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ABOUT THIS BLOG

In the summer of 2009, Nicolas Rapp decided to take a break from his Art Director job at The Associated Press to attempt a one-year overland travel around the world in a 1996 Toyota Land Cruiser. He was back in New York in February 2011 after traveling 15 months and 37,000 miles.

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  • A country of ninjas and striking beauty

    Posted on January 11th, 2011 Nicolas No comments
    Kinkaju-Ji hall in Kyoto.

    Kinkaju-Ji hall in Kyoto.

    I have to say, I don’t think the picture I took in Japan really reflect the beauty of the country. But I will still try to share these images with you, and you will have to use your imagination. In my last post, I was still in Osaka, on my way to Kyoto. Later on, I arrived in Tokyo where I spent five days visiting the city. Since, I made it back to the United States and I am in Los Angeles since Saturday. My American adventures will be for the next post, but I just wanted to let you know, dear readers, that I was back for good in the USA.

    Nijo castle, Kyoto

    Nijo castle, Kyoto

    When I arrived in Kyoto, I check-in a small “Ryokan”. A Ryokan is a traditional local accommodation, similar to a guesthouse and nicer than a hotel, as it allows you to sleep in an old wooden Japanese house and benefit from the knowledge of the family running it. (Guesthouse Roujiya , 3,000 yen per night in a dorm)
    I stay two nights in the city, and most of the time I am out in the snow visiting temples and the oldest neighborhoods.

    New Year's pilgrimage in a Kyoto temple.

    New Year's pilgrimage in a Kyoto temple.

    Even so it is cold, I am lucky to visit these sites in the wintertime. It is really stunning to be able to enjoy the view of the temples, shrines and lakes under the snow and frozen in ice. This is really something to not miss and I am glad I decided to stop by Japan even so I am without my trusted vehicle. The fact that the country was closed to the outside world for so long really helped Japan to develop an architecture, a culture and way of living very different from the rest of the world.

    The most handsome visitor ticket I got so far during my trip.

    The most handsome visitor ticket I got so far during my trip.

    The first day I spend visiting some temples in the heart of the city. The most gorgeous to discover is probably the Kinkaju-Ji with its gold hall seeming to float on a lake. The evening, as all the others night, I spend time finding cheap restaurants. Food prices are high, and as I mentioned earlier, you cannot find accommodation at least than US$30 in the country.

    The Kinkaju-Ji in Kyoto.

    The Kinkaju-Ji in Kyoto.

    The second day I go for a hike up in the hills in the city periphery, in the area called Arashimaiya. There also, the snow covers trails and bamboo forests. It is a very peaceful walk uphill, which concludes with the Adashino Nembutsu-Ju temple where thousands of statues cram the ground.

    Adashino Nembutsu-Ju stone statues.

    Adashino Nembutsu-Ju stone statues.

    On the sidewalk in the Gion District.

    On the sidewalk in the Gion District.

    In the hills above Kyoto.

    Following a trail in the hills above Kyoto.

    Kyoto at night is charming as well, especially the east part of town where the historical center lays. In the Gion district, it is easy to get lost in the narrow alleys packed with old houses and traditional restaurants. Once in a while you can spot geishas, who are women dressed traditionally and trained to entertain men with conversation, singing and dancing.

    Alley in the old Kyoto.

    Alley in the old Kyoto.

    As always, people are very nice, and I meet residents quickly in one of the hole-in-the-wall restaurants. Soon I am sharing drinks with smiling strangers and ordering food by pointing to dishes I see on people’s tables.

    Back in time on the Kamo-Gawa west bank.

    Back in time on the Kamo-Gawa west bank.

    The long-distance buses are all full because of the New Year’s holidays, so I have no choice but take a ticket in the bullet train leaving frequently for Tokyo. At $150 it is costly, but it is also a very convenient way to cover the 500 km (315 miles) between the two cities. There’s a train leaving every seven minutes, and in less than two-hours-and-a-half, I reach the capital.

    Walking in the business center in Tokyo at sunset.

    Walking in the business center in Tokyo at sunset.

    This is an experience by itself to take one of these trains reaching speeds of 300 km/h (188mi/h). Even with such frequency, the train is crowded and I have to stand for much of the trip. We can only wish the train system would be similar in the U.S. The landscape north of Kyoto is stunning

    Training in a Tokyo park.

