Some nights in Bangkok

Even though hangover 2 is on Netflix I did not watch it to prepare for Bangkok. Actually, I did not prepare at all. I planned to read up on Bangkok in Hong Kong or the flight over. But Hong Kong was such a rush with so any things to do and so many great people to do things with that I never found the time to read.

On the 20th I had to get up at 4;45 to catch a cab with Alex to the airport. Unfortunately the first bus runs at 5:15 and takes at least 45, but more like 60+ minutes to the airport. And my luggage drop off closed at 6:55, Alex even earlier at 6:35. The night before I had Korean food, dumplings, and Macanese food, which proved to be not the perfect combination, especially combined with less than 4 hours of sleep. So I went nauseous and tired to the airport. The line at the luggage drop of was huge, Hong Kong airlines was not the most efficient company in processing check ins and drop offs. So I waited for more than 45 minutes, until rather exactly 6:55, to drop my backpack. The gate was one of the very last gates with boarding starting at 7:25 and the time from check in to the gate being 20-30 min including a train ride. So I hurried through security, passport control, and train ride to arrive just in time for boarding. However, in my condition I was not in the mood for reading up on Bangkok, so I decided to wing it and hoped that Corinna knows what to do.

I arrived on time in Bangkok, bought my SIM card, and headed towards our airbnb guest house. I met Corinna at the Skytrain station and we started to look for our guesthouse. We walked straight to the street that was shown on google maps and ended up in the middle of a little side street full of street food. Unable to find the correct house we asked one of the ladies who sold food, but she wasn’t able to help us. But she pointed us into the opposite direction, as the street is quite long and continues on the other side of the highway. We walked back and then finally found the guest house, so we dropped backpacks and went back to the other end of the street to get some food. My first Thai food was fried rice with pork and basil, which was perfectly spicy even though I ordered only little spicy. We continued walking along the small streets to discover more street food and small restaurants, all filled with local people who were on their lunch brake. As far as I could see, we were the only westerners around.

In the evening we had our guided tour “hidden gems of Bangkok”, which started strictly speaking not in Bangkok but on the other side of the river. We walked to a small temple where we took a longtail boat to one of the more distant temples from the tourist areas. The temple was almost empty, and we were able to take a look into the main chamber just as the monks came in for their evening prayer. Next we went to one of the richest temples in Bangkok, Wat Pak Nam, as it is the temple of the founder of a popular meditation technique. The first floors show various gifts the temple received over the year, from statues to watches or other valuable trinkets. On the top floor a neon green shrine with alien-like lighting was the centerpiece. The green glow was really fascinating. It completely lacked the glorious, golden presence of the normal shrines, with their flowers and presents. It really felt like out of this world.

We crossed the river and went to the market area. First stop was the food market, which was about to close down. We went to a small food stand where the lady was already waiting for us. Here we were supposed to try one of the most famous and most delicious Thai deserts, mango with sticky rice. Our guide explained that it is very important to have the right kind of mango. In Thailand there are dozens of mango variants, all used for different purposes. The perfect mango for eating with sticky rice is Nam Dok Mai, a completely yellow mango with a very sweet taste and very tender structure. It is a rather expensive mango, why many cheap places show them in their display but use cheap, sour, and stringy mango. The sticky rice tastes quite similar to milk rice, but with coconut milk. The combination of the rice with the coconut milk and the sweet and tender mango is most delicious. I was really surprised, since I am not the sweet tooth, how much I liked this combination. Mango that really tastes sweet but fresh, with the mild and creamy coconut rice was the first Thai food experience in this trip that really changes my view on food.

Next stop was the flower market. What I expected to see were a vast variety of colorful flowers in buckets, where the florists make the fanciest bouquets for you and the air is filled with all the exotic scents I can and cannot imagine. But it was completely different. The stands offered plastic bags filled with the ever same flower heads, mostly orange, some yellow, and a few other flower parts. It was less of a flower and more of flower parts market. A little bit like when you go to the animal market and expect to see various animals to buy but in the end it’s a butcher market and all they sell is meat.
The flower parts are not used for home decoration or as gifts, but for making presents to temples and Buddha. You create flower chains in the ever same way with the ever same flowers to donate them to Buddha for good luck. Our guide bought us each a flower chain to donate to Buddha later, so we will have good fortune.

