The Casa Blanca House Museum was one of my favorite places we visited in San Juan! The nearly 500 year-old mansion has so many stunning historic details, and such a storied history.
The home was intended to be used as a fort and a residence for Juan Ponce de Leon, the Spanish conquistador popularly known for his (apparently historically untrue) search for the fountain of youth.
Ponce de Leon died before the house was completed in 1523, but had he survived he wouldn’t have enjoyed his new home for long. The original wooden structure was damaged by fire shortly after completion.
The mansion was rebuilt in stone, but it didn’t take long for the Spanish government to decide that a larger fort was needed. The replacement, La Fortaleza, is actually quite close by. In addition to the incredible ocean views, several balconies at Casa Blanca offer nice views of La Fortaleza, which still serves as the residence of the governor of Puerto Rico.
After 250 years of ownership by the Ponce de Leon family, the home was occupied by the Spanish, and then American government. Each left their mark on the home, in the form of additions, renovations, and even neglect.
Nowadays the home is managed by the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture. We didn’t plan ahead to take a tour when we visited, but roaming the house and pretending we were on an episode of House Hunters was an entirely acceptable substitute.
This kitchen! I should have taken more detail photos; the tiles, all the texture and character were amazing. I feel like this is something I’ll see Jersey Ice Cream Co re-creating any day now.
Stray and stray-ish cats were everywhere in San Juan, some better cared for than others. But this guy seemed pretty happy with his digs.
An article I read about Casa Blanca warned that it was somewhat more rustic than some might expect from a mansion. And I suppose it is a tad short on gilding, but it wouldn’t have really occurred to me to think of it as anything less than a mansion–particularly after stepping out on a balcony and surveying the gardens and the sea beyond.
The house is furnished with items appropriate to the time period, but not necessarily original to the former owners.
There wasn’t an employee in sight during most of our exploration, but I wish I’d made a point to ask about this mural on the second floor. This floor isn’t furnished, and I’m sure it’s easy to re-paint the walls at any rate, but it still surprised me to find this artwork in the corner of one room. I can’t imagine most house museums in the mainland US being relaxed enough to permit something like this.
The museum is located in the Pathology Building that served Central State Hospital, a mental hospital that first opened in 1848. Central State grew to massive size over the years, with two large buildings housing 2,500 patients at its height. As the buildings deteriorated, the huge, ornate patient wings were torn down in the early 1970s.
Luckily, the Pathology Building was spared. Central State did continue operation into the 1990s, but the Pathology Building was shut down in the 1960s, preserved as a time capsule of medicine!
To give you a sense of scale, above is a map of the massive hospital complex, with the pathology building circled.
The Pathology Building was used for research and education, so it actually had its own small museum. The glass cases you see on the left line the walls of this room and showcase specimens.
A medical student’s project: painstakingly careful separation of the nerves of the arm, starting with the spine all the way over on the left. After removal, they were mounted on a board and lacquered.
There are gorgeous copper sinks everywhere in the building. They were installed with a coating that would prevent them from oxidizing and turning green.
Since Central State Hospital treated mental illness, many of the items in the collection are brain-related disease and injury. You can see examples of human brains with tumors, Alzheimer’s, peculiar injuries, and diseases that are far less common today, such as neurosyphilis.
The teaching amphitheater is beautiful, one of my favorite spaces in the museum–not least because it made me feel like I was stepping into The Knick.
The tiny morgue, which sits just outside the autopsy room. As part of the hospital’s research mission, deceased patients would be autopsied to search for any physical clues to the cause of their mental illness.
See that pipe to the left of the window in the autopsy room below? It’s a dictation tube that the doctors would use to dictate notes to a stenographer located in the records room above. We couldn’t take photos in the records room due to privacy concerns, but it is filled with beautifully handwritten and very detailed records of each autopsy.
An infant size iron lung–obviously not something that would have originally been in this room, but now displayed here as they’ve acquired more medical equipment from other area hospitals to expand their medical collection.
Old, stained tissue slides, used for both reference and research. Some diseases such as neurosyphilis were easy to identify in patients since they would have specific physical markers the doctors could identify. Others like schizophrenia did not exhibit physical traits that the doctors could identify using the tools they had available at the time.
Bottle from the many chemicals and compounds the doctors used in their research.
