Brussels, Belgium: beer, mussels, comic strips, and Atomium

28 November, 2018
by Christina

We arrived to Brussels armed with information for how to leave the airport on foot, and found our way to a small pub nearby in Cafe’t Hoeskske. There we drank Chimay and ate a cold sausage dish while waiting for the friends we were staying with to get out of work. The pub owners also permitted us to bring in kebab from a nearby shop (since the kitchen was closed) while we hung out, which was nice.

When he was finished with work, my friend Jean-luc came to pick us up. I met Jean-luc at a professional event way back in 2009 and we’ve stayed in touch since. Once back at the house we got settled in and had a home cooked dinner with Jean-luc and Geneviève. Over the next several days we got to have several family dinners, including with their two children, which was really lovely.

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The next day we took the train into town to do a little touristing. We took a walk around town and to see the famous Manneken Pis, which is a small statue/fountain of a boy peeing that has become incredibly popular, as you can see by the quantity of tourists. He even has a huge wardrobe of clothes (he was dressed in a blue robe the day we visited him), with some of the garments having been gifts from other countries.

From there we walked further to the Grand Place, which is the central square in Brussels, and it has some truly epic and beautiful architecture, including the City Hall which is the largest building on the square.

Right off the Gran Place we went to the chocolate shop Leonidas, and got some freshly made Belgian chocolates, which were delicious. We ended up preferring the more traditional chocolate and caramel focused flavors, and were less fascinated with the fruit flavors, though we did give some a shot.

Next up was a visit to Jeanneke Pis, a small statue/fountain of a girl squatting to pee, though this one isn’t as popular as Manneken Pis, but does get quite a few visitors nonetheless.

She is also adjacent to the Delirium village, where there are several bars and cafes run by the Delirium brewery (you know it as the one with the pink elephant). We stopped in and tried the Guillotine, Tremens, and the Christmas brews. We agreed that the Christmas was the best of the set.

That night back at home we got to enjoy a dish known as “Raclette“. This involves melting cheese over potatoes, accompanied by deli meats and salad. The modern way to do the melting is a fancy contraption with little wedge shaped trays to put the cheese in for heating. It is a cold-weather Christmas time food, so it was a little early for it, but it’s the kids’ favorite, and for good reason. It was wonderful.

The next day we went out for a run with a local running club, which was on a picturesque trail through the woods. It was cold, but the foggy fall weather in the forest was stunning.

When we were home from the run and got cleaned up, we were in for a real treat: Geneviève showed us how to cook mussels! It involves mostly washing of the mussels repeatedly in the sink, discarding any that have broken shells, and then cooking them in a large pot with butter, veggies, and wine, and no added water. It was delicious! And something we will likely prepare at home assuming we can find a good supplier of mussels.

On our third day, we went to visit Atomium: a enormous structure/statue of unit cell of an iron crystal that was constructed for the World’s Fair back in 1958. (Can we have the World’s Fair back? It also gave us the Eiffel Tower.) I thought it looked really cool in the sort of grey hazy weather, even if it wasn’t the most comfortable time to be outside.

From there we headed back into city center to see the European Parliament Hemicycle. It’s free to visit, you just have to go through the security screening to get into the building. They have an app that you’re supposed to be able to use for a tour, but it was un-downloadable on the provided free wifi. Keep trying guys! We thought the hemicycle itself was very pretty and sat to enjoy it for a while.

Something I found amusing on the way out, and imagined couldn’t be a coincidence was the park adjacent to the hemicycle building with a bunch of ostriches with their heads buried in the dirt… except one. I couldn’t find a plaque, so I don’t know.

I did find a few articles online as I prepared this post, and one of them states that “No one seems to know anything about the 12 ostrich sculptures that stand in the Parc Léopold next to the European Parliament. Seven of them have their heads buried in the sand, while the other five are standing up [I didn’t notice the other 4 evidently]. One English tabloid newspaper saw the birds as symbolising the European Union. But they got the story wrong. The birds were put up as a reminder that the park was originally a zoo, founded back in 1850 but closed in 1900.” But why ostriches? Hmph. Not sure I buy it.

The next day we went to see the St Michael and St Gudula Cathedral, which is beautiful architecture and a lot of stained glass. There’s also a lovely pipe organ, though we did not get to hear it. Entry was free!

We got some classic Belgian snacks after that, waffles and frites (no, they’re not French fries!). Weirdly, there was this creepy frite statue out front of the shop that was exactly like one we saw in Egypt at a long-haul bus stop.

We then took a tour of the comic book route around city center. Comics are a very important part of Belgian culture, and there are many murals of famous comics all around town, as we noticed on the way to see Manneken Pis. I’m not very familiar with many of them, but I found a suggested route here and it was a nice walk. Here are just a few of the murals I saw.

That evening we met up for drinks at Brasserie du Lombard with Jean-luc, Geneviève, and my friend Anna, who also works in Brussels, and I am still kicking myself for forgetting to get a photo! Blast! But it was lovely to see Anna and to introduce her to JL&G, even though she couldn’t stay long. Afterwards we went to have dinner nearby at In ‘t Spinnekopke and enjoyed a delicious traditional Belgian meal (I got the boulets), complete with profiteroles.

On the way back to the metro we encountered the final of the pissing statues: Het Zinneke. This one is not a fountain like the other two, but it’s counted as part of the family.

