Tokyo & Kyoto: bicycle races, a vending machine bar, and Nijo Castle

September 12, 2018
by Christina & Dan

Christina:

Upon departing Osaka, we took a train towards Tokyo and made our way to Hachioji, a suburb west of Tokyo, where we caught up with Dean and went to stay with my friend Nabila. I know Nabila from volunteering through my professional organization, and it was fun to get to spend time with her outside of a conference! It was also super nice of her to let the three of us crash at her place!

After we dropped our bags off at Nabila’s, the four of us headed out to dinner at a kaitezushi (conveyor belt sushi) place nearby. Nabila said that the Kura sushi chain was the best rated in Japan, and we certainly enjoyed it a lot. Also interesting was that they had a special conveyor belt for your touchscreen orders, and this one went super fast, zipping the contents quickly from the kitchen to its recipients. You fed your plates into a slot at the end of the table, and after every five plates the touch screen would run a video and give you a chance to win a toy, which we did once out of 25 plates. The boys also got very excited over that grilled salmon with cheese and corn-mayonnaise nigiri… smh.

The next day we slept in and while Nabila was at work we decided to go for a walk near the house. A river with a paved path ran right by Nabila’s house, so we took a stroll, indulging the boy’s vending machine fascination along the way. Yes, vending machines really are everywhere in Japan. It’s amazing.

We made our way to Toritsu Takiyama Natural Park for a hike. However, there was a big sign out front when we arrived, saying the park was closed because of suzumebachi, the giant hornet. Supposedly one sting can’t kill you, but they come in groups and the estimate is that at about 10 stings you might keel over should seek medical attention. Well, that slowed us down for all of a minute until some old Japanese dude hiked in right past the sign, and I asked if it was okay, and he said so, so good enough!

We had a nice hike around the park, which was wooded with paved paths and beautiful vistas of the surrounding area. We visited some of the shrines, and found signs warning about pit vipers (mamushi), but we encountered neither snakes nor giant wasps. Phew.

On our way back to Hachioji station we got lunch at Matsuya, a simple diner chain, where I was able to satisfy my craving for Japanese curry, and Dean got his new favorite Japanese dish, katsudon, which is a breaded fried pork cutlet with egg over rice.

Then we got on a train and made our way to witness first hand the cycling sport that had captured Dan’s imagination…. Keirin.

Dan:

After a few failed attempts at attending Keirin races, I finally found a velodrome with a schedule that matched up with our travel plans. The Tokyo Oval Keiokaku velodrome was only about 45 minutes away from Hachioji.

We arrived at the Yanokuchi train station and asked around for the pick up point for the shuttle bus to the station. It was a short ride. The stadium also has a section for horse racing, which is where we went first. After some silly pantomiming of horse riding and bicycle riding we found our way to the velodrome. The entry fee was only 50 yen ($0.5) since they make all their money off the gambling, so it’s dirt cheap entertainment.

We arrived just in time for the start of a race. They are spaced out about every half hour, so it was lucky timing. In general the crowd is mostly crusty old men. A few of them come outside to witness the race in person, but a lot of them stay inside to watch the TV monitors.

The Keiokaku velodrome was about middling quality of the tracks that I’ve visited. It’s an outdoor track that is pretty well maintained, but it’s nothing very fancy. There are plenty of food and drink vendors inside the stadium. We bought some overpriced beer and had a few old dudes take interest in us. They treated us to some really quite awful shrimp flavored processed meat tubes. It was a fun cultural experience.

To be honest, I found the races a bit boring to watch. I think it’s more fun if you are gambling. There are all sorts of bets that can be placed. I don’t ever gamble and it would have been nearly impossible to figure out the betting form, so we just watched.

The race starts off with a few laps behind a pacer. All the racers have standardized gear and wear assigned color jerseys so they are easy to identify. There is some jockeying for position during the pacer laps, but it’s mostly decided beforehand because every racer has to announce their strategy for the race.

After the pacer leaves the track, the real racing happens, with teams of riders jockeying for position and setting up the final breakaway. But it’s not quite as dynamic as the Olympic cycling races and there are tons of little rules that I don’t know at all. So I prefer the slightly modified Keirin in the Olympics for myself. Even still, I was delighted that I finally got to see the original form of the sport.

We stayed for a handful of races. The last race that we watched was the women’s keirin race. This seemed to be quite popular and drew a much larger crowd. The women have a bit more freedom in their bike selection and can have carbon fiber frames and a few other aerodynamic enhancements that the men aren’t permitted, but otherwise it’s the same race.

Overall it was a weird tourist activity and it was fun to get to see this different part of Japanese culture.

Christina:

When we got back to Hachioji from our Keirin adventure, we picked up groceries to cook for dinner, so when Nabila came home, we had a nice homemade meal together. It was really great to spend some time with Nabila, and so nice of her to have us over. Thank you so much!!!

The next day we headed into central Tokyo, where we’d gotten a nice tatami room in a guest house in the Taito neighborhood. From there we walked down to see Senso-ji in Asakusa, and I concluded that I prefer it in the evening. During the day its packed full of tourists, and at night the temple isn’t open, but it’s beautifully lit and relatively quiet.

After that we ran down to the Sumidagawa and enjoyed a nice run along the river. The water was beautiful and we got some very nice views of interesting Tokyo architecture, including Tokyo Skytree and the Asahi Beer Hall, which is shaped like an Olympic torch, but I’m sorry, it just looks like a big golden pooh.

After our run Dan and I went to Jakotsuyu in Asakusa to have a bath. This one is a simple neighborhood sento with a mix of locals and tourists. It is an onsen, with dark colored spring water. They’re split by gender, and nude, so no photos inside. It cost about 500 yen for entry, with soaps and towels available for a fee as well. Dan said their was an old man on his side with an enormous koi tattoo that extend from his back down his legs, meaning he was probably important enough of a yakuza member that the proprietors were afraid to turn him away for his tattoos… (since people with tattoos are officially not allowed in the baths, and there’s a very interesting history as to why).

We caught back up with Dean to check out a little gem of a bar called Shokuyasu Shoten that he had discovered online. It’s a vending-machine only bar, with no staff. Just a collection of booze-filled vending machines in an alcove beneath the tracks near Yurakucho station, with a few tables and enough patrons that many had to sit across the street. Some of the patrons helped us determine that the ancient looking vending machine served sake, which Dan decided to try. It was fun sitting on the curb having some drinks and watching commuters and the other “bar” patrons hanging out. The things you can do when drinking alcohol is legal in public spaces!

The next day we went to explore Akihabara, a major center for nerd culture in Tokyo populated with electronics shops, video game arcades, and maid cafes (Dan and I enjoyed @Home Cafe during our last visit to Tokyo in 2014). We paid a visit to a shop called “Super Potato” which specialized in vintage video games and systems. It’s several floors of sweet video game nerdery, including an arcade floor where you can game, smoke, and buy snacks.

Our next stop was the Tokyo Dome to buy tickets for New Japan Pro Wrestling that night. It was an expensive endeavor, so I decided to take a pass and we just got tickets for Dean and Dan. After that we got a quick lunch of cold soba at a shop nearby, and I left the boys to their wrestling adventure…

Dan:

I don’t know much about Japanese wrestling. I’m really only familiar with Ultimate Muscle (Muscle Man) since, for some weird reason, I used to have a collection of the goshapon (capsule toy) sized figures. Anyway, Dean, Christina, and I have been to WWE in DC before, and Lucha Libre in Mexico was one of my top favorite tourist activities of the trip so far, so of course I wanted to see New Japan Pro Wrestling live.

In order to get the cheap, standing room only tickets you have to show up to the Tokyo Dome on the day of the event. We showed up about 15 minutes before the ticket counter opened and there was already a huge line. Luckily we were still early enough, but only barely.

Since we got standing room tickets, we made sure to get into the building when the doors opened. Of course we didn’t actually know where the entrance was so we just had to wait until there was an obvious line of wrestling fans and we hopped into that. There were all sorts of people at the Tokyo Dome that night, but most were teen girls attending a J-pop concert… so the wrestling fans were pretty easy to pick out.

We were led up a narrow concrete stairwell which was covered in graffiti. I’m sure it was contrived grunge, but it was a good entrance atmosphere for pro wrestling. We were pointed to the standing areas which are balconies over the ring. It’s a great view if you get there early, but there was already a row of people formed, so we opted to stand at the top row of the bleachers. Not the best seats in the house, but we were in the front of the standing area so it was just as good as most of the seats in the bleachers.

Whereas Lucha Libre is definitely it’s own thing, NJPW borrows a lot of its style from US pro wrestling. A lot of the wrestlers were actually from the US and spoke zero Japanese. I found that kind of embarrassing especially when they would curse in English.

By far, the most unique aspect of the night was the crowd. During the first few matches it was surreal. Everyone was dead quiet and would basically golf clap at the end of any big move, which I found hilarious. By the end of the night people were getting amped and cheering for their favorite wrestlers and reacting to the punches (every one would cry ‘oh!’ in unison with every punch). Los Ingobernables de Japon were a crowd favorite. They are a crew led by a Japanese guy that did a stint with Lucha Libre in Mexico.

My other favorite moment of the night was when one of the wrestlers was disqualified and, in response, went and kicked out an announcer and took over as an announcer for quite a long time. The guys next to me were also watching the live broadcast on their phones and let me watch the replays and close ups of the hilarity that ensued. Supposedly there were no pictures or video allowed because the match is being broadcast, but after seeing other folks taking photos and video (not in excess) I decided to take these few photos.

The event ended without much fanfare. Everything got quiet and orderly and everyone shuffled politely out of the stadium. In terms of live wrestling, my overall impression is that it’s absolutely more interesting than WWE, where it’s almost impossible to buy worthwhile seats. WWE is great to watch on TV, but from my own experience, terrible in person. I’m still convinced that the best wrestling in the world is in Mexico. It can’t be beat.

