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A snowy escape to the mountains

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After a short break …big life changes and all that… my Japan story is back. The next stop on our trip was the quaint little town of Takayama, located in the mountainous Gifu Prefecture. This was probably one of our longest train journeys, but the ride on the Limited Express Hida train was really worth it! Although not a shinkansen train, it was very comfortable and offered some spectacular views of the mountains and river gorges. It even included some commentary over the PA! Arriving in Takayama after 5 pm was not the best desicion though, because all public transport and most restaurants close after 5 pm. We did make it to our onsen hotel and even managed to ‘forage’ some food.

One of the main attractions in Takayama is the Hida-no-sato Folk Village. It is an actual village made up of houses recreated based on the designs of the region. They show the evolution of the strong tradition of craft in the region and represent different time periods. Displays include all aspects of silk making (from silk worm cultivation to the production of silk), weaving and kimono making, wood-carving, laquer work and simple everyday life of the farmers, craftsmen and women. Winter was probably not the ideal time to walk around an open air museum, where you have to take off your shoes a lot to get the full experience. We didn’t regret it though and kept our minds off the cold with a quiz about the displays that even won us a prize!

Takayama is also famous for it’s well preserved Edo period historical old town with wooden merchant houses that now contain shops selling local crafts, little street food shops and sake breweries. It started snowing while we were there, transforming the streets into a beautiful winter wonderland. We took shelter in a sake brewery that was offering free tours and tastings – the breweries in town take turns in opening their doors to the public.

Guardian statue in Takayama

Snowy streets in Takayama

Street food in the snow, Takayama

There are many museums to visit in Takayama, from history, art to local craft, but we only had time for one and we chose the Takayama Shōwa-kan Museum. A museum celebrating the Showa period with displays and memorabilia focusing on 1955-1965, a time of optimisim between the post-war malaise and high economic growth period. It’s a fascinating mix of traditional Japanese and retro Western culture. The museum itself is set up as a small town with streets and rooms representing various aspects of life, such as a classroom, barber shop, restaurant, police station, etc. Most of the displays are interactive so it’s very easy to spend hours in there!

Takayama will definetely stay with us and we would love to visit again, ideally during one of their festivals and in a better season to explore the surrounding nature. As we travel around Japan I realise more and more how important food is to the local identity of a region, even town, and Hida-Takayama is no different. They are famous for Hida beef and it shows in the various street food stalls that line the old town. We of course had to sample them all! We had probably one of our most delicious meals here (and the competition was stiff!), as well as found a wonderful coffee shop ‘The Traveller Coffee House’ that offered us a needed caffein boost and some great conversation. But all of that is another story!

Snow monkey business

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After Tokyo our next stop on our Japan trip was the small town of Yudanaka. It is a small onsen (=hot spring) town around 250km NW of Tokyo. To get there from Shinjuku Station, we took our first high speed shinkansen to Nagano. There we switched to the Nagano Electric Railway train that took us to Yudanaka Station. It was very interesting to experience the stark contrast between the high-tech, smooth shinkansen journey and slow, retro train. In the winter the Yamanouchi area is popular for skiing and the Jigokudani Yaen-koen or Snow Monkey park. Most of the hotels have their own onsen available to guest and after spending an aftrenoon walking in the snow, there really is little better than going for a soak in a hot bath! We only spent one night in the town, but it was a wonderful contrast to the big, busy neon-lit Tokyo.

We decided to enjoy the experience of staying at a ryokan (=traditional japanese inn). These typically have traditional tatami (=mat) floors and futon beds to sleep on. They also usually include breakfast and/or dinner and will provide a yukata (=light cotton kimono) for wearing around the inn and to the onsen. Our ryokan was really nice and cosy, with a wonderful outdoor onsen. The onsen tend to be seperate for men and women, as the indoor ones were in the inn, but the ryokan usually offer private time slots or mixed times for the outdoor baths. I would really recommend staying at a ryokan at least once if you travel to Japan, because it is such a unique experience.

