I started 2005 using the same Sony Ericsson K700i I took my best 2004 mobile phtos [confusion.cc] with. I used it for the first half of the year, and the only photo worth sharing during that time that is not a portrait is another panorama:
The photo stitching is much better in this one, as the camera was sitting on the table when I took all the photos, I just had to rotate it for each shot. So maybe, just maybe, the software was good and the photos in that shot of the Singapore CBD skyline I shared from 2004 were really not level.
Moving on. At some point in 2005 I got a new phone, one that I loved, I think it was the best phone on the market at the time and I can’t understand why it was not more popular. The Sony Ericsson Z800i. A flip phone with a rotating 1.3 megapixel camera, a step up from the K700i’s 640×480 (with an “extrapolation mode” which output photos at 1280×960). The Z800i output photos at 1280×1024, which isn’t much bigger than the K700i’s extrapolation mode but they look much better:
There are still a serious lack of actual good photos in my library. Focus was an issue, on both the K700i and the Z800i. Also, action was an issue, even the slightest movement is blurred.
I actually went through two Z800i’s, as shortly after I got it my wife —now wife, then girlfriend— sent my new phone for a ride through the washing machine. One night after drinking I left it in my pocket and she decided do to the laundry early in the morning due to the smell of smoke and alcohol on the cloths. At the time I was living in a shared corporate flat and I didn’t even know the phone when through the wash, I found it on the table in the living room and just assumed I left it there. But when I tried to turn it on it was dead. I spent the afternoon waiting in Wisma Atria to see a Sony Ericsson agent to get it fixed, since it was nearly brand new. After waiting for my number to come up it took the agent all of 2 minutes to tell me the damage was not covered by the warranty as it was water damage. Apparently there is a little white square of material on the battery that turns blue when exposed to water. At first I couldn’t figure out how the phone got “submerged” and argued that it could only have been sweat or a splash from normal usage, I had not dropped it in water. I was only when we got home and my co-worker cum roommate told me he found the phone in the washing machine when he went to do his laundry that we managed to piece the story together.
So I had to buy a new phone… I don’t remember how much it cost but I do remember it being painful and my wife being surprise I did not get angry with her. C’est la vie.
Anyway, here are a couple of more photos for the Z8ooi that I can count as my best mobile phone photos of 2005. First a photo of the US flag from my hotel room in Washington DC on a trip back in July of 2005 to attend a wedding:
And… then there is this:
That’s my killer rabbit that used to look down on my cube in the office in Virginia wearing a hat I got at a St. Paddy’s day pub bash in 2002 in England. I gave the rabbit away to a coworker, and the hat eventually got trashed. C’est la vie.
I have embarked on a mission to cleanup my mobile phone photo library. As long as I’ve been taking photos with my mobile I have been ignoring them after I back them up. These days I back them up to Lightroom and I have even managed to find and imported photos from before I used Lightroom into my Lightroom library. There are a few gaps but I have a long mission ahead.
My library of mobile phone photos goes back as far as 29 September 2004. There are a couple of shots of people I was working with at the time, which I won’t post, and then this gem:
That’s the Alkaff Bridge [wikipedia.org] over the Singapore River, just down the quay from the hotel I was living in (The Gallery Hotel, no longer there) in September 2004. Having arrived from the US on, as I recall, September 4th (thought looking back at my 2004 post here on Confusion I seem to have left the US on August 30th [confusion.cc]… I know you skip a day and I took a crazy long, multi-stopover route, but it does not seem to add up, maybe I left well after midnight, I can’t remember.)
In any case, that photo was taken on a SonyEricsson K700i [wikipedia.org]. I’m sure I should have photos that were taken on even older photos, specifically the T610 [wikipedia.org] but it seems those are lost to time, so the K700i are my oldest. They are mostly crap photos, but there are some fun shots of people I worked with.
For some reason about half of the photos from the K700i are 1280×960 while others are only 640×480.
But the K700i did have a fun panorama function built in. I made a few attempts but it wasn’t always so good at handling my inherent inability to keep the camera level from one shot to the next (a problem I have with my DSLR too). These buildings look like they are drunk or auditioning for Inception or Dr. Strange a few years early:
So I really don’t have any good mobile phone photos from 2004, the title of this post is a bit misleading. I plan to post a few mobile phone ph0tos for each year as I continue my cleanup. We’ll see how much the phones and my ability to use them advanced. Not sure what year I’ll stop at. I started using Lightroom mobile to take photos on my phone sometime in 2017 so that’s a logical place to stop… let’s see if I can get that far.
As a final aside, the photo of Alkaff bridge was taken on the night of September 29th. According to Confusion [confusion.cc] I visited the Chinese Gardens to view the lanterns setup for the Mid-autumn festival with some colleagues. But I don’t have any photo, or DSLR photos of that night…
Back before COVID19 locked us all in our home countries we went to Amsterdam for a holiday. We also took a two day side trip to Billund, Denmark just to visit the Lego House [wikipedia.org], but more on that in another post. Amsterdam was the right combination of close to Billund and decent flights. Copenhagen was another option but Amsterdam won out.
