Two Weeks in Japan, Part 6 (The End): Tokyo vol. III

This article is part of the “Two Weeks in Japan” series and follows Two Weeks in Japan, Part 6: Tokyo vol. II

For our third day in Tokyo we were visiting Odaiba, an artificial island in Tokyo Bay. We got to the island early using the Yurikamome train, a fully automated train without drivers on board. I was surprised to see that the train does not run on rails but has wheels with tires instead (so maybe there is a better name for it than train)!

In Odaiba we went to the Sega Joypolis, a theme park by the well known games company Sega. The park has many nice attractions like a half-pipe (with a series of snowboard-like devices/wagons where two people can stand at a time), many enhanced video-games (for example a rollercoaster where we had to shoot zombies) or an experience inspired by a horror movie. This horror experience was based on the movie Sadako 3D (with a terrifying girl like the one in the Ring movie), we were taken to a dark room with a few computer screens that suddenly started malfunctioning! Our guide (speaking Japanese) tried to turn them off and had to unplug to do so but they quickly turned on again (oooohhh)! Helena and I were very tired (it was evening already) so we were not really excited by the whole scary experience and this must have been so clear in our expressions that the guide switched to English and told us: Very dangerous! Very very dangerous! Run run!

Another thing that I enjoyed seeing was that the Joypolis had many interactive installations using methods similar to the ones I was working with at the time. Check out this live hair change to make queuing less boring:

Love Helena’s air style!

The Joypolis is an indoors park and before we knew, night had fallen so we just had dinner and went back to the hotel.

No fear, Gundam’s here!

The next day we headed to Yokohama, to visit the rāmen museum and later to a town called Kamakura. I had seen the rāmen museum in some movies and I had three wrong assumptions about it: 1) it’s in Tokyo (it’s not, it is in Yokohama), 2) it’s an open air place (it’s in a basement floor) and 3) it’s a big place (it’s rather small). Still, I liked it because we learned a bit about rāmen, it is possible to try several types of it and learn from which regions it comes from, the atmosphere is good and there was a magic/juggling show going on.

Rāmen museum under a beautiful sky

Rāmen museum under a beautiful sky

We also took the chance to visit the Yokohama’s China town with its complex colors and architecture contrasting with the Japanese ones. We entered a Chinese temple and I started taking pictures as I saw no sign forbidding it. Suddenly a lady starts yelling at me, telling me to stop taking photos and basically pushed me out the temple… This also contrasted with the laid back and respectful attitude of the guards in the Japanese temples that had asked me to stop taking photos before. In my defense, after almost two weeks in Japan, I was quite used to look for signs forbidding photos but I hadn’t seen any when entering this Chinese temple because we entered through a side door and the sign was hanged outside over the main door.

After Yokohama, we went to Kamakura, a small town whose main attraction is the giant Buddha statue (daibutsu) with almost 14 meters of height. The statue is impressive and the place is quite peaceful so I definitely recommend it.

Giant buddha statue

Peaceful place

That night we went back to the nice rāmen place I mentioned in the first volume of the Tokyo’s part, in Ikebukuro (I wish I could remember the name of the place…), and got back to our hotel to get ready for our last day in Tokyo.

For our last day in Tokyo, we wanted to check out the fish market but we realized that it had strict rules to visit it and we had to be there very early, so we decided to take it easy (we were tired for the almost two weeks of moving around) and just went there a bit later in the morning. Naturally, the whole frenzy fish selling was no longer taking place so we just bought a few things in some small stands there like nori sheets (they were way cheaper there than back at home) and some beans which we thought were the nice tea we had tried in a few restaurants. When we got home and tried the tea, the beans were tinier than we remembered and they looked like coffee beans (the drink also tasted a bit like very weak coffee) so we just thought that we had bought some very bad coffee. The funny thing is that one year after the trip to Japan, we moved to the Geneva area (where I am currently working at CERN) and shortly after a German PhD student named Christian started working in my office, he knows a lot about tea and Japan (even speaks the language) and he told me those beans were actually roasted barley tea (or mugi cha). Mystery solved!

After the fish market, we went to the nice district of Asakusa, to visit Sensō-ji, one of the most impressive temples in our trip. In there we did the traditional custom of giving a donation and getting a small note telling your fortune. About mine, I won’t disclose everything but among some nice things it said “Building a new horse and enlarging are both good”. No kidding!

