Monday, 26 October 2009

South West USA: Las Vegas

Las Vegas. I don't like it. There are some things that are fun to see and do and I enjoy those. It is fun to see all the different casinos and their weirdness; standing in the Venetian in the 'San Marco Square' and thinking "what a nice day to have an ice cream outside on the terrace" and then doubling back on your own thoughts. Of course it's a nice day! You're inside the hotel, the 'sky' is a ceiling with really good lighting. The terraces are not outside... Outside in the Nevada desert means about 40 degrees Celsius. Not nice for icecreams because they liquify instantly.

Of course the thoughts quickly dissolve too when the comedia dell'arte opera troupe enters the square, singing Verdi classics.

The guy had the biggest win in the casino: $200. We only played the slot machines and tended to go for the fun ones: ones with lights and noises and freaky wheels that start turning when you get the right combination. My highest win was $89 in one go. But there is a Victoria's Secret in the casino so it didn't last.

The show KA by Cirque du Soleil was amazing. The hotel room was luxury. The food was okay. The sights were seen. The vacation, alas, came to an end as we flew back from Vegas. All the way home.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

South West USA: Zion

Zion Canyon. There is something about it. The short version: I love being there. The long version includes notions of manageable beauty and size, tales of soul searching and coming home, feeling both tiny and strong, endless surprises and a general sense of being home away from home. The problem is that at a certain point even the long version does not suffice and it all comes down the ultra-short version: Zion.

The park Zion Canyon was founded early in the twentieth century. Before that the canyon had been a sacred place for the native peoples for centuries, until European settlers broke the spell and explored it, made it accessible for cattle and carts, and made orchards in it. The Virgin river, the one that carved out the canyon in the first place, is really the life blood of the canyon. It still moves around and keeps carving. The little town of Springdale, situated just outside the park’s limits, seems to have a healthy relationship with the park itself. It has a calm, small-scale feel to it. No big chain hotels, restaurants or stores in Springdale: too much growth, it knows, would mean destruction of the unique character and appeal of both town and park. And so despite its proximity to horrible Las Vegas, Springdale takes it easy. Many other parks in the US have not been so fortunate.

My parents had often heard about Zion from me and they were naturally curious about the place. I think they loved it too. What my parents did not hear from me is the spiritual connection I have always felt with that place, from the first time I was there which is about twelve years ago. It was a lot like coming home, as I said above, but back then to a landscape I had never experienced before. I was a stranger in a strange land up to the point where I drove into Zion. The wonder of visiting a new place was still there but it was my place. That feeling never left over the years. (More about Zion and me in a later entry, I promise.)

We did two hiking trails the first day: Emerald pools (relatively easy) and Angel’s Landing. The latter is also described as the ‘grandfather of all trails’.

For those of you unfamiliar with it: Angel’s Landing consists of a very steep climb with long switchbacks, a short and relatively easy stroll into a shady and luscious (and cool!) narrow side canyon, some (very) short switchbacks to a resting place, and finally a steep and risky (okay: scary) climb along a narrow rocky ridgeback to the very top of a high outcrop in the middle of Zion Canyon. The whole thing is about 5 miles, it is marked down for about four hours. That should tell you something. We’ve ‘done’ Angel’s Landing several times now, usually in less than four hours, but it never ceases to amaze. This time my parents joined us until the resting point just below the climb. We took it easy and they met the (substantial) challenge admirably. On the way down we met a desert tarantula. Talk about facing one’s fears…

The beers and burgers at Oscar’s that night tasted particularly good.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

South West USA: From Capitol to Bryce

As promised: a little entry about our day between Torrey and Zion Canyon which held two (!) National Parks in itself namely Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon. Both of them still in red rock country, and both of them very beautiful in their own way.

Capitol Reef is named ‘reef’ because it is really a long fold in the landscape, like a ridge or reef. (At least, I think that’s why.) Before we have always driven through the topmost point of it, from Hanksville to Torrey, on our way from here to there. We have good memories from Torrey so it is a logical place for us to stop.

The good memories from Torrey? Okay: the first time we were there we arrived late in the evening and everything was really dark. It was me, my guy, his brother, and a friend. The guy’s brother and me went into the lobby to find out if they had a room for us. There was a man before us, discussing rooms with the lady behind the counter. He travelled with his family with two kids or so. He looked very tired. The lady explained to him that she had rooms downstairs or up on the second floor where he would have a better view. The man sighed, thought for a bit (probably about his family, the suitcases, etc.) and said Ah, screw the view! I’ll take downstairs! “Screw the view” became a bit of a household expression after that. At the lobby (where we got the upstairs rooms, obviously) we found out that we had travelled into ‘mountain time’ meaning we had only 30 minutes left to have dinner in the restaurant across the street. Two women were playing country music as we ate our steaks. The following morning the to-be-screwed view presented itself to us: it was absolutely stunning!

Back to 2009. Since the cross-country drive the previous day had been cut short due to the weather (see earlier entry) we drove into the north side of the park and did the scenic drive. Quite a beautiful bit there, along the river. Theoretically it would have been possible to continue down the small, unpaved road to the south, on towards the highway, but we were cut short by a small stream. The stream itself we could have tackled, but not the steep bank on the other side of it. The Aspen was not a proper 4-wheel-drive, you see? Having little desire of tearing the underside of our car out, we doubled back.

Did you know that large portions of the American landscape are preserved just for the silence and tranquility of the place. Quiet as a natural resource. I know they're trying to do it in the Netherlands, but it just. isn't. the same. ("I can see Germany from my house!!!")

Bryce Canyon is on the way between Capitol Reef and Zion Canyon. It is very different from either of those though, in fact very different from most parks. The main attraction is the ‘amphitheatre’, a grand bowl of weird rocks and spires called ‘hoodoos’. Everything is a pinkish kind of orange. It is a very strange landscape and you have to see it to believe it. Which is why we also hiked into the canyon (and out again obviously) to be in the middle of it. My mom, not a good climber, huffed and puffed a bit on the way but overall she did really well, that was encouraging for hikes in Zion Canyon.

As we drove into the eastern part of Zion Canyon at the end of the afternoon we spotted some bighorn sheep. We had never seen those in the wild before. It was a beautiful sight. The rams (two) kept a watchful eye over the flock and we had plenty of time to admire their curved horns. Watch a short video of the sheep (actually they’re goats, technically speaking…) here:

Monday, 28 September 2009

South West USA: Colorado encounter


My father had spotted a good hat and decided to buy it. We went into the ‘sports shop’ which held all kinds of gear for outdoors activities: clothing and flashlights, but also knives and fishing rods. A row of hunting rifles and guns was displayed just behind the long counter.
The man behind the counter was in a good mood. He explained to everyone who passed by that it was wonderful how Talk Like a Pirate Day fell on the same day as Jewish new year, and greeted everyone with ARRRR! Oy!

When it was my turn I told him Arrrr! and said “Hold on sir, I have something to show you” before conjuring up the Dread Pirate Gavroche from my bag.

He was delighted. Would it be alright if I took a picture of the pirate in front of the rifles? It would be fine. In fact, the man would pose with the pirate himself! He did, once in front of the rack and once while holding the rifle with the pirate on top.

He told my parents about the gun laws in the United States and Colorado in particular. (Colorado is an ‘open gun’ state which means that you don’t need a permit as long as you carry the weapon visibly for everyone. Colorado is the state with the highest ‘concealed weapon’ permit percentage of the US.)

He had obviously told Europeans before because he also told us about the differences and history between the continents. You see, he said, the gun policies in Europe are different because historically the royalty wanted to keep firearms for themselves. The US, he explained, never had this kind of history. In fact, the US was a nation built on guns. Therefore, gun control was silly.
As he positioned the Dread Pirate on top of the rifle and posed proudly, I said to him: “Only in America!” He agreed.

(Stay updated on the Pirate's adventures through his very own blog on

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

South West USA: Trails and trials

Oof, tough decision. Do I fill you folks in on what happened between Sedona and Durango, or do I tell you about yesterday's weirdness? I fear that the Grand Canyon is going to lose out on this one. Could I appease the gods of continuity by making a summary?

