A Visit to Oslo

After the usual family visit following Wacken, it has become a bit of a tradition to do something extra. Last year I’ve been to Iceland, the year before that to Scotland and Ireland, etc. This time the way led to Norway, the last Scandinavian country I had not been to yet. The plan was to have two days in Oslo, then to go to the very north eastern end, to Kirkenes, a mere seven kilometers from the Russian border, and board a ship to do a Norwegian fjord cruise.


Oslo is a beautiful, rich and expensive city that is well worth a visit. It’s got everything to offer from castles over palaces to modern architecture, good museums and fancy shopping malls. One highlight is surely the opera building. You can walk onto its roof from the outside. A very cool and interesting concept and a must when you go to Oslo.

The Akershus Fortress is a nice small castle with not too many tourists (at least not when I went there). You can visit the royal palace during the summer months, but only with guided tours with a limited number of tickets and my “go and see what’s there” travel style without planning much in advance, did not help here, since all tickets for the days of my Oslo stay were booked out.


I did a two hour fjord cruise too, which brings you past exquisite summer residences and permanent residences on the small islands everywhere in the fjord and past glitzy yachts as well.

I went to two museums, the Viking ship museum, which has, as the name says three 1000 year old Viking ships to offer. You can see the ships as well as other Viking times items like sledges, tools and so forth.


Vikings are “popular” nowadays and you have to compete for viewing space with countless other tourists. I also visited the Fram museum, named after the ships Fram 1 and Fram 2, which were polar exploration vessels, led by Roald Amundson, the man who reached the South Pole first. The north and South Pole missions are equally treated, and enough space is given to the other explorers who tried to reach the same goals. The main attraction of the Fram museum are two preserved ships, the Fram 2 and the Gjoa. You can also board both vessels and explore them first hand.


Oslo is a lovely city and it would have been nice to stay a day or two longer, but the way led further north 😉

Iceland Report – Part 2

Golden Circle and Lava Tunnel
I spent my first day in Iceland exploring Reykjavik, but it’s a small city of maybe 200,000 people and there is not that super much going on there or to do. They have a few museums, but it doesn’t feel like museum time when you go to a country like Iceland. You do tours tours to the nature sites. Although, during that first day in Reykjavik, I stumbled across a comedy show of an hour entitled “How to become Icelandic in 60 minutes”. That sounded intriguing, so I bought a ticket for it and it was fun indeed. An Icelandic comedian tells you (in English) some fun things about being or becoming Icelandic with nice sarcastic spice and it was well worth the entrance fee. But back to tours: The most common tour is the so called “golden circle” tour to the famous geyser and the Gulfoss waterfall and the Thingvellir national park. 
I did that tour on a small bus, and we started with a small crater, then a small waterfall.


The first official highlight was the geyser. The original geyser has gone dry by the way, but next to it is its little brother that spouts every few minutes. The big geyser spouted only every half hour, but was admittedly bigger. There were more people than spouts present, of course.


While we left Reykjavik in rain, we had sunshine since the small waterfall. In the sun, without wind, it actually got nicely warm, the only time it was warm in Iceland 😉 The geyser is funny but with too many tourists not a breathtaking spot. I found the Gulfoss waterfall much more impressive. Now that’s a decent waterfall, nice and big and gushy 😉

Despite all the people there that’s a sight worth seeing and the people’s noise gets drowned out by the waterfall anyway. In the distance you could spot the Langjokuell glacier, a magnificent sight in the sun and I would have loved to get closer, but that was not on the itinerary.

Next up was a short visit to some Icelandic horses, which were for a very long time the only form of transport for the locals. A farmer put “horse candy” for sale, some dry food stuff and I fed this lovely guy here and he nibbled his nuggets skillfully from my hand 😉

The last stop was the Thingvellir national park, a fantastic valley with yet another waterfall, a rift where the island is breaking apart and a magnificent lake. A beautiful day well spent with some breathtaking nature sites. 

I had wanted to do “nothing” between the prearranged long bus tours, but there is a bit too much of nothing in Reykjavic and during my first day while exploring the town, I decided to book some additional smaller afternoon tours for my days “off” and I’m glad I did so. I would have gotten bored without those activities. The first smaller trip was thus a cave tour through a lava tunnel just 45 min away from Reykjavik. That day was the weather-wise worst day of my stay. It rained the entire time, but who cares for that in a cave. It wasn’t the most impressive cave I have seen in my life, but the guide was hilarious (he had lots of funny comments and a very dry humor) and the cave was wide and not scary and easy to climb. It was a great short trip and another day well spent.

