Japan and its culture has influenced my artwork and life for many years. When I was a teenager, I sought out and won a scholarship to study art, photography and Japanese Culture in Tokyo. Though the distant memories of living in Tokyo fade, merging with dreams, the country has stayed with me ever since. And one memory that has kept firm is the memory of Japan during Sakura – Japanese cherry blossom season (normally between the end of March and the beginning of April, depending on weather and location). It is a time of color, when winter is banished, and spring with all its life is celebrated with parties under canopies of cherry blossom – ‘Hanami’ flower viewing.
So, what better time to fulfill a very long held promise to myself to return to Japan, sketchbook in hand, than during Sakura. And where better to start my cherry blossom journey than Tokyo – capital, immense metropolis of 36 million people, and once, briefly, my home.
Once a fishing village known as Edo, and later the seat of power for Japan’s Shogunate, Tokyo has been the capital of Japan since 1869. When I last visited this city, so vast it was seemingly without end, I recall it being an intoxicating visual mix of a 24/7 neon future and a tranquil exotic past. At any point you could step off an illuminated street into a serene shrine, or temple. From the set of Bladerunner to Seven Samurai in one step. It was alien, and it was stunning.
As I landed in Haneda Airport, in Tokyo bay, I wondered how much of this memory had been twisted with time. Would Tokyo live up to it? And would the cheery blossom be out? I would soon find out.
Ueno Park and the Ueno Tosho-gu Shrine
Akihabara and Ikebukuro
Omotesando and Takeshita Street
Shunka-en Bonsai Museum
Tokyo Edo Museum
Tokaido Shinkansen Line and Mount Fuji
On to Kyoto.
Kyoto, which was the capital before Tokyo, was going to be a new experience for me. When I was last in Japan, I only saw Tokyo, Yokohama, and Mount Fuji.
According the the cherry blossom forecast (yes, there is one), Kyoto was coming into full bloom a little later than Tokyo. I was in perfect time to experience Kyoto’s Sakura.
I had also heard if you wanted to experience ancient Japan, Kyoto was the place to go. It was home to the Japan’s Imperial Court between 764 and 1869. Boasting a total of 2000 Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, it was to some extent spared the effects of the WW2 bombing campaigns. It was even removed from the top of the Atom bomb target list by the American Secretary of War, who honeymooned there.
I have always loved Japanese shrines, temples, and gardens, especially their temples’ rock gardens (often known as zen gardens). So, with a sketchbook in hand, I set about exploring this ancient city.
Kyoto Imperial Palace
Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine
Next stop Nara.
Nara was the third city, during my visit, to have held the title of being a permanent Capital of Japan, and it was the first of them to claim it (710). It was home to Japan’s Emperor, before both Kyoto (then temporarily Nagaoka) and then finally Tokyo.
Again I came to Nara, with very little preconceptions. I only expected, or hoped, to experience a small glimpse of Japan, before western eyes set sight on it. Though, like Kyoto, I was not the only one. But even with crowds of tourists, there were wonders, and even quiet tranquil beauty to be found in Nara – a UNESCO World Heritage Site (Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara).
Nara Park and Todaiji Temple
Because of Kyoto’s perfect location, both Nara and Osaka are just a short train ride away, I felt I couldn’t pass up a chance to explorer Osaka’s famous castle.
Osaka is Japan’s second largest metropolis, and an area in modern day Osaka (Naniwa Nagara-Toyosaki) was once temporarily home to the Japanese Imperial Court before even Nara, Kyoto, or Tokyo.
Back to Tokyo.
And finally I returned to Tokyo, to end my journey where it started, all those many years ago. So, had Tokyo, and Japan, lived up to my memories and hopes? Had my memories twisted?
Well, yes and no. The truth is a little more subtle than my memory, but no less amazing for it. But one memory that had stayed fresh was the cherry blossom. Throughout my journey the brilliant color of the cheery blossom followed. And so did the Japanese love of it. Japanese Cherry blossom (Sakura) historically holds an important place in Japan’s culture, maybe due to the transience of life it displays, which resonates with Buddhist teachings.
Even as my time in Japan ended again, people were still celebrating the blossom under the pink Sakura canopies. If you are going to visit Japan, there is no better time.
I leave you with proof that the intoxicating mix of Japan is still present, in all its visual beauty.
