Travels With Myself

A Personalized Periodic Update, just for my family and friends, of the Ongoing Adventures of Your Favorite World Traveler

Name:
Location: Budapest, Hungary

After nearly 30 years in the financial industry in the US (mostly California and New Mexico), I decided it was time for my second life. I sold my house, sold my car, sold all my furniture, took a TEFL course and moved to Budapest to teach Business English to the business people of Hungary. Amazing mid-life change! I taught for about eight years, then pretty much retired. Now I travel extensively, and have been to more than 65 countries. I have had six books published, mostly about my travels - see my author's page on amazon.com. I have made friends from all over the world. Becoming an expat is the best move I ever made and I plan to continue my travels indefinitely. Come join me on this blog and enjoy the places I've been and the people I've met, past, present and hopefully in the future.

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

The Other Georgia

Having spent my teenage years in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, I always wanted to see what the “Other Georgia” was like, the one in Eastern Europe. It was once again time to expand my horizons, so I decided to visit in very early spring; it would probably still be somewhat chilly in the city, but I was also hoping for some sunshine. Once again, my Expedia search revealed good deals, so I chose a cheap flight to get me there and a touch more expensive one to return. I would take LOT Airlines from Budapest at 1 PM on Thursday, March 30, with an 8½ hour layover in Warsaw (yes, you read that correctly – an eight-and-one-half-hour layover in Warsaw); then I’d leave Warsaw at 10:30 PM the same night and arrive in Tbilisi at 4 AM the following morning, March 31. That was the best deal LOT Airlines had to offer, so what the heck.

Of course, there was no chance at all of a local bus to downtown Tbilisi at that hour, so I arranged for the hotel pick to me up at the airport for a minor charge. Just one concern with this flight, which I realized after I had already booked it: my hotel room booking did not include the morning I arrived, i.e., my room was booked to begin March 31 and check-in didn’t start until 2 PM that day, which meant I wouldn’t have a room for 10 hours after I arrived. I supposed I could nap in the lobby, but that was tacky, so I wrote to the hotel of my predicament, requesting my booking include the night/morning of my arrival.

Well the hotel was amazingly helpful. No problem at all. Not only did they arrange to have a car pick me up at the airport (for 35 GEL, or about $12 US), but they also set me up with a room for the night/morning I was to arrive, for only about $40 US. Piece of cake. It’s always nice to find such cooperative hotels.

And the surprises just kept on coming. When I told several friends about my upcoming trip, it turned out that my young Brazilian friend Raphael had also booked a European trip which would put him in Tbilisi the same weekend as I was there. Cool – I’d have a friend with whom to visit the bars. Then my Canadian friend Dean chimed in with his vote to come along; he could stay with a friend in the area so would save on a hotel.

And – as if that wasn’t enough, when our Russian friend Daria found out about our travels, she mentioned how much she had always wanted to visit Tbilisi and, since at least two of us would be there for a long weekend, she decided to book her trip for the same time. Damn! From always traveling alone to having several friends along. And a real international group: Brazil, Canada and Russia. Excellent. And Daria even speaks the language of the area, so could smooth over any rough spots for us all.

My flights came off as anticipated – fortunately, as such is not always the case. But flying a red-eye special means there are few if any other planes going and coming, so no other flight traffic. Anyway, I spent my Warsaw layover reading and having dinner and napping, then a 3-hour-plus flight to Tbilisi and there I was, at 4:45 in the dark morning, staggering out of Passport Control and looking for my hotel pickup. Who, of course, since my flight was late, was nowhere to be seen. Well, Scheisse!

I hustled over to the Information Desk, amazingly open at that hour, and told them my tale of woe. They asked for the hotel’s phone number and I reached for my shoulder bag to get it and…..no shoulder bag! Oh, Double Scheisse! I’d left it on the plane! With my glasses and my meds and my Kindle. I raced over to the LOT Desk, which was also, amazingly, open at that hour, and told my new tale of woe to the young lady there. Sweat was pouring off my forehead. She immediately called down to the people working on/near the plane and they said they’d found my bag and would bring it to the LOT desk within 30 minutes. Whew! Saved again by Lady Luck. I wonder how much longer she’ll put up with me?

Anyway, I got my bag back and took a regular taxi to the hotel; the charge was only 50 Lari, just a small increase in my original price. The airport is only about 12 km SE from the city center and, as my hotel was in the southeastern part of the city, it only took around 15 minutes to get there. I was able to check in quickly and easily and, without even unpacking (a first for me), I tumbled into bed by 6 AM for a few more hours sleep.

My compatriots were all arriving at different times and even different days. Dean would be in later that afternoon, around 5 o’clock, and his local friend Leo, with whom he’d be staying, had arranged for the three of us to meet at The Breadhouse Restaurant, right on the Mtkvari River, just below where the sulfur baths are located, at Friday around 7:30 PM; an easy walk for me as my hotel was just across the river from the restaurant. Raphael and Daria would fly into Kutaisi (about 180 km from Tbilisi) the following day, Saturday, arriving around 5 AM, and would then have to take a bus into Tbilisi, about three hours away. They would get to Tbilisi sometime before noon on Saturday. We arranged to meet them for lunch at one PM at the famous Clock Tower, next to the Marionette Theater on the edge of Old Town. (NB: The world-famous marionette troop was out of the country, so I wouldn’t get to see them this visit. Damn!)

Anyway, for my first day in Tbilisi I was on my own. I had found a good introductory walking tour on the Internet so decided to strike out and see the city. I was up and about by 9 AM, breakfasted and dressed and ready to hit the trail. I was a beautiful early spring day, temp around 18C/65F. Just before crossing the bridge near my hotel, I checked out the Metekhi Church on a high cliff and its accompanying statue of Vakhtang Gorgasali.
I walked much of the tour, omitting only the climb up to the Narikala Fortress, a trek much too steep and long for my tired old legs. But I saw the famous sulfur baths, the waterfall behind the baths, the Peace Bridge (really interesting), the Old Town and the Clock Tower. I saw the various famous churches (Sioni and Anchiskhati). I found Freedom Square and the Tourist Information center, where I got some information about sights and other things to do.
I went back to Erekle Street and had lunch at the KGB restaurant (“KGB: Still Watching You”). A local Argo beer, some lovely lamb shashlik, accompanied by rice and veggies.
Afterwards, I strolled over to the aerial tramway to take me up to the fortress, but there was a long after-lunch line, so, after a brief nap, I headed up to see the Sameba Cathedral, behind my hotel. It wasn’t far, but it was steep, so I was sweating again when I finally got to the top of the hill. It was worth the climb, however, a beautiful old “wedding cake” style cathedral in soft-tan stone. I turned around and walked downhill (Whew!) and back across the river for a cooling beer at Machakhela restaurant and bar, overlooking the River Mtkvari. I met Dean and Leo at the Breadhouse around 8 PM, but it was fully reserved, so we came back to the area of the baths and found another classy place, attached to the baths, called Gorgasali. Leo ordered for us all, a selection of favorite Georgian dishes, along with the house red wine.
Well, it was simply amazing. In a life filled with travels and samples of wonderful foods around the world, I must say Georgian food ranks well up there among the top five types of food ever. We had shashlik (veal, lamb and chicken), mushrooms covered with cheese, veggies, hachapuri almuri (?), kinkhali and stuffed artichokes. One sip of the red wine – the House red wine, mind you – and I was ready to move to Tbilisi. Best red wine I have ever had anywhere, anywhen, anyhow. Wow! We even had a band and Georgian dancers to liven up the evening.

It was all amazing, but the real treat was the kinkhali. Previous internet research revealed one is not supposed to eat more than five kinkhali at a sitting, so Leo ordered us three each; they’re sort of like dumpling, filled with beef. Eating kinkhali is not like what you're used to doing with dumplings, however. First of all, you use only your hands. (There's a real reason for this: cutting the large dumpling would spill the juice and ruin the taste.) Locals will begin by seasoning the dumplings with pepper. Then grab the dumpling from the top "handle", turn it upside down and take a small bite out of the side to slurp up the juice (Georgians call this the “soup”). Don't let any juice fall on your plate, or the Georgians watching you will start chuckling, and you'll get your chin messy.

Then, still holding the kinkhali upside down, eat around the top. Once you finish the dumpling, you place the remaining twisted top on your plate— in Georgia it's considered an extreme mark of poverty in finances and taste to eat the doughy top. (Plus it helps keep count of how many kinkhali have been consumed). It's also nice to look with pride upon all your tops once, with practice, you get into the double digits with these delicious dumplings. Washed down with that astonishing Georgian red wine, it was a feast fit for kings.

We waddled out of there without even thinking about dessert. I took a taxi back to my hotel, but wasn’t quite ready for bed, so I visited the nearby Sky Bar for a caipiroska and a nighttime view of the city. And damn glad I did, too, as it was worth the time. It had been a great day; perfect weather, new city, incredible food and drink, friendly people, beautiful architecture and sights. I was a very happy camper.
Saturday dawned cloudy and blustery, although the sun did come out later. The temperature hovered around 12C/53F most of the day. The previous night I had arranged to meet Dean at the flea market around 10 AM, to do some shopping for local goodies for family and friends. I left my hotel and flagged down a taxi. The driver was a middle-aged Georgian who spoke no English or other languages than Georgian and Russian. I told him I wanted to go to the Dry Bridge Flea Market. He gave me back a blank look. OK, I was ready for that. I whipped out my Tourinform city map of Tbilisi and showed him where it was, less than ten minutes away. Another blank look. I then mentioned the name of the park next to the flea market area; more blank looks. Sigh. How hard could it be for a native Georgian to find a major bridge in his own city? Apparently, damn near impossible. He exited the taxi and conversed with a nearby buddy, then got back in and away we went. He was obviously still not 100% certain where we were going, but he was giving it the old college try. I kept repeating “market” and “Dry Bridge” and pointing to the place on the map, but nothing. I could see him pondering as he drove.

