Wednesday, July 22, 2009


Tokyo was a very different experience than Kyoto. We arrived at the airport and took the train into the bustling city center. We got a little confused finding our hostel, but once we got checked in, we were right at home and ready to explore. We found a café near us that served great cheap eats, and the people there were very friendly. Some of the other customers smiled and welcomed us as we entered the shop. We had a great bowl of noodles and then headed across the street to visit the local temple.

The road to the temple was closed to traffic and was lined with souvenir shops. Shops selling snacks, chopsticks, golden waving cats, kimonos, kites, tea pots, etc. filled stalls in the classic Japanese style. It was a crowded boulevard with foreign and local tourists, and school groups dressed in uniforms wanting to interview tourists to practice their English. We completed an interview with a group of giggling school girls and helped them spell our answers in their notebooks. After a few hours of sightseeing we called it a night and turned in early. We had made a new friend, San from Thailand, and we all planned on heading out early the next morning for a full day on the town.

Our second day in Tokyo was a full one. We started out early with a trip to the Tsukiji Fish Market. The market is open every day from 6-9 am and is the largest fresh fish market in Japan. All the fresh catch from the day is sold to local restaurants and private buyers, and people line up early to get the freshest stuff. The market also is home to some great sushi restaurants, and people line up for sushi breakfast. We joined the crowd and ate a huge platter of sushi. I have never had sushi for breakfast, but I have to say that this was some of the best sushi I have ever eaten!

We left the fish market at 9 am, and found that none of the surrounding shops were open until 10. We went into a local coffee shop to kill time and plan our day. From there it was off to the Sony Building, where they show all the latest developments in personal electronics. Leon was in heaven! We spent hours looking at floor after floor of cameras, camcorder, computers, music players, and video games.

We left the Sony Building and ventured out into the surrounding area, known as the Ginza area. The Rodeo Drive of Tokyo, Ginza is full of high-end designer shops and expensive salons. While not exactly friendly to the backpacker budget, I had a good time window shopping and getting caught up on the latest fashion trends. (Payback for all those hours Leon made me feign interest in electronics.)

On our final day in Tokyo, we headed back to explore the local temple in more detail. This time we met a group of Japanese university students who offered to give us a tour to practice their English. The tour was great because it gave us a better understanding of the rituals that accompany a traditional temple visit. They explained to us to proper procedure for washing your hands and mouth before entering the temple, the traditional offering of 5 yen that you make upon entering the temple, and the correct method to offer prayers. They also showed us how to get our fortune from the booth outside the temple. They explained that you keep a good fortune with you, and if you get a bad fortune then you tie it to a post outside the temple to leave your bad luck behind you.
By mid-afternoon we decide that it was time to leave Tokyo behind us. We took the train back to the airport, and had one last meal before our marathon flight from Tokyo to Buenos Aires. We really enjoyed our two weeks in Japan, and wish that we could have seen more. Maybe one day we will return, with more time and a bigger budget!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


Once our rail pass ran out, we decided to explore our base town of Kyoto. Kyoto is a fairly large city, and it took us several days to explore the different neighborhoods. The first day we went to downtown Kyoto, which is the main shopping district of the city. The main streets Shijo-Dori and Sanjo-Dori are lined with large department stores and small boutiques selling clothing, tea pots, fans, chopsticks, and other specialty items. The Japanese are very fashionable, and the shops both carried traditional clothing and the latest runway fashions. You could find all the major American clothing stores, plus some local shops which used traditional Japanese fabrics. One store in particular caught my fancy. It was called Raak and was filled with hand-dyed Japanese fabric. The scarves came in different sizes and could be folded and tied to create purses, bottled water holders, gift wrapping, etc. I decided to purchase one and went into the store ready to buy. Unfortunately, the store clerks were less than thrilled. English is not widely spoken in Japan, and I don’t speak Japanese. As soon as I walked into the store, the clerks ran in the opposite direction and an intense discussion began over who was going to have to help me. Finally a girl timidly walked over and helped me choose a scarf. It was a bizarre feeling, walking into a shop and feeling like a leper. In most countries the tourists are welcomed with open arms for the revenue that they generate. Japan, though incredibly beautiful, is not particularly tourist friendly. I don’t expect people to speak English, and I always try to learn at least a few phrases in the local language, but Japan was a struggle.

