Tsuyu (梅雨), the rain season, begins to hit Okinawa in May and gradually makes its way north to the rest of Japan until the end of June. During the wet season, rainy and cloudy weather affects the entire country except Hokkaido, Japan’s second largest island north of the main Honshu Island. The seismic active island is 3.6% smaller than Ireland, with a climate significantly cooler than the rest of Japan. Seeking for a pleasant getaway from Hong Kong’s humid and hot summer, we picked Hokkaido as the destination for our 11-day vacation from 15th to 25th of June. Traveling in the remote national parks and rural countryside of Hokkaido, hiring a car was a necessity. The Hokkaido journey was our first road trip in Japan.
Known as Japan’s last true wilderness, Shiretoko National Park (知床国立公園) is the natural haven where Brown Bears and Blakiston Fish Owls ruled the primeval forests and Orcas, Minke and Sperm Whales roamed the waters of Nemuro Strait. With fantastic natural scenery, wildlife and seafood to offer, this easternmost part of Hokkaido topped our priority list in the travel itinerary. Next in the journey took us to the spectacular volcanoes of Akan Mashu National Park (阿寒摩周国立公園), where we came close to Japan’s clearest water at caldera Lake Mashu (摩周湖) and the fantastic onsen and fly fishing hot spot of Lake Akan (阿寒湖). While the lavender fields of Furano (富良野) and Biei (美瑛) had yet reached the peak bloom moment, the ultra fertile soil below the Tokachi Volcanic Group (十勝火山群) treated us with some of the best bread, corn, potatoes, asparagus, melons and milk that we ever had in our lives. Despite far away from Tokyo and Osaka, the architectural magic of Tadao Ando (安藤忠雄) in Hokkaido satisfied our thirst of contemporary design and aesthetics. Back in Obihiro (帯広), Otaru (小樽) and Sapporo (札幌), historic traces of early pioneers and contemporary dessert shops and local eateries brought us back to delightful charm of urban Japan. What’s more? Day after day of mouthwatering seafood, fresh produces, good coffee, and lovely patisseries reminded us how wonderful our world could be, when the water is clean, soil is rich, forests are healthy and people are friendly. Thank you Hokkaido. You have truly touched our hearts.
Located north of Honshu Island, Hokkaido is the second largest island in Japan.
Flying in from Tokyo Haneda, our Hokkaido journey began from Memanbetsu (女満別空港) near the Shiretoko Peninsula. After more than 1,181km of driving, we arrived at Otaru and Sapporo at the western side of the island.
This black hatchback hybrid Toyota Prius c (Toyota Aqua in Japan) provided us the means of transport from east to west across Hokkaido.
After 2 days of rain and wind, we finally had a glimpse of the active volcano of Mount Rausu (羅臼岳), the tallest peak in Shiretoko Peninsula.
The greatest experience we took away from Shiretoko was the close encounter with a pod of orcas in the Nemuro Strait.
The Mashu Lake (摩周湖) offered us a peaceful sunrise at 3:30am.
Under the shadow of Mount Oakan (雄阿寒岳), dozens of fly fishermen stepped into the crystal water of Lake Akan (阿寒湖) to test their luck.
Farms and greenhouses were washed with heavy rain as we entered into Furano (富良野).
Still at least half a month to go before the peak season of lavender blossom, visitors were enjoying themselves at a relatively less crowded Farm Tomita in Nakafurano.
Compared with rainbow flower fields, we loved the wheat fields at Biei the most.
Tadao Ando’s Chapel on the Water has been famous in the designer’s world since the 1980s.
The Hill of Buddha is the latest addition in Hokkaido by Tadao Ando.
At Yoichi Distillery (余市蒸溜所), whiskey has been produced since 1934.
Saturdays Chocolate in Sapporo is one of the many excellent local eateries and cafes that we visited in the journey.
Last but not least, Hokkaido offered us the best seafood and dessert that we ever had as far as we could remember. Let’s begin to tell the story of our journey!
