Golden Week at Home

Japan has a collection of national holidays end of April/beginning of May, which are known by the name of Golden Week (GW). It also happens that the company I work for closes off for the entire week around those holidays (using other national holidays on which we have to work).
Golden Week is thus the perfect time for a little travel and it’s easy to extend the GW a bit by adding one or the other day of paid leave.
I have made use of GW extensively and the last time I spent GW at home was 2010……… Alas… 2020 will be spent at home as well! I had booked a trip to my beloved Okinawa, but now cancelled it all, following the #stayhome directive.
I am of the kind who of course remembers having been on a trip to country X or island Y, but I do forget which year I went where. As a remedy I am in the habit of writing a journal and now it came in handy. I checked my journals and made a list of where I went every year during GW since the last time I spent it at home in 2010. The list is lovely and I shall bicycle around the neighborhood lost in memories of happy travels and island visits!

2011 – that was right after the big earthquake in Japan and I ventured out on my pre-booked travels to the Netherlands and the UK for sightseeing and heavy metal concerts in Amsterdam and London.
2012 – one of my most adventurous remote island trips so far. I went to the Ogasawara islands, 1000 km straight south of Tokyo in the middle of the Pacific. These islands have no airport and can only be reached by ship. One way takes 25 hours. The islands are insanely beautiful and I saw whales and dolphins during boat tours and in the harbor of Hahajima I saw sharks and mantas frolicking about.
2013 – I went to the island of Izu Oshima, not so far away from Tokyo and hiked around its central volcano, Mt. Mihara, which was great, but alas, my hotel was super crappy and infested with cockroaches, giant spiders and centipedes and I fled it one night earlier than planned.
2014 – No tiny Japanese island this time but a bigger one – I went to Taiwan finally after postponing a trip there for many times. I had a great time in Taipei and Kaohsiung walking around temples, skyscrapers and having good food.
2015 – Miyakojima. I rode around there with a rental car, sweating my guts out because of my fear of driving. But it is a wonderful island and I grew especially fond of the neighboring islands of Irabu and Shimoji where there is a fantastic beach studded with black rocks. Every day after the driving session was done, I went to an ice cream shop and rewarded myself after the driving stress.
2016 – Ishigaki. That time I tried with a scooter instead of a car, but found that to be equally scary and ended up not seeing much of Ishigaki island at all but hopping on boats every day to go to the surrounding islands which I explored on foot, with busses or rental bicycles. There was Kuroshima with 2000 cows and 200 people, Hateruma with a dream beach, and my favorite, Iriomote island with mangrove boat tours and hiking to waterfalls through the jungle.

2017 – something completely different! I flew to Moscow and St. Petersburg for sightseeing and heavy metal 😉 It had always been a dream of mine to stand on the Red Square in Moscow and visit the Basilica and the Kremlin. I enjoyed every minute of the trip to Russia. So much history and great people, even if they don’t speak English 😉

2018 – island time again, but not a Japanese one. I made another long held dream come true and flew to New Caledonia. Before coming to Japan, I didn’t even know about this place. I stumbled upon a flight coming from Noumea, had to google where that is and ever since I wanted to go there. Noumea is a wonderful city. I flew with a small plane to the Isle of Pines where is one of the most fantastic places ever called Piscine Naturelle, a closed off beach, where tropical fish swim around your feet in shallow waters.

2019 – Kumejima. Another lonely Okinawa island to explore. I had given up on car driving meanwhile and went around the island by bicycle up and down steep hills. The island has great beaches and stunning cliffs, but unfortunately the weather was not so good and lots of rain hampered the enjoyment, but that’s of course not the fault of the island.

So… what a nice list. I made great use of my Golden Weeks the past decade. I hope I can make equally good use of GW in the coming decade after spending the GW of 2020 in bicycle radius around my apartment! #stayhome #staysafe #stayhealthy

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 😉

From Vladivostok with Love – Part 2

My driver from the Vladivostok airport into town drove like a berserker in a fat Mercedes. He spoke not a word of English but I said Germania and then he was raving about German cars, I believe 😉
First impression of the town was gray, cold, pre-fabricated high-rise buildings from the seventies.

My hotel was nice though, nothing special, but all the international standards available that a hotel is supposed to have. The room looked out over the western half of the bay and there was ice floating at the shore.

I ventured down to the shore and checked out the ice. Half the shore was a construction site, but people walked through the fences, taking a stroll, as if that was all very normal. The constructions sites were around two defunct buildings from the sixties maybe and made the impression on me as if they were permanent.
I had chosen my hotel strategically close to the venue of the concert and already found the place on that first stroll, or so I thought at the time, and was quite relaxed about that, eating dinner at the hotel’s restaurant before going to bed.

