The Philippines and Japan 2024

When you’ve been to the Philippines three times, the only thing left to do is to go a fourth time so that’s what I did (with Pam). The event that drew us here was Pam’s mother’s (Andrea) 70th birthday. A party was being planned on the actual day in January. After 11 days in the Philippines, the plan was to head to Kyoto, Japan for four days. At that point, Pam would return to the US and I would head down to Kyushu in southern Japan for 11 days.

Since I’ve been to the Philippines three times and written about it each time, I will keep this part of the journal brief. If you want more background on this vibrant country, you can check out my journals from 2016, 2017, and 2023.

This trip would be entirely staged from Andrea’s home in Los Baños which is just over an hour from Manila. The residence sits above a classroom that is part of Andrea’s thriving Montessori school. Per usual, when I descend the stairs, I am often greeted by the most adorable toddlers. That said, the cute award goes to the four-year old boy walking around with a shirt that said, “One of us is right and you’re the other one.”

The other meaningful greetings came from two energetic dogs Zuma and Gollum. Zuma would get so excited to see me that I could always count on him to release some pee every time I approached. I reminded Pam that she never showed me such affection when greeting me.

Taking care of the dogs and chickens and so much more on the property was the ever-present and ever-smiling Ding. Complete with a decent but not perfect command of English (much better than my Tagalog), he did make me laugh inside when he brought out the dog’s food one evening and mistakenly said, “Time to eat the dog!” Were I a crappy, predictable 1980’s comic, I would have inserted a very one-dimensional joke that was decidedly poor of taste.

The party was a smashing success. About 100 people showed up. Very last minute, I was asked to say something “nice” about Andrea. Waiting to speak, I noticed a small sign hanging on the wall that said “The greatest thing a child can have is a great teacher”. I brought the sign with me to the front of the room and read it to everyone. I then added, “If we take this one step further, we can say that the greatest thing a teacher can have is Andrea.”

Major points scored but not as many as when I returned to “stage” 15 minutes later to perform a karaoke version of “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” by Queen. Incredibly, Andrea was sat in a chair facing me about four feet away. It was all too much.

Ready Freddie

For whatever the reason, the gods decided that the only other white person at the party should be a dramatic 78-year old first generation Sicilian-American named Sal. Taking in only 35% of what he said, I felt Sal was in character for my enjoyment. His accent was thicker than a bowl of wet concrete chowder. He easily could have added authentic flourish to any mafia movie. Sal has lived in Brooklyn for many years. He’s a retired electrician that enjoys non-country music forms of line dancing.

It was his lucky day since Andrea requested for as many of the guests as possible to learn the recently viral “Jerusalema” line dance. Since some of the party guests were learning on the spot, the song played over and over on a large speaker so people could practice. At about the sixth time hearing the song, Sal started to get irritated.

“We gotta stop this thing-a! It’s a-making me a-crazy! Chris, Andrea’s your a-mother in law; can’t you ask her to turn it off-a?!”

At that point, I feigned the need to go to the bathroom and exited. On my way up to the bathroom, I saw Sal pleading with one of Andrea’s staff to stop playing the song. Later, I discovered Sal was also trying to get his own personal music mix playing so he could teach people his various line dancing techniques. Sal was officially unleashed.

This trip was much tamer than previous ones but still fun. I spent the days walking around Los Baños, trying to familiarize myself with as many of the streets, restaurants, and shops as I could. Any time I left the gated property, I passed by the squatters that resided along the western wall of Andrea’s lot. Actually, these squatters are on her property but she inherited them when she purchased the land over 30 years ago. Instead of rocking the boat, Andrea and her husband Orly wisely decided to let them stay. They don’t take up an enormous amount of space and they do offer a bit of protection.

The funny thing is that some of these squatters have more money than you might think. One of them has a car and a few others have legitimate properties elsewhere but they maintain some sort of presence in the small structures so as not to lose their squatted location. In fact, when you go around the Philippines, you start to realize there are a ton of squatters in this country. When you ascend the road to Mount Makiling in Los Baños, you will see people park their scooter on the side of the small road and then vanish into the forest as they make their way to their technically illegal homes.

The other thing I did was essentially become Norm of Cheers at my favorite bar restaurant, Meisters Uncorked. I went there so many times that on our last night, the gracious owner, David, treated us to an amazing meal paired with four incredible Japanese whiskeys.

Filipino construction workers warming up before their day begins
Look in the lower left and this nonsense will become sense

Our next stop was Kyoto. I was here eight years ago and Pam was last here 22 years ago when she worked at Osaka University from roughly 1999-2002. Our plan called for four nights at the luxurious Cross Hotel.

The next day we walked many miles through the city, first heading south through Pontocho alley and over to Gion or Kyoto’s most famous geisha district. As we neared Gion, we began to see many Japanese people in rented traditional clothing walking in the streets. I remember this from eight years ago. What I did not see eight years ago were the handful of white folks here and there that were also dressed in the same attire. This was lame and diluted this charming background effect. Upon seeing a young western male with a mustache in a traditional kimono, a couple older Japanese ladies started laughing furiously. This got me to thinking that maybe the Japanese encourage westerners to dress up this way as to provide local residents with immeasurable entertainment. Maybe we should do the same? Maybe a Japanese man visiting Boston dressed up like a wealthy colonial with a powdered wig and an accidentally backwards tricorne hat that sauntered awkwardly over cobblestones in the Faneuil Hall area in his shiny black shoes with equally shiny buckles would allow tourists to add a value to the local landscape beyond the money they spend.

I felt like a cell in a crowded blood vessel as we walked up to Kiyomizudera Temple. I was amazed at how crowded the city was for late January. The weather was not awful this time of year but it was chilly and a light snowfall hit the area a few days previously. The last time I was here it was in March and the crowds seemed thinner. Some Osaka residents later told us that Kyoto has seen an uptick in visitors over recent years which hasn’t made all the locals happy. Many complain about the presence of more litter whose blame falls mainly on Chinese tourists for some reason. Perhaps these particular tourists make quite a spectacle when they litter by simultaneously screaming in Mandarin and waving their passport while littering? Maybe someone from Japan can easily detect a littering Chinese citizen without these obvious markers? Or maybe the Chinese provide the perfect fall guy?

Pam and I then walked west over to the shopping street of Shijo dori. We entered a pharmacy so Pam could purchase her beloved Shiseido products at prices only fantasized about in the states. We also looked for a nail clipper since Pam often tells stories of the amazing Japanese nail clipper she once owned. Judging from the packaging of one, this nail clipper seemed to be likened to a Samurai’s weapon. The marketing was effective and we bought two. On her way out of the country, Pam also bought an umbrella since she claimed the best umbrella she ever owned was from Japan. After paying too much money for it and returning home, she realized it was made in Germany. On our way back to the hotel, we squished our way through the packed Nishiki Market.

Pam owning Pontocho alley

That night, we got into a cab and drove to my favorite Kyoto restaurant: Okariba. This place is always filled with locals and smoke, the latter being sourced from the inadequately vented barbecuing that takes place in the center of the dining area. This rustic every-man establishment oozes with protein. The text found in the “Maps and Directions” page on their website says it all: “Okariba is the set of sliding wooden doors on the left, just look for the unmistakable signs featuring the shotgun wielding cannibalistic boar mascots.”

I showed the 77-year old owner, Aoki, a picture of the two of us from eight years ago. I told him my experience was so legendary that I had to return with my wife this time. He appeared to be authentically touched by all of this and proceeded to roll out the red carpet. He asked the same question he asked me the last time I was in there: “Are you hungry?” Knowing the perils of an affirmative response, we did so regardless and proceeded to sample just about everything on his menu. We were served wild boar, small deep fried trout, grilled rice, grilled trout, grated radish, horse sashimi, duck loin, deep fried grasshoppers, bee larva, three different types of sake including a dessert plum sake, and a pack of hand warmers.

