Off to Rebun Island

The boat ride to Rebun the next day was smooth despite the not so good weather, since the boat was going west together with the wind and the waves that day. The ferry has space for a few hundred people but only a few dozen were on board. I spent the entire time on deck and was mostly alone there. One could see the base of Rishiri island, but I wonder on just how many summer days it’s clear enough to see the full 1721-meter glory of this dormant volcano.

The plan was to stay on Rebun for nine nights and on Rishiri for two nights. Simply because I found a reasonably priced hotel in Rebun but not in Rishiri. There are cheaper places like youth hostels or Japanese guest houses, but neither are my cup of tea, Japanese guest houses are too simple and shared accommodation in a youth hostel doesn’t seem like the best idea in COVID times either.
My hotel was kind enough to send a car for me to pick me up from the ferry and then we rode some twenty kilometers to the northern end of the island and the village of Funadomari.

Funadomari to the north and Kafuka in the south where the ferry terminal is are the main settlements, but there are plenty of fishing villages in between. The rough west coast of the island has no road or settlement for a stretch of about fifteen kilometers. To be more precise, there is no road between Cape Sukai and Motochi settlements. Funadomari has two supermarkets, one bakery and a kinda general store, that’s it! I went to the supermarket right after arriving at the hotel at around 17:00 because it closes at 18:00.
Praise be to my hotel, since they let me have a bicycle for free 🙂 I took said bicycle and promptly rode to Cape Sukoton during my first day, which is the most northern part of Japan, apart from the tiny uninhabited island off shore that you see in this picture.

On I went into the “wild” and pushed my bicycle up into the hills. I tried my first little hike up Cape Gorota but got interrupted by rain and gave up on it. It’s actually rather dangerous if the steep paths get slippery. I got my “revenge” a few days later when I managed to climb up there. The sights and cliffs are fantastic nonetheless and the whole island reminds of Iceland, Scotland, or New Zealand. It’s hard to believe you’re in Japan 🙂

Cambodia Visit – Phnom Penh

Cambodia, or rather Angkor Wat has been on my travel bucket list for a while already and I finally decided to go. The Southeast Asian country I’ve been to most often is Thailand (3 times so far). Phnom Penh, my first destination, reminded me a lot of Bangkok in 1999 when I visited there for the first time. There is no public transport system in Phnom Penh except for busses and downtown there are always traffic jams. Last time I was in Bangkok was 2012 and they had an elevated train and had much evolved. In Ho Chi Minh city they were building a subway when I was there in 2016, which should be finished by now? Not sure. In Phnom Penh though it’s all busses, cars, mostly fat pickups, tuktuks and scooters, although less scooters than in Saigon. There is endless chaos in Phnom Penh, though the worst chaos I’ve seen remains the traffic in India.
On my arrival day I took a walk around the block of my hotel and was a bit spooked. There was no real space for walking and no people on bicycles either. So how do I get around town without being able to walk? To hire a tuktuk seemed like a scary prospect, not so much concerning traffic safety but concerning personal safety, what happens if the tuktuk driver takes me somewhere strange and demands more money to take me back and so on and so forth. The possibilities are plenty. I wrecked my brain about those during the night.
The next morning I asked at the reception of the hotel how to get around and the lady immediately suggested, oh we have a tour for 30 USD and you can visit all the major places in one day. Okay, fine, nice, let’s do that. I paid and was then brought to a guess what, a tuktuk. Lol. It turned out to be no problem though, my driver brought me to all the places, nicely waited and brought me back to the hotel 😉

Money… there is Cambodian money, called the Riel, but the preferred, harder currency is simply USD. If you look like you are not from Cambodia, they kinda expect you to be paying in USD.
Money… Cambodia is pretty poor, the hunt for money = better living conditions is present everywhere. As a foreigner you are seen as a source of money and they expect you to not be sitting on it. But that’s okay, since from a European, Japanese perspective stuff is cheap.
So, there I sat in my tuktuk with a driver who spoke only rudimentary English and the first thing he does is taking me to the Killing Fields.

