Friday, 30 December 2011

Sipping the Southern Vales

Amazingly another year has passed and we’re back in Adelaide, Australia for Christmas. As usual the sun is blazing and the barbeque is in full swing. There is a golden turkey on the table and a nice drop of chilled local wine to accompany it.

Frankly, you couldn’t do much better, particular in regard to wines. Over the years South Australia has a built a worldwide reputation for fine wines that continues to attract tourists. This was particularly highlighted when we were in the UK, where local brands like Jacobs Creek, Wolf Blass and Leasingham were well established commercial brands sold in supermarkets everywhere. These particular wines come from the north of Adelaide in the famed Barossa and Clare Valley regions, however Jules and I have always had a particular bias toward the slightly lesser known Southern Vales region of McLaren Vale. This area was close to where we both lived in our younger days and over the years we have seen this region grow from a handful of small wineries into a prestigious wine growing area.

So with the Christmas celebrations over, we decided to take a trip down memory lane by revisiting the Southern Vales to sample the product direct from the cellar. The first stop was to one of our old favorites, Wirra Wirra Wines which continues to go from strength to strength, with it’s classic Church Block Red and Mrs. Wigley Rose. The folk here are particularly friendly and knowledgeable about their wines, however on this particular day we were looking for a champagne style white, which unfortunately they no longer produce. Their suggestion was to try the d’Arenberg Winery, that had just released a quite exceptional sparkling Chardonnay Pinot Noir. We had been to d’Arenberg a few years ago and had a wonderful meal at their restaurant called ‘d’Aary’s Verandah’, so we knew that it would be a quality wine ...and it was! After a confirming taste as we admired the view, a bottle was quickly purchased before heading off to explore the nearby Coriole Vineyards. This was a winery that we had previously brought visitors to from overseas, not only for its great wines, but also for its equally commanding views over the Southern Vales. Once again it didn’t disappoint, although it was now clear that many others had now also discovered this place, as it had noticeably expanded since the time we were last there.

Our final stop would be at Leconfield Winery, which is a relatively new name to the area, but certainly not to quality wine making. Originating at Coonawarra in the south east of the state, the brand has gained a reputation for producing some of South Australia’s most prestigious wines. However, it’s winemaking credentials were established way back in the 1800’s and with family connections through Hamilton Wines, a long established McLaren Vale winery, it’s expansion into the areas was inevitable.

As Jules and I sipped a nice champagne style Curvee Blanc and looked out over the acres of vineyards, we reflected on how well the southern wine trail had developed over the years. It had become not only a centre for fine wines, but also for quality cuisine. While the region had always been quietly well regarded by South Australians, it was now clear that the secret was well and truly out. We had always thought that it more than compared with its counterpart to the north of Adelaide, but now we felt that it could truly claim to be one of the great wine areas of the world.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Tasting Kobe Chinatown

Just about every major city in the world has its very own Chinatown...nothing new there. These cultural centres reflect historical and cultural connections with China, all condensed within a small bustling area. However, there is usually one common and significant element that draws the wider community to these areas and that’s simply the food. With the Osakan love of all things culinary, it is therefore strange that there is actually no designated Chinatown area to visit in the city. However, you don't have to go too far, with the nearby city of Kobe taking the honors with a thriving Chinatown that has a great atmosphere and a terrific selection of food.

Certainly when Jules and I are in town we always pay a visit to enjoy the many freshly cooked dishes for which the area has become famous. Kobe Chinatown is set in the area of Nachinmachi, which is just a short walk from the train station and not too far away from the nearby coastal port. No matter what time of the day, this area is always teaming with people, keen to get a quick bite to eat and to enjoy the various festivities. There always seem to be street performances on the weekends and of course the terrific food attracts queues of people, particularly for the wide variety of street food on offer. It certainly is a colourful, thriving environment that has a unique visual appeal that is distinctly different from any other place in the Kansai region. We often comment on how genuinely ‘Chinese’ it all feels... so much so, that it almost has a 'theme park' feel. Not having been to China, we ask ourselves whether this is all truly authentic or just a foreigners notion of what a Chinese town might look like. For all we know, it may not be truly authentic Chinese food that we are eating after all, but rather a Japanese version of some familiar dishes? This is likely the case, but it is definitely different from the normal Japanese style cuisine. The truth is that we don't particularly mind, to us the food is simply hot, cheap and delicious!

This particular Chinatown has built it's reputation as a great place to stop for distinctly different food. While the area is buzzing don't expect nice tables and chairs to sit back and enjoy the atmosphere. This is food of the stand up variety. You will often see people huddled in side streets downing steamed pork buns or squatting somewhere to devour a deep fried chicken skewer. For us it’s normally an irresistible bite on the run that tempts you from the moment you smell those tasty aromas.

Whether it’s the food, the culture or the atmosphere, there is certainly something about this place that is quite unique and continues to attracts thousands of Japanese, as well as a couple of foreigners, to keep returning again and again.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

The Merchants of Kurashiki

Living in the fast paced world of modern Japan, it’s often difficult to imagine what towns and villages might have been like in more simple times. However, Jules and I had a little taste of it when we visited the historic city of Kurashiki, which lies to the west of Osaka. We were on our return journey from Naoshima Island when we decided to investigate the old merchant quarter, which is highly regarded for it’s seventeenth century wooden shops and warehouses (Kurashika actually translates as ‘town of storehouses’).

After a short walk from the station, we turned into a series of narrow laneways, which made us feel as though we were stepping back in time. The area suddenly took on the appearance of a village scene from the Edo period (1603-1867). Electrical poles had disappeared and the architecture of the buildings took on a much more recognisable Japanese style. The gently flowing canal that ran through the centre of the area further enhanced the atmosphere of the old town. Lined with weeping willows, set amongst the autumn colours and with white swans paddling along, it all looked very picturesque. As we stood on one of the arched stone bridges, we could see a small canal boat slowly making its way along the waterway being punted by a boatman in a traditional outfit. This was much as you imagine it might have looked hundreds of years ago, however this time he was carrying tourists rather than merchants or produce. As we admired the scene and as if on queue, a bride and groom arrive to having their wedding photos taken while wearing traditional wedding attire. We thought that it couldn’t get much more authentic than this.

Close by there was a grand neo-classic building that appeared to be oddly out of place and this was somewhat of a bonus for us, as it turned out to be the Ohara Art Museum, which holds one of Japans finest permanent collections of western art. We spend a couple of hours leisurely wandering around the numerous buildings that compile the museum and we left very impressed. In many ways it offered more than some of the museums we had seen on Naoshima, with an excellent cross-section of significant modern and traditional styles. Back on the streets, the tourist numbers had definitely increased with the arrival of a number of tourist buses, although there still appeared to be very few westerners. We seemed to have attracted some attention as a number of people stopped to ask where we are from and to generally practice their English language.

We certainly felt a warm and welcoming atmosphere in Kurashiki (much as it is throughout Japan) and we were really pleased that we had taken the time to stop on our way back to Osaka. However, there was just one more place to visit before we headed home and that was the outlet shopping centre that Jules had spied near the railway station. These were merchants of the more contemporary kind, but she is never one to miss a bargain no matter where we are.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Naoshima Art Island

If you’re looking for some of the most cutting edge contemporary artwork you don’t necessarily need to go to Paris, New York or London, you can see it on a small island off the coast of Japan, called Naoshima.

As an art teacher, this was a location that was often mentioned to me as a place that I must make the effort to see, as it was only a couple of hours from Osaka. Taking the short ferry crossing from Uno, Jules and I arrived on a brisk, but sunny autumn morning to walk between the major hotspots that continue to add to Naoshima’s growing reputation in the art world. Our first stop was at what is referred to as the ‘Art House Project’, where abandoned houses have been turned over to artists to develop into works of art. Following our walking trail map, we moved to each of the seven houses to find them to be creatively very different from each other. Our two favorites were ‘Haisha’ by Shinro Ohtake with its eclectic scrapbook of sculptural materials and ‘Minamidera’ by James Turrell, which encouraged us to pause in complete darkness to eventually discover its slowly emerging illuminations. For us, part of the appeal of the project was its setting amongst the simple homes of the local people who had clearly embraced this artistic concept by welcoming visitors enthusiastically to view these thought provoking environments.

