California desert landscape and big city lights

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Joshua Tree National Park

This park is located in the Mojave Desert and is named after the Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia) that are found throughout the park. We first visited it after dusk and the Joshua trees were like ghostly skeletons standing in the dark. It is a breathtaking landscape of rock formations and rolling desert dotted with hardy plants.

Female hummingbird

California scrub jay (Aphelocoma californica)

Northern phainopepla (Phainopepla nitens)

White-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys)

Salton Sea

A short distance from Joshua Tree is the Salton Sea – an endorheic rift lake, that is located directly on the San Andreas Fault. It was an amazing sight to see and it’s hard to believe that it can support so much life – even called the “crown jewel of avian biodiversity”.

Los Angeles

While spending a couple of nights in LA, we visited the Griffiths Observatory and I managed to snap some night photos of Downtown LA. Only when the lights came on after dark did a get a sense of how massive the whole of LA actually is!

The wildlife side of Texas

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I always love getting out of the city and end of September we had the chance to explore more natural parks, enjoyed some real Texas BBq and visit small towns. It’s so interesting to explore such different ecosystems and find new wildlife!

Delicious BBQ stop in Cherokee, TX

Lockhart, TX

Colorado Bend State Park

I really enjoyed hiking through Colorado Bend SP, because the landscape was so similar to the Mediterranean one except that it was full of prickly pear cactuses. We will have to go back someday and explore the other trails!

The prickly pear landscape

Prickly pear and rocks

Rough Green Snake (Opheodrys aestivus)

Gulf fritillary (Agraulis vanillae)

White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus)

Mating grasshoppers

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area

This park is located Northwest of Austin and is essentially a pink granite mountain with hiking trails to the summit and around. Although we didn’t make it to the summit, because the trail was closed due to rain, we had a wonderful hike around the circumference of the mountain.

The path around Enchanted Rock State Natural Area

A giant dinosaur egg

Skippers (Hesperiidae)



Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge

This wildlife refuge is actually just outside of Houston, on the Gulf Coast. We went there on an overcast Sunday and it was beautiful to drive around – if a bit overcrowded with mosquitos!

Fishing boats outside the wildlife refuge

A flock of birds take flight

Red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans)

Great blue heron (Ardea herodias)

Golden silk orb-weavers (Nephila)

We were so lucky to spot this little frog! It was there just long enough to snap a photo.

Curious grasshopper

A summer in Houston

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We’ve been in Houston, Texas for just over six months now and have survived through the worst of the heat! It has definitely been a culture shock – anyone who thinks moving to the US is just the same old Western culture, can think again. Yes, of course there are similarities, but on a whole living in the US is totally different to living in Europe. Luckily we’ve seen enough US friends try to work out life in Europe to have some idea of what to expect on the other end!

Hopefully I’ll find the time and write about the differences in another post, but perhaps these are the two most striking. One, the overwhelming amount of choice a consumer has and how consumerism-focused every aspect of life is. And two, the health care system, in a way just an extention of the previous point. From what I have seen it isn’t patient-focused, but profit-focused and this applies to regular doctor’s visits to getting perscriptions filled out. The term “There is no small profit” has never felt as appropriate as it has living in the US!

Houston is a city that grows on you very quickly, although I still have some mixed feeling about it. The people have been very friendly and it is easy to feel welcome as a newcomer. The city is also very culturally diverse with loads of different cuisines and museums to visit. It certainly doesn’t feel like what we imagined Texas to be. It is a huge, sprawling city that is not very well connected with public transport and not bicycle friendly at all. It’s more a collection of streets that have randomly been connected into a city than anything resembling urban planning. Since we don’t have a car yet, we’ve been limited to what we can explore in the city and around. Nevertheless, we’ve braved the heat and found some great spots to hang out at and parks to explore. There is limited nature in Houston itself, but we’ve visited some state parks close by and they provided good walks and interesting wildlife. We’ll definitely be venturing farther afield in the future!

Most of all the last few months have been HOT and HUMID. Something I haven’t really managed to completely adapt to and I still find myself exhausted and too easily dehydrated, despite the fact that I carry a water bottle around wherever I go. I’m looking forward to the weather becoming cooler though, so that we can start doing more outdoor activities again! We’ve also experienced some incredible rain and storms while we’ve been here – I can picture how scary it must have been during Harvey. For a city in this climate it sure does flood easily! Luckily we’ve avoided hurricanes for now.

