Paro – Welcome to Bhutan

We are happy to arrive in small, calm, Bhutan. We have a bias towards small countries.

Welcome to Bhutan

We fly from Delhi to Paro in Bhutan. On the way, we pass the peak of Mount Everest (according to the captain.)

Probably as close as we’ll ever get to Everest

Landings at Paro’s pocket-sized airport are exciting. You descend close to the mountains, then bank steeply right and down a valley.

To no great surprise, it makes the list of ‘ten most dangerous airports in the world‘.

Barely room to turn around at the end of the runway

We are met at the airport by our guide, Tula, and our driver, Rinzin.

(In an effort to avoid overwhelming numbers of visitors, Bhutan practices ‘high-value, low-impact’ tourism. This means most foreign visitors must travel with a booked package, at a substantial daily rate, including a guide and a driver.)

Paro isn’t the biggest town in Bhutan, but it is where the international airport is located.

Rinzin waits in front of our car

On our way to the hotel, we pass groups of young monks.

Monks on the road

Our hotel is a training ground for a local hospitality college.

Our accommodation

The view from our hotel.

Our first stop is the Rinpung Dzong. A dzong is a fortress/temple.

Also known as Paro Fortress
View over the Paro River
Bridge over the Paro River

It’s an ‘auspicious day’, so the monastery has many visitors. These local girls and women wear the kira, the national garment for women.

This lone girl dances to her own inner rhythm.

Svarasa‘ – trust your instincts

Up the hill is a national museum, currently under repair for earthquake damage.

The grouping of white prayer flags are a memorial for a deceased person. According to Tula, they should be ‘high up and overlooking a river.’

We hike up into the surrounding hills.

Paro from above

We drop in on a small monastery. Tula discreetly checks if anyone is home. The resident monk is in town, running errands.

Tula emerges from the monastery

We visit Kyichu Lhakhang, one of the oldest monasteries in the country.

Tula works the prayer wheels. He wears the kilt-like national garment for men, the goh.

Turn! Turn! Turn!

In the courtyard of Kyichu Lhakhang. We are not used to having a third person to take our photo together.

I get a lesson in spinning prayer wheels.

‘It’s all in the wrist action…’

Rooftops in Kyichu Lhakhang.

Local truck carrying logs.

Another day, we hike to the Taktsang monastery.

Taktsang from afar

In truth, we cheat slightly: we ride ponies halfway up the trail.

Pony up

Lots of prayer flags along the way.

Catch the Wind

My pony, Tinka, is a good little horse.

‘Does he have a cold?’ ‘No, he’s only a little hoarse.’

Nearly there. We are hardly alone – Western visitors are few, but Indians can visit visa-free and travel independently. They are abundant.

Also known as the Tiger’s Nest

Last image of the day is the Rinpung Dzong lit up at night.

The Dzong Remains the Same

Sight or Insight of the Day – Paro

A thing in Bhutan is a ‘hot-rock bath’. This involves heating rocks in a fire.

They call me ‘asbestos-toes

Next, you drop them into a tub of water. The client-containing part of the tub is protected from the rock-containing part.

Meanwhile, the client on the other side luxuriates in the steamy brew.

For more rocks, just knock…

‘Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Tokyo any more…’

From Tokyo to New Delhi, via Bangkok. Not surprisingly, we find ourselves in a different world.

  • Because of India’s location on the planet, flights often arrive and depart in the middle of the night, including ours.
  • We book one night in a hotel near the airport and arrange for a pickup from the airport.
  • Because our luggage takes an hour and a half to reach the baggage carousel, our scheduled driver is gone.
  • We are forced to take a ‘metered’ cab. The driver has no idea where our hotel is.
  • We finally find it. The driver charges us over twice the official fare.
  • Because we are exhausted, (and because we’re grateful not to be simply dumped off in the middle of nowhere on the outskirts of Delhi), we pay up.

However, none of this is totally unexpected. Next day, we make our way to our ‘real’ hotel. We have a balcony that looks out onto the great street carnival of Delhi life.

Our hotel is in the Paharganj area.

The traffic is intense.

The noise of a thousand horns honking is indescribable.

It’s close to a metro station, which is probably the easiest way to navigate around Delhi.

We are in New Delhi for a few days before we leave for our next destination.

Around the corner is the Imperial Cinema.

Closed until further notice

One afternoon we go to the Red Fort.

Lots of stuff to see inside.

Across the street is the Sri Digambar Jain temple.

