Eat, Drink, Age

October 11th, 2017 No comments

A long time ago getting older used to be fun. I’d get some nice presents, eat some cake, and take another step closer to being an adult. But, as most kids discover later, being an adult is not quite what they had expected.

Birthdays these days are a different affair. Although I’ve long since stepped into adulthood (and middle age, for that matter) I still manage to enjoy the presents and cake.

This year I got a beautiful new necktie from my wife, and a box of American goodies from my parents. So the presents were covered and I was very thankful to receive such nice gifts.

Since I’m not much of a cake fan anymore, we instead decided to head into Osaka and have the next best thing: all-you-can-eat dim sum. The Swisshotel in the Namba area has a remarkably large menu of dim sum (around 80 different kinds) and you can order as many as you can possibly eat within 90 minutes for a surprisingly reasonable price (for Japan). It was the perfect gift for the dim sum lover that I am, and Kuniko and I ate our fill despite a gyoza marathon the night before. We even walked afterwards to Korea Town in Tsuruhashi to pick up three varieties of freshly made kimchi (nappa cabbage, lotus root, and celery), and some chapche and kinpa. Good eating!

We were also able to spend some time with friends. On Sunday we met Yoshi and Mamiko near Osaka Castle to enjoy another craft beer event. We set up shop under a pedestrian overpass to avoid the summer-like weather, and proceeded to drink lots of different beers over the next few hours. We caught up on our summer trips, exchanged souvenirs, and talked about food and booze, which seem to be our go-to topics.

After the craft beer festival we proceeded to Nishinomiya, and the Nishinomiya Ebisu shrine new sake ceremony. This was a big event held mainly for locals. Although Mamiko had attended several times before, it was our first time, and we settled right in drinking sake and more beer on top of all that we had imbibed before.

I really enjoyed the event even though I usually try to avoid heavy sake drinking. It seems like beer and wine have a very small effect on me but sake goes down way too quickly. The food was quite good – very local Japanese foods like oden, edamame (three big bags full), tamagoyaki, and fried chicken.

With all that eating and drinking it was nice to rest up on Monday and enjoy the public holiday recovering in our living room. We watched movies, played our new favorite relaxation game (Stardew Valley) and got ready to depart this gastronomic dreamland and go back to work the next day.

So as birthday weekends go it couldn’t be beat, and it sort of softened the blow of turning 46 years old. There’s a lot of delicious food and drink out there, and this past weekend I think we put a respectable dent in it.



October 5th, 2017 No comments

There are mysterious events in my town Thursdays at 5:00 am.

I walk to the train station every morning, and usually it is a pretty quiet affair.  I see only two or three cars during the whole trip, and then I take the very first train of the day to head to work.  Maybe I’ll spot a jogger, or maybe an old lady walking her dog. However, precisely because there is nothing going on makes Thursday morning events stand out.

As I get close to the station, I always walk past the big JA building on my right.  The JA stands for “Japan Agriculture” which is a surprisingly large association that supports and profits from all the otherwise independent Japanese farmers. In addition, JA sells insurance, runs a credit union, and charges membership dues to the farmers that are part of the association. As an organization they have a lot of political clout and power in Japan, maybe too much considering the shrinking agriculture industry here.

The size of the JA building is impressive, especially for my small little town, with what looks like five floors and even a small credit union building next to it filled with ATMs.  Despite having walked by at least twice a day for the past ten years, I have just once seen the top floor of the building lit up at night, the curtains left open to reveal opulent chandeliers illuminating an upscale banquet room. There is big money here.

But every Thursday in front of the JA building, rain or shine, cold or hot, light or dark, there is a group of ten to fifteen very sleepy people walking around picking up garbage.  It is usually about a 60/40 ratio of women to men, of all ages.  They carry small trash bags and long steel tongs to pick up paper and other trash lying about on the ground.  There usually isn’t that much litter around my town (or any Japanese small town to be honest), but they are out there anyway, shambling around in lazy circles searching for stuff to pick up.

This kind of sleepy stumble has led me to dub them the “Thursday zombies” as they wander the otherwise desolate streets looking for litter instead of brains.  Sometimes they notice me walking by and acknowledge me with a nod of the head, but we haven’t reached the level of making conversation because there are different people almost every week.

The real mystery is why they are doing it.  It seems to me that employees of JA would do it during their work hours, or at least closer to their work starting time.  They could be local citizen volunteers but it seems odd to do the job so early.  My own theory is that the “zombies” are regular Joes who have taken loans from JA and do this as some kind of service to get a discount or something.  But really, there is no way to know unless I ask them, and I don’t want to disturb their slumber at that hour.  Besides, having the mystery is more fun.

This morning while walking by I noticed that most of the “zombies” had finished up cleaning and they had all assembled at the entrance to the JA building, just waiting for the last stragglers to show up.  As is usual in Japanese social culture, everyone will wait until the entire group is ready to go on to the next step, which causes a certain amount of inefficiency, which in turn kind of stands out to me as someone from outside the culture.

In this morning’s case I had passed two stragglers still cleaning up trash about a hundred yards earlier, and they had appeared oblivious to any sort of deadline or wrap up signal.  Their eyes were stuck to the ground searching for elusive cigarette butts.  So I knew that it would be quite a while before they went over to join their compatriots, and that the others would have to wait for quite a bit more time.  But none of them will complain, and none of them will leave for their nice warm homes, because the entire group must gather before they can finish.

I’ve experienced this a lot since I moved to Japan.  The party can’t start until everyone sits down, the drinks cannot be drunk until everyone has one in their hand and the speech has been made. The trip isn’t over until everyone has gathered and a closing speech has been heard, and so on. From one perspective it is strongly emphasizing the cohesiveness of the group, but on the other hand it shows that your own personal time is less valuable than the value of the group itself.

But today most of the “zombies” will wait in the cold patiently for the closing ceremony before they return to their homes, and again next Thursday another group will be out there again.  The end result is nice – relatively clean streets near the train station – but I’m not sure about the method of the whole thing.

As for me I know I would change a few things based on my own culture and perspective.  But I’m living in somebody else’s culture, so I continue to play by their rules, and simply note the more interesting contrasts here.


Creating a Border

September 27th, 2017 No comments

Over the past few years I have tried to do something a little out of the ordinary at the end of each six month teaching term. Each term consists of working with the same group of students, covering the same (or similar) material in class, and is punctuated with the same sorts of evaluations and tests. I talk mainly with the same twelve to twenty people twice a week for the entire six months.

As the term ends and I get ready to start another, it seems like a good time to completely break the routine. Otherwise, it is hard to know when one term ends and another begins. By doing something a little different it creates a mental border for me, and it helps to turn the page to the next term.

Yesterday I took a day off and went hiking. I got up with Kuniko (which means almost two hours of extra sleep for me) and then I took the train with her, getting off at Sannomiya while she continued on to work in Osaka. It was interesting to walk to our train station in the daylight, and to see all the activity that I normally miss during my early morning commute.

From Sannomiya I walked up to Shin-Kobe station. It is the station for the bullet train, built into the side of a green mountain with part of the station extending into a tunnel. I walked under the station and up the mountain behind it, until I reached Nunobiki waterfall.

It has been years since I had been up here. This waterfall was one of the first hikes I ever did in Japan and it still packs a lot of bang for the buck. Just a few minutes past the train station and you are in nature enjoying a pretty dramatic waterfall with almost nobody around. I have a lot of good memories here.

From there I walked alone at a deliberate pace through the hills of Mt. Rokko, taking turns at random without using the maps or GPS. After a few hours I ended up deep in the woods, and then I started taking a look at the maps to figure out how to get back.

I was surprised to discover that I happened to be close to the hillside that plays host to the giant Kobe city logo that lights up every night above Sannomiya. I figured it would be fun to go check it out, and I was able to get there and enjoy a great view of the city from the hilltop. The logo was formed by a big green topiary, fenced off to keep the hooligans away. Again, nobody was around, the road was quiet with an unnatural lack of cars, and I had the place to myself. I took off my sweaty shirt and laid on a stone bench at the top of the hill, to dry off the sweat and provide a chubby counterpoint to the otherwise beautiful scenery.

After hiking most of the morning I descended the mountain (with my shirt on) and decided to find a good bowl of udon. I ended up at a place called “Marugame” (though significantly, it was not “Marugame Seimen” – a popular udon chain). I enjoyed some cold “tanuki” udon noodles, and then stopped at a local Chinese restaurant to buy some nikuman buns.

Finally, I walked back to Hyogo station and then took a train ride home. After a long, cool shower I relaxed and played some video games, prepped some veggies for grilling and made a cilantro and tomato salad. I hadn’t grilled in a while, so it was nice to stand outside and barbecue in the perfect weather.

Kuniko and I enjoyed the vegetarian dinner when she got home, and had a quiet evening afterwards sipping cognac and thinking about upcoming travel plans.

So, it was a great day that I could spend at my own pace. I’ve got a few more easy days at work before things get intense – the next six months will be as busy as I have ever been at my company. I have a feeling it’ll be nice to look back and remember this particular stress free day.


Situational Awareness

September 19th, 2017 No comments

It was very nearly a typical ride on the morning train to work.  It was a little more crowded than usual, and lots of people were standing because the seats had long since filled up.  I stood in my usual place near the door that I would use later to get off the train at my stop.

