Bernie's brain dump as of April 2009

April 30th: Departure

My father's photos

Throughout our journey, my father also took plenty of shots with his video camera.

Traditional wind socks for the children's day
Traditional wind socks for the children's day

How to spend 8 hours in Paris

The Louvre gallery as seen from across the Seine
The Louvre gallery as seen from across the Seine

Our flight from Narita arrived at Charles de Gaulle at 4AM, and the connecting flight to Florence was at 1PM. Could we spend all this time sitting in the terminal?

No way! The battery of my camera was dead, but my father took some photos of Paris.

For the first time in my life, I had a really bad impression of Paris. Coming from Tokyo, any place would seem very dirty, but in this case the garbage was real, abundant, and smelled intensely of alcohol, urine and vomit. Perhaps April 30th was a special "drunk men day"?

GEEK UPDATE: A productive flight

On the flight back to Europe, I spent some time hacking on GeekiGeeki to add little goodies such as

These new features will make my wiki markup even lighter than before. Moreover, these additions actually resulted in further simplification of the codebase rather than code bloat. Way to go!

git diff --stat v3.0..HEAD |  709 ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++-----------------------------
1 files changed, 352 insertions(+), 357 deletions(-)

If you notice any regressions in the output, please report them to me. I'm hoping to release 4.0 soon.

Tags: stuff that matters !bloat as simple as possible but no simpler

One last day in Tokyo

The huge pavilion of the Edo Museum
The huge pavilion of the Edo Museum

We gathered all our left energies for a tour de force of a bunch of touristic locations highly recommended in our guide:

April 29th: Back to Tokyo


After one last tour of the town, we left from Nikko in with a low-cost private line (2h40, but only 1100 Yen all the way to Asakusa).

We had just one evening and half of the next day to spend in Tokyo, so we quickly dropped our luggage to the Tokyo International Youth Hostel, a sort of nazi camp with a great view on the 18th floor of a high-rise building in Iidabashi.


Because there was a strict curfew at 11PM, we had to take the metro during the rush hour (photos and videos) to reach the Electric Town (photos).

April 28th

Guided tour

The Yutaki Waterfalls
The Yutaki Waterfalls

Pictures of our day-long waterfalls tour are now online. Our friendly guide, the Buddhist monk whose name I forgot, answered many of our pending questions about Japanese traditions and religion. Hiking through these sacred mountains and woods was an enjoyable experience.

TODO: assemble a good video from all the scenes I took along the way

Nikko Temple Area

In the afternoon, we went to visit the world heritage site. One would expect to grow bored of Shinto and Buddhist temples after seeing many of them all over Japan, but visiting the Nikko temple area was once again an extraordinary experience. And I could finally spot a few Mikos too!


April 27th

Afternoon: travel to Nikko

Nikko is in an adjacent valley east of Nagano on the Japanese alps. Unfortunately, no train lines and buses connect them directly, so we had to take an expensive — yet very fast — Shinkansen detour all the way down to Saitama and then northbound again.

Once at the station, we immediately realized it was a good deal, after all. This mountain town overflows with temples, world heritage sites and statues of Buddah spread in an extremely beautiful natural environment with many great falls, ancient woods and hot springs where even wild monkeys take an onsen.

Our hostel is ran by Zen monks and serves an unforgettable vegan dinner with seit. In the evening, we exchanged excited stories with a family of Italian tourists from Milan who had chosen to travel by car rather than by train to save money and gather access to places unreachable by public transport. Quite a smart idea for groups of 3-4 people who aren't afraid of driving on the left.

Surprisingly, one of the monks speaks perfect English. He told us that he lived in California for some time. An explanation worthy of the plot of a very bad 007 movie, where locals always happen to speak English somehow, saving James from the embarrassing need of resorting to silly gestures in order to get his stupid Vodka Martini the way he likes it.

Tomorrow, of course after our morning yoga and vegan breakfast, we're going on a day long guided hiking tour with the monks, which sounds really cool.

UPDATE: ouch!


Morning: Zenko-ji

In the morning, we tried again to visit the Zenko-ji. Even on a Monday, the queue was not much shorter. A nice volunteer guide advised us that the pilgrims where queuing just to touch a wooden pole with an inscription on it that was right in front of the temple, and we could skip aside if we weren't interested. So we did.

We still had to queue for half an hour inside the temple to reach the secret chamber where we would get the rare opportunity to see the hidden Buddha, visible only once every seven years. Quite a lucky combination! I was impressed by the devotion of the people around me. The spiritual side of Japanese people does not seem to clash at all with their high-tech lifestyle.

Behind the temple, we were led down a narrow staircase to a dark and twisty corridor beneath the temple. We had to walk in the pitch black obscurity, touching the walls in search of a metal key of enlightenment. I could finally get hold of the key and turn it, but the most enlightening part of this experience was hearing the crowd of tourists apologizing for bumping into each other all the time ;-)

I only have outdoors photos becuase taking pictures inside was strictly forbidden. A monk yelled at me just for fiddling too much with my camera, which was quite surprising, considering how tolerant Japanese people usually are towards our ignorance of their culture.