The second to last stop on our tour was the Wat Pho temple, famous for it’s over 30m long reclining Buddha. Most people think that the reclining Buddha is resting or sleeping but in fact it’s the dying Buddha. All Buddha statues show his life, from young years until his death. The reclining Buddha is the one who is lying on his death bed. By now it was already dark and around 8 pm, the main entrance of the temple was closed. But the side entrances are still open during the night, and while you cannot visit the inside of the temple hall with the Buddha statue, you can visit the temple grounds. And compared to daytime, you can visit them for free instead of 100 Baht (2.50 EUR) fee, and without the masses of tourists. The temple ground were almost completely empty. Just a few stray cats and a bike tour group were wandering between the pagodas and statues.

The last stop for the day, or by then night, was a small pad thai stand behind Wat Pho. The owner cleaned a small plastic lawn table and lawn chairs for us to sit, then started preparing pad thai for all of us. Our guide used the time to give us some background information on this famous Thai dish. It is actually not as old as you would think. Pad Thai was invented in the last century, as the king decided that all the noodle dishes were only Chinese dishes, and Thailand needed it’s own signature noodle dish. So he told to chefs that they should invent a signature dish for Thailand with noodles. And they invented Pad Thai. Essentially, it’s fried flat noodles with vegetables and sprouts, then some shrimp and fish sauce, spicy chilies of course, lime slices, and crumbled peanuts. All very representative of Thai and an ever present delicious treat from 40 Baht on the street to several hundred in fancy restaurants. The version we got here was the basic street food variant, with dried shrimp but fresh vegetables. A really tasty, spicy and fresh snack after 5 hours touring through the city.

To stretch our legs we went to a nearby rooftop bar with view across the river. The view was really nice, but the prices were adjusted accordingly. While a small beer is usually around 70-80 Baht (2 EUR) in normal bars they charged a steep 260 Baht (almost 7 EUR) for 0.33l. Maybe this was also one of the reasons why the bar was completely empty except for one other table. Looking down to the river we saw at least 10 or 15 river cruise boats all having their dinner and party events while going up and down the stream. Some boats with DJ, some with live bands, and some with only dining and no party. But the same for all was the lack of party mood. Music was playing loudly, but nobody was dancing, and the boats were half full at best. The supply largely exceeds the demand, which to me makes the cruises even less interesting and further decreases the demand. Half the boats would make it a lot more fun, I think.

After drinks we had to answer the question on how to get back to the guesthouse. We were in the old town, more than 7 km away from our place. There is no metro in the area, boats stop shortly after sundown, and buses are not really an option as they are unreliable, routes are hard to understand, and changing buses just adds more time because you never know when the next bus comes. We decided to start walking and see how far we get before we were bored and hail a taxi or tuk tuk.
The biggest surprise during the walk from the old town to Silom was that the streets of Bangkok, even though it was hardly after 10 pm, were empty. Tuk tuks, taxis, or motorbikes were still roaming the streets, but on foot we saw only very few people. No more food stands, no more shops. Then you turn around the corner and there are a few stalls, right after the streets are empty again. Then we entered china town. The first few blocks were still empty, then out of nowhere a night market started and from one block to the next the streets were brightly lit and so many people walking on each side that the cars could hardly use the outer lanes.

The Chinese night market was mainly food, and with a repeating pattern of shark fin soup, which is good for your health according to Chinese medicine, or birds nest soup, where swallow nests are cooked to extract the swallows saliva, which is good for your skin. Again according to Chinese medicine and bogus according to scientific medicine. In between the shark fin and birds nest stalls were all the usual suspects of street foods, and the night life was as I expected it from Bangkok. People sitting, standing, eating, chatting, and browsing along the stalls. But within 1-2 blocks, the busy life found to an end, and we walked the remaining 3km alone in the streets. Bangkok, the city that soundly sleeps.

Taroko letdown

The Taroko gorge is one of the highest rated sights in Taiwan. A several km long gorge, several hundred meters in depth and only a few dozen meters wide at some points, with cliffs of colored marble. Many people recommended it as must see, and hiking there was supposed to be an amazing experience. I went there today. Man, was I underwhelmed.

The closed rope suspension bridge in Taroko national park.

