Monthly Archives: December 2013

Crazy Hanoi

Hanoi is a paradoxical place. Crazy Asian energy and genuine Communist enthusiasm live there together with the devotion of Catholic cathedrals and Buddhist temples. In December in Hanoi it is sunny and the temperature is around 20 degrees. I had the impression of getting into the Estonian summer in its best manifestation. So I wandered around Hanoi and enjoyed it thoroughly, despite the aggressiveness, even machismo of the Vietnamese, which takes time to get used to and to see it as openness and directness.

I will start simply from the street photos. Maybe these motocycles crossing every which way and these big groups of people sipping lemon tea together will communicate the energy of this place.

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Vientiane, the capital of Communist Laos

From Bangkok I went on to discover the part of South East Asia where I had not been before. My first stop was Laos, country number 69 on my list. I took a flight from Bangkok to Vientiane and received a quick visa on arrival. Which told me immediately this ain’t Bangkok baby: the lady carelessly put the Laotian visa on top of some other stamps in my passport. And there I was, in the capital of Communist Laos.

Laos is the Bolivia of South East Asia. Landlocked, repeatedly defeated by various neighbours, having passed through the jaws of the American war machine and today lagging far behind its more populous and lucky neighbours, ethnically extremely diverse, possessing a number of still hard to access areas of natural beauty. And very very poor. Just like in Bolivia elementary transactions, such as printing out some pages or getting a haircut, suddenly become a challenge. And just like Bolivia, Laos has its special charm that you begin to appreciate in time.

After Bangkok, Vientiane slows you down with its non-existent rhythm and – let’s be honest – its paucity of attractions. Its main streets sport quite a few names in French and in the morning the smell of fresh croissants wafts from street cafés. But apart from that, Vientiane has little to charm a visitor. The main history museum demonstrates a Lenin and a Ho Chi Minh covered with dust. In the mixture of mangled propaganda statements coming straight from the pages of “1984” you can determine precisely zero clear facts of the actual history of Laos. The main message is that the communism won here. But the victory did not follow the North Korean script of totalitarian control. Rather, it was the victory of total indifference. In the museum you can enjoy such important objects as the radio transmitter of Comrade Phomvihane (the first and eternal communist leader), his very modest costume used in the trenches and for example a fan he used on the road.

The entrance to the museum:

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Hidden Bangkok

From Seoul I went to Bangkok. I love Bangkok! It is one of the most amazing cities in the world. Somehow things happen there easily and quickly, as if by themselves. I am not a beach bum, after half an hour of lying on an idyllic beach I get bored. The urban jungle though I can explore endlessly. That’s why if most guests of Thailand aim to leave Bangkok as soon as possible, my preference is always the opposite – all roads lead there and that’s where I want to be. I usually stay in the Silom area. This is where the interesting stuff is concentrated. In addition from Silom it’s relatively easy to get to any other part of the city, as this is where the metro and Skytrain lines cross. Having stayed there a number of times, obviously I know the hotels, restaurants and best massage places (the latter of key importance in BKK).

I’m sure many of you have been to Bangkok and have visited its standard tourist attractions. That’s why below is the story of a couple of less well known places which I visited this time around. Bangkok of course is full of weird and fascinating institutions. For example I was looking for some contemporary art galleries and found them on the fourth and the fifth floor of a huge shopping centre, otherwise devoted to reselling jewellery. It was pretty weird to walk around all these Indian looking people haggling over brilliants among the guards. On the street Thanon Thaniya, which runs parallel to Patpong, you’ve got on the other hand a gigantic shopping centre devoted singularly to golf. Thanon Thaniya is a Japanese island in the sea of Bangkok full of hostess bars and authentic Japanese restaurants. Sitting in the Moon Bar on the roof of 50-storey high-rise and observing the lights of BKK from the height of a landing plane, it was hard to imagine that all these places belong to the same city.