He also gave us some plum sake to go in an empty Perrier bottle. In fact, he was about to create our to-go bottle but got distracted by a telephone call. While on the call, he motioned for me to pour some plum sake from the distillation container to a smaller container that I could easily pour into the Perrier bottle. I did so but clearly did not fill it up high enough since he started to point to the very top of the Perrier bottle, indicating he wanted me to take as much as possible. I tried again and although he was still on the phone call, he watched me closely and when he saw I still came up about a half inch short from the top, he shook his head and gave up. Completely stuffed and smiling, we decided to walk the mile and a half back to the hotel instead of taking a cab.

Aoki and I in 2016
Aoki and I in 2024
The plum sake transfer station
Okariba Mascot

The next day we boarded the Eizan electric train to Kibuneguchi and walked about five miles along a road into a little quaint village, then through forest and over a small mountain that ended in the village of Kurama where we ate at a vegetarian Buddhist restaurant that cleansed our souls and digestive tracts. It was here I was reminded how off-putting the Japanese can find it when you try to tip them. When I tried to tip the gentleman at the cash register, he looked like he entered whatever phase one would enter just before becoming insulted. In most other countries where tipping is not common practice, a person will accept a tip either because they are happy to receive more money or because they understand tourists may behave differently and are therefore patient of the tipping phenomenon. In Japan, a tip seems to bring their honor into question. In their minds, the honorable thing is to say you will charge someone X amount of dollars for something and then stick to that amount as agreed.

Pam getting it done at the Kurama-dera belfry
Pam coming down from the mountain temple and into the village of Kurama

That evening, we ate at a nice obanzai restaurant near the hotel that featured a meaningful representation of Kyoto-inspired fare. The room we ate in was a traditional setting with bamboo tatami mats on the floor and low tables that required one to sit cross legged, something my overworked hips and knees refuse to do. Not caring how out of place I looked, I simply leaned against the wall and stretched my legs out along side of the table. I don’t think I received any dirty looks.

With most of the restaurants we went to, everything could be done on your phone after scanning a QR code. You could order your drinks and food, summon your waiter, and request the check. Although a tad impersonal, the system was extremely efficient. I was amazed at how fast staff would respond to any request I made over my phone during dinner.

Don’t jaywalk in Japan. I mean, I jaywalk here but I try to only do so in minor intersections or when no one is looking.

In the morning, I left the hotel and walked over to a bakery/restaurant to buy a coffee. While standing in a small line out front, a young Japanese man and middle-aged woman used unofficial sign language to ask me what the line was for. I used my translate app on my phone to tell them this line was to wait for a table. They nodded politely. I then used my app to say that I was simply trying to get a coffee to go. They again nodded politely. For good measure, I used my app a final time to say that now I can speak Japanese. They laughed heartily.

Pam and I then took the subway southeast out of the city about five miles to visit the Shingon Bhuddist temple Daigo-ji. Here we hiked up the mountain behind the main grounds to visit the upper temple grounds. On our way up, we passed an older gentleman descending his way back from the challenging climb. He looked extremely unsteady and slowly stumbled over the loose rocks in his path. About every 20 feet, he would fall on his butt. Since he was shorter, his knees were bent, and his pace slow, his falls were gentle. When he was thirty feet beyond us, I yelled “Konnichiwa!” to get his attention. This caused him to fall again which I felt bad about. I rushed down to him, helped him to his feet for which he weakly replied “Arrigato.” At the start of our hike at the base of the trail, I had grabbed a couple bamboo walking sticks which I now offered to him but with classic polite stubbornness, he refused three times.

Near the top, mother nature called upon me with such volume and urgency that I had to retrace my steps quickly to a rough bathroom that we had passed five minutes previously. Time was not on my side and adding to the anxiety was a desperate search for toilet paper. There were four stalls and it was not until the last stall that I found my beloved shit tickets. Once this matter of intense priority was executed, I re-created exactly what happened upon entry to the bathroom. Enjoy.

The horror

We enjoyed the peaceful temple summit with no one else around and then descended back down the mountain and to the subway station. We then had a lovely dinner at a great shabu shabu restaurant in Kyoto with two of Pam’s former Filipino workmates that she knew from her days at Osaka University over 20 years ago. Nirianne and Noel proved to be about as lovely and kind as people could be. We reached out to them very last minute but they made such a wonderful effort to meet with us in Kyoto. Nirianne had a thoughtful care package for Pam filled with Japanese sweets.

The entire dining experience was fantastic but along with the breakfast we had the following morning, Pam and I were reminded how the Japanese can be such sticklers for rules. At the shabu shabu restaurant, we were told it was all you could eat but we had to be done in exactly 90 minutes. The pleasant waiter came back to remind us of our exact completion time. Just to make them sweat a little bit, Pam went back again to the ice cream counter two minutes before the completion time.

At the breakfast diner the next morning, we were presented with a menu that started with a bunch of set meals. There were a few side items but every item appeared to only come in a set. When we tried to order things separately, it caused quite a stir. You couldn’t simply order some scrambled eggs or sausage only; scrambled eggs only came with a meat item, a salad, toast, and certain drinks. There was a bakery attached with incredible baked items. You were allowed to pay for them separately and then bring them back to your table or get them to go. Wanting to eat some at our table immediately and some later, we just asked for everything to go but when the waitress got wind of it, she said the price was different if you ate the bakery items at the table so we simply received our to-go items in a sealed bag and did not dare to enjoy them until later. We were exhausted by the end of our breakfast. The Japanese are clearly fans of efficiency so my guess is that all of these restaurant rules are born out of the desire to not waste time and resources but 30 minutes in this place made us feel like we just disarmed a timed explosive with four seconds left to detonation.

We then caught a cab to Kyoto train station where Pam boarded a train to Kansai airport and I boarded the Shinkansen bullet train to Nagasaki. An announcement over the station intercom politely told us that Pam’s train would be delayed 16 minutes due to a “passenger contact incident”. This was the futuristic and sterile way to say “someone got hit by a train”.

After amazing Shinkansen rides, I arrived in Nagasaki. For a $180 a night, I was able to get a room at a five-star Hilton. In fact, the dollar seems relatively strong here in Japan. Food and drink also work out to be a good deal cheaper than back home in the Boston area and the food quality here is pristine. For about $18, I could have a good meal with two very fresh draft beers. Ironically, the most expensive food items appear to be things that originate from Japan. At the shabu shabu restaurant, beef coming from the US was significantly cheaper than beef from Japan. Perhaps the Japanese beef is of a superior quality but regardless, the US beef had to practically fly halfway around the world to get here and I’m sure it flew business class since American beef is so classy.

Once settled in at the hotel, I went down to the sixth floor to use the sauna and hot bath. Let me tell you, nothing pleases me more than to jump into a hot bath with a bunch of naked fellas I don’t know. But if the book Shogun has it right, the Japanese are unaffected by nudity and therefore hopefully won’t regard me as some evil hairy Kami.

The next morning I initiated a long walk through the city. The first point of interest was the Twenty-Six Martyrs Museum and Monument honoring the 26 Christian martyrs that were killed in the city in 1597 on orders from Japan’s ruler Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Pretending to be one of those annoying tourists that does everything possible to absorb all historical and cultural minutia of the place they’re visiting, I went to the Nagasaki Museum of History and Culture. From there, I stopped in at the Kofukuji temple and then over to the interesting, large scale recreation of the European trading post of Dejima. In the 1600s, Japan started to isolate itself and stop the spread of Christianity so Dejima was constructed as a way to contain European traders. Until the end of the Edo period in the late 1800s it was the only trading port between Japan and Europe.

