A Travellerspoint blog

Chapter #11: The Land of the Rising Sun

A window on Japan, Part II

sunny 23 °C

Dear friends,

here I am with the second part of my blog about Japan, a country that from the very first day has only fascinated me... and in which I have definitely fallen in love. I would like to talk about a few things that did not appear in the first part a few weeks ago, and also tell you about things that I did not encounter in the area surrounding Kyoto, but that I experienced traveling south through Kansai (the region of Kyoto and Osaka), Chogoku (Hiroshima) and Kyushu (Nagasaki and Fukuoka). Moreover, I will tell you a few facts about "traveling in Japan". Since I fear for everybody (me included) that this chapter is also going to be quite long, I have prepared a bottle of sake to be my buddy in the next few hours while writing this post!

The beauty of Buddhist temples and Shintoist shrines

I grew up in Europe, and there religious building are also very often the landmarks of a city, given their size and power. However, religious buildings in Japan are almost hidden in the outskirts of town, and can almost never be seen if not when in front of their entrance. There are many Buddhist temples, that are the places related to the figure of Buddha. These complex have usually a huge building as entry gate, and their size is definitely bigger than that of the shrines. The Shintoist shrines are on the other hand related to no specific figure/god, but instead to that particular place/person/deity that is unique to that shrine (there are obviously recurring themes or deities). Here, people come to greet such entities and express their wishes, sometimes by writing them on small wood tablets that end up forming piles, by buying an amulet at the "shrine shop" or by trying their luck in drawing a fortune out of a wooden box (my first and only was bad luck. oh well).

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But the thing that has fascinated me the most is the pure beauty of these sacred places. Everything very simple, elegant, and that allows for a personal spirituality. Something that I rarely find back home. so let me show you a few pictures of some of the places that I liked the most, or that for reason impressed me:

The silver Pavillion, Kyoto
The simple structure, centuries-old, and the surrounding pond, are probably the best garden I have seen in Japan. It is for me the finest temple of Kyoto, a city that has such sacred places as the major attractions, contrary to Tokyo that has whole neighborhoods to wander around as activity.

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Itsukushima Shrine and its floating torii, Miyajima
The story goes that when entering a shrine, a devout always need to go through such a gate, but apparently in the older times some where not allowed to set foot on the sacred island, so the floating torii approachable by boat.

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Todai-ji, Nara
The largest wooden building worldwide (besides some new stadiums), only 2/3 of its original size before it burned down a few times, is a sight that had me "awwwwww" for a while. I mean, it is incredibly big, and it stands powerful in front of you, swallowing hordes of tourists in its tiny door. What's inside? one of the largest Buddha statues in bronze, called Daibutsu in Japan):

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Kennin-ji, Kyoto
I loved this little zen temple, it had this little garden within the main house, around which you could sit and enjoy the sunshines of the sun setting on the bright green leaves of the trees, while a gardener was pouring water on the central stones creating such a calm and peaceful atmosphere. If you add then the right music I had in my iPod, this was definitely one of the best way to finish a very intense day of temple discovery:

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Do you see that small Buddha statue on the left corner below? Well, it was probably one of the most beautiful things I've seen in Japan. When I told it to some people employed in the temple, they found it funny because I guess that statue is nothing special in any way, but... I loved it.
I would have many other pictures regarding temples and shrines, but... ok one last that will allow me to make cool transition into the next chapter. Actually to the next two chapters considering that this is Gion, a particular neighborhood of Kyoto. But let's consider this shrine's torii the door from the sacred world of Japan into the modern and urban one:

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Urban Japan

As it was clear in my previous post already, Japan has many faces. The contrast I want to point out this time is between such peaceful and sacred places described a while ago, and the new Japan, that you can encounter just a few steps away. This urban world takes so many form that is pretty impossible to describe, but let me make a few example to give you an impression, all taken from my short staying in Osaka:

Fashion lights at Ebisucho bridge
Here are they all, here they meet and plan the evening, here they show their new styles and complicated hairstyles: the fashion victims in their purest form! And it might sounds like sarcasm, but I was sometimes a bit envious - some of them really have got a huge deal of style, and were able to pull off things that in Europe would be deemed as too extravagant! And you can imagine me, standing there with one of the same t-shirts I've been wearing (and washing!) for 5 months, all-round shoes and backpacker style all-together: it was like black and white! I really felt like an outsider, watching a catwalk under some impressive light show:

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Underground dancing
I say underground because they were really in the underground area of Namba station, but the point is that in Japan (at least the "urban cities" of Tokyo and Osaka) people dance. I've seen countless gangs of youngsters training in front of mirrors in the malls, or in the parks. The place where I took this picture was definitely a dance hub as many groups were there practicing, from hip hop to... stuff I did not know. But the one I was really happy to see was breakdancing, maybe because I remember a few years ago when me and my friends were into it and looked like worms (*not* did the worm as the cool move, we looked like worms), and some of the coolest crews on the web where from Japan!

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Go big, even with fishes
Have you ever heard of the Osaka's aquarium? It is one of the biggest worldwide. I am a big fan of marine life, so I had to go check it out... however, I cannot say that when I got out I was that happy. Similarly to when I go to zoos. I know that having animals in captivity is a chance for research, and to educate people, especially children. But there are some animals that should never!!! be looked up - in this case, dolphins and a whale shark of 6-7m, the only one in captivity around the world. This is to say that sometimes modern Japan goes big, really big. And in cases like this, beyond the border:

