Thursday, 19 November 2009

Japan picture post

Well, it seems that the trip to Japan took longer than I expected.. Or in better words, it took me two months to get myself to put up pictures and descriptions here. Maybe, this could be a sign that the dark days of the blog downfall are over, and that I will post here a bit more frequently from now on.

With that said, I'll try to summarize the experience-rich Japan trip in a few words and many pictures.


The base for the first few days was the city of Kobe, where we gratefully accepted accommodation at the place of my friend Ryo, who spent a year in Prague as an exchange student several years ago. Kobe is famous for Kobe beef, and a big earthquake in 1995, but we didn't really spend much time there, other than the nights. The city's proximity to the many jewels of Japan's Kansai region is extremely convenient though.

Osaka is one of the largest cities and business hubs of Japan. That means lots of people, lots of concrete buildings, but also a castle:

The castle is especially popular with school children on field trips. Or maybe they're just happy to get out of the classrooms.

Downtown Osaka and its entertainment district.

PART 2 - Kyoto

Most visitors to Japan have two highlights on their itinerary. Tokyo (where we didn't go), and Kyoto, where we went twice! Kyoto is ancient Japanese capital. Today, it's a large, bustling city with a population of over 1 million people. However, ancient temples, shrines, gardens and palaces are scattered around the city like pebbles, and today 17 of them are recognized as Unesco sites. For that reason, more than 40 million visitors per year come to Kyoto, taking away the serenity of the city and adding headaches on crowded streets and buses.

The Golden temple is one of Kyoto's most famous sights. That builds the expectations quite high, and many visitors are surprised that the temple is rather small, simple and underwhelming. Nevertheless, it is still nice.

On the Eastern side, overlooking the city, Kyomizu-dera is the other super-famous temple. It is also super-overcrowded.

Kyomizu-dera means "The temple of clear water", or something like that. Indeed, people come here for the magical effects of its waters.

The dark, narrow streets of old Kyoto are supposedly the place where the Geisha traditions survive until present day. Guidebooks issue warnings that to actually see real geisha is extremely unlikely..

But look, there they are! We must be really lucky!!

As it turns out, some of the weirder businesses in town offer tourists to dress them up as geishas and release them to the streets. An ideal way to make all heads turn and be in the spotlight for one afternoon.

It is rather difficult to persuade the real ones to pose for cameras.

Yet another famous sight, a zen garden at Ryoan-ji. A tourist to Japan has to be prepared to appreciate detail and perfection on a minimal scale, as none of the structures are huge, magnificent, or dwarfing.

Instead, 15 stones carefully positioned in a formation where it is never possible to see all 15 of them at once from any place. To see 15 would mean perfection, and the builders did make sure to send out the message that perfection is not for everyone.

PART 3 - Nara

Nara, not far away from Kyoto, was Japanese capital even before Kyoto. Today it is a small town, which gave us hope that it wouldn't be nearly as crowded as Kyoto. However, as we were unlucky enough to visit Japan during a long holiday, where almost everyone goes traveling, there were still plently of tourists. Most of them came to see a large buddha statue, seated in this large (world's largest) wooden building.

The little details were cool.

The park around the temples is full of tame deer, which run around and beg for food.

Most tourists come to Nara by bus. They get off in the parking lot, then walk to the Daoan-ji with the big buddha, then walk back. Very few of them venture outside of this main route. What that also implies for the poor deer who hang around the route, is a strange twist of the Pareto principle. A little fraction of the deer gets an overwhelming share of attention from tourists, who literally throw food at them and try to stuff it in their mouths.

Outside of the tourist routes, there is a number of temples and gardens, which remain virtually empty.

Making of tea cakes, or something along those lines.

PART 4 - Hiroshima

Who wouldn't know Hiroshima. The site where the first atomic bomb was dropped in August 1945 is a place of much more serious significance than the begging deer in the park.

