and forced us to convert living into office space. Any sense of fascination for these unchartered waters, or gallows humour (such that it was), has long since departed. And the novelty of regular Zoom calls has dwindled. We’ve hunkered under blankets, stuck out our bottom lips, and refused to show any more of that bl**dy British stoicism our Prime Minister is so keen to eulogize.

And yet… As we enter May, there are signs to be hopeful. “We’ve been here before!” the more hard-core pessimists declare. And it’s becoming easy to slip into that mindset. Especially when, for the third time in as many weeks, a social engagement has been postponed due to dreary weather. WOE IS ME! WILL THIS ORDEAL NEVER END?!

Yes. Yes, it will. On 21st June. And – actually – things will be pretty much back to normal from 17th May. They will. We will be able to hug again, and drink together in the warm, and stay over at each others’ houses….and finally watch ‘Nomadland’ on the big screen. Basic human rights restored!

So I will not embrace the mantra du jour: “It’s the hope that kills you”. I’ve watched far too many Disney films in my day for that. Hope is a wonderful thing. Today I get my second dose of the vaccination. And I look forward. To a warm, long, sunny summer. To trips around the UK. To meeting friends’ new babies for the first time. To sharing picnic food. To seeing my mum and dad. To parties. And weddings. And meals out that don’t involve sitting in scarves under makeshift awnings.

I am hopeful.

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‘Courage’ photo credit: Simon Bibby

Ingresses / Egresses

It’s been a fair while since I updated my collection of doorways. So given how cold and cloudy it is today, I decided to rectify that. I love rummaging through photos, reminding myself of holidays past, digging out options and putting together a series. I discovered some beauties, so it was hard to whittle down. But here’s where I landed…

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Paciano, 2019

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Delhi, 2014

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Valencia, 2019

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New Orleans, 2016

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Dulwich Village, 2021

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Nice, 2014

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Sienna, 2019 (Credit: Chris Adnitt)

Norfolk: Boats

Playing with different light and camera settings on the North Norfolk Coast… It’s hard to take a bad photo when you have this to work with! Looking back at these pictures from autumn 2019 has inevitably made me wistful. 17 days to go before Lockdown 3.0 starts to ease…fingers crossed for nice spring weather and plenty of options for day trips.

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Buddhist Mountain Retreat

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Located in the Wakayama Prefecture, about 60km south of Osaka, Kōya-san is home to an active monastic community established over twelve centuries ago for the study and practice of Esoteric Buddhism. The priest Kukai (posthumously known as Kobo Daishi) founded the monastery deep in the mountains, far away from worldly distractions, so that Buddhist monks could practice their faith in peace and tranquillity. After the hustle and bustle of Tokyo and Kyoto, it was therefore a perfect place for Paul and I to relax for a couple of days.

Don’t let the distance put you off. Yes, it takes three separate train rides and (surely) one of the steepest funiculars in the world to reach, but the journey isn’t stressful (travelling in Japan is a dream)…and trust me, the effort will be rewarded. Kōya-san truly is a secluded sanctuary, nestled away in a highland valley between eight mountains (often likened to the eight petals of a lotus flower) and with one of the most stunning collection of buildings you’ll find in the whole country. It’s film-set like perfection is a living postcard for Japan.

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I loved the place instantaneously…despite the incessant grey drizzle that greeted us. And was super excited to check in to Eko-in, our temple lodgings for the night.

Dosho, one of Kobo Daishi’s disciples, built Eko-in 1,100 years ago as a place for calm reflection. ‘Eko’ meaning “bless the light”. I felt more relaxed straight away, as one of the resident monks guided us to our traditional washitsu room, complete with tatami flooring and fusuma sliding doors, where green tea and nibbles were waiting for us. The space was only around 10 square metres, and would be where we ate, slept and relaxed for the next 36 hours; the monks changing our furniture around according to the time of day. The only snag: communal bathrooms and toilets were a fair walk down the hall…a good job we would be abstaining from alcohol for the duration!

