Monday, August 16, 2010

Amsterdam or Amersfoort?

Craig and Annie joined us for a Tues-Fri trip to Amsterdam, about a 6-hour train trip from Berlin. More accurately, we joined them, since they planned the entire trip, bought the train tickets, and booked the house where we stayed about an hour's train ride from Amsterdam in a little town called Amersfoort. We arrived early enough to walk around our scenic little village and eat ourselves silly on tapas.

The following morning we took the train down to Amsterdam, only to be overwhelmed by the hordes of tourists. We walked around with Craig and Annie for a couple of hours looking at crooked buildings on canals before retreating to a cafe for breathing space. Following lunch, Craig and Annie retreated all the way to Amersfoort while Eric and I saw some additional sights.

We visited the Houseboat Museum, which confirmed that Craig was correct in referring to them as "housefloats." Most of the live-aboard barges have neither sails nor motors and only leave their moorings every 3-4 years to have their bottoms cleaned. I guess it's still waterfront real estate, but it kind of takes some of the romance away knowing that they're really only floating apartments. Still, the museum was interesting, with lots of pictures and videos of the creative ways people have utilised the limited space aboard their housefloats.

Then we moved on to the photography museum, as Eric and I both tend to enjoy photography more than Renaissance paintings of fat ladies, fruit, or men on horses. Unfortunately, the only exhibit on was by some famous fashion photographers, which translated to lots of female nudity. For a while, I felt like we were in Amsterdam's famous sex district rather than a museum.

We followed the museums by a stroll through what the guidebook referred to as one of Amsterdam's most "international" markets. It was only international in the fact that in cities all around the world, they try to sell pointless crap to tourists. After killing a little more time at a canal-side cafe with a typically surly waitress (but nice, cold beer), we checked in on the line for the Anne Frank house again. Apparently everyone had read that it was the "must-see" attraction in Amsterdam as the line had to be at least 3 hours long, even at 6:30 pm. Knowing my attention span, after waiting in line that long, I wouldn't have the patience to read any of the exhibits, particularly with strangers touching me. Thank God for the internet, where I can view pictures without sharing others' oxygen!

Amersfoort felt like a refuge after the crowds of Amsterdam, so we decided to spend the rest of our time there. Therefore, our 4-day trip to Amsterdam turned out to include only about 8 hours in Amsterdam, but we were happier for it. Amersfoort was really, really lovely and surrounded by a perfect canalside trail for jogging or strolling.

Our last full day in Amersfoort was the best day of the vacation yet. Eric and I rented a couple of cruiser bicycles and rode down to Utrecht. We were a bit sketchy on how the bicycle highway system worked, turning a 23-km ride into a 2.5 hour tour of the countryside, but it was fantastic anyway.

Utrecht was more touristy than Amersfoort by less overrun than Amsterdam. We enjoyed wandering around for a while before visiting the Dick Bruna Haus museum. I always thought that Miffy was a cheap knock-off for Hello Kitty, but she was actually the inspiration. Dick Bruna started drawing her in 1955, and Hello Kitty didn't appear on the scene until 1980! The Miffy books are the second-best-selling children's books, just behind Roald Dahl's collection. So there.

Overall, we spent about 7 hours on the bikes that day, and it was great to stretch our legs and breath some fresh air. I've been jogging when I can, and goodness knows we've been walking enough, but sometimes the sight seeing really does feel more like a death march than recreation.

One thing that was surprising was how well the Dutch all spoke English. Many of them barely seemed to have an accent. This is in sharp contrast to Germany, where very few people seem to speak English, and where I can't understand the train announcements that are in English any better than the ones in German. Now before anyone gets up in arms, I realise that I'm in their country and speak no German - I'm just highlighting the comparison between the two countries.

Now everyone's first question upon hearing that we were visiting Amsterdam was whether we would be partaking in any illegal drugs. I'll disappoint you all by telling you here that the only Amsterdam substance we imbibed was Heineken. While we had an 8-months-pregnant lady to blame our lameness on, it really comes down to a lack of interest in spending one day of four in a semi-comatose state. And we weren't entirely sure how to order it anyway...

Sunday, August 8, 2010


We only had a couple of days in Munich, which was enough for me. This is mostly because the transition from fish and rice in Japan to heavy cream, potato pasta, and sauerkraut in Germany was too much for my sensitive stomach, and I didn't feel at all well. It was really nice to have Ralf along to order food for us, and he booked us rooms at a very traditional, German inn a 30-minute walk from the Marienplatz, ro the centre of town. A highlight was meeting up with another friend from Sydney, Sebastian, his wife, Elizabeth, and their gorgeous 7-month-old baby, Clara. You could tell the baby was half-German, half-Australian by how happy she was to spend several hours watching us drink huge beers at the Hofbrauhaus.