Christina:

While Dean and Dan watched the show, I made my traditional pilgrimage to Shibuya to one of the busiest pedestrian intersections in the world. When I lived in Japan over a decade ago, Starbucks’s caramel frap was my drink of choice (I hate the use of the word “basic” to describe such things, but here it’s apropos. I was 22, what do you expect?). So in homage to days gone by I ordered one and found a spot to sit on the second floor of the Starbucks that overlooks the intersection. I camped out for a bit to write, then did a little wandering around the neighborhood before getting back on the train to Taito.

Once back I got my exercise gear out, and headed to a small local park to get a ring workout in. Bentenin park was interesting because it also included a shrine, wedged right next to the playground equipment. It was late so I had the place to myself until the boys came back from wrestling, and then we all turned in for the night.

We had originally been planning a visit to Hokkaido, but unfortunately the earthquake on September 6 had seriously disrupted train service, among other things, and so instead of heading north, we headed back west to Kyoto, an iconic and historic city of many temples and shrines.

Having visited Kyoto before on several occasions, our first morning in Kyoto I decided I wanted some downtime to write and do research on tea ceremonies. So while the boys headed south to visit the sake museum, I went to the Chuo library near our accommodation. The library was well populated with patrons at the long wooden desks on the second floor, and was a quiet and picturesque place to work with all the lovely colorful books that I couldn’t read. (They also had a cool recycling program, with bins out front for various items.)

Dan:

I don’t remember how I learned about the Kyoto sake breweries, but I’m very glad we went. The Fushimi district south of town is home to several breweries with Gekkeikan being the most recognizable to me, and the one with something to visit. They run a museum which discusses the sake brewing process, the history of Gekkeikan, and the general history of the neighborhood.

In my mind Gekkeikan makes pretty terrible cheap sake. But the museum was great and now I have a much greater appreciation for the company. Obviously it’s a museum run by a commercial entity but, if I’m to believe them, they have a pretty cool history.

First off, sake brewing is a pretty complicated multistage process, which I never appreciated before. Also it wasn’t until recently (thanks to the incredible technology innovations of Gekkeikan!) that sake could be made year-round and preserved for wide distribution.

The coolest thing that I learned is that the traditional Gekkeikan bottles came with a little glass which served as a lid. So the crappy cheap Gekkeikan that you buy in the US with a lid/cap is in homage to this. That was pretty awesome I thought. Most of the facts, including a picture of their original bottle are available on their website.

At the beginning of the museum tour there was a pump where you could drink the spring water that is used to brew sake, and outside the brewery was a municipal spring water tap. I wanted to fill my water bottle, but there was a line of old people and each of them had armfuls of six liter water jugs that they were filling up. So moral of the story is, fill up your water bottle inside the museum. It’s a weird, kind of soft water.

At the end of the tour you are able to try two types of sake and a plum wine. The only sample that I really liked was the retro bottle of Gekkeikan which is supposedly the traditional sake. Also included with the tour was a complimentary bottle of their cheap sake. But it came in a special edition bottle, so I was pretty pumped on that. I love special edition stuff. All in all totally worth the entrance fee of 400 yen.

I got the distinct impression that the neighborhood is gearing up to encourage tourists to visit, but it’s not quite there yet. There was a small shop nearby with (delicious) draft sake to try, but it was really not much more than a gift shop and restaurant. It was associated with Kizakura Kappa Country. Still a great area to visit, if only for the museum, but I suspect there might be more to see and do in the near future. I think it would be in everyone’s interests.

After the brewery we stopped by the Inariyama Temple. It’s a very typical site to visit in Kyoto, featuring a path of tightly packed, bright orange tori gates. I’ve been before and it’s still one of my favorite temples in Japan. Even though it’s slammed with visitors, it has a really cool atmosphere.

Unfortunately most of the mountain was closed off due to the recent typhoon. I think several tori were damaged by the wind, so it was closed off for repair. But the most iconic segment at the bottom of the hill was still open and I was glad that Dean got to see it.

Christina:

On our second day in Kyoto, Dan and I slept in a bit while Dean went to tour Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Temple, and possibly Kyoto’s most famous edifice. After that the three of us joined back up and went to visit Nijo-jo, or Nijo Castle. Nijo-jo was the home to shogun in the Edo period and was later used as the Imperial residence. This is one castle that wasn’t destroyed and rebuilt as a museum inside, and its interiors are beautiful with all their painted paneling. Unfortunately though, it is not permitted to take photographs inside the castle, so I can’t show you all the wild tigers, cranes, cherry blossoms and snow drifts painted on the panels, but they’re lovely.

We walked from Nijo-jo to visit Nishiki market, which is a long covered pedestrian walk, filled with all kinds of foods. We bought some snacks, and I couldn’t resist the pickled daicon, which is so good, but I will warn you… don’t eat too much of it at once. The market is lovely, but also kind of crowded, so be prepared.

Near Nishiki is Pontocho, an alley filled with restaurants and small shops, where you can hope to see maiko (Geisha in training) and geiko (Kyo-kotoba for Geisha), but we arrived long before anything was open. Evidently it doesn’t get rolling until the evening, or we were just there on the wrong day. (Incidentally, we did glimpse a pair of maiko near Nishiki market, which is the first time I’ve seen them! Very excite.)

I had been hoping to have a simple tea ceremony at the Nijo-jo garden (as opposed to one of the big culture experience deals that are also common in Kyoto), but its gardens and tea house were closed due to damage from Typhoon Jebi. So when the three of us split up for a few hours after Pontocho, I had quick lunch down by the river, then headed to Shoren-in temple, only to discover I was an hour late, and that their tea room closed at 3 pm. Thus my tea quest went unfulfilled (until later… dun dun dun).

That evening was Dean’s last night in Japan, and we headed to a diner to get him one final serving of katsudon before he had to return to Tokyo the next day for his flight back to Washington, DC. It was really great to see you Dean! We’re glad that you could come and join us for an adventure! :0)

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Osaka: Hello Kitty, vending machines, and a building impaled by a highway

September 5, 2018
by Christina

To get to Osaka from Hiroshima we found a very special method of transport: the Hello Kitty shinkansen. Yes, this a Japan Rail bullet train that is pink and decorated in Hello Kitty theme, it’s “the cutest bullet train“. Props to Dean for discovering this in his research, I had no idea, it’s only running June to November this year!

The train has pink exterior decorations and two cars that contain a gift shop, a Hello Kitty statue and decorations. The other cars aren’t notably different from a normal train.

The only problem with this mode of transit is that while the standard train takes ~2 hours to get from Hiroshima to Osaka, Hello Kitty takes 4 hours because it stops at every stop and waits for the other trains to pass, also giving people photo ops.

Final bit of trivia, the Japanese do not call her Hello Kitty. Whhhhat? Mind = blown. They call her “Kitty-chan,” which explains the blank look I initially got trying to book a ticket for the “Hello Kitty no shinkansen” in Japanese.

Even despite the longer transit time, we arrived in Osaka several hours in advance of our check in time at our hotel, and since we were informed that check in was via video call with no staff on-site, we didn’t try to bum rush early. Instead we got lunch (ramen!) near Shin-Osaka station and headed to the general neighborhood of hotel.

Once there we found a bench to chill on in a pedestrian arcade, and picked up snacks at Family Mart. That’s when someone stopped by to make friends with us. He was an elderly man, but dressed like a salary man, who greeted us and we struck up a conversation in mostly Japanese peppered with a bit of English, which I could only half follow. He sat and smoked a cigarette with Dan, left, came back, and seemed to want us to go somewhere with him. Dean and I were not in the mood to go adventuring with our luggage in tow, so we sent Dan off with him while we watched the bags.

While Dan was gone, a man carrying grocery bags put something that looked like a pack of cigarettes on Dean’s knee, then one on mine. I asked him in Japanese what it was, but received no response. I picked up the box and realized it was milk caramels, and said thank you, but our benefactor had already walked away and didn’t look back.

In a little while Dan and our new friend returned with several shopping bags. They had gone to get a health-juice and make some purchases, and it turns out many of the purchases were for us/Dan, including grapes and beans. We thanked him profusely and in confusion, at which point he departed again.

So, if you sit around with your luggage in Osaka, people give you presents. Awesome. We liked Osaka already!

At that point we went to go check in to our hotel, Infinity Hotel Osaka Dome-mae, which again, did not have any staff. Check in was via a tablet video-call and the tablet froze and didn’t work. After calling for assistance on the landline and being walked through resetting the tablet, which remained buggy, we somehow managed to check in, but it took an age.

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However, after that, it got better. It appeared that the “hotel” was actually just an apartment block (they even had taped over mailboxes in the check in area. So we had (by Japanese standards) a spacious apartment including a kitchen, washing machine, and balcony. The price for it was suspiciously low, but I concluded this was because it was new while they tried to get reviews. So, check-in awful, everything else awesome.

Interestingly though, we seemed to have placed ourselves in one of Osaka’s red light districts, and there were shops that were populated by very attractive young women as well as “snack” bars, where you can get food and an attractive conversational companion.  It may be called “Heart Town”? We saw quite a few of these on the way to the discount grocery store nearby, where we picked up fixings for dinner and drinks.

The next day we met up got to meet up with Kyoko, who is a friend of mine from yoga teacher training in Rishikesh. She is from Osaka originally, and is living and working there while she takes a bit of break from working cruise ships. We got to spend the day with her, which was so much fun! Though some of the things we had in mind were a little strange to her!

First stop were the Pokemon station and the Sanrio store in the Daimaru near Osaka station. These are exactly what they sound like, and they were packed. We didn’t pick anything up at the Pokemon stop, but Dan had gotten terrible jealous of the Kitty-chan Shinkansen chopsticks that Dean had picked up in the train gift shop, and he picked up a pair of his own there. So they both now have some of the most niche kitsch imaginable, chopsticks with the ends shaped like the Hello Kitty themed bullet train.

