Memories of São Miguel

In this age of limited travel, I have been thinking about my past vacations. One that comes to mind was our family trip to the Azores. It is a semi-tropical, volcanic Portuguese archipelago in the mid-Atlantic Ocean. The islands recently became a popular destination for their unique landscapes, reasonable accommodations, and vibrant cuisine. For years I was intrigued by their distinct character. I badly wanted to go there.

In May of 2016 my dream finally came true. We vacationed on São Miguel, the largest in the Azorean chain. São Miguel is called the ‘Green Island’ because it is very lush. It is known for its attractions Sete Cidades and Nossa Senhora da Paz. Its principal city is Ponta Delgada, abundant with restaurants, bars and distinctive architecture. Suffice to say, we made the right choice in staying there.

Quinta das Almas:

This was where we slept. It is a vacation rental in São Roque, a suburb of Ponta Delgada. Quinta das Almas is a gorgeous pink villa with rich gardens, many bedrooms, and a well-equipped kitchen. The walls are decorated with azulejos, traditional Portuguese painted tile-work. The kitchen has a brick oven, giving the house an old Azorean touch. I liked that I had my own room. It was big, with a comfy bed and sofa. There was also Alex, a small dog who lived out in the garden. Alex was a sweet pup who liked being petted and spending time with me. My bedroom had a door that led to the garden and he kept waiting for me to come outside. How adorable is that? I will never forget him.

Ponta Delgada:

My family and I spent a lot of time in the Azorean ‘capital.’ We always went there for an afternoon stroll, drinks and dinner. It was a small but delightful city with cafes, cathedrals, fountains and monuments. By the waterfront, there was a fortress and a monument dedicated to Portuguese veterans. The sidewalks were embellished with mosaics, a common form of architecture in the Portuguese Diaspora. They displayed images of stars, pineapples, and various diagrams. The city’s restaurants served the best of Azorean cuisine: grilled limpets garnished with garlic and scrumptious queijadas. It is a place with artistic and culinary charms wherever you go.

Azorean Cuisine:

Food of the Azores is similar to that of the Portuguese mainland. It involves a heavy emphasis on meat, seafood, carbohydrates and wine. However, it uses different spices, like cinnamon, malagueta peppers and bay leaves. Azorean dishes are heartier as well; lots of dairy and stews. I had dined at countless Azorean/Portuguese restaurants in Massachusetts and looked forward to trying the food of São Miguel. It was absolutely delicious. I never went hungry. My favorite meal was steak smothered in a garlicky-wine sauce topped with a hot pepper. I loved mixing the sauce with crispy fries and rice. Chouriços were great sausages to have for breakfast, especially when sauteed with scrambled eggs and piri-piri (hot sauce). São Miguel produces its own pineapple and tea as well. Azorean pineapples are the best; incredibly sweet and not tart. The tea was nice to drink and did not taste bitter without milk and sugar. I also enjoyed massa sovada, a fluffy sweet bread with hints of lemon. My family and I must have eaten three loaves. They were that good.

Churches:

We saw magnificent churches throughout the ‘Green Island.’ They came in all shapes and sizes and were designed in the simple yet pristine Azorean style. The churches were generally made of white stone and lined with black basalt. Some of them were adorned with azulejos depicting biblical scenes. One chapel I loved was Nossa Senhora da Paz in Vila Franca do Campo. It has stairs decorated with highly colored azulejos portraying the life of Christ. Whoever painted them was a fantastic artist. The chapel also overlooks gorgeous scenery: rolling greens hills and the vast Atlantic Ocean. A large rainbow even appeared in the sky. Perhaps it was a message from above.

Hot Springs:

São Miguel has a number of hot springs. We visited two of them: Caldeira Velha in Ribeira Grande and Poça da Dona Beija in Furnas. A bunch of tourists were at the hot springs, but there was enough room for the four of us. The water was obviously piping hot and reeked of sulfur but it felt very relaxing. Both of them were surrounded by vegetation. There were countless palm trees, ferns, and moss. It felt like bathing in a jungle. I recall the weather being a little rainy but it did not prevent us from having a lovely time.

Natural Beauty:

The Azorean countryside is exceptionally stunning. It is like a combination of Ireland and Hawaii. The landscapes are abundant with green patchwork fields, volcano craters and the ocean backdrop. We drove through roads lined with dazzling hydrangeas and walked on dark sandy beaches. The countryside is largely unspoiled by infrastructure, making the Azores an eco-friendly destination. São Miguel is known for its lakes, such as Sete Cidades. It is a distinctive double-crater lake, one half blue and the other half green. The attraction is an ideal place to take pictures and go for a hike. I understand why Azoreans call their homeland paradise on earth. When the COVID-19 Outbreak is long gone, I would love to return to the Azores. Perhaps I will visit the other islands. I am sure they share the natural beauties of São Miguel.