Suddenly his eyes flew open wide. I could have sworn I also saw a tiny light bulb flash on over his head. He looked back at me (taking his eyes off the traffic) and said, “Antiquo!” YES! The Antique Market! We had a common word. I responded with “Da, da,” nodding my head furiously. His smile rivaled the sunshine (of which there wasn’t any yet). He was a happy taxi driver. We found the flea market, visible to anyone from 100 meters away, on the major street leading to the Dry Bridge and I paid him and got out to see what I could find. I arrived early, but Dean didn’t make it until 11, which was the time he thought we’d agreed upon. We wandered through the flea market for a while, picked up a few gifts and then headed out for our meeting with our compatriots, about a 10-15-minute walk. We got there around 12:45 or so, took more clock tower photos and decided to see if we could find a nearby café for snacks.
Immediately next to the Clock Tower is the Hangar Bar, a cozy little Irish sports pub owned by Rebecca, originally from Virginia and now living part-time in Ireland and Tbilisi. She greeted us with a big smile and recommended her craft beers (very good!) and hamburgers (per Raphael later, also very good). Dean was very happy in Tbilisi as the Georgian government has not yet outlawed smoking in bars and restaurants, so he could stay at our table and smoke cigarettes without going outside. At least the Hangar Bar was well-ventilated.

Anyway, we chatted and watched some rugby (Rebecca is a huge fan) and had a few more beers and some really tasty homemade nacho chips with salsa (just like I used to get in New Mexico) and the time slipped by and then it was after 3 PM and still no Raphael and Daria. No phone calls or Facebook either; I don’t have an iphone and Dean had switched to a local sim card, so nothing was incoming. Dean and I decided they’d get in touch with us eventually, so we took off and headed for the aerial tramway to take us up to the Narikala Fortress across the river.
We got lucky – no waiting line. We shuffled right in, no problem, and were whisked away over the river and up the nearby mountain to the fortress. It was a brief but nice stay. We checked out the statue of Kartlis Deda, or Mother Georgia, a gigantic metallic statue of a woman holding a sword. From certain angles she also looks somewhat hermaphroditic, with the sword she is holding looking more like a dangling phallus. Interesting. A brief walk around the ruined fortress and a short stop at a mountain-top juice bar for refreshments and view-admiring and we took the aerial tramway gondola back to the other side of the river. We could have walked down the 7,349 steps to the bottom of the cliff, but decided, “nah,” not for us.
We checked out the bar streets – Erekle and Shardeni, took a few photos, just relaxing along the way. It was getting to be dinner time, so we stopped in at the Stelzen Haus for some Weiss beer and dinner of meat for me and hachapuri for Dean – his first. Dean had left a message somewhere in the cloud for Raphael and Daria to meet us at the Hangar Bar at 9 PM, and by Georgia, they showed up! We had more of that great craft beer and some food, listened to a local guitar-player/singer and generally caught up.
Turned out Daria’s Air BnB renter drove all the way from Tbilisi to Kutaisi, about three hours away, where their WizzAir flight landed them at 5 AM that morning, to pick her up. He then proceeded to turn Tour Guide on them and, while driving back to Tbilisi, stopped at all the interesting sights along the way, finally getting to Tbilisi around 4 PM. Nice of him to do it and they did get to see a lot more of the country, but we were a touch worried about them, so glad it was all OK.
We walked back down the bar streets to the main bar area near Meidan Square and found a place called BlackBerry, which was furnished in high-backed, soft, red-velvet chairs and large heavy tables and had dark red flocking on the walls. Looked like a French bordello. But they made a mean caipirinha and had some good chacha on hand, the Georgian fruit brandy, so we sipped and relaxed into the night.

Sunday morning Dean had some work to catch up on and Raphael and Daria had signed on for a local three-hour walking tour of the city and environs, so it was definitely time for my thermal bath and hammam visit.

Tbilisi was founded as a city during the 5th century CE, at the epicenter of the Old Silk Road. The name Tbilisi derives from the Old Georgian word "Tpili", meaning warm. The name Tbili or Tbilisi ("warm location") therefore was given to the city because of the area's numerous sulfuric hot springs, which are still heavily exploited in the public baths. It was here I was headed at 10 AM on a rainy Sunday. The bath area is just across the river from where I was staying and I was able to find the Gulos Baths pretty easily, although they are unmarked. Gulos is one of the most highly recommended of the five or six baths in the area.

A first-class bath in Tbilisi starts with a long soak in a very hot tub in your own private room, followed by a rigorous massage on a slab of marble. For interested parties, this is performed with the client au naturel. The masseur (or masseuse; it was just my luck to get a middle-aged bearded masseur in swimming trunks) then uses a coarse woolen mitten to remove layers of old, dirty skin off the body. Next, he rubs a soothing coat of satiny suds into the exfoliated skin and then pours buckets of hot water over the body to rinse it.

As a point of information for an appreciate audience, two of Tbilisi’s most renowned bathers were Russian poet Alexander Pushkin and the French writer Alexandre Dumas, who praised the baths as “luxurious,” and described a bathing ritual not unlike that of today. Why, I could have been in the very bath that Dumas frequented! How about that?!

One bath tradition that has all but disappeared is the “bride check.” It used to be common for potential brides to be met at the baths by a prospective mother-in-law and aunt-in-law who, under the cover of the steamy baths, would examine the girl’s body for defects. It was all very hush-hush and isn’t done any longer. Apparently, young people today have other ways of achieving their goals, like using the Internet.

Anyway, my soak and scrub were as good as always in the hammam I’ve visited around the world. Except for the masseuse, of course. The only better one I ever had was in Moscow, when a lovely young Russian woman barely out of her teens, was able to…..well, that’s a story for another time. Suffice it to say, my Tbilisi experience in the baths was nearly everything I enjoy from these visits. The hot tub soak was in water so hot I could barely stand it, and resulted in rivers of sweat running off me. And my Master Masseur scrubbed me down to the point that there was no dead skin left on me at all – I was all shiny and pink and new. And it only cost me 40 lari (around $13US/15 euro). Great!

I made my way back to the hotel for a much-needed nap, then around 2 PM roused myself to get out again. I did some last-day shopping at the local bazaars and went looking for lunch at the Machakhela restaurant. And whom should I run into in front of the restaurant but Raphael and Daria, just finishing their Tbilisi walking tour. Great timing, so we all had lunch together. Daria bought us a round of chacha to warm her down, as they’d been outdoors all morning in the 8C/43F rainy, cloudy, windy weather. I drank my chacha, but gave them my Cheshire Cat smile; after my bath, I would be warm for at least a week.
Everyone was hungry, so we each ordered enough food for all of us to share. I had the Taster Plate of nine Georgian goodies, including chicken, lamb, beef, and other tasty dishes. Raphael ordered some kinkhali and a meat hachapuri, and Daria had veggies and salad stuff. We all shared each other’s dishes, dipping into the various plates. And generally slurping up all the food at hand. Accompanied by a bottle of that amazing Georgian red wine, it settled us all down nicely.

I walked back to the Hanger pub where we were all to meet Dean and his friends Leo and his wife Amy for another great dinner. Raphael and Daria returned to their respective accommodations to clean up and maybe take a short nap. I killed the time at the pub with some tea and a brownie, still relaxing from the gigantic lunch. Leo and his wife Amy and Dean all arrived around 7 PM, but Raphael and Daria didn’t make it until 8 PM, when we all trooped next door to the Gabriadzhe Restaurant, next to the clock tower and marionette theater. Luckily for Mr. Wallet, we’d eaten our lunch rather late, so just didn’t have room for too much more food. We did manage a few appetizers and I had some very nice Ukrainian borsch, but that was about it for all of us. It was still a nice evening with old friends and new ones and the atmosphere was congenial and warm. I look forward to re-visiting Tbilisi someday in the not-too-distant future.

Tbilisi is a vibrant city, full of energy and life. Lots of noise and traffic and voices and buzz. The people seem rather intimidating at first, especially the men, large (very large!) and serious-looking and somber – kind of like the older Hungarians. But the young people are always out and about at the pubs and restaurants and clubs, having a great time and loving their city.

We said goodbye to Leo and Amy, who had to leave early as they had to get up early for work; they’re both teachers in a local English-language school. We weren’t quite ready to call it a night yet, so we wandered back down the bar street until we found the Drunk Owl bar, a little hole-in-the-wall, smoke-filled place full of music and young people and chacha and beer and that great Tbilisi buzz. A couple of drinks later I hit my wall and headed back to my hotel for the night. I also had a fairly early (for me, anyway) morning call for my taxi to the airport. My three companions were staying over and taking a road trip through the Georgia countryside, so I’d see them in a week or so back in Budapest. A very good first-time visit to a happy new city; I’ll be back.

And so, Monday, April 3, it was time to go. I’d made arrangements for a taxi to the airport, got there, checked in after a brief wait and we took off on time. This leg I was flying Aeroflot, the Russian airline; I’d fly to Moscow where I’d have a three-hour wait, then back to Budapest, arriving around 7:30 at night. The Tbilisi-to-Moscow flight was OK. Once at Shermetyevo airport I followed the signs at from my arrival at Gate 20 in Terminal D to my departure Gate 58, as posted, in Terminal F. It was a 25-minute walk at normal speed. I was once again leaving from the farthest gate in the airport. A person walking at standard speed can usually walk one mile in 15 minutes. I’ll let you do the math.