Cobalt glass apothecary cabinet. The dark glass protects the potions within from light damage.
Looking down onto the teaching amphitheater from one of the two upstairs balconies.
The doctors began using photography almost immediately, both for research and education. They even had their own darkroom!
An infant skeleton on display in an upstairs library.
While in Cincinnati over the weekend, we discovered the fantastic American Sign Museum! Set in a former factory building in an crumbling industrial area of the city, the museum displays vintage neon and other signage from across the US.
The rotating Shopland Satellite is one of the wow pieces–and a personal favorite. It originally adorned an Anaheim shopping center.
The faux main street is crammed full of vintage signs. I love the eyeglasses below!
Leading with the glowy things was obviously a no-brainer, so now we’re moving backwards to the museum entrance, where you’re greeted by a 20 foot tall fiberglass genie. He originally welcomed customers at a Los Angeles carpet cleaning company.
It’s partially obscured, but the hammer shaped “Gross Hardware” sign came from Columbus, where it was a minor landmark, frequently figuring into directions given to out-of-towners.
The parking lot is also littered with signs awaiting their turn to shine:
On a dreary, drizzling day in Kyoto, we hopped on the train down to the Fushimi ward–one of the oldest sake producing districts of the city–in search of the Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum.
Housed in former Gekkeikan sake brewery buildings that date back to the early 1900s, the museum isn’t large, but ably introduces you to the history and process of sake production. Your 300 yen entrance fee includes a mini bottle of sake to take home (which they sell for 300 yen in the gift shop), and a tasting at the end of tour. Very worth it!
As is so often the case at breweries and distilleries, the quality of the water is credited with producing a superior product, and visitors are invited to give it a taste.
Gekkeikan is the worlds largest producer of sake, and most of their brew comes out of thoroughly modern facilities in Osaka. But here you’ll see the traditional methods and implements of sake making.
Old woodcut seals that were used for branding casks of sake.
Up until this point, I didn’t think I liked sake. I was ready to swig quickly and move on– but this was actually delicious. Of the three samples, I gravitated towards the sweeter variety, though all were very drinkable.
Just past the tasting is the gift shop, with a great range of sakes and sake infused sweets to take back home. You can see why they don’t charge much for the museum; they correctly assume they’ll make it back at the gift shop.
Having passed boats tied up on the canal during our walk to the museum, we investigated further on the way back, and opted for a boat ride down the Takasegawa Canal, along the backyards of many historic sake breweries. Built in the 1500s to transport goods to and from Osaka, nowadays the canal is used only for pleasure.
At first we were told it would be about half an hour for the next boat, but they quickly realized they could squeeze us in with a group of very drunk Japanese businessmen.
My limited Japanese ran out pretty quickly, so for the remainder of the boat ride, the drunkest of the group kept repeating the same conversation: “Miss!, Miss!” (then something incomprehensible to me in Japanese). My “Sumimasen, wakarimasen” (sorry, I don’t understand), only got me off the hook for a minute or so before he tried again…and again.
The boat turns around at the gate to Uji River, where we had a chance to get off, take a look at the tiny canal museum, and the river. And then back on the boat with our inebriated companions.
Billed as the world’s only museum focused solely on parasites, the Meguro Parasitological Museum in Tokyo is the brainchild of a Japanese doctor who saw a huge uptick in parasite infected patients due to poor sanitation in the wake of World War II. It aims to promote research and educate the public on parasites; however I have a feeling most of its visitors come for the gross out factor. We made sure to fit in a visit for just that reason!
The museum is located on two narrow floors of an unassuming office building– not enough room to display all 60,000 specimens in their collection, but there’s still plenty to look at.
This horror movie prop parasite specimen is, so far as I can gather, a whale’s kidney infected by the nematode Crassicauda giliakiana.
Another type of nematode, Ascaris lumbricoides, is estimated to have infected 70% of the Japanese population due to poor sanitation and scarcity of safe food as the country struggled to rebuild after World War II. While infection symptoms are often minor, I don’t recommend Googling for photos. Or maybe that’s your thing.
My darling boyfriend–who has a background in biology–helped out with the research, then proceeded to Google every disgusting parasite he could think of (not the ones I asked about, but thanks honey) in order to show me the horror-movie photos.
