Sacred deer

Once the capital of Japan, Nara is home to a collection of important temples, the most significant of which are conveniently located in a large park at the foot of Mount Wakakusa. Arriving late morning on another day trip from Kyoto, we headed straight from the train station to the park on a mission to get to Kōfuku-ji pagoda before the crowds…and were immediately distracted by (i) perfect-looking nigiri (a handy late breakfast snack) and (ii) free roaming deer criss-crossing our path at every turn. The sika deer in Nara are very tame, almost domesticated, and have no qualms about stealing rice crackers – or indeed guidebooks, sunglasses, wallets (pretty much anything) – from tourists.

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In the Shinto religion, deer are considered messengers of the gods. So it was right to pay them due respect. And pose for selfies.

Once we’d extricated ourselves and refocused on our goal, we found and enjoyed looking around the pagoda, Golden Hall and treasures of the Kōfuku-ji complex. The temple has been fully dismantled and relocated numerous times, and is now the national headquarters of the Hossō school of Buddhism. A good start to the day. Walking down through the park to the lake afterwards, we were lucky enough to catch sight of a Japanese couple having their wedding photos taken on floating Ukimido Gazebo. One of two sets of newlyweds we bumped into that day (the others a younger, hipster couple who preferred posing in a green phone booth – see my photos at Nihon no seikatsu).

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Re-joining the throngs of tourists, after our respite by the turtle pond, we followed the trail of sturdy stone lanterns up through the forest to Kasuga-tiasha shrine. Built in the 8th century, this grand shrine of the Fujiwara family is famous for its 3,000 hanging bronze lanterns. Donated by worshippers, these can be found throughout the grounds and around the four alters dedicated to the deities of wisdom, nation-building, fortune-telling and thunder. The stunning building was one of my favourites of the holiday: all bright vermilion and gold, with twisting, peaceful paths around the trees…and baby deer tripping you up at every opportunity.

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Spotting an exceptionally large crowd of Japanese school children headed towards Tōdai-ji temple, we hot-footed in that direction, managing to overtake and get our shoes off and into the Daibutsuden (Great Buddha hall) before the queue formed. And I’m really glad we did. Housing the world’s largest bronze statue of Buddha, and being itself the world’s largest wooden hall, it is a truly breathtaking sight. All the better for not having excitable thirteen-year-olds getting in the way.

It is said that the temple grew so powerful in the aftermath of its construction in the 8th century that the capital was moved from Nara to Nagaoka in order to lower its influence over government affairs. I can certainly understand why those people working in and around this building would have developed an overly-ripe sense of grandeur. Having gawped at the 15m high statue (and the two equally impressive Bodhisattvas that flank it) for a good long time, I then tried – and failed – to squeeze through a famous pillar with a hole the same size as the Daibutsu’s nostril. A must for any visitor: it’s said that those who can squeeze through the opening will be granted enlightenment in the next life…but it turns out only petite nine-year-olds deserve to be enlightened.

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With tired legs, and eager to rest in our hotel’s public baths before a meal at Muraji*, we decided to leave it there (see, I do learn that it’s possible to have too much of a good thing) and navigated around the seemingly ever-hungry deer back to the station. I would definitely recommend squeezing Nara into your itinerary if possible – it’s a very easy trip from Kyoto and I imagine particularly stunning with autumn colours or at the height of cherry blossom season.

*one of the best bowls of ramen you’ll ever try – see my blog 29 Seasons of Tofu for more on our wonderful Japanese food odyssey.

 

 

Norfolk: Windmills

We were so lucky to have such beautiful weather for our weekend in Norfolk. Here are some photos in and around Cley-next-the-sea (that’s not a spelling mistake; for some reason they don’t like the word “to” in Norfolk!). The flocks of birds in the night sky are pink-footed geese – apparently we were privileged to see so many in flight. It really was a spectacle.

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The White Heron

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Tucking into our bento box of rice cakes, nori, tamagoyaki (sushi omelette) and raw mackerel, we set off on a day trip from Kyoto to Himeji. An easy train ride away, taking little over an hour on the Shinkansen. It was a beautiful sunny day, and great to see so much cherry blossom still in bloom – the trees in Tokyo and Kyoto having, for the most part, long since faded. Better still: the castle had recently undergone a six year restoration programme and so, with the scaffolding now completely cleared, we were lucky enough to see The White Heron in all her splendour.