Amami Oshima Report – Part 3 – Fishing Villages and Habu Snakes

On the first of January I made a bicycle day again and had a lovely time on a very fine day riding around and going critter photo hunting on the beach. I came across numerous starfish and sea urchins. The full moon for New Year also gave a wonderful display over the ocean that night.


On the second of January I thought I had to appreciate the full size of the island and rode with two busses (one had to change busses in Naze) to the southern end of Amami, a town called Koniya. The entire ride took two hours one way. One guy from the hotel said, oh in the past it took even longer to get there because there were no tunnels yet. Indeed there are several new looking tunnels close to the southern end, the longest of them 4200 meters. In nearly every corner that has decent access to the sea there is a fishing village comprised out of twenty, thirty houses, even inland there are several villages like that mostly to farm citrus fruits. Koniya turned out to be a super sleepy place, all very Showa-era. The beaches and landscape are utterly beautiful but the towns are fishing and not tourist towns, since they are too far away from the airport and in the north of the island. Closer to the airport are as beautiful beaches and landscape as well. It was interesting to see the difference of the tourist side of the island, the north, and the working side of the island far from the airport. From my island study point of view (looking for the perfect island to retire to) it was an important trip to make this bus ride to the south.

On my last half day before flying back to Tokyo and Yokohama I borrowed a bicycle again and discovered also a sleepy fishing village in the north before spending some more time at my favorite beach on the Pacific side.
One of the hotel staff was bringing me by free shuttle to the airport and we were chatting during the ride. He was in his thirties, was born on Amami but lived in Tokyo for ten years and now he returned. Somehow the conversation came back to the Habu snakes. He said that if you catch a Habu and bring it to a pharmacy they give you 3000 yen for it. Especially kids are making a sport out of Habu hunting/catching. In the past you got 5000 yen for one snake, but that resulted in too many caught snakes, so they reduced the price money! When he was a kid a Habu entered the bed room of his parents and his dad killed the beast! Kya! Last but not least he personally knows only of one guy who got his leg amputated because a snake bit him and that was an elderly man back when he was a kid. I still don’t know how to kill a Habu 😉 Personal Habu sightings during my trip? Zero 😉


It was a lovely trip to Amami and the next target is already fixed too, Tokonoshima south of Amami, between Amami and Okinawa, which is much smaller and apparently more of a “real” tourist island. Let’s see when I’ll be able to get there, not for golden week this year, that’s already booked for a bigger and more exotic island, New Caledonia 😉

Amami Oshima Report – Part 2 – Ferns and Habu Snakes

On the second day the weather was unfortunately not so nice with rain showers and strong winds which made it colder, so I was glad I booked a little tour to the so called Kinsakubara Forrest, a “virgin” Forrest that has not been once laid to waste by human hands or so they say. The forest is in the middle of the island and you are not allowed to go there by rent-a-car but are supposed to book a tour with a guide. The tour was three hours long and in the afternoon, so I rode by bus to the main town of Amami called Naze (a Japanese play on words, with different kanji (Chinese characters) it means “why” in Japanese) to explore the town in the morning. The date happened to be the 31st of December. Most shops in Naze had already closed for the New Year holidays but even if they were open the main shopping arcade of Naze made a rather sad and quiet impression on me. I found a cafe/restaurant which was very much what I like to call the Showa flair. The Showa era ended in 1989 and the cafe as well as the whole rest of the town made a seventies impression on me.

Then on to the tour which titled itself an eco tour. The guide was a bit odd, a guy in his fifties who kept on telling us how dangerous habu snakes are and went a bit ballistic on me when I asked, “come on are there really so many around here?” He snapped it was not a question of how many, I wouldn’t ask if there were bears around how many there are either (uh? I would). He pointed out sticks in bamboo holders by the side of the roads every few meters which are for killing habu and snapped, you also don’t ask how to kill the habus, you just kill them. Weird dude! I definitely need to know how I’m supposed to kill a snake with nothing but a stick! Strange guy, maybe he was tired of the question or of naive foreigners? Nevertheless, after windy and lonely mountain roads, we arrived at the rain Forrest and took a walk down a fairly wide and well maintained path (so much for the “virgin” forest. The main attraction of the area are giant fern trees which evoke a bit of a Jurassic Park flair and are very pretty indeed.



