How to Plan a Holiday

My last week got overrun by more vacation planning and I didn’t really have time to do much writing. However, since I’ve turned my gaze once more to the fun fun prospect of organizing my next international adventure, it seemed like a great time to share my process with you.


Related imagePlan? That sounds like WORK! Isn’t a holiday supposed to be FUN? Yes, but if you want to maximize your vacation time and money, taking the time and effort to plan ahead makes a world of difference. Unless you’re rich enough to just hire someone to plan the trip for you (and even then, finding the right tour company is important too!) you need to commit to planning. The time-money-quality triangle applies to everything, even holidays. The more time you put into the plan, the less money you need for high quality results. 

Step 1: Find Your Holiday Mission Statement

Planning a trip doesn’t start with booking a hotel and flight. There are some pre-trip questions you should really think about before any web searches or bookings take place.

How do you want to feel?

One of my friends loves laying on the beach with a book for days on end, but that sounds boring as heck to me after about 3 hours. Neither of us is right or wrong, but we want different things from our holiday. It’s important to know what your goals are, it’s kind of your vacation mission statement. From then on, any time you’re faced with an option or choice you can check to see if it matches your mission statement. Much like for a business, a vacation mission statement works best when it’s as specific as possible, while still being brief.

What you want from your holiday? Leisure? Adventure? Food? Shopping? Change of scenery? Nightlife? Art? History? Be pampered? Get dirty? 

What do you want to see?

Decide if you’re having a destination holiday or an experience holiday.

Destination holidays are those where you want to see a specific place like Rome or the Pyramids. There are awesome things everywhere in the world, but there’s only one Rome. Destination driven holidays should be more focused on off-season travel to maximize savings and also to avoid the high-season crowds. 

Destination driven holidays also need to think about weather as well as expenses. My favorite Thai island is closed 6 months of the year. Last fall, I had to find a different magical island getaway. My friend wants to go to Egypt and for a minute she thought she’d go in the summer break until I showed her the weather reports that include regular temps in the 40s (C). Now we’re going in February.

Experience holidays are ones in which you first consider your time off, and then see what’s having an off season sale that you might be interested in at that time. Sometimes, you can’t help but go to the popular place at the popular time. Work and school schedules are not always cooperative, but it is worth considering what else is available.

How long do you want to go?

Long weekend? 10 days? A month? There are vacations for nearly every length of time. Bear in mind shorter times should focus on one or two main activities in a single place with minimal travel. 

The less time you have in one place, the more detailed the planning needs to be. You might be fine spending an afternoon getting lost in town or just sitting at a cafe people watching if you have several days to spare, but if you get lost on your only day to do/see THE THING you’ll be really sad.

How much do you want to spend?

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There are places in the developing world where you can book a luxury resort for 300$ a week (I did that in Egypt), places where you can eat amazing gourmet food for 25$ a meal or less (China and the Philippines for sure), there are places where a beer is 0.50 cents (Prague!) and places where a beer is 8-12$, places you can get a private room for 5$ a night with breakfast included, and others where a room in a dorm (sheets not included) costs 40$.

Don’t worry about the cost of individual things at this point, just think about how much you are willing to spend per day on average (take your total trip budget, subtract airfare, divide by the number of days you want to travel)Once you know your budget, you can check it against other travelers’ experiences to see if it’s enough for the place you’re dreaming of. I find that a lot of the blogs for backpackers are decently accurate for minimal daily expenses, and that the cost of living websites are more accurate for “family vacation” style spending. Most of SE Asia is 30-40$ a day for good times and EU is 80-100$ a day if you’re frugal.

Who are you going with?

Discuss the practical things – I almost forgot this one because I’m so used to travelling alone, but it is important. Not only do you have to ask all the previous questions of your travel buddies, you also have to think about room sharing (my mother snores so loud I’m not sure how that’s going to work when we travel together), as well as age or ability limitations (meeting my friend with a 3 yr old last summer, I had to think about 3yr old human needs). Travel buddies can be great company and help save money on things like renting a car or a room when you can share, but it’s a compromise on location and activities.

Be upfront about your goals and expectations – If possible, try to pick travel buddies who share your travel goals and habits. If you can’t do that, discuss them in advance so you have a way to handle when you want different things. It is so easy for a holiday to turn into resentment when people are tired, sunburnt, hungry and didn’t get to see/do the thing they wanted. If you are travelling with people who don’t share your goals, make sure you’re both ok splitting up sometimes so that no one’s feelings are hurt when you want to do something different.

Make time for each other – I don’t just mean plan with them, I mean that they need to have a place on your itinerary. What will you share together other than the hotel room? It’s almost impossible to make another person your top priority when you’re going on a (probably expensive and unique) travel experience, but it will help if part of every day is focused on each other more than the sites, even if it’s just one of your meals or a drink before bed. This applies to anyone, not just a romantic interest or spouse, but family, friends, and acquaintances. 

Step 2: Accommodation and Transit

Wait! All that was Step 1??? Yes, but it’s not as bad as it sounds. Step one is mostly thinking, and a little bit of research to help you get the answers to those questions. Don’t skip it, though, because you’ll use those answers to shape everything that comes next.

The Flight

The flight is the biggest purchase you’re going to make and it defines the rest of your holiday. I think of it as the spine of the vacation.

For a destination trip (or once you’ve decided your experience locations):
The flight search matrix used by Google is a great way to be able to see all available flights between to airports. Websites like Travelocity, Priceline, Expedia, and Kayak ALL use the matrix to search. It’s faster to go directly to the matrix instead of comparing 20 websites.

For experience vacations (or to narrow a list of potentials in a specific area):
You can look at a website like Kiwi.com to search “Anywhere” and see the cheapest flights during your holiday time, or you can search by country, or you can use the map function to just scroll around the globe and see where cheap prices are. I love this for wanderlusties who find themselves with time and money restraints because there’s always something awesome at the other end and discovering can be fun.

My trip to the EU was I’d say 40% destination 60% experience. I wanted to go to north Europe, I was less picky about the specifics.  I looked around at prices and noticed that CDG is cheap and convenient to fly into. I could have opted for round trip, but it would have meant making my route a circle or doing a long backtrack and I wanted to get at least one Nordic country in on this trip. I did a quick check on some sample bus prices (like Paris to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Oslo) and decided I could do it. Thus my return flight airport was decided, and I went over to the Matrix to find the cheapest flight. I got a ticket with Russian airline Aeroflot through Moscow for under 1000$. The cheapest options on flight booking websites were 500-700 more.

Conversely, my winter holiday is far more destination driven. It’s going to be much harder to find such a great deal. I originally wanted to do Morocco, Israel, Jordan and Egypt (my friend is joining me for Jordan and Egypt). I haven’t found the perfect ticket yet. Kiwi thinks it will be around $2000 to fly Korea to Morocco to Jordan to Egypt and back to Korea. It IS a lot of flights, but I hold out hope that several hours of testing options on the flight matrix will save me a few hundred dollars.

Search nearby airports – Flying one airport and then taking a bus or train out to a cheaper destination could save you hundreds of dollars. It’s worth comparing airports, and checking the price and timing of the ground transit before you buy, just to be sure. I don’t recommend this for short holidays (less than 3 days), but the longer your holiday is, the more worthwhile this becomes. In New Zealand, I flew in and out of Auckland even though I didn’t want to do anything in that city. In the Philippines, I had to fly into Manila, sleep in a little airport hostel, then fly to Bohol the next morning.

Choosing Your City/Cities

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Destination vacation people will have done this step before buying plane tickets.

Experience vacation –  “I’ll just see what’s there when I land” is not a reliable recipe for a great holiday. It’s a little like the lottery. Stack the odds in your favor and read up. Even if you think you know where you’re going, it doesn’t hurt to read about your destination on something other than Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet.

In the winter of 2016/17 my destination was “the Malay peninsula”. It looks small on a map, but it is big on the ground. I almost ended up missing out on Koh Lipe because Langkawi has been famous longer. Reading more sources gave me more options, and better information to make my decision with.

Read the blogs – Find some bloggers who share your holiday mission statement. It doesn’t do me any good to read bloggers who love to bike across Europe because I will not be doing that. Ever. I found a blog that talked about running tours of cities and nearly fainted from thinking about it.  Find unique bloggers who share real details. Mainstream bloggers like Nomadic Matt are fine for finding out the basic details and some run off the mill travelling advice, but for my taste, when I’m trying to decide where to go, I need the atmosphere, the mood, and the experiences of someone like me.

Check the local transport options – In addition to attractions, hotels and ground transit can shape your city choices. If you’re going to places with good public transit, it’s easy to land in one place for a bit and then move to another hub. If rental cars are cheap, you might consider driving around some of the rural parts of your chosen holiday spot. 

Move at least once a week – Happiness experts say that the shiny new vacation smell wears off after about 7 days in the same place. I like to change cities at least once a week, but if you want to spend your whole summer in the Maldives laying on the beach, it’s still a good idea to break it up by moving to a hotel on the other side of the island or taking a weekend to explore the mainland. After 7 days, things become a “routine” and the mental mood boosting benefits of vacationing begin to taper off sharply. Relaxing holidays will tend to move less, while exploring holidays will need to move more. How much more often than every 7-8 days you move will depend on your goal.

Finding Accomodation

Don’t stay anywhere you don’t feel safe or can’t get good sleep. It’s not worth saving money if you’re stressed or too tired to enjoy the next day’s activities.

Do try to minimize your accommodation costs unless the resort itself is the center of your holiday (which is fine, private beaches are dreamy).

Shop around – It’s good to have a range of search options to keep your prices down. I like Airbnb and Booking.com the best, but I’ve been known to poke around Hostelworld. Sometimes I’ve just made email arrangements because I’m traveling to the back end of nowhere. Most of these places give discounts to non-cancellable reservations, but if you want to maintain flexibility, its a good idea to book places you can change later in case you find something better or change your plan altogether.

Beware hidden costs – Things to think about besides the room price: are any meals included? Do you need parking? Do you need a shuttle service? Will you need laundry service? Is it close to public transit? A great room price can be ruined if you have to pay 20$ a night for parking, if you have to walk a mile to the bus stop, or if there’s no place to eat nearby (this happened to me once in Korea and my hostess, bless her heart, fed us, but it was embarrassing!)

Location, location, location – When booking my rooms, I’m typically going back and forth between the booking site, a map of the region, and some travel blogs. Sometimes the map will show me something interesting because Google does that now. Sometimes the hotel will mention famous nearby sights to check out, and always travel bloggers will tell you about their own experiences there.  I spend ages staring at maps, reading blogs, and looking at the map function of Airbnb. It can show you the prices of a large geographical region. Sometimes I find great prices and realize I don’t really want to GO to that place so it’s useless.

Quality is subjective – Reading reviews of accommodation is tricky. If the person leaving the review has a different set of values and expectations than you, their review may not be helpful. Don’t just look at stars. Look at how many people reviewed something. A 4 star rating from 200 reviews is better than a 5 star rating from only 10 reviews. Read the things people liked, but also read what they didn’t like. Are those things important to you? Can you sleep in a room where you might see a rat to save $$? Do you HAVE to have A/C? Do you want to meet other guests or have more privacy? What is the standard in that country? I found that a 2-3 star (of 5) rating in developed countries is equivalent to a 4 or 5 star place in developing nations.

Prioritize – For me, feeling safe is #1. I don’t like to stay in co-ed dorms if I can avoid it but female only dorms are often more expensive. I also won’t stay in an Airbnb with all men (one or many, I don’t do it unless there’s a female in the house).  I’ve learned I can sleep just about anywhere for one night, but I prefer a single room, or a women only dorm in a clean place in a non-party part of town (I do not like hearing people throwing up from being drunk while I’m trying to sleep). I also look for transportation options (parking if I have a car, bus stop if I don’t).

Things like lux decorations, pools, spas, and services are less important to me, but you need to know your own priorities. If you want to party all night, stay in the party zone. If you can’t enjoy yourself unless you’re staying in the Marriott, then increase your budget or pick cheaper parts of the world where those resorts are affordable. Sharm el-Sheik in Egypt is great for that. You can stay in fancy beach resorts for a fraction of the cost of other countries.

Local Transportation

Minimize travel time – I’ve seen tourists travel for hours to reach someplace and look for 15 minutes, take a few pics, and then get back on the bus. I don’t understand this method of travel. I think transit should be minimized. I don’t like to spend more than 4 hours a day in transit (except the flights in and out). It’s not always possible, but it is important. The comfort level of your transit is also important, as I learned in Thailand. A 3 hr bus ride in a plush comfy air conditioned seat is much more tolerable than a 3 hr ride in a cramped, hot, minivan.

Travel in your down time – In EU this summer, I traveled on Saturday so I wouldn’t have to fight weekend crowds at popular venues, and I used them as rest days where I could just relax and travel from one place to another. On shorter trips, I like to do intercity transit early in the morning or last thing at night. If you have to go a long way, it might be worth looking into sleeper cars. When we were in China (a huge landscape) we did that a couple times and skipped out on hotels for the 8-10 hour train rides overnight.

Research the details – If you’re going in the off season, you can probably buy tickets the day of your travel, but in the high season it’s best to make reservations. Look at the time tables and make sure you can get to the bus/train station on time. Compare the bus and train costs. I found that taking the bus around France and Holland was great, but that in Germany the train was cheaper.  I took a bus from Singapore to KL, but a train from KL to Ipoh.

Look at alternative travel options – Sometimes local flights can be more efficient and cheaper than bus or train. Sometimes there are even boats. Which I love. I took a ferry from Jordan to Egypt last time I was there. It was not any cheaper than flying, but it was a much cooler experience. I also had to take a boat to get to Koh Lipe and back since there are no airports on the tiny little island. Now that I’ve been, I know I probably could have bought my ticket when I got to the port, but at the time I had no idea how full it would be so I made sure to book online.

Check the reviews – In some cases you won’t have choices, but when you do it’s best to check and see if you can find a picture of the fleet that is NOT on the company website. I thought the boat to Koh Lipe would be like the ferries I’m used to where we could go up on deck and with that in mind, I was looking into a 3 hr boat ride. When I read more and realized that the Thai ferries in the region are all very restrictive and make passengers stay seated below decks, I opted for the shortest possible ride instead.

When in Rome – Not literally, but when it comes to getting around, it’s a good idea to see what locals do. I did so much research on inter-city transit to get from one place to another, I neglected to pre-research city buses to learn how to get around once I was there! It turns out, every one is different and it was a huge source of stress for me last summer.  How do you use the bus/tram/metro system? Do you need a bus pass? Where do you buy tickets? Does it cost more to buy one at a time or get a pass? Is the tourist pass worth it? Don’t assume it will be easy to figure out when you get there… it won’t be.

Step 3: The Details

Now you have your cities chosen, your hotels booked, and a solid idea of how you’ll get around. Time to narrow your focus and figure out what you’ll do in each location. Show up and see what happens is not a strategy that works for most people. It seems very romantic, but most people find they end up sitting around on Google trying to do the research they should have done before they arrived.

Brainstorm

Brainstorm by DBed

Write a list – Just make a list of names of all the places you can find where you’re going. Websites like Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet come in handy at this stage. They are great resources for building a basic list of things to see. They are a bit limited to the most popular tourist attractions, however, so try adding something like Atlas Obscura to your search.

Dig deeper For more unique travel opportunities, check travel blogs and Facebook pages and other types of social media from smaller voices to see what isn’t being seen by the big famous travel sites. I found a magical heated waterfall in NZ this way. I’ve learned about unique food in tiny restaurants, and the less famous but just as beautiful temple or church next to the one full of tourists. You get beautiful memories and you often get the place mostly or even all the way to yourself. I can’t provide links because each blogger focuses on different places and experiences, but if you type the name of the place + “blog” or “travel blog” you should get some decent results.

Check the map– Once you get a list written down, you can start searching for what’s near them geographically. Pull up the Google Map and see what pops up next to your famous site or on the route from your hotel to that site. Read more blogs about people who went to a famous site and see if they did any side trips. I had a side trip for buffalo ice cream on my way back from a famous site in Bohol. Local water-buffalo being milked for ice cream… that’s a unique holiday experience.

Expand your search – If your’e staying in one hotel more than 3 days (it hardly ever takes longer to see the highlights of one city, although of course you could explore a single city for years and not see everything, many people on holiday like to maximize experiences), you can look at day trips from the city you’re in. Can you do a tour to a nearby natural reserve for hiking, kayaking, fishing, etc? Can you get a bus to a neighboring city and see their sights? I found an amazing spa in Aachen Germany about 2 hours away from my hotel in Lanaken Belgium.

Read until your eyes blur – Keep adding things to your list.  Make your list as long as you like, don’t worry about all the details of each place yet, this is the brainstorm phase. Anything that sounds interesting, put it on the list.