    Training in a Tokyo park.

    The Audi tower in west Tokyo.

    Audi tower in west Tokyo.

    In Tokyo I use the modern subway to reach my guesthouse (Sakura Hotel, 3,150 yen a night) and discover the dorm where I will stay for the next few days. From there, I leave every morning to explore the city neighborhoods. It is an interesting place, and I find it quite difficult to select the places to discover at first because of the city many centers. Regardless, it is great to go back and forth between the modern and traditional areas and spend time in the many parks. I meet David – a Canadian guy – at the guesthouse, and we go together to discover the city restaurants and bars.

    Temple in Tokyo.

    Temple in Tokyo.

    The temples are crowded due to “Shogatsu”. This is the most important holiday of the year, and families gather together to visit shine and temples. The tradition is to go to at least three of these places, and there are long lines you can spot from far away all over the city.

    Omikuji – Fortune papers tied outside a temple.

    Omikuji – Fortune papers tied outside a temple.

    People pray and read their fortunes on pieces of paper they find in wooden boxes near the shrines. Then they tie the paper in knot on lines outside the temple.

    Crowded street in a Shibuya street.

    Crowded street in a Shibuya street.

    But everything is not a traditional sight in Tokyo, and young people know how to have fun. You can spot many of them around Shibuya where you can barely walk down the streets packed with people in their twenties wearing fashionable clothes.

    Fashion in important in Tokyo.

    Fashion is important in Tokyo.

    I frequently end up at nightfall in the Golden Gai area, a network of small alleys packed with tiny bars and small restaurants. Many businesses there don’t accept foreigners, but if you hang around long enough, you can find fabulous places.

    The Golden Gai area. Dozens of bars in each alley.

    The Golden Gai area. Dozens of bars in each alley.

    Mysterious place.

    Mysterious place.

    Ninja cocktail.

    Ninja cocktail.

    With my new friend, we can spend hours there speaking with locals. Japanese are very kind people, and the younger ones tend to speak more English. We are very curious about the intriguing culture of the country and we never stop asking questions on subject as crazy as ninjas… Nights finish after the last subway and we walk for hours to go back to the hotel and avoid the horrendous taxi fees.

    A bar in the Golden Gai area.

    A bar in the Golden Gai area.

    What we learn is that ninjas – and Kunoichi their female counterparts – were some kind of mercenary spies who probably disappeared in the 18th century. The barman explains everything about them to us, and even creates an original ninja cocktail to conclude the night. Few days after I would come back and noticing he was serving this new cocktail to other clients. This is how you leave your mark in a country.

    Drawings were always a great way of communicating while I was traveling.

    Drawings were always a great way of communicating while I was traveling.

    Soon it is time for me to prepare my bags. Sadly this is the last foreign country I will be before going back home. Of course there are mixed feelings about going back, but I try to not think about it much. One of the followers of the blog, Scott, found a way to get me a very cheap flight ticket to Los Angeles arriving during the week-end and I say good-bye to Asia as my plane take-off in the afternoon.

    Tokyo at night.

    Tokyo at night.

    Later during the week I hope to update you about my trip back to the western world, so stay tuned!

  • Through the winter in Northeast Asia

    Posted on January 3rd, 2011 Nicolas No comments
    Playing video games in Osaka.

    Playing games in Osaka.

    Of course in Seoul it is very cold as well. The city is very modern and I am impressed by the services offered in the subway, for example. There are terminals to access the internet for free, giant touch screen to get information and maps, devices to disinfect your hands and all sort of other gadgets. A lot of people speak English in Korea as well, which makes it easy to find my way around.

    Some kind of giant iPhone facilitates the navigation.

    Some kind of giant iPhone facilitates the navigation.

    I am lucky enough to be invited to stay at the apartment of the parents of Jenni, an AP ex-colleague. Wherever I go to discover the city, I have to do it fast, because it is really cold out. Unfortunately the weather will make the visit of the capital uncomfortable as it is difficult to spend time out.
    Everybody is completely wired, and as I take the subway, I am the only one not watching TV on my cell phone or playing video games. Again, quite a contrast with what I have seen in this trip. It looks like half of the planet’s population is trying to get enough to eat and the other half live in a virtual reality.

    In the hills. is there someone behind me?

    In the hills. is there someone behind me?