So, along the way I found the Irish Bar Moscow at the airport around Gate 47, just a short ten-minute walk from my departure gate, and settled on a barstool for a couple of pints of Harp ($10 USD each), a beef burrito, a tortilla with ham and cheese and lots of water. The final bill was 2070 rubles, or $37 USD. I had last been to this little bar in 2004 when visiting friends in Moscow, and I still have the polo shirt. Great ambiance. Gotta love those airport bars. Anyway, I was strolling toward my gate, shopping and browsing the shops, when the announcement came over the loudspeaker that my flight had been changed to Gate 34. Gate 34?! That’s 10-15 minutes back the way I came! Friggin’ Aeroflot.

I hustled back to Gate 34 and waited and waited and finally the flight was called. I got to share the plane with a Russian sports team of some sort, men and women, very large men who took up two seats each. We lifted off and 3 ½ hours later I was in Budapest. Clearing all those Russian athletes through passport control took forever, and a journey that usually takes me one hour from arrival to my front door took nearly two hours this time. Sigh.

So, home again. Spent the first couple of days unpacking, doing laundry, grocery shopping, cleaning my flat, downloading and labeling my photos and writing this blog. Hope you enjoy it. Next up: June 8-19, 12 days on the Trans-Siberian Railway. A major Bucket List item checkoff. Rest up for a Monster Blog! Until then, have a great spring and….try some Georgian wine!

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

A Little Sunshine, Please!


Damn, it was cold in Budapest this winter. Down around freezing during the day and well below at night (minus 16 degrees Celsius, or around zero degrees Fahrenheit). And it wasn’t just a cold snap or two, no, it lasted for a month or so, and that’s just too long for my poor old bones to brave the winter’s icy cold. Hungary even set a new record low in the north of the country: -28.1 C! That is cold! I was hunkered down in my cozy little flat waiting for spring, when I decided I really needed to go find a touch of sunshine. But where to go? I’d been pretty much everywhere around the Med. I looked in my travel guides and checked my maps and scanned the Internet’s lists of possible places to go in the winter and found --- Palermo! Sicily! Hadn’t been to Sicily since my New Year’s Eve trip to Catania, lo those many years ago, and then only to the east coast. So, what the heck, why not check out the northwest coast?

I hustled onto my favorite travel website, Expedia, and checked out the deals and found a really great one, flight plus hotel for four nights only $475 US. And at a four-star hotel, too! Such a deal! I grabbed it and waited patiently for the middle of February, when I was scheduled to go. The flight times offered by Expedia were not as great as in the past, but what the heck, they were cheap. So I opted for the Alitalia flight leaving Budapest at 5:30 PM on Thursday, February 16, 2017, connecting through Rome and arriving at Palermo airport around 10 PM that same night. Too late to take the downtown bus for the 35-kilometer trip to my hotel in mid-town Palermo, so I had the hotel pick me up instead; a minor charge for the convenience.

The Grand Hotel des Palmes is one of those stately, luxurious old-fashioned hotels with bellhops and columns and professional staff that one can still find in some places around the world. It is one of the oldest and best-known hotels in Palermo; in fact, Richard Wagner stayed here in the winter of 1881-2, where he completed his opera Parsifal. Isn’t that interesting?

My check-in was effortless (since I had already paid for my room through Expedia). When a Front escorted me to my room, I discovered I had been upgraded from a Standard room to a Superior room as befit my status as an Expedia VIP. I hadn’t realized I had achieved this status, but, after all the trips I’ve booked through Expedia, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Plus, there was also a complimentary bottle of wine waiting for me. I could get used to this type of accommodation.

Anyway, it was rather late by this time, so I quickly unpacked and checked out the room’s amenities. Turned out the bathroom sink stopper was jammed so the sink wouldn’t drain; also, I couldn’t figure out how to turn the TV on (remote controls are all the same and yet very different) and the damn room safe’s instructions were confusing to the point where I couldn’t get it closed. A quick call to the Reception Desk took care of everything and I settled in for the night with BBC News and my bottle of red wine and began to plan out my weekend in Palermo.

The last time I was in Sicily I stayed in Catania in a flat occupied by the mother of one of my Albuquerque friends, who was teaching at the Naval Air Station nearby. It was winter, so I took some day trips around the area, to Taormina, Syracuse and Agrigento, all of which reeked with history and antiquity. I also managed to ski Mt. Etna; while lava flows down its eastern flank, its northern slope is a ski area. Go figure. Since I was there over New Year’s Eve, I was also able to spend the evening celebrating with a bunch of the US military folks from the naval air station; I hadn’t seen so many cowboy hats and boots since I left New Mexico.

But this time would be different. It would only be a long weekend, but I planned to soak up as much of that great Sicilian sun as I could find and to eat as much of that great Sicilian food as I could stuff in my face. And so, Friday morning, February 17, 2017, after a somewhat disappointing buffet breakfast in a beautiful old ornate ballroom in the hotel, I stepped onto the streets of Palermo. I had found what looked to be a good orientation walking tour of the city on the internet, so set out to find the starting point. My path led from my hotel on via Roma to the Teatro Massimo, one street over.

Movie fans will recall that this setting was the climactic scene in Godfather III, where Sophie Coppola, playing Michael Corleone’s daughter, gets shot and killed (and deservedly so, I might add, in punishment for her execrable performance in that movie and probably, with some foresight, for her directorial debut soon thereafter for Lost in Translation, a movie which proved her directorial skills were certainly on a par with her acting skills).

I walked behind the Teatro Massimo and through lots of narrow, winding back streets and fish markets to emerge, finally near the Porta Nuova, or New Gate, which offered one of the old entrances into the city. From there I began my actual walking tour. The tour took me up both sides of Corso Vittorio Emanuelle, one of the main streets of the Old Town area. I was instructed to veer left and right, up this street and down that one, up a short flight of steps and across a park or two in order to see all of the amazing sights along this route: Palazzo del Normanni (an 11th century Arab-built fortress), the Villa Bonnano park and on to the Duomo, which is Palermo’s main cathedral.

I continued on, gazing in reverent awe at the imposing edifices built along the way, until arriving at the Piazza Bologni, a small square bathed in the warm Sicilian sun, and decided a brief stop was indicated at one of the terrace cafes in the square. I chose the first café, sat down and ordered the dish which is served at every single dining establishment throughout Sicily: Canolo, a crusty sweet cone filled with cream and topped with fruits. It is the dish for which Sicily is known all over the world and I was ready to try one.

Naturally, The Lukatch Curse was alive and well. When I placed my order with the young waiter, he said, “Oh, we don’t have that.” If I’d have had my lupara I’d have cut him down without mercy and then demolished his crummy little café. HOW could they not have Sicily’s national dish? You would think I’d be prepared for these moments of culinary disappointment by now, but Nooooo, I still believe that items shown on a restaurant’s menu will be on offer and awaiting my order. Of course, I still believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, too.

The young waiter must have sensed my disappointment and my desire to strangle him to within an inch of his life (or maybe it was a centimeter, here in Italy), as he quickly stepped back from the expression on my face. I knew it was pointless to waste my breath, so I took a deep breath and surged up from my chair so suddenly the waiter stepped back even further and more quickly and knocked over a passing Carnevale reveler dressed in the costume of a Doge of Venice.

Without apologies on either side, I stepped over to the next café on the square, I Cucci, and, before even sitting down, asked this waiter if they had canoli; when he said, “Of course, it is the national dish of Sicily, and there is a law that every single restaurant in the country must serve this dish,” I sat down and ordered it, still somewhat steamed from my previous encounter. I made that quintessentially Italian gesture to the youth at the first cafe, flipping my thumb off my upper teeth, while muttering, "Ey. Fongoole!" Whatever that means.

Anyway, anti-climactically, the canolo was great and I whiled away a nice restful period in the warm Sicilian sun, recovering from my morning’s excursion and resting up for my next foray along the walking tour route. I continued up Corso Vittorio Emanuelle to the Quattro Canti, or Four Corners, one of the landmark intersections in Palermo. Each of the buildings on the corners is decorated with several levels of statuary and is a popular gathering place for residents. There were still quite a few places to see along the walking tour route, but I decided to leave them for Saturday. Instead, I took off up the Via Roma toward my hotel, still enjoying the warmth and sunshine of Palermo. I checked out the vucciria flea market area, which would be transformed the next day into a bustling hive of great values – or so I hoped.

Short of the hotel I found a small gelateria and had lunch: arancino and soft drink. Arancino is a rice ball, filled with meat and veggies and then breaded and fried. Yummy. I wanted to catch the puppet show over near the Catedrale at 5:30, so, showered and rested, I splurged on a taxi to the area, only to find that there were only two customers for the show, which was then cancelled due to lack of interest. Well, Hell! No pupi (Italian for puppet) for Gary! I enjoyed a quick Moretti beer in a small café next to the Duomo, then decided to look for the Café Internazionale, which I had found on Trip Advisor and which seemed like it might be a fun place to start my evening. My maps didn’t always have the streets marked and it was tough going for a while there, as I slithered down alleyways and poked around corners onto streets which did not contain a single street name sign anywhere. Finally, I gave up and asked a couple of locals where the damn street was I was looking for, and it turned out it was the street I was on. How about that? Palermo has to be the worst city for street signage ever.

I walked down the deserted street, crumbling buildings, peeling paint, trash everywhere (nothing new in Palermo, where the entire city is a giant trash receptacle) and finally found the very faint number “37” scrawled on an abandoned doorway. There was a large board over the entrance to what used to be Club Internazionale. See? I knew this would turn out badly.

