Is Starbucks a good thing?

"For Mr [Starbucks CEO] Schultz, raised in a Brooklyn public-housing project, this health insurance—which now costs Starbucks more each year than coffee—is a moral obligation. At the age of seven, he came home to find his father, a lorry-driver, in a plaster cast, having slipped and broken an ankle. No insurance, no compensation and now no job."

"The key is that each Starbucks coffee house should remain “a third place”, between home and work, fulfilling the same role as those Italian coffee houses that so inspired him 23 years ago. "

Become a Lonely Planet Writer!

Alex says:

Here is the perfect contest for anyone who has ever said they wanted to be a Lonely Planet author (without going through all of that pesky work):
http://www.lonelyplanet.com/
Follow the link to the Blue List contest. LP will pick three people from around the world (Americas, Europe/Africa/Middle East, Pacific) to join us in Shanghai for a week in May to learn all about the good (and the bad) of authoring. Entries need to be in by February 28.

Cafe Gourmet in Hannover (Germany)

Vor etwa einem Monat war ich auf einer Konferenz in Hannover.  Zweimal war ich in einem kleinen Cafe in der Altstadt, das gerade erst im November eröffnet hatte: Cafe Gourmet an der Kramerstraße 14.  Für Leute, die an wirklich gutem Kaffee interessiert sind, sehr empfehlenswert.  Es ist sehr gemütlich, und der Preis des Kaffees enthält einen Vortrag über Kaffeekultur!  Ich hoffe, dieses Cafe wird überleben!

Hiroshima and the atomic bomb

Through a series of coincidences, I was well prepared for Hiroshima. I read the book that I received as a gift in Kyoto on the bicycle trip, and finished it on the first day in Hiroshima. The book tells seven tales of (fictional) people that died shortly after world war two – including one about a woman who died of radiation sickness from the Hiroshima bombing. Even though the other stories don’t talk about Hiroshima, the stories describe well the circumstances under which the bomb was dropped. They cover the treatment of Koreans (at the time a colony) in Japan; they talk about discrimination of Japanese in California; the fate of hopeful young men that are drafted for the war are covered, and that of women who went into prostitution out of desperation; and of course, they cover the direct suffering in war: the dropping of the A-Bomb, the carpet-bombing, the Kamikazes.

Compared to these human stories of suffering, today’s Hiroshima was quite the opposite: a vibrant city full of good energy. The city center, where the bomb did the most damage, has been converted into a huge park. Peace Memorial Park, as it is called, is hosting the excellent A-Bomb museum. The museum hosts an amazing exhibition, with extensive information in Japanese and English – not to be taken for granted! The museum kept a good balance of being personal and factual.

Surprising as it may sound – the dropping of the A-Bomb in Hiroshima was destructive – but not excessively so. For example, roughly as many people (200,000) died in the carpet bombing of Tokyo. But then again, here the damage was done by one single bomb! And not only that – people who were exposed to the explosion are suffering results to this date through increased cancer rates or because they were born handicaped due to exposure in the womb.

At the same time, I was surprised how robust nature is. Within a week after the bonbing, trees that seemed dead started to break out again, and many trees that were as close as 800 m to the explosion live to this day and are scattered throughout the park.

The museum was very personal, as it described in detail the fate of many people – victims, nurses, doctors, soldiers. For one victim, Sadako Sasaki, there was even a memorial outside in the park. The girl died ten years after the bombing from leukemia, and is known worldwide for folding thousands of paper cranes, expressing her desire to live.

The personal aspect was complemented by many, many scientific facts that merciless described the dropping of the bomb, the effect it had on the city, on the people, the details of what was going on in the human body, the design of the nuklear bomb, and much more.

An interesting detail was the decision to build Peace Memorial Park. When reconstruction of Hiroshima started, city planners decided to establish a park dedicated to peace and the abandonment of nuclear weapons. At the time, people considered this a waste of space and money, considering that the people had many urgent immediate needs. In retrospect, this was a visionary decision.

561 bicycle-kilometers later

Japan is a country of contraditions. The stereotypical image of Japan is a densly populated country with little room to move. This is true, but only because 50% of the population lives on 2% of Japan’s land. Japanese love nature, and most of the land is protected.

Except Sado Island, we spent most of the time so far in urban centers. And in fact, the space between Kyoto and Osaka is completely developed – it was impossible to tell in which city or town we were. But that changed after leaving Osaka (where we spent a night in a so-called Love Hotel – an establishment that didn’t allow us to check in before 10 pm, but provided one of the most luxorious environments we had on this trip so far at a decent price. It goes without saying that condoms were placed by the bedside, but the dildo vending machine was rather… unusual).

The ride from Osaka to Kobe was getting calmer – mainly because we rode along the water. Finally there were fewer traffic lights and fewer pedestrians – in Japan, bicycles are expected to ride on the sidewalk, although more often than not, we picked the road instead. Japanese drivers know how to share the road, and kept a safe distance when passing.

Things changed dramatically when we took the ferry from Honshu, Japan’s main island, to Shodo Shima, a very small island on the half way to Shikoku, where we wanted to continue our trip. Shodo Shima wasn’t rich, that was clear to see. Even though it was clearly a tourist destination with a few resorts, things looked a little run down everywhere, and Japanese tourists arrived by bus, implying that guests were mainly booking package deals. We stayed an extra day and stretched our legs. People were very friendly, but almost nobody spoke English. Even more surprising was the fact that (in contrast to western resorts) there were few restaurants, no waterfront bars or cafes. There were a few beaches, but not really adequate for bathing. Still, or Bed & Breakfast had a nice waterfront patio, and that’s were we were hanging out at night over a glass or two of sake.

A short ferry ride brought us to Shikoku. This is a big island – big enough to justify a train line. But here too it was obvious that people were poorer than on the main island. But riding was easier, and the landscape was beautiful.

Rice Harvest

Most of the time we were riding through farmland. In the East of the island, where we started, we saw mostly rice. And as the harvesting season had just started, we saw rice that was still green, rice that was golden, ready to be harvested, and empty fields with bundles of rice-hay on it. Surprisingly, most fields were rather small. Granted, we often saw several fields together that probably belonged to the same farmer, but the large-scale farming common especially in the USA didn’t seem to exist. Further west we encountered citrus fruit, Kiwi, and even figs.

With communication problems and sometimes depressingly poor towns, Shikoku still gave us a unique view of the country and maybe the most authentic glimpse on Japan.

Crossing ten bridges

But the most stunning experience was the crossing back to Honshu over the Nishiseto Expressway. Ten bridges connect the many islands between Honshu and Shikoku. Not only that, but all bridges have dedicated bicycle lanes, and almost all bikelanes on the islands are wide and accommodating. The bridges themselves were impressive, and some of them are record breakers. The Tatara Bridge, for example, is the world’s longest cable-stayed bridge. The islands had their share of sights to offer, and the rapid change between views made this ride truly exciting.

It felt like being back in civilization after crossing back to Honshu. Things got more urban again, and communication got easier. After what we have been through, the final 100 km to Hiroshima felt like a piece of cake. We still didn’t find a real Internet Cafe until arriving in Hiroshima, otherwise we would have told you about this great trip much earlier.