The first day of exploring: I walked down to the shore again, this time venturing further towards an amusement park by the yacht harbor. All the facilities looked very much seventies or eighties to me. From there I walked through town for about five hours with a short break for a late lunch and checked out most of the sights of the city.

The big cathedral at the central square was unfortunately closed do to repair. I counted 12 military ships in the harbor and their radar etc. masts looked like a collection of alien space ships to me.

Much like in Moscow and St. Petersburg the Second World War is quite present still in every day Russia. War memorials and eternal flames and an old submarine exhibit take you back seventy years. The submarine was interesting though, a museum part and then a “live” part where you have to squeeze through bulk heads.

Then I got a bit lost on the search for the mini funicular promised in a Vladivostok walking map I got at the WW2 submarine. I walked too far as it turned out, but stumbled across more tanks and war stuff in a park. Finally I found the funicular. It’s a two minute ride only up the hill which costs 14 rubles, which is some 30 yen. On top was a closed viewpoint but the sight over the city was okay from the side of the funicular also.

Apart from long distance trains the funicular is the only railway inside of Vladivostok, all public transport happens via buses. Those buses look old and they blast a lot of unfiltered exhaust into the air. I did everything on foot, which is okay though, since the downtown area is not that big after all. Nowadays Vladivostok has about 600,000 inhabitants. Funny thing was that I had difficulties recognizing shopping centers for what they were. Due to the cold they don’t have open inviting big entrances but there is a glass door somewhere, which leads into a foyer and then another glass door, all in the attempt to keep out the weather.
I luckily found one shopping center where I could buy some fast food lunch by pointing at pictures. Public rest rooms are also a rarity and shopping centers are your best bet for that. Then I walked back to the hotel past the Vladivostok railway station.

It is still a dream of mine to ride the trans Siberian railway from Moscow to Vladivostok or the other way round one day. Without getting off in between it takes seven days. Well, let’s see! At least I was now on either end of the tracks 🙂 After a rest in the hotel I readied myself for heavy metal!

From Vladivostok with Love – Part 1

Vladivostok is surely not the most common and easiest to get to holiday destination, which is a shame actually. I thoroughly enjoyed my short journey there.

A few things about Vladivostok before the details of my trip. Vladivostok was a Chinese fishing village called Haishenwai, before the Russians seized it in 1860. China was weakened from the opium wars and didn’t oppose Russia seizing that frigid port to the north. The Russians renamed it Vladivostok and quickly developed the place to make it theirs for everyone around to see and brought people there. Nowadays more or less zero Asians are residents of Vladivostok, if in a way they partially claimed it back, but more about that later.
Even though Vladivostok is on the same latitude as Sapporo or the island of Corsica in the Mediterranean (!), winters are brutal and the ocean around it freezes. Vladivostok lies on a peninsula that sticks out into a large bay. There is ocean on three sides of the town, and, as mentioned much of the quiet bay freezes over in winter.
During Cold War times, Vladivostok was closed to foreigners, since it was and is the one and only big harbor for whatever Russian naval military forces. I wonder what life was like in Vladivostok during these dark times.

The town saw a major development boost when the APEC summit was held there in 2012. They got the two big bridges connecting parts of the city and the city to the island of Russky in the south of Vladivostok. Before the bridges you had to drive around a big part of the inner bay and go by boat to Russky island or rather don’t go there at all. They also built a giant convention center and university on Russky island and a big aquarium.

So, why go to Vladivostok? People who know me know that it’s one of my passions to travel and to combine that if ever possible with going to gigs of heavy metal bands. It came to pass that one of my favorite bands, Amorphis from Finland, was going to Vladivostok. Ha! That sounds like an adventure worth undertaking 😉 Since after all, Vladivostok is just a two hour twenty minute plane ride from Tokyo. To get a Russian visa is the biggest hustle about going to Russia, but also that is manageable, if super inconvenient.

I must admit I was quite excited about the trip, not knowing at all how much remoteness to expect. I was not majorly encouraged by the tiny propeller plane of Aurora airlines, the Far East subsidiary of Aeroflot, at Narita airport either.

