Sep 5, 2015

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Iriomote Island, Japan

Iriomote was my first experience with Japan’s more remote islands. I had spent nearly seven months surrounded by Tokyo’s powerlines and asphalt, and the first break I had I ran. I had always wanted to go to Okinawa, and ended up in the furthest archipelago in the Okinawan Islands, the Yaeyamas. It’s closer to Taiwan than the main Japanese islands.

I stayed in a minshuku (民宿) a sort of Japanese bed and breakfast. Basically a retired lady rented out the spare rooms in her home, and provided meals if you wanted to pay for them. It’s one of the most inexpensive options in Japan, in the same price range as hostels. My host was incredibly kind, and her elderly dog made sure I felt welcome. While no one at the minshuku spoke English, my host and her helper made me feel very welcome despite my halting Japanese. I don’t believe this minshuku appears on any English language websites or resources.

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Many of the tiny population of residents in Iriomote make their living from farming and tourism. While the island is not on the tourist trail for many foreign visitors, Japanese people visit Iriomote for it’s beaches, national park, and scuba diving. The tourist population per year outnumbers the local residents by nearly 100 to 1. Due to the low numbers of foreign tourists, there are few English language resources available in the island, despite the island being set up for Japanese tourism. There are a couple of hotels and pensions that have English speaking staff, but these are priced at the standard Japanese hotel prices. Because many Japanese do not have foreign language skills and therefore do not feel very comfortable traveling overseas outside of tour groups, the tourism industry in Japan has a bit of a captive audience with the local population. This seems to have resulted in higher hotel prices than you would see in equivalent places overseas. Budget travel is very difficult in the more remote parts of Japan without Japanese language skills. This is a damn shame, because Japan has some of the most beautiful natural scenery and national parks I have ever seen.

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Iriomote is 80% protected state land, of which about 34% is a Japanese National Park. The island is mostly jungle and mangroves, and is famous for an indigenous cat, which is critically endangered and rarely seen. The locals are very protective of the cats, and you will see signs all over the island asking people to drive slowly at dusk and dawn to avoid accidentally killing one.

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You will need a car to get around this island unless you plan on doing most of your sightseeing with group tours, which will pick you up at your accommodation. There are a few tour guides who speak English, especially diving tours. The bus service only runs about five times a day, but international drivers permits are accepted throughout Japan.

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There’s a cross island, two day hiking trail through the jungle if you want to experience the jungle and have best chance of sighting an Iriomote cat. The hiking trail fills with fireflies when the weather is right. Just bring industrial strength mosquito repellant and beware that the island has night hunting venomous snakes called habu. The trailhead starts at the top of a waterfall, which you need to take a tourboat service to get to, and ends right outside one of the smaller farming communities. The boat service has regularly scheduled departures and a parking lot near the dock. You can also rent a canoe at the same place, and I imagine arrange for someone to pick it up near the trailhead. The problem is of course communicating your needs! I wouldn’t take any bets on an English speaking attendant. You are asked register with the local police before hiking the trail, as a hiker went missing in 2003. There is a trekking company that has English speaking guides if you are interested in a day hike to one of the several waterfalls on the island.

There’s also Star Sand Beach (星砂の浜) called Hoshizuna-no-hama, one of two in Japan. The star shaped sand is actually worn pieces of coral that wash up on this beach. This beach is accessible by bus.

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Dolphins are common around Iriomote during the summer and the southern coast has plenty of untouched coral to see if you like to scuba. I did not have a chance to scuba while I was there because I had not yet finished my certification, but I would love a chance to go back and dive.

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The island is only accessible by a ferry from Ishigaki, and pay attention to which port the ferry stops at, as there are two ferry terminals on opposite sides of the island. If you arrive after 5pm there may not be a bus from one port to the other until the next morning.

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Many places rent bikes, so if you’re a cyclist you might have fun on the road that loops around the northern coast of the island. There’s very little traffic, a few hills, and lots of coastal viewpoints.

