Month: November 2017

Korean ATM odyssey

It’s interesting how accustomed I get to modern traveling. As a teenager I planned ahead where to best exchange currency, how much money I should take, and how much backup I need. Nowadays I pack my VISA and just fly or drive to any other country and get cash any time from an ATM. Works all over Europe, worked in the US, worked in Africa, and worked in the remotest locations in South America. But then came Busan, Korea.

I flew with Björn from Osaka to Busan as our first stop in Korea before visiting Regine, Christian, and Dong in Seoul. Immigration went smooth and after clearing customs we went straight to the next ATM. “Global ATM” was clearly written over all 3 machines, however even after several attempts both my and Björns cards were not accepted. I had some cash from a friend which was enough to bring us to the central subway station where we had to change lines to get to our hostel. In Japan ATMs were everywhere, since you couldn’t pay local transport with cards, so I assumed the same would be true for Busan where you cannot pay local transportation with cards either. We boarded the subway and went to Sasang station where we had to change lines. Unfortunately our ticket was not valid for transfer, so we had to buy a new ticket. My cash was not enough for the following tickets, so we started looking for an ATM at the subway station. Nothing. We left the station and searched for a bank overground. On the other side of the huge intersection was a “Bank of Busan” where we entered full of confidence that we will get cash here. But the ATMs did not have the “Global ATM” sign and subsequently rejected our cards. The security guard pointed us further down the road, there would be another bank, maybe we are more lucky there.

We thus walked down the street with our full backpacks, mine with about 20 kg on the back and 5 kg on the front, to try out the next bank. About 500m down the road we found another bank. The lady at the counter signaled us that they are closed, but when we pointed to the ATMs they let us in to try our luck. First attempt failed. Second attempt with different option in the ATM menu, failed. I asked the clerk if he knows what is wrong. He started to inspect my VISA card as if he had never seen a credit card before. “This credit card?” he asked, I confirmed. “Which bank?” he continued. “Comdirect, German bank” I replied. “Oh.” Silence. “No foreign cards.” While the ATM said “Global ATM” and had a sub-menu for foreign cards, it seems the bank did not support it. So we were sent further down the road, looking for yet another bank. A couple of hundred meters further the third bank. We were heartily greeted and curiously watched when we entered and went straight to the ATMs. New game, new chance. Yet failed again. Here as well the VISA cards were rejected. The clerk was very curious, he too looked at my card as if it was the first VISA he saw, but eager to help he tried several options on the ATM but wasn’t more successful than Björn or I. He started talking to his colleague and she began looking up things in her computer. Meanwhile I used the free wifi to search for information on VISA in Korea. And I found indeed the information that foreign cards are not commonly accepted in ATMs. Only the banks KEB, Citibank, and a third bank I forgot are safe bets, others might work or might not work. With that information I talked to the lady behind the counter to help me find one of these banks nearby.

Björn was talking to the clerk and remembered one safe bet when it comes to cash in Southeast Asia: 7-eleven! Their convenience stores always have ATMs and in his previous travels in Southeast Asia they were always reliable. So Björn and the clerk tried to find the next 7-eleven, while the lady and I tried to find the next KEB bank. Björn finally found a store not too far away, but since Google Maps is restricted in Korea navigating is not easy, especially if you are completely new to the city. So he showed the location to the clerk, wo started running out of the bank. He signaled us to follow him. We grabbed our bags and followed him, as he was running down the street. A few meters behind the next crossing he showed us the 7-eleven store, said goodbye and ran back to the bank.

The tension rose. Will the 10th ATM at the 5th location finally spit out cash? Feed in card. Not instantly rejected. Select “Credit Card Service”. Next screen loads. “Enter amount.” “Enter PIN.” “Please wait.” This was the time when the previous ATMs spit out the cards with “Service unavailable.” But then the liberating sound of rotating cash broke the silence. “Please take your belongings. Thank you for your transaction.” We finally had cash and could continue to our hostel. Good to know that if all fails, 7-eleven will be there for you. 😄

Sushi madness

As final dinner for Japan Björn and I decided to go for Sushi. From the sister of a friend who lives in Osaka we got the recommendation to go to Sushiro, a conveyor belt sushi chain, specifically their branch in Ebisu north of the Shinkansen station. We were warned that it gets crowded at night and we should expect to wait a while.

We arrived at the restaurant and quite a lot of people were waiting already. One employee was handing out waiting numbers so we went to her and asked how long it’s going to be. “Table at least 30 min, belt seat ok?” she replied. We were a little confused, as belt seats are at least to me the more fun seats. Sure they are ok, and she immediately brought us to our seat.

The order panel with several pages and tabs full of sushi.

The restaurant was really different from what I saw so far. A conveyor belt like any other but above it on every seat was a small screen with touchscreen. While the sushi plates made their turns on the belt, you could order your personal plates in case the sushi you’re looking for is not around. The selection was incredible. There were pages and pages of sushi with salmon, tuna, white fish, seafood, meat, vegetables, and also deserts and other specialties.

After you put all the things you want into the virtual shopping basket you send your order and wait. After a few minutes a fanfare sounds from the screen and a message appears. Your order is about to arrive. Then you see one of the plates you ordered coming around the corner on a small pedestal, so you can distinguish it from the regular plates.
The other big surprise was the price. Most plates, except for special plates such as fatty tuna or other delicacies, were 99 Yen (0.75 EUR) per plate. And the quality was still very good, no big difference to other sushi places. Just the atmosphere was somewhat fastfoody, but that was part of the fun for me.