We arrived quite early in the morning, before 6AM in Schiphol, a day after my mother and sister. After dropping our bags at the hotel room our first stop was the bakery on the corner for fresh stroopwafel [wikipedia.org]. Thus began a recurring theme for our period in Amsterdam: breakfast confections… maybe that’s not the right work but we had stroopwafel, proffertjes [wikipedia.org], icing sugar coated waffles, and even vegan pancakes at Mr. Stacks [mrstacks.nl].
But it was not all eating. We did some sight seeing. Actually we did a lot of walking to see things. Based on my iPhone we did 118km walking over the week and a half we were in Amsterdam.
Some of our sightseeing agenda was based on what I already knew about Amsterdam generally and from my time there in 2001/2002, but a lot of it was based on watching various travel videos, mostly on YouTube. We all sat around in the months leading up to our trip and watch different “best of” videos. It’s how we discovered Mr. Stacks, among other things.
One of our favorite sightseeing activities is museums and Amsterdam has some great ones. On this trip we visited:
The most important museum we visited was, without a doubt, The Anne Frank House [annefrank.org]. I remember reading the book as a teenager, I truly believe the world needs to remember the atrocities of the Nazi’s and the bigotry of ordinary people which allowed the Holocaust to happen. I’m not Jewish, I’m not religious at all, but the story of Anne Frank, her family and the 17 million other Jews, Poles, Russians, Romani, Freemasons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Serbs, Slovenians, Homosexuals, Disabled, Spanish Republicans and who knows who else [wikipedia.org], must be told, over and over again. It is more important today than at anytime since the end of World War II, as xenophobia and racism seem to be on the rise again. Bigotry seems to be the default mode for most of humanity, us and them, the in group and the out group. Without constant reminders, humanity has no humanity. It’s important to remember and to teach our children so they can be mindful and hopefully live up to “never again” as we keep failing to.
The Rijksmuseum [wikipedia.org], where you can see The Night Watch [wikipedia.org] by Rembrandt and many other Dutch Golden Age paintings. THe Night Watch was under renovation at the time of our visit, you could see the painting but it was inside a giant glass box and there were people working on part of it. It was kind of interesting to see it under renovation and I’m glad they didn’t take it off display fort he renovation. Though the things my kids seems to like the best was sitting in the Research Library where you have to sit quietly. Interesting…
The Van Gogh Museum [wikipedia.org], filled with Van Gogh paintings… duh. Lots of self-portraits and sunflowers; also people eating potatoes [wikipedia.org]. A very good museum, love the way you ascend year-by-year up the building. The audio guides were included in our ticket price and were very good. I forgot that The Starry Night [wikipedia.org] is actually at MOMA.
NEMO [wikipedia.org], a hands on science museum for kids. Good for a full day of play. Bubbles, Rube-Goldberg machines, earthquake simulation room (very cool), water works to play in. We could have gone two days I’m sure.
MOCA, a small museum located in the Museamplein, near the Van Gogh Museum and Rijksmuseum. Like MOMA but Contemporary. Exhibitions on Banksy, Daniel Arsham and Yayoi Kusama as well as a general collection of contemporary art pieces. I got tickets to this one without consulting anyone else as I wanted to see the Banksy.
Body Worlds. Not, strictly speaking a museum, but an exhibition on the human body using actual human (and animal) bodies and body parts that have undergone plastination [wikipedia.org]. The smaller Amsterdam exhibition was not as good as the one I saw two in London two decades ago. Partly it was just smaller, but also the layout in a small, multi-story building and all the rooms being painted black made it feel less open and like it was trying to creep you out. In London it was a huge open space and all white and bright. My kids thought it was too creepy.
But it was not always stuffy museums, we got out of town to see some amazing things too. We went to Haarlem, and spent a day wondering around it’s medieval center. Quaint red-brick buildings and streets surround it’s cathedral. A nice sleepy town to spend an afternoon in, enjoy some food and walking. Unfortunately it was a wet day, light rain off and on all day, when we were there so we didn’t cover much other then the main square around the cathedral.
Out other excursion was more successful. On our first day in Holland, we took the train an hour out from Centraal station to Zaanse Schans, famous for its windmills. From the train station it’s a 15 minute walk to the riverfront where the windmills sit. And you get to walk past a chocolate factory. Smells amazing, looks like it’s straight out of Willy Wonka, of course you can’t see the Umppa Loompas, they stay inside.
We visited a couple of windmills along the Zaan river. Two of them were actually working: De Kat [wikipedia.org], a dyemill crushing chalk to make dies for paint, and De Zoeker [wikipedia.org] an oilmill, roasting and crushing linseed for oil. Their was a presentation inside De Zoeker showing how they use various mechanisms to transfer the wind power from the mill stones to hammers and other tools using various mechanical means. The oil from the linseed’s pressed at De Zoeker can, and is sometimes, used to make paint with the dye from De Kat. The inside of De Zoeker looked and smelled a lot like my grandfather’s shop/barn. The smell of oil and wood and sawdust.
There was also a few shops/exhibits in Zaanse Schans, one making Dutch cheeses, Catharina Hoeve Cheese Farm, and one making and selling traditional Dutch wooden clogs: Kooijman Wooden Shoe Workshop [woodenshoes.nl]. The cheese did not interest the kids so much, but the wooden shoes were a hit, especially the giant ones you could sit in outside.
