Pisac’s Market is More than I Bargained for

One of my favorite things to do in any city or village is to visit the local market, whether it’s a wet market in Hong Kong or the Feria de Mataderos in Buenos Aires. In Peru, I was most taken with Pisac’s market in the Sacred Valley. We got rooms in a hostal right on the main square (named, as always, Plaza des Armas), with windows providing colorful views. But although Sunday is Pisac’s most famous market day, attracting busloads of tourists, my two sons and I missed it. On the other hand, if we hadn’t gotten sick, we wouldn’t have stayed five nights. I’ve never observed the workings of a market this close for this many days.  I didn’t buy much, but Pisac Market offered more than I bargained for.

Pisac’s Sunday market is so large it fills up the square, radiating down side streets and on the slope leading to terraced Inca ruins. Locals sell fruit, vegetables and souvenirs, including alpaca sweaters, jewelry, flutes and handwoven tapestries. Unfortunately, the night before the boys and I ate chicken at a local restaurant while watching the video Motorcycle Diaries (incredibly, life in Peru seems almost as poor as it did when Ernesto Guevara rode through) and on Sunday we were all sick. So we spend Pisac’s most famous day in bed, being able to cast only cursory glances over the street scenes before heading back to the bathroom.

On Monday we awoke to find the square cleared of all its market stalls. It was Independence Day! The morning began with marches and speeches and in late afternoon came the music. The square was packed with villagers–nary a tourist in sight–who all seemed to belong to their own group and who drank copious amounts of beer and chicha, a pink alcoholic brew made from fermented maize. Feeling somewhat recovered, I ventured into the melee with my sister, and everyone was very friendly to two foreign women in their midst, smiling at us and toasting (I have to say, chicha must be an acquired taste). Some Peruvians danced, though with their conservative, modest steps, they will never threaten the Argentinians. We went to bed around 10pm, but the partying went on past midnight.

The next day, Tuesday, was market day again, though on a less grand style. What fascinated me the most is that every single night, all the wares are packed up for transport and all the wooden stalls are broken down and carted away. In addition, every day I went to the market there were different vendors there, thereby assuring that everyone had a chance to sell their goods, either as middlemen selling crafts others had made or those they had made themselves. Tour buses came by regularly, disgorging tourists who must have been weaned on inflated prices. I saw an American guy buy two woolen caps for about three times what he could have bargained for, and a Japanese man paid about 10 times more for a necklace than what I paid after scoping out prices for several days. Striking a bargain is the name of the game, meant to assure that both buyer and seller feel satisfied. With a budget of $3,000 for the three of us for a month, I didn’t have much money to spend. That necklace reminds me of Pisac every time I wear it.

The end of our stay in Pisac was almost the end of our one month in Peru. By then, what had seemed so unfathomable just one month before–what was Peru like! How would we get around! How would we manage!–now seemed commonplace. The fact is, Peru is easy, well geared to meet the needs of travelers on the “Gringo Trail,” making it much easier to get around there than, say, in Japan. And while guide books warned of thieves, pickpockets and taxi-driving robbers, we encountered only kindness and, at worst, indifference. Perhaps it helps to travel with children. Maybe even crooks have too much integrity to take advantage of a child.

 

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Machu Picchu–Better than Imagined

DSCN0103-1Machu Picchu is probably on every traveler’s bucket list, and with good reason. Built by the Incas around 1450, abandoned about 100 years later, and brought to the world’s attention in 1911 by American explorer Hiram Bingham, Machu Picchu is quite simply an architectural masterpiece. Although there are many Inca traces in Peru, none are as breathtakingly irrefutable proof of their brilliancy. For that and many reasons, I found Machu Picchu better than imagined.

In fact, many of my impression turned out to be false, gleaned mostly from photographs and from glossy articles I’d read. In pictures, the Inca ruins looked virtually inaccessible, so high up one of the world’s loftiest mountains as to be halfway to heaven. The Inca Trail, I thought, must be grueling, sending tourists straight up that mountain for four straight days. But because of it’s popularity, I expected Machu Picchu to be overrun with tourists, detracting from its mysticism and beauty.