The sacred inscription we can't read, let alone understand
The sacred inscription we can't read, let alone understand

April 26th: Matsumoto again

Back to Matsumoto

Our ryokan in Nagano was simply great. Everything was traditional Japanese-style, including the room, the onsen and the breakfast.

We tried to visit the Zenko-ji right next to our ryokan, but we spotted a really long queue of pilgrims at the entrance, so we went back to the station to visit the Matsumoto Castle, one of Japan's top 3 castles (photos). The adjacent museum was also great (photos). On our way back, we've found a peculiar dancing show with cute little girls and their teachers.

Apparently, by leaving Nagano we missed some kind of prayer or event held by Tibetan monks at the Zenko-ji. Too bad, it might have been a good chance to show some support for the Tibetan cause. Go, Tibet, Go!!

Soooo conventiinal!
Soooo conventiinal!
Scary, uh?
Scary, uh?

April 25th: Matsumoto

Yesterday, we arrived on a rainy night to the mountain town of Matsumoto, where a lady with a car took us from the station to a cozy family held hostell. The next day was rainy, so instead of going right to the famous Matsumoto Castle, we spent the best part of the day at the station and with some dumb shopping.

In the evening, we headed to Nagano, a city famous for the 1998 winter olimpics and for an ancient buddhist temple.

All sorts of accommodations come with good wi-fi, including traditional ryokans
All sorts of accommodations come with good wi-fi, including traditional ryokans

April 24th — over 1 megameter by train

The A-Bomb peace memorial near the epicenter
The A-Bomb peace memorial near the epicenter

UPDATE: the report for April 21st is now available!

We left our comfortable hostel in Kyoto early in the morning for a second Shinkansen ride of 360Km, this time on the faster Nozomi. The one-way ticket was "just" 10,250円, equivalent to $105 or €80.

Unlike Kyoto, there aren't many sites of historic interest in Hiroshima because, quite unsurprisingly, every building in the city center is at most 64 years old. With one notable exception. Coming such a long way only to see a broken dome and a the surrounding park might seem crazy, but it was definitely worth it. One of the most dramatic moments of human history happened right here not long ago, and survivors of about my father's age can give their first-hand testimony with the help of black and white photographs and melted items from the museum. After causing so much horror and observing its consequences, what did we do about it? We quickly built thousands of bombs much more destructive than Little Boy. Smart move.

As usual, I couldn't refrain from taking a load of photos here too. These probably can't deliver the pain in the chest one gets by visiting the museum, but might still be a little disturbing.

In the afternoon, we returned to the Hiroshima station just in time to catch the 16:01 Shinkansen for another 690Km ride to another location which will be revealed in due time. Don't miss the next amazing episode of Bernie's Adventures!

"Peace" written with origami cranes

Also check the story behind the millions of paper cranes sent from all over the world in memory of the little Sadako.

April 23rd — Last day in Kyoto

Morning: Arashiyama by bike

In the morning of this sunny day, we biked to a few locations on the east side of Kyoto:

see no evil, hear no evil, speak no English
see no evil, hear no evil, speak no English

Evening: a city I did not like

At last, I've found a place I actually didn't like much in Japan! The first impression of Osaka's central station was that it was old and dirty. Of course one could still eat on the floor, and coming from Kyoto's station might have compromised my judgement. There was big crowd of busy people everywhere, and if you bump into someone, they don't apologize for it.

Our copy of the Lonely Planet highly recommended Dotonbori at night for its "Blade Runner views", so we headed there. They must have watched a version of the movie with bad special fx, because all I could observe in Dotonbori was a narrow street sided by neon signs of restaurants and pachinkos. Just above average, imho, and certainly not worth the time and the price of the train ticket. Unless you're a moth, perhaps.

The Osaka central station
The Osaka central station

We granted our guide a second chance and choosing their highest rated restaurant in Dotombori, one specialized in udon. There was no English menu and the only food I could order was a chest of cold spaghetti on a bamboo crate with no sauce but a cup of soy sauce, also cold of course, in which one could dip them separately. Or so I understood: the waiters were extremely kind but wouldn't speak English, which created even more confusion. Dulcis in fundo, the bill was much higher than usual and they wouldn't take credit cards.

We rushed back to the metro to Shin-Osaka, JR train to Kyoto, local train to Arashiyama, where our bikes were still waiting for us for the ride back home.

April 22nd

Kyoto Higashiyama

Today we walked along the east side of Kyoto, north to south:

The huge bell of Chion-in
The huge bell of Chion-in


Eating in japan can a challenge for a vegetarian who also happens to dislike fish and crustaceans. The average menu has about 5% of veggie dishes, but many restaurants in tourist areas specialize in traditional food such as sushi and tempura. Imitations of Italian kitchen are close to perfection, of course: in Tokyo, we had perfectly reasonable spaghetti with eggplants.

Even with my options severely limited, I could still find several exquisite dishes. I quite like soups, including miso shiru, ramen and others I ordered by pointing at the fake dish in the restaurant window without ever knowing their name.

