Tag Archives: Travel

How Japan Surprised Me

*I wrote this article in October; then I let it fester in my drafts folder for a few months.  It was timely when I wrote it, I swear!*

I came across an article this week, about ways in which Japan will surprise travellers.   There are a pieces of the article that are very accurate.  The “expensive, yet affordable” bit is right on the money.   Unfortunately  I think the article falters in the same places that so many pieces about Japan struggle.  It does well in describing Tokyo, but it makes sweeping generalizations that just do not hold up outside  of the major cities.   It reiterates all of the usual clichés about Japan:  Technology! Tradition! Nintendo! Kimono! However, despite the title,  I was disappointed that the article fails to dig deeper and find the aspects of Japan that might actually surprise travellers.  The following is my take on the situation, how Japan continues to surprise me.

 Stylish in ways you have never seen

A Crocs display in a shop.

A Crocs display in a shop. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This first heading almost made me do a spit-take.   “Stylish in ways I have never seen” is exactly how I would describe Japanese fashion, but I don’t think the author is using it as a euphemism, at least not in the same way I do.  The author discusses   “looks that reveal detailed attention to beauty and a person-as-canvas philosophy.”  In Tokyo and Kyoto, where the author seems to have travelled, I will admit that fashion is spectacular.  However, travellers leaving the major urban centres may be surprised to see that the rest of Japan is not stocked with Harajuku girls. When I first arrived in Toyama I remember being struck by the prevalence of Crocs.  To be fair, they are a very practical choice of footwear in one of the rainiest parts of the country.   Still, I think we can all agree that Crocs do not belong in a conversation about style, even (especially)  if they are Hello Kitty-themed. Yet crocks are a staple of Japanese fashion, at least in my corner of the country.

Technology meets tradition — and fantasy

Yes.  And no.

Japan has had ultra fast bullet trains connecting major urban centres for decades now.   On the flip side,  the train I take to work looks like it could have been an alternate home for the Boxcar Children.  Just as with fashion, technology outside of the major cities in Japan can take you back in time, to a time when everything was a bit slower, and a lot less convenient.   The best example is  money.  Japan is a cash-based society.  Perhaps because of low crime rates, people have had little push to move towards alternate forms of payment.  Almost no small stores accept credit cards, internet banking is relatively uncommon, and a debit card system is unheard of.  Instead, people carry around massive amounts of cash, a bank card and their bankbook.    Yes, you read that correctly,  a bankbook, like the one I received when I opened up My First Bank Account in 1988 and promptly lost because it was already becoming  obsolete.

Not just big buildings and highways

In the CNN article, the author discusses the architectural wonders of Japan’s cities, as well as the beauty of the country’s gardens and temples.  All of this is true.  However, what really surprised me about Japan was its natural beauty.  The Japanese summer provides some of the lushest green landscapes I have ever seen.  If you step outside of the city you will be surrounded by endless rice paddies.  In Toyama we are spoilt by mountain and ocean views.   As a Canadian, I have a tendency to be a snob when it comes to natural wonders, but Japan can certainly hold its own in terms of rural landscapes.

The cleanest place in the world.

And no review of Japan’s virtues would be honest without mentioning Japan’s toilets, a marvel of modern technology and a cause for profound gratitude from travellers  This is no place for a disquisition on Japan’s sanitary technology other than to offer a heartfelt arigato. Thank you.

Ok.  I agree that Japan is amazingly clean.  I also agree that any review of Japan ought to mention toilets. However, I don’t think the two thoughts belong side-by-side.  Not because the toilets are unclean; by global standards they are immaculately kept.  The issue is that toilets merit an entire chapter.  It is true that many Japanese homes and businesses have beautiful, western style toilets.  The toilet seats are often equipped with heating  and other rear-pampering luxuries, which really deserve an entire post to explain. (In the context of a Japanese building with no central heating, for example, a heated toilet seat seems much less extravagant.)   However, the flip side is that many public wash-rooms have traditional squat toilets, which can be daunting to unsuspecting Westerners.  There is a hilarious, but useful wikiHow about mastering the squatter.

Toilet in Japan

Toilet in Japan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Like in some other parts of Asia, public toilets in Japan often do not have toilet paper.  Sometimes there is a dispenser outside of the stall, but it is wise to always carry tissues on your person.  Soap is also a rarity in Japanese public restrooms.  For a country that insists on wearing masks the second somebody sniffles, there is a shocking lack of soap in public facilities.  Hand sanitizer will become your best friend.

All of these things, good and bad, are just a part of living in Japan.  I rarely think about any of them in daily life.  Well, except for the toilet paper, it is important to keep that one point in mind, lest I be caught unprepared.  The internet if full of Crazy Japan stories, but my experience here has not been all that crazy.  Almost everything that has surprised me at first has made sense once I learned about the cultural background.  Again, except for the toilet paper issue; I still don’t know why toilet paper is not amply supplied.


