What Does a Golden Temple and a Zen Rock Garden Have in Common: The Two Most Popular Places for Contemplation and Reflection in Kyoto

Golden Pavilion in Kyoto

The two most popular temple sites in Kyoto seem to be opposites:  stunning versus serene, flashy versus quiet introspection.  The Golden Pavilion at Kinkakuji Temple and the famous Rock Garden at the Ryoanji Temple are just a few bus stops away from each other, located on the North West side of Kyoto. They are seemingly worlds apart, but in some ways these two temples have much in common. Both temples make your mind and thoughts pause to contemplate the beauty in nature. Both temples are Unesco World Heritage sites.

Golden Pavilion in Kyoto

The Golden Pavilion is both flashy and serene, located at a small reflection lake, surrounded by beautiful pine trees and poetically placed rocks. The Zen-Buddhist Temple was originally built as a retirement villa in 1393 for Shogun Ashiraga, who lived in abundant luxury while Kyoto’s people suffered from famine, earthquakes and plague. His son turned the pavilion into a Zen temple. Oddly, each floor features a different style of architecture: first floor contrasts the upper gilded floors by featuring the Shinden-Zukuri style architecture with solid black treated timber frame and white plaster. Second floor is gold leaf finished in Bukke style, similar to Samurai residences, whereas the third level features a Chinese Zen style gilded inside out. Sadly, the original temple was burned down by a disenchanted monk in 1950, but was rebuilt a few years later.

Golden Pavilion, Kyoto
Temple grounds at the Golden Pavilion, featuring pine trees trimmed to perfection

The Golden Pavilion cannot be visited inside, but the mesmerizing golden reflections of the pavilion in the  lake makes this a very poetic place worth visiting, although it gets a lot of visitors. Expect to take turns to photograph this poetic scenery and try to avoid selfie sticks. Walk around the reflection lake to admire the temple and its stunning reflections in the lake, but do not expect a contemplative spiritual experience. A path leads through the temple garden to an Edo period teahouse and small shrine near the exit.

Address: Kinkakuji Temple1 Kinkakujicho, Kita-ku, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 603-8361. Tel: +81 75-461-0013. Admission: 400 Yen, open from 9am to 5pm.

The backside of the Golden Pavilion

On the other hand, the most famous of all Zen rock gardens at Ryoanji Temple, built in late 15th century, features a small, carefully composed miniature landscape of rocks arranged in gravel, which is raked to perfection by monks daily. It represent the endless ocean and ripples in water. Renowned for its simplicity and purity, this is the most abstract of all Zen Gardens. The garden is small, about the size of a tennis court, enclosed by ochre walls, and can only be seen from the raised deck of the temple. Visitors are seated on long steps facing the rock garden, lending a perfect space for meditation and introspection.

Zen Rock Garden at Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto. Fifteen rocks are meticulously placed in five islands surrounded by carefully raked gravel

The fifteen rocks of different sizes and shapes are meticulously placed in five different islands in such a way that you cannot see can see all rocks from any place. In this way they will always leaving room for improvement, as an aid to incite meditation about the true meaning of life.

Meditation and introspection at the steps facing the Rock Garden

The white gravel symbolizes water, purity, self-discipline and emptiness and is used to stimulate meditation by reducing nature to abstract form. A landscape seemingly suspended in time. A powerful abstract garden which is meant to induce a deep state of meditation which evokes thoughts of peace and beauty.

Meditation and reception hall facing the Rock Garden featuring tatami mats and decorated sliding screen walls

The meditation and reception halls facing the rock garden are very minimalist with their tatami mats and beautiful simply decorated sliding screens.