Twenty-six Martyrs
St. Philip Church
A view of a Nagasaki cemetery with a Buddhist statue in the background
In the Nagasaki Museum of History and Culture, hysterically ridiculing European boobs who thought you could cure an ailment by bloodletting
A model of Dejima
Okay so, what this sign in the public restroom of the Nagasaki train station tells me is that the left part of the picture not only happened once but it was so catastrophic that this warning sign had to be made

I really do enjoy Nagasaki. One thing that pleases me about it is that it is less geared for English speaking bums like myself when compared to Kyoto. The menus in the restaurants that I have visited here have offered little to no English which has made the food selection process fascinating. I will confess that I have a translate app on my phone that can scan and translate text that is foreign to me but even with that, (since the app often struggles to accurately translate from Japanese to English) I find myself diving into the great unknown every time I go into most of these restaurants since it is quite often void of any pictures. It seems I always end up ordering way too much food. The first night I accidentally ordered lots of sushi and about a gallon of hearty eggplant/pork stew. My gut was bursting in the end, unaided by the three beers I added to this maxed out digestive bid.

The following day, I paid an extremely somber visit to the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum. In addition to a large amount of relics to view, the museum does a thorough job of allowing one to imagine the experience moments before, during, and long after the event. Practically all of the attendees appeared to be Japanese. It amazed me how stoic they all were. After seeing how glass melted into unrecognizable blobs, how concrete was fried and pitted mercilessly, how thick steel was twisted like soft taffy, how vegetation of any kind was vaporized…then looking at a wide angle model that gives a recap of the fate of anything anywhere near the hypocenter (the spot on the ground directly below the explosion) – the absence of anything recognizable…then trying to consider what it would have been like to be any living creature among all that, it’s impossible to process it or at least imagine it.

It’s hard to control or define your emotions when you think of Japan in the first half of the 20th century (perhaps it’s more accurate to speak of those who were in charge in Japan at this time). You become furious when you consider the Rape of Nanjing where 200,000 Chinese died by the hands of the Japanese military and tens of thousands of women were raped or Japan’s incredible reprisal for the relatively minor damage received in America’s “Doolittle Raid” where they killed 250,000 Chinese civilians or the breathtaking viciousness of their POW camps or the Bataan Death March or the hundreds of thousands of women the Japanese military forced into sexual enslavement. But then you think of the innocent Japanese civilians killed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and it softens you immensely and confirms the sad truth that the great loser of war is the common many who are simply trying desperately to mind their own business.

One of the most miraculous stories that come from the atomic bombings is the one of Tsutomu Yamaguchi. An employee of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, he was present in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 during the first bomb dropping. Although wounded, he returned to his home in Nagasaki and then to work on August 9. While his incredulous supervisor was in the middle of criticizing him for saying that one bomb destroyed a city, the second bomb detonated in Nagasaki. He is one of 165 double A-bomb survivors. He died at the age of 93 of stomach cancer.

Confused and emotional, you exit the museum and look around at the incredible rebirth that has left behind a vibrant city. What a resilient people. There is a great scene in the book Shogun where there is a massive earthquake in a small village. Within an hour or two after the earthquake, villagers have already begun the process of rebuilding. I laughed when I read that part in the book but after visiting the museum and then walking around Nagasaki afterwards, it’s not hard to imagine the reality of such a scene.

This magnificent rebirth and urban vibrancy that Nagasaki emits is perhaps best believed on the top of Mt. Inayasa at night. To do this, I boarded a gondola that took me to the top. The night view here is touted as the best in Japan and one of the best in the world. Looking out onto what appeared as an enormous pile of beautiful fireflies veiled thinly by fog, I again was amazed at this city. I’m not sure any other nation on earth is capable of this return.

And yes, I have been reading the book Shogun on this trip.

A wall clock found in a house 800 meters from the hypocenter that was shattered by the blast and its hands stopped at the precise time of the explosion: 11:02
The devastated A-bomb remains of the original Urakami Cathedral in Nagasaki
The hypocenter
The nighttime glory from atop Mt. Inasayama

The next day I took a few trains to Kumamoto, rented a car, and drove out onto the islands of Amakusa. I settled into my hotel fantastically named SantaComing Hotel. Throughout the hotel, there were pictures of large groups of people dressed as Santa Claus in different settings. One even included a bunch of Santas out on a boat. This country can be so delightfully weird.

On the recommendation of the receptionist at my hotel, I walked up to a wonderful little izakaya restaurant in town. Right away I noticed that the Japanese in smaller towns are a little bit friendlier and more willing to talk but I think this is true everywhere in the world. The owner struck up a nice conversation and whenever her brief supply of English ran out, I employed the awkward use of my translator app.

I ordered a couple dishes and it went so well that I got cocky and ordered a third. I thought I was ordering some sort of tempura vegetable side dish but instead, a very large and scary fish head landed before me. I did my best to pick at some of it but it was pretty horrifying. I just didn’t have the grit to eat the brains and eyeballs.

It was at this restaurant that another funny element of Japanese restaurant culture struck me. It seems that many restaurants here have no issue with creating a very small music mix and putting it on repeat. The mix may contain seven songs or in the case of this particular restaurant, they were literally playing the same song over and over.

The following morning I drove around a good chunk of the island, stopping in at the remains of Tomioka Castle, Shiratsuruhama Beach, the Oe Tenshudo Catholic Church, and finally the neat little fishing village of Sakitsu. This village also has an interesting history with Christianity so I checked out the church there and hung out with a bunch of stray cats. It was not until this trip to Japan that I realized there were so many Catholics in this or any part of Japan. It was odd to come across a Catholic church and then remove your shoes as you enter.

The view of Sakitsu village and surroundings
A shrine gate framing Sakitsu Church
Cats fighting

That night, I went to a nearby seafood restaurant. I can easily say this place boasted the freshest seafood I have ever had. How do I know? Well, some of my seafood was actually still moving in my beloved set meal. In the upper left corner, a fresh pile of sushi awaited me. In this pile was a raw shrimp which I don’t believe I’ve encountered as sushi before but this being Japan, a place I trust with my life when it comes to food (other than fish heads) to the point if they put a plate of seaweed topped with peanut butter and frog shoulders, I’d probably eat it. After I ate the body of the shrimp, only then did the head start to protest and dance around my plate. Dinner and a show.

The dancing shrimp head

Sadly I had to leave Santa‘s home away from home. I drove south to the port town of Ushibuka where I purchased the ticket for a ferry that would take me over to Nagashima Island and then on to Kagoshima. I had about 30 minutes to spare so I walked through the quiet and virtually empty town streets looking for a halfway decent café. I found one and ordered a coffee. As I was trying my darnedest to enjoy the coffee and read my book, I started to hear loud sirens outside. I finished up and paid the owner. As I walked outside, the locals were all running in the same direction about 60 feet down the road. Since it was on my way back to the ferry, I followed them. When I reached the end of the road, a building I had just walked by about 15 minutes previously was now on fire with firefighters trying to hose it down.

As I looked at this fire, I hoped for two things: 1) no one was hurt and 2) I didn’t get blamed for the fire (I was arguably the last person to walk by the building right before the fire started). The amount of smoke rising from this building was immense and firetrucks were coming from all directions. The building looked commercial and as it was a quiet Saturday afternoon, it didn’t look like there was much human activity there. People continued to collect at the scene. I went left back towards the ferry and discreetly walked against the flow of incoming onlookers and without breaking stride, I hopped in my car, started it up and instantly joined the final procession of cars onto the ferry. Hardly any time passed before the large boat started to move away from the dock giving my departure from Ushibuka and its newly minted multiple alarm fire the fluidity and efficiency only seen in cinema. Once on the top deck and staring at the massive column of smoke that slowly moved further away, I couldn’t help but feel like Samuel Jackson in Unbreakable.

I swear I didn’t do it!
I lost count of all the people in Japan I found taking naps in peculiar places. This gent is using his steering wheel as a pillow in the parking lot of a public beach.