Last time when we first visited Delhi, we only had time to see the Red Fort and Jama Masjid. Similar to last time, we had a few hours of stopover time before flying back to Hong Kong. After lunch at Khan Market, we spent the day in the area of Nizamuddin, a busy Medieval neighborhood with narrow lanes and community mosques. The famous Humayun’s Tomb is the biggest draw for visitors in the area. From the closest metro station Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, it was a ten minute walk to the enormous tomb ground. Despite the short distance, crossing the dusty roads, walking under flyovers, and finding ourselves towards the right park entrance was not as straightforward as we thought. Anyhow, we managed to arrive at a rather chaotic queuing scene at the ticket office.
Commissioned by Empress Bega Begum for her husband Mughal Emperor Humayun, Humayun’s Tomb was built in 1569-70 in Delhi’s Nizamuddin East. Designed by Persian architects Mirak Mirza Ghiyas and Sayyid Muhammad, Humayun’s Tomb was the first large scale structure made with red sandstone. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage, the splendid structure had set a fine standard for latter Mughal architecture, including the Taj Mahal.
After obtaining the admission tickets, we entered the complex of Humayun’s Tomb through a series of gateways and courtyards.
We followed a prominent water channel towards the beautiful sandstone building of Humayun’s Tomb. Reference to Char Bagh (Four Gardens) of the Paradise in the Koran, the tomb garden is a 30-acre square carved into smaller squares by paths and water channels.
The tomb structure reaches a height of 47m, with obvious influences from Persian architecture. The entire structure sits on a large platform with a few meters high.
The arch and beam structure together with the use of red sandstone, white marble, and Rajasthani decorations exemplifies the Mughal architecture lasted in India for four hundred years.
The red sandstone and white marble provide a splendid combination of facade treatments and decorations.
Modeled on the Paradise Garden in Koran, the garden is divided into 36 squares by axes of water channels and paths.
Just like a few other attractions, we encountered a large group of school students at Humayun’s Tombs.
Entrance dome of Humayun’s Tomb was decorated with elegant lines.
Much less crowded than the Taj Mahal, visitors could appreciate the solemn interior of the mausoleum.
The main level houses the cenotaph of Emperor Humayun and Empress Bega Begum and also several other Mughal rulers from a later period. The real graves lie one level before in the basement.
It’s common to see school groups when visiting historical movements in India.
Inspired by Persian garden, the 30 acre tomb garden is subdivided by a network of water channels.
After visiting the interior of the tomb, we circled around the structure on the upper platform.
We returned to the garden at the ground level via one of the four covered staircases.
As we left the complex, the late afternoon sun cast a warm amber tone on the white marble and accentuated the reddish tone of the sandstone.
A final view of the front facade of the building before we left the complex.
Near Humayun’s Tomb, there is another magnificent tomb architecture known as Isa Khan’s Tomb. Built in 1547 – 58, the octagonal structure is decorated with canopies, glazed tiles, lattice screens, and a prominent verandah.
Similar to the Taj Mahal and Fatehpur Sikri, the Agra Fort has been inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List since the 1980s, making it one of the three must-see attractions in Agra. Known as the Red Fort of Agra, the Agra Fort served as the royal residence of the early Mughal emperors until 1638 when the capital was moved to Delhi. It was constructed during the golden age of the Mughal Empire under two prolific builders: Emperor Akbar the Great and his grandson Shah Jahan. While Akbar is well known for founding the short lived capital Fatehpur Sikri, Shah Jahan is perhaps best known for erecting the most perfect Mughal architecture ever, the Taj Mahal. On the ruins of an earlier fort, Akbar rebuilt the Agra Fort with red sandstone. Akbar’s Agra Fort was completed in 1573 but was later transformed by Shah Jahan into its current mix of red sandstone and white marble buildings.
After visiting the Taj, we dropped by Joney’s Place, the local eatery where we had dinner the night before for breakfast. We had a few hours to spare before our walking tour at 2:30pm. Agra Fort was the obvious choice for us. An auto rickshaw brought us to the busy fort entrance in no time. Just like the Red Fort in Delhi, Agra Fort was very popular with local tourists.