Last night I talked with the girls from the hostel to get information on bus schedules and hiking trails. All trails that appealed to me on the outdated website were closed or had no information besides the name. To take some of the hiking trails you have to apply for a permit several days in advance, but since I did not find any useful information on the trails, their duration, elevation, or difficulty online I could not decide for which of the dozen trails I should apply. And the publicly open trails looked sufficiently interesting for 1 day hike. So I took the bus from Hualien to Taroko and made the first stop as Shakadang trail, a trail along a river with 4km length (one way) and an estimated walking time of 3-4 hours. Based on that I expected a somewhat challenging trail with steps or steep slopes, narrow sections, and some feeling of achievement when you reach the top. However, the trail was a wide footpath, flat, and after almost 1.5hr, less than half of the estimated time, I have been back at the start. The view was nice, just by far not what I expected. So I did the next trail, a short 900m trail with a rope suspension bridge over a dried out creek. I started off full of enthusiasm, as I love crossing suspension bridges, but after a hundred meters I reached the bridge. But it was closed. An alternative bridge next to it was open, so after a few minutes I reached the end of the trail, a side entrance to the car tunnel that lead back to Shakadang trail.

Fun with selfies at the Xiangde temple.

I hopped on the next bus and went to the end of the Taroko bus section: Tianxiang. There a temple is overlooking the gorge. I went up to the temple and as most tour buses don’t go there, because you cannot go up by bus and have to walk, it was nice and quiet to look along the gorge. With the next bus I went back down to the swallow grotto, a trail that goes along the gorge with great views up and down the gorge. The trail was the old road along the gorge, quite narrow for cars, with a dedicated sideway for pedestrians. In theory a nice walk (but not a hike) if there weren’t dozens of tour buses going down the street all the time to bring the tourists to the cafe in the middle of the trail. So you walk down an old road, with a bus passing every 30 seconds and blasting you with noise and fumes. I walked the roughly 1.5km to the end of the road, and since there was no better way to get to the bus stop I returned the same way. Luckily the next bus was coming 5 minutes later and brought me to my next (and last) stop for the day, the eternal spring shrine. A temple next to a spring set into the mountains. When I left the bus I could see the temple already at the other side of the gorge. It looked really enchanting and I started to walk along the street toward the trail that leads to the shrine. Just 100m later there was a small passage I had to pass through. But it was blocked. The trail to the eternal spring shrine is closed. So I hopped on the next bus and returned to Hualien.

Long story short, Taroko is nice, but needs expectation management. If you like hiking that is at least somewhat challenging then the only viable options are the permit-only trails. But there is almost no information available online. Maybe just apply for all of them and check which ones you do once you in Hualien. Then you should have fin in Taroko.

Thumbs up

The last days I shared a room with a French guy in Puli. He told me that he was trying to hike back from a museum 7-8 km away from town, but for almost an hour no one stopped to give him a lift. That really confused me. My experience in Puli was completely different. During the 2 1/2 days where I was hiking around town I was offered 5 times a lift without even asking. From teachers who were eager to practice some English, to an old man in a pick-up who didn’t speak any English but was just happy to meet a foreigner, to high school or college girls on bikes who tried to convince me to ride on their Gepäckträger for laughs and giggles. Still, must of the time I declined the offer as I enjoyed to walk.

I don’t know what the French guy did wrong or what I subconsciously did different. But this really reminded me of Argentina 12 years ago, where people were just eager to talk to foreigners, learn why they come to their country, and send them home with good memories. It was heartwarming to see that this openness and friendliness still exists.

Hiking in Taipei

This morning was the first sunny day in Taiwan so I went for a hike up elephant mountain. From there you’re supposed to have a great view of Taipei with its landmark Taipei 101 in the foreground. After a short but steep 20 min ascent I reached the viewing platform. The view was really great and Taipei 101 with its bamboo shape is really a sight.

After taking a few pictures I thought what to do next. 20 minutes is hardly a hike. So I decided to follow the trail further into the forest to see where it leads me. Fewer and fewer people were in the trail the further I got. At one point an elderly, half naked man overtook me. “Where you go?” he asked. As I had no plan I honestly replied that I don’t know and just see where I end up. “Very nice route, good view, up that mountain.” he responded and signalled climbing up with a rope. I thanked him and he went on.