After disembarking from the ferry and seeing no authorities waiting for me, I drove south into Kagoshima and checked into a 19-story Sheraton hotel that was practically brand new. Again, thanks to the strength of the mighty dollar, I was staying in this place for about $175 a night. Once all of my clothing was sadistically organized in my room, I walked north into the central part of the city and ate at a great little restaurant called Kurobuta. The specialty of this eatery was tonkatsu which is essentially deep fried pork cutlets. I had their “Kurokatsu” or black cutlet which was made with black breadcrumbs comprised of bamboo charcoal, black sesame, and cocoa among other things. The dish looked like a scorched turd that had been driven over several times by a car but it tasted like an imperial victory.

To celebrate this victory, when I arrived back at the hotel, I took the elevator up to the top floor and sipped on a fine Japanese whiskey by the name of Taketsuru by Nikka. The bar seemed to be full of what I assumed were successful Japanese businessmen who were drinking and laughing loudly. Perhaps this is the one example of when the Japanese are loud. Respectfully by their sides were their special ladies. From what I have read, there is quite a hefty gender gap, favoring males, in the arena of corporate management. Considering this trend and using my own senses in the bar, the vibe I absorbed was one I used to feel at my father’s corporate vacations in the 80’s.

But the view was nice!

The next day I hopped in my little Toyota Yaris and drove over to the port area where I boarded a ferry that took me over to Japan’s most active volcano, Sakurajima. It used to be an island but in 1914, it had such a massive three-billion ton eruption that filled in a 400-meter wide by 70-meter deep area in the ocean that connected it to the mainland.

The shrine gate at Kurokami that was buried in lava after the 1914 Sakurajima eruption

That night I returned to Kurobuta for the same meal. The staff smiled in acknowledgment of my return. The neighborhood this restaurant is located in is the most happening neighborhood in Kagoshima. In addition to lots of shops, bars, and nice restaurants, there are also quite a few naughty gentlemen clubs. I’m not exactly sure what goes on inside but pictures of attractive and slightly playful young ladies appear to be promising some high degree of attention. There are also well-dressed men out in the street trying to bring people in but not one of them approached me. I took this as a compliment since I clearly don’t smack of a white man with an unrelenting Asian fetish. Being married to an Asian, I’ve learned to develop quite a poker face when confronted with attractive Asian ladies.

Back at base, I returned to the scene of the crime on the 19th floor for some more of that well-built whiskey.

Today I had to return my trusty little Yaris. Before I did, I checked out the renown Seng en Gardens which were built in the 1600’s by the family that ruled Kagoshima for about 700 years. As I toured these elegant gardens, I walked by a white woman that I had seen the day before at the Sakurajima observatory. At least this time of year, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of white people in this area so they kind of stand out. The day before I made eye contact with her and said a quiet hello but she was a bit mousy and didn’t really respond. This time, we made eye contact again as we walked within inches of each other on a narrow walkway. I said hello again. For old times sake, she again did not say hello and if you looked at her face, you would’ve thought that I farted into her mother‘s favorite pillow.

Sengan-en Gardens
Sengan-en Gardens

At night, I found this wonderful little place to eat simply called Kitchen and Bar. I knew I was in for a positive experience when I saw that the handle on the front door was a small ukulele. More ukuleles decorated the left wall as I entered. There was only one other patron in this small establishment. Behind the bar was a genuinely kind woman with glasses in her late 50’s. Her husband was in his mid 60’s and did the cooking. A red towel covered his head. The restaurant had a bit of an American feel, helped by the fact there was American soul music playing.

“Donny Hathaway?” I asked.

The husband nodded affirmatively.

I opened my translator app and wrote that Donny Hathaway sadly committed suicide in New York in the 70’s.

“Hai, hai…” he confirmed and then did his best to mime someone jumping out of a window. It was the 15th floor of his hotel, the one he was staying in while recording an album with Roberta Flack. He was only 33 years old. His voice reminds me of Stevie Wonder sometimes but more beautiful.

They served me perfectly prepared and fried Thai fish with rice, salad, pickled vegetables and miso soup. The two beers I ordered went down easy and like all draft beers I’ve had in Japan, were impeccably fresh. About halfway through my second, they poured themselves beers and we all clinked our glasses. I wish I had found this place the first night I arrived.

Artwork on the menu of Kitchen and Bar created by the cook/owner

I visited the 19th floor again and opted for Suntory’s Chita whiskey followed up by a Taketsuru. Abiding Bill Murray’s lead in Lost In Translation, I feel compelled to drink Suntory while in Japan. In fact, I’ve been traveling with a small 180ml bottle of their base model in my suitcase as a backup in case I can’t find something better after dinner.

The next day I settled up with the mighty Sheraton and caught one last ride on the streetcar, heading towards the port for the high speed jetfoil ferry that would take me to the island of Yakushima for three days. I had over an hour to kill so I planted myself right on the water and lit up a cigar. Keeping me company was Sakurajima who was also smoking. A woman at the hotel told me that it is not uncommon for the volcano to throw out ash that then rains down on the city if the winds are right, causing the inhabitants to walk around with face masks on and holding umbrellas overhead for protection.

Smoking with Sakurajima

Upon arriving at Yakushima, I met the owner of the ladies-only car rental company. She was very kind and thorough as she took me through all the vital features of my quirky Suzuki Hustler. From there I drove south and around the island. I stopped in at an interesting little gift shop that was run by a very interesting character named Katayan. He was probably in his mid to late 50s with long gray hair. Aside from making incredible little crafts and jewelry from local cedar, seashells, and whatever else he could get his hands on, he also passed the time surfing and playing bass guitar in a great funk band. I know the funk band is great because he let me listen to some of his music. I was starting to notice that the people here on this island are almost a different breed from the mainland. They are certainly more relaxed. They come across as Japanese trying to get away from Japanese. I was so impressed with his creations in his tiny little shop that I purchased several small items for key individuals back home.

When I made it to the inn, Shikiyonado, I was greeted by the most wonderful couple of about 50 years old. The wife Satoko couldn’t help herself but smile and laugh as it was clearly her natural disposition. As she finished introducing me to the property, her husband Kentaro ran up the driveway bathed in sweat, having just finished a long run. The long fit of exercise did not diminish his energy or smile.

The following morning he recommended that I hike through the Shiratani area in the north part of the island to witness the amazing ancient cedar trees. I did as he advised and was a better man for it. Back in the Edo Period (1603 – 1868), this island saw a lot of cutting of these ancient cedars so it’s not as dramatic as it once was. During that time frame, there was a large demand for cedar shingles as they were used on many houses on the mainland. Some of the old stone paths that were used for this logging are still in use today as you walk through the forest.

The entire forest would have worked well in Lord Of The Rings or any similar fantasy, sci-fi film. This is why it comes as no surprise that this forest provided much of the inspiration for the 1998 animated film, Princess Mononoke. My visit saw a lot of gray, cool, and light rain. Normally this would be unappealing but these conditions worked well with the abundance of moss and charged streams surging over waterfalls while old giant trees added to the darkness.


Back near my inn, I stopped in at the local onsen (hot spring). The water was a toasty 49 Celsius (120 Fahrenheit) and based on what the internet tells me, humans will burn after 10 minutes in waters of this temperature, especially where skin is thinner. I was delighted to discover this tidbit after I had spent seven minutes in this onsen. It probably explains why my genitals felt like they were beginning to boil around minute six.

The next morning, I told Kentaro of my plan to ascend the 950-meter peak of Motchomudake right behind the inn. He had prepared me for the fact that this hike was no joke. The five-kilometer round trip with a 700-meter elevation gain was not the most monstrous hike I have done but the ascent was intense with so many rocks and roots. At the end, when you thought you were so close to the top, the trail went back down steeply 125 meters and steeply back up 150 meters. Frequently there were ropes to help you up or down steep, slippery parts. To reach the very top, unless you were a rock climber, you had to climb up an almost vertical 20-foot high section of rock with the help of a knotted rope.