Here it comes!

After we left Sedona and the stunningly beautiful Oak Creek Canyon we drove up north to the Grand Canyon. We arrived at the South rim just as the last rays of daylight hit the rocks. The sun sets so much earlier here than in Holland at this time of year, since it is much more south, so we are constantly aware that we need to be at a certain point at a certain time if we're going to enjoy the views. In case of the Grand Canyon, that is totally worth it.
The hotel was not very good, the restaurant was not good at all. (It was The Grand.)

The day after that was a full one indeed. It was our longest drive of the whole vacation, over 400 miles, and packed with activities on the way. The Grand Canyon was neat of course but we (the man and me) have been in that area several times but never managed to see Antelope Canyon... We tried last time but there was danger of flash floods so we couldn't go in. This time we did. That meant getting into the back of a jeep with Henry the Navajo guide, a bumpy ride through soft sand, and waiting for other people to satisfy their photo urges. Because Antelope Canyon is really a photographer's dream. Gods how I missed my wonderful camera!

But! No time to ponder!

The trip to Antelope Canyon took us more time than expected, meaning that we had to make our way to Durango in only the afternoon. It was a looong drive. Coming up to Colorado (driving through New Mexico, our third state on the trip not counting the Detroit transfer...) we ran into the most dramatic rainstorm yet. It was amazing. The rain came down like a heavy curtain, making it almost impossible to see the road. Luckily it got better as we came into Durango and could look for our hotel in peace. We found it: a beautiful place where we got _the last two rooms_. We had decided the night before to book in advance anyway, because it seemed online that Durango was pretty full. It was. But it was great fun – as you could read in my previous entry.

Leaving Durango. The road down from the Rockies into Utah is beautiful. There is no other word. You pass through so many different landscapes, it is mindboggling. The space! THE SPACE!

*Let me tell you something about space. Coming from a person who was born in Haarlem and moved to Amsterdam about 20 kilometres down the road. A person who travels between Holland's two main cities. A person who has cycled around the 'quieter' bits of the Netherlands. Here it is: _anyone who says that the Netherlands has empty, quiet, peaceful spots too... IS LYING._ There is no emptiness over there, not like here. Illustration of 'space' in SW USA: from Capitol Reef you can see for 285 kilometres into the distance. That would mean that I would see Germany from my house...*

We did a novel thing on the way: we took the ferry across Lake Powell. That was nice. Up to that point, everything was peachy. From that point something went wrong. We tried to go over the pass in the south of Capitol Reef NP. This was marked as having unpaved roads with a bit of shallow water to go through (our Aspen had enough clearance for that!) and steep switchbacks. Okay, no problem. Except that we encountered extremely bad weather just as we reached the first peak. First hard rain was falling, then hailstones started hammering our windows. We had stopped the car at this point because it was really not safe to drive, and we couldn't see an inch in front of us. The storm rocked our (heavy and heavily packed!) car back and forth like a cheap shed. Since we didn't know the state of the switchbacks in front of us and the red dirt around us was quickly turning into mud streams, we decided to turn around and head back the way we came. The road was flooded more deeply now, but more risky were the mudstreams across the road here and there. We made it back to the main road and continued down to Hanksville. It was a strange experience up there, especially since about twenty minutes later we were driving down the plains in bright sunlight. Summer was back, the winter storm a thing of the past.

In the evening we arrived in Torry after a beautiful drive through Capitol Reef. The hotel had only two rooms left but they weren't finished yet. So we had to wait. The restaurant had no tables (!) so we had to wait. We ordered drinks but there were no glasses left (!!) so we had to wait. The silverware was in the dishwasher (!!!) so we had to wait. The waitress offered us some bread but it was still in the oven (!!!!) so we had to wait. Did we have to wait long for dinner? Yah: !!!!!

And now we are in Zion Canyon. I will tell you more about the trip here, with visits to Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon, later. Probably. We hit a new state today: Utah. And it feels SO GOOD to be in Zion Canyon again.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

South West USA: From canyons to mountains

So far so good. Maybe I should do a bit of travel updating to let you know where we are now, at this moment. After Sedona we drove to Grand Canyon, and after that past Antelope Canyon (Page) all the way to the Rockies. We are now in Durango, Colorado. This is the land that is shown in pictures and movies about the Wild West. This is where the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was shot. Durango is an old mining town with nineteenth-century buildings, like the saloon, and nice little shops that are not part of a chain.

Of course a lot of it is touristy but not all and some quaint little gems can be found. For example yesterday I walked into a tiny little bookshop. The proprietors (a past-their-middle-age couple who looked like they had a full life, so to speak) were sitting outside on a bench. The lady told me “go on in, there's three rooms in there!” in an accent I had so far heard chiefly from Cletus of the Simpsons. (I could be wrong but that's what it sounds like to eurotrash like me.) There were three rooms in there, small ones packed to the ceiling with second hand books: romance novels, classics, childrens books from the fifties, how-to books about everything from fixing lawnmowers to finding spiritual enlightenment, science fiction and gardening. And pretty much everything else, in varying states of use, wear and tear, with beautiful old binding or cheap paperbacks for $2.95 (Much Ado about Nothing).

I had wandered into this shop as my man was checking out the bike shop across the road. Durango was the location this weekend of the mountainbike race called Singlespeed World Championship (SSWC). Singlespeed is a highly specific subculture of mountainbiking which is quite a subculture in itself. It means that the bike have no gears... Everywhere around town there are bikes, bikes, bikes. Most of them pretty expensive ones with the gears torn off. Many bikes have extraordinarily large tires to tackle the obstacles on the way, tyres up to 29 inches and we even saw a 36''.

The mountainbiking culture includes rowdy drunkenness, witnessed by us upon arrival in Durango on Thursday evening. The hangover (for them, not for us!) was Friday morning, registration for the race on Friday afternoon, the party (for them, not for us!) on Friday evening. The race was on Saturday. I have no idea who won. I believe you're not supposed to take it very seriously anyway.

Our Saturday consisted of a train ride on the historical Durango-Silverton line, up the mountains. We had booked it in advance and the views were indeed quite stunning. Especially my father enjoyed the trip very much. It was something else.

From here we will leave in the direction of Zion Canyon. I will keep you updated, of course. I obviously also have other tales to tell: my last entry left us in Sedona so I owe you a bit of travel log. I promise to write it for you. After all, you can't just skip the Grand Canyon, can you? You can't. So I will be back. But now I need to sleep: we leave tomorrow at 7:30 – and I am not much of a morning person. :)

Friday, 18 September 2009

South West USA: Emptiness and full days

I love the desert. I can't put it any other way. If it weren't for the spiders living there, I'd adore it even more. We drove from San Diego past LA to Joshua Tree National Park and there is something very soothing about leaving the hubbub of cities behind and meeting nothing but boulders, sand, cacti and the occassional crawling insect beyond the stretches of civilization. In my Japan Diaries I reported about the cultivated emptiness of the Zen Buddhist temples – this is a natural void that is extremely good for my soul.

We each have our own aims in this trip. For my parents it is very much a vacation of a lifetime. It is something they would not have done on their own, at least not in this way, and each corner or turning holds new surprises for them. They also have their little things to do along the way. One of them is making a picture of one of those immense trucks on the US highways, for a neighbour who loves trucks. This means that we all have our eyes peeled for big shiny trucks all the time. It's like a group hobby.

My own aims, apart from just having a good time and generally soothing my soul, include taking pictures with the Dread Pirate and Jack Sparro, as well as gathering material for the blog. This is easily done since the whole point of the blog is to tell what my experiences are. However, I have encountered a slight snag. Let me elaborate a little.

This blog is written in English for a reason: many of my readership reads English. This is because many of my readers are, not to put too fine a point to it, Americans and therefore the very people I meet here every day. And while my Japan tales were a lot about the funny cultural stuff I encountered along the way... _You see the challenge ahead?_ It is just strange to write about weirdness of people when I know those very people will read them. (And probably comment, knowing y'all.) Besides, while a lot of it _is_ weird to me (sorry folks), it seems a little arrogant to write them out like this to you. Then again, us Dutchies are not exactly weird-free either, and I would be more than willing to admit that. I'll probably start. So I'm taking all this (weak argumentation) as a reason to take some liberties. Hope you will forgive me, and that you know I don't mean to dis anything or anyone. It's just that, well, you folks are funny. Keep this in mind, 'kay? 'Kay.

