Relaxing

Near Perfection

I've got my flippy-floppies on.Visiting Dubrovnik has been near perfection.  I know that sounds a bit extreme, but it is true.  This paradise in the Adriatic Sea has been relaxing, beautiful and affordable.  Although often mobbed by cruise passengers during the day, being here during the off season has thinned the crowds and made this an idyllic experience.

Look at that shoreI would have been truly happy just sitting on the terrace looking out at the passing boats, kayakers and swimmers, but there are plenty of activities to occupy our time away from the apartment.  Having already walked the city’s walls and explored much of what is housed inside Old Town, we thought today we should venture out onto the water.  Dubrovnik has a plethora of water activities, including snorkeling, scuba diving, sea kayaking and island hopping tours.  Because we have very little time here, we didn’t want to spend the whole day dedicated to one activity such as a three island tour, so we opted for a 50-minute cruise along the shore of Dubrovnik which also goes around a nearby island turned national park.  It seems each time we turn a corner or get another perspective on the city, the views are even more beautiful.  As we cruised the shoreline, we glimpsed people taking a dip in the sea or enjoying a drink at bars just outside the city walls.  Sailing around the island, we saw caves begging for exploration and natural private shelves in the rock where people could sunbathe wearing nothing but a little SPF.  We neared the shore and spotted a group of kayakers jumping from a cliff into the beautiful blue water.  All around us people radiated happiness and relaxation.  After spending ten days constantly on the go in Turkey, our friends Jack and Jon were thrilled to end their vacation in this way.

The beach in the rocks – only accessible by kayak and complete with cliff divers!

Scattered among the rocks, you can see our bar.

After sailing the high seas, we decided we couldn’t let our last day pass without heading to our favorite bar one more time.  As a bar (drinks, service, music), Cafe Bar Bard is relatively average, really.  Nothing out of the ordinary.  And yet this is probably the most extraordinary bar I’ve been to.  Chairs settle on rocks, while people lay around in swimsuits, occasionally jumping in for a swim.  However, it is the view which makes this place so wonderful.  Save a few boats and a nearby island, there is nothing but wide-open sea as far as the eye can see.  As it turned darker with clouds, Jon kept taking photo after photo amazed at how the sky kept changing its shape and form, each time a bit more beautiful.

It is not only the natural beauty that entrances visitors to Dubrovnik.  The city itself has white marble streets and buildings making it seem like something from a movie set or a painting.  The marble literally sparkles at night and we all wonder if it secretly gets buffed when no one is around. It certainly has marks of age and wear from pedestrians trampling on it for centuries, but considering the age of the construction, it is remarkable how well it has held its beauty.  The perfect setting for any wedding, we were not surprised when we saw two wedding couples  getting photos and celebrating their nuptials.  Our Air BnB host, Boris, informed us that  getting married in Dubrovnik has become quite popular and people come from all over the world to say “I do” in this beautiful place.  Of course, this has not always been the case.  Boris also shared stories about the war in 1991 when Croatia was attacked by the Yugoslav People’s Army.  He was here in Dubrovnik during a three month siege with no water, electricity or other resources. Boris watched the Old Town get bombed and saw the fortress at the top of the hill be destroyed.  The same fortress where, just last night, we watched a gorgeous sunset.  He spoke of this time with lingering amazement and recalled foraging the town gardens for food and spending $40 for 2 eggs to give his mother so she would not starve.  Knowing Dubrovnik was actively engaged in war 20 years ago makes it even more remarkable that it has restored itself to a beautiful marvel.

For our final night, we wanted to have a slow evening filled with wine, food and friends.  After getting kicked out of one restaurant because we were only going to order drinks, we combed through the menus trying to ignore the barrage of “barkers” trying to entice us to eat in their establishment.  We finally chose one and started our evening.  After finishing a bottle of wine, we decided on some appetizers.  The friendly staff and tempting food at the next table convinced us to stay for dinner rather than moving on to another option.  We are glad we did.  The food was good, not great, but the atmosphere was warm and inviting.  Our server brought us delicious bread with “Dalmatian” Sauce which is not made from cute, spotted dogs but  rather a combination of olive oil, parsley and garlic.  Yum.  We were even offered blankets as the evening chilled and the rain began to set in.  A nice long meal with drinks and dishes slowly being served in a great setting. All in all, it was a perfect end to a perfect day in this perfect city.

