Thursday, May 08, 2014

The mystery of the Japanese town populated by life-size dolls has finally been solved

Five years ago, I ventured out on a week-long solo bike trip across a small chunk of rural Japan. I wrote about riding through ghost towns devoid of people but full of life-size dolls (here and here).

From a distance, I mistook the dolls for people since they were doing the usual things that people do. They were working in the fields, fixing cars, waiting at the bus stop, sitting in chairs, fishing in canals, puttering in gardens and sleeping on park benches. Except they weren't moving. It was only when I got closer that I realized they weren't people at all. In fact, there were no people anywhere. Just dozens of dolls. I was alone in a town swallowed by mountains and populated by life-size dolls. It was deeply unsettling. I took a few photos and didn't linger for long.

At the time, I didn't know who put the dolls there or what they meant. But now, five years later, the mystery of the Japanese doll town has finally been solved.

Someone by the name of Fritz Schumann made this short documentary about the woman responsible for creating the doll town. The story it tells is beautiful and sad and totally worth watching.

And just for fun, here are a few more photos from my own (brief) trip to this town five years ago.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Hiking the Rheinsteig: "Sexy moves on the steep slopes" (and other gibberish)

Here's what the Internet tells you in English about hiking the Rheinsteig: "The Rheinsteig is a 320 km trail on the right side of the Rhine that links Bonn, Koblenz and Wiesbaden on mainly narrow paths with steep climbs and descents, leading walkers and hikers to forests, vineyards and spectacular views."

Here's what the Internet doesn't tell you in English about hiking the Rheinsteig: everything else.

The fine print -- where the trail starts and ends, and everything in between -- is only available in German. Which is why, when planning to hike a 30-km chunk of the trail last weekend, the only option was to cut and paste the German trail description into Google Translate and hope for the best.

That was the first mistake.

The second mistake was cutting and pasting the trail description into Google Translate, printing the translated version and heading out to start the hike without having actually read the thing. Had I done that, we would not have gotten lost (literally and figuratively) after the hike had barely begun.

We were on top of a hill, overlooking our starting point -- the town of Kaub -- a few hundred metres below. The Internet had gotten us that far. There was no need to pull out the trail description until we found ourselves standing in a spot with a castle on our left and a trail that branched out in three different directions on our right. Unsure which path to take, I pulled out the trail description and skimmed the first couple of paragraphs until I found the part about the castle.

"Here, keep to the right and sharp leaves the castle on the left," it read. "Built in 1220 as a castle, Kaub plant is one of the most important buildings and residential jam fresh military art and now houses a hotel."

Keep to the right and sharp leaves? Residential jam fresh military art? Google Translate had gobbled up the original German text and spat out Google Gibberish.

The rest of the description was no better. It ranged from indecipherable ("We walk through race pus tunnels" and "At the junction after crossing the creek, keep right leg above the creek and marched down trench") to pornographic ("By heat-loving forest with sessile oak, birch, pine and gorse plants first moves our way up to then perform sexy and just along the slope" and "Here, one can choose the right path, the first in Niederwald between boulders and heather descent writhes and sexy moves on the steep slopes along the Bacharach head").

Sexy moves on the steep slopes? This took lost in translation to a whole new level. The only sentence in five pages of text that seemed to have made it through with its original meaning intact was: "According to legend, the devil lived in Kadrichsberg." An interesting fact, to be sure, but one with very little practical value in terms of getting from point A to point B.

Back to the hilltop, the castle and the forked trail. We made an educated guess and took the trail heading to the right. It wasn't long before we found a Rheinsteig trail maker telling us we were on the right path. After that there was a trail marker every 50 metres, making it impossible to get lost and making the trail description (in any language) unnecessary.

It turned out that all we really needed to know was that one little English paragraph on the German website. Just climb and descend the narrow path on the right side of the Rhine leading to forests, vineyards and spectacular views (with a few sexy moves on the steep slopes thrown in for fun).

If you go . . .

Getting there: The Upper Middle Rhine Valley is the most famous section of the Rhine thanks to its rocky cliffs, steep vineyards, hilltop castles and fairy-tale villages. The 65-km long section from Koblenz to Bingen and Rudesheim was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002 due to its natural landscape and cultural heritage. Getting to the Upper Middle Rhine Valley from Bonn is easy. Take the regional train from Bonn to Koblenz (about 45 minutes) and then transfer to the local train heading from Koblenz to Frankfurt. Since the train winds its way down the Rhine, you can get off at any stop along the way and pick up the trail on the east side of the Rhine. We chose to start in the town of Kaub (40 minutes south of Koblenz). Expect to pay about 30 euros for a same-day fare. You can knock about 10 euros off the price if you book in advance.

Staying there: The hike goes from one small town to another. Not all of the towns have hotels so it's good to do a little research in advance on Google Maps if you're planning an overnight hike. We hiked 15 km from Kaub to Lorch and spent the night at a school that had been converted into a hotel in Lorch. The next day we hiked 15 km from Lorch to Assmannshausen and hoped on the train back to Bonn after stopping for dinner in Assmannshausen. Camping is also an option.

Eating there: Lots of decent and not-so-decent places to choose from. Mostly German-style food on the menu (ie. meat, meat and more meat). Pack your own meals if greasy, fatty food isn't your thing. Fun fact: many of the hotels along the Rheinsteig offer a "packed lunch" service for hikers. For $4.50 they'll let you pack up as much food from the breakfast buffet as you want so that you can have a ready-made lunch for the trail.