Having said that...
(After all, this is the country of disclaimers. "Careful! Beverage may be hot!" I hope so, I ordered hot tea.)
Having said this...

We slept in Blythe, CA, which is a remarkably unremarkable town and drove on to Sedona, AZ, which is a stunningly gorgeous place. It was our intention to drive right ahead the next day, after our night in Hotel Matterhorn (yes, really, Matterhorn), but we decided to offer my mum and dad a helicopter ride over the area. This was a bit of a 'thing' because on Tuesday evening, in the saloon restaurant, my mother declared that she would never ever ride one of those things. Ever. Yet on Wednesday morning, after a bit of private deliberation, we cheerfully invited them anyway. My father's eyes instantly started to shine, and although the guy and me really tried and tried we couldn't stop ourselves from being enthusiastic either. It was sheer peer pressure. Hah!

We did the helicopter ride. My mother sat in front. She loved it. My father said 'Incredible!' about fifteen times. We loved it, flying over the red rocks, sweeping over the vast planes and diving prodding into the little canyons.

The rest of the day included an Oak Creek Canyon hike of about four hours (it was supposed to be two and a half but we accidentally walked way past the end of the trail) and a long drive through beautiful country to Grand Canyon. We arrived just as the last rays of sun were on the canyon rims. It was a wonderful day.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

South West USA: Starting the adventures

Well, here we are! In the South West of the USA: me, my guy and my parents. So far it has been a wonderful trip. The fact that I have had very little opportunity so far to write is indicative of how busy we have been. Travelling with a larger group (i.e. 4 instead of 2) is of course less flexible and means that everything takes a little longer than usual. So less time on the internets!

But: to keep you updated! We started the vacation with a very long travel day of course. The flight was eight hours to Detroit and then another four to LA. We had only an hour and a half for transfer on Detroit and I had been a little nervous about that because sometimes it takes ages to get through customs to the US. And we were flying on 9/11... Luckily this time everything went very smoothly. The Homeland Security people were practically waiting for us to go through (not like the endless lines we have had before) and the suitcase were picked up and dropped off again very quickly too. We are on American soil.

Once in LA we picked up the (huge!) car at the airport. I'm sure any Americans (this includes Canada) reading this will not be very impressed with the size of the car but for Dutch standards it's enormous. (For the fans: it's a Chrysler Aspen.) It is also comfortable which is how we like it. And so we ended up in San Diego, after a loooong day: we travelled with the sun so September 11th 2009 held an extra nine hours for us.

You would think this would inspire us to take it easy once arrived. Yeah... kind of. We fell into our beds that night for sure but woke up very early of course and arrived at San Diego Zoo at nine, just as it opened. San Diego Zoo is the best in the world I have seen so far. We all loved it. And just our luck: as we passed by the gazelles and giraffes (in one pen), we noticed that one of the gazelles was about to give birth. We stood there for an hour and a half and only left when the newborn little one could almost stand up on its wobbly legs. Amazing.

When you need to relax, spending an entire day walking around an enormous zoo can only do so much. We were absolutely knackered on Saturday night. Needless to say we hit the sack pretty early again.

Relaxing is very easy, however, on an early-morning sunbathing terrace by the Hotel del Coronado by San Diego Bay. Cup of coffee, some muffins, lounge chairs... Life can be really good sometimes. We spent the rest of the day playing in the ocean (with dolphins about 50 yards away from us!), visiting the Old Town (where my father picked up some tobacco) and going to electronics stores. You see, I had forgotten to bring the charger for my photo camera. Yeah: stupid! We went to every conceivable store: nada. They probably don't carry the same type of batteries here as in Europe, even within the same camera brand (Panasonic). Since nowadays I can hardly live a day without my camera, we decided in the end to buy a new one. A shock-proof one so my man can take it with him when he goes biking.

This means that you should all have no fear: the Dread Pirate's blog as well as Jack Sparro's adventures are visually recorded and will be updated! (Check them out on and

We left San Diego for the desert on the third day of our vacation. (Fourth if you count getting there.) I will dedicate a separate entry to going inland, meeting the desert, and hitting red rock country. For now, since the jetlag is still there in my veins: goodnight!

Pictures will be uploaded in due course. Of course the new camera (Olympus) has a different type of memory card, a kind that does not fit into the computer… yada yada yada, blah blah blah. Why these things are not standardized, I really don’t know. Stupid…

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

South West USA - Prelude

(I solemnly promise any further entries will be less sappy.)

My parents' neighbour is going to take care of the little birds while we are away. I have neighbours I will ask to take care of the mail and the plants but I don't want to burden them with the daily care for the little critters. My parents' neighbours are retired and they really don't mind.

And so today my father came with his car to pick them up. We took the water and seeds out, the sand was already out, then we put a cloth over the cage against the wind and rolled it out into the elevator. The budgies don't like the cloth over the cage, it often gets them in a panic. They were a bit quiet at first, in the car on the way over they started to chat a bit again. That was reassuring, I didn't want them to freak out too much.

Once at my parents' home they were put right in front of the kitchen window. I refilled the seeds, gave them some water, put the sand back in the bottom drawer, and even gave them some extra gierst (foxtail millet). The green one (the girl called Aagje) immediately hopped onto my arm again and started biting me, as she usually does. She's not really hostile, just.. um.. snappy. Blue Mr. Koekepeertje (you'd understand if you saw him - and were Dutch) is not so brave, he stays away.

And now I am home again, and they are in my parents' kitchen, and my house is so empty all of a sudden! It's incredible. We've had the birds not even for a year yet but I'm already so attached to them. I am so used to hearing them do their little things and make their little noises. And big noises, BIG noises too.

They are loud. They make a mess. You can't cuddle them or take them for a walk outside. They don't like being petted. They don't come running to your door when you come home. They wake you up at the first light of dawn. Besides that all they do is make noise and mess, and sit on your arm or head and mess up your hair.

I miss my budgies. Already.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Me and my hobbies...

Just to let you know I run two more blogs, but extremely silly ones. They both have to do with the extremely silly hobby of hosting little (inanimate!) creatures from people I know across the world, and showing them around. Likewise, these people host some of my little ones. It is not unlike the well-known travelling garden gnome, as featured in the film Amelie, except with captions. :)

Check them out:

Behalve deze blog heb ik er nog twee, maar een beetje vreemde. Ze gaan beide over mijn rare hobby om kleine figuurtjes op bezoek te krijgen van mensen die ik ken uit andere landen. Ik laat die figuurtjes mijn wereld zien. Tegelijkertijd hebben anderen mijn grappige figuurtjes op bezoek, ongeveer zoals de reizende tuinkabouter in de film Amelie. Maar dan met onderschriften. :)

Monday, 17 August 2009

Japan Diaries, part IV: Tokyo! (3)

I did not do a lot of specific sightseeing in Tokyo. Most of the time I simply wandered around the streets, taking in areas like fancy Ginza and geeky Akihabara. I used the underground extensively, to get around but also to do some people watching.

The underground system is large, well-kept, clean and (of course) punctual. Rush hour is frantic with people navigating their way through complex underground stations in streams. Sometimes one walks on the left, sometimes on the right. Sometimes one needs a ticket to reach the platform, sometimes one is already through without noticing. I deliberately travelled the underground during rush hour to find out what that was like. It was busy. The biggest challenge: finding the right exit of the station. Some have over twenty exits.

Picture right: During rush hour there are special ladies-only cars on the underground. Apparently men who like to feel up skirts during busy hours are a real nuisance.

I enjoyed Tokyo very much. Although I still felt very much like a stranger, it was a good transition from total immersion in all-Japanese society to a more open, cosmopolitan way of life. Tokyo is the only place where I have seen African-American people, and westerners who looked like they were at home in that place. I was not an oddity at all, until I bought and wore a plastic raincoat in a city where umbrellas are the height in fashion. Oh well. I guess I have a knack for being an oddity everywhere.

