To take part in sporting activities in Thailand is to experience eye-opening adventures in a beautiful country. As with any outdoors sporting holiday there are a couple of important considerations to take into account. [Read more…]
To take part in sporting activities in Thailand is to experience eye-opening adventures in a beautiful country. As with any outdoors sporting holiday there are a couple of important considerations to take into account. [Read more…]
Food in Tallinn covers the whole spectrum from comforting bread to haute cuisine and often in the same meal. Dinner at MEKK was my first introduction to the famous black bread. Black bread can take many forms and is even for desserts, flavouring ice-cream and as an accompaniment to crème brûlée. MEKK means the taste or the essence of Estonian cuisine. A cuisine that has taken the best from all the nations that have occupied or controlled this country – Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Finland and Russia.
Leib means black bread and Restaurant Leib resto ja Aed was given this name in homage to Estonia’s favourite food. It reflects the objectives of the restaurant – fresh, warm, simple and honest. Simple Estonian ingredients are used here to create seasonal menus. This restaurant bakes its own bread with seeds and it has a slightly sweet taste. The menu features produce of the season and is therefore not extensive. I selected the pan-fried pike perch with cauliflower cream, marinated onions and chive oil. It was delicious. I chose a hand-crafted Hopster beer to go with my food. Estonia is currently enjoying a revival in the brewing of beer. A tradition, it is claimed, goes back to the days when it was safer to drink beer than the water.
Restaurant Tuljak was a favourite restaurant of the sixties when the Russians occupied Estonia. It has recently been extensively restored and is once again a stylish restaurant. It has a large terrace overlooking the sea – ideal for summer night dining. The menu refers to its former glory days of when it was known as Carina. Then it served generous sandwiches and handmade waffles filled with butter and Cognac cream. The food was fabulous. My dessert, tiramisu Tuljak featured a favourite of the Estonian diet, the blueberry. One of their superfoods. Blueberries grow everywhere in Estonia. Reputedly they have a more intense flavour than those that grow in other countries.
In Restaurant Fabrik a magnificent display of home-made pastries made me wonder if I could order a different pastry for each of my three courses. Fabrik has won an award for casual dining but clearly this relates to its informality as the dishes were complex and delectable. I had the lamb which was really good. I chose a local cider, Metsik Kratt Õunasiider peninuki napsukoda, to drink. Peninuki began as a domestic brewery dedicated to producing non-traditional cider. This light, sparkling liquid is made in gin barrels and complemented my meal perfectly.
A final food fling was afternoon tea featuring home-made chocolates. This was a must once I had spotted the Chocolaterie in the corner of the Masters Courtyard. This courtyard is also the site of some of Tallinn’s oldest houses.
Estonians have a passion for museums resulting in some interesting exhibitions housed in a diverse collection of buildings scattered around its capital city. Raeapteek in the Town Hall Square is the oldest pharmacy in Europe that has continuously carried on its business in the same building. Our guide in the pharmacy, appropriately dressed in period costume, enthralled us with tales of its history as we sipped klarett and munched marzipan. Both items were once claimed to be medicinal.
The Estonian History Museum is housed in the historical Great Guildhall in the old town of Tallinn. This elegant building was commissioned by an association of Hanseatic merchants known as the Great Guild. For centuries it was the centre of social, commercial and judicial proceedings. Now it houses a permanent exhibition “Spirit of Survival”. An exhibition spread over several different rooms each featuring a different topic associated with the story of Estonia.
On Seaplane Harbour the Estonian Maritime Museum is housed in a unique building – a seaplane hangar that is now one of the most treasured building in the Baltic States. It features four different environments associated with the sea and each features relevant exhibits including the submarine Lembit in the underwater section. In the harbour outside the museum is the one-hundred-year old the century-old steam-powered icebreaker Suur Tõll. Once one of the world’s most powerful icebreakers.
The national art gallery Kumu, is a fascinating insight into the way in which different political situations affected the art at the time. But the most entertaining museum is the KGB museum on the top floor of the Hotel Viru. This was where the KGB were based and spied on the people who stayed there. Our guide, Maire, said she had worked in the hotel as a floor keeper during the Russian occupation. Her eloquence in English suggested otherwise but who knows?