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Meeting with a geisha

I will now tell you a story. Before coming to Japan, I started reading the famous book Memoirs of a Geisha by A. Golden, a book that has been very much loved as it opened the world of geishas to the west. However, there is much controversy about geishas in Western countries, as they depict the figure of geishas too close to what some people erroneously think they might be: prostitutes. They are not. Let me clear a few things up: they are entertainers, that have specialized in various arts like dancing and singing, but that are also masters in making the guests at ease with pleasant conversations, funny stories and light flirting. Of course they are not nouns, so if they really want to have sex with a customer, they will, but this is not what they have been paid for, it's their own initiative. Their image has been misused for long, especially during WWII when the Allied forces occupied Japan and many prostitutes adopted the geisha-style that was very much loved by the Americans, but they never were real geishas. The world of the real geishas is a world of mystery and wonders, as it is open only to a few. Tourists like me can attend public dances that take place a few times over the year in such quarters (and I did - extremely interesting!), but the original form of entertainment takes places privately, when a customer organizes a party with guests in an ochaya, or "tea house". However, ochayas only let a selected network of acquaintances book such a night, as it is a matter of trust and respect. For such reason, somebody must be introduced in the network by somebody that is part of it already. So, as a tourist, the only thing you can do is either attend a public dance, or do some geisha spotting in the evening in the streets where the ochayas are - I did it, even though I was not proud of it. This means staying in front of an ochaya waiting for somebody to show up, with your camera ready to shoot. And let's be honest - who likes to have a big camera put in front of their nose by dozens of tourists every night, when you are basically going to work? Nobody. However, seeing a geisha is something so intriguing, and this is one of the shots:

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But this was not my first encounter. Probably, it is because of my first meeting that I was so eager to see a geisha again. I was in Kanazawa, north of Nagoya, and went visit the geisha quarter during the day, like everybody else. I got interested in this world, also because of the book I was reading, so I also paid the ticket to enter a very well known ochaya in the street, and I was fascinated by it: elegant rooms, one with red walls for businessmen, one blue for the samurai. Sliding paper doors, soft tatami on which to walk, elegant flower arrangements... well, I fantasized how it would be to have a private party there. I started to talk to my guide, and soon I also got introduced to the owner of the ochaya, a lovely lady that explained me many more things about this world... we got along nicely, and maybe also because I told her I am Swiss and she loved visiting my country, and that she was friend with the owner of the guesthouse were I was staying, I got an invite: I could attend the end of a party the very same night!!! I was extremely excited, and when I showed up later that night I could see from the back of the room the two geishas performing in front of the guests, that had just finished dinner. So that was the real deal! After that, the owner of the ochaya kindly introduced me to the two geishas, and asked them if they would be willing to take a picture or two with me. You can understand from my story how difficult it is to have a personal contact with a real geisha, so I was very happy when this picture was taken:

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Moreover, I got the chance to take a picture of the lovely Sozuka:

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Maybe for many this does not mean anything special. It's just a girl in the end. But for me, after considering what the figure of a geisha is, how much Japanese culture is embedded in it, how mysterious and inaccessible their world of the flower and the willow i, this meeting was absolutely one of the highlights of my trip.

A country built for peace

This chapter is a bit historical, I hope it won't be boring for you, but it essential. I am sure you have heard the names Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I've been to both cities, and I have visited their museum, parks and halls in memory of the big tragedy, namely the annihilation of the two cities by the atomic bomb. I will not go into details about it, as it might get complicated - however, I cannot not express how sad and angry I always felt when confronted with such story. Sad is easy to understand, 140'000 (Hiroshima) + 70'000 (Nagasaki) people died, their life burnt to ashes, like the city in which they were living. Seeing the picture of a city not burnt, not shaken by an earthquake, but completely flattened was... like a punch in the stomach. Seeing the pictures of carbonized children is something difficult to digest. And I have been angry, very angry. In Europe we have the tendency to grow up by considering Germany as the "evil", and the Americans as the "saviors" (extreme generalization, but allow me to do it for the moment). After having been in these two cities, I clearly understand that during WWII there was nobody that had clean hands. I still cannot understand how this was possible, independently on how much Japan was a threat or hurt the US with e.g. Pearl Harbor. How it was possible to involve so many civilian lives, and erase them in a few seconds. TWICE. How this was possible after even the researchers of the bomb advised against its use, especially without any previous notice, so not to give any chance to anybody. How this was possible after Germany surrendered already, and Japan was clearly defeated (US reports will confirm that even without the bombing, it would have surrendered in a few months). How it was possible that some people involved justified the use of the bomb with possible criticism in the US after having spent so much in R&D, or that otherwise Russia would have had the chance to take a bigger piece of cake (a defeated Japan). Again, how it was possible that Nagasaki was bombed 3 days after Hiroshima after it was possible to see its devastating effects. I will not focus on this, as it is a very complicated matter and I might not even have all the pieces of the puzzle.

What I want to focus is the resolution of these two cities in being messengers of world peace. I have been amazed by the strong spirit of these cities, that still now strive for a total denuclearization, and for a lasting peace. And this, from two cities that have experienced the atomic bomb.
Sadako Sasaki was two years old when the bomb was dropped the 6th of August 1945, 8.15. She did not die. But she developed leukemia due to the radiations of the bomb. She was then hospitalized 10 years later, with a maximum of 1 year to live. In Japan it was said that if you fold 1000 paper cranes, the god will grant you a wish. That is why during this time, she set her mind to accomplish this goal, using all kind of paper she could find as it was scarce. She folded 644, but then died. Her classmates folded the remaining, and buried the 1000 paper cranes with her. She has become one of the symbol of the victims of the bomb, and the folding of paper cranes has remained a strong tradition in elementary schools since then, so that many classes of all around Japan come to Hiroshima or Nagasaki to bring their folded paper cranes, in memory of the victims of the bombing but also for praying for worldwide peace. You know, whenever somebody speaks of world peace, it sounds... unreal, almost childish. But whenever somebody raises the matter in such a contest, in a city that has been bombed by the atomic bomb for crying out loud!!!, it becomes a powerful message. Maybe the only one that really matters. I have been very much moved in these circumstances, and I was happy to see the kids today performing such a ceremony, class after class:

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Travel

Let's return to easier topics, shall we? I promised some facts about traveling in Japan compared to other countries so far, and I've come up with three examples, a selection of many:

1) Accomodation
Oh, so many types of accomodations! Most of my time was spent in hostel, as I really like their atmosphere here in Japan (more than in other countries), people are extremely friendly and the hostels are pretty nice. However, it is fun to try something different, like the famous capsule hotel! I went to one when I was in Tokyo, and I was pretty surprised because.. it's not like you are beeing buried alive! They are pretty spacious, and very discrete - the only drawback: they are not as cheap as you would think, many hostels are cheaper than this! Then, you have the alternative of the manga kissa, or more commonly internet cafe open 24h, in which you can rent a private cubicle with either comfortable chair or thin mattress, computer, free drinks all night long and especially a huuuge manga library. Nerd paradise - and I loved it. Third, we have the other extreme, the charm of a ryokan, a typical japanese accommodation that correspond to the older inns that used to host travelers. Not only is the room is pure japanese style with paper sliding doors, tatami and futon, but you also get a personal maid that is going to attend you regarding every matter, and she is going to serve you dinner in the room! Extremely enjoyable, especially if you can soak your bones in the private onsen (thermal bath) of the ryokan. You are being pampered like a samurai, and wearing a yukata add some of that feeling!

