Dotonbori in Osaka

After a pretty hectic (and painful) day in Hiroshima yesterday, we had a bit of a lay-in and didn’t get moving too early this morning.  When we did finally surface, we discovered a simply glorious day and decided to go downtown to Abeno Harukas 300 – a massive shopping mall with a huge 300m observation deck that is open to the public. We wandered through the shops and while there is plenty of high-end shopping in this complex (Bvlgari, Louis Vuitton, etc), I particularly love the Kintetsu department stores for their kimono sections.  Most upscale department stores will have an area that sells traditional yakuta and kimono and of course all the accessories – obis, ties, geta and zori sandals, Kinchaku Bags, traditional Tsumami Kanzashi hair ornaments,  etc. They’re so delicate and have such a very particular design aesthetic.

I’m not big on wandering shops without a particular agenda, so before too long, we made our way up to the 16th-floor observation garden… There’s still a long way up in this tower – it’s 70 something stories high, mostly hotel and office space. And that there, is some dudes cleaning the windows! We toyed with the idea of going all the way to the top of the tower to check it out, but of course, Golden Week strikes again and the place is pretty packed.  Between the queue and the JP¥1500 per person to use the elevator (?!?) we decided not to.

Instead, we hopped a train down to Namba to take us to the famous Dontonburi district. Dotonbori is a canalside entertainment area – I’m thinking the locals probably consider it much like Brisbane regards its Southbank area.  It’s very popular with students and as an after-work meeting place – it is full of small restaurants, bars and izakaya taverns.  There’s also more than a slight obsession with takoyaki here… stalls of takoyaki everwhere, squid and takoyaki souvenirs all over the place.  As a general rule, it is poor etiquette to be eating in public in Japan – seemingly the only ‘proper’ exclusion to that seems to be the standing around takoyaki street vendors eating your little balls of squidly goodness on a toothpick. The narrow alleyways of shops and restaurants go off in every direction for miles.

By this stage, Mr K was getting peckish and it didn’t take much to find a friendly gyoza place – it does rather stand out on the streetscape.  So we stopped for a sit and a snack; had some beer, gyoza and caught some Pokemon – as you do.

I can’t imagine how many thousands of gyoza these ladies made today… the place was filled to the brim and it was about 3pm. After the gyoza cravings had been quelled, we continued to wander the streets of Dontonburi, checking out the shops, looking in particular for liquor stores (how unlike us?!) and hunting for cool One Piece gifts to take home for #1 Son.
There seems to be no such thing as ‘overkill’ when it comes to creating signage for your shop or restaurant around here… there’s a definite, ‘more and bigger is better’ feel to all the street signage.
After a couple more hours of wandering around, I was keen to find a bar and chill out until the sun went down.  Managed to find a cute little izakaya bar tucked away down a small alleyway that had a cheap and cheerful menu and we got ourselves some sake, beer and a sashimi snack.   The izakaya bars are similar to tapas bars in Spain – informal, people tend to order small amounts of food and drink, and then just keep ordering bits and pieces for as long as you want to stay there.

When we emerged from the bar, dusk was falling and Dontonburi was coming to life.  All lit up, the place looks exactly like the brochures… the pictures, however, definitely don’t capture the music, the noise from the crowds and spruikers, the hustle and bustle and the smells of all the restaurants lining the streets. The canals look very cool all lit up at night. And the rabbit warren of little alleyway bars feels like something out of a movie. All up we had a pretty chill day which was much needed.  We were back at the hotel at a reasonable hour in time for another soak and some more sake in the hot tub… which is starting to feel like a habit at this point!

Avengers in Osaka and Saké in Nada

Just like the rest of the world, Japan seems to have Avengers Fever at the moment.  Mr K is a huge fan so of course, we had to try and find a cinema to go see it.  After much clever navigating of Osaka’s train system, we managed to find an enormous cinema complex in Namba down near Dontonburi that was showing it in numerous cinemas, seeming back to back all day long. So we had popped down there yesterday afternoon and bought some tickets using an online ticket machine that wasn’t in English.  As we walked away Y5400 lighter, I found myself wondering if they were indeed tickets to see ‘Avengers, End Game’ or could we have found ourselves going to see some other random crap instead!  I’m always apprehensive about going to see movies in foreign countries, especially non-English speaking ones – I think it’s some sort of delayed reaction to the Munich Forest Gump Incident of ’95…

But who knows?  Looking at these tickets, it could be anything – it’s a mystery!
But fortunately, when we arrived this morning for our 0845 session *insert eye rolling here over the hour*, we discovered that our tickets were indeed for the correct film – in IMAX 3D… because many of the 2D sessions looked like they were dubbed.  A couple of curiosities I noted at Japanese cinemas – there’s film merchandise for sale in the foyer… And your candy bar selections come in a convenient little plastic tray that fits neatly into your seat drinker holder and becomes a little moveable table, like a student desk.

