Bathing Monkeys and Chanting Monks

A Ryokan is a traditional Japanese hotel. The rooms have minimal furniture and the floor is covered with Tatami mats. The bedding (futon) is usually put away for the day, and there is always a thermos of hot water for tea on the table. Even nicer, almost all Ryokans have a communal bath, which is the focal point of the stay. I already discovered the pleasure of a nice Japanes bath on my last trip, five years ago.

But this Ryokan was offering the most hospitable experience we’ve seen so far. Armed with the map from the tourist information, we were trying to find this place. We were standing at an intersection, looking like rather helpless tourists with our backpacks, when a young man a few houses up was waving his arms. This man turned out to be Mokoto (sp?), and welcomed us with the biggest heart, took our backpacks, and poured us some tea while we did the paperwork for checkin. He apologized profoundly that he had to make a copy of our passports, as it was required by law. Everybody in the place went through great lenghts to make us feel as much as home as possible. After settling in, Maha and I spent an hour in the communal bath (which was private, so we could use it together), where we made the decision to extend our stay from two to three days. Sodo needed some quite reflecting time, and Nagano was offering that.

We didn’t rush anything, and mainly enjoyed the city, strolled through the streets and just kicked back. But there were two highlights that deserve special mention:

On the second day we got up early in the morning – really early, at 5:30 am – to see the morning ceremony at the local Buddhist center. It was very beautiful, with chanting and praying. After the service was over, everybody lined up along the path where the monks would proceed, where we bowed down when they passed, so that we could get blessed. Very beautiful experience.

Mokoto told us about the springs with the monkeys, and described us how to get there. “Just say ‘monkey’, and people will know” he adviced. So we got on the train, where we left the guidance of our guidebook behind, which mentioned the monkeys with two sentences. But, as Mokoto said, the workd “monkey” worked wonder, and after a busride and a thirty minute hike we reached a beautiful valey. Well, they did charge admission, but it was worth it! The monkeys weren’t shy at all and seeing the little ones play was the cutest thing in the world! They have amazing character faces – be sure to check back, once our pictures are uploaded (after the trip). And the highlight was the onzen afterwards – bathing in the natural spring water. This Onzen had separate indoor baths for men and women and, very anusual, a coed outdoor bath (so that both, men and women could enjoy the natural setting). This was an amazing experience.

And to round up a wonderful experience, we tried our first Okonomiyaki, which is similar to a pancake, but much thicker and stuffed. Nobody in the restaurant spoke English, the menu was unreadable, but it doesn’t matter. The randomly picked dishes were simply amazing.

Sado Island

We arrived Friday evening by ferry from Naoetsu – but the festival was in Ogi. Even though all the English speaking Japanese seemed to have disappeared, we found ourselves without too much trouble on a bus to Ogi, together with a number of other Westeners. Most of them actually worked in Japan as English teachers. It seems that it is incredibly easy to get a job in Japan as a teacher – a good thing to know for everybody who ever toyed with the idea of spending a year abroad.

We arrived a little to late for the Kodo concert that evening, and decided instead to take it easy and to explore the flea market area in Ogi. It was a magical night – there were stalls with food and beautiful crafts, the air was mellow, and we could hear the concert drums in the background. This time we were staying in a hostel, and upon arrival the waiting queue for the showers developed into an impromptu lounge party.

Saturday was our first “real” day, and we were diving head on into the fringe events: Miyake Taiko, Hula from Hawaii (yes, really!), and… Kodo, who gave a short performance together with Koji Kakinuma. It was hot. And humid. And did I mention that it was hot? Still, in order to reach the site of the Kodo workshop, we had to walk up that hill, in the sun. And it was worth every drop of sweat. The workshop was run by Yoshikazu Fujimoto, one of Kodo’s stars. But he is the sweetest, most gentle person. The workshop consisted of only 24 students (and was sold out a long time ago. Only thanks to Maha’s wit to plan early we got those tickets).