Though, thanks to okay weather, the flight was smoother than expected. I think about 80 people fit onto such a plane and there were maybe fifty or sixty heading for Vladivostok. Some Japanese adventurers, but mostly Russians. Arrived in Vladivostok though I was in for a surprise. The airport immigration was swamped with plane loads full of Chinese and Koreans. Uh? What to they want in Vladivostok? My first hunch was shopping and my hunch got verified later. I shall come back to that.
They let me into the country thanks to my visa no questions asked. I waited forever at the baggage claim until I came upon the idea to walk around because some suitcases fell of the band once in a while and yes, mine must have fallen too and I found it at the farthest, darkest corner of the baggage retrieval.

I had ordered a taxi via my hotel and they were supposed to pick me up with a sign stating the hotel name, but there were only tons of Korean signs and none in western writing. I happened to arrive though, luckily, on the international women’s day, which is even a national holiday in Russia, and people were giving all women who arrived tulips at the arrivals area. I went to the side and stood there waiting and got out my phone to call the hotel, as one of the young women who gave out flowers asked me if she could help in very good English. I explained and she whipped out her phone, called the hotel and ran through half the airport for me searching for my driver, apologizing that he must be stupid and that I have to wait. Wow, so friendly! She did ask though, what are you doing in Vladivostok, with the undertone of ‘why the hell have you come here’? Lol. I explained to her about the gig and she said she’ll check out the band! Lol. Then she found my driver and off I went towards Vladivostok which is about an hour drive away from the airport.

A Flash Visit to Switzerland

I’ve been to Switzerland a couple of times in the late 90ties due to business trips, but I’ve never been there privately. Because of a certain concert, I found myself flying to Switzerland over a prolonged weekend. The target being the city of Luzern. I flew to Zurich and Luzern is just an hour away by train. Some trains go even directly from Luzern to Zurich airport and I arranged things so that I’d be able to go directly.
Wherever I looked, Switzerland was super clean and seemed super rich, people are well dressed, everything is well maintained and orderly. While in Japan you have one or the other “shack” in between the proper houses and while in Germany things often look old (depending on where you go) Switzerland seemed like the land of milk and honey, or rather the land of milk and chocolate 😉

I do freely admit that Swiss chocolate is my favorite in the world 😉
Luzern is a rather small city and you can easily visit its major sites within one day, which I did. The city is one of the plenty at the Vierwaldstaettersee, whose English translation is oddly simply Lake Lucerne (while the real meaning of Vierwaldstaettersee is lake at the four wooded cities). Since the lake is rather big, it influences the weather and it was cloudy to foggy the whole time I was there. The wooden bridges over one of the rivers that feed the lake are one of the main attractions and were busy with tourists, notably the noisy Chinese tourist group type that can really get on your nerves. I guess for them Switzerland is like one giant fairy tale Disney Land. Apart from the two bridges, I liked the city wall towers a lot, which allowed you to get a nice overview over the city, but the highlight is clearly the dying lion statue, which is truly moving and sad.

On my second day in Luzern, I did a bigger tour starting with a boat ride on the lake. Since it hung in clouds and fog it almost felt like going to sea.

The boat brings you to a town called Alpnachstad and from there you can take a quite dramatic funicular railway up the mountain of Pilatus. The lake lies at a height of about 400 meters above sea level. At about 1000 meters the train broke through the clouds and the steel blue sky above you and white clouds below you were quite a sight to behold.

Pilatus itself is 2100 something meters high. At the top is a big hotel and massive viewing platforms with restaurants, souvenir shops and anything you might need. From the highest spot you have an excellent view over the Swiss Alps and it all looked pretty much like out of a picture book, especially with the ground hidden in thick clouds.

Usually I’m the ocean and not the mountain type, but that was a great sight to behold, especially also because you didn’t need physical effort to get up the mountain, just money (the Pilatus roundtrip costs over 100 Swiss francs). There were plenty of hikers around though, who did the effort to walk 😉 You then go down the mountain on its other side with two different gondolas and it was kind of sad and also spooky to be leaving the sunshine and to go back to gray and cold weather beneath the clouds.

The trip to Switzerland was short but intense and maybe I’ll be going there again for another gig some time in the future 😉

Shimoda Trip Report

I’m flying all over Japan for island hopping but so far I’ve never been right next door. Just 140 km away from Yokohama, at the tip of the Izu peninsula, lies the town of Shimoda and it’s supposed to have an “island feel” to it, but so far I never checked it out. So, finally, over the October weekend where even my company takes off and observes a national holiday (usually we are collecting national holidays to take them in a row in January, May and August), I went by train to Shimoda. (With the Shinkansen to Atami and from there with the Izu-kyu line down the coast to Shimoda). The ride takes only 2.5 hours from Yokohama. Arrived at Shimoda, I jumped into a taxi to take me to my hotel, which was four kilometers from Shimoda itself at the district Shiramaha that was supposed to have a nice beach. The hotel came along with a privately bookable outside hot spring and so my tattooed self could even book the onsen for later. But first to the beach. The sand was a bit crazily distributed over the beach, presumably due to the typhoon that passed through Japan the week earlier. But all in all this was a lovely beach with surfers enjoying some moderate waves.

