A Travellerspoint blog

Beer Doesn’t Kill Germans; Germans Kill Germans. With Beer.

Tales from Stuttgart’s Oktoberfest

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It's October in Germany, and that can mean only one thing: the miracle that comes from combining water, malt, yeast and vine flower cones...

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Bier hier, Bier hier, or else I will collapse

After a week and a half of mostly staying around Lynn’s sister Gail’s place or the military bases getting practical matters taken care of, on Saturday night we finally got outselves out of the house. One of Mark’s former coworkers, Dave, invited us to join him and his wife Arlene for the evening at the Canstatter Volksfest, Stuttgart’s answer to Munich’s Oktoberfest. I haven't properly fact-checked this (hey, it’s election season so who’s checking facts), but apparently this is the second largest fall festival (read: huge beer-focused event) in Germany.

Knowing that finding a parking place in the city would be even more fiendishly difficult than usual, we took the S-Bahn (commuter train) into the city. Immediately upon arriving at the festival grounds stop, we were surrounded by already-tipsy Germans wearing red and white scarves -- the VfB Stuttgart football team had apparently just wrapped up a 4-1 trouncing of Bremen... and the whole stadium came next door to the Volksfest to celebrate. Beer and soccer hooligans, one of the classic recipes for fun, fun, fun!

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"We're Nummer Eins! We're Nummer Eins!"

Not being much for ferris wheels and other carnival rides (and it was only about 45º), we had a walk around the grounds, and then found a nice beerhall to grab some dinner.

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Yes, that girl in the Dirndl is wearing light-up bunny ears

The tents were all completely packed, and very loud with music and drunk people. Not the oom-pah bands you'd expect, though; the first one we walked through had a rock band playing "The Time Warp" from Rocky Horror Picture Show. A thousand Germans screaming, "It's just a jump to ze left..." was as surreal as it sounds. We grabbed a seat outside in the cold and ordered up some nice, light Schwäbisch (southwestern German) grub: personally, I murdered a couple of smoked pork steaks with sauerkraut and rye bread.

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Lynn is having a love affair with those spätzl, and Dave seems surprised at how good his roast chicken is

Now, normally, you have to understand that German society is very polite and reserved, and order is the guiding principle of life. At festivals like this, however, the concept of "restraint" is utterly absent -- as exemplified by the mugs of beer, which only come in one size: a maß (as in "massive"), which is about a liter.

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Gail is a "limonade"-drinking lightweight

Interestingly, Germans generally have a much more healthy attitude toward alcohol than Americans. Kids are allowed to start drinking beer when they are teenagers, and as a rule they are very responsible drinkers. Most of the people at the fest were out having a great time and behaving themselves.

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Nice lederhosen, dude!

Then suddenly, as we were eating, there was a crash from within the tent, and a bunch of beer-besotted ruffians came tumbling out in a melée of fists and spurting blood. Within seconds, there were security guards and Polizei officers everywhere, and sirens as paddywagons pulled up.

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Yes, that's a guy with blood all over his shirt, five feet away from us

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"Bad jungen, bad jungen, was machst du ven zey komm für you?"

We spent the rest of the evening finishing our drinks and watching the entertainment as the German cops chased down, clubbed, and arrested the instigators. There's an old parable I love about the nations of Europe...

Heaven is where the police are British, the cooks are French, the mechanics are German, the lovers are Italian, and the whole thing is organized by the Swiss. Hell is where the cooks are British, the mechanics are French, the police are German, the lovers are Swiss, and the whole thing is organized by the Italians.

How true.

Posted by Bwinky 03:42 Archived in Germany Tagged food Comments (3)

Toilet Traumas

In which Lynn relates her experiences with some very iffy biffies

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Anyone who has travelled extensively knows that it is going to happen eventually. Well, it happened to me right away in Asia. I ate something that didn't agree with my fragile western stomach, and paid for it for the next couple of days. This gave me the wonderful opportunity to become intimately acquainted with the toilets in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Japan... every twenty minutes.