Heading toward the coast, we set our sights on Bennesse House, designed by renowned post-modernist architect Tadao Ando. His futuristic design is set into the hills overlooking the picturesque bay and integrates both an art museum and hotel within its walls. The interior of the building looks as if it could be a set from a James Bond movie and not surprisingly is actually included in Robert Benson’s 007 novel, ‘The Man With The Red Tattoo’. However, what particularly attracts visitors is its site-specific collection of installation art by many of the worlds leading artists. Sculptural artworks of varying scale can also be found scattered throughout the extensive grounds, with possibly the most popular being the bright yellow dotted ‘Pumpkin’ of Yayoi Kasama that sits boldly at the end of a short, stone pier. As we walked around the coast, other works would unexpectedly appear, sometimes subtle and at other times strangely out of context.

We moved on to the much-anticipated ChiChu Art Museum, another striking piece of minimalist Ando architecture, which is set almost entirely underground. We had heard that the museum housed a small collection of priceless Monet paintings as well as more recent works by a number of leading contemporary artists. Indeed, in a large white room lit only by natural light, five works from the famed ‘Waterlillies’ series were boldly displayed. In hushed silence we viewed the works while wearing white slippers that had been given to us in order to protect the millions of tiny squares of white stone that lay under foot. We both agreed that this was probably taking artistic reverence a bit too far. To our disappointment only a few other works could be seen (only four others in total); the most striking being a room installation by Walter de Maria that contained a 2.2 metre diameter sphere sitting precariously on a steep flight of stairs. In the end we were both reconciled to the opinion that it was definitely the building itself that was the most significant piece of art on show. Its brutalist use of raw cement formed an abstract, uniformed space that continued to draw our eyes upward toward the sky via its numerous skylights and voids, making it a totally unique environment for displaying art.

As we made our way back toward the ferry late in the day, we reflected on what we had seen and how bold the notion had been to create a centre for contemporary art in such a remote and unlikely location. Clearly this was a case study that reaffirmed the old adage of… ‘if you build it, they will come’.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

A Night in a Ryokan

Over the years Jules and I have stayed in many different styles of accommodation. Although hotels are fine, in many ways we often find them cold and impersonal. Where possible we much prefer private apartments or bed and breakfasts, as it’s nice to meet a local in order to put the whole experience in context and to gain the benefit of their experience. Such was the case when we recently visited the little coastal town of Uno, en route to Naoshima Island where we had our first experience of staying in a Japanese ‘ryokan’.

This form of traditional guest house still remains very popular in Japan as it is generally better value than the mainstream hotels while also providing a much more authentic experience for travelers such as ourselves. Jules’ extensive research had led us to a nice little place, which was owned by an interesting bloke called Max (not his birth name I would imagine) who, fortunately for us, spoke very good English as a result of living in New York for many years. Upon our meeting, he explained that he actually subsidized his documentary filmmaking career by running his ryokan in the house that was originally owned by his parents. Despite a few westernized inclusions, it had remained pretty much as it had been in their day, providing a warm and reassuring ‘lived in’ feel, which was certainly what we were looking for from our first Japanese guest house experience. After walking up steep and narrow steps, we found ourselves in the cozy entrance area that sat under the deep eaves of the building. We entered through the traditionally lightweight wooden sliding door that we now recognize as the hallmark of early Japanese architecture. At that point I strangely pondered about the notion of door hinges, thinking that they must have been a relatively recent inclusion into Japanese house building and that they were most likely only introduced into common usage after the war. Until then all interior rooms were simply denoted by a series of sliding screens that also offered a degree of flexibility to the room layout. This was certainly a notion that was quite ahead of its time and to a degree later adopted by a number of European modernists.

Once inside the entry, we can see a clear demarcation between the inside and the outside with a significant step upward from tiles to wooden floorboards. With slippers neatly lined up, it also signals that at this point we need to remove our shoes. We are shown our room, which not unexpectedly had a tatami mat flooring (woven rush grass) on which our futon beds are invitingly rolled out. As is the Japanese way, the room was sparsely decorated with just a couple of nicely crafted wooden cabinets and a selective collection of traditional pottery items. There was a small dressing area that could be hidden away by shutting gridded screens, allowing us to also close off our view of the garden at end of the day. While these barriers to the outside world provided some extra insulation from the cold weather, we were grateful for the modern luxury of air-conditioning as we slept within the thin walls of the old Japanese house.

Waking from our first night on our futons, we felt remarkably refreshed and ready for a busy day of sightseeing. To help us on our way Max had promised us one of his famous breakfasts, however this time the more traditional Japanese rice dish gave way to New York style pancakes! It seemed that he had learnt more than just the language in America. As he flipped the pancakes, we chatted about his life, family and the changing nature of Japanese society. It was a great way to start the day and although he had seen many visitors over the years, we felt like we were the first. Good hospitality was important to him and by the end of the day we knew that his ryokan guesthouse would certainly be a warm, welcoming and comfortable place for us to return.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Autumn in the Suburbs of Osaka

As we get deeper into November the days are getting colder and autumn is now upon us in Osaka, Japan. Much like the arrival of cherry blossom in spring, autumn brings about it’s own celebrations as the leaves on the trees turn a fabulous array of burning bright colours. Of course there are many picturesque locations where you can view amazing autumnal scenes in all their splendour, but for Jules and I it’s just as interesting to watch the activities in and around our local streets and suburbs.

There is a street we walk regularly between our apartment and the train station that seems to be the focus for some annual seasonal excitement. It’s not a particularly special street, but it is wide and is lined with what we think is a kind of Maple tree (judging by the shape of the leaves). At this time of the year the normally quiet road comes alive with cars and even bus loads of people who come especially to see the yellow, orange and red leaves that create a multicoloured canopy for the pedestrians below. It seems that the viewing of leaves (referred to as Koyo) is a very popular pastime in Japan, drawing large crowds to some particularly favoured locations, whether they be in the mountains or even humble suburban streets.

On sunny days visitors can be seen setting up their folding chairs at the side of the road just to admire the outlook and bask in the remaining rays of sunshine. Similarly, painters and photographers come fully equipped with easels and tripods in search of a suitable vantage point that might inspire them to produce a work of art. At the very least passers by can often be seen taking their mobile phones out to get a quick shot to capture that unique moment of colour. Much like cherry blossom season (sakura), the excitement of ‘Koyo’ lasts for only a few short weeks with the leaves eventually giving way to cold winter winds. However, for just a short while we are all at one with nature and continue to admire it’s beauty in the most unlikely of locations. Photos taken at the big name locations will continue to adorn books, calendars and posters all year round, as such images are so quintessentially Japanese.

While our little road will not necessarily feature in any publications, it still provides a great source of pleasure for locals and visitors alike. So for the remaining few weeks we will continue to enjoy our little autumn hot spot and like our visitors, will take the odd photographic keepsake to record the joy of nature in our local suburb.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Spaghetti in the Sky

Jules and I often talk about the strange contradiction to the notion of ‘aesthetics’ that you often experience in Japan. There is a strange anomaly between stylistic, functional beauty and crass commercial ugliness that can often be seen side by side. Someone remarked to me recently that the best way to look at Japan is through a small frame, as if through the lens of a camera. In the bustling, sprawling industrial world of modern Japan, you simply need to be able to recognise ‘glimpses’ of beauty that you come across and attempt to view them in isolation, away from the convoluted distraction of the wider picture. It is true to say that there is much beauty to be seen in and around the big cities, yet there remains many areas where we have tended to cringe at its ugliness. We often ask ourselves, how can a culture that has at times achieved aesthetic perfection, allow visual chaos to reign supreme in its cities and towns.This is particularly the case when you look overhead at the cacophony of wires and cables that are strewn across the roadways.

Osaka is particularly notable for the ugliness of some of it’s major down town areas due to the spaghetti-like cables that often dominate the upward view towards the sky. It seems that the Japanese have over the years resolved themselves to the fact that the ugly poles and pylons that carry these cables are an inevitable facet of modern city life. This particularly old fashioned method of connecting businesses and residence with power and services certainly seems in contradiction to our notion of a modern, high-tech Japanese society. Indeed, you might think that a visionary policy of underground cabling may be seen as a highly desirable way of beautifying its cities and making them more appealing places to live in the future. This doesn’t seem to be the case, as the overhead clutter continues to grow on a daily basis. It has been suggested to us that the reason for overhead cabling is linked to the need for repair access following earthquakes, typhoons and other natural disasters. This doesn’t seem entirely plausible, as we have seen some areas in which the cables are actually underground, resulting in a noticeable visual difference. This was certainly the case in the tourist centre of Nara which recently undertook to bury its cables as part of beautification program for the 1300 year anniversary of it’s time as the nations capital.