And the castle truly is impressive – a worthwhile excursion for anyone interested in seeing (yet) another side of this multi-faceted country. There’s been a fort of one sort or another on the site since 1333; evolving over time, the three-storey keep we see today was created by an eminent samurai warrior and politician (Hashiba Hideyoshi) in the 16th century, with the extensive bailey and surrounding city growing around it over the succeeding centuries. It’s considered one of the best examples of Japanese wooden architecture, and was given UNESCO World Cultural Heritage status in 1993. So, yeah: important, like.

I’d compare it to visiting Sterling or Durham in many ways. Himeji is a relatively small and unexciting city in and of itself, with the imposing castle the main feature and primary reason people visit. But while we in the west are used to austere, stone constructs perched on mounds, whether Norman, medieval or renaissance in design, the brightly painted wooden castles of east Asia seem exotic and unusual by contrast. I was certainly awed as we walked up the long approach, flanked by rows of bonsai.

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The castle is very plain inside, with not a lot to see but wooden beams. On balance, probably worth joining the queue for the views from the top; but if you can’t be bothered queuing, really don’t feel like you’ve missed out – it’s the exterior you’ve come to gawp at.

It doesn’t take too long to see. So, after walking around the castle walls, taking in the beautiful tiled roofs, crests, gates and moat (and giggling at the dozing actor in full warrior gear – his exposed spear presenting an element of danger in an otherwise happily-pedestrian visit), we headed on to nearby Koko-en Gardens.

Now, despite what many guidebooks seem to say, Koko-en does not contain recreated samurai houses. Rather, meticulously recreated Edo-period gardens built atop the ruins of old samurai houses. Important difference. No need to be disappointed though: the gardens are really beautiful. The nine different spaces, spread over about three and half hectares of land, were built to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the city. The main Lord’s residence garden has a tea ceremony house, a pine tree garden, bamboo, koi pond, waterfall and flower garden. Very serene and peaceful. You’re also likely to spot herons, interesting insects (large beetles, caterpillars and the like), and – of course – plenty of selfie-taking humans.

Our visit to Himeji only took half a day in total, but it’s worth including in your itinerary and makes for a really easy and interesting break from the city. Some people alternatively use it as a calling-off point on their journey between Kyoto and Hiroshima. Works well either way.

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València

It feels much longer ago than it actually was, but back in September we had a really lovely weekend in València with my mother(s)-in-law Judy and Alison, brother-in-law Chris and his partner Ching. I’d never been before, and now it’s leapfrogged up my list of Spanish cities. The home of paella boasts great architecture, a long stretch of beachfront, vibrant markets, interesting galleries, great bars, and – importantly – fabulous street art.

The weekend started with a long stroll along Jardines del Túria, created when the city wisely decided to divert the Túria river following a catastrophic flood in the 1950s. The 350,000 square metres of dry riverbed have been cleared and landscaped, filled now with pretty gardens, fountains and ponds, around which people laze post-work or whizz around on roller-blades and bikes. The area also hosts Ciutat de les Arts y les Ciències, an arts and science park filled with Santiago Calatrava’s exciting modern architecture: the Oceanogràfic (aquarium), Hemisfèric (planetarium), and Palau de las Artes Reina Sofia (opera house and auditorium), amongst others.

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Food-wise, we enjoyed traditional rabbit and seafood paellas at Restaurante Levante, the socarrat crunch at the bottom of the pan particularly good. And some decent tapas at Taberna La Sénia. But it was my discovery of vermouth that was the real game-changer. For those unfamiliar, it’s a fortified wine flavoured with botanicals…and it’s delicious. It’s since become my favourite go-to apéritif.

Our Air BnB – a great apartment on Carrer de Correus – was a stone’s throw from the central municipal square of Plaza del Ayuntamiento. So the next morning saw us exploring the civic buildings, town hall and central post office, with it’s ornate elliptical glass dome. Before heading over to La Lonja, the Gothic silk exchange. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, it’s worth popping in here to see the beautiful twisted-columned main hall and citrus-tree filled central courtyard.