I didn’t stay too long at the onsen due to two creatures sharing it with me, two monstrous spiders hanging at the walls. Uhhh… I was sitting in the (anyway too hot for me) water and praying the monsters would not move 😉 When I checked out the next morning, I expected to have to go by taxi back to the station to lock up my luggage to be free for exploration, but the super kind landlady of the hotel offered to drive me to the station for free. Not only that, she even worked out a plan for me what to see during the day and ended up waiting for me at the station, while I locked away the luggage and then took me to the aquarium at the very tip of the town. What a nice service. The aquarium turned out to be quite interesting and a bit symbolic for the entire rest of the town. Shimoda is what I call very “Showa”. This refers to the Showa era of Japan under the Showa emperor, who passed away 1989. The whole town and the aquarium as well were blooming in the bubble economy times of Japan in the early 80ties. Ever since not much development etc. has happened. The aquarium encircles a natural bay and the captured dolphins have the “privilege” to be swimming in actual ocean rather than a basin, but apart from that the entire facilities of them aquarium are at least 40 years old if not more. To compensate for that, they let you get pretty close to the animals.

After the aquarium I walked back to town by the sea side, discovered an abandoned hotel that you could just walk into and then boarded a tourist boat for a twenty minute ride around the harbor. Last but not least I rode with a gondola to the top of the nearest mountain from where you have a magnificent view over the Izu islands and Shimoda itself. I’ve been to several of these islands already, notably Izu Oshima and Niijima.

It was a great weekend trip, but Shimoda won’t be my place of choice for retirement plans. It’s too “Showa” and does not have the “Pacific island” feel after all that I love so much ;-). I’ll get “Pacific island” feel again over new year, when I will explore the next island(s). This time the target will be Zamami, just right next to Okinawa main island. Cheers!

How to not Behave on an Airplane

I had horrible neighbors on my latest long haul flights from Tokyo to Frankfurt and back in September.
To Frankfurt my neighbor was a guy of about 30 and an American.
First of all he kept on messaging with probably his girlfriend, since hearts flew around. As the plane was about to lift off, I said, “excuse me, Sir, but I think it’s time to switch to airplane mode.” He gave me a devastating look, finished his message, then switched to airplane mode and thrust the phone into my face. “Here you go.”
Pfff. Five minutes later he says. “I usually hate it when people tell me what to do, but I respect it that you had the “guts” to address a total stranger about this.” Um, what? He tried to engage me in a discussion about that non-airplane mode was allowed for a while but now it’s restricted again and blah. Then he kept quiet. Later on he fell asleep while I was standing (because of my back) and working on the computer. He kinda woke up, grabbed the water bottle that lay on my seat, probably thinking it was his and put it into his lap. Uh?
I sat down again and next he jerked around and poured cold coffee all over my seat and my pants. I got the cabin attendants to help me with wipers and what not. He looked around irritated, then ignored the fuss and did not even fuxxing apologize. Great, thank you.
Last but not least we had seats at the kitchen section where you can prop up your legs. He did so too, but with his shoes on and that’s how the wall looked like by the end of the flight… (I took the pick while the dude was on the loo)

On the way back to Tokyo I had an about 70 year-old Japanese woman sitting next to me. It was a night flight, but I cannot sleep on planes and as usual was working on the computer. They turned the cabin light off and I switched on my individual light. “NO!” The woman barks at me and points at the light. Jeez, okay, okay, I put it out again. Then she calls the cabin attendant and tells her to tell me to turn off my computer because it’s too bright. Cabin attendant: “Um, no, I cannot ask her to do that. Why don’t you use the mask you were given?” Woman: “I can’t have that thing on my eyes, it’s too warm. Ask her to turn off the computer!”
The cabin attendant comes around to me. Unfortunately there is no other seat available, maybe I would work in the kitchen until she has fallen asleep? That was fine by me, because it gave me another opportunity to stand (I can’t sit for long because of my back). The cabin attendants were then all super nice to me, giving me juice and chocolate and thanking me constantly for being so cooperative. I had to move from the middle kitchen to the back once, because they laid a completely drunken guy onto the floor of the middle kitchen after he barfed around (hopefully not onto his neighbors………) and I was happy that I only had a bitchy old woman for a neighbor and not a barfing dude who can’t hold his liquor… when I eventually returned to my seat, the nasty old woman was asleep.
Such are the joys of long haul flights! Ahhhhhh… I’ll have another one next week, but it should be the last one of 2018 😉

