Viñales, the town

We spent some time in the colorful town of Viñales as well as in the surrounding countryside. In declaring the Viñales valley to be of “Outstanding Universal Value,” UNESCO had this to say about the town:

The village of Viñales, strung out along its main street, has retained its original layout and many interesting examples of colonial architecture, mostly one-storey wooden houses with porches.

And indeed, it is exactly as UNESCO described it–but they forgot to mention the vivid colors!

The people, too, are colorful and interesting.

The revolution, too, is still present in this part of Cuba–from a picture of the much-loved Che, to a touching sign: “I Am Cuba.”



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When I was arranging our tour to Cuba, the potential participants in our group were, generally, not very interested in Viñales. The area is famous for its tobacco plantations, home of the best tobacco for Cuba’s best cigars, which (everyone knows, or pretends to know) are the finest in the world. But my friends and relatives and I, we are a nonsmoking group of people, and it was hard to get up much enthusiasm for a tour of the tobacco world, when the vacation was short, and there was Havana with its great food and wonderful music, and of course, Cuba’s beaches.

But a bit of research revealed that the Viñales valley is also on the UNESCO World Heritage List. It is a landscape of sublime loveliness–an agricultural valley surrended by dramatic dome-like karst hills (mountains?) that is quite unique and worth visiting, if only for its physical beauty.

This is what it looks like, approaching the town from the east.

We stopped for lunch at a working farm with great (fresh, local) food, where we could look out over the valley and walk in the garden.


For the first time in my life, I saw pineapples growing. I always imagined them growing right next to the ground, like a kohlrabi or a fennel bulb; other people I’ve talked with thought they grew on trees. Neither of these is true. They grow on stems, like artichokes. Here is one:

The agricultural part of the valley is peaceful. In the hot afternoon, a couple of farmers (well, I *assumed* they were farmers!) headed home for a rest–or a meal–or a friendly drink of rum or coffee, or a good cigar.

Speaking of cigars, after lunch it was time for a short trip through the dazzling countryside, followed by a tour of an organic tobacco plantation and cigar manufacturing.


Everyone was invited to try a cigar–and we all did! The gentleman above rolls the cigars shut using honey for glue, and we all agreed that his cigars were smooth and sweet.


It was a great experience, but we were not converted from our non-tobacco ways, and most of us (except you-know-who-you-are) easily resisted the temptation to buy any.

Moving on, we reached a stunning overlook of the valley late in the afternoon.


In the next post, I’ll show a bit of the town of Viñales.

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We are traveling in Cuba, Dan and I, along with our daughter Margot and her friend Erika. The day we arrived, I sprained my ankle.

Here’s how it happened. Dan had put the bar of soap in the shower stall, but I needed the soap at the sink. So I went to get it. Fortunately, I was barefoot, so there was no problem stepping into the shower stall to get the soap, even though (for some reason) the floor was wet. Unfortunately, I was barefoot, so, as I stepped out of the shower stall and down the small step to the tile floor of the bathroom, my left foot slipped on the wet tile, and I fell, landing with my right foot at an angle that no foot should ever land at.

Yes, it hurt.

Yes, it hurt really bad, but I knew it wasn’t broken. I know what the pain from a broken bone feels like, and this was (as I said) really bad–but it wasn’t that.

In the morning, it was a bit better, but I still couldn’t do certain key activities like, for example, going up and down stairs. Or anything involving placing my right foot behind the centerline of my body. So I stayed in the hotel with my foot up and with ice on it while everyone else got their first taste of Havana. At lunchtime, I hobbled along with the group because I was determined to miss as little as possible.

The next day was a day tour of Vinales. We spent most of the morning in the car, so no problem there, and the foot didn’t really hurt much any more.

The next day, my right foot was almost entirely blue and a bit swollen, but it didn’t hurt much, so I did the walking tour of Havana and other activities of the day without a problem.

Then it was time to move on to Cienfuegos. Beautiful Cienfuegos, the pearl of the south. I wore my flipflops for the car ride, and Dan couldn’t help but notice that my foot was swollen, and the swelling seemed to have moved up to the ankle as well. He remembered that several years ago his mother had broken her ankle and had had to take blood thinner to ensure that a blood clot did not go to her heart. Or her brain. He began to worry about blood clots and insisted that when we reached Cienfuegos, we must see a doctor.

My sweet, caring husband!

After we got settled into the casa where we were staying, we went to a clinic. This turned out to be the doctor’s house (I think), with a sign in front indicating that the doctor was available 24/7. We went in. There was no line, and the doctor was available to see me right away.But first, there was the matter of the insurance. All tourists entering Cuba are required to have medical insurance that is good in the country. The U.S. airlines automatically provide this insurance for their passengers. Did I have my boarding pass?

I did.