Night views of Akihabara and of Tokyo
Walk from Ikebukuro to Shinjuku
Zoshigaya Kishimoiji Shrine
Tokyo Midtown and Mori Gardens Roppongi
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Once a secret, hidden behind lies; then a shame to cover up, then a truth too awful to believe; Auschwitz has now become a symbol of the horrors humans are capable of. It is embedded in society’s consciousness – a name that conjures images of organizational extermination. We hear the name, and instantly see flashes of black and white photographs in our minds. From visions of the endless lines of families being herded off the trains towards their unbelievable fate, to the hollow expressions of the few pyjama-clad skeletons who, somehow, survived to tell their tales.
Auschwitz already has so much emotional power locked within its name, as I passed under the famous gate, which states ‘Work will set you free’, and entered Auschwitz One, I wondered how much more power lay behind its barbed-wire fences. How much more could it touch the souls of those who entered. I would soon discover Auschwitz, though no longer hidden from the daylight, still holds so many stories that will strike deep into the hearts of those who look and listen. I realized it is not the brick and wooden buildings that make Auschwitz, it’s the small details, the unbelievable artifacts, and the cold hard truths, that bring home the lives of those who fell to humanity’s darkness.
I was going to tell you some of the many tales our guide told us, as we explored Auschwitz Camp One and Auschwitz Camp Two – known as Birkenau, but I feel those tales belong in Auschwitz. They belong there, to be spoken there. To be experienced there. It would lessen the truth to retell them to you, as you read this, sitting in your warm houses, or heated trains. To hear the tales, you need to take up pilgrimage… and pay thought to those who lived, some only lasted a few minutes, and perished in that place.
So, instead, I will give to you three examples of moments that struck hard. But there were so many more.
First I will tell you of two warehouses, known by the prisoners as Canada One and Canada Two – as Canada was thought to be the land of plenty. What has a land of plenty got to do with a concentration camp you may wonder. Well, many of the hundreds of thousands of Jews forcibly deported from Western Europe were told they were going to a good life, and would need things. They were told to pack one bag and write their details on it. Those deported from Central and Eastern Europe, already knew to distrust the Nazis, as they had already had a taste of what was to come, with the formation of ghettos. When those coming from Western Europe arrived they were told to leave their bags on the train platform. That was the last they would see of their belongings. The prisoners were then coldly and systematically judged by SS doctors, and either sent to the work camps, or directly to the gas chambers. Their bags were stored in Canada One and Two, where they were sorted. Anything of worth was then sent to the Third Reich.
It was upon seeing the mass of bags, all with names written on them, that the truth struck hard. You can also see piles and piles of shoes, glasses, prosthetics, hair brushes… despite the guards destroying one of the warehouses near the end of the war, there was still so much stuff.
And it didn’t stop there. The looting of victims went on. There is a long corridor in Auschwitz filled with the hair of an estimated 40000+ women, taken to be used by the third Reich for weaving garments. Seeing all that hair, and trying to imagine all the women being shaved, as their own horrors began, sends a chill through you.
Secondly, there is a corridor in the infamous prison block 11 in Auschwitz One, where the photos of some of the early prisoners are displayed, along with their names and the dates of arrival and death. These were taken before the Nazis found more economical means of recording prisoners – numbers tattooed on their forearms. The photographer was told to destroy the negatives, but thankfully disobeyed. And so we can now see the faces of some of those who were first to perish, including their personal lifespans in the camps, some only lived weeks, or months… many barely lasted a year. When I stared into the eyes of the victims, with their shaved heads and striped pyjamas, I tried to find signs of recognizable expressions. Most were ghostly, with blank eyes. But I remember seeing the expression on one girl’s face. It was almost a smile. Seeing that, amidst everything we had been told and shown. Seeing that tiny spark of human warmth, that would soon be systematically extinguished. It was both chilling and confirming. It felt like a tiny light, in an ocean of darkness, however brief it may have shone.
Lastly, I will take you to a brick hut in Birkenau (just as much an extermination complex, as a prison camp). Birkenau was an expansion of Auschwitz One. Where the trains rolled straight through the gates (holding thousands of prisoners at a time), and where nearly all of the gas chambers were located.
This one hut is unique, because it was for children. This was surprising because, children were almost universally sent directly to the gas chambers. Jewish women and children were seen as worthless, and only one end awaited them – packed naked, thousands at a time, into underground chambers to be gassed with reusable Zyklon B crystals, and then cremated.