It started raining heavily during the walk and I was glad for an umbrella borrowed from the hotel in anticipation of more rain. All in all it was a very nice trip though despite rain and a weird guide.
Another story about the snakes. When the island was returned to Japan after WW2 in the 1950ties, they made a massive settling drive and tried to do something about the snakes (their bite is highly poisonous, that’s why there is so much fuss) and they introduced mongoose for a while. Trouble is those eat everything, not only snakes, but also the local black rabbit. The guide guy said that at its peak there were probably ten thousand mongoose on the island, then they started killing them again and are now trying to get rid of them entirely. The guide said ten years ago one could be lucky to see one rabbit per night tour (they are night active animals) now luckily there are some twenty rabbits again per tour. I find it funny he pulled out all those numbers but none about the habu 😉

From Russia with Love – Part 1

To post a day by day report on my quite epic trip to Russia would fill too many “blog weeks” and would also be too much detail, therefore I’ll try a summary under the following headlines:

1) Why Russia? And how to get there
2) Everyday life in Russia
3) History before World War II
4) World War II …
5) Ballet and Heavy Metal

Part 1: Why Russia? And how to get there
Most the time I use Japan’s golden week for island explorations, but this year was different.
Why did I go to Russia? Two reasons. When I was a kid, the Soviet Union was a very scary thing and not for the life of me could I imagine to be traveling there one day. Then came Gorbachev and he is kind of a personal hero of mine, because it is my firm belief that if it was not for him, East and West Germany would not have been united. He initiated some kind of mild romanticism for Russia in me, and I even took some Russian courses at an adult education institute before I left my hometown to study in Munich. There was always that thought that one day, I want to stand on the Red Square in Moscow.
It took me a while to realize the promise, but now i did it.

I flew with Aeroflot from Tokyo direct to Moscow and my has it changed. Actually, I flew Aeroflot during my very first trip to Japan in 1993 (No, no, no, I’m not that old ;-)) via Moscow of course, because I was a poor student at the time and Aeroflot was the cheapest thing around.
It was a horror trip! LOL. I sat in an old Ilyushin machine, with half torn seats and nets above your head like in a bus instead of overhead compartments. The plane went from Munich to Moscow and then the same machine would go from Moscow to Tokyo. I got only one boarding pass for Munich to Moscow and when I wanted to re-board the plane to fly to Tokyo, the lady at the gate didn’t let me in. “You no boarding pass!” She sent me to some office at the other end of the airport and I ran there past scary army guys with kalashnikovs. At the service counter some fifty people were shouting at one lone unnerved lady wanting something from her. I managed to get through, in complete panic, since pressed for time, fearing the plane would leave without me, and begged her for a new boarding pass. She took my passport and the print out of the ticket and left the booth! I stone-cold panicked that moment, thinking I’d be stranded in Moscow without a passport. Heaven thank, the lady came back with some paper and my passport and told me that would allow me to get back onto the plane. I thanked her and ran back through the airport to my gate and hallelujah they let me on board just in time. The return journey through Moscow went smoother, but I was scared shitless on the flight back. Ever since I did not fly Aeroflot again.
Nowadays Aeroflot is a member of the Sky Team alliance for more than ten years already. They fly Airbus and Boeing and behave like any other airline.
When I checked in online the plane was packed. Hm, so many people are going to Moscow? So many people are bothering with the horrendous visa requirements?
A word on those later.

The miracle was solved when I got to Narita airport. The plane went to Paris via Moscow. It was packed due to start of golden week and tons of people going to Paris.
Arrived in Moscow, 80% of the travelers went to the international transfer lane and a few lone Russians and some Japanese and myself went to the “stay in Russia” lane 😉
The immigration officer lady was super friendly. I’ve never had such a friendly immigration officer anywhere. She thought I could speak Russian and when she found out I didn’t (I’ve forgotten everything from my half year Russian course as a teenager) she was going like, oh, but Regina is a Russian name. I told her it’s Latin and means queen and on the British coins it says Regina Elizabeth all the time. That was news to her ;-). Since everything was in order with my visa, she let me through, wishing me fun. What a difference to for example American immigration officers who treat you like a criminal. Next up was customs. Customs? Those were the least existing customs I’ve seen after an inter-continental flight. There were no customs, you just walks through and the customs officer is not even looking at you. There were four people in uniforms sitting in a corner chatting.
There was only one negative thing and that is that I’ve been screwed over big time at the money exchange. A bank lady in Japan told me that it’s better to bring USD to Russia rather than Yen. So I exchanged to USD at Narita and there was one single exchange booth before customs where I exchanged the dollar to Ruble for a horrible rate. After leaving customs, there were more booths with much better rates. Argh…