A tour of Houston

A fun discovery have been the tunnels below Downtown Houston. Built from the 1920’s onward, they were a way to connect the big office buildings underground and enable people to move between offices without having to go into the Houston heat. The sections of tunnels are maintained by the buildings above them and are now mostly full of shops and restaurants. It explained the lack of people we saw on the streets of Downtown when we first arrived!

Goin’ down Louisiana way

We ventured just across the stateline to Sabine Wildlife Refuge. The drive along the coast offered some interesting views, different architecture and the refuge itself was beautiful.

It’s difficult to miss the heavy presence of the Oil & Gas and fishing industries in the Gulf of Mexico. There were definitely some post-apocalyptic wasteland vibes in the area!

Exploring the wildlife

Click here for more bird and wildlife photos.

A stroll through Kyoto

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My final blog post in the Japan series is a small glimpse into the beauty of Kyoto. The city is full of history and stories, as you would expect of a place that was the power center of an empire for a 1000 years. It is probably most known for the temples and shrines, with around 2000 of them scattered around the city. But during it’s long history it was an important epicenter for the development of architecture, art, japanese cuisine and of course the geisha tradition in the Gion distict.

Walking through the Pontocho area.

A line of taxis waiting in the Gion district.

A rare glimps of a geisha in Gion.

The entrance to a teahouse in Gion.

Of course it’s difficult to avoid visiting temples and shrines when in Kyoto. When I was first here in 2003 it was summer and visting the beautiful gardens and cool temple houses was wonderful. Rediscovering those in the winter was a different and more chilly experience but still a great experience. Our first stop on the Kyoto temple and shrine tour was Fushimi Inari-taisha. A shinto shrine dedicated to Inari, the god of rice, and located on the mountain with the same name. Inari is also worshiped by merchants and buisness owners and each torii gate was donated by a local buisnesses to either get a wish or say thank you for a wish coming true. We went there to see the rows of torii gates, but we had no idea these lined the whole path up to the top of the mountain, around 10,000 of them! It was a two hour hike through the woods, with smaller shrines to stop at along the way. While the bottom was impossibly crowded, the crowds thined as we wound our way to the top.

The fox or kitsune is an important figure in japanese folklore. They are often found associated with Inari shrines and are seen as the messangers of Inari, although they also have shrines of their own. As in much of japanese folklore the role of kitsune is multifasceted. They have the power to ward off evil but they can also be tricksters with mischievous intentions and one must be careful when dealing with them.

Out of the hundreds of temples in Kyoto, we decided to visit three of the more famous ones. Nanzen-ji and Ginkaku-ji because they are conected via the Path of Philosophy, which is a beautiful 30-minute walk along a canal and tiny streets. Nanzen-ji offers impressive artwork inside the temple buildings and a zen garden, while in Ginkaku-ji you can enjoy a realxing stroll through the Japanese garden (and actually forget you’re in a big city). The road leading up to Ginkaku-ji is really interesting with its multitude of little restaurants and shops, even in the winter cold it was buzzing with life! The third temple we visited was the Kiyomizu-dera. I wanted to go back there because it stuck in my mind from my prevous visit more than a decade ago. By accident we found the back way up to the temple that lead us through an interesting cemetary. The main temple building is a large woodden structure constructed without a single nail. It has a huge terrace with views of the city. Unfortunately for us, it was under constructionand and so we didn’t get to see it. On the birght side, quite literally, the surrounding buildings were very beautiful and we had fun exploring the small streets with craft shops on the main approach to the temple.

My favourite district in Kyoto has to be Arashiyama (嵐山 Storm Mountain). The main attractions there are the Bamboo Grove and the Iwatayama Monkey Park, but what enchanted me were the small out of the way streets and hidden temples and shrines. We walked through the bamboo grove and found it crowded and not that impressive. We’d read about a small temple called Otagi Nenbutsu-ji with 1200 stone statues representing the desciples of Buddha, each with a uniqe face that was a bit off the beaten path and decided to try to find it. The walk to the temple took us through small streets with interesting architecture and small temples and shrines lining the way, all of it only made more magical with the snow. Unfortunately by the time we got to the temple it had closed, but we still got a quick glimps of some of the statues!