A buddhist temple in Asakusa

Sensō-ji

Close to the temple, we went to a nice sushi restaurant, with a conveyor belt surrounding a chef making the sushi in real time. We had been to sushi restaurants with the conveyor belt in other places in Europe and they all followed a “flat-rate” model (pay one fixed price, eat all the sushi you want), however, in Japan the common thing is that each dish has a color which indicates its price and in the end they sum it all and you pay. Still, the sushi was great and not that expensive.
Once we finished visiting Asakusa, we headed to the Tokyo University through a nice park with an impressive pond called Shinobazu, full of waterlilies, fish, ducks and turtles.

Shinobazu pond.

Shinobazu pond.

The last night in Tokyo we changed again to the last hotel of the trip (Narita U-City), this one was outside of Tokyo close to the Keisei Narita Station, on the way to the airport because we figured that the next day it would be simpler and faster to get the airport from there, and being away from Tokyo it means it was also cheaper.

The next day, we started our trip early and we saw a very long queue waiting for the KLM’s desks to open. So we waited, and waited, and waited and realized that our flight was delayed… We must have waited more than 3 hours in the queue which never got smaller.
Eventually they started opening the desks but it was clear that they were very badly organized. Finally, after all that time waiting, when we got to the counter, the lady tells us that she thought our backpacks were too big for hand luggage. I replied they were actually smaller than they looked and that we traveled all the time with them. She said that we had to try to fit them in the appropriate metal frame for the matter and we could go there, check and come back to tell her the verdict. I told her that the metal thingy was out of her sight and that maybe she wanted to come with us to check, otherwise she would have to just trust me and so far, she hadn’t wanted to do that. She looked at me with an expression of “Oh! So someone could actually lie to me!?” (Japanese people, always so innocent) and followed us. The bags fit and we got our tickets!
I was worried that the plane would be so delayed that we would miss the flight from Amsterdam to Barcelona, not only because of the hassle but also because from although the flight from to Barcelona was part of our ticket, once we arrived in Barcelona, we had a flight home to Coruña which was bought independently. Luckily, once we landed in Amsterdam, some assistants were waiting for everyone who was going to Barcelona as the plane had already boarded but was waiting for the people from Tokyo. We arrived with time in Barcelona but guess what, our flight to Coruña was also delayed (but at least we didn’t miss it).
All summed up, we had been traveling for more than 24 hours and needless to say, we were dead tired. I even remembered waking up the next morning with the feeling of having slept really well like I had not in ages and thinking “it is good to be home”.

Photo of Helena and I

Finally I am finishing this series of articles. Since the trip took place, and I started writing its articles, almost three years passed by (!) but I got a good excuse as a lot of things happened. I have changed to a different country (and job) twice, and I am now a father, so far an incredibly rewarding, exciting and ongoing journey.

Until the next time!

Two Weeks in Japan, Part 3: Kinosaki Onsen

This article is part of the “Two Weeks in Japan” series and follows Two Weeks in Japan, Part 2: Kyoto.
It’s been a while since I wrote the previous article in this series but I’m determined to continue writing these articles and finishing the series.

Getting a place to stay

Three days after we arrived in Kyoto, we left and headed to Kinosaki Onsen, in Yogo Perfecture. Kinosaki is a small town famous for its Onsen (natural hot springs) and we were in the mood for some relaxation time.
As we got there, we headed for the tourist info center because we hadn’t reserved our lodging in advance… Big mistake. There was an old lady at the counter which spoke very limited English but was very nice and we were told that every place in town was full so we only had a couple of expensive options left. Around 115 €, she pointed to a calculator, after converting the currency. Well, comparing to the ~50 € per person per night we had paid in Kyoto that’s not a big increase I thought so I said okay but right away my “spidey sense” told me I was missing something… The lady hadn’t specified whether it was per person or per room. It was per person. Whoa, now that was a big inscrease so we said we couldn’t take that one. After making another call, she told us the only remaining alternative left was a ryokan called Morizuya for ~75 € a person. That would be the most expensive hotel we had ever paid (and the most expensive in the whole trip) but there were no other alternatives so we took it. After all, the entrance to the hot springs was included so we kind of considered it the “glamour” moment of our trip.