Chatukchak market
The largest of Bangkok’s markets is open on weekends. It is located by the Northernmost Skytrain station. It is gigantic and pulls you i with its charms. I don’t buy anything anywhere due to limitations of space, but even I was charmed into spending some baht there. A mass of people head to the market from the Skytrain station:

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My memories of Seoul are rather hazy, as I spent most of my time there drunk on alcohol and affection. Inhabitants of Itaewon really know how to party! I visited a couple of museums and palaces anyway. Here are some rather disjointed observations of the Korean capital:

1. It was terribly cold – ­after Japan I had to seek the help of my Bolivian alpaca sweater and create le Petit Prince out of myself with scarves.
2. On the other hand, the most wonderful aspect of the Korean hotels is the floor heating. So cozy! Later as I visited the Korean imperial palaces, I realised that this system of heating is a direct descendant of the traditional ondol heating which was used in these palaces. Now we’re all emperors!
3. The Korean food is entirely different from the Japanese food. Tasty, but doesn’t come close in refinement.
4. And overall Korean national character is really different from that of the Japanese. Funny, sharp, confident, brash even. Certainly extraverted. Crossing a street in Seoul, you must be really careful – ­the drivers wouldn’t think twice of driving right in front of you, even on the red light. Unheard of in Japan!
5. The Korean writing is actually an alphabet. Looks exotic, but in fact pretty simple, after a few days I could decipher quite a few signs and recognise words. (I’ve forgotten it entirely by now though.) Korean letters are easy to identify with their perfect geometry. Quite different to say Arabic letters.
6. Oh what a pleasure to be able to pay with a credit card with no fuss!

Photos of the Gyeongbokgung palace. This was the main palace of the Korean kings (later emperors) and the symbol of the national pride. When the Japanese occupied Korea in 1910, they quickly proceeded to disassemble the palace under the pretext of organising a grand exhibition. In recent years though the Koreans have systematically restored most of the palace. This is one of the historically most prominent buildings, hexagon pavilion Hyonwonjong. In this little tower the empress Myoson was killed by the Japanese agents in 1895. She was the key proponent of closer ties of Korea with the Russian empire. As a result of this political assassination the Japanese positions in Korea were further strengthened, which culminated in the Japanese occupation of Korea 15 years later.

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Japanese food

The Japanese culinary universe is so vast that to try to describe it all would be a fool’s errand. Every prefecture, every island and every region offers a new discovery. On the other hand, the foods you have grown to love can be found with a remarkable consistency in every new town.

It must be immediately pointed out that the Japanese food in Japan is a completely different animal to what passes for Japanese food outside of Japan. In Japan itself very often a particular establishment specialises in a particular dish for decades. Everything is prepared from carefully selected ingredients. Therefore even very cheap dishes often surprise you with an incredible taste.

A separate chapter in the Japanese cuisine is the kaiseki cuisine, which I described in my post about staying at a ryokan in Kagoshima.

Most photos in this post are made with an iPhone with impatiently trembling hands… so please don’t judge them too harshly for photographic quality!

The story starts with such an ostensibly simple food as noodles. Noodles are helpful as they help a traveller out cheaply, quickly and effectively. In Japan there are three main noodle types: udon, ramen and soba. For my taste, ramen is the best, although I like soba too.

Ramen are wheat noodles, often prepared as a soup with some tasty additions. Here for example you’ve got pork pieces and freshly cut onions as additions:

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From the Japanese notebook: 28 impressions of Japan

Japan is a very strange country. During my trip around Japan I kept writing down in my red notebook the details of its weirdness. Here is a random list…

1. The white gloves, the epitome of elegance, that are worn by the drivers of buses and taxis. With their hands covered in these white gloves they swiftly operate the wheel and the luggage…

2. In many points of major Japanese cities very helpfully you can find the area plans, often featuring an English translation. But it took me several days to decipher the logic of the orientation of these maps. They are not oriented according to any cardinal direction! It turns out that the up-down axis of the map corresponds to the very direction in which you are looking when you face this map. You have to marvel at the utter precision which was necessary to manufacture these maps so that they correspond so precisely to their rather random-looking position in some metro tunnel or on a street corner. Anyhow, this positioning of the map threw me off every time – ­my European brain is too used to put every map into the North-South axis.

3. An entirely different logic of house numbers. We are used to a street with numbers growing along the two sides, usually odd numbers on one side and even on the other. The Japanese city is divided first into areas with names (sort of like our street names). Then this area is further subdivided into numbered sub-areas, usually delimited by actual physical streets or pathways. However there is no particular reason why such and such sub-areas bears a particular number. Inside the sub-area the houses are further numbered, usually in the order as you would encounter them if you were to go around the sub-area, but not necessarily. For example, the address of the ryokan where I stayed in Tokyo was as follows:1-30-12 Asakusa, Taito-ku, Asakusa, Tokyo, Japan 111-0032. This is to say that it was house nr 12 in sub-area nr 30 in the first Asakusa area. This is how it looks on the map: address.

