Fare is Fare – Taiheiyo Ferry – Reviewed

Recently we embarked on a journey to Sapporo for their Snow Festival. We live in Sendai and there are only two airlines that have regular service to New Chitose Airport in Hokkaido. Nearly all flight plans will take you through Osaka or Tokyo a.k.a. “the wrong direction” before they put you on the frozen tarmac of Hokkaido’s main airport. Flights are around $230 one way from Sendai! Then there is shinkansen or hi-speed train. If you live in Aomori City that is probably pretty reasonable. If you live in or around Sendai its about $180US one way and takes forever with multiple transfers. There is highway bus, but to go such a distance would likely take two full days of uncomfortably warm bus rides and two full nights of sleeping really poorly if you can even find a bus that does that particular route.taiheyo ferry

Then I stumbled across Taiheiyo Ferry. Taiheiyo Ferry services the ports of Nagoya, Sendai and Tomakomai. For prices as low as $40US one way you can get a ride from Sendai to Hokkaido in about 14 hours. The trip is done over night rather than during the day. This sounded like a pretty sweet deal so I decided to jump ship on land travel and head for the open sea.

The Digs and the Ride

The ferry is awesome. I’ve been on a few ferries and this one was very steady. There were times where I felt the pitch and yaw of the boat but not like the catamarans in Greece. The common areas are definitely nice. The decor is a little bland but its basically a floating hotel, unlike an overnight bus, which is basically a rolling prison sauna. There is a game center, 24 hour vending machines (with beer in them), karaoke room, several bars (with terrible hours but I mean, thats what the vending machines are for), ventilated indoor smoking rooms for those with a tobacco habit, a restaurant, a movie theater, live entertainment. Its basically a cruise ship lite. Incredibly clean restrooms, public bath (onsen style) although it’s more like a wave pool because of the constant swaying of the boat, as if it were on an ocean or something. The slippery floors in the onsen can be quite hazardous with the unsure footing of a sea faring vessel. There are a few comfy couches in the lounge area and some really not so comfy ones. Lots of plugs to charge electronics as well.taiheyo ferry

Sleeping arrangements were mediocre although we bought the two cheapest rooms available. I can imagine the suites and first class cabins are quite nice and on par with the common areas. On the way to Tomakomai we had individual berths which work like a capsule hotel and start at 5,000円 each, one way. Two levels of capsule style berths are available, one has a TV in it, the other doesn’t. We found that the berths with the curtains drawn got very stuffy and quite hot through the night. There is not a lot of room to store your stuff so I ended up cuddling with my snowboard. I was gentle.

The common room or “Japanese style” is the least expensive at 4,000円 per person one way. These are large tatami rooms with roughly twenty sleeping pads arranged around the room to fit as many people as possible. If the ferry is sold out (which I think is unlikely) you will get to know the people to your left and right very well. There are only about 5 or 6 inches of space separating the sleeping pads. Also the pillows in the common rooms are basically bricks. I’m not exaggerating. They are shaped like bricks, and while made of fabric, have zero give to them. Perfect if you are Japanese, horrible if you are used to actually being comfortable while you sleep. There are ladies only common rooms that require a key card if you are a lady and traveling by yourself.

(The cafe shakes… a lot)

I was a little disappointed with the lack of an outdoor deck because I am insane and I wanted to feel how crazy cold that siberian ocean air was.

My biggest complaint is very silly though. I understand that it is silly, but I’m still going to complain about it anyway. There was not even a pay as you go wi-fi available on the boat. Its like being transported back to the early nineties (the color scheme on the boat helped with the illusion of a time warp) when you didn’t have constant access to the interwebtubes. If we can get wifi on a plane, we can get it on a boat. Get with the 21st century. We brought our WiMAX+ device but at times out on the ocean we didn’t have any signal. Don’t count on any streaming services and download everything you want to watch/listen to on the boat before you get on the water. Service is shoddy after the boat leaves the harbor.

Pretty nice overall, the spartan sleeping conditions not with standing. B+

But how convenient was it?

taiheyo ferry

japanese page

Booking online is by no means particularly easy. There is a lot of rigamarole involved with an online ticket. First you have to sign up for an account and be able to use katakana on your keyboard. I also had numerous problems with their web page rejecting common characters as invalid inputs even though they were in Japanese. Adding Japanese characters to your computer input is easy. Just Google what you need for your operating system.

The process works like this: Fill out an online application form with your personal info to open an account. Once you get the email confirmation you can log in (you need a phone number for this, likely a Japanese one). Once you have confirmed your account you start by finding the route you want to take, then you’ll get a calendar and you choose your dates. They do not allow you to book very far in advance but if you wait too long the special deals will not be available. About 8 weeks before the departure date is ideal. The online advance booking price is half of the normal list price. You must book online and you must pay in advance.  Our berths would have been 10,000円 and 8,000円 each respectively if I hadn’t booked online during this special window. To book a return trip is really easy because you can go into your confirmed trips and click a button that says book reverse direction.

English reservation page

English reservation page

For online booking, it’s one of the more headache inducing set ups I’ve worked with, but you can book online so there is that, brush up on your Japanese for a successful booking. B-

The Value

I waited a bit too long on the return trip and they had “sold out” of their capsule berths at the 5,000円 price, so I booked the common rooms instead of which there were only two spots left. One in the all women room and one in the standard. Once we got on the boat I decided I would inquire about the upgrade price to regular berths. If you do change your mind about your quarters the upgrade price to change rooms on the boat is equal to the remaining half of your advance booking price plus the difference in price between the two berths or rooms.

