Fukuoka, Japan: a Very Traditional City

Fuji with Bullet Train – copyright Japanese Tourist Board

Japan, that country full of surprises, stylish day to day living, and exquisite scenes that unfold in front of one’s eyes as though arranged by the Gods, is rich in dynamic cities.  None is more so than Fukuoka, a city rich in traditions, yet one that has embraced modernity with enthusiasm, a city of shopping-malls, modern subways and high rise condominiums.  Like the best of Japan’s cities, it is traditional in its outlook, but manages to fuse old and new.  Unfortunately, it is also the country where I dropped my camera and with it, hundreds of pictures I hadn’t saved to any other medium, but lucky for me the Japanese Tourist Board were able to help me out with these lovely images.

Dazaifu, Fukuoka

Located on the island of Kyushu, Fukuoka’s main attractions are the many Buddhist statues, Shinto shrines and age old ruins. Visit in spring-time for the glorious, pink cherry blossom and the Fukuoka Daibutsu, the imposing 10.5 metres high sitting Buddha statue. You may photograph the blossom but it is forbidden to take pictures of the Daibutsu.. Many people will be observ ing you and if the rules are broken you could end up in difficulties!

Son et Lumiere Fireworks and the Fukuoka Dome – Copyright Japanese Tourist Board

The city has modern shopping malls in plenty too, catering to a hip, young, fashion conscious clientele who, even in freezing weather, will be found wearing mini-skirts and sleeveless shirts. Smaller family shops sell local handicrafts, and share the spotlight with high rise condominiums. A network of subways conveys people effortlessly around the city while bullet trains cover the rest of the island.

The Kushida shrine, recognisable from the large red lanterns that decorate its two-storey gate is just a ten minute walk away from the Daibutsu Buddha. This is a Mecca for the worshippers praying there, as they seek success in business, or getting a wife, or/and a long life.  If you want to know what the future has in store for you, you can have your future foretold by one of the fortune-tellers in the courtyard that leads to the praying chamber.

One of the best places for shopping and eating is Canal City, a huge complex of hotels, movie theatres, restaurants and shops. Fukuoka’s seafood is famous throughout Japan with most of it caught daily in the Sea of Genkai and served fresh in the restaurants here and in Nakasu, the nightlife district. Or, join the locals around the open-air yatai food stalls in the central districts of Tenjim, for grilled chicken skewers, hot pot and noodle soup.  The food is really fantastic.

Mt. Fuji/Lake Kawaguchi – Copyright Japanese Tourist Board

Luxury Cruising on Burgundy’s Canals

Burgundy is famous for great wines and cheeses but those not exported are a special treat best sampled while cruising in luxury through France on board a canal barge.

A Peaceful Mooring for the Evening

Cruising on the barges of European Waterways definitely falls into the category of luxury, if luxury can be defined as having large air-conditioned bedroom suites (unusual on barging holidays) being pampered, and being served superb food and drink.

The GoBarging company has been cruising European waters since 1974, since when their reputation as canal cruise experts has gone from strength to strength. Unashamedly serving the luxury end of the cruise market they deliver what they promise, food of the highest quality, fine wines, expertly chosen regional cheeses to accompany the dishes, and a crew that pampers and looks after everyone with genuine warmth. The 24-hour open bar carries a wide selection of spirits, wines and liqueurs.

In France GoBarging.com covers different parts of Burgundy, Provence, the South of France, the Rhone and Loire Valleys. Passengers are collected in Paris and driven in comfortable mini buses to the embarkation points.

Approaching a Lock on the Nivernais Canal

Taking just one cruise for instance, one that departs from the  scenic town of Auxerre with its magnificent Gothic style cathedral and streets of half-timbered houses, the barge passes through 45 locks on the Nivernais Canal.   Negotiating the locks (by Captain and crew) gives passengers the opportunity to disembark and walk along the towpath or make use of one of the bicycles carried on board to explore further inland.

Getting to know fellow travellers is facilitated by a champagne reception hosted by the captain. The free-flowing wines and cocktails ensure a lively atmosphere at all times. The wines and cheeses are explained before meals by one of the charming hostesses on board and the chef ascertains guests’ likes and dislikes and offers alternatives if necessary.

