Post-quake life in Tokyo: 6 weeks after

One of the absurdities of the modern media cycle is that news stories seems to drop off the radar well before they reach a conclusion. While there are still occasional mentions of the situation here in Japan, for the most part the media has moved on to Libya, Osama Bin Laden, Governor Schwarzenegger and the scandals at the IMF.

Six weeks after the fact, the situation in Japan has most definitely not reached a neat and tidy conclusion. This past week saw the decommissioning of the Hamaoka nuclear plant, the release of pictures from Fukushima capturing the moment that the tsunami waves first hit and the anticipated resignation of TEPCO’s disgraced CEO.

Clean-up efforts are still underway up north, and it is going to be months if not years before all the debris is removed. The longer-lasting questions will be to what extent Japan can expect a future public health crisis, and whether or not agricultural capacity can resume to previous levels. Japan’s commercial production will also continue to suffer from disrupted supply chains and lack of consumer demand.

Here in Tokyo, the economic gears continue to churn and life goes on as best it can. In fact, to the casual visitor it can appear as if nothing catastrophic really ever happened at all. With that said, please indulge me for a few hundred words as I give a quick update on post-quake life here in Tokyo.In short, things are good, but they could be better.

The terrifying aftershocks that paralyzed Tokyoites for the month following the 9.0 temblor appear to have finally stopped. Not entirely mind you, but to the point where you can reasonably expect to sleep through the night without being woken up with a shake. Of course, Tokyo lies at the convergence of three plates, which means that the likelihood of another major seismic event is highly likely.

Yet people are much more prepared than they were before. Department stores across the city continue to sell earthquake kits comprised of essential items including hard hats, flashlights, spare batteries, first aid kits and freeze dried rations. Schools and businesses are also actively drilling people on how to escape from buildings and reach the nearest shelter.

Private and public infrastructure improvement is also underway across the city. My building is currently having all of its piping refitted to meet higher safety ratings. The gas company has also made the rounds to ensure that there was no damage to its storage tanks and transfer lines. Across the street from where I live, there are crews working around the clock to reinforce a weakened drainage canal.

It’s certainly debatable whether or not these minor improvements can increase the resistance of a city as massive and earthquake susceptible as Tokyo. But they certainly do go a long way in calming mass fears and reassuring residents.

The other major issue continues to be electricity shortages, especially since it will still be quite some time before the country’s power grid is fully restored. Summer is also around the corner, which means additional burdens on the grid imposed by air-conditioning. This threatening storm cloud does however have a silver lining – the Japanese are embracing green technology and eco-practices like never before.

DIY hardware stores including Tokyu Hands and Ikea are promoting compact fluorescent and LED bulbs. Television programs are also encouraging Tokyoites to fill their balconies with plants. Broad leaves and hanging vines help to block invasive sunlight and keep down internal temperatures. They also go a long way in beautifying a city best known for its rampant use of concrete and neon.

In recent years, Japan’s conservative armies of self-dubbed salarymen and office ladies have grown accustomed to more relaxed summer dress codes. This ‘Cool Biz’ campaign allows companies to opt for business casual, thereby going easy on the air-conditioning without discomforting its employees. This year, there is even talk about going one step further by allowing casual dress days that permit the wearing of shorts and sandals.

As I posted earlier on Gadling, food scares remain one of the most pressing issues facing Tokyoites. In their defense, the government has done a decent job of scanning produce, meats and seafood for radiation, along with certifying products from affected areas. This is all in conjunction with economic promotion efforts to get Tohoku farmers, ranchers and fishermen back to work as soon as possible.

Still, frightened consumers are instead choosing produce from western Japan and imported meats from Australia, Canada and the US. At my local fishmonger, which used to only stock seafood from around the Japanese archipelago, I can now find Argentine shrimp, Chinese crab, Norwegian whitefish, Canadian salmon and various tropical species from across Southeast Asia.

Rather predictably, tourist numbers remain low, and many hotels and other tourist-related businesses are struggling to keep their doors open.

