San Miguel de Allende: La Primera Semana

View of San Miguel de Allende from the Jardin Botanica
View of San Miguel de Allende from the Jardin Botanica on our Sunday walk.

San Miguel is a feast for the senses… the smell of corn tortillas toasting, our first night view of La Parroquia in the Jardin, church bells ringing the hour… Enjoy a sampling of our first week in this spirited and colorful colonial town.

Callejon Pueblito in San Miguel de Allende
Heading to Cafe Buen Dia on Callejon Pueblito after our Sunday walk.

Where is San Miguel de Allende? The city is located in the far eastern part of the state of Guanajuato in mountainous central Mexico, and is 170 miles from Mexico City. Historically, the town is important as being the birthplace of Ignacio Allende, whose surname was added to the town’s name in 1826, as well as the first municipality declared independent of Spanish rule by the emerging insurgent army during the Mexican War of Independence.

Casa Calderoni B & B in San Miguel de Allende
Lovely Bed & Breakfast across the street from Cafe Buen Dia

Our good friend and yoga mate, Polly, is the proud owner of a casa and casita in San Miguel. The casa is for rent by the month. We are the first renters and I have only praise for this lovely, comfortable two bedroom house. Located on Barranca just several blocks from the Jardin Principal, we are enjoying the central location and walk everywhere. For information on renting the casa, just email Polly (pollyp@centurytel.net).

Guest Casa on Barranca in San Miguel de Allende
Our charming rental home/casa for the month of January is on Barranca.
Guest casa patio in San Miguel de Allende
And has a sunny spacious patio that looks out into a courtyard.

San Miguel is known for its picturesque streets with narrow cobblestone lanes, that rise and fall over the hilly terrain, and occasionally defy colonial attempts to make an orderly grid.

A colorful alleyway off Barranca.
A colorful narrow alleyway winds its way up from Barranca.
Cultural Institute in San Miguel de Allende
Looking up at the Cultural Institute in San Miguel de Allende

The houses have solid walls against the sidewalks, painted in various colors, many with bougainvillea vines falling down the outside and the occasional iron-grated window.

Home in San Miguel de Allende
Large old home in San Miguel de Allende.

The main attraction of the town is its well-preserved historic center, filled with buildings from the 17th and 18th centuries and has been declared a World Heritage Site.

Downtown street scene in San Miguel de Allende
The vibrant downtown in San Miguel de Allende.
Festival decorations in San Miguel de Allende
Holiday decorations adorn most streets in the downtown area during the holidays.

The Biblioteca Pública or Public Library serves as the educational and cultural heart of San Miguel, providing bicultural resources for both the Mexican and foreign population. This library was established by Helen Wale, a Canadian, who wanted to reach out to local children and started the first children’s library in her home. It is the largest privately funded, publicly accessible library in Mexico with the second largest English language book collection. More than a library, one can relax and dine at Café Santa Ana; read Atencion San Miguel, the library’s weekly bilingual newspaper which covers local news, issues and events (published every Friday); and enjoy Teatro Santa Ana’s presentations of lectures, concerts, plays and films.

Mural in the public library, San Miguel de Allende
Mural in the Biblioteca Pública or Public Library.

To the far south of the historic center is Parque Juárez or Juarez Park. This park was established at the beginning of the 20th century on the banks of a river in French style with fountains, decorative pools, wrought iron benches, old bridges and footpaths.

Sculpture in Juarez Park, San Miguel de Allende.
One of several wood sculptures in Juarez Park, San Miguel de Allende.
Public laundry in San Miguel de Allende
On the east side of the park, the stone tubs of the outdoor public laundry are still in use.

This week while walking around the city, Jay and I came upon a lost puppy on a quiet path. After inquiring around the immediate area for an owner, I carried her back to our rental casa. I had read about The S.P.A. (Sociedad Protectora de Animales) in Atencion the day before. I cannot say enough about this organization which exists for the well being of abandoned and homeless dogs and cats in San Miguel and environs. The next day I delivered the puppy to Lynn who had arranged for a foster parent for the puppy until the shelter had room in their new puppy area. After meeting one of the veterinarians who pronounced the puppy very healthy, and speaking with the foster mom, I am very confident this little one will be fine… still it was a tearful goodbye.

Found puppy of San Miguel de Allende
We found and fell in love with a sweet puppy - "Pacolita" (photo courtesy of Elisabeth Mention)

Jay is my gifted and patient photographer. He uses the Nikon Coolpix 8400 8MP Digital Camera with a 3.5x Wide Angle Optical Zoom Lens. There are many old and beautiful churches in San Miguel and the shot below really shows off the wide angle lens ability of the Nikon Coolpix 8400.

Church in San Miguel de Allende
Beautiful St. Paul's Church hosts regular concerts in San Miguel de Allende.

The world is a great book, of which they who never stir from home read only one page. – Saint Augustine

p.s. To read our other posts from San Miguel de Allende, click below:

New Years Eve in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

La Parroquia – Church of Saint Michael the Arcangel, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel

Arriving at the Jardin Principal a little before midnight, we excitedly weave our way through the crowd that is high energy and festive. Mexican families and an eclectic mix of foreign visitors fill the square and we all dance or move to the vibrant pulse of the salsa band. We peak into the grand, La Parroquia, decorated for the holidays with lights and greens, where a midnight mass is proceeding with standing room only. The doors of the church are open and sounds of the band mingle with the reading by the priest. A festive soup of sounds.

La Parroquia at night in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
The doors of the stunning La Parroquia are open during mass on New Years Eve.
Sparklers in San Miguel's Jardin Principal
Children are part of the festivities in San Miguel's Jardin Principal.
New Years Eve in Jardin Principal, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
Crowds fill Jardin Principal on New Years Eve in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

Merriment is in the air as the plaza continues to fill with folks of all ages and nationalities ready to welcome in 2012, most whirling a two foot long sparkler in the air. At the stroke of midnight the fireworks begin, we gape at the fabulous display, and marvel that we are here.