I followed the nicely made trail, paved with stones all the way, until I came to a crossing. The well prepared trail continued on the right, straight ahead small, old, and worn out stairs led steeply up the hill, and to the left a footpath went down hill. At the crossing the old, half naked man was waiting. “this path, very nice view.” he said to me and pointed up the steep stairs. Then he continued on the paved trail with his morning hike.

I followed the old mans recommendation and crawled up the mountain. First it were only steep steps, but they soon turned into a climb with safety ropes and slippery rocks. With both hands I held on to the ropes when climbing the mountain. After a few minutes I reached the viewing spot. And it was worth the climb. No other person around. Just me and the mountain. And in the distance you could hear the singing monks in a temple. Or so I thought.

After a couple of minutes enjoying the private view I continued the ascent. The vertical climb had been replaced by steep steps, and I followed them towards the origin of the singing monks. With every step they got a bit louder. Behind a few trees then the surprise; my climbing path rejoined the wide hiking trail, which must have meandered up the mountain on the other side. I took a left and continued on the trail. After a couple of meters was a resting place where a few elderly people were doing yoga. The monks singing in the distance was their boom box.

It seemed that Sunday it’s mandatory for seniors to go hiking. For most of the time I was the only one under 60 on the trail. And the seniors were really open and friendly. Like the one who recommended the viewing spot, or a lot of other elderly who stopped, asked where I come from, and welcomed me to Taiwan. All in English. At one point I stood in front of a map to see which route to take. A man came to me, asked in very fluent English where I want to go, and then explained which route to take. I’m impressed by the level if English proficiency across all age levels in Taipei.

Now I’m heading towards the central mountains. Let’s see if I’ll be as heartily welcomed there as in Taipei.

Welcome to tomorrow. Welcome to Taiwan.

I just arrived in Taiwan and already had the first very pleasant surprises. First, the wifi was open and free of registrations. OK, not the best idea from a security point of view, but at least without the hassle of registering and the forced forwards to accept the terms of service. Then you don’t need to fill out these random sheets of paper with name, hotel address and intent of visit. You just scan a qr code, fill out the info online and are good to go. And lastly, when you exit the security area there are booths of all telecommunications provider with prepaid data sims for all stays, from 3 till 30 days, all with unlimited data. I got 10 days for 14 EUR, and the girl behind the counter had the sim card changed, the German android configured and Internet up and running before I had my credit card ready. And even tethering (hotspot) is allowed. This is how it is supposed to work. This is tomorrow.

Japan travel cost

If you talk about going to Japan one of the first reactions you get is “oh, Japan is expensive”. After 3 weeks I can tell you the perfect answer for this is the German “Jein”. So yes and no. I found that the variance is a lot bigger than in Germany, or at least you don’t see directly if the place is cheap or expensive. The best example for me are beer and coffee. In Germany, for a cup of regular black coffee you pay between 2 and 3 EUR. In Japan, I found that coffee is more between 250 and 600 Yen. 250 Yen are about 2 EUR, 600 are almost 5 EUR. But from the outside the coffee shops look the same. So if you travel on a budget it’s extra important to check the menu before ordering.

Since a lot of my friends said they are interested in visiting Japan as well I decided to give an overview what the cost of travel in Japan is, based on my travel style.

Accommodation

This is maybe the biggest cost factor in the budget planning. Space is expensive in Japan, so if you want a spacious hotel room with private bath and things like that, you better start saving. On the other side, simple hostel dorm beds can be surprisingly cheap. In most hostels the dorms are like capsule hotels. Each guest get’s his or her own little capsule with lamp and power outlet, enough headroom for sitting up, and a curtain to close for privacy. Capsule hotels work in the same way. Towels, shampoo and shower gel is usually included as well. The price was mostly 2000-3000 Yen per night, so around 15-23 EUR, especially if you book ahead. Double or twin rooms in hostels or guest houses were significantly more expensive already. Here, prices were 3500-4500 Yen per person. Still not including a private bath.

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.

Traditional housing, a ryokan or temple stay, is always more expensive, but totally worth for a night or two. Having to set up your futon to sleep, from a European perspective, on the floor, is more fun than it sounds. Combined with the paper thin walls and sliding doors this is a very particular experience you shouldn’t miss. So plan some extra money for that.