While vacationing at a popular hot spring resort this past weekend, I discovered that I was in fact the only guest in a building equipped to lodge and feed several hundred! The staff had all packed up their personal belongings and returned to their hometowns, leaving behind a sole caretaker to answer phone calls and keep watch over the property. On the bright side, I’ve never before had such personalized and attentive service!

Japan has weathered through great challenges before, and few have little doubt that they’ll do so once more. And in the great scheme of life on this planet, six weeks is a rather short period of time. On that note, I will continue to update Gadling readers as to the status of post-quake life in Tokyo, and together let’s hope that my next blog will bring rosier news.

[Images courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons Project.]

Walking the streets of Tirana

Everyone has their own intimate reasons for traveling, be they discovering new places or simply leaving behind old ones. For me however, it’s about finding yourself somewhere that you previously couldn’t have imagined. The clichéd word for this type of travel is “off-the-beaten path,” though the experiences it yields are anything but cliché.

Several years ago, I landed in Athens intent on traveling overland through the Balkans en route to Vienna. While this was never a major tourist route to begin with, I did manage to visit some of the better-known sites: the hilltop monasteries in Meteora, the Dalmatian Coast in Croatia and the up-and-coming Montenegrin Riviera. Along the way, I took a slight detour into a country that I knew next to nothing about: Albania.

What little information I could remember from history class was the following bizarre account. During the Cold War, the Communist leader of Albania was a deranged paranoid by the name of Enver Hoxha. Fearing annihilation from above by Western powers, he charged his military engineers with the task of building almost one million concrete bunkers across the whole of Albania.

The Iron Curtain has long since fallen, but I confess that my image of Albania hadn’t changed with the times. As such, you can imagine my surprise upon arriving in the whimsically-colorful capital city of Tirana. Take a look at the gallery below, and then continue reading to learn how this once grey and gloomy city earned its multi-hued stripes.

%Gallery-124160% Prior to the Cold War, Tirana was a beautiful city. First established as an Ottoman outpost in the 17th century, Tirana quickly prospered as a major commercial center along the caravan trading routes. It was soon outfitted with all the architectural symbols of the ruling Turks, including mosques, hamams (bathhouses) and bazaars.

Following independence in 1912, the somewhat comically named King Zog I (yes, that’s his real name!) launched a massive building campaign to Europeanize the city. Noted Italian architects descended on Tirana, and gifted the city center with neoclassical buildings and grand boulevards. Of course, construction efforts were de-prioritized following subsequent invasions by Italian Fascists and German Nazis.

After World War II, Albania became a communist state and sided with the USSR. Tirana was thus transformed into a socialist-styled industrial powerhouse. Elegance gave way to practicality as historic buildings were ripped down and replaced with concrete block-style apartments, and any available green spaces were filled-in to accommodate behemoth factories. Tirana became the cold and dreary city one often associates with so-called brutalist architecture.

Since 2000 however, Mayor Edi Rama has launched a number of admirable campaigns to beautify Tirana. Some of his efforts are fairly standard urban renewal practices, such as knocking down abandoned buildings, cleaning up public parks, planting trees alongside river banks and renovating the few remaining culturally significant buildings.

But what separates Mayor Rama from your average fighter of urban blight is his love of color – yellow, orange, blue, green and violet to be specific. And in this case, the palette is the bleak concrete facade that typifies most of Tirana. Viewing his city as a work of art in progress, Mayor Rama has set aside subsidies for people and communities to spruce up their streetscapes. Indeed, a fresh coast of paint can often do wonders.

Walking the streets of Tirana is really the best way to capture his lofty vision. Some apartment buildings opt for geometric patterns of intersecting shapes in bold coloration. Others embrace softer undulating pastel lines that are reminiscent of waves crashing in a fantasy ocean. And then there are those with blunt racing stripes that draw attention away from glaring architectural flaws.

Soviet-era stylings still do predominate, and the frivolous nature of the project has drawn its fair share of justified critics. But as a living, breathing social experiment, Tirana truly is one of a kind.

