Atlas Obscura
Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders

Feb. 17 2017 12:30 PM

This Strange Playground in Tokyo Is Built Out of Tires

Each day, Slate features an article from Atlas Obscura, the website dedicated to the world’s hidden wonders. You can follow Atlas Obscura on Facebook or on Twitter.

In the Tokyo metropolitan area, where nearly everything is crammed for space, about 40,000 square feet of land is designated for Nishi Rokugo Park, one of the strangest and most innovative playgrounds world-round—made nearly entirely out of tires.

Nishi Rokugo Park is filled with more than 3,000 rubber tires recycled from the nearby Kawasaki manufacturing plants. As you enter, an enormous, two-story Godzilla made from stacked tires will greet you with a cheesy set of canine teeth, a walk-through 66-foot tail, and human-sized hands at the end of its tire-studded arms.

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After walking atop an endless row of half-submerged tires, playground-goers will find even more peculiar sculptures, including a 16-tier tire rocket and a quirky tire robot.

Naturally, there's a giant tire swing, which hovers in the middle of the park. Further along is climbable jungle gym of multicolored poles with—you guessed it—tires wedged in between. Perhaps the most fun (and adult-sized) activity at Nishi Rokugo is the tire slide, where sleds are replaced with stray tires that can be ridden down a concrete tire tubing hill.

Unlike most playgrounds, Nishi Rokugo Park is not used solely by children; elderly Japanese men and women often frequent the park to enjoy the scene and admire the tire sculptures. Free and open around the clock, Nishi Rokugo will never tire out your sense of fun.

If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura’s New York Times best-selling book, which collects more than 700 of the world’s strangest and most amazing places Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders.

Feb. 16 2017 2:30 PM

Riggs Library Is a Shrine to Books Overlooking Washington, D.C.

Each day, Slate features an article from Atlas Obscura, the website dedicated to the world’s hidden wonders. You can follow Atlas Obscura on Facebook or on Twitter.

Riggs Library at Georgetown University is one of the United States’ great old book shrines. Dating to 1898, Riggs has four floors of cast iron walkways laid out around a central light court. Sixteen columns divide the hall into smaller alcoves, and two spiral staircases connect walkways.

Riggs was designed by an architect named Paul J. Pelz, who had just finished drawing up blueprints of the Library of Congress. It’s located on the top floor of Healy Hall and has sweeping views down the Potomac River.

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Construction of Georgetown’s library was financed by Elisha Francis Riggs, to commemorate his father George and his brother Thomas and the centennial of the university. Thomas was the force behind the Riggs family fortune. He made a fortune in banking (he ran the so-called “Bank of Presidents”) before turning to philanthropy.

Back in the day, Riggs Library boasted an impressive collection of storied old books. Contemporary writers marveled at the numerous first editions, 18th-century prayer books, Chinese dictionaries, and Renaissance-era Italian texts. This treasure trove was protected by “fire-proof” building materials: masonry walls, cast iron shelves, and terracotta tile floors.

Riggs was a functional library until the 1970s, when a larger library facility opened on campus. Today it is used mainly as an event space.

If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura’s New York Times best-selling book, which collects more than 700 of the world’s strangest and most amazing places Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders.

Feb. 15 2017 5:30 PM

The Hidden Vault Where the U.S. Treasury Kept Its Actual Treasure

Each day, Slate features an article from Atlas Obscura, the website dedicated to the world’s hidden wonders. You can follow Atlas Obscura on Facebook or on Twitter.

In 1985, renovators of the Treasury Building made an unexpected discovery. Behind the walls of the old office of the Treasurer, they had stumbled across the forgotten armored vault that used to guard the U.S. government's cash.

The old vault was designed in 1864 by Isaiah Rogers and employed a creative "burglar-proof" design. A double layer of large ball bearings were sandwiched between a metal housing—the theory was that an attacking drill bit would just penetrate one layer and get caught in the spinning balls. In any case, a retinue of 20 guards used to watch over the space to ensure that it never came to that.

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By 1881 the Rogers vault was crammed with $1 billion in securities, $500 million in bonds, and several million in gold and silver coins, as well as paintings, photographs, furniture, artwork, and other strange treasures. A pioneering female journalist named Emily Edson Briggs got a look inside in 1870 and reported on discovering several forgotten items including a bottle of rose oil (sent to Martin Van Buren by an Indian prince), hundreds of jewels, a snuff box, counterfeit coins and dies, and a hoard of Confederate currency.