Address: 13 Ryoanji-Goryo-no-Sita-cho, Ukyo-ku, Kyoto City. Tel.: +81-(0)75-463-2216. Open Year Round: Winter (December1-End of February) 8:30-16:30, (March 1-November 30) 8:00-17:00. Admission: Adult 500 Yen

Written by Zia Hansen. Photos by Zia Hansen

Explore the Happiest City in the World: Wonderful Copenhagen


Denmark is consistently rated the happiest place in the world. Some of the reasons why: Steeped in rich history, Copenhagen offers a wide spectrum of architectural, cultural and urban delights, the best of modern design and food as culinary art form. The city has much to offer travelers within a short radius and new cheap airfares make a visit from the US very tempting. The laid-back artful city center is located just 25 minutes from the design infused Kastrup Airport, and is easily reached by a new efficient metro system.

Here are my favorite places you should not miss:

Nyhavn is a charming old canal lined with pastel colored houses, bars, restaurants and wooden schooners, great for people watching
  1. After a long transatlantic journey Nyhavn is reached by metro in just a few stops to Kongens Nytorv. A quaint canal, flanked with old wooden schooners and pastel colored 17th century historic houses, is lined with lively restaurants and bars. During summer and winter, -especially those long Nordic summer days where the sun barely sets-, this is the perfect place to stroll, people watch, eat, drink or embark on a harbor cruise. The Danes love to gather here and warmly welcome tourists. Some bars are open 24/7.
  2. Nyhavn is the perfect starting point to explore the city from the water: rest your feet and enjoy a 1 hour Harbor Cruise through idyllic canals, where guides will tell the history behind the most beautiful churches, castles, old historic buildings and new modern architectural delights. Guided tour: Dkr 80, free with Copenhagen Card. (3 Nyhavn, 1051 Copenhagen K, Tel: 45 32 96 30 00)
  3. Amalienborg Castle is where the royal family presides. On axis with the harbor and the impressive rococo-baroque Marble Church, four identical classical-baroque palace buildings frame a large octagonal square. Watch the Royal guards change guard shifts: every day you can follow the guards as they march from Rosenborg Castle through the streets of Copenhagen and end up at Amalienborg, where the changing guards take place at 12:00 noon. (Amalienborg Slotsplads 5, 1257 Copenhagen K)

    Rosenborg Castle in Kongens Have (courtesy Pinterest)
  4. Nearby Kongens Have (Royal Garden) with the renaissance Rosenborg Castle is a favorite park for locals. The castle houses the royal crown jewels, diamonds and tapestries. (Oester Voldgade 4A, 1350 Copenhagen K +45 33 15 3286)

    Rundetaarn was built as an 7 story equestrian ramp to King Chr. IVs observatory
  5. Walk up the seven floor high brick paved equestrian ramp of Rundetaarn, a 17th century tower built by King Christian IV as an astronomical observatory in the heart of the old Latin Quarter of Copenhagen. The brick paved spiral walk offers stunning architecture and breathtakingviews over the roofs of old latin Quarter of Copenhagen. (Koebmagergade 52A, 1150 Copenhagen K)

    Illums Bolighus is a mecca for modern design
  6. Denmark is world known as a design mecca. One place not to miss is Illums Bolighus, a retail store representing the ultimate in modern living, showcasing jewels of both Danish and international design, fashion and furniture innovation. (10 Amagertorv, 1160 Copenhagen K. )

    Danish smoerrebroed – open sandwiches – a culinary art (courtesy Pinterest)
  7. Copenhagen is a food lover’s dream destination. Noma is internationally acclaimed as one of the world’s best restaurants. Traditional Danish food is hearty and comforting, but Danish Smoerrebroed (the open sandwich translation does not do it justice) is now a vanishing art form. Beautifully decorated dark rye bread is ornamented with layers of decorated, at times pungent, meats, herrings or old cheeses. Try one of the few classic remaining old lunch café’s, my insider’s choice: Kanal Cafeen, an authentic place which oozes of old-time ambiance under the low ceilings a few steps down from the street level – or try their open air boat in the canal overlooking Christiansborg Castle. Smoerrebroed is best when paired with beer and Danish Aquavit. (Frederiksholm Kanal 18, Copenhagen K. Tel: +45 3311 5770. Reservations recommended)