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2) Hordes of tourists
Even though I think it is very positive, it is sometimes very bothersome: Japanese love to visit their own country, and they do it in big numbers. Especially around Golden Week, the first of May in which everybody is (finally) forced to take a few days off. So, it is highly suggested to wake up early in the morning to beat the crowds, unless you wanna line up behind 30 old people led by a shouting girl waving a small flag. Then, when you think Golden Week is over... Activity Week is up for all schools! I've never seen so many students all together, from all ages, with the same uniform! They are reaaaally many... if you see a line of 50 kids moving towards the entrance of a museum, be sure to get ahead of them! Waiting won't help, as there are probably other 10 classes behind them. This causes a few problems with photography, as you keep on having some kid running around your subject. But that's ok, I mean, they are kids... the problems begin when instead of kids you get... deers:

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3) Be the star!!!
Ahah this is fun. Very often, being a lone traveler from the West can turn you into an attraction yourself! It happened quite frequently that kids shouted me an "HALLOOOOOO!!!!" from afar, or that groups of junior high school gather around you asking stuff. If you then draw out the camera and tell them you would like to take a picture with them... they go crazy! I have to be honest, I have enjoyed the attention received eheh! The best thing happened today when a kid stood up from a group and came right at me pointing at the sketch in my travel journal and telling me "very good!!!".

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And this is it. Some stories from Japan, a few of many that I hoped you enjoyed. I do not actually know how many of you have reached the end since this post was again very long, but for those who did... you make me happy! It usually takes me around 5 hours to write a chapter, and I love doing it, but.. if I know that you also enjoy it, you really make it worth it! As you probably noticed, the two chapters of Japan were kind of different, or so I felt by looking at the pictures I posted and the way I wrote about it - I think it is because I fell in love with this country, and felt the need to explain many things that I perceived and show many things I encountered, contrary to the usual short summary I do for the other countries.

However, right now my trip in Japan is over. And so is the sake, so this is a clear sign that I should close this entry! But as always, the end of one chapter is the beginning of a new one - next is China, and I am very happy my girlfriend will be able to join me! Back at home, I wish you all the best, keep on following me till the end!!! =)

Cheers,
若誇最 (Giacomo)

Posted by jack87jack 06:24 Archived in Japan Comments (7)

Chapter #10: Simplicity Vs. Extravaganza

A window on Japan, Part I

sunny 20 °C
View Awesome World Tour!!! on jack87jack's travel map.

Dear all,

How are you? As you know, I am having the time of my life - and having seen and lived what I've already seen and lived, one starts to wonder if there could still be something that could surprise and amaze you. That's when Japan comes and knock at your door. Mesmerizing Japan. Every day is different, as different are the faces of Japan. And when I say different, I mean really different. I've never seen things so beautiful yet so simple like in Japan, like a small garden in front of a common residential house, but also such a crazy environment like Akihabara where everything overlaps with everything on multiple layers. It is incredibly easy to use different and sometimes contrasting adjectives for the same thing, as it is the case for this country. I need to say that as for now I have only see a few things around Japan, namely Tokyo and the cities of Kawaguchiko, Kamakura and Nikko, in the same region. So my idea of Japan ia for the moment limited, but the next post based on the second half of my Japanese experience will try to complement this one.

Elegant

Japan is definitely known for the feeling inspired by simple, yet beautiful lines, be these in its architecture, art or way of life. This is not to call them "minimalist", as this would imply a poorness in the shapes and colors that is absolutely not the case. The reality is a careful choice of the smallest details in complete harmony with the whole. This results in powerful lines, able to move feelings and arouse interest with the smallest gesture. Take this kimono for example - it looks perfect, simple, and harmonious. However, it is composed by many layers and multiple parts, so that it might take 1 hour for novices to wear it and at least 20 minutes for more experts women:

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Another example are the roofs of the temples. I know that this might be irrelevant for many, but I am just fascinated by them. The detail in the form of an upward corner makes the whole difference, and create a rooftop worth to look at, instead of a simple plain one:

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Look at this sculpture, in the main hall of the hotel Peninsula, a name that I remember since I was a little kid associated to one of the best hotel worldwide, and for sure one of the most luxurious (that is why, dressed up like the backpacker I am, I only dared enter around 2am when I was wandering around the city waiting to get to the fish market early in the morning). Look at the shapes, look at the atmosphere it creates. Even though on the circles stands something that could be described as a big sausage, it perfectly fits the whole and inspire a strong feeling of elegance:

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Chaotic

When considering Tokyo, a few blocks away from the things described above, another city appears. The city owned by a new generation, that almost rebelliously has created something that oppose the concept of simplicity. Elegance and order are replaced by an extravaganza of colors, sounds and shapes in neighborhoods like Shibuya or Akihabara. Take Shibuya first, the commercial hub of all teenagers (especially girls), who own the area by dressing up with such fancy and creative clothes that really make you feel you belong some place else. As a side note, I've never met a people that is such a fashionista - when we think we see somebody dressed up originally in Europe, it would pale in front of those guys. Colors, shapes, everything is mixed up in the same outfit, and even though sometimes this goes beyond the limits, in general make me wish I could also pull off something like that! It is also quite cool to be completely surrounded by all kind of people, and this is easily done by standing in the middle of one of the busiest street crossing worlwide - the one in Shibuya. Notice that the red light only stays on for a minute or so, no more, and that's enough for so many people to gather:

