Zanzibar Spice Farm & Cooking Class

It took me two days to fly from Dakar to Zanzibar in part because Africa is so much bigger than you’d believe and also because there just aren’t as many flights running every day. I will tell the transit tale of my experience with Ethiopian Airlines in another post, but the result of this travel style was that I arrived in Zanzibar in the early afternoon and had the better part of half a day to explore and think about what I would do during my stay. Stone Town is a winding, alley-filled neighborhood where no cars are allowed to enter. It’s easy to get lost, but also easy to get found again because it’s not that big.

While I was wandering, I was approached by at least half a dozen of the local tour sellers. Usually, I find this sort of thing particularly annoying and intrusive, but these men seem to have refined the art of having a pleasant conversation while mentioning but not pressuring a sale. It gave me a chance to get some ideas about what to do, where to go, and how much I might expect to pay for things. Although I declined to book at the time because I was still worried about being pressured into a bad deal by lack of knowledge or experience, I didn’t feel overwhelmed the same way I have in other tourist cities. In hindsight, I think booking with the “captains” on the beach rather than a tour guide or hotel is perfectly fine as long as you are interested in what they are offering.

I also learned the two Swahili phrases that would echo in my ears for the next 3 weeks: “pole pole” which means “go slowly” and “hakuna matata” of Lion King fame. Despite the extreme popularity of the Lion King, locals seemed surprised that I knew the phrase as a first time visitor. It really does mean “no worries”.

Wishlist in hand, back in my blissfully airconditioned room, I hopped online to start booking the next few days adventures. The first thing I decided to do was an Airbnb experience for a spice tour/cooking class. The “spice farm tour” is one of the staples of Zanzibar tourism. There are possibly several dozen spice farms in the island’s interior. I’m sure they all have some unique qualities, but my pre-arrival research did not seem to make any distinction about which one(s) were recommended / avoided, just “go on a spice tour!”. Most bookings include the ride and the tour and possibly a snack. The Airbnb experience appealed to me because it included a trip to the market and a cooking class by a local. I was a bit worried that the night before was not enough time to book, but the hostess was up for it and I went to sleep content that I had a plan.

The Darajani Market

Lutfia met me with her driver at 9:30 am in front of the fortress, which turns out to be the meeting place for almost all tours that drive out of Stone Town because it’s one of the only places that has car access. The hostess was very kind, but also I think she’s more used to taking groups because she and the driver chatted a lot in Swahili all day, checking in with me from time to time to make sure I was ok, hakuna matata. The one thing they did talk with me about on our first drive was what I wanted to cook. They had a list of choices from a set menu, and we agreed on a menu of coconut rice, vegetable curry, fried squid, and coconut candy.

Our first stop was the Darajani Market, a large open air market like many I’ve seen in SE Asia with almost as much Chinese writing randomly scattered around. The market is at the opposite side of Stone Town from the Fortress where we met, and it’s quite easy to walk to from anywhere in Stone Town, but it was a circuitous drive as we had to go out to the main road and around the car-free zone.

Once at the market, we started at the seafood stalls to get the squid. Zanzibar is famous for it’s fresh local seafood and everything on display had been brought in early that morning by local fishermen. It is, however, an outdoor market in a very hot climate so I was glad our recipe called for a very thorough high heat cooking. They took me through the rest of the fish and meat markets for a photo op and then we went on to get our produce. The veggies were easy enough, but the coconut seemed to be a kind of ritual where two men and my driver took turns holding up coconuts and shaking them. I’m vaguely aware this is a way to test the quality, but they were really into it. The coconut seller was a mute, so all the bargaining took place in sign… I can’t say for sure if it was a type of African sign language or just gestures, but the man was good natured and it seemed that everyone in the market was on board with accommodating his disability which is always nice to see. Finally we got our rice and oil and headed out.

The Drive

It isn’t far from Stone Town on the west coast to the spice farms in the interior, but the drive is “pole pole” because the roads are not in great condition. There were some jokes about the “Zanzibar Ferrari” (a cow drawn cart) which I remarked was similar to the “Senegal Ferrari” (a horse drawn cart) which got a bit of a laugh. Additionally, the driver informed me as we went onto particularly rough patches of roads that I was getting a “Zanzibar massage” – it was both reassuring and a little sad that the jokes made about poverty and lack of infrastructure are standard in the 3 out of 4 regions of the continent I’ve now visited because Egypt and Senegal also have drivers who reference a variation on “African massage” while driving over the roads which are more pothole than pavement.

Lutfia also told me a little about herself, her experiences growing up in Tanzania and being sent away to boarding school in Uganda where she had to learn English by a sink or swim method since the language of instruction there was English (but no English as a foreign language classes were offered) and only a few fellow Tanzanian classmates spoke any Swahili. She also told me that her own children were going to a boarding school, though at their request because they wanted to be around more kids their own age than their home village offered. She has one of the most successful tour experiences in Zanzibar with high ratings on Airbnb and TripAdvisor, but she still wants more. It’s always a joy for me to see women succeeding in the world. Life is still a big struggle for many women in Africa where women’s’ rights and roles are lagging behind the West. Women like Lutfia are perhaps more like my grandmother than myself or my mother in terms of bucking traditions and trailblazing, but it gives me hope that the girls of today are moving towards a better future.