I tried over 20 different kind of sushi and I did not even make it halt way through their menu. Most of it was really good, some was more experimental and maybe the last time I ordered it. In the end I had about 2 dozen plates, same as Björn, but still no way near the group of Japanese teens who finished at least 200 plates as a group of 4. Their whole table was filled with stacks of plates. Not one spot was empty. Unfortunately I could not get a picture, but these guys were impressive eaters.

So with a few beers and desert we had each about 20 EUR for a full stomach of sushi and a great Japanese experience. Totally worth it!

Among the monks

As a special event Björn and I decided to go for a temple stay in Koyasen, a village in the mountains which consisted at peak times of more than 1000 temples. Over time they merged and now there are over 50 temples left of which most offer stays to visitors. The guests can then take part in the Buddhist dinner and the morning prayer. This is quite famous for tourists from near and far, so the prices reflect that. One night including dinner and breakfast cost almost 40k Yen (300 EUR). But sometimes you have to treat yourself.

After the temple was booked the next challenge was the transportation. From Kodayama, a small town about 2 hours from Osaka, exists a pilgrim trail up the mountain to Koyasen, which takes about 7 hours to hike. A few km deeper into the valley, at Kamikosawa, is another entry point to the pilgrim trail with just about 5 hours of hiking time. At the end of the valley is a cable car station from where you can get a lift up to Koyasen. Our plan was to hike up to Koyasen, stay there the night, do hikes around town the next day, and return by by train to Osaka. Unfortunately when we sought for information on train times, we came across the warning that the Typhoon a few years ago destroyed the rail track and no trains run into the valley. But no information on how to get there now. On some websites there was stated that shuttle buses run from Hashimoto, the biggest town close to the valley, but no information on departure times or how to get to the pilgrim route. The only way was to walk to the train station and ask the staff there, but we were still in Kyoto and the train company serving Hashimoto and Koyasen did not have offices in Kyoto, only in Osaka.

Without reliable information on how to get to the trail, the requirement to be at the temple before 5 pm to check-in, and the long day in Kyoto we decided to change our plan. We will take a train to Hashimoto, take the bus there, and return the next day on the full pilgrim path from Koyasen.

The next morning we got up early and walked to the train station. It was a nice, not too cold, and overcast day. There the man behind the counter handed us a note which had an explanation in English. “Due to the typhoon damage there is no train service to Koyasen. In front of the train station in Hashimoto are shuttle buses. Please be aware that waiting time can be 2-3 hours.” Well, since we did not want to do the hike anyways we were happy with the information, bought our tickets and boarded the train. In Hashimoto was already a bus waiting at the train station. In front of the bus a large area prepared for people to line up, but there was almost no one in sight. We went to the bus, confirmed that it’s the bus to Koyasen, and went on board. While we were waiting more and more people were coming. Soon the bus was filling up and I understood why the waiting area was there. Once our bus was full, the waiting area was filled with at least 30-40 additional tourists who wanted to go to Koyasen. Lucky us that we left the train station without delay and went straight for the bus.

The bus took a bit more than an hour to climb his way up the mountain road. About 10-15 minutes before we reached Koyasen Björn pointed out the window. “It snows!” I couldn’t believe it at first, but it was true. We climbed up that high, that the temperature dropped enough for it to snow. I enjoyed the first and maybe last snow I would see this season, and shortly after we arrived at the Koyasen cable car mountain station. There we had the option to either take a small shuttle into town, or walk 4-5km. As I wanted to enjoy the snowfall I opted for the short hike. We prepped us with hot coffee and all the warm clothes we brought, then we started. The hike was not very impressive, all the time along the mountain road with the occasional car passing by. But after less than an hour we reached the entry to Koyasen, Daimon gate.

Even though it was hardly afternoon it felt like dusk already. Fog and snowfall blocked most of the sunlight, you could see no more than 100 meters. And when no car was passing by there was absolute silence. In this atmosphere the Daimon gate rose from the mist, 25-30 meters high, at least 20 meters wide, and 5 meters deep. I stopped in the distance to take a picture, while Björn walked towards the gate. When I had my camera ready Björn had reached the gate, and he was merely a silhouette in the mist. This was when the full dimension of the gate unfolded its effect. Björn as a tiny shadow under the gateway and all that lies behind the gate secluded in the mist.

We passed through the gate, which was decorated with evil looking gods, and made our way into town. The temples at the central square were all covered in fresh snow, but on the ground the snow immediately melted and left nothing but water and cold feet behind. We could not check in to the temple yet, so we went for a walk through the town in search of a nice place to have lunch. We found a nice restaurant which seemed very popular, so we put our names down on the waiting list and further explored the town. Aside from the temples Koyasen did not really appeal to me. Mainly Buddhist or esoteric gift shops and a few restaurants. Only one nice cafe as far as we could see, and at least one 24 hours Family Mart.

After lunch we went to the one nicely looking cafe to kill some time until we could check in. In the cafe they offered the local specialty, sesame tofu, a sweet tofu to be eaten as desert. Eager to try new things we ordered each one serving of the sesame tofu. It came in a small bowl with some soy sauce as topping. We tried a bite and were quite surprised. It tasted really really bad. With a soapy flavor and the saltiness from the soy sauce this was really an acquired taste. After a while we went back to the temple to check in. One of the employees greeted us, served us tea, and explained the basic rules. Dinner is served at 6pm or 6.30pm, morning prayer is 6-6.45pm, breakfast 7.30-10pm, after 10pm there is quiet time. He showed us around in the temple, the mens bath with hot spring, the temple garden, the prayer hall, and our room. The room was huge compared to what we were used to. In the entry room was the wash basin, mini fridge, water heater, and the door to the toilet, in the main room was a low table with two cushions with back rest to sit, a sideboard, and a TV, and in the garden view room was a regular table with two big chairs. He handed us our kimonos, this is the informal wear for dinner and going to the onsen. Then he left. We stayed a bit longer in the room to warm up our feet and have our first beer.