To read our other posts from San Miguel de Allende, click below:

Mexico City International Airport Dining and Lodging

Good news, if your travels require an overnight stay at the Mexico City International Airport, you can be very comfortable. The Hilton Hotel located in Terminal One at the airport has complimentary high speed internet service, comfortable rooms, and an attractive bar and restaurant. During our recent stay the hotel staff was very helpful and told us about several restaurants in Terminal One that had received good reviews. We felt like exploring a little versus staying in the confines of the Hilton.

Mexico City Airport Hilton and dining options
Mexico City Airport Terminal One with the Hilton, Casa Avila, and Bistro Mosaico.

In Terminal One there is a food court with lots of options for quick dining and a few actually looked fairly healthy. Sit down restaurants included a steak house, a mexican cantina, a bistro and a spanish restaurant. Casa Avila was our choice. Out of the fray on a second floor balcony the menu had a nice array of spanish entrees and some good sounding salads. As soon as we walked in we were taken care of in the best sense. An English language menu was presented and care was taken to help me chose an entree that would be gluten-free.

We started by sharing the Mediterranean Salad, a nice balance of flavors with the greens – salty olives & Serrano ham with the sweeter tastes of figs, tomatoes, and apples slices that all came together with a herb vinaigrette. Favorites on the menu include shrimp wrapped in bacon with black rice, paella, and oxtail stew. Some of the dishes are an assimilation of Spanish and Mexican cuisine: seasoned pork tacos, red snapper with clams, squid, and pimento, beef in a green pepper sauce. I chose the Shrimp with Black Rice served on an asparagus cream sauce and Jay decided on the Paella filled with pork, spanish sausage, chicken, mussels, clams and a prawn. A half bottle of a very nice Chilean Merlot recommended by the server made for a lovely meal. Very full we resisted the tempting tray of desserts that was presented.

The next morning we rose early to get a little breakfast before our 3.5 hour shuttle bus ride to San Miguel de Allende on (Bajio Go Shuttle). Bistro Mosaic caught our eye as the menu had a nice selection of egg dishes. Jay was very happy with the Huevos Veracruz he ordered and I went with a simple Spinach Omelette which was fine. My side order of thick-cut bacon was not cooked crispy as I prefer but Jay loved it.

To read our posts from the subsequent visit to San Miguel de Allende, click below:

Bicycling Across the United States

Chief Joseph scenic highway, Wyoming
Chief Joseph scenic highway, Wyoming

Thoughtful reflections on his recent cross-country bike ride across the United States from New York Times writer, Bruce Weber

Among other things, my path through the nation has made me far more conscious and appreciative of the nation. I’m not just speaking of the scenic highlights, though the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon, Glacier National Park in Montana, Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, the headwaters of the Mississippi River in Itasca State Park in Minnesota, and the Great Allegheny Passage, where the fall colors were on vivid, spectacular display, are enough to make a patriot out of a cynic.

This was an American journey by a New Yorker who became more American as he went along. By virtue of absorbing almost 4,000 miles of thrilling landscape, inch by inch, I learned more about topography and how it figures in the identities of thousands of localities and millions of Americans than I had ever understood.

Is there any way for a cyclist, especially one from a vertical metropolis, not to be awestruck by northern Montana? It took me two weeks to cross its vast expanse, from the dauntingly magisterial Rockies in the west to the endless, wind-whipped flatland of the east, where the towns are dots on the highway dozens of miles apart, pulsing on the prairie like blips on a colossal oscilloscope.

Link to the full article…  A Man, a Bike and 4,100 Miles

Weber’s musings remind me of our recent cross-country journey by car. Like Weber my husband and I were 57 years old and having experiences that sometimes reminded us of that. Yet like him we moved through those times and felt the reward of having done so.

To read about our trip check out the home article where you will find links to all our posts…  US Cross Country Road Trip

US Cross Country Road Trip

A funny thing happened on the way to the wedding… we decided to convert our Honda CRV into a camper van and drive from Washington State to Maryland. We are fortunate to have some liberty with how much time we take. Initially, we were thinking a month, but as we begin to plan, five weeks seems more reasonable. To plot our round-trip route we are using an application of Google maps – My places.


View Cross Country Wedding Trip in a larger map

Our travels will be a mix of Interstate and back road driving, and we are searching for our copy of Blue Highways: A Journey into America by William Least Heat-Moon. First published in 1982, this is the story of the author’s journey in an old van, to see the real United States driving only the lesser roads (marked on the map in blue). Jay remembers enjoying the interviews of characters he met along the road. And describes the book being about the journey versus the destination – the idea that as we slow down we see more.

Here are some other books that cross country travelers have enjoyed:

Hearing that we will be touring South Dakota, visiting both Badlands National Park and Bear Butte State Park, a  good friend of ours, Robin, suggested we read The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn by Nathaniel Philbrick.

Jay will be posting soon on How to Convert a Honda CRV into a Camper Van… In the meantime, let us know what books you would recommend… audio book suggestions are welcome as well.

Please follow us on our journey. See “Stay In Touch” on the right sidebar and sign up to get our posts for free via email, RSS, or Twitter. Here are links to blog posts from the journey, as they happen:

Crossing the North Cascades

Dinner in Spokane, WA

Historic Wallace, Idaho

Butte, Montanta

Yellowstone National Park

Beartooth Hwy to Chief Joseph Scenic Hwy in NW Wyoming

Crazy Horse Memorial in Custer, South Dakota

Bear Butte in the Black Hills of South Dakota

Pit Stop in Rapid City, South Dakota

The New Landscape in Iowa

Cincinnati, OH and Covington, KY too

Martin Luther King and Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorials

Lexington, Kentucky and the Bourbon Trail

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, AR

Las Vegas, New Mexico

Fiestas de Santa Fe: The Burning of Zozobra

Japan – Lessons in Simple Living

Travels to Tokyo and Kyoto have given me and Jay a flavor for urban living in Japan, and in the Kyoto area the surrounding mountains and countryside suggested a rural way of life. And as we know from living on an island where some of us call the mainland “America” – remote, rural areas attract independent thinkers and alternate ways of life. So for a mix of reasons, when I heard that author, Andy Couturier, was visiting our local independently owned bookstore, Darvill’s, I was interested.