We’ll be the first to confess that Tirana is not an easy place to visit. Your first hurdle is simply getting here as Albania isn’t exactly the crossroads of the world. But there are direct flights to Tirana from most major European capitals including London. There is no train station, so you can forget about the Eurorail pass, though international buses run to neighboring Balkan countries as well as to Greece and Turkey.

English is a rarity, so it’s recommended that you book a hotel in advance rather than stumble around in search of accommodation. Habitable rooms tends to gravitate towards the mid-range and top end, though rates here are much less than in other European capitals.

Eating out is very cheap, and you’ll find all manners of filling treats including byrek, a filo-dough style pastry with meat, cheese and/or spinach. More familiar doner kebabs and Italian pastas and pizzas are also popular. Local beer is excellent, though keep in mind that the local “Stela” is not the same as the Belgian “Stella Artois.”

In terms of sites, there are a few decent museums and performance spaces scattered around the city. The National History Museum is recommended if you want to get a better sense of the strange twists and turns that led to the creation of modern Tirana. Petrela Castle on the outskirts of the city is an impressive Byzantine structure lying at the top of a rocky outcrop. For something far less stately, check out Hoxha’s International Center of Culture, which resembles a giant pyramid of cement!

Need more inspiration? Check out the gallery images below.

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[All photos and gallery images are the author's own original work unless otherwise specified.]

Prague in pictures

Today’s featured summer travel destination has undergone a massive transformation in recent decades. Once regarded as an isolated capital on the red side of the Iron Curtain, it is now the sixth most visited European city behind London, Paris, Rome, Madrid and Berlin. Having escaped the destructive aerial bombing campaigns of World War II, it is also one of the most immaculately preserved European cities.

We’re talking of course about Prague (Praha), the capital of the Czech Republic.

The former preserve of shoestringing backpackers in search of cheap lodging and copious amounts of beer, Prague has undergone a miraculous transformation from an industrial center to a full-fledged service economy. The city is now home to most major global travel brands, in addition to the first ever Michelin-starred restaurant in post-Communist Europe (Allegro).

For architecture fans, Prague is akin to a living museum. The medieval city center, home to one of the largest castles in the world, is nothing less than picture perfect at every angle. On that note, take a quick look at some of the gallery images below, and then keep reading to learn more about one of our favorite cities in Europe.

%Gallery-123977%Local legends dictate that Prague was founded in the 8th century, though it was the 14th century golden age that graced the city with its finest constructions. Under the reign of Charles IV (1316-1378), Prague was rebuilt and expanded as the capital city of the Holy Roman Empire. New Town, the Charles Bridge and the gothic Saint Vitus Cathedral all date from this gilded era.

We fully acknowledge the importance of a well-crafted itinerary. But there is also joy in wandering aimlessly while soaking up the surrounding ambiance. And that is indeed what you should do here. With nary a modern building in sight, central Prague’s cobblestone streets wind past whimsical Baroque facades awash in muted pastels. Add to the mix soaring arches, sweeping bridges, café-lined plazas and gaggles of street musicians to help set the tempo.

You do however still owe it to yourself to check off the major tourist drawcards. The classic route takes you from New Town across the Charles Bridge to Old Town en route to Prague Castle. Along the way, stop for a cappuccino in the Old Town Square, and linger long enough to view the astronomical clock in action. First activated in 1410, the world’s oldest running clock springs to life every hour. Figurines of the Apostles present themselves to crowds below while a skeleton representing Death solemnly strikes the time.

For a bit of culture, we’re big fans of the Mucha Museum, which celebrates the life and work of Art Nouveau painter Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939). Even if you don’t know his name off the top of your head, much of Mucha’s earlier work is widely recognizable. While living in Paris, Mucha produced distinctive advertisements, postcards and theater playbills depicting beautiful young women in classical robes surrounded by flowers. His later works were more nationalistic in sentiment, and focused on the history and culture of the Czech people.

