13th September 2022: Wadi Rum (and the bus) {Jordan, September 2022}

I had a boiled egg, potato hash-browns and coffee breakfast because my body was craving salt, I guess. Then we set off on the bus, where we ended up spending around seven hours (the 412 km are supposed to be done in 5 hours and a half, but that does not take into account bad traffic). Urgh. Our first stop was a viewpoint over the whole canyon area.

Wadi Musa valley panorama, showing the deep gorge from above (by JBinnacle)

The second stop was a souvenir shop that had probably somehow bribed our guide or driver for it. None of us even bought anything, but we were forced to be there for about half an hour before we could continue to the only organised activity for the day – a two-hour jeep tour throughout the Natural Reserve and UNESCO World Heritage site of Wadi Rum | Wādī Ramm [وادي رم]. It is the largest wadi “valley”, created by alluvial fans and wind deposits, rather than the idea of a river bed. They are often found in deserts.

During the tour in Wadi Rum Reserve [محمية وادي رم] we drove through the desert and stopped at some rock formations that had built a gigantic dune. Wadi Rum used to be a granite and sandstone rocky formation. Thousands of years worth of wind eroded the sandstone back to sand, forming and shaping the desert dunes. Huge granite structures still stand, such as the Seven Pillars of Wisdom [عمدة الحكمة السبعة], just at the beginning of the route. One of the stops is the tourist-named Big Red Sand Dune, which you can climb for kicks, giggles and some nice views of the landscape.

Driving into Wadi Rum. The roof of the jeep is visible, along with a rock formation in the background. Between us and the rock formation there is the other jeep, causing a dust cloud (by JBinnacle)

Back of a dune we had to climb, and the rock + sand landscape that could be seen from the top. Wind erosion marks have created soft ridges. The rocks are red-grey and the sand is rose-gold (by JBinnacle)

Then we drove off to see some petroglyphs, and were offered dromedary rides. These petroglyphs, depicting early humans and their cattle – bovines and dromedaries – are the reason for the Heritage status.

A rock wall with some dromedaries in the foreground + a close up of the petroglyphs engraved in the rock, also showing dromedaries (by JBinnacle)

Finally we were shown a Bedouin tent at the feet of the Lawrence Canyon, a beautiful rock formation with faces of Jordan monarchs. Unfortunately, we did not get to see any onyx or fennec foxes, but I did see a small lizard. The Bedouins treated us to a cup of tea, but then we had to tip the driver about 10€…

Lawrence Canyon, a deep cut in the rock filled with sand at the bottom + details of engraved faces and Arab script, a lizard and a bit of tea, along with a traditional Bedouin coffee maker (by JBinnacle)

Afterwards, we started off our trip back northwards back to Amman | ʻAmmān [عَمَّان]. Though the trip is supposed to take about 4 hours, it was way more than that, and we did not arrive at the hotel until way past 18:00. We went through the security checks and ended up learning that we could not travel between floors, so we could not go to the others’ rooms using the lifts, and the stairs were blocked… Well, at least we had… views?

A view of Amman skyline in the dark (by JBinnacle)

After we managed to regroup, we had dinner and decided to try to check in online for the flight next day’s flight – and I was successful. Apparently, the airline only cared about us filling in our Covid certificate to enter Jordan, we were on our own for the way back.

12th August 2022: Stones, the reason for the trip. Lots of Stones {England, August 2022}

I was convinced I’d sleep like the dead and set a couple of alarms. Unfortunately, laundry and house service got going at 6:30, and woke me up. At least, the room had a kettle and some instant coffee which, along with one of the sandwiches I had procured the previous day, got me going. I made sure that the camera was charged, put everything I needed into the backpack and strolled off. My hotel was close to Earl’s Court, and I was walking to South Kensington to check out sandwich and coffee shop. And – to my eternal surprise – to queue for a museum! I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many people waiting for a museum to open in my life.

I’m referring to the Natural History Museum, one of my favourite ones. This time, it was a must, so I booked free entry with the special exhibition – “Dippy is Back”. Dippy is the diplodocus cast replica that used to stand in the middle of the museum, the Hintze Hall (where now the whale skeleton hangs). Dippy was the first of its kind to go on display in the world. The original skeleton was discovered in 1898 by railroad workers in an area called Sheep Creek, in Wyoming, USA. At the time, Andrew Carnegie had made a fortune in the American steel industry, and become one of the most important philanthropists in the US and the British Empire. He paid for casts of the bones to be made (some sources also say that he bought the actual skeleton, some that he had sponsored the dig) and sent to museums in Europe and South American. For the first time the public got to see a whole dinosaur skeleton, which was actually named Diplodocus carnegii after Carnegie. Dippy was gifted to the National History Museum in 1905, and was exhibited there until it went “on tour” around the United Kingdom in 2017.