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Indonesia and Malaysia are lands of squat toilets. The advantage of these toilets is that you get a great thigh workout at the same time (anyone that knows me knows that I love multi-tasking). It also is truly ergonomically correct in facilitating the evacuation of one's bowels. Unfortunately, these bathrooms only supply water and a scoop for it -- no toilet paper. If you are firmly in the wipe-over-wash category, make sure you always have toilet paper with you.

Imagine riding on an overnight bus that is filled with people sprawled everywhere trying to sleep while the bus is careening down the road, swerving in and out of oncoming traffic like a spy being chased by the KGB.

Then suddenly... you have to go.

Into the tiny, smelly, damp 2' x 2' cubicle at the back of the bus with a hole in the middle of the floor and two grid marks on either side for better traction -- if only the bus tires had this much traction -- you must venture. As the bus sways radically, accelerating and decelerating with no perceivable pattern, you try to balance over the hole while keeping any piece of clothing from touching the ground or sides. Remember to breathe through your mouth!

Then the bus lurches forward and you have to reach out to catch yourself from falling face-first into the wall. It is damp from something... don't think about it! Just grab one of your precious pieces of toilet paper and wipe it off as best you can. As you are attempting to pull your underpants back up, your elbow hits the flimsy door and it swings open... to hit a man that is trying to sleep outside the bathroom. Quickly! Pull the door shut and get yourself presentable before reopening the door and stepping over the man without making any eye contact as you find your way back to your seat. Try to forget about what is fermenting on your hand until you can find a sink to wash it in -- four hours later.

I will absolutely deny that this was me... I am simply relating a story another traveller told me. Yeah, that's it!

Mind you, in people's homes the toilets were very clean even when they were squatters.

Singapore provided both squat and sit toilets, and they were far more clean and sometimes they even had toilet paper. I was very thankful for this since I was getting a weak with dehydration, which made it harder balancing over the squat toilets...

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Now in Japan, the toilets are really high-tech -- when you walk in, the cover automatically opens for you. If it is below a certain temperature in the room, the seat is heated. And believe it or not, there is a little remote control on the side of the seat, with a button that makes a flushing noise (for those with gastric problems they don't want others in the bathroom hearing). And, they have three different buttons for washing your "backside" with a jet of warm water, a button for drying after you have washed, and a 'STOP' button. And of course, there is also toilet paper for the fearful American who doesn't want to try the wash & dry settings.

I mentioned how we don't have any high-tech toilets like that in America to a Japanese woman we met, and she asked if I had tried the buttons. I had to confess that I had not and she said, with a twinkle in her eye, "Oh, I highly recommend it." I didn't ask any further questions, but determined to push the 'WASH' button next time...

It was amazing how the jet of warm water found its exact "mark" each time.

I started to wonder whose job it is to figure out precisely where the "target" will be when sitting on the toilet. Can you imagine if that was your job? How do you explain that at Christmas parties? "Hi, I'm Tony. I am a salesman for vending machines. So, what do you do?"

There is also one button that I never tried. It was the only one that didn't have a picture symbol under the Japanese Kanji "letters." I was afraid I would come out of the stall with wet hair or something.

I will always wonder if this was the button that made the Japanese woman's eyes twinkle...

Posted by Bwinky 03:16 Archived in Japan Tagged health_and_medicine Comments (8)

Incongruities

Random thoughts from our detour

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Note: if you have not subscribed to our blog, you can do so by clicking 'Subscribe' in the menu bar to the right, and you will receive an email notice for each new post. Also, we have updated our itinerary and map; click 'Asia 08' above to view it. It's kinda nifty...

Things we didn’t expect to see on our trip to Asia. This:

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Nor this:

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I guess sometimes life’s most interesting journeys are the ones you weren’t anticipating. We left Japan on Sunday, September 14th, to return to the USA for Lynn’s brother-in-law’s funeral in Tucson, and are now in Germany helping her sister organize her stuff to move home.

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Mark Allen was born in St. Louis in 1958. He enlisted in the United States Air Force in 1982 and met Lynn’s sister Gail at their first assignment, in California, where she was told by a friend that he gave really good backrubs. They married in 1985, and duty assignments stationed them in the Azores Islands (following which she retired), Oklahoma City (part of which Mark spent in Korea), Biloxi, Germany, and Boston. A satellite communications specialist, Mark was often among the first military personnel into a hotspot, and he was veteran of missions to Panama, the Persian Gulf, and the Balkans.

