Sunday, November 30, 2008

Big in Japan/ Photos (Day 67)

(Where am I: In Kaori's 2.5x10meter apartment in Chofu)

(What time is it: 111:15am, Sunday 30Nov, what am I listening to: Bossa 'n' Stones)

A photo is worth a thousand words, so here's my first book from Tokyo, Japan, the ultimate audio & visual candy place... Did I tell you about the food yet?

Kostas made it to Shinjuku station (apparently one of the busiest in the world)

Sure, I'll have a bit of everything - like I understand what I am eating or how much I am paying!


Dinner in TOKYO

Don't ask, just eat - Kaori ordering.... (thank God someone speaks Japanese)

City lights - Aussie hat (ok I took it off the next day)

City lights 2

City lights 3 - busy town!

Don't ask - I don't understand anyway

Poisonous Fugu fish - I am terrified - let's have one!

Ok, these are not sweets: This is Hello Kity and Snoopy dried seaweed (Nori) so the kids can eat with their rice!

A sucker for stories: The dog's name is Hachiko. So the story goes: He always used to meet his master at Shibuya train station (which is now one of the most popular meeting points in Tokyo). One day, his master died, so he (obviously) didn't show up. Hachiko, the loyal companion, was there waiting, forever...

People everywhere

Offical (un)Lonely Planet guide...

Cemetery, things are pretty quiet here...

Lunch time, note the little octapusses on the wall - thsi is fried balls with octapus pulp in them...nice

Prada temple - designed by Swiss architects (Lefka it's 5 floors... :-) )

Food heaven

Not a riot - just a normal pedestrian crossing

H&M queue... I am not kidding

Takeshima street, you have to see the T-shirt I bought!

Hello Kitty's message is clear: mind the closing door in the metro!

Lucky place...

More food, with Mikey

Perfect locations!

Of course we were there... :-)

Of course KAMIKAZE is the special tonight!

03:41 am - perfect weather for tomorrow says Kaori's mobile phone

Random Japanese dude...


Saturday, November 29, 2008

Magic, magic everywhere I look (Day 65)

On the plane to Japan, just having crossed the Equator for the second time on this trip, I am writing about the beauty & magic on this planet in small and big things alike.

(Where I am now: Japan Airlines 747, flight JO762 from Brisbane, seat 42G) Date: Fri28Nov- What time is it: now that depends, in Japan it’s: 13:21pm. What am I listening to: Japanese pop love songs which I have no clue what they mean on one of the plane’s channels)
Don’t plan, just do it, even if it involves a Phantom

Probably one of the last long-distance bus rides I will have to take; I woke up for a bus at 07:30 on Thursday to go south from Paihia to Auckland – my jump base for the next big adventure, Japan. I knew I wouldn’t be able to see much in Auckland, I got there around noon, completely exhausted from the tallying up of all these bus excursions to the North. It’s funny how you can get tired like this, even without any serious going out. Auckland is just another big city or so it seemed although as always, having a waterfront makes everything a bit more special. I checked in the surf&snow hostel, completely unimpressed by its large size and lack of common areas. I already started missing the coziness and familiarity of the Mousetrap but that’s what you usually get in big cities. In any case, I didn’t care at all, I just needed a shower and a bed for a few hours, I had to wake up at 04:30 the next day to get the airport bus and head to Brisbane, my connect airport for Tokyo Narita.

All I can tell you about Auckland is that I had a very decent chicken Masala curry in one of the food courts and headed for Albert Park near the University, to lie under a lovely blue sunny sky. I took a nap for about 2 hours, after being stuffed with food and in dire need for some sleep. The park was full of people doing the same, reading books, talking, (even “ze Germans” where there) but I was too tired to care or even notice, I was already fast asleep… I can also tell you that in Auckland you can bungy jump off the big bridge in the harbor, it’s not a terribly high drop (40m) but definitely fun, all this for the price of about 60Euros, really cheap. They had a slot for 14:30 but I decided against it. Too tired to be bothered, I just wanted to hang out and do nothing. Well that was the plan in any case.