I also managed to meet up with two friends while in Amsterdam, one planned meeting and one random chance. Both are, funny enough, ex-colleagues from working here in Singapore. The planned meeting was with a recent ex-colleague who is dutch and moved back to Amsterdam a few years ago. We met up for an afternoon drinking in a pub. We didn’t drink that much, but we managed to stretch it out for about 6 hours and he ended up missing a flight for work because we took too long. Oops.
The second meetup was completely random. I posted about it at the time [confusion.cc], but, in brief, an Irish, ex-colleague who worked with me in Singapore, before moving to Russia, happened to be in Amsterdam for a conference and we managed to meet up for a evening of good beer and great food. Absolutely random and the best, if not only, reason to still have social media.
More than a year ago, in late April, and into early May 2019, my mother, my youngest sister and I went on a bucket list trip: to see Machu Picchu [wikipedia.org].
Machu Picchu is one of those places that has been in the “oh my god I have to go” since I was a kid. We watched a lot of National Geographic specials when I was young (back in the pre-cable days when we had four channels: ABC, NBC, CBS and PBS.) I’m sure I first came across Machu Picchu on one of those specials. The many shows on the story of Hiram Bingham‘s [wikipedia.org] expeditions and the mysteries of Machu Picchu as well as the possible connection to the Indiana Jones movies, all of which were favorites in my house growing up, added to the mystic of Machu Picchu putting it near the top of my must-see-in-my-lifetime list. While I’ve checked off a lot of places on that list between my life in the US, my time in Europe and living in Asia, Machu Picchu was my first Central or South American site.
I flew via Amsterdam, 31 hours in total to get to Lima. I met my mom and sister in the airport there and took a short flight to Cuzco. The landing in Cuzco was an experience, because of the mountains all around Cuzco the plane makes a sharp banked turn and drops rapidly down to the runway. It’s a bit of a roller coaster.
We met a representative from our tour company at the airport and they dropped us at our Hotel, right in the center of Cuzco city. We spending the remainder of the first day walking around just to get somewhat acclimatised to life at 3000 meters above sea level. At that altitude climbing the steps up one level to our hotel room had the same effect as jogging a 100 meters or so. We had to work for the coffee we had at a second story café in the main city square, Plaza de Armas del Cuzco.
We started our site seeing on the second day, touring some of the main sites in and around Cuzco. We started just opposite our hotel at the Convent of Santo Domingo [wikipedia.org] which is built on the ruins of the Inca Coricancha or “the golden temple”, possible their most important temple. Much of the colonial architecture of Cuzco is built right on top of Incan and pre-Inca buildings, incorporating the large stones with no mortar in their foundations.
We took a car up into the hills around Cuzco to see some of the more Inca sites: Sacsayhuamán [wikipedia.org], Tambomachay [wikipedia.org] Puka Pukara [wikipedia.org] and Qenko [wikipedia.org]. All cool sites and considering Tambomachay and Puka Pukara are located at 3600 meters above sea level a good warm up for hiking at altitude. We returned to Cuzco in the afternoon and toured the Cusco Cathedral [wikipedia.org] where of course you can’t take photos of the amazing interiors…
The second day we explored the Sacred Valley on our way towards Machu Picchu. We saw the salt ponds at Maras [wikipedia.org], which were very cool. Our guide said there were over five thousand salt ponds but I’m sure he meant five hundred. Still it’s an impressive site, in use for salt production for hundreds of years before the Inca.
Nearby the Maras salt ponds we visited the Inca ruins of Moray [wikipedia.org]. This was one of the coolest ruins we saw, they look like some sort of arena or man made craters in the earth. A series of concentric terraces built into a couple of large natural depressions. As explained by the guide, the best guess is it was made to create a “microclimate” to better grow specific crops at higher altitudes than they would normally grow.
We finished the second day at Ollantaytambo [wikipedia.org] which competes with Puka Pukara for the best name of the ruins we saw (Machu Picchu is too well known). The ruins of Ollantaytambo are a series of massive terraces going up the side of the mountain known as the Terraces of Pumatallis, a large temple complex including the “Wall of the Six Monoliths” which is made up of six Stonehenge sized blocks, and several Inca storehouses.
The next day we left Ollantaytambo and made our way to Machu Picchu. We entered the city in the afternoon with clear skies and bright sunshine, and met our local guide who took us around for a few hours as the sun went down. Our guide was great, explaining a lot and letting us indulge in our photography for as long as we wanted. And the ruins of Machu Picchu were amazing. The lowering sun casting shadows of the still standing walls of store houses and temples and residences across the grassy plazas. Sheer drops down to the Urubamba River which hourshoes around Machu Pichu.
While we explored the city we saw the requisite llamas, including a baby llama and my sister had an up close encounter with one hungry llama that tried to eat her camera lens when she was changing lenses. Llama spit, yummy. We also saw several viscacha, a type of rodent which looks something like a rabbit, but with a longer tail and short ears. They are quite cute running across the ruins.
One of the cooler things we learned from our guide is that while the jungle has been cleared from Machu Picchu, since Hiram Bingham first brought it to the attention of the outside world in 1911, no re-construction is done. There has been some rebuilding due to earthquakes over the years, but only if a stone can be identified as fallen since the Bingham’s expeditions using the photos from the expeditions, is it replaced.