My berth was 4,000円 (regular price is 8,000円) which I paid in advance. To change to the capsule berth, one grade above the common room was an extra 6,000円, more than I paid for the room in the first place. The regular price for the capsule berth is 10,000円 so they figure if you really want it you should pay regular price.  I didn’t pay for the upgrade but it did make me think, “Did they just preserve their pricing structure or did they lose a sale?”

rage face

rage face

I went and had a peek back in the capsule berths, an entire wing of them was completely empty. I don’t know if they have security do a bunk check or anything but after 9:00PM I didn’t see any staff from the boat wandering around. If you hate your common room you can probably find and empty capsule without paying for it. What are they going to do, kick you off the boat? Since they had unsold berths, I would have gladly paid the 1,000円 difference in my booking prices to upgrade, but not more than I paid for my original berth. So they effectively turned away a sale which they didn’t have in the first place. You could sell an extra two bunks for 1,000円 each or make no money at all and have empty sleeping quarters that wont be filled because the boat already left the dock, which makes more sense?

Enough of that, it’s just bad business to turn away money.

Speaking of extra cost, getting to and from the ferry terminals was actually much easier than I thought it would be. Once in Hokkaido there is a Chuo bus (reservations not necessary) and Donan bus (not sure about reservations) that go to Tomakomai station and Sapporo JR station. If you are planning on using JR trains to get to central Sapporo from the ferry terminal its about 2,200円 one way. If you fly to Sapporo your extra train cost is about 1400円 from the airport to downtown. The Chuo bus is 1,270円 all the way to Sapporo and you’ll have to get on that bus anyway unless you take a taxi to the train station. I would recommend taking the bus all the way; no transfers, it saves you money and it isn’t that long of a ride. In Sendai there is a city bus that goes from Nakanosakae station to the ferry terminal, but in the evening the timing may not be reliable. We took a taxi and it was 900円 to be dropped off right at the door.

The value compared to the very pricey travel methods of flight and hi-speed rail is phenomenal, especially if you book in advance. From Sendai, it’s sort of like paying for one night in a hotel, except you can’t leave the hotel, well, you could… but … never mind. What I’m saying is, if you can book in advance and don’t mind the sleeping arrangements, it is by far and away one of the best ways to get to Hokkaido. If you are on a tight schedule or prefer regular accommodations, the value starts to slip as you will eat up a lot of time getting to and from the ferry (and being on it). Lastly if you have to pay regular price, you are looking at 20,000円 round trip for a private sleeping berth. Flights start to look much more attractive at that price and if you live near a major hub, like Tokyo or Osaka, there are probably less expensive flight plans than what Sendai has to offer.

B provided you book far enough in advance to get the half price tickets. C- if you don’t.cost chart ferry

Overall I thought the ferry was actually pretty cool. We had a really good time hanging out, playing cards, drinking beer and just relaxing in general. It is a very hassle free way to travel. If you are in Sendai and want to go to Hokkaido in summer or winter, the ferry is a good way to go.

Love and Travel – Sink or swim

New to Love and Travel? Start here!! Or, don’t.  That’s your business.

During our trip to Thailand, we got a lot done! Trekking, camping, zip-lining, cooking, swimming in the Andaman Sea, kayaking in the gulf. If it was on a tour brochure somewhere, we did it. Near the end of our trip, we stayed in Koh Phi Phi, which is renowned for partying, but also offers plentiful scuba diving and snorkeling day trips.Andaman Sea

The snorkel tours leave way too early from an island that encourages so much drinking. After a long of night of drinking on the beach, with the music blasting till about 3:00AM, I was expected to wake up and be ready to get on a boat by 8:15AM. You might think that wasn’t such solid planning on my part but you weren’t there, so shut up.

I had never been snorkeling before (and didn’t have the time for scuba diving lessons) so snorkeling it was. While Thailand has an awful lot of tourism, they don’t have an awful lot of native English speakers to help with instructions. We showed up and were shuffled onto a small boat. No directions were provided for first-timers, they simply handed you a mask and some flippers. Can’t be that hard anyway, no worries.

Buckets

the cause of my hangover

Despite my immense hangover once we got out on the water I felt heaps better about my insides and was ready to take on the ocean outside. I am not Michael Phelps or anything but I can swim a lap or two and I had been snorkeling before. I was really looking forward to the day.

In the course of the afternoon, the boat stopped along several little islands and gave everyone some time to explore.

 Highlights included:

  • Monkey Island (not the PC game) – Many monkeys inhabit this island and assault tourists who step on their beach. – Koh Mak
  • “The Beach” Beach Island – You know, the one where they filmed “The Beach” – Phi Phi Leh
  • James Bond Island – More like a rock formation, it made an appearance in “The Man With the Golden Gun.” One badly proof-read sign called it “Jams Bond Island,” which is what I now call 007 to this day – Khao Phing Kan

Thailand is as lackadaisical in its awareness of safety precautions as it is in its approach to tourism and translation. By this I mean there were no safety precautions.

The Thai have a rather… laissez-faire attitude towards personal safety. If you get hurt, it was probably your fault.