During its chequered history Tallinn was established as a fortified town of two parts. The leaders governed from the castle on Toompea Hill while the followers, had to establish their own settlement as there was no room on the hill. Each of the two, the Upper Town and the Lower Town, had its own laws and its own cathedral. The cathedral of Saint Mary the Virgin, also known as the Dome Church, in the upper town has retained its status. But the Lower Town cathedral is now known as the church of Saint Nicholas. During the Middle Ages it was one of the town’s most magnificent and beautiful churches the prosperity of the local merchants based in the Lower Town that had resulted from membership of the Hanseatic League. Valuable works of commissioned art were displayed here including the only version on canvas of the Danse Macabre by Bernt Notke. This church is now the home of Niguliste Museum, a branch of the Art Museum of Estonia. It has the largest and most significant collection of ecclesiastical art from the Medieval and Early Modern periods in Estonia.
The Town Hall Square has always been the most important square in the Old Town of Tallinn. Merchants’ houses (also business premises) built during the time Tallinn was a Hanseatic town form a colourful fringe round the cobbled centre. The Gothic Town Hall in the centre of the square was built at the beginning of the fifteenth century as a meeting place for the ruling burgomasters or mayors of the city. It is the only complete Gothic town hall in Northern Europe and is now used for entertaining visiting kings or presidents as well as a venue for concerts.
Tallinn is famous for its medieval city walls and fortifications. The Great Coastal Gate and the Viru Gates, are the only two remaining gates of the six gates that controlled access to the town in medieval times. Four floors of the historic Fat Margaret cannon tower now house the Estonian Maritime Museum. Twenty-one of the original sixty-six defence towers have survived until now. The completeness of its Medieval town led to it being designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. Most medieval defences included passageways connecting its bastions. One of the towers, Kiek in de Kök stands at the entrance to the bastion passages. These passages have been used for a variety of purposes over the years. They have housed a church, a prison, refugees, the homeless, been used as a bomb shelter and were modified to be used as a bunker – if necessary. Since 2007 these tunnels have been open to the public but only for guided tours. However, individuals can visit the section that houses the Carved Stone Museum. On display here, for the first time, are stones from the original houses of Tallinn.
During two periods of occupation the Russians certainly left their mark on Tallinn. The most impressive Russian building and Estonia’s most important Russian Orthodox cathedral the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. The Russians built their cathedral on the same place where a statue of Marin Luther had once stood. It overshadows Toompea Castle, the seat of the Estonian government. Its purpose was to symbolise the religious and political domination of Russia. The cathedral is dedicated to the Prince of Novgorod, Alexander Yaroslavich Nevsky, who halted the German crusaders’ eastward advance. Nowadays it is simply an architectural masterpiece with a powerful peal of bells.
In other areas, such as the Rotermann Quarter their legacy was the neglect of some impressive industrial building. The Rotermann Quarter is currently receiving a face-lift and the old industrial buildings are being tastefully modernised and turned into apartments, offices, shops and cafés. Another project is reviving abandoned industrial buildings. Telliskivi Creative City is based in a complex of Russian-built factories. This complex, now in private ownership, is part of an initiative to make industrial waste-lands great again. The Creative City, an initiative that started in 2007 has become a popular meeting place for young creatives. Housed in the ten buildings are a new theatre, workshops, offices, shops and a gym. There is a flea market here every Saturday and during 2016 it hosted over five hundred different events attracting more than seven hundred thousand visitors. Tenants are hand-picked as substance is important to the project and each tenant must add value to the project and the community. It is a profitable model that has been replicated in other areas.
During the night of March 9th 1944 the Russians bombed Tallinn. More than 500 civilians were killed and around twenty per cent of the buildings in Tallinn were destroyed or damaged. Fortunately, most of the Old Town of Tallinn survived. Between 1945 and 1948 all the buildings that had been deemed unsuitable for restoration were demolished. Nothing was done with the open space that was left until a multi-level rest and recreation area was created there in 2007. A place of peace.
Everyone should visit Hiroshima once in a lifetime. Not only to see what happened there but also to learn that hope (for peace) does spring eternal. With my JR Rail Pass I could anywhere but I chose Hiroshima. An added bonus was that I could also visit one of Japan’s most beautiful places, Miyajima Island. The island is famous for the Itsukushima shrine whose red gates appear to float on the sea. At high tide the whole shrine seems to be in the sea and visitors sometimes have to wait while the water is brushed back into the sea before they can enter.
I had a great view of the shrine from the ferry and once I had acquired a map from the information point at the ferry terminal I set off to explore further. A short way along the shore I was enticed into a shopping street lined with traditional buildings. Here I found an abundance of momiji manju the famous pastry of the island. Reputedly this pastry was created over a hundred years ago when the manager of a Ryokan (Japanese style inn) on the island asked a Japanese pastry chef to make something special for Miyajima.