Here is a little trip down memory lane: back in the mid-nineties I was a teenager in London with my English class. We had free time and they wanted to go to Harrods, so… instead I got myself into the Tube to go to the Natural History Museum just to see this dinosaur (I also ditched the group in the British Museum, but that’s another tale). The point was that I was around 14 or 15, bouncing through London by myself, on my way to see this very cool dinosaur! And I did not have to listen to people being rowdy, nor try to keep the peace in group – I was alone (scared out of my skin, true), but I was free by myself. And for me, that was very important, even if I would not come to realise that until recently.

The fossilised skeleton of a diplodocus, seen from the front. Lots of people are trying to take pictures with it

I saw Dippy again in 2011 when I went to London, but I was surprised when he was not there in 2018, shipped around the country in a travelling exhibition. For some reason, knowing that it was there made me really, really want to see it again. Since the pandemic, you need to reserve at ticket at the Natural History Museum, even if it’s free, so I booked mine for 10:00, to be there first thing as they opened – thus the queuing-before-opening.

Originally a gallery of the British Museum, the Natural History Museum was first designed by civil engineer Captain Francis Fowke, and then it was revised by Alfred Waterhouse, who redesigned the façades in a Romanesque-like style, with architectural terracotta tiles to withstand the British weather. These tiles have flora and fauna decoration and reliefs. The building was finished in 1880, and all the material had been moved by 1883. In the 20th century, the museum rebranded itself as a separate entity from the British Museum, and in recent years different areas and expansions have been opened.

Anyhow. The gates opened a little before 10:00 (If I lived in London I would totally be a member and stroll the museum before opening hours), and the queue started moving. There were lines for ticket holders and non-ticket holders, but my ticket was not even checked. Thus, I just moved towards the area where Dippy was and spent a while there. I felt a little emotional, thinking that, in a way, I owe that dinosaur one.

After seeing Dippy, I wandered around the dinosaur gallery for some time, then I went to buy a sandwich and have a coffee and a painkiller, because I had a long day ahead of me and my head was buzzing a little – I needed to get that under control beforehand. At 11:40 I took a coach with a company called Anderson Tours for an organised day trip: Stonehenge Special Access – Evening. Even though I am not too keen on guided tours, I will admit that they can be handy at some particular circumstances. They will never become my preferred choice of travel, in this case, choosing a tour was the best option.

Regarding Stonehenge, if you want to get up close and personal with the stones, you need a VIP ticket, which means you have to be there before they open to the general public, or after they close, and for that you need transportation – either a taxi, or renting a car, and a hotel as close as possible. The Stonehenge VIP ticket is around £50, and I booked my tour for £135, a full-day tour, including coach, Stonehenge at sunset, and two other destinations, with pick up and drop-off near my London hotel. In the end, that was cheaper than a taxi or a rental plus a hotel near the site (I did a lot of maths before deciding to book this). Anderson Tours offers different combinations of “Stonehenge and…”, with places like Bath or Bristol. However, those are easily reachable by train, and I can explore them on my own. Nevertheless, there was a particular trip that interested me – it went along two or three spots that are a bit off the beaten track, and related to the theme – a Neolithic tomb and another stone circle. This particular tour happens only on certain specific Fridays, thus why my “weekend” away was not such a weekend, as I had to make sure I was in London on the 12th.

The first stop of the day was West Kennet Long Barrow. A long barrow is an elongated prehistoric (3800 – 3500 BCE) stone monument that has been linked to the worship of the dead and the ancestors. Sometimes, human remains have been found in them. If one imagines what Great Britain was at that time, the south-east area would be the one with less tree coverage, and therefore the best option for primitive people who had started to settle and use agriculture. The counties of Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Somerset and Dorset have a lot of chalk-rich soil (the Salisbury Plain), which makes it difficult for tress to root and grow. Thus, it would have been easy for the primitive humans to settle and build their villages and monuments. Today, the whole area is known as Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site, listed by UNESCO in 1986, and it includes over 700 prehistoric monuments from the Neolithic and Bronze Age.

Collage: elongated mound of dirt on top. On the borrom, the gate. On the left the protective slabs, standing upright, and on the right, the entrance. It is a construction of vertical walls made from grey slabs and another slab on top. The interior is dark.

West Kennet Long Barrow is situated in the middle of a farm. There is a tiny parking lot to the side of the road, and a fifteen-minute walk to the barrow itself. It is one of the largest built in Britain, and around 50 sets of remains have been identified, along with pottery, beads and other personal items. Around 2000 BCE, it was closed down and barricaded, then discovered in the 19th century and scientifically excavated and restored in 1956. It is private property under the care of British Heritage. Apparently, all these sites have become a point of pilgrimage for neo-pagans, and on this day, there was a bunch of them chanting inside the barrow…

On the opposite side of the road from the barrow stands Silbury Hill, a mound or artificial mountain. It stands 30 metres high, with 160 metres in diameter wide, and it is estimated that half a million tonnes of material (mostly local chalk) were used to build it throughout several generations of humans. It cannot be climbed, due to a collapse a while back, that would have been neat!

View of a small hill and dry grass.