The movie was great – a very nice wrap up for the scores of movies that preceded it, and I managed to stay awake through the neverending battle scenes so there’s that bonus to going to an early morning session.

After the movie, we took a train out to Kobe to have a wander through the saké breweries in Nada, of which there are many within walking distance of each other. Kobe’s Nada district is Japan’s top sake producing region. It has traditionally been famous for its saké due to the availability of high-quality rice, suitable water and favourable weather conditions. The nearby Ports of Kobe and Osaka have also contributed to the success of the region through the ease of distribution since the late medieval period.

Founded in 1625, our first stop was the Sakurmasamune Saké Museum.   With a history of nearly 400 years, the brewery uses the sake rice produced in Hyogo Prefecture “Yamada Nishiki” and locally available groundwater to make ginjoshu and junmaishu of the highest quality. This water called “miyamizu” and is vital to sake production in Hyogo was discovered by the 6th head of the family, Tazaemon Yamamura. Sakuramasamune has long been considered one of the pioneering saké breweries in the Nada area. The facility here for visitors is an interesting blend of old and modern – photographs and displays of the history of the brewery within a large modern visitor centre, complete with restaurant, tasting rooms and sales floor. With so much really good saké on offer, we decided we had better restrict ourselves to small bottles that we could consume during the week only.  🙂

Next on our walking tour was literally just around the corner – the Hamafukutsuru (say that three times really fast!) Brewery.

The Hamafukutsuru brewery started in the early Meiji period (around 1900), and has faced numerous challenges to still be in production today.  The brewery was consolidated with a larger company during the national industrial reorganization program resulting from the WW2, and they suffered through the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake in 1995, which totally destroyed the brewery’s buildings. The continuing existence of the brewery is apparently the result of the combined efforts of the local community who helped to restore the brewery.  Now the site shows visitors the modern sake-making process, and is known as “Hama Fukutsuru Ginjo Kobo.” Rice grains all polished down to about 50%. Fugu saké cups! Yoink! So much good saké, and so many locally made delicacies on display… Why? Oh why, have the Luggage Allowance Gods deserted me on this trip?

A few hundred meters down the road was the Kikumasamune Saké Brewery and Museum… it felt a lot further than it was by this point – perhaps something to do with all the sampling on an empty stomach!  I have to admit to being pretty excited to be here – these guys make my favourite Kikumasamune Taru Saké, which I like to buy back home, and it is top of my list of, ‘things to do’ while we were in Osaka.   🙂

The Kikumasamune Sake Brewery was constructed on the site of the principal residence of the head Kano family who started the brewery in 1659.  The building was relocated to its current site in the 1960s for preservation purposes and opened to the general public as a museum.

The museum exhibited items that have been designated as important tangible cultural property by the national government under the name of “Nada-based Sake Brewery’s Equipment,” policy, and as a museum, it demonstrates the history of sake brewing for contemporary audiences.  About 50,000 people visit the museum each year. In January 1995, this brewery museum was also destroyed by the Great Hanshin Earthquake, but thankfully almost every single piece of sake brewery equipment and all the small tools were retrieved carefully by hand and found to be mostly undamaged or restorable-so the objects in the museum are all extant items in their original condition.

After extensive reconstruction, the museum was reopened four years later… unbelievable that it took only four years to rebuild the two-story museum building, and it is now a fire-resistant and anti-earthquake structure. It still has the appearance of a traditional brewery, with the roofs tiled in the long-established hongawarabuki style, and the outer walls and street fences are paneled with charred cedar boards. Inside you can see many reused pillars and beams dating back to 400 years ago, which were used from the former museum. There are ‘Culturally Important Objects’ housed upstairs – but gorgeous as these little sake cups are, I couldn’t read any of the descriptions accompanying them, nor could I understand the little video that was nearby.  So I feel like I missed something here… Downstairs, the tastings continued, as did the shopping! This is one of my favourite sakes to drink back home, it’s light and crisp, and a little on the dry side. I found a supplier (Fuji-Mart in Buranda), and we keep a bottle in the fridge.  I’d like to say ‘for special occasions’, but that only works if Tuesday night sushi counts as a special occasion. I don’t even mind that it’s half the price here that it is at home – I’m just glad we can get it. Not sure if this is a fat happy otter or what? The next brewery was about 600m away and we were perambulating somewhat slower now!  😛  The Hakutsuru Saké Brewery Museum is *the* saké museum that visitors will come to if they are only seeing one or are on an organised tour.  It is the largest of the brewery museums and has an extensive and well laid out tour.
Founded in1743, the Hakutsuru Saké Brewing Co takes their obligation to continue to contribute to the culture and diets of the Japanese people very seriously.  Their toji master brewers continue to carry forward traditional brewing processes while continuing to experiment to meet the needs of a diverse population’s desire for novelty.  The museum has a very well laid out tour showing traditional brewing processes. This place is seriously cool – and had many displays that could be seen/heard in English as well.  It is obviously set up for the international visitors that tend to come in tour groups…complete with bus parking outside. An advertising poster for the Hakutsuru Sake from the 1950s…it’s subtle, but the crane motif associated with their product is evident on the maiko’s kimono. Their famous cellar door Junmai… only available on site. This little robot will assist you in pairing the right saké to your food preferences. Mr K sampling the saké flavoured ice cream, which I have to say was delicious being not at all sweet and having a faint flavour of rice and saké.  It was better than saké flavoured Kit-Kats in my opinion.  