A short walk up the hill brought me to the Toyokuni Shrine or Senjokaku. The name means hall of one thousand tatami mats. These traditional floor coverings are used in homes, restaurants, temples and even boats throughout Japan. It is considered disrespectful to walk on these mats in shoes. not permitted to walk on these mats in shoes. This shrine was built five-hundred years ago and dedicated to Toyotomi Hideyoshi one of the three unifiers of Japan during the sixteenth century. It is the largest structure on the island and from its elevated position visitors can appreciate lovely views of the island below. Next to this shrine is the majestic Five Storied Pagoda. Also known as Goju-no-to this pagoda was built in 1407 and restored in 1533 and 1945. Originally it enshrined the Buddha of Medicine and the Buddhist saints Fugen and Monju. These images were removed in the early Meiji period and are now enshrined in the Daiganji Temple, also on the island.
Momijidani (Maple) Park was clothed in splendid autumn colours when I strolled through it. This beautiful park is criss-crossed by paths occasionally suspended on red bridges over the Momijidani River that runs through it. The park is home to the deer that inhabit the island but they also wander down to the waterfront in search of tit bits.
I was tempted to go to the top of Misen Mountain on the aerial ropeway and headed for its station. I had almost reached the bottom of the cable car when I discovered that tickets have to be bought before entering the park. I abandoned that idea as there was plenty to see in the park.
On my way back to the ferry I passed several stalls selling another local delicacy, baked oysters. Oysters have been farmed around the island for over three-hundred years. Every February this is celebrated by an oyster festival. I love fresh oysters but had never tried a baked oyster. a I settled for a deep fried bread roll filled with curry and pieces of baked oyster. It was delicious.
One last look at the beautiful exterior of the Itsukushima Shrine. It’s orange and white buildings mirrored in the water that surrounds them. I continued to the ferry terminal and got the next ferry back to the mainland.
Hiroshima Peace Park
The Atomic Dome (Genbaku Dome) at the entrance to the Peace Park in Hiroshima was the only building left standing in Hiroshima after the first atomic bomb exploded there on 6 August 1945. Its shredded roof is a stark reminder of the devastation it caused. The murmur of hushed voices is the only sound I can hear as I struggle to appreciate the enormity of the disaster.
Over the river the atmosphere is completely different. The park with its scattering of meaningful memorials. A group of noisy children drew my attention to the Children’s Monument. I was curious about the crane-shaped bell inside it. This bird is a symbol of peace and origami cranes are folded worldwide as a wish for peace. The origin of this tradition can be traced back to a girl named Sadako Sasaki. She was exposed to the Atomic bomb and contracted leukaemia. She believed that folding cranes would help her recover but sadly it did not. Her suffering and that of all the children who were killed by the bomb is remembered by the tolling of this bell.
Close by another bell was ringing – the Peace Bell. This monument also features a pond planted with lotus seeds that flower every year on Peace Memorial Day. They commemorate the use of lotus leaves to soothe the burns of the injured. There were hardly any medical supplies available following the blast.
The centrepiece of the park is the Cenotaph and the eternal flame. It is said that this flame will be extinguished when the last atomic bomb in the world has been destroyed. Through the arch of the cenotaph I could see the Atomic dome – a constant reminder.
Behind the Memorial to all the Koreans killed by the bomb is the Korean Memorial Hall. A reminder that thousands of other nationalities died here and the majority were Korean conscripts. In this hall a video runs all the time with images and recordings as survivors of the attack recall their experiences. It is heart-breaking to listen to them.
The Peace Museum occupies two large buildings at the far end of the park. But I did not go inside preferring to spend more time enjoying my lovely surroundings outside. The park is well established in the new city of Hiroshima. It has become a popular place for locals to relax. I was happy to join them for a while to reflect on the range of emotions I had experienced during my visit.
My JR Rail Pass got me all the way there and all the way back from Kyoto where I was based on the Shinkansen (bullet train). Five companies run the Shinkansen or bullet train but the JR Rail Pass is only valid on three of these companies. The pass is not valid on services run by Nozomi and Mizuho I had to study the train timetable carefully to make sure I used the right train. If any part of my journey was covered by a train not covered by the pass I would have to pay for the whole journey which would be very expensive. There was a train to Hiroshima from Kyoto where I was staying, at 07:20 which was perfect and one back at 19:03 – also good timing. Outbound the train was direct and the inbound involved one change but only a ten-minute wait. Two days earlier I had reserved seats on all the trains I was using at the JR office in the station. My journey was very pleasant as the seats were comfortable and constant announcements and screens in each carriage kept me informed regarding the progress of my journey. There was a refreshment trolley on the trains but I had already eaten well in a rustic restaurant at the station – baked oysters, ginger pork, boiled rice and miso soup.
