Kyoto – Enchanting but Expensive

Kyoto, the old capital of Japan, is a beautiful city with many shrines and temples, and, of course, the Imperial Palace.

It was also the most expensive place to stay on my trip – book early, would be my advice, if you want to get a room in a hotel downtown. And be prepared to stay in the tiniest room you can think of – even if you book the “bigger” one. Mine was 151-sq-foot (14-sq-meter) but I think that included the bathroom. It felt especially small, since you still have virtually every convenience you can think of in a hotel room in there, from water heater to iron to humidifier (no closet, though). Be flexible, is all I can say. Literally.

It is worth it, though.

If you are still jet-lagged and up early – why not take walk or take the bus to the Yasaka Shrine at the end of Shijo Dori Street before the city awakes. You can explore the huge complex, with one temple more beautiful than the other, on your own. The colors are stunning in autumn.

 

On your way back into the city, you may want to walk along Shirikawa-minami Dori. It is supposedly the prettiest street in Kyoto, and if you are lucky, you see couples in traditional Japanese garb posing for their wedding pictures.

I also visited a little shop close by that has a beautiful exhibition of fabric and art, and sells pieces of traditional kimonos under glass. They are quite durable, and can be used as coasters, or serving plates.

photo: G. Beyer

The shop is called Wa-Glass Ya, and it was located  70 Motoyoshicho, Higashiyama Ward. The website is currently not accessible, but maybe the shop is still there.

And don’t forget to visit Nishiki Market with its many food vendors – maybe you even want to taste the traditional dishes yourself.

 

Of course, Kyoto has a tower, too – with an impressive train station right next to it.

 

And last but not least, there is the Imperial Palace. I guess it is a must see, but don’t expect to be alone. Personally, to be honest, I preferred the solitude and hidden charm of the Yasaka Shrine.

 

PS: Next week, we’ll travel to Hiroshima.

 

Tokyo – Clean, Safe, and Zen

Two years ago at exactly the same time of the year, I was visiting Japan – and had a great time. Having never been to Asia before, I was a bit worried about not being able to find my way around. But it was really easy, especially in the capital, Tokyo, but also in Kyoto, Hiroshima, and Akita.

In Tokyo, I visited the Imperial Palace (though only from afar, you can’t really go inside) with it’s beautiful gardens, Tokyo Tower, Shibuja Station and Crossing, with dog Hachiko (famous in Japan, everybody has his or her picture taken with it), and the Meiji Shrine,  with its impressive parks, where the gardeners sweep the path to the temple with a broom made out of twigs to keep it free of leaves.

Toilets in Japan can be a challenge

I was impressed by the cleanliness everywhere in Japan – you get a wet towel whenever you eat to wipe  your hands, even if it’s just a coffee and a cake. Toilet seats are sophisticated mechanisms that can be heated, and have lots of buttons – and are a bit intimidating, to be honest.

Suprisingly, there are hardly any trash cans in Japan – they were removed for safety reasons. So you better bring a plastic bag and take your trash back home. Also, there are no paper towels in restrooms. It is custom to have your own little towel at hand – you can buy the plain white cotton ones in every convenience store. I still use the one I brought back home as a wash cloth.

I traveled by train, using the JRPass, which is really the best way to travel in Japan. You have to purchase the pass in advance, in your country of origin, because it is only good for tourists. Plan ahead, because you will get a voucher you have to exchange when you arrive in Japan. The line at the counter at Narita airport was quite long, btw. It was a bit annoying to have to wait to get the rail pass after the long flight, but once you have your pass, you are good to go, even on the Shinkansen, the super fast train.

Also, I felt very safe everywhere. The crime rate in Japan is really low.

And I really enjoyed all the little parks and temples that seem to be splattered around town – you can find your inner zen there and take a break from the city’s rush.

Here are some impressions from Tokyo – next Sunday, we will travel to Kyoto.

 

 

Spectacular Sunsets and Interesting Art – Belgium’s Coast

If you need a place to stay while visiting Dunkirk, you might want to take a look at Belgium. I found a nice little apartment via Airbnb, overlooking the North Sea and close to the French border in Koksijde-Bad. It was super relaxing to sit in a cozy armchair behind the panorama window, watching people enjoying the Belgian coast even in autumn, and the waves washing ashore.

Looking north towards the North Sea in Koksijde-Bad at sunrise, from the apartment.

The sunsets to the west over Dunkirk were spectacular – twice a grand finale to the sunny weather during the day.

And there is more to see than “just” sunsets and beach. Walking towards the west along the water brought me to St. Idesbald, home to a surprisingly large museum with art from the surrealist Belgian painter Paul Delvaux. The entrance of the Paul Delvaux Museum is one of the typical little Belgian houses, but most of the exhibition is underground and there is a lot to see.

Delvaux is known for his paintings of nude women, and in the age of #MeToo, it got me wondering where the line is between art and sexism, and whether we should at least have a debate about why and how a certain artist made naked women the center of his work, why all the men in his paintings are fully clothed, and the women bare-breasted.

Paul Delvaux Museum, St. Idesbald, Belgium

PS: If you  are hungry after visiting the museum, how about lunch at the restaurant on premises: Het Vlierhof.

WW II, Operation Dynamo, and the Dunkirk Spirit

If you’ve seen Christopher Nolan’s epic thriller Dunkirk, you know a bit about the story of the Battle of Dunkirk, and how pleasure boats and other civilian ships came to the rescue of British and French soldiers surrounded by the German military in 1940, during World War II at the French coast.