With another couple of hours to waste until dinner time we decided to visit a few temples nearby. As the weather hadn’t changed we just walked a short circle around our temple. A path led up the hill behind us and down towards the center of the town. We passed a few temples but most of them were closed to public, as they are hotel temples as well, and onlu one large temple was open to visit. But the cold, wet feet drove us swiftly back to our room.

Next on the plan was visiting the temple onsen. The men’s onsen was part of the men’s bathroom. On the left were 3 shower heads and 3 stools where you have to sit down and wash yourself. On the right is the steaming bath. The water was so hot that I could only get in bit by bit. It felt like the water was boiling my skin off at first, but after a minute or two I got used to the heat and started to relax. We opened the window to let the cold air in. Over 40 degree hot water and under 4 degree cold air. A perfect combination. After this we got ready in our kimonos for dinner.

The temple offered a vegetarian Buddhist dinner for all guests. The dinner consisted of several courses that were served in sets of 2-3 dishes at a time. Paired with some hot sake, the food was amazingly delicious. Even the sesame tofu, which was hardly edible in the cafe in the afternoon, was tender with a nice taste of sesame. Especially the large variety of mushrooms was a real treat. Anyone who ever has the chance to taste this menu, take the chance!

After dinner we went back to our room and were hoping for some crazy Japanese TV shows, but aside from cooking shows, news, and some daily soaps nothing was on TV. So we decided to take another bath in the onsen and call it a night, to be ready for the early morning prayer and the hike back.

The next morning we joined the morning prayer at around 6:30 am, to get the last 15-20 min instead the full 45-50 minutes. We could hear the monks singing already when we left our room. The silence of the temple, the early morning light, and the faint voiced created a mysterious atmosphere. In the temple the head monk was leading the chant and the other monks were tuning in, repeating what sounded to me like noises rather than vocals. With almost no variation, like verses or chorus, they sang through their songbook.

After a nice but not as spectacular breakfast we hit the road. The wind and snow had disappeared, and left nothing but blue sky and a few lost clouds behind. Through the town and the Daimon gate to the pilgrims trail. Every 100 meter a stone pillar marked the way, which was sometimes just a footpath wide enough for one to walk. At every crossing for the first few km signs were warning that bears were seen in the area, and you should proceed with caution. So I was looking through the forest all the time, eager to see my first bear in the wild. After a bit more than an our we were on a small path that made a U turn around a ditch. As we were walking out of the U I heard noises from the other side of the ditch where we were walking a few minutes before. I looked over and saw about 100m away a small black bear, maybe the size of a Saint Bernard, that ran and disappeared in the bushes. So we were walking less than 10 meters above it just a few moment ago. And the bear seemed young, lucky for us his mother wasn’t around or at least did not see us as danger to her or her kid. I keep my eyes and ears open for the rest of the trail, but this was the only bear I could spot.

The rest of the track was nice but unspectacular. We made good progress and reached the temple at the end of the trail within less than 5 hours. With a celebratory pilgrims ale we reached the train station in Kodayama and headed back to Osaka for our last night in Japan and some nice Sushi.

Hide and seek with Mount Fuji

When you look at travel guides dor Japan one of the must see sights us always mount Fuji. Hell, he is even so famous that he has his own emoji 🗻. On my flight to Tokyo I was lucky enough to sit on the right side and I saw his snow white summit rising high in the distance. I wanted to see him up close, so Björn, Barbara, and I decided to go hiking near mount Fuji.

Getting there from Shinjuku is rather simple, there are several buses a day running from Shinjuku station to small towns around mount Fuji. Unfortunately, Tuesday was the only day with bad weather forecast. But as tickets were getting sparse we bought our ticket on Saturday when the forecast was still fine. We crossed our fingers and hoped for the best. As we arrived in Kawaguchiko at the foot of mount Fuji, not only the summit but the whole mountain was covered in clouds.

Most of the day this was the view of mount Fuji during our hike. Normally there would be a mountain with its peak close to the top of the picture. Now there are only clouds.

Barbara, Björn, and I started our hike up Mount Tenjo and planned to continue further to Shimoyama, a nice 2 hour one-way hike with usually great views of Fuji. This time we were out of luck. Strong wind and repetitive showers were not the best companions. So we crawled slowly up the hill, looking for a sheltered place for our lunch break.But most of the time the path was on the wind-facing side, so we did not find any place until shortly before the top. The top was surprisingly unspectacular. Maybe because of the clouds, but we turned back right away. For the descent we chose a different path that led us through a small village and along the lake. But the showers turned into constant rain, so after a few rounds through the town looking for a nice coffee place we decided to go to the bus station and check if we can exchange our tickets in the evening for earlier.

Used to the German public transport and its famous flexibility I expected long discussions and extraordinary fees up to buying a new ticket to get back earlier. While Björn was checking out the cafeteria Barbara and I lined up at the ticket counter and ended up at the counter of a man in his 50s. He didn’t speak much English, so the conversation was mostly single noun based.
“next bus Shinjuku?”
“next bus 10 minutes”
“later bus?”
“50 minutes”
“ok, change ticket?”
Then I showed him my reservation on the cell phone. He grabbed my phone and started scrolling up and down on the ticket. When he found what he was looking for he hacked some numbers in the computer and pointed at his screen.
“seat ok?”
I confirmed and he printed the two tickets for me and Björn. Then Barbara, who booked here ticket separately a day after Björn and me, handed him her phone. Visibly confused he looked at her phone, hacked her numbers in, and offered her a seat across the isle from me.