Iceland Report – Part 5

Whale Watching and Some Other Comments
On my last day in Iceland I had prebooked a whale watching tour in the morning and the plan was to do some last shopping in the afternoon and to pack the suitcase. 
I did whale watching in New Zealand and in Japan at the Ogasawara islands. Both times were very successful with several whale sightings and seeing rear flukes when the guys set out to dive. Luckily the sun shone even in the morning, but there were strong winds. Strong winds = waves, baby! I went to the harbor and the boat didn’t look very big.

At the check in they asked me if I wanted sea sickness pills. Okay, lets take them, the tour operator must have a reason for offering them for free! There were maybe twenty people on a boat that could accommodate 50, so that was a good number. Among them was a group of 6 Chinese adults, the rest was European or American. Out we went, and my it started rocking. At first we went fast and I stayed below deck because of the spray. When we slowed down, I went on deck and stayed there for the period of whale watching time. Three of the Chinese went on deck for five minutes, then one man was getting sick and reached for the barf bag. After that none of the Chinese was again seen on deck 😉 It did rock pretty badly and it was impossible to catch the moment of the only whale we saw surfacing on camera.

It was a minke whale apparently and it swam with the boat for a while but presented only its back and some spouting and no rear fluke for diving either. From that point of view this was the least successful whale watching I attended so far. Which is okay though, since I was very lucky the other two times and its animals and they don’t show up when you want them to. Another two people reached for the barf bags apart from the Chinese and also I had a moment of feeling not so super well, but the tactics to look at the horizon worked for me and I didn’t get sick. I went below deck again for the fast boat ride and splashes when we returned to the harbor and found the Chinese sprawled and looking not very good over a group of benches below. Poor guys and girls! I admit, I was happy to be back on firm land and promptly went back to my dear Harpa again for my chocolate croissant and tea 😉 After that a final round of shopping and bag packing and that was it. 

Despite the shitty hotel and the ridiculous prices, I thoroughly enjoyed Iceland and greatly recommend it as a destination (if you have the money). I wonder how long the Iceland boom will last. Since it is now the main source of income for the place, I hope for them it will. Apart from the unfriendly hotel staff I did not encounter a single rude Icelander, all the restaurant and tour staff were very friendly and welcoming. 
Looking at the barren landscapes it really makes me wonder what life was like there a hundred years ago and before that. The funny guide of the lava cave tour said we Icelanders have basically been starving all the time before roads and planes came to the place. They lived off fish and sheep. They ate everything of the sheep, head, feet, innards, balls and all. There is a cold water shark species living around Iceland. It has no kidneys somehow and its blood and meat are poisoned. If you let a dead shark rot for a bit, the poison becomes ineffective, then you dry the meat somewhat and eat it. It apparently tastes as disgustingly as it sounds. How desperate for food do you have to be in order to find out how to make this shark meat somehow edible? The vikings who settled there were tough brothers and sisters. Then the cold in winter and the dark. It’s dark for 21 hours a day in mid winter. It never really really gets warm. Would I want to live there? No thanks. But is it beautiful? Oh yes! I am wrote my report on the plane back to Tokyo, moving from 64 degrees north to 35 degrees north and half around the globe. Even if it’s a bit hot in Japan in the summer, my, do I prefer my lush sub-tropical islands in the south that burst with green and woods and oceans you can get into without dying of hypothermia after five minutes! 😉 Cheers! 

Iceland Report – Part 4

Blue Lagoon and Snaefellsnes Peninsula
On my Blue Lagoon day it was raining in Reykjavik in the morning, oh what a surprise 😉 I went again to the Harpa, which had become my favorite hang out spot. The Harpa is the concert hall of Reykjavik, built during bubble times and quite an impressive building.
I checked it out on my first day and also watched the comedy show there about “How to become Icelandic in 60 minutes”. They had a nice cafe where you could get a chocolate croissant and a cup of tea for “only” 10 USD. Then it was time to board my bus to the Blue Lagoon. I had decided to try out that tourist trap on my first day in Reykjavik, looking for short stuff to do in afternoons. I also wanted to compare it to the plenty of Onsen (hot spring) I know from Japan. Not a single Onsen in Japan though costs 100 USD to get into… yes, ladies and gents, that’s the price of the Blue Lagoon. And not in a single Onsen in Japan do you have to wait for 45 min to be let inside despite having a reservation. It’s funny also that you have to go inside in a bathing suit instead of naked. Well, thus it’s easier to mix the boys and girls. Of course I didn’t bring a bathing suit, but you could rent one for 7 USD. Not that bad considering the other prices. 