So, it was past my usual dinnertime and I was hungry. I strolled back along via Roma and had a nice dinner at the Gran Café de San Domenico, in the shadow of the church of the same name. I wanted something spectacularly Sicilian to start, so I ordered a Bellini. You guessed it: “Oh, we don’t have the proper ingredients for a Bellini, but we can use vodka instead, if that is alright with you?”

It was most definitely NOT alright with me. I considered leaving, but my feet hurt, so I ordered a margarita instead, which wasn’t too bad. Dinner began with some antipasto, followed by a first course of spaghetti Bolognese and then escaloped meat, along with a nice red wine. A nice limoncello topped it all off. The streets were blocked off from vehicular traffic and so were full of people, probably celebrating Carnevale, as many kids had bags of confetti which they threw over everyone they met. I dodged and weaved and they never laid a glove – or a piece of confetti – on me.

I searched everywhere on my trek back to the hotel for a nice bar for an after-dinner drink and maybe some light
conversation with a local or two, but there was none to be found. Apparently, Sicily doesn’t have bars like we in the west know them. They have cafes and wine bars (really just wine cafés) and restaurants and gelaterias, but no places to sit on a comfy bar stool and exchange pleasantries with other bar-goers. So, Sicilians really have no social centers per se, as sitting at a small coffee table with a couple of other people all night really doesn’t lend itself to mingling. Maybe if they had more bars where people could talk over their problems they’d have fewer shootings.

Saturday was to be a busy morning. After another fair buffet breakfast, I found a taxi to take me to the Catacombes di Cappuccini, a place where skeletons, still wrapped in their burial clothes, were on display in coffins and hung up on hooks on the walls. My driver, Francesco, hustled me into a “deal”: he would take me to the catacombs, wait for me while I went inside, then drive us up to Monreale to view the other great local catedrale and take a panoramic pic or two, then bring me back to the vucciria flea market – and all this for only 80 euro.

Hmmm. Somehow, while he made his spiel, I thought the drive between sights would be longer and farther, so I hemmed and hawed and finally said OK. I should have bargained. First, off to the catacombs, near the Porta Nuova. It was everything it was advertised to be, and all for only a three euro entry fee. Gruesome hardly describes it. If you’re really interested in what it looks like, Google it and you’ll see photos. Rich and famous people are entombed here: military, government, entertainment, nobles, priests and there’s even a corner for children and “virgenes.” Real skeletons, many with jaws hanging agape or with skulls otherwise crumbled down into jaws. Smelled musty and death-like, too; in fact, I imagine I can still smell it. I walked all the corridors for about 20 minutes, then needed fresh air badly. Not for the faint-hearted.

Francesco was waiting for me and we took off for the ‘long’ drive to Monreale, “Royal Mountain.” Turned out it was about 15 minutes uphill, if that. I checked out the catedrale, which was impressive, but generally looked like all the other catedrales around town (although its altar pieces were supposedly all solid gold). A brief stroll around the town square, then Francesco took two photos of me at the viewing spot overlooking Palermo and the Mediterranean; since it was a cloudy day, the pics aren’t all that great, but what the heck.

A 15-minute drive back to town and over to vucciria flea market and finis! First he took me for a ride then he took me for 80 euro. Suckered again. When will I ever learn? And to top it all off, the “flea market” was a total bust. It was supposed to be several blocks of antiques and other wonders usually found at such places; instead, it was partially a food market and about 50 feet of tables with trashy treasures and that was it. Hope dies eternal.
I decided to finish my walking tour, which I had interrupted the previous day, so I wandered back to the Four Corners. Just around one of the corners is the Piazza Pretoria, with its beautiful, but controversial, fountain, adorned with nude statues and monsters. Outraged churchgoers called it the Fountain of Shame. Personally, I thought it was pretty cool.

More wandering down side streets and ogling more churches – funny how the more churches you see the more they all start to look the same. I did finally come upon the Palazzo Mirto, once owned by a Sicilian nobleman. At least this palazzo is open to the public so I got a tour (for six euro!), which was nicely done, although one of the interior guards persisted in following me around through the rooms, probably hoping to catch me in the act of trying to smuggle a chamber pot out under my vest. Sorry, amico, not today.

I ended up at the Piazza Marina, next to one of the small harbors, with more palazzos and parks. It was a very long walking tour after all and I still had to get back to my hotel. I did so by walking up the seaside promenade and turning in at the Via Cavour, looking for lunch. I finally stopped in a small café for an arancino and soda, cheap but filling, after which I made it back to my hotel and collapsed in my upgraded superior room’s bed for a nice, upgraded nap, preparatory to what would probably be yet another futile search for some exciting nightlife.

Saturday night found the again-blocked-off streets alive with wanderers and strollers and revelers, throwing confetti around like…..well, like confetti. I walked around the corner to view the Politeama,
another grand theater building. It’s square was filled with people, so I darted down a side street to check out the shops. Finding absolutely nothing I couldn’t live without, I wandered back around the hotel again until I found the Il Mirto la Rosa restaurant. This would be a wine night, so I ordered a carafe of one of the local white wines to go with my dinner. The restaurant had several specials, in addition to their regular menu; these specials consisted of anywhere from three-to-six courses at varying prices. It looked like such a good deal I took it, having the bruschetta, pasta and escalope meat dishes. Not bad. The place only had a couple of other diners when I walked in, but by the time I finished it was packed. Service was slow, but that’s the Sicilian way, taking one’s time while enjoying one’s meal. I would have passed on dessert, but they had a dark chocolate mousse on the menu with a side shot of rum mastelum. Very nice.

Sunday morning found me with the beginnings of another cold. Damn! I just recovered from one before leaving for Palermo, and now here was another one, attacking me from the rear. I chewed my way through breakfast, then found a nearby stop for the Free Bus that went all over the old town area of Palermo. I had found out about this bus from the Tourist Information ladies yesterday and thought I’d give it a try; it sure beat walking. I took the bus over to the Porta Nuova again and went looking for the San Giovanni degli Eremiti, a monument on my walking tour that I just couldn’t find when on foot. That rarely happens to me, so I was somewhat frustrated at the time.

I walked past the catedrale and found the little café I Cucci in the Piazza Bologni. The young waiter remembered me and seemed pleased I had returned. I had a light snack of chocolate croissant and soft drink and once again warmed myself in the Sicilian sun. The streets were closed off to vehicular traffic again on this Sunday, so the crowds were out shopping and eating gelato and generally just walking around, the same as I was doing. It was such a nice day for a stroll and the weather was still pretty warm, so I was happy not to be in the cold of Budapest for at least this one more day. After a clean-up, I had dinner at a quite good Japanese restaurant near the hotel: tempura, gyoza and sushi along with some Italian beer. Due to my cold and stuffiness, I retired early, along with some cold pills I hoped would help.

Monday was a traveling day. Up at 6 AM (yucchh!), hotel car to the airport, plane for Rome left at 10:30 and, after a three-hour layover in Rome, another 90 minutes in the air and I was back in Budapest – and it was cold! Brrr. At least minus three Celsius. Caught the airport bus and then metro home and was pleased to find I had forgotten to turn my heat down when I was away, so my flat was cozy warm. Unpacked, popped around the corner for some Chinese fast food, popped a couple more cold pills and it was Bedtime for Bonzo.
Not one of my more adventurous or spectacular weekends, but a good break from the chills of Hungary. Now I can last until springtime. Only six weeks until my next jaunt – you’re gonna LOVE this one! Until then, Happy Carnevale to all!

Thursday, December 15, 2016

'NOROC!"

Congratulations! You have just learned your first word in Moldovan: “Cheers!” It’s a word I find useful everywhere I travel, as all I have to do is go into a bar anywhere in the world, order a beer, raise my glass to anyone sitting at the bar with me and say “Cheers!” in the local language, and I’ve made a new friend. And that’s the way it was in Chisinau, Moldova. Pronounced, “Kee–shee–know,” this capital city of the poorest country in Europe is also one of the most welcoming. Moldova is a former Soviet republic, squeezed into a tiny area between Ukraine and Romania. With a population of around 790,000 out of the 3.7 million in the country as a whole, this small eastern European city (Chişinău – in Russian Kishinyov; in Ukrainian Kishiniv; and in something else Kiszyniow) – doesn’t really have much to recommend it to tourists; a few museums, some cathedrals, a nice park or two, some big government buildings. But when the sun goes down, the city’s nightlife takes on a whole new turn.

So, let’s start at the beginning. Thursday, December 8, 2016, I left Budapest for Warsaw, then transferred to Chisinau, arriving around 5 PM on a dark, not-too-cold winter evening. Got a taxi from the airport to my hotel in the center of town for only 5 euro – such a deal! Checked in easily (all prepaid through Expedia) and it was out on the town to see what I could find for Happy Hour and dinner. As it turned out, there were three restaurant/bars within 20 meters of my hotel, so my choices were close and varied. I chose the Robin Pub, as I’d read about it on Trip Advisor and it sounded like a fun place. And it was!
I walked across the cobblestone street and entered the pub’s warmth. It’s an olde-English style place, lots of dark wood and brass and even a reindeer head hanging on one wall. I had a couple of Chisinau beers and some caviar-filled crepes as an appetizer and then headed up the street to the Old Bus restaurant. Another interesting place. Dinner was in order, so I chose the veal medallions with side dishes, along with another great local beer. It was very tasty, but not quite hot enough, although still enjoyable. Back across the street again to Beraria Chisinau bar/restaurant/music club for an after-dinner beer and some tunes from a local DJ. By this time it appeared Chisinau might turn out to be an OK place to visit and I was ready for whatever the weekend might hold.
Friday morning dawned grey and cloudy, but not that cold. After a nice breakfast at the restaurant adjacent to the hotel, I set out to see Chisinau. I walked the nearby city park, with its church and steeple, and then headed down Stefan cei Mare, the main street of town. I walked about one kilometer looking for shops, flea markets, souvenir booths, etc. Not a whole lot there – at least, that I could see. I walked back uptown along Bucuresti strada to find the night spots I’d researched: Déjà Vu, Eli Peli, etc. And I found them all, after some searching, so I knew how to get back to them at night.