Groups of these snorkeling tour boats would pull up in the same island’s beach at the same times, careless of all the face-down swimmers who could neither hear nor see their approach.

Thai water-crafts are not precision machines. Typically there is a large outboard motor that used to belong to a small car mounted on a post at the back of the boat. Jutting out from the motor, a long steering pole with an unprotected propeller at the end. Steering is accomplished by lifting the propeller arm in and out of the water to change directions.

long tail boat and spinning blades of death

long tail boat and spinning blades of death

More than once I popped my head up and was shocked to see the hull of another boat suddenly approaching me. I definitely did not want a transmission in my face…

Don’t you mean spinning blades of death? It’s definitely not a transmission. You know nothing, Shana Kehoe!

Despite these concerns, I was having a great time. The water was stupid warm, amazingly clear, and filled with beautiful fish, coral, and massive dancing anemones. Usually it was also quite shallow, so all I had to do was float face down and breathe. Andrew and I kept pretty close, so we could make sure to point out each new awesome-looking fish that swam by.

At one point I decided I was going to follow this really cool looking fish as far as I dared before turning back. I got to the point of no return and popped my head out of the water to gauge my distance and start my return swim.

Andaman seaAt one stop, the boat pulled up along side an island that was basically just a sheer rock face. The time of day and lack of beach made for choppy conditions. The waves kept breaking to the rock face, and I kept going with them.

When I looked up I saw Shana roughly 100 meters from the boat, treading water and looking very frustrated at her mask. I saw the Thai guide wave his arms, which was our cue that time was up. I motioned to Shana that we should return and began my swim.

I looked up to see Andrew nowhere nearby, and our boat even farther away. I started to swim back when my snorkeling mask broke. The band that keeps it attached to your head snapped. Not wanting it to float away, I held it in my hand and attempted to continue swimming.Andaman sea

The next time I came up to check my bearings Shana had actually moved farther from the boat and was now waving her mask in the air and shouting at me.

I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to swim with flippers on, but they aren’t really effective for anything besides face down paddling. Starting to flounder a bit with the flippers on, I decided I had better just take them off. What’s harder than treading water with flippers on? Treading water while holding a pair of flippers, and a busted snorkeling mask.

From my vantage, I gathered that her mask had broken and she was trying to get her fins off to make it easier to swim with her head out of the water. I was a little annoyed because I didn’t think that was a good idea but there wasn’t much I could do to help her from her current predicament.

I wasn’t making any headway and I was getting legitimately tired. While I hadn’t been afraid initially, the more that seemed to go wrong, the more anxiety I felt. The waves pushed me closer to the coral, which were now only a few feet below me. Soon, I couldn’t avoid stepping on it, and I was too slight of breath, mostly from exertion but also fear, to do anything else. I stood up on the mass of coral and used the flipper to wave to the boat.Andaman Sea

About 30 meters from the boat now I glanced back at Shana to see she still hadn’t really moved from her area but it was clear that she was no longer treading water, in fact she was standing on the coral!

If I could get the boat to come close enough, I could toss my stuff and free up my hands for swimming.

“Shana, you can’t stand on the coral!” I am very sensitive about the environment.

You think I don’t know that!” she yelled, “I didn’t have a choice, my mask broke.

“Fix it.” I shouted. This seemed like solid advice at the time.

I can’t fix it.

“Figure it out Shana, YOU have to get back to the boat on your own.” Shana made a go of it and got off the coral trying to swim while holding her mask and flippers.

Somehow, I made it and discovered that a couple of my toes were bleeding. They had been scraped on the corral during the ordeal.bandaged

Coral is 30% scalpel knives, that’s just science. ‘Twas only a flesh wound and Shana got the disinfectant on it right way and bandaged it up.

Andrew was helpful with taping my wounds, probably to make up for his lack of help in the water. It wasn’t until the adrenaline started to fade that there was room in my head for anger. Like a dark cloud creeping into one’s mind, I started to conjure up unwarranted resentment towards Andrew for not helping me.

I felt really bad but given my distance from her and the current, I didn’t think there was much I could do even if I had swum over there. More than likely I would have been marooned on the coral as well.

How dare he not know what was going on? How dare he leave me to nearly drown? Blah blah blah. The more questions he asked, the more annoyed I got. I was shaken up, and I took offense at his ex-post facto suggestion that I leave the gear behind. Why wasn’t he being more understanding? Why was he being so practical right now?

So… why didn’t you lose the gear?

What I should have been angry about was the fact that I wasn’t wearing a life jacket. They hadn’t been offered to us, I didn’t even know where they were. I should have been angry that the Thai guides picked a bad spot at a bad time of day, and that they had provided us with no way of indicating distress to the boat crew. My practical self realized all these things and calmed down. After all, I was fine. It wasn’t Andrew’s fault, he was just an easy target.

cool as a cucumber

cool as a cucumber

She kept swimming that day like a trooper but did ask the kindly pilot of the vessel to lend her a life jacket for the next few snorkeling spots. The life jackets were haphazardly piled underneath some other tackle in the storage area. Of course no one had been brave enough to ask for a life jacket until that point but once the guide dusted one off for Shana there were several other takers.

