Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Why I Let Complete Strangers Into My Home

I cannot tell you how many times I am told of my own level of insanity after I explain to someone how my wife and I travel.  Yes, we are part of a very weird movement in traveling called couchsurfing - a website dedicated to people who will host complete strangers in their own homes for free.  During our recent trip to Japan, we paid $100 cumulatively for 15 nights worth of places to sleep.  That is about $7 a night.  Suddenly travel on a teaching salary is possible.  

A list of things that people have told us will happen to us if we stay with random people or invite others into our home - 
1. Stabbed in our sleep
2. Murdered 
3. Robbed
4. Forced into slavery
5. Organs sold on the black market

So far none of these have happened... Well, that I know of at least. I am pretty sure that I still have both of my kidneys.  If not, I sure hope they got top dollar as I have been taking pretty good care of my innards.

There are always going to be horror stories about people allowing random strangers into their homes, but in the 50-60 people that we have interacted with in the last few years through couchsurfing, we have had nothing but amazing experiences.  This is why I still have faith in humanity.

As I write this, our couchsurfers, who have been more like friends who randomly stop by from time-to-time, are inside teaching my wife how to make spring rolls.  While they are doing this, they are preparing for the next leg of their journey.  Odds are they will be back in a week or so, to rest and recuperate before the next big adventure.  They are rare, usually couchsurfing is a one to two night hosting system.  

For those of you who have never heard of the system, or are curious as to how it works, I will try to lay it out really quick. Couchsurfing works off a system of user maintained profiles.  You have the most basic information, which can just have various information on you, your home, and what you hope to gain out of meeting new people.  Most people though have references, pictures, and other aspects that separate themselves into a category of people that I would consider hosting.  

It is easy to tell who is crazy off of a profile and a few references.

Obviously Nuts

You will notice that the profile has a big green check mark next to the name.  This means that my address has been verified through the postal system.  This means that when I send you my address, that it must match where I get my mail.  This is a great safe-guard against people who might steal your kidneys by luring you into a back alley.  You are welcome.

You can also the see the 29 positive references.  Once a reference is written, there is no way to erase it.  Getting a negative reference can be a death sentence on this system.  I have turned people away for a reference that is questionable or negative.  This ensures that people are, and will be, on their best behavior.  

I'll show you sarcasm

Always List Rules

Make sure you list preferences as well

Once you have an established profile with a a few references, people are much more open to letting you stay in their home.  For us, this has ranged from futons on the floor, to entire bedrooms.  The best part of it is you get to meet people as often as you feel comfortable with.  We have hosted people from every populated continent, and had amazing conversations about anything and everything with people who are just passing through Hawaii.  It can be a great way to expand your own world-view from the comfort of your living room.  Yes, there are times where the cultural and language barriers can seem insurmountable, but nothing is impossible.  We have had amazing Russian food cooked in our kitchen, enjoyed trying to find the best pork in Hilo with a surgeon from Mexico, created new friends from across social divides, and continually challenged our own viewpoints by having conversations about geopolitical issues with people who don't share our same cultural backgrounds.  It can be amazing and enlightening.

Check out the website.  Sync it with your Facebook.  Ask a friend who is currently on couchsurfing what they think - (you will find out who after you sync it with Facebook).  Get over your fear of the outside world and challenge that world-view that you hold so dear.  Perhaps you will learn something new about other people and places - but even more importantly, about yourself.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Common Themes in Traveling

As I am sure anyone who has traveled can relate to, there are certain themes and commonalities that one runs into regardless of location and culture.  While most of these themes are simpler things like hospitality, running into certain types of people, or perhaps in this global age, Starbucks and McDonald's, I have decided to highlight the weirder of the few common themes that I have run into while abroad.

Theme 1: Godzilla
There seems to be some sort of international appeal to a giant lizard that wrecks shop on a city.  I mean, it is infinitely more likely that some race of aliens would destroy a city than a giant lizard, but there must be some appeal to combining elements of the Cretaceous period and massive world-wide destruction.  

Location: Japan
Godzilla seems to be enjoying his time hanging out with Kikaida in this shot.  Not sure why someone pit those two together in some sort of bizarre fan-fiction mash up, but it does seem to work.