Alas, when we came outside it has started to rain, and while not very heavy, it was fairly annoying for continuing our outdoor walking tour with the next brewery about 800m away.  So instead, we decided to call it an afternoon and take the train back to Namba to go find a meal in Dontonburi… which was probably the most sensible thing we could have done given we kinda skipped lunch and have been tasting all the saké, all afternoon.

We often struggle to find places to eat in Japan – I know that sounds weird, because Japan is overrun with wonderful little restaurants tucked away down tiny little alleys serving the most intricately prepared delicacies you could ever ask for – but with Mr K not being a seafood fan, and my ambivalence towards ramen and noodles, it is difficult to find places that accommodate both preferences.  Most restaurants here are sushi and sashimi, OR noodles or curry.  If you want a menu that carries both, you have to hunt for them, and then you tend to feel like you have stumbled into a tourist restaurant.

Anyway, we found a nice restaurant called Masu Masu in Dontonburi, which – bonus: had a no smoking policy.

A little amuse bouche of ‘fattiest portion of tuna’ to start, followed by salmon sashimi, okonomiyaki, and a pork donburi for Mr K… oddly, after our big day of saké we opted for umeshu and beer with our meals! Then it was back to the hotel for a well-earned soak in the tub and some more saké to round out the day.  My poor little feets were very much complaining about the 12kms of pavement we walked today but all that was forgotten as we caught the latest GoT before crashing for the night.

WTF are we doing in Belarus!

We left Kiev yesterday around midday and headed back to Warsaw. Had another relatively uneventful flight with Ukraine International Airlines, where yet again, passengers clapped when the plane touched down safely – over the years I’ve seen this in Turkey, Pakistan, Argentina, Peru, now Poland and Ukraine, and it still weirds me out. We were just transiting through Warsaw this time, so didn’t spend any time there.

We picked up a rental and yale set the GPS for Vilnius and off we went. It was a bit of a long drive – but when you’re from Australia, it doesn’t seem that far.  Not like trying to get to Festival in a day or anything crazy like that.  We passed through some pretty little towns on the way of varying sizes and modernity.
Some cute churches, and everything all sweet and fabulous…  Until we encountered kilometres and kilometres of trucks all lined up in a dead stand still. For a while we thought it might be some sort of rolling blockade protest – people around here seem to be constantly protesting something.  Or perhaps they were all lined up waiting for a weighbridge station, given how politely they were all lined up on the right and letting the cars pass them.  We then came across this – the lane we had been travelling also at a dead stop of cars. Bugger, we thought – it was obviously the queue for the Polish/Lithuania border. So we pulled up behind the blue car in the photo below…  At this point, one of the truck drivers (most of whom were not in their vehicles) came over and told us to drive around.  He pointed to the licence plate of the blue car, Belarussian, and he gestured for us to go around (our vehicle obviously had Polish plates on it).  So we dutifully went around and ended up at the top of the queue: Whereupon it became obvious that we were in the middle of the military checkpoint to enter Belarus!  Which meant we were miles from where we were supposed to be, and well and truly inside the borders of Belarus! Fark! Now we knew when we set out that there were two routes to get us to Vilnius, one of which was slightly shorter and chopped through the corner of what is effectively the dictatorial presidential state of Belarus and the other which went only through the border between Poland and Lituania.  Now, guess which route yale somehow programmed into Wayz…?