But this hut held children taken along with their families, during the spread of the Nazis eastwards, and as a result of the failed Warsaw uprising. The thing that got to me about this hut, other than the horrific conditions (squashed like sardines), was the artwork on two adjacent walls. Apparently they were painted by other prisoners, who wanted the children to see a world outside the camp. To see that a better world existed. Though most would never see such a world, it was again a tiny light of humanity in the darkest recesses.
In a large way, Auschwitz left me with thoughts of those tiny lights. The brief specks, that shine ever brighter amongst the unbelievable ghosts of our darkest past. Auschwitz is a mirror of humanity, and we must never ever turn away. It puts faces and lives to the unimaginable numbers.
Between May 1940 and January 1945, when Russian troops liberated the camps, it is estimated that over one million lives (Jews, Poles, Romani, Russian prisoners of war…), over one million stories, were ended in Auschwitz.
In 2015 I moved to the Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic. A city steeped in history and culture, and endowed with architectural splendour. Since then, I have explored many of the city’s famous and hidden wonders, sketchbook in hand. I want to capture the heart of Prague, like the artist explorers of the past.
So, let me show you the historical capital of Bohemia, through my artwork. See Prague through the eyes of an artist.
Explorer east of the Vltava river (The Old Town Square, Wenceslas Square, The Jewish Quarter, Vysehrad…).
Explorer west of the Vltava river (Mala Strana, Kampa, Petrin, Letna, Prague Castle…).
Like a precious stone split in two, by the Danube river, the two halves of Budapest, Buda and Pest, join to create a truly magnificent City. An Austro-Hungarian gem, two thousand years in the making.
My first impression of Budapest was ‘God, it’s cold.’ I arrived the first week of January, and the temperature had fallen below -16 degrees. Luckily, my second impression was ‘Wow.’ The city is so beautiful, and packed with amazing architecture. You only have to walk a short distance down the massive boulevards to spot interesting places. Interesting, and thankfully warm. So braving the bitter winds, apparently unusually cold for even Budapest, I set about to discover what the city had to offer in the way of indoor, heated wonders. And it didn’t disappoint. From stunning cafes to awe inspiring monuments and libraries, Budapest will keep your head turning.
So, let yourself be taken in by this Austro-Hungarian gem. Come with me on a winter’s dream, and I will give you just a glimpse of what awaits you on the banks of the Danube.
Hungarian State Opera House.
First up, let us pay a visit to the Hungarian State Opera House. This Neo-Renaissance delight was mostly paid for by Emperor Franz Joseph 1. As part of the terms for funding its construction in 1875, the Emperor demanded it not be bigger than the Vienna Opera house. The story then goes, that he only ever visited the opera house once, and left mysteriously half way through a performance. Local myth has it that he left because, despite being just smaller than Vienna’s own opera house, the interior outshone its counterpart.
As well as taking in an opera, or a ballet, you can also get a guided tour of the Opera house.
The opera house is well worth a visit, and, after a tour, why not settle down in the opera’s cafe. Grab some refreshments, soak up the opulent architecture, and be transported back to the Austro-Hungarian heyday.
Vajdahunyad Castle and the Szchezeni Thermal Baths
From the opera house you can either walk, or, if it is freezing outside, take a metro to the north east end of the Andassay Ut (avenue). There you will find, nestled in the Varosliget (the City Park), both Vajdahunyad Castle and the Szchezeni Thermal Baths.
In the winter, the boating lake in front of Vajdahunyad Castle is transformed into a popular ice ring. When the sun dips, both the ring and castle are lit, creating a magical scene. And if you don’t fancy doing your best impression of a drunk penguin, then why not visit the Varosliget Cafe and Restaurant. With a stunning view of the illuminated castle, and good food, it is worth a visit.
View of the castle from the Varosliget Cafe and Restaurant.
Vajdahunyad Castle was built 1896, as a homage to architectural styles throughout Hungarian History – taking inspiration from the Middle Ages, the Gothic Renaissance and Baroque styles, to name just a few. This is Budapest’s very own Disney fairytale castle.
Why not stroll through the gates’ of the castle, take in the courtyard, and then make your way through the park to the thermal baths.
Opened in 1913, the Szchezeni Thermal Baths are housed in an impressive Neo-Baroque mansion. The thermal waters inside, which vary in temperature from 27 to 38 degrees, are open to the public. The baths are also used extensively for medical purposes.