I looked forward to lunch at the York pub, maybe some roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, but it was not to be; the York Pub opened at 4 PM. But nearby was a place called La Placinte, a popular local chain that served all sorts of interesting goodies, so I settled in there for a warm lunch away from the cold outdoors. I had three separate rolls of chicken and pork, rolled in fried dough, plus a drink, for about $2.50 US. Chisinau may actually have Budapest beat when it comes to prices.

After lunch, another stroll along the main and adjacent streets, looking for various parks, monuments, statues, arches of triumph, cathedrals and museums. Found them all and the afternoon eased by. But I did make it back to the much-anticipated York Pub by 5 PM, only to find that, once again, my anticipation far exceeded the actual event. Yep, the York pub was a small downstairs bar, no real food and catered to the local hookah smokers. The damn place was full of water pipe smoke, cloudy and foggy. I downed one small beer quickly and headed out for more salubrious climes.
The Carlsberg Pub was near all of the other night spots I wanted to visit later, so I stopped in for, what else, a Carlsberg and carpaccio appetizer. Friendly people and a comfortable atmosphere in this small pub helped while away the happy hours until the other places opened, usually either 9 or 10 PM. I found the Military Pub first, but it didn’t open until 10 PM, so I vowed to return (which, of course, I never did). Next was Eli Peli Karaoke Club, which was deserted the first time I checked then started to fill up around 10 PM or so. I hung out and watched the Chisinauians (is that a word?) start their evening’s festivities. I drank my beer and looked on as a few brave souls sang some local songs, in Romanian and Russian, then decided to give the party a jolt and hit them with Great Balls of Fire. Well, they loved it!

It seems that every time I sing this song at any karaoke club anywhere in the world, no matter what songs have come before or what the audience is doing, they all jump up and dance. Such is the enduring power of American rock and roll. The evening progressed from there, with more songs and some of the English speakers even buying me beer and tequila shots. I was a hit in Moldova. I didn’t find out until my third song that we had to pay to sing! Damn, shades of Tokyo! OK, it was only a dollar per song, but still – they should have paid us for the entertainment. All in all, it was a fun group, and I left around 1 AM reluctantly, but I had to walk back to the hotel along very uneven sidewalks and cobblestones. Made it safely and fell into bed, satisfied that I had survived yet another successful Friday night at the pubs.
Saturday was another walking tour of Chisinau, this time to see the Parliament building and the President’s rather unassuming house on a residential side street and more parks and statues. I whiled and walked away the morning and had a light lunch at a small eatery until my afternoon pickup for my tour of the world-famous Cricova Winery, of which, of course, I had never heard. The Cricova Winery stores its Moldovan wines in more than 100 kilometers of tunnels beneath the Moldovan hills, about 15 kilometers from Chisinau. Electric carts are used to get around to visit the huge tuns of wine and the many thousands of barrels (called “barriques” in Moldovan) in the vast underground wine city. There are also five tasting rooms for visitors and tours. In addition, the complex houses a huge collection (20,000 bottles?) of special and rare wines, including some from Herman Goering’s collection. There are also unique wines from other countries. There is one wine in the collection, Jerusalem de Paste (Easter Jerusalem), that was produced from a single lot in 1902.

I asked our tour guide if anyone ever drank any of these rare wines, and she replied, with an astonished gasp, “Oh, no!” She also said most of these wines cannot even be drunk due to age, rot, etc. So I wondered, since wine is meant to be drunk and to make people happy, what is the purpose of keeping these wines if no one ever drinks them?

Anyway, our tour of around 20 thirsty folks from around the world boarded our tram and scooted off to the tunnels, checking out the long underground passages. We viewed the collection mentioned above and ended up at the Tasting Rooms, where we were treated to four of the winery’s ‘best’ wines; this tasting was included in our 55-euro visit. Immediately after our tasting, and before returning to the surface world, we were ushered into the ‘gift store,’ where we were allowed to purchase various wines and other souvenirs. Those crafty Moldovans weren’t born yesterday; they know that wine loosens tongues and wallets and that after imbibing several glasses, visitors are much more likely to buy a few bottles to take home. I succumbed and picked up a wonderful bottle of Zeus after-dinner wine, nectar on the tongue. I knew I’d have to check my carry-on suitcase to get the wine back home, but it was worth it.

I was in such a good mood after the tour and tasting that I asked my driver to drop me off at one of the local restaurants I’d intended to visit during the weekend, Vatra Neamului, just around the corner from the Déjà Vu music club. What an experience. It was a perfect dinner, from my welcome at the entrance by my waiter for the evening, Ruslan, all the way through to the complimentary homemade cherry vodka digestif. I was hungry, as I’d only had a light lunch hours ago, so started with an appetizer of chicken in cheese sauce, then went for the rabbit with side dishes of mashed potato and grated cheese with a startlingly-spicy red pepper. Yum! And accompanied by a lovely white wine (Purcari, but the restaurant didn’t offer Cricova!). Dessert was a pear in wine sauce with ice cream.

I was even honored by a dinner conversation with the shift manager, Svetlana, a beautiful Moldovan woman who had worked in the US for some years and spoke perfect English. I waddled out of the place and strolled blurrily back to my hotel. I could go back to Chisinau just to repeat this experience.

Sunday I was determined to find the central market that had eluded me on Friday, so I set out on Stefan cei Mare with a will and lo and behold, there it was, just off the main street, no signs or anything, and jammed – packed – seething – with weekend shoppers. Unfortunately, this central market is a commercial market, which means it has mainly household items, such as kitchen ware, electronics, clothes, shoes, coats, hats, bedding, etc. Basically no souvenirs. Bummer. I searched all over and fought the crowds with knees and elbows, but to no avail. No souvenirs,
However, I did get to have lunch at the Smokehouse BBQ nearby, which was a nice change. I had the pulled pork served on a bed of fries and covered with a fried egg and served in a clay pot. Wonderful. Since it was just after noon, I also ordered a mimosa – orange juice and champagne. What the heck, a day to splurge. Well, the waiter brought me a champagne glass and a pitcher – yep, a pitcher! – of mimosa. I managed half of it and then tried to find the exit. What a happy city.

A little more strolling among the holiday crowds and small amusement rides set up for the kids, around the Arch of Triumph (I never did find out what the triumph was), then an afternoon rest. I decided not to stray too far from the hotel for dinner, so walked across the street to the Robin Pub, where I had yet another amazing feed. Along with more Purcari rosé wine, I had veal in flaming brandy, accompanied by mushrooms and two small baked potatoes. The splurging continued after dinner with a dessert of crepes suzettes covered with more flaming oranges and brandy mascarpone. Topped off with a Sambuca, it was enough to see me through the night.
And Monday it was back to Budapest. Managed to sleep in and get to the airport early afternoon. Caught my flight to Vienna, then a four-hour layover and finally home around 10 PM. Chisinau may not be the most exciting city I’ve ever visited, but it was certainly one of the best culinary experiences in recent years. And the prices are still extremely reasonable.

So no more travels planned for a while, but will check my maps and see what’s available. I need to start saving up for my gigantic summer trip in 2017; more on that later.

Until then, Happy Holidays, Merry Xmas, Happy New Year, Safe Travels and Happy Trails to one and all. See you next year.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

KANPAI!



That’s ‘Cheers’ in Japanese, a word which is always good for meeting people in Tokyo pubs. Actually, I probably should have entitled this blog ‘Takasugimasu,’ which is Japanese for ‘That’s too expensive!). Damn, things cost a lot in Japan! Some things are worth it, some are not, and there are always some good deals if you know where to look or stumble upon them. But I get ahead of myself. And so, without further adieu, onward and upward to my latest adventure in the Land of the Rising Sun.

In general, the Orient is still not uppermost on my list of places to visit, but Expedia sent me a flight deal I just couldn’t pass up: Budapest to Tokyo and return on Qatar Airlines, a really nice airline, one stop, for just $541 US. Such a deal! So I had to take it. I decided on a ten-day visit, basing in Tokyo and taking day trips to other areas of the country. I had lots of input from people I know who used to live in Japan, so was heavily armed with things to do, places to go and people to meet. I picked and chose, noted and separated, and finally narrowed down the 1,001 things to see and do to a more manageable number. In preparation for my trip, I was even able to buy Japanese yen here in Budapest, so, after a two-month hiatus after my last trip to Sardinia in late July, I was ready to hit the road once again.

At least I had a decent departure time, 7 PM on Monday, October 3. The initial five-hour flight to Doha was easy, although my one-hour connecting time only left me enough time to hotfoot it the quarter-mile stretch of the Qatar Airport I had to traverse to get to my next flight; yes, the airlines are still putting my arrival and departure gates far enough apart that an Olympic sprinter would have a hard time making the connection. But make it I did, as the next flight was boarding, so I sweated and huffed and puffed and sank into my aisle seat for the 11-hour flight to Tokyo. I watched a couple of movies along the way and caught a couple of naps and generally just enjoyed the Qatar Airlines service and narrow seats. One particularly interesting warning flashed on their computer screens made me smile: “For your safety, please remain in your seat when praying on board.” Don’t want those prayer rugs cluttering up the aisles.