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Then, above all, there is Akihabara. A place that know no comparison in the whole world. Akihabara is the electronic centre of the city, embodied in the giant shops selling everything and a sum of smaller shops selling what is not sold in the big ones. Yes, if it exists and it has an electronic component, you can find it here. But evenmore interestingly, Akihabara is the centre of the manga & anime culture!!! And for those who know me and sometimes are ashamed of me because of that, well... I am a big fan of such things! You could simply say that manga are comics and anime are cartoons, but here there is a whole world about them. Every week the new releases are out, and hordes of people of all kind come to Akihabara to purchase a few of them, to buy older ones missing in their collection, or even just stand there and read them on the spot - it is allowed!. Usually you might find them in a small magazine shop, but Akihabara allows you to explore manga palaces with multiple floors, and it literally becomes a maze out of which it is difficult to find an exit, both literally and not (meaning that often, related to manga's and anime's world, passion becomes obsession - go to Akihabara and you'll understand what I mean)

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Something that I got suggested by a friend and that revealed itself to be quite an interesting experience, was the visit to a "maid cafe". What is it? A maid cafe is a special kind of cafe to be found around this neighborhood, in which a group of girls dressed up based on a special manga serves you coffee, on which with their high and playful voice they cast a spell to make it taste better. The setting was so... indescribable, that I had to take an (official) picture. Moreover, I was given the card of Level 1 Master - valid for a lifetime. I mean, wow!!! And look at me how cute I look!!! 可愛い !!!

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......awkward silence? Yes I know, but I already posted a picture of me jumping naked in a salt desert, I see no point in stopping posting awkward pictures!
Back to Akihabara, if you then add also the videogame world, and mix it all up in a shaker, you get a tremendous cocktail, but it is such a mess that is fascinating:

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Delicious

Oh, the food. I am loving the "eating" part of the day in Japan. Of course, I was a sushi fan already before coming to Japan, and eating the real thing only confirmed me that sushi is one of the best thing to be found in Japan. I started at the source, the Tsukiji's fish market, the world's biggest, where I got around 4am so to be able to see the (in)famous tuna auction, where every sort of tuna is brought from around the world and then sold in an auction. Here you see a few big fishes with a potential customer, checking color, texture and degradation over time of the tunas:

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And then, when the tuna is chosen, it gets elaborated by sushi chefs, who transform it in something delicious, accompanied by many other tasty fishes and seafood. This picture is of one of the best sushi places at the market, where already around 7am there is a long queue to get a place - but considering the quality of the product, is absolutely worth the waiting, a fish-based breakfast with the freshest ingredients you could ever imagine!

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Then, besides quality, things can get creative. So let me present you with two "specials" of the house in another sushi place: first we have the golden sushi, with a base of the very best super fatty tuna (the fattier the better, as it melts on the tongue like butter), with a combination of sea urchins, fish eggs and other things I don't know. Ah, and gold leaves! This was the most expensive piece on the menu - 5$. Good and cheap, this is sushi in Japan.

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Second is... this poor little guy. He was swimming happily, before the chef decided to make a show and... made a nigiri out of him. Here is a typical sequence of "before & after" - time laps: 2 minutes! Here is before:

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And ta-daaaaa, here is after! (love the guy's smile!)

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But please, let's not limit Japanese food to sushi! There is so much more... in particular, I've grown fond of ramen, this chinese-style noodle soup borrowed and remastered under the Japaneses. Tastier soup ever, so good that you are gonna slurp it all at the end of the meal! Good thing about this is that it is one of the cheapest meal to be found. Moreover, like a good Japanese friend of mine told me while slurping my first bowl, every ramen is different. Some restaurants focus on the soup, some on the noodles, some on the toppings! Either way, it is always tasty!

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And then there are the other soups, udon and soba, then the yakitori, the bbq, the tempura, okonomiyaki and way more! Japan is extremely variated in food, and every day you could eat a different speciality. Something I like to do is go in a 7/11, a small supermarket, and randomly chose an onigiri (rice triangle with fillings) without knowing the content, and let myself be surprised. You can imagine sometimes the surprises are not that good....

Scenic

Landscapes in Japan are stunning. Amazing views can be found in the city in the several gardens, like those in prestigious homes, the perfect image of what everbody thinks when hearing the word Japanese garden. For example the one in the imperial villa in Nikko:

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Buddhist temples and shrines are something special. They are a complex of multiple buildings, often colored with bright colors, immersed in the forest. Shintoist shrines are especially interesting as they do not refer to any particular god, but mostly to a minor deity or spirit that is said be related with that particular place, and hence people visit the shrine to express their wishes and buy amuletes that hold the power of such place:

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The thing I love more about the shrines is however the gate at the entrance, called torii, which I think is definitely the most powerful element of the whole shrine complex. They are sometimes made of grey stone, sometimes of red-painted wood, but they always emit a carratteristic aura in my opinion, even when surrounded by many people:

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And now let's get to the most scenic landscape of all Japan: Mt. Fuji. It is indeed impressive, its perfect conic shape with just the top covered in snow make it somehow too "right" to be true. Many Japanese told me they consider the Matterhorn, the most famous mountain of my country (Switzerland) to be more scenic than Mt. Fuji. I have never seen the Matterhorn and I am deeply ashamed of this, so a comparison is difficult. However, Mt. Fuji during this particular flower festival and despite the few clouds, looks majestic:

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Friendly

Or better phrased, full of friends! Here in Tokyo I had the luck to bring some of my friends, that almost only by chance were here in town. But getting to know a city with somebody that knows where to go is a relief from time to time, and after having travelled for a while alone it really felt good to share the day with somebody I knew from before. So here just a few pics of me and them:

My first local guide: Jun. He basically introduced me to everything in one day, he made me savour the best of the city in a splendid way! That's how I got to taste my first delicious bowl of ramen, enjoy my first experience in an izakaya (the japanese verision of a pub) where beer and (oh so good) sake flew quite heavily, together with some tremendously tasty snacks, to be followed by a great dinner at a bbq place with his friends and finally some good deal of dancing in a club in Roppongi till morning. I mean... what more could we have done? This was Tokyo baby =)

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The next meeting is the definition of fate, and the proof that the world is indeed small! I met Yusai in a hostel in Quito, and during breakfast we talked for about 20mins and no more, but we still exchanged contacts. Then, a few weeks later, I saw a familiar face walking around La Boca, in Buenos Aires - yes, it was Yusai! So we agreed to meet each other when I would come to Japan, and here I was with him, during his photo exibition of his fantastic world tour! The flag you see is his "heart flag", on which many people he met or talked to wrote their names - an irreplaceable souvenir of an amazing adventure (I am pointing at my name)! After this, and after having defined my name in Kanji (若誇最 (ジャコも) - young*proud*most), we spent an amazing evening with a few good friends in Chiba, enjoying a okonomiaki (kind of an omelette) and some drinks & japanese snacks at an izakaya! His final quote about his world tour? "We are all one people".

