Brief Encounters of a Japanese Kind

A big part of why I love to travel is meeting diverse people (and robots!) I would never ever had a chance to meet otherwise. Sometimes they are interesting travelers, sharing tips and excitement of the road, but mostly they are locals sharing insights into their culture and way of life.

“Isn’t it impossible to travel on your own to Japan?” asked some friends, who travel often and far. “We heard Japanese speak no English.”

No English is a gross exaggeration, but yes, communication in Japan is a bit of a challenge, to say it mildly. Japanese all learn English in school, but in a very old fashioned way, without a chance to practice and speak English. So, surprisingly, even young people with college education often are not able to put a sentence together, though they probably do understand quite a lot of what you are saying.

Still, since our first visit 35 years ago, when there was no English anywhere, the tourist infrastructure is vastly improved with excellent English signs everywhere. Occasionally the translations are too literal and afford great opportunities for some laughter. The tourist information centers are well stocked with English brochures and timetables even if sometimes you have to and people manning them have a very limited spoken English capability.

Luckily for us we had a chance to communicate with a few excellent English speakers so we could have quite in depth conversations and ask some pressing questions. Important, because Japanese culture is not always easy to understand for an outsider.

For example: What is it with grown women walking around dressed like live dolls? I still do not have a full answer. It has something to do with Japanese obsession with cuteness called Kawaii, that can refer to things, people or toy characters that are charming, shy and childlike. Think Hello Kitty!

What is it with Japanese obsessed with plush animals, that continues far into adulthood? A friend told me she once spent a night at a Japanese family’s house where she was offered their grown daughter’s bedroom . She said it was literally hard to find the bed for the whole room was full of large and small stuffed animals. Here’s a couple taking their wedding portraits sporting their favorite plush animals. Huh? It would only make sense if they then ceremoniously flushed them down the toilet as a symbol of leaving all childish things behind. Didn’t happen.

My husband, who always pays (too?!) close attention to ladies, was the first to notice that most Japanese women wear shoes at least one size too big. I still don’t have a satisfactory answer, but a variety of responses from people like: shoes are a relatively new idea for us Japanese….we take off shoes more often than the westerners, so they need to be bigger…the fancy western shoes are sold here in Japan in small, medium and large sizes only, so everyone goes for the bigger size. Didn’t have a chance to confirm this. Looking for shoe shops was not very high on my priority list.

Just as you can’t help but notice the inordinate amount of passionate kissing and hugging in (romantic) European cities, you also can’t help noticing the total lack of any public affection in Japan. The closest you will come is seeing a young couple holding hands while on a walk in the park. It is simply not acceptable to show any more and very impolite to “burden” others with having to watch you. What’s wrong with that? Well, the problem seems to be that this dispassionate approach to love does not diminish at the doorsteps of Japanese bedrooms. Japan has one of the lowest birth rates in the whole world.

On the other hand most visitors to Japan will tell you how extremely helpful and warm the Japanese people are towards Western visitors. People will go out of their way to help you and are very concerned if you are a woman alone. If I happened to stray from my husband, someone would invariably ask if I was traveling alone. With crime rates the lowest in the world I figured it would be a perfect country for a woman to travel alone. I asked a young black woman from England traveling solo on the same ferry, if she felt safe in Japan. I expected her to nod enthusiastically, but she looked at me gravely and said thoughtfully, “Yes, the Japanese are helpful, but let me just say they have not seen a lot of black people.”

Ah, another good thing about traveling – it teaches you to not make assumptions one way or another.

You certainly can count on the Japanese to help you if you ask to the extent that they would rather send you in the wrong direction than not helping you. Or is this the case of Asian “Not loosing face”, by admitting you don’t know.

One early morning after having spent a night at a youth hostel in Kanazawa, the only accommodation we could find, we were desperate to get some breakfast. The only person up and about was a lady struggling to put up a flag in front of the Samurai museum. So I lent her a hand and she in turn mobilized the staff of the museum to brainstorm on our breakfast options.

The Japanese are in general quite shy and will not be the ones to initiate a conversation. We found that we could always exchange at least a few words if we stopped and offered some lavish praise to the owners of pampered pets. My understanding is that isolation is a really big challenge in Japanese society, especially for young men. I wager that overuse of technology does have a role to play. Riding local trains we could frequently observe school kids on their way to school. While the girls would be engaged in some conversations and giggling together, the boys invariably just played (violent) video games on their smart phones. Indeed, it seems that in general girls are doing much better in Japanese society these days than boys. As they grow up they tend to be more confident, educated, enjoying their life, shopping and traveling. They are in no rush to get married. Because of the very traditional gender values and expectations, the pressure on men, especially first sons is exacerbated. Men are supposed to be responsible breadwinners, working extremely long hours, while women should stay home alone minding the house and kids. Very clearly depicted in this beer ad:Rejecting those norms has initiated a worrisome phenomenon called Hikikomori whereas adolescent boys and even middle aged men shut themselves in their rooms and refuse to come out for years. On the low end the estimate is that about 1 million Japanese are modern day hermits.

quite in the contrary our three Japanese Servas hosts very very outgoing. They were the ones answering lots of questions and giving us a real insight into the real Japanese life. First we visited a family of four in Sapporo. The dad was an elementary school teacher who had studied music in the States, so he could speak English. His wife was also a musician, but was now a stay home mom with two boys. We spent the day with them driving to the site of the Winter Olympic museum and ski jump.

They taught us how to eat Hokkaido noodles with just the right amount of appreciative slurping and arranged for free tickets to a grand concert of community wind orchestras. Who knew classical music was so popular in Japan? With the high level of professionalism and prevalence of young musicians classical music has a secure future there.

We even got to visit the wife’s mother and father for a demo of green tea ceremony and a real home made Japanese dinner feast with lots of kanpai (=cheers!) toasts. It is surprising how easily family secrets and complaints surface after a few drinks! Our second host was a divorced woman living with her elderly parents in a house they built after their 130 year old traditional home was totally destroyed in the 2016 earthquake, burying the parents underneath for many hours. What are the chances that the first morning of our stay a strong earthquake of 6.3 on the Richter scale magnitude shook and swayed the ground. If I wouldn’t have believed in PTSD before, I would have been convinced, as our new friend jumped into my arms crying hysterically. Luckily there was no damage but frayed nerves.

To get into a different frame of mind we drove to another friend’s house in a traditional village nearby where they prepared a wonderful lunch and showed us their old treasures. Upon departure they pressed upon us a few old lacquer bowls even though we protested we had no room in our luggage. The best part though was a peek into their thick green bamboo forest. The size of the trunks and especially of the fresh bamboo shoots was really impressive. As the friend was going through a divorce as well we had a chance to discuss this still rather taboo topic. Divorce continues to be very much frowned upon in Japanese society.

If in agreement, a couple can get easily divorced by mutual consent, simply filing a form with the local government office. But there are much less simple solutions for their children after a divorce. Or rather there is only one simple solution. As there is no joint custody of children, if the parents can’t agree, the court decides whom the children shall live with and it can be the mother, the father or even the relatives. The divorced father or mother then pretty much looses any right to see his or her children. And the children who are not seen as individuals with legal rights, but as belonging to a family, have no right to access their non custodial parent. This might be one of the major factors why the divorce rate in Japan is quite low.

Our third host was Tomoko, a 75 year old retired High school English teacher, who returned with her husband to her small home town of Sasebo, Kyushu, where they built a beautiful house made of fancy wood and filled it with books. She picked us up from the train station and immediately took us sightseeing. Her English was wonderful, so our conversations were the easiest and most enjoyable. You bet we had discussions about challenges of having retired husbands! If anywhere in the world it is in Japan that husbands literally live for their job and they are lost without it. She said that Japanese retired men simply refuse to learn anything new, like using a smart phone. But, she noted, at least her husband, contrary to many of her friend’s husbands, even though he does not want to travel, does not object to her going off on her own. So much so that we will reunite with Tomoko in September in Europe.

Her women network was a real boon. Whatever my wish, she could pick up her (smart) phone and within minutes she arranged for some really special Japanese experiences. I was tickled pink to have a private kimono lesson with her friend, a Japanese traditional dance teacher. Did I mention how much I adore any and all Japanese kimonos? I also love Ikebana – the art of Japanese flower arrangement. I have taken many classes and found much creative enjoyment with my limited artistic skills in Sogetsu Ikebana school. Turns out Tomoko’s cousin is an Ikebana Instructor, from a different, Ikenobo school. So of course we had to pay a visit and she gave me an introductory lesson! Her house and garden, too, were full of flowers – what a treat! While these were all well planned visits through Servas organisation, it is a chance encounter with a special 80 years young lady that we cherish even more. We came across the big traditional house of Ishikawa International Exchange Center on our stroll around Kanazawa. The Japanese garden was beautiful and the special exhibit of a rich collection of Japanese fabrics even more so, but the crowning glory was the woman runing the show. Seeing our interest, she took us to the off limits upstairs to show us some secret features of the old house. She was a big U.S. enthusiast, having sent both her daughters to the U.S. for high school and university studies. Her love for America was triggered when she was 5 years old and the American soldiers came to war torn Japan. “We couldn’t believe how nice the soldiers were; big, strapping guys, with pockets full of candy and chocolate. truth be told Japanese husbands don’t have a great track record, so I am really glad both my daughters have American husbands!”

