In June (I know, I’m very slow at writing) I visited the Netherlands twice, just for a few days both times. I am still in love with how easy and cheap it is just to hop on a train in Belgium and get to a lot of places: it is not really a thing you can do in Finland. From Finland you can only get to Russia relatively easily by train (and I’m not too interested in Russia due to some, uhh, political differences of opinion), and getting anywhere else requires either quite a long detour, a boat or a plane. I feel like I haven’t traveled by train nearly enough. What was in Finland “just hopping on the train to get to the next bigger city” is here more like “I just traveled halfway through the whole country”.
So, Rotterdam. The first of my Dutch “weekend” trips, this one actually on a weekend. I went to there as a relatively last minute decision, as there was a meeting of Finnish women living abroad (if you are a Finnish woman living abroad, I can say only good things about the women in Finnish Women Worldwide, such an amazing lot). I figured I might learn a thing or two and have a good excuse to see something else of the Netherlands than just Amsterdam. I love Amsterdam, but I figured that city with its coffee shops and tourist hordes is probably not the perfect example of your average Dutch town, so might as well see what else the country has on offer.
The actual event was on Saturday, so I had the Friday afternoon and evening to spend just walking around near the hotel and get to know my surroundings. Except, of course, it was raining quite a lot. The rain actually started approximately 2 minutes after I walked out of the Rotterdam central train station, because of course it did.
So I walked to the hotel, checked in, spent some time just unpacking my luggage, drinking some water after the relatively warm train trip and the walk, and then looking up what there exactly is to do in Rotterdam and what I might eat somewhere nearby. And then just got stuck in the hotel even after the rain stopped, because I made the mistake of laying down for a bit… and browsing for even more ideas instead of actually going for any of the ones I already found out earlier.
In the end I did get my lazy butt out of the hotel for a little walk, mostly because I was starting to feel like I really needed food. Hunger gets me out of the house (or hotel) every time. I had noticed that very near my hotel there was an African restaurant, and I figured I would give it a try. I had never before visited an African restaurant, after all. Not even a Moroccan restaurant, really, the closest I have ever got before was a Turkish restaurant, and that’s not even technically in Africa. Here the selection was more East African/Coastal. Of course I had to give it a try.
The restaurant in question was Viva Afrika. Just walking in there made me feel like I was ported somewhere else than Rotterdam. I’ve never been in Africa, and I’m sure quite a lot of the decor was just for us who know no better, but I loved the slightly over-the-top feeling, the super friendly service, and the fact that I had to actually google some things on the menu to understand what they were. It has been a while since I last saw a menu where there were so many completely new things. It always gives me a bit of a buzz, to not know what I’ll be getting exactly.
As the picture above says, I had the East African special. I decided on that because it had a selection of different things, and as I said, I had never eaten anything from that part of the world. There is some fish, lamb, chicken, spinach, lentils, and mixed vegetables in that set. And of course the enjeras (or injeras), the flatbreads or sort of pancakes that doubled as utensils. The food was eaten with the flatbreads as a sort of a scoop.
I was not very graceful while eating, perhaps, but I did manage to stuff myself way too full either way. I ate so much, in fact, that the waiter just looked at my almost-empty plate for half a second longer than he probably usually would have, and even mentioned “you ate a lot”. Oops! I told him I had been taught to eat everything on my plate, and that I’m sorry I left some of the vegetables… And he just replied that they would feel like they are doing something wrong if I HAD eaten all of the food, as it would seem that their portions are too small. I felt a bit silly afterwards, but also rather amused.
The food was amazing, though, so no wonder I stuffed myself silly. All the meat and fish dishes were a bit spicy, but since I like spicy, I didn’t mind at all. The vegetable dishes were milder, but also excellent as sort of palate cleansers. I feel like I would happily eat East African food again, given the chance. Sadly I think that might not happen any time soon, unless I get out of Ostend again. I am rather sure that there are no such restaurants near here, and frankly speaking, Belgians are often such traditionalists that such a place would not probably fare well in such a small city, either.
All of my Saturday was at the Finnish women event. First there was the official program, some food, some coffee, a lot of laughing, not to mention a lot of facts and interesting info, and then in the evening there was a possibility to go to the sauna, eat more food, drink a bunch of Finnish drinks, then eat even more food… Needless to say, I enjoyed myself quite a bit, even if I had never met any of the people there before. And all the food was utterly Finnish and rather home-made: it didn’t look especially appealing, but I think we all enjoyed the nostalgia the dishes brought with them. Thus no pictures. Nostalgia doesn’t photograph well, after all!
But enough of that. Less about official stuff, more about the (different kind of) fun stuff! I had read that the zoo in Rotterdam was at some point voted as the best one in the Benelux, so of course I had to go check it out. Because you know me and zoos, right? How could I resist a zoo that people said is very good?! Well, of course I couldn’t!
And a good zoo it was. Just the right size to get fully through in one day without rushing, and relatively easy to reach (at least from the side of town my hotel was in). The animals looked very, very happy. A bunch of them were just playing around and enjoying the sunshine, mostly ignoring the humans staring and pointing and getting all excited. I feel like one of the polar bears was even putting on a show for the viewers, really.