My favorite food so far is Omurice. Yeah, perhaps it's not as sophisticated as the average Japanese recipe. Hmm... I guess learning to appreciate complex and delicate flavors takes some more time.


As for beer, I still couldn't find one I like. The most popular ones, Asahi and Kirin, are just tasteless dry lagers. All the drafts I could find taste like Asahi too. The only good beers I had were at the Delirium Cafe in Tokyo, where I had a delicious Kwak followed by a cherry flavored Kriek. Too bad we had to stop at just two to make sure we could find the way back to the hostel :-)

Now I'm looking for a place where I could taste vegetarian sukiyaki, the favorite food of Ataru Moroboshi.

April 21st

Great temples everywhere

Yesterday was rainy, but it didn't stop us from biking around and visiting quite a lot of stuff:

the golden temple of Kinkakuji
the golden temple of Kinkakuji

x264 goodness

I re-encoded all videos from MJPEG, the crappy native format of my Canon camera, to x264 (aka MPEG4). Firefox 3.1/3.5 still doesn't grok it with the video tag, but I didn't have a Theora encoder installed.

April 20th

Best hostel ever

The Utano hostel in Kyoto would rival many five star hotels I've seen. Sorry I couldn't take any photos in the Onsen.

the hostel provides a traditional goan too
the hostel provides a traditional goan too

Impressive station

The Kyoto station is an impressive modern building, worth a visit by itself.

Anime characters by Osamu Tezuka
Anime characters by Osamu Tezuka

Shinkansen tour

In a jounery report, the details of transportation are usually left out as uninteresting. Except if one takes the fastest train in the world! We took the Tokaido Shinkansen line from Odawara to Kyoto, riding on a 700-series train for the Hikari service (not the faster Nozomi, but still very impressive).

The ticket cost a whopping 11240 yen per person, and I'm not even getting a machine body with it! ;-)

See the the photos and don't miss the pass-through and the on-board videos.


April 19th - Hakone day 2

The Fuji-san (left) with Bernie-san (right)
The Fuji-san (left) with Bernie-san (right)

We took the suggested touristic itinerary around the Hakone mountains which employs all sorts of transportation means: bus, cable train, rope way, cruise boat and bus again.

Along the way, we could see the volcanic sulfuric vents and pools, the Ashi lake with its breathtaking view of the Fuji-san, the ancient cedar avenue, the old post, the detached palace gardens and the beautiful shinto jinja shrine of with its torii diving in the lake.

Of course, I took plenty of photos of the Hakone trip.

April 18th - Hakone

Our japanese style room at the Senkyoro YH
Our japanese style room at the Senkyoro YH

We arrived in a small town near Hakone. I'll publish photos later.

Update: photos of the hostel are now available.

April 17th - Ghibli museum in Mitaka, Ginza

Robot from the ancient city of Laputa
Robot from the ancient city of Laputa

The museum was actually a bit of a disappointment, but maybe just because I had my expectations so high. Cameras weren't allowed inside, so I only took few photos.

In the afternoon, we walked around the shiny neighborhood of Ginza. See the photos.

April 16th - Fish Market, Gardens, Tower of Tokyo, Temple

Tsukiji Fish Market
Tsukiji Fish Market

We had a very intense day where we visited a lot of places all around central Tokyo:

NOTE: photos still being uploaded, gomen nasai!

Seeing so many beautiful things at such a high frequency might make one's head spin. In fact, this evening I've been dangerously close to faint in an Onsen, which was really scary because I had never lost consciousness before. I had walked all day with very little food and drink, which might have been part of the problem, but diving in thermal water for a long time has certainly triggered it. What a gaijin who can't even take some hot water!

Zojo-ji temple (left), Tokyo Tower (center), Bernie (right)
Zojo-ji temple (left), Tokyo Tower (center), Bernie (right)

April 15th - Skyscrapers everywhere

Compared to Tokyo, every other city I had visited would seem dirty, old, boring and disorganized. I can't find the words to describe my amazement walking around this amazing city full of wonders.

Tokyo Midtown Gardenside seen from the Galleria building
Tokyo Midtown Gardenside seen from the Galleria building

Photos for today:

Update: now finished uploading the photos

April 14th - Arrival in Tokyo

The way to the Sensoji temple in Asakusa
The way to the Sensoji temple in Asakusa

I couldn't resist grabbing a super-cheap round trip to japan, a place I've always wanted to visit. By "always", I mean: since when I was in kindergarten, watching great series like SteelJeeg and MazingerZ on TV. My dad accepted to accompany me in this trip even though he wasn't particularly fond of Japan. Until now, that is!

The first day was simply amazing, but I'm way to tired to tell a lot about it. The many photos and videos that I'm still uploading will hopefully serve documenting this long day appropriately.

NOTE: if you can't watch the videos embedded in the wiki, get yourself a recent browser featuring HTML5 or send me a patch adding support for old-style HTML video embedding.


Yes, I've neglected to update this blog for a few months. This isn't because I had nothing to talk about. In fact, these months were quite intense, with a lot of notable events, including:

I am currently back in Florence, trying to find a way back in the US.