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Rtree

Rod M and El Drago trunk

tree

El Drago

signEl Drago Milenario, the Dragon Tree

In Icod de los Vinos, Tenerife

This big old tree is advertised in all the guidebooks to Tenerife, so we decided we had to go and see it. It’s in a special park in Icod de los Vinos (Icod of the vines), a town not far along the coast from Garachico where we were staying. Parking is a huge problem as this is a big tourist attraction, and as I mentioned before there’s not a lot of parking space on the islands as there’s not a lot of flat land. So it’s best to follow the signs for the El Drago parking garage (not free).

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Square Andes de Lorenzo-Caceres

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El Drago and other smaller dragon trees in the park

We paid 3 euros each to get into the park (senior rate). You can see the tree from a pretty town square next to the park, the Square Andres de Lorenzo-Caceres around the Church of San Marcos, begun in the 16thcentury. But it’s worthwhile going into the actual park and walking in it a bit: you get closer to the tree and see many other trees and plants in the park.

Why is this tree one of the biggest tourist attractions of the island?

The El Drago (Dracaena draco) is supposedly the oldest tree of its kind in the world (it looked like some kind of euphorbia to us) but the actual age is disputed: some claiming that it’s up to 1,000 years old, but most experts say that’s very unlikely. It’s not a hardwood tree so it’s amazing that it’s that old anyway. It’s also the largest D.draco tree alive, partly because of its massive trunk formed by clusters of aerial roots that grew from the bases of the lowest branches and grew down to the soil.

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A dragon tree with berries on Gran Canaria

 

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Municipal Park, Arucas, on Gran Canaria

The park has many other dragon trees, much smaller (some were especially planted to hopefully replace this old tree when it does finally die). Other parts of Tenerife, Gran Canaria and three of the other Canary Islands also have some these trees in various places, so they are emblematic of the islands. However, they are not as prolific as before and are actually on an endangered list in some places.

The Dragon Tree is one of the most unusual plants on the Canary Islands. These are actually sub-tropical tree-like plants that are native to the Canary Islands, Cape Verde, Madeira and a part of western Morocco. They are, interestingly, a member of the asparagus family Asparagaceae! It has branches on the top, in a kind of umbrella shape, that end in tufts of spikey leaves. As Wikipedia says, “When young it has a single stem. At about 10–15 years of age the stem stops growing and produces a first flower spike with white, lily-like perfumed flowers, followed by coral berries. Soon a crown of terminal buds appears and the plant starts branching. Each branch grows for about 10–15 years and re-branches, so a mature plant has an umbrella-like habit. It grows slowly, requiring about ten years to reach 1.2 metres (4ft) in height but can grow much faster.”

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In Arucas

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At Casa del Vino on Tenerife

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In Orotavo, Tenerife

Its red resin-like sap (known as “dragon’s blood”, el sange de drago) and its fruit were used in Roman times to make a medicinal powder, and it was used in pigments, paints and varnishes. The Guanches (original inhabitants of the Canaries) worshipped this tree and used the sap in their mummification process.

We were very happy that we visited this park to see this tree and learn something new about Nature. Around the islands we noticed many plaques, boards with emblems and/or names of places, and local flags that have the dragon tree on them in some form.

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Hotel San Roque in Garachico

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Crest on the square in Icod—with Guanches and the dragon tree

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The town of Firgas on Gran Canaria has a sloping street with tiled maps and illustrations of all the Canary Islands, plus a relief model

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Firgas also has this lovely street lined with tiled benches and plaques, one for each of the island’s main towns.

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Many towns have outdoor cafes on or near the main square—note palm trees and balconies

Canary Islands: Part 2: Summary of islands

(I’ve put a lot of photos in this post, so please enjoy and scroll through).

We spent 10 days on the islands—a week on Tenerife and 3 days on Gran Canaria—so we were able to explore a fair bit. On both islands we stayed on, and visited, the north part of the island, rather than the south, as the south is a bit warmer, has more beaches and many big tourist resorts. We’ve always shunned resorts as we feel that’s not a good way to find out about local life and culture.

In some ways the two islands are very similar, but different in other ways so we’re happy we visited at least two of the 7 islands. If we ever revisit we’ll try to visit another one too, as well as return to Tenerife.

