Friday, January 29, 2016

6-Month Trip in 6 Minutes

We made video with 2-3 seconds of footage of every single day of our 6-month trip. Well, to be honest, 6 days are missing. Close enough. Generally we show the highlight of the day. Or not... :-)

Check it out:

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Kyoto & Tokyo!

Final stop before going to San Diego for Christmas: Kyoto and Tokyo. On December 18, we hopped on the shinkansen (fast train) from Hiroshima to Kyoto to spend a few days there. Our first stop was at a top-rated ramen restaurant named Ippudo Nishiki Koji. We were fortunate to beat the lunch rush, so we were able to sit right down with no wait. We had delicious ramen and gyōza:

We visited Kinkaku-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion). Crowded but beautiful. It took some skills to take pictures not showing the crowd:

We climbed in a city bus toward Ginkaku-ji (Temple of the Silver Pavilion). Lauren could not resist browsing little shops on the way:

This shop was all bunnies.

So Ginkaku-ji is not actually silver, but has this name because the original owner intended to decorate it with silver foil in the 15th century:

The non-silver Silver Pavilion.

Methodically decorated sand gardens.

A sign at the entrance prohibits selfie sticks!

From there we walked along the Philosopher's Walk, but not without taking a silly picture with a lucky cat:

A problem cropped up for dinner. We had such good ramen for lunch that we were afraid to be disappointed by whatever dinner we would have. We had only one option: eat at the number 1 rated ramen restaurant in Kyoto: Ramen Sen No Kaze. When we arrived there was already a line of people waiting. The staff put us on the waiting list, we took a number, and to kill time we walked around the Nishiki Market. The wait was very long—almost 2 hours—but it was very much worth it!

Ramen Sen No Kaze is a very small restaurant—only 15 seats—run by the owners with no outside staff. In Lauren's words the food was "sooo good!". The pork was perfectly cooked and melty:

The next day we took a very short train ride to the outskirts of Kyoto to see the Fushimi Inari-taisha temple:

Later in the evening we attended a Japanese calligraphy class at WA Experience KAFU. This was one of my favorite activity in the past 6 months of traveling. The studio is located in a residential area, so it looked like we were walking into someone's living space—a very nicely decorated traditional Japanese home, with tatami flooring, a large waist-level butcher block workbench, and interesting pieces of art around the house. Our teacher and assistant welcomed us warmly and were both incredibly nice people. We were served tea and the teacher started to explain her background and basics of calligraphy. She is at least the 3rd generation in the family to be a calligraphy master.

We started learning how to make our own ink using an inkstick. She taught us the posture to adopt when drawing. She explained the various Japanese writing systems (kanji, hiragana, katakana, etc). We practiced drawing some lines, then simple characters and eventually we chose our own characters and practiced drawing them a few times. I chose wind (風) while Lauren chose flower (花) in cursive script.

Next morning we jumped again on the shinkansen to Tokyo.

Shinjuku electronic shops.

Golden Gai area: relic streets from the 1930s with some of the most narrow walking streets and very small bars that seat anywhere from 4-8 people.

Nakamise shopping street.

Near the Nakamise shopping street.

We took a rickshaw tour of the Asakusa district. We felt sorry for the poor guy who was pulling us in this cold weather, but he seemed to be enjoying his work and was cheerfully explaining the history of the buildings and restaurants in this district:

Tokyo Skytree, second tallest structure in the world (634.0 m / 2080 ft). Notice how the tip is shaped like the handle of a samurai sword.

Asahi headquarters: the building on the left is shaped like a beer mug with foam at the top, while the right one is supposed to be a flame but many residents call it the "poo building".

Akihabara district.

Downtown skyline by the Imperial Palace.

What is our next stop? The US! Yep, on December 22 we flew to Los Angeles to spend Christmas with Lauren's family in southern California. We do not quite yet know what our definitive next steps will be, but with any luck, they will include more traveling!

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Beppu & Hiroshima, Japan

The past few months we spent in Southeast Asia have been very hot. So it was a nice change when we flew from Cambodia to Japan on December 14, and went from summer to winter.

I was happy to see our flight offer the option to watch the Bitcoin documentary The Bitcoin Uprising—a little dated, some inaccurate information, but entertaining for a long flight:

We landed in Fukuoka, a rest stop where we spent just one night. Our first japanese meal was dinner at a local BBQ restaurant which was quite delicious:

Mmmm. Bacon wrapped asparagus.

Next morning we took the train to Beppu. Why this city? It is small—130 000 inhabitants—and not very well-known, but this is where my sister Marianne had been living for 2 years, so I was curious to visit it to check out how it must have been for her to live there.

Strange statue at the train station.
Beppu has many hot springs that are used and have been used for hundreds of years for bathing, cooking, etc. We visited the Kannawa district and went to a place called Jigoku Mushi Kobo to buy vegetables and eggs, cook them in geothermal steam, and eat them. There was a crew apparently recording a documentary.