We got okonomiyaki in a nearby shop called Chibo, which is a bit buried inside of a shopping plaza, but it’s there! Okonomiyaki is one of Dan’s favorite Japanese foods, and we only managed to get it once on our first trip, so were making up for that!

From there it was a short walk to the Gate Tower building, which hit my architectural fascination hard. A dispute between a landowner who was planning a building, and the government who was planning an elevated roadway resulted in… a building with a highway going through the middle of it, that pays rent for the space. Amazing. We even managed to sneak inside and up the elevator.

Next stop was the mystery vending machines. If there is anyone who’s interested in vending machines exceeds that of Dan’s… it’s Dean. I can’t remember who discovered them online, but there is a location in Osaka with 10 yen vending machines selling items that are approaching their expiration dates, and you give it your coin not knowing what will come out. Sadly the 10 yen machines were sold out, but there were 20 and 50 yen machines still stocked, which gave us not only drinks and candy, but things like cake icing and baking chocolate. Just… wow. (Also, you know Dan totally ate the icing directly out of the tube, right?)

After the relative disappointment that was Hiroshima castle, we elected to only look at the outside of Osaka castle when we learned it was similar: traditional exterior with a brand new museum inside that looked in no way like the original interior. I was very happy with that decision. The park, grounds, and the castle itself were all very beautiful, but without the obligatory museum visit and entry fee.

Then, for our lost stop of the day, we went to the Shinsekai neighborhood. This is the dangerous and dirty neighborhood, which, knowing that, is a testament to how beautifully clean and safe Japan is in general. We walked around the shops, sampled some takoyaki in one place, then got fried things and beer in another shop. I also got a sweet robot sticker that is the robo-version of the Tsutenkaku tower.

Exhausted from our epic day of touristing, we headed back to the hotel to relax with some drinks and snacks, until Kyoko had to go to catch a train home, since she had work the next day. It was so much fun to see you, Kyoko!!!

The next morning we got to meet up with another friend of mine, this one from way back in grade school and junior high in New Mexico. Mike and I both moved away from New Mexico in 1999, but we stayed in touch as pen pals, writing actual letter to each other, for many years. I turns out that Mike moved to Osaka five years ago, and has been teaching English and living there since. When he saw some of my posts on Facebook, we got back in touch and arranged to meet up.

After lunch we were on our way to the Osaka science museum when we got distracted by something in a store window: a futuristic looking walking machine on a mannequin sitting in the Honda shop window. We stopped into inquire and it turns out it’s a device developed by Honda to help with therapy for people needing to relearn to walk after accidents and such. Well, we asked if we could try it and the clerk, perhaps having a slow day, let us try it out.

Interestingly what was done first was a calibration of natural walking, and then the system would pull your legs differently to correct and make your gait more even. I got to see my calibration graph and it turns out I don’t lift my right leg as high as my left leg, and when the machine activated and pulled harder on my right leg, my gait became perfectly even!

We thanked the clerk for his time and, with the diversion over, we made our way to the Osaka science museum at last. It’s four floors of different physics and natural science demonstrations, some of them hands on, and all very cool. I particularly loved the Michelson interferometer, because, lasers, but the old-school particle accelerator equipment, and the ball machine kinetic art were all really cool. So much fun science!

From the museum we went to get some snacks, and hung out in Utsubo park chatting until Mike had to getting going. It was lovely to see him again, and we agreed that it should be much sooner than 19 years before we catch up again ;0) Great to see you Mike!

From there the three of us walked back to the hotel, cooked dinner, and spent a chill night in.

I had agreed to give a presentation at an event that the Osaka University Student Chapter of my professional was hosting, and so the next day Dan and I went north to stay near Expo City (which is close to the University) while Dean split off to go see Nagoya and Tokyo.

Once we were checked in, I spent the rest of the day working on my talk, but in the evening we wandered out to see the Expo City and its beautiful Ferris wheel, the Redhorse Osaka Wheel. I’ve discovered that light painting Ferris wheels is one of my new favorite things to do, and I did it in excess, as well as photographing some of the interesting statues around.

The next day while I was at the event at the University, Typhoon Jebi rolled through. Dan stayed holed up in the hotel, and reported that the storm broke a window in the lobby. Walking to the monorail station from the event after the storm had passed, there were quite a few downed trees and branches, but otherwise the storm passed fairly uneventfully for us. However, it did some major damage in some places, so we were pretty lucky.

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The next day we checked out of our hotel and headed to west Tokyo to regroup with Dean and meet up with my friend Nabila! Stay tuned!

 

 

Hiroshima: the Peace Memorial, deer, okonomiyaki, and a friend comes to visit!

August 30, 2018
by Dan

At the conclusion of my bike trip, in Hiroshima I met up with Christina and Dean, our friend from DC. They flew into Tokyo at roughly the same time and made the journey. from Tokyo together. The night they arrived they stayed at the ever present chain of hotels APA. What they didn’t know was that, unfortunately, APA is closely aligned with Japan’s far right nationalist party and denies the war atrocities of Japan (a huge source of contention between China and Japan). After finding that out we avoided the place for the rest of the trip. But if you or anyone you know happens to stay at one in the near future, please take some of the propaganda for me, I’ve started collecting weird propaganda.

After we all joined up, our first order of business was to go out for the local dish, Hiroshima style okonomiyaki. Okonomiyaki is one of my favorite Japanese foods. I learned about it during my first trip to Japan. It’s a savory pancake with any variety of fillings, usually cabbage, and then topped with meats, seafood, something similar BBQ sauce, mayonnaise, and then sprinkled with seasonings like bonito flakes and seaweed. It’s delicious comfort food.

Hiroshima style okonomiyaki has noodles added to it. It turns out I’m not a big fan of it and prefer the more typical varieties, but we of course had to try it. There are okonomiyaki places all over town. We went to a nearby building Okonomimura that hosts several floors of okonomiyaki stalls. They are all more or less homogeneous as far as we could tell but there is a small description of each stall in the lobby that we didn’t notice until we left.

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We went up several floors and first stopped at the booth of a lonely old man who was incredibly emotionless and unenthusiastic. I liked him and he took a lot of care preparing the dish. I think we did kinda screwed up his night though, because shortly after we arrived a huge tour group of Germans came in and they went to the stalls behind us. I guess to not bother us. There were a few Japanese customers that came to this floor looking for a place to eat but peaced out immediately seeing all the foreign tourists.

Next we went down a floor and were called over to join a Japanese couple eating a stall that highly recommended their okonomyaki. The chefs at this stall were much more animated. In general it was roughly the same, just less painstakingly prepared. Anyway, not my favorite style of okonomyaki and probably a bit more expensive than an independent joint away from the tourist region, but Okonomimura is a solid bet if you want to try it out.

Another of our food adventures was to visit a Mos Burger, which is a Japanese burger chain that Christina was introduced to on her JAL flight. They have pretty standard burgers, but also serve up some of the weird food combos that Japan is famous for. The Teriyaki burger is probably the best, with teriyaki sauce and cream cheese toppings. I got the most globally diverse item on the menu: a Japanese kare taco naan flatbread. Of course. It was pretty average but I loved it conceptually. It is the closest thing that I’ve ever seen to a Casey’s Taco Pizza outside of Iowa. Pretty exciting stuff.

In addition to eating things, I joined Christina for a work out in the park one day. She said that people in Tokyo ignored her at the park, but it Hiroshima they were a little more curious, but still no one asked to play on the rings (common in many countries).

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Of course the main draw for visitors is the atomic bomb site and the Peace Memorial. I have mixed feelings about visiting the sites of war atrocities and mostly we have chosen not to visit such places. I understand why people do it, but I have my own reasons against it.

In general this is more of a memorial/museum, but still I was not particularly keen on visiting. Christina has visited Hiroshima before and did the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum already and didn’t feel the need to see it again. I went and it was the difficult experience I expected. I share Christina’s desire to not go back to see it a second time.

Note from Christina: The death and destruction documented at the Peace Memorial Museum are heart breaking and hard to talk about for both of us, and why Dan is not going into further detail here. When I visited, I remember being impressed with how the museum was not anti-American, but solidly anti-war and focused on the human cost of the bomb. I think it is an important thing to see if you visit Hiroshima, and why I pressed Dan to visit despite his reluctance.

Later that day the three of us went for a walk around the Peace Memorial park, which was beautifully lit at night. Here are some night pictures of the A-Bomb Dome, a building preserved in its destroyed state, and one of the memorial statues.

The next day we journeyed to Itsukushima Island (typically it’s called Miyajima which means shrine island). It’s a highly recommended tourist spot nearby. I had biked past it on my way to Hiroshima and was planning to camp at the campgrounds there. But I didn’t realize it was an island and I would need to take a ferry. Also there are pit vipers there. Which actually isn’t an issue for camping, but it gave me pause when I first read it. More problematic is the rummaging deer which have no fear of humans. Anyway, I decided not to camp there and just come back with the rest of the crew instead. I really enjoyed it.

We used our JR rail passes to get there since it covered the train and the ferry to the island. It was much faster than biking, but it really isn’t that far from downtown Hiroshima. I got a banana chocolate latte from the vending machine that I had found passing through by bike. It is my favorite vending machine thing.

We arrived at the island and went to look at the shrine. People say it’s one of few floating tori. First it’s obviously not floating. It’s like 50 meters from the shore. Of course it’s anchored. Also I’ve seen tons of tori gates in water. There is nothing particularly special about this one. It is pretty, but a little oversold imo. Also there are lots of deer that people pet (even though the signs say not to). I was not particularly fond of them, but they were docile and didn’t bother us for food.

Note for Christina: I visited this island once before over a decade ago, and I remember being able to buy pellets to feed the deer and they were aggro and would swarm people. This was much nicer.