So it appears far more likely that the continuation of the ugly overhead cables is, as always, linked to cost and as visual pollution remains low on the priority list for governments and councils, the poles remain, carrying an ever increasing array of cables that cast a spider web-like appearance across much of the city and suburbs. There is in fact an underground cabling program in Japan, but as it only accounts for seven percent of the total cables laid each year, it seems that the ugly overhead wires are set to remain for many generations to come. This is a shame, as there are so many exciting and beautiful areas to be seen in Osaka and wider Japan. Yet the longer we live here, we begin to block out this unsavory distraction and adopt the local practice of ‘selective viewing’. We frame what we see, look for beauty in small areas and avoid looking skyward.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Hiroshima Through the Art of Yoko Ono

We recently had a visit from a good friend from Australia who, as a history teacher, was keen to visit Hiroshima during his stay. As I had been there once before, I felt confident that I could navigate our way via the Shinkhansen and provide a quick tour of the significant historic landmarks. It remains a fascinating city that has literally risen from the ashes of World War II to symbolise world peace and promote the anti nuclear cause. Not surprisingly it continues to attract tourists from all over the world, who still find the devastation of the A-bomb difficult to comprehend and seek to understand more by their visit. Like so many others we made our way straight to the Peace Park Memorial, but as we walked, we spotted an advertising banner promoting an exhibition of the works of Yoko Ono that was being held at the Contemporary Art Museum. Apparently she had recently been awarded ‘The Hiroshima Art Prize’, resulting in a solo exhibition that aimed to increase awareness of her works as well as promoting world peace and nuclear disarmourment. Being the wife and widow of legendary musician John Lennon, Yoko Ono has spent the majority of her life in the spotlight, although her significant contemporary art background has often been overshadowed by the fame of The Beatles and what is perceived to be her controversial influence upon their eventual break up. While she was working at the cutting edge of conceptual art well before developing a relationship with John Lennon, it seems that their meeting was as much a blessing and a curse for her career as a practicing artist. While she could now claim the attention of the world’s media, who were curious about her Avant Garde background, her credentials as a serious artist appeared to lose impettus as a result of her foray into the music world. This wasn’t however entirely the case in her country of birth, who over the years have been more prepared to acknowledge her place as a serious contributor to the development of modern art in Japan. Certainly the Hiroshima Art Prize is one such acknowledgement of both her cultural connections and artistic contribution to promoting world peace, a theme from which she has drawn artistic inspiration since the early 1960’s. The exhibition had certainly sparked our curiosity and we were both keen to view it before leaving Hiroshima. My friend has been a life long John Lennon fan and has followed his career closely, particularly as it became increasingly interwoven with that of the much maligned and enigmatic Yoko. While he continues to be somewhat fascinated by her personal complexities, often questioning her influence on the John Lennon brand, we have often been drawn into discussions regarding her role as an artist. So the exhibition would allow us to see her works first hand and review how they stand up today as serious conceptual art pieces. As with all installation works, upon viewing Yoko’s works they often invite more questions than answers. However, there is no denying that ‘Peace’ continues to remain her underlining theme both figuratively and symbolically. In a large blackened room, enormous projection screens flank bubble-like Perspex figures, while occasional bursts of white light denote the moment of nuclear detonation. In the adjoining room, row upon row of blanket draped bodies lie in a sea of paper origami peace cranes. People walk through silently, in respect for both the artwork and for the theme it depicts. The impact of the imagery is heightened by the scale of these pieces, which creates an environment that engulfs the viewer, who in turn engage as part of the piece. Even at 78 years of age, Yoko Ono’s works remain bold and edgy, as they have always done. Despite her complex personal history, she still essentially remains an artist and while some of her underlying message remained at times predictable, we both felt as if we had experienced something quite memorable, that in the end had effectively evoked the ‘Spirit of Hiroshima’ for which this significant art prize was awarded.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

What's a Bath Between Friends

If you spend a little time in Japan you will become more and more acquainted with the tradition of visiting an onsen. The onsen is a traditional Japanese bathing house and they can be found throughout the country, often in a range of interesting and exotic locations. They may be set indoors or outdoors and are frequented by people of all ages, families and children. Most often they are segregated into male and female areas, who commonly share the enjoyment of bathing together in natural thermal springs. For the Japanese it is a long held tradition of escaping their generally hectic lives and getting to know people better in a relaxed and very informal manner. All this is very new to Jules and myself and we have only just begun to experience this unique Japanese tradition. Arriving here with our western sensibilities, the idea of communal nudity is a concept that takes a little adjusting to, but we have been prepared to give it a try. On our recent visit to Shirahama we experienced the Shakino-yu onsen, which is regarded as one of Japans oldest and highest rated hot springs. What makes it particularly significant is it’s location, sitting in a natural rock formation directly at the waters edge. From here, waves often crash over the rocks to combine with the heated waters that rise from deep below the earth. It also has historical significance, as the springs are mentioned in early texts from the Asuka and Nara periods (538-794) in which it is written that Emporers Saimei, Tenji, Jito and Monmu all bathed here while passing through Shirahama. Although it was a humble and unpretentious establishment, the staff were clearly used to the odd visitor from foreign shores and were more than welcoming. As I entered the male bathing area, they informed me that I could either plunge into the comfortable 32 degree pool or the slightly more exhilarating 40 degree pool. As it happened I tried both and I found them both equally relaxing as I laid back and admired the picturesque outlook out to sea. After we were done we headed off to enjoy another Shakino-yu onsen tradition of eating boiled eggs that are cooked by using the same spring waters that we had been bubbling in ourselves just moments ago. In a little hut on a laneway leading to the onsen, older Japanese ladies serve you soft boiled eggs in their shells. These are pulled out of a large tub shaped like a turtle and handed to you, top removed and ready to be swallowed in one gulp. It was a nice way to conclude such a unique experience and one that has certainly enticed Jules and I to explore the wonderful world of onsens a little further.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

The Sands of Shirahama

If you’re looking to see the best of Japanese mainland beaches, you can’t do too much better than a place called Shirahama. It lies to the south of Osaka and is about two and a half hours on the slow train; so not too far away from us. We had heard much about it from some of our Aussie friends and given that it was the last long weekend of summer, they had lured us down to check it out. From what I can gather, Japan is not particularly known for having great beaches as many are rocky or consist of dark and gritty volcanic sand, much of which goes into glass production. However, Shirahama is quite the exception with its white silica sand spanning across a wonderfully proportioned horseshoe bay that is reminiscent of a mini Bondi Beach. You may wonder why this particular cove has such wonderful white sand? Well, as only the Japanese can do, the sand was shipped in from Perth, Western Australia in the 1990’s and has been beautifully maintained (despite the occasional typhoon) ever since. From this pristine stretch of sand a resort town has grown, and it has now become one of the most popular honeymoon spots for Japanese newlyweds. In fact when local movie producers are looking to film a scene from Waikiki Beach in Hawaii on the cheap, this is the place they come. Although it was still quite warm when we arrived, it was clearly the end of the tourist season with the beach being largely deserted. While local lifesavers continued to practice their rescue drills and the occasional tourist splashed around in the jade green waters, Shirahama remained surprisingly quiet. This is a far cry from the peak of summer where it is certainly the place to be and towel space is at a premium. We had plenty of areas to choose, but eventually settled for a spot close to a small square of sand that had been pegged out as a place where a sea turtle had recently laid its eggs. Like us, it had obviously been attracted by the soft sand and a place to enjoy the warmth of the summer sun. In the evening we returned back to the beach to enjoy a spectacular sunset, with a big red sun as bold as the one on the Japanese flag sinking below the horizon directly out to sea … it’s not surprising that honeymooners love this place so much! As darkness hit, we enjoyed the local tradition of lighting fireworks on the beach. This is apparently an accepted aspect of summer in this tourist town, with groups creating their own sky show most nights for others to enjoy when the sun goes down. This can be a dangerous practice after a few drinks, but we survived and in the cool of the evening it seemed like the only fitting way to celebrate our day on the sand in Shirahama.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Wright and the Japanese Connection