On the way out the door she gave us a hand made Temari ball, which is a traditional gesture of friendship with the symbolic design of the crane, the bird of happiness.

We said goodbye to Japan, knowing that there are still many unexplored places beckoning, but also new friends that will welcome us back.

Inspired by Japanese Style

One of the few books that has escaped numerous moves and decluttering of our home is a 35 years old book called Japanese Style. It has influenced our aesthetics and inspired our home style, from the purchase of our first family size futon when we were a really broke young family to the attempt to design a Japanese inspired garden when we were a little less broke or at least the bank was willing to give us a home equity loan.

While we find things worth bickering about often, we are united in our love for most things Japanese. We can and do spend hours admiring the perfect patterns of raked gravel in Japanese dry gardens or the exquisite shapes and colors of Japanese pottery or lacquerware.

The Japanese have the unsurpassed sense of refinement, attention to detail, and the mastery of craft that extends from the gold leaf splattered imperial finery of an ink box to a humble toothpick or just a simple bamboo fence. A wooden door becomes an intriguing piece of art or a canvas for the rain to draw a masterpiece on. Nature is also coaxed to perfection in Japanese gardens. Initial garden inspiration came from China, but as in many other things the Japanese took an idea and developed and molded and mastered and perfected it to unreachable heights. It takes a great knowledge of Feng shui and care and skill to set up a Japanese garden and then it takes hard work, patience and attention to details to keep it growing well. Japanese gardeners are in my book the unsung heroes.

There are big castle park gardens with large bodies of water that are wonderful for strolling, especially in the evenings under romantic lighting. Where you have water, you must have bridges. They come in different shapes and colors, but my favorite is a cheerful red. Under the bridges giant black, golden, and orange koi fish are swimming happily.Sometimes the water is not water at all, but is represented by white pebbles that flow like a river. And the fish are a ceramic rendition. How fun! The reflection of the trees in the water is replaced by the black shadows on white gravel river.We first encountered this concept at the spectacular Adachi Museum of Art Garden, considered by many the best garden in all of Japan. It certainly is the best and the cleverest set up for six gardens in total, because they blend in perfectly with the surrounding hills and while you can’t walk through them at all, you can watch large landscape tableaux through the contemporary museum windows, changing through the seasons. A very different experience of a garden, indeed! We had a few quiet moments at Yuushien Garden coffee shop that employs a similar wall window garden view idea. For a short time in spring time you can watch thousands upon thousands of yellow and pink peony flowers floating on the water. Peony symbolizes good fortune, bravery, and honor.No wonder it was depicted in a very similar pattern on a samurai’s lacquer box.

Water and modern architecture were also combined well in the D.T. Suzuki Museum, celebrating the life of the Japanese philosopher who introduced Zen Buddhism to the Western world. Fittingly it was very minimalist, inviting the visitors to quiet reflection or shall I call it Zen meditation?For us though, it was the smaller, more intimate garden settings, that we enjoyed most. We stumbled upon the Namura Residence garden in the old samurai district of Kanzawa, not knowing that it was no. 3 on the list of the best. It is a tiny garden, but fits in all essential Japenese garden elements:

Rocks and stepping stones and koi, and a cube shaped water feature beautifully reflecting the surrounding trees.Water features are probably my favorite element of Japanese gardens.Mirek really likes stone lanterns in all their shapes and forms. Especially if accompanied by beautiful women, or shapely trees,or vibrant leaves. Oh, the trees! What can be more Japanese than the flaming Japanese maples? Only flowering cherries, if you please! Yoo-hoo, what about bamboo?Of course. Green, black, variegated? Tall, for sure! What I like about Japanese garden approach is that even if you don’t have a castle or a house, you can still plan a tiny Japanese garden in a corner by your front door or at least a mini one on a tray. If all else fails, you can always hang a garden painting on your wall.

The Great Japanese Train Adventure

Please read carefully the following Customer warning:

If you never played with toy trains as a kid, STOP reading and spend your time more productively by looking through the window observing the clouds in the sky.

For the rest of you being irreversibly infected by the train fever:

Welcome to the world of TRAINS! Japanese trains! Just saying the word SHINKANSEN gives me a jolt of excitement and joy.

Originally we had a very simple plan. First and foremost we will go to Japan in the spring for Sakura. As it is difficult to predict where and when the cherries would bloom, we contrived a plan to outsmart them.

Let us fly to northernmost island of Japan, rent a car as we like to do, and move slowly against the blooming cherry line as it moves with warming weather north and….let fate bring us together.

Until, a few days before leaving Western Australia for Sapporo, as I read my car rental agreement, I found to my big surprise the fine print: “Driving in Japan is allowed with Japanese driving permit OR National driving license WITH the International Driving Permit (IDP) issued by the country of the driver’s origin ONLY!”

Damn! We have been renting cars year after year and we carried our IDPs, but nobody ever asked for them! So when the last one expired in January 2019 we did not bother to renew it. Well, great timing going to Japan, the only country that demands it!

In a few days we made an urgent inquiry with our families back in the States and in Europe, and the message was clear. If you want to get it, you better come home in person, show your valid National/State driver’s license, get the IDP issued and then you can drive around Japan for six months but not a day more!

Forget it! Instead we will have to opt for travel by trains. What can I tell you, I was in heaven!


For those of you who read our last year’s blog covering our overnight travel from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, it is a well known fact that I love trains – the marvels of engineering innovation since Locomotion No. 1 was put on rails by Mr.Stevenson and run some 200 years ago (1825 to be exact).

But you may remember that we did not do much train travel after Chiang Mai, not just because of the miserable and well refrigerated overnight Thai ride, but even more because of my wife’s well known dislike of trains. In her youth she once spent days and days on stinky Soviet trains, which left her with TPTSD (Train PTSD) and utterly diminished appreciation for the beauty of train travel.

With the IDP Japanese disaster my chances of getting on a train again were now looking very good, indeed!

Now let’s get those fabulous Japanese Rail Passes that let you ride the Bullet trains! According to our initial Google research the JR Rail Pass could only be issued to bona fide temporary foreign visitors of Japan and purchased outside of Japan. There were offers of ordering and paying for the 1, 2 or 3 week passes on line and then having a voucher sent to your home address. After arriving to Japan you then present the voucher and your passport stamped by Japanese immigration officer to the Japan Railways office and receive the real pass. Complicated? You bet! Especially if you are not at your home address, but half way around the world. There must be a different way! After further Internet digging we found out that one could also buy the Rail Pass from an overseas Japan tourist office and Hallelujah, there was on the list a convenient office in Perth, Western Australia, where we were heading next.

To sweeten the deal, I suggested we upgrade to the first class so called Green car. My wife agreed and with a 21-day Rail Pass voucher in hand I could start planing the optimal route. On this map

red lines mark Shinkansen High Speed (known in the West as Bullet) Train network. The yellow lines are Local and Limited Express Trains. Complementing the rail lines are also JR operated buses, and in addition, surprisingly, one ferry. All covered by the Japan Rail Pass issued either for different geographic regions or the whole National one.

Japan is a densely populated country of about 130 million people. But that number is very unevenly distributed over the main 4 islands to such an extent that 80 million people live in a relatively narrow belt on the southern coast of Japan biggest island of Honshu.

That is where Shinkansen concept came initially to life with its first section between Tokyo and Nagoya open to public for Tokyo 1964 Olympics (bravo, you guys, nice excuse to get funding). It is true that the costly overruns were alarming (about double of initial requested funding), costing the project champion his position and career but nobody dared to stop this project. The concept proved to be very successful and today Shinkansen is a sturdy skeleton of a very efficient and apparently profitable rail transportation system of the whole Japan. As for our travel plans the rails went where we wanted to go and not the other way around. We had to look for our accommodation to be as close to the rail stations as possible so we would not have to drag our luggage around or rely on expensive taxis. (No cheap Uber in Japan). Fortunately, in a country like Japan, where businessmen use fast train transport, there are always clusters of hotels in easy walking distance from the stations. With 3 weeks of unlimited rail travel we (read I) figured we could pretty much cover the whole of Japan from the North to the South, avoiding the most popular and tourist infested areas of Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto, where we have been before anyways.

We flew to Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaidó, the northern most island and after getting our passports properly stamped we easily found the JR office at the Airport rail station and got our vouchers exchanged for the glorious real Rail Passes. With the skillful help of the lovely JR ladies we even got reserved seats for the first week of our train travel. We were ready to jump on our first train. Hurrah! Our Great Japanese Train Adventure had just begun! My excitement could not be significantly marred by the disappointing fact that the Shinkansen network has just one Hokkaidó station. It is in Hakodate, a temporary terminal in southernmost tip of this island. The further northern reach of Shinkansen is still under construction through mountains of Hokkaidó and will not be open till March 2030. While sad that my complete Shinkansen experience may have to wait beyond my useful life expectancy, I do hope in the improbable case of beating the odds, I will report to you on riding the newly open section if I am still able to hear, see and write.