It turns out, the Inca Trail is mostly overland, though not without challenging mountain passes. The Trail tour ends at Aguas Caliente, a nondescript and charmless tourist town at the base of Machu Picchu, from which it’s only a 90-minute hike or a short bus ride up to the ruins. And although I expected swarming crowds, Machu Picchu is so expansive it simply swallows them up.

DSCN0118-1In other words, Machu Picchu is both overwhelming and mystical. It would be DSCN0087-1hard not feel viscerally moved and impressed. The architectural genius of the Incas is impossible to over-estimate. They built walls and buildings of stone blocks crafted to fit precisely without mortar so as to withstand earthquakes. Their terraces, cut into hillsides to maximize irrigation and layered with stone, sand and other materials to prevent landslides and erosion, are testimony to their farming prowess.

I kept trying to imagine the city as it was back then, crawling with Incas instead of tourists from around the world, but my imagination was too dim. If only I could time travel. And though I and my family spent eight hours at Machu Picchu, much longer than I’d imagine, it now seems like a dream in the clouds. Albeit, a very powerful dream.

Machu Picchu in the day

Machu Picchu in the day

DSCN0115-1

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Ise-Shima Famous for Shrines, Pearls and Female Divers

Ise Shima National Park2Ise-Shima National Park is home to Japan’s most famous Shinto shrine, making it a must-see destination for the Japanese for centuries. Its ragged coastline and many islands also make it a natural for the cultivation of pearls and as a habitat for many sea creatures. Women living in fishing villages have been free-diving for edibles for centuries; some have opened rustic restaurants for visitors wishing to learn more about their lives. Easily reached from Osaka or Nagoya, Ise-Shima is worth getting off the beaten track for its beauty, history and attractions geared toward families.

Ise Shima Grand Shrine

The Kaguraden, one of many buildings at the Ise Jingu Grand Shrines

The Ise Jingu Grand Shrines date back some 2,000 years, founded to honor the sun goddess, considered the legendary ancestress of the Imperial family. Remarkably, it’s torn down and reconstructed every twenty years. Also remarkable is the fact that its inner sanctuary is off limits. Yet that hasn’t stopped this being one of Japan’s most important pilgrimages through the ages. Nearby is Oharai-machi, once the main footpath leading to the shrine for worshippers during the Edo Period (1603-1867) and now lined with restaurants and souvenir shops catering to today’s visitors.

Ise Shima famous for pearls

This Liberty Bell replica, made for the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City and now on display on Mikimoto Pearl Island, contains 12,250 pearls

Ise-Shima’s other claim to fame is its pearls. It was here, in 1893, that Kokichi Mikimoto finally succeeded after five years of failure to induce an oyster to create a pearl by artificially inducing an irritant. Female divers (called ama in Japanese) were employed to maintain the oyster rafts floating in Ise-Shima’s many bays, not surprising that they were already experts in diving for Ise lobster, seaweed and other edibles from the sea.

One of the most unique things to do in Ise-Shima is to have lunch at one of the rustic ama huts, where women grill and serve seafood they fetched themselves and talk about their lifestyle, fast disappearing because of more options now open to younger Japanese women.

For more about Ise-Shima, see my report and photos published by frommers.com called The Undiscovered Delights of Japan’s Ise-Shima National Park.

Ise-Shima's Ama prepare lunch in their hut

Ise-Shima’s Ama prepare lunch in their hut

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Beyond Tokyo and Kyoto

Every first-timer to Japan should see Tokyo and Kyoto, but there’s so much more to explore. From the beaches of Okinawa to the rugged mountains of Hokkaido’s national parks, Japan has enough to keep travelers busy for a lifetime. I myself have been traveling around Japan for more than 30 years and have been to more than 60 cities and towns, mostly while writing and updating Frommer’s Japan. But there are countless places I haven’t yet seen.

I have, however, visited all the destinations cited in this advertorial I wrote on Japan that appeared in the March issue of Conde Nast Traveler. Even so, it’s only the tip of the iceberg.

