Barcelona: jamón, Christmas poop, and architecture

December 23, 2018
by Dan

Our bus arrived at Barcelona in the evening. From the bus station we too the metro to where we were staying, Meeting Point Hostel in Sants neighborhood. It was a nice quiet neighborhood without too much going on. A bit far from the tourism center of the town, but we ended up liking the area and it was convenient to public transit. And since we weren’t going into the city center every day it wasn’t a big deal. Plus there were some weird things nearby like a mostly empty model prison and the Parc Industrial with a cool dragon slide.

In my opinion, the most important and distinct thing about Spain is ham. It’s like the bread/rice/noodles of any other country. It’s in exactly every single Spanish dish (true facts). And so to illustrate this potentially exaggerated fact, and to continue our trend of pointing out the crazy vending machines that we find throughout the world, here is a picture of a freaking ham vending machine that we found in Barcelona. Case closed.

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Barcelona also has other things going for it besides ham. Namely, Barcelona is the main city in Catalonia. That means despite speaking Spanish, we didn’t really speak the local language. We were kind of excited to get to speak Spanish again. And yes, most people speak Spanish, but a lot of the signs are in Catalan, which looks to me like a mix of Spanish and Italian. Not too hard to decipher, but it still made menus harder to figure out than I was expecting.

It also means lots of protests for independence. Most everyone outside of Catalonia seems indifferent or against this call for independence from the rest of Spain. I figured there would be more of a split opinion here, but it seems very strongly supported. There were flags and graffiti and pro-independence clothing everywhere. So I avoided that topic of conversation but more on this later.

Finally, since we were there for Christmas season, it meant a whole lot of wacky Christmas traditions. Mostly involving poop. Seriously. This really took me by surprise. Surprise poop!

First up is the local addition to the nativity set which consists of a figure squatting to poop called the caganer. There isn’t a great explanation for why this is the case, but it usually has to do with pooping being some great equalizing factor among humans. I think it’s popular because it’s silly. The figurines are for sale in markets everywhere and often there are pooping pop culture figures to be found (Darth Vader, David Bowie, Hello Kitty, etc).

Next up in the Christmas poop category is something called Tió de Nadal. I thought this meant uncle Christmas but in Catalan tió is log. So Christmas log. It’s got eyes on it and you apparently take care of it during Advent, and then put it on fire and/or beat it with sticks and it will shit out presents. I didn’t read about it too carefully just because I like the version of the tradition as it is in my head currently. The point is, it’s pretty weird and I heard lots of little kids singing the Tió de Nadal song when walking past these decorated logs for sale in the Christmas market. I love that we got to visit at Christmas so we could experience these weird unique traditions.

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Another big feature of Barcelona is the architecture. Antoni Gaudí is from here and his architecture is a big reason it is a tourist destination. Our first encounter was on a run through Ciutadella Park. The park itself is really small and not great for running since most of the park is occupied by the zoo (that you can’t run in). Still it seems like a popular place to run in very small circles. Near the park is the Barcelona Arco de Triunfo. In the park is Cascada Monument, which was a work by Gaudí when he was still a student. It’s a crazy large fountain with really beautiful clear pool. You can also climb the stairs to the top of it.

After the run we wandered around the area a bit. We had some beer and bocadillos (sandwiches, usually ham). Then we wandered some more and stumbled upon this crazy looking building. It was like a small colorful version of the Gherkin in London. It’s called either Glóries or Agbar Tower and was built by a Spanish king in 2005. We also stumbled upon a flea market with a crazy sci-fi looking roof which will be discussed in more detail when we returned for a proper visit.

On the next day we paid a visit to La Boqueria Market. It’s mostly a tourism market, but they have some really nice Spanish products, such as the aforementioned jamón. They also had a bunch of juice vendors with some really delicious flavor combos. My favorite was the strawberry and coconut. These juices were legit cheap. You could find deals for 2 juices for 1.5 eur, which on the global scale of juice prices is pretty darn good. Cambodia still has that beat in terms of price and quality, but this is pretty close and the combination with the coconut milk was a game changer in terms of juice drinking experience.

From there we walked over to the Cathedral of Barcelona. This was a huge disappointment. I have complained already at length about being charged an entry fee (a huge entry fee) to see the inside of the church. So let’s just say we didn’t go inside, but the outside was very pretty.

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We then had some time to kill and we took a break inside a little hole in the wall sandwich and booze shop, which despite being right in the thick of Barcelona tourist  land, was quite cheap and super local. The bartender was dangerously generous with the gin for the gin and tonic. Gin and tonic is super popular in Spain BTW. Also vermouth. After drinks we tried to hit up the Picasso museum when the free vising hours rolled around, but we got turned away since you need to pre-book the free tickets. Makes sense, but it was a bummer to miss it.

The next day we made a return visit to the flea market with the space age looking reflective gold roof. It’s really bizarre. We arrived a bit late in the evening and many of the shops were starting to pack up, but there was still a fair number of shops open. Around the outer edge are proper shops selling fabrics or bootleg clothing. In the center were people with tables (or stuff on the floor) full of antiques and various other broken old things as well as household goods and clothes. I loved it.

Our next failed touristing attempt came we tried to visit the Magic Fountain. I chalk this failure up to translation error of Catalan. I guess I was assuming that it was similar enough to Spanish to be able to get the picture of the visiting hours. So we ended up arriving in time for the summer show, which was at least an hour late for when the winter shows happen. So we missed out on the fountain lighting up to music.

Instead we wandered around the nearby square where some pro-independence protesters were blocking traffic. We made our way to the top of Arenas De Barcelona shopping mall, which looks like a Roman amphitheater with Moorish embellishments, and watched the ensuing drama. There weren’t very many protesters, and police eventually unblocked traffic and then there was some shuffling about and re-positioning of the protesters and police. All in all it seemed pretty tame, and almost no one even had any signs with them.