After that, we headed off to the village of Avebury, which hosts the largest Neolithic stone circle, with smaller circles inside. It originally had over 100 stones, and it might have built between 2850 and 2200 BCE. Today there is a village in the area, with a few shops and museums in the centre, and a lot of sheep grazing the area. Around three quarters of the circle is still standing, along the henge (long ditch that used to be built with the stones in Neolithic circles).

We had two and a half hours in Avebury – a bit too much, I would say – to explore the Avebury Stone Circle and Henge and its sheep. The guide told us about ley lines and trees that were supposed to have inspired Tolkien’s Ents from “The Lord of the Rings”, and I needed to ask about the geology of the stones – here I learnt that they are made out of sarsen, like the Stonehenge ones. Sarsen refers to silicified sandstone blocks, common in the area, and it has been proven that the ones used in the megaliths come from Marlborough Downs, some 25 km away (35 km from Stonehenge). Once we were dismissed for our “free time”, I walked along the three fourths of stone circle remaining.

A collage showing different megaliths from the Avebury stone circle. Small pillars mark the spots where the stones have been lost. There are some sheep grazing on dry grass.

There are other places to visit in town, such as a Medieval manor with a dovecote. The stables of the manor are the site of the archaeological museum is hosted, and here I made a mistake. I should have got in, but I wanted to visit the church, and by the time I was done, the museum was closing down. Live and learn. There is also a tiny chapel, and a lot of souvenir and “crystal” shops.

The Church of Saint James dates back to the 1000s, though later centuries saw the addition of many items, such as the aisles and the 15th-century wooden roof. The nave and the chancel are separated by a one-of-a-kind wooden rood / screen with an original 13th century base. There are Saxon windows and a Norman font. It is a fantastic little church.

Gothic church, from the outside. The inside shows a wooden Normand altar, the standard altar, and a carved stone baptismal font

Finally, the time came. At 17:30 we met up on the way to the coach, and then we started off towards the highlight of the day – Stonehenge. Stonehenge was erected between 3000 and 2000 BCE – the primitive human somehow got the sarsen stones into Salisbury plain and planted them so they stood in a circle. They measure up to four metres long, and some of them are arranged in the shape of trilithons – two large vertical stones (posts) support a third one (lintel) which is set horizontally on top of them, with carved studs so the structure fits like a snap. There is a tear-shaped monolith standing a few metres away called “Heel stone”, which marks the entrance.

Some of them are indeed collapsed now and some are covered in lichen – there is a special type of lichen that only grows in three places in the world, and that is one of them. For thousand of years, these stones have remained standing, and the first historical study of them dates from 1666, carried out by an English antiquary, natural philosopher and writer John Aubrey, and has been restored a several times, especially during the 20th century, when they were roped off and a fee charged for entry.

Currently, the stone circle belongs to the Queen of England, and according to the British Ancient Monuments Bill, it cannot be touched or altered in any way that is not to preserve its current status. In 2020, a core taken from the stones during the 1958 restoration was returned. This allowed researchers to analyse the composition and prove that the megaliths are indeed sarsen from the Malborough area.

The rules when you are allowed into the stone are “simple”: do not touch the stones, do not step on the stones, do not hug the stones, do not lick the stones, do not get naked among the stones. Judging by the tone in the guide’s voice, all that has happened before. Apparently, there are a lot of ley-line believers, neopagans and neodruids wanting to “connect” with the earth energy there (there is even a “yoga at sunset group”). In a kind of compromise, they allow you to take off your shoes and socks – which I did not do.

According to archaeologists, Stonehenge was designed in alignment the Winter Solstice sunset. The site was probably a celebration of the end of the worst of the winter before days started getting longer again. Other theories propose that it was originally a burial site that became a place to worship the ancestors.

The great thing about the after-hours tour is that you get to see the sunset around the site. Our timing was 18:45 – 19:45. The guide was nice too, and gave us “permission” to wander around and did not expect to listen to him all the time – don’t tell me twice. I explored and wandered to my heart’s content. We stayed there for about an hour, and it was really cool. I mean, not magical or “I feel the magic of the earth” or anything, but the circle is a fantastic piece of engineering, especially considering it was built five thousand years ago, before writing was even invented. Sometimes, humans are neat.

Stonehenge collage. Two shots of the megaliths standing on dry grass, from the outside; the sun shines between the darkened stones. One shot from the inside of the circle, showing the megaliths circling inwards.

It was over sooner than I would have liked, but about an hour later we were back on the bus after hitting the souvenir shop – where I got a guidebook – and we arrived in London around 22:00. When I got off the bus I just walked to the hotel, had my sandwich. Good thing I had left the window open, too, as it made the temperature slightly more tolerable – I own up though, I slept with the fan on, but… like a rock. Or a stone.

Walking distance: 11.96 km / 18742 steps
Coach distance: 317 km

1st July 2021: Manatees are Zen (Faunia, Madrid, Spain)

Madrid has two zoos, the traditional one which can be traced back to 1770, and a second one which opened in 2001. They actually belong to the same business group anyway so probably the whole point is just to charge more – and to expand the installations. They operate as independent entities. On the first of July, due to a number of circumstances coming together, I visited Faunia, the newer installation. The standard price for a ticket is around 28€ – but there are plenty of different discounts. I paid 18.90€ for a random Thursday discount that they’ve got.