Burgundy has some of the most stunning scenery in France. The canal and the River Yonne wind through rolling hills dotted with ancient villages in which every limestone house has pink roses climbing the beige walls and window boxes crammed full of red and pink geraniums. Vineyards, fruit orchards and farms add a variety of colour, and with 3-4 harvests a year in the area, there are always ribbons of green alternating with golden fields of wheat.

Chateau on a Hill seen from the Canal

Barges on the canals sail approximately half a day, the other half being spent at a place of interest.   All members of the crew are well versed in the history of the area and act as guides and drivers. If walking cobbled streets is not to everyone’s liking there is usually an interesting bar from which to people watch, or remaining on the barge with a book and some music from the library is the other option.

Vineyard in Beaune

Few people want to miss the tours of the wine-cellars though, especially in Chablis, the tiny area that produces the coveted vins de luxe Grand Cru and Premier Cru Chablis. French vineyards in Burgundy are frequently small and family-owned specialising in only two grape varieties, the red pinot noir and the white chardonnay. The sparkling wine of the region, the Cremant, is a revelation to some people who have not tried it before.

The towns visited afford time for exploring and shopping, whether Auxerre with its gold sundial clock and quirky statues dotted throughout the maze of pedestrianised streets or Vézelay with the Roman Basilica of St. Mary Magdalene where the crusaders converged before setting out for Jerusalem, a centre for artists of all kinds and a perfect place to buy ceramics, paintings, or woven tapestries.

As an alternative to a spa stay, barging is perfect. It is just as relaxing, the food is much better, there is no TV, no “entertainment”, no jolly “mine host” encouraging audience participation, only good food over which to linger with a fine wine or liqueur. Cabins are comfortable and spacious, and the captain, chef and crew are chosen for their friendliness, charm and ability to cope with any emergency.

Many companies on the French canals offer cruises of varying periods, but I’ve only travelled with the company mentioned above, European Waterways.  Having found one that pleases me, why change?  

Reflections

The Akha Hill Tribes of Northern Thailand

The Akha are a relatively poor but a culturally unique people living in the high mountains of Northern Thailand, formerly involved solely in opium cultivation but now virtuous fruit farmers – or mostly so.  Rumour has it that some still harvest the poppy but “for their own use” as it eases the back-breaking work of being a hill farmer.  More than 55,000 of the Akha are now engaged in cultivating cash crops like maize, soya, coffee, tea and fruits.

Hailing originally from Tibet, migrating by way of Yunnan and Burma, the Akha arrived in Thailand in the late 19th century, speaking a form of Tibetan-Burmese which is still their main language.

Although the men dress quite simply in longhis and shirts, or shorts and shirts, the women’s costumes are exotic and the headgear astonishing. Of the many hill tribes, the Akha women’s dress is easily the most elaborate. On the head they wear a helmet-like piece made up of silver coins, beads and feathers the body covering being a long-sleeved jacket over a short cotton skirt decorated with embroidery and shells and ending just above the knees. Silver is the dominant metal for the Akha and they wear huge pendant earrings and broad, thick bands of silver around the neck.

Despite their shyness, they accept tourists in one of their villages, Huay Kee Lek, and visitors are welcome to spend a few days there learning about their culture and traditions. Huay Kee Lek is not new: it has been in existence for more than 50 years and includes what to the Akha is the most important feature of the compound, the ornately carved gate in which the guardian spirits of the village live. As Animists they believe in a world of spirits, both dangerous and benevolent, spirits who must be kept appeased lest they interfere with the life of the tribe and bring death, plagues and evil upon them.

Akha Children

There is a surprising number of Christian and Buddhist Akha, but even these give a nod in the direction of animism and involve themselves in protecting the sites set apart for the spirits, including the gate.  This mirrors Thai society itself for although the population of the country is 95% Buddhist, the number of spirit houses on the forecourts of big business houses and residential properties, testify to a strong belief in animism in the country at large.

Tourists stay in a genuine stilt house with Akha families and can join the villagers as they journey to the fields after dawn, to observe how they work. Visitors will also be invited to explore the surrounding forests with one of the Akha guides on hand to explain the concept of sustainable forestry as it affects them. It took the government a long time to persuade the Akha from their traditional slash and burn system of farming (a system still in operation in some places) but population pressure and the loss of the forests seems to have convinced most of them to adopt sustainable farming in its place.

Akha Child inside Smokey Cooking Tent

The “home-stays” money provided by tourists is used to help local conservation projects and to keep alive Akha culture,  their traditional music and performance arts, all of which is an encouragement to the tribe to take pride in their traditions.