Tea at the Samurai House

November 23rd, 2019… my last day in Japan. The trip flew by so quickly. I felt sad it was coming to an end. I had a blast touring Tokyo, Nikko and Kyoto. Even so, there was one more thing to do before returning home. My group and I attended a traditional green tea ceremony. It was held at Kyoto Concierge Salon, a 300 year old house once owned by a samurai. The event was a lovely treat offered by our guide, Hiro.

Most of us participated in the ritual while wearing kimonos. The staff were kind to help us put them on. I wore a green one with a gray obi (sash). My fellow group members said I looked handsome when I posed with the samurai sword and the koto (stringed musical instrument). Dressing up certainly felt like stepping into Japan’s feudal past.

The ceremony took place in a small room. We sat on a tatami floor and were served wagashi, sweets to deal with the bitter aftertaste of matcha (green tea). Our host greeted us with a bow and proceeded to brew the water. As she spoke little English, we were glad to have a translator to explain the many steps to the ritual. Once the water was hot, she poured it into each of our bowls. Our host mixed the water with matcha powder by using a small bamboo whisk. Then we were served our bowls of tea. Our translator instructed us to rotate them clockwise. As a form of respect, the front of the bowl has to face the host. We drank one sip at a time. I do not drink green tea often. But I liked its thick, frothy texture and soothing tang. It also has numerous health benefits for the heart and skin. I should drink it more regularly.

IMG_5653
Photo Courtesy of Hiro Korasaki

The final steps were to clean our bowls, turn them counterclockwise until their fronts faced the host, and thank her for the tea. The ceremony was a great way to experience traditional Japanese culture. Our group had fun dressing up in kimonos and learning to make matcha. It was a perfect way to end our adventure. I thank Hiro for having planned such a wonderful activity.

Landmarks of Kyoto (Part 2)

Fushimi Inari:

One evening, my tour group visited Fushimi Inari in southern Kyoto. It is a shrine dedicated to Inari, the Shinto goddess of wealth. Our guide, Hiro mentioned that worshippers pray to her for business success. The attraction is known for its trails covered with thousands of torii gates. They normally mark the entrances of Shinto shrines. Worshippers bow before they enter to show respect for the gods. For over a millenia, the gates at Fushimi Inari were donated by various groups, ventures and companies giving thanks for economic advancement. They were lined up through the woods of Mount Inari. Some looked faded, but most torii still bore their radiant vermilion color. Though we did not hike the whole trail, we must have passed through hundreds. It was a tunnel like no other.

Ryōan-ji:

The next morning, Hiro took us to northwest Kyoto. We first stopped at Ryōan-ji, a Zen temple. It reminded me of Tenryū-ji, another temple in Kyoto. There were painted panels of extravagant Japanese calligraphy and bonsai trees. Ryōan-ji also featured a panoramic walking trail by a tree-lined lake abundant with lily pads. One tree overflowed with bright orange persimmons; ready for picking.

img_3437

Ryōan-ji’s true standout was its rock garden. Fifteen boulders were spread out, surrounded by thousands of raked pebbles resembling ocean waves. I thought it looked pleasant in its impeccable design. The attendants certainly do an outstanding job maintaining the garden.

Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion):

Near Ryōan-ji was Kinkaku-ji. It is a glorious temple coated in gold leaf, facing a large pond. The Golden Pavilion looked stunning above its watery reflection. For reasons of preservation, no visitors are allowed inside. The attendants, however, directed us to framed images of the interior. There are a number of altars and Buddhist statues inside. All in all, I enjoyed viewing the golden exterior. To me, Kinkaku-ji was the most magnificent temple I saw in Japan.

Higashiyama and Kiyomizudera:

Later, I explored hilly Higashiyama. Like Gion, this neighborhood is old with narrow roads, wooden shops and restaurants. I planned to see its ancient temple, Kiyomizudera. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is situated on a hill over forty feet high. It has a massive wooden balcony overlooking rich scenery. I did some shopping beforehand. I enjoyed some scrumptious honeydew ice cream and purchased a traditional pink parasol. The ice cream helped me catch my second wind, and the parasol was the ideal souvenir.

