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.

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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.

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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

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The Window

Where: Suomenlinna, Finland

When: June 2008

Camera: Canon Powershot A550

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My friend Liisa and I were playing in the Suomenlinna tunnels when we encountered the brilliant light of this window-frame, and had some fun taking silly photos there.

U.K. 2010

From the Lowlands to the Highlands

August 1st-23rd, 2010

Trip Conception, Goals, and Planning:

In my second year of university, I became friends with a Scottish exchange student named Allan. We both loved walking, so we hatched a plan to meet the next summer in his country to try a long distance trek. As the date grew closer, we invited another good friend (Lucia from Chile), selected the Great Glen Way for our walk, and added in stops in London, Glasgow, and Edinburgh, as well as a visit with Allan’s family in Lockerbie.

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Considerations/Advice:

Cost: My budget was approximately $1,800, of which airfare was $700, other transportation was $310, and accommodation was $340. One pound was worth almost two dollars, but things were priced as if they were equivalent. While we looked to save money in general, and we able to stay with Allan’s friends on a few occasions, we did splurge on several meals out and cultural events in Edinburgh. I’ve had less expensive holidays. In general food and souvenirs were quite pricey, but a few things, such as bus transportation, were surprisingly reasonable (8 pounds from London to Carlisle, 10 from Inverness to Edinburgh).

Thinking Ahead: We reserved hotels several weeks in advance. While there was occasionally an empty bed or a walk-in that found some room, in general the hostels were pretty full in the summer and we were glad we’d booked ahead. Few of the places in the Highlands had websites, so Allan had to call and make the bookings over the phone. We also pre-booked our Megabus routes and our Edinburgh Festival shows.

Timing: We travelled in August, which except for the midges is a lovely time to be in Scotland. It’s supposedly high tourism season, but nothing was really crowded – we passed few people on our walk, and even had our own little beach on the island of Iona.

Food: All three of us like food quite a bit, so we splurged a bit in this category from time to time, and got to try a wide variety of dishes. In London, we had upmarket chocolate and delicious Greek and Indian food in their respective neighborhoods, in Lockerbie Allan’s mom made us Kipper, British-style Curries and Pan Haggerty, and on our walk across the Highlands we had Fish and Chips in Oban, Haggis in Gairlochy, and Blood Pudding with Tatty Scones in Drumnadrochit. In general I loved Scottish food, which surprised me given its reputation. A cheap and hearty favourite were the Meat Pies and Bridies from Gregg’s – a store you can find on almost every block in Glasgow or Edinburgh.

Getting Around: We alternated between trains and Megabus for the longer distances on our itinerary. Megabus is a nice cheap option when available. We took a package tour of the innermost Hebrides (buses and ferries included), used the city buses to get around Edinburgh, and walked the Great Glen Way on our own feet. Some of the things we did around Lockerbie with Allan’s family may be difficult without a private car.

Language: I could joke that in the Highlands the accent is so thick that it’s hard to understand, but except for one or two instances, there were no real issues with this. Gaelic was more present than I expected it to be, but a tourist will never need a word of it. If you speak English, you’re good to go.

Other: When the weather was good (about half the time) it was glorious. When the weather was bad (the other half of the time) it was abysmal. It rains often and hard in Scotland, but definitely not all the time.

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Itinerary:

Lucia and I arrived in London on August 2nd, met up with Allan and spent the next two days seeing London. We saw Kings Cross Station, Piccadilly Circus, Hyde Park, Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, the London Eye, and the British Museum, as well as the Greek and Indian neighborhoods, where we had some delicious meals.

On the 4th, we took a bus up to Allan’s part of Scotland. We spent the next day getting ready for our journey north and taking walks around Allan’s village and it’s abandoned castle. The 6th saw us on a train to Oban, gateway to the Hebrides, and we spent a few hours in Glasgow on the way. The next day, we toured the Islands of Mull and Iona, where we had a white sand beach all to ourselves.

On August 8th, we climbed Ben Nevis, the U.K.’s highest mountain, and the next day started out on the Great Glen Way. We went from Ft. William to Gairlochy (8/9), to South Laggan (8/10), to Fort Augustus (8/11), to Altsigh (8/12), to Drumnadrochit (8/13), and finally Inverness (8/14), facing torrential rain, fairies, and the Loch Ness Monster on the journey.