A Different Kind of Luxury: Japanese Lessons in Simple Living and Inner Abundance

Andy’s latest book:  A Different Kind of Luxury: Japanese Lessons in Simple Living and Inner Abundance, tells 11 peoples journeys. Artists, philosophers, and farmers who reside deep in the mountains of rural Japan living simply yet surrounded by the luxuries of nature, art, contemplation, healthy food, and an abundance of time.

As I learned at the book reading, many of the folks in the book spent years living in India and Nepal, and “what they learned there powerfully influenced everything from from their emphasis on making things with their own hands all the way to their spiritual and philosophical orientation toward life.” Now back in Japan they are living out their philosophy – providing for their needs with minimum interaction with the huge economic system that surrounds them and realizing great freedom.

As I read the chapters and savor the stories, I find myself thinking – what is my philosophy?  and how can I live more simply and joyfully while reducing my footprint on our planet. Good food for thought, and, as Andy says of his book, “even if it only serves as a window onto a different set of possibilities and lets you meet some very extraordinary people, and perhaps gives you a smile or a laugh, that will have been enough.”

About the author:  Andy Couturier has studied Buddhist meditation and many other Asian philosophical systems, and has traveled extensively in Africa, Southeast Asia, and India. He has been a researcher for Greenpeace and taught writing for more than a decade. He is the author of Writing Open the Mind: Tapping the Subconscious to Free the Writing and the Writer and has written for Adbusters, the MIT Press, Kyoto Journal, Creative Nonfiction, The North American Review, The Oakland Tribune, and Ikebana International. He directs his own creative writing center, The Opening, at www.theopening.org.

Singapore for business and pleasure

Singapore is one of my favorite cities to visit. Though I generally visit on business, there is always time for pleasure… and Singapore is a fine place to enjoy dining, night life, lush tropical parks, beaches, and shopping.

Singapore River Boat and bridge
Scene along the Singapore River

Singapore’s legendary efficiency is obvious from the first moments after arrival. You will breeze through customs in a matter of seconds, thanks to their embrace of modern technology.  On the way into town from the ultra modern airport, you may note that cars never go over the posted speed limit. The streets are immaculate as they wind through a veritable garden of paradise. Then the city appears ahead – pristine, luminous, shiny and new.

The Fullerton Hotel with River Kids sculpture
Sculpture surrounds The Fullerton Hotel (in the background)

My destination is The Fullerton Hotel in the downtown financial and arts district. The hotel’s Colonial style belies the cool modern interior, welcome in the tropical heat of Singapore. Built in 1928 on the Singapore river, the Fullerton Building was the centre of Singapore’s commercial, social and official life. It was home to three of the most important institutions of Singapore – The General Post Office, The Singapore Club, and The Chamber of Commerce. Even if you don’t stay here, it is worth a visit… there are several excellent restaurants, as well as a first rate international buffet, and a bar that is set amidst the lovely original ceiling and pillars of the old Post Office… and enjoy an evening stroll by the river to enjoy the various sculptures along the way.

Singapore Sculpture Business Men
Fantastic sculpture of business men near the hotel
Singapore Sculpture Three Men
Another fine bronze sculpture in the area

The legendary Raffles Hotel is a short walk away. Immortalized in the novels of Somerset Maugham and Rudyard Kipling, the hotel exemplifies Singapore’s colonial-style architecture amid lush tropical gardens. Go there for tea, drinks, or fine dining – including the Long Bar – home of the world renowned Singapore Sling, and the Tiffin Room, which continues the tradition of Afternoon Tea. The Raffles Hotel Museum looks at the history of the Hotel largely in the context of the Golden Age of Travel. This period, spanning 1880 to 1939, saw the rise of popular tourism and coincided with the opening of the Hotel. This was the era when Singapore was known as the “Crossroads of the East“. Museum hours are 10 am to 7 pm daily. There is no admission charge.

Singapore River Tree
Strolling along the Singapore River

My favorite time to shop is at night, to see buildings adorned with garish signs, and people strolling down the streets, chatting with friends, looking for bargains. Though there are numerous places to shop around downtown, if you are shopping for electronics, cameras, and gadgets, consider heading over to “Little India” – a bustling earthy part of town, where you can let your hair down and haggle with the merchants for the big deal of the day. The various pictures on this blog were taken with a camera I bought in Little India – Nikon Coolpix 8400 8MP Digital Camera with 3.5x 24mm Wide Angle Optical Zoom Lensmy favorite camera, ever!

To fortify you for your evening of wheeling and dealing, follow your nose to one of the wonderful Indian restaurants that are everywhere in Little India. Hidden among the bustle of Little India is Race Course Road . On this tiny lane you will find Banana Leaf Apolohoused in three units of a two-storey shophouse it is most famous for its fish head curry. The restaurant has been open for 30 years, serving both North and South Indian cuisine to locals eager for a taste of great curry, and tourists, like us, who have heard about this a restaurant from an expat friend (thank you Pam!).

Singapore Indian Food
Our feast at the Banana Leaf Apolo

A recent article in the New York Times Travel section, 36 Hours in Singapore, offers up more ideas of things to do and places to stay…

“A long tradition of strong regional cuisine and strict hygiene laws makes for some of the world’s best — and safest — street food. Nowadays most of the hawkers are concentrated in covered food halls so that ingredients are kept cool, and preparation methods and cleanliness can be kept to a uniform standard. At the Maxwell Road Food Center near Chinatown, vendors sell everything from dumplings to onion pancakes to dessert: at Tian Tian (No. 11), try the chicken rice; at Hokee (No. 79), the soup dumplings, and at No. 848, fresh fruit and juice (one, a bitter gourd and honey mix, promises “to reduce heatiness (sic).” Prices are 1 to 8 Singapore dollars.”

Yahoo Travel offers 5 of Singapore’s best restaurants with a view

  • Sky on 57, Level 57 SkyPark Tower 1, Marina Bay Sands Hotel, 10 Bayfront Avenue
  • Level 33, #33-01 Marina Bay Financial Centre Tower 1, 8 Marina Boulevard
  • Barnacles, Rasa Sentosa Resort, 101 Siloso Road
  • Clifford, Fullerton Bay Hotel, 80 Collyer Quay
  • iL Cielo, Level 24, Hilton Singapore, 581 Orchard Road

And the Lonely Planet Singapore (City Travel Guide) gets good reviews as a handy paperback (200 pages) and written in conjunction with a Singapore resident. The expanded coverage of neighborhoods includes two new walking tours and three new excursions; plus helpful cultural insights & local secrets from a comedian, curator, theater director, writer and scholar. If you have access to a computer the content is updated daily at lonelyplanet.com.