When I arrived at Kiyomizudera, I saw the balcony was undergoing renovations. Nevertheless, it was overrun by tourists. Feeling disappointed, I walked the grounds instead. Despite the scaffolding, the temple looked spectacular amid the autumn foliage. The grounds also had trails of stunning golden Buddhist statues and tall vermilion pagodas. Kiyomizudera certainly captured the cultural, historic and picturesque essence of Kyoto.

Selfies:

Landmarks of Kyoto (Part 1)

 

Kyoto was the last stop of my Japanese adventure. For a millennia, it was the capital of Japan. The city has a variety of palaces, shrines, and temples. An exceedingly popular tourist destination, millions flock every year to see the abundance of cultural and historic attractions. My experience in Kyoto was like a journey to Japan’s past.

Gion:

Geishas are icons of Japan. They are hostesses trained to entertain clients (mainly businessmen) through conversation and performance at exclusive ochayas (tea houses). Geishas are required to wear thick makeup, dynamic chignons (hairdos) and extravagant kimonos. They begin their rigorous training as maikos (apprentices) by learning traditional Japanese hospitality and performing arts. This custom was widespread in Japan before World War II. Today, it is mostly found in Kyoto’s Gion district.

Gion is old with narrow roads and wooden machiya houses. It is a good example of what Japan looked like centuries ago. Most of the houses belonged to local merchants. My group passed by ochayas with lit red lanterns. According to our guide, the lanterns meant geishas were inside. No one could enter without a reservation.

Geishas are discrete in public, especially with Gion becoming a travel hot spot. There are reports of tourists rudely grabbing them on the street for a photo. I noticed a maiko taking a taxi. Geishas likely take private transportation to avoid the hordes of visitors. I do not blame them. Although I only saw the back of her head, she must have looked striking in her attire.

Tenryū-ji and Arashiyama Bamboo Grove:

Our guide also showed us a 14th century temple named Tenryū-ji. Through the years, it had been destroyed by fire and war then rebuilt many times. Its halls are minimalist yet immaculate; with tatami mat floors, paper walls, altars and sparse furniture. I liked the massive cloud dragon painting. The creature looked powerful with his sharp claws and teeth.

Its garden, Sogenchi, somehow remained safe from all turmoil. The garden was elegant with a wide pond surrounded by rocks and colorful trees. I am not surprised that the Japanese government established it as a Site of Special Historic and Scenic Importance. Nearby was the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. It is another of Kyoto’s more popular attractions. We arrived early in the morning to avoid the large crowds. I was blown away by all the bamboo trees. They were incredibly tall. We saw a couple having their wedding pictures taken in the forest. How splendid!

Nijō Castle:

I wanted to visit Nijō Castle. I had seen castles in Europe and was curious to see one in Japan. It was in another part of town and took me some time to get there from Arashiyama. Thankfully, our guide Hiro provided good directions and I made it there easily.

The castle is situated on a small island, guarded by a massive stone fortress. Nijō was home to the Tokugawa Shogunate for over two hundred years. It was built by Ieyasu in 1603 and completed by his grandson, Iemitsu, years after his death. The castle is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for having well-preserved architecture from feudal Japan.

img_3331

Beyond the fortress was the palace of Ninomaru. Inside were panels covered with gold leaf, among stunning images of cherry blossoms and leopards. The Tokugawa family possessed incomparable wealth, to match its absolute power. While there, I was told an intriguing tale concerning its squeaky floors. They were allegedly built that way to warn the Shogunate of burglars…and assassins. What a clever security system!

Kyoto Imperial Palace:

I also saw the Kyoto Imperial Palace. The Japanese Imperial Family lived there for centuries until 1869, when Tokyo became the capital. It was less than a mile from Nijō Castle. I thought, ‘why not check it out?’ Admission was free. Like Nijō, the palace was guarded by long walls and numerous gates. Visitors were only allowed to see the grounds. Some rooms were visible to the public. I viewed them from a large glass window. One room had a dazzling paneled painting of cranes flapping their wings. Its garden was a charming place for a stroll. It had a variety of plants, trees, and a cute little bridge. I am sure the Emperor’s ancestors enjoyed living there. It was an ideal place to relax and relish nature.

Selfies:

To be continued…

Exploring Okunikko

 

On my tour group’s last day in Nikko, we ventured to the mountainous side of town. It is known as Okunikko. There are plenty of hiking trails, waterfalls and hot springs. Our guide Hiro planned on taking us to the Yumoto Onsen by Lake Yunoko. To get there, we took two buses into the mountains and hiked through the woods. It was quite the trek. The route involved negotiating several hairpin turns, which I found quite intimidating. Luckily, it seemed, we passed safely through the mountains. There was a wealth of beautiful scenery along the way. Lake Chūzenji was vast, crystal blue and surrounded by peaks. The lake definitely prepared us for what we were going to see during our time in Okunikko.