By the 15th, we’d had enough of the adventurous life and headed south to Edinburgh for some culture. We toured the castle and old town by day, and took a ghost tour of the catacombs and cemeteries by night. We were there for the Edinburgh Festival, and participated by going to see a decent play and truly dreadful opera.

After Lucia went back home on the 18th, Allan and I went back to his house for a few days to relax and enjoy nearby sites like Hadrian’s Wall, New Lanark, and the Devil’s Beeftub before heading out on August 22nd.

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Posts about this trip:

(Check back on this section from time to time – I’ll continue to put up new links!)

Journal Entries:
Does the British Museum Transcend Liberal Ethics? (London, England – 8/2)
The 5 Weirdest Objects in the British Museum (London, England – 8/2)
Moffat Toffee and the Devil’s Beeftub
(Moffat, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland – 8/21)

Photography: Flowing out to Sea

USA 2010

American Road Trip Plus

July 10th-27th, 2010

Trip Conception, Goals, and Planning:

This trip started with a email from my penpal, Liisa, who I visited in Finland in 2008. She wanted to come to America – see my haunts, and maybe a litte more – and since I’m pretty well spread out over the continent, we first decided to split the time between Florida and Missouri. As we started talking, the idea of a road trip seemed more and more appealing. After all, what mode of travel is more American than hitting the highway?

Our options were limited by automobile availability. Since we were too young to rent a car, we had to both start and finish in either Tampa, Florida, or Springfield, Missouri. We decided to start in Missouri and drive west to Colorado, then north to South Dakota, return to Missouri, and finally fly to Florida for a few days at the beach and at the theme parks.

Our final path took us through no fewer than ten states: Missouri, Illinois, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, and Florida.

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Considerations/Advice:

Cost: My budget was approximately $1750, once we started off in Missouri. (Obviously, Liisa had to pay more than I did to get to the starting point). This broke down to $300 for food, $330 for accommodation, $210 for gas and tolls, $240 flight to Florida, $160 for parking and miscellaneous entrance fees, $380 for extra experiences like horseback riding, rock climbing, and universal studios, $75 for souvenirs and presents, and $45 for pre-trip car expenses. I had originally hoped to spend up to 25% less, but we splurged on extra experiences and ended up paying more than we estimated for miscellaneous entrance fees, food, and accommodation.

Thinking Ahead: The only things we reserved ahead of time were airfare, hotels in Orlando, and the rock climbing and horseback riding adventures. These were booked 1-2 months prior with no issues, and we never wished we had made reservations for anything else – the closest was in Custer, where many of the motels were full, but we still managed to find one without much trouble.

Timing: We travelled in July, so it was a good time to go north and to the mountains. The weather was accordingly quite pleasant for most of the trip, although the Missouri and Florida segments may be better done in cooler times of the year. The highway we took through Rocky Mountain National Park is only open in summer, and winter conditions would have greatly changed our horseback riding and rock climbing experience.

Food: As per our budget and search for the authentic road trip experience, we ate a lot of fast food and gas station meals. We did, however, splurge on a few nicer places. The culinary highlights of the trip were tasting rocky mountain oysters in Colorado and butterbeer and pumpkin juice in Universal Studios.

Getting Around: We were very grateful to have a car in Mid-America, where that’s often the only viable option. We drove almost everywhere, more than 3500 miles in total, although we did save about $30 in parking fees by walking from our hotel to Universal Studios.

Language: I was travelling in my native country, and Liisa’s English is excellent, so this was never a concern. Even dialectal variation in the region we were travelling was low and never hard to adapt to.

Other: For some reason I don’t quite understand, motels in Colorado, Wyoming, and South Dakota were on average twice the price of similar motels in Kansas, Missouri, and Florida.

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Itenerary:

Liisa arrived in St. Louis on July 10th, and we spent the next two nights with my friend Kate’s family. The first night, Kate got us free tickets to see a Titanic musical at the Muny outdoor theatre. On the 11th, we did a whirlwind tour of St. Louis, starting with the prehistoric city of Cahokia Mounds just across the border in Illinois, then brunch at First Watch with my cousins, the St. Louis City Museum, the historic downtown and Gateway Arch, and the famous free zoo.

On July 12th we warmed up for the road trip after a morning in my part of St. Louis. We drove to Columbia, Missouri, ate lunch and frozen yogurt with some friends and toured the Journalism school, then continued on to Lawrence, Kansas. July 13th was the longest day of the trip as we drove 550 miles across the plains of Kansas and into Manitou Springs, Colorado.

