Sunday, November 26, 2006

Visiting Kyoto, Nara and Osaka, and clubbing in Tokyo

It is nice that Annett and I both write about our experiences here in Japan, because it takes half the amount of time! (Sure thing, Captain Obvious...)

Anyway, Annett has written about our trip to Kyoto, Nara and Osaka (here are the pictures) and about our clubbing experience in Tokyo (here are the pictures)!

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Saturday, November 25, 2006

Four days in Seoul

Although I attempted for several months to get a visa in Japan, I didn't manage. Japan is rather strict about who they let into the country, and my unofficial status as a "university guest" wasn't helping. With a regular tourist visa I was able to stay in Japan for just 91 days. However, Annett and I had planned to stay until Christmas, a total of 107 days. Instead of shortening our stay, we decided to leave the country for a couple of days. Since Japan is an island, and since boats are slow, we had to fly our way out of there, and so we flew to the nearest country we could easily get into: South Korea.

More precisely, our destination was Seoul. Although Seoul has yet to acquire the touristic status of for instance Bangkok, it has (almost) all the facilities we could wish for: most people who make a business speak at least half-decent English, and at most touristic cultural sites, like for instance the palaces and the Korean Folk Village we visited, there were either English speaking guides or boards with English explanations.

We managed to find a room in a small family run hotel called Yims House (half of the Korean population is called Yim), where we had our own bath room with bath and shower. Furthermore, we had a television with about 80 channels, including the hilarious American Air Force National channel, and this provided us with the perfect way to relax after a long day of sight-seeing.

In the limited amount of time we had, we were able to see quite a few interesting things, partly because the staff of the hostel was?? so friendly to give us some tips about what we should see and what was not very interesting. We visited, for example, four of the five palaces situated in Seoul. These were very beautiful and interesting, but we had seen similar things in Japan. On the other hand, visiting the Korean Folk Village was a unique experience. It was amazing to walk around in a reconstruction of a medium-sized city and see, no feel, what life was like for a Korean in the 19th century.

Again thanks to the staff of the hostel, it came to our knowledge that there was the possibility of taking a DMZ tour (DeMilitarized Zone), a trip to the border between North and South Korea. This turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip to Seoul. With the goal to quietly attack South Korea, North Korea dug several tunnels under the border. Four of these have been discovered, the first of which in 1978 and the last in 1990. And at our DMZ tour we were able to enter one of these tunnels!

Our tunnel was discovered because an engineer from North Korea had managed to flee the country, together with the knowledge that North Korea was digging such tunnels to attack South Korea. To detect these tunnels, South Korea put water pipes in the ground at many places. When the North Koreans used their dynamite to construct the tunnel, one of these pipes blew up and as a result water flew up in the air (or something like that...). When they found the tunnel, the North Koreans claimed it was one of their coal mines (apparently they had accidentally ended up under South Korea). They had even gone through the trouble of painting them black! Unfortunately we were not allowed to take any pictures inside the tunnel.

Altogether we had a very interesting experience in Seoul. It is definitely a comfortable and cheap city to visit, although four days is, naturally, too short. Something we really noticed was the gap in attitude between the younger and the older generation. Starting at what we think is the age of 55, people become a bit impolite, pushing you for instance aside to get into the metro, and almost all older men give Annett a long, animalistic sort of look, even turning their head when passing by (this is something we also experienced in Romania, but then by mainly the younger men). Apart from this, we had a great time in Seoul.

For more pictures, look at Annett's picture page.

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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Kabuki and yakitori

As usual, this weblog - and Annett her weblog as well, admittedly to a lesser extend - is outdated. I had completely forgotten to write about our trip together with Edwin and Sjoerd to Kabuki, traditional Japanese theater. Thanks to a headset and an English translation, we were able to follow the story line and learn a thing or two about Kabuki. For instance, Kabuki is not as much focussed on realism, as western theater usually is, as on beauty and perfectionism. It was a very interesting experience, and I would go again if I would have the chance. Unfortunately we were not allowed to take any pictures inside, but we were of course allowed to take a picture in front of the theater.

Here is a nice picture of the four of us in a yakitori place, I believe from the night before they returned to The Netherlands. (Notice the cool, typical handwritten menu hanging on the ceiling.)

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Monday, November 20, 2006

Biking in Japan

Just when Annett and I came back from Seoul, Joost payed us a visit. After finishing his studies in mathematics, he had been travelling for two months through China and Thailand. Now he came to Japan to visit his host family, with whom he had lived nine years ago for a whole year by means of an exchange program, and of course the guy he used to bike with. After biking through Germany and Poland last year, we planned upon going on a biking trip through Denmark. This never happened, because by then I had moved to Oslo to live together with Annett and started working on my PhD. Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans... :)

When it turned out that we would both be in Japan around this time of the year, it was only natural to consider a biking holiday in Japan. With almost all preparation done by Joost - I had neither a madras nor a sleeping bag when I left home - we went to Hikone, a small city located near the to pick up our bikes.