I woke up with a slight buzz from the nap and the sun that was quite warm and decided to take a walk downtown – it was about 17:00 when I passed in front of The Civic, one of Auckland’s big theaters. Big sign, very recognizable font and picture, it was just something you expect to see in London, there it was The Phantom of The Opera on tour. Until Sunday 30th of November. Don’t ask me why or how, I just went in the box office and bought a ticket – for a ticket that cost slightly less than a bungy jump I was attending The Phantom of the Opera, one of the nicest musicals and in a great seat (even though alone). “Doors close at 19:15 so you got to be here” said the cool guy at the ticket house. “Is it ok if I come like this?” I said, pointing at my walking shoes and trousers. “Dude, this is New Zealand, you can wear anything you want…” How nice, I’d hate to be the first underdressed backpacker attending such a great play…

Quickly to the hostel, a shower and off I went, nicely on time. The guy was right, you can wear anything you want. You had the standard looking (blonde, slightly overweight) Kiwi girls wearing their “dinner dresses” but also people in jeans and T-shirts. Very relaxed. I got to my seat, full of anticipation, still mesmerized from the idea that of all things, I had one night in Auckland and decided to see a play, one I’ve always wanted to. I am not big with plays. The last time I was in one was in London with mom & George, more than 10 years ago, when we visited my cousin Andrea and she had arranged for us to see Les Miserables, one of the coolest nights of my life, I thoroughly enjoyed the music, the scenery, everything.

I got to my seat. Perfect, about 30 rows from the huge stage, dead center with no one in front of me, this was a perfect spot. No one on my right either, a reminder that some things are just meant to be done alone on this trip and even though you want to share the greatest moments, this one was to be enjoyed on my own.

Have you seen the play? Do you know the story? You must be able to recognize at least part of the music. I won’t bore you with it and in any case I can’t describe it properly but if you ever have the chance to be in London or NY go and see it. It is worth every penny. Thursday night in Auckland was one of the most amazing nights of my trip so far, an unexpected turn of fortune, doing something that I couldn’t even plan before and turning out to be simply wonderful. With almost tears in my eyes, such a romantic story, such a great performance, I clapped and clapped up to the 3rd encore, thanking again my luck for having the chance to pull off this journey and being able to see so many wonderful things. “I am happy”, I thought to myself, no need to say more.

Wake up, lose your luggage and get the best cabin service you’ve ever seen in your life.
I didn’t sleep much. Too hyped from the play and unable to tell anyone about it (…) I simple stayed up until 2am, surfing a bit the internet and walking around town till midnight and then trying to fall asleep in the hostel. Impossible, I was thinking of my next stop… Japan!

I took the 04:30 am bus to the airport and was well in advance to check in for my connect flight to Brisbane (I told you I would be back in Australia…) and from there to Tokyo.
“Can you please put a HOT or RUSH sticker on my back please, I only have 50 minutes of stopover before my next flight to Tokyo?” I asked at the counter.
“Ah, I wouldn’t worry about that Luv, it will go through” she said with her Kiwi accent. Yeah right…. Memories of missed Dubai connections in Germany came to my mind… If it happens, it happens I thought to myself and wrote Kaori’s Tokyo address (obviously with Latin characters) on my bag expecting the worst.

Of course if something can go wrong it will, so after as shitty 3-hour Qantas flight with a cramped 737-400 (ok they had good breakfast) the pilot informed us that there’s “congestion” over Brisbane so we have to wait for a while before landing. I got through the landing gate in Brisbane 10 minutes AFTER the boarding had started for my Tokyo flight. Next to us was a huge JAL Jumbo jet. “My plane!” I thought. Undaunted I made my way to the Gate, people still going through. I made it, but NO WAY in hell my luggage did. 10 minutes into the huge Jumbo they told us to fasten the seatbelts. My bag is chilling in laid-back Brisbane for sure. Maybe it’s even doing a river tour for all I know. Obviously I don’t know this for a fact since I am still on the plane but I have my baggage tracking number in my pocket in any case. I also have a couple of T-shirts and underwear stuffed in my hand-luggage, since I was completely convinced that this wouldn’t work. Let’s see…

747 Jumbo jets are always impressive. From the moment you get in and glance at the staircase leading up to First class to the fact that you have a 3-4-3 seat configuration in two aisles and row numbers going back to number 60, this plane is big! This one is even more fun! First of all the cabin crew is Japanese (obviously) so immediately you get this strange feeling that you are going somewhere very different. The best part is the safety video which of course is primarily in Japanese and is a… cartoon!