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Courtyard in garden of main cathedral of Las Palmas

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Mountain village view—the sea is never far away

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Main plaza in Garachico

(Here are some general observations. Later I’ll try to describe specific places and events.) It was interesting to be on an island with an island culture and the sea a constant presence. We enjoyed hearing Spanish (although we speak very little), and it was wonderful to see the architecture with a strong Spanish influence: towns and villages with a main plaza—the hub of local life—surrounded by a big church, usually with a belfry, and many government/official buildings. The plaza is usually pedestrianized, so kids can run around, throw balls or ride bikes, and adults/families sit around a central kiosk selling drinks and snacks, or at café tables spilling out onto the square or side streets.

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Main plaza in Garachico (other side)—our hotel is the burnt orange building on the right

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Main plaza in Buena Vista on Tenerife’s north coast

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Beautiful balconies

Most buildings are painted in bright colors—such as blue, yellow, orange, ochre, green—and many have beautiful wooden or wrought-iron balconies. Palm trees, pointsettias (in pots and as live shrubs), strelitzias and bougainvilleas bring a bright tropical touch, and outside the coastal towns and villages huge banana plantations are never far away.

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Tenerife has many banana plantations

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Volcanic landscape on Tenerife

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Mt Teide

All the islands are volcanic in origin but Tenerife is the one where this is probably the most obvious. Mt Teide dominates the island, and the north coast is marked by coves, inlets and rocky outcrops of craggy black rocks, against which the waves pound ceaselessly.

 

 

 

 

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Mt Teide National Park

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Garachico—note black volcanic rocks

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Garachico

We spent most time in Garachico on Tenerife and used it as our base, and would do so again. It’s on the north coast, almost at the west end of the main coastal road TF42. This pretty town sprawls along the black rocky waterfront and up the mountain close behind. Established in the 16th century by Genoese merchants, Garachico was once the most important port on the island. That ended in 1706 when the Volcan Negro erupted and lava buried the harbor and much of the town. The façade of the former Santa Ana church escaped, as did the Castillo de San Miguel on the waterfront. It now houses the Heritage Information Center.

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Dogs are prominent on the Canaries’ crest

Once we got our orientation here we loved it and even returned for a day when we were staying at El Sauzal, another town further east on the coast. Garachico is a lovely town of narrow cobblestone streets, attractive colored buildings, many with striking balconies, a large plaza for pedestrians only, little souvenir shops and many restaurants and bars. It’s bustling in the day, but casual and friendly, and much quieter at night. Our hotel, the Quinta Roja, was in a huge former mansion fronting onto the main square so we were right in the center of local life—a bike rally on a Saturday morning, church services and bells on Sunday, family voltas (slow promenade while chatting) every evening.

 

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Steep street in Oratavo, Tenerife 

As a tourist on the islands it would be almost impossible to visit without renting a car, as public buses, although plentiful, will only take you to certain places. So, we did. In Garachico, and all the other towns, parking is a big problem, so it’s best to find a public parking place and then just walk. In Garachico you can park all along the seafront or in a parking area right next to the sea (all free, but all very busy at weekends when many day-trippers come visiting). Driving on the islands is not too difficult, if you know where you’re going and have a good map (the one from the Tourist Office at Tenerife airport was excellent). However, the roads are some of the steepest we’ve ever driven, with some incredible switchbacks and hairpin bends. But, considering the mountainous terrain the road system is pretty good. It’s actually remarkable that many local buses go up these steep winding roads.

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Special Canadian sauces and wrinkly potatoes, served here with fish

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Las Palmas main cathedral

On both islands you have to pay extra for bread at a meal, but it’s very good bread. Seafood everywhere is wonderful—fresh and plentiful. It’s not recommended that people drink tap water, so everyone buys bottled water. In shops and supermarkets you can buy very large bottles (up to 8 liters, which is a bit over 2 gallons) very cheaply.

We flew from Tenerife to Gran Canaria and stayed in the main city of Las Palmas, which is way bigger and more built-up than we were expecting. The port is also huge—it’s always been an ocean crossroads and still is. For example we saw oil tankers from Venezuela. It’s a very cosmopolitan city—we saw many Muslims in special robes and African people. Sadly, we also saw quite a few homeless people.