    The snow and cold doesn’t stop me to go out the following day and visit COEX, the largest underground mall in Asia. No wonder it is located in Korea given the winter temperatures… Later I change scenery and go up in the hills to reach some kind of mountain village just a few minutes away from downtown Seoul.

    Seoul, seen from the hills.

    Seoul, seen from the hills.

    It’s Kuisadang, located on the slope of Mount Inwang. The royal national shrine where shaman rituals are conducted to this day is a beautiful place in a city that I find quite dull. Maybe it is the period of the year. Between Christmas and New Year’s, there’s not much happening, and most attractions are closed.

    On mount Inwang.

    On mount Inwang.

    It is pleasant to be among the trees, climbing paths and watching frozen streams in the quiet afternoon. Soon, I have to go back down because of the chilly wind. Dumplings will be my lunch.
    In the evenings, I go with Jenni’s brother to the public baths. It is quite an interesting place, and I should describe how it is since I don’t have picture. These bath houses are usually located in basement of buildings. A lot of Koreans use the service, but I hear that the younger ones now don’t go as often as they became more uncomfortable with nudity. I imagine it is one of the effects of globalization.

    Downtown Seoul. The city calls itself "The soul of Asia". Overstatement?

    Downtown Seoul. The city calls itself "The soul of Asia". Overstatement?

    Anyhow, it cost you US$5 to go in, and as you pay, a locker key is given to you. There’s a male and women section, and when you find your locker, you get entirely naked and go to the next room. There you find different water pools which temperatures ranging from cold to very hot. My Lonely Planet guidebook described a feeling they call exhilarating when switching from cold bath to hot bath and all over again. Let me tell you I spent way more time in the hot bath… You also visit dry or humid sauna rooms with temperatures ranging from 60C to 100C (140 to 212 Fahrenheit).

    Statue of King Sejong.

    Statue of King Sejong.

    Before and after the baths, there are showers where you can wash. Soap, shampoo and toothbrushes are supplied. Quite a nice place to relax after a day spent wandering around.

    Typical Korean meal.

    Typical Korean meal.

    Korean food is at my taste as well. Bulgogi which is barbecued beef is one of my favorite meals since a long time, and I also like bibimbap which is a bowl of rice topped with sautéed vegetables, an egg and chili pepper paste.

    Typical street in downtown Seoul, a modern city.

    Typical street in downtown Seoul, a modern city.

    After few days in the capital, I decide to seek a warmer weather in the south of the country. I take a train to Gyeongju, a city on the east coast of Korea which used to be the capital until 935 AD. My ride is one of these bullet trains so common in Asia and developed by French engineers. It is very quick to get to my destination as speed – displayed in the cars – was averaging 260 km/h (160 mi/h) when I looked at it.

    Gyeongju. Tumulus in the heart of the city.

    Gyeongju. Tumulus in the heart of the city.

    The main features of old Gyeongju and the easiest to access without a vehicle are Tumulus which are grass-covered burial grounds spread all over the city. Those are similar and serve the same purpose than Egyptians pyramids, but smaller. Most of the building activity seems to have happened around 500 AD, and restoration and excavation work only began in the 20th century.

    Elegant temple.

    Elegant temples.

    It’s still not Florida here, and I spend my first night in a freezing guesthouse dorm. This will be the kind of accommodation I will use until I get back to the United States. It is just a brief stop I do in Gyeongju as I leave by bus the day after to reach the close city of Busan, few hundred kilometers only from the Japanese coast.

    Tumulus after snow falls in the night.

    Tumulus after snow falls in the night.

    As I arrive I try to make a reservation on the following day ferry to south Japan. All the overnight ferries are full, and many of them are not running the following days because of the New Year. Finally, I decide to take the Beetle, a fast ferry getting to destination in few hours (US$130).

    Before and after the “Trans World Expedition” effect.

    Before and after the “Trans World Expedition” effect.

    For my last night in Korea, I decide to go get Korean barbecue one more time. As always, I meet some people in the restaurant and they invite me to try a selection of local drinks. This is one thing that is amazing when you travel alone. You are constantly invited to share a table with people, and locals are way more likely to speak with you then when you are with fellow travelers.
    In the morning I get to the ferry terminal only to get annoying news. The weather is too bad for the boat to depart as the sea is rough between the two countries. Once again I am a victim of the weather.

    Downtown Osaka, Japan.