From there we started a hike up the mountain. We took the Daishoin route up, which starts at Daishoin Temple. I think this was the coolest part of the entire island and by far the most unique part. There were tons of little temples scattered about, some seemed quite hidden. For example there was a dark walk way underneath the main temple that you had to feel your way through until you came to little lit up alcoves with some gold deities. That was a fun find. The whole temple was in a beautiful stony valley with mountain river. I loved it there and, if we weren’t itching to get up the mountain, I would have loved to stay and explore a bit more.

The hike up the mountain was paved and easy enough. The view at the top was excellent, but I found the huge boulders at the top a lot more fascinating. They were fun to climb around, but most of the fun parts to explore were blocked off.

There is a multi-story structure at the top where you can relax (2nd floor) or get the 360 view of the island and surrounding water (3rd floor). We took some pictures and had some snacks there before heading back down a different route.

When we got to the base of the mountain, the tide had moved out and so we got to walk up to the tori. Kinda cool to get to see it at both high and low tide.

We also took a stroll through the tourist shopping center, where these leaf shaped momiji cakes with fillings of different flavors are popular. I wasn’t very excited about them, but Christina enjoyed them, especially the lemon custard one. And Dean found his first beer vending machine. They are few and far between, but they do exist. On the way out I got another banana chocolate latte. The best!

Now a quick note on the typical tourist to Miyajima. I swear 80% of people were speaking Spanish. It was crazy. And speaking of Spanish. We stayed at Santiago Guesthouse and there were tons of Spanish speaking guests. And there were two Spanish restaurants nearby. What’s the deal? What is the connection between the Spanish speaking world and Hiroshima? The staff at the hostel didn’t know. They were kinda surprised that I noticed any connection at all.

Our final day in Hiroshima we went to see the Hiroshima castle tower. I have to say, it was much cooler looking on the outside. The last time it was reconstructed the interior was made into a modern general museum with no effort to emulate what the original castle would have looked like inside. I didn’t find the exhibits particularly interesting , the exception being the display of samurai swords showing the fabrication process and some awesome samurai armor. Plus! You could try some on! That was the highlight of the visit to the castle. Samurai armor is so cool.

After the castle Christina and Dean took a lap around the Shukkeien Gardens. I did not and avoided the rain, so I felt pretty clever about that decision. But it looks like I missed out on some pretty beautiful landscaping.

Note from Christina: The gardens were really pretty, and when it began to rain a staff person came out delivering umbrellas to guests, which was so sweet. Unfortunately they were not offering tea ceremonies that day, perhaps because of the weather.

On our final night in Hiroshima our hostel had a roof party with free pizza and beer. It was a ton of fun, and had a good turn out (no surprise there). There was plenty of pizza and beer to make me very very happy.

Rather shortly into the party some guy started doing karaoke off his phone. He was the karaoke king for the night. He loved American pop and rock. Christina also got in a few hit songs. But after not too long the police showed up. We weren’t being particularly rowdy, just singing and it was only 9 pm. I have no clue what the complaint was, but we all moved down to the common area and kept on with the karaoke.

One of the most entertaining songs of the evening was when the three Argentinos got up and started singing the theme to an anime, which I didn’t know. But everyone got super amped about it. Then they sang the Pokemon theme in Japanese and everyone was shouting along. It was definitely a different scene than most hostel parties and I loved it.

The Santiago Guest House Hiroshima overall gets a good review from us. It was modern, clean, with a nice common area and kitchen, as well as having roof access. The only annoyance was that the only stairs between floors were the outdoor fire escape stairs, and the one tiny elevator was amazingly aggressive about closing its doors. Overall though, a good experience, especially with the party.

The next morning we checked out bright and early, because we had some very special transport to Osaka….

 

Fukuoka, San Diego & a Japan Bike tour to Hiroshima

August 31, 2018
by Christina & Dan

Christina:

Passing through immigration in Fukuoka was fairly uneventful. Interestingly while I was not asked to show a departing ticket (I had only a few days before I had to leave for a conference), Dan was asked, but he had listed 6 weeks for his duration (since no conference for him). After the debacle in Panama, we pay keen attention to these things.

We made our way on foot from the ferry terminal to Tongai Hostel & Cafe, which ended up being a lovely place to stay. It was clean with a nice kitchen and a good common room on our floor, as well as use of the well-appointed cafe space on the ground floor.

Once settled in we went for breakfast, where I inadvertently selected a meal that involved raw egg. Nothing hot to stir it into, just straight up raw egg. After so much food poisoning I looked that egg in the eye and said, ‘I love you Japan’ and ate it. And did not get sick.

Near to Tongai were some tasty restaurants that we sampled, including a ramen shop and a curry shop next door to it. Japanese ‘kare’ is a beast all its own. When I lived in Japan back in 2006 I reacted to it like soy milk: I didn’t like because it seemed like it was pretending to be something else (Indian curry). But once I learned to appreciate on its own terms, my eyes were opened and I began to appreciate its deliciousness.

There was also a sweet kaiten sushi restaurant, which is conveyor belt sushi that rolls around with a fixed cost per plate. This place, Hamazushi, is a chain that also had a fancy touch screen ordering system so they could send you anything you particularly craved, specially marked so that people knew it was an order and not the standard fare. And I was shocked that my Iowa-bred spouse got the corn-and-mayo nigiri, truly, shaken to the core.

We got lucky in that the Mitama Matsuri was happening at the Gokoku Shrine for three of the days we were in Fukuoka. During this festival thousands of lanterns are hung at the shrine, and food and goods vendors are out in force in proper matsuri fashion. We strolled the vendors which included some cool antique dealers as well as the usual nama biru and yaki soba. And I spent enough time photographing the lanterns to thoroughly exhaust Dan.

With Dan planning a bicycle tour to Hiroshima, we spent a good bit of time wandering bike shops in the area, both new and used. After finding the shop where ultimately he bought his bicycle, we went out for ‘katsu kare’ which is a breaded fried pork cutlet (the katsu part) paired with Japanse kare. The shop was chock full of manga (which is a common thing restaurants of this style will do for the entertainment of their party-of-one customers) and I magically was seated by the Death Note series. Shout out to Josue who introduced me to Death Note and watched the live action film with me in the theater ages ago.

Then it was time for me to get on my way to San Diego for one of my three annual conferences that I attend for my professional society (which I am still volunteering for despite being on a travel hiatus). I was able to get a direct flight from Tokyo to San Diego, but that still left me one of the longest possible direct skinkansen rides in Japan. It’s about 5 hours from Fukuoka to Tokyo, then another 1 or 1.5 to Narita Airport, then a 9 hour overnight flight to California… So I elected to not make myself suffer overly much, and stayed in Tokyo on Friday night before my flight the next day.

I got a quick ring workout in once I arrived. A lot of small parks in Japan seem to be like this one: all dirt. Except for the pair of amorous teenagers cuddling by the slide, the only other people were there to take a smoke break. But hey, it it did the trick! Interestingly no one really looked at me. I’m used to being stared at by now, or having people ask about the rings, but this was… nothing. Tokyo-ites just aren’t impressed by my weirdness.

I got cleaned up and went to meet up with Tony for dinner as previously planned! We were also joined by Valerie, who I was introduced to online via a mutual Nerd Fitness friend who realized that we were both in Japan. As luck would have it, she was in Tokyo that night too!

The three of us met up in Shinjuku (which is madness on a Friday night) and we had okonomiyaki at Teppan Baby. Tony and I caught up on the past year since Mexico, like whhhat? Yeah, a year. It was great to get to see him and catch up, and thanks again Tony for letting us crash at your place! So nice! It was also a delight getting to chat with Valerie about her adventures in puppeteering and to reminisce about Camp Nerd Fitness 2016. You rock babe! So great to meet you!

Afterwards we got Tony his first taste of natto, which I describe as the Vegemite of Japan. It’s a fermented soy bean dish that’s very stringy, and either you like it, or you really hate it. You can get it at most convenience stores in packs of three small Styrofoam boxes. Tony was nice about it because he knew I liked it, but him and natto were a one time thing, not gonna happen again.

Post-natto we said our good-byes and headed our separate ways. I was staying in Asakusa so I took the opportunity to wander through Senso-ji on my way back to my hotel. I’ve decided that I like it best at night. It’s beautifully lit, there’s fewer people, and some entertaining drunks. Asakusa in general is a pretty quite neighborhood at night and its easy to forget you’re in one of the world’s largest metropolises.

The next day I made my way to the airport. I passed some people playing Mario Kart in real life on the streets of Tokyo (is there a Tokyo course in MK? There must be right?). I got to fly my favorite airline, JAL, and I am indebted to them for introducing me to Mos burger for in-flight breakfast.

In San Diego my buddy Tom, who I know from DC, but just happened to move to SD within the past year, came to get me at the airport (yay! thank you!). We got to have lunch and catch up before I (took a nap and) settled in to prepare for my week at the conference, which was busy but delightful. I took a course, attended committee meetings and networking events, and even made it to some talks!

Among the many friends and colleagues I got to catch up with were Perla and Guillermo, who hosted us and showed us around Monterrey during the first international stop of our trip! We got to have lunch and talk about the past year and plans for the near future, which was fun. Missed you guys! Later in the week I also got to have Tom join me as my plus one for the award banquet, which was great. We look good in suits.

The week went by in a blur, and suddenly I was back at the San Diego airport, bound for Japan! As an interesting piece of trivia, ‘baby’ qualifies as a gender in the San Diego airport. Who knew. Also, I bought a cool new hat in Korea, btw. Now, back to Dan in the studio!

Dan:

While Christina was away in San Diego, I decided to spend my week cycling from Fukuoka to Hiroshima. So first up was buying a bike. Bikes are everywhere in Japan so it seemed like it shouldn’t be too hard. Generally speaking it isn’t hard to find a cheap new or used bike.