Food

Eating can be surprisingly cheap in Japan. Having a bowl of ramen or Japanese curry easily feeds you and costs in the simple eateries around 600-800 Yen. Bakeries offer great snacks for a few hundred Yen, and many locals go to the food courts inside the shopping centers, where you get really good food for under 1000 Yen. Eating in a regular Izakaya, traditional Japanese restaurant/pub, will cost you 1200-1500 Yen for a set meal. Sushi in conveyor belt restaurants starts at 100 Yen a plate and goes up to several hundred for special plates. But for fine dining with Japanese beef, seafood, chef-selected sashimi and things like that you look at several thousand Yen per person. Not including drinks.

A really good alternative if you want to have sashimi but do not want to spend much money in a fancy restaurant, then go to the local fish market. There for a couple of hundred Yen you get fresh sashimi to eat right away. It doesn’t get fresher than this.

Simple set menu in an izakaya which includes the main, here the soup, plus rice and several small side dishes, for around 1200-1500 Yen.

For me, I usually grab something from a bakery or a simple eatery for breakfast, have some Ramen or small dish in the early afternoon, and something typical and local for dinner. This way I spend 2000-4000 Yen (15-30 EUR) a day on food, which is quite affordable for eating out all the time.

Drinks

What I really like about Japan is that in every place you go, you get water for free. Tap water is potable and every place where you can eat you get a glass of water even before you order. So it that’s all you need, drinking is free. A small bottle of water (0.5l) cost 100-120 Yen (1 EUR), big ones (2l) have the same price, just not as convenient when walking through the city.

Coffee has a wider price range, starting from 100 Yen at McDonalds to 500 or 600 Yen a cup at non-chain cafés. Black drip coffee, to be precise. Cappucino or latte macchiato are usually 100-200 Yen extra. Starbucks, as a reference, charges 300 Yen for a small cup of black coffee. So if you’re looking for something black and strong to wake you up in the morning, McDonalds is a safe choice. For a rest in the afternoon to watch the people passing by, chains like Starbucks or Tully’s usually have the best spots with great views from the upper floors.

Craft beer tasting set. Nice selection, but often too far away from what typical beer tastes like.

Craft beers are ubiquitous in Tokyo, either concentrated in craft beer bars or 1-2 on the menu of the more modern restaurants. But they are quite pricey. Around 1000 Yen for a small (350-400ml) glass of beer is normal, even more sometimes. Regular draft beer starts mostly at 600, if you get lucky it’s 500 and I even found places where they only charge 400. But the cheaper local alternative is shochu longdrinks, which are 400-500 a glass. A can of beer in the supermarket starts around 130 Yen.

Entertainment

A lot of the entertainment is free in Japan. Most temples were free, or you only had to pay to see the inner sanctum or special exhibitions. Also the viewing platform of the metropolitan government building in Tokyo is free. Other sights charge around 500-1000 Yen, but since I don’t like museums anyways I skipped most of these. Games in the slot machine halls cost 100 Yen, and you should really try one or two when you’re in Japan.

Another very special attraction are the themed cafés. Cat café, maid café, owl café, robot café. All very particular and sometimes entertaining. Usually you pay a fee per hour or half hour you spend in there plus one drink or meal you have to order. Half hour or hour, whatever their smallest unit is, is usually enough to get a good impression. Prices are around 1000 Yen for the smallest unit, cat cafés are a bit cheaper, but then sitting in a room with cats is not that special anyways.

However the main attractions, like the shimmering lights of the big city, the buzzing life, the exotic markets, and the special flair are free anyways.

Transportation

For long range transportation on the main Island nothing beats the Shinkansen. So fast, so punctual, so comfortable. It is as if you are flying on rails. But also quite expensive. Local transportation is, from a German point of view, difficult. Several providers offer local transportation, and with a ticket for e.g. the Tokyo Metro you cannot take the local trains or buses. So the easiest solution is to buy a contact-less payment card from one of the providers, for example pasmo card from Tokyo Metro, and charge money on it. You check in when you enter the station and check out when you leave the station, the price is then calculated and subtracted from your card. If your funds are not sufficient, you cannot leave and have to recharge. Pretty easy and convenient, as these cards work in almost all local transportation around the main island, and can also be used to pay in convenient stores or coffee shops.

Since I prefer to walk all distances below 2-3 subway stops I usually don’t spend much on local transportation. 2-3 subway rides a day is usually enough. The rides are around 300 Yen, more for longer distances. Google maps is quite a good source for connections and prices in Japan. I’d say about 1000 Yen/day is a good estimation.

