First views of Centro Histórico, Quito

Quito is on the UNESCO world heritage list, as its historic centre is considered the best preserved in Latin America. We took a walk through Mariscal to the Centro Histórico and Plaza Grande. We had a couple of destinations in mind but ended up stopping at the Basílica del Voto Nacional. This is not one of the oldest churches in the city, but is a gothic marvel with native wildlife featured as gargoyles and beautiful windows. There are fantastic views of the city from the upper levels and tower. As you’d expect, M went the extra rickety steps to get to the tippy top. We then went on to the Plaza hoping to see the Quito Cathedral and Museum, but had lingered longer than expected over those upper views. We shall return.

Quito arrival

Having been on the road for a while now it’s quite exciting to think we’ll be at least a few weeks in the same location. We have even unpacked our bags. The luxury of time means that sightseeing can be at a gentle pace – at least to begin. This is a good thing in Quito as the altitude can affect you if you’re not used to it.

As we arrived late at night we decided to make use of the airport hotel, the Wyndham. This turned out to be an excellent idea after a long day, as the Wyndham shuttle meant that we didn’t need to negotiate taxis and unfamiliar city streets. And  after a long travelling day it was nice to see a familiar face.

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Quito is a busy city with established tourist areas, including Centro Historico, La Marischal, La Floresta and Guapulo. We’re near La Floresta, which means we’re within walking distance of many of the places to see. Our first major outing was to La Marischal – also known as ‘gringolandia’ and ‘party central’ – but when we were there (admittedly before lunchtime) there didn’t seem to be many gringos around.

We checked out the Museo Etnografico de Artesania de Equador, which houses examples of textiles, musical instruments, produce and artwork of different indigenous groups, side by side with a showroom with items for purchase. The venture is run by an organisation supporting indigenous communities and local artisans to maintain their culture and generate income. So much to learn. Both the museum and the showroom were fascinating, and the cafe next door was good too.

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Sunny Los Angeles

So it was farewell to Japan and hello LA. Sun, palm trees, and not a few people talking to themselves on the streets. As this was our second stay in LA, rather than taking in any of the usual tourist sites we checked out our local neighbourhood (Los Feliz), Downtown LA, and made an attempt to go to the beach. M was keen to hire a car – he has driven in the US a number of times, but not much in LA city. Wow, those freeways and all those cars. We drove to the coast but first got stuck in a jam and then couldn’t find a park – for about 2 hours. I had dreams of a nice seafood restaurant and walking on the beach but we had salad and a piece of fish from plastic tubs from Vons ( ie the supermarket) instead. Admittedly the view from Von’s carpark was of the ocean, if you ignored the major road in between. When we finally found a carpark, the beach didn’t have much spare sand for those already there. So we decided to drive home.

We did get to check out some excellent craft beer locations and some restaurants where the service was so good I wanted to adopt the wait staff.

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The amazing art of Kerry James Marshall at the Museum of Contemporary Art
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Nancy Rubins sculpture at MOCA LA
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LA Philharmonic
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Art deco, Downtown LA
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Wonderful to visit – great shops above too – DTLA
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There’s the beach!

 

Fushimi day out (Kyoto)

Another of our major day trips while in Kyoto was to Fushimi Inari Shrine and a walk to the top of Mt Inari. It’s a reasonable climb with cement steps all the way, and well worth the effort.  If you do go, don’t forget this is a religious site so don’t sit on the steps at the top. Also I can recommend catching the Keihan Line instead of JR – less crowded when you want to get home, and the station is only a short walk away from the shrine.

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K for Kyoto

From Hiroshima we trained it to Kyoto for the last few days of our Japanese travels. The cherry blossom was still in full bloom, and kimono rentals booming. The days were warm and sometimes wet, but good fun. Our first major outing was to Arashiyama, to experience the famous bamboo grove. After a little confusion about which way to head from the station (turn right), we ended up on a main street of a pleasant, touristy place. Unexpected rain then started to fall, so we went in search of an umbrella and coffee. Having successfully found both, we set off exploring Arashiyama. There is so much more to see besides the lovely bamboo grove, especially the fabulous gardens of Tenryu-ji, Okochi Sanso and Kameyama-koen.

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Floating Miyajima

The island of Itsukushima, known as Miyajima, is an easy day trip from Hiroshima. Not only can you see the famous floating torii gate at high and low tide, there are wonderful temples, and a cracking two tiered cable car ride to spectacular mountain and island views.