After doing some clapping excercises on our legs we were let loose on the drums. He made us play a simple beat for 15 minutes straight (dum, da-da-dum, da-da-dum…). I was breaking a sweat, and wasn’t alone – as opposed to the instructors, for whom the whole excercise must have been a bore (but they didn’t show it). Anyway, for us, the students, the air was filled with electricity.

Finally, we were learning the actual song. Oh, and by the way, the instructions were all in Japanese, of course. Only when one of us Westerners was struggling a little too much, Fujimoto came over and explained with hands, feet, and a little bit of English, always with the biggest smile on his face.

In the meantime, a photographer entered the gym, taking particular interest in Maha and me. Later that day we met him again and interviewed us. His name was Johann, and he was a freelance photographer for Sony’s World Event Village Project. Keep your eyes open on that website to catch coverage of Maha and me – however, when I checked just now (8/22), the Earth Celebration wasn’t covered yet.

We ended the day by hanging out in the bath house (Onzen) near our dorm – a perfect way to end a perfect day.

Karaoke in Tokyo

In a new environment, everything takes a little bit longer, and it was already early evening when we arrived at our hotel (booked just an hour earlier at the Tourist Information), a really nice Ryokan called Andon, near the Minowa Train Station. The area was residential, so what to do for dinner? We tried our luck by wandering the streets, and found a place that could pass for a restaurant, but that wasn’t too clear, as the writing on the door was unreadable. We didn’t have much time to hang around, as the door was suddenly opened, and a friendly woman asked us to come in (in Japanese, of course). It turned out that we stumbled into the tiniest Karaoke-Bar in Tokyo – one wall was just a long bench, and after Maha and I were seated, it was full with the two of us and three Japanese, and we were sitting there like birds on a wire.

Nobody spoke English, not even a word – but that didn’t stop them to try to make us as comfortable as possible. And after some beer and some Sake, communication indeed got better. Places like this one are referred to as Izakayas, and all the guests (all male except Maha) called the owner who ran the place just “Mama”.

Even though the place was tiny, it was big enough for two TV screens and… the Karaoke machine. And every once in a while, Mama would throw a coin in the machine, and one of the guests would sing – and at some point, one of the guests was singing a duett with Mama, and they were both pretty good! It goes without saying that Mama had plenty of flirtatious energy for her boys. And of course, Maha and I had no chance of excusing us from singing either. First we tried to point out that we couldn’t read the Japanese texts – only to be hit by a telephone book-sized catalog of songs that included an extensive English section. Oh, well. We made asses of ourselves, but we were with friends and had a blast.

Much later, when we stumbled out of the place, drunk and jet-lagged, we whole heartedly agreed that this was the best welcome to Japan we could have wished for.

One Night in Istanbul

The first impression of Istanbul was almost disappointlingly unexoctic – the city could easily pass for any modern cosmotolitan city – except the stunning architecture in downtown Istanbul, called Sultanamed. Finding a place to stay was easy too, as the city had its own “tourist-ghetto”, with one cheap hostel/hotel next to another. With the flight being delayed and the last tram gone, it was 1 am by the time we checked into the hotel. To excited by everything, we took a nice walk looking at the magically iluminated Blue Mosk and drank tea in a melow summer night.

We rose early to enjoy the city – our shuttle to the airport was scheduled for 3 pm, so there wasn’t much time. The list of things to do was long, but due to time constraint mercyless reduced. At daytime we could see the Blue Mosk from the inside – a stunning structure, supported by four pillars they call “elephant feet”. Next, we were fighting our way past countless carpet-salespeople to the Great Bazaar. As it turned out, the carpet salespeople were a great preparation for the bazaar, where the intensity of touts increased tenfold. It was a tough battle, but we survived it without loosing a Lira to any compleately unnecessary goods (let’s see how strong we’ll be when we return in October).