Man stenciling decorations on the temple pavement

They have a bird hospital. We are interested in visiting – our favourite charity in Ottawa is the Wild Bird Care Centre – but visiting hours are over. Next time we’re in town, perhaps.

We struggle through the Brueghelian chaos of Chandni Chowk to get to the Red Fort.

Old building in the market

Not far from our neighbourhood is Connaught Place, with its faded colonial glory.

It’s 45 degrees Celsius. Everyone – including us – is trying to conserve their energy.

Not quite asleep at the wheel

Another day we visit the neighbourhood of Hauz Khas. Among other sights are these 15-16th century mausoleums, the Dadi – Poti (‘grandmother-granddaughter’ ) tombs. We wander around and soak up the antiquity.

Mausoleum n. The final and funniest folly of the rich – Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

Sight or Insight of the day

As we mentioned, it is 45 degrees Celsius in Delhi. A local temple hands out free cups of liquid refreshment.

Plastic people

Apparently in Canada, we want to ban single-use plastics. That’s not really an issue in India yet.

‘じゃあね、日本’, or ‘See you later, Japan’

Sadly, it’s time to leave Japan after two months.

As we fly from Okinawa to Kobe, we spy what looks like the Golden Gate Bridge. This is in fact the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge.

We visit it the next day.

It is enormous.

You can stand on a glass deck in the Visitor’s Centre.

Waters of the Akashi Strait, 50 metres below

The mind boggles at the engineering science and social organization that goes into the planning and construction of this steel-and-concrete behemoth.

Consider my mind boggled

Kobe was the site of the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995. This event takes 6,000 lives.

Kobe Earthquake Memorial Park

We are in Kobe: we have to splash out on a dinner of Kobe beef at Tor Road Steak Aoyama.

The raw materials…
…prepared teppanyaki-style
Prepare the vegetables
Salt liberally
Cut into cubes
Grill evenly
Serve with salt and garlic flakes

Interesting historical fact: until 1872, eating meat was banned in Japan for over 1,200 years.

We are in Osaka, our original point of entry, for the third time. And for the third time we stay at the Tani9 Backpackers.

It seems so long ago that we first arrived in Japan, slightly overwhelmed by the hectic pace and unfamiliar culture after laid-back New Zealand. The atmosphere at the Tani9 is so relaxed and friendly, we ended up spending five days here as we acclimatize. It’s good to be back.

And we get to see Akubi again.

Our favourite cat in Japan helps with the blog

We take a day trip to Nara, once the capital of Japan. The temples are known for their tame deer.

Starting from scratch

They have been for centuries.

Deer at the Kasuga Shrine’ by Yoshida Hiroshi

Other views.

Nara – Todai-ji
Nara – Calligrapher
This deer mistakes my pant-leg for a rubbing post
Nara – even the noren over the door have a deer theme

We catch a train to Kyoto. While there, we visit the Tale of Genji Museum in nearby Uji.

The Tale of Genji is a strange thing. Over 1,200 pages long, it’s a ‘novel of manners’ written in the 11th century by a woman, Murasaki Shikibu.

Like many great works, you get the feeling it might contain entire worlds between its covers. Don’t know if I’ll ever get to read it, though; my dwindling stock of days in this world probably preclude starting 1,000-plus-paged novels. (No terminal illnesses – simply age.) Too bad there’s not a Classics Illustrated version.

For the time-pressed bookworm

We see the Metropolitan Museum in NYC is having a Genji-themed exhibit: ‘The Tale of Genji’ and the Art It Inspired

The last ten chapters (out of 54) take place in Uji. Hence the location of the museum. The building is attractive – sleek and modern.

Ancient book, modern architecture

Wandering in Uji, there is a street fair going on. I sample some of the best grilled tuna I’ve ever tasted.

It’s tuna-licious

In Kyoto itself, we come across a crew demolishing an old Kyoto-style wooden building. Sad.

Out with the old…

But of course many parts of Kyoto retain their charm.

Next door to the demolished building

In Kyoto, seeing groups of women – or couples – dressed in full geisha gear is common. Seeing a group of teenage boys much less so.

Looks like a boy band

Then back to Tokyo for six days. One of our first stops is the Hokusai Museum.

Katsushika Hokusai reminds us of Rembrandt Van Rijn. Both artists spent most of their lives in the same neighbourhood, probably never traveling further than 100 KMs from home, but creating an entire cosmos in their work.

The Great Wave Off Kanagawa – the original:

From the series ‘Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji

Which inspires many variations, such as this Van Gogh-style effort:

Starry, starry night

For those who like rabbits…

Lagomorph tsunami

…or for those who like pugs (you know who you are!):

A late painting by Hokusai for a shrine, now restored (recreated, really) after being destroyed in the Great Kanto Earthquake.