Below, a display showing the life cycle of some of the preserved specimens.
What you’re looking at in the left jar is Schistosoma japonicum in the blood vessels that connect the liver to the small intestine.
This parasite matures in the liver before laying eggs that continue through the intestines or urinary tract to be either passed (and thus potentially infect another host), or circulated back to the liver. Schistosoma worms infect individuals who come into contact with unclean water.
The resulting disease, Schistosomiasis, kills somewhere between 12,000-200,000 people a year, underscoring the need for clean water in developing countries. S. japonicum was largely eradicated in Japan after the government encouraged a move away from using water oxen for farming, as they can pass on the parasite.
Below, a creepy 1971 Japanese educational poster for Schistosomiasis. The characteristic distended stomach is caused by liver damage from the Schistosoma eggs, which then results in abdominal swelling.
It’s a wonder this poor bird is still standing (dammit, where’s an ex-parrot joke when I need one?), as he appears to be completely riddled with parasites. Really, they’re showing parasites and the organs they can infect.
If you’re already afraid of what’s in your food, don’t head up to the second floor, which explores human parasites:
A nearly 30 foot tapeworm! If you need a clearer illustration of just how long this is, grab the end of the ribbon hanging next to it and stroll across the room. This particular tapeworm is the Diphyllobothrium nihonkaiense, which unsurprisingly infects humans who munch on raw or undercooked fish.
But don’t put down your sushi! Infection from sushi is relatively rare because the risk stems mainly from freshwater fish which are rarely used in sushi. This may be why the museum booklet describes D. nihonkaiense as stemming from the consumption of raw trout.
Raw salmon is easily my favorite, and has a fascinating history. Because of the possibility of parasites in a fish which migrates between fresh and salt water, salmon has only recently become a sushi bar staple in Japan.
When Japanese overfishing created a potential market for Norwegian fish in Japan, Norway took advantage of the opportunity by launching a concerted PR campaign on behalf of Norwegian salmon in the 1980s. While the Norwegian article doesn’t address how the parasite concerns were resolved, apparently Japan’s indigenous Ainu population had long been freezing salmon to kill parasites, and this same basic technique of deep freezing is employed in much of Japan and the US today to ensure the fish is safe to eat.
“Important Parasites of Humans”, showing the organs they infect. Amongst the creepy crawlies are our friends Ascaris lumbricoides, Schistosoma japonicum, a Chinese liver fluke, and beef and pork tapeworms.
Above, wax casts of parasite eggs 1,000 times the actual size. These were created as a teaching tool by Jinkichi Numata, a technician at the Institute for Infectious Disease.
The beautifully detailed sketches below are just one of the books on display from Dr. Stayu Yamaguti, who contributed substantially to parasite research. These sketches and notes were not entirely his own observations, rather they were his way of compiling current research and theories.
The small gift shop on the second floor. They offer postcards, tote bags, t-shirts and some smaller items, but I can’t help feel that they’re missing out on the market for over-the-top merchandise many tourists would buy. Still, there’s a couple pretty gross postcards if you’d like to horrify your friends back home.
After all this, you’d think food would be the last thing on our minds, but we were starving and headed across the street for some excellent takoyaki.
Visiting the Meguro Parasitological Museum:
-Admission is free and the museum is open Tuesday through Sunday 10-5
-The museum is approx 15 minute walk from Meguro station, check out their website for detailed directions, or use Google maps–which served us quite well for most of our city destinations in Japan.
The Cup Noodle Museum was our first stop on the day trip to Yokohama that included the Raumen Museum (see that post here). Both were fantastic in their own right, but if I had to pick just one, the Cup Noodle Museum offers far more to do. Read on to see the museum, dining, and make your own ramen experience!
From the beginning, the Cup Noodle museum has a gorgeous, clean, modern aesthetic. My favorite display was the room of all their flavors and brands, arranged in chronological order.
Befitting a museum created to promote a brand, they lay it on pretty thick, fawning over founder Momofuku Ando. Fortunately, it’s exaggerated and stylistic enough that it simply becomes good, goofy fun.
Ramen art or Flying Spaghetti Monster origin myth?
Below, a recreation of the little shed in which Ando invented instant ramen.