The next morning we bid farewell to JL&G before heading into town. It was really wonderful to get to spend time with you guys! We had a great time, thank you so much for everything!

Our next stop on our journey was London, via Eurostar, but before our train left we got to go to lunch with a friend that I made in Japan, where we stayed to together at the Sakura House in Kyoto for several days. Kathleen doesn’t live in Brussels, but she was in town so we got a chance to catch up! Good to see you again!

After that, we hopped on our train and we were off for the UK!

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Budapest: paprikash, fancy thermal baths, and architecture of epic proportions

November 11, 2018
by Christina

We arrived at the Budapest train station late in the evening, and we were en-route when Dan made an unfortunate discovery: fresh reviews of our hostel complaining of bed bugs. And replies from the hostel essentially confirming them. We had a near-miss in the bed bug department in South America, and having no interest in repeating the stress, we went to get something to eat and decide where else to stay.

It was the sort of thing that pre-trip Christina might have gotten stressed over. There we were, in a big brand new city after dark, not sure where we were going to sleep, but all it took to fix it was looking over the other offerings online, making a new reservation, and walking the kilometer to get there. That’s the beauty of modern travel and having the internet in your pocket.

Our first impression of Budapest was how much amazing architecture there is, almost anywhere you look, from the train station itself, to buildings around the neighborhood. This is something that remained a theme throughout our stay.

We ended up staying three nights at Grand Backpackers Hostel, which was quite nice. It was an old building with high ceilings, but a new hostel, and the staff was all volunteers from around the world, which was fun.

Once we got checked in we ducked out for a quick doener kebab, which surprised us by being chicken and not pork, but it was plentiful and inexpensive. And there is a lot of it to be found around the city. (Also, note the cool guy jean jacket… and that’s just the teaser photo!)

After a relaxing morning at the hostel we set off for a run around the city. We ran from the hostel down to the Danube and ran along the ‘Buda’ side of the river (Buda being the west part of Budapest, Pest being the east part) to get the nice views of Parliament.

Our route took us around Margaret Island, which is a small narrow island in the Danube, with a nice running path, and occupied by a variety of sporting facilities including a water park. It was very beautiful in the fall weather.

We ended our run at Parliament, and took some photographs, including the ceremonial uniformed guards marching precisely out front by the flag pole. I was worried the police standing by would chastise me for taking a handstand video, but mostly they watched until they got bored and said nothing.

After our run we had a meal of traditional Hungarian soups at Főzelékfaló Ételbár restaurant nearby, then headed back to the hostel to have a shower. We also went and did some grocery shopping to supply a few meals that week, and cooked dinner that night at Grand Backpackers.

Our second day we walked past the Budapest Eye on our way to visit St. Stephen’s Basilica, which is very ornate with lots of gilt and beautiful paintings. They host organ concerts there, which I would have loved to see, but the timing didn’t work out for us, so I had to sustain myself by simply ogling the instrument.

We also stopped by the Opera House only to discovered it covered in scaffolding for renovations, both outside and in. We were able to enter and view the foyer and the gift shop, but were told that even the tour wouldn’t get to see much with the renovations of the main stage and there were no shows going on for the same reason.

After that we went to get lunch at a restaurant recommended at the hostel called Frici Papa, where we sampled dishes such as fruit soup (yes, it’s like a dessert with cherries and cream, but treated like a soup), mushroom goulash, and paprikash, the last dish having been made famous by the film When Harry Met Sally, but I had to go watch the clip again, all I had remembered was Pecan Piiiiiiie.

After our meal we took a walk around the neighborhood (there’s that cool guy jean jacket action shot!) and stopped by Szimpla Kert, recommended to us by our fellow AirBnB’er Barbara, who we met in Belgrade. It’s one of the “ruin” bars which are eclectic spaces filled with mismatched furniture and graffiti. Szimpla is supposed to be the first ruin bar, and its quite expansive and very cool. We went early in the day to get a good look at it, well before the party crowd, but it’s supposed to be a nice spot of nightlife and it looks it.

The morning of our third day we went to go visit Budapest’s velodrome, but sadly found it locked and closed, though we were permitted to stare at it through some windows and look at the framed historical facts on the wall (including some dedicated and infantile graffiti). Currently the center of the track is being used for ice hockey.

On the way back to the hostel we stopped for langos at Langos Kuko, which is a Hungarian dish involving fried bread topped with various fixings including a lot of dairy products. I got the Greek one, and my bread had not just tsatsiki, and feta, but also some kind of shredded cheese as well as the tomatoes and cucumbers. After that we stopped by the Imperial Pub for a beer.

After we collected our things and moved across the river to the Buda side to stay at an AirBnB we had found to get a feel for a different part of town. Once settled, we took a bus to the base of the Citadella hill and hiked up it, enjoying the statues, the view of the city, and the glorious fall weather. All in all a beautiful park where we stopped to watch the sunset.

Then we went to check out some baths. Budapest has a lot of hot springs and old Turkish baths, and of course, water, hot water, and bathing are some of my favorite things, so that was high on my list of things to check out. I also found this article about the different baths very helpful.

First stop was Rudas, which is adjacent to Citadella. Once there though, I discovered that as a woman, there is only one weekday when I can use the full bath area, and that day was not my day. The men get solo access four week days, women get one (Tuesdays), and the weekends are coed. So… sexism. Not a good look. There were other areas that I could have bought access to, but I decided I didn’t care to give them any of my hard earned woman-money, and so we walked on to Gellert.

