Saturday, November 15, 2014

Big in Japan

While it's easy to get a feeling of being big in Japan for anyone who is 1,6m tall, there are also some things that are super big. Here are three from my "Big" tour.

1. Shinjuku, world's busiest metro station 

It's really huge and feels almost liker walking through a small underground city. Shops, restaurants and cafees from which you can observe endless streams of travellers, passing through long corridors. Walking through the station can easily give you that "lost in the Twilight zone" feeling. Luckily there are enough signs and maps to get around.

A map of Shinjuku station
A map of Shinjuku station

2. Biggest camera shop in the world

To be completely honest this one was a bit disappointing. First of all it didn't seem big at all and secondly the setting seemed utterly unintuitive and unattractive. Think 80's building store that hijaked few nearby buildings. Not sexy at all, so no photos.

3. Shibuya: World's largest pedestrian crossing

Even if you're not into big things, you will definitely want to check out Shibuya. When the green light for pedestrians starts (simultaneously on all the sides of road) and hundreds of people start moving into all four directions, you can't help being utterly amazed. It's really an experience.

Shibuya, world's largest pedestrian crossing
Shibuya, world's largest pedestrian crossing

What was your biggest ever experience on travels?

Monday, October 13, 2014

Tokyo: The Highlights


Tokyo is by far one of the most amazing and exciting cities I ever visited. Even a month after it's still impossible to compare it to anything else. It's gigantic, fascinating, fun, friendly, very organized, interesting and weird at the same time.

And since it's quite impossible to sum up everything I would want to, let's start with few highlights.

1. Gardens and parks


There are many nice parks and gardens in Tokyo that are well worth visiting.  Usually you need to pay a small entrance fee, but it's totally worth it. Those green oasis are little capsules of peace and beauty, perfect for either a meditative stroll, book reading opportunity or for enjoying your bento lunch box by the lake, surrounded by beautiful trees. They are timeless.

We visited quite some parks and gardens, my favorite two are Kiyosumi Teien and Happo-en but every single one of them was a very pleasant experience. Kiyosumi garden is a pure delight to walk through, having stones from all over Japan, neatly arranged in a path that leads you across the lake. If you're lucky (or you make an appointment), you can also enjoy a cup of delicious Matcha tea with sweets in the teahouse.

Kiyosumi Garden
Kiyosumi Garden 
Kiyosumi Garden
Kiyosumi Garden

Happo-en means a garden that is beautiful from all the sides. It's small and cute and contains several beautiful and very well groomed bonsai trees, some over 500 years old. Teahouse and nearby restaurant are a plus.

Happo-en, Tokyo
Happo-en, Tokyo

2. Tokyo Sky tree

This new relatively new broadcasting tower is a huge hit in Tokyo. Tokyo Sky tree is 634 meters tall and after an hour or so of very long but super organized queueing (very few western tourists), you can enjoy the 360 magnificent view over the city from 350 m (or 450m, if you chip in a bit more). 

Tokyo Sky tree
Tokyo Sky Tree
I admit I was skeptical about it, since it sounded much like a classic tourist trap. But I have to admit it is an experience. You arrive to the top in one of four super fast elevators, each decorated in theme of one of the four seasons. Yes, everything needs to have a meaning.

View from Tokyo Sky tree
Tokyo Sky Tree
And while you're there, you can also take a closer look at the city (in day and night) or learn more about each building using the displays. It's only there that I fully grasped the magnitude of the city. My advise is go for it!

View from Tokyo Sky tree
View from Tokyo Sky Tree

3. Museums and Galleries

Tokyo has really many museum and galleries that are worth visitng even if you're not a big fan of them. Often there are translations in English or an English speaking volunteer will show you around. But it's not just that - there's something special and unique about Japanese museum that is hard to describe. It's nearly impossible to single out just few museum in Tokyo, but here it goes.

Miraikan, Tokyo's National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation is the best museum I've seen. Ever. And I've seen many. 

Not only because it somehow managed to put in practice what European scientists are struggling with for decades - to communicate complicated concepts and ideas in human language. But also because it's the most interactive, imaginative, educating and exciting museum I've ever seen. Think toilet exhibition (very educational but admittedly weird and funny), reconstructions of space shuttles, robots that look and talk like humans, future cities, that you can become a part of. Think games, 3D films and well, the future. It's there for you to taste, smell and play with.