4. Coming from the United States, several times I critically misunderstood the Japanese traffic lights and entered the road while the cars were moving. In Japan the red lights is shown by two parallel vertical bars. As the green light approaches, the bars decrease in size – ­this way you can always estimate how long you still have to wait. However in America the red parallel bars blinking mean that the red light is just starting and in principle pedestrians can finish the crossing.

5. A fascinating way of indicating time. Instead of saying, that say an onsen is open until 2 am, the Japanese will write: open until 26:00. 25:00 would correspond to 1 am and 28:00 to 4 am etc. I find this very logical indeed.

6. The direction of reading books – ­similarly to Arabic and Hebrew books, the Japanese books are read from left to right. This means that the first page is where you would expect the last. Even opening a Japanese magazine, you have to adjust.

7. Since we talk directions, of course the Japanese could be like everybody else. They just had to drive on the left.

8. In Japan you are not supposed to tip. This culture eliminates all uncertainty. A paradise for introverts.

9. Indeed it is a paradise for introverts in a number of ways. I was speechless when I first saw a Japanese bus – ­where you do not have to have a neighbour at all as all seats are separated by a passage!

10. You cannot go around the Japanese food. I will write about it separately. Here I will just mention the strangest dish ever. This title must go to nattō beans – ­slimy beans fermented in a special bacteria. They say that this is the dish that they use to test if a foreigner (gaijin) has really adapted to life in Japan. Because the beans look really disgusting. I tried them. They taste pretty funky. Not to belabour the point, this is by far the weirdest food I’ve ever eaten.

11. The Japanese sweets are also pretty weird. Often they are not sweet at all. Most sweets are indeed made from bean pasta!

12. After a while you realise that most Japanese dishes are borrowed either from their neighbours the Chinese or directly from the Europeans. But the longer the isolated Japanese had to alter these dishes, the less recognisable they become. Take Japanese pizza – ­nothing like the original.

13. Japan is choke full of coffee shops. These often look very sophisticated, even glamorous. But what I found most surprising about them was the fact that in each café inevitably there was a partition for smokers, and indeed it was full of smoking people – ­often there were more smokers than non-smokers.

14. The Japanese are quite obsessed by all things French. For them French is the ultimate synonym of elegance and refinement. And to be frank, the fantasy objects made à la française in Japan are already so excessively elegant, that oftentimes in my opinion they exceed and surpass the supposed original. Thus I am not surprised by the stories about how the Japanese are shocked when they visit Paris, seeing how it is nothing like they imagined, but in fact rather dirty and brash. I profited fully from this Japanese obsession and visited regularly a coffee shop network called Vie de France, where you could have wonderful pain au raisin and of course proper latte – ­and thus to escape the crazy Japanese sweets for a bit.

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Japan consists of four large islands. The most important island is Honshu, where all the famous cities and industry are concentrated. Hokkaido is the Northern island, large and sparsely populated, only really mastered by the Japanese in 19th century. The island of Kyushu in South West is historically important for Japan, as many major events in Japan’s history took place there. Indeed it is projected that humans came to Japan via Kyushu in the first place. And finally the island of Shikoku to the South of Honshu, the smallest of the four, mountainous, the least industrially developed, probably having preserved the most authenticity of old Japan. Out of these four islands, I visited three – ­I skipped Hokkaido as it was already quite cold there. On Kyushu I went to Fukuoka and Kagoshima, whereas on Shikoku I visited the town of Matsuyama.

Matsuyama is famous in Japan for its public onsen called Dogo-onsen. It is considered the most ancient onsen in Japan. On the streets of Matsuyama you often see the Japanese travellers in yukata kimonos with a tiny basket slowly heading towards Dogo. I stayed in Matsuyama in a simple ryokan which even had its own onsen, but the admission to Dogo was also included in the price of the night. With great pleasure I therefore visited Dogo several times.

This is how it looks. You cannot make photos inside, but it has to be said that this onsen is truly wonderful and very traditional. There are even some special rooms purpose built for the emperor in case he decides to visit.