We were forewarned that the learning curve on riding the Japanese trains was steep so let us share some tips we learned along the way. The frequency of trains run by JR is incredible, so you do not have to worry that you will miss your train. If you do, there certainly would be another one coming soon, probably within minutes. But you should be aware that majority of non-local trains have many cars assigned for reserved seating only and you CANNOT buy the reservation ON the train. In this case you will end up in non-reserved seats car(s). From our experience there is no reason NOT to reserve your seat. In each and every station in Japan we were able to get a seat reservation in a matter of minutes. It helps to install on your smart phone HyperDia application with JR schedule, so with a click or two you can get all possibilities of how to get from point A to B and hence can just show to the JR sales person the phone screen with the train you want. You could theoretically even master this activity on the station’s automatic machines but it involves a conversation with the JR person in the Central JR office in Tokyo and at least rudimentary knowledge of Japanese language.

After you have your reservation stubs you approach the station gates, Rail Passes in hand. The gates are mostly automatic, armed with sensors reading the tickets. They unfortunately do not work with Rail Pass and to enter the station you have to show your Pass to a live JR staff at the gates. They usually just glance at the pass and wave you through. Please note on this picture the essential differences between women of East and West. The petite Japanese girl is the epitome of the demure cuteness with her toes pointed inward while the Western sturdy feet are firmly planted in a outward conquering stride. The speculation and our unproven theory here is that after centuries of wearing a tight kimono and mincing her steps, the Japanese woman walks pigeon toed, and men find this attractive, while in the West the open feet ballet stance is more in vogue.

Any which way, let your feet carry you towards your train platform, most of the time on a different level, but serviced by escalators and/or elevators so you do not have to struggle with your luggage on any stairs.

On your reservation stub you have the name of the train and car and seat number so now you only have to look around the platform to find the exact spot where your car door will stop. Look down on the floor and up on the hanging signs and then line up at the marker. But before you embark on your train, do check carefully that you are indeed on the right platform.

On station signs, which most of the time alternate between Japanese and English, you can, in a hurry, get confused looking only at numbers amongst the flashing Japanese signs. We once got misled by recognizing the time of our train departure and blindly followed to the wrong platform with our luggage in tow, only to discover there were two different trains leaving at the same time and our train was on the other side of the station. A feverish run ensued and we barely jumped into the last car of our train, totally out of breath, but with a big grin on our faces.

Of course whenever and wherever we could, we rode Shinkansens. They are physically separate from other trains and ride on mostly elevated tracks, never crossing the roads or other train lines. But we were happy to experience many other trains, too: local, commuter and so called Limited Express trains. We had fun on a local train with one and only car, where separation between the train engineer and traveling public is almost none existent and on this two car train in Kyushu where we were the only representatives of traveling public. Except for the busy Golden Week where it looked like all of Japan was traveling and on a few trains taking high school students to and from their very long days at school, the trains have been surprisingly empty. Perhaps not as surprisingly, for our Japanese friends complained about the high cost of train travel and were quite envious of our Rail Passes. It is indeed unfar to local residents that a similar Pass is not offered to them. Our running tally says we would have had to pay three times the cost of what we had to pay for all our train rides as individual tickets!

Still people do take trains in Japan, especially in highly populated areas where commuter lines are packed tight. On Tokaido Shinkansen line between Osaka and Tokyo the Bullet trains transport on average 22,000 people in an hour in each direction! In a year Shinkansen trains take 159 million passengers to their destinations. Standing on the platform observing those 16-car trains passing one another every 4-5 minutes is mind boggling! It is even more mind boggling that the trains run at the maximum speed of 320 km/hr (200 miles/hr). Not to say anything of my impression of the futuristic design of the train locomotive. It is like watching Formula One race but much safer! If I add to this the beautifully designed new Kanazawa Rail Station I am really feeling like in a sci-fi movie. The interior design is very cool, too. The seats can be easily configured so that families can sit face to face. Some private line sightseeing trains were built for scenic excursions into Japanese countryside. A train like this bird watching beauty runs three times a day and provides the bird lovers comfortable seating with plenty of opportunity to sharpen their eyesight with enough drinks, so no one would be sorry for binocular forgotten at home. What all of the Japanese trains have in common is their admirable accuracy, frequency and cleanliness. The bane of my wife’s (train) existence – toilets are modern and immaculate, much nicer and roomier than any airplane bathroom, which, of course, is not saying much. The service too, is much better. You can order some food and/or booze from lovely, young, smiling train attendants. When not chatting up the attendants, one can enjoy the fleeting images of Japan rushing past the window. From snow capped mountains of the Northto warm sea and shore line of the South, or most exciting engineer’s view of the tunnel.

And let’s not forget passing more than twice through Japanese Alps which gave us the sense of how much of Japan is still covered by the lush green forests, contradicting the notions of sprawling urban concrete jungles along the Shinkansen line.

It is the last day of our 21-day Rail Pass on our 2,000+miles long trip, and we are spending it on trains back to Tokyo airport. We reached our goal of riding trains from Northernmost to Southernmost Japanese Shinkansen station. For good measure we added the Western most rail station in Japan in the town of Sasebo. We are on Hikari 476 Shinkansen arriving just before expiration of our Passes at midnight. As I am browsing I discover the fresh news:

“Japan is pushing the limits of rail travel as it begins testing the fastest-ever Shinkansen bullet train, capable of speeds of as much as 400 kilometers (249 miles) per hour.

Called the Alfa-X, the train is scheduled to go into service in 2030. Rail company JR East plans to operate it at 360 kilometers per hour. That would make it 10 km/hr faster than China’s Fuxing Hao, which links Beijing and Shanghai and has the same top speed. Good! It looks when I come back in 2030 I will be riding a new faster Shinkansen to Sapporo and beyond.

In Search of Sakura

Waiting for the sun to tease open the tight pink buds sitting on bare brown branches like tiny baby birds crowding together for warmth, ready to burst open and sing the ode to long awaited spring, we wandered, dressed in all our warm clothes, over the island of Hokkaido in the far North of Japan. We had scoured the official Japanese meteorological webpages for historical data and this year’s predictions on cherry blossoms bloom. We emailed people in Japan. Everyone said because of the mild winter Sakura will bloom early. Afraid we will miss the last wave of cherry blossoms and the famous hanami (cherry viewing) parties sweeping up north through Japan, we decided to start our three week trip at the tail end of April in the very North and then turn down South.

Well, everyone was wrong. Waiting at the airport on a long layover from Bangkok to Sapporo we looked at the weather app and panicked.

Rain and snow was predicted for our arrival. We scrambled for a few hours trying to rearrange our itinerary and book new hotels further south, only to find there were no hotels available. Or there was one smoking(!) room left for 1 person for $8,975. No kidding.

Flummoxed I texted a friend who has recently been to Japan, and she had an easy explanation, “It is Golden Week and the coronation of the New Emperor coming up on top of it. It is 10 days when the whole Japan has time off and everyone is traveling.” Oh, another great timing on our part! Start doing your homework, people!

When I told her about the weather forecast she responded, “Maybe pink blossoms and white snow will make for a beautiful picture!”

What a blessing to have friends who always see the cup half full.

And so we went. On a search. On an adventure. Reminding ourselves that truly it is the road, not the destination that matters.

And on this, at first quite cold, road we found all we hoped for and then some. For nearly the whole first week we had Japan to ourselves. We climbed up to lonely little wooden temples, and trespassed (shhh!) into some still closed off parks, cherishing every brave new cherry blossom. We warmed up in museums and galleries and in the we drank copious amounts of hot tea and had fun signing the guest book.We searched for sakura in alternate places and found them everywhere: on big gilded screens, on small handkerchiefs, even on apples,and Coke bottles. Then the day arrived with blue sky and glorious sun and warmer temperatures and we discarded our winter clothes and jumped on a train (thanks to the unlimited Rail Pass) and rode five hours to the town of Hakodate on the southern tip of Hokkaido, where 1600 old cherry trees just opened at full bloom. Planted around a star shaped fortress Goryokaku, of which only a moat remains, all the cherry trees, like beautiful blushing brides, were covered with a heavy white veil. I don’t know if it was our relentless effort or our bated breath anticipation, but finally seeing the spectacular sight and walking, bah, practically floating, underneath the white canopy of endless blossoms was an unforgettable moment of awe and fulfillment of a dream. For once we did not mind sharing it with about a million other people who came to enjoy the Nature’s Spring spectacle. Except for a few rowdy groups of people with kegs of beer, most of the spectators were chatting amiably or sitting quietly on blue tarps under the white canopy, enjoying their picnic lunches. Of course, if they were not busy strolling around, finding the perfect spot for a selfie. I was disappointed to not see a single person with a book of poems, as in the olden times it was a tradition to compose or at least read a poem while drinking a cup of sake under the blossoming sakura. I have been an admirer of Japanese haiku poetry of the greats like Basho, Buson and Issa. They knew how to catch the fleeting moments of short lived cherry blossoms with a few words and impressions like this Buson’s haiku:

Petals falling

unable to resist

the moonlight.