    Koedbyen – a culinary and cultural mecca
  8. A new buzzing culinary and cultural mecca is Koedbyen (Meat-town), the Modernistic 1930’s meat packing district in Vesterbro. There is a certain rawness to the place and all the charisma from the old days is still authentically there, but now offers an array of rustic restaurants, underground clubs and bars. Butchers still arrive early in the morning, but the old halls and the square are now full of ambiance, food, art and music, offering a multitude of hip food venues and the hottest nightlife in town. The district consists of three separate areas: the white, the brown (oldest brick buildings) and the grey “Meat-City”, based on the buildings dominant colors. The square is packed with people on summer afternoons and evenings. The local food market is open Saturdays and the first Sunday of the month from spring through fall. Try Koedbyens Fiskebar with a simple Nordic design, long communal tables and couches. (Koedbyens Fiskebar, Flaesketorvet 100, Copenhagen V +45 3215 5656)

    Market halls at Israels Plads: artisan breads, flavorful cheeses and fresh markets
  9. The new Market Halls at Israels Plads are bustling with activity and house fresh market delights, cafes and eateries. Find healthy artisan bread, cheese caves with a mouthwatering selection of fragrant or stinky cheeses, fresh fish, meat and seasonal vegetables. (Frederiksborggade 21, 1360 Copenhagen K, 10AM-7PM)
    Fristaden Christiania: a social experiment at an old military fortification area (courtesy Pinterest)
    Christiania: a vibrant social experiment (courtesy Pinterest)

    Architectural experimentation in Christiania (courtesy Pinterest)
  10. As a social experiment, Freetown Christiania offers an insight into a self-proclaimed alternative society, a grass-root movement which is still independent of the Danish Government. An abandoned military barracks area was taken over by squatters in the late 60és –and was saved from speculative development. Old military barracks have been turned into café’s, bars, performance spaces and residences. Creativity and experimentation has always existed, as has illicit drugs. This area is raw and may not appeal to everyone. The main entrance is called Pusher Street, but drug sale is being combated by the police. A great place to eat is Spise Loppen in a casual old gunpowder warehouse with exposed old ceiling beams, a collective-run venue with global chefs and bright art. Get a creative meal at a decent price. Vegetarian choices. (Baadmandsstraede 43, 1407 Copenhagen K +45 3257 9558)

    Louisiana Art Museum
  11. If you have an extra day Louisiana Art Museum in Humlebaek is a delightful contemporary art museum with sprawling pavilions in a lush sculpture garden, which offers breathtaking views to the ocean. A place where modern art, lush gardens and ocean meets. About 40 minute train ride from centrum of Copenhagen to Humlebaek, and a 15 minute walk. A great museum café offers tasty selections of contemporary Danish food. (Gl. Strandvej 13, 3050 Humlebaek +45 4919 0719)

    Tivoli Gardens: an old-time entertainment park in the heart of Copenhagen (courtesy Pinterest)
  1. Finally, the Tivoli Gardens is the quintessential Danish experience, with a sense of quaint adventure. A historical amusement and pleasure park with Pantomime Theater, several free concert venues, expensive food, fun rides and beautiful gardens. Located across from the grand Central Station and the City Hall. A great place to stroll and have a fun time, open from Mid-April to End of September. (Vesterbrogade 3, 1630 Copenhagen V +45 3315 1001)

Author: Zia Hansen, born in Denmark and lived in Copenhagen for many years. Photos by Zia Hansen unless otherwise noted

Go Glam at the Ultimate Aprez-Ski Yurt in Park City

Imagine ending your day of invigorating skiing in an ultra-chic cozy yurt, filled with eclectic mountain style furniture and European antiques, warmed up by pot bellied open stoves with flickering flames. A place where champagne flows and caviar is melting on your tongue. The perfect place to share classic European and inspired avantgarde American bites that all pair well with champagne.

Luxe Aprez-Ski Yurt in Park City

Deer Valley in Park City is known for luxury, amazing service and offers a number of great restaurants and food outlets on the mountain, but most places are large and efficient (think quick in-and-out on the slopes again) and lack intimacy and coziness.