Edit the List

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Location, Location, Location – things that are close together can be done on the same day, while things that are far away, not on the public transit line, or not near anything else cool might be cut from the list. I had the Tower of Eben-Ezer on my list, but when I realized how far out it was and that it would take me hours each way without a car, I reluctantly took it off the list. Other times I’ve gone to a place I was only semi-interested in because it was 5 minutes walk from my primary stop and had a great experience.

Timing is everything –  Check the days and hours of operation, and the price. If it’s not open when you’re there, if it conflicts with something you want more, if it costs too much, cross it off the list. Do you need to book in advance or can you buy tickets at the door? How long is the line? Many attractions have “skip the line” tickets that let you save time. When we went to the Catecombs in Paris, the line was 3 hours long. We had skip the line tickets and got in with only about 5 minutes wait. I completely failed to buy my Kremlin tickets ahead of time, and had to choose between standing in line and seeing the Kremlin or doing literally anything else in Moscow that day.

Read the reviews – Read reviews, look at pictures, visit the website. Look beyond rating and see what people are saying. Are the things they talk about important to you? Does this seem like something you’ll like? More than once I’ve declined to visit a city’s most popular tourist destination because it just didn’t seem that interesting to me.

PrioritizeYour list should be divided into “must see” and “see if there’s time”, with a side of “bad weather options”. Make sure you have no more than 50% of your list as “must see”. Even after editing out all the places you can’t get to, can’t afford, aren’t open, or aren’t interesting, the list should still be huge, and contain more things that you can actually do in the time you have because you might need to change something based on weather, unexpected closures, illness, or random acts of gods.

Step 4: The Schedule

It’s a good idea to have a schedule, as long as you know that it will change. I don’t want to spend my precious vacation time thinking about what to do each day. Sometimes I write detailed schedules down to the half hour, other times I make “day itineraries” grouping nearby activities together so I can wake up and say, ok today I’ll do itinerary 3.

Booking in Advance

Use your priority list and start with things on your “must see” list that require (or strongly suggest) advance reservations. Once those are filled in, you can start adding things that have variable times and things from your “see if there’s time” list.

Visit the website – Almost all of them have an English page and will tell you how important it is to buy tickets in advance. Some places don’t even sell tickets at the door. 

Don’t Over-schedule

The temptation to squeeze sightseeing into every moment of the day is strong. Avoid it. A single event or a bike/walking tour that lasts 2-3 hours is a “half day” event (2 per day). Anything more than 5 hours is an “all day” event (1 per day). I can’t make you slow down, but thousands of travelers over several decades agree that seeing fewer things, but experiencing them more fully is a more satisfying experience.

Make time for meals! Oh man, the number of times I’ve ended up not getting food because I’ve been so busy looking around. It’s a tragedy especially if you’re travelling anywhere with good food… soooo basically everywhere. Street food is awesome and should be tried, but you need to sit down and rest too.

Organize by geography – When I was in the Philippines, I had itineraries that could be done on any day, as long as the items were done as a group because they were all close together. You can sneak tiny things into a day this way. If there’s something that will take less than an hour quite close to one of your half or all-day events you can work that in without killing yourself.

Time is a Gift – You look at an itinerary like this and you think, OH we’re wasting so much time, but you are not. You are giving yourself a precious gift. Now you have time to get lost, to explore, to check out that cool thing on the way you didn’t know about, to stop for an ice cream or coffee, to meet people along the way.

Be Prepared to chuck the plan – If you travel with an open eye and open mind, you’ll also find new and interesting things along the way. Sometimes it’s meeting people who invite you along, sometimes the concierge or Airbnb host tells you about a local secret, sometimes you just walk into a wine festival in the park (true story, happened to me in Prague). You want to be able to make time for these things, and in order to do that you need things you can move around in your itinerary.

Step 5: Organize Your Documents

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Gone are the days of having to print our whole holiday itinerary and carry them around in waterproof document cases! Yes, people did that. Sometimes I still see older couples doing it. I’m not saying it’s a bad idea, and if you’re not going to be around computers or the internet, it’s VITAL, but now that we can store everything in the cloud, we can access schedules, booking details, and vouchers with our phones!

At a Glance – There are countless apps you can use to organize your itinerary, but be sure you get one that is easy to read at a glance. You’ve seen my color coded spreadsheet that shows a calendar where I put the things I’ve scheduled and bought tickets for, but I also use something like a Word.doc for the list of things I can do more or less whenever that includes addresses, websites and phone numbers I may need, and any itinerary groupings.

On the Cloud – I make a dedicated folder in my cloud storage for all vouchers and receipts for everything I bought online from hotel reservations to museum tickets for each trip. I filter all my emails related to the holiday into a dedicated email folder for easy reference. I also keep photos of my critical documents. I know not everyone is comfortable with this, but if you lose your passport or ID, it will be easier to show your Embassy a picture of your missing credentials so they can help you faster.

Offline – If you won’t have data or internet when you arrive you can also download the documents you need to the phone’s storage. Some strange places in the world are still requiring printed vouchers/ tickets, so double check when you make reservations if you can use the pdf or email as proof or not.


What is all this for?

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Planning a holiday can certainly be fun and help you build anticipation for your upcoming adventure. However, it can also be a lot of work and there are days when you’ll want to throw the towel in and just wing it when you get there. Trust me. Don’t. 

All of this painstaking work helps make sure you get to see the best your holiday destination has to offer you.

  • make sure you don’t show up to a venue that is closed or sold out.
  • minimize transit time by grouping your events together.
  • maximize your bucket list by prioritizing only one or two things a day. 
  • have enough time to do everything and a way to stop and rest as needed. 
  • alleviate the stress of where to go and how to get there while you’re jet-lagged and culture-shocked.
  • explore organically by leaving a little extra time every day that could be filled or changed as needed.

I hope your next adventure is everything you dream.

Happy Travels!

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Carolus Thermen Spa Experience

I didn’t have many spa experiences growing up. We weren’t exactly poor but we never really had enough money to do things like that. A “spa day” in my house was putting some scented oil in a hot bath and filling the bathroom with candles. A mud mask or cuticle soak purchased at the local corner store sometimes featured as well. I remember once we were able to take a trip to Hot Springs, Arkansas where we were treated to a soak in the “healing waters” but it wasn’t until I was living in Saudi Arabia that I discovered the magical heights that “spa day” can soar to. That experience will probably remain the most astonishing spa experience of my life, and I’m ok with that, but Carolus Thermen comes in at a very close second.


Bad Aachen

It’s not “bad”, that just means “bath” and according to the website “Aachen” is a linguistic evolution of the word “aaaahhh” that people exclaim when they enter the warm mineral spring water that flows naturally in this part of Germany. For 2000 years humans have been enjoying the thermal water there, from the Celts to the Romans, the Victorians, and now modern tourists from all over. Charlemagne actually declared Aachen his favorite place because he loved soaking so much! Royalty and celebrity have been visiting for centuries to “take the waters”, but when I went they were having a summer sale and I could enjoy all the tradition of pure spring water piped in from Aachen’s Rosenquelle spring along with all the modern amenities of pools, waterfalls, saunas and treatments for a mere 26€ for the whole day. I’m pretty sure that a home “spa day” with candles, bath bomb, face mask, and foot scrub would cost at least that much and not be anywhere near as glorious.

On July 18, I was staying in Lanaken, a small town in Belgium that is effectively a suburb of the larger (yet still small) city of Maastricht in the Netherlands. Yes, those are two different countries, but for the most part, inside the Schengen zone of the EU, travel between countries is no more a hassle than travel between two states or provinces in other places. The main complication was the sudden switch from French to Dutch at the border and the fact that the public transit was run by two different nations. More on that in a dedicated transit article, but for now just be in awe that I woke up in the morning in Belgium, rode a Belgian bus to the Netherlands, then rode a Dutch bus to Germany to spend the day at the spa.

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The final bus stop was about 1km from the spa and the walk was through a beautiful green park with lots of shade and fountains. The weather was still unseasonably hot for the area, but the large green space was cooler than the streets around it. I saw my first red squirrel there, too! He was too fast for me to snap any photos, but it was quite a pleasant shock as someone who has spent a lifetime surrounded by grey squirrels to see one of the fox colored ones in the fur, so to speak.

Thermal Bathing

I ended up coming into the spa complex from the park, aka, the back entrance. I walked through part of the outdoor pool area where I captured my only photo of the day. Thankfully, the spa front desk had friendly, English speaking staff who explained the rules to me and issued my bracelet. No one carries keys or money or even phones around. The bracelet unlocks your assigned locker but also has a chip that you can use to buy any food or drinks, items from the shop, or extra spa services. Then when you leave, they add up your total and you pay all at once on the way out.

I didn’t have much in the way of spa gear, but I had brought my swimsuit and a sarong I got in Malaysia that now functions as my multipurpose travel cloth: light blanket, towel, scarf, skirt, shawl, dress, swimsuit cover, etc. I was prepared to rent towels and a robe if the spa required such, but no one said anything to me, and I saw plenty of other people who had brought wraps from home as well. As with all shared water spaces, the changing room included showers in order to get everyone squeaky clean before entering the pools. Once I checked in, I couldn’t take photos, so from this point on, all the photos are from the spa’s website.

The swimming area is like a water park for grown ups. There are eight indoor and outdoor pools of various temperatures, the unique brine steam bath “Strokkur”, a beautiful sun terrace and even a beach. The main pool connects with several others and includes amenities like bubbles, waterfalls, and gentle currents. I also noticed a lift for disabled visitors which I thought was great since the warm water therapy would be wonderful for people in PT or with long term physical limitations.

Most of the pools are in the “warm” range (35°C), with a few dedicated to more extreme temperatures. Two pools on either end lead outside to cooler (33°C) water. A small set of pools next to each other were set up hot (38°C) and cold (18°C) to go back and forth between. I perched under a massage waterfall in the hot pool for a nice chance to work out the tension, and I did the ice plunge to get my circulation going and because it feels bonkers when you go from hot to ice to hot. In addition to being a treat for the body, it is stunning to look at.

After exploring every pool on the first floor, I ducked back to my locker to grab my phone (functioning as e-reader) and a sandwich from my bag before heading to the sun terrace for a rest. The sun terrace is a lovely outdoor area surrounding one of the two outdoor pools on this level. There’s a little faux beach with sand and beach chairs, as well as a small bar/cafe where you can get refreshments. I noticed that many of the people who had reserved the larger beach chairs also brought picnic baskets filled with tupperware containers of snacks, some books, extra tanning lotion and other “beach day” necessities. I was a little worried the spa might not allow outside food and drink since they sell it there, but it seemed to be quite common after all.

The Saunas

After lunch, I headed upstairs to check out the sauna. I didn’t think I was into saunas because, except for the one in KSA, I haven’t really enjoyed them. I find them to be too hot and hard to breathe in. Because I read the website ahead of time, I realized that the variety of saunas offered at Carolus was so extensive it would be almost impossible for me not to find at least one I liked. Aside from the sheer volume and variety on offer, they also have scheduled special events inside the saunas that are free, and I was intensely curious about these.

It was amazing. However marvelous the first floor with all it’s pools and waterfalls, it is as nothing compared to the pleasures and sensory delights that awaited me on the sauna side. There are 15 different saunas and steam baths of different humidity and temperatures, a sauna lake, and the sauna garden. 

While the thermal bath area requires swimwear, the saunas are bare skin. People don’t just walk around naked the whole time (although they could), but wraps or robes are hung on hooks outside each room, and you just use a towel between you and the seat as a cushion and heat barrier, and to keep your sweat off the wood, because you WILL sweat. 

Right out of the showers, I first encountered the Feminarium (below), for women who want to sauna nude without any male observers. It’s much smaller but still had a dry and wet sauna option as well as cool showers, foot baths, and reclining chairs so that ladies could enjoy a full sauna experience in gender seclusion. I was the only person in it, and I just stayed long enough to test everything out before moving on.

The main floor has the dry saunas which are low humidity and often extremely hot. To do sauna right, nearby is a cold pool, a foot bath, and resting area. Outdoors there are even more pools, dry saunas, and quiet places to rest or nap. It also has the no-clothes terrace for those who don’t want any tan lines.

There is a large board displaying the day’s event schedule, showing what is happening in what room when. I was too excited by the variety to sit still and relax yet. Instead, I wandered around testing things out while I waited for the next scheduled event.

Oriental Bathing World

Downstairs from the dry saunas is a pool surrounded by steam rooms. These are higher humidity and had a wide range of temperatures. I enjoyed the Tepidarium (below), which, at 27°C, was just warm enough to feel it without trying to kill me, but my favorite was the Odorium. This room has my “Goldilocks” temperature with just little hints of air current to keep it from stifling. The Odorium is named for its aromas which were truly heavenly.

While the Odorium had my favorite smell, nothing in this place was odorless. I tested every room and only one had a smell I didn’t like. Many of the rooms were too hot for me to spend much time in. The warmest steam rooms were 45°C and 100% humidity! I read the proper way to sauna, but that involved spending 10-15 minutes even in the hottest of rooms and I just couldn’t last that long.

The whole decor of the sauna is dark, but in a refined classy way. It’s gentle for the eyes, with lots of soft lighting, color shifting LEDs and star lights in the ceiling. The dry rooms are mainly cedar benches, but the steam rooms are decorated with stunning tiles and patterns, intentionally reminiscent of a Turkish bath.  Beautiful ornaments, and water fixtures were everywhere. Lamps made to look like cut lace and even globes with holes to let shafts of light out to dance in the steam. Each room was intricately beautiful and completely unique. It’s no surprise that area is called “The Oriental Bathing World”.

Under a high arching dome, in the middle of all the steam rooms, there was another pool with pleasantly warm water (34°C) and LED lights shining upward casting rippling light and shadow in the ceiling, as well as softly changing colors. Just as I was drifting there thinking oh yeah this is that “wow-is-this-real” feeling I love so much, and imagining all my friends reactions to visiting such a space and how happy it would make them to experience this magical crossover of visual beauty, amazing smells and skinny-dipping, I decided to float on my back and watch the ceiling lights. Suddenly there was music!

Startled, I sat up and it was gone. The music was only underwater. As soon as I submerged my ears the sounds of the people vanished and I could hear lovely soothing “meditation” music!!! Floating naked in a near body temperature pool with underwater music in my ears and the mingled fragrances of saunas in my nose (no bathroom or pool smell here) and my eyes feasting on the shifting lights and colors above… It was pure magic.

Steam Sauna Treatment

When it was finally time for the treatment, left the pool with no small reluctance. I needn’t have worried. Nothing in this place could possibly be a let down. The first activity I was able to join was a mystery to me. The name on the schedule was an all caps word I did not recognize and had forgotten by the time I got back to anything I could take notes with. Even though I had no idea what it was, I was ready to explore.  I headed into Halvet (below), a very hot and steamy room, to see what would happen. This picture is nice and clear, but when I went in the room was filled with thick steam and the latticed orbs and windows shone soft beams of warm light.

Plenty of other people had the same idea and soon the benches were full. About a minute later, a young man in a towel came in with a tray of little plastic shot glass looking things that had a lightly golden liquid inside. Having no clue what I was supposed to do, I tried to surreptitiously watch the people around me and discovered it was meant to be applied to the skin. It was a delightfully scented oil! No one seemed hesitant or shy about rubbing themselves with oil in front of each other, and I decided I wouldn’t be either. Friends even helped each other, rubbing oil into hard to reach spots. I was sweating so much I wasn’t sure the oil was going on, but I kept at it until I had used the whole thing. I noticed the others who finished were heading straight to the showers and followed suit.

With only 15 minutes until the next event, I went to lay down in my favorite room, the Odorium (below). I felt like heaven. My skin was singing and so so so soft. The room was cool enough to help me relax from the hot steam treatment while still being warm enough to be comfortable naked. Not to mention my favorite smell of the day. I thought I was going to melt into the lounge chair with sheer pleasure.

Dry Sauna Infusion

The next event was a “popsicle infusion” back upstairs in one of the dry saunas. The dry saunas range from 60°C to 100°C (I didn’t set foot in that one). The infusion room is listed as 90°C (194°F) with a mere 5% humidity. The walls are lined with cedar benches, and a tall cylinder of hot rocks was in the center.

Popsicle infusion was remarkably popular. I have been to naked parties, and gone skinny dipping, but I do not think I have ever been in such a small space with so many other naked adults where no one gave a crap. It’s mixed gender. Men and women together, lining every available seat on the three tiers of cedar benches. Dudes were casually adjusting balls to rest comfortably on the seat, and chicks were wiping boob sweat. There was not one trace of awkward or creepy. The attitude was “sauna” not “sexy”. I felt completely safe and comfortable in a way I can’t even imagine experiencing in the US.

When all the seats were filled, another betoweled employee came in carrying a saucepan and a bucket of ice. He talked a lot and people laughed at certain points. I’m sure the story in German was good, but all I managed to decipher was something about the ice and that the infusion was orange.