Nearly five hours was not enough and next time I'm definitely taking a day to revisit Miraikan. It's a must.

2050 expo in Miraikan, Tokyo
2050 expo in Miraikan, Tokyo

Bridgestone Museum of Fine Art is a delight for all art lovers since it hosts a very nice collection of Western and Japanese Art. And if you're lucky you can catch one of their creative temporary collections (e.g. arts pieces that talk about time). It's like a candy shop for the art lovers.

Shitamachi museum is a very nice recreation of working class life in Tokyo in the early 20th Century. On the first floor English speaking volunteers will take you through different rooms utensils and explain how they were used. Cute little houses and rooms make you admire Japanese practicality and craftiness but also makes you wonder how could a family survive in such a tiny space.  On the second floor you can see and play with Japanese games. I tried but didn't manage to solve one puzzle, not even (or specially not) the one for kids. It's not hard to understand why they are so smart.

Shitamachi Museum
Shitamachi Museum

4. Senso-ji Temple

Senso-ji is a Buddhist Temple that is simply breath-taking, especially in the evening. After it was destroyed during World War II, the Japanese rebuild it and today it's Tokyo's oldest and most significant temple. Next to the temple is Shinto Shrine Asakusa - two different religions co-existing without any problems.
Senso-ji Temple Tokyo
Senso-ji Temple Tokyo
When there, try out their DIY fortune telling (English translations available). Afterwards you can take a walk along a very nice street market with crafts and food.
Senso-ji Temple Tokyo

5. Tsukiji Fish market

Tskujihi fish market is something special. Though we weren't enthusiastic enough to visit their tuna auctions at 5 a.m., there was still enough to see around 10 -11 a.m. Yummy and interesting snacks, freshly made on the spot, a wide range of fish and different sea food, weird snacks, tea utensils, and traditional Japanese tools and products. It's the kind of place you want to visit more than once.

Dim sum snacks
Dim sum snacks
Fish sale
Fish sale
Freshly made snacks and tea
Freshly made snacks and tea
Though I've had a lot of sushi during the two weeks in Japan, the one at the market was the best. Very reasonably priced and simply delicious. So if you're up for an early lunch, it's really worth visiting one of the restaurants on the market - preferably with a queue that doesn't try to lure you in with touts.
Sushi Lunch at the market
Sushi Lunch at the market
What else is there to say about Tokyo? A lot. Really a lot. So all I can say for now is ...to be continued!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Nara & Nikko

Our trips to Nara and Nikko were rather short but sweet. Especially to Nara. According to legends a mythological god Takemikazuchi arrived on a white deer and since then deers are considered holy animals, protecting the city.

And it's easy to see Nara is better protected than the Pope with hundreds of deers wandering around the city, being cute and sniffing tourist's bags for food. You can feed them with rice crackers that are sold on the street stalls, but beware. The minute you posses food, you're fair game. Though ridiculously cute, deers will also bite or lick you/your clothes and in some cases, jump on you, kick you or butt you with their head.

Deers of Nara
Scouting for cookies
Deers waiting for treats
I'm cute, give me food!
Spotting tourists with food
I saw this sandwich first!
The other thing Nara is famous for is the giant statue of Buddha in Tōdai-ji temple. The wooden temple burned down in a fire and was rebuilt, the bronze Buddha however survived. This truly majestic 15 m statue is the world's largest bronze Buddha and absolutely worth seeing. Figures around Buddha's head are different sizes to appear the same size when people view them from below.

Tōdai-ji Temple
Tōdai-ji Temple
Buddha
The bronze Buddha
Nikko, on the other hand, is closer to the mountains and known for temples, tasty Yuba and suicides waterfalls. Though it's fairly easy to get a temple/shrine overdose in Japan, Nikkō Tōshō-gū Shinto with three wise monkeys and the sleeping cat is worth checking out. Monkeys are supposedly connected to Tendai Buddhist legend and represent human's life cycle. Sleeping cat or Nemuri-neko on the other hand is one of many animals carved in the corridor, meant protect the house from evil and bring good luck (go cats!).