With a new mask and jacket, the rest of the day was great, and as I look back, that event taught me a valuable lesson. Going snorkeling for the first time is a lot like a new relationship. You may not know what you’re doing, it may be frustrating and a little scary at times. You can experience beautiful things, but you might not always feel safe. That’s why you need a life jacket. Something to hold on to for stability, something that is not your significant other. Once you have that, you can truly feel free to go exploring.

You go girl!

We have a problem with heat.

Shana and I have made a solemn pact that the next place we travel will be cold. Sweden, Finland, Andes Mountains, Sweden, Mongolia, The Alps, Russia, Hokkaido, deep space… really anywhere that doesn’t result in a full sweat just leaving the hotel room. Our three most recent trips have been beset with… slightly above average temperatures for the region. Osaka and Kyoto experienced record breaking heat while we were there. Seoul basically turned into a steaming pot with the high temperatures and excessive rain. Did I mention that we visited Santorini and experienced record breaking heat there too? Athens, Yep. Venice? Uh huh. Thailand? Well what did we expect? Yeah of course it was hot there. We been on a record breaking streak of temperature record breaking while traveling.

Anyways, we had planned to visit Jeju island, the “Hawaii of Korea” as a way to beat the heat, hang out on the beach and generally enjoy some laid back island time.

From the back of the ferry as we leave Mokpo

From the back of the ferry as we leave Mokpo

A couple short notes on logistics. If you plan on taking a ferry from Mokpo there are three different ferry terminals in Mokpo (that I saw) and the international one is where you get tickets and board the ferry. Jeju has some sort of ambiguous self governing relationship with the Korean government so its technically an international boat ride. Second, if you plan on going to Jeju in Late July or August, don’t. Seriously. Go some where else. It’s peak season in that time frame so many of the nicer hotels will be booked solid and guest houses can be hit and miss. Also, IT’S REALLY HOT!

The ferry was quite pleasant and a brief respite from the heat while being on open water. Once at the ferry terminal Bus #95 goes to the Jeju-si (Jeju City) Bus Terminal which is the only effective way of really getting anywhere on the island without paying a fortune in cab fare or renting a car.

If you hate logic and have zero sense of self preservation, a scooter may be a cheap rental on Jeju and an efficiently dangerous way to get around. One tourist we met had done just that. Our chosen form of near death experiences was put it in the hands of deranged bus driving maniacs. Lacking the stones to risk our lives to see half assed museums the bus is really the only way to go. It may be inefficient, slow, dangerous, nauseating and occasionally smelly but it beats walking. Based on the pattern of the bus routes, staying close to Jeju City Bus Terminal is the best option. Just about everything thats worth seeing on the island is about an hour by bus from something else. It’s a hub and spoke system basically run out of Jeju City and there aren’t a lot of transfers to be had because most bus lines don’t cross.

From the ferry terminal we arrived at the bus terminal and had to catch another bus to get to the south side of Jeju where Seogwipo-si is located. Total travel time, 4.5 hours on the ferry, 40 min from ferry terminal to Jeju-si bus terminal – 1.2 hours to Seogwipo by bus. When we arrived in Seogwipo we had assumed that when the bus said it went to the Seogwipo bus terminal that was where it was going. However the bus driver pulled over at a round about in Seogwipo and basically asked all the foreigners to get off the bus. I’m still not sure if it was good or bad but we had a about ten minute walk from there to where the hotels were.

Not Jeju

Not Jeju

We stopped in at a guest house that came highly recommended on TripAdvisor.com and found they were completely booked. However the woman at the front desk was super nice and called around to the other hotels to see who had any vacancy. On the fourth or fifth call she found a love hotel nearby called Hotel Queen that had a room.

After spending some time in the AC we decided we would walk down and see the waterfall that is one of the main attractions in Seogwipo as well as catch a glimpse of the setting sun. After a brief incident that involved some water, band-aids and a sterile wipe proffered to use by a British couple we made our way down the 800 meter path following signs to Jeonbang Falls. Keeping in mind that there is an entrance to the entrance, and when we finally arrived at the stairway to the falls proper we found out that it A) costs money and B) closed about 10 minutes before we got there. If the Jeju tourism board is interested in money they should look into extending hours during summer when it would be light for another 2 hours after the gate closed. Also, a sign at the front with the hours posted would be nice so that a person who is unfamiliar with the area, say… a tourist for instance, doesn’t have to walk the 800 meters to find out that its closed. No waterfall for us.

View from "Food Street"

View from “Food Street”

Thoroughly disappointed and starting to get a bit hungry we made our way down Chilsmini-ro towards the harbor, what Seogwipo calls, Seogwipo Food Street. While there is plenty of food on this street that has a view of the ocean, all of it was incredibly over priced. I even saw a fish listed at 237,000 won. Thats in the neighborhood of 230 dollars for a fish. Anyways, we ended up getting pizza that was decent enough and relatively inexpensive. We also decided that we had essentially had enough of Seogwipo and would be heading to Jeju City the next day.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A Kobe that I actually like…

Editors Note: So it seems the more I go back with my computer fixed the more pictures I have lost. Sadly many of the great pictures I had of Kobe harbor from the bay and from the mountain have vanished. A moment of silence before you continue reading please.

With the heat in Osaka being nearly unbearable we decided we would make a little side trip to the coastal port town of Kobe. Kobe is also known as one of the most beautiful cities in Japan because its proximity between lush green mountains and the ocean. The city is a narrow strip nestled between the two. From Osaka station it takes around 30 minutes to get to Kobe and there is a train about every 10 to 15 minutes depending on the time of day you leave.

