Tag Archives: travel

This Happened to Me, On Medium

I finally figured out what to post over on Medium. I wanted to have a story that would stand alone as it’s own – not a short snapshot or an passing thought but something more substantial. Blog posts on everwas are part of a continuing narrative, posts on Medium are short stories. They must be written to stand alone, without context and part of the assigned or crowd sourced collections on that platform.

My story is about a trip I took to Guatemala when I was a student at UC Berkeley. Finca de Mike – Stumbling across beauty & terror in the jungles of Guatemala

Tikal - Guatemala

Tikal, Guatemala in the late-80’s

What to do in Tokyo?

An old friend is visiting Tokyo and asked for recommendations. I often get this kind of question (I lived there for 10 years and am half-Japanese)  so for future reference, to point people in the future (and a place to park any follow up suggestions in the comments) I’ll put my recommendations here in this post. Here’s the (slightly edited) request:

I’d love some advice on what you’d do if you had Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. ( I’m ignoring that we’ll be tired!) I’d love to head out of Tokyo by train (maybe take bullet train someplace, I have not been on it). Some art and shopping but mostly seeing/experiencing things.

Here’s my response.  Feel free to add your own tidbits or call bullshit in the comments:

Basically for the short time you’re there, forget the Bullet train. Odawara is the first stop on the Bullet and while it has a castle, you don’t want to spend a day just to see that. Kyoto is worth a trip but it’s a three hour trip each way and you don’t want to be rushed to see the city – it requires a relaxed, peaceful pace.

So basically you’re in town from Saturday night, checking out Wednesday. Here’s the plan:

Hotel.

If you want something Japanese, try Meguro Gajoen, it’s on the right side of the city to the modern sights you want to see but will still give you a feel for a grand old Japanese hotel. They say that one of the rooms was the inspiration for a scene in the animated film, Spirited Away.  Ask to be put in a room where you can sleep on tatami. Trip Advisor has some write-ups with links to things to do in the neighborhood (Parisitological Museum? Maybe. Japan Folk Crafts Museum? Defintely!) and here’s a longer review from 2006.

Saturday:

It’ll take you at least a couple of hours to get from the airport to the city so I’ll leave the day open.

For your first night out, ask the concierge for a decent Ramen place for noodles. If you want to make it into a quest, read this NY Times piece to get in the mood. Once you have Ramen in Japan, you’ll never eat it anything like it. An alternative, if you feel really hungry, there’s a fried pork cutlet place called Tonki that prepares their meals in an open kitchen which is operating room clean – be sure to get a seat at the counter, it’s quite a production.

Depending on how tired you are, you can head over to Aoyama for some Jazz at the Blue Note or Body & Soul or try out some of the nightclubs in the area. I used to hang out a Yellow but I see they closed. Roppongi’s a bit of a dive but the Pit Inn is a Jazz institution too but if you really want to blow your socks off, catch the show at Kingyo. It’s a weird, only-in-Japan cross between a gay cabaret and Kabuki that is truly unique (get the hotel to reserve this for you in advance).

Sunday:

Head on over to Harajuku (on the Yamonote line) to soak in the street scene. Don’t miss the Rock-a-billy dancers in Yoyogi park and then head on down Omotesando which is basically Tokyo’s equivalent of the Champs-Elysees. Be sure to wind your way back into the side streets to. There’s one that runs to the right, just after (it might be before) Tokyo Kiddyland, the toy store (which you must see). The street is built over a river so it winds it’s way in a gentle zig-zag promenade.

Continue down that street and you’ll make your way to Shibuya, the next station down the line. If you’ve been checking out the boutiques along the way, it’ll be a good couple of hours.

Continue down, either on foot or by train to the next stop, Ebisu. There are tons of restaurants around here so take your pick and find something you like.

Monday:

OK, I guess you have time for one trip out of town a bit. Kamakura is just 90 mins to the Southwest so if you leave around 9am (missing the morning rush hour) you can make it down there in time to spend a good few hours there. Here’s a site which talks about all that you can see, I recall a hike from temple to temple was real beautiful but forgot how long that took. Try and get back on a train by 4pm or so to avoid the rush hour again and take the train back to Yurakucho so you can get off and walk the Ginza.

While there, try a fancy bar, Star Bar is one and I’ll add more links to this post as I remember them. I’ve never been but Sushi Saito I think is the only sushi place that won three Michelin stars, it’s also in the Ginza.

Since it’s early in the week, you might even be able to squeeze in and visit with my favorite nomiya, Enoki, which is tucked right next the tracks at Shibuya station. You usually need someone to introduce you but if you act nice and it’s not too crowded, you might be able to squeeze in. The conversation there is always lively.