When the speech was finished, rock music eased out of the speakers. With some disappointment, he called out to his assistant to crank it up and soon we were well and truly rocking out in these Death Valley conditions. He liberally sprinkled ice on the rocks and I swear it sublimed, going from solid to vapor without even passing through liquid on the way. He then took another towel and used it to fan the steam at us. Not in cute dainty wafting way, no. This was aggressive German air shoving.

You know that blast of heat you get when you open the oven to check on something? It was like that. The force of the hot air hitting us dead on as he went around the room. People put their arms up like in a roller coaster.

Next he added the orange infused liquid. The smell was intense but pleasant, and the moisture in the air was much more noticeable. Once more, he repeated the towel blasting. I was getting into it, but also feeling really hot by this stage and just starting to wonder if I’d have to leave when he picked up the bucket of ice and flung handfuls at the ceiling. It was coarse shaved ice and broke apart on the wooden beams, raining down on us as a cool shower.

As he started on a second round of infused liquid, a girl sitting in front of me headed for the exit. I decided if she could be a wimp, I could too. Honestly it was just as well. I was becoming dizzy and realized I could be flirting with dangerously overheating. I got to some cool water and started to feel better just in time for the popsicles! The staff passed out little orange creamscicles to everyone who had participated. I’d already been thinking that they must have named it the “popsicle infusion” because it smelled like that childhood treat, so the cold fruity reward was the perfect finish.

Break Time

After the intense heat of the popsicle sauna, I took my time to cool off all the way. I had a cold shower, took a walk outside, lay for another rest in my favorite room, and one more dip in the cold pool (18°C) of the Balneum (below).

With plenty of time before the next event, I decided to head over to the sauna’s connected restaurant. You don’t get dressed to eat there, just throw on a robe or towel. It’s separated from the clothed area, and the terraces are protected with shrubbery to keep anyone outside from seeing in. The view was lovely, but the food was disappointing. I ordered the Thai crab soup, which tasted like someone went “soy sauce and ramen that’s Asian right?” It also had no crab or even fake crab, just teeny tiny shrimp. The cheap sandwich I brought in from the grocery store was better. Before you ask why I ordered Thai food in Germany, the restaurant is called “Lemongrass” and claims to specialize in Asian food. However, the staff was kind, and my mood was just to good to want to think about bad food so I just wrote it off, I was planning to pay 36€ that day before I learned about the summer sale. Thinking of it as bad free food it’s much less painful than thinking of bad food I paid for.

Feeling Like Fresh Bread

It would have taken an act of gods to ruin my glow that day, and while the restaurant may have been a let down, good food was the topic of my final experience: the bakery.

It’s a dry sauna meant to be like a red brick oven which is not uncommon in saunas. I’ve seen several in the Jimjilbang in Korea. However at Carolus, there’s actually an oven inside. Although the room is open for use all the time, every couple hours they bake something in the oven while people are there. I read about it before going and it was one of the things I was most looking forward to. I went into the room the same time the dough did and I lay in the semi-dry heat (60°C 40% humidity) dripping sweat and surrounded by the wonderful smell of fresh baking bread. I can’t even properly describe this room other than to say I felt like I was in the oven with the bread…in a really yummy way, not in a gingerbread cottage witch way.

When they were done baking, it turned out to be pretzel rolls. Once she added some coarse salt, the attendant staffer passed around the piping hot treats. They were light and fluffy inside and crispy outside and almost too hot to bite into. It was so amazing to be with the bread and have the aroma as part of the sauna and then get eat it after as I walked around in the fresh outdoor air.

Spa Spell

I never wanted to leave that place. After my baking treatment, I had only about 30 minutes left to visit my favorite highlights one last time before it was time to return to the non-magical world outside. Of course for me, that meant one more float in the musical pool, and a rest in the Odorium to air dry a bit. 

My ersatz towel was completely drenched by this time and would do me no good as a drying method. I was a little worried about carrying my wet bathing suit and sarong home, so I didn’t get back into any of the swimming baths at the end of my day. I underestimated the facilities once again, since the locker rooms had quick spin cycle machines to whip the extra water out of any towels or suits. There were hair dryers, too. I didn’t need one in the summer, but I would have been grateful to see them if I were leaving on a cold winter’s evening.

When I put this spot on my travel calendar, I did not think I could spend 7 hours in a spa with no distractions, but I only read my book for about an hour at lunch. Other than that my phone was locked up the whole time. I didn’t even miss it.  There were many more experiences, treatments, and classes I never had a chance to attend. I thought about trying to find a room in Aachen so I could stay until they closed at 10pm and come back again the next day, but the cost was even more than the bus rides. I thought also about returning another day that week, before I left Lanaken. I could go back every day for a week before I could see it all.

In the end I decided that the euphoria I experienced that day came from the wonderful surprises and the way nearly every part of the day exceeded any possible expectation I had. If I returned and it was anything less than pure magic, I risked disappointment. Lanaken and Maastricht were providing a nearly unbearable number of disappointments already, and I didn’t think I could take another. Better to keep this shining jewel of memory just the way it is. Visiting Carolus Thermen in the middle of some intense emotional turmoil (which I intend to share elsewhere for those interested in my turmoil and growth) was an incredible escape. It elevated me into a realm of calm delight that was not only a pure joy, but gave me the mental clarity to process a lot of heavy stuff. It is and will remain one of the highlights of all my adventures. 


Writing away as fast as I can, I still can’t seem to get all the way to my goal of 2 stories a week. The new semester of classes has brought it’s share of challenges as I try to understand a whole set of course materials and students. It’s also bringing some new joys which may be taking away from writing time. I adjusted my schedule so that I could attend more weekend events out of town. Last weekend, I got to attend my first watercolor class which was a lovely social event and a chance to learn new art skills. I plan on going to book clubs, craft fairs, and of course to some Korean festivals as well. I’m incredibly grateful that I’ve arrived at a place in my life where I get to have so many adventures of all sizes. I’ll do my best to keep sharing them with you, even if it’s not as quickly as before. Thanks for reading! See you next week 🙂

Speelklok Museum: Fads in Music Tech?

They say travel should expand your horizons and change your way of thinking about the world and while I had other experiences like that this summer, for some reason, the Speelklok Museum stands out among them. Do you ever think about how recent changes in technology are impacting your generation differently than people in the past? Well, it may not be as different as you think. Turns out we’ve been having a music technology revolution for at least 150 years, maybe longer.


When I arrived to buy my tickets, I was told about all three different options for exploring the museum that were included in my entry fee: the music tour, solo exploration, and the “Expedition”. I didn’t really know what to expect out of the museum and I could only see a few exhibits in the waiting area. One was this blatantly-racist-but-normal-at-the-time automaton duet. Insert a coin in the slot and the show begins as the robots play a little jazz tune. It’s not a recording with puppets, the machine actually creates the music.

This is a museum dedicated to self playing instruments and music machines that pre-date the gramophone and other recording devices invention and rise to musical dominance. The museum roughly covers the time from 1750-1950, but focuses mainly on the Victorian and Edwardian periods (1840-1910). For reference, the phonograph was invented in 1877 and the first commercial record player was released in 1895.

The Music Tour: Hearing History

The music tour is unique not only because you get a guide to explain things, but because that guide will also activate several of the devices that are otherwise stationary and silent in the museum. Since it’s all about the music, hearing is believing. Music may be a universal language, but Dutch is not. Thankfully our guide was gracious enough to give the relevant information in both Dutch and English.

Speelklock means “musical clock” and that is where the tour began. Although the earliest example of a musical clock is from 1598, the ones we looked at were very advanced members of the species popular in the 1750s. We visited first a white room with many such elaborate clocks on display.

The guide explained a bit about the history of early self playing music starting with bells and pipes. Bells were the first and “easiest”, if that can be applied to such complex machinery. A metal cylinder like that in a music box was used to orchestrate a series of springs and levers to tap small bells of different tones. There was only one length of note and it resulted in some very un-nuanced music, but the Victorians loved gadgets sooo much that owning such a marvel in one’s home was a real status symbol. They were incredibly expensive and very fine. The only way to change the song was to change the cylinder inside.

Pipes were close behind bells, although they were even more expensive and complicated, since they relied on a vacuum seal and bellows system to pump air through the pipes. It did allow for a slightly nicer sound since the length of individual notes could be shortened and lengthened in the program.

I’m going to keep calling these “programs” because that is the word the museum used to describe the different types of devices used to impart the directions to the machines. Over the decades they changed form, but always used a series of bumps and holes rather like early computer punch-cards.. The first use of such a cylinder used to program music was in the church carillons in the mid 1500’s. I sure as heck didn’t know that the idea of programming music was that old, did you?

Many of these early musical clocks also included some simple form of animation. The one we watched had a progression of figures parading through the fields showing the phases of life and inevitability of death… there’s a reason it’s called “Victorian Gothic”.

Kids and Their Newfangled Gadgets

My first real clue that I have spent my life seeing time and history all wrong came a few steps to the left as our guide began to explain the rapid change in music technology. The cylinder, which had been used consistently since 1550 to create musical programs was suddenly replaced by the disc in 1885. Cylinders were heavy, difficult to make, and expensive. Plus, most people had to have them professionally changed out in order to listen to new songs. With a disc, much less material was needed and production could be streamlined by simply stamping each flat disc with it’s musical program. Much cheaper, more efficient, and easier to use.

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But what do you do with your cylinder collection? No worries! The modern wonder of technology created a crossover player with a space for both! What about that new gramophone recording? No problem! Your technological crossover music machine comes equipped with a clockwork organ and a gramophone speaker! Maybe you had a similar device? I know we had a record player with a tape deck… and later a boom box with a tape deck and CD player… and later a CD walk-man that played both .wav and Mp3 discs. And now, a Bluetooth Gramophone? Turns out that fad is more than 100 years older than I realized.

Much like the record to tape to CD to MP3 transition, the musical programme revolution of the 1800’s wasn’t over. The next step? PAPER! The lightest, cheapest and above all longest musical program yet. With paper, you could have a much larger music collection and you could play longer pieces of music, or multiple pieces on a single program. Plus you could print words on paper, giving rise not only to the player piano, but to the world’s first “karaoke”. Friends and family could gather round the player piano and modern favorites would play from the paper program which would display the lyrics in a moving scroll as the music played, allowing those with imperfect memories to sing along. Yes, that’s really how they used it back in 1925. Although it started in early 1900, the paper roll player piano was the height of home entertainment from about 1920-1930 when the stock market crash combined with the rise of other musical technology wiped it out. Talk about a fast fad.

During this time, our old friend the cylinder program achieved some continued use in miniature. Not only in the form of teeny tiny pocket sized music boxes, but most especially inside automata cleverly shaped like people or animals that would come to life and perform to some piece of music. These automata captivated the people of the Edwardian era and were almost as short lived as Edward himself. We got to see a nightingale in a cage (yes, made of real nightingale), an acrobat atop a ladder, a rabbit emerging from a paper cabbage, and a rather singularly Dutch representation of the painter Van Gogh painting his famous “Sunflowers”.

The guide kindly led me back after the tour so that I could see it in action and as Vincent’s arm moves the brush across the canvas to the music, the sunflowers begin to spin as his eyes go wide in representation of the hallucinations he was thought to have.

Clockwork Organs & Orchestrions

Book music put out from reader - Gavioli & Cie fairground organ - rear left - Birkenhead Park Festival of Transport 2012

The music tour continued into pipe organs and dance hall organs. Starting in the late 1800s, the pipe organs used the cylinder method, though often wooden instead of metal. Organ grinders were so called because they had to turn a crank to operate a kind of bellows to keep the cylinder turning and the air passing through the pipes. Earlier pipe organs were displayed on the street and at festivals and often involved theatrical stories and sing-a-long musical numbers to keep the audience engaged with the limited cylinder length.

By 1892, the pipe organs too had converted to paper, although instead of a paper roll, they used a “book” made of cardboard and folded in a zig-zag fashion so that it unfolded into one long piece with all the convenience of a paper roll, but made of a far sturdier material that would withstand the abuse of outdoor performances and travel better than flimsy paper.

Street organs remained popular in the Netherlands until the street organ ban in WWII. They have never really made a comeback, but are still enjoyed as a novelty from time to time. Many of the most fantastic designs were made between 1910 and 1925 including the “Gouden Limonarie” and “The Arab”.

The final segment of the music tour was the orchestrions. These were not merely seeking to produce music from a single instrument, but rather to imitate an entire orchestra. The earliest of these machines was created in 1805. They were fairly limited to the number and type of instruments at first, but quickly expanded to encompass brass, woodwind, and percussion, delighting and astonishing audiences everywhere.

The final and most challenging orchestral section to make self-playing was the strings. In 1910 at the world’s Fair, the first self-player with a string section had it’s debut and was hailed as the 8th wonder of the world. It included three sets of violin strings which could be set to different pitches with different levers acting as mechanical fingers of the left hand and used a “bow” made of continuously circling horsehair that could be lowered and raised to play notes as the “right hand”. It was so inconceivable an achievement that some believed it to be magic until they could see the inner workings for themselves.

While the musical clock and player piano might find their way into any reasonably affluent household, the larger organs and orchestral players were reserved for the ultra wealthy and of course, the dance halls. During their height (again an incredibly brief time ending abruptly in 1930) these orchestrions were the darling of the day, drawing large crowds to dance halls to cut a rug to the mechanical orchestras and marvel at the wonders of modern technology. Because of the limited amount of musical numbers available to each machine, and because of the stunning but stationary artwork on the outside, audiences became bored with a single orchestrion quite quickly. (no, our attention spans weren’t any better a century ago no matter what your grandmother says) To keep the crowds coming, these huge machines were often built to be easily disassembled and moved to play a new dance hall every week. Early 20th century DJs played the precursor to EDM– MDM: Mechanical Dance Music.

The Whitewashing of Buurkirk

When the music tour ended, I was left in a very thoughtful state as I set off to find the rest of the museum’s displays. After returning to some of the machines for a longer look, I found a staircase and went up. It was immediately clear that the museum was actually built into a disused cathedral. Post-travel research tells me this is the Buurkirk and is the largest and wealthiest of the parish cathedrals in Utrecht, having been built in the mid 10th century and suffering from 4 fires and rebuilds in less than 300 years.

It’s only a couple blocks away from St. Martin’s Cathedral, and you may wonder why any town needs so many churches so close together, but I believe St. Martin’s was at the time mainly operating as a monastic center (and a royal palace). Perhaps folks in town could come for masses, but parish churches would have been a bit less formal and also often offered the church space for use in the community during non-church times. I suspect that Buurkirk and the other nearby parish churches were a bit more like community centers and St. Martin’s was a bit more like a place you go for Easter and Christmas but otherwise leave to the clergy and nobility.

The walls, columns, arches, and decorative carvings are painted a crisp clean white except a few places where the original church artwork has been preserved and painted around. The whitewashing isn’t a result of secularism, however, but rather the work of the Protestant reformation which took over the church in 1586 and just hated all that ostentatious Catholic art. Buurkirk was actively used as a church until 1975 and it became the Speelklok Museum in 1984. Wandering among the displays and whitewashed arches, my mind was occupied with the impending massive shift in my perception of humans, time, and technology.

The Expedition

At last, I found the “expedition” part I had been so curious from the moment I bought my ticket. I had been given a card and told it would be used for this segment of the museum. It was not the first time I encountered the idea and I’m still not sure why it exists since it would be just as easy for visitors to press a button to activate whatever the card does. It’s just one more thing to hold in my hands, or more accurately, fish out of my pocket every time I found one of the small silver slots in the wall with a little speaker on cord.

Holding the palm sized speaker up to my ear, I could use the card to activate audio recordings (sadly, not the music machines themselves). The recordings included samples of the music as well as narration about the pieces on display. While some were a bit dry, there was a fun section where I seemed to be visiting a wealthy Victorian gentleman who had the very latest in musical clocks and self playing instruments he eagerly wanted to show off to me. Maybe I liked it so much because it reminded me of a friend who would talk about historical clocks and clockwork with almost the same level of enthusiasm.

Several of the expedition displays included information that the guide on the music tour had given, but I didn’t mind since often it was able to go into greater detail. For example, the fad of “player” instruments stretched well past the piano. The urge to amaze your friends with your musical talents extended to a number of other instruments like this “player trumpet”. Just blow?

Composing for Machines

Room after room of intricate, detailed clocks and devices ended in a small theater. While the card-activated recordings were played for me in English (the choice of language determined by the placement of holes in your card, haha, how clever, just like a music program) the theater had only one soundtrack and it was Dutch. Thankfully, a film of the English words played on a display that I could easily read.

The stage was occupied by a large number and variety of self playing instruments which were highlighted as the story moved to cover them. While some of the information was familiar from my guided tour, I was rather astonished to learn that composers like Mozart, Hadyn, Handel, and even Beethoven had composed music expressly for these wonderful self playing machines.