The hike was one of the best I have ever done. It took me just about six hours round trip and excluding the monkeys and one other surprise visitor, I had the entire mountain to myself. About two thirds the way up, I heard something substantial moving behind me. I thought it was a monkey coming after me so I stopped, turned around and waited. It was Kentaro. He is in such better shape than I am that despite his delayed start, he was able to catch me. I was honored with his appearance. He told me that he tries to ascend this peak once a year but it has been two years since his last visit. There is a small shrine on the top to pay homage to the local deity so he did so.

Kentaro also called Satoko while we were on the peak. She went outside and looked up and could barely see us as I waved my orange backpack around like a raving idiot.

Giant cedar
Macho on Motcho
The view from the top of Motchomudake (Kentaro is not always part of the view)

On my way back from the hike, my tired body requested the restorative, possibly placebo effects of the onsen again. If I wasn’t careful, I was going to start getting used to bathing with old naked Japanese men.

The next day I said my goodbyes to Kentaro, Satoko, and staff member Kako from Hokkaido that had decided to move to Yakushima permanently six months previously.

I flew from Yakushima to Osaka where I would spend the night before flying back to Manila and then back up to Seoul and finally back to Boston. I called Korean Airlines and asked if I could ditch the Manila-Seoul part of my itinerary and make my own way to Seoul from Japan as it would save me many unnecessary hours of flying. They said they would have to charge me something like $1500 to simply remove one part of my flight itinerary. Peckers.

At Osaka’s Itami airport, Pam’s friends Nirianne and Noel met me for dinner. True again to their strikingly generous form, they had many edible gifts for me to possibly share with Pam. They saw me to my bus that took me into Osaka. From there I boarded a commuter train south and alighted near Kansai airport. I walked into my hotel and found no staff anywhere in the reception area. Handling the check in process were two robot dinosaurs. I’m not sure why, but that’s just the way it was. Japan is the only country in the world that is weirder than I am.


The Philippines, Athens and Cyprus 2023

The Istanbul airport is probably the closest thing our current society has to the Egyptian pyramids. It is truly huge. The way I classify an object as “truly huge” is if during the attempt to walk the length of said object I experience knee pain then it is “truly huge”. The massive structure is like the letter “E” on its side, on a couple legs. All the vertical lines represent gate locations. The horizontal part, in addition to more gates, is almost a half-mile long packed pile of duty-free shops, cafes, restaurants, a large hotel and more; all of it making your average sprawling American outlet mall look like a newspaper stand by comparison. The other factors that made this airport so impressive are:

1) It’s not even done yet – 2028 is its projected completion date. It can handle 80 million passengers a year now and should be up to 200 million by 2028 which would dwarf the top spot held by Atlanta at 110 million.

2) When I flew through Istanbul four years ago, I had an 11-hour layover in their old airport that had all the charm and utility of a registry of motor vehicles. I wandered around this temple of decay and did my best to grab cat naps at empty gates before travelers filed in for the next flight. I believe 17 minutes was my nap record on this layover (you can read about that here).

This time, Pam and I reserved a room at Yotel which is a fairly large hotel located within the terminal. It was not cheap but since my impression is that Pam has recently decided that she is the “Pam” in “pampered”, she made it clear that she is worth it. I am of a mind to agree with her. I’m also glad I broke down and accepted her wisdom on this matter; after nearly ten hours of flight in an economy seat, a shower and 5.5 hours of sleep in a nice bed was erotic.

In the Philippines, we were picked up by Pam’s mother Andrea and her driver Carl. An hour later we arrived in Los Baños. The most fascinating element of this property is that it is also the location of a Montessori school that Andrea owns and operates. Things looked the same as six years ago except for the 25 or so chickens that have taken residence on the property.

UPLB campus

The following day I drove Pam and her mother to Patio Ysabelle, an attractive event space owned and managed by Andrea’s sister Odet and family. I always enjoy coming here. There are a handful of charming structures on the property with a pool. We were entertaining ourselves at the newest cottage with sensational Filipino fare catered by some local inspired cook. In attendance were some of Pam’s cousins, Andrea’s former classmates, Pam’s aunt Cora and her sister Nikki.

The women promptly went inside where they told stories and laughed a lot. The men congregated on the front porch where we laughed less and drank more. I brought a bottle of Jameson whiskey that was genuinely appreciated by Cora’s husband Jim. Also in attendance was Andrea’s brother Pete from Hawaii, making him the only brother in a great sea of sisters or Adam Sandler in the film Punch Drunk Love.

Pete went inside at one point to swap stories with his sisters. They told stories that had been told many times. One involved a fake treasure map drawn by Pete that actually fooled several residents in the neighborhood into thinking that a great treasure awaited them. But Pete didn’t just dish it out, he could also take it. By “it”, I mean a pail of urine that one of his sister’s dumped on his head in an act of revenge.

The next day Nikki and her three girls Bea (15), Kiara (12), and Siri (9) appeared at our doorstep. While Nikki, Pam, and Andrea ran errands in town, I read and wrote while this next generation of ladies learned from a distance on their respective devices.

Nikki returned and took the young ladies to purchase bathing suits. I instead purchased a small bottle of Jameson whiskey at a 7-11 like a burgeoning alcoholic. We all then hit Laguna Springs to surrender our bodies to the restorative waters of the main spring. The place is rundown but it’s cheap and great fun. If I had to guess, the first case of plantar warts in the Philippines happened in their shower but it’s best not to focus on that and instead enjoy the weird tilapia that nibble dead skin from your feet and legs as you sit in the hot spring area. I’m not sure these are the same fish that are served to us from the weathered kitchen that makes family dinners but the possibility did cause Nikki to refer to the process as the “Circle of Life”. If you really wanted to let your hair down, you could rent one of the bedrooms that surround the large rectangular pool connected to the hot spring. Something about the second floor of rooms that had a common hallway/balcony that overlooked the pool smacked of temporary housing for men that got kicked out of their houses. The only thing missing were low stakes poker matches.

On Friday, loud awful singing could be heard close by the house. Only 40 feet from the property is a tiny shop of sorts with tables. There is a tarp overhead for shade and the “floor” was a combination of broken concrete and dirt. Sitting at one table was a group of tricycle drivers that decided to fire up the karaoke at 11:45AM. I tossed around the idea of singing a few songs with some new friends but Andrea warned me not to go down there too late since they could get drunk and belligerent. I decided to sing in the shower instead.

Saturday the entire Aniban family (Nikki, her husband Jake, oldest child Diego; and daughters Bea, Kiara, and Siri) picked up Andrea, Pam, and I to head to the fascinating destination of Lake Caliraya. This high-altitude artificial lake was created in the 1930’s by Americans in effort to tap into hydroelectric power. Now it has become a sort of resort area. We were to spend one night here in two floating cottages. Once settled, Jake and I did it right with a couple cigars.

That night we dined on classic Filipino fare in the larger floating cottage that was cooked by the inn. The night turned downright social and luxurious when Nikki broke out a Spanish ham that came with a cutting board and metal clamp. Dark chocolates, wine, and Jameson whiskey also made their mark. Siri (who was adoringly turning into my shadow) then strong-armed us into some unicorn-themed card game that I failed to even remotely grasp. That and the fact that our young mentor and competitor had the accidental(?) tendency to tweak the functions of certain cards in her favor limited our chances of victory.

Nikki and Diego drunk on ham

I returned to my cottage around 11:30PM and fell asleep to the distant sound of karaoke.