I was already getting late when we headed out for our final evening meal in Japan. We were already in a trendy neighbourhood and just as we were checking out the pictures on a restaurant menu we saw a small group of young hip Japanese climb the stairs in front of us. Naturally we followed them to the restaurant. Once upstairs in the grill restaurant we took off our shoes at the door once more (they were put neatly into a cupboard) and we were placed at the bar by a grinning young waiter. It was a small place with only a few booths and seats at the bar. The waiting boy left us with the customary hot hand towels and left.

Our golden rule so far: do as the Japanese do. The Japanese were not doing anything except chat and sip their drinks, and maybe admire the apparently stunningly handsome and attractive trio of staff: waiting boy, grill master, and salad guy. We didn’t see the attraction but hey, who are we? We had seen better samples on the way and besides, we were hungry. The menu only provided us with new samples of kanji (characters) to decipher. Until waiter boy kneeled at our seats (we were sitting with our legs sunken into the floor under the bar) and ‘explained’ the menu to us by pointing at the various sections and saying “rice”, “noodles”, “salad” and while pointing at the bar “grill”. We had already explored the refrigerated bar in which small skewers were awaiting their fate. Ah. We ordered some random rice (S managed to get yet another dish with raw egg) and salad and struck out to get us some grill-stuffs. Point, nod, smile, arigato. (Sound familiar?) We complimented the waiter on his excellent English which was received with a broad grin.

And then, after two weeks of travelling in Japan, we finally had our first sake! It was served in a small glass standing in a small wooden box. The sake was poured at the table into the small glass until it overflowed into the box. Try drinking that without spilling! But it was good stuff, we enjoyed it. And afterwards we went home, to our friends’ lovely apartment, for our final night in the land of the rising sun. With a promise to come back someday.

(Picture below: traditional Japanese sweets at a tea house in Kueno Park, Tokyo. It includes seaweed jelly, red bean mush and fish-soy paste. It looks marvellous - let's leave it at that.)

Saturday, 25 July 2009

Japan Diaries, part XIII: Tokyo! (2)

After a day of wandering around the city together, S and I decided to split up. We are both very individual and independent people and after two weeks of virtually constant company, it was time to do some exploring on our own. The next two days we hit Tokyo separately, each indulging in our own interests and curiosities.

I went to two different big toy stores and bought silly stuff. I checked out the latest at the Sony building. I tried to explore the bookstore area but got stranded in a Precious Coffee Moment. (The books were all Japanese anyway.) I had a seriously overpriced tea and cake at a tea shop in Giza.

It was in Shinjuku where I encountered the other Tokyo. Following the recommendation in the Lonely Planet I checked out the large shopping area and the department store (where I was again one of the elderly generation). Then in my usual wandering mode I took a few turns just to see where they would lead me, until I started to attract a few strange almost-looks. (By that time I had learned to recognize the not-quite-looks the Japanese use for things out of the ordinary.) Ah. I had wandered into a, shall we say, less reputable business district. Lunch hour coming up, the streets were starting to attract clientele with limited time and specific appetites. Time to wander back to the main street.

Still on my list: manga! ( I had spotted a manga store and headed in that direction. I was the only westerner in the shop but I was used to that by now. Anyway, all the books were in Japanese so that was small wonder. With all the time in the world I decided to just browse the shelves a bit looking for interesting imagery. I had just found an interesting looking comic book that appeared to be about traditional Japanese culture (it was hard to tell because the books are all sealed in the store) and one Sweet Sixteen kind of periodical. I decided to buy those as keepsakes of Japanese culture. On the same shelf were cute books about cats and what were obviously children’s comics. Funny stuff.

And so it was a wee bit surprising (shall we say shocking?) to turn around in the aisle and find myself face-to-face with some of the weirdest and most explicit hardcore porn I have seen yet. I will not describe but suffice to say that this Amsterdam girl turned red. Opposite the kiddie stuff, I just didn’t see it coming. Later on I found out that small sections of ‘erotica’ are scattered around the store at the oddest places. My guess is that this is done to avoid aficionados being labeled as ‘the guy who is always in that corner’ but I’m not sure.

By the way, the people in the store there with me were just your average Japanese, both men and women, and the books also included literary works and even DIY manuals. Not all were comic strips either, most were simply books – in Japanese of course. I wouldn’t have you thinking that Japanese are all smut-reading perverts. But this encounter might explain why the people on the underground all have paper covers from the bookstore around the books they’re reading. I fear you don’t always want to know what is inside. Having said that, the Sweet Sixteen comic I bought also has some fairly explicit scenes, ‘my first time’ style. Nothing is really shown but a few strokes of a pen do away with the need to spell it out. It could be that buying exactly those was just my luck. Or that the sexuality so not present on the streets and in dress and general communications, has found an outlet in graphic design and literature, even for teens.

The bow that the (impeccably uniformed) shop girl gave me was the lowest I had seen yet.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Japan Diaries, part XII: Tokyo! (1)

There is something special about Tokyo. It is something different. It have tried to pin it down but so far with little success. To me the city felt strangely light, not only in terms of glowing screens and ads and lamps because in that sense it is not very different from other cities like New York. Unlike New York, Tokyo seems to have a strange kind of weightlessness that was, to me at least, unexpected.

The city has roots that go back to the shogun era. It was established as the nation’s capital in 1603. Very little to nothing of that is visible in the streets although some traces of this history are still there. Ueno Park, for example, is the hill where the samurai made their last stand – and lost. The final battle is depicted in the film The Last Samurai although by all accounts the character portrayed by Tom Cruise in that film was in real life an old and obese man who had to be carried around in a sedan chair.

Mostly, however, Tokyo is very here and now. The streets are spacious and modern and are still lacking trashcans while soda machines are a little less present, at least in the city centre. Our friends’ apartment is in the hippest neighbourhood in Tokyo, close to many high-end shops like Gucci and Ralph Lauren. More interesting are the many smaller and infinitely more fashion-conscious and drop-dead hip shops just behind the main street. Average age on the street: 19? Ladies and gentleman, I was old down there! And criminally unhip, with my slacks and surf shoes, simple shirts and tank tops.

What I needed (at least!) was a hat. Or some leggings. Or at least something vintage-looking, apart from my elderly frame. Failing that I might have explored my goth side or go completely in the other direction and dress sticky-sweet with lace, fruit prints and parasol. In either case don’t forget the stockings (knee or overknee) and petticoat. I’m not a huge fashion shopper but I could have gone all-out because there were so many shops to cater every taste. Even mine. S bought a lovely sundress.

When walking further into town we suddenly found ourselves on the famous crossing at Shibuya station. At the green light hundreds of people will mix into the crossing, forming a veritable soup of human traffic until everyone has reached the other side (or at least a side) and the crossing is once again clear for traffic. It is an image everyone knows (it is in the film Koyaanisqatsi) and pretty much stands for the mechanical urban living, the hive animal that is Man.

Of course it is different when you are on the ground. It always is. There are magazine stands and drugstores. There are schoolchildren playing with their mobile phones and women busy looking fashionable. There are salary men and bums and general hangers-on, like us. All of us are different, all of us have a life, a heart and a mind. Standing there at the iconic crossing at Shibuya, one is again reminded that we are not a mechanism. Not a cog in the machine but each of us an entity in its own right. In Japan no more or less than elsewhere, even if society seems to emphasize conformity and adhering to the rules more than elsewhere. We are all just people.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Japan Diaries, part XI: Nikko

A long train journey across Kansai, through Tokyo and onwards led us to Nikko, about two hours north of the capital. Because of this proximity to Tokyo Nikko is a popular day trip for Japanese and foreign guests alike. We stayed at the Nikko Park Lodge where we encountered the most international company so far with hardly a Japanese in sight. Nikko Park Lodge is run by Buddhist monks who have a staff (volunteers? apprentices?) to take care of e.g. the front desk.

We skipped the early morning yoga practice (seven to eight – way too early for us) and one of the monks pointed us in the right direction for the main heritage sites. They were, again, stunning. It is so amazing how Japan has managed to hold on to its cultural treasures. Many of the really old art and architecture was destroyed during the Meiji Restoration (1868) and a great many sites and works were severely damaged by the many earthquakes that Japan suffers, some quite heavy. Many treasures made it through, however, or were restored beautifully.