After a few stations I noticed a tall woman get on.  I’m not sure what attracted my attention – that she was unusually tall, or that she was pushing along a shiny black spinner suitcase on four wheels.  Whenever I see people bringing suitcases on the train I like to imagine where they might be going.  To Kobe to take the bullet train off to Tokyo?  To Kansai Internationl and a flight to an exotic location?  It is enjoyable to let the mind wander on slow morning trains.  The tall woman stood leaning up against a seat on the aisle across from me, and rolled the suitcase into place next to her.

The train left the station, and as the woman put on some headphones to listen to music, the acceleration of the train caused the suitcase to roll towards the back.  I’ve never had a spinner suitcase but I had assumed that there is some kind of brake.  Apparently it wasn’t engaged this time.  The woman didn’t notice the suitcase leaving on its own accord – she was busy with her headphones.

Passengers on the train at this hour are pretty sleepy, and I think I was the only one to notice the little suitcase departing.  It was placed perfectly in the center of the aisle, and thanks to some very quiet and well-lubricated casters it moved silently and steadily between the seats as if a passing ghost was stealing it. Some people seated on the aisle looked up with surprise as the suitcase glided by.  Nobody made any move to stop it, and the suitcase traveled nearly the length of half the traincar until finally stopping gently against a seat, in which an older man awoke and blinked in surprise, no doubt wondering who delivered this gift of a shiny new suitcase.

The train continued moving, the passengers continued sleeping, and the previous owner of the suitcase looked off in the distance, unaware of the current status of her luggage.

Realizing that perhaps I was the best person to lend assistance in this situation, I leaned a bit to my left to try to get into the tall woman’s peripheral vision and get her attention. She seemed to sense the movement and look away.  The woman was quite attractive and may have had some bad experiences with weirdos on the train in the past.  Unconcerned with being classified as a weirdo, I waved my hand a bit more vigorously and finally she looked over.  I pointed at the place where her suitcase should have been but her reaction was quite odd, she just nodded and kind of moved her hand to acknowledge that yes, this is my suitcase.  I pointed again in a slightly more dramatic fashion, and she moved her hand down and as it passed through the air she at last realized that the luggage was not in fact present.

She looked down, and then back at me, her gaze then following my pointed finger towards the back of the train.  Luckily the old guy was still holding the suitcase, blinking furiously now and looking around, no doubt wondering what steps he needed to take to find the owner of the wayward bag.  The woman turned and walked briskly down the aisle to chase it down.

She negotiated the release of the suitcase from the old man, taking care not to look back and catch my eye; finally electing to stay there instead of coming back where she would have to face me again.

Then it was my stop, so I got off the train and went to work.


TV Set Up, Road Trip

September 13th, 2017 No comments

In my last post I talked about the incoming TV delivery, and luckily it arrived safely and the set up was pretty smooth.

It was my first time to get a delivery from Costco, and I wasn’t sure exactly what the delivery guys would do and not do to help out with the TV. As it turned out, they did as little as they legally could.

At Costco they warned me that I would have to take care of the TV settings and that was fine with me – I have the technical chops to handle it. When the delivery guys showed up they moved the box just inside our front door, and then promptly turned around ready to hit the road. I convinced them to move the box two more meters into our living room, and after that they were out the door and driving off. These guys were paid to move heavy thing “A” to point “B” and were not concerned about anything else. I understand that – shipping was free so who am I to complain?

I managed to wrestle the TV out of the box and then to move it up onto our TV stand without too much trouble. Setting up the TV was a breeze, and I can’t believe that some people pay a technician to do it. Kuniko and I agree that the size is just about perfect for our room and we’re happy with how it looks. We’ve been watching movies and videos more often lately to take advantage of the “Wow!” factor while it lasts.

Last weekend we decided to take a day-long road trip and enjoy the cooler weather and sunny skies. A while back we had driven to Okayama to see Kuniko’s sister, and along the way we were impressed with some of the scenery along the Seto Inland Sea. It is not far from us, but we hadn’t really explored it much, so this past weekend we did a more thorough expedition to learn more about it.

The trip was great. We started early in the morning and drove all the way to Hiroshima, sipping coffee in the car as the sun rose and taking country roads to avoid the high costs of the expressway. Once we got near Hiroshima, we turned south and took the Shimanamikaido – the expressway built to span many small islands on the way to the bigger island of Shikoku. We crossed bridge after bridge as we moved through the islands, and we stopped at almost every island to do some sightseeing. The views of the ocean and islands were great, especially from atop 360 degree viewpoints like the Kirosantenbo Observation Park.

Kuniko did all the driving on the trip. She loves to drive, and I was happy to let her do it. It was nice to roll down the windows and let the cool air in, and just take it easy and enjoy the scenery. We didn’t really have a time schedule for the journey and that made all the difference. Kuniko had done a lot of research beforehand and between that and the GPS it was a well-organized trip.

You probably would not be surprised to hear that we ate a lot, too. There was salted vanilla soft cream, lemon gelato, frozen oranges wrapped in mochi, a buffet-style seafood barbecue, a monster ham and egg donburi (with a side of gyoza) and two bowls of udon noodles from a roadside udon restaurant in Kagawa. We feasted and then we had plenty of time in the car between meals to digest and get ready for the next one.

Our final stop was at a couple of temples in Shikoku that are part of the 88 temple pilgrimage that has taken by Japanese for the past 1100 years. Our stop was just to get a taste of what it was like to visit these temples. From my limited experience visiting temples in Japan these ones seemed unremarkable, the only difference that I could see was that they were selling “pilgrimage goods”. The goods were walking sticks, clothing and books for people to collect inscriptions from the monks at each of the 88 temples of their journey.

As we were leaving we passed an older man wearing the white robes and hat of the pilgrimage, and he looked like he was in good shape. I wonder if he was traveling the pilgrimage on foot or by car.

From there we drove on home, with Kuniko hitting the expressway in order to trade our money for time and we arrived at home around 7 pm. We were a little tired out, but it was a great Saturday for us. I think we’ll continue to explore a little more around our area in the future, especially with autumn coming.


New TV (2017)

September 1st, 2017 No comments

The weekend is almost here! This week has gone by pretty slowly, mainly because we’re expecting a delivery of a new TV on Saturday.

Our old TV has some good memories behind it. You can go back in time and read more about it in this old blog post about getting our previous TV. If I could I’d keep it – I’m pretty satisfied with the size and screen, even these days. Unfortunately several months ago a black vertical band started to appear now and then, blocking off part of the screen and making it a little hard to see what it going on. The black bar hides at first, and then as the TV continues to operate it starts to appear more often. After an hour or so of watching the TV it is pretty much permanently blocking the screen.

So I started to look for a new one. To make a long story shorter I found what I was looking for at Costco, at about a 30% cheaper price than any other place (including websites) in Japan. Last weekend I drove to Costco and laid down the cash, and we arranged a free delivery for tomorrow.

I’m a little sad to say goodbye to our old Panasonic Viera TV. Panasonic has hit some hard times in the TV department lately, and other Japanese manufacturers are struggling to balance quality with price. I ended up buying an LG TV, and I hope that it will last longer than the 11 years that we got out of the Panasonic plasma TV. The new TV has some new technology, and it should be ready for 4K broadcasts whenever they start doing that regularly in Japan. We don’t really watch much broadcast TV anyway, instead focusing on DVDs, YouTube, video games and streaming internet movies.

We are both eager to see what the new TV looks like in our living room. There is often a difference between what you feel when you see the TV in a showroom (or warehouse, in Costco’s case) and when you set up the TV in your own space. I hope it works out for us.

Kuniko is working this Saturday, but it looks like we’ll both have Sunday off. In addition the weather has slightly cooled down offering a tantalizing glimpse of autumn. I know we’re not there yet, but I can’t wait to sleep without an air conditioner and retire my sweat towels for another year.


More Than Just Class Coverage

August 30th, 2017 No comments

Yesterday I taught a class for the new production workers at our company. It is a monthly class that I do all year round, but this time was a little different – I taught it alone.

Our production workers join our company right out of high school. We usually hire 30-40 promising young people and they spend almost a year training them in various skills including welding, steel work, electrical wiring, and more. They also receive training in English, because we have plenty of overseas projects and occasionally our workers are sent to a customer’s railway to do maintenance, repairs or retrofits.

The job of teaching English to the workers falls to the youngest Human Resources staff at the time, and Mr. Yamada (a second year employee and currently the “new guy” in HR) teaches these classes three or four times a month. One of those classes he asks me to help with, so we do sort of a team teaching approach once a month.

However, yesterday Mr. Yamada wasn’t available to teach the class with me, and apparently the other HR workers were too busy to take his place, so my boss asked me if it was possible to teach the class on my own. I was fine with it, and I put together a lesson plan that put more pressure on the students to speak out, and also avoided the use of any Japanese at all by anyone in the room. These kinds of classes can be a little more stressful for lower level students, but this was a special case and it worked out fine.

When I arrived at the classroom yesterday the staff in charge of training new employees were gathered in the “teacher’s room” (the lobby outside the classroom) as usual. Normally they give Mr. Yamada a lot of good-natured ribbing about this and that and they try to speak English with me. Their English skills are at the beginner level but they still try hard to speak with me. On this day, they knew that I would be working without a net so to speak, and they insisted on joining me in the classroom to help out.

We went in together, and the class went really well. I was more than a little moved by the staff stepping in to help me out. They are not great speakers of English, but they went in there knowing that the class would be 100% in English. They serve as role models for the students, not only in the classroom but also throughout the factory, and they were taking some risk by helping me out. If they make an English mistake or don’t understand some simple English instruction of mine, they could lose credibility with the students and students might lose motivation to study since even their instructors don’t know English well.