Conde Nast Advertorial

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JNTO offering a Free Trip to Japan: The Winner chooses a World Heritage Site

Shirakawa-go in the Japan Alps

Shirakawa-go in the Japan Alps

I haven’t been to all of Japan’s World Heritage sites, but they’re on my list. Kyoto, of course, is king, with an astounding 17 locations that make up the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto World Heritage Site, including Kiyomizu Temple, Nijo Castle and the Saihoji Moss Garden.

But this competition, offered by the Japan National Tourism Organization, strives to get travelers off the well-beaten path by offering the chance of a free trip to one of six lesser-known World Heritage Sites. These include Shirakawa-go, a village with thatched-roof farmhouses; the Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine from the Edo Period, which I discovered to be much more fascinating than I’d imagined; and the ancient ruins of the Ryukyu Kingdom, which once ruled over Okinawa. Of course, there are plenty of other things to do once you’re there. Scuba diving in Okinawa, anyone?

And by the way, I wrote the description for each of the six sites. Just writing about them made me want to go to every single one, even those I’ve already seen.

http://us.jnto.go.jp/morejapan/

 

 

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John Lennon in Karuizawa

Karuizawa's main shopping street is lined with boutiques, galleries and cafes

Karuizawa’s main shopping street is lined with boutiques, galleries and cafes

Karuizawa, nestled in wooded hills only an hour’s ride away from Tokyo, has a reputation as a destination for the wealthy, many of whom have summer homes and come to escape the capital’s sweltering heat. So during my trip there a few months ago, I was surprised to find Karuizawa laid back and rather unpretentious. There’s money there, of course, but in the same low-key way that there’s also money in Aspen or the Hamptons.

In any case, there was something about Karuizawa that attracted John Lennon, together

This photograph of John Lennon hangs in the French Bakery, Lennon's favorite cafe

This photograph of John Lennon hangs in the French Bakery, Lennon’s favorite cafe

with Yoko Ono and their son Sean, back year after year. Indeed, they spent the last four summers of John’s life in Karuizawa, ensconced in the historic but modest Mampei Hotel. I like to think he could spend his days like any other visitor, riding his bike to his favorite bakery, joining friends in Mampei’s bar, walking down Karuizawa’s main street unencumbered by adoring fans. Of course, just being a Westerner–and a tall one at that–would have made him hard to miss. But moneyed Japanese would have respected his privacy even if they knew who he was, just as they did with the many politicians, members of the Imperial family and other celebs in town.

One cafe is infamous for having refused to serve John Lennon, with word on the street that it was probably because the musician’s long hair made him look like a hippie. But maybe he got a kick out of that, too, being so anonymous that a waiter wouldn’t serve him. Maybe that’s why Bill Gates has a summer home here, too.

I wrote Karuizawa, Japan: In the Footsteps of John and Yoko, published in www.gonomad.com

Karuizawa, Japan: In the Footsteps of John and Yoko

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Hong Kong’s Victoria Peak Always a Draw

The View from Victoria Peak's Sky Terrace 428 on a really clear day

The View from Victoria Peak’s Sky Terrace 428 on a really clear day

I consider Hong Kong one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Not, necessarily, on street level, where there’s such a jarring juxtaposition between the profound and the mundane, the grand and the gross, it’s hard to take in the whole picture.

Take the Peak Tram to The Peak, however, and you’re met with a sweeping panorama of the harbor, the high rises of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, and undulating hills in the distance. There are plenty of restaurants and shops in Peak Tower and Peak Galleria, but my favorite thing to do is take the circular, 2-mile hike around the peak, which offers different views along its shaded path and glimpses of millionaires’ mansions.

Because of the differences in what you see, I recommend going to The Peak twice: during the day and again at night, when the city lights up like few others do. If it’s cloudy or rainy, however, don’t bother. In fact, pollution over the years has become so ubiquitous, if you have a clear day consider yourself very fortunate.