Not only do the baths hold a selection of thermal outdoor pools, within its magnificent walls, there is also a small lake just outside, beside the building. I found this particularly captivating, as, at first, it seemed like any other park lake. But slowly you notice, especially in the cold air, streams of steam rising gracefully from the water. The lake is also thermal, just warm to the touch. And seemingly a perfect sanctuary for ducks from the winter weather.
When you finally leave Varosliget, you will probably come across Heroes’ Square – an impressive monument to important figures in Hungerian history, and home to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
After so much walking, why not take a quiet rest, and pay a visit to one of Budapest’s many temples to books. Founded in 1561, The ELTE University Library was originally a Jesuit library. In 1784 it moved to its current location. Even before you step into the main reading room, with its skylight and frescoes, you are welcomed by a stunning interior. The library was Hungary’s first public library, and is still open to public today.
When it comes to incredible cafes, Budapest is not stingy with the cream. Almost down every street there seems to be a cafe housed in an architectural work of art.
Cafe Gerbeaud, located on Vorosmarty ter, exudes the elegance of late 19th century European coffeehouses and confectioneries, with its saloon’s high ceiling, illuminated by grand chandeliers.
With over a century of history, Cafe Astoria isn’t short of character. The cafe is part of the Danubius Hotel Astori, a hotel with a story spreading right back to the famous Waldorf Astoria in New York.
Now to visit one of Budapest’s biggest and most iconic attractions. Standing like a man-made gothic and Renaissance mountain on the bank of the Danube river, the Hungarian Parliament Building (as it is also known), is just, if not even more, as impressive inside as it is outside. Completed in 1904, it is still the biggest building in Hungary, and contains around half a million precious stones and over 40 kilograms of gold, not too mention the Crown Jewels of Hungary.
Though, as you would expect, the queues for the tours are long (best to get there early or late), the interior is definitely worth waiting for.
And finally, but no means least, is the Bookcafe. As bookshop cafes go, this marvel will take some beating in the grandeur category. It can be found inside the former Paris Department Store (Budapest’s first department store, and now the Alexandra Bookstore), an Art Nouveau wonder on its own. As you walk through the bookstore, towards the cafe, you will be struck by the sight of a gleaming ballroom. Yes, that’s right – a ballroom. One second you are in an Art Nouveau Bookstore, the next you are transported into a stunning Renaissance ballroom, that wouldn’t look out of place in any grand palace.
Located in the heart of the city, there is really no excuse not to grab a coffee in one of the world’s grandest bookstore cafes.
So, it’s cold, very cold. The snow has begun falling. Jack Frost is up and about. Christmas tunes fill the air. Winter is in full flow.
“But stop,” you say. You’ve had enough of the cold, of the snow, of the Christmas tunes, of winter. You want to return to summer, if you even had one. Well all is not lost. And you don’t have to travel to the other side of the globe to find it. Let me take you to a collection of islands known as Malta.
I left a snow covered Prague in the early hours of the morning, and landed 20 degrees warmer in Malta, a few hours later. Malta is an archipelago, which sits in the Mediterranean, South of Sicily, and east of Tunisia. So, as you can imagine, it’s hot. Perfect for a winter getaway, for those sun seekers out there. But what if you want a little more from your holiday than pools, beaches and sun? Well, I went in search of the answer to that very question, partly out of necessity, as it rained quite a bit during my visit.
Before I begin my cultural quest, I first want to tell you about my accommodation for the trip. The Maritim Antonine Hotel & Spa, in Mellieha to the North of the main island, is an excellent 4 star luxury hotel, with 4 restaurants, 4 bars, 3 swimming pools and a Spa / Fitness room. The hotel is ideally located for sun worshipers, it’s only 1km to Malta’s largest beach. Also, more importantly for me on my quest for culture, it has a bus stop right outside, with routes to the whole island.
My suite for the trip, and the view from my balcony.
View from the hotel rooftop of the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Mellieha.
The hotel library, with its fireplace.
One of the hotel’s many pool.
Views of the hotel.
Fine dining at the Arches Restaurant and Wine Cellar -one of the best wine collections on the island, and the cellar is on display in the restaurant.
And as for the small town of Mellieha, though its main claim to fame maybe the nearby Mellieha beach – the largest sandy beach in Malta, it does have some architectural gems, most prominently the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Mellieha.
Sanctuary of Our Lady of Mellieha.
Mellieha street scenes
Remains of local cave dwellings.
Now, let me tell you of my quest to find a few places of interest you can enjoy, even if the weather does its worst. I decided to concentrate my search on the Capital of Malta: Valletta, which can be easily reached via a plethora of bus routes that pass right by the front of the hotel – tip, if you are the only one waiting at a bus stop, signal to the approaching bus, as one drove straight past me.