We decided that we had to see the main Gaudí attraction in Barcelona: La Sagrada Familia Basilica. It’s an epic modern church that still isn’t finished after more than 100 years, but they are working on finishing it. The outside is amazing. It’s weird and imposing and interesting. For example there are bouquets of fruit on spires and dragons. I love it. After so many churches and temples on this trip, this one definitely stands out. I personally like the SW side and Christina was more of a fan of the cave-like NE side. Unfortunately though they’ve put up an ugly security barrier around the church. I’m sure Gaudí would not be happy with that addition.

To see the inside of the church it’s a pretty hefty entrance fee. I’m not so offended by this one since the church is still being built and it’s a huge tourist attraction, but I’m still not keen on paying to enter Christian churches for a number of reasons and the fee was just too high for our budget. So we were lucky to be able to attend mass at the church. It’s free, but only happens once on regular Sundays and other holy days (here is the schedule).

We went early on a Sunday morning. The official queue is supposed to start at 8:30 am for the 9:00 am mass but we got there at 8:15 and were about midway in the group. The mass was an interesting mix of languages. Mostly conducted in Latin, but the readings and homily switched between Catalan, Spanish, French, Italian, English and a little bit of German for good measure.

After the mass there were about 10 minutes where we were allowed to hang out inside. The whole group of people pretty much instantly started wandering around photographing after we said our “Thanks be to God” at the end of mass. It is really beautiful inside, with vibrant stained glass casting rainbow light on to the white walls.

The one thing we didn’t get to do, that we would have for the normal 15 euro tour was climb the towers using the beautiful spiral staircases. So I can’t really pass proper judgement, but I think the main feature of the church is the exterior and overall, to see the inside, mass is the way to go though. And to any non-Christians reading this, don’t be intimidated, it’s a rather welcoming set up. Just follow the majority of people when standing or kneeling and know that nobody else there can actually understand what’s going on either.

Since we got up so early, by our standards, to go to mass at Sagrada Familia, we actually had time that afternoon to do a second tourist activity in the same day. We went for a run up to the Montjuic Castle. It was a pleasant but steep run. We chose to go on Sunday because it’s free entry to the castle. I’m really glad we did. There isn’t really anything there to see; I don’t know why they charge an entry fee. But you get a nice view over the city at least and the surrounding area makes the hike up worth it.

From there we ran back down the hill and stopped by the Olympic stadium (fyi: you can run there on the last Sunday of the month). Then we headed down further to see the wacky art deco communications tower nearby in a big open plaza area. It was really cool with the setting sun.

On Christmas Eve we headed out in the evening to do the modernism walking tour that we found online (pdf map). Some of it was kinda cool, some was a let down. But it was a pleasant walk around the city. Many of the buildings you can pay to go inside, but we were happy looking at the outside, and some of the night-time lighting was really cool, especially at Casa Batlló (in blue).

We did the tour in the reverse order, so at the end we arrived at the Palau Theatre. We had purchased tickets to a flamenco show so we got to the see the inside as well. It’s a gorgeous theater with really cool tile work and sculptures and stained glass. Unfortunately the nose bleed seats weren’t the greatest. They needed a little bit more of a step up between the rows. It was a lot of peering around the backs of heads for me. But the show was quite good with really great Spanish guitar music.

The finally, it was Christmas! I was worried that everything was going to be closed leading up to and following Christmas, but it really wasn’t so bad. Most things were just closed on Christmas morning. We had bought enough groceries to carry us easily through the day so we didn’t even go out much.

On Christmas we stayed in the hostel pretty much all day except for a short trip outside for a ring work out. That evening we laid out a huge snack spread with all sorts of cheese, crackers, jamón, and pickled items. Then we watched Die Hard, ate, and drank champagne. Merry Christmas!

Then the next day we left for the airport for Morocco. On the topic of getting to the airport (often complicated via public transit) I did some research and only got this handful of copy/pasted SEO tourism sites that I have learned to equally hate and also rely on. In this case they were utterly useless. They all quote some L9 line which leaves from city center and requires a special expensive ticket (which also doesn’t allow transfers to other transit lines). I don’t know why the L9 line exists.

The actual way to get to the airport is to take the R2 train, which conveniently for us stops by Barcelon Sants, and uses the regular transit tickets that allow transfers to all the other public transit lines in Barcelona. It takes the same amount of time as the L9.

The only catch is that the R2 line drops you off at the domestic terminal and we had to take a shuttle bus to the international departures terminal T1. This wouldn’t be a bit deal but it’s a really long shuttle bus ride. I think it was just driving out of the way for fun. There was a sign in the terminal that said it was just a 1.5 km walk, but it took at good 15 minutes at highway speeds on the bus. Anyway, I’m glad I figured out that we could take the normal trains, but very frustrated that the internet didn’t help me out on that one, we only figured this out with the help of the hostel staff.

Once at the airport we were spent our last few euro coins enjoying some vending coffees while we waited to our flight to depart to the final country on our travels: Morocco.

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!

Sarajevo: misadventures in bus logistics, Bosnian rock, and a bobsled track

October 29, 2018
by Dan

When Christina took off for a brief trip back to the US I was left with the opportunity to do some exploring on my own. From Sofia to Belgrade, where I planned to meet back up with Christina, is a pretty straight shot, and so I wanted to find some other destination to visit on the way. My top picks were Sarajevo in Bosnia-Herzegovina or Prishtina in Kosovo. Sarajevo is quite a bit out of the way, but Kosovo seemed like there might be some issues passing back into Serbia.