On a recent trip to Japan we travelled around the country by train. I was sceptical at first but after just two days I began to appreciate the value of my Japan Rail (JR) Rail Pass and the freedom it gave me. Before travelling to Japan I had been advised we would be using the luggage forwarding service so I would need an overnight bag (hand luggage size). This was a great idea as we did not have to deal with large cases on the trains. The local trains were very crowded sometimes but I was able to reserve a seat for most of journeys. I did this at the Japan Rail office in the local station. The JR Rail pass is valid on the Shinkansen or bullet train. Five companies run the Shinkansen but the JR Rail Pass is only valid on three of these companies. The pass is not valid on services run by Nozomi and Mizuho. If any part of a journey is taken on a train that is not covered by the JR Rail Pass then the whole journey has to be paid for. For every journey I made I studied the train timetable carefully to make sure I used the right train.
My journey started in Minato, a suburb of Tokyo. I was transferred by bus from the airport to my hotel, Shiba Park Hotel, in the suburb of Minato. While I waited for my Rail Pass to be delivered I had time to explore Minato. I was delighted to discover that the Tokyo Tower was just around the corner. The tower was built in 1958 and modelled on the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France. Although it functions as a radio and television tower it is also a very popular tourist attraction affording good views of its surroundings from the two viewing platforms.
The tower is very close to Shiba Park, Japan’s oldest public park. It was the first to be officially designated as a park in 1873 just five years after the beginning of the modernisation of Japan. When the Meiji Emperor was restored to supreme power in 1867 a programme was started to create public parks throughout Japan. These were often fashioned out of the grounds of temples and shrines which, at that time, were the only green spaces. Shiba Park is crescent-shaped as it was fashioned out of the grounds of the Zöjöji Temple. This temple is both ancient and modern. The two-storey wooden main gate, Sangedatsumon, was built in 1622 and is the oldest remaining wooden structure in Tokyo. This temple was founded in 1393 as a seminary for Jodo-shu also known as Jōdo Buddhism. It is a branch of Pure Land Buddhism derived from the teachings of a Japanese monk. At one time the temple comprised a huge complex including a large cathedral, forty-eight smaller attached temples and about one-hundred-and fifty schools. But during an anti-Buddhist movement some of these buildings were destroyed and others were burned down during the air raids of World War II. The cathedral and other structures were subsequently rebuilt. Zöjöji is still the main temple and seminary of Jodo-shu. It is also very popular with the general public as a place to worship and as a hub of religious and cultural activities. The exteriors of the buildings retain their traditional style but the interiors are refreshingly light and modern.
During my stay in Japan I also used a pre-paid IC card included in our package. It works like an Oyster Card as money is taken off every time you enter or leave a station. But unlike the Oyster card any money left on the card can be spent in either a 7 Eleven or a Family Mart. These convenience stores are open twenty-four hours a day seven days a week. These stores are a real boon for the traveller on a shoe-string. They offer a wide variety of food at very reasonable prices. They also stock just about every item you might need – and it is fun trying to work out from the pictures exactly what each product is. They are everywhere and a convenient source of clean toilets. The 7 Elevens also have ATMs. This card can be used on the subway and there were several interesting places reachable from Minato on the subway. Hama Rikyu Garden was a famous Imperial garden during the Edo Period. It was given to the City of Tokyo in 1945 and the following year it was opened to the public. This beautifully landscaped garden includes several ponds and a tea house. The garden stretches along the bank of the Samuda River.
After strolling through the gardens I took a waterbus (not included in the JR Rail Pass) from there to another famous site in Tokyo. Sensoji Temple, also known as Asakusa Kannon Temple. This Buddhist temple is one of Tokyo’s most popular and colourful temples. The temple is dedicated to Kannon, the goddess of mercy. It was founded, according to legend, after two brothers found a statue of this goddess floating in the Samuda River. They put the statue back into the river but it kept returning so finally, in 645, a temple was built dedicated to the goddess. It is Tokyo’s oldest temple and has an outer gate and an inner gate linked by a shopping street. The buildings are relatively modern as many of the original buildings were destroyed during the Second World War. The temple shares its grounds with the Asakusa Shrine and both operate in harmony with each other. It was a good opportunity to compare the architecture of both institutions. My final visit of the day, journeying but both subway and the local railway, was the Meiji Shrine. This large Shinto Shrine was built in 1920 and is dedicated to the Meiji Emperor and his wife, Empress Shoken. Emperor Meiji brought an end to the feudal system in Japan and modernised his country. The shrine is set in a large park and has become Japan’s most famous shrine. One can understand why as you wander along tree lined avenues towards the main buildings.