You place your food in one of the steam ovens.

We visited one of the 8 "sea hells" (hot springs), Umi-jigoku:

My sister recommended we try a hot spring bath, which we did, at Hyotan Onsen. We also bathed in hot spring water in the communal baths of our hotel (since rooms did not have private showers).

Another suggestion from my sister was to take a bus tour outside the city to visit some local monuments. It was a great idea! Even though the guide was speaking only in Japanese, we enjoyed beautiful landscapes, peaceful temples, small towns, etc. We were a very small group of only 6 persons, nonetheless our guide was very enthusiastic and made the whole day lively.

It is hard to explain but the fact I do not understand Japanese made my brain automatically try really hard to guess what the guide was saying by always looking at what she was pointing at, and in the end it made me appreciate more deeply what I was seeing.

Entrance to the Usa Hachimangū shrine.

Usa Hachimangū shrine.

Fuki-ji Temple, the oldest wooden structure in Kyushu. All 6 of us went inside and knelt on the floor while a priest was explaining (in Japanese) the history of this temple. We understood one thing: it had been badly damaged in a fire, which destroyed decorations painted directly on its wooden walls, leaving only some shadows.

A carving celebrating the year of the Rat.

We took pictures in front of the house where Marianne used to live :)

Next, we boarded the train to Hiroshima:

Aboard the Shinkansen.

We visited the Peace Memorial Museum with many personal stories and a lot of information about the destruction caused by the Hiroshima nuclear bomb:

1:1000 model of the city showing the location and altitude where the Hiroshima bomb exploded.

A touching exhibit: a 3-year-old riding his tricycle was killed by the bomb. His father buried him along with the tricycle in their backyard. In 1985, 40 years later, he dug up the remains to transfer them to the family grave, and he donated the tricycle to the museum.

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park.

The Atomic Bomb Dome, one of the few buildings left standing after the explosion.

Exhibits let you touch and feel the surface of some ceramic tiles melted by the "flash burn", or show you shards of glass projected at such a high speed that they embedded themselves in concrete walls upon impact. They explain in graphics details what happened to persons exposed to all of this. We came out of the museum marked by the reality and horror of the destruction. I truly hope there will never be another nuclear war.

Next stop: Kyoto and Tokyo.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Onward to Phnom Penh on December 10! One of my good friends from grad school, Liana, is living there and graciously hosted us :)

Liana and I waving on the porch.

Along for the ride is a pup named Mango, who takes some time to warm up to us, but is quite cute.


The night we arrived, Liana took us out to a comedy show, where she is performing. Funny jokes and good times…

Liana doing her show.

The following day was our day of major sight seeing, first we started out at the Royal Palace, which was quite pretty. 

Very detailed standstone carving of Angkor Wat. After our sandcarving experience we can understand the amount of time and effort this must have taken!

So casual.

Next, we visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which is housed in a former torture and detention building complex (which was formerly a secondary school). The museum laid out the terrible history of murder and massacre that occurred in Cambodia during the rule of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. Phnom Penh was ground zero. The whole thing is grim, somber, and deeply depressing. There are pictures of some of the hundreds of inmates who were taken there and forced to sign outrageously false confessions and tortured by the Khmer Rouge. Men, women, children, babies. I won’t even go into too many details, but to say that it was extremely brutal and heartless. 

Three story blocks.

The 17 white graves for the 17 unidentified victims found still chained to their iron beds when the Khmer Rouge regime fell and abandoned the facility.

A survivor.

We then headed toward the “killing fields,” where many men, women, and children were taken after they had “confessed” at the torture center. Many were killed the night they arrived with any blunt object available (pick axes, metal bars, etc.) and left in shallow graves. They built a memorial which now houses some of the bones and skulls that they were able to recover from the graves. 

Memorial to the many victims.

Whew. Very heavy stuff.

But we also did lighter things on the trip. For example, one night we went out with a few of Liana’s friends to a French, Reggae, Metal Rock, and American pop bar. I had not been out until 2am for quite a while!

Tasty drinks.

Skeptical of my photo taking.

Phnom Penh is surprisingly international, and the next day we headed out for Mexican food and delicious fish/meat tacos with one of Liana’s friends. Liana and I then took a Cambodian cooking course where we make papaya salad, fish amok, and some gross coconut cream/pumpkin/scrambled egg dessert (ugh). Well, at least making food was really fun.

Papaya salad.

Our final fish amok masterpieces.

Those bottom three plates were the dessert.

Our last day, Liana and I get a relaxing massages, hang out by the pool, shop, and have a yummy dinner at one of the posh Cambodian restaurants in town. Ahh.

Yummy chocolate shop.

Gonna miss hanging out in SE Asia with this lady!
Next stop: Japan!