I was genuinely surprised by the level of mindfulness the man showed. From German public transport employees I’m used that they do their jobs but hardly take matters in their hand to solve issues.

With 50 minutes until departure we had enough time for a coffee, a beer, and a toilet break before heading back to Tokyo and our last night in the city.

Tales of Tokyo

Now I’m sitting here and ask myself: should I put all the Tokyo experience in one post? Or in 2? Or in 10? Posts by day, or by activity? By theme or just arbitrarily? Difficult to say. Maybe I use the same approach I used to explore the city. Have a few points in mind, and the rest comes on the go.

During the week I roughly spent in Tokyo I stayed in Asakusa, Shibuya, and Shinjuku, and explored the city alone, with Björn, and with Björn and Barbara.

The trip with Björn was planned. I arrived on 6 November, Björn 2 days later, and we were had planned to travel for 2 1/2 weeks until he flies back from Seoul on 26 November. Meeting Barbara in Tokyo was more a coincidence. Sonja, who knows Björn, Barbara, and me, told us that we are all in Tokyo at the same time. Since I knew Barbara from grad school in Tübingen and some other occasions Björn and I took the opportunity to meet up with her and spend a few days in Tokyo and later Kyoto and Osaka with her. But let’s go a bit more chonologically.

Asakusa

The first two nights I spent in Asakusa. Even in this more quiet quarter during the night, almost every street was lit by flickering neon lights. Arcade and slot machine halls were every few hundred meters, big flashy restaurants on the front, and small, simple restaurants in the back streets. Most houses were 2 or 3 story buildings, and only occasionally a 5 or 6 story building in-between.

The menu in a small pub in Asakusa. At first it looked like decor, but if you know what to look for you see the items and the prices. While I can decyper the prices by now, the items are still an enigma to me.

While the front side restaurants all had menus with at least a few English words, pictures, or European digits, the back street pubs often did not. On the second night I passed by a cosy little pub, only counter tables, and the smell of grilled meat coming out of the doors. I decided to enter and ask for an English menu. No English menu. Or a picture menu. But the waiter said no and pointed to the wall. There were wooden pieces with Japanese letters on it. This was the menu. Even the prices were written in Japanese numerals. I decided that the place still looks fine and the lack of menu does not keep me from staying. So I ordered a beer, pointed at food from other guests, and asked for chicken. And I got what I asked for, some fried mini shrimp, some vegetables which I think were spring onions, and chicken skewers. All freshly grilled and really delicious.

The next special experience was “Don Quijote”. It’s a Japanese department store that sells everything cramped into several floors and busting with loud noises and lights. You get food, drinks, cloths, electronics, costumes, sex toys, makeup, sports equipment, and whatnot there. 24 hours a day. And around 10 pm it’s still packed. Quite an experience when you squeeze yourself though the isles while one TV blasts ads for pineapple juice, the next display flashes with the latest Borat-like speedos, and just a few meters later you get a remote Godzilla.

When I came back to my room someone else was there. The beds were little capsules, closed on all but one side at the foot of the bed, where you have a curtain to close off the last side. My new roommate was Larissa, a French-Canadian girl who went to a German school and now lives in Kyoto. She just came back from the Seoul marathon and when we met at breakfast the next morning we decided to meet up when I’m in Kyoto for a nice morning run.

As day activity I had planned to get a data sim (more on that later), join a free walking tour, and trying some more Japanese food. The free walking tour war in Ueno park, one of the biggest parks in Tokyo. Yoshi, the tour guide, led us through the park and explained a lot about the history of Tokyo, the former Ueno park temples and its current setup as recreational area. I joined a lot of free walking tours all over the world, and in the end the tour guides ask for a small tip for their service. And depending on the quality of their tour you give more or less. So I was prepared to give 1000 Yen, since he took 2 hours, had a lot of interesting anecdotes about the Japanese civil war and the shogun time, and made the tour really enjoyable. But when we came to the end, he thanked us for the participation and directly left without the request nor the opportunity to tip him. This was one of the first cultural insights for me. In Japan, you don’t tip. Either a service has a price, and this price is clear up front, or it is a voluntary service and not to be paid. Something I really grew to like. A price is a price. If the bar tap is 1845 Yen, it’s exactly 1845 Yen. Because that is the service you ordered and you pay only for what you ordered.

This reflects the way people treat you in stores, bars, and restaurants. In the US, where people rely heavily on your tip for their salary I very often felt fake excitement in the way they greeted and treated me. They smile to my face but behind my back they think they would do anything that this fucker gives 20 or 25% tip. Here in Japan I hardly felt fake excitement. People are happy that a customer enters the place, happy that I check what they have to offer, and if I’m happy with the product, we exchange goods for money in the agreed amount. No extra, fake excitement to raise the amount I pay. A service/product has a price, and that’s what you pay. Man, I’m going to miss that soon.

Shibuya

The next day Björn came to Tokyo and we met in our hostel in Shibuya. Different from Asakusa, Shibuya is a business district. With neon light up to the 6th or 7th floor, shopping opportunities, chain coffee shops, arcades, and large, shiny restaurants. One of our first stops was Shibuya crossing. An intersection where the pedestrian crossing does not only go perpendicular to the roads, but also diagonal. When the lights turn green, hundreds of people cross the streets in any direction. Chaotic yet totally smooth. Especially famous to watch from the second floor Starbucks, where the window seats face down to the crossing. As good tourists we obviously have to get a coffee and sit there for a while as well. And the sight at night really has something intriguing. The smooth transition from cars to people, and how disciplined the Japanese wait for the green light, even though no car is in sight.

That Shibuya is a business district stands out when you try to find a restaurant late at night. The only places that are easy to find or open are fancy business restaurants, where you can go with business partners for fine dining or shady red light bars where you can crash if you are lonely and horny on a business trip. It took us quite a while to find a nice izakaya, Japanese restaurant, where we could get some simple food. The house specialty were grilled meat skewers with different parts from pork and chicken, most of them internal organs which you rarely find on German menus. So the English translation did not really help that much, as gizzard or gristle are, or were, not part of my food vocabulary. But we ordered the house platter anyways and just let us surprise what we will get. Well, gizzard and gristle wont end up on my shopping list in the near future, but as grilled skewers nothing that you cannot wash down with a drink and some soy sauce.

Akihabara

The next day the electronic and manga quarter Akihabara was on the to-see list, but we started off with the fish market where you can get the freshest sushi in the country, so it says, and has the largest variety. Well, maybe when you’re there at the crack of dawn. We arrived late in the morning and it was just a very full market with lots of fish and seafood, but nothing out of the ordinary. One stand where they freshly prepared sashimi caught our attention. Different kinds of tuna was the choice of the day and it was indeed very good tuna. After a beer and a matcha soft serve ice cream, which tastes like ice cream filtered through a lawn mower, we took the subway to Akihabara.

In the main streets of Akihabara everything looked surprisingly “normal”. Stores with flashing lights, people rushing up and down the sidewalk, and music blasting from various corners. Only minor details were different. Every here and there a girl in a maid outfit was handing out flyer for a maid cafe, and

The wall decor on one of the higher floors in a comic book store in Akihabara.

instead of random stores many stores sold comic books or computer games. The ground floor of the comic book stores looked quite normal. Many colorful books, people browsing through, some figurines in displays, and sometimes also DVDs. But it got stranger the higher you climbed. With every floor the characters get younger, their chests bigger, and the dresses skimpier. Around the third floor the adult-only sections started. Now the girls are partially naked and the covers show the first sex scenes. And there are 2-3 floors to go. Yet something else changed… the scent. The higher floors were filled with a heavy and sweet perfume, just like teenager like to wear it. We crawled our way to the top to see what’s for sale there, and we were not disappointed. Octopus-alien orgies, lesbians in German WWII uniforms, and female bodies that are contradictory what human physiology can create. However, what I missed were costumes or toys. We checked a few other stores, and they only sold comic books, DVDs, or computer games. I thought that the same skimpy costumes that are worn in the books would be sold in the store. But neither in that store nor in the neighboring stores could I find these.

The next Japan experience on the list was the maid cafe, where girls in costumes serve you drinks and cake. While most maid cafes have the classical maid theme are there also cafes where the girls wear nurse costumes or more steampunk-oriented costumes. We went to the cafe of which we had the flyer handed to us earlier. They had a good review on Google Maps and TripAdvisor, so it looked like a good choice. When we arrived we learned that the price per hour is 1000 Yen per person to be in the cafe plus at least one order per person on top. After we sat down one of the maids explained us the rules. They are cats which transformed into maids, that’s why they wear cat ears. And that’s why the guests have to wear cat ears. If you want to call the waitresses, you have to make cat noises as well. All very playful. Any personal contact is strictly forbidden, and pictures of or with the girls only for cash, then they pose with the guest for a cute photo. We ordered an ice cream cup, I had the unicorn cup, and I didn’t know that ice cream can be that sweet. When the ice cream cups came we had to cast a love spell together with our waitress/cat on the ice cream. Then we were allowed to eat. After an hour we returned our cat ears and went on exploring.

Ebisu

Freshly prepared Wagyu beef sushi. Slightly seared and then placed on a rice ball. Very delicious.

For dinner we decided to try our a new neighborhood. Ebisu was recommended by Catherine,  who lived there for a few months. We were wandering around a little bit, the area looked rather quiet compared to the previous quarters. More residential, fancy restaurants and cafes everywhere, small stores, and only minimum neon adds flashing on the bigger streets. We decided to try out something like a food court. A couple of small restaurants in one building, no Europeans in sight, and since it was rather early only a few places were already filling up. Most restaurants were still empty. After walking back and forth one or two times we decided to give a sushi place a try. But not any sushi. Horse sushi. All sushi they had on the menu was horse, beef, or pork. No fish. We tried several different variations. Especially great was the simple horse meat and of course the big Wagyu beef slice. The highly recommended “fatty horse meat sushi” was actually just a slice of horse fat on a ball of rice. So chewy, I could not eat it.

After dinner we went on exploring the city when we ran into a craft beer brewery. As it was quite late already we were in luck and didn’t have to wait to get a seat. They had a nice test set on the menu, all the 6 beers of the month including a table set which described the beers. Unfortunately non of the beers were really good. Either to sweet, or to flat, or too bitter. So after another half pint for 1000 Yen (7.5 EUR) we made our way back home. Next day we had to move out and make our way to Narita.

The next day we planned to meet up with Barbara and visit the imperial palace. On our way from the train station to the palace we ran into a local film crew that was looking for foreigners to interview. We agreed and were curious what they wanted to know. The reporter pulled out a folder with pictures and started asking us if we know the buildings and what architectural features strike us. Well, as we were only 2-3 days in Japan we did not recognize any of the buildings. So we confidently explained what architectural features differ in Japanese buildings from the European buildings we know. Slightly embarrassed we completed the interview and continued to the imperial palace.

View of one of the gates to the imperial palace. This gate was closed to the public, as it leads to the private area of the royal family.

The imperial palace is a huge and mostly empty area in the middle of Tokyo. There are a few buildings here and there, but the majority of the space is garden and squares. Some parts are not open to the public, the parts where the royal family lives. We wandered around for a while, yet I didn’t find it too impressive. It was nice and all, just I was missing the nice, big pagodas or temples. Fortunately the imperial palace is free, so a great opportunity for a run if you’re staying close by. After the palace we grabbed our stuff and went off to Narita.

Shinjuku

After we returned from Narita we decided to stay in Shinjuku, a shopping and business district. And we opted for a capsule hotel, the nine hours Shinjuku. Prices are around 3000 Yen (23 EUR) per person per night, which is for Tokyo quite a good price. When we arrived we took the elevator up to the 8th floor. At the reception we checked in and received our night bags. A bag with a big towel, a small towel, a toothbrush and toothpaste, slippers, and … a pajama. Yes, you receive a what they call lounge wear, but essentially a pajama in fancy black-and-gray space style. One size fits all. Or mostly all, some let’s say over-sized guys wore only the bottoms. But let’s not get ahead that fast.

After the check in we had to go to the right elevator, as this is the only one going to the male floors, the left one only goes to female floors, and the middle one to the ground floor. So the separation between male and female is really strict. The reception staff is watching that you don’t take the elevator of the other sex. I wonder how their policy for trans-gender or gender-fluid people is.

A capsule hotel, on the left the view of the dorm with all the capsules. On the right the view into a capsule. It’s high enough for a normal man to sit upright on the bed.

On our floor there was first the locker room, where we can store our luggage, and behind the locker room is the capsule room. mote than 50 capsules in one room, each equipped with two small trays for cell phones or glasses, a power outlet for charging, and a curtain for privacy. The capsules were actually quite spacious. I could comfortably sit upright on the bed and even had a few centimeters left to the top. The mattresses were also really good, the only thing missing was a good air conditioning inside the capsule. When you enter at night it’s nice and fresh, but during the night when the only opening is closed with the curtain it really heats up the place. In the morning I felt really hot. A vent inside the capsule would go a long way.

In the morning you have to completely check out of the capsule. Nothing can be left in the capsule, you have to put all into the locker and return your key by 10:00. This is not only for the cleaning staff to tidy up the place but also because they rent out the capsules for naps during the day, so you can check-in again in the evening. Your things stay safe in the locker, and you receive a completely fresh bag with towels and lounge wear, and a cleaned capsule.

The hotel was in the Korean quarter as it seemed, as there were numerous Korean chicken and beer places and cosmetics stores had ads in Japanese and Korean. The center of Shinjuku was really a large shopping and entertainment area. Blinking lights, loud music, and fancy food places. The first night we ran into a kebab festival. Loads and loads of really delicious looking kebab spits rotating in front of the grills. But we were in Japan for just a few days, so we decided to go for Japanese food again.

The view from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building with Yoyogi park in the center.

The next day we decided to do a relaxed day after the race on Sunday, so we stayed in Tokyo and met up with Barbara again. We went up the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building which has a free viewing platform on one of the top levels. There you have a great view over Tokyo. For the rest of the day we mostly wandered around from restaurant to coffee shop to pub. At night it started raining and we sought shelter in a small restaurant on the outer rims of Shinjuku. A nice and quiet place that specialized in okonomiyaki and yakisoba. Okonomiyaki is a form of pancake with vegetables, meat or seafood, and noodles freshly fried and seasoned with teriyaki sauce and mayonnaise. Or numerous variants of it. And yakisoba are fried soba noodles. We actually just wanted a beer and a snack to wait for the rain to pass, but the food looked so delicious that we started off with some okonomiyaki and continued with yakisoba and something else I don’t remember. But I remember that we ordered explicitly the pork and green pepper yakisoba, as Björn does not like seafood. When the yakisoba came and was prepared, we wondered what the little white-ish pieces were. After a bite we recognized them as squid. We called the waitress and (tried to) ask if we have the right food, because we didn’t order squid. “Ah, yes, little bit.” was her response. So it seems there needs to be a little bit of squid in it.

Picturesque and in theory a nice atmosphere, but unfortunately a pure tourist rip-off. And they make you feel it.

The next day was supposed to be our last day in Tokyo. During the day we went hiking to Mount Fuji, in the evening we went out in Shinjuku, more precisely to Golden Gai, an area in Shinjuku which is preserved since the 60s with tiny 2-story buildings what inhabit pubs and restaurants. A very popular area with tourists, and you can get drinks in the differently themed bars. Honestly, what a shit hole. Maybe it was nice in the 60s, when people used to live that way, when you went into a small, smoked-filled restaurant for a beer and a bite after work to chat with some people. Now it’s bars and restaurants that charge you up to 1000 Yen entrance fee, and drinks on the same price level. It’s a place where you can go if you’re hammered and have lost control of your wallet, so you wake up in the morning and ask yourself where the 20k went you got from the ATM yesterday. The pub owners were unfriendly, the places messy and smelly, and it had nothing from the open and welcoming atmosphere that I experienced in Japan so far. I cannot understand why this shit hole is recommended by any guidebook. Except as reference for how things can go south. From the description in the lonely planet it sounded really nice. Too bad it’s shit.

The next morning we left Tokyo for good, with the Shinkansen towards Miyajima.

Narita Pop Run

Björn and I had the fun idea that when we are in Asia, why not taking part in a race? So we looked up where races are in November. Seoul was booked, Osaka was booked, all was booked. All but a nice little race in Narita, mostly known for it’s international airport close to Tokyo. The Narita Pop Run. They offer a 10k, which is perfect for me, and a half-marathon, perfect for Björn. So we signed up. The sign-up process alone already posed a challenge. Google translate does a decent job in translating the content of the website. Name, address, phone, e-mail, the usual things. However, the forms did not accept European characters. Only Japanese letters. So I looked up a website and translated my name into Japanese. But as my knowledge about Japanese characters was nonexistent at that time, I did not copy the Katakana but the Kanji characters. This means that the characters do not make any sense to Japanese people. They are words which sound to me somewhat similar to my name, but are completely senseless. Somewhat like trying to write a name with emojis. Or would you understand that 🥛🛢️ is Michael, just because milk-oil sounds somewhat similar? Well, luckily no one seemed to care. The next problem was the address. Narita Pop Run only accepts Japanese addresses for participants. It really looked as if we were the first and only participants from outside the country. We entered the address of our hostel in good faith that if any mail is sent to it, they will store it. In the final step we had to pay the registration fee, which unsurprisingly worked flawlessly with my German MasterCard. Seems like money is a language that everybody understands.