Wait wait, I hear the music history majors cry, they were alive in the 18th century, late 1700’s composers. I thought you said these machines were popular in the 19th and 20th century! Yes, I did and the museum did mainly focus on these later inventions, but remember the original carillon use of the cylinder program is from 1550. The human operated pipe organ was a popular instrument for composition during the Baroque era. Although Classical era composers like those mentioned above rarely wrote for the traditional pipe organ, some were interested in the abilities of the clockwork organ which was becoming more and more available by the mid 1700’s. Available at least to the reasonably affluent, and that’s who paid composers after all.Freule-open-bewerkt-930x620

The film at the museum said that because the clockwork organ could play combinations of notes not possible by human hands, the composers of the day felt drawn to compose unique and challenging works. Other sources I have since found seem to think that some of the composers disdained the tinny sounding miniature organs and only accepted the commissions for composition out of economic necessity. Either way, I was captivated by the notion because not only were these unique works designed exclusively for a machine to do what a human could not, the composers were actually present during the creation of the cylinder programs and could make adjustments to the timing and length of notes (the most nuance possible for the machines at the time) giving us the most accurate representation of the musical result they themselves envisioned for each piece.

Below is one of the pieces by Hadyn composed for the mechanical organ. Although it was recorded at the Speelklock Museum, it’s not my recording, I found it on Youtube by a Swedish Instrumental Band called Wintergaten. I especially like this video because you can see the organ working as it plays. You can find recordings of other compositions for clockwork organs on Youtube as well: here are a few for Handel, Mozart, and Beethoven. Although most of the videos are not as visually captivating as Wintergaten’s, it’s still interesting to hear these unique mechanical compositions

What Is New Under the Sun?

What started out as a mildly amusing side trip turned into one of the most eye-opening experiences of my summer. Before the invention of self-playing instruments there was no way to hear music without a musician, just as before the invention of the motion picture, there was no way to see a play without actors. It was a revolution in human culture and it happened a lot earlier than I realized.

In a very short amount of time from roughly 1750 to 1930 the culture is constantly demanding and creating new and improved technology. From about 1850-1920, the changes were happening so fast that your home music player would become obsolete almost as soon as you bought it. Meanwhile, in my head, I always pictured the fast transition of music playback to be the one from LP to MP3 that took place between 1965 (the release of the 8-track cassette deck) and 2001 (the release of the iPod).Related imageAnd just like our parents (maybe grandparents), people living in the 1860-1930 range complained that each new development was destroying music, culture, and maybe even the very fabric of society. However will we maintain social standards when people can just listen to music in their home instead of getting dressed up and attending a performance in polite society!?

I admit, I am a little flummoxed trying to imagine a world where music isn’t just there when I want it (and when I don’t, elevators everywhere). We are hardly ever without music. In our earbuds, in our cars, in every shop and most restaurants there is music. I’m listening to music while I write this. I struggle to imagine a world where the only music is that you can make yourself or pay a large number of people with expensive instruments to make for you. The invention of musicianless music is, I believe, an actual moment of deep cultural change on par with the printing press or the assembly line. However, past that huge conceptual change in our relationship with music, the trappings, the delivery systems, those are only small changes, and not as significant or original as we like to believe.

The mechanics might be different, but none of it is new: karaoke, the drum machine, samplers, auto-tuning. It was all there 100-400 years ago in a different form. The more I learn about history, the more it looks like we’ve been reliving the same cycles over and over with smaller and faster machines each time. I don’t find this thought depressing. It makes me look at the progression of time as more of a gradually progressing spiral than a straight line. Yes, it’s a repetitive cycle, but each cycle changes slightly. We’re still moving forward just not at the breakneck speed that the “get off my lawn” crowd would have us believe. Every so often we get a really big “ah-ha” change that sweeps us on to the next series of small change cycles.

So the next time someone says something like “kids these days” or heaven forfend “Millenials are killing everything”, just remember that Mozart programmed music in binary code for a machine to play over 200 years ago. Change is the only constant.


The Speelklok Museum in Utrecht was not the only place this summer that made me reach inside my brain and rearrange the way I look at things, but it was undoubtedly one of the biggest and most compact of such experiences. As I stated my intention is that these stories have no order or thematic relationship to my experiences this summer. Non-linear felt intuitively like a good way to go and after reconstructing these memories and thoughts I start to see why. Sometimes we have to step away from the linear narrative to see the bigger picture. As always, thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll return for more stories as they come.

Summer Abroad ’18

Hello faithful and new readers! I have returned from the epic summer travels to my quiet little home in Korea and tomorrow I start the fall semester’s classes and resume my life as a mild mannered (ha-ha) teacher. Along with my return to my office comes the joyous task of sharing my summer adventures with you! I hope you all had a great summer as well, and thanks for hanging in there during the silent months. Let the blogging resume.


Why Europe?

It is possibly the most quintessential rite of passage for young Americans (and I think quite a few Europeans, Australians, etc) to spend a summer abroad between finishing school and starting work life. I didn’t get the chance to do so upon my BA graduation, and although I did go abroad after my MA graduation, it was to take a job in China, not to explore and adventure. Finally, finally, no longer a university student by a couple decades, I managed to be at a point in life where I could do my “summer in Europe”.

I feel exceptionally lucky to have had the opportunity, but having done it, I am also glad it came to me later in life. I think that the purpose for the young to travel abroad should be to see new ways of life, to get outside the comfort zone before that becomes too scary.

I’m not saying Europe didn’t push my comfort zone, it did, but some of that may simply be that I’ve gotten so used to Asian and Southeast Asian travel that I had to readjust my parameters.  Nor am I saying “don’t go to Europe”. Oh hell, no. Go go go. But it’s expensive AF, and it’s not the coming of age story that I think it was when my parents’ generation made it famous. Now, everyone speaks English (it’s still polite to try to use their language, tho), and other than some extra stairs and a lack of free water (seriously it comes out of the tap, why can’t they just serve that at the restaurant?) it’s just not that culturally different from whatever Western European descended culture you came from.  (Obvi. this advice does not apply to people from non-European descended cultures)

There are a million wonderful things to see and do, I’m simply saying I’m glad I did it now and not at an age when I might have passed them by. It’s culture, and castles, and museums, and history, and food, and it’s expensive. Of course you can have a good time on a budget anywhere, but why?, if you are on a budget and don’t care so much what you see, only that it’s “abroad” go to someplace less expensive. Save up and go to Europe when you want to see Europe for it’s own sake and not for some Hollywood version of summer backpacking.

I spent more on this trip than any 3-5 other vacations you’ve read about on this blog, and yeah, it was 3-5 times longer, but I was still skating the bottom edge of a reasonable EU holiday budget at around 100$ a day (not counting airfare). It was challenging and caused problems from time to time. I could have easily spent twice that and not been in the lap of luxury. But, I wanted Europe bad enough that I was willing to do it shoestring, and overall, I think it was a good experience.

Where are the stories?

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to write 51 days of holiday travel into this blog. Past vacations that have ranged from 5-12 days often end up with a 1 post per day ratio. I’m not going to write 51 posts about Europe this fall, and I’m going travelling again in January, so I only have 4 months to write and edit everything! AAAAHHH!~!

Usually, I come home and spend a few days (a week) writing down everything I can recall in a “rough draft”, then decide how I want to present the story: chronologically, or thematically. Then I divide the draft into draft posts based on content and size (I really try to keep each post under 5k words), and finally I go through each one, edit it, add research details and photos, and publish it. It took me 6 months to finish posting a two week vacation this way. It’s not sustainable.

I did keep a kind of journal on the trip, well most of it. I stopped after Germany. I had very little “me” time in Copenhagen to write in, and I thought, “meh, it’s fine, there’s only like 2 weeks left and I know I can remember that much without notes”…. we’ll see.

I imagined that I could write up the last two weeks of draft and then start sorting and it just loomed ahead of me like a hurricane on the open ocean and I realized it could take me over a month to just draft and organize the information. So, instead, I’ve decide to just tell you stories of my summer as I’m able with absolutely no relationship to chronological or thematic ordering. Stories that left an impact on me will get much more time, other parts may get glossed over or dropped entirely. Sometimes I’ll tell you more about a place, sometimes I’ll tell you more about how it affected me. Sometimes I’ll have lots of history, other times I’ll have very practical travel advice. Always, I’ll have a story.

I encourage comments (polite and constructive of course, this is a troll-free zone after all) if there’s something you want to know more about or hear more about. This was not only a whole new kind of travel for me, it’s now a whole new kind of travel writing after 4 years of perfecting my “short holiday” style. I don’t really know where it’s going. Let’s find out together.

Gone Travelin’

I try to update this blog 2-4 times a month, but I’m about to embark on a 51 day tour of 8 countries in Europe and I have to be honest, taking time out to write an unpaid blog is not on my itinerary for the trip.

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I will be testing out the speech to text option in Google Docs to see if I can use it to record my thoughts and impressions along the way, but I won’t be able to sit down and compile, edit, revise, and add photos to all of those until sometime in September. God that sounds far away.

This is the largest single travel excursion I’ve ever undertaken and I am so psyched and so terrified. I stayed in Europe for 3 weeks in 2015, but I spend 2/3 of it in my friend’s apartment in Prague and there was basically zero planning. I spent 6 weeks living in Japan after a job ended before I left again, but I had an apartment and I wasn’t “vacationing” I was mainly trying to find another job before my visa ran out.

This time, I’ve structured my 51 day trip with all the detail planning work I learned on my short trips to New Zealand, Malaysia and the Philippines combined.  I’m going to 22 cities in 8 countries and I’m aiming to enjoy a wide variety of famous sites and hidden gems. Bonus, my job and apartment will be waiting for me when I get back!

You may have to wait until the fall to read all about it here, but I will be posting daily photos on Instagram and semi-regular short updates on Facebook. I hope you’ll join me on one or both and follow along as I finally get to enjoy a summer in Europe.

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July 2-7 : Paris!
Catacombs, bike tours, museums both famous and less well known. All the French food I can eat.

July 7-14 : Brussels & Beyond
Boat tour in Ghent, Belgian Brewery tours, Castles, ancient underground ruins, more castles, some wall art, and a whole day dedicated to chocolate!

July 14-21 : Maastrict & More
Castles, caves, cruises, catacombs and one luxurious day at a famous natural hot springs spa in Aachen, Germany.

July 21-28 : The Netherlands North
Den Haag, Amsterdam & Utrecht. Beaches, installation art, Van Gogh, canals, red lights, antiques, and hidden cities below.

July 28-August 4 : Hot for Hamburg
Singing fountains, botanical gardens, street festivals, summer fairs, PRIDE week, night markets, shipwrecks, haunted history museums, and fairy-tale villages right out of Grimm.

August 4-9: Clearly Copenhagen
World’s oldest amusement parks, Hamlet’s castle, the Little Mermaid, more museums, more castles, and at least one anarchist commune.

August 9-18 : Road Trip Sweden
From Gothenburg to Stockholm and back around the beautiful lakes. It’s nature hikes, saunas, and Vikings all the way.

August 18-20 : Next to Oslo
Nordic Fjords, midnight sun, a wood fired hot tub under the stars, and of course more Vikings.

August 21 : Back in the USSR?
A long layover in Moscow gives me time to check out Red Square, the Kremlin and a special Kremlin-lite amusement village & traditional market.

Aug 22: Home Again, Home Again. I arrive back in Korea and have to navigate from the airport in Seoul back to my home in Gyeongju … or maybe spend the night in Seoul, we’ll see how I want to sleep: immediately or in my own bed.

See ya on the road!

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Alaina Goes to Ghana

My friend who is in pharmacy school had an amazing opportunity to go to Ghana this year with Global Brigades to help set up medical clinics and educate people about healthcare. She says she hates writing, but I’ve managed to convince her to let me compile and edit her Facebook posts into a story to share with you. It is written in her voice and only edited for grammar and clarity.


Day 1

I have arrived safely in Ghana. Our lodge was three hours from the nearest airport. The air was wet and slightly scented, like being in a sauna. On the long drive through the countryside, we got our first glimpses of Ghana, covered in green trees with deep red soil. We drove through countless small villages on the way. Every time we stopped at a traffic light, vibrant people would cluster around and try to sell us treats from the overflowing bowls balanced on their heads.

35427395_10155352333095824_7391464207599796224_oOur lodge is lovely and surprisingly ornate, compared to the small shelters nearby. We are sleeping in rooms of four with bunk beds and private bathrooms with showers. The rooms are air-conditioned and that is heavenly. There is a large common seating area with big windows where we meet to talk and eat the wonderful food they prepare for each meal. Most meals are served buffet style, with a chicken dish, a fish option in rich sauces, grilled veggies, salad, some sort of dessert or bread, and fresh juice made from ginger and pine that tastes like paradise. 

Day 2

This morning we enjoyed an English-style breakfast, with eggs, toast, baked beans, coffee and an Ovaltine-style malty chocolate drink. We spent the morning sorting and repackaging the medical supplies we brought. We counted out one month supplies of vitamins into zip-lock bags using plates and butter knives to hold and sort the pills as we worked. Directions for medications are marked with symbols instead of words: a circle for once daily and two circles for twice daily.

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We enjoyed a delicious lunch of chicken, fish, salad, and plantains and then headed to one of the villages. We wanted to get to know some of the people we would be seeing and invite them to join us at the clinic the next day.

The whole village was overrun by adorable animals, wandering in and out of the houses and sleeping in pots and on roofs. Baby goats, cats, and chickens stumbled between our legs. We set out in groups of six plus a translator to meet the members of the community.

Everyone was very welcoming. They have a tradition in Ghana of inviting you into their homes and offering you a seat, water, and food in ritual fashion before asking why you’ve come. We were able to ask lots of questions about their lives and culture, as well as their experiences with healthcare.

I brought a Polaroid camera and took pictures of everyone we visited. The children went crazy about it, running around and posing for us. One family played music for us on their radio and invited me to dance with them. I can’t stop smiling about how wonderful and kind everyone was. 

35490852_10155352402665824_5405476595559301120_o (1)We learned that many of them walk an hour in the hot sun everyday to farm. They can’t find buyers for their crops, so they have food but no money. That means they can eat, but can’t buy basic non-food necessities. The little kids asked us for toothbrushes by miming brushing their teeth with their fingers. I’m glad we brought lots of toothbrushes and supplies to share.

They all seemed happy to have us there and excited to visit the clinic the following day. It was hard not to give them everything I had. They were kind, beautiful, proud, and generous. I’m looking forward to spending more time with them.

35634011_10155352400430824_2850625135008808960_oAfter dinner, we attended a talk from their local doctor, Dr. Cornelius to hear more about the healthcare challenges he faces in the region and the tools they are using to treat people.

Day 3

On Monday we set up our first clinic in their local hospital. It was a good building but had almost no medicine or supplies. There were only five hospital beds and otherwise it was mostly empty rooms. We set up a small pharmacy by laying out boxes of medicine on the floor.

35777187_10155357661315824_8270300656225484800_oThis particular village has easier access to medical care than most because it is so close to a facility with trained nurses. People in other villages in Ghana often have to travel on foot long distances to find a clinic with nurses and if they need any prescription medicine, they need to go farther still to reach a regional health center. This typically requires hiring a cab and taking a day off of work, which few of them can afford.

35629056_10155357662225824_2182456922446233600_o.jpgThey rely heavily on yearly medical brigades to bring medical supplies and care, however there have been several years where no aid arrived due to fear of the zika virus. I’m glad we’re here now.

The first village we went to is one that our program has visited before. It’s helpful to see that some of the positive changes brought in previous visits have stuck with them. During the first encounter with this village everyone was cooking inside, which was causing them to have respiratory disorders. We helped them create community outdoor cooking areas which they are still using.

35955080_10155362817785824_8263619722927407104_o.jpgHypertension is still a huge problem and many people came to the clinic with systolic blood pressure far over 200. (Note: below 120 is healthy, above 140 is red alert) Global Brigades has helped many people in the village become enrolled in the national Ghanaian health insurance which makes visits and medicine mostly affordable.

It is difficult to convince people to come to the clinic for chronic care if they’re feeling well. We spent a long time trying to help people understand that high blood pressure can lead to stroke, which they’re familiar with and afraid of. Those who have gotten medication in the past have only taken them sporadically, so a lot of time went into education and motivational interviewing to help people engage in maintenance care and preventative care.

35802247_10155357662475824_3485987004385067008_o.jpgWe are working to help the villages develop systems for chronic disease management, such as having a monthly day where a doctor visits from the regional center to provide care for people with chronic conditions. If we can get funding toward it, this could become a celebratory day with a meal provided to encourage people to attend. Hopefully some of these changes will help people stay healthier.