July 14th saw us shopping in Manitou Springs, tasting rocky mountain oysters, exploring eight hundred year old Native American cliff dwellings, and marvelling at rock formations in the Garden of the Gods and Red Rocks Amphitheatre, where we almost stepped on a rattlesnake.

July 15th was consumed by a nine hour horseback ride on the silver dusted mountain trails of the Roosevelt National Forest. The view from the top was unbelievable – even worth my horse going a little crazy and Liisa getting sick from allergies and the sun exposure. On the 16th, we drove the highway to the sky through the Rocky Mountain National Park, ate lunch at 12,000 feet and played in the snow on the alpine tundra before driving on to Wyoming.

On the 17th, we drove into South Dakota to see Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial in progress. In the evening we toured Wind Cave National Park in search of wildlife and had buffalo, elk, coyotes, and countless prairie dogs step feet from the car. On the 18th we drove through the Needles of the black hills, learned to rock climb and even scaled a 180 foot granite dome before heading to Deadwood for some history and wild west reenactments, one of which we had to adopt temporary parents to get in to see!

On the 19th we started heading east again, taking time to visit a random Norwegian Stavkirke, see an underground waterfall, take old-time photos in the Wall Drug Store, and drive through the otherworldly badlands just ahead of a thunderstorm. On the 20th we saw Mitchell’s Corn Palace and the falls of Sioux Falls, hopped the border into Minnesota for our state count, had a classy and delicious lunch in Omaha, Nebraska, and ended up back home in Columbia, Missouri.

The 21st and 22nd allowed me to show more of my university, friends, and state off to Liisa as we toured Devil’s Icebox, Bridal Cave, and Ha Ha Tonka state park, ate nachos bianco at Addison’s and cream cheese clouds for breakfast, then flew to my parent’s house in Florida for the last stage of the trip.

We spent the 23rd and 24th on the barrier island, tasting sushi, walking on the beach, having lunch at Bubba Gump’s, touring downtown St. Petersburg, and taking a boat through a thunderstorm that gave way just in time to reveal a fiery and brilliant sunset.

The 25th and the 26th were our days in Orlando, as we visited Universal Studios and Universal’s Islands of Adventure Theme Parks, most notably the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter, with its magical talking portraits, fantastic scenery, butterbeer and pumpkin juice – a satisfying end to our trip.

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Posts about this trip:

(Check back on this section from time to time – I’ll continue to put up new links!)

Journal Entries:
Little Norway on the Great Plains (Rapid City, South Dakota – 7/19)

Photography: Crossing Kansas

Japan 2009

Three Weeks of Japan Mania

July 15th-August 5th, 2009

Trip Conception, Goals, and Planning:

I’ve always been interested in Japan. Video games, sushi, manga, samurai, and most recently the Japanese language have all held my fascination at one point or another in my life. Growing up, I lived across the street from a wonderful Japanese woman, and we used to get together to drink tea and discuss cultural differences. And finally, in my Freshman year of college, I was fortunate enough to be assigned a Japanese roommate. Actually, my dorm housed no fewer than seven Japanese students. So, before the year was out, my friend Laura and I had resolved to travel to Japan, visit our friends, and see for ourselves the multifaceted wonders of this easternmost country.

We built our plans around visiting friends and utilizing the unlimited rail travel afforded us by the Japan Rail Pass. Luckily, Laura and I had similar interests concerning Japan and what we would like to get out of the trip. Japan is a large country, and one could easily spend a month or more exploring a single one of it’s many different aspects: the bustling, chaotic metropolises, the painfully beautiful countryside, the traditional culture of geisha and samurai, the modern one of technological wonders, manga, and kawaii (cute). And is it better to go go go, packing as much as you can into a few short weeks, or to relax and enjoy the decadence of hot springs and fantastic views of Mount Fuji?

Laura and I decided to try for a balance, and I think our itinerary reflected that quite well. On the other hand, our itinerary did have certain weaknesses, mostly in the form of lengthy train rides and our budget limitations. We stayed on Japan’s main island, Honshu, the entire time, but reached almost to the furthest ends of it.