After breakfast one of the staff untied our cottage from the dock and ignited the attached outboard motor and suddenly our cottage became a bizarre little cruise ship that slowly made its way through the immediate area of of this large lake. I’m still not sure what inspired somebody to create a cottage that turns into an absurdly slow boat but there was fun to be had. As we puttered along, Jake took out a surprising amount of apparatus to make coffee. There was an expensive and precise hand grinder, a digital weight scale, two Moka pots, a pot to heat milk in and an alcohol-fueled burner to heat this all. And yes, he also had an electric frother. The end result was more than impressive.

What makes this picture so great is that while a young lady sleeps, her father talks to a random peeping Tom who in fact is driving the cottage into the middle of a lake.
See what I mean?
A picture taken by the boat driver. He literally took 50 pictures of us in this same pose, making it fun and easy to select the only one picture needed to capture the moment. Bring back cameras that use expensive film that allows someone only 20 pictures per roll.

Siri continued to lead me into various activities like kayaking across the water to an island, reminding me I had no choice in the matter in accepting her companionship (and orders).

The following day Pam and I hired a driver to pick up Nikki and drive to Quezon City next to Manila to do some lady-banking. The traffic in metro Manila is unholy. It doesn’t seem to matter the time of day; the traffic will break you so plan your pee removal wisely. I learned this the hard way in 2016. Pam, the Anibans, and I were making a simple journey from Patio Ysabelle to the Aniban household, 30 miles away in Quezon City. I had enjoyed a few beers and, confidently and foolishly, boarded the Anivan (the Aniban’s customized van) without relieving myself right before departure. What should have taken 45-55 minutes on that seemingly relaxed Saturday afternoon turned into hours on the freeway. My overtaxed bladder nearly brought me to tears. Someone handed me a bottle to sort things out but as I was in the back of a van with a large nuclear family I met only a couple days previously, I suffered a debilitating stage fright. My takeaway from that experience was to never underestimate metro Manila traffic.

While the ladies banked, Jake and I drank chai tea and smoked cigars (inside the house!). The ladies returned and we all went to a swanky Manila mall and in the style of Genghis Khan dined, at Shabu Shabu which allows patrons to cook their own food in pots of boiling soup.

Later Pam and I took Nikki and the three young ladies to the slightly upscale family restaurant Nono’s for dinner.

Valentines Day. Learning from last year’s foul mistake, I remembered to secure flowers for Pam. Perhaps in an effort to overcompensate, I also bought flowers for Andrea and her teachers…but in a calculated manner: Pam got the largest bouquet, Andrea got a slightly smaller arrangement and her staff got smaller yet fully appreciated bouquets. To hide my intentions, I ran out of the house while Pam wasn’t looking and texted her that I was buying matches. Lame but it worked.

On my way to get the flowers, one of Andrea’s three-year old students looked at me and asked her teacher, “why is his hair missing?” Filipino men bald but less, I think, than whiteys. When our niece Siri sneezed around me, I told her she must be allergic to awesome people (me). She torched me by countering with, “you must be allergic to hair”. Little fart face.

A couple days later, Nikki came to Los Baños with the three dames. We hopped into a couple tricycles and went over to the train tracks where the trolleys are. We rode them on their customary ¾-mile journey and walked over to a vegetarian restaurant on the UPLB (University of the Philippines Los Baños) campus.

Would you please look at how devilish Siri looks in the lower left? Pam in the middle and me to the right. Bea, Kiara, and Nikki in the background.
The Los Banos Express

From where we sat, we could hear the variety of sound created by the fair, a mere 150 yards away, that had been expressing itself for the past few days. It was a large setup with children’s rides, games, a large stage with music, and stalls beyond counting filled with crafts, foods, and anything else you could imagine. Between sets, the band on stage got off and was replaced by a young energetic gentleman who voiced his distaste for the current president Bong Bong Marcos.

Pam, Siri, and I were walking together when we suddenly realized Nikki, Bea, and Kiara were nowhere to be found. I tried to find them but it was useless. The grounds were large and the thousands of people present turned my well-intentioned task into a fool’s errand. We did find them on the way home. Kiara had a small box of pizza that she bought at the fare shortly after we lost them, leading to our separation. I asked her how the pizza was and she said, “It was good, totally worth losing Siri for.” Mean but funny, young lady.

Before we knew it, Pam and I were on a 13-hour flight to Istanbul. We again went through the futuristic beast of an airport and then connected to Athens. Although sleepy, we stumbled our way up to the Acropolis to absorb the impressive ruins that were well over 2000 years old. Before going on our trip, my friend Matt the toy maker gave me one of his action figures to take with me so I could take pictures of it in random places. Boldly I decided to photograph “Pheyden” in front of what are among some of the most renowned archaeological ruins in the world. The grounds in the Acropolis were packed with visitors from all over the world, all wondering why I was taking pictures of a tiny orange toy in front of the Parthenon.

Pheyden in a banana tree in the Philippines
Pheyden owning the Parthenon
Way less interesting
Pheyden in front of what was probably once a hardware store in the Acropolis

Sunday we hired a driver named Stavros to take us out to the charming seaside town of Nafplio. On the way, Stavros stopped at the Corinth Canal, the village of Corinth, and the archaeological site from 350 BC known as Mycenae. The last mentioned is an imposing site perched on a rocky hill and hosts some impressive masonry work, especially when taking into account the age.

Corinth Canal
Baldy and his babe in Corinth

As impressive as the site was, it could not compete with the interest everyone on the site showed in a shepherd who was higher above us all on the neighboring mountain. What initially drew our attention to him was a loud explosion that seemed to be caused by a firearm or some other explosive device that created a small cloud of smoke above him. Frightened by this, the flock of sheep started to nervously find its way down the mountain. For the next ten minutes, the shepherd seemed to shout Greek obscenities at his flock while following them down. Had Jesus and the other patriarchal members of the Bible witnessed this event, I hardly imagine they would have compared themselves to shepherds. It is also fascinating how a top-notch 3000 plus year old archaeological site will never intrigue us like a pissed off shepherd.

Pheyden standing in front of the mountain where an angry shepherd cursed his flock
Pheyden searching for the ghost of Agamemnon in a cave in Mycenae

And this trend continued the following day at other profound sites in Athens known as the Roman Agora and Kerameikos. In both sites, for some bizarre reason, there were several tortoises walking around these ruins that were all surrounded by a very urban atmosphere. The ones in the Roman Agora were tame enough but at Kerameikos, they were angry or horny or a combination of the two. In two cases, there seemed to be an “aggressor” who was trying to bite the face (or perhaps kiss?) the face of another tortoise. One tortoise seemed to mount the other and made strange hissing noises which was great since I had no idea tortoises made sounds. Yet again, the tourists forgot about the ancient ruins in their midst once a more juvenile source of entertainment was provided. In this case, filthy exhibitionist tortoises putting on a show worthy of the seediest of red light districts would suffice.

Tortoises in the Agora
Get a room
Some decency, finally
Changing of the guard in Athens
Pam adding some Southeast Asian flourish to Athen’s swanky marina

The following day, Pam headed home and I flew over to Cyprus. A driver of few words picked me up from the Larnaca airport in a black Mercedes van and briskly drove me into the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Only Turkey recognizes the TRNC which was born after the 1974 war between the Greek and Turkish Cypriots. Before 1974, Turks and Greeks tensely shared the island in a more integrated fashion. After the 1974, Turks went north and Greeks went south and the “Green Line” was placed as a demilitarized zone between the two. Because the TRNC is not recognized by the US (or pretty much anyone else in the world), I had to enter a port in the south and then drive to the north. I could not enter from or exit to another country from the north or I would potentially have issues when I came back through Greece or the US.