Time to take a rest at the Veuve Cliquot Aprez-Lounge-how do you get a pair?

After braving the moguls or cruising the smooth corduroy groomed runs, this cozy bright orange circular hut is the ultimate in comfort for body and eyes: filled with art, antiques, fur throws, antler decorated lounge chairs and sofas, a wooden bar that reminds me of the Adirondacks, and amazing views out to the snow filled slopes. Old snow shoes, sledges, plaid covered furniture and pillows galore make this a yurt I would love to stay in for a couple of days. It is time to design a cozy yurt hotel!

Cozy  champagne & caviar bar at Aprez-Lounge yurt in Deer Valley

Beyond champagne and caviar, try the black truffle popcorn, Korean chili lime popcorn or lobster corn chowder. Food selections vary and the yurt can be reserved for special parties and events with bespoke catering.

A yurt filled with Swiss antiques

The lounge is open every day from noon to 4 pm during the ski season and is located in Empire Village in front ski lifts at the Montage Resort Hotel. The adventure is pricey, but a very rewarding and truly memorable experience. (Montage Resort, 9100 Marsac Avenue, Park City, UT 84060. Tel 435.604.1300)

Cozy-up

Written by Zia Hansen. Photos by Zia Hansen

Destination Vietnam: Surrender to the Charm of Ancient Hoi An

Imagine a place where time seemingly stands still and ambiance invades all your senses. Tranquility, beauty, poetic romance and friendly welcoming local people. Not only is Hoi An one of the most charming old towns I have ever visited, the colors of the ancient buildings’ architecture ageing poetically is a visual feast that will remain a fond highlight on your mind’s hard drive, but the local food is a sensory delight as well. Hoi An is now a designated Unesco World Heritage site, saving the ancient town for the future generations.

intriguing ornamentation on temple roofs
Hoi An temple roof ornamentation

The drive from Hue to Hoi An along the scenic route was long, but certainly offered some beautiful views and historic sites of previous horrid war events. We arrived at Hoi An just before sunset, perfect timing, just when the various shades of ocher old buildings glow intensely.  The Unesco World Heritage designated city is even more alluring than I remembered from a previous visit. Our small gem of a villa hotel, Villa Hoi Su An – or endearingly and appropriately named Villa Frangipani – at the outskirts of the town, adjacent to a lazy river, was an unexpected and very charming location. Only 8 large villa rooms facing a koi pond with a central old wooden pavilion surrounded by the heavy scent of blossoming frangipani trees.

Tranquility at Villa Frangipani

No time to unpack yet, as we wanted to get into the old town before sunset. The old town is a pedestrian zone where only bicycle rickshaws are allowed. The ocher colored old houses are incredibly charming.

Ocher colored ancient houses line the narrow cobble stoned streets

Most buildings are around 200 years old, many were and are still owned by Japanese or Chinese merchants. Some merchant houses are open to visit if you buy a reasonably priced coupon book. It is fascinating to see how families still live here and especially still cook multiple meals here in the very primitive kitchens.

Old Japanese merchant houses
Entrance to old Japanese merchant house

The sun is now setting along the river and the restaurants in the quaint houses along the river and the small narrow streets are starting to get busy.  Some old fishermen are sitting on primitive wooden scaffoldings pedaling the huge fishing nets up from the bottom of the river, while old smiling women are sitting in their old rowing boats with their Vietnamese straw hats, begging you to take a sunset river ride, or at least pay them for letting you take their photo.

Fishermen pedaling from their bamboo shacks to raise their fishing nets from the river
Take a sunset boat ride on the river

The bicycle rickshaw guys are relaxing, chatting and eating or taking a nap on a street corner, waiting for business to pick up.

The next morning we bicycle into old town again, parking the bicycles in from of the old market building. Strolling down the cobble stoned old streets we discover old shop houses, stunning old Chinese Buddhist temples, wonderful cafes, galleries and tailors. I have never seen so many tailors in one place before. Check out the quality carefully before you order, as I learned by sad experience that the quality and styles vary tremendously. Overnight you can have your suit, dresses or shirts made. I recommend going to one of the larger and recognized places as their designers and tailors are excellent, and I recommend that you bring images of what you like as some of the style books are quite dated.