Mark retired after 22 years of service, and he and Gail returned to Germany, where he worked for the European Command in Stuttgart as a civilian contractor. Last year he began to suffer from ongoing health problems, and shortly after Lynn and I bought our tickets for the trip in March, he was diagnosed with amyloidosis, a rare cancer-like disease which produces excess proteins that then attack the body. After months in German hospitals, he was being airlifted back to the USA for treatment, and he passed away at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C.

We spoke with Mark and Gail while we were in Bali, before they began the journey home, and he told us (he didn’t ask -- as a sergeant he was used to being obeyed) to continue our trip, enjoy ourselves, and not worry. The day we arrived in Nara, we received the news of his passing, and so we began to make our emergency plans to return home.

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Lynn and Mark having a relaxing evening during our visit in 2006

Mark was a good friend to us, and loyal in service to our country. The funeral was held at the Southern Arizona Veterans Cemetery, a peaceful spot in the mountains overlooking the Sonoran Desert. The words of the soldier from the Honor Guard who presented Gail his flag, “Ma’am, the President of the United States, the Department of the Air Force, and a grateful nation thank you for your husband’s service,” are a beautiful tribute.

Thank you, Mark.

We travelled from Nara back to Tokyo (rather than on to Korea as originally planned) where we spent a couple of days in the stores, since any funeral-worthy clothes we had were in storage in Houston. Shopping in Tokyo is a pretty interesting experience. For starters, it’s ridiculously expensive, but we were able to find an outfit for Lynn that wasn’t too bad, and I really scored -- found a men’s store with a big sale going and I was able to put together a whole suit, shoes included, for only about $280.

Equally cool was that I really fit the Japanese mold for size: I was able to pull a suit right off the rack and it didn’t need any alterations except hemming -- something I have never been able to do in the States. Lynn, however, really went through a brutal self-esteem bludgeoning. “I have never felt like such a fat cow,” she whimpered after trying on what seemed like dozens of outfits that were all too small. “The women here are all toothpicks!” We were completely unable to find her a pair of shoes that fit -- they simply don’t come any larger than a size 7.

We spent our final Tokyo night with a uniquely Japanese experience: a capsule hotel. This is the cheapest place you’ll find in Japan to lay your head, at about $35 per person for the night: designed for business travelers on short stays, you get a locker, access to a common bathroom, and your very own little 3’ x 6’ x 3’ private sleeping capsule in a room of twenty, complete with a tiny TV. Men and women have their own separate floors.

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Dang, which one was mine again?

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What, no tatami mat?

We left early the next morning on a very long day that took us from Tokyo to Beijing, to San Francisco, to Phoenix. The stop in Beijing was actually rather interesting. All that stuff you heard about them trying to clear the smog for the Olympics? Here’s how successful they were:

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Welcome to -- *gag, cough* -- China

Beijing has a fantastic airport that they recently built in anticipation of the Olympics and the imminent growth of air travel to and from China. The central terminal was quite amazingly lovely -- after we got through the most absurdly thorough Immigration check for connecting passengers that I’ve ever experienced... including thermal scanners to check whether you have a fever. I am not making this up. Lynn was suffering from a cold and we were praying she didn’t have a coughing fit. “No, really sir, it’s just the... *cough* ...pollution! Yeah, that’s it... It’s not SARS, really!”

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Welcome to China. Listen to beautiful music during your Immigration rectal exam!

The funny thing was, they have this massive airport, and one thing immediately struck us...

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Hellooo...looo...looo...

There was hardly anyone in it. They did, however, have really cool lounge chairs at the gates. Find that at O’Hare!

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”Pardon me while I take a load off...”

After, I don’t know, maybe 30 hours (it gets really hard to keep track of time when you’re changing time zones that frequently) we arrived in Phoenix. We picked up Lynn’s sister Jane the next day and drove to Tucson, which is a very pleasant city, incidentally.