Our room in Morizuya ryokan, in Kinosaki

Our room in Kinosaki Onsen

As you can see in the photo, the room in the Morizuya ryokan turned out to be huge. It was actually bigger than our first apartment in the city we lived in at that time (Coruña). We had our private sink but the toilet was shared. Still, as I have mentioned in previous articles, this wasn’t a problem because everything in Japan is neatly clean.

Going to the hot springs

After dropping our backpacks, we went to a food supermarket for lunch (they had plenty of nice food like tempura and even tables for seating outside) and then it was time to go explore the Onsen! For that purpose, at the ryokan, besides the common yukata (a traditional style, light clothing), both Helena and I were given a (very feminine) wooden handbag (which had a towel inside) and a pair of very Japanese wooden flip-flops. Since it had started raining a bit, we also took a traditional style umbrella. We had a map of the hot springs’ places and the one we were going to was about 5 minutes walking from Morizuya’s so we headed out. Walking with those wooden flip-flops isn’t easy and those 5 minutes turned easily into 10. The rain wasn’t helping either and I kept thinking, the yukata, the umbrella and the wooden handbag and flip-flops… My old University friends would love to see me dressed up like this. Luckily we had left our phones and camera at the ryokan so there are no evidences for an eventual mockery.
We also realized that we were the only Westerners in town so let’s say we felt very special 🙂

Fireworks in Kinosaki

Fireworks in Kinosaki


The public baths are divided in two (for men and women) since people bathe naked. I felt a bit awkward, not precisely because of being naked, but because I was the only Western in there and, to keep it simple I’ll just say that bodies differ a lot. Adults behave like adults and acted natural in the face of difference but kids are always less influenced by society’s etiquette and would stare 🙂
Helena and I met after half an hour at the entrance and she told me she also felt like that but it wasn’t so bad so we went for our next public baths. This second one was a longer walk and short after we left, it started raining a lot… We got there with our feet and part of the yukata soaked.

I liked this second Onsen a lot. It had less people and a larger outside pool. In this pool, the water was a bit too hot for me so I sat on a rock, naked, with only my legs in the water, getting the hot vapors from below and the cold rain falling from above. I will never forget how great it felt!

Traditional japanese breakfast

Me, enjoying my Japanese breakfast


After getting back to the hotel and changing into our clothes, we went outside for dinner. We ended up (mistakenly) entering a Korean place which was expensive and not good at all but after we left, the rain was gone and everybody was out in the street watching the fireworks in the night sky and murmuring sounds of awe.

The next morning we had a traditional Japanese breakfast (needs to be ordered the day before) served in our room. I liked it but Helena didn’t find it very funny to have fish for breakfast.

Traditional japanese breakfast

Helena, not enjoying her Japanese breakfast

After we checked out, the owner asked us where we were heading (the train station) and told us he’d drive us there, no extra costs or anything. People are nice in Japan.

Our original idea was to go north from Kinosaki and spend a day at the beach but it kept raining so instead we headed to Nagoya for an overnight stay, which was more or less half-way through the long trip to our next main destination Takayama.

Since we spent quite some time at the public baths, we didn’t take many pictures in Kinosaki but there you go:

to be continued…

Two Weeks in Japan, Part 2: Kyoto

This article is part of the “Two Weeks in Japan” series and follows Two Weeks in Japan, Part 1: The arrival.

It was the evening of August, 10th. We had just dropped our bags at B&B Juno and the owner, Ian, had given us information about the neighborhood and the main landmarks in Kyoto. Since we were very tired from the trip, we just went out for a stroll and dinner.

We had dinner at Kamon, a funny sushi place that Ian had labeled as inexpensive in the sheet he gave us. When we entered the place, it was empty apart from the employees (all of them older than 50 years) who were clapping their hands while one of them was dancing in the middle of the restaurant to the sound of some music show in the TV — priceless.
The sushi was not the best we had tasted, actually the rolls were not the perfect round shapes that are so difficult to get right but anyway, inexpensive, fairly good and friendly staff.