Now we must say goodbye to our friends as they head back home to real life.  It was really wonderful to spend time with Jack; it was like having a little piece of home here with us in Croatia.  Tomorrow, we board our return flight to Zagreb then grab the overnight train to Munich, Germany.  Time is moving so quickly and we are trying to savor every moment.  Luckily, we have no shortage of beautiful photographs to help us recall our experiences here and elsewhere.

–Brooke

Jack enjoying his wine over our last dinner in Dubrovnik

A look at the gleaming marble of the old city at night. Beautiful!

One of our views of Old Town. Yeah, this might be going on the cover of our Round The World photo book!

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Categories: City Visits, Croatia, Destinations, Eastern Europe, Eating, Friends, Reflections, Relaxing, Surprises, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Mummified Hand of a Saint and Hot Baths in Budapest!

With one last day in Budapest, Brooke and I hit a couple of remaining “can’t misses” that were still on our list. One of those was a visit to the nearby St. Stephen’s Basilica. The Roman Catholic church is a prominent feature of the Budapest skyline and just around the corner from our hotel. It’s true, we’ve seen a bunch of churches so far throughout Europe. It’s almost hard not to; they are often the most stunning, old buildings in town and encourage visitors to swing by for free. Each of these cathedrals really has been worth checking out so far. In other words, we’re pacing ourselves with visits and we’re not nauseatingly tired of them yet.  St. Stephen’s stood out because it has one of the larger, more gilded domed interiors we’ve seen. The nave and transepts (oh, that’s right) are loaded with statues, paintings and lots of natural light. The church offered more of a tranquil, relaxing vibe than some of the darker Russian Orthodox complexes. We decided to spend a few forint on a 302 step climb up spiral staircases to the outside walkway that circles the dome. Our reward for the walk up? One of the best views of the city from what has to be the highest points on the Pest side. We walked a narrow platform around the edge of the dome which is actually much higher than the church itself; the dome is empty inside with the actual roof of the church peeking out a bit below. It was the perfect place to break out the camera and just enjoy this magnificent moment. And, yeah, we took the elevator back down.

Brooke and Phil On top of Budapest!

St. Stephen's Right Hand.All of that was really fantastic, but that’s not what made our visit to St. Stephen’s remarkable. Yesterday, if you had asked us about the strangest thing we’ve seen on the trip, it would have to be the enshrined, dead body of Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi. But after today, I think we have a strong contender to take that title: the mummified right hand of St. Stephen. Stephen, who died over a thousand years ago in 1038, was the first king of Hungary and, as you might imagine, kind of a big deal around Budapest. So, clearly, what better way to honor him than to display his hand in a ridiculously ornate, jewel encrusted carrying case located in a chapel that’s part of the basilica. To make things more interesting, you have to pay a church worker a couple of bucks to turn on the light in the case so that visitors can get a better look. Yup, that’s a shriveled, decomposing old hand and it is a prized possession of Hungary. We’re told that this kind of thing (finger of a nun, toe of a priest) can be found from time to time in European churches. Wow.

Many people told us that a trip to Hungary is not complete without a visit to the famous hot baths fueled by local hot springs. Since we’re not ones to argue with the masses, we made an evening trip out to the Szechenyi Baths. A quick metro ride on Europe’s older underground Subway system got us out there quickly. It was easy to follow the small crowd to the sprawling complex. These particular baths have been popular with locals and tourists for about a hundred years. The collection of yellow buildings at Szechenyi is, not surprisingly, just as lovely as anything else in Budapest. The main outdoor heated pool was closed, but there was a perfect spot waiting for us at one of the inside pools. Sitting around the edge of the shallow pool with water around a hot 102 degrees Fahrenheit, I found the time in the water relaxing, inspiring, reflective and fun. We had a similar experience in Rotorua, New Zealand. I’m not so sure about the supposed healing powers of the water, but nothing beats a good soak. We ended the night with a dinner at a local pub for British & American ex-pats and one, final lovely and romantic walk along the Danube and down the Chain Bridge. Just…perfect.