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Considerations/Advice:

Cost: Our budget was approximately $2500, not including food or souvenirs. The main costs involved were airfare ($800 round trip), the JR pass ($600). The JR pass was expensive, but so are the bullet trains – with our itinerary, the pass saved us literally thousands of dollars. We saved money on accommodations by staying with friends in Tokyo and staying mainly in hostels otherwise, so we paid between $25-50 on a normal night. Our two splurge nights were the Ryokan on Miyajima and the temple on Koyasan, at $100 each. Other included costs are bus and subway tickets and admission to museums, temples, shrines, hot springs, etc. Food costs are, of course, highly variable and are therefore not included, (with rare exceptions such as the meals included in the temple stay), but you can eat very well in Japan on even the tightest budgets (see Food for more information.)

Thinking Ahead: The main thing we had to do before we left was order the JR rail pass. You cannot get a JR pass once you are inside of Japan – you will have to order and receive the pass before you leave the U.S., which depending on where you live can be a bit tricky. We ordered ours online through this travel agency, and they took a few weeks to arrive. We bought plane tickets about three months in advance, and reserved most of our accommodation ahead of time as well – recommended if you want to stay in the cheapest places, as a lot of the best value places are small and might fill up.We were only unable to visit one of the places we’d hoped to go – the Ghibli museum, which apparently requires tickets reserved quite some time in advance.

Timing: In late July and early August, the weather in central Japan is considered miserably hot and humid, so it wasn’t the most crowded or expensive time to be there. Since the weather was pretty comparable to summer in our native Missouri, we coped pretty well with the heat, although it did feel good to escape north and to the mountains on some days. It rained often, but usually lightly, so we just carried small umbrellas with us at all times. Two things we were able to do specifically because it was summer time were part of the Matsuri Gion festival in Kyoto, and a fireworks summer festival in Tokyo. Lots of people go to Japan for cherry blossoms in the spring or the fall colours, so things are more expensive during those times. Generally, central Japan is scenic in all seasons, especially gardens that are landscaped to showcase the different parts of the year, and also relatively mild most of the year, although some things might be harder to do in winter.

Food: Japan has lots of lovely, delicious food. If you like trying new things, it will be a paradise for you. However, if you have any dietary restrictions, you may end up eating basic things like rice and steamed vegetables, because Japanese food often includes lots of seafood and meat (beef, pork, anything is fair game), even if only for flavoring. If the restriction is merely pickiness, try to have an open mind. My friend Laura went there hating all seafood (luckily she really, really likes rice), but by the time we left had discovered she quite liked dried salmon and many kinds of sushi. Eating in Japan can be extremely expensive or extremely inexpensive. Konbini convenience stores offer a variety of filling and tasty hot/cold meals for about $5, and you can fill up on Onigiri for even less. Even sushi can be had for very reasonable prices!

Getting Around: Most of Japan’s transportation systems are fast, reliable, and remarkably easy to understand given the language barrier (see Language). We found that people were extremely willing to help us if we were lost or just unsure about which buses to take or where to get off the subway. Bullet trains are fast but expensive (to a lesser extent, that goes for all trains), buses can be slow but are often necessary. There is very little room for luggage on any of the public transport, especially getting around Tokyo and Osaka by subway, so pack as lightly as you possibly can – sometimes we had to carry our suitcases in our laps, upright. If you relax, getting around can be half the fun, but if you are in a hurry, it can make you miserable. We enjoyed using a wide variety of transportation during our trip, including private cars, taxis, bullet trains, express trains, local trains, buses, cable cars, funiculars, aerial tramways, bicycles, ferries, subways, and, largely, our own two feet.

Language: There’s no way around the fact that the language difference in Japan is substantial. You won’t even recognize place names on most signs, because they are written in Kanji symbols. Japanese is a language totally unrelated to English, which uses no less than three forms of writing. Many Japanese people, especially those outside of the big cities, and even those involved in tourism, speak poor or no English. Given all of this, however, the language situation is as easy as it could possibly be. Maps and instructions are often very visual, with pictures to help you with the words. People are extremely willing to help you and creative in reaching understanding even when you can’t understand a word they say. My advice is to carry a piece of paper with the names of all the places you are visiting in Kanji, so that you can refer to this or show it to Japanese people if you get confused. Also, carrying a phrase book is very highly recommended – you will not look stupid for whipping it out, (usually when you do the people you are talking to are far more embarrassed about their English ;_;),and since Japanese is pronounced phonetically, you will probably be understood without too much trouble. With all this said, Laura and I both had some slight understanding of Japanese – enough that with the phrasebook, we could usually put stupid sentences together and even understand some basic questions, commands, numbers, etc – and segments of the trip, such as going north to Mutsu or staying with the monks on Koyasan, would have been quite a bit more difficult if we didn’t know any Japanese at all.