There wouldn’t be too many architects who have had more influence on the direction of modern design than Frank Lloyd Wright. For over sixty years he continued to shape the direction of both public and domestic architecture throughout his long career and even more than fifty years after his death (1959), his reverence continues to grow. Wright boldly claimed himself to be an absolute original, influenced by no one, yet there was one culture that he rightfully acknowledged had shaped his ‘organic’ approach to architecture and that was Japan. He had a passion for Japanese prints even before he had visited the country, but eventually he could not resist the lure of Japan, visiting for the first time in 1905. It remained the only country outside the United States that he worked and lived, eventually reviving his flagging architectural career through the commission for the Imperial Hotel Tokyo (sadly demolished in the 1960’s). During his time in Japan, Wright was inspired by what he saw and set about designing a range of buildings influenced by traditional architectural styles. One of those was the Yodoko Guest house in Ashiya City (near Kobe), which is only a short train ride from where we are living. Of course Jules and I felt compelled to visit this piece of architectural history that was constructed in 1923 from plans drawn up by Wright in 1918. The recently renovated house has now been designated as a ‘nationally important cultural property’ and is beautifully perched on a hill that overlooks the Hyogo prefecture. As we entered the house and removed our shoes we were struck by how quiet it was. Unlike similar Wright buildings in the United States that are inundated by tourists, we were very much left alone to wander and enjoy the environment as it was meant to be appreciated. I could immediately see that this building signalled the birth of Wrights ‘Usonian’ style of architecture (a term invented by Wright for his new style that would emerge from the sobering experience of the depression and would reflect a culturally reformed America), which he would continue to champion throughout his remaining career. It is a heavy style with intricate stylistic features that takes advantage of then modern reinforced concrete construction methods. The interior reflects the obvious influence of traditional Japanese design with Wrights use of dark feature wood panels that follow familiar rectangular grid patterns on both the walls and ceiling. Some of the window treatments are quite delightful with individual elements that reflect the architects famed attention to detail. There are also several purely Japanese rooms complete with tatami mats that sit comfortably in the building, which are combined with the more modern western styled rooms filled with furniture that are also of Wright’s design. It was nice to walk around at our own pace experiencing what Wright had envisioned all those years ago. He would eventually leave Japan in the 1920’s with a new sense of aesthetic, but his cultural and spiritual connection with the country would always remain, as I’m sure will be the case with us also.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Tracking by High Speed Train

When you think about travelling around Japan one mode of transport immediately comes to mind…the famed ‘bullet train’, or as it is officially known in Japan, the Shinkansen. If you wish to travel to any of the major cities you can certainly fly there in about an hour, but with the added time of getting to the airport and making your way through the dreaded security it becomes a much longer operation than expected. There is also the added cost to consider, as it is generally much more expensive by air. Therefore the value and convenience of the Shinkansen often makes it a more favoured option. For us the station is only half an hour away by train and with little waiting time with pre-purchased tickets we can be on our way within an hour of leaving home. With typical Japanese efficiency the trains departs on time every 10 minutes or so, heading off to all parts of the country. As it pulls into the station, the train itself has a look that is unlike no other you have ever seen. Bigger in size than regular trains, with a sleek and aggressive appearance that suggests that this machine is built for one function only…speed!! Having an allocated carriage and seat makes boarding amazingly orderly and time efficient (although there are also carriages available for unreserved seating). While the airplane style seats are a little small for most of us westerners, there is plenty of legroom and porthole style windows to view the passing scenery. Moving through the suburban areas, the speed appears to be relatively slow, but this can be somewhat deceptive. For instance, if you were travelling to Kyoto from Osaka it would take around half the time of a regular local train. As the speed picks up you are none the wiser until eventually you realise that you are now actually out in the country and the world is passing by at very rapid rate. At it’s top speed of over 300km per hour it remains an amazingly comfortable ride and a very time efficient way to travel. Apparently the trip to Tokyo from Osaka used to take around six hours, but has now been brought back to around two and a half hours as a result of the high-speed train. With over a hundred and fifty million Japanese commuters travelling on the Shinkansen every year it certainly remains a very popular way of getting around. For us, on our journeys to Tokyo and Hiroshima, it was as much about the experience of travelling on this great train as simply arriving at our destination.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Hollywood in a Hurry!

Los Angeles would be the last stop of our trip to the US and Canada before heading back to Japan. Having arrived at Union Station at night, we were keen to see what ‘The City of Angels’ might actually look like in the clear light of day. Well, we couldn’t actually see too much really as a thick smoggy haze sat over the city, despite a fine sunny day being forecast. This is apparently how it is in LA as the car culture rules and air pollution appears to be just a way of life. Jules had booked us into a nice Art Deco hotel just off Hollywood Boulevard and with only a couple of days to spare, we were keen to cover as much ground as possible. Of course to this end, the popular open top buses seemed the most sensible way to go. However, by the end of our touring, we both compared it to sitting in a garage with the car running…choked up and gritty! As we weaved around the city streets, we commented on how the outlook contrasted dramatically from suburb to suburb. While neighbourhoods like Beverley Hills, Brentwood and Hancock Park were beautifully manicured to match their elite suburb status, there was also plenty of other less notable areas that were just down right tacky and dirty. It seems that if you have money in ‘Tinsel Town’ you can find your own little oasis, but it generally came at a pretty hefty price. From an architectural point of view, both the city and suburbs provided some interesting historical examples of Art Deco styles as well as some early high-rise structures. I particularly liked seeing many of the classic cinemas and theatres that dominated the Broadway and Hollywood districts, although many are now rundown, closed or being re-used in some other capacity. It really must have been an exciting experience going to a show in the early 20’s and 30’s when many of these entertainment palaces were built. Eventually we made our way over to the many film and television studios that dominate the economy of this city and from which many fortunes are gained. These days there are plenty of studios that are prepared to open their doors for a price to allow tourists to gain an insight into the production process. We chose the highly regarded Warner Brothers tour, which allowed us to access the famous film back lots and the sound stages of many popular television programs. Jules enjoyed standing on the set of ‘Friends’, (which is still kept for posterity despite the show finishing years ago) and also the ‘Ellen DeGeneres Show’, while I particularly enjoyed seeing the sets from some classic movies like ‘Casablanca’ and ‘East of Eden’. Of course no tour of Hollywood would be complete without visiting the iconic Grauman’s Chinese Theatre with its famous collection of hand and foot prints by movie stars, both past and present. It now sits alongside the more recently constructed Kodak Theatre, which is now the permanent home of the Academy Award ceremony. Jules and I walked the red carpet path and into the theatre itself for a tour, providing us with an insight into the backstage operations of the big night. When we visited, they were putting the final touches to the new Cirque du Soleil show ‘Iris’, which will run in the theatre for next ten years, except for the month of February, when they prepare to hand out the annual ‘Oscars’ of course. With all of our running around, our two days in Los Angeles passed quickly and to be honest that was quite enough for us. While we appreciated its silver screen history, our stay confirmed that it wasn’t really our kind of town. I guess we’re not looking to be in the movies, we’re certainly not wealthy enough and we just like to breath clean air!

Monday, 22 August 2011

Trekking Down the West Coast by Rail

When Jules was planning our big trip to the US and Canada, she asked me how I would feel about undertaking a long train trip from Seattle down to Los Angeles. We have always enjoyed a good train journey, but this one would be a thirty-four hour run so she just needed to check whether I was up for it. We both agreed that after five weeks of serious travelling, a long relaxing train trip might be timely. So early one morning we boarded what they call the ‘Coast Starlight’ and settled in for the long ride south, which was made even easier with the complimentary champagne that was provided upon boarding. We initially made our way through to familiar territory in and around Portland, but eventually we began our gradual ascent into the Cascade Mountains. Slowly, civilisation began to be left behind and our attention was locked to our window as the beauty of the Oregon pine forest and stunning mountain views captivated our attention. We were directed over the PA to specific areas to view by the often humorous conductors and more particularly by a very friendly gentleman named Gareth who was running the ‘Parlour Lounge’ where we ate as the sun began to slowly set. In the morning we woke to a very different landscape and in our sleepy daze we thought that we might be back in Australia. We had actually crossed into California and the lush green mountains were now long gone, being replaced by dry open plains. From the comfort of our sleeper cabin, we could see wheat fields, gum trees and grape vines that looked all too familiar. The only difference was when we would come across the occasional collection of oil wells that looked like a scene straight out of the James Dean movie ‘Giant’. We passed through San Jose before eventually hitting the coast for what we were told would be the most picturesque part of the journey and the sunny day would ensure that the Pacific Ocean would indeed look its best. As described, this stretch was quite amazing as the tracks hugged a rugged coastline that again looked very Australian. Back in the Parlour Car, Gareth was again providing his chirpy comments on the passing scenery, based upon his twenty-two years of experience running up and down the line. Being the height of summer, areas like Santa Barbara were bustling and the increased action suggested that Los Angeles was not far away. The truth was however, that we still had two hours to go and as the sun set, we eventually saw the lights of the big city and slowly pulled into Union Station. Our rail journey was over and to our surprise it had gone very quickly. Gareth had kept us entertained and made sure that we were looked after with a steady supply of meals and the odd glass of red wine. There certainly was no need to visit the on-board cinema, everything we needed to see was right outside the window.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Vancouver Island by Seaplane