Though it promotes itself as a “Nature Theme park”, Faunia is little more than a modern standard zoo. Of course, it is much better than the old zoos, and the animals are well-kept, an organisation in ecosystems or areas is not that much of a novelty any more. There are different areas: farm / petting zoo, night, lake, jungle, temperate forest, African forest, Australia…

Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis), the largest lizard in the world, endemic to some Indonesian islands. They are venomous.
Tufted capuchin (Sapajus apella), an omnivorous primate from South America.
Red panda (Ailurus fulgens), an animal that is so different from everything else that it has its own family name all by itself. It is native to the Himalayas and the south west of China.
American flamingoes (Phoenicopterus ruber), long-legged wading birds famous for their pink colour that tend to live in flocks.
Ring-tailed lemurs (Lemur catta), a group-forming species endemic to Madagascar. They are attitude-laden and fear-lacking little fellas who love to sunbathe.

Fennec fox (Vulpes zerda): a small fox with large ears which lives in the Sahara and the Sinai Peninsula.
Southern tamandua or lesser anteater (Tamandua tetradactyla), a species of anteater from the forests of South America and the Caribbean, which feeds on ants, termites and bees.
Kangaroo Rat (genus Dipodomys), tiny nocturnal rodents from North America that can jump over two metres
Butterflies – don’t expect me to be able to ID them, but my money is on Antiochus Longwing, a south American small butterfly
Nile crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus), a found in marshes, rivers and lakes in throughout sub-Saharan Africa. They are opportunistic and aggressive predators which ambush their prey in or near the water. And they can gallop. Look that up.

Arapaima (Sudis gigas), a giant fish native to the Amazon. They eat smaller fish, crustaceans, fruits, seeds, insects and any small land animal that they can catch on shore. Furthermore, this is an air-breather. It is a top predator that can become invasive if placed somewhere else.
Redtail catfish (Phractocephalus hemioliopterus), another carnivorous fish from the Amazon. Never trust a catfish, they can literally eat you by accident (or on purpose).
Caiman (family Alligatoridae), reptile predators originating in South America. They are large and aggressive, but they tend to hut fish. Did you know that
Penguins (family Spheniscidae) are a group of aquatic flightless birds. Most live in the Southern Hemisphere, and they feed on krill, fish, squid and so on that they catch underwater. Contrary to the myth, not all penguins live in the cold, a lot of them live in temperate climates.
Coral reef, with clownfish (family Pomacentridae) and sea anemones (order Actiniaria) living in symbiosis.

Meerkat (Suricata suricatta) aka Timon from the Lion King.
Red-necked wallaby (Macropus rufogriseus), similar to but smaller than a kangaroo, and also friendlier. They, of course, originate from Australia. The Faunia webpage says that you can go into the pen and walk among them, but I didn’t try.
Yellow-banded poison dart frog (Dendrobates leucomelas). It is an amphibian which lives in the humid areas in the north of South American. They secrete toxins from their skin. Do not pet, much less lick.
Blue viper of the white-lipped island pit viper (Trimeresurus insularis). Beautiful, venomous, aggressive and feisty, this snake is originary from Indonesian islands.
Gaboon viper (Bitis gabonica), it is really there. It is another venomous snake, and it has the longest fangs among snakes. And yes, it is really there.

White-cheeked turaco (Menelikornis leucotis), originary from forest in the highland regions of Eastern Africa.
Grey crowned crane (Balearica regulorum), a large bird from Sub-Saharan Africa.
Roseate spoonbill (Platalea ajaja), a wading bird from South America, with a very characteristic beak, hence the name
Macaws (genus Ara), endemic to Central and South America. They are “seed predators” which means they destroy the seeds to eat them
Scarlet ibises (Eudocimus ruber), another colourful bird whose original habitat is the coastal areas of South America. They use their long beaks to prove for food in mud or under plants – they eat a lot of small crustaceans, which gives them their particular colour

I guess it is worth a visit, but that’s just about it, if you consider it from a shallow point of view – because when you start getting deep into things, everything gets ridiculously expensive. Because the thing that does differentiate Faunia from other zoos is the fact that it offers “hands-on experiences.” Some of these are about 5 or 6€ and include a short talk inside one of the pens – such as “meeting” the pelicans or the penguins.