I was able to locate some used bike shops in Fukuoka and stopped by several on our first day there. Unfortunately most were closed due to a holiday (see Mitama Matsuri above). With the smaller shops closed I started looking at department stores for the cheapest possible used bike.

What I wanted was a bike with a rear rack, preferably gears, and a front rack. Mostly I was aiming to get a mamachari, which is the iconic Japanese town bike. I think most people were surprised at my plans for the bike, but it ended up making for a pretty decent touring bike. I’m super glad that I got gears because the center of Japan is very mountainous.

Anyway, the department store bikes seemed a bit too spendy for what I wanted, and I was going to have to try to sell the bike in Hiroshima. During my bike hunt, I found the cheapest new bike with my requirements at a Trial Supercenter for 13000 yen, in case you might be looking for something similar, but not all Trials stock bikes..

I bought a bike the morning when Christina left for Tokyo, and so that was the morning which I started my trip. It was from a small little shop selling low end used bikes. It cost more than I was expecting for an old bike, but it seemed in decent condition. It was 13800 yen. They were super friendly and threw in a bungee cord which was actually quite perfect for my bag and even matched the color scheme 🙂

One of the unique things about bike purchasing and ownership Japan is that bicycle registration is mandatory. It’s a hassle and costs 600 yen, but they were able to help me with it at the bike shop. They were very confused as to how to fill out the form for a foreigner and they wanted to put down my hostel address, but I insisted and eventually got them to use the address on my driver’s license since I figured it would be most convincing if the bike was questioned by the police.

The bike was great, and I really loved the hub generated front light, the kickstand, and the integrated lock for the rear wheel. Japan is super safe in general and bikes are so common that most people just leave their bikes free locked with these rear-wheel locks. Some bikes don’t even get locked up. It’s a lovely little bike paradise here.

Besides needing to be in Hiroshima in a little over a week, the only other item on my agenda was to watch some Keirin. It’s now an Olympic sport (with some modifications). It was started in Japan after the war. It seems like it was created in part to promote the bicycle industry, which was seen as a way of modernizing the country. It is also a gambling sport, one of a few in Japan, and the proceeds go to public works of varying types.

Today, it’s mostly a sport that crusty old men bet on while watching it on TV at gambling stations rather than a spectator sport. But I wanted to go be one of the few people that showed up to the stadium to watch it in person. One of the first tracks ever built is along the way to Hiroshima in Kitakyushu. So that became my one and only deadline along the way. Beyond that I decided to roughly follow the route on this website, because it was better than nothing which was my only other alternative.

My first day got off to a late start. The whole bike buying process took the better part of the morning and I stopped by a few more stores getting a second bike lock (turned out to be really useful for securing my bag to the frame more than I actually needed the security but it was nice to have) and some snacks. Then I had to figure out how to strap my stuff onto the bike. The bike shop gave me a bungee cord, which worked out pretty well and I used our clothesline to strap it down further and give myself a false sense of security about the stability.

I slowly made my way out of town stopping constantly to readjust the bag and hit up some department stores to look for a tent or mosquito net of some kind (I never did find something to my liking). In the end I didn’t actually take off for my first day until around 4 pm. Anyway, enjoy these pictures showing the evolution of my packed bike (see how I used the bike lock, that was critical).

It’s only 60 km to Kitakyushu, but I was making very slow progress, slowing down for things like taking pictures, checking my bag, waiting for traffic lights, checking my route. Most of the day was along a busy coastal road. I alternated between the road and sidewalk depending on which seemed faster or more calm. I’m not a sidewalk rider, but the drivers in Japan are so freaking careful of pedestrians that I really had no problem with it here. This place is a paradise of transit systems.

After sunset I pulled away from the coast for a pleasant lonely ride through some rice fields. It was smooth going on a cool summer night with a slight ocean breeze and beautiful twilight scenery. And I felt total freedom. I didn’t even know where I was going to sleep for the night, but it didn’t matter. It was one of my favorite parts of the ride.

I eventually found a promising looking patch of green on Google maps that looked like a public park on the beach. I was worried about mosquitoes so I figured the breeze on the beach would keep me safe. It was a decent camping spot. No bathroom, but I found a patch of grass in a breezy area and I was happy enough. I just slept in a taco of our picnic blanket with my sarong. Not too bad.

I woke up with my alarm at 5 am and immediately a stream of cars was entering the parking lot with the sun. It was a popular surfing beach! No one questioned the weird foreigner sleeping on the ground. Cool! I felt like my lack of a plan was working out just fine.

At this point I was in contact with some Couch Surfing hosts in Kitakyushu. So I was resolved to make it there that day. It wasn’t a far ride. The next segment on the coast was probably my second favorite part of the ride. It was along ocean cliff side and was great start to my morning.

Along the way at one point I had to brake hard and I snapped by front brake cable. I still had the rear hub brake and the going was flat, but I decided to stop into a shop to get the broken cable replaced. The owner was super friendly and we stumbled along through a conversation only half understanding each other as I tried to explain my trip. He also replaced the worn out brake pads. I guess the bike wasn’t in such great shape.

 

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With the bike fixed I continued onward to Kitakyushu. I choose a route that seemed promising. A small road next to a golf course. Golf courses are flat right? Nope it was straight up and down a mountain.

This became a common theme on the trip. Google only has driving and walking directions in this area and those don’t really take into account elevation and terrain for bikes. By the end of the trip I was looking at a combination of walking suggestions, driving directions minus toll roads and highways, and sometimes burning through our mobile data to load the elevation/terrain information. Still I ended up on some undesirable segments, but generally there aren’t any bad roads to be on in Japan, it was just a matter of being a little difficult when I was tired.

I arrived in Kitakyushu to stay with my first host, Haruka. She’s a local, but spent the last six years traveling out of the country and only recently returned to Japan. She took off to China, not speaking any English and just figuring it out along the way. She worked odd jobs in all sorts of places to keep traveling. Now she speaks excellent English and has traveled all over. That’s just amazing to me.

She invited me along to a summer festival with her friends from elementary school. It was such on odd mix. The alternative hippy dread-locked traveler, the posh city girl back home from Tokyo, and the new mother. Plus some weird foreign guy that Haruka just met. We could have been a sitcom pilot. Her friends were shocked to learn that we just met each other that afternoon, but rolled with it and we all got along great.

The festival was a small local event. There were taiko drums while we arrived and people just milling about picnicking. We spent most of the time wandering for fair food. First stop was okonomyaki on a stick. It was unfortunately not very good. but okonomyaki is one of my favorite Japanese foods. In short it’s a savory pancake, but for fair food they roll it up onto a pair of chopsticks. Clever.

A bit later Haruka and I went off to check out the huge line dance thing that was advertised. My ignorant assessment is that was basically a huge gathering of people doing the dances like what I’ve seen old Chinese ladies do in parks. But each neighborhood had their own outfits and the whole thing moved in a giant circle. Haruka knew some of the songs, so I think they are common folk songs.

I was coaxed into joining the dance. I joined the red neighborhood. They had obviously practiced (but not much) and I just flailed my arms about as best I could, to the obvious delight of some folks and I’m sure to the chagrin of others. Haruka found it hilarious and I completed the whole circle. The shoveling dance was the easiest. For what that’s worth.

Finally, there were fireworks. The girls were super jazzed about them. We squatted on a dusty baseball field to watch and they were just fine by my estimation. Sparkly things that went boom. But the girls were so bummed. Almost immediately they all started telling me that it was a terrible low budget local show. The timing was all off, terrible sequencing, and poor management of placement. I have never heard such thorough opinion of fireworks. At most, people in the US say ‘Well that was great, traffic getting out of here is going to be shit though’.

I loved their opinions. It made the game Fantavision, which was one of a few release titles for the PS2 in the US, make sense. It was a game about fireworks and no one bought it or understood it. Well my brother and I did buy it, but as some sort of ironic video game thing.

We were picked up by the girl’s go-to taxi driver, they’ve got a guy. Haruka and I accompanied Haruna, the friend from Tokyo, to her mothers house to stay for the night. Haruna had never heard of Couch Surfing and doesn’t do much traveling. Her mother, Emiko, though is an avid traveler. She works for part of the year and quits and then takes about 2-3 months to go live in another country and immerse herself in the language and culture. Being a little burnt out on travel after a year, but still loving it at the same time, this is exactly the sort of life I would want to live. It was inspiring. She speaks English, Spanish, and Italian. I shared some of my favorite Spanish podcasts with her and she served up some cake and plum wine while we all talked late into the night.

After coffee and breakfast the next morning, Emiko drove us back to Haruka’s place so we could go up into the mountains. We went to this absolutely gorgeous area speckled with bare limestone rocks jutting out everywhere and visited a small little cave. The entrance looked like a villain’s lair. I would totally use it as my lair versus charging admission if I owned the land, but to each their own.

Then we went off to the campground, which was just a big patch of grass. At Haruka’s place she had pulled out three sleds and tossed them in the van. Now those came into play because there was a steep grass hill and we went to go slide down it. It was super fun. There was a mesh of plastic that the grass grew through and it made the ride quite fast and uncontrollable and probably gave some nasty scraps if you fell off. Ok maybe we weren’t really allowed to do that without camping so we hustled off. We went back into town and I fell asleep in the car.

That evening I had arranged to stay with another Couch Surfing host, who just so happened to be very close by. Jun is a young university student that took a year off of his studies to travel around the world. He hit so many countries in a 10 month span that it must have been a whirlwind. But he’s studying foreign relations so I’m sure it was excellent for his career. We didn’t have a lot of time together, but we went out with his friend and classmate to get tempura. We had a great time and generally talked about cultural differences and travel.

After dinner I set off to finally see my Keirin race at the Kokura Track. It was scheduled for 9 pm and I showed up at 9:30. The Media dome velodrome looked oddly dark and empty. I went around and around looking for an entrance and asking security guards. I just got the arm X. Someone kept telling me something about television. Maybe I got it wrong or it was cancelled. So I go back and Jun helps me out by calling the velodrome and finding out that this was a special pre-filmed midnight race. They hold the race at 9pm with no spectators and then air it at midnight. Crap luck.