Art Exhibits throughout the US in 2011

Norman Rockwell No Swimming
Norman Rockwell's No Swimming

“The secret to so many artists living so long is that every painting is a new adventure. So, you see, they’re always looking ahead to something new and exciting. The secret is not to look back.”

This sentiment by Norman Rockwell relates to travel as well… and we often incorporate a visit to a museum in our travels. American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell is a gem and showing at the Tacoma Art Museum until May 30, 2011. Though there is a comprehensive collection of original magazine covers, we were especially drawn to his 44 paintings – as the museum states “unforgettable images of the innocence, courage, history and hopes of American life in the 20th century.” This is a traveling exhibit that warrants a visit. A good family experience… we took our somewhat reluctant nieces, ages 11 & 14, and they loved it. Future museum hosts are listed at the Norman Rockwell Museum website.

The catalog, American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell, traces the evolution of Rockwell’s art throughout his career – from reflections on childhood innocence in such paintings as No Swimming (1921) to powerful, consciousness-raising images like The Problem We All Live With (1964), which documented the traumatic realities of desegregation in the South.

Promising Exhibitions From Coast to Coast is a great resource article at the New York Times for a list of “promising” art exhibits around the country this year – many of them opening this summer. Here is a sampling:

Support the arts! Visit a museum in your area or in a city you are visiting this year…  it can be enriching, educational and inspiring.


Dining in Paris, France

Paris patisserie
A few years ago in Paris this whimsical lady (and the Patisserie) caught our eye.

From Mark Bittman, a favorite writer at the New York Times, four restaurants in Paris worth taking a Metro ride to…

“… as restaurants in the wealthy and most tourist-laden neighborhoods of Paris have become more crowded and expensive, the areas where one can find a great meal have expanded.

With this in mind, I set out to explore some of the farther-flung alternatives. I concentrated on the increasingly energetic northeast quadrant of the city, namely the 10th, 18th (generally speaking, Montmartre), 19th (around the park of Buttes Chaumont) and 20th (which contains the Belleville neighborhood) Arrondissements.”

Four Paris Restaurants Worth a Metro Ride

His description of Philou in the 10th Arrondissement…

“The food: wonderful, sometimes perfect. Like the marinated sardines with parsley gelée, apples and horseradish. Also wonderful were a dead-on pâté with a jug of cornichons, pork cheeks in a gorgeous dark sauce with celery root cooked in stock (my mouth is watering at the thought of that); a few chunks of insanely good calf’s liver and poularde de Bresse, with meat that was almost as good as the skin, served with Chinese cabbage.”


Springtime in Kyoto, Japan

April 2007 found us in Tokyo and Kyoto for 10 days… I tagged along on a business trip of Jay’s. Here are some notes and impressions I jotted down at the time… this blog covers Kyoto.

Sketch with watercolor of a shrine in Kyoto, Japan
Watercolor of a shrine in Kyoto, Japan

Springtime in Kyoto… showers of cherry blossoms. There is a happiness, a festive feeling associated with the blossoms as they fly through the air, some attaching to our jackets… a sense of the seasons… time passing.

Our overnight visit to Kyoto begins with the Shinkansen – the bullet train. Japan is where regular, high-speed railways began, and in 140 minutes we are transported from Tokyo, the bustling capitol of Japan, to the relatively quiet, historic city of Kyoto. At the recommendation of a friend, we stay at the Hotel Granvia Kyoto –  a beautiful 15 story hotel above Kyoto station – centrally located and convenient for our one night stay.

Hotel Granvia Kyoto is an integral part of the architecturally striking masterpiece, the JR Kyoto Station Building, which also includes a department store, museum, musical theater, and a vast underground shopping mall. For art lovers, the elegant Hotel Granvia is home to over 1000 pieces of stunning art based on the theme of “The Contrast of Modern and Traditional Art”. The artwork of Kyoto-based artists, some of the most famous in Japan, is prominently featured among the paintings, sculptures, and industrial art on display and accentuated by photographs adorning the guest rooms.

Hotel Granvia Kyoto, JR Kyoto Station
The Hotel Granvia is an integral part of the architecturally striking JR Kyoto Station Building

Our treasured guide for this first whirlwind experience of Kyoto is Old Kyoto – A Guide to Traditional Shops, Restaurants and Inns by Diane Durston. The author lived in Kyoto for 18 years and has compiled a very personal guide to Kyoto’s elegant past that can still be found if you are interested and willing to explore the city’s narrow, quiet side streets.

One of the pages I have turned down in Durston’s book is for the restaurant Takasebune whose lunch special is tempura. Located near the Takasegawa Canal and named after the flat boats that used to carry merchandise up the canal, Takasebune is a small family restaurant. Our “tempura teishoku” includes a generous bowl of miso soup, rice, pickles, and a basket of crisply batter-fried tempura shrimp, fish and vegetables. As recommended by Durston we dine at the tiny counter in front where we can watch all the culinary activity. Feeling like giants in this small historical space we are served a delicious, inexpensive lunch.

Takasebune known for crispy tempura and fine fish dishes
Traditional Takasebune is known for it's crispy tempura and fresh fish dishes
Cherry blossoms along a canal in Kyoto, Japan
Cherry blossoms along a canal in Kyoto, Japan

After lunch we continue our walk to Ippodo Tea which Durston says” has been perfuming the neighborhood for 140 years with the finest green tea from Uji, the most famous tea producing region in Japan, just south of Kyoto”. The smell draws us in as do the old timbers and old tea jars lining the wall. Helpful clerks will steep a sample cup of tea and guide you in your purchase.

Asahi-do Ceramics is easy to find, housed in a modern building on a main street. They offer the widest selection of Kiyomizu ceramics in Kyoto (ceramics made in the area below Kyoto’s famous Kiyomizu Temple). There are two types of Kiyomizu ceramics: porcelain and earthenware. Both types are thrown by hand on the potter’s wheel and decorated by hand. Lovely selection of ceramics displayed in a gallery setting.