Another day we did a walk around the area known as Southern Higashiyama. This part of the city is older and has some beautiful traditional architecture. There are winding cobblestone paths and a couple of beautiful shrines. It wasn’t uncommon to see women dressed in the traditional kimono walking the streets completing their daily errands.

The shrines in this area are amazing. They sit on the edge of the city, and walking through the gates you feel as though you are transported miles away. All at once you find yourself in a peaceful environment surrounded by nature. They are always crowded with tourists and locals, but the feeling of serenity is stronger than the push of the crowds.

We also used our days in Kyoto to sample some traditional Japanese dishes. Ramen noodles were a favorite, and were much better than the Top Ramen that I lived off of in college. Tempura was tasty, and of course there was the sushi. For a quick lunch we found a local restaurant that served inexpensive bento box lunches. The only thing that we were not a fan of was soba noodles. I love pasta, but the soba noodles, made from buckwheat, just tasted too much like health-food for my taste. The thing that surprised me the most about the food here was the lack of vegetables. At home, Japanese food is a lot of steamed vegetables, whereas in Japan, the food was mostly meat and rice or noodles. Vegetables were rarely seen and were expensive to add. Even at the grocery store, you were unlikely to see the wide selection of produce that is available to American consumers.

After ten days in Kyoto, it was time to head to Tokyo. We had an early flight on Japan Airlines, and left our apartment at 5 am to catch the train that would take us from Kyoto to Kansai International Airport. Unfortunately, we didn’t realize that the subway in Kyoto doesn’t start running until 6. We walked out to find the streets deserted and no trains running. Nothing like running 2 km with 16 kg of weight on your back to wake you up! We arrived out of breath and just in time. It was off to Tokyo!

Saturday, July 18, 2009


On our second day in Japan we decided to visit the nearby town of Kobe. The train ride was about an hour long and we arrived in Kobe just in time for lunch. While Kobe is famous for their beef, the price of Kobe beef in Japan was a little outside our budget. Instead, we followed the advice of our Lonely Planet and stopped at an “atmospheric place” called Kintoki that is “popular with locals”. We were not expecting that it would be only locals. You know that classic scene in Westerns were the stranger walks into the bar and the music and talking stops and everyone just stares at the newcomer? That was basically what happened. We walked in, and the whole restaurant simultaneously stopped and stared. There was no English menu and we weren’t sure how to go about ordering. There were several dishes laid out on a counter near the kitchen. The dishes were lined up in rows and had prices at the top of each row. We finally figured out that we could walk up to the row and grab what we wanted. We chose a plate of tempura and a plate of vegetables to share. Both were good, but we were still hungry. We saw the woman at the next table eating a bowl of rice with chicken and egg that looked delicious, but that wasn’t on the table of food. We got our waitresses attention and pointed to the bowl of rice indicating that we wanted to order that. She brought us more green tea. We pointed again to the bowl of rice. She brought out one. We decided to just share and eat a snack later.
From there it was off to the Hakutsuru Brewery and Museum. The Brewery offers free tours of the museum that explain both the traditional and modern methods of making sake. We got a little lost finding the museum, but there were a couple of very helpful locals who kept us on track. We arrived at the museum just in time to take the tour, which was very interesting. Unfortunately we arrived after the sake tasting area had closed. We bought a couple of things from the shop and headed back to the center of town.
Kobe doesn’t have a lot of sights, but we did explore the local China Town area. It pretty much looks like the China Town that they have in Boston, New York, Bangkok, and every major city throughout the globe. There was a fantastic little tea shop, with dozens of loose-leaf teas from China and Japan, but after an hour of wondering we bought some dumplings for dinner and headed home.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