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There are not a lot of restaurants on the island so plan on eating most of your meals at your hotel or minshuku. The Okinawan cuisine is closer to Chinese food than Japanese food, and mostly fish and vegetables. In fact I think this was the only place in Japan where I felt like the bulk of my meal was vegetables as opposed to a carb like rice or noodles. The only real restaurants are in Uehara and Ohara villages so plan your meals accordingly. The food will be excellent, but ordering will most likely be an adventure.

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Yuzu Island is a tiny island off the northern coast of Iriomote, which was historically used to grow rice. Now the island is a tourist destination with water buffalo rides across the salt flat at low tide and a butterfly and botanical garden taking up most of the island.

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May 9, 2015

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Tokyo Samba Festival


Samba in Tokyo may not be something one would necessarily expect, but the Asakusa Samba Festival has been going strong for over thirty years. Teams shimmy and sing for prizes from the festival’s association itself as well as several companies that sponsor the festival.

All in all – it’s one hell of a good time.



While some teams are quite professional – with elaborate floats, costumes, and well practiced dances, it’s obvious that other teams are just in it for a good time. Teams can have up to 250 dancers, and they pick themes for their costumes and dances. There are judges – some of whom fly in from Brazil – and dance teams compete for prizes and bragging rights. The contest is very popular owing to the surprisingly large population of Brazilian expats and descendants in Japan and the flamboyant and skimpy outfits in this usually buttoned up country. The different teams sometimes host Brazilian samba dancers, so there’s really a good international flair to the event.

Some of the teams this year were very Japanese – one with a theme based on a popular app game.


Any my favorite – which seemed to simply be about getting drunk. The had the ever iconic Japanese hanami party – where people sit out under the sakura and get drunk. They even had the omnipresent blue tarp, which I found just hilarious.


And they also had costumes showing the result of so much alcohol –  beer goggles.


Other themes were less Japan-centric.

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I don’t think there is anything cuter than Japanese children in costume.


Though you have to appreciate the randomness sometimes.


I have no idea what is going on here, either.

If you happen to be in Tokyo in late August, you should definitely check it out.

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Jul 27, 2014

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Kamakura – City of Temples and Cherry Blossoms


Kamakura, a beach town only 50 miles from Tokyo, was the capital of Japan from 1185 to 1333. This left a laid back feeling city with a rich cultural legacy of ancient temples and shrines, making it a popular day trip for locals and tourists, alike.


One of the most popular times to visit is during cherry blossom season, as almost all of the temples and shrines have carefully tended cherry trees that make the area particularly picturesque. Other good times to visit include the first week of April when the Kanagawa Matsuri Festival is held, celebrating the city’s history, or during the fall to see the fall colors.


There are actually too many temples and shrines in Kamakura to see them in all in one day, especially if you want to make it to the beach at some point. Hikers will be happy to know there are several trails that wind through the mountains surrounding the city, which either start or end at several of the more famous temples.


The city is surrounded on three sides by mountains and on the fourth by the sea, which in ancient times made it a natural fortress. The Shogunate constructed seven manmade passes through the mountains, three of which are virtually unchanged, and two more are still somewhat recognizable. There are still hiking routes to and through these passes, as well as roads to an eighth, the impressive Shakado Pass.


Other attractions include the Daibutsu, a giant copper Buddha statue at Kotokuin Temple. Uniquely to Japan, the statue is in the open air, as the wooden building originally built to house it was washed away in tsunamis during the 1300s. Remarkably, the statute itself has only undergone minor repairs since the 1250s when it was constructed, meaning it is more or less in it’s original condition, making it an important artifact of Japanese artistic and cultural history.


Other famous sites include the Zeniarai Benten Shrine, which has a money washing ceremony said to double any amount washed, and Tokeiji, a nunnery that in ancient times sheltered abused women, as staying there for three years would enable them to get a divorce.


If you get a bit templed out, nearby is Enoshima Island, just 10 kilometers away on the vintage Enoden Streetcar train line. The island has a collection of buildings known as Enoshima shrine, which are dedicated to the goddess Benten, who legend has it defeated a fearsome dragon terrorizing the area. The island as a result has a fun dragon theme expressed from everything from kitschy souvenirs to the lampposts.