Your 100 USD ticket to the Lagoon contains a towel, a free first drink and a free face mask. Nevertheless, 100 USD, you gotta be kidding me. What I liked about the place was its size, the pool is pretty damn big, and also the water temperature of only 38 degrees agreed with me. Japanese Onsens always have the tendency to be too hot for me. It was nice, but it’s not worth 100 USD, which doesn’t include the 40 USD bus transfer from and to the place by the way. It’s about 45 min away from Reykjavik. After the bath, I walked around outside through blue water ponds and rivers next to the spa, which was nicely bizarre.
All in all the Blue Lagoon is, as expected, a rip off. Well, been there, done that and had the most expensive bath of my life 😉 But I also appreciated the place, since I didn’t need to shower that night in my horror hotel and could use their functioning hair dryer, hahaha 😉 
Then it was time for the last full day tour I had pre-booked, a drive around the Snaefellsness peninsula, which leads away from Route 1 and I thought it would be a bit less crowded than the main sites. That was indeed so and it was a nice ride, but the driver was rather terrible. He was telling us stories from the Icelandic Sagas befitting to the places we drove past or visited, since it was at Snaefellsness where the Vikings first landed. His stories were okay, but he was talking NON stop! I have never heard anyone talk so much in one day. His story telling style was also not the best, a bit repetitive and he kept coming back to the same points over and over. Anyway, the dude saved me a visit to the Saga museum. The sites were a bit less spectacular than the Golden Circle or the Glacier Lagoon, but nonetheless beautiful. The main mountain, Snaefellsjoekull, with a tiny glacier on top, kept unfortunately hiding in clouds.
Another famed mountain, the Kirkjufell, which was apparently used in GoT, also kept its top in the clouds.
We had rain in the morning as so often, but sunshine in the afternoon. Cliffs with hexagonal formations much like the Giants Causeway in Ireland were the highlight of the tour and great to look at, but all in all this was the least spectacular of the three long tours I made and unfortunately tainted by the endless flood of babble coming out of the guide guy.

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.

Iceland Report – Part 1

After Waken 2018 and a family visit for a few days seeing my sister and my dad, I set out again for adventure. This year the target was the fulfillment of a long harbored goal – I went to Iceland.
Before I will report on the plenty of nice stuff = the tours that I did, some general remarks of how I perceived the place. Iceland looks rich, very nice houses, well maintained, loads of new construction happening. They all must earn fortunes though, since the prices are ridiculous. A proper sandwich? 20 USD. I kid you not. A liter of water? 5 USD. I kid you not. A pizza, small salad and a soft drink at a food court like place = not a proper restaurant? 35 USD. A plate of pasta in a filthy side walk place? 20 USD.

All guides said that Icelanders hardly ever go out eating and I am not surprised. The hotels?…?? I had a lousy small room with a bed, a desk, one chair, a TV, a small open clothes rack, and a super filthy bathroom for 150 USD a night, no food included. The only thing good about the place was that is was right in the middle of town and yet quiet. The room was not cleaned during the entire week of my stay. The “room service” did nothing but empty the trash and give me new toilet paper, there was dust everywhere by the end of my stay. One guy at the reception was rather friendly, another lady was close to rude. They gave me a hair dryer that nearly exploded in my hand when I switched it on. Flames and smoke spewed out and I barely managed to switch it off before something bad happened to me.