Nikko is a real treasure trove of Japanese history with temples and shrines and woodcarvings to last a lifetime. We saw the stables of the sacred horse. We saw the sleeping cat. We saw the three Buddhist monkeys (see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil). We saw the sacred bridge that is only to be used by the emperor and his generals. (Oh and the sweeper who we saw cleaning the bridge.)

What we also saw was schoolchildren in great shoals (herds? packs?) sprawled around the sites. Especially where the school photographs were taken and large groups were directed by a busy photographer; all children standing in lines, boys to one side and girls to the other, all of them solemnly bored out of their skulls as is fitting for teenagers when visiting historic sites. The multitudes of black and white school uniforms was dazzling to behold.

In one of the temples a very serious affair was going on. A group of business people, mostly young man and a few women, were standing outside with solemn faces, obviously waiting for something. (Their turn?) In the temple about twelve pairs of feet were visible, one woman’s, and a priest was performing a ritual. We couldn’t exactly see what was happening and it was not an occassion to crane your neck to see. Judging by the serious faces of the waiting young professionals it was a career-deciding event. We sneaked by and left them to it. Poor guys.

In the evening we left for Tokyo, city of 12.5 million, and the final stop of our adventure. Tokyo deserves a whole new entry of its own in the Diaries. Tune in again later!

Japan Diaries, part X: Leaving paradise

Another entry about Shirahama? Yes, because the guest house Mifune deserves it. On the first morning we had already decided to stay another night and seeing how our hosts didn’t understand a word of what we were saying we had looked up “to leave”, “tomorrow” and “Tuesday” in our phrase book. It worked wonders, they were delighted. At first we thought they were stressed. We had to change rooms! The Americans had left and we had to move into their room. Ah no, we said, the room we have is fine, great, marvellous, arigato. The hostess kep insisting until we realised that it was her best room, and refusing was actually rather rude. And so we gratefully accepted and waited while she scurried about like an ant to get it all ready.

The other room was also a fine room, the wash stand was slightly newer, otherwise there was little difference. Except that at eight in the morning the next day (my friend was washing, I was in my jammies) there was a knock at the door. I opened it, hastily putting on a kimono. It was the hostess, speaking Japanese at me animately and pointing at herself (Japanese point at their noses if they indicate themselves) and downstairs. “What does she want?” my friend asked, around the corner. “I don’t know,” I said. “Does she want us to pay now?” S said. “Do you want us to check out?” I asked the lady. She hesitated, shook her head, and beckoned some more while speaking Japanese at me. “Oh well,” I told S, “I’ll just go with her.” “Good plan!” said S. And so I put on my slippers and went downstairs, only to find a full breakfast waiting for us. Ah. The special room came with special breakfast.

We left our bags in the ryokan (“May we leave our bags here until the afternoon?” – “Aaaah, aaaah, nono.” – “(He doesn’t understand) Um. Backu-packu. (point) Here. (point) One o’clock? (point at watch) – “Ah! Haihai!”) to enjoy some more sunshine and Shirahama before the long train journey to Nikko. While S lounged on the beach I made spirals in the sand, spotted some little crabs on the rock and found a half-closed shrine just off the beach. As I said, I like exploring.

At one o’clock the lovely host couple took us to the train station in their car. As we were bowing (low!) the woman received our little gift of ceramic clogs from Holland with a smile and said “You (point). Come (beckon). Back?” YES, next time we are in Shirahama, we will definitely come back to Mifune!

Japan Diaries, part IX: Shirahama

That night we moved the table to the corner of the room, pulled the futons out of the closet and slept under the ink drawing and tiny pay tv in the alcove. Next day: beach day! Shirahama is on the coast of the Pacific (HI HAPPY!) but in the shelter of the curve of the land. Besides, the beach is in a bay. Result: relatively warm water. The sand on the beach is bright white (1) and the scenery is stunning. The best thing was that we were there outside the season. Apparently during the holiday season Shirahama is packed with (Japanese) tourists, you can hardly reach the water for people, and loud music is blaring over the beach. Not so in late May, early June. It was quiet with only a few small groups of people scattered around the pristine beach. Maybe half the shops are closed but how many shops does one really need anyway? It was beautiful. We bought our breakfast from the surprisingly outgoing (for a Japanese) cookie baker across the street and spent the day marvelling.

Apart from lounging in the sand and easing in the water we wandered around for a look at the cliffs and a splash in the famous age-old onsen by the ocean front. As we approached the onsen stall we were quickly told that today entry was free. And so we put our valuables in a locker and headed for the curtained-off onsen. One side for women, one side for men. Which one? Peaking stealthily under the curtain we saw a pair of very hairy legs, hopefully a man’s. Luckily by then the proprietor had noticed our hesitation and, accompanied by some sniggers from his regulars, steered us toward the right section.
(Please note that this is not a picture of the public onsen we were in! This is just a funny guy advertising a hotel.)

A few moments later we found ourselves in a natural hot spring, surrounded by naked Japanese women of all ages, soaking in the warm water with the sun on our faces. The open ocean on the other side of the rocks. Our European bodies drew a bit of attention but the reception was very friendly and pleasant. Nakedness can do that, when there is nothing to hide. The most shy visitors were the younger girls. Skins all young and smooth, everything in shape but oh so insecure. Now my body doesn’t belong with the elderly women yet but by gods, at least that is over with! The older ladies were chatting as if over a cup of coffee.

In the evening we set out to find ourselves a simple meal and ended up in a restaurant on the edge of town. Specialty: lobster. So much for a simple meal. S tried to play safe (and failed), I decided to have the speciality. Just as S was explaining to me that she doesn’t like her food to be too recognizable, the cook came up to our table and pulled a live lobster out of a bucket. Pinchers and legs rattling against the plastic about 50 cm from where we were. I have to say we both jumped! Quickly nodding approvingly (Hai! Arigato!) to get rid of the cook and his unlucky friend, we both got the giggles. It was good lobster.

(1) It turns out that the original white sand of Shirahama washed away some time ago which is why new sand was imported from Australia. We were sitting on Australian sand in Japan.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Japan Diaries, part VIII: Coming home

Time to relax! After the busy streets of Kyoto and the overwhelming beauty of Nara it was time to soothe body and soul with a bit of proper vacationing. We had originally planned to travel on to Nikko and hit the mountain hiking trails but decided to take advantage of the beautiful weather in the Kansai region and head down South to Shirahama, on of Japan’s popular beach towns.
Since we lounged a little longer in the morning in a Kyoto coffee shop to do some people watching, it was already evening when we arrived in Shirahama. We had not been able to secure a room for the night yet and we were quietly hoping that the local tourist office would still be open and able to help us out. No such luck! All closed, no wonder at nearly eight in the evening. Whoops!
The accommodations listed in the Planet were all full, closed or expensive. But S did some minor burglary by sticking her arm through the gate of the tourist desk and managed to get hold of a list of hotels and ryokans. Hurray for S and her long arms! We called Mifune, a ryokan with in-house onsen (hot spring). My phone conversation with the proprietor went something like this.
- Haihai.
- Kon Ban Wa! Do you have a room for tonight?
- Ah. Aaaah. …
- Do you speak English?
- Ah. Oh. Iie. Nono.
- (oh dear) Twin room? Tonight? (1)
- Aaaah. Nono. Where?
- We are now at the station. Ekki. Do you have a twin room for us?
- Ekki? Aaah… Now?
- Hai. Arigato. Do you have a room?
- Aaaahm… Takusi?
- Arigato, we will take a taxi.
- Haihai. [mumble mumble – he hangs up]
To S:- I think we have a room.
Save some cash, take a bus. I know! Let’s ask the station staff. Six (...) station attendants, one chief and three map books later we had a bus line, the name of the bus stop in Japanese and phonetic English, a map, a drawing of how to get to Mifune from the bus stop and a whole lot of relieved faces that they’d been able to help us. Nearly missed the bus; trains may stop within an inch of their designated halt but bus stops in Japan are an approximation. As we walked up the street from the bus stop there were two people standing in the street. It took me a few moments to realise that they were waiting for us. Mifune? Hai, Mifune! Looked like we were home.