We went to Yudanaka to see the Japanese macaque (Macaca fuscata) or snow monkeys, famous for their habit of coming to the onsen for a soak. Although we didn’t actually see the monkeys bathing, the visit to the snow monkey park was really worth it. It’s a 30 min bus ride from the train station to the park and then a 30-40 min walk to get to the entrance of the monkey park. It’s a beautiful walk along a narrow snow-covered path through the forest. At the end of it you’re greeted by a beautiful scene of an old ryokan (established in 1864) squeezed into the valley. The only access to it is by foot and they advise their guests to travel light! Of course it also has an onsen for humans, that is occasionally visited by a monkey or two.

The monkey park itself is actually quite small and the monkeys don’t seem to be too bothered by the human visitors.

Red faces are typical for the Japanese macaque. They are the most northeren living non-human primate.

The snow monkeys live in matrilineal groups, or troops, where females stay with the troop their whole life while males move away before they become sexually active.

Grooming is an importal social and hygenic activity, mostly between related females. It’s also seen between unrelated individuals to maintain a social structure or to attract dominant males.

A lightning tour of Tokyo

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These past months have been really busy, but  we still managed to get away for an awesome trip to Japan. Over the next few posts, I’ll be writting about our 3 week trip around Japan: Tokyo-Yudanaka-Nikko-Hakone-Takayama-Kyoto-Tokyo, with lots of photos and some impressions. Hope you enjoy it, we definitely did!

Let’s start at the begining… The most common questions we got asked, when we told people about our trip, were ‘Why Japan?’ and ‘Why in winter, surely spring or summer are nicer?’ Well, the second question is easy – this is when we have time to go. The first one… I’ve been wanting to revisit Japan, after my first visit as a teenager 13 years ago, and also the culture, the food, the sights are all very different and interesting. But mostly it’s a place in the world we both wanted to visit, so why not!?

We started with Tokyo… I wasn’t really in favour of spending a week (4 days at the begining and 3 at the end of our trip) in Tokyo, mainly because I’m not a huge fan of big cities. I was expecting Tokyo to be very overwhelming, crowded and noisy. It was all of this, but in a manageable way. It probably helped that we were there in low season, so there weren’t hoards of tourists around! We didn’t plan too much ahead of our trip, but we both had ideas of areas we wanted to see and then just played it by ear. I must say Tokyo really grew on me!

Arriving late on a Wednesday evening, we started our adventure by finding our AirBnB flat in Shinjuku. It was fascinating walking from Shinjuku station through the neon lit streets! Next we went on the hunt for food. Our random choice of a Ramen shop just 5 min walk from our flat turned out to be amazing! Of course, we didn’t immediately realise that you order your ramen from a vending machine that gives you an order ticket, but one of the waitresses quickly came to help and we managed to communicate what we wanted and she showed us how to order. We both had a spicy miso tonkatsu (=pork) ramen – an excellent start to our Tokyo adventure!

Over the next few days we wandered around the various neighbourhoods of Tokyo – each with its own quirky character, even if the neon signs on the buildings make them look very similar. Our Airbnb was really well located in Shinjuku, which is a lively area with lots of bars. Around Shinjuku Station the crowds get denser and there are lots of huge, bright department stores. A few side streets away though you can find Omoide Yokocho – a couple tiny, narrow streets with lots of small yakitori shops (grilled skewers). It gets very busy in the evening and you sometimes have to wait in line for a spot at the counter, where you then point and order the skewers. Another small side street area is the Golden Gai – a collection of traditional izakaya and bars where people go for an after work drink. Each bar has it’s own theme and it was very difficult to choose where to go; since we were there very early it was still quite empty. We eventually decided on the ‘Not suspicious’ bar (a japanese joke), because the owner was outside and talked to us. It turned out to be a tiny bar with a great character – we came for one drink and ended up staying for several, partly because it was fun talking to the different travellers coming in and partly because we were sitting at the far end of the bar and it was very difficult to leave once it got full!