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The big surprise! It wasn't until recently that discovered that Kevin, friend from back home at the university, moved to Japan.... so we met up, and together with his girlfriend we enjoyed the gold sushi and fresh fish I told you about before. After spending a lovely day at Yoyogi Park, we ended up doing a veeeery juvenile thing: we went to see the new Dragonball movie!!! No subtitles, so... well, it was fun! And we also got to enjoy a nice end of the evening in an izakaya... then I left Tokyo for a few days, but I had to come back. Why? Well I had to get my Chinese visa but also... a surprise happened in the meantime! Here is me ruining the picture of a new beautiful family: Congratulations again!!!

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And this is Japan. Or at least, a first window on it! There is still so much to come and so much I will not see, but considering the amount of words I used to describe my first part of travel in Japan and the number of pictures I decided to post, you may easily guess how enthusiastic I am about being here! I will refrain myself to talk about the next part of my trip based in Asia, why it is different and why I have been looking forward for it to begin. This post is too long already, I hope I will find the time in the next one.
I am now planning to slowly move South, making a major stop in Kyoto but also many in between cities, to finally arrive in the region of Fukuoka for the end of the month, from where a plane will bring me to China. I really hope that you guys might still be interested in following me, I will try my best best to keep you hooked to my adventures, so that I will be able to share if just for a bit my adventures in these amazing countries.

I wish you all the best, and as always, leave a comment if you feel like!
Cheers from Tokyo,
Giacomo

Posted by jack87jack 08:31 Archived in Japan Comments (6)

Chapter #9: Few Kiwis and a Kangaroo

A short detour in New Zealand, and an even shorter in Australia

all seasons in one day 18 °C
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Hello people!

No I haven't seen any real kiwi or kangaroo. But still, I visited their homelands! 10 days in New Zealand, and a single one in Sydney.
This will be a short chapter (finally would you say?). But I think that a country such as New Zealand deserves it, even if short. Especially because it was not planned!
If somebody remember my initial schedule, I was supposed to stay only for 2 nights in Auckland, and 3 in Sydney, to then head for Japan and South Korea. However, the late situation with North Korea and its threats towards the other countries forced me to slow down my journey, at least to take a look how things would evolve. I decided then not to go to South Korea and instead use those 2 weeks for New Zealand. This had two major advantages: the first was that I could wait for things up around North Korea to chill down - and it kind of has happened so far. The second, is that this has given me the opportunity to visit New Zealand, a country that has fascinated me for a long time, and that I was actually disappointed in not visiting it (because of a lack in time, and also because of my overall concept to avoid "western culture" as much as possible).

So, in spite of all, here I am, extremely happy to finally be in New Zealand!

I only had 10 days, and this, for New Zealand, is nothing. But it's better that nothing, right? So, I started in Auckland, and spent the first day wandering around, to then spend the evening with an extremely welcoming french couple that I met at the airport (the same that would later offer me to stay at their place in these last days that I got back to Auckland, I am so grateful for their hospitality!).
And then it started - a series of cloudy and rainy days. So I spent the first day in the National Museum, learning more about the Maori history and culture, which was the "missing corner" in my Polynesian triangle with Easter Island and French Polynesia. I was lucky enough to catch a show of Maori songs and dances, among which obviously figured the haka, the war dance made famous by the great All Blacks, the national rugby team. These guys do not look as powerful and frightening as the rugby players, but they are all original Maoris and loved perform it for us:

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The next stop was Waitomo Caves, famous for the glow worms, the larvae of an insect called Arachnocampa luminosa. At their caterpillar stage the emit a soft blue light that attracts flying mosquitos that get stuck in a sticky liquid they produce and hangs down from the roofs like a web. We got into one of these caves, and in complete darkness we could enjoy a marvelous spectacle of thousands of little blue stars. I have a picture which absolutely does not make justice to such a wonderful sight (as I did not have time enough for a 30min exposure, nor the battery); take this picture, multiply the lights by hundreds, and imagine complete silence: pure magic.

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Rotorua is known for its geothermal activity, but I did not feel like buying another fairly expensive tour. So I enjoyed the public park in the city, and I would say that even if I did not get the 30m geyser, I was pretty satisfied. The thing I will probably remember more about Rotorua however is the strong smell of sulfur all around the city, which to be nice smells like... rotten eggs.

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Finally, I got a nice day in Taupo! The sun was shining bright, and the colors I knew New Zealand was made of started popping out. So I went for a walk to the Huka Falls, which is merely a channel in which the water gets speed and then jump out into a wider pool. A nice walk that ended in a place called craters of the moon, another geothermal park (there are plenty considering that New Zealand is built on the edge of two continental plates). Here some pictures:

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After this the famous side of the New Zealand was planned: beautiful mountain landscapes covered in snow and blue lakes at the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Weather forecasts: rain, wind and snow. So I unfortunately had to cancel my trekking, and got directly down to Wellington, where the rain did not stop until 2 hours before I had to leave again, enough to climb up the mountain and get a landscape picture of the city:

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However, I did enjoy Wellington! I stayed in the very nice public library planning for my next stops in Asia, and spent two full afternoons in the Te Papa, the national museum of the city. And what a museum? Highly interactive, broad in scope, perfect for a kid... and for me eheh! Moreover there was a section dedicated to the best video-game creators, and I got to play with an original Pacman arcade! Not bad, eh?