Cambodia’s recent history is a tough cookie. Politically unstable it was drawn into the Vietnam war and extensively bombed, then the Khmer Rouge came along and “liberated” the country in 1975 proclaiming a communist utopia. They drove people out of the cities into the countryside forcing them to be farmers. They started treating everyone with “soft hands”, or glasses, as a traitor and within the four years of their rule, they killed a fourth of their own countrymen. Out of eight million people, around three million have died. There is not one family that was left unscathed I suppose. There are many killing fields all over the country, the closest to Phnom Penh is only a thirty minute ride by tuktuk away. Some 20,000 people were killed at this place. They built a stupa for remembrance and filled it with some of the skulls that were exhumed at the site. There is a tree where the guards smashed babies against whose parents had been executed. It is hard to comprehend how people can do such things.
The harsh part of the day-tour continued with the prison camp in downtown Phnom Penh, a former high-school, where prisoners were interrogated under torture confessing to “crimes” they didn’t commit and accusing others falsely in the hope it would ease their suffering only to be then transported to the Killing Fields and hacked to death anyway. Bullets were too expensive, most people were killed with axes, hammers and so forth.
After three hours of such harshness the rest of the day and tour felt like balm. The first thing after the prison in town to visit was befittingly a beautiful Buddhist temple and it was great to see something nice and peaceful.

Next up were the national museum and the royal palace. Both of them magnificent buildings of intricate beauty in their designs. What a day of the human spectrum. From the blackest possible depths to highest achievements in beauty.

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 😉

Zamami Lookouts

On day three I did the lookout route and burned through two bicycle batteries on the up and down course through the island (I got a second one as a spare from the hotel staff as a service ;-)). One of the open sea side lookouts comes with a mini tower for the whale watching season. A local sits in the tower and looks out for whales and radios their position to the whale watching boats. Some humpback whales usually come to breed around Zamami. They are around from January to April. Since it was only the first of January, it didn’t look like they had arrived yet.

On the bay side lookout I met a lady from the U.K. who is a teacher in Yamagata prefecture in the north and who escaped the snow there for some days of sunshine, only that there was no sunshine. But at least it was warmer than in Yamagata, which is drowning in snow this time of year. The lady was a muslim and wore a black veil. I wonder how the people in Yamagata react to her. I’m sure it’s not exactly easy for her to live in Japan.
After the lookout tour I had been to everywhere on the island and it is very beautiful indeed.

Is it a candidate for retirement? I haven’t ruled it out yet, despite only 600 people in the island. I “interviewed” some of the hotel personnel. Two are from Yokohama originally, one lady is from Iwate. One of the Yokohama guys is on the island for six years now and his family is still in Yokohama. Interesting. The lady from Iwate left her husband there. I don’t know for how many years. They were working over New Year, which is kind of holy for the Japanese as a family get together event, but… interesting. The guy from Yokohama who is there for six years said there is a doctor on the island on weekdays and if there is something serious, they fly you over to Naha with the “doctor heli” helicopter service. If the ferries don’t go but you must get off the island, you can charter a helicopter as well, it costs usually 90,000 yen, but depending on the circumstances they let you charter it for 30,000 yen. If five people board that’s only 6000 yen per person. The ferries don’t run on average once a month due to bad weather. Of course no helicopter flies during a typhoon either, but no planes from Naha also, so what. Hm! The island is still a candidate for retirement 😉

On my last full day I went to the pirate beach once more and to town for lunch, but then escaped back to the hotel due to rain becoming more constant. Despite the far from ideal weather and the difficulties in getting to the island, I thoroughly enjoyed my stay in Naha and Zamami. The latter is a great getaway from the hustle and bustle of city life.

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 😉

Amami Oshima Report – Part 1 – Beaches

A Happy New Year 2018 everyone! May the Force be with us… somehow.
My search for the perfect Japanese island continues 🙂 Let me recap, my search started in 2011 and so far I have visited seven island (groups) and Amami is the eighth.
Amami Oshima (Oshima simply means big island) is actually the seventh largest island of Japan. Here is the ranking: Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, Shikoku, Okinawa (main island), Sado (in the Sea of Japan and too cold and thus not so interesting for me ;-))and number seven is Amami Oshima (big island).
Amami has a circumference of after all 460 km, which is quite large. Yet only 61,000 people live there spread over six main settlements with the biggest “Naze”, having most of the population. The island lies between Kyushu and Okinawa and is a part of Kagoshima prefecture. It enjoys far less popularity as Okinawa, which, in my opinion is good for the island, because that makes it a fairly quiet place.