Other neighbourhoods that screamed Tokyo to me were Shibuya (with the famous Shibuya crossing), Harajuku with Takeshita-dori shopping street (apparently the hip area where it’s common to see people in cosplay, even if we didn’t) and Akhibara, the tech and anime area with multistory arcade rooms and tech stores. These were where we saw the most eccentricity, from unique styles, crazy shops to intense gaming. But in the middle of all the madness you can still find peaceful temples or shrines. Something fun to do in an arcade are the Purikura photo booths – basically a normal photo booth, but with an editing option at the end where you can decorate your photo and the software makes your eyes bigger and skin smoother, more anime-like. Within the madness of the busy neighbourhoods it is also possible to find quieter and smaller ones with galleries, theaters, shops and restaurants, such as Nakano and Shimo-Kitazawa.

Worth a visit (and free!) is the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building that has two viewing platforms on the 45th floor, one in the South and other in the North Tower. They offer some great views of Tokyo that you can also enjoy at sunset and if you’re lucky you can see Mt. Fuji from the South Tower. We didn’t see it from here but got a hazy glimps of it from the Sky Room of the Asahi Building (The HQ of Asahi Beer Company) – another opportunity to have a view of Tokyo for free (although you are expected to buy at least one drink since it is a bar).

On the last day we visited Senso-ji Temple and the surrounding area full of craft shops and little restaurants. This was probably the most tourist crowded area we’d seen so far. The temple is beautiful though, a small pocket of old within the busy high tech city. It was interesting to observe people getting charms and fortunes (something we did ourselves), bathing in the incense smoke and making wishes at the temple. And just a few side streets away, we managed to find a quiet area with street food where we got our first okonomyaki (cabbage pancake that you grill at the table).

It’s difficult to put the whole Tokyo experience down on paper and there is still so much to see and do that we didn’t have time for. All together Tokyo was a really fun and positive experience. Our interactions with various people we met in restaurants or on the street were really positive and it’s amazing how much you can communicate even with very basic English and a little Japanese. Next we went to Yudanaka with the Snow Monkey Park, taking the Shinkansen and some retro regional trains.

The five Horse(wo)men of the Apocalypse

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I recently read Good Omens by Niel Gaiman and Terry Pratchett that features the Four Horse(wo)men (or Bikers) of the Apocalypse: Death, War, Famine and Pollution (having replaced Pestilence at some point in history). These are certainly riding strong today, but I would add a fifth one, Climate Change. They are all linked, feeding off each other’s success and working in a twisted harmony. Almost every corner of the world is affected by war bringing with it the worst humanitarian crises of our time. Slavery is present in practically every industry – from clothing, fisheries to technology and of course profiting off people fleeing war and economic suffering. The latter is of course perpetuated by the gross economic inequality that we are continuing to see in the world today. All these are devastating both to the people affected, but also to the environment. Some of the most influential nations in the world have climate change deniers in the highest offices and far right movements propagating hate are gaining strength. Governments are doing the bare minimum to battle all these problems and it seems that more than ever money and greed are the true rulers of the world.

You could say: “Ok, but all of this has been going on for centuries. What’s changed? Why do we suddenly need to care?”. But things have changed. Most importantly, since the industrial revolution we (as a society) have became better at exploiting natural resources from minerals to food sources. The world population is growing rapidly and we cannot continue exploting nature at the rate we currently are and at the same time expect it to continue providing for us, without making big changes to our lifestyles. It’s practically impossible to disentangle the exact causes and effects of climate change, war, famine, human migration (and likely more), because they are a continuous self-perpetuating loop. What is certain though, is that the time for saying ‘this is not my problem’ is gone. We cannot turn a blind eye and pretend we don’t know what is happening in the world. Because the internet with all the collective power of social media brings us to the center of events. However, I think that because we are so overloaded with information it is very easy to get desensitised and overwhelmed by all of it. It is sometimes difficult to know how to help. Or even where to start caring. We are all directly or indirectly affected by all of the above issues and we have a duty to act in any (even small) way we can.

