Between all the travelling abroad and domestic business trips, these past two years have been rather poor on domestic tourism. Something I set to correct last month, with an extended three-day trip to one of the many regions of Japan I had never set foot in.

Kiso Valley

After much poring over guidebooks, online forums and ryokan reservation websites, Kiso valley seemed to emerge as a good candidate for a region that was at once 1. reachable from Tokyo in a few hours, 2. offering preserved nature, picturesque views and some nice hiking trails and 3. not completely encased in concrete (cf. 99% of all popular onsen resorts in Japan) or overrun with tourists (ibidem).

According to the English Internet1, Kiso valley is either a wonderfully preserved piece of Japanese countryside with some delightful traditional villages, or an overrated tourist trap. As it turns out, both opinions were right, just not talking about the same part of the valley:

  1. In matters of nature-oriented tourism, I have learnt not to rely on the opinions of the average Japanese tourist. Even clueless Western tourists can at least tell the difference between a charmingly traditional town and an ugly 80s concrete monstrosity… []

  1. Buying a (simple) wristwatch is surprisingly difficult in the year 2014. Quite like pocket calculators and rotary phones, wristwatches have become the province of obsolete Forbes-reading execs… and people with a test to take. If you are between 25 and 60 and still own a wristwatch, you have a serious hoarding problem. Amazingly, even 100en stores do not sell these any more.
  2. The wristwatch is not really optional for the JLPT. Since I knew I would be short on time anyway, I figured I could wing it without one, and just go through as many questions as fast as I could. As it turns out, not only aren’t there any clock in the exam room, but the proctors make a point not to give any 5-minute warning before the time runs out (it’s in the test instructions). The first you hear of their voice, is to tell you to drop your pencil right this second (under penalty of elimination). This is how one ends up with over a dozen blank answers in their final sheet (where filling at random would have guaranteed at least a couple points).
  3. One can always make oneself feel better by telling oneself that they are not there to get the JLPT through cheap tricks and strategising. I’m still getting a wristwatch for next time.

I know, I already did this title, but bear with me: I only have a limited number of topical literary references.

There might be other ways to get as violent a shock, for less than 100 euros and 90 minutes, than flying straight from the French Riviera to Berlin, but I suspect they would have to involve a taser and a few thousand volts.

Juan-les-Pins has the permanently warm weather, magnificent Van Goghian sunlight and a few breathtaking coastal sights to help temperate its insufferably posh botoxed denizens, whose main occupation involves sitting motionless (on a yacht, in a convertible, at an overpriced beachside café)…

Arm-aber-sexy Berlin just does not give a fuck what you think of its constantly gray weather or the fact that its entire public transportation infrastructure costs less than the cheapest boat in Port Vauban.

Since the beginning of the month, I have been enjoying my hard-earned unemployment (technically: the long-programmed end of my two year post-doc fellowship) by travelling around Europe, visiting friends, family and new locales. I literally cannot remember the last time I had an entire month off (it would have to be at least 5 years ago, before that stint in indentured servitude commonly known as “PhD”) and the only downside is the incredible speed at which it has flown by so far. I must also work very hard at reminding myself that regular life, whether in Europe or Japan, does not usually entail spending days on end lounging by a pool overlooking the lush mountainous French countryside, evenings eating cheese and sausages bought fresh from the village market and a casual hop to the next region/city/country by plane, train or car, every couple days… But it’s nice to know that it’s there, were I to relocate westwards one day.

Featuring: sun, south, mediterranean sea, wine, more wine, wine&cheese, wine&sausage, dessert wine, mountain wine, Paris, Catalunya, Lozère, Côte d’Azur, Berlin, TGV, speed boat, airplane…

Not featuring: awesome clubs, DJing and miscellaneous moments of fleeting debauchery, because don’t we all have enough of that in our lives. Also because (good) Berlin clubs are still awesomely against any mobile-phone use indoors (anyway: if you really need to post a picture of your night out, you obviously aren’t having enough fun when it occurs).

Before repair: looks like it was attacked by a wild beast.Cat couldn't resist the temptation of a last few scratchesBit of water...... and it comes right off!Cats: not helpingFinal result!

It’s not that the cats specifically target the shoji… It’s just that said shoji happen to be just behind their favourite indoor climbing equipment (aka “curtains”). Not that these shoji were all that intact to begin with (couple small tears and a few individually patched cells, not to mention 30+ year-old paper).

Anyway, now that the household’s feline population has been taught to (mostly) stay away from curtains, I felt it might be time to get rid of the “just-survived-a-tiger-encounter” look of the bedroom sliding screens, while partaking in the time-honoured Japanese tradition of replacing shoji paper.

This time, however, I opted for the supposedly cat-proof plastified version, which comes with the added bonus that it is heat-reactive and can be applied with a press iron, without separate glue.

French people are a strange alien species I can barely communicate with (save for the couple old high-school buddies close to my heart).

Speaking French is soon going to feel less natural than even Japanese.

And yet Paris still feels as close to a hometown as I will ever have.

A cold, rainy, dirty, grey hometown.

Managed to wrangle two weeks (and some telecommuting) for a bit of warm South East Asia weather on my Tokyo Winter icicle.

So far:

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Kuala Lumpur

Brief but nice. Our taxi driver from the airport was full of enthusiasm (with a spot of ill-will toward Malaysia’s past prime minister) and surprisingly good Enka-singing skills. Met some local CSer at a nice, cheap indian restaurant, minute before the start of a massive tropical downpour.

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Singapore

still the same nice mix of warm weather, OCD cleanliness and delicious cheap food. Still not sure I’d live there, but a most awesome time spent strolling in parks, biking around and eating out with Fred, Natalie and their two cute tiny demons.

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Chiang Mai

Definitely on our list of places to go back to. The tiny bungalow we stayed at was totally worth the trek out of town to reach it. Also did get to rub tiger bellies, so not a bad two-day trip.

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Bangkok

We took the (super-comfy, second class) night train back to Bangkok. Daytrip to Ayuthaya, walks around the market (probably need to get myself a second suitcase to bring back a few pounds of spices) and a brief stint around Patpong (Asian sexpat neighbourhoods: same old, same old).

Phuket

Possibly the nastiest place I’ve been to in Thailand, if not all of Asia. Just as horrid as predicted by everybody I talked to before coming (so much for lowered expectations): 100% fat obnoxious Eastern Europeans tourists, and a few locals busy trying to scam them in every possible way. Some beautiful beaches, surrounded by a lot of noisy, permanently traffic-jammed roads. Our reason for coming was to meet with Justine’s friend, who of course flaked at the last minute and left for Cambodia on the day of our arrival.

Rawai

Had some hopes for the south, described as one of the few last area on the island where all menus and shop signs aren’t in Russians and beaches aren’t entirely covered in deck chairs… The little I saw looked like it had a bit of potential, but middling first impressions on my travel buddies upon arrival (nighttime arrival to creepily empty remote hotel, depressingly dead bar life…) made them unwilling to give it a second chance and I did not feel like changing their super-negative mood about the place…

Karon

So we hopped on a taxi to Karon the next morning, whose only high point might be its ample opportunities for practicing Russian (not seen a single non-Russian there who wasn’t trying to sell me something).

Patong

And now Patong until NYE: famously the most urban/touristy/sleazy part of the island, but I suspect could not really be worse than Karon/Kata: it might at least have a few decent bar and food options.

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Not to worry, despite my now deep-seated dislike of Phuket, life is far from bad: actively planning my escape for Ko Lanta in a few days, and still very much enjoying being away from Tokyo Winter temperatures in the meantime.