Gellert is coed all week long, and one of the biggest, fanciest baths in Budapest, and therefore comes with a commensurate price tag of 5600 HUF (~$18 USD), which is twice the price of some of the other baths in the area. I decided to do it, but to wait until the next day when I would have more time for it. They also had a really cool light display on the building that night.

The next morning I got up and headed to Gellert in the morning. I paid my fee and was give a watch-ish looking wrist band with which to operate a locker. Entering the locker room I found a place to stash my things, not bothering with the changing cabins, and headed off to have a shower, …and discovered it was a coed locker room.

On my way in and while I changed I had seen only women, but I passed quite a few men on the way to the showers which turned out to be segregated. I finally figured it out without giving anyone a shock at least.

Gellert was a beautiful as promised, but there were a few things that drew my side eye. One, the big main swimming pool (not thermal) that you see in all the photos requires you to wear a swimming cap. Which if you didn’t bring you have to buy for another 1000 HUF. Second, the main outdoor pool was not in use, and considering that I weighed the number of pools I was buying access to when I decided what bath to attend, I was not psyched about that.

However, once I found the bits I liked, my eye rolling ceased. I like hot water, intolerably hot for some, so the 40 C pool suited me well, as did the sauna near the operating outdoor pool and one of the two steam rooms. I alternated cooking myself in the sauna/steam rooms with dunking in the cold plunge pools and floating dreamily in the more moderately temperatured bathing pools, and finished up with a shower.

Final bit of advice for Gellert: Once you’ve wandered around and think you’ve seen everything, double check the map because you may have missed something. The place is a large labyrinth and it took me a while to get oriented.

Our last full day in Budapest we went to see more of the city’s iconic architecture: Fisherman’s Bastion and Buda Castle. They are both located on the Buda side of the Danube, and within a moderate walking distance of each other. They are also two of the biggest tourist attractions in Budapest.

The Fisherman’s bastion is on a hill and includes a church and a series of walkways overlooking the Danube and the Pest side of the river. It’s made of beautiful white stone and attracts large crowds of tourists. The church and some of the walkways require an entry fee, but there’s plenty to see and enjoy for free.

Walking further along the hill you come to Buda Castle, which contains several museums. It’s a pretty extensive building and grounds to walk around, and again, lots of people but also lots of cool stuff to see for free on the exterior, as well as views of Buda and Pest, and there’s a nice little gift shop where I got some stickers.

The next morning was our last in Budapest, so we packed up and had a light breakfast before checking out and taking two local buses to the north side of the city to catch our international bus to our next destination: Vienna!

Egypt: pyramids, snorkeling, and living that cafe lyfe

October 14, 2018
by Christina

Our Aegean Airlines flight delivered us to the Cairo International Airport without incident, feeding us spanakopita and Greek yogurt for breakfast. Was that the easiest thing for them to feed us, or was it performative Greek-ness? We may never know.

We found the signage in the Cairo airport lacking, and waited through the line in passport control to be told to go to one of the banks nearby to buy a visa, but there were no signs saying that this one particular bank was where you had to go, you just went to where the long line was. The visa was just a sticker you bought, that you stuck in your passport yourself, and got it stamped at passport control, which was easy once we had the visa.

Outside of customs we went to hail an Uber to go to my friend Ahdab’s house. The taxi drivers were very pushy, but after the tuk tuk drivers in Agra I think nothing may phase me. My favorite line was “Uber expensive. Good taxi, small price!” When our Uber driver arrived but remained stationary and far away from us for a while, we ultimately had to get Ahdab to call him for us. He was waiting in the shade? If not for Ahdab’s intervention, it would likely have been easier to just take a bus into town and take Uber from there, as we got charged additional parking fees to have the Uber enter the airport.

The ride to Ahdab’s was fascinating. First there were the views of the deserts surrounding the airport, then the many empty or half-empty and unfinished red brick buildings along the highway. We also go a sneak peek at the Pyramids and the Nile en route.

Ahdab was one of my classmates in my yoga teacher training, and I was really excited to get to see her. She lives in 6th of October City, and was there to greet us and feed us breakfast, which was delicious.

After that she had work, and we were exhausted from getting up so early and having spent a night on the ferry before that, so we more or less collapsed until dinner time, when we got to have a home-cooked dinner with the family, which was soooo nice. Ahdab’s mom made green sauce-veg dish called mulukhiyah, chicken and rice, which was all very delicious and very Egyptian.

The next day Ahdab and her friend Salim took us for a walk around the part of town called Zamalak. It’s located on the north end of Gezira Island on the Nile in Cairo and it used to be a garden housing exotic plants from all over the world. We went to a small market, saw a pottery art show and sculpture garden at the Gezira Art Center, got fresh juice (pomegranate! mango! cane juice!), and then took a rest at a cafe to have tea and shisha. The juice shops and the cafes are something that seem to be very common in Egypt, and something that we enjoyed a lot.

After that some of Salim’s friends joined us for a boat ride on the Nile, which is, in fact, a river in Egypt.

After that we went to dinner at Abou El Sid where our friend Sameh joined us as well. Sameh was our neighbor back in Washington, DC, same floor of our building, but had since moved back to Cairo not long before we left for our trip, so it was fun to see him again!