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The modernista marvel of Mercado Central was our next stop. Inaugurated by King Alfonso XIII in 1928, the covered market has a surface area of over 8,000 square meters, filled with drying hams, fresh fish, churros and coffee stalls, and colourful delis bursting with olives, artichokes and other delights. We ate at Bar Central: mixed reviews, given a lot of the menu items had run out by the time Paul and I made it to the front of the queue. Our companions, however, enjoyed beef cheek, cockles, veal, boquerones and great red prawns. You win some, you lose some.

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Next stop: La Cathedral. Make sure to pick up an audio guide for greater appreciation of the frescoes, chapels, reliquaries and artwork. The impressive central dome has a particularly incredible fresco – only relatively recently discovered – of an angelic host against a blue starry night. Built over a mosque, which itself was built over a Visigoth church, the cathedral’s pièce de résistance is Capilla del Santo Caliz (the Chapel of the Holy Grail). Yes, the Holy Grail. The cup of a carpenter. Of course, a quick google search reveals dozens of other contenders for the final resting place of Christ’s chalice. But the chapel is stunning and you can willingly suspend disbelief for a few moments.

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Before leaving the cathedral, it’s worth climbing the 200+ spiral stairs of El Miguelete bell tower for views down into Plaza de la Virgen, the once Roman forum, and out across the whole city.

By now, we were in need of a pit-stop. So, after a quick bit of shopping, we located a traditional-looking Horchatería. Horchata is a kind of thin milkshake made from pressed chufas (tiger nuts) – not to everyone’s taste, but I really enjoyed mine.

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Our evening was spent in Bar Almudín, a cosy wine bar on Carrer de l’Almodí, and a great restaurant called Entrevins on Calle de la Paz. My octopus and rabbit leg were both delicious. A great place to celebrate Alison’s 50th birthday.

Day 3 was a busy one. Starting with churros and chocolate from a little cafe near the market, we headed first to the 16th century Renaissance seminary-come-gallery Museo del Patriarca. It houses manuscripts by Thomas More, as well as paintings by El Greco and Caravaggio.

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A short walk away is the ostentatious Museo Nacional de Cerámica, with its highly-decorated facade and history of ceramics from the baroque period to modern day. I preferred the modern stuff, which included a collection of Picasso’s plates. Hailing a taxi, we next headed for lunch at Panorama, located on the pier overlooking Playa de la Arenas and the palm-fringed Paseo Marítimo promenade. The beachfront is about 3km from the city centre, and well worth the short ride.

After a few glasses of wine in the sun, some lobster ravioli and a tasty “deconstructed” ham and cheese croquette (presented, intriguingly, in a martini glass), we began a self-organised tour of El Cabanyal, the maritime barrio found behind the heritage port area (click on the link to see my separate photo blog).  The area is full of pretty tiled fisherman’s houses along narrow lanes. I loved it, not least because of the great street art. We walked from Museo de Arroz to Mercado Municipal de Cabañal, calling into Bodega Casa Montaña on the way for a sherry and nibble of ham. The bar is an institution, lined with barrels of sherry and vermouth and old fiesta and bull-fighting posters. 

Back in the centre of town, I spent a bit of time shopping around L’Eixample and replaced some of my stolen jewellery (we were burgled not long after our honeymoon, unfortunately) from the little craft stalls in Mercado de Colón, another colourfully-tiled modernist edifice. A thoroughly enjoyable day!

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Our final morning in the city was spent exploring Barrio del Carmen. The “bohemian” area north of the cathedral is simply fantastic. If you’d thought El Cabanyal was a haven for street art enthusiasts…well, you ain’t seen nothing yet. The barrio is absolutely chock-full of amazing murals, graffiti and street art. I was like a child in a sweet shop. Links to separate photo blogs of the area’s highlights will follow shortly. We started our walking tour at Torres de Serranos, one of the impressive 14th century stone gateways to the city, and winded our way up, down and around the crumbling urban museum until we arrived back at Mercado Central. Leave yourself a few hours to properly do the area justice.

And that was it. A quick jamón ibérico bocadito from Beher, and then it was time to head to the airport. I can’t imagine we won’t be back at some point though. A great place for a long weekend break.

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