Since I had never been there before (and I’m not in the habit of making plans beforehand, I book a flight and a hotel and see what happens when I get there) I took a hotel I didn’t know where and flew to Amami airport. My hotel turned out to be a bit in the middle of nowhere but as usual that has advantages and disadvantages. The disadvantage was that it was not easy to get around without a car, the advantage was it was two minutes from a very lovely beach.

My first day on the island I spent bicycling with a very rusty and very basic bicycle that I rented from the hotel for free. Since it had zero gears, I had to push it up every little hill and there are many hills on Amami. 😉 I rode happily for some twenty kilometers in total nevertheless (which is a lot for me) and it was one fine day with sunshine and some clouds but no rain and lovely 17 or something Celsius. Perfect bicycle weather actually. I rode through very lonely hills with views to the sea every few meters, the East China Sea as well as the Pacific.

The best beach was at the Pacific side with magnificent views down the cost. The East China Sea side has many fjords and bays while the Pacific side is more of a straight line. Both views were utterly beautiful. A great escape from the hectic and too many people of the Kanto plain.

A Bit of Ireland

I moved on by bus again to Ireland and arrived in Dublin in the afternoon, did some exploring of the Trinity college and a garden with a statue of Oscar Wilde before heading home for a short home-stay at a friend of mine who happens to live in Ireland. He lives in a suburb of Dublin called Celbridge and that was my base for the last few days of my trip this summer. He was super kind and took a day off to show me some sights, the only downer was that it rained the entire time. All in all it was my only day in Ireland and Scotland with constant rain and thus I guess I can consider myself lucky, since it does happen to rain loads in both countries.

We drove out into the Irish mountains for a look out to a lake then went to Glendalough which has two things to offer, the ruins of a church and monastery which is from the 13th century and two more beautiful lakes. Despite the rain, we rounded the smaller lake and took a look at the bigger one.

Especially the bigger one is very scenic and even in the rain and mist it looked beautiful. After lunch at a very Irish pub, we drove on to the coast and in the wind and rain the Irish Sea was quite rough for its usually quiet standards. It looked great but we soon left the beach again due to high winds and lashing rain.

On my last day in Ireland, I went to Dublin again on my own and did the Guinness storehouse tour. I am not a beer drinker at all but it was interesting to see the storehouse which explains how Guinness is made and is being very modern and smartly arranged for a “museum” like that. Your entry price includes a pint of Guinness and I managed to drink a quarter of it, which is a personal beer drinking record of mine, hahaha.

Next I went to the Dublinia museum, which tells the history of the city of Dublin starting with a Viking settlement and ending with an exhibition of how archeologists work. The museum is right next to the Christ Church of Dublin which started to exist in this spot since almost a thousand years ago. It has a nice crypt with a strange highlight, a mummified cat and a rat. It appears that the cat was chasing the rat and both got caught in a organ pipe where they starved and died sometime around 1850. They mummified there and when the organ was repaired a hundred and fifty years later the tragic pair came to light.

I greatly enjoyed the Ireland trip which had just the right mix of nature sights and history. Apparently most Irish are okay with the north-east being not a part of their country, but thanks to the Brexit idiocy a lot of problems are ahead for the people in the region. At the moment there is a soft border and you can come and go from Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland as you please. It is weird enough that you have pounds in the north and miles and when you drive into the south it’s suddenly Euro and kilometers. It remains to be seen how the British want to deal with the soft border after Brexit but in my humble opinion, as mentioned before, Brexit is the stupidest thing the British have ever done and the people of Ireland won’t have fun with its self-made disaster.