I was glad to see that a few young women dressed in elegant traditional kimonos and styled their raven hair. It was a very romantic notion seeing the striking patterns of cloth amongst the patterns and shadows of the blooms and branches. We caught our falling petals just a few days later when we crossed from Hokkaido to Honshu island and arrived in the town of Hirosaki, where the rain has scattered the blossoms of the first blossoming variety (amongst 200 wild and domesticated cherry trees in Japan). In fact the banks and the water of the moat around the castle looked like covered with freshly fallen snow. Luckily there are 2600 cherry trees at Hirosaki Park with over 50 different types of cherry trees including the classic simple Somei Yoshino cherry blossoms, Shidarezakura (Weeping Cherry), and Yaezakura (Double Layer Cherry) and many were still blooming happily. The basic classification of cherry blossoms is simple, there are only two groups. If they have 5 petals they are called single and if more than 5, then they are called double, even if some have up to 50 petals forming one fluffy blossom. We crossed over a cheery red bridge to reach the big tower, the most substantial remnants of the castle. The cascading pink weeping cherriesenhanced the rather simple architecture. It was really the trees that stole the show. Some were very old and majestic. There is a special spot in the garden, forming a hearth in the canopy,  attracting couples, especially newlyweds, that come to take their traditional wedding portraits. May their love blossom beautifully like the lovely sakura of Japan!

As for us, the Great Sakura Search brought us Moments of Awe, Bliss, and Small Delights. All there is left to say is:

Australian P. S. The Tale of Bossy, the Baby Kangaroo

It has been a long while since our table mate left for the bathroom. I started wondering if I should go and check in on her.

The only dinner place in the little seaside town of Denham, Western Australia open that night was crammed with customers. We spotted two empty seats next to an older couple and zoomed in.

They welcomed us to their table and quickly, over a couple of bottles of beer, while we waited for our food, a friendly banter ensued. Last year they have spent three months driving a Winnebago around the United States. It was an unforgettable adventure. They loved the people. They loved the National parks. Couldn’t wait to save enough money to go back.

They were truck drivers, running water and hay for the farmers in the big Australian outback. Hard working, salt of the earth people. When I asked about retirement, the wife answered, pointing at her white haired husband, “He is only 84, he will die of boredom if he quits.” A few years younger, she had been a truck driver since she was 16, just to spite her mother, who did not think it a fitting profession for a girl. She had met her husband some 8 years ago, when her truck broke down. “Came to my rescue on the road, my knight in shining armor,” she said laughingly, patting his hand. She had an easy laugh and a twinkle in her eye. There was no obstacle that could stop her. She was planing to acquire a third truck next year for their little company.

Now she was striding back to our table with a fresh bottle of beer in her hand. Her husband looked up from his steak (“you need to take a loan from the bank, to pay for food here”, he had said), and asked quietly, “Is he OK?”

“Oh, fine, sleeping on the bed, but I left the TV on,” she answered softly and took a swig. She wasn’t eating anything, “she never eats anything in the evening, but likes a few of them light beers.”

My curiosity got the better of me and I asked, “Do you have a puppy with you?”

“A baby kangaroo, but shh, don’t tell the hotel, they don’t allow pets!”

For a moment I thought she was pulling my leg, but no, she wouldn’t. Not her. There wasn’t a mean bone in her body.

“What?” my husband said, nearly falling out of his chair. “Are you serious? How old is he?”

“Three months! We got him when his mom was killed on the road. People know to look in the pouch for baby joeys if a mom gets killed. They brought him to our pub. So we took him. We’ve had a few orphans before. But this one is a special character.”

“He is very gentle for a boy and he is so attached to her,” the husband jumped in. “He follows her everywhere, he really thinks she is his mother. We can’t leave him with anyone. So we have to take him along when we go on a job.”

“Well, he is getting a little bit more independent,” said the wife. “Now, when I take him for his morning walk, I don’t put him on a leash anymore and he is starting to hop in a bigger loop, further out, not just sticking to my leg.”

“What do you feed him?” was the next question.

“He is raised on bottles with special non cow milk formula. Joeys spend a long time in mom’s pouch. They are tiny jelly bean size creatures when they are born and can not survive on their own until eighteen months.”

“What will you do when he gets too big? It would be really hard to let him go, I am sure,” I stipulated.

“There is a special rescue place that takes orphan kangaroos. It is pretty big, so they can be quite free. But we don’t advertise its location widely. Kangaroos raised by humans can’t really be rehabilitated to live in the wild. It is nice that we can come visit.”

“What did you name him?” asked my husband.

“Boss, because he is a little bit bossy.”

I looked at my husband across the table and saw he was just as curious as me. We had to meet Bossy, the Kangaroo!

“Do you think we could see him on the way from dinner?” I asked excitedly.

“Of course!”

We refused desert and coffee and in no time we paid our bill and were on our way out the door and in the corridors of the hotel. As they quietly unlocked the door a surprise was awaiting us. There in the entryway stood Bossy on his oversized hind legs with his diaper on and his long tail sticking out.

“Oh, did you wake up, Bossy?”, asked Bossy’s mom and scooped him up. “Oh, you are cold, poor baby!” She grabbed a big gray pouch and wrapped him in it tightly. My husband totally surprised me by asking, “Can I hold him for a little bit?” He then proceeded to gently rock him on his lap. Then he patiently fed him his bottle of milk! After a little while Bossy was warm and ready to come out. He hopped around the room and took a little snack of rabbit food. Despite the best effort of his mom to get him into bed, he was not interested. Perhaps, like a little kid, he was too excited to have visitors!

“Let’s see if we can get him into the pouch to calm down,” his mom suggested. “It is interesting when they are little and they first learn how to hop into the pouch. It is a bit of a reverse process, as in real life they have to first learn how to gather courage to hop out of their mother’s pouch. The grey kangaroos don’t leave their mother’s pouch for good until they are 11 months old.”

My husband had the honor to get him into the pouch and naughty Bossy didn’t make it easy for him. When finally he was in and settled, we knew it was our time to say goodbye to Bossy, the Kangaroo and his wonderful parents!

P.P.S. Don’t forget to play all the video clips!

Chasing the Aussie Big Ones

After 9 months of drought, on the day we drove 1300 km (800 miles) up to Exmouth, the most North Western tip of Australia, it started dumping buckets of rain. We have met an unexpected cyclone. We could hear the collective sigh of relief of all the Australian farmers, worrying about their thirsty and hungry cattle. But we couldn’t help but worry about the effect it will have on our plan to go swimming with the whale sharks. To make matters worse we realized that the school holidays and Easter were just about to begin so accommodations were going to be really tough to find.

This was our second trip to Western Australia in as many months. On our first go the timing was off, as the whale sharks have not yet started their yearly migration. (Hm, I am noticing a pattern here.)

We drove up to experience Ningaloo Reef in all its glory – not very well known and lucky for us, much less popular than Great Barrier Reef. We were here to check the claim that this was the best reef in the world, with the healthiest coral, abundance of life and crystal clear visibility. Now we were worried that due to storms the whale shark swimming boat wouldn’t even sail.

But Aussies are tough and optimistic cookies. After a night of relentless rain, the dawn sky was gray and heavy as we boarded our boat. Yet, the big smiles of the beautiful and fun young crew of Ningaloo Discovery warmed up the morning and our mood. We were lucky to find ourselves in a small group of only eleven, as twenty is the usual group size. We had a young boy of nine in our midst. In case you think his parents were irresponsible freaks to let him do this, let me assure you that there is absolutely no danger, as whale sharks are indeed sharks by classification, but have no teeth and are only feeding on plankton and krill (like some toothless whales) by filtering it through their gills. Very quickly we were kitted in wet suits, masks and flippers and thrown in cyclone cooled waters for a quick snorkel. It was to “get comfortable with our equipment”, but it was really to check if everyone was a competent enough swimmer. Too bad the sun was not out, as the coral was indeed abundant and quite striking even in the muted shades of purple and blue.

After we all climbed back up the crew revved up the engines to look for the whale sharks with the help of two spotter planes circling overhead. As only ten people are allowed at a time to swim with the whale shark, they divided us into two smaller groups, each accompanied by an instructor and an underwater photographer. We got precise instructions on how the swim will be conducted. You can only stay with the shark 10 minutes at a time. No touching his tail or riding on his back! Line up behind the instructor, swim 3-4 m away and do not approach the whale shark’s head as you could interfere with its direction of movement and that would be disturbing its natural behavior. There are a few other places around the world, like Mozambique and Mexico, where one can swim with these cool animals, but operators there are not anywhere close to as disciplined, sensitive, or ethical.

Our first attempt was a disappointment. The captain shut down the engines after the word came in from the spotter plane there was a whale shark nearby. 10 minutes after our first group got into water we were given a signal to jump in. We lined up behind the instructor, battling the waves, only to be told, ooops, the shark whale decided to dive deep. Get back on the boat and we will go find ourself another one. While the first group celebrated their whale shark, we waited disappointed. But in no time another creature was spotted and we went back into the water, this time first in line. It is pretty hard to explain the excitement of meeting a whale shark face to face. (Or mask to fin.)

You are underwater looking at the empty dark blue and suddenly the figure of the huge spotted whale shark appears, hurtling towards you. As it passes, you turn and start swimming full blast to keep up with it Nothing exists but your breath and the movement through the water. It is all consuming and exhilarating. The time stretches out. The ten allotted minutes are longer and shorter at the same time.

