Top Pick: Hakone Open Air Museum – art and natural beauty in harmony

The town of Hakone is part of the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, less than 60 miles from Tokyo and one of the most popular destinations for Japanese and international tourists. Famous for its natural beauty, many hotsprings (onsen), traditional inns ( ryokan), and the view of Mount Fuji across Lake Ashinoko (didn’t get to see that), Hakone is also renowned for its open air museum.

The Hakone Open Air Museum (Hakone Chōkoku No Mori Bijutsukan), has to be one of the most spectacular outdoor museums in the world. Surrounded by mountains and overlooking a valley, ~100 diverse sculptures (modern and contemporary, including works of Rodin, Milo and Moore) from around the world grace the expansive (~17 acres), rolling gardens. There’s also several indoor exhibits as well, including One of the world’s best collections of Picasso’s work, the 2 story Picasso Exhibition Hall displays a total of 300 pieces, including paintings, sculptures and ceramics. The exhibit also features photos chronicling of the artist’s life is one of world’s best collections.

 

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In addition there are shops, café’s, multiple kids spaces with art installations that they can climb on and a mini garden maze. And because the Japanese think of everything, there’s even an 65 foot heated foot bath to refresh your weary feet while enjoying the view.

You can easily spend hours here taking in all the beauty and the art.

Take the Hakone Tozan train there – it’s an incredible experience in itself

The Hakone Open Air Museum is just a few steps from Chokoku No Mori Station on the Hakone Tozan (30 minutes, $3.55 from Hakone-Yumoto). It’s the last station before the terminal station of Gora. Taking the train is an experience in itself as it chugs slowly up and back switchbacks up the steepest slope of all railways in Japan through green forests above the splendidly scenic Haya-kawa River Valley.

 

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From the train station, you’ll walk by Woody’s Café Bar first. I stopped in on my way to the museum. The hot artisan coffee was a cool wet morning so it was a perfect prelude to walking around outside. It’s quite a unique spot with a Toy Story theme, hence the name. It serves coffee, lunch, dinner and is a bar at night.

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Tokyo Photo Post and Top Picks Prince Hotel & Hamashiba Sushi, Minato

Had the good fortune to travel to Japan on business and to stay in the luxurious Prince Hotel, Minato, Tokyo. My bathroom and room had tremendous view of Tokyo tower (aka Eiffel Tower knock off). I have never been in such a large or luxurious bathroom – huge walk in shower, deep jacuzzi bathtub and enough room left over for a small dance party. Seriously, the bathroom seemed more spacious and outfitted than the room itself. In case you haven’t heard, the Japanese have a thing for outfitted toilets (heated seats, warm water spritz wash (biddett & hot air dry, etc…) and deep soaking tubs. We Westerners could certainly learn a thing or two from Japan and improve our WC experience…

 

While I was in town for business meetings, I still managed to sneak in a couple strolls and a quick run around the area to take in a few of the nearby scenic highlights.

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As my Japanese grand finale, I indulged in a sushi dinner at Hamashiba restaurant in the hotel. Forget everything you’ve heard about hotel restaurants – this one is superb. The sushi is outstanding, by far the best I’ve had and no doubt, will ever have. The maguro / tuna was absolutely exquisite and it was a treat and once in a lifetime experience to watch the master sushi chefs at work. Was it expensive? Duh. Was it worth it? Absolutely! (The company didn’t pick up this one.)

 

 

 

Sayonara!

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Garden and City views from my room at The Prince

 

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Oh, and it looks like the sole homeless person in all of Japan was sleeping under my window at The Prince.

Stay tuned for adventures in Kyoto and Hakone…Arigato.

Photo Post: Super Bloom 2017, Anza Borrego, CA

Just realized that I never posted my still photos from this year’s Super Bloom in Anza Borrego. In case you’re wondering, a Super Bloom is the term used to described an exceptionally abundant wildflower bloom that exceeds the usual seasonal Spring bloom.  When heavy rains and consistent wet weather come to the deserts of the southwest during late fall through winter as they did this year after a 5 year drought, the ideal condition for a Super Bloom is created. So ideal, in fact that this colossal colorful and fragrant explosion only occurs about once a decade. Seeds that lie dormant under rocks and sand for untold years, finally sprout when water washes away their protective coating…

 

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In our deserts, we typically see a sprinkling of purple sand verbena, white dune evening primroses, orange poppies (California’s state flower) and an occasional red-tipped ocotillo. This year, it was a breathtaking, surreal display with carpets of wildflowers, blooming cactus and red-tipped ocotillo forests. Be sure to check out my videos (1, 2, 3) for more of an immersion experience.