The Spice Farm

Lutfia didn’t conduct the actual spice tour herself, instead leaving me with the farm tour guide while she went off to get the “kitchen” ready. I was the only tourist on that particular tour, although I did see a glimpses of a couple other groups through the trees as we walked. Normally private tours are expensive, but you roll the dice when you book on Airbnb as to whether anyone else has signed up. I almost think I would have preferred a few other visitors with me because being the sole focus of the guide’s attention was daunting at times. It was clear he’d given the tour often enough to have his patter down… pat. Although to my eyes the farm itself was often indistinguishable from a regular forest, he had no trouble identifying all the spices and fruits and finding ripe samples for me to examine and taste.

Spices & Fruits in Order of Appearance:

Turmeric: The bright orange spice is sometimes called the poor man’s saffron and is the backbone of almost every curry. I have had the chance to cook with fresh turmeric maybe once in my life before so I know it looks slightly like ginger or galangal, a twisted root, but this was the first time I got to see the plant in the ground. The guide cut a small slice off of a root for me to see and taste. It instantly stained my fingers orange and was both milder and sweeter than I’m used to in the dried version.

Pepper: Did you know pepper was a parasitic plant? I didn’t. Pepper grows on vines that can only live by climbing a tree and drawing nutrients from it. There weren’t many bunches of pepper berries at this time of year but we found a few and he explained about the 4 colors of pepper and how they happen (black, white, red, green – not to be confused with chili peppers which are a totally different type of plant, but the colonizers who named the spices in European languages basically called anything with a kick “pepper” no matter anything else about it) All 4 are the same plant at different stages of growth and processing. Green is under ripe, red is ripe, black is the sundried version of the red berries, and white – which I found most interesting – is the blanched kernel of the ripe berry, the fleshy red part is boiled away leaving the white hard center which still has a peppery flavor but is much more mild. This explains why white pepper is both more expensive and milder. I ate one of the fresh ripe red ones and honestly, I am amazed that’s not a thing somewhere in haute cuisine. It was like a pepper flavored pomegranate seed. The flesh of the berry has the pop of a pomegranate seed, and there’s a “red berry” flavor essence about it with the unmistakable but still milder and sweeter taste of black pepper.

Cinnamon: The guide informed me it is “the queen of spices” because there is no part of the cinnamon tree that can’t be used. The leaves are used to suppress appetite during the fasting season. The bark of course is the well known cinnamon that dries into the famous curled sticks and is ground for baking all over the world, And the roots are used medicinally to treat cold and flu by grating and boiling then inhaling the steam. I also saw cinnamon seeds for the first time and they are quite pretty. Cinnamon is also a hearty plant. The bark when peeled will grow back in about 2 weeks, and if the trunk is cut, the tree will send out fresh shoots that grow large enough to harvest in a few months!

Clove: This is another plant whose fresh form is close to it’s dried. The clove tree bears bundles of tiny pink buds that will pop off when ripe and be ready for drying as is. The whole cloves you can buy in any supermarket bear the same distinctive shape as their fresh origins.

In quick succession: Ginger was one of the few crops growing in any kind of organized way. I’ve prepared loads of fresh ginger, but it was interesting to see the leafy green part, too! There were chilis (in addition to the pepper) and I was informed that in Swahili the name is “pili pili hoho”, “pilipili” being the name of the type of plant and “hoho” being the sound you make when you eat a spicy one. Aloe plants were growing the next plot over but didn’t hold as much interest for me since I used to grow it myself at home. A small plot of pineapples was the next stop. I knew about pineapple plants from the internet and cooking shows, but it was my first time to see them in person. They only produce one fruit per plant per year! Think about that the next time you complain about the price of pineapples.

Anato (alt spelling annatto) not to be confused with the Japanese fermented dish “natto”. This is a bright red-orange condiment / coloring. My guide said in the past it was used for cosmetics, but now it’s used to add color to certain foods. His faithful assistant, fruit fetcher, and flower weaver also demonstrated the cosmetic use of the seeds for me. Isn’t he cute?

Passion Fruit: I am ashamed to admit that I had never tried a fresh passion fruit before this day. I had passion fruit in sauces, salads, mixed juices and the like, but had no recognition of the small pale green orb that my guide pulled down from the tree. The insides look disgusting, but taste so good! I imagine it ends up mixed into things because it’s texture is basically a gel with (edible) seeds in. I am sure that imported versions won’t be nearly as flavorful as one right off the tree, but if you ever get the chance to try a nice ripe one whole, do it!

Mystery “hair gel” fruit: I can’t find it’s real name and I had never heard of it before, so this is a bit tricky. The fruit was maybe the size of a large grapefruit, it was vaguely reminiscent of quince being green, lumpy and hard. My guide explained that there was a gel around the seeds that was good for cleaning hair, and that it would be mixed with aloe and other perfumes to make a kind of shampoo. If and when I ever figure out what it was, I’ll update this. Until then it remains a mystery.

Starfruit: This is a classic “exotic fruit” that has become more popular in the US in my lifetime. I won’t say we had it often, but I’ve had it often enough to recognize it’s shape and flavor. These were a little under ripe, so tart but still tasty.

Cardamom: I am a sucker for this spice. I would put it in almost anything. I had experience with the pods before as they are sometimes sold whole in the US and of course commonly seen whole in curry dishes. I also love them in desserts and coffee. It was very interesting to see the plant in person. I had imagined the pods being seeds of a sort that maybe came with a flower or in groups like grapes or peas. Turns out they grow along the exposed root system and the majority of the above ground plant has nothing to do with their production beyond photosynthesis.