The next day we were up early and headed to the train station. We had to decide to make the most of our rail passes and we were off to the nearby city of Nara for the day. We found the train station without any trouble, and the trains to Nara were clearly marked on the board. On the platform we waited with the other passengers to board the train. Unlike in other countries where those waiting form a crowd and then mob the door when the train arrives, the Japanese mark where on the platform the doors will open, and form two neat lines. The trains are very fast and smooth in Japan, and it is interesting to look out the window as you travel and see how developed the country is. On the two hour ride from Kyoto to Nara I didn’t see a single break in the development.

When we arrived in the city we decided to do the city walking tour suggested in our Lonely Planet. We started up the main road to the first pagoda, located in a peaceful city park. We had heard about the deer population in Nara, but we were surprised to find them crowded in the city park. We were even more surprised by their behavior. Men on lunch break would sit in the park, surrounded by deer. People would purchase deer snacks from park vendors for 100 yen (about $1) and feed groups of deer. Deer would wonder outside of the park, down the sidewalk, and across the street, following people who had fed them and wanting to be petted. It was bizarre!

After spending some time checking out the pagoda, and of course, the crazy deer, we headed to the next stop on the tour, a large Buddhist Temple. The road to the temple was filled with tourist and school groups and lines with shops selling tea pots, chopsticks, fans, and other traditional Japanese gifts. Then there were the deer. Hundreds of them this time. They would wander up sniffing your pockets for food and searching for affection. I didn’t have any deer food, but apparently by Lonely Planet looked good enough. One deer tried to eat it while I was reading the temple description to Leon!

The temple is guarded by two carved wooded warriors that dominate the entry arch. They stand at least two stories tall and look as though they might spring to life at any moment. The pictures we took really don’t do them justice, as there is a chain link fence in front of them, but it was by far some of the most life-like sculpture I have ever seen.

We continued in to see the temple, the largest wooden building in the world. Stepping through the gates you can easily forget that you are in a city. All you see is the temple, the beautifully manicured gardens, and a background of mountains and spring forest. Inside the temple is just as peaceful. The wooden architecture creates a feeling of warmth and calm, and the large Buddha that fills the room only adds to the sense of peace. Two more wooden warriors guard the inside of the temple. They aren’t as big as the ones at the gate, but the carving was just as spectacular, and this time there were no fences obstructing the view.

Behind the Buddha (which is huge!) there is a wooden pillar with a hole through the bottom. The story is that the hole is the same size as the Buddha’s left nostril. Those who can pass through the hole are destined for enlightenment. Of course we had to try it! Leon went first and despite his broad shoulders wiggled through so fast that the picture I took was nothing but a blur. Then he convinced me to try. I put both arms through first like he had instructed, making my shoulders smaller. Unfortunately there was no way to make my hips smaller and I got stuck. Leon was laughing, the Japanese tourists were snapping pictures and giggling, and I was flailing my arms. Leon pulled me the rest of the way through, and we were a big hit with the locals.

After the temple it was a hike through the forest to find a nearby Shinto Shrine. Called the Kasuga Taisha shrine, the entrance is lined with hundreds of stone lanterns; each a little different from the last. It is incredibly peaceful and you feel miles away from the hustle and bustle of the city that lies less than a mile away. We left the shrine with aching feet and walked back to the train station for the two hour commute back to Kyoto and our beds.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Hello Japan (Installment 1)