A short journey out of Kyoto is Himeji castle, probably one of the more picturesque sights – not that Japan is lacking in those! It is considered as “the finest surviving example of prototypical Japanese castle architecture”. The site of a fort in the area dates back to 1333, but it was rebuilt many times in the following centuries. The castle and surroundings as they are today were built in the 1600s and in 1993 the site was classed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The castle was built in the hight of Japan’s feudal period and contains advanced defensive systems. However, as far as we could tell from the signs and explanation boards, the castle was never actually attacked in that time and a lot of the defensive systems didn’t work in practice. Nevertheless it was an important power symbol and very pretty to look at – obviously two of the most important aspects of a feudal castle!

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!

Looking for a view of Mt. Fuji

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Our trip to Hakone, a mountainous national park west of Tokyo, was most defined by onsen, black eggs and chasing the view of Mt. Fuji. It is a great area to visit for hiking and relaxing. The park has loads of beautiful trails, that we unfortunately didn’t have time to visit, and what better way to relax in the evening than going to one of the many onsen. We chose to stay in Azito Guesthouse that offers funky tree house-style capsule double rooms, which were surprisingly comfortable.

Since we were only in the area for a couple of nights, we wanted to see as much as possible in a short time. A great option for this is the Hakone Free Pass, that allows you access to five different modes of transport with which you can do a loop to and back to Hakone-Yumoto via the Owakudani Valley, Lake Ashi and both towns on its shores. Apart from views of Mt Fuji and the natural beauty of the area, there are other interesting sights, such as the former Imperial Palace gardens, the Hakone Shrine with its famous red torii gate on the lake and the old Tokaido Road Checkpoint (Edo-era military checkpoint). We really enjoyed taking the different trains, buses, ship and ropeway to complete the loop and we were lucky enough to see Mt. Fuji from a couple of viewpoints. Included in the Hakone Free Pass is also the bus that takes you to Mishima Skywalk, a 400m suspension bridge that, as far as we can tell, was only built for views of Mt. Fuji.

Odawara station with Odawara Castle in the distance.

Hakone Tozan Mountain Railway going to Gora Station. The first part of our journey around Hakone.

Hakone Tozan Cable Car. Our second mode of transport going to Sounzan, where we had to get a bus replacement to Owakudani.

Owakudani Geothermal Valley with active sulfur vents and hot springs.

Smoke and sulfur smell everywhere! The site is popular for views of Mt Fuji and black eggs – hard boiled in the hot springs and thought to increase longevity.

Not sure how I feel about this warning sign once I’m already here!

Even on top of a smoking mountain, you’re never far away from a vending machine refreshment.

Lake Ashi at the bottom of the Hakone Ropeway (fourth mode of transport).

View from the Togendai Port. There are three pirate ships (fifth mode of transport) used to transport visitors across the lake.

Onshihakone Park in Hakone – a former imperial palace park with walking paths and a beautiful view of Lake Ashi.

Hakone Shrine Peace Torii – one of the most iconic sights on Lake Ashi. Apart from the view of Mt Fuji of course.

Mishima Skywalk – a 400m long suspended bridge that takes you to nowhere. But if you’re lucky you get to see Mt. Fuji while walking across. If not, there is always the bamboo carving.

Midpoint of the bridge with an attendant. The town of Mishima in the background.

Awaiting on the other side of the bridge is a plaza with food trucks and a magician entertaining the kids.

A riot of temples and shrines in Nikkō

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Nikkō is small town in the mountains north of Tokyo, that became very important in the Edo Period, when the Tokugawa Shoguns used it as their main religous site. The journey to get there from Yudanaka was slightly convoluted, but it was another great experience in Japanese railway travel, with a mix of shinkansen and retro regional trains. We went there to visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site Shrines and Temples of Nikkō. I hadn’t looked much into what awaited us and was expecting just some temples and shrines in the forest. What we found was a flamboyant display of religous buildings that really show the power of the Edo period Shoguns. The whole site has been (re?)built to hold huge crowds, with massive staircases and pathways, that looked even more impressive with the small out of season crowd.