The doctor made a copy of it, and of my passport information, and informed me that everything was all paid for. She was very nice and seemed quite competent, pressing in various places–Does it hurt here? Here? Here?

Well, really, even though my foot was a multicolor sight to see, by this time it hardly hurt at all. “What do you think is the matter?” I asked.

There ensued a five-minute-long conversation in Spanish between the doctor and our guide, the delightful Jorge. “What is she saying?” I finally asked.

“You need to get an x-ray,” the guide said.

“Why?” I asked.

There ensued another very long conversation in Spanish.

“What’s she saying?”

“It might be broken.”

“It’s not broken!” I said, but Dan signaled me to back down. He was worried about blood clots and wanted the diagnosis to run its natural course. X-rays can show things other than bones.

I sighed. “Okay. Let’s get an x-ray.”

There was no x-ray facility at the doctor’s office, so they put me into a conveniently available ambulance, along with Dan and Jorge and my own personal nurse, and off we went.

The hospital facility had definitely seen better days, but it was fairly clean. A patient in line ahead of me at the radiology laboratory lay on his stretcher smoking a cigarette–something you’d never see in the U.S. “He’s here for an x-ray,” Dan quipped, “because he has lung cancer.” A bad joke, yes, but understandable, given the somewhat surreal circumstance.

Well, they x-rayed my foot left, right, and center; developed the film on the spot; and gave it, still dripping wet, to the nurse to take to be read.

The ambulance then took us downtown, where Dan, Jorge, and I had a great walking tour of the town. My multicolored foot did not hurt. After walking a few miles up and down Cienfuegos’s beautiful streets, we took a taxi to a faux-Moorish castle by the sea for a drink and watched the sunset.

Then we walked back to the clinic. It wasn’t that far–maybe only eight blocks or so.

Behold, I did not have a broken bone! I’d been saying this from the beginning, but now I had some very graphic x-rays to prove it. And what I did now have was an anti-inflammatory cream to apply three times a day and some interesting-looking pills. No charge. Thank you, United Airlines!

“What about blood clots?” I asked.

The doctor said this was not an issue, since my foot was not in a cast, and I was very active.

“What are these for?” I asked, indicating the pills.

There ensued a lengthy conversation in Spanish between the doctor and the guide. After several minutes, I asked, “What’s she saying?”

The guide laughed and said they were discussing which they liked better: Cienfuegos or Trinidad. The doctor preferred Cienfuegos. Not so the guide.

“But what are the pills for?” I persisted.

“They will help with the swelling. And the pain,” said the doctor.

I decided not to mention that there was no longer any pain. Instead, I asked, “Can you recommend a good restaurant here in Cienfuegos?”

Her face lit up in a smile. “Oh yes!” (It turned out she could speak fairly good English, even though she was shy about it.) “There is a good one that is very expensive, and then there is one that is medium price, and it is my favorite restaurant.”

“Yes, *that* one,” Dan and I chorused.

And when it was all over, the ambulance took us back to our casa.

Not to keep you in suspense, the restaurant is El Prado. Do not confuse it with the cafe of the same name next door. We ate great food on the rooftop terrace to a live band of marvelous Afro-Cuban-jazz music. We drank two bottles of excellent South American chardonnay and entertained the marriage proposal of our waiter to either or both of our lovely young women traveling companions. An April wedding was considered. We do not know the young man’s name, but he was willing enough to call me “Mama.”

This may all seem like great lengths to go to, just to find this one marvelous restaurant, but remember, we also got to know a gracious Cuban doctor and nurse, and we experienced a Cuban hospital, and we rode in our own personal ambulance several times.

And we no longer have to worry about blood clots from my multicolored foot.

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In Japan, as in many places around the world, shop owners secure their shops with roll-down metal shutters when they go home at night. In the morning, they roll the shutters up, bring out whatever signs or wares they place on the street near their door, and open for business.

In Asakusa, many of these metal shutters are painted with wonderful pictures–so full of Japanese life and vitality. Sometimes the picture gives a clue to what kind of shop is sleeping behind it; and sometimes not–though the writing probably takes care of that function in many cases. Here are some shutters that we saw as we walked the streets in the morning, when the shops were just starting to open.














Here’s a particularly detailed and complicated one:


I’ve saved my favorite for last–that trompe-l’oeil fabric over the entry just makes me smile!



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As a “shitamachi” (or low city) district of Tokyo, Asakusa has numerous charming pedestrian streets. For example, this is the street leading to the Sensoji shrine. It is lined with shops selling wares to tourists and to devotees.


The entry to this street is emphasized by a fine gate.



There are streets with a covered arcades — interesting both by day and by night.



And, of course, there are just plain pleasant pedestrian streets!


Lining the streets, whether pedestrian or not, are, of course, buildings. Some of these buildings are heart-meltingly attractive.