It was a nice thing they did to step up and help out. Since I hadn’t expected any help I designed the lesson so that I could do it all on my own, but my helpers were good at urging students to volunteer, to walk around and make sure they were doing their assignments, and to generally show that English is an important topic worth studying.

I thanked everyone for their help afterwards, and they laughed and said they were happy to do it. Perhaps it is the assistance from people who you least expect that makes the biggest impression. Anyway, it was a class that I won’t forget for a long time.


Heading Home (via Dubai)

August 14th, 2017 No comments

With our bags all packed it was a pretty slow paced morning for us. One last breakfast, one last music video session, and we were set for a check-out at noon. Kuniko had asked if we could get a ride to the airport, and they said that for 30 Georgian Lari they could arrange it. We agreed and the deal was made. This time when we brought our suitcase downstairs to leave, the driver was waiting for us. To our pleasant surprise, it was the same giant guy who had picked us up on the train platform.

While he took the suitcase and Kuniko did the paperwork for checking out, an older gentleman who was apparently the owner of the hotel poured another few shots of cha-cha as a farewell drink. Once more into the breach, but I figured it would make the wait for the airplane go a little smoother and said sure, why not? The owner told us in broken English how happy he was that we enjoyed our stay, and through his daughter(?) at the counter encouraged us to leave a good review for the hotel online. We were looking for how to pay for the driver, and the timing and the way the owner said it strongly implied that they were willing to forgo the driver fee if we wrote the nice review. It was hard to clearly understand, but we left things like that, and went outside to get in the old Mercedes Benz once again.

The driver was just as speedy as I remembered, and he seemed to have the habit of driving down the middle of two lanes, preferring not to commit to any one particular lane and keeping his options open. I wondered how many car accidents he has had in his driving career.

We turned right on George W. Bush Street and headed straight out to the airport. The guy was very nice and so I prepared a small tip of 5 Georgian Lari for being so helpful. We arrived at the airport, he took out the suitcase and I handed over the tip. He looked at the amount and said “Thirty! Thirty!” The light dawned, and I realized what happened. The original fee for the ride wasn’t actually included in our bill, and there was no discount for giving a good review. We just need to pay the driver. I was a little embarrassed as I handed over the 30 lari because I didn’t have an additional 5 lari bill to cover the original tip, just large bills. Oops! He didn’t seem to mind, though, and waved to us as he sped off.

So now we were back at the airport, and we went inside to check the departures board and see where to check in. We had arrived three hours before our flight, but when we looked up at the board it said our flight was departing in just 15 minutes. Next to that it said “GO TO GATE”.

What the hell? I double checked the flight number and it was correct. Oh crap! Kuniko and I both felt that icy cold feeling of sheer panic. Did we have the wrong information? Did TripIt fail us again? We rushed to the check in counters, but none of them were marked with our airline, FlyDubai. As cold sweat appeared on my forehead we rushed to the airline window, but there were no FlyDubai staff inside. We couldn’t go to the gate with our suitcase, so we didn’t know what we could do. I took the suitcase and tried to find an English-speaking staff that could help walking around the lobby. Kuniko went upstairs in an attempt to talk her way past the gate staff and get to the departure gate so that she could maybe hold the flight. Minutes were ticking away here and I couldn’t help thinking how it would suck to miss our flight and subsequently miss the next one from Dubai to Osaka.

I ran back to the FlyDubai window and asked a staff member from another airline if they could help, but they just shook their heads and pointed at the empty FlyDubai desk. I found a passing pilot but he just shrugged at me and kept walking.

Suddenly, when I was out of ideas, a guy wearing a FlyDubai uniform walked in and sat down at the desk. I rushed to him, and asked him about the flight to Dubai and how we could get to the gate ASAP.

I may have been a bit shrill.

He answered calmly that the flight was on schedule and to just check the monitors. Soon we would be able to check in.

I told him that we had just checked the monitors and they said to go to the gate immediately because the flight was leaving soon.

“Oh,” he said. “Did they forget to reset the departure information? That happens sometimes. I’ll call the department and have them set it up correctly.”

I confirmed with him that we were in fact still two and a half hours before departure, and that the information we saw on the official airport departure screen was incorrect.

I breathed a massive sigh of relief, and soon saw Kuniko coming downstairs looking for me. We found that the check-in counters opened up soon after, and we were able to check-in without a problem for the regularly scheduled flight.

What a shocker. We knew that things worked a little differently out here, and we weren’t in some major metropolis airport, but at least you can get the departure times correct for the flight on the official board, right? Maybe we were asking for too much.

Anyway, after that rush of adrenaline we made a beeline for the nearest airport bar and had a cold beer and a sandwich to settle down. The sandwich was simple and forgettable, but the beer hit the spot. After that it was just a matter of walking around killing time before the flight. We bought some chocolate in a duty free shop, and waited behind some old ladies who didn’t speak any of the languages that the staff spoke. The prices of the items were in Euros but they wanted to pay using some other currency, and the old ladies tried negotiating using gestures to get all the things they wanted, even though they didn’t have enough cash. I think working at an international airport duty free cash register would be pretty stressful.

We had a very uneventful flight to Dubai, back across Iran, and landed just as the sun was setting. The view of Dubai from the plane was interesting – buildings surrounded by sand and long open highways stretching off to nowhere. We couldn’t see any famous landmarks coming in, however.

Since we had been to Dubai on the way to Georgia we easily navigated the airport and found our way to the metro station, and then took the train back to the Burj Khalifa. Previously everything was closed because we were there so early in the morning, but this time everything was open. We could walk all the way from the train station to the Dubai Mall in air conditioned comfort thanks to a long elevated walkway. It was a long way to walk, but much more comfortable than the way we did it last time.

The Dubai Mall is apparently the second largest mall in the world based on land area, so obviously we didn’t see it all during our limited time visiting. Our primary targets were getting a suitably cheesy keychain ornament of the Burj Khalifa to hang from our Christmas tree, and to eat some Lebanese food from the food court. We accomplished both of these almost right away. The keychain was easy to pick up at the official souvenir shop, and we had a felafel and a chicken Shawarma wrap once again. Both were delicious.

The mall was quite beautiful (for a mall), and well designed. It was a true cross-section of all kinds of people, with shieks and burqa-wearing women everywhere, but also Asians, Europeans and Africans too. It was a great place to people watch.

We did a little more shopping, and then went outside to watch the fountain show – a huge water area and a fountain and light show every 30 minutes under the Burj Khalifa itself. Just like Las Vegas, except much hotter.

Finally, we made the long trip back to the airport, and then went to our gate to get ready for the flight to Osaka. We had some beers, ate a little more airport food, and then sleepily boarded our flight at about 2 am local time. That gave us a chance to sleep on Emirates for most of the return flight to Osaka, and we arrived in the evening on Monday night. Kuniko was ready to go to work the next day, but as it turned out she had the day off.

We weren’t too tired after the trip, thanks to the couple days of relaxation in Tbilisi before our return. It was another great trip for us. Definitely more difficult than other trips and we had some moments of panic, but it is things like that which make for the best stories and memories. Can’t wait for the next trip!


A Perfect Day in Georgia

August 12th, 2017 No comments

When you are traveling there are always high points and low points during any given day. Maybe there was a bad taxi ride one day that balances out the great pics you took earlier that morning. Perhaps one delicious meal saves an otherwise boring day of travel and waiting around.

So we were a little amazed to have what we would consider a perfect day on the last full day of our trip.

We were still on the relaxation pattern, starting with a nice slow breakfast at our hotel while watching great bad music videos. My appetite was back and I was more hungry than I have been the entire trip, and I meant to take advantage and eat as much good food as we could before our return.

We started with a quest to eat pelmeni. Pelmeni is really a Russian dish, tiny dumplings served with some sort of sour cream or cream sauce. We ate a lot during our trip to Russia, but it seemed fitting to have at least one Russian dish while we were this close to Russia. Kuniko had remembered seeing someone eating pelmeni at a restaurant we had passed the previous day, and so we set out to find it.

For the first time the whole trip, we found what we were looking the first time we tried, and it was open. Pelmeni was on the menu, and we also ordered some grilled chicken with a sour honey sauce, two cold beers, and two glasses of Mukuzani red wine. The pelmeni was served in a little different style, in a small pot with bread baked over the top like a little hat, but the flavor was great and it went well with the red wine.

We sat outside and watched the tourists passing by, and it seemed to us like there were even more tourists in town during the weekday than we had seen during our weekend here. Afterwards we walked back to the hotel with a slight buzz to pack for our departure the next day and also wait out the heat of the afternoon.

Next stop was searching out some more khinkali – it seemed like that would be a great last dinner in Georgia. Kuniko had researched an interesting place and we walked along the opposite side of Shota Rustaveli Avenue, past the beautifully painted Opera House, and then down some steps to Duqani Lagidze 2 (I don’t know where 1 is). The place was again in the basement, and designed in a modern style that seemed playful and a little feminine. We ordered a plate of ten khinkali, a bowl of chicken stew, and some bread, and also had a couple of glasses of local beer called “Black Lion” that were pretty good. We ate the khinkali using only our fingers, holding each one by the nipple and eating around them until we finished. Five little nibbled nipples were remaining on each of our plates when we finished. The soup was really good too – salty and rich and perfect to dip into with the homemade bread that came with it. These khinkali were our favorite of the trip, and we were rubbing our contented stomachs with happiness as we left the restaurant.