Tuesday:

It’s your last day, what can I say? If you’re jet-lagged and still getting up early, hit the Tskiji fish market.

During the day, visit my old neighborhood, Nezu. It’s on the Chiyoda subway line so best to ask directions from the hotel on how to navigate. It’s over on the East side of the city in a old neighborhood that didn’t get bombed out. You want to walk from Nezu station towards Ueno station but make your way via the side streets, the little back alleys are charming and you may even spot an old hand-pump well if you’re lucky.

Near Shinobazu Pond is the Shitamachi museum which will give you a feel for what it was like to live in Tokyo back before the war. It’s a small museum but kinda neat because you really get a sense of what it was like back then.

Make your way one stop North of Ueno on the Yamanote line to Okachimachi and you’re in basically the bargin bin of the city. If you’re looking for weird gifts, here’s a good place to check out stuff. If you’re into books, Jimbocho is a great place to browse old books and maybe pick up a woodblock print or two. The latest gadgets can be had at Akihabara but it’s a bit of an otaku freak zone now.  The Yodobashi camera next to the station has everything you need.

Or skip the hubub of shopping and head back over to the jet-set side of town and take the Chiyoda line back over to Omotesando to Radio Bar on Aoyama-dori. This is an institution.

There’s so much more to see – this is only the beginning but hopefully it’ll give you an idea of the city. Enjoy and check back for updates to this post!

Further Reading:

Cheesecake for Breakfast

I just got back from two weeks vacation in Paris with the Izumi and the kids. We opted to spend all our time in one place and rented an apartment so that we could soak in the rhythms of daily life in the city at our own pace. As an American from Silicon Valley, two weeks in one go seemed positively decadent but after experiencing a Finnish winter, I now understand why two, if not four weeks at a go is a Finnish right.

Parisians have created a wonderful alternate reality, a rose-colored bubble to keep out the noisy efficiency of the 21st century. The Paris we experienced mostly doesn’t know about sweatshirts or bulk food. It’s important to look good to keep up the illusion. It’s OK, if not preferred,  to wear bright red slacks and a shirt with white cuffs. People pull this off naturally, without looking the least bit pompous. When you visit a cafe, water comes to your table not rationed out in plastic cups but in functional stemware and a recycled wine carafe that says, “please rest easy, stay awhile.”

The bistros overflow not with tourists but locals, taking long, chatty lunches with co-workers or clients over home cooked meals that you need to slice with a knife and fork, all washed down with cool Rose and finished off with dessert and a demi-tasse of coffee. People eat to share the experience, not stuff something in the gut to stave off hunger. This is not the land of pizza slices or Subway food logs. Even the ice cream is artfully crafted into a bouquet to be marveled at before it is consumed.

Our apartment was in the Marias, a fashionable district on the right bank, (3ème Arrondissement if you must). Home to the Place des Vogues where Victor Hugo took and apartment and Henry II was mortally wounded with a lance to the eye while jousting to celebrate his daughter’s wedding. The surrounding area is fashionably hip and reminded us of Daikanyama or Aoyama in Tokyo. Packed on the main streets but more interesting on the fringes where you find the up and coming boutiques. We had a couple of guidebooks, Rick Steves’ Paris 2010 and the Eyewitness Travel Guide were good for a few walks but Izumi’s Japanese guidebooks were even better in pointing out interesting places off the beaten path (I would link to it but we left it behind in the apartment for others to use).

It was a stroke of genius to travel with Mimi, our small Terrier-Shizu mix. French people love dogs and Mimi was free to roam with us through the stores and was welcomed by her own bowl of water when we took her to lunch with us. The only regret is that dogs are not allowed in most parks and we had to leave her at the apartment when we chose to visit a museum. People say that it’s hard to get a waiter’s attention. All you need is a cute dog and you’ll immediately have half the staff fawning all over you, or at least your dog!

We settled into a daily rhythm of visiting one museum a day in order to pace ourselves. We would go either in the morning or late-afternoon to avoid the crowds, then spend the other half of the day out on long, exploratory walks with Mimi. Paris is such a great city to explore on foot so 2-3 hour hikes to investigate neighborhoods was the norm. We caught a break in the weather which was oddly cooler than the record-breaking heatwave in Helsinki. Average temperatures for the week was in the mid-20s (mid-70s Fahrenheit). In order to save a bit on costs (and also because the kitchen in the apartment wasn’t really set up to cook, we ended up making lunch our biggest meal of the day. Restaurants have great values during the lunch hours and you can fortify yourself with a two course Prix Fixe menu making anything more than cheese, pate, and baguettes for dinner unnecessary.