I discovered this article about The Peak, which quotes from my Frommer’s Hong Kong:

Hong Kong Victoria Peak Is A Must See

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A 12th-century Buddhist Utopia in Japan

The Pure Land Garden in Hiraizumi

The Pure Land Garden in Hiraizumi

 

Most of Japan’s history–skirmishes and wars between feudal lords, legends surrounding ancestors of the Imperial Family, even the location of its capitals–played out on the southwestern end of the main island of Honshu, so it’s not surprising that most of its historic sights and World Heritage sites are also found there. But in Tohoku, the northern region of Honshu,Hiraizumi is a town I very much would have wanted to visit if I had been alive in 12th-century Japan. It was created as a Buddhist heaven on earth, a place of sprawling temples, pagodas, sutras, gardens and quarters for hundreds of monks. It lasted only 100 years before being sacked by the man who would go on to become shogun over the land, but Hiraizumi’s influence on Japan was tremendous. This article I wrote for BBC.com/travel, A Pure Land Inspired by Treachery, tells why.

 

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Kume & Kobe Refound

Kume Island

Kume Island

Thanks to the Internet, I keep finding magazine and newspaper articles I wrote before the Internet was either born or publications didn’t publish additionally online. That’s fun, because those old clippings are yellow and worn, slowly changing to dust.

Kobe Reborn, published in The Rotarian in 2003 in advance of the Rotarian convention in Osaka, describes how Kobe had changed and grown since its horrific 1995 earthquake in which more than 5,000 people lost their lives.

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Kobe is one of Japan’s oldest international ports and most cosmopolitan cities

Japanese Island is Beauty of the Sea, published in the Los Angeles Times July 14 1985, is about Kume in the Okinawa archipelago, which I had the chance to revisit in 2008 ago and found remarkably still unchanged and undeveloped. Unfortunately, it doesn’t include the photographs I took for the article, which would have been slides I sent via snail mail.

Man, we’ve come a long way.

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Two New Tokyo Hotels, Worlds Apart

Staff await at the entry hall of Hoshinoya Tokyo, ready to deposit my shoes in the decorative cabinets lining the hallway to the left

Staff await at the entry hall of Hoshinoya Tokyo, ready to deposit my shoes in the decorative cabinets lining the hallway to the left

A couple of months ago I was in Tokyo and had the opportunity to stay in two new properties that had opened in 2016. One was contemporary and the other very Japanese. You stay in them for completely different reasons.

A room at Hoshinoya Tokyo

A room at Hoshinoya Tokyo

Hoshinoya Tokyo is Tokyo’s most posh Japanese inn, a modest-looking low-rise amidst the office high-rises of Otemachi not far from Tokyo Station. But inside it’s an oasis of calm tranquility, with soothing traditional decor like tatami flooring and shoji paper screens. On the roof is a hot-spring bath, a rarity in downtown Tokyo, while on each guest floor is a lounge where attendants pour tea, answer questions and provide individualized service. My room was

My breakfast at Hoshinoya Tokyo

My breakfast at Hoshinoya Tokyo

gigantic, with a raised platform bed, a table and chairs (where my wonderful Japanese breakfast was served) and a resting area. But because I could plainly see people in surrounding offices, I felt like I was in a fishbowl. I was assured that even though I could see them, my windows prevented them from seeing me. A shy exhibitionist’s fantasy, perhaps, but I opted to keep my shoji closed. Still, whereas you used to have to leave Tokyo to have a Japanese inn experience of this caliber, the Hoshinoya Tokyo now means you can be pampered in true Japanese fashion without leaving town.

My room at Prince Gallery Tokyo Kioicho

My room at Prince Gallery Tokyo Kioicho

What a change, then, the Prince Gallery Tokyo Kioicho in Akasaka! Here it’s all about the views, with expansive windows from the lobby, the bar, restaurants and my room providing dreamy panoramas of the capital. My room faced over Akasaka Palace toward Shinjuku, with a window-side sofa where I drank coffee every morning. Because of a glass-walled bathroom, I could have looked at Tokyo even from my tub (I haven’t a clue why this architectural design is so popular nowadays), but of course I didn’t, instead opting for the button that made those glass walls opaque.

You can read more about these hotels in my reviews published in Global Traveler here:

Hoshinoya Tokyo and Prince Gallery Tokyo Kioicho

View of Akasaka Palace from my room at Prince Gallery

View of Akasaka Palace from my room at Prince Gallery

 

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