Sunday, May 28, 2006

Photo Links

Here are links to the photos from the second half of our trip:

Laos & Viet Nam




Saturday, May 27, 2006

Kyoto, Kinosaki Onsen, Fukuoka, Tokyo and Nikko

Too many pictures are coming soon, I promise. We have literally thousands to go through and know that no one wants to scroll through all of them. Since the lovely spring weather is so cold and rainy today, there is a good chance we will have some up this weekend.

After bidding adeiu to our fabulous Kanazawa hosts, we decided to risk going to Kyoto without any hotel reservation during Golden Week, one of the busiest holiday weeks of the year. As we figured, not a lot was available according to the helpful staff at the tourist office. Several places had 11pm curfews, which was out of the question on a weekend visit! We were able to score one night at a pricey business hotel, then two nights at a Ryokan, which is like staying in a traditional Japanese home.

Kyoto is a beautiful and fun city with so much to do that one could spend at least two weeks there. We visited several Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines along the hilly Eastern side of the city, which had some incredibly fancy schmancy homes and was quite peaceful.

We had our first public bath house experience in Kyoto where you ride the elevator naked! Men on one side of the building, women on the other. Neither of us wanted to make fools of ourselves so we thought it was best to follow the lead of other bathers. You are given "modesty" towels to cover your privates with but not many women used these, which was the opposite of Paul's experience. Many temples, restaruants, hotels, etc. have special toilet slippers that you are supposed to put on before using the restrooms. Don't ask me why--I guess it is a hygiene thing? And yes, the slippers clearly say TOILET on the front of them. Anyway, I had to use the toilet before getting in the elevator, and completely forgot to take the slippers off. Right before the elevator shut, a woman who was getting dressed in the locker room excitedly pointed to my feet and hurriedly said a sentence that had a word sounding like 'toilet' in it, which caused me to blush beet red and jump out of the elevator to put the toilet slippers back into the restroom. The women in the locker room were laughing, of course. Already I am making a fool of myself and I haven't even made it to the bath yet! Needless to say, all went smoothly from that point on. One could ride the elevator to the roof and sit outside in a hot tub that had some sort of seaweed in it. It was rainly lightly at the time and it felt great to be both hot and cold at the same time.

If you think shopping is popular in NYC, that place has nothing on Japan. We felt so dowdy and boring in our easy wash, no-wrinkle backpacker clothing amongst the highly fashion-conscious Japanese. A lot of people, especially the 30 and younger crowd, pay extreme attention to their clothes, shoes, and hair--both male and female. Almost as if they were trying just a little too hard to be cool and styleee in an amusing, self-conscious sort of way. Even the major train and subway stations had underground malls, filled with clothing, cosmetic, and food shops. It was a nice distraction on rainy days.

Although it was easier to get by with the language barriers in larger cities, we still had our challenges with not knowing what was behind closed doors of restaraunts and bars since you cannot see into any of them. The bars we found were tiny and usually upstairs in building complexes. Our absolute favorite find was the Happy Space Mushroom Bar--think Japanese Romper Room stuck inside of an Atari game. Huge smiley faces on the wall, toys to play with on the tables, and crazy sounding video game music.

After Kyoto, we wanted to experience the Onsen--hot mineral spring baths--and a famous town for it was Kinosaki Onsen. We stayed at a Ryokan there and were given free passes to all of the baths. Once you check into the Ryokan you turn your shoes in at the door and are given slippers to wear in your room, with yakata (Japanese robes) and geta (clonky wooden sandals) to wear outside while you roam around town going from onsen to onsen. One place was so spectacular we went to it three times! It was the swankiest of all 7 onsen in town, as it had several different mineral pools, cold pools, steam rooms, dry saunas, rooftop baths--and our absolute favorite feature--a walk in freezer!! Incredible.

From Kinosaki Onsen we wanted to get full value out of our two week Japan Rail Passes, and decided to head to the end of the Shinkansen (bullet) train line out in Fukuoka. The Shinkansen train can hit a top speed of 300km per hour! Beautiful, clean, sleek trains. The high speed mixed with the pressure from entering tunnels really plugged our ears up throughout the ride, but damn did it get us across the country fast.