 

On the Trail of the Elusive Borrego (Bighorn Sheep), Borrego Palm Canyon Hike, Anza Borrego State Park, CA

Anza Borrego State Park is named after the 18th century Spanish explorer Juan Bautista deAnza and borrego, the Spanish word for bighorn sheep.

The park covers 600,000 acres and is the largest state park in California and, the second largest in the contiguous United States. It contains 500 miles of dirt roads, 12 designated wilderness areas, and 110 miles of hiking trails.

The endangered peninsular bighorn sheep, often called desert bighorn sheep, make their home here. It’s said that visitors and residents seldom get to see them as they avoid human contact.

We arrived at the park about 45 minutes before sunset (golden critter hour) and decided to go for a quick run up the scenic and pleasant Borrego Palm Canyon Trail (3.25 miles) before dark.

 

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We looked up the steep rock studded canyon walls at precarious boulders, wondering if they ever dislodged…We walked part of the way back hoping to see some wildlife.  I told Ken to keep his eyes open. I have terrible eyesight and the stone and sunset shadows are perfect camouflage for anything that wants to evade notice. Then I heard something that sounded like a boulder crashing down…and Ken saw something in the distance…The head bangers in action! A group of 5, the one sitting on the rock officiating looked frail, perhaps an elder. I felt like I was in a National Geographic show. It was amazing!

The next morning we had breakfast at the local coffee shop. While we were there, we struck up  a conversation with a ranger and local at the next table. We shared our adventure and the video on my phone. There was an elderly couple standing nearby, watching me with annoyed faces and their arms  crossed. (Was I talking too loudly or did I steal their table?) Nope, the woman finally broke her silent glaring and told us in an exasperated voice that they had been hiking the canyon nearly ever day for years and had never had a big horn sheep sighting – not even 1. That’s how lucky we were.

Turns out one of the fellows that we were chatting with was the co-creator of the Desert Bighorn Sheep Book that I was browsing through. How cool is that?

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And yes, this gorgeous book is available at AMAZON  and the Anza Borrego Visitor Center.

And if all that wasn’t magical enough, on our drive out of the park, this healthy coyote couple appeared to see us off.

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What are your most memorable wildlife sightings?

Mt. Biking Noble Canyon, Pine Valley, CA: from Heavenly to Hellacious

Was gunho to get away to somewhere new this weekend. Perhaps a little too gunho…Wasn’t quite as thorough with the research as I usually am, but had done enough to know that the Laguna Mountain Recreation Area is a great spot for mountain biking and enjoying great scenery as you traverse 3 ecosystems: mixed-conifer/black oak forest, alpine meadows and desert.

And it certainly served up some heavenly single track around Laguna Meadow and beyond.

 

 

Sublime, right? And so it went for about 6 miles before things took a gnarly turn for the worse. Scattered rocks, became bulky blocks with jagged edges,  boulders and ankle bashing bruisers galore. I didn’t get pictures of these tortuous areas because, I was too miserable fending off hordes of face flies while hike-a-biking my hefty 35 pound bike. Even if I’d had a Go Pro, you wouldn’t have been able to see beyond the blur of flies – that’s how bad it was. Brutal – yes.

We only saw 2 other mountain bikers on the rough lower portion. They were wearing completely padded body armor suits with full face helmets. Another clue that I was way out of my element…I’m tough, but I’m not technical and have horrible eyesight and depth perception so this it was more than a bit hazardous. I’m extremely lucky to have escaped with only a handful of bruises and scratches.

( I later discovered – post-research – that this area is notorious among mt.bikers and is affectionately called Stairway to Hell and Roman Road.)

Here are a couple links to youtube videos on the area.

We kept looking for a route that would loop us back as a couple people at the trail head had mentioned, but we never found it. And there was no way we were going back up the Stairway to Hell…I even thought of abandoning my beater mt. bike and hiking out even though I only had my bikes shoes.

 

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A smile (or grimace) of relief after surviving Stairway to Hell

Instead, we made it out to the Pine Valley picnic area and then out the road. Realizing then that we would have to ride up the mountain via Sunrise Highway. Not much of a shoulder there, but a lesser evil than Stairway to Hell. Climbing 8 miles and 3K feet back to the car after the tortuous Noble Canyon was its own purgatory, and certainly, I’ve learned my lesson about doing my research. Perhaps next time, my BF will read the links I send him prior to departure too. (Snarkyness aside – selfreliance is critical even when you’re with a partner. If we both had read the trail reports thoroughly, one of us likely would have retained which trail to loop back on – though we still might not have found it…)

This day certainly put us to the test. Even though we both keep a fairly high fitness level – it kicked our butts. And to both our credits, we didn’t bite each others heads off. I did come close to meltdown with the face flies on attack while I was hefting my bike over boulder after boulder, but I held it together. We both did, taking the punishment mostly in silent, focused suffering. What was going to be a pleasant morning adventure, ended up being a whole day ordeal. Great workout – not so fun.