Machu Picchu shuts to visitors at sunset, so after a few hours we made our way down to Machupicchu Pueblo or Aguas Calientes [wikipedia.org] the small town in the valley below the citadel. The town is full of tourist hotels and cafes and restaurants. Basically a clean showers, cold beer and hot food for people who hiked the Inca Trail. Also a steady stream of busses up and down the switchback road up to Machu Picchu.
We woke up very early the next morning to take one of the buses up to Machu Picchu to catch the sunrise. Alas, despite waking at 4AM and being on one of the first few busses we didn’t get to see the sunrise. It was cloudy. Low hanging clouds hugged the tops of all the mountains surrounding Machu Picchu. On the plus side we got to see Machu Picchu with clouds rolling through the city so we got both the sunny and cloudy experiences. We decided to spend our full day taking some of the hikes.
First we hiked several kilometers back along the Inca Trail towards Cuzco, several hundred meters up to the Sun Gate, Inti Punku. We got to trek through the cloud forest with clouds rolling up and down the slopes, we walked in and out of the fog. By the time we got to the Sun Gate there were some breaks in the clouds creating a dappled effect on the city below us.
After hiking back to the city we went around the other side of the summit of Machu Picchu to hike the shorter trail to the Inca Bridge [wikipedia.org]. This part of the Inca road system was more dramatic, with sheer drops down two or three hundred meters to the Urubamba River below —with no railing. The Inca were crazy, the Inca Bridge itself is a few planks of wood spanning a few meter gap in a section of the path which is just half a meter wide and running along a vertical rock face.
That night we took the train back to Ollantaytambo and then a car back to Cuzco arriving quite late. The next day was May day so we just chilled in the city and explored some of the sites. Unfortunately the market we wanted to see was not so busy. We did walk around the San Blas neighborhood but many shops were closed for the holiday. So we just had a lazy day, which was just a well as we had booked an adventure for the next day with a 2 AM pick up.
Our last adventure started pre-sunrise as we caught a bus to drive 4 hours southeast of Cuzco to hike Vinicunca [wikipedia.org], the Rainbow Mountain or Mountain of Seven Colours. A couple of hours on the bus and we stopped for breakfast at a small lodge off the highway. After breakfast we got back on the bus and started to climb up one lane gravel roads. We started about 3,700 m.a.s.l. meters above sea level and over the next hour we climbed a thousand meters up these gravel roads hugging the rising mountains. When we stopped at the parking lot we were 4,700 m.a.s.l. at which point some people are already experiencing altitude sickness to the point of vomiting. Luckily no one in our group was vomiting.
From the parking lot it’s a 5 kilometer hike up to the summit of Vinicunca —which is actually a pass, the lowest point around to cross over the Andes in this region. The foot of the pass is 5,000 m.a.s.l. and then it’s another 36 meters to the very top of Vinicunca. The first part of the hike is a relatively gentle rise, it takes most of the first 4 kilometers to go up, maybe 230 of the 336 meter elevation change. Even though the lack of oxygen means that even this shallow rise makes you out of breath if you go too fast. Everyone goes at different speeds depending on their fitness and age and our guide, who does this every day, went back and forth making sure everyone was ok. I’m not sure if he needed to use it but he carried an oxygen bottle just in case.
My mother, sister and I went at a slow pace and didn’t have much issues with the first 4 kilometers. The last kilometer was much steeper and we were stopping to catch our breath and let our muscles re-oxygenate regularly. At first we were stopping every 100 meters, then every 50 and soon every 10. By the time we got to the last 100 meters we were playing the “10 more steps to that rock and then we will rest” game. And the last 40 meters is a dirt stairway. By the time we got to the top we were going one. step. at. a. time. But we made it to the 5,000 m.a.s.l.. And I did make it all the way to 5,036. An Amazing view, with the colours of Vinicunca on one side, the red valley spread out before you and snowcapped Ausangate wrapped around behind you. (I wrote about this in brief before.) [confusion.cc]
And that’s about it. We had one more morning in Cuzco for some shopping and then started our return. Flying to Lima and waiting hours for our next flight, where we had to stand in the ticketing lobby for a few hours as they only open the desk three hours before the flight and we had about 6 hours between the flights from Cuzco and our international flights. I came back the way I went, 22 hours via Amsterdam to Singapore, not including the 4 hour stopover in Amsterdam or the 6 hours in Lima. But it was worth it to knock Machu Picchu off the bucket list.
As a last note: it’s always hard to title these travel posts… I started using the city or region and then country and then the month and year long ago. For the most part that has served me well, but there are a few holes in the logic. For example, a trip to multiple major cities or countries — say a trip to Amsterdam with a short side trip to somewhere in Denmark. Do I make two posts? Or keep it as one under “Amsterdam, Denmark…”? I’ve split this type of trip up most times, but that means sometime ending up with a set of photos and a post that are quite small. On this trip I chose Cuzco which is both the city we started in, though we spend nights in two others places, and also the name of the administrative region of Peru that almost everything we went to see was in. So should it be “Cuzco, Cuzco, Peru…” or “Cuzco Administrative Region, Peru…”. Anyway, it’s a minor thing. It’s also a good problem to have, a first world and privilege problem given the cost of this type of travel. So, I’m lucky to have to try and figure it out.