Enoshima has a botanical garden with a lookout tower, caves to explore, and abundant restaurants perched above the sea cliffs. Crabs and sea hawks are abundant, and if you stay after dark you will realize how fond the locals are of the island’s cat population. During the winter Enoshima provides beautiful views of Mount Fuji, provided the clouds cooperate.


If you’re looking for a fun day trip outside of Tokyo, or just like temples or beaches, a trip out to Kamakura is definitely worth it. Both Japan Railways and the Odakyu train companies provide round trip day passes from Tokyo with unlimited stops in the surrounding area.

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Jul 25, 2014

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Graffiti along Meguro River

Tokyo is the most populous city in the world, which is no surprise if you look at exactly how much flat land exists in Japan. It has 23 wards, which are cities in themselves with their own governmental jurisdictions and laws. From central Tokyo you can hop on a train and ride for an hour, or in some directions, two, before seeing a landscape that is recognizably suburban or rural.


Plum Blossoms and Gameboys

The character of the city changes as you move between wards, or even neighborhoods within wards. Akihabara is famous for it’s geeky high tech and anime subculture, which is reflected in the neon lit anime characters adorning the main street. Harajuku has both the teen candy colored fashionistas and a more stately shopping district where the back streets hide upscale homes, shops, and European style cafes. Shinjuku has the business skyscraper district that shuts down shortly after dark just a short walk away from the entertainment district that does not shut down, as well as the seedier red light district of Kabukicho.


Shinjuku after the rain

I’ve lived in Tokyo for eight months and one of my favorite things to do is to is people watch in one of the large parks or have tea and a book at one of the cafes in the city. I haven’t yet had the chance to see all of the neighborhoods in the city, and I’m not convinced that the frenetic pace of my Japanese class is the real reason. There’s simply far too much to see and do here, and the upcoming summer festival season is going to make the overwhelming feeling of living in such a huge and happening city even worse.




If you have the cash, you can see and do literally anything here. There are samba studios, martial arts dojos of every stripe, ikebana (traditional flower arranging) classes, and even equestrian clubs. There are hiking courses around the fringes of the metropolis, and even a tropical island chain that is technically part of Tokyo prefecture, despite being 1000km  from Tokyo Bay.


Traditional Shinto weddings are often seen at Meiji Shrine


Tokyo has it’s share of problems. Homelessness, while less visible than it has been in the past, is still a noticeable problem. Considering the sky-high cost of housing and the nearly complete lack of mental health services, I suppose it is unsurprising. But it is still and incredibly safe city, where if you forget your wallet in a restaurant or other public space you have a better than even chance of getting it back, cash unmolested. I accidentally left my bag full of schoolbooks on the train one night, and got it back the next day, contents unmolested. I can’t imagine I would have ever seen that bag again if I had left it on the New York subway.


View from Hama Rikkyu Gardens


Tokyo will once again be host to the Summer Olympics in 2020. The city has already hosted the Olympics once, in 1967, and will be the first Asian city to host the games twice. As the city feels like it is bursting at the seams already, I suspect that Tokyo during the 2020 games will be quite the experience. That said, the planned upgrades to the transportation system to the airports will be very welcome. Flying in and out of Tokyo through either Narita or Haneda airport is incredibly time consuming simply because getting to the airport takes an hour or so from central Tokyo. At least the security lines move quickly.


Sensoji Temple with bonus view of the Skytree at night

I’ll be doing more in depth neighborhood articles as I slowly explore the city, but for tourists with a limited time frame I highly recommend Meiji Shrine, Tokyo Skytree, and if you have the cash, one of the fancier hotel bars in the city at sunset. The Park Hyatt was made famous by the movie Lost in Translation, but to be honest the views are just incredible. The Conrad also has a beautiful view of the bay, and I hear the Ritz Carlton’s bar also dazzles, though I have not had a chance to go. If you are visiting Japan and have at least two weeks in the country, try to spend at least five days in Tokyo. You won;t run out of things to see.


Tokyo from the Sunshine 60 building in Ikebukuro


Back alley in the Nakano Broadway shopping complex


Shinjuku at night


Sushi at Daiwa Sushi


Sunset from my train stop


Asakusa at night


Flirting in Umegaoka






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Jul 22, 2014

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Bringing your Cat or Dog to Japan


This information is valid as of July 2014, and applies to people bringing their pet dog or cat to Japan from everywhere except Iceland, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Hawaii, or Guam.