We got off the bus at Yudaki. It looked remarkable; standing 70 meters tall upon a steep hill, hedged by various trees. I liked that the attraction had a little food shop. Its shopkeeper roasted appetizing dango (rice cakes) and served it with miso paste. While we were there, it began to snow. This was surprising as it was November, though we were high up in the mountains. Some of the Australians in our group had never seen snow before, and were quite amazed. Of course, I am used to seeing snow during colder months. Being in Okunikko almost felt like New England to me.

The weather got windier as we hiked deeper into the woods. It was tough but we made it to Lake Yunoko in one piece. By the lake stood a restaurant where we ate lunch. I mentioned this place in one of my articles. The food was tasty and it had a lovely view of Lake Yunoko and the mountains. I ate a well-balanced meal of pork cutlet curry with rice, miso soup, salad, and Sapporo beer. It kept me full for hours!

Lake Yunoko

Once we finished lunch, the snow stopped falling and the sun came out. It appeared just in time for us to hit the Yumoto hot springs. Although I was looking forward to visiting the onsen, I was nervous about being naked in front of other men. At onsens, it is required for people to be nude together when they use the baths. This is an ancient Japanese tradition that onsens still follow. Even so, I took the “plunge” and ended up having a nice time with my group members. We chatted and took great pleasure in the deep heat of the bath. It felt soothing and was a bracing contrast from the chilliness outside.

Our next and last destination in the Okunikko excursion was Kegon Waterfall. It is 100 meters high and draws tourists from over the globe. Kegon is absolutely breathtaking. The stream was falling over the edge of a tall cliff. From the observation deck, I took pictures of the cascade as well as the Nikko Mountains in the distance. They looked gorgeous, though the trees were bare. I would have loved to spend the rest of the afternoon there. I began to feel tired and decided to return to the Turtle Inn. Even so, I am glad that I got to experience the stunning, peaceful Japanese countryside in Nikko. It is a place that I hope to revisit someday.

img_3210

Selfies:

The Spiritual Side of Nikko

 

Our next stop on the “Japan Express” tour was Nikko. It is a mountain town in Tochigi prefecture renowned for its natural beauty and religious sites. After spending four nights in busy Tokyo, I was looking forward to seeing a different side of Japan. Nikko was quieter, less congested, and incredibly scenic. Once we arrived, we saw ominous yet alluring mountains in the distance. The group and I were eager to go hiking. But first, we toured the town’s Shinto and Buddhist shrines. They were among our trip’s most opulent places.

Shinkyo Bridge:

Bridges have a special purpose in Shintoism, Japan’s national religion. They are called shinkyos and are part of the pathways (or sandos) to shrines. The sando is used as a way to make visitors ready for worship. The shinkyo is supposed to clear their minds before they arrive. Nikko’s magnificent bridge is the gateway to its many shrines like Futarasan, and is popular with travelers. It is lacquered with vermilion, standing 35 feet above the Daiya River and is 92 feet long. Visitors can walk across the bridge for a fee of 500 yen ($5.00). I was astonished by its elegant design and how high it stood above the rushing waters. I can understand why it is rated as one of Japan’s three finest bridges.

Toshogu Shrine:

img_3139

Shrines are the Shinto places of worship. They are home to kami, the religion’s gods or spirits. Kami symbolize qualities or attributes pertaining to nature, fertility, as well as people’s ancestors. Worshippers come to pray for good luck. In their homes, they sometimes have altars dedicated to their forebears. Some shrines commemorate important figures in Japanese history like Tokugawa Ieyasu. In 1603, the warlord established a military dictatorship known today as the Tokugawa Shogunate. It united Japan after centuries of civil war. This was the Edo period, which lasted until 1868. As the Japanese were gradually and forcibly isolated from other countries, they concentrated more on their culture. Edo traditions like kabuki theatre and green tea ceremonies are still performed in Japan today.

There are many shrines in honor of Ieyasu. The one in Nikko is the most famous because it has very elaborate architectural designs and bears his tomb. The Toshogu Shrine is deep within a cryptomeria forest and is a complex of many buildings. It has a five story pagoda, monumental gates, and incomparable prayer halls. All around are colorful carvings of monkeys, dragons, even a sleeping cat. I was impressed by the copious use of gold leaf. It must have represented the great wealth and power of Ieyasu and his Tokugawan descendants.

img_3116

Our guide Hiro showed us the great shogun’s tomb. It was located upon a very steep hill. The hike through the woods was strenuous but we arrived safe and sound. Ieyasu’s tomb looked refined with its bronze stupa and crane statue. In Japanese culture, cranes symbolize long life. Ieyasu may be dead but his legacy lives on in Japanese society. The crane statue clearly represents the immense respect they have for him.