Now we were registered, the day of the race was approaching and we needed to get some information on how this works. Luckily I met Larissa in Tokyo, she explained to me that in Japan they usually send you a postcard with your start number, and this is what you show at the race to get your starting materials. I asked the hostel staff if they received the postcard, but they either didn’t receive it, or they threw it away. So we had the hostel staff call the organizers and asked for our start numbers. Then we headed on to Narita.

For the night before the race we stayed in a small guest house 10 min from the train station. On the day of the race we walked to the train station and from there followed the stream of people in sports clothes to the stadium. As we arrived we saw well organized about 20-30 lines of people waiting in front of clearly labeled windows with start numbers. No bulk in front of the windows, all standing in line one after another. I lined up behind window 23 and waited my turn. Then I handed a piece of paper with my start number to the lady behind the window. She asked for my postcard, but I tried to explain that I don’t have it. So she sent me to window 0, the window for late registrations and special cases. Björn was already waiting there, as he was also sent to window 0. As I came to the window I tried to explain that I lost my postcard, but I have my number. They looked me up, found my entry, but wanted some more ID, I explained that I only have a German ID which does not contain my (hilariously wrong) Japanese name, and the address was the address of a hostel. After a short discussion they understood that this will be a difficult case and it is easier to just give me the postcard. Then I could return to my previous window to collect my starting materials.

After we both had our stuff we started to get ready. Pin on the numbers, get to the toilet, give your bag to the luggage deposit, and start with the warm-up. So we pinned the numbers to our shirts and started looking for the luggage storage. But there was none. Then it dawned on us. There IS none. Why should there? In Japan you don’t steal from other people. In a country where you leave your cellphone in a coffee shop on the table, why should there be a secured luggage deposit during a race? You just put your things somewhere on the grass at the side of the track and that’s it. So we put our things in the bags and just left it on the grass.

Björn and I after the race.

The next revelation was the toilet system. About 20 porter potties were behind the stadium and 2 lines were formed. At the end, two men were organizing the toilets. Whenever someone exited a toilet, the men were signalling the next in line to go to that toilet. Alternating between both lines. Even though the line was long when I entered, the process was fast and efficient. No bad luck when you stand in front of the wrong toilet where someone takes ages for his pre-race dump, no cutting in line, and always progress. When I was walking to and from the toilet I was watching the other participants. Except for 2-3 US-Americans we were the only westerners in the race.

Then the race started. Well organized track, people on the side of the street, water supply every few km, and the weather was perfectly sunny, almost too sunny. So the race went fine, but my thigh cramped up around km 3, and my stomach was acting up around km 6, so I only finished with 51 min on the clock. Not below 50 min this time. But still the fastest European in the race.

After the race, and after Björn received his gift as being #2 in the half-marathon, we returned to our guesthouse, freshened up, and went into town for some food and sight seeing. Narita is really full on a Sunday. The old town consists of several small stores and restaurants. The local specialty is Unagi, grilled Eel. But the real sight is the temple complex. You enter through a large gate and climb up steep steps to get to a central square. The square is surrounded by a tall and bright pagoda, the extensive main hall, and a few smaller buildings that contain stores and information booths. From Tokyo I was used that this is more or less all what the temple is. But here the temple area expands way beyond the central square. Smaller halls and temples until we reached to a park. We strolled through the park and stumbled upon even more temples and pagodas. The biggest pagoda was sitting in the center of the park, with stairs leading from the bottom of the hill up to the pagoda. Despite the race in our legs we kept on wandering around in the temple area. Around late afternoon we decided to head back to Tokyo, this time to Shinjuku.

Welcome to Japan

Wednesday, 6 November, 3 pm Tokyo time. My ANA flight is on time and was quite pleasant. Friendly service, okay-ish food, comfortable seats, and good entertainment program. The first Japan-experience was already the bathroom. Even in the plain, just as in any other place I found, toilets have a bunch of buttons. Often in Japanese and English, but sometimes only Japanese. So it’s a good idea to learn the letters for flushing. Or just press random buttons. Worst thing that can happen is that the seat gets hot and water sprays from various directions. Or music plays. So in case you’re interested, this is the little flush: 小.

The buttons on a regular Japanese toilet.

The next surprise waited for me just after clearing customs. I checked how to get from Haneda Airport to my Hostel in Asakusa, and simple enough, I just had to take the metro to Asakusa station. No transfers. The lady at the ticket office confirmed what Google Maps told me, and the price was 800 Yen. She handed me a small basket and I put my credit card in. Then I heard the two words I thought I would not hear that often in high tech Japan: cash only.  I would expect that at street markets, in remote restaurants, or maybe small stores. But Tokyo Metro only accepting cash? But yes, Metro tickets or the contact-less payment cards like pasmo can only be bought and re-charged with cash. With that level of credit card rejection I felt right like home in Germany.