Starting our journey at the Biwa lake turned out to be a great choice: there was not too much traffic, it was flat and beautiful. Later on the day we had to climb a small mountain, and we encountered our first tunnel, something Joost had been warned for in a book he was reading in which a woman describes her experiences of her biking trip in the land of the rising sun.

Facing the tunnels definitely belonged to the darker parts of our trip. Usually there are no separate biking roads, and cars and trucks are not allowed to pass each other. Of course they are always willing to make an exception for those annoyingly slow bikers, which is nearly impossible and therefore rather scary. Sometimes there is, however, also the possibility of biking on the side walk, but because of 60 centimeters of luggage on the back, these 80 centimeters of sidewalk leave just 80 - 60/2 = 50 centimeters to balance oneself while being passed by trucks. Furthermore, inside such a tunnel a scooter sounds like a truck, and a truck sounds like an airplane, and I can assure you that you feel slightly pressured if an airplane is chasing your hiney. Needless to say that we felt relieved each time our carbon coated faces finally saw the light at the end of the tunnel...

More than at any of the previous biking trips we camped at some peculiar places. With its 130 million inhabitants, most of Japan is highly cultivated. This makes it difficult to find a spot to put up a tent that is not too much in sight. The first night we found a particularly nice place: a small park next to the Japanese sea! Parks are very nice, because there is usually a public toilet (these are pretty clean in Japan). The second night we again ended up in a park next to the sea. However, because it had become stormy and rainy weather, we slept that night in a three by three meter handicapped toilet: big enough to put inside both our bikes and put up our tent to prevent us being bothered by mosquito's! Obviously we were able to lock the toilet, thereby keeping the local schizophrenic outside (and here I was wondering who this guy was calling to all this time...). The third night it was again very bad weather, and the best spot we could come up with was a shed of an elementary school. (Personally I think Joost went a little bit too far the forth night, when he camped under the entrance gate of that Shinto shrine...)

On the third and last day of our biking trip we had very bad weather, so we were kind of forced to use the train. In Japan you officially need a special bag around your bike when you want to take it with you on the train. Since they were supposedly rather expensive, we had never bought these bags. We first wanted to make sure if these bags were really necessary. Joost even tried it the sentimental way: "But we don't have such bags..." However, the ticket clerk disappeared and came back with a board on which the rule was written, as if to show that it was really impossible since it was written on a board. Anyway, we decided to construct our own bag from a some garbage bags and a roll of tape. The result was disputable, but, in any case, it enabled us to take our bikes on the train.

When we got of the train, I experienced an embarrassing moment. We had to carry our bikes, wheels and all of our bags of the train, and since we stopped somewhere in the middle of nowhere, this all had to be done in limited amount of time. When I finally carried the last bike of the train, the door closed and I was stuck pushing with all might to keep the door open: according to the looks of it a stalemate allowing neither me to get of the train, nor the lady who had been waiting all this time get on the train. Fortunately I managed to squeeze out a short "haite kudasai" (please come in), and the lady crawled under my arm into the train and I jumped of the train with my bike...

At this moment the rain was still pouring down and we got completely soaked biking the last ten kilometers to a touristic spot that is famous for its onsen (hot springs). We left our bikes and luggage at an elementary school, ate some delicious udon (big Japanese noodles), and visited a hot spring that was praised in the Lonely Planet. On our way we met hundreds of Japanese walking around in yukata and on their geta, which was a pretty remarkable sight. The onsen was absolutely wonderful, and I recognized some things I had seen in anime before, like the typical cleaning seats and the towels they're wearing on their head. After biking for three consecutive days we could really appreciate the healing and cleansing of the onsen. We stayed inside for about two hours, which is of course way to long for such a hot bath...

When we walked back to our bikes we met a Japanese man in his sixties, who invited us into the bar we were standing in front of. We had already been hearing some interesting vocals coming out of the bar, and we were keen to find out what was going on. Once inside, we saw a whole group of tipsy Japanese men in their sixties, dancing around in their yukata while singing karaoke (yes, Joost has some movies of it...)! It turned out they were all coming from the same neighboring town and now had "an evening with the guys", while their wifes were doing other things. Needless to say we had a great time talking to them and doing some karaoke songs ourselves! They kept on giving us drinks and snacks, and in the end of the evening the bar lady made us some onigiri (rice rolls) and some Japanese green tea. We got to practise a lot of Japanese, and for me it was a great way to end our biking trip.

Joost has many more cool pictures (tunnel, onsen, swimming in the Japanese sea etc.), but I can't reach those right now. So more later! :)

Update: Joost now has also written a piece about the biking trip on his weblog.

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