Kosovo only recently declared independence. It’s still a disputed territory and Serbia doesn’t recognize the border. The regional politics in former Yugoslavia still seem very murky and a bit tense to me. I had only very vague understanding how Yugoslavia dissolved, but even after doing a lot of reading and traveling through the area, I still don’t feel like I really understand the last half century here. So I decided to visit Sarajevo.

The journey from Sofia to Sarajevo is not a common route, and there are rarely timetables or any information for buses in the Balkans. To make the journey easier I planned to travel to Nis, Serbia from Sofia since it is a rather large bus hub and in the general correct area.

The bus for Nis left at 7:30 am. I arrived in plenty of time to the central bus/train station in Sofia but gracious, the ticket buying procedure was difficult. There is a huge array of bus companies with ticket stands, but it’s not so obvious where each of them go. So I wandered around for a bit and had trouble getting help from anyone working in the kiosks. Eventually a ‘helpful’ beggar came up and helped me buy a ticket. But then it turns out I got a ticket to Plovdiv, deeper into Bulgaria. I was not amused and time was running out.

Luckily I was able to refund the ticket and a friendly fellow customer pointed me to an entirely different bus terminal across the street. But even there I had trouble finding the actual bus company that went to Nis. It didn’t help that my pronunciation of “Neesh” was terrible. Anyway, I finally found the correct ticket stand Матпу (pronounced “Matpu”) located roughly here.

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Soon I was on my way to Nis and the bus arrived around noon. I inquired about getting to Sarajevo at the ticket office and found out that the only bus to Sarajevo from Nis departs in the morning at 6:00 am. I didn’t mind the stop over and I was glad to get to see another city. I made a last minute reservation at Sweet Apartments for a pretty darn good deal. It was an unnecessarily nice private room and right in the city center.

I spent the afternoon just wandering the nearby fortress and enjoying the fall weather. A unique feature to the town is that there are what appear to be metro station entrances all over, but the town is tiny. So I went down on of these entrances and found that they are actually huge underground shopping areas. That was unexpected.

The next morning I took off on the ten hour journey to Sarajevo. I felt bad killing so much daylight days with bus travel, but the ride was very scenic. Along the way, the most beautiful town was Visegrad. It was in the middle of this mountainous valley with a river running through the center of town and huge cliffs on either side. There were some beautiful bridges and a church on this peninsula jutting out into the river. I know nothing of the place, but I would definitely travel back there to explore.

I arrived Sarajevo in the early afternoon at the bus station which was a bit far out of town so I went to buy my bus ticket to Belgrade since I was already there. This was important because the buses to Serbia leave from that side of town, which is the Serbian Republic part of Bosnia Herzegovina. I didn’t realize how complicated the governance of the region is, but it’s basically split up into semi-autonomous regions that are mostly separated into various ethnic regions. I’ve read a lot about the modern history of Bosnia and it’s still very confusing.  I don’t understand at all how this is a reasonable solution to the genocide that occurred here in the ’90s or how it’s really any different than the legislative system that was set up after Tito‘s death and crippled Yugoslavia and led to its break up.

Anyway I decided to buy my ticket in advance and encountered something that I didn’t expect in Europe. I was purposefully given the wrong change twice. And I was about to go back a third time because I was charged a higher price than the printed ticket value, but just gave up. Also the information desk told me that the only way into town was taxi. But there is a bus stop that goes directly to city center just a two minute walk up the road. I had let my guard down for this type of stuff and it was a frustrating introduction to the country.

I arrived at Hostel Eternal Flame, which is pretty new I think. It’s located in a theater and maybe they are kind of officially squatting because they aren’t allowed to post a sign for the hostel. Anyway, everyone has trouble finding the place even with the instructions that they send out, but it was a lovely place with friendly guests and staff, and a great location in the city. During that first night I took a wander around and it definitely gave the impression of being a pretty tough city.

But more than anything, the most difficult aspect of visiting Sarajevo was the scars of war. I guess I suspected this going in and the reason that I even know of Sarajevo is from hearing about it as a kid in the news. But I didn’t go to see Sarajevo to learn about the horrors of genocide; I typically avoid that. I think I went because I wanted to see the new recuperated Sarajevo and put a new picture of the city in my head. That’s been the case in a lot of places that we’ve visited, but Sarajevo felt a bit different. To me the city still feels very defined by the awful war in the 1990s.

So I felt a lot of sadness staying there. There are still bombed out buildings and bullet holes here and there. Not preserved as a monument, but just because they haven’t been rebuilt. The city is absolutely covered in cemeteries with very telling dates on the gravestones. You have to stay on designated trails when hiking the surrounding areas because there could still be landmines. The main tourist area has places where mortar blasts have been filled in with a red acrylic as a memorial and they’re not hard to find. The main tourist area is exactly where people were being killed during the siege of the city.

The thing that really stuck in my head during the visit was that if I was someone trapped in city during the siege, I would have been the same age as the kids that had to run out to get water because they were harder targets for the snipers. I don’t really know how true or common that was, but it’s the story that people think of when talking about the siege and just the concept in general got to me.

So I couldn’t bring myself to visit the war museums.

The main site that I wanted to see there was the abandoned bobsled track from the 1984 Olympics in the nearby hills. I saw video several years back of people taking longboards down the track. It looked insane. And it is insane. I chose to hike up the mountain to the track. It’s a nice hike through some quiet residential parts of town and along the way are some abandoned buildings covered in graffiti. I love abandoned buildings, but these gave me the same sad feeling that the buildings in Kep, Cambodia gave me because they are abandoned as a result of very specific tragedy.