Vanilla: It is the second most expensive spice in the world. It takes 3 years to grow a vanilla bean and the plant is extremely picky in terms of light and water. It’s also a parasite like pepper and needs to grow on an existing tree. I had hoped to see a flower since I’ve seen pictures and they are gorgeous, but it was still cool to see the bunch of green pods clustered on the vine.

Surprise! The next fruit my guide pulled down looked like a pale yellow-green apricot. It was similar in size and color to the passion fruit, but where the passion fruit had been smooth all around, this had the characteristic divot found in peaches, nectarines and apricots. What could it be? He went on to explain that it was not a fruit at all, and was instead prized for the seed inside. Even more curious, I watched as he opened it to reveal a beautiful seed similar to the pit of the aforementioned fruits, but emblazoned with a flame red pattern. I was captivated. The red portion, he explained, was used to make a kind of local perfume when blended with flowers like ylang ylang, rose, and jasmine, but when I smelled it, it didn’t smell either fruity or floral. Finally, he cut into the seed and offered the flesh for me to taste. It was naggingly familiar, but the fresh spices are just different enough from the dried ones I know that I still couldn’t place it. Then he finally revealed it to me: nutmeg. Mind blown. He gave a rather long explanation of the many uses of nutmeg including its rather infamous drug-like effects (used to conquer shyness, he said) and it’s powers of inciting the female libido. (later research reveals that the red flame-like membrane is also dried and powdered to create the spice “mace” which again, not to be confused, this time with the brand name of a pepper-spray)

The Fruit Section: I tried mangosteen (another supplement fruit we see as an ingredient all the time, but it was a delight to eat fresh), something I didn’t quite hear the name of, and had never seen before which looked like small white pears and had a taste not unlike the starfruit. I think it may be a water apple (syzygium aqueum)? I tried a sour green skinned, but orange fleshed orange (it seems that lemons, limes and oranges all have green skin in Zanzibar), some jackfruit with tasted almost exactly like a banana and a pineapple got caught in a matter transmitter accident, and finally some young coconut.

The coconut tasting was preceded by a show where a young man demonstrated the traditional coconut tree climbing method and sang “jambo bwana” (a song I heard almost every day while in Zanzibar). I suspect he is used to performing this show for a whole crowd and by this time I was very hot and tired, so although I tried to be an appreciative audience, it was probably less rewarding for him than the big groups. He prepared the young coconut for me to have  refreshing drink (much needed) and then to eat the flesh which is not unlike coconut pudding/jello without the artificial ingredients. The assistant guide had been weaving queenly arraignment for me the whole way and I was appointed with a bracelet, necklace and crown decorated with bright red hibiscus to go with the handbag they’d given me at the start to collect my spice samples in. I tipped the young men for their efforts because they really were trying hard, and I could see they were sweating as much if not more than me entertaining tourists all day. I felt a bit bad because they put almost as much effort into my solo tour as they would a whole group, but I couldn’t afford to tip them more than a single person’s worth.

The last stop on the tour was the gift shop of course where I picked up some lemongrass coffee because I can add most any of the other spices like cardamom, cinnamon, ginger or vanilla on offer to my own coffee (and often do, PSL) but the idea of lemongrass coffee was intriguing and not something I’m likely to make at home. I also got a masala mix for tea, which I know I like, but also almost never make at home. I thought it would be supporting the local farm, but later I realized that identical spice packets are sold all over the island. I was also very disappointed in the “coffee” when I finally got home to taste it. The masala mix was nice though. I think if you want to buy spices in Zanzibar, you’re better of at Darajani than at a spice farm, but the farm experience of seeing, smelling and tasting the fresh spices is one hundred percent worth it.

Swahili Cooking

The “kitchen” was a palm thatch shack with half walls that kept the sun out but still let in a fair breeze (a relief in the sweltering heat of the island interior). The only furniture was a shelf where dishes were stacked and the coal burning “stove”. We sat on the floor to do all the food preparation and later for the eating as well. As I was the only tourist and there were 3 locals in the team, they all pitched in to do a lot of prep work while making sure I had a turn to try each station at least once. I was struck most of all by the extremely different methods of preparation. Of course everything was well washed, but the similarities to previous kitchens I’ve cooked in ended there.

I was instructed on how to cut the vegetables “freestyle”, which involved holding the vegetable (tomato, okra, eggplant, etc) in my left hand and slicing random bits off with the knife in my right hand. I’ve never been a huge stickler for uniformity of chop in the French sense of the word, and friends of mine who have taken one or more western style culinary class often cringe at how uneven my mirepoix is, but tend to relent when they taste the end result since stews, curries and casseroles are not all that picky about uniformity of cook. However, I still cut in the general style of the western chef with cutting board and knife, making regular geometric cuts which are only irregular as a lack of refinement of skill rather than a lack of intention of technique. Zanzibar vegetable cutting is just anything goes, hakuna matata. 

The garlic and ginger were peeled and freestyle cut into a large wooden mortar. I tried my hand at the smash, but my hands were just to small to grip the pestle effectively, and I had to switch jobs. When the young man working on it finished, the end result was something that could have come out of a Cuisinart.

They also had a unique tool for shredding the coconut flesh. I had spend my whole life foolishly chipping coconut out of the shell with paring knives or even flathead screwdrivers, then either chopping the result or tossing it in a food processor/blender. This clever device is a stool with a scraper/grater attached so that your body weight as you sit provides the counter to the pressure you exert on the coconut to shred it. I cut myself twice (papercut style not bad) trying to use it, and I still think it’s better than any method I’ve ever tried before. It was one part of food prep that definitely benefited from a traditional rather than modern method. I completely forgot to take a photo of the stool/shredder device while I was there, so here’s one from the Minneapolis Institute of Art that looks remarkably similar.