After fortifying ourselves with the sweet sesame buns, and refusing to let the rain hold us back, we borrowed a couple of ubiquitous large, translucent brollies from the monks and set out to explore the hillside retreat. Kōya-san is only 4km east-to-west and 2km north-to-south, so easily navigable on foot and perfectly do-able in such a short break.

We headed first to Dai Garan, the second most important area of Kōya-san after the cemetery (more on which later): ‘Dai’ meaning great and ‘Garan’ deriving from the Sanskrit for a quiet and secluded place (you see a theme developing, I hope). The area is made up of four main buildings: the Konpon Daito (Great Pagoda), Kondo (Golden Hall), Fudodo (the oldest extant building in Kōya-san, now designated a national treasure) and the Miedo (Portrait Hall). Now, a confession: we did return to this beautiful place the following day, when the sun was out and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, so I’m cheating and posting mainly photos from that second day.

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Kobo Daishi is said to have planned the Great Pagoda as the centre of the whole monastic complex. It took seventy years to build – ultimately having to be completed by his disciple Shinzen – and, at almost 50m high, it’s a magnificent construction. The Konpon has, though, been destroyed by lightning strikes and fire five separate times, so the structure you see today is far from original. Eventually, when sense prevailed (and the appropriate building materials became available), it was re-constructed in ferroconcrete with wooden overlays, to try to avoid the problem happening again. Fingers crossed!

The whole area is quite magical, with moss covered torii gates, dragon guardians, and ancient wooden halls bedecked with lanterns. You’re also more likely to see pilgrims (passing through on the Kii Mountain route) than you are tourists, which is very pleasant indeed.

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Given we were close, we also visited Rokkaku Kyozo, a hexagonal sutra repository that houses a complete copy of the Buddhist scriptures in gold ink; as well as Kongobuji temple, the headquarters of Shingon Buddhism. I think this latter temple might have my favourite rock garden in Japan (a close call: lots of strong contenders). It certainly holds the prize for being biggest, at over 2,000 square metres; the 140 pieces of granite having been dragged to Mount Kōya from Shikoku and the white sand all the way from Kyoto. The resulting rock formations in Banryutei garden are designed to resemble dragons emerging from a sea of clouds. Enchanting. It’s always so tempting to sneakily create new patterns in the sand…but the stern-faced gardeners were unlikely to have found this amusing.

The temple also has one of my favourite interiors: the intricately painted sliding doors in the Yanagi-No-Ma (Willow Room) and in front of the Buddha hall depict the four seasons, as well as cranes, rivers and the surrounding landscape, all in beautiful lacquer.

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Back at Eko-in, we changed out of wet clothes and attended a meditation with Moshi, one of the resident monks. There are 117 temples in Koyasan, 52 of which are set up as lodgings; and the main reason to stay in one is to take part in the various ceremonies, rituals and meditations alongside the monks. This afternoon’s session was a Ajikan meditation: contemplation of the Sanskrit letter “A”, which is drawn on the image of the moon. The letter “A” represents the Cosmic Sun Buddha, Dainichi Nyorai, and the purpose of the meditation is to make the practitioner and the Sun Buddha become one. Posture is extremely important: you need to sit with your legs crossed and ideally your knees touching the ground, your thumbs touching and your hands making a circle. You must thrust out your stomach and hold it in tension, whilst at the same time relaxing all other parts of your body, and your eyes should be neither open nor closed, in order to watch both the external and internal world at the same time. It’s bloody difficult.

Back in our washitsu room, we enjoyed a traditional Buddhist vegetarian dinner (Shojin-Ryori – see my blog 29 Seasons of Tofu for a full account of this delicious meal) before heading out with Moshi for a nighttime tour of Okunoin, the largest cemetery in Japan. There are more than 200,000 graves in Okunoin, and walking through it in the dark is an atmospheric – if not downright spooky – experience. There are no dead in the cemetery, it is said: only waiting spirits. And Kobo Daishi himself has not passed on; he took himself into the woods on the mountainside towards the end of his life and is there still to this day, meditating for eternity behind a closed gate. The community’s head monk takes him a meal every day and is the only one allowed to go through the gate (I’m not able to confirm, but I suspect this monk is quite portly). But one day – so the apocalyptic prophecy goes – Kobo Daishi will finish his meditation, and it is then that all the souls “resting” in the graves will rise up.