These clinics have been incredible to experience. I can’t get over how patient and grateful everyone has been. The villagers are usually lined up long before we arrive and some wait all day to be seen without complaint. When we spoke in their language or used our Ghanaian names the mothers would light up and smile proudly at us. In Ghana your name is based on the day of the week you were born. My name here is Afua, Friday born.

35894297_10155357685495824_8890960470295445504_o.jpgThe clinics are set up with a number of stations, starting with intake, triage, physician visits, optometrist visits, pharmacy, and counselling/education. We rotate between these different areas and home visits. My favorite station so far has been optometry. The doctor spent a long time teaching us about how to diagnose eye disorders and conduct exams. So many people came in with poor vision, sometimes unable to see the chart at all and restricted to finger counting at 3 meters or light only. It felt wonderful to give these people medicines and glasses and watch the change on their face as they were able to see clearly for the first time in their lives. It felt like we were peddling miracles.

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Day 5

My adventures were mildly paused when I became quite sick for a few days. It seems the food disagreed with me and after eating I had to collapse into bed with painful shivering and fever. Good news about being on a medical brigade is that you’re surrounded by doctors and medicine. After some rest, antibiotics, and restricting myself to just bread, hard boiled eggs, and rice, I’ve made it through and can go back to clinics at last. Looking forward to being back in action and grateful for the wonderful people who took care of me and luxuries I often take for granted like shelter and running water. I feel so lucky to live a life with so many gifts, when so many struggle.

Day 6

36063103_10155366573540824_2358097174769696768_o.jpgWe moved to another village called Otuam. Their health facility was much smaller and patients had to wait outside under tents to be seen. I worked with Dr. Cornelius, testing for malaria and checking blood sugar. In Ghana, Malaria is seen more as a nuisance than a life-threatening sickness. It’s similar to the way people in America relate to the flu. The flu occasionally kills people in the US, but most of us expect to get it at some point. Since we were already on malaria prophylaxis (vaccine), I followed their lead and have been mostly skipping insect repellent. Amazingly I haven’t gotten a single bite all week.

Working with the physicians was wonderful. I learned so much about how to diagnose the common diseases and developed a talent for getting blood from kids without making them cry. I was sad to see how many little ones had swollen bellies. I always associate it with undernourishment, but on our clinic intake form everyone indicated that they were able to eat.

Later in the day we went from home to home taking blood pressures and inviting people to the clinic if they needed additional care. Otuam was close to the sea and many of the houses were made out of palm fronds. There was a quality to the place that felt like Neverland, with forts hidden among the trees and laundry and nets hanging like pirate sails. Hungry cats watched as people cleaned fish and radios dangled from branches. The children were curious and wild as ever and I had fun playing and adventuring with them. It was an incredible day.

Day 7

We visited the large regional hospital that patients are referred to if they can’t be treated in the clinics. If they have Ghanaian health insurance many things are covered, but if they didn’t register or can’t afford it they have to pay cash for services. Registering can be challenging and is already closed for this year because the machine that prints cards is broken.

Getting to the hospital is difficult for people in the villages. Even those who can grow enough food to eat well still may not have any money to pay for a taxi. Those who can’t afford a cab may walk for days under hot sun.

36176328_10155366573850824_2128956022373482496_oThis hospital is rare and unique in Ghana. It has a special team to manage chronic conditions like diabetes and hypertension. We spent some time talking to their director and making plans to work together over the next year to bring their amazing work to more communities. We are also going to try to get them additional funding for important equipment they need, such as the ability to test HbA1c levels (a diabetes blood sugar test). We were able to tour the hospital and were overjoyed to find that, unlike the rural village clinics, they kept medical records and charts on their patients. I’m excited to see teams in Ghana working to initiate chronic condition management and hope other hospitals are inspired by their work.

36063908_10155366573485824_3676942903927635968_o.jpgOn the way home from the hospital we took some time to relax at one of the local beaches. It was incredibly beautiful, but parts were covered in litter and we were told the water wasn’t clean enough to swim in. It was nice to listen to the sound of the waves and rest in a place with a cool breeze. Such a lovely day.

Reflections

The best part about Ghana has been the people. The adults are generous, wise, proud, beautiful, sad, and kind and the children are playful, curious, clever, and mischievous. Most people wear beautiful colors and there is a tailor in the community who makes custom clothing for everyone.

While we were setting up the clinic there were always little faces peering in the windows at us or running up when our bus arrived. They were eager to play and quick to ask for treats and supplies. One boy gave me big eyes and mimed brushing his teeth. This broke my heart and caused me to skip the normal process of giving adults all the supplies needed for their family at the end of the visit to sneak a toothbrush for this boy. It was a foolish choice. Soon they were swarmed around me begging for toothbrushes. I tried to stop handing them out and had a nurse translate that their mothers would be getting some for them, but they wouldn’t release their hold on the ones in my fingers. I eventually was able to give them to one of the mothers and escape.

I distracted them further by taking pictures of them using a Polaroid camera I brought. They went wild for the pictures, posing and dancing around. Eventually I decided I had used enough of the film and wanted to save some for the other communities. I started playing with them by showing them dance steps, like the Charleston and the salsa basic and spinning them around. They were thrilled and tried to show me their version of head, shoulders, knees, and toes as well as some local kicking games. We also taught each other different clapping games and high fives.

Whenever I had to go inside to help clean up they would follow and call for “sister Afua” after me. I got lots of hugs and happy bounces whenever I would emerge again. At one point we were finishing up at the clinic and it started pouring with rain. Everyone was huddled under the shelter but the kids were being adventurous and darting into the rain. It seemed refreshing after the hot day in the clinic so I followed and played in the rain with them, spinning around and dancing. It was wonderful and by the time I got to the bus my heart was so full it could have burst.

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A Dark Past

Our last full day in Ghana was a cultural day, where we visited a local market and enjoyed Ghanian music and dancing. We also visited Cape Coast Castle, a notorious stronghold of slavery and torture.

36347144_10155376294000824_7797909770412752896_nCape Coast Castle was a trade fortress that was converted for use to house and break the spirit of slaves before they were loaded onto boats. Our visit began wandering around the open air area and looking at the canons over the sea, then into a museum detailing the history of the castle and its role in the slave trade. When I was about halfway through the museum our guide collected us for a tour of the dungeons where the people who were to be slaves were imprisoned.

36393991_10155376293940824_8802817987510796288_n.jpgTo give us a glimpse of the fear they must have felt, he had us initially descend in complete darkness, only turning on lights once we had reached the stone wall on the other side of the male dungeon. He explained that this small underground space held up to a thousand men for months at a time. They were forced into complete darkness where they had to live in their own filth and excrement, packed against their brothers. The floor we were standing on was false, built on top of the human waste that had accumulated there.

36335527_10155376294175824_8162317408808206336_nTo add insult, directly above the slave dungeons where people endlessly suffered was a Christian church. Our guide described the thought process that many slaves went through when they decided to convert to Christianity. To a person experiencing such agony, it would seem like your God had abandoned you or was weak, yet those who followed the Christian faith were clean and happy, prospering above. It must have appeared to many that the Christan god was stronger or better to his worshippers.

The men in these dungeons would never come out the door the entered again. The governor didn’t want the people of the castle to see the slaves, so they were moved, shackled together and driven forth by other slaves, through an underground tunnel to be loaded onto the ships.

36306542_10155376294415824_4634339883559682048_n.jpgThe women’s cells were similar to the men’s, except that their door was regularly opened so they could be grabbed and raped at will. Sometimes they were bathed before this occurred, and other times drunk soldiers would not even afford them that decency. Women who resisted were beaten or put into a hotter cell where they were locked without food and water and often died if their spirits weren’t quickly broken. Our guide shut us into the boiling confinement cell for about 30 seconds, which was enough to have some of us panicking.

The last they saw of their country was the Door of No Return: a portal that brought them to the water where they were lowered and packed into the ships as cargo. By the time they emerged through that door, they had been in darkness for many months and thus were blinded by the bright sun, unable to fight. Those who did not die at sea lead painful backbreaking lives in slavery.

Immediately after walking back through the Door of No Return, our guide took us up to the airy hall where slave prices were negotiated and then up to the British governor’s chambers. The governor had a beautiful set of airy rooms with large windows that looked out on the picturesque coastline. The dichotomy was so startling I felt shaken and revolted.

36350563_10155376294695824_4792468016619061248_nWe were left with a plea to remember that slavery is not gone from this world. People are still taken against their will and forced into terrible suffering and servitude. He asked us to see, to take a stand, and to remember.

We have so much work to do, in our country alone, to ensure that people are able to lead fair and decent lives. The horror of the atrocities that we do to each other when we dehumanize our brothers and sisters is echoing around in my heart.

These terrible things happen when we group people together and see them as ‘other’. We do this sometimes because we want power or wealth, other times because we don’t understand them or are afraid of them. As we band together to stand against injustice, I urge you all to avoid the slippery road of dehumanizing those you stand against. Fight them with all of your fury, but don’t follow the dangerous path of talking the humanity away from anyone.

It is ideas that we fight, not people. Fight against the idea that anyone can be treated as less than human. Our trustest goal is to stop that idea from spreading, to take it out of the minds of people, and until that is accomplished to stop those people from acting on this deadly idea through any means necessary. Stand together against the heinous crimes happening in our country. Do not let this terrible sickness enter your minds and hearts. Keep fighting.

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You can donate to Global Brigades on their website. I don’t work for them or get any kind of kickbacks or sponsorship, I just like charity.

Gardens and Kindess: Hisaya Odori, Tokugawaen, & One Treasured Umbrella

We are at the end of my stories about this recent visit to Nagoya. I saved a special story of human awesomeness for this last post because nowadays I feel like we need all the random acts of kindness available. I’ve also collected the various encounters I enjoyed with the city’s greenery and gardens. I love living an urban life for so many reasons: transportation, culture, food, a wide variety of craft beers… but after spending so much of my life near trees I get antsy if I’m not next to one for a while. Nagoya could give any green city a run for it’s money as far as that goes, and although the Atsuta Jinju Shrine was far and away the most immersive natural experience, there were other treasures around town worth mentioning.


The Nagoya Green Belt, Hisaya Odori

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photo credit: ume-y

Hisaya Odori is one of the main streets in Nagoya, and it runs through the Sakae neighborhood for about 2km. It’s filled with flower gardens, green grassy spots, beautiful fountains, the Nagoya TV tower and the Oasis 21 center, plus some truly large trees. It’s like a lovely green ribbon in the heart of downtown. I adore this and want one in every city.

After shopping in Osu, and the surprise dance show in Sakae, we headed over to the Hisaya-odori Garden Flarie, which is a cross between a botanical garden and an outdoor barbecue restaurant. It’s free to enter and explore. That day I was greeted with a magical rose maze filled with hundreds of varieties of roses in full bloom. It smelled amazing! It wasn’t huge, but it was so packed with flowers I felt completely overwhelmed! In a good way. I wasn’t the only one appreciating the blooms, as an entire photography class had come out with their very expensive cameras to have a chance at the wonderful backdrops.

Once I made it through the roses, I found a small lake surrounded by more flower beds. One of the city’s giant crows was having a bath in the stream feeding into the pond, and didn’t seem at all bothered by the humans wandering around. Finally, my flower power boost wound down and we plopped into some comfy chairs to listen to the live music.

Beer Festival Walk Through

Later that evening we ran into the Belgian Beer Festival taking up about two blocks worth of the park, so we decided to stroll around as an after dinner food-settling walk. It did look like a decent beer selection was available, however, it was set up more like a beer garden than a tasting festival. A glass was 8$, and although tickets to get it filled were 2$ each most beers were 3-5 tickets. They were good looking beers from nice craft breweries, so I don’t mean to suggest they weren’t worth 6-10$ a pint. However, neither of us really wanted a keepsake glass, and we found it a little sad there was no option for tasting available.

photo of the 2014 Belgian Beer Festival in Nagoya from the event website

A few years ago I ran into a wine festival in Prague that had what strikes me as the perfect set up. Five dollars for the glass (a better price point), and then wine could be had in “taste” portions (1-2 oz) for a single ticket, or full glass portions for more tickets. This allowed guests to taste several wines without going broke or getting drunk, and then settle into buying full glasses or even bottles of their favorites. Beer is so filling, I couldn’t imagine drinking even a full pint after my wonderfully huge meal of Hitsumabushi, let alone drinking enough to even taste the 3-4 beers that had caught my eye. Still, it was fun to see what was on display, and it was a nice slow post-meal walk before we turned up the speed to find the subway.

Tokugawa gardens

20180508_151625Tickets to the Tokugawa Gardens can be purchased at the same time you buy your Nagoya Castle ticket (combo ticket ftw) which gets you a slight discount if you are planning to do both, but does not include the art museum at the gardens.

After I finished at the castle grounds I took the Me-Guru tourist bus to the next stop, Tokugawa Gardens. The Me-Guru stop is on the opposite side of Castle from where I came in, but the ladies at the ticket office were well familiar with the bus I was looking for and gave me directions. If you do take the Me Guru TO Nagoya Castle, just be aware it will pass you through a little “village” with food and shops. I am not sure if the golden ice cream is in that one as well, but you can get your hand stamped at any gate should you want to exit and return later on the same day.

I finally found the Me Guru stop, but the first golden bus to pull up was going to the wrong place! I thought like most hop-on-hop-off buses it would be a single circular route, but I was mistaken. Be sure you ask the driver if he’s going to your stop when you get on (no need for elaborate Japanese, they mostly know the stop names). In my case, the driver advised me to hop back off and let me know about what time the bus I actually wanted would arrive. Very kind and helpful.

I ended up waiting for about 30 minutes. It probably would have taken about the same amount of time to walk over to a subway/ regular bus station and go from there… maybe? But I didn’t have WiFi to check any alternate route and it honestly felt nice to just sit still for a while after walking the palace grounds all morning. If I’d checked the Me Guru routes and schedules better, I could easily have spent that time in the little village of shops I passed between the castle and the bus stop, so that’s on me.

For more info on how to use the Me Guru, see my post about Nagoya Castle.

20180508_151313The golden bus drops you off right at the gates to the gardens, and I was able to show my combo ticket to get in with no trouble. The gardens start out with a main square that houses the entrance gate and the museum (which I did not go in that day). There is a large lake to walk around and feed koi fish in. The koi are ginormous. Biggest koi I have ever laid eyes on. I think there are smaller tuna. Some were close to a meter. There were also many colors, mainly the gold color and the calico mix of orange, black and white, but there were also ghostly solid black koi that were invisible even a few cm under the water until they broke the surface. They were like swimming shadows of fish. It was fascinating to watch.

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Near one edge of the lake, the concrete path leads right up to the edge of the water and the fish are clearly used to associating humans with food because they come in droves as soon as any two-legs gets within sight of the water. I was able to get some very close up photos of the koi who were trying to see if my phone was edible. Good thing they don’t have teeth!

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I thought about circling the lake because it was quite pretty, but the rain was beginning to patter around and I had left my umbrella at the restaurant the night before, and had passed exactly zero convenience stores that day so far to buy a replacement. It was still light rain, and it was warm, but it’s hard to take sweeping vista photos of a beautiful body of water in the gray drizzle. I decided to head into the trees for shelter and to see if I could find some more picturesque views.

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The woods are criss-crossed with paths and stairs that lead all around what is a fairly small area. Despite it’s diminutive size, the paths all lead to new and unique viewpoints. I found a little rest area/ cottage at the top of a low hill. It looked like a great place to hide from the sun or rain. There was also a small suikinkutsu, a traditional garden ornament made in such a way that the water falls onto an upturned pot and makes a kind of chiming sound. I don’t know if this one was clogged or broken, but I could not hear the sound it is famous for making at the time I was there. You can hear a sample on the wikipedia page, though.

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Next, I found the river that fed both from and into the lake in a kind of faux natural fountain. There were more of the shadow koi dancing in smaller ponds around the woods. I watched butterflies flitter through the trees looking for the recently departed spring flowers. I found an inch worm that I tried desperately to photograph, but he was just moving so fast that everything is blurry. It was still fun to watch the little bug I know only from kids songs.

Although the spring flowers were gone, and the summer flowers were not yet blooming, I did find one fascinating splash of color among the green leaves. The Japanese maple trees were putting out “helicopter” seeds that were bright pink! Not autumn leaf red, no… like hyper-Barbie pink. They very tips of the green leaves took on the same pink hue. This was beyond fascinating to me, not only because I had no idea leaves could be pink, but because there’s no reason for it. Flowers evolved colored petals to attract insects (and other animals) that will help spread the pollen and fertilize more plants. The maple seeds are wind blown. The helicopter blades fly on the wind. Any kid who ever lived near any such seed bearing tree has played games watching how far the spinning seeds will go. They don’t need insects to be attracted, so why the heck are they pink?

20180508_153348Finally, because I can’t take a vacation without finding the waterfall, I found the waterfall. I am reasonably sure given the size of the park that the river and falls are man-made, but they don’t look like artificial fountains, they look like natural waterways. It’s a specialty of Japanese gardens to cultivate nature in a pleasing manner while still maintaining the natural beauty.