And Dan got to eat pigeon! This was especially comical given that he had recently been heard exclaiming at pigeons who annoyed him that someone should eat them, why does no one eat pigeons?! Well, it turns out Egpytians eat pigeons, and they are pretty tasty. The flavor is stronger than chicken, closer to turkey, but more tender. However, there’s less meat and you’ve got smaller bones to navigate, but all in all, pigeon gets a thumbs up as a meal!

After dinner we went to Roof Top Bar which had a great view of Cairo for a few drinks, and then dropped in to Jazz Club, which sees a lot of really good music acts and is a Cairo institution in the music scene.

Of course, we had to go pay a visit to the Pyramids of Giza, possibly one of the most iconic archaeological and tourist sites in the world. We took an uber from Ahdab’s place to get there, and walked to the entrance. You might imagine that the pyramids are remote, but they are actually surrounded by city, but still in a large swath of dessert. We bought a general entry ticket, and an entry into the smallest pyramid, Menkaure. There are warnings to count your change: heed them. If we hadn’t we would have gotten short changed, and evidently it’s pretty common.

There’s a particular point near the pyramids called “the panorama” that men hawking camel and horse rides say they will take you to for the photograph of all the pyramids in a row. Well, you can walk there, so we did, and in total we ended up spending almost 5 hours and walking 8 km around the place, which is much longer than necessary to see everything, but we were having fun.

It’s amazing to think that after 3000 years the pyramids are still standing, and it felt surreal to be walking around them. The tour into the Menkaure Pyramid was a little underwhelming however, and the guards were encouraging people to take photos (against the rules) and then asking for tips (because they let you break the rules). But also there isn’t much to photograph. On our way out a tour group arrived and it caused a serious traffic jam. Maybe touring the bigger pyramids would be worth it? Dunno.

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The sphinx was the most crowded location, mostly because it was the most compact. It was very cool to see something so iconic in real life, but the atmosphere was a lot of tourists elbowing each other for pictures, so that part doesn’t live up to the glamour of it.

We enjoyed some tea at Marriott Mena House, which has a lovely tea room with a view of the great pyramid, then headed to downtown Cairo where we got a lunch at Abou Tarek, which only serves koshary and is famous for it. It’s a mix of pasta, rice, chic peas, lentils, marinara sauce, fried onions and vinegar, and it’s delicious comfort food. It’s something I have plans to approximate in my own kitchen at home (once I have one of those again, and by that I mean both “home” and “kitchen”).

We had some tea and shisha at a nearby cafe, took a stroll around Tahrir Square, where the revolution happened in 2011, then headed back to Ahdab’s place after our long day of touristing.

The next day we bid Ahdab farewell to go pay a visit to the Red Sea. It was really nice getting to see her again, and so kind of her and her family to host us during our visit! Thank you guys so much! We had a wonderful time.

From Cairo we took Go Bus to the city of Hurghada, which is about 7 hours south of Cairo situated on the Red Sea. We got in late and I had managed to come down with a cold, so we slept in late. We stayed at Sea Waves hostel, which offered breakfast included with the room, and I really enjoyed taking my meal on the roof deck.

We went to Star Beach (for a small fee) in the afternoon. The water was beautiful, but very shallow for a long time, until a steep drop, but I braved it and went for a nice swim,  and did NOT step on any of the enormous sea urchins I found at the entry to the deeper water.

That evening we explored the markets and got something to eat, and more juice of course. We found Hurghada to be very lively at night, just as Cairo had been, but despite it being a much smaller town, there were lots of people out and about later in the day.

Something that we were constantly harangued about on the streets was snorkeling or diving, but mostly it was people not involved in the dive shops trying to herd us in and take a cut. After looking at reviews we decided to book a trip directly from Diamond Divers.  Our trip was first thing the next day, and we were transported from the shop along with the diver’s oxygen tanks to the boat. There was a lot of hanging around, which made us worry at first that we had chosen the wrong company, but our fears were for naught.

We were the only snorkelers on a fairly large dive trip, and basically turned loose to swim as much as we wanted at the first location. The water was so clear that I didn’t feel like I missed seeing anything by staying close to the surface, and there were areas that might have been cumbersome to swim over with all the diving gear. And I’ve never seen so many fish in my life, it was amazing. I was so excited about them schooling around me, until one of them decided to bite me on the elbow and it’s amazing how quickly things changed from serene to ominous, but ultimately it was just the one fish who took a nibble.

After that we had a lovely buffet lunch, really good actually, I wasn’t expecting much, so it was a nice surprise and we were really hungry.

Then it was off to the second dive spot. For this one I got my camera loaded into a waterproof pouch to try and take some underwater pictures, which turned out more or less okay. The second location was beautiful, but generally deeper and with fewer fish. Still lovely though.

After three nights in Hurghada we headed back to Cairo to stay a few nights with Sameh. We got to meet his two German shepherds and spent some time hanging out at the house and relaxing.

The next day we went to the Egyptian museum, which was interesting in several ways. One of these was that the museum is preparing to move to a new and fancy location adjacent to the pyramids, and so seemed like a bit of an archaeological site itself, with its old architecture and cases, and certain areas roped off or boxed up. I kind of liked the strange feeling of the space, and I was happy to see if before it metamorphoses into something else entirely.