To end my visit in New Zealand I visited something that is one of the reasons why I got to know New Zealand better, besides being a personal passion: the set of the Lord Of The Rings movie, Hobbiton! Maaaaany people would never pay to see such a thing, but I am gonna be honest: I felt happy as a child walking among hobbit holes and see Bilbo's and Frodo's home! And besides, the place is really stunning:

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Considreing that at the end of the tour we even got a locally brewed beer in the Green Dragon pub, I dare to say the visit was a complete success!

And then, the time to leave Auckland came, and that of Sydney arrived! I am staying here for just one day, but still you can get a general impression of the city if you keep on walking around like I did yesterday evening! I have to confess that the sight of the Opera House is impressive, especially when the sun sets:

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It was so impressive that I kept on around looking for a new angle for some picture, and here I got lucky that a cruise ship was passing by while I took the picture (well actually I waited 20min before it "passed by", but still). This is also the Opera Bar, one of the places to be if attending a show afterwards. Life does not look bad in Sydney, doesn't it?

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So, as concluding remarks:
This was definitely a too short visit to New Zealand, a country that offers way more than what I could experience, from sea to mountains! But hey, the goal of my travel is to identify those places that in the future I would like to visit again, maybe with a bunch of friends and a van? Spending two months driving around the coastline and hiking up steep mountains in New Zealand is definitely a program to which I would subscribe!!! The even shorter visit to Sydney is really one of those things that allow you to say "check! done that!" but that does not gives me much more than that... Australia, same as New Zealand, is on the to-visit list.

Now I am extremely happy that my travel is bringing me to the country that among all that I planned, excites me the most: Japan! I will spend one month travelling around, even though the first week will be spent in Tokyo as I have to wait for a Chinese visa that I'll try get asap (and considering that the Golden Week is coming up, which is to say holiday holiday and holiday (yes, 3 in a row), it'll take time). The plan is to the travel down to Kansai (Kyoto, Osaka, Nara) and even further south, to eventually reach Fukuoka! So yeah, a month of manga, sushi, ramen, shrines and onsen (hot springs)!

All the best to you guys back home, I hope spring is giving you great sunny days to enjoy outside!
Cheers from Sydney,
Jack

Posted by jack87jack 16:12 Archived in New Zealand Comments (6)

Chapter #8: Welcome to Paradise

Travel among the blue and the green of French Polynesia's islands

sunny 30 °C
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Ia orana my dear friends,

Have you ever heard names like Tahiti, Papeete or Bora Bora? Well, they are all here: French Polynesia - or better, "paradise on earth". A large number of islands, divided in atolls such as Society Islands, the Tuamotu or the Marquesas. For a Swiss boy like me, these places are extremely exotic, not only because of the opposite landscapes compared to my dear mountains and white snow, but also because they are at the extreme point on planet earth - 12 hour difference. This also means that my world tour has reached the half of it, at least in a geographical perspective! Moreover, these islands usually have an aura of inaccessibility due to their unique branding: luxurious islands, on which you either stay in an over-water bungalow or... well, no real alternative. However, it is possible to enjoy this natural paradise even in a backpacker style, always looking for the cheaper solutions. There are many family-run pensions at affordable prices (still way higher than what I paid in South America, but also incredibly cheaper than an over-water bungalow), in which a small kitchen will allow you to save some cash on the food! Still, even buying groceries at the supermarket is expensive (the brie (cheese) and the typical french baguette are cheap though), and I want to be honest in saying that 11 days here count as much as more than one month in any other place. But one should also remember than no other place is like this!

Being coherent to my concept of discovery, I tried to explore as much as possible in my short period of time, but still have the time to enjoy myself. I opted for an island hopping ticket offered by the local Air Tahiti, a great deal! Even though some more external atolls are described as lagoon paradises, like the Tuamotu, I decided to limit my visit to the Society Islands, let's say the "famous ones", both because of time and money. The tour consisted in 3 nights in Huahine, 2 in Bora Bora, 2 in Maupiti, 2 in Ra'iatea, 1 in Mo'orea and... 2 nights in the airport of Tahiti! I had a different experience in each island, that I used to describe in my travel journal with three words, something that I'll also use here as headline for each island. To make it more interesting, I'll keep the best islands for last:

Ra'iatea - unexplored, motu & Japan

Ra'iatea (and the annexed Taha'a) is one of the biggest islands and one of the administrative centers. I arrived late at night and left early in the morning, so I had one day only to visit it. Well, I spent the morning surfing the internet trying to catch up on the North Korea situation (unknown to me before), as South Korea and Japan were planned as part of my travel (more on my decisions about it at the end), and so hours spent sending mails to company airlines changing flights & the usual business. Finally ready to discover the island... a storm came. So, with only one afternoon available, I decided not to visit the main attraction of the island - an archaeological site, but instead got myself a kayak and paddled till the motu (islet) in front of the bay, and enjoyed some nice sun and white sand beach. I mean... why not?

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Mo'orea - bays, fruits and no sun

As you could imagine, the shorter the stay in a place, the more difficult it is to appreciate it. If you add up that there was no sun, in a place where the bright green of the peaks and the deep blue of the sea and lagoon make it special... that's a shame. Even if I could not appreciate the full beauty of the island, I was nevertheless impressed by the bays that are surrounded by these steep mountains, and fantasized about their looks with the right light. I did however had a great juice of fresh ananas and papaya in a secluded place uphill, that I reached with a bike. But before that, I discovered the existence of this beautiful hidden cascade, and spent a few minutes refreshing and playing with the camera. This meant using my backpack on wet rocks as a tripod, setting the longest timer for the shot so I could run on the rocks, assume a wanna-be-cool position and hope for the best, which means: I don't fall in the water, and so doesn't the camera!