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Sunrise over the valley

The day after the funeral, my mom came down for a couple days’ visit. Then we hung out for the next few days, and on Thursday the 25th, we flew to Stuttgart via Los Angeles and Düsseldorf. In college, I briefly dated a girl whose family lived in Düsseldorf, and I went over for a visit one summer, so it was fun to see the city from above as we landed -- “Oh, hey, I remember that Rhine Tower...”

So now we are with Gail in the small town of Waldenbuch, just outside of Stuttgart. It’s beautiful country around here in southern Germany, very much like Wisconsin -- weather-wise, as well: all this week it’s been cloudy, drizzly and 50°. Just what we were attempting to escape. Last week was lovely, sunny fall weather, though, and we enjoyed seeing the color spreading across the forests.

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Making cider at the Stadtmühle (town mill)

Waldenbuch’s claim to fame is being the home of Ritter Sport, Germany’s favorite chocolate bar.

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My personal favorite variety, dark chocolate with hazelnuts

It comes neatly divided into 16 easy-breaking squares, with a resealable wrapper. Advertising slogan: Practisch. Quadratisch. Gut.

“Practical. Square. Good.”

Which pretty much sums up Germany itself.

As a side note, here's one good thing about this detour that I learned: we avoided a huge typhoon that recently swept through southern China and northern Vietnam, leaving about 50 people dead in flooding. We were originally due to arrive about a week after it came through.

I’ll take the Deutsche drizzle, thanks.

So, we're here until October 8th, when we fly from Frankfurt to Amsterdam to Seoul and resume our trip, starting with a visit to our good friend April, who is in Korea teaching English.

Posted by Bwinky 03:45 Archived in Germany Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

Nara, Nara... Nara, Nara... Hey, Hey, Hey... Kansai

Shoguns, Shrines, and Shinkansen in the heart of Japan

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On Monday, September 8th (which already feels like a lifetime ago, but more on that in the next post...), we arrived in Nara, a smallish city that is part of the great urban sprawl known as the Kansai. This large mass of human habitation combines Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe and others into Japan’s second-largest megalopolis. Like Tokyo and Yokohama, Osaka and Kobe are pretty much one big endless city; Kyoto and Nara are both about a half-hour’s train ride through rolling hills. Nara was our choice for a home base from which to explore the region.

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The city of Nara from the surrounding hills

In the 7th century, Nara became Japan’s first capital city, and during this period the world’s largest wooden structure, the Todai-Ji temple, was built.

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The entry to the Todai-ji: burn some incense for good luck

Now, when I say the world’s largest wooden building, I know what you’re thinking -- “Hmm, OK, it’s the world’s largest wooden building. *yawn* What else ya got?” I know this, because we thought the same thing when we read the description in the guidebook. “Well, it’s the world’s largest wooden building, and the reason people come to Nara. I suppose we should go see it.”

What you fail to comprehend is that this temple is big. I mean, really big. Words and especially little pictures on a blog in no way communicate the immense hugeness of the Todai-ji. You don’t even realize how big it is from a distance. You see the thing from a fair way off as you’re walking up to it, and you think you’re not that far away; then the walk is a lot longer than you thought and the temple just keeps looming bigger and bigger. When we finally stood at the bottom of the front steps, we both looked at each other and said, “This thing is really... big.

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For perspective, note the size of the people in the doorway

Oh, and for the record, the current building was built in the 16th century after the first one burned down... and it’s only two-thirds the size of the original.

Inside the Todai-ji is a very large (of course) bronze Buddha. It is also quite amazingly huge. And again, you don’t really realize how big it is when you’re first looking at it, until you notice a guy standing in front of it for perspective.

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”I’m the Buddha, and I am way bigger (and more enlightened) than you will ever be.”

We stayed in Nara with a very pleasant couple, Mayumi Anzai and Rob (never got his last name). Mayumi runs a restaurant called the Cafe Youan in the old part of the city.

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Mayumi and Rob, hard at work in the cafe kitchen

She lives in the rooms upstairs and starting hosting couchsurfers. Rob came to visit, wound up staying for a while, and they became an item and he’s been there since (apparently, they are not the first host/guest couple who have met through Couch Surfing...). Mayumi is quite the whiz in the kitchen, and whipped up a fantastic batch of veggie tempura for us while we were there.