The next morning we woke up early to start what would become a long but pleasureful day. Given the nice location of our B&B, we had a plan: visit a few temples along the Philosophers’ Path while heading to the picturesque district of Gion (known for geisha entertainment).

Picture of Buddhist sign

Buddhist sign in Honen-in temple

The first temple we visited was Ginkaku-ji — the Silver Pavilion. This temple has a nice Zen garden and a path through the hill nearby which gives us a view of Kyoto’s landscape. Since this was our first time at a Japanese temple, it blew our minds; Japanese temples are very beautiful and do their job well: they transmit peace of mind and simplicity, we always felt relaxed in them.
After Ginkaku-ji, we visited a smaller temple called Honen-in which had the cool sign you can see in the picture.

Continuing our path we visited a shrine called Otoyo-jinja (which was dedicated to rats and had many cool statues of these animals) and we passed by Eikan-dō. The Eikan-dō temple had a really nice garden with ponds and koi fish and we could also enter some of its houses.

After such a long walk it was lunch time so we had one of many “supermarket lunches”. In Japan they have very good, ready to eat meals at any supermarket, just choose your favorite sushi box or compose your soup on the spot. Sushi boxes come with chop sticks and, in case your meal should be warmed up, the friendly shop assistants will do it for you as any supermarket has microwaves.
Last but not least, many supermarkets also have small tables outside of it for you to seat down and eat your meal peacefully. Summarizing, if you go to Japan, try the supermarket meals, you’ll save money and it is part of the experience.

Picture of a coffee can

Cold coffee can

Like most Portuguese people, I am very picky with coffee and I love a good coffee after a meal which is not very easily found at a good quality and reasonable price in Japan, hell, it is like that in most places apart from Portugal 🙂 So how did I get my caffeine fix you might ask? By drinking bottled/canned cold coffee.

These cans cost around 100 ¥ (1 €) and, since the weather was really hot, tasted good enough to me.

After lunch, we passed by the huge torii gate nearby and visited the Heian Jingū shrine which had a big open yard and two fountains and, on our way to Gion, passed by the big Sanmon gate (which reminded me of Akira Kurosawa‘s movie Rashōmon) and visited the last temple of this day, Chion-in.

The Chion-in temple was undergoing repairs which is why I suppose we didn’t have to pay. In there we could see the ongoing Buddhist ceremony and walk on the nightingale floor. Nightingale floors were created during feudal Japan and are floors engineered to make the nightingales’ chirping sound which is accomplished by a system of nails scratching against their clamps and triggered by our weight and motion when we walk on them.
It was used as an alarm for ninjas and thieves. How cool is that!?
Later we heard living nightingales and their chirping was indistinguishable from the floor’s, at least to me.

Demonstration against nuclear power in Kyoto

Demonstration against nuclear power in Kyoto

Muruyama park was all that was standing between us and Gion so we crossed it and found a small demonstration against the use of nuclear power.

Gion was a busy but nice district. We had a nice stroll along the river side together with many people dressed in traditional costumes.
At some point we saw many people lining up to buy something that resembled baked dough on a stick and looked sweet and delicious. We lined up too and bought two of those only to find out it was made of rice and tasted salty; I ended up eating both of them.

Picture of girls dressed in traditional costumes

Girls dressed in traditional costumes

We visited a bit more of Gion and found a music store at a mall where we listened to some CDs from artists unknown to us. I had about three Japanese bands in my music collection before going to Japan (MUCC, Maximum the Hormone and Mad Capsule Markets) and discovered a new one I liked by going to this store: Nothing’s Carved in Stone.

That night we ate at a nice resting area inside the mall — yes, with tasty food from a gourmet supermarket — and walked back to our B&B for about an hour.

The next day would be our last day and night at Kyoto so we had a tight schedule.
We started with a visit to Kinkaku-ji — the Golden Pavilion. This temple is definitely worth a visit. As the name suggests, it is really a golden temple; it is so scenic that it looks like something from a movie, just look at the following picture.

Kinkaku-ji -- The Golden Pavilion

Kinkaku-ji — The Golden Pavilion

At the Golden Pavilion we also were impressed to see that there was an employee dressed in a guard’s uniform whose job was picking every little piece of paper flying around with the help of wooden tongs.