Location: Italy
Godzilla seems to be enjoying his time with these stylish older gentlemen.  Nothing says an amazing CD release like Godzilla with some old-school headphones, and three white guys in awesome clothing.  I feel like that one of the left is really making it with his mustache. 

Theme 2: Mouth of Truth
As anyone who has seen Roman Holiday would know, the Mouth of Truth exists to bite off the hand of someone who lies.  Basically if you are truthful, you are not going to lose any appendages that you might stick inside of of the mouth of the giant stone disc.

Location: Italy
I am guessing this is the original location, as Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn visited this location first.  I am sure there is some long-standing local history or something that dates back well beyond the 1953 release date of the aforementioned movie, but I doubt any of that is relevant.  This is also the location where I lost my hand.  Or is that a lie?  Boy, did I just dig myself a hole for my next visit.

Location: Japan
No trip to Japan is complete without finding some form of knockoff Italian artwork.  It goes without saying that while you are eating your sushi and drinking sake, you should naturally be wanting to mesh that cultural experience with Caligula and Caesar.  Obviously. This is also the location where I lost my other hand.  Pretty sure that is a lie as well.  I am really screwed if I ever find a third one of these in the world.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Awesome Japanese Signs Part 3 of 3

If you have not read parts 1 and 2, please head there first, and then come on back over to this posting.  

Part 1

Part 2

I figured it would be fun to post about 17 Japanese signs that we saw while traveling around with my best guesses as to what they mean.  Yes, I know my translations will be incorrect.  That is the fun aspect of this game.  Feel free to comment below if you have a better guess than me.

12. No golfing with dogs.  Also, that golf ball is the size of a beach ball and I am pretty sure than any dog that big would be eating the person, and not chasing a damn beach ball.  That thing is like the size of a dire wolf.
Just Say No!

13. I don't even know if I want to figure this one out.  What the hell is that?  That really looks like an orange, green, and red... poop?  I must be wrong here.  That really cannot be what I think it is.  Those poops are talking as well aren't they?  Holy crap (I went there), there is something really wrong with this sign.
A Crappy Sign... Sigh

 14. That looks like the Pink Panther but much more 70's.  Check out those bell bottom jeans and that awesome hairdo.  Also, I am loving the ebony and ivory aspect of the picture.  Nothing says "Love, Peace, and Happiness" like the Pink Panther and his friends.  Way to go on this sign.
Groovy Baby

15. Flavored Sand.  Yummy!  I think I would love some mutton rice sand.  That must be quite amazing!  

16. Flying Hippos.  Yes, I don't even want to pretend those flying hippos will make sense on any level.  Pretty sure that is either a hippo shaped brown thing following it, or a peanut.  Not sure if hippos eat peanuts.  Just Google searched it - Here is what hippos eat.  Peanuts are not on the menu. 
I Call Bullshit

 17. My wife as a mackerel consuming cat.  Just wanted to put this on the list as she is both allergic to cats, and her face is priceless in this photo.  Also, who does not want to see a giant cat eating some mackerel?
Cute, Right?

Awesome Japanese Signs Part 2 of 3

If you have not read part 1, please head there first and then come on back over to this posting.  

Part 1

Part 3 

I figured it would be fun to post about 17 Japanese signs that we saw while traveling around with my best guesses as to what they mean.  Yes, I know my translations will be incorrect.  That is the fun aspect of this game.  Feel free to comment below if you have a better guess than me.  

7.  This one is obviously about paying attention to your surroundings while you are riding on a manta ray.  I am guessing that there has been a huge problem recently of people who are riding their manta rays and then getting attacked by some sort of flying... penguin-fish?
Situation Awareness!

 8. Pretty sure this one is related to the last sign.  I am guessing that it is about safely riding a dolphin.  Notice how happy the person/duck is to be riding their very own dolphin.  I did of course look after seeing this sign to find these ever-so-happy dolphin rides, but none were to be found. 
False Advertising

 9. "The calm before the storm - have a rough time."  I realize that this one is in English, but it just needed to be displayed.  I am sure that this phrase is a metaphor for life or some shit like that... but who knows?
Thanks Google Translate...