I suppose more research would have revealed that, but I’m not a big researcher when it comes to traveling. I book a flight, a hotel and see what happens. I researched more than usual for the Russia trip already anyway, for example how to get from Sheremetyevo airport to the city. Maybe more research would have revealed that you do not not not exchange money before customs, but after it. Anyway, lessons learned for if I should ever go back there. I am not in the habit of visiting a place twice without having a special reason, but I still have this fantasy of one day going by train to Vladivostok = doing the Trans Siberian railroad ride.
But at least I had researched that you do not use the “official” taxis if ever possible but better take the Aeroexpress train which goes to Bellorusia station. I even had bought a ticket online for that train and it’s well marked inside the airport and I could brush past all the “official” taxi guys.
But now a word about the visa. Even for a simple tourist visa you have to go through quite a painful process. The corner stones being your flight ticket, the longish and demanding visa application itself, for some countries, e.g. Germans, you have to have proof of a travel insurance and the worst thing is, you need to have an itinerary with your hotels on them on a special Russian format. If you go with a tour, I suppose they provide that for you, but I went on my own and what you do then is you email your hotel and ask them for the thing. My main hotel in Moscow directed me to a website with a link to the format and they let you list up to ten places and hotels. You then pay about 15 dollars for them to issue this paper. When you have all that you have to go in person to the Russian embassy and apply for the visa. In case of a tour you can let the travel agent do that for you, but if you go as a private person, you need to show up at the embassy twice, to apply and to get your passport back. When the story with the paper from the hotels came up, I was almost giving up on the adventure, but then pushed through with it.
So, and finally the second reason for why I wanted to go to Russia. I took the opportunity of my favorite metal band (Amorphis) playing in Moscow as an incentive to go 😉
I didn’t have a ticket yet though, since the homepage of the venue was all in Russian.
More about the gig and everything in between arrival and the gig (which was on the last day of my stay) in the next blog entries

US Travels – Part Two: Detroit, not really, and only a little bit of politics

The second leg of the business trip part of my US travels involved going to our office in a town called Plymouth, Michigan. Some 35 km away from Detroit.
The flight to Detroit from Cincinnati was short and uneventful. Since Detroit does not have the reputation to be the safest city in the world, I was a bit concerned and had ordered kind of a limo service to pick me up. My driver turned out to be a gentleman from Bangladesh who came to America 23 years ago. So much for immigrants. He complained that thanks to Uber business is slow for the pro drivers.

It was biting cold in Michigan but no snow yet. My hotel turned out to be a blessing, since it shared the same parking lot as a Trader Joe’s supermarket and a hot sandwich joint. So carless me was able to buy some food. Up a side road, the way lead to a Panera Bread shop and a Target supermarket. On my Sunday off, I dared to venture to the Target on foot and did some shopping with lunch at Panera Bread. Needless to say that I was the only person far and wide who was walking. There are no pedestrian pavements either and you have to walk on the street.
Target is not high class material when it comes to clothing, but you gotta take what you can get and I must admit that I enjoyed shopping for pants my size… an impossibility in Japan 😉 On the other hand, what a blessing that I can’t clothes shop in Japan. Saves a lot of money!

Other than that I entertained myself with writing and with watching CNN, seeing the travel ban disaster kick off live and shaking my head at the orange creature. I also had a Delta computer glitch worry me, not being keen on having any trouble going to Florida on Wednesday. Due to having no car I saw literally nothing of the area or Detroit. Too bad, but the gray and cold weather wasn’t inviting to any adventures either.
On Monday morning, a colleague picked me up via car and brought me to the office, which was modern and huge. In the night it started to snow, which added to my worries of transportation. On Tuesday morning we had two or three inches of snow and some traffic jams, but the Michigan folk is used to snow and my colleague picked me up on time.

After a final of three seminars on Japanese business culture with me as the trainer, I was released from duty and repacked my bag, stuffing the business clothes into the bottom and putting the band t-shirts on top, hehe.
The morning of traveling to Florida had the most sunshine I got in Kentucky and Michigan during the business part of the trip with the snow melting. The heavy metal gods were with me also concerning the Delta computer glitch. The flight to Fort Lauderdale left on time.
The flight was fully packed and had an over average amount of elderly people. All those pensioners living in the warmth. Wearing the band t-shirt I was also promptly identified by a metal head couple heading for the boat like me, hehe. Let the fun begin at this end of the world as we know it. At the moment I still feel fine. 😉

I don’t want to make an extra blog entry for that, so here is an addition. I thought my one night stay in Detroit on the way back to Japan would not be providing any stories to tell, but I was mistaken 😉 I arrived in Detroit again at around 4 in the afternoon in heavy rain (luckily not snow), went to a hotel close to the airport and checked in. At around 6 in the evening there was a bang and all power was down. Haha. I waited for a few moments but the power did not come back on. At the reception they said a transformer kinda exploded and half a block had no power and it would take two or three hours to repair it. Uhhh… what about dinner? I asked. Our shuttle can take you to a restaurant nearby for free, was the answer. Another guest overheard that and the two of us boarded the hotel’s shuttle bus and went to a nearby restaurant that had power. I had a greasy pizza there and stared fascinated at the three TV screens around. It was more relaxed than I thought to have dinner there as a woman alone.