I have been visiting the holy land [confusion.cc] since 2007 and since day one I have planned to visit Petra [wikipedia.org]. I’ve been dreaming about visiting Petra since I was 11 years old and first learned of its existence, like so many people, from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. And every time I started making plans they fell through. But finally, in November 2019 I managed to make the trip.
I had one day, so it was a short trip and no doubt did not do Petra anything like justice. Logistics were a bitch, I got up at 3AM and went to the airport to catch a flight from Tel Aviv to Eilat at 5:30 AM. Once there I, and several others, tried to figure out what to do as no agent was there to meet us. After 45 minutes we eventually had an agent arrive and a few minutes later the bus which came from Tel Aviv also (you can save a 100 bucks or so on the tour by taking the bus which leaves at 3AM). After a 20 minute ride we arrived at the border crossing at Aqaba. You have to walk across the border and it’s very chaotic on the Jordanian side as lots of cruise ships dock in Eilat and people take day tours. Since the guides from Israel don’t seem to be able to cross, or at least they don’t —there were Israeli tourist who crossed with me— the various tour groups have to meet up with agents on the Jordanian side and go through the various customs and immigration processes. Lots of people speaking lots of languages and trying to communicate about a overly complicated process. Eventually I joined my tour group, we didn’t actually have much problem, and we boarded a bus. But the bus was too small, we had three people with no seats and it took 30 minutes to organize a second car to take them and meet us at Petra. Then we had another 15 minutes wait as we were stopped for something as soon as we started to pull away from the immigration center. Something not right with our papers…
Eventually we were on our way. The drive was beautiful, about two hours starting in the mountains and later over flat desert past Wadi Rum [wikipedia.org]. I would have loved to add a night to my tour to camp under the stars and then explore Wadi Rum, maybe next time. By the time we got to petra it was almost 2PM and our bus had to start back by 4PM (to make the mandatory “lunch” stop at a local restaurant and then drop people at Wadi Rum before making it back to the border crossing before it closed for the day.) So in the end, I had less than 2 hours at Petra. I did manage to see the key sights, or at least the sights on my must-see list. Waking down the Siq [wikipedia.org], the long, winding passage down into the ruins, and The Treasury [wikipedia.org].
The Treasury, or Al-Khazneh, is the main attraction, the mausoleum who’s facade is featured in The Last Crusade. Sadly there were not Nazis or Crusader Knights, just tourists and camel rides. The Treasury comes into view at the end of the Siq framed by the curvy walls. You can see a small vertical slice as our round the last turn, which grows wider as until you emerge into an open area of shear walls with the Treasury in it’s full glory opposite the Siq. An amazing site, and worth the loss of sleep, the money and the hassle. 10/10 would go again.
In fact, I would love to go back and spend a full day exploring more of the ruins. I basically only made it through the Siq, past the Treasury and along the Street of Facades —lined with many tombs and mausoleums, some grand, some not much more than caves it seemed— and to the Amphitheatre. Beyond that there is the city proper, with ruins of Roman temples and more grand mausoleums, even a crusader fort somewhere. Alas, I had to be back at the bus by 4PM.
Final stop on our 2018 limited tour of Japan (1, 2 [confusion.cc]): Tokyo. We arrived by train from Nagano [confusion.cc] at Tokyo Station. Our hotel was a ryokan in Asakusa so we loaded into two taxis with our luggage. Once we checked in we roamed around Asakusa and ended up in the Owl Cafe. It’s less of a cafe than what I thought it would be, I’ve seen photos of a cat cafe and a hedgehog cafe in Japan and they are a coffee shop with animals. In fact my daughters wanted to go to the hedgehog cafe but it was a bit far from anything else we were doing, the Owl Cafe was just something we stumbled upon so thought it would be a good substitute. The Owl Cafe was not really a cafe at all, it was an indoor petting zoo. It was odd but the kids really enjoyed petting and holding the animals —there were more then just owls, there were snakes, a sugar glider, even a giant capybara wondering around, you can’t really hold a full grown capybara.
After the Owl Cafe we found a Denny’s because my older daughter saw it an really wanted to go and have chocolate chip pancakes she remembered having at a Denny’s along the interstate on the way to my grandparents house when she was six years old… unfortunately Denny’s in Japan is not Denny’s in the US. No chocolate chip pancakes, not much for all day breakfast at all in fact. But all the kids did find food they liked and, sad to say, we made two or three more visits to Denny’s to fill their stomachs over the next few days.
Our first real adventure was the next morning, the Studio Ghibli Museum [ghibli-museum.jp]. Getting tickets to the museum is not straight forward, the tickets go on sale in Japan first and at some point you can buy them online via Lawson’s (yes, the convenience store). By the time they went on sale online everything was sold out. But there were lots of tour groups selling “tours” that included tickets to the Ghibli Museum. Tours in quotes because essentially you meet the guide at the nearest train station and walk in a group through the large park to the Ghibli Museum. Not much of a tour. I’m guessing that the tour companies go and buy up all the tickets when they are on sale in Japan and then they are basically scalping them, they cost three or four times the list price. I got the tickets but shame on Ghibli for such shitty customer experience, it’s fucked up. On the bright side, the museum was fun. It’s not real but but it’s got some fun stuff; a mock up of Miyazaki’s studio —complete with pencil nubs stapled end-to-end, which is apparently thing he does or did or whatever— various displays on how animation is made, from the drawing process, to cell painting techniques to multi-layer cameras used to give different layers different movement speed. And, of course, a museum shop where we spend way too much money (note to others we later found another Ghibli shop at the base of the Tokyo Skytree that had more than the shop at the Ghibli Museum, but not the unique things like actual animation cells and limited edition things. So if you are going to buy just the toys, puzzles, cloths and the like, you can skip the crazy crowd.). The other big thing at the Museum is the Saturn Theater which shows original short films. We were really hoping to see Boro the Caterpillar [wikipedia.org], Miyazaki’s first computer animation but, alas, we saw something else, unfortunately there is no other way to see Boro.