About that Umbrella?

Sometime while I was in the trees, the rain really picked up and when I came back into the open, it was definitely umbrella weather, and I still didn’t have one. Plus, the map indicated that my walk to the nearest public transit station was just over 1km, a distance I don’t mind walking in better weather.

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I decided it was time to leave the gardens. I could have spent much more time there in better weather, but even in the rain I feel like it was worth the entrance fee and the walking around time. It truly is a beautiful and relaxing place. I pulled up my map (satellite map works even without data or WiFi) and oriented myself to find the park exit nearest my destination. I double checked with the ladies at the gate on my way out that I was heading the right way. I love Google Maps, but I still like double checking.

With a 1km+ walk ahead, I was sure that I’d pass any kind of convenience store on my way between the gardens and the station where I could re-umbrella myself, but it was very residential. I know Korea has an insane number of convenience stores, but most places I’ve been in Japan have a reasonable number (at least one every couple blocks) or if they don’t have those, then they have tourist stands selling stuff which always includes umbrellas on rainy days for people who forgot theirs. The neighborhood around Tokugawa is bereft of all these.

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artist credit: Rolfyram

Some way into my walk, I just became committed to being wet. I was on my way back to the apartment after all, so I just had to survive the subway and I could get a hot shower and a change. Then suddenly, a kind faced Japanese lady came up beside me. She spoke rather quickly, but I came to understand that she was offering to share her umbrella space with me as we walked in the same direction. As we walked along the otherwise abandoned streets, she asked me the usual foreigner questions: where are you from, what are you doing here, etc. I was struggling with my Japanese all week because it kept getting mixed up in my brain with Korean and I felt embarrassed by my total inability to string together a sentence, but she was patient and kept at it, smiling the whole time.

When she asked where I was going and I told her, she was completely shocked. But that’s so far! Yes, I know, but I’ll be ok, I’m going back to my friend’s house next. She tutted a bit more about the distance and when we came to the intersection where we would part ways she began to give me her umbrella. This was no cheap conbini umbrella, it was a nice, heavy, decorated affair. I shook my head and gestured for her to keep it while trying again to explain I would be ok. I’m not going to melt however often my students say I’m a witch. But she insisted further.

I remember learning back in my first year of Japanese classes that it is necessary to refuse 3 times to be really sure, and while I would certainly have appreciated an umbrella, I felt awkward accepting such a nice one from a stranger. So I refused again, and again she insisted, telling me her house was just across the street. And a third time, really are you sure, I will be ok, you shouldn’t do that. And a third time she offered the umbrella, so I finally decided I should accept it with grace and gratitude. I thanked her profusely and bowed. She was grinning from ear to ear, so I think somewhere she’s telling the other version of this story where she got to rescue a poor foreign visitor in her neighborhood. It was such a nice umbrella, it kept me dry all the way home, and I made the effort to get it on the plane back to Korea because even though it didn’t fit in my carry on luggage, it’s too precious a souvenir to leave behind.

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That night we feasted on conbini food and managed to make some working rubrics for her essay classes. The next morning I made the long trek back to the airport and my home in Korea. Because she and I both live a bit far from our airports, it’s still about 6 hours of total transit time from my house to hers. Too long for a regular weekend, but I hope for another long one where I can go back and see some of the things I missed or at least see the best ones in better weather.

Less than a week till I’m wheels up again. It’s getting down to the wire trying to finish my end of semester work at the University and get my trip planned out enough to be sure I can get tickets to everything I really want, and have back up plans for when I can’t. I hope you enjoyed Nagoya. Thanks for reading!

Nagoya Castle: Now with 10% more Ninja!

If there is one famous place that exemplifies Nagoya, it is the sprawling grounds of the reconstructed Nagoya Castle. I couldn’t possibly visit Japan’s fourth largest city without spending some time at it’s most famous historical monument! I was hoping to get a sunny day and take some sweeping landscape photos of this majestic structure, but the weather was not on my side. Even without the sun, Nagoya Castle was beautiful, fun and educational to visit. Plus, there were Ninjas!


I woke up Tuesday to the sodden realization that the weather forecast had changed again, and the rain was not going to stop until I was back in Korea. It wasn’t as bad as Monday, however, mostly cloud cover and the occasional sprinkle. I had forgotten my umbrella at the katsu restaurant the night before, but I wasn’t worried since umbrellas are for sale in every subway station and convenience store (right next to a huge steaming pile of foreshadowing).

Golden Bus or Subway?

I looked into the possibility of doing the Golden Tour Bus day pass. The Me-Guru is a kind of hop on hop off bus that runs around the most popular places in Nagoya. You can get a Me-Guru day pass for 500 yen which is great if you are planning to hit up several tourist hot spots in one day. Unfortunately for me, there wasn’t a stop anywhere near my friend’s house, so I was going to have to take the subway at least 2 times (out and back) making the 500 yen ticket less attractive to me. If the Me-Guru isn’t getting you where you want to go, you can also get a city day pass for subways for 740 yen, or subway bus combo for 850 yen.

Nagoya Subway ticket machines

Photo Credit: Nagoya Station.com

The main attraction of the Me-Guru Golden Bus is that it drops you very close to tourist attractions that might otherwise be a hefty walk from the nearest regular bus or subway stop. Atsuta Jingu is very central and easy to access, but the Nagoya Castle and Tokugawa Gardens are rather out of the way. Lucky for me, the Me-Guru bus also offers single ride tickets for 210 yen which you can buy on the bus just like any other city bus. I would recommend the Me-Guru day pass if you happen to be staying anywhere near one of the bus’s stops, however I opted to take the subway (270 yen trip) to Nagoya Castle, then the Me-Guru to Tokugawa (210 yen), and finally the subway again (270 yen) back to my ersatz home base for a grand total of 750 yen.

I mention all this because it’s acutely important to figure out transit in Japan before you go unless you are made of money and time. Since most of us aren’t… Data plans and mobile WiFi hot spots are expensive and not really necessary given the proliferation of free WiFi, but it does mean you can’t to a Google search any time anywhere, you have to find the WiFi first. I like to research my routes over breakfast and take screenshots of the map and directions to reference later when I’m out of WiFi range. So, Tuesday morning, while I was enjoying my “morning service” again, I pulled up a million maps to see where I would go and how far I would have to walk/wait between each one. The public transit options between the Castle and the garden are dreadful. Hence the one stop Me-Guru ride.

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If you don’t plan ahead, you may not know where the next bus stop/subway station you need is (it might not be the one you came out of or the closest one may not go where you want to go). You could find yourself walking farther than you want, which doesn’t sound like much, but we tracked our walking on Sunday and got almost 10 km in one day of aimless tourist meandering. It adds up fast, and while I don’t mind walking for health or enjoyment, I don’t want to waste vacation time and energy walking extra to the bus stop when I could be using it to walk through something cool! Plus, if you suddenly find yourself knackered from unexpected heat, humidity, and ridiculous amounts of walking (this happens to me at least once per vacation), taking a taxi back to your hotel in Japan could cost 50-100$, that’s US dollars, folks. Taxis are EXPENSIVE in Japan. Ubers are not better.

Let Them Eat Gold

From the nearest subway station, the walk into the Castle compound is down a little restaurant corridor that sells everything from Nagoya specialties to the Castle’s very own gold plated ice cream. Yes, gold plated ice cream. It’s not actually very expensive, and it’s highly Instagramable, but I couldn’t bring myself to buy one as I have recently been complaining about the out-of-touch rich people in America eating gold plated tacos while children can’t get fed in school… soooooooo…. no gold ice cream for me.

The ice cream isn’t trying to be Richie Rich, it’s actually meant to imitate the golden tiger-fish that is the symbol of the castle. During my post vacation research phase, I got curious about how they could afford to sell these golden ice creams for 6-9$ a pop, and I discovered that you can buy edible gold sheets for surprisingly cheap. One seller on Amazon is selling 10 sheets for 7$. The gold taco I was upset about? 25,000$… US….At 0.70 per sheet, it may be silly to eat a golden ice cream cone, but it’s not actually Louis XVI levels of decadence and class warfare. Eat the rich.

Fire Bombing Damage

Nagoya Castle is the number one tourist stop in Nagoya and it’s not even finished! Almost everything you see there was destroyed by Americans in WW2 during the fire bombings. A fact the informative signs will not let you forget since everything you read will tell you how the original was destroyed and whether what you’re looking at is a transplant or a reconstruction.

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Traveling around Asia, you inevitably see signs like this because nearly every temple, castle and historical site has been sacked during one war or another. In China and Korea, you find things that were destroyed by the Japanese. In Japan, you find things that were destroyed by the Americans.

The castle and grounds were still heavily under construction during my visit, but I’m told with some degree of excitement by the locals that the reconstruction should be finished this (2018) summer.

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Hommaru Palace

The first sight that greeted me walking in the gate was the tower of Hommaru Palace. The tower is done in a similar style to the main castle, but is much smaller. Once you get around the corner and over the moat, there is a beautiful brand new palace. According to the literature I was given to take home, the Nagoya Castle was declared a National Treasure back in 1930, but sadly destroyed in the 1945 air raids… ok they don’t call out America by name, but we all know. The palace compound has been undergoing reconstruction on and off since 1959, but the Hommaru palace reconstruction only started in 2009!20180508_134013

I am not an architecture buff, but I do enjoy a beautiful building. I especially appreciate that Nagoyans decided to use all traditional materials and craft techniques to remake the structure. It doesn’t just look like the original, it preserves the artistry and history of Japanese culture — not only the woodwork, but also the fittings, metalwork, and paintings. There was an intense research project designed to microscopically and chemically analyze the original scraps that survived the fire bombing (have we mentioned that recently, because Nagoya Castle does not want you to forget) so that the paintings could be replicated as authentically as possible.

Despite the chronic reminders of our history of conflict, the restoration process is fairly interesting. If you want to see more details, they’ve got a lovely website.

As I approached the palace proper, there was a group of Japanese businessmen having a chat in front of a very photogenic area. However, my faith in Japanese politeness was rewarded. As soon as one noticed me holding my camera (phone) nearby, they gestured to the others to move out of the way and we all smiled and bowed to each other before I went on to take the photo. So much politeness!

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Following the path, I noticed an area where a few other visitors were lining up and entering the building so I paused to check it out. The staff were sooooo excited to share with me. They showed me a little video of how to tour the building correctly (no touching, no flash photos, etc) and explained the character in costume stopping all the bad behavior on screen was the father of the famous king who had ruled from this palace and a famous general.

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I was asked to wear my backpack on my front to avoid bumping anything, and all of us were asked to remove our shoes before going inside. Slippers were available, of course, and there were free shoe lockers as well. For an extra 100yen, an audio tour of the palace was availble in several languages. I thought about getting the English one, but it was taking the staff 10+ minutes to set up the couple at the front of the line, and I wasn’t second in line. I decided to risk moving on less informed.

The palace itself is bright and open. Although the day was cloudy, the inside of the palace somehow still managed to feel sunny with the warm wood halls, paper windows, and gold accents. Drifting sock footed through the hallways, I felt a sense of what visiting the royal palace might be like. Everything was hushed and clean. The halls were made of the same pale wood on all 4 sides creating an effect of being inside a tree. Every few meters, the interior hall wall would open up into an opulent room. The 3 visible walls inside each room were covered with the ornate and painstaking replicas of the Edo period paintings.

In practice, each of the rooms would have had a specific ceremonially significant purpose. A room for receiving guests of a certain social standing or another. A room for dining, one for tea, one for drinking sake and listening to music. One room had a fire pit built gracefully into the floor and a hidden vent in the ceiling to carry the smoke of roasting meat and fish up and out. The low wooden bars are just to keep people from walking into it, not an actual part of the function. Indoor fire pit is now added to my list of things I want in my imaginary dream house of the future.

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The palace doesn’t take long to explore and it’s included in the park entry fee. I highly recommend a walk through. On my way out, I ran into the very helpful staffer again. It turns out she had lived in America a while ago and was happy to practice English with me (although I don’t think she really needed “practice”) She told me some more about the restoration process and said I really needed to come back after the construction was complete to see it at it’s best. It made me happy that the people working there take so much pride and interest in the history and culture of the site. Enthusiasm is highly contagious and just talking with her made me more excited to be there.

Surprise! Ninjas!

Just after leaving Hommaru, the path turns a slight corner and suddenly there’s the first real view of the Castle proper. This was the real moment I was sad about the weather. Nagoya Castle is elevated, and huge, so any photo will have plenty of sky in the background. My cloudy, rainy day resulted in a very plain light gray sky instead of a fluffy cloud filled azure backdrop. Is it cheating to use filters?

Did I mention there are ambulatory ninja on the castle grounds? It’s part of a cultural and historical show. According to the ninja website, two words I never thought I would string together in a non-hyperbolic fashion, there are performances every weekend, but weekdays are listed as “hospitality”, a kind of meet and greet.  I was there on a Tuesday, so I only met the two posing for photos and promoting their future shows.

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No Nagoya Castle for Me

Sadly, the castle was closed for the finishing touches of construction, so I couldn’t go inside, but I’ve heard there’s an excellent view from the top. Looking at other people’s photos online, it seems the decoration style is very similar to that of Hommaru palace. The only truly distinctive thing I missed out on seems to be the huge Shachihoko (the tiger fish) that you can sit on and pose with, and the tall geometric stairwell. Next time.

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photo credit: Matcha Magazine

Since the castle proper and some of the other areas were closed off for construction, I was encouraged to wander a little off the beaten path. In addition to stopping for teeny tiny flowers which earned me some very strange looks. (Why is she looking at the grass when the castle is right there?) I also wandered off into a little forest grove filled with large, semi-flat stones. It was not cordoned off, but also not really connected to the main walkway either. After some assistance from the Google oracle, it seems I discovered a stone tomb of unique historical properties.

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I’m still unclear if it’s an original or a replica given the whole bombing debacle, and I don’t know why it was over there all by itself in an extremely unmaintained state in the middle of what were otherwise meticulously maintained grounds. The only informative sign was in Japanese and it mostly focused on the description of the architectural style, geography and time period with no mention as to its context near the castle. Still, it was pretty, and from inside the trees, I got some fun new perspective angles on the castle itself that don’t look identical to every other tourist shot on the web, so yay!

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A large chunk of the grounds were completely blocked off during my visit. I found a few more interesting goodies like ancient gates and the working tea house where you can stop and have a traditional cup of matcha green tea and a sweet. Of course the souvenir shop would never be closed for construction, but I found the gardens to be a bit lackluster, as though they had not been tended to yet this year, so even though they were not blocked off, they weren’t exactly visitor ready.

Samurai and Shachihoko

20180508_131428On my way back toward the main gates, I happened to run into the Samurai. Ninjas AND Samurai. It’s like cosplay meets museum, so very Japanese. Much like the ninja, the Samurai pace the palace grounds daily for photo ops and perform shows on weekends and holidays. My desire to avoid weekend/holiday crowds may have backfired here, but the guys I met were pretty cool nonetheless.

The last important sight before my path led me outward was the Shachihoko – the fish tiger. What’s up with that? Well, it’s a mythological creature that is half fish (specifically a carp) and half tiger. The Japanese characters that make up the name of the creature is also a combination of “fish” and “tiger”. 鯱 (shachi) = 魚 (sakana, fish)+ 虎 (tora, tiger) Some argue that the fish is really an orca because “shachi” also translates as “orca” in Japanese.  I love language.

It’s often put on temples and palaces to ward off fires, but in Nagoya it has become the special symbol of Nagoya Castle due to the two large golden Shachihoko on the roof. Most of the souvenirs, or omiyage, of the castle involve this magical creature in some way, and of course, so does the golden ice cream.

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I do hope that I’ll have the opportunity to return to Nagoya again after the construction is complete. I would not only enjoy seeing the inside of the Castle proper, I suspect I would greatly enjoy the gardens and side buildings that were inaccessible during my visit. What little I could see through the scaffolding looked intriguing. Plus, next time I won’t feel guilty about trying that glittery frozen treat now that I know more about the edible gold market.

Due to the weather, there is no accompanying photo album to this trip, but I hope you’re enjoying the Instagram photos in the mean time. As always, thanks for reading ❤

Oh, and the umbrella foreshadowing? I’m afraid you’ll have to read the next post to find out about that adventure. 🙂

Food of Nagoya: Tebasaki, Hitsumabushi & Kishimen oh my!

I don’t think that I ever truly appreciated food tourism for most of my life. Of course I like to eat locally, to try new foods, to sample the regional cuisine, but I’ve never made it a goal. It was always more of a side quest, a “since I’m here anyway, I might as well”. I thought I was doing quite well given the (not inaccurate) stereotype about American (and British) tourists who like to go to exotic places and then eat familiar foods. I thought my willingness to try was good enough. What did I know?