10.  This looks like some sort of bug on crack.  Like, what the hell is on this shirt?  I honestly want to know.  I am guessing it is some sort of undersea critter that lives near those deep-water vents.  You know, the terrifying amalgamations of deep sea muck mixed with some sort of multi-celled organism that is seen on some weird late-night Discovery Channel documentary.  Yeah, that thing.  Here is a shirt of it.  You are welcome.
Is That Coffee?

11. Panther Ring.  It just sounds so damn wrong.  "Presents for you delicious taste.  Enjoy your happy times with this one."  Please tell me I am not the only one who is misreading this?  Damn, that is just messed up on more than one level.

Check out Part 3!

Geocaching in Kyoto

Fushimi Inari has to be one of the coolest things to see while wandering around Kyoto.  The idea of so much work that has gone into this hillside trek renders the hiker both in awe, and oddly shocked when the trail does not have a torii, and instead has sky.  When most of the trail looks like this it is not surprising that you start to get wayyyyy too used to the idea that everything is orange and black, and you will be hiking underneath torii almost the entire way to the top.  It might be the only place in the world where a person wearing "hunter orange" would blend in to the environment.

Nice Shot, Right?

I first wrote about this particular adventure in a different post, but felt that this particular geocache deserved some attention.  When you are hiking up a hill that has torii with posts that range from the size of a tree-trunk, down to ones that would look amazing when matched with a little garden gnome, you can only hope that the cache will be equally thematic.  

Very Tiny Garden Gnomes

Of course the geocache took a bit of a hike to reach.  We had to go off trail, but that allowed for a completely new perspective on torii.  If you liked them from below, you will love the aerial view!

Yeah, Not Very Impressive...

Thankfully the geocache did not disappoint.  After about a minute of searching, I was able to spot it next to some bushes.  Glad to see that Japan has some geocachers with a sense of humor.  Sure made me laugh!


After signing the log by pulling the loose piping off of the top right-hand side, I was able to then rejoin the trail and continue my ascent.  Very cool geocache.  I sure do love when they are thematic like this.  

Awesome Japanese Signs Part 1 of 3

Just figured it would be fun to post about 17 Japanese signs that we saw while traveling around with my best guesses as to what they mean.  Yes, I know my translations will be incorrect.  That is the fun aspect of this game.  Feel free to comment below if you have a better guess than me.  

Make sure to check out Part 2 and Part 3

1. Coffee Endorsement?  Drinking coffee from this vending machine will help you save the galaxy while trying to revive Will Smith's career?
Tommy Lee Jones is a Boss.  Simple.

2. Pepsi will make you look epic.  Introducing Ninja Pepsi.  All the calories but you will see none of them as they gain access to your body.  Sounds pretty bad honestly.
Stoic Pepsi

3. A drink that has sweat in it, must be delicious?  Pretty sure that it is some sort of sports drink, but I am going to guess that the idea of it being a "sweat replacement" drink might need to be translated a bit better.  Not the most appealing name for what I feel like chugging down after a workout.
Also Try Pocari B.O.

4. Come and visit our hill that won the Ms. Japan.  I am guessing that, because it has that goofy little sash.  Must be important.  You will notice that you should go up and to the left.  
Did not do well in the swimsuit competition

5. Alpacas are really cute and of course should be featured on signs.  Pretty sure that this sign says something like "love us because we are cuddly!!"  Notice the two exclamation points, I am sure I did that part correctly.  Score for me!
So Fuzzy!  Ridiculously Effective Advertisement

6. I am absolutely certain that this one is about lighting farts on fire.  Look, the kid has lit what appears to be a campfire by farting, and has also lit his pants on fire.  Also, smoking is bad!
What a Bad Idea!

Make sure to check out Part 2 and Part 3.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Asakusa - Best Geocache in Japan (That We Found)

In a country that has more technology than the USS Enterprise, sometimes the simplest geocaches take the cake.  While geocaching still feels like it is mostly a newer endeavor in Japan, it is nice to see that some of the creativity that would be found in certain cities in the United States is reaching overseas.

