Stuttgart, Germany – Post 1

This winter break, I was lucky enough to spend time in beautiful Germany and Italy for the holidays. My second time in Germany and first time in Italy. I was particularly looking forward to it because

Christmas in Germany!!! I mean this is where the Christmas market was invented right? I always imagined Europe to be more the “real Christmas” as it’s closer to the North Pole and the St. Nicolas to have come from Europe, right? I was excited to spend the holidays at a German home with German traditions and observe and experience the whole thing.

There’s a lot I saw and felt so I plan to split the experience into several post. Hope you like it.

Stuttgart, Germany

So here is where I spent the majority of time. This is where my bf is from and it’s here on the left side of Germany. About a 2 1/2 hour ride from Munich airport, which we drove on the autoban – Its true there are parts where THERE IS NO SPEED LIMIT! and this is where you think, OK, I get it. Germans are good at their cars and they’re confident enough to have real people use it for its full capacity. Where else do you see in the world that let’s people go 280km/hour on the road with other drivers? Most cars don’t get to use half their speedometers capabilities and I feel bad for those Porches and Lamborginis driving around in Tokyo pumping up their engines going 80k.

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Anyway, Stuttgart:

  • It is the 6th largest city and the 4th largest metropolitan area in Germany
  • It’s famous for being the home of Mercedes and Porsche and sometimes referred to as the “Cradle of the Automobile”. – the automobile and the motorcycle is said to have been invented here and museums are a big attraction for visitors.
  • It is considered a wealthier and intellectual city with industries in automotive, tech, science research etc., (like how we imagine Germans to be). But it has the most patents and designs registered in Germany so hey, that’s something to be proud of!

Here’s the view of the city. in a valley.

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And the magnificent city center plaza. Governmental buildings, museums shopping centers concentrated in the center of the city. stuttgart

The picturesque city is spacious and compact. Coming from Tokyo where every inch of the city is built up with high rises and no space to spare, it was refreshing to see architectural beauty standing so boldly with space around it. And it is so compact that 10 min. away from the city center, you’re already in the suburbs with rolling hills of farmland and vineyards. Not to be stereotypical but there were a lot of cabbage fields!

In the village/ town? I was staying at 10 min outside Stuttgart, the architectural interest to my eye was still the same. Churches, homes, stores, all seemed to have been built out from a fairytale. From Grimm’s or Andersen’s stories of Snow white or Hansel and Gretel. People really live in these houses? Aren’t they elves and aren’t they going come out dancing and singing in their lederhosen?

But no, they were normal Germans and they do live modernly in these traditional architecture homes. Beautiful.

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We looked for a cafe to warm ourselves and was lead to this. I mean come on! How is this a real cafe?!

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In Japan, we call these kinds of fairy tale like or romantic things “Merhen”. We say that about an atmosphere or even fashion, if they are wearing something cute and lovely like lolita style. In search of this world in English, I learned that “Merhen” was actually “Marchen“, a German word which means fairy tales! Exactly!

One of the cute findings in Stuttgart – Cone shaped cabbages.  How cute is this? I didn’t have a chance to eat them but apparently they are sweet and a product of this region, even made into a statue.

Loved checking out the local farmer’s market.

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Another thing that I loved was the public transportation. I’m a big advocate for public transportation in big cities, coming from Tokyo but what impressed me about it here was the “honor system”.

We hopped onto the bus/train with no  passing gate and no apparent ticket purchase. I asked if it was free, but apparently she held a ticket that covered us but didn’t show anyone or pass through any machine. It is assumed that you buy a ticket before you board so that when the random person comes to check, you prove it. If you don’t have a ticket, you pay a fine but more importantly, it embarasses you to have taken advantage of this beautiful trust system and discourages you from doing it again. What would happen if this was implemented in Japan or other countries? Interesting to know.Rack Railway

Surprisingly for a city of Porsche and Mercedes, not all cars were that .There were still VWs of course and French cars, even Japanese, Korean and Japanese cars! I don’t know why that would particularly surprise me but I guess I was being stereo typical and thinking everyone drives a German car. Dumb assumption.

Overall, the impression was as they are known for, organised, controlled, orderly. They take their recycling seriously and they value good behaviour. A very comfortable environment coming from Japan. People say there are man things similar about Germans and Japanese and not just the war. The way people are conservative and like to follow rules. They don’t like things to be or people to be out of line. “The nail that sticks out gets hammered”. Probably still relvant to both societies. Things work and are on time and they like solving problems. Have extremely high level or road work and things are fixed overnight, quick and efficiently. All things to be very proud.