The border guard came over to our car and asked us where we were going, “Vilnius,” we replied. He then asked for our passports walked away.  Then came back for the rental agreement on our vehicle walked away.  Then came back for the registration papers for the vehicle and then he walked off again for what felt like an age. While he was gone, I was Googling looking for real-time info on any known delays at the Lithuanian and coming up empty. Now because we couldn’t read any of the damn signs anywhere, it was only about this point that we realised we were at the fucking Belarus border and not the Lithuanian one!

Eek… we had no idea what was going to happen here.  We totally weren’t supposed to be in the middle of this border complex, we had no visas for Belarus (they’re difficult to acquire and expensive), and these guys obviously have complete control over what is effectively a no mans land.

Eventually, he came back.  Handed us our passports and all the paperwork and said: “You have to go back.”  Well, thank fuck for that. For all we knew there could have been serious penalties for attempting to illegally cross the Belarussian border?!  We were laughing with relief as we turned the car around and drove off… and then we got to take a bit of the scenic route through some tiny villages as we made our way back to the route we were supposed to be on in the first place if yale only weren’t ‘the reason we can’t have nice things’. The countryside was simply stunning though – there is a beautiful quality to the light here (once you get out of the cities). Honestly, I grabbed these shots out the car window as we sped past and they have not been altered or had filters added or anything. Stopped at a servo for a fortifying something something after our little run in with the Belarus Border Force guys. WWII memorial in a little town on the way. Oddly, the Polish/Lithuanian border was far more like what we had been expecting – almost non-existent.  Being both part of the Schengen Agreement, there is pretty much borderless exchange between the two countries.  We did see some guards in a jeep on the side of the road, but they weren’t doing anything at all. The delay set up back a little arriving into Vilnius, but we arrived found our B&B and got settled pretty quickly. The B&B is in an old building with massive oak beams, exposed brick and stuccoed walls and old chunky furniture, right in the middle of the city.   After our adventure just driving here today, we decided to try and find some local food for dinner.  yale scoped out this place on Trip Advisor and it had the two most desireable elements we could have asked for, 1) great reviews and 2) mega close proximity.  Because it had been a long day already. We walked in and there was a wait for a table. The restaurant didn’t appear to be very big so we were a bit disheartened and I was considering looking for other options, when it became apparent that there must be more space off to the side of the entrance and perhaps downstairs as well.  We didn’t have to wait too long for a table and were led downstairs through a veritable rabbit warren on cosy dining spaces.First things first – a drink!  This place does paddles of brandy tasting so we thought we’d give that a go. From the left, very drinkable with cherry flavours, quite sweet with honey overtones, something akin to metho, disgustingly strong liquorice shit, and slightly less strong but equally disgusting liquorice shit!  Still, most of it went down just fine.
For entrees, everything looked really good on what is an extensive menu.  We ordered a few plates to try – fried cheese with bell peppers (effectively jalapeno poppers – which seemed odd for Lithuanian cuisine, but my knowledge there is quite limited).Next we tried the ‘thick and creamy wild mushroom soup’… which I tried and exclaimed “I hate this place! Best mushroom soup I have ever had, and it’s in bloody Lithuania!”
yale also ordered a second entree of meat dumplings served with sour cream and some sort of nutty soupy broth stuff.  It was very tasty – somehow just the right amount of salty.We had finished the brandy tasting paddle and the beers etc, so yale ordered a couple of meads and a homemade vodka. On the left honey mead, the vodka (average, but we may have been spoiled of late) and some god awful herbal mead shit that was 75% alcohol! Man that stuff is strong.
Dinner consisted of venison meatballs served with spinach mashed potato, loads of beetroot and a cranberry/blueberry sauce.  Delicious. And yale had some enormous dumpling things filled with mean and drowning in a thick mushroom sauce. After dinner (and all those strong drinks) we barely managed to find our way out of the hidden tunnels of amazing foody goodness. We want to get a full day to check out Vilnius tomorrow and both of us have laundry that needed attending to so we head back to the B&B for what was supposed to be an early night but it is already getting close to midnight.  Again.

Looking forward to checking out the G-spot of Europe tomorrow.  😛

Warsaw via the Wieliczka Salt Mine

New room with new bed proved to be worth its weight in gold.  Slept much better, which is to say I feel like I had some sleep compared to last night on the ‘you people knew this stupid bed was broken and I bet it will still be broken next month’. So be it. Someone else’s problem now and a really shitty Trip Advisor review for you guys.

We are heading to Warsaw today, but first, we are planning on heading a ways in the opposite direction to the Wieliczka Salt Mine.  Located in the town of the same name, the mine has been open since the 13th century and produced table salt right up until 2007, making it one of the oldest salt mines in operation. Throughout that entire time, the royal mine was run by the Żupy krakowskie Salt Mines company.