After my four-day stay in the north, I will be brought south again where I will spend six days more. These first four nights are being spent at the five-star wine vineyard hotel known as Gillham Vineyard Hotel. I was brought to my room which came complete with a lovely balcony that looked north through a valley and into the Mediterranean Sea. The wine and food here are exquisite and the staff lovely and diverse. I had interesting conversations with staff members from the Philippines, Iran, Tajikistan, Israel (one of the owner’s sons), Nigeria, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Russia, Indonesia and India. Sixtos from Nigeria would love to visit the US but fears the violence he constantly hears about on the news. The same goes for Sai from India who became saddened to hear of the two Indians killed in Texas earlier this year. I assured them both that our violence-obsessed media should not govern their decisions when it comes to US travel.

The balcony off of my room
The breakfast I was expected to finish (an omelet was still enroute)

I asked how Nana from Iran and Riz from Tajikistan came to be Muslims working in a vineyard. They laughed and said they were laid back Muslims that drink. They both expressed frustration at the fundamentalism that exists in their country. I now see wine as the bringer of peace and understanding in our different cultures.

The following morning, two gentlemen dropped off a rental car for me. Three days cost $120, including drop off and pick up at the hotel. I thought this was low but when I saw the car, I saw why. It was nine years old with 85,000 miles on it and was filled with wear. Fortunately, it ran like a top and all things considered, I was happy to be driving a little shitbox since it allowed me to blend in a tad. Hysterically, right before the two men got in their car to leave, one of the guys said, “I’m not sure how much petrol is in the tank” and made a quick exit. I turned the car on and the low gas warning light came on. Ha. Well played you dirty turds. Thankfully my hotel is up high in the start of the Kyrenia mountains so if I ran out of gas, I guess I could put it in neutral and roll down to a gas station.

After filling up, I journeyed over to St. Hilarion Castle. St. Hilarion is described as an obscure saint who lived on the site as a hermit in the seventh century. In the 11th century, the Byzantines fortified it into a castle. After 15 minutes ascent by car, I spent another 30-40 minutes climbing a stone stairway, stopping at various watchtowers, religious quarters, and the most thrilling privies I’ve ever seen. The place was something out of Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones.

St. Hilarion Castle
Judging from the lower right corner of the picture, this was clearly the place where Byzantine knights would go on their smoking break.
Where folks would literally crap off the side of a mountain. My guess was this scary privy location was designed to overcome the lack of fiber in the resident’s diets.

After that, I visited the 13th century ruins of Bellapais Abbey. The Christians are gone from here and for the most part, all of the other Christian sites in northern Cyprus since the Turks are in charge here now. That said, it was fantastic to enter the refectory and see some older gent with longer hair, wearing sunglasses and holding a cane who pleasantly smacked of a retired roadie sitting next to his wife, singing a beautiful song. If you closed your eyes, you would think you were listening to the ghost of a monk that sang here often hundreds of years ago. I thanked him on the way out.

Bellapais Abbey

The following day I drove to the east coast city of Famagusta. Before entering the city I first visited the ancient ruins of the city Salamis. There is evidence of folks being here in the late Bronze Age but things seemed to get cooking by the ninth century BC. These folks in question are thought to be Greek. It was considered a place of power and wealth due to its importance in trade. But after a couple earthquakes, the silting of the harbor, and Arab invasions, the city declined and was eventually abandoned around 700 AD. Walking around it was surreal. Would New York City or London or Tokyo look like this someday? Of course but the ruins of our modern cities wouldn’t be anywhere near as classy as these. The artificial and toxic building materials employed today look foul as they age.

Pheyden kicking an alarming amount of ass in Salamis

I then went into Famagusta and walked around the old city. Fascinating was the Lala Mustafa Pasha mosque which was a medieval church that was converted to a mosque in 1571 after the Ottomans took over making a profoundly unique place of worship. In a small plaza, I purchased a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice from an experienced lady under a tent. After much effort of squeezing many oranges through an old manual device, I had an unbelievably gorgeous and generous glass of orange juice for only 20 Turkish Lira (about $1). Please bear in mind that it costs 50 Turkish Lira to use a public bathroom here. So if I have this correct, the Turkish Cypriots put a value on orange juice that is 150% higher on the way out of the body than on the way in.

Lala Mustafa Pasha mosque

I returned back to the hotel and had a massage from a small Indonesian woman named Putu. She began the session by cracking my back like a veteran street fighter would crack his knuckles before a brawl.

The following day I made the 90-mile and near three-hour drive to the very end of the Karpass peninsula, the long tail in the northeast that ultimately brings you within 60 miles of Syria. I visited the Golden Beach and the monastery located at the very end which is part of a large area that is fenced off from the rest of the peninsula. The purpose of this fenced off land is to contain the feral donkey population that came into existence when the technology of the tractor outmoded the donkey. Farmers abandoned theses creatures and they soon became wild. Many tourists purchase carrots and feed them to these wild donkeys, creating rather docile animals that stand in the middle of the road waiting for handouts, even approaching cars and sticking their heads through open car windows. One donkey saw it fit to drool all over my passenger side window.

Golden Beach
The sensitive side of Pheyden
They really are asking for it

Content and tired after the day’s activities and another great meal, I went to pursue sleep but sadly was unable due to two British couples in two rooms that were next to mine that were in full tilt drinking mode. I overheard they were military (probably up from one of the bases in south Cyprus) enjoying a rare night away from their kids. After a wine tasting in the afternoon, more wine in the early evening, wine with dinner, and a couple more bottles brought back to the room, they had music jamming, doors slamming, and loud voices for all to not enjoy. At 12:30AM, my patience expired. I entered the common hallway and approached an open door. Inside I found a woman staring at me and a guy in tiny underwear smoking or vaping or whatever. I asked politely if I could close their door. The man said, “yeah, sorry mate…”. They got the message and quieted down.

The following morning I was driven south to Larnaca. The border crossing took much longer this time; instead of one check point, there were two or three. For me, there were three. A Greek officer wanted to know if I bought any alcohol or tobacco. As we pulled away, my Turkish driver told me cigarettes are half the price in the north so naturally a real problem has emerged for the Greeks in the south since people like to buy them cheap in the north and sell them in the south.

After speaking with the Greeks in the south, I could see they were noticeably more irritated about the current divided state of their country than the Turks. “Their country doesn’t even exist!”, Nick from the car rental office said with force.

When I reached my Airbnb in Kalopanayiotis, I had a lovely conversation with my host’s mother but when I told her I had been north, she seemed to be biting her tongue. Because of this, I tried to smooth things over by saying my purpose there was to enjoy wine at a special vineyard hotel. She returned calmly but defensively, “but we have wine here in the south”. I was now seeing the wisdom of keeping my northern travels to myself.

The next day I did a semi-challenging six-mile hike through the mountains on the western edge of the village. The views were tasty and I sweat like a diabetic pig on a treadmill in a sauna. I was the only one on the trail which is a rare delight for any hike, especially one with beautiful views on a cloudless 67-degree day.

When I returned, I smoked a Cuban cigar, washed up and returned to Byzantine restaurant where the manager remembered me. He snapped his fingers, pointed to his best waiter and said, “Angelos! Bring Mr. Chris to a table by the window!” Moments later, a complimentary glass of wine landed on my table, clearly a reward for the patron who visited three or more times.

The following day I drove south and over to one of Cyprus’ most famous monasteries: Kykkos. The monastery was large and well kept. The sheer volume and craftsmanship of the religious mosaic tiled pictures was staggering. I can’t even begin to understand the time it took to create these complex images. The monks seemed crusty but I bought some of their honey anyways.

Driving away from the monastery, I passed by a large group of cats in front of one of the monastery buildings. Cyprus has a cat population that defies calculation. Two in this particular group stood out since they were having wild drunken frat party sex for all to see. I laughed since it’s downright silly and great how unabashed animals are when it comes to humping. They always choose the darnedest places to reproduce. In the Philippines, two stray dogs were getting it done in the breakdown lane of a highway. The number of spectators those morally bankrupt tarts achieved also defied computation. Maybe that’s why they chose that spot. These two freaky felines decided to sex it right in front of a monastery as if to ridicule the crusty monks and show them the joys they will never savor.