Huay Kee Lek is high up in the hills but it is relatively easy to reach on a good road from Mae Suai to the valley settlement and for anyone wishing to understand the life of the hill tribes, a few days spent in the village is all that is needed.

Auxerre, Historic Town in France

Auxere on the River Yonne

Just over an hour from Paris by train and in the heart of the Yonne are of Burgundy.  You may be lucky enough to cruise some of the canals in the area, but if not and if you can drag yourself away from the charms of Paris, you won’t be disappointed in this town colonised by the Romans.

The vineyards that surround Auxerre from which are produced some delightful  wines, are among the most celebrated in France, and some of the oldest.   This is the area of the great Chablis houses and if time permits a visit to Chablis itself would be the icing on the cake.   It lies approximately 15 kilometres away, famous for its white wine from the Chardonnay grape, referred to here as liquid gold.   The oldest certified vineyard in France, the Clos de la Chainette dating back to the 7th century, is in the Auxerre area.

Centreville, Auxerre.  Auxerre (pronounced Ausserre), was originally an active port, being on the wine route, but as the railways superseded water transport it lost its pre-eminence and became the pleasant unhurried town it is today.  Situated as it is on the River Yonne, and with the growth of sailing and the popularity of France’s canals, river cruisers and hotel barges have once again made the river the focal point of the town.  Cafés and restaurants along the banks are ideal places from which to while away an afternoon.

The old town starts right behind the Quai and from here a walk through the steep narrow cobbled streets with their timbered houses up to the newly restored Cathedral St Etienne is an essential part of a visit.   The Tour de l’Horloge, a magnificent sundial, leads into the pedestrian shopping area.

It is a town that repays exploring on foot, as it has preserved an exceptional architectural heritage and every corner seems to hold a piece of art and history.  Its historic centre is crisscrossed by winding streets along which are boutiques, restaurants and houses of the local residents.  It may look like an open-air Museum, but  Auxerre is very much a living town.

Not to be missed: the Cathedral of St. Etienne, St. Germain Abbey, Plaçe St. Nicholas and the houses with wooden sides along the banks of the River Yonne.

Cathedral Entrance
Auxerre on the River Yonne

Where to Eat in Logroño: Home of Rioja Wines

Vineyards of Rioja viewed from above

Eating well is not difficult in Logroño. From Tapas to gourmet foods, the visitor is assured of quality, freshness and a perfect marriage of Rioja to food.
Glorious Seafood in Logrono

The wines of the Rioja region are legendary, and most restauranteurs in Logroño can recommend a good accompanying wine from the many on offer. And it’s not just the wines: some restaurateurs insist that the olive oil they use is of equal importance.

Restaurant La VentaMoncalvillo

Top of the list must come La VentaMoncalvillo, a country restaurant which lies about 12 miles to the south of Longroño in Daroca de Rioja. Since opening in 1997 this restaurant has grown from a modest little place to one of the most important restaurants in the region.

The two owners, brothers Carlos and Ignacio Echapresto do everything between them from the wine buying to the organization of the seasonal menus. In spring it is daily fresh vegetables like asparagus, artichokes etc; in summer, salads and fruits and the crisp, green vegetables and tomatoes that smell of the sun, autumn offers small game like partridge, quail and woodcock and the earthy tones of wild, woodland mushrooms like morels, porcini and chanterelles, and in winter the heavier casserole dishes and big game like boar and venison.

A dish of wild mushroom sliced so thinly as to be almost transparent and served with the best olive oil and a sprinkling of chives makes a perfect starter at VentaMoncalvillo, especially when followed by Ibérico ham sliced just so wrapped round the white asparagus that is a speciality of Spain.

All dishes are served with wines chosen to accompany them, whether it be a white, a rosé or a deep, dark and luscious red.

Taberna Herrerias, Logroño  

Superb Fish

In an easy to find area of old Logroño, stands the Taberna Herrerias (means Blacksmiths Tavern), on the street of the same name, a 16th century palace sympathetically renovated without losing any of its ancient charm.

Now a restaurant serving delicious fresh, locally produced food, the clientele is mainly professional people and “ladies who lunch” – everyone hugely enjoying themselves. The wines come from all over the world, but naturally, the locally produced Rioja is very much to the fore, especially the top quality Riojas that are sometimes difficult to source.