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Tahiti - coco, surf and airport

I arrived the first day at 00:55am at Tahiti, so I slept in the airport. I left today at 7:30am, so I slept again in the airport. At this point, if you know I am in Tahiti you can come and look for me in the airport, I am a permanent resident! Anyways, the first thing I did in Tahiti the day I arrived was come to the central market of Papeete, the main city, where I got invited to try the different products of the coconut: the mature coconut, the coconut water, the coconut milk, and then... they told me to go buy a fresh piece of tuna. So I did, and they very kindly prepared me the famous poisson cru avec lait du coco (raw fish with coconut milk and vegetables) and... the miti fafaru: raw fish left 15 min to absorb this liquid: sea water in which fish was left fermenting for a month or so. It was like eating the smelliest french cheese while holding a dead fish in my hands right under my nose. YES, it's that strong - not many foreigner ever try it after having smelled the bottle, I ate it at 7am for breakfast as a real tahitian. Luckily there was some coconut milk (fresh and fermented) to dip it in! Call me "buongustaio" or simply stupid, they are both true.

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Yesterday I spent the afternoon at a nearby beach where there was a junior surf competition going on, and the atmosphere was definitely one I like! A shame that I cannot surf that good (or at all for what matters), but I got some nice show by the boys over there:

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This reminds me of the only thing I wanted to see in Tahiti: Tehaupoo, one of the sickest waves worldwide, where in August the Tahiti Billanbong Pro is held. However, i did not manage it as the buses here are quite unreliable and scarce, so it was either get to the wave (not breaking that good today, and from afar) or leave today for Auckland. Well, I guess I will have to come back someday!

Bora Bora - central peak, luxus & fake

The beautiful Bora Bora, there is nothing like it. Ita central peak is simply majestic, and cannot be compared with any other around. If the sun is shining, colors will shine brightly, and you'll get everything you wat for a postcard: a great green silhouette immersed in azure waters, and it's just it: paradise.

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However, this is also an Island i was happy to leave after two only nights. The reason is... luxus turism. This is the place where all the overwater bungalows are, expensive restaurants, and especially people that left their home and came directly here just because "it is Bora Bora", not caring about the real polynesia or the places they are visiting: they will walk in corals, shout around in a quiet beach, and just be a bit more arrogant than tourists in other places. This gives the island a totally different feeling than the others, and it's a shame. I got used to say "hi" to everybody on the road in Huahine, here I got an answer rarely... well, these are the two faces of Bora Bora. But hey, it's not that if they offered me one of these bungalows for free I would say no!

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The only time I let myself go and told myself "cmon, this time is well worth it to go on a lagoon tour around this beautiful island, with the bike you might not get the view!"... it rained like hell. A very strong storm hit us after 20 min we left the harbour (at that time looking like a sunny day). So yeah, I saw almost nothing and paid a lot. But I got to feed some rays in the bay, which goes against my principles of environment preservation but it was also educative on some level, so that people can really appreciate closely the beauties of this wild places:

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Huahine - authentic, bicycle & private

This was the first island I visited, and I fell in love. I stayed in a nice little place where they gave me a bungalow for me alone, with a nice kitchen, and a small private beach where I could enjoy the sunset with a cold beer or having the owner, a dude from California that fell in love and married a Tahitian 30 years ago, teach me how to open coconuts.

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Just this would have been enough, but the whole atmosphere in the island was simply great. I went around it all with a bike, sweating like hell, but always with a smile on my face, that was the result of the locals smiling to me! I met a local artist with which i engaged on a discussion about art and spontaneity who very nicely drew a tiare on my travel journal, i visited a farm for vanilla and got some really good-smelling sticks to put in the rum when I get home, or even visited a pearl farm in the middle of the bay! At the end of the second day I met a bunch of kids jumping from the bridge - of course, I had to join!!!

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This is the Va'a, the traditional canoe used in French Polynesia, and also the main sport. You can see loads of people training for the big events in the morning and the evening, paddling around the lagoons:

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Huahine is a place that is very simple, and for this reason beautiful. It is one of the only places where I found a place at the beach on my own, and where the ratio between the number of tourists and the locals is still bearable. Huahine is definitely among the top islands of my whole Polynesian experience!

As a side note: the tiare is the white flower that is worn by the locals on top of the hear: open if a girl, a blossom if a man. Additionally, people say that if you put it on the left you are with someone, while if on the right you are single and looking for somebody! However, it's something that is not followed anymore (was it ever?). Anyways, i used to look for a tiare in the morning and wear it as well =) Another flower that is used is the Hibiscus, but this is only for girls:

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Maupiti - welcoming, lagoon & food

Ah, the jewel. This is it, the real paradise. A small island, the most distant from Tahiti among the Society Islands, with a friendly and welcoming atmosphere. As soon as I arrived, I got m first flower necklace ever! Everybody in the airports always gets one from their tour or hotel operators, but me, travelling independently, I never got one. So, when Tehei from the pension was there greeting me with a huge smile, we started with the right foot. When we jumped in her boat with her husband (the young couple running the pension) and offered me a Hinano (the local beer), I knew i found heaven! This is the stupidest smile ever, but I was really happy like a child!

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But the surprises were not over: I did not know that I had the dinner included in the price of the room, and boy how much did I ate of that delicious homemade food: white and red tuna sashimi, duck cooked the oven with a delicious sweet and sour sauce, uru fries (a fruit), tuna bigné, and so much more!!! Simply delicious. Me and the other few guests usually sat in the kitchen with a beer while Tehei would prepare the food, and sing tahitian songs with her husband, to then sit all together as a family and enjoy the food! It really was a great atmosphere, but the island itself provided us with some great moments: the first sunset all together for Tehei's birthday,

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snorkeling with manta rays and enjoying a calm lagoon while drinking coconut water (that I did provide with my great coconut opener skills)

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Or climbing up the central peak and get this amazing view of the different tonalities of blue and azure of Maupiti's lagoon.

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Similarly as Huahine, what I got in Maupiti was not just a nice island to look at for its sceneries, but also a very personal experience, and this is something irreplaceable.

This was my experience in Polynesia. Very short, but enough to give me a first impression of this amazing place. I feel very lucky to having had the chance to make a stop here, and gather some sights and experiences i will difficultly forget!

Now is the time to move on though. Where to? New Zealand!!! It was planned in the beginning to stay just a few days there, but my decision to probably avoid visiting South Korea for the moment (given that crazy fool in North Korea wanting to shoot missiles around), gives me the time to extend my visit to a country that has always fascinated me (especially from the release of the Lord of the Rings trilogy)! This will also give me a few more days to follow the development of the situation in the Japan area, so to keep my travel worry-less as it should be.