I arrived at Narita Airport around 6:30 on the evening of Tuesday, October 4 and, after clearing passport control and picking up my checked suitcase, found the airport’s bus limousine service desk. Bought my limo bus ticket (for only 2,000 yen, as compared to the 3,200 yen advertised – senior discount, don’tcha know? And the counter person actually volunteered this information, which would have never happened in Budapest!) and walked out into the amazingly humid night air to await my bus. Narita is around 65 kilometers from Tokyo, so the trip to a major metro station ‘near’ my hotel would take at least 90 minutes, maybe more, depending on traffic. The bus arrived on time and the curbside assistants loaded my bag, I got on my bus (“Happy Coach #16”), and the assistants bowed the bus away. (NB: The Japanese do a lot of bowing). These assistants had the name of their employer on the back of their shirts – Friendly Bus Company. It looked like my stay in Japan would be marked by smiles and friendliness all around.

The limo bus dropped me off at the south exit to the Shinjuku metro station and I was immediately engulfed in a swarm, a horde, a plethora of travelers and tourists trying to figure out where they were and how to get where they wanted to go. Knowledgeable traveler that I am, however, I came prepared in case the limo bus couldn’t take me to my hotel: I had an internet-printed location map for my hotel, to assist taxi drivers in finding it. I flagged down a taxi and showed him the map; he knew right where I wanted to go and I climbed in and we were off – to the wrong hotel! Yep, he’d read the map wrong. He corrected his GPS helper and we finally got to the right place.

Once at my hotel I learned one of the wonderful things about Japan: the total fare was 1450 yen (around $14.50 US, or 14 euro; to get the exchange rate in dollars and approximate euros, just divide the yen by 100), but, since the driver had taken me to the wrong hotel at first, he only asked for 1000 yen. Would this ever happen in Budapest? You can bet your taxi driver’s tire iron against the side of your head it would not!. My initial forays into Japan were going well.

I checked into the Tokyo Palace Hotel, just down the street from the Shin-Okubo metro station on the Yamanote Line (the metro line that circles central Tokyo). The room was small, but adequate, with a tiny bathroom and a lovely view of the building next door’s wall. Who cares? I’d be out most of the time anyway. And at least it was air conditioned, which was sorely needed in the Tokyo heat and humidity. I unpacked and hit the street in search of dinner and maybe a beer or two. And I found – OMG! – Yoshinoya Beef Bowl! I love this chain and hadn’t had one of their signature dishes since I’d left the US in 1999. I ordered one at the counter; complete with free pitchers of ice water nearby (if you want ice with your drink, you need to ask for it “onzarokku;.” think about it). It was my first culinary explosion in Japan and, unbeknownst to me, not to be my last.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016 – my first full day in Tokyo. Lots of admin things to take care of, like getting my metro smart card, visiting tourist agencies to arrange day trips, etc. After my 500- yen breakfast in the hotel, I got a single ticket to the next metro station, Shinjuku, which is a major stop and, after wandering around looking lost for a while, I finally found the ticket office where I could purchase my Suica Card and load it up with credit for the metro. No prob. There was a 500 yen deposit and I bought 1500 yen worth of credit to start me off, figuring I could replenish the card when needed.

Next was a nice stroll to the fairly-nearby Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building and one of the Tourinform offices. Although they don’t book the actual tours, they did give me information on a local agency that does. I also was able to make my online reservations for the Robot Restaurant and Show for that night, a must-see for all Tokyo visitors. Before leaving the building, I rode the elevator to the 45th floor and checked out the entire city of Tokyo and beyond, even managing to catch a glimpse of Mount Fuji in the distance.

I found the tourist agency recommended to me, and was informed there that they only spoke and handled tours in Japanese; hmmm, won’t do me much good. The nice lady did give me the name and location of another agency not too far away, so I checked them out after a rather long, sweaty walk – damn, but it was humid! Anyway, after a protracted computer search for my requested tours, the kind young woman at this new agency informed me that they did not have or book any of the tours I wanted in English for tourists. Hmmm again, it was beginning to look like Tokyo was not a very tourist-friendly place after all.

After a yummy late beef bowl lunch (I really love those beef bowls!) and my second shower of the day, I metroed back to the Kabukicho area in Shinjuku for a quick beer or two (Bass ale, if you must know, at 800 yen for a 0.33L draft – you figure it out!) at the Hub bar, after which I caught the show at Robot Restaurant. Well, sports fans, this show must be seen to be believed. I suppose it’s based on the Japanese sub-culture known as manga, as there are gigantic electronically-controlled robots and real people and robotic animals and dragons and all sorts of crazy things. It was about 90 minutes long and, at 8000 yen per head, was not cheap. It was full of lights and colors and noise and music and flash; my grandkids would have loved it.
After the incredibly loud and bright show, I headed over to the nearby Golden Gai shabby-but-fun area to see what all the Trip Advisor fuss was about. This small (four-short-square-block) enclave apparently sprang into being in the aftermath of WWII. It contains more than 300 teeny-tiny bars and shops and restaurants, with décor from the 1950s through modern day. Many places have a cover charge of 1000 yen (yep, $10 US!) and nearly all have barstool space or small tables for maybe 15 people or so. Definitely cozy.

I had a beer at the Death Metal bar (not usually my kind of place) and then, as I was strolling the small narrow alleyways in the area, was waved into a bar by a young Japanese man and woman sitting alone at the bar. The night picked up from there. I chatted with Kenko and Kamiko and with the bartendress, Keiko, for a while, until we were joined by two Spanish women, a Belgian couple and then two women and their male friend from Los Angeles. Lots of good conversation, several expensive beers and not an iphone in sight. Great evening.

I found out as I staggered back to the metro station that the metro closes at 11 PM and, since it was now after midnight, it looked like I might have to find an alternate way home. Tokyo taxis are also very expensive, but I was choiceless, so I hailed a taxi and showed the driver my Google Locator Map. We somehow got me to my hotel for only around 1000 yen, a bargain at twice the price, especially as the alternative was to crash in a doorway like a homeless person. It turned out the 7-11 in my neighborhood was still open, so I got a couple of char-sha-bao dumplings and a Gatorade and watched my only English-language TV channel in my room, CNN, and finally sacked out. A helluva start to my visit. I should have known it couldn’t last.

Thursday and I was determined to find a travel agency that could and would book me an English-language tour. Apparently, determination is not enough these days, as I failed miserably. Went to three other agencies in the Shinjuku area and none of them could help. I was crushed and defeated. No Kyoto. No Hakone. Kamakura? Well, we’d see. Since I was in the area, I thought at least I’d go check out Godzilla, on the 8th floor of one of the nearby hotels. I asked at the first floor reception desk and the woman there told me I could only see Godzilla if I was a guest of the hotel or had a meal in their restaurant. Well, SCHEISSE! What kind of friendly, welcoming tourist ambiance is that?!

I couldn’t even muster the energy to check out the local onsen (baths). I was so down and upset that I paid 3500 yen for the Hop On hop Off bus tour around the city. What a waste of time and money. The sights included a broadcasting tower and a couple of bridges and not much else. Where are all the cool sights in Tokyo? Guess you have to walk to them to find them. Bummer. Back to the hotel for a late afternoon shower and rest-up before looking for more nightlife.

I’d heard about What the Dicken’s pub near Ebisu Station metro stop, so rode down to check it out. Turned out it’s on the 4th floor of a medium tall and narrow building, a smallish bar with no windows, old scarred wood and lots of character. Live music started around 9 PM, but the band and venue were apparently not overly popular, at least on the night I was there. I had a couple of expensive beers (six euro for a small draft Bass ale; imported Corona and American Budweiser bottles were 800 yen; that’s $8 US or around 8 euro for a small bottle of beer. Wow! Fortunately, I don’t drink either of them, so was spared the overcharge) and listened to the blues band for a while, but the place had little or no energy, so I wandered off in time to catch the metro back to my stop.

Friday would be my first shrine day, when I went looking for one of the most important and major shrines in Tokyo, the Meiji Shrine. I got off the metro at the Harajuku station, which also happened to be a major shopping area; maybe I could KTBWOS. The shrine itself was located in a huge park on the west side of Tokyo. I walked through the quiet, serene, green, tree-filled park, on its well-kept paths, to the main shrine area. There really isn’t much to the shrine itself, just a few traditional buildings surrounding a central courtyard, with the Meiji shrine off to one side. No photos allowed of the shrine and respectful attitude was required by several signs in the area. Also, at the entrance to the courtyard there is a raised well with small bamboo dippers for washing one’s hands before entering the sacred space. Interesting.
I wandered around for a while, noting the special areas where people left prayers or requests or poems, kind of like the Buddhist temples I’d seen in Nepal. While I was there a wedding procession appeared from the inner temple area, walking solemnly through the main space. It was a nice, reflexive time to spend just enjoying the solitude, even with so many tourists around. I did notice that the tourists were all very well-behaved, no shouting or running or other noise. Even more interesting.

I exited at the front gate of the shrine and crossed the metro tracks (BTW: nearly all of Tokyo’s metro trains are above ground!) to emerge at the start of the Harajuku shopping area, Omotesando Street. This long stretch of divided street, with trees along the sides and in the middle, is sort of like Budapest’s Andrassy Ut, filled with upscale stores and shops and restaurants and other interesting commercial enterprises. I hadn’t had breakfast yet and was looking for a restaurant I’d noticed on my Google map, called Eggs n’ Things. I had no preconceptions about this place, but it sounded like a good place for my first meal of the day. Since it was now almost noon, I was ready.