Actually I lied. The best thing is the overall service. Cabin crew extremely efficient and polite, fast and responsive, sure, the fact that the plane is only half full helps but it’s the attitude that counts.

Example 1: Food. Am I in heaven? I am getting served noodles, beef and egg-fried rice, even ginger and desert. Did I mention the 2 bloody Mary’s and the Asahi beer I drank prior to lunch? I looked at the time and it was only 08:30. Well in NZ where I came from it was lunch time so bring it on! They even had Miso soup (that’s seaweed soup for those that wonder if I’ve completely lost my mind) Can’t wait to hit the food stalls in Tokyo! Banzaiiii

Example 2: Ok, this I have never ever ever seen in my life. Near my seat there are two gaijin (white…) little kids that are unaccompanied (or so it seems). You know, the typical challenge, how do you keep them busy and shut them up in an 8hour flight when they have already seen Kung-Fu Panda and whatever other cartoon they are playing on the entertainment system. Well forget the drawing pad and crayons that you get in European flights, this is JAPAN. The airhostess comes up to the little girl with a big plastic envelope of beautiful colored paper and some charts… It’s origami time!!! (you know, paper folded to make anything you can imagine) Astonished, I look at the 5-year old take out the charts and slowly start folding the papers into little birds, dinosaurs, boats whatever you can imagine.

Big deal you might think, it’s just like in Europe. No it’s not. Not when the airhostess actually kneels on her knees, on the aisle next to the kid and for the next 30 minutes she’s trying to teach the little girl on how to do beautiful origami swans, without any instructions. I am just sitting there, all smiles staring at them wondering how much magic exists in simple little things… I am completely finished off when she stands up and returns with the sewing kit from business class, passing a thread through the swans so the little girl can hang them up…

I think I am going to ask her out to dinner before I get off this plane even if her EngRish is not very good.

That’s it for now… magic everywhere as long as you have the eyes to see it.


(my bag is still in Brisbane)

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Aoatearoa means the Island of the Long Cloud (also known as New Zealand) (Day 63)

After a couple of days of decent weather I get the chance to discover the true natural beauty of NZ and understand a bit more about the magical Maori culture.

(Where I am now: The Mousetrap, last night in the cool hostel in the little town of Paihia, pop 6452)
Date: Wed26Nov- What time is it: 23:03pm.
What am I listening to: Bob Marley – So much trouble in the world)

This is where New Zealand was born.
I woke up yesterday very early from the birds singing on the trees outside the hostel – they had every reason to do it, it was a nice sunny day outside and the night before this “monsoon” type rain was falling non-stop until I went to bed.

I booked over the phone a trip to the Hole in the Rock, it’s a wonderful boat trip around the Bay of Islands where you get to pass with the boat through a “Hole in the Rock” (how predictable) but also to see dolphins swimming around the bays– that was around noon.

I had plenty of time so I decided to walk around Paihia and visit the Whatanangi historical site. This is where New Zealand was born. Some history: Captain Cook arrived in the ship Endeavor in 1770. The Polynesian people, predominantly the Maori where already there for about 400 years. In 1840 the treaty of Whatanangi was signed between Britain and Maori chiefs and NZ fell under British rule. That’s the place I visited. Lovely maintained grounds and a mixture of British colonial images with Maori culture, the impression I’ve had so far from NZ is that the Maori have had it far better than the Aborigines in Australia that had been systematically exterminated and oppressed. Maori language is everywhere, spreading and used even by “whites”.
Among other things you get to see there is a giant “waka” (that’s Maori for war canoe), a Maori guest house (like a temple) and a tree planted in 1836 by the wife of James Busby, one of the men that negotiated the treaty. You will see me leaning against that tree – it’s “only” 172 years old this year…