I’ve reread some of the trail reports and it sounds like there are other options if you want to avoid the burly section of Noble Canyon. I may be back, but need a cooling off period and time for my bruises to heal first.

Where: 40 minutes from downtown San Diego, near Pine Valley, off of Pine Creek Road North of I8 or off of Sunrise Highway to go top to bottom

What: Noble Canyon Trail, Laguna Mountain Recreation Area

Distance: 19.9 Miles out & back

Elevation  gain/loss: 3,346

Rating: For hiking: Moderate. For Mt. biking: Advanced+++

Notes: Adventure Pass required.

Tip: Bring bug spray and plenty of water. Consider a car shuttle for a 10 mile option. Given that it’s single track and a mountain biker destination, it’s not the most peaceful option for hikers…The trail head maps aren’t great, do your research first. ; )

Have you had any small adventures turn into challenging ordeals? Do tell.

 

Free Flowing in Fallbrook: Santa Margarita River Trail

The Santa Margarita River, aka Temecula Creek / Temecula River, is one of the last free-flowing rivers in Southern California.

The park is said to contain 1400 acres with 14 miles of trails that loop and crisscross the river. Not sure about that, but I do know that the main trail is about 5.5 total out and back. There are a number of offshoot trails, but it’s hard to imagine that they add up to 3x as much distance…

The main trail is a pleasant meander along the river under a canopy of trees.

There are a couple of swimming holes within the first mile or so if you care to take a dip. Before too long you’ll encounter your first of a half dozen creek crossings. Since the terrain is mostly smooth path or sandy, you might consider Tevas, instead of running shoes or hikers as you’ll be taking them on & off frequently. (That being said, if you don’t mind getting your running shoes wet, it’s not a bad spot for a little trail trot.) There are also a couple of lovely little oases along the way.

Apparently, this river corridor is known for raptor sightings and home to deer and other large mammals. We saw one shy turtle basking on rocks and a little fishey who seemed to be guarding her eggs – see video below.

Certainly a great spot to spend an afternoon, have a picnic or take a dip. (I wouldn’t drive too far for it, but if you’re in the area by all means.)

Note: It gets super hot in Fallbrook in the summer, be prepared and bring water.

BEWARE: Abundant poison oak &  quick sand???

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Distance: ~5.5 out & back

Difficulty: Easy – family friendly

Location: Fallbrook near De Luz Road & Sandia Creek Dr intersection, right on Sandia Creek Dr. then the parking area and trailhead are 1.2 miles ahead on the right.

Happy trails!

Santa Ana River Trail: Unsafe, Unsightly & Truly Unfortunate

As a triathlete, I’ve cycled the 30-mile Santa Ana River Trail on multiple occasions. Designated a National Recreation Trail in 1977, it’s the county’s longest cycling and walking trail, running from the Pacific Ocean at Huntington Beach to the Orange/Riverside county line. The vision, now lost, was to create the longest multi-use trail in Southern California with planned extensions to reach as far as Big Bear Lake in San Bernardino County.

Fairly bland for most of the ride, it starts to get pretty near the far end as you pedal along a park in the Anaheim Hills / Yorba Linda area. Here the river opens up to an oasis with green marshes and rolling water frequented by great blue and white herons, geese and other birds. On a clear day the San Gabriel Mountains reveal themselves as the alluring backdrop. If you squint just so, you can block out the concrete that frames the river and the traffic-jammed freeway on the other side. You might even imagine for a moment that you’re in Idaho or some other idyllic place.

Years ago, riding solo I passed a small group of homeless people by a restroom on the trail and remember feeling slightly uneasy. Recently, I heard on NPR that the police had cleaned up the area so I thought I’d give it go since I was going to Orange County for a friend’s 50th birthday party. I guess I should have done my research before I talked my boyfriend into doing the ride with me…

Since the last time I was there, the homeless population has exploded. There was zero evidence of any so called clean up. The area by Anaheim’s Angel Stadium is a wasteland with hundreds of tents and semi-permanent makeshift dwellings strewn on both sides of the bike lane and garbage everywhere. This goes on for a couple miles.

 

 

Homelessness is becoming as American as apple pie and baseball in a society where baseball players make millions and cities can’t help those in need or police their confines.

Who are these people? From what I’ve heard the population is a mix of felons, drug addicts and dealers, the mentally ill, veterans, illegal aliens, variations of all of the latter and other misfortunates. And yes, they are mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and children.