In the post-Soviet era, consumption is the main driver of the Czech economy. For the casual tourist, this means row upon row of kitschy souvenir shop selling everything from imitation Red Army paraphernalia to carved crystal knick-knacks. If you’re looking for a bit more quality in your purchases, seek out the city’s renowned ceramic wares, or peruse antique shops for rare books and out-of-print stamps. Prague is also regarded as a high-end shopping destination, which means that global luxury brands are everywhere.

If you have a bit of youthful blood coursing through your veins, be sure to explore Prague after the sun goes down. Early evening is best spent building up your energy reserves with a hearty meal and a few calorie-rich pints. But the real fun begins in the twilight hours. The city still plays host to a few industrial techno clubs that occupy converted factories in the outskirts. Of course, as with the rest of Prague, the nightlife scene is all grown up. Closer to the city center, you’ll find upscale beer gardens, chic cocktail bars, live music venues and even hookah lounges.

How to get there Direct flights on Delta and Czech Airlines connect New York City to Prague. Prague is also connected by direct flights to most major European capitals. As such, a quick stop in Prague is fairly easy to combine with longer trips to the continent. Overland trips to Prague by euro rail and inter-city buses are also feasible.

Where to stay Summer vacation on the continent attracts hordes of travelers to Prague. In order to secure accommodation, book well in advance of your travel date, particularly if you plan to visit on a weekend or any time during August. Room choice is varied, but we’re partial to the city’s excellent selection of artsy boutique hotels and apartment-style residences. Note that prices have skyrocketed since the adoption of the euro, but on the whole Prague remains cheaper than many other European capitals.

What to eat Long gone are the days of nameless sausages and boiled cabbage washed down with ten cent pints of lager. Prague is undergoing a foodie revolution, and ravenously consuming the international cuisine it was denied for so long. With that said, Traditional Czech delicacies do remain, such as potato dumplings, fried cheeses, beef goulash and roast pork with sauerkraut. Czech beer is as good as ever, even though you should expect to fork over a few euros a pint. Pilsner Urquell and Budvar (the original Budweiser) are typically on the menu alongside local microbrews.

Need more inspiration? Check out the gallery of pictures below.

[All photos and gallery images are the author's own original work.]

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Summer Travel: Athens to Meteora

You don’t have to be an accountant to know that Greece’s spreadsheets are in need of some serious financial overhaul. Some would argue that the country is essentially bankrupt, and that nothing short of a European bailout and/or a return to the drachma can save it from total economic ruin.

The silver lining on the ominous storm cloud is that Greece has the potential to be one of the world’s top tourism destinations. The cradle of Western civilization, Greece is an ancient land replete with ruined cities of yore. It also has stunning natural spaces, from rugged highlands and fertile vineyards to sandy beaches and turquoise seas.

The Greek islands already attract their fair share of backpackers, cruise shippers and package holiday travelers alike. But the government’s vision is to spread the profitable fruits of tourism into the Greek hinterlands. A tough order indeed, especially given the lack of funds needed to operate struggling museums, historic sites and national parks.

In the spirit of optimism however, we’re going to use today’s blog to highlight one of our favorite Greek itineraries, namely the northern road from Athens to Meteora.

%Gallery-123052%To many people – myself included – Athens is as much a symbol as it is a destination. More than three millennia ago, Athens gave birth to the modern ideals of democracy. As a center of cultural arts and scientific learning, classical Athens hosted the academies of both Plato and Aristotle. Before its defeat by Sparta in 404 BCE, Athens was the metaphorical shining beacon of knowledge amongst the Peloponnesian city states.

Despite this distinguished pedigree, Athens doesn’t enjoy the same vaulted tourism status as other European capitals. At the very least, it’s nowhere near as romantic as Paris, nor as monumental as Rome. Detractors (Athenians included) take their criticism even further, and lament over the city’s poor sanitation, choking traffic, stray animals and graffiti-covered buildings.