The vault fell into disrepair by the turn of the century, and a congressional inquiry blasted it as "a disgrace to the government and of such obsolete character and inferiority of construction and minimum of security as would cause them to be rejected as unfit for use by any country bank in a backwoods town." The congressional report highlighted the Treasury guards as the vault's most effective defense.

The Rogers vault was replaced by a larger cash room in 1909 under the Treasury Department's south plaza. The newer subterranean space had double-story shelving, similar to library stacks. According to the Washington Post, the only way to get in was "by way of a tiny hydraulic elevator, which is protected by an iron door, opening almost at the elbow of the chief of the division of issues, who keeps the key in his desk."

Contemporary newspaper articles fawned over an advanced-for-the-time alarm system. The walls of the room were lined with a dense mesh of wires that, if disturbed from the outside, would send an electronic alert to a nearby guard station. The alarm would also activate if the connection between the guard post and vault were interrupted. The alarm "checked in" with the guard post every 15 minutes, 24 hours a day.

The government moved its gold and silver reserves in 1935, per the Treasury policy to move large gold deposits out of cities exposed to enemy attack. The so-called "deep storage" loot is now stored at Treasury facilities in Fort Knox, Denver, and West Point. Contrary to some conspiracy theories, we know exactly how much gold is at each location.

If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura’s New York Times best-selling book, which collects more than 700 of the world’s strangest and most amazing places Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders.

Feb. 14 2017 11:30 AM

The Resting Place of St. Valentine’s Skull

Each day, Slate features an article from Atlas Obscura, the website dedicated to the world’s hidden wonders. You can follow Atlas Obscura on Facebook or on Twitter.

A skull resides in a glass reliquary in a small basilica in Rome, surrounded by flowers. Lettering painted across the forehead identify the owner as none other than of the patron saint of lovers, St. Valentine.

Knowing just exactly whose skull it is, though, is complicated. First off, there was more than one Catholic saint known as St. Valentine. Then there's the approximately 1,500 years between those martyr's deaths and the enthusiastic distribution and labeling of bodies in the Victorian era. Finally, and most troubling, there is the fact that no less than 10 places claim to house the relics, all around the world.

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Little is really known of the real man (or men) behind the myth. What is known (more or less) is that at least two men by the name of Valentine (Valentinus) were known in Italy and died in the late 3rd century, and a third Valentine was located in North Africa around the same time. The two Italians were buried along Via Flaminia. As a saint, Valentine first gained real notoriety in 496 when Pope Gelasius I made Feb. 14 originally part of the Roman festival of Lupercalia, a feast day dedicated to St. Valentine. The stories of the different men seem to have merged into one over time, with most of the mythology about Valentine being a patron of lovers, helping early Christian couples to marry in secret, only dating to the 14th century and the writings of Geoffrey Chaucer.

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The 12th-century interior.

Wikimedia / Public Domain

The church itself is very old, standing on the site of an ancient Roman temple dating to the second century B.C. Most of what you see today dates to the eighth and 12th centuries, including the crypt located beneath the altar.

The skull can be found in the side altar on the left side of the church. While you are at the Basilica of Santa Maria, stop by the portico to visit with the famous Bocca della Verità (mouth of truth).

If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura’s New York Times best-selling book, which collects more than 700 of the world’s strangest and most amazing places Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders.

Feb. 13 2017 12:30 PM

The Hidden Washington Mini-Monument

Each day, Slate features an article from Atlas Obscura, the website dedicated to the world’s hidden wonders. You can follow Atlas Obscura on Facebook or on Twitter.

Unknown to most passersby, there’s a 12-foot-tall replica of the Washington Monument under a manhole near the actual monument.

Officially known as “Bench Mark A,” this underground oddity is actually a Geodetic Control Point that’s used by surveyors. It’s part of the network of a million control points across the country that helps the National Geodetic Survey, or NGS, synchronize all of the government’s maps.

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According to NGS modernization manager Dru Smith, “Geodetic control points provide starting points for any map or measurement. It has to be more accurate than any measurement you do on top of it, so we pick things that tend to be extremely stable.”

Usually that means metal caps or rods that are driven down into the ground, but this quirky control point mirrors the form of its next-door neighbor.

“All the surveys we’ve done, going back to the early 1900s, have used it,” says Smith. Most recently, it was used in the aftermath of the 2011 Washington earthquake. Measurements over the past century have shown that the Washington Monument has sunk 6.2 centimeters into the marshy soil below, at an average rate of 0.5 millimeters per year.