Step into into the vibrant temples

The old Chinese Buddhist temples are colorful and wonderful with their extraordinary roof ornamentation, bright hues and spiral incense hanging from the ceiling. Most temples require a ticket to get in, which is a bit annoying, but it certainly is worth it as the temple interiors are so stunning.

Burning red incense coils add to the visual and olfactory experience

My absolute favorite experience is exploring the many charming narrow alleyways running perpendicular to the river. The moss over-grown ocher walls and old colorful metal gates offer glimpses into how life is still lived today, simple. Families sitting on the floor watching TV or families gathering for a shared meal. Mainly old people are gathering, while an old fan is blowing a welcome breeze during the very hot day. You can spend hours crisscrossing the alley ways while trying to depict the residential charm of the past. Beautiful old ceramic tiles adorn many floors.

Venture down the narrow alley ways to explore local living

One of the most famous landmarks is the old Japanese covered wood bridge. Other of my favorites are the old Japanese shop houses, still belonging to the same family with many generations  living under the same roof, and still relatively untouched.

Hoi An
Old Japanese bridge

Food is wonderful and generally inexpensive. Vietnamese beers are cheaper than water and great companions to the spicy, simple but very tasty noodle dishes which Hoi An is known for. You can order tasty fresh Vietnamese spring rolls if you prefer non spicy food. Relax during the heat of the day with a cold Vietnamese coffee with icecream in one of the many charming cafes.

Street vendors outside the market hall

I love exploring the market halls. Around noon many of the vendors are napping on the benches and metal tables. Great food is freshly cooked in and being shared in some of the stalls, while spices and fresh vegetables are piled up in photogenic piles. Outside the market you will meet many Vietnamese ladies with their double baskets over their shoulders or squatting barely above the ground. Lovely ladies, who love to chat and laugh. Along the river you will find fresh fish and crabs with their claws tied up with colorful rags of fabric. Although the crabs’ future is limited, the craftsmanship of tying the claws with colorful strands of fabric is poetic. Beware, the halls are primitive and the smelly slimy fishy water makes it so slippery. I almost took a nosedive into the river, much to the entertainment of the old ladies, who had warned me. An occasional rat running in-between my legs made the experience even more authentic. The photo opportunities made the experience double memorable.

Crabs at the market hall
Catch of the day outside the market hall

Life is slow and it is a wonderful experience to meander through the old city for some days, as charm and architecture is truly romantic and stunning, the town offers full immersion. Some years the river will flood the streets dramatically, best to check the weather report before planning a trip. Nearby beaches should be quite good, but I just cannot get enough of the old town which is such a visual treasure.

Wedding photo in the old town

Biking back to the small hotel and getting served freshly cooked food cooked by the receptionist, surrounded by the frangipani trees, was a welcome respite after a very hot day of leisure.

Written by Zia Hansen.  Photos by Zia Hansen

Under the Desert Sun: Discover the Treasures of Palm Springs

Palm Springs may conjure memories of celebrities, piano bars, endless golf, tennis, date plantations and maybe even vague spring break memories. Located only 1 hour 45 minutes east of Los Angeles and Orange County, Palm Springs offer wonderful unique getaway opportunities. 

This desert oasis vacation destination is returning to its glory days as a Hollywood oasis, and is becoming a gathering spot for modern architectural design connoisseurs, as well as musicians and artists inspired by nature. The Rat Pack lived, loved and played here in the golden days. Stars such as Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope and Lucille Ball built homes here and you can now rent these homes!