All-in-all the Ghibli Museum was worth it for someone who has watched and liked all of the Studio’s work, not sure a passing fan would be able to justify the cost. My only complaint is the ticketing process and the crowds, considering the issues with getting ahold of the limited tickets there were a lot of people, just barely short of fire hazard crowded in places. Even the walk from the train station was fun, we would have made it with or without the “tour” but the leaves on the Japanese maples were in full fiery red glory in the park and we found a shop my kids really enjoyed: B-Side Label [bside-label.com], makers of vinyl stickers. the girls enjoyed just browsing and each picked out a handful of pretty or silly designs to stick on waterbottles and such.
Our next adventure was teamLab Borderless [teamlab.art]. Which is an interactive image mapping and lighting exhibit. Projected waterfalls that flow around you. Animals you can color and scan and watch wonder around the rooms —and stomp on, causing them to splat on the floor. Rainbow whales swim along the walls, a gallery of color changing lamps in a mirrored room. We have been to the smaller teamLabs Future World at the Marina Bay Sands ArtScience Museum in Singapore a few times. several of the exhibits at Borderless are larger versions of exhibits there.
Still, teamLab’s art is awesome and beautiful. We spent most of the day wandering around. The only drawback was how hot the building is, between the large crowd and the lighting equipment it was very hot. In one exhibit it’s so hot it’s like being in a sauna. But Borderless is well worth a visit. There are several other teamLab exhibits in And around Tokyo too, but we didn’t visit any of them.
To round out our time in Tokyo we did some research before we left Singapore. We watched shows on NHK and YouTube to find things to do. The the key show was on NHK, the Hands-on Fun in Asakusa [nhk.or.jp] episode of Tokyo Eye 2020. within easy walking distance of our Ryokan we found three great things to do: Asakusa Kingyo, Kawarawari kawarana, and Asakusa Taiyaki Kobo Guraku.
Asakusa Kingyo [crayonsite.net] is located in an arcade just next to Sensōji [wikipedia.org]. Kingyo means goldfish in Japanese and Asakusa Kingyo is filled with paper goldfish, ceramic goldfish, stuffed goldfish and the like. but the main attaction is a large pool in the middle of the shop where you can sit and try to catch actual goldfish with little paper paddles and a wooden box. The kids caught dozens of goldfish over two or three visits. Unfortunately we couldn’t take them home, we got a ceramic goldfish to commemorate the visit.
Kawarawari Kawarana [kawarana.jp] is for distressing, you get to break Japanese roof tiles like some karate master. The roof tiles are about one centimeter think and the basic package is breaking five tiles. It’s a fun experience, you can dress up in one of the yukata provided and a Karate Kid headband to have the full experience. Totally worth it.
Asakusa Taiyaki Kobo Guraku [guraku.jp] is a do it yourself Taiyaki cafe. Taiyaki are the traditionally japanese fish shapped pancakes filled with adzuku (sweet red bean paste), cheese or custard. At Guraku not only do you get to make the taiyaki yourself, you can bring anything you want to fill them. We were not so adventurous, we took ham and cheese, and made a lot of custard too. In fact we made a ton of taiyaki. We really went for the kids to make but that meant booking for all seven of us. I think we got 24 taiyaki out of it. We had hot fresh taiyaki, and warm taiyaki later and cold taiyaki for breakfast and… and then we tossed a few into the trash.
From YouTube we watched a few videos but the ones that we really used were those about food. We watched a YouTuber named Paolo [tokyozebra.com] and in particular his videos on Asakusa [youtube.com] and snacks in Harajuku [youtube.com]. Of all the foods that were tried there are two worth mentioning.
The first is the giant rainbow cotton candy from Totti Candy Factory (which does not seem to have a website, but funny enough they opened a shop in Yishun Singapore near my house). The size of the cotton candy is way over the top. It’s four flavors like some kind of fat sombrero. My youngest devoured one on her own. But Harajuku is too much for my family, too crowded. We made it halfway down the road, pretty much as far as Totti before they were all “get us out of here”. We took one wrong turn trying to go out a side street that ended up being a dead end (thanks Google Maps). But in the end had to wade back through the sea of humanity down the main road.