Our trip from Bangkok to Kyoto was uneventful and relatively short. Normally short is good, but it was an overnight flight and so more time would have been nice. We arrived exhausted after only a couple hours of fitful sleep. We collected our luggage, exchanged our money and headed for the train station that would take us from the airport to Kyoto. We decided to buy the four day Japan Rail Pass, which was a much better deal than buying individual train tickets, and then started the long journey to our new digs.
The airport express took us from Kansai International Airport to Kyoto in about an hour. From there, we had to change to the metro and then walk about 15 minutes to our furnished apartment. Since we were planning on staying in Kyoto for ten days, we decided to stay at a furnished apartment rather than a hotel or hostel. We thought that would offer us some privacy and a chance to save some money by cooking some of our own meals. We had no trouble finding the place, and the owner was there waiting to show us the space.
It was a traditional Japanese style apartment. There was a small kitchen, a bathroom, and a living room area. The loving area was covered in the traditional tatami matt style, and there were two fold out beds for sleeping on. There was a small coffee table for eating and working, and floor pillows to sit on. It’s a good thing we got used to sitting on the floor so much in India!
Once we had thrown down our backpacks it was time to head out for some food, but first we needed some cash. No problem, the apartment owner assured us that there were ATMs on every corner. Unfortunately in Japan, they use a different ATM network than any other country in the world, and most ATMs do not accept non-Japanese cards. Two hours and seven banks later, we finally had some cash. By then our serious lack of sleep had caught up with us, so we bought some ramen noodles from the local 7-11 and slurped them down before crashing on the floor.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Back in Bangkok

After our excursion in to Laos, it was Back to Bangkok. Our first visit to Thailand’s capital was not quite normal, what with the New Year and the protesting and all, so we were looking forward to getting another look at Bangkok. We decided to try a different part of town, and opted for a hotel in Siam rather than near the backpacker haven of Khosan Road. We had a hard time finding the place (our taxi driver did his best to understand our poor Thai and it took three tries before we ended up at the right hotel), but once we were there, it was a whole different Bangkok.
Siam is the heart of Bangkok’s shopping district, and what a shopping district! I have never seen so many big malls so close together. The major intersection closest to our hotel had a shopping mall on three of the four corners. All were at least 6 stories high and had a huge number of stores, restaurants, and entertainment venues. All of the malls were connected by skywalks and the Bangkok Skytrain (for those malls further down the street) so you never even had to go out onto the street. You could just go straight from one mall to another without ever opening your umbrella even during the rainy season.
This area also houses all the comforts of home, and we used our time here to get all those things we had been missing. Leon ate at Burger King at least three times. We went to the cinema three days in a row, and even went bowling! Leon was patient while I perused the goods at Jimmy Choo, Chanel, Tiffany’s, and Michael Kors (come on it’s been months since I have seen a fashion magazine!).
After a week of comfort we were ready to move on to the next adventure. We were headed to Osaka, Japan and were ready to reimburse ourselves in Asian culture. Konnichiwa Osaka!
Bangkok Part 2