When I was planning on moving to Japan to study, I knew I wouldn’t be able to leave my elderly cat with relatives for two years. Not only was there no guarantee she would still be around when I got back two years later, but due to her being an older cat I have had since high school, I was worried about health or behavioral problems becoming an issue with a new home environment and caretaker, burdening whomever I asked to watch her.

So, naturally, I turned to the internet to figure out what it would take to bring her with me. It did not take long for me to realize that there were very few English language resources to turn to, outside of the official Japanese government websites. Anyone who has spent time on Japanese government websites knows the overly cluttered web design and awkward translations often make finding the information you need difficult. I couldn’t find any articles or blog posts from people who had done it.

So I decided to ask about the process on a few expat forums. Word to the wise: Don’t. This may only be true of expat forums involving Japan, but the overall attitude of every major expat forum about living in Japan is something akin to the most cynical and negative places on Reddit. You will not get an answer, you will just be told it is impossible and you should light your dreams on on fire and stomp on them (no matter how reasonable they are). No help there, but plenty of people telling me it could not be done, as in; this is impossible, give up now.

There’s this thing, though: I’m really stubborn. So I decided to email the Japanese Quarantine Service. And what do you know, they were helpful, prompt, and courteous. It was a bit shocking to me, I was used to the customer service at certain American governmental offices. Don’t misunderstand me – many US Government employees are awesome, it’s just that often websites and phone numbers seem designed to avoid getting you to a real live person, and sometimes the person you get just isn’t having a good day. I’m honestly still a little bit nonplussed at how positive my overall experience with the Japanese Quarantine Service was throughout this process. I hopeful that I will have just as good an experience when I return to the States with my cats.

So, on the the information you came here for. I will be dealing with the importation of dogs and cats here, since they are the most common pets. If you have another kind of pet, shoot me an email, I also brought my ferrets, so I may have some useful information for you. The Japanese agency that deals with importing animals is the Animal Quarantine Service. If you do not want your pet to languish in a government quarantine kennel for up to six months, you need to begin preparing to bring them over around eight months in advance of your trip. If you complete the following requirements before coming to Japan, your pet’s quarantine period will be less than twelve hours, which in practice is usually only an hour or so.

The requirements are as follows:

  1. Download and print out the Certification Forms provided by the Japanese Animal Quarantine Service (AQS). Here and here are the current required forms. Please make sure and check that the linked PDFs are still the valid certification forms on this website before using these forms. Countries can change their requirements with no warning, so double check everything.
  2. Microchip your pet with an ISO compliant (11784 / 11785) microchip.
  3. Vaccinate your pet against rabies with an inactivated or recombinant vaccine. This can be done on the same day you microchip your pet. Ask your vet to fill out the forms as you go, because they require detailed information about the batch number and brand of the vaccines used. I would strongly suggest you keep the originals and give your vet a copy to keep in their file at this point in the process. Your vet has to certify these vaccination details, so I find it best they fill the certification forms out as you go instead of you filling them out at a later date. If your pet is less than 91 days old you must wait until they are at least that old before vaccinating them, as the Japanese government does not accept vaccinations before your pet is 91 days old.
  4. Wait 31 days.
  5. Vaccinate your pet against rabies again. Same procedure, same type of vaccine. Get your vet to record the second vaccination on the certification forms.
  6. Ask your vet to pull a blood sample for a titer test. You can do this step the same day you give your pet their second vaccination. A titer test checks what level of rabies antibodies your pet has in their bloodstream. In order to be allowed into Japan your pet must have antibody levels equal to or greater than 0.5 IU/ml. Your vet must send the blood sample to a lab designated by the Japanese Government. If you live in the US, that lab is the Kansas State University Rabies Laboratory, unless you are a US service member. Your vet will know how to send the sample to this lab. When you receive the test results be very careful with the form you are sent, the Japanese AQS only accepts originals for this document. Getting a second original sent from the lab is a pain, so don’t lose it!
  7. Wait 180 days. This period is considered “home quarantine” by the Japanese government.
  8. During your 180 day quarantine period you should send the Japanese AQS station at the port you will enter Japan your Import Application and Advance Notification forms. Both of these forms are available at the bottom of the page here, and the forms are different for dogs and cats. You must give the correct Japanese AQS station 40 days advance notice before you will be allowed to import your animal, so send these forms during your 180 day home quarantine period. I strongly suggest you send them your partially filled out Certification Forms during this period and ask them to check and see if there are any problems with the way the forms have been filled out so far, so you have time to correct any errors with your vet.
  9. After your 180 days are up, you need to get your Certification Forms endorsed by your veterinarian if you have not yet done so, and then they need to be endorsed by whichever governmental agency handles animal exports in your home country. In the US this is the USDA-APHIS, and you must have your forms endorsed by your Area-Veterinarian-in-Charge. Here is the USDA website, and here is the address list for the Area-Veterinarians-in-Charge by state. The USDA-APHIS charges a fee for this service, which to me was a bit exorbitant, but you must have this endorsement to export your pet. The USDA endorsement is good for 10 days.
  10. Scan and send all of your endorsed documents to the AQS station you will be using. They will let you know if any changes need to be made or if the documents are in order. Don’t fly without their confirmation the documents are ok, and print out and bring the email confirming they are acceptable with you, just in case. These are the people who have final say over whether or not your pet gets to come into the country, so if they pre-confirm your documents are in order you basically have as close to a guarantee they will be allowed in as you are going to get.
  11. Get on a plane and go!