There are some strange anomalies when it comes to aeroplanes. Everyone has a strange fascination for watching them take off and land, but few people actually want to live near an airport. However there is a unique exception to that rule when it comes to seaplanes. It seems that the added attraction of water brings with it a whole new dimension to flying and indeed watching take offs and landings. This certainly appeared to be true in Vancouver and even more so in Victoria, where most of the most expensive hotels, restaurants and apartments sit right alongside the harbour where the seaplanes regularly take off and land. I must admit that there is a certain romance in watching these small planes skip along the water that somehow resurrects images of a bygone era. Living in the days of big global airlines, it’s nice to see the small plane rule the skies and indeed the waves in this part of the world. My enthusiasm for this mode of transport is probably heightened due to lack of exposure to them in most parts of Australia, but in these parts it appeared to be the transport of choice for longer distance travel. After days of watching the tiny planes come and go, I decided to surprise Jules by booking a trip on one for a scenic flight around Vancouver Island. So on a perfect sunny evening, we hopped on board our De Havilland DHC-3 Seaplane and made our way slowly across the water to the runway point. As we motored along, we could see people on the shore taking photos, once again confirming my thoughts on their popularity. Once in the centre of the harbour and facing out to sea, the pilot pushed forward on the throttle and we were skipping across the water before quickly making our ascent. Staying at a reasonably low flying level, the views around Vancouver Island were wonderful, highlighted by many inaccessible coastal inlets that you wouldn’t normally see unless by boat. Soon we were back and making a graceful touchdown, much like a pelican might when it hits the water. Our seaplane adventure was over, but it had been quite a memorable experience and certainly a very different way to see the scenic beauty of Vancouver Island.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Victoria BC …the perfect mix!

Vancouver Island and in particular the town of Victoria was a highly recommended destination during our trip to Canada. As Jules and I made our way over by ferry on a fine sunny day, we could begin to see why it was such a popular destination, as we viewed some stunningly beautiful coastal inlets. Upon arrival, the town was larger and busier than we had expected. After all, it was the height of tourist season and judging by the various accents, there were plenty of visitors in town enjoying what it had to offer. While there are a host of natural and scenic attractions, it was the considerable amount of eateries and microbreweries that had also grabbed our attention. In fact, Victoria boasts the second largest amount of restaurants per capita in North America and over the next few days we were going try plenty. As we walked down to the harbour, we were struck by the obvious European influence in the architecture with a couple of particularly grand buildings (the Empress Hotel and the Legislative Building) looking as if they had stepped straight out of aristocratic France. In the harbour area there were several impressive English style pubs that were located in streets lined with an abundance of hanging baskets each filled with brightly coloured flowers in bloom. There was certainly no shortage of stunning harbour views, which we enjoyed from no less from six different locations while dining during our stay. Every time we looked out, we could see a myriad of activities on the water front with boats heading out to sea for whale watching trips, high speed jet boats full of thrill seekers, giant cruise ships coming and going and water taxis scooting around as sea planes dodged them while coming into land. During our stay there was even a large three-masted Russian sailing ship that further added to the colour on the harbour. Along the docks, craft stalls regularly take up position and buskers enthusiastically entertain the passing crowd. Victoria is definitely a terrific holiday spot, but over the years it has also attracted its fair share of retirees, as we found out when we ventured out to leafy Oak Bay, which boasts some of the most expensive real estate in Canada. Yes, Victoria is a pretty good place to live or just visit for that matter. With the perfect combination of scenic beauty and sophisticated lifestyle and appreciation for good food, it simply has it all!

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Rocky Mountain Magic

It wasn’t too long before we were lured by the call of the Canadian mountains and fortunately they weren’t too far away from central Vancouver. An easy trip was the run to Capilano, which is just across the harbour and sits just outside the edge of a residential area. Although when you are actually there it feels very much as if you’re in the wilderness. However, the down side is that its close proximity does bring a lot of tourists. The big attraction of Capilano is the initial walk across the suspension bridge that crosses a rocky stream many metres below. Although the swaying bridge is a little like walking on a boat on choppy seas, it’s worth it for the spectacular view. Once you reach the other side there are plenty of smaller tree-top walks where you can experience the dense pine forest as it must have been before the old logging days.
On another day we ventured slightly further afield to Grouse Mountain, which on a clear day, can be seen quite easily from Vancouver itself. On the day we went, there was a great deal of cloud and we thought that the viewing might be quite limited. We boarded the Swiss- style aerial tramway that took us upward through the clouds to reveal a beautiful vista drenched in sunlight. While there was plenty of ice still left over from the winter, the temperature was quite warm and although we couldn’t see the view downward due to the cloud, our vision of the neighbouring mountain ranges was very clear. It was truly rugged and spectacular. Jules and I spoke in admiration of those adventurous folk who originally made it to the top and of those who continued to do so in search of good skiing long before the cable car was built. As we made our way to the summit, in the distance we could see a wild bear feeding in one of the clearings, which reminded us that this still remains essentially a wilderness area. You can certainly see spectacular photos of this region in glossy coffee table books but as we discovered, it doesn’t come close to matching the experience of seeing it in person. Vancouver is certainly fortunate that such scenic beauty is literally on its doorstep.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Vancouver’s Celebration of Light

Like most people, Jules and I are suckers for a good fireworks display and we were fortunate that our visit to Vancouver coincided with the annual ‘Celebration of Light’ festivities. This is a popular event that has been running over the summer holidays since 1990, inviting selected countries from throughout the world to display and be judged upon their pyrotechnic skills. Following an all too familiar format, each country selects an appropriate theme and music for a dazzling display of fireworks. During our stay it was the ‘Battle of the Champions’ with China, Spain and Canada competing for national pride. As is the case each year, there would be well over a million spectators over the three nights cheering each country on. By 9pm on the big nights we could see the crowds make their way from the city toward the waters edge. There, a flotilla of boats was already in position in the harbour, much as they are for Sydney’s New Years Eve fireworks celebrations. By 10pm the fuses were lit and the show was off and running as the sky lit up with fireworks accompanied by a sound track of classics and covers. Each show lasts for about half an hour so that’s a lot of fireworks thrown into the air, all leading toward an explosive crescendo. Now, Jules and I often debate the value of such events and the financial costs involved and how the funds could possibly be used for more worthy causes. In the end I guess it could be argued that there is considerable tourist revenue generated from such events, but you certainly can’t underestimate the value of such sky shows in bringing the local community together. We could definitely sense the positive mood as mostly Vancouverites sat on their picnic blankets by the banks of the harbour enjoying the summer evening. In the end the display was quite spectacular. If you’re wondering who won the event, the 2011 winner was …(drum roll) China! Not that anyone was too concerned, they all went over with a bang!

