Goodbye, Land of the Rising Sun: 10 favorite things about traveling in Japan

Goodbye, Land of the Rising Sun: 10 favorite things about traveling in Japan

As my two week journey in Japan wraps up, I admit I’ve grown quite fond of the Land of the Rising Sun.  It’s not a place that really matches my travel style– I like traveling in less-developed countries where different cultures meet and whose locals are more friendly and open– and some things drive me crazy (the lack of trash cans, the crowds of tourists, the way people look like zombies on the train, not very walkable cities…).  Despite those annoyances, there’s something positively huggage about this country, where everything is safe and everyone bows to each other.  Since physically hugging Japanese people would probably frighten them, instead I compiled a list of my favorite ten things about traveling in Japan, as my little love song this shy and humble country. 1) Excessive Amounts of Cuteness Japan is the land of bowties, ruffles, pastel colors and grown-ups who carried around stuffed creatures. Tokyo City, University of Tokyo and Tokyo’s top attractions have their own cartoon characters that smile and invite you to take selfies with them and want to be bought as charms for your cell phone. There are smiling, meticulously dressed shop girls in pigtails cooing “konnichawaaaaa…” as a siren song to invite you into their stores or restaurant. People in advertisements sparkle with a magical glow as they skip around in the sunshine, reaching almost disturbing levels of adorableness. 2) Signs That Make You Smile The average Japanese people you meet on the street can be a little standoff-ish, shy and hard to get to know but happy-go-lucky signs around the city reveal their unspoken good intentions. After briefly chatting with my barista at Starbucks, I received my coffee with a handwritten, “Have a good day in Japan!”, complete with a crooked smilie face. A bright yellow sign outside a Laundromat on my walk to the University proclaims unquestioningly “Today is a Good Day!”. A sign amidst a small patch of flowers on a random busy street in Roppongi urges passerbys “Let a flower bloom in your heart”. Simple messages like these remind me to appreciate the small things. 3) Appreciation of Art & Music From flower arrangements to calligraphy to free handmade origami creations outside the currency exchange at the airport, the Japanese appreciate quiet, simple and profound expressions of beauty. I often found elderly people making their own art with watercolors at the lake in Hakone, a dingy under-the-bridge bar street in Tokyo and even at on a university campus. In addition to an appreciation of art, they value classical music (which I appreciate much more than the awful J-Pop whose popularity I don’t really understand). During my time in Tokyo, I stumbled upon many free concerts that caused busy business to hang up their cell phones, put away their tablets and appreciate the music. Volvo sponsored a lunchtime concert every afternoon at the Shiodome, a shopping mall sponsored Japanese kids singing Broadway tunes and even the Robot Restaurant (a gaudy, touristy, un-classy place where Japanese girls battle automatons in their bikinis) put on a piano and flute concert while people waited for the real show to begin. 4) It’s Always Naptime! As someone who missed their entire felucca cruise in Cairo because I fell asleep immediately upon entering, the Japanese have an impressive ability to sleep anywhere and everywhere. Sitting, standing, in trains and buses, at bus stops… someone always has their eyes closed. Since Japan is so safe, you can sleep soundly knowing your wallet won’t get stolen or your cell phone swiped and auditory announcements regularly announce your location in Japanese and English to decrease the chances of you missing your stop. 5) Japanese Kids in School Uniforms Japanese kids are absolutely precious, especially when dressed in school uniforms. Every school and age group seems to have a different outfit with extensive accessories. Almost all kids have hats- I’ve seen sunny yellow caps with brims like duck-bills, suede bowling hats, floppy fisherman’s hats and peppy athletic baseball caps, all snugly secured with a chin strap. I’ve seen grey fleece Harry Potter capes, Scottish kilts, lots of knee socks and marching band pants. It’s so much fun to watch teachers try to control an energetic swarm of similarly-dressed school children with mischievous grins on their faces and ants in their pants. 6) Japanese Fashion, in General You’ll have to check out my people-watching post, which pays tribute to all the latest Tokyo trends, for details but walking the streets of Japan never gets old. Males and females rock platform shoes and it brings me back to the 90s when the Spice Girls reigned supreme. Japanese grannies sport rainbow colored workout wear with...