Despite served as the royal residence, the Agra Fort appeared like a heavily fortified complex from its exterior.
Inside Agra Fort, Diwan-i-am was the main audience hall in the complex.
Built between 1631 to 1640, the 201′ by 67′ Diwan-i-am was the hall where Emperor Shah Jehan addressed the general public and his guests.
Constructed by Shah Jahan in 1637, the Anguri Bagh (Grape Garden) was used as a vineyard to make wine for the emperor.
Stone colonnade flanked three sides of the Anguri Bagh.
Khas Mahal was built by Shah Jahan for his daughter Jahanara and Roshanara.
Adjacent to the Khas Mahal, covered verandahs and the marble terraces offered visitors a fantastic view of the Yamuna River.
The Musamman Burj is one of the most splendidly crafted buildings in the complex.
While Akbar built his buildings with sandstone, his grandson Shah Jahan preferred white marble just like another of his other project, the Taj Mahal.
Musamman Burj, an octagonal tower with great views of the Yamuna River, was built by Shah Jahan for his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal.
Together with his daughter Jahanara Begum, It was here that Shah Jahan spent his last few years as a captive of his son Aurangzeb.
From here, Shah Jahan spent his final moments on his death bed facing the Taj Mahal, the tomb of his beloved wife.
Tourists love to take pictures against the beautiful marble lattice work. This woman didn’t even notice the approach monkey as she posed for photo.
Known as the Gem Mosque, the Nagina Masjid is a small marble mosque built by Shah Jahan.
Built by Emperor Akbar, the Jahangiri Mahal Palace was the primary zenana to house his Rajput wives. Compared to his grandson Shah Jahan’s buildings, Akbar’s buildings were mainly built with red sandstone.
Jahangiri Mahal Palace is one of the oldest surviving building in Agra Fort and also the largest part in the compound.
A beautiful dome ceiling at the Jahangiri Mahal Palace.
Only 30 out of 500 buildings of the Jahangir Mahal Palace survive to the present. Many had been destroyed by Shah Jahan and later the British.
After the visit, we returned to the main entrance and hopped on an auto rickshaw to return our hotel.
Out of all structures in Fatehpur Sikri, the most imposing building is undoubtedly Jama Masjid (Friday Mosque). Completed in 1571, Akbar’s impressive grand mosque houses the white marble tomb of Sufi saint Shaikh Salim Chishti, and the spectacular 54m tall Buland Darwaza (Victory Gate). One of the biggest mosques in India, the Jama Masjid of Fatehpur Sikri features a series of chhatris, elevated dome shaped pavilions purely for decoration. We came just in time to make a brief visit at the mosque before sunset.
From the former royal palaces, we entered the mosque via the Shahi Darwaza (King’s Gate). At the gate, we took off our shoes and left them with the shoe keeper along with a small fee.
Beyond the Shahi Darwaza, we arrived at a huge open courtyard.
The gigantic Buland Darwaza (Victoria Gate) was built as a victory arch to commemorate Akbar’s conquest of Gujarat.
At 55m from the outside, the Buland Darwaza (Victoria Gate) is considered the tallest gate in the world.
At the back, the Buland Darwaza stepped down to a more human scale towards the main courtyard.
Opposite to Buland Darwaza stands the elegant white marble tomb of Shaikh Salim Chisti and the red sandstone assembly hall Jamat Khana.
The Tomb of Shaikh Salim Chisti is considered one of the finest example of Mughal architecture.
The marble cenotaph is popular with Islam worshipers. Shaikh Salim Chisti was a Sufi saint who blessed Emperor Akbar with his son before he was born.
Worshipers studied religious text at the outer corridor of the cenotaph. Photography was not allowed inside the cenotaph.
The tomb building is covered all four sides with beautiful lattice.
Showing the direction of Mecca, the central mihrab is covered by a dome.
We paid a brief visit to the interior of the main mosque building.
Splendid marble inlay in geometric patterns cover most of the interior walls.
The principal mihrab situates beneath the great dome of the mosque.