The next morning I say my farewells and on the way out of town I stop by the velodrome again. This time I found an obvious entrance and walked in. There were a handful of folks placing bets for the race on the TV screen. I asked a guard if I could just view the track. He called over a young guy that spoke a handful of English words and drug me along to go see the track.

First he took me up to a viewing deck where I couldn’t see much. Then he realized that I just want some pictures as a tourist and so he put his fingers to his lips and said ‘secret secret’ and we hustled downstairs and he let me into some box seats and then down to the general seating and I got to snap a few pictures. It’s a really cool stadium and I would have loved to seen some races there. After much bowing and thank yous, I took off.

In leaving the city I rode through the port area of Kitakyushu, which is really cute with brick streets, and boardwalks and lots of little shops and restaurants along the marina. At the north part of the city is the crossing point from the island of Kyushu to the main island Honshu. There is a large impressive suspension bridge, a tunnel for the bullet train, and a dedicated Kanmon Tunnel for pedestrians that goes under the ocean for 780 meters. Construction was started before the war and finished afterwards. It’s a really impressive public work for pedestrians, and I love that the Japanese have such dedication and priority to pedestrians and cyclists.

I took the elevator down 80 meters and walked my bike through the tunnel. Oddly it goes down and back up in a V shape. Possibly for structural reasons, or maybe just following the contour of the ocean floor. At the exit I dropped of my 20 yen into the collection box for taking my bicycle through. It was a cool experience.

Then, at Jun’s suggestion I rode down to the wharf on the other side for some seafood. A lot of the good places only opened at 5 pm though. I went to a blowfish restaurant, but I think I ordered tempura shrimp. I have no clue. I did get some cool cream soda flavored ice cream though.

And then I was left without any destination. I could go to the west or east coast, or straight up the center. Up the center seemed like a bad idea due to the mountains, but that’s the route that my guide suggested, so what the hell. There was a point of interest at Akiyoshido so I figured I would make my way towards that. Along the way I passed a few interesting looking buildings and on a whim stopped by to see what they were. There was a Shimano Factory and Cup Noodles factory. I tried to get a tour inside, but just got some arm Xs. It was worth a shot.

Again it got late, and I was bicycling in the dark. I really do love biking in the twilight during the summer. I was going through some mountain farms as the sun was going down and it was delightful. It was fully dark when I got to Route 233. It looks like a decently large road on Google maps, but it’s a paved single track in serious disrepair. I actually felt a little apprehensive about it as I made my way through it in the dark.

There I was, creaking along up the hill uncertain if the road even went anywhere or if the over growth was going to completely take over soon. At the top of the hill I figured I had made it, but it was very slow going back down the other side of the hill as I tried to not over ride the throw of the hub light. I soon became aware of the steep drop off to my side. Despite the abandoned nature of the road, there were several areas with pylons with blinking lights. I think they were marking washout areas of the hillside below. Comforting. Finally, I burst out of the woods into a properly paved road and farmland startling a family of deer sleeping next to the path. Phew.

After that I decided to grab the next place I could to sleep since I wasn’t going to make it to a proper town. I passed by a few houses and onto a decent sized road which had a pull-off next to a grove of nice evenly spaced cedar trees that were being farmed. A perfect place to camp and I suspected that I would be treated to a wonderful view when I woke up in the morning. So I ate some snacks and generally got ready to camp alongside the road.

It was totally peaceful. I had pulled my bike up into the woods and just getting the last of my things from beside the road when a car came by. It was the first car I had seen that night (three total). No big deal I thought. I didn’t want to be seen and was probably a bit creepy looking crouched by the side of the road, but whatever.

I lay down to sleep, journal a bit, and I was just going to sleep when I heard some voices. Then I see three flashlights combing the woods. Shit. But it’s Japan, I’m ok. They obviously spotted the reflectors on my bike and so I sit up and say hello. It’s three police officers. What the hell, how did they find me here?

One of the officers spoke pretty good English and through the course of the discussion I kind of gathered that someone called the police because they saw something suspicious. It must have been that passing car. I asked if it was illegal to camp here and the officer said, ‘I don’t know, not illegal, but maybe not all the way legal.’ The other officer put horns on his head and hissed saying ‘snake, dangerous.’ Ok.

I apologized profusely and tried explain. They said that I would have to go to the nearest town and find a park. They thought hard about where I could stay and ended up suggesting to go to the rail station to sleep. Imagine that, being safer staying in an unattended train station or public park in a city versus tucked away in the woods somewhere. Oh Japan.

Anyway, they made me produce my passport, called in my bike registration, and made me open up all of my bags. Pretty thorough given the circumstances. Eventually I packed up and asked for my passport back. Mass confusion ensued. They had lost it. I knew it was in someones pocket, but they made me go back through my bags until one guy was like, ‘oops sorry here it is.’ I have the feeling it was a great embarrassment for them. They were super apologetic.

With all of my stuff packed up again, off I went another 8 km in my pajamas to the nearest small town. I ended up sleeping in the rail station on the floor. I was worried about getting questioned again and there were taxis idling their cars outside the rail station all night long, even though no trains came. Not sure why, but they didn’t seem to mind the weird guy milling about in the middle of the night. There was at least a bathroom there and I was able to charge my devices. In the morning I found out that there was free WiFi too. Not too bad in the end.

That morning I took off for the Akiyoshido cave. I got there before most things were open. There is a long walkway that I guess is pedestrian only. When I got to the entrance they turned me back with my bike.

So at this point it’s worth noting that my set up was my main backpack strapped to the rear rack. The zippers are locked but not very well. Under close inspection it’s actually really easy to get into the bag, it just looks locked up. The bag is then chained to the bike. If my bike is free locked you could just take the whole bike with you. But in general I’ve just been leaving the bike that like outside of stores when I go in. I have my passport and money with me in my small bag, but it would really suck to lose the big one and my computer is in there also. But somehow it feels safe in Japan and I haven’t had any issue.

This trip to the caves was the longest time I left my bike unattended. I used a crappy little cable that I made myself to tie the bike to a post, but a swift kick would do that in without problem. I also left my cool new (but cheap) Feiyue shoes in the basket and I’ve just had no issue.

On to the caves. Japan is the type of place where you get a discount for entrance as a foreigner, which is opposite to most of the countries we have visited. Which was great because I think I would have skipped the caves for a $12 entry fee, but $7 worked for me.

I’m so glad I went, these caves were amazing. The main entrance area feels like the river Hades with these eerie lights in the fog of the cave. Great atmosphere. Then there are tons of amazing rock formations of great diversity. My favorite were these little pool arrays that were filled with perfectly still water. It looked something out of a surreal CGI landscape that you would have on the cover of your folders in 1996. I went the length of the cave and then back up the center to the karst viewing area. You get a nice view of the surrounding hills, but nothing too spectacular. And then back out the caves, and I was again left with no clue of where to go.

Haruka had suggested a beautiful island named Tsunoshima. I thought I could carve back to the west coast and hit that, but it would have required a ton of back tracking. So I opted instead to go to Omi Island, hoping maybe that it would be good enough. It is described as having cool rock formations.

Finally I had good wind and downhill and I made great time to the coast. I was at Omi island in the early afternoon. I was hot and sweaty and I figured I would go take a dip in the ocean. So I went up over the steep bridge to the island and then followed the road across the island. The road unfortunately takes you over several steep climbs and back down. By the time I got to the other side I was extremely sweaty, tired, had little water, and still had a huge hill between myself and the coast. This didn’t turn out to be such a great idea.

I parked my bike, again with all my stuff on it, and stubbornly continued the journey to the water on foot along a hiking trail. I was greeted by scenic vista after scenic vista, but no clear way down to the water. Now I love a scenic vista, but I really wanted to cool off in the water and the vistas informed me that the water was an amazing perfect clear blue. The sort of stuff you would see in a tourism ad.

Finally I spotted some steps down and when I got to them there was a locked gate with all sorts of warning signs. Same with the next set of steps. I did see a group of people snorkeling down at one area. Perhaps they are private beaches owned by the nearby dive shop. I don’t know, but I was bummed. I hiked a bit more, but eventually gave up and took in one last vista before resigning myself to several more climbs back over the hills to the mainland. I did stop at a small rocky beach on the mainland side of the island  and took a dip in the slightly windier and less pristine water before heading back over the bridge. Good enough.

My next stop for the day was a town called Hagi. It was recommended by Jun. It has some historic significance as a Samurai town of influence during the Edo period and has a lot of old buildings from that era. Perfect. I made it there in the evening. I stopped by a family dinner chain called Joyfull and ate way way way too much but it was delicious. I ordered a Japanese shaved ice desert. Bingsu in Korea was better, but this was reasonably priced and still awesome.

Then I had to sort out a place to stay for the night. Scared of a repeat of last night I was resolved to be as sneaky as possible. I found a park at the top of a hill that might be empty and secluded. I got there and it seemed to be the case. They had pristine bathrooms and I was able to wash off well enough and get ready for bed. I was worried though because I tripped the automatic lights.

As I was finishing up I heard a car idling outside. Ugh it begins again. I went out and it seemed to be just a normal car, but parked close to my bike. I just packed up slowly and walked my bike away up the hill. Shortly thereafter the car took off up the hill passing me. I was worried I was being watched and didn’t know what to do. There was a small pavilion that I was eyeing to sleep in since it was cloudy. I eventually turned back and just then a service vehicle came into the area where I wanted to sleep. I was sure that I was being watched at this point so I went off and then saw another car parked on a hill.