I asked for a Ramazotti or another digestive to help with the greasy pizza, the waitress had never heard of it, the only thing she could give me was a grappa.
The other hotel guest tried to reach the hotel on the phone but nobody answered. He got fed up and called Uber and was so kind to take me along, explaining to me how Uber works in the meantime. Back in the hotel we still sat in the dark and the power only came back on at 21:00.
How much we rely on electricity is amazing and you only realize that if you don’t have it.

Another thing that struck me is that waiters and shuttle bus drivers called me Sweetie, Sweetheart, Darling, Honey…. so weird! I can’t say I like it. They ain’t calling guys like that, do they? I’d prefer a neutral Miss or even Ma’am, despite that sounding kinda old, but this Sweetie and Honey stuff is sending shudders down my spine, I ain’t your Sweetie, dudes!

Okinawa Main Island Report – Part 1

After visiting the Okinawa Prefecture islands of Miyako and Ishigaki, this time I went to the Okinawa main island.
I’ve actually been there once before, a shocking 22 years ago! OMG! I once went to Okinawa by ship from Kyushu while I was having my exchange student year in Fukuoka. That time I stayed in Naha, the main town, and did some bus tours around the island.

This time I chose something quieter further north (Naha is the southern area of the island) and booked a room on Sesoko island. A sleepy place separated from the main island by a canal of seawater and connected with it via a 700 meter bridge.
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The flight to Naha was of course fully packed, since it’s high traveling season in Japan over the new year holidays. Haneda airport was crowded but it was not as bad as I thought. I had asked the hotel a few weeks before departure how I’m supposed to get to them and they recommended to take a bus called Yanbaru Express. I checked in the internet for it and wow, it would take two hours by bus from Naha airport to the port of Motobu where I was supposed to get off and where the hotel people would pick me up.
Even from 22 years ago I remember that the traffic in Naha was a pain. Apparently that has not improved much, loads of stop and go, but once we were on the 53 km long highway of Okinawa, things went a bit quicker. Well, but then another reason for the two hour ride to Motobu was that we shall make a break in between at a highway rest area. Lol.
The driver stopped the bus for ten minutes at half his route, which is in total apparently two and a half hours long. Lol. They ain’t doing that in Tokyo 😉
Arrived in Motobu, my pick up already waited and drove me across the bridge to the hotel, mentioning that there is a supermarket on the main island side, but nothing on Sesoko island itself.
Arrived at the hotel I did not unpack yet, because I wanted to catch the last glimpses of daylight to go to that supermarket. The hotel was also self-catering equipped and had a shared kitchen and I intended to make use of that.

It was my first time in Okinawa during winter, so far I’ve been on Okinawa prefecture islands in spring and that one trip 22 years ago was in autumn. I had thought it would be warmer, frankly, but on the day of my arrival it was super windy and maybe 15 degrees Celsius. I got half blown off the bridge and the wind made the steel struts of the thing sing, which sounded damn spooky.
Well, I made it safely across the bridge both times and seriously put on the heating in my room after my return.

While I had boldly driven around Miyako island in a rental car and on Ishigaki island on a rental scooter, I had enough of such adventures (I hate driving motorized vehicles) and rented a bicycle with battery assist from the hotel.
On the first day, I explored Sesoko island itself, which is done quickly. There is nothing much on the island except for a tiny local supermarket, one traffic light, which is always green, and a beach. That beach though, one kilometer of white sand is very lovely.
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In the morning of the second day it was still cloudy, pretty windy and rather cold, but after noon it cleared up a little and the sun came out making it a bit warmer immediately. I rode across the bridge and checked out the port for future ferry trips and then rode towards one of the main attractions of Okinawa, a giant aquarium, which I wanted to visit a few days later. I didn’t quite ride there but stopped a kilometer before it at a souvenir and restaurant place for lunch and the obligatory souvenir shopping. Then, later on, all the way back to Sesoko island and once more to the beach in better weather than in the morning. Right in front of the beach is a giant failed resort hotel project.
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Someone wanted to build this monstrous thing here, but then probably ran out of funding and now there stands this giant modern ruin… I’d love to go exploring inside it, but unfortunately it was well fenced off 😉