Spanish Bull-Boards

Archaic coats-of-arms? So out. Overtly masculine bull icons? So in.

Pamplona, Spain November 14th, 2010

Since arriving in Spain, I’ve seen the simple but striking outline of a black bull emblazoned on t-shirts, keychains, and bumper stickers. It seems to be every bit as strong a national symbol as the Spanish flag itself – in fact, the two are often combined, especially for sporting events!

There are also postcards sold here and there which appear to show a large, standing interpretation of the black bull in a field of sunflowers. Later, I was out with some friends when we spotted one by the road. It was enormous – a thin piece of metal painted jet black and standing proudly over the highway. I was starting to get curious. This was clearly a different specimen than I had seen in the postcards, and, now that I thought about it, I’d seen another one in my friend’s photographs from the Canary Islands. So there were at least three across Spain, I thought, and logic would say there were likely to be more… a good deal more.

I’ve kept my eye out on my travels around Spain, and by now I’ve probably seen close to a dozen, perched everywhere from the dry, rocky roadsides of Alicante to the lush green hills of Galicia. My curiosity was piqued. How many were there? How did they get where they were? How are they maintained? I assumed that they had been placed along the highways in order to reflect a national symbol – but after a little bit of research, I learned that the truth was precisely the opposite, and that the bulls have a long and complicated history that has taken turns no one could have predicted.


The History of the Osborne Bulls:

It all started in the 1950′s, when the sherry company Osborne (incidentally, the second oldest company in Spain), chose a simple bull logo to advertise their new brandy, and began erecting modestly sized wooden billboards in the shape of this logo, each painted with the word “Osborne”. If these bulls sound quite different from those seen today, that’s because they were!

There were once more than a hundred 'bulls' across Spain, each held together with more than 1,000 bolts.

Soon, weather conditions required the company to switch their material from wood to metal, and they increased the size of the billboards to 7 meters. Then, in 1962, new laws required advertisements to be kept further from the roads, so the size of the bulls was double to a massive 14 meters, and they were strategically placed over flat stretches or on hilltops in order to maximize visibility.

Advertising restrictions continued to tighten, and by the late 1980′s Osborne had to remove their names from the sign and paint them plain black in order to follow regulations. This worked for a few years, until new laws said that the bulls – plain black or no – would have to be taken down.

Then, something extraordinary happened – the media and the people of Spain leapt to the billboards’ defense – a massive ‘save the bulls’ campaign was initiated. The argument went all the way to Spain’s Supreme Court, which in 1997 ruled that the bulls had transcended mere advertising icons, and were now part of Spain’s cultural identity and heritage.

The bulls were safe! Well, mostly. Some had already been destroyed before they were given protected status, and those that remain are still subject to the weather (in 2009, one of the Alicante bulls was demolished by strong winds – it has since been rebuilt) and vandalism (the only bull in Catalonia, near Barcelona, has been repeatedly vandalized by Catalan nationalists, and has not been rebuilt after its most recent destruction.)

The Osborne company itself has had mixed feelings about the bull saga. Just as the status of the bulls as cultural icons has protected them from advertising regulations, it has protected manufacturers of souvenirs utilizing the logo from copyright restrictions.


Where are they now?

Wikipedia's map showing bulls per Spanish province.

The 89 remaining Osburne Bulls are scattered unevenly across Spain, from the greatest concentration (23) in Andalucia, to the single speciments of the Basque Country, Navarra, Catalunya, the Balearic Islands, and the Canary Islands.

For fellow residents of Navarra, ours is in the south, near Tudela.

Wherever they are located, the bulls are taken care of today by Felix Tejada and his family, in whose workshop they were first created.

/A Semester in the Basque Country of Spain

The 5 Weirdest Objects in the British Museum

London, England – August 2nd, 2010

Look to the British Museum’s “History of the World in 100 Objects” if you want an official list of its most relevant artifacts. If, instead, you’d like a very unofficial list of its most irrelevant artifacts, read on! Here are the five things that really made me laugh:

1.) This is a piece from the Lewis Chess Set, one of the British Museum’s most famous exhibits. The chess set is striking for its antiquity (it dates to viking times), its high level of detail, and the humorous appearance of its pieces. This queen is one of my favorites, as her eyes bug out and she presses a hand to her face as if worried. Apparently, however, that’s just how people carved eyes back then… and the pose was meant as a symbol of wisdom and gracefulness.