The least amount of time this process will take from start to finish is around 215 days, so start early. The total amount is will cost depends on your vet and airline, but expect the USDA endorsement to be around $120. I believe I spent around $500 at the vet, and another $150 with United Airlines to get one cat to Japan.

Once I got off the plane and through immigration at Narita Airport, the Animal Quarantine Station was in the same room as baggage claim. The AQS officers check my paperwork, asked me to come to a back room with my cats, shut the door (kudos for smart AQS workers!) and then asked me to take my cats out of their carriers to scan their microchips. They let me hold my cats, which helped make scanning their chips less of a struggle, and then once they had confirmed the cats were the same ones on the paperwork, they let me go on my way. In all it took an hour and a half, and only that long because I was not the only person on my flight with pets.

A note about airlines:

Most of the American carriers will allow you to bring pets, and if they are under a certain size, most allow you to bring them on board as carry on baggage. If your pet is small enough this is the way to go, they don’t leave your sight and cannot be accidentally left out on a tarmac in the heat or cold. You have to carry them through security, outside of the carrier, though, so put a harness on your cat. If you cannot take your pet as carry on due to their size or species, I strongly suggest you fly United Airlines for their cargo service. This is the service I used to transport my ferrets, and although I was terrified the whole trip due to hearing too many horror stories of animals lost or killed in transit, they arrived perfectly fine.

United Airline’s PetSafe program looks like it is the one most US service members and US government employees stationed abroad (USAID, State, etc.) choose to transport their pets, and that appears to be because they have a good safety record. You hear horror stories in the news about pets accidentally killed by airlines, so I don’t blame anyone for being nervous about letting an airline transport their pets as cargo. United Airline’s PetSafe program is how my ferrets came to Japan, and while I was a nervous wreck the entire time, they made it safe and sound. If you happen to know of any statistics that will help people figure out which airline is the safest for their pets to be transported via cargo, let me know!


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Jul 20, 2014

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Berlin is one of those cities that grew on me unexpectedly. I was jetlagged and overwhelmed when we first arrived in the city, but after a good night’s sleep I was ready to go.

The first thing we did was arrange to join a free walking tour. We took a Sandeman’s tour that began at the Brandenburg Tor led by a wonderful British guide named Rob. The tour gave us a pretty thorough introduction to the Mitte district and its historic sites, and served as a perfect orientation to those areas of the city. Rob did a great job of mixing historical flair with practical advice on what to see and do, and we ended up deciding to book another tour with him, which was not free. I am quite jealous of his public speaking skills.