The next stop from the temple (by train) was the bamboo grove. Everyone who watched any anime show about ninjas or samurais remembers some scene about people fighting in a bamboo grove. This was the kind of scene that came to my mind when visiting Kyoto’s bamboo grove. Despite the awful hot weather, it was a really nice place for a walk, there is a forest and a river nearby with pleasure boats to rent but it was really hot and it was lunch time so we didn’t try them.

Me with Japanese cosplayers at Kyoto's Manga Museum

Me with Japanese cosplayers at Kyoto’s Manga Museum

Since that day was my birthday, the next “appointment” in our schedule was actually my own birthday gift, a visit to Kyoto’s International International Manga Museum. Ian had warned us that the museum was more like a library but I still wanted to go there. He was right, it had big book shelves everywhere and unsurprisingly most of them were in Japanese but I could still see some Manga techniques and get a good grasp of the evolution of styles in Manga.
Part of the museum’s attraction to me was seeing the many cosplays in there and they were more than happy to take a picture with a western so there you go.

The Manga museum was 800 ¥ (8 €) and, although I did like it, it was not that awesome so you should just go if you are really into Manga.

Helena and I at Fushimi Inari Taisha

Helena and I at Fushimi Inari Taisha

The last attraction of the day (and the last temple we visited in Kyoto) was Fushimi-Inari Taisha and it is impressive! We visited its temple but the really magical part is the path through the countless torii gates across the mountain. The place is easily reached by train and definitely worth a visit.
We didn’t stay long though because it was already dark and bugs were eating Helena alive so we had to quickly escape and reestablish our strength with another tasty dinner.

Back to Kyoto by train we hoped off at Kyoto’s Station where I noticed some funny messages in English written in a mall’s entrance sign like “I’m in a good mood full of joy” or “Things I want to have-there are a lot of them here”.

Kyoto was a very nice place with many beautiful things to see and a fairly relaxed pace. Like most Japanese cities we visited, it was extremely clean and safe: bikes parked without a lock, people in the bus leaving their belongings in the seat while they went to the front of the bus to exchange money, etc.
Many of the temples have an entrance fee that does not usually go above 500 ¥ (5 €) and the city is also a good base for visiting areas out of the city in day trips. The three nights we spent in there weren’t nearly enough for so many great landmarks so if I ever go back to Japan I will try to stay a few days in Kyoto again.

The next day we were heading to Kinosaki Onsen, a small village known for its many hot springs but I will mention all those funny adventures in the next article. Meanwhile, check out the photos we took in Kyoto:

to be continued…

Two Weeks in Japan, Part 1: The arrival

Ever since I can remember, I was always fascinated by Eastern Asian cultures.
Like most kids, I loved martial arts movies, but I was also a fan of many other things. Before I had an internet connection at my parents’ home, and information was not promptly available, I would relish any movie, documentary or book about Eastern Asia; it didn’t matter if it was China, Korea or Japan. During Expo ’98, in Lisbon, the 13 years old me forced my parents to wait in line for several hours to visit the pavilions of Japan, Korea, China and Macau. Even nowadays my father mentions it (in a friendly “you owe me” tone 🙂 ) whenever we talk about those countries.

Then this attraction for Eastern Asia was “specialized” more in Japan mainly because of anime. I had access to the most known anime series in Portuguese TV. I was particularly a fan of Dragon Ball (like everybody else), Evangelion and Rurouni Kenshin. During those times, the magic of internet entered my parent’s place, with the nostalgic connection noise of dial-up, and I could search everything I wanted about Japan and eventually learned a bit of Japanese (most of which is now forgotten in some hardly accessible part of my memory).

During that time, I always thought that one day I would go to Japan (not discarding, at the time, living there).
This visit finally took place during two weeks in August, 2012.

Off to Japan

As I wrote before in an other post, Helena and I had planned to visit Japan during our honeymoon in 2011 but due to the Tōhoku Earthquake, this destiny was replaced with Turkey whose series of articles you can read here.
Finally, early this year we decided that this year’s trip destiny would be Japan and here is the first of the articles about this trip.

Since Japan is an expensive place and people always ask about the prices, I will try to mention prices more than in other articles. When we went there, the Japanese Yen value had risen in comparison with the Euro so 1€ was worth less than 100¥ but we kept this 1 € — 100 ¥ rate in mind for the simplicity sake.

We got our round-trip plane tickets in the end of May for around 850 € each (together with insurance), which means they could have been cheaper but still they weren’t much more expensive than their early purchase price. We flew from Barcelona as in Coruña there is only one international flight but we took this chance to visit Catalonia’s capital so the domestic flight’s cost was compensated this way.

The Flight

Image of our flight's progress screen

Our flight’s progress screen

We flew with Alitalia so the trip was Barcelona > Rome > Narita (Tokyo).
Needless to say, it was a long flight, the longest I have ever taken: about 15 hours since we left Barcelona. We were excited for being in such a big plane for the first time and I was surprised that the small screen in front of my seat had video-games that could be played against other passengers. The only bad thing, apart from the time, was that my seat’s head cushion kept me in an uncomfortable position, making my back hurt.

The Train

We arrived at Narita on August 10 at 10:30, passed the passport control and, since we took our huge backpacks as hand luggage, readily proceeded to validate our JapanRail (JR) passes. We acquired our JR passes from the very efficient website JRPass.com; in 3 days we had our passes. We validated our passes at Narita Airport and asked the assistant how to get to Kyoto (our first destination in this trip), he was very quick, nice and helpful, and told us that we should change trains at Shinagawa Station instead of Tokyo’s because it was smaller and less confusing.

Picture of Narita Express

Narita Express

This was also the first time we witnessed the Japanese Railways efficiency. Many trains were cleaned as soon as they arrived at the stations. It was funny and impressive to see that the trains’ seats can be rotated so passengers always travel facing the destiny. Of course, the trains were very punctual, if it said that a train was arriving at 17:07 it would!
Like everything in Japan, trains were neatly clean, no written tags, no scratches, no stains, no lost chocolate wrapping papers, the trains seemed like they were coming right from the manufacturer.
Another nice thing is how silent the trains are, even moving between the trains’ cars, which usually is noisy, was much more silent than in most trains I’ve taken in Europe.
Summarizing, I love to travel by train and JR trains are the best.

No Plastic Money

Picture of sushi Lunchbox

Our first sushi lunchbox

At Shinagawa Station, we took the first of many sushi lunches, from one of the station shops for about 500 ¥ (~5 €) after our first visit to the ATM to withdraw money. We didn’t take Japanese Yens from Spain and we also do not like to get money at currency exchange offices as usually withdrawing it from any ATM will give us better rates. In Japan one needs to carry money as many places do not accept cards so what we did was to withdraw a large amount every once in while. The ATMs that work with our VISA cards were the Japan Post (JP) ones, do not bother with trying others.

Kyoto

Around 16:30 we arrived at Kyoto. We were staying at B&B Juno which is a 30 minutes bus ride from Kyoto’s JR Station.
The buses system is different from most of the places where I took city buses. Luckily, there was a “western” person in the bus and after exchanging the first couple of words in English with him, we realized he was Spanish and switched to this Romance language. He was from the Basque Country and asked us if we were Galician which is always funny when this happens to us; anyway, he explained how the bus system worked: In Japan, you hop on the bus through the back door and you pay when you leave the bus, not when you are entering. Also, the bus driver will not do the change for you, there is a machine next to the driver that will exchange money for you and after you got the right coins, you pay the exact amount on a different slot in the same machine. In the case of Kyoto’s city bus, a single trip was 220 ¥ (~2.2 €) and a whole day ticket was 500 ¥ (5 €).

Places are not easy to find in Japan. Turns out that houses are given a number by the order they were built, not by their place in the street which means that house #1 can be incredibly far from house #2, this explains why B&B Juno had such detailed instructions to get there. I brought all this info in my phone, so I asked the driver to tell us when to hop off the bus, followed the instructions as if we were on a treasure hunt and so it was easy to find the place in the end.

Picture of our room at B&B Juno, Kyoto

Our room at B&B Juno, Kyoto

B&B Juno was the best place we stayed during our entire trip in Japan. It is a Japanese house run by Ian and his wife Sybilla. Ian is a Canadian who moved to Japan more than 20 years ago to teach English at Kyoto’s University. He speaks and writes Japanese and was also the editor of a tourism/culture magazine in English about Kyoto so he kindly helped us plan our trips. During breakfast we would talk with Sybilla about different countries and cultures (she is Austrian and has lived in a number of different countries) which made things even more interesting.
The house was very nice, located close to the Philosopher’s Path and many temples, it was also the first time I slept in a traditional Japanese room.
With affordable prices (for Japan’s standards) of 5000 ¥ (~50 €) per person, if you are staying in Kyoto, I advise you to stay in B&B Juno, especially if it will be the beginning of your trip and you might appreciate the help of an English-speaking person.

Kyoto is an amazing city, with many things to see and to talk about so I will leave those for the next article.

to be continued…

A Couple of Weeks in Turkey, The End: Istambul (again)

This article finishes the “A Couple of Weeks in Turkey” series and follows A Couple of Weeks in Turkey, Part 4: Cappadocia.

As I said in this series’ previous post, the Ankara visit didn’t go as planned. Our plan was to visit the city during the day and take the night train to Istanbul. I had read that the night train was really something to try so as soon as we arrived at Ankara we headed for the train station to buy the night train’s tickets and guess what… the wonderful night train was full!
Those were bad news, so after talking with Helena, we came to the conclusion that the best plan was to go to Istanbul on the next train. Of course, we didn’t have a place to stay at Istanbul and we would arrive there late that same night.

217 km/s
(217 Km per second!? Actually the s stands for saat: hour)

Fortunately I had written down the phone number of the hotel I had booked for the day after that one. I bought a public phone card, called them and, to our relief, they had a free room for that night. Now all we had to do was to wait a few hours for our train to Istanbul and we stayed at the station during that time because we couldn’t risk missing the train (and Ankara doesn’t really seem to have much to see, I was pretty much only interested in visiting the Atatürk Mausoleum).
Finally the train came, it would be another long trip and we would arrive late (at 11pm supposedly) but Helena and I had our first dinner ever at a train (at the train’s restaurant, that is), so it wasn’t all bad.

Late night adventures

What’s the worst you can do when you already know you’ll arrive late at the wrong side of the city (wrong continent, actually) and you’re pretty much confident of your travelling Turkish language skills? Hop off on the wrong station, of course!
The problem was that I was worried that we arrived too late to get the last ferry boat from the Asian shore to the European one (where our hotel was, in Sultanahmet) and I thought I heard the train announcement saying we had just arrived at Haydarpaşa (our destination)…
So we hopped off and it took us some long 5 minutes to realize I was wrong. Now I was getting nervous, I didn’t know how far from Istanbul we were, nobody seemed to speak English enough to understand me and the pride I had in having learned some Turkish was gone, leaving a trail of shame. After being told there was still a train to Istanbul that night, we bought new tickets and went to the platform.
When the train came, it resembled a subway one, with open space but dark, we also realized it was more than 10 stops until Haydarpaşa…

Haydarpaşa Train station
(Haydarpaşa train station)

Finally we arrived safely at the train station and now there was another challenge for us to face: how to get the other shore.
It was almost midnight and we didn’t know when the last ferry to the other shore departed so we asked one of the passengers that was leaving the train station like us and he told us we needed to rush because we had perhaps 10 minutes or so to catch the ferry. We were so tired that we gave up on that idea and instead decided to take a cab. The designated cab driver didn’t speak much English so another driver helped us with the negotiation. The price was 40 TRL (~20 €) to take us to our hotel in Sultanahmet, I still had energy to bargain but the driver was inflexible, “40 lira it is!” I said.
The drive took about 40 minutes to get to Sultanahmet (the area) but as soon as we got there, he stopped and said “Okay, here. Sultanahmet!”. I told him that our hotel was still too far for us to walk with two big backpacks and reminded him that I had explicitly negotiated the price to get to the hotel, not the area. He said “okay” and drove around a little more, stopping every once in a while asking other taxi drivers for the hotel’s street (I kept telling him where it was and I had a map but he wouldn’t look at it). This lasted for 20 minutes or so until he found our hotel. When I reached my wallet to pay him, I said “40 lira, thank you!” and he said “thank you, but 40 lira Sultanahmet, please 10 lira more”, I said no-way, it wasn’t my fault he decided to take us to a destination he didn’t know and I tried to explain this to him. He said he had driven around so much that the 40 lira would not make it; “5 lira more!” he said with a lost puppy face and I gave in, took out a 5 lira bill thinking “it is just 2.5 € anyway…” and gave it to him; he said “okay, now 10 lira more”, “WHAT!?”, “10 lira more” he said. I wouldn’t take it, I felt bad that I was fighting over a couple of euros but the fact is that it was indeed his fault, he didn’t know where the hotel was, he didn’t use the taximeter and this sort of extortion was even advertised in our guide book so I took back the 5 lira from his hand, repeated my point a couple of times and headed to the hotel leaving him entering the cab while giving me a look not so much of a lost puppy but rather of an angered pitbull…

Grand shopping at the Grand Bazaar

The next morning we had breakfast at the terrace of our hotel, Hotel Deniz. The breakfast was nothing special but the view over the sea was great. That day, June 24th, we went to the Grand Bazaar to do some real shopping this time. We got there early and it was really funny because every time we discussed or asked about the price of something, we were told “because you’re my first customer today, I have a special price for you”. Of course this was bullshit and we still had to bargain everything 🙂
Bargaining is funny, there were a couple of unsuccessful deals (as in, the salesmen would not give in) but we always got a good enough price. Helena was astonished by all the materials, both in quantity and in variety, she could find for making her crafts.
Among other things, we bought:
– A Turkish coffee can;
– Several “evil eye” key-chains;
– Handkerchiefs;
– Leather “Hugo Boss” shoes (the ones I’m wearing right now 🙂 );
– A purse for my mother;
– A lamp made of tiny glass tiles;
– A traditional, hand-made flute for my brother;
– Turkish delight boxes (lokum);
– A traditional dagger replica;
– Purple “Converse All Star” shoes for Helena;

Helena bought these All Star shoes for 30 TRL (~15 €) and in purple, the color she loves and couldn’t find before. However, when we arrived at the hotel, we realized that one of the shoes didn’t have the Converse logo… Helena really loved the shoes so we headed back to the bazaar and found the salesman (just a boy, actually) who looked very embarrassed and swore he hadn’t sold those one purpose (I believed him). He made a phone call and soon after somebody came with a new, perfect pair.

Sightseeing and relaxing again

The Grand Bazaar is an amazing and hypnotizing place but we also did more than shopping for these last days. We went on trip up the Bosphorus where I took some nice photos despite the rainy day and when it finished, we ate a balık ekmek (fish sandwich) at a place under the Galata bridge. After that, we crossed the bridge by foot to visit Galata. This district seemed more urban (as in “European urban”) than the other two shores we had been at. We also passed by a jazz café that our Brazilian friends had told us about back in Cappadocia but we didn’t enter which was a pity because later that night, while at the Marmara Café, we found the Americans we also met at Capadocia and they told us they were there, at the jazz place, together with the Brazilians…

Istanbul

These last days we also found a really good restaurant in Sultanhamet. It is called Doy-Doy and we loved it so much we went there twice. The restaurant is in fact a building with several stories and we had dinner at the terrace. What is also incredible is that the kitchen is at the ground floor and there’s no elevator (not even a food elevator) so one of the waiters goes up and down all night. The price is good, the food is marvelous and the views of the Blue Mosque make it only more awesome. Go there if you have a chance.

We also passed by a famous calligraphist close to the Çemberlitaş Hamamı where I bought a plate with “Família Rocha” written on it for my mom. I know the calligraphist had a webpage that I once visited but I cannot remember what the shop’s name was, my attempts to find it on Google were unsuccessful as well but you can see his picture below. Still, it is easy to find if you pass by the Hamamı and is worth to go there instead of a street calligraphist as this guy is much better.

The best caligraphist in town

Hoşça kal

On the June 27th 2011 we boarded on a plane back to Spain. We loved Turkey, its people, its food and its beautiful landscapes and culture. I hope we go back at some point and I totally recommend it if you want a mixture of European and Middle-east cultures.

Lua de Mel na Turquia

This finishes the series of articles about our Two Weeks in Turkey in the summer of 2011. Just like the Interrail series, it took me almost a year to wrap it up but hopefully I covered most of our little adventures in this amazing country.

Until the next trip!