I hope you have enjoyed this post and that you will keep following my adventures, right now I am not travelling away from home but slowly getting closer to it, and to you all! I look forward to see you all very soon,

un abbraccio,
Giacomo

p.s. feel like posting some more pics!

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Posted by jack87jack 19:52 Archived in French Polynesia Comments (7)

Chapter #7: Head to head

Experiences from my last South America country: Chile

sunny 25 °C

Hi everybody!

This entry won't probably very long, but I feel the need to write a chapter about it. The reason is that tonight I will leave South America, and head west towards Asia, making a few stops on the way. Moreover, I have a few things to say as always, because it's so easy to gather nice experiences when travelling in such places.

After I left Ushuaia, I went to Punta Arenas in Chile, from where I flew to Santiago. I visited Santiago on my own at first, and kind of liked it, but it was only when I met up with two girls from the city that I met in Ecuador that I discovered that the beauty of the city is in the surrounding barrios, where we enjoyed wandering around. So I am really thankful to them because as always, how a city will remain impressed on your mind as a memory is only based on the experiences you lived there - if a city has a more beautiful central square than the other it does not make that big difference in the long term.

Here a short personal excursus:
The next highlight of my travel happened: I met family. The brother of my grandfather came to Chile decades ago, and became Swiss Consul. He started then a family here, that I've never met - just heard about from my mother. And meeting them was just so nice. Contrary to many families, especially "italian" ones, mine is not extremely large in numbers, which is absolutely not a problem, just a fact. So it was very nice to meet the cousins of my mum, and especially some of my correspondents in age, my two second-grade cousins Paulina and Dominique! Two lovely girls with which I discovered to have more interests in common than I would have expected! I know that for you, travel blog readers, this might not be that interesting, but for me it has been extremely important. It has been a great plasure staying together for a few days, and I really hope to remain in contact with the Chilean branch of the Oschwald family. Great people, great time =) The picture is taken in honour of our shared passion for japanese culture:

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I cannot talk that much more about Chile, because I have not visited much of it. And actually, with the risk of sounding cheesy, when I'll think about Chile I'll think about my family. I'll try to visit them once more and I'll visit the country a bit farther than Santiago!

Now, I am still in Chile, officially. But it just does not feel like it - I am in Eastern Island, or with its original name, Rapa Nui. Even though the best one is for me Te pito o te henua, which means "the navel of the world". It could well be, it's definitely one of the remotest places on earth, with Chile's coast 3500km far away!

About this amazing place: why is it called Eastern island? A pure coincidence: it was discovered on Eastern in 1722 by the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen, who with a great deal of creativity called it... Eastern Island. It does not have anything else to do, and I should know - I was here yesterday, Eastern 2013!!! Being on Eastern Island the day of Eastern is something that sounds cool though, right? Anyways, this place was previously popolated by a community with polynesian roots, and this is still nowadays easy to understand when walking in the streets and watching some of the few native Rapa Nui talking in Rapa Nui (yes, everything is Rapa Nui: island name, people, language). Their appearance and the sounds of their language is something totally unrelated to Chile, who annexed the island to its territory in 1888. As an example, listen to Haumoana, a local musician I met that really does some amazing music: Hapaʻo Tatou
The previous Rapa Nui are those that built the statues that make this Island so famous: the moais, these giant bodies with extremely big heads, that stand lined up around the coast of the island. Most of them were carved on the slopes of Ranu Raraku, a vulcan providing the tuff needed for the statues. I will not go deep in the history of the island, but as a summary these heads were the representation of old ancestors, but as well they embodied the status symbol of a community. This is why during the centuries, fights among the clans led the winners in taking down the moais of the losers, reason why until a few decades ago most of the statues were found like this:

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However, in the 50s their restoration to their standing position started, and nowadays many ahus (altars) have been completely brought back to their original appearance. The most famous is Ahu Tongariki, that counts 15 moais:

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I've been going around the whole island to visit all of these archeological places with a rented bicycle. And eventually I managed it, but the road has been harder than expected. Here the short story: 2-3 hours after I left the only city on the island, Hanga Roa, my tire experienced some difficulties... and got flat. So, I hitchhiked back to town with the bike in the car of a friendly Chilean, got a second one, and with a taxi I got back where I left off. After having been at the vulcano, I left for Ahu Tongariki but then suddenly realized that there was a moai I absolutely needed to draw on my travel journal, so I went back to the vulcano, for the joy of my already tired muscles. Finally, after another few hours of terrain road, I got to Anakena, the only beach on the island, and finally relaxed. However, when biking back, right on top of the hill, with very sore muscles (I'm SO not fit anymore), ready for a long descent, the transmission (how do you call it?) started having problems, and considering that I was already biking with my head lamp as the sun set already, I had to hitchhike again... oh yeah. Bikes were not friendly to me that day.

Anyways, Rapa Nui is not only about these beautiful statues, but the landscapes are stunning by themselves. Considering also that there are hundreds of horses wandering around the whole island, I really did enjoy biking around:

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Moreover, the day of Easter a curanto took place, in which free food is distributed to the whole population! So, I managed to get my hands on a tasty Easter lunch based of a chunk of meat, a sweet potato, some bananas, a po'e (pumpkin cake) and a whole watermelon! How awesome, eh? These are the people in line for the free meal:

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In conclusion, I really enjoyed my stay in Rapa Nui. After the Antarctica, it was time for a warmer place, and I am very happy I could satisfy my curiosity about such a mysterious place. I know I could have written a lot more about this place, it deserves it, but outside the sun is shining and calling for me! So I leave you with three of my favourite pictures, since it's what most of you look forward to:

Long exposure picture with the stars rotating behind a moai, Ahu Tongariki

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A rainbow appearing behind the head of a moai

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A beautiful sunset at Ahu Tongariki

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Next I'll move west, with a particularly nice stop in.... mmh, well let's call them "paradise islands" for the moment! I wish you all the best, and as always leave a comment or write me something somewhere, I do appreciate every message I receive even though it might take more more than usual to answer!

Un abbraccio,
Giacomo

Posted by jack87jack 13:24 Archived in Chile Comments (4)

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