Tokyo Day Trip: Hot Springs and Mountains in Hakone, Japan

Tokyo Day Trip: Hot Springs and Mountains in Hakone, Japan

If Tokyo’s cosmopolitan craziness has you yearning for fresh air, travel south for an hour or two for mountains, sleepy neighborhoods and onsens (hot spring baths) everywhere you look. I haven’t even gotten to the city yet and I was ready for some R&R. Immediately after reaching the Hakone-Yumata Station, you know time flows at a different pace. Instead of the uber-efficient metal trains you find around Japan, a charming, nostalgic red car chugging slowly along the tracks will pick you up. The train will stop a couple times, momentarily alarming the train, for the conductor to hop out, manually activate the switchbacks before you can continue on your merry way. Whatever stop you get out, it may contain a couple gift shops but you’ll probably have to wander up a mountain to find your accommodations for the evening. Hakone is one place where there’s not a convenient store within eyesight from anywhere but it’s kind of nice to experiment with mom and pop restaurants where you have no idea what you’re ordering. As with most tourist cities in Japan, Hakone has a fairly foolproof prescribed route through the town, that will take you five hours or so. It begins with a ropeway ride up Mount Owakudani, an active volcano probably responsible for the hot springs all over the place. If your day is anything like mine, you’ll inevitably encounter swarms of schoolchildren in matching uniforms and wide-brimmed hats. Judging by how many Japanese kids I saw along my trip today, they don’t go to school, they just go on field trips. Pre-teens dressed in yellow swarmed the ropeway station, girls gossiping and boys lovingly swatting each other on the heads. Ten-year-old kids dressed in white marched in perfectly straight lines on the trail to the hot spring. Toddlers in red uniforms held hands in pairs as they waited for the sightseeing cruise. Anyway, so once you advance past the army of kids, you will “float above” the trees as you ascend over 500 meters to the sulfur-smelling wasteland at Owakudani, formed by an ancient volcanic eruption. There’s a short (10-minute) hike through steaming streams with views of Mount Fiji on a clear day. Make sure to try the famous black eggs, cooked in the hot spring… it’s supposed to bring you seven additional years of life! From there, you’ll hop back on the ropeway to descend back down to Togendai-Ko port.  You’ll hop abroad an extravagant pirate ship (complete with a captain dressed for the occasion) for sight-seeing around the lake (including views of Mt. Fiji on a clear day).  I got out at Jakone Machi-Ko to walk by the lake, pass through the Ancient Cedar Avenue and check out the Hakone shrine (which was pretty minimal).  From there, you can hop back on the boat at Motohakone-Ko to return to the ropeways or I took the bus back to Gora. Hakone has a whole host of museums to chose from (several art museums, Hakone local museum, Hakone Museum of Art, Kitahara Toys Wonderland and even the Museum of Saint-Exupéry and The Little Prince… not sure why it’s here and not in France but that’s cool).  I had seen pictures from the Hakone Open-Air Museum, it sounded like a place I’d like and I wasn’t disappointed in the slightest. The sculpture garden hosts over 100 sculptures which rotate with the seasons.  Lucky for me, the leaves were changing which enhanced the experience further.  The grounds showcase the surrounding mountains and contain all sorts of modern metallic and funky colorful statues.  There’s also five exhibition halls to explore (sort of on the small side but still containing interesting pieces) and a foot bath onsen, if you need a break from walking around the extensive grounds. My favorite parts was a tower of stained glass with an observation tower on top, where you can look out on the surrounding valley.  They also had a knitted playscape where kids can play- I love interactive art like that! Song of the Moment: Volcano– Jimmy Buffet If YOU want to go to Hakone: It’s a less than two-hour trip from Shinjuku (Tokyo station) or Odawara Station. At both of these stations, you can buy a 2 or 3-day Hakone Free Pass which will cover all local Hakone transportation (ropeway, lake cruise, cable car, buses, train) and provides discounts on some museums. The trip can easily be done as a Tokyo day trip but I found it to be a relaxing place to spend the night, especially since your money goes much farther here and it would be difficult to find accommodations that include access to onsens… I spent one night at B&B Pension where...

