Leave it to the Japanese to create a serene oasis right in the middle of a desert metropolis. Situated at the south end of the Margaret T. Hance Park, this three-and-a-half-acre refuge is the perfect place for busy urbanites to slow down and contemplate simple beauties: a 12-foot waterfall, a rocky stream that flows into a koi-filled pond, a shore of carefully selected rocks from Arizona quarries, and stone lanterns and sculptures. (Landscape architects from Himeji, Japan, Phoenix's sister city, incorporated native desert plants into the traditional design to help the garden withstand the extreme climate.) Even the garden's official name, Ro Ho En, inspires a poetic mindset. Ro stands for "heron," Himeji's symbolic bird, which references the town's spectacular White Heron Castle; Ho is Japanese for our own mythical winged creature; and En means "garden." There's also an on-site traditional teahouse, perfect for viewing the lovingly manicured scenery.
This is the place to get decked out in the latest NASCAR and racing gear while picking up precision models of your favorite race car. Billing itself as the full service racing collectibles retail store, Action has more gizmos with corporate logos than Richard Pettys jump suit. Dressed out in its new Tempe digs, Action features a complete line of precision scale-model stock cars, sales of which are restricted to members of the Racing Collectible Club of America. The individually numbered, die-cast stock car models are a hot item in the collectibles world, sometimes fetching big bucks among the faithful. The centerpiece of the store is a stock car driven by Dale Earnhardt in a NASCAR race. The car has cut-away panels over half the body, exposing the inner workings of the machine, including the $80,000 engine that employees fire up from time to time. But thats not the only car on display. A museum is integrated into the retail store, jammed with full-size cars including hot rods, a 57 Chevy, some vintage Mercurys, driver uniforms, shoes, helmets and other memorabilia. Gentlemen (and women), start your engines, and get on down to Action.

Talk about fashion-conscious. Home to a 972-piece Ethnic Dress Collection, the West Valley Art Museum is the best-dressed museum in the Southwest. Comprising costumes, textiles and ethnographic artworks from more than 75 countries, "The Golden Thread" collection got its start in 1985, when Sun City resident Dorothy Knop donated 356 pieces. (All are illustrated in her book Collections and Recollections: A Search for World Legacies of Ethnic Dress, available in the museum store.) Displayed items rotate periodically; currently, the focus falls on Asia, Africa and Latin America.

If fashion isn't your passion, the museum -- which originated as a satellite of the Phoenix Art Museum -- is an arts destination in its own right, with nearly 3,000 works in all manner of media.

Although production of the feisty and subversive e-zine has been slow this year, Ladmo Park Chicano Chronicle's recent return to cyber-activism is well-appreciated. The e-zine's mission since its inception four years ago has been "to research, inform, advocate, promote, protect and expose by peaceful means in the best interest of Arizona's Chicanos." LPCC's targets include anyone from former Arizona Republic columnist Ruben Navarrete to vigilante border militias, and attacks can be brutal. They're designed to be in order to combat the complacency over social issues, political discrimination, and infuriating stereotypes that plague the Chicano community. "I want us to come out of our shells, stand up and say, Wait a minute, that was fucked up!'" says LPCC's anonymous founder. LPCC's feisty communiqués do just that.

Do we come here for the fresh-baked muffins -- the carrot-ginger, corn-Cheddar and banana? No. Though the bakers pull the trays of treats from the oven and let them cool in a heady fog of aroma that makes us drool, we're not their customers. The real guests are dogs, here to snack on those muffins and to grocery shop for Nature's Variety foods, an all-natural line of raw foods (raw frozen bones, freeze-dried meats, dry kibble and dry roasted treats formulated to USDA standards). Yet we're not suffering -- this "Coffee Bar, Juice Bar and Dog Bar" also serves people-style raw juices, smoothies, caffeinated drinks, bagels and desserts. While Spot visits with his quadruped friends around a patio fountain centered by a bright red fire hydrant, we sip on Hair of the Dog, a stress-relieving combo of apple, carrot and ginger. It's quite the place on weekends, when pets and their owners come in from the local dog park, visiting like moms and their babies. We love In the Raw. Our dogs love In the Rawwwwr.
If you're stuck with relatives or friends in town, especially in the warmer months, it's tough to find inexpensive and "unique to Phoenix" things to do that don't include shopping. But this gem of a museum, dedicated (yes, we're serious) to the American buffalo, is nestled in the strip mall at the southeast corner of Scottsdale Road and Shea Boulevard. Hardly a stuffy museum, the Buffalo Museum of America is more than just paintings and drawings of buffalo (though there are many of those). We're actually not sure what the exact mission of the place is, we just really like it. There are taxidermied buffalo and wax figures of Wild West legends like Jesse James (you can take photos with them to send to family and friends who don't believe you). Glass cases house Gemmie E. Baker's amazing personal collection of Wild West memorabilia. The Buffalo Bill Room has some of Bill's personal possessions, including one of his original hunting rifles. The best part by far is the animatronic buffalo families, and the prop buffalo that co-starred with Kevin Costner in Dances With Wolves. There is, of course, a gift shop, with all the usual suspects, but this is a place you won't get tired of going to, if nothing else just to watch your friends experience it for the first time.

Readers' Choice for Best Tourist Trap: Rawhide Western Town

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