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Vibrant Vancouver

It only took a four-hour train trip from Seattle before Jules and I had slipped over the border into Canada. Arriving in Vancouver created an immediate positive impression on us as the sun shined over this bustling city. Making our way to our apartment, several people stopped to help us with directions and we felt genuinely welcomed. The city has a very modern feel with a plethora of newly constructed high-rise buildings that are nicely softened by the many city trees and water features. On the streets themselves there is a very multicultural flavour, an impression that is further reinforced by the wide variety of restaurants and eateries covering most of the world’s culinary styles. In many ways it reminded us of some of the capital cities of Australia. However, it has one distinct difference and that is the beautiful Canadian mountains that could be seen in the distance across the harbour. In fact, Vancouver is ideally positioned to view some terrific scenery in all directions and with water on three sides, Jules maintains that it’s almost impossible to take a bad photograph. With its stable economic outlook, the city continues to grow while it’s rating as one of the world’s most liveable cities attracts both migrants and tourists alike. We learnt that over the years the city developed into a number of distinct areas, each with it’s own character and all within easy walking distance of each other. As well as exploring the modern downtown area, we eventually made our way over to nearby Gastown (the oldest area) to find it going through the process of rejuvenation with new restaurants and shops taking over the old dockland buildings. We also wandered through the old warehouse area of Yaletown, which has now become a very trendy commercial and residential spot following its transformation for Expo 86. There we sat on a converted loading dock and enjoyed a beer from one of the local microbrewies. With Jules’ love of fresh produce, the nearby Granville Island Farmers Market was also a must see. We crossed the bridge to the island to stock up on some fresh produce and sat at the waters edge looking back toward the city, while enjoying a delicious Salmon Burger before taking the water taxi back to town. We spent a whole day exploring one of the cities greatest assets, Stanley Park, which sits at the tip of the mainland and provides some terrific seaside views. Being larger than New York’s Central Park, it has some wonderful walking/cycling tracks that criss-cross through lush forests. However we decided to walk the beautiful 8km coastal route that caught a cooling sea breeze. There is no doubt that the city of Vancouver is a vibrant place that has plenty to offer the visitor, but as we looked toward mountains beyond, we just knew that we would have to explore some of the regions natural attractions over the next few days.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Sampling Pike Place Market

With Jules’ passion for good food and produce, it was inevitable that we would end up spending some time at famous Pike Place Market during our stay in Seattle. Being the longest continually running farmers market in the United States (104 years), it remains somewhat of an institution that attracts visitors from around the world. Ideally positioned between the business district and the harbour docks, it has become a hub for those looking for the freshest in fruit, vegetables and seafood. Yet like all such places, it offers so much more as over the years it has become a magnet for a wide range of merchants, craftspeople and restaurateurs. Not surprisingly we found strong similarities between Pike Place and our own Central Market in Adelaide (although we still biasly think ours is better). There is certainly a unique atmosphere here with the famous fish mongers entertaining the tourists by throwing fish around as they yell catch-phrases in unison while fruit shop owners entice you with freshly cut samples of fruit as you walk by. It was here that we found the original Starbucks Coffee Shop, a surprisingly small establishment that went on to conquer the world. The place is a labyrinth of passages and laneways that have simply evolved over the market’s history, offering a unique shopping experience. I particularly liked ‘The Paper Company’ where you can find old original posters, advertisements and magazines from a bygone era, while Jules enjoyed ‘Piroshky Piroshky’ the Russian bakery where you could view freshly baked apple and cinnamon rolls coming straight out of the oven…she couldn’t resist a sample. Eventually we settled down to some ‘Pike Place Clam Chowder’, a highly recommended soup that has won numerous awards and comes to you in a variety of flavours, (most of which we sampled). As we sat in the summer sun, dipping bread into our chowder and enjoying the music from a nearby busker, we couldn’t ask for much more from a market experience. It’s not surprising that the Pike Place Market remains Seattle’s number one tourist attraction.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Taking in a View of the Rainy City

Leaving Portland, Jules and I have our first Amtrak railway experience heading northward toward Seattle. The four-hour trip was comfortable and passed quickly, but as we approached there were signs of rain. This was not at all surprising as people had warned us about the dodgy weather in Seattle, even in the height of summer and it was living up to its original nickname of the ‘Rainy City’. When we arrived it was drizzling, but we could hear the sound of seagulls, hinting of its close proximity to the shoreline. We were immediately surprised by the steepness of the streets that led down to the harbour, with some we estimated to be a forty-five degree angle (they certainly felt like it anyway). Early into our visit we decided to learn more about the city’s history, so we signed up for the popular underground tour. It takes you underneath the city through a series of tunnels that were created after it’s forefathers decided to build up the ground level in the mid 1800’s. We were told that this major engineering project was undertaken as a means of improving the poor sanitation system of the time and there definitely appeared to be an ongoing fixation with toilets. In fact we found Seattle toilets to have one of the most violently flushing systems that we‘ve ever encountered! As we walked through the tunnels, we were actually looking at the ground floor of many of the original 1800’s buildings that had been the setting for a range of colourful activities including gambling and bootlegging. Back on the surface, we found that Seattle had developed into a typical modern American metropolis. Sadly, many homeless people and beggars frequent the streets providing evidence of recent hard times in the US. In contrast, skyscrapers continue to be built and multi-lane freeways weave in and out of the business districts, creating an ever-present traffic echo, while trams also move throughout town as well as a monorail running overhead. This mode of transport was actually built for the 1962 Worlds Fair and leads to the city’s most iconic landmark, The Space Needle. Looking like something straight out of ‘The Jetsons’, it stands sixty storeys tall and still attracts visitors from all over the world to take in the view. The recently built ‘Experimental Music Project’ designed by Frank Gehrey, that stands close by, has further assisted its popularity. Jules and I chose to avoid the queues and head back down town to the less popular, but far more elegant ‘Smith Tower’. One of the original high rise built at the turn of the century, it still has the original Art Deco brass elevators that take you upward to the grand Chinese Room, from where we managed to take in a rare sunny view of the city and harbour from the open air balcony. As we looked out toward the harbour, we could see snow peaked mountains that reminded us that this was our most northerly US pit stop and our gateway to Canada.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Art On Four Wheels

During our travels I always try to make a point of visiting the local art gallery. Even if it’s one of the lesser known ones, you never know what you might find either as part of their permanent collection or part of a touring show. So while in town I decided to visit the Portland Art Museum to see what I might discover. It was my good fortune that they were currently displaying a touring exhibition called ‘The Allure of the Automobile’ which was displaying 16 amazing cars from between 1930 and 1960. The collection consisted of some of the most rare and probably some of the most expensive cars currently in private ownership. In fact, I would doubt whether you could view a collection of this quality anywhere in the world, so I was quite fortunate to catch it. Now, many might argue the case for whether a motorcar can actually be classified as art, but after viewing this exhibition there is no debate. The vehicles on show were truly magnificent sculptural forms on wheels that could be appreciated for their unique design, whether you are into motorcars or not. Case in point was my favourite, the 1937 Dubonnet Hispano-Suiza, an absolute one-off that has all the hallmarks of a space ship rather that an automobile. This must have been an exciting age for car design that held such promise for the future. I’m not quite sure what happened along the way that so many mediocre designs emerged in the years that followed. Nonetheless, through such exhibitions we can now appreciate some of the more innovative designers such as Porsche, Jaguar and Bentley. One vehicle that was on display that didn’t quite make it commercially was the ‘Tucker Torpedo’ designed by Preston Tucker (as depicted by Jeff Bridges in the 1988 film ‘Tucker: The Man and His Dream’). This innovative 1948 car had many interesting design features (including a futuristic ‘cyclops eye’ headlight), but in the end there were only ever 51 manufactured. The cars on display in the Portland Art Museum were certainly unique and the precursor of the concept cars of today. Like all forms of high art, they were eloquent in their styling and very much to be admired. However, then and now these cars would always remain very much out of reach of the average person.

Sunday, 31 July 2011

Brew-Ha-Ha in Portland

As mentioned previously, Jules and I have been educating ourselves about the wonderful world of beer in recent times. The many Belgian beer cafes in Japan have certainly introduced us to a myriad of flavours and styles. However once becoming aware of our upcoming trip to Portland, an American friend enviously suggested that we must visit some of the many microbreweries that have become a feature of this great city. Certainly the hot summer weather further encouraged us to seek out some of these popular watering holes. We didn’t have to look too far, with something like 170 breweries in and around the city there was plenty of choice. Deschutes Brewery, Rogue Ales and Pelican Pub & Brewery were just three that we sampled during our stay and they all produced a wonderful range of thirst quenching beverages. A great idea to help us in our choice was a ‘taster tray’, where for a small price you could buy a selection of beers from their extensive collection to be presented to you in a series of small glasses. After selecting a drop that best suited your mood, you could move up to a half or full pint glass. Similar to wines, the brewers had nicely categorised their product (seasonal, dark, creamy, Belgian style etc.) and in some cases they had recommended the appropriate brew to match the food on the menu, which we thought was very civilised! They had also devised some terrific names for their beers conjuring up some imaginative images to tempt the palette Chainbreaker White, Sagebush Classic Pils, Mirrorpond Pale Ale and Bachelor Bitter to name just a few. Not surprisingly we found beer sampling to be a popular pastime amongst the locals as well as the tourists and I must say that the quality of the ales were consistently good wherever we went. From this experience we contemplated how successful the microbrewing industry could be in Australia, where the major commercial breweries tend to rule. Hopefully, someone will eventually pick up on the idea, providing a unique and enjoyable niche industry. It certainly works for Portland and we will take away some great memories of our summer days here enjoying what the local breweries had to offer.