There were lots of really cool artifacts, but of course, the highlight was the mummies (which you aren’t supposed to photograph, sigh). It was really amazing and almost unbelievable to be looking at the body of a person who died thousands of years ago. Skin, hair, nails, etc all thousands of years old. It’s amazing that human remains can last so long. Mind totally blown.

After the museum we stopped at a cafe and then to get some juice before heading back to Sameh’s place. We took the metro which was nice, but warning: don’t accidentally get in the women’s car with a dude. It was both “awww”  inducing and hilarious to watch Dan terrified at the rain of “La! La! La!” (“la” is “no” in Arabic) that came down upon him from the female passengers, but the doors closed right behind us and we were trapped until the next stop. And as we were trying to switch cars we missed the train… sigh.

That night Sameh invited some other friends over and we had a little gathering and snacks. As we were chatting with his friends, we discovered an amazing coincidence: one of them knew Ahdab, totally independently!

The next day we were lazy and slept in, played soduku and snacked, then finally got out of the house to go see a few sights in the evening. First we visited Al Azhar Park, which is a popular place for couples to take engagement photos (as it turns out).

Finally, we went for a tour of Khan el-Khalili market and Moez Street. It’s full of vendors selling all kinds of cool goods, and it’s got some really amazing architecture. In general, Egyptians seem to stay up late and everything is very lively after dark, almost to the point that there seem to be more people out and about in the streets at night than during the day.

We ended our tour of the market with a bountiful meal at Naguib Mahfouz restaurant, where we got to try pigeon a second time, and then hung out to watch an oud player and drink some tea.

The next morning Sameh very kindly drove us to the airport before heading to work. It was delightful getting to catch up with our old neighbor. Thank you so much Sameh for having us and showing us around!

We checked in with Aegean and got through security without incident, then from there we were headed back to Athens and our delayed visit to the Acropolis…

 

Last days in Japan (Tokyo & Tsukuba) and a long trip to Crete (via Helsinki & London)

Sept 25, 2018
by Christina

Reunited in Tokyo, Dan and I settled into our room at the Ueno Youth Hostel. This was selected due to its proximity to the University of Tokyo, where I was scheduled to give a lecture to my professional organization’s student chapter there. It was a nice space/location, but not the best value based on its price. I got my talk ready the day before, and then had a great time getting to chat with students and enjoy a party after my talk on Friday evening.

The next morning we headed to Akihabara to meet up with an old friend from when I was living and working in Japan. Abe-san loves beer, and back in 2007 he took me to visit the Nest Brewery in Ibaraki, a little ways north of Tsukuba where we lived. Since then Nest has opened a location in Akihabara, Hitachino Brewing Lab, so we met him there to have some drinks and catch up.

The location is beneath the tracks of a train station that is no longer in use (but tracks still are in use), and the platform has been converted into a pretty seating area, where a bunch of people were working on some kind of quiz for fun? Never really figured that one out.

From there we went to Kanda Matsuya to have a light meal of soba. Abe-san hadn’t been there before, but he said it was famous and had been running for many years.

Our final stop was Takemura, a sweet shop nearby where we enjoyed some traditional Japanese desserts including a very interesting salted cherry blossom tisane. After that Abe-san had to get home, so we walked him back to the station and said farewell. It was so good to see you Abe-san, and thank you for showing us some great new stuff in Akihabara!

That evening we headed to Odaiba to catch up with some friends for dinner. I met Popi during at an event at my last conference in San Diego, which she attended because her husband Kuroda-san also volunteers with my professional organization. Popi is the owner of several Indian restaurants in Tokyo, and she invited Nabila (who we hung out with earlier in our trip), Dan and myself to join her for dinner at Mumbai with Kuroda-san and their son Ken.

The food was fantastic, and we had a great time getting to talk about travels, talk some shop, and hear about Ken’s work in anthropological food studies in India. We even got to sample the house shochu, a very Japanese liquor, and I really enjoyed the sweet potato one. Thank you so much Popi for organizing, it was a true delight, and it was lovely to meet you Ken!

After dinner Nabila, Ken, Dan and I took a walk to see the “life size” Gundam statue nearby. It’s pretty cool, but the “transformation” it does at 5 pm is a bit of a bust (Dan and I caught it just before dinner along with a few other Odaiba sites). I’d also like to know where the real Gundam is if this is just the life size model ;0)

The next morning Dan and I checked out of Ueno Youth Hostel and I went to get a final lunch of Katsukare, which is the same breaded and fried pork cutlet of katsudon, but it is served with rice and Japanese curry. The clerk at our hostel recommended Hinoya and I wasn’t disappointed.

After that, we said farewell to Tokyo and hopped on the Tsukuba Express to a visit with some former colleagues from when I lived there back in 2006-2007.

Kurosu-san and Yasuda-san met us at the train station, and from there we went for a short laboratory tour at the National Metrological Institute of Japan (NMIJ) campus, where I worked with them. It’s a beautiful campus and it had been over a decade since I had been back, so it was fun to visit.

They’ve also installed a small museum since I left, one that showcases cool technologies developed at NMIJ and AIST, including a single-walled carbon nanotube material displayed as an origami crane, genetically modified strawberries, brain machine interface prototypes, and some fun robots, including robotic seals used for therapy.