I have noticed since living in Korea that there is a strong feeling bordering on obsession with the famous foods of any given tourist destination. Not only outside of Korea, but regionally within the country as well. If you go to a certain place, it was taken as given that you MUST get some of the locally famous food. To do otherwise was simply unthinkable.

As my friend and I sat waiting for our food, I shared this observation with her and she made a politely stiffled “wtf whypipo” sound and tried not to look completely aghast. Her family is from Mexico (yes, she’s American) and she explained to me that as a Latina, for her and her family (and her culture as far as she is aware) it’s always about the food. I have to admit, I did feel a little abashed, but I have no reason to cling to my old ideas. I usually enjoy the hell out of eating locally, so why NOT make it part of my to-do list rather than merely adjacent to it?

Tebasaki

20180505_175507Our first famous food sight was Yamachan, a chicken joint that is usually so popular that wait times can be over an hour. Yamachan is famous for chicken wings. Initially, I was very skeptical since I get plenty of chicken in Korea, but when we arrived we were sufficiently early as to be able to get a table. We had to take the smoking section, but it was still clear air when we were seated.

Smoking sections? Yeah, Japan has relegated smoking to a few small designated areas. You can’t just smoke anywhere, even outdoors. There are designated smoking spots with ashtrays. Some are open air, while others are actually a glass booth to protect passersby from the second hand fumes. Since people can’t just step onto the sidewalk for a smoke, restaurants have smoking sections. These are also cordoned off with floor to ceiling walls and sometimes even a double door airlock system to keep the smell from entering the non-smoking section.

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photo credit: Yusuke Kawasaki

Back to the chicken wings. Nagoya is famous for tebasaki, a crispy fried pepper spiced chicken wing. There’s no batter, so the wings are just fried nice and crispy on the outside, but moist on the inside. They are coated with a lightly spicy salt and pepper flavor that was zingy and enjoyable. Plus, each order comes with instructions on how to eat the wings Nagoya style (and get all the meat off in one swipe!). I found later that a lot of people consider these wings to be “quite spicy” so Korean cuisine might have impacted my spice meter, as I only found it pleasantly zingy.

Conveyor Belt Sushi

As we finished our plate of wings, the restaurant was filling up and the smoke was getting thicker so it was time to move on. After the tebasaki appetizer, our main course was to be conveyor belt sushi.

We arrived at Sushiro, the famous 100yen restaurant, only to discover that going to a popular restaurant on a Saturday night that is also a holiday means a long wait. Quelle suprise! The good news was that we’d already had some chicken wings, and it was our first time to catch up since parting ways in February, so the waiting area was just a place to sit down and chat by then.

photo credit: アジロウ

This was a true dollar menu style conveyor belt place. Any dish that came by on a plain yellow plate was up for grabs and only 100 yen. If you wanted something specific, you could use the little computer at each table to place an order. I got some of my favorites (unagi, fatty tuna, salmon roe and more) and proceeded to stuff my face with sushi. It’s amazing to me that even though Korea and Japan are separated by only a narrow strip of ocean and both are heavy seafood consumers, the difference in ingredients and flavors is mind-blowing. Even in Japanese sushi restaurants in Korea, I have trouble finding things like tuna and eel. Salmon roe? Forget about it. I was in sushi heaven until I thought my tummy would explode and then the waitress came by to calculate our bill. She did this by measuring our stack of plates! They don’t even have to count, since each plate is the same height, they just hold up a special ruler and then type up the bill.

Two of us stuffing ourselves was still less than 12$. Japan doesn’t have to be expensive.

Morning Service

20180507_100913Amid the many things that I found to try while in Nagoya is the “morning service”. Many of the cafes around town have begun to offer a light breakfast (egg and toast or ogura toast) for free (“service” in Japanese) with any order of coffee. Sunday morning my friend and I headed over to Komeda Coffee. This cute little coffee shop is a chain restaurant famous for it’s special morning service of thick, fluffy, buttery toast and red bean paste, also known locally as “ogura toast”. While lots of places in east Asia love sweet red bean paste in pastry (I eat it in Korea all the time), Nagoya got famous for ogura toast by adding… wait for it… margarine! The sweet thick red bean spread with creamy salty margarine creates a unique Nagoya flavor that should definitely be on your “to eat” list. Plus, their coffee is pretty good.

In the spirit of being on vacation, and fondly remembering my childhood year in Japan I ordered a “cream coffee”, the picture of which looked like iced coffee with a generous twist of whipped cream on top. Vacation calories don’t count right? When I received my mega sized coffee drink, it turned out not to be whipped cream, but ice cream! Smooth, rich, vanilla soft serve floating on a small iceberg inside the cup. I am especially fond of red bean and cream, so I dolloped some ice cream on my toast for extra decadence. So good. And all for less than a Starbucks’s latte!

I went back to Komeda every morning of my holiday because it was a) close to my friend’s house and the subway, b) very reasonably priced breakfast, and c) SO DELICIOUS! Free WiFi and friendly, patient staff helped a lot, too.

Hitsumabushi

The evening highlight of Sunday was a visit to one of Nagoya’s most famous restaurants, Atsuta Horaiken, to enjoy this local specialty. I know eel isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I’ve been in love with Japanese grilled eel since the first time I tried it. It’s flaky, smokey, sweet and savory. It’s everything a grilled fish should be plus some undefinable extra flavor that comes from the eel and it’s special sauce. Unagi sauce is actually sold in stores because it’s such a unique blend. I bought some once to make eel at home and had so much leftover sauce I started eating it with eggs, which turns out to also be good. Anyway, when I found out that one of my favorite Japanese foods was ALSO one of the most famous local dishes of Nagoya, I immediately put it on my to do list.

Bear in mind that Japan was just finishing a holiday weekend on Sunday, so for many folks it was the last fling before going back to work on Monday. To make matters worse, this famous and delicious restaurant doesn’t take reservations on holidays or weekends, it’s first come first serve. We tried to make a reservation for one of the weekdays I was in town, but they were booked solid. Instead we planned to head over about 30 minutes before opening and get a good place in line. When we showed up, the restaurant had workers stationed all the way down to the elevator to show visitors where to go, and very polite hostesses were arranging guests on a looooooong line of chairs in the open space in front of the restaurant.

We were only about 20 people down the line and were honestly quite excited about it, since we were originally prepared to wait an hour or more for a table. Even better, the restaurant started seating people well before the posted opening hours. I’m not sure if it was because of the holiday or because it was the last weekend this particular location would be open before prolonged remodeling. Whatever the reason, we found ourselves playing musical chairs for a remarkably short time. I love the fact that the restaurant had seating in the waiting area. While I think pagers might have been a better way of alerting guests that a table was ready, it was a little exciting to be in line and to shuffle seats every time someone ahead of us went inside.

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photo credit Ray C via TripAdvisor

They also brought us an English language menu while we were waiting so that we could peruse the options, and the hostess did her best to make recommendations and give explanations in English for us as well. I really appreciate this because although my Japanese isn’t half bad, I am terrible at the super polite version of Japanese. Especially fancy shops and restaurants will often use a version of Japanese that is so formal I can’t understand it anymore, and then I just end up feeling embarrassed.

Hitsumabushi is NOT cheap. A single order is almost 40$. Both of us wanted to have some, but we were also eyeing an appetizer on the menu that was tamago (egg) with eel filling. In the end we decided to order the 1 ½ size hitsumabushi and one of the egg eel omelettes to share. The omelette arrived first and was quite delicious. The egg was light and fluffy and the eel inside was rich and savory. I think if it had been my dinner choice I would have been a little sad, but it was a perfect appetizer experience.

Finally, the star of the show arrived. Hitsumabushi is served in a huge wooden bowl with a tray full of fixings. We were issued careful instructions on the proper way to eat this delightful dish. On the surface, it looks like unagi-don, a bowl of rice with eel on top. However, the Nagoya style eel is thinner sliced and has a crispier exterior than regular unagi. Also, it’s not drenched in eel sauce.

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We ate according to the instructions, spooning ¼ of the large bowl’s contents into our smaller personal bowls and eating it plain at first. I was impressed straight away.

20180506_155253Even in normal restaurants, eel is one of the more expensive dishes. I tend to avoid buying it here in Korea because it’s often not prepared well. Nonetheless, it is one of my all time favorite Japanese foods. The “plain” hitsumabushi still had plenty of flavor. Of course the smokey, fishy unique flavor of the eel itself, but also a lighter version of the sauce it’s cooked with, as well as the vinegar in the rice. It had so much of what I look for in a good meal, I instantly knew the price was well worth it.

20180506_160202The second ¼ of the dish is meant to be served with the dry fixings provided in the little side box. In our case, we were given small slices of spring onions, thinly shredded nori (seaweed), and what very well may have been fresh wasabi. Most wasabi in the world is fake, sadly, it’s just green horseradish. Now, I love horseradish too, so that doesn’t usually bother me. I’ve learned a little about fresh wasabi from watching cooking shows and documentaries, but I’ve never had any. When I looked at this wasabi, I noticed the texture was very different from what I’m used to. Instead of a smooth paste, it had little shredded bits of plant matter.

Real wasabi is a root that is grated to get wasabi paste. I thought that the texture could be an indication of fresh grated wasabi. I tasted it on it’s own as well before adding it to my bowl and found that it was lighter, fresher and less “bitey” than what I’m used to in wasabi paste. It didn’t even try to get up my nose. Again, it lines up with everything I’ve read about the flavor of real/fresh wasabi. Excited by this prospect, I added some of each ingredient to my bowl and lightly mixed them together.

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Whatever I thought of the wonderful flavor and texture qualities of the first unaltered bowl were blown straight out of my mind. Everything wonderful about the plain hitsumabushi was suddenly illuminated by fireworks-like bursts of green umami jumping out of the simple yet high quality spices I had added in round two. Sometimes, I go too long between truly spectacular life changing meals. I lose sight of the artistic heights of food that were so poetically expressed by a cartoon rat. Worse, I may even come to look at food as a burden, simply fuel for my body with no other reward, if I am kept in sub-par food land for too long. But then a restaurant like this comes up and gives my taste receptors and limbic system something to scream about and I remember what is possible. This isn’t just food tourism, it’s heaven in a bowl.

20180506_161416Round 3 we were instructed to replicate round 2 and then add broth. I don’t really know how to describe the flavor of the broth. It was also a little smoky, a little umami. I suspected there were some dried shitake involved in the flavor as well as some konbu dashi. It was nice, but for my taste it didn’t really add to the flavors the way that the spices alone had. Additionally, it drastically changed the texture of the dish, turning crispy eel and rice into a wetter soup. It was still delicious, and I’m glad that I was able to try all the different styles of eating hitsumabushi, but I was grateful for that final ¼ serving where we were instructed to return to whichever of the first three we had liked best and do it again!

By the time we finished, I was on an insane food flavor high and I thought my stomach might explode. If this experience sounds like something you want to try, don’t worry, although the Sakae location is closing, there are other branches of Atsuta Horaiken around Nagoya you can visit.

What flavor is that?

Our last stop before going back to the apartment was a kind of bargain grocery store. Advantage of shopping with someone who lives there is that they’ve found and vetted all the cheap places before you got there. My friend was actually just stopping in for some toilet paper, but I decided to wander the candy section to see if I could find some unique chocolates to bring back to friends in Korea. This is more challenging than it sounds since most Japanese brands of candy are sold here in regular shops. What I found was a wall of every flavor of kit-kat imaginable.

I don’t even really like KitKat as a candy bar. It’s always tasted a little like sweet cardboard to me. But the Japanese are obsessed with it. I love finding new flavors of standard “American” candy in other countries. I found the all-caramel milky way in Saudi, I found an infinity of Dove flavors in China, I found the hazelnut Snickers here in Korea (omg like nutella and snickers had a baby, whaaaat?), but Japan has outdone everyone on variations of KitKat.

I have seen several in the past, most notably green tea, and white chocolate raspberry. This wall… had…. everything…. I took photos only of the most bizarre flavors, but there were local apple flavors, Hokkaido creme flavors, 2-3 different versions of redbean including regular and ogura toast at least, but the winners of the unique flavor awards go to: sweet potato, rum raisin, sake (yes the rice wine), and (drumroll please)…. Wasabi.

I have no idea what any of them taste like because they were only sold in huge boxes and I could not really justify spending 8-10$ on a giant box of candy just to know what it tasted like. I promise if I ever see them on sale individually packaged, I’ll report back on the flavor.

What I did buy that evening was no less a flavor twist than green tea flavored Khalua liquor. I found a tiny bottle for 6$ and decided that was a very reasonable price to sample this experimental flavor and get an evening cocktail, too! My first time to have green tea and coffee together was a green tea ice cream affogato at the Boseong tea fields last year. Basically green tea ice cream with a shot of espresso poured over it. It was insanely delicious so I had high hopes for the Khalua. We grabbed some milk at the convenience store and settled in to experiment.

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The actual liquor is not a color/texture that you really think of for drinking. It’s thick and a mixture of dark green and dark brown… yeah… appetizing. I tasted a little straight for science and it was, unsurprisingly, very sweet and very strong. Once we added ice and milk, the liquid became the appealing green color of a green tea latte and the flavors had more room to play. I think a little vodka would have rounded the whole thing off nicely, as it was still very sweet for my tastes even with the milk, but I liked the play of green tea and coffee together.

Kishimen

One of Nagoya’s other famous foods is kishimen. I had heard there was some near Atsuta Jingu but I didn’t realize that it was inside. Following the signs and my nose I discovered a small kitchen and covered picnic table area where the famous soup could be ordered in several styles.

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Side note: It is so important to carry cash in Japan. I don’t even understand how one of the most high tech countries in the world that invented paying for things by tapping your mobile phone on them still has so many places that are cash only, but it does. Temples especially and tourist facilities in general, just about any smaller shop or restaurant (not convenience stores of course, they take cards), and all the machines you use to charge the transit cards also only take cash. It is one of the great mysteries of our age.

I was running low on cash because I’d spend some to make donations earlier in the day, so I was just able to get the basic Miya Kishimen, also the name of the shop, for 650Yen.

Kishimen is similar to udon, but the noodles are wider and flatter than a typical udon noodle. I also found the flavor of the broth to be quite distinct with a very smokey aspect as well as undertones of salty and sour for a very piquant profile. Maybe it was the experience of eating in the picnic pavilion in the middle of the beautiful forest, but I thought the noodles were definitely worth it, far above the average udon eatery. There was a self service tea station with lovely tea, and several signs warning patrons to beware the crows. I assume the greedy little scavengers… I mean clever sacred corvids… will hop over and steal any unattended food. The sign and the crows did little to dispel the vague aura of haunting I was experiencing that day, but I think that just added to the fun.

Miso Katsu

Dinner Monday night was one more Nagoya specialty, Miso Katsu. Katsu is a panko fried pork cutlet that is pervasive throughout Japan. It is also one of 3 Japanese foods that can reliably found at “Japanese” restaurants in Korea, so while I like it fine, I was not initially excited about going out for katsu. But, all of my local food finds so far had been better than expected so I agreed to give it a whirl. My friend got off work and met me down at one of the famous chains, Yabaton.

photo credit: Yabaton via Tabelog

Regular katsu is delicious when cooked well. It’s essentially fried pork, so it is hard to go wrong, but the best versions are very tender cuts of meat and crisp flaky fried exteriors. Bad versions are tough and greasy, obviously. What makes Nagoya’s miso katsu so special is that they pour a red miso sauce over the katsu just before you eat it (so as not to make things soggy). Miso is a common ingredient in Japanese cooking, and most foreigners are at least familiar with Miso soup, which is typically made from white miso. White miso is soy beans fermented with mainly rice. The flavor is fairly light and mild. It’s pleasantly tart and goes well with seaweed and green onions. Red miso on the other hand is made of soy beans fermented with barley or other dark grains. The flavor is quite pungent and may be an acquired taste. It’s not like “stinky cheese” pungent or anything, so don’t be scared to try it, but it is a good deal stronger and darker than what you may have experienced in the past with miso soup.

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The pork at Yabaton is excellent all by itself. Tender and juicy cuts of pork, fried in fluffy panko breadcrumbs with little to no extra grease. When the waiter brought our bowls to the table, he also brought a container of thick, dark red miso sauce which he poured over the katsu with a flourish. I was impressed at how well the flavors went together and how much I enjoyed the red miso. It may be the most unique katsu experience I’ve ever had and I’m so glad I didn’t skip it just because katsu is “common”.

Conbini Food!

Japanese convenience stores are called colloquially by the Japanglish word “conbini” short for “convenience” in a language without “v”s. By my friend’s request I popped into the local convenience store on my last night as her guest to get dinner. When I lived in Yokohama for a summer, I often made meals from the conbini. There’s bento (lunch boxes), onigiri (amazing rice triangles stuffed with yum and wrapped in seaweed), and a plethora of random foods to pick and choose from.