As an environmental scientist, I tend to focus on issues that touch the environment. The human population is rapidly growing and we have become accustomed to getting anything we want at a click of a computer button. In Europe, we can get food shipped in from the other side of the world and we feel cheatted if there is a product suddenly unavailable on the shelves. Our clothes and technology are manufactered and our food is grown or caught across the globe. This is perfectly fine in terms of supporting other economies, but it does have an impact on the environment as well as removes our responsibility (or limits it) to insisting on humanitarian and environmental standards to be kept. All human activity has an impact, there is no magical material that is perfect and we certainly cannot continue to live the way we are, if we want to keep this planet habitable. Even the mantra “Reuse, reduce, recycle”, needs rethinking or at least a better and wider application. But certainly it should be “REDUCE, Reuse and if the other two fail Recycle”. If we want real change, though, then pressure must come both from top-down (e.g. governments, environmental agencies) and also from down-up (us – the consumers).

Some websites that I have started to follow recently. They offer a way to get actively involved or simply stay informed.

  • MOAS: “a Malta-based registered foundation dedicated to mitigating the loss of life at sea. We provide professional search and rescue assistance to refugees and migrants in distress at sea.”
  • Undark: “a non-profit, editorially independent digital magazine exploring the intersection of science and society.”
  • The Conversation: “a collaboration between editors and academics to provide informed news analysis and commentary that’s free to read and republish.”
  • 5gyres: “empowers action against the global health crisis of plastic pollution through science, art, education, and adventure.”
  • Sea around us: “assessing the impact of fisheries on marine ecosystems.”
  • and so many more! Feel free to add any interesting links in the comment section 🙂

This is easier said than done, because the reality is that a vast majority of people cannot afford to think about how their habits are impacting the environment. We’ve all heard the statistic about the enourmous wealth gap between the top 1% and the rest of the world. Can we really expect a family who is struggling to survive from day to day to think about how much waste they are producing and where it ends up? If their food has a low carbon footprint, or if their clothing is fairtrade? How can we demand that they choose the more expensive option that will help the global environment and people on the other side of the world? None of this will have an effect that this struggling family will be able to see, but will push them even further to the brink. This is why changes must also come from the market – environmentally friendly options must become affordable. Only then can we start changing people’s habits on a large scale, in order to have a real effect.

I will be the first to admit that I’ve come to this quite late and I don’t lead a perfect ‘zero-waste, sustainable clothing, no plastic, low carbon footprint, etc’ lifestyle. However, I would like to move closer to something that has a smaller impact on the environment and also human exploitation. It’s not easy or something you can achieve overnight, and I believe many choices for a more ‘eco-friendly living’ can only be made by people who have the means to support it. But we can all make small adjustments in our daily routines that could make (even a small) difference.

This sounds all doom and gloom, and of course most of us won’t see much visible evidence of the destructive force that is humanity. But we still have a responsibility to make changes where they can be made. Unfortunately though, these small changes in our behaviour as a consumerism-based society are the most difficult ones. I’m not hoping to offer any instant solution, but I do believe that every contribution to the conversation that might reach someone and get them thinking will help. Therefore, I want to explore a series of themes that I’ve been thinking about lately in the following blog posts.

A trip to the tropical EU

By | Travel | 2 Comments

Here we go. I’m joining the bandwagon of blogging and I decided that a good way to get into it would be to write a travel post. You know that way I can distract people with pretty pictures.

We recently went for a month holiday to French Guiana. When I first heard of this country, I’m not embarrassed to admit, I had to google it and found that it was actually in South America. It’s one of the tiny countries in the North situated between Brasil and Suriname. Because it’s an actual region of France it is, of course, also part of the European Union. You could think great, then it must enjoy a lot of the benifits of this arrangement, but being part of the EU bureaucratic machinery actually brings a lot of challenges to this tropical country, all the way across an ocean from mainland Europe. For example, a lot of things, such as dairy, glass, white goods, building materials, have to be brought from France so that they comply with EU regulations and can’t be imported from any of the closer countries. I found it fascinating that there are no exceptions to these regulations, that would take into account the tropical conditions and geographical position.