To wrap everything up it seemed like we should go drink some wine, and we ended up back at g.Vino on our favorite street. This time there weren’t any outdoor tables available when we arrived, so we set up in the warmly decorated interior and ordered some glasses of red wine, and a plate full of local cheeses and honey. The atmosphere inside was comfortable and I felt like I could come there every night for a glass of wine – exploring Georgian wines at a slow pace sounded like a lot of fun.

At last we figured it was time to head back and get some rest. We ended on a very good note with the wines – they were delicious, and we couldn’t have been happier with all the food we ate on our last day. I’m glad my appetite finally came back to join our holiday.


Taking it Easy in Tbilisi

August 11th, 2017 No comments

After the long ride on the train it was nice to sleep late in a comfortable hotel room. It felt luxurious to lounge until sunlight hit the curtains, and to take a long, slow shower after that.

We went downstairs for breakfast, and we were directed to the breakfast area behind the lobby. There was a small buffet set up with a good mix of European and Georgian breakfast foods. The most surprising thing was a big bottle of cha-cha on the table with some small glasses nearby. Apparently some people liked to get their morning started with a bang.

Above the bar counter was a TV playing Georgian music videos, and between the music and the low budget production I was enthralled. I could have watched those all day, but we had other things we wanted to do. We ate big at breakfast, since we hadn’t really eaten much the previous evening.

This was the tail end of our trip, and during our previous stay in Tbilisi we had covered all the sightseeing that we wanted to do. These last two days were just for relaxation, eating whatever we wanted, and to decompress and enjoy some slow time. With a totally open schedule and a great hotel it was an easy couple of days.

Since we were in Tbilisi we wanted to take another crack at finding really good “authentic” khinkali. After researching the internet we went back out to try and find the restaurant that we couldn’t find on our first day at the beginning of the trip, Pasanauri. According to Google and some reviews they were still in business, so we would just have to search harder.

After doing some supermarket shopping at a “Smart Super”, we found Pasanauri, but unfortunately they didn’t open till 1 pm. We had about an hour to kill, so we went to a cafe with seating outside on the sidewalk, and we ordered a couple glasses of local white wine to help pass the time. The glasses arrived and they were filled to the brim – we ordered a glass and received almost half a bottle. We’d have to be careful here.

While we worked on our wine a couple of young guys wearing hip-hop clothes and crooked hats came and sat at the tables. The waiter didn’t look happy and kept commenting to them, and eventually we figured out that they were waiting to smoke water pipes inside the restaurant. We saw so many bars with water pipes set up outside – it must be an Arabian thing.

Finally it was time for Pasanauri. By the time we got into the restaurant it was our fourth attempt to eat there, so I felt a little satisfaction as we sat in a booth and ordered up two kinds of khinkali – cheese filled and traditional. The place was very popular and it took about half an hour for the food to come, but it was worth the wait. I can’t say I was a big fan of the cheese khinkali – most cheese in Georgia was pretty salty – but the regular ones were great. We were getting better at eating them with just our hands, too.

Completely stuffed we went back to the hotel to take a break from the oncoming heat, taking naps, writing in the journal, and making shopping lists for last minute souvenirs. These breaks were essential to keep up our stamina in the heat.

In the evening we went back to our favorite street to try another cafe. At first we went to a place that advertised a free wine tasting, and they led us underground to their muggy, humid cellar. The guy who poured for us wasn’t as confident with his English and just poured fast and furiously through four wines. We thanked him and moved on – the vibe of the place wasn’t quite what we were looking for for dinner.

However, down the street we found a better restaurant. The name of the place was “Alcoholic”, which seemed a good fit for us, and there we had some wine while sitting outside in the cooling evening. Kuniko ordered some khachapuri and a beef stew, and I did my best to help. To be honest I was still full from our khinkali feast and couldn’t do the dinner justice, but Kuniko stepped up and really powered through. The khachapuri was a different style than what we had last time, and I think we both preferred this version without the buttery egg and the dry bread edges. The stew was perfectly flavored and had big chunks of rich tender beef. I’m sure it would be a popular dish in winter as well.

We took a slow stroll back to our hotel, stopping at a convenience store for a little light shopping to stock our hotel fridge with water and yogurt. Thanks to all our experience previously walking around Tbilisi it was easy to find our way without a map. We were feeling more and more like locals. We went to bed planning a similarly light schedule for the next day.


Last Day in Yerevan, Train to Tbilisi

August 10th, 2017 No comments

We got up pretty early in the morning and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at the hotel dining area. The breakfast buffet was a nice simple one, with eggs, yogurt, fried buckwheat, sausages, fruits in a sweet sauce (that was meant to be combined with the yogurt) and plenty of kinds of juice. Unfortunately the coffee there was a bit watery, but if that was our biggest complaint we were doing OK. The nice thing about the dining area was that there were two concrete balconies outside with tables, so we could sit out there and enjoy a view of the city from the 7th floor before the sun came out and really heated things up.

Afterwards we hit the town for some sightseeing and shopping. We saw the Blue Mosque (at least the back of it – the front entrance was closed that early), and then we walked across town to see the impressive Saint Gregory the Illuminator Cathedral. The streets were empty, the temperature was cool, and once again we were happy to be able to take advantage of an early wake up time.

Since this was our last day in Yerevan we did some shopping at several shops, including the surprisingly big Yerevan City grocery store that was just a few minutes’ walk from out hotel. We got lots of little candies to give out to our students, some water for the train ride back later on, and some snacks for the train since there was no food for sale on board. I had a little scare when the cashier almost didn’t accept one of my bills which had a slight tear, but later another cashier accepted it so everything was OK.

On the way back from the supermarket we passed a young woman playing with a new puppy – the puppy was off the leash and pouncing on the lady playfully. As we walked by the puppy decided Kuniko would be fun to pounce on, and that kind of freaked her out a little. For some reason on this trip the dogs were attracted to us. Even after we turned the corner the puppy came running after us, and we had to stop so that the lady could collect her little dog and take it home.

Despite feeling better I wasn’t at 100% yet, so we figured we’d spend the rest of the morning resting in our room, using the air conditioner (and the clean toilet) as much as possible before we checked out. We stayed until the last minute, checked out at noon, and then stashed our bag at the hotel and went outside to find a shady place to relax. We had three and a half hours to kill before the train departed, but we are really good at killing time and relaxing when we need to.

Our strategy was to first go to a sidewalk cafe, sit in the shade of some trees, and have something cold. I started with a frappe, Kuniko had a milkshake, and again they were both pretty watery. I refrained from eating the ice, just in case. Later I had a cold beer and that turned out to be the better choice on a hot day. While we enjoyed drinking outside little kids played in the fountains, and apparently this is a perfectly normal thing to do during summer. They came prepared with swimsuits and goggles and jumped into the fountains like they were public swimming pools. I felt like joining them but didn’t want to cause an international incident.

We spent almost two hours relaxing, drinking and talking about all kinds of topics, and then decided to go look for a deck of cards for the long train ride back. At a nearby toy store I asked if they had some, and the clerk passed me a deck. My first impression was that it was quite thin, but I didn’t think much of it, and the price was less than a dollar so who cares? Later we discovered that the deck had only 36 cards, and they were in Russian so they were a little hard to understand. All the face cards were there, but some of the number cards were missing. Some kind of Russian card game? Who knows…

Since the train station was only five or ten minutes away by taxi we weren’t in any rush to get to the station. The station itself was pretty short on shopping and waiting areas – it was really just a platform. We killed our time in town, and then finally wandered back to our hotel to pick up our suitcase around 2:45. We asked the hotel to call us a taxi, and they said that it would be out in front of the hotel in five to seven minutes. We went down to the lobby, and the hotel lobby staff stepped outside and waited alongside us.

A few taxis were visible driving by, but apparently they were from a different company than the one the hotel had called, so we patiently waited. There was still 35-40 minutes before the train left, so no problem.

Ten minutes pass, and then fifteen. No more taxis pass our hotel but in the distance on the main street we can see them occasionally driving by. The hotel staff calls the taxi company again and promises that it will be here in 3-4 minutes maximum. He guarantees this and for fun I set the timer on my phone. We are starting to feel a little stressed. If we somehow miss the train there is no other train until two days later. There are no flights between Yerevan and Tbilisi, and we would have to take a primitive minibus ride for six hours between the two cities. I didn’t want to think about the condition of the bathrooms that we would encounter on a long shared minibus ride through the hot desert on the way. I much preferred to catch the train we had tickets for.

It was now twenty minutes to departure and we were officially concerned. Long past the four minutes that the guy guaranteed. Down the street a taxi came our way, but the staff said it wasn’t the company that they had ordered from. Too bad, dude – I hailed it. The taxi driver stopped and looked a little confused as we tried to explain that we wanted to go to the train station. Picture two panicked people playing charades and acting out “choo-choo train”. Kuniko found a picture of the map on her phone, and finally it worked. The hotel staff had a stern conversation with the taxi driver as I loaded our suitcase in the back, and then he apologized for the long wait. We said goodbye, and hit the road.

And as soon as we turned the corner, we saw the problem. There was apparently some big road construction project and traffic was at a standstill. Lanes of cars waited in the hot sun to get past a closed lane between us and the train station. 15 minutes until our train rolled out of the station.

Deep breaths! I thought of the ending of every season of Amazing Race as teams rode a taxi to the finish line – maybe this is a tiny bit like how they feel. We inched forward, and the taxi driver seemed to sense the tension in the air and he aggressively pushed past some cars and cut off others to get priority.