Others, not so much–though these, too, sometimes have a certain charm.


One feature of even the most ordinary buildings is a certain tendency to decoration–wonderful, very Japanese decoration.


A dragon!



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Finally, we found one especially fortuitous combination of all these things–pedestrian street, building, and decoration.





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We didn’t discover the interesting area around the temple until the second time we went there, and had more time to wander.

There were, to begin with, several statues of Buddha (or perhaps of Bodhisattvas).

A short digression is perhaps in order here. Dan and I are illiterate in Japanese, and we have gained a whole new–and sympathetic–understanding of the dilemmas that must face functionally illiterate people in our own country. We were certainly able to get around fine in Japan. Most public transportation have signs in English as well as Japanese; and people were also wonderfully friendly and willing to help. We also understood where we were and what we were seeing, at least in broad terms. But the details on explanatory signs (and most menus!) were too much for us. So I present here the beauty, or cuteness, of what we saw–and the Japanese are very, very good at both beauty and cuteness–but no details. Just as we experienced it.

And now on to the Buddhas. Or Bodhisattvas.






Finally, my favorite. I actually don’t know who this little guy is, or anything about him. I just know: you gotta love him!


There was a small but lovely landscaped area, with a stream running through it.


The stream had myriads of red-and-white fish in it.


And the fish were hungry.


There were also numerous other objects of mystery.


One small shrine I do know about (because they were kind enough to post its story in English as well as Japanese). Once upon a time, it seems, in the early eighteenth century, a housewife, digging in her garden, discovered buried there a jar full of gold coins. She worried that she and her husband would rely too heavily on those coins and become lazy and lose what they had. So she buried the coins again, and with this mindset, she and her husband worked hard and became very wealthy. They placed a statue of the Bodhisattva Jizo on the spot where they buried the coins. Today, this shrine is built over those coins.


It contains the statue of the Bodhisattva (and several other statues of him, too). People come here to pray for success in their business enterprises.


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Asakusa is considered an important “shitamachi” (that’s “low city” to you!) district of Tokyo. It does have its few high-rise and modern buildings, but many older streets and structures survive.


But more of that later.

First, an important lesson in pronouncing Japanese. This will be helpful to anyone (well, any American English speaker, anyway) contemplating a trip to Japan. An American acquaintance of mine who spent a lot of time in Japan explained Japanese pronunciation this way: “They speak really fast and run all their syllables together.” I did not find this to be true, though I did find myself nearly choking on my tongue when trying to repeat the names of places the way they were announced in trains and subways.

Those of you who, like me, speak American English as a native language probably imagine that the name of this district would be pronounced “AH-suh-KOO-sah.” But this would be terribly wrong. The closest I was able to get is “Ah-SOCK-sah.” (I think the “u” is just there to space out the “k” and the “s” a little.) In general, I found I could get closer to correct by placing a strong emphasis on the second syllable rather than the first and third. Thus, for example, “Ka-NAH-z-wah” is better than “KA-na-ZA-wah.” Just so you know.

We visited Asakusa twice–once early in our trip, late in the morning; and then again on our very last day, when we spent an evening there and then got an early start in the morning. The early start turns out to be important, as the district can be crowded with tourists.


The biggest tourist draw in Asakusa is the Buddhist Sensoji Temple. This temple is the oldest in Tokyo–originally built when Asakusa was just a fishing village in the seventh century–occupies a complex of numerous buildings, artifacts, and landscape features. The temple building and its ancillary structures are remarkable. I loved the large lanterns in the doorways.





The roof tiles of the main hall, rebuilt in its original style after its destruction in World War II, are made of titanium.

I like this statue and the dragons on his fountain:


Also, there are a number of lions.



Decorative details include warriors and imaginative beasts.





More on other parts of the temple area in the next post.

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A person can’t visit Shirakawa-go for long without wondering what’s involved in maintaining those steep, thickly thatched roofs. The answer is: teamwork! Many hands make light work; the job takes only a few days when everyone pitches in. Here are two photographs, one much older than the other, of roof replacement on two of the largest houses.



We were fortunate to see work being done on another roof, on a much smaller scale, while we were there.



One man is gathering the straw into bundles; a second is raking the loose straw together and also handing the bundles up to the men working on the roof. The men on the roof are alternately feeling the roof thatch to make sure it is tight and solid, stuffing straw into the roof wherever they can to make it tighter, and shaving the edges of the newly stuffed straw into a neat line.




The other work in progress, it being mid-September, was the rice harvest. Rice, it turns out, is growing in many fields, large and small, throughout the village. It is surprisingly beautiful.






In a larger field, we saw one farmer using a hand-operated harvesting machine. In others, people harvested entirely by hand.





The sheaves are protected from the rain in their beautiful rows.