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One less item on the bucket list

I did something truly remarkable a few weeks ago. I have tried to write a post about it. Unfortunetly, I have been too busy to write the post that this event deserves. So, here I will tell the story the exact same way I have been telling my elementary students.

1) This summer I went to Mount Fuji.

Setting forth into the night.

2) We climbed the mountain at night.

Headlamps snake their way up the mountain

3) There were many people on the mountain.

About 10 000 people climbed through the night to see the sunrise.

4) We saw the sun rise from top of the mountain.

Sunrise from 3, 776 meters

I wish that could find the time to write a proper post. I had a lot of intense feelings about the climb. I did not like climbing through the night, nor did I enjoy climbing with thousands of other people on the trail. However, I am glad that I did it and very proud of the accomplishment. Someday, when I am old and grey, I will show people this picture and tell them about that time I hauled myself up a volcano in the middle of the night.

We did it!


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I see, I do

Back in December of 2010 I was visiting Taiwan for the second time, seeing the southern parts of the country that I had missed on my first, typhoonriddled visit.

I had started the trip at Tarako Gorge, where I had hoped to see some macaques up close , but the closest I got was seeing one from the tour bus. After sharing my dissapointment with my friends and family I was bombarded by stories of how lucky I am that I did not see a monkey in real life. According to some of my family, in-person encounters with wild primates  lead to stolen shiny things, personal injury and other unspecified traumas. I will admit, even with these warnings, I was still disappointed.

I concluded the trip in Kaohsiung, taiwan’s second largest city.  I liked Kaohsiung a lot, but the weather was a bit windier than I was comfortable with.

Have you ever strolled a street lined with palm trees on a blustery day? Don’t. It  sounds like a fun game, but dodging coconuts is less amusing in reality.  I veered away from my planned route in an effort to avoid a death befitting Wile E. Coyote. In fact, I altered my route so dramatically that I decided to change some of plans entirely.  Looking at the map I saw that I was now a relatively easy walking distance from Shoushan,  or Ape Hill.

I seized the opportunity and walked towards the park.   When I arrived, I saw these guys guarding the entrance.

I knew that there were monkeys living in the park but I misunderstood the exact situation.  I thought that the monkeys on Shoushan would be like the moose in Algonquin Park: numerous and not an uncommon sight, but happy to avoid humans when possible.  I was wrong.  The macaques on Shoushan were more like the (former) rabbits at Uvic: everywhere and surprisingly fearless.

Before entering the park I had throw out my food and carefully stashed my camera inside my backpack.  I even removed my watch and earrings.  I was determined to avoid a monkey mugging.

My overly-cautious ways paid off.  As I walked through the park, alongside the other tourists, I did not once get attacked by a macaque.  Although that might be due to the fact that I am not a giant banana.

At one point I got a bit more confident and I stopped to take my camera out of my backpack and throw it around my neck.  I walked, with a death grip on my camera, for a few more minutes, not quite daring to raise the camera to actually take a picture.  But then  I came to a bend in the path with a group of people.  When I approached the group I saw that they were watching a mother and baby macaque, happily sitting on branch about six feet from the footpath.  I really wanted a picture but I was really afraid of upsetting the mother.  So I stood still while other people came and left, taking pictures. Eventually the crowd thinned a bit and I decided that the mom looked pretty happy. She had been watching the crowd watch her for quite a while and she did not seem at all alarmed.

So that’s how I got this shot:

And that’s the story of how I crossed off “see a monkey (or macaque) in the wild” from my bucket list.

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February 12, 2012 · 3:49 pm

Christmas and Hiroshima

2011 ended with a great, relaxing holiday. My dad arrived in Toyama on Christmas Eve. His plane landed about five minutes before the first big snowstorm of year began. It was a beautiful, white Christmas, with plenty of snow for Santa to land his sleigh.

It didn’t really stop snowing for the three days that he visited.  This was a bit unfortunate, as my dad was more than equipped for a Bangkok winter, but less so for a real, snowy winter.  However, the unrelenting snow provided a great excuse to stay inside and eat lots and lots of bacon.  (I also cooked a good Christmas  dinner, but it was sandwiched in between  bacon meals.) It was a low-key, but very fun visit.

The day after my dad left, I took a short trip to Hiroshima.  Although I was only gone for two nights, it was nice to get away from Toyama and hide in the (relative) anonymity of a big city.

The A-Bomb Dome, surrounded by the rebuilt city of Hiroshima.

The museums were all going to be closed from the 29th for the New Year’s holiday so the afternoon that I arrived I went straight to the Peace Memorial Museum, one of my main purposes for visiting the city. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect with the museum but I was pleasantly surprised.