Suddenly we passed the construction, and then it was a wide open street. The taxi driver hit the gas, and we made it to the station with ten minutes to spare. I paid him (with a little extra for the speedy delivery) and then scrambled after Kuniko who was running ahead to identify our train platform. Luckily our train was right in front of us, and we rushed to the correct car and boarded. Hooray!

There was some confusion as we arrived at our cabin and found an old Russian guy sitting inside. In my mind I had thought that we had reserved a private cabin for the return trip, but later upon reviewing my emails the travel agent hadn’t been able to book a private one and so we had to share with our Russian friend. He didn’t speak a word of English, so we worked out through gestures which beds were ours, and then we stashed our suitcase and settled in to wait for departure.

It was hot in the train car! There was no air conditioning, and as the metal cars sat in the sun the temperature was rising inside. I was flushed and sweaty from the panicked scramble and stressful taxi ride, combined with the hot air in the cabin. I drank water, used our tickets as a fan, and soaked up as much sweat as my towel could take. Eventually we got underway, and just sitting down and relaxing was enough to cool my body down. I think everyone in our cabin was amazed how much sweat a human body could produce.

As soon as we left the staff walked by and closed all the open windows on the side of the train, and wouldn’t allow anyone to open them. I was hoping for some fresh air blowing through the train car, but no luck. Kuniko had heard that maybe it had something to do with passing so close to the border with Turkey, since Turkey and Armenia don’t have a very good relationship. Unfortunately this cost me a chance to take a nice picture of snow-topped Mt. Ararat as we went past. I should have got my picture through the dirty windows on my way to Yerevan.

It was a long, slow ride back to Georgia. The train initially passed through desert, and since the terrain was less than interesting I spent my time on the bottom bunk writing this journal and drinking water to rehydrate. Kuniko moved up to the top bunk and slept on and off for most of the trip. The Russian guy came and went, sometimes walking up and down the train car, sometimes making calls on a gold plated flip phone. At some point I ate some of our snacks – lemon cakes that we had bought in the supermarket – and offered them to the Russian guy. He smiled and shook his head and held his stomach, and I got the impression that he had recently eaten.

After a while I laid back myself and tried to get some rest. The rocking of the train really does wonders to put you to sleep, and I dozed off at some point.

I woke up suddenly, and the Russian guy was holding a knife in front of my face.

There was only a moment of panic before I realized that he was cutting up a tomato on the table positioned right next to my head, but since he was standing up in the aisle between our seats the knife was right there. He looked down and saw I had woken up, and smiled at me and offered me a freshly cut tomato wedge. I smiled back, shook my head and held my stomach. It was a nice gesture of him, though.

Since I probably couldn’t fall back asleep after being surprised by the knife, I decided instead to listen to some music and enjoy the scenery. While I had slept the landscape had changed from dry desert to lush green fields. There were some beautiful grassy hillsides, some cattle roaming out on green pasture, and we crossed over a river or two. We occasionally went though a tunnel plunging the cabin in darkness, and I could see why so many murder mysteries are set on trains.

Watching the scenery go by was a relaxing way to travel – it is something you don’t get so much when you take an airplane. I enjoyed the train trip, and it turned out to be a highlight of the trip for both us. I hope someday we’ll have a chance to do a long train trip again.

In the late evening we approached the border. Kuniko moved down to share my bunk, and we waited patiently for the passport inspection. Georgia wasn’t so strict about visas for Americans and Japanese, so it was a smooth crossing for both of us. One passing border agent saw Kuniko lying on the bed with me and ordered us to stand up, and for Kuniko to open her bag. We complied, and then he flipped up our bunk to check for stowaways hidden underneath. I’m happy to report that nobody was under our bunk, and he let us lay back down. Still, he only checked our bunk, so maybe there was something unusual about a Japanese lady curled up on a bed that set off a warning flag for him.

Finally, after a nine hour train ride we pulled into Tbilisi just after midnight. Our Russian roommate was continuing on the train to the resort town of Batumi, and he gave us a cheerful wave as we said goodbye. I’ll never forget you, knife-wielding Russian guy!

Since we were arriving so late Kuniko had arranged with our hotel through email to pick us up on the platform. From the darkness emerged a giant of a man holding a tiny paper sign with Kuniko’s name on it. He motioned for us to follow, and then walked up the big stone steps to the overpass and the exit of the train station. I lugged our heavy suitcase all the way up the steps, and it was cute when the big guy turned to me soon after and offered to take my bag. Good timing!

Outside he pointed at his old Mercedes Benz that was parked near the exit, and we loaded the suitcase and watched as the car almost didn’t start. Finally we got going, and after a pretty speedy drive through town arrived at our hotel. The driver escorted us inside, where a young lady looking a little sleepy checked us in. While Kuniko did the paperwork the driver urged us to have a shot of cha-cha as a welcome drink. I took him up on it, and he explained that the only way to drink it was as a shot. Knowing I had a bed within a few meters of my current location I went ahead and did the shot. The cha-cha was like lighter fluid… nasty stuff. He offered another one, but I begged off and we said goodnight. The hotel room was decorated in an interesting style – kind of Elizabethan style, with an undercurrent of Arabia. It was very clean with a beautiful bathroom and shower, so I was very satisfied.

Since Kuniko had slept most of the train ride she was not ready to sleep, and so she stayed up watching YouTube videos and snacking on our leftovers in our bag. I crashed right out – it was a long day for me.


Armenian Brandy, An Evening in Yerevan

August 9th, 2017 No comments

We were a day behind schedule thanks to my fever and we were eager to get started seeing what we wanted to see. I was still a little weak so we decided to spring for a cab ride to the brandy distillery in town. It was a short walk from the hotel to the edge of the city square, and there were plenty of taxis waiting for business there.

We caught a ride in one taxi, and the driver was great. He was so proud of his city, and happy that there were some tourists like us that came to explore it. He told us all about the Armenian diaspora, and was obviously happy to promote his city and culture to some people from other countries. Sometimes his English was a little hard to catch but the fact that he was trying to talk with us more than made up for it.

The ride to Ararat Distillery was just a few minutes, but we could feel the oppressive heat outside. We paid our cheerful driver, got out and walked quickly to the entrance to look around and maybe do a tasting. Inside at reception they explained that tours were by appointment only, but as luck would have it there was an English–language tour being held that day at 3:30 pm. We signed up for it, and then hit the road.

I was feeling much stronger so we left on foot, and attempted to walk to another distillery nearby, called NOY. We could see the distillery, but the roads were set up in such a way that it took a long time for pedestrians to reach it. When we finally did, we discovered that it wasn’t open yet. Rather than wait around in the hot sun, we decided to head home and rest under our apartment’s air conditioners.

The design of the city of Yerevan was interesting – the interior with most of the sightseeing spots has many open squares, parks and restaurants and seems designed with the pedestrian in mind. It is a very large part of the center of the city, covered with trees and fountains and makes it really pleasant to get around. Luckily our hotel was centrally located in the center of it all. However, once you left that area on foot, it became a lot more difficult. There were not many pedestrian crosswalks, and like Russia you had to look for underpasses hidden underground to cross the street. The outside of Yerevan was built for car traffic.

Back in our hotel we drank lots of water, took a nap, stayed cool in the air conditioning, and got ready to go out and drink brandy. Around 3 pm we caught another taxi and repeated the exercise, arriving in time for our tour soon after.

The Ararat distillery is in a distinctive building that really stands out on the Yerevan skyline. Inside there are shelves of brandy bottles on display, and even a security guard and security gate to make sure nobody steals anything. The smell of the evaporating brandy being aged inside the building was everywhere, and it looked like they had invested a lot in the decoration and interior of the reception area. Nice place!

We paid for our tour and the post-tour tasting, and after converting the cost of the “premium” tasting in my head I realized it was a great deal. The tour lasted about an hour, and the tour guide reminded me a lot of the tour guides back at Benziger Winery – probably tired of saying the same thing over and over for laughs. But it was informative, just not quite as stylish as the Hennessy tour was. There was a barrel of brandy reserved for each presidential visitor that had personally visited the distillery, that they were welcome to claim at any time. I noticed that Putin had visited twice. In fact, they said that they exported 90% of their brandy to Russia. I had no idea that the Russians had that kind of interest.

There was also a “peace barrel” of brandy representing the cease fire and peace accord that was arranged between the countries of that area. There was a flag representing each country involved, and they promised to open the barrel once it was completely peaceful between all of them. As the barrel was still closed tight I guess there was still some room for diplomacy.

My favorite feature was a locked “security” door with some fancy LED lights that led the way to “paradise” – the location of the oldest and most valuable brandies. I doubted that the door was more than just a plastic facade, but I liked the stagecraft in setting it up as part of the tour.

While we walked through as a group, there was a smaller group of four people walking behind us, talking in big (foreign) voices, and causing our tour guide to yell at them to be quiet, please. They walked through our tour while the guide was speaking, and they honestly had a pretty rank smell about them. They looked at all of us with a bit of contempt, and the tour guides and staff clearly returned the dirty looks. What was going on here? Later they joined the tasting so they must have paid but clearly there was some tension in the air.

The tasting was conducted after the tour in a special tasting room that was nicely arranged so that you could sit and savor the brandies. We had three brandies to try, their standard brandy (aged 7 years), another one that was our personal favorite (aged 20 years), and finally a third that was blended with various ages and supposedly their high end brandy. There was also a little paper cup of dark chocolate prepared. The guide explained how to drink brandy (no ice, warm it first, look at the legs) and then let us get started.