The three wise monkeys: See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil
The three wise monkeys: See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil
English: Nemuri-neko (Sleeping Cat) carving at...
English: Nemuri-neko (Sleeping Cat) carving at Tōshō-gū Shrine in Nikkō Polski: Płaskorzeźba Śpiącego Kota w świątyni Tōshō-gū w Nikko (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Five story pagoda in Tōshō-gū Shrine with anti-earthquake hanging pillar
Five story pagoda in Tōshō-gū Shrine with anti-earthquake hanging pillar
School kids visitnig the Shrine
School kids visiting the shrine

Nikko's famous waterfalls - Kegon falls are fairly easy to reach by a bus. The ride includes adrenalin rush as you're progressing up the mountain on a very curvy road. Luckily all the the roads to and from the mountain are one-way. It's super easy to go to the bottom of the falls - with an elevator. Yes, for real.

On a more gruesome note,  Kegon falls seem to be a popular suicide spot among Japanese youth. Perhaps glorified suicide of Misao Fujimura, a Japanese poet and philosophy student, has something to do with that. In 1902 he apparently wrote his farewell poem on a tree trunk, read it out loud and then threw himself into the falls. Needles to say he got famous almost instantly.

Kegon falls, Nikko
Kegon falls
Chuzenji lake
Chuzenji, vulcanic lake
Food is definitely one of Nikko's highlights and everything they say about it is true. We tried out Nikko's speciality and yes, I'd have some of that tasty Yuba anytime - it's unbelievably juicy, a bit sweet and extremely addictive. Usually served with rice, noodles and tempura.

Tofu skin (yuba) with buckwheat noodles (soba) and tempura
Tofu skin (Yuba) with buckwheat noodles (soba) and tempura
Though very nice and interesting, Nikko is also rather pricy, so if you're running short of time (or money) and hesitating between the two cities, I'd strongly recommend Nara. After all, how many times will you have the chance to be chased by urban deers?

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Kyoto

At first sight Kyoto is more traditional and quiet than Tokyo. While we did see more people wearing kimono's there's nothing quiet about the city. It's very much alive, vibrant and charming. As intellectual center Kyoto was original considered as a target for atomic bomb and was in the ends replaced by Nagasaki upon insistence of US Secretary of War.

Today this former imperial capital with its 1.5 million inhabitants has a lot to offer. Its cute mix of traditional and modern culture and rich history give a feeling that every stone has a story to tell. Also - Kyoto gives you 3 hours of free internet every day.

Nijo castle
Nijo Castle

It's mostly known for temples, zen gardens and cuisine. It is also the place of Japan's highest pagoda and two most famous pavilions: golden and silver one.

To set straight the rivalry between the two pavilions, the silver one is really just a nice wooden house in a beautiful zen garden. While golden one is really a wow - must see.

The golden pavilion
The golden pavilion
5 story pagoda - highest in Japan
5 story pagoda - highest in Japan
Zen Garden Konchi-in, Kyoto
Zen Garden Konchi-in, Kyoto
Famous Fushimi-inari shrine with hundreds of red gates

Kyoto's food is simply delicious, from fish dishes to deserts of strange colors and shapes. Vegetarians might struggle a bit, but there is always enough of tasty bean-curd skin to make your mouth water. Soy dishes, ramen noodles (with strange sour plum spice that you get used to) and green deserts with red beans. It's all delicious, thought admittedly sometimes a bit weird.

While you can't go much wrong with eating in Kyoto, I'd strongly recommend avoiding restaurants in shopping streets (especially if they're trying to lure you in). You'll just get pricy food that is below Japanese standards. The best rule is to eat at the big train stations and shopping malls. It might sound strange but food there is really very tasty and cheap. If you like to dine with a view, then you will love eating at the top floor of Kyoto's train station.

Night view of Kyoto from the train station
Night view of Kyoto from the train station

Museum of Kyoto offers great overview of city's history and friendly volunteers are happy to guide english speaking visitors through the first part provide interesting historical insights. Our guide (who was around 70 years old) shared few enthusiastic stories about the city's history and gave good recommendations on which of Kyoto's 1600 temples are worth visiting.