Fukuoka is a funky city of 2 million people and has a huge red light district, much to our surprise. From what we read, it was off limits to Western tourists, unless they were accompanied by Japanese business partners. After 5pm, the streets were filled with business men roaming from club to club. It seemed acceptible for business men (they ALL wear ill-fitting solid black suits and white shirts--however, some of the older men who were probably more higher up in their positions wore grey suits) to get completely trashed and stagger around the streets. We definately saw a few fall into walls and smash into other stationary objects. Is it the stress of high powered jobs? Unhappy lives? The only way to blow off steam? An alternative to violence?

Our favorite bar in Fukuoka was Siberia, and we were apparently the first foreigners to ever patronize the place! The owner/bartender seemed really into rockabilly and played great music. And he made some amazing bar food, too! He knew barely any English and we knew baby-talk level Japanese (if even that) so we made great use of our two phrase books (thanks Phil and JJ for that helpful addition to our collection) and at times, were able to get some basic ideas across. At some point the bartender compared our communication difficulties to the Bermuda Triangle; thoughts and ideas get lost in translation so often that it is easy to feel stuck when expressing oneself. How true.

After Fukuoka, we took the Shinkansen all the way to Tokyo. The main station felt less daunting than when we first arrived in Japan and we both agreed it was easier to save Tokyo for last when we felt more comfortable with the language. We stayed in the Asakusa neighborhood in the eastern part of the city. There we found, completely by accident, the most famous kaiten sushi (sushi that moves around via conveyor belt--you sit around the belt and pick off what you want to eat) in all of Tokyo, according to the man sitting next to us. We had a feeling there was something special about the place because there were 20 people ahead of us waiting to sit down, so we figured it must be good. Asakusa has a cute, old section of town and Tokyo's largest Buddhist temple which seemed to be a huge tourist destination. We really loved Tokyo--so many funky neighborhoods to explore and of course, loads of underground shops and trendy malls. And I know what you are thinking: Who ever thought Michele, of all people, would want to go into a mall, right? Some of them were quite strange and entertaining and a fun way to travel underground when the weather was crappy. Some were long, massive underground labyrinthes that sold all sorts of weird stuff that we just couldn't figure out at all. Many parts of Tokyo reminded me of the "old" Times Square in NY multiplied by 10,000. Overwhelming and intense at times and way too much to get distracted by.

It was highly reccomended by several people that we take a day trip to Nikko, 2 hours outside of Tokyo. Another World Heritage Site (we have visited so many on this trip I am wondering how many there are in the whole world and want to research this!), Nikko has absolutely stunning temples, shrines, landscape and architecture. The temples were by far the most colorful and elaborate we have seen in Japan. It was obvious why people insisted we take a day trip there.

Some notes about Japan:

The toilets are great. Most have seat warmers, which sure feel nice when it is chilly in the room! There are loads of functions on them; some play music and waterscape sounds (for the pee-shy who don't want others to hear them doing their business), most have built-in bidets and front-cleaning spray action for women. And to top it off--you don't need to get up with a soggy butt! Push another button and a hot dryer turns on! Woowee! The first one I experienced was in Kanazawa. JJ and I had to go to the bathroom (by the way, there are public toilets everywhere, and they are CLEAN!) and I was curious about all the commands on the keypad (again, nothing is written in English) and I pushed a button, which turned out to be the one for the bidet. The pressure was so strong I yelped, jumped off the seat, hit my head on the wall, and the water literally shot up, hit the ceiling and went over into the stall next to me. The woman who was in the next stall over where the water came into stared up at the wet ceiling with a confused look on her face. Mortified, I ran out of the bathroom and nearly fell over laughing. Apparently, someone that JJ and Phil know did something similar--but instead, was standing over the toilet when the button was pushed and wound up with a face full of water!

The subways and trains: You can set your watch by them. Even if the electronic boards on the train don't have the name of the stop in English, you know for sure that if your stop is at 2:24, when the train stops at that time it will definately be the correct one. We got a kick out of the train ticket checkers and food cart vendors who bow and thank you every time they exit the car. Unlike the NYC subway (which I love because it runs 24/7), subways in Tokyo don't break down constantly and screech to a halt in between stations. However, it would be nice if they ran past midnight. It makes it difficult to stay out late, unless you want to splurge $50 for a taxi, which we had to do one night at 3am. Or we could have partied on for two more hours and gotten the first train at 5am!