It's kind of creepy, but I couldn't help thinking as I wandered the streets in Munich how many Jews had owned the businesses lining the streets or lived in the apartments above them. Every time I saw an older person, I wondered what they did, or perhaps more importantly what they didn't do, during the war...then again, maybe I was just sick and thus ready to move on from Munich.

Tokyo and Kyoto

Ten hours after leaving the Australian winter, the first thing that we noticed stepping off the plane in Tokyo was the heat and humidity. After a couple of trains and a long, lost walk to our hotel, we were already soaked through with sweat. Unfortunately, we were forced to drop our bags and go for another wander before we were allowed to check into the hotel.

However, without this delay, we wouldn't have seen any of the eisa dancing up the road in Shinjuku. Eisa dancing is unique to Okinawa, the island where I lived for three years in high school and to which my family returned for several years when I was at university. Okinawa has always been the poor cousin of the rest of Japan, except as a beach resort destination, so this was really unexpected. The whole time we were in Japan, things seemed familiar, like the big, green telephone boxes, but I was sad that I wasn't actually back in Okinawa. At least the eisa dancing was a small piece of the Okinawan experience.

The next morning, we got up early to catch the bullet train, or skinkasen, to Kyoto. I had delusions of it being cooler up near the mountains, but this was not to be. If you look closely at the pictures from Kyoto, you'll see that my hair is flattened to my head with sweat in most of them.

We visited the three "must see" sights in Kyoto, the Golden Temple (Kinkakuji, actually made of gold), the Silver Temple (Ginkakuji, actually made of wood), and the palace (Kiyomizu). The fact that the Golden Temple was actually covered in gold was impressive, but other than that, it really wasn't that interesting as you could only view it from a distance. The Silver Temple was more interesting, particularly for the view down the hillside into Kyoto and the Philosopher's Walk along a canal of small art studios connecting it to Gion. Kiyomizu is an entire complex with lots to see, including a lover's walk between two stones. You are meant to walk from one stone to the other with your eyes closed. If successful, you are destined to find true love. If you already have your true love, he or she can provide guidance by giving directions.

The two highlights of Kyoto for me, though, were our ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn, in Gion, the traditional geisha district, and Kodaji temple, just up the street from the ryokan. When we arrived at the Montonago Ryokan, there were several Japanese staff in traditional dress at the door to meet us. One soft-spoken older lady in a kimono took us up to our room, prepared tea, and showed us how to don our yukatas to come down and use the public baths (which we could reserve for private use). After much giggling and a relaxing soak, we decided to take a quick stroll up to the Kodaiji Temple, which the lady at the ryokan had recommended. It's lit up at night, and it was the best temple we visited. There were only a few people there, including some girls in full geisha dress, and it was really serene.

Back in Tokyo, we went to the fish markets, where we were almost run down by carts of heavy sushi bound for the city's restaurants before a nice security guard explained that the area was not open to the public until 9 am. Then we took a stroll around the Ginza and the Imperial Palace Gardens and finally wound up at the Ooedo Onsen in Tokyo Bay. The open spaces of Tokyo Bay allow an American to finally draw a deep breath after the crowds in the city. Tokyo Bay is like some bizarre, futuristic suburb on an industrial port that was built with expectations of a large population flocking to it from the city, but for some reason it never really took off. Perhaps the Tokyo natives just don't like those broad open spaces. Three hours in the public baths, including a 45-minute foot massage, were fantastic after the four-day "we must see everything in Tokyo and Kyoto" death march. Ralf and I also visited Dr Fish, which involves immersing your feet in a shallow pool filled with little black fish who eat dead skin. I'm not sure of the actual health benefits, but I do know that it feels really funny having hundreds of fish swarming and nibbling on your feet. At first it was so ticklish that we could hardly bear it, but then it dissipated to being just plain weird.

We enjoyed our four days in Japan, although our motivation to visit the sights was sapped somewhat by the heat, but it's not somewhere I would ever want to live. People are unfailingly polite, and the food is amazing, but from an outsider's perspective, it's such an unfulfilling, commercial culture. I've never seen so many shops full of electronics and other things no one needs, or bars filled with businessmen who could be home with their families. It just seems like everyone is looking to buy the happiness that their daily lives can't provide. Then again, maybe I was just hot and grouchy...