We were there during the rainy season, which also coincided with mosquito season. The rain was great because, it provided a nice cool down three or four times a day, and it also gave some relief from the mosquitos. My overall impression of French Guiana was great, but then give me nature with an abundance of birds and wildlife and I’ll be happy. The country itself has a fascinating history, although a lot of it has the bitter taste of colonialism. As a result it’s a melting pot of cultures, some of which are trying to continue to maintin a traditional way of life. Something that is often at odds with the modern world of rules, regulations and technology that we live in. I’m often amazed how bad we are as a species to integrate more than one way of life and how the ‘more proressive’ always seem to crush everything else. But that is a whole different can of worms and I won’t go into it here. For now I just hope that they will find a way to continue to co-exist.

As a former French colony it had the role (as many overseas territories of the former ‘great’ colonial superpowers did) of being the destination for the unwanted people in a crowded homeland. Of course these were mostly the poor and displaced, not necessarily hardend criminals. People could be deported for, what we consider small crimes these days, such as stealing, pickpocketing, etc. The sentances ranged from a few years with the option of being allowed to return home, years in the colony with no option of going back home, to a certain death sentence overseas working in the forest camps. That is if you survived the journey there in the first place. The prisons of the colony were also reserved for those needed to be made an example of, with various political prisoners, such as Alfred Dreyfus, finding a home there. Other prisoners of the penal colony, such as Henri Charrière (or Papillon), managed to inspire stories of daring escapes and tried to talk about the hardship of a life in the prisons. Henri wrote a book about his imprisonment that was even turned into a film and still attracts visitors to the St. Laurent Transportation Musem (a rather benign name for what it was) wanting to see his prison cell. Today the strategic importance of French Guiana is the location of the Centre Spatial Guyanais (CSG) in Kourou, from where the European and French Space Agencies as well as various commercial companies conduct launches.

Probably one of the best experiences for me was staying in a tree-house camp (Canopee Guyane) and climbing 36m up a tree to view the sunset above the jungle canopy. We started with a two hour boat trip down the Kourou river in a traditional boat, called a pirogue. In those two hours, we got rained on several times, saw several species of birds, an otter, a snake on a sandbank, huge spider webs on the vegetation – it was amazning and of course I couldn’t photograph anything because there was the constant danger of a tropical downpour.

The stay at the camp was overnight (sleeping in hamocs in tree-houses 10m above ground) and the overall hospitality was great, including the traditional offer of lots of different types of rum. I would soon come to realise that the ‘Ti Punch’ is something you can expect on every trip in French Guiana! But of course the main event was ziplining into the jungle from a 15m platform, then climbing a rope up to a viewing platform at 36m height. I was terrified, both because I’m afraid of heights and wasn’t sure I was physically fit enough. Both fears turned out to be easy to deal with though and the feeling of getting to the top was amazing. We stayed at the top until sunset and decended the same way in the dark (apparently this helps with vertigo). The added excitment came when as we were decending in the last pair of the group, a sudden tropical downpur surprised us and we arrived at the base of the tree completely drenched. Truly a memorable experience!

The small town of Sinnamary was the starting point for a boat trip to the Sinnamary river’s estuary where a Scarlet ibis nesting colony can be found. It was a wonderful evening on the water (Ti Punch included of course!), surrounded by wildlife. My proudest moment was spotting a sloth in a tree on the river bank. I had the moment of panic that it might get away before I could adequately photograph it, until I realised it’s a sloth and they don’t move much! We also had the opportunity to watch an eagle fishing, manatees teasing us by only poking their noses out for a breath and many other birds feeding on the mudbanks.

The trouble of writing a travel post about a month-long holiday is that I can’t write down all the awesome experieces and have to make do with the highlights. Next time my aim is to write something as we go, but also try to capture the people of the country better. Photgraphing wildlife is realitvely easy (I’ve found at least), but the people and the cultures are also a big part of the story.

To finish up, here is a selection of some of my favourite animal photographs. I hope you’ve enjoyed this post and keep tuned for the next travel adventure! 🙂