Fun, Cheap and Free Attractions in Kyoto, Japan

Fun, Cheap and Free Attractions in Kyoto, Japan

Traveling in Japan is notoriously expensive and there’s truth to that.  If you want a roof over your head and to travel between attractions, you’re going to need money to be here (unless you find a Japanese girlfriend with the Tinder app).  Because of space limitations and a shy culture, I’ve had minimal luck with couch surfing (except as a way to connect to fellow travelers).  I love to walk and have no problem walking an hour to a destination but despite what the brochure says “Kyoto: the walkable city”, there’s no way you can cover Kyoto by walking.  Despite these challenges, I’ve found some ways to have fun and keep things affordable in the “City of a Thousand Shrines”, including several free attractions in Kyoto.  Here’s some suggestions of budget-friendly ways to see this city (some of it applies across the country). 1) Shrines And Temple Grounds Can Be Visited For Free! In Japan, you have two main types of religious places of worship: shinto shrines (ninja) and Buddhist temples (otera).  As a general rule, shrines are free to visit.  Usually their names include “-jingu” and have a flowing water source with ladles, which should be used to purify yourself before entering.  The Japanese approach these altars by bowing twice, clapping their hands twice, bowing a third time then praying.  In Kyoto, definitely visit the Yasaka Shrine in the heart of Gion (the geisha district) and Fushimi Inari Shrine (the shrine of a thousand gates, which has a good hour-long hike to the top of the mountain) both of which are free.  There are smaller shrines throughout the city and since they don’t charge admission, it’s a great way to experience Japanese hospitality. Buddhist temples usually charge admission (300-600 yen) and their names are often end in -dera, -tera or -ji.  A large, FREE Buddhist temple right down the street from Yasaka Shrine is Chugen-ji, which provides a more realistic view of real-life Buddhist practice.  I don’t think too many tourists visit but I enjoyed walking around, seeing Buddhist graveyards and bumping into wandering monks, including the site scribe doing calligraphy in open room. Another tip for visiting temples is that you can often access most of the gardens and grounds for free.  For example, Kiyomizu-Dera temple is a UNESCO world heritage site and I didn’t actually pay to go inside (since usually you can’t see inside any of the buildings anyway) but I could explore the surrounding gates and gardens and cute stone figures dressed in colorful clothes.  Surrounding the temple, you can also find shops selling traditional treats, artisan crafts and souvenirs so you can shop too. I paid for the UNESCO Golden Pavilion temple since it was one of the reasons I came to Japan.  It’s a beautiful, glimmering serene building on a lake but your ticket basically just gives you access to walk around the lake so understand that’s what you’re paying for. 2) Day Trip to Saga-Arashiyama With a quick 20-minute trip on a train from Kyoto station (free if you have a JR pass), you can be transported to a serene, riverside mountain-side getaway with… you guessed it!  More temples!  But not only that.  Preserved historic villages,  a monkey park (~500 yen for mediocre macaque monkeys) and hiking opportunities.  In general, it’s a cute town, a nice change of pace and you can entertain yourself nearly all day, just by walking around.  3) Japanese Tea Party For penny pinchers who want to sip tea peacefully, you can find cafes around town with gardens who will give you access to their oasis, a cup of tea and a sweet for approximately 500 yen.  I bumped into several of these around Saga-Arishiyama but I’m sure you can find something similar in Kyoto too. For a tea ceremony experience, check out En in Gion area or you can consider creating or joining up with a private event at Totousha tea house (both cost ~2000 yen including snacks and tea).   Lucky for me, I had a friend-of-a-friend who lives in a beautiful “share” house in North Kyoto so I had the pleasure of attending a semi-traditional tea ceremony at the second location. Totousha runs matcha tea ceremonies in a beautiful traditional-style house with open walls, bamboo mats and decorations personalized for the occasion, which for me was a moon honoring ceremony.  There was about twenty of us in attendance, sitting in a circle behind out bamboo mats in candlelight, feeling the post-thyphoon breezes from the open door.  As a ceremony for friends, it was a little louder, more fun and less formal than a true traditional ceremony but it still lasted a few hours and followed the traditional sequence....