Kobe Downtown

Kobe Downtown

Somehow I had it in my head that being closer to the ocean the air would be cooler. This is not true.

From the train station to the Kobe harbor promenade is about a ten minute walk and we wanted to get down towards the water. I had images of Navy Pier in Chicago and Pier 39 in San Francisco. Sadly the Kobe harbor only resembles either of those in limited ways.

Kobe Harborland Panorama

Kobe Harborland Panorama

For instance you can go shopping just like on Pier 39 but instead of a quaint wooden dock with a view and an overwhelming mass of tourists you shop in an 8 story sterile air conditioned mall. There are actually 3 malls right there in the Kobe harbor. From a Navy Pier perspective there is a children’s museum and a ferris wheel right there on the end of the dock. The Kobe harbor is home to the Anpaman Museum and ferris wheel.

Trying not to look sweaty

Trying not to look sweaty

A brief aside on Anpaman, who is wildly popular with children in Japan, it has run continuously since 1988 on Japanese television. Anpanman is a super hero whose head is actually made from a red bean pastry. Here is a synopsis from Wikipedia.

“The rhythm of the rhyming name might be loosely idiomatically translated in English as “Bean Bun Boy”. He doesn’t need to eat or drink to sustain himself and has never been seen eating, as it is believed the bean jam in his head allows him to sustain himself in this manner. His weaknesses are water and anything else that makes his head dirty (In order to prevent his head getting wet when underwater or in wet weather, he is usually seen with his head concealed inside a protective bubble in such situations). He regains his health and strength when Jam Ojisan bakes him a new head and it is placed on his shoulders. Anpanman’s damaged head, with Xs in his eyes, flies off his shoulders once a new baked head is made for him by Uncle Jam. Anpanman came to life when shooting star landed in Uncle Jam’s oven while he was baking. He has two special attacks: An-punch and An-kick (with stronger variations of both). When Anpanman comes across a starving creature or person, he lets the unfortunate creature or person eat part of his head. He also has super hearing in that he can respond to anyone that calls his name out in distress from anywhere in the world.”

Fascinating. There is a massive museum dedicated to this cartoon in Kobe and we saw many Japanese parents being dragged urgently by children in to the museum atrium. I wondered aloud on whether I would resent my child if they asked me to take them to a place like this…

On an unrelated note there is a statue of Elvis on the Kobe harbor walk with little or no explanation (in English).

Since the harbor walk is mostly lifeless, boring and hot we decided to head to the boat terminal to see about taking a short harbor cruise to see some of the cool things around the Kobe bay. The next boat left in about 45 min so we bought dual tickets that included the admission to the Kobe Port Tower.

Kobe Tower

Kobe Tower

The Kobe Tower is a cooling looking red light house like structure in the harbor that offers a decent view of the surrounding environs. However most of the Kobe harbor is quite industrial looking with man made islands and dry docks. Looking west gives a great view of the city proper and steep mountains that hug the city to the water. There is also rotating cafe near the top similar to the Seattle Space Needle, in that it rotates.

After snapping a few pictures we headed back down to the dock in hopes that some time on the water would give us the break from the heat we had been searching for. We got on the poorly named “Fantasy” cruise. At twenty dollars a ticket, a true bargain for a real fantasy. However the boat mostly does an irregular shaped loop out to look at the airport and then back. It totally skips the most interesting thing about Kobe, the world’s longest suspension bridge. Drinks on the “Fantasy” were quiet inexpensive compared to other boats and ferries I’ve been on.

With the boat ride only being a brief respite from the heat we disembarked and headed into downtown Kobe proper. First stop is the largest china-town in Japan, Nankin-machi. While not typically different than any other concentration of Chinese things it is a great place for street food in Kobe. There is a cool little square in the center of neighborhood with zodiac statues and places to sit while you finish your egg roll or fried wonton.

Chinatown Square

Chinatown Square

Nankin-machi is very close to the local rail station so we hopped on and headed to the Nada District of Kobe. Nada is famous for housing many sake breweries all clumped together. According to this Japan-guide article and the Lonely Planet it is a great place to try some sake. I will save the major details of the sake tasting for my Gai-jinzake series but for now let me explain something about walking the Nada district. From the Japan-Guide:

“The district makes for a good half-day exploration trip on foot with its nice mix of some older buildings and modern breweries.”

This is only partially true. Yes it can be an okay walk for a half day of sake tasting (excepting when it is brutally hot outside like it was for Shana and I). Any quaintness or charm is completely missing from Nada as a majority of the neighborhood parallels a major urban freeway, is dashed with concrete block apartments and is mostly land for large industrial lots. It has as much charm as a cat hacking up a hairball. We were able to stop and four breweries and taste some amazing sake. If you’re looking for a charming neighborhood with some sake tasting, head to Fushimi in Kyoto. Despite the possible cost, hiring a taxi would be the best way to deal with the Nada district given the walk isn’t very pleasant and its quite far between several of the breweries.

We caught the train back to the main station of Kobe, Sannomiya, and headed up to the Shin-Kobe ropeway. The shin Kobe ropeway is about half price after 6pm. For a full price ticket you can go up and then walk down the mountain through an elaborate garden and see stunning views of Kobe. For a half price ticket you can watch Kobe light up at night and ride the ropeway back down. You can’t do both. After 5 pm they close the walking path from the top so you can only buy round trip tickets. Before 4pm you have the option to do either round trip or one way and then walk. If you really like flowers, go earlier in the day. If you want to get the view choose the half price ticket and watch Kobe light up before your eyes. It is really quiet special.