I found the restaurant down a side alley just past the first intersection on the main street. A two-level eatery, it specialized in breakfast dishes, and they had them all: omelets, all sorts of eggs, Eggs Benedict with various inclusions, Mexican eggs, pancakes, real corned beef hash, etc. A truly great egg place. Since it had been years for me, I ordered the corned beef hash with eggs over medium, potatoes, toast and orange juice. No pancakes – this time! When my order arrived and I dug into it, I started making those yummy noises of pleasure I seem to do when confronted with marvelous foods, the tastes of which are almost orgasmic in their pleasure. People at other tables stopped eating to watch and listen to me as I enjoyed my meal. I finally quieted down and let them get back to their own food, but I was definitely in foodie heaven in Tokyo. Budapest has nothing like this expertise with eggs n’things.

Satiated for the time being, I walked the length of Omotesando Street, checking out the shop windows and looking for souvenirs. Nothing caught my eye, but the stroll was a nice one, with temps around 20 degrees Celsius and humidity maybe around 70%. Hot but pleasant. Coming to the end of the street, I turned right onto another major, more commercial, street that would eventually take me down to the Shibuya area, another stop on my schedule. I checked out the United Nations University building for possible shirts for my daughter, but nothing there. I also visited the Aoyama Gakuin University campus, doubting that these colleges would have what I wanted. Did I find it? You’ll have to ask Morgan after the family open their Xmas box from Hungary.

Once down in the Shibuya area, I crossed under the metro tracks to the famous Shibuya Crossing, where pedestrian-striped crossing lanes cover the street corners at right angles and also diagonally. When the lights change, everyone crosses everywhere. It’s truly a madhouse, but no one ever seems to get injured. I did think a seller of t-shirts would do well there, however, with the slogan, “I Survived Shibuya Crossing.”

I was looking for the Hobgoblins pub, but got sidetracked into the Dubliner pub for a quick afternoon beer. Get this, my Irish friends: a small draft Yebisu (local) beer, 0.33L, was 500 yen, or about 5 euro; a ‘full’ pint (0.4L!) was around 10 euro. And you thought Dublin prices were high! (NB: Tokyo is the 5th most expensive city in the world). I did finally find Hobgoblins, located in another tall building; the only indication of its existence was a sign among many others on a vertical strip high up on the side of the building, very hard to spot unless you know what to look for. I’d be back to check out the inside later, as the bar didn’t open until 6 PM.

After my by-now standard afternoon shower and rest, I was back in the area for Happy Hour at Hobgoblins. They had a good draft selection, and I was pleased and surprised to find a Belhaven’s Twisted Thistle ale on tap. I could only afford one small beer at $8 US (a ‘pint’ at 0.473L was 10 euro), but I did have the jerked chicken platter at 1400 yen, paid for with my credit card, to which the bar added a 5% service charge. I had originally ordered the Sriracha Chicken Kebabs with side dishes from the menu on the bar, but the bartender informed me their chef didn’t come in until 9 PM and that “They didn’t have that.” See?! It IS me!!!

BTW - a small bottle of Hoegaarden Dutch beer or a small draft Guinness was 10 euro. At least the sky-high process kept my beer consumption way down.

I managed to find enough pocket change for one more beer and also chatted with the bartender about the evening’s entertainment. I had noticed a rather large group of people taking up the back half of the seating area; they were mostly fairly quiet, but there were a lot of them. When I asked the bartender about the possibility of live music that night, he told me there wouldn’t be any, and besides, it was rather pointless, since the large group of people in the back half of the bar were all deaf. I looked again and sure enough, lots of hand signals but no shouting to be heard. Unless, of course, you include waving your arms all around.

I lingered as long as I could, without live music or other travelers or locals willing and eager to engage in social conversations, then finally headed out to stroll the Shibuya area for a while. It was an amazingly quiet early Friday night, unlike Budapest, where the fun never stops on into the wee hours of the following morning. I was enjoying Tokyo, but couldn’t say much for its night life.

I decided Saturday would be my big shopping day. I had a list of things I wanted to buy and I was hoping Tokyo could provide me with them. I chose the Koenji district, as shown in various online guidebooks, as the best place for me to browse. I arrived around 9:30, just 30 minutes before I presumed the stores opened on the weekend, just as they did during the weekdays. I had enough time for a leisurely breakfast at Becks, in the metro station, then went in search of all the stores I had listed. There was still a light – and sometimes heavy – rain until noon, but I was determined to visit each and every shop and I’d be damned if a little water stopped me.

Naturally, shop hours posted on the doors indicated these shops don’t open until 11 AM, 12 PM, or 1 PM on Saturdays. Sigh. Murphy was chuckling in the background. I strolled through the rain and the fortunately covered arcade, looking in windows and still trying to locate the shops I wanted, until, at last, several of them opened. To make a long, ugly story short, none of the shops I visited had anything I wanted or was looking for – NONE! I wasted several hours browsing and then said to hell with it and went looking for the Harley Davidson store near the Hatagaya metro station. Did I find it? Was it open? Check with Tony late Xmas morning to find out.

That night I wanted to try one of the yakiniku restaurants, which advertised lots of meat. I found one near my hotel, place called Ting, and settled in at the counter for my experience. Turned out the yakiniku restaurants have small grills at your table or counter on which you can grill your own rather small portions of meat. Cool. Side dishes are ordered separately. I had two portions, one of beef loin and one of beef tongue, which I hadn’t had in years. I grilled them until they were just like I wanted them, then scarfed them down, accompanied by a beer or two. With the two beef dishes and two small beers, my bill came to 2700 yen! Wow! I wandered away, full of beef and beer and empty of wallet. I did look into a nearby shot bar, but they wanted a $30 cover charge (kaba chaji), so I passed. I was planning a long day trip on the morrow, so, after charging my metro card with 2000 yen at the 7-11 near my hotel, I turned in at a reasonable hour.

I was unable to find an English-language tour to see the Great Buddha in Kamakura, but noticed in my Tokyo Guidebook that I could take a metro train there, so early Sunday morning I headed over to Tokyo Station, the main railway spot in town, to check it out. I actually found the right train with little difficulty, and took the 90-minute ride, changing trains once I got to Kamakura for a short ride to the Buddha location. I walked down the main street of the small town at the end of which is a small park with the Great Buddha. It was raining lightly off and on, but I was not to be deterred. I’d probably never be back this way and wanted to see what I could of the major sights.

Well, let me tell you folks, that is one BIG Buddha.
He sits all alone in a clearing in the park and waits for people to drop by to say “Hi.”. Tourists abounded in the area, but not to excess. I spent some time contemplating the Big Guy and then decided he was worth going to see but not really worth seeing. At one point I joined a line to go inside the statue and climb up into its head, but there was a sign outside the entrance warning people that it was dark and slippery inside and to be careful. After due consideration, I decided this type of dark and slippery, inside the head of the Great Buddha, wasn’t my thing, so I headed back to the metro stop.

On the way I picked up a few souvenirs and then noticed an anomaly in Japan: a small ice cream shop advertising real Turkish ice cream. The proprietor was from Morocco and his wife was Turkish, and when I asked them they assured me their product was the real thing, that exact ice cream made in Turkey, the best ice cream in the whole wide world, in my humble opinion. So I had a cone, and it was real Turkish ice cream. Another culinary orgasm; my taste buds cheered and I was weak with pleasure.

I returned to the Tokyo Station and, when I clocked my card out of the exit terminal, I noticed the trip had cost me the 2000 yen I had put on my metro card the previous night. Well, I suppose it’s better than a $90 tour. I walked over to the Imperial Palace grounds, hoping to get in to see the palace, but found out tourists can only walk the grounds and entry to the palace is forbidden 363 days of the year. Yet another tourist-unfriendly rule.

Sunday night I returned to the Hub bar in Kabukicho for a couple of small Bass beers (at 500 yen each) and some pretty good fish and chips bites (at only $6, a better deal than the beer). There must have been 10,000 young people on the streets that night; I found out later that Monday was a school holiday, so the kids were out and about. I weaved and wended my way through the madding throngs and called it another early night.

On a cloudy and cool Monday morning I metroed down to the Tsukiji Fish Market, not, as you might have guessed, for the 5:30 AM tuna auction, a time which is way beyond my ability to recognize these days. Instead, I just wanted to see the area and have some fresh seafood. So, late morning I arrived near the kabuki theater and walked down to the fish market, wending my way again through the labyrinth of shops, small markets, seafood sellers, restaurants and souvenir shops, all crowded into an area the size of a postage stamp. During my foray into this tourist-packed space, I managed to munch on a dumpling and then found a sushi restaurant that wasn’t overflowing with hungry tourists. I sat at the upstairs counter with the other tourists and had a wonderful plate of fresh, fresh sushi, along with a pre-noon beer. Everyone in attendance, including the sushi chefs, was smiling and happy and full of energy and the sushi capped it all. Great time.

In the early afternoon I walked back to the Ginza shopping area, only to find the New York Police Band holding a parade down the main street. When they finally finished their march, I strolled the Ginza, checking out the upscale and luxury stores for anything I might need or want to pay exorbitant prices for. I must admit to a disappointment with this area, after so much hype over the years. It was just another concrete canyon filled with overpriced stores and badly-done displays. I didn’t stay long.

I did, however, catch one of the matinee kabuki shows at the big kabuki theater I had passed that morning. It was brief and fun and full of energy and leaps and arm-waving and shouting. I guess you have to be raised in it to appreciate it. Plus all the parts are played by men, not a particular draw for me. Ah, well, maybe in my next life.