Dolphins and bad weather… and your life through a viewfinder or screen.
Hole in the Rock was more like a hole in the water (as the greek expression goes) since the weather was quite bad and pretty windy – we could not approach the Hole in the Rock I did get however to see dolphins, 6 of them, a big family just swimming next to us playfully. It’s a nice boat ride, on a catamaran that takes you around the islands in search for dolphins. I was already happy to be in the sea again with some reasonable sunshine. And then we spotted them. Oh the excitement, everybody running on the one side of the boat, digital camera at hand, arm extended into the water to try and “capture the moment”. I followed, just for one minute.

“You are missing the point!” I thought to myself completely cut off from the side of the boat where the dolphins were swimming. I have seen it before, the past 2 months, I have even done it myself. We go to this place (no matter what it is), this site or landscape and the first thing we try to do is take a photo. Keep that camera in your pocket damn it and understand the through your own eyes, not the viewfinder what you are looking at. I remember it in Iguazu at the waterfalls. A show of roaring sound and wonderful mist caressing your face and all people wanted to do is protect the lenses of their cameras and get “in position” for the right shot. And again in Sydney, I remember it clearly happening to myself, the moment I made that turn at the Bridge to see the Opera House right in front of me, I wept from happiness and only then did I take the camera out and film those few seconds of video. I know it takes practice and determination, but it’s not the photo that lasts forever, it’s the fact that you were there. You, not your camera. You can always send someone else to take that picture or download one from the internet (just like I did for you here to see the Hole in the Rock). More on this on the trip I did today to Cape Reinga… I got back home in the afternoon and after shopping for some postcards I ended up at the hostel eating (the backpackers’ staple food) instant noodles and watching Minority Report.

Another trip, the last one in NZ: Cape Reinga.
Another early wake up today – bus picked me up at 07:15 to take us to Cape Reinga. Please get a map or look at the little one I’ve attached. We started at Paihia (bottom right) and ended up in the most northern tip of New Zealand – a 250km ride (one way) out of which half was on a gravel road and IN a river (no joke). The bus was actually a modified truck, with a bus cubicle on it, that could take us off road, on road, any road…

We passed on the way fabulous places with wondful Maori names Kerikeri (which means DigDig, because this was very fertile land in the past) and the Huhury (noisy water) waterfalls. First stop Manginangina and (what remains) of a Kauri forest. Kauri trees are the oldest trees on Earth. Some are more than 4000 years old. I kid you not, the one I am proudly leaning against is only a bit more than 500 years old and 40 meters high and you cannot understand its size or how majestic it is unless you see it with your own eyes. Again my point about the camera…

Our driver’s joke talking about sheep in NZ: These sheep you see here are a cross-breed for meat and wool. They also are special because they can eat the weeds without getting sick. We have also tried although unsuccessfully, with the Australians, to cross-breed our sheep with their Kangaroos to get some wooly jumpers…

A story for Vasilis (and not only) – love the forest, it will love you back
Once upon a time, the famous Maori chief Rata called upon all his warriors and asked for help to get the remains of his father that had died in a battle with another tribe. He said he would go and ask for the remains but if they weren’t given to him, everybody would have to fight to the death to get them back. Everyone agreed. Chief Rata undertook the responsibility to build a mighty “waka” (war canoe), so he went into the forest and found the greatest, biggest Kauri tree to make the waka. He spent the whole day trying to chop it down, an incredibly difficult task since the tree was enormous. Finally at the end of the day, the tree fell down. Exhausted, he staggered out of the forest back to his village to rest. The next day, he took all his tools with him to start working on the waka and he went into the forest but he could not find the tree he had cut. He looked and looked without success, only to decide that he made a mistake and lost the path he had originally taken the previous day.