Kanmangafuchi Abyss:

When I wrote earlier about staying at the Turtle Inn in Nikko, I noted a nearby attraction called the Kanmangafuchi Abyss. It is a gorge with a riverside pathway, lined with Jizō statues. In Zen Buddhism, a Jizō is a Bodhisattva who looks after those who have died, particularly children. Worshippers express their devotion by dressing the figures in red hats and bibs, ostensibly to keep them warm. These Jizō watch over the spirits of children who drowned in the Daiya River centuries ago. It felt solemn yet peaceful to be there. I was sad to learn the story behind the statues but the attraction is more like a sanctuary. It was quiet, undisturbed by masses of people, and was surrounded by vivid foliage. I left hoping the spirits remain forever at peace.

For more information about Shintoism and Zen Buddhism, please click here.

Selfies:

 

The Massiveness of Tokyo (Part 2)

Chiyoda – Akihabara:

After my group left Harajuku, some of us went to Akihabara. It is Tokyo’s anime district and ‘Electric City.’ Stores sold thousands of anime-related items, manga books and electronic devices. Many were at least seven stories tall. All were fun to explore. I had never seen so many Pokemon plushies and drones. It is certainly the place to be if you are a fan of anime and electronics. Just remember to bring enough cash and credit. This stuff is not cheap!

Akihabara is also known for its maid, butler, and cat cafes. At maid and butler cafes, you are served by a lady wearing a French maid costume or a man dressed in a tuxedo. They refer to you as master or madame. I entered a cat cafe called Coorikuya. The felines were cuddly, sweet and soft to pet. They reminded me of my beloved cat, Lucy. There was a vending machine with beverages ranging from soda to coffee. It was the perfect place for me to relax and rejuvenate.

I was impressed by the busking musicians near Akihabara station. One of them was a young keyboard player with a pristine singing voice. Another singer played with a guitarist and a percussionist. Supposedly, she and her band had appeared on Japanese television. I shot some videos of their routine. Akihabara is renowned for these public performers. It is thrilling to think a person singing in the street might someday become famous.

Chūō – Tsukiji and Ginza:

On our last day in Tokyo, our guide Hiro took us down to the Chūō Ward. We stopped first at Tsukiji Hogan-ji. It is a Buddhist temple with a design inspired by both Indian temples and Western churches. There were stupas, arches, stained glass windows, even a German pipe organ. The interior was also embellished with gold, which is typical in Japanese Buddhist temples. It was fun to gawk at the diverse architecture. This attraction is also close to the Tsukiji Outer Market, renowned for its fresh seafood.

Although the market was packed with tourists and locals, my group and I were able to eat there and explore the facilities. When I wrote about dining in Japan, I described a restaurant that served wonderful sushi. To this day, I am craving it! After lunch, I saw more of the market and was amazed by its immense variety of fish. There was a vendor grilling eel on a stick. I had never tried eel before and decided to give it a whirl. It was smothered in a tasty, sweet glaze and quite a delicacy. Perhaps I will add it to my regular fare at Japanese restaurants stateside.

Hiro later took us to Ginza, Tokyo’s upscale fashion district. We passed by the Seiko Department Store and numerous designer boutiques. We even checked out the Nissan Crossing Gallery. The outfits and cars on display were indeed opulent, but far too expensive to buy. On the other hand, I enjoyed the Ginza Six Rooftop Garden. It was stunning, offering a 360 degree view of the city with a vast green-space. The garden was surprisingly devoid of tourists and thus very peaceful. It is the quintessential attraction to unwind, have a picnic, and take countless photos.

Kōtō – Teamlab Planets:

This was a museum like no other. Located along the Sumida River, Teamlab Planets offers visitors an immersive, digital art experience. I walked into a psychedelic gallery with mirrored floors and long beads hanging from the ceiling. They would change colors and flash before my eyes. Another gallery had me wading in water up to my knees with holographic fish swimming around. The last exhibit was filled with big balls that I constantly bumped into. They changed color every second which I found stimulating. Finding the exit with these balls in my way was a challenge, but a fun one.

Teamlab Planets was truly mind blowing. I had not heard of the museum before I came to Japan, so I am pleased to have gone there. It would have been fantastic to stay all day. Unfortunately, my ticket was only valid for an hour. I highly recommend Teamlab Planets to anyone vacationing in Tokyo.

Selfies: