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Work-cation

July 25th, 2013 No comments

It felt like summer vacation for approximately two days, and now it just feels like a new species of work. I’m not complaining—I like work—it’s just that the feeling is even less “vacationey” than I expected. I’ve set up meetings with the Speech Contest students every weekday before my Germany trip, about an hour of practice per meeting. Since there are four of them—two individual third-graders, an individual second-grader, and a pair of first-graders who do a skit together—that makes up to 4 hours a day depending on whether they can all come. With an hour of lunch that makes 5 hours, which is not much less than the 8 I was spending before summer vacation started. I come in a little later, leave a little earlier, and don’t have to plan lessons, but other than that things feel the same. This is not quite a vacation—I should come up with a different word for it.

DSCF2929I did spend the first day of Summer Vacation doing something interesting though. I was planning to join Lily and Jack for her birthday dinner in Tokyo at night, but I went earlier in the day and went up the Tokyo Sky Tree to check out the view and take copious amounts of pictures, only a few of which I’ll post here. I’ve been to many “high points” of cities: the World Trade Center (when it existed), the Eiffel Tower, the London Eye, the Empire State Building, the Sears Tower, the one in Rome with the really long name, and a bunch in various German cities, so this was nothing new for me, and to put it bluntly Tokyo is not a particularly aesthetic city so it wasn’t the fantastically amazing experience that many of the others were. The two best views are the Eiffel Tower for the aesthetics of the city, and Rome because of all the awesome landmarks.

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Not to diminish the awesomeness, though. It’s still pretty incredible to be looking out over this giant city from half a kilometer in the sky, nothing but urban jungle stretching all the way to the horizon and beyond. My most profound thought was just how many people were in my field of vision at any given time—albeit most concealed by buildings—and how strange it feels to think of specific people, to call to mind those who mean something to me at a vantage point from which all people appear insignificant.

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Once that thought occurred to me I entered something of a zen-like state and remained up there for hours. I would have left much sooner if not for the fact that when I’d felt I’d soaked it in enough the sun was on its way down and I figured if I just waited a bit longer I’d get to see the city at night, so I watched the sunset over the urban sea and got a few pictures of early evening Tokyo (almost not of which came out well) before heading down and all the way across town to Shibuya for dinner.

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Dinner was quite pleasant, with Jack, Lily, Stephen, Lily’s French friends, and a few various others including people I met at the picnic on Spring vacation. Unfortunately I had to rush out in order to catch the last bus back to Togane, but it was a good time and totally worth going.

Finally, the last event since my last entry was my first enkai with the faculty of K-chu, which was last night. It was noticeably smaller than all my other enkai experiences, but the basic format was the same: lots of people topping off your drink as you’re served course after course of odd-looking fish cuisine. There was a pause half-way through as the coach of each sports team (plus the band) gave a speech about their club, and that was different from Togane Chu. Because there are less students here there are less sports. If they asked every coach at Togane to speak it would take up the whole enkai.

More interestingly, it might have just been where I was sitting but there seemed to have been a lot more drinking at this affair than those at Togane Chu. Except for the administrators, everyone is seated according to a random number drawing, and I happened to be seated right along with the administrators, right next to the Vice Principal who until that night was the most intimidating guy at any school I’ve been to. In school he keeps busy constantly, and when I have to go up and get my stamps on my pay sheet for Interac he treats me like a nuisance so I’m always afraid to go up to him, constantly waiting for what appears to be a break in his activity. He also occasionally loses his temper and explodes at a student, shouting and ranting for minutes on end about god knows what grievance the poor kid committed. But last night he was pounding down the alcohol and behaving so jolly and merry it was like a different person altogether. He insisted on sharing a bottle of sake with everyone around him and he made a point of carrying out a conversation with me to the best of his English and my Japanese ability, telling me he’d never had an ALT even capable of conversation before. He actually told me I’m too serious in the teacher’s room and should be more friendly. Irony.

The main event was followed by karaoke, this time at the smallest karaoke place I’ve ever been to, a restaurant of just two small rooms, each with a karaoke machine that can’t be going on at the same time because there’s no sound separation and everyone outside our back room could hear the singing going on inside. Of the original [relatively] small group, only about half came to karaoke so this was indeed much smaller than that times at Togane, and while the karaoke queue was always full at those events, here there were rarely more than two songs cued up and occasionally there was nothing being sung at all. I was asked to sing near the very beginning, even had a specific song requested by the second-grade teacher: “Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” by Aerosmith, a song I don’t even like but heard often enough when it was popular in America to sing it pretty well. That was received very well by the staff. For my next song I took a stab at “Born this Way” by Lady Gaga and only did an adequate job but still got good applause. Finally, I screwed up by trying to impress them by singing the German “99 Luftballoons” and while I’ve done that successfully before, I was terrible that night and none of them knew the song anyway so the applause at the end was clearly forced. Oh well, not like anyone’s gonna hold it against me.

It was weird to come in this morning and see just about everyone from last night back at their jobs, but that’s the Japanese way.

Someone asked me if I had a hangover this morning. No, it had only appeared that I’d been drinking excessively last night, when in reality I’d been pacing myself so steadily I even had one last beer after getting home, and woke up this morning feeling fine. That’s the American way.

Adventures in Kyoto

December 30th, 2011 No comments

Kyle in Kyoto

I returned last night from my last major travel adventure of a year chock full of them. I’d been itching to see another part of Japan ever since I arrived in August, but working five days a week makes that somewhat difficult, not to mention the fact that I haven’t had much time to save up a great deal of money yet so the spending-sprees must be kept to a minimum. It was a costly trip, but worth every yen.

Kyoto is like the Rome of Japan in that thousands of years of history are all right next to each other with the ancient and the modern meshed together wherever you go. It was the capital of Japan from the 800s to the 1800s, so there is a great deal of history to be found. Unfortunately, I’m not nearly as familiar with Japanese history as I was with Roman history when I went to Rome, so I couldn’t appreciate it as much. The overall feeling was simply one of profound satisfaction: This is it. I did it. I came to Japan and now I’m experiencing what it has to offer.

So I won’t go into quite as much detail as I did with the Rome trip, but I will post a great deal of photos as I snapped several hundred. The pictures will tell as much of the story as my words.  [Don’t forget to let your mouse-pointer hover over the images to read the captions.]

Day 1

After taking the bus from Togane to Tokyo I got my first taste of another uniquely Japanese experience: a ride on the Shinkansen (or bullet train). While expensive, the price is comparable to the Deutsche Bahn, but with the DB you can buy tickets at a major discount if you purchase well in advance of your trip, which doesn’t seem to be the case with the Shinkansen. Fare from Tokyo to Kyoto is 11,000 yen (about 140 USD), and the distance is 372 km. Coincidentally, the distance from Hannover to Offenburg is very close—about 412—and the non-discounted price on the Deutsche Bahn is 110 Euros, about 140 USD. But the Shinkansen is much, much faster than the ICE trains in Germany. It took me 4.5 hours to get from Hannover to Offenburg (if there were no delays) whereas it took less than 2.5 to get from Tokyo to Kyoto. Maximum speed of the Shinkansen is 300 km/hr (186 mph). Once the thing gets going you really feel like you’re riding a bullet.

Shinkansen!Fast as a speeding bullet...

I got another unexpected treat during the journey—I didn’t know this but the rain rides right by Mount Fuji, so I got to see the most recognizable landmark in Japan. It was tricky but I managed to get a photo. That was truly awesome.

Fuji-san!!!

I’d left Tokyo at 12:30 so I arrived in Kyoto at 3:00. The sun sets now at about 4:30 so I knew there wouldn’t be much time for sight-seeing on the first day, and my only plan was to find my hotel and check-in, then have dinner and walk around the city. Thanks to my I-phone I was able to orient myself towards the hotel without much trouble, and even check the internet to reassure myself that I knew exactly where it was.

Along the way I kept passing by interesting sights. I came across my first shrine within five minutes of leaving the station, just a tiny little thing on a side-street. The people passing by must have thought it curious that I was even bothering to take a photo when there must be thousands more just like it in the city.

My first Kyoto-shrine.

I discovered to my dismay that my camera’s battery was nearly dead. I’d charged it before the bonenkei but apparently I’d drained it far more than I thought on that occasion. I hadn’t brought my charger, but I noticed an electronic shop on the way and considered stopping in to buy a new one but I also had my I-phone which can take pictures so I thought I could just settle for that.

Kyoto station. Electronic shop.

About a block north of the electronics store I came to the first major Buddhist temple I’d see on the trip. Unable to resist, I walked through the gate and went inside to check it out and take sub-par I-phone pictures of the stuff there. I went inside the main temple (removing my shoes beforehand of course) and took in the awesomeness within, which unfortunately you are banned from taking pictures of. I got there just in time too, because they were closing the doors to the shrine with all the golden statues and artwork just when I got in, so I was able to catch the last glimpse of it.

My first Kyoto Buddhist-temple. There be dragons here.

I’d come to find that Buddhist temples in Kyoto are like churches in Rome. They’re everywhere, but when you go inside you can’t help but be overwhelmed with their aesthetic magnificence every time. But it’s more than just aesthetics—something essential about the spirit of the culture can be felt there. In those churches you just feel like this is distinctly Europe. In the temples it is distinctly Japan.

The old and the new. The temple gate.

I went out the side entrance and circled back around to head out the main gate where I came in. As I was exiting an old Japanese man came right up to me with a smile, saying “Hello! Welcome to Japan!” This guy was just radiating friendliness, so I warmly greeted him and we got into a conversation. He wanted to know my impressions of Japan and what I thought were the differences between American and Japanese culture. He says he likes Americans because they are very honest and direct, unlike the Japanese. He also said that he doesn’t like British because they’re not direct either and often can be rude. But he agreed that these are just generalizations and there are very nice British people as well as rude Americans.

He said he’s learning English by attempting to translate sentences from novels, and he busted out three sheets of paper with translated sentences and asked me if I wouldn’t mind telling him if he got them right. I was slightly wary, worried that he might keep me all evening, but I agreed and sat next to him on the steps to the temple as he went through each sentence and asked me if they were correct. Most of them were perfect, but I was able to make a few corrections for him. It is my specialty after all, though I didn’t tell him I was an English teacher because he never asked. Occasionally he’d ask me what the meaning of a word was, and he seemed to get a little annoyed when it had the same meaning as a word he already knew. He knew the word “figurative” already, and asked me why English had to be so complicated and why we always had to use one word to mean something else. In English one word can mean many things, but he said that in Japanese one word just means one thing. I realized later that that’s not true at all—for example the word kami can mean paper, hair, or god—but I didn’t disagree with him at the time.

Shoji-san. He had a very jolly laugh, which I heard frequently especially when explaining words like “lewd” or “cannibal”. He asked me if women can run around naked in America because he’d been to Miami Beach and there were lots of topless women but the police didn’t arrest them, and I explained that Miami Beach is just an exception. And he asked me if there are people in America who eat people, and while I said there weren’t he reminded me of Native Americans, some tribes of which did indeed practice cannibalism.

When we’d gone through all three sheets of seemingly random sentences from random novels, he thanked me and said goodbye, apparently not unaware of the rudeness of keeping someone locked in a conversation for too long. I got his name: Shoji, which I assume is one of those words with multiple meanings because I know it as “sliding door”.

Evening was turning to twilight as I headed up the road in the direction of the hotel, and in spite of the help of my I-phone it still took some doing to finally find it, by which time it was fully dark. I was staying at the “First Cabin” which I’d booked online beforehand. It was a “capsule hotel” but apparently much more upscale than most such hotels as I discovered later. The sleeping capsules were all relatively spacious, and while they had only magnetized curtains to open and close there was a lock-box under the bed to keep your valuables. The restroom and shower rooms were communal, but everyone got their own capsule (at least if you’d booked a single-room). The male and female sleeping areas were segregated, and the sleeping areas themselves were behind thick doors beyond which you were supposed to keep quiet. It being the middle of the week and probably an off-season, there were only a handful of other occupied capsules, so it was indeed very quiet except for the occasional ruckus on the street outside. There were no windows, so day was exactly the same as night in terms of lighting, which turned out to be very helpful in not waking up early.

My sleeping-pod.Time to leave the capsule if you dare. 

But I didn’t stay too long when I first arrived. I just emptied my back-pack of the excessive clothes and went back outside and into the night. I walked around the block looking for a place to eat, and settled on an udon restaurant nearby. In Europe I always felt weird eating at a restaurant alone, but not at these places. There were five other men there when I sat down, also eating alone. It would seem that dining-out solo is extremely common in Japan, at least for men.

When I finished eating I decided I would head back to the electronics store and just see if they had a camera charger, because I wasn’t satisfied at all with the photos my I-phone was taking and figured it would be worth the price of a new charger to be able to take quality pictures of Kyoto. The photos would last forever, after all.

I went inside and showed my camera and battery to one of the people who worked there, and he knew exactly what he was doing as within five minutes he’d taken me to the counter where his colleague handed me the exact charger I needed and got me checked out. It was 3400 yen, but I did not regret the price. The charger I currently have is actually from Germany so I’ve needed to use both the charger and a bulky adapter up to this point, but this is small and much more conducive to travel.

I didn’t want to go out drinking because I wanted to be fresh for tomorrow, but I didn’t want Kyoto at night.to just go back to the hotel and go to bed so early (it was only 6:30) so I checked my I-phone map and planned a long route back to the hotel which would take me along the river. Along the way I was texting back and forth with Lily, the French girl I’d met at Ben’s Christmas Party who would be coming with her boyfriend Jack and two of her friends from France the next day.  They were considering stopping at Nara first (Nara was the very first capital of Japan but for less than a hundred years) but I convinced them to do that on their way back because otherwise I’d barely get to see them. She said they could probably arrive about 1:00 the next day.

It was a lovely walk along the river and I took a few night photos, but my good camera was still dead so I had to take them with the I-phone and they didn’t come out well. But I was feeling very good, experiencing that old familiar buzz of being in a new city for the first time. I got back to the main road leading back to the hotel far sooner than I’d imagined, so I busted out the I-phone map again and decided to walk a good distance north to Nijo castle and then circle back around.

The river at night. That turned out to be a very long walk indeed, and by the time I got there my legs were hurting and I’d already worked up another appetite. The castle itself looked very impressive but it was hard to tell in the dark. I figured I’d go back there the next day, then headed back to the hotel, stopping at a Chinese restaurant for a second dinner along the way.

I got back to the hotel at a respectable late hour of 9:00, and spent the next two hours in my capsule reading a book on Japanese history I’d downloaded to my Kindle a few weeks ago. I got to the part where they moved the capital to Kyoto while I was in Kyoto, so that was pretty cool. At about 11:00 I turned out the lights and had a nice long sleep.

Day 2

Included in the price of my hotel stay was a breakfast, and while I was expecting little more than the standard continental breakfast-buffet, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that they actually prepare a bona-fide genuine Japanese breakfast for you including soup, a bowl of rice, some vegetables, and a strip of delicious fish. That filled me up quite nicely and fueled me for the whole first half of the day.

Before leaving I took advantage of the hotel’s wireless internet to boost the speed of my I-phone and do a little internet research on things to do in Kyoto. I had a week-old Facebook message from a girl named Yuki who lives in Kyoto and whom I’d asked for recommendations. She was a colleague of mine at the Doubletree in Santa Barbara before moving back to Japan, and while I would have really liked to have met up with her while I was there she said she had other plans. Though she’s always been nothing but friendly to me, I don’t think she likes me all that much but being Japanese she would almost certainly never come right and out and just tell me flatly that she has no desire to see me.

But she did give me a bunch of recommendations, one of which was just a block away from the hotel: Nishiki Market, a five-block stretch of shops where you can supposedly find every kind of food you can imagine and a whole lot that you can’t. I also looked up the “palace of the squeaking floor” which my Grandpa said was a must-see, and while nothing matching that exact phrase came up I believe I found what he meant and that it was actually in Nijo castle. So my plan for the morning was to head to Nishiki Market and then back to Nijo castle, which would hopefully take me to about 1 p.m.

I found the market quickly enough, and proceeded to walk through it and behave like a reverse-Japanese tourist by taking photos all along the way. It was indeed a phenomenon, but I’m afraid pictures can’t adequately capture in any more than words can. The most distinct thing about this place was the smell—a very fishy aroma but mixed with other things, altering slightly between this and that as you walked along.

Entrance to Nishiki.   I can see food for miles and miles.   How much caviar do you need?

Fish that were alive this morning. Yummy.

At the end of the market I came to an intersection with another enclosed street filled with shops of different kinds. But straight ahead was a Buddhist shrine so naturally I had to go in and take pictures, the most curious thing about it (other than the location) being a mechanical animal that moved around whenever someone put a coin in the slot. That’s one way to solicit donations.

Shop, visit shrine, continue shopping.   Insert coin for everlasting bliss.

I walked north through the shopping area, surprised to find another two Buddhist shrines along the way. The juxtaposition of commercial area and Holy Ground was alarming—one of the shrines was literally directly across from a sporting goods store. It would be like having a church in a shopping mall. But that particular shrine had a very amusing sign, as apparently its location does lead some tourists to believe they can shop there too.

Go shopping... ...visit temple...

...continue shopping. Read the sign, gaijin!

I finally got out onto another main road and checked the I-phone to confirm if I just headed due west I’d eventually get to Nijo castle. It’s a wonder that I ever managed to travel without an I-phone. Before I got it I might as well have lived in the Dark Ages. Every time I was unsure of my location I’d have to unfold this giant and unwieldy map and stand there like an idiot looking around me for some street signs to hopefully match up with the streets on the map. In Japan that would be extremely difficult because most of the street signs—when there were any—are in Kanji. But with the I-phone you just open the map app, wait for a satellite to pinpoint your location, and bam you know exactly where you are. If you’re not sure which direction you’re pointing, just open the compass app and bam you know where you’re going. God bless technology!

When I was approaching the castle I noticed a lot of disappointed-looking tourists walking back in the other direction, and I grew apprehensive. There was a line at the ticket counter, so I didn’t lose all hope immediately, but I soon spotted a sign that said the castle was closed from December 26 to January 2. The most convenient possible dates! It turned out the line at the counter was for tourists to go up to the unfortunate lady there and get the news directly from her mouth that one of the most must-see sites in Kyoto just happened to be closed during the exact dates they were there, but can we at least get an information pamphlet?

Alas. At least I got to see the outside.

I’d gotten a text from Lily saying they were running late and probably wouldn’t arrive until 3:00, and it was 11:30 now so I had much more time to kill. One of the other sites recommended by Yuki as well as the teachers at my school was the Kinkakuji, or “Golden Pavillion”. I-phone time. I checked the map and saw that it was quite a ways away to the north, probably at least an hour of up-hill walking to get there. And there were no subway stations anywhere near it. There was, however, a taxi right there outside the castle. I went up and asked the driver in Japanese how much it would cost to get there, and he answered me in English “about one thousand seven hundred”. In my mind I’d been thinking it would be at least three thousand, so this sounded pretty good to me and I decided to go for it. The ten-minute ride actually ended up only costing 1,530 making this the first time a cab-driver has ever over-quoted me. It only occurred to me a few minutes later that this was the same basic price as the much longer trip from Togane to Tokyo, and while my mind had been dwelling on the lack of a nearby subway station I’d forgotten the existence of busses.

But there was no use dwelling on it. Just another twenty bucks spent, and it wasn’t a complete waste as I got there much quicker and easier than if I’d had to figure out the bus situation.

So I headed up to the temple and paid the admission price (less than the cab fare) to go inside. It was a whole complex like most Buddhist temples with multiple buildings and shrines galore, but the main feature and the reason it’s such a popular tourist attraction is the pavilion out on the pond, an absolutely gorgeous building in the loveliest setting imaginable. According to the info pamphlet, the pavilion was originally built in 1220 though it’s since undergone several restorations. It’s three stories tall and each story is a different type of architecture, the 1st floor being “palace style”, the 2nd “samurai style” and the 3rd “Zen temple style”. If I knew anything about Japanese architecture I’d probably find that fascinating.

Kinkakuji!    Heavenly.

I got my obligatory pictures of me in front of the temple and posted one to Facebook (another super-awesome thing you can do with an I-phone). The guy I asked to take my picture was a white guy and I assumed he was American so I spoke English to him, but he didn’t actually say anything to me but communicated with only facial expressions. On the other side of the pavilion I heard him and the people he was with speaking German.

I figured “what the hell?” and went up to them. “Entschuldigung,” I said. “Sind Sie Deutsch?” Ja, apparently they were. “Woher kommen Sie?” Apparently they kommen from München, but they spoke High German well enough. So I got into a nice little chat with them and got to know what they were doing here and they got to know about what I was doing here. Apparently the girl is studying in Kyoto and her brother and parents were just there for the holidays to visit. How nice that they would do that even with all the radiation-phobia in Germany. They were going to Tokyo for New Years’ but didn’t know if there would be anything going on there, and I informed them that there would be fireworks at the Tokyo Sky Tree. When I told them that was in Asakusa they got excited because that’s where their hotel is, so that’s what they’ll be doing for New Years’. I hope I’m right about those fireworks—I only heard about it through Stephen so if I’m mistaken they’re going to be thinking bad things about me on New Years’ Eve.

But it was a pleasant little chat and I was pleased with myself for still being able to hold my own in German. It’s much much easier than Japanese anyway. The only problem is that now that I am speaking Japanese much more than German, the whole foreign-language part of my brain gets a little mixed up and I want to say a Japanese word like muzukashi (difficult) when I should say schwer, and I could not prevent myself from saying hai instead of ja, which I noticed them chuckling at. But still, I had to give myself a pat on the back.

Prettiness.    Another clever way to solicit donations.

More prettiness.    More heavenliness.

A bit further up the pathway I was stopped by an Asian guy with a big fancy camera who asked me to take a photo of him with the pavilion in the background. I happily obliged, and afterwards when I started to walk away he came up to me and asked me if I was travelling alone. I said that I was alone until 3:00 at which point I’d be meeting some friends at the station. He was from Korea and travelling through Japan with friends but he’d told them to go on ahead as he wanted to visit Kyoto alone, apparently preferring solo travel because—among other advantages—you meet more people. I love solo travel too both for that reason and the fact that you get to plan your own itinerary and take in everything all on your own.

I asked him for his name and he said, “English name or Korean name?” as apparently it’s popular in Asia to have one of each. His English name was John and his Korean name was   something very hard to pronounce and which I forgot, so I’ll refer to him as John. We ended up spending the next hour or so together, as I had no other plan until my friends came. After leaving the pavilion area we decided to just walk down the road and stop at the two or three temples along the way. I learned a bit about Korea from him and he learned a bit about America—as well as a little about Japan because this was his first time visiting—from me. He was a great guy and luckily appreciated my American sense of humor, which I found interesting because the Asian sense of humor is so different. But he even likes shows like South Park which is about as American as it gets.

John and me.

The first temple we came across was small but beautiful, and absolutely no other tourists were there. They were all up at the Golden Pavilion, and this place was tucked away nice and secret. We could have gone inside for 500 yen but he’s a student and therefore has to pinch every penny so we didn’t.

Lonely temple. Spirits undisturbed by tourists.

While there I got a text from Lily saying they’d actually be arriving at 2:00, and since it was now 1:15 and we were as far away from the station as it gets I figured I had to start heading back. A cab ride would be just too expensive so we found the nearest bus-stop and asked the people there to help us figure out  which busses to take. To do the next thing on his list, John had to take the bus before mine, so I bid him farewell and that was the last I saw of him. I typed up my name on his I-phone and told him to find me on Facebook though, so I’ll probably be hearing from him soon. God bless technology.

The bus ride was about 40 minutes and I ended up arriving at the station at about 2:15, which was perfect timing because Lily and the others arrived at the same time. After some texts and phone calls back and forth we finally found each other at the entrance, and for the rest of the day it was no longer solo travel.

Lily’s boyfriend Jack is American and her two other friends are from France: Hugo and Gauthier (pronounced like ‘Gucchi’). They were nice guys and spoke surprisingly good English though not as good as Lily who speaks perfectly.

Left-to-right: Hugo, Lily, Jack, Gauthier

The first thing we did was find a place to eat, and settled on a Chinese restaurant of the same chain as the one I’d eaten at the night before. I’d only ever hung out with Jack and Lily at the party two weeks ago and then it was only briefly, so I got a much better sense of the dynamic of how this group would be during our meal. The two guys kept pretty quiet, while Jack pretty much constantly cracked jokes, most of which were quite funny. Lily and Jack were very affectionate and playful, but not so much so that it was annoying. It was a nice group overall.

It was after 3:00 by the time we finished eating so most of the tourist things would be closing, and I suggested we head to the Nene no michi (the path of Nene) which is something Yuki recommended and which sounded awesome when I looked it up in the morning. They had a French guidebook for Kyoto but it wasn’t in there, but I showed Jack the description of it on my I-phone and he agreed that it sounded very cool. It’s basically a long strip of road in East Kyoto, starting with a shrine and ending at a temple, where modern architecture is banned so it’s all old-style buildings. I figured it would be perfect for an evening stroll.

One thing I quickly discovered about this group is that they don’t like to walk, so we found the nearest tram station and rode it two stops to the road leading up the Yasaka Shrine where the Nene no michi begins. Another thing about the group is that it gets easily distracted, but that’s mostly due to Lily who not only likes to shop but likes to check out all the cute little souvenirs she comes across. There being a large number of souvenir shops leading up to the shrine, it took us a little while to get there.

But we got there by 4:00, giving us a half-hour of sunlight and half-hour of twilight for the walk. The Yasaka shrine was pretty cool, but from there I wasn’t exactly sure which way to go so I asked some of the Japanese workers there to point us in the right direction whenever I wasn’t sure.

Yasaka! Within the shrine.

The gate.    I wuz also here.

One of the curious differences between Kyoto and Tokyo is that the people in Kyoto actually speak English whereas in Tokyo they almost never do. Even though I always asked for directions in Japanese, nearly every single one of them responded in English, even if their English was poor. The Japanese people in Tokyo probably speak just as well as in Kyoto, but for whatever reason the Kyoto people are less shy about putting their English to use.

We eventually found the path and headed down it, also turning off to head up some stairs to a temple at the top of a hill with a giant statue against the mountainside and very awesome view of the city below. It would have been nicer if there had been a bit more light, but it was still pretty breathtaking. The coolest part was seeing all of the old-style roofs in the foreground and all the modern architecture in the background.

Up to the temple.    Giant statue.

Old in front, new behind.When Lily got tired of walking up-hill. At the temple.

Serenity now.

We headed back down and to the final stretch of the Nene no michi just as twilight was turning to night, and Lily stopped at more souvenir shops and Gauthier stopped at a place selling some interesting food called mitarashi dango, which Jack explained were balls of rice meal drenched in a sweet sauce. They smelled delicious and Gautheir said there were good so I got some as well. They were okay but nothing spectacular.

Nene no michi. The guys.

Nene no michi coolness. Don't you want one for your roof?

Mitarashi dango! Nene no michi at twilight.

We were very close to the Kiyomizu, which Jack said was Kyoto’s most famous temple. He’s only 24 but he’s lived in Japan for 5 years and has been to Kyoto once before so he knew the most about it out of all of us. He said it was a big temple on stilts and very impressive, but as there was no sunlight left we decided not to go. I put that on my list of things to see the next time I come to Kyoto, along with Nijo castle.

Awesome.

After some discussion it was decided that the next destination would be a place called Loft, which was just a department store but apparently with a lot of crazy things to see. The deciding factor in going there was the fact that it was open until 9:00.

We took the subway to the center of town and then started heading toward the store, Jack discovering along the way that it was actually closer to the subway station we’d departed from, but we got to see plenty of cool things along the way. We were back at the same enclosed shopping-space that I’d been to in the morning after passing from Nishiki market.

          Back to shopping-town!           Mega-parfaits!

Jack was shocked to come across a Shakey’s Pizza there, as that’s an American pizza chain you can’t even find on the East coast, but the group decided we’d eat there after the Loft. I’d already eaten Japanese food in Kyoto and I like pizza, so I didn’t argue. At least it wasn’t McDonalds, though apparently their group had eaten at McDonald’s several times throughout their travels.

We got to Loft at 7:00 and to me it looked like just another department store, but I was having fun so I didn’t care. Lily wanted to do some shopping so we agreed we could split up and meet back downstairs at 7:45. Lily wanted to make it 8:00 but I couldn’t imagine spending a whole hour at a department store. It turned out we did anyway.

The one and only Loft (in Kyoto) Thought we were real samurai, didn't you?

But it actually was a lot of fun. I hung out with Jack the whole time and we just made amusing comments about all the things we came across, like at the section of diaries where they had a specific diary for everything, including a wine journal. I like wine as much as the next guy, but the idea of recording every type of wine you drink in a journal just seems like the quintessence of snobbery to me.

Shakey's! At any rate, Lily found a few things to buy and Hugo got something as well, and by 8:00 we were out the door and on our way to Shakey’s. There you paid about 900 yen for all-you-can-eat, going up to get fresh slices of pizza whenever they put out a new pie, as well as spaghetti or—probably unique to the Japanese Shakey’s—curry rice. Gauthier made the mistake of going for some curry rice, which fills you up much faster than pizza and is undoubtedly the reason they include it. But I stuffed myself with mediocre pizza (thankfully most of it was meat-free) and got my money’s worth. The conversation was pleasant and filled with Jack’s humor, and before we knew it we’d spent an hour and forty-five minutes there.

At 9:45 we were back outside, and the next thing the group decided to do was go into an arcade. There were about seventeen arcades spread throughout that shopping area so we had no trouble finding one (called “Game Panic”) and we went in and played some racing games. Only four people could play at a time so I opted out of the first one but tried my hand at Mario Kart, which I’m an expert at on Wii but which is much much different at an arcade so I only came in 3rd. The only other money I spent was on one round of Pachinko, which I’d never tried before so figured I had to at least once. I found it to be just as stupid as I’d thought it would be when I heard it described—just shooting dozens of little marbles into the game area and hoping they bounce of the pegs just the right way to earn you points. Its cousin pinball is only ten-thousand times more fun.

Don't panic. It's-a-me, Mario Kart!

          Racing action.                    Pachinko "action"

One of the Japanese workers approached Lily and told her she wasn’t allowed to take pictures, so I got away with the ones I took.

After that they decided to start working on getting to their hotel which was on the other side of town. All their bags were in lockers at the station so it was going to be quite a slog and full of subway-riding, and it was late enough for me so we parted ways and I headed back to the hotel to get in one more hour of reading before passing out.

Day 3

There were a few more people at the hotel on my second night, and much to my dismay one of them was a snorer. But I turned the air vent on in my room and covered my ears with the headphones they have for TV-watching and that was enough to drown out the sound and get me to pass out.

I tried to sleep as late as possible as Jack and Lily warned me they’re late-sleepers and might not be up until 10:00. Ah, the young ‘uns. That’s how I was at 24 as well, but somehow in the last three years I’ve completely transformed from a night-person to a morning-person and now I can hardly sleep past 7:00 let alone 10:00. If I’m tired enough I can sleep until 8:00 but that’s it, and that’s how late I slept that morning but I stayed in bed until 8:45.

I shaved, showered, and had breakfast and was ready to check-out of the hotel at 9:45. One of the things we said we’d be doing in the morning was going to the Geisha village, and I tried to figure out where that was with the internet on my I-phone and found the road that was mentioned. It was directly west of where I was, and I knew their hotel was west, so I figured I’d just walk there and hopefully they’d wake up and meet me there with good timing.

It was a very pleasant walk through the cold, clear, Kyoto morning. Naturally I planned my route to take me by some temples and shrines along the way. These were smaller ones with no tourists at all, so I felt self-conscious taking pictures while the faithful went there to drop their coin, ring the bell, and say their prayer (lord only knows to whom), but I did anyway. I dropped a coin in myself in compensation.

Yet another temple. Yet another shrine.

I arrived at the stretch of road that the internet had led me to believe was the Geisha district but there was nary a Geisha in sight. It was now 10:45 and there’d been no word from Lily & Co. yet so I decided I’d better just make plans without them. There was a nearby train station so I went there and figured out how to use the train and subway to get back to the eastern part of town where I’d walk south through a park with a bunch of temples and eventually get back to the Nene no michi and the Kiyomizu. Once I’d seen the Kiyomizu I’d be finished and then head home, whether or not I met up with the group again.

While I was on the train, Lily texted me at 11:00 informing me they’d overslept and it would be at least another hour before they were ready. I said I was heading to the Kiyomizu but to let me know their plans and maybe I’d change mine and meet up with them if it wasn’t too much trouble.

I somehow got to where I wanted to go without any trouble at all, proud of myself for figuring out the Kyoto public transportation system all on my own, and I headed from there up a hill where I quickly came across another temple complex. Obviously, I had to go inside and take a bunch of pictures, so that’s exactly what I did. I took off my shoes, went in and paid the 500 yen entry fee, then went inside to the awesome Japanese-as-can-be building and read the information sheet I’d received with my ticket.

The place is called Sho-ren-in which belongs to the Enryaku Temple in Mt. Hiei, which is apparently the main temple of the Tendai Buddhist sect. There was no date of construction on the sheet but luckily we live in the age of Wikipedia so I could find out it was constructed around the year 800. So yeah—damn, that’s old.

Inside the temple. Old-style "hallway"

View from the "hallway" The clutter room.

You could walk in and out and around this place, which was as lovely as can be with gorgeous Zen gardens complete with waterfalls and koi. You had to keep taking your shoes off and putting them back on again, but that was a small price to pay to take in this scenery.

We got your Zen right here.       Those fish are Zen-masters.

I got my fill of that and then continued up the hill, getting another text from Lily informing me that they’d be going to Pontocho, the Geisha village, which was very close to me. Apparently I’d researched the wrong Geisha village that morning. I checked and it was indeed just a 15-minute walk from where I was, but at that point I had arrived at the top of the hill and there was a gigantic gate with a freakin’ stairway to heaven beyond it just beckoning me in. I called Jack and said I had to check this out and he said to take my time because it would probably take them awhile to get there as well.

Outside Chion-in All that glitters is gold...

       In Chion-in                 Kyoto through the gate.

So I went up the stairs and into yet another giant temple-complex—this one called Chion-in—and it was the most impressive one I’ve seen by far. There were giant shrines everywhere and at least three temples spread throughout the area. I heard chanting coming from one of them so I took off my shoes and walked up the steps to peek inside. There was a giant golden Buddha and a monk sitting off to the side chanting and striking something with a mallet every couple of minutes, and a few faithful knelt at the altar getting their Zen on. As tempting as it was to take a picture, I decided not to be disrespectful.

Temple with kami-antenna.      Looks like a Boy Scout lodge, actually a temple.

I circled around the main building which looked like a palace made completely of wood, and when I got to the back I noticed an entrance similar to the other temples with boxes for people to take off their shoes. I didn’t see any tourists walking around there so I wasn’t sure I could go in, but there were no signs in English telling me I couldn’t so I decided to go for it.

I managed to walk around for a good five minutes, even stealing one very nice photo of the place, before a monk spotted me and made an X with his hands and said “No”. I immediately launched into ignorant-tourist-mode, giving him the sumimasen and gomen nasai and even using the word deguchi for exit, which he gladly showed me to. He showed no anger but I’m sure he was annoyed. But seriously—that must happen a hundred times a day. If they don’t want tourists entering they really ought to put up English signs.

Illegal photo!

In any case, I walked back to the main area and down some steps, ready to start heading to Pontocho, but there was an entrance to a Zen garden right there and I couldn’t resist. So I paid the 300 yen for entry and went inside. There were a couple of Japanese women on a bridge looking down at the water and remarking at the size of the enormous fish in the pond. They were indeed the largest fish I’ve ever seen in such a pond, which was appropriate as it was part of the largest temple.

The pamphlet I got from the Zen garden (was I supposed to pay for entry to the other part?) is what informed me the place was called Chion-in, built to honor Honen (1133-1212) the founder of the Jodo Buddhist sect. It’s the main temple of Jodo Buddhism (which I’d never heard of before).

There be Zen here.

Big Fish Zentastic.

The Zen garden was quite lovely, but somehow not as charming as the one at Sho-ren-in. I got my pictures and then stood at the pond for a moment, attempting to get some Zen going but distracted by all the other tourists taking pictures, and then my phone buzzed informing me that the others were almost at the Sanjo station near Pontocho.

From where I was it would take me about 20 minutes to walk there, but there were taxis right at the bottom of the temple steps and fare to the station was ‘only’ 640 yen so I took one and met the others just shortly after they got there.

From there we had to head back across the river and then through some side-streets to get to Pontocho, where supposedly there would be Geishas doing their whole Geisha-thing. We were slow to get across the river because everyone—myself included—wanted to take pictures. We definitely took our fair share.

The Kamo River

 To commemorate our historic reunion. I wuz there too.

We got across the river and found ourselves walking down a very nice road where we again had to stop and take pictures.

         Pretty road.              The group, candid.

Finally, we found our way to the street where the Geisha village was supposed to be, and—you guessed it—took pictures.

         Geisha village (not pictured: Geishas)    Me and Lily 

We continued to walk down along the street but just like for me in the morning, there was not a Geisha in sight. It must not be Geisha season. What we did find were cats. Cute little cats and kittens in a little opening between two buildings with stairs that led down to the river. Naturally, photos were obligatory.

Adorable! Can you even handle the cuteness!?

Our next album cover.

We got to the end of the whole road without spotting a single Geisha, but it was still a nice road so it wasn’t like it was a waste. It was about 1:30 now and I was getting hungry. They hadn’t eaten breakfast so they could eat too, and while we’d just passed about two dozen Japanese restaurants on that road we’d been walking down, the others wanted to go to Burger King. Having never been to a Burger King in Japan before (they are just as rare here as they are in Germany) I figured I wouldn’t argue—it’s still a new experience.

Turns out Burger King in Japan is a lot like Burger King anywhere else, only according to the others it tastes better. I had a spicy chicken sandwich with teriyaki which I’ve never had in any other Burger King so I couldn’t compare, but it was definitely very tasty. Better than the Chinese food from before anyway.

It was 2:20 when we were finished, and the next item on their list was the Manga Museum. Not being into manga at all and wanting to get home at a reasonable hour, I bid them farewell and began my long journey back to Togane. I’ll see them again soon, if not on New Years’ Eve then on January 2, when they’ll be back in Togane and I’m invited to come out to eat with them.

Adieu

And that was pretty much the end of my first trip to Kyoto. I took the subway back to the main station, and when I asked one of the workers there where to go to buy Shinkansen tickets he just dropped everything he was doing and took me to a machine where he completely walked me through the process. Not only that, but he pointed me in the exact direction of the track I needed to go to and wished me a pleasant journey. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before, but the Japanese people are extremely friendly, helpful people.

The Shinkansen ride through the sunset was a pleasant experience, and after a quick and painless changeover to the bus in Tokyo (which I made by exactly 3 minutes before I would have had to wait another hour) I was on the way back to Togane. I left Kyoto at 2:52. I arrived back in Togane at 6:17. You can go places fast in Japan.

And that was the last big journey of 2011, though not the last adventure. That will come tomorrow night when I go with Trey and a whole bunch of others back to Tokyo to a giant party at a place overlooking the bay that apparently has acrobats and will be raging all night long until the first sunrise of 2012 rises over the land of the rising sun. I’m not sure what I did to deserve a year this incredible, but an incredible year it has most certainly been.

Tokyo Team Tour!

September 4th, 2011 No comments

Picture of the day (if not the year)

The last three days felt like three weeks. After the incredible experience of starting my ALT job on Thursday and Friday and the crazy misadventure of Friday night and Saturday morning, my natural impulse was to just kick back in my apartment and have a nice long rest. Instead, I went to Tokyo.

This time I didn’t go alone. Two of the other ALTs I met at Narita training, both of whom live closer to Tokyo than I do but are stationed in different towns, had made plans with me to meet at Tokyo station and spend Saturday afternoon doing some sight-seeing. It was Stephen’s first time in Tokyo so he was really excited (I was psyched enough about going there for the second time, but it’s never the same as the first), while Amy lived and taught at a school in Tokyo two years ago. She would therefore be serving as our guide.

I took the bus into the city this time instead of the train, and found it to be well worth the extra ¥400. There was no changing trains, and while the bus made a few stops in the Togane area, once it got on the highway it went straight to a parking area on a road just outside Tokyo station. Rather than 80 minutes by train (and if you count the time it takes to get outside of the station from the train platform—90 minutes) the bus took just under an hour. That and the plentitude of seating makes the bus a far superior option.

I called Amy when I got to the station and she said she was there at our meeting point—the Yaesu Central Entrance—and waiting for Stephen, who unfortunately doesn’t have a phone yet. I went inside and spotted Amy, then we both went outside to wait for Stephen, hoping something hadn’t gone wrong because if it had he’d have no way of contacting us. We chatted for a few minutes about our experiences of the first couple days of teaching, and were relieved when Stephen walked up to us within five minutes.

Amy rattled off a list of possible places for us to go, and they all sounded perfectly good to Stephen and me. We decided to walk towards one of those places—I actually don’t remember which because the destination would change a couple of times as we walked—and headed off in that direction.

There was a typhoon making its way across southern Japan at the time, so the weather was somewhat schizophrenic. It was sunny one moment, then all of a sudden it would start pouring rain and everyone would run to take shelter. During the first downpour we were lucky enough to be right near a highway underpass, and from there we took our first pictures.

 Shelter from the typhoon. Waiting for the rain to let up.

Stephen and Amy Dragon streetlights. 

The rain let up within just five minutes and then it was sunny again, so we continued our journey, mostly just walking the streets, taking in the scenery, and exchanging stories about teaching. Both of their first days apparently went just as well as mine, and we were all on the same page in terms of how awesome it was to be able to talk and communicate with the Japanese students. Although I must confess I’m a little jealous of them, as Stephen teaches high school so their English is more advanced so it’s much easier for him to talk with them, and Amy’s Junior High School is much smaller than mine so she’ll actually be able to get to know all of her 120-some-odd students, while I don’t think I have a prayer of getting to know all of my 600.

None of us had eaten lunch before we came, so before too long our primary goal was to pick a place to eat. Our destination then switched in favor of a place where Amy was more familiar with the restaurants, but she wasn’t quite sure how to get there and we ended up wandering through a part of town conspicuously devoid of eateries of any kind. It’s just like it is with ATMs—they’re everywhere when you don’t need them, but as soon as you need one they’re nowhere to be found. Of course the weather also decided to hurl some more wind and rain at us, but none of us minded too much because it was a welcome relief from the heat and if you’re going to be wandering around semi-aimlessly in any city, it might as well be Tokyo.

Typical Tokyo street. Typical Tokyo weirdness. 

When the rain did let up, I jokingly predicted that that was it and it wasn’t going to rain again for the rest of the day. At the time I figured that there was no chance of it not raining again, but it was like the kami heard me and adjusted their plans accordingly because it actually didn’t rain again for the rest of the day.

We eventually came to a place Amy had eaten at before and said was good, so we went inside and sat down for a much-needed lunch at 3 p.m. Stephen got dumplings of some kind and both Amy and I ordered strips of garlic-covered chicken which were extremely delicious (oishi). I was surprised when Stephen said he hadn’t yet tried Japanese beer yet and ordered one. He said he wasn’t much of a beer drinker, but he definitely liked the beer he ordered—some seasonal brew of the Kirin company—and both Amy and I tried some and were surprised to find we liked it too. Normal Kirin is crap, but this stuff wasn’t bad, and was certainly refreshing after all that walking through the humidity.

Dome City!After lunch we headed off to what had at some point been decided would be our actual first destination—Tokyo Dome City. It was where the Tokyo Giants baseball team play their home games, but they also have concerts there and we later discovered that this evening there was a big event with a bunch of Korean pop stars all from the same record label. But right next to the stadium is a little theme-park with a Ferris wheel you could pay to go on and get some breathtaking views of Tokyo.  There was a great location to take pictures there at a little river along the way.

Close-up. Beautiful shot of Stephen and Amy.  What a place to be.

We went in the wrong entrance at first and found ourselves in a little-kiddie area, which had a Massive crowds for the concert.very cool steam-thingy that Stephen and I took pictures of before realizing how we might have looked. We got out of there and found the correct entrance, and headed up the stairs to the  Ferris wheel.

While this place was packed with people I was shocked to find absolutely no line at all to get on. We just purchased our [somewhat overpriced] ¥800 tickets to get on, had our obligatory photo taken by the professional photographer who tries to sell you the picture for ¥1000 when you exit (none of us bought), and hopped into our car for the fifteen-minute go-around.

Dome City, on the way up.

There was a jukebox in the car and while I couldn’t stand the J-pop that was playing and just wanted it to be turned off, Stephen really wanted to hear it because his students were always talking about it. I acquiesced and we listened to about 4 minutes of the stuff, and while Stephen actually seemed to genuinely enjoy it I eventually had to put my foot down because it was sucking all of the potential profoundness out of the experience.

Super-tourists!Climbing higher.

All three of us were snapping massive amounts of pictures the whole time, and we definitely got some incredible shots. This was the first time I was able to see Tokyo from an aerial view and it was just as awesome as I’d imagined. Just this gargantuan urban environment stretching out as far as the eye can see in all directions, and even then we were only seeing a part of it.

No edge in sight.

Even the sky was picturesque, with low-hanging clouds from behind which the sunbeams could be seen raining down on the city below. Unfortunately pictures can’t really capture it, but that didn’t stop us from trying.

Awe.

On the way down we discussed what we wanted to do next, and it was decided that evening would be the perfect time to go to a part of town called Shibuya, a busy place filled with all kinds of shops, arcades, bars and restaurants, and all kinds of random Tokyo madness.

We had to take the subway to get there, but luckily Amy knew what she was doing so it was not nearly as confusing an experience as it had been for me a week ago (was that only a week ago?) I also loved having Stephen there because he was impressed by just about everything, including how you could see the subway cars twist and turn as they made their way through the underground tunnels. But even he felt a little too weird about taking pictures on the subway.

Shibuya! Crazy scultpure.

We got to Shibuya (which I liked to call “Shi-booyah!”) just as evening was turning to twilight, and found ourselves at this crazy triangular intersection which is apparently famous or something. The whole atmosphere of this place was so insane and so distinctly Tokyo that I had to get a video of it.

After walking around that little area—apparently some famous meeting point—we crossed that crazy intersection ourselves and walked up one of those streets, snapping photos all along the way.

Streets of Shibuya.

Like Asakusa last weekend, Shibuya was filled with tourists and foreigners. We heard lots of English being spoken, including by Asians which always gave us pause. But I think unlike Asakusa the majority of the people there were still locals who just like to go there to hang out, shop, or play at the arcades.

Last week I remarked about how Tokyo is swarming with beautiful women, but Shibuya took it to a whole other level. The establishments there mostly catered to the young, so nearly every girl there was somewhere between late teens and late twenties, maybe early thirties (it’s so hard to judge with them). But there was enough going on all around that I wasn’t bothered by them. One pair of super-hot girls would walk by and there would be six more behind them.

Arcade megaplex.I spotted a crazy-looking place across the road and asked Amy what it was. I couldn’t tell from the outside, but it was apparently some kind of arcade/gambling-megaplex. We decided to go inside and check it out, and I’m glad we did. The first floor had a bunch of those claw-machines and those photo-booths where you can edit your photos to do things like massively enlarge your eyes (which the Japanese seem kind of obsessed with), and each of the upper floors had its own unique flavor of things to play. There was a gambling floor with some kind of electronic roulette-table thingy (I actually have no idea what it was) and a corner where you could actually just sit and bet on horse-races, which I assume were being broadcast live from various parts of the world where horse-races were going on. The top floor was just a straight-up video arcade, mostly fighting games with graphics like you wouldn’t believe. I remember when arcades were little more than pinball machines and Pac-Man. We’ve come a long way.

Photoshop-booths. The look on Stephen's face...

Super-fun happy time!

6000 yen on...um...? The fastest way to lose money.

After that madness I kind of had a hankering for a beer, so we went inside the nearest bar and sat down. It was a very western-style bar and there were a lot of foreigners there, but none of the pictures I took of it came out. We wanted to ask the bartender to get a picture of the three of us but he was too busy so we decided not to bother him. The most interesting thing about that place was the food menu, which had just about every type of bar-food from anywhere in the world you could think of. You name it: pizza, fish & chips, bratwurst, quesadillas, spaghetti, and on and on. The only thing missing was—alas—buffalo wings.

It was about 7:00 now and I wanted to get home at a decent hour because, after all, I desperately needed a good night’s sleep, and the others seemed to agree that it had been a nice full day and we were ready to go home. Amy helped us navigate back to the Shibuya station, and I took a few night shots along the way.

Sibuya at night.   Happiest man on earth.

Kind of a lot of people...

I’ve yet to truly experience the true Tokyo night-life, but I’d left quite early last week so this was the first time I’d seen Tokyo all lit up. Amy, however, informed us that there used to be a lot more lights than there were now. Apparently the Japanese are conserving energy due to the earthquake (which is, incidentally, the only sign in Tokyo that there even was the biggest earthquake in Japanese history just six months ago).

We changed trains at Shimbashi station, just like I’d done last week, and got to Tokyo station  and the Yaesu Central Entrance from where we’d started. Neither of them were in a hurry to get back, so they came with me to the busses and I asked the very friendly guy there when the next bus to Togane would be (in Japanese of course). He said 8:15, and it was now just 7:40, so we had some time to walk around this area and take some night photos, though almost none of mine came out.

Stephen's photo: "Two Passengers in a Foreign Land"

We came to a point where we spotted a German flag across the street, and I said we had to go in for a closer look. It turned out this was a genuine German bar in Tokyo, and not only that Die haben echtes Bier hier!but they served hefeweizen, my favorite kind of beer. I didn’t think I’d be able to find hefeweizen anywhere in Japan, so I couldn’t resist going in to have one. I asked the others if they wouldn’t mind and they didn’t mind at all, so we went downstairs and into the bar, which was completely and utterly empty except for the two Japanese guys who worked there.

I was running out of time and just wanted a quick beer, but these guys clearly expected us to sit down and spend some time there. I explained in broken Japanese I just wanted one beer and we would have to be fast (hayai), but when he showed me the drink menu and I saw how much the hefeweizen cost, I had to decline. It was about ¥1150—almost $15—and practically as much as the bus to Tokyo itself cost. As much as I wanted a hefeweizen I wasn’t going to pay that much for it and there wasn’t really enough time anyway.

The guy there was extremely friendly though, and joked that maybe I wanted a bigger one, taking out this giant 2-liter hefeweizen glass, which Stephen couldn’t resist getting pictures of, though unfortunately they didn’t come out well at all.

Trinken wier hier? Nein, trinken wir nicht :(

We apologized to those guys on the way out and they were both very friendly about it, and I resolved that I’ll eventually go back there sometime and fork over the price for that hefeweizen, assuming the place hasn’t gone out of business by then. It was a really nice place—just a terrible location. And it’s a shame the Japanese don’t seem to have much of a taste for German beer.

We walked back to the bus stop and I bid Amy and Stephen a goodnight. They were definitely great travelling companions and I hope to see them again at some point. Stephen has expressed an interest in coming to visit me in Togane, as he likes to surf and the beach is much closer to me than it is to him.

I tried to pay when I got on the bus but was told to pay after. But after an hour when we reached Togane station, everyone who got off the bus there just said goodbye to the driver and left without paying anything, and there was no one there to collect money. It wasn’t even like everyone went back to the station to pay someone there—everyone just went their separate ways. I don’t know what I did wrong, but I somehow got a free trip back from Tokyo, which actually meant I paid less overall than I did when I took the train.

When I got home and made myself a quick dinner I couldn’t resist having a couple glasses of whiskey and listening to music while contemplating the events of the past few days before going to bed, so I didn’t actually make it to sleep until midnight. At least I got a full eight hours, and I’ll definitely get another nap later on. But it’s nice to finally have a day completely free. Other than blogging and doing laundry, there’s nothing at all I have to do. I don’t even feel the need to “seize the day” because I’ve seized the living crap out of the last few days and starting tomorrow I’ve got to work six days in a row. On Saturday there’s some kind of open-house thingy at the school and I’ll be teaching to the students while their parents are there, as though they haven’t put me through enough stress already. At least they cancel school on Monday to make up for it.

There may not be another blog entry for quite some time, but I still plan on doing some work on this site. I started publicly posting journal entries a few months into my first year in Germany, but I’d like to go and back-post the entries I wrote before that, stretching back to my first day in Germany so readers can go back and compare the initial experiences of Japan with those initial experiences. I’ll make a note whenever that’s complete.

Until then, enjoy your break from the heavy reading material! Get some rest if you can. After today, I certainly won’t be getting much.

A Tiny Taste of Tokyo Town

August 29th, 2011 No comments

Cross another city off the list of places-I-must-see-before-I-die. When I was placed in a city within reasonable travelling distance of Tokyo, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to wait too long before heading there to check it out. Having discovered on Saturday what a trip from Togane to the beach entails, Sunday was about determining what it’s like to get from Togane to Tokyo.

Tourism Center of the Universe

Trey told me there’s a bus that goes there directly, but I was just as curious about the Japanese rail-system as I was about Tokyo itself so I decided to make my first trip there by train. I checked the schedules online at a site called hyperdia, and decided that the 10:31 train would be my best bet. I’d have to changeover once in a city called Soga, but from there it would be a straight-shot in.

After riding my bike to the station (which took about 4 minutes) and locking it up, my first problem was figuring out how to get a ticket. As far as I could tell there were no live human beings working there, either because it was Sunday, because there was another building I wasn’t aware of, or because they just don’t have people working there. I went up to the ticket machines and attempted to buy a round-trip ticket for the day, but they only offered a small list of destinations—all nearby cities—and none of them was Tokyo. I stood there scratching my head for a minute and was about to go ask someone for help, but it turned out I didn’t have to. An older Japanese man came right up to me and said in English, “Would you like some help?”

“Please,” I said, and explained that I was new in Japan and this was my first time taking the train. I told him I was an ALT, and he turned out to be an elementary school teacher in Narita. So this super-friendly English-speaking dude helped me through the whole process, which involved going to a different machine and calling for an operator, then explaining in Japanese that I needed a round-trip ticket for the day to Tokyo. The price showed up on the screen, about ¥2100 (just over $25), I put my cash in and as though there was a man living inside the machine, it took my money, printed out my tickets, and gave me an arigato gozaimashita.

I chatted with the teacher for a few minutes, telling him I was from New York which turned to the subject of the hurricane that’s currently blasting my friends and family there right now. Everyone in Japan is aware of it, as they’ve even got Japanese reporters in Manhattan to cover the story for their TV news reports. We also talked a little about the differences between JET and Interac, as the school where he works in Narita has JET ALTs and he says he thinks JET has better working conditions for its teachers. I wouldn’t know.

The train was right on time, and I stepped aboard and sat down for the 20-minute journey to Soga. Compared to the Deutsche Bahn, these trains measure up nicely. The seating is all along the side as opposed to rows like in Germany, but the seats are just as comfortable and the trains run just as fast. They stop for less time in each location, but other than that there’s no substantial difference. I do have a feeling they’re a bit more efficient than in Germany, as while the Deutsche Bahn was once famous for its efficiency, they’ve been slipping in recent years (which I judge both from my own experience and from talking about it with Germans). Every train I took throughout the day was exactly on time, but we’ll see how they operate in bad weather. I’m sure the efficiency falls apart pretty rapidly whenever there’s an earthquake.

Changing trains in Soga was not nearly as confusing as I’d feared it would be, as the train to Tokyo had LED-screens on the outside flashing the words “To Tokyo” in both Japanese and English. In fact the entire Japanese rail-system was incredibly user-friendly, with everything clearly marked and easily-readable schematic maps posted everywhere. The train to Tokyo itself had each stop announced in both Japanese and English, as well as LED-screens above the doors constantly letting you know what the next stop would be in kanji, katakana, and roman letters.

I was tempted to take some pictures from the train but I held back. We did pass through some very cool scenery though, including Tokyo Disneyland. I don’t foresee myself ever going there, but I suppose there are plenty of pictures online and everyone pretty much knows what Disneylands look like anyway.

The last few stations were all underground, so I only got to see the outskirts of the city on the way in, though the outskirts were certainly urban enough in their own right with skyscrapers aplenty, quite in contrast to Europe where everything is low to the ground. Japanese cities are far more in resemblance to American cities than Europe, with very little mind paid to aesthetics and almost no statues or fountains to be found.

We arrived in Tokyo station, and its monstrous size felt like a microcosm of the city itself. It took almost ten minutes just to get up all the escalators and finally emerge outside. Incidentally, just as driving is on the left side here, escalator-etiquette is also reversed. Because on Japanese highways the right-lane is the fast-lane, those who stand still on the escalators do so on the left while the people on the right are moving. They also really stick to that, as while you’ve often got some jackass standing still on the left side of the escalator in America (or even in Germany), every single person on the right-side of these escalators was moving.

My first glimpse of Tokyo.

So I finally got outside, took my first pictures, then headed off in the direction of the park. I was flying with absolutely no plan whatsoever, as while the original plan had been to meet a really nice guy I’d met at ALT training in Narita named David and have him show me around, he cancelled on me at the last minute because he had to do a one-on-one lesson with a guy who had an upcoming job interview in English, and besides that he had no spending money anyway. So without David I was left to my own devices, which I wasn’t upset about at all because I’ve probably solo-travelled more often than I’ve travelled with company anyway, and I felt it appropriate that my first time in Tokyo would be through my own eyes alone.

It was an absolutely gorgeous day and the park seemed like a natural first destination, so I moved in that direction until I spotted an empty tour-bus parked on the side of the road. Having had great experiences with bus tours in London and in Rome, I figured a bus tour of Tokyo might be a good way to start me off. I went up to the driver, asked him in Japanese if he spoke English—he could not—then proceeded to strain my Japanese skills to the limit to get the information about the tours. Luckily he had a flyer with all of the information, so he gave that to me and gave me some rough directions on how to get to the office where I needed to sign up.

I headed off in search of this office but I couldn’t find it. I found a few information boards with maps of the area and the locations of interest clearly marked, but the tour bus office was not among them. There was, however, one circle that marked the Tourist Inquiry Office, so I decided that would be my first destination. At the very least, they could tell me how to get to the bus-tour office.

The tourism office was in a giant building filled with shops and restaurants on the bottom floor and various other businesses in the floors above. The tourism office itself was actually on the tenth floor, which I suppose helps keep the place nice and empty most of the time. When I got there I was instantly greeted in English by the two ladies who worked there, the only two other people in the room. I’ve never seen a tourism office so empty before, but I was rather pleased because the ladies could focus all their attention on me.

All I did was ask them how to get to the office to sign up for the bus tours (it turns out it was marked on a small map in the flyer the bus driver had given me—I am an idiot), but they were eager to give me far more information and suggestions about where to go. They gave me free maps of Tokyo and Japan, circled points of interest in Tokyo and showed me brochures with pictures of what I could find there. I don’t know why I’m still surprised by how friendly Japanese people are, but these women were among the friendliest, most helpful people I’ve yet come across. They even gave me free postcards and a little paper-crane as a “welcome to Japan present”.

They said they were the only Tourism Office like this in all of Japan, and I think I believe them. They gave me a flyer with their phone number and said I could call them any time if I had questions about Tokyo or anywhere else in Japan. I thanked them profusely before leaving, making sure to use the Japanese, and they told me “gambatte” which has no real English equivalent but carries the same basic meaning as “go get ‘em!”

One of the areas they suggested I go to was called Asakusa, where there was apparently a temple and a shrine located in a big shopping district, as well as boat tours along the river. I could head there, check it out, then take the boat tour down to a small island in the harbor where there would be more awesome things to see including some kind of dancing robot. Seemed like as good a plan as any, so I nixed the bus-tour idea and decided to do that instead.

I was a bit wary of having to figure out the Tokyo subway system, and it was kind of a pain. The subway map is a mess—easily the most complicated subway map I’ve ever seen—and even though I was supposed to go to Ginza station to take the Ginza line, the first “Ginza station” I came to was only for a different line. But I certainly don’t mind walking around awesome cities, and I got to go down a pretty cool street that was blocked-off from traffic and where I spotted a film-crew of white people shooting some kind of film (perhaps Lost in Translation 2).

No traffic today.

But I eventually did find the right station and the right machines to buy a ticket to where I needed to go, the simplified maps posted everywhere marking exactly how much you had to pay to get to each station a huge help, not to mention the English option on the machines. [Side-note: screw France. They give you an English option on the ticket machines in Japan, but you French assholes can’t even give your tourists that simple courtesy?]

By the time I got to Asakusa my stomach was in desperate need of something inside of it. There were restaurants all over the place, but I just wanted something quick, easy, and guaranteed not to make me sick so I went to KFC. I know, I know. But I’ll have plenty of other opportunities to sample the genuine Japanese cuisine in Tokyo, perhaps even with people who know the best places to go.

After eating I went to the river to snap a few photos and find out about these boat-tours, but it turned out there were only two of them today and they were both happening after 4:00, by which time I was planning to already be on my way home.

Across the river. Asakusa

I followed the signs to the Senso-ji temple, a very familiar name and a place it turns out I would have put near the top of my list of things to see in Tokyo if I’d remembered it was there. There was an awesome gate leading up to it, and I decided to take the obligatory photo of myself in Tokyo in front of that, going up to a pair of cute girls and asking them to do it. I asked them in Japanese but they replied in English, and afterwards they asked me in English if I could take a photo of them. They must have been tourists too.

The Gate

           A shrine.    Another victory.

Incidentally, one of the most noticeable things about Tokyo is that it is absolutely swarming with beautiful women. That seems to be pretty much true of Japan in general, and I know I’m going to have a hard time living here. It was nice and easy in Germany because while there are certainly exceptions (and long-time readers of this blog know there are exceptions) the vast majority of German girls are completely undesirable. Most guys love having lots of gorgeous women around, but only because to them they exist as possibilities while to me they’re just objects of unquenchable desire, and I hate desire. Living in Hannover I was lucky enough to rarely experience it (maybe only three or four times a day) but in Japan it’s been about fifty times a day and in Tokyo easily in the hundreds. It’s no wonder the Japanese are so into porn.

Anyway, back to the story. Between the gate and the temple was a long walkway of souvenir shops, ice-cream stands, and what-have-you. It felt like the center of the Tourism Universe.

Tourists, tourists, everywhere. Souvenirs, souvenirs, everywhere.

I’ve been behaving like a Japanese tourist ever since I got here and snapping photos of every little thing, which in certain places (the supermarket, for instance) makes me feel very awkward. But here I was surrounded on all sides by fellow tourists with their cameras also snapping photos of everything, and it made me much more comfortable.

There were plenty of white people around for sure, but most were still Asian. I’m sure plenty of Japanese people who don’t live in Tokyo come to Tokyo for sight-seeing, but I’m certain there were plenty of non-Japanese Asian tourists in the crowd as well. You could spot the non-Japanese Asians whenever they were simultaneously walking and eating food at the same time, which is rather frowned-upon here and which I’ve refrained from doing myself.

I saw a sign for “Ice-Cream Burgers” and decided to stop and try one (after my lunch I was kind of having an ice-cream craving anyway, and this sounded interesting). It turned out to just be a small wad of ice-cream between two wafers, and while it was tasty it was a bit overpriced at ¥300. I’m sure I could have done much better for myself at Baskin Robbins.

The Senso-ji Temple.

I finally reached the Senso-ji Temple, got another picture of myself in front of it, took more photos of the surrounding area, and went inside. It felt very weird in there, but comparable to a cathedral in Europe. It’s supposed to be this holy place, and you’ve even got people praying there, but they’re surrounded by assholes with cameras taking flash-photos of everything, and now I was among those assholes. I only wish I was a bit more versed in Japanese history so I could have appreciated it more. I’ve only read one book on Japanese history and the bulk of it was focused on the 20th century.

 Awesome stuff inside the gate. Another awesome Japanese structure.

Holy smoke! The devout.

Outside there were some awesome Giant Buddha Statues (daibutsu) and a little pond with awesome fish. It was a lovely little area, and would have been quite peaceful if it weren’t for the theme-park right next to it. The sound of screaming kids kind of spoils the atmosphere just a little.

               A Buddha statue?  In Japan?  Get outta here!    Map of the area.

Fish pond. Serious ninja-faced fish.

I walked along the outskirts of the park and came across a performer putting on a little show for the kids, and used my camera to take a rare video which I shall now post here in lieu of a description.

A bit further down I spotted a Dippin Dots vendor and stopped dead in my tracks. Although I’d just had some ice-cream I absolutely had to indulge in some Dippin Dots, as they’re one of my all-time favorite edible substances and I haven’t come across them since 2006. When I was young the rarity of them tricked my brain into thinking they were the best stuff on earth, to the point where I actually fantasized about becoming a Dippin Dots vendor myself so I could eat them whenever I wanted. So having found to my delight that they exist in Japan, I got myself a cup of banana split and ate it right outside the shop (wouldn’t want to do it while walking), discovering that they’re not nearly as delicious as they were in my memory.

I checked my phone to find that it was 2:30, which I thought would give me just enough time to do one more quick thing before going back to the station to take the 4:00 train back which was my plan. I could have stayed longer but I wanted to be back to have dinner at home, and the longer I spent in Tokyo the more money I’d be wasting on things like Dippin Dots.

One of my favorite things to do in big cities is to go up to observation decks on tall buildings to get an aerial view. There was a giant tower right across the river but I wasn’t sure if it was open to the public. Because I was short on time I didn’t want to go all the way there, so I called the Tourism Office at the number they’d provided me with and asked them about the tower. It was called the Tokyo Sky Tree and it was, in fact, still under construction and won’t be open to the public until next year. I thanked them for sparing me from a long disappointing walk.

Tokyo Sky Tree in the distance.

I decided to head back to the area near the main station and check out that park that had been my original first destination. I took a different route back to the station than I had coming from it, got a few more photos of shrines and Buddha statues along the way, and after a bit of wandering eventually got back to the station and managed to figure out how to buy a ticket back. It wasn’t as easy as it should have been because for some reason not every machine sells tickets for every line.

More shrines. More Buddhas.

On the map of Tokyo the Tourism Information ladies had given me, it looked like the nearest station to the park was called Shimbashi, so after a twenty-minute ride I got off there and left the station, attempting to figure out which direction the park was in. I thought I figured it out but another glance at my clock revealed that there wouldn’t actually be enough time to get to the park and back to the main station with enough time to figure out how to get to whatever platform I needed to get to, so I just wandered around this area a little and took in the scenery.

When it was 3:30 I figured I should start walking back to the station, and since there were no information boards around I went to a little food stand and asked the guy there in Japanese which direction was Tokyo Station. Luckily I know the Japanese words for “far”, “30 minutes”, and “walk”, so after he kindly came out onto the street to show me with hand motions and words like “lefto” and “straighto”, I decided I’d probably be much better off heading back to Shimbashi station and hoping I could get from there to Tokyo station in time for the train I wanted.

I bought a ticket without really knowing what I was doing, but I asked a guy who worked there which train I needed for Tokyo station and he told me Platform 5. Luckily enough, the train came just a couple of minutes later and Tokyo station was just two stops down. I entered the station and went up to the Information counter. I showed one of the women who worked there my ticket and prepared for another Japanese explanation of where to go, but she spoke English so it was an easy process. She not only told me which platform to go to and how to get there, but she looked up all of the information about connections and wrote it down for me. I’d actually be taking a slightly earlier train than the one I’d looked up, and changing over in Oami instead of Soga, Oami being just two stations away from Togane.

Although the train was packed when I got on it, I was miraculously able to get the last open seat and I stayed there for the whole 72-minute trip to Oami. There were lots and lots of people coming in and getting off at each station, but the overall trend was a gradual thinning-out of the crowd the farther away from Tokyo we got. I successfully changed trains in Oami, confirming that I was taking the right train by asking one of the guys on it, and ended up back in Togane at 5:25 and my apartment at 5:30.

So having now officially journeyed from my apartment to Tokyo and back, I can safely assume that I’ll be doing it quite often. It’s not difficult at all to get there (it’ll be even easier if I take the bus), the cost is very affordable, and the time it takes is very reasonable. It takes just a little bit more time to get from here to Tokyo than it did to get from where I lived in New Jersey to New York City, and a little bit less time than it took to get from Hannover to Berlin.

It wasn’t the world’s most exiting trip ever, but this was just a taste. Tokyo hasn’t seen the last of me.

When in Rome VIII – Roman Catholicism: The Epicenter

May 4th, 2011 No comments

April 26, 13:00-17:00

The flyer for the Vatican tour that David from the Palatine hill tour had given me said the tour would be meeting outside the nearest subway station at 1:30. I got to the subway station and looked around for him because he said he would be the one giving the tour, but he was nowhere to be found. There were other people stopping tourists and offering guided tours of their own, but I already knew that David would be a good tour-guide and didn’t want to take a chance with someone else.


View Larger Map

But David never showed up and I began inquiring about one of the other tours being offered, which sounded exactly the same as the one David had been advertizing. Someone finally came up and asked me if I was waiting for David, and when I confirmed that he said that David wasn’t coming today and the tour guide would be someone named James. He also said that he wasn’t sure there’d be enough people in the group to get a voucher—which I guess is the thing that tour groups get so they can bypass the lines and go straight inside. The other tour had promised we’d bypass the lines so I ultimately decided that if David wasn’t coming I’d take my chances with them.

I was happy when we met our tour guide as he seemed like a nice guy, a genuine Italian who not only spoke perfect English but several other languages as well. He had a very nice voice, which was important for the Vatican tour because the only way you can hear the tour guide is through a radio with an ear-piece that they hand out to you. Because there are so many people and tour groups and they can’t have everyone shouting in the Vatican, all the tours do it this way except for the very small ones of just a few people.

There was an absurdly long line we had to wait in anyway, which our tour guide—I later found out his name was Enzo (another popular pizza name)—told us was because they’d recently installed metal detectors and that slowed everything down even for tour groups. All the tour guides had little props on sticks to help their groups spot them in the crowds, and Enzo had what was definitely the funniest one—a mini-umbrella made to look like the head of a panda.

This better be a damn good roller-coaster. Enzo with his panda-brella.

While waiting in line I chatted up a couple of Canadians who were also on the tour, Jesse and Jera. They’d been travelling around Europe for several weeks and would probably continue for several more. As usual I’d been to plenty of the places they’d seen as well—Madrid, Barcelona, Paris, Amsterdam, and Berlin—so it was easy to converse with them. The more you travel, the easier it becomes to chat with other travelers.

Speaking of which, just as we were about to enter I spotted the Bostonians from Sunday night waiting in the other line. I waved hello and the guy said, “Kyle?” Impressed that he remembered my name I showed off by responding with, “Mark and Sasha?” and they confirmed that I had in fact gotten it right. “Wow, what are the odds?” Mark said. “Hwaatacoeenzedenze,” I thought, but did not say. We both explained to the others around us that we’d met the other night at a bar and everyone thought it was funny. We wished each other a good tour and that was the last I saw of them.

The Catholic Church now acknowledges that the world is in fact round. The giant head of a man with a giant head.

The tour started out in a courtyard which had some nice statues and sculptures including a giant head of Augustus. Because you’re not supposed to talk in the Sistine Chapel, the tour guides have to point out everything you should pay attention to ahead of time, so the Vatican has conveniently put up posters all around the courtyard showing Michelangelo’s paintings. Those being among the most famous works of art in art history I was already familiar with most of them, as I was with the story of how it took him years to complete and what a major pain in the ass it had been for him to do so.Not the most ideal way to be immortalized.

One little tid-bit I hadn’t been aware of was that Michelangelo had painted a real person into  “The Last Judgment”, the guy whom the Pope had sent to keep an eye on him and who was constantly pestering him about the nudity (whom Wikipedia informs me was named Biagio da Cesena). He painted him as one of the souls condemned to Hell, with a snake wrapped around his body and biting his genitals. That’s got to be the most awesome bit of revenge-through-art ever taken by a human being. That guy was giving Michelangelo crap for all those years about his work, and while that work secured Michelangelo’s name as one of history’s greatest artists, that guy will be remembered forever only as the dude in “The Last Judgment” getting his balls bitten by a snake.

Our tour guide brought us through room after room of impressive sculptures and artwork. It was just like the churches I’d gone to earlier but on steroids. I took lots of pictures but of course I don’t remember the significance of each thing. I definitely got one of the oldest statue in the Vatican which depicts the High Priest of Troy, who warned the Trojans not to take the Greeks’ horse inside the city walls but apparently never lived to say “I told you so.”  You’d never know from looking at this incredibly fine piece of craftsmanship that it’s over a millennium old.

Sculptures, sculptures everywhere. Ancient shop-owners used mosaics to advertise their goods.

Pantheon knock-off. High Priest of Troy: "Why didn't you listen?!"

One thing I hadn’t expected but should have were the massive, massive crowds. There was never much room to maneuver, especially in the narrower hallways, and if you paused to take a photo you’d quickly find yourself far behind, having to elbow your way through the crowds to catch up to the panda-brella once again.

About as many sculptures as people. One of the nicest hallways anywhere.

Not really knowing what’s in the Vatican other than the Sistine Chapel, the Sistine Chapel was really the only thing I knew I had to see. It was the very last thing on my original Rome check-list, and once I’d seen it I’d know the trip was complete. It seems funny to me now, but I was quite miffed by the fact that the Sistine Chapel is the only place inside the Vatican that you are not allowed to take pictures. Apparently it’s not so much about flash cameras ruining it as it is about copyright issues, which I don’t understand at all.

But they were pretty serious about that rule, as on the way down the stairs to the chapel there was a looped recording telling people in every major language of the world that in the chapel you were to remain silent and absolutely not take any photos. Here I’d been going about the whole trip taking photos of every significant thing I saw, and one of the three most significant things I’d been planning to see was something I wasn’t supposed to snap a photo of. Of course, there are hundreds of people in the chapel at a time and if a few of them want to take pictures there’s absolutely nothing they can do but yell at you. If they tried to confiscate every camera that had taken a photo of the chapel they’d probably run out of space at the Vatican within a week.

So the whole experience of the Sistine Chapel was tempered by this constant mind-struggle of “should I or shouldn’t I?”, knowing that there would be no consequences if I actually took a picture but also knowing that I really shouldn’t. Besides, the whole way there Enzo’s voice was coming through the ear-piece asking us to please respect the place and not take any pictures. When we finally got to the chapel the urge to just point my camera up and take one little photo for posterity’s sake was overwhelming, but I’m happy to say that I resisted the temptation and did not in fact snap a photo. And I’m quite glad I didn’t because the pictures you can find online are much better than any I could have taken anyway!

Once I’d made peace with the fact that I wasn’t going to take a picture, I was able to really appreciate the gloriousness of this place. No photograph, professional or otherwise, would be able to do it justice anyway. This is just one of the things you really have to see for yourself. The scale of the thing is so impressive and the idea that one person, a single human being rather than a team of painters, did this all by himself, working on it tirelessly year after back-breaking year…it got me feeling all Engimal once again.

The Last Judgment

The world's most famous ceiling.

There was almost too much for the eye to take in. The magnificent fresco on the ceiling with  that immortal image of God reaching out his hand to Adam, scenes from the life of Moses on one wall and the life of Jesus on the other, and of course “The Last Judgment” just dominating the front of the chapel were all so beautiful and finely detailed that no living soul could possibly fail to be impressed. The sheer scale of it, combined with the idea that millions of eyes have been gaping in awe at these same images throughout the centuries, and that now I was finally there to behold one of the sights I’d dreamed of beholding myself every since I was a child, gave rise to such intense feelings of Enigmality that it was almost a spiritual experience. I could imagine how some might interpret the sensation as a kind of communion with God, and I’m open to the idea that this might even in a sense be true—depending on what one imagines when one thinks of “God”. If God is the creative force behind the universe, something abstract and intangible which lies behind every pair of conscious eyes, then perhaps in moments of strong experiential significance people really do have a kind of connection with God. I don’t know. All I know is that if there is a God, it’s nothing like the bearded character painted up on the ceiling.

The most iconic image in the Vatican. What God doesn't look like.

The tour came to an end shortly after the Sistine Chapel and Enzo led us outside to the entrance of St. Peter’s Basilica where he would collect our radios and return the €5 deposit we’d had to place on them. The tour itself had been €45, which was €20 more than a non-guided tour would have been but knowing how much pre-recorded audio-guides suck and the fact that I really didn’t know what to see before I went in made me certain that it was worth the extra money in my case.

But apparently the same did not go for everyone. Just before I handed my radio back, the woman who handed hers back before me told Enzo, “I’m sorry but I just have to say that I am extremely disappointed in this tour. The brochure said we would see the Raphael rooms and that was one of the things I came all the way from New Zealand to see, and you didn’t even take us to the Raphael rooms. I’m not going to ask for a refund but I just want you to know how angry I am.” As she spoke you could hear the emotion-level in her voice rising—she was genuinely upset. Enzo tried to calm her down, apologizing for that but explaining that the Vatican is so big you couldn’t possibly see everything, and that if she liked he would stick around and give her some information about them now. She wasn’t interested and she left in a big huff.

As for me, I couldn’t care less about the Raphael rooms. I suppose if it’s one of the main attractions at the Vatican it must be pretty impressive, but I doubt it would even come close to the Sistine Chapel. All of the paintings there were just religious images anyway, and I’ve gone to enough art museums in my lifetime to have seen more than enough paintings of the Madonna with Baby Jesus, Jesus turning water into wine, the crucifixion and so on to last a lifetime. Why should I care whether this Jesus was painted by Raphael or not? I couldn’t tell a Raphael from a Michelangelo (or from a Leonardo or Donatello for that matter either).

I was the last to hand my radio back to Enzo, and when I did I said “I really enjoyed the tour, thank you so much,” and he told me how there’s always someone on the tour who doesn’t get to see what they wanted to see and it just couldn’t be avoided, but that if that woman had really had her heart set on seeing Raphael she could have told him at the beginning of the tour and he would have been happy to take us to those rooms. He said that he’s been doing this for years and Americans are always the most appreciative, which I was actually surprised to hear and I told him as much. He insisted that it was true, so I suppose American tourists have a better reputation than America itself.

After that I went into St. Peter’s Basilica and was once again blown away by the magnificence of it all. The place was gargantuan and there was nothing but pure aesthetic bliss every which way you turned. To attempt to describe it in words would be hopeless, so I’ll let the pictures do the talking.

Gives you an idea of the scale of this place.  Awesome marble sculpture.

Beautiful professional photo of the interior. My photo - not quite as good. Best shot I got from inside.

Ever since I first saw the Cathedral in Cologne I’d considered that to be the most beautiful cathedral in the world, but this one rivals if it doesn’t completely take the cake.

While I was there, Jesse and Jera—the Canadians I’d met in line earlier—came up to me and said, “Do you feel like you just got massively ripped off?” Apparently they thought the tour was too short, they’d expected to see more, and were also looking forward to the Raphael rooms. Without directly saying, “No, I don’t feel ripped off at all,” I expressed some ambivalence but tried to defend Enzo a little by repeating that there’s no way you could possibly see everything and if that woman had wanted to see the Raphael rooms she could have told him at the beginning of the tour. [On Sunday at the Palatine, David had told us that if you spent one minute in front each work of art in the Vatican, it would take you 13 years to get through all of them.] They said the Raphael rooms were in the brochure, which is a good point, but Enzo had told us that we would be skipping some things so if it had been me I would have gone up and confirmed ahead of time whether or not we would actually be seeing them.

We parted ways and I didn’t see them again, and while they were definitely nice people I just couldn’t share their attitude. The tour had cost €45, which is a pretty steep price compared to most tours but I felt like I’d just had the experience of a lifetime, especially after all that Enigmality at the Sistine Chapel. €45 is about what I make for a single hour-and-a-half English lesson, and those are definitely not experiences of a lifetime. To trade one English lesson—one week’s worth of groceries—for that experience was a price I would gladly pay.

Outside again. Vatican City, Population: me.

Once I’d soaked up enough of the atmosphere at St. Peter’s I exited the Vatican to get one final shot of myself in front of it—which involved speaking German to a family of German tourists—and then headed off to find a place to sit and finally relax my legs for a moment. It had already been a day full of more valuable experiences than I have in a typical month, and it was only half over.

When in Rome IV – Roamin’ ‘Round Rome

April 30th, 2011 No comments

April 25, 9:00-15:00

One of the best things about Rome is that there are water fountains everywhere where people can drink clean and delicious water as well as re-fill water bottles. I only had to buy one water bottle the whole time and I just kept filling it up again and again until those damned airport security people made me toss it before entering the terminal on my trip home.

One of these fountains, apparently, was in the courtyard of the building where my hostel was so you could hear the sound of running water all night long. For the most part, I actually really liked this. It sounded like rain and was very peaceful and relaxing. On the other hand there was no way I could wake up and not immediately think of how badly I needed to pee. Still, I slept surprisingly well and let myself stay in bed until 9:00, at which point I got up, shaved and showered, and headed back out into town.


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I noticed it was drizzling as soon as I stepped outside, and no sooner had I rounded the first corner than an Arab guy with a bunch of umbrellas came up to me and offered to sell me one for €5. I thought about it for a second but decided that it wasn’t raining hard enough to justify the expense. As I was walking away he reduced the price to €4 but I still didn’t take him up on it. I passed five more Arabs doing the same thing over the course of the next twenty minutes.

My plan was to walk all the way to the Pantheon, the only other thing on my must-see list besides the Vatican that I hadn’t already seen. Along the way I’d get to see Trajan’s column as well as a few other goodies. There was a pretty nice fountain at the Piazza della Repubblica which I couldn’t resist taking a quick shot of.

Nice fountain, crappy lighting.

From there I walked all the way down the Via Nazionale which is filled with shops and other things I have no interest in, but along the way the rain started to come down hard. Suddenly all those Arab guys selling umbrellas didn’t seem like such a bother. I spotted the closest one, all the way on other end of the block, and had to wait for two traffic lights before I finally got to him. Another woman was there as well and when he told her it was €5 she got all indignant, telling him it should be no more than €2. I was just about to cross the line between wet and soaked and was in no mood for this crap, so I just handed him a €5 note, took my umbrella and went my merry dry way, which I’m sure didn’t make that woman too happy.

I later passed an actual shop selling the same umbrellas for €5, so I was happy to confirm that this was not street vendor rip-off price but the price I would have paid if I’d actually bought one in a store. The street vendors must make their profits by buying in bulk.

At the end of the Via Nazionale and off to the right is Trajan’s column, something I hadn’t heard of but which Corey said I should really see. It was most definitely worth seeing—a giant column built to honor the Emperor Trajan with intricate carvings depicting great scenes from Roman history in a giant spiral going upwards. To think of all the time it must have taken to complete a work of art like that—and then to think that it’s been standing for hundreds of times as long as it took to complete. Whoever carved it out would probably be ecstatic to know just how long it would endure.

Still erect after all these centuries.  Get a load of the detail. Told you I was there. 

A bit further on from the column is the Monumento a Vittorio Emanuele II, which at this hour was surrounded by people because there was apparently some kind of ceremony going on. There were trumpets blowing and I heard someone say “Presidente de Repubblica” so I assumed maybe Berlusconi himself was about to emerge, but I couldn’t get a good view because everyone had their damned umbrellas open. I took a few pictures but most were dominated by umbrellas so I quickly gave up and continued my increasingly difficult search for the Pantheon.

Where's Silvio? Is he coming?

That morning I’d accidentally taken the worse of the two maps I’d been given out with me, so matching up the street names to the names on the map was a real chore. After taking it out and checking it about fifteen times to figure out how to navigate all the tiny little street-lets [I’m allowed to invent some words], I finally found it.

The building is impressive enough on the outside, but the inside is what’s truly incredible. The building itself was commissioned by Marcus Agrippa (a.k.a. Emperor Augustus’s lap-dog) and re-built by the Emperor Hadrian a few centuries later, but in the 7th century it became a Catholic Church, so you’ve got all of this Christian iconography in a building built back when Christianity was illegal.

THE Pantheon Inside THE Pantheon  

Entry was free, but the audio-guides were €5. I bought one in the hopes that I’d learn a few interesting facts, and while I did I was also reminded at just how awful these audio-guides can be. For every interesting fact they give you, they also give you seventeen boring and downright trivial facts. I’m not exaggerating when I say this audio-guide actually told you the exact dimensions of the columns in the building and described the chemical composition of the building materials. It even described the statues I was looking at—“The angel is holding a harp in its right hand and a book in its left hand”—as though I didn’t have eyes.

But without the guide I would never have known that I was looking at the tomb of Raphael, or that that floor is slightly tilted inward so that when the rain falls through the opening in the roof all the water falls into a drain in the room’s center. Because it was raining at the time, I got to see that firsthand.

 I wonder what dimensions those columns are... Here lies Rafael. Painter. Architect. Ninja Turtle.   

Those damn roofers missed a spot. Clean-up on aisle 0.  

I went through every item there which took surprisingly little time, which I was glad for because it was packed with people and I was anxious to leave. I stopped at a nearby restaurant which had a canopy you could sit under and stay outside even in the rain, and ordered a salad while reading a bit more from Rubicon. During the meal it stopped raining, and for the next few hours the cloud cover thinned out enough for the sun to bleed through and the weather felt just as good as it had the day before.

The Vatican being closed, the only other thing I had in mind for the day was to find one of those hop-on/hop-off bus tours and ride around Rome, hopping off at whatever points of interest I thought would be interesting. The only problem was actually finding a location where one of these buses would stop. I’d assumed they’d stop near the Pantheon because it’s one of the biggest attractions in Rome, but the streets around there are apparently too small.

I walked until I spotted one and then followed it in the direction it drove off to but never saw it stop. Eventually I came to the River Tiber, which I naturally had to stop and appreciate for a moment. The river is always one of my favorite parts of any city, particularly those of historical significance. It’s the lifeblood of any city, the main artery that allowed the original settlement to get started in the first place. The Tiber is also particularly awesome because countless corpses were tossed there whenever Ancient Rome underwent a violent episode.

Tevere Can't have a bridge without a statue.  

I checked my map and saw that there was a tourist information center just on the other side of the river, so I made my way in there and asked the lady at the counter where I could find a stopping point for one of the bus tours. In the most condescending tone possible, she said “Do you see that big road over there leading to the Vatican? They’re all there.”

Well, I just crossed the bridge and hadn’t noticed that road, but the map made it look like the Vatican is pretty far from here. “The closest place where they stop is the Vatican?” I asked for confirmation, and she said, “What, you don’t believe me? I wouldn’t be sitting here at the tourist information center if I didn’t know what I was talking about.”

Jeez, lady, I understand that you probably get asked this a million times a day and can’t believe that people can’t figure this stuff out on their own, but you might want to consider another line of work if you can’t respond to stupid-sounding questions from tourists with at least a slight shred of politeness.

There was another tourist there and she actually came to my defense, saying “I think he believes you, he’s just not sure what to look for.” I was grateful for her help and I said, “Yeah, I see these busses all over the place but I never see them stop.” The tourist lady said, “I know what you mean. But I was just there and I definitely saw them stopped.” Three cheers for the tourist lady, a million times more helpful than the woman who actually worked there.

I very politely said goodbye to them, just confirming one more time which direction I should go and the information lady forced a smile at me as she confirmed it, obviously masking a mountain of irrational contempt she felt towards me. As I walked out the door I said the word, “bitch” under my breath, but not too quietly.

At any rate, I did find the bus tours lined up along the Via Cola di Lorenzo, the road leading to the Vatican which was actually much closer than I realized, and I found what appeared to be the best deal: €20 for two days of access to the “CitySightseeting Roma” busses. They had a red line and a blue line, the only difference between them being that the red line stopped at one or two locations the blue line didn’t and the blue line stopped at one or two locations the red line didn’t. I snapped a few shots from the bus as I waited for it to start, including one of the Vatican and one of some of the series of statues depicting the passion of the Christ, lined up along the left side of the road presumably for Good Friday.

Via Cola di Lorenzo   What Would Jesus Statues Do? 

Outside the bus - not my photo. On the bus - my photo.

I was glad to be off my feet again for awhile, and I enjoyed just being able to sit back and take in the sights from the bus as it wound its way through the streets of Rome. This was also the first true impression I got of what the traffic situation in Rome is really like. I couldn’t imagine driving in a city like this. There are cars and busses everywhere, but the real thing to watch out for are the moped-drivers who seem to have no fear at all. Our bus nearly crashed into about a dozen moped-drivers on just the first leg of my tour alone. The rest of the vehicles were also skirting catastrophe at every turn—I probably witnessed at least a hundred near-accidents throughout my cumulative time spent on the bus, but not one actual collision or even fender-bender. Perhaps having the Pope nearby protects them.

And while on the subject of traffic I should also mention that the situation for pedestrians is just as bananas. The town has traffic lights but they seem to only put them in places where it’s absolutely indisputably necessary to have one, and in some places where you’d think it should be absolutely indisputably necessary to have one there aren’t any. Lots of extremely busy, extremely wide streets have nothing but a zebra-crossing to get pedestrians across but no light at all. You just have to walk out and hope that the drivers will grant you the right-of-way. Pedestrians technically have the right-of-way in such situations but Roman drivers must be so fed up of stopping for them that a lot of them refuse to do so. My strategy was always just to wait until a few other people started crossing and then to hop on the bandwagon. The only sure-fire way to stay safe is to always follow the mob. In any case, I find it shocking that Roman hospitals aren’t packed to the brim with broken-legged tourists. Again, it must be the grace of the Pope.

Not exactly like my map, but close.

The bus tour stops for 30 minutes near Termini station, and I used that time to hop back to my hostel, take a much-needed dump, and exchange my crappy map for the somewhat-less-crappy-but-still-highly-flawed map I’d used the day before (neither of which is the map above which you get from the bus company). I still had plenty of time when I got back on the bus, but I was glad because it gave me an opportunity to do some more reading.

I was able to get a few more good Colosseum shots as we passed by, and even managed to get the guy next to me to get a shot of me in front of it which I think came out really nicely.

Next we passed by the Circus Maximus, and I tried to get some pictures while the bus was moving but the only one that came out half-way decent was a shot in which you can’t even tell what it is. I could have hopped off there to get some better pictures but honestly it didn’t look all that impressive and I didn’t want to lose the great seat I had right at the front of the bus.

Colosee me? Ben-Hur's old stomping ground. 

I did hop off when we reached the Piazza Venezia again because the two other things I wanted to do were to walk up the steps of the Monumento a Vittorio Emanuele II—the giant museum where that ceremony had taken place in the morning—to hopefully get a nice view of the city, and walk a short distance from there to the Trevi fountain.

I got a couple of nice shots from the first level of the Monumento, but I knew it would be much better from the very top, which you had to pay €7 to ride the elevator to get to. I stood near the ticket counter for a solid minute and a half debating whether to pay, but ultimately figured I was there so I might as well.

That actually turned out to be the best €7 I spent on the entire trip. I’ve seen a lot of scenic views from high points in cities before, but almost nothing compares to this. The view from the Eifel Tower in Paris may be slightly more aesthetically pleasing due to the geometry of the surrounding streets, but the fact that you can see so many thousands of years of history in a single glance from this building in Rome probably pushes it over the top. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

View to the northeast.Straight north.    Pantheon.

Piazza Venezia. Note the Italian flag made of flowers.The Vatican to the northwest.

 OMG it's a bird! Get a picture! Forum ruins to the southeast.

So unbelievably awesome.

I had more Enigmal moments from the top of that building than at any other time, just over-awed by the very fact that I was in Rome after all this time spent longing to go there, and now I could see the entire city in all of its glory. I knew that I was in one of those moments that I would remember forever, seeing images that would flash before my eyes on my death-bed, and it gave me chills like you wouldn’t believe. I’m getting Enigmal now just remembering it, and I can’t believe it was only a few days ago. It already feels like another lifetime.

Every time I thought I might be done soaking up the scenery and deriving spiritual joy from it, I just couldn’t bring myself to go back down and I stayed longer and squeezed a bit more Enigmality out. The well never seemed to run dry. But eventually I did get on the elevator and get on with my day, blissfully unaware that the next few hours would constitute the lowlight of the trip.

When in Rome II – Relics of the Empire and the Republic

April 28th, 2011 No comments

April 24, 14:00-19:00

I have to confess that I broke both my socialization resolves right off the bat when I stopped somewhere close to the hostel for a quick bite to eat—a delicious warm tomato and mozzarella Panini sandwich—and an American couple was sitting a few feet away from me. I just wanted to put something in my stomach and then get my ass to the Colosseum, and when I was finished I had no desire to strike up a chat. To be fair, I was now in a city I’ve always wanted to go to and I was anxious to get some items on my check-list checked off as soon as possible, especially because it was already approaching 3:00.

The hostel owner had provided me with a map—two maps, actually, but one was much more readable than the other—so I busted it out several times in an effort to navigate my way to the Colosseum, which as the symbol of Rome I knew would be the most appropriate way to begin. Every picture you see of Rome has the Colosseum on it, so while I was technically in Rome I wouldn’t really be able to feel that I was in Rome until I saw it with my own eyes. Imagine someone telling you they went to Rome but didn’t see the Colosseum. You’d laugh at them and say, “Well, then you weren’t really in Rome, were you?” At least I would.


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It was a downhill walk all the way from Termini station, and aside from an interesting-looking church there was nothing about the road leading there that looked especially different from any other European city. Although it was kind of cool that outside the church they had a screen constantly broadcasting clips of John Paul II, who is scheduled to be sainted on May 1st. I was anxious enough about the crowds because it was Easter, but I’ll bet it’s going to be even worse for the beatification. I hadn’t even known about the beatification, but it was impossible not to notice the posters everywhere and that screen outside the church around which at least a dozen people were sitting and watching. It was very strange to me that people would be such hardcore pope-fans that they’d sit outside and watch video-clips of him doing whatever it is popes do. Although I suppose it’s the Holiest waste of electricity there could possibly be (I would later discover that these video clips were running around the clock.)

Santa Maria Maggiore Hardcore pope fans!

After a relatively easy navigational effort I soon came to a little overpass where the Colosseum in all its glory came into view. I quickly busted out the camera and entered shameless-tourist mode. Just to give you an idea of the picture-taking situation, the camera I borrowed from Lena is one of those huge expensive ones that professional photographers use, so it was even more imposing than most tourists with their tiny digitals. I felt a little self-conscious at first, but I got over myself after realizing that half the people in this town were constantly snapping photos as well. I stopped a family there to ask them snap one of me in front of the Colosseum. I feel no need to have pictures of myself, but I knew my family and friends would appreciate it more if I didn’t just have lifeless pictures of buildings and artwork.

Proof I was there.   More convincing proof.

 What's with all the tourists?   These signs were everywhere.

I circled down to the street that leads up to the Colosseum, which was currently cleared of auto traffic and filled with people. As I approached I got another shot of me in front of it, and when I spotted some guys dressed up in gladiator uniforms I took a shot of them as well. When I walked by them they stopped me and offered to take some pictures of me with them with my camera. “Why not?” I figured. They took some pretty amusing pictures which I rather like, but when they handed the camera back they told me it was €10. That was ridiculous and I probably could have haggled them down a bit, but I figured it was my fault for not asking what they were charging ahead of time. I hate bargaining because I hate tension in general, so I just coughed up the dough and gave them a friendly goodbye. No use making a fuss about it.

Searching for victims. I am not Spartacus!

Thirteen!   Ouch.

Once I got near the entrance to the Colosseum I was approached by a woman who was selling tour tickets. Having just been scammed I was slightly wary of this offer, but it sounded legitimate enough: €22 for a guided tour of the Colosseum and afterwards for the Palatine hill next to it, and with the tour-group you could just go straight in and wouldn’t have to wait on line. I’m a big fan of guided tours—they tend to be leaps and bounds more interesting than audio-guides—so I took her up on the offer. Incidentally, she turned out to be German and I told her I lived there and we chatted for a bit, which helped to break the social-ice-barrier in my mind a little.

The tour-guide for the Colosseum was quite a treat. He was an Italian with an extremely thick accent that almost made me suspect he was actually faking it. The first thing he did was take us to one of the guys dressed up as gladiators and say a few things about their armor. One of the things he did throughout the tour was to remark on how some things we use today have their roots back in Roman times, the first being the shoulder pads of the gladiators. “You see it look just like NFL football—what a coincidence!” But you have to imagine it with an incredibly thick Italian accent so it sounded more like: “Hwaat-a-co-een-zidenze!”

He led our tour group inside—about forty people—and showed us the interior. He explained how the arch structure allows massive weight to be supported with relatively little material. “It just like bridge you drive on today—hwaatacoeenzidenze!” He also talked about how most films involving the Colosseum are terribly historically inaccurate, the film Gladiator in particular. “In that film they have person from one century talking to person from other century. It like if film is made where Barack Obama makes phone call to Abraham Lincoln. ‘Hey Abe, don’ go to theater tonight, you not gonna like it.’”

Of course amusement at our tour-guide wasn’t the only thing running through my mind. I was thoroughly appreciating the incredible awesomeness of the idea that I was in a building well over a thousand years old, a building where Roman Emperors, Senators, and plebeians alike all gathered for the most violent forms of entertainment imaginable. According to our guide, it’s estimated that over a million people were killed in this building throughout its history—more than enough blood spilled there to fill the entire structure if it were all poured in at once. And of course the idea that they also used to flood the place with water and conduct actual naval battles there was pretty awesome too. And I was standing there looking down at the actual place where it all happened, where millions upon millions of other eyes have looked stretching father back into history than most Americans can contemplate.

The view from inside. Mosaics are awesome. Anatomically correct horse's ass.    Heads of the dead (aka "Dead-heads")

Close-up of the "back-stage" area.  Our guide. Hwaatacoeenzedenze!

I wuz here. Best shot from inside.

I was getting that Engimal feeling rather frequently, “Enigmal” being a word I invented to describe that tingly feeling you get when you perceive yourself to be at a truly significant moment of your life because “tingly feeling” is an expression that doesn’t do justice to the mysterious phenomenon.

There were a bunch of people on the tour and I was tempted to make some off-hand comments to some of them but I didn’t. I did get a few random smiles from a girl which caught me off guard. She was a hippie-looking chick who appeared to be there all by herself. At one point she warned me that she heard flash-photography was really illegal in the part of the museum we were at. I wasn’t using the flash anyway (because I couldn’t figure out how it worked on the camera) but I thanked her, and that was the extent of our conversation during the tour although I resolved to approach her after.

But when the tour did end, on the second level inside the arena, she exited quickly and I wanted to walk around a bit and soak up the atmosphere a little more, snap a few more photographs, and I did just that. The Palatine Hill tour would be starting in twenty minutes anyway and with any luck she’d be on that one too.

It turns out that I did have some luck—I found her waiting on some stairs outside the Colosseum reading from a Paul Coelho book. I smiled when I saw that. If I had to guess which author out of every author a girl who looked like that would be reading, it would be Paul Coelho. That also sealed the deal in my head of approaching her, as it meant she must appreciate deep thought. “Hey,” I said but got no response. “Hey, Paul Coelho…” still nothing. Hmmm…maybe I’d made an error in judgment. But other people could see I was trying to get her attention and I’d look like a damn fool if I just gave up so I went and tapped her on the shoulder, something I do not like to do. Much to my relief she looked up from her book and gave me a warm hello, recognizing me from the tour.

So I struck up a chat with her and got to know her a little bit. Her name was Sarah, she was from the U.S. but I forget which state (either Vermont or New Hampshire), and she was currently spending several months wandering around Europe after a brief stint teaching drama in Romania. About as interesting a story as it gets. My story isn’t quite as interesting but being an English teacher living in Germany is at least more interesting than the typical “We’re just here for a few days on vacation” you hear from most people.  At least it’ll only get better as I get older—the more countries I live in, the more interesting I’ll be.

While we were chatting during our wait for the tour, I noticed a giant lighter in her bag and she said that it was a gift a guy gave her as a marriage proposal. She said that she’s been proposed to twenty-four times during her travels, which I found easy enough to believe. “I’ll do my best not to propose to you then,” I said. “I’ll try to restrain myself.” I was afraid that came out creepy but she chuckled.

The tour guide for the Palatine hill was different—a British guy named David who wasn’t quite as funny but still demonstrated his sense of humor by telling everyone that when we got to the top of the hill he was going to count to five and then everyone had to drop and do five push-ups. When he did, Sarah was the only person who actually did it.

She drifted away from me for the first half of the tour and I figured it was because I wasn’t interesting enough, but I did my best not to care. Luckily she wasn’t too attractive or the emotional distraction would have been too great, but then again if she was too attractive I probably wouldn’t have approached her in the first place :)

The map below is where the Palatine hill is in relation to the Colosseum. Click "Earth" to have a really weird virtual look-around of things many millennia old. Just be careful: don’t think too hard about the implications of what you’re seeing in terms of the broad long-term history of humanity or your head might start to explode.


View Larger Map

As for Sarah, it was pretty easy to put her out of my mind on the tour because this was the mother-effing Palatine effing hill in effing Rome—the very hill where Romulus founded the city of Rome after murdering his brother Remus, thus changing human history forever. Just imagine if things had gone the other way—the city would be called “Reme” instead…

It was also the hill where the Imperial Palace was built, of which plenty of sections were still standing. For some reason I found the section of floor still preserved to be the most awe-inspiring part. I mean—actual Emperors of Rome probably walked on that section of floor, and now I’ve walked on it too.

The Palatine was where all the well-to-do Romans lived, and from it you can see the Aventine where the plebeians dwelled. I would have liked to visit the Aventine because of its huge significance in the show Rome but there’s apparently nothing of interest there nowadays. But it was plenty cool to have a look at it. You could also see the spot where Emperor Augustus built his house, and from the opposite side you can look down on the Roman Forum, including the place where the Senate met which has been immortalized in countless films and shows including Rome.

Not mopped in ages. Incredible view of the forum.

Another incredible view. Site of the house of Augustus.

While standing on the overlook from which you could see the Forum ruins, two people came and stood right next to me who had not been on the tour but just happened to stroll right up at that exact time: none other than the Sara look-a-like and her boyfriend whom I’d noticed way way back in the ancient time known as that morning. Hwaatacoeenzidenze. I couldn’t help but turn to them and say, “Entschuldigung. Ich glaube wir haben die gleiche S-Bahn von Hannover heute morgen genommen.” (I think we took the same S-Bahn from Hannover this That's them! morning). They laughed in a very friendly way and we remarked about the odds and chatted for a moment about what we were doing in Rome and what our plans were. It turns out they were not only on the same flight there but they would be taking the same flight back on Wednesday. I was quite surprised at how good my German was—they didn’t even seem to realize I wasn’t German myself. Rather than go on and reveal myself, I gave them a friendly goodbye and told them I’d see them on Wednesday.

David was a good tour guide, and when the tour was over he gave a plug for his tour of the Vatican which would meet at 1:30 on Tuesday. I’d actually been planning to try the Vatican on Monday but David informed us it was closed. I took a flyer from him and figured I now had a solid plan for Tuesday afternoon.

During the second-half of the tour, Sarah came back up to me and said, “You totally abandoned me…” and I started to say, “You totally abandoned me…” but she quickly explained that she meant the push-ups. Right, because there’s nothing girls respect more than guys who will get on their hands and knees for them…I told her I couldn’t do the push-ups with my camera out and she joked that I’d probably been snapping pictures of her the whole time. I told her I took a video and it was going on YouTube as soon as I could find a computer, which made her laugh.