To be fair, Athens was the target of a comprehensive urban renewal campaign in the run-up to the 2004 Olympics. And while the more superficial elements of the clean-up are no longer evident, Athens now boasts an immaculately restored historic center complete with pedestrian shopping streets and a massive open-air archaeological park.

The centerpiece is of course the Acropolis, a flattened hilltop that rises five-hundred feet. Here rests the Parthenon, arguably the most celebrated ruins in the whole of Europe. Constructed in the fifth century BCE, the Parthenon honors Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and the patroness of the city.

Since the 1970s, the ruins have undergone extensive restoration to replace corroded iron pins with rust-resistant titanium ones. Aesthetic damage caused by the 1687 battle between the resident Ottomans and the invading Venetians is also being targeted. Marble cut from the original quarry will be precisely fitted into existing cracks and holes. As such, don’t be surprised if sections of the Acropolis are covered in scaffolding upon your arrival.

While we could highlight some of capital’s other noteworthy attractions, today’s post is really about journeying into the Greek countryside, specifically northwestern Thessaly. In order to embark on this trip, simply take a taxi to Larissa railway station. From here, there are several daily train departures to the town of Kalampaka. The trip should take you no more than 5 hours at a cost of around twenty euros. Note that while highway buses make the same journey, the train trip is, in our humble opinion, much more scenic.

Kalampaka is a lovely little hamlet nestled at the base of Meteora, a collection of monasteries that were built in the Middle Ages atop towering sandstone pillars. In addition to serving as a pilgrimage site for followers of the Eastern Orthodox church, Meteora also enjoys UNESCO World Heritage status. Fans of James Bond might recognize Meteora as one of the film locations in For Your Eyes Only (1981). Younger readers might also recognize Meteora as the inspiration for Linkin Park’s album Meteora (2002).

Even if you’re previously unfamiliar with Meteora, it doesn’t take long to become enchanted by its magic. First built in the mid-14th century, the monasteries at Meteora were established as religious sanctuaries from the political upheaval. As the Byzantine Empire began to crumble, and threats of Turkish encroachment grew in severity, monastic orders took to the pillars for safety and freedom from persecution.

Accessing such lofty heights was something of an exercise in religious faith. A combination of ladders, ropes and nets were needed to scale the rocks, and it was not until the early 20th century that steps were first carved out of the foundation stone. Even more astounding is the presence of a local legend, which dictates that the ropes were only replaced when the Lord above allowed them to break!

Although more than twenty monasteries were originally constructed, only six remain today – the others were unfortunately destroyed during World War II aerial bombing campaigns. The monasteries are still inhabited by small numbers of monks and nuns, though they largely operate as tourist attractions.

In terms of visiting, most accommodation options are located in Kalampaka alongside restaurants, bars, cafes and other tourist-related services. Organized bus tours dominate the roads, but independent travelers can easily hire a taxi and complete the monastery circuit on their own. Alternatively, you can also eschew motorized transportation all-together, and follow weathered foot paths up into the hillsides.

While there is no denying the allure of the Greek islands, consider adding the Athens-Meteora circuit to your summer travels. Sure, you’re bound to sweat a bit in the summer heat, but it will give some perspective to subsequent idle lazing alongside the shores of the Mediterranean. And finally, just in case you need a bit more inspiration, check out the gallery below.

[All photos and gallery images are the author's own original work unless otherwise specified.]

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Summer Travel: Turkey’s Aegean coast

There must be something in the human brain that draws our species to the coast, be it a primitive desire to hunt and fish, or a hedonistic drive to worship the sun and sea. Either way, life always seems better near the water.

One of our favorite coastlines may not be as fashionable as the French Riviera, nor as romantic as Italy’s Cinque Terra. But what it lacks in glitz and glam, it more than makes up for in cultural and historical relevance.

On that note, let me draw your attention to Turkey’s Aegean coast, a strip of land in the southwest corner of ancient Anatolia, also known as Asia Minor. It borders the Aegean Sea, and was part of both the Hellenistic and Roman Empires.