Kobe from the top of Shin-Kobe Ropeway

Kobe from the top of Shin-Kobe Ropeway

Also at the top of the ropeway is a bavarian villa.

We I decided for dinner that I really wanted to try Kobe beef, in Kobe. What other time could their possibly be a better reason to get some Kobe beef? The area around Sannomiya station is absolutely electric at night. The streets are filled with young Japanese all dressed up and tourists alike. We decided to make a loop through the main pedestrian area and found the Kobe beef prices to be astronomical. Most of the Kobe beef prices start around $80-$90 for a steak dinner. Some places were as low as $65 but it makes you wonder about their prep. To mull our options we popped into a bar called Hub. A british style pub that brews their own beer in the basement of a 6 story building.

Pretty sure it was Kobe, either way it was awesome.

Pretty sure it was Kobe, either way it was awesome.

Hub was packed! It was “Hub Day” we found out which is an all day happy hour where everything is half price. This means that a beer is normal price for Americans. Also you can get a proper pint in this pub instead of the stupid 500ml servings you get everywhere else in metric countries. Hub brews their own IPA as well. Although Japanese IPA’s are all malt and no hops. Waiting in line for a pint I struck up a conversation with some local Japanese who were proficient in English enough to communicate with some extra gesturing.  We eventually asked them where to get Kobe beef? Everywhere was really expensive, where do locals go?

Proving again that Japanese people can be some of the most generous and nice people in the world, the girl, whose name escaped me the minute after she said it, offered to walk us to a local place. She said that she used to work there and they have sliced Kobe beef rice bowls. She took us to a little hole in the wall restaurant called Red Rock. Indeed for about $9 dollars you get an amazing rice bowl with sliced beef on top. Whether or not it was Kobe beef? Who cares, it was beef in Kobe. That’s good enough for me.

Back to the train station at Sannomiya to catch the express train back to Osaka station.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Complete bliss in Matsushima

BLISS

BLISS

Over the weekend we visited one of Japan’s “most beautiful places,” according to the tourist map we were given upon our arrival in Matsushima. It was about an hour by train from our apartment in Iwanuma and one of the better days we have seen weather-wise. It is May and there are hardly any signs of summer’s approach, but we were graced with some sun so we took the opportunity to finally see the Pacific Ocean from the other side. We live on the coast now but the shore is not visible due to the large wall that has been built here post-tsunami. While it is obviously a smart precaution, it is rather unthinkable to us Californians to block off an ocean view.  Perhaps there was never much demand for scenic restaurants in Iwanuma.

Matsushima bay

Matsushima bay

Matsushima is a lovely little town on Japan’s east coast, tucked back in a bay that is home to hundreds of little islands covered with Japanese pines called matsu, from which the town derives its name. These pines are revered for their beauty and were made famous by the haiku poet Matsuo Basho. Once we arrived in town we enjoyed some lunch in the sunshine and then hopped on a small cruise boat that takes you through the bay for an hour to see some islands up close. The boat had two decks, and the upper deck was a bit more expensive. We couldn’t see what the difference was so we opted for the lower level, since it also had an open-air observation deck. As soon as the boat began its departure from the shore we realized why the upper level was preferable. Apparently the observation area is not for site-seeing and taking pictures, it is exclusively for feeding seagulls. Snacks are sold specifically to entice the seagulls to follow the boat in a swarm, and small children are encouraged to hold out food for the large birds to come grab out of their hands. Suffice to say I was not expecting to become a cast member of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” when I bought my cruise ticket. Hundreds of seagulls surrounding the stern and followed us the entire hour, pacing the boat so closely that their wings routinely hit the posts of the deck. At any moment you could have reached your hands out and grabbed a bird. This may seem novel for a couple minutes, but I thought eventually the feeding frenzy would stop. No. The Japanese tourists fed the seagulls for the entire hour, making me wonder if this was the real attraction, not boring old islands.

Seagulls attacking the boat

Seagulls attacking the boat

By some miracle I managed to snap a few photos devoid of the birds, but I will never again be fooled into saving money on a Japanese boat tour. Back on the mainland we decided to explore the temple grounds of Matsushima. The area is a small forest surrounded by stone walls embedded with several hollowed out crypts, carved into the rocks thousands of years ago. We strolled among the beautiful trees in quiet reverence and made our way to a scenic look-out high in the neighborhood for a view of the ocean from above. Along the steep path to the top I saw a hilarious cartoon sign of a child being dragged up the hill. Laughing at its oddity I snapped a picture, but on the way down we encountered just such a child being dragged to the look-out. Poor little kid had no idea why some white lady was laughing her head off at him.

Japanese signage

Japanese signage

Next on our agenda was the island Fukuurajima, which is close to the shore and connected to Matsushima by a long foot bridge. According to the map, “the island itself is a natural garden covered with 300 kinds of trees and wild grasses, providing an atmosphere of complete bliss for roaming the island.” Complete bliss you say? Well sign me up! While en route, I proceeded to make many wise cracks about preparing myself for complete bliss, but upon arrival I found the tourist map statement hard to argue with. The island is indeed a stunning little wilderness frozen in time, boasting impressive pines and covered in camellia plants. Camellias are common to East Asia but they were a nice reminder of home. The Japanese word for camellia is tsubaki, so if any of you know my favorite Sacramento restaurant Hana Tsubaki, you now know it means “camellia flower.”