From Russia with Love – Part 3

Part 3: History before World War II
There is aplenty.
Russia has a long and rich history and a lot of stuff is preserved in excellent condition. I have never seen such a flawless object as the church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg. It is perfect. As simple as that. St. Basil’s cathedral in Moscow is great too, but there you see repairs that have been done over time, whilst there is no sign of any such repair on the Savior church. The Hermitage in St. Petersburg is bursting with beautiful old stuff, the State History Museum, the Armory of the Kremlin, the Pushkin museum in Moscow as well. The Kremlin and the Red Square are one amazing complex. The only thing comparable in size and grandeur I have seen so far is the Forbidden City of Beijing. Seeing all that glory leaves also a kind of a bad taste though, if the divide between rich and poor is so big today, then just how big has it been a few hundred years ago when the Tsars built their monsters of grandeur on the sweat, blood and tears of the common folk. That’s true everywhere of course, but it expressed itself very intensely to me in Russia. Kind of, no wonder the people revolted and killed of their nobility.
I was quite delighted that you can actually get into the Kremlin. After all it’s also a working institution in contrast to for example the Forbidden City. Of course there is security at every corner, but the armory is right next to the Kremlin grand palace where Mr. Putin might just be present. Many people prefer St. Petersburg over Moscow I heard, but I cannot say so. For me both cities were quite equal concerning the “wow” effect. Though admittedly, if there wasn’t the Kremlin and the Red Square, Moscow would loose to St. Petersburg.
Here my personal ankings of the major sites I saw in both cities.

St. Petersburg:
The Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood
The Hermitage
St. Isaacs
Peter and Paul Fortress complex
Menshikov palace
Kazan cathedral

Red Square
The Kremlin (cathedral square)
St. Basil’s cathedral
The Kremlin armory
State history museum
Cathedral of Christ the Savior
GUM department store
IMG_1145 2IMG_1243
The Pushkin Museum of fine art

From Russia with Love – Part 2

Part 2: Everyday life in Russia
No Russian? Basically you are screwed. I have hardly ever been in a country yet where they speak so little English. Amazingly you somehow get by also without speaking the language.
One word in advance, I felt quite safe during my entire stay in Russia. There was not one hairy situation. Which, however might also be due to the horrendous amount of security everywhere. There must be millions of people employed in security jobs. Every department store, every subway station, every museum has metal detectors and security guards. You just gotta accept that and comply nicely with a smile and if you do you might even get a smile back and one guard at Kitay-Gorod subway station, my home base in Moscow, saying his only English words to me, “take care and good bye”. They are just people too and might look scary but if you are nice to them, they are mostly nice to you as well. There are also police men walking through town all the time. Blue uniforms, police, green = military. They are everywhere. The train ride from Moscow to St. Petersburg and back was very important to put things into perspective. While downtown Moscow and St. Petersburg are shiny and pretty, offering one culture world heritage site after the next, the country side is so sad.
The ride takes four hours by bullet train and the almost completely flat landscape consists of four things, birch and fir trees, mud, villages, run down factories.
Whatever the 143 million Russian eat, is it not growing between St. Petersburg and Moscow. I saw maybe ten potato fields and that’s it. I saw not a single cow, sheep, pig, not one animal during the whole 600 km between the two cities. The factories are all old and completely run down or in ruins.
The houses in the muddy villages without asphalt streets, accessible only via mud roads, are more shacks than houses and most look old and cold. I wonder if they have decent plumbing and running water. They seem to have electricity. It is cold in this country for maybe eight or nine out of twelve months. While it was and exceptional 25 degrees on the day of my arrival, the weather was dismal temperature-wise during the remaining entire two weeks. It was never over ten degrees Celsius and it snowed twice in Moscow while I was there. I was super happy for having brought my winter coat. I really really needed it.
I don’t know what the people living in these shacks between Moscow and St. Petersburg do for a living, it can’t be farming. In the big cities, outside of the old and shiny city centers are huge mostly old and ugly concrete blocks where the people live who work in the city and its factories. One thought lingered when I rode through the country side and that is, when I have to be poor I pray I’ll be poor in a country where it’s warm!
Some praise though for the subway systems of St. Petersburg as well as Moscow. The trains are old but are frequent, I’ve seen no delays, they are safe and used by “normal” folk also at night. People are sleeping in the subway, which I always interpret as a good sign of safety, there are kids around. Even if everything is in Cyrillic, you can still somehow read it and figure out where to go. I didn’t get lost once in the subways. You can get to basically all the major attractions via the subway in both cities and I didn’t try out the buses.
In supermarkets they have mostly European stuff that I am quite familiar with, they even have a lot of German branded products. Food is bread and potato based. I relied on food courts and fast food I must admit though, unable to order anything or read a menu in a restaurant, I needed food where I can point at.
To conclude, you get by without Russian, but it needs some patience and modesty on the traveler’s behalf and I don’t recommend Russia to inexperienced travelers. The supermarket staff is astonishingly friendly though and count the Rubels correctly out of your hand with a smile at the poor foreigner who has no clue. I wonder though what they will do next year with all the foreigners who will come for the soccer World Cup 😉

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.