We took the shredded coconut flesh and mixed it with water. I got to massage the coconut around which was a surprisingly satisfying textural experience. We dumped out the coconut enriched water into a very fine mesh sieve and squeezed the pulp allowing the fresh coconut milk to join our chopped veg and spices. Two turns at that and we moved on to creating a weaker version to cook the rice in. I thought that was dead clever since coconut milk is too rich to just cook rice in it, but the pulp still had more flavor to give, two dishes for the price of one.

The stove was 4 coal burning braziers along one wall. Real coal, not the bricks you find in suburban backyard barbeques, but made from wood cooked down into coal. The pots and pans were placed directly onto the coals with a few metal prongs to keep them from totally falling over. When the coals were piled too high for the pots to sit straight, my hostess just jammed them down until the coals broke up and the pile was more level. I’m sure you can imagine there is but one heat setting in this kitchen.

The vegetables were mixed with a standard range of curry spices like turmeric, cumin, etc. but we used dry spices despite the proximity to the farm. The cooking method was a one pot boil in the fresh made coconut milk with only occasional stirring. It cooked the longest of any dish, and had reduced in size to less than half it’s starting point, all water lost from the vegetables and coconut milk, reducing it down to a stew that went well on the rice. I felt that the miniature white and green eggplants used were perhaps too bitter, that the dish needed more tomato (acid) or more salt, or both to compensate, but the rice ended up oversalted, so together, they worked out fine.

The rice had to be sorted by hand before it could be cooked. I intellectually know that rice has to be winnowed and sorted between the field and the dinner plate, but everywhere I’ve ever bought uncooked rice this process was handled before it came to market. The rice we bought in Darajani was not “ready to cook” and one of my hosts meticulously sorted through the grains a small handful at a time to remove bad grains, small stones, and possibly bugs. When it was clean and sorted, the rice was put in the weaker coconut milk with some salt. When it was about half cooked, the hostess put a lid on it and transferred the coals from the brazier to the lid of the pot to create an “oven” to finish cooking it. This is definitely a rice recipe I’d like to adapt to use at home, perhaps by mixing store-bought coconut milk into the water and finishing the rice in an oven.

I chose squid for the meat dish, though I was basically free to choose anything at the market. Zanzibar is famous for it’s seafood and I try not to eat octopus because they may be smarter than some humans. Squid is safely chicken level smart, which may not be cucumber level, but at least it’s a level I’ve already morally accepted. Also, I happen to like it. I have had it a variety of ways, but this was a new one for me. The meat was mixed with the garlic/ginger mash, pepper, paprika, and cumin, and a generous portion of fresh lime. When it was ready to go, the hostess heated up at least 2 inches of oil over one of the coal braziers and warned me to stand back as she added the squid. She called it deep frying, but I don’t know if I agree. The meat was never totally submerged, nor was it breaded (not technically a requirement, but fried calamari is a familiar dish). It was left to cook in the boiling oil a good long time ensuring excellent food safety. Nothing lives through boiling in oil. I was not sure how this would turn out but it ended up being my favorite dish. The meat was well flavored and since squid is very lean, the oil cooking didn’t make it greasy, it just kept it moist. It was ever so slightly chewy, but far from the rubbery texture of badly cooked squid. I had seconds. 

The coconut candy was made by boiling sugar, water and cardamom pods. Once the syrup was boiling we added the the grated coconut that had been set aside before we made the coconut milk, so it still had all it’s fat and flavor. Like all the dishes, it was boiled with occasional stirring. She told me it would cook until dry and I was doubtful, having made both hard candy and caramel in the past, but she wasn’t kidding. She cooked it with occasional stirring until the water was all boiled off then cooked it with a more constant stirring until the coconut was nice and brown. The whole thing was turned out onto a greased plate and patted down (not unlike the rice crispy treat process), finally it was cut while still warm because I suspect it would be too difficult to cut when cool. The final result was a kind of coconut candy that reminded me of what happened to my peanut brittle when it seized, good on the flavor side, but texturally in a gray area between hard candy and chewy caramel that we are not accustomed to in the west. I have since learned that this is the intentional texture of this particular candy and not a result of unintended sugar seizure but it made me think of how to create a cardamom-coconut caramel which would carry the flavor of this dish with a texture more suited to my palate.

The only dish I played no role in preparing was a fresh salad made by one of the assistants by cutting some leftover vegetables in a fine mince and mixing it with lime. Like an African Pico de Gallo almost.

When everything was ready, Lutfia arranged the dishes on a floor table and passed around plates and flatware to myself and the rest of the hosts. All in all, it was a joyful experience. We worked together while listening to music and dancing. We chopped vegetables in bowls sitting on the floor, and we cooked everything by boiling it over coal, but otherwise it was like any happy kitchen memory I have of family events with multiple dishes and everyone helping out. I don’t think that a spice tour alone or a cooking class alone could have lived up to this combined experience, and I’m happy I chose it.