He looked again and found yet another Kauri tree, equally big and wonderful as the previous one. He spent the whole day until sundown cutting it until it fell to the ground. This time though he decided not to make the same mistake, so as moved out of the forest the left a trail of stones behind him to make sure he finds it the next day. Again, the next day, he prepared all his tools and followed the trail he had left only to find to his great anger and surprise that the tree was back in its original place, untonuched and as big & beautiful as ever.

Furious now, he started cutting it again and the tree eventually fell but this time he wanted to see what happened to the tree, so he pretended to head back to his village and hid for the night behind some other trees to see what was going to happen. To his great amazement, he saw all the animals in the forest, even the insects and birds picking up all the little pieces of the Kauri and putting them back in place. And then he saw Tana, the forest God blow life again into the majestic Kauri tree.

“Why? Why is this happening to me?!” he cried in despair! I only want to honor my father and help my tribe. At that point a little Fantail bird came up to him (they still follow you around in the forest) and told him: “You are trying to do the right thing but you have not asked permission to cut the Kauri tree from Tana, you must respect the forest and it will help you”. Rata understood and went back and got the most precious whale bone he had that was with his family for generations and offered it to Tana. The forest God never talked to the humans but this time he told Rata that the forest will now help him. As the Kauri tree fell, all the animals in the forest gathered around to help build the waka. It was so beautiful, the birds made sure it had wonderful designs and patterns, the insects took care of the gluing, at the end it was the most wonderful waka men had ever seen.

Chief Rata and his men boarded the waka and headed for the other tribe’s village determined to win back his father’s remains. But the enemy tribe was waiting for him and ambushed him. As they approached to attack the waka, so much was their surprise and admiration for the wonderful canoe that they just stopped, captivated from the waka’s beauty and put down their weapons. The enemy chief got worried when he didn’t hear any battle cries from his men and went to see what happened only to also get enthralled by the beautiful canoe… and that’s how Rata got his father’s remains back without no one being killed… Love the forest and it will help you…

Cape Reinga: The Edge of the world and the (Underworld)
Some places are magical, you don’t need to be religious or god-fearing, they are made special by their location, their beauty or their significance. Cape Reinga is one of those. For me, simply because it represents the end of a long trek in this side of the world – by touching the most northern part of this wonderful island I am now at the “edge of the world”. Also for its beauty, the amazing green scenery and views as this is the place where the Pacific Ocean in the East and the Sea of Tasman in the West meet – it has more than purely symbolic value.

For the Maori, this is where their souls are taken. Regardless where you die, your soul is taken to Cape Reinga where it is tested to see if you were a good person or not. If you were, your soul gets wings and flies, if not it falls into the sea to be devoured by a sea monster. As the guide said:”You don’t need to believe it but you got to respect it, so no food on the Maori holy ground”. Respect.
We got there after 40km of terrible roads – this is a place only for a 4x4 vehicle (and to my great surprise for some crazy motorcycle fans!) Less than a kilometer away from the Cape, full of anticipation and excitement to be at the “edge of the world” we were completely covered by one of the most thick mists I have ever seen.
Visibility zero. Again, disappointed faces all around, ah that missed photo opportunity. Apparently what happened is very rare – it is always windy at the Cape, you get fog probably 3 days every year… I saw nothing of the great sea, nothing of the merging of the Oceans, a big white cloud had surrounded everything around me. But I didn’t care. I could hear the roaring ocean and felt the mist on my face and glasses. And at the end I was there: Latitude 34°, 25.7’ South, Longtitude 172°, 40.6’East. The edge of the world. I looked around, let the sound and humidity cover me and just imagined the deep blue sea. The rest, I can get on a postcard…

Cape Reinga - edge of the world. Latitude 34°, 25.7’ South, Longtitude 172°, 40.6’East.

A real Waka

Birthplace of New Zealand

Amazing NZ scenery

This is the most Northern toilet in this country :-)

One of the beaches on the way back(no filters or photoshop)


Cape Reinga, most northern point

This is what it looks like with goodd weather :-)

Hole in the Rock

The 90-mile beach (i need to tell you more) is a place where many people have lost their cars from the tide (this is/was a Ford Cortina)

Bay of Islands...

Maori visitor house (with visitor)