The city is also the birthplace of the first novel The tale of Genji, writen around year 1000 by female writer Murasaki Shikibu. Museum of Kyoto hosts also interesting temporary exhibitions (e.g. Japanese comics about space travel).
Murasaki Shikibu
Murasaki Shikibu
Philosopher's path is names after Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitaro, who walked alongside the canal, probably thinking deep thoughts. The path is well worth taking even if you're not into philosophy: enjoyable stroll along the river is accompanied by many cute cats, little craft shops and interesting opportunities, like 30 minute pottery classes, where you can make your own tea cups.

Cat station on Philosopher's path
Cat station on Philosopher's path
One of city's biggest attraction is of course the bamboo forest or Chikurin No Komichi, real treat for all nature lovers that want to take a walk among magnificent bamboos. It's enjoyable and free.

Bamboo forest
Bamboo forest

Bamboo forest

Only few kilometers from the forest is Iwatayama, a hill that we lovingly referred to as the Monkey mountain. This hill is full of cute wild (but seriously introvert) monkeys that you can feed (in a secure way) but not touch, cuddle, talk to or stare at. They'll go after white plastic bags, thinking it's food. 

However, once you're there, you can buy fresh snacks and feed them safely from behind a net. No worries, there will be plenty of instructions on how. From the top of the hill you can also enjoy one of the nicest views on the city.

Iwatayama
The "Monkey Mountain"

Kyoto, yes definitely. As our guide in Museum of Kyoto explained, some people believe Kyoto will be Japan's capital once more. And in a way it already is. Since Tokyo actually means East Kyoto.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Japan

It's hard to talk about Japan without using superlatives. Friendly and considerate people, heavenly food, unimaginable dedication and superb bizarreness that stretches beyond the imaginable. Everything about Japan is surprising in one way or another.

Take the toilets for example, which have not only seat warming and different washing options, but also produce flushing noise on your demand, if your bodily noises embaras you.

Japanese toilet
Japanese toilet

My first impressions of Japan were that people make and follow many rules. People wait and cue patiently, they are considerate and polite in any situation and strive towards what it seems continuous improvement of everything. Big things, small things, microscopic details you wouldn't even think of.

Too busy for pets but still want to have them? Visit pet cafes. Surprised by the rain during your guided tour? Use some of provided umbrellas. Want to have a snack on the go but don't want to stink up the train? Get a bento box. There is a solution for every challenge. I am pretty sure there aren't many (if any) things that could surprise the Japanese.

Neko cafe in Kyoto
Neko cafe in Kyoto
Bento box
Bento box
Time is precious in Japan and counted in seconds rather than minutes. Accustomed to more leisure Brussels time, I was rather surprised to hear apologies every time I had to wait for a minute or more. No seconds are lost and there is an efficient system in place for just about everything.

Another distinctive Japanese feature is love for good food and culture. And I mean probably the best food I've ever eaten, fresh and accompanied by fair amount of cold or hot green tea - ceremonially served in places with the red umbrella.
Lunch
Sushi belt
Sushi belt 
Onigiri - a healthy snack
Onigiri - strangely addictive healthy snack

Cold green matcha tea
Cold green matcha tea
But as efficient, thoughtful and enchanting Japanese culture is, it has the darker side. Determination and dedication to continuos improvement of life and everything is taking its toll. While more and more time is spent improving things at work, less and less time is left for family and personal fulfillment.

Streets and subways are full of salary men who work from dawn till dusk, often spending the few hours left to sleep in a hotel, to increase the efficiency. They focus career and if they find time to meet someone or have a relationship, they would see each other only on the weekends and most likely never have any friends in common. They would use a third of their two week vacation time so no wonder many burn out and do that often.

Yes, Japan is weird but at the same time extremely magnetic and thought this is my first journey (spending my last days in Tokyo) I have a strong feelings it won't be the last one. It's just too good to miss.

To be continued...

Monday, August 25, 2014

Turkey

Istanbul was my biggest crush after Berlin and the more Turkey I discovered, more I feel in love with it. Its heartwarming people, unimaginably delicious food, rich historical and cultural heritage with ancient sights and beautiful landscape. Yes, Turkey is definitely a keeper. So far I've been there a couple of times but will definitely return for more. Though eager to discover new places there, I don't think I will ever be able to resist revisiting some of my favorite places.