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photo credit: via kamonavi

Conbini food is almost always fresh. It’s a stark contrast to gas station foods in America that are filled with preservatives and have a shelf life sometime past the nuclear apocalypse. You can actually eat healthy from a Japanese convenience store. After days of dining out, my friend was craving a simple salad, a bag of greens costing about a dollar. I had been grabbing onigiri (one of my fav snacks) for lunches and afternoon pick me ups all through the vacation so far, so I looked to see what else was available for eats and I found a conbini food I had entirely forgotten the existence of!

Japanese convenience store food

photo credit: intrepidtravel.com

During my summer stay, I ate these cold noodle bowls ALL THE TIME. It’s in the refrigerated section, and has a plastic bowl with fresh udon noodles and packets of sauces and toppings. Back in 2015 the ones I got had a fresh egg, but the one I found this time had what I think was dehydrated egg? Maybe a new health law? Anyway, I found the flavor that was my favorite and was very excited to get to have it again after almost 3 years. I also got myself a “long day” reward: juice box sake! That’s right, you can buy sake in a cardboard box with a straw. Your inner kindergartner and your outer adult can both be happy as you sip booze from a tiny box.


Travel and food are such a huge part of my life. Although I had previously taken my responsibilities as a food tourist lightly, I’m vowing not to do so in future and thus my summer plans involve ever growing lists of “famous foods” I have to seek out in each place. I’m not turning this into a food blog full time, but I think I’m going to take a cue from Mr. Bourdain and let my belly lead the way in a few more adventures.

In fond memory of Anthony Bourdain, who’s shows about exploration and food contributed to the desire I have to travel and share what I find. Thank you.
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Shop ’til You Drop in Nagoya: Sakae, Osu & Studio Ghibli

I am not normally a shopping oriented tourist, but it can be fun to shop in some of Japan’s more unique markets. You can find good bargains in the street markets and second hand shops, and you can explore unique parts of the town that are just gushing with Japanese charm. Every city has it’s shopping centers and for Nagoya that’s Sakae, Osu, and Nagoya Station, with a side of Oasis 21. I managed to hit up all four of these while I was in town. Plus, a visit to the unique Studio Ghibli theme store where all things Miyazaki reside.


Sakae

20180507_181345Sakae was my first non-airport sight in Nagoya where I disembarked the airport shuttle bus and met up with my friend. It’s a large and bustling neighborhood in Nagoya with lots of trendy shops and restaurants.  While waiting for our dinner restaurant to open, we decided to do a little shopping.

Department stores in Japan (and Korea for that matter) are really just large buildings where a bunch of shops get a few square meters. It’s a very open floor plan, so it can be hard to tell where one shop ends and another begins, but each shop has it’s own cashier as well, so while it may look like a Macy’s or Harrods, you can’t just wander around collecting things and take them to one register at the end. I don’t usually shop at the cutesy boutique places inside such department stores because their prices are INSANE. I can’t really wrap my head around 300$ blouses or 500$ shoes. At first, I got currency confused because Korean Won are (as a very loose rule of thumb) USD + three zeros. So 10USD is about 10,000 KRW. It’s not exact, but it helps us to think about what things cost. Many Korean places have simply stopped writing those three zeros on menus and advertisements, too. 14,500 won might be written as 14.5 on a menu.

Japanese yen are, by a similar rule of thumb, USD plus two zeros. So 10 USD is 1,000 yen. This cause my brain to do some flips since I’ve been thinking in Korean won for the last 2+ years. Seeing things that cost 30,000 yen, at first I was like, oh that’s not bad, about 30$. Until my brain caught up and went, no wait, that’s Japanese money, that’s 300$, not 30$. Eeek!

Instead, I prefer to shop the bargain racks. Daiso is a famous Japanese store full of cheap but relatively decent quality basic necessities and cute extras. In fact, you can outfit everything you need for a home from Daiso except the furniture without breaking the bank and most of it will last for years. Another great place is Book Off.

Photo credit: Bookoff.co.jp

You wouldn’t know from the name, but that’s a second hand clothing shop in Japan, like Goodwill or Value Village in the US. I was able to find my-size clothes at the one near my apartment back in 2015, so I was happy to waste a little time perusing the cheap rack with my friend while waiting for the restaurant to open. The front of the store is still a little pricey since it’s all brand names, but the farther back you go, the cheaper things get all the way to the 200 yen rack. I was able to get a nice summer blouse for 500 yen (5$) which will help me avoid dressing in unprofessional T-shirts at my new job as the weather warms up.

Bonus Street Performance

On most good weather weekends, there is at least one part of Sakae hosting outdoor performances. We passed one briefly on Saturday, and since we had some time to kill on Sunday, we made a small detour to see where all the beautiful costumes were coming from. Once we got through the crowd, we found a small stage set up under some elevated train tracks where groups were performing song and dance numbers dressed up as various anime shows. Sadly, we also got there in time for only the last two numbers, but it was still fun to watch. I love that people in Japan will just randomly have full costumed dance competitions on the sidewalk.

Osu Kannon

Osu is one of the many shopping districts that combines the feel of an outdoor market with a bustling mall. It’s technically blocks and blocks of shops, but many of the busy streets are covered with semi-permanent or even permanent covers to protect shoppers and strollers from sun and rain. It’s a great place to find more famous food shops, cheap souvenirs, discount shoes, and second hand yukata (summer weight kimono). It’s also home to a beautiful Buddhist temple known as Osu Kannon.

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I honestly do not know why so many shopping centers like this are close to famous Buddhist temples in Japan. I remember going to Asakusa in Tokyo, which is a stunning temple, and finding not only the corridors leading up to the temple covered in temporary carts and stalls selling to tourists, but a very similar covered multi-block shopping district. I don’t get the impression that it’s new, either. Cursory historical prodding indicates the shopping districts grew up side by side with the temples over decades, if not centuries.

I did a fairly quick walk through of the temple. It’s usually not permitted to take photos inside, so I refrained. It was small but glittery. Most of the walls are painted bright red, and every available surface is covered with an assortment of golden statues of various Buddhas and Bodhisattva. There is a small area where one can give donations in exchange for prayer papers or beads. The temple, like many, is actually dedicated to Guanyin (pronounced Kannon in Japanese). Originally, Guanyin was Avalokitesvara (a male) in India, but sometime in the move to China, she transitioned and is now the stand in for the goddess of mercy, compassion, and childbirth. I like her because she’s either Trans or NB and is one of the most popular subjects of reverence in Buddhism around the world.

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The temple at Osu isn’t that big, and the atmosphere of commerce nearby detracts a bit from the usual sense of serene calm I enjoy in temples, so after a few photos, we wandered out into the shopping streets.

Side note about Buddhism:
This religion is, like all religions, super complex with a long history and many cultural twists and turns. When I talk about it, I’m both generalizing and filtering it through my own lens. Not every Buddhist will agree. Typically, although the Sakyamuni Buddha was the one who discovered the four noble truths and the path to enlightenment, not many people actually turn to him directly. I personally think this is because the Buddha was way into self-responsibility and most people can’t really dig that, but the official story is that he’s basically gone because enlightenment.

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Instead, Buddhism has developed something of a saint class called “Bodhisattva”. These are beings who have attained enlightenment, but then decided to stick around and help others. Many of these slid conveniently into the role that local gods and goddesses had been filling culturally prior to the introduction of Buddhism. So, Guanyin didn’t so much come from Buddhism as put on a Buddhist dress when the times changed. There are actually plenty of stories of gods, goddesses, demons, spirits and the like who followed the teachings of Buddha. No shame in converting. Nonetheless, for those who feel like enlightenment is too far out of reach this lifetime, praying to Bodhisattva like Guanyin can provide some relief from the suffering of this world, and maybe a boost into better circumstances in the next life. Reincarnation, after all.

And Shinto Shrines:
A small Shinto shrine can almost always be found a stone’s throw away from any Buddhist temple in Japan. Shinto is the indigenous religion to Japan, while Buddhism was imported from China (who got it from India). The Japanese don’t see any particular need to separate their religions and the same individual may pray/make offerings at Shinto, Buddhist and Christian places of worship without any sense of conflict. It’s actually a very fascinating aspect of Japanese culture that they are able to be so syncretic without actually seeing themselves as “religious” at all. One of my professors in grad school taught a whole class about it.

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Osu is no exception. We ran into a little Shinto shrine moments after leaving Osu Kannon. I enjoyed the beautiful red toori gates, the paper lanterns, the stone fox spirits in their jaunty red kerchiefs, and of course the gardens. Shinto is strongly connected to the gods (kami) of the land, trees, rivers, and other aspects of nature, so the shrines tend to reflect that. To give you an idea of how many shrines can be found in a small area in Japan, I went back to Google maps later to get the name of the place we visited and I had to check the street view of no fewer than four before I finally found the one that matched my memory. It’s Fujisengen, by the way. It seems there are more than a thousand shrines across Japan with the same name, all dedicated to Princess Konohanasakuya, the kami of Mount Fuji, and possibly volcanoes in general. Now that I know that, I feel like it was much cooler to have visited a volcano goddess shrine…

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See the rest of my photos of the temple and shrine over on the Facebook Album.

Ok, Back to the Shopping:
Everyone complains about how expensive Japan is, and I know it certainly can be. I will never take a taxi there for anything other than a true emergency, but even taking public transit, it’s easy to spend 7-10$ a day. (good news is, if you know you have a lot of trips planned, you can get a day pass for about 7$, but still). We had visited Daiso and Book Off on Saturday, so on Sunday we hit up the other great dollar store (100 yen store), Siera. I thought Daiso was full of great bargains, but man this place was epic. I heavily considered getting some of my summer prep goodies there before I remembered that I have Daiso here in Korea. I did pick up a usb splitter because I had cleverly forgotten my second charger (one for the phone, one for the back up battery). That 1$ splitter worked a dream, by the way, so it’s not just cheap crap in the store either!

Photo credit: Japan-guide.com

If you’re looking for traditional Japanese styles and/or J-pop fashions you can find them both in Osu. I poked around a few shoe shops looking for summer sandals, and almost bought an insane pair of super cute Lolita platform shoes before remembering I will wear them exactly nowhere.  Finally, we popped into a Kimono shop to try on some things from the discount rack. A brand new high quality kimono or yukata can cost hundreds of dollars (or thousands). However, older models, used models, or items with small flaws in the cloth or stitching can sell for as little as five dollars. What! So, if you like kimono/yukata it’s worth it to peruse the discount rack at the shops here in Osu where you might find a real treasure!

Ghibli Store

One of my other goals for this trip was a stop off at the Studio Ghibli shop. It’s called “Donguri”. I’ve never seen a permanent one anywhere but Japan, but they do occasionally  pop up when Ghibli shows go on tour. I went several times when I lived in Yokohama in 2015 and bought much swag for my stateside friends.

20150823_171542The shops in Yokohama and Tokyo had a huge array of Ghibli goodies and I wanted to go back and see if I could get something unique for my niblings (gender neutral for the children of siblings, I did not make it up but I love this word). I’ve been sending them one Ghibli movie a year along with a few themed toys. Every other family member is drowning them in Disney, so I claimed Miyazaki. So far they’ve gotten Totoro, Kiki, and Ponyo (they are still quite young). My niece especially loves the lace bracelet I got at the shop, but mine is from Mononoke which they are not old enough for yet. I did manage to find a Totoro online, but it was twice as pricey as mine had been, so I figured I’d hit up the shop in Japan and have extra prezzies. Cool Auntie!

The Problem of the Train:
My friend recommended the one at Nagoya Station, which wasn’t so much bad advice as incomplete advice. With no data plan in Japan, I was reliant on WiFi for internet. Sipping my latte in Starbucks (free WiFi) outside Atsuta Jinju , I tried to plot my route through public transit to Nagoya station. It’s the main hub in Nagoya, so you’d think that would be easy. But it meant getting off the subways and onto the trains. I learned it in 2015 and then I forgot again because in Korea the trains are only between cities (going from Seoul to Busan) and the subways are all inside a single city, often even stretching to suburbs and neighboring smaller satellite cities. I was able to take the Busan subway all the way to Yangsan for dental appointments. It was the end of the line, but still.

In Japan, trains do run between cities, but they also run within cities. And they don’t work like subways. You can still use a general Japan transit card on any train, so visually it’s very similar to the subway system. Tap your card and walk through the turnstyle. The platforms also look like subway platforms, but unlike a subway where only one route will come and stop at your platform, train stations have LOTS of routes sharing a single platform. So not only do you have to find the right platform (which can be one of 20 or 30, I still have eye-twitches about the Yokohama station), but then you have to carefully observe the digital readout to see what train is coming at what time. Your train may be scheduled for 3:16, but some other train is going to pull up at 3:13 and you MUST NOT GET ON. It will take you to the wrong place.

Assuming that you have correctly found your platform and patiently waited for the correct train, you must now pay vigilant attention to the announcer (all Japanese) because while the subway cars all have maps with LED lights to show what stop you’re on, and digital readouts, and often announce stops in 3-4 languages, the trains are ooooooold and do none of this.

I made a horrible error in reading my directions and somehow got “ride 7 stops” when it actually said “ride 7 minutes”. I take full responsibility for this flub of my native language. Lucky for me, I figured out my error about 3 stops in and was able to get off and turn around. No trip to Japan would be complete without ending up on the wrong train platform in the middle of nowhere.

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Takashimaya

I finally made it to Nagoya station and went in search of the Takashimaya department store. It is a hike. The signs are not awesome. And the “department store” breaks the mold and spreads out over several buildings more like an American mall than a Japanese depato. I walked a lot, and asked directions more than once. Fortunately Donguri is a popular store, so people knew what I was talking about. Finally, drifting outdoors, looking at bus stops, taxi stands and the subway entrance I spotted the Disney store out of the corner of my eye. Only because my friend mentioned that the Ghibli store was across from the Disney store did I find it at all. That place is bonkers. I think it would have been a wonderful place to wander through shopping, but it’s kind of a nightmare if you’re just looking for one specific shop.

I was excited to find the shop and the giant Catbus out front. I’ve seen them at other places with signs that it’s only for children but this one was up for grabs so I headed on in. While I was admiring the interior, petting the fur, and generally being a silly fangirl, one of the other customers offered to take my picture. So now I have a pic of me riding Catbus. I look on this as a win.

There was also a rather large Totoro, only slightly smaller than “life size”. Loads of fun. Unfortunately when I got inside the actual shop I realized that a lot of the lower priced swag I’d picked up in Tokyo was remarkably absent. There was a section of children’s clothes, bathroom stuff, lunch boxes and other dishes, soaps and perfumes, posh grown up jewelry, school supplies, a billion stuffed toys and VERY EXPENSIVE display figurines. I was looking for things like kids jewelry (charms, fabric, rubber, etc), maybe a coloring book (there were “art” books… not for kids, just collections of Ghibli art), smaller toys, games or activities… ? It seemed like the only things for kids in the age range I was looking for was stuff like lunch boxes, chopstick kits and pencil cases. And most of it started at 20$ and went up from there.

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I was so confused because the shop in Tokyo had masses of stuff that was under 10$ which is why I was able to bring things back for so many people. Nothing in the shop that day was especially jumping up and down and saying “buy me” so I decided to have a quick look at the one other Donguri in town before giving up.

Oasis 21

20180507_181041The other shop is at a place called Oasis 21 which is ostensibly a bus station, but is really a shopping center. It’s much easier to find and less crowded than Takashimaya. It’s part of the lovely greenbelt in Sakae and it has a great view of the Nagoya TV tower which Nagoya loves to brag about like it’s the Tokyo Tower. It’s a little adorable. The Donguri in Oasis 21 isn’t as decked out in plush petable Totoro characters, however, so if riding the Catbus is on your bucket list, you better go to Nagoya Sta instead. I didn’t really have much time to see the other stores in Oasis 21, but it looked cute. It’s a big oval with an open center and covered shops on two stories around the outer rings.

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The selection at the shop wasn’t much of an improvement. I don’t know if it’s just Nagoya or if the whole chain is going through a change in inventory. (Seriously, I went to 3 or different ones in 2015 and they all had a wider range of items and prices). In the end I settled on some water safe Ponyos and some mystery rock Totoro (the niblings have recently discovered the joys of rock collecting, it tracks). For myself, just some very practical binder clips in Totoro theme to liven up my work environment. I hope it’s better next time I’m in Japan.


I would never have expected to spend so much time in shopping districts, but it was fun. Even without a lot to spend, Japan has great dollar stores and second hand options and window shopping can be it’s own reward in a culture where there is so much chibi cuteness everywhere you turn. Happy to be back writing more about my travels, and counting the days until I hop a plane to the EU for the summer! I hope you’re enjoying Japan as much as I did. Stay tuned for more Nagoya soon, and as always, thanks for reading! ❤