The second food adventure was back in Asakusa: Benizuru (another one with no website). Benizuru makes one thing, this is Japanese “specialization leads to perfection” at its yummiest. Benizuru makes über-fluffy rice flour pancakes. Each pancake is about six centimeters think when they take it off the griddle, before it sinks a little. They are not so much fluffy (though that’s how everyone describes them) as jiggly. In addition to rice flour the chef folds in fresh whipped egg whites just before cooking. Getting a seat is, let’s say, “an adventure” (looking at it any other way will just irritate you.) they don’t take reservations over the phone, and they don’t take reservations for the future only for the same day. They open at eight AM to start taking reservations and are apparently fully booked dry quickly. My sister and I went at six AM the day after all of this was explained to us (we knew about the same day reservations but not what time they started taking them) and we were not the first people in line, there was a couple from Canada in front of us. By the time they started taking reservations the line was 30 people, or more, long. In any case we did get seats for ten AM and the pancakes were totally worth it. I had the basic, just three pancakes with butter and honey. All orders are three pancakes but there are a variety of toppings; in addition to butter and honey they have different (daily) fruits and even eggs and bacon. The whole reservation system makes more sense when you sit inside; there are 12 seats I think, and 6 griddle plates to cook the pancakes. So they can cook two orders at a time. If you’re going to go plan ahead and get up early, the people in front of us and at least those right behind us were, like us, returning after not being able to score a reservation on their first day.
Our last adventure was the Tokyo Sea Life Park [tokyo-zoo.net]. It was our last day and rainy but we took the train and made the most of it. I think though that the biggest hit was the French fries and hotdogs at the food truck in front of the aquarium.
I almost forgot, at some point we took a trip to the Tokyo Skytree [tokyo-skytree.jp], it was a nighttime visit to see the endless sea of lights that is Tokyo. I had a chance to visit the older Tokyo Tower [tokyotower.com] last year and I think it was better designed for the night view, and better positioned, closer to some of the clusters of tall buildings. Maybe the skytree would be better during the day, but the angle of the windows and the reflection on them of the interior lights spoilt the view for me.
And with that our 2018 tour of Japan came to an end.
The second stop on our 2018 tour of Japan was Nagano. Since no one in the family skis why did we go to Nagano? Monkeys. Snow monkeys to be precise, at Jigokudani Yaen-Koen [wikipedia.org]. We’ve been to see the Monkeys in the Onsen before [confusion.cc] but my youngest daughter does not remember and my niece had never been.
The trip to Nagano from Nikkō [confusion.cc] is via Tokyo: (almost) all Shinkansen tracks lead to Tokyo. We had a bit of a mishap changing trains in Tokyo we actually got on the wrong train, we were five minutes early at the platform. Such is the efficiency of the Japanese rail network. We figured it out quite quickly as there were people in our seat, but it was not quick enough sine we had to wrangle our luggage, the train had already left the station. The conductor told us that we could just get off at the next stop and take the next train. What he did not tell us is that the train we were on only made one stop between Tokyo and Nagano, and it was almost halfway. Since we were on a fast train it took about 40 minutes before the stop. Then, as our train was a slower one we had to wait on the track for 20 minutes, all because we were 5 minutes early at the platform in Tokyo.
Eventually we did make it to Nagano and our hotel. The first thing we did was to check the weather forecast. We were hopping to see some snow and our best chance would be at Jigokudani since it’s up in the hills. There was only a small chance of snow the first night but there was a 70 to 80 percent chance of a decent snow —3 to 5 cm— the second night. So we decided to spend our first day exploring downtown Nagano.
We spent the late morning and most of the afternoon wandering around the grounds of Zenkōji
We woke early on our second day in Nagano hopping for snow. Despite the high chance overnight there was not a flake to be seen. Still we hopped to se some at the Jigokudani which is actually in Yamanouchi. We caught an early bus from Nagano station for the hour and a half ride. Unfortunately there was no fresh snow once we go there. There was snow on the hills and old crusty snow on the grass and under the trees. But it had not snowed overnight and what snow there was was melting in the sun.
It was a beautiful walk up from the bus stop to the actual bath used by the monkeys. About two or two and a half kilometers, from the bus stop it’s half a kilometer along a side road to the actual entrance to the park. From the entrance it’s a beautiful walk in the woods, though a bit muddy in the melting snow.
The monkeys were much the same as the last time we went, but last time it was snowing and that made for an all together more amazing experience. It’s fun to get up close to the monkeys in the bath and take some photos. It’s a bit disappointing if it’s your first time and you realize this is not a natural hot spring pool, it was built for the monkeys. All the travel shows and photos you see hide this but it’s obvious when you are there. Also there are more people crowded around the hot spring than monkeys. It’s a highly artificial photo opportunity. That said you can get some awesome photos.
Back down the hill the kids managed to have a snowball fight with the old snow among the plants around the parking lot while we waited for our return trip.
Other than that we enjoyed some shopping —my kids are obsessed with Japanese stationary so, yea, picked up some markers, pencils, etc. etc.— and my wife and I managed to find a few places to eat local food so she could enjoy something other than convenience store fare, the kids continued lived off of Lawson’s and 7-11, though they did eat soba.
Last December the family went to Japan again —our favorite destination. We met my mom, sister and niece there and went to Nikko, Nagano and Tokyo. This trip to Japan was delayed a full year, plans were made for this trip in 2017 but unforeseen events caused it to be canceled a few weeks before we were to leave. So we were determined to enjoy it to its fullest.