Our final destination requires a cab to find and is well worth it. Aizen Kobo Indigo Textiles is on a narrow backstreet in the textile district of Kyoto. Master dyer Kenichi Utsuki still works in this 120-year-old building, where he was born and raised and where his father and grandfather worked as textile artisans as well. Today his shop is one of the only places in Kyoto where handwoven, hand-dyed, and hand-embroidered garments of hon-ai or real indigo are attainable.

The key to the rich blue that Japanese indigo and Aizen Kobo are famous for is in the microorganisms produced when the indigo plant is fermented. To keep these bacteria healthy and the dye potent, Kenichi must maintain it at an optimal temperature, and feed it a carefully calculated mixture of wheat-bran powder, limestone powder, ash lye and sake.

Getting the fermentation right takes about two weeks, after which the vat of indigo can be used to dye for a few months. Depending on the kind of material being dyed and the depth of color desired, an item must be dipped and then sun-dried between 20 and 50 times, a process that often takes months. This makes the appeal of chemical indigo dye pretty obvious: with chemical-based indigo, preparation takes less than an hour and one dipping usually does the trick.

Indigo textile dyeing at Aizen Kobo in Kyoto, Japan
Indigo textile dyeing at Aizen Kobo in Kyoto, Japan

Stimulated by the days experiences we arrive back at the hotel exhausted. I can’t walk another step. The hotel offers an array of dining possibilities and we choose a restaurant on the top floor with sweeping views of the city. After dinner, a great bath and lights out.

Modern technology meets traditional beauty in front of a Kyoto guesthouse
Modern technology meets traditional beauty in front of a Kyoto guesthouse

Our second and last day in Kyoto. We head out early, walking a route that takes us down the narrow and quiet side streets for a glimpse of Kyoto neighborhoods and daily life. For us walking is key… bringing all the senses to bear. We delight in seeing the vacuum sitting on the perfectly clean carpet in front of the idyllic garden area of a guesthouse, as we take in the pleasant aromas of tea brewing and cakes baking.

Cake making machine at a bakery in Kyoto, Japan
Cake making machine at a bakery in Kyoto, Japan

Nestled in the mountains of Western Honshu, Kyoto is known as Japan’s most beautiful city and is often called “the city of a thousand temples”. Kyoto was the capital of Japan and the residence of the emperor from 794 to 1868, when the capital was moved to Tokyo. Kyoto thus spent a millennium as the center of Japanese power, culture, tradition, and religion. During this time Kyoto accumulated an unparalleled collection of palaces, temples and shrines – built for emperors, shoguns, geishas and monks. And Kyoto was one of the very few Japanese cities to escape Allied bombings during World War II.

Springtime colors in the countryside of Kyoto, Japan
Springtime colors in the countryside of Kyoto, Japan
Temples in Kyoto, Japan
Temples in Kyoto, Japan
Buddhist monk begging in Kyoto, Japan
Buddhist monk begging in Kyoto, Japan

After a morning of walking around the famous temples and beautiful gardens surrounding them, we find ourselves back on the Shinkansen, headed back to Tokyo and our flight back home.

Recommended Reading

Old Kyoto: The Updated Guide to Traditional Shops, Restaurants, and Inns by Diana Durston

Exploring Kyoto: On Foot in the Ancient Capital by Judith Clancy

36 Hours in Kyoto, Japan a travel article by Jaime Gross at The New York TImes

Osoyoos, British Columbia, in the Okanagan Valley

We are off to the Okanagan Valley. Driving through the North Cascades National Park on Route 20 in Washington State is a treat in the fall. This is Jays first time, so I drive to give him ample opportunity to take in everything. Near the summit we round a curve just as two bear cubs scurry over the far side of the road. We just glimpse their rears and cute furry tails.

Heading to Osoyoos, BC we pass through Winthrop, WA and stop in one of my favorite little towns – Twisp. The Cinnamon Twisp Bakery beckons like the sirens, and we head in for a hot cup of coffee and some lunch. After a delicious black bean/corn salad we are on the road again, nearing our intersection with Route 97, our path north to British Columbia. Only 85 miles to go.

Spirit Ridge Resort
Spirit Ridge Resort and NK' Mip Cellars appear beyond the grapevines and sagebrush.

Slowly the terrain turns to desert as we head north. We arrive in Osoyoos, British Columbia late afternoon. Just 5 minutes north of the US Border, the town of 5,000 is located on Osoyoos Lake, and surrounded by grasslands, highlands and mountains. As we make our way around the lake toward Spirit Ridge Vineyard Resort & Spa, New Mexico and Santa Fe come to mind. Indeed, this region is Canada’s only desert and is dotted with sagebrush and cactus.

Drawn to autumn colors and quiet, we arrive in the Okanagan Valley just after the Fall Wine Festival. Still time to enjoy the warm October days and the benefit of lower rates at the Spirit Ridge Vineyard Resort & Spa.

spirit ridge resort sculpture
Dynamic metal sculptures populate the resort.

Ready to stretch our legs after a day of driving, we check in, then walk over to the NK’Mip Cellars tasting room. Nk’Mip Cellars (pronounced in-ka-meep) is owned and operated by the Okanagan People, one of Canada’s First Nations. While enjoying their Pinot Noir and Merlot, we learn that the NK’Mip Cultural Center is located within the resort compound as well, and make a note to check it out in the morning.

Passatempo is Latin for “passing the time,” and this bistro-style restaurant at Spirit Ridge Resort is the perfect place to finish the day. Good food and good wine with my sweetie. Plus, a panoramic view of Lake Osoyoos, the vineyards, and the desert. We are offered seating on the patio or indoors, and choose an indoor table by the window. Our lovely waitress helps me choose a Filet entree with Juniper sauce, mashed potatoes and seasonal vegetables that is gluten-free. Jay decides on the Rack of Lamb. Both are beautifully presented, delicious, and enjoyed with glasses of Merlot, chosen after a small tasting of red wines. Many of the ingredients are locally grown and organic. (We return the next day for lunch and share a fresh Seafood Caesar Salad and delectable Polenta with fresh local corn).

spirit ridge grapevine
We take a path through the vineyard on our walk up from the lake.