The mini-monument was placed in the 1880s as a part of a trans-continental leveling program. The ground level here was much lower at that time, with large parts of the Washington Monument foundation still visible above ground. The mini-monument was above ground for a time, before being encased in a brick chimney and buried. Outside of surveying circles, it’s been largely forgotten.

The survey marker is underneath a manhole, just south of the Washington Monument. Speak to a Park Ranger before trying to see it.

If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura’s New York Times best-selling book, which collects more than 700 of the world’s strangest and most amazing places Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders.

Feb. 10 2017 5:30 PM

The Hidden Chamber of Historic Records Behind Mount Rushmore

Each day, Slate features an article from Atlas Obscura, the website dedicated to the world’s hidden wonders. You can follow Atlas Obscura on Facebook or on Twitter.

The four giant presidents carved into Mount Rushmore make up one of the more absurd American monuments. However, when chiseling away at the rock face, sculptor Gutzon Borglum had a lot more in mind than is immediately apparent.

Borglum’s initial plan was to sculpt the outline of the Louisiana Purchase and inscribe it with the most important events between George Washington’s and Teddy Roosevelt’s presidencies. When that fell through, Borglum started in on a new, equally valiant endeavor. He wanted to create a Hall of Records to house important American documents for posterity.

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This grand time capsule was to be 80 feet tall and 100 feet long, lined with brass cabinets containing copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and other historic American contributions to art, science, and industry. The hall would be carved into the canyon behind the heads and would be accessible via an 800-foot staircase.

Work began in 1938 with workers blasting a 70-foot-long cavern using dynamite. The government was suspect of the project and insisted that Borglum finish the heads before he continued working on the Hall of Records. But Borglum died unexpectedly in 1941, and though his son put the finishing touches on the sculptural portraits (originally intended to depict the presidents to their waists), the Hall of Records project was abandoned.

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The chamber narrows as it goes into the mountain.

National Park Service/Public Domain

The unfinished hall sat empty and untouched for decades. Then in 1998, 16 porcelain panels were placed inside the chamber. They describe the construction of the Mount Rushmore Memorial and why those presidents were chosen, and document a history of the United States. These are intended not for the general public but as a time capsule for people of the distant future, as the sculptor intended.

The panels are sealed inside a teak box inside a titanium vault, covered by a 1,200-pound granite slab carved with a quote from Borglum’s original plans: “…let us place there, carved high, as close to heaven as we can, the words of our leaders, their faces, to show posterity what manner of men they were. Then breathe a prayer that these records will endure until the wind and rain alone shall wear them away.”

As for Borglum’s initial plan of an inscribed Louisiana Purchase sculpture, it was met with several obstacles. First, at the scale he intended it would have been impossible to sculpt the descriptions large enough for anyone to read. Second, Borglum had measured incorrectly when planning out the presidential heads (which is why Jefferson peeks out from behind Washington’s shoulder), and so Lincoln had to be pushed over to where the Louisiana Purchase was supposed to go.

If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura’s New York Times best-selling book, which collects more than 700 of the world’s strangest and most amazing places Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders.

Feb. 8 2017 12:03 PM

Blood Pancakes Are the Most Metal of All Flapjacks

Each day, Slate features an article from Atlas Obscura, the website dedicated to the world’s hidden wonders. You can follow Atlas Obscura on Facebook or on Twitter.

A balanced breakfast is an important meal in just about every society in the world, but not many of them require a blood sacrifice. If that is the sort of thing you’re looking for, though, feast your eyes on the “blood pancake.”

The traditional dish, known asveriohukainen in Finnish and blodplattar in Swedish, is exactly what it sounds like: a flapjack made with a healthy helping of blood.

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Such pancakes originate from more of a utilitarian background than from a Twilight message board. Today, blood from the butchering process, at least in most large slaughterhouses, is treated as a waste product, or used in fertilizer, fish food, and even cigarette filters. But blood can be as hearty, and usable, part of an animal as many of the meatier parts.  

Blood can be found in a number of traditional recipes, most famously in European blood sausage and black pudding. There are also lesser-known dishes such as Germany’s schwarzsauer, a soup made of blood, spices, and vinegar, or China’s blood tofu, which is just blood that has been allowed to congeal into a soft consistency.

If the sight of a deep cut is the type of thing that can make you pass out, then blood foods probably aren’t for you. But if you can stomach the idea of eating cooked blood, it’s actually quite healthy. Like eggs, blood is high in protein, making it a simple source of the nutrient. In addition, blood is extremely high in iron, which can help stave off anemia (although it also gives it that metallic aftertaste). In addition to its health benefits, blood makes an excellent replacement for eggs in cooking, acting as a binding agent, and easily whipping up into a dense foam. Perfect for things like pancakes!