The Royal Palace on the “Buda” side at night. Man, I can’t believe my camera captured this. What a photogenic city!

So, as we pack our bags and snag some of the fine toiletries from the hotel bathroom, we put beautiful Budapest in our rear view mirror. Our whirlwind tour of Europe continues! We can place thumbtacks on our imaginary map of locales we’ve visited since early September: Denmark, sundry day-stops at four Baltic capitals, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia and now Hungary. Where does the biggest adventure yet go from here? Our next stops include Croatia (Dubrovnik and Zagreb), Germany (Munich) and ten days in Scotland and England. Since it’s worked quite well for us so far, we’re traveling with only a loose outline and general idea of what we might want to do. Plan or not plan, our gut and experience tell us that it’s probably going to be pretty great. We welcome and encourage any suggestions, input or comments on what we should do in these place! Let us know! For now, we’re going to hop on a six hour train ride leaving beautiful Budapest behind and heading down to Croatia. New passport stamps await.

-Phil

Some of the amazing detail inside of Saint Stephen’s. We found these two statues particularly stunning.

Our farewell photos from Budapest!

The top of the dome at St. Stephen’s that we walked around! Look closely and you can see the walkway!

Categories: At Night, Churches, City Visits, Diversions, Eastern Europe, Europe, Exploring, Hungary, Relaxing, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

From Bulgaria to Serbia

This morning, we packed up our bags and left scenic Sofia just before sunrise. We took one last tram ride to the bus station where we prepared to trade in one Eastern European capital for another. We’re pumped to see Belgrade, Serbia and learn all about the former Yugoslavia republic. What do we know so far? Belgrade has a long history with several episodes of conflict that include three months of Nato bombing not so far back in 1999. Serbia is home to the top ranked tennis pro whose name I can never say or pronounce correctly. And also home to electric innovator Nicolai Tesla. To get here, we boarded a 7:30 coach bound for Nis, Serbia and then a quick change would take us onward to our next destination: Belgrade. Since the buses we’ve seen in Bulgaria and Romania have ranged widely in age and quality (and that’s being polite), we sighed in relief when our particular bus pulled into the station: Comfy, clean and modern. Nevertheless, a universal truth is that traveling a good seven hours by bus is rarely boring. Or routine. Or lacks a good story for our blog.

During the ride, we battled mightily (and lost) to keep our eyes open to enjoy the scenic countryside.  At the rare awake moment, we met Katarina – a native Serbian student who was just returning from a study program in Siberia. Katarina was full of insight and some solid general information about our next stop. Also an enthusiastic traveler, she’s part of a team that runs this great community website: Serbia Travelers Club.  We are already using it as a resource and it’s worth checking out.  We had a quick set of dual border checks that gave us two shiny new passport stamps as we exited Bulgaria and entered Serbia. It was when we landed in Nis that things got interesting. Initially we thought that we could stay on the bus to continue to Belgrade. It was only after everyone else exited that we realized we had to transfer our old ticket to a new one and get on a new bus. Our Serbian is jussst a bit rusty, but we managed to muddle through interactions with the ticket clerk to find out that our next bus that was scheduled to depart in ten minutes. As a bonus, without knowing it, we had lost an hour and experienced a time change at the border. Hmmm..it might be wise for us to look at a time-zone map in detail since throughout this trip we’ve never been quite sure when and where the time changes. That might eventually bite us in the rear.

The kicker at the Nis station was the bathroom. The three hour bus ride thus far left both of us with the need to use the restroom. No problem. But it is a small, busted up station that looks stuck in the 1950’s and the only facilities are pay toilets. This wasn’t too surprising, except the clerk at the pay toilet only accepts Serbian Dinars. Which we did’t have. And the bus was leaving in five minutes. And there was no toilet on the next bus. A glimmer of hope lay on the horizon where we spotted a currency exchange, With deft speed and a full bladder, Brooke set off to convert some leftover Bulgarian Leva to Dinar. Amazingly, the stern, unyielding change maven refused to accept the paper bills from the bordering country. While I wasn’t there personally to witness the exchange regarding the exchange, I’m told there was begging, pleading and a request for sympathy. At the last moment, Brooke found an American dollar stuffed somewhere in her wallet and the conversion bought us a pair of trips to the toilet. Quite a way to spend your first Serbian Dinar! Soon, the bus pulled out of the station and all was well. Needless to say, our brief time in Nis did not leave us with the most positive impression. But its all part of the joys of traveling.