For example, the Pelican interaction consists in walking into the pen and seeing the birds from afar sitting on a bench while one caretaker explains basic biology facts and the other tries to get a pelican to eat trouts for a bit of a close-up “feeling”. Pelicans are large water birds spread all through the world but Antarctica. Their most important characteristic is the large throat pouch under their long beak, that they use to “fish” – they fill their pouch with a billful of water and keep whatever they can digest. Faunia has pink-backed pelicans (Pelecanus rufescens) great white pelicans (Pelecanus onocrotalus)

There are however other more expensive interactions, on the range of 40 to 50€, and one of them is the one I did – the interaction with the Manatees. Faunia has three West Indian manatees of the Antillean subspecies (Trichechus manatus manatus). Manatees are aquatic mammals – they breathe air and they spend all of their lives in the water, either salt or freshwater in South America. They don’t have natural predators, so they lack predator-avoidance responses, which makes them very tame and friendly. Unfortunately, they are critically endangered in the wild, mostly due to human-related deaths: hunting, habitat destruction and collision with ships. As they are herbivorous, they eat fresh and saltwater algae and plants, they are sometimes called “sea cows”, and eat plants and algae – males are called bulls, females cows and babies calves. They are sturdy and they can weigh between 400 and 550 kg, measuring up to 3 m in length. They have a long spine with pectoral flippers that have five fingers, but no rear flippers. Their body ends in a paddle-shaped tail. The neck is not visible and the head is stocky. They don’t have ears, their eyes are small and their snout is short, with nostrils that can be closed when they are underwater. They have a prehensile lip that they use to gather food and for social communication and interaction.

And they are adorable.

The manatees in Faunia are named Bruno, Fiona and Pelusa (“Dustbunny”), with the latter being the two-year-old daughter of the other two, born in the park. They live in the tank located in “The Jungle” area (La Jungla), sharing their space with catfish, arapaima and pirapitinga (the good-rep fish in the piranha family). For the interaction, you are asked to bring your bathing suit, towel and pool flip-flops. I arrived at the meeting point early and waited eagerly for the staff to come pick me up. Then I was guided into the inner area of the Jungle building, up a metal staircase and I changed into the neoprene suit.

As we waited for the other people to be collected, I saw the manatees swimming around, already anticipating the food. They had mulberry leaves, endives, and banana pieces for treats, and lettuce of different kinds as their main meals. The interaction itself is a kind of training for the animals. The trainers go in with an acoustic signal, and the animals recognise their own names, and each goes to the trainer assigned to them – you also get assigned a trainer so you don’t mess up.

There are two parts of the interaction. First, you get to feed “your” manatee whatever you are given. Normally, there are two people per manatee, but as this was in the middle of the week, even if in summer, we were lucky enough to only be three visitors – which meant your own personal manatee. Mine was Pelusa, the baby, and she was way more interested in the mulberry than the endives. During this part you keep your FFP mask on.

For the second part you “go down” with a snorkelling mask and even if you’re still on the platform you get to feed “whomever comes to you”, seeing the interaction from within the water. To finish up, you give your manatee a small branch for them to eat and play with, and they are released, you change back into your clothes and leave. My interaction took about one hour, and I was lucky enough that I had an “infiltrate” who took pictures from the “underwater tunnel” that crosses the tank. I also bought myself one of the official pictures that the resident photographer takes, because I really, really wanted a good picture.

All in all, it was awesome, and it even felt that the manatees came to wave bye-bye as I left through the tunnel.

As a zoo, as I mentioned, Faunia is a very standard one, with very few things that would make it special if not for the interactions. It could do with some more shades, because just after lunchtime it became really hot. Most food kiosk were closed due to COVID measures, and there were several vending machines. There were a lot of kids doing “urban camp” activities, and I got ran over twice – one of them pretty painfully to be honest.

Aside from the animals, there is a roller-coaster, also down due to COVID and a “dinosaur canyon” with dummies and animatronics that have really seen better days.

T-rex skeleton reconstruction

Furthermore, queuing to go in because the VIP entrance is blocked for… no really VIPs as there were none, and waiting forever at the entrance kiosk to get the Experience passes and then for the photos, were a drag. As a conclusion, going once in your lifetime, getting to do an interaction or two might be a good idea, but this is not somewhere I’m dying to come back to – though I am open to explore other parks from the same owner, such as the traditional zoo or the aquarium.

I mean, some of animals, such as this goose, had a very clear opinion about the park, too.

Goose attacking one of the Faunia signs

Walked distance: 12954 steps / 8.06 km

Pricing: Ticket: 18.90€ + Manatee experience 38.90€ + Pelican experience 5€ + Professional picture 11.90€ + digital upgrade (three-month access) 1€ = 75.70€. Way too much to plan another expedition any time soon.
Saved: We parked outside so we saved up the 5.50 € for the parking lot, and we took our own food.

22nd July 2019: Tokyo Shinagawa → Higashimaya Kyoto {Japan, summer 2019}

My Shinawaga hotel was very close to Sengakuji [泉岳寺], the temple that honours the forty-seven ronin so I paid them a visit before I moved on.

The reason why I was in Shinagawa was being close to the station as I was heading off to Kyoto. I took a shinkansen around 9 am and was in Kyoto just before 11, maybe. From Kyoto station I walked to Nishi-Hongwan-ji [西本願寺], which was about 10 /15 minutes away. It had been on my list since I went to Higashi-Hongwan-ji last year, but I had to go get some rest afterwards because I had a migraine.