Tokyo, Japan: Top Spots For People-Watching And Surrounding Attractions

Tokyo, Japan: Top Spots For People-Watching And Surrounding Attractions

Before coming to Tokyo, I was a little disappointed with the lack of strangeness I found in Japan. Where were the Japanese grandmas with purple hair? People who pay extra to drink coffee in cafes surrounded by cats they can’t touch? Man carrying around life-size pillow woman? As much as I don’t like big cities and dreaded coming to Japan’s crowded capital, the quality of people-watching more than compensated for feeling trapped by skyscrapers and watching my life waste away on trains.  This is the quirky, crazy capital that I dreamed about encountering, where the best attraction is the people walking past.  If you want to plan your visit around the most “fashionable” and ridiculous parts of town , pay close attention where to grab a seat and enjoy the show. 1) Cosplay Teeny-boppers on Takeshita Dori Street- Harajuku  Take the train to Harajuku on any weekend (supposedly Sundays are especially good) to see pre-teen fashion at its most extreme.  Geered for a younger crowd, the street is packed with cheap 100-yen shops, all-you-can-eat-buffets, crepe stands and used clothes stores (its a great place to buy a used kimono!) and the central zone for Cosplay (costume play).  Here, Japanese girls rebel against spend their weekdays in long skirts and pious pig-tails with wild wigs, short skirts and dramatic make-up.  I saw giant tiger backpacks, boys in green alien spandex, another guy dressed up like Rainbowbrite, many girls dressed as poofy princesses toting matching purses and stuffed animals.  Even the surrounding streets take part in the insanity… eight kids dressed up as Mariokart characters waited at a red light, surrounded by taxis and normal cars. While in the area:  On the other side of the railroad tracks, visit Meiji Jingu, one of Tokyo’s most famous Shinto shrines.  On the weekends, you’ll likely find traditional Japanese wedding processions passing through, with the priest in platform shoes and the bride in a massive white headdress.  The tourists tend to stay near the main shrine but if you want a peaceful place to relax, pack a picnic to enjoy at the spacious Yoyogi Park.  If you need a one-stop shopping experience for souvenirs, try Oriental Bazaar’s two-story shop which contains everything from kimonos, to samurai swords, to traditional ceramics. 2) Straight-Off The Runway Supermodels at SHIBUYA109 And when I say “straight off the runway”, I mean straight out of those fashion shows where models are dressed in duct tape and feather outfits that would never fly in real life… except in Tokyo.  Shibuya109 is an 8-floor department store for women fully stocked with small boutiques from Japan’s top designers with names like “bubbles mart”, “doll kiss”,”merry me”, “peak & pine” and “titty & co”.  Each boutique has a small corner store of themed clothing sexy schoolgirl, gothic wedding, army brat, etc.  So the shops themselves are highly entertaining and surprisingly un-repeatitive, despite a mind-boggling number of stores.  Even more amusing than the shops themselves, are the  shoppers who are living embodiments of these obscure fashion trends.  The crowd near Shibuya tends to be older and have more money to afford female catsuits with over-the-knee leather boots, boyfriends with matching designer purses, fake eyelashes (beneath the eye) and more.  If I come back to Japan, forget cherry blossom season- I want to come to Halloween in Shibuya- check out a video here. While in the area:  When I heard that people crossing the street is one of Tokyo’s top tourist attractions, I shook my head in horror at tourists reaching a new level of pathetic-ness.  Then I happened to be there to witness it myself and I was mesmerized.  3000 people per minute cross this five way intersection in an event more magical than the parting of the Red Sea.  From below, it looks like the ultimate mob scene… humans swarming like ants overtaking a piece of dropped fruit.  From on high (the 2nd floor Starbucks where all the tourists go to witness the action), its surprising organized (which is  probably not surprising when you remember you’re in Japan where everything is organized).  This is just one of those things you need to see for yourself to believe. 3) Flannel and Hiking Tights at Mt. Takao When a Japanese friend invited me hiking at a mountain an hour from Tokyo by train, I envisioned dirt paths, fresh air, pit toilets and an invigorating void of people.  When I arrived at Mt. Takao, I quickly realized that couldn’t be farther from the truth.  Japanese people love to get outside and as one of the closest hiking opportunities, Mt. Takao is the most highly trafficked mountain in the world.  A chairlift or cable car short-cuts...