After that we met up with Kurosu-san’s wife, and the five of us went to a small beer festival happening near the station. We got beers and snacks, and hung out for a while, catching up on what had been happening since we saw each other last in 2014.

After the beer we adjourned to the Kurosu-san’s apartment to have some shochu (a gift from Popi!), snack, and play with Macaron, their adorable poodle. We said farewell to Yasuda-san who had to get home, and then we got ready for bed.

The next morning Kurosu-san drove us to the airport, which was so nice of him! Thank you sooooo much for having us to stay, it was great catching up with you!

Then Dan and I were off for a long bizarre itinerary from Tokyo to Chania, Crete, Greece. We booked the ticket with awards miles and were “rewarded” by American Airlines with an incredibly strenuous series of flights: 10 hours to Helsinki, Finland, followed by an 18 hour layover, and then a flight to Heathrow and a whopping 22 hour layover, then a heinously early flight from Heathrow to Chania, concluding our 55ish hour transit.

It was our first time flying Finnair, for our flights into and out of Helsinki, and overall we were really happy with it. The food was not very good, but the in-flight entertainment system was responsive and well stocked, and you could go to the rear galley of the plane for complimentary beer, wine, and soft drinks, as often as you might want to, or were willing to risk judgement for being a lush by the flight crew.

The flight to Helsinki was uneventful, and the airport isn’t far from downtown, so we hopped on a train to downtown to check it out. We saw the wharf, including a farmer’s market and the Old Market Hall where we got pastries and coffee.

We also swung by the Uspenski Cathedral and the Helsinki Cathedral, the latter of which had an amazing pipe organ, and it was free to enter and tour.

There were also some really cool handicraft shops located near the Helsinki Cathedral, and we stopped by a grocery store to pick up a meal to eat back at the airport.

I had seen a lot of posts about Finnish saunas, and I found a swimming pool with saunas nearby, the Yrjönkatu Swimming Hall. Luckily for me, it was one of the days it was for female use only, and it was swim suit optional, which I found intriguing. Part of the reason for this was that the locker rooms line the pool area and is visible through open arches, so with the locker room fully exposed, making it operate single-sex makes sense. I took a few rounds in the sauna and the pool, before dressing and meeting up with Dan. Sorry, no photos since nude bathing.

Something I found interesting about Finland was that evidently I look Finnish enough that people addressed me in Finnish far more often than English. I found it incredibly ironic that in countries where I had some language ability, such as Latin America or Japan, I was so obviously a foreigner that people would almost always address me in English, but in Finland where I spoke not one word of the native language, that was what I got spoken to most of the time, especially at the bath where, with no swim suit or tattoos, nothing could obviously indicate my foreigner status.

Another random note that probably only I really care about (and maybe my dad, what’s up dad?) is that there are crab apple trees in the parks in Helsinki. This is a tree often used in the US as an ornamental tree because of its colorful red fruit. Most people don’t like the fruit because it is suuuuper sour, but I am a fiend for most things sour, and spent a good portion of my youth getting kicked out of ornamental crab apple trees for climbing them and picking the apples. Well, Finland has ornamental crab apple trees too, but they were the biggest crab apples I have ever seen, it totally blew my mind.

Back at the airport we enjoyed our grocery picnic, and went through security, which was open 24 hours. Also, Finnair permitted us to check our bags back in when we arrived in Helsinki, so we only had to deal with our carry on luggage. We spent a moderately uncomfortable night sleeping in a boarding area, and then boarded our flight for Heathrow (and got to watch some de-icing procedures). Both Finnair and HEL get a thumbs up from us!

Immigration in Heathrow was super busy, but it wasn’t too difficult to navigate our way to the bus terminal where we caught a bus to Uxbridge where a friend of mine lives.

Chamini is faculty at the university, and she came to meet us and let us in to her apartment where we showered and napped, and went to lunch at the Three Tuns pub

That night we went out for dinner together and got to spend some time catching up since last we’d seen each other in New York several years earlier. Then we got our things and headed back to the airport so that we could sleep there and be in time for our flight which left at 7 am (ewwwww).

Unfortunately, Heathrow is not Helsinki, and we discovered that security was closed. I was never able to get an answer, even from security employees in the morning, about when security closes. The internet claimed 11 pm, and the two employees I asked argued about whether it was 9 pm or 9:30 pm. Boo for Heathrow.

At any rate we found ourselves sleeping on the land-side of the airport with a bunch of other travelers and more than a few stinky homeless people (like, reallllly stinky, not all of them, but the stinkers were really pungent).

As soon as security opened we made our way through, then hunkered down for another nap until our flight departed. This last leg was on British Airways and not Finnair, and we were insulted that they didn’t serve even complimentary coffee, not to mention no in-flight entertainment system. Worst of all, even though we booked this series of flights using points, and any awards travel booked through BA has insanely hefty surcharges. Boo also for British Airways.

But, they did get us to Chania without incident, and thus began in earnest our final European leg of our journey…

 

Yunomine & Kyoto for her, Hokkaido for him: giant spiders, onsen, and Hakodate mountain

September 19, 2018
by Christina & Dan

Christina:

After Dean’s departure in the morning, Dan and I moved to another accommodation, and set about figuring out what to do with ourselves. I had originally been planning to stay a week at ryokan in Hokkaido, but after the earthquake had disrupted our plans I was left at loose ends. So Dan and I camped out at Mr. Donut while I made phone calls in broken Japanese looking for a place with availability.