The city has been completely rebuilt. The last standing structure and reminder of the bombing is this former industrial, almost directly under the epicenter of the blast. While several other buildings in the center of the city survived, they were torn down. Of particular interest to me because it was designed by Jan Letzel, a Czech architect.

The city before the bomb...

.. and after the bomb.

The city has been completely rebuilt, and is now quite nice and spacious. Also has charming small parks..

Full of hungry turtles.

Itsukushima shrine on the Miyajima island, just outside Hiroshima. It is one of the most popular tourist sites in Japan.

Japan is a big country, and transportation can get pretty damn expensive. However, the Japanese railways offers one-week tourist passes, which are good for any train travel anywhere in the country, including the famous Shinkansen. Despite their lightning speed, we still spent quite a few hours criss-crossing the Honshu island.

PART 5 - Takayama

A small town in the Japanese Alps, which offers a relaxing escape from the bustling concrete agglomerations in the lowlands.

Interesting to my fellow Czechs may be the fact that it is not too far from the site of the greatest Czech heroics - Nagano.

On the last day of the trip, we took advantage of the unlimited train travel and went to look at another Japanese symbol - Mt. Fuji. The problem with Mt. Fuji is that it's often covered in the persistent clouds and mist. This was indeed the case on the day of our visit, but with little photo editing on the computer, a mountain is clearly visible.

PART 6 - Food Section

While not designed for tourists, Japan has a very useful gadget that make eating out a lot easier - most restaurants display the dishes (made out of plastic) it the windows. All that the poor tourist has to do is to lure the waiter outside, and point at the desired dish.

Fresh produce market in Osaka. Fancy an octopus?

Sushi doesn't get any more authentic than this. A problem with sushi in Japan - it is not adjusted to the Westerners' tastes, and some bits are just too much. Most notably, uni sushi, made out of sea urchin ("sea hedgehog"). I still felt it in my stomach the next day. Of course, it is considered a great delicacy in Japan.

PART 7 - Oddities Section

We all know that Japan is odd. With its great passion for manga comics, crazy toys, cute things, sexuality in the least expected places..

See what I'm talking about? Japanese toy shop has truly unexpected things on offer.

Furniture shops, for a change, cater to geeks who are into the aliens.

Pachinko hall, or the most popular way of gambling.

Your typical Japanese chicks in downtown Osaka.

Found this sign in Takayama. Why Housenka? Did someone intentionally look up the Czech word for Catterpilar to put on their sign? Is it simply a word that sounds interesting for the Japanese? That question will probably haunt me for a very long time.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009


I'm currently traveling in Japan. So far, I spent most of the time on a train, or on random streets of Japanese cities looking for a place to eat. In the remaining time, I saw several Japan higlights through huge crowds of tourists. More info when i get back to Taiwan this weekend.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Back in Taiwan

It's been forever since my last post, but I just couldn't bring myself to blog writing during the summer. And after all, this is supposed to be a Taiwan blog. All in all, the summer has been great in all places that I got to spend some time in. Namely: Praha, Jablonec nad Nisou, Kirkkonummi, Turku, Helsinki, Nurmijärvi, Stockholm, Vroutek, Podbořany, Liberec, Frýdštejn, Jizerka.

But now, it is back to Taiwan, and I'm as dazed and confused about this place as ever. The flight was relatively smooth. My plan was not to bring too much stuff with me this time, so as not to have 80 kilos to take back home in a year. Somehow that didn't work out though, and for the first time that I can remember I actually had to take things out of my suitcase at the airport, because the luggage was too heavy. When I was buying the suitcase, the shop assistant explained to me that "this suitcase should be big enough for you to pack for your average 10 - 14 day vacation". Well, that made me laugh, as I have to deal with 20 kilos limit for a year's life in Asia. And out of the 20 kgs, the bag itself weighs 4 kg, two cans of beer 1 kg, shampoos and shower gels (don't like the Taiwanese ones) another 1 kg..