Built by the Knights Hospitaller, Valletta is the most southern capital of Europe. Though the city was very badly damaged during the devastating island-wide bombings of World War Two (15000 tons of bombs were dropped on Malta. It was awarded a George Cross), many historic buildings still stand, or have been rebuilt. Positioned on a small peninsula, this city maybe very small, but it still holds some amazing Baroque and Neo-Classical wonders, all tighly packed between narrow streets. It is also bookended at either side by the Fort of Saint Elmo, bordering the coast, and the City Gate, bordering the land. The buses drop you off right by the City Gate, so just make your way slowly to Fort Elmo, zig-zagging through the narrow city streets, exploring as you go.
Here are a few places of interest I found during my exploration, all perfect for a rainy day:
This elegant wonder, is definitely worth a visit. Just be prepared. It gets very busy. With 175 years of history, and a unique interior, which has to be seen, this cafe is rightly famous in the city. So come see what the Cordina family has to offer. You won’t be disappointed.
National Museum of Archaeology.
If you are interested in ancient history, then this maybe the place for you. With history dating back before the great pyramids, Malta has a story to tell. The museum’s exhibits range from the Early Neolithic (5000bc) to the Phoenician period (400bc). A special mention must go to one amazing exhibit. It maybe small, but it’s impressive. The ‘Sleeping Lady,’ which was discovered in the equally impressive Hypogeum of Hal-Saflieni, is dated to around 3000bc. There is something so realistic and yet stylised about this figurine of a sleeping lady. It is said, it may symbolise death, or eternal sleep, or just someone’s mum snoozing – the last one was mine.
The Manoel Theatre.
Constructed in 1731, on the orders of Antonio Manoel de Vilhena (Grand Master of the Knights of Malta), this theatre is possibly Europe’s third oldest in use. It is also Malta’s national theatre. Upcoming events include – Concerts, Operas, Musicals, Masterclasses and Baroque festivals.
I was honoured to get a personal viewing of the theatre, when it was closed for a national holiday. I sat and sketched the empty interior from the theatre’s stage. There is something magical, movie like, when you sit on the stage of a grand theatre. The curtains goes up, and the lights go on. The boxes look down on you. You have the whole place to yourself. I can only imagine what it is like to watch, or star in a performance here. So, if you get the chance, pay this historical theatre a visit.
Casa Rocca Piccola.
This 16th century palace is still a privatly owned home. The current occupants being Nicholas de Piro and his wife Frances. The former, it turns out, is a big fan of art, more on that later. The palace has over fifty rooms, including two libraries, drawing rooms, a chapel and its own air raid shelter / cavern complex. It also has the largest private collection of Maltese lace. Due to schedule restraints, I didn’t have time to sketch in the palace, but I was treated to a wonderful personal tour of the building, by its current owner Nicholas de Piro. The man has a love of art and Malta, which shows in many of the rooms. The house is not only a museum, a lived in one, it is an art gallery and a testament to Malta’s past and present.
This was Malta’s first public museum, opened in 1860. As you would expect for an island whose history is so intertwined with the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John (formely the Knights Hospitaller), the country’s historical armoury is well stocked. Its collections of arms and armour date from between the 15th and the late 18th century. One of its stand-out collections covers the period of the Great Siege 1565 – when Malta held off an invasion by the Ottoman Empire (the defense of Malta was led by Grand Master Jean de Vallette – the capital is named after him). The armoury is split into sections – Swords, Firearms, Early Armour, Great Siege Period, Main Armour, Crossbows, Pole Arms, Artillary. Everything a budding Knight Hospitaller needs.
Streets of Valletta.
And no visit to the capital of Malta can go without mentioning its streets. With a grid layout and an interesting visual mix, seemingly infused by the crammed streets of classical Italian and Arabic cities, the streets beckon you to explore every corner. And you are never more than a short walk away from a sea view, with Malta’s massive forts jutting out into the Mediterranean. The city is an UNESCO World Heritage Site. And you can see why.
In the end, I discovered Malta does have some cultural gems, for those in search of more than sun. So whether you are seeking a warm, winter beach and pool vacation, or an exploration into an ancient island, with cultural delights, Malta is waiting for you.
Thank you to the excellent Maritim Antonine Hotel & Spa for sponsoring my trip to Malta.