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[Side note: An interesting theme with the housing we found in Kyoto was that, like our “hotel” in Osaka, companies are taking over apartment buildings and renting them as hotel rooms, so you get a full kitchen/bathroom/etc. That’s nice for the travelers, but with all the talk of affordable housing issues back home in DC, I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t causing rent problems for Kyoto residents.]

After many calls I found a place called Azumaya-so in the small onsen town of Yunomine in Wakayama prefecture, south of Osaka. They had a rule that guests can’t stay more than three nights, which struck me as odd, but given my options I took it. So I also made a reservation for a place to stay back in Kyoto afterwards.

Dan decided that seeing Hokkaido was a priority for him. The trains were up and running again after the earthquake, and he had enough days left on his Japan Rail Pass to get there and back to Tokyo before it ran out, so he planned to head off to Hakodate the next morning when I left for Yunomine.

With our plans settled, we went out for a dinner of okonomiyaki here and had a quiet night in before starting our separate journeys the next morning.

We took the metro to Kyoto station in the morning, where I was able to book my trains at the small ticket office inside the metro/shinkansen area without having to exit. It was a 15 minute shinkansen ride from Kyoto to Shin-Osaka station, where I had to change for a local train to Kii-Tanabe station in the town of Tanabe. The Kuroshio 23 had sections of track right along the water and it was a very pleasant trip of ~2 hours.

Once in Tanabe, immediately next to the station entrance is the tourist information office where I bought my bus ticket to Yunomine from a vending machine, which cost 1950 yen for another two hours of transit. Transit on train and bus is generally very expensive in Japan, making the Japan Rail Pass a great deal, but it didn’t include this bus.

The ride to Yunomine was incredibly scenic, winding through the mountains and along rivers. It also include a bathroom break half-way, which was greatly appreciated and a nice opportunity to take some photos of the countryside.

Arriving in Yunomine I was delighted. It is a tiny picturesque town in the mountains, with a small river running through it. The waters of the onsen are sulfurous, and so that whole place smells vaguely of eggs, mixed in with the forest smell.

Check in at Azumaya-so was easy, though the building itself is a little run down. However, my room was lovely and there was an orange cake and a pot of tea waiting for me, so I sat and enjoyed the mountain view out my window before taking a walk around town.

On my walk I saw a lot of statues of this little guy, who I want to make a point to talk about. You can find in many places in Japan, and he was especially popular in Yunomine.

His name is Tanuki (Japanese raccoon dog) and he is a folkloric trickster god known for his shape shifting and love of drink. What you may not realize at a casual glance is that one of his consistent characteristics is an absolutely gigantic pair of testicles. Yes, those are testicles. To quote the Atlas Obscura article on Tanuki:

“Tanukis have legendarily been known to use their testicles as makeshift raincoats, as weapons, and as drums. They knead and massage them into the shape they desire, and often impersonate humans to buy alcohol and delicacies”

And here for your amusement are a few photos of Edo-era art depicting the many uses of Tanuki testicles (photos also from the Atlas Obscura article).

On my walk around town, in addition to photographing Tanuki, I stopped into Ryokan Azumaya, which is the fancier sister accommodation to Azumaya-so. Due to their arrangement, as an Azumaya-so guest I was allowed access to the ryokan baths for free. The baths at Azumaya-so were… tiny… so I was happy to access to the bigger, nicer baths at the ryokan. When I stopped in to peek they were unoccupied, so I was able to get some shots of the baths, which otherwise wouldn’t be possible, because nude bathing.

Because Azumaya-so is actually a minshuku, or discount ryokan, instead of having my meals in my room I had to go to the dining hall to eat breakfast and dinner, which are included in the lodging cost. This ended up being interesting because I got to see the demographics of the other travelers. Over the course of my three days I saw that I was a) the only foreign tourist and b) the only solo female traveler. Most people traveled in pairs, though a few male solo travelers and one large group came through.

The food they served at Azumaya-so (and at ryokans in general) is a large meal composed of many different dishes, including vegetables, meats, fish, rice and miso soup. It was so plentiful that even though there was no lunch included (and I didn’t eat lunch elsewhere), I never had the chance to get hungry between breakfast and dinner.

Here are some examples of dinner:

And here is an example of breakfast and its summary destruction…

So for three days, pretty much all I did was sleep, eat, bathe, yoga and write, and it was glorious.

However, this not-leaving-the-house attitude turned out to be highly abnormal behavior for a guest, and the owner asked me if “you have some problem?” because I was spending so much time in my room. As I discovered, Yunomine is largely treated as a one-night stopover for the famous Kumano Kodo trail, of which there are many branches all over the Wakayama peninsula. The fact that I had shown up with only the intention of eating and bathing, with no interest in or knowledge of the Kumano Kodo, was received either with shock or laughter depending on my audience.

I did decide, however, that I should take a peek at the trail one day, so my second day there I went to the shop to buy a drink and some onsen tamago (eggs cooked in the very hot onsen waters) and climb up to Yunomine’s shrine and peek at the trail. The shrine was up a few steps from the river that runs through town, and I walked into the woods from there, which was some of the prettiest nature I’ve ever seen.

I took a seat on a log, settled in with my salty lychee drink, and cracked one of my eggs open to discover that they were, in fact, uncooked. Turns out you’re supposed to cook them yourself. That’s why they were sold in a net bag with a long handle.

