Sole Sister

Cruising in the single lane


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Northern exposure

Visiting Japan is a bit like going home, or at least a second home. Having lived there, in a couple of stints, for around seven years, with two children born there, and now two Australian-Japanese grandchildren, Japan arouses a warm familiarity and prompts sweet  reminiscences.  While Tokyo was my early stomping ground, in recent times the northern island of Hokkaido mostly calls.

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Japanese noodle shop, and signs. 

Mother Nature gives Japan such a hard time – volcanos, earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons, mudslides – so I counted my blessings when my just-ended visit to Hokkaido slotted neatly between the tail end of one typhoon and fringe buffeting from another. No cancelled flights, no scary landings. And, to top it off, not one earth tremor felt during my stay. The time was perfect too to catch the annual spectacle of the momiji trees – Japanese miniature maples – and other autumn beauties transforming the hillsides with yellows, crimsons, oranges and reds. In aki – autumn – Mother Nature smiles on Japan.

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Aki – autumn.

When I go to Japan I have a list of must-dos. High on the list is eating real sushi, the type topped with an array of absolutely fresh seafood, some of which you probably didn’t know was edible, on gluggy pats of sweet and tangy sushi rice with a lick of wasabi. Not the nori seaweed wrapped rolls with strange fillings like tandoori chicken and canned tuna and chilli that proliferate in local food courts. And real Japanese noodles, like the miso ramen that’s popular in Hokkaido. And that’s just for starters. Another absolute must is visiting an onsen, the luxurious thermal hot spring baths that proliferate across the country, one blessing from Japan’s volcanic disposition.

I spent my stay in the charming city of Sapporo the most ordered of Japanese cities, having been built in the last 150 years, adopting an American-style grid pattern, the opposite of the higgledy piggledy nature of Tokyo and other Japanese cities and villages, which are a challenge to navigate for the newcomer. Sapporo is known for its annual Yuki Matsuri or Snow Festival, its eponymous beer and as the home of the 1972 Winter Olympics. It’s also gaining a reputation as a formidable food destination with an increasing number of Michelin Star restaurants, a trend which is also spreading to the burgeoning ski resort of Niseko and the second city of Hokkaido, Asahikawa. Much of Japan’s fresh produce – fruit, vegetables, dairy, meat and, increasingly specialties such as wine – are grown in Hokkaido which could account for the gourmet tag.

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 Apples, wine…some of Hokkaido’s bounty. 

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 Sapporo tramcar. 

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Mt Teine , home to the 1972 Winter Olympics, dominates Sapporo. 


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Hot property

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Not bad for a building over 3200 years old.

Something has to be really worth seeing if you have to brave 48 deg temperatures and a scorching sun in an isolated desert location to view it. Luckily the imposing Elamite-era ziggaraut – a massive tiered pyramid-type structure – at Choqa Zanbil is worth melting for.

Umbrellas aloft, and scampering to any available shade, we stood awed at the massive structure only uncovered in 1935 by surveyors from the Anglo-Iranian oil company, later BP,  after being “lost” for more than two and a half millennia.  The purpose of the tiers was to allow the high officials to be closer to the heavens.  Different entrances were used for the various levels of officials and priests. Again, the sheer audacity and genius of these circa 1200 BC rulers, and their architects and builders, boggles the mind.

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Quality brick work; ancient (autographed) hinges; cuneiform inscriptions. 

Choqa Zanbil is considered to be the world’s best-preserved example of a ziggaraut, a key factor leading to its listing in 1979 as a UNESCO World heritage site, along with Persepolis and Imam Square in Esfahan. It’s so well preserved – maybe thanks to sitting under the desert sands – that it looks like the brickies finished the work not long ago. A touching reminder of that long ago life is a child’s footprint still clearly distinguishable in the clay paving stones.

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Ancient footprint. 

The structure is floodlit at night highlighting its commanding tiers against the desert night sky. And the outside temperature by then is only…a balmy 40 deg.