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Ryokan Onsen Kaiseki

This post is about the experience of staying at a real ryokan in Kagoshima, which included an onset bath as well as a kaiseki-style dinner.

Let me start though by describing what kinds of hotels exist in Japan.

The theory of Japanese hotels
There are two main types of hotels in Japan: business hotel and ryokan.

Business hotel
Business hotel is reminiscent of a small and rather impersonal Western hotel. As a rule, the room in such a hotel will be very small, but fitted like a LEGO toy with a whole list of items, which is quite invariable. There are things that you would expect in a hotel: a usual bed, a TV, a small table where you can work on a computer (internet surprisingly tends to be provided by a cable modem, in-room wifi is rare).

Every Japanese business room, no matter how small, will also always have:
– ­a hair dryer;
– ­flashlight;
– ­three bottles (soap, shampoo and conditioner);
– ­a small disposable toothbrush with a minuscule tube of toothpaste;
– ­a small disposable hairbrush.

As a rule you will also have an en-suite bathroom, very small, which would include a bath tub as well as a technological miracle called “Japanese toilet”, which will often have a heated seat as well as a special tube that comes out to wash and dry your intimate parts.

Traditional ryokan
The other type of the Japanese hotel is called ryokan. This is a completely different style of accommodation. The rooms in a ryokan will be somewhat bigger, but will have virtually no furniture to which we are used to. The floor is covered with tatami mats. The walls are represented by sliding partitions from wood and paper. Oftentimes the bathrooms are shared. The ryokan room will not have a chair, but rather a low seat as well as a low table, you are meant to sit essentially on the floor. Instead of a bed you sleep on a special Japanese mattress (futon), which is put directly on the floor. When it is not used, the futon is kept in a cupboard behind a partition. It is not all that convenient to sleep on a futon, in fact it’s quite hard, so I found it tiring to stay in ryokan all the time – ­and consequently interchanged ryokans and business hotels, to experience both comfort and tradition.

As Japan is essentially four volcanic islands, she possesses quite a number of hot springs. Ryokan is often built right next to a spring and includes an onsen. An onsen is a Japanese bath. The focus of an onsen is the hot water bath, filled with the water straight from the spring, often very hot indeed.

Ryokan can differ significantly in terms of class. I described above the simple ryokan. High class ryokan will be quite different. It will have large rooms, sometimes with a view to a private garden, which you can admire while meditating in your room. You might have a private bathroom. You don’t have to open and close the futon yourself, the personnel will do it for you. Of course there will be an onsen in such a ryokan. And finally – ­most pleasantly – ­a high class ryokan will include an elaborate breakfast and dinner service in the kaiseki style, the high style of Japanese cuisine.

The Japanese consider several days in a high class ryokan the best possible vacation. Already from my last trip I really wanted to stay in such a ryokan if only for a couple of days. However it turned out rather complicated. The minimum price for such a stay is 100 dollars, often it is several times more. But whatever the price, in November and December Japan experiences the peak of the tourist season, and the best ryokan are booked out for many weeks in advance! You also have to take into account the fact that as the ryokan experience involves a whole unwritten etiquette, not every ryokan will agree to accept a foreigner, as the owner might not speak English and might find it stressful to deal with a foreigner. Particularly one travelling solo: the tariffs in ryokan are traditionally per person, rather than per room.

Often you can only get in touch with ryokan by emailing or faxing them – ­they are not present in the usual reservation systems such as You could also call, but bette speak Japanese then. Finally after a number of failed attempts I found a ryokan in Kagoshima which met my specifications and was ready to accept me.

My room:

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A walk around Osaka

Osaka is the second largest city in Japan (if we consider Yokohama as part of the Tokyo agglomeration). But contrary to other famous Japanese cities, Osaka does not boast a huge number of tourist attractions. It is known as a business city as well as for its food. I will write a separate post about the fantastic Japanese food. Here are simply some photos from a one day walk around Osaka.

Let’s start from the main (if not the only) Osaka tourist attraction, which is Umeda Sky Building. This futuristic edifice offers panoramic views over the whole city. It is also an object of pilgrimage for countless couples in love, who leave there locks with their names and just have to take a seat on this little bench and look at the city enjoying their harmony:

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