Madeira – the verdant island

I’m on a much anticipated holiday in Madeira. It goes without saying that it is tinged with anxiety about COVID-19. It appears that anyone arriving tomorrow will be quarantined for 14 days. There are no cases in Madeira so you can understand why they want to keep it that way.

The holiday is an embroidery retreat, just 8 of us including our tutor. Today, our first full day was spent travelling around the island in a mini-bus, to all points of the compass.

Despite the overcast weather and sometimes rain we spent the morning in the rural East, which the locals call old Madeira as it is very much as things were 40 or so years ago before Madeira became autonomous from Portugal and started to invest in its own future, rather than pay most taxes to Portugal.

Traditional A frame house in Santana

We visited Santana and saw the traditional A frame houses, whose thatch has to be replaced every 5 years, had very strong coffee and Portuguese custard tarts – delicious. Then along the cost to Porto Monzi where we had lunch overlooking the natural swimming pools.

Even though it is early in the season it is amazing how lush everything is. Apparently they had had a dry and warm winter which has confused many plants and you can spot the odd agapanthus starting to flower months ahead of time. The road sides are lined with agapanthus plants, even along the roads up in the hills, and I wondered for a while if they had seeded themselves there. This wouldn’t have been surprising given the richness of the soil and the climate but it turns out they are planted along the ends of roads so that the roots help with soil erosion. What a pretty way to address this problem.

Porto Monzi

Other plants flowering in gardens and along the roads are Crocosmia, Protea, and Watsonia. As you can see from the top photo the Watsonia are large and lush making my pale pink one back in my UK garden look quite insipid.

We returned via the west side of the island, the hilly side, although this is clearly an understatement as the fruit terraces and vineyards seem quite treacherous tittering in the side of steep hills. The west side is warmer so the crops here are sugar cane, lots and lots of bananas and vines. The east coast is more vegetables – potatoes, cabbages, beans. We also saw avocado and mahogany trees.

In theory we will be out and about in Funchal on Monday but it will depend on what restrictions are put in place. If we are required to stay in the hotel for the rest of the stay then there could be worse places to be.

Naoshima – a modern art interlude

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After the temples, culture and tradition of Kyoto, Naoshima was quite a surprise. Situated in the Seto Inland Sea to the south east of Kyoto, Naoshima is a small island known for its modern art museums. The  island, with a population of only around 4000,  has a Mediterranean feel about it with sandy beaches, a sunny climate and feeling more laid back than the mainland.

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You reach the island by ferry, the journey is only about 30 minutes, but you quickly feel that you are arriving somewhere just a little bit different; especially when you spot a large red spotted pumpkin on the quay.

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The majority of the art on the island was installed by the Benesse Corporation with the art galleries designed by Japanese architect Ando Tadao and the island’s schools and town hall designed by modern architect Ishii Kazuhiro.

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The Chichu Art Museum, Lee Ufan Museum are large low slung concrete buildings; not really to my taste but an interesting counterpoint to the traditional and historic buildings we had seen in Kyoto, and housing a collection of modern art, predominantly sculpture.  Whilst the galleries charge admittance and no photographs are allowed there are also a number of sculptures around the island which any one can walk up to, touch, and photograph and a number of these are included on this post and give an idea of the art we saw in the galleries.

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This is a public bike store – you can just see the wooden frame to the acrylic skin.

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Me being me, I actually prefer this view to any of the sculptures we saw; apart from the yellow pumpkin which I loved.

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Whilst the main galleries and sculptures were not really my thing – too modern, too brutalist, too concrete, I did really enjoy an exhibition which was housed within a selection of old houses in the main town.  On the back of the Benesse art initiative is the Art House Project in the Honmura district of the island.  Through this project vacant houses, some of them up to 400 years old, have been restored and transformed into art works. One of them involves you going into a completely dark space and sitting quietly as a patch of light grows slowly at the far end of the space.  At first you think this is some sort of light installation but actually the effect is created through taking advantage of how your eyes adjust to the light – its very clever and slightly unsettling.