And this was the first time I actually saw an okapi properly. They tend to always go inside the moment I get to their outside enclosure, and usually need their peace and quiet so that you cannot see them when they are inside. And this okapi almost blinded me with the shine of its fur. I actually spent probably 15 minutes just staring at it, so beautiful and healthy-looking it was. I hope one day it gets to do its part in giving a dose of fresh genes to the gene pool of the wild population, too.
I also went to see the bird flight demonstration, because I often learn new things in shows where the zookeepers explain things about the zoo animals. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that it was held in a completely open area. The birds just flew there and back completely free: no tents, no nets, no leashes. The show in London Zoo (which included also meerkats, for example, not just birds) was organized in a tent, and the animals could get out if they wished, but this fully open area was so much better. Of course, it also means that if the weather is bad, there will most likely not be a show, but I doubt too many people are eager to spend their day in a zoo anyway if the weather is bad.
After a day of walking around in the zoo on a surprisingly warm day, I felt the need to get some food and a lot of drinks. I had, of course, done my research on nearby food places rather thoroughly, and ended up heading towards a Thai restaurant that had some good reviews around the Internet: Soi3.
The portion might not look like much, but I couldn’t even finish it all. It was also marked with two red dots in the menu for spiciness, and while I was tempted by the one dish marked with four red dots, I’m very happy I decided against it in the end. I think I might have been crying from spiciness while eating if I had taken that one. Which, to be perfectly honest, is what I do often while I eat Thai food, and I do it on purpose, too. Still, this portion was already the kind of spicy where I didn’t feel the need to ask for anything extra on it, and could still eat without needing too many tissues. The service was, again, impeccable: their card reader did not work that day, so they just told me how to reach the closest ATM. Without leaving anything as collateral. They just trusted me to go get the cash and still come back to pay. I guess I look somehow trustworthy, then. So I went to get cash, went back to pay, thanked them for their trust and the amazing food and went to suffer from a food coma in the hotel again, as I was heading back the next morning, and still had some work to finish before hopping on the train. Trains and stable Internet connections do not seem to be a good match.
All in all, I’d say Rotterdam was interesting, based on my fast visit. I didn’t really have much time to spend in museums or other actual “high culture” places, as I only had one and a half day to spend as I wished. And opted for the zoo on that one full day, to keep my inner child happy. But the food scene definitely made an impression on me. As did the people: everyone I talked to was incredibly nice and helpful, even more so than in Amsterdam. And people in Amsterdam are also mostly incredibly nice and helpful. Darned Dutchies, why do they have to be so NICE! Even after having to deal with probably gazillionty silly tourists on a daily basis.
Rotterdam is not as touristy as Amsterdam, and I think it shows in a lot of ways. It has less of big, fancy museums and experiences, but somehow it feels more authentic because of it. It is more a city for the people that live in there, and you can walk around town without trying to avoid the confused (and possibly drunk and stoned) tourists. I think I will need to visit again, but maybe with more of a plan. Planning what to do while already in the city was not really my thing. I prefer to have a bunch of pre-decided options that I can then pick and choose from based on the time I have to spend. At least I learned something new about myself with this trip. And met new people. And ate well. And saw an okapi!
So now that it has been a while since my Japan trip, what are my feelings on it? Do I want to go again? And what would I do if I would go back? What was weird and interesting? What I wished I’d known before I went?
Well, those first few are actually rather silly questions. It was an amazing trip, even if it was incredibly tiring both physically and mentally. It was the first time I was somewhere where I don’t really speak the language at all, and I couldn’t even read the signs unless they also had translations on them. I couldn’t understand what was being announced in public places, and I had trouble getting my point across in English a few times.
But I would go back in a heartbeat. And I already know a bunch of things I would want to do, if I ever actually get back to Japan. Even Tokyo still has things I want to see and do, even though I spent some 8 days there. It is a big city, and there is more to Japan than just Tokyo. I’m not sure how long it would take me to see even just the main things I want to see. There is only one way to find out, I guess, but I don’t know when that might happen yet.
One thing I had planned to do in Tokyo was to get out of Tokyo. Okay, that sounds a bit silly, I guess, but I really wanted to do a day trip somewhere outside of Tokyo. Some nearby town with different kind of sights and maybe some more nature.
One option was to go to Mount Fuji, because that just seems to be a thing you are supposed to do while in Japan. If not climb it, at least try to see it (and hope the weather gods are on your side, as apparently the mountain is not visible all that often). Well, I did see it, in the end, from the airplane window on the way home. Not quite what I had in mind.
My day trip plans were partially foiled by a typhoon that hit Tokyo (and other areas on the same side of the islands) on the night before I had planned to go on my day trip. I checked the weather forecast the evening before and just decided to sleep in and have a bit of a lazy day instead. And since my left knee did not approve of all the walking during the previous days, I think it may have been better to take it easy, too. The weather helped me overcome my usual “NEED TO SEE EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE” plans…
I’d love to see Kyoto. That was also something I had planned to do on this trip, but realized that only 8 full days in Japan might mean I’d have to rush a bit too much. So I decided to scrap that plan.