We continued to chat and I told her a bit about Japan, and a guy ahead of us overhead us and turned to me to say, “Nihon wa utsukushi desu,” and it would have been awesome if I could have replied but I just didn’t know what “utsukushi” meant. “Japan is…what?” He explained it meant “beautiful” so I was able to demonstrate my knowledge by asking him, “So could I go up to a lovely woman and say, ‘Anata wa utsukushi desu’ or is it more to describe places?” He explained it’s not really used for people and I shouldn’t go up and say things like that to women anyway. He said that when he was there he got egg on his face quite a few times for telling Japanese women things like “You have beautiful eyes” which I found both deliciously ironic (I’ll never forget getting egg on my face for telling a girl the same thing in German when I first got to Frankfurt) and rather disconcerting. I thought Japanese girls were supposed to love Western guys, but here’s my first solid piece of evidence to the contrary. At any rate, he told me I was going to love Japan and wished me a good afternoon. I kindly responded by wishing him well too.

After the tour when I was waiting for the Vatican tour flyer from David, Sarah told me she was going to go wander around and it was nice meeting me. Okay then. This girl was clearly a bit of a flake but I could hardly blame her for wanting to take in the scenery on her own. I understand that impulse all too well so I didn’t take it personally. But after doing a bit of wandering on my own I spotted her again on my way down to the forum.

So we joined up once again and toured the forum together, her company not detracting from my own appreciation of the amazingness of where I was. It was approaching 7:00 now and the sun was on its way down, giving the ruins an even more spectacular atmosphere that provoked the Engimal feeling on several occasions.

 You had to be there.

I told Sarah that I wanted to find and take a picture of the exact spot where Caesar was murdered, and she jabbed at me that, “Well, if that’s your thing, I won’t judge.” She was happy enough to look around for it with me, but unfortunately no spot was clearly marked as Caesar’s death place. I joked that if this was America, there’d not only be signs pointing to it everywhere but flashing lights at the spot along with a wax sculpture for people to take pictures of themselves stabbing Caesar. There would also have been a few more McDonaldses scattered throughout the ruins.

Maybe Caesar died here? Or maybe here?

We kept finding what looked like it could have been the spot and taking pictures, then finding spots that looked more likely to be the spot and taking pictures again until we finally found one that really seemed like it was definitely the place, and after taking a picture of it by itself I asked her if she wouldn’t mind “a picture of us together to commemorate my meeting of you” to which she happily agreed. So you can actually see her for yourself! Wow!

That's her (on the right) After that she tore herself away from me again, but I knew this was appropriate as I’m just as appreciative of the benefits of solo travel as she obviously is. The idea is to take in the experiences on your own with your own mind, untainted by the comments of others. Luckily my comments are typically all intelligent and witty so I knew she didn’t resent my presence any more than I resented hers. But if we were to agree to stick by each other for the rest of our time in Rome it would fundamentally alter the experience we were both attempting to have. So we bid each other adieu and she said, “Maybe serendipity will happen and we’ll meet again.”

As it turned out, serendipity didn’t happen, at least not again in Rome. But life is long and the world is small, so you never know.

Adventures in Bavaria

October 5th, 2009 No comments

After five days of travel, I’ve finally found a little stretch of time to get caught up with the journal. I’ll have to squeeze every part of our trip to the Alps, as well as the brief visit to Oktoberfest and Regensburg afterwards, into one entry. Four different towns and two very different types of activities (hiking vs. beer-drinking festival) but at least one common thread runs through all of them—they all took place in the area of Germany so distinct and unique in terms of culture and dialect that it’s practically its own country: Bavaria.

1 – Garmisch-Partenkirchen (30.09 – 01.10)

On our first day in the mountain town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, we woke up at 6:45 with the intention of hitting the trail as soon as possible. We got ourselves ready and took a bus to the nearest Information Center where we asked about possibilities for hiking that day, and picked the route that seemed to suit us best.

We rode the bus to the Olympia Skistadion, where I suppose a part of some Winter Olympics many years ago was held. Behind the stadium is where the trail began, beginning with several hundred meters of road and finally wandering into the Partnachklamm, a really beautiful gorge that you climb up and up and up until you’re looking down at the little mountain stream about a hundred meters below.

We continued on and up, already feeling quite tired, until we reached a little clearing with a couple of houses on a big mountain field with goats grazing in a pen. It looked like the trail only continued through their private property, we weren’t sure which way to go. We ended up picking a direction that led us back down the gorge until we finally saw a sign pointing us back in the other direction. We got right back to the clearing, but this time saw other hikers going along the trail that looked forbidden, so we followed them until reaching another intersection where we didn’t know which way to go. Having just passed an old German lady who seemed nice enough, I went back and asked her in German which direction we should take to the ‘Partnach Alm’, the first little peak on our tour of several peaks to get to the top. Due to my terrible accent, which I’d deliberately laid on quite thick as I often do in these situations, she answered in English and proceeded to bust out her hiking map and give us superb instructions on which route we should take. Feeling extreme levels of gratitude to this mysterious old German lady who was apparently in amazing enough shape to go hiking alone, we continued on our journey.

We reached ‘Bayern House’ shortly after that where we got our first good view of the village below, the continued on up to another little peak called the ‘Jochspitze’, which required lots of steep, strenuous hiking. Finally we came to the first ‘major’ peak—the Kreuzeck, which had its own cable cars running up to the beer garden the Germans had put there. As such, the trail got a lot more crowded now with people who don’t like to manually climb up to the top but instead just take the cable car and walk around. We could have stopped there but we still had another hour and a half before the day’s final destination: the ‘Osterfeldkopf’ (literally ‘Eastern Field Head’) which required even longer stretches of steep, strenuous hiking. When we finally spotted the beer garden on the top of the hill it was still another good twenty minutes of extremely difficult walking, now even harder due to the relative thinness of the air.

But we finally reached our goal, a beer garden 2 vertical kilometers up in the mountain, and we took our seat with a spectacular view and treated ourselves to a nice rewarding brew there on the mountain.

After debating what to do next we finally decided to walk back down to the Kreuzeck along a different path and then take the cable car down. We were a bit worried we might miss the last cable car because we thought the last was at 4:30 and it was already 3:00, but I figured we’d be able to make it considering it was all downhill. But Krissi hates walking downhill because it hurts her toes and knees, so we didn’t make very good time, arriving at the cable car station just before 4:30, and I was so concerned by the time we were making that I barely appreciated the spectacular views (though I made sure to force myself to do so every few minutes).

But when we got there it turned out that the cable cars would actually be running until 5:30, so we went and got ourselves another beer, then rode down the mountain at 5:00. Unfortunately we missed the bus at the bottom of the mountain by just a couple of minutes and had to wait another 45 for the next one, but to make a long boring story short we got back to the hostel about an hour and a half later, then went to eat at the same Italian restaurant again before going back and passing out at around 11 p.m.

The next day we asked the lady at the front desk for a bit of an easier hike, and she recommended we walk up Wank Mountain (it’s pronounced differently) so that’s what we did. Of course this ‘easy’ hike turned out to be quite difficult as well, as we’d come to understand that when you’re talking about hiking the Alps there’s really no such thing as easy the way people used to the mountains of New Jersey or Santa Barbara might think of it. We were so sore and out of breath even by the time we reached the half-way point that we considered riding the cable car the rest of the way to the top and then walking down like the rest of the cheaters do. But after stopping for a little bit to eat some fruit and trail mix we got our energy back and decided to go for it. Two hours later and lots and lots of zig-zagging up the side of the mountain, we finally reached the summit. Unlike the other peaks, from this mountain you actually got a good 360˚ panoramic view of everything from Garmisch-Partenkirchen 1600 meters below to the Austrain alps in the other direction. The only downside was that it was a particularly hazy day so things weren’t quite as crisp as they could have been.

At any rate, we drank our obligatory mountain-top beer, then rode the cable-car back down into town. We’d considered taking the car up to the Zugspitz, the highest peak in the German alps at just over 3 vertical kilometers, but it was such a hazy day and the peak was enshrouded in a cloud anyway so we figured the €47 it would cost to get us up there just wouldn’t be worth it. Instead we took the bus back to the hostel, got ourselves packed and ready to go, then killed 45 minutes before the next bus to the train station came by playing ping-pong outside the hostel. We reached the train stations just a few minutes after one train to Mittenwald had left so of course we had to wait an hour for the next one, which we spent walking around, buying a few random things at the drug store (sun-tan lotion and whatnot) then sitting on the train platform with our I-pods until the train came to get us.

2 – Mittenwald (01.10 – 04.10)

Unlike the hostel at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, the place we were staying in Mittenwald was a little family-run bead & breakfast only 5 minutes from the train station. Getting in was quick and painless, and another ten minute walk brought us into town where we stopped for an incredibly delicious meal at a little place called the “Kleine Kartoffelsack” (‘Little Potato Sack’). Mittenwald is a much smaller town than Garmisch-Partenkirchen and I liked it a lot better, but I think Krissi prefers bigger towns as there was really absolutely nothing going on. So we just got a bottle of cheap wine from the supermarket and brought it back to the bed & breakfast, sipping on it and watching the news on my computer followed by some German television which was in our room.

This bed & breakfast, called the Schmuzerhof, was easily the best place I’ve ever stayed overnight in Germany. For basically the same price as the hostel we got our own giant room with a TV, big bathroom, and the most comfortable beds and pillows I’ve ever slept on. We’d had our own private room in the hostel in Garmisch as well, but it was much smaller and the beds had been extremely hard and uncomfortable. On top of that there had been a huge group of 10-12 year old kids occupying our floor who were running around screaming and yelling all afternoon and evening. At first I’d thought they were part of a tour group but after two nights I began to suspect that they all lived there, that they were orphans or something whom the government paid for them to live in that particular hostel.

In any case, the Schmuzerhof was fantastic and getting out of that super-comfy bed in the morning was no easy task. But we managed to get up at a reasonable time and head into town to find an information center for hiking recommendations. We decided to do an easy hike the first day and a longer, more difficult one for the last day. The woman at the tourism center sold us a map and sent us up a little ‘mountain’ to the southwest of town, which was actually more like a hill. It was supposed to be an hour and a half climb to the top but we did it in 45 minutes, getting there shortly after noon. That was the only time we reached the summit of our climb and didn’t stop for a beer, though we could have.

From there we walked down the other side of the hill to a lake called the ‘Lautersee’ and walked around that for awhile, stopping at one edge for some more of our trail mix. Another 30 minute walk brought us back to the village, and it still being relatively early we decided to go to the cable-car place to the Karwendel, the tallest peak reachable from Mittenwald. It was the least clear day of the trip, and the top of the mountain had been enshrouded in cloud all day up until the time we actually were walking to the cable-car building. But the cloud was back by the time we got there and we had to decided whether to spend the €16 for the round-trip ticket or wait until the next day when it was supposed to be clearer but when we knew we’d be on a longer hike and might not make it back in time. Because we had nothing better to do we spent the money, then rode to the top of the mountain.

It was a pretty spectacular ride, but by the time we reached the peak, a little over 2 vertical kilometers, we were literally inside a cloud in the sky. As we walked out we felt the cold, thin air and the whole lifeless landscape shrouded in cloud looked awesome and other-worldly. We walked out and to the edge of the mountain where you would just stare into the white abyss of nothingness, looking down as the side of the mountain and the cables to the cable car just disappeared into nothingness. But if you looked long enough, occasionally there would be a break in the clouds and little patches of scenery would become visible for a moment, such as a few of the rooftops from the village or another part of the mountain, before disappearing again. At one point it became clear enough to get a really good view of everything, but the clouds quickly thickened back up again and there was nothing to see. Krissi seemed disappointed that the view was obstructed but I thought that in many ways this was even cooler than it would be on a clear day. I mean, we were literally inside a fucking cloud in the sky. Between me and Krissi standing five meters away you could actually see little cloud whisps blowing by.

As we sat there in silence, I suddenly noticed my phone indicating a text message was being received. How odd to get a text message at the moment like that, but when I opened it up I saw it was the automated message sent to your phone whenever you’re roaming. “Wilkommen in Österriech!” it said. Apparently we’d crossed the mountain-border to Austria, which was totally awesome because it meant we could technically add one more country to the list of where we’d been on our trip.

Once we’d had enough of the cold we went inside and had our obligatory beer, listening to the pop-music station they had playing in there for some awfully non-atmosphere-appropriate music, and took the last cable car down.

We dropped our stuff back off at the Schmuzerhof, then went out to dinner again, this time at a place for some spinach rizzoto which was good but a little too cheesy, not nearly as good as the potato sack. We bought our cheap wine again and the fell asleep in much the same way as the first night.

Krissi was up before me the next day, as I’d had a somewhat rough night due to what appeared to be allergies the night before giving way to an extremely dry and plegm-filled throat which was quite painful every time I woke up. When I went downstairs to join Krissi for breakfast I learned she was having the same problem. We figured it was allergies but we knew it might also be some kind of bug. It definitely mitigated the enjoyment of the day somewhat, but it couldn’t ruin it completely.

We were going to hike up to the ‘Hochlandhütte’ (High Land Hut) and back down again (there were no cable cars going there) and the woman at the tourism office had given us instructions for which bus to take and which stop to get off at. We got off at the recommended stop but it looked nothing like what the map said it should look like. We’d already gotten a late start so I was worried we might not have enough daylight for the five-hour hike if we had indeed screwed up.

I asked a German guy walking along the trail to point out where we were on my hiking map, and he confirmed that we were in fact not where we wanted to be. But he was an extremely helpful fellow, and gave me all kinds of advice on routes to take and which trails were more beautiful or more strenuous and whatnot. He turned out to be more helpful than the woman at the tourism office.

We ended up walking all the way to where we were supposed to have started, but then going up the mountain a different way than the woman had recommended, a way which turned out to be more strenuous but also way more beautiful and rewarding. This was serious hiking, much moreso than any of our previous trails. The path wasn’t a wide road with lots of steps built in and little benches all over the place, but genuine hardcore follow-the-marks-on-the-trees-or-you’ll-get-lost kind of hiking, where you had to consciously decide where to put your foot down at each and every step. It was quite steep and intense, but your mind was occupied enough not to really feel it.

And before we knew it we were at the highest elevation of the day. It was only half-way to the Hochlandhütte but the second half was all along the edge of the mountain, some of it pretty sketchy, in that one false step would send you tumbling to your death, but all at pretty much the same elevation. It was a really nice part of the walk in any case because you constantly had a good view, and we were extremely lucky that our last day there was also the clearest in terms of weather, and this was probably the nicest of all the trails we’d taken so we really had saved the best for last.

We reached the hut without much difficulty, only taking it slow on some parts of the mountain where you had to hold on to the wire they’d hammered in there or risk slipping off the edge. When we got to the hut I was shocked to find that they actually were serving beer there, as there were no cable cars or roads there to speak of. Someone must have either walked up there with all that beer or else had it delivered by helicopter. But leave it to Germans to have cold beer waiting for you in the middle of the fucking wilderness. Apparently they’ll find a way.

So we had our last mountain-top beer and then continued along the edge of the mountain to the next trail down. It was a long grueling walk down, first with about a hundred little zig-zags through the woods and then along an actual road, which despite its straight-forwardness was actually the hardest on the legs due to the sustained downhill decline. We were both in significant pain when we finally reached the base.

From there we just walked straight into town where I found a pharmacy that was still selling allergy medicine. I wasn’t sure we’d be able to get any because it was not only Saturday but a national holiday (Germany’s reuinification day) so everything was close including supermarkets. But I got some allergy medicine and some cough-drops, then we went to the nearest restaurant, a Chinese place, so Krissi could try what German Chinese food was like. I’d warned her that it wasn’t very good, but I was pleasantly surprised to find it quite delicious (though it may have had more to do with having just hiked for 6 and a half hours through the mountains with only some trail mix for nourishment) and it winded up being the best Chinese food I’ve ever had in Europe.

Because the supermarkets were closed we couldn’t get our cheap wine again, so we went into a nearby sports bar (quite possibly the only bar like that in all of Mittenwald) and bought a few beer bottles to take back to the hostel with us. We spent the night watching the German-dubbed version of “The Empire Strikes Back” on TV, which I helpfully translated for Krissi knowing both enough German and enough about the movie to allow her to follow the plot.

The next morning we both felt a bit more sick, but it was less of a phlegm-in-the-throat thing than a full-on virus kind of thing so although the allergy medicine had helped me sleep better I was now unsure as to what the problem was exactly. But I took two more allergy pills before we left, which might have been a mistake because it totally zonked me out. In any case we said our goodbyes to the nice German lady who ran the bed & breakfast, took our five minute walk to the train station and boarded the train. It had been four days of strenuous activity and our bodies were feeling it, but it had been an undeniably worthwhile experience.

3 – Munich and Regensburg (04.10-05.10)

Neither of us were feeling particularly excited about going to Oktoberfest. Every German I’ve ever talked to about it has been quite discouraging about going there, saying it’s extremely crowded and it’s mostly tourists and whatnot, but Krissi knew that her friends would never forgive her if she went to Germany during Oktoberfest and didn’t even go check it out. Besides, I haven’t felt quite right about having spent so much of my life in Germany and not having been to one of the events that Germany is most famous for.

So we got off the train in Munich and looked for a locker to store our very heavy and annoying backpacks. But nearly every locker-section of the train station had been closed off by the police for some inexplicable reason. The only room with any lockers left had a line outside that looked at least 30-minutes long, and we weren’t sure there were enough lockers there for everyone anyway. So we decided to just take them with us.