After achieving complete bliss on Fukuurajima, we headed inland to grab some souvenirs and a sashimi rice bowl, since Matsushima is also know for its super-fresh seafood. It was delicious, like everything in Japan, and then we hopped our train home via Sendai where we stopped at the import store to grab some necessities. Kraft Mac and Cheese and some chevre! Overall a wonderful day in a truly beautiful place.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

How to do a million things in one day – Venice edition

Galleria Del’Accademia – Piazza San Marco – Museo de San Marco – Basillica & Terraza – Palazza Gramini – Museo de Il Doge  – Gelato in Campiello S. Zulian – Ponte Rialto & Canale Grande – Museo de Correr – Campanile – Hotel Molino Stucky

Venice at sunset from the canal

Venice at sunset from the canal

Venice is a wonderful place… aside from the mosquitos and other people like me (tourists) that basically ruin the natural beauty of the city.  Not only does Venice hold such and important place in the development of art and the cultural history of the world but it is also full of kitsch and part amusement park.  One thing I can say for certain is that while very expensive, a tourist can definitely get their money’s worth without really leaving Piazza San Marco. Shana and I did so much in Venice that a point by point account would be tedious so here are some general thoughts about Venice.

IMG_3766

The definition of picturesque

First off, there is not a more picturesque city that I have visited except for maybe Florence.  Every way you turn the architecture is stunning and the old world charm leaks out of the buildings and fills the canals with old Italian men singing with gusto as they take tourists around in their gondolas.  Even the public boats that take locals and tourists alike back and forth across the canals have a certain charm to them.  As they back out from the quay they shake violently as if you have upset the inner workings of the earth, the pilot whistles and shouts at the other boats as they skim by within inches of your water taxi and I loved every single second of it.

I love how you can absolutely never ever get lost in Venice.  Since there are no cars, no street lights, and no “bad neighborhoods” you can walk freely without really even paying attention to where you are going.  Inevitably a right turn will put you in front a massive church with 500 year old artwork inside and the next left will put you along the Canale Grande.  Well, you have to watch your step to make sure you don’t end up in a canal but after that its a “laissez-faire” walking experience.

Museo Il Doge

Museo Il Doge

As mentioned earlier a tourist can really get their money’s worth as far as museums go.  The Museo Il Doge took the better part of the morning and despite being 16 euros each was one of the best museums I have been to.  It made Versailles look cheap inside and overpriced for admission, had some of the greatest renaissance works of art in history, venetian architecture, included a tour of the palace, the armory, the venetian republic’s equivalent to congress, its surrounding offices, and the prison.  AND… that same ticket got you into the Museo Correr which was actually 3 separate museums all in one building.  Put that on a baguette 30 euro ticket to the Louvre.

While I liked the art in general at the Uffizi and Palazzo de Medici in Florence better; the Il Doge blew everything in Florence away as far as size, scope and pure ambition in art and architecture.  I have always had a soft spot the Florentine school of both renaissance and baroque as far as art goes but when it came to painting a room to exemplify the gravity of making decisions for Venetian republic Tinorretto and his son are only outdone by the Sistine Chapel for both beauty and scale.  The central room (parliament would be the closest approximation) of the Il Doge could hold more than 1500 people comfortably.  That doesn’t sound like much compared to the Duomo in Florence or St. Peter’s in the Vatican which can hold forthy thousand or more but this was a room where government was executed like a senate floor.  The US Senate only has seats for 50 senators and probably less than 20 or more for staff, press, the VP and the President.  The House of Representatives in the US is massive and has seats for 435 representatives and a lot more staff but comes no where close to 1500 for roomy seating arrangements.  Not to mention the US house does not have one of the greatest works of art ever hanging up above the entry way or rather covering the entire east wall of the chamber.

San Marco

San Marco

San Marco is also a very impressive piece of both art and architecture and again for my money’s worth, the 5 euros it takes to get in the museum which includes the terrace and the basilica are totally worth it.  I fully expected the “museum” of San Marco to be a cheesy one room affair with a couple pictures and some restored pieces of a triptych.  I was greatfully wrong.  The experience is one of the best views of Piazza San Marco, the museum has 15 plus rooms, up close looks at the mosaics that cover the three domes of San Marco and a true insight to the efforts into restoring one of the great works of architecture in human history.  The Campanile which almost costs twice as much offers tremendous views of Venice but cannot come anywhere close to providing the depth or the experience that the museum of San Marco can.