I was delighted to find the usual myths about the coldness of the French smashed during our trip. As mentioned before, having Mimi with us did a lot to charm people but also, because we walked the same streets each day, we began to recognize (and be recognized) by those we saw as we set out on our explorations. Strangers on trains were all polite and the instinctual civility of people who were quick to give up their seat to others or hold the door made things even more pleasant.

Our last evening, I mixed up the dates on my online reservation for the Eiffel Tower and expected there to be all sorts of trouble as my tickets were for the following day. The line for tickets that day was horrendously long so I prepared to have go at convincing the staff to give us a break and let us in a day earlier. Each step of the way as I steeled myself to argue our way forward, New York-style. I was met instead with a shrug and a, “fine with me, it’s really up to the next guy.” We went from ticket checker, to security guard, to ticket taker, to elevator operator before we finally realized that we made it all the way through to the second level.

We were driven to the airport the next morning by a cabbie I met the day before. He chatted colorfully all the way to the airport as we exchanged observations about the different places we had been. Sometimes he would start up a topic, other times it was me, lots of back and forth. He was originally from Algeria and observed that the Mediterranean cultures were definitely more chatty than those in the North.

Arriving back in Finland that evening, my few half-hearted attempts at conversation were as futile as trying to set fire to wet leaves. An icy stare on one word answers from our driver squelched any attempts at conversation. I felt like Kermit the Frog,  my curiosity kept at bay by his forearms, laced with menacing tattoos. The rest of the drive home was silent, punctuated only by the breathing of our driver through his nostrils. Vacation over. Back to Serious-land.

Stamp Rally for Grown-Ups

On our last trip to Japan, we decided to take our dog, Mimi, along to meet the rest of the family. We moved to Finland from the United States so we knew that travelling with pets involves a lot of paperwork. Avoiding a lengthy quarantine for Mimi coming to Finland required the signature and stamp from a man in a windowless office next to San Francisco Airport with a poster that said, and I’m not making this up, “1,000 reasons to say No.” We knew there was some paperwork so shortly after arriving in Finland, started to research what it would take to get little Mimi through customs without a hitch. I’m glad we did because, next to buying a home and getting married, this was one of the more stressful things I’ve ever done.

step04First stop was the Japanese Animal Quarantine Service (AQS) website where we learned that you need (besides teaching your dog how to email) several shots and certification that your dog is free of rabies. To prove your dog is free of rabies, you need to give them a rabies vaccination then take a blood test and send it off to get tested. In Finland, this is done by Evira. For some reason this test needs to be done at least six months before your departure. Thankfully we read all this in time but only just. For those wondering why we stuck around Helsinki until Christmas Eve, that six month window was the reason.

Over the next six months, I traded at least twenty emails with the Animal Quarantine Service. We went back and forth on the specifics of their requirements, what shots, when, by whom, etc, etc, etc. Paperwork went back and forth, each time I had to scan various documents and send them via email because it’s such a pain to find a fax machine these days. In Japan, the signature is still important so the facsimile is paramount.

As the date of our arrival to Narita drew closer, AQS helpfully sent an email reminding me what paperwork was required. They also asked for my flight details. I had been back and forth quite a bit with the folks at Section One so I think I replied to them on a first name basis that we were arriving on a Finnair flight and gave them my flight number.

Panic ensued when AQS replied the next day that since Finnair comes into Terminal Two that we’d have to get clearance from Section Two. I was rattled because it concerned me that the relations built up over the past six months now meant nothing and I’d be starting with a fresh file so to speak. At least the paperwork transferred over cleanly and luckily, one phone call later, things were back on track. I was still nervous though. Our trip to Japan was for 10 days. The standard quarantine period is 90-days. If we got off the plane and our paperwork was for some reason out of order, I was resigned to getting back on the plane to take Mimi back to Finland.

We were entering a tricky window where we had to have a shot for echinococcus, which was good for 30 days, and a final health inspection. We got the shot and then made a date to go back again for a health inspection which had to be done within a 24 hour window of our arrival. We were also required to get this inspection validated by an “official veterinarian” which our private vet and I struggled to interpret. Eventually the vet gave us the number of the City of Helsinki vet, an All-Creatures-Great-and-Small kind of man when we met him

Because we were leaving on Christmas Eve, and the city pretty much shuts down, we got a reprieve from AQS to get the health check done on the 22nd. It’s a good thing too because when I emailed AQS with the City Vet’s signature, they told me I needed his official seal too. Then, while we were visiting with the him the next day for his seal, we got a call on my wife’s cell from Japan that the City Vet is not official enough, that either the State or Federal Vet is needed and that we needed their stamps as well.

This is not a a knock on the folks at AQS but it was getting a bit ridiculous. Their site is very vague and there is not enough definition around what actually makes a Vet “official.” Only after a phone conversation were we sent a document listing the 30-odd people in the entire country that are official enough to authorize a dog to travel unhindered to Japan.