2.) I found these three human figurines in the Mesopotamian section of the museum. What’s great is the academic description below: “These are of unfired clay. Though very crude, two certainly represent males. The third might either be female or has lost a small piece of clay.”





3.) This statuette comes from the Roman section. I can think of a dozen possible explanations of what’s going on here, and frankly, all of them are pretty weird. Just check out the facial expressions.





4.) This looks like a goofy, modern pen holder (or maybe a coffee mug?).  Apparently it’s actually from South America and pretty old at that.





5.) This is my favourite item in the whole museum, hands down. It’s a secret dagger, hidden in… a similar dagger! Brilliant! So, you know, people will never suspect you’re carrying a dagger… they’ll just think you’re carrying a… dagger! Anyone have an opinion about whether or not the interior dagger could even be used?

/From the Lowlands to the Highlands

Japanese Shave Ice

Melon Kakigori with Milk Ice Cream - Kanazawa, Japan.

Snow Cones can be refreshing on a hot day, but I’m usually disappointed by hard, course ice that lets all the syrup slide straight to the bottom of the paper cone. In Japan, I found Kakigōri (かき氷), or shave ice – a fabulous dessert which made me reconsider the potential of the snow cone.

Served not only at carnivals and roadside stands but also in nice restaurants alongside ice cream and cakes, most of the shaved ice in Japan is similar in texture to American snow cones, if a bit softer and more like, well, fresh snow. But at least once, in Nikko, I found shave ice that seemed to literally have been shaved from a block – it was as smooth as ice cream, and had a delightful crispness.

Unbelievable Shave Ice in Nikko, Japan!

The syrup that tops Kakigōri is not unlike that used on American snow cones, with familiar flavours like strawberry, lemon, and grape alongside melon, sweet plum and green tea. It is also common to pour condensed milk onto the ice, adding additional sweetness and richness. Many Japanese also like to add mild sweet bean paste, mochi rice cakes, or even ice cream to their shave ice.

Laura and I found some incredible Kakigōri in Nikko. The texture was totally different than that of an American snowcone, or even the other Kakigōri we had tasted – something like a cross between Italian shaved ice and cotton candy, very smooth and delicate. Served with strawberries in thick syrup and condensed milk, this was the most delicious dessert of our trip!

Late Night Okonomiyaki (Miyajima, Japan)

Mmm... Okonomiyaki. ^^

Miyajima shuts down quickly after the bulk of the tourists leave around 4 pm. The majority of those who spend the night on the island eat dinner in their Ryokans or hotels, so when 6 o’clock rolled around, Laura and I found that nearly all the town’s restaurants had already shuttered for the night. Luckily, the owner of our Ryokan told us that a small Okonomiyaki restaurant a few doors down was open until 8.

I ordered yakiudon with shrimp and Laura ordered yakisoba with pork. As usual with okonomiyaki they put just about a whole head of cabbage in each of ours. It boiled down a lot, but there was still more food on our plates than we could possibly eat. It was good, too – the amount and flavor of the sauce was just right. This wasn’t the best food we ate in Japan, but it was definitely a solid choice for a ‘late night’ meal.

Since the tiny okonomiyaki restaurant we ate at isn’t shown on the map, the best thing to do would probably be to follow directions to Ryoso Kawaguchi, and follow the road it’s located on a few storefronts north. If you’re going there at night, it should be one of the only places open, so pretty much impossible to miss.

<p>— Read more about <a title=”Japan 2009″ href=”; target=”_blank”>Japan 2009</a>.</p>

— Read more about Japan 2009.

Naantalin Aurinkoinen (Turku, Finland)

Naantalin Aurinkoinen is a small chain of cafes in Southwestern Finland, mainly Turku and it’s suburb of Kaarina. The name means “like the Sun of Naantali” -Aurinko means sun, and Naantali is a nearby town known for it’s lovely sunshine, even spawning the local idiom “to smile like the sun of Naantali”.

The cafe and bakery has a wide variety of goods, from fresh bread and the Finnish favourite ‘new potatoes’, to pizza, pasta, salad, hotwings, and panini sandwiches. The pastries looked the most tempting to me, though, and I picked the Mansikkajuhlawiener (strawberry pastry) because if you go to Finland in the summer you should eat strawberries at every opportunity.