Finally an anecdote:  All I wanted when I got to Venice was to go for a cappuccino and some Italian pizza.  That was literally all I could think about.  On the plane from Santorini at 6AM, in the airport in the Athens airport during an eight hour layover,  in the boat ride from the airport to the hotel that took an astounding two and a half hours, to the fact that when we went to take the boat shuttle across the canal it was their time to take an hour break, when I went to walk to the alternate stop to get across the canal and realized I needed to go to the ATM and I walked back to the hotel only to have them inform me that the closest ATM is where I was originally walking to at the alternate boat stop, finally on the boat ride an hour later and starving across the canal I watch as the boat proceeds to stop a good 10 min walk from where I wanted to get pizza. I was thinking about getting a cappuccino and some italian pizza, I couldn’t help but hate everyone everywhere forever while in this hunger crazed pizza craving state of mind. Finally as I sat down at Ah’Oche across the canal from the hotel and had a gigantic personal pizza and a house brewed “rosso bier” in front of me, the world disappeared and I was one with the pizza.  I got my cappuccino the next day by Palazza Grimani

Venice is fantastic and totally worth the crowds, tour groups, smelly canals, mosquitos, pricy accommodations, and pushy gondola “pilots.”  If you appreciate art, history, architecture or simply just a joie de vive then Venice is the place for you.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Life in the caldera

Ferry from Heraklion to Fira – Finikia – Oia – Fira Airport

After spending time in crowded, noisy Crete we were looking forward to getting away to the little volcanic island of Santorini for some picturesque scenery and a couple quiet nights in our cave-like hotel room. We had not purchased our ferry tickets to Santorini in advance because most travel blogs had said there was no need. But as we talked to other travelers in Crete they said to be careful because the ferries might sell out. We looked online but you can only buy the tickets four days in advance of your departure, so there was no way to tell if the ferries were sold out. By “ferries” I mean two ships that depart twice in the morning, that’s it. If you miss the ferry you are stuck on Crete, so at this point we started to be a little concerned. We decided to get to the port as early as possible and stand in line for tickets.

Flag & Ferry

Flag & Ferry

We have learned that the Greeks are very laid back when it comes to deadlines and timetables. The ferry we wanted started boarding at 8:00, and yet the ticket office did not open until 7:30. They seem to have no problem cutting things close like this and making us freak out for as long as possible. But there were still seats available so we headed on to the ferry with all the other day trippers to Santorini. The ferry itself was nice with airline-like seats that the crew made sure you sat in for most of the ride.

Arrival in the old port of Santorini was hectic to say the least. As soon as you de-boat you are assaulted by waves of hotel purveyors and taxi drivers who want you to come with them. Literally, they grab you and pull you over to their buses, regardless of how much you protest. So we ended up on a bus to our hotel in Oia and shortly arrived at a lovely place called the Hotel Finikia. After a lunch of spiced pies and fava spread, we headed into the little cliffside downtown of Oia, where you see the classic blue domed roofs atop bright white buildings built into the sides of hills. We walked through the narrow streets between tourist shops and tavernas until we reached the edge of the cliff where you can walk down a windy switchback to the port where restaurants are perfectly situated to experience the sunset, the most beautiful in the world (according to the Greek travel guides).

Donkey Rd

Donkey Rd

This road also happens to be inhabited by dozens of donkeys which you can ride back up the steep hill for five euros. Unfortunately, the Greeks could care less about the impact that lots of donkeys hiking for hours can have on the only walking path for tourists, and so the ten minute descent became a game of dodging donkey land mines. It seemed that the whole road was covered with crap, so it became a matter of having to walk over yesterday’s flattened excrement instead of the fresh stuff. As with many overly visited tourist destinations, the beauty gets lost in the effort to make more money.

I forgot to mention that the weather that day was the hottest Santorini had experienced that year, and extremely humid. Lucky us. By the time we made the walk down, there was not even an inch of Andrew’s shirt that was dry. Once you get down the hill you are greeted by a tiny little port below the city where there are two or three extremely expensive restaurants from which you can watch the sunset. Being that both of us were completely drenched in sweat, we decided to take a table and wait the hour and a half for sunset. We found a nice spot that was run by a Canadian lady and she let us sit in front of the fan. We ended up having a fantastic meal of steamed mussels saganaki and keftedes, which are herb-battered tomato slices deep fried (a local specialty). We finally dried off and snapped some decent pictures of the sunset, which was incredibly beautiful.

"will the sunshine all sweetness and light, burn us to a cinder, our third stone satellite"

“will the sunshine all sweetness and light, burn us to a cinder, our third stone satellite”

Since there is really nothing else to do in Santorini except relax, we went home and enjoyed some of the wine we had bought in Crete. The next morning after breakfast we were picked up by another taxi bus to take us back to the small port of Ammoudi. We had booked a sailing tour on a catamaran, although the weather had changed significantly since the day before. Now it was cooler but also very windy, so we boarded at 10:30 in the morning and hoped for the best.

The wind on the catamaran actually felt fantastic, and the water of the Aegean Sea was refreshing without being too cold. The first stop was the volcanic hot springs off the coast of the island, where sulfur from the active volcano seeps up into the ocean and creates warm, yellow-hued water. The next stops were Red Beach, a red sand beach on the east coast of the island, and White Beach where they stopped and let us do a bit of snorkeling. The area did not boast much besides a few schools of fish, so we headed back on board where they made us a lunch of Greek salads and bbq’d pork. Also, the Greek white wine was complimentary!

We chatted with lots of other travelers, some from New York, Australia, London and France and sunbathed on the large nets spread over the ship, which the crew called “trampolines.” After a rather choppy return trip due to the winds, we arrived back at port and were transferred to our hotel where we passed out with sun burns and mild heat stroke. We had dinner in the hotel restaurant and scheduled a cab to pick us up at 5:30 the next morning for the next leg of our journey from Santorini airport to Venice.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.