Friday, 29 July 2011

Hunting the Spruce Goose

One of the major attractions we had planned to visit during our stay in Portland was the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum. Like us, you may never have heard of this particular museum as it is not as well known as some of the major museums of this kind such as the Smithsonian in Washington or the NASA museum in Florida. In fact it isn’t located in Portland at all, but about an hour out of the city on the outskirts of a small town called McMinnville. Here you will find an impressive collection of aircraft from the earliest days of flight through to modern space exploration. However, the centrepiece of the museum is an aeroplane that only ever actually flew for one minute…it’s the Howard Hughes designed and built H-4 Hercules, better known as the ‘Spruce Goose’. If you have ever seen the Martin Scorsese film ‘The Aviator’ you will know the story behind this gigantic wooden flying boat and how it became the billionaires obsession. Built in the 1940’s, this huge silver bird was a prototype for a heavy-duty troop transporter that Hughes continued to develop well after the war was over. A more recent and equally amazing chapter of the Spruce Goose story is how this much publicised aeroplane managed to make its way to a little town in Oregon. It turns out that in 1993, the Evergreen Museum won the bid for the aircraft after the Walt Disney Company decided it no longer wished to display the plane in Los Angeles. In fact they built a hanger to house the monster flying machine and surrounded it with an array of other wonderful exhibits of aviation. Things have now moved on at Evergreen as they have recently built another large hanger for their collection of jets and rockets and are currently awaiting the arrival of a space shuttle to add to their collection, which will in turn further enhance the reputation of this outstanding museum. Jules and I spent several hours walking around and we found the attendants (who are mainly air force veterans) very friendly and informative. The aircrafts were beautifully restored and maintained and the displays were first rate. Yet like most of the people there, it was the Spruce Goose we had come to see and we were amazed at its design and scale. With the wingspan of a football field, it truly is an impressive flying machine. While it only fleetingly became air born, it is certainly surrounded by the mystique of Howard Hughes and is testament to his ambitious vision. We certainly enjoyed tracking it down and learnt much about many other aspects of aviation and space travel in the process.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Soaking up the Portland Lifestyle

Although the rest of the US was suffering the effects of a scorching summer, on our arrival in Portland, Oregon we were met with surprisingly cool conditions. However, this was about to change as we had brought the warm weather with us and a taste of summer was soon to arrive. As we began to look around, we were immediately impressed with this leafy city, nestled alongside the Willamette River and surrounded by mountain ranges. When we took the aerial tram for a view the surrounding landscape, we could clearly see snow topped Mount St. Helens and the even more picturesque Mount Hood in the distance. This is truly beautiful countryside … it has it all … picturesque mountains, rivers and ocean! This was further confirmed when Jules and I hired a car one day and drove along leafy roads down to the coast for a delightful seaside lunch at Pacific City. Back in the city centre, we discovered it to be very walkable, although it is serviced by a free tram that we occasionally use to get around. As we have found throughout our journey, the locals were extremely welcoming and always keen to recommend aspects of the city and countryside that may interest us. What I particularly liked was the community’s obvious connection to the visual arts. We saw many examples of public art as we walked the streets, as well as numerous galleries including the Portland Art Museum, which has quite a nice collection of European and American works. When I visited, there was an exhibition entitled ‘The Allure of the Automobile’ displaying some of the most beautiful cars from a bygone era. The famous ‘Saturday Market’ (the biggest outdoor market in the nation) provides an outlet for local artists to display and sell their wares. There was a great atmosphere with plenty of ‘alternative’ folk, reminding us very much of our time in San Francisco. We suspected that the relaxed lifestyle, beautiful surroundings and environmentally conscious community had attracted many from the south as it is a more affordable option. The other big attraction (that particularly won Jules over) was Portland’s love for food, wine, beer and coffee. There was no shortage of places to indulge and during our stay we both did plenty of that... no complaints!

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Fabulous Fallingwater

After much planning and even more anticipation, Jules and I collected the keys of our rental car and hit road early heading out of Pittsburgh. We had spoken of this journey for over thirty years without ever really believing that we would actually make this trip to view Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece ‘Fallingwater’. Jules had done plenty of preplanning and had even viewed each stage of the journey on Google Maps, but this trip was for real. As we headed toward Mill Run, the countryside became lush and beautiful while the sun began to gently shine through and after ninety minutes of driving we were there. Looking at the filling car park, it seemed that others were also undertaking the same pilgrimage. As we walked down the wooded path, we wondered whether the anticipation would be bigger than the reality, but as the house came into view we both knew that it would live up to expectations. Being wonderfully maintained, it looked as good as it did when it was completed in 1937. In fact it was almost exactly the same, with the original fittings, furniture and artwork left just as it was when Edgar Kaufmann Jr. donated it to the state of Pennsylvania. As we walked through each room, we really sensed Wright’s efforts to bring nature indoors and to allow its occupants to view and experience the beauty of the surrounding countryside from the large cantilever balconies. All the while there was the gentle sound of the water from the waterfall that falls directly below the foundations of the building, achieving one of its most unique features. How tranquil this place must have been for the original owners and how fortunate they were to have Wright design such a unique building for them to appreciate. As we continued our tour, our guide provided many snippets of interesting information regarding the design, the relationship between Mr. Wright and the Kaufmans and what life was like living there. Eventually we made our way down stream to see the classic exterior view of ‘Fallingwater’ that adorns the cover of so many books on modern architecture. It remains quite breathtaking and it's not at all surprising that the American Institute of Architects named the house the "best all-time work of American architecture". For us, it satisfied all of our expectations and made our efforts to get there worthwhile. We had seen what we came to see and had fulfilled a long held ambition. To complete our Frank Lloyd Wright experience, we took the short drive to nearby ‘Kentuck Knob’ to see yet another one of his buildings. Built sixteen years later (1953) it shows another dimension to Wrights domestic architecture. Although it was a very interesting and a totally different type of design conceptually, it was hard for us not to compare it against ‘Fallingwater’. After all, we had just viewed perfection and how can you top that!

Monday, 25 July 2011

Why visit Pittsburgh?

After our stay in Chicago it was off to Pittsburgh. Prior to our journey, everyone we knew kept asking us why we would want to travel there! Admittedly it’s not a place that springs to mind when you consider USA tourist destinations, but we were heading to Pittsburgh on a mission. Our plan was to use the ‘Steel City’ as a base for a long anticipated road trip to Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural masterpiece, ‘Fallingwater’. Upon arriving, we caught a bus to the city to catch our first sight of downtown Pittsburgh and were quite surprised with what we saw. Rather than being a flat city, it was nestled within an undulating valley at the meeting point of three significant rivers, creating a triangular cityscape. Its streets are not unlike San Francisco or Glasgow in their steepness. With a history built upon the manufacture of iron and steel, many factories can still be seen close to the river, while a series large steel girded bridges cross the river providing the city with its other familiar title, ‘The City of Bridges’. As we walked around, there appeared to be several distinct areas. To be honest, many of the outlying suburbs appeared quite run down and there is clearly signs of the economic decline. However, as we moved closer to the centre, there was evidence of Pittsburgh’s glory days with some grand old buildings. This was particularly evident near the university where the philanthropy of such notables as Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon can be seen with several notable buildings in their honor. In the shopping precinct, there were signs of more recent building development with its glass castle (PPG Place) forming a centre piece of the city and providing a tangible sign that the city is looking positively toward the future. Following our arrival from bustling Chicago, it appeared that Pittsburgh was clearly much smaller and with comparatively less attractions, although it does lay claim to being the birth place of Andy Warhol and a museum housing one of the best collections of his works. However, Jules and I thought that it had a more significant asset in its favour… it’s people. Everyone we met was extremely friendly and happy to take the time to share aspects of their city with a couple from a far away land. They were clearly proud of their city and encouraged us to enjoy what it had to offer, although, like others before, they continued to ask that same familiar question… why are you visiting Pittsburgh? When we told them of our intention to visit ‘Fallingwater’ we were surprised that few had actually been to see this historic building even though it was only a relatively short drive from the city. They gave the impression that they were essentially city folk who were happy to stay in familiar territory. As for us, we were on a mission and keen to hit the open road in search of a place called Mill Run, a waterfall and a very special house.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