I would also like to see the apparently slightly crazy deer in Nara. The World War II memorials in Hiroshima. That elusive Mount Fuji. And Osaka especially for the food, as it is known to be the foodie central of Japan, and Japan is a foodie country in itself. And then there is Okinawa, the more tropical part of Japan. I knew of the Okinawan islands, but somehow I never had realized before that they are actually subtropical and feature a lot of lush vegetation and beaches. Would be worth seeing, I think.
The less likely destinations would be the cat islands and fox areas and other such smaller, more remote areas, but I somehow feel like just getting to them might be slightly difficult without knowing the language or having some other kind of transport than just trains and buses. Who knows though, maybe some day even these smaller wishes come true.
The only thing that was really sad on this trip was the fact that I could not get tickets for the Ghibli Museum. That was something I had really looked forward to, but it turns out the tickets sell out really fast. It probably didn’t help my cause that one of their yearly maintenance periods started during the time I was there, so it was open less than usual in that period as well. The tickets came out a week before I realized to check them out, and by then they were all gone for all of May.
So, I have to go to Tokyo again if only for that. Possibly also for a wedding, though, if all goes well… As I of course hope it does. Weddings are always fun, and I’m sure (half-)Japanese weddings would be quite the experience.
What surprised me
The customer service in Japan is something else. I mean, of course I knew it is an integral part of the culture. But wow, everyone working almost everywhere was super nice and friendly and I felt like they went out of their way to help the stupid tourist out. And I really hope I managed to thank them enough for them to feel like I appreciated it, because I really did appreciate it. And I miss it, even if I can only guess how tiring it is for the people who work in customer service jobs. I’m not sure I could do it myself.
I also was entertained several times about what kind of jobs there are in Japan. Tokyo is a big, busy city, so there were a lot of people just basically helping people queue in the right place and hold up signs explaining how long the queue is. It actually really works, and things work surprisingly smoothly, but it is still a bit funny to someone who is still too used to the Finnish way of life, where “a huge queue” means about 20 people, not 45 minutes of queuing.
And talking about Tokyo being a big and busy city: I never felt like I was squeezed too close to people, even if the metro was sometimes annoyingly busy and even if I crossed THE Shibuya crossing a few times, dodging tourists taking photos in the middle of it. Japanese people seem to have some sort of sixth sense: they can steer themselves around without hitting people while staring their phones the whole time. I wish I could do that.
And lastly, I’m surprised how I never felt like Tokyo is too crowded or busy. I think it has something to do with the Japanese culture being so polite and considerate in public places. There are signs to keep your phone on silent mode in public transport, and mostly people keep to themselves. I was surprised every time I heard people actually talking to each other in Japanese in public transport. And even then they were mostly relatively quiet as to not disturb others. Wow. I wish more cities would have rules like that, really.
What I wish I had known before
Okay, there is one big, big, BIG thing that I really wish I had been told before I went. And another maybe smaller thing, which I still somehow felt was rude of me to ignore (due to ignorance).
I trust most of you know that in Japan they drive on the left side of the road (and if you didn’t, now you do). That also means that on escalators you are supposed to stay on the left side of it if you are not going to walk on the escalator to get up faster. And a lot of people do want to get up faster, because they want to catch the next metro or train, even if the next one would be there in some 7 minutes.
This means that a silly tourist standing on the right side of the escalator or, worse yet, a few silly tourists just blocking the whole escalator means there are some rather irritable Japanese people around. I was mostly alone, but I did realize rather fast that I’m doing something wrong. My Belgian-turned-Japanese friend luckily explained this to me very early on when I met up with him, and after that I made sure not to make the life of the locals too difficult. It might feel like an insignificant thing to us, but I’m sure having to dodge between clueless tourists on a daily basis does get rather tiring for the locals at some point.
And the other thing, then? Well, it was a small thing, but apparently something the Japanese are easily annoyed about as well: when paying things in cash, you are supposed to put your money on the little tray on the counter. I read quite a few lists of “don’t do this in Japan” or “do this when in Japan”, and I don’t remember seeing this mentioned anywhere. My friend also said he only learned it after some cashier somewhere just took the money from him, put it on the tray, and then picked it up again.
I knew that giving calling cards, for example, has to be done with both hands, as just using one hand is considered rude. And tried to do that with the cash and the credit card, too, but somehow this whole tray business seems to be something that no one ever perceived as important. Well, I DO. I felt absolutely horrified realizing I’ve been rude in so many places just because I didn’t know something as simple as that. So please, don’t do what I did, be smarter, be nicer, be BETTER, and put your money on the tray.
That’s all, folks. At least all about Japan for a while. I have already since been to Rotterdam for a little weekend trip, a few days in Amsterdam, and am now trying to recover from jetlag in Canada. I seem to lead a busy life lately… Not sure how that happened, but I am not complaining.