I finished my drink and walked back into town where I plopped my two remaining eggs into the yuzutsu to cook the eggs. It also finally made sense why the sign at the shop gave a number of minutes for cooking, which was 8 or 9 minutes, I forget. When the time was up, I took them back to my room and enjoyed them alongside my daily orange cake and pot of tea.

An interesting, ah, let’s call it a quirk, of Yunomine was the presence of some genuinely enormous spiders. Since they seemed more interested in keeping to themselves than eating my face, we were cool. I didn’t even get a photo of the biggest one, which surprised me in the dressing room at the ryokan; it could have easily spanned my palm without fully extending it’s legs. There may have been a shriek.

In my comings and goings between Azumaya-so and Ryokan Azumaya I ended up chatting and making friends with the front desk clerk, Hasashi. He was the one who laughed the loudest when I admitted my intentions to bathe, eat, and be lazy. I also got to hear the story of how he arrived in Yunomine.

He was a taxi driver in Tokyo until he retired at 60, after which he went to spend 10 weeks in Oxford learning English. When he returned to Japan, he got another job delivering mail until he had to retire again at 65. He said he ended up in Yunomine, but he didn’t know how. Since then he’d been doing new things, like working at the ryokan, writing poetry, and practicing aikido, and he was about ready to test for his black belt at 70 years old. He was super inspirational, and I hope that I’m doing new things like he is that at 70.

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Hasashi, it was so nice to meet you! I hope that I will get to come back to Yunomine and see you again!

After three nights in Yunomine I reversed my journey back to Kyoto (and got some sweet evening time pix of Kyoto Tower).

Then I made my way to Sakura House. Gianfranco checked me in and showed me around the house. He’s an Argentinian/Australian (with an Italian name) who has settled in Kyoto for good; he had great travel stories and was a delight to chat with. He explained to me that the Sakura house is a historic building that used to function as a family’s home and business, and that it has become popular to convert homes of this type into guests houses.

The house was beautiful, with a huge kitchen, and shared living area for the two guest rooms. There was also a lovely garden courtyard in the center that I walked through to access my room and bathroom.

I had reserved the “Kura” room, for two very important reasons: the antique roll top desk and the Jacuzzi bathtub. Bathing and writing are two of my great passions, and the discovery of a room with these two amenities had me squealing with excitement when I made the reservation. And I was not disappointed.

So I spent the next few days writing at the sexiest desk I had ever sat down at, cooking for myself with a plentiful supply of veggies, fungus, and noodles, doing yoga, taking baths, and sleeping in. I even managed to go the park for a ring work out, where I also got viciously chewed by mosquitoes. But now I know I can squash a mosquito on my leg and finish my one-legged squat rep, so there’s that.

But I did have one final thing on my agenda for Kyoto: a tea ceremony. I had been repeatedly thwarted in this quest, both in Hiroshima and Kyoto, so I was determined to make it happen. I wasn’t after one of the big 45 minute affairs with all the explanation; I just wanted a tea and a sweet overlooking a pretty garden where I could sip and contemplate. This article had several good suggestions for where to find such an experience, and so I headed to Nanzen-ji to give it another go.

I took the metro over, and on my way to the temple I encountered some awesome insect life. I don’t know if praying mantis bite or not, but this one didn’t, and even seemed eager to climb aboard when I put my hand down near it. Then there was the enormous butterfly…

Nanzen-ji was free to wander around, but you had to pay to enter certain areas. I was particularly taken with the brick aqueduct. The sign explaining it was all in Japanese, but the sign explaining that the crack they had examined in it was not a big deal was in Japanese and English.

The tea room turned out to be inside of one of the pay-to-access areas, called Hojoji Garden & Tea House. To get access to the tea room, I had to pay the general entry fee of 500 yen, and then the tea room ticket was 500 yen on top of that, bringing my total to 1000 yen.

I decided take my tea first. The tea room overlooked a small idyllic garden with a waterfall, and it was everything I had been hoping for. I just sat, drinking my matcha, eating my little cake, and did my best to present in the moment and enjoy this fleeting thing that I had struggled so much to achieve.

Then I took my tour of the building, since I had paid for it and I was there. And this sign greeted me on the way in.

Apropos if I may say so.

The big draw of the building were the gardens, including a large rock garden, and all the beautifully painted fusuma screens (that you aren’t supposed to photograph). They were some of the coolest screen paintings I’ve seen, topping Nijo-jo I would even say, with dudes riding flying cranes and the like. The architecture was also very pretty, though I have to admit the rock garden didn’t really do it for me.

Once I was done with my tour I decided to take a run back to Sakura house. I ran down to the Kamogawa and enjoyed the water and the fish, before veering off and taking a short running tour of the gardens surrounding the Kyoto Imperial Palace. The Palace itself isn’t particularly interesting from the outside, but the park was beautiful. There were still a ton of downed trees from Typhoon Jebi, but not so much that I couldn’t run around and enjoy the scenery.

I wrapped up my run in the park, and walked the rest of the way back to Sakura House. On the way I stopped to browse at the only thrift shop that I think I’ve ever seen in Japan. Gianfranco said later that it is advertised as an antique shop, but they had a lot of more modern stuff in there too. I couldn’t resist and bought myself a little 50 yen Kitty-chan key chain.