The Peace Museum examines the atrocities of the A-Bomb. It explains why the bomb was dropped at all, and why it was dropped on Hiroshima.  It talks about the victims, those who died almost immediately and also the hibakusha, the victims who survived the bomb but then had to deal with the aftermath.  It is not a feel-good topic.

However, the museum is very much about promoting peace and getting rid of nuclear weaponry. While the stories in the museum are told from the perspective of a city that has survived a trauma, it does not encourage pointing fingers at specific countries.  Instead, the exhibits drive home the sentiment that we are all citizens of the same planet and that we all need to work together to create peace. I was particularly impressed that the museum talks about the victims of the bomb not as Japanese per se, but as humans. It acknowledges that there were and are victims of many nationalities, including Koreans who working as forced labour.

The Monument in Memory of the Korean Victims of the A-bomb, Peace Park

After I was finished in the museum  I took advantage of the beautiful, sunny weather and walked around peace park.  Like the museum, the park is full of monuments to the victims and messages of hope for the future.

Memorial Cenotaph in Peace Park

The next day I took the ferry out to Miyajima.  I am not going to go into great detail about Miyajima because I found it a bit… underwhelming.  There are a lot of people who call Miyajima their favorite place in Japan, but I was less impressed.  I was looking forward to seeing Itsukushima Shrine, which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, partly for the way that the Shrine showcases human design working with nature.

However, I felt like the way  I was routed through the temple severely inhibited my ability to appreciate the architecture’s interactions with the natural setting.  (Although I understand the need to have such a strict pathway, given how busy it must get at peak times.)  Still, the temple and its torii gate were beautiful and it is always fun to see things in real life that have always seemed so impossibly foreign in pictures.

All in all, I had a great week away from work but now it’s back to the grind! I hope everyone at home had a great holiday and here’s to a fantastic 2012!

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Like Dorothy and Toto . . .

First of all, this:

. . . has been stuck in my head since Thanksgiving weekend, when I went to Kyoto.  It was a fantastic weekend.  I think that Kyoto might be the most beautiful city I have ever visited.  Check out some pictures!

Overlooking the city from Kiyomizudera

Drinking the water at Kiyomizudera, which is said to promote health, wealth, and prosperity.

The Golden Pavillion at Kinkaku-ji

Castle grounds at Nijo Jo (Nijo castle)

Visiting the Japanese macaques at Arashiyama.

You like peanuts? No way! I like peanuts too!

Torii gates at Fushimi Inari-taishi

Strings of 1000 paper cranes at Fushimi Inari-taishi

Foxes, Inari's messengers, at Fushimi Inari shrine.

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Let’s start from the top!

Location map of Cape Reinga, Far North, Northl...

Image via Wikipedia

At the top of New Zealand is a place where two worlds collide. According to Maori legend, Cape Reinga  —Te Reinga in Maori – is where spirits of the recently deceased make the return journey to Hawaiiki, the traditional Maori homeland.

New Zealand flax plants line the walkways and frame thousands of photos taken by the  120,000 visitors who flock here every year.  They are drawn by the spiritual importance of the area and also the undeniable beauty.  The Cape’s white lighthouse overlooks long stretches of dunes and series of waves crashing onto the yellow beaches.

On calm days a single white line zigzags through the blue waters beyond the lighthouse. This line marks the meeting place of the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean.

To get to the Cape you can either drive up from Paihia on your own or you can hop aboard a bus tour from the same town. The drive is long and the Cape’s lack of accommodation forces visitors to make the trip up and down the Aupouri Peninsula in one day, an unappealing prospect for most drivers. It’s a tour bus operator’s dream.

But the ugliness of Cape Reinga, the bus-sized parking lot and its constant rumble of engines, is also what makes the area a remarkable tourist destination. Because despite the hoards of people there are no fast food chains or stores at Cape Reinga. In fact, aside from toilets and a drinking fountain, there is nothing to oblige tourists, nothing to suggest that it might be a remarkable sight at all.

In this way, Cape Reinga set the tone for our trip in New Zealand, a country that fights to preserve its natural treasures at the same time as it encourages the world to come see them. It was in this country that we walked up to the foot of a glacier, stumbled upon the world’s rarest penguin, and shared the beach with sea lions.  But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First, Cape Reinga:

Cape Reinga lighthouse

Cape Reinga views

Where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean

New Zealand Flax


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Proof of Life

Dear Internets,

I am not dead.  February was a bit of a funny month. I spent it overcoming  a whopper case of jet lag, getting re-acquainted with family and friends, and studying for a major job interview.  Now that the interview is done (and I’ve begun the two month wait for results) I feel like I can finally start to tell you the stories from my travels.

It will take a while to get all of my thoughts and tales organised. I think that I will start with New Zealand and then backtrack and talk about Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau afterwards.  For now I’ll leave you with a few photo teasers.  Also, I’ve added a subscription button on the blog. If you would like to get new posts emailed to you, just click the button at the top right of the blog.



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