Southern Soul Road Trip: Dance And Eat Your Heart Out Part 2: Asheville, Raleigh and Philadelphia

Southern Soul Road Trip: Dance And Eat Your Heart Out Part 2: Asheville, Raleigh and Philadelphia

Part II of the road trip went through North Carolina which has been my stomping grounds for the past four years as a graduate student.  Asheville is the perfect mountain getaway for fresh air, good beer and wacky people.  Tourists do not usually flock to Raleigh but there’s a lot of free, fun stuff if you know where to look (and thanks to me, you’ll get some good tips!).  This was our first stop in Philadelphia for years and we only had an afternoon to spend but it’s a fun, blue-collar, down-to-earth city, covered in colorful murals and mosaics, cobblestone streets and interesting neighborhoods. Asheville, NC: • Nine Mile Restaurant: A vegetarian-friendly, Caribbean fusion restaurant and one of my favorite places to eat on the planet.  The restaurant is in more of a residential area of Asheville and has a low-key atmosphere with reggae music spreading the love. Stop by for lunch served from 11:30-5 for generous portions of gourmet pasta and rich dishes.  Two of my favorites (I’ve been to this restaurant three times) are Soon Come (fresh sliced bananas, apples, currents & grilled pineapples, sautéed with white wine, butter & pumpkin spice- tossed with cheese stuffed tri-colored tortellini and onions) and the Empress Menen Salad (apples, toasted almonds, chickpeas, smoked gouda and house tempeh with sesame garlic tahini dressing). • Bend and Brew yoga:  Beer and yoga?  You can find almost any activity paired with beer in Beer City USA, known as the “hoppiest place on earth” with the largest number of microbreweries per capita.  A traveling yoga teacher offers a 1-hour beginning yoga class followed by samples at a local brewery.  We participated in the Tuesday 5:30 PM class at Highlander Brewery.  Highlander is one of the biggest breweries in Asheville and its right next to Asheville Distilling Company where you can get a free tour and tasting, fridays and saturdays at 5 and 6 PM.  If you want to skip the yoga, definitely check out The Wedge brewery in the River Arts District.  The extensive lawn, lawn games and art galleries near by makes it one of my favorite places to hang out.  For even more suggestions on how to have fun with beer, check out #12 on the “unusual beer experiences in the USA” article I wrote for Epicure & Culture. • Pritchard Park: It’s a small park in the middle of downtown but it’s a magnet for Asheville’s famous weirdos.    You can find jugglers, free hugs and people adorned in leather assembles challenging you to chess matches.  It also hosts a friday drum circle from ~5-10 PM which is a great way to satisfy your inner tribal creature. • Moob Music Factory: Moog Music synthesizers and other electronic musical instruments are designed and lovingly handcrafted in the Moog factory in downtown Asheville, N.C and they open their factory and showroom to the public for tours and playtime.  I stopped by to play with these motion detector instruments, inspired by Soviet security alarms.  The staff is knowledgeable and fun and it’s all free. • French Broad Chocolates: I’ve had friends that come to Asheville just to stock up on chocolates and baked goods from this factory.  Their Factory & Tasting Room is now offering 1.5 hour tours on Saturdays at 11am which take you through the entire process from cacao harvest and fermentation to chocolate bar, as well as backstage access to the facility, and an in depth tasting of our chocolate for  $10.00 (reservations recommended!).  Even if you can’t go on the official tour, you can visit the factory for daily self-guided tours from 2-5:30pm or just stop by to get a sugar rush of yumminess. • Art Loeb Trail:  This 30.1 mile trail is one of the longest (but most popular) in North Carolina.  Many people backpack and spend 2-3 nights on the trail but we hiked section 3 as a day hike.  The most popular section of the trail has spectacular views of the valley, transverses several mountain balds and ends in the Shining Rock wilderness.   When we went in mid-October, the post-summer wild flowers made the hike especially memorable.  It’s an unmarked trail but we encountered plenty of people so the route was relatively obvious. • Stay in a teepee (Eagle Rock Cove, Swannoanoa):  Slightly outside of Asheville, but if you’re looking for a cheap way for alternative mountain living, check AirBnB for unique housing accommodations including this tipi.  The owner, Everest, is undergoing a permaculture operation and he’ll be happy to tell you about his mushroom growing and show you his cute little bunny rabbits (which he eats).  I’ve written articles on USA glamping opportunities, where similar accommodations will cost...