I met Noora at Amsterdam airport and we boarded on the KLM flight to Bangkok - Taipei. Once again, it was an old plane, without the personal 'Entertainment on demand' screen at each seat.. Maybe I'm spoilt, but I've gotten used to having those on intercontinental flights, and missed it dearly, especially on the way from Taipei to Europe in June. To make matters worse, the movie selection shown on the 'communal screens' was horrible - a Julia Roberts secret agent movie, something where ghosts of ex-girlfriends persuade a guy to get married, and it was all crowned by Night at the Museum 2, which was seriously painful to watch. Despite all this, the 15 hour flight went by fairly quickly, in part thanks to the airline magazine, which advertised an "Awesome Threesome Trip" to Incredible India. Wow.

Taipei seems to be the way I left it in June. Hot & Sticky, even though supposedly the summer is already cooling off. People spoke to me in English at the airport, which made me slightly concerned whether there would be enough people to speak Chinese to, but that went away quickly on the very next day, when I was trying to buy a Japan rail pass from a travel agent here in Taipei and spend 10 minutes explaining what's Noora's name and what's the surname (they got it wrong anyways). On the way home, three overcrowded trains on the brown line in 南京東路接運站 went past before I finally managed to squeeze myself into one, barely. Taiwan is still as effective as ever - I agreed to be a tutor at an Orientation for new scholarship recipients, answering questions of new Czech students. This session was scheduled between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. However, tutors were asked to show up at 10 a.m., to prepare accordingly for all the responsible work. What we did was:

10:00 - 10:45 - Sit around, nothing happening.
10:45 - 11:00 - Each of the 35 foreign tutors introduced themselves, in Chinese, to the other tutors.
11:00 - 11:30 - Sitting around
11:30 - 11:40 - Going to look at the conference room, where the activities were to be held.
11:50 - 12:30 - eating lunch, sitting around
12:30 - 12:35 - We were asked to change into our tutor 'uniforms'
12:35 - 13:00 - Standing around
13:00 - 14:00 - Few people were 'working', checking the visitors' temperature (H1N1!!!), the rest standing around
14:00 - 15:15 - Listening to dragging speeches
15:15 - 16:15 - Doing that group debate that we came there for in the first place, without really knowing what should be covered.

It's good to be back in Taiwan...

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Facts and observations, Finland edition

Summer in Finland is going by fast and I've been diligently collecting random observations and unusual bits of information about this country. The shared European background would dictate that I shouldn't be surprised by too many things in Finland, but then, this country is pretty far from everything else and they do speak a language that is unrelated to any other and stubbornly refuses to use even the basic Latin-derived principles. Anyways: Few noteworthy things that I've indulged in so far:

- The trip to Stockholm, as mentioned previously. The way to go from Finland to Sweden is by ferry. Some of these ferries are the famous 'party boats', where alcohol-starved Northeners party all night. I've been told that every once in a while, somebody gets so drunk that they fall from the top deck of the ferry into the sea. This picture is slightly misleading, but the boat is huge and the fall must be long and painful.

Stockholm is a beautiful city though, especially in weather like this.

- I went to Ruisrock music festival, held every year in Ruissalo island in Turku. It is one of the oldest rock festivals in Europe. Noora has been playing Finnish music for me throughout the spring, so I actually recognized some of the bands who appeared there. Plus, several well-known, international bands appeared (Faith no More, Gogol Bordello).

Alcohol is notoriously expensive in Finland, and even more so in a music festival. Visitors are not allowed to bring their own booze from the outside (not surprisingly). However, they are allowed to bring unopened bottles of non-alcoholic drinks. That leads visitors to invent a number of ways to smuggle alcohol inside. The more extreme ones that i heard of include burying the bottles on the venue, before the event starts, and then digging them out. Girls also put plastic bags with alcohol in their bras. Our method was different. Buy a bottle of water, heat the cap with a hairdryer, so that it can be taken of without breaking. Then pour out the water, put in vodka and put the cap back on. It is easier said than done, but after several tries and failed attempts, it worked.