The Wieliczka salt mine reaches a total depth of 327 meters and is over 287 kilometres long. Since the mined ceased commercial operations it has become a major tourist attraction – there are underground chapels and an enormous reception room that is used for private functions, including weddings, loads of statues and some underground brine lakes.  The tourist route goes only 135m underground (which is plenty, trust me!) and follows a 3 km guided tour.  To initially get down to the first levels of the tours, visitors need to go down 64m via a timber spiral staircase of some 380 steps – which, given the low ceilings and tight space is a bit like walking down a 40 storey building fire escape stairwell.  There are many more sets of wooden steps so that visitors end up on the third level down at 135m and a total of approximately 800 steps down to get to that level.

Thankfully, a ridiculously claustrophobic lift returns you to the surface in an elevator that has four cars and holds 36 persons (nine per car) and takes about 45 seconds to make the trip. Everywhere we look is salt. Salt walls, salt floors, salt ledges, nooks and crannies.  The rock salt naturally occurs in various shades of grey and looks more like unpolished granite. There are many pully systems and horse treadmills throughout the mine to assist miners in moving large amounts of the heavy product to the surface. Throughout the mine, there are many statues carved out of salt.  Some, more contemporary artworks have been carved by modern sculptors, but many have been carved by amateurs – gifted miners who worked on these sculptures during their own time.

Copernicus statue carved from salt:

The story of how the mine allegedly came into being…

“In the 13the century a young Polish prince, called Bolesław, of the Piast Dynasty, decided to get married and for his wife chose a beautiful Hungarian princess of the Arpad Dynasty, the daughter of King Bela IV, Kinga (or Kunegund, as she is sometimes called).

When Bolesław’s proposal was accepted, the loving father asked Kinga what she would like to get from him as a wedding present, what she would like to take to her husband and the new country. Kinga replied that she wanted no gold and jewels since they only brought unhappiness and tears. She wanted something that could serve the people she was going to live with. Her request surprised the king greatly – she asked for salt.

The king was determined to keep his promise. He offered Kinga the biggest and most prosperous salt deposits in Hungary* – the Marmaros salt mine. However, nobody knew what Kinga could do with the treasure.

On her way to Poland, the princess visited the mine. She kneeled to pray next to the entrance and – to everyone’s surprise – suddenly threw her engagement ring inside. She gathered a group of the best Hungarian salt miners and told them to follow her.

When the party arrived in Poland and was approaching Kraków, Kinga stopped and asked the miners to look for salt. They started digging and suddenly hit something very hard. It was a lump of salt. When they broke it, everyone saw what was hidden inside – Kinga’s engagement ring!

That is how the Hungarian princess brought salt to our country. Right now in Wieliczka, there is the most famous salt mine museum.”

*This area once was in Hungarian territory.
And the scene depicted is a diorama carved of salt. The St Anthony’s Chapel. Secondary crystalised salt forms on the walls and ceiling of the mine as water seeps through the rock above. One of the most dangerous things about mining salt (indeed about mining anything this far underground) is the risk of fire.  The salt mines were particularly prone to fires from gas escaping as new veins of salt were mine.  Therefore one of the most dangerous jobs down the mine was to crawl down the newly created tunnels with a long flaming torch literally burning out pockets of colourless gas, which could cause explosions if the gas deposits were large enough.  It was a very dangerous job but apparetly very well paid work. The visible patterns and designs have been hand cut into the walls and floors. There were many workhorses used in the salt mines – once down the mine, they spent their entire lives down there as it was difficult to get them in or out.  So naturally, they needed stables, with feed storage and all sorts.  Hay stocks would bring mice, which meant they eventually brought down cats and the whole place sounded like a bit of a menagerie.  An old winch system: This photo is unfortunately not very clear, but these were 14th century stairs that miners would use to descend the mine, carved into the salt. Looking down to the second level: Gnomes start to appear dotted around the place, carved out of very clear white rock salt. Where we just came from: A brine creek directed to a bowl.  Our guide kept telling us to lick the walls or taste the water – it’s so salty that no bacteria can survive on the surface, and even though the mine has over 1.2 million visitors a year, she assures us that no one ever gets sick from licking the walls.  I kinda believe her, but didn’t feel the need to try it. The water however was extremely salty.

A recreated foreman’s office off a mine tunnel: A vignette of many gnomes doing various mine jobs: Another small chapel space to the virgin Mary:
Love the salt floor ’tiles’…  Some of the chambers have been reinforced with timber, which miners kept painted white.  They had no electric lighting down here and had small tallow lamps or torches only.  The white allowed for the light to be reflected around more easily and create better lit conditions.