The line outside the tourist information center was also very long, so we just grabbed a map and walked the distance to the festival area ourselves. As we approached we were stopped by police who told us our backpacks were too big and we’d have to let them search them if we wanted to go any further. It’s a bitch to pack these bags so we weren’t too excited about having to unpack and re-pack again, and the police officer, who seemed like a nice enough guy, warned us that we would be checked again once inside. I told him about the locker situation at the train station and he said that they normally had places for people to leave there bags but for some reason they didn’t have that option today. But he told us not to worry—that after two beers everything would be fine.

We managed to walk into the festival area without getting checked again, finding it very much like a carnival in the U.S. only with less rides and more beer-gardens, but we knew to get the real Oktoberfest experience you had to go in one of the giant tents and get served a “Maß Bier”, one of those giant glasses of beer you always picture when you think of Oktoberfest. We went up to the first tent and approached the security guy, expecting him to search our bags and then let us in. But he said they weren’t allowing any backpacks in the tent today, which immediately pissed us off to no end. What the fuck, Munich? First you don’t let us store our bags anywhere and then you don’t let us into a drinking tent with our bags?

At that point, Krissi had her pictures and we were about ready to just get the fuck out of there and leave, but we figured we’d try another tent. This time, the guy let us in after making me dispose of my water bottle and searching our bags. So we got into a genuine Oktoberfest Beer Tent and found that it was everything we’d pictured. A big band of men all clad in Lederhosen playing Bavarian brass music, waiters and waitresses also in the traditional garb carrying six to ten giant glass mugs of beer to any of hundreds of picnic tables, all packed to the brim with drunken people pounding back their beer, stuffing themselves with Bavarian food, and many smoking cigarettes.

We’d been warned that you can’t buy a beer unless you have a seat, so we knew we had to find a table but it seemed at first like an impossible task. We walked the whole length of the tent and didn’t spot so much as one free place. Most of the tables had reservation slips on them. But just as we were beginning to despair, a waiter pointed us in the direction of a table with a couple of open spots at the end and told us in German that it wasn’t reserved until 4:00. That was three hours from then.

So we took our seats, ordered a couple of beers, and breathed a sigh of relief that we’d actually made it and we were now going to get a taste of the genuine Oktoberfest experience. Our beer came along, we toasted and drank, figuring we’d have one and maybe one more after that before getting the hell out of there. As we drank, the people sitting next to us raised their glasses to toast about a hundred times before we finished the first glass. So we ordered a second one as well as a giant pretzel and continued.

About half-way through the second giant beer I noticed that I was now significantly buzzed. The atmosphere, it seemed, had gotten to me. Either that or it was the mixture of the alcohol and the allergy medicine, but soon enough I was feeling the whole jolly vibe of the place get ahold of me. We started talking to our neighbors, some tourist from Thailand and some genuine Bavarian Germans from a nearby town. They were amused that we were from New Jersey but the conversation didn’t really go much beyond that point. But the band started playing again, everyone was singing and clinking their glasses together and it was all the clichés you envision it to be.

Before I knew it we were having a third glass, and our first friends went away so we slid down to the center of the table and met the people on the other end, whom we’d be toasting with again and again from then on. Replacing us at the table was a German family of four, with two young kids, one too young for beer so he just drank soda out of a little mini-beer glass, but the other who only looked about 12 but apparently old enough for a genuine beer. Both looked like they really didn’t want to be there, but after about 15 minutes the atmosphere seemed to envelop them as well and we were toasting with them just like everyone else.

But after that third beer I was officially drunk, and we both knew it was time to go. We stumbled out of the tent, snapped a few more pictures, then made our way out of the merry festival area and back to the train station, where we missed our train by about two fucking minutes and had to wait 45 more for the next one. In my drunken state I was quite aggravated by this, so without a word I left Krissi on the platform, went and bought some water, then stumbled outside for a cigarette. I don’t know how those two little tasks took up the whole 45 minutes but before I knew it I looked at the time on my phone and saw it was time to go. I found Krissi again on the platform and we boarded the train.

I was dozing off throughout the whole train ride, and I was so unsure of myself that I kept asking the ticket-checkers whether or not this train actually did go to Regensburg, the town where we had our hostel reservations for the night. It seemed to take much longer than I expected, but we did eventually get there, and we managed to get to the hostel and get into our room in spite of the fact that there was no staff there. It was actually the night-time security worker who showed us in and gave us our key, then a couple quick recommendations for a bite to eat and place to drink.

We had our kebab dinner, then went to an Irish pub for one last beer. I was ready to pass out, and had been for quite some time, but somehow Krissi was still going at it, and she stayed up for awhile doing shit online with my computer while I passed out as early as 10 p.m., only to wake up later at 2 a.m. with the worst headache of my life and tossed and turned for the next four hours attempting to get back to sleep.

I still had the headache when I forced myself up at 9:00, got myself together and left the hostel with Krissi around 10:00. We walked to the train station to drop off our stuff and buy the few remaining tickets we’d need for the rest of our journey through Germany (from Prague to Dresden, Dresden to Leipzig, and Leipzig to Hannover), then spent the next hour and a half just walking through the lovely little town of Regensburg, where I’d been once before with the exchange student crew. Krissi and I didn’t do much—just walked along the Danube, checked out the nice cathedral they have, and wandered around the streets of the Old Town before getting back to the station and beginning our journey to the next destination on our tour, Prague, where I currently sit after a nice easy evening of dinner and non-alcoholic beverages (I needed a day of recovery), finally writing down this journal entry.

There are five days left on this trip, and they should be quite enjoyable, assuming this annoying sickness, whatever it is, goes away. Prague is a lovely and fun city, and I’ve always wanted to see Dresden and Leipzig, so I’m looking forward to those as well. But I don’t think anything will compare to Bavaria. As I expected it might be, that was probably the best part of the trip, perhaps the highlight of this entire time I’ve spent with Krissi this Fall.

Company, Week 1

August 29th, 2009 No comments

As I pretty much expected, I haven’t had much time or desire to write a lot in the journal since Krissi has been around. It’s Saturday morning now and she’s still asleep so I’ve got some time to record the events of the past week, starting where I left off on Wednesday morning.

Shortly after Krissi woke up we decided to go out for a jog around the Maschsee. She hadn’t gone jogging in about 6 weeks so I had to take it a bit slower than normal, and we jogged for less time. The weather was nice so the scenery was beautiful, and it just a simple nice experience.

I had the whole day off, so I figured we should spend the afternoon being tourists and walk around Hannover following the red line that the tourism bureau painted on the ground which goes by all the major points of interest in the main part of town. I’d bought a guidebook from the Hauptbahnhof bookstore the day before, so I read about each location as we stopped there and repeated all the interesting stuff to Krissi. Not much of it was particularly fascinating or worth repeating here, but I did learn a hell of a lot more about Hannover than I had over the whole course of the year I’ve been here, and it made me realize that I ought to do stuff like this in every city I live in shortly after I move. It gave me a much greater appreciation for a lot of the stuff I see and walk by every day. For instance, I now know who the statues I walk by all the time actually depict and what their significance is in Hannover’s history, the most important being King Ernst August, for whom the area around the train station is named after even though he’s remembered with disdain in Hannover as a rather tyrannical monarch. And now I also understand the significance of the fact that my nearest subway station is called Waterloo, it being near “Waterlooplatz” which is a field with a monument put up to celebrate Hannover’s involvement in defeating Napoleon at Waterloo, taking revenge for his eight-year occupation of the city. The coolest part was probably finally learning the actual ages of some of the old buildings around me. The church right around the corner from my apartment, for instance, is over 600 years old, and the big church in the center of town is nearly 800. All in all, it was an extremely worthwhile thing to do.

That night we just took it easy, listened to music and watched stuff online until it was time to go to bed. Just before going to sleep I tried going online and found that my computer was now fucked up yet again, but in a slightly different way. That immediately put me in a bad mood but I had no desire to go through all that tech support bullshit that late at night so I just went to bed and figured I’d deal with it tomorrow.

Thursday being my longest day of classes but also my most interesting, Krissi agreed to come with me to Helmstedt and sit in on the lessons. Only Andreas showed up to the first one, and as I’d expected would happen, we spent the whole time giving each other travel recommendations—Krissi for his upcoming trip to California where she lives, and Andreas for our upcoming trip to Hamburg where he lives.

Following that I had my lesson with the apprentices, which went just about the same as usual, with a boring first half in which we worked from the textbook followed by an episode of the Simpsons and then a game—this week a trivia quiz that I’d made up last weekend. Only five students were there for the end of class so I broke them into three groups of two, pairing Krissi up with Tereza, and they ended up winning easily. Afterwards Krissi asked me if I’d mentioned Tereza in my journal a few times and I told her that yes, that was her. I said I just found her adorable, and apparently Krissi agrees that she is.

We stopped at the supermarket on the way home to pick up some stuff, then Krissi cooked dinner while I fucked around with the computer, finding a way around the damage from the virus to get onto an internet browser, then just downloading and watching the news. When the sun was setting and twilight encroaching I suggested we go out for a little walk, and we walked down the river to the Maschsee—my newly discovered route—and then back up, Krissi giving me her impressions of my classes and whatnot.

When we returned I had planned to watch “The Ground Truth” with her but the virus wouldn’t let us, and I decided I might as well take care of it now. So I called tech support and the guy took over my computer and I watched him try to fix it for the next three hours, thinking I had to stay awake but eventually falling asleep anyway. When I woke up the major problems were fixed but there was still a virus there, although just from watching these tech support people do their thing for so long I was able to figure out how to get rid of it myself. He also left the antivirus software he’d transferred to my computer where it was, so I registered the program and now I’ve got it set to the maximum level of protection. Hopefully that will prevent this bullshit from happening again, but I’m not very optimistic. I feel like the next virus that hits may be incurable and I’ll wind up having to wipe-out my entire hard-drive. I’m very tempted to buy an external hard drive to back up my music files, videos, and porn. I spent a lot of time accumulating that stuff and I’d hate to have to start again from scratch.

The next day was Friday, which meant I had to get up at 7:00 and go back to Helmstedt for a one-hour class and then possibly a single lesson with Jörg if he decided to show up. Thankfully he didn’t, so I was out of there very quickly and got back to Hannover, swung by the post office to pick up the backpack I’d ordered last week, then came back around 1:00 to find that Krissi was just getting up. The weather was mostly cloudy, warm but with a wind-chill that made it quite cool, which is perfect jogging weather and I suggested we go.

We ended up going through about two-thirds of the new jogging route I discovered, leaving the best part out because she’s still not quite up to par with me and I want to save that little area for when the weather is nicer anyway.

When we got back, we tidied up the apartment a little bit and I took care of some of the aforementioned stuff on my computer like killing the virus and registering the software, after which I took a much needed hour-long nap while Krissi played some awesome jazz music and went online.

When I got up at 5:00 we started drinking beer, and went through the now almost-routine event of Krissi preparing dinner for the two of us while I watch my news programs. Rachel Maddow was back after having had a few nights off being sick, so it was the first time Krissi got to appreciate her excellent style of framing the issues, and although she’s not nearly as politically inclined as me, she paid attention the whole way through.

A few more beers, a few more things to watch online like a couple of South Park episodes, and then we headed out into Friday night Hannover, starting with the Dublin Inn which was quite packed and the only seats we could find were in the back where there was some Karaoke going on. We just had one beer there and spent the whole time discussing music, and most of that time with her explaining to me why she has such a high disdain for the Emo genre.

We left and she asked me to take her to another good bar but I confessed that I really only ever hang out at the Dublin. I walked her down and through the red light district but neither of us had any desire to go into one of the strip joints there, and I realized we were actually pretty close to KGB, the Russian bar/restaurant where I’d hung out with Alan and Amanda a couple of times. We got in and found a table, and Krissi seemed to like the atmosphere so that worked out nicely. We had another beer and ordered some food, something I remembered Alan ordering and which I had to just guess from the menu what it was, but I guessed correctly and it was quite delicious.

After that we walked home, and when we got back in I took one more beer and she poured herself a glass of wine, then I played some music I’d wanted her to hear and was happy to find that she liked it. Over the next hour or so it really felt like old times, as we just smoked and drank and had some incredibly deep conversation striking right to the core of what it means to exist as a human being and how the lines are drawn regarding the “right” and “wrong” way to live our lives.

I woke up this morning around 8:30 and discovered when my shower was over that there’s something now fucked up about the hot water, and it wouldn’t shut off when I turned the valve. Thankfully it eventually stopped when I kept at it, but I’m now really worried that it’s going to turn out to be permanently fucked and I’ll be forced to call the landlord, which means having to face the fact that I haven’t yet paid him rent and therefore to lose a minimum of €920 which I could have used for traveling now and paid him later. So I’ll just have to keep my fingers crossed that the problem doesn’t get any worse, although between this computer virus bullshit and now the shower problem I’m beginning to think that Krissi might somehow be bad luck for me—that perhaps the universe is compensating for the excellent time I’m having by throwing these frustrating fucking problems at me lest I experience too much happiness.

Eilenriede

September 28th, 2008 No comments

[Originally written in a private journal. Back-posted in 2011]

Today has been even more fuck-you-in-the-ass beautiful than yesterday, so naturally I had to go for another walk. It was a choice between the Maschsee and the Eilenriede, and since I’ve been around the Machsee thrice and only through the Eilenriede once, and just a small fraction of it, the choice was not difficult.

I checked out the city forest a few weeks ago when I went to the nice but ultimately disappointing Statdhalle, and was quite impressed by it. But because it’s a half-hour walk just to get there and Mary Poppins Park as well as the river are much closer, I haven’t been back since. Now that the leaves are starting to change I figured it would be the perfect time to go back and explore it more thoroughly.

The weather was even a bit better than yesterday because it was a tad cooler and the sky was about half-full of clouds (or half-empty if you prefer) so the sun was not constantly shining. The forest was even more beautiful than last time as the leaves were a mixture of green and yellow, with fallen leaves lining the paths. I quickly walked through the area where I’d been before and found it to be too full of paths and people, and crossed a couple of roads that run through the forest until I reached the “Naturwald” or the part of the forest that is the most natural out of the whole thing. Now the paths were much less frequent, and there were even some just-barely-a-trail trails running deeper into the woods. I took these little paths and ventured off the track several times, going deeper and deeper as the sound of the surrounding roads faded further and further. Finally I got to a point where I couldn’t see anyone and the sound of traffic was just a slight whisper. I could almost believe I was in the middle of a forest in the wilderness. There was almost nothing at all to indicate that I was actually in the middle of a large city.

Because there was no place to sit, I had to just stop and eternalise a moment while standing, which I did when the sun peaked out from behind a cloud and rays of light came shimmering through the leaf ceiling. I stood there and let the beauty of the woods sink in, felt the crisp breeze as every now and then it gently blew and brought a shower of leaves floating gently to the ground all around me. Just beautiful.

I stood there for a good five to ten minutes until the sun went behind another cloud, then I figured it was time to head back. I was pretty much completely lost, but I knew I had to go west and since it was the afternoon all I had to do was follow the sun. I did this until I reached a path and an intersection with a sign. One of the paths led to the Stadtpark, which I knew was near the Stadthalle because I’d seen signs for it a few weeks back, so I took that path. I thought I was approaching one of the roads I had crossed earlier, but when I saw that the path emerged onto a much busier street I thought that maybe I’d been going the wrong direction.

As I approached the wood’s edge I saw the last thing I wanted to see: a girl sitting alone on a bench. I was hoping this opportunity wouldn’t present itself today. I just wasn’t in the mood. But here it was—I was lost and she was sitting there alone so I guess I had to ask her for directions. But when I did reach the edge of the woods I saw the Stadthalle across the street so I instantly knew exactly where I was. Now I had about five seconds to decide whether to stop and talk to her as I walked by. She wasn’t terribly attractive—not like the bike-girl at the Maschsee but she wasn’t ugly either. As I approached she turned and looked directly at me. I smiled. She looked away. I kept walking.

It took about five minutes before it started to bother me. At the time I really hadn’t had any desire to go up and talk to anybody, let alone a girl who was only somewhat attractive and who didn’t exactly give off the vibe that she would appreciate being approached by a stranger. Still, had I stopped and talked to her she probably would have talked to me back and it’s possible I could have finally made a friend. Making a friend was just the last thing on my mind at the time, which is of course why that’s when the opportunity came.

So I’ll chalk that up as strike 2. It wasn’t nearly as bad as not talking to bike-girl, who had already been in my consciousness before the opportunity to sit down and talk to her arose, but it was still a failure on my part to overcome my shyness. I didn’t even say “hallo” when she looked directly at me. I just smiled what was probably an awkward-looking smile. Had she smiled back, maybe I would have stopped. Had I found her as attractive as I found bike-girl, I’d like to think I definitely would have. But she wasn’t even as attractive as Victoria (Ms. Läer) and I’d already decided that she wasn’t worth the trouble. It’s extremely likely that this girl wasn’t worth the trouble either. Had I tried to have a conversation it would most likely have just been a very awkward struggle to understand each other until we reached a mutual understanding that this was going nowhere and then we would have parted ways. Of course, even with such a non-result I could at least give myself kudos for trying.

So what would have been a perfectly lovely walk got ruined by that little non-encounter. Not that I didn’t really enjoy the walk, but the memory of it will no longer just be about a pleasant experience I gave myself, but about how once again I failed to take advantage of the rare opportunity of actually meeting someone new.

I wish I knew why it was that even when I’m perfectly content to be alone, my brain still beats me up over not doing anything to change it.