Hiking there: Detailed information is only available in German but it's easy enough to get the general idea using a combination of Google Maps and Google Translate. We used the German site to calculate the distance, elevation gain and loss and starting/finishing points. Use the drop-down menu near the top to search for hikes under "wanderung." If anyone knows an easier or more English-friendly way to find hiking information in Germany, please let me know!

Sunday, June 23, 2013


Bicycles, bridges, canals and storybook buildings

One of my favourite things about Bonn is how easy it is to get out of Bonn. Not that there's anything wrong with Bonn but the fact that several world-class cities are only a short train ride away makes it tempting to spend more time outside of Bonn than inside it.

Amsterdam, for example, is only a three-hour train ride away from Bonn. With access like that, how can you not leave Germany behind and hop over to the Netherlands for the weekend?

First impressions of Amsterdam: it's funky, it's cool, it's beautiful but beware the psycho paths in the cycle paths. Bicycle lanes are more dangerous than the roads. Pedestrians do not come first, cyclists do. So you'd better stop and look both ways before attempting to cross a cycle path or you will be greeted with an angry chorus of bike bells and/or nasty comments (at best) or be run down (at worst).

Final thoughts: Amsterdamn is so nice, we want to go twice!

Slanted street, straight houses

Fighting for space at the Amsterdam sign outside the amazing Rijksmuseum

Narrow street

Got the munchies? These hamburger vending machines will save you!

The crowds during Liberation Day weekend


Sunday, April 28, 2013

Chasing cherry blossoms in Bonn

This is Cherry Blossom Avenue in Bonn (or Heerstra├če as it's known locally). Each spring, this street is transformed into a tunnel of puffy, pink cherry blossoms. The trees were in full bloom this week and I headed out after work to take a few pictures.

Cherry blossom season is fast, fleeting and blindingly beautiful. Maybe it's banal to say the cherry blossom is my favourite flower. Maybe it's akin to admitting you like puppies and kittens (who doesn't?). But having a deep appreciation for life's transitory moments is something that resonates with me. And there is no more perfect metaphor for the fleeting nature of life than the pale pink cherry blossom. Blindingly beautiful and then gone.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

A tiny trip to little Luxembourg

My quest to visit all nine countries that share a border with Germany continued with a tiny trip to little Luxembourg last weekend. Seven down, two to go.

Luxembourg exceeded all expectations. Which isn't saying much considering that I had no expectations to begin with. It wasn't a place I particularly wanted to visit (apart from the nine-border-country challenge). I knew almost nothing about it (other than the fact that it is one of the smallest countries in Europe). And I had no clue what language people spoke there (Luxembourgish?). Just like watching a movie without first having seen the trailer, I went to Luxembourg without having read anything about it.

The good thing about having no expectations is that it's difficult to be disappointed. Luxembourg had nothing to live up to. It conjured up an ocean of emptiness in my mind. How could I not be pleasantly surprised by the city's pretty valleys, high plateaus, narrow streets and old fortress walls?

Here are a few things I learned about Luxembourg. The default language is French (handy for those of us whose French has lapsed but can still pull a few useful phases like "Un pain au chocolat avec un cafe au lait, s'il vous plait" out of our hats). The city's old quarters and fortifications are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is possible to see everything worth seeing in one day, on foot. And the glass doors inside the National Museum of History and Art are so spotlessly clean that they are rendered invisible (as evidenced by the bump on my forehead after walking full-speed into one of said doors. I'm sure someone has already leaked the security-camera footage to YouTube. Look for me in the 2013 Ultimate Girls Fail Compilation video).

It took about three and a half hours to get to Luxembourg from Bonn by train. We lucked out with cheap tickets that cost 18 euros each way thanks to the fact that the German rail system charges less for tickets the further in advance you book them. This rewards good planning but penalizes spontaneity. The trains ran on time on the way there but were delayed on the way back, which is consistent with my experience that German trains run on time only about 50 per cent of the time (German trains are not reliable or efficient. Do not believe the hype).

The train ride itself was uneventful, expect for the group of drunken soccer fans we met on the Koblenz platform when transferring to Trier. They were drinking beer and screaming soccer chants on their way to a game at 7:45 in the morning. I don't follow soccer but I know when a game is being played in Cologne or Dortmund because those are the days the trains are packed with police officers to keep the hooligans under control. It's not fun sharing a train with drunk soccer fans. They smoke on the train, they drink on the train and they're loud, boorish and aggressive. They block the aisles with cases of beer and they stand ready to fight at the slightest provocation. I always feel like there's about two inches between my face and a wayward fist when there's a soccer game on. Public drunkenness is also pervasive in Japan but it's a quieter, gentler kind of public drunkenness, especially on the trains where the only danger is a salaryman soundlessly falling asleep on your shoulder.

The other thing worth noting is that you don't need a passport while travelling between European countries by train. There are no border control officers because there are no borders. Or at least there are no borders that you can actually see. Not only are there no visible borders, there are no announcements to let you know you've left one country and entered another.

The first time I traveled from Germany to another country by train, I had expected the conductor to make an announcement like, "Ladies and gentlemen, we have just left Germany and have now entered Switzerland!" And then all the passengers would applaud and say things like, "Oooh! Awesome!" But this never happens. Europeans are not partial to North American enthusiasm. The only way to know you've crossed a border in Europe is through your cell phone, which immediately receives a text message when you cross a border to let you know how much it costs to make and receive calls in the new country. If you want to know when you've crossed the border, you just have to listen for the symphony of ringtones when everyone receives the same text message at the same time.

And that's all I have to say about Luxembourg (although, technically speaking, only two of the above eight paragraphs are actually about Luxembourg).