Thursday, June 4, 2009


The trip from Thailand to Laos was our first real overland border crossing, and we weren’t really sure what to expect. The book had warned of long lines, red tape, and possible bribes so we were a little nervous as we approached the border. Instead, the whole process was relatively easy. The Mekong River marks the border between the two countries, and two small towns on either side serve as the immigration check points. We arrived in Chiang Khong (the Thai side) by bus, took a taxi to the Thai immigration office where they stamped us out of the country. Then we walked down to the river and took a long boat across the Mekong to Laos. Once on the Laos side, it was two passport photos and $35 for a visa. The whole process took less than an hour.
We found ourselves in Houai Xai for the night, which is literally a one street town. Fortunately we found a nice hotel with a great view of the river, and a local restaurant which offered good food at cheap prices. The next morning, we prepared for our long journey to Luang Prabang. The best way to get there from Houai Xai is via slowboat down the Mekong. The journey takes two full days, with an overnight stop at the halfway point of Pakbeng. The boats don’t stop, and there is no food on board, so we grabbed, a quick breakfast, some sandwiches for later, and headed down to the docks to get a seat on a boat.
The slowboats are exactly that, slow. For the first few hours you can sit, relax, and soak up the beautiful scenery. When you picture Southeast Asia with the steep mountainous terrain, the rice fields, the farmers and fishermen with their cone shaped straw hats; Laos is what you are picturing. It is amazing, but after a few hours it all starts to look the same, and you realize that you are sitting on a hard wooden bench on an over-crowded boat and you have 4 hours to go before you dock for the night. You try to make the best of it by reading, sipping on some Beer Laos (which is the only thing they sell on the boat) and talking to your neighbors (all tourists even though you’re on the “local” boat).
Day two was even worse than the first. The first day there were two slowboats carrying tourist down the river. On the second morning there was one boat; same number of people. Leon and I snagged seats up front on the floor, which ironically was more comfortable than the wooden bench seats. The second day was also two hours longer than the first, and since there was no excitement to get us through the first few hours like there had been the first day; it was a really long day.
Luang Prabang made up for the crazy boat ride. It was incredibly charming with Buddhist monasteries dispersed among French colonial architecture. The streets were lined with fabulous restaurants serving local, French, and fusion cuisine and shops selling local crafts. The south end of town had a huge night market where local vendors would sell the fabrics and wooden bowls that Laos is famous for. In the morning you could wake up early and watch the hundreds of local monks make their morning alms route. The locals line the streets and sit with steaming hot rice which they offer in handfuls to the monks passing by. The owner of our guesthouse asked me to join her one morning, which I did. The line of monks seemed never-ending and the rice burnt my hands, but the experience was something that I will never forget.
From Luang Prabang it was off to the town of Phosavon to see the mysterious Plain of Jars. Our journey to Phosavon was eventful. First we found seats on the local bus, right across from a nice Irish couple. We were just getting settled in when three men clambered onto the bus with a motorcycle. Where were they going to put a motorcycle on a bus? Apparently, right next to us. They tied the bike in the aisle between our seats, meaning that to get up for any reason, we had to climb over the bike. The drive was mountainous and the roads were curvy. The driver seemed to think that he was Speed Racer, and took over turn with squealing tires. I felt pretty sure for most of the morning that we were either going to fly off the mountain, or that I was going to get sick. All the tire-squealing took its toll, and we ended up with a flat tire and a lunch break. An hour and a half later we were back on the road. The driver, now trying to make up for lost time drove even faster this time, stopping every two hours to get out and inspect the tires to avoid another flat.
Phosavon was an interesting look at the history of Laos. First there was the Plain of Jars, the mysterious stone urns located around the city. No one is completely sure who put them there, or what their purpose was. They have only recently begun to study them. Up until five years ago the area was considered unsafe due to the large number of unexploded ordinance left from the Vietnam War.
The war history of Laos was also interesting. I don’t remember learning a lot about the Vietnam was in school, and I was shocked to discover the impact that the war had and is still having on this developing nation. Laos was actually the most heavily bombed country during the Vietnam War. The Viet Kong used Laos to travel from North to South Vietnam, and America bombed Laos in an effort to stop the flow of traffic. Millions of bombs were dropped on the country and approximately 30% of them remain as unexploded ordinance. Hundreds of children and farmers are still killed and injured every year by bombed that were dropped during a war that ended before I was born.
The Plain of Jars sights have recently been cleared, and as a tourist it is interesting to visit. You have to be careful to stay on the clearly marked paths, because the area off the path hasn’t been cleared. We saw a groundskeeper mowing the lawn around the sight and we both thought, “You couldn’t pay me enough to do that job! Every sweep of the mower could be your last.” It gave us a glimpse of the fear that local farmers face every day plowing their fields. The children actually search out the bombs because the scrap metal is valuable. All through the town you see shells being used as BBQ Grills, fence posts, wind chimes, etc. It is crazy, and sad.
After Phosavon it was time for a lighter mood. We headed south to Vang Vieng, a town that is known for having a backpacker party atmosphere. We rented tubes and floated down the river, enjoying the relaxing vibe. The river bank is lined with bars, and the proprietors throw out ropes to pill you in for a drink or snack. It reminded me a little bit of Beach Weekend in college, and was fun for a day. After a few days of pampering in a nice hotel, and enjoying the beautiful views, it was time to move on. We headed for Vientiane and the Thai border.