- The most famous Finnish invention is the sauna. Needless to say, I've been going to the sauna quite a lot. There are several other noteworthy inventions though: Juustohöylä (picture below) - a special knife for slicing cheese, which I have never seen anywhere else, but it is extremely useful and Finns can't live without it. Also, they have special dish-drying closets in the kitchen above the sink.

- While Kirkkonummi, the place I'm staying is officially a town of 35.000 inhabitants, it actually consists of a center with a church, several big supermarkets and a train station, surrounded by forests. The inhabitants live in houses scattered in the forests on a very large area (The house of Noora's family is like 12 kilometers from said center). Because of that, the front porch of the house is an ideal place to spot wild animals, that occassionally come on the adjacent field. I've been dying to see an elk, which i finally did several days ago. Deer come pretty often. It seems that every Finn has a story of hitting or nearly hitting an elk with a car, as they like to hang out on the roads after dark.

- Speaking of Noora's house, I found a Babeta (a wonderful Czechoslovak grandpa moped) in the basement of the house. We tried to get it running, but failed. It's been sitting there for too long. Here I am, riding the Babeta:

This picture shows that I was actually outrun by Noora's 3-years-old nephew. The field where the animals come is in the background.

- Several days ago, we went to a local large hypermarket. I wandered into the beer lane and couldn't believe what I saw there. The large selection of Czech beers wasn't surprising. Budvar, Pilsner Urquell and Velkopopovický Kozel were fully expected. However, to my shock they were selling jewels like Postřižinské pivo, Litovel, Samson, and my personal favorite, Skalák from Malý Rohozec u Turnova. It's my favorite because the brewery is quite close to where I come from, I went by the tiny brewery on a bike quite many times and occasionally also stopped for a beer there.. 0,5 liter bottle which the brewery sells for 8,50 Kč (like 30 Eurocents) cost 2,65 Euros here. Also, all these beers had a little sign there.. I don't know what it said obviously, but I imagine it was similar to the wine descriptions (light, crisp with fruity aromas, ideal with cheese, fish..). I'll get it translated next time, so that I finally know what's the best time to enjoy Postřižinské pivo (with the picture of Bohumil Hrabal on the bottle..)

I ended up grabbing Kozel, which was perfect for the sauna and a watergun fight with Noora's nephew.

- Speaking of beer, the prohibition here is ridiculous. As far as the prices go, simple math tells us that a bottle of Skalák costs almost 9 times more here than in the Czech Republic. Also, all alcoholic drinks which contain more than like 4,5% alcohol can only be sold in special, state-run shops and nowhere else. Also, alcohol can only be sold between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m., and not at all on Sundays.

- There are slot machines in every supermarket, usually surrounded by grandmas and grandpas. They just go buy their bread, milk and cheese, and while there, do a bit of gambling..

- The national sport of Finland is Pesäpallo - Finnish baseball. It seems that someone with serious lack of imagination was trying to invent a new sport, so he took normal baseball and shuffled things up a bit, just to create some difference. So instead of pitching the ball in a normal way, it is pitched straight up, vertically. There are still 3 bases, just in different places (not a diamond, but a zigzag shape). When the batter hits the ball, they don't automatically have to run to first base, but can take another try. Catching a flyball is not an automatic out, and a player can somehow be 'wounded' (not literally).

- Finnish is a difficult and obscure language, similar only to Estonian and Hungarian, though the languages are not mutually intelligible. While I've been trying to learn at least the basics, the progress is slow. Fortunately, everyone speaks English.. So far, I've learned mostly through 'talking to' Noora's nephew and grandma, who don't speak English.
However, every now and then, an unexpected word pops out, that is like exactly the same in Czech and Finnish. Lighthouse = majak = majakka. Smetana (cream in Czech) means sour cream in Finnish. And a mind-blowing one: One particular verb works almost exactly the same in both languages.

kakáme = Kakkaamme
kakáte = Kakkaatte
kaká = Kakkaa