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Shirakawa-go is a small farming village located high in the mountains southeast of Kanazawa. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, with its traditional houses still intact and lived in.


The architectural style of steeply pitched roofs with their dense, thick layers of thatching, is known as gassho-zukuri (“prayer-hands construction”), and it’s effective in the winter, when the snowfall can be heavy.







Nothing much in this village has changed–except for the occasional car or truck, and a scattering of buildings with more modern roofs–and the busloads of tourists that arrive every day.


Signs are posted everywhere not to smoke. You can imagine the devastation a small spark might cause!

Though most of the houses are private, a few of the larger houses, as well as the monastery associated with the local shrine, allow entry. Some of the houses are quite large–to our amazement, five stories high under those steep roofs! There is room for a large extended family and for indoor industries, such as silk-worm cultivation. The interiors of the shrine and the houses are fascinating.



Oh . . . have I mentioned the village was full of tourists? There was a steady stream of us through the few open houses. We came to see the architecture, and we were glad we did. But even more interesting was the work being done by the residents of this living village. I’ll show some of that in the next post.

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Unazuki Onsen

Before continuing with our next lesson in Japanese meals, I should take a moment to explain our travel. For we left Tokyo the next morning and traveled by the famous Japanese bullet train to Kurobe. Here, we were met by a car and driver sent by our hotel and whisked up into the mountains, a half-hour 20-kilometer scenic drive, to Unazuki Onsen. The Japanese word onsen means a hot spring, and indeed, steaming hot water flowed through the town.

The first thing we did was to check into our hotel, the Ryokan Enraku. A ryokan is the Japanese version of an inn, perhaps, or a B&B. This was our first of seven nights in a row in three different ryokans. They are traditional hostelries in an austere and timeless Japanese style–tatami mats on the floor, where shoes are not allowed. Slippers and robes to change into for comfort, and which are acceptable wear throughout the building. Not much furniture–just two chairs with no legs to sit on, and a low table to sit at while using such low chairs. Later, a comfortable futon on the floor for sleeping. A very personal welcome, with refreshments after your journey. Here we are, relaxing in our new digs.


Unlike the other ryokans we stayed in, this one had a balcony, and the balcony had a view of the mountain and a rushing river below. And . . . the balcony had Western-style furniture!


We had half-board at this ryokan, but before dinner we wanted to enjoy an actual Japanese onsen bath. The ryokan had, um, several of them (depending on how you count, somewhere between four and six). Occupying the first, second, and third floors, the baths are segregated by sex. There is an indoor bath for each sex on the second floor, and baths open to the outdoors on the first and third floors. Tonight, men are on the first floor and women on the third. In the morning, it will be reversed. It being early afternoon, we each have our respective baths to ourselves. We try to follow proper bath protocol but are grateful there’s no one watching in case we get something wrong. Let’s see: Undress and leave belongings in a locker. Shower before entering the bath, sitting on the little stool. Dump a bucket of water over your head to wash any dust or dirt off your hair. Rinse. Now, enter the bath. You may keep the small towel on top of your head, but leave the large towel behind. Wow, it’s HOT! But after a few seconds, amazingly good. Soak for as long as you want or can, then shower again. Use the large towel to dry off; then dress, and ooze back to your room.

Here’s a picture of an open-air onsen, possibly one of the first-floor onsens in our hotel. (It’s not mine; I didn’t take my camera there.)


Thoroughly clean and relaxed, we set out to see the town. The town wasn’t very big, so this didn’t take long. Here’s the friendly map posted at the small local train station.


The town was nestled in the mountains, and pretty.


A gushing, naturally hot fountain in the main square lifted steam into the cool air.


Fed by the natural hot springs, foot baths were everywhere! The first one, by a restaurant, took us by surprise, but the English in the sign is self explanatory.


Some of them were beautifully designed and well integrated with modern buildings.



But now it’s time for dinner, and even in a small town in the Japanese countryside, we find an elegance to match that in Tokyo, but without the big-city pretentiousness. Here is our menu:


This is not very helpful, and, like the previous night, for the most part, the appearance of the food does not give enough of a clue as to what it actually is. It is, however, very pretty, and beautifully presented.



At last we come to a course we can understand! And it’s as delicious as it looks!


The main problem with this dinner, like the previous night, is that we get very full very quickly, and there seems no polite way *not* to eat what’s in front of us. I regret, days afterwards, having to leave half of those crab legs.

The futon on the floor is very cozy and comfortable, but in the morning we are still full.

And it’s time for the Japanese breakfast! Here’s what’s waiting for us in the morning.


And this is the way it looks when additional food is brought in.


Folks, it’s at about this point that we realize we are not going to make it through the next two days of ryokan half-board we have signed up for in our next location. But what can we do!


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