With a pedigree stretching back more than two millennia, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Turkey’s Aegean coast is home to some serious heavyweight attractions. We’re talking specifically about the foundation stones of the Temple of Artemis (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World), the ruined Roman city of Ephesus, the Basilica of St. John and the House of the Virgin Mary.

%Gallery-122971%There are actually several ways that travelers access Turkey’s Aegean coast. If you’re a fan of cruising, then you’ll be happy to know that the resort town of Kuşadası is home to a large ship berth. As such, it’s easy to combine a cruise through the Greek islands with add-ons in Kuşadası and even Istanbul. Kuşadası itself makes for an interesting stopover, complete with Ottoman-built city walls, a portside promenade and powdery beaches.

Another option, albeit one that’s mainly popular with British and European travelers, is to access the coast via charter flight to the city of İzmir. However, for North Americans traveling across the pond, it makes more sense to fly directly to Istanbul, and then travel south along the coast. Fortunately, Turkey boasts an excellent long-distance bus network.

Night buses with on-board stewardesses, overhead movies and reclining seats are surprisingly comfortable, very safe and all-together affordable.

If you’re interested in ticking off the list of sights that we previously mentioned, then it’s best to base yourself in the tiny town of Selçuk. Here along the coast you will find a few generic resort complexes, but we’re partial to the smaller B&Bs and guesthouses scattered amidst the historic center. Largely Ottoman in design, Selçuk is guarded by a grand fortress, and surrounded by rolling hillsides and sweet-smelling orchards.

When it comes to sightseeing, quite frankly you’re spoiled for choice.

Although the Pyramids of Giza are the only ancient wonder of the world that remains intact, the foundation stones of the Temple of Artemis were discovered in 1869 at Selçuk. Subsequent archaeological excavations revealed numerous sculptural fragments and column segments, thus improving our knowledge of one of the most influential temples in the Greco-Roman world. Today a solitary reconstructed pillar of incongruous stones marks the site.

One of the most impressive ruins in Selçuk is the Basilica of St. John, which was constructed by the Roman Emperoro Justinian I in the 6th century. In addition to serving as a house of worship, the basilica also marks the final resting place of St. John, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus Christ. After his exile from Jerusalem, St. John took up residence in Ephesus (modern Selçuk) where it is believed that he received the final word of Jesus Christ and wrote the Book of Revelation.

The basilica’s exterior was modeled after the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople (Istanbul), which stood for almost a thousand years before being demolished by the Ottomans in the 15th century. Inside, the Basilica of St. John is covered in marble and mosaics, and contains a crypt where the apostle’s tomb lies. On any given day, the ruins are visited by thousands of devoted pilgrims.

On a nearby hilltop lies another famous pilgrimage site, namely the House of the Virgin Mary. This humble stone structure is where St. John is believed to have led Mary after their exodus from Jerusalem. In the Catholic doctrine, the house is also where Mary spent the remainder of her life prior to her Assumption into heaven.

Of course, the most impressive sight along Turkey’s Aegean coast is Ephesus, one of the largest and best-preserved Greco-Roman cities. The centerpiece is the Library of Celsus, a monumental public depository that at one time held more than ten-thousand scrolls. Its main facade is comprised of two levels of Ionic and Corinthian columns, and gives way to the unrestored interior containing rows of storage niches.

Beyond the library, Ephesus holds several other noteworthy buildings including a 44,000-person theater, the largest in the ancient world, two agoras or open-air places of assembly, triumphal gates, ceremonial fountains, a gladiators’ graveyard and consecrated temples to the various gods and emperors. Everything is connected via broad colonnaded streets lined with polished marble slabs.

Here is an interesting piece of information: Although the present coastline is a bit far from the core of Ephesus, in ancient times the city was adjacent to the harbor. However, heavy silting over the generations gradually pushed Ephesus inland. As impressive as the ruins are now, we can only imagine how much more striking a seaside Ephesus would have appeared.

So, have we convinced you to take a trip to Turkey’s Aegean coast? Hope so, though if you still need more inspiration, check out the gallery below.

** All images are the author’s own original work. **

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