Other: We got all of our yen from ATMs, but finding ATMs that take American cards can be a bit tricky with one lifesaving exception – 7/11 convenience stores. These are prevalent, but stock up on cash when you can, since almost no businesses will take your cards.

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Itenerary:

We left the US on July 15th and arrived in Tokyo on the 16th. In Tokyo we stayed for three days with my former roommate, Mayumi, whose apartment overlooked Tokyo tower. The first full day was a daytrip to Kamakura, where we saw our first shrines and temples, including magnificent Tsurugaoka Hachimangu, the Temple of Hase Kannon, and one of Japan’s most famous Daibutsu. The next day, Mayumi and another Japanese friend, Mitsuki, showed us the city of Tokyo – the Tsukiji Fish Market, Asakusa, Shinjuku, and Harajuku… then we changed into yukata for a fireworks festival followed by karaoke.

On the 19th, we left Tokyo early for northern Japan. We reached the Shimokita Hanto, the peninsula at the northernmost tip of Honshu, and lodged in the city of Mutsu for two nights in order to visit sulfurous, ash covered Osore-zan (Fear Mountain), the traditional Japanese gateway to hell and place of lost souls, during the Itako Taisai Festival, when blind mediums are said to summon the spirits of the dead.

On the 21st, we woke up early again for the longest train ride of the trip, heading back south and west, through the mountains to Takayama, a lovely town full of old, preserved houses, purple wisteria, and the heady scent of sake. While in Takayama, we took a bike tour up through the Japan Alps (during a solar eclipse, no less!) to see an amazing set of waterfalls, then continued on to Kanazawa, home of one of Japan’s three best gardens, as well as an old samurai district.

The 24th found us in Kyoto, the cultural capital of Japan. This is where Memoirs of a Geisha was filmed, and it is home to an overwhelming number of temples, gardens, and shrines. Over two days, we saw Kinkakuji, Ginkakuji, the Fushimi Inari Shrine, Sanjusangendo, the Kiyomizudera, the super modern train station, and even a bit of the Matsuri Gion festival.

On the 26th we continued to Hiroshima to visit Peace Memorial Park and the Atomic Dome during the most sobering day of our trip. Then we took the ferry to nearby Miyajima, waited out the tour groups to see the Floating Tori by twilight, spend the night in a traditional ryokan, and climb Mt. Misen in the morning.

On the 28th we woke up in Osaka and spent the day in Nara, a former capital of Japan, famous for herds of tame deer and the world’s biggest wooden building. On the 29th we paid a quick morning visit to Himeji Castle before working our way up to Koyasan, a mountain covered in temples (including one housing Japan’s largest rock garden), and actually spending the night in one. We woke up at 6 for morning prayers, ate shōjin ryōri, traditional Buddhist cuisine, and very narrowly escaped having to sleep in the ancient graveyard!

On the 31st we headed to Nikko, with it’s golden shrines, the original ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ monkeys, and the grave of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of Japan. The hot spring resorts and fantastic nature in nearby Chuzenji and Yumoto made this the most relaxing part of our trip.

On August 2nd we returned to Tokyo, with just enough time in the evening to see Tokyo Disney Sea. We stayed for the next few days with Mitsuki, and she and Mayumi continued showing us around Tokyo, including a visit to Akihabara electric town, some cartoon merchandise shopping, a skybus tour of the Ginza business district, museums in Ueno park, and, in Yokohama, a world-fair type celebration of Japan’s 150 years of being open to the western world. The last night of the trip, the four of us watched Ponyo and burned hanabi fireworks in a little park, sad to say goodbye to Japan.

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Posts about this trip:

(Check back on this section from time to time – I’ll continue to put up new links!)

Journal Entries:
A Night View of Tokyo (Tokyo, Japan – 7/17)
Sanjusangendo (Kyoto, Japan – 12/8)

Photos: A Sushi Feast, The Smallest Corner, Buddhapada in Kamakura

Notes: Onigiri, Six Funny Things about the Japanese Language, Yuba, Late Night Okonomiyaki

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

Moffat Toffee and the Devil’s Beef Tub

Standing by the Devil's Beef Tub

Moffat, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland – August 21st, 2010

Not nearly as well known as historic Edinburgh or the Highlands in which so many romances are set, south-western Dumfries and Galloway is one of the least visited parts of Scotland. That’s too bad, because during the few days I spent there, I felt rewarded again and again for going a bit out of the way.