The Icelanders are smart, they are using geothermal water for heating and showers. But the hot water in the old hotel (a building from the sixties maybe) stank so much of sulfur you could gag. The water felt soapy and was pretty disgusting. The shower was so hot it almost boiled you even at the coldest setting. And the stench… unbelievable.
All tour guides said, oh you can drink the cold water, if you let it run for five minutes. Admittedly the cold water didn’t stink, but I didn’t trust the old pipes of that filthy hotel and relied on the expensive bottled water for drinking and even for teeth brushing. The heating in my room wasn’t the best either. I had the radiator on at highest setting the whole time and it was just bearably warmish. I kept my yogurts and butter close to the window since there was no refrigerator. They didn’t change the bed sheets the whole week and I got fresh towels only once. I have never paid 150 USD per night yet for such crap. But – they can afford their shitty service, since a decent hotel costs you well over 200 USD the night and even youth hostels are pricey. They can also afford to rip people off like that because people keep coming. One guide said that in 2017 there were 2.3 something million visitors to an island with a population of 350,000 people. Wow. And they are coming for a reason, because, yes, the scenery is absolutely beautiful and stunning. 
With the amount of money I spent on tours, food and also some souvenirs, I can only afford to buy food and toiletries for the next two months or so, hahaha. But it was worth it. I wouldn’t want to miss this trip despite the shitty hotel and the horrendous costs. 
And despite the weather. I was actually lucky, since there was no long-lasting heavy rain during the three big trips I made. The only day where it rained non-stop was the day I went to the lava cave = I was inside even on the tour 😉 Also on my Blue Lagoon Day it was raining in the morning, but I was in bed 🙂 The other days were good, hardly any rain and even some sunshine along the way. Even if the sun shines though, it’s cold in Iceland. I was very happy that I dragged a winter coat along with me. Especially when there is wind, it’s quite fresh and it never got over 15 degrees air temperature. More in the range of around 10 degrees Celsius.

Despite the prices and everything, I might return to Iceland one day – in winter! 😉 Because it’s on my bucket list to see northern lights – aurora borealis one day and in winter it hardly ever gets below minus 20 in Iceland thanks to the Gulf Stream, while in other Scandinavian aurora viewing places it’s more like minus 40??? If I go in winter it will be only for two or three days though, in a better hotel also, paying the price, since in winter it’s only daylight or rather twilight from 12:00 to 15:00 – the rest is darkness. Yet unimaginable for me, but that’s what a local told me. Some pics as teasers in this report and next up will be more details about the tours I did 🙂

New Caledonian Diary – Part 1: Noumea

I think to remember that I got aware of the existence of New Caledonia for the first time around 2003, when I made my first trip to Australia. Some totally relaxed French people in light summer clothes were boarding a flight to a place called Noumea and I never heard of that place before or knew where it was. A quick Internet search revealed the island of New Caledonia and since I reportedly have a strong interest in Pacific Islands you’ve never heard of, I vowed to go there one day. It took a few years to realize the plan but now it happened.
The flight from Tokyo to Noumea takes eight hours and a bit. I arrived at about 23:00 and had ordered an airport shuttle bus. That bus drove a long while through a thoroughly dark countryside before arriving in Noumea. The La Tontouta airport is an astonishing 47 km from Noumea. New Caledonia is also probably one of the biggest islands you’ve never heard of. From Noumea at the south to the most northern town of Poum it is a whopping 425 km. New Caledonia has literally thousands of islands. The Grand Terre, which is the main island, north of it the main three Loyalty islands and the Isle of Pines to the south-west, plus thousands of tiny islands around the big atoll region. The mini bus dropped of some five parties before it was finally my turn as the last passenger and I arrived at my hotel only at 0:30. It was a boutique hotel three minutes from the Baie des Citrons and nobody was there at this time. They arranged to have my key in a safe and emailed me the number beforehand. Luckily everything went well and I got into my room all right.
On the first morning I inspected the Lemon Bay shortly, which has a lovely beach and promenade, then walked some 45 min into “downtown”.

The weather was glorious and the sun super intense. Without my full sun gear including Japanese long sun-protection gloves, I would have been burned in ten minutes. Downtown Noumea is a bit sleepy, but has a lovely Central Park. I’m not overly surprised that there are tensions between the French, the former colony overlords, and the local Kanak people. There are many more or less homeless looking locals while there is not a single French-looking homeless person. Also local youngsters hang out in troves, making the impression they have not much money to spend or things to do. Despite the big size of the island, the population is sparse, some 270,000 it seems and about 104,000 of them are Kanak people.

A cruise ship was parked right next door and a bunch of Australians swarmed town. The cruise ship looked nice but was several leagues smaller than the Independence of the Seas, which I boarded twice so far 😉 Apparently an Australian cruise ship arrives in town more or less every day and there are many places where you can pay with Australian dollars. The local currency is, however, the fancy Pacific Franc.
On the way back to the hotel I stopped by a shopping mall and bought a bunch of groceries, since my hotel room luckily had a kitchenette. Prices are amazing in New Caledonia, a few categories more expensive than in Japan and no wonder the locals have trouble making a living. After a magnificent sunset I called it a day.