The bobsled track itself was mostly in pretty good condition and there were plenty of tourists in the area that took the cable car up the hill. The graffiti was phenomenal down the whole track. It was difficult to take good pictures, but it was impressive. The walk was really fun and I would come back to run up the track or better yet, if I could get a bike with some decent brakes I would love to ride it down. I would love to visit again.

Inspired by the awesome views of the city from the bobsled track and the fact that there are mountains all around the city, I searched out some other hiking opportunities. The easiest hike from the city is to Skakavac Waterfall. You can actually walk all the way up there from the city center, but it would be a pretty long trek. I took the 69 bus from Kosevo Park in the city center to the town of Nahorevo. From there I hiked to the trail head. It was still a decent distance and pretty steep, and the view out over the city is great.

At the trail head is a mountain hut owned by a guy named Dragan. It’s very rustic and the wind kind of whistles through the building and shakes it. I liked the vibe. He had bean soup that day so I had some of that and a coffee. It was the only thing I ate all day and I’m glad I did. I had already walked almost an hour and the hike to the waterfall from the trail head along the “mountain” trail took another hour. I had read that the “tourist” trail wasn’t very interesting and presumably easier. The mountain trail wasn’t bad but a bit slippery with all the leaves and my awesome shoes from China are already worn flat. But it was fine.

The waterfall is really cool. There isn’t a large volume of water, but the water kind of bounces off all the rocks and mists up. It’s unique. I think it would be cool to swim there on a warm day. As it was, it was a little chilly but really windy, so I kept moving. I came to a larger crossroads without any trail signage. It was a huge picnic area with lots of paths crisscrossing. I took my best guess and I think I ended up going quite far out of the way and hiking through wet grassy areas with pine trees. I felt like I was probably on the wrong trail.

I eventually arrived at a nice mountain lodge and was again at a loss for where to go. I asked a family that was finishing up their meal and they offered to let me hike with them to their car and then drive me down to the city. It was about another hour of hiking and I had a blast talking with them. The guy is a Scot and has been living there since ’94, so it was pretty clear why and I avoided talking about the war. But I’ve since seen his name pop up in some of the credits for documentaries about the area.

Mostly we talked about current political environment and also about how much he loves these mountains. He comes and hikes here every weekend with his family. I was really fortunate to meet up with them.

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One night I went out drinking with some folks from the hostel. It was a bit of a challenge finding a fun bar without the help of a local, but the great thing about drinking in the Balkans is how cheap the beer is. There is still a huge mark up on beer in bars, but the base price of beer is so low (I’m talking like <$2 for half a gallon of beer) that it’s still reasonable on a tight budget to go out to bars.

The place I ended up enjoying the most was actually right next to the hostel called Underground Club and their symbol is like the London Underground. So it obviously wasn’t playing underground music with a set up like that, but it was fun. I went two nights and both times there were bands doing original music or covers in Serbo-Croatian. Bosnian rock is pretty cool. The shows started after midnight so those were some pretty late nights.

On my final day in Sarajevo, after staying up way too late for too many nights I went for a run to the Goat’s bridge. It’s a really nice pedestrian path with some excellent views.

That I headed out to catch the night bus to Belgrade. I was exhausted so I was able to sleep pretty much without problem through the night and had the whole row to myself.

From Athens to Sofia: the Acropolis, churches, Vitosha mountain, and boza

October 16, 2018
by Dan

On our return from Cairo we reversed the express bus route from the airport and headed back to Petaluda house, where we had stayed during our last pass through Athens.

Our general goal was to go to Sofia Bulgaria but we planned an additional night in Athens to make up on the touristing we missed last time. We filled our one-night, two-day stay by visiting pretty much everything on the combined Acropolis ticket. It’s a ticket that covers the Acropolis and several other archaeological sites around the city. I was really uncertain how worth it it would be. The base ticket to the Acropolis was 20 euro and an extra 10 for the combined site (valid for 5 days). OMG that hurt.

First up was the Acropolis and Parthenon, the icon of Athens. It was cool to see the scale of the place and there were excellent views of the city in all directions. Unfortunately there was scaffolding covering one side and a crane sitting in the center. I think the economic crisis kind of just stalled the work that they were doing and so the crane is now a permanent monument to modern construction equipment inside the Parthenon, kind of like Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel.  My feeling was that the coolest part of the Acropolis was being able to see it from all over the city.

We started off the next morning with a visit to the Panathenaic Stadium, the stadium used for the ancient Athens games. It has also been restored for the ceremonies for the Athens Olympics and as a finishing point for the Athens Marathon. There is a paid entry, but looking at the stadium over the fence was sufficient for our purposes. Apparently running on the track is possible from 7:30 am to 9 am. Unfortunately we were so beat from yesterday that we used the morning to sleep in and missed that, but it’s definitely something I would prioritize if we come back.

Next we headed to my favorite site on the unified ticket, the Temple of Zeus the Olympian. I am fond of making this ignorant joke that everything to see in Greece is just pillars. It’s pretty true though and this was just pillars. BUT! these pillars were all original and you still get a sense for the scale of the temple, which was huge. And you can get a lot closer than is allowed at the Parthenon. Also the view from here of the Acropolis is excellent. So in my opinion, if there was only one thing to do for cheap on a very short layover in Athens, this would be this. Nearby also is Hadrian’s arch. I know the desire was stupid, but I really wanted to walk under it. Confounded flimsy rope fences.

Then we wandered around to a few of the other sites. I wasn’t super excited with most of them, but I’m not a huge Greek history buff. We just kinda wandered around looking at the bases of pillars. I would have been fine just seeing these from across the fence without the ticket.

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Our final site was the Ancient Agora. This was pretty cool and it definitely seemed like a great place for history aficionados. For us it was just cool to walk around. The best part was the Temple of Hephaestus, which is pretty much fully restored/preserved temple. Here the restoration work was done such that it all looked quite original. This was much more of what I was expecting from the Parthenon. Unfortunately, you can’t go into any of the temples.