Set into the plaza in front of the museum:

Mosaic of Hokusai’s ‘Fine Wind, Clear Morning

We like this noren-shaped building in the Sumida district .

We catch a single act of kabuki at the Kabuki-za Theatre.

We visit the Roppongi district for its museums. They turn out to be closed that day.

Nice architecture, though

The plaza of the Mori Tower has one of Louise Bourgois’ ‘Maman‘ sculptures.

Just like home

Have we mentioned that people in Japan love their dogs?

Pooches on parade

Our final day in Japan, we decide to have our favourite Japanese foods. Maria opts for conveyor-belt sushi for lunch.

I choose tonkatsu at Maisen for dinner.

The Last Supper

Sight or Insight of the Day

We are really going to miss Japan. Even if communication is often a problem, Japan has a lot going for it.

Like the Scandinavian countries, Japan has worked out a way of life that is uniquely suited to itself, for the betterment of its people. Like Scandinavia, Japan has figured out the basics:

  • Make sure stuff works properly
  • Keep things clean
  • Be courteous to your fellow citizens
  • Don’t vandalize public property
  • Educate your people and keep them healthy
  • (Having a sense of shame for doing bad things doesn’t hurt either)

When I was younger and in my traveling prime, I wasn’t tempted to visit Japan because I thought of Japanese society as ‘rigid’ and ‘conformist’.

These days, I tend to see people often interpret their right to be ‘non-conformist’ as privilege to be as big an asshole as possible.

People have been good to us here. We won’t say ‘sayonara‘ – that’s not a thing anymore – but ‘Jā matane‘, or ‘See you later’.

Okinawa – Road Trip!

From the sub-Arctic ambiance of Hokkaido we fly to the sultry tropical atmosphere of Okinawa.

Maria at the Peace Memorial Park

Okinawa has an interesting history. In a nutshell:

  • The Ryukyu Kingdom, a separate entity, enjoys independence as a prosperous intermediary in trade between China and Japan.
  • Japan annexes it in the 1870s.
  • The Battle of Okinawa rages on the island in 1945 as a stepping stone for the invasion of the mainland. The Japanese army essentially uses the entire civilian population as human shields, shooting those who use Okinawan dialect as spies and urging group suicides.
  • The US administers Okinawa directly until 1972. Okinawa reverts to Japan.
  • Okinawans become increasingly disenchanted with having a significant area of the country occupied by American bases. Besides the risk of so much military activity in heavily-urbanized zones, crimes committed by US personnel are a problem.
All your base are belong to us

We rent a car. His name is Suzuki, after David, and, well, because he’s a Suzuki.

After picking up our car at the airport, we get lost in a labyrinth of ridiculously narrow alleyways in between broad but unidentifiable major streets in Naha, the main town. Turns out that southern Okinawa is one continuous conglomeration of citified confusion.

We eventually find our minshuku, which is like a Japanese B & B.

On the road, we visit a Ryoko-era fort at Nagasuku. There are at least 30 of these around Okinawa.

The stonework in these is amazing.

We have the entire site to ourselves – probably because of the rain.

Okinawa is very urban, especially the southern part. We expect more of a tranquil, unpopulated idyll like Sado and Hokkaido. This is not the case.

We’re going to cheat here and offer web-search photos of the urbanized south. And the more scenic north.

Oceanside park in the Nanjo Peninsula

After a few days, Suzuki gets a flat tire and has to be towed back to Naha. There is no spare tire – only a ‘puncture repair kit’ that has no instructions in English.

Suzuki is officially ‘hors de combat

This is one of those travel tales in which strange things happen. While parked up with the flat, a man in a snazzy Mercedes Benz actually scrapes our bumper and we have to get the police involved. Long story. But it ends well.

We pick up a new vehicle to replace Suzuki. We name him Satoshi, after Satoshi Nakamoto.

Satoshi is a Toyota Aqua

This vehicle has mind-blowing gas mileage. We are half way around the island before the fuel gauge even begins to go down.

These guardian spirits on rooftops are an Okinawa tradition. If they weren’t so heavy, we’d send one or two home.

Dragon? Lion? Pekinese dog?

We reach Cape Hedo, the northernmost point of Okinawa. (This seems to be a recent theme, going to the ‘northernmost point’ of places.)

At Cape Hedo, the water is unbelievably clear. We see groups of large blue fish swimming near the shore, which don’t really show up in this photo.