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Oh, and that salad in the foreground? Seaweed -- the Japanese love it... imagine wet spinach

The next day, we took the train an hour or so west to Japan’s most perfectly-preserved medieval castle, the Himeji-jo.

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Himeji-jo castle: Samurai not included

Through most of the Middle Ages, Japan was a collection of feuding city-states. Each local warlord built his own castle like this, with a massive central tower. When the extremely ruthless shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa consolidated control in Tokyo in the 16th century, most castles were destroyed, but Himeji-jo fortunately was spared.

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Muskets inside the castle

Now, I have always found this phase of Japanese history fascinating -- bushido, the samurai code of honor, the Jesuit missionaries and persecution of Christians under the Tokugawas, etc. I think it started when I played Ko-Ko, the inept Lord High Executioner in Gilbert & Sullivan’s brilliant comic operetta The Mikado, in eighth grade. Pardon me for a brief lyric interlude from its opening chorus...

If you want to know who we are, we are gentlemen of Japan
On many a vase and jar, on many a screen and fan
We figure in lively paint, our attitudes queer and quaint
You’re wrong if you think it ain’t...

I venture off into this cultural tangent only because this traditional view of the Japanese culture it portrays...

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...is so far from the reality of today. As was illustrated to us that evening when we stopped in Osaka on our way back to have dinner in Dotombori, the riverside entertainment district.

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Today’s “gentlemen of Japan” posing amid the Dotombori neon

Osaka is Japan’s Chicago -- a hard-working, broad-shouldered merchant city that really knows how to cut loose and have a good time. They even have a unique slang word, kuiadore, that means to eat and drink until you collapse (thank you, Anthony Bourdain, for inspiring us to stop and experience it). And they have a specialty that I was dying to try: okonomiyaki, an omelette-like pancake of egg, cabbage, and meat smothered in mayonnaise and barbeque sauce that you cook yourself on a griddle-table. Sounds kind of nasty, but darn tasty: good, solid, hard-working-and-partying “Take your fancy sashimi and shove it” food.

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Eggs and chopsticks: a difficult combination to master

We spent two days exploring Kyoto, which is kind of like going to Italy and spending only two days in Florence -- there’s so much to see there, you can barely scratch the surface in a week, let alone a couple of days. At first glance, Kyoto is not a particularly attractive city; the visitor expecting to step off the train into a woodblock print of old Japan is facing disappointment. For starters, the train station itself is a modern architectural wonderland...

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Kyoto station: keep taking the escalators up and don't look down

...and the city itself is, well, just a city.

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Downtown Kyoto from the 15th floor of the station -- which, yes, has 15 floors

Like an oyster, Kyoto’s exterior is tough, gray, and ugly, and you have to work hard to pry it open.

Nice metaphor, eh?

Well, I can’t extend it to come up with something in Kyoto to compare to the nasty filter-feeding creature inside... but the point is that deep inside if you look hard enough, you find beautiful pearls. Peaceful shrines, tree-lined canals, geisha hurrying to appointments in the alleys of the Gion entertainment district: this is the real Kyoto, and it’s waiting for the patient seeker to find it. I’ll let the pictures do the rest of the talking...

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Torii in the Fushimi-Inari shrine, made famous in the movie Memoirs of a Geisha

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Wearing kimonos for a walk in the bamboo forest

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Wooden bridge in the Arashiyama district in the waning sunlight

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Strolling along the Philosopher’s Walk

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Backstreets of Gion

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Two maiko, apprentice geisha, out in their finery at dusk

It seems appropriate that Kyoto is the very soul of Japan, because it has a talent for working its way into your soul and making you sorry to leave it.

And so, with our time in Japan ending and the necessity of our return to the United States looming, we headed back to Tokyo aboard the shinkansen, or bullet train -- one of Japan’s most iconic engineering marvels. Head to the station and find your platform...

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Smile in wonder as the sleek white machine glides to halt almost silently...