Almost time for the shuttle. We were back and even had 20 minutes to kill, and decided to spend the time on two glasses of tea and a game of backgammon. After a while, the owner of the Teahouse joined us and explained to us the differences of Turkish Style vs. American Style backgammon. Soon a friend of his joined, and we talked about everything from religion to tourism. And best of all, they did not try to sell us a carpet. What a refreshing and memorable experience.

It’s travel time again – eight weeks Japan

You receive this email either because you signed up for travel news at, or because you followed my Asia Trip in 2000. Either way, you’re on my Travel Mailinglist which has been quiet for a long time but will get busy shortly. From mid August until mid October I will explore Japan with my wife Maha. She will send out alternating messages which will give you two perspectives on one country.

Feel free to forward this message to friends who may be interested, and if you’re fed up with what I have to say, you can unsubscribe by replying to the email or by editing your profile.

Sun & SOA

SOA is an ambiguous term – Suns sees it as follows: “we are talking about SOA as it relates to integration and composite applications” – very high level statement, but certainly makes sense and is powerful – if executed correctly.

As far as execution goes, acquiring the company SeeBeyond was a step in that direction, which provided them with a sales force that understands SOA. This is complemented with a suit of tools – Java based, of course. Interesting is that Sun doesn’t want to focus too much on vertical integration – a route that IBM took – quite successfully.

How others see the USA

Canada, Britain and Germany are also high on the list before America.

What I find interesting and worrysome is the fact that these opinion are only to a degree related to George W. Bush. The article states that “the Pew polls provide strong evidence that anti-Americanism is more than a blip associated with Mr Bush or Iraq.” And “more than half [of the people] think of them [Americans] as greedy and violent and, in the Middle East, as immoral.”

I have been living in the USA for ten years now, and sadly, I have to agree with the article. I met many wonderful Americans here, and many have actually quite a harsh opinion about their own country. But the big middleclass certainly things of America as the greatest country in the world, and many sincerely believe that the whole world is knocking on America’s door, trying to get in. Well, not any more.

Applied Minds – Paradise for Geeks

I spent only half a day there, but some of the things described in the article I’ve seen, like the interactive map-table. Cool place! Should I ever consider moving to LA, this is where I would consider working for free!

Sell your house NOW!

Here are some tidbits from the paid-for article that worry me particularly:

What happened to other countries where the bubble burst? The Economist gives two examples: Australia (last year) and Japan (15 years ago):

    “In Australia, according to official figures, the 12-month rate of increase in house prices slowed sharply to only 0.4% in the first quarter of this year, down from almost 20% in late 2003. Wishful thinkers call this a soft landing, but another index, calculated by the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, which is based on prices when contracts are agreed rather than at settlement, shows that average house prices have actually fallen by 7% since 2003; prices in once-hot Sydney have plunged by 16%.”
    “Japan provides a nasty warning of what can happen when boom turns to bust. Japanese property prices have dropped for 14 years in a row, by 40% from their peak in 1991. Yet the rise in prices in Japan during the decade before 1991 was less than the increase over the past ten years in most of the countries that have experienced housing booms. And it is surely no coincidence that Japan and Germany, the two countries where house prices have fallen for most of the past decade, have had the weakest growth in consumer spending of all developed economies over that period.”

And last, it’s scary what situation some people get themselves into by accepting irresponsible mortgage terms:

    Interest-only mortgages are all the rage, along with so-called “negative amortisation loans” (the buyer pays less than the interest due and the unpaid principal and interest is added on to the loan). After an initial period, payments surge as principal repayment kicks in. In California, over 60% of all new mortgages this year are interest-only or negative-amortisation, up from 8% in 2002. The national figure is one-third. The new loans are essentially a gamble that prices will continue to rise rapidly, allowing the borrower to sell the home at a profit or refinance before any principal has to be repaid. Such loans are usually adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs), which leave the borrower additionally exposed to higher interest rates. This year, ARMs have risen to 50% of all mortgages in those states with the biggest price rises.

Just the right time then to sell my house and to move back to Europe.