We enjoyed the tasting, mainly because we have really been enjoying Cognac since our visit to Fabien in Cognac and the tour of Hennessy that he arranged for us. Now we drink Hennessy Cognac quite often, especially since it is really cheap in Japan.

The brandy here was good, quite good really, and we were very satisfied with the quality. I’m certain that in a blind tasting we might even prefer it to Hennessy VSOP. We particularly liked the 20 year old blend – delicious.

Across from me a solo visitor was tasting the brandies. Not tasting really, more like drinking. She went through the brandies in a matter of minutes. At one point I asked her to take some photos of Kuniko and I together, and she took the photos without a word or a smile. She tossed back the last brandy and left soon after. Wow!

Later we checked the prices of the brandies both at the distillery and at stores around Yerevan. The cost was extraordinary – between four to eight times the cost of comparable Cognac in Japan. We originally thought about buying a souvenir bottle and bringing it home, but it turns out they export to Japan and it would be easier enough to buy it there. However, the cost difference was still way too high – it was delicious but not eight times more delicious.

Considering our weakened condition we left some brandy in our glasses as we moved on, something we would never do in Japan. From there we were able to catch a taxi back to the city center to see about getting some dinner. The taxi almost t-boned a car that suddenly crossed in front of us against a stop light, and that was our brush with death for the day. Our taxi driver gave the offending driver a dirty look and then continued on to our restaurant.

The restaurant was called Dolmama, which according to our research was a good balance of upscale and traditional Armenian food. The building was a pretty old European style, with tall ceilings, modern interior design and a homey feel in the dining room. The staff were especially friendly, with lots of smiles and helpful recommendations from the wine list. We ordered dolma, kofte, and manti for dinner. It was a little less than we usually order, but since I was still recovering from my stomach problems we thought it best to take it easy. The food was quite good, a little spicy, and much healthier than all the cheesy bread we ate back in Tbilisi. Also I was impressed with the red wine we had. We came to Armenia concentrating on the brandy, but the wine was quite good, too.

After dinner we decided to walk around the center of Yerevan. The heat had subsided and we could walk the streets comfortably. Yerevan had a really nice feel to it. We didn’t see any beggars, the sidewalks were fully developed and every intersection had a crosswalk with a signal. These were some of the things we noticed after walking around Tbilisi for the past few days, where crossing the road could sometimes feel a little risky.

Also in Yerevan they had paid a lot of attention to central squares, open spaces for people to gather, and lots of artistic statues and art installations. It wasn’t nearly as touristy as Tbilisi, and it felt like we were surrounded by locals most of the time.

One of the highlights was seeing the Cascade Monument, to the northwest of town. It reminded me of something sort of Roman, with steps all the way down from the side of the hill. We skipped climbing it because of the weather, but had we been there in another season I’m sure we would have enjoyed the steps (and calorie burn).

We strolled around the center of town for a while until it became dark, and then headed to the main square to see the fountain show that was supposed to start at 8 pm. For some reason it wasn’t running at the time, so we sat down to wait and people watch. I was surprised how many people there were out relaxing together, and it struck me again how nice these centralized places were for actual human-to-human communication and interaction. People laughed together, played with their kids, and the whole thing felt like a special event. For us it was very special, but for most everyone else this was just a regular summer night.

While waiting we noticed a cloud of smoke and the strong smell of barbecue at some point. It turned out there was some kind of fire down the street coming from a restaurant. We never saw flames, but plenty of smoke. Suddenly it stopped, however, and I guess everything was under control. I had little cinders in my eyes during the rest of the night, so I think it was a bigger fire than we knew at the time.

The fountains were running sometime after 9 pm, and it was impressive to see what they were doing with water technology these days. They shot up high in the air to music, with lots of colored LED lights to accent the dramatic points. The music was traditional and popular Armenian songs which evidently meant a lot to the audience but not much to us. It was a great show, and it went on for almost two hours. At some point we got tired and walked down the square to a long promenade lined with cafes and more fountains, and drank cold beer outside while watching people stroll by now and then. It was nice to sip beer and listen to the music from the central square off in the background.

I was glad to be back in the land of the living and I was feeling better by the hour. The only after-effects of the fever that I noticed were a reduced appetite, and it seemed like I was quicker to break out in a sweat when out in the heat. I understand that both are side effects of heat exhaustion, and so we both promised to be more careful about heat exposure for the rest of the trip. This was the middle of a heat wave in summer, after all.


Arriving in Armenia

August 8th, 2017 No comments

The city of Tbilisi is not so far from the border to Armenia. This was good news because we knew we’d have to be awake when the train crossed the border so as to pass the immigration inspection. The system was actually pretty easy. A stop or two before the border a crew of Georgian immigration officials get on the train and ride along checking and stamping passports. Then, at the the border they get off and are replaced by Armenian immigration officials who do much the same thing. Unless you come from certain countries.

Armenia and the USA have a pretty solid relationship and so I could stay in my cabin and the officers would come to me and stamp my passport. Other countries need to have a visa or buy one as they cross the border. At the border the guards escort people who need to buy a visa to a special building, where they wait in line, pay for the visa, and then can go back to the train.

Kuniko was thinking ahead and bought a visa online before our trip, so as to make things easy. Unfortunately not many Japanese people travel these rails, and they still wanted to inspect the visa (and Kuniko) outside the train car to fully understand the situation. That meant she had to get up around midnight and join the queue of “visa on arrival” passengers outside. I sat inside the cabin and wondered vaguely what would happen if she was somehow refused entry. Should I jump off the train? Charge the border calling her name?

Luckily the question was moot because she came back pretty quickly, and we could sit back and relax and try to get some sleep.

Sleeping on the train was fun. Sometimes we moved, sometimes the train stopped for a long time. Nobody came to take the extra beds but we didn’t sleep completely comfortably because we didn’t know if someone would show up or not. We had a tiny blanket and a good sized pillow, and we were pretty comfortable overall.

One of the water bottles that we had bought at the station sprung a leak at the very bottom, so we had to hold the bottle upside down to prevent water from spilling all over, and it turned out to be a little tricky to drink water from the bottle without getting wet. It was a little game to keep us occupied while we traveled through the night.

Unfortunately for me I had to run to the toilet now and then to take care of the churning in my stomach. The toilet wasn’t clean and beautiful, but it wasn’t a pit either. Luckily there weren’t many people running to the restroom throughout the night, and there was plenty of toilet paper. Still, not ideal for me – I had some kind of stomach bug.

We woke up early with the sun just starting to rise out the window. The view of the desert outside of Yerevan was absolutely beautiful. On the other side of the train to the southwest was a brilliant view of Mt. Ararat, shining with snow on the peak even during summer time. It was on the side of the train where the windows didn’t open, so I figured I’d wait and take a picture on the return trip – but this turned out to be a bad strategy, which I’ll explain later.

Something about waking up on a moving train to a new day really struck a chord with me. Maybe I have been reading a lot of Paul Theroux lately and that has influenced me, but I really enjoyed it. If I could just have a hot cup of coffee the moment would have been perfect.

So the train slowly rolled into Yerevan, and we could disembark there and get our bearings. I felt a little dirty and a little tired, but facing a new city in the morning is really the best. Coming into a new city late at night and searching for a hotel can be stressful, but here we had plenty of time to figure things out in the light of day.

We started by hitting up a taxi driver outside the station. In contrast to the taxi drivers back at Tbilisi airport, the drivers here seemed much more relaxed. We asked an older guy about a ride to the city center and he said “no English”, but a younger guy came up and was willing to work things out by gesture and phone. I liked his attitude; he knew he’d have more work on this fare but potentially more income.

We showed him the hotel on the map, but he didn’t quite get it exactly. Instead he saw that we had the phone number, so he called the hotel and spoke with them directly and got directions. Then he waved us to the taxi. Kuniko pressed him to find out how much it was to get there (since nobody was using meters) and he held up four fingers. I asked him about changing money, and he used gestures to indicate that first he’d take us to the money changer, then to the hotel. Perfect.

The money changer was quite close in fact, and the taxi driver parked across the street in a temporary parking spot, and then indicated that he’d come with me inside to help with the exchange. We started to cross the street but another taxi pulled up behind and started honking at our taxi to move. Our poor driver went back, and waved me to continue on to change money. Inside I changed the money, and the taxi driver came back just as I finished and made sure that I had exchanged to small enough bills to pay the driver correctly – good idea!

We went back out and got back into the relocated cab, and the driver took off down the road. It wasn’t far to the center of town, and when we got close the taxi driver again called the hotel and zeroed in on the correct address. Soon enough he brought us to the doorstep, and we got out and paid. I paid 4+1 as a tip, and the driver seemed satisfied. I liked his style and he certainly earned his extra money.

We went inside the hotel, and announced ourselves at the desk, at around 8 am in the morning. The initial plan was to park our suitcase here, go out and do sightseeing in the morning, and finally come back in the afternoon and do check-in at the normal time. Unfortunately I wasn’t feeling very good, still sweating even though it really wasn’t that hot, and I thought going out might be a bad idea. The hotel staff were apologetic that the room was occupied and we couldn’t do an early check-in, but they said that we could use their bathrooms and showers to freshen up, and that they had a common room where we could spend time and relax while waiting for check-in. I jumped at the chance to use a clean toilet and to take a shower, and then we went into the common room to rest.

The room was pretty nice – a big clean room full of cushions, beanbags and pillows, with two PCs, a TV and DVD player, and most importantly an air conditioner. We laid back and rested here, and Kuniko was nice enough to go buy me some more water and a bottle of Coke – which my Hungarian doctor had recommended last year to recover my strength quickly.