Back on the boat everyone now had huge grins on their faces. It was not the biggest of the whale sharks, more of a juvenile, about 6 meters long. Whale sharks are the biggest fish in the ocean and can reach 18 meters and weigh over 30 tonnes.

Ningaloo reef is the epicenter of the whale shark feeding aggregation from March to July with anywhere from 200-400 whale sharks passing through. We expected that we will get a swim or two and that’s going to be it. To our surprise and utter delight the crew kept looking for more whale sharks and asking us, “Do you want another swim?”

Of course we do! At one point one of the curious whale sharks decided to swim in a circle and check us out, the little humans flailing about. We had to backpedal to try to keep the required distance. On the last, about the 7th swim some people decided they’ve had their fill, so the remaining troop went in at the same time and I think we combined our allotted times and had a really long farewell swim. If anyone, like us, was initially a bit reluctant to spend the AUS$400+ per person for the day, we now agreed that per swim or per swimming minute it wasn’t such a bad deal after all. Ad to that a nice lunch and a second afternoon snorkel in now sunnier weather and it suddenly seemed like a steal! While the tail end of the cyclone made for very dramatic sunsets it gave us limited opportunities for snorkeling on Ningaloo reef. The Turquoise Bay was turquoise just for a little bit, enough for a few drifting snorkels, that proved there was indeed a rather thick soup of turtles, reef sharks and colorful tropical fish of all kinds. At Coral Bay there were more corals and different kinds of sting rays, including fun leopard and blu polka dotted ones. The wonderful thing about this coral reef is that you don’t need a boat to get to it, even little kids can see the colorful fish in knee deep sandy bays. Of course you first have to fly all the way to Australia and then get all the way to the top of Western Australia.

Since you already made this big effort you can get another big reward. At any time of year there are different types of whales to be seen. If you are a faithful reader of our blog you might remember that on the very tail end of our first visit to Western Australia we went to chase orcas in the Bremer Bay, an underwater canyon on the spectacular southern coast. In spite of all efforts of the Whale Watch Western Australia crew and the most beautiful clear day we saw not one living marine thing, let alone an orca. We were generously offered a voucher for a free cruise at any time. Well, now it was the time, not for the orcas, but blue whales and we wrote to the company that we were back. They honored their promise and booked us on their blue whale tour. We drove back to the capital Perth and the port of Fremantle just in time for Easter. To everyone’s shock it was the coldest and stormiest Easter on record and our tour was delayed by a few days. It was to be again on the very tail end of our stay and we could only hope for better luck. Not to keep the suspense going too long, the morning of our blue whale tour was beautiful and sunny. The water was still a bit choppy, but I have taken my Dramamine with my breakfast and Mirek never gets seasick. I could not say the same for half the people on the cruise, who half an hour into our departure from port were so sick they could not stand up at all. I really felt sorry for them as I was once very sea sick on a boat in Hawaii. They could tell you a space ship has just landed on the horizon and you would just groan and say, “Can you please ask them if they could take me ashore really fast?”

What a terrible pity as very quickly we spotted a distant spout from a blue whale foraging in the Perth (underwater) canyon, looking for patches of krill. After establishing its surfacing and diving pattern we tracked it pretty much the whole day. Whenever we spied the spout after the resurfacing we sped in that direction, but for the high ethical and conservation standards stayed a respectful distance away. We were rewarded by the whale understanding we were not a threat and becoming comfortable with the vessel’s presence.

Blue whale is the largest animal in the world, reaching up to 33 meters and 170 tons. Ours was about 15-18 meters, a juvenile. It was in fact mottled gray in color. The name blue whale derives from its sea shadow, or shall we say underwater reflection, that is indeed beautiful turquoise blue. A very interesting aspect is also a fact that a blue whale leaves a footprint at it dives underwater. It is a large sleek area that stays on the surface for awhile after the whale has disappeared.

Blue whales do not perform exciting breaching like humpback whales or wild hunting as the orcas, but they are still impressive to see. We were welcome up in the captain’s cabin and got our many questions answered by captain and the crew, which are one family, literally. The mom, dad and their two young daughters, who grew up on the boat and were homeschooled, are a perfect, well oiled, lovely seafaring machine. It is wonderful to see them interacting with each other and the guests. The older of the daughters provides a thorough informative commentary with a smooth voice worthy of a radio announcer. We were so enthralled with the search, we could barely take a few minutes downstairs for the delicious lunch.

Then we were treated to a very special dessert. A few white waves on the horizon multiplied into hundreds and soon turned into dolphin shapes racing towards our boat. Soon we were surrounded by a joyful super pod of 500-800 yellow striped dolphins, a species, compared to the regular bottle nosed dolphins, not often seen, we were told.

It was the most spectacular show ever. The dolphins swam in front, alongside and under the boat at full speed, then jumped in the air in graceful arcs and spins.  We have seen a fair share of dolphins in our lives, but this was an unforgettable thrill of a lifetime. We toasted it with a glass of champagne on our return journey to port. As the Whale Watch mom poured us a glass, she said, “My husband was so impressed that you returned to Australia for the tour that he extends an invitation for a free orca tour anytime you come back again.”

Never say never! Last year as we finished our big tour of Australia, we never thought we would return, now we were back for the the third time. We made some wonderful friends on the way and we literally fell in love with this largest, most unknown state of this smallest of all continents.

The Wild(er) Side of Sumatra

Wild, rugged and adventurous are the words often used in the same breath with Sumatra, the sixth largest island in the world. It is the place touted as the last sanctuary for wild orangutans. 
We found that the Northern half of Sumatra (Sumatera Utara) was certainly much less populated than Bali or Java, but not really that wild. Our first foray into wilderness was Bukit Lawang on Bohorok River. After a very long ride from the airport in Medan on very bumpy roads and a short walk through the village we got to our aptly named Hotel Orangutan’s beautiful room high up, overlooking the river and green trees. Wow, fantastic, but wait, where is the air con? Sorry, this was the best joint of all for $35! It does cool down in the night, they say. 
Waiting for the relief of the evening, sweating profusely, we decided to cross the river by one of the pedestrian suspension bridges. Something wild was awaiting us on the other side – no, not this monkey, but a wild human party, that ended in the wee hours of the morning. Turns out that the wilderness of Bukit Lawang is a popular party spot for the city rats from Medan. Or should I say lady rats? Hordes of women immediately descended upon us, wanting selfies and photos with us, but mostly with my delightfully obliging husband! Soon they dragged him onto the improvised dance area next to the picnic site where live music was playing. Wild dancing and hooting ensued, occasionally paused, so more ladies could take selfies with Mirek. 
I had a hard time extricating him from the crowd of adoring fans. Walking down the river we came to another bridge and crossed over for our return back to the guest house. 
“Don’t leave the door to the balcony open,” the staff warned us, “or our resident monkeys will steal whatever they can.” True, every morning and evening the cheeky monkeys came over, cavorting on our roof, climbing onto our balcony and looking in through our windows.

But it wasn’t those monkeys we were after. It was the big fuzzy orange orangutans. We were told in order to see them in the Gunung Leuser National Park one had to book an expensive hike with a guide. You could choose a camping overnight, a day hike or an early morning encounter. Lazy old farts that we are, we choose the easy way out.

We had two guides waiting for us at 7 am. They admitted to being a bit tired as they partied the whole night, but their enthusiasm was unabated.

“We will do our best to track down some orangutans for you,” they assured us. We crossed the river over the same bridge as the day before, but everything was blessedly quiet. We were the only people on the jungle trail going up into the National Park. It was green and steamy. We were sweaty and tried to keep up our enthusiasm, though our expectations were down around our ankles. Our guides kept reminding us that, of course, this was wildlife and we had to be lucky to find it. But they were the best in finding it. They took us up and down and around, stopping now and again, making orangutan sounds. At the highest point we took a break and had a variety of fruits: bananas, watermelons, mandarins cut up for a snack. We could only eat a few, so the rest were packed up and then one of them took us on a side track while the other went scouting. Soon we found ourselves back on the path we came up on.

Well, I guess we are going back, I thought to myself, and we found nothing.

Just then our guide said, “Hurry up, I think my friend found one!”

We scrambled up the slope and there in a small clearing was a young mama orangutan with a little baby, hanging off the tree. She looked us straight in the eye with her little one hanging on tightly. The baby orangutan was just the cutest little thing ever. Despite anticipating and looking forward to this encounter we were totally overtaken by surprise, intense feelings and joy!

She climbed down and tried to get close to the scout, but he jumped behind a bush. Then she slowly ambled back to her tree and climbed up, looking back at us. We could not tear our eyes from her. When she settled in the crook of a branch, we craned our necks to see the pair up in the canopy. The little one was practicing how to climb on his own, and we watched with batted breath, worrying he would slip. I could have stayed the whole day and watch them, but the guides suggested we go look for some more. As we walked down towards the river we started encountering the other people coming in with their guides. In an area close to the path there was a crowd of foreign tourists gathered with a few orangutans in the low branches. I could see a big bunch of banana skins on the ground by the tree. Officially there was no orangutan feeding in the park, but I realized it was our leftover fruit offered to our mama orangutan by the scout, that brought her down from the tree. After all, these were not really wild orangutans, they were the released orangutans from the former, now closed, rescue and rehabilitation center, and their offspring.