Our adventure began before we arrived in Narita, and not on a positive note —feverish and vomiting kids. By the time we arrived in our hotel in Nikko, after three hours and two transfers by train from Narita, both the girls were sick. My mom and I spent most of the first day looking for medicine as the limited stock we brought quickly ran out. We walked around Nikko for several hours, looking for an open doctors office with the help of Google maps. We never found the first place Google directed us to but the second place we finally did find, after walking around in circles for a while, was very helpful… but it was an experience. The office was full of older men and women and, of course, the staff didn’t really speak English and I don’t speak Japanese so we spent some time conversing in single words and hand gestures enhanced with Google translate. “Child”. “Fever”. “Six years old”. “Ten years old”.
The staff was extremely helpful three or four of them gathered around trying to understand me. Eventually one of the staff was able to explain that we should go down the road to a Welcia to find what we needed. After another ten minutes or so of walking we found the Welcia, a very large drug store. Our second adventure in Google translate was trying to translate the labels of the medicines in the kids section —which was not very big, there really are no kids in rural Japan— one-by-one we translated until we found an ibuprofen and a paracetamol for kids. We never did find anything for vomiting and the staff was not so helpful. The guy at the counter was polite but it was obvious he didn’t want to take the time to try and understand, the contrast with the ladies at the doctors office was day and night. Maybe it was small business vs. big corporate employee but it reminded me of something I was told the first time I went to Japan: even though most younger Japanese speak English, the men won’t talk to you, you’re better off talking to the women. This was explained as a cultural stigma; while it is cute for a woman to struggle and speak broken “Engrish”, it’s not acceptable for a man to speak it so they just pretend they can’t understand.
So, anyway after two days stuck in the ryokan sick everyone recovered and we got to enjoy Nikko a bit. The hotel we stayed at was right on the edge of town and just next to a place called Kanmangafuchi Abyss (憾満ヶ淵) [atlasobscura.com]. A gorge the Daiya river flows though which is overlooked by a line of statues called “Jizō”, a bodhisattva who “cares for the deceased”. The statues are about a meter high sitting on a stone base that is another half meter or so, and dressed with a red knitted hat —like a skull cap— and red bib. It’s quite atmospheric, about 70 of these statues covered in moss, sitting along the trail in the woods with the river rushing through the gorge. We would never have found this place except that our hotel was literally the last building on the street and woods and gorge were right next to us, a five minute walk to where the statues began.
Of course the main reason we were in Nikko was to visit the shrines and temples of Nikkō [wikipedia.org] UNESCO world heritage site. The main attraction was the Tōshōgū Shrine (東照宮); [wikipedia.org], the mausoleum where Tokugawa Ieyasu is buried. Ieyasu was the first Shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate, the guy who conquered all of Japan and founded the Shogunate which would last until the Meji restoration, some two hundred years later. They sparred no expense when they buried him.
The Tōshōgū shrine is the most lavishly decorated place I’ve ever been in Japan. It’s the most lavishly decorated place in Japan I’ve ever seen a picture of. When you think of Japanese design you probably think of clean, simple almost minimalist design. Toshogu is the Baroque of Japanese, every inch is covered in carvings and there is no lack of color. Or gold, there is gold everywhere.
The Tōshōgū is far from the only shrine or temple, there is a large cluster of them. Taiyūinbyō (大猷院廟), Rinnōji (輪王寺), Shinkyō (神橋). We wondered around a few of them.
The other major thing we did was to take a train to Kinugawa Onsen to visit Tobu World Square [japan-guide.com]. We wondered around the 1/25 scale buildings from around the world: pyramids, the Acropolis, New York City —including the Twin Towers. There was Tower Bridge and The Eiffel Tower. A Bowing 747 and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. It was a blast.
In a recurring theme in all my family travels food was a challenge. We end up eating a lot of foods purchased from Lawson’s and 7-11. They have an impressive selection but you might thing we are crazy to be eating convenience store food in Japan. The problem is I’m vegetarian, my kids are just picky, my sister doesn’t eat gluten and my mom is not a fan of seafood. All in all it drives my wife, who is a foodie, mad. The best thing we got in Nikkō was great soba from a place near the hotel.
This is Vinicunca [wikipedia.org]. Commonly called Rainbow Mountain or The Mountain of Seven Colors. This photo was taken some 5,000 meters above sea level after a grueling climb (According to Wikipedia Vinicunca is 5,200 m.a.s.l., but that is the peak and we did not go to the highest point we stopped just above 5,000, so I’ll stick with 5,000 as my personal best). The climb itself would not be too hard, less than 500 meters vertical over a 5 kilometer trail, if it were not for the altitude. The altitude makes every step up, even a gentle grade, work is and the last 40 meters or so is a real lung burning experience. Every 10 steps I needed to rest for 2 minutes to catch my breath. But I made it up, without a horse (you can rent a horse).
For perspective: The highest point in the continental US is Mount Whitney [wikipedia.org] at 4,421 m.a.s.l. The highest point in Europe is Mount Blanc [wikipedia.org] at 4,808 m.a.s.l. (if you count the Caucus mountains on the Russia-Georga border as part of Europe then there are several taller mountains: Mount Elbrus [wikipedia.org] trumps me at 5,642 m.a.s.l. as does Dykh-Tau [wikipedia.org] at 5,205 m.a.s.l. and Shkhara [Wikipedia.org] at 5,193 m.a.s.l. — but that’s lower than the peak of Vinicunca so I’m going to stop there.) And finally, Everest South Base Camp in Nepal is 5,364 m.a.s.l. (North Base Camp is in Tibet at 5,150 m.a.s.l.).