That night I was back again in Kabukicho to find one of the many izakaya restaurants in the area. These are basically Japanese tapas bars serving food and drinks for reasonable prices – at last! I found what looked like a good one and entered the basement venue, full of noise and smoke and tapas. (Yes, in Japan it is still legal to smoke indoors at restaurants, bars, etc). I started with five tapas plates: octopus, pork cutlet, chicken meatballs, fried dumplings and tuna sushi; I passed on the pig ears and deep-fried chicken gristle. It was a filling and tasty meal and I can see why these places are so popular. Afterwards I strolled over to the Golden Gai and tried to find my friend Keiko, but was unable to remember which of the tiny bars I was in the previous night. I had several beers at other holes-in-the-wall, interacting with the owners and wandering tourists, which was enough for one night.

Tuesday was to be my day at one of the local onsen, the Japanese baths. I’d been looking forward to this experience for, oh, about 40 years, ever since I saw a photo of a young Marine on R&R from Vietnam relaxing in the Tokyo baths. And now, finally, it was my turn. The one I had chosen, and which was recommended by the tourist agency, was in the kabukicho district, near the Golden Gai area. It opened at 11 AM and I was outside, eagerly waiting to go in. I left my shoes in a locker in the outer area and went up to the reception desk to discuss the programs available with the young woman there.
She spoke perfect English, so there was no problem being understood. She told me what was on offer and I chose my program. Then she briefly went over those types of people who were not allowed in the baths, which included drunks, criminals, politicians and anyone with a tattoo. Tattoo? Anyone? Hmm, I have a couple of small tattoos, barely noticeable. I told her about them and she regretfully informed me that my 40-year wait to sample the onsen would not be satisfied at this time. I WAS BANNED FROM THE ONSEN! I couldn’t friggin’ believe it! What’s the big deal with tattoos? Damn, more and more people have them these days, so that means they are all also banned from the baths. Not a smart tourist-friendly move. Needless to say – but I’ll say it anyway – I was PISSED!

But there was no use arguing, the decision was final. No rackin’ frackin’ garbonzoed onsen for me. I put my shoes back on and shuffled out, my tail between my legs – metaphorically speaking, of course. I needed a lift after that discouraging non-experience, so I decided to have lunch at the hotel where the Godzilla head was displayed. OK, so I’d have to pay for the privilege of seeing the big guy, but what the heck, I had saved all that money by not being allowed in the baths.

I walked back to the Hotel Gracery, just a few blocks away. There was no one at the main floor reception desk, so I took the elevator to the 8th floor restaurant and hotel check-in reception area. Hmmm, no one at the restaurant check-in desk. I scurried quickly past and through a couple of doors to an outdoor terrace and there was Godzilla! Cool. Screw you, onsen people, I got in to see Godzilla anyway without paying a single yen. Actually, it was somewhat anti-climactic, but still worth the visit. I got back in the elevator for the trip down and was joined by a grandma, mother and young girl around 6-7 years old, all of them Asians. I noticed the mother gently shove the little girl toward me and the little girl then said, in perfect English, “Hello.” I responded with a “Hello” of my own and she asked me how I was. I said I was fine and thanked her and asked how she was. She was fine.

We began a dialogue that lasted perhaps 10 minutes, in the lift and then in the hotel lobby. Young Sta-she (I’m still not sure if I got her name right) and her family were visiting from Hong Kong, where they lived in Happy Valley, a place I had visited not too long ago. It was fun talking to her, as her mother and grandma didn’t speak English at all and I was pleased to connect with another traveler using a common language. A nice interlude.

On my way out of the hotel I stopped at the Krispy Kreme donut shop next door and was a very good boy, limiting myself to only two original glazed donuts. Another culinary explosion; I could get used to all the great food I was finding in Tokyo.

Continuing my quest for more and more wonderful food, I took the metro down to Shibuya and searched out the Genki Sushi shop for lunch, recommended to me by an acquaintance of mine who used to live in Tokyo. This may have been the best sushi place yet. It’s a high-tech approach to the genre. Orders are placed at each seat via a computer screen and the dish is delivered by low-speed monorail in front of each seat, on a high and low track. Drinks are brought by waitresses. You can order as much or little as you want and it all appears ready to eat at your seat. Excellent. I had seared albacore tuna with black pepper (twice, it was so good), regular tuna, minced tuna with green onions and chile, albacore tuna, salmon-flavored roll and a drink for 774 yen, or less than 8 euro. Such a deal!

A shopping stroll of the area after lunch yielded nothing new, so it was back to the hotel for shower and a quick rest. Tuesday night I decided to try and find Keiko again at Golden Gai. I was early, so stopped at Bar Champion for a beer or two. As I was slaking my initial thirst, a young Japanese woman walked up to the bar next to me and started chatting with me. I became fast friends with Yuka, who was in the publishing business and had just stopped off for a drink on her way home after work. We chatted away for a couple of hours and I even entered into the karaoke spirit and sang Blue Suede Shoes. Yuka sang her favorite song – in Japanese – and did it very nicely.
We were getting along swimmingly when several drunk, obnoxious, threatening, apparently homosexual Australians invaded the bar and spoiled the moment. Yuka left shortly thereafter and the Aussies, who had had several beers, decided to show their true colors by groping and annoying other customers – namely me. My British friends had informed me in days gone past when we encountered the same type of annoyances in Budapest that these sorts of people are called Three-Beer Queers. I sloughed off the worst of the fondling offenders and took off also. Such a shame, but I guess that’s what happens in areas like Golden Gai the world over.


Anyway, I gave Yuka my card and hoped she’d stay in touch. (NB: She did! I received an email from her when I checked my Yahoo account when I arrived home.). I stopped in Keiko’s place once again, and she still wasn’t there. I spent some time talking to an expat from Barcelona and his Japanese girlfriend, so the remainder of the night wasn’t a total loss. But I sure wish I could have gotten to know Yuka better.

Wednesday saw me metro down to Yebisu Gardens to see what that was all about. They had a brewery museum there and it turned out to be a fun day, with lots of shops and upscale restaurants. Yebisu Gardens is like an outdoor shopping mall, with trees and fountains and great places to stay and work and eat. I did the beer museum, which was fun, and had a couple of tastings; I couldn’t do the tour as it was only offered in Japanese, another Trip Advisor downcheck. I also found a Lawry’s Prime Rib there and since my last prime rib had been at the Lawry’s on La Cienega’s Restaurant Row in Beverly Hills some 35 years ago, I figured I was due again. And it was scrump-diddly-umptious! Salad and dessert bars, a perfectly prepared medium-rare prime rib, Yorkshire Pudding, creamed spinach, mashed potatoes, and a nice red wine, and only cost 4200 yen (that’s $42 for lunch!). But once again I was prostrate with culinary delight.

I seemed to be drawn back to Golden Gai most nights, so that’s where I found myself again on Wednesday night, parked outside Bar Champion, where I struck up a conversation with a Frenchman named Alex, who lived and worked in Tokyo. We chatted over a few beers, then I went to find some dinner before I once again skipped my evening meal in favor of a more hops-oriented repast. This time it was to the Black Hole yakiniku restaurant, with the same type of setup for grilling your own meat. On this occasion I sat in a booth and grilled some flank steak and veggies, accompanied by more beer. It was a nice lingering dinner. As I was strolling the area again afterwards, who should I run into in that sea of people but the three people I had talked with the other day, grandma, Mom and little Sta-she. Amazing. We chatted for a while but the crowds kept pushing us apart so we went our separate ways once again. Who knows I might see them yet again before I leave.

So, Thursday, my last full day in Tokyo. I had no specific plans for the day, but thought I might head over to Harajuku again for some breakfast at Eggs n’ Thing’s, then see if there were any great shopping streets in the area I had missed on my previous visit. Breakfast this time was a perfect Eggs Benedict, with a side of corned beef hash, which I knew I’d never find in Budapest. My taste buds were in heaven. Yum.

I walked Omotesando Street again, but nothing new caught my eye. Then I turned down a cross street and shortly was engulfed in the souvenir hotspots of the area. I found stuff for the entire family and even bought myself a Happi coat, with my name on the back in Japanese. I couldn’t seem to stop spending money! I’d walk down the street and vacuum hoses would snake out of the shops and suck money out of my pockets. Incredible! Anyway, it was a fitting final day, even if I still didn’t find all of the items I was hoping to buy.

My last dinner was at a local Chinese restaurant: chicken and red chillies, washed down with the inevitable Yebisu beer, spicy and good.

I checked out of the hotel late Friday morning and took my time getting to the airport. One stretch on the Yamanote Line to Nippori Station, then a 70-minute ride to Narita Airport, which took most of my remaining metro card credit – just as I’d planned it. When I arrived at the airport metro station, I cashed in my metro card and got nearly 1000 yen back. Damn near perfect. I futzed around the airport, checking the mostly-expensive shops to see if there were things I just couldn’t resist (there weren’t) and had a couple of light snacks while waiting for my plane. We took off on time for the 11-hour flight to Doha, during which, amazingly, I slept most of the way. A two-hour layover, which enable me to find my far-away gate without running this time, then a five-hour flight to Budapest and I was home – to a much cooler climate – 10 degrees Celsius. Murphy had to have one last snicker at me: my suitcase was almost the last one down the chute. I waited nearly 30 minutes to get my damn bag!

And that was Tokyo. An interesting experience, some highs, some lows, nowhere near as big a culture shock as I’d feared, but a lingering feeling of ambivalence overall. I’m glad I took advantage of the low-fare flight and I did enjoy everything I was able to do, but…

So, that’s it for yet another adventure. Enjoy the blog and Facebook photos, and watch this space for my next trip. Don’t know where it will be, but it has to be “…fun, fun, fun, ‘till my daddy takes the t-bird away.”

Bye for now….