We we spent the evening hanging out at the hotel where they let us keep our bags and use the shower for the day, then headed off late at night on a long overnight train journey from Athens to Sofia.

It was our first overland travel on the European leg of our journey, and I kind of assumed that train travel would be a breeze at this point, but that’s really not the case in the Balkans. The train from Athens to Sofia was not so straightforward as it looked on the map. The simplest solution was a 12 hr overnight bus. But this was a bit expensive. The cheaper option was to take the train (but only if you booked in advance and in person).

We booked the ticket at the main train station in Athens (the metro stop is named Larissa for some reason). Booking the ticket was simple to do, but watching the paper shuffling shenanigans was painful. There was stamping, stapling, sorting, filling, and everything was handwritten on contact paper. None of the tickets looked particularly convincing. The route itself seemed equally confusing. Train to Thessoloniki, a different train to the border, then bus across the border, then a train to Sofia. And we had arguably three tickets….? It turns out that one of those was a receipt. But it all worked in the end.

Getting onto our first train was a total mess. All the cars were numbered ‘2’ and no one knew how to find their seat, and of course, reversing course down a narrow train car stuff with people and their luggage just added to the confusion. It wasn’t a comfortable sleep, but after that the journey went surprisingly smoothly and we didn’t have any trouble with transitions. It’s not that anything was labeled or that we knew where to go. But whenever everyone got off the train, we followed. Then when we asked where to go next, we usually were brusquely shooed away in the right direction without really finishing our question. But we arrived in Sofia midday and set off walking to our hostel.

There are metro and bus systems in Sofia, but they are also a bit confusing and we found that pretty much everything was in walking distance. We stayed at Hostel 123, which I think turned out to be my favorite hostel during this trip so far. The staff were very welcoming and treated everyone like a friend and then that carried over to all the guests. So I feel like we met some really nice people during our stay. There was one guy from Chile doing a bike tour through Eastern Europe. I was jealous of that. And finally we had solid WiFi after quite a long time. Egypt and Greece were not so developed in that regard. Plus there was a huge breakfast spread every morning. It was a really great time spent there.

The main draw to Sofia for me was that my good friend Ivan (also the project lead during my doctorate) is from Sofia. So I’ve seen plenty of family vacation photos and heard stories of drowning in yogurt topped with feta (but not the Greek kind, it’s better in Bulgaria). So for me, just seeing what life was like in Sofia was a great experience.

But in general Sofia is a really easy city to visit. It is actually quite a small town and all of the main places to go are very centrally located downtown. It’s also a very calm and peaceful place. The main sights are churches and various ruins from the Roman city of Serdica which are scattered all over the city. It’s also especially beautiful at night.

The ruins were the first thing that we ‘visited’ just by walking randomly down the street. My impression of the ruins is that they provided a really cool backdrop for the city. They are all over the place. The most notable are the ruins at the Serdica metro station which were unearthed during the construction of the station in 2012. You can actually walk through the ruins on the way to the metro, which is pretty unique. There is also a hotel called Ampitheater of Serdica, which houses ruins from the amphitheater. They have a lounge area set up among the ruins. I like how the ruins have been integrated into the modern city, maybe not the best for preservation, but action figures are also a lot more fun out of the packaging.

The churches here were really phenomenal. I’m a bit temple/churched out so we saved these towards the end of the stay, but I’m really glad we went. I particularly think that Orthodox churches are really beautiful. That may mostly be because they are exotic to me, but still familiar enough for me to appreciate details.

Of the churches we visited, the Aleksandr Nevski Cathedral was the most ornate inside (but sorry no pictures allowed). It was interesting to contrast it with the nearby Russian church of St. Nikolas (also no pictures inside). They were very different sizes, but the general architecture and artwork was nice to compare.

I think that the most interesting aspect of these orthodox churches is that there is no seating areas and the altar area is separated from the congregation. My understanding is that Catholic churches used to be similar but slowly incorporated some aspects of Protestant churches to give what I think of now as a normal Catholic church.

Also nearby (these are all within like two blocks) was the older and more rustic St Sophia Church. The cool feature of this church is that there are tombs underneath and they have installed acrylic floor panels and cool lighting so you can see down into them from the church.

The final church that we visited was a bit out of the city. Ivan introduced us to his good friends from university, Nikola and Vikki. We only had a portion of the morning together, but they took us out to Boyana church and then out for coffee, and it was really great to meet them!

Boyana is a church that was built in three stages, with the earliest being 10th century. Through some fortunate series of events it survived the Ottoman rule and calls to renovate it. So now it consists of three sections from very different eras and has some really well preserved paintings on the interior (again no pictures inside were permitted). I really appreciated having a guide to point out all the cool details inside. So thanks a bunch to Nikola and Vikki for setting that up!

Another unique feature in Sophia is the presence of municipal hot spring water. There are spigots set up near to the mosque and history museum, here. Christina was pretty bummed to learn that there aren’t hot spring baths there though. We filled up our water bottles a few times, but I fully do not understand mineral water and the European fascination with it. Each time we went there were tons of locals filling up jugs of water.

We also spent a good deal of time shopping for winter clothes since we aren’t really prepared for below freezing weather. Sofia turned out to be great for this. There are tons of thrift stores of varying levels of sophistication. My favorite was Zig Zag in terms of selection and style.

The odd thing about these shops here is that most everything is sold by weight, which turns out to work surprisingly fairly. Obviously stuff like silk is going to be a killer deal, but it general it scaled pretty well for the stuff that we bought. Though, I stupidly bought a jean jacket because it looked cool, whereas a down jacket would have been a much more intelligent purchase in terms of warmth and price. So I’ll have to live with that. It really does look cool though. Keep an eye out of photos of it going forward!