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Dust to dust

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Considering it’s the final resting place of such a majestic historical figure as Cyrus the Great, Pasagardae is so low key some suggest it’s not even worth visiting. But take no heed. Somehow, viewed from a hilltop with the sound of tinkling bells from grazing goat herds drifting across the valley, low-key adds presence to this stark reminder that even great kings end up as dust.

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A few mounds, remnants of stone blocks and columns…all that remains of Cyrus the Great’s Pasagardae capital. 

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Cunieform inscription, palace column bas relief.

Despite the prominence of Persepolis, Pasargadae was actually Cyrus’ capital and remained so until his son Cambyses II moved it south to Susa, now Shush.  This modest presence belies its former pre-eminence so the mind’s eye must envision the 1.6 sq km site with its gardens watered by canals of white stone, the 30-column central hall and the Audience Palace of which the cuneiform inscription, reading “I am Cyrus the Archaemenid king”, remains. The garden is one of the earliest examples of the classic Persian design.

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Canals of white stone…the earliest Persian garden?

The Pasagardae ruins are among Iran’s swelling list of UNESCO World Heritage sites. Like so many of the world’s heritage treasures the site has been degraded by subsequent conquerors, including the armies of Alexander the Great. But the actual tomb was saved from the early Arab invaders carrying the word of Islam by local villagers who played up the site as the tomb of Solomon’s mother.


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A taste of Shiraz

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Brilliant tiled dome of the Mausoleum of poet Hafez.

Our tour notes promised “the Pearl of Persia” and we were not disappointed.

Think of almost anything that epitomises cultural Persia and you’ll find it represented in Shiraz. Poets and philosophers; perfumed gardens; plush palaces; meticulous, vibrant hand-knotted carpets; bubbling fountains; exquisite, richly coloured glazed tiles; nightingales. Although sadly, the delicious output of the eponymous Shiraz grape, also known as Syrah, isn’t included having become victim to the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Shiraz, the capital of Fars Province and the stepping-off point for fabled Persepolis, was the national capital during the Zand dynasty era from 1747-79. The city retains the elegance engendered by its long association with the creative arts and classical gardens. Significant sites incorporate a serene garden and streets are lined with abundant trees giving the city a cool and shady air. It’s the home of the renowned Persian poets Hafaz and Saadi, proudly still revered by their countrymen.  Their tombs to this day are significant pilgrimage sites and surrounded by trees, water and blooms.

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Courtyard garden fountain at Eram Garden, or Garden of Paradise.

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Tombs of Saadi (above) and Hafez (below).

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Sour orange jam in the making.

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Mature cypress pines in Saadi Mausoleum garden.

A popular arboreal choice in Shiraz, as it is across Iran, is the cypress pine. Another is the sour orange which lines many a median strip throughout the city. During our visit the trees were laden with swelling green fruit awaiting their seasonal harvest for making into jam which, though unable to taste test, I imagine may be like marmalade jam. I have even uncovered some evidence that Shiraz may be where orange marmalade originated.

Dominating the centre of the city is the Zand period Argh-e Karim Khan citadel, with its very own leaning tower and classic courtyard garden, home of 18th century ruler Karim Khan.

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Arg-e Karim Khan citadel: leaning tower (above); inner courtyard; cool and inviting courtyard garden. 

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Exquisite decorative Arg-e Karim Khan bathhouse: a leaking cistern caused the leaning tower.

Another splendid example of Persian artistic prowess is the Imamzadeh-ye Ali-ebn-e-hamze Shrine whose standout feature is its dazzling interior domed ceiling and walls of Venetian mirror work.

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Imamzadeh-ye Ali-ebn-e-hamze Shrine’s dazzling mirror work and stained glass windows. 

If I ever have the chance to revisit Shiraz it would be in early spring when the orange blossoms burst into bloom and drench the city in their perfume. As Saadi said; “Whatever makes an impression on the heart seems lovely in the eye”. And, in the case of orange blossoms, to the olfactory senses.

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