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Casa Colon (Columbus’s House) in Old Las Palmas

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In the market

The best part of the city is Old Las Palmas, called Vegueta, which we went to by bus (1.40 euro each). It has a bustling covered produce market (the Mercado), old churches, mansions and squares, all in bright colors. We had fun visiting the main cathedral of the island and the Diocesan Museum of Sacred Art housed in part of the cathedral buildings. Vegueta also has the Casa Colon and the Museum, mentioned in Part 1. Here we learned a lot about the history of the islands, archeological, pre-colonial and colonial. What’s really brought home is how they have been an important sea crossroads all along.

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Pedestrianized street in Teror

We were able to get out of the city one day, and drove up to three gorgeous mountain villages (Arucas, Teror, and Firgas), all with their own special church and squares.

If you are ever able to, I’d definitely recommend the Canary Islands for a wonderful trip.

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Square in Old Las Palmas

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Liberty, a rescue bald eagle, on show at Alton Visitor Center

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The Illinois River was mostly frozen over in early January 2018

WINTERING BALD EAGLES ON THE MISSISSIPPI and ILLINOIS RIVERS

A privilege and a thrill to watch the US national bird

Don’t forget your binoculars!

Eager to see an eagle? Well, you can watch our national bird, the Bald Eagle, soaring on six-foot wings, diving down at 100 mph to snatch a fish from the water’s surface, or perching on a tree branch. And Midwest residents don’t have to travel to Alaska (or Florida) to do that. Bald eagle sightings have increased along the Mississippi River this winter, on locks and dams in Iowa, Illinois and Missouri.

Just one hour north of St Louis is a great spot to see large numbers of these magnificent birds in winter, which we recently did in spite of the extreme cold.

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P2040054.JPGAround Alton and Grafton, Illinois, is an area bounded by two rivers, the Illinois River and the Mississippi, with a third, the Missouri River, a few miles south. (In the native language of the then-local Illini tribe, ‘grafton’ means “gathering of waters’). State Parks and Wildlife Management Areas, Federal lands, and Nature Conservancy areas along these rivers recognize the importance of this area. Cliffs, bluffs, woods, wetlands, bottomlands and prairies provide a paradise for a wide variety of flora and fauna. This area is on the N-S bird migratory flyway, so it’s frequented by many migrating birds at different times of the year.

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P2050074.JPGFor most people, the most famous visitor is the bald eagle, which is attracted here by large bodies of water with adequate food supplies and large land areas with minimal human disturbance. This is the second largest wintering ground for eagles flying from their nesting places in the Great Lakes States and Canada (the largest is in N. California and S. Oregon) and the chances of seeing eagles improve as the number of bald eagles continues to increase as a result of improving numbers. As our guide joked, “This is the eagles’ Florida”.

The bald eagle was on the Endangered Species List: Their numbers were down to as few as 417 nesting pairs in the 1960s, because of loss of habitat and widespread use of harmful pesticides, especially DDT. Banning DDT and increased habitat protection under federal law have led to a significant increase in the number of nesting bald eagles, so in 1995 the eagle’s status was downgraded from ‘endangered’ to ‘threatened’.

It is thought that this area supports an estimated winter population of 2500-3000 eagles, and the birds are spotted daily. The wintering eagles use large trees on the river banks for daytime perches, as food is readily available in the open water, especially near dams (they enjoy the fish that are confused/thrown up by the locks and ferries), but they prefer large trees in the nearby sheltered valleys and ravines for night roosts.

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Woodlands in Pere Marquette State Park

mapThe 15-mile scenic Great River Road between Alton and Pere Marquette State Park is very accessible to eagle-watching enthusiasts. Here the road runs along the base of limestone bluffs that rise almost 200 feet above the Mississippi River. Early French explorers (such as Pere Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet) called these ramparts “broken castles” and the scenery alone makes the drive worthwhile.