I recently read a blog about common mistakes of travel phtography and one of them rang particularly true while writing this blog post – ‘always do your research about the place you visit’. This was the very mistake we made in our visit to Nikkō’s Shrines and Temples Park! Of course, we assumed that we could get information at the actual site and learn as we go, but this wasn’t the case. The result was a wonderful, yet overwhelming and sometimes confusing, visit to some of Japan’s most intricately decorated shrines and temples. If I went there again, I would research the Shrine and Temple complexes more to take more informed photos and look at the designs in more detail. But I guess that can be said about most places you visit. It was still a unique experience and definitely worth the visit; I just learned about the history and the various buildings a little later!

Walking from Nikkō town centre towards the UNESCO World Heritage Site Shrines and Temples of Nikkō.

The Shinkyo (‘sacred’) bridge that stands at the entrance to the Shrines and Temples Site.

So, to explain why it all seemed so confusing and overwhelming, let me describe the Temples and Shrines Site a little. The site encompasses 103 buildings and structures and the natural setting around them. There are two main Shinto shrines (Futarasan Shrine and Tōshō-gū) and one Buddhist temple (Rinnō-ji), but they all have elements of the Shinto and Buddhist religions encorporated into the various buildings. Most of the buildings belonging to an indivdual shrine or temple are located close together, although this isn’t always the case and all 103 building are clustered on a relatively small space. It can be hard to tell which building belongs where and to the untrained eye (i.e. us) it can also be very difficult to distinguish the main worship hall from a storehouse, for example. On the other hand, both buildings are likely to be intricately decorated with various natural motifs and special in their own way, so does it really matter?

Two of the main reasons for the importance of the Nikkō Site are the Shrine to Tokugawa Ieyasu (the first Shogun of the Edo Period) and the Mausoleum of Tokugawa Iemitsu (his grandson). It was Iemitsu that built the Tōshō-gū Shrine to his granfather. These photos don’t start to show the extent of the whole shrine and the details of the structures, partly because it was difficult to take photos in the crowds and also beause there are a lot of spaces where photography is not allowed. Both the Tōshō-gū Shrine and the Mausoleum are in fact many buildings – gates, worship halls, steps, roofed walls, etc. – that progressively lead you to the final resting place of each Shogun.

I (still) haven’t been able to completely understand the system behind shrine and temple complexes (and I suspect a lifetime of learning wouldn’t be enough!), but a common feature are the entry gates leading the worshiper to the main worship hall. This will hold the shrine or image of the main deity. In addition there are usually accessory buildings such as storehouses for ritual artefacts, palanquins or drums, stables, belfry towers, smaller shrines and even a lavatory for ritual use! Here, again, it’s difficult to convey the grandness of both the exterior and the interior of the buildings. Photography was not allowed inside, so we are left with only memories of, for example, the huge golden Buddha statues or the famous ‘Crying Dragon’ ceiling painting. The later was really fascinating, with a display by a monk, banging two sticks together, showing how the acoustics of the room create an echo only underneath the mouth of the dragon.

Approximetly half an hour walk away from the Shrines and Temples Site there is a less known small Buddhist Temple in the Kanmangafuchi Abyss. The particularly interesting feature of this temple are the about 70 statues of the Bodhisattva Jizo, who is the protector of the deceased, children and travelers. It was a beautiful walk along the river and we even came across a forgotten cemetary where most of the stones and statues where completely covered in moss.


Most of the tourist guides will advise visitors to make the trip to Kegon Falls (in the right photo) and Lake Chuzenji. They are located about a 45 min bus ride from the Nikkō JR Train Station. We had some extra time one day and deside to make a morning trip up there. The bus ride is really quite spectacular and goes along the Romantic Road – a very windy mountain pass to reach the Lake at 1269 masl! While Kegon Falls were indeed a spectacular sight, Chuzenjiko Onsen (the town next to Lake Chuzenji) and the area around the Falls were very ‘ghost town like’. There seemed to be a lot of potential to do interesting hikes, enjoy some out of the way temples and shrines and visit an onsen, but unfourtunately it seemed as though we visited at the wrong time of year. Or maybe it was fortunate, since we didn’t have much time to spend there anyway because we needed to catch our next connection to Hakone.

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.

A trip to the tropical EU

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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! 🙂