Southern Soul Road Trip: Dance And Eat Your Heart Out Part 1: New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville

Southern Soul Road Trip: Dance And Eat Your Heart Out Part 1: New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville

If you like free live music and hearty soul food, this road trip is for you! Explore the origins of jazz, blues and bluegrass where it all began. We moved quickly across the south with only a night in each city so here are budget-friendly attractions suggested by locals. We tried to keep admission prices under $5 and meals under $10 so you can have fun without breaking the bank. I’ve included a few things that we didn’t get to see but were highly recommended to us. Much of what we decided to do depended on the day of the week so I highly suggest you check out event calendars for each city you visit. New Orleans: I wrote a whole post about this city back when I was feeling ambitious.  Find the detailed itinerary here! Indianapolis, MS: You’ll feel like you’re the Deep South with this stop because there’s not much going on in this town beyond cotton fields. We stopped here to break up our drive with an amazing museum visit. • B.B. King Museum and Mississippi Delta Interpretive Center (400 Second St, Indianola, MS, ): Fantastic, interactive exhibits that provide an overview of Mississippi Delta region, B.B. King’s life and the beginning of Blues. We debated this museum or the Blues Museum in Clarksdale, MS. There’s probably more to see in Clarksdale (especially if you can go to Ground Blues restaurant and live music venue, opened by) but after comparing our options and experiencing this, I’d highly recommend you chose the same!  Tickets for students are a steal for just $5. • Blue Biscuit Café (501-503 Second Street): good southern soul food and authentic, live blues right across the street from the B.B. King museum. Apparently, you can even spend the night in one of their two villas! Memphis, TN: Although there’s not much shaking on Sundays (when we arrived), Memphis had a surprising number of things going on and could have easily spent a second day. • Explore an Egyptian obsession: Apparently, the people of Memphis love to compare themselves to Egypt, the country who houses Memphis’ namesake city. Both Memphis and Egypt strongly depend on their rivers (The Mississippi and the Nile respectively) and the city is dotted with tributes to this ancient nation. The University of Memphis has an impressive Egyptology Gallery (142 Communication & Fine Arts Bldg.
The University of Memphis) and a giant Ramses II statue on a lawn. The city’s skyline includes a giant pyramid that will house the world’s second largest Bass Pro Shop. It wasn’t opened when we visited but they expect to open December 2014 and the building will include climbing walls, laser galleries, bowling alley archery range and fitness facility. • Riverfront: The city has built paths along the Mississippi with beautiful views of the skyline and the river. Check out the Steamboats at Beale Street landing. • Mud Island: Right near the riverside visitor center, there’s a monorail station that will take you to Mud Island (by monorail $4 or by walking). At Mud Island, you can walk along and get your feet wet in the giant sidewalk scaled model of the Lower Mississippi. It’s a good place to go to spend time outside and learn more about America’s biggest river at their Mississippi River Museum. • Civil Rights Museum (450 Mulberry St): We didn’t have time to visit but everyone raved about this museum and we checked out the interesting exterior. Partially housed in the Lorraine Motel where MLK was assassinated, you can stand where the assassin shot him and see the room he was staying the day he died. • Central BBQ (147 E. Butler): “Go where the locals go” for Memphis-style barbeque. Here you can taste the slow-cooked pork served wet with the sweet, tangy, molasses/tomato/vinegar-based sauce that the city is known for. • Cheesecake Corner (113 GE Patterson Ave): This unassuming cheesecake, quiche and wine bar doesn’t look like much from the outside but all the locals know it as the best place to get dessert in town so you will probably have to wait in line. $10 buys you a mighty slice of delicious cheesecake and you can chose from dozens of flavors. • Duck Parade at Peabody Hotel (149 Union Ave): What began as a joke after a hunting trip has become a true tradition at the fancy Peabody Hotel. Each day at 11 AM, a red carpet is unrolled for the hotel’s ducks to march from their penthouse on the top floor to the fountain in the lobby. At 5 PM, the ceremony is reversed as they march back to their home for the night....