Moshi guided us along rain-shimmering trails, past tall cedar trees and moss covered tombs, stone lanterns casting their glow and lighting our way. He pointed out the five pillars of Buddhism in structural form (earth, space, wind, fire and water) which sit alongside our consciousness; and explained how Shintoism and Buddhism have come together in Japan, which is why you often find Shinto shrines within temple complexes. We were also told to note the numerous depictions of Jizō Buddha, the guardian of youth and patron deity of deceased children and aborted fetuses. He’s usually represented as a small, cheery looking dude, and worshippers tend to knit little hats and clothes to adorn his statues. I later learned, however, that Jizō is also regarded as the Bodhisattva of hell-beings…so felt a little less warmly towards him after that.

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We followed the path through the forest and up to Kukai Mausoleum, a very sacred place where no food can be consumed and no photos taken. Once you cross the Gobyo no Hashi bridge, we were told, you have entered a higher level of the sacred. At this point, you must throw water over one of the Buddha statues lining the route, cleansing yourself for the journey ahead. Preferable, we quickly decided, to the original ritual of bathing in the freezing mountain stream.

The mausoleum is a stunningly beautiful hall, flanked by the Toro-do lantern pavilion. Legend has it that some of the gold lanterns have been burning continuously for 1,000 years. Around the back is a giant lantern with gold lotus flowers. This is the innermost sanctum, where the gate behind which Kobo Daishi meditates can be found. Moshi paused here to recite a sutra, and whilst he chanted I stared around is awe, thinking myself very privileged to see such a special place.

Making our own way back to Eko-in, we lost the crowd and took time to absorb the place, wandering the dark trails alone. Maybe a little too contemplative, since we only just made it back to the temple in time for the 9pm curfew, apologising to the waiting monks for our tardiness. Slinking back to our room and dressing in traditional yukata, we hung out playing card games for a while, but – knowing we’d be up at 6:10am for morning meditation – hit the hay quite quickly.

Waking to the sounds of monks chanting in the main temple hall, we joined our fellow lodgers for the first of the day’s ceremonies. I can’t pretend to know what this one was about, but there was cymbal clashing, repetition of a low, humming mantra, and an iron pot was hit several times; then we were invited to light incense and quietly shuffle in a circle around the hall, bowing to Buddha. Moving on to a second temple building, we were next invited to join the Gomakito (Homa fire ritual).

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This ceremony is unique to Vajrayana and Esoteric Buddhism and is considered one of the most cognitively powerful. It is performed by consecrated priests and acharyas (religious instructors) for the benefit of either individuals, the state at large, or indeed all sentient beings. The fire is believed to have a powerful cleansing effect, both spiritually and psychologically; the ritual destroys negative energies, detrimental thoughts and desires, and bestows blessings. We were told to write a prayer/wish on a wooden stick, which was later thrown into the fire, along with seeds tossed by our acharya. He also splashed the flames with liquid, fanned the fire and rubbed (what looked like) rosary beads, whilst other monks chanted and banged a taiko drum. At the ritual’s climax, we were invited to waft smoke from the fire onto parts of our body that might be in pain. It was certainly dramatic…and incredibly smoky!

Our futons had been removed while we were gone, so with no chance to returning to sleep we had a quick dip in the public baths (Paul reporting that the men were much more reserved than the women) and then revisited the cemetery. It was great to experience it in a whole new light – and a particularly glorious, blue skied light at that. A completely different atmosphere to the preceding evening.

Having exhausted the delights of Okunoin, we caught a local bus up to the imposing Daimon gate at the edge of town, walking back through the village to revisit Dai Garan and stop for a casual lunch of katsu and donburi. Just time for a quick kimono purchase, from an elderly lady on the main drag, before catching the funicular back to the station. Onward to Osaka…

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il colore

Back in the heady days of summer 2020, when for a brief few weeks we could visit the city centre again… God, I miss London. So near, and yet so far. Would it be wrong to steal a couple of vials of the vaccine? Worth more than gold.