The town of Moffat was especially worth a visit. It’s surrounded by dramatic hills, and approaching from the north a visitor encounters the Devil’s Beef Tub, a deep hollow. It takes its name from the stolen cattle that would be driven down into the hollow by Clan Moffat after being seized in raids. The Beef Tub appears prominently in other stories as well. A fleeing highlander once tumbled down the steep sides, pursued by gunfire, and escaped. The covenanter John Hunter was less lucky – he was shot dead attempting to run up out of the Beef Tub.

The hills around Moffat

The town of Moffat itself is home to the world’s most narrow hotel, the Star Hotel, as well as the Moffat Toffee Shop, where you can buy a bag of (surprise!) Moffat Toffee. It’s not actually toffee, but a sort of hard candy that is sweet, salty, and sour all at once. It has a unique flavour and is made only in Moffat, according to a family recipe.

/From the Lowlands to the Highlands

The Witch Caves of Navarre

Zugarramurdi, in the Valley of Baztan

Zugarramurdi, Navarra, Spain – December 7th, 2010

In the extreme north of Navarre (a state in Northern Spain) is a little town called Zugarramurdi, home to 218 people and, four hundred years ago, one of the biggest and bloodiest witch hunts of the Spanish Inquisition. Ultimately, forty suspected witches were found guilty and sent south for further trial, where many ended up being burned at the stake.

In my second to last week in Pamplona, some friends and I took a rental car up to Zugarramurdi from Pamplona (about 1 1/2 hour drive). We were in a bit of a hurry, so we only took the quickest peek at the new Witch Museum, but we were eager to see the Sorgin Leze, or Witch Caves, where the devil himself was said to give services to congregations of witches on the banks of the Hell Stream (Infernuko Erreka in Basque).

The Hell Stream

The first thing we came across while walking the loop path was the infernal stream itself, reddish brown and strangely opaque. It looked as thick as paint, but it was moving too fast and without staining the stones around it. Although we were certain that the colour must come from the soil – clay or something similar – it was easy to see why earlier generations had found it so unsettling.

Following the stream, we soon found ourselves in the cavern itself, with its high ceiling and the little chambers above us to the left, where the covens were said to hold more private meetings. Open on two sides to the air, it was more like a natural bridge than a cave, but spectacular either way.

The enormous cave opening...

Whatever you believe about the historical ‘witches’, it’s easy to imagine some fantastic bonfires taking place here!

/A Semester in the Basque Country of Spain

The Castle of Olite

Where: Olite, Spain

When: November 2010

Camera: Canon EOS Rebel T1i

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One morning at dawn, I climbed all the way up to the highest tower of the Castle of Olite for this view of the palace, the sleepy village below, and the wide agricultural fields that are just becoming visible on the horizon. According to the history books, the castle was once home to Navarre’s royal family, exotic pets like giraffes and lions, and hanging gardens modeled after those of Babylon. Today, the castle stands empty save for a modest number of tourists and a thick layer of rich, red ivy that spreads like a red carpet for kings long gone.

/A Semester in the Basque Country of Spain

Buddhapada in Kamakura

Where: Kamakura, Japan

When: July 2009

Camera: Canon Powershot A550

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I found this decorated stone in Kamakura’s Hase-Kannon Temple. It is a stylized depiction of the footprints of Buddha. In early Buddhist art, it was considered taboo to directly depict a being as sacred as the Buddha, so they alluded to his presence by showing his footprints, called Buddhapada in Sanskrit. These Buddhapada are covered with a variety of symbols. Look at the most prominent one, which looks like a sun or wheel. If it looks familiar to you, you may be thinking of the Flag of India, which has a similar design in the center. The wheel shown on both these footprints and the Indian flag is a dharmacakra, or a “wheel of law”, and symbolizes the Buddha’s path to enlightenment. Japan’s many sacred places are filled with items and objects that are often laden with symbolism. Knowing even a little bit about the many cultural traditions that make up Japan can add a lot to a trip through the country.

/Three Weeks of Japan Mania