We spent more than four hours here, and I sometimes drifted off to sleep, sometimes Kuniko napped in there too. I know the room wasn’t really intended for people to sleep in, but we made it into an emergency bedroom. Sometimes people would step inside, but few people stayed long, especially with the two sleeping corpses in there.

At some point we were half asleep and two little kids came into the room with their father. The father set them up on one of the PCs, and they started playing a loud game involving pop music and a lot of clicking. I was in a common room so I couldn’t really complain, but the dad must have been desperate to entertain his kids and miss the two exhausted people laying down in the corner. At some point I got my tired body up and went out to the front desk to see what was going on with our room.

Apparently the staff had taken pity on us, and they said that we could get into our room in 10-15 minutes. Hooray – almost two hours before the official check-in time. I told Kuniko the good news, and then we got organized and soon enough we were being led to the elevator by the hotel staff. He said that although we had reserved a standard room he was upgrading us to a full sized apartment, and that was good news, too. I was dead on my feet as we got out of the elevator, and after letting us into the room, the staff beat a hasty retreat and left us there. Privacy at last!

The apartment was really nice – a bedroom, a living room, a big refrigerator and kitchen, even a clothes washer. We didn’t really look around much before jumping into the inviting bed. I got under the covers still sweating and feeling the chills setting in, and I knew that I was in for a rough patch. After that I crashed out, and then it was only brief moments of consciousness for the next 24 hours. But at least we were in our own place behind locked doors with a clean toilet that worked.

Kuniko wasn’t in great shape either, but she was better off than me. At some point she went out to buy supplies: chicken soup, water, Powerade, and a dinner of dolma for her. I remember sometimes I woke up and she was watching k-pop videos, other times she was asleep. I lost track of time and just slept and slept, and sometime during the night my fever broke and I was just thirsty and sleepy.

The next morning I slept late, and Kuniko went out and did some preliminary sight-seeing without me, taking pictures and exploring Yerevan. I woke up and made some chicken soup, and the salty broth was like the nectar of the gods. After a few swallows of that, I was feeling much better. At some point we decided to go get some breakfast in the hotel dining area, and I started eating solid foods again. My appetite wasn’t completely back, but I could see I was on the road to recovery. Kuniko was also feeling better, so it was good news all around.

We’re not sure exactly what happened, but our best guess is that our extended exposure to the heat wave kind of lowered our natural resistance, combined with maybe some weird bacteria from some food or the ice from my lemonade in Tbilisi – everything worked against me and forced a 24 hour recovery on my body, like it or not. After this, we were more careful to stay out of the heat and to stick to air conditioning in the afternoons.

So it was time to do a little exploring of Yerevan together. And we wanted to start with the brandy.


Tbilisi to Yerevan

August 7th, 2017 No comments

We decided to get up early today and climb up the mountain to the fortress before the heat and the tourists could make the trip unbearable. It turned out to be a good idea.

We started by following the backstreets alongside the mountain ridge. Thankfully for the past couple of days we had covered a lot of this territory before, and it was easy to navigate, even without a map. Along the way we passed some stray dogs walking around, evidently raiding the trash cans and taking advantage of this time when few humans walked the streets. A couple of the dogs seemed to be following us, and that made Kuniko pretty nervous. Dogs aren’t really her thing, especially big ones. Wild ones running around, definitely not her thing.

We continued on toward the mountain, and the dogs casually followed us. There were three with us, and they looked at us in a friendly way, wagging their tails and assuming that we knew what we were doing and where we were going. We found some steps leading up the mountain and started climbing them. It was a steep pathway up, and I figured the dogs would lose interest once they had to do some serious climbing, but I was wrong. They seemed to be really enjoying it. A couple of times they would run ahead down the wrong street and I thought we’d seen the last of them, but they would quickly backtrack and catch up with us. I noticed that each dog had a digital tag in their ear, so somebody was keeping track of them.

That was how we proceeded all the way up to the giant statue of the Mother of Georgia. Gradually Kuniko got used to the big dogs with us, and I kind of enjoyed it. I knew that sooner or later we’d have to lose them somewhere, but for the hike it was nice to have the company. We passed several churches on the way up the hill, and the views from the fortress of the sun rising of Tbilisi were excellent. Near the top of the hill we turned a corner and three younger guys were walking the opposite direction as us on the hiking path, and they looked nervous when they saw our escort of three street dogs. I thought maybe the dogs would transfer to them, but no luck.

Once we finished at the top of the mountain we did a long descent down to the center of town. We were both feeling like it might be nice to have a cup of real coffee, so we decided to go into a little cafe with a big sign that said “I [heart] Tbilisi” out front. We timed it just right so the dogs were looking the other way when we walked in, and we got a table and hoped the dogs would move on while we were inside. As it turned out, they apparently got bored and disappeared.

After some coffee and a restroom break we headed back to the hotel for a short nap. The next stage was a big one – we walked from the hotel all the way to a restaurant I wanted to try for lunch. It turned out to be a much longer trip than I had planned because the streets were not exactly direct. We got caught in the heat as well, and almost didn’t find the restaurant. Luckily thanks to a distinctive paint job we opened the right door and found Shavi Lomi.

I had heard about this restaurant after reading an article in the New York Times about how the culinary scene in Tbilisi has started to mature. The Times offered up a few restaurants to illustrate their point, but the one that started the whole trend was Shavi Lomi. They reluctantly accepted us as customers, we sat inside in the shade, and ordered some cold beers. I was feeling pretty overheated and it was nice to rest for a while.

We ate a variety of dishes from their menu – all a little unusual, light and natural. All the foods were organic and interesting – it was probably the healthiest food we had eaten so far on the trip. As we slowly cooled off over time I felt a little stomachache, probably due to just walking in the heat. This was a harbinger of bad things to come.

But the rest of our time at Shavi Lomi was a pleasure, and the staff were very friendly after initially being a bit standoffish. We finished our meal, and took a long time over a light dessert before heading to our next destination. Not far away there was a restaurant that I wanted to try for dinner that night, and we figured to walk over there and make a reservation.

The walk wasn’t too far, maybe twenty minutes or so, but it was in the peak of the heat. When we walked in the sun you could feel the sun cooking your skin, and we kept drinking lots of water to stay hydrated. Still, it was oppressive. We learned later that we were in the middle of a heatwave in Europe so serious that they named it “Lucifer”.

We arrived at the restaurant, Barbarestan, and made a reservation for six pm. Since we had some time to kill we walked nearby to check out the metro station that we would use later to get back to the hotel, and then we went to a small cafe to escape the heat outdoors. We ordered lemonades and I was so hot that I went through the lemonade and started eating the ice remaining in the glass. This might have been a big mistake.

After staying in the cafe for a while we were looking for a change of scene. We decided to walk over to a nearby park and we sat outside under the shade of some big trees and watched customers come and go into a ping pong parlor across the way. I was pretty tired out by then and sweating profusely, so we kept drinking water and I laid down on the bench with my sweaty head in Kuniko’s lap to rest. I was getting a little worried about how I felt.

Finally it was time to head over to the restaurant for dinner. We were given a nice table downstairs in the humid basement, and despite the shade and the strong air conditioning I was sweating pretty hard – but I really wanted to enjoy this meal.

The restaurant itself was decorated in a unique style – frilly, mismatched and slightly abstract. The service staff were a little on the stuffy side, not so friendly, but I had heard that if Michelin ever decided to award some stars in this city, they would probably start with this place. Since I wasn’t feeling great we ordered just an appetizer and one main dish, but the waiter assured us that we should order two mains to have enough food. I wasn’t so sure but we followed his directions.

When the food arrived, it was really good. We started with an appetizer of satsivini of zucchini, and then we had pieces of roast rabbit wrapped in bacon, and grilled breast of duck. My appetite kind of left me because of how I was feeling, and I was still sweating like crazy and drinking lots of water. Unfortunately we had to leave some food behind on our plates, and I could feel the palpable sense of contempt from our server when he took away our plates. I felt pretty bad about it, too – nobody was more disappointed than me that I couldn’t eat more here. As the restaurant filled it other tables ordered piles and piles of food and I couldn’t imagine being hungry ever again. What a bummer!

We felt that retreat was the best option, so we settled up and moved out. I hope that someday in the future I can return to Barbarestan to get my revenge and eat a full meal’s worth.

From there we went back to the metro station, caught an extremely high speed escalator down into the depth of the station into what looked like the train stations we encountered in Moscow. The trains were very Russian as well, but it arrived promptly and took us a few stops to our hotel. We gathered our suitcase and then went out and caught a taxi to the train station for our overnight train to Armenia.

The taxi ride was worth mentioning – they all were. If there was any time that I was scared or worried about my safety it was while riding in a taxi in Georgia and Armenia. The drivers were extremely aggressive and didn’t hesitate to cut off others and plow into intersections without looking. Who needs a roller coaster thrill ride when taxis are everywhere.

He dropped us off at the very modern and unusual train station in central Tbilisi, and we dragged our suitcase inside and started to look around. The whole building apparently was built by Samsung, and it was filled with electronics and appliance stores that sold only Korean equipment. It seemed like a bold investment strategy on the part of the Korean companies, and I wondered where else they have tried this. Despite the modern station, the train system and the train platforms themselves were pretty archaic and out of date. We bought some waters at a nearby stand and then settled in to wait. We were at the station a couple hours early, but our train ended up being nine minutes late. I was happy to have the downtime to rest up and try to give my body a break.