Lutfia’s Spice Tour & Cooking Class

More Moscow: Izmailovo Kremin

If possible, in every place I go, I like to find at least one less well known but still terribly interesting place to go. Atlas Obscura has become one of my best research and planning tools for this particular goal. In Moscow, I settled on a place called Izmailovo Kremlin. The website described it as “an unexpected, fairytale-like cultural wonderland” so of course I had to go. It was a bit of an adventure just finding the locale, and the weather was not especially co-operative, but it was definitely an entirely unpredictably unique experience. Plus, I got some bonus political commentary fodder at the airport on the way out!

Getting Lost and Found

Without any WiFi, even in restaurants or cafes, I was totally unable to look up the route to travel there. I found myself standing in the Revolution Square (red square) metro station with no idea how to get to my goal. I racked my brains trying to remember how in the world I had navigated complex subway systems before my life was data-plan dependent and finally remembered the existence of metro maps!


I knew the name of the station (Partizanskaya) I wanted to go to, but I couldn’t find the station on the subway map. I didn’t even know which color line to look at. Finally, I fell back on the most low tech of options… I asked the person at the information desk. It’s not that I mind talking to humans, I like talking to humans quite often, but I have become rather dependent on my map apps and had nearly forgotten how I used to do this when I didn’t have a smart phone. Thankfully she was able to pull out a Metro pamphlet with English and show me where I wanted to be in relation to where I was.

Armed with this knowledge I set off into the subway. It turns out the one place you can maybe sometimes get actually free WiFi is ON the subway (not in the station, but in the subway car). This WiFi did allow me to pull up maps and do basic google searches, but it blocked me entirely from any and all social media platforms. It was also very hit or miss and dropped out quite often, but I grasped it like a lifeline to verify my travel directions.

At this point it is important to note that I cannot read Russian letters. I picked up a couple just looking around. The thing that looks like “P” is really “R”, and П is “P”, and the thing that looks like Greek “theta” is “F”, and the thing that looks like a backward N is “i”… and I just do this because reading is such an important part of my world that my brain needs to make sense of the symbols it knows are words. Whenever I saw English and Russian side by side I’d try to piece it together. But, mostly, I was relying on the English transliteration of these words to find the right Metro stop because, bless, they are all written in both alphabets at all the stations and on the maps.

Anyone who has ever tried to learn a complex new word or name in a language quite different from your own will understand how all our mental tricks for remembering are totally useless! If it’s more than two syllables, I’m going to need to hear, say, write and read it several times to really remember. So, when I’m looking for a shortcut to help me identify things like metro station names, I tend to look at the first sound and last sound (or letter cluster) in a word and forget the middle. So “Partizanskaya” became “P -something – kaya” in my head. Most of the time this works very well.

Most of the time.

On the blue line in Moscow, there is another stop that is “p-something-kaya”, Pervomayskaya, that is only two stops over. Now that my linguistic brain has had more time to look at the map, I realize that “kaya” is basically “station” or “platform” and ALL the stops end this way. Instead of getting the beginning and end of the station name, I actually was looking for “P-station”. No wonder that didn’t work out well. In hindsight, I can see several other mnemonic aids that would have been far more effective, but alas, at the time, p-something-kaya seemed like such a great idea.

I actually rode outside the brown circle during this trip. There’s a wall or fence there. The metro comes out from underground and you get to see some scenery. I’m a little tripped out by the fence. The first time I saw it I thought maybe it was the edge of a park (because I was looking at the wrong part of the map), but on my way back in, with proper spacial orientation, I realized that it lined up with line 14, the Moscow Central track, the edge of the city proper. Unsurprisingly, I wasn’t able to find any official information on whether this fence goes all the way around or covers just a part of the area, but I did find an interesting article on fences in Russian culture.

I got off the metro at the wrong P-something and was staring intently at the signs and street names trying to orient myself on a Google Map that refused to tell me where I was (GPS doesn’t need data or WiFi, but still worked very sporadically in Moscow). There were some people handing out pizza coupons at the metro entrance and I asked them if they knew where the Izmailovo Kremlin was. I was hoping that even if they didn’t understand my English that my pronunciation of “Izmailovo Kremlin” would be decent enough to get the idea across, but they were flummoxed. Thinking I was going to just have to pick a direction and start walking, a young lady asked timidly in accented English if she could help.

I accepted gratefully and she was able to explain to me my mistake with the P-something station names and directed me to go back two stops and that it would be quite obvious from there. One more reason to get unlimited metro travel if it’s possible is the almost inevitable need to back track, or side track or otherwise take more trips than would be necessary if you weren’t a lost tourist.

Fairy-tale Skyline

When I did make it to the right stop, it was fairly obvious which way to go as soon as I got to the main intersection. Izmailovo Kremlin’s distinctive fairy-tale buildings are visible a good way off, and gave me the almost immediate impression that I was walking into the Russian version of the magic kingdom.

Not really knowing anything about this place, nor being able to read the signs, I just followed the road into the large and colorful gate. The gray skies were a disappointment since bright sunlight would have brought out the color more, but I was determined to make the best of it. However, just as I entered the main gate, a torrential downpour that had more in common with an Indian monsoon than a European rain began. It was even more intense than the rain that had fallen while I was walking around the real Kremlin. The concrete pathways of the nearly empty market became ponds and rivers within a few moments.

Recalling how quickly the earlier deluge had subsided, I huddled up next to an empty stall under the wooden awning and exchanged “what can you do?” looks with the vendors nearby. It took about 15-20 minutes to calm down and even then, walking was precarious.