We all had such high hopes for 2021. Right now, I could forego a holiday; I don’t need exotic climes. I’d take the opportunity to meet with those I love…in a noisy pub…to hug and laugh and breathe each other’s air. Without fear.

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Boreas

It sifts from leaden sieves,

It powders all the wood,

It fills with alabaster wool

The wrinkles of the road.

It makes an even face,

Of mountain and of plain, —

Unbroken forehead from the east

Unto the east again.

It reaches to the fence,

It wraps it, rail by rail,

Till it is lost in fleeces;

It flings a crystal veil

On stump and stack and stem, —

The summer’s empty room,

Acres of seams where harvests were,

Recordless, but for them.

It ruffles wrists of posts,

As ankles of a queen, —

Then stills its artisans like ghosts,

Denying they have been.

– Emily Dickenson

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Bramhope Paddocks (Credit: Robert Wood)

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Swineside Knott and Sheffield Pike (Credit: Dave Adnitt)

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Gloomy Norwood Shed

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Misty Waterfowl (Credit: Dave Adnitt)

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Holly Bush

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Wombling in Wimbledon

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Incessant Grey

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Crystals in the Palace

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Blencathra (Credit: Dave Adnitt)

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Delicate Frost (Credit: Dave Adnitt)

Chōkoku

Reminiscing on far-flung places again today, as I sit shivering in my slipper socks. Hakone was the last stop on our tour of Honshu and, to be honest, a little disappointing on the whole. A tourist trap, with the distinct air of faded-glory. People flock there to tour the National Park in an effort to catch a glimpse of Mount Fuji. But it’s often shrouded in cloud. We didn’t see it. And I wouldn’t bother with the boat trip across Lake Ashi or the sulphur springs at Owakudani Valley (a hole in the ground with a giant gift shop). The kuro-tamago (“black eggs”) you’re encouraged to taste at the springs are…well, they’re like eggs…with black shells. And they smell of sulphur.

So I wouldn’t recommend a visit to Hakone then? Well…that’s tricky. Because there were nuggets of real interest. The Pola Museum of Art, for example, where we took in a fantastic exhibition by Emile Galle. And the Gora Grill by chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa (of ‘Nobu’ fame). But it was the absolutely stunning Open-Air Museum in Ninotaira that truly saved our stay there…in spectacular fashion!

Opened in 1969 , the OAM was the first alfresco art museum in Japan and the park now houses around 120 works spread over 70,000 square metres. You can spend most of the day there and it made me quite giddy with excitement. Here are a few snaps, which really don’t do justice to the place but hopefully give a sense of its magnificence…

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Ryoji Goto, Intersecting Space Construction (1978)

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Takashi Mine, Primavera (1972)

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Peter Jon Pearce, Curved Space (1979-1994)

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Arnaldo Pomodoro, Sfera con Sfera (1978-80)

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Yuki Shintani, Alba (1972)

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Marta Pan, Floating Sculpture 3 (1969)

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Masamichi Yamamoto, Dream of Ancient Times (1980)

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Tarō Okamoto, L’Homme Végétal (1971)

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Antony Gormley, Close (1993)

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Rainer Kriester, Big Hand (1973)

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Hakone OAM

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Yves Klein, Blue Venus – S41 (1962)

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Shin Yamamoto, [Hey!] (1992)

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Giuliano Vangi, Grande Racconto (2004)

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Carl Miles, Man and Pegasus (1949)

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Barbara Hepworth, Two Figures (1968)

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Santiago de Santiago Hernández, Unidos (1986)

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Tarao Yazaki, Religious Mendicant (1971)

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Joan Miró, Personnage (1972)

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Henry Moore, Large Spindle Piece (1968)

Foliorum

Fall, leaves, fall; die, flowers, away;

Lengthen night and shorten day;

Every leaf speaks bliss to me

Fluttering from the autumn tree.

I shall smile when wreaths of snow

Blossom where the rose should grow;

I shall sing when night’s decay

Ushers in a drearier day.

                                               –  Emily Brontë

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