Blood pancakes seem to have originated from Finland and spread across Scandinavia, especially to Sweden. There are a number of variations on the recipe, but the core ingredients are generally the same: milk, flour, sometimes even an egg, and blood. Usually the preferred blood used in the recipe is pig’s blood (available from the butcher), but people have also used their own blood, and more specifically, menstrual blood.

On their own, blood pancakes end up being a savory dish, so many recipes call for enhancing the natural flavor by adding things like onions, spices, bread crumbs, and molasses. The only other body-fluid-specific requirement is to strain the blood to remove any clots that may have formed. Which really hammers home that you’re cooking with blood, in case you forgot.

Once the batter is prepared, the pancakes can be cooked just like any other flapjack. No matter the color of the batter, the cakes usually take on a dark, nearly black color as the blood cooks. They are often described as a bit denser than your standard fluffy pancakes and definitely retain the metallic tinge that often turns people away from blood-based foods.

The pancakes are often served with lingonberries, or lingonberry jam, which can help cut the coppery flavor. Or, as the Nordic Food Lab suggests, you can add rye sourdough starter to the mix, which also helps hide the taste of blood.

While consumption of blood-based foods is not as popular as it once was, blood pancakes are still a fairly common dish in Finland and Sweden. There are brands that sell sleeves of already-cooked blood pancakes—a sanguine alternative to Eggo waffles.

If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura’s New York Times best-selling book, which collects more than 700 of the world’s strangest and most amazing places Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders.

Feb. 7 2017 12:30 PM

The Smithsonian’s American History Museum Has a Sushi Collection

Each day, Slate features an article from Atlas Obscura, the website dedicated to the world’s hidden wonders. You can follow Atlas Obscura on Facebook or on Twitter.

The American History Museum has collected an assortment of sushi ephemera as the Japanese dish gained popularity in the U.S. over the past few decades. Why collect sushi at a history museum? If you take a step back you'll remember that culinary trends come and go throughout the ages. After all, early Americans consumed vast amounts of game and alcohol; only a fool would have thought about eating raw fish.

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" 'Natural' Soy Sauce Packet"

Smithsonian / Public Domain

At the Smithsonian's Sushi Collection, each sushi artifact is dutifully cataloged, measured, and accompanied by a detailed description for future historians. It may seem boring today, but think about how interesting it can be to pour over cultural relics from the past like 1960s appliances, World War II propaganda posters, or vintage Coca-Cola ads.

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Consider the museum's description of a “Sushi Tray, Small”:

The two part container has a black tray with a detailed red and gold maple leaf pattern and a clear plastic lid. The clear plastic counterpart is shaped to leave space for the sushi inside, and allows for the contents of the tray to remain visible to the customers. This is an example of a small sushi tray used for packaging sushi.
These trays often contain of a variety of rolls and nigiri, and include a side of wasabi and gari (pickled ginger) as condiments. Upon purchase, the customer is provided with a pair of disposable chopsticks and a single serving packet of soy sauce. These trays are disposable, and therefore these prepackaged sushi trays make a convenient lunch option.

One can only imagine how a century from now, the museum’s disposable chopstick exhibit will form an important touchstone for the American experience.

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"Chopsticks, Second Generation"

Smithsonian / Public Domain

If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura’s New York Times best-selling book, which collects more than 700 of the world’s strangest and most amazing places Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders.

Feb. 2 2017 3:15 PM

Snow “Mushrooms” Are Winter’s Rarest Natural Wonder

Each day, Slate features an article from Atlas Obscura, the website dedicated to the world’s hidden wonders. You can follow Atlas Obscura on Facebook or on Twitter.

Vaughan Cornish had come to Canada’s Glacier National Park to look at waves. As a geographer, waves were his great passion. He was fascinated by undulating forms in seas and in deserts, in the movement of the clouds and in the movement of the land during an earthquake. In Canada, he wanted to observe waves of snow.

In December 1900 he and his wife Ellen, an engineer and artist, left Britain and began their three-month journey to cross wintry North America on the Canadian Pacific Railway. In Montreal and Winnipeg and out the window of the train, they had observed fresh fallen snow and drifts and the waves Cornish was so drawn to. But when they reached Glacier National Park, they discovered a class of natural snow formations they’d never seen before.

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Hovering just above the snowy ground were giant balls of suspended snow, somehow balanced on thick stems. They looked a lot like giant toadstools, and Cornish called them “snow mushrooms.”