As I was heading back towards the station I came across a building that really grabbed my attention. A little research yielded to finding out that it is a temple: Dendou-In [伝道院], which apparently belongs to Nishi-Hongwan-ji and is a research building. It was designed by a famous architect called Tadata Ito in 1912 in a style called “Evangelical”, and built shortly after. It’s not open to the public though, but it sure as hell is interesting.

After that I took the underground to my hotel. It was raining like crazy when I got there, and to make things more difficult, my bloody credit card decided to stop working. This made me slightly late to my 13:00 appointment at Studio Esperanto Oiran Taiken [studio-esperanto 花魁體驗]. Things were a little different this time. First of all, because I was just in time for appointment, I was directly ushered to the make-up room. Fortunately I had quite a clear idea of what I wanted, so it sort of worked in the end. The make-up artist was nice but she was a bit intimidated, and the photographer was difficult to communicate with, which hampered the experience a little. In the end, however, I got really cool pictures out of the experience, so I am not going to complain.

By the time I got out, there was a deluge outside. I was in the hotel, which was close to the photography studio, for a little, and after checking the maps that they had given me at reception, I realised that I was much closer to the Gion area than I – and Google Maps – had actually thought. There was one big park / shrine complex I could walk. At least part of it is called Maruyama Koen [円山公園] and it has a cool pond. I walked from the north entrance to the western exit, which belongs to Yasaka Jinja [八坂神社], the Yasaka Jinja Minami-romon [八坂神社 南楼門], the Tower Gate. I passed Gyokkō Inari Yashiro [玉光稲荷社] on the way.

I walked off to Gion, [祇園] which was almost empty due to the storm. Whenever I get to Gion in the evening, I always check whether there is a long queue at Gion Corner, which is a theatre that performs “traditional arts”:

  • Tea Ceremony [茶道]
  • Flower Arrangement / Ikebana [華道]
  • Koto [箏]
  • Gagaku [雅楽] Court Music and dance
  • Kyogen Theatre [狂言] (comic play)
  • Kyo-mai [京舞] (maiko dance)
  • Bunraku [文楽] Puppet Theatre (puppet theatre)

I was lucky this time, as the rain had scared most tourists away, so I could come in. It was a fun thing to do once, especially with “foreigner discount” it becoming half-price, but the audience kept talking and moving around the floor to take pictures and videos. Thai and Chinese people are loud (and a few of them rather disrespectful)! But all in all, I’m happy I got it out of my system, particularly the Kyo-mai dance.

After that, as it was not raining any more, I strolled down an almost-empty Gion.

Then I walked off towards an area that I had never been able to find before – Gion Shirakawa [祇園白川] and Tatsumi Bashi [祇園 巽橋]. Fortunately this time I had checked for the Tatsumi Bridge location fist, so it was not even that hard! I just had to know where to look for it! (≧▽≦).

I decided to take the way back through the park, so I could see all of Yasaka Jinja [八坂神社] lit up, which was very pretty.

As the hotel was also next to Heian Jingu [平安神宮], but as it was not lit up, I did not walk in.

Then I bought some conbini food and I went to the hotel to have dinner and a bath – the hotel had a hot spring public bath (and it was empty! Just for me!). I was lucky enough to get one of the traditional rooms, and the sand-puffs-like thingies were super-comfortable… until I had to stand up. It was so comfy I could barely stand up! And then I went off to sleep like at 10pm cause I was beat (∪。∪)。。。zzz.

Walked distance: 18517 steps / 13.2 km

26th May 2019: “Komeko Sin Gluten” event in Madrid (Spain)

After almost literally everybody and their dogs ditched me for a cooking workshop in Madrid, literally the day before I decided to bite the bullet and go by myself, so I bought my ticket on Saturday night, barely 12 hours before the event, a promotion of a Japanese-Spanish shop and its products based on rice flour. The shop is called “Komeko Sin Gluten”, which translates as “Gluten-Free Rice Flour”.

The event happened in a venue-for-hire in Madrid, and consisted in three distinct parts: a small market in which I would have spent a lot if I had not got a few samples with my ticket, a cooking workshop and a taiko concert. I arrived early due to Sunday having awful public-transport connections, and I arrived in Madrid an hour before the event even opened, and then we got a delay with the start of the workshop because someone was missing. During that time I got to sit around among aaaall the Japanese people around, including the head drummer of the taiko group, , whom I admired a lot since I watched him in HA·YA·TO: Drum Masters.

The small market was comprised, of course, of gluten-free products, especially Japanese ones, most of them can be found online, yay. I decided not to buy things upfront as the workshop included a sample of products, and I wanted to buy what I did not get. In the end, I did not have to buy anything because I got next to everything!