Istanbul

Around 14 million people live in this metropolis that is spread over two continents, but you'd rarely notice the crowd. It's vibrant, warm and welcoming. Its always busy Galata bridge became city landmark and regardless time of the day or year, you'll always find it full if merchants and fishermen. And what I especially like about Istanbul is that it's full of cats.

Istanbul

View of Istanbul
View from nearby hill with cable car

A cat


If you're in for a unique experience you might want to visit one of traditional turkish baths or hammas - but be prepared to be thoroughly scrubbed and washed (they call this massage). There are many tourist hammas in Istanbul but I've avoided them altogether and looked for one of more traditional local ones. They're usually nicer and more intimate. Otherwise, visiting Istanbul's markets is a must, even though you'll find much better deals outside the official bazaar.

Bazaar in Istanbul
Bazaar

One thing I love about Istanbul is it's abundant culture. From Istanbul Modern to underground Basilica cistern from 3rd century and ruins of the city wall, every stone in Istanbul is a part of history, waiting to be discovered.

Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia

When it comes to food, Turkey and Asia are for me still the kings of eating. Every vegetable there tastes better and I can't get enough of turkish meze (mostly vegetarian & fish appetizers) pida's (turkish pizza), hummus (chickpea dip), merçimek (lentil soup), ekmek (delicious fish sandwich that is the best under Galata bridge) and menemem (omlet). And not to forget famous turkish deserts in Hafiz Mustafa. And after all the eating, there is turkish coffee and tea.
Sweets at Hafiz Mustafa
Hafiz Mustafa


Turkish Coffee


Though food is really delicious almost everywhere you go, vegetarians might be surprised to find out that chicken isn't considered to be meat. So if you don't eat fish, then stick to more tourist restaurants, pida places and meze. We even found vegetarian version of their famous manti (traditional turkish pasta with meat, yoghurt and tomato sauce) but don't count on this on less tourist places. But if you eat fish (and meat), then Istanbul is a food paradise.

When in Istanbul do take advantage of boats and new metro that takes you to the Asian side. It is admittedly much less exciting than European one, but still well worth visiting.

View from the Asian side
View from the Asian side

Bursa

Bursa is former capital of Ottoman state, mostly famous for its silk market and thermal baths but it's also not far from a skying resort, so it's perfect spot for winter holidays.  Bursa is also a home of Iskender kebap. I've had only vegetarian version, but judging by the sounds of my meat-loving friends, it's quite an experience. Mere thought of juicy grilled vegetables (and some prime pieces of animal if you're not veggie), covering puffy yummy bread and topped by spicy pepper and sour cream, poured over with hot melted butter make my mouth water.

Bursa's covered silk market Koza Han is worth visiting even if you don't intend to buy anything.  It's an old building with over 4000 shops that sell everything from silk scarfs to curtains. But truth to be told once you enter the building it's hard not to buy anything. Colorful scarfs are very reasonably priced and friendly shop-keepers will invite you for tea and chat with you without being intrusive. And if you're lucky, they'll show you the silk test.

Koza Han - the silk market

Cafe at the silk market
Cafe at Koza Han


I haven't had a chance to try out one of their many ancient thermal baths yet, but a lot of hotels in Bursa have their own thermal pools with sauna and other spa facilities. If you want to avoid crowded periods then avoid going there over weekends, because it's a popular retreat for many Turkish families.





Datça

I found out about this town in an airplane magazine and for some reason it stuck to my mind. It's also a name of my favorite Berlin brunch place, so we gave it a go and weren't disappointed. It is a slightly remote but completely worth visiting. Not very big on cultural sights, Datça is very charming and perfect to to relax by the sea, discover many beautiful beaches around the town and enjoy delicious food in local restaurants.

Datça coast - Muğla, Turkey
Datça coast - Muğla, Turkey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Still uncorrupted by big hotel complexes, Datça mostly lives on family tourism, crafts and fishing. The first evening there we've met Özgül, who convinced us to dine in his restaurant. He assured us he makes the best octopus salad we've ever eaten but we haven't thought much of it until we tried it. He wasn't exaggerating and we've ordered seconds.

Not far from the existing town is old Datça, the original village that is now transformed into a cute arts and crafts market where local women sell different products.


Have you been to Turkey? What are your favorite places?