When the arrival time was approaching we took our suitcase down some dark cement stairs onto a dark platform, and waited patiently. There were no indicators of car position so we just kind of stood in the middle of the platform and got ready to run whichever way our car would be. As it turned out, when the train came in our car was the last one, and we took off down the platform bumping our suitcase over broken cement and gravel laying around. This was not Tokyo station.

We found the last car, in the dark without any lights. Passengers were milling around outside, smoking and stretching their legs before the train left Tbilisi. One kind of big guy wearing a baggy white T-shirt was carrying a flashlight, and so we recognized him as the closest thing to an authority in this situation. He examined our tickets, asked each of us our nationality, checked Kuniko’s visa, and then let us on. We found our cabin, with four beds inside. We were assigned the bottom two according to our ticket, and it was unclear whether another two passengers would get on later and take the top two beds.

Maybe because of the uncertainty we were pretty excited. We put away our stuff, kicked off our shoes, and enjoyed the feeling as the train shuffled away from the station and started the nine hour journey to Yerevan, Armenia.


Tbilisi Day Two

August 6th, 2017 No comments

Thanks to a very comfortable bed we slept in longer than usual, and then enjoyed a slow morning. A long shower, clean clothes, and a hotel breakfast to start with. Our hotel included breakfast and it was waiting for us at one of three tables in the lobby. The entire “hotel” only had three rooms, and there was one other resident eating breakfast when we came in. We said hello and then worked on a pretty standard hotel breakfast of wieners, cheese, ham, boiled eggs, bread, jam, yogurt, coffee and juice. The other hotel guest wrapped up and checked out while we were still eating – the staff used a smartphone to translate her questions into English for him to understand – the power of technology!

We got organized and then set out to see a little more of Tbilisi. We walked down Kite Abkhazi Street through old town Tbilisi for starters. The cobblestone streets were lined with tourist shops, wine stores, cheese and candy shops, and money exchange places. I even saw a strip club along the way. The street was pretty touristy, even with the beautiful trees and churches as a background. We found our way to St. Sioni Cathedral, and since it was Sunday there were a lot of people inside and outside praying. Speakers were set up outside the cathedral so that people could hear the services.

From there we traveled a little to the northeast and found the Peace Bridge, a very modern pedestrian bridge over the Mtkvari River. The river flowed right through town, although there wasn’t a lot of space available to sit and relax while gazing at the river. It was quite scenic, and from the bridge we could see the big fortress on the hillside overlooking the city. That was our destination at some point, but we didn’t feel like hurrying up to it right away.

On the other side of the river sat Rike Park, which at this time of day was empty and a little lonely. There were some unusual objects there: a giant cement piano, a large outdoor chess set, and some interesting architecture as well. It seemed like the park was built long ago to attract families for tourism, but most things were closed or abandoned. Still operating was a ropeway that took passengers up the mountain to the fortress, but we were a little early to catch a ride.

We walked up some steps and then continued to the northeast, walking and enjoying the blue skies, until we reached the dramatic Holy Trinity Church, capped with a gold dome and serving as a counterpoint to the fortress on the opposite side of the river. As we approached there were beggars already positioned on either side of the back entrance that we used. The beggars didn’t speak English but they wailed in sorrow as we walked by with hands outstretched. One beggar woman was quite overweight, so apparently the begging is pretty good in this area.

The Holy Trinity Church was the biggest of many churches throughout Tbilisi. I didn’t expect religion to be such a big part of the landscape here, but just about everywhere you looked you could find a church nearby. From the hillside we could see pretty far to the next range of mountains, and the clear sky made it a great spot to enjoy a scenic view.

As we walked around we could feel the heat building. The weather forecast said temperatures would reach 39 C / 102 F that day, and we were starting to sweat walking around in all that heat. Remembering to hydrate was key, and we stopped to buy some cherry juice from a tiny supermarket as we walked back down the hill.

Near the touristy old town street we found a quiet little backstreet, Erekle II St., that was lined with quaint little cafes, restaurants and wine bars. It wasn’t quite as blatantly touristy as the other part of town and the atmosphere looked nice for a sit down and some lunch. This area turned out to be our go-to location because of the proximity to our hotel, a particular wine bar that was quite good, and of course the English menus which made ordering easier.

We stopped at one place, and sat under the shade at a table lined with tiles. The staff (kind of reluctantly) brought a menu to us and we ordered a couple of cold beers to start. Near us some cats basked in the sun waiting for some patrons to offer food. We ordered for ourselves (not the cats) and got a big plate of khinkali. These were much larger than the ones we had previously, and therefore more challenging to eat. Khinkali are supposed to be eaten by holding the nub (or nipple) at the top, flipping it over and holding it like an ice cream cone. From this position you should try to break into the dumpling, which has plenty of very hot delicious soup inside along with the meat and spices. After you slurp out the soup then you go to work on all the meat inside. All this is to be done without a fork, or at least that is what we read online, but I spotted a few people using a fork now and then. We did a pretty good job of learning through repetition, and by the time we left Tbilisi I think we were eating them like professionals.

We also tucked into a khachapuri that arrived in a slightly different style than we’ve had before. It was folded like a pide from Turkey, but it was filled with cheese and had butter and an egg yolk on top. Serious cholesterol here, but we’re on vacation so no worries.

After a leisurely lunch we walked up the street and tried a wine shop that offered tasting called Vinomania. We went in just to look at all the different varieties of wine for sale, but the staff offered to let us taste if we felt inclined. Believe it or not, we felt so inclined.

The staff was a younger guy who clearly loved wine. He knew all about each type, he explained the wines in English for us, and he just kept pouring. He was pouring for us, but he kept opening his favorite wines to let us try. It was getting out of hand how many wines he was opening, and I felt like we could probably spend the rest of the day there. One wine in particular he opened and it was a very unusual white wine. This one didn’t have any exposure to clay pots, but the grape aroma came across more as a lime flavor, without the sourness. This would be a worthy successor to Vinho Verde in my opinion, but the bottle was priced a little high for everyday drinking. Lots of great wines here, and it was nice to drink all we wanted on the house. I hope the guy didn’t get fired for opening up all those bottles for us.

Wine is not the only alcohol on the menu in Tbilisi. We were also able to taste a glass of the local booze, called cha-cha. It is a distilled alcohol similar to grappa, but with a more rough aftertaste. Similar to drinking some kind of fuel. I’m sure with just the small taste we had we shaved a few months off our lifespan. Not my thing, cha-cha, but we saw it everywhere.

Suitably liquored up, we wandered down the road in search of someplace to eat some lower calorie fare. We found that at a nice little restaurant called Azarphesha. It was decorated beautifully with carpets, wine bottles and the ceiling arrayed with a multitude of wine glasses. The restaurant was empty when we came through around 2 pm. They didn’t mind serving us a small meal and some wine, so we settled in to try some more food from Georgia. Here we had fried eggplant wrapped around melted cheese and bacon, and also a nice salad of tomatoes, cucumber, and spicy chili peppers with parsley, cilantro, and an oil and vinegar dressing. We enjoyed some local wine with our light snack, and then headed on back to our hotel to escape the rising heat and take a break.

A few hours later we were ready for more culinary adventure, and that led us to Racha, a locals kind of place that we had found recommended on the internet. It was also a bit hard to find – it seemed like most places in Tbilisi didn’t quite match up with their internet listings. We did it the old fashioned way, and found the place by poking around.

Once again the restaurant was located in the basement of the building. It was full of old guys drinking cha-cha together and kissing each other’s cheeks. The worn out menus luckily had English, and the ordering system was a little different. First I got up from my table and went to a matronly lady who was apparently the owner. She took my order, asked me about drinks, and then waved me away. Later a waitress delivered our cold beers, and then after that she brought our food out individually. Finally we paid the matron and cut the waitress out of the process. I almost screwed everything up when I didn’t have any small bills – I think they sent one of the cooks to go make change.

The food at Racha was good – homestyle and delicious. We had a plate of fried mushrooms (long ones, with flavor sort of like shimeji mushrooms), a small bowl of beans (pretty close to Mexican pintos, with slightly different herbs) and some grilled chicken (off a skewer and covered in onions). We ordered a small amount knowing that we could always come back, and I think it was the right move. This was a real blue-collar sort of place, and it would be fun to explore the menu even more.

With the sun setting the temperature was starting to drop, so we walked around town taking pictures and exercising our legs in an attempt to balance the calorie count. In the end we found ourselves back on Erekle St, this time at g. Vino, a stylish wine bar, sitting outside and enjoying the cool evening. We ate a big plate of melon salad with a small plate of local cheeses, and sipped beer and wine while watching people walk by. Up the street a terrible band played, and everything kind of came together to cap off a nice evening.

Out of curiosity we walked again across the Peace Bridge, since there were a lot of people headed that way. As we crossed the bridge a small boat sailed underneath with a DJ and a whole nightclub on board – people were dancing on the boat as it glided by. On the other side of the bridge people had gathered to watch a fountain that was putting on a show with LED lights and water jets flying around to music. This was the same park that seemed quiet and abandoned this morning, now it was like the whole town was there. We walked around enjoying the carnival-like atmosphere, and as we headed back across the bridge there were even some fireworks over the fortress on the hill. It must have been some sort of holiday – our timing was good, I guess.

From there we wandered back to our hotel to head to bed. It turned out to be a pretty busy day but we kept it at a nice pace and managed to stay out of most of the summer heat.