Anyway, the cooking workshop:

  1. Komeko crêpes: We made the crêpes on portable pans. There was a mini drama as the cook refused to start until we had chopsticks to flip the crêpes, and I was amused at first until I realised how convenient they actually were. While he was worried that I ahd any problems with the chopsticks, I’m happy to report that I was not the clumsiest in the class! After they were cool, we filled one up with ‘pastry cream’, banana and whipped cream for presentation – but we got to take the rest home and I tried them with chocolate. Serious improvement!
  2. Steamed banana sponge cake: this was really interesting to make, and also really easy – it involved mixing all the ingredients in a plastic bag, and then cutting a corner off the bag to pour that into little trays so we could steam it. That was… neat, and a team effort.
  3. Japanese green tea (matcha) ice-cream: Double team effort! (≧▽≦). As the paste needed time to freeze, we actually observed the chef prepare the ingredients and ate the one that had been prepared in the previous workshop.

We had a snack with our crêpes and the matcha ice-cream. Then we got the haul of goodies: ramen and spaghetti noodles, komeko, komeko with glutinous rice, and komeko with cocoa, well worth the price (10€) I had paid for the whole workshop… Talk about promotion ☆⌒(ゝ。∂).

Afterwards, I headed downstairs for the taiko concert. Enishi Taiko is a Spanish group, and Keita Kanazashi usually collaborates with them rather often. The concert was, of course, more humble than the one with HA·YA·TO, but it was still a lot of fun (you can watch the concert at SemiRandom).

Afterwards, I got Kanazashi to sign the HA·YA·TO DVD and the picture I had with him from that time, which was really cool. Furthermore, the main drummer in Enishi Taiko remembered me from the X Gran Exposición de Ikebana y Semana Cultural Japonesa session, and another session I took at their headquarters.

I had thought that I would be eating in Madrid but as I had snacked on the komeko products I was not hungry at all, so I decided to head home. On the way towards the station I found this really cool fountain.

17th August 2018: Gold & Oiran {Japan, summer 2018}

Last year I decided to take a maiko photoshoot and it was fun, so when this year I found something similar, I decided to take the plunge. In this case, it was not a maiko, but an oiran [花魁], high-ranking courtesans with flashier clothes and more expensive kimono and accessories. I timed this to be the day after the Gozan no Okuribi, and my appointment was at 1 pm, although the website advised you to be around half an hour earlier.

I woke up feeling much better than the previous day, and after leaving the hotel the first thing I did was visit Mikane Jinja [御金神社], a small temple that had at some point come under my radar because it has a golden torii. This was, again by luck, very close to my hotel.

After that I took the underground to go to the Higashiyama / Keage area, where my photo studio was. There are also a few things to see around there, so I got off at Keage Station and the first thing I saw was Nejirimanpo [ねじりまんぽ], a Spiral Brick Tunnel, also called “Twisted tunnel”. I walked across, of course.

Afterwards I found myself at the complex formed by Tosho-gu [東照宮] and Konchi-in [金地院]. Tosho-gu is dedicated to Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu.

I continued into the temple complex and saw Nanzen-ji [南禅寺], a grand temple.

And then I stumbled onto Suirokaku [水路閣], which is, of all things, an aqueduct! Furthermore, it is still in use.

My next stop was Saisho-in [最勝院].

Then it was almost time for my appointment, so I headed towards Studio Esperanto Oiran Taiken [studio-esperanto 花魁體驗], which was pretty much amazing.

While considerably more expensive than the maiko photo shoot, but the truth is, it seems less standardised and way more professional in a way, relaxed in the other… maybe it is the fact that you get to choose more is what makes it unique to you – also I am happy to report that I could do it with my contacts in, so that was way more enjoyable. The whole thing was like a dream – it reminded me a little of the experience you get when you go to Swallowtails, a lot of people are trying their best to make you feel welcome. In this case you choose a kimono and two different covers, called uchikake, which are super heavy because they are embroidered with metal thread.

The first thing I did was to take off my clothes and put on a white “underwear” robe. I could choose a lot of things – make up style, colours, wig, nails, hairstyle to a point, eyelashes… it is very participative. After make-up, you choose the kimono and the obi – which is the real thing, a long one that they tie around you. For the photo shoot itself, you feel like a rock star for real. They put the uchikake on you, they help you with the poses, and they take a lot of pictures for you to choose which ones you want printed into a book -For the plan I bought, 25,000 ¥ you get five printed pictures in a book and can buy the rest of them on a CD (which was 10,000 extra, but in my case, way worth it, as I got 50 pictures) – one day I would love to do the VIP experience, that’d be cool, but I guess I’ll just settle for entertaining repeating a similar plan with the blue background.

While I was waiting for the pictures to be done, I decided to have a walk around the area. I saw the Biwako Sosui Kinenkan [琵琶湖疏水記念館 ], the Lake Biwa Canal Museum, from the outside.

I thought I might check out the zoo, but the price made me decide against it, and after turning a corner I found myself, surprisingly, at Heian Jingu [平安神宮 ].

I remembered there was a conbini next to the daitorii, so I went there to have some lunch, and then walked back to the Keage area, to have another look at the temple complex and Jishi-in [慈氏院] (probably. There was some construction going on and this might have been a smaller temple).

After I had my pictures (and still not quite believing it), I decided to walk down to Gion, as the path would take me down the river.

I ended up at Yasaka Jinja [八坂神社].

Then I walked into the actual Gion [祇園] area. It was more than crowded, which killed the exploring drive.