Brandenburg Tor

Brandenburg Tor

Berlin is a great city to visit because its simultaneously a modern European city, and in living memory has gone through some drastic changes. The tour really brought that home for me. I actually fuzzily remember watching the news when the Berlin Wall fell, remember the adults in my life talk about what has happening in excited tones, and remember generally having no idea what was going on other than something about communists in Germany and that it was important. So it’s pretty cool to walk through Pariser Platz and the Brandenburg Tor and follow the bricks inlaid in the street that mark the boundary of the Wall. Maybe it’s just the American in me, but actually being in those places make everything feel more real. Intellectually you know it wasn’t just something on TV, but the full emotional impact is much more immediate when you visit a historical site.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

The next day we went to Museum Island and climbed to the top of the Berliner Dom. There were actually a series of different building and churches built on or near the current site of the Dom, with the current one being built in 1905, and damaged during World War II. The building underwent many renovations from 1975 to 1990. It looks much much older than it actually is, since the architecture is Baroque style high Renaissance. The interior of the Dom is beautiful, and about as over the top as you can get without going Rococo. I’m talking marble everything and gold leaf murals, the kind of ridiculous opulence you don’t see often.

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We also stopped at a lovely little overpriced outdoor cafe, which was right on the river and had a lovely view. I wouldn’t eat there, but the view was worth the pricey ice cream.

Drinks only

Drinks only

We also explored the Pergamon. The Pergamon Alter and the Market Gate of Miletus were both very impressive, and the museum obviously built around showcasing them. I have to admit that while the Pergamon had several huge and beautiful displays, I had been expecting something more comprehensive, like the British Museum. It seemed a little empty in comparison. This was a case of me not doing my homework, I didn’t know too much about the Pergamon before I went, so my expectations did not match up to the reality.

Pergamon Exterior

Pergamon Exterior

Pergamon Altar

Pergamon Altar

Market Gate of Miletus

That said, how cool is this?

This is my brother. He's 6'4", so this facade is pretty huge.

This is my brother. He’s 6’4″, so this facade is pretty huge.

It’s called the Mshatta Facade and it’s so intricately carved its almost unbelievable. This piece sparked a new desire in me to research and visit places known for Islamic art in the future.

Because there are only so many museums I can take in a day before I stop being able to properly appreciate them, we decided to visit the East Side Gallery. This is the famous section of the Berlin Wall that still stands as a memorial, with 105 paintings from artists all over the world.

East Side Gallery

East Side Gallery

I actually really liked this area of Berlin. It’s rather obvious that it was once part of East Germany because of the difference in architecture and upkeep. This part of the city is dirtier and has more graffiti and abandoned buildings. Perhaps as a result, it has a more alternative bohemian vibe. People watching was lots of fun here, and if you like to shop you’d find the more unique stuff here in the East Central District. When I return to Berlin, I’ll be finding a place to sleep in this part of town.

The next day we took a day trip to Potsdam, which frankly deserves a post of its own, so I’ll skip over that for now.

My brother and I were informed before leaving the states that we had to try currywurst in Berlin. And we did. I have to say, the descriptions I was given did not sound like anything tasty, and even looking at the dish I was skeptical. But it was quite good. My brother had some kind of unidentified wurst, which was so disappointing in comparison. We kept a running tally of who “won” picking dishes this trip, which of course required us to choose two different dishes and then “sample” the other one. Sample being code for eat at least half of. It’s a good game to play when travelling.



Unidentified Wurst

Unidentified Wurst

Our last night in Berlin we took a sunset river cruise. It was not really set up to be a touristy sightseeing cruise (though I’m sure those exist), but instead more of a dinner cruise to eat and socialize. We were probably the only tourists on the boat. The views of the city were worth the mediocre food.



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Reichstag Building

Reichstag Building

Berliner Dom at sunset

Berliner Dom at sunset, with bonus beerhouse


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Jul 18, 2014

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Neuschwanstein Castle: A Tourist Trap That’s Worth The Hype

Neuschwanstein Castle from Marienbrücke

Neuschwanstein Castle has an awful reputation. You hear that it is too crowded, too expensive, not enough stuff to see inside for the hassle, and set up in a way meant to make you spend money.