There were also several new clothing stores that had pretty decent sales going on. The difficult thing with the ‘proper’ or firsthand stores was that they usually only had one of anything in any given size. So the stuff was new, but the shopping experience was just as time consuming as thrift shopping. Also the thrift shop stuff was usually in really good condition compared to what you find in the US. I think there might be official sorting centers that make sure the clothes are in clean good condition because they didn’t take any of our old clothes that we were trying to get rid of.

Anyway, these firsthand clothing stores were particularly frustrating when looking for shoes. I don’t get how they make the decision to get this model of shoe in a size 40 and this other shoe in 41. So we didn’t end up getting any new clothing items and stuck with the excellent selection in the thrift stores. I found the whole process delightful. It was fun to shop for things that we needed and great that there were thrift shops, and just fun to see how something like this differs in another country.

In terms of food, Bulgarian cuisine is pretty similar to Greek. There were a few notable dishes that are really worth mentioning. The first is moussaka, which is also Greek, but the difference here is that the Bulgarian version is less healthy and way tastier. Greek moussaka has eggplant, but Bulgaria’s is just meat and potatoes as a base. By all accounts, given my preference for eggplant, I should favor the Greek version but it turns out I’m 100% a Bulgarian moussaka guy.

Next up is a tripe soup called shkembe chorba. I still have trouble with tripe conceptually and don’t like the texture. So I wanted Christina to order this, but accidentally ordered it for myself just by asking about it at a restaurant. It turns out to be really good. Even I liked the texture of this tripe. The closest American equivalent would be that kinda soupy mac and cheese that you make if you add too much milk. It’s actually a lot like that, plus paprika. Mentally, I think I would have loved the stuff a lot more if the tripe was replaced with macaroni. Maybe I just want some mac and cheese right now. Anyway it was a bit of a surprise how much I liked it.

Finally I have to mention the beer. It’s really cheap here (and in the rest of the Balkans that we visit later). During our travels beer has always been pretty expensive compared to food and lodging, the world over. But here it’s as cheap as water. The 2.5 liter bottle in the picture below was like 2 USD. It’s not particularly great beer, but it’s all pretty darn good.

The craziest or most unique thing that we tried was a regional drink called boza. It’s a lightly fermented grain beverage. Apparently most foreigners dislike it. I had hopes of defiantly loving it. But it is pretty, pretty weird and doesn’t quite agree with my tastes. We got a big bottle from a bakery and I made a point to drink the whole thing. I can’t even really describe it. I think it tasted kinda like gravy or a beef broth but creamy. But also it was like none of those things. It was just strange and I couldn’t wrap my head around it. [Note from Christina: I would describe it as tasting a yogurt-sour liquid bread.]

Oh, also back to food, my absolute favorite Bulgarian food is this spread called lutinitza. It’s made of tomatoes and eggplant and capsicum and it’s amazing on bread. I left the country with a half full jar but still feel like I didn’t eat enough of the stuff. Luckily it’s common in neighboring countries, but nothing beats the Bulgarian version.

In terms of exercise we had some grand plans but ended up just running once during our stay. The large central park, Borisova Gradina, turned out to be an excellent spot. It was great just for running but also nice for run touristing because of the grand monuments from the communism. The park was especially gorgeous with the fall weather. There were all sorts of paths leading through canopies of golden trees.

I also went for a run in South Park. It was not as picturesque nor did it contain so many monuments but it was nice large park to run around in. Actually most of the parks that we walked through seemed very well suited for running and the city itself was as good as an urban environment can be for running; not very crowded and with driver’s that respected pedestrians. Basically this meant that it was easy to run to the park to run instead of walking to the park to run.

I think the capstone tourist event was climbing Mount Vitosha, just outside of the city. Here we got a slightly better look at Sofia public transit, since we generally walked otherwise. We took the train to metro station GM Dimitrov, then bus 69 to the end at the Simeonov Lift. I was pretty impressed with the bus stops which had timetables and live updates.

Figuring out which bus served a given destination though was a bit tricky and google maps doesn’t have bus routes. I ended up using a combination of these two sites to figure out where we were going. Later on I learned of the moovit app that seems to work pretty well in the Balkans, but I don’t know how well it works in Sofia.

The metro system was surprisingly difficult to understand. There aren’t many lines and the ones that exist kind of seem to go in a loop. The most frustrating thing is that when you get into a station and know your destination, it’s really confusing to know which side of the track to go on. The platforms are specified by the general neighborhood (google may or may not know the name) where the terminal station is, not the station names? So knowing the name of the terminal station, or the next station in your desired direction isn’t enough. It’s a unique and very frustrating system, but simple enough that it’s not a huge issue. The nice thing is that the tickets are flat rate of 1 USD though.

Once we arrived at the mountain base we bought a ticket on the cable car to go up to the ski lodge area. I never learned to ski when I lived in Colorado because it’s such an expensive sport. Well, off season ski lift prices in Bulgaria aren’t cheap either. But it got us up there (there may be an all bus alternative fyi). It’s about a 30 minute ride to the top and the views along the way were really phenomenal, so at least there was that. Fall is really amazing here.

At the top of the cable car we arrived at Aleko Hut and started up the mountain. We just followed the walking directions that Google gave to reach Black Peak. Go figure: no information on how to navigate the city by bus, but walking directions for the off season hiking trails at a ski area far out of town. Overall it was a pretty easy hike and well marked. We followed the switch backs up even though they were not necessary while the ground was dry. Some folks just hiked straight up the along the ski lift.