I was going nuts because I just wanted to go to bed and not be disturbed. After sitting down and just watching the situation, I figured ‘what the hell’ and went up to another pavilion and laid down to sleep, no unpacking of a blanket or anything. And then up on the hill nearby I hear voices and see flash lights. Seriously, what luck!? But nothing came of it. It was a really windy night, but no rain and I slept quite well. In the morning I was packing up and was greeted by a Japanese man with a large hiking backpack. Ah a fellow traveler, I thought. Maybe I wasn’t the only person camping here. No, he was training for mountain climbing and just came over to say hello and ask where I was going. Friendly enough.

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I changed locations to eat breakfast of coffee, pastry, and vegetable juice and just look like a regular person enjoying the morning in the park rather than a suspicious camping vagabond. And then I saw the hiking man going back to my old location in a car. I wave to him and he speeds up the hill to meet me. He brought me breakfast. Funny enough, it was practically the same breakfast I was eating with the addition of a sandwich. His random generous act was so kind and it really made my morning.

After that I did some research about the camping situation and it’s totally legal in any public space like a park or train station. So on the side of the road is questionable and in a tree farm probably not legal. It turns out I was just being paranoid in the park the night before, which unfortunately kept me up later than I hoped. So just like the night before I got less than five hours of sleep. This turned out to not be great for the rest of my day. But I was so touched by hiking guy that I just felt great.

I went into Hagi do see the old town. It was lovely. Everything was closed until 9 am, but it was just nice to be lazily peddling through the old buildings. It made me want to watch Samurai Champloo again. That was the first time I ‘got’ an anime and so probably super influential for me finding all the rest of the cool Japanese stuff that I love.

In town there were lots of birthplaces and burial sites, but I don’t know any of the history to appreciate it all. I did recognize the name Terumoto. I was proud that I obviously had some knowledge in my brain until I realized that I was confusing the famous samurai for the Spanish word for earthquake. Ok, I know nothing about samurai except for having watched some anachronistic anime series. Good enough for me though. I still had fun.

The main thing to see in Hagi is the ruins of an old Edo castle. It sounded unspectacular so I wasn’t going to go, but somehow I found my way into the back side of the park past the ticket counter. I headed out when I eventually realized this, but I confirmed that it’s only a mildly interesting place. Not sure what the entry is but I would have been disappointed if I paid more than 200 yen.

Now time for a side note. In one of the gardens and during the hike on Omi Island, I saw these pipes. Maybe they were being used as trash cans. Maybe they were some sort of air intake or ventilation. I just know that I expected a Venus fly trap to be growing out of one of them. Maybe they relate to some type of Japanese fairy tale which would be in keeping with some of the other elements of Mario. Eventually I tried to look it up and see what the historic use was. But I couldn’t find anything beyond this article. But that seems to be describing something different. So what are these things?

At this point I still had several days to make it to Hiroshima, but the news in the area was that a typhoon was coming in two days. I had no clue how bad it would be and decided that it would be best to hightail it to Hiroshima or at least get within a short train ride of the city. In case I couldn’t finish the bike trip, I still wanted to be able to meet up with Christina on time when she got back.

So I started off on a grueling long day straight over the mountains from the West coast to the East coast in the face of some pretty strong pre-hurricane winds. I was just riding as fast as I could and stopping as little as possible. Whenever I needed a break there was always a convenience store not too far away where I could pull off for some snacks. I unfortunately don’t recall a lot of the scenery and didn’t take many pictures. I only remember watching the wind whipping through the rice fields being pretty dramatic.

I got to the town of Hofu in the afternoon and ate some ramen. I was still feeling pretty strong and decided that I could make it further that night. The hurricane was coming in the afternoon the next day, so I wanted to be as close to Hiroshima as possible before then. The weather was still nice, if a bit windy. Off I went and was just cruising along hoping to reach Iwakuni if possible, which was 72 km away.

At the edge of Hofu I came to the Sanyo Expressway. It didn’t sound like a road I wanted to be on, but it was actually a small access road that ran alongside a huge expressway (but the huge road wasn’t called an expressway). Anyway, the road sometimes annoyingly crossed over the highway without any sort of help for pedestrians and there were a few segments where I had to ride a narrow shoulder. It was a little uncomfortable, but I always quickly made it back to the small Sanyo Expressway.

Into the night I road and missed a few turns here and there. I was getting tired and frustrated with the back tracking. I felt like I stayed at 15 km away from Iwakuni for way too long. Finally I made it to a juncture that put me back on what seemed like the main highway. It was Route 15 and it looked like a reasonably small road on Google maps and it was the suggested walking route to town. It didn’t look very pleasant, but it was a steep down hill and I was hopeful that a nice shoulder would appear for me soon.

That was not the case at all.

It was a high speed shipping route and the shoulder would disappear entirely at times. Luckily it was late at night so there were huge gaps in traffic and the downhill had me covering a lot of distance before I had to pull off to let semi trucks whiz past. Still I wanted off the road (also unknown to me at the time, my rear light was out of battery so this was actually much worse than I knew).

I was still waiting for Google’s recommendation to make sense when I came to a tunnel. Certainly there will be a pedestrian walkway I thought. But no, there was only a narrow, maybe 1 ft wide service ledge on either side. This road was decidedly not for pedestrians at all. Heading back up the hill seemed impossible at this point. I tried to walk my bike on the ledge but that was impossible too. I ended up rolling my bike along the ledge with myself in the road, which was just barely wide enough to fit the semi trucks passing each other at high speed.

I ran my bike along the ledge and then squeezed up next to it when I saw the headlights of trucks behind me. I would brace myself against the rush of air that they pushed through the tunnel. It was a huge 1 km long tunnel and I was counting down the distance posted on the emergency signs on the wall. It was harrowing and when I was out the other side I didn’t know what to do. I felt trapped. I sat for a long time on Google maps trying to figure out what happened and if I had any alternatives now or before I got on the road.

Google was stubborn about telling me to stay on this road and there were more tunnels in my future. I was about to try to flag someone down for help but then, on maps, I spied a small road to the side, right near where I was at. It seemed to lead to nowhere, but if I zoomed in at just the right level I saw it was labeled as the Sanyo expressway!!! Oh saved I thought. But I had to cross the road and there was a huge fence there.

I crossed the highway on foot and started running along until I came to a guard rail. There was no fence there and the hill down to the Sanyo wasn’t too steep at that point. It wasn’t easy with the overgrowth, but it would be infinitely better than this hellish road I was trapped on. So I forced myself and my bike down the hill.

When I arrived I brushed myself off and removed the vines that my bike picked up. At this point, it seemed like I was in the clear, back on the old Sanyo Expressway that I knew and loved, but I didn’t get too excited. I had no clue if this would just dump me back onto 15 soon. So with great skepticism, I pedaled off. Luckily, very luckily, I was fine. The road was a narrow slow speed local route with barely any traffic. I was saved and eventually what I had just done sank in and I started to realize how much adrenaline I had pumping through my system and it was just a crazy feeling.

I could have made it through the rest of Route 15 if I was cautious, but it wouldn’t have been advisable, especially given that my tail light was dead. But I was so relieved to be off of 15 that it didn’t bother me when I realized that I had another 15 km to go until town and it was 12:30 am. Luckily I found a small nearly abandoned park only 10 km away. There was a stone bench, a portable toilet, and best of all, a faucet on the ground that I was able to rinse off with. After 140 km through the mountains and into the wind, I slept great on that stone bench. Unfortunately I only slept for 3 hrs before the sun came up.

 

But now I was close enough that I knew I could make it to Hiroshima in the morning. I took off and quickly came to Iwakuni and the wooden Kintai bridge that it’s famous for. The reflection off of the calm river in the morning was super cool. I used the bridge to cross the river. It was a 350 yen fee, which I didn’t realize at the time, but dropped off some coins in the unstaffed admission booth. It was a terrible bridge to cross with a loaded bicycle with awkward shallow steps up and down the arches. Taking a bike across probably was not very good for the bridge either. I wouldn’t do that again.

On this last day of my ride I cranked along the ocean. It was supposed to be the day of the hurricane’s arrival. But there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. It was brutally hot and I was tired. The wind was strong, but nothing worse than yesterday. I eventually made it into Hiroshima. It’s a beautiful town with a tributary of rivers slicing through it. So there are lots of river side parks and jogging paths and pretty bridges to cross over. It’s a wonderful place to bike around.

 

I arrived at Simple Stay Hostel early, around noon, but there was no one there to check me in. Only a cleaning person that said to come back at the check in time of 3 pm and that I couldn’t even stay in the lobby before check in. Very uncommon for hostels and given my last few days, very upsetting. Also the hurricane was supposed to hit around 3 pm. Great. So I went for lunch and just waited out the time in a riverside park beating away the sleep as best I could. Finally I checked in at three and there was no sign of the hurricane at all. In fact, all evening it was calmer than the day before and didn’t rain a drop. My flight was all for nothing, but that’s fine.

I stayed up as best I could after cleaning up. I went to bed early and was out cold until the next morning. I don’t think I moved a bit for 12 hrs. I stayed two nights there to rest up and left only once to re-up on snacks at a convenience store down the street. It felt really good to be that lazy for a full day.

The next day by check out, I had realized that they weren’t so strict about check in times and staying in the lobby past check out so that relieved some of my stress. I left my bags there and headed off to the local Keirin Velodrome. Unfortunately there are no races happening here until next month. I guess it’s not a very popular venue. But I was lucky because this particular Saturday they were holding an exhibition race of some high school riders. So I went off to go view that.

The velodrome isn’t in great shape. The track is fine, but the building is a bit decrepit. When I showed up I found a whole mix of people from little kids on Strider bikes to adults on road bikes slowly riding around the track. In between the races they had a free ride! So I asked if I could ride my mamachari a few laps and got permission.  So I hustled off to get my bike and putzed around the track for 5 km and I was able to get the volunteer to snap one photo of me. Not my fastest velodrome ride during the trip, but tons of fun nonetheless. After that I watched the high schoolers race. It was a simple 10 km race around the track. There was a crash but pretty minor and everyone was ok.