The ground floor offers cocktails and light snacks, suitable for a quick ‘drop in’ meal and on the first floor are the kitchens. The main dining room is on the second floor from which it offer views of the 13th century Church of San Bartolomé and the 12th century spire of the Church of Santa Maria de Palacio, but it is not easy to spend time on admiring the outside views when the food on the table is so good.

Even a simple plate like a tomato salad seemed fresher and more tasty than any I’d had before and the seafood dishes, risottos, fish, vegetables and meats, matched with delightful wines from Rioja, were a gourmand’s delight. This restaurant is always very busy and reservations are recommended.

Casa de Comidas Lorenzo, Logroño  

How Many Bottles of Rioja?

For something slightly simpler but equally delicious, the Lorenzo Restaurant in Calle San Agustin is an excellent choice. Its pristine dining room on the first floor is a haven from the bustling street outside and the menu has something to please everyone.

The long list of starters was a problem on our visit, but the owner was happy to bring a selection of his best dishes which enabled everyone to have a “tasting” of the starters which ranged from a simple salad to a risotto. The fish menu contains a great variety of fish from cod, hake, sole, gurnard and monkfish..

If a main course of meat is required, I would suggest trying the roast suckling pig which is a speciality here. It’s not a dish that is available everywhere, but worth trying when you find it.

Evening Paseo in Logrono

And if all this food is just too much, then head off to the Calle Laurel for tapas, a mini-meal for which Logroño is famous.

Tapas Bar Where the Food is Always Good

The Wine Museum of Rioja

Dinastía Vivanco Bodegas Museo del Vinois not just a great Museum, it is a beautiful one as well, set in the heart of the wine area of Alberite in La Rioja, Spain.  What also places this Museum in a category of its own is its geographical position with glorious views over the surrounding countryside.

View from the Steps of the Museum of Wine, Rioja

The Museum is located right next to the Vivanco winery from which it takes its name, in the town of Briones, La Rioja, and was built to “give back to wine what wine has given to us” in the words of its founder Pedro Vivanco Paracuellos. It was Senor Vivanco’s passion for collecting everything to do with wine that led him to open this magnificent museum, created to showcase every aspect of his collection.

With audiovisual and interactive displays and a specific route for physically or visually impaired visitors, this museum ticks all the right boxes. The collection is divided into 5 main spaces and takes the visitor from the process of vine cultivation through its development from 8000 years ago right up to the present day, the history of which shows how the vine is central to our culture. Dinastía Vivanco Museo del Vino is set to become the world’s greatest museum of viniculture

What to See in the Wine Museum at La Rioja

Starting with an introductory video about the family Vivanco, visitors then move through the rest of the museum. An easy to follow plan guides one around but various sections can be skipped if time is short, or if the particular theme is not of interest. During the tour one learns that wine is closely related to human patterns of settlement and that it was found in both pagan and religious ceremonies from the earliest days.

Egyptians, Romans and Greeks are all well represented in the displays, and some beautiful mosaics and drinking vessels are on show along with the front panel of a 3rd century sarcophagus and some small oil paintings on copper. Many artistic works show how grapevines and wine have been used throughout the ages to depict figures in classical mythology. With ancient presses and ploughs, etchings and early pictures to illustrate the harvests, and photographs of more recent times, the life of the labourers in the vineyards is brought to life.

Barrels and Bottles and Transportation of Wine

Transportation of wine was always of major importance and barrel making and acquiring the correct oak wood for the barrels occupies a goodly section of the museum. There are only 3 types of oak used to make barrels today, Sessile Oak which adds a vanilla flavour to the wine, English, French and Russian Oak (not much used) which is very tannic, and American White Oak which adds chocolate aromas. Oak grows very slowly and cannot be cut before it is 120 years old.

As well as the barrels there is a whole area devoted to bottles and the corks used in them. The use of cork is always recommended for fine wines as its flexibility means that it swells up on contact with the wine and fits tightly into the bottle. The foil on the cork and top of the bottle protects it from exterior airs.

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Following on from that there is a display of nearly 3,000 corkscrews that charts the evolution of this simple instrument, dating from the first patented model in the 18th century. Wine has given work to many people in many trades over many centuries.

It would be a shame to leave this delightful museum without spending time in the Essence area, a spot where different aromas can be experienced, from jasmine to leather, chocolate to chillies. It is revelatory.