One very attractive offer is the Japan Rail Pass, which is only available for tourists and allows the use of almost all Japan Rail (JR) local trains and all but the fastest Shinkansen and a few other exceptions. The rail pass costs about 30,000 Yen for 1 week, but if you want to make trips from Japan to Hiroshima, Osaka, Kyoto, Fukuoka and other big cities within one week, then it really pays of. You can even use it within the cities for the local trains to save some extra Yen.

Cheaper than train but also slower are the highway buses. So they are a feasible option to save some money or to get to places where no shinkansen station is around, for example to mount Fuji. 1-2 of such trips will set you back another 10000 Yen, but if you travel longer than 7-10 days this might be really worth it.

Summary

To sum up what kind of budget you should plan if you want to visit Japan at a basic yet enjoyable level:

Daily budget
Accommodation 3000 Yen
Food 2000 Yen
Drinks 3000 Yen (1000 if you don’t drink alcohol, 200 if you drink only water)
Entertainment 1000 Yen
Transportation 1000 Yen

Plus per trip:
Japan Rail Pass 30000 Yen
Temple stay or Ryokan 10000 Yen
Kobe steak dinner 10000 Yen
Transportation 1-2 Daytrips 10000 Yen

So roughly 10k Yen per day, which are about 75 EUR, plus 60k (450 EUR) for one-time things. Not cheap, but still more affordable than first I thought.

German-themed evening

It’s funny how sometimes a theme creates itself over the course of a night. Last night I decided to try the famous Ishigaki beef. It is made from Japanese Wagyu cattle, the same as used for Kobe beef, but is only raised on this island. Within Japan it is supposed to have the same fame and quality as Kobe beef. So I walked though the center to find a restaurant that caters to solo travelers, has a nice selection, and is decently priced. After 15-20 min and a failed attempt to get a table for 1 I found “Native Deli”, which had an offer of chuck steak with soup and rice for 4000 Yen. I was heartily greeted and sat down at the counter. The chef didn’t look Japanese, but he sounded fluent in Japanese and spoke English with an accent.

While I waited for my steak I heard the owner talking to a couple a few seats down. He explained that he was from Germany but lived here for quite a while. Shortly after my steak came and it was perfectly medium, smooth as butter, and really delicious. Very tender, juicy, and a very mild beef flavor. Getting beef of this kind of marbling is rare and extremely expensive.

After I ate I started to chat a little bit with the owner. His name is Axel, he moved to Japan 46 years ago when he was 20 and lived in several parts of the country ever since. Now, at 66, he decided to move to Ishigaki to enjoy the more calm and relaxed lifestyle of a small island. So if you’re in Ishigaki and crave for some nice steak, I can really recommend his place.

On my way back to the hostel I passed a typical, small Japanese restaurant which had a small sign next to the door: “goat noodles”. I heard that the Ishigaki goat noodles are famous and very typical for the island. So I went in to have a small bowl of goat noodles before getting back. The owner, Toni, rushed out of his back rooms when I entered. A small, elderly guy with sweat pants, a towel around his head, and what looked liked a walmart west from the 80’s with his name on it. He greeted me and asked me where I’m from. As I replied Germany he became even more excited and told me he wants to show me German television. At least that’s what I got from his mixture of 80% Japanese with 20% English words in-between. So he climbed on a chair and turned his old TV on that was on a shelf below the ceiling. And a German documentary about a cruise ship started. He pointed on himself and then the TV, so I guessed he is on that show.

I got my soup and watched that typical German scripted documentary about the cruise ship coming to Ishigaki. They showed the intern on the boat, the life of passengers and crew, and then how they spend their one day in the city. Some went to the beach, some went to crafts classes, some went to neighboring islands, and three guys went to Tony’s restaurant for his famous goat soup. He showed me proudly the information material he got from the TV crew and his guestbook of foreign visitors. After his part he showed me a second show, this time a US show, where a biker who is cycling across Japan comes to his place to eat the goat soup. During the 30 minutes I sat there and watched his shows, he told all the Japanese customers who came in, ate, and left in the meantime that I am a German – that much Japanese I understand – and that he is showing me his show. The noodles were great, not too goat-y yet still with it’s distinctive flavor, and the free entertainment really time well spent. A very German-themed evening.

 

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.