Sadly, some idiot has also told me that what we also have in common is the “lack of humor”. Well, not true. We’re not the most outwardly comical and goofy people in the world but maybe the seriousness gets in the way to perceive us as such, but we do have a sense of humor!!

Anyway, this was post 1 of my German journey. More to come in the next post!

New Year Resolutions – Restart!

Jan. 2017. New Year Resolution.

Among a whole bunch of other resolutions for 2017, I’m putting “Restart the Blog” as one of them.

I’ve stopped writing since I’ve been back to my normal life in Tokyo 7 months ago but it’s always been on my mind. I had so much to tell about the 1 year journey but never seem to have enough time or take the first step to start.

All the stories that I couldn’t tell during my travels (traveling is BUSY! and blogging takes a whole lot of time!). The summaries of each country I visited and what I found fascinating about each of them. The beautiful people I encountered and feeling like being on top of the world with friends from around the world! Days and nights when I felt lonely for traveling alone and questioned why I was doing this when others are surrounded by family and friends. And what I learned from it and how I over came it.

The hikes in the Andes, the surfing on the coast of Peru, the roadtrip through Baja California, the week on a boat in Galapagos. All those amazing out of the world experience I didn’t have time to record.

The travel hacks I’ve learned along the way, the packing tips, the cautions for traveling alone. All that has changed me and the difference over time inside me that I noticed. What it felt like to be traveling freely for a year and then to be back to reality back home.

There was a whole lot to say and a whole lot I wanted to share. But it was all inside me slowly being buried with all the new memories building over it. The more time passed, the harder it got to tackle and the less approachable it became to write it down.

But I realize.

Who cares when it is? Who cares if it is not perfect?!

Better late than NEVER.

Better NOW than later.

So here I go. I start NOW.

I make it my resolution to tackle this blog and unravel all the stories I have buried inside me. Its been a while but its okay. I think they deserve to be dusted off and brought out to sunlight. And in addition, there’s other travels and stories that’s built up in the last few months after my 1 year journey. I have a lot of things to say about those too!

Riekotravels is back! Hope there are some people that will enjoy reading as much as I will enjoying writing it!

 

 

Tokyo Running – 23k

Tokyo Running  – Tokyo to Kasai Rinkai Park 01.15.2017

It’s become my routine over the weekend and one of my highlights of the week to run through Tokyo and explore. I’m training for my very first marathon in LA in March and I have been increasing the length and strength over the past months. I have 2 months left to go so need to use this time wisely to increase my stamina and get my body and mind ready for the race. I’ve never heard anyone say about a marathon how wonderful and fun it was and that they can’t wait to do it again, but rather how tough and how painful it was and how they never want to do it again. So I’m expecting it to be painful and tough, and trying to minimize the damage by preparing for it as much as I can.

My plan has been to increase  the distance 1km per week and I am up to about 20km now. I’ve been slacking off over the year end but now is the time to get back into it and get back on track.

What I love about running longer distances is that it gives me a chance to explore the city while I train. The more the distance, the more areas it can cover and it has been the driving motivator for these runs, not the distance, not the speed but rather the sense of exploration and adventure while I train.

Today’s route was as furthest East as I’ve gone and I’d like to do more.

Harajuku -> Akasaka Palace -> Imperial Palace -> Ginza -> Tsukishima -> Toyosu -> Yumenoshima Park -> Kasai Rinkai Park -> Super Sento Kasai.

Temperature was around 1 or 0 Celcius and very cold but where it was sunny, the skies and view were beautiful.

A total of 23 km. Done with stops at 2hrs. 50 min with total moving time at 2hrs 31 min.

Some highlights:

Imperial Palace – 5 k around but these days very crowded with runners over the weekend. I still like to go there once in a while just to see the seasons change.

 

Passing through Ginza and the Kabuki Theatre

Tsukishima Area – Old towns leading towards the bay. Now, Tokyo is continuously expanding the bay and its land and there are more cities growing outwards, but these towns though invaded by high-rises lately, still holds a “old Tokyo” feel in its streets and culture, particularly food.

And to Kasai Rinkai Park, which I believe is also a man made built land by the ocean, right next to Tokyo Disney land. I especially found this glass observatory interesting and beautiful but there are also BBQ areas, ferris wheels, and an aquarium for all sorts of fun! I didn’t have the energy to run through all but next time, I will be going there to cover them all.