Our travel reward and pay off awaited in Belgrade in the form of our next AirB’nB stay located right in the middle of town. Brooke did it again and found us a phenomenal place to stay. We have a full, private apartment to ourselves for the next four days with bedroom, bathroom, clothes washer, kitchen and living room. Even a welcome bottle of wine. It’s the nicest, roomiest accommodations we’ve had in quite a while. I know it sounds minor, but a place like this during a four month trip is rejuvenating, comfortable and does wonders for your state of mind. Plus, we have the greatest variety of cable television since…well…perhaps ever on this trip.

Our somewhat final European itinerary as planned at a Sofia cafe a few days back. Flexibility is a great thing.

We went for a short walk around the neighborhood to get some groceries, snacks and dinner for the evening. It is warm in Belgrade and the city is lined with small cars and pedestrians moving from place to place in a hurry. We were once again reminded that just because a cross walk signal says that you CAN cross the street, doesn’t always mean you should. Some European drivers have interesting interpretations of pedestrian rights and can be bullies. But we’re saving most of our Belgrade discovering for tomorrow. Today, we have passed an official resolution that we’re not going to do much of anything. We broke out some  Baileys (the official drink of relaxation and comfort) that we had picked up in Sofia and settled in. A nice dinner around the corner, some e-mails sent, some pre-research on this new country and then an early bedtime to catch up on some sleep. Kind of a non Day. How did I end it? By enjoying some New York Mets baseball shown through ESPN America where I watched R.A. Dickey punch out 13 to become the Mets first 20 game winner since 1991, and to top it off, it was their last home game of the season. Quite the taste of home. Awesome. Just awesome.

-Phil

Categories: City Visits, Destinations, Differences, Eastern Europe, Hotels, Reflections, Relaxing, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

The Cruising Life

In order for us to quit our jobs and travel the world for almost four months we had to be very budget conscious. We write down everything we spend, we set limits to our spending and shoot for cheap accommodations whenever possible. We have now embarked on the most luxurious part of our trip: a cruise! That’s right, we are currently sailing the Baltic Sea. Three square meals a day, anytime of day. Workout facilities. More activities and entertainment than you can imagine. But most importantly, this cruise has allowed us to unpack our bags and turn our stateroom into our home for the next nine days. Nine nights in the same bed–a king sized bed. We are thrilled!

WarnemündeOur cruise left from Copenhagen heading to our first stop, Warnemünde, Germany. Never heard of it? Neither has anyone else. It is a small seaside town which is popular with locals during the summer and caters to cruise ships which frequently dock there. It is approximately a three hour ride in each direction from Berlin by train, so some people on the ship went to the German capital for the day. While this sounds great, traveling that much makes for a very long day. After seeing that Frommer’s Travel Guide has less than two pages worth of material on Warnemünde, we decided to spend a very small bit of time scoping it out, and then take the regional rail to nearby Rostock.

As with so many cities in Europe, Rostock has a very old feeling to it. We didn’t know much about the town and figured we would discover things as we went. As soon as we got off the train we spotted an old church in the center of town. It was definitely our find of the day. St. Mary’s Church was built in the 1200’s. It is beautiful and grand, and the best part is that it is still in use today. At the entrance to the church they make it clear that it is not museum, but a place of worship. They were fine with people walking around and taking pictures. There was an exhibit about the life of Jews in Germany from 1933-1945. It was all in German, but we got the gist We were even able to listen in on an orchestra practicing for an upcoming concert. The music filled the church and provided the perfect background for us.

Astronomical Clock!However, the biggest draw to St. Mary’s Church is its giant astronomical clock. This clock does more than just tell the time of day, it also gives the day, month, year, moon phase, and zodiac sign. What more could you possibly need? Over 400 years old, this clock is still wound by hand each day. At noon each day there is a procession of the Apostles on the clock (sadly, we missed that). The current dial only goes to 2017, however they will be able to replace that when the time comes. The only thing that wasn’t accounted for when the clock was originally built was daylight savings time. Twice a year they have to account for this time change.