Liisa's photo of my Mansikkajuhlawiener. It was five times more delicious than it looks!

The storefront of the Kaarina branch I visited.

Their website is only in Finnish, but your mouth will water just looking at it.

No Google Map this time, because there are multiple locations. This page on the website shows all the addresses.

/A Taste of Scandinavia

Six Funny Things about the Japanese Language

Japanese is a fun language to study, for travel purposes or to enjoy Japanese culture from afar. Because the language and the culture are both quite different from those you may be familiar with, it can be a funny experience to study Japanese as well! Here are a few things that always make me laugh when I’m studying or using Japanese.

1.) If you want to say you ‘love’ something, as in, you ‘really like it’, in Japanese, you use the expression ‘daisuki’. This is made of two components: Dai (Big) and Suki (Like). Big Like!

2.) Japanese people worry a lot about being polite, and in Japanese this includes using different words to refer to things you want to honor, and things you want to be neutral, or humble about. Sometimes these ‘honourable’ version of words simply add a prefix. Other times they are completely different words. And sometimes there are even more categories than this, showing different degrees of honor!  For example, when you talk about your boss’s car, you should probably say okuruma, instead of just kuruma.

3.) One way this manifests itself is in the names for family members. Obviously, you can’t use the same word to talk about your mother or your friend’s mother. You want to show your friend’s mother respect, but since you are talking about your mother in connection to yourself, it would be rude to honor your mother (and, by connection, yourself!). So your friend’s mother is (anata no) okaasan — (your) mother, and my mother is (watashi no) haha — (my) mother.

4.) The Japanese word for Manufacturer is Meikaa. Sound it out. This is an import word. Television Manufacturer is Terebi Meikaa. Sound it out!

5.) Japanese uses different sets of numbers to count things with different shapes. These are called counters. For example, one is ichi, but one year – issai, one bird – ichiwa, one dog or cat or insect – ippiki, one person – hitori. Although there is a ‘place holder’ counter for use when the counter is unknown, and some counters are not in common use, unique counters exist for such things as: paragraphs, footsteps, nursery trees (and stocks), bows during worship at a shrine, cannons, and theatrical acts.

6.) These numbers themselves can be made up from two different original systems – Chinese and Japanese. The basic words for four, seven, and nine, however, are problematic. Four is Shi, a word which also means death. This is unlucky, kind of like our number 13, so they replace it with the euphemism Yon sometimes (and in some cases you HAVE to say yon, such as Yoji (four o’clock)). The same goes for Ku, which means suffering and it often switched out with Kyu. Seven is Shichi, which Japanese people sometimes worry gets lost floating around next to shi (four) and ichi (one), so they sometimes say nana instead!

/Three Weeks of Japan Mania

Japanese is a fun language to study, for travel purposes or to enjoy Japanese culture from afar. Because the language and the culture are both quite different from those you may be familiar with, it can be a funny experience to study Japanese as well! Here are a few things that always make me laugh when I’m studying or using Japanese.

Onigiri (Japan)

Onigiri on sale in Nikko. The average price of an Onigiri is less than $1.50.

Onigiri, (Kanji 御握り, Hiragana おにぎり), also known as Omusubi, are Japanese rice balls. They are relatively simple to make, especially once you get used to the basic techniques, but you can also buy surprisingly yummy Onigiri in any konbini (convenience store) in Japan.

Onigiri come in many different varieties. The most common shapes are the little triangles, shown in the picture, and disk-shaped Onigiri. Normally, Onigiri are made of plain, white, sticky rice, and have a single filling in the very center. The most popular fillings are Umeboshi (sour pickled plum) and salmon, although any reasonably dry and strong-flavoured ingredient works well… for example, I have made super-American breakfast Onigiri with sausage and egg.

There are also Onigiri that have a topping of fish or ginger instead of a filling, and some Onigiri are formed from rice flavoured with sesame, Katsuoboshi (fish flakes), or other traditional seasonings.

A little bit of dried seaweed is wrapped around the rice ball just prior to consumption. The idea of eating seaweed may be a little bit frightening to the uninitiated, but don’t be afraid! The flavour of the seaweed is very mild – not even my pickiest friends object to it. The main purpose of wrapping Onigiri in seaweed is to allow you to hold it without getting your fingers too sticky. And, it has a delicious crunch!