The exact number of “Littles Ships” that participated in what was called “Operation Dynamo” is not known, but an estimate puts it somewhere between 1,176 an 1,588. Not only British civilians risked their lives navigating the beaches of Dunkirk, but also Belgian, French and Dutch citizens. But these civilian boats were only a part of the story.

Visiting the Museum Dunkerque 1940 Operation Dynamo will give you more insight into these days that made history.

Altogether, between May 27th and throughout June 4th of 1940, almost 340,000 soldiers were evacuated, about a third from the beaches, the rest from the harbor of Dunkirk.

The museum, located close to the beach and the harbor, gives an excellent overview over what happened during the days preceding the evacuation, and afterwards, with charts, models, and artefacts. Here, you can read about the mistrust among the Allies, about tactical mistakes that gave the Germans a huge advantage, and the decision to secretly evacuate first the British, and finally the French soldiers, too, from a besieged city. The latter received a warm welcome in England, only to be sent back to France almost immediately, where they ended up captured or demobilised, following the armistice of June 22nd.

And you will hear about the “spirit of Dunkirk”: How a major defeat and retreat became a victory in the public eye in Britain, and helped to muster the courage and determination to fight Nazi Germany.

The war, however, should go on for five more years, and Dunkirk was not liberated until May 9th, 1945, its port and the city in ruins.

PS:
The Museum reopened in 2017 after some major renovation, but will be closed for the winter after November 11th. It will open some time in spring of 2019, after more remodeling.

PPS:
If you want to have a cup of tea on board of one of the “Little Ships” – I highly recommend visiting the “Princess Elizabeth”. The Paddle Steamer is moored in Dunkirk Harbor and a Restaurant and Tearoom.

Mercedes-Benz Museum – Classic Cars Made in Germany

Now you’ve visited Ludwigsburg Residential Palace  and are in the mood to be amazed by something more technical? No problem. Half an hour away from Ludwigsburg is the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart.

German cars have gotten some negative press, lately, like VW’s emission cheating scandal or the debate about older diesel cars and their incompatibility with German air pollution standards. But, after all, it was  German mechanical engineer Karl Benz who, in 1885/6, designed and built the world’s first car powered by an internal-combustion engine.

You can see a replica of his invention at the museum, among other legends on four wheels.

The place itself is a cool construction, and very kid friendly, too: The kids can get behind the wheel of some of the cars themselves, for example.

PS:

The museum even has an event called “Cars & Coffee” – where Mercedes owners can bring their classic cars and bathe in the admiration of other visitors. Just like “Katie’s Car & Coffee” in Virginia, I guess. This year’s season of the event at the museum ended in September, though.

Ludwigsburg Residential Palace – The Real Castle

Contrary to Neuschwanstein, which is world famous but has also never been more than a tourist attraction, Residenzschloss Ludwigsburg – Ludwigsburg Residential Palace – is the real deal, as far as German castles are concerned. Kings, queens, and princesses have lived here.

At the beginning of the 18th century, Eberhard Ludwig (Louis), the Duke of Württemberg, felt he needed a place that suited his rank. First constructed as a hunting lodge in 1704, the building soon grew in size and splendor. When the Duke moved in, in 1718, for a short time, Ludwigsburg instead of Stuttgart even became the capital of the state.

Some of the Duke’s successors would later spend some time in the castle, using it as a summer residence, throwing pompous parties with fireworks, ballet and opera performances. All together, there are 452 rooms, 18 buildings, three courtyards and  beautiful parks and gardens, blending three different architectural styles: Baroque, Rococo, and Neoclassical. So there are plenty of stories to tell – and a lot of ground to cover. After all, the Ludwigsburg Palace is one of the largest Baroque buildings in Europe to survive in its original condition.

There are two tours available in English, and you have to decide whether you want to check out the rooms of the male inhabitants – King Frederic I and the Duke – or the female ones: Queen Charlotte Mathilde and Hereditary Princess Henriette Marie. Or you stay for two days and take both tours, since there is also the Ceramics Museum, the Fashion Museum, and the Blühende Barock, the permanent garden show with its flowers and the fairy tale garden where kids can meet Rapunzel, the Frog Prince, and other famous fairy tale characters.

Neuschwanstein – The German Fairytale Castle

Germany is know for its castles – and especially, of course,  Neuschwanstein. With its delicate white towers and steepletops, it does look like a castle right out of a Cinderella movie. But did you know that no one actually lived there – ever? King Ludwig II started planning the castle in the late 1860s, the foundation stone was laid in 1869. But the construction took forever, and when the King died under mysterious circumstances in 1886, the castle still hadn’t been finished. It was opened to the public soon after his death, as a tourist attraction.

King Ludwig did live, however, in Neuschwanstein’s sister castle, Hohenschwangau. It is less known, but if you are in the area, why not visit both castles? Make a reservation for your tickets well in advance, because they are in high demand. That way, you know the exact time of the visit. You still have to pick up the tickets on the day of your visit, though. So make sure to get there early if you’re going by car and need a parking space. And enjoy the spectacular view of the Alps.

Oh, and if you are looking for a place to stay because you want to visit the castle early in the morning, check out the hotels and vacation rentals around the Hopfensee. It’s gorgeous there.

The Hopfensee – a pristine lake not far from Neuschwanstein