Mifune is run by a married couple, somewhere in their fifties, who do not speak or understand English. And who are unbelievably kind and hospitable. That two girls from Oranda suddenly came to their doorstep was a bit of a shock. More so because they were already hosting an American couple that night. This must have been very special because they told us about it six times or so.
The room was wonderful. There was tea. We were shown the onsen (which caused the whole house to smell slightly of rotten eggs) plus sitting-down showers (customary in Japan) and immediately made the mistake that evening of using the men’s bathroom. But nobody walked in on us so it wasn’t all that bad. Still bad enough for the host to tell us the next day though. We never saw the legendary American couple.

(1) Twin room in Japanese is ‘tuwin rumu’, very convenient.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Japan Diaries, part VII: Nara

Nara is the prettiest thing. It was the first central capital of Japan and there are still many buildings that show the historic roots of the country, like the influence of the Chinese on the national culture. Besides, it is beautiful. All the buildings are beautifully kept in the extensive grounds and there is plenty of woods around to cycle through. And so we took the train from Kyoto for the day to visit. We rented bikes at the station and cycled our way down the main touristy street to the central park.

It is a pleasure to move around by bike. We Dutchies are already used to it so the biking itself takes little effort. It is a convenient, noiseless, and quick way to get around, quicker than walking anyway. Plus you get to see and experience much more of the surroundings. Not only does the pace allow for more looking around than on a coach or car, it also leaves you open for smells and sounds and other sensations (such as swallowing bugs…) that you would otherwise miss. Also, on bike it is possible to see much of the sights in Nara in a single day. That would not be possible on foot.

First stop: the five-storey pagoda. Awe. Added benefits: the octagonal shrine opposite it which is extremely charming, plus the deer that wander around the park. In the past the deer were considered holy animals because they were believed to be messengers from the gods. And so it became custom to feed them, and pet them, and they stayed in the park. Nowadays they harass visitors for food – a right claimed by any domesticated animal. They are charming creatures and besides, seeing little kids toppled over by eager deer is just funny. (No children were hurt during the making of this diary entry.)

Next stop, and the next, and the next: beautiful temples and shrines. Absolutely wonderful heritage sites. We also found a botanical garden in which plants were grown and displayed that were mentioned in ancient works of poetry. All originally Japanese plants, flowers and trees, in a beautifully laid garden that followed the rules of Japanese landscaping art. This of course includes a carp pond. There were little boxes with bags of carp food for sale for 100 yen. I bought one and unknowingly threw some of it in the water.

Forget piranhas. Piranhas are sissies, wet ones with teeth, compared to the gobble-up power of the common carp. They were struggling to get as close to the side of the pond as possible, fighting over a single morsel of food, mouths wide open. They seemed wide enough to swallow us whole. The throng was so thick that occasionally one of the carp was forced upwards by its fellows and found itself on top of the other fish, out of the water. It had to wiggle its way over their backs to get to water again. We were relatively safe (I think!) but you wouldn’t want to be an insect in that pond.

We had visited one beautiful temple, a big wooden building built on the side of a hill. It was awe-inspiring and we had heard about a giant Buddha. Unfortunately we could only see the outside of the temple because visitors were not allowed inside. Oh well, we said, we have seen so many beautiful things today that missing this one Buddha is not going to put us down. And so we went back to our bikes, only to discover on the map that this was not the hall of the Buddha, that was further down. It was almost five so we needed to get moving to see that! Hey, if there is still a chance to see this wonder, we go for it! We raced down.

The hall containing the Buddha is the largest wooden structure in the world. The original (the current one was rebuilt in the 18th century) was 1.5 times bigger even! Inside is a bronze Buddha, adorned with about 130 kilos of gold, and it stands 16 metres high. It is flanked by two more statues of god(desse)s. You can take a walking tour around the temple which allows you to see the Buddha from all sides, and there are a few more enormous statues of warrior gods to admire.

It is difficult to describe with words the beauty of buildings, structures, art. I could go into metaphor or talk sizes and colours but it will leave you with no idea whatsoever what it is like. Maybe the best way to describe it is by telling you what it did to me.

As I entered the hall of the Buddha it was a bit dark compared to the bright daylight outside. As my eyes adjusted properly my jaw dropped. I looked at everything in the temple with deep astonishment. The scale of the hall and the Buddha in it seemed to me to press upon the world, drawing all perception to that point. Moreover, it wasn’t until I was three quarters round the temple that I remembered to close my mouth again. I must have looked really charming.

In this temple, for the first time, I bought a little talisman to help wishes come true. It is very pretty.

Please forgive the picture quality of the Buddha. By this time my camera battery was low so I took some photos with my phone instead. I hope my friend’s pictures are better.

Japan Diaries, part VI: Soundscapes

Usually I have a specific music to go with a vacation. It is the music I listened to while I was there and it linked itself inseparably with the place. The alien landscape of Bryce Canyon or Joshua Tree NP will never be the same without The Last Temptation of Christ (Peter Gabriel), Brazil is forever tied to the Fugees (OohLaLaLa!) and Amy McDonald makes me want to put my feet up on the dashboard as we cruise along Highway 101 down the California coast.Japan does not have a specific soundtrack to me. We were backpacking so there was no car stereo and anyway I noticed that I constantly and actively used all my senses while I was there, not to miss a single thing. My ipod must have felt sorely neglected.

An advantage of soundtrackless traveling is that local sounds and musics have more access to the mind. The shops and department stores use general internationally marketed music, with a preference for ‘soft’ western-style music like gentle soul (I heard Rotterdam heroine Giovanca in trendy LOFT department store!) or non-offensive jazz like Billy Holiday. And yes, in hip youth culture shops expect some J-Pop although not as much as you might expect. And on the boat in Hagi we heard Japanese folk songs through the speakers. Very pleasant.

The most memorable musics I heard in Japan, I heard in temples and shrines. It was played during rituals and not performed for an audience, at least not a secular one. Usually the rituals (and music making) took place in the inner sanctum of the shrines and while you can certainly peek inside through the opening in front of the central altar, it was not something we did often during rituals. There is something private about those and it seems inappropriate for non-believers to just lean in to have a look at those drums. Even (especially?) when they are ethnomusicologists.

The good thing about music is that you don’t need to see it to enjoy it. We have heard drums and flutes and double reeds. In the mountain town of Tsuwano we heard long stretches of drumming that speeded up to a climax, only to start calmly again. In the almost deserted temple grounds it was a beautiful sound. (I was lucky enough to capture it on video.)
Once we saw part of a wedding ceremony. Two men (priests?) took place opposite the happy couple (my wedding dress was a poor affair compared to hers) and played flute and sang while two temple maidens performed a highly stylized dance. It was an extremely serious occasion with solemn faces.

More grounded, earthly somehow, are musical instruments when they are not played. Without their sound they become more material things but things that possess a certain potential. A lot of potentiality. I like looking at drums and bells, strings and brass horns. The large brass bell in the silent zen temple possesses a promise that is intriguing. Same for the drums in the shrines but also the shamisen and koto we encountered in a small shop in Nagasaki. It was a tiny shop with two old men in it eating lunch so I didn’t dare snap a picture. But I did snap this one: ukulele specialty shop in Tokyo. Ukeleles! I didn’t hear them in Japan but in my mind they are now forever tied to Tokyo.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Japan Diaries, part V: Kyoto

Kyoto is one of the world’s cultural capitals. There are numerous cultural heritage sites, determined as such by Unesco. I had heard about Kyoto and formed picture of my mind, as one does. But Kyoto at first sight is just like any other Japanese city: suburbs with tower blocks, industry and grey inner city filled with traffic and people. In fact, a lot like other cities in the world. While at the same time undeniably Japanese.