Especially for a busy city like Tokyo, I really appreciate seeing the city as a runner. Not getting trapped in the massive crowds everywhere especially on the weekends. Having control over where and what to see through zipping through the streets and zipping through traffic and the millions of people. You’ll learn very quickly that as big and condensed with high rises Tokyo is, there is a lot of parks and temples and nature to give breaths of serenity and calm within this crazy city there are so many moments where you just can’t believe that this is right in the middle of Tokyo.

Anyway, I’ve been away from the blog for a while, but as a new year resolutions, I am going to start again whether it is overseas or back to my own city.

Hope there are some people that enjoy it!.

The map of my run today:

Wow! LA Libraries!

I’ve landed in LA for over 4 weeks now from Mexico.

Why so long in the US and not in South/ Latin America as per plan? Well, long story short, I couldn’t get a visa to Brazil from LA. It had been the one and only plan in my trip to start and finish in Brazil and go out with a Bang! after I release all energy at the Carnival, but well, sometimes you can push and shove and kick and scream but it just doesn’t happen. Not because I can’t get a visa in LA, but because I couldn’t get an appointment to get the visa because it was backed up for over a month, which was even more frustrating! I tried going through a visa agency which can process it in 10 days but they required proof of residency in the US to apply on my behalf so that wasn’t happening either. So people, if you are planning to go to Brazil, PLAN EARLY!!

But hey, LA really is not a bad place to be in. Sunny beaches, friendly and beautiful people, beautiful hills to go hike, great food and nightlife, lots to see and do! So maybe its fate and I decided to think of it so and take this opportunity to enjoy LA, and live in LA and see what the great LA life people dream of is all about. Plus it was time I faced the big question…

What the hell happens after the journey??

In March, I have a flight back to Tokyo. So what next? I had given this some thought in the past few months but haven’t sat down to face it because it scared me tremendously to think this free life will be over . Will I continue in my previous career in advertising in Tokyo or will I shift direction and even location? It’s a big decision and even more preparation to do while continuing to travel  (especially while in Brazil and at the Carnival!) so I’ve come to think that it was fate Brazil didn’t happen and this time in LA was perfect to provide me with the environment and support to focus on the future.

And so, I have been enjoying my life in LA a lot, but one of the greatest discoveries I have made for the purpose of focusing has been LIBRARIES and I would like to share this with you.

Why are Libraries in LA so great?

  1. It’s FREE!!! and open to EVERYONE!
  2. It has free WI-FI!! (and at impressive speeds! especially coming from Latin America)  and computers!
  3. Study desks are HUGE and with plug outlets to recharge your devices with no worry!
  4. No constant people traffic and chit chat like in coffee shops!
  5. Can stay as long as you want without having to prove your customer value by buying something new every 2 hours! (which can add cost and calories!)
  6. No TVs, no Netflix (well, your choice), no refrigerator, no bed, all the luring distractions at home
  7. There’s focused people around to force you to concentrate and ride on their energy
  8. Can fell like a student again
  9. Has various locations in LA to force you to explore new neighbourhoods!

These are so obvious, but I’ve been so used to going to cafes for wi-fi that the re-discovery of libraries has been a refreshing find! So far I have visited 4 but there are so many, I am eager to make this a journey in itself.

  1. Los Angeles Public Library (downtown)

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Right in the center of downtown lies this historic library which was originally built in 1926. It has been renovated now with 4 stories above ground and 4 underground, an impressive structure with an open air space in the middle boldly displaying colorful artwork. The sun shines through the windows and creates a beautiful display of the space during the day. I especially loved that they have a study desk at the very top overlooking the city and the artwork which you can see in the photo! What a lovely place to spend your afternoon reading or studying!

The outside and the study area. Apparently they have a garden as well which I failed to check out at this visit.

Sitting in the library and working amongst the other focused people was a great way to pump up my motivation! I just wanted to read, write and learn that feeling got me hooked to do this again everyday!

The only sad and shocking downside to the visit was the ridiculous price of parking. Parking signs, I just can’t figure out in LA and I think they intentionally make it vague and tricky so that tourists and nervous drivers like me just drive in without understanding the pricing. So, for 2 1/2 hrs, I was charged a whopping $37!!! Can’t help to think and be disgusted by all the things I could have done with that money in Latin America and how the value of things differ so much…. Parking is indeed tricky here, but I hear that you just need to find the “flat fee” parking, which was still hard to find and understand for a first timer. But… moving on.

