Thursday, June 30, 2011

Stumbling on the Unexpected

Sometimes when you're traveling, the most memorable times are those when you discover something without any planning at all. Example: the Point Reyes Lighthouse on the California coastline.

During a trip to San Francisco, I remembered hiking in Marin County many years earlier. It was with that in mind, that we decided to drive north with little more than a map to guide us. As the coastline grew wilder and more desolate, the hermit in me fell in love with the area. Finally, feeling as if we should have a destination, I noticed a lighthouse on the map and suggested we make our way their. My father in law loves lighthouses, so we could take some pictures for him.

Just when it felt as if we had reached the end of the world, we came across a small parking lot. Trees had grown horizontally across the path, a testament to the strong winds that beset this part of the coast. We stopped at the small ranger station before heading down the steps to the lighthouse. It was at this point that hubby, a huge film buff, suggested that this all seemed very familiar. Could this be the lighthouse featured in one of our favorite films - John Carpenter's The Fog? Nothing in the ranger station display seemed to suggest this and surely it would be mentioned somewhere?

On we continued, down the two hundred or so steps. The wind picked up, and one could imagine the light of this tiny beacon, sending warning to those out on the rough seas. Incidentally, if you're wondering why the lighthouse was below cliff level rather than on top, it was so the light could be seen below the fog.

After spending a little time exploring and bracing ourselves for the hike back up the steps, we took a few more photos and began the drive back to San Francisco. I decided that, much as I loved the isolation, I could do without the wind. My search for the perfect hermitage continues. We did however feel most satisfied to later learn that this was indeed the site of filming for a highly recommended movie.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Winchester House

Since childhood, I have had a fascination with the paranormal and so I typically try to include a ghost walk or a visit to a purported haunted house in many of my trips. With that in mind, when I visited San Francisco a few years ago, a drive down to San Jose to visit the Winchester Mystery House was a must. The house is well-known to viewers of the Travel Channel, the History Channel, SyFy, and so on so I won't delve too deeply into its history, except to say that it was built over a period of 38 years by Sarah Winchester, widow and heir to the rifle fortune. Guided through her grief by psychics, she was convinced she must continually add to the mansion so as to appease the spirits of those killed by Winchester rifles. Doors lead to walls, stairs to ceilings, and there are believed to be rooms which remain unreachable. The above picture shows the Door to Nowhere, so called because it opens

The house and gardens are absolutely fascinating. Being used to massive English estates, I always find it interesting when houses such as this are literally on a main road, most of the surrounding land having been sold off over the years. Guides lead you through the house, highlighting the seance room, the many fireplaces, and features that were extremely modern at the time they were installed (including indoor plumbing, forced air, elevators). I'll be honest, as oddly misshapen as the house is, I actually thought it would be wonderful to live there.

But is it haunted?
Obviously, I can't say without a shadow of a doubt. I can only give my impressions, and those impressions are that at no time did I sense anything out of the ordinary or otherworldly. Rather, I came away suspecting it had the haunted reputation because of its unusual style and history.

Was Mrs Winchester the victim of charlatans who took advantage of her grief? Or was she really receiving messages from the spirit world? Who can say? 

All I can say is that the Winchester House is definitely worth a visit. I fell in love with the gardens, and the house is an incredible reminder of the power of grief.

Friday, June 10, 2011


We all have times when we need to get away from it all, wherever we happen to live, which is how I ended up taking the train from my home in Yamanashi, Japan down to Shimoda on the Izu Peninsula. I stayed in a small hostel, ate at little local restaurants, and spent my days wandering, observing, exploring.

Some people might shy away from eating alone, but one of my fondest memories is of wandering into a small eatery with my Jane Austen book tucked under my arm. No one else was in there, and the chef brought me a bowl of creamy risotto and a glass of wine. A little while late, he brought the bottle and another glass. We drank together and enjoyed a peaceful, relaxing evening, watching the sun go down from the diner window.

Another day, I took a boat around the coast to see the dolphins. After disembarking, I hiked to a park filled with tropical flowers of the most beautiful colors. I ate mango and papaya,so juicy it dribbled down my chin. Then I hopped on a bus, just hoping that eventually it would reach Shimoda.

Shimoda is also home to a wonderful little temple, which is an unlikely home to a sex museum. Follow the path shown above, and a little old obaa-san will point you to the museum. In one room is a collection of watercolors, illustrating the tragic story of Okichi-san, the real-life inspiration for Madame Butterfly. Driven mad by love and abandonment, she eventually drowned herself in a nearby stream. Walking along streets that have changed little in the past hundred years, I envisioned the tragic scene, framed in a carpet of sakura.

In the other room at the museum, you will find an incredible array of phalluses, from a few millimeters to six feet high. Fans of Blackadder will also be pleased to note the selection of pickled vegetables in erotic shapes.

Tragedy and wink-wink erotica. Truly Japanese.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Tarahumara Girl

The sun helped to lessen the chill of the late December afternoon as we started down the rocky path from our hotel, which stood on the edge of the Barrancas del Cobre, the Copper Canyon. Turning a corner, we saw a young Tarahumara girl. She held out her hands to reveal several quartz rocks. We agreed to buy two in return for a photograph; after selecting our rocks and exchanging money, she solemnly posed for the camera.

Continuing down the trail, we were aware of her following us, no doubt heading to the row of tiny houses below. Sensing her frustration at being behind two dawdling tourists, we moved to one side so that she could pass.

As if a tiny dynamo had been triggered, she was off… hopping, skipping, racing over the uneven rocks with the agility of a mountain goat. My husband and I watched in amazement, impressed by her speed.

Suddenly, the girl stopped, now some one hundred yards or so along the trail. She turned, glanced up at us, and in a moment I will never forget, broke into an enormous grin. Laughing, she turned and continued on her journey as we ambled behind.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Open Air Rodin

San Francisco is one of my favorite US cities to visit. Although it offers a wide variety of museums to please every art palate, it is still worth taking the short drive to the Stanford University campus near Palo Alto to visit the Cantor Center for Visual Arts. Collections at the museum range from African tribal pieces to European nineteenth century paintings.
The piece de resistance of the museum is the Rodin collection. I loved studying Rodin when I was in school so this was a little bit of art heaven. Visitors can wander through the Rodin Sculpture Garden where bronze castings of his works mingle with sandstone and trees to create a stunning visual landscape, of which The Gates of Hell is the focal piece. The collection, the largest of its kind, continues inside the museum with multiple works including The Kiss, studies for his sculpture of Balzac and, of course, The Thinking Man.
The Cantor Center is open to the public from 11am to 5pm Wednesdays through Sundays (open until 8pm on Thursdays). There is no admission charge.