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And settle in as you are whisked past the Japanese countryside at over 250 miles per hour.

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A very pleasant way to begin a not-so-pleasant detour.

Posted by Bwinky 12:54 Archived in Japan Tagged tourist_sites Comments (1)

The Very Shy Mountain

Searching for Fuji-San

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We climbed a mountain, but Fuji-San wasn’t there.

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We crossed the water, but Fuji-San wasn’t there.

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We flew through the sky, but Fuji-San wasn’t there.

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So we took a train somewhere else, and Fuji-San still wasn’t there.

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“Ah, Fuji-San is very shy,” said the lady who ran the B&B we stayed at in Moto-Hakone, a mountain town by the shore of Lake Ashi, near Mount Fuji. It’s no surprise that we weren’t able to see Japan’s iconic volcano, really -- summer is very humid here and the sky is hazy. You can really only be sure of seeing Fuji-San (the suffix “-San” is used as both an honorific title, like “Mister,” and a word that means “Mount”) in the winter, when the air is totally clear. At other times, Fuji-San mostly remains bashfully cloaked in a swath of clouds.

It’s OK that we came to the mountains of central Japan and didn’t get to see Fuji-San, though. There’s plenty else to do and see in this resort area, including hiking on cedar-lined trails that were once the main highway between Kyoto and Tokyo...

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The old Tokaido Highway. You can almost hear the clip-clop of the hooves of a passing samurai’s horse.

...As well as soaking in onsens, spas that feature baths in natural hot springs.

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Obviously, I couldn’t take pictures inside the baths, because they were full of naked people, including us. And my camera has a phobia of hot steamy water. This is the outside of the Ten Zan onsen.

Japan sits smack-dab on top of one of the most geothermally active parts of the planet, and hot water bubbles up from below all over the place. The Japanese love to soak themselves in it; in fact, they say that the onsen is the only part of their culture that is uniquely Japanese, not imported from mainland Asia.

Some onsens are free, but most cost anywhere from $10-25 to visit. You take off your shoes upon entering (like almost everyplace else in Japan) and pay your fee, then men and women go their separate ways. You put your clothes in a locker and take a shower (major faux pas to go into a public bath without cleaning the naughty bits first), sitting down on a bench and washing, using a bowl to rinse yourself. You have a sweat in the nuclear-hot sauna if you like, then step outside into the rotemburo, a series of pools of various degrees of heat and bubblocity. Most of the pools are lined with natural rock and nestled in overhanging foliage. It’s quite beautiful, and very relaxing. Settle in, and if you’re going totally Japanese, drape the little towel you use to cover yourself outside the baths over your head.

After a good long soak in the bath of your choice, you shower off again, put on a yukata (light cotton kimono) and relax with tea and a book. It’s all very peaceful and reinvigorating after a long day hiking (or slaving in the office, if you’re Japanese).

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Nothing but the sound of the waterfall outside

After a couple of Fuji-less days in Hakone, we moved on to Takayama, a small city on the edge of the Japan Alps.

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Takayama from the foothills

The riverside old town has beautiful streets lined with perfectly preserved wooden and half-timber houses built during the era of the Shoguns, from the 17th-19th centuries.

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Edo-era shops and houses

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Waiting for a fare

Needless to say, it’s a very popular weekend trip for Japanese families.

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”I refuse to smile for foreigners just because I look so darn cute in my kimono!"

Takayama is full of ryokans, traditional Japanese inns.

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Ryokan Irori Sosuke

For about $100 per night, you get your own futon in a tatami-lined room with sliding paper doors, a yukata, and a bath down the hall.

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I think I’m turning Japanese, I think I’m turning Japanese, I really think so...

For a bit more, you can get meals downstairs, by the irori, the small fireplace in the living room.

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Inside the ryokan

Refreshed from our time in the mountains even if we didn’t see Fuji-San, we headed onward to the cultural heart of Japan, the Kansai region: a big conurbation of the cities of Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, and our destination -- Nara, Japan’s 7th century capital and home to the world’s largest wooden building, the Todai-ji temple.

Posted by Bwinky 20:04 Archived in Japan Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

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