After you’ve made your way through the museum (or before, if you’re hungry), the Noodle Bazaar awaits! Choose from 8 stands representing noodle dishes around the world.
You’ll order through the familiar ticket machines, then hand your ticket to the staff at the window. Don’t worry, there are English titles on the buttons, so you shouldn’t have any trouble ordering.
Make Your Own Chicken Ramen Factory
The museum offers a hands-on “Chicken Ramen Factory” experience for 500 yen a person. We had Japanese friends call ahead to make a reservation, but you can sign up on the day of at the ticket office as well, just keep in mind they’re likely to be busier on weekends and holidays.
There’s a bandanna (which you get to take home), and an apron waiting for you at the orientation tables.
You’re separated into small groups and assigned a staff member who will guide you through the process, from mixing and kneading your dough, all the way to cutting the noodles. Ours spoke limited English, but he was very sweet and patient with me when I was snapping photos instead of assisting my partner! There’s an English instruction sheet, and you’ll do fine with a little miming.
The cute elderly couple in our group…possibly the only other adults that weren’t accompanying children. Don’t feel self conscious about going, though! No one minds, and I’m sure there’s often groups with a larger concentration of adults.
The staff never stop moving! Above, rushing to clean up while we’re decorating our packaging and waiting for our noodles to be fried.
The staff handles the more dangerous process of deep frying the noodles to dry them in a glassed in kitchen. All baskets are numbered, so the noodles you take home are the exact noodles you hand kneaded, and you can watch your ramen going through the process.
They aren’t only holding out the noodles for my photo; everyone is welcome to crowd around the glass and the staff member who was assisting at your table happily shows you your ramen as it’s processed.
After all our hard work, the finished product!
Before you leave, you’ll want to stop by the gift shop, which has all kinds of fun Cup Noodle souvenirs.
They sell Cup Noodle gift sets, candles, pretty much everything that can be branded, and these fantastic Cup Noodle shaped cakes, a fun twist on a traditional Japanese sweet with azuki bean filling. Lots of these came back with me for gifts!
By far my favorite roadside attraction from our southern road trip, the Button King Museum represents the eccentric life’s work of 84 year old Dalton Stevens, the self styled “Button King.”
In 1983, when insomnia kept him awake far after TV programming cut off at 2am, Steven’s search for entertainment led him to start sewing buttons on a denim suit, the beginning of a prodigious button sewing (and gluing) career. His museum sits in front of his house, off a country road near Bishopville, South Carolina, and houses the original denim suit, two cars, an outhouse, a coffin (that he hopes to be buried in), and more button covered odds and ends.
The museum seems to be open pretty much any time Stevens is home, and he was quick to come down and say hello when he noticed we’d stopped. He was incredibly sweet, happy to answer questions and pose for photos after donning his button uniform. Not at all media shy, he offered to sing a song and encouraged me to record it. (Check out the video at the bottom of the post).
The walls of the museum are covered with memorabilia from his media appearances, at its height in the late 80s and early 90s. He was even sent on a promotional tour of Japan by the Iris Button Co! Now a widower and less active in the media, he says he loves the company from visitors to his museum…seriously, go visit this man!
Did you know that the house from the A Christmas Story movie is fully restored and open for tours in Cleveland, Ohio? Just in time for Christmas, we made the trek to the original A Christmas Story house to drum up some Christmas cheer! Despite the movie being a holiday tradition for us, and growing up in Ohio, I’d somehow never made the pilgrimage till now.
We weren’t the only ones looking for some last minute Christmas fun, but the line stretching down the block moved fairly quickly.
A glimpse of the infamous leg lamp in the window while waiting in line.
And finally welcomed into the house, you’ll see the “fra-jee-lay” leg lamp shipping container sitting right inside the front door.
And of course, the main photo-op spot, the glorious leg lamp. They told us this sadly isn’t the original from the movie, but it makes little difference for that leg lamp selfie you’ll be instagramming!
The ill fated turkey in the cute, retro kitchen.
Naturally, there were bunny jammies for the whole family and leg lamps available in the gift shop. Nowhere near Cleveland this holiday season? You can still snag a leg lamp and bunny suit for your loved ones on Amazon.
If you’re thinking about visiting the house, they’re currently open 7 days a week, year around, but be sure tocheck out their website to verify details and plan your visit.