How so? The street signs are all in Japanese of course. Secondly, almost everyone in the street looks Japanese. This may seem very obvious but I come from the Netherlands and I live in an area where white European ethnicity is a minority. In the Rotterdam underground the people around me are from all over the world, skin colours from extremely pale to dark black. In Japan we really stood out. Especially my blue eyes and light brown curly hair drew attention. The population of Japan is much more homogenous. Thirdly, temples and shrines are a natural part of the package: small shrines would be embedded in shopping arcades or on street corners in residential areas. Fourth, the architecture of freestanding houses often includes tiled roofs with ornamentations that are unmistakeably Japanese. Finally, there are no trash cans in Japan. Nowhere in the streets. There are vending machines for soft drinks (ice coffee!) every fifty yards but public places to get rid of the cans and bottles are extremely scarce. Yet the streets are clean and tidy. Either everyone throws it away at home (which I suspect) or Japanese eat PET bottles with their sake.

But: Kyoto! There are more interesting things to tell about Kyoto besides the absence of trash facilities. (For example stores advertising with “Enjoy your life! Enjoy your socks style!” but even that is beside the point.)

Did you ever read Memoires of a Geisha? (I only read the book, didn’t see the film.) It is set in Gion, the old entertainment district of Kyoto. The narrow streets, the tea houses, the riverside? Now I’ve seen them. They were different then I had imagined of course, and I didn’t really see the inside of a tea/sake house. They are pretty closed, introverted institutions, probably focusing more on exclusivity for specific (regular) customers than on attracting a more general audience. But still: the tiny streets lined with wooden houses and shop fronts, kimono shops (and accessories), specialty shops for fans and wooden slippers, the works – all there.

In Holland traditional wear is a tourist affair. No so in Japan! Especially in Kyoto there are many women in the street dressed in kimono. Colourful, beautiful patterned, with folded obi or a big bow on their back, on slippers or heels. Like everyday wear, no dress-ups. And women of all ages, and not just in Gion but all over the city. We were delighted.

At the end of one street we encountered a large temple complex. Temples (Buddhist) and shrines (Shinto) are pretty easy to find in Kyoto because they are everywhere. This was a Zen Buddhist temple, the oldest in Kyoto, and by the looks of it a pretty wealthy one. It was open for visitors. So we bought a ticket, left our shoes at the door, walked into the temple complex, and left the real world.

I like deserts and seas because they possess a kind of emptiness that is soothing. This was a cultural, cultivated emptiness. Rooms consisting of little more than measured tatami mats, dark wooden beams and paper or light wooden screens, with one painting on a screen or on the paper wall. Gardens of a few rocks and white pebbles raked into patters. And other gardens with the moss carefully maintained with tweezers (I saw!) to make them ultimate reflections of the nature of the universe. Could be the universality of nature, one of those. I felt I was floating around the temple. In the end we came to the great hall where the ceiling was covered with an enormous painting of two dragons, to watch over the Buddhist teachings. They circled in my head for a long time afterwards.

Japan Diaries, part IV: HARRO!!! (Hagi)

We went to Hagi and did it again. When we arrived at the tourist office to ask for directions to the ryokan (traditional Japanese guest house), it turned out that it was not in Hagi. It was in Tsuwano, where we were supposed to be going the next day. My friend had booked it when we were in Nagasaki. She was determined to find a good place to sleep that was not in the Lonely Planet and after much searching she had found Hoshi Ryokan. Charming place, not cheap but also not too expensive. Turned out it was in the LP, but for Tsuwano. Where it is located.

We ended up in a business hotel in Hagi with the unparallelled name Royal Intelligent Hotel Hagi. (Yes, we have a picture of me doing the Thinker by Rodin at the front entrance.) The hotel itself was nothing special except for the lack of intelligence in the rooms, shown by an automatic light in the entrance near the door. The light had a motion sensor but it was not adjusted properly which meant that it switched on every time S turned around in her sleep. Or what was left of her sleep. Vely interregent. We stayed there only one night and left for Tsuwano (and Hoshi Ryokan) the next day. But first we explored the town.

Hagi is described as a ‘charming castle town’ in the Planet and that was what drew me to there in the first place. It turned out that S had been drawn also by the prospect of the beach but the weather did not permit lounging in the sun so we explored. Hagi at first looked a bit bleak, an average provincial city where people just live and work and nothing else much. We decided to rent bikes and check it out anyway. Wowsa! Hagi is not just a provincial town, it is a provincial town with massive historical roots, going back to the age of shoguns and samurai, and much of that is still visible.

Hagi played a pivotal role in the turn of Japan from the shogunate (17th to 19th century), an age of martial rule, to the Meiji Restoration in 1868 when the emperor’s power was, well, restored. Before that time, however, the castle lord of Hagi ruled in the area and had gathered around him a score of samurai. The castle was destroyed during the Meiji Restoration but some of the samurai houses are still there. As are many old wooden merchant and artisan houses in another part of the town. It is the old Japan from Seven Samurai, it is amazing. (If you haven’t seen Seven Samurai, shame on you! Go see it now before you get hit by a bus and it’s too late. You don’t know film if you don’t know Seven Samurai.)

As we biked around we repeatedly ran into large groups of school children, ages about 12 to 16. They would invariably greet us with a happy “HARRO!”; I am still sorry I didn’t ask them to pose for a picture but their teacher looked so stern, I didn’t dare mess up her schedule.

Hagi is on the coast of the Sea of Japan. How cool is that? For someone carrying a Dread Pirate around, it is pretty damn cool. We decided to take a boat trip on the river and a bit on the sea. But we needed to find out first how long the trip would be. We weren’t going to spend three hours on a boat that day. Finding out the duration of the trip proved to be a bit of a challenge though. We spend over 5 minutes trying to explain the question. Yes, we knew it was 1200 yen. And yes, we understood that we could leave at 1 o’clock. But how long? Where is that phrase book when you need it? Well, in the lockers at the station that’s where, but luckily I had peeked into it that morning to learn a bit more Japanese words. And I had read and subconsciously remembered ‘pun’ for ‘minutes’. So after S and I drew a picture of a boat leaving and then arriving with a clock with an arrow around it, and I heard one guy say to another something like yon ji pun something in my head went “!” – I recognized something! Forty minutes? Hai, forty minutes. Hurray! Me so proud.

The boat trip was lovely. The biking was wonderful. The ice coffee with cake was marvellous. The train ride to Tsuwano, first along the coast and then into the mountains, was fabulous. And so we arrived in Tsuwano where the English-ish speaking hostess picked us up from the station. The ryokan was beautiful and peaceful, a pot of tea was waiting for us. Everything was alright. The following morning we were woken up at six by the hostess’ family life. Even that was alright.

Japan Diaries, part III: Getting around

The Lonely Planet says it: Japan is one of the easiest, most convenient and safest countries in the world to travel. (They also note: except for the language.) They are right. Forget driving, there is a tightly-knit railway network across the country consisting of one national system, Japan Rail or JR, and a few private lines. With a JR Pass you can freely use virtually every rail line in the land, from high-tech bullet trains (shinkansen) to tiny local trains that stop at every town, hamlet and huddle of houses.

As for convenience: enter the Japanese people! Every major station has a ticket office where seat reservations are issued for the main lines. Upon request (“I would like to travel from here, Nagasaki, to Hagi later this afternoon”) the attendant will immediately present you with the best connections and print out the reservation tickets for you in the process. Want to go later? Earlier? No problem, we’ll do the whole thing over.

Luckily with city names and times (point at watch, stick up fingers) mastery of Japanese is not required because even at the ‘international points’ English is no lingua franca that works. Maybe with ‘international’ they mean that some employees understand Chinese or Korean? Same goes for the Tourist Offices in the smaller towns though. We have found that ‘Tourist Office’ is likely to be the full English vocabulary there. Awesome.

In the smaller stations, particularly in the country, there is no international point or reservation desk. But there is invariably a helpful young man at the ticket window (usually with a nervous look on his face but that could be just for us) with a couple of large timetable books and a computer. Works too.

The trains are comfortable. The trains are clean. The trains are quiet. And the trains are always exactly on time. I believe the margin is said to be 20 seconds and I believe it. We have seen one instance of a delay (5 minutes!) and witnessed how this put all personnel on edge. The driver made up for the delay upon arrival which means that there is room in the schedule. Amazing. (Dutch railways! Listen up!) We would determine our position by the minutes of the clock: “are we there yet?” – “nope, another 3.25 minutes to go”.