We wandered around Rostock a bit more, watched kids play in the fountain and absorbed all the sights, sounds and smells of this small town. When it was time to head back to the boat, we opted against taking the short train ride back to Warnemünde and instead we chose to take a ferry up the river. We soon realized the ride was a cross between a sight-seeing tour (all in German) and a booze cruise. Since we couldn’t figure out if the drinks were part of the ticket or not, we abstained. All the Germans on board seemed to be having a marvelous time, shouting at other boats and toasting to their own happiness. The ferry helped demonstrate what a busy port both Rostock and Warnemünde really are. There were tons of ships–not cruise boats, but ferry’s, cargo boats and even some decommissioned military vessels. It was a great way to see these two cities from a new perspective.

Our time in both Warnemünde and Rostock was limited, but we don’t feel too bad about it since we will be back in Germany later on in our trip. Actually, we were eager to get back to the boat and our life of luxury. We ate delicious food, did terribly at some very difficult trivia and played some $5.00 Blackjack. Because it was my birthday, the casino bought a round of drinks fo the whole table and gave me a $25.00 chip to bet. Sadly I lost that hand, but we were ahead in winnings quite a bit by the time we walked out, so that always makes it more fun.

We could definitely get used to this cruising lifestyle. Our room gets made up 2 or 3 times a day. The casino is never far away. There is wonderful entertainment: last night we listened to one of the onboard entertainers do a set of Neil Diamond covers. He’s so good! He really does sound like Neil Diamond, gravelly voice and all. Besides the entertainment, we find that we are simply having a blast! On the days when we are at sea, it is like mandatory relaxation. There is no pressure to make the most of our time or to see as much as we can. It has been a nice change of pace.

Our next stop is Tallin, Estonia and then we head on to St. Petersburg, Russia. We are incredibly excited about both of these stops and can’t wait to share them with you.

–Brooke

Categories: Budget, Casino, City Visits, Europe, Hotels, Relaxing, Self Guided Tours | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Miyajima and Mazda

After visiting Peace Memorial Park and Museum in Hiroshima, we decided we needed to do something different. Something totally unrelated to the atomic bomb and the events which follwed. One of the things that is so great about this trip is the fact that we find ourselves in interesting and unique places that we never even knew existed even a month ago. Miyajima Island, about 45 minutes outside of Hiroshima, is just that place.A beautiful Island

Miyajima is a renowned tourist attraction in Japan and is most widely known for its beautiful shrine gate. When I read the descriptions, what drew me most to visiting this island is the flame burning near the temple at the top. I know this sounds strange, but apparently this flame has been burning continually since it was lit 1,200 years ago. Twelve hundred years! That is utterly amazing. So, without knowing much more than this, we made the journey out of Hiroshima, first taking the street car, then the train, then a ferry! Many modes of transportation are required to get there, but Miyajima is totally worth it. Once again, our JR Pass paid for itself as the trip out and back didn’t cost us a single Yen.

Domestic Deer?When we first stepped off the short ferry ride and began walking around the island one thing struck us immediately–the amount of “wild” deer. I say “wild” because they really seem quite domesticated and docile. Having grown up in Ohio, I am used to deer which run away at the sound of people or cars. I expect deer to be skittish and elusive. Not these deer. They walk amongst the people like they are pets. People are told not to feed them, and we didn’t see any of that happening, but people were definitely petting the deer and even touching their antlers. Phil and I kept our distance, but at one point the deer came right up to me, sniffed my bag and kept going. We saw one deer steel a bag of snacks from the back of a man’s wheelchair. It was very strange and a little unsettling.

Gorgeous!Because we got there so close to sunset, we were unable to go up the ropeway which would have taken us to the 1200 year old flame, but it was totally worth missing to get to view the brilliant red shrine gate of Itsukushima-jinja at sunset. This huge gate is set out in the water, so at low tide visitors can walk up to it and at high tide it looks as though it is floating. It is one of the most sensational sights we have seen thus far. We realized that most of our time in Japan has been spent in bustling cities and crowded areas. Miyajima at sunset is the complete opposite. Sure, lots of people were there taking photos and watching the sun slide behind the mountains, but it was incredibly quiet and tranquil. We sat for almost an hour, watching the sun go down and the stars come out. It was really majestic.