Although it took a long time to get to Nikko by train from Tokyo it was worth it to visit Toshogu, a UNESCO World Heritage site. This sprawling complex of ornate shrines and temples set amongst majestic cedar trees was built as a mausoleum for the first Tokugawa shogun. This elaborate building is surrounded by other interesting structures including the “see no evil, speak no evil and hear no evil” monkeys on the front of one of the store houses. The Shinkyo Bridge marks the entrance to Toshogu in Nikko, Japan
After four days in Tokyo I travelled to Matsumoto was my next destination. The town is an interesting mixture of ancient and modern and includes the Shinto Jorinji shrine. Its bright red gate, the oldest wooden gate in Matsumoto draws you into the complex which includes a pretty shrine and a lovely garden. This shrine is sited in a complex that includes a temple. The complex is notable because its wooden gate is the oldest gate in Matsumoto. Nawate-dori, also known as frog street is famous for its traditional shops filled with frog-themed products. This street was once the border between the commoner houses and Samurai residences. Running parallel to this street, on the other side of the Metoba-gawa River Nachamachi-dori St is lined with restored Samurai merchant houses. Matsumoto Castle is the most important attraction in this town. It is one of only four original castles remaining in Japan. It is a “hirajiro” castle becaues it was built on a plain rather than on a hill or a mountain. As its exterior is mostly black it is also is also known as the Black Crow. The all-wooden interior presents some challenges with its steep, narrow staircases designed to obstruct invaders. It is worth climbing to the sixth floor for the views of the gardens and the moat below.
As I walked back to my hotel along Isemachi Street the giant karakuri clock was striking the hour. The large modern globe, representing a Matsumoto-temari opens and figures of young girls playing with temari (hand-made balls) revolve accompanied by music. The globe closes and then opens again to reveal mechanical boys playing musical instruments.
While I was in Matsumoto I took a local train out of the town to the Daio Wasabi Farm. I had no idea what a wasabi was but my education was complete after I had wandered through the beautiful grounds circling the fields planted with wasabi. Wasabi can be used to flavour everything it seems. I was happy to try the crisps but drew the line at wasabi-flavoured ice cream. The watermills that were once essential to the production of wasabi still revolve along the river bank next to the farm.
Three days later I was back on the train and heading for a short stay in Nagoya. Nagoya is the one of the largest towns in Japan and pre-dominantly industrial. It was once a beautiful wooden town but following its destruction during World War II it was rebuilt. It owes a lot of its prosperity as it is the home of Toyota, the largest company in Japan. I took a taxi to the Toyota Museum expecting just to see lots of old cars. I was wrong. The Museum has two pavilions, the Weaving Pavilion and the Automobile Museum. Toyota originally made spinning and weaving machines before moving on to the manufacture of cars. The two pavilions trace the history of the company. Robots were also on the agenda and we watched a robot playing the violin. After the museum we walked through Noritake Garden, the site of the Noritake Museum displaying intricate ceramic pieces made by the company of the same name.
On my second day in Nagoya I took the train to Inuyama (which literally means “dog mountain”). Inuyama is famous for its small but beautiful castle which is one of Japan’s oldest wooden castles and still in its original state. After exploring this castle, I moved on to the Meiji Mura outdoor museum. This museum is set in a large park and features buildings from different eras and different places. It includes the impressive Saint John’s Anglican church. This church was built in 1907 and originally sited in Kyoto. I took a direct bus (not covered by JR Rail Pass) back to Nagoya for my last night in that city.
I had already experienced a lot on my journey through Japan. There was a lot more to come in the next part of my journey from Kyoto to Shinjuku in Tokyo. This journey will be featured in my next blog post.
For the curious amongst us, a trip to North Korea may be one of the most remarkable destinations to find oneself in. Sure, there is always the thought that the trip would be a make-believe considering everything is choreographed to the last painful detail. That the only thing you would truly buy into is the air you breathe. But even that…
If you have seen pictures of military buildings and city gates in Beijing, chances are some of those pictures were taken in the city’s historic Qianmen area. This area is one of the most recognised in all of Beijing due to two very important political events that took place there. If you have any plans to visit Beijing, the Qianmen area should be part of those plans, along with Nanluoguxiang and the 798 art district.
One of the most thrilling aspects of international travel is having the ability to step away from the popular tourist zones every once in a while and find places where one can experience how the locals live. In Beijing, one of the best ways to do that is to visit one of the many hutongs around the city. Perhaps no hutong is more interesting than Nanluoguxiang.