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One of the snow mushrooms Cornish discovered.

Vaughan Cornish/Public Domain

Snow mushroom formation begins with a tree, fallen or felled, that leaves behind a wide stump a few feet in height. In the winter, these stumps start accumulating snow. In Glacier National Park, the snow falls heavy and fast—as much as 12 inches an hour at some times, averaging 48 feet in total over the course of the winter—and the wind is calm. The result is that the snow gathers around the top of the stump.

The resulting snowballs can become giant. Cornish found snow mushrooms as wide as 12 feet in diameter. They were also surprisingly sturdy, as he reported in a 1902 issue of the Geographical Journal:

When I attempted to detach a small snow-mushroom from its pedestal, I found that it was very firmly fixed. Having driven a long pole into the mass of snow, which was about 4 feet across, I found it to be tough and tenacious, and I was unable to dislodge it … Place my pole against the tree, I gave successive pushes until the tree rocked violently, when at last the snow-cap fell, but as a whole, and it was not broken with its impact with the soft snow beneath.

The effect of the snow mushrooms could be haunting. In some places, there were fields of mushrooms that would spring up above the snow. If the mushroom “stems” were short enough that the accumulation of snow eventually reached the mushroom bottoms, the balls created an undulating field of mysterious bumps.

Glacier was the only place that Cornish found these features in his trek across Canada. But after he wrote in a popular publication about the discovery, he heard about a few other places in the country where these rare formations could be found. The conditions had to be exactly right: stumps big enough and tall enough, snowfall heavy and wet enough, and wind calm enough for the mushroom caps to form.

More than 100 years later, it’s still possible to find snow mushrooms in Glacier National Park, although it seems they are rarer than they once were. On occasion, they pop up elsewhere in the world—here are a few in Japan—and they’re not always large. In this century, though, when there are fewer stumps wide enough to make snow mushrooms, these formations are a rare natural wonder.

If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura’s New York Times best-selling book, which collects more than 700 of the world’s strangest and most amazing places Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders.

Feb. 1 2017 6:00 PM

This Gas Station Was Infamous for Its Absurdly High Gas Prices

Each day, Slate features an article from Atlas Obscura, the website dedicated to the world’s hidden wonders. You can follow Atlas Obscura on Facebook or on Twitter.

Ever drive past the seemingly out of place gas station next to the Watergate hotel? That's the old 1932 Higgins Service Station, more widely known in later years as the Watergate Exxon. (Today it is a Valero gas station.) It is one of Washington, D.C.'s most iconic gas stations.

Gas stations were an entirely new building type at the turn of the century, and oil companies were still experimenting with which architectural styles best suited their business. Two competing approaches emerged early on: classical and domestic.

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Domestic-style fueling stations first appeared in New York along the Westchester County parkway system. The modest cottagelike buildings drew praise for unobtrusively blending into the parkway landscape. The Higgins Service Station draws from this tradition, with its rough-hewn stone facade and slate roof. Nine bay windows and two (nonfunctional) chimneys contribute to the cottage vibe. (For an example of Classical, check out this article about the fancy Embassy Gulf Service Station in Dupont Circle.)

The neighborhood around the Higgins Service Station was very different before construction of the monumental Kennedy Center and Watergate Hotel complex, dominated by industrial buildings. Ownership of the Higgins Service Station passed through three families until it was swallowed up by Exxon sometime after 1992. There is another interesting story about the modern Exxon station and how it acquired a nationally known, horrible reputation.

According to Freakonomics, "There’s a gas station near the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. that famously sells very expensive gas. Reporters flock there for the standard sky-high gas price story, and residents have long suspected that the station doesn’t actually want to sell gas." Jump over to Yelp or Google Reviews and take a look at some of the reviews the Waterfront Exxon has received. It used to be known for charging 50 cents to a dollar more per gallon than the Sunoco station directly across the street.

John Kelly at the Washington Post called it "the worlds most expensive gas station" and went on to suggest that "people in China have heard of this station. People in England."

It turns out that the crazy high prices were the result of a "mortal struggle" between the owner of the station and the company that had a contract to operate it. A complex set of incentives meant that it was in the operator's best interest to minimize the amount of gas sold and focus on their auto repair business. You can read more about the gas war in this NPR investigation.

The Watergate Exxon closed in 2012 and reopened the next year as a Valero under a different operator. Gas prices have normalized.

If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura’s New York Times best-selling book, which collects more than 700 of the world’s strangest and most amazing places Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders.

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