Gazpacho

I have become interested in gazpacho lately. Partly, this is because we enjoyed some wonderful gazpacho while traveling in Spain recently. But more urgently, this interest arises from the overwhelming quantity of tomatoes we are harvesting each day from our garden.

Here’s what I have learned about gazpacho recipes.

They can be divided into those that use canned or jarred tomato juice or equivalent, and those that don’t. In my mind, the ones using canned tomato juice can be ignored. It’s not that it’s cheating (though it probably is), but rather that the whole beauty of gazpacho lies in the garden-fresh goodness of the tomatoes, a trait that’s completely lacking in the canned juice. And you can tell.

Among the remaining recipes, these can be divided into those that use bread in some form as a thickening agent, and those that don’t. There are reputable advocates on both sides of this divide, but I side with those who do not use bread. I am a tomato purist.

Among the recipes still remaining, there are those that call for the whole soup to be pureed to a silky smoothness, and those that prefer chunks. The gazpachos we enjoyed in Spain recently were the pureed type, and quite delicious. On the other hand, in the past we have also enjoyed very chunky gazpachos in both Spain and Portugal on a past trip to different regions. I like to have it both ways: noticeable chunks in an otherwise smooth soup.

After all this research, I ended up with five not-quite-right-for-me recipes from the Internet. I used features of all five, and what follows here is my own recipe. It came out with perfect all-tomato, no-bread, smooth-yet-also-chunky goodness. I hope you enjoy it, but be warned: Use the very best fresh, local tomatoes you can find. The better the tomatoes, the better the soup.

Ginger’s Own Summer Gazpacho

4 servings

Ingredients

  • 1 English cucumber, peeled, seeded
  • ½ large red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded
  • 1 small hot red pepper (such as cayenne), minced (optional)
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 – 2 ½ pounds very ripe red tomatoes, peeled
  • ½ large onion, chopped (chop about 1/3 of this coarsely, the rest finer)
  • 2 Tbsp (or more) sherry or red wine vinegar
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 3 Tbsp olive oil, more or less
  • Quartered cherry tomatoes (optional), chopped chives and basil (for serving)

Preparation

Cut 2-3″ of the cucumber into ¼” pieces and set aside; coarsely chop remaining cucumber and place in a large bowl. Cut one-quarter of the bell pepper into ¼” pieces and set aside; coarsely chop remaining bell pepper and add to bowl with chopped cucumber. Chop one-quarter of the onion into small pieces (1/8”) and set aside; coarsely chop the rest and add to the large bowl with the cucumbers and peppers.

Cut the tomatoes into four or six wedges and seed them over a strainer set above a bowl to catch the liquid. Squeeze liquid out of the seeds.

Transfer about ¾ of the tomatoes and all of the juice to a blender. Add about ¾ of the cucumber mixture. Add garlic, hot peppers, vinegar, salt, and oil; and purée on medium speed until smooth. Adjust seasonings with salt and vinegar, if desired. Add the rest of the tomatoes and the cucumber mixture from the large bowl, and puree only briefly so that coarse pieces still remain. Add the pieces that have been set aside. Transfer to a large bowl or pitcher and chill at least an hour; overnight is better.

Divide gazpacho among bowls. Top with cherry tomatoes if you use them, chives, and basil.

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My mom’s sister Shirley was an intense personality worthy of an entire blog post all by herself. Probably more than one. But I want to focus here on one small memorable thing about her: she made the best apple cake I’ve ever eaten. I’m sure many of my cousins remember, as I do, her gifts of apple cake wrapped in foil direct from her freezer, where she always seemed to have a supply

Aunt Shirley passed away many years ago, but her apple cake lives on. And now that Dan and I have an apple tree of our own, Aunt Shirley’s apple cake has become a necessity in our lives. We make batches and batches of it in the fall. It freezes well and lasts into the following spring.

Coincidentally, I have unearthed considerable archaeological history of this cake, including facts that may be unknown to our family until now. The recipe, or its nearly identical antecedent, reappeared in my life shortly after Aunt Shirley let me copy hers. It came to me on the Usenet newsgroup rec.food.cooking in 1988 and credits “an old issue of Gourmet magazine.” The magazine article credited a Mr. John Kram, who owned a bakery in East Baltimore in the 1930s. This rings true to me: Shirley grew up in East Baltimore and might have still been living there in the ’30s. Shirley, however, called her recipe “Helen’s Apple Cake.” I don’t know who Helen is. I have also seen a version of this cake called “Jewish Apple Cake”; the Jewish Museum of Maryland may have published a version.