All these shots, tests, stamps, and signatures. When you think of it, it’s more paperwork than you need for a child. Just wave a passport and you’re good to go. Just to be safe, I made appointments with both the Southern Finland regional Vet and the Finnish National Vet who happened to be in Helsinki that day. It was a blizzard on the 23rd but, GPS in hand, I made these two appointments and got our stamps.

Form-C-snippet

We arrived in Japan after a 10 hour direct flight from Helsinki. No problems in customs, we had all the stamps and seals we needed. In Japan, usually over Summer vacation, the train lines all hold Stamp Rallies in which they give kids a booklet with a box for each station’s stamp. The kids then can travel the lines with their friends and collect the stamps from each station. Presenting not one but three official stamps I felt like I deserved some sort of award.

Each stamp and signature were compared carefully with master reference list so they could be sure that we had everything right. We came bearing the news that all the stamps in Finland were going to change in a few weeks so that, of course, threw the office into disarray. Anyone thinking of using the images above for counterfeiting, sorry to spoil your plans.

So it can be done. It’s a pain but, like anything, it gets easier each time you do it. We’ve got a rabies vaccine and test validation that will last us for another year or so and all we need is another echinococcus shot and we know where to go for our official stamps. It was totally worth it. Mimi had a blast in Japan.

Mimi
Mimi

Does AppleCare Cover for That?

Blam! That was how Israeli security forces took care of Lily Sussman’s Macbook at the border. “I’m sorry. We had to blow up your laptop.” After two hours of questioning her they took her laptop out back gave it three bullets .

Macbook Blown

They missed her hard drive so the data is apparently safe and reading comments on the post (450 and counting) it appears like she will get compensated as well. I realize tensions are high in the region but they could have asked her first.

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Dopplr City Colors

dopplr colors

Did you know that dopplr assigns a unique color to each city? Neither did I. It’s not just random either – there’s an algorithm at play here. From the dopplr blog:

We wanted a deterministic RGB colour value for each city. At first, we tried mapping the latitude and longitude of a city to a point in colour space, but we found that this made neighbouring cities too similar in colour. This means that people who travel frequently between Glasgow and Edinburgh wouldn’t clearly see the difference in colour between the two. Also, since so much of the Earth’s surface is covered in water rather than cities, it leads to a sparse use of the potential colour space. In the end, we went with a much simpler approach: we take the MD5 digest of the city’s name, convert it to hex and take the first 6 characters as a CSS RGB value.

So now you know why San Francisco is pink, Helsinki is brown, and Berlin is red.

Thoughts on Helsinki

As with most business trips, my first visit to Helsinki this week was abbreviated and knowingly distorted view of the city. Here are a collection of my impressions.

It’s not as cold as I thought. I wouldn’t want to work outside fixing roads or anything but for a quick stroll, a sweater and jacket was just fine. Locals tell me November is actually the worst season because the bay isn’t yet frozen so the damp air feels colder. When snow covers everything and the air dries up, it actually feels warmer.

It doesn’t get light until around 8am and it’s dark by the time I leave the office at 5pm. Nothing like the “couple hours of daylight” that people warned me about – that’s only way up North. Here’s a shot of a cloudy sky at 4pm.

The tap water here is so good, they bottle it and sell it overseas.

Everyone has a cell phone and you’ll be hard-pressed to find an iPhone or Blackberry. This is the land of Nokia which accounts for about a third of the capitalization of the Helsinki stock exchange.

People love their coffee but stay away from the energy drinks which I swear are mixed with gasoline.

Many of the streets downtown are still cobbled giving it a charming old Europe feel. The roads around the my hotel are torn up for maintenance and pallets of fresh cobblestones await their careful replacement.

The Finns love hockey. In addition to the local teams, there was quite a bit of coverage of the San Jose Sharks on the local news.

Finns take their winter gear seriously. The local department store had a dizzying array of boots and ski jackets. Everyone wears scarves here like Californians wear sunglasses – a fashion accessory.

The language is incomprehensible. To my untrained ear it sounds kind of like Russian with wonderful, vowel-filled words that plop out like big nerf balls. I love listening to the receptionist at Nokia House (as they call Nokia headquarters here) calls up the taxi cabs for visitors – it sounds like she’s directing a complex ballet routine to a cast of tired dancers.

Finns speak perfect English but sometimes mix up the metaphors in a charming way.

Finns shun ice in their soda pop. Ask for some ice with your can of cola and you’re met with a, “yes, sure, but why?” smirk.

Linus Torvalds, is from Finland.

Every hotel has a sauna which is a beautiful thing.