Eventually we joined a gravel road for about 1 km and then headed into a really cool boulder field. The hike to the top took about 1 hour from Aleko Hut. At the top we got great views of the plains at the top of the mountain. There were some cool weather structures up there also and it was awesome to see the clouds changing and moving over the mountain.

We spent a lot of time taking fun pictures on the mountain. I suppose I regret not just sitting up there and enjoying the scenery and the cool breeze more. We knew we had to rush down in order to catch the last cable car at 4:30 pm. But I specifically bought beer and snacks to enjoy at the top of the mountain. It was a bit tight, but we did have enough time to sit and enjoy a beer at least.

By the time we headed down it was starting to cloud up and we were rushing to catch cable car before it stopped for the day. All was going well and then it started to hail. We walked right into the clouds from the sun. It was an interesting transition descending into the hail. But it also made the going slow and a bit treacherous. We basically went straight down along the ski lift. The switchbacks would have been nice, but it was easier to follow the trail this way. In the end we made it down no problem and caught the cable car in plenty of time.

From there we simply reversed the route home with soggy shoes and took a warm shower. There is a lot more to see in Bulgaria and I would love to go explore some of the other nature and hiking in the country and stuff my face with moussaka.

At the end of our week in Sofia, Christina headed off for a shorting meeting in the US, and I went for a solo to visit Sarajevo.

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)

Nanjing & Shanghai: a walk in the park (or several), cicadas for lunch, and unusual art museums

July 15, 2018
by Dan

Our flight from Guilin arrived in Nanjing Airport  where we boarded the incredibly efficient, modern, and cheap Nanjing Metro. I really love the metro systems in China. We were going to visit a friend of mine who was a visiting researcher where I worked in Maryland, and he is now a professor at Nanjing University. His name is Hao and we got to stay with him and his family for a whole week during our stay in Nanjing. It was a excellent experience and we were shown amazing hospitality by the whole family.

On our first day we took a walk around Xuanwu Lake, the old palace gardens. It was a beautiful day and gorgeous park. So far the parks in China have been outstanding. This particular park featured a lot of blooming lotus plants. The fields of lotus with bright pink flowers are really something to behold.

We really wore ourselves out walking this day. Hao took us out for some Nanjing specialties that I had read about; tangbao and duck blood soup. The tangbao is a soup filled dumpling that has a really rich broth. The duck blood soup was a bit tough for my western taste, but I’m really glad I tried it. It had an excellent delicate broth with noodles and then cubes of congealed duck blood and a few other organ meats. The duck blood part was actually quite nice and less iron-tasting than I expected. Nanjing is renowned for its love of duck and I’m solidifying my opinion that it’s my favorite meat. So even if I’m not a huge fan of the organ meats, duck organs are much more palatable in my opinion.

For dinner Hao’s in-laws made us an absolute feast of dumplings accompanied by several other dishes. The most unusual was chicken wings cooked in Coke, a special for the American guests. They were fantastic. It was a sweet caramel-like glaze, not too different from a sweet barbecue sauce. I love the idea.

On our second day we didn’t stop the walking. We headed off to Xiaoling Ming mausoleum. The only of the emperors from the Ming dynasty that is buried outside of Beijing. The walkways leading up to the burial site are lined with animal statues and terrific peaceful gardens. We were about whipped after the heat and walking so we called it a day and had a small picnic near to a section of the Ming City wall which used to encircle the city and palace. It’s insanely impressive and large. I think it’s one of the coolest aspects of the city. An ancient defense wall still in place winding it’s way through a modern city.

For dinner Hao took us out for a fancy dinner at a famous local restaurant where we got to try all sorts of amazing dishes. It was hard to pick a top favorite but I think the salted duck (Nanjing knows ducks), and the roasted fish. The sauces here are just amazing.

The next day we needed to finish off our tour of the mausoleum gardens since our ticket was good for only 2 days or 24 hours. So we headed back, but this time early to beat the heat and that really worked in our favor. We walked around 15 km and ended up exhausted like the day before, but we covered much more ground.

Our first stop was the many-story pagoda called Linggu Tower, with a lovely view of the rest of the park and the Nanjing skyline.

Next we saw the museum and mausoleum dedicated to Sun Yat-Sen, the father of modern China. The mausoleum was very impressive. A huge set of stairs leading up to the burial place really brought a sense of awe.

That night we cooked dinner for the family. Everyone took great delight in watching us cook our weird food, there were lots of curious peeks into the kitchen and videos taken. We made spaetzle, sausage and onions, cucumber vinegar salad, a breadless apple pie. I also put together some samples of marmite on toast just to keep it weird. Everything but the marmite went over well, of course.

The big surprise was how much everyone loved the sauteed apples in butter, sugar and cinnamon. It was hands down the favorite dish. We also got complimented on representing a good range of flavors. We weren’t’ really thinking of that, just trying to provide a wide array of food. But my impression is that Chinese meals have a lot more diversity than how we usually put together meals in the west. And everything is served family style. I really love it. It’s a great meal experience.

The next day we went out with Hao to the Nanjing Museum. He had never been so it was a new experience for everyone. It’s a really great museum that covers the various developments in the history of China, from the neolithic to the dynasties. There were excellent translations in English with good background for foreigners. We did go on a weekend though so it was slammed with visitors.

My favorite aspects were the artwork and wall hangings from the Qing and Ming dynasties. Really amazing craftsmanship on all the stuff.

After the traditional exhibitions of the dynasties, the museum displays an array of digital exhibitions. It wasn’t really my thing, but they did show off some really interesting and experimental concepts for how to display traditional museum exhibits. I expect that we’ll be seeing more of this in the future. Everything was much more interactive and there were some clever overlays of 3D scans of objects overlayed on the original objects using transparent displays.