One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish

Among the wildlife on the island are wild boar.

Beware of manga wild boar

Back in Naha. Naha has an extensive monorail system.


Maria risks losing a limb to take this photo.

…and closer

We get a seat right up front.

Driver’s-eye view of Naha

There is a well-known aquarium here that features two live whale sharks. This is reflected in a sculpture created from potted flowers in front of the Okinawa Prefectual Museum.

As well as the whale shark motif on this JAL aircraft we see at Naha Airport as we leave for the mainland.

Sight or Insight of the Day – Okinawa

People who know us know that we like rabbits. There is a brand of car in Japan called a ‘Lapin‘.

The front badge sports bunny ears.

As does the dot over the ‘I’ in the rear badge.

If we could, we’d load one into a container and send it back to Canada.

Hokkaido – Road Trip!

While in town, we visit the Sapporo brewery.

Sapporo brewery, with traffic controllers

This is the oldest brand of beer in Japan. They also own Sleeman Breweries in Canada, we learn.

Glass act

At the brewery, we have a grilled lamb dish known as a ‘Ghengis Khan’ (transliterated into Japanese as ‘Jingisukan’, a Hokkaido specialty.

Goes well with beer

We rent another car and set out.

Hokkaido is a beautiful place to drive around. Excellent roads and little traffic.

Our first stop is Furano. A big skiing spot in the winter, it’s also known for its agriculture. We have a wine and cheese party with local, um, wine and cheese.

Below, You can see a fumarole puffing out from the mountain just to the right of centre.

On top of Old Smokey

Our car is claret-coloured and grape-shaped. We name him Merlot.

Once again, we would not have been able to rent a car without my sister’s help in sending us International Drivers Permits.

Lake Akan is on our route.

Lake Akan

One of Lake Akan’s claims to fame are these marimo, or round balls of algae.

They look like tribbles to me

Wikipedia says the marimo population is declining. Probably because the tourist shops are full of jars of marimo for sale as souvenirs.

Lots of wildlife in Hokkaido. We see deer on the road. And foxes.

Fox crossing

We see this one in the middle of the road. When we stop, not only does he not run away, he casually trots back to our car to have a closer look.

Crazy like a fox

While driving on the Shiretoko Peninsula early in the morning, we see a mamma bear and two cubs crossing the road. We only catch a fleeting glimpse through the mist, but we are impressed.

The bears here in Hokkaido are huge, unlike the ones on Honshu. They’re related to grizzlies. I’ve lived in Canada most of my life and I’ve never seen a wild bear. Strange that the first country I see one in is Japan.

The Shiretoko Peninsula is has a very remote feel.

Shari, on the way to the Shiretoko Peninsula

At the top of the Shiretoko Pass, you can see the Russian island of Kunashir in the Sea of Okhotsk. (In fact, the Russians stole this island and others at the end of WWII. Long story.)

While driving we run into a severe dust storm.

Visibility zero, in some places

From time to time, we stop in Japanese roadhouses called Michi-no-Eki. This one is shaped like a cargo ship.

It has interesting local products for sale.

Canned bear meat, seal meat

We reach Wakkanai, the northernmost point of Japan.

There is an irregular ferry from here to nearby Sakhalin Island in Russia. (Sakhalin Island became known to the world when the Soviets shot down a Korean Airlines 747.)

Road signs in Japanese, English, and Russian

Throughout the north of Hokkaido you see abandoned homesteads. We remember seeing similar sights in Iceland.

We guess that some environments are just too severe to live in. Especially in winter.

We carry on down the west coast of Hokkaido.

We come to Otaru, a former major trading town. A canal runs through the centre.

There are warehouses left over from the glory days.

We make our way overland, passing Mount Yotei, the ‘Mount Fuji of the North’.


Just north of Noboribetsu is Jigokudani, or ‘Hell Valley’. At the entrance is a giant demon. Apparently, they are the legendary inhabitants in Hell Valley – good demons who protect the numerous hot springs.

Demon in technicolour

Volcanic activity in the area provides colourful sulfur pools…

…with that distinctive rotten-egg smell.

We do a few short hikes.

We soothe our feet in a natural hot mineral stream.

So do other hikers.

Summer arrives in Hokkaido at last.

Trees in bloom along the way

Sight or Insight of the Day – Hokkaido Road Trip

All over Hokkaido, we notice these arrow signs over the road every 100 meters or so.

This because it snows a LOT in Hokkaido in winter, and sometimes the snow makes it difficult to figure out where the edge of the road is.

Dude, where’s my car?

As Canadians, we can relate.