Worshipers gathered at the front porch of the assembly hall Jamat Khana.
There are a number of tombs in the courtyard.
As the sun set below the magnificent sandstone chhatris, it was time for us to return to the parking lot and finished our day’s journey to Agra.
At around 8pm, we finally arrived at Taj Ganj, the district immediately south of majestic Taj Mahal in Agra. After checking in at our simple guesthouse near the West Gate, we headed out for a quick bite. We would need to rest for the night and get up early the next day to line up for the sunrise entry into the Taj Mahal before 6am.
DAY 8 (4/5): THE ABANDONED CAPITAL OF MUGHAL EMPIRE, Fatehpur Sikri, Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India, 2018.12.01
Known as the “City of Victory” after Emperor Akbar’s conquest of Gujarat in 1573, Fatehpur Sikri was the capital of the Mughal Empire from 1571 to 1585, until its abandonment in 1610 shortly after Akbar’s death. The abandoned Mughal capital makes a great side trip from Agra, where tourists from all over the world flocked to visit probably the most famous attraction in India, the Taj Mahal. Inscribed in UNESCO World Heritage in 1986, the red-sandstone capital is considered an Indo-Islamic architectural masterpiece. It is also one of the biggest tourist attractions in India.
It was almost 4pm when we arrived at the huge parking lot of Fatehpur Sikri. From there, we had to hop on a shuttle bus for a 5-minute ride to the main entrance of the historical site. The sun was already quite low. The red sandstone buildings were very photogenic under the late afternoon sun. However, our visit was quite rush as we only had a bit over an hour to appreciate the historical site.
With four distinctive chhatris on the top, the Diwan-i-khas or Hall of Private Audience was the first building that caught our eyes as we entered the complex.
Emperor Akbar’s Throne Pillar in the Diwan-i-khas contains motifs of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity, aiming to incorporate all religions into one for his empire.
Tansen Musical Pond at the centre of Fatehpur Sikri was famous for the platform designated for the legendary musician Tansen.
The green pond provided a pleasant contrast to the red sandstone architecture.
Panorama of Tansen musician pond.
Surrounded by a verandah, the Turkish Sultana’s House is an highly ornate building. Both the interiors and exteriors are beautifully carved with motifs. The house is believed to be the residence of the Turkish Queen Sultana.
The Turkish Sultana’s House is full of intricate carved motifs.
Every single inch of the building is ornately carved.
With influences from Hindu and Muslim cultures, the buildings of Fatehpur Sikri showcase some of the best examples of Mughal architecture.
The well preserved Fatehpur Sikri looked like a large empty shell made with red sandstone.
The structural skeleton of the buildings looked neat and surreal.
Chhatris, the elevated, dome shaped pavilions, are commonly found in traditional Indian architecture. They serve mainly for decorative purpose.
Built in 1571, the Birbal’s House accommodated the two senior queens of Emperor Akbar.
Beyond the Birbal’s House, we reached the long colonnade of the Lower Haramsara.
The colonnade of the Lower Haramsara.
Many historians believe the Lower Haramsara was used as a stable for camels and horses.
Adjacent to the Lower Haramsara is the Jodha Bai Palace, the complex constructed for the Hindu queen. Hindu motifs such as lotus flowers and elephants could be found at the magnificent Jodha Bai Palace.
A pleasant courtyard can be found at the centre of Jodha Bai Palace. For security purpose, only one single guarded entrance was provided for the complex back in the old days.
We exited from the main entrance of Jodh Bai’s palace to find our way towards Jama Masjid, the famous Friday Mosque of Fatehpur Sikri.
In 2012, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy had come to closure with The Dark Knight Rises. In this final chapter of the trilogy, there was a remarkable scene where Christian Bale (Batman) escaped from a terrifying underground prison. That underground prison was actually shot in Rajasthan, at Chand Baori of Abhaneri. Consisted of 3500 steps over 13 stories, and with a depth of about 30m, Chand Baori is one of the biggest stepped wells in India. The oldest parts of Chand Baori date back to the 8th century. For centuries, the well served as a community water cistern outside of the monsoon months.