It’s all about Mies

Ever since my Design Studies days at university, I have always admired the architectural designs of Mies Van Der Rohe. This was even further reinforced when Jules and I were fortunate enough to visit the Barcelona Pavillion in Spain last year. So while in Chicago, we were determined to explore more of the works of this great modernist architect as this was the city that became his home following his exodus from Germany in the years preceding World War Two, along with many other artists and designers from the famed Bauhaus School. In the 1940’s, the city of Chicago welcomed his arrival and over the years it allowed him to complete many of his most famous buildings. As we made our way around the city, his distinctive designs appeared to be everywhere and we were both amazed at the amount of major public works he actually designed in the city and at the various universities. However, in order to view one of his most famous domestic buildings, we had to travel outside of Chicago to the area of Plano to visit the much acclaimed ‘Farnsworth House’. To assist us in our quest we recruited the assistance of Larry, a Chicago local who takes private tours to this iconic design. Having worked as a guide for many years, he had an encyclopedic knowledge of the life and work of Mies and provided us with invaluable background information regarding his various designs and in particular Farnsworth House. This modest one bedroom home has only recently been open to the public following its acquisition in 2004 by the National Trust. In 2008 it had the misfortune to suffer severe flood damage resulting in major restoration work that lasted a full year. However, on the day we visited it looked picture perfect, sitting majestically in lush woods close to the same gently flowing river that had previously caused so much damage. The use of white painted steel and white Italian marble is in stark contrast to the designs Mies created for Chicago, but its simplicity is justifiably regarded as a true celebration of modernism. As Jules and I walk toward the house and eventually stood inside, we could see why. With its extensive use of glass, the house is a platform to admire the surrounding nature. The building appears to float above the green grass below with only a few vertical beams lightly touching the earth. We felt privileged to experience the building on such a perfect day, but like many have done, we speculated upon its future. The building of a nearby highway (which can be clearly heard) and increasing flooding due to man-made changes to the natural flow of rainwater is increasingly jeopardising the integrity of the site. While it stands today much as it did in 1951, this might not always be the case and it will take a major commitment by the Trust in the coming years. Certainly with an increasing amount of visitors to this important Mies building, it suggests that it’s well worth preserving for future generations to also admire.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Baseball Memories at Wrigley Field

If you visit Chicago and you’re a sports fan, a visit to Wrigley Field is a must. This is the home of the Chicago Cubs or the ‘Cubbies’ as they are affectionately known here. Certainly I can’t lay claim to any in depth knowledge of baseball, but a few years ago I bought a book on the history of baseball after watching a brilliant Ken Burns documentary and it was from there that I learned of this iconic sports stadium. Built in 1914, this is one of the last of the old time ‘ball parks’ which still remain in the US and can be found in the northern suburban neighbourhood of Lakeview. It retains many of the original features such as its famous Art Deco marquee entrance sign, the traditional hand turned metal scoreboard and ivy covered out field walls (the last professional ballpark to do so). The dimensions of the stadium have not changed since 1934, however the crowd attendance has been expanded over the years with local residents building small bleacher stands on the rooftops of the surrounding buildings, providing yet another unique feature to Wrigley Field. During my visit I joined one of their regular tours of the ground that provides you with a great insight into both this historic ground and the Cubs. Our guide entertained us with numerous stories of the traditions, glory days and disappointments of Chicago’s favourite team. While its cross town rivals the Chicago White Sox have had more recent success, Cubs fans seem to out number them. This conclusion is not statistical, but simply based upon the amount of t-shirts you see being worn around town and the attention they appear to get in the media. However, their popularity is certainly not based upon their success, after all it is 102 years since they actually won a world series! It seems that they have a long tradition of breaking their fans hearts, but still they stay loyal and in fact the fan base continues to grow. As witnessed on my tour, it is a family club that retains its ties to simpler times. At each home game the crowd still sing ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game’ before every game; just one of the many other traditions that still that hold firm. Support for the club is certainly generational, as fans reassure themselves that if or when a national championship victory finally arrives, the long wait will make it all the more sweeter. There appears to be no resentment towards the club for their lack of success, the fans clearly love it and celebrate the many happy times spent at Wrigley Field. They certainly won me over and I will be joining their legion of loyal supporters, if only from afar.

Monday, 18 July 2011

In Search of Frank Lloyd Wright

Even if you have a limited knowledge of architecture, you would have probably heard of Frank Lloyd Wright or maybe have seen one of his famous designs (Fallingwater, Robie House, Unity Temple, The Guggenheim Museum to name just a few). He is regarded as one of America’s greatest architects, with a career that spanned seventy years and continually pushed architectural boundaries. While his influence eventually spread world wide, it all began in Chicago where he obtained his earliest commissions and where you can easily trace his initial stylistic development. For Jules and myself, an Architectural Foundation tour of his home and studio as well as some of his early residential designs was a must see during our stay in Chicago. It seems that we weren’t the only ones following the footsteps of the great man as when we boarded our tour bus, it was full of people from all walks of life, states and countries keen to also experience his designs first hand. After a short drive west of the ‘windy city’ we find ourselves in the leafy suburb of Oak Park where Wright had built his family home and eventually his first working studio. Our knowledgeable tour guide takes us around the relatively modest home, which had been continually extended and modified as his family and his architectural practice grew. There are glimpses of the ‘Prairie Style’ emerging in some of the finer details in the home and also an increasing Japanese influence. This is particularly relevant to us, living in Osaka at the moment and having recently viewed ‘Yamamura House’ in nearby Kobe that was designed by Wright during his eventual visit to the country in the 1920’s. Standing in Wrights original studio in Oak Park, surrounded by much of the original furniture is quite amazing and is testament to the ongoing work of the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust in restoring the residence to its original state. Our guide informed us that they had been fortunate to have the assistance of some of Wrights children, in the twilight of their lives, assisting them with many of the finer details. Following our tour of the house and studio we were able to walk around the Oak Park neighbourhood, where many of the early Wright designed residences still exist and have been lovingly restored by their owners. Over the years some of these houses have actually been demolished, but fortunately none for the past thirty years and the public are now able to appreciate them as they were intended, as functional residential homes. We finish our walking tour with a visit to Unity Temple, which is another Wright design that is still in use. Unlike many church designs, Wrights is much more intimate with stronger emphasis on horizontal and vertical line. All of these designs are precursors to many of the designs that followed and as we view these architectural gems we are able to gain a true insight into a great architects life and work.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Magnificent Millennium Park

If you’re looking for the heart of Chicago, you can’t go past Millennium Park, which sits about halfway along Michigan Avenue, often referred to as the ‘Golden Mile’. Ideally located in an area called ‘The Loop’ (Chicago’s theatre district) and positioned close to the Lake Michigan shoreline, it offers grand views of many of the older high rise buildings of the city. It is beautifully designed with landscaped gardens, outdoor eating areas, pavilions and plenty of places to sit and relax while enjoying the grand vista. Throughout the park there are a host of interesting public art works, specifically designed to encourage human interaction. During our visit it was the height of summer and the magnificent ‘Crown Fountain’ designed by Jaume Plensa was immensely popular, with children keen to splash in the puddles or get soaked by the jets of water that emerge from the mouths of giant digital faces. However by far the most popular sculpture is ‘Cloud Gate’, which is fondly referred to as ‘the bean’ by most locals. This huge polished stainless-steel sculpture created by Indian born British artist Anish Kapoor attracts thousands of visitors daily to the plaza to view a distorted reflection of the Chicago skyline and the various activities at ground level. This bold sculptural theme continues with the centrepiece of the park, the Jay Pritzker Pavilion designed by world-renowned architect Frank Gehrey. This post-modernist structure provides a stunningly and creatively sculptural sound shell that is used for a wide variety of outdoor concerts. While we’re in town, there were free concerts on most evenings, attracting people to sit in the amphitheatre or relax on the grass to listen and watch the sun set. We were surprised to learn that Millennium Park was only completed in 2004, as it certainly feels like it has been part of down town Chicago for much longer. It truly is an amazing piece of architectural, engineering and landscape design that literally covers some 24 acres of railway tracks that continue to run beneath. It just goes to show what can be achieved with what many might have previously considered to be unusable land. It remains an exciting addition to Chicago’s extensive parkland boulevard and remains yet another attraction that continues to breathe new life into this impressive city.