After coffee and tea at a carryout across the way, we begin the second day with a brisk walk down to the lake and back in the cool morning air. The Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre is just opening as we return from our walk. The state-of-the-art interpretive centre is an architectural marvel sensitively constructed into the hillside. Extensive indoor and outdoor exhibit galleries create a fun, interactive learning environment with hands-on displays, education stations and two multi-media theatre experiences.

Warrior sculpture at Spirit Ridge Resort
Warrior sculpture welcomes visitors to the NK'Mip Cultural Center

We take our time looking at the exhibits (inside & outside) and discovering the fascinating stories and rich living culture of the Okanagan people. The outdoor area exhibits are amazing – we marvel at the metal sculptures. Then we buy two cold bottles of water and head out to explore the two kilometers of walking trails they have created. Enjoying the smell of the sage grasslands and pine forests along the way.

NK'Mip cultural center at Spirit Ridge
Outdoor exhibit at the NK'Mip Cultural Center at Spirit Ridge
spirit ridge cultural center woman harvesting
Another fantastic metal sculpture of a woman harvesting
spirit ridge cultural center spirit animals
Spirit animal sculpture at the Cultural Centre

As you can tell, we are walkers… but you could also spend time at the Sonora Desert Spa, or golfing at Sonora Dunes Golf Course, both at here at Spirit Ridge. And we are wine lovers, so we have a late lunch and go wine tasting.

Our favorite vineyards, all about 10 km north of Osoyoos in the Black Sage Bench area:

  • Church and State
  • Hester Creek Estate Winery
  • Oliver Twist Estate Winery
  • Stoneboat Vineyards
  • Burrowing Owl Estate Winery, where we have a delicious and romantic dinner that night in the Sonora Room Restaurant. Jay dines on the special, a perfectly grilled pork chop served with a homemade pasta incorporating fresh squash and cabbage served with a cider, calvados, beef stock and butter sauce. Outrageous! I have the Fraser Valley Duck Breast, equally sublime, with roasted new potatoes and autumn vegetables. This night all diners receive a complimentary appetizer of Jingle Bell Red Peppers filled with cheese and a complimentary dessert – mini squash creme brulee. Good thing we walked a lot today. And yes, we savored a bottle of Burrowing Owl Merlot, I think it was a 2007, but not sure. Excellent.


Fresh from the Okanagan Valley and Joie Farms is an inspiring new cookbook ~  MENUS from an ORCHARD TABLE: Celebrating the Food and Wine of the Okanagan by Heidi Noblemenus from an orchard tableA collection of outstanding seasonal recipes from Joie Wines and Farm Cooking School’s renowned outdoor orchard dinners. Menus for an Orchard Table allows readers to re-create some of Joie’s most extraordinary dishes, with essays on the Okanagan’s wine country cuisine and superb photography. The recipes are divided into the courses served at Joie’s orchard dinners, which balance regional wines with the accompanying dishes. Among the selections are Chilled heirloom yellow tomato soup garnished with tomato confit and chive oil, Country lamb and olive terrine with Joie pear and shallot compote and brioche, and the Bittersweet Chocolate Tarte with port. Unfortunately, the cooking classes are no longer offered, but the spirit lives on in her cookbook.

Traveling without a plan

Opening ourselves up to new experiences is part of the intrigue of travel. Our best travel stories are of the unexpected surprises along the way… positive and even seemingly negative at the time. Things that happen which give us a jolt, put us on a different trajectory, let us see a situation in a different light.

My first trip to Europe in the summer of 1976 with Jay was this way… as backpackers we alternated between camping, hosteling and our favorite – pensions – small inexpensive European hotels that often included a home cooked breakfast. Our parameters were certain cities or towns we wanted to visit and our airline tickets back to the states at summer’s end. I think we had one guide book, otherwise we would get tips from other travelers and check in at the tourist centers at the train stations.

This past February when we decided to escape the NW grey and spend the month in New Zealand I found myself fretting about how to plan a month away. How to know exactly where we wanted to go, how long we would want to stay in an area… not to mention feeling the responsibility of having to make those decisions and then implement them by doing all the research and reservation making.

So, we decided to pack our guidebooks, bring my laptop, book a hotel for our arrival in Auckland… and leave. What freedom and what fun. We found some towns we wanted to linger in and other areas where we just kept on driving. The flexibility allowed us to totally change our plans on the South island in order to spend time with our niece in Queenstown – a city we had not planned on visiting.

An offshoot of this attitude is that last minute travel can translate into last minute flight deals or other last minute savings. Emailing a day ahead for lodging in Nelson, NZ for 5 days, the reply came saying the cottages were booked but we could have the villa for the same rate. If you have access to the internet simply search on “last minute travel” and the city or area you are heading to.

This Sunday reading the New York Times travel section, I learned that the Frugal Traveler has just begun a new series “Getting Lost“. Taking it even a step further than we did, his intention is to show up in a place, and figure it out… with the goal of getting lost (literally). Here is an excerpt:

“Which is why I’ve lately been wondering, how does it feel truly not to know where you are? Are the guidebooks, GPS devices and Internet forums pointing us in the wrong direction? In our efforts to figure out where we’re going, have we lost something more important?

Hence this new series, “Getting Lost,” in which every few months I will try to lose my way all over the globe, from developing-world megalopolises to European capitals, from American sprawl to Asian archipelagos. (For the moment, I’ll avoid deep wilderness and deserts; I want to survive.) It’s a challenge that requires special preparation — that is, nonpreparation. In the past, I’ve researched destinations to death, zooming deep into Google Maps and uncovering unusual restaurants in the darkest corners of the Web. Now I am avoiding maps. I am shying away from Chowhound and Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree forum; I will not ask my Facebook friends who they know in Moscow or Addis Ababa.

I am, in short, trying to break free of the constraints of modern travel, of a culture in which every minute is rigorously planned, and we grade destinations based on how they live up to our expectations. I want to have no expectations. I plan to show up with neither hotel reservation nor guidebook; instead of devising my own itinerary, I will let the place itself guide me, and in doing so, I will, I hope, find myself caught up in moments I never could have imagined.”