In winter, many Eagle Events are planned (such as Bald Eagle Days from Pere Marquette State Park Visitors Center: reservations required) or you can plan eagle-viewing yourself with the aid of a pamphlet, “The Eagle Watchers Guide”, which you can pick up at the Alton Visitors Center, Pere Marquette Visitor Center, or the National Great Rivers Museum. Or more information at www.visitalton.com 

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Like wolves and lions, eagles have captured people’s imaginations over the centuries. The Native American Indians revered the eagle as a messenger of the gods and, as your eye is drawn ever upward to admire its graceful soaring, you can understand why, and realize that actually legend is not a match for the reality (eagles have been tracked flying as high as 30,000 feet and because they fly so high is why the Indians thought they were delivering messages to the gods). Benjamin Franklin wanted the wild turkey as the national bird, but the eagle was chosen in 1782 because it’s a true American species (the only other endemic eagle in North America is the golden eagle) As we watch this magnificent bird, we’re very glad the turkey wasn’t chosen!

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Pere Marquette Visitor Center

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Liberty, a rescue eagle is 26 years old and very comfortable with crowds of people

Start at the Visitors’ Center in Pere Marquette State Park, a few miles beyond Grafton on Highway 100, the Great River Road (You can also begin at the Alton Visitor Center, which doesn’t have as many displays but did have a live rescue eagle on display this January). They have good displays on the flora and fauna and natural history of this area and lots of information on eagles, including an informative movie. (See Fun Facts about Bald Eagles in the next article). The Center offers its own Bald Eagle Days program on some days in the season, which you need to sign up for when there, or call 618-786-3323. We took part in this one Sunday, and it was excellent. A State Park interpreter leads the program, driving some people around in a van while others follow in their own vehicles.

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We also saw trumpeter swans

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Our guide, Scott, sets up a ‘scope and points out eagles and their nests

frozenriver3But, to do a viewing trip yourself, drive north from Pere Marquette about 8 miles on 100 to Fuller Lake Wildlife Management Area. Stop and look around at the trees along both sides of the river, and you may see eagles resting on the branches. Turn and retrace your steps past the park, keeping your eagle eyes open! You may see other cars stopped, which probably means they’ve spotted something, and if there’s a place to pull off the road, you can do the same. Just before Grafton is the free Brussels ferry over the Illinois River. It’s fun to drive your car onto the ferry and cross over to the Two Rivers National Wildlife Refuge, where you may see bald eagles, pelicans, white geese or trumpeter swans. Cross back (the ferry runs 24/7, every 10-15 minutes so long as the river is not ice-bound) and drive along the Mississippi, watching out for the birds, past Alton to the National Great Rivers Museum at the site of Melvin Price Locks and Dam. You can often see eagles in flight and feeding around this massive structure, or resting in the trees along the river. This January, for the first time in our experience, we saw that the Illinois River was mostly frozen over. Quite amazing to see that!

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So much ice!

frozenRod

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Casey, a red-shouldered hawk

On the opposite side of the river (drive over the big bridge at Alton and turn left) is the Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary (aka the Audubon Center), one of the best locations for eagle viewing. They (in conjunction with the Alton Visitor Center) were hosting the Alton-Audubon Eagle Ice Festival the day were were there, with fun activities for kids and a live red-shouldered hawk on display. It was also fascinating to see an artist carving an ice sculpture of an eagle from a huge block of ice at the Alton Visitor Center and to see some other finished ice sculptures there and at the Audubon Center. The weather was so cold that the sculptures didn’t melt even a little bit out in the weak sunshine!

 

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SStrmmarketPere Marquette Lodge in Pere Marquette State Park has rooms in the Lodge or cabins in the grounds. For reservations call 618-786-2331or visit www.PMLodge.net . I’ll write more about Pere Marquette, the PM State Park and PM Lodge in a later post.

Other lodging options are listed at www.VisitAlton.com . Many restaurants in Grafton and Alton provide tasty lunch breaks. We really liked State Street Market in Alton.

NOTE: An alternative site in Illinois for eagle viewing is Starved Rock State Park on the upper Illinois River, much closer to Chicago.

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Ram

His name is Ramadiba

Mopane

Her name is Mopane

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Main building at Inkwenkwezi

Elephant Interaction—An amazing Experience 

(This post has a lot of photos—so please be patient and scroll through, and please enjoy!)

Our family in East London had won a raffle giving two tickets to a special Elephant Experience at Inkwenkwezi Private Game Reserve. It’s not far from where they live, about 20 miles north of East London. They kept the tickets to give to Rod and I, and bought tickets for themselves, and we all went one morning. An amazing experience, in the true sense of the word.