Sumo wrestling: Sumo tournaments happen three months out of the year, and luckily May was one of them. We had watched so much sumo on TV while travelling in Japan that we knew we had to see a match. We bought the cheapest seats available and went in around 10:30 am; matches go on all day until 6pm. The junior wrestlers start first and the experience level increases throughout the day. We were able to sneak into the 3rd row in the morning--seats that cost over $450 each. The majority of the the round is a Shinto ritual and the ring resembles a Shinto shrine. A staff member at the arena told us to come back after 3pm to see the top notch guys wrestle, which we did. Lots of stomping (to scare away evil spirits) and salt-throwing (to purify the ring) goes on, with each wrestler posturing and staring down the other. Once the actual wrestling starts, it can be over in as little as 3 seconds! We were thankful to no longer be seating in the front rows as oftentimes a wrestler would get thrown out of the ring and fall directly into the crowd, who were sitting on tatami mats on the floor. It was really exciting and a great way to end our last night in Japan.

Next to come---Portland, our final destination! More hotel stays! More confusion and overwhelming feelings! And homeless on top of it!

Monday, May 15, 2006


In the land where the trains run at 180mph and arrive on time - to the second (no exaggeration!) - every moment counts. For example, at our current hotel here in Tokyo, somehow our request to extend our initial one night booking to run through Tuesday evening got lost and so we got a call at precisely 11:05 AM - 5 minutes after checkout time - inquiring (profoundly politely, of course) as to why we were still in our room.

So, while these 24hr Internet, DVD, Manga (comix) cafes with free beverages, comfy reclining chairs, huge libraries of books & movies, showers and special $9 overnight rates (subways shut down here at midnight. If you miss the last train, you're faced with the option of a $50 taxi ride or a $50 night in a capsule hotel, so these places have boomed as a refuge for those who can't afford to make it home) are quite something, as we are truly spending 10x more a day here than we had at any other point in the trip, we're really trying to maximize our value here and be out doing something every possible second of the day (no, we are not sleeping very much). Therefore, we're not really devoting much time to updating the blog.

Worry not though, from auto-washing-toilet mishaps (think over the stall fountain) to arduous cross-town visits to hot-spring baths in Japanese traditional garb (wooden geta shoes!), to nervously poking our heads through the doors of myriad tiny bars on the 4th, 5th, and 6th floors of building after building after building to see what was going on (and finding more that we could have ever imagined), to deep forays into the Bermuda Triangle of cross-language communications, we'll eventually give a full update of our hi-jinx here.

And good lord, given the treatment we received just purchasing $25 of incense, I'd suggest that someone with a spare $30k or so come over and buy a new car - just to see what happens...

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Japan Madness

We have been lazy and not been online much since we left Bangkok.

Coming to Japan was more than a culture shock than we thought it would be, and not only in terms of cost (which is still quite shocking after being in SE Asia and Nepal). A friend warned us that we should really learn some Japanese before coming here, and he was right. We arrived at the Tokyo rail station after coming from the airport to catch a train up to Kanazawa, and it was pretty mind blowing. Very busy, like Grand Central Station in NY, but to make it more confusing, nothing was in English. We felt pretty baffled as to what direction we should head in to find our connecting train. On top of that, we were hungry and wanted to eat. We found a take out sandwich/bakery place and had to guess as to what the packages said. When we brought stuff to the counter to pay, we were greeted with "Blah blah blah blah blah! (smile smile smile!) Blah blah, blah blah! Blah blah blah (smile smile smile!)". I have not felt to self conscious in a long time, and silly as well--what were they saying? What should we say back? We handed over a large bill and hoped for the best.

We stayed with JJ and Phil for a few days and it was great to see them and be in a house again! Hotels get pretty tiring after 3 months. We got schooled on a bunch of helpful things; vocabulary, phrases, food items, etc. It was a good crash course for our start in Japan.

We leave Kyoto tomorrow to head up north to Kinosaki, an expensive but fun sounding onsen (mineral hot spring) town. One night is about all we can afford, according to Paul`s research online. Then we head south for the beach to visit more onsen. We'll fill in the details of our Kanazawa and Kyoto adventures soon. Things are getting easier with the language challenges, but we still have no idea what we are doing half the time which makes it even more like a treasure hunt. The food has been amazing, to say the least, and it has been fun to see what we wind up with at every meal.

Off to the public baths, where we get to ride in an elevator naked (segregated by gender, of course) -- more reports on that to come as well!