Without more ado, but with relevant commentary where I have made modifications, here is:

Aunt Shirley’s Apple Cake

This makes three bread pans’ worth of apple cake, and I get 8 to 9 slices per pan.

Ingredients

about 10 apples (Note 1)
2 tsp cinnamon
3 Tbsp sugar

3 C unsifted flour
1 Tbsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt

4 unbeaten eggs
2 C sugar (Note 2)
1 C cooking oil
1/2 C orange juice (Note 2)
1 Tbsp vanilla (Note 2)

Preparation

Prepare the apples:

Core and peel the apples, and slice into wedges no more than about 1/4″ thick. Mix with the cinnamon and 3 Tbsp of sugar.

Make the batter:

In a medium bowl, mix together the flour, baking powder, and salt. (Note 3)

In the bowl of your mixer, beat the eggs, sugar, oil, orange juice, and vanilla all together. (If you haven’t already done so, now would be the time to grease and flour the baking pans.) Then add the dry ingredients to the mixer bowl, and mix just enough to blend thoroughly.

Assemble the cake:

Pour about 1/6 of the batter into the bottom of each of the 3 greased-and-floured pans, using about 1/2 of the batter in all. Layer in apple slices vertically as tightly as you can. Pour another layer of batter over the apple slices, and end with another layer of apples wedged in tightly.

Bake at 350 degrees for 1-1/2 hours (90 minutes), or until a cake tester comes out dry. (Note 4)

Wrap in foil and freeze the whole cake (as Aunt Shirley did), or cut into 8 or 9 slices, wrap each slice individually in wax paper, and freeze in a zipper freezer bag (as Dan and I do). Or eat it all up without freezing–it will keep about a week in the fridge.

Notes

(1) In the history of this cake, there has been some disagreement about the number of apples. John used 5 cups, about 1-3/4 pounds. Helen used 6 apples. Aunt Shirley said to use much more than Helen did. Dan and I are on Shirley’s side on this. Cram them in. It just gets better.

(2) Shirley and Helen used 2-1/2 cups of sugar, but I find this much too sweet. I side with John on the sugar; 2 cups is plenty. Shirley and Helen used 1/3 cup of orange juice, but John used 1/2 cup. I’ve tried them both; either works fine. As for the vanilla, John used only 2 tsp; Shirley and Helen increased this to 2-1/2 tsp. I am a vanilla extremist, so I use 3 tsp (1 Tbsp).

(3) There is a strong divide when it comes to process. The article in Gourmet magazine alleges that John went through an elaborate procedure worthy of the magazine’s title, specifying what went in first, second, third, and so on. Shirley and Helen, on the other hand, just said, “Beat all together until smooth.” I’ve tried this a number of ways, and I’m generally in the Shirley camp. However, I’ve noticed that in the presence of the orange juice, the baking powder starts activating. So I like to wait to add the dry ingredients until everything else is ready and the cake can be assembled.

(4) John used a tube pan and baked the cake for only 50 minutes to an hour. Helen baked the cake for an hour and a half, but I don’t know what kind of pan(s) she used. Shirley baked the cake for 1-3/4 hours. Maybe my oven is different from hers, but I find that 1-1/2 hours works perfectly for me, every time.

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Dan and I have enrolled in the Donald Trump Remedial English Program.

I can’t pinpoint the exact date this happened, but we reached the saturation point at about the same time. Perhaps it was when we were enjoying a glass of fine ten-year-old Rioja. We enjoyed the delicious aroma, observed how it coated the inside of the glass, and swirled it around in our mouths a bit before swallowing. “This is really good,” I said to Dan.

“The best,” he replied, a response that for the past several months has brought us laughter. It’s been fun imitating our President’s, er, distinctive verbal style.

We each saw the doubt in the other’s eyes.

“All the other wines are losers,” I essayed. But it was too late. This no longer had the cachet of fresh humor that it once had.

“Pathetic?” he tried.

No. Clearly we were done.

“This is really sad,” I said, ignoring the warning finger Dan was waving at me. “It’s the end of an era. We can’t go on this way. It’s just not working anymore. We can’t just say, ‘the best.’ It doesn’t mean anything.”

Dan agreed. “But what should we say?” he wondered. “The best wine?”

Suddenly, it was all clear to me. We have become grounded on the shoals of vagueness. “That’s better, but it’s not good enough. We have to be more specific. What do you mean, ‘the best wine’? Why is it the best? The best for what? The best wine you’ve ever tasted in your entire life? The one wine that Robert Parker will finally rate with one hundred points? The best wine on this restaurant’s wine list—and how would you know that? Or maybe just the best wine for this particular dinner?”