Our final morning in Hiroshima found us touring the Mazda Museum. I’m not really a car buff and I certainly don’t know what makes Mazda different from any other type of car, but it was so great getting to take this tour. First of all, the facilities are absolutely huge. We were not allowed to take pictures of the outside buildings, but did learn that the assembly line is 7km long, the longest in the world. In addition, this Mazda facility has its own private bridge which is 500 meters long making it one of the longest privately owned bridges in the world. They also have a private port where their ships transport up to 5000 cars at a time to different areas overseas (it takes 14 days to transport a car from Hiroshima to Northern California).

Mazda Museum

The tour was really great, starting with a little history of the company and moving through the years. Of course there were 2 major parts which were most spectacular. First, we got to see some of the classic Mazda cars. They were absolutely beautiful. We even saw a Cosmo Sport, a sports car from the sixties which is very rare because it is entirely hand made; there were only 1200 in existence. I also thought the 3-wheeled trucks were awesove me–these were the first motor-vehicles Mazda ever made. I think I could drive one of these as my everyday vehicle!Love this truck

But to be honest, the best part of tour was actually getting to see the assembly line. It was amazing. The cars would creep down the conveyer belt while workers put different parts into place. We were surprised to see different models of cars being made on the same line. We figured that would get confusing, but they clearly have a way of keeping it all straight. We were especially fascinated by the machine that put adhesive around the edges of the windows, windshields and rear windows. It knew exactly where to go–it really is like magic. The cars are put together from start to finish at this plant, and it takes about 15 hours per car. They make about 1,000 cars per day. Absolutely amazing. Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to take pictures of the assembly line, but just trust me when I tell you it is one of the most intricate and interesting things you can see–we could have stood there watching all day.

Toy Truck?After visiting the Mazda Museum, we decided it was time to leave Hiroshima and head back towards Tokyo. We can’t believe how quickly our time in Japan is going, although that seems to be a pretty consistent theme of our trip so far. Now, we spend the day buying souvenirs and shipping some things home (we have the benefit of using the U.S. Postal Service on base). However, the most important thing we are going to do today is get prepared for tomorrow–the day we climb Japan’s tallest peak – Mt. Fuji!

-Brooke

Miyajima gate at sunset

The shrine gate at sunset is truly a sight to behold. The tide is coming in at this moment, but at high tide it looks like it is floating.

Going Green
One of Mazda’s concept cars. In an effort to “go green” there are grooves on the roof to collect rain water, filter it, and pour into a bottle for the driver to drink. Really!?

Categories: City Visits, Destinations, Diversions, Exploring, Japan, Landmarks, Museums, Relaxing, Temples, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Kyoto, Japan


So very peaceful
Almost everyone we spoke to before arriving in Japan told us we should visit Kyoto.  It is known for its traditional Japanese buildings, its overwhelming number of shrines and temples, and its beautiful gardens.  It is at the top of every Japan Tour list and so we decided it was a “must see” for us.  We are so glad we made a visit.

Hot and SteamyWe arrived in Kyoto yesterday evening after taking the Shinkansen (bullet train) from Yokohama.  It was turning dark, raining and not really the right time for sight-seeing, so we did what we do best–explored the restaurant and bar scene!  Everyone who has ever been a poor college kid (or who was raised in a house with my mom) has had their fair share of Ramen noodles–you know, the hard brick of noodles with the flavor packet.  You may have had the Cup-o-Noodles variety.  I’m sure you are familiar. Don’t get me wrong, they are great and perfect for cheap eating.  But that little 49 cent pack of Ramen barely comes close to resembling the real thing.  We tasted our first real Ramen at Ippudo which sits nestled within the tightly packed streets of the Nishiki Market district.  We spied the food in front of the people next to us, pointed to their dishes and the picture of dumplings on the menu, and our order was complete.  While we waited we watched our neighbors eat Ramen with chopsticks and a spoon so we would know the etiquette.  Slurping is totally allowed and putting your lips up to the side of the bowl is expected.  Thank goodness!  When our huge bowls of steaming hot Ramen arrived, we had broth flying everywhere!  The flavor combinations were really amazing with fresh scallion and some delicious peppery oil drizzled on top.  However, the real highlight of the meal were the Gyoza, Chinese style dumplings.  These were like little bites of heaven–easily the best dumplings I’ve ever had.