Monastery bells used to scare off the horny cats

After dinner I popped into a cafe for a glass of wine. I spoke at length with Dimitris the bartender. He was in his late twenties or so and had the full time job of a forest firefighter. He made a point to show his appreciation to the British for formalizing the forest fighting practices in Cyprus. The British take a bad rap for their colonizing practices (much of which are deserved) but it is interesting to hear about some of the positive things they leave behind.

What I found more intriguing was his take on the Turks. Born long after the events of 1974, Dimitris did not seem to harbor the same resentment that the older generations do. I guess this is understandable. Some of the acidic bitterness fades with the passing generations. That said, he could understand the anger of the older generations since they may have had relatives and friends die in the conflict.

Today was my last day in Kalopanayiotis. I rode the glass village elevator up to the main street and obnoxiously sipped a double espresso at a small table outside. I got in the car and headed south first to Pedhoulas where I visited an over 500-year old tiny church that oddly enough, ranks as my favorite among all the churches I’ve seen in Cyprus and Athens. The church of Archangel Michael was technically “Byzantine” but it felt like a much more small, humble, and pure version. You could have easily piled 20 to 30 of these little churches into your average Byzantine church. All of the churches I have seen thus far have a decadence and complexity that challenge the Las Vegas strip with their power to dazzle and overwhelm. This little one however was so down to earth that I literally walked by it twice, not realizing what it was. The main part of the church couldn’t have been more than 10 feet wide by 20 feet long. If I were to liken this church to all the possible grails that Indiana Jones had to choose from in the Last Crusade, this church would have been that final simple one he chose, “the cup of a carpenter”.

The church of a carpenter

After that, I ascended Mt. Olympus in my vehicle and stumbled upon a sloppy ski slope. The snow up here was melting and the skiers were gloriously awkward for the most part. People parked their cars, sauntered over to the ski area, suited up, grabbed on to a rope tow that elevated them to the top and hoped for the best. It was all so disorganized and informal and wonderful. I wanted to go out to get a closer look but was unsure so I asked a weathered gent sitting in front of a small shed if I could walk out there. “It’s up to you!” this crusty bum-hole answered in an irritated fashion for absolutely no reason. On the way down, I stopped at a viewpoint. I struck up a conversation with two Nepalese gentlemen. They were both working at a sushi restaurant in Limassol and decided to take a bus up to Cyprus’ highest peak for the day. I told them how much I enjoyed their country four years ago. It was starting to amaze me how many international workers Cyprus attracted. At a gas station, I encountered a chap from West Africa. I asked him how he liked Cyprus. “You just mind your business here” was his answer.

One of Mt. Olympus’ many triple black diamond trails

I arrived at my next destination around three or four in the afternoon. I foolishly drove right through the town center and again faced absurdly microscopic streets. The owner of my inn was undeniably a cat lover (and a nuclear scientist as it turned out). She adopted over ten cats and would even take them to the vet when needed. Lefkara is known famously for its lace but it seems to be the cat capital of the universe.

Olive tree in bloom at my inn
The mean streets of Lefkara

The next day I visited a nearby 700-acre olive farm owned by the mayor of Lefkara and his arguably eccentric wife whose spirit animal is likely an eagle. Her face was built for theater. When she saw me (I was the only one there) she treated me like a long lost nephew. She explained her property, showed me an 800-year old olive tree, and then gave me a blow by blow description of all the olive-centric products she sold. Her hands moved wildly to match the intensity of her eyes. If someone beyond earshot saw us talking, they would have thought I was being yelled at.

Gurl’s olive farm
An 800-year old fart of an olive tree

She then proceeded to place about 20 various olive products on a table before me to sample. It was impressive and I ended up buying olive oil, olives, olive lemon jam, and two delicious tapenades that would end being tossed by an airport security dink in Athens. He said it was a liquid but as I was explaining to him that tapenade is more of a paste, he unceremoniously dropped it in the bin. I do hate him.

From there I visited the nearby quaint village of Kato Dhrys and strolled around its quiet, tiny, picturesque streets.

The even meaner streets of Kato Dhrys
An example of some of the amazing tile work to be found in Cyprus

The following day I drove to the monastery of Machairas. At one end was an ominous 16-foot tall statue of a heavily armed militant chap with an eagle behind him. Later I discovered the man was a famous Greek Cypriot insurgent leader named Grigoris Afxentiou. I’m not sure who the eagle was. It seemed like a strange setting for such a statue, sort of like a chubby smiling statue of Santa on top of a mosque.

I can only imagine the things you need to do in life to have a statue like this made of you after you die.

Once inside, I roamed around the courtyard where the church was and started talking with one of the monks, Niktarios, who was far more friendlier and gentler than some of the other crustier monks I saw at Kykkos. I told him that when I married my wife, I “married up”. He laughed and said he never heard this expression. Niktarios followed by indicating that people are equals in a marriage and that we bring different talents and skills to bear in any good relationship. I agreed and told him that Pam may move mountains as a scientist and provide wonderful health coverage but I can hang a picture on the wall better than anyone. He smiled. I opened up the pictures in my phone and found one of the bed I built five years ago and he was impressed.

Church inside Machairas

On my way back I hit the charming little village of Vavatsinia. Here I enjoyed a traditional Cypriot meal at a charming restaurant that offered views of the surrounding valley. Inside a fire roared and the incredibly amiable owner told me how the fire warms the sleeping child. I asked him what he meant by that and he pointed behind the bar. To my surprise, a three-year old boy was fast asleep in a tiny cot right about where a keg of beer would normally be found.

From Vavatsinia I took the road to hell option to return to Lefkara through Opa. The first half was paved but littered with small rocks and debris. The second half would have been sensibly navigated with a 4X4 vehicle but I proceeded anyways in my meager economy sedan. Not a soul haunted these mountain roads that were constructed of dirt and sorrow. At one point I crossed through a stream and dodged tree branches as I climbed a hill that had little trenches carved out by previous rain water.

This month-long dream was now ending. On my way back to the states, I had to spend a night in Greece, near the airport. That evening I walked one mile down to the water to eat at a popular restaurant. I sat in a large covered tent that was filled with a buzzing Saturday night crowd. Two figures stood out while I sat there alone. The first was an older gentleman who approached me about seven times so that I might buy whatever it was he was selling from a bag slung over his shoulder. No matter how many times I or the other patrons politely but clearly indicated we had no intention of buying his wares, he would come back 10 minutes later as if we were new hot leads. Like Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, the man was far beyond his prime and sadly courted some brand of senility.

At one point, a waiter tried to shoo him away like a feral cat but the old man persisted. This is ironic because the second figure of note was actually a cat that would beg occasionally for scraps at the tables. Judging by the cat’s fat appearance, it was clear this kitty was a superior salesman than the old man. It was like watching a scene from Glengarry Glen Ross where the old man was the down on his luck Shelley Levene portrayed by Jack Lemmon and the cat was the younger more successful top closer Richard Roma portrayed by Al Pacino.

I walked back up what felt like a perfectly consistent ramp to Peri’s Hotel. As I went, dogs made sure to bark at me the entire way. The next day the older owner, Peri himself, drove me to the airport in an old Volkswagon Passat. I sat in the front passenger seat while his Japanese breed of a dog tried to lick my face. Peri shared his philosophy of simplicity with me. He waved his hand and said, “Look at this old car! Why get a new one? It’s runs fine!” I laughed to myself as I lost count of the various lit warning lights sprinkled over his dashboard. At the airport I thanked Peri for the ride and he gladly accepted a tip I gave him.