Isn’t part of the reason we travel to get out of our known environment? Embrace the mystery? We all have our own comfort level around how much to let go, but what might happen if we challenge ourselves to embrace some, if not all, of the void?


Notes from our travels to Tokyo

April 2007 found us in Tokyo and Kyoto for 10 days… I tagged along on a business trip of Jay’s. Here are some notes and impressions I jotted down at the time… this blog covers Tokyo… Kyoto will follow.

Arriving in a foreign land is surreal. We board a plane that climbs to 35,000 feet, cruises for hours and then the door opens and we are half way across the globe. Amazing. Tokyo is amazing. Spreading for miles – seemingly never-ending, populated in numbers beyond conception, yet mostly experienced as orderly and clean.

The train station is where the vast sums of people are apparent. We experience Shinagawa Station during morning rush hour when thousands of Japanese head to the office clad in dark suits and white shirts. A low buzz of sound like an active beehive filled the air as orderly masses approached the precision run trains. Shinagawa, one of the oldest stations in Tokyo, opened on June 12, 1872. It is very near the hotel we are in. Mastery of the train system is useful as taxis are very expensive.

This is my first visit to Japan and the toilet in our hotel room is a main source of interest: heated toilet seat, button on toilet for bidet, we think, one button with male symbol and another for female – pushed female lots of action in bowl but nothing interacted with me. We are impressed with their energy efficiency, as you enter the room you insert your key/card into a slot that activates electricity – everything turns off when you leave and remove your key.

The hotel includes breakfast – extensive buffet options – very international with familiar western options of eggs, bacon and an extensive Japanese buffet with miso soup, fish, rice…

Easter Sunday we take the JR train to the Imperial Palace and Gardens, a large park area surrounded by moats and massive stone walls in the center of Tokyo, a short walk from Tokyo Station. It is the residence of Japan’s Imperial Family. Cherry blossoms, blooming azaleas and rhododendrons fill the gardens.

Tokyo Imperial Palace Garden with cityscape in the background
Tokyo Imperial Palace Gardens with cityscape in the background
Tokyo Imperial Palace Garden
Idyllic pond in the Tokyo Imperial Palace Garden
View of Tokyo Imperial Palace
View of the moated Tokyo Imperial Palace

Lunch is fun. We find a noodle soup place in the lower level of an office building with customers coming and going. We select and pay for our soup at a machine, then give the token/receipt we receive to someone at the counter. We can see the cooks in action behind her. A few minutes later a big bowl of steaming broth with rice noodles and chicken arrives. Tasty and cheap.

Full and satisfied we walk to the Ginza area. We are drawn to the elegant and historic Mitsukoshi department store. I read up on the history and learn it was founded in 1673 as a kimono shop, ten years later in 1683, the owners took a new approach to marketing, and instead of selling by going door-to-door, they set up a store where buyers could purchase goods on the spot with cash. My favorite floor is the  food department on the lower level – a wow! A bazaar of food with Harrod’s and many other Japanese food specialists.

Tokyo Street Scene
Tokyo street scene a la Beatles Abbey Road Album

Monday – Jay is working and I take a cab to Shinjuku – this is the area Lost in Translation was filmed. High energy, Times Square like. I walk through Tokyo Hands – our friend David’s favorite store – with everything from stationery to nails. I buy some lovely rice paper and a bag of tiny shells. Shinjuku is divided – the east side is constant chaos – shopping, eating, lots of young people. While the west side is high rises, luxury hotels and government buildings. With an estimated population of over 300,000 Shinjuku is a city in it’s own right.

Tuesday on my own, I take a cab back to the Ginza area. Mostly walk around, people watch and window shop. I check out Matsuya department store where I find an area devoted to Japanese artisans – many are present to talk about their work – paintings, prints, textiles, pottery.

Later I head to the Okura Museum of Art on the grounds of the lovely, historic Okura Hotel. The museum has an austere atmosphere, only a few people are present – offering a calm respite from the downtown energy.

Tokyo Okura Museum Sculpture
Ancient stone sculpture at the Okura Museum in Tokyo

From the hotel website I read the museum’s history: Back in 1917, an avid collector of Buddhist artwork by the name of Kihachiro Okura established, on his own land, a museum in which to hold and display his treasures. Over the years, this collection was added to by his son, the founder of Hotel Okura, Baron Kishichiro Okura, whose interests included modern Japanese painting, or Nihonga. Today, the Okura Shukokan Museum of Fine Arts houses some 2,000 items and 35,000 volumes — a collection that contains a number of officially registered National Treasures, Important Cultural Objects, and Important Art Objects.

Evening energy levels rise in Tokyo. Apartments are small and utilitarian, so many seek camaraderie with friends and co-workers in the bars after a long day at the office. Nightly we witness the packed tables, shrouded in cigarette smoke, everyone animatedly talking and drinking. It’s worth enduring the smoke to experience the high energy.

As often happens after a trip my antennae are tuned to that country. So when I come across a positive review for The Haiku Apprentice – a memoir by an American diplomat who joins a haiku group in Japan – I am on it. The book is not written to teach haiku yet I find myself dabbling in the medium as I read along during my commute and learning more about the country and people I have just visited.


Yokohama, Japan, with kids

Last night an email came in from our sister-in-law, Janet. She and the kids (our nieces – ages 13 & 11) are traveling in Asia with Andy on a business trip. Happy Father’s Day Andy!

Hello Jay and Sue,

We are having a great time in Yokohama. We were fortunate enough to get upgraded from SFO to Narita into business class and had a great flight. Gabrielle was so busy watching Avatar that she didn’t even know that we had landed. She saw everyone standing up and wondered what was going on. Now that’s a great 10 hour flight.

After landing in Narita we had to catch a bus to our hotel – Yokohama is an hour away from the Airport. We were all pretty jet lagged by now and the bus ride felt longer than the flight. From the bus terminal we caught a taxi to our hotel (planes, trains and automobiles). The taxis in Japan are so clean and I love the white seat covers and the gloved drivers. The cabs play 30-40s hits from America while using GPS. A bit of the old and the new and it works. We are taking taxis all over Yokohama (the kids love the automatic doors).