Desert Sleepovers and Sunrise Chakra Alignment in Giza, Egypt

Desert Sleepovers and Sunrise Chakra Alignment in Giza, Egypt

When I was young, I liked to read the book, “Are you my mother?” by PD Eastman. The story is about a baby bird who hatches when his mother flies off to look for food. He peers around, then walks on wobbly legs to search for her, asking a kitten, hen, dog, cow and giant machine, “are you my mother?”. Eventually the bird gets scooped up by a noisy, big and scary digging machine and once the poor bird thinks that things can’t get worse, he gets dropped back in the nest where his mother is waiting to hear about his adventure. On this trip, I’ve felt like the wobbly little bird, but instead asking, “is this real life?” as I look for the place that I belong. Is real life skyping in for research meetings from Bocas del Toro beach in Panama, the microphone picking up the breeze blowing through palm trees? Is real life teaching Indian brainiacs how to make kick-ass PVC catapults? Is real life cutting up cucumbers and tomatoes with Orhan’s mother and sisters for the perpetually present salads that keep the eight people in his family fed, three times a day? Is real life writing about crazy places that most people are too scared to go, and inspiring people to take a chance and travel? Experiencing Giza, Egypt with my spiritual Bedouin host was one of my most bizarre travel experiences but also surprisingly powerful. We slept in the desert next to one of the oldest ceremonial sites on the planet and woke up before sunrise to align our chakras with the help of the proper essential oils by the temple. When you’re alone in a place so ancient, absorbing the energy from such a sacred site, ordinary existence seems laughably trivial. Is this real life? Personally, I aspire to do more than meditate my life away but checking in with yourself is important: living out of alignment and off-balance isn’t the way we’re supposed to exist. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Cast: A Random Assortment of International Misfits So how did I get here? I accepted a couch surfing invitation from Rami, a 35-year old Bedouin man who lived near the pyramids whose family has guided people around the desert for decades. It sounded to me the ultimate authentic experience of Egypt and I couldn’t wait to meet him at the train station. I guess I envisioned my arrival in Giza to be instantly exotic: a lanky camel waiting in the sand to escort me to a cloth tent under a palm tree in a desert oasis. That is NOT what happened. I disembarked the train and waded through the trash on a concrete sidewalk to meet Rami, who led me down a dirty street, parted some curtains and invited me for coffee at a fly-covered street-side “coffee shop” where old men looked at me suspiciously as they puffed on hookah. Although the place looked sketchy, the shot of Turkish coffee startled me with its deliciousness: the thick espresso had a surprising complexity and almost tasted spice-filled. I instantly warmed up to the man who caffeinated me after a 10-hour overnight train ride and listened to Rami explain his connection to the area. His grandfather and father had been giving tours of the pyramids from the early 1900s (and he had pictures to prove it). In addition to having extensive knowledge of the desert, Rami briefly mentioned that his father and grandfather had a heightened sense of people’s souls, a trait that Rami had also inherited. He paused to look deeply in my eyes, “you have a very strong spirit. It’s a bit strangled at the moment but we’ll work on that”. “Hummph,” I replied and I asked him about his other family members, which saturated the city. He had uncles with rooftops where we could watch the Light and Sound show at the Great Pyramids, cousins in hookah bars, and was currently planning a wedding for his brother, which he promptly invited me to. I felt special until I learned I was one of 1600 invited guests. We finished up our coffees and Rami brought me home where he introduced me to two other current surfers. One was Daymo (“Like the song! Daymo… I say Daymo…”), a male nurse from Australia who was perpetually singing, quacking and unsuccessfully attempting to make armpit farts. He hadn’t planned to be in Egypt but his ex-girlfriend expelled him out of Mexico then after a miserable week with her in Canada, Egypt was a cheap place to escape. The other was Mino, a young Japanese guy in swishy wind...