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....

Keeping It Classy in Crescent City: 36 Hours in New Orleans, Louisiana

Keeping It Classy in Crescent City: 36 Hours in New Orleans, Louisiana

“Welcome to the wild, wild west. There are no rules,” Lauren shrugs dismissively. It’s an interesting city for sure. Bourbon Street seems to invite you to leave your morals behind, encouraging recklessness with sweet, watermelon flavored hand grenades drinks to loosen your sense of restraint. You wander down the street, nudged by nerdy guys in suits who raise their eyebrows, look you into the eyes, “Titties! A room fulllll of tit-tit-titties!”. If you respond better to commands than personal invitations, a big guy from a competing bar across the street blows into screeching police whistle with bulging eyes and a red face, “Naked ladies! Right here! Right NOW!”. His urgent shouting made it sound like your life depended on taking advantage of this opportunity, as if after tonight, bare breasts would be extinct forever. If titties aren’t your thing, a young black guy silently shoots you a sweet, dreamy smile from a few doors down. You can see sophistication in his face and an intelligent gleam in his eye and you wonder what he’s doing here… until he does a suggestive shimmy and points your eyes down to his bare chest, a cartoon elephant trunk over his junk. He feigns disappointment as you nod “no” but it doesn’t last long as he’s mobbed by a crowd of fifty-year old cougars in red boas and shirts that say, “Aged to perfection”. Another crowd of people dressed in black clustered near a cardboard cross in the middle of street, passing out Bibles and trying to pray over the infidels who evaded their outstretched arms. They duck as people on the balconies try to get them in a celebratory mood by flinging Mardi Gras beads at their heads. We passed a dirt-encrusted, guy in his upper 20’s who wobbled by us, promising to friend us on facebook if we obeyed his cardboard sign command, “Keep me drunk and high”. Behind him, a break in the line of bars reveals a cathedral, adorned with a crucifix-like shadow projected from a spotlight illuminating a watchful Jesus statue. Just like the street cleaners that power wash away the previous night’s debaucheries, most of these people will probably cleanse their souls by walking across soapy streets to piously pray for forgiveness at church the next day. “If I could put my finger on it, I’d bottle it and sell it. I came down here originally in 1972 with some drunken fraternity guys and had never seen anything like it — the climate, the smells. It’s the cradle of music; it just flipped me. Someone suggested that there’s an incomplete part of our chromosomes that gets repaired or found when we hit New Orleans. Some of us just belong here.” – John Goodman It’s easy to drink away your time in New Orleans but make sure to explore the city’s distinct cultural heritage sober too. Here are some suggestions for a more classy, semi-touristy 36-hour itinerary in Saint City. We started our day as most tourists do, with café au lait and beignets at the famous Café Du Monde (800 Decatur St). Is it worth all the hype? Fried dough covered with a mountain of sneeze-inducing powered-sugar is bound to be good, no matter who makes it. A local recommended New Orleans Coffee and Beignet in midtown as a less touristy and tastier alternative, if you’re ok with skipping the famous one (4141 St. Charles Ave, ~$5 for a coffee and 3 beignets). After we were all sugared up, we wandered by the riverfront to watch huge platforms of boats moosy on down the Mississippi. From there, we headed to the National Park Service Jazz Historic Park (916 N. Peters Street) who has a bunch of interesting free programming happening. We just missed the free jazz yoga at 10 AM but we were able to catch the free walking tour of history of jazz at Armstrong Park (710 Rampart St). We learned about the “gumbo” of cultural groups that made up New Orleans: the indigenous native Americans, the French who came down from Canada, the European prostitutes, ex-convicts and misfits that were sent over to populate the swampy, buggy land, Germans hired to build things and Africans brought over to execute everything. We learned the roots of jazz began with gospel, drum circles at Congo Park, brass bands which led to the traditional of jazz funerals. Jazz funerals involved a slow, drudge-like march to the graveyard then a brass band beat after the burial that exponentially attracts the neighbors that culminates in a life-celebrating dance party. Louis Armstrong, born in New Orleans, gave birth to jazz when he began stealing the spotlight with extended trumpet...