Restaurant, Bar and Wine Tasting Area

Outside the displays can be found the tasting bar where one can spend a happy half-hour or so, sampling the delightful wines of the area.   The bar sells a fine collection of local and imported wines, and the excellent onsite restaurant offers superb, local dishes, cooked and served in the local fashion and with carefully chosen wines to accompany them.

A Pink Dawn Over the Rioja Vineyards

Mrs. O’Leary’s Fire and What it Did for Chicago

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Chicago’s summer of 1871 was a scorcher.  Legend has it that the Great Fire of that year started in Mrs. O’Leary’s  barn on the south side of the city, when her cow knocked a kerosene lantern into some hay which ignited some wood, which set the city ablaze and … the rest you know.  Chicago was left in ruins.   The cause of the outbreak may be debated but the facts are well documented: over 300 dead, 100,000 left  homeless, and nearly 18,000 buildings burnt to the ground. For decades it had been a tough city – and a rich one – but not even Chicago could have foreseen that what would spring from the ashes would one day come to be considered the greatest outdoor museum of modern architecture in the world.

Immediately after the fire innovative young architects from all over the world poured into the city.  They devised new ways of building on Chicago’s swampy land, found ways of firming up the foundations and experimented with new methods of steel-framed construction.  A Mr. Otis invented the hydraulic lift, and in 1885 the first skyscraper was erected and Chicago became a vertical city.

We’ve been looking up to it ever since.

Entertainment in Chicago

Check into almost any downtown hotel and you’ll find yourself in the midst of a skyscraper forest, cheek by jowl with awe-inspiring architecture,  from the neo-Gothic Chicago Tribune building to the 100-storey Hancock Centre and the 110-storey Sears Tower.  The Observation Deck that tops this lures 1.5 million people a year to gaze at a cityscape that can only be described as awesome.  Seen on a cloudy day from either of these buildings the effect is dreamlike, as the clouds that you can almost reach out and touch drift in and out among the towers.

Not all entertainment is up in the clouds though.  Chicago has one of the best shopping streets in the world, Michigan Drive, the Magic Mile or Magmile to the locals call it.  There is the Shedd Aquarium on Lakeshore Drive, the nearby Adler Planetarium and the Navy Pier with its Ferris wheel, cinema, ice-skating, theatre and shops.   Trolleybus tour of the Lakefront, Oak Drive and various neighbourhoods offers viewing of a series of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings, usually enhanced by snippets of history in easily digested soundbites from the driver.

The Mobs and Prohibition

But even he clammed up when I asked him about Chicago’s relationship with the mobs, for the locals are somewhat reluctant to talk about their gangster past.  Most would prefer to forget Chicago’s long association with the mobsters and their bloody feuds for control of the licquor supply during prohibition.

A few landmarks remain.  Capone’s home still stands at 7244 Prairie Avenue, but the garage that was the scene of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre has been demolished.   One of Capone’s favourite speakeasies at the time of his power, the Green Mill Tavern on North Broadway in the heart of the city’s clubland, is now a swanky Blues Club and shares a reputation for great jazz with Blue Chicago and House of Blues, but there are dozens of smaller clubs dotted around the city, listings for which cover five pages in a free sheet called The Reader: gospel and R. & B. take up another three.

Apart from jazz, there’s a wealth of evening entertainment in Chicago, the best of which after a hard day’s sightseeing is The Second City, the original stand-up comedy club and the forerunner of all comedy clubs around the world.  The atmosphere is relaxed and easy, snacks and full bar service available at your table, and it attracts an appreciative and receptive audience of mixed ages for cutting-edge satire.  If your taste runs to avant garde theatre then the brilliant Steppenwolf Group Theatre (equivalent to London’s  Royal Court) will not let you down.  Chicagoans love the summer and celebrate it with a variety of free concerts under the stars in Grant Park, ranging from classical to country, zydeco to Cajun.

Coda

In 1909, Daniel H. Burnham, the then creative planner and architect of the city  said “Make no little plans, they have no magic to stir men’s blood….” and ever since then Chicagoan architects have thought big.  But don’t be overwhelmed by the city’s size.  There are corners that feel like villages and ethnic neighbourhoods where diversity is celebrated.   So feast your eyes on green-tinted glass buildings reflecting terracotta skyscrapers, and gaze upward at elegant curtains of aluminium and bronze.

For this is architecture to stir men’s blood.