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The museum terminated in an exhibit of the Republican area of the early 20th century. I was very excited about this part, but thought it was a let down. It was a scene of a town indoors, where you could enter various buildings. It looks really cool, but all of the buildings were just filled with gift shops, many of which were hawking things totally unrelated to the museum. I was bummed because I really wanted to see information about this hugely influential transitional period in Chinese history.

On our next day we took it easy on our feet since we were pretty exhausted. We only ventured out during the day to exercise in a nearby park. Not really a rest day, but relaxing nonetheless. We did try to use an ATM that just ate my bank card. Luckily it was before I entered my pin. But maybe don’t use China Construction Bank. It would have been nearly impossible to retrieve the card without a native speaker to help me out. Luckily Hao was able to call and get it sorted with the bank and I was able to pick it up the next day from their main branch.

In the evening we headed out to the Confucius Temple Fuzimiao. It’s a tourist pedestrian area with some historic importance. Now it has been converted into an outdoor shopping mall, but with traditional style buildings. It was full of locals and Chinese tourists out enjoying the beautiful night.

It was a relaxed meandering crowded and so it was fun to see everyone out in a great mood sampling various treats that were for sale along the walkway. Hao treated us to some delicious ice cream from Harbin where he and his wife went to university, some mochi-like sweet gelatinous rice, and finally a local favorite, stinky tofu. The stinky tofu is pretty earthy and on it’s own can be a bit much but with the spicy sauce it was really tasty and had an excellent texture.

We didn’t go in the temple itself, but the whole thing is brightly lit up, blasting lasers off the roof, and pumping loud music. Evidently philosophy rocks in China. It was quite a spectacle.

We also wandered a few more famous alleys and ended up at Donglaomen pedestrian street which was much less crowded and bright, but had traditional style buildings and the road terminated at the city wall near to the China Gate. Overall the alleys seem like they could be kind of cheesy for a Chinese architecture buff but to ignorant foreign eyes it was a lovely mix of old and new.

On our final day we chose to go back to enjoy the Xuanwumen park by going for a run. I had this grand idea that we would go visit the Jiefangmen Gate of the city wall during this endeavor to get one last wall landmark in. We ended up going up on top of the wall and running along it. It wasn’t really the greatest running surface and didn’t have great views because of the battlements. Overall a run through the park with a nice view of the wall would have been better, which we did for about half of our run.

I’m glad I got on top of the wall even if it was kind of anti-climactic. After the run we were treated to a delicacy from Shandong province, where the in-laws are from: fried cicada. It was an interesting experience and my first one was a bit earthy but the rest were really excellent. They were seasoned with salt and cumin.

The next day we bid the family a fond farewell and we headed off to Shanghai. We stayed with a friend of Christina’s from college and her husband. Emily and Paul were awesome hosts and gave us a load of information about what to see in Shanghai and Beijing as well as a really fantastic take on Chinese culture and politics from an inside and out perspective. Christina and Emily also had a nice stroll down memory lane, remembering campus, their rugby playing days, and catching up for the first time since graduation.

While in Shanghai we went out to see the Bund which is THE skyline experience in Shanghai. The Bund is the traditional section which still feels like there should be model Ts puttering around and couples strolling. Instead there are massive hoards of visitors watching the world around them through their phones. The other side of the river is called Pudong. It is the totally nuts modern skyline full of whacky looking spaceships and LEDs that turn entire skyscrapers into moving advertisements. It’s a surreal experience to be trapped by a touristic chaos with these two incredible views on either side of you.

We also visited two museums during our stay. The first was the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre. It was a fantastic collection of posters throughout the history of the PRC. It’s a rare collection since most of the posters were ordered destroyed some time in the 70 or 80s maybe. The collection shows a interesting progression of style and message and also shows a few different versions of posters with various leaders missing or added in. It also contains a few magazine covers and posters prior to the communism which showcase the edgier and fashionable international side of Shanghai during that time.

I loved it and thought it would be some sort of underground hush hush thing. It is literally underground in a sketchy basement, but it’s well advertised and acknowledged by the Chinese government and TripAdvisor. I find the top sites lists by TripAdvisor terrible and don’t advise trusting them, but the point is everyone knows about this. The only bummer was no photos. Also the gift shop was totally worth a visit because there were prints of a lot of other posters that weren’t on display at the moment so it’s a good way to see more. Christina got a shirt with a print of art showing Russian and Chinese unity and friendship.

The other museum we attended is the Power Station of Art, housed in.. you guessed it, an old power station. The space is really cool and the balcony has a great view of more crazy spaceship buildings and the super active shipping boats on the river. The shows rotate, but we saw a collection of artists from all over the world. It was a nice diverse set of works. A decent portion of the show featured collaborations between scientists and artists in varying ways. I think the artist that stuck out the most, at least in terms of novelty, was a Chinese artist named Cai Guo-Qiang, who paints canvas by exploding gun powder. They showcased one of his large pieces along with a video showing the production.

On our final day in the city we headed out to the People’s Square which houses the futuristic looking Shanghai museum. We didn’t have time to enter the museum, and the lines were massive anyway. We just wandered through the square and the adjacent park. I found it comically hypocritical that the People’s Square and the People’s Square Park are separated by The People’s Road… but pedestrians aren’t allowed to cross it, they have to use the subway entrance as an underpass.

The high point of the excursion was coming across a public area with wooden kung fu practice dummies. I’ve never seen one in person, so I went nuts make-believing a sweet kung fu training scene. Christina was totally impressed. She didn’t realize that actually all of times during this trip when I hefted my backpack on to my back or complained about the price of hostels, I was actually learning sweet kung fu moves in the process and all of my training was realized in this moment.