Local Life in Tbilisi: Georgian Culture, Food and Drink

Local Life in Tbilisi: Georgian Culture, Food and Drink

The birthplace of wine, a country filled with hospitable locals, mountain vistas and a mix of Ottoman, Soviet, Basque, Western and Eastern cultures… how could I possibly say no? After a week of enjoying delicious food, Orhan’s incredibly welcoming and loving family and many cooking lessons (I still may release a recipe or two), my feet started itching and decided that I could no longer resist Georgia’s siren call.  Altering my plan to stay in Turkey for the whole month, I booked a flight and in less than 24 hours, I was off! Flying to a place with no real plan except to figure it out when I got there (recently, I’ve discovered that can be the best possible plan). “Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process, a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. Tour masters, schedules, reservations, brass-bound and inevitable, dash themselves to wreckage on the personality of the trip. Only when this is recognized can the blown-in-the glass bum relax and go along with it. Only then do the frustrations fall away. In this a journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.” ― John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America My arrival in Georgia was pretty seamless- after months of travel in relatively undeveloped, low-income countries, I’ve learned to appreciate the little things. Landing at an airport where the immigration man smiled as he stamped my passport and said, “welcome”, where the wireless connection worked and the ATM was obvious (the Greeks like to hide them away) made me love the country already. After a crazy cab ride with a chain-smoking, pot-bellied man who tried to avoid all of my questions about cost with “no problem, no problem”, I arrived at a relatively random location in average-man-land-Tbilisi to meet Gela, my first couch surfing host in Georgia. Gela was a genuine, gracious, gentleman, born and raised in Georgia and the perfect person to introduce me to hospitable and traditional Georgian culture. After dropping off my bags, we headed to the foot of his apartment complex to wade through a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. I was familiar with most of them but he picked up a few items that I’ve never seen and still can’t identify even with a failed google image hunt this morning. I tried some nuts on a vine that you crack with your teeth and eat fresh and a sour, green, pitted, cherry-like fruit that tastes even stranger when they make it into a sauce to dip French-fries into, etc. (it’s an acquired taste, apparently!). After our appetizer of strange fruits, we tossed together a salad of ultra-fresh veggies and Gela whipped up a weird (but delicious!) dressing of mayonnaise, khmeli suneli (Georgian spice mix which often includes coriander, dill, basil, bay leaf, marjoram, blue fenugreek, parsley, safflower or saffron, black pepper, celery, thyme, hyssop, mint, and hot pepper) and fresh basil. With some food in our bellies, we decided to take advantage of the sunshine and grab our towels for an afternoon at Lisi Lake. Fresh Air at Lisi Lake Upon arrival, it was obvious that we weren’t the only ones who decided to frolic in the sunshine… the beach was abuzz with people sunbathing, swimming and socializing on it’s shores (after spending many cloudy days here, retrospectively, I realize how good the weather was for swimming!). We met up with two of Gela’s friends and hung out until sunset. From there, we headed to a traditional Georgian restaurant in the Old City. We headed down to the brick basement, with walls lined with pictures of people dancing in grapes in top-heavy hats and a live chef pushing paddles of dough into an oven in the corner. We grabbed a table, ordered some beers and the boys started toasting. Drinking Culture in Georgia Georgia is definitely a country with a drinking culture after spending time with Gela, I realized there were layers of subtleties that would probably take me a lifetime to master. From what I’ve gathered, typically, at a table, you have one person who leads the toasts for the evening (tamada).  In addition to being expected to create eloquent toasts, the tamada watches over the flow of conversation and sets the speed of drinking for...