Are they the new Bedouins or gypsies of 21st century? No, they aren’t nomadic or transient. Make no mistake about it; these squatters have set up homesteads here. They have claimed their corner of concrete, creating walls around their “property” with wooden crates , bamboo screening, solar panels and generators. Several camps fly the American flag and have garden chairs placed in front. Others are less hospitable with wooden “Keep Out” signs propped against the tarps that comprise multi-dwelling compounds. Even in homeless America, bigger appears to be better.

I was relieved to see a volunteer group organizing trash collection. As you can imagine, the path is littered with debris of every kind. A church group was there handing out containers of food. There were a couple of car batteries lined up outside tents along the trail – presumably someone charges them too. These services are doubled edged swords, clearly addressing needs while clearly encouraging the permanence of an untenable situation.

Beyond the main encampment strip that runs a couple miles, I saw a tall, older man emerge from a pop-up tent. He was well groomed and completely buttoned up in an oxford shirt and belted jeans, looking like he might be heading to work. He reminded me of my father.

My boyfriend wanted to turn back at the first signs of  the squalor. He was concerned that we’d get a flat riding over scattered broken glass and be accosted. Since we’d gone that far, I wanted to hold out for the restorative glimpse of natural beauty at the end…

It’s obvious that the situation is entirely out of control. It’s unsafe and utterly unsanitary.  It looks and smells like something from a post-apocalyptic movie, a version of 3rd world lawlessness ―all within walking and biking distance to a couple of Southern California’s wealthiest communities (Newport Beach, Anaheim Hills, Yorba Linda).

The “oasis” was greener than ever; the streaming water sparkling in the sun. The herons, egrets and geese were plentiful. We cycled by two fisherman, surprised when one of them reeled in a good size fish. It was as if we’d been transported to another time and place—an entirely different movie set.

We had 2 near misses on the ride. On the way out, a disheveled woman with 1 front tooth riding an expensive triathlon / time trail bike veered into the path at me from the side lines. Luckily, I was able to swerve and avoid a collision. The ghost of Christmas future or stolen goods?  On the way back, I was behind three cyclists when we went under a bridge. In the darkness, a half naked man ran at us yelling something undecipherable. Luckily, the cyclists in front of me managed to maneuver around him. If I’d entered first, I’m not sure what would have happened. Thankfully, disasters averted.

Apparently, the lack of policing and the escalating homeless population are due to jurisdictional disputes between the Anaheim Police Department and the Orange County Sheriff Department. Whatever the case is, it’s absolutely appalling and a shocking reality of life in 21st century America. It’s hard to imagine this colossal problem being addressed effectively anytime soon while it’s easy to imagine it getting worse. This is another skid row in the making – one among many. (Homeless populations are increasing everywhere in California down the coast from Santa Barbara to Laguna Beach and San Diego.)

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…”

W. B. Yeats

For the record, I’m not unsympathetic to the plight of my fellow man and understand that a series of unfortunate events and / or choices can have a cataclysmic impact. We also know that the human spirit can overcome and rise above most events with and without help. Regardless of your perspective, it’s a complicated tragedy. Some might say it’s just one of the many signs of Western Civilization’s decline.

Too melodramatic? Perhaps. What I know is what I’d hoped would be a stress-free bike ride on the Santa Ana River Trail was anything but. I’ve been waiting for my epiphany from this experience – yes, gratitude for my privileged life and what else?

A deeper conviction that I need to live closer to nature somewhere beautiful and under-populated, far away from Southern California. Am I running away? Yes, as fast and as far away as I can. I know, places like Idaho and Montana have their problems too, but I can face them better when I’m breathing fresh air and am surrounded by pristine wilderness.

I thought if it were me, my tent would be under the trees at the oasis overlooking the marsh – far from everyone else. I’d be fine walking a couple miles to partake in the free food and trash services. I would not be flying the American flag.

Do you have a large homeless population where you live? What are your thoughts?

My camera battery died so I couldn’t take more pictures, which is probably just as well as it’s not a place you want to be loitering. It is something you have to see to believe. Below are a couple recent articles in the OC Register with pictures and stories that better capture the extent of the problem.

http://www.ocregister.com/2017/07/19/santa-ana-river-trail-walkers-cyclists-fear-homeless-give-up-outdoor-jewel/

http://www.ocregister.com/2017/07/07/homeless-and-lawless-a-stretch-of-the-river-is-often-unpoliced/

Better yet, here are 2 videos by fellow cyclists – not sure about the happy music soundtrack in the one or the snarky commentary in the other, but they provide a live picture:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9yRZbbJ9kyg