And here is when I totally forgot that I wanted to go see Fushimi Inari Taisha by night and went back to the hotel 。゚(゚´Д`゚)゚。. I guess I was a bit more tired than I had previously thought, because I did not remember that until I was getting on a train the following there.

Note: There is a longer commentary about Studio Esperanto over at SemiRandom.

23rd July 2017: Kyoto: plans long made and plans unexpectedly changed – Maiko Henshin and Gyosha Meguri {Japan, summer 2017}

It was an early and cloudy Kyoto [京都] morning when I woke up to walk to Heian Jingu [平安神宮], a shrine built in 1895 to celebrate that Kyoto had existed for 1100 years already. It was supposed to be an innocent visit, but then I came across something…

When I was snooping around the shrine shop I saw something – a stamp rally, shrine version. You had to go to five shrines in Kyoto and get their stamps in order to complete a tablet with the shrine stamps on the sides and centre of the four sacred beast of the town. It is the Kyoto Gosha Meguri ~Shi shin Sou Ou No Miyako~ [京都五社めぐり~四神四神相応の京~], and it unexpectedly trumped all my Kyoto visiting plans. This is how it looks like after the peregrination was completed:

Afterwards I walked alongside the Kamo river towards Gion [祇園], stopping to get the second stamp at Yasaka Jinja [八坂神社].

I was to meet D****e at 10.15 as she was coming from Osaka, where she was for a concert. She wanted to tag along to what I was going to do next, basically to… share the pictures with everyone. I had an appointment at 11am to do something that my sister and brother in law had ‘given’ me for my birthday. It is something I had always wanted to do, but the price had put me off – a maiko transformation photo shoot, in this case I chose a place called Maiko-Henshin Studio Shiki because B**** had recommended it.

This was a 98% great experience. 1% fell because I had a coughing fit (yeah, I’ve been neglecting to tell you about my almost-pneumonia, but remember, we’re only talking about the good things here) and the other 1% due to a communication failure with the studio upon reservation. However, that 2% is negligible and it was all in all amazing. D****e had a blast and decided that she needed to share the pictures with everyone she knew who knew me.

In this kind of experience you have a photo shoot in maiko clothes – maiko being young geisha-in-training. I honestly don’t know what got into me for wanting to do this, but the thought crept upon me until I actually asked for the money for this as a birthday present. The whole experience was booked online, and what you get is make-up (and wig), dress-up and photos, both in digital and printed-out form. The only problem that I found is that the photos are “staged”, in the way that they are the same for everyone, whether it is “your angle” or not. The main problem I found was having to take out glasses / contacts in order to do this, because I felt super-blind, which was a problem going down the stairs and choosing the kimono.

The problem was having to negotiate the extra picture I wanted, because that was not part of the pre-packaged photos, and it was apparently difficult to process that I wanted the samurai sword kind photo with the pretty maiko set-up. After the shooting, you get to go outside and play around with your phone and take selfies and stuff.

The whole thing took about two hours and afterwards I walked D****e to her station and headed off towards the third shrine of the , which I thought at the time would be the furthest-away shrine, Kamigamo Jinja [上賀茂神社], in the outskirts. There was some kind of art / craft fair there by university students, so it was very lively. Unfortunately too, a lot of it was under renovation.

After this I headed off back to the hotel to retrieve my luggage and undid my way to the station by subway. I had a while at the station, so I took a few fun pictures.

Finally I jumped on a train to backtrack to Himeji [姫路], which is south of Kyoto. I timed the visit to Maiko Henshin so D****e could come after all. I found my Himeji hotel and then went to walk around the castle. Actually, I should have been having some dinner but apparently I’m castle-distracted. I walked around the park and took a lot of pictures (and damn those fish in the pond are authentic sharks).

Note: there is a longer commentary with more details over at SemiRandom

14th May 2016: Ikebana & Taiko in Madrid (Spain)

I went to the Royal Botanical Garden Real Jardín Botánico in Madrid because they were holding an exhibit of Ikebana and Japanese culture “X Gran Exposición de Ikebana y Semana Cultural Japonesa”. There were several activities, and I wanted to watch the ikebana and listen to the taiko players.

I was very amused when it turned out you could actually attend an ikebana class. Ikebana [生け花] is the Japanese art of aranging flowers, and it is one of the three classical Japanese arts of refinement (the other two are calligraphy and tea ceremony, I’m doomed).

To my surprise, the ikebana scene in Spain is heavily dominated by elderly ladies who take the whole thing Very Seriously ™, so in the end the workshop was more like two of them giving instructions to each attendee and one of them just taking the flowers from you and rearranging them if you failed to heed the instructions within a couple of seconds. It was interesting though, and behold my creation:

They almost made me late for the taiko – Japanese drums – demonstration, which turned out to also be a workshop, my first time playing the drums. I’m not that good at that one, either, but let me tell you better than the flowers…

Afterwards, I wandered about the rest of the exhibition before I headed off… and this sounds really fast, but it was a good half day!