Still relishing our special personal encounter, we left the group and bypassed the local Indonesian tourists that were now waking up after their partying and heading in droves into the park. They had no guides and there was no one collecting park fees.

I have to give our guides credit for taking us in a different direction, where we were lucky to encounter some interesting primates. The funny black and white Thomas monkeys immediately got a nickname Punky Monkey because of their hairstyle. They also had babies and those are always fun to watch.It was the endangered white handed gibbons whose territory protecting calls we were hearing the whole morning that were even more exciting. When we finally saw them, we were suitably impressed. They are quick, nimble swingers and it is quite strange to see their white furry hands grasping the vines. Returning to our jungle outpost we agreed that after all, it was worth spending the money and generously supporting the local economy. We left the river to drive to the Karo villages of Berastagi through vegetable and coffee plantations on the Highlands, fed by the ashes of volcano Sinabung. It was very easy to see the proof of the devastating 2014 eruption down its sides. We enjoyed the sunset view, “enhanced” by numerous flower and wooden Instagram frames, popular with avid selfie takers. We skipped the sunrise volcano climb, pressing on to the Sipisopiso waterfall. One does get a bit jaded after seeing a lot of waterfalls traveling the world, many endowed with superlatives. But 120 m (400 feet) tall Sipisopiso (translated: Like a Knife) did not fail to impress. Unfortunately the effect was marred by the really badly maintained trail with huge amount of trash lying everywhere, despite the abundance of trashcans provided. As usual there were many, more or less dilapidated shacks selling bottled water and junky snacks and souvenirs, whose owners did not care to pick up the rubbish. As usual there was also a bunch of guys lolling about and demanding an entrance fee. I got so riled up that in my head I started writing letters to the Ministry of tourism. Little did I know that I will soon get to meet the honchos from the ministry in person.

But first let us visit the enormous and very deep Lake Toba. It is fitted by a few green islands, but Samosir is the inhabited one. To get to and from Samosir one has to contend with local ferries, running on unpredictable schedules and engines. The mesmerizing ever changing views and the play of light, water and clouds help you forget their unsafe track record. We lucked out with the choice of a wonderful, intelligent local driver with a wicked sense of humor, that we hired for the day. He quickly understood our interest in traditional villages and the roads less travelled and took us all over the island, showing us some special hidden treasures. This might not have been the tallest waterfall, but it was beautiful, for our eyes only and immaculately clean.If anything I am besotted with Asian rice fields and here we could see both, just recently harvested and newly planted, tended to by beautiful, friendly, hard working women. We also lucked out at our third Sumatra destination – Nias Island. David, the driver/guide/owner of our little Oseda Nias Surfhouse was originally from Lake Toba, but married a local Nianese woman. We quickly became friends and together explored the island. It always gives us a special pleasure to get the locals to take us to some places they haven’t been to and we so smartly managed to discover in some travel article or blog.

Nias has a specialized claim to fame amongst Australian surfers as one of the better locations to surf. While we are certainly no surfing experts we didn’t find the Sorake surf particularly exciting, especially compared with Australian beaches and their enormous waves. We figured it must be the extreme affordability of guest houses and the constant warm weather.

We were really taken aback with the lack of sand on Sorake beach. We were told the latest earthquake with tsunami pushed up the coral. But there is another reason sand is disappearing from many Nias beaches. It is indiscriminate digging and bagging of beach sand for construction purposes. Mirek was quite horrified, not only by the disappearance of beaches, but also by the fact that sea salt infused sand is unsafe for construction. Our David and his other guest houses owning friends were very upset about all this and even more so with the the lack of concern and action from the government.

Well, here I got my chance to step in and shoot off my big mouth. Knowing my keen interest in all things traditional one early morning David told me he heard there would be a special dance performance for some visiting dignitaries at a small hotel nearby. Of course we headed right over and after taking some wonderful pictures of the dancing students (shared in the previous blog) and listening to some long boring speeches and watching the photo op for all the big shots (the regional assembly rep and his wife, plus Indonesia Tourism ministry rep from Jakarta) I asked for an introduction. Seeing that I was the only western person far and wide I was granted an audience. After expressing my undying admiration and love for the beautiful Indonesia I then gave them my list of grievances. I brought to their attention in particular the sand stealing and the safety issues in construction and suggested they constitute large financial penalties for the act and make beach restoration their priority and legacy, if they want to see any foreign tourism. With the elections right around the corner, my words might or might not have had any impact. Nevertheless I was treated to an official portrait with the big wigs, but more importantly earned undying admiration of David and his island friends.

To show us what a truly beautiful Nias beach looks like he drove us over an hour away for a sunset on Moale Beach. Why has nobody developed such a spectacular sandy beach? Ah, an investor did buy the beach front property, but failed to investigate the sea conditions. There was such dangerous undertows that plans for development had to be abandoned, so the beach remains pristine. Unfortunately even here we encountered some local boys digging the sand and stuffing it onto sandbags and transporting it away on motorbikes. How sad! We bid a fond goodbye to the wild Sumatra, knowing that we only saw a small part. Indonesia as a whole is inexhaustible source of travel discoveries and the list of places we want to see keeps on growing.

Sumatra – Just how I Like it

This is just how I like it…

We are the only farangs/bule/foreigners on the plane and when we touch down there are no pushy taxi drivers looking to scalp the next confused and jet lagged tourist, just a friendly face, sometimes even this exceptionally endearing: We have been picked up by the the little son and the owner of our small guesthouse that we have communicated with by email, setting up some great plans on learning about the local culture and customs.

And there is a lot of old tribal culture to learn about in Sumatra. While some of the closely related Austronesian tribes like Batak Karo have lost all but a few examples of their traditional dwellings, others, like Batak Toba on and around the island of Samosir on Lake Toba continue to build and live in traditional houses in large numbers. Some are relativel simple and unadorned and some are very detailed and colorful but all are made without a single nail or screw. Especially impressive are their cousins’, the Nianese king houses, built with huge supportive wooden beams, imbedded into hard rock stones, a very effective protection against the destructive earthquake forces. We are in the land of volcanos, after all, and some are still active.  I never tire of visiting the different villages, because it is just how I like it… we are the only white people. After bellowing the respective greetings of “Horas!” and “Ya’Ahowu!” we are always greeted by friendly faces some with big, toothy smilesand some with toothless ones. Sometimes we even get invited inside the houses and are offered much needed refreshment in the heat of the day. We really enjoy the experience of the daily life of the village: the rice being set out to dry on the main square or the laundry draped over any available surface, king’s chair or not.Sometime we even get to help! We meet locals who continue practicing age old crafts like this man, chiseling a canoe out of a single piece of woodor this big sister helping the younger one learn how to weave. We crash a wedding and congratulate the beautiful bride and handsome groom. It is good to see the younger generation interested in their traditional culture. We meet local junior high dance troop dancing and singing in new versions of colorful traditional outfits.In the biggest village, Bowomatalu, we see two athletic boys perform the traditional stone wall jump. Successful clearing of the tall wall was a rite of passage for boys, and also a training technique for war raids on enemy villages surrounded by defensive walls.We get more insights in small museums with beautiful artifacts and old B&W photographs. They are just how I like them – all ours, as we are the only visitors. The treasures were mostly collected by Christian missionaries and to me speak tantalizingly of dark magic, powerful slave owning kings and queens, and beautiful priestesses. 

To bring (and keep) their culture alive some villagers will perform their traditional dances and even kindly let us participate and make fools of ourselves. We are fascinated to find so many similarities between some far flung tribes that we have visited from Toraja Land to Sumba, Papua and even, what the heck? – Hawaii! In particular we are interested in the buffalos and pigs and their role in death ceremonies. 

These so called “primitive” tribal societies all have a special affinity with their ancestors. I think we somewhat mistakenly call this “ancestor worship”, in my humble view, it should be called “ancestor connection”.

The body of the deceased, beloved grandma or grandpa is often kept at home (embalmed) for a long time, their spirit not ready to leave the family and the descendants not ready to let it go. When the right time comes and enough money is saved for a big sendoff a huge ceremony is prepared with relatives and neighbors descending from close and far. Pigs and buffalos are slaughtered in order to feed the crowd, but in places where old traditions have not been totally replaced by Christianity also to serve as a vehicle for the soul to leave the community and this plane. The graves of ancestors are not tucked away out of sight at a cemetery, but big tombs are erected right next to the homes, so the presence of loved ones is seen and still felt every day. If I was a dead ancestor, I think that is just how I would like it!

Spicing up Travel and History

It happens to me again and again. I stop on the road in the middle of nowhere, actually somewhere in Asia, seriously hungry after a quick and rather forgettable breakfast, if any at all. The local restaurant vendor presents me with that sort of menu: items written in unreadable script or unrecognizable language. In my struggle I find solace and possibly even advice in photos of at least some of the items, artistically arranged on the plate and in very vivid colors. As I browse diligently through photos of dishes while consulting the prices in the right column, occasionally salivating, my mind is completely overrun with ideas of what (and when) I am gonna get after finger pointing repeatedly to a line on the menu:

“This is what I want!”

When you convince yourself that even a dead stump would understand by now what your wishes are, the waiter finally scribbles something down, nods, and slips into the kitchen.