We have long been fascinated by the beautiful stepped wells of India. Visiting Chand Baori of Abhaneri was one of the first attractions we selected for our travel itinerary. Despite visitors can no longer walk down the well, seeing the well from the top edge is still more than worthwhile to appreciate its ancient engineering marvel and sheer beauty of the stair arrangement.
We arrived at Chand Baori before 1pm.
It wasn’t the best time of the day to appreciate the shadow of the stairs.
But the sheer grandeur of the stepped well was really overwhelming.
One side of the well is occupied by a temple and resting spaces for the royal family.
The intricate carvings of jharokhas (windows), balconies and rooms reveal the significance of Chand Baori in the medieval time.
Like many attractions in India, pigeons are inevitable at Chand Baori.
Details of the architecture.
Dressed in blue, the staff of Chand Baori stood out from the earthy background.
Full view of Chand Baori.
Full view of Chand Baori.
Full view of Chand Baori.
The scale of Chand Baori is truly amazing.
The 3500 steps of the stepped well constitute a surreal picture as if an etched painting by Maurits Escher.
Similar to Bhangarh, Chand Baori was popular with local school groups as well.
Without protective railings, the stepped well can be dangerous when the place becomes too crowded.
The staff in blue really stood out at the stepped well.
The entire stepped well was like an open air museum.
There was a small Hindu shrine at the exit of the stepped well.
Panorama of Chand Baori.
Standing at the edge of the City Palace of Jaipur, the Hawa Mahal was part of the women’s chambers of the former royal palace. Built in 1799 by Maharaja Sawai Pratap Singh, the sandstone facade with a honeycomb of latticed bay windows is the most recognizable building in Jaipur. The splendid facade is actually the back side of the palace building, where royal ladies were able to watch the activities and occasional festival events on the street through one of the 953 small windows. Today, the five-storey palace building is open to visitors. With narrow stairways and passageways and shallow rooms, the top three floors can get a little crowded during the tourist high season.
All tourists in Jaipur would take pictures of the famous facade from the main street, while not every one would actually visit the building interior. We were curious to experience how it might feel to peek back at the main street through one the small windows, and thus decided to pay a brief visit of the palace. Finding the entrance of Hawa Mahal required a bit of research. Entered through a retail side street, we arrived at a back lane where the real entrance and ticket office of Hawa Mahal were located.
The splendid facade of Hawa Mahal is the most recognizable building in Jaipur.
To enter the building, visitors must find their way into the back alleyway where the main entrance is located.
Through a series of doors and gateways, we arrived at the primary courtyard of Hawa Mahal.
A feature water fountain dominated the primary courtyard of Hawa Mahal.
We had little interest on the water feature. Instead, our primary aim was to check out the small windows and the views from the top two levels of the palace.
We walked up a level at a time. Colourful stained glass windows were everywhere, providing a pleasant visual effects for the interiors.
While many small windows were locked up, some were opened for visitors to check out the street views.
It wasn’t difficult for visitors to imagine the elusive lives of the royal ladies behind the small windows.
The ramp tower led us to the top floor. From the top floor, we could enjoy the view back into the royal palace.
The pink facade of Hawa Mahal matches perfectly with shops across the street.
There was another courtyard complex connected to the Hawa Mahal on the ground level.
Looking straight down the iconic facade was a little frightening.
Across the street, restaurant patios lined up on the roof and top terraces for anyone who might have the time and mood to sit down with a drink, and take in views of the romantic sunset and iconic facade.
Stairs and hallways on the top floors were really narrow.
By the time we reached the top level it was almost sunset time.
Before leaving Hawa Mahal, we found our way to check out a corner pavilion at the terrace level.
We stopped by a rooftop cafe across the street to enjoy the sunset scenery of the iconic Hawa Mahal.
Before the sun disappeared below the horizon, flood lights at the base of Hawa Mahal were turned on for the night view. We bid farewell to Hawa Mahal and returned to the Peacock Restaurant for our final dinner in Jaipur.