2. Beverly Hills Public Library

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Just off of the Beverly Hills shops and restaurants, the library was Oh So California! to me surrounded by the palm trees and the elegant white 90210 buildings. It is 2 floors and not as grand as downtown but well organised well lit and spacious. In the study area, the tall windows bring in an abundance of sunlight reminding you that you are in sunny California. Of course equipped with outlets and good wi-fi and even a cafe with a terrace, it was a cute, happy, relaxing library.

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The view as you step outside the library. Everything is so elegant and spacious and reeks of the relaxed high life.

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3. Doheny Memorial Library (in University of South California)

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This library is located inside University of South California which is a beautifully impressive campus in itself. The structures and the greens are well maintained with students on skateboards and bikes in their shorts and flip flops commuting to their classes. The library is gorgeous with its stone floors and high ceilings with detailed railings making it feel like historical museum or a bank. From the inside you can get a great view of campus while you work and almost trick yourself to feel you are a student again. I sat by the window pretending to be a student again (and sucking all the youthful energy from all around), which I enjoyed a lot. LOL

IMG_20160212_180154The library also had a dedicated East Asian area with impressive collections of books and historia from my home! IMG_20160212_131826
This too, I encountered problems with parking, this time not being able to find it around campus without holding a permit. I rode around for like an hour and cursed LA for being so car dependant and swore I would take public transport or Uber from now on.

Turns out, LA now has metro train lines that run by the campus so I will try that next time. I am a big lover of public transport. I really hope LA and its people will shift to use it more and lessen the burden of the crazy traffic and the crazy parking situations.

4. Santa Monica Public Library

Right in the middle of the shopping area in Santa Monica stands this modern library that was my favorite of the 4 so far. Clean, quite, spacious and well lit with a cafe in the open area, it was a library that was inviting and fun especially in a neighbourhood you can walk to go take a shopping break or lunch.

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2nd floor study area has an amazing ceiling high window overlooking Santa Monica Blvd. It is decorated simple but with warmth and a place you can read, relax and concentrate for hours.

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So that’s my list so far but I will keep on exploring more!

Here is a list I will follow based on its ratings.

Xela, Guatemala – Finally learning some Spanish

Hmm where to start. It’s been almost a month and a half since my last post and the journey has been going full speed.

From Medellin airport finally successfully flew to Panama City. In Panama City relaxing and chilling at a friend’s apartment for a week then a day stop in Costa Rica then to Mexico. Mexico was condensed excitement because I was accompanied by a friend from Japan here for only 2 weeks so we zipped through Mexico City, Guanajuato, Guadalajara, San Cristobal. Then after her departure, I decided on making my way south to Guatemala.

So this blog, I want to start with Guatemala and I’ll get to the others a little later, I hope.

I always decide my next destination based on what I hear from people and my decision to go to Xela, Guatemala was inspired by one Japanese girl I met at San Cristobal. I was waiting for inspiration to hit because I had no idea where I wanted to go next, and then you just meet someone and it’s decided. I love that feeling. She told me about studying Spanish in Xela and I said, that’s it. That’s what I’ll do. And that is exactly what I did.

Now my Spanish level, after 6 months of travel and minus 1 1/2 months in Brazil for Portugese was 4 1/2 months. I learned through conversation and using iphone apps (+Chegg flash cards) and I had the confidence to get by traveling. I can ask where to go, what I want, give a quick summary on my background and my travels. But anything deeper was challenging. But with the help of gestures and expressions, I thought I was doing pretty good in communicating. I just had no proper grammar or sentence structure, I was just throwing words out there, like “I, want, go, bus, station. Very, hurry, please”. Well I’m a traveler and I think people applaud me for the effort, but it was starting to get embarrassing when you’ve been traveling for 6 months.

So now was a good time to get this properly sorted.

Guatemala is actually a very popular spot for foreigners to learn Spanish. It is an exotic location and for the immersion in Spanish you can get for the affordable prices. (5 days of classes (5 hours/ day) + 1 week of home stay including 3 meals is around $180 – $220!)

Xela, formally known as Quetzaltenango is the 2nd biggest city in Guatemala and is a popular choice to learn because they say that there are fewer foreigners and is rarely safe.

A beautiful town that sits in the middle of a valley surrounded by volcanos.

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The cobblestone streets.

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Bustling markets and Chicken buses

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A 8 hour bus ride from San Cristobal through the green valleys and mountains and I landed in Xela.

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The first thing I did was research schools. There’s a ton of schools here and its really hard to judge just by the internet. I wanted to see for myself the atmosphere of the school, the people, the students and the activities they had. Usually it is 4- 5 hours of classes then in the afternoons, the schools offer activities for the students to learn about the culture or just to have fun (like chocolate making classes, Guatemalan movie viewing, city tour, hikes etc.)