A chandelier made of salt rock crystals: Another small chapel.  Mining is serious business that needs a lot of praying. So then we enter the King’s Chapel – a chamber which has the world’s largest underground church.   Lit by five enormous rock salt chandeliers, a huge wooden staircase bring visitors to the salt floor which is 64m underground now.Lining the walls are carvings of various artistic execution done by miners:
I love the floor! The salt rock crystal chandeliers are over two meters in drop: The King’s Chapel. Salt rock statues, salt rock columns, salt rock candlesticks, salt rock altar, salt rock kneelers, pews, salt rock tabernacle… Even the bollards to keep the tourists in line are carved out of salt. Further down the mine there are some enormous salt water lakes. 

The largest salt rock crystal chandelier in the complex – over 3 m long, hangs in a chamber near an enormous timber structure that was used to move salt up through the mine.  Carpentry was another important job here.  Goethe: Looking down towars the third level of the tourist route: Apparently tourists used to be moved about using ferry boat rides here through some of the smaller tunnels of the mine until a tragic drowning incident occurred in the Jozef Pilsudski Chamber.A ferry boat capsized and five people were trapped underneath it. In theory it should be impossible to drown in water this salty as everyone is so bouyant, but the boat was so heavy that the people couldn’t get out from under it, so they suffocated. That is why there is now a statue of St. John Nepomuk, the patron saint of the drowning.
This is the tallest chamber in the tourist route – at 36m high.  It is also the location of the World Record Deepest Underground Bungee jump.   Reception centre for weddings etc. There are multiple gift shops mostly selling gifts made from – you guessed it – salt.  None of which would last very long in a humid tropical environment like Brisbane.  Another small chapel on the way out of the mine. All up it was a very slick tourist operation that takes you on a visit through the mine. Our guide was interesting and informative and she only made one joke about us being nice to her because she was the only person in the group who knew the way out.  It is a veritable labyrinth of tunnels and chambers and you could see how easily you could get lost.

After our mine visit, it was time to hit the road and head to Warsaw.  Thankfully we had a trusty hire car for this segment of the journey and we were not going to find ourselves standing around for two hours on a train platform in yet another shitty transit.

Polish drivers are mad bastards though – dashing in and out of traffic without indicating.  Speed limit signs appear to be ‘suggestions’ only, and the route from one major city to another kept changing from fantastically fast dual carriageway to windy little back streets through small villages.
Amazingly dodgy servo lunch:
High speed landscape photography of the Polish countryside.Beautiful though  🙂 
Again we got to experience the feeling of standing still while going 130kmph as crazy Audi and BMW drivers went flying past us weaving in and out of traffic… to be honest, I was kinda glad that out little Corolla wasn’t capable of it, or perhaps yale would have put his foot down even more. Amazingly we only saw one small car accident…

We arrived in Warsaw and went to the place that Booking.com said our accommodation was booked at – only to be met in a carpark by a woman who led us to a different location about two blocks away, and to what appeared to be a private apartment.  I was seriously unimpressed to discover the apartment (while having all the amenities of what we had booked) was nothing like what we had actually booked… for a start, we could not get our luggage all the way to the apartment without taking a very dodgy old lift up 15 stories and then going up through a maze of not very well kept corridors and two flights of stairs.

After the strange woman showed us to our weird accommdations, we immediately went in search of quick food not too far away.  yale opted for massive loaded hotdogs and I had a swiss cheese and mushroom burger at a place called The Brooklyn Bar.
I was not actually sure the owner/designer had ever been to Brooklyn or to a bar in Brooklyn in the last decade – but the food was mostly edible, the loud hip-hop was totally dreadful, but the cheap shots of vodka made the whole thing bearable.Back to the apartment and yale carried everything up the flights of stairs after taking the scary antique lift to the 15ht floor.  Back in the apartment – bedroom is up a flight of narrow twisty stairs to a low ceilinged loft, that I was going to have to navigate coming down first thing in the morning when my back is at it’s absolute worst and walking is sometimes problematic let alone weird odd height staircases. I mean, it was a nice enough space, but I would not have booked it had these been the pictures on the booking website.

We laughed about most of it – especially the tiny pokey shower cubicle – the vodkas over dinner helped.  yale for scale: Oh well, we are supposed to be staying here again in a few days time – but have decided to cancel and find something that 1) has no stairs to bed and 2) has a decent chance of a shower that yale can fit it!  Another interesting review coming up for these guys too!

Reyjkavik: Museums, Penises and Puffins.