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Our driver introduces the main trainer, Patrick

Inkwenkwezi is a lovely place. It’s not big, compared to the National Parks in South Africa, but it has a fair amount of wild game that one can view on their morning or afternoon game drives in 4 X 4 safari vehicles. They have a good restaurant, various types of accommodation, canoeing and guided quad bike tours too.

What they also offer is this Elephant Interaction. You can go early morning (8am) or mid-morning (11am), which is what we did, or at 2pm. You start at the visitors’ desk at the main building and a ranger drives you in a safari vehicle to the place in the park where the elephants are.

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Impala

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The 2 elephants waiting for the “show”

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Ramadiba

The ranger drove our group of 8 people to a remote part of the reserve and on the way we saw many impala—such graceful, beautiful antelope. We arrived at the elephant spot where there were two elephants, a male and a female, and four trainers. The male elephant, named Ramadiba after Nelson Nandela’s grandson, weighs 2.2 tons. The female, Mopane, weighs 1.9 tons. They used to have a third elephant but they had to release him to another big park because of erratic behavior. These are all rescue elephants from the Limpopo area in northern South Africa.

Patrick

Patrick

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Patrick feeds Ramadiba pellets while explaining about elephants

Patrick is the main guide and trainer. He came with the elephants from Limpopo and has been here at Inkwenkwezi for four years. There are 3-4 other elephant carers/trainers, so the elephants get to know them all so one can go on leave sometimes. The care is for 24 hours, and these men actually sleep in a building next to where the elephants go at night.

Ramadiba was first in the Encounter experience. Patrick and another trainer RamPatbrought him closer to our group and he stood behind a wooden pole, a bit like a hitching post. Patrick fed Ramadiba with special pellets, made of lucerne, some sort of grass and molasses, placing a handful of the pellets into the tip of the trunk. As Patrick did this repeatedly, he told the group about elephants, in a very knowledgeable and informative way: the life and social habits of elephants, and about all the different parts of their bodies (see at the end). For example, as he explained about teeth and tusks, he showed the tusks and opened Ramadiba’s mouth; when talking about the eyes, he zeroed in on an eye. It was a great way to learn about these huge, very special animals.

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Rod feeds Ramadiba

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And Mike does too

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Rod and another guest touch Mopane

After that, people in the group could go up and feed Ramadiba too. Rod and Mike both did quite eagerly. I did too, but very gingerly! It’s a strange feeling, to hold the trunk, place the pellets at the tip, which he then sort of snuffled up.

Then, another trainer brought Mopane forward. She just stood there, while one trainer fed her pellets and Patrick demonstrated on her—-mostly talking about the skin, the feet and the ears. People could also go and touch her, to feel how prickly the skin is, as there are many spikey hairs all over, and to feel how soft the back of the ears are. Rod, Mike and I all did this: what a unique experience and what a privilege.

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Mike feels Mopane’s ears

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I got brave enough to touch Mopane too!

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Impala waiting to clean up spilt pellets

Thanks Mike and Margie.

As we left it was interesting to see that a herd of impala was hovering nearby, ready to come in and get the last of the pellets off the ground!

Some Elephant Facts:

—2.4 times the circumference of the front foot pad = the height of the elephant from foot to withers.

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Patrick giving elephant facts

—60% of the body weight is in front, 40% in the back.

—the foot has a pad that’s unique, like a human fingerprint. Each foot has a shock absorber pad that helps with the huge weight and lets them walk silently. There are 4 toenails on front foot and 4 on the back. The nails are not connected to bones, just to the skin.

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—the end of the trunk has lips; the top one can come over the bottom one. Elephants are left- or right-handed, depending on the length of the tusks and on how many callouses on that side of the trunk.

—the mouth: elephants have 6 sets of molars during their life that erupt from the back and move forward. After the 6th set, the elephant retires to a grassy spot for soft grass, as no more teeth will come. The tusks are the incisors. They continue to grow but if broken at the root in the cheek they stop growing. There’s a large tongue, which the elephant can’t lift back.

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—the eyes have a nictitating membrane, and long eye lashes, for protection. Vision is very poor, but sense of sound and smell is very good.