On our whirlwind tour of Tokyo, we ended up near Asakusa, so we decided to see some of the local landmarks.  Of course this meant that I needed to bust out my iPad and see if there were any geocaches in the area.  Oddly enough I was about 100 feet from the nearest, and it just so happened to be my favorite of the trip.  The cache itself is a rare example of how to perfectly hide a large-sized geocache in an incredibly busy urban area.  It is extremely easy to search for, though it was well hidden, but we were never more than about five feet from an unsuspecting muggle (non-geocacher).

The best part is that I was being actively watched by a person while I was looking for the cache.  I waited for him to look away and grabbed a box a bit smaller than a textbook from the hiding area.  The look on his face when he turned back and saw me holding some mysterious box was priceless.  I signed the log, waited for him to lose interest again, hid the box, and walked away.  Then I waited.  There is nothing more hilarious than a person who thinks they figured out some secret looking to prove their assumptions, and failing miserably.  I hid and watched for about five minutes while he searched and searched for whatever object I had hidden.  He never found it.  Win for geocaching!

Taken While Geocaching

After passing under what appears to be a giant red ball, (which of course is probably something a bit more important than I am making it out to be), we headed towards a pretty tall building off in the distance.  This was the first time while in Japan where I felt that we were in a complete tourist area.  There were vending booths with massive amounts of different trinkets and other things that were incredibly over-priced.  It was a cool area, but just way too crowded and busy for someone like myself.  

Cool Building Though

We had some great tour guides - a few friends from Danielle's time in school in Daito Bunka - and had a great day of exploring different areas in Tokyo.  

One of the weird things that westerners have trouble getting used to is that the temples and spiritual places are marked on the map with a symbol that we tend to view as quite bad.  Of course there is a long history of how the Asian symbol for the location of a temple happens to be quite similar to some flags and arm-bands of a time period that Germany does not like to talk about.  I am sure you can do the research if you so desire.  Just kidding, I did the Google search for you.  Here you go.   If you look closely at the incense sticks, you can see what I mean.


One of the important things to do when you travel is to try to leave your assumptions at home.  Yes, things are done differently, but you need to try your best to assimilate.  There is nothing worse than seeing that "typical" American tourist who refuses to try the local food, won't take their shoes off when they enter a building, and find anything that is different offensive.  Remember, when you travel, you are a guest, you don't make the rules.  You will be amazed at how much you can learn just by asking questions, and being open to expanding your world view.

We spent the rest of the day wandering Tokyo, enjoying bookstores, coffee-houses, and just seeing and experiencing everything we could.  

Just Watch Out Below

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Stairs, Shrines, and the Wrong Bus

All of Japan is absolutely inundated in stairs.  Everywhere we went, it seemed to be a country that was never happy with the current horizontal/vertical alignment, and decided that it needed to rectify the situation by adding some new feature 500 stairs higher than the old feature.  

Despite our fear of stairs, we decided one day to visit the home-away-from-home of my wife, a college called Daito Bunka.

Of course, that would be if we could ever make it to Daito Bunka.  The college is set a few miles away from the main train station, but it does feature a free shuttle for students.  We slipped onto the shuttle, (of course I stick out like... a large white person surrounded by less-large Asians), and take off for the university.  We arrived at a splendid campus and walked around, taking in the views and seeing the different buildings.  My wife lamented to me that things had changed so much since she had last been there.  She did remark that a friend who was recently there had mentioned that there was a lot of new construction, so we thought nothing of it and carried on on our adventure.  After some time we stopped and sat on a beautiful bench near a wooded area.  I could tell that she was visibly dismayed that the college has changed so much, so we decided to head back to the train station and leave.  That is when it hit us - we were at the wrong damn college.

We were took the wrong bus.

We were in the wrong part of town.

No wonder nothing looked the same.

Back at the train station we hopped on the correct bus (again, I stick out like a large white person in Asia, but my blending skills are at an epic level, and no one questioned our presence).  Perhaps the college has token white guys?  I will have to look into this at some point in the future.  Perhaps I am just that good at blending...