Parker
A whimsical Modern living room at the Parker Hotel

Here are 5 treasures to explore in the Palm Springs area:

1.       Modern Architecture: In the fifties and sixties the mountains and the deserts of Palm Springs inspired a Modern Movement in Architecture, which became known as the Desert Modernism. The architecture embraced mountain views and the warm climate, defining a lifestyle of informal elegance, often designed for celebrities and Hollywood socialites, but still seems very appropriate and desirable for today’s living. Recognizable by its use of walls of glass, deep roof overhangs, horizontal lines, screens, and a mixed use of natural and manmade materials, much of this architectural legacy still exist. You can buy a map of Modern Palm Springs listing 82 architectural gems, for $5 at the Visitor Center, to explore legendary hidden jewels of architecture and desert acclimatized, sustainable architecture by great architects of the past (most of them have passed away). Palm Springs Visitor Center: Palm Springs Visitor Center: www.visitpalmsprings.com  Tel: 760.778.8418 2901 N. Palm Canyon Dr., Palm Springs, CA 92262

Former Coachella Valley Savings & Loan, now Chase Bank designed by Stewart Williams in 1960
Former Santa Fe Federal Savings and Loan – now Palm Springs Architecture & Design Center, designed by Stewart Williams in 1960. Metal screens were adjustable to be able to modulate and control lighting during the day

2.       Uptown Palm Springs Design District in the northern end of Palm Springs, at North Palm Canyon Dr. between Vista Chino and Alejo Rd, is a delightful up-and-coming lifestyle shopping area lined with vintage and modern shopping, great restaurants, galleries, vintage furniture shops and a few well-known fashion designers, such as Trina Turk, who started out in Palm Springs, when this area was run-down. Take the time to stroll down the street, chat with the vendors who love the special “air” about Palm Springs, and duck inside every so often for a refreshment as it does get hot, or stay at one of the renovated hotels such as Skylark Hotel or the new ARRIVE Hotel to be in walking distance. If you love Modern Design, visit Palm Springs during Modernist Week, February 16-26, 2017. www.modernismweek.com

 IMG_1888Sunnylands

3.       Desert Gardens at Sunnylands: Nine acres of desert gardens surround Sunnylands Center. Definitely a place to visit if you appreciate stunning, contemporary desert landscaping and if you love photography. Designed by landscape architect James Burnett, the gardens include more than 53,000 individual desert plants. The gardens are located at the historical Annenberg Residence (Camp David of the West) in Rancho Mirage, designed by Architect Quincy Jones, which is now a museum, but you need to buy tickets one month ahead for the museum. Visit the gardens for free, Thursdays-Sundays, from 8:30 am to 4 pmwww.sunnylands.org. 37977 Bob Hope Dr., Rancho Mirage, CA 92270 Tel: 760. 202.2222   

4.       Shopping: If you are looking for amazing discounted deals, the biggest Outlet Shopping Mall in California at Desert Hills Premium Outlets is located just 20 minutes outside Palm Springs off the 103 freeway. Here you will find a stunning collection of almost any of your favorite fashion designers, ranging from Jimmy Choo to Polo, Rags and Bones, Vince, Barney’s, Yves Saint Laurent – just to mention a few – in a delightful new mall, with discounted prices ranging from 20%-65% or more. www.premiumoutlets.com. 448400 Seminole Dr., Cabazon, CA 92230  Tel: 951.849.6641

Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park

5.       Joshua Tree National Park: Located about 40 miles North East from Palm Springs, the Park is a daytrip which covers 2 distinctly different desert areas: the lower Colorado Desert (part of the Sonoran Desert), covers the eastern half of the park, best known for creosote bushes, spidery ocotillo and cholla cactus. The Mojave Desert is higher, and slightly cooler, best known for its unruly Joshua trees. Rugged mountains, arroyos, and playas form a mosaic of immense beauty and complexity in nature. The fragile desert environment provides space for self-discovery, and can be a refuge for the human spirit. www.nps.gov/jotr Tel: 760.367.5500  74485 National Park Dr., Twenty Nine Palms, CA 92277

 Tile floor at Parker

Palm Springs is very hot and arid, especially during the summer months, where you can get amazing deals on hotels. Winter months January to April is peak season with more comfortable temperatures for most, but much higher prices. Also famous for spas, hot springs and a vibrant alternative lifestyle.