I cannot wait to burry my fork, spoon, or chopsticks into a pile of food I ordered. When it finally lands in front of me, it reminds me only remotely of the photo on the “menu”. I point to the picture and to the food and ask, “What happened, it is not the same as the picture on the menu?”

“Oh, we took the photo from the Internet!” answers the waiter with a big smile, feeling quite proud and accomplished. Then I take the first bite and swallow… geee!! “What the hell did the chef put in it?”

Everything from my mouth to my lips, even my teeth, is burning! Honestly, this dish should have been delivered on a fire truck, with a gallon of cold beer. Can somebody help me?!?

Well, we happen to travel along the one of the major historical trade routes between the East and West where most of the spices, no doubt quite few in the recipe for my dish, were grown, harvested, some processed and all loaded on the ships under auspices and protection of old trade powers like Portuguese, Dutch, English, Chinese, just to name a few. They were then transported to its final destination, the spice hungry European markets, making or breaking the traders, who risked all. If the ship went down in a storm or pirates attacked, one could loose everything. If you were lucky your spice cargo was sold with hefty profit to the investors in Lisbon, Amsterdam or London.

And what spices did they trade in? As we tend to bunch together herbs&spices let’s look at the differences first.

A spice is a seed, fruit, root, bark, or other plant substance primarily used for flavoring, coloring or preserving food. Spices are distinguished from herbs, which are the leaves, flowers, or stems of plants used for flavoring or as a garnish.

How many herbs and spices can you name? Looking in your cupboard will help, and while you are doing this, do yourself a favor and toss those that have been gathering dust. Dried herbs loose their flavor and potency quite quickly.

You probably have herbs like basil, mint, rosemary, oregano, marjoram, thyme, cilantro, parsley, dill, sage. What about spices? Pepper, peppercorn,

chili, nutmeg, coriander, cumin, paprika, turmeric, vanilla, cinnamon, star anise, cardamom, ginger, allspice, and cloves. Some of these, like black pepper, we use everyday, but others we only use for holiday baking. Recently I had a surprisingly wonderful clear pumpkin soup full of ginger and cinnamon sticks . I love creamy pumpkin soup but this was a totally different and exciting new soup experience.

Some of the spices are still quite expensive, for example saffron, because it is so difficult to produce. Historically the rare spices were so expensive because they were hard to get, but also because many were considered medicinal. If you were afraid of the plague, you would pay the weight of nutmeg in gold.

Most, if not all of this precious cargo, sailed through a narrow passage of 550 mi/890 km stretch of water between the Malay Peninsula and the island of Sumatra, the corridor called Straits of Malacca. As the main shipping channel between the Indian and Pacific Oceans it was, and still is, one of the most important shipping lanes in the world. It is named after the Malacca Sultanate ruling this area in that important time when Europeans looked to wrest the control of the crucial spice trade from the Arabs and secretive Venetians (remember Marco Polo and the Silk Road?), the profit cutting middlemen in this business. As Europe finally walked out of the Dark Ages and its navigators, shipbuilders and sailors were able to set their own independent transportation routes between East and West, Mediterranean ceased to be the one and only Mare Nostrum and Europe went global for the spices sake for the first time in its modern history.

While the members of the many sultanates’ courts ate Michelin star worthy, well spiced delicacies, Europe was struggling to find enough salt to preserve its food supplies for the long winter (pickled vegetables and salted and dried meat and fish). For millennia from the beginning of ancient civilizations salt was one of the most important trading commodities. With so many salty oceans all around you would think most salt would come from the sea, but it is the rock salt, mined from underground salt deposits, that had been the staple of human life.

I do remember as a teenager walking one of the historical trails of the salt trade connecting Austrian salt mines in northern slopes of the Alps with Bohemia, my birth country, which has no salt. If you ever find yourself in Austria do stop in Salzburg (=Salt City) and visit besides Mozart House and the Sound of Music Castle also the impressive salt mines nearby.

Being myself one of those privileged humans who can afford to live to eat – to the contrary of the majority of people who have to eat to live, paying only limited attention to what they are being served – I am very excited about coming to Malacca. Here I can see and experience first hand where the monumental change in human behavior, regarding our eating habits, the way we finance international trade, establishment of the international banking system and where obscene wealth for some and unspeakable misery for others were triggered on amazing scale.

Malacca as a town was established by a rather obscure Hindu prince Parameswara who was kicked out of Sumatra with a small band of his followers sometime in the twelve century. First he established himself in a place we today call Singapore. The prince might have had more problems with competition than he was willing to admit, as he was shortly and rather unceremoniously discarded by Siamese invaders and ended up in a place further north on the west coast of Malay Peninsula at an estuary of a small river where only a small group, of not more than twenty villagers lived. Not much competition for the Prince there! The story goes like this:

While resting under a “melaka” tree he watched a fleeing mouse deer that had turned back and kicked his hunting dog into the river. That sight impressed him so much, that he decided to start a settlement here. Curiously, he believed it was a good omen! With his decision making process regarding to where to settle so seriously flawed, no wonder this guy was kicked around from place to place. Nevertheless he is remembered as a founder of Malacca. (Melaka).

Now, move the wheels of history by some eight, nine hundred years, and you can see a couple of modern day travelers arriving at the very same spot where our Hindu Prince was killing his time, watching his dogs hunt, while leaning against the tree. Instead of the melaka tree on the river bank, we found a cozy spot called Sid’s Bar serving good pints of cold beer. Sitting at the open window with a view of the small river estuary and the remnants of a fort, perusing the hefty menu, we could feel the culinary and historic importance of this place.

It was easy to see how it became a favorite for Chinese, Hindu and Moslem traders. A place to stop, relax, exchange their goods and then, move on. Moslem traders brought along with their goods also their Islamic religion and they moonshined by proselytizing their religious beliefs far and wide. The painting above shows the arrival of Sheikh Shamsuddin to Brunei where he successfully converted the King of Brunei to Islam. The Malacca settlement’s influence and Islam religion as well grew fast and by 1450’s Malacca was recognized as a capital of Malacca Sultanate, with a sultan’s Palace built on one side of the river, the vendor stalls on the other and trader ships moored at the river estuary.

Meanwhile the light of Malacca’s fame reached the overseas Portuguese trading post of Goa on the Indian west coast. Hoping to reap the benefits of controlling the trade, the Portuguese on their second attempt in 1511 managed to conquer Malacca, slaughtering many Muslims in the process. Quickly they “coopted” some remaining Muslim pilots and sent three ships to find the mysterious Bandas Spice Islands from where the most precious nutmeg was coming to the west. This small group of 10 islands in a remote location was only place on Earth were nutmeg grew, should be easy to control, and establish a monopoly. They packed all three ships with nutmeg, mace, and sweet smelling cloves


They failed to secure the Bandas as their possession and establish a trading post.

Within a century Dutch not only established their monopoly in trade with nutmeg, by all means necessary, decimating the population of Bandas. Their dominance in lucrative nutmeg trade lasted until the WWII. There was an attempt by the British who convinced the locals on one of the smallest Banda Islands called Run, to accept the protection of British Sovereign in exchange for their nutmegs. It did not last too long as Dutch overran the British fort and did not treat the loosing British kindly. In the subsequent negotiations the Dutch traded the swampy Island of Manhattan (with New Amsterdam) – where today you pay about $1,000 for square foot of land – for British commitment to abandon the Run island barely 2 miles long and half a mile wide. Art of the deal?!

Back in Malacca we are surprised to find the church of Saint Francis Xavier. Like Muslim traders the Portuguese, too, brought their (Catholic) religious beliefs and with the help of Spanish Jesuit Missionary Saint Francis Xavier, tried to convert the local population. Francis built a church and a hospital, and he even stayed there with his sick patients. But to no avail. Combined with rather high taxes imposed on goods passing through and their very harsh treatment of other religions, specially violence against Moslems, the place was not very popular with traders. They voted with their feet, moving their business to other more favorable places like Aceh in Sumatra and Brunei in Borneo, while traders from the south picked Batavia in Java or Johor(Singapore) on the tip of Malay Peninsula.

It was the beginning of the end of Malacca Sultanate’ glorious days and by mid seventeenth century new comers, the Dutch conquered Malacca. But they did not do so with intentions of developing it into a regional business center, preferring instead to solidify Batavia (Jakarta) as Dutch administrative and business capital in the Southeast Asia.

In Malacca they left behind a red brick Stadthuys = City Hall, now a very interesting history museum, and a Dutch Graveyard just below the St. Paul’s Hill on the other side of historical center.

More than one hundred years later Malacca was ceded to the British in exchange for their holdings in Sumatra. This was pretty much the last nail in the coffin of Malacca’s importance. British incorporated Malacca into the fabric of Straits Settlements crown colonies in which Malacca played a rather subdued role to other two on both ends of Malacca Straits – Penang in the north and Singapore in the south.

It is interesting to see how those three British colonies fared in the recent history of de-colonization and Malaysian independence after WWII. The very complicated fabric of human tribes living on Malay Peninsula had not made for very smooth sailing. The new country’s Malay Muslim majority had a very difficult time finding balance and accommodating the Chinese majority of Singapore. Rather than compromising, they kicked Singapore out of Malaysia only a year after Malaysia was created in 1963. In spite of strong resistance that Singaporeans put up for staying in the union, the Malayan members of Parliament in Kuala Lumpur unanimously voted Singapore out. Nevertheless, you would have a hard time finding anybody in Singapore crying over it today. Good for them!