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.
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.
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 😉

A Trip to Mongolia – Day 1

In the breakfast building of the “ger” hotel, overlooking them, I chatted a little with one Japanese guest family and one Mongolian waiter who lived in Japan for a while and whose Japanese was perfect.
The Japanese family traveled with a four year old girl and a seven month old baby. Interesting place to visit that they chose 😉
At the front desk I sorted out some “activities” = things to do, during my stay. First activity would be a visit to a nomad family who live in real gers like their Genghis Khaan forefather already did. But that would be in the afternoon. So in the morning I left for a bit of a walk, the target being a relatively high hill from whose top I thought to have a good view. For that purpose I left the compound of the hotel through a guarded gate but then a rain shower hit me.
I made it to this Buddhist mini shrine, then gave up and started walking back when a car rattled over the plain and stopped next to me. A gentleman addressed me in Japanese, turned out to be hotel staff and offered to bring me back to my ger. Wow! He was the gentleman who drove me around in the afternoon too later and said he brought some guests back who had been horse riding in the rain and saw this weird foreigner walking around getting wet. He brought the riding guests back, then came to pick me up. What a service!
I was glad for the service though, since my pants were soaked upon my return.
After lunch, with the rain having stopped, I headed to the reception and the Japanese speaking driver plus the English speaking girl who picked me up from the airport put me into a car and drove me first up a hill, where I should have asked to get off but didn’t, noted for next time, then to a nearby village whose function seemed to be to provide gasoline and a sort of community. The roads were plastered with dung from the animals around, of which there are plenty, mostly cows, sheep, goats and horses.

Then they drove me to the ground of the yearly horse racing festival which happened in July. The Japanese speaking driver said that 4600 horses came for this year’s race. Wow. Too bad I missed that. Then we rode on to the nomad family. Only the husband was present, according to my English guide the mother and daughter were in UB shopping – UB = Ulaanbaatar.
The gentleman poured me Mongolian “tea” which is boiled milk with added salt, that, frankly, tasted not overwhelming, and made me eat semi-sweet milk candy, also not a hit taste wise. Milk they have in abundance! The gentleman has some 500 sheep, 30 horses and 30 cows, I learned. He has two gers, one in which they cook and one for living. I am not sure how many people are sleeping in the ger. He has electricity with batteries that are charged by two solar panels, a small TV and a big satellite dish.
I have the feeling that makes him a rather rich nomad. He stays with his family, somewhere around good grass for the summer and bunkers down for the six long months of winter with the animals in a shelter and with a fortified ger. The walls of the real ger by the way are made of six parts, the luxury ger of the hotel is made of twelve. Much of the land no one owns and the nomads wander about on it like they did for centuries. There are ever fewer nomads around though these days, more and more leave the countryside and go to Ulaanbaatar trying to find work.
The gentleman had the laziest dog I’ve ever seen, he didn’t even bark at my presence, allowed me to cuddle him and was just very sleepy. No use as a guard dog 😉
There might be electricity, but the sanitary situation is worse, apparently toilet happens in the open though I sighted two stalls not too far away without doors and a shower? What’s that? I don’t think there is much washing happening. Water is a luxury. There are some brooks and some puddles, but at least during the first day I saw no decent rivers. Maybe they shower with milk??? They seem to have more of that than water.
Since it was clouded it was a very pleasant 20 to 25 Celsius I think and the door to the ger stood open the whole time, allowing myriads of flies to enter.
I sprayed a dozen of them to death when I returned to my luxury ger. Plenty of flies and moths. There are big white moths everywhere and other smaller ones, dozens of kinds of grasshoppers and I have no clue what this monster is, I found it during my walk in the morning before it started to rain and it was at least six or seven centimeters long and then there are spiders too….
I asked my English guide why there are no trees here. Rather than lack of water it’s the quality of the soil which apparently doesn’t allow for trees.
Dinner happened in a place I had not yet seen, behind the western style terrace with a view where breakfast and lunch take place hides another super ger that houses the dinner restaurant.
Dinner was expensive but yummy.
So far for adventures on the first day. I wouldn’t know what to do without the luxury ger and its comfort, but thanks to it this is a pretty damn awesome experience.