Kyoto BarAfter our delicious dinner, we made our way to some bars.  Our first stop had us trying our hand at darts fairly unsuccessfully.  We left there defeated and once again found a tiny little alley and wandered down it to see what was happening.  It was so cool–door after door were bars with people lined up on stools taking turns singing karaoke.  Well, we couldn’t resist!  We are in Japan after all.  We went into one that was essentially empty and took it over by singing everything from Bon Jovi to the Backstreet Boys.  It was so tiny that when we sat on the stools our backs were up against the sliding doors.  It was essentially a hallway.  The bartender brought us this crazy looking plate with fish and noodles (which we didn’t ask for or want) and continued to chain smoke while we sang.  We were having a blast in this cramped little space, until the bill came.  We couldn’t believe how expensive our two beers were.  It turns out, we think we were being charged for each song we sang.  Crap!  We had no idea and we tried asking, but she spoke no English at all.  Oh well, that was a tough lesson learned.

Peaceful gardenThis morning, we hit the ground running and went to Hagashiyama, an area in Kyoto loaded with shrines, temples and gardens.  Wow, we fast-paced New Yorkers could really learn something from these Buddhists.  We first went to Shoren-in, an ancient temple complex which is no longer in use.  After taking our shoes off, we strolled along the tatami mats and wooden walkways of the temple buildings.  In the center of this serene complex lay a beautiful garden with a koi pond.  We found ourselves just sitting there, listening to the singing cicadas and rush of the water.  Relaxing isn’t even the word for it…more like, peaceful. My brain felt clear and still.  I can completely understand why people would come here and pray.  We both agreed the equivalent to this would be amazing in New York City.  Not far from Shoren-in, we walked to Chion-in.  This is another huge temple complex, but it is still actively used today and is a popular place of pilgrimage for Buddhists.  Unlike the other, this temple was bustling with people and activity.  We could hear chanting and bells ringing and there were certain places where we could not go because there were people worshiping. The coolest part of this temple is the San-mon, the gate at the main entrance.  It is the largest temple gate in Japan and let me tell you, it is huge!  Pictures really don’t do it justice.

Largest temple gates in Japan

After seeing a few temples, we were in the mood for something a bit different, so we headed to Nijo-jo, a castle built in 1603 which was the official residence of the first Tokugawa shogun (essentially a military dictator).  The castle and its grounds are absolutely gigantic!  We were unable to take pictures (or even sketch them, not that we would have) inside the building, but we basically understood that the shogun was the most important person in the room and all activities revolved around him.  For his protection, the castle is surrounded by both in outer moat and another inner moat.  However, if some stealthy Ninja warrior managed to get past both moats, they would have a hard time getting past the “nightingale floors.”  These are floors which “sing” each time they are stepped on so intruders are unable to come in unnoticed.  (I think Phil’s mom should have had these floors installed in the house he grew up in to keep him from sneaking out while she slept.)  The movement of the boards really does cause them to creak at each step–very clever, shogun.  Very clever, indeed.Huge castle in Kyoto

After traipsing around Kyoto in the crazy-hot sun, we found ourselves exhausted and ready for a rest.  Luckily, a smooth and air-conditioned ride on the Shinkansen awaited us.  And so, we said goodbye to Kyoto feeling much richer in our understanding of Japanese culture and history.  Now we attempt to understand modern history as we head to Hiroshima.  We both anticipate being disturbed by some of what we will see there, however we feel it is important to pay our respect and gain a greater understanding of this city and the events which took place here so many years ago.

-Brooke

We don't speak Japanese!

One of many instances when we wish we could read Japanese. What is this sculpture? It kind of looks like potatoes on a big rock, but that can’t be right.

Traditional Japanese

Our traditional Japanese style room at Hana Hostel, complete with tatami floors and mats to roll out for sleeping.

No shoes allowed!

Since guests are not allowed to wear shoes inside Hana Hostel, they have dozens of these slippers upon entering the building.

Categories: City Visits, Destinations, Diversions, Eating, Exploring, Japan, Landmarks, Rail, Relaxing, Temples, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

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