We started off the morning bright and early – well, by bright, I mean it didn’t get light until nearly 8am today, and by early, I mean we didn’t leave the house until nearly 10am!  We were heading out first to go searching for a monument… the Eve Online Monument.  Eve Online is not technically ‘huge’ in the world of MMORPGs (Did I get that right? I’m am guessing I probably didn’t and by my comment, you are probably guessing correctly that I didn’t care enough to Google it!) with roughly a million die-hard players – but it is huge in Iceland. So big that they have erected an actual physical monument to the in game plaers which is engraved with all the player names on it. We went hunting it out for a friend of ours who plays so we could take a photo of his avatar engraved on the monument… It’s not exactly easy to find – but there is an online map telling you roughly which area each name is located – and yes, we found Drakey’s avatar!  It’s something to do with spaceships and wars in space or something.  I dunno.  #computergaming #notmycupoftea After ferreting out the Eve Online Monument, I convinced yale to swing past the Sun Voyager (again) so I could see it in the morning light.  This is still such a stunning piece of art.  I love it… so evocative, you can imagine it sailing out across the fjord.  🙂   This time fewer tourists were there hogging prime spots – but there’s always one jerk.  This time a Kiwi, who stood around while his wife took his pictures and then he went wandering all around the sculpture – if it had been a car, he would have been kicking the tyres – while about 10 people are standing around shivering in the freezing cold waiting for him to fuck off out of our photographs! Urgh!We were then heading indoors for a while (thankfully!) to the National History Museum, which is quite an impressive building in its own right.

I have started doing up a full post on just the items we saw in the museum – most of them are items I have not seen published in other books and catalogues, so I have done my best to capture them (in the dodgy museum lighting conditions) and to keep their detailed descriptions accessible too.  I hope to get this done when I get on a train to Prague day after tomorrow… but we will see!  There were lots of wonderful artefacts from the dark ages and medieval periods, and the second floor contained the 17th to 21st centuries – which as per usual, I skimmed through and barely took any notes at all because, well it’s just too modern for my interests.  So here is a hint of what is to come in the full musuem post:

Around the corner from the museum is the famous Hallgrimskirkja Lutheran church which I have written about previously in my past travels.  It is said to be designed with the volcanic basalt columns as an inspiration and influence.  Having seen the columns on the beaches of Iceland now – I can see it a lot more clearly and have a new appreciation for the building.  Previously, it just looked like a stark, way too modern, design to be a comforting place of worship – but now it kinda seems like it belongs here. We did a little poke around the shops here a little – I stooped to buying a t-shirt… which in my defence was only marginally more costly than a tea towel at the end of summer sales.  🙂
So, lunchtime rolls around and we find ourselves hunting for the Bæjarins Bbeztu Pylsur stand, which quite literally means in English: ‘The Best Hot Dog in Town’.  We find the little food truck exactly where is supposed to be not far from the Reykjavik harbour and to my surprise, it is surrounded by people standing around in the cold, which is about 3°C but with the wind feels about -1°, eating hot dogs!  I’m not so sure about this al fresco dining thing in this weather, but we dutifully line up for a hot dog. In August 2006, The Guardian newspaper selected Bæjarins Beztu as the Best Hot Dog Stand in Europe – big call. Since then plenty of famous people have come along and tried the now world renown, Bæjarins Beztu hotdogs.  Among them are former US President, Bill Clinton, and even cooler, James Hetfield of Metallica fame… and now borys and yale join this illustrious companie of people who have stood around eating hot dogs in sub-zero temperatures.

It was so cold, but the hot dogs were tasty enough, I guess.

Across the road from the hot dog stand is the moorings for the Icelandic Coast Guard.  This ship has been here each time I have been in Reykjavik – either that or they have three identical ships (not out of the question).  I have kept meaning to take a photo of it – it’s pretty impressive.  The Icelandic Coast Guard is primarily responsible for Iceland’s coastal defences and maritime and aeronautical search and rescue processes, but they have also been called upon to do things like bomb disposal?

So… after lunch, we made our way to the famous Icelandic Phallological Museum, aka the Reykjavik Penis Museum or the Reykjavik Dick Museum. *titter titter*.

It was founded in1997 by a now-retired teacher named, Sigurður Hjartarson.  It is now run his son Hjörtur Gísli Sigurðsson.  Apparently, the museum grew from what was just a private collection that started when Sigurður was given a cattle whip made from a bull’s penis when he was a kid. He then started collecting penises of Icelandic animals from sources around the country and has dicks in his collection that range from the 170 cm front tip of a blue whale penis to the 2 mm (0.08 in) baculum of a hamster, which is displayed under a magnifying glass.