The first 1.5 days before Björn arrived I spent in Asakusa, a touristy yet more laid-back quarter in the eastern part of Tokyo. Small stores in a large shopping-arcade, cosy restaurants, and the shining-red Senso-ji temple. By the time I got to the hostel, checked in, put my stuff away and went back out it was dark already, and the Senso-ji temple area was almost empty. Here and there a person or two wandering around, and the temple shining bright in the dark. When I returned the next day the scenery was turned upside down. During the day hundreds of people, mostly students and elderly people, were all around the temple. Some praying, some admiring, and some posing for photos in colorful kimonos.

For 100 Yen you can have your fortune told by shaking a box full of sticks. One stick falls out and has a number written on it. Find the drawer with the matching number and a small paper inside tells you your fortune. But the instruction came with a warning. If you have a great fortune foretold, be humble to not send it away. And if you get a bad fortune, don’t be sad and work on turning your fortune around. I drew a small fortune. “Beginning a trip is half a fortune.” This on my first day of a 4 months journey. Not too bad.

A farewell, Deutsche Bahn style

As I wont be using the Deutsche Bahn for the next four month I think they decided to give me a very special farewell. Last night I wanted to take an IC train from Frankfurt to Nuremberg, stay there overnight, and continue today to Munich. Usually it’s 2-3 hours from Frankfurt to Nuremberg, and little over an hour from Nuremberg to Munich. This time it went a little bit different.

The train arrived in Frankfurt with about 15 minutes delay. So far nothing special, as I travel every week by train this happens about once a month. As I didn’t have connecting trains this didn’t bother me too much. The IC was a refurbished one, with comfy leather seats and in my coach only a hand full of seats were taken. When we left Frankfurt the lights started to flicker. All but the emergency lighting went off, then it started to flicker and buzz, and after 20-30 sec the light stayed on. This happened every 10 minutes. Shortly after the next stop the train attendants came to my coach and asked all passengers to move to the next coach, as they have to close this one for technical reasons. Surprising to hear this in fall, as this is usually only the case in summer when the AC breaks or in winter when the heating breaks. But fall and spring are usually fine. So I moved all my stuff to the next coach.

Shortly after the train stopped in the middle of nowhere. Afar in the mist you could see the outlines of a vacant train station, but all around was pitch black. The train attendants made an announcement through the speakers, but the volume was to low to understand anything. So I decided to check the Deutsche Bahn app for information on my train. But we were standing in the middle of the lower Franconian wilderness. Cell reception was at a minimum, so the app did not refresh. And since the train was an IC, there was no wifi. I waited for the train to continue, another announcement, or a train attendant to pass by. Then 3 train attendants ran by my booth wearing orange workers vests. It doomed me that this might take a while.

A few minutes later the next announcement came. This time loud enough to understand. The last coach, the one I was in before, has such a severe technical defect that they have to detach it here and now. We all should remain seated as the outer doors have to be unlocked and the neighboring tracks have trains running. I thought that this should be a matter of a few minutes, but boy was I wrong. With only a short “please be patient, we’re working on it” announcement every 10-15 minutes it took them more than an hour to detach the last coach. With a delay of more than 90 minutes we continued our trip and I arrived late at night in Nuremberg.

The next day I planned to take the ICE to Munich, which takes about 71 minutes. The train came on time, I even had to rush along the platform to the other end of the train to get to my coach. I boarded the train, searched for my seat, had to ask the man sitting there to find a different seat as the seat reservation display was defective again, and stowed away by backpack. Just in time for the next announcement. “Dear passengers, due to a track suspension this train will be rerouted. Expected delay 45 minutes.” When I checked the schedule in the app 5 minutes before there was no indication. But at least the wifi was working, so I enjoyed the extra time in the ICE. Maybe that’s the farewell, Deutsche Bahn style.

 

18 and ready to roll

Packed and ready to go. About 18 kg of shorts and shirts, sun screen and insect repellent, and travel books and iodine cream. Prepared for cold hikes in the Japanese Alps, the humid heat in Malaysia, for diving in the Philippines, or expeditions through the Vietnamese jungle. Everything ready, all but a plan. Four months on the road, meeting up with friends here and there, and be surprised where to go next.

Choose to pack? Or pack to choose?

Packing clothes was surprisingly fast this time. I don’t like carrying around things I don’t need at the end of the trip, so I’m a classical “pack to choose” person. I check what I want to do during the trip and pack accordingly. Ideally I used all the cloths I packed, not more, not less. But this time it’s different. No planning like “how much socks and shirts do I need? Shall I pack 1-2 spares? Or do I want to wash in-between?”. I’ll just wash whenever I run out of clean cloths. And if I really miss something then it’s worth buying it if I need it during that time. So I have all I need for 10-15 days. Even for shoes the decision was quite easy, a pair of robust running shoes for hiking and running, Chucks for laid-back city days and going-out at night, and flip flops for, well, everywhere you might need flip flops. So apart from alpine hikes and fancy dress code clubs I should be covered.

The curse of the gadget addict

The easier the packing is with cloths, the more difficult it is for me as gadget addict. I want to have my digital camera, ideally with 1-2 lenses for different occasions, my laptop for photo editing and writing, my phone for staying connected, my tablet for streaming or reading pdfs, my kindle for reading ebooks, a power bank for when there’s no outlet in the dorm, an external disk for backing up photos, my gopro for diving, spare batteries for long days of shooting and filming, and charger(s) to recharge all those things. As my new laptop uses USB-C PD for charging I opted for a charger that has 4 regular USB and 1 USB-C port with PD (20V instead of 5V) capabilities. So I can charge all important things at once using just one outlet. Especially useful in hostels where outlets are rare and always occupied.

So I’m ready to go. With a mixture of anticipation, excitement, curiosity and a dash anxiety I’ll start my big trip tonight. From Frankfurt via Nuremberg and Munich to Tokyo. Godspeed!