We arrived at Daito Bunka and she immediately recognized the correct college.  Glad to know not much as changed.  We set out on fulfilling an item on her bucket-list.  She had lived here for a year and had heard there was an old temple nearby, but had never had the ability to find it, nor the time to go see it.  It would prove to be the next quest in our journey to climb every damn stair in Japan.  I swear we were going to start throwing up from elevation sickness just off of how many damn stairs we had to climb.  No wonder there is no obesity problem in Japan.  

Halfway Up... Shit!

Based on some amazing map work by me, (not the map that was eaten by the damn deer, mind you), I was able to find all three temples in the area.  We took a first set of stairs to get to the trail that went to the neighborhood.  A second set of stairs to get to the street level in said neighborhood.  A third set of stairs to get to the top of the first temple (wrong temple), a fourth set to get to the second temple (wrong again), but then we hit our Goldilocks temple.  Up a set of stairs that would have put the damn Empire State Building to shame.  They went up, and they did it with gusto.  

After much huffing and puffing, (sorry, had Goldilocks, so I had to go for a Three Little Pigs reference), we made it to the top.   It was so worth it.  What an amazing find.  It was like the temple that time forgotten.  Granted, whenever I think of a situation like that I immediately think of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom...

At Least it is Not Stairs! (Photo Credit: 1)

When one comes across a temple that looks like parts of it have not been touched in quite some time, you half expect it to be something out of Indiana (poison darts, snakes, and Short Round).  This was just immense beauty.  There were stone carvings that must have been older than the written history of the United States just sitting there, no attempt made to keep anyone from touching them, let alone moving or disturbing them.

Finally Flat Ground

No Visible Traps...

Tucked away in little alcoves were figures carved into rock slabs that were about a foot and a half tall.  These were surrounding the temple grounds that were on the hillside overlooking the town.  Here we were, on a temple that had obviously been in use for hundreds upon hundreds of years, that looked like parts of it had not aged a day for a millennium.  It was absolutely beautiful.

We found more stairs that took us a different way back to the university, (oddly enough through a tunnel in the side of the mountain), and finished off our day with warm ramen at a small shop in town.  

At Least the Tunnel was Safe! (Photo Credit: 2)

The ramen place was extremely seedy looking, smoke drifted in the air from the chef and his one patron.  There were beer bottles-a-plenty, and a bit of an angry look when we walked in.  I am sure we disturbed the plan of drinking together, and watching the small TV that was in the shop long into that stormy evening.

Note: The ramen shop owner was very proud of his pork, which came from a shop in Kawagoe.  I would be doing a disservice to him, but not mentioning how proud he was of those pigs.  He even showed us a brochure featuring the pigs and vegetables.  If you are going to do something, do it right!

Damn, he sure was proud of that pork.  

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

On Top of the World (Almost)

Standing at a whopping 634 meters (2080 feet), Tokyo Skytree dominates the skyline.  Based on some very quick and shoddy Wikipedia research, I have recently discovered that I was in the tallest tower in the world.  Not bad for an afternoon of wandering around a neighborhood in Tokyo if I do say so myself.

Upon arrival at Tokyo Skytree, you are immediately lost on the sheer immensity of the tower looming over you.  It is almost impossible to describe just how big the base support structure is as you walk through it desperately trying to find your way... to the location where you purchase a ticket for the elevator.  Up and down stairs, around corners, begging people to show you the way to the correct entrance.  It is almost impossible to find where you go to just purchase a ticket.  I remember walking around the base for about fifteen minutes until we just happened to hit the right set of escalators that took us to the line for the ticket counter.

About a half hour of interactive displays showing the progression of the downtown Skytree area from the past to current landscape greet you in the lobby, and you are offered the chance to pay for a ticket that will get you into an elevator, and take you up at a speed that should be borderline illegal to the observation deck.

After passing through a 1980's era metal detector that seems straight out of the Airplane movie series (complete with little bowl for your keys), you are able to go with about 20 other people into one of a few elevators that will take you up... fast.  Way to freakin' fast.  Your ears will pop.  You will arrive about three inches shorter than you started the trip.  You get to the top and they need to peel you off the floor.