“Stop!”

But I couldn’t stop. “The problem is that ‘best’ is entirely the wrong We have to rediscover the wonderful world of picturesque description. We’d be better off with just ‘This wine is really good.’ But even so, we can do much better. We have to start learning all over again how to say what we really mean. And what we really mean here is, ‘This wine is delicious.’ Or, ‘It’s exactly the kind of wine I was hoping for.’ Or even, ‘I really like this wine; it’s just to my taste.’”

And so we vowed we would try, from that moment on, to avoid certain formerly funny phrases and instead to say specifically what we mean. It’s hard, but we are doing our best to keep each other honest. We may need to join a twelve-step program.

On our last night in Barcelona, we explored a restaurant that sounded promising on Yelp and was only a short walk from our hotel. After we’d been seated, looked over the menu and ordered, and our first course had arrived, Dan said, “This restaurant is the best.”

I gave him a squinty, head=tilted look.

“Restaurant. It’s the best restaurant.”

“Really?” I asked. “In the world? According to whom?” (Yes, folks, I do actually, from time to time, use the word ‘whom’ in ordinary speech.) “The best in what respect? Certainly not the tablecloths.” (There were none.) “No other restaurant has better service? Better ambiance? Is it the variety of items on the menu? How perfectly they are cooked? Have you tried enough items on the menu to be sure? Or are you talking about value for the money? Maybe it’s just that the restaurant is the right length of a walk from our hotel?”

Dan sighed. “I really like the menu and the food, and it’s exactly the quality and degree of informality I was hoping for, on our last night in Barcelona. I can’t imagine a better place for us to be having dinner tonight.”

I sighed and smiled. “I feel the same way.”

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Pilgrimage

Sitting in the Bar de Mon, about three kilometers from the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, Dan and I watch the passers-by. Mostly they are pilgrims, with their hiking sticks and ponchos pulled over their heads and backpacks for protection against the light rain. Even in this weather, they arrive in the city in a steady stream. By the time they get here–many from quite far away, and always by foot–the very existence of the city must seem a little miraculous.

The streets of the old city are attractive, even in the rain.

A little weather won’t deter the pilgrims.

The old city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Santiago has been a major European pilgrimage destination for about a thousand years. And the flow of pilgrims is increasing. In 2010–the last year for which I have seen a statistic–some 270,000 pilgrims came to the city.

Pilgimage routes lead to Santiago from all over Spain, and Europe beyond.

We saw these pilgrims in Logrono, Rioja, more than 600 km away. The scallop shell on their backs marks them as pilgrims.

On this drizzly day, the pilgrims pick their way carefully on the less-flooded paving stones. Every so often, there is a brass scallop shell—the symbol of the city–embedded in the sidewalk to mark the pilgrimage route and help them on their way.

We have seen a few places where the scallop shells along the pilgrimage path have been pried out of their mortar and stolen. “Those people,” I tell Dan mock-seriously, “will burn in Hell for eternity for taking those shells.” “No,” he replies, “they were already going to do that. The city should install shell-cameras. Then the city could come and arrest the thieves. They’ll spend three years in a Spanish jail.”

A worse punishment indeed!

But the truth is that those people who steal the shells are probably going to get away with it. They’ll pay a price, though, and it’s a steep one. They’ve traded the grace and enlightenment that others hope for, who follow this path, for a material souvenir.

In the cathedral plaza, at the spot where the five main pilgrimage routes come together, pilgrims raise their walking sticks jubilantly and cheer. They take each other’s pictures. Or they just stand and look around. They rest, weary and happy, and seem a little dazed by the miraculous fact of arrival.

In the background is the Hostal dos Reis Católicos, built in at the end of the 15th century as a hospital for pilgrims, and now a marvelous Spanish parador.

As for Dan and me, our journey has been decades in the desire to come here and months in the planning. But the walking part has been short. We are staying in the parador next to the cathedral, and we walked outbound as far as the Pilgrim’s Gate, maybe three and a half kilometers. Then we turned and joined the flow of pilgrims inbound to the cathedral, our spirits light and our hearts full of admiration for the walkers and the deep significance of this journey.

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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.

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Here’s a particularly detailed and complicated one:

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A dragon!

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Samurai!

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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.

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

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

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

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And the fish were hungry.

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There were also numerous other objects of mystery.

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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.

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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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