The castle was originally built above the village of Hohenschwangau (which is the location of Hohenschwangau castle, as well) as a residence for King Ludwig II, but he was controversially deposed for mental incapacity shortly before his mysterious death, so the castle interior was never finished. The castle, which was controversial for its extravagance at the time, quickly became a boon to the local economy, as it opened as a tourist destination weeks after his death. The Romanesque Revival architecture is the inspiration for Sleeping Beauty’s Castle in Disneyland, and is one of the most striking in Europe.

Despite it’s bad reputation, I found Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau castles to be a highlight of our trip. If you plan ahead you can avoid the most frustrating aspects of the site, and actually enjoy your visit.

First off, we were travelling during shoulder season, in the spring right before the summer travel rush really kicks up. As I have personally never been to the castles during high season, I have no idea how bad it gets, though multiple travel guides and forums seem to paint a very unpleasant picture.

The second thing we did right was stay in Füssen. Apparently most of the tourists who visit the castles bus in from Munich, but I enjoyed the slower pace and the town quite a bit. The town has a touristy main street with shopping and restaurants, and plenty of hiking trails along the periphery of the town.


We stayed at House L.A., which was more like a family run Bed and Breakfast than a hostel. The owners were very friendly and helpful, and even suggested some hiking trails for us along the Romantic Road to the castles that turned out to be a great choice.

As per Rick Steve’s guide, we got up very early to catch the first bus from the Füssen train station out to the castles. We did not book our castle tour tickets ahead, which did not negatively affect us very much as we arrived when the ticket counters first opened and there was not much of a line. If I visit again I would book ahead, as the lines began to form behind us and were very long for the rest of the day. We avoided the wait by the skin of our teeth.

When you purchase tickets you have the option of purchasing a ticket for Hohenschwangau, Neuschwanstein, and Eintrittspreise, which is a museum of the Bavarian kings, or any combination of the three. All of these attractions are placed around a small valley housing the village of  Hohenschwangau a short distance from Füssen. The village is very tiny and pure tourist trap, I would be shocked if anyone actually lives there, as it seems to be full of gift shops and restaurants. It’s Disneyworld with old buildings.

The Village and Castle of Hohenschwangau

We chose the Königsticket, or King’s Ticket, which was scheduled tour admission to the two castles, which of course were spaced to leave plenty of time between the two tours to spend money in the village.

I would recommend seeing both castles. Neuschwanstein was unfinished at the time of Ludwig II’s death, so only about a quarter of the interior is finished. This means that if you are interested in decorations and paintings, Hohenschwangau has a bit more to offer. Both Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein have a swan theme, but the murals and historical pieces on that theme in Hohenschwangau are quite striking, and there is simply more of them there. Unfortunately, no pictures are allowed inside the castles, which was a common theme for museums and historical sites during this trip. I would understand no flash photography, as flashes over time can damage paintings, but I am a little grumpy over the outright photography ban.


We took a tour through Hohenschwangau, and had enough time between the tours to walk down the hill from Hohenschwangau and eat a picnic lunch on Alpsee lake, which saved us an overpriced meal. We decided to catch the bus up towards Neuschwanstein, and I’m glad we did because the route the bus took up the mountain looked like it would have been a very steep uphill (upmountain?) walk. What can I say, I’m an American, we don’t walk much. The bus let us out about a ten minute uphill walk away from Neuschwanstein, where you can take a short detour hike to Marienbrücke (Mary’s Bridge). The bridge is over a deep gorge and waterfall, and overlooks the castle and countryside, and that view alone is worth the trip.

Marienbrücke from the Gorge

My favorite parts of Neuschwanstein’s interior were the woodcarvings in Ludwig II’s bedroom, and the Hall of the Singers, which had murals depicting knights and courtly love in the Middle Ages. After our tour we decided to hike down the gorge and back to Füssen along the Romantic Road. It’s a long, but easy walk, with clearly marked signs once you get out of the gorge.

Hiking along the Romantic Road

Overall, this was one of the most scenic spots on our entire trip. If you love mountains, or castles, you should brave this tourist trap. If you reserve your tickets ahead of time, and pack a picnic lunch, you can avoid the more frustrating aspects of such a popular destination.

Neuschwanstein Gatehouse View

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