The view is beyond comprehension.

Sadly it was Cloudy

Those are towers in the picture below.  As in towers that were so tall that they block out the radio signals.  It is a concrete jungle, and for the brief amount of time that you are in the Skytree, you are not a part of it.  It is like playing a game of Sim City and you just are there as a casual observer watching your people go about their daily lives.  You are a God.

Then your mortality is tested.  Some asshole who built the building decided it would be funny to put a plexi-fucking-glass floor.  There is something seriously wrong with the sort of person who would think that a prank like that should go into the final design.  

That is a Load of Crap!

It feels like you are in Game of Thrones or 300 and someone is going to come up behind you and kick you in some ignoble, yet amazingly slow motion gesture, to your doom.  I remember telling my wife that I was not scared of heights... yeah, screw that, I am terrified of heights.  I am beyond terrified, that plexi-glass could be rated for a million pounds, and I would not touch that with my little toe.  

I finally worked up the courage to stand on it.  I walked out over the abyss and survived.  I stopped long enough to take a picture of my feet over nothing at about 1800 feet.  

Taken Before I Peed Myself

At what I am going to guess is about 10 seconds to free-fall from that height, I am sure am glad the glass held.  I am sure that 10 seconds would give me quite the amount of time to think about what a dumb choice it was to stand on a damn piece of glass right before I became a part of the Tokyo pavement. 

What I learned:
1. Engineers can have a sick sense of humor
2. I am scared of heights
3. My wife is also scared of heights
4. HELL NO to skydiving

Yeah, Tokyo Skytree is amazing, but HELL NO!

Tsukiji Fish Market

Picture an entire neighborhood in your head, now, fill it with a curving cobble-stone floor that arcs out from some unseen central point.  Add curving rows of stalls that spiral around a center that at times is so far away that the curve appears to be a straight line.  Mix in the smells of fish, briny water, and diesel fuel.  If you take whatever you just conjured up in your mind and multiply it by about ten, you can come close to what the Tsukiji Fish Market is actually like.

According to my extensive five-minute research on the Tsukiji Fish Market on Wikipedia, it is not only the biggest fish market in the world, but also one of the biggest whole-sale markets of any type, anywhere.  Let that sink in for just a second.  Damn, that is big!

If it swims in the ocean, legal to pull to land, and somewhat safe to eat, it is at Tsukiji.  We decided to wander the busiest market on the globe, to take pictures, get in the way, and try to understand just how unfathomably big that sucker is, and we were blown away.

Slow Market Day

The market is so big that you need actual scooters to transfer product and people around the arc.  We went during the off-hours, which is closer to lunch time, and of course wandered into places that we were not supposed to visit or see.  We went in right through a loading dock, past signs that probably said something about wearing closed toed shoes and no tourists allowed.  Took pictures near signs that expressly stated  that the market was for selling fish, tourists needed to stay out of the way, and avoid pictures because they slowed down the speed at which the fish was sold to actual customers (non-rubberneckers). 


It was huge, the sounds were almost overwhelming.  I am not sure if I can even imagine the speed and drama that must unfold as the market opens at some un-Godly hour when humans are meant to be getting their R.E.M. sleep.  The floor was constantly wet, saws in motion cutting chunks of fish that must have been taken directly from Moby Dick.  The amazing speed in which a salesperson could pull a still-live eel out of a tank, nail it to a board, and render it ready for a plate was like that of a NASCAR pit crew.  You know, if a pit crew prepared sushi.


Stopping to take pictures often put you in mortal danger.  You were constantly trying to take a picture, dodge a person shopping, jump out of the way of a speeding motorcycle, while trying to not piss off the shopkeeper who had a knife that seemed to be reminiscent of the Buster Sword from Final Fantasy.

Sushi Chef (Photo Credit 1)

If you are ever able to wake up at some inhumane hour, the market allows about 120 people to watch the auctions for some of the biggest and rarest fish ever pulled out of the oceans.  You would have to be some form of bat-shit crazy to want to be there for it at that hour, but if that is your thing, enjoy!

  5:00am Wake-Up Call?