I looked at 8 schools in total asking the same questions and taking the atmosphere in. Since it was low season (not summer or spring break when the students flood in) so having a group of students to do the activities with was important to me. Some schools only had 1-3 students in this low season.

I could be a dork sometimes, I rated and ranked the schools that fit me and decided on Sol Latino. It was cheap and it had a lot of students and the atmosphere seemed fun.

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For the next 2 weeks, I would go to classes from 8am – 1pm, 1 on 1 classes with a Guatemalan teacher then communicate with my host family breakfast, lunch and dinner and do activities with fellow students.

In my first class, I took a exam and was so shocked and my ego hurt to be classified Primary I. That’s a total beginner. Embarrassed that I’ve been traveling this long and thinking I was doing quite well communicating the truth was, but I hadn’t even got to first base…Oh well. I put my ego aside and decided to start from scratch.

My teacher Sheny, a lovely Guatemalan lady with years of experience teaching Spanish. and the view from our school (volcano erupting).

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We would have conversations about everything, from politics to economics to men to food to culture of Guatemala and Japan to guess what I did yesterday?! It was all part of getting used to speaking and applying what I’ve learned. It felt really good to be able to have insightful and deep conversations as well as talking and venting about whatever we wanted to talk about. Almost like an every day therapy session (for me and for Sheny) but in Spanish. I enjoyed the conversations but hated the grammar.  Especially the verbs with its multiple “irregulars” popping up everywhere! I would whine to Sheny with “Porque necessito? Porque? Porque” (Why do we need it?) but she would just shrug and say, I don’t know, that’s the way it is.

The more I learned, the less I could speak because I would have to think in advance if the word was a male or female, or if the verb was for me, you, he, we, they and conjugate accordingly making me more conscious of what I was saying and less confident. I was definitly more confident before the classes just throwing words out there however I pleased.

5 hour classes everyday was pretty intense, especially if you haven’t been in school for over 10 years… I would have to take an afternoon nap to rest my brain and then whip myself to study what I’ve learned. Respect to students. Its exhausting.

In the afternoon, I tried various activities planned by the school like chocolate making, a tour through the cemetery, visiting the indigenous weaver and movie night. There are other activities like salsa dancing or cooking.

Chocolate making! Peeling the skin off the roasted cacao beans and pounding the cacao powder to form chocolate.

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Visiting an indigenous family for weaving. We learned the process from cutting the sheep fur to threading, colouring, and weaving. They also treated us to tortillas in their kitchen. What a precious experience!

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The other wonderful aspect of the 2 weeks was home staying with a Guatemalan family. The mother (Ana Maria) and her 22 year old son, Manuel welcomed me warmly into their home. They’ve been hosting students for years and it’s an essential part of their income. Manuel tells me that he’s there’s been students in the house ever since he was a baby. What an interesting influence to have growing up. The mom cooked for us every day 3 times a day while jugging her work and house chores.

Eating together was one of the best experiences for me. Being able to try home cooked means and asking what was used and how it was made. Typically a Guatemalan meal consists of frijoles (beans), some sort of eggs and tortillas almost always. The frijoles can be arrange to be solid, pureed or as a soup, and the eggs in scrambled, sunny side or as an omelet. Also, dinner was typically really light, with frijoles, eggs and tortilla, maybe a soup or some vegetables.

Frijoles, Eggs and rice.

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Other meals with vegetables and meat. Typically the biggest meal was at lunch.

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My mom even showed me how to make frijoles. Which was actually pretty easy, sort out the beans, wash, add garlic and onions and put on pressure cooker for 1 hour. No wonder it comes in every meal.

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Another day, I showed her how to make Omu-rice, which is a ketchup rice omelet dish in Japan.

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It was a lovely living from home rather than from a hostel for a change, having your own room, being able to spread your things out of the bag and in dressers. I don’t think I could home stay for long term but it it is definitely a cost effective and an experience rich in learning about the culture and customs.

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2 weeks went by really quickly but with a lot of gain. I have absorbed the basic understanding of Spanish but have a long way to go in terms of applying it and using it in normal conversation. 2 weeks is not nearly enough to get to that level but I feel happy that I now I have a foundation. I will continue my studies while I travel and hope to join a Spanish school again somewhere.

My last day of school. They gave me a diploma and cake and I made a speech of appreciation.

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I will miss all the people that I met, my teachers my school mates and my Guatemalan family.

Thank you and hope to see you guys again!

Now beginning my trip again and headed for the lake for some downtime!