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I hrt Hiroshima

Hiroshima is not a bomb, it’s a city, with a message of peace. Since learning about the devastating and heartbreaking effects of the bomb in ‘History’ at school, it has always been a significant location to me, so to be able to visit has been incredible. How mindblowing to be in Hiroshima the very week that the US and North Korea are posturing on nuclear weapons. The Peace Museum was powerful and so distressing. But Hiroshima is also a wonderful city to visit for so many other reasons – a lovely castle, craft beer and food, cycling, sega game shops. And an easy day trip to Miyajima.

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This is the A-Bomb Dome – ground zero on the day of the bomb being dropped, preserved as a memorial. Don’t do it again, world.

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On to Koyasan

We had time to catch up with friends in Osaka before bidding farewell and heading into the mountains to experience Koyasan, which has many sacred Buddhist temples and monasteries. We travelled on the Nankai Railway, which was a lovely journey, although M was a little disgruntled that the ticket seller wouldn’t let him purchase return tickets – still not sure why! At the end of the train journey there is a fantastically angled cable car that takes you to the station where you can then catch a bus to get to your nominated monastery accommodation. Apparently it’s always a good idea to book your bed – and even 9 months ago bookings were tight for our chosen price range and dates. Accommodation at the monastery included breakfast and dinner, all vegan meals.

Staying two nights showed that even at the same monastery each day/night can be quite different – the first night we had a full explanation of the different tofu(s?) used for the meal, and in the morning there was a special breakfast ceremony complete with chanting. The second day/night was much more straightforward, with no explanations, no ceremonies – and for both there were about the same number of people. Sleeping arrangements were the monastic version of a ryokan – shoes off, slippers on (even special toilet slippers), sleeping on the floor (with mattresses – quite comfortable if you like firm beds) and eating seated on the floor (which is havoc on the joints if you are a creaky Westerner). And communal bathrooms, split male/female, including a communal bath – the onsen experience – kind of  like a spa, but no swimming costumes allowed. Yochiin was a very friendly monastery – I would recommend it.

Oh, and there were also some fabulous sites to visit during the day.

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Gorgeous cherry blossom on the way to Koyasan
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Steepest cable car ride ever
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Our first full haute cuisine tofu meal at Kadohama Cafe, Koyasan
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Bedroom view, Yochiin Monastery
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The Buddhist cemetery on the approach to Okunoin is one of the most amazing places I’ve seen in Japan.

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After, M wanted to go hunting bears, but I didn’t have the right shoes.

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Bloomin’ Himeji

Himeji is an easy day trip from Osaka – and definitely worth the trip. The drawcard everyone knows is Himeji Castle, one of the largest in Japan. It’s a beautiful complex, and even when over-run with tourists you can see how awe inspiring it is. We were there on a day when the weather was patchy, but the blossom was full and the castle and surrounding buildings were looking beautiful.

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Osaka – on the right

To reach Osaka from Nagoya we had a deluxe ride on the Nozomi (fastest) Shinkansen in a ‘Green Car’ (first class). Sadly, it was also the shortest train journey (at around 45 minutes) we’re likely to have during our first visit to Japan. But having experienced both Green Car and Regular now, I have to say that although Green Car had more space, the difference between the two services did not seem great. Although it was beautifully quiet.

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Green Car example (looking very brown)

On arrival, our location (near subway stations Nishinagahori and Nishiohashi) turned out to be in a fab spot for local craft beer bars. Which of course in the name of research we checked out thoroughly. More about that later.

The cherry blossom around Osaka Castle was fabulous. We decided not to go into the castle itself, as the it’s-close-to-lunchtime lineup was astounding. So we decided to get some bento boxes to enjoy under the trees and then check out Dotombori, Shinsaibashi and Kurumon Market instead.

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Still working on the ‘castle tastefully framed by cherry blossoms’ shot, obviously.
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Don’t admire castles and text at the same time!
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Kuromon Market Fugu. The market would be a great place to have lunch – we had just bento-boxed.
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Kamen Joshi pop/heavy metal darlings, performing at Shinsaibashi
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Some of their adoring fans (who knew all the words and actions)

As for standing on the right – apparently it’s only in Osaka where you stand on the right on escalators. Osakans are different.