After the velodrome I wandered around town stopping in used bike shops and trying to see if anyone would take my mamachari. I think I stopped into about 10 used bike shops that I found on Google maps. None of them would even consider buying my bike. I’m not sure if it was because I was a foreigner and they didn’t understand that I had registered it, or my Google translation text didn’t make any sense, or they actually didn’t take used bikes. I don’t know where they got the used bikes to sell, but most didn’t even look at the bike that I had parked out front. So that was a big let down.

Eventually, once Christina arrived and we were staying at another hostel, I found a member of the hostel staff that was interested in buying the bike for 2000. It was a killer deal for them. I wish I had gotten more money back from the sale, but I’m glad it went to a good home. Also since they spoke fluent Japanese, the process of transferring the title over to them at the police station was a slow but smooth process. Even still, the officer was a bit uncertain about what to do with my US address that I put on the registration form.

I spent my last two nights before Christina got back just outside of Hiroshima. I had scoped out a few parks where I could sleep and ended up staying in the same park two nights in a row. Kairoyama Park was on top of a hill and had a really nice view of the surrounding area. The moon was full while I stayed there and it made for a really awesome peaceful place to spend the night.

2 weeks in South Korea: camping, parks, hiking, and the epicenter of travel-friend coincidences!

August 13, 2018
by Christina

Our flight arrived in the evening in Seoul, and we made our way via public transit to our Pop @ Itaewon in (surprise) Itaewon, which turns out to be a pretty big party district. We arrived late and collapsed into bed, and the next day did all kind of internet things that the Great Firewall of China prevented us from doing. Yes, we had a VPN, but it was best described as “spotty” so we spent most of our first day resting and communing with the interwebs.

That evening we took a turn around the neighborhood and looked at some of the shops and bars, and got some dumplings to eat, called mandu, at a little shop down the street from Pop. I’m not Hangeul compatible so I can’t offer the name, but the storefront looks like this.

Management at Pop was very friendly and helpful; the first room we were in was epically moldy and it was super easy to get moved to another dorm. The shared spaces are pretty limited. There’s a nice roof area, but it was so hot out with no shade it was nearly unusable. I did take advantage of the pull up bar on the roof and got a work out in, but even before 10 am things were roasting outside.

Overall Pop review: good location, helpful management, kind of small and dirty.

After two nights we packed up our stuff and made our way south of the city to go visit my friend Sun Yu. Sun Yu is a yoga instructor and fitness coach who I met in Rishikesh during my yoga teacher training, and it was a real treat to get to see her again. We met her for lunch, and I got an iced noodle dish which was great in the heat.

Once we got our stuff dropped off at her place we took a walk around to the local market and made our way towards where Sun Yu had some classes to teach. Dan and I wandered back to the apartment and saw some nice parks, including one with a water park.

And in the arena of funny foodstuffs, we stopped into a shop on the way home, and I found… different varieties of emoji themed gummy snacks! There were themed by emotions, happy, love, sad, angry, etc. So if you’ve been wondering if there’s a poop emoji gummy candy, look no further.

The next day the three of us went on a hike to the top of a nearby mountain, a short walk from Sun Yu’s apartment. We found that in general the area around Guemjeong Station had lots of proximate nature and tons of parks. The mountain had tons of trails and we had a nice hike to the top, then back down for lunch.

That night I got to go with Sun Yu to work and take her aerobics and pilates classes, which was a lot of fun. Getting to see her in her element speaking in her native language was great, and even though I couldn’t understand much, her physical cues and the other students were enough for me to keep up. Between classes some of her students made conversation with me, and I was really impressed at the level of English they had, especially since I only knew how to say the bare minimum of “hello” and “thank you” in Korean.

For dinner we had fried chicken and beer, which is a pairing so common in Korea it has it’s own name, chimaek, which is a portmanteau of “chikin” and “maekju” (beer). Dan and I liked the sauced versions of the fried chicken, but weren’t so big on the plain fried. A tasty meal, and I love that this is such a thing it gets its own term.

The next day we did some more hiking to some beautiful temples, including Seongbulsa, and man it was hot. I was beading up with sweat in the shade. Something that also seems very common in Asia is foot reflexology, at least outdoor installations for you to walk on and massage your feet, which is both nice and slightly uncomfortable.

Our last stop before lunch was an ecological park that was both pretty and educational. They had a children’s playground that featured a crank-powered overhead rail system that I immediately hopped on even in the heat. The bruises I got from cramming my enormous self into something designed for a Korean child were both unsurprising and totally worth it. I even convinced Sun Yu onto the bizarre crank-powered spinning teeter totter, which is possibly the most unnecessarily advanced piece of children’s playground equipment that I have ever seen.

That night we went to a jjimjilbang located in this building. This is very similar to a Japanese sento (with which I am more familiar), but there are key differences. Both jjimjilbang and sento have a bathing area with seated showers and baths of various temperatures ranging from cold to hot, as well as saunas.

Because bathing is done in the nude, these areas are gender segregated, but the fancy ones, such as this, also have a communal area for which you are provided attire to hang out, eat and enjoy other facilities. In the case of the jjimjilbang, these facilities include dry saunas, with rooms of different temperatures and characteristics. (Dan: and a cool little video game tunnel, but I didn’t have enough coins to play and they were crappy emulators so they should have been free anyway). You can also sleep there overnight, and as you can see, a lot people do! You have your stuff in your locker in the bathing area, and you get a mat to sleep in the communal area.

The next morning we got up… and went camping! We met up with Sun Yu’s friend Ji and her two daughters for lunch before heading to the camp ground to set up our spot. I started doing yoga and the girls enthusiastically joined in. They didn’t get bored at all. and stuck it through. They did yoga for at least half an hour, if not more.

After that we took a walk around and I was amazed with the facilities. There’s a lake, a huge fountain, a cafe, a disc golf course, a performance hall (shaped like a giant Jiffy pop, which is probably unintentionally appropriate)…

And a planetarium! We saw some shows in the dome that night (with moving seats) and afterwards got to peer through some telescopes at things like the rings of Saturn and the moon. It was a blast. Though I’ve gotta say, their mural depicting people dying in space was hella dark. Not that I didn’t like it, it was cool, but it seemed incongruous with the general kid-friendly educational atmosphere. Someone has a dark sense of humor…

Ji and the girls went home instead of camping with us that night, but they came back the next day and we all went to see an unusual amusement park. Yongin Daejanggeum Park is a huge lot with permanent sets for filming Korean historical dramas and they’ve turned it into a tourist attraction. While most of it was unoccupied, we did see some actors and crew on site to do filming. It’s a huge complex of all kinds of buildings, houses, markets, a castle and even an underground prison.

After lunch we bid Ji and the girls farewell (it was so great to meet you guys! and so much fun to play with the girls!). We headed back to the city with Sun Yu, and then packed up our things and said farewell to Sun Yu to head back towards city center for a few days. Sun Yu was an amazing hostess, and it was so nice to get to spend more time with her. Thank you! ❤

We went to stay at Dadareum Guesthouse, which gets a thumbs up from me. It had a nice kitchen and a stylish common area with adequate seating, and though our private room was not much larger than the bed, it did have a private bathroom and everything was clean. It was a little out of the way, but had good bus service running past and we didn’t have any issue getting around.

For lunch the next day we headed to the Hongdae neighborhood to catch up with someone I met at the veerrrryyyyy start of our trip, Abby. It was the day we sold the car in Austin, TX, and I went to Lush to get a shampoo bar. Well, we struck up a conversation, and I discovered she was about to go to Seoul to study! She had just finished her year of study and was about to head back to Texas, so we caught her just in time!

We got some lunch, and I got naengmyeon, another Korean iced noodle dish, and we chatted about Seoul, the past year of travels and study, and generally got to catch up, which was lovely. Great to see you Abby!

Abby also informed of us of the existence of something fascinating: the Raccoon Cafe. This is a style of cafe like cat cafes back home, where you can cafe and pet cats, but this is the Korean raccoon version. Abby had to get going, but we took her suggestion to check out a raccoon cafe that happened to be nearby (located in this building).

At the cafe you bought a ticket to pet the animals that included a drink, which you could have before or after pets, but not during (due to health code reasons). You were instructed to remove all jewelry and everything from your pockets before entering the combo raccoon and dog petting area.

It was very interesting, but I got the distinct impression that the animals were rather peopled-out. Most of them were sleeping and pretty disinterested in interacting. Though the raccoons were quick to spot people standing near the window that opened to the cafe areas, those people got climbed like trees with the staff rushing to stop the animals from jumping through the window in an attempt to escape.

The next day we decided to pay Banpo bridge and its rainbow fountain a visit. This is a bridge with colorfully lit water jets all along it that spraying off the side of it that wave up and down choreographed with music.

On the way there, we went to pick up snacks, and I want to point something out that seemed pretty consistent in Korea: restaurants and businesses being tucked away deep inside of nondescript buildings. The grocery store we went to for snacks is a great example. There was a sign outside that it existed, but we had to go up several flights of stairs and down a narrow hallway to find it. So if you travel to South Korea, be aware of this quirk and you may find all kinds of interesting things!

Drinks and snacks in hand, we wandered down to the waterfront where we saw the floating restaurant complex and then sat to watch the water fountain light show.

Our last day in Seoul we hit up the Yongsan electronics market, Insadong street where you can find lots of souvenirs, and finally we paid a visit to Lotte World Tower, Seoul’s tallest building and currently the 5th tallest building in the world. Dan’s goal was to visit the Lotte Mart inside of the Lotte building and buy a Lotte product. He was perhaps unique in this goal and finding the actual Lotte Mart was actually kind of difficult. But the goal was achieved (special edition Snoopy Milkis in case you were curious) and Dan also found what he describes as the greatest Lego display he has ever seen.