A Bit of Northern Ireland

I was very happy about my hotel choice in Belfast, the Holiday Inn, since it was right in the city center and only a few meters away from the bus tour pick up point and the bus stop to Dublin. The bus tour down to the Antrim coast was great and we had big luck with the weather, some rain before and after the major attractions and sunshine in between. The bus stopped at the Dark Hedges, a row of magnificent trees used for several movies and TV shows, the most famous of them being Game of Thrones. Much of Game of Thrones is shot in Ireland and there are entire bus tours themed around the series, which reminded me a lot of the bus tours through New Zealand back in the day when the Lord of the Rings hype was at its peak 😉

Next up was the rope bridge at Carrick-a-Rede, where we had an hour and fifteen minutes of time and you needed them to get there and back due to a queue at the rope bridge, the coast is very beautiful and also a nesting place for seagulls.

After lunch in a Game of Thrones themed restaurant, the journey went on to the Giants Causeway, a formation of hexagonal rocks. There is one just like it in New Zealand too. They are formed by lava hitting the cold waters of the Atlantic or the southern pacific.

The rocks look fantastic but too many people were there. It’s a world heritage site and more or less the most popular destination in Northern Ireland. Last but not least the tour led to Dunluce castle ruins, which look quite spooky even from a distance.

All in all it was a great tour quite comparable to the Scottish Highlands trip. I did not see too much of Belfast, but then again, Belfast is the youngest city of Ireland and not spiked with ancient history. I regret a little bit that I had not enough time for the Titanic museum, but one can’t see everything 😉

A Little Bit of Scotland

After two days with the family in Germany, I headed on to Scotland. I visited England several times to go to London, Brighton and to Bloodstock heavy metal festival, but so far I had not made it to Scotland yet. Arrived in Edinburgh by plane from Cologne I felt like arriving in Tokyo. The town was packed with people for the Edinburgh international festival that on top of everything celebrated its 70th birthday. Frankly, I had not even known about the festival before I arrived. I went to the Edinburgh castle in the afternoon of the arrival day and thus did everything I had wanted to do in Edinburgh and escaped the crowds into the hotel. 2017-08-09 15.15.16
That hotel wasn’t a real hotel but a brand new student dorm vacant over the summer and not lived in yet by students. The rooms and facilities were all brand new and thus it was a pleasant experience. I was to spend four nights in Scotland and had booked two tours with a tourist bus company. A two day tour to Inverness and back and a one day tour visiting Stirling castle and a distillery. The Inverness tour was great. We drove over the highlands, visited some castles and famous Loch Ness. I had deliberately chosen a small bus with only 16 passengers and there was a lovely crowd on board and the guide was great too.

The highlands are very beautiful and at times reminded me a bit of the Great Plains of Mongolia. However, the highlands are more rocky and the mountains are higher too. 2017-08-10 09.36.24
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In Inverness I stayed in a sweet little bed and breakfast and two American ladies from my bus stayed in the same place. We went out together for food and spent a few minutes in a pub with live music. On the way back to Edinburgh we visited Culloden battlefield and mysterious Neolithic stone circles followed by a whisky distillery. That one delivered mostly to big whisky brands where the stuff gets blended and wasn’t so super interesting to be honest.
The one day tour led me to Stirling Castle, which is where Mary Queen of Scotts was born and it lies beautifully on a hill with 360 degree views and it was well visited but less crowded than the Edinburgh castle.
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Over country roads we went to Loch Lomond which is ripe with sailing boats and a holiday destination. Last part of the day was “real” distillery, Glengoyne, still in private ownership and originally Scottish. I still am not a whisky fan, the stuff is too strong for me and I prefer my port wine, but it was interesting to learn how whisky is made.
Apart from the too full Edinburgh, which is a city of 700,000 people and not laid out for double that during festival times, I thoroughly enjoyed the Scotland trip and got what I wanted, some old castles and beautiful landscapes.

A word on politics. Both tour guides were Scottish and greatly in favor of Scotland leaving the U.K. and becoming their own country. The desire for independence from the U.K. was freshly renewed after the Brexit idiocy. The most recent vote for independence was held before Brexit happened and both Scotsman said they are dead sure that if the vote had been held after the Brexit decision, it would have looked different. I don’t know how representative those two guides are of course, but they both said that many of the 52% who voted to remain in the U.K. were scared by propaganda that the U.K. said “you guys cannot survive economically without us”. Now though the sentiment is even worse, since at least those two Scotsman think they cannot survive without the EU but can well survive without the U.K. Both were totally against Brexit and said that Brexit was the stupidest thing the British have ever done. I find myself agreeing with those two guides. Get out of the U.K., Scotland and remain in the EU!