At first I thought these were simply vendors lining the entrance of the park. It’s fairly common to see the souvenir shops at the entrance/exit of any attraction, but as I walked more, I realized that the entire space I was in was nothing but market, and more than 90% was empty. I have seen pictures online where it looks full, but I have to think that was just a really creatively aimed shot because it is huge. I stopped and spoke with several vendors selling matryoshka (nesting) dolls. I had one when I was a child and I thought that some authentic Russian dolls from Russia would be nice gifts for my niblings.

If you are in the market for unique matroyshka, this is the place. While there were plenty of vendors offering the same factory mass produced dolls as every souvenir stand in Russia, there were also many vendors who had exclusive deals with local artists or were themselves artists. I spoke with one man whose wife painted the dolls he sold. They were exquisite. Each set, he said, took her 10+ days to paint and he was selling them for 40-60$ US. You can’t GET original hand-painted art of that quality at that price most places. After even just a few booths it became obvious which styles everyone had and which styles were unique among the vendors. I wish I’d been in the market for some art because I was honestly blown away. Some sets had more than 10 layers and the smallest doll was only the size of a lentil. In the end, I settled on some of the lower cost, but still unique styles to send to my sister’s kids so they could have something special, but not too special to play with.

Ghost Town

Once I moved in past the opening cluster of booths (which were still less than half occupied) the whole place turned into a ghost town. Row after row of empty, disheveled booths. Perhaps once grandiose decorations in a state of discoloration and disrepair. Gardens and their statues overgrown and wilting. And everything empty and silent. It was eerie, but more than that, it was bewildering. Where were the fairy tale buildings? Where were the museums? Where was all the stuff that was not market?

I could slightly see some interesting looking buildings that were off to one side of the market area but had no idea how to get to them. I followed path after path that led me to soggy, deteriorating and empty spaces for displays or cafes. A huge covered space of tables and benches stood abandoned, no restaurant in sight. I don’t know if it was the rain or the season that led to the strange emptiness of the park that day.

Finally, I met up with a group of Spanish tourists who were also trying to find a way into the “other side” of the park. They were looking for a place to eat as well as the advertised attractions. In the end, we found a single bridge that went from the gardens at the back of the market up and into a much more active looking area. Alas, the bridge was flooded. The sides of the structure went from footpath to handrail in one seamless block, allowing no spaces for air or water to escape. Instead of being built, as most bridges are, with a slight arch that would sweep water off the ends, this bridge sagged in the center and allowed a positive lake of rainwater to collect across more than 3 meters of the path. I was so focused on crossing, I forgot to photo the flood, but here’s more eerily empty shopping stalls!

We searched for an alternative route in vain. None of us were wearing waterproof shoes, and I had so underestimated the rain in Moscow that I packed my rain-covers in my checked luggage! The idea of spending the rest of the day, the whole flight back to Korea, and the bus ride to my home with damp socks was not appealing. I was just about to give up and head back to the main entrance when one of the guys figured out the secret: walk on your heels! He carefully walked, stiff-legged, placing only the heel of each shoe into the water gently so as not to splash and made it to the other side with dry socks.

Slowly the rest of us followed suit with someone I assumed was the “dad” of the trip laughing and filming the girls who were walking across as I did. I expected to feel the cold seeping wetness in my socks at any moment, but I did make it to the other side dry. I’m sure I looked like a perfect idiot, but I’ll take looking silly over wet socks any day.

Crossing into the Secret Place

Finally we were in the fairy-tale realm. It was still astonishingly empty, especially compared with the huge crowds at the real Kremlin in Red Square. I bustled around taking pictures and exploring the space. There were several places to get food and drinks, although I was still happy after my Metropol meal. Most of the museums were either closed or thinly veiled gift shops. And there was an excess of brides. I think there is actually a chapel there, but definitely a wedding photography studio. I can understand why people would love to have wedding photos taken against the dramatic background, but I felt sorry for the brides that day who had gray and rainy skies. One of the Spanish tourists told me that in Spain it’s actually good luck to have rain at your wedding, so maybe they brought some of their cultural luck with them that day.

I meandered into the church of St. Nikolas and up the stairs of the central hall. It wasn’t open that day either, but I think the interior is used for parties or receptions. There seemed to be a stage in front of an especially colorful building, but no performances listed. I don’t know what the experience would have been like if it had been fully open and bustling, but I rather enjoyed the silence and stillness after the rush and crowds elsewhere. I felt like it was my own little private discovery I was sharing with only a few other people that day. I also felt like it gave me a view of Russia behind the curtains.

I think every country wants to show it’s best face on websites and tourism videos. I know for a fact that LA doesn’t really look the way tourists expect it to. However, I find that some countries try harder to keep tourists in the “pretty” places than others. China, for example, works very hard to create an image in tourist areas that you have only to walk a few blocks away from to realize isn’t really accurate. Most tourists never do, though. Moscow felt like that to me. Because I used the public transit, got lost a couple times, and went to this out of the way attraction on what seemed to be a rather slow day, I saw parts of the city and the culture that I would have missed on a well managed tour.

Of course, there’s only so much I could see on a 20 hour layover no matter how lost I got, so I know that my impressions are only cursory. Nonetheless, I’m glad I chose to set out solo and take my chances, even if that meant taking some lumps along the way.

Toward the end of my time in Izmailovo Kremlin, the sun came partway out, creating a dynamic sky of dark clouds with golden light. It made me happy, standing on the top floor balcony and looking over the church and square below, to get this little sliver of sunlight as my farewell.