    Downtown Osaka, Japan.

    But soon enough, and thanks to the free Wi-Fi networks present everywhere in Korea, I am able to book a plane ticket leaving in the afternoon to Osaka. Too bad I will have to scratch my plans to visit Hiroshima, but at least I am on the move and will be able to spend more time in the Kyoto area.

    Osaka. You may find food, drinks and cigarettes in vending machines scattered all over the city.

    You may find food, drinks and cigarettes in vending machines scattered all over the city.

    After a bumpy flight I arrive in Osaka in the early evening. Taking the train from the airport, I get in the city center and find my guesthouse. As I go get dinner, I identify the next challenge: finding cash. For some reason, the Japanese banking system remained unusually closed to global transactions, and it is difficult to get money from ATMs with a foreign credit card. I am able to find a restaurant where I can pay with the card, but I will have to find a solution soon to this problem.
    One of the most intriguing things in Japan is the smoking rule. At the opposite of the occidental laws, it seems that you can’t smoke in cities outdoors, but you enjoy more freedom in indoors public space. For example, there are many places where you can’t smoke in the street, but it is allowed in restaurant, bars, public baths or video game arcades. Strange…

    People of all ages spend a lot of time in video game arcades.

    People of all ages spend a lot of time in video game arcades.

    The following day I put together all of the cash I have from the countries I visited previously. I still have a lot of Thai Bahts, and with my Malaysian Ringgits, Indian Rupees and Bangladeshi Thakas, I should be alright for a while. It turns out that money changers are not interested by the Indian and Bangladeshi money, but I still get enough money from them to check-in in a capsule hotel for the night and get dinner and a few drinks. Which is significant since it is December 31st and I shall go out at least until midnight. Osaka is a city of three-million people an offer a nice preview of Tokyo.

    New Year’s Eve in a capsule hotel.

    New Year’s Eve in a capsule hotel.

    Inside the capsule. TV provided if you are willing to pay.

    Inside the capsule.

    These hotels are very economical on Japanese standards, as you can get a bed for US$34 on the shelves of a well located hotel. Capsule hotels are unique to Japan. There you find many small “rooms” which are called capsules, the goal being to provide economical lodging. The plastic capsules size to a modular plastic or fiberglass is around 6 feet x 3 feet x 3 feet (2 meters x 1 m x 1 m). It does provide enough room to sleep comfortably. TV above your bed is provided if you are willing to pay. There are vending machine and Laundromat everywhere as well as free baths similar to the one I saw in Korea. Cost for one night: US$ 33 in one of the 400 Asahi Plaza Shinsaibashi capsule. I am sure the concept would work in New York City.

    Hole-in-the-wall shop in Osaka.

    Hole-in-the-wall shop in Osaka.

    Osaka alley.

    Osaka alley.

    Everything is expensive in Japan. Prices for everything are higher than in the U.S. You can hardly have simple dinner for less than $US 25. Surprisingly, very few Japanese people speak English which makes it difficult to communicate in everyday situation. One of the consequences is that most of the time I have no idea what I order in restaurants. And even after eating, I still have no idea what it was. But it is pretty good!
    I spend New Years Eve evening in an Irish bar, but even here, it is very quiet. Apparently this holiday is the equivalent of Thanksgiving Day in the U.S., and most people like to spend it with their family. Christmas is the opposite, and people go out with friends for the occasion.

    Fish shop in a Osaka food market.

    Fish shop in a Osaka food market.

    In the morning, I leave the hotel and take a train ticket to Kyoto which is only a 45 minutes ride from Osaka.

    About Los Angeles, U.S.A.
    Few people have expressed interest in meeting me in Los Angeles. I have a stand-by ticket on the Delta Airlines flight 284 arriving at LAX @ 8:40am on Sunday January 9, 2011. There was some discussion about maybe getting breakfast after that, but everything is up in the air. If interested you should contact Han Duong on one of these emails: duong_viet_thuan_han@yahoo.com or hduong1@uci.edu . Thanks to everyone offering accommodation in the city, but I will stay at my old friends Andy and Michelle place.
    I will be pretty busy in L.A. as I will have to work on the clearance of the truck and do some minor work on it as well, but will also be willing to meet for drinks later in the week. I will post information on the website.
    My father should join me in the city and we will cross the U.S. together. Las Vegas is the likely destination when we leave the coast.