Oh and the trains stop at exactly the point where they need to, aligning the numbers on the platform with those on the train doors within inches. People (business people, ferocious looking youngsters, vacationers, everyone) will form a neat line on the platform minutes before the train rolls in and patiently wait for people to come off before stepping on board. For someone from Holland, I can tell you it is a sight for sore eyes. (Dutch commuters! Listen up!)

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Japan Diaries, part II: Nagasaki Cabaret

Our time in Fukuoka included breakfast, shrines, weddings (please note the plural), eyelid corrections and designer dogs. Those last two on signs outside shops. The main aims of the day however included adjusting to the 7 hour time difference and travelling to Nagasaki. There were two special points of interest for me in that city: the atom bomb memorial (impressive) and the former island Deshima.

Deshima was where the Dutch traders were stationed in the 17th century. During that time in the Tokugawa shogunate Japan was completely closed off from the world. Only two foreign nations were allowed to trade with Japan: China and Holland. From Europe and the colonies in Indonesia and the Americas the Dutch ruled the Seven Seas. And consequently the world. Under the joint venture of the VOC the Dutch enriched themselves without scruples. (Therefore when today’s pm tells us that what Holland is missing is a bit of ‘VOC-mentality’ BEWARE!)

The Dutch got to trade with Japan but were to have no contact with the Japanese population. The red-haired bignoses were supposed to stay on their little island all year except for one mission a year to present a gift to the shogun in Edo (Tokyo). Nagasaki has rebuilt the tiny area of Deshima, really no more than one short street. This weird era of Dutch-Japanese relations fascinates me (can you tell?) and so we visited.

However, my friend and I did not visit Deshima until the next day. First we found our hostel (Akari, highly recommended) where we had reservations. In the evening we struck out on a mission to find us some real Japanese food. There are plenty of noodle bars and western style eateries in Nagasaki but we wanted to celebrate our arrival in Nippon with something classier. And so, upon spotting one of those quaintly closed-yet-open fronts that mark Japanese restaurants, we decided to move aside our hesitations and the sliding door and step inside. Bold Dutch, eh?

The astonished faces of staff and clientele were our first clue. The all-Japanese, no-picture menu the second. This restaurant was not used to western guests. At all. The waitress ushering us to the first low table (tatami with cusions, sunken pit to leave legs under table) was positively panicking. But: once inside, you’re inside. That we took our shoes off went without saying. That is something you get used to almost immediately in Japan. We stole some glances at our neighbours to see if we had to use the provided slippers. (Probably.) The poor waitress sent the cook to explain the menu to us. Not that he spoke anything but Japanese. The menu included two set meals with fixed prices (luckily in Arabic figures) and in his explanation I could just make out ‘sashimi’, ‘miso’ and ‘tempura’. Me so proud. Point, nod, smile, arigato and hope like hell. (This is something we did a lot in Japan.)

The meal was absolutely beautiful. The tastes but also the presentation. I am an absolute sucker for chinaware and it was a feast for the eyes as much as the tongue. Only thing: S had bravely decided to put aside her dislike of fish for the trip, and failed miserably. Poor thing could hardly eat anything unless completely soaked in soy sauce.

In the mean time, our appearance did not exactly go unnoticed in this two-table-one-bar restaurant. We were very obviously the evening’s entertainment. Japanese will never directly stare at you but they’re somehow still good at looking without looking. Of course this is exactly the moment when the sushi decides to fall off the chopsticks and into the soy sauce (_SOY STAR!_) but okay. Poor S, though, had to find a way to not eat her clam miso and sashimi without the cook noticing. She did quite well.

How do you ask for a check in a restaurant where the cook is discussing you with the regulars at the bar and the waitress is hiding in the kitchen?

After we stepped outside (door nervously opened by nerve-wrecked waitress) we actually waited a short while to see if we heard laughter. We didn’t. Still, we figured that providing the cabaret for the evening was a good way of thanking the Japanese people. :)

Japan Diaries, part I

(Photo: the festival 'float' we saw during the night.)
We left on a Friday and arrived in Japan on a Saturday, somewhere in the afternoon. We flew to Tokyo first and then had a connecting flight to Fukuoka which is on the southern big island of Kyushu. There were a few hours to kill in Tokyo and because the long flight had made us tired and sticky we decided to have a shower at the airport. World’s best decision – it made us all human again. We had bought our vouchers for our railpasses in the Netherlands. It is not possible to buy them in Japan, and they are really only for foreigners on a tourist visa. But you need to activate them in Japan and exchange them for the real pass. We did that at Narita airport in Tokyo and used them immediately to travel to the city. Hurray! We were in Tokyo!
The imperial palace is not far from Tokyo’s main train station and it is surrounded by extensive gardens. This made a good destination for our short trip. This is where I made some pictures of the Pirate’s first encounter with Japan – and Hello Kitty. :) (For the Pirate’s pics, check his blog:

The flight to Fukuoka was a short one and we arrived there late in the evening, around 10.30 or 11. Oh how wonderful of me to have booked a hostel bed for us at a great internationally acclaimed, amazing traditional place. A very helpful (and English-speaking!) boy at the airport showed us how to get to the subway (walked us all the way there, like 10 minutes). We were the last flight to arrive, it was the end of his shift but he took the trouble of showing us how to use the ticket machine and everything. Sweet dude. So we took the subway (guy told us where to get off) and walked a block to the hostel. It looked truly amazing with a small tea garden en those paper slide doors and everything. S praised my booking skills. And then it turned out I had made a wrong booking.

The booking I had made was for Sunday. We were there on Saturday. And the hostel was packed full. Not a bed left. Argh. There we were, two tired chicks from Amsterdam with bulging backpacks… Would the hostel guy know another place perhaps? He called another place. No, the lady there explained to me in broken English. She didn’t have a bed for us either. But we should try the Riverside Hotel. The hostel guy wrote it down for us (LIBERSAIDO) and told us how to get there. It was not far.

There we went, walking through Fukuoka at night. The streets were almost deserted yet I felt strangely safe there. There was absolutely no feeling of unsafe, like you sometimes get in cities at night. We were walking and suddenly found ourselves in a temple complex in the middle of the city. We walked underneath a shrine portal (torii) and were surrounded with beautiful wooden temples and stone lanterns. There was also a huge high structure, like a festival float, with gods and demons or heroes and kings, animals and flowers. Staring at us at midnight. Absolutely magic.

We walked on, determined to visit the shrine during the daytime, and found Riverside in a shopping arcade. It was full, no rooms at all. Right, what next? The Riverside night guard knew another place, he would give them a call. It was called New Port and he told us how to get there. Wrote down the address in Japanese in case we wanted to show a taxi driver. We decided to find a taxi and lo and behold! there was a taxi stand not far away. We showed them the address. This was the start of a five-driver (plus one wife) address finding frenzy. They all had to look at the address, a map was spread out on a taxi hood, navigation systems were used. It was two blocks down, across the bridge. Walkeable distance.

With a big smile and a domo arigato gozaimas we left the grinning taxi drivers to find New Port. Did you know that Japanese do not really use street names? Or signs? Especially not in another language than Japanese? We tried comparing Riverside’s writing with signs. We tried counting streets. We tried the lot but couldn’t find New Port. 00.30 hours, in Fukuoka, Japan. Argh. Also Saturday night so at one point a (lucky?) guy comes cycling through the street with two hip chickies by his side. But: he stops, without us asking, because when people are in need of help, you help. The chickies did not entirely agree. The guy stared at the address. Stared at our little map that the Riverside gave us. Agreed that this would be the street but where was the hotel? And then just when he decided to give in to the chickies and leave us again, he turns around to us and points to a blue Japanese sign. New Port!

Yeah, if you give your hotel an English name, don’t bother with the English writing…

So we found the hotel. The owner did not speak a word outside of Japan but he knew the two American (...) girls were coming. He gave us a room. We crashed and slept like there was a tomorrow filled with shrines, Japanese people and grins. There was.