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—the ears are shaped like a map of Africa. The outside is rough, the inside very soft, like leather. The opening is in front of the ear. Ear flapping is used for cooling, and ears have lots of veins, also to help with cooling.

—the skin is different to human skin as it can absorb water. It has coarse hairs all over.

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—the tail is used to swat flies, for balance in the bush and has a sensor for how far something is behind the elephant. Don’t stand behind an elephant as they sense that and feel threatened.

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–gestation is 22 months. At birth the calf is about 1 meter (3 feet) high and is pale grey. The babies can’t use the trunk properly until 6 months old. Until then they use it like a toy.

More information on Inkwenkwezi Game Reserve:

http://eastlondon-info.co.za

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Viv M and Heather D

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If you look really hard you can see two people in canoes

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At this point the river is divided by an island

The Connecticut River is the longest river in New England. It is 410 miles long, the source at the Fourth Connecticut Lake near Chartierville, Quebec, and the mouth at Long Island Sound.

It is named after the Pequot word “quinetucket”, which means long tidal river. It runs through 4 states: New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts and Connecticut. It forms the eastern border of Vermont and the western border of New Hampshire but technically only flows in NH, which has legal claim to the riverbed all the way to the Vermont side. Interesting factoid!

It is wide and mostly slow-flowing due to many dams, so it is very popular with paddlers and canoes etc.

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The former railway bridge is part of the trail

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Our family group on the bridge

Near Northampton in Mass, where we were staying for a few days to visit family, we got to walk over the river as we walked a bit of the Norwottuck Branch of the Mass Central Rail Trail. It’s an 11-mile paved path that links Northampton, Hadley, Amherst and Bechertown along the former Central Massachusetts Railroad Company right-of-way. Passenger service on the railroad ended in 1932 and freight service in 1979.

The Rail Trail was opened in 1994, and our family in Northampton says it is very popular, for walking, jogging, inline skating and cycling. It is also wheelchair accessible.

We started at the Elwell Recreation Area on the edge of bridgeNorthampton and really enjoyed walking along the former railway bridge over the Connecticut River, wide at this point with an island in the middle. It’s a magnificent 1,492-foot iron bridge that parallels Calvin Coolidge Bridge nearby (for vehicles), named for the mayor of Northampton who would become the 30th president of the USA. Woods on both sides here make for a leafy peaceful haven.

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Trail directions

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Small weeping cherry tree by the car park

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Japan House

Sakura…cherry blossoms…weeping cherry trees. These signal spring in Japan, and here in Urbana, central Illinois, they are also a beautiful herald of spring.

We are very lucky here on our campus at the University of Illinois, as we have a Japan House, a cultural center run by the University to promote understanding of Japan, its culture and history. It’s a lovely traditional-style Japanese building, with a small enclosed garden to one side, complete with gurgling stream, stone lanterns and a quiet place to sit and meditate. The other side of the Japan House has a serene raked-stone garden and the whole overlooks a pond (complete with turtles and geese), encircled by a walkway, much loved by local residents.

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Start of the ‘tunnel’

A number of cherry trees are scattered around our university campus, but the most striking of them all are at the Japan House. There is one weeping cherry tree, a gorgeous tree with thickly clustered pink blossoms, right next to the building, and a couple of others near the small parking lot.

But, because of a generous donation by Dr Genshitsu Sen, we also have the Sen Cherry Tree Alee, the walkways approaching the Japan House. It was planted with cherry trees on both sides in 2008 and now the trees have grown big enough that it’s like walking through a tunnel. In Spring, we feel as though we are passing under a lacy white and delicate pink net, the blossoms on the cherry trees are so thiick. With the stone pagoda lanterns and the raked pebble garden in front of the wooden building, we can almost believe that we are in Japan.

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The plaque tells us that Dr Sen was a 15th-generation Grand Master Urasenke Tradition of Tea

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cherrylanternAs in Japan, it’s a ritual to go and view the cherry blossoms, to walk under them and be blessed if petals fall on you. Rod and I went last Sunday, as it’s close to our house and we can easily just walk there. It was a cool but sunny afternoon, and there were hundredss of others there, doing the same thing; ambling, ooh-ing and ahh-ing, taking photos, posing under the trees or amidst the drooping flower-laden branches. It’s a very special walk, and the collective feeling of happiness is palpable. Just to remind us of how wonderful Nature is, and how a walk in Nature (even in a somehwat urban environment) can really revitalize us.