On my way back out, I paused at one more puddle to take a reflection photo. This requires squatting down to get the camera lens as close to the level of the puddle as possible, and some other tourists stopped to watch me. When I stood up again they politely asked what I had been doing and I showed the mother and her two tween girls the effect of using a simple rain puddle as a reflecting surface. One of the girls was instantly enchanted and dropped down to try it out for herself. After very few pointers, she had it down pat, and even got a beautiful shot with one of the brides walking away. I missed my chance at that one because I was looking over her shoulder playing teacher, but I think it was a worthy trade.

I took a lot of photos that day, so here’s a little video montage with the rest of my best shots from Izmailovo Kremlin.

Pravda in the Airport

The airport express from central Moscow to SVO is, like all the public transit in Moscow, quite efficient. It was a little crowded, but affordable and on time with no unexpected troubles. It did let us off a very long way from the international terminal, but that gave me a chance to get some coffee and new earbuds for the long flight back.

I’m very glad I was already checked into my flight and had a boarding pass. The lines for customs and security check were ridiculous. I had finished my coffee and of course emptied my water bottle during this process and had no recourse but to buy water from the airport vending machines. I still haven’t found a single source of free drinking water in the Moscow airport.

Last but not least, while waiting for the boarding line to shrink enough to be worth standing in, I noticed one of the large TVs was rolling trailers and advertising for one of Russia’s major news networks…. Russia’s state sponsored “news” networks.

As an American who actually remembers the USSR and the cold war, I grew up with some ideas about Russia that were surely American propaganda, but one of the things I learned about that was not was that the Soviet’s state run newspaper was called “Pravda” which means “truth”. It was anything but. Between the end of the cold war and the beginning of the cyber war, there was a short but glorious time where we were able to get some relatively accurate information about the Soviet state.

I didn’t bother much with Russia when I was studying my MA because I very foolishly thought we were allies now. Oh, past me, how optimistic you were. I did, however, study the entire history of nuclear weapons and nuclear non-proliferation activities which MOSTLY involved us and the USSR / Russia so I had to learn a modicum of Russian history and culture as part of that. Let me just say, when the Guardian called the Russian state run media “a propaganda machine”, I don’t feel like they were exaggerating. On a scale of 1-10, I’d say it’s on the propaganda side of Breitbart, well past Fox News, and can’t even see the BBC with a telescope.

And yet, because of what it is, it cannot help but spew propaganda, especially to a captive audience in the airport. In English, so we know it was directed at us and not the locals. Putin uses any and all foreign media bashes on Russia to bolster his own popularity and prove the greatness of Russia, but unlike Trump who throws angry temper tantrums on Twitter when he doesn’t like what other countries (or his own’s) free press has to say about him, Putin and the state sponsored media are using … sarcasm.

“The more people watch, the angrier Hillary gets.”

“Warning! Propaganda Machine in action!”

“Missed a flight? Lost an election? Blame us!”

…and several more I failed to make note of. Other than remarking on a fascinating and somewhat frightening public communication tool, it had little effect on me, but seeing the way that these English slogans were written and presented in Russia made me take a serious think about some of the slogans coming out of the MAGA faction on social media, where the Russian trolls and bots live. Especially that one about making Hillary angry. I mean, why would Russians care if she’s mad? The only people still chanting “lock her up” are at Trump rallies.

Russia may have beautiful scenery and nice people, but that final interaction before boarding my flight was a chilling reminder that they are not now and possibly have never been our allies. The competition between “the West” and “the Soviet” has always been one of ideology, fought in the shadows with science and spies. When I look at things like “post truth” or “alternative facts” it seems like their ideas are creeping in like mold under paint.

I’m a big fan of multiculturalism and respecting cultures different from my own. I don’t know if it was my cold war upbringing, or if it’s a more objective analysis that things like “facts” and “free press” and “transparency” (glasnost) are necessary for a happy and healthy society, but either way, I just can’t accept the notion that Soviet ideology is the right way forward. I’m grateful to have had the chance, however brief, to visit. It helps me to remember that the people in each country are mostly kind and just want to live happily the same way we do. Whatever I think of their leaders or government policies, I hope I can always remember the regular people I met on the streets and in the subways who helped me when I was lost and shared the beautiful things in their city with me.

Adventures in Maastricht

The Netherlands offered more challenges to me as a traveler than any other country I went to last summer. Despite the host of obstacles in weather, transit, and basic cultural snobbery, I still had several positive experiences while I was there. I chose Maastricht after reading a fellow blogger’s rave reviews, and I can just about imagine that if I went there in better weather… and had my own transport (rental car, scooter, heck even a bike) it would have been a significantly more magical experience. The highlights of Maastricht for me were the caves (because if it’s underground, you know I’m going), the beautiful cathedral converted into a bookstore, and the tiniest Cafe in the Netherlands.

Fort Sint Pieter

The caves I found are part of the Fort of St. Pieter and are such an extensive series of tunnels that it is not permitted to enter without a guide lest one become lost and die. Seriously. I signed up for a combo tour to include the fort, which turned out to be well worth it. Even though you can climb up to the fort and see the outside unaccompanied, the guide has the keys to get inside and also a million interesting stories.


In 1673, D’artagnan and his army invaded Maastricht under the orders of Louis XIV. Yes, THAT D’artagnan. At the time, there was no fort atop the mountain, and the French army used that mountainside as an attack point to break down the city walls. Later when the Dutch reclaimed the town,  they decided to never let that happen again. Maastricht was a highly contested and often invaded territory for several hundred years, but eventually advances in weaponry made city walls obsolete, but the fortress atop the mountain remained.