Onigiri make great breakfasts and packed lunches while traveling. Laura and I started each day in Japan with a nice, filling rice ball or two! Onigiri are easy to eat on the go, although remember that in Japan it is considered rude to eat while walking!

/Three Weeks of Japan Mania

Chokladkoppen (Stockholm)

No matter the season, Stockholm’s Chokladkoppen is delightful. Perfectly situated in the Stortorget square, the center of Gamla Stan, it neighbors the Nobel Museum and the Swedish Academy, and only the imposing Stock Exchange Building separates it from the Cathedral and the Royal Palace.

Everything in Stockholm is expensive, so once you surrender yourself to that idea, Chokladkoppen, where you can put down about 14$ on a slice of cake or pie and a drink and call it a meal, is a bargain.

The guilty pleasure Liisa and I counted as a meal.

I’ve heard the cafe is a lovely, cozy place in the winter, where you can duck in out of the cold for bowls of cocoa and hot pie. Liisa and I visited in the summer, so we sat outside in the square with iced chocolate and white chocolate cheesecake and watched the world go by instead. Everything tasted creamy and fresh, and the orange slices added a bright, tangy note to both the flavour and the presentation.

The food is delicious, the atmosphere and the location are top notch, and you won’t even have to go broke to experience it. I’ll definitely be returning to Chokladkoppen during my next trip to Stockholm.

/A Taste of Scandinavia

Chokladkoppen is the orange building in this picture from Wikipedia's Stortorget article.

Kamakura’s Daibutsu

Kamakura's Daibutsu is unusual in that it stands out in the open, not enclosed in a building.

No visitor to Kamakura, or even to Tokyo, should miss this Great Buddha. Housed in the temple Kōtoku-in (高徳院), it is a popular destination and so easy to reach on foot or by bus. Most maps of Kamakura depict the Daibutsu visually, so you need not read Japanese to find your way.

Cast in 1252, this Buddha was originally housed in a wooden temple. Notably, it was built completely with donations – no government funding whatsoever. A 1498 tsunami destroyed this building, and crushed hundreds of Samurai who were taking refuge inside, but left the huge bronze statue standing. Some repairs were done in 1960, particularly to strengthen the statue’s neck, but otherwise it has been standing out in the open, in it’s present form, for more than five hundred years.

The statue is made primarily of copper, with a large component of lead and tin. Even today we are not one hundred percent sure how it was put together. Originally the statue was covered in brilliant, shining gilt, but over the course of 700 years it has worn almost completely off. Specialists have said that that statue’s balance, intelligence, powerfulness, and dignity surpass that of the Todaiji Buddha in Nara.

Among those impressed by the statue’s longevity and serene demeanor are Richard Cocks, who after visiting in 1616 said that the Daibutsu must be larger than the Colossus of Rhodes, and Rudyard Kipling, who, after seeing the Daibutsu in 1892, mentions it repeatedly in verses throughout his novel Kim.

This Daibutsu has windows on the backside!

“O ye who treated the Narrow Way
By Tophet-flare to Judgment Day,
Be gentle when “the heathen” pray
To Buddha at Kamakura!”

If you go around to the back, you can see that this Buddha in fact has windows!

It is hollow inside and in fact for a time it was a den for gamblers and the homeless.

Now you can go inside for only 20¥ – about 20 cents.




/Three Weeks of Japan Mania

Yuba (Japan)

Yuba can even be deepfried, as in this picture from!

Yuba (kanji: 湯葉), also known as soybean skim or tofu skin, is a Japanese food made from the skin that forms on the surface of boiling soy milk. The result is a bundle of thin, rubbery layers of a firm, tofu like substance. Yuba can be shaped in order to texturally resembled other foods, such as chicken breasts, and is often fried to give it a firmer skin.

The first time I ordered a dish with yuba, I didn’t know what it was. This is common in Japan and probably for the best. I would have missed out on many culinary adventures had I been afraid to eat some Japanese dishes based only on their not always appetizing English names! My first yuba experience was a clam chowder, and I almost mistook the yuba for incredibly tender clams. After this I took every opportunity to order yuba.

As with other Japanese Tofu dishes, my advice for yuba is to give it a try. Don’t think about past experiences with soyburgers or tofurkey back home. Japan has many soy products in it’s cuisine, and they vary widely by texture, taste, and application. You are not guaranteed to enjoy yuba, but it deserves to be given a chance.

— Read more about Japan 2009.