Nubian Culture & Hospitality in Aswan, Egypt

Nubian Culture & Hospitality in Aswan, Egypt

Why did I chose Egypt? Well, that’s obvious. How could anyone resist the mysterious allure of glittering pharaohs, camel caravans in the desert anti-gravitational curling beards and mummy doctors who pull brains out of your noses. Why Aswan? Bloggers promised Aswan would be relaxing, felucca-filled (feluccas are Egyptian sailboats) city on the Nile and claimed it housed the majority of the Nubian population. Egypt would be my first trip to Africa and I thought these beautiful, dark people in flowing robes could give me more of an African experience than I would find in Cairo or Alexandria. When a Nubian couch surfer invited me to stay in his village on Elephantine Island, I couldn’t be more excited. Arrival in Aswan I arrived in Aswan slightly before midnight and the first person I met as I exited the airport was my Nubian taxi driver, Mohammad (who told me that every man in this country will be named Mohammad, Ahmed or Sherif). He hoisted my bags with a surprising amount of agility for a guy in a man-dress then warmly welcomed me to his beloved home of Aswan. After our preliminary introductions, he took it upon himself to teach me some Arabic and Nubian.  I promptly forgot both but Nubian is exclusively a spoken language and apparently not well-documented online so those words are lost forever.  The Internet helped me recovered some Arabic.  Firstly, I learned: “Welcome” (ahlan wa sahlan, which everyone says ALL THE TIME) and, secondly, “I love you” (ana b’hebbek). I didn’t know it at the time but this interaction uncovered the first grand truth of traveling in Egypt: if proclamation of love or marriage doesn’t come up within five minutes (usually less) of talking to a man, he’s not from around here. I’ve been called Madame and Shakira, had dozens of kisses blown my way and received over two dozen marriage proposals within 48 hours. Anyway, back to the taxi drive: Mohammad took me on an animated tour of Aswan, pointing out the new football stadium, an old-looking cemetery and a line of papyrus and perfume shops. Since I visited during Ramadan, the city really came alive at night. Blinking Christmas lights illuminated the mosques, shiny streamers decorated homes and everyone was outside: eating snacks, kicking around balls in the middle of street and smoking hookah in make-shift cafes. He dropped me at a dark ferry station where the teen fee-collector gorged himself on a plastic-bag full of pita bread. Sure enough, it was the wrong ferry station but Gasser, my host, sorted out the mix-up with a phone call to the attendant (once the boy stopped chewing) and came to my rescue. Brief History of the Nubian People Gasser is a 100% Nubian and proud of it. He had worked as a masseuse on cruise ships in Aswan but after the Egyptian Revolution, as with many working in tourism, he lost his job but now works in Sudan for a few months at a time. When the ferry dropped us off and we shuffled through dark, sandy streets to the house, Gasser shared the story of his people. Nubians used to rule the Pharaohs of Egypt in their kingdom between Egypt and Sudan but when the Pharaohs grew in strength they kicked Nubians out of Egypt. Although they lost their kingdom, Nubians slowly began to re-integrate themselves into Egyptian society but in 1960, when the Egyptian president decided to build the Aswan high dam, they lost their lands. Half returned to Northern Sudan and the remainder stayed in Southern Egypt. Gasser, like many of the Nubians who grew up on the banks of the Nile, was educated in Egyptian schools, learned Arabic and now Nubians peacefully co-exist with the Egyptian people. Gasser’s family lives on Elephantine Island, a small simple place without any cars. Gasser’s sister owns an incredible two-bedroom villa on the side of the Nile, which Gasser uses to host lucky couch surfers when no tourists occupy it. Nubians (and Egyptians in general) love Bob Marley (and Jamaicans claim to have Nubian roots) so he left me in paradise, with “Buffalo Soldier” playing softly. Essential Aswan: An Afternoon of Sightseeing Waking up to river breezes and the sounds of goats bleating, the next morning was incredible. I made myself instant coffee and watched Nubian boys fish from the shore with sticks and string and a felucca boat slowly sail by. Even though it was hard to tear myself away from this peaceful place, I packed my stuff, wandered through the Nubian village then took the ferry to the big city, which was basically deserted during Ramadan. I found a dusty...

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...