We did not plan this time to visit Singapore, a very modern and successful city state everybody reading this blog probably visited already. Instead, we followed the history of spice trade in the Malay Peninsula further north along the coast to another former British possession. First in the East India Company’s hands and later as a British Crown Colony – Penang Island and its City of Georgetown is, compared to Malacca, vibrant and projecting energy and growths of its multicultural fabric. Five Chinatowns, Little India, Armenian Quarter, Jewish Cemetery, lovely historical port and banking center. And where are the spices here? In our short stay the peak of our visit was for sure our dinner in its top notch fusion cuisine Ferringhi Garden Restaurant on the Penang’s north shore. It left us with no doubts that spices are still live and well, be it either in the East or in the West modern cuisine.

Through history the Malacca Strait itself may have experienced a decline in its share of spice trade but its importance is still visible here and even more in Singapore. Because the depth of the channel is conducive to big shipping it would probably remain one of the most important shipping lane on Earth, as its traffic is expected to rise by fifty (50!) percent in the next decade.

And the fate of Malacca fortress, the remains of which can be still seen through open windows of the Sid’s Bar? It is nothing more than a dot behind the already distinguished flame of its old glory.


Rounding the bend or peeking down a narrow alley or even just driving past a large house wall, chances are that some kind of whimsical graffiti will greet you. No ugly tagging that mars the buildings, only funny or sweet or artistic renderings that enhance them and actually bring tourists to admire them and of course take selfies in front of them. If anything, I really, really liked the street art in Malaya, also known as Peninsular Malaysia, to distinguish it from the Eastern half with much wilder Sabah and Sarawak on the Malaysian half of Borneo. We were there years back looking for the last descendants of headhunting Dayaks and stinky giant Rafflesia flowers and cute orange jungle orangutans. That was exciting!

The more sedate Peninsular Malaysia was not on my bucket list, so I kinda left it to my co-director to take the lead on what to do and see there. He bought the flight to Kuala Lumpur and booked the rental car and then said, “I think we will just wing it.”

I am not good at winging it. I like to have a plan. I like to have done my homework. If I don’t have a guidebook or two, at least I do the research on the internet, reading some blogs, finding top sights recommendations, driving itineraries and hotel possibilities. I get quite nervous if at 5 pm I don’t know where I will sleep that night. So instead of embracing the unknown, hurtling down the wrong side of the road I am oblivious to the sights outside the car window, browsing on my iPhone, alternating between driving directions and I am sorting through the maps and pamphlets I picked up at the airport’s tourist information center. There are too many hotels and too many reviews for each. And I am not even looking at Airbnbs, the hotels are so affordable and so nice, I just stick to those. Any bigger city will have on average 300. I am inputting filters and saving the favorites. The first reservation I make in this state of mind in Malacca turns out to be for the whole month ahead in a hotel that is fully booked when we arrive to check in. They kindly send us down the road to a hotel that is half the price and still really nice. As the days pass I become a little more relaxed. I bookmark a few 3* hotels with 8.0 and up rating the night before or on a long empty stretch of the road (thank goodness for T Mobile free unlimited international roaming) and then towards the evening decide which one we will drive to. The prices often get slashed further as the day progresses with last minute deals and the Genius (frequent booker) discount often giving us an additional 10% off. When we get to the reception we ask for a walk in rate, and if it is not cheaper than on we book online on the spot. I learn it is perfectly fine to save a few bucks for a room without a window, as we will only sleep there anyways, but it is better to pay a few extra bucks for a room that includes breakfast, so we don’t have to leave on an empty stomach, immediately having to look for food.

We find that the range of $25-$45 gives us incredibly good, modern and clean accommodations. The most we pay is $50 at Abdul’s Chalets for a beach cottage on Perhentian island. Originally there was no plan to go to Perhentian Islands, but winging it comes with aa great flexibility. After a quick exploration of historic Melaka with the colonial Portuguese and Dutch mark, very popular with Asian tourists

we crossed the peninsula to the East coast to the largely forgotten beaches. We are supposed to discover sleepy fishing campungs, but we find more of the new of developments and if there are fishing villages, their beaches are terribly dirty. True, it is not their garbage, it is plastic and trash that washes ashore from elsewhere. Still, it is right there, marring long golden sandy beaches for miles and miles. It is inconceivable for a country that is otherwise spotlessly clean, with a huge daily army of cleaners on the streets and along freeways, to not also clean the beaches regularly. The weirdest thing is that even the fancy 5* beach resorts with immaculate grounds and pools, do not maintain their beaches. I am at a loss.

It takes a lot of turning of blind eyes and angling the camera just so to find some Instagramable shots. Yes, Instagram is not to be trusted. Disappointed with the state of the peninsular beaches, we decide to go on an island. But which one? According to the Malaysia Travel guide published by the Ministry of Tourism and Culture they are each and every one “one of the world’s most beautiful islands with pristine beaches and world famous scuba diving paradise”. A few German travelers we meet at a restaurant (serving German sausages) help us make the decision, as they have just returned from the week long stay at Abdul’s Chalets on Perhentian Besar and loved it. In return we give them a tip for the cleanest beach on the mainland. We spend a few pleasant days on the island, the white flour beaches are clean where the active resorts are, but the corals and the visibility is greatly diminished. Snorkeling, we manage to see only one small turtle. Having visited one of the Turtle breeding grounds and knowing they release hundreds of thousands of baby turtles every year, it was surprising. I guess there is just too many boats, people and garbage for them to make it. Will we soon only be able to see turtles painted on the city walls? Let’s hope not. While Mirek was in search of places with important historic past, especially as it pertained to spice trade, I was interested in another plant – tea. So after the island we headed to the famed tea plantations of Cameron Highlands. On the way we stopped at the oldest Chinese temple in Malaysia in a village outside Musang Gua. The presence of Chinese in Malaya is quite strong and ads nice flavor and color. The temple itself was not that special, but it was set in an interesting limestone karst landscape, reminiscent of beautiful Guilin in China and traditional Chinese paintings. And it was dedicated to one of my favorite goddesses – Goddess of Mercy Quan Yin (Guanjin). Her giant statue was looking upon the temple and the green landscape from a cave across the river. Taking this route brought us to Cameron Highlands from the wrong, back side. As we were climbing up to the cooler Highlands we got caught in a sudden rainstorm. Out of the rain we saw giant alien structures emerging on all steep sides, huge constructs of plastic, glass, and steel. At first we thought it was some kind of mining operation, but then we got close enough to realize that they were giant green houses growing strawberries, vegetables and flowers. The second shock came when we started encountering countless tall apartment developments. All the many heat baked Kuala Lumpur city slickers escaping to the cooler highlands have to have a place to stay! So out the window went my romantic idea of the tea plantations. By the time we managed to fight our way to the other side of the valley for the iconic views ,the biggest one, BOH Plantation was already closed. We drank a cup of tea and disappointed on all fronts decided to scrap the plan of overnighting there and press on to Ipoh. The very windy and narrow road down was going through green jungle, blessedly still untouched by the very popular and devastating palm oil plantations. We ended up in the nicest new boutique hotel in the small town of Ipoh, that was not on our agenda, but turned out to be just great. We took the advice of the friendly hotel manager and in the morning went for an enjoyable stroll through the three Concubine Lanes with nostalgic antique stores, coffee shops and lots of street art. From there we drove to the much bigger, but still manageable George Town on Penang island. Two bridges lead to it, and of course we had to cross both. One was, according to Wikipedia, (but in total disagreement by my bridge engineer husband) inspired by the Golden Gate Bridge and the other… wasn’t. In the morning we decided to join a walking tour through the historic British and ethnic Indian and Chinese parts. The guide was excellent and funny and self deprecating and to our surprise spoke very positively about the British colonization. They brought in a lot of progress, and power, banking and institutions, he said, without them Penang would have been an insignificant village. They also brought in workforce: the Chinese and the Indians. Guess what, he was Chinese. He talked a lot about racial and religious harmony and made fun of the internal strife of Christian denominations and Chinese clans. With Muslim religion being practiced by over 60% of population, there did not seem a predominance of mosques or ostentatious displays. If there were any ostentatious displays of any kind they were in multitude tall apartment and office and hotel buildings.

Even more so, of course, in KL – Kuala Lumpur. What do you think of first when you hear Kuala Lumpur? I bet Petronas Twin Towers! We planned to skip KL and drive straight to the airport, but at the end the towers won. One can not be in Malaysia or KL and not see the towers. So very stupidly we drove into a trap on a Friday night no less. And we got stuck and lost and running out of gas. Took us three hours to find our way out of the traffic mess and to the airport. Well, we glimpsed the towers and we don’t need to go back. Not with a car, for sure!

It is not surprising to me that there are not that many Western tourist in peninsular Malaysia. While we found it quite easy to travel for the excellent roads, modern cities, affordable hotels and food, we found it hard to fall in love with. Malaya is like a nice girl next door, that your mother would like you to date. She is sweet and cute, but you are really dreaming of the exotic beauty of Miss Thailand or India.