(Thanks to Rod for the photos)cherrysky

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The new mountain

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General information board

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The whole area is also called a GeoPark

One of Japan’s Youngest Mountains

Most people know that Japan is a country that has many earthquakes and volcanoes—after all, it’s on the Pacific Ring of fire—and is a geologically very active, and unstable, part of the world. The whole country is on the Pacific Rim, including the northern island of Hokkaido. So, on our last visit to Hokkaido it was fascinating to visit a new mountain, to see these forces of Nature at work. We had a chance to see how that activity has worked—a new mountain that pushed up, and for all we know is still growing.

Hokkaido has had a lot of volcanic activity, and you see many conical mountains that are supposedly dormant, and not extinct. One day, our hosts Satoshi and Max took us on a day trip south from Sapporo to visit the evidence of new volcanic activity.

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Special National Monument SHOWA SHIN-ZAN

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We can walk up fairly close to the base of the new mountain

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View from one of the shopping areas and where the ropeway begins

In the south part of Hokkaido is Shikotsu-Toya National Park, which includes Showa Shinzan Special National Monument and Mount Usu, among other sights.

We went to the Showa Shinzan Special National Monument, just off Lake Toya. Lake Toya is a caldera lake created by a major volcanic eruption tens of thousands of years ago. Around the lake today is a hot spring region, with many spa facilities, and fertile soul for agriculture. There is also Showa Shinzan, sometimes called the “natural volcanic museum”. It’s a volcanic lava dome, next to Mount Usu. The story of this mountain shows that volcanic activity around here continues and it’s a hot spot for volcanic activity. And it’s a pretty amazing story.

smokingfar

The mountain is still smoking

The name Showa Shinzan means Showa new (shin) mountain (zan), as it formed during the reign of Emperor Hirohito, in the Showa period. The mountain was created between December 28, 1943 and September 1945. Initially a series of strong earthquakes shook the area from December 1943-June 1944 and wheat fields were uplifted. Next came the eruption phase, which lasted between the end of June 1944 and the end of October 1944, when lava broke through the surface. Lava reached the banks of Lake Toya, burning houses and forests in its path. Volcanic ash was deposited kilometers away, and the protuberance in the ground continued to grow. In the post-eruption phase (November 1944-September 1945) eruption activity stopped and the lava dome began to take shape and the current peak was created. It is now 1,306 ft (398m) tall and still actively smoking and gently steaming, so who knows what’s coming next!

smoking

No doubt that this is still active!

postmasterboard

The board is rather damaged and not clear, but you can still see one of the postmaster’s diagrams

Showa-shinzan first appeared during WW2 so the Japanese authorities were worried that it might be interpreted as an unlucky wartime omen, and therefore its existence was kept secret. Much of the information about the peak’s formation during these years comes from local postmaster, Masao Mimatsu, who kept detailed measurements of its progress. Those records are very important, with lots of geological information.

It was really interesting to see the new peak, smoking, and giving off a faint sulphur smell. The top of the new mountain is still barren: vegetation only starts growing slowly from the base. It’s a very pretty park, as there are woods below the mountain with many silver birch trees and plenty of bright green bushes. The day we were there the new mountain, reddish-orange in color, was glowing in the sunshine, so the view was like a landscape painting. Interestingly, the colors of the mountain changed a bit, depending on the vantage point and on the light, so sometimes it seemed more reddish and at others more yellowish.

silverbirch

Very pretty woods

Max

Max shows us an Ezo deer at the Visitors’ Center

There is a small Visitors Center to one side, with information on the development of this whole area. We were also fascinated to learn about certain animals that are unique to Hokkaido. Ezo is the old word for Hokkaido so these animals are known as Ezo higuma (bear), Ezo lisu (squirrel) and Ezo shika (deer), for example.

Lining the carpark are many small shops selling curios, souvenirs etc.

A ropeway takes you from near the foot of Showa Shinzan to the top of Mount Usu, with great views out over the area and the lake, but we didn’t do that.

Thanks again to Satoshi and Max for being such wonderful hosts!

 

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