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Most of the art installations were inside houses but a few were outside and so we could take photographs.  The Go’o Shrine (above and below) renovates an existing shrine from the Edo period.  The steps are stunning as they look like melting ice, particularly intriguing on a very sunny warm day.

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Of course they are made of glass but I thought the sculpting of the glass was just magical.

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The other very striking ‘art house’ was Haisha which used to be the home of the local dentist and has been transformed into a work of art. Inside the house each of the rooms is like being in a graphic design, hard to explain, but includes a rather large Statue of Liberty – what everyone needs in their stairwell.

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What impressed me most about Naoshima was how the introduction of the art galleries and the ‘Art House’ project had brought tourism to the island leading to cafes, restaurants and guest houses appearing.  We stayed in a lovely guest house with a Japanese/Italian restaurant next door – a strange but wonderful combination.  My favourite place though was a cafe we tracked down tucked up on the side of a hill, the Cafe Salon Naka-Oku which had a wonderful up-cycled retro feel about it – if you ever find yourself on Naoshima I would recommend it.

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The Temple of the Golden Pavilion

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Kinkaku-ji, or the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, is the iconic temple of Kyoto. Dating from the late 14th century, the temple was originally the retirement villa of the shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu.  After his death in 1408, in accordance with his wishes, it become a Zen temple of the Rinzai sect.

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The temple is built over 3 floors with each floor representing a different style of architecture. The first floor, housing statues of Yoshimitsu and Shaka Buddha, is built in the Shinden style which was used for palace buildings during the Heian Period, which predated the Muromachi era (1336-1573).   The second floor is built in the Bukke style used in samurai residences.  The samurai, whilst originally warriors, increasingly  became more and more powerful setting up a military government in 1192 and ruling over the country for the next 700 years. The second and third floors are covered in gold leaf – hence the name The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. The third floor is built in the style of the Chinese Zen Hall, and is also gilded inside and capped with a golden phoenix.

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The Golden Pavilion, built in the early years of the Muromachi era, continues the Heian garden prototype with ponds and islands.  During the Heian period the intention was that the temples and gardens were viewed from boats; and there are contemporary records recording boating parties and festivities.  In the Muromachi era the intention was that the garden was viewed from specific points from within the temple;  at this time the chisen kaiyu teien ‘pond-spring-strolling-garden’ was developed. Contemporary records show that the Golden Pavilion was intended to be viewed from boats, as in the Heian era, although the garden could be admired from the three storeys of the Pavilion whose geometric proportions means that any view was harmoniously framed.

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The pond on which the Pavilion is sited has an inner and outer pond; the outer pond has a couple of small islands and in addition there are two larger turtle islands facing in opposite directions.

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Having passed the Golden Pavilion the visitor is taken up a windy path past the Anmintaku Pond, which it is claimed never dries up.

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The light on the day we visited was extraordinary causing the most wonderful reflections in the pond and the sun really made the pavilion sparkle.  We were grateful that we hadn’t visited two days before when we spent the day under heavy skies and dodging the rain.

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A striking feature of the majority of the Japanese gardens we saw was their tidiness.  There was rarely a leaf out of place and as you can see from this photo the moss is being raked for some unknown purpose. We also saw moss and lichen being trimmed and other very labour intensive approaches to horticulture which made our issues with lawn edging seem quite pedestrian.

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Being Kyoto we couldn’t avoid encountering a group of young ladies all dressed up in traditional dress who were only too happy to pose for us, subject to a high level of bowing and smiling.

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This is the key photo opportunity area and as you can see it is incredibly busy.  However, with their usual efficiency, the Japanese manage the visitors in such a way that you don’t really feel that you have been managed, everyone gets their chance to take any photos they want, and there is no pushing or frayed tempers.

The Golden Pavilion is, in many people’s view, the Taj Mahal of Japan and you can see why this might be so given its opulence and stunning setting. I too thought it was stunning, however, I don’t think I would go as far as saying it was my highlight of the trip – I much preferred the quieter more modern gardens which weren’t so obsessively managed.