I was surprised at how dark and gloomy the interior of the fortress actually was. I think I expected it to be more like a castle, but the guide pointed out the necessity of thick walls and arched passages to withstand artillery fire. We got to walk though the tunnels and see the different ways soldiers would communicate in such a large space as well as some arrow slits and cannons. The communication was done by means of drums placed in such a way as to take advantage of the building’s acoustics. A leader could issue orders from the center of the building and have a drummer beat out code that would be heard all over. It was quite dark in most places, so I don’t have very good photos.


The very top part of the fort was used by Nazis in WWII to watch for Allied aircraft, but the tunnels underneath the fort that honeycombed the surrounding countryside for miles were used to smuggle people into free Belgian territory at the same time.


The caves themselves were originally quarries, but became shelters where fathers could bring families and livestock to hide during invasions, and we’re used from Roman vs Viking times up through WWII for that purpose. There were places to cook and sleep like little apartments carved into the tunnels. They also grew mushrooms and chicory, which my guide was surprised to learn Americans brew into coffee (New Orleans!).


Now the tunnels are full of art.


The guide stressed the importance of staying with the group since people still can easily get lost without a guide because there are hundreds of km of tunnels. He told a story of a couple of young men who just barely escaped death because they happened to find a “chimney” or vertical tunnel that led up to a field. A farmer heard them and a rescue was organized, but it was pure luck.

Going underground was probably the highlight of my day/days because it was only 11°C underground, which was a wonderful relief from the 30°C+ weather of the day. Surprisingly, despite the drought, a million beautiful wildflowers grew around the fort and caves which made for a lovely scene to walk to and from the bus stops with.


Downtown Maastricht

During my week in Lanaken/Maastrict, I was having the worst week of my holiday due to some serious personal emotional stuff, so I spend a goodly amount of time in the Airbnb trying to stay cool both thermally and mentally. I also did more than average day trips away from the city including the Fort and Caves above, the amazing Carolus Thermen Spa in Aachen, and the oddly Disney-esque town of Valkenburg. On my last day, I decided to try out the city of Maastricht one last time.

When I arrived downtown, there was a large flea market in the nation square and it was mostly full of the kind of antiques and knick-knacks I found endlessly fascinating as a child, but don’t really know what to do with now. I mean buckets of old spoons? Art made from driftwood? It’s neat to look at but no room in the luggage. I did buy a nice summer dress, lightweight and a soft gray that reflected the bright blue sky. I changed into it as soon as I could and it made a world of difference. It was easily the best purchase of the trip.


After exploring the market, I set off to find the bookstore in a cathedral, which is dead cool as a concept. I read about it in other blogger’s “things to do in Maastricht” and decided I would check it out if I was able. I am so glad I made the time! Bookstores are already a little bit sacred space for me, so to combine the deliberate awe-inspiring architecture of a Gothic cathedral with thousands of beautiful books! Stunning.


Because cathedrals have such incredibly high ceilings, the bookstore installed multiple levels almost like balconies, allowing more book space but keeping the room open and the architecture continuously observable. I’d been in other converted churches that lost a lot of what made the cathedral “style” by breaking it up into usable space. This was by far the best combination. It was awesome to climb the central column of books and see the high vaulted ceilings up close. I got a little vertigo but worth it.


Not only was it beautifully constructed, it was also a great bookstore! Well stocked and diverse. I saw several books I wanted to make better friends with as well as lots of old favorites. I was amazed by the number of people inside, not just admiring the architecture but loaded down with books to buy. There’s even a small cafe in the back and a kid’s section! If you have to live in a city that has a plethora of leftover cathedrals, I think this might just be the best way they can be put to use in the modern era.

On my way to my next stop I encountered another unique street performance. I was growing used to seeing buskers performing for money on the streets, but this couple decked out in ballroom gear waltzing around accompanied by live, tux-clad musicians definitely stood out!


Finally I headed over to have vlaai and koffie at the smallest cafe in the Netherlands. Vlaai is a kind of pie that’s popular in the Netherlands. It’s not a specific flavor (I had several flavors while I was there) but more the fact that the construction is mid-way between pie and tart that I can’t really say it’s exactly like any other dessert I’ve had. It does tend to be thicker in crust than either of those treats, which was startling at first, but the more I ate, the more I liked them. The vlaai I had that day was apricot, and so cool and fresh you could believe they just picked the fruit this morning. It was the exact balance of sweet and tart I look for in a perfect apricot, somehow even capturing the texture of perfectly ripe.

In addition, “cafe” doesn’t only mean “coffee shop”. This place has a full menu of food, beer/wine/cocktails, dessert and coffee. It’s also very popular. The indoor seating is nearly non-existent, but the patio seating seemed quite generous, even though it was completely full. I ended up sitting on a cushion on a curb next to the building with a tiny table lower than my knees. It was under a tree and so I had shade, and didn’t mind at all. By the time I finished there was a line even for those small curbside spots!

In the past I’ve read and repeated that the first and last things you do on a holiday define the experience. While Lanaken/Maastricht was in the middle of my summer, and in many ways represents the most difficult things I had to overcome, I’m glad I had these positive experiences on my last day there. It leaves me with a sense of what could be if I hadn’t been so ambushed by my health and the weather that week, and it reminds me that even in the midst of dark times, there are still wonderful adventures to be found and enjoyed.

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.


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:

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.


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.


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.


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.


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…


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:

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.



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.


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.


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! ❤