We are staying at the Intercontinental Yokohama Hotel. It is an easy landmark in Yokohama. The hotel is shaped like the sail of a ship. It is so distinct – you just can’t miss it. Andy and I stayed here 8 years ago when we were last here. I love being back. I really like this hotel. The staff is really helpful and all speak English. They are so polite and friendly. The restaurants in the hotel are great, Chinese, Italian, French and Japanese. Our maitre ‘d was from Lausanne, Switzerland in the French restaurant and he and Andy spoke French together. The French food was rich and delicious – I had a pumpkin soup that was out of this world. It’s a great experience. The girls said that after Italy this is their favorite country.

SOGO Department Store, Yokohama, Japan
SOGO Department Store, Yokohama, Japan

Day 1 – we go to one of my favorite stores – SOGO. It is next to the Yokohama Train Station. It is an amazing store on par with Harrods in London. It is 12 stories and one of the floors has a museum on it. The  sixth floor is home to the first in-store museum, the SOGO Museum of Art in Japan. We go through the exhibit and unfortunately none of the items had English subtitles. Danielle recognized an ink block and the tea brush used in the tea ceremony which she studied this year at school. She is excited to share some info with us. There is an exhibit of three handbags – we know they are hundreds of years old ( if not thousand since we can’t read any of the literature) but one of the handbags could have been in fashion today. You forget you’re inside a department store and it’s just a small portion of the sixth floor. But my favorite floor is the basement – it has foods from around the world. Every display case is more beautiful than the next. The food and pastry look like works of art. The staff is friendly and eager to serve you and they speak English. One young woman looks distressed when Gabrielle tried to order three truffles and finally she said “alcohol” so we knew not to pick those. We oohed and ahhed over the confections and went back two days in a row to sample the cream puffs. They cost about $2.50 each and the packaging is so elaborate. They pack them in a travel box, wet naps, napkins, utensils for us to take with a mini ice pack to keep them cool. We love it and came back a second day to do some shopping at SOGO.

Cosmoworld, Yokohama, Japan
Cosmoworld with the Intercontinental Hotel in the background - Yokohama, Japan

Next is Cosmoworld which is near our hotel. It is an amusement park with one of the world’s largest ferris wheels, 1125 meters high and can carry 480 people. We go on it and it takes about 15 minutes to complete the revolution. We have a great view of our hotel and Yokohama in general. After the ferris wheel Andy and Danielle ride the roller coaster. It goes underground during the ride and they are the only two people on it. We can hear them screaming as they fly underground.

Red Panda at the Nogeyama Zoo, Yokohama, Japan
Red Panda at the Nogeyama Zoo, Yokohama, Japan

Day 2 – Andy is working and we are off to the Nogeyama Zoo. It is a small zoo built in 1950 and the admission is free. I don’t know how they pay for the animals? We want to see a red panda and we do. It is the second exhibit at the zoo and we squeal with delight at this charming fellow. It is the first time we have seen a red panda close up. The first creature we see is a scarlet ibis – something else we had never seen before. They are truly scarlet and very beautiful birds. Another animal that is new to us is the colobus – this primate is amazing. Long black and white hair and a tail that must be three feet long. It was a wonderful sight to see. They have a petting zoo so different from the States. It has boxes of mice, then another box of baby chicks, then guinea pigs called “marmots” and then rats. You can pet the animals and they had slatted ropes all along the enclosure for the mice and rats to travel on. These are hung on poles across the exhibit so if you look up mice and rats are traveling on the mini slatted bridges over your head. The kids love it. The rest of the animals are the standard zoo variety but as we turn the corner on the cat house after being inside and seeing a tiger and lioness – a male lion is lying on top of a shed. We go “whoa’ because he is enormous. I had never been that close to a male lion. He is huge and I just hadn’t realize how huge. He is amazing and he has this intense stare so we all turn to see what he was looking at. We don’t see what he sees. It is hot and humid. I would say in the 80s and I hope we will be able to find a taxi to take us back our hotel. We step out of the zoo and here comes a taxi. What luck!

Nogeyama Zoo Peacock, Yokohama, Japan
Nogeyama Zoo Peacock, Yokohama, Japan

For dinner Andy and his client, Toshi, take us to an authentic Soba noodle dinner in Old Tokyo. The restaurant is over 100 years old. The outside is lovely – screens and well manicured entrance. We sit on tatami mats and are the only caucasians in the place. It is quite an experience. Toshi orders for us and Gabrielle’s udon noodles arrive in a beautiful black box with a lid on it. She loves the noodles. This is a dinner we will never forget.

We take the train and subway into Tokyo and back. It’s the girls first time on a subway and they don’t really like the crowded conditions. As a New Yorker it was pretty typical of a subway ride.

Day 3 – we go to the Yokohama Museum of Art. It is closed but as we take photos on the grounds, this business man approaches and without asking politely takes the camera from Gabrielle and takes our picture. Then he turns the camera, takes another shot, picks up his briefcase and continues on his way. We love the culture and politeness of the people. We cross over to the Landmark Tower. This is the highest observation tower in Japan. It is on the 69th story and the panoramic views are fantastic. The elevator is the fastest in Japan and in the Guinness Book of Records. It travels the 69 stores in 40 seconds. We love it. It is so fun.

Last night which was our 16th anniversary and our last night in Japan so we met Andy in Shin-Yokohama to go to the Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum. We had seen Ramen Girl – starring Brittany Murphy several months ago and knew we were heading to Yokohama where this film takes place. So we said we would go and visit this Raumen Museum. We made good on our word and went. The basement of the museum is supposed to be a replica of what downtown noodle shops looked liked in 1958. It is very bizarre. Totally unexpected and hard to describe. We took some pictures which we’ll have to send but even that may not do it justice. It was a strange experience.

Umbrellas in Yokohama, Japan
The girls with their umbrellas in Yokohama, Japan

The girls purchased umbrellas at SOGO earlier in the week. They are hoping to get to use their new umbrellas. They are clear with colored polka dots. The clear umbrellas make it so easy to see where you’re going. Last night as we walked to the Raumen it was raining hard. It was an anniversary we won’t forget. Andy and I are under one of the polka-dotted umbrellas and the girls each walked with a new umbrella in the pouring rain. We are all happy.

Today we head to Singapore. The girls and I are excited about seeing a new country.