The museum also houses many other phallic items and artworks.  Longtime poet and environmental activist, Danish Sculptor, Pjarne P Ejass (1945 – ) created this “Viagra Phallus” in the form of a scorn pole.  The work displays the artist’s contempt for all things that deviate from the normal course of nature, and the work is intended to convey his statement, “Stop Fiddling with Nature,”  The artist donated the work to the Icelandic Phallological Museum in the summer of 2004 and it was erected in May 2005.
yale for scale. A rather painful looking toothpick holder: Dried sperm whale penis: Preserved pilot whale penis: Various penises belonging to different dolphins and porpoises: And this magnificent specimen – is a Narwhal! Narwhal! Living in the ocean…!
(Only not so much this one anymore, he’s been lopped off and preserved in formaldehyde.) African bull elephant: An eland, a dromedary and giraffe penises: Killer whale penis:  yale for scale An artwork based on the penises of the National Icelandic Handball Team that represented Iceland at the Bejing Olympics in 2008.  😮  Freyr – Viking God of Fertility:

All up the Phallological Museum was kinda interesting – it seems to be a bit of a ‘must see’ when in Reykjavik, but only because you’re literally not able to see a collection like this anywhere else in the world.  The gift shop missed some huge opportunities though – can you imagine the dick related paraphernalia they could be flogging?  Instead, there is a handful of magnets and keychains and a few bad taste aprons and knitted elephant penis socks.

While we were leaving – some of the ladies working the reception at Dick Museum were about to have some lovely looking cinnamon scrolls for afternoon tea which smelled just divine.  They told me that they were from the food hall across the street, so naturally, we decided to go find some.  Fantastic!  Cinnamon for me, and liquorice and blueberry for yale… still warm from the oven, perfect for this sort of weather.

From here we did what was probably the first bit of real touristy shopping we have done since we arrive in Iceland.  We wandered down the main shopping street which pretty much leads from the Hallgrímskirkja church down towards the waterfront esplanade.  I got to stop in the Tuilipop shop this time, which was closed when I was here last – luckily their plush Freds are not very soft or I would have found myself buying a rather expensive and unnecessary plush toy to take home! 

Icelanders have come to have a love/hate relationship with the tourists that saved them from the 2008 Global Financial Crisis.  They love the income and the jobs that are provided from the huge boost they have seen in tourism over the last decade, but they hate what it is doing to their island.  Downtown Reykjavik used to be full of useful shops for locals to go do their shopping and meet with friends, now it is full of what they derisively refer to as The Puffin Shops.  Any/all souvenir shops are known as Puffin Shops and for obvious reasons…
There is so much shit here with puffins on it – and because I have been here three times now and have yet to see a single goddamn puffin that isn’t stuffed (like the AUD$450 ones in the top left hand picture!), I flatly refuse to buy so much as a sticker with a puffin on it.  I think the puffins here are like the trolls – just some sort of myth.

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After a little wander down through the town, we decided to head towards the Perlan which is a landmark building with observation decks and gallery spaces, created from some old water tanks that were high on a hill overlooking the city.  Unfortunately, the Perlan was closed from 1 Oct to 14 Oct, so we didn’t get to go in or go up.  I guess it’s that time of year – they need to do maintenance before the winter sets in properly, but don’t want to be doing it when it is going to affect too many visitors.

Then it was sadly time to head back to our AirBnB and get packing!  Oh no… time to pack to leave Iceland.  I am feeling a bit sad about going actually.  We have had almost two weeks here and seen soooo many truly beautiful places and things, but I am left feeling like there is so much more we could see and do if we had more time and way more money.  I’ve never been in a country more expensive than this place – it really makes you weigh up your travel plans – How long have I got? How much do we think we can see? Can we afford to actually eat once we get here? If we make the trip longer to see more things, can we even afford the extra night’s car hire and accommodation?!  It is just nuts. For our last night in Iceland, we thought we’d go out for one final nice, but predictably, overpriced meal.  We ended up at the Geysir Bistro near Ingólfur Square.  It was a more relaxed environment that the last two restaurants we went to and the menu looked likewise slightly more modest. But the food – still fancy AF.  We toasted our last night with some Brennavin and congratulated ourselves on having only had one shit fight in two weeks in close quarters!  😛  It’s bound to happen – travelling with people is one way to really test the friendship/relationship!  All your best and all your worst will eventually come out.  🙂 

So here’s ‘Skål..!’ to Iceland.  I have no idea if I will ever be back.  I know there is still